Thursday, December 22, 2005

spinach & asiago strata

Last weekend, we went to see the mildly amusing new comedy The Family Stone. In one scene, Sarah Jessica Parker's character was fussily making a strata (one that later ends up on the floor and all over Ms. Parker), and I remembered that strata was something I enjoy that I haven't had for a couple years. Was it one of those trendy dishes that people used to make, or has it always been in style and I just forgot about it? I decided to make one-- my parents had arrived, I'm off from work, and it seemed like a festive thing for the holidays. Strata is a lot like quiche-- you can improvise a great deal around a basic recipe. You could add mushrooms or zucchini to your saute, or use different cheeses. I like it that this version is meatless, and also that it involves spinach, so at least you're doing something to offset all the cheese. It sits in the refrigerator all night, absorbing the eggs and milk, and when you bake it, it puffs up delightfully. I adapted this from a Gourmet recipe to make it, to my mind, slightly healthier.

Spinach & Asiago Cheese Strata
1 10 ounce package frozen chopped spinach
1 1/2 cups finely chopped onion
1 Tblsp. butter
1 Tblsp. olive oil
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1/4 tsp. freshly ground nutmeg
7-8 cups French bread, chopped into 1 inch cubes
1 1/2 cups coarsely grated asiago cheese (or use whatever cheese you want)
3/4 cup finely grated pecorino romano (or parmesan)
2 1/4 cups lowfat milk
4 eggs
1 cup Egg Beaters egg substitute
2 Tblsp. Dijon mustard

Cook spinach in microwave for five minutes, squeeze out as much water as possible. Finely chop spinach. Meanwhile, saute onions in butter & olive oil mixture until soft. Add 1/2 tsp. of the salt salt, 1/4 of the pepper, and all the nutmeg. Add spinach, mix well, and remove from heat.

Spray a 3 quart gratin dish or casserole with cooking spray; layer 1/3 of the bread cubes on the bottom. (They may not cover the entire area.) Top with 1/3 of spinach mixture. Sprinkle with 1/3 of each cheese. (Strata! The word calls to mind rock layers, and geologic time.) Repeat layers two more times, ending with cheese.

In a separate bowl, whisk together eggs, egg substitute, milk, mustard, and remaining 1/2 tsp. salt and 1/4 tsp. pepper. Pour over strata evenly, cover with plastic wrap, refrigerate overnight.

The next morning, remove strata from your refrigerator thirty minutes before you plan to start cooking it. Preheat oven to 350. After 30 minutes, place strata in middle of oven and bake for 45-55 minutes. Mine looked ready at 45 but was still wet in the center, so 55 was more like it. Serves about 8 people, or 6 very hungry ones...

Thursday, December 15, 2005

spinach-artichoke dip

Yay! Exams are finished, grading is done. Grading is the worst part of being a professor. Otherwise, I love teaching, even though it can be exhausting. But now I have some extra time in front of me, and I can work on other projects-- namely research, which is necessary for getting tenure. But hopefully cooking and the reading of lots of good fiction, too.

Spinach-Artichoke Dip is a good one to take to holiday parties, when there are often so many desserts that people need something savory. I've made it twice in the past week. This version has a bit of heat to it, and I like it that it's got both spinach AND artichokes, to make you feel as if you're doing something healthy. I lightened it too, by using fat-free sour cream and light mayonnaise. (There is also a more decadent adaptation, below). I'm sure it's good for you. ;)

Spinach-Artichoke Dip
1 10-ounce package chopped spinach
2 14 ounce cans quartered artichoke hearts, drained
1/2 cup light mayonnaise
1/2 cup fat-free sour cream
1 cup percorino romano cheese, grated
1 cup monterey jack cheese with jalapenos (if you don't like spicy, just use plain monterey jack)
Dash of nutmeg
Dash of red (cayenne) pepper
Dash of black pepper

Preheat oven to 350. Microwave spinach for 5 minutes, then drain well, squeezing out excess water (a salad spinner does a good job of this). In a food processor, chop up the artichoke hearts. In a large bowl, mix artichoke hearts and spinach with all other ingredients except monterey jack. Spread in a 9" baking dish and sprinkle monterey jack cheese on top. Bake at least 30 minutes, or slightly longer so that top is golden brown and bubbly. Serve with tortilla chips or pita chips.

*Slightly more decadent version: add another 3/4 cup monterey jack to the spinach-artichoke mixture itself, keeping the other 1 cup for spreading on top.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

back from DC

My trip to Washington, DC to give a paper at the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association started with French ravioli smothered in gruyere (depicted here-- at DuPont Circle's Bistrot du Coin) and ended with a bad cranberry scone in the Washington National airport... In between were many delightful repasts, highlights of which included the Lebanese Taverna (in Woodley Park, where the conference was) and a trip to a new cafe in the neighborhood of Howard University, Busboys and Poets, where I had a tremendous burger with melted havarti and avocado. This was a neat cafe with high ceilings, lots of comfortable lounge chairs, and a bookstore that appeared to specialize in books about African-American history and architecture. There was a trip to the Love Cafe for cake from the Cake Love bakery and Moroccan mint tea. There was also the antipasto platter at Me & You, a Mediterranean-themed place in Georgetown.

There were also some not-so-exciting meals-- forgettable Thai, boring burritos. The Indian restaurants in the neighborhood of the conference (again, Woodley Park metro), were pretty bland affairs, but I was heartened when I returned home with two of my colleagues and, on the way home, had an excellent lunch with Nour & friends at a vegetarian Indian restaurant right here in Orlando called Woodlands. Crisp samosas with perfectly spicy potato and pea filling, creamy malai kofta, potato & cauliflower curry, spinach & paneer, and a luscious eggplant baigun bhartha. Excellent gulab jamun, doughnuts served in a hot syrup, (a contrast to the refrigerated, desiccated nightmare of the gulab jamun I'd had in DC). That had me feeling pretty good about central Florida, in addition to the fact that it was 75 degrees and sunny.

I was amused by the gingerbread house they were building in the lobby of the Marriott where the conference was held. I watched the hotel staff put up a giant plywood house and then glue what looked like cafeteria cookies and graham crackers to it little by little. You can see at the top the half-plywood, half-graham crackered house. The employees looked less-than-thrilled at having to complete this arduous task.

I'm going into exam/grading mode for a few days and there may be no food-related dispatches until I'm finished... but the semester is drawing to a close, which is a great feeling...

Sunday, November 27, 2005

what to do with leftover turkey

I posted the picture of this beautiful pumpkin flan I made purely for the aesthetic value-- it was not a big hit at the Thanksgiving table. From this month's issue of Gourmet magazine, the pumpkin flan had a spicy pumpkin seed topping (which would make a great appetizer on its own), but the final product tasted suspiciously like pumpkin pie filling without the crust. Oh well. I'd wanted to try one challenging new thing, alongside the requisite turkey and stuffing, gravy and mashed potatoes. But although it turned out perfectly well, it wasn't a flavor any of us were crazy about. The picture merely documents the labor-intensive work involved in making this.

Also labor intensive, but well worth the effort, and something you could also do with leftover chicken, is this recipe for turkey croquettes. Crunchy on the outside, creamy on the inside, the consistency of Spanish salty cod croquettes. I think you have to deep fry them, as there's no comparable healthy shortcut. Made with considerable help last night from Nour, who has more skills with deep frying and also did a nice job preparing the final product for its photo shoot.

Turkey Croquettes
6 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup flour
1 cup milk
1 cup chicken broth
2 teaspoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
2 teaspoons grated onion
1/8 tsp. or more of spicy red pepper
Dash of pepper, paprika, and nutmeg
Salt to taste
4 cups minced leftover turkey
1 cup or more fine bread crumbs
1 beaten egg plus 2 tablespoons water (I had to use double this amount)

In a saucepan, melt butter and mix in flour. Add milk and chicken broth, simmer until thick. Remove from heat, stir in lemon juice, parsley, onion, and spices. Adjust to taste. Place in a large bowl with 4 cups turkey. Cool in refrigerator for one hour.

With wet hands, form croquettes into little balls. Roll in breadcrumbs. Roll into a cone shape, dip in egg, and dip again in breadcrumbs. You may need extra egg or breadcrumbs as necessary. Place on a plate. When ready for frying, heat up enough oil to cover the croquettes. When it's ready, deep fry without crowding, about three minutes each. Drain in a colander and keep warm in the oven.

two novels about friendship

Just finished Anita Brookner's novel The Rules of Engagement. Didn't love it, although it was well-written and flowed nicely. The entire story is told from the first person perspective of a woman who has lived a timid and rather bleak existence. Most of the story focuses on her lifelong friendship with another woman whose experiences of life are less measured and more adventuresome, but nonetheless the unreliable narrator pities her. Classic case of the camel that can't see its own hump, but it is never clear the camel sees anything at all, which I found both annoying and depressing.

A much better book that I also read over this vacation week, and really enjoyed, was Mary Gaitskill's Veronica. Also told from the perspective of a first person narrator, and also the story about a friendship, Veronica is a novel about beauty and ugliness, and the most unlikely places to find them. This narrator, Alison, in contrast to the Brookner narrator, embraces life to the point of self-destruction, and when the book begins she is already at rock bottom, a former model fallen victim to hepatitis who now cleans houses for a living. How she got there, and the story of a friendship experienced years before that still haunts her (with an AIDS sufferer), is the novel's story. Equal measures of beauty and ugliness, redemption and despair, this was a book that was easy to get lost in, with some particularly stunning moments of writing to alight on for a second before flying on.

Monday, November 21, 2005

swordfish, orzo & chocolate souffles

I am still "learning" to like fish, something I disliked immensely as a child (with the exception, I'm embarrassed to say, of Mrs. Paul's fish sticks). In college I started liking sushi of all kinds, but I still had issues with cooked fish. Now in addition to sushi, I love shrimp, tuna, salmon, particularly when well prepared. There's a baked Moroccan fish tagine with chermoula marinade, potatoes and peppers that is out-of-this world. But my efforts to prepare fish recipes that rely on the unadulterated flavor of the fish itself never seem to amount to much. I always feel like I'm dutifully eating the final product-- last night, a lackluster swordfish with orzo. I've had wonderful swordfish before, but I can't remember where. I'm wondering if it's the condition I buy the fish in. At the grocery store the swordfish was just sitting there in the case looking kind of pathetic, along with the other bottom dwellers, the obligatory tilapia, and the frozen shrimp. It's all been pre-frozen, even though we live an hour from the ocean. I've been told of a real fish market in town, which I hope to check out, but I haven't been happy with what's on offer at the grocery stores.

At any rate, I baked this with a lemon and olive oil dressing. Eh. The accompaniment was really nice-- I cooked some orzo, sauteed garlic and a few cups of spinach, mixing it with the orzo, some halved cherry tomatoes, feta cheese, and olives. Spicy red pepper to taste. Feeling deprived, I decided to make a chocolate souffle with pistachios, a lightened version that is good if you're trying to be good and not eat too much (Nice with new "lowfat" Haagen Dazs, which is actually delicious). This was on my old website when The Barbecue was at a different address. Now, back by popular demand...

Chocolate Souffles with Pistachios
6 Tablespoons sugar
1 ounce semisweet chocolate
4 1/2 teaspoons butter
2 Tblsp. unsweetened cocoa powder
2 Tblsp. flour
1/8 tsp. salt
1/2 cup lowfat milk
3 large egg whites
4 teaspoons chopped pistachios

Spray 4 ramekins with cooking spray and scatter a teaspoon of sugar over it lightly. Melt butter and semisweet chocolate over low heat, adding three tablespoons sugar until dissolved. Whisk in cocoa, flour and salt, then add milk little by little until thick, about three minutes, stirring all the time. Remove from heat and cool. I do this by putting the mixture in a metal pan and sticking it in the freezer briefly.

Beat eggwhites over high speed in a mixer until foamy. Add three remaining tablespoons of sugar one by one and beat until eggs form stiff peaks. Fold egg white mixture into chocolate mixture in four equal additions, being careful to blend it without losing the air. Then divide souffles between ramekins, sprinkling pistachios on top. In a 375 degree preheated oven, cook for 20 minutes and remove. Serve with ice cream.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005


My aunt was in town for a conference, down in the "resort area," the area around Disney World/Universal Studios that often seems a world away from where I live a half-hour north. I hadn't seen my aunt in a few years, so it was nice to catch up and hear about how her family was doing. She was staying at the Hyatt Grand Cypress, a huge hotel with a very elaborate network of interconnected swimming pools set into artificial "caves," with cascading waterfalls and jacuzzis tucked away in little nooks. On the other side of the hotel was a lake with a little beach, and if you landed there in a helicopter you would never guess that you were less than a mile away from a sea of neon signs, fast food, and Florida souvenir emporiums. I was very impressed with the hotel, even more impressed at how the tourist industry creates these pockets of unreality.

What was really a treat was that my aunt took us out to dinner in the hotel at one of Orlando's top restaurants, Hemingway's. I would never have been able to go there on my own, and I enjoyed every minute of our dinner. I had a seared tuna entree that was out-of-this-world, accompanied with savory mashed potatoes baked with a crust on top. Seared tuna! Barely done on the outside, rare yet warm on the inside, dipped in a soy-wasabi sauce... mmmm. Nour tried their coconut shrimp, and my aunt had crab cakes. For dessert, we shared an excellent key lime pie with a baked meringue topping.

Living in a general state of American isolation, adrift on a peninsula with no relatives within eight hours of us, it was also nice just to be reminded that I have a family.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Persian Spinach & Yogurt Dip

It was a particularly good weekend for spinach, which is tied with orange squashes for my favorite good-for-you vegetable. Last night I decided to make an Indian vegetarian dinner, and I tried another Bittman recipe, this time for saag paneer, spinach with cheese. Bittman recommends using tofu in place of the cheese, and since I had some on hand, I followed his advice. I bought some whole milk yogurt at the Indian grocery store that was amazingly good, and this was one of the principal ingredients, along with spices and half-and-half. Really, really good. I also made channa masala, a tomato-chickpea curry, from this Indian-themed food website. I went on a wild goose chase for the channa masala spice, finding it not at the Trinidadian Indian grocery store but at another Indian grocery store that also had the aforementioned succulent yogurt.

Today I made Persian Spinach and Yogurt Dip, from this month's issue of Cooking Light, which has a motherlode of good recipes this month (I have already made the date bars, Lyonnais potatoes, and Chicago-style steak with mushroom sauce, all of which were excellent). Ali Baba, a Middle Eastern/Persian restaurant in Orlando, has a similar spinach dip that I like very much, so I was excited when this recipe yielded similar results.

I need to figure out how to archive recipes by category on Blogger, anybody out there know how?

Persian Spinach and Yogurt Dip
1 10 ounce package fresh spinach, chopped
2 tsp. butter
1/3 cup finely chopped sweet onion
1 minced garlic clove
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup plain, fat-free organic yogurt (I went with the full-fat natural yogurt version)
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/8 tsp. cinnamon

Fill a large saucepan with water and bring to a boil. Cook chopped spinach for one minute, then drain well, squeezing out excess water. In a skillet, melt butter, saute onions and garlic until translucent. Remove from heat, stir in spinach and salt, and cool.

In a medium-sized bowl, mix spinach mixture with yogurt, pepper and cinnamon. Let stand at least 30 minutes before serving, chill afterward. Serve with pita bread, carrots, etc.

Saturday, November 12, 2005


B'stilla is a Moroccan savory-sweet chicken pie. It was once made with pigeon, and my husband claims it as a dish that originated in his hometown of Fes. It is a dish fit for royalty-- crisp layers of phyllo dough, savory chicken slow-cooked in broth and spices and shredded, and a crunchy layer of toasted and ground almonds, cinnamon, and sugar.

In one of the classes I teach about the Middle East, my students wanted to do a potluck supper/movie watching session. Understandably for a class involving food, it was one of the most successful classes all term. The students went all out-- they made feta cheese dip, Middle Eastern carrot cake, tabbouleh, cauliflower-potato curry, hummus and chips, and one student brought samosas and a huge box of baklava. (Not all the dishes were strictly Middle Eastern, but that didn't matter much). We stuffed ourselves and watched a Tunisian film, "A Summer in La Goulette."

For my contribution, I spent the entire evening before making a vegetarian harira (spicy lentil soup) and this chicken b'stilla. I started out following Mark Bittman's version in The Best Recipes in the World, but aside from following the quantities I abandoned much of his technique, since it was different from what my in-laws do. Nour helped me put it all together, because phyllo isn't the easiest thing to work with.

2 Tblsp. canola oil
2 minced garlic cloves
1 finely chopped onion
2 lbs. boneless, skinless thighs (although you can use regular thighs and just de-bone them after they cook-- then use maybe 3 pounds)
1/4 cup finely chopped parsley
1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro
1 tsp. ground turmeric
1 tsp. ginger
3 cups chicken stock
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup skinless almonds
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1-2 Tblsp. sugar
1/2 pound phyllo (12 sheets)
8 Tblsp. (1 stick) melted butter
Confectioner's sugar

Defrost your phyllo dough. Read the box instructions for how to do this.

Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium. Cook garlic and onion until soft, about 3 minutes. Add chicken, parsley, turmeric, saffron, ginger, and stock. Season with salt and pepper, bring to a boil, then cover and simmer 20 minutes. Remove chicken from the pot to cool.

While stirring the stock, pour the eggs in slowly. (They will cook, but if you keep stirring they stay pretty separate, which is what you want). Simmer the stock, uncovered, until reduced by half (about 10 minutes). Shred chicken and return to stock, keep simmering until there is no more liquid. Remove from heat.

Here's where Bittman and I part ways. Toast the almonds in hot oil until they turn golden brown, remove to paper towels to drain. Grind in a coffee grinder but leave some chunky almond bits for consistency. Mix with cinnamon and regular sugar. Try one tablespoon first and taste. If you like it sweeter, add another tablespoon.

Preheat your oven to 425.

Get out the phyllo dough, making sure you followed the box instructions for defrosting, otherwise it will crack easily. Unroll phyllo dough carefully and have a damp towel ready to place on top. In a 9" pie pan using a pastry brush, brush butter on the bottom and sides of the pan. Place one sheet of phyllo dough in the pan, brush quickly with a little butter, place another on top, brush again, etc. Dough will be hanging over the sides, brush the sides too. Do 4-5 sheets this way. Cover the extra dough with cloth. Then add the chicken mixture. Cover chicken with the almond-sugar mixture (see photo). Fold the dough layers that were hanging over the side over the top and add a few more sheets, each brushed with butter, if you like. You may have extra butter or dough left at the end. An egg yolk brushed over the top is also optional. Bake 20-30 minutes, keeping an eye on the pie to see when it turns golden brown.

Remove from pan if you like, or if you're concerned about keeping it in one piece, leave it in there. When finished, sift a generous layer of powdered sugar over the top. Tap out cinnamon in a criss-cross pattern, as shown. Slice it up and enjoy. It's very elaborate but it's my favorite Moroccan dish-- very unusual and complex, served generally as a first course at weddings. My students loved it. Colleagues who tried a piece said they'd never tasted anything like it.

Another big success at the potluck class session was the Feta cheese dip some of my students made. I believe the source might be Middle East food expert Claudia Roden. Take 1/2 pound feta, the juice of one lemon, 2 Tblsp. vegetable oil, and 1 Tblsp. olive oil. Mash the feta with everything else using a fork until smooth. I asked for the recipe and will definitely make this dip again as well.

Tasting your way into another culture is one of the best ways to experience it.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Pasta with Winter Squash

I tried two more recipes from Bittman's The Best Recipes in the World. Pad Thai and Penne with Pumpkin or Squash.

Before I made the Pad Thai, my father was asking me why I liked to attempt ethnic dishes that involve paying for a lot of ingredients you never use again. I disagreed, saying that once you build a repertoire of spices, if you're interested in cooking these types of dishes you'll keep using the ingredients. Things like fish sauce, green curry paste, or cardamom pods, for example. I make some type of curry dish at least once a week, and Bittman is right, once you have the spices (which you can buy cheaply in small quantities at grocery stores like Whole Foods), making almost any Indian dish is usually simple. I also told my father that if the recipes are from a good source, you can guarantee good results most of the time.

Well, although I still stand by this assertion, this didn't happen for me with Bittman's Pad Thai. I have tried countless recipes for Pad Thai and never been able to make it taste like it does in a Thai restaurant. For this one, I bought fish sauce (nam pla), which was no great expense-- a little more than a dollar. I couldn't find the rice noodles at the grocery store. I went home, thought about using fettucine, then actually called up an Asian market several miles away and drove there to buy rice noodles. They were still the wrong shape, but I took them home, only to discover a little later that the bag was filled with insects. Grr... I then drove to Whole Foods and found the right kind of noodles there, but things continued to go downhill. I had every single ingredient required for the dish, but it still lacked those flavors I wanted to recreate. It was good, but it was something else. Won't be making that again.

I have a weakness for any squash with orange flesh. Pumpkins, butternut, acorn, you name it. Last year I discovered my dear friend Amy shared the same obsession for orange foods. We did many a lunch exchange at work of butternut squash lasagnas, soups, etc. Today, thinking of Amy, who no longer lives in Orlando, I decided to try Bittman's "Penne with Pumpkin or Squash" in her honor. I used only the finest ingredients, hoping to convince my husband of the subtle yet undeniable delight one derives from the consumption of orange foods. I grated fresh nutmeg, had a new wedge of Pecorino Romano (the recipe called for Parmesan), and cooked down the butternut squash into a textured, clinging sauce. It was awesome. Nour partook of seconds.

Preparation was very simple. I had a butternut squash that weighed a couple pounds, so I chopped it in half and peeled it, using only a pound of the squash. Then I cut up that one pound of squash in chunks and gave it a workout in the food processor until it looked grated. I put some water on to boil. In a frying pan, I placed a tablespoon each of butter and olive oil, and when the butter melted, I added a minced garlic clove and the squash mixture, stirring it around for a second before adding 1/2 cup water. I cooked it on medium heat for about 10 minutes, continuing to add water as the mixture got dry. I didn't want it to get too watery. In the meantime, I also boiled about 12 ounces of penne pasta.

At the end of the cooking time, I added 1/8 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg, a generous dash of cayenne pepper to make it spicy, and salt to taste. I reserved a half cup of water from the pasta water and drained the rest, then dumped the pasta in with the orange sauce, adding a little of the reserved pasta water to make it just slightly saucy and not too dry (I love that culinary trick). I mixed it all with 1/2 cup Pecorino Romano, and man, was it good. Only differences from Bittman were the cheese and the addition of a minced garlic clove, but I think I managed to convince my husband of the superiority of orange foods. If only Amy were here!

With the other half of my squash, I think I will try a recipe I found here for habanero squash soup...

Friday, November 04, 2005

Pollo con Salsa Verde

Ramadan ended Wednesday night, so to celebrate I prepared a somewhat unorthodox Mexican dinner of Pollo con Salsa Verde (Chicken in Green Sauce), Mexican rice, and refried beans, all of it from scratch. I was most excited to prepare this because it involved using my new cookbook, Mark Bittman's The Best Recipes in the World, which I'd been eagerly awaiting from Amazon. I am a huge fan of Bittman's Minimalist column in the NY Times, which I've read religiously for years, and his How to Cook Everything, which is an extremely useful cookbook. But this new cookbook promised to be even more thrilling, especially since it has lots of Moroccan recipes and recipes from many of my favorite ethnic cuisines-- Indian, Thai, Japanese, and even old standbys like French and Italian. I trust Bittman implicitly-- I've probably made several hundred of his recipes, 90% of which have turned out to be dishes I'll make again.

So the aforementioned Mexican dinner came entirely from the new cookbook. It involved making refried beans from scratch, doing a quick soak of small red beans and then preparing them with epazote, a Mexican spice that thankfully is sold at a local vegetable stand about a half a mile from my house. Also sold at the local vegetable stand are hulled pumpkin seeds and tomatillos, two essential ingredients in the Mexican chicken dish. The rice involved frying dry rice in oil and then cooking it with broth and a mixture of pureed tomatoes, onions, and garlic. It was pretty delicious too-- had a texture I wasn't used to with rice, but I liked it fine. And the Chicken in Green Sauce was terrific.

I will never forget the first time I had green enchiladas-- in a Mexican restaurant in Madrid called El Cuchi, back in 1995. (The restaurant was very theatrical-- waitresses served tequila shots accompanied by a hard hat to be placed on the customer's head and rapped on after the customer kicked back a shot while the waitress also rang a hand-held siren.) But I loved the enchiladas. The tomatillo-cilantro flavor was so unlike anything I'd ever had before, and it's one of my favorite things to order at Mexican restaurants. Mark Bittman's recipe is more complex and nuanced than any green chicken I've made before, partially because of the addition of pumpkin seeds and scallion. I would definitely make this again, and I plan to continue making and reporting on lots of new recipes from this cookbook.

Pollo con Salsa Verde
1/3 cup hulled pumpkin seeds
1 cup chopped cilantro leaves
1 cup coarsely chopped scallion
1 cup husked, cored, and sliced tomatillos
1 jalapeno, stemmed and seeded
Chicken stock
3 Tblsp. lard or neutral oil (I used canola)
2.5-3 lbs. chicken parts, trimmed of fat (I used legs)
salt & pepper

Toast pumpkin seeds in a dry skillet, stirring frequently, until they begin to brown and pop (less than 5 minutes). In a blender, puree them with cilantro, scallion, tomatillos, and enough stock to make a thin paste.

In a skillet or casserole, brown the chicken in oil on all sides, turning occasionally, about 10-15 minutes.

Add salsa verde to the pan with another 1/2 cup of stock, the pieces may not be quite covered and the mixture will be soupy. Bring to a boil, then turn down to a simmer. Cook 30 minutes, turning pieces occasionally, making sure sauce reduces and thickens somewhat. Serve with rice and beans.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Lemon Pound Cake

I've been thinking about cake this week. I watched a special on the Food Network about the founder of Cake Love, a bakery in Washington D.C. that my friend Mara introduced me to on my last visit. The owner dropped his law career to create a bakery, one that places more emphasis on taste than looks-- in some of the cakes, the filling is bursting out of its lovable and misshapen contours. But who cares? The desserts are delicious. And there's the name -- Cake Love-- which sounds like some sort of supportive, hippie religion dedicated to the worship of baked goods. I went there more than once on my last visit to DC to sample cupcakes and other delights. When I go back this December for an academic conference, Cake Love will definitely be on my list of places to go, along with Ben's Chili Shop, Lebanese Taverna, and Bistrot du Coin in DuPont Circle...

Although I have a wonderful family recipe for pound cake that is called "Crust Cake," which develops a sweet and crunchy crust, it is somewhat heavy and therefore the kind of thing I only like to make once a year or so. This recipe is a little lighter, brighter, and less heavy. It's from the magazine Cook's Illustrated, which I love for their thorough testing of recipes in search of perfection. I knew this would be a winner, and it was-- sweet yet tart, moist yet not gummy, delicate yet substantial. I will definitely make this again.

Lemon Pound Cake
2 sticks butter
1 1/2 cups cake flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/4 cups sugar
2 Tblsp. grated lemon zest plus 2 tsp. lemon juice
4 large eggs
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

Lemon Glaze
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup lemon juice

Preheat oven to 350. Grease a 9 by 5 loaf pan with 1 Tblsp. softened butter, dust with 1 Tblsp. flour and tap out excess.

In medium bowl, mix flour, baking powder, and salt, set aside.

Melt the butter on the stove and stir it up to make sure it's mixed. In a food processor, process sugar and zest until combined. Add lemon juice, eggs, and vanilla until combined. Keep machine running and add melted butter, remove mixture to large bowl. Sift flour mixture over eggs in three batches, mixing just to combine after each step. Pour into breadloaf pan and bake 15 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 325 and bake until golden brown, about 35 minutes more. When toothpick comes out clean, it's ready. Check after 35 minutes, but I found mine took another 5-7 minutes longer. Cool for 10 minutes, turn out onto wire rack, brush Lemon Glaze onto top and sides with a pastry brush.

Lemon glaze: bring sugar and lemon juice to boil, stirring until sugar dissolves. Reduce heat to low, simmer 2 minutes until thick.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Ramadan breakfast

We had guests over last night for a traditional Moroccan "breaking of the fast." On normal nights, breaking the fast is a much less elaborate affair, though we try to always have one or more of the following elements. We started the meal with a spicy bowl of harira, a hearty soup made with tomatoes, lentils, meat, and chickpeas, hard boiled eggs flavored with cumin, salt and pepper, dates and figs, a banana milkshake, lemon pound cake, and the famous "pancake with a thousand holes," also known as "bghrir." (This intriguing pancake is made with semolina and yeast; the batter rises for two hours and then when it's fried up it gets little bubbles all over the surface-- hence its name). All of these items might be found on a Moroccan table, even the lemon pound cake, known in my husband's family as mskuta although there, not flavored with lemon. After stuffing ourselves full of tasty carbs, we waited for awhile and then served chicken tagine with lemon and olives, along with fresh, round loaves of Moroccan wheat bread.

Nour and I spent almost six hours preparing, although for him the preparation was considerably more difficult because he was fasting AND the air conditioning system was broken (welcome to Florida, 85 degrees yesterday, and a hurricane on the way). I was thrilled with the way everything turned out, and each recipe was a keeper, particularly the chicken and olive tagine and the lemon pound cake. Our guests, one of whom was Moroccan, raved about the tagine. Nour made the harira, which was terrific, although I didn't write down the quantities yet so I can't report how it was made. I will write about the terrific lemon pound cake on another day, but for now, here's how to make an authentic (and easy) Moroccan chicken tagine that will leave your guests fainting with happiness... Moroccans eat tagines with bread-- couscous would not be served with this, although you can really do whatever you want if you feel you need a side carb.

Moroccan Chicken Tagine with Lemon & Olives
5 cloves garlic, finely chopped
olive oil
2 medium tomatoes, chopped
3 pounds chicken pieces, cut up
1/2 tsp. turmeric
1/2 tsp. pepper
10-14 ounces green olives without pits (with pimiento is fine; although not traditional, it doesn't affect the taste too much)
Juice from 1 lemon
1/2 cup finely chopped cilantro

In a Dutch oven, saute garlic in a generous slug of olive oil over medium heat until beginning to turn golden. Add tomatoes and cook for 2 minutes more, until softening. Add chicken, turmeric, and pepper, and cook uncovered for 15 minutes over low heat, turning occasionally.

Add about a cup of water to almost cover the chicken, then add olives. Cover and simmer 30 minutes, turning occasionally. Add lemon juice and cilantro, uncover and cook 15 minutes more, reducing the sauce so that it thickens slightly. Serve with crusty baguette for dipping.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Chocolate Butter Creams

It was a fairly forgettable week for cooking, mostly because I was so busy at work I only had one night where I attempted anything dramatic. I made a Pakistani chicken curry and potato-spinach patties, but both turned out to be forgettable and therefore not worth reporting. (I was checking out some sample recipes from a new Indian cookbook, but I probably won't buy it since Julie Sahni's Classic Indian Cooking, along with a few books by Madhur Jaffrey already have me covered...)

Which brings me to the week's one culinary success: butter creams. My mother often made these. She said her favorite way to spend her birthday as a child was to get to eat butter creams all day and read comic books. These are decadent and impressive, rich dark chocolate coating a creamy, buttery center-- it's like making your own chocolates and will impress everyone, though it's not at all difficult. The only drawback is that they stick to the plate, and I haven't figured out a way around that-- I tried putting these on a plate coated with Pam, but to no avail. They have to be pried up with a sharp knife, or if you take them out of the refrigerator for a few minutes, they usually are soft enough to pull off more easily. But they are worth it.

Chocolate Butter Creams

1/2 cup butter (one stick), slightly softened
4 cups sifted powdered sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
2 Tblsp. Condensed milk
Semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate-- a couple ounces

Cream butter using electric mixer, sift powdered sugar gradually into it, incorporating little by little. Add vanilla, mix everything well and form into balls by rolling in the palm of your hand. Place in the refrigerator on a plate for one hour to harden.

I then took a bar of Ghiradelli's semisweet baking chocolate and melted it over low heat with a couple squares of unsweetened baking chocolate (the bitter contrast is nice with the sweetness of the interior). Once melted, I took out the butter cream balls and used cooking tongs to quickly dip and coat each ball with chocolate, removing and placing on perhaps a greased cookie sheet. Cover and return to refrigerator to chill for another half hour or so, then eat and enjoy, or serve to guests. Decadent.

Friday, October 14, 2005


This is really, really exciting-- one of my oldest friends, George, has been written up in the New York Times for his new restaurant,

I wish I still lived in New York... If you happen to be there, go check it out. I am certain, from many a fine dinner prepared by George himself, that this place must be good.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Afghani Chicken with Pistachios and Caramelized Onions

When I used to live in Baltimore, there was a terrific Afghani restaurant called the Helmand. (I believe there is also a branch in San Francisco). I often went there for special occasions and it was wonderful-- unique dishes that reminded me of Turkish and Indian food yet which were very much their own thing. Dumplings stuffed with meat and leeks and drizzled in yogurt sauce, delicate dishes involving spiced pumpkin puree. The Helmand was owned by the Karzai family-- the very same family of the President of Afghanistan.

A few months ago, my friend Delia made this recipe for her book club when they were reading Khaled Hosseini's bestselling novel The Kite Runner. The recipe originally appeared in Cooking Light. At the time she recommended the dish, I filed the recipe away, and last night I finally made it.

It was amazing. Delicate, subtly spiced rice, tender chicken, and the perfect blend of salty and sweet. The rice is not very sweet, despite the orange peel and the sugar. The caramelized onions and saffron make this dish outstanding, and I love the different textures, particularly the crunch of pistachios on top. It's not hard to make, so I'll definitely be making it again.

Afghani Chicken with Pistachios and Caramelized Onions

6 pieces of chicken, bone-in, your call which type (I used legs)
2 cups vertically sliced onions
1/4 tsp. saffron threads, crushed
2 garlic cloves, finely minced
1 Tblsp. sugar
2 tsp. grated orange peel
2 1/4 cups no sodium added chicken broth
1 1/2 cups uncooked basmati or other long grain rice
2 Tblsp. raisins
6 Tblsp. chopped pistachios

Salt and pepper chicken pieces. In a large Dutch oven, melt 1 Tblsp. butter. Brown chicken on all sides over medium-high heat (about 5-7 minutes). Remove chicken from pan.

Melt another tablespoon of butter in same Dutch oven, saute sliced onions over medium heat until golden brown, 10-12 minutes. Add saffron and garlic, cook one minute, stirring constantly. Add orange peel and sugar, stir again for another minute. Add broth, rice, raisins, and salt to taste (1/4 tsp or more). Place chicken pieces back in rice and cover with lid. Cook 25 minutes, turning once, check to make sure the chicken doesn't dry up. You may need to add a bit more broth or water. Taste to see if rice is tender and adjust seasonings. Sprinkle with pistachios and serve. Serves 6. I divided this in half and managed to polish it off with only 2 people.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Sopa (Moroccan Vegetable Soup)

It's the month of Ramadan now, which means that my husband is fasting during the day. I tried fasting before when we lived in Morocco-- I made it about two weeks before finally giving up. It's incredibly difficult. Now I just like to try preparing nice things for him to break the fast with. The most common breakfast we had back in Fes would be a big bowl of harira-- a tomato-based soup with lentils, chickpeas, meat, and spices-- with dates, lots of honey pancakes and pastries. I made a huge pot of harira last week, but after eating it for a few days my husband gets tired of it and wants something else. So today I made something his mother calls sopa, a vegetable soup that is a lot lighter than harira. (If only the humid 90 degree Florida temperatures would agree with all this soupmaking.)

His family eats sopa as a light meal at night, particularly in the winter, often with a "tortilla"-- actually a Spanish omelette with potatoes. They sometimes make it with leftover chicken and other times with no meat at all-- it really doesn't need it for the flavor. I was looking at Hajar Lahouifi's recipe for chorba, which looks very similar, but this is our version from Fes:

Moroccan Vegetable Sopa (For 2 people-- can be doubled to serve 4)
3 carrots, diced
1 large potato, diced
2 celery sticks, diced (they would use the leaves but I don't find them in supermarkets here)
1-2 large tomatoes, whole (You can use 3 smaller canned whole tomatoes if you like)
1 onion, whole
a handful of parsley, finely chopped
a handful of cilantro, finely chopped
a tiny dash of turmeric
salt and pepper to taste
1 soup spoon olive oil
Green peas, a generous handful
a small bundle of vermicelli noodles
1 beef boullion cube - I like Better than Boullion (Vegetarians could probably use a veggie cube)

Place carrots, potatoes, celery, whole tomatoes, whole onion, parsley and cilantro in a small pot or pressure cooker. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Add turmeric, salt, pepper and oil, then cover. Cook for fifteen minutes in a pressure cooker or one hour in a normal soup pot. Remove tomatoes and onion and blend in a blender or food processor, returning this to the pot. Taste and adjust seasonings, then in last few minutes of cooking time add noodles and green peas (which I don't add until the end because I use frozen ones).

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Challah Bread

Maybe because it’s Rosh Hashanah, maybe because the NY Times had a big article last week about different varieties of kugel, which sounded intriguing though I’ve never tried it, I’ve been curious about the traditional foods eaten at this holiday. My friend Carol is going to bring a kugel her mother used to make into the office on Friday, so I’m looking forward to that. But last night I was having a craving for bread, and remembering how good challah French toast is, I decided to try my hand at the bread itself.

Surprisingly, it is not at all difficult to make, and the results turned out perfectly. The end result is very impressive, with a golden-brown, puffed up loaf, crispy on the outside, soft and dense and fragrant on the inside. For my recipe I chose to follow Mark Bittman’s in How To Cook Everything, which my friend Beth refers to as the “Bittman Bible.” (I refer to it seven to ten times each week). I decided to divide the recipe in half, both because Bittman recommended not keeping it for more than a day and also because my food processor is too small to process five cups of flour, and I love using the food processor to make bread.

2 1/2 cups bread flour
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. Rapid Rise yeast
1 Tblsp. Honey or sugar
1 1/2 eggs (this was a stretch—I used a single egg and 1/8 cup egg beaters)
Milk, warmed in the microwave, midway between 1/2 and 3/4 of a cup
Coarse salt to taste

First I put the flour, salt, and yeast in a food processor, whirring them to blend. As the machine was running, I added the honey, eggs and milk. I processed the dough for 30 seconds, and its consistency was supposed to be barely sticky and a well-defined ball, so I had to add a few more tablespoons of flour until it came out like this. Then I kneaded it for about thirty seconds on a floured surface and turned it into a mixing bowl coated with cooking oil.

For an hour and a half the bread rose in the inferno that is the Florida garage. By this point I was getting hungry, so I cut short Mark Bittman’s recommended time to do these other steps. I punched the dough down into three equally sized balls, then let them sit five minutes (rather than the recommended fifteen). I rolled them out into three ropes about 10 inches long and placed them on a greased baking sheet, connecting them at the top. I simply braided them and connected the dough again at the bottom, (they were supposed to sit in this state for 30 minutes but I couldn’t wait), brushing it with egg yolk and sprinkling coarse Kosher salt on top. In a preheated 375 degree oven I cooked the small loaf about 30 minutes, until it was golden brown and made a hollow noise when I tapped it on the bottom. Mmm. Great with dinner, can’t wait to have it again for breakfast…

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Experimenting with Quinoa

I was interested to read that quinoa (pronounced "kin-wa"), a grain from Ecuador used since the time of the Incans, was so high in protein-- up to 12 grams in a serving. It also has fiber and vitamins A & C, making it a kind of super-grain. I bought some from Whole Foods and decided to start experimenting with recipes. The first recipe I tried was a slight improvisation based on a recent article in Runner's World. It was kind of a quinoa pilaf that has a lot of vitamins and protein in it. I made it as an accompaniment to London broil, but it could have stood on its own as a filling veggie lunch.

First I heated a bit of olive oil in a saucepan, then sauteed 3/4 cup quinoa until it was golden and toasty. I covered this with 1 1/2 cups chicken broth and cooked it for fifteen minutes, while in another pan I sauteed a few tablespoons of onion and two garlic cloves in olive oil. At the end I added about three cups of fresh spinach and a diced plum tomato, along with a dash of salt, pepper, and cayenne pepper. When the spinach had reduced in size and the quinoa was cooked, I mixed everything together along with 1/4 cup pecorino romano cheese.

Results: I really liked the consistency, which was crunchy and fell somewhere between bulgur and couscous in appearance. The quinoa also tasted delicious. BUT-- it had a slightly weird smell to it that reminded me of cauliflower-- not entirely appealing. Sometimes I smell things that aren't there (ancient head injury, long story), so it could have been in my imagination. And my husband loved it. So I will keep experimenting and report tasty quinoa recipes as I find them, since obviously it's really good for you.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Spinach & Gruyere Quiche

Originally uploaded by rachelita2.
I've been having a craving for quiche lately. I wanted to see if I could make one myself, and despite the potential intimidation factor of producing a successful pie crust, I didn't want to buy one. Not that I have anything against them, but I wanted to try doing everything from scratch before I start adding shortcuts.

I found a recipe on Epicurious for Easy Pie crust, which I made a few hours ahead of time. With the food processor, it was easy: I blended together 1 1/3 cups flour, 6 tablespoons butter, cut up, 2 Tblsp. shortening, a teaspoon of sugar and a half teaspoon of salt. When it formed crumbs, I added three tablespoons of ice water through the feeder until it all clumped together. I then dumped it on a large piece of plastic wrap, flattened it into a disk, and refrigerated it for an hour. It took less than ten minutes to do this.

The trick was rolling it out, and it was a bit unwieldy. I took the dough out first and let it soften for about ten minutes, then rolled it out on a floured surface until it was big enough to fit in a pie dish that I'd coated with cooking spray. I fitted it in, then folded the edges over, pre-baking it for 7 minutes in a 375 degree oven. This is necessary because otherwise the crust might become soggy under the weight of wet ingredients. I tried weighting the empty crust down with a piece of tin foil coated with cooking spray and some rice, then had the mishap of the rice getting stuck in the dough when I tried to remove the foil.

It came out alright, though. You could skip all that and just buy a frozen crust instead.

As for the quiche itself, after reading many, many recipes for quiche, I began to realize that quiche is infinitely variable and that you can substitute at will for whatever ingredients you might want for a weeknight meal. Again following a couple recipes, one from epicurious, I decided upon the following ingredients:

1 tablespoon butter
1 vidalia onion, chopped
1 10 ounce bag fresh spinach
1/2 cup grated gruyere
1/2 cup grated pecorino romano
4 eggs (or 2 eggs and 1/2 cup egg substitute)
1/2 cup lowfat ricotta (could also use cottage cheese)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Melt the butter in a nonstick skillet, saute the onions until translucent. Then add the spinach little by little, until it cooks down and all its water evaporates. Remove from heat and cool slightly, adding spices-- salt, pepper and nutmeg. In a food processor, mix together eggs and ricotta. Add to cooled spinach mixture and mix in cheese. Pour into prepared pie crust, bake 45-50 minutes until set. It will be slightly moist in the middle, but resist the temptation to overcook.

The quiche was really delicious and smelled amazing while in the oven. I think I could accomplish it with a more beautiful crust next time, and I might try some feta for a little more bite, or some artichoke hearts. Or you could make it into a Tex-Mex-style quiche, adding cheeses like cheddar and monterey jack and canned chili peppers. Either way, I don't think it's possible to go wrong.


Originally uploaded by rachelita2.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

chicken with apple juice

This summer, while visiting with my friend Jenny in Morocco, she told me about a dish she often makes for her husband and daughter after a long day at work when she wants to pull something together quickly. I was intrigued when she said that apple juice could be a good substitute for wine in cooking, because I like to cook with wine but don't always have it on hand or want to open a bottle (One way around this is to buy those little mini bottles of wine, but this is another solution).

Basically, this recipe is infinitely variable and will turn out well no matter how you adjust it. What I did tonight: I took a rather large, boneless chicken breast and diced it up. Then I dredged it in flour, salt, pepper, and paprika, and sauteed it in a bit of fake butter (Smart Balance- ), browning it on all sides. I took the chicken out, and then in the same pan sauteed mushrooms, chopped onions, and garlic. When those softened, I put the chicken back in, added 3/4 cup apple juice and 3/4 cup chicken broth. I simmered it uncovered for 20 minutes, then added about a half teaspoon of dried tarragon. I let it cook another five minutes (it had cooked down considerably at this point), added salt and pepper to taste, then stirred in two small spoons of plain yogurt. It didn't separate, and my friend said you can use sour cream or cream if you prefer. I brought it to a boil and turned it off, serving it over mashed potatoes. It made a really nice, sweet & savory sauce.

This was comfort food at its best, but the sweet richness was reminiscent of a dish that used wine. I might use slightly less apple juice and slightly more chicken broth if I make it again, but it was still delicious...

I would like to develop an efficient repertoire of recipes that I cook whenever I'm tired from work and can't think of what to cook-- the kinds of recipes that are easy but taste good. The weekends can be for assembling elaborate lasagnas or complex desserts... Last year, while getting used to my first full-time teaching job, I was not very efficient about this-- I tended to get lost in cookbooks and magazines trying to decide what to make at the last minute, picking elaborate, time-consuming dishes, wasting time at the supermarket to get extra ingredients, and going to bed exhausted. This year, I've resolved to cut down on this inefficiency considerably...

Sunday, September 18, 2005

new Orlando restaurants

I've tried two restaurants recently, one new, one new to me. The one that's been around for awhile is Lupita's, which a number of people have mentioned is the closest thing we have here in Central Florida to authentic Mexican. It's in a strip mall, but once you're inside, you forget that fact with the colorful decor of bright primary colors. I tried chicken enchiladas with mole sauce, their signature dish, which was pretty good-- mole sauce is with chocolate*, for those who don't know. The dish was very complex and smoky, with just a hint of sweetness to take away the bitterness of the chocolate. We also had some chicken tamales, which were a good appetizer. It's the type of restaurant where the owner and his wife (wearing a traditional sort of house dress) wander around talking to customers throughout the evening, making sure everything is acceptable. I definitely found myself wanting to go back and try more of their dishes.

The other new place was a chain creation, but it was pretty good. Pei Wei owned by PF Chang's, and they call themselves an Asian diner. This isn't a very descriptive phrase-- it looks nothing like a diner inside, but in fact has a sleek, dark, and modern Asian decor. Unfortunately it's located on a stretch of Colonial Drive that is one of the blights of Central Florida-- close to a Target and a Payless shoe store, in an area characterized by discount furniture shops, auto detailing, car stereo shops, and roads that haven't been repaired since the Eisenhower era. But never mind that fact. Once you're inside, you forget about Colonial. Everything was very clean, and you can see the guys cooking your food in tremendous woks behind the counter. You place your order, sit at a table, and someone brings you the food, which I enjoyed very much. It is a big step up from the cheap Chinese places around here, meaning less greasy, no MSG, and a good ambience, all for about the same price. And they have more than just Chinese food on the menu-- Thai and Japanese cuisines are also represented. We had a terrific lo mein with chicken, with very sticky, slightly sweet noodles, crisp vegetables, and mushrooms. The spring rolls were also excellent-- perfectly fried, not greasy, and with each vegetable inside holding its integrity. Their version of "General Chu's" or General Tso's chicken was just OK-- less greasy than the strip mall version and nicely spicy, but nothing out of this world. I'll definitely go back, though. It's affordable and clean, and they also have beer, which is a nice extra.

*The combination of chocolate with sugar is a Western invention, related to the increased consumption of sugar after the discovery of the New World. Until that point, sugar was a rarity, something only the elites and royals could afford, but plantations and slave labor changed all that. Sugar cane was actually imported to the Caribbean; it wasn't indigenous. Until the late 18th century or so, sugar was used in medicine, in small quantities as a spice, or as a way for the wealthy to show off their wealth in giant sugar models they displayed at parties. All of these facts are courtesy of Sidney Mintz' wonderful study, Sweetness and Power.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Roasted Rock Cornish Game Hens

A really simple meal that my mother often made when I was a child: cornish game hens roasted in a paper bag. It must be the equivalent of roasting fish in parchment; there's something about the paper bag that allows some of the skin to crisp while the juices keep the bird moist. I found myself craving this the other night and asked her for the recipe. It's a great thing to make when you're tired or short on time:

1 rock cornish game hen
breadcrumbs to coat chicken
3-4 Tblsp. melted butter or margarine
1 brown paper lunch bag

Heat oven to 400. Salt and pepper game hen generously inside, a little outside. Melt butter and rub all over chicken. Sprinkle breadcrumbs over all, pressing in to help adhesion. Then place the game hen in a paper bag and tie with twine at the top (I only had a big paper grocery bag on hand, so I cut it off at the top and folded it over instead). Place in a roasting pan, turn oven down to 375, and roast for one hour. This was nice with chipotle mashed sweet potatoes (sweet potatoes mashed up with a tablespoon of finely minced canned chipotle pepper, butter, and salt) and a salad.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Tomato, Basil, and Parmesan Flatbreads

Originally uploaded by rachelita2.
A restaurant recently opened up in my area that has delicious but overpriced flatbread pizzas-- not even pizzas, really, just good flatbreads topped with various combinations such as fig, prosciutto, and blue cheese. But when I discovered a recipe in my new Best of Cooking Light cookbook that has an excellent, crunchy flatbread dough, I was sold-- overpriced flatbread pizzas no more, unless someone else is paying...

The dough is good and crunchy and cooks quite nicely:

1 cup boiling water
1/3 cup yellow cornmeal
1 package yeast
1/4 cup warm water
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. salt
2 tsp. olive oil

Combine boiling water and cornmeal in a bowl, let stand 20 minutes, stirring frequently. Dissolve yeast in warm water in a small bowl, rest 5 minutes. Combine cornmeal mixture, flour, and salt in a food processor, pulsing until blended. Turn on food processor, and slowly add yeast mixture and oil until dough forms a ball. Knead 4 times, dough will be sticky, place in oiled bowl and put in a warm place to rise, at least 1 hour, until doubled. Then punch down the dough, let it sit 5 minutes. Divide into 4 balls, roll each into 10 x 6 inch ovals. Place on baking sheet dusted with cornmeal.

The topping: the recipe calls for a combination of sliced yellow and plum tomatoes, but this was too complicated, so I add sliced tomatoes. Then in a small bowl mix 1/2 cup minced fresh basil, 4 tsp. olive oil, 1/4 tsp. salt, 1/8 tsp. black pepper, and 4 minced garlic cloves. Grate 1 cup Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese. Fresh basil is essential here-- it's part of the point of why the final product is so good.

Heat oven to 475. Divide tomatoes among the 4 flatbread ovals, bake 13 minutes. Spread basil mixture and cheese over bread, bake another 2 minutes or until melted. Yields four beautiful, crunchy little pizzas.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Tastes Great - Less Filling

It seems odd to think that this is early August and the summer is pretty much over-- schools have started here in Florida and meetings and classes at the college where I teach will start very soon. Apparently parents have begun to protest the early start, angry about having their kids in 90 degree school buses.

I never did manage to update about food from Morocco-- not because I couldn't, but because it was so hot there that every time I'd go to the internet cafe the temperatures outside were around 105, and cooking and writing about food were the last thing I wanted to do. Despite having the Sahara desert in the southern part of the country, Morocco is not normally as hot as it's been this year-- its climate is usually more like Georgia's.

But I'm back now and my current resolution is to try to make recipes that don't involve a lot of elaborate ingredients and preparation. In an attempt to be frugal, I'm hoping to develop the ability to improvise with what's on hand, so that I don't end up in the grocery store each day spending money on random ingredients that languish unused in the pantry.

Tonight I started preparing some of the recipes from The Best of Cooking Light, which my sister gave me as a birthday gift. I've been surprised by how much I've gotten into this magazine in general over the past two years, and they really do try to find ways to make things taste great while sacrificing little in flavor.

I made Fettucine with Cashew Cream, a recipe that promised to be a lot like Fettucine Alfredo, but without any butter or cream. I had my doubts that cashews could somehow be turned into a sauce that didn't have a basically nutty taste, and I was really surprised by the end result: it was delicious, more intriguing than any run-of-the-mill alfredo sauce, and tasted nothing like cashews at all.

Cook 8 ounces of fettucine while working on the sauce. First process 1/2 cup roasted cashews in the food processor for two minutes, scraping down the sides. Add 1 1/4 cups water slowly until well mixed. Place cashew cream into a small saucepan, bring to a boil and reduce the heat, whisking for one minute. Remove from stove.

Then heat a skillet with a little olive oil and saute three minced garlic cloves for 30 seconds. Add cashew cream, pasta, 1/4 cup Parmesan, and pepper and salt to taste. This supposedly made four servings at 378 calories each, but between two of us we finished the whole thing...

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Moroccan spices

Moroccan spices
Originally uploaded by rachelita2.
Off to Morocco to visit family/do a little research. Hopefully will have reports of food activity to post from cyber cafes along the way... stay tuned...

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

slow-roasted chicken

slow-roasted chicken
Originally uploaded by rachelita2.
After the Cuban feast, it seemed things only got more excessive. Ideally I'd like to avoid eating red meat more than once a week, but the next night, we were invited to a barbecue involving ground beef, beef ribs, and beef kebabs, all done Moroccan-style, marinated in onions, parsley, cumin, and cayenne pepper. This accompanied by apple martinis that were so delicious you couldn't have just one... Too tired to cook, the next day I gave into cheap Chinese takeout-- General Tso's Chicken and beef lo mein. Bad, bad.

I decided to clean up my act by preparing a couple of recipes from Nigella Lawson's Forever Summer cookbook, which I'd just checked out from the library. I felt like I needed the type of balanced comfort food menu that reminds me of childhood-- chicken, potatoes, and salad. Again, I had an audience in Nour and Amy-- she was moving away from Central Florida the very next day.

For a fitting goodbye, I made slow-roasted garlic and lemon chicken, paired with a type of roasted potato I had never encountered before-- Swedish hasselback potatoes, also from the Nigella cookbook. Both recipes were incredibly easy but also tasted incredibly good-- comfort achieved. The lemons and garlic cloves almost carmelize after baking for three hours, great for spreading and dipping on a crusty baguette. The potatoes develop an intriguing crust but are still soft on the inside.

For the chicken, you will need one chicken, cut into pieces (or if you determine, as I did, that all parties prefer dark meat, buy a big package of legs). Heat oven to 300. In a roasting pan, place chicken pieces with all the cloves from a head of garlic, separated but with peels left on. Add two lemons, cut into eight pieces, and a handful of fresh rosemary (Nigella uses thyme). Mix with 3 Tblsp. olive oil, sprinkle 10 Tblsp. white wine over top, salt and pepper, and cover with foil. Roast for 2 hours.

After two hours, remove foil and crank up the oven to 400, cooking another 30-45 minutes. I turned the pieces so all sides would brown.

The potatoes can cook roughly at the same time. Take 18 4-ounce (i.e. small-ish) new potatoes about the same size and slice them at 1/2 inch intervals, but don't cut them all the way through. In a dutch oven, melt 3 Tblsp. butter with 5 tblsp. olive oil. When hot, add potatoes, turning on all sides to coat. Place in oven with chicken when you crank up the heat to 400. Cook the potatoes until done, turning occasionally, may take 45 minutes to an hour.

Accompanied with a salad and a light mango sorbet for dessert, I felt like I was eating a little healthier again...

nigella's chicken dinner

nigella's chicken dinner
Originally uploaded by rachelita2.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

tres leches

tres leches
Originally uploaded by rachelita2.
I finally succeed in preparing tres leches cake. I decided to make a whole meal around it, inspired by having my first real day of summer vacation to indulge in a marathon cooking session. The menu, all recipes taken from the Three Guys from Miami website: skirt steak marinated in mojo criollo with chimichurri sauce, black beans, fried plantains (tostones), and the piece de resistance: tres leches cake.

I started out by making the mojo marinade for the steak: tons of garlic cloves, salt, black peppercorns, sour orange juice (a good use for our tree that bears sour oranges), minced onion, oregano, and olive oil. I put that aside, with the meat soaking in its tenderizing bath. Then I made the black beans, which were pretty delicious-- I saved three tablespoons of the marinade, sauteed finely chopped onions and green pepper in olive oil, added garlic, the marinade, 3 tsp. of cumin, and once everything was translucent, a cup of canned black beans that I mashed up. I then added the remainder of that can and another can, both drained, and cooked this for 20 minutes. It was very flavorful-- this could have been from the added kick the marinade gave it.

The chimichurri sauce was a nice accompaniment-- a sauce composed of vinegar, fresh cilantro, olive oil, garlic, lime juice, onion, and cayenne pepper, all whirred together in the food processor. I cooked the steak on our tiny Weber grill and it sizzled and browned and came out delicious... The fried plantains didn't turn out to be quite so delicious-- they had a curious preparation, whereby you cut them into 2 inch chunks, deep fry them, take them out and drain them, smash them with the bottom of a coffee mug, and deep fry them again, adding salt and pepper at the end. They were just okay-- not nearly as good as some of the different kinds of tostones I've had at restaurants.

But the tres leches cake lived up to all expectations. I was really pleased with it, no, knocked out would be a better word. I didn't think somehow that it was possible to prepare this delight on my own. I compared two recipes ahead of time and decided on the Three Guys recipe because the other one involved slicing a cake into three layers and coating each with syrup, which I thought I probably didn't have the tools to do. (I could just envision the cake breaking up into a million pieces.)

Making tres leches cake basically involves three steps: first, preparing a delicious golden layer cake, redolent of vanilla. No mix will do-- this cake is terrific, and it puffs up golden brown because the egg whites are whipped up to a froth and folded in at the end. I cooked mine for exactly 35 minutes, as the recipe said, and it was perfect.

Step two involves the syrup-- the three milks that make this so unique-- mixing together a can of condensed milk, a can of evaporated milk, and a cup and a half (!) of heavy cream. I followed the timing of the recipe and waited until the cake had cooled twenty minutes before doing this. Then you poke lots of holes in the cake with a fork, spooning the syrup slowly over the cake and helping it to absorb by poking more holes in it before you add more syrup. It pools around the bottom of the plate and then sits in the refrigerator for three hours, waiting to be iced.

The icing was a meringue of sorts, egg whites, sugar, water and hot corn syrup beaten together. I didn't use the entire recipe of meringue-- it was an acceptable icing, but it wasn't the icing that blew me away (In restaurants, I remember whipped cream on top). It was the final product, which did give the full experience of having the cake in a good Cuban restaurant. Amy, who helped me prepare the icing, and Nour, who helped with grilling and eating, agreed.

The full recipe is here. I definitely would make this recipe again, but maybe sleuth around a little bit to find out a different version of the icing. I would also certainly use the marinade for steaks again, and the black beans were terrific... After these experiments, buying the actual Three Guys cookbook, advertised on the website, looks tempting as well. Pictures of the whole belt-busting extravaganza appear below.

cuban feast

cuban feast
Originally uploaded by rachelita2.
The menu: skirt steak marinated in mojo criollo with chimichurri sauce on top, tostones (deep fried plantains), black beans...


Originally uploaded by rachelita2.
the cake leaving the oven...


Originally uploaded by rachelita2.
pouring the "three milks" in little by little


Originally uploaded by rachelita2.
icing the cake...

tres leches

tres leches
Originally uploaded by rachelita2.
The final product.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

roasted carrot dip

There is a market in Washington, DC, near my friend Delia's house, where we always stop for fresh-baked bread, interesting cheeses, wine, and carrot dip whenever I visit her. Stopping at Marvelous Market has been a tradition of longstanding. The carrot dip is smoky and complex, containing some typical Moroccan spices, but unfortunately during a recent visit I learned that they had discontinued it. I wrote them a letter begging them for the recipe and expressing my deep nostalgia for it but never got a reply. Thus, I'm on a quest to recreate it. Following a recent recommendation, I checked out Crescent Dragonwagon's Passionate Vegetarian, which has two recipes for carrot dip at the beginning. I prepared one today that tastes pretty good but I won't be sure whether it's like the one from Marvelous Market unless it sits for a day or two. Still, I'd make it again, and it's a nice change from most dips. The recipe appears below.

On an unrelated note, after picking me up at the airport today, my friend Amy introduced me to Woodlands Vegetarian Indian Cuisine, a restaurant in south Orlando with a huge lunch buffet representing south Indian food-- masala dosas (slightly crunchy pancakes filled with spicy potatoes), palak paneer (spinach and cheese curry), great chutneys, excellent paratha bread, and gulab jamun (basically fried donut holes in a sweet syrup) were all on offer. (I was excited about the local discovery-- plus it's been a good week for Indian food, since this weekend I got to eat at a favorite DC establishment, Heritage Indian.) Stuffed with vegetarian delights, Amy & I headed to the campus pool at the college to get some relief from the 90 degree temperatures. No students were around, and it finally came over me that The Schoolyear is OVER!!!! The summer is MINE!!!!

Roasted Carrot Dip
1 lb. carrots, peeled
1 large red onion, quartered, skin on
1 head garlic, sliced crosswise
2 Tblsp. olive oil
1 Tblsp. tamari or shoyu soy sauce
2 tsp. ground cumin
2 tsp. paprika
pinch cayenne
1-4 Tblsp. vegetable stock, water, or olive oil
Salt & Pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 375. Blanch carrots in boiling water for 4-6 minutes, then drain. In large baking dish, toss carrots, onion and garlic with 1 Tblsp. olive oil. Add 1 Tblsp soy sauce and toss again, keeping cut side of vegetables down. Roast for 40 minutes. Cool. Squeeze garlic from papery skins, remove outer layer of onion skin and ends, throw into food processor with spices, pulsing to combine. Add one tablespoon water or olive oil at a time until smooth, seasoning to taste with more soy, salt and pepper... Serve with crackers, pita, etc.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005


Originally uploaded by rachelita2.

This past weekend, I went to an end-of-the-school-year dinner at Mimi's house. It was also a goodbye party for Amy, who's going the wrong direction in the typical migratory pattern of New Yorkers to Florida, to take a teaching job in the NYC area. Losing Amy is a major tragedy for the state of Florida, and for me, since she's my best friend here, but hopefully she'll be back, maybe even as a UN monitor for the next set of Florida elections.

After appetizers of queso manchego cheese, olives, and Spanish wine, we retired to the dining room for the best paella I have ever had (see photo below). A summer spent in Madrid and past trips to Sevilla and Barcelona never yielded anything half this good. Each separate ingredient held its distinctive taste and texture, and each ingredient (chicken, shrimp, chorizo, vegetables) was cooked to exact doneness, which is no small feat.

Mimi learned to make the paella from a friend who came from Alicante, Spain. She is promising to bring the recipe and discuss how she makes it. Mimi herself has an interesting summer planned-- a hiking trip along the Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

I've heard a number of stories about the origins of paella, but the most interesting one is that the dish originates with the Muslims conquerors who first brought rice to the region of Valencia. There is a word in Arabic, "baqiya," with the "q" often unpronounced, meaning "the remainder," and the story goes that one would put whatever one had left over together into a dish with the rice to make a hearty meal...

Dessert, however, I do have a recipe for. Amy, who is also a very good cook, made cheesecake with an unusual blueberry sauce, in a springform pan, a kitchen item I covet. The crust was buttery and sweet; the filling delicate, and the sauce brought it all together in a perfect balance of tart and sweetness.

Amy's Cheesecake

Graham Cracker Crust
2 c. of graham cracker crumbs (about 15 big crackers)
½ c. of melted butter
1 tsp. cinnamon

Lightly coat 9 inch springform pan with cooking spray.

Mix all ingredients in a bowl and mix together just until the crumbs are moist. Pour into bottom of springform pan, and press mixture firmly and evenly across bottom of pan, and about 1 inch up the sides. Refrigerate crust while making the cheesecake batter.

2 8oz packages of cream cheese, room temperature
1 cup sugar
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Zest of 1 lemon, finely grated (save rest of lemon for blueberry sauce)
1 pint sour cream

To prepare filling: In a large bowl, beat the cream cheese on low speed for 1 minute just until smooth and free of any lumps. Gradually add the sugar and beat until creamy, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the eggs, 1 at a time, and continue to slowly beat until combined. Stir in the vanilla and lemon zest. Blend in the sour cream, but do not overbeat. Pour filling into the crust-lined pan and smooth the top with a spatula.

To prepare water bath: Set the pan on a couple of large pieces of aluminum foil and fold up the sides. This will prevent water from seeping into the seams of the springform pan. Carefully set the cake pan in a larger roasting pan. Pour boiling water into the roasting pan until the water is about halfway up the sides of the cheesecake pan.

Bake in a preheated 325 degree oven for 45 minutes. Do not worry if the cake looks undone and do not do the toothpick test. Let cool in the pan for 30 minutes. Chill in the refrigerator, loosely covered, for at least 4 hours to set up.

Blueberry Topping:
2 tablespoons butter
2 pints blueberries (I used frozen)
½ to ¾ cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon cornstarch (mixed with a little bit of water to avoid clumps)
1 lemon, juiced

Combine all ingredients in a 2-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring up to a slow boil and stir gently for 10-15 minutes until sauce thickens and blueberries start to break down (the sauce will remain chunky). Cool to room temperature and serve on top of cheesecake.


Originally uploaded by rachelita2.

Monday, April 25, 2005

tres leches cake

I don't know how I have lived for 30 years on this earth without tasting Tres Leches cake. For those who haven't tried it, it is a Cuban specialty that basically involves a white cake soaked in three different types of milk: condensed, cream, and evaporated. This past weekend, on my quest to try locally owned establishments, I headed out to Numero Uno, a Cuban restaurant that has been an Orlando institution since 1974. Amy had eaten there before with her friends Pat, Kathy & Vance and recommended it wholeheartedly. I've been looking forward to trying it, since most of my experiments with Cuban food have involved fast food or food that claims to be (but isn't necessarily) Cuban.

Advertising itself to be the best Cuban food north of Miami,Numero Uno did not disappoint. Amy, Nour and I started with a carafe of fruit-laden sangria and several appetizers-- empanadas, tostones, and papas fritas. The empanadas were stuffed with cheese or beef and were just OK. The tostones, fried green plantains stuffed with saucy chicken and cheese, were out of this world, as were the papas fritas, which were basically mashed potato croquettes, done perfectly. We got three different entrees, the best of which were Amy's braised lamb, covered with spicy tomato sauce, and Nour's ropa vieja, slow-cooked beef practically falling apart into another smoky, spicy tomato-based sauce. All were served with rice and a side of simple yet filling black beans.

But the cake, the cake. What can I say about this cake? I like cake but rarely do I eat a slice that thrills me the way this one did. When Amy said we had to try this, and that it involved condensed milk, I was already sold. I intended to take only a bite (sorry, Amy) but instead found myself fighting for every last morsel. The three sweetened milks of the "tres leches" combine together to add a wonderful complexity that is sweet but not cloying, and the cake surprisingly does not turn to mush or fall apart. I would put it in the same category of food as the Indian gulab jamun, which is basically fried dough in a syrupy sauce, also another favorite of mine, but tres leches is perhaps its superior. It is cake, and definitely not fried dough. Where, when, will I eat it again? This dilemma crowds out other thoughts and has, in the days since we left Numero Uno, taken on increasing urgency.