Sunday, January 30, 2011

Shout out to Sarah, and brandied plums

I never do this (just link to someone else s recipe when I have never made it) but I promised Sarah that I would.  She really wanted to be acknowledged on this blog.  I guess I should be flattered. In ways that I mystify people in my generation, who want very much to control their presentation in the public, the Web 2.0 generation want it all to hang out in public.  My kids, niece, younger cousins and many of their friends all seem to want to be called out (is that the right expression?) in this space.  I like to be the center of attention as much as any pre-Copernican, but I think that us 50-somethings (and 40-somethings) like a bit more control over how we appear on the web. 

Anyway, last night on our way to Purple Yam one of our favorite restaurants, we stopped at Sarah's house before dinner. She and her friends (both of whom I had independent connections to:  one knows someone I know from shul, the other works for one of my best friends!) were eating ice cream with boozy plums.   We didn't want to eat ice cream before dinner (not on principle but because we wanted to save room)  so she just gave us each a glass of the brandy from the plums,  sweetened and with plenty of vanilla and cinnamon, and it was great.  Just click on the link above for the recipe.  It is very simple -- 10 minutes to prepare, 6 weeks to sit.

Our meal at Purple Yam was not to shabby either.  There were many highlights, but I would single out the carp head soup with guava and lemon grass, delicate and almost creamy, with the heads and necks served on a separate platter with chilies and cilantro, the grilled dourade, the mung bean pancakes (with lots of bean texture, better than I have had in any Korean restaurant recently) and the bread pudding with apple and persimmon.  Great wines too.  I only regret not having taken a picture of the carp heads to post.

Knife-peeled Chinese noodles

"I would like some noodles."  So read my niece (Amy's brother's daughter) Sarah's facebook page on Wednesday.  She was coming to dinner on Friday and even  provided a helpful link to last week's NY Times article  discussing the noodle resurgence in NY's Chinatown and its spread beyond to places like Hung Ry in the East Village.  So I took the bait.  Though I generally don't bake or make my own noodles or pasta, I was intrigued.  While I, and every other person who saw the video posted on the Times website probably wanted to make the hand-pulled noodles, I realized that it was post-graduate noodle making and I wasn't yet in middle school.  So I thought that it would be easy to do what are called knife peeled noodles.  This are noodles scraped off a hunk of dough into boiling water, a bit like spaetzle but more noodle-y.  I have had these in Chinatown, but the best version I have had was at the snack bar of the airport in Guilin in China.  The noodles are irregular in shape and tender and chewy at the same time.

I found that this was not as easy to execute as it sounds. I made the dough and got a fine coating of flour all over the kitchen kneading, slapping and generally abusing it into resilience.  This was kind of fun since it made it easy to slide around on the floor and I don't thing that Amy has noticed.  I sharpened a variety of  knives well to help me scrape off the dough.  They didn't do much good, and I found that the noodle strip invariably stuck to the dough and didn't fly into the boiling water as it was supposed to.  However, the picture above from the Times shows the cook using some specific implement, which definitely looks like it is worth a run down to Chinatown.  But, I look at this as the beginning of a long journey.   Expect more posts on this in the future.

I served the noodles with squash and ginger broth with roasted vegetables, adapted from Hung Ry and also published in the Times. Sarah was very happy. They would also be quite wonderful with the Uighur lamb stew which I blogged about a few months ago.  I made some significant changes in the recipe:  I roasted the squash that was used to make the broth rather than just simmering it with ginger.  For vegetables, I used oven-roasted cauliflower and Brussels sprouts, pan-roasted butternut and kabocha squash, and pan-seared cremini mushrooms.  When you roast the vegetables for this recipe, however, do not use salt and use a vegetable or peanut oil or spray instead of olive oil. It may have just been the particular squashes (each squash, like each cheese is an individual), but we all found that the butternut added much more flavor than the kabocha.  (I could do the whole recipe here with my modifications, but this post is getting long enough already.)

I cobbled the noodle dough together from a variety of places on the web and some cookbooks.  This recipe serves 4-8 people, depending on their appetites. I may try it next time with bread or semolina flour, and keep you all posted.  This is the beginning of a long journey:

Knife-peeled noodles, cut 1

  • 4 cups flour  (I used all purpose, next time I will try bread or semolina flour, though that latter would be very inauthentic.)
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 12 oz water
  • up to 2 cups additional flour for kneading
  1. Put the 4 cups of flour in a large mixing bowl and mix in the cornstarch and the salt.  Slowly mix in the water until it starts to adhere into a sticky dough. 
  2. Turn the dough out on to a floured surface.(I used a cutting board but could just as well have used the counter since flour got everywhere anyway.)
  3. Dust your hands with flour and knead for 15-20 minutes.   This should be good exercise.  Don't be afraid to be rough with the dough.  You won't hurt it.  In addition to folding it over and pressing it with your heel, ever few minute slap the dough down hard on the board.  I don't know if this actually does any good, but it feels great and seems to relax the gluten  in the dough. You will knead to dust your hands, the dough and the work surface with flour several times.  I found I used well over a cup of additional flour during kneading.
  4. When is the dough done?  Is Batman a transvestite?  The answer to both questions is "Who knows?"  But, when it feels both elastic and supple, you can stop kneading.  (Who knows still seems more accurate.)
  5. Flour the dough, and wrap in in wax paper and let it rest for 15 minutes to a few hours. 
  6. Bring at least 4 cups of water to the boil and add salt.
  7. Divide the dough into 2 or 3 blobs, put on a board or hold in your hand, and shave off pieces of dough into the boiling water.  Think scraping gyros or shawarma but horizontally.  If this doesn't work, you can sort of cut thinish pieces of dough on the board and scrape them into the pot, but only do a few pieces at a time since they tend to stick together before they are in the boiling water.
  8. Once you have shaved in all the dough, cook for 3-5 minutes.  Check the noodles.  They should range from tender to chewy but not be raw and floury.
  9. Either scoop out the noodles with a strainer or drain in a colander.  If you are not serving immediately in soup, you can oil them lightly, leave them at room temperature and reheat them briefly in either boiling water or the soup.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Broiled chicken cutlets

I bet you thought that you would never see this here.  Sometimes you just have to do what you have to do.  We eat as many plain chicken cutlets as the next family, but generally we pan broil them on the stove top using either a cast-iron or a nonstick skillet.  Why?  Because we ate a lot of broiled chicken and London broil when I was growing up, and it was always as dry as sawdust, so I assumed that broiling in a home oven was the best way to kill food, for a second time.  (My mother used to say "I'm no Betty Cocker" and this is before she went back to work full-time.) I generally use the broiler for vegetables and to brown things when they are nearly done cooking.  We occasionally moan that living in an apartment doesn't allow us to have a real grill. 

Tonight's dinner proved me wrong.  Amy got home before I did and marinated 2 large chicken cutlets (about a half pound each) for about 30 minutes in a mixture of Dijon mustard, olive oil, salt, a smashed garlic clove, a bit of honey, and a pinch of thyme and oregano.  Then, rather than pan broil them as we generally would, I  preheated the broiler to high for a few minutes, put them on a baking sheet lined with foil sprayed with oil, sprayed the top of the cutlets, and put them under the broiler.  I broiled them for about 7 minutes on each side, 5 inches from the flame until they were browned lightly.  I then let them bake in the oven for another 7 minutes on 415 degrees.  They came out far juicier than any pan-broiled cutlets we have ever had.  It is difficult to be too exact about the cooking time, which varies with the size and shape of the cutlets, their temperature when you start to cook, the kind of pan you are using and the real, as opposed to the declared, heat of your oven.  So test them with your finger (run it in cold water first to protect it against the heat of the chicken):  if it is fairly firm with just a little springiness, it is done.  Let it rest a few minutes before slicing on the bias and serving.  We had it with an onion confit with Port and raisins from the Isle D'Orleans in Quebec.

The results were amazing, and this method beats cleaning the pan, whatever type you use, and there are no worries about chemicals leaching out from a nonstick surface at high heat.  I would not say that this testing was done with Cooks' Illustrated level rigor, but I am a convert.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

First, boil water: whole wheat pasta with tomatoes, green olives and ricotta salata

There was a time when I would say that first thing you should do when you walk in the door in the evening is boil water. Boiling water is one of the most time-consuming things you do when you cook, and if you don't have sufficient foresight, you find yourself wasting a significant amount of your life waiting for water to come to the boil  If you decide not to use it, you can always turn it off.

But times change.  We used to eat pasta several nights a week, and there was always a chance that we would need a pot of boiling water.  But, since the low-carb trend has hit, pasta has become a rare treat.  (It is still nice to have the water, but I generally just make a tea kettle rather than a whole pot.)  When Amy goes out, she eats treyf and I make myself pasta at home.

This recipe is based on a dish served at Pisticci, our local Italian restaurant. It is a lovely place with very good food. I can't believe how lucky we are to have it less than a five-minute walk from our apartment.  Generally, I would just as soon eat their version than mine. Even if my version is not quite as good, it still is not bad.  It is also cheaper, you don't have to wait (they can get very crowded, especially on weekends)  and I wasn't in the mood to go alone and sit at the bar.  They probably use their own roasted tomatoes, while I use canned Muir Glen. Although you can use good white macaroni pasta, they serve it with whole wheat penne and I used Bionaturae's chiccioline.  Bionaturae was recently recommended by the New York Times as one of the better whole wheat pastas on the market. The important thing is to use a tubular or concave pasta that can trap the sauce and olives. Spaghetti-type pastas would be a bad idea.

My recipe serves two generously, and since Amy usually won't eat so many carbs, I will have the leftovers for lunch tomorrow.  You can double or halve it.  It could not be easier and faster to make, and takes less than a half hour from when you walk in the door until you sit down to dinner, provided that you boil the water first thing:

Whole wheat pasta with tomatoes, green olives and ricotta salata

  • water
  • salt
  • 3-4 ounces ricotta salata 
  • 1/2 pound whole wheat pasta 
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 5 or more cloves garlic, peeled and slice thin (think the prison kitchen scene in Goodfellas)
  • pinch or more of hot red pepper flakes (optional)
  • 14 ounce can Muir Glen diced fire-roasted tomatoes
  • 1/4 pound pitted green olives (I used Gaeta, which the market had already pitted, and they worked well)

  1. As soon as you walk in the door, bring 2-3 quarts water to boil in a pot for the pasta. 
  2. Line a small pan with foil, oil lightly, and roast the ricotta in a 400 degree oven or toaster oven for about 15 minutes until lightly browned.  This step is optional, but it gives the cheese a nice toasty caramelized flavor.  Grate coarsely and set aside.
  3. Heat the olive oil in a skillet.
  4. Add sliced garlic and cook until aromatic, about 2 minutes, on medium high, but do not brown.  Add hot pepper flakes if using and stir.
  5. Add the tomatoes and cook on high for about 10 or 15 minutes, until the oil separates and it thickens into a sauce.
  6. When the water is boiling vigorously,  salt generously, and add the pasta. Cook until very al dente, generally a few minutes less than they say on the package.
  7. Add the olives to the sauce and heat through.  Taste sauce for salt (it may need a bit) and add if necessary. 
  8. Drain the pasta, and toss with the sauce and cheese and serve at once.  This is nice with some freshly grated Pecorino Romano.
Variation:  Use feta instead of the ricotta salata, but don't toast it first.  It will give you a creamier and tangier dish. 

    Monday, January 17, 2011

    Merguez and maturity

    Our usual New Year's Eve routine is a movie at Film Forum or IFC, dinner in Chinatown, maybe an espresso in Little Italy or Soho, and finally (watching) the Midnight Run and Fireworks in Central Park.  But this year it fell on Shabbat, and my friends and family indulged my belief that our acknowledgement of weekly rest by the cosmos took precedence the secular New Year, and everyone agreed to have dinner at our house. (We still promised the midnight run afterward for those who were still mobile, and many of us made it.)

    Besides, we (I) had big plans for dinner.  My original plans were for a North African dinner, starting with 11 Moroccan and Tunisian salads in honor of 2011, to be followed by a fish tagine with preserved lemons, a brisket with merguez, dates and oranges, some kind of vegetable tagine for the vegetarians, and couscous, to be followed most likely by an olive-oil based chocolate mousse for dessert.  I had picked up some merguez, a North African lamb sausage which is not always available, at Kosher Marketplace for the occasion.

    There were of course problems with this.  It was hard for me to think of 11 appetizers that would be sufficiently varied.  My friend Chris convinced me that rather than holding strictly to the North African theme,  I could sneak in a few Middle Eastern appetizers and no one would know the difference. This seemed cheesy, but he was persuasive.  My wife Amy said "Are you kidding, what do we need so much food for?" So, I scaled back my ambitions, and agreed to substitute a chicken with lemon and olives for the fish and the brisket, and along with a smaller number of salads, I would get to make a fusion Tunisian-Humgarian merguez with peppers that I cooked up a few years ago. (The genesis of this dish is below.)  We agreed that accepting these limits was a sign of maturity on my part.

    But things got complicated.  Our dinner for 6 grew to a dinner for 15, which made the formal sit-down thing a bit unwieldy. Harry was in from Israel for a week and leaving New Years Eve day, and we had to bring him to the airport.  (The maximum amount of family togetherness won out over strict Shabbat observance in planning his travel -- we are much more of a zachor [remember] than a shamor [guard] type of family anyway.)  Trying to pull an elaborate dinner together when you get home after 4 p.m. was a little daunting.  My desire to be the center of attention in the kitchen conflicted with my desire to be a good father.    Amy suggested vegetarian chili, and a new dinner took shape. We would serve bought appetizers (something I almost never do): hummus, baba ganough, olives, feta cheese, and Galil grape leaves and fried eggplant in tomato sauce straight from the can.  For the main course, vegetarian chili with all the fixings, including complementary carbs: rice, macaroni, toasted tortilla strips, and corn bread with cheese.  When I protested that this was more of a low testosterone Super Bowl Party than a New Year's Dinner, Amy gave me a look that just said, "Grow Up!"  And, as one of our cousins who was there, Susan remarked "As if you would ever make a Super Bowl Party."  (BTW Susan, condolences on the Patriots.  Go Jets!)

    This may look like any generic dish with peppers, but it is merguez with lecso
    But I still had some merguez in the freezer, and it does not have an infinite shelf life, and I didn't know when I would have the opportunity to make the brisket.  So tonight for dinner we had the Tunsian-Hungarian merguez. This dish came about a few years ago when Chris and his wife Melissa came for Shabbat dinner, and asked if he could bring along a colleague, Zoltan, and his girlfriend Esther,  who were in from Budapest.  To try to impress them, I worked out an appetizer of merguez, a North African lamb sausage cooked with lecso (pronounced leksho) an all-purpose Hungarian concoction of peppers, onions and tomatoes often served with sausages or eggs.  I seasoned it with ground caraway, which is something common to both Tunisian and Hungarian cuisine.  I am not sure if I prepared the lecso properly, and I think that the cross cultural culinary references may have been lost, especially on Esther, who did not have what I generally think of as a Magyar figure,  nourished for many decades on lard, sausages and dumplings.  (Things really changed after the end of the cold war.  For an interesting take on on the transformation of the Eastern European female physique see this article by Anne Applebaum from Slate in 2008.)  In any case, the dish was very popular.  It is a cinch to prepare, very forgiving and open to variations, provided you can get fresh merguez.

    Here is also a shout out to Harry, Zach and Seth, now on Kibbutz Keturah.  They eat in the communal dining hall on the kibbutz, but they will be in their own apartments when they are in Jerusalem, beginning in March.  I am sure that it is easier to get good kosher merguez in Jerusalem than in NYC, and this dish is easy to make for yourselves:

    Merguez with lecso

    • 1/2 pound merguez (not pre-cooked, see below)
    • 1 teaspoon - 2 tablespoons olive oil
    • 1 medium onion, halved and sliced
    • 1 pound frying peppers, seeded deribbed, halved and sliced;  mix of green and red (if fry peppers are not available, bells are acceptable)
    • 3 cloves garlic, sliced
    • 1 jalapeno chili, halved and sliced (optional, seed and derib if you don't want it milder)
    • 1 teaspoon ground caraway
    • 1 tablespoon sweet paprika
    • salt and pepper
    • 6 canned plum  tomatoes, halved and sliced lengthwise (about a 14 ounce can), with juice from the can reserved
    • handful of chopped fresh coriander
    1. Cut the merguez into 2 inch lengths (frozen is fine) and put in a large nonstick skillet.  Turn the heat to medium high and cook until well browned on all sides.  They should be just about cooked through.
    2. Depending on both your fat tolerance and how much rendered out of the merguez, add up to 2 tablespoons olive oil to the pan, and turn heat to medium.  Add onions and a bit of salt and saute until golden.
    3. Turn heat to high, add peppers and saute until they begin to soften, about 5 minutes.  Add sliced garlic and jalapeno, turn heat down, and saute for about 2 minutes.  Add the caraway and paprika, salt and pepper to taste, and saute on medium low for a few minutes until you smell the fragrance of the spices.
    4. Add the tomatoes and their juices, turn heat to high, and cook for about 10 minutes until it thickens into a sauce.  Correct seasonings, return merguez to the pan and heat through.  Stir in coriander before serving.
    5. Serve with harissa and pita bread or couscous (see below).  Serves 2 for dinner, or 4-6 as an appetizer.
    6. A nice variation is to poach eggs in the sauce after you add the merguez, or to serve it with fried eggs.

    Merguez:  Merguez is a lamb sausage from North Africa. It is available in many kosher meat markets, as well as in halal butchers.  The seasonings include pepper, paprika, garlic, cumin and caraway and the flavor varies depending on whether it is Tunisian or Moroccan.  If you have a choice, use the Tunisian, but anything will be good. Merguez also makes a great sandwich.  Just fry whatever you want in a nonstick skillet.  One quarter pound makes a very generous sandwich.   When it is browned and cooked through, serve it on a baguette or roll that has been lightly toasted, rubbed with a raw garlic clove, and spread with mayo and harissa.  Top with onion, lettuce and tomato if you want.

    Couscous:  The best easy method for regular (not instant) couscous is to mix even quantities of couscous and boiling salted water in an oven proof dish.  Cover and leave sit for 20 minutes.   Fluff with your fingers or a fork, drizzle with a little oil or dot with butter or pareve margarine, cover, and bake in a preheated 400 degree oven for 20 minutes.  Allow 1/4 to 1/2 cup raw couscous per person.  Get in the habit of buying couscous in large containers or in bulk.  The small boxes of instant couscous are one of the great ripoffs in the market.

    Sunday, January 16, 2011

    Shout out to Zach and Seth, and monetizing my blog

    This post contains no recipes, so those who are looking for them can skip it.  It is written mostly for the entertainment of my son's friends, and to inform my readers that I decided to let Google post ads (more on this later).

    I am always intrigued that people seem to like being mentioned in my blog.  Harry is currently living on Kibbutz Keturah in Israel.  He is there with Year Course, which I heartily recommend for anyone looking for a gap year after high school.  Two  of his friends, Zach Zimmerman (takes great pictures, thank God, since we don't get any from Harry) and Seth Engelbourg (Alsatian extraction?) wanted a shout out, so here it is.  More will follow if they make some of my dishes, become official followers, or post comments on any of my entries, provided they are less annoying than my comments on Zach's photos of the Negev shvil.

    Zach and Seth are apparently big fans of my blog, which makes me very happy.  My mental health is in part a function of the number of blogs hits that I get each day, and I am glad to see the younger generation taking an interest in fine cooking and doesn't just fry schnitzel or go out for felafel.  It also solves a mystery.  When I track my readers every morning, the only city that I see in Israel is Givatayim, which is just northeast of Tel Aviv.  I don't know anyone there.  But now that I know that people have been clicking from Bat Yam (13 km southeast of Givatayim) and Kibbutz Keturah (in the Arava, 322 miles southwest of Givatayim, and closer to Saudi Arabia than to Tel Aviv) I have concluded that there must be some kind of proxy server or Internet router there, and all traffic from Israel appears to come through this one spot.  I wonder if other bloggers have noticed the same phenomenon? Maybe it is for security reasons.  Can anything be beyond the capabilities of those who brought us the Stuxnet worm? 

    On the other matter, I have decided to allow Google to post ads on my blog.  Part of this is to satisfy my own curiosity.  Will my readers get annoyed?  Which ads will appear?  I was pleased but surprised to see an ad from the Grameen Foundation was among the first.  I have long been promising myself that I will start another blog on philanthropy and the nonprofit sector, but this one is too much fun so I haven't gotten around to it yet.  But I really thought that Muir Glen tomatoes or Telma pareve bullion cubes were more likely advertisers for this site.  According to Google's AdSense, these ads will change over time, so all the more reason for you all to check the blog frequently.

    The other reason, frankly, is monetary.  I can't imagine that it will make much money, but I am curious how much it will make. Also, after Harry returns from Israel, he is starting college in the fall (where is not yet certain, but his time in Israel seems to have fostered both his Jewish identity and his desire for a Jesuit education) and every little bit helps.  So we will see what happens.

    So folks, if you don't find the ads annoying, please click on them and patronize our sponsors.  Heaven knows the Grameen Foundation can use your support. But  if you find them annoying, let me know and I will stop them.  I value your readership more than the money.  And besides, it's only Harry's education.

    Thursday, January 13, 2011

    Frozen (!) tuna with peas, and soubise

    My grandfather and my uncle were both fish mongers, and consequently, my parents are something of fish fetishists. They have an intimate relationship with the creatures of the sea and a deep and intuitive knowledge of their anatomy.  I can't decide whether watching them dismember a steamed fish at a Chinese restaurant was a lesson in marine zoology or performance art, but it drove away at least one of my brother's girlfriends. They remind me a bit of the aunt in Woody Allen's Radio Days (the first artistic fruit of his decades in psychoanalysis) who used to win prizes by identifying fish on various occasions, and they were and are almost Cantonese in their insistence that the fish that they eat be absolutely fresh.  Consequently, we always looked down on frozen fish and people who would eat it, and I was raised never to consume it.  It would be like buying polyester, or retail.

    However, as it turns out, much of what is sold in markets is actually fish that was frozen on the boat when it was relatively fresh, and then defrosted before sale to the public.  And when you think about it, unless the fish is local, and caught on a day-boat, aren't we better off with frozen fish than with creatures that have been slowly decomposing as they make their way back to shore and market?  I realized this intellectually, but could never bring myself to actually buy fish that was frozen.  Trader Joe's and the recession changed that.  (I used to dislike Trader Joe's but I am re-evaluating the whole phenomenon.  But more on that another time.)  In the past few weeks we have tried their frozen cod, ahi tuna, and mahi-mahi, and all have been at least as good as what we have gotten at Fairway's fish counter, and much, much cheaper.  You just have to look for packages where the fish is solidly frozen and the plastic adheres well to the fish, showing that it hadn't defrosted at some point and been refrozen.  I am a convert.  I will still go to the farmer's market for local fish, and to the fish market for whole fish or a treat, but for everyday meals, the frozen stuff is better than acceptable.  Let it defrost, in the packaging, overnight in the refrigerator. 

    I recently prepared tuna with peas and tomato sauce with frozen defrosted ahi tuna. My recipe is based on one that appeared in the New York Times back in 1990.  I have made lots of changes over the years, and I recently looked back at the original recipe and decided not to link to it because mine is far better.  The recipe goes well with rice, but having a spouse who is watching her carbs, I decided to make soubise.  Soubise is an old-fashioned French concoction that is part of stodgy dishes like Veal Orloff where rice cooks with lots of sauteed onions, some other seasonings, and sometimes a little liquid like wine or cream.  The rice absorbs the liquid that the onion gives off.  It is very tasty and very easy, and takes time rather than effort, and my version is much lower in calories than Julia Child's.  It is a great accompaniment to this dish, and a nice low carb side dish, if that is in demand in your home.  The amounts for both recipes will serve two generously.  The ingredients can easily be doubled or tripled to serve more.

    Tuna with peas and tomatoes

    • 1/2 to 3/4 pound tuna (no skin or bone)
    • 1/4 cup flour
    • salt and pepper
    • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
    • 1 tablespoon olive oil
    • 1 large shallot, finely chopped
    • pinch of hot red pepper flakes (optional)
    • 1/2 cup dry white wine (use they wine you are drinking, otherwise a vermouth;  we used a Verdejo)
    • 1 cup tomato puree
    • 1 to 2 cups frozen tiny peas, defrosted under cold running water

    1. Dry the tuna and cut into 1-inch cubes.
    2. Season the flour with salt and pepper on a plate.
    3. Dredge the tuna lightly in the flour mixture.
    4. Heat the vegetable oil on high in a medium nonstick skillet, and add the tuna cubes.  Brown for 1-2 minutes on one side, turn over, then brown for another 1-2 minutes.  Remove tuna to a plate.
    5. Pour the oil out of the skillet and add the olive oil.  Heat it on medium, and then add the shallots.  Add the hot red pepper if you would like.  Saute for 2-3 minutes until soft, and add the wine.  Cook for 3 minutes on high, and add the tomatoes.  Cook on high for about 5 minutes, or until the oil begins to separate indicating that you now have a sauce.
    6. Add the peas season with salt and pepper, and bring the mixture to a simmer.  Add the tuna, cover, and cook on medium for about 3 minutes.  The tuna will be just barely pink in the center.  If you would like it more well done, cook it for another 2 minutes.  Serve at once.

    Soubise (this takes about an hour so start it before the tuna)

    • 1 teaspoon to 2 tablespoons of butter
    • 1 bay leaf
    • 2 large Spanish onions, chopped (you should have about 4 cups)
    • salt and pepper
    • 1 heaping tablespoon to 1/3 cup white rice, preferably arborio or short grain (but the rice disintegrates, so you can use almost any white rice other than converted, minute rice, or basmati).  I used my lesser amount to show my moral support of the low-carbotarian.
    • 1/2 cup milk (I use SkimPlus, Julia Child uses cream.  You can use whatever you want)
    • 1/2 cup grate Parmesan or Grana Padano cheese

    1. Melt 1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon of butter in a 2 to 3 quart pot with a cover.  Add the bay leaf and saute a few seconds.
    2. Add the onions, a little salt and pepper, and saute for a few minutes until the onions begin to soften.
    3. Stir in the rice, turn the heat down to low, and cook for about 45 minutes to an hour. Stir every 10 to 15 minutes, maintaining the heat so that the mixture remains at a low simmer.
    4. Add the milk, raise heat to medium high, and cook until it is absorbed.  Don't worry if it curdles a bit.  Cook a few more minutes if necessary until the mixture is a puree the texture of a risotto and the rice is almost entirely dissolved.  
    5. If you want to gild the lily, beat in 1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon additional butter over low heat.  Not necessary, but good.
    6. Stir in the grated cheese, check for seasoning, and serve.  This dish can be kept warm if needed, and even reheated in the microwave.

    Wednesday, January 12, 2011

    Lamb shank ragu and the umami problem

    In my move toward kashrut, one of the things that I miss more than anything else is the umami hit that you get when a good Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano meets a strong meat flavor.  For those of you not familiar with umami, it is the savoriness  associated with the amino acid glutamate, and with ingredients like mushrooms, meat broth, anchovies, and fermented foods like cheeses, cured meats, soy sauce and fish sauce.  I particularly miss putting cheese on a lamb shank ragu that I make, and I have been trying for several years to come up with a substitute.  I fancy that it is lamb ragu in the style of the Abruzzi region of Italy, but this is fancy and not fact.  It is just good, especially with plenty of grated cheese on top. (If you are used to eating ground meat sauces, the flavor and texture of a sauce made from meat shredded after having been cooked will be a revelation.)  But try as I might to develop an acceptable substitute,the closest I got was to use a duxelles-like crumble of fresh and dried mushrooms sauteed with shallots, anchovies and bread crumbs. However while tasty, it didn't add that much to the experience.

    So, I wrote an email to the Splendid Table to see if I could pose my question to Lynne Rossetto Kasper.  If you aren't familiar with this radio show, you should be.  It beats much of the food shows on TV by far, and has a wonderful website as well. (One of their recipes for macaroni and cheese is my favorite.)   Much of second half of the show is devoted to readers questions, so I emailed mine in, figuring that Kasper, whose core expertise in is Italian food, would be the person to ask.  Somewhat to my surprise, I got a response from the show a few weeks later to see if I would talk to Lynne during the show.  They aired my question and her answer towards the end of the January 15 episode.  My question comes in the section "More calls" right after a trivia question about telling the future from cheese (not to be missed).

    Lynne's opinion was that I was on the right track with the flavors that I was using in my mushroom-based topping, but that it is basically pointless to try to imitate the effects of grated cheese.  So she suggested incorporating umami flavors in the dish, particularly in the form of dried mushrooms (I also added a bit of anchovy), and topping it with toasted bread crumbs, which are actually a traditional pasta topping in Italy for those who cannot afford the cheese.  I tried it and she was right -- it is very different than cheese, but the flavors are intense, almost breathtaking,  and wonderful.  So, here is, with several variations:

    Lamb Shank:  Ragu and two other ways

    Basic recipe:

    • 2 lamb shanks
    • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
    • handful of dried porcini mushrooms (about 1/2 ounce, pieces are ok)
    • 2-4 tablespoons olive oil
    • 1 chili pepper (I use the medium hot long kind:  make sure it is whole and it will add flavor but not much heat to the sauce)
    • 1 or 2 3-inch long sprigs of fresh rosemary, or 1 teaspoon dried
    • 1 bay leaf
    • 1 medium onion, chopped very finely
    • 2 cloves garlic, chopped finely
    • salt and black pepper
    • 1-4 anchovy fillets (1 will add depth to the sauce, at 4 you will taste the anchovy;  my own inclination would be to use 2-3 but Amy can be anchovy averse, so I only used 1. See below for a discussion of the kashruth of fish and meat)
    • 1/2 to one cup full-bodied wine  (not having anything Italian in the house, we cooked with and drank a spicy Catalonian wine, Claraval, which was an excellent pairing)
    • 14 ounce can diced tomatoes (sorry to sound like a shil, but Muir Glen fire-roasted are great here)

    If serving as ragu with pasta,
    • 1/2 pound to one pound good quality tubular macaroni pasta or pasta with cavities (see below), depending on your carb limits
    • toasted bread crumbs:  2 tablespoons olive oil, 2 cloves smashed and peeled garlic, and 1/2 cup bread crumbs, ideally homemade but any unseasoned variety is fine (see below)

    1. Heat oil on high in a large skillet with a cover or a casserole, dry shanks, add to the skillet, and brown well, turning to brown on all surfaces.  It will take between 15 and 20 minutes.  Turn the heat down if it starts to smoke.
    2. Meanwhile, reconstitute the mushrooms.  Cover them with about 1 cup of water in a microwave safe container, cover, and microwave on 30% power for 3 minutes. Check the mushrooms to see if they are soft, and if not, microwave for another minute.  You can also pour boiling water over the dried mushrooms and leave them to soak for about an hour.
    3. Rinse the mushrooms well in a sieve to remove all grit and chop finely.
    4. Pour the mushroom liquid through a sieve lined with a coffee filter and set aside.  You may need to stir to help it go through.
    5. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
    6. Pour the fat out of the skillet, add the olive oil, and heat on medium.  Add the chili, fresh rosemary and bay leaf, and when they start to color, add the onion and salt lightly.
    7. Cook until the onion is soft and golden, and add the chopped mushrooms.  Cook on high until the onions and mushrooms brown.  They should be well-caramelized but not burnt. 
    8. Add the garlic and cook on medium until the raw smell goes away.  Add the dried rosemary now if you are using it.
    9. Turn heat down to low and add the anchovy fillets. Mash them into the onions garlic and mushrooms until they dissolve.  Keep the heat gentle or they will get bitter and fishy.
    10. Add wine to the skillet and boil until reduced by at least half, scrapping up the glaze from the skillet if there is any.
    11. Add mushroom liquid and boil down until reduced by about half.  
    12. Add the tomatoes and bring to the boil.  Cook for a few minutes, then return the shanks to the skillet.
    13. Spoon sauce over the shanks.  If the sauce does not come up to the bones, add some boiling water.  Add a few grindings of pepper and a little salt, cover, and place in the oven.
    14. Bake for two and a half hours, turning halfway through.  If not extremely tender, return to the oven to cook for another 30 minutes to an hour.  You can also cook it on top of the stove on low heat. Make sure that the sauce barely simmers but does not boil.
    15. Remove shanks and boil the sauce down until thick to taste. Taste and correct for salt and pepper, and spoon off some of the fat if you must.  See below for serving options.
    Option #1: Plain braised lamb shanks.  Just serve the damn things, with a baguette to mop up the juices.  It only serves two this way, since  there is not good way to share a lamb shank.  You might want to sprinkle some chopped flat-leaf parsley on top.

    Option #2:  Lamb ragu: When you remove the shanks from the sauce, and reduce the sauce. If you wanted to be authentically Italian, you would probably serve the sauce with pasta as a first course and then the shanks as a second course.  I am not so into authenticity, especially with this recipe, so I take the meat of the bones.  If it doesn't come right off, they shanks aren't tender enough and should cook some more. With two forks, shred lengthwise with the grain.  Return the meat to the sauce. Scoop the marrow out of the larger bones if you can and add to the sauce.  Boil pasta until just barely al dente.  Toss with a bit of pareve margarine (or butter if you don't separate milk and meat) and serve sprinkled lightly with toasted breadcrumbs (see below) or, depending on your practice, freshly grated cheese.  Since the whole purpose of this exercise was to find a way to get the umami satisfaction without the cheese, do me a favor and try it once with the breadcrumbs and without the butter.  By the peculiar math of boning meat, this will serve 4.   The ragu can also be made with lamb neck, which is a lot cheaper but not quite as good and much more difficult to handle in the browning and boning. 

    Option #3: Lamb with beans:  When then lamb has cooked for about 2 hours, add about 2 cups slightly undercooked (1 cup raw)  cannelini, navy or great northern beans to the pot.  Cook until beans and lamb are tender.  You might want to increase the rosemary for this.   Serve this to two extremely hungry people.  If you want to be really fancy, top with some untoasted bread crumbs mixed with a bit of olive oil  and place the skillet or pot under the broiler for a few minutes to develop a light crust.  Be very careful not to burn. 

    Fish and meat and kashrut:  As if there aren't already enough rules in Judaism, the Talmud and Shulchan Aruch maintain that there are health issues with eating fish and meat together.  This makes life even more difficult than it needs to be.  It can even cause problems with using Worcestershire sauce, because it is anchovy-based.  However, I discussed this matter with Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky, a true talmid chacham and a mensch who could make much better use of social media.  He said that the halachic source is originally a prohibition of eating fish and meat on the same plate, lest a fish bone get mixed in with the meat which could be a choking risk. Because this combination of fish and meat was potentially hazardous and was declared unhealthy, the belief that eating fish and meat together is unhealthy spread as well.  Some of the people who care about these things have a way of producing additional stringencies on top of the original prohibitions.  At this particular stage of my spiritual development, I am not concerned about this, and doubt that I ever will be so machmir (stringent) as to care.  However, if you are, you could always use a teaspoon or less of fish-less Worcestershire sauce or Bragg's aminos, though these would add tamarind and soy notes that would be alien to the spirit of this dish. 

    The bread crumbs:  These are simplicity itself, and nice not only on this ragu, but also on other pastas (for example, broccoli or cauliflower boiled or roasted and then sauteed with garlic and anchovy and served with orecchiette or penne).  If kashrut matters to you it is a very nice way of fitting a pasta into a multi-course meat meal.  If it doesn't it is just good and very traditional in the south.  Heat a few spoons of olive oil on medium in a small skillet.  Add 2 cloves of garlic, smashed and peeled, and saute until aromatic and just beginning to color.  Remove the garlic and add 1/2 cup bread crumbs, ideally coarse homemade ones, but unflavored store bought are fine (that is what I used).  Panko would even work here and would add a nice texture.   Toast the crumbs, stirring frequently, until a medium brown and remove from the heat. It should take around 5 minutes, depending on heat and the type of skillet you use.  Be very careful not to burn them. They will smell wonderful when you remove them from the heat.  Resist the temptation to taste them until they are cool.  They smelled so good that I put a spoon in and as I brought it to my mouth, I thought to myself, "This is really dumb."  I popped them in and heard my mouth sizzle.  I put an ice cube in my mouth as soon as I realized what was happening, but the whole inside of my mouth turned into a large blister.  But boy, were they good.  Use these sparingly though.  You want them to add texture and flavor, but you want to taste the sauce not the breadcrumbs.

    The pasta:  This is the place to use hard wheat macaroni pasta, not soft egg pasta.  You should never apologize for using good dried pasta.  Good shapes would be those with crevices to trap bits of the sauce:  rigatoni, orecchiette, penne, cavatelli.  I actually used Trader Joe's organic penne, which are quite good.  Don't use spaghetti here.  Of course, pasta can represent a problem for a Friday dinner, if you are committed to both al dente pasta and to not cooking after sundown. Once again, I am not there yet (but one day might be, unless my wife has something to say about it) but I couldn't resist the temptation to try.  So, I undercooked the pasta (about 4 minutes after it came to the boil when the package called for 9) tossed it with the sauce and the margarine, put it in a serving dish and left it in a 200 degree oven covered with foil for a few hours.  When we ate, the pasta was cooked through, but still firm.

    Making it in advance:  Of course you can, with any variation.  It also makes it easier to degrease.  If you are doing ragu, just mix with the pasta the day you are serving, right before serving if gastronomic considerations are paramount.

    Saturday, January 8, 2011

    Yemenite Chicken Soup

    This is the Yemenite version of chicken-in-a-pot, which is the Ashkenazi comfort food of bland boiled chicken in rich broth with complementary carbohydrates:  kasha, noodles, matzo balls, and sometimes potatoes.  Instead of the multiple carbs, the Yemenite variant adds flavor.  I first had this at my cousin Susan's house, when her friend Tamar brought over this soup (and a basket of homemade laffa, a kind of Yemenite naan, which was a soft as a baby's bottom, but that is another matter) after her mother, the legendary and incomparable Aunt Birdie,  died a few years ago.  Tamar explained how to make it, and I played around with the recipe a bit, and here is how we do it:

    Yemenite chicken soup

    • 1 chicken, about 3 pounds, cut up into 4-10 pieces and skinned
    • 2 quarts boiling water
    • 1 bunch cilantro, washed well
    • 6 cloves garlic, paper removed but unpeeled
    • 1 tablespoon Osem pareve chicken soup powder (this is for the authentic flavor;  if you must, you can use chicken stock or just water)
    • 2 tablespoon Pereg spices for soup (hawaji)
    • 1 large onion, peeled and cut into 6 wedges
    • 4 carrots, peeled and cut into large chunks, more if you want
    • 1 large russet potato, scrubbed well and cut into eights (you can peel it if you want but I find that the peel adds flavor to the broth and helps to keep the potato from falling apart
    • 1 - 2 cups winter squash, like butternut, peeled and cut into 1 inch dice (optional, and you can use zucchini instead, just add it with the green beans)
    • 8 ounces to 1 pound green beans, trimmed 

    1. Put the chicken in a 4-5 quart pot and pour the boiling water over it. (A 4 quart pot will be tight but will add some drama to cooking and serving;  5 quarts will give you plenty of room.)
    2. Bring to the boil, turn heat down to a simmer, and skim off the scum that rises to the surface. (This will take about 10-15 minutes).
    3. Add garlic cloves, soup powder, and spices.  Tuck the cilantro into a corner of the pot. (You can tie it with some kitchen string to make it easier to remove, but I don't. )
    4. Simmer for 10 minutes and add the onion.
    5. Simmer for another 10 minutes and add the potato and carrot.
    6. Simmer chicken for another 20 minutes, and add the squash.
    7. Simmer for 5 minutes and add the green beans and simmer until they are tender, for another 5-10 minutes.  Total cooking time is about 50 minutes to an hour.  Taste the broth for salt if you didn't use the soup powder, otherwise it will be plenty salty. Fish out the bunch of cilantro if you can.
    8. We usually serve the soup as a first course, and the chicken and vegetables on a plate next, along with harissa or zchug. You can serve it all together in big bowls if you want.  In either case, serve it with middle eastern bread, preferably laffa, which is now available commercially, or thick Israeli-style pita.
    9. Serves 4. 
    Hawaji:  This is a Yemenite spice powder used for soup. It is much easier,  if you can find it,  to use bought Yemenite spices for soup.  Pereg is the brand I use.  Otherwise, mix together 1 tablespoon each  of finely ground black pepper and cumin, 2 teaspoons ground coriander, one teaspoon each ground cardamom and turmeric, and 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves.  You can play with this as you like, especially the proportions of  cardamom and cloves, and you can leave out the coriander if you want.  This amount will make enough for 2 pots of soup.

    Soup powder:  Usually I only use pareve soup powder to keep a recipe vegetarian or dairy.  But Tamar swore by using a bit of Osem, which is a pareve soup powder that contains all sorts of horrible ingredients. Israelis use it all the time,  and it gives this soup an "authentic" taste, and if you don't overdo it, it is quite good.  I had a long discussion today about  Osem with Ruby, an Israeli of Persian extraction, who said that Osem powder is a good way of adding umami to all kinds of dishes. He even suggested that I use it in the lamb shank ragu that I described to him.  Maybe next time.  Umami is the "fifth flavor,"  associated with deep savory protein flavors from things like meat broth, parmesan cheese, mushrooms, anchovies and soy sauce.  A posting about lamb shanks and umami will follow shortly.

    Matzo balls:  Though rarely served this way, matzo balls are a great addition to this soup.  Serve them separately with the broth first.  They soak up the spice flavoring beautifully.