Saturday, November 28, 2009

Turkish Red Lentil Soup

If I needed to describe the lentil soup of my youth in one word, it would probably be brown. Brown lentils, a few aromatics and stewed tomatoes, and just a smattering of vegetables. I've learned to add a bit more interest to the Italian-style lentil soup, stirring in some kale or spinach, and a bit of vinegar at the end to lift the flavors. I still like that brown lentil soup, and make a pot every so often. But this soup, this Turkish-inspired red lentil soup -- I love it. It's made of the still-virtuous-but-less-earthy red lentils, and brightened with some warm spices and a splash of lemon juice. On the days after I have over-indulged (something that certainly happens this time of year), it's a great recovery meal. It's got fiber and vitamin-rich vegetables, and yet it's light and smooth enough to soothe ragged stomaches.

Traditional Turkish red lentil soup can take a variety of forms. Some are simple purees, while others feature sprinklings of mint or dried bulgar. My version contains rice and a handful of spices, with a heaping of carrots to lighten it and give a bit more vegetal taste. The recipe is flexible, and can be easily adapted to your tastes and pantry availability: I've stirred in a few handfuls of spinach or a sprinkling of cilantro at the end (neither terribly traditional, but both delicious), and added extra tomato paste when I didn't have a fresh tomato on hand. Once you try this, you'll want to keep some red lentils on hand to be able to make a pot whenever you like. Especially after Thanksgiving.

Turkish Red Lentil Soup

makes 1 pot

2 Tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbsp coriander
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp paprika
pinch cayenne (or more, if you like it spicy)
1 Tbsp tomato paste
1 tomato, small dice
1 1/2 cups red lentils
1/4 cup white rice
2 carrots, cut in 1/2" dice
6-8 cups water
salt and white pepper to taste
juice of 1 lemon, plus additional lemon wedges for serving
yogurt for serving (optional)

Heat the oil in a soup pot over a medium flame. Add the onion and garlic, and saute until softened but not browned, ~5 minutes. Add the coriander, cumin, paprika and cayenne, and stir for a few minutes to toast the spices in the hot oil. Add the tomato paste and chopped tomato, and stir to combine. Allow to cook a couple more minutes, until the tomatoes soften around the edges. Add the red lentils, rice, chopped carrots, and water (start with the smaller amount). Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the lentils have broken down into a rough puree, the rice has started to lose its shape, and the carrots are very soft, ~45 minutes. Add more water as it cooks, if needed.

When the soup has cooked down, season to taste with salt and pepper, and stir in the lemon juice. Serve hot, with lemon wedges and a dollop of yogurt if desired.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Apple Ricotta Coffee Cake

You're probably thinking that you don't need another coffee cake recipe. Until last week, that's what I thought too. But then I had a bite of this cake.

Like many of the best recipe discoveries, this was born out of necessity. An evening at a friend's house turned into an impromptu sleepover (it turns out that reading a bedtime story to a five-year-old can have the unintended side effect of leaving you asleep on the couch), which led to an impromptu brunch the next morning. There was a cup of ricotta cheese in the fridge left over from a previous recipe, a few apples in the fruit basket, and a pantry full of baking supplies. A bit of internet searching turned up this delicious recipe.

This is a pretty hefty cake, weighing a staggering amount and filling the springform pan up to the brim. But luckily it keeps for several days, thanks to the ricotta cheese that creates a lusciously moist crumb. A layer of apples and struesel are snuck into the center, and crunchy pecans seasoned with more streusel crumbs flavor the top. This is a cake that makes you want to take a coffee break.

Apple Ricotta Coffee Cake

adapted from Seriously Good

Streusel Filling/Topping:
2/3 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup rolled oats
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt
6 Tbsp butter, cut into 6 pieces

1 3/4 cups flour
3/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla
2 eggs
1 cup ricotta cheese

2 small crisp apples (or, in our case, one frighteningly large one), peeled and diced into 1/2" cubes, tossed with lemon juice
1/2 cup chopped pecans

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 9" springform pan, set aside.

To make the streusel: Place the brown sugar, flour, rolled oats, cinnamon and salt in a food processor. Pulse a few times to combine. Add the 6 tablespoons of butter, and pulse several times until you can no longer see lumps of butter. Set aside.

To make the cake batter: Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a bowl. Set aside. In a mixer, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla and eggs one by one, beating well after each addition. Add half the ricotta, mix to combine, and then add half the flour and mix well. Repeat with the remaining ricotta and flour mixture.

To assemble the cake: Spread half the batter into the prepared pan. Sprinkle with half of the streusel filling, and all of the apples. Spread the remaining batter of the top -- it is a somewhat thick batter, so plop spoonfuls over the top and spread gently. Sprinkle the top with the pecans and remaining streusel. Bake until a tester comes out clean, about an hour or longer. Cool somewhat to allow the cake to set before eating.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Shahi Paneer

Many of my attempts at Indian cooking are met with limited success. Despite years of eating Indian food, and despite having amassed a spice rack full of amchur and asafoetida and the like, many of my curries taste like.... Well, like hippie concoctions. At best, they are interestingly-spiced stir-fries. I still like the results, in the same way I like the block of Indian restaurants that line East 6th Street in New York City: they're clearly not "authentic" or even, well, "good," but they are nice enough, and pleasantly suggest the authentically good meal you were aiming for. Truly good Indian cooking relies on non-Western cookware and technique, and a back-of-the-hand familiarity with a huge pantheon of spices. Since I don't have either of these at my fingertips, I'm pretty hopeless when it comes to freestyling an Indian dish, or rescuing one that hasn't come out quite right. To cook a stellar Indian dish, I need a stellar Indian recipe. Luckily, I've found a few.

Shahi Paneer, also called Paneer Makhani or Royal Paneer, features cubes of fresh cheese in a richly-spiced tomato cream sauce. You can make your own paneer cheese from milk, but I lazily buy it pre-made. Like many "royal" dishes from India's moghul cuisine, it features a slightly sweet, Persian-inflected spice combination from Indian's Muslim history. Although I am normally a bit shy about the mixing of sweet and savory -- no fruit-studded pilafs for me -- sauces like this toe the line beautifully. The touch of honey, ginger and cardamom brings out the sweetness in the fresh cheese, and tempers the fustier edge of some of the more savory spices and aromatics.

As with most Indian recipes, this features a few ingredients that you might not have on hand. While I'm usually a big fan of substitutions and Iron Pantry Chef innovation, in this case it's worth it to make sure you follow the recipe as adapted below. When I tasted the sauce mid-simmer, it seemed just alright, nothing special. But when I added the dried fenugreek leaves at the end, it turned into an amazing dish. You can find fenugreek leaves (a different flavor from the also-available ground seeds) at your local health food store or Indian market.

Shahi Paneer

adapted from Archana's Kitchen
serves 4-6, depending on how many other dishes are served

2 cups chopped onions
2 Tbsp fresh ginger
6 cloves garlic
3 Tbsp neutral, high-heat oil (canola or grapeseed or peanut), divided
2 tsp ground cardamom
2 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp garam masala
1 tsp chili powder (pure ground chili, not Mexican-style chili powder that's pre-mixed with cumin and oregano -- you can substitute paprika with a pinch of cayenne)
3+ cups chopped fresh tomatoes (if substituting canned, only use 2 cups)
2-4 tsp honey
1/2 cup half-and-half, or a slightly smaller amount of heavy cream
2 Tbsp fenugreek leaves (also called kasoori methi)
1 lb paneer cheese, cut into cubes (large cubes make for a more dramatic presentation, though small cubes absorb more delicious sauce -- cut it as you prefer)
salt to taste
1/4 cup cashews, whole or pieces

In a food processor, puree the onions, garlic and ginger into a smooth paste. Heat 2 Tbsp of the oil over a medium heat, and saute the wet paste until it dries out a bit, and begins to turn a light golden color. Stir occasionally and keep the heat low to prevent it from forming a crust -- you want it to cook evenly. Add more oil if needed to keep it from sticking.

While the onion-garlic-ginger mixture is cooking, measure out all the dry spices except the fenugreek leaves (cardamom, turmeric, cumin, garam masala, and chili powder or paprika) into a small dish and set aside. Dump your tomatoes into the food processor, grind into a puree, and set aside.

When the onion-garlic-ginger mixture is golden brown, add your pre-measured spices. Stir to combine and saute for a minute, to toast the spices without burning them. Add the tomato puree, stir, and simmer over a medium-low heat for about 20 minutes, to reduce slightly and develop the flavors. Stir occasionally.

After 20 minutes, add the honey and half-and-half, and simmer gently for another 10 minutes. Taste and add salt as needed. Add the fenugreek leaves and paneer, and simmer for another 10-15 minutes to meld the flavors.

While the dish is finishing its final simmer, heat the remaining tablespoon of oil over a medium-high heat. Add the cashews, and cook until lightly browned. Scatter the toasted cashews over the shahi paneer, and serve.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Olive Oil Rosemary Cake

Dairy-free baking can be something of a drag. Butter is such an essential ingredient, and margarine is a poor substitute. Butter gives cake lightness, by containing the tiny air bubbles that you beat into it during the creaming stage, and it provides tenderness by preventing the flour from forming tough, bready gluten strands. And, not least of all, it gives the cake flavor. At their best, buttery cakes are airy, tender, and....well, buttery. How can you get the same combination without the butterfat? Turns out it's not as hard as you'd think.

While the terms "oil" and "delicious dessert" don't generally go hand-in-hand in most people's minds, it turns out oil can work wonders in cakes. Yes, it has its limits. A butter-free cake can't give you the same taste and texture as a classic poundcake, or a cream-method layer. But according to Shirley Corriher's Bakewise, oil actually does a better job than butter of coating the flour and preventing gluten from forming, yielding cakes of extraordinary delicacy. Even in classic butter-based cakes, Corriher often substitutes a bit of oil for this property. It's the reason oil is used in muffins, to provide this same delicate tenderness. But of course, we all know that oil and butter aren't going to be confused in any blind taste-test. So what to do about the flavor?

There are a few solutions to the question of taste in an oil-based cake. One is to focus on cakes that have a lot of other things going on, like a vegetable- and nut-packed chocolate zucchini cake. There's also my current favorite chocolate cake recipe, which uses oil for delicacy and a combination of cocoa, chocolate, coffee and buttermilk for a deliciously strong flavor. And then there is this path: a cake that doesn't compensate for oil with other additions, but rather plainly showcases the flavor of the oil itself. This is put to best use with a flavorful oil. Like olive oil.

If you have trouble thinking of oil as a dessert element, olive oil might be an even harder sell. But it's surprisingly good. This cake uses Italian ingredients that are more often used in main dishes, but it is most definitely a dessert. The grassy olive oil and piney rosemary are rounded out by a good dose of sugar, resulting in a sophisticated grown-up flavor. I like to accent the dessert quality a bit more by adding a touch of vanilla for depth, and a light sprinkling of sugar for a sweet top crust. The texture is light and delicate from the oil, making it perfect to accompany your coffee or drink at the end of a rich meal. Or you can take the combination a step further, like my fellow diners the other night who poured a bit of limoncello directly onto their servings. The woody rosemary sprig on top will need to be removed before slicing the cake, but it's so pretty I just couldn't resist.

Olive Oil Rosemary Cake

adapted from The Babbo Cookbook by Mario Batali

makes 1 loaf

1 1/2 cups flour
1 Tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
4 eggs
3/4 cup sugar, plus an additional spoonful for topping
2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp vanilla (optional)
2 Tbsp finely chopped fresh rosemary leaves, plus 1 sprig for topping

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Grease and flour a loaf pan.

In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

In a separate mixing bowl, beat the eggs and sugar together for several minutes, until pale and foamy. With the mixer running, slowly drizzle in the olive oil in a thin stream. Add the vanilla (if using), then gently fold in the chopped rosemary. Add the flour mixture, mixing until just combined.

Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan. Sprinkle delicately with the reserved spoonful of sugar, covering the surface with a light dusting. Place the reserved rosemary sprig gently on the top (it will sink in as the batter rises around it, so no need to push it down). Bake ~45 minutes, until the cake is light golden and a tester comes out clean. Let cool in the pan for a few minutes, then turn out onto a rack to cool completely.

Thursday, November 05, 2009


The drawbacks to a long distance relationship are pretty obvious. There is the travel (and related expense), the long lonely nights, the impatience, and the negotiation of time zones. There are emails to be taken out of context, arguments to snowball without the benefit of daily conversation, and a thousand other difficulties. But there are also benefits. The evening-long phone calls, the romantic reunion, and the fondness that grows for an absent heart. And the care packages.

Many years ago, I had a courtship which began with a care package. Inside the small box was mix CD full of poignant songs, and a handful of biscuits for my dog. What more does a girl need? (Emotional compatibility, it turns out, but that's another story.) I have also sent out my share of care packages into the postal ether, to woo partners or to help friends out through rough times. I have sent packages that say "Sorry your boyfriend dumped you," or "I hope you manage to finish your dissertation." Sometimes there have been mix CDs (or, back in the day, mix tapes), sometimes there have been Polaroids of my dog in some thematically relevant costume, and once or twice there have been temporary tattoos. But whatever the occasion and composition, there's one constant: there are always cookies.

This particular recipe has long been my care-package standard. It was passed on by a college friend from her stepfather, on a hand-written page with the final instruction to "eat until sick." The page is now grease-stained and starting to wear at the edges, but I'm still not tired of these gingersnaps. They're sharp with ginger and deeply-flavored with molasses, and have an adorable series of crannies and fissures. But it's the texture I like best. They can be soft and gooey, or cooked longer for more of a "snap." And they store remarkably well, making them ideal to send to your friends, wherever the postal service finds them.


adapted by my friend Jessica's late stepfather

makes 4-5 dozen cookies, depending on size

3/4 cup butter, softened at room temperature
2 cups sugar
2 eggs
1/2 cup molasses
3 3/4 cups flour
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1 Tbsp ground ginger (and a bit more, if you like them spicy)
1/2 tsp cinnamon
generous pinch salt

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees, grease or line several cookie sheets.

Cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, and then the molasses. Beat until well combined.

In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, dried ginger, cinnamon and salt. Fold these dry ingredients into the butter mixture until just combined (i.e. until the streaks of dry ingredients just disappear). Form the dough into 3/4 round balls, and place on cookie sheet. Bake about 12 minutes. If you want gooey cookies, remove from the oven and place on a rack when they can just barely hold their shape enough for you to remove them (a touch under 12 minutes). For crisp snappy cookies, bake until the cookie firmly holds its shape when removed from the sheet (13+ minutes). Remove to a rack to cool. The cookies will have puffed in the oven, but will sink and flatten as they cool down. Eat until sick.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Porrusalda (Basque Potato Leek Soup)

There is something of a debate about cooking technique that occasionally rears its head in our house. On the one side, there is the practice of long, slow cooking. Soups and sauces are simmered for several hours, developing surprisingly deep flavors and smooth textures. On the other, there's the desire to cook fast and furious over high heat, and take the soup pot off the stove because come on it's done enough and I'm really hungry! I'm embarrassed to say that I represent the latter camp.

Whenever I manage to quiet my impatient grumbling and let something simmer for the alloted time, I'm usually floored by the results. This soup is an especially good example of the startling transformation that can be achieved through slow cooking. As in much of Basque cooking, the emphasis isn't on a handful of spices or flashy additions, but on a careful treatment of fresh vegetables. The ingredients are as humble as they come -- just a handful of root vegetables and some water -- but the resulting soup is full of flavor.

Porrusalda (Basque Potato Leek Soup)

as interpreted by IƱaki Guridi
yields one large pot

Traditionally, the potatoes aren't cut with a knife, but broken into rough-edged pieces that release more starch to thicken the soup. To do this, slide a paring knife halfway through a peeled potato, about 1.5" down. Press the potato between your thumb and the knife, and twist to free a chunk roughly 1.5" square (although, of course, it won't be square). Repeat until the whole potato is reduced to rough chunks.

2 Tbsp olive oil
1 clove garlic, sliced into thick rounds
3 waxy red or yellow potatoes, peeled and broken into chunks (see note above)
4 leeks, washed and sliced into 1" rounds
4 large (or 6 small) carrots, peeled and sliced into 1/2" rounds
water to cover
salt to taste

Heat the olive oil in a large heavy soup pot over medium heat. Add the garlic and potatoes, and saute for a few minuts. Add the leeks and carrots, and saute for another minute. Add water to cover by 1", and a bit of salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer. Simmer, covered for about 2 hours (or, ideally, longer), stirring occasionally. Season to taste with additional salt.