Archive for the 'cookme' Category

perfecting the potato pancake

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

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Now that Chanukah is over, and those who eat them have presumably had more than their fill of latkes, I’m very late or perhaps one year early in offering up some tips for the perfect pancake. Perhaps small potato pancakes dolloped with crème fraîche and topped with salted salmon roe and chives are just the right appetizer for a New Year’s Eve party? Or not, if your body still remembers stuffing itself silly with the things just a couple of weeks ago. Either way, these notes will eventually come in handy.

My tips on latke making technique, in order to form a more perfect pancake:

  • Oil: Having experimented with different oils and fats, I’ve found that the cleanest burning oils with the highest smoking point are grape seed, sunflower and safflower oils. This year I used cold-pressed grape seed oil, a very viscous oil that smells of grapes and a little like chardonnay. Goose schmaltz might be tasty, but I haven’t used it to cook latkes. Other animal fats have proven unsatisfactory, as has clarified butter. Whatever oil you use, be sure it has a relatively high smoking point. An oil with a high smoking point can be heated to a given temperature–say, 425°F–without smoking. Here’s a useful chart that lists cooking oils in order of smoking points. [Ed. note: I now use palm oil to fry my latkes, specifically, this palm oil shortening (which is also ethically sourced). Most of the unsaturated fats are removed from ordinary palm oil, resulting in a colorless shortening without trans fats or hydrogenated oils. This palm oil has a high smoking point and cooks cleanly.]
  • Potatoes: Choose a starchy potato with a relatively low moisture content, such as the reliable Russet or Idaho potato. Soggy latke batter will yield soggy pancakes. Similarly, low moisture, high-starch batter will produce a more crispy cake.
  • Grating or processing: Does an authentic latke require bloody knuckles, or will the modern ease of a food processor suffice? Ask any latke enthusiast and you’ll likely get a thirty minute lecture on the topic. Having tried both methods, I prefer the texture of hand grated potato pancakes to that of processed. My favorite grater is the Kyocera julienne slicer, a ceramic mandolin that retails at around twenty five US dollars. The julienne mandolin produces thinly grated potato strings that cook quickly without remaining raw in the middle. They crisp up nicely as well. But I’m no pedant, nor a glutton for torture. If you’re cooking for twenty, by all means, use a food processor.
  • Getting the potatoes to stick together: I’m a purist. I like my latkes without any eggs. Why ruin the crunch of a good latke with fluffy eggs? Serve them on the side if you like, but there’s really no need to include eggs in your latkes. The trick to latkes that stick together without falling apart is, once again, low moisture and high starch content. After grating your potatoes and onion, squeeze out as much liquid as possible by placing the batter in a fine mesh sieve over a large bowl. Squeeze and knead out the liquid through the sieve, but retain the water in the bowl. By the time you’ve squeezed out all the liquid and seasoned your potato mixture, you should have a thick layer of potato starch sediment at the bottom of your bowl. Carefully pour off the water, but keep the sediment. Use a spoon to scoop up some of the potato starch and mix it back into your potato mixture. The dampened starch binds the potato and onion like glue, and the starchy coating helps the pancakes brown and crisp in the pan. As you form the pancakes, keep squeezing out liquid. Mix in more potato starch if the batter looks raggedy.
  • Preventing discoloration: Alternately grate the potato and onion. Mix the batter between gratings. The onion juices prevent the potatoes from turning odd shades of gray. You can also add a small pinch of baking soda to do the same.
  • Seasoning: I use about 1 heaping teaspoon of sea salt per 2 pounds of potatoes, and one medium or large onion. I use as much freshly ground white pepper as I feel like grinding in before my arm wants to fall off. If you’d like to put green stuff in your latkes, dill goes very nicely. But salt and pepper alone is classic and lovely.
  • Forming the pancakes: This is a bit tricky. You want to squeeze the batter before it hits the pan, as a last ditch effort to eliminate moisture and encourage potato cohesion. But you don’t want your latkes to be heavy and leaden, like your Aunt Mildred’s wayward matza balls. I like to flatten the pancake as much as possible after squeezing, then loosen it a bit so that it isn’t heavy. Don’t worry about creating a perfectly round latke. A more rustic pancake with unkempt potato hairs looks homier and boasts the coveted crisp, lacy edges.
  • Frying: A cast-iron pan is your naturally non-stick friend. It heats up slowly, but retains heat very well. Add more oil to the pan than you think you’ll need. You don’t want to deep fry your pancakes, but you don’t want the oil to be too shallow either. The pan should be at a constant medium-high heat. The oil is hot enough when it bubbles continually at the edges of your pancakes, it’s too hot when it begins to smoke. Monitor the oil and move the dial up or down to keep the pan at the right heat. Place the tip of each pancake in the pan using a spatula, then gently slide out the spatula so that the batter rests in the pan. This gradual slide into the oil does two things: the cool batter doesn’t lower the temperature of the hot oil and you’re less likely to sustain burns by inadvertently splashing yourself with very hot oil. Everybody wins.
  • Spacing the pancakes: The refrain I always heard from my dad whenever I helped him in the kitchen–don’t crowd the pan. Once more for emphasis, this time in all caps: DON’T CROWD THE PAN. Your pan should be large enough to fry as many latkes as you want to fry at once. To put it another way, only fry as many latkes as will comfortably fit in whatever size pan you use. In other words, the oil in the pan should stay hot enough to bubble and brown the edges of your pancakes. If your latkes start steaming, looking soggy or limp, or absorbing vast quantities of oil without browning, you’ve crowded the pan. Keep some space around each pancake. How much space and how many pancakes? When in doubt, just cook fewer latkes at a time. Alternatively, keep two pans going on two different burners.
  • Browning and crisping: A good, crisp latke just happens. No amount of checking, flipping, checking again will make your pancake brown faster. In fact, potchkeing with your pancakes will almost certainly guarantee a soft, wimpy latke. How will you know when it’s time to turn them over? They’ll be a medium-brown color around the edges. If a pancake is browned around the edges except for one area, you’ve got a cool spot on your burner. Gently turn the latke so that the soft edge is in the hotter area. When that part browns, carefully turn over the pancake. If the latke is merely golden and you want a little more browning, you can turn it over again after the flip side has browned.
  • Apple sauce: This traditional latke topping is very easy to prepare. Core and coarsely chop a few apples and place them in a pot. Squeeze over some lemon juice and add a little water. Heat on a low flame until it looks like apple sauce. Cool, serve. Really, that’s it. The apples reduce to about half their volume. If you’re serving a large crowd, chop as many apples as it takes to fill a medium to large pot. Conversely, for a small dinner, fill a small to medium pot with chopped apples. I don’t bother peeling the apples. You can remove the peels by pressing the resulting apple sauce through a large-holed sieve. The peel remains behind while the sauce goes right through. No need for sweetener, homemade apple sauce is quite nice on its own. Use a variety of tart and sweet apples for a more nuanced flavor. Season with a bit of ground cloves, cardamom, allspice and cinnamon, if you like.
  • Avoiding fried potato smells: Open a window and keep the fan on above your stovetop. There’s nothing worse than old fried potato smell, except perhaps old cabbage smell.

And remember, the first farkakte latke goes to the cook.

vegan hot chocolate that omnivores love

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

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Vegan hot chocolate is not an oxymoron. It exists, and it’s delicious. Curious? Read my ramblings and find the recipe at my Oakland Cooking column on Examiner.com.

tinkering with tubers: sweet potatoes done different

Wednesday, March 25th, 2009

I don’t often post my husband A’s recipes here, not because I don’t like them. On the contrary, A is a very creative cook who fearlessly combines spices, sauces, and ingredients like mixed media. Yemenite spice mix with Thai hot sauce and local butter? No problem. If it complements his main ingredient, A uses it.

The reason I don’t often post his recipes is that they’re so… well… off the cuff. Getting him to tell you what he’s put in his star dish is like herding cats, to use a dusty old metaphor.

For example:

“Man, A… these sweet potatoes are fantastic! Whadja put in ‘em? Butter, right?”
“Yes, butter. Also some hot sauce and coconut syrup.”
“And soy sauce, right?”
“Yes, just a little bit. And some salt. That’s it.”
“That’s it? Wow. Wait there’s some pepper in here too, right?”
“Oh right, yeah. Ground pepper.”
“Mmm… So how much coconut syrup?”
“Oh who knows. Just a little.”
“And hot sauce?”
“You know. A bit.”

One hour after dinner:

“Oh I forgot. I put in some baharat too.”
“Oh, baharat!”
“Yeah, and also some paprika.”

At this point, I’ve given up trying to figure out precise amounts. A has no idea himself. And I’m sure that tomorrow he’ll remember some other ingredient he’s forgotten to mention today. No matter. That’s part of the charm of his recipes—he enjoys tinkering and I enjoy the tasty results.

Here’s as close as I can get to a recipe for A‘s delicious sweet potatoes. They’re sweet and spicy with a little bit of heat, yet they’re also buttery and comforting. Do some tinkering of your own, and see what kind of kitchen alchemy you come up with.

a’s spicy sweet potatoes

butter
olive oil
sriracha hot sauce
coconut “thin sauce” (syrup) or molasses
splash of goji berry wine
a sprinkle of baharat spice mix
a sprinkle of paprika
salt and pepper to taste

  • Melt some butter and olive oil in a large enamel pot or pan on medium heat.
  • Coarsely chop 2 large sweet potatoes and soak them in water for a minute.
  • Drain the sweet potatoes and add them to the pan.
  • Stir and add spices and sauces.
  • Cover and cook for about 20 minutes.
  • Towards the end of cooking, season to taste with salt and pepper.
  • Correct seasoning and serve.

jewish ravioli: cheese kreplach

Monday, June 9th, 2008

Gevalt. My shoulders hurt, my back hurts. My triceps are no longer on speaking terms with me, and they’re whispering mutiny to the biceps. Yesterday, I made my own dumplings out of hand-rolled dough without the use of a pasta machine. Now I know what it must have felt like to be a housewife in a 19th century shtetl. All I need is a washboard for the laundry and a roof for my husband to fiddle on as he sings “TRADITION! TRADITION!

I know, I know. It sounds like hyperbole. But try it, you’ll see what I mean. Making the dough is fun at first. It involves mixing some beaten eggs into a mound of flour with a fork. At a certain point, you dispense with the fork altogether and use your hands. The joy of messiness, the kneading… it’s an adult version of play dough. After letting the dough rest, the rolling begins. If you’ve rolled your own pie crust, you may not think much of this part. Ah, but pasta dough must be thin, thin, thin—like paper, like silk. When you’ve been rolling a while and realize that your dough is still thick as pie dough, you begin to wonder how much longer. You throw yourself into it, using your weight to apply more pressure on the dough. You sweat through your t-shirt. You think “holy cannoli! What was I thinking?” Just when you decide to settle for
thick, lumpy kreplach, you roll just a little longer until the sheet of pasta is smooth and thin as it can get.

But you’re not done yet. You have to cut little circles with an upside down glass, being careful to place the circles as close together as possible so as not to waste too much dough. Then each circle must be brushed with water, filled with filling, and pressed closed. The pressing is an art in itself. The filling can’t be too much or too little, so that it fills the dough just enough without poking out the sides. The edges must be pressed together carefully around the filling without any air bubbles. Then the edges must be brought together, one side brushed with water, and pressed together firmly as though the dumpling is wringing its hands in front of its plump belly. But the dough must be soft and pliable enough that the belly doesn’t burst, spewing its cheesy contents. It’s painstaking work, alternately exasperating and meditative. But the result is that much more luxurious and tasty when you’ve worked so hard to make it yourself.

If you’re short on time and patience for hard labor, you could run your dough through a pasta machine. It’s probably best to run it through the highest to the lowest setting for a really thin, silky dough. You could use one of those plastic ravioli pressing gadgets that works like a waffle iron
, if you don’t feel like pressing the dumplings yourself. You could press the dumplings like kreplach (triangular wontons), or pelmeni (Russian tortellini). I gravitated towards tortellini style dumplings, as I thought they might better keep their shape and hold their filling (those wringing hands tend to hold the stuffing). But traditional kreplach triangles might be easier to make and certainly less time-consuming. (I’ve always felt that the triangular tips of kreplach or wontons are like delicate little pasta fins, the dumplings quietly swimming in your soup.)

I stuffed my kreplach with a cheese filling in honor of Shavuoth, the Jewish festival of the ten commandments. It is traditional to prepare all manner of dairy foods for this holiday, unlike most holidays where meat and fish are the festive foods. Jewish lore has it that the Israelites did not know how to keep kosher, as they hadn’t yet received the ten commandments. So they ate only dairy foods so as not to eat any animals that weren’t sanctioned by the law. (How did they know the law would prohibit the consumption of certain creatures? Good point. But again, this is lore…)

Back in Russia and Poland, Jews would prepare cheese kreplach served with fried onions or a dusting of sugar, sometimes sour cream or perhaps a bit of jam. The name, size and shape of the dumplings might vary depending on the region. I’ve prepared mine with a filling of goat cheese and za’atar, putting a Mediterranean twist on the Eastern European dish. As for toppings, I’ve used fried onions, leftover goat cheese instead of sour cream and plum jam. Yes, all three. The combination of flavors works surprisingly well.

Other traditional ways to serve kreplach include frying them with onions, or boiling them and then serving them in soup. Kreplach can be stuffed with potatoes, beef, chicken liver, or a combination of beef and pork if you want to make Ukrainian pelmeni (a non-Jewish cousin of the traditional kreple). You could alternatively make a sort of kreplach lasagne, layering sheets of fresh pasta with filling and toppings. How do you like your kreplach?

cheese kreplach for shavuoth

for the filling:
10 oz. soft goat cheese (chevre), or other cheese of similar consistency
5 stalks fresh za’atar, or other fresh herb such as dill, parsley, chives, oregano
salt and white pepper to taste
1 small egg

for the dough (adapted from a recipe in the NY Times):
1 3/4 cup all purpose flour
2 large eggs
lukewarm water, if necessary

for the topping:
goat cheese or sour cream or smetana
1-2 diced onions
butter
good plum jam (should be a little loose—I used June Taylor’s Elephant Heart plum conserve)

Preparing the filling:

  • In a large bowl, crumble in the cheese.
  • Hold the top of a stalk of za’atar with the thumb and forefinger of one hand. With the thumb and forefinger of the other hand, gently slide your fingers down the stalk, catching the leaves as they fall. Repeat for the remaining stalks. (This works for oregano as well, but any of the other herbs should simply be finely chopped.)
  • Rip or chop the za’atar and throw it into the bowl of cheese.
  • Season to taste with salt and white pepper. Taste and correct seasoning. Add a beaten egg and stir to combine.

Making the dough:

  • On a large, clean flat surface (a wooden table would be good), make a hill of flour. Form a well in the center of the hill.
  • Beat the eggs lightly and pour them into the well. Begin mixing the flour into the eggs with a fork.
  • At some point, you’ll want to use your hands to mix the egg and flour. If the mixture appears dry, add a little lukewarm water (say 1 or 2 tablespoons). My dough was moist with just the egg.
  • Knead the dough well, then let sit covered with a bowl or plastic wrap for 30 minutes.

Rolling the dough:

  • Separate the dough into two parts, leaving one portion under the bowl. Take the other half and begin to flatten and stretch it a bit with your hands.
  • Flour your surface and start rolling. You can use a pasta machine for this part. Roll the dough into an oblong shape rather than a circle. Be sure to move your dough frequently so that it doesn’t stick to the surface. Flour your surface just enough to keep the dough from sticking. You can patch any holes or cracks.
  • Roll until you can’t roll anymore, and then roll a bit more. You want to get your dough as thin and smooth as possible. Remember, the pasta will absorb water and expand when cooked. Feel the thickness of your dough and try to imagine what it might taste like when cooked. If it tastes like a mouthful of dough, you need to keep rolling.
  • When finished rolling, you might want to sprinkle a little water on the dough if it looks a bit dry.

Cutting the dough:

  • Use a glass with a 3 inch diameter to cut circles of dough. Use a dull knife to help cut the dough if necessary. Try to minimize the space between each circle of dough so as to avoid excess scrap dough.
  • When finished cutting the circles, collect the scraps and mush them into a ball. Place the ball under the bowl of resting dough.

Filling and shaping the dumplings:

  • With a barely damp pastry brush, brush one circle with a little water, mostly around the edges.
  • Place about a teaspoon of filling in the center of the circle.
  • Bring one end of the dough over the other in a half circle sandwich of dough and filling. Use your fingers to press the edges of the dough from one edge of the semi-circle to the other, while gently smoothing out any air bubbles along the edge of the filling. Dance your fingers along the edges again to get a good seal.
  • You can stop here, or you can continue folding the edges tortellini style. To do this:
    • Brush a little water on one tip of the semi-circle.
    • Then gently wrap the tips over your forefinger, the wet tip under the dry one.
    • Use your thumb to squeeze the tips against your forefinger, sealing them together.
    • Remove your forefinger, and gently squish the tips the other way (vertically).
  • Place the dumpling on a lightly floured plate. (I used two plates for my dumplings, simply to avoid the hassle of stacking them on top of each other, in case they stuck.)
  • Repeat for the remaining dough circles.
  • Take out the second piece of dough and follow the rolling, cutting, filling and shaping instructions. You can ball up and roll out the scraps too, or slice them into jagged, randomly shaped noodles. These can be cooked briefly before boiling the kreplach. Drain and slather with butter for snacking on while the kreplach cook.

Cooking the dumplings:

  • In a large skillet, melt some butter and fry the chopped onions on a medium to low flame until golden brown.
  • Boil heavily salted water for the dumplings. When the water is boiling gently, tip the plates of dumplings into the pot.
  • Agitate the pot lightly so that the dumplings don’t stick to the bottom of the pot. Cook until the kreplach float to the top.
  • Remove the kreplach with a slotted spoon, draining the water.
  • Top with fried onions, cheese or sour cream, and finally plum jam.

Serves 2-4

I picked up some great pasta making techniques from a class given by the inimitable Omnivorous Fish. Useful links here and here.

comfort food

Wednesday, March 28th, 2007

As a child, I craved macaroni and cheese from the box. So do most kids, I guess. But I had an unusual palate. Whenever we had Hershey’s miniatures for a special occasion at school, I’d trade any of the milk chocolate flavors just to get all the “Special Dark” bars. I loved the frozen spinach my mother would steam for dinner, flaky, plain croissants, and crusty European bread, a scarcity in the San Francisco peninsula back then. But the first time I tried that bright orange stuff from the box, I was hooked.

In our health-conscious household, there was precious little junk food. My first opportunity to eat the verboten dish arose at my friend’s house, naturally. I was mesmerized by the oozing, creamy sauce that so thoroughly enveloped the pasta elbows as to drench them. I savored the feel of the pasta between my teeth as I chewed it, and the tangy saltiness of the sauce. I enjoyed the accumulating warmth in my belly as I swallowed each bite.

Even more than a hot bowl of mac and cheese, I loved the cold leftovers with their slightly more al dente pasta and the clumps of sauce, the salty tang emboldened by a rest in the fridge. I knew this was gross, probably worse than my younger brother’s revolting habit of dousing ketchup all over our father’s perfectly cooked spaghetti. But I didn’t care. It tasted that good to me.

At home, I made my own version of cold mac and cheese with leftover pasta and cottage cheese. The tiny squeak of the curds between my teeth was almost as satisfying as the weird orange sauce. The combination of salty, creamy curds and dense pasta was delicious in its own right.

Pasta and cottage cheese—or its sophisticated sister, ricotta—is still one of my favorite comfort foods. It’s the kind of dish you make in a cereal bowl for one.

Climb into your favorite upholstered chair and take a bite. Close your eyes and taste it, familiar as a hug. Smile and remember.

pasta with cottage cheese and spinach for one

This a slightly dressier version of the simple dish, including greens and herbs for a nostalgic one-dish dinner for one.

pasta, cooked, any kind
butter, olive oil
2 handfuls fresh spinach, chopped
half a handful parsley leaves, chopped
1 green garlic leaf (only one piece of the long green part), chopped
good cottage cheese (preferably not nonfat)
salt and pepper

  • In the pot you used to cook the pasta, melt some butter with olive oil.
  • Cook the spinach until nearly wilted, then add the parsley and garlic greens. Stir.
  • Add the pasta, then some of the cottage cheese and stir to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  • Remove from flame and pour into a bowl. Add more cottage cheese and mix to combine.
  • Settle into a comfy spot and eat.

Serves 1

feast of the chanterelles

Monday, March 26th, 2007

It’s not every day a half pound of freshly foraged chanterelle mushrooms just falls into your lap. Taking them out of their paper bag when I got home, I picked up a large mushroom and inhaled its heady earthiness. It smelled of wet leaves and dirt on the forest floor. I wanted to cook the mushrooms in so many ways, it was hard to settle on just a few dishes.

chanterelles and cheese

Following the advice of the chef (the guy who was buying the mushrooms from the forager), I made an appetizer by slicing a wedge of brie lengthwise and using it to sandwich thin slices of fresh chanterelle. I used Fromager d’Affinois, but any brie would work. (Odd, isn’t it, that the cheese is called “Cheesemonger of Affinois”?) The brie went into a small, well-buttered ramekin and baked in a 350° F oven for about 15 minutes.

I also experimented with some delicious French Munster cheese. I thinly sliced a very small cored apple, and placed some slices a the bottom of a well-buttered ramekin. Smeared some cheese on the apples, placed thin slices of chanterelle on the cheese, then more apples, and so on. I baked this in the oven along with the other ramekin for the same time period.

We ate these on their own after they had cooled down a bit. But I think they’d be even better on toast.

chanterelle crusted puréed potatoes

First, I chopped the mushrooms, slightly bigger than a dice. I chopped half an onion, but a couple of shallots would have been better (per the chef’s recommendations). I sautéed the onions in butter, then added the mushrooms, s and p to taste, and finished it off with some good Madeira wine.

I made an ordinary dish of puréed potatoes, using sour cream instead of milk or cream. After it had cooled somewhat, I added two small beaten eggs and mixed well. The pureed potatoes went into a medium-sized, buttered souffle dish. Then I topped the potatoes with a thin layer of the chanterelle-onion mixture. The crusted puree baked for about 40 minutes at 350° F.

The earthy chanterelles perfectly complemented the potato purée. I particularly enjoyed the contrasting textures of succulent mushrooms on a bed of pillowy potato.

veggies

I served the classic cabbage and apples with onions cooked in butter, with a splash of Madeira. I also prepared steamed, buttered stinging nettles.

chanterelle-stuffed pork loin

I used the rest of the chanterelle-onion mixture to stuff the pork loin. I had two large individual pork loins (serves 2 hungry people), but it would be easier to stuff one large loin. Luckily, the butcher had supplied me with sufficient string to secure the loins. I poked back any bits of mushroom that fell out as I stuffed the loins.

The loins were browned in butter on both sides in a hot cast-iron skillet. Then into the oven they went (350° F).

Following cooking, I deglazed the pan with more Madeira and a little butter and spooned a few drops of sauce on each loin. This was really a no-brainer—pork + chanterelles + Madeira wine = pleasure.

Serves 2, along with a glass each of Madeira wine

couscous with vegetables

Wednesday, February 21st, 2007

Couscous is a marvelous dish when prepared properly. I don’t mean the kind of couscous you make by soaking it in hot water for ten minutes. I mean the kind of couscous you steam forever, smother in butter, steam forever again, etc. OK, I admit, this type of couscous comes in a box too. (Most of us don’t have the time to painstakingly prepare the tiny pasta from scratch.) But when served with traditionally cooked vegetables and meat, couscous is a pleasure to eat—deeply satisfying and soulful.

Traditionally, couscocus is served on Tuesdays, laundry day in certain North African communities. While waiting for their laundry to dry, North African women would prepare the pasta and dry it in the sun. Thus laundry day became a social event, an opportunity to get together with friends and neighbors to gossip and exchange recipes.

The Tuesday couscous tradition persists in Israel at North African mom and pop eateries. Traditionally, couscous is served with a soup of vegetables and meat, eather chicken or beef. The types of vegetables and the spices used vary depending on the regional extraction of the cook.

The couscous joint I frequented in Israel was run by a family of Tripolitan extraction. Their couscous included carrots, potatoes, turnips, and zucchini, as well as chicken. Effie, the owner, always had a full house on Tuesdays, when all the high tech employees in the neighborhood would converge on his place for a plate of some down home couscous and little complimentary plates of mezze and pita. Effie’s has no menu.

Instead, Effie would greet everyone with a smile and some friendly banter, and proceed to rattle off the specials of the day. He’d then take everyone’s order faster than any waiter I’ve seen before or since, and pass them on to his wife in the kitchen. One of his sons would cover the table with simple sheet of butcher paper, and another son would arrive with plates and cutlery. The first son would return with a basket of fresh, warm pita bread and small mezze plates, including hummus with olive oil, olives, a Tunisian pumpkin spread, and two types of eggplant salad. It was always a challenge to eat all the mezzeh and still have room for couscous.

Couscous veMafroum
(That’s the official name, but everyone calls it Effie’s)
12 Yehezkel Kazaz St.
Or Yehuda, Israel
03-5339252

couscous with vegetables

Here’s my vegetarian version of couscous with vegetables, loosely based on my memories of Effie’s couscous.

for the vegetables:

1 onion, chopped, or 3 shallots, chopped
2 cloves garlic
3 small carrots, peeled
1 large turnip, peeled
1 large potato, peeled
1 cup garbanzo beans, soaked and cooked
1 bunch chard, spinach, or other greens, washed and coarsely chopped
1/2 tsp whole fenugreek
spice mixture: 1/2 tsp each whole fennel and coriander seeds, 2 tsp whole cumin seeds
(If you don’t have whole spices, use pre-ground. Just spice the vegetables a little more cautiously, reserving any leftover spice mixture for a later use. It is best, however, to use whole spices.)
salt to taste

for the couscous:

250 gr coucous
butter
salt to taste

equipment:

couscousiere, or a medium sized pot with a steamer or sieve
(I used a small pot and a vegetable steamer for the couscous, and a separate pot for the vegetables. Ideally, the couscous should steam above the vegetables to as to absorb their flavors.)

  • Pour the couscous into a large, shallow bowl and soak in 1/2 cup very cold water for 20 minutes.
  • Chop the vegetables into coarse chunks.
  • If using whole spices, place in a clean coffee grinder and grind to a powder.
  • Heat some butter and olive oil in a pot and add in the onions. Season with salt and stir. You don’t want the onions to turn transluscent without browning.
  • Press the garlic cloves into the onions, then add the fenugreek and half the ground spice mixture. Stir to distribute evenly.
  • Add chopped vegetables to pot, along with garbanzo beans, and cover with water.
  • Drain the couscous and rake it with your fingers.
  • Place steamer, sieve, or couscousiere steaming insert above vegetables and place drained couscous in steamer.
  • Bring vegetables to the boil, uncovered.
  • Keep the vegetables on a low simmer and turn the couscous into a bowl.
  • Rake the couscous with your fingers, sprinkle it with 1/4 cup cold water, and season with salt and butter to taste.
  • Let stand, and then steam again over the simmering vegetables.
  • You can repeat the raking-sprinkling-seasoning-sitting process, as recommended on the Ya Rayi site. I was lazy and hungry, so I steamed the couscous twice, rather than three times. It was still delicious.

Serves 3-4

pasta with creamy bacon chanterelle sauce with bok choy and apples

Wednesday, December 27th, 2006

creamy_bacon_apple_chanterelle

This little number was fun to cook, as it’s basically a combination of star ingredients—ingredients that, on their own, would be the crowning glory or surprise element of any given dish. Combining apples with greens is a facile yet tasty trick that offers a sweet-tart crisp foil to the dense iron flavor of greens. Bok choy, with its clean, simple flavor and versatility is one of my favorite greens. And bacon and chanterelles, well they brighten just about anything, don’t they?

I don’t generally enjoy creamy pasta sauces, they tend to be too heavy for my palate. But the smoky bacon and earthy chanterelles call out for a smooth, creamy bechamel. If bacon and chanterelle are Romeo and Juliet, bechamel is Verona, for what good is a well-acted play without context?

creamy bacon chanterelle sauce with bok choy and apples

cooked pasta (I used spaghetti, but a small pasta shape or fettuccine might be fun)
2 c simple bechamel sauce (I used 2 TBS flour to 2 TBS butter)
3 rashers good bacon
1 medium shallot, minced
1/2 lb chanterelles, chopped
1 small apple, finely chopped
1 medium bok choy, steamed, leaves separated, chopped
1-2 TBS chopped, fresh parsley
sherry

  • Prepare the bechamel sauce and set aside.
  • In a large pan, fry the bacon until crisp, and set aside. Pour off most of the bacon fat, leaving only a small amount in the pan. You can pour the bacon grease into a heat-proof container and refrigerate it for a later use.
  • Place the pan on medium heat and add the chopped shallot, stirring frequently.
  • Add the chanterelles and stir. Let simmer for a minute or two.
  • Add the apple and stir, then add the chopped bok choy and parsley.
  • Stir in a splash of sherry followed by the bechamel. Pour in a little more sherry to thin the sauce a bit.
  • Season to taste with salt and white pepper. Toss pasta with sauce and serve.

Serves 2-3

variations on borsch

Tuesday, December 5th, 2006

Privyet, dear readers of food blog! I am taking break from translating Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” to do favor for Shelly, usual author of blog. I was just getting to juicy part, when phone rang. Expecting call from cursed ex-husband Alexei, I am drop book, ["Blin!" (blin is Russian slang word for a crap, yes?)], and answer phone.

“Da! Shto eto?!?” What you want, I say. (Alexei is rat bastard.)

“Um, hi? It’s me, Shelly.”

“Ohhhhhhhhhhhh, Shellinka! I thought you were Alexei, rat bastard ex-husband. Why you not say is you?”

“Sorry, Masha, I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Kak dela?”

“Kharasho! Am good. All is good when Alexei does not call. May he be like chandelier, hanging in day and burning at night. How are you?”

“Heh, chandelier. Er, yeah, I’m fine, thanks. Trying to throw together some dinner.”

“And I am only trying to earn living, with no alimony from ex-husband and publisher’s deadline weaving over head!”

“Weaving?”

“No, not weaving. How is it? Loom… looming! Looming over head!”

“Yes. Wow. Yeah, that’s stressful.”

“Da. Life is stress. This is why there is wodka. Nu, why you calling, Shelly?”

“Well, with the weather turning cold and all, I was wondering if you had a good borsch recipe?”

“Cold? Weather is cold? Hehehe… you are funny! Is like Siberian summer!”

“Yes, well, I was thinking of making some soup, and I’ve got these beets in the fridge…”

“OK. You have big piece of meat on bone?”

“Um… no.”

“No? You have a fresh dill?”

“No, none of that either. Nope.”

“You have good Russian smetana?”

“I’m afraid not. Just some organic sour cream.”

“You are hear me shake my head on phone? You are feel me pull my hairs out with exuberation?”

“Um, exuberation?”

“Exasperation! I give myself new hairstyle with exasperation because you cannot make the borsch without a proper ingredients!”

“Oh. OK. I guess I’ll just improvise then.”

“Yes. Improvisation makes good results. One percent improvisation and ninety nine percents perspiration. Use deodorant.”

“Um, right, of course. Deodorant. Listen Masha, I’m sorry to bother you. I know you’re really stressed out now.”

“Dostoevsky is waiting for me. You make good soup. Don’t worry.”

“Thanks Masha, that’s sweet.”

“Plum jam is sweet. Poka, Shellinka.”

“Take care, Masha.”

Americans! Making borsch with sun-dry tomato and sushi. Is con-fusion cuisine!

con-fusion borsch with chard and garbanzo beans

butter and olive oil
1/2 large or 1 small onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
6-8 baby beets, chopped
1/2 thumb-sized piece of ginger
1 15 oz. (425 gr) can garbanzo beans, drained
water and/or vegetable stock
several handfuls of chard, rinsed
1 lemon
salt and pepper to taste
ground carraway seeds to taste
1/2 tsp mild honey

  • In a heavy pot, heat the butter and olive oil over a low to medium flame. Cook the onions until almost golden, then add the garlic.
  • Add the chopped beets and stir, then add the garbanzo beans.
  • While the beets and beans cook, chop the ginger and add it to the pot.
  • Pour in the water or stock to cover, then pour in a little more, about an inch or so (2.54 cm) above the vegetables. Cover and simmer.
  • While the soup is simmering, chop the chard into ribbons. When the soup is bubbling, stir in the chard.
  • Slice the lemon in half and using a strainer, squeeze the juice of the lemon into the soup.
  • Season to taste with salt, pepper, and ground carraway seeds. Taste seasoning and correct, using the honey to balance the tartness of the lemon juice.

Garnish with any of the following:

  • Sour cream
  • Soft goat cheese
  • Raw leftover chard ribbons
  • Korean aged black garlic, chopped

dishes of comfort: kashe varnishkes

Wednesday, November 15th, 2006

kashe_varnishkes

This is my post for the Dishes of Comfort blogging event, hosted by Cream Puffs in Venice and Viaggi & Sapori.

One of my favorite foods growing up was kashe varnishkes, an Eastern European Jewish side dish full of carbs and mushrooms. As a child, I enjoyed nothing more than a bowl of steaming, sticky white rice, a slice of crusty bread or challah, or a bowl of pasta, hot or cold, with olive oil and salt. I was, and still am, enthralled by the texture, flavor, and the soulful satisfying nature of carbs.

Kashe varnishkes, however, stands apart. A combination of pasta, buckwheat, and mushrooms, kashe varnishkes is the Eastern European answer to Egyptian kushari and Yemeni majadra. The unique pleasure of Kashe varnishkes lies in its combination of nutty, tender buckwheat kernels, with earthy, juicy mushrooms, along with al dente pasta. Kashe varnishkes is pleasantly toothsome, yet very warming on a cold night.

Kashe varnishkes is one of the few dishes that my mother learned to cook from her Eastern European mother. Back in pre-WWII Europe, my great-grandmother enforced the rule that the kitchen was no place for children. Consequently, my grandmother didn’t learn much in the way of cooking, and my mother was often shooed from her mother’s little kitchen in Israel. Kashe varnishkes was one of the few dishes that survived the broken chain of culinary tradition, along with gorgul morgul—a peculiar yet tasty concoction made of egg yolk, lemon juice, and honey—which was meant to soothe a sore throat.

My mother would prepare kashe varnishkes as a treat for a Friday night Sabbath dinner, perhaps with chicken and salad or broccoli. I loved the steaming kernels of toasted buckwheat as much as I loved the big, chewy pasta bowties that poked through the mound of grain. The mushrooms were little buried treasures that exploded with earthy flavor in my mouth.

On Saturday afternoons when everyone napped, I would tiptoe to the refrigerator and fix myself a bowl of leftover kashe varnishkes. They were cold, and I couldn’t reheat them on the Sabbath, but I didn’t care. I would correct the seasoning with salt and perhaps a little pepper. Satisfied, I would take the bowl and a soup spoon and go to the living room, where I would choose an interesting book from my father’s extensive library. Maybe Jonathan Swift, or Dickens, perhaps Aldous Huxley. I’d climb into the big leather Eames chair and cross my legs Indian style. I’d pick up the book and cradle the bowl in my lap. As I disappeared into the universe of my book, I’d dig in my spoon and take a big, luscious bite.

kashe varnishkes

butter
150-200 gr pasta, preferably bowtie (I used fettuccine, which I broke into large-ish bite-size pieces)
3/4 c buckwheat, toasted
1/3 lb mushrooms (I used shitakes and chanterelles)
salt and pepper to taste

  • Cook the pasta as you usually would, rinse it to stop it from cooking.
  • In a large skillet, melt a little butter and fry the buckwheat until fragrant.
  • Add one cup of water to the buckwheat and bring to a boil. Then lower to a simmer and cover.
  • Meanwile, slice the mushrooms and fry them in a skillet with butter.
  • Season the mushrooms to taste with salt and pepper.
  • After a few minutes of simmering, check to see whether the buckwheat needs more water. If it looks dry and isn’t yet tender, add a little more water. You want to add just enough water to keep the buckwheat from drying out. The goal here is tender, yet slightly firm buckwheat, as opposed to buckwheat mush. Towards the end of cooking, remove the cover so that excess liquid evaporates. If a little buckwheat sticks to the pan, do not scrape it up.
  • Season the buckwheat with salt and pepper to taste, bearing in mind that you’ve already seasoned the mushrooms.
  • Combine the pasta, mushrooms, and buckwheat and correct seasoning. Serve at room temperature or briefly reheat in a pan.

Serves 3-4

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