Monday, December 29, 2014

Armenian Pilaf with Shrimp, Cilantro and Feta

For the record, I am a big fan a brown rice. Nubby, healthy, delicious. It's my weeknight staple. But I also love love LOVE white rice. A few months back I invested in a mega-sack of Basmati rice. How big is the sack? I don't know, as it's shoved out of the way on an inaccessible shelf, decanted into a more manageable jar as needed. I don't dip in very often, but when I do — oh man. It's aromatic, amazing, delicious. It's like a big warm good-smelling hug. Others may slide into a bowl of mac'n'cheese, or mashed potatoes. And I do so love the both of those. But a delicious pilaf with buttery white rice — that's my comfort food.

A few weeks back, I had some friends in need of a good comforting dinner. So I took my trusty rice, along with some delicious shrimp, and an Armenian cookbook I've had out from the library. I cooked up this easy dish, leashed up my dog, and hauled the cast iron pot through the neighborhood (along with a salad, and mason jar full of Mai Tais). And it did the trick.

This recipe is one of those simple, greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts bits of magic. Shrimp shells are simmered in stock, to give an extra richness to the rice, which is further bolstered with saffron and tomato paste (the original recipe offered either, but I, in my wisdom, opted for both). The shrimp are stirred in at the last minute, so they stay nice and tender (I take the extra step of brining, which also helps), and then everything is topped with feta and cilantro. The end result is intriguing enough to keep you reaching for bite after bite — yet simple enough to wrap you up in starchy comfort. 

Armenian Pilaf with Shrimp, Cilantro and Feta

adapted from The Armenian Table by Victoria Jenanyan Wise
serves ~4

1 pound uncooked shrimp, in shell
3 cups broth (vegetable or chicken)
2 tablespoons butter or olive oil
1/4 cup finely diced onion
1 1/2 cups long grain white rice
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 hefty pinch saffron
1 large handful cilantro leaves, plus additional for serving
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1/4 teaspoon aleppo pepper, plus additional for serving
1/3 cup crumbled feta cheese

Shell the shrimp, leaving the tails intact (if you fancy, for dramatic effect), and reserving the shells. Place the shrimp in a small bowl of water, along with a hefty pinch of salt and a small bit of sugar (this brining is optional, but I feel improves the flavor and texture). Place in the refrigerator.

Place the reserved shrimp shells in a small saucepan along with the broth. Bring to a boil over high heat, then lower the heat until high enough to maintain a brisk simmer. Cook until the shells are pink, about 3 minutes. Turn off the heat and set aside.

To make the pilaf, melt the butter (or pour the oil) in a good-sized saucepan or pot over a medium-high heat. Add the onion and rice, and saute until the rice is translucent (but not colored), ~2 minutes. Strain the shrimp broth into the pot through a fine-mesh strainer. Add the tomato paste, saffron, cilantro, salt and aleppo pepper, and stir to combine. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer for 22 minutes, until the rice is tender.

When the rice is done, turn off the heat, and take your shrimp from the refrigerator. Drain, and stir into the pilaf. Cover the pot again, and let sit for 5 minutes, until the residual heat cooks the shrimp until they're just barely pink. Serve warm, garnished with the feta cheese, and additional cilantro and aleppo pepper, if desired.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Poppyseed Rugelach

There's the hackneyed (and true) saying that defines insanity as doing the same thing and expecting a different result. And yet. I saw a blog post on rugelach, all splayed and fallen-over, which said that the recipe is both ridiculously flawed and ridiculously delicious. So I somehow thought oh, let me make them! Cut to: scene of a tray of rugelach, all splayed and fallen-over, and me shaking my fist at the recipe. And then swooning over the cookies.

So yes, this is not a foolproof tested recipe — even if the previous intrepid blogger already did some of the heavy lifting, like clearing up actual typos and conversion errors (sigh). But this oh-well-here's-my-best-guess recipe, with its misshapen results, yields one of the most delicious cookies I've eaten in a good long while.

I've long been a fan of our family rugelach recipe, yielding a crisp-yet-flaky cookie studded with cinnamon, rich nuts, and sweet-tart apricot jam. But these are a different animal. They use a cream cheese dough (versus my sour cream version), for a cookie that's also rich and flaky, but softer. The dough is scented with fennel and a spot of black pepper, then rolled around a lightly sweet, rich-yet-nubby poppyseed filling. The whole result is a bit more European, a grown-up, less sweet cookie with a whole lot going on. Oh so perfect with a cup of tea (or, as we proved, a glass of wine and some latkes).

So yes, accept that this is recipe has some flaws. You've got to take some leaps of faith (how big is that rectangle?), and make peace with the fact that the beautiful spirals you put into the oven might look a bit different when they come out. But they're also be very, very good. And even though they're different from my rugelach memories, they still feel like a holiday.

And if you're looking for more holiday food and flavor (without the frustration), here's a recent story I did on the Norwegian-American tradition of Christmas lefse. It's what it all comes down to, really. Listen over at NPR.

Poppyseed Rugelach

adapted from Bar Tartine by Nicolaus Balla and Cortney Burns, as first adapted/trouble-shot by Lottie and Doof
yields ~3 dozen rugelach

Poppyseed Paste:
3/4 cup poppyseeds
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup whole milk
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup honey
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1 large egg
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup light rye flour
1 cup kamut flour (I substituted whole wheat pastry flour for this)
2 tablespoons sugar
3/4 teaspoon fennel pollen (I swapped in 1/2 teaspoon ground fennel seeds)
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 pound (1 cup) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 inch dice, chilled
1/2 pound cream cheese, at room temperature
2 tablespoons sour cream, at room temperature (I tossed some full-fat yogurt to drain in a dishtowel, which seems close enough for just a few tablespoons)

Egg wash (an egg beaten with a splash on milk and pinch of salt)
coarse sugar for sanding

To make the poppyseed paste: In a spice or coffee grinder, pulse the poppyseeds in batches for 15-20 seconds until broken up and powdery.

In a small saucepan, heat the butter, milk, sugar, honey, lemon juice and zest, and salt over a medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until the butter melts and the sugar and honey dissolve, and it starts to barely steam.

In a medium bowl, whisk the egg. Gradually drizzle in the hot milk mixture, whisking constantly, until incorporated. Return the mixture to the saucepan, and heat over a medium-low heat, whisking constantly, until the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon, ~5-7 minutes (this won't be full-on pudding-type thickness, but it will thicken, like a custard sauce).

Remove from heat and whisk in the poppyseeds and salt, then let cool completely (it will thicken further as it cools — you can do this up to a week in advance).

To make the dough: In a food processor, combine the flours, sugar, fennel, salt and pepper. Pulse to combine. Scatter the chilled butter over the flour mixture, and pulse until the mixture is crumbly, with rice-sized pebbly bits. Transfer to the bowl of a stand mixer, add the cream cheese and sour cream, and mix briefly until a smooth dough forms (you can do this by hand as well, with a wooden spoon). Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until well chilled, at least 4 hours, or for up to 24 hours.

To make the cookies: On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the dough to a rectangle about 1/4-inch thick (if it's too square-like, you'll have a nice long spiral, but a greater chance that the whole mess will tip over, so aim for something long). Spread the poppyseed paste in a thin layer over the dough, leaving a 1/2-inch or so on the far long edge. Starting from the inside long edge, roll up the dough into a log, with the seam on the bottom. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap or parchment, and chill until firm, at least 2 hours or up to overnight.

When you're ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350° Fahrenheit. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper. Brush the log with the egg wash, and sprinkle generously with the sanding sugar. Cut the log crosswise into 1 1/2-inch thick pieces (you can go for 1-inch, which are more delicate, but a bit more inclined to flop over).

Transfer the cookies to the prepared baking sheet, leaving about 2 inches between cookies. Bake until golden brown, ~15 minutes. These cookies are best the first day or two.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Hanukkah Gelt!

Oh, Hanukkah gelt. These foil-wrapped chocolate coins, required holiday noshing for Jewish children, are, so often, waxy and nasty. Like, unbelievably so. And yet, I love them. They're like tokens I can slip into a time machine, and go back to childhood. Where they were hoarded, and relished. I counted them, clacking them against each other, until I prized from their wrappers, which could be flattened with a thumbnail and folded into shiny golden origami.

I've been looking into the history of Hanukkah gelt for a radio story, and bought a few bags of the coins to take a picture. And then I ate coin after coin, loving each one. Sure, now I nibble them with a cup of coffee instead of milk. But beyond that, it's pretty much the same.

And if you'd like to hear a bit more about the history of Hanukkah gelt (spoiler alert: not always chocolate!), you can take a listen over at NPR.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Persimmon Smash

Prior to this year, I had eaten exactly one persimmon in my life. One. And the past few weeks? I've been averaging one every other day. I LOVE PERSIMMONS.  I'm talking the firm fuyu persimmons (perhaps I'll leave hachiya for next year) — all orangey-salmon and squat, with their somewhere-between-tomato-and-peach texture, and tropical-yet-autumnal confusingly delicious flavor. Where have persimmons been all my life? It's like suddenly getting a whole new color added to the rainbow.

For the most part, as with any new love, I've been content to just loll about with persimmons, enjoying the simple pleasures. Wedge, peel, consume. Repeat. But as we've gotten to know each other a bit better, I've felt emboldened to play around.

The persimmon smash takes my new best friends and cooks them down into an essence-of-persimmon syrup, perked up with a bit of citrus. I stripped the spices out of the initial recipe (as persimmon itself has enough crazy layered floral notes to more than carry things through), cut down the citrus (same reason), and oh my it's delicious.

And if you're looking for more seasonal drinks to discover, might I interest you in a glass of switchel? You can find my story about this colonial cocktail (well, mocktail) and its resurgence over at The World.

Persimmon Smash

inspired by Marcus Samuelsson, but heavily tweaked
yields 2 drinks (with syrup for about 3-4)
Persimmon Syrup 
3 fuyu persimmons, peeled and chopped  (you can make this without peeling, but it yields a smoother puree)
2 cups water
3/4 cup sugar

Finished Drink
2 ounces whiskey
2 ounces persimmon syrup
3/4 ounce lemon juice 
1/2 ounce orange juice 
sprig of mint, for garnish (I decided to go with rosemary, rather than brave the rain and harvest some neighborhood mint, but mint really is best)

To Make Persimmon Syrup: 
Place the persimmons, water and sugar in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat until it's just high enough to maintain a simmer. Cook until the persimmons have softened and the liquid has thickened slightly, ~15 minutes. Cool, then puree in a blender. Chill.

To Make Cocktail:
In a cocktail shaker (or, as it's known in this house, canning jar), combine the persimmon syrup, whiskey,  lemon juice, and orange juice with a bit of ice. Shake well, taste to adjust as needed, and strain (or, if we're being honest, pour) into a cocktail glass with ice. Garnish with a sprig of mint.