Stories and recipes: what better way to learn about the culture of a people who live in a distant land?
In The Honey Thief Najaf Mazari spins a series of tales, taken from the centuries-long oral tradition of his tribe, the Hazara. A native of Afghanistan ( he escaped the Taliban in 2000, and lives in Australia) , he partnered with writer and friend Robert Hillman to give a permanent voice to the spoken lore of the war-torn nation’s third largest ethnic group.
Centered on characters, some ancient, some modern day: Among the cast, you’ll be introduced to a musician with extraordinary levitating talents, a wise and patient beekeeper, a revered Master Poisoner, and a boy with an uncanny gift for attracting riches. The stories are unusual and beguiling, have elements of magic and wonder. There are struggles, heartaches, and triumphs. There is laughter. There is hope.
The stories speak, too, of the Hazara love of their land, of its natural beauty.
“I could take you places in the north close to the Oxus river that would steal your breath away; places that you would not believe could exist as I lead you through an arid landscape of broken rock and red sand and stunted bushes. Then you would suddenly find yourself gazing down from a mountain pass on the river shining under a blue sky and a green carpet climbing up the slopes. And you would think, ‘Ah! This is Paradise!”
And, while I would encourage you to take delight in exploring this world through these tales, I think you’ll also be drawn in by Mazari’s discussion of the cooking of the Hazara. He devotes a couple of chapters to his people’s diet, their pantry of staples, and some favored dishes.
What I especially enjoyed about delving into these food chapters is that Mazari’s voice is so clear and present in the narrative. Ingredients and specialty dishes are described in a humorous and engaging manner. It’s like he is right there with you in the kitchen, talking you through the recipe.
Take, for example, his Lamb with Spinach, which I chose to make. It is a dish of celebrations, always served at weddings.
“With this dish,” he writes, “your jaws and teeth get a holiday. The lamb has to melt in your mouth and just the pressure of your palate will bring out all the flavour that the meat has absorbed from the spices and herbs. So, good lamb, no excuses, cut from the leg, one-and-a-half kilos.”
I’ve transcribed his recipe in a more traditional American way,
but it is faithful to his instructions. He calls for “pinches” of seasonings, for instance–for which I have given teaspoon measurements. In this regard, he says, “You judge.”
Lamb is prepared in a gentle saute, its delectable taste enhanced in a steady building of flavors and spice. You don’t want these to obscure the flavor of the lamb, or overwhelm it. Onions are critical in Afghan cooking and impart earthy sweetness. Garlic is important too, added with more restraint.
One-by-one, fragrant spices–turmeric, cinnamon, cardamom, and nutmeg– are stirred into the stew. Stock, tomatoes, and their juices give the meat a medium in which to bathe and tenderize.
After a turn in the oven, the lamb is ready for its final touches–spinach, lemon zest, and a “proper” yogurt (NOT that foolish kind with strawberries and bananas, Mazari cajoles!)
What emerges is a rich lamb stew, complex in spicing, melt-away in texture. Because I like heat, I added some cayenne, (not too much, Mazari cautions) which elevates all of the taste layers.
How fine to dine in an Afghan tradition. Sabzi Gosht is indeed Feast-worthy!
SABZI GOSHT (LAMB WITH SPINACH) adapted from The Honey Thief by Najaf Mazari and Robert Hillman
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 lbs. lamb, cut from the leg into 1″ cubes
2 large yellow onions, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cardamom
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne (optional)
1 cup beef stock
5 large ripe tomatoes, or 1 28 oz. can plum tomatoes
1 bunch fresh baby spoon spinach
1 cup plain yogurt
zest from 1 lemon
1/3 cup toasted pine nuts
Warm olive oil on medium heat in a heavy-duty pot–best if the pot can go from stovetop to oven. You’ll begin by sauteing in stages.
Add lamb and begin to brown the meat–don’t crowd the pieces.
Stir in the diced onion and continue sauteing for a few minutes. Stir in the garlic.
One by one, stir in the spices—turmeric, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom—and then stir in the black pepper and salt.
Add the tomatoes and cook for another 3-4 minutes.
Pour in stock. Stir well.
Cover and place in the oven, preheated to 300 degrees.
Allow the lamb to cook for for 1 1/2-2 hours.
Remove from oven and stir in the spinach. The heat will collapse and cook the leaves.
Fold in plain yogurt and lemon zest.
Taste for salt and seasonings.
Let the stew “settle” for about 15 minutes–allow the flavors to marry.
Serve over basmati rice and garnish with toasted pine nuts.
Makes 6 servings.
Cauliflower Cauliflower Cauliflower
Lately this cruciferous vegetable, a beautiful mind, a compact head of rumbled white curd, has been The Thing
The Veggie King !
Raw, roasted, boiled, steamed, sauteed,
it has turned up in all kinds of dishes that I have eaten at restaurants, or read about in blogs, or cooked at home.
What was once commonly boiled into oblivion and buttered, or chopped into florets and tossed onto a tray with other crudites and dip, has taken on new respect and new dimension.
At Etch, a forward restaurant in our downtown area, chef Deb Paquette makes magic with that vegetable. A recent lunch special featured a riff on an egg salad sandwich–using blanched cauliflower. The components–aioli, mustard, capers, onions, celery, and olives–all cloaked the “curd” in what had the feel and flavor of egg salad,
but no eggs.
Trust me, it was an improvement over an egg salad sandwich.
She also serves raw cauliflower curds broken into granules and folded with creamy feta to spread on a crostini. Incredible.
Our food blogging friends have made terrific contributions of late, as well.
Check ‘em out:
Rachel made a lush casserole, “cauli-cheese” where the florets melt under a blanket of perfectly made bechamel.
Faith roasted a head generously doused in her “bloomin” Indian spices.
Over at Food 52, the editors highlighted slabs of cauliflower, grilled like steaks.
It’s a testament to good change, creativity,
And the versatile meaty nature of this vegetable.
I have one to toss into the fray: roasted cauliflower with sweet red pepper sauce over vegetarian brown rice, dusted with buttery Marcona almonds, and chopped scallions.
The recipe is simple–and points more to technique than ingredients. But it yields a delicious main-dish meal that satisfies many dietary concerns.
Not only vegetarian, it is vegan AND gluten-free.
But “meaty” enough to make us omnivores happy too.
The recipe is in three parts, but easily accomplished in about the same time. (it won’t challenge your multi-tasking too much!)
While you’re roasting the grand florets, simply brushed with good olive oil and sea salt, you can also roast red bell peppers, onions, and garlic on a separate tray. As the nubbed edges of curd get that compelling brown crisp, red bells and company get charred and candied.
Caramel sweetness all around.
Meanwhile, make the brown rice.
I admit; I have shunned brown rice, and wrongly so. It stuck in my mind that it takes too long to cook. I also believe that I had one too many dishes of it, improperly prepared. You’ve probably experienced it too–either undercooked and waaaaay too chewy, or underseasoned and overcooked: gummy and insipid.
This recipe is more about technique. When you soak and rinse the brown rice and “scrub” the grains between your fingers, it helps to soften the outer husk. Cooking in vegetable broth helps infuse more flavor. I discovered that it takes less liquid and less time to cook, and yields savory rice, not clumpy, but plump nutlike grains.
This rice, which we know is better for you, is now a pleasure to eat.
CAULIFLOWER WITH ROASTED RED PEPPER PUREE, BROWN RICE, MARCONA ALMONDS
1 large head cauliflower, cleaned, and cut into large florets
olive oil, to brush over florets
salt and black pepper to sprinkle over florets
to garnish later:
1/2 cup Marcona almonds
1/4 cup chopped scallions
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Place cauliflower pieces onto a baking sheet and brush with olive oil.
Sprinkle salt and black pepper over the pieces.
Roast until caramelized, about 15 minutes.
Keep cauliflower warm in the oven (set on 200) until time to assemble the dish.
ROASTED SWEET RED BELL PEPPER SAUCE
2 red bell peppers, cut in half, seeded
½ medium onion, cut into chunks
3 cloves garlic
salt and black pepper
¼ teaspoon cayenne
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Brush red pepper halves with olive oil and place on baking sheet.
Brush onion chunks with olive oil and place next to pepper halves.
Coat garlic cloves with olive oil and place underneath pepper halves.
Sprinkle with salt and black pepper.
Roast until the pepper skins get blackened and blistered—about 15 minutes.
Cool and remove skins.
Place roasted peppers, onions, garlic, and any residual oil into a food processor fitted with a swivel blade.
Add ¼ teaspoon (or less) of cayenne, if desired.
Process until smooth.
Keep sauce warm in a saucepan on the stovetop.
SAVORY BROWN RICE IN VEGETABLE BROTH
1 1/4 cups brown rice
2 cups vegetable stock
Place rice in a large bowl and cover with water. Let this sit for 5-10 minutes.
Stir the grains around in the bowl—you’ll notice that the water has become cloudy.
Return the rice to the bowl and cover with fresh water.
Dip your hand into the bowl, and rub the grains between your thumb and fingers, “scrubbing” the grains. Drain.
Place rice in a large saucepan. Stir in vegetable stock. Bring to a boil.
Cover and simmer for 25 minutes. Turn off heat and let the rice sit and steam for another 10 minutes.
Fluff with a fork and serve.
Makes 2 1/2 cups cooked rice
Place a layer of cooked brown rice on the bottom of a casserole or baking dish. Nap a layer of roasted red pepper sauce over the rice, and nestle the roasted cauliflower pieces into the sauce. Dot remaining sauce over the cauliflower, garnish with marcona almonds and cilantro.
POST SCRIPT: Several of you have been very kind to check on me, in my blogging absence. I’m happy to report that I am making excellent progress on the cookbook, which has taken so much of my attention. I’m seeing an end point–and ahead of my May deadline. So, with luck, I’ll be around here a bit more. Nancy
What started out in the summer of 2009 as an experiment to foster community and share good food has continued to bring together 25 or so folks and their delectable contributions—- now going on 4 years. In fact, we’ll be gathering at Gigi’s next week, making it our 40th feast, since inception.
Our group has been fairly fluid. We have the stalwarts, potluckers who would never miss coming, unless some dire circumstance arose. Others attend multiple times a year, and there are a few whose smiling faces we see only now and then. People have rotated in and out; big change, be it marriage, divorce, job transfer, graduate school, health issues, new baby—Life—is mirrored in that rotation.
And, new people, enthusiastic about cooking and sharing, continue to join in the fun.
Over the years, we’ve made many friends and had terrific meals. We kept a loose journal, a place where each month, guests would sign in and write down the name of their dish. It didn’t take long for us to see what was happening. So many fresh, creative, seasonal contributions, running the gamut of salads, soups, entrees, hors d’oeuvres, casseroles, desserts, and cocktails showed up at the table. In the quest for good food and community, I think we achieved Gigi’s intention.
And, an unintended result: a cookbook deal.
I am happy to report that The Third Thursday Community Potluck Cookbook is slated to be published by Thomas Nelson in Spring 2014. (Thomas Nelson is a local publishing house acquired last summer by Harper Collins.) It will have a collection of stories and recipes that elevate the potluck dinner from ordinary to extraordinary.
I am the cookbook’s author. I am ecstatic.
For quite some time now, I have been busy collecting the recipes, testing and editing them, and writing the accompanying headnotes, tips, and stories. My deadline is May 21st–just a little over 4 months to complete and deliver the manuscript.
I’m making good, steady progress. I am not panicked. Yet.
However, those demands have placed some restraints on the time that I have to spend with you here.
No worries, I’ll still be around, checking in, reading your posts and giving you updates on my cooking world, be it in or outside the cookbook.
In the meantime, I thought I’d share a recipe that I recently recreated for the book.
I say “recreated” because the person who conceived the dish and brought it to potluck doesn’t remember exactly how she made it. She just relayed the ingredient list and general instructions to me. What I remembered was that it was a delicious dish using three types of sweet potato. Like many of our potluck offerings, it was a little step up and away from the usual–always welcome—and therefore worth pursuing.
There are so many kinds of sweet potatoes available at the market these days, sporting peels and flesh of different hues, with names like Jewel, Garnet, Boniato, Star Leaf, or Beauregard. While they all cook in about the same amount of time, they vary in taste and texture.
The orange Beaureguard from Louisiana tastes a little sweeter than the creamy white Star Leaf. The Star Leaf and Boniato have firmer, drier texture, reminiscent of regular potatoes. The Garnet has a beautiful deep red exterior.
It’s fun and flavorful to use a trio in a dish.
Roasted together they make a simple, savory ensemble, appealing both to eye and palate. And, this glaze melding dried apricots, leeks, and balsamic vinegar painted over the planks brings a bit more excitement: that step up and away from the usual we all relish.
SWEET POTATO TRIO WITH DRIED APRICOT-LEEK-BALSAMIC GLAZE
2 each: Garnet, Jewel, Boniato sweet potatoes (about 5 lbs.)
½ cup dried apricots, cut into slivers
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 leek, cleaned and cut into ½ “ pieces
½ cup flat leaf parsley, chopped, plus some for garnishing
coarse ground black pepper
Scrub and rinse the sweet potatoes. Cut into planks or wedges, like steak fries. Toss in olive oil and lay out on a baking sheet. Sprinkle with kosher salt and bake in a preheated 375 degree oven until tender with crispy browned edges—about 25 minutes.
Heat balsamic vinegar and pour over slivered apricots in a bowl.
Heat a skillet on medium and add olive oil. Put in leeks and sauté until softened and somewhat translucent—about 4 minutes. Stir in ½ cup parsley, and then apricots in balsamic. Remove from heat.
Arrange roasted sweet potato planks in layered circular fashion, mandala-like, in a round baking dish. Spoon apricot-leek-balsamic glaze over the layers and top. Garnish with chopped parsley. Serve warm or room temperature.
Acorn Squash Rings stuffed with Sorghum Apples and Pecans
Yukon Gold-Sweet Potato Gratin
There’s a thin line to walk at family holiday gatherings, where Traditions and The New intersect. Expectations for the Usual vie for their place at the Thanksgiving table, as does the Desire for Something Different. If you are like me, you would never dream of replacing the roast turkey. Oh, I’ve refined my recipe over the years. And I’ve completely veered away from how I had it prepared, growing up.
Back in the day, my dad was in charge of cooking the turkey. He would cover the entire bird with bacon strips, which would essentially baste it as it roasted. When done, the bacon was practically annealed onto the golden brown skin. He’d cook it early in the day, let it rest before carving, and saunter off to the den to watch a football game.
Crazed with hunger, we kids would sneak into the kitchen, and greedily pick off the bacon strips, which couldn’t help but tear things up. With a piece of bacon came a piece of skin, oops, and then a hunk of meat. By the time the poor turkey reached the table, it was a rather ravaged looking carcass.
Much as we all loved the bacon, no one missed the “bacon-turkey” when I took over the helm of holiday hosting. My replacement, a garlic-sage-butter baste (slathered under the turkey skin) is much-loved, and arrives like a showpiece on the table.
But, no turkey? Unthinkable! There would upheaval, shouts of betrayal, dejection.
However, times change; diets and tastes change.
When you want to introduce something really new, that’s where the side dishes come in.
When our Third Thursday Community Potluck meets in November, it is a serendipitous convenience that it is held exactly one week before Thanksgiving. (always the fourth Thursday!) Our guests come bearing a bounty of intriguing dishes, ideal for holiday serving. I’m sharing two favorites with you today, for your consideration. Both are vegetarian and gluten-free, one is suitable for vegans. Bearing in mind shifting dietary needs, these are sure to please everyone.
The first dish combines Yukon Gold potatoes and sweet potatoes, peeled, thinly sliced, and layered in a gratin. I love the random look of the overlapping orange and yellow discs. And, grating fresh nutmeg over each layer imparts a subtle spicy note.
The liquid in which these potatoes cook is half-and-half infused with shallots, chives, and flat leaf parsley. Shredded Gruyere cheese enrichens the dish, beautifully melting throughout the layers. If you can locate Comte, an artisanal French cheese that is possibly better than Gruyere, I recommend it.
The layers meld as they bake, but the naturally (and barely) sweet tastes of both potatoes shine through.
YUKON GOLD-SWEET POTATO-GRATIN
4-5 tablespoons butter, softened
2 shallots, diced
2 cups half-and-half
2 heaping tablespoons fresh Italian parsley, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh chives, finely chopped
1 teaspoons sea salt
½ teaspoon white pepper
whole nutmeg—for finely grating
1 ½ lbs. Yukon Gold potatoes, cleaned
1 ½ lbs. sweet potatoes, cleaned
1 ½ cups Gruyere cheese, shredded
¼ cup grated Parmegianno-Regianno
13”x9” deep baking dish
Using one tablespoon of the butter, coat the baking dish.
In a saucepan on medium heat, sauté the shallots in three tablespoons butter until translucent. Add the half-and-half, parsley, chives, salt, and white pepper. Stir well until warmed. Remove from heat.
Peel Yukon gold and sweet potatoes. Slice very thin (1/8’) and layer the bottom of the baking dish in overlapping circles. It’s fine to layer them randomly—a few slices of one potatoes, followed by the other. Grate some fresh nutmeg over the slices.
Stir and cover with a thin layer of seasoned half-and half. Sprinkle with ½ cup Gruyere. Repeat with another layer of sliced potatoes, arranged in similar fashion. Follow with grated nutmeg. Cover again with more liquid, followed by Gruyere. Press down with the back of a wooden spoon to make sure the liquid seeping through all the overlapping slices.
Finish with final of sliced potatoes, half-and-half, remaining cheeses. Dot the top with remaining butter.
Cover with aluminum foil and baking in a preheated 375 degree oven for 30 minutes.
Uncover and finish baking for another 15-20 minutes, until casserole is browned, and potatoes feel tender when pierced.
The acorn squash rings make a pretty presentation, and couldn’t be simpler to make. Here in the South, we love sorghum, which adds a mineral sweetness to the apple stuffing. But other syrups would work just as readily. Maple syrup would be a terrific choice.
Apples and winter squashes always pair well. Choose a firm, tart apple, like Granny Smith or Jonathan or Ginger Gold. Pecan pieces and diced shallots are folded with apples, the pecans become toasted in the bake.
Wishing you all a very Happy Thanksgiving.
If you are traveling, travel safely. Enjoy one another’s company, and dine well.
We are headed for DC to be with my daughter and son-in-law, and I plan to stay until my grandbaby is born! Stay tuned. We are full of excitement and gratitude.
ACORN SQUASH RINGS STUFFED WITH SORGHUM APPLES AND PECANS (vegan)
2 large acorn squashes
2 large baking apples, such as Granny Smith, Golden Delicious, Gingergold
2/3 cup chopped shallots
2/3 cup pecan pieces
¼ cup sorghum
¾ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
olive oil—for brushing squash rings
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Slice squashes into rings, almost an inch in thickness. Depending on the size of the squash, you can get 5-6 rings from each one. Scoop out the seeds, and lay the rings on a parchment lined baking sheet. Brush the rings with olive oil.
Wash, core and dice apples into ½” chunks. Place into a bowl. Add shallots, pecan pieces, sorghum, salt and black pepper. Toss, so that all the pieces are coated with the sorghum.
Mound sorghum apple mixture into the center of each ring.
Bake for 25 minutes.
Makes 10-12 rings
It is a wonderful moment, when a food writer makes the leap from blog to book. As a follower and supporter, I applaud her achievement. I am also pleased to take part in the launch.
Her book, An Edible Mosaic: Middle Eastern Fare with Extraordinary Flair, compiles over 100 recipes that come from the region known as The Levant, (Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine,) where Faith has both traveled and lived.
Not only does Faith have a love for the cuisine, she also has an inside track to its traditions. Her Syrian mother-in-law, Sahar, has guided her on authentic recipes and techniques. Faith has put this knowledge into practice, and created recipes that are enticing but not overwhelming to the novice cook.
Her book is an excellent introduction to this healthful, flavorful cooking. And, her photographs are beautiful.
The recipe that she asked me to share is a fragrant rice dish, flecked with onion, sultanas, and pine nuts. It is uncomplicated to prepare, yet possesses complex tastes. Basmati rice alone has a wonderful nutlike flavor; the other ingredients bring toasted notes, sweetness, and a hint of pungent spice.
The original recipe calls for saffron, those delicate, heady, and costly stigmas collected from a type of crocus. If you don’t have saffron in your pantry, Faith writes that turmeric is an acceptable (and widely used) substitute. The result will be less sophisticated, but delicious, nonetheless.
Either way, the rice has versatile applications, and, by virtue of being vegan and gluten-free friendly, universal appeal.
The trick to making the grains light and separate is by rinsing them in warm water. (This could be a wide-spread regional technique-my friend Muna from Iraq insists that the rice be rinsed 3 times–until the water is clear!)
This releases the starches that can cause clumpy-sticky rice. This also serves to soften the grains, thereby lessening the amount of water needed in the actual cooking.
Another trick is sauteing the rice before adding the liquid. First, Faith pan-toasts the pine nuts in oil. After removing the golden bits, she stirs the onions and ultimately the rice in the now-toasty oil. When you add the water, you’ll notice that it is at a much smaller ratio than, say, conventional recipes that call for 2:1. This is almost 1:1.
Covered, the rice absorbs all the flavor, and steams into a savory dish, ready for any accompaniment. Faith recommends a shrimp-tomato dish, also featured in her book.
For my meal, I marinated and pan-grilled thick lamb chops in a piquant blend of coriander, cumin, and cayenne. The marinade quickly infuses that lamb with flavor, and grills to a nice charry crust. You can use this for cubes of kebab meat, too, with great success. It’s a recipe that we teach our young chefs in Teen Cooking Camp.
SAFFRON RICE WITH GOLDEN RAISINS AND PINE NUTS
Recipe courtesy of An Edible Mosaic: Middle Eastern Fare with Extraordinary Flair by Faith Gorsky (Tuttle Publishing; Nov. 2012); reprinted with permission.
Serves 4 to 6
Preparation Time: 10 minutes
Cooking Time: 20 minutes, plus 15 minutes to let the rice sit after cooking
1½ cups (325 g) basmati rice
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons pine nuts
1 onion, ﬁnely diced
4 tablespoons sultanas (golden raisins)
1¾ cups (425 ml) boiling water
¾ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon saffron threads (or ½ teaspoon turmeric)
1. Soak the rice in tepid water for 10 minutes; drain. While the rice is soaking, put half a kettle of water on to boil.
2. Add the oil to a medium, thick-bottomed lidded saucepan over medium heat. Add the pine nuts and cook until golden brown, about 1 to 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Transfer the pine nuts to a small bowl and set aside.
3. Add the onion to the saucepan in which you cooked the pine nuts. Cook until softened and just starting to brown, about 5 to 7 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the rice and cook 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Stir in the sultanas, boiling water, salt, and saffron (or turmeric), turn the heat up to high, and bring it to a rolling boil.
4. Give the rice a stir, then cover the saucepan, turn the heat down to very low, and cook until tender, about 10 minutes (do not open the lid during this time). Turn the heat off and let the rice sit (covered) 15 minutes, then ﬂuff with a fork.
5. Transfer to a serving dish and sprinkle the toasted pine nuts on top; serve.
OPTIONAL Add two pods of cardamom, two whole cloves, and one 2-inch (5 cm) piece of cinnamon stick at the same time that you add the rice.
CORIANDER-SPICED LAMB CHOPS
1 ½ tablespoons olive oil
½ teaspoon red wine vinegar
1 large garlic clove, minced
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
¼ teaspoon cayenne
¼ teaspoon salt
2- 1″ thick lamb chops
Whisk the ingredients together in a medium bowl.
Add the lamb. Toss to evenly coat. Marinate 10-15 minutes.
Skillet-sear on medium heat, 4-5 minutes per side, until the meat is crusty brown but still pink inside.
Pimiento cheese was an unknown in my world until I moved to Nashville Tennessee. A young picky eater, and native New Yorker: there was no way that I could have ever encountered that uncanny meld of grated cheddar, mayonnaise, and pimientos. A visit to a Nashville grocery in 1965 provided my first glimpse of the product, bilious orange, in a small tub.
To its credit, it was (and still is) locally manufactured under the Mrs. Grissom’s label. Grace Grissom was a smart businesswoman who launched a time-saving product for post-WWII housewives. It was well-loved by many, especially when spread on soft Wonder style bread.
I was not one of them. Mixing cheese and mayo together with those pieces of red peppers seemed wrong. Really wrong.
It wasn’t until I was an adult–a seasoned one, in fact—that I came to appreciate the very goodness of pimiento cheese. Not the Mrs. Grissom’s way. It took my catering staff’s insistence to try our own! Hard-formed thought-patterns are hard to break. But, made by hand with extra sharp cheddar ( at times, a combo of white and yellow sharps ) a dab of good mayo, garlic, red onion, and roasted sweet red peppers, pimiento cheese can be a veritable art form.
Evidently this is catching on beyond the Mason-Dixon line, as regional Southern food is becoming embraced all over the country. We’re hot! Recently, my daughter visited Point Reyes CA based Cowgirl Creamery’s outpost in Washington DC, where she purchased a small tub of their pimiento cheese. She brought it, along with other select farmstead cheeses, to our home. My-oh-my. Spread some of this onto a cracker! Swoon-able stuff, I tell you.
So when I discovered that my garden’s alleged yellow bell pepper plant was instead a pimiento pepper plant, what else could I do? I had to roast those ripe-red beauties, dice them, and fold them into some gourmet for real pimiento cheese.
Compared to red bell peppers that you usually find at the market, pimientos have a thicker, sweeter flesh, and a tetch more piquancy. They also have a rather endearing heart-shape. Dried and ground, this is what makes Paprika. If you can’t locate one, you can use a red bell in its place. Roasting intensifies the sweetness.
If you must, you may use a jar of prepared pimientos. The result will be good, certainly, but won’t have that same soulful tang.
As with most recipes that have very few ingredients, using the best will insure the best outcome. Key is a top-notch sharp cheddar. I’ve made this with Kenny’s Farmhouse Cheddar, a locally made sharp, and I’ve made it with Cabot Vermont Cheddar. Both are excellent. Successful, tamer versions can be made combining sharp cheddar with Monterey Jack cheese–but really, Sharp is what it’s all about.
If I were a true Southerner, I’d insist that you use Duke’s Mayonnaise. But, Duke’s isn’t available everywhere–and Hellman’s, my other mayo of choice, is. Use whichever you can, and carry on.
I like grate the cheese by hand. Once you’ve roasted and peeled the pimiento, it doesn’t take long to whip up a batch. The simplest way to enjoy it is, in down-home Southern fashion, spread onto humble sandwich bread. I prefer pimiento cheese tea sandwiches, (small bites!) or served with crackers, shown here. I set out condiment bowls of honey-tomato jam and red jalapeno jam to shake things up a bit.
You can get creative, like many chefs, and slather pimiento cheese onto a burger, fold it into grits casserole, or make a very decadent grilled cheese. All are fine ways to break up an old thought pattern, and savor this taste of the South.
FOR REAL PIMIENTO CHEESE
1 large pimiento or sweet red bell pepper: (roasted, peeled, and diced to make 1/2 cup)
1/2 teaspoon cider vinegar (optional)
1 lb. sharp white cheddar (like vermont cheddar)
1 quarter of a red onion, minced (to make approx. 1/4 cup)
4 tablespoons Hellman’s or Duke’s mayonnaise
1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
Place pepper halves onto a baking sheet and brush with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Roast in a 450 degree oven until skin is blistered-about 15 minutes. When cool enough to handle, remove peels and chop. Place pieces into a small bowl and add a 1/2 teaspoon of vinegar. Set aside.
Shred the cheddar and place into a large mixing bowl.
Add mayonnaise, minced red onion, granulated garlic, black pepper and prepared peppers.
Fold the mixture until the pimientos are laced throughout the cheese, and the mayonnaise has moistened and helped bind the cheese.
Taste for salt and adjust as needed.
Serve with crackers, on finger sandwiches, or dolloped onto a burger. DEE-LISH.
Sungolds, Black Cherokees, Sweet Millions: these three varieties of cherry tomatoes showed up unannounced in my garden. Volunteers!
Make no mistake, I’ve been thrilled with their appearance, and their profusion of tangy-sweet yellow, orange, and dark red-green fruit.
(no doubt my most successful crop!)
When we haven’t been popping them into our mouths for snacks, I’ve been finding other ways to use them.
Easy–I’ve cut them in half and strewn them over salad greens.
Crafty–I’ve hollowed them out, and piped pesto cream cheese into little tomato cups. (Makes nice, kinda fancy hors d’oeuvres.)
A little different– I slow-cooked a few handfuls with a dab of honey into tomato jam. (tasty with cured meats on a sandwich)
But now, faced with an overwhelming number of them
(don’t they look like candy?)
The best thing, I decided, would be to toss them into a big pot and turn them into soup.
I know–tomato soup. How mundane is that?
But, wait. Let me tell you, this one surprised me. The taste is so pure, so bright and intensely tomato.
It reveals what a true summer tomato soup can be.
Cherry tomatoes, olive oil, salt-n-pepper, a few sprigs of thyme:
There are so few ingredients that it is barely a recipe. More of a technique, really.
The first part is laissez-faire.
Once you toss your little truckload into the soup pot, let it simmer, covered, for thirty minutes, or so. You can practically forget the pot while you tend to other things.
Meanwhile, all the little globes collapse and release their juices.
The second part is where the magic happens: with the food mill.
I discovered that milling twice—once with the coarse grinding disc, once with the fine sieve—is the key to making silken full-bodied soup.
The first pass really crushes the pulp, and removes some of the peel, and few of the seeds.
It’s the second pass through the mill that extracts all the remaining juices, and that intense flavor. I’ve read that the most acidic part of the tomato (which gives its sweetness dimension) is in the gel that surrounds the seeds. In this second pass, you get that essence, and leave the seeds behind.
There’s no added water. There’s no cream, and yet it seems creamy.
It’s All Tomato.
Dress it up, like I have here, with a scoop of arborio rice and diced roasted veggies–a late summer meal in a bowl.
Or enjoy it for its acid-sweet goodness alone…
Or with a grilled cheese?
SILKEN TOMATO SOUP
6 pints assorted Cherry Tomatoes, washed
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
2 teaspoons Salt
2 teaspoons fresh Thyme leaves
1 teaspoon Black Pepper
Place all the ingredients into a large heavy duty soup pot on medium heat.
Cover and simmer for about 30 minutes. Occasionally stir, mashing the tomatoes to release their juices.
Remove from heat.
Set food mill fitted with coarse grinder over a 4 qt. bowl. Run all of cooked tomatoes and juices through it. The mixture will contain a fair amount of seeds and peels. Discard peels and seeds that remain in the mill.
Rinse off the food mill and fit it with a fine grinder. Place it back over the soup pot and churn the tomato mixture through the it.
This time, the soup will be velvet smooth, with scant seeds.
Warm the soup, tasting and adjusting for salt. Makes 4-6 servings.
Serve simply by itself, or make it heartier with the following enhancements:
Diced Roasted Summer Squashes
Sticky Rice–spoon in a mound of arborio, or another favorite short grain rice
Fruity Olive Oil–a zigzag pour over the top
Shredded White Cheddar
The first time I tasted Chocolate Sorbet, it spun me into a state of denial. I could not believe that this creamy-dreamy, deepest-darkest chocolate confection had no cream, no milk, no eggs, nada.
“It’s basically chocolate and water, ” the waiter informed with a shrug.
“Impossible,” I muttered, and then dipped my spoon in for another bite. Firm yet silken, ice cold yet melty, the sorbet dissolved on my tongue, cloaking it in über-rich layers of flavor. Hints of cinnamon, butter, berry, coffee, and caramel emerged. And lingered. I looked over at my friend Wendy, who was having a St. Teresa of Avila moment. Ecstasy.
“This is the best dessert I’ve ever put in my mouth,” she finally spoke.
We were guests at a fundraising dinner held at a fine restaurant. The dessert course, two bourbon-pecan squares sidled by this sublime scoop, was the highlight of the evening. That was almost two years ago. I filed the experience away as one to revisit and, with luck, recreate.
So you can imagine my excitement when I came across this Chocolate Sorbet recipe last month. Created by ice cream maven and Parisian food writer, David Lebovitz, it is the ne plus ultra of frozen chocolate treats. The concise list of ingredients aligned with the information from that waiter:
pinch of salt, drop of vanilla.
This had to be it.
I had everything in my pantry.
No ice cream maker.
I dashed out to buy one.
I located a small (one quart) and cheap ($22.) machine. As soon as I got home, I put its inner canister into my freezer to get super-cold. The next day was Father’s Day, and I had planned a food gift for my dad. At 85, he doesn’t need or want any thing, but a special meal always pleases him. Especially when chocolate is involved. The sorbet would be the pinnacle for the chocoholic.
Manufacturer’s directions recommend a 24 hour freezing period. We didn’t have that full cycle; 16 hours would have to suffice.
Like anything you cook, the quality of the ingredients is key to success. When faced with such a terse ingredient list, that axiom becomes all the more crucial. Your sorbet will only be wonderful as your bittersweet chocolate and cocoa powder. I had two bars of 70% Scharfen Berger artisan chocolate and a container of Ghirardelli premium unsweetened cocoa.
I’ve made the sorbet three times now. The first time, for my dad, yielded rich and creamy results—yet it was soupy. The canister needs the full 24 hour deep-freeze time prior to churning. My dad didn’t mind. He ate a bowl of sorbet soup and moaned. “This is too good. Maybe the best.” he said. “The chocolate just stays in your mouth.”
He was right. There is something so pure, so direct and immediate about the sorbet experience–an intense chocolate delivery system!
He let the rest harden overnight in his freezer, and blissfully devoured it within a couple of days.
The second time I was over-anxious, and forgot a critical step: the hand-held blender part, where the mix is initially whirred and frothed before cooling. It was still a delicious batch, but denser.
Third time’s a charm: I followed all the steps, and modified the recipe slightly. I substituted Turbinado sugar for 1/2 of the sugar requirement, and increased the vanilla. Incredible, I tell you.
I also learned that regardless of freezer time, the sorbet has a high meltdown factor, once scooped.
No matter. You’ll not be able to let this pure chocolate delight languish in a bowl for any time, at all.
CHOCOLATE SORBET, adapted from The Perfect Scoop by David Lebovitz
2 1/4 c. Water, divided ( 1 1/2 c. and 3/4 cup)
3/4 c. Cocoa
1/2 c. Sugar
1/2 c. Turbinado Sugar
pinch of Salt
6 oz. high-quality bittersweet Chocolate, chopped
1 t. Vanilla
Whisk together 1 1/2 cups of water, cocoa powder, sugar, and salt in a 2 quart saucepan set on medium heat. Bring to a boil, whisking constantly. Let it boil for almost one minute, while you continue to whisk.
Remove from heat, and pour into mixing bowl. Add chopped chocolate, stirring until melted throughout.
Whisk in vanilla and remaining 3/4 cup water.
Pour into a blender, or use your hand-held blender, and mix for 30 seconds.
Place into the refrigerator and allow to cool completely. Mixture will be thick.
Place mixture into frozen canister and churn for at least 20 minutes.
Return canister to the freezer and let set.
Scoop and enjoy immediately.
Good morning, Friends!
As I write this post, squirrels and birds are finishing off the last of the plums on our little backyard tree. A frenzy, you can believe it. I don’t mind. In my kitchen, there’s a huge pot filled with simmering fruit, a pantry stashed with fresh preserves, and a table covered with bowls of the plucked, all in varying shades of red violet, awaiting their destiny.
So many plums. Too many to count!
Conditions must have been beyond ideal this year. A mild, wet winter and a warm, almost summerlike spring–our tree blossomed 2 weeks early, dazzling in its fleecy whites. Over time, its limbs became vertical, dragging the ground, overladen with ripening fruit.
In years past, I’ve been forced to act quickly, snatching plums as soon as they showed that first rosy blush, in order to garner any before my backyard menagerie decimated the crop. This year, no problem: there’s been a gracious plenty for all.
Now, what to do with them?
Friend Maggie likes to make plum jelly: long-simmer the fruit and skillfully strain it for all its juices to make a pretty, ruby-clear spread for toast.
I’m more of a jam-preserves kind of girl. I’ve been cooking down the plums in a bit of sugar, allowing their skins to dissolve into the mix. The plums are juicy and tart; I cook them with just enough sugar to bolster their flavor, while still honoring that tartness. As they soften and release their juices, I fish out the pits. (Sometimes I run the cooked plums through the food mill to accomplish that.)
I pour the preserves into sterile jars and process them in a hot water bath for 5 minutes. I also keep some handy, in sterilized, but unprocessed jars, tucked in my fridge. (This freezes well, too–for those of you leery of canning.)
This way, I have plums in a plain yet versatile form, ready to slather on crusty bread with goat cheese, ladle over ice cream, blend into a marinade for grilled chicken, or whisk into a vinaigrette. Add ginger, garlic, hoisin, and the plums take on an Asian flair. Lemon and cinnamon for an Italian plum-good cake.
In crisps or crumbles: whole ripe plums lend themselves nicely for this kind of dessert. I’ve concocted a gluten-free version that uses oatmeal and ground toasted almonds that I think you’ll enjoy. I look forward to learning your ideas, too.
Here’s a round-up of my plum goodies.
BASIC PLUM PRESERVES/SAUCE
10-12 c. whole plums, washed
2 c. Sugar
large heavy-duty stockpot, canning tongs, clean jars, lids, seals
Place plums into your large pot on medium heat. Pour in the sugar. Cover and let simmer for 15 minutes or so. Uncover. Spoon off the foam collected on the top. Stir and continue to simmer, uncovered for another 15 minutes or so.
When the skins seem to have melted into the liquid, and the flesh of the fruit gives way, you can begin straining the plum pits. Some you will see floating in the red sea–just spoon them out. For the rest, set a strainer over a large bowl, and begin pour the cooked plum and juices through. Press with the back of a wooden spoon to crush the fruit and release the pits. Or, run the plum-mix through a food mill set with the largest openings. You’ll get a lush puree. And the color, a knock-out!
Return the puree to the pot and cook for another 5 minutes.
Pour into sterile mason jars, seal and process in a hot water bath for 5 minutes.
Makes 6 half pints.
PLUM VINAIGRETTE/GRILLED CHICKEN SALAD
3 T. White Wine Vinegar
6 T. Plum Preserves
1/2 t. Black Pepper
1/2 t. Salt
1/2 c. fruity Olive Oil
Place all the ingredients except for the olive oil into a bowl. Whisk (or use a hand-held immersion blender) until combined. The plum preserve acts as an emulsifier. Slowly add the olive oil while blending. Makes a thick creamy vinaigrette.
For the Grilled Chicken Salad:
2 boneless Chicken Breasts
1 bunch of mixed lettuces
1/4 lb. Sugar Snap Peas
2 Green Onions
2-3 Nasturtium flowers
Slather a couple of tablespoons of the plum vinaigrette onto boneless chicken breasts and allow to marinate for at least 2 hours.
Grill char the sugar snaps and green onions.
Grill the chicken breasts. Let rest for 10 minutes before slicing onto salad.
Compose Salad: bed of lettuces, charred sugar snaps and green onions. Sprinkle with nasturtium leaves for color and peppery bite.
Place sliced grilled chicken on top and dress with plum vinaigrette.
GLUTEN-FREE PLUM CRUMBLE
1/2 c. Oatmeal
1/2 c. Almonds, toasted and finely ground
1/3 c. Turbinado Sugar
4 T. melted Butter
2 c. sliced ripe Plums (about a dozen)
9″ pie dish
Toast almonds in the oven and cool. Place into the food processor fitted with a swivel blade and pulse until the nuts achieve a powdery form.
Mix ground almonds, oats, brown sugar and melted butter. Add a pinch of cinnamon, if you like.
Take half of the mixture and press it onto the bottom and sides of a 9″ pie pan.
Slice plums and arrange in overlapping concentric rings on top of the crust. Continue until the dish is well filled. Sprinkle with turbinado sugar and dot with butter.
Take remaining almond-oatmeal crust and press over the top.
Bake in 350 degree oven for 25-30 minutes.
Delicious served warm with vanilla or ginger ice cream. Garnish with some plum sauce. Serves 6-8
The Onion Family
garlic, scallions, onions, leeks, shallots, chives
I credit this humble tribe for waking me up, turning me around, and nudging me in the right culinary direction, oh-so many years ago. Once an affirmed picky eater, I had disliked ‘most everything. I had heaped onions and their ilk into my big pile of things never-ever to eat.
It wasn’t until I lived in Holland that I became enlightened to their beneficent ways.
I was an exchange student, just out of high school. Gert, my Dutch mother, was a kind and patient woman who allowed me to accompany her on her daily round of shopping for the meals. Together we’d choose vegetables, a bit of meat, potatoes–of course!–and a hearty loaf of bread. I would help her wash and cut carrots, peel the spuds, trim the white endive.
She understood that I was picky, and that I was trying to push past the barriers I’d long entrenched for myself. Working together on the meals not only helped me to better learn the language and culture, indeed it forged a loving bond, easing me into the fold of her family.
Maybe she sensed that, deep inside me, there was a burgeoning chef, the anti-picky eater.
In any case, it was her skillet thick with sliced onions, simmering in butter, softening, then gaining that rich caramel glaze that I recognize as my revelatory moment: what my writing teacher calls a “Shimmering Image.”
I had come home from a class late one afternoon, and Gert had already done most of the dinner preparations. I don’t remember what the skillet of caramelized onions was for–could have been a base for a soup or stew. It doesn’t–and didn’t– matter. What mattered was the smell. It filled the kitchen with a pungency that was heady and earthy and sweet and compelling. It touched on something–a memory? a desire?
I wasn’t sure. It was nothing I would ever have attributed to onions. I had to have a taste, pickyness be damned!
I grabbed a spoon and dug in. Mercy, what had I been missing?
It’s funny how change occurs. Often it is slow, almost imperceptible in its unfolding. And then there are those Great A-Ha’s! A dramatic turn, where nothing is the same as before. After my indulgent spoonful of sweet sauteed onions, I opened my senses to the world of food.
In no time, the disdained became the embraced.
This simple hearty soup is a celebration of that first skillet of Genus Allium. I’ve put in most of the family—I love ‘em all—each contributing a lush layer of savory-sweet bite. It’s vegetarian, although you could make it with chicken or beef stock, if you like. I prefer the straightforward vegetable. Delete the butter, and it becomes vegan.
Farro, that wonderful nutritious and nutlike grain, cooks up beautifully in the soup. It adds body, and a pleasant chewiness. Serve the soup with crusty bread—or try this easy, airy spoonbread. Essentially, it’s a cornmeal mush souffle—and it is divine.
FIVE ALLIUM FARRO SOUP
2 medium Yellow Onions, sliced “pole to pole”
2 Leeks, cleaned, cut into 1/2″ pieces
2 large Green Onions or 1 bundle thin green onions, cut into 1/4″ pieces
1 large or 2 medium Shallots, diced
5-6 cloves Garlic, chopped
2-3 T. Olive Oil
1 T. Butter
Red Pepper Flakes (optional)
a few sprigs fresh Thyme (optional)
a few sprigs of Chives, finely chopped
1 quart Vegetable Stock
1 cup Farro, briefly soaked in water and drained
Heat a stockpot and add olive oil and butter. Add your cut onions, leeks, shallots, and garlic. Stir well to coat the pieces. Sprinkle with salt and black pepper. Cook on medium heat, stirring occasionally. After 15 minutes (or so), the onions will begin to release their natural sugars and caramelize.
Pour in vegetable stock and stir well, scraping any browned bits on the bottom and sides of the pot. Add the farro. Cover and simmer for 30-40 minutes.
If the soup get too thick, add water–2 cups–to thin. You will not sacrifice flavor. Check seasoning—add some red pepper flakes, and fresh thyme at the end of the cooking cycle, if you like.
Spoon into bowls. Garnish with chives and serve.
Have you ever eaten spoonbread?
It is a Southern delicacy, light–airy—so like a souffle.
Some recipes call for separating the eggs, beating the whites and yolks separately, and folding into the mix, just as you would for a souffle. This recipe, based on the famous one served at Boone Tavern in Berea, Kentucky, calls for whole eggs, beaten into the cornmeal mush for a long time.
It, too, results in a Grand Puff.
You’ll enjoy dipping your spoon into this special treat–a bit elegant, but rustic at its roots.
2 cups Lowfat MIlk
1 cup Yellow Corn Meal
1 t. Salt
3 T. Unsalted Butter, plus 1 T. for coating baking dish
3 lightly beaten Eggs
1 t. Baking Powder
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
In a saucepan, heat milk. Stir in cornmeal and salt. Cook on medium heat, stirring continuously, until mixture thickens, but becomes smooth—corn meal mush. Stir in butter until it is melted. Remove from heat.
Place eggs into a stand mixing bowl. Add baking powder. Begin beating. Gradually add cornmeal mush. Keep beating—up to 15 minutes total. This seems long—but it beats sufficient air into the batter, which will make a delectably light spoonbread.
Pour batter into buttered baking dish or casserole.
Bake for 25-30 minutes, until spoonbread has risen, with a browned top, and a toothpick, once insert, removes clean.
Serve immediately. Serves 3-4.