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.
The old saying for March, “in like a lion, out like a lamb,” isn’t faring well this year. It’s lion all the way: blustery cold, temperatures skirting the freeze point at night. The threat of snow might only manifest as a swirl of icy flakes, hardly worth mentioning. Except that there are competing signs of spring–pear and plum trees blooming; branches of forsythia fleck sunny yellow, tulips and hyacinths in varying purpled hues; Against the stark grey, they all glow.
So, the recipe that I’m sharing with you today is one of those that straddles the seasons. Like most members in the family of baked pastas, it is substantial, hearty. The kind of dish you’d want on a chilly March night, when that lion wind roars through the cracks of your doors and windows.
At the same time, it is lightened. The sauce combines sweet red bell peppers and tomatoes, roasted together and pureed to a gorgeous vermilion. The ricotta is whipped with baby spoon spinach into a creamy pale green smear. Impossibly thin ripples of speck, that marvelous cured ham from northern Italy, impart smoky woodsy notes. Ash, juniper, pepper, laurel.
And, they are dainty rolls.
While I do like squares and rectangles of beefy lasagna, and lush vegetable towers: layer upon layer spread with bechamel, ricotta, braised artichokes
I found that these small roll-ups had an endearing and easy way about them–
and made a delicious presence on the potluck table.
True to the way of lasagna, the most time is spent working with each component—prior to assembly.
Sauce pureed, filling whipped, pasta cooked al dente: you are ready to spread, cut and roll.
Lay out your lasagna noodles like fat ribbons on the counter;
spoon and slather the spinach ricotta from end to end. A little palette knife, used for icing cakes, is especially handy.
The slices of speck, almost transparent, seem custom made for the pasta roll, and fit neatly over the ricotta.
Make a cut through the center of each layered ribbon, creating two pieces to curl into clever spirals. I think you’ll like this smaller style roll-up, rather than the giant ones made from the entire piece.
For potluck, I also made a vegetarian version with shiitake mushrooms. They have a meaty texture and flavor that works well with the other ingredients. The recipe I’ve given below makes enough sauce and filling to make 2 casseroles: one with speck (or prosciutto, if you can’t find speck at your market) and one with shiitakes.
As I finish writing this post, this early spring snow has picked up: swirls of white past my windows, and a pretty dusting over the yard.
Lion March! It shouldn’t last.
And April, with the promise of balmier days, will be here soon. Memories of winter and cold will fade as we anticipate tilling and planting the garden, and dream of asparagus and sweet peas and strawberries.
LITTLE SPINACH-RICOTTA-SPECK (OR SHIITAKE) LASAGNA ROLLS WITH
SWEET RED BELL PEPPER-TOMATO SAUCE
Red Bell Pepper-Tomato Sauce:
4 red bell peppers, cut in half, stemmed and seeded
1 large onion, cut into eighths
4 cloves garlic
1-28 oz can plum tomatoes
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
Place red bell pepper halves onto one side of a baking sheet. Tuck onion pieces and garlic cloves underneath. Brush the tops with olive oil.
Pour remaining oil onto the other side of the baking sheet. Spoon the entire contents of the can of plum tomatoes and sauce over the oiled area.
Sprinkle tomatoes and red bell peppers with salt and black pepper.
Roast in a preheated 425 degree oven for 25 minutes—until the skins of the peppers are blackened and blistered.
Remove from oven and allow to cool. Peel the blistered skins and discard.
Place roasted vegetables and juices into a bowl. Using an immersion blender, process the ingredients into a brilliant red-orange sauce. Taste for seasonings and adjust as needed.
Spinach-Ricotta-Speck Filling: (for vegetarian version, use shiitake mushrooms instead of speck)
8 oz. fresh baby spoon spinach
2 lb. ricotta
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon granulated garlic
1 ½ cups shredded or grated parmesan
4 oz. speck or prosciutto, very thinly sliced
4 oz shiitake mushroom, sliced and sauteed
1 box lasagna: 18 pieces, cooked according to package directions, drained and cooled
½ cup shredded pecorino romano—to sprinkle over the top
Coat 2 9″×13″ (or size thereabouts) casserole dishes with a little olive oil.
In a food processor fitted with the swivel blade, pulse the spinach until it’s chopped. Scrape into a mixing bowl and return the work bowl to the processor. Refit with swivel blade.
Add ricotta, eggs, salt, black pepper, and garlic and processor until well blended.
Stir the ricotta mixture into the spinach. Fold in the parmesan.
Lay out the lasagna in rows on your work counter. Dollop a few tablespoons of the ricotta mixture and spread it along the length, covering the pasta. Place slices of speck (or prosciutto) over the ricotta.
Cut the lasagna ribbons in half. Roll up each piece. You will have 36 nice lasagna roulades.
Cover the bottom of the casserole dishes with a layer of sauce. Arrange lasagna rolls in the dish. Spoon sauce over the tops. Sprinkle with pecorino romano.
Bake uncovered for 35 minutes in a 325 degree preheated oven. Serves 12-15
Easter Sunday, circa 1967, pre-Easter Brunch at The Loveless Cafe, Nashville TN
That’s me, the tall one with the goofy yellow hat and cat-eye glasses. To my right is my sister Carole, the stormy-eyed tough kid seething in her frou-frou dress (I hate puffed sleeves !) My hand rests on top of baby brother Jim’s head, The Boy, clutching his musical Peter Rabbit (here comes Peter Cottontail, hopping down the bunny trail….) To my far left is sweet sister Barbara, demurring, (See, I really like my Easter outfit.)
This Brownie camera shot, no doubt taken by my mom, never fails to make me laugh. And not just because of our dorky of-a-time dress, or the family dynamic the image so aptly captures. It reminds me that sometimes the roots of your vocation are not obvious, but they are there, if you know where to look.
In this case, you’d have to look in that long plastic basket purse I was carrying.
Because it held a bottle of maple syrup.
Well, not this particular bottle, but you get the idea.
You see, I was the ultimate picky eater, and I knew we were going to the Loveless Cafe for brunch. The only thing I wanted to eat—correction, would eat—at the Loveless was a stack of pancakes.
The problem, which I gleaned with horror from a previous visit, was that they served Karo with those pancakes. Ugh. The little pitcher was filled with corn syrup. My stack was ruined.
I was not to be thwarted this time. I ferreted a bottle of the prized maple out of the pantry and tucked it (despite the stickiness risk) into that mammoth purse, which I lugged into church and then to the tables of Loveless. Easter brunch was saved.
Pretty crafty, eh?
And while I grew up hearing and thinking that I was a pain and a hopeless food-hater, someone who lacked a refined palate, or any palate at all, I came to realize that the bottle of maple syrup tucked in my purse told a different story.
It gave a hint that maybe this girl who loved maple syrup knew more about food than she realized. I mean, wouldn’t we all prefer maple syrup over corn on pancakes?
I write this today with those of you in mind who are picky, or have picky eaters in your family. Don’t despair. Inside that person there could be a great cook or chef or lover of good food. It can take time for that to emerge.
Often the things we seem to most reject, are the very things we end up embracing.
Pickiness is just another step along the path.
Today’s recipe makes a simple but delicious bread pudding—sweetened with maple syrup—-but not too sweet. You could spark it with some cinnamon or nutmeg, or add more dried fruit. I kept it basic–maple and vanilla bean, with a handful of sultanas. I wanted the maple flavor to shine through.
Like all bread puddings, it’s a terrific way to use up stale bread. To me, It’s more of a breakfast bread pudding than a dessert, although it could go either way.
I served it warm with some yogurt and bananas (two other things that the long ago picky eater wouldn’t touch!) and an extra drizzle of maple over the top.
MAPLE VANILLA BEAN BREAD PUDDING
3 cups half-and-half
1/2 vanilla bean, scraped
1 cup maple syrup
1 cup heavy cream
1 stale baguette, cut into cubes
1 cup sultanas
soft butter, to coat baking dish
Pour half-and-half into a large saucepan. Add vanilla bean. Heat until small bubbles form along the edges, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and allow vanilla to infuse the half-and-half. Scrape the inside of the vanilla bean to get out all the vanilla paste. Stir in the maple syrup.
Place cubed bread into a large mixing bowl.
Pour vanilla-maple mixture over the cubes.
In a separate bowl, beat eggs and cream until well combined. Pour over the cubes.
Add the sultanas. Stir the mixture well.
Coat the bottom and sides of the baking dish with softened butter.
Spoon in bread pudding mixture. Allow it to rest and absorb for 30 minutes.
Bake in the center of a preheated 350 degree oven for 30 minutes. The bread pudding will become puffed and golden, and the custard will set.
Serve warm, with fresh fruit and yogurt, and, of course,
a pitcher of real maple syrup.
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
In early November, on one of those rare days when the skies roll out wide and blue and the sun shines with the strength of summer, Maggie and I took a day trip to Falls Mill. Located in Belvidere Tennessee, it’s about a hundred miles from home, and over a hundred years back in time.
There, in the bend of a creek, by a rushing cascade, sits a grist mill built in 1873. Outside, a great water wheel churns, powering a system of belts and pulleys that drive huge cutting stones inside the mill. From inside, emanate the slow, almost groaning sounds of the stones in deliberate rotation, a bass line to the melody of water rippling over rocks, falling in sheets from the mill buckets.
And, inside are bins filled with the results: unbolted yellow and white cornmeal and grits. In an adjacent room, a 19th century press is poised to print a stack of white sacks, soon to be filled with those prized grinds.
Jane and John Lovett own and operate Falls Mill, and have earned a reputation for their extraordinary milling. Sustainable practices–from the pure water-driven power to the sourcing of local, chemical-free grains, are part of what makes this so. The milling stones themselves hold the key. Unlike commercial steel rollers which smash the grain and adulterate it due to increased friction and heat, these stones slice the grain, leaving more texture, nutrients, and taste intact.
Chefs and cooks across the country who value that difference order from Falls Mill–especially the white corn grits. They are……..grittier! in the best possible way.
I’ve been having a lot of fun working with their products, baking wonderful cornbread and corncakes, buttermilk spoonbread, and rich grits casseroles. The difference in texture and taste is delightfully Huge.
Today I’m sharing a couple of easy recipes that together make a New Orleans-style dish, often enjoyed for brunch, but good anytime.
Toasted garlic, brown butter, white cheddar and pinch of cayenne combine with these pearly Falls Mill grits to make a luscious casserole.
And, then, the Grillades: (pronounced Gree-yahds)
The grillades are often made with a cheaper cut of beef, such as round steak—but it is acceptable, by NOLA standards, to use pork. Browned and then braised with tomatoes, spice, and the “Trinity” ( onions, bell peppers, celery) it’s a Creole take on stew: hearty and delicious with the grits.
There’s nothing new or surprising about the method. There’s a modest assembly of ingredients. The pieces of meat are pounded, dredged, and browned.
A saute of tomatoes and “The Trinity” form the foundation for the grillades to finish in a long simmer. To add some savory toasted depth, you can make a quick roux, using the leftover seasoned flour. Cook it in a skillet with a little butter and vegetable oil, stirring occasionally, as it acquires a medium brown sheen. Stir in water or broth, and add to the Tomato-Trinity saute.
Grillades, like stews, improve with time.
These fabulous grits, though, are creamy perfection, right out of the oven.
TOASTED GARLIC GRITS
2-3 cloves fresh Garlic, minced
1 1/2 T. Butter
2 cups Water
1/2 t. Salt
1/4 t. Black Pepper
dash or two Cayenne
1/2 cup Stone Ground Grits
1/4 c. Half and Half
1/2 c. shredded White Cheddar
Melt butter in a 2 qt. saucepan on medium heat and sauté minced garlic until it becomes toasty golden brown. Add water. Stir in grits. Season with salt, pepper, and cayenne. Simmer for about 20 minutes—grits will become creamy. Remove from heat. Stir in half of the shredded white cheddar.
Beat egg with half-and-half. Beat mixture into cooked—and slightly cooled grits. Pour into a buttered casserole dish. Dust with remaining shredded cheddar.
Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven until puffed and golden, about 25 minutes.
1 lb. boneless Pork, cut into chunks, trimmed, pounded (the “grillades”)
Seasoned Flour Mixture: 1/3 c. All Purpose Flour, 1/2 t. Salt, 1/2 t. Black Pepper, pinch Cayenne, 1/4 t. Paprika, 1/4 t. Granulated Garlic
2 T. Vegetable Oil
1 T. Butter
1/2 c. each Diced Onion, Sweet Red Bell Pepper, Celery (aka “The Cajun Trinity”)
1 t. Fresh Thyme
1 can Tomatoes (whole or diced) and Juice
1 1/2 t. Worcestershire Sauce
1 t. Louisiana Hot Sauce
1-2 T. Quick Roux
1/2 c. Water or Broth (chicken or vegetable)
Dredge the grillades in the seasoned flour and shake off excess. Reserve unused flour mixture to make quick roux.
In a skillet, heat the vegetable oil over medium heat. Brown the grillades well on both sides, a few at a time. Transfer the grillades to a plate. When finished, melt butter over medium heat in the same skillet, scraping any browned bits from the meat. Add the Onions, Bell Pepper, Celery, and Garlic and cook until the vegetables are soft. Stir in Worcestershire, Tomatoes and their juice, fresh thyme.
Make quick roux:
In a separate skillet, melt 1 T. Butter with 1 T. vegetable oil. Add the remaining seasoned flour mixture and stir well, dissolving the flour. On low heat, cook the flour mixture until it becomes toasty brown. Add water or broth and stir well, until thickened. Pour into the other skillet, and fold into the tomato-vegetable meld.
Return the grillades to the skillet. Cover and simmer for 1 hour or until tender. Taste for seasoning, and add a few dashes of Louisiana Hot Sauce to deepen the mild heat.
Living with a vegetarian restricts my intake of red meat. This is not a complaint–trust me. I consider it a benefit. I’m an omnivore who is happy–and better off– not consuming the vast quantity of beef that many Americans do. And, with just two in our household, it doesn’t make sense for me to buy those great hunks needed for pot roast, meat loaf, and the like.
But, cooking for our Third Thursday Community Potluck is a different matter. No restrictions! Here I get the chance to Go Big and Meaty, should I choose. From time to time, I splurge, and cook up a cauldron of something wonderful and stew-ish. Because it’s so infrequent, I enjoy the process, lengthy as it can be, and really savor the results.
For our most recent potluck gathering–a week before T-Day–I indulged in stewy-splurge. I made a supa-sized batch of Shepherd’s Pie, fancy-pants style. Onions, carrots and parsnips, oven-roasted to a caramel sweet, were folded in with tender chunks of beef, browned and simmered in an enamel cast-iron pot.
Not so fancy, you say?
Not until this step–
Potatoes seasoned with chives and paprika were whipped light and buttery—then piped in a mound of pretty rosettes, sealing in the stew. The whole she-bang went into the oven for a final blast, emerging puffed and golden and utterly irresistible.
Another fancy note, regarding the green you see flecked in the pot. This is “Par-Cel” a parsley-celery hybrid that one of our local farmers was selling last week. Have you ever seen–or used it before? I couldn’t resist something so new. I was surprised at how it tasted: Indeed a true hybrid–possessing both fresh parsley and celery leaf flavors. It was a nice addition, plunged into the pot at the end of cooking time.
FANCY SHEPHERD’S PIE
STEP ONE: THE BEEF
5 lb. Boneless Chuck Roast, trimmed and cut into cubes
4-5 cloves Garlic, minced
1/4 cup Olive Oil
4 T. Balsamic Vinegar
1 1/2 t. Kosher or Sea Salt
1 t. Black Pepper
a few sprigs of fresh Thyme
a couple of sprigs of fresh Rosemary
2 Bay Leaves
1 T. Olive Oil
2 T. Flour
Place cubed meat into a mixing bowl. Stir in minced garlic, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar. Sprinkle salt and pepper. Strip the sprigs of thyme and rosemary and stir into the meat. The meat should be well coated. Add bay leaves. Allow to marinate for at least 4 hours, or overnight.
Heat the stew pot on medium. Add olive oil. Add meat, a few pieces at a time. Do not crowd. Brown the meat on all sides, and remove–putting into a separate bowl. Continue the browning process. When all the meat is browned, toss with 2 T. flour.
Return to the flour-coated meat to the pot and cook gently–toasting the flour. Stir in water to cover, scraping up browned bits from the bottom and sides of the pot. Cover and simmer for at least an hour. Meat should be fork tender.
STEP 2: ROASTED ROOT VEGETABLES
1 lb. Carrots, cleaned and sliced on the diagonal into pieces
1 lb. Parsnips, cleaned and sliced on the diagonal into pieces
2-3 medium Onions, sliced lengthwise into 1/2″ strips
Salt and Black Pepper
Par-cel, or Fresh Parsley Leaves, or Celery Leaves
Spread out vegetables on a baking sheet and lightly coat with olive oil. Season with sea salt and black pepper.
Roast in a preheated 400 degree oven for 20 minutes, until pieces are softened and caramelized. Remove from heat.
When the beef is tender, add the vegetable to the pot. Stir in chopped Par-cel (or parsley, or celery leaves) Taste for seasoning.
STEP 3: WHIPPED CHIVE POTATOES
4 lb. Russet Potatoes, washed, peeled, quartered
1 stick Butter, cut into pieces
1 bundle fresh Chives
Salt and Black Pepper
1 c. Milk
pastry bag fitted with a star tip
Place potatoes into a large pot of lightly salted water and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, and cook until potatoes are tender when pierced with a knife tip.
Pour cooked potatoes into a colander. Drain well and return to the pot. Under low heat, toss the potatoes in the pot to cook off any remaining water.
Place warm potatoes into a big mixing bowl. Using a stand or hand-held mixer, beat the potatoes until the lumps are broken down. Beat in the butter. Season to taste with salt, black pepper. Beat in chives. Slowly add milk, continuing to whip the potatoes until they become creamy and somewhat fluffy.
Spoon whipped potatoes into a large pastry bag fitted with a star tip. Pipe rosettes allover the top of the beef stew. Continue to mound the potato rosettes.
Sprinkle with paprika and bake in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes—until stew is bubbly and potato topping is puffed and golden.
Serves a Potluck Crowd!
Third Thursday Potluck friends surround the feasting table.
Don’t the French words for eggplants and zucchinis seem more evocative of the summer bounty?
I can imagine kitchen counters throughout homes in Provence strewn with these oblong purple and dark green beauties, along with other ripe jewels from the sun-drenched garden: plum tomatoes and sweet red peppers. I can imagine cooks ducking into the cool of these kitchens to examine the pick-of-the-day, formulating a plan for a good meal. And, I feel certain that each takes pride in her own recipe for that traditional Provencal dish, ratatouille.
At its core, the vegetables remain constant: eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, bell peppers, onion. Garlic, the Provencal mainstay, goes without saying. Cooking techniques and seasonings vary widely.
How the vegetables are cut makes a difference: small dice, or thin slices, sauteed in a stewpot in stages or simply tossed together with abandon and simmered for hours.
The spicing tells a story, too. High in the rugged countryside, the floral notes of lavender would find their way into the dish. There could be Italian border crossings that introduce basil. Along the Mediterranean coast, Greek influences might prevail. Some swear by a pinch of cinnamon, others season with a little anise. And, don’t forget a fleck of hot red pepper flakes for fiery bite.
Like the Provencal cooks I’ve conjured, I’ve prepared ratatouille many many ways–always seeking another variation when the market baskets brim with these veggies. Over the years, my roasted “rat-a-tat stack” has become my go-to. It’s the caramelization that occurs in the oven-roast that makes it so appealing. I like the layered aspect; each vegetable maintains its integrity, yet melds in the final bake.
We also eat with our eyes, and this assembly provides a visual feast. The line-up of ingredients on sheet pans, ready-to-roast, is a modern art mosaic.
Post roasting, they make a pretty mandala of color arranged in the cast iron skillet.
If you’d like to depart from tradition, you could spread ricotta between some of the layers, or sprinkle some grated parmesan cheese. This would serve to really solidify the stack. But I like the deep candied vegetal flavors, unencumbered by the richness of dairy. The caramel-like juices come together in the final bake, tout ensemble.
Enjoy with some crusty bread. Thank you aubergines, courgettes, good cooks of Provence. We relish your ratatouille straight out of the hot skillet for supper, or scarcely warmed the next day at lunch. Santé!
ROASTED RATATOUILLE STACK
2 Eggplants (medium large)
2 Zucchinis (medium large)
4 Tomatoes (try 2 yellow and 2 red, with a smatter of roma and cherry tomatoes)
1 large Onion
2 Red Bell Peppers
4 cloves Garlic
Black Pepper, a pinch of red pepper flakes (optional)
Fresh Basil—a few sprigs
3 Baking sheet pans
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Slice eggplants lengthwise, about 1/4″ thick, and layout on a lightly oiled baking sheet. Brush with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper. Slice zucchinis in similar fashion, and layout on a separate (lightly oiled) sheet pan. Brush and season.
On the third sheet pan, place the cored tomatoes, cut in half, along with the onion, garlic, and seeded red bell pepper halves.
Roast the vegetables until : (15-20 minutes)
edges of the eggplants and zucchinis are browned
skins of the tomatoes and peppers are blistered
Remove the skins of the tomatoes, peppers, garlic. Coarsely chop 2 of the roasted tomato halves with the garlic. Season with some red pepper flakes, if you like.
Brush the bottom of a casserole dish or cast iron skillet with olive oil, and layer the roasted vegetables in this order:
Chopped tomatoes w/ garlic
Repeat the layering. If using the cast-iron skillet (or round casserole dish) Lay the pieces in circular mandala-like design.
Bake in 325 degree oven for 20 minutes to “anneal” the layers, deepen the rich flavors.
How’s your summer going?
Some writing projects, a bit of catering, and teaching teen cooking camp this month have kept my days very full; and like those lumbering yellow squash in the picture below, summer is fast getting away from me. I’ve been remiss at blogging.
But, I’m going to make it up to you today with not one, but two recipes: one is wonderfully healthful, the other a bit guilt-laden; both are gluten-free vegetarian dishes that revel in the glory of summer.
We’ll start with healthy: these herbed quinoa stuffed tomatoes are downright delicious. A variation on the Provencal style baked tomato that is topped with herbs, cheese, and breadcrumbs, I created these to suit a friend who needed a gluten-free menu for her guests.
You’ll want to select ripe juicy tomatoes for stuffing. These are Cherokee Purples–one of my favorites. But other heirlooms would be just as terrific: Bradleys, Brandywines, Mortgage Lifters…
Part of the heirloom is diced and cooked into the quinoa, further flavored with bits of onion and sweet basil.
Ah, the wonders of quinoa. Unusual in the plant kingdom, it possesses a balanced set of amino acids, making it a complete protein. ( A marvelous source, too, for iron, magnesium, phosphorous, and dietary fiber.)
Once stuffed, this versatile seed/grain takes on the sweetness and juices of our beloved tomatoes, and bakes up toasty and nutlike under a shower of parmesan cheese.
And now, for the guilt-laden…
I have a couple of urban gardens that I’m tending. One is tee-niny: my front yard patch of herbs, swiss chard, and tomatoes. The other, larger garden is located in the backyard of my brother’s office, where we are growing haricots verts, yellow wax beans, a variety of heirloom tomatoes, peppers, along with prodigious squashes: zucchini, butternut, and yellow crookneck. (I’ll post some pics soon.)
This is the time of year when people complain about zucchini overrun. In our garden, it’s been yellow squash.
This recipe is the right one for using some of those colossal squashes that somehow escaped your notice and went from barely emerging on the vine to baseball bats. Well, not quite that big, but you know how it goes.
An old school recipe, it’s one that I came across in 1984 when I was working for a large catering firm. It had been supplied by a client, and boasted a fancy-pants name: “Posh Squash Casserole.” Ingredients include eggs, parmesan cheese, and (shudder) Hellman’s mayo; I confess that I was leery of the recipe.
But, of all the squash casserole recipes I have ever made, this one is, without question, the best.
It’s great for cooking up a squash bounty. You can feed a crowd with thick bubbly casseroles, or “posh it up” with petite souffle scallops or ramekins. The recipe multiplies easily without compromising the outcome. We would extend the recipe to make it for parties over 200!
Throughout the years, it’s remained tried and true. Rich for sure. Despite that, it has a lightness, a compelling souffle-like quality.
Even people who claim to hate squash and casseroles love this one. And love it in all its forms.
From time to time, for variety’s sake, I’ve tweaked the recipe by using both yellow and zucchini squashes, or roasting the squashes and onions, or adding other veggies, like sweet red bell pepper, even steamed broccoli.
It’s okay to indulge in a little guilt, especially when it’s balanced by a lot of health. Here are some of summer’s best. Enjoy ‘em soon, before they get away from you.
HERBED QUINOA STUFFED HEIRLOOM TOMATOES
4 medium sized ripe Heirloom Tomatoes (cherokee purple)
1 small Onion, diced
6-8 Sungold Cherry Tomatoes, quartered (optional)
2 T. Olive Oil
1/2 cup Quinoa
3 T. fresh Basil, chiffonade
1/4 c. grated Parmesan Cheese
Core tomatoes with a wide slice around the top, and deep enough to remove some of the inside. Dice the meaty tomato flesh from the coring, and place into a bowl with quartered sungold tomatoes.
In a medium saucepan, warm olive oil. Saute onion until translucent, about 3 minutes. Stir in quinoa and let it get gently toasted in the saute–about 2 minutes or so. Stir in diced tomatoes and juices and simmer for 5 minutes. Stir in 1/2 cup water. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes, until quinoa is tender, fluffy, but nutlike. Stir in basil chiffonade afterwards.
Rub casserole or oval ceramic dish with olive oil. Stuff cored tomatoes with quinoa mixture. Dust heavily with grated parmesan and bake for 25 minutes in a preheated 350 degree oven.
SQUASH SOUFFLE CASSEROLE “POSH SQUASH”
2 lbs. Summer Squash, sliced into medium sized pieces
1 Onion, diced
1 cup Grated Parmesan Cheese
1 cup Hellman’s Mayo
1/2 t. Sea Salt
1/4 t. ground Black Pepper
1/4 t. granulated Garlic
1/4 t. Paprika
Boil squash until tender. Drain and cool. In a bowl, whisk together eggs, mayo, parmesan, and seasonings. Fold in diced onion, then fold in cooled squash.
Place mixture into individual ramekins, or a casserole dish. Bake in 350 degree for 20 minutes (if in ramekins) to 30 minutes (if in casserole dish) until puffed and golden.
Think that thick lush-looking white sauce cascading over the lasagna stack is a heavy cream-based bechamel—rich beyond words?
The sauce here doesn’t have a speck of dairy, let alone the high butterfat favorite. Nor does it use any soy or tofu based products to mimic cream or cheese.
It’s cannellini beans!
And, not just any cannellinis. These are Rancho Gordo’s pride–great, fat white runner beans, that swell up to mammoth proportions when soaked, with meaty interiors that become creamy-dreamy when pureed.
This recipe experiment was prompted by Bill’s simultaneous love and intolerance of All Things Dairy. It might be better to say that, while this vegetarian loves it, it doesn’t always love him in return.
And, while I have no interest in omitting cheeses and milk from our diet, I have been considering different ways to achieve that creamy satisfaction in cooking—without him resorting to a carton of Lactaid.
Doubtless you have made Tuscan White Bean Dip—that garlicky puree we like to serve alongside a bowl of pita chips, or spread across crisp crostinis. Our White Bean Sauce is made in similar fashion—just thinner.
It’s like you’re making a vegetarian White Bean Soup, vigorously seasoned with garlic, onion, bay leaf, thyme, that you puree, beans and broth, until the melange becomes velvet—a smooth and pourable sauce.
Like all lasagnas, it’s really more a matter of creating all your layers that takes the time. Assembling them goes quickly.
I decided that sauteed Swiss Chard would make a terrific lasagna layer–seasonal, and compatible with the sauce. Other winter greens would be good too. I recommend Lacinato, or Black Kale.
I had an opened jar of sundried tomatoes packed in oil, shoved into the back of my fridge. In keeping with my intent to use good things before they go bad, I sprinkled these over the chard in my layering process. They added a sweet, sunny note to the dish.
I admit, this is not the most eye-appealing lasagna. When it bakes, there’s a slight crustiness to the top layer of white bean sauce. Not pretty–but savory.
I had some extra sauce left after the layering. You can warm it, and pour a little over your servings. It softened the look, and added more of the cannellini goodness.
I served this at our potluck—an icy night where 17 potluckers braved the slickened streets for good food. We were surprised that anyone came! But those who did loved the no-cheese lasagna. It had rich creamy mouthfeel, robust greens, a hint of heat and sweet.
Bill did not miss the cream, not one bit.
WHITE BEAN LASAGNA
White Bean Sauce
2 cups Cannellini Beans, soaked overnight and rinsed
6 cloves of Garlic, chopped
1 large Onion, sliced
Red Pepper Flakes
In a deep saucepan on medium heat, warm the olive oil. Saute garlic and onions for five minutes. Season with salt and black pepper. Add soaked and rinsed cannellinis. Stir until the beans are coated with the olive oil.
Cover beans with water. Add a couple of bay leaves, a few pinches of thyme, and a shake of red pepper flakes. Bring to a boil.
Simmer, covered, for two hours. Check periodically and give the beans a stir.
Test for bean doneness-the exterior will remain intact, but will give way to a creamy interior.
When beans are tender, remove from heat. Discard bay leaves.
Puree beans and broths, a few cups at a time, in the food processor. (Or,use a portable immersion blender if you like) Taste for seasoning and adjust.
Sauce should be smooth and pourable—ready to go! But, this can be made in advance, and refrigerated until you are assembling the lasagna.
Swiss Chard Layer
2-3 T. Olive Oil
1 medium Onion, chopped
2 cloves Garlic, chopped
Red Pepper Flakes
1 bundle Swiss Chard, cleaned, stems removed and diced, leaves coarsely chopped
Heat olive oil in a skillet and saute onions, garlic, and chard stems. Season with salt and a dash of red pepper flakes, and cook for about 9 minutes. Stir in leaves, and cook until they are collapsed. Add 1/2 cup water to facilitate the “collapsing” process–and allow the water to cook away. Remove from heat, and allow to cool.
1 Box dried Lasagna, cooked al dente, drained, cooled and oiled
1 cup Sundried Tomatoes packed in oil, drained
1 9″x13″ casserole/lasagna baking pan, coated with olive oil
Preheat oven to 350º
Spoon a layer of the white bean sauce on the bottom of the pan. Top with lasagna noodles. Spread sauteed chard over the pasta, dot with sundried tomatoes, and place pasta layer over that. Repeat the layering, until the pan is filled.
Be sure that you finish with the white bean sauce, dotted with sundried tomatoes.
Also, reserve about a cup of the white bean sauce to spoon over the cooked lasagna squares when you serve them. Garnish, too, if you like, with additional sundried tomato pieces.
Cover the lasagna with aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes. Uncover and finish baking for another 10 minutes. You want the casserole to be heated thoroughly. Since all the elements are already cooked, now you are cooking them all together.
Dramatic, but daunting. The ideas we have about souffles, these grand poofs, these amazing gastronomic feats of egg magic, are indeed lofty. Unreachable. With the risk of failure seeming so great (oh no! deflated! defeated!) souffles are the stuff of the Cordon Bleu, the men in towering toques, reserved for the creme-de-la-creme.
But making a souffle is really not as mysterious or difficult or time-consuming as you might believe. Mais non, mes cheres. A French woman assured me of this.
A mother of three, Francoise has lived in many places around the world, due to her husband’s job. During her two years in Nashville, Francoise worked with us in the Culinary Arts Center at Second Harvest. We had fun cooking together, and I would ask her about the kinds of meals that she liked to make for her family. I was stunned when she told me that a favorite dinner was cheese souffle.
“It is so simple, my daughter often makes it,” she said.
Her daughter was fourteen at the time.
Noting my wide eyes and dropped jaw, she smiled. “I’ll give you the recipe.”
Inspired by Francoise (and her daughter!), I made her cheese souffle. It was a dream, and all negative thoughts about the dish vanished.
Today, I had some fresh spinach from the market, and a lone leek snatched from Gigi’s garden. I also had a small piece of Comte’, an artisanal cheese crafted in the Jura Mountains of France. It is similar to Gruyere, but creamier. It was one of Francoise’s favorites; when I saw the cheese at the store yesterday, it made me think of her. And, Souffles!
A souffle recipe is very adaptable, and with a little preparation, you can transform kitchen staples–eggs, butter, milk, cheese–into something savory and cloudlike.
The flavor base of all souffles is a roux, expanded with milk into a thick white sauce, or bechamel. To this, you add whatever vegetable saute or puree you would like. As I write this now, I’m imagining a roasted artichoke souffle or puree of asparagus, come spring. Hmmm.
Once you’ve created your base, it’s time for egg magic! Beating the yolks into the cooled bechamel mix helps form a rich custard. And beating the whites into soft wavy peaks is the trick to expanding that custard into a cloud.
A light hand is needed for folding the whites and custard together, but it does not have to be perfectly mixed. Some traces of white are bound to remain–it’s not a big deal.
Do remember to have the oven preheated. And, you’ll enjoy the crust made from the breadcrumbs and grated parmesan on the sides and bottom of the souffle. When it’s time to serve, be sure to scoop out some of the soft interior with the crusty edges.
Francoise also told me, “You must wait for the souffle, but it will not wait for you.” Patience is a factor, and yes, the souffle is best enjoyed right out the oven. But, no worries gathering everyone to the table. They will be eager to see your triumph, and dig their spoons into the savory ethers.
SPINACH SOUFFLE with LEEKS and COMTE’ CHEESE
4 Eggs, separated
4 Tablespoons Butter, plus 1 Tablespoon Butter
2 T. grated Parmesan
2 T. Breadcrumbs
1 Leek, sliced
1 clove Garlic, minced
4 T. All Purpose Flour
1 cup 2% Milk
2 c. chopped fresh Spinach leaves
1/2 c. shredded Comte or Gruyere cheese
1/4 t. each Salt and Pepper
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Coat a 2 qt. souffle dish or casserole with 1 T. (or so) butter, and dust with grated parmesan and breadcrumbs.
In a saucepan, melt 4 T. butter. Season with salt, pepper, and a pinch of nutmeg. Saute leeks and garlic for two minutes, until soft and translucent. Stir in flour and cook the mixture like a roux.
Slowly pour in the milk, and continue cooking until it becomes a thick, glossy white sauce. Stir in spinach and cook until the it is collapsed throughout the mixture.
Remove from heat and stir in the shredded cheese. Allow to cool somewhat before beating in the egg yolks, one at a time.
In a separate bowl, whip the egg whites until soft peaks form. The whites should be stiff, but smooth, pliable—not chunky or granular. ( This happens if they are overbeaten.)
Add a couple of dollops of whites to the spinach mixture to lighten it.
Then, using a spatula, fold the spinach mixture back into the remaining whites in a gentle circular motion, until well incorporated.
(It’s okay if a few streaks or tiny lumps of white remain.)
Spoon into prepared souffle dish and bake in the center of the over for about 30 minutes.
Serve immediately! Serves 4.