Saturday, July 19, 2014

Purslane Salad with Cherries and Feta

My small backyard has fences cordoning off the south and west sides. But the third side is open, separated from the neighbor's house only by our shared driveway. Although his off-leash time was initially highly supervised, these days my dog is generally allowed to backyard trips on his own recognizance. He's a fairly quiet older dog, and unless the next-door barbecue is in use, or a cat wanders by, he'll just do his business, then nose his way back inside. And in the summer, he'll sprawl out on the porch, yard or driveway (depending upon the sun's angle), tanning until he needs to come inside, panting, and collapse on the cool floor in a dramatic clatter of elbows. For the most part, this works out fine. Except in cherry season.

The yard next door features a dramatically large cherry tree, and in the summer it's absolutely dripping. They are the favorite of loud-yelling crows, and the occasional raccoon. And, it turns out, my dog.

After giving a nominal check that the coast is clear, the dog pads across the driveway and begins chowing down. He eats the fresh bright red ones, and the raisined shriveled ones. If you catch him in the act, he'll slink back home with tail-tucked contrition. But then he'll be right back. Even when the resulting gas literally drives him from his own bed later that day (with a wide-eyed ohmygod what just bit my butt? look of horror), he cannot be stopped.

And I understand. Cherries are delicious. Although the next-door tree is a bit too high up for regular harvest (given that I don't share the same fresh-from-the-ground tastes as my dog), I've been picking up helping after helping at the stores and farmers' markets. Huge yellow-red Raniers, and Bings that stain everything (myself included) with rich wine-dark juice. For the most part, I'm happy to just eat them out of hand. But recently I discovered they're delicious in salad.

I happened upon this particular combination when I was looking for something to do with purslane. This succulent green is not that common, but I've seen it show up the last several summers and highly recommend it — in addition to being a healthy omega-packed powerhouse, it's got a refreshing lemony taste and water-filled pop. I've turned it into a sort of Greek salad before, but our tomatoes were still a few weeks away. And it was too hot to try the cooked Mexican and Mediterranean preparations I've bookmarked. So instead, I tried a salad.

The recipe originally comes from The New York Times, inspired by the author's Greek vacation. I omitted the olives to keep things simple (and, um, because I didn't have any), and instead just tossed the punchy purslane with briny, creamy feta, and these drippy-sweet cherries. I dressed everything with a light touch of olive oil and lemon, and sprinkled on a bit of sumac I happened to find for another touch of sour (and color). The combination is simple, summery, well-balanced and perfect. Just ask my dog.

Purslane Salad with Cherries and Feta

adapted, heavily from The New York Times
serves ~4 as a small first course

juice of 1/2 lemon
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, thwacked with a knife
dollop of honey
salt and pepper to taste

1 generous bunch purslane, thick stems cut away (about 4 cups)
a few leaves fresh mint, roughly torn (I was too hot/lazy to walk out and harvest/steal these, but I think they'd make a lovely addition)
a few handfuls cherries, pitted and halved
1 to 2 ounces feta, crumbled
 a few pinches sumac (optional)

Place all of the dressing ingredients together in a jar with a leak-proof lid, and shake-shake-shake to emulsify. Taste, and adjust seasonings as needed. Set aside.

Tumble together the purslane and mint on a serving platter or individual plates. Scatter the cherries and feta on top, and scatter on a few pinches sumac (if desired). Give the dressing another shake, and lightly dress the salad. Serve.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Russian Yeasted Blini

Oh, Russian yeasted blini. Why are you so, so much better than the standard American pancake? Let me count the ways:

1. With both an overnight fermentation and a healthy helping of half-and-half, these blini manage to be both rich and tangy. I heartily approve of this combination.

2. Unlike their chain-you-to-the-griddle brethren, blini are just as delicious a few hours — or even a full day — later, which means they're easily made in advance (even, say, the night or morning before, while you can still bear to turn on the stove, allowing you a cool meal later in the hot day).

3. Although the term is often used for those chunky little silver dollar-sized canape vehicles, a true blini is the a delicate whisper size of a dinner plate, all the better to wrap up the fillings (and you can set up a full smorgasboard of fillings, letting you play around from blini to blini).

I'm sure there are a few dozen other reasons as well. But basically: blini! So, so delicious! The impetus, again, was book club. We were reading Bulgakov, so it seemed only natural I take this as an excuse for a thematic snack. So I went to the Russian market, picked up some sour cream and frighteningly cheap caviar, and set to work.

The blini themselves, as with any pancake, start out as total straight-to-the-dog failures. And you think this is a terrible recipe and why did I ever come up with this idea and oh crap book club is in a few hours and what can I bring instead? But, amazingly, by the third blini or so, it all comes together. Your pan gets hot enough, and you figure out how much you need to thin out your batter (in my case: a lot), and then you're turning out blini after blini like the best Russian babushka.

And then, once you've got a nice butter-brushed stack, you get to fill them! I put out a spread including the sour cream and caviar, and a smattering of other non-traditional-yet-delicious additions — some cubes of cold-smoked salmon belly, minced onion, fresh dill, and whole lemons chopped into tiny wedges for a bracing (and addictive) sour pop. It's perfect for book club, it's perfect for a hot summer night, and it's perfect for reminding you just how crazy good Russian food can be.

Russian Yeasted Blini

adapted from Anya von Bremzen's recipe in Food & Wine
yields ~12-14 blini (I doubled it this — it takes some time to make a double batch, but they keep and they're delicious so you might as well)

1/2 cup warm water 
1 1/8 teaspoons active dry yeast
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon sugar 
1 1/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour 
1 1/4 cups half-and-half, at room temperature
 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled, plus several more tablespoons for brushing 
1 large egg, separated 
1 1/4 teaspoons coarse salt
neutral oil, such as grapeseed or canola, for the pan

For serving: sour cream, fresh dill fronds, chopped lemon, caviar, smoked salmon, diced onion, etc etc etc

In a small bowl, whisk the water with the yeast and 1 teaspoon of the sugar and let stand at room temperature until foamy, about 5 minutes. In a medium bowl, whisk the yeast mixture with ¼ cup of the flour until smooth. Cover and let stand in a warm place until the batter has doubled in bulk, about 1 hour. 

After the batter has risen, add the remaining 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons of flour, along with the half-and-half, 2 tablespoons of melted butter, egg yolk, salt and remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar. Whisk until smooth. Cover and refrigerate the batter overnight, stirring once or twice. 

When you're ready to fry, bring the batter to room temperature. In a medium bowl, beat the egg white until soft peaks form. Fold the beaten white into the batter just until no streaks remain. Let the batter stand for 10 minutes. If the batter is too thick, whisk in water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until you have a thinner-than-pancake-batter mixture (I needed to add A LOT more water — maybe a half cup or so for the double batch — so don't be afraid if you need it).

Meanwhile, line a plate with parchment or waxed paper. Heat an 8-inch skillet over moderate heat and lightly brush with oil. For each blini, add ~1/4 cup of batter to the skillet and quickly swirl to coat the bottom with a thin layer of batter. Cook over moderate heat until small bubbles form on the surface and the underside is golden, about 2 minutes. Flip the blini and cook for 1 minute longer. Transfer the blini to the prepared plate and brush with melted butter. Don't be dismayed if your first few blini tear apart or don't spread out in time or what-have-you — just add more water as needed, let the pan fully heat up, and all will be well.

Repeat with the remaining batter, brushing the skillet with oil as needed. You should have 12 to 14 blini. Serve at room temperature, top with whatever you desire, then roll up and enjoy.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Chocolate-Fromage Blanc Brownies

Why don't I make brownies more often? They are one-bowl easy, require no special last-minute ingredient runs, and satisfy that craving for chocolate like nothing else. When they're good — by which I mean fudgy, toothsome, and full-flavored — I want to eat them all. Oh, perhaps that's why.

This particular variation came about when I had some fromage blanc left from an over-stocked cheese plate. This fresh cheese often has a soft cream cheese-like texture, but is cultured to more of a chevre-like tang. And here, a small portion is mixed up into a sweet cheesecake-like mixture, then dolloped into a pan of brownies.

While I was smitten with the basic idea of this combination, the pictures showed a big cakey brownie, with only a bit of the cheesy topping. So I ditched the double-wide version, and went with a fudgier, slimmer brownie, a better match for the fromage. The end result is pretty much all you could want in a dessert. And as much as you could probably inhale a whole batch, just a single small square, chilled to chewiness from the refrigerator, is surprisingly satisfying.

And if you're looking for more stories of dairy, you can check out my recent story about raw milk certification (and its discontents) over at NPR. And, in full food safety disclosure, I did eat more than a few swipes of brownie batter before it made it into the oven.

Chocolate-Fromage Blanc Brownies

fromage topping and idea riffed from Sunset magazine, brownie portion halved/tweaked
yields 1 8x8-inch pan

3 ounces unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 stick (8 tablespoons, aka 4 ounces) unsalted butter
1 1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon coarse  salt 
1/2 cup all-purpose flour

Fromage Blanc Filling:
8 ounces fromage blanc
1/4 cup sugar
1 egg

Heat the oven to 325° degrees Fahrenheit. Butter and flour an 8-inch square baking dish. Set aside.

Over a double boiler (or in short, well-watched bursts in the microwave), melt the chopped chocolate and butter. When just about melted, remove from heat, and let melt fully in the residual heat (and let cool slightly). Whisk in the sugar, further cooling things down, then the eggs, vanilla, and salt. Blend until smooth, then, with a spoon or spatula, gently/barely stir in the flour.

In a small bowl, whisk together the fromage blanc, 1/4 cup sugar, and egg until smooth. Note that fromage blancs vary: if yours is smooth, this may be simple, but if yours is firmer, you may need to whisk more aggressively or pass through a strainer to yield a smooth mixture.

Spread 2/3 the brownie batter evenly over the prepared pan, then pour the fromage blanc mixture over that. Dollop the remaining brownie batter across the top, and gently smooth to partially (not completely) cover the fromage blanc mixture (a few swirls are nice).

Bake for 25-30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center of the brownies comes out with just a moist crumbs. As with all brownies, under-baking is better than over-baking. Over-baking is sad. Place the pan on a rack to cool completely, then cut into squares (I favor small squares — 5x5). Chill if desired (and, since we've got dairy, best to refrigerate leftovers). Enjoy.
1 stick (113 grams) unsalted butter
2 ounces (55 grams) unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 cup minus 2 tablespoons (175 grams) granulated sugar
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ cup (35 grams) all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt

Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Lightly butter an 8-inch square baking dish and line the bottom with a rectangle of parchment paper long enough to hang a couple of inches over two of the sides. (You’ll use the parchment to lift the brownies from the pan.) Lightly butter the paper.

Melt the butter and chopped chocolate in a 2½-3 quart saucepan over low heat, stirring occasionally. Remove the pan from the heat. Stir in the sugar, then add the eggs and vanilla and blend until smooth. Stir in the flour and the salt. Pour into the prepared pan, then lift the pan and drop it down onto the countertop a couple of times to release any air bubbles.

Bake for 25-30 minutes (in my oven, they’re done at 28), until a toothpick inserted into the center of the brownies comes out clean. Cool completely in the pan on a wire rack, run a sharp knife around the edges between the brownies and the pan, then refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. Pull the parchment paper to lift the brownies from the pan. Slice into 16 squares.  - See more at:
1 stick (113 grams) unsalted butter
2 ounces (55 grams) unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 cup minus 2 tablespoons (175 grams) granulated sugar
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ cup (35 grams) all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt

Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Lightly butter an 8-inch square baking dish and line the bottom with a rectangle of parchment paper long enough to hang a couple of inches over two of the sides. (You’ll use the parchment to lift the brownies from the pan.) Lightly butter the paper.

Melt the butter and chopped chocolate in a 2½-3 quart saucepan over low heat, stirring occasionally. Remove the pan from the heat. Stir in the sugar, then add the eggs and vanilla and blend until smooth. Stir in the flour and the salt. Pour into the prepared pan, then lift the pan and drop it down onto the countertop a couple of times to release any air bubbles.

Bake for 25-30 minutes (in my oven, they’re done at 28), until a toothpick inserted into the center of the brownies comes out clean. Cool completely in the pan on a wire rack, run a sharp knife around the edges between the brownies and the pan, then refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. Pull the parchment paper to lift the brownies from the pan. Slice into 16 squares.  - See more at:

Monday, June 30, 2014

Halibut with Carrot Puree, Early Summer Vegetables, and Pistou

Apologies for this single, hasty, unfocused photo. I just snapped a quick record for my own documentation, figuring I'd never blog something that required such an insane amount of preparation. And then I tasted it. And oh my. I thought about going back and getting the camera for proper pictures, but really, I couldn't leave my plate.

This deliciousness came about because I was tasked the other day with bringing dinner (and moral support) to a friend who was spending a first day on solo infant duty. I thought about cooking up a big load of freezer-friendly food — perhaps spanakopita and tomato biryani, or a few pints of carrot coriander vinaigrette. But then I saw a new restaurant cookbook waiting for me at the library. And I thought about just going fancy instead.

A freezer full of food is a wonderful thing. But you know what? So is a little luxury. And the latter is in woefully short supply when you're waging a sleep-deprived battle to meet basic life needs. So I set aside my casserole plans, and went to the farmer's market for bushels of early summer bounty — fat carrots, curly green garlic scapes and pea shoots, juicy spring onions and the first fragrant basil. And then, after just a few insane hours of cooking, and washing nigh everything in the kitchen (steamer basket and Dutch oven and mortar and pestle and pot and frying pan and food processor), the elements were ready. And all that was left was to sear the fish, bring the dish over, and whisk the baby away for a miraculously tearless diaper change while this perfection was savored.

In some ways, this meal reminds me of my beloved butterscotch budino — multiple elements (each with significant levels of fuss), requiring more time than a usual few days' kitchen efforts combined. But the end result is just transformative. It's like the best restaurant meal you've ever had. It's like a dream about food.

In this case, the dream rests on a bed of carrot puree (carrots first steamed with basil stems before browning in olive oil, natch). The resulting smoothness has a clean flavor, but also a roasty sweetness from the caramelization. And the glug of olive oil doesn't hurt either. This is topped with a buttery saute of spring vegetables — the recipe called for asparagus, but since we're just past the season, some garlic scapes made for a nice substitute. And then pea shoots, lending their adorable tendrils and green flavor (plus a fun little play on peas and carrots, which is always a good time). On top of this saute rests a marinated and seared halibut fillet, and then a dollop of creme fraiche (or, in my case, the last little bit of sour cream mixed with a bit of yogurt), then, finally a simple pesto of basil, garlic and oil. Each element alone is perfect. And together, as they mix on the fork and plate? It's just beyond. It's a celebration of this early summer moment. It's something to helps you forget about those sleepless nights, and drink in how delicious it all can be.

Halibut with Carrot Puree, Spring Vegetables, and Pistou

adapted from The AOC Cookbook by Suzanne Goin
serves 4

As stated, this is an insane amount of work. But you can break it down — I'd recommend making the carrot puree and pistou the day before (the latter will darken, but it'll still be delicious). This would make a show-stopping dinner party dish, and could likely even be made vegan by swapping the seared fish for some seared cauliflower and omitting the dairy. Goin's original recipe pairs this amount of accompaniment with 6 fillets instead of 4, but it's so delicious that 4 seems a bit more accurate.

For the carrot puree:
2 pounds carrots, peeled, cut into 1/4-inch rounds
handful of basil stems (from the basil you're using for the pistou)
~1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 cup diced white onion
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt

For the pistou:
1/2 clove garlic
1/4 teaspoon coarse salt
1 cup tightly packed basil leaves
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

For the fish:
4 Alaskan halibut fillets, 5 to 6 ounces each
zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon thyme leaves
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped parsley
salt and pepper
olive oil for cooking

For the spring vegetables:
1 1/2 cups sliced spring onions, plus 1/2 cup sliced spring onion tops
3/4 pound asparagus, sliced into pieces, or a handful of garlic scapes
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
3 tablespoons butter
4 ounces pea shoots (a few big handfuls — they wilt down)
lemon juice to taste

To finish:
1/4 cup creme fraiche or sour cream
flaky salt

To make the carrot puree: Steam the carrots with the basil stems for about 20 minutes, until nice and tender.

When the carrots are almost done, heat a heavy pot over high heat for 1 minute. Pour in 1/4 cup of the olive oil onions, and season with the salt. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring often, until the onions are translucent. Add the carrots, and continue to cook, stirring and scraping up the bottom, until the carrots are lightly caramelized, ~8 minutes.

Transfer the mixture to a food processor, and puree until very smooth, drizzling in a few additional spoonfuls of olive oil. Taste to adjust seasonings. Set aside.

To make the pistou: If using a food processor, press the garlic clove, then add that and 1/3 of the basil leaves. Pulse until well combined, then add the rest of the basil and parsley. Slowly add the olive oil as needed to make a pourable mixture, and season to taste with pepper and more salt if desired.

If using a mortar and pestle, start by pounding the whole garlic clove and salt until broken down. Add 1/3 of the basil, pound until well broken down, then add the remaining basil and parsley. Pound pound pound pound, then add the olive oil as needed to make a pourable mixture, and season to taste with pepper and more salt if desired. Set aside, making sure the mixture has enough oil on top to cover. Set aside.

To start the fish: In a small covered container, season the fish with the grated lemon zest, thyme, and parsley. Cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours or overnight.

To make the vegetables: Heat a large Dutch oven or enormous saute pan over medium heat for 1 minute. Add the 2 tablespoons olive oil, let heat for a minute, and then add the sliced spring onions, asparagus (or garlic scapes), salt, and a pinch of pepper. Cook over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring, until onions are translucent.

When the onions have cooked, add the butter and 1 tablespoon water. Swirl the pan, and when the liquid comes to a simmer, toss in the pea shoots and onion tops. Immediately remove from the heat, stir, and squeeze a little lemon juice over everything. Taste and adjust seasoning.

To finish the fish and assemble the dish: Remove the fish from the refrigerator, and let it sit out for about 15 minutes to come to room temperature (one of the keys to even cooking).

Heat a large saute pan over high heat for 2 minutes. Swirl 2 tablespoons olive oil into the pan and wait 1 minute. It'll be hot!

Season the fish on both sides with salt and pepper. Carefully lay fish in the pan and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, until it’s got a nice lightly browned crust. Turn the fish over, lower the heat to medium low and cook for a few more minutes. When it’s done, the fish will *just* begin to flake and separate a little, and the center will still be slightly translucent (it will continue to cook as it rests, so err on the side of under-cooking). Remove from pan and let rest.

To assemble the whole thing, warm up the puree (if made in advance and refrigerated). Spoon plops of the warm puree onto 4 plates, forming a nice little bed. Tumble the vegetables over the puree, then place a fish fillet over the top. Top each fillet with a dollop of creme fraiche, then spoon the pistou over the creme fraiche and the fish and around the plate. Eat in rapturous pleasure.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Strawberry Rhubarb Galette

A few weeks back I was lamenting the lack of fresh fruit this time of year, and grumbling that I didn't want my rhubarb in pie form. Well, now the fruit has come in! Namely strawberries. I have been eating pints upon pints of them. And, it turns out, now I do want my fruit in the form of pie. Namely a strawberry-rhubarb galette.

This galette — the fancier name for a rustic open-faced tart — is pure early summer. My new friend rhubarb is sliced into slim little batons, which I somehow like so much more than the usual rounds. And it's paired with perfectly ripe, punchy strawberries, so red throughout that you barely need to do anything but flick off the hulls and slice them in half. And then I topped it with whipped cream, because: pie. The whole thing is a whisper of berries and rhubarb and cream, all fruit and air and butter.

Because I am a sucker for delicacy-over-structure, I went with my beloved rough puff pastry dough, which is shatteringly delicious, but lacking a bit of the structural integrity required. No matter. I scooped up the still-warm juices that escaped through the breech in the crust wall, and drizzled them over the top to glaze the top fruit. And next June, I'm sure I'll do it again. Having to soak a sheet pan is a small price to pay for this.

Strawberry Rhubarb Galette

This amount of starch and jam yields a fairly tight set, which helps keep everything together on an open-faced galette. But if you prefer a softer gel, feel free to reduce the amount of thickener.

1 pie's worth of your favorite pastry (structural issues be damned, I can't quit this one)
1 pound rhubarb, washed and cut into thin batons (1/4-inch by 3 inches)
1 pint strawberries, washed and hulled
2/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons tapioca starch
2 tablespoons jam/jelly (I used apricot jam, but any other softly set preserves with complementary flavors work fine)
1 egg, beaten with a splash of water or cream
coarse sugar for sanding
lightly sweetened whipped cream, for serving (optional)

Line a rimmed sheet pan with parchment paper. Roll out your dough to a roughly 14-inch circle, and transfer to the sheet. Set aside.

In a large bowl, toss together the rhubarb, strawberries, sugar, starch, and jam, stirring gently until the fruit is coated with the mixture. Spread on the dough, up to a few inches of the edges. Fold the edges back over to form a 2-inch crust, crimping and pinching as needed to secure.

Gently brush the overhanging crust with the egg wash, and sprinkle with the coarse sugar. Set in the freezer for 45-60 minutes or so (or less, if you're like me and want to take exciting chances with pastry opening up in the oven).

When the galette has almost finished chilling, preheat the oven to 375° Fahrenheit. Transfer to the oven and bake until the pie is browning and the juices are thickened and bubbling, ~45 minutes. If your galette springs a leak and the juices escape, carefully pull the galette, spoon the juices back over the fruit, and return it to the oven. Let cool to room temperature before serving (with whipped cream, if desired).

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Sopa Seca (aka Mexican Spaghetti)

It doesn't need saying that technology can connect us in big, profound ways. But it can also connect us in lovely little ways too. The other night, a friend posted that he was dealing with an unseasonably cold Philadelphia evening by cooking up some beans and pasta. And I was able to sort of collapse time and space and virtually join him, because, 3,000 miles away, I was doing the same thing. In Andrew's case, it was a delicious-looking bowl of pasta fagioli, with heirloom white beans and mixed-up Italian pasta. And in my house, it was a long-simmered pot of clean-out-the-pantry black and red beans (salt-soaked, of course). And, starring in the role of noodles, this sopa seca. Or, as I've been calling it, Mexican spaghetti.

This version of sopa seca, a beloved humble casserole, is from the great Diana Kennedy. And it is ridiculously satisfying. It's got all the things you want from a plate of pasta: comfort and carbs and sweet-tangy tomato sauce. But even better, the sauce is cooked down and oven-baked until it's an almost jammy backdrop, and — most importantly — spiked with smoky-hot chipotle pepper. And then things just get better, with a sprinkling of salty cheese, sour crema, and some bright leaves of cilantro.

I know I'll be coming back to this recipe again and again — especially on colder nights, when I need a bit of oven-baked comfort (and a bit of spice). It's one of those great dishes that manages to be both familiar and exciting. And it's one of those great dishes I'd like to share with all of my friends — whether it's at my table, or across the internet.

Sopa Seca (aka Mexican Spaghetti)

adapted from Diana Kennedy via Saveur, with thanks to Bon Appetempt for flagging
serves 4 

Pureeing and cooking down the tomato sauce takes some time, but yields a crazy delicious result. Next time (and lo, there will be a next time) I'm aiming to double the sauce, then freeze half after cooking it down, to have on hand to make this an even easier weeknight supper.

3-4 canned chipotle chiles in adobo, depending on your taste for heat
4 cloves garlic, peeled
1 (15-oz.) can whole peeled tomatoes in juice
1/2 small white onion, roughly chopped
3 tablespoons high-heat oil, such as canola or grapeseed
8 ounces fideos, or vermicelli noodles broken into 3-inch pieces (I tend to buy these short little noodles from the local Middle Eastern store, which work quite well)
2/3 cup chicken or vegetable stock (Kennedy calls for 1/2 cup, but I generally prefer fully cooked to al dente, so added a splash more and it worked quite well)
coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

crumbled cotija or feta cheese
sour cream or crema (or your current favorite yogurt)
handful cilantro, washed and roughly chopped
a side of beans and avocado (optional)

Purée the chipotles, garlic, tomatoes, and onion in a blender until very smooth, at least 2 minutes. Set aside.

Heat the oil in a big oven-proof skillet over medium-high heat. Add half of the pasta and cook, stirring, until lightly browned and toasted, ~2-3 minutes. Scoop out of the pan, set aside, and toast the remaining noodles. Scoop those out of the pan as well, and place with the others.

Return the skillet to heat, and pour in the tomato mixture. Beware the spatter! Cook, stirring occasionally, until almost all of the liquid has evaporated (~15-20 minutes). Add the stock, stir and cook another minute, then turn off the heat and add the noodles. Stir to combine, and season with salt and pepper to taste.

While the tomato mixture is cooking down, preheat your oven to 350° Fahrenheit. When the pasta has been added and seasoned, cover the pan with foil, and place in the oven. Bake until the pasta is tender and the sauce is absorbed, ~10 minutes. NOTE: If you don't have an oven-proof skillet, you can transfer the contents of an ordinary skillet to an oiled 8-inch casserole dish at this point, and cover/bake that (which is actually what Kennedy recommends, but I'm a one-pot gal myself whenever possible).

To serve, divide onto plates, and let diners top with cheese, drizzle with crema, and sprinkle with cilantro as desired. Enjoy hot, with beans, avocado, and/or salad on the side.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Spinach Salad with Bread, Dates and Almonds

When I make a green salad, it almost always looks the same: you've got your lettuce of some sort, toasted sesame or pumpkin seeds, thinly sliced radishes, and a citrusy vinaigrette. Sure, there are some variations beyond that — a handful of blanched asparagus in the spring, a few cubes of buttery avocado or crumbles of blue cheese (depending on what's left over in the fridge), maybe a carrot shaved into curls with a vegetable peeler. But really, it's pretty much the same old leafy template. Which is why it's so nice to find something so entirely different from my usual rut. And so delicious.

This recipe, as most things in the surprisingly-simple-yet-delicious-and-dusted-with-sumac category, comes from Yotam Ottolenghi. Baby spinach leaves, vinegar-pickled onions and sticky-sweet dates, and crisp buttery croutons and toasted almonds. So, so good. The original calls for torn-up pitas (as befits a cookbook called Jerusalem), but I used a freezer-burned ciabatta roll to equally delicious effect. It's a combination I never would have thought of, and it's wonderful.

Of late, I seem to be on a run of kitchen fails (hence my radio silence). There were the morning buns made from a "quick" croissant dough, which was not remotely quick, and after all that work was not even close to being as good as the real thing. There were the asparagus deviled eggs that were far, far more work than their non-asparagus brethren — and didn't really taste that much like asparagus. It's hard to recommend something with a low work-to-return ratio. But this salad? It's a simple salad. And it's different, and delicious, and I can't wait to make it again.

And speaking of surprising Middle Eastern flavors, I recently had the good fortune to spend the day with a visiting delegation of chefs, bakers, and food service folks visiting from Egypt, Algeria, Morocco and Oman, as part of the State Department's Diplomatic Culinary Partnership. You can hear more about the delicious exchange, and the larger ideals of gastrodiplomacy, over at NPR.

Spinach Salad with Bread, Dates and Almonds

adapted from Jerusalem, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi
serves 4 (as a salad, though two people could make a meal of the whole thing)

1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced
half a dozen Medjool dates, pitted and cut lengthwise into quarters or sixths (depending upon size)
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 small stale pitas (or a stale roll), torn into bitze-sized pieces
1/2 cup almonds, coarsely chopped
2 teaspoons sumac
1/2 teaspoon chile flakes
several handfuls baby spinach leaves
juice of 1/2 lemon

Place the sliced onion and dates in a small bowl, and pour the vinegar over the top. Add a pinch of salt and stir. Let marinate for at least 20 minutes, then drain the vinegar.

While the onions are pickling, heat the butter and 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Add the bread and almonds and cook, stirring regularly, until the bread has toasted to a crunchy golden brown. Remove from the heat, and stir in the sumac, chile flakes, and a hefty pinch salt. Set aside to cool.

To serve, dress the spinach leaves with the remaining olive oil and lemon juice, and a pinch of salt. Top with the dates and red onion, and the seasoned bread and almonds. Serve.