Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Stuffed Eggplants w/ Pomegranate & Pine Nuts

In a previous post, I mentioned feasting under a whole moon on the beaches of Sinai. Even with the moon’s reflection off the water, stars were out in the millions and I gazed drunk with delight at the sky. My cohorts and I, sun-kissed and hungry after a day of swimming in perfectly clear, warm waters, were famished. We stumbled away from the beach to the bright bungalow for the meal that awaited us. Forever when I eat a pomegranate, I will think of this beach and our shared gluttony.

A, one of my closest college friends, was moving to Cairo for the year. I did what any selfless friend would do in the situation and sent her off properly, accompanying her with one week in Cairo and one in Lebanon. D, another friend of ours, is Egyptian. Even though she would be knee-deep in her studies (a blossoming PhD), D offered to take us to her beach hideaway for a weekend away from the craze that is Cairo. (D also introduced me to roasted pigeon on this trip, a succulent feast that should be eaten with your hands, courtside the main Cairo market.)

D’s mother is yet another food goddess incarnate I have met in the voyage of life. Upon our arrival, she fluttered about, pushing her homemade and fresh delights onto us: Stuffed grape leaves, stuffed eggplants, chicken, lamb, flatbreads, olives, fruits, and countless varieties of feta. At each meal we merrily plunged more and more food into our bellies, and D’s mother, in true Middle Eastern hospitality, kept pushing more onto us. In between bites I discussed recipes with her, especially for my favorite, the stuffed eggplants. We would finish each meal with fresh brewed Arabic coffee on the roof, smelling the salted air now tainted with cardamom, while D’s mother would hurry off to bed in preparation for her dawn beach appointment.

These eggplants are sweet, savory and delicious, but a poor imitation of perfection (they also look like a ruptured artery in the picture). If I could sweep D’s mother away from the beach to make these for me I gladly would. Even better, I prefer spending my days with her on the beaches of Sinai being stuffed to the gills with her home-cooked amusements.

Serves 6. Prep time= 45 min. Cook time= 45 min.
8 small (4-5 inch in length) eggplants (if you can find smaller ones, by all means use them-- just purchase more. They are easier to clean and will be more flavorful.)
¾- 1 lb ground beef (or lamb)
1 cup wild rice
1 onion, chopped
4-5 garlic cloves, minced
5 Tbl pine nuts, toasted
5 Tbl pomegranate molasses (available at specialty, Asian and Middle Eastern stores)
8 fresh mint leaves, chopped
juice of ½ lemon
1 pomegranate, deseeded

1) In a saucepot, begin the rice according to the directions on the package
2) While rice is cooking, in a large saucepan, on medium heat, add meat, onion and garlic. Break apart meat and cook until meat is browned, stir occasionally.
3) While meat-onion-garlic is cooking, toast the pine nuts (in a toaster oven on medium or 5-10 min in the oven on broil) until lightly browned. Deseed the pomegranate.
4) Hollow out the eggplants: Clean and cut the tops off. Use a small knife to start the process then a spoon to scrape the remaining meat (and mostly seeds) out. Be careful not to puncture or tear the skin (eggplant skin is fairly tough pre-cooked so this should not be too much of a problem). Hollow out the eggplant as much as possible. It is okay to leave a small perimeter of meat along the edges. (To do this quickly takes a little practice so keep an eye on the meat and rice. If either are finished just turn the burners off).
5) At this point, the rice should have about 10-15 min cook time remaining. Preheat the oven to 350F. When meat is done, turn stovetop off, add pine nuts, pomegranate molasses, mint, lemon juice, and pomegranate seeds. When rice is complete, add rice to the meat mixture (or add the meat to the rice if the saucepan is not large enough). Stir until evenly blended.
6) Using a spoon, stuff the filling into the eggplants, packing it in well (as you see ice cream scoopers pack a fresh pint of ice cream). Once done, cover with aluminum foil and bake on middle rack for 35-45 min, until eggplants are soft.
7) Keep any remaining filling to stuff more eggplants, zucchini or bell peppers—or just eat it on the side.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Thanksgiving Feasting

As I debarked the plane in Chicago this past Tuesday, my mother surprised me: "So I thought you can drop your things at home, create a menu for Thursday, and we can go shopping?"
"What? You haven't done anything yet?"
"No, I thought you could help out this year."
What she really meant was, "Oh, I thought I would enslave you to do pretty close to everything this year."

To answer Mr. Shinn, I think having a large feast for Thanksgiving is okay. Yes, you cannot eat everything, you will be bloated for days, have leftovers for weeks to come, but it is nice when everyone brings an item to share (no one did this in my family this year, instead they brought wine) you will also have all your favorites present. After all, it is the traditional vision of Thanksgiving many of us hold historically correct, no? Besides, the variety would be a spectacle in and of itself. But I will say, a small feast can also be a delicious one.

My family awaits the leftovers to make our Latvian Pancakes and turkey soup from the carcass (and whatever meat cannot be picked clean). My high school friends (who mostly live in Chicago) await the leftovers at my house for a tasting of what was missed-- even when they are "stuffed" from their meals and "cannot fit another bite in," somehow most of them manage to make room for what lies in my family's fridge.

This year, my mother reversed roles. While she checked my proceedings to "make sure they are not poisonous," prepared the turkey and two-day gravy (which she claims to be the most essential part of the meal), I cooked the remaining choice items for my aunts and cousins who would soon arrive. Without further ado...

The Thanksgiving Menu
** cheese platter with olives and fruit
** salad (much like the previous post of the "Play on the Mediterranean Classic"
** butternut squash soup

** mashed sweet potatoes
** garlic mashed potatoes (leaving some of the red skin on for color)
** steamed asparagus in a black truffle vinaigrette
** oyster stuffing (not very heavy, no fishy taste, pure decadence)
** (two-day) mushroom gravy (from, December 2004)
** turkey stuffed with orange, lemon and an herb bouquet

** cranberry macadamia white chocolate chip cookies
** pumpkin cheesecake
** A good, inexpensive, Washington Reisling

If any recipes not posted are desired... please call out.

The Process:
Tuesday: Make cranberry-macadamia-white-chocolate chip cookies
Wednesday: Make butternut squash soup, pumpkin cheesecake, and gravy. Pre-cut and mix all salad items (except for the avocado)
Thursday: Prepare stuffing and bake before putting turkey in the oven. Stuff turkey and put in the oven. Put cheese out 1 hour before guests arrive (cheese should be served at room temperature). Cut avocado and add to salad before ready to serve. 45 min before eating start potatoes. Prepare vinaigrette for asparagus. 5 minutes before eating, lightly steam asparagus. Dessert is already complete.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

A Play on a Mediterranean Classic

In my younger days salads were a despicable nutrition source (if they could be called that). They usually composed of the basic food items I most loathed-- vegetables. Or even more usual, they were made in the same boring combination day in, day out: iceberg lettuce, tomatoes and cucumber. Can people have less imagination? And how can a restaurant dare push this off as a "house salad" making people believe there is actually nutrition value in this salad (iceberg lettuce and cucumber are essentially water-logged with few vitamins) and people are receiving their daily vegetable intake? I fail to remember, did people actually feel better about themselves after eating one of these poor excuses for a salad.

I am now older, and I like to think wiser. I have come to understand a few of the essential vitamins my body needs, and I have come to understand combinations that taste good-- who knew fruits, vegetables and nuts are delicious? And how many combinations can there be...??

This Thanksgiving, when I asked my brother to aid in the food production (did I mention I made everything this year?), I almost fell to the floor in convulsions when he turned to the iceberg lettuce, began reaching for tomatoes, and announcing he could not find the cucumbers. No, no, no! (No worries, I set him on the right path.)

Saturday I put myself in charge of the luncheon salad. It was delicious, crisp, crunchy, sweet, salty, with each item perfectly indecipherable from the next. I make these salads in various fruit-cheese-nut-greens combinations depending on my fridge's availability and you can do the same. This was today's:

Serves 4. Prep time= 10min
2 heaping handfuls of mixed greens
1 ripe avacado, sliced
1 ripe pear, sliced
8 dried apricot pieces, chopped
small handful of pecans, whole or chopped, candied or not
top with crumbled feta (or goat or parmesan)
3 sprigs fresh thyme (optional) sprinkle on salad

I covered this with a simple dressing to enhance the flavors:
1/2 orange, juiced (or lemon)
4-5 dashes of hazelnut oil (or olive oil if not available)
dash salt
fresh pepper to taste

Either juice/ throw all over top or mix separately and put over salad when ready to eat.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Curried Butternut Squash Soup

I have found that many of my friends love food: They love to talk about it, they love to cook, they love to swap recipes, but mostly, they love to eat it. When we have nothing better to discuss, or when tempers brew, we turn to food to cool the flames (which inevitably leaves us arguing about the best way to prepare such and such). The great thing about his though, is that many a cookbook, many a recipe, and many a fabulous meal is passed between us.

A few winters back in December, the weather was cold and biting. I was invited to an intimate dinner by my good friend, A, who had a roommate that was trying a new soup recipe. Not one to turn down an invitation, especially one that involved soup, I jumped the subway for the 45 min commute to the cozy Brooklyn apt (this was when A and her roommates were saving money and found a great deal where they could also score amazingly cheap produce). When I arrived, there was a blast of warmth and the intoxicating smell of curry. E spouted off her newfound recipe and how easy it was, "so simple! Only four ingredients." It was not much later that we were breaking crusty bread and digging into this savory soup. The night continued and I cannot remember what else we ate-- possibly one of A's infamous salads? Regardless, it was the soup bowls that were literally wiped clean to indulge in every last sweet drop.

But soon it grew late and I had to make the trek back to Queens. I bundled my layers on, wrapped my head tight and copied the precious recipe soon to be had countless times in the future. Most recently I made it for D when I first saw butternut squash available at the market. D's reaction was much the same as mine upon first tasting: The bowl was licked clean. I brought leftovers into work the next day only to be hovered around while I ate the soup and "X" smelled the goodness, drooling for a bite she would not receive (sorry).

I am making this soup now, for a pre-feast whet of the Thanksgiving appetite. I offer advice: Please get yourself a handheld blender(cordless is optional). Especially if you enjoy soups that are blended (as I do) it makes the process worlds easier. Today I used a Cuisinart (I am in at my mother's for T-giv). Yes, classic Cuisinart, I love you, but you are the devil when I need to ladle hot soup into your bowl and I am forced to puree in 3 rounds. When I am home, I stick my lovely cordless handheld blender into my large vat of soup and voila, minutes later I have the perfect consistency with little hassle (it's also a great instrument to use when making smoothies). But with no further ado:

Makes 6 servings. Active time= 30min. Total= 1.5 hr
1 good size butternut squash
1 Granny Smith, or other tart apple, peeled and chopped into cubes
1 medium white onion, chopped
2 tsp curry
1 Qt, 4 cups, low-salt chicken or vegetable broth

1) Preheat oven to 425F. Cut the squash in half lengthwise, deseed (keep the seeds in a small bowl). Place facedown on a baking sheet and bake for 40min.
2) Rinse the seeds and lay out on another baking sheet, sprinkle with salt and bake 10-15 min (while the squash bakes). Remove and set aside.
3) While squash is baking, in a saucepot on medium heat, sauté the onion and apple, 10-15 min with a dab of butter or oil. Add the curry and stir. Turn the heat down to keep warm.
4) Remove the squash from the oven when done. Carefully (it is hot) peel the skin off the squash-- it should come off easily. Cut into cubes and add to the pot.
5) Turn the heat back up to medium, add the broth and let simmer 20min.
6) Puree the soup in a blender (or with a fabulous handheld one). Dish out, sprinkle with seeds, serve with crusty bread and enjoy the sweet nutty flavor.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Cranberry Macadamia White Choco Chip Cookie

A shorter name for this cookie might be, "The Perfect Holiday Treat". There is no long story behind them other than they are delicious. Also, that I made them for the upcoming Thanksgiving festivities (and the Pumpkin Cheesecake amongst other delicacies...). Come Autumn, these treats are perfect any time with their fabulous color combination.

If memory serves me properly, last time I whipped these up I used pecans, not Macadamia nuts, also excellent. I think this updated version adds to holiday cheer (and longings of Hawaii as snow is en route??)-- the colors just make one want to snuggle up next to a warm fire with a loved one. So share these freely and spread a sweet cheer.

These cookies are great warm with a cold glass of milk. They are not overly sweet, are soft, hold a burst of spice on the inside, and keep their form well when baked.


Makes about 25 2-inch cookie drops
1 cup all purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp allspice
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter, softened
3/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 egg
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 cup oatmeal
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup white chocolate chips
1/2 cup Macadamia nuts

1) Preheat oven to 350F
2) In a mixing bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice.
3) With electric mixer in another bowl, add butter and sugar, mixing until fluffy. Add the egg and vanilla, mix until well combined.
4) Beat in flour mixture until well combined.
5) Add remaining ingredients and stir until evenly combined.
6) With a spoon, drop dough about 1 inch apart (the cookies do not ooze out too much in baking). Bake in batches in middle of the oven 10-12 min (or lightly golden) for soft cookies. Cool on racks.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Sweet Potato, Pataato

I have a good friend, D, who is in charge of the sweet potatoes for his family's Thanksgiving feast this year. He asked if I had any suggestions and since I just emailed him a private suggestion list, I thought why not post it in time for everyone else? So here's a short one, with little background and pictures to come post-holiday. (Or make your own and email me your pictures and I will post them.)

I am not really a sweet potato casserole kind of girl. Maybe it is not in my family, the casserole, that is. We hail from Latvia, Russia and the Czech Republic. I am pretty sure casseroles are not the pièce de résistance in these parts. Growing up, I kept a blind eye to the marshmallow sweet potato bakes and it was not until a few years ago that I ventured to try one. I must confess, I still do not understand the marshmallow's use as a non-dessert accompaniment.

There is a good article in this month's New York Magazine (I know, referenced before but it's a good holiday feast spread) about all those sweet tubers and lays out the difference between Yam and Sweet Potato.

Last year for Thanksgiving, I found an excellent recipe for baked cumin sweet potato fries with a perfect tangy lime dipping sauce. I cannot find where I placed that recipe, but it was a hit (better yet, it they are baked, not fried and fun for kids):


Serves 8
1-½ tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground curry
1 tsp paprika
2 Tbl vegetable oil
kosher salt/ fresh pepper to taste
4 sweet potatoes
1 pint plain yogurt (non- or low-fat is fine)
juice of 1 lime
1) Preheat oven to 400F. Wash well and slice the sweet potatoes in half, and each half into 6 wedges.
2) In a mixing bowl, toss the potatoes with the vegetable oil until lightly coated. Add 1 tsp ground cumin, the curry, ½ tsp of the paprika, salt to taste and ground pepper to taste. Toss until evenly coated.
3) On a baking sheet, lay the potato wedges out in a single layer. Bake on the middle rack for 15 min, flip, and bake another 15 min.
4) While the potatoes are baking, prepare the dipping sauce. Squeeze the lime into the yogurt, add ½ tsp cumin and ½ tsp paprika. Mix well and refrigerate until ready to serve.

My office loves to order food. This is a quandary for me, who totes my homemade, frozen single-serving size of soup to work daily, only to find we are celebrating another birthday. How am I to know? Why can I not be told about this in advance? In actuality it is not really so bad because I just leave my soup refrigerated and join in the celebrations. Two weeks ago it was BBQ. I swear I would be southern (if I were not so Eastern European) because I will devour this stuff when it is put before me. One of our sides was a butter-laden, sweet potato mash. Here is my take on it. This is an indulgence:


Serves 10
6 sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into quarters (or 6 for faster boiling)
butter, and lots of it (4 Tbl)
brown sugar, and lots of it (2 Tbl)
1 tsp nutmeg
½ cup buttermilk
kosher salt to taste
¼ cup candied pecans, slightly crushed
1) Preheat oven to 350F. In a medium pot, bring lightly salted water to a boil. Add sweet potatoes and boil until tender, about 25 min.
2) When done, drain and transfer potatoes to a mixing bowl, mash. Add remaining ingredients and blend together.
3) Transfer to an oven safe baking dish. Sprinkle pecans on top and bake for 10 min, until top is lightly browned.
NOTE: Another take on this:
Add 1 tsp orange zest to the mash for a little citrus tang.

Sunday Brunch- Eggs Florentine w/ Sausage

Brunch may be the quintessential meal. It falls just late enough that you can sleep in and early enough that you are not starving by mealtime. Proper brunch times fall between 11am and 2pm. Some places I have noticed even serve until 4pm. What makes brunch so fantastic is that one is able to order a lunch appropriate meal or stick with breakfast. I think it is best to start the day off right and keep with breakfast.

I believe the tastiest brunch I ever had I shared with D and my friend S, who I have known since kindergarten, back when she was sporting a very retro beehive. This occurred this past summer when S was in New York for a visit with her boyfriend of the time, a very nice Frenchman. The visit fell perfectly upon a recently acquired Washington wild smoked salmon, gifted from E. With it, I made an omelet of portabella mushrooms, asparagus and smoked salmon (added at the very last to keep it uncooked but just warm). This was served with fresh bread from my local bakery. We also had the pleasure of a very nice bottle of French Champagne brought by the very nice Frenchman, which we popped open with joy, and that soon produced a ring of horror on his face when we added fresh orange juice to make mimosas.

It is always a pleasure to have a light Mimosa or a hearty Bloody Mary with the meal—hair of the dog, and all. This morning, I would forgo the pleasures of the above mentioned and stick with coffee, the only way it should be made: with a French press. To feast on this Sunday we would tempt the palate with Eggs Florentine (sans Hollindaise Sauce, I’m not really a fan, but can make a pretty darn good one if I do say so myself) with good breakfast sausage (Jimmy Dean, imported from Virginia since it is unavailable here in New York. My butcher does not even carry breakfast sausage—only spicy Italian types and the grocery only has those horrendous frozen links).

For many, poaching eggs is terrifying business. A few months back, I found this great website by a brave fellow who attempts all the tricks of the trade for those of us without the poaching kitchen gadget. I would have to agree that his egg wrapped in plastic wrap is probably the best method. Make sure to cook the egg a scarce 3 min or you will have more egg on the wrap than your plate. For today’s eggs, I used my own method, slightly similar to the one I found here (which I will have to try next time) and will be described below.


Serves 2
4 slices breakfast sausage patties
4 eggs
2 generous handfuls fresh spinach
1 generous tab of good butter (about 1 Tbl)
2 English Muffins
salt/ pepper to taste
1) Warm a small skillet on medium-high heat. Add the sausage. Keep an eye on the sausage while you continue the process and allow it to brown.
2) Begin to toast the English Muffins to desired crispness
3) While the sausage and muffins are going, take a large (10-12 inch diameter) skillet. Fill it about ½ inch up the sides with water and on medium heat, allow to a simmer. Once simmering, crack and gently place the eggs into the water. Cover and let sit about 3 min for medium runny eggs (adjust time for preferred yolk results).
4) While the eggs cook, in a medium pot (or another large skillet) melt the tab of butter on medium-low heat. Add the spinach, cover and allow to wilt, stirring occasionally (3-4 min).
4) Once sausage is done, wrap it in a paper towel to take some of the grease off. Put the English Muffin on your plate, open and place one egg on each half. Cover with a heap of spinach and fresh cracked pepper. Place sausage on the side and enjoy with fresh coffee, mimosas or a Bloody Mary.

And even though I did not have one, here is a bonus recipe:


1 oz vodka
1-½ cups good tomato juice (Clamato juice is also very tasty and adds a good clam saltiness)
dash of Worcester sauce
2-3 dash of Tabasco sauce (or other favorite hot sauce)
2 tsp white horseradish
1 tsp fresh lemon juice
2-3 grinds fresh pepper
dash of celery salt
celery stick
2 green olives as garnish or pickled green bean
1) Fill cup with ice, and add all ingredients (if using olives you can also add about 1 tsp olive juice). Mix well and enjoy.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Lasagna Mama

Pasta has received a bad rap recently. This is especially true when we discuss lasagna because it can be high in carbs, contains dairy, and is quite heavy. But pasta in some form probably receives note on most peoples' top ten food list. We must be honest with ourselves though: Lasagna peaks the pasta pyramid. It is simple to make. It can be created in a slew of different ways. It is very tasty. In complete, if made properly, it is a satisfying meal in itself. With Atkins now passé, and research declaring that dairy 3 times a day actually maintains a healthy motabalism why not make a lasagna to keep you warm and happy in the cooling weather?

As many people now know, pasta was invented in China. Brought west, it was soon taken on as a favorite in many lands. The dish, lasagna, as we know it might even be Chinese in origin (cookbooks have been found pre-dating any Greek or Italian description of a very similar dish). But the word Lasagna itself may be Latin in origin, "lasania,", "cooking pot" or classical Greek "lagana," "a type of unleavened bread not unlike pasta". In today's vernacular, "lasagne" is plural for the singular slice of "lasagna", which is how most Brits and N. Americans now refer to the dish. You call it lasagne, I call it lasagna-- either way, eat it up.

Lasagna can be made many ways: Traditional, with pasta and meat or vegetarian. One can also substitute the pasta for eggplant, zucchini, or a combination of both (meat or no). One easy shortcut to keep in mind when using pasta is that there is no need to cook the noodles before you assemble your lasagna: Put a thin layer of sauce on the bottom, cover with pasta, and continue as normal. The water from the sauce will cook the pasta perfectly in the oven. It is also great because the pasta will not fall apart as easily and you can break the pieces to size.

I made my lasagna with zucchini and meat. I put my basil plant to use and made fresh basil sauce-- okay, I bought plain, no salt/ no flavor tomato cans and added my own flavors (it is less salty this way and I know exactly what is going into the lasagna). But I have made it before from fresh tomatoes and this too is a great treat. I used fresh mozzarella, fresh ricotta and good parmesan. Using good, fresh cheese is a little more work but really adds to the flavor. This recipe is an Atkins lover dream (or for someone, like me, who ran out of pasta noodles). The best part is that there is plenty leftover for the rest of the week or to cut it up, wrap it in foil and freeze for a needy day or working lunch.

1 cup fresh ricotta, grated (you can buy 1/4 lb of the cheese and use all or save some for other dishes)
1 cup fresh good parmesan, grated (not that Kraft stuff)
1 good size fresh buffalo mozzarella, sliced
1- 15 oz can no salt/ no flavors added tomato sauce
1- 8oz can no salt/ no flavors added tomatoes, chopped
1- 6oz can no salt/ no flavors added tomato paste
1 lb good beef, ground (you can buy good meat at the butcher and have them grind it fresh for you)
1 medium onion, chopped
2-3 cloves garlic, pressed
6 white button mushrooms, chopped
6-8 sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
10 leaves fresh basil, chopped + some whole
5-6 kalamato olives, pitted and chopped
salt/pepper to taste
5 medium zucchinis, ends cut off and sliced long about 1/4 inch thick

The Sauce:
1) In a good sized pot, over medium heat, add beef (you do not need to add any butter/ oil. The fat from the meat will be enough), onions, mushrooms and garlic. Cook about 10-15 min until the meat and mushrooms are browned and the onion is clear and soft, stirring occasionally.
2) Add sun-dried tomatoes, olives and 10 chopped basil leaves. Cook about 3 min, stirring.
3) Add the tomato sauces.
4) Bring sauce to a light boil then turn down heat and allow to simmer about 10min (more if you want a thicker sauce)

Lasagna Assemblage:
1) Preheat oven to 350F. Ladle a thin layer of sauce into the bottom of 11 x 9 x 3 inch pyrex (or other non reactive pan). Cover bottom of pan with a layer of zucchini, a thin layer of the parmesan and thin layer of the ricotta.
2) Add layer of sauce, zucchini and cheeses again. Continue until layers reach top of dish. Finish off with one last layer of sauce and zucchini if you have any left. Then lay out the sliced mozzarella and place one basil leaf on each piece of mozzarella.
3) Create a foil dome using 3-4 toothpicks poking out of the mozzarella. Put in oven on the center rack for 30 min. (You may want to place a cookie sheet below to catch drippings.) Remove toothpicks and tinfoil and bake another 10-15 min until mozzarella is lightly browned on the edges (it will look like roasted marshmallow).

Eaten with a salad this is a fabulous feast. As you can see from the results, this was an excellent lasagna that kept its' form very well. It tasted even better than it looks.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

From Lebanon, with Baba (Ganoush)

*Just Braise has moved to a new location. Please visit me at*

As the weather turns toward the worst, and gray days become a common thread, I cannot help but linger on the past, warm and fresh.

In the 1940's, France withdrew from Lebanon. To this day, it is in a summersault between old and new world-- reinventing and revamping its’ character. Walking down the streets, signs still read in French and Arabic (or Arabic and English). Fruit stands on every corner press fresh juice to order, and pistachio pastries laced with honey waft towards the nose. Out of the city, vineyards can be found on hillsides that neighbor crosses mounted high on a village church. It is a country that still understands hospitality, where no meeting between friends is able to last under two hours, and where you will always be offered a bottomless cup of fresh Arabic coffee, laden with cardamom.

Between 1975-1991, civil war tore through Beirut and its surrounds. From above, the city's white stone buildings are iridescent in the sun and the mountains roll away reflecting the cerulean Mediterranean. Salt is ripe in the air and mingles with trees as lizards dash through legs of a traveler to the safety of a forgotten bullet hole in a nearby structure. Roam the streets and notice wires crisscross overhead in a forgotten and haphazard desperation of gaining electricity during the war-- still in-use. Or suddenly come upon a blocked-off road, where the ground is yet to be re-stabilized. Inside bombed-out-building-carcasses, families create wall-less homes on top floors that overlook city lights. The new hottest club is constructed beneath sacred ground, and luxury high-rise buildings blossom around Roman and Phoenician ruins; barely visible and utter surprises to stumble upon amongst the ever –present cleansing and rebuilding. This is the crazy struggle between tradition and modernity.

The Muslim call for prayer rings out. It is a subtle undulation that flows off the salt air notifying the beach bums to rotate their tanning. Women walk the streets fully veiled or deeply bronzed in mini-skirts flaunting the latest fashions. Saudi oil heirs on vacation take to the corniche with their wives to find groups of men smoking nargeela, (Lebanese sheesha or flavored tobacco) lounging in home-brought plastic chairs while others fish in the sea where boys swim. Along this walk, the smell of cardamom is thick with Arabic coffee vendors hocking their product amidst others that grill and sell corn.

Food is fresh and fabulous. From cheeses, olives and fresh flat breads at breakfast, to the sweet fruits that complete every meal: fresh figs, dates, melons and mangoes. You dine on what is in season—not what is an able import. Flavors are intensified by this freshness of seasonality. The weather is perfect-- not too dry, and the peach-hued sunsets over the sea make up for any humidity that may linger.

Travel beyond the beach bum days and clubbing nights of Beirut. Hire a private driver and take the road to Balbaak and Ksara in the east, near Syria (easily done in one day). Some of the oldest ruins are found at Balbaak with an ancient population that continued to build upon what was already there, allowing centuries upon centuries of ruins almost indecipherable from the previous. In Ksara, cooling caves under a mountain vineyard, are host to wine tastings.

South near Saida, a soap factory is hidden in the old souq, where soap is still made “the ancient way”-- with boiled olive oil and ash. The juices and kebabs in the souq are the freshest I have tasted (fresh grapes taste like rose water, we are told “it’s the sea you taste”)—some of the best shwarma can be found here too. Continuing south, there are generations-old glass blowing studios on the way to the beaches and ruins of Tyre (a port town a stone’s throw from the Israeli border). This city, once a major trade route between Israel and Egypt, as well as the rest of the Mediterranean, has since been left in disrepair from civil war days, retaining its beauty.

North in Byblos we find where the written word began and paper spread throughout the world. Mountain peaks overtake the eyes where (surprise) temperatures dip low enough for skiing in the winter. It is difficult to leave such a paradise that is a true Eden.

If you cannot make it to this beautiful Garden, I beg of you to taste it in the home. These below recommendations are quick, easy, and require minimal cooking:

Gather some fresh Lebanese olives, feta, tahini (sesame seed paste) and flat bread (or pita) from a middle-eastern market (most groceries will carry these products as well). Ask for zataar (a thyme-based herb mixture with oregano and sesame) and lebne (a yogurt-like cheese). You will also need 1 large eggplant, extra-virgin olive oil, a lemon, garlic, plain yogurt (optional) and a selection of your favorite seasonal fruits. (When I eat these meals, I like to use the feta pictured at right. It reminds me of what I bought in Lebanon)

Place the olives in a dish to eat as-is. Do the same for the feta. Put the lebne on a separate plate, sprinkle with zataar and pour about 1 Tbl ev olive oil over the lebne. Serve with baba ganoush (recipe below), flat bread, and your favorite salad. Use the flat bread as a spoon to scoop up thebaba and cheeses. (A popular great-tasting snack is to brush olive oil on a piece of flat bread and dust with zataar, pictured. Toast until lighly browned in a toaster oven. It tastes great with the lebne and feta seasoned this way).

Below, a family recipe for Baba Ganoush (thank you A for your Lebanese wisdom):

BABA GANOUSH. (10 min cook,15 min setting time, 5 min prep). This recipe has a great smoky flavor. Recipe is the same for hummus (with only about 10 min prep-- minus the eggplant and flames, everything else is the same. Just buy a can of garbanzo beans (chickpeas), drain the liquid, and use a blender instead of a potato masher).
1 large eggplant
2 Tbl tahini
juice of 1 lemon
4 Tbl olive oil.
1-2 cloves garlic, crushed (or to taste)
6 Tbl plain yogurt (Optional, this gives the Baba a creamier consistency. Without it, you
may need a few more Tbl olive oil to cut the Baba’s thickness)
fresh pepper (to taste)
sea salt (to taste)
brown paper bag
potato masher
large bowl
1. Brush the eggplant with olive oil. On a stove’s open flame, cook eggplant. Rotate periodically (easy with long tongs) until all sides are crisp from flame and eggplant wilts thoroughly. The eggplant will also become saturated and heavy with juices (some of which may leak onto stovetop). For a large eggplant, this process should take about 10 min. (This method gives the Baba its smoky flavor. Another option is to wrap in foil and bake the eggplant for about 30 min. I have never done it this way, and cannot guarantee the smoky flavor, but I assume it would cut back on juices flowing onto the stovetop).

2. Place eggplant in brown paper bag and sit the bag in the large bowl (eggplant will continue to leak juice). This continues the cooking process of the inside of the eggplant and begins to cool it. Leave in bag 15 min.

3. Open bag, peel and discard as much of the eggplant's purple skin as possible. Cut off and discard vine head. Place remaining meat (with seeds) into large bowl.

4. Mash with potato masher (you are left with a better consistency than using a blender which can destroy the seeds and turn the Baba pasty).

4. Add remainder of ingredients, mix.

5. Top off with another Tablespoon of olive oil and maybe some paprika or parsley for color.

NOTE: A Palestinian friend of mine dices and de-seeds a ripe vine-tomato and stirs it into the Baba. An Egyptian friend swears one can never have too much garlic in their Baba and adds at least 5 cloves to her recipe. Both these are optional, tasty additions.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Latvian Pancakes

The Latvian name for these pancakes translates to “come back tomorrow.” My brothers and I know them as Latvian Pancakes. “In the old days” my grandmother will say in her broken English, “the parties were very large. So large, food would overflow from the tables. Drinking, eating, and dancing were everywhere. If it was cold, and snow covered the ground up to your waist, the guests slept on the floor near the fire, while their horses and carriages stayed in the barn. In the morning we would make Latvian Pancakes [insert Latvian name here].”

They are beyond a treat in my house. They are so good, that even in the six years of my noble vegetarianism, my grandmother would make me “veggie versions” of this savory snack. This is the recipe that even today, must always be secretly doubled. One batch goes onto the table for consumption and the other whisked away quickly, carefully hidden in a scentless container on the other side of the house until everyone is good and stuffed.
My brothers and I still fight to take home frozen pancakes. I still ration mine so carefully that I only finished my last pancake about 2 months ago (they had been stored since December in my freezer, brought back from holiday in California). Traditionally they are eaten with sour cream or applesauce. They are also excellent plain.
My grandmother still makes these best. In her younger days in Latvia, my grandmother was a trained chef and worked at a boarding school (those lucky kids). After a spat and holding her ground with the headmaster, she was fired, but would soon have to flee the country with my grandfather, mother, aunt and uncles in tow. It is impossible to write any of my grandmother’s recipes down. They are all stored neatly in her brain. She moves too quickly in the kitchen for me to measure anything beyond how many eggs are used (which also varies depending on her mood). “Grandma, how much flour?” “This much,” she says as she reaches her hand into the flour and tosses a handful into the mixing bowl. “No, more!” she will declare after stirring the batter and seeing it is not to her liking.
While I do not have my grandmother’s exact recipe for this item, I was still able to make them moist and savory, with enough to stow away, forgetting until a rainy day. I used “Joy of Cooking’s” crepe recipe but found it too sweet. If you eliminate most of the sugar, the flavor is truer to my grandmother’s batter. The filling is essentially leftovers: Meat like brisket, or other good meat is traditional, but I like turkey best. In recent years, I started adding leftover vegetables (zucchini, carrots, mushrooms) that are roasted and soft to the mixture. It makes a fuller meal out of the pancake. The third part of the filling is sour cream. You can also add a little leftover gravy for extra flavor, but it’s not necessary. The most laborious part of this procedure is removing all meat from the bones. (Save the bones and make a soup, recipe to come.) You can break this procedure up if you do not want to spend all the time on the pancakes at once (make crepe batter or pull the meat from the bone the night before, for example). Total cook and prep time is about 2 hours.

The Crepe:
(makes about 15 pancakes, 8-in diameter)
1-½ cups flour
1 tsp salt
2 tsp double-acting baking powder
1 Tbl sugar
4 eggs
1-1/3 cups milk
2/3 cup water
½ tsp vanilla
1) sift dry ingredients together.
2) Create a moat in the dry and add wet ingredients, whisk together getting as many lumps out as possible
3) Refrigerate at least ½ hour
Note: if the batter gets too thick to your liking you can thin it down with water

The Filling:
Leftover meat
Leftover vegetables (zucchini, carrots, mushrooms, garlic, onions are good)
1-2 heaping spoonful(s) sour cream (the sour cream acts as a glue to hold the meat together)
salt/ pepper to taste
1) Remove meat from bones and place in a large bowl.
2) Add any leftover vegetables, sour cream, salt and pepper
3) In batches, pulse ingredients. The result should be very small bits of meat (you do not want it pureed), slightly moist and pliable from the sour cream (add more sour cream if needed).

Pancake Assemblage:
1) In a large skillet on a medium-high heat, melt a small amount of butter. When warm, add just under ¼ cup of batter. Tip the pan quickly, spreading the batter evenly and thinly around the pan. (The thinner the crepe the easier the folding.) Cook one side only about 3 minutes until lightly brown, flip off skillet, onto a plate.
2) Continue the above step, finishing the batter. In this half-cooked form, the crepes will stick if stacked on top of each other. Avoid this by placing parchment paper between each crepe.
3) Once batter is done, add filling to create pancakes.
4) On browned side of crepe, place a heaping spoonful of filling in the center. Fold crepe 4 times, forming a small square. The uncooked side of the crepe will aid in keeping the pancakes stuck together. Repeat until all crepes are filled.
5) Reheat the same skillet on medium-high heat. Fill the skillet with the stuffed pancakes to complete cooking. As the uncooked crepe side cooks, it will “glue” the pancake together. Flip once lightly browned, about 3 min. Cook on the other side about 3 min, until lightly browned.

Enjoy your taste of traditional Latvia with applesauce, sour cream, plain, warm or cold.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Savor Your Turkey Day

Being totally non-subjective, turkey is some of the best food out there. For me, it is the ultimate comfort food with a side of heaping garlic-mashed potatoes. In high school, almost every lunch I had was a roasted turkey sandwich, with mustard, lettuce, and tomato on hearty, nutty bread, and I never tired from it. When my brothers or I returned home from university, my mother was sure to have a twenty-pound bird warm and ready (even if it was an 8am arrival, no matter what season—my mother can be a bit of an insomniac). And so it is as the holiday season rolls around that I am giddy with the prospects of a fresh, juicy bird with plenty of leftovers to make my grandmother’s Latvian Pancakes (look forward to this recipe shortly). Because as any child who grew up in the U.S. and was force-fed the classic tale, ”A Christmas Story” knows, it is the dear leftovers that are most precious (or was it the leg lamp?).

This month’s New York Magazine offers a great article on how to select your holiday turkey (as well as appetizers, potatoes and vegetable accompaniments). It is complete with the ins and outs of what “natural”, “farm fresh” and all those other confusing terms that come stamped on a bird mean. It also begs the reader to beware of your standard commercial bird (like Butterball) that comes injected with butter, water and other flavorings. To kick off your holiday, I have prepared my very first, no mother aided, turkey (does the “Joy of Cooking” count as a mother?) sans vegetable accompaniment. Yes, pure bird (and stuffing).

This was a last minute rush of inspiration when D and I were hungry and craving next week’s turkey. So why not just make our own now? An 11 lb turkey at the supermarket was purchased. I wanted an organic, but my local butchers will not carry any birds until next week. I found one with “minimally” injected water, and no flavorings at the local grocer-- the next best step, I assume.

The Stuffing:
Oyster stuffing was what was really desired. After a two-hour search, no fresh oysters were found. I retreated with mushrooms, leeks (in lieu of onion), parsley, walnuts, and fresh breadcrumbs from the bakery. Here is a slightly altered “Joy of Cooking” recipe (more mushrooms and leek instead of onion):
¼ cup butter
4 cloves garlic
2 turkey livers (taken from the giblet pouch of the purchased bird), chopped
2 cups mushroom, chopped
2 small leeks, whites only, chopped (or onion)
4 cups bread crumbs
3 eggs
1 cup celery, chopped
½ cup fresh parsley, chopped
½ cup walnuts or pecans, chopped
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp dried basil (or tarragon)
½ tsp nutmeg
kosher salt/ fresh ground pepper to taste
****other filling options instead of mushroom/ onion are:
1 cup oysters
1 cup sausage
1 cup shrimp

1) Over medium heat, melt the butter. Brown the liver. Add mushrooms, garlic and leeks. Cook about 10 min until leeks are limp and mushrooms are browned.
2) In a mixing bowl, while the above is going, mix the remaining ingredients.
3) When the liver, mushroom, leek, garlic combination is done, add it to the mixing bowl and stir all ingredients evenly.

The Turkey:
As I said, an 11 pounder was bought.
1) Remove from packaging, wash, and set it in a large pan.
2) Remove the giblet package, and stuff solid with the above stuffing. Insert your own meat thermometer into the meat, away from the bone (I think these are better judges of actual temperature than the cheap plastic pop-up that come in some meats).
3) Melt a generous dollop of butter and soak it up with a piece of cheesecloth. Cover the breast meat (not the drumsticks) with the buttered cloth (this is to keep moisture in the white meat and to-be-removed when there is 30 min cook time remaining).
****Note: “Joy” states 20 min per pound as correct roasting time. Luckily, I investigated other options and found ”William Rubel’s” website helpful. He states that it is more important to concentrate on temperature. While “Joy” states 180F is proper for a finished bird (and 160F for stuffing), Rubel suggests 140F to keep the white meat moist and “no more”. No brining was done. Neither “Joy” nor Rubel recommend it, as the salt from brining is absorbed into the turkey and it loses the natural flavors.
4) The bird entered the oven on the middle rack at 5pm (we were expecting dinner around 9pm per “Joy’s” min per pound analysis. The extra stuffing, set in a casserole dish, was placed to the side of the turkey, uncovered (it should have been covered)
5) After 30 min the bird was removed and a first round of basting was performed. Casserole dish of stuffing removed.
6) Another 30 min, the bird removed again for another round of basting.
7) Another 30 min lapse, basting again. The temperature was already up to 150F. I removed the cheesecloth and decided 20 min more cook time to brown the breast.
8)The bird was removed just before 7pm, at 160F in the meat and 140F stuffing. This equals about 10min per pound cook time.

The Gravy:
This is a quick, improvised recipe that worked very well. While my mother always makes a delicious clear, broth-like mushroom gravy, D declared a thick southern gravy was the only thing that would work. A combination (slightly on the thick side) was made and D was very happy with the added mushroom chunks:
3-4 mushroom buttons, chopped
1 small white onion, chopped
1 large clove garlic, crushed
juices from turkey
1 heaping Tbl flour
milk to preferred consistency
1) In saucepan melt a tab of butter. Brown the mushrooms, onion and garlic slowly (about 8 min)
2) Add all turkey juices (I poured it straight from the baking pan into the saucepan, careful not to topple the bird onto the floor)
3) Bring to a boil then reduce heat, add flour. Remove from heat and stir vigorously to evenly distribute flour. Add milk to thin out to preferred consistency.

The Result:
I am an amazing turkey chef! I kid you not. Who needs a mother to cook a turkey when you have me?

Okay, so the separate casserole of stuffing was a bit dry. Otherwise, everything else was delicious, moist and perfect. I think the dry casserole stuffing (while still edible) would have been good with about ½ cup chicken stock added pre-baking. The stuffing that cooked in the bird was perfect though (do not add stock to this. The natural turkey juices soak right in). It clumped well and was moist. The celery remained crispy and refreshing. The nuts were a delicious surprise and the mushrooms were meaty.

Now, the turkey-- oh, the turkey! As I said, marvelous. The white meat was perfect -- moist, tender, oozing with juices, finger-licking good. It might not look so good in the picture (does it? I tried to get a close up of the juices in the second picture), but it was. And to think of it: enough dark meat to save for the above mentioned, much desired, Latvian pancakes (even better than this turkey, I kid you not).

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Roasted Tomato Soup

This summer I grew a measly tomato garden. My poor excuse for a front yard (a 10 ft x 10 ft patch of weeds and malnourished dirt) is obstructed by a large tree and receives little light. So I did the next best thing and planted 5 large plastic tubs with fresh, nourishing dirt, the little tomato plants I had started inside, and stuck them on the small cement walkway between my house and my neighbor's which receives barely more light. They grew slow and I would walk down my block to gaze longingly at other gardens. These other gardens contained plump bulging specimens of peppers, zucchini and tomatoes. There were so many tomatoes in one garden, that the older man who lives there (I have often seen him working in his garden) set a basket of his ripening tomatoes on his windowsill that overlooks his garden, grabbing at them as desired. I would poke my fingers through his chicken wire, attempting to touch the magic, hoping some of it would rub off onto my hands and into my tomatoes.

Not that I am a bad gardener. I am quite good. As a child, this was the route (the plastic tubs) I took to growing my own garden on the small, sunny porch off my bedroom. (I lived in front of woods and often lost crop to deer and other foragers until I moved my garden upstairs.) But the key is sunlight, which I receive little of here on my Astoria plot. So little light, I have contemplated growing lights and moving the whole operation indoors.

This summer was not only a battle with the sun or the intense heat it was the meddlers-- the squirrels and neighborhood hooligans who think stealing a young woman's homegrown tomatoes is funny business. I would stare out my window at the few reddening globes, debating whether to pick it before the squirrels got their chance. I would say, "one more day," and would walk outside the next morning to find my prize had disappeared. The neighborhood hooligans, I now suspect, are not teenagers, but older women. I say this because I saw one just yesterday stealing some of my mums from the front patch. I was so befuddled that I could not even knock on the window to alert her to my watching. I could not believe someone's grandmother was stealing my mums and stuffing them quickly into her plastic bag purse. Was this the same woman that walked by a few months earlier while I was tending my tomatoes, paused and said, "oh, what beautiful tomatoes you have my dear"?!

But I still love tomato soup with some good cheese and bread on the side (grilled cheese even) for dipping. This recipe is a perfect spicy garlic-basil blend that smells amazing while cooking and goes well with a glass of wine (I had mine with an inexpensive, but good, Mondavi Merlot). Never be afraid to make too much soup. After eating, I like to store mine in single serving size tupperware and freeze them. When I'm going into work I grab some fruit, whatever soup is handy, stop by the bakery for some fresh bread and there is lunch. The soup is frozen so it does not escape the container and tastes even better warmed up. Plus, whomever is nearby that can smell the creation always asks where it was purchased. Sorry, this is homemade, and they walk away sulking.

Serving Size: 6; 1 hr
3 lbs (about 9 medium sized) tomatoes, quartered and stemmed but not deseeded
12 large garlic cloves, peeled and whole
1/4 cup + 2 Tbl ev olive oil
1/4 cup good balsamic vinegar
1 large white onion, chopped
2-1/2 cups lightly packed fresh basil
1- 15 oz can unsalted/ unseasoned tomato sauce
kosher salt/ fresh ground pepper to taste

1) Preheat oven to 450F. In a pyrex baking dish (or other non-reactive baking dish), lay out the quartered tomatoes, pour 1/4 cup olive oil and the balsamic vinegar over the top, and sprinkle the garlic around the mixture. Dust with salt/ pepper to taste. Bake for 45 min, uncovered, until tomatoes begin to blacken in spots.
2) After 30 min of the tomatoes baking, warm a large pot over medium heat on the stovetop. Add the 2 Tbl ev olive oil and onions when warm. Sautee for 10 min until soft and clear. Add fresh basil and allow to wilt, about 2 min.
3) Add the tomato sauce and roasted tomatoes with juices to the pot. Turn up heat slightly and allow to simmer 10 min.
4) With a handheld cordless blender (or regular blender), puree the mixture until smooth. Return to heat and simmer another 10 min.
5) After dishing into bowls for serving, you can add a little cream or milk to cool the soup down and make it a little creamy. Alternatively, this would be good with a little goat cheese added to the bowls. Add a fresh basil leaf as garnish. Serve with good crusty bread, good cheese, some olives and a glass of wine.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Pork Chops stuffed w/ Chorizo and side of Broccoli Rabe

On a recent celebratory dinner, D, C and I went to Angus. A slightly hidden treasure in Times Square, it is an oasis in the swarms of tourists. It is where you can overhear producers discuss their upcoming musical, where you can find the washed-up actor enjoying a dinner alone at the bar, and where every meal will be perfectly served to you, possibly by the next Broadway star with a hint of attitude. Every morsel I have had there is superb-- from brunch through desserts. They know how to make a martini, as well as provide an ample mini-carafe of wine when ordered.

So with a musically inclined item to celebrate, I was escorted by two men to a cozy table on the first floor near the wall of windows, overlooking the "Phantom" marquee. Working through the day, we had neglected food, so this was also a celebration to break the fast. I ordered the small appetizer-size of mussels in a white wine cream sauce with bacon and peas, a side of frites and a pino grigio. Both men ordered the pork, stuffed with chorizo and a side of broccoli rabe.

The mussels were rich and luxurious. I plucked each mussel from its home, using an empty shell and scooped up the sauce. I dipped the frites into the sauce to sop it up, but still, the cream won and I collapsed, full, exhausted and licking the last of it off my fingers. It did not go to waste. After C had finished his pork, he grabbed the last of mine, leaving the bowl crystal clean and without need for washing. (If you know C, this is very much out of the ordinary.) D finished his portion as well, and enjoyed it so thoroughly that the southern boy in him craved it like a pregnant woman needing pickles tonight. And even though our refrigerator broke yesterday and we would not receive a replacement until tomorrow, D went out to the nearby grocery for the rabe, the Spanish deli for the chorizo, and we removed the thawing pork (purchased a few months back from Costco) for a delicious imitation of the original. Another meal I would soon collapse from, full, exhausted and licking my fingers.

Once the ingredients are purchased, the meal is quite simple to make, requires few ingredients, and takes at most 30 min (depending on the thickness of your pork). To be served with an ice cold glass of Jack and Coke.
Serving size: 2
2 pork chops (at least 1.5 inch thick)
2 chorizo links [chorizo is a Mexican sausage and should not be replaced with any American or Italian sausage. It is spicy and sweet and has a unique texture)
1 bushel broccoli rabe
1 small white onion
2 cloves garlic
salt/ pepper to taste

1) With a sharp knife, slit the pork chops along the edge, about 3/4 of the way through so you can later stuff it with the chorizo. Grind fresh pepper on each side to taste.
2) On a hot skillet, sear the pork chops. Use hot heat initially on both sides, then reduce the heat to allow cooking through. The idea is that searing keeps the juices in and the low heat slowly cooks the inside.
3) While this is cooking, slice the onion and place in a small, warm skillet for 5 min. Cut the ends off the chorizo links and push the meat out of the casing, into the skillet. Allow to cook about 10 min, stirring to ensure even cooking.
4) While the chorizo is cooking, enjoy its' sweet smell and keep watch of the chops. It is important to cook pork all the way through. You want it to turn a white hue and lose all pink. Do not get overzealous and cook too quickly, this will dry the pork out.
5) When the pork is almost done, put an ample dab of butter into a pot. Once melted, add the broccoli rabe, cover, and allow to wilt, about 10 min add kosher salt to taste.
6) While the broccoli is cooking, the pork should be close to done. Stuff the pork with chorizo. Whatever cannot be stuffed inside, put on top and around in the skillet. Cover, and cook for about 5 min. The chorizo will begin to sizzle and begin to blacken.
7) Remove, serve and prepare to lick your fingers and be thoroughly satisfied.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Pumpkin Head

When I was younger, I remember the mathematical theorems discussed regarding when to put our dear pumpkins on display. Too early and rot would attack before Halloween. Too late, and few could enjoy the artistic alterations. Then, neighborhood bullies and animals had to be added to the equation-- who would eat and who would squash my squash? Now, I'm more likely to leave my "pompon" whole, stick it in a window, and subject it to the knife when I'm good and ready to get slimy up to my elbows.

Pumpkins can be prepared in countless variations. From ravioli to soup to cakes to bread and even toasting the seeds for a good pick-me-up (although I think I prefer butternut squash seeds which are a little smaller and nuttier). My pumpkin this year is magnificent. It is, I think, the perfect pumpkin. It is the classic depressed oval with crescent dips running vertical and a knotty tuff at the top. It is a true specimen and though I dare consider embalming and preserving for children to learn and future generations to be amazed, one day, when I'm a little down, the knife will be drawn.

But now, Halloween has passed, and I still don't have the heart to put knife to beauty. Until then, my pumpkin recipes offered will consist of canned pumpkin. A poor, but easy substitute for the real thing. As per a recent request, a pumpkin bread recipe followed by pumpkin cheesecake-- pure Fall decadence. Make either of the two for your loved ones. It is appropriate with Thanksgiving and other assorted holidays up and coming. The bread makes a great breakfast with a cup of coffee, a mid-afternoon snack with some tea or milk, or a wholesome, comforting dessert. It also makes a great gift in place of those brick-like fruit cakes (I really hope no one actually still gifts those) and it keeps good and moist for days. The cheesecake on the other hand, is succulent. It is creamy, rich but fluffy and melts in the mouth.

PUMPKIN BREAD (c/o the Turner family w/ slight author alterations):
Makes 3 loaves (all the better for giving)
3- 8.5 x 4.5 x 3 loaf tins
1) Preheat oven to 350 F, grease loaf tins.
2) In large mixing bowl, sift 3 cups flour, 3 cups sugar, 2 tsp baking soda, 1.5 tsp salt (or less), 3 tsp cinnamon, 3 tsp nutmeg
3) In a medium mixing bowl, beat together 4 eggs (at room temp), 1 can (15 oz/ 2 cups) pumpkin (NOT pumpkin pie filling just plain pumpkin), 2/3 cup water, 1 tsp. vanilla.
4) Add wet to dry, stir until well blended.
5) Add 2 cups walnuts or pecans, chopped
6) Add 1 cup Crisco (or veggie oil)
7) Bake 50 min on middle rack. Check with toothpick to see if done. If not, check every 5 min or so until toothpick comes out clean.
8) Pop from tin onto cooling rack and let cool 10 min.

PUMPKIN CHEESECAKE (c/o my dear friend Liana. Eaten before pictures could be taken)
1 cup pecans
1 cup graham crackers
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted

4- 8oz packages cream cheese (low fat is fine) at room temperature
1- 15oz can pure pumpkin (again, NOT pumpkin pie filling)
1 cup sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp allspice
3 eggs
1 Tbl vanilla
Prepare Crust
1) Preheat oven to 350 F. Wrap outside of springform pan with 2 layers aluminum foil. Process pecans and graham crackers until nuts are finely chopped. Add butter, pulse until crumbs hold lightly. Firmly press crumbs on bottom of pan. Bake 10 min, until lightly golden. Set aside and allow to cool.

Prepare Filling
1) Beat cream cheese and sugar in mixing bowl until smooth.
2) Add eggs, 1 at a time. Add remaining ingredients and beat until just blended.
3) Pour filling onto crust. Place springform pan in large roasting pan, add enough water to come halfway up sides of springform.
4) Bake about 1.5 hours, until cheesecake is slightly puffed and top is golden. Transfer to rack and cool. Cover, refrigerate overnight.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Pomegranate Juice Taste-Off

This past Monday was unseasonably warm, clear and perfect. The kind of day that makes you forget winter is brewing up her cruel spell. A day that leads one (at least me) to walk across the Queensborough Bridge to view an endless skyline. In honor of these fleeting days of perfection POM Wonderful has declared November "National Pomegranate Month". The fruit is at its peak now, a fabulous winter beauty, so partake of her juices and be seduced.

I gathered four friends to kick-off the pomegranate festivities of the upcoming month for a blind juice taste testing (they were also wined and dined and held an election powwow). I picked up six pomegranate juice varietals that I was able to find with some ease and would hope others would just as well. We judged on bouquet, visual appeal, flavor and final analysis. Three were domestic juices; three imported. All were 100% juice, with no added sweeteners or flavors. (POM has added flavors but was used as a control for its mass-market reach. I wanted to add Naked's pomegranate juice to the tasting. This also contains flavorings and I went without it.)

It is interesting to note how many inferences to fish products came up during the tasting. I have never thought of pomegranate juice smelling like fish or the likes. I must say I am partial to Z's comment: "Ruby. If this were a J. Crew sweater it might even be the color 'pomegranate'". Make note that the three most expensive varieties are those available at Whole Foods and in the end, price and taste were not equal. Overall, the judges were split on the winner between #2 and #4 (POM and Pomegranate Juice). But really, whatever brand you prefer, know you are doing your body good. Pomegranates are high in Vitamins A, C, E, potassium and iron. They are one of the highest antioxidant containing fruits, thought to aid in good cholesterol production, reduce the bad, and even ward off cancer.

If you are to purchase pomegranate juice from a store, for overall bouquet, visual, flavor, final analysis and especially price, I beg you to save your money. The judges could not tell the winner from the leading market brand and neither will you. Vote POMEGRANATE JUICE (from Azerbaijan) on Election Day. On a serious note, nothing can compare to a real pomegranate or fresh-squeezed juice (the natural color of which is clear pinkish-rose with a slight seedy flavor). All the juices tasted are overly concentrated, and much too syrupy sweet. Interesting enough, ILG, an importer, rather than juice producer won the tasting. It had a bouquet of light, fresh pomegranates. It was the clear, garnet color we as consumers have come to expect from pomegranates. It offers a juicy, rather than seedy or earthy flavor and is palatable, rather than the bitter or tart shocks that crossed our palates on some tastings. Herewith, the lineup and bone breaking analysis (in order of random numbered, blind testing):

1) Just Pomegranate. Produced by R.W. Krudsen in California. Purchased at local organic grocery, available at Whole Foods. $6.99 for 32 oz.
2) POM Wonderful. Produced by POM Wonderful in California. Purchased at local organic grocery, available at Whole Foods. $3.99 for 16 oz.
3) Sameco. Produced by Sameco Corp. in Azerbijan. Purchased at organic grocery (not my local one). $4.50 for 25.4 oz.
4) Pomegranate Juice. Produced in Azerbijan, imported by ILG International. Purchased at regular local grocery [on a whim 1 month ago when the grocer told me "Yes, very good. You will love it". $4.99 for 33.8 oz.
5) Lakewood Pomegranate Juice. Produced by Lakewood Juices in Florida. Purchased at local organic grocery, available at Whole Foods. $9.99 for 32 oz.
6) King Pomegranate Juice (also goes by Crown). Producer/ importer unknown in Azerbijan. Purchased at local Mediterranean deli. $1.50 for 8 oz.

The Judges:
D. Juice-lover.
MK. General food disposal, and lover of fruits and vegetables.
MT. Connoisseur of all things food.
Z. Fruit-lover (thanks for the clementines).
S. Pomegranate and general food snob.

The Tastings (listed as (B)ouquet; (V)isual; (F)lavor; Final (A)nalysis):
D. (B) clam, vinegar; (V) ruddy, chalky, turbid; (F) bitter, slight tannic fruit; (A) tannic.
MK. (B) oaky, stemmy; (V) milky wine; (F) bittersweet; (A) stemmy.
MT. (B) fishy, artichoky, acidic; (V) dense; (F) not much aftertaste, bland (A) n/p.
Z. (B) pungent; (V) brown, colloid-- not clear; (F) dry aftertaste, very seedy, dries your tongue (A) n/p.
S. (B) fruity dirt; (V) earthy, purple, residual; (F) more seedy than pulp; (A) dry seedy.

D. (B) neutral distinct fruit-- "a wind through orchards"; (V) ruby strawberry; (F) juicy, slightly viscous tasty berries, fruity; (A) edge of bitter.
MK. (B) flowery, tropical; (V) my outer blood; (F) sweet, cranberry-esque; (A) initial sweetness w/ bitter tertiary.
MT. (B) fruity, less acidic, full; (V) looks like seal color, warm; (F) nice after-taste, refreshing sugary; (A) n/p.
Z. (B) cranberry juice, weak smell; (V) ruby, if this were a j. crew sweater it might even be the color "pomegranate"; (F) much sweeter, still dry though tastes like cranberry; (A) n/p.
S. (B) perfect pom match; (V) clear, deep garnet; (F) a little sweet/ syrupy but definite pure pulp; (A) Sweet.

D. (B) vinegar, rotten crabs; (V) maple syrup; (F) harsh, woody, failed fermentation; (A) n/p.
MK. (B) ruddy dirt; (V) brown water; (F) fermented bubbly; (A) winey, bitter vinegar.
MT. (B) sardines; (V) brownish-red, less dense; (F) awful aftertaste, flat than moldy; (A) n/p.
Z. (B) browner (but not -est) but clear, dark apple cider; (V) nasty; (F) similar to #1,seedy; (A) n/p.
S. (B) tart, stemmy; (V) pink-brown, slight orange, deep cider; (F) hard to swallow, tart, grimy, more stem than pulp/ seed; (A) bitter earth.

D. (B) light fruit, mild; (V) cranberry hue; (F) sweet, tasty juice, something missing; (A) more like juice.
MK. (B) juicy; (V) amber; (F) syrupy; (A) overly sweet.
MT. (B) slightly fishy, fruity, cool; (V) deeper burgundy; (F) refreshing, very good, easy aftertaste, citrusy; (A) n/p.
Z. (B) amber in light, but MK claims it is the bulbs being used; (V) weak odor, slightly sweet like honey; (F) sweet but still pomegranatey, no dry taste; (A) n/p.
S. (B) subtle pomegranate; (V) deep crystal ruby; (F) sweet cranberry trails; (A) juicy.

D. (B) strong tannic fruit, slightly displeasing; (V) most ruby, slight CTO 80; (F) grapefruit overtones, complex citrus, oaky; (A) pucker your lips.
MK. (B) flowery; (V) residual deposits, ruby wine; (F) bitter; (A) tart, too dry, bitter.
MT. (B) strong, full; (V) ruddy red; (F) lingering aftertaste, oily texture like wet meat on tongue; (A) n/p.
Z. (B) much darker, dense color; (V) like grapefruit, sweet like honey; (F) dryish, sweet w/ slight bitter aftertaste; (A) n/p.
S. (B) bitter, dry, fruity; (V) muddied red-orange; (F) sweet, subtle; (A) dry sweet.

D. pungent smelly-like pomegranate soap overtones; (V) faded red lace, rust; (F) really tart, pucker lemon; (A) accurate portrayal of the fruit.
MK. (B) ; (V) purple-brown; (F) vinegary; (A) overly bitter, dry, tart
MT. (B) anchovy, fruit; (V) oakish, deep red; (F) silky, bitter; (A) n/p.
Z. (B) very brown, Pine-Sol; (V) chemical sort of cleaning product; (F) sharp/ acrid weird seed taste, very strong; (A) n/p.
S. (B) tart, seedy; (V) marshy red-brown; (F) tart, seedy, sweet; (A) dry, tart.

*** An ammendment to the taste-off: D would like to add that after careful consideration, and tasting of the leftovers in the fridge, Just Pomegranate is "pretty darn good and close to the natural pomegranate essence," He would also like to note that they all taste good when mixed together. (Produced by R.W. Krudsen in California. Purchased at local organic grocery, available at Whole Foods. $6.99 for 32 oz.)

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Party Leftovers

Last weekend there was a grand "Autumnal Fiesta" at my home. The people were fabulous, conversation was grand, and the food...succulent. As we all know, any party is only as good as the above mentioned. But, as with any properly planned party, there were leftovers. Many leftovers. In fact, we are still eating our way through the leftovers (so if anyone would like to come over and partake in the leftovers, you are welcome).

Here, a delicious Leftover Brunch Fritatta, the jist:
1) On a warm skillet, carmelize a small onion, when almost done, add mushroom and zucchini, cook for 5-10 min covered until zucchini is softand mushrooms are brown. 2) Add red pepper, fresh basil (4-5 large leaves), roasted pulled pork, sprinkle of cumin, pinch of cayenne, salt/pepper to taste, stir to distribute. 3) Beat 3 eggs with a little milk, pour over top. 4) Turn down heat and allow to cook SLOWLY (an overcooked egg is surely a faux-pas). 5) Stick it in the broiler for a crispy finish.

Here is another one. A lunch/ dinner item for you, though it looks rather grisly in the picture, it was good, and would have been better with a side of green vegetables if we had the time (we were off to a show and threw this together): Honey-Glazed Fried Chicken with Pomegranate.

As easy as it sounds, fry up some chicken, glaze with real honey, sprinkle with pomegranate. If you need a good batter for frying, let me know and it shall be provided. Oh, and here was the menu for the party, for all interested:

** Spiced Cheese Fondue. Served w/ pear, apple, potato, bread, fried mushrooms, turkey sausage, brussel sprouts, celery and carrots.
** Spicy Orange Hummus (a new recipe that was excellent), same dippers as above
** Asparagus Wrapped in Prochiuto
** Brie and Spinach Pastry Melt
** Cheese Platter
** David's "Winter Squash Fiesta"
** Pulled BBQ Pork on Pumperknickel
** Pumpkin Bread
** Dried Apricots Dipped in Dark Chocolate
** Mulled Wine

Saturday, November 05, 2005

A Taste of Eden

I can remember the first time I tried this bizarre fruit. I had often seen them in grocery stores and my thoughts were always that they were in the squash family. After all, they do appear sort of squashish. I must have been around twelve when I was seated around that kitchen table. I can remember it was just after a soccer game. I cannot remember if we won or lost. I cannot remember who the others were that surrounded me at the table. I do remember the Goddess that imparted her knowledge of this other wordly fruit upon me. She was tall, motherly (not my mother), and had long hair, the color of autumn bark that fell in large, heavy ringlets framing her face.

If I dig deep enough, I can almost remember a heavenly glow that illuminated her as she picked up the fruit and sat us around the table. She did not say anything, but sliced through that thick, leathery, scarlet skin. The blood of the seeds spread in a puddle at the base of the fruit and out dropped a few glistening pulps. I was amazed. How could such an exterior produce such a marvelous interior? (I would later learn Mother Nature has her way with this when it comes to fruits and vegetables.) I was given a few rubies and eagerly popped them in my mouth. The juice was amazing. Giddy at my new discovery, I reached out for more...

The pomegranate truly is an ethereal fruit. It is not native to North America, though is now grown in California and some parts of Arizona. I think the best arrive to us from their origin in Iran and other reaches of the Mediterranean, over to India and into the Himalayas. They mature when most other bounty of summer has faded, best from October to February. The trees are a beautiful spectacle to witness in person. (I came upon some recently in China when I was amazed at seeing fields upon fields of light green maturing pomegranates. I was told they were for local consumption-- how lucky they are!) And when you stand under one, it as if you are transplanted to the Garden of Eden...

The apple, though an equally lovely and quite a delicacy itself, is not native to the warm climates of the Fertile Crescent and Mediterranean. Though it is widely believed that Eve ate an apple from the tree, many argue it was actually a pomegranate (though what an akward image of Eve having to tear through the skin rather than lightly bite into an apple). Michael Pollan in his Botany of Desire, makes note of this fact as well. I like to think it was the pomegranate-- A rare, delicious discovery of sweet fruity granate!

In Spain, they are known as "granada". In France, it is "grenade" and where we receive the namesake grenadine syrup. (When I was younger I always thought grenadine syrup was the sweet syrup of cherries.) In the Middle East, it is not pomegranate syrup that is popular, but pomegranate molasses (and can be found in many local Mediterranean groceries). It is a delicious addition to most any meat dish (amongst other things). I recently roasted a chicken spread with homemade sundried tomato-basil pesto and drizzled with pomegranate molasses (very easy and surprisingly decadent for chicken). But, if I must use pomegranate molasses again, I wish to be transported back in time. I wish to re-create myself sitting in my bathing suit around the table of some of my best friends. My skin sun-kissed and salty, at a dinner of Egyptian feta, olives and homemade grape leaves stuffed with lamb, wild rice, and pomegranate molasses, beside the calm, warm waters of the Red Sea on the Sin'ai Peninsula at dusk. That is my Eden where I'll happily dine on the forbidden fruit whenever asked.

Just Braise

Many of the food names I desired have long been snatched up-- and funny enough, many were "unavailable", yet I saw no blog at the site. So here it is: Braise. But why "Braise" out of all the other cooking words out there? Well, for one, braise is fun to say. Would you like it braised, baked or grilled? What does it mean anyway? Do you think people that say it know? Or do they say it to sound like a food snob? Or because it's French? Or plain fun to say? Let's say this is titled after someone I know. Someone who was ordering a salmon sandwich over the phone and this was the basic conversation I overheard:

"Hello, I would like to place an order."
"Delivery. Uh huh...[address provided]..."
"The Salmon Sandwich, please."
"Oh, well... just braised, of course."

The phone was hung up and when I could stop laughing I turned to C and asked, "Do you know what braised means?" The answer: "I don't know, my mom makes it that way"

So with this food blog I do not attempt to pass along esoteric food knowledge, difficult-to-prepare, or extremely lengthy food preparations (there may be the odd one or two). For the most part, I like to be able to pronounce what I am making (and assume you, dear reader, do as well). I like to whip something up, without spending all day in the kitchen (though some items will cook for a good part of the day in the kitchen). From time to time, I like to impress my friends with delicious dishes that they believe took forever to make and I can say, "Oh, it was nothing really. You are worth it." So with that, I leave the food to you...

Fast Basic Braise: Brown your meat, poultry or fish in hot fat. Add some tasty extra to the pot (chopped tomato, wine, veggie juice), lower heat and cover. Cook until meat is good and tender, complete with a delicious sauce accompaniment.

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