Thursday, December 15, 2011

Duck Braised with Red Wine and Prunes

We wanted to celebrate with a Christmas feast with some of the husband's family; however, I also wanted something relatively easy and mostly in one pot.  So, last week the French, via the Zuni Cafe, came to the rescue.

This recipe looks like it takes a while (and technically it does because you have to let it braise for a few hours), but the prep work is minimal and the clean up easy.  The hardest part about the whole recipe may have been slicing the onion.

I have never been much of a duck consumer; however, this blog has pushed me to make duck three times in the past two years, and each time, I have been delighted by the results. Judy Rodgers, chef and co-owner of the Zuni and writer of the cookbook from which this recipe originates, suggests that one should use Muscovy duck legs.  Admittedly, I have no idea whatsoever which ducks sacrificed their legs to the cause, for all I did was approach the butcher and ask for four legs.  Either he was flirting with me or he has a good memory (or a third, less narcissistic option, he mistook me for someone else), for he remembered my previous duck part purchases. (Hey, let's go with flirting with me, just because that feels like an added gift for the holidays.)

Judy Rodgers also suggests that this dish is particularly good with roasted polenta.  (Mmm, polenta.)  However, we made the buttermilk and garlic potatoes from this cookbook (a recipe for another time), which were divine.  Since we made this into a family feast, there was wine and cheese and crackers and apple crisp (recipe to come later).   However, the star of the show was this incredible braised duck.  The sheer act of reducing the wine from a bottle down to one cup created this intensified braising nectar of the gods.  The clove and the orange peel were subtle and smacked of the holidays.  The only drawback of this dish--I found it a little oily (you do cook the duck with the skin on, which you could remove), but I often find the food at the Zuni to be a little heavy handed with the oil.  The husband and the family suggested that I might be losing my mind because they found the duck to be transcendent.  And what more do you need than a little transcendence around the holidays?  You make the call.  My only real regret is that I didn't take many pictures.  The food was just too distracting.

Finally, I miss my family in Illinois this year.  My dad, my sister, the nieces and nephews, my mom, my brother, my sister-in-law.  I haven't been back to Illinois for Christmas in probably six or seven years--ever since the husband and I got caught in a blizzard on the way from the airport to my mom's house.  Perhaps next year, we shall brave the hinterlands of Knox County.  But in the mean time, let's embrace the French, their beautifully braised duck, and family in California.  Happy holidays.  

One Year Ago: Grilled Cepes

Duck Braised with Red Wine and Prunes
Adapted from  Zuni Cafe Cookbook

4 servings

4 duck legs (10-12 ounces each)
4 cups medium-bodied or hearty red wine, such as Sangiovese, Merlot, Syrah, or Cabernet Sauvignon
2 cups Chicken Stock
2 medium yellow onions, trimmed, peeled, and cut into 1 1/2 inch wedges
2 ounces garlic cloves (about 1/2 cup), unpeeled
1 bay leaf
2 wide strips of orange zest
1 whole clove
12 prunes, preferably with pits

1.  One to three days in advance, trim lumps of fat, ragged edges or meatless flats of skin from the duck legs.  Rinse the legs, lay between dry towels and press to absorb surface moisture.  Season all over with salt (a scant 3/4 teaspoon of sea salt per pound of duck).  Cover loosely and refrigerate.

2.  In two separate saucepans, reduce the wine and the chicken broth to one cup each.  Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.

3.  Press the duck between towels to wick off excess moisture.  Place a dry 10-12-inch skillet over medium heat.  When the pan is hot enough that the duck hisses on contact, add the legs, skin side down, and leave to set a golden crust, about 10 minutes.  The duck will begin to render fat within a a few minutes; reduce the heat if the fat starts to smoke.  Turn the legs over and brown for just a few minutes on the flesh side, then arrange skin side up in an ovenproof pan.  Pour off the rendered fat from the skillet.  If any golden bits remain in the skillet, add the reduced red wine to the pan and simmer briefly, stirring, to dissolve them.  Set aside.

4.  Place the onion wedges and prunes in between the duck legs.  Add garlic, bay leaf, orange zest, and clove.  Add enough of the reduced wine and stock, in about equal doses, to come to a depth of 1/2 inch; save any extra wine and stock for extending the sauce.  Bring to a simmer over medium heat.  Cover tightly, place in the oven, and cook for about 1 hour.

5.  Turn the duck legs over.  Cover the pan tightly and return to the oven and cook for another hour.

6.  Turn the legs over again, turn the heat up to 375 degrees, and return to the pan to the oven uncovered.  When the legs feel tender and slightly browned, about another 20 minutes, remove the pan from the oven.  Turn off the oven and place a serving platter to warm in the oven for a minute to two.  Leave the duck legs to rest for another 5 minutes, then carefully lift from the sauce to the warm serving platter.

7.  Skim the fat from the braising liquid, and then taste the liquid.  If the sauce is too thin, set the pan over medium heart and reduce to the texture of maple syrup.  If the sauce is too rich, dilute with a little water.  If there is not enough sauce, add some of the extra wine and stock, then simmer to bring to a syrupy consistency.

8.  Serve each duck leg with 3 prunes and a few onion wedges and garlic cloves.  Spoon a few tablespoons of sauce over each leg.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Butternut Squash Cappellacci with Brown Butter and Nutmeg

We are incredibly lucky.

We are going to Rome with the husband's parents, who have rented an apartment off of Campo de' Fiori. We're over the moon, and we have not really been able to wrap our minds around the fact that at this time next week we will be fully jet-lagged in Rome.  There will be much ambling along cobble-stoned streets, much gaping at ruins, and much consuming of gelato.  People, we're headed to Italy.

When I was young, I wanted to go to Italy desperately.  It came after watching the overdone and saccharine 1962 movie The Light in the Piazza, one boring Saturday afternoon.  While this movie sparked a love affair with vespas, fountains, and piazzas for my ten-year-old self, I do not necessarily recommend it.  When it came time to choose my foreign language of study, I was heartbroken and surprised that Italian was not offered in my small town school district.  Undeterred, I grabbed a clip board and marched up to the Spanish and French teachers to interview them about which language was closer to my beloved Italian; somehow the French teacher was more convincing, and I enrolled in French I that fall.  I realize now that Spanish is probably closer to Italian.

Still determined to learn Italian, I have been practicing in the car on the way to and from work with a rather charismatic Italian CD.  I have learned such phrases as No, non vorrei bere qualcosa con lei. Sono sposata.  Assolutamente no.  Anche non vorrei mangiare con lei. Non adesso. Non più tardi.*  This string of refusals is said boldly in my car as I drive through the Caldecot tunnel.  Apparently, I am ready to face persistent Italian men who apparently would really like to buy me a drink or dinner.  Is it problematic that my Italian CD plays into stereotypes?  Or is the CD just preparing me for the inevitable? Or is it problematic that I look like a lunatic in my car, gesticulating to the dashboard, adamantly declaring that I will not eat with it?

*No,  I do not want to drink something with you.  I am married.  Absolutely not.  Also I do not want to eat something with you.  Not now.  Not later.

However, I have also learned other helpful phrases such as  No.  Non bevo oggi.**  This one I like.  I can imagine this said the morning after too rough of a weekend.  But this one is my favorite:  Non sono mai a bere di nuovo.***  Oh my.  I feel that my Italian learning CD has a very particular plan for me in Rome that may or may not include the husband and will certainly involve a good deal of regret.

**I am not drinking today.
***I am never drinking again.

In the mean time, the husband and I decided some Italian fare was in order.  While this recipe is from Ferrara rather than Rome, it certainly has been readying us for this Italian adventure.  I once wrote for a quick moment about Ferrara here about a year ago.  Allow another indulgence here.  The last time we were in Ferrara, we stayed with a mentor of the husband in a little apartment just off the square.  He directed us to the Castello Estense and proceeded to tell us the history of the tower, which I cannot verify its accuracy.  Apparently originally there was only one tower.  However, the citizens of Ferrara got a little ticked at the Este family due to some pesky taxation, and they literally tore apart one of the family members.  To protect themselves from further dismemberment, the Este family commissioned additional fortresses as part of the castle, which the husband and I wandered around.  With that to whet our appetites, the husband and I ate at a nearby outdoor cafe, where I had my first bite of cappellacci with butter and sage.  Hoo-wee.  People, I am telling you that you need to try this recipe, which comes pretty darned close to what I had for lunch that June day almost eight and a half years ago.

In this recipe, I used pumpkin and kabocha squash, because that's what my CSA sent me, rather than butternut squash.  However, you can use any sweet, fleshy winter squash (read:  pumpkin, butternut, acorn, kabocha, etc).  We did not make our own pasta (something I have discussed here) because we have access to great pre-made pasta sheets, and I am not going to make my own pasta (which often comes out like hockey pucks) when I can simply purchase some down the street.

Do bake or buy the amaretti cookies.  While a little tricky to find and time consuming to bake, they are the secret ingredient in the filling.

Finally.  I will  say this just once.  Brown. Butter. And. Sage.  The Ferraran gift to pasta.  Thank you, Ferrara.

One Year Ago: Parsnip Galette with Greens

Butternut Squash Cappellacci with Brown Butter and Nutmeg
Adapted from  Simply Tuscan

6 Servings

5 pounds butternut squash (I used Kabocha and pumpkin)
2 cups grated Parmesan cheese
2 cups finely crumbled amaretti cookies
Grated zest of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons bread crumbs
salt and pepper
1 to 1 1/2 pounds fresh sheet pasta
8 tablespoons butter
15 leaves fresh sage
8 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.  Peel the squash, cut it in half, and remove the seeds.  Cut the squash into 2-inch chunks, place on a baking sheet, and cover with foil.  Bake for 1 hour or until the chunks are tender and dry.  Let the squash cool, transfer to a food processor, and puree until smooth.  Then squeeze out all of the excess water by placing the puree in the center of a clean kitchen towel, picking up the corners, and twisting them together over the sink.  Combine the drained squash with the 2 cups Parmesan cheese, amaretti cookies, lemon zest, egg yolks, breadcrumbs, nutmeg and salt and pepper. 

2.  To assemble, cut the pasta sheet unto 3-inch squares.  Make an egg wash by mixing the egg yolk with half an eggshell full of water.  Brush the pasta squares with the egg wash.  Place 2 teaspoons of the filling onto each square.  Fold the squares into triangles by bringing two opposite corners together.  Seal the triangles by pressing down on the edges with your fingers.  Put your index finger at the center of the folded edge of the triangle.  Fold the corners down around the index finger with your other hand, pinching them together between thumb and index finger. (See photos below.  It's actually really simple.)

3.  Cook the cappellacci in plenty of boiling salted water until they float.  Drain carefully by lifting the cappellacci out of the water with a slotted spoon or skimmer--do not pour them into a colander, or they will fall apart.

4.  To make the sauce, in a small pan over low heat, melt the butter.  Add the sage, and let it cook until the butter is golden brown, about 2 minutes, and the sage is crispy.

5.  Arrange the cappellacci on warm plates, sprinkle with the grated Parmesan, and drizzle the butter and sage over them.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


It's here!  It's here!

I love Thanksgiving.  I love the food, the family, the friends, the togetherness of it all.  And I love that the very next day I can start putting up Christmas decorations.  I love the smell of leaves and crackling fires and pumpkin pies.  And the next day, I love the smell of hot apple cider and pine trees. 

Here is what I am most thankful for from this year:

1.  The family.  Every last one of them. From my parents to my siblings, from my nieces and nephews to my in-laws.  And for those who are not blood- or marriage-related but are family nonetheless.  

2.  The running.  The day after day of putting one foot in front of the other at quite possibly the slowest pace.

A run in the rain...
3.  The unexpected moments of beauty.  The surprises.

4.    The new friends as well as the old friends.  Their presence, unexpected and familiar, is a sweet reminder.  

5.    The many wonderful trips to the beaches (from Point Reyes to Monastery Beach (also known as Mortuary Beach), from Ocean Beach to Mendocino).  I love the water and the smell and the company I have kept there.

6.   The music.  This year, the husband and I have been to many shows.  So many shows.  I don't know why he decided to do this little activity this year, but he  did.  And I have loved it. But my favorite was a show that I snuck away from Steinbeck camp, drove two hours, saw the show, woke up early the next morning, and was back at class by 8 a.m.  It felt decadent.  

The Avett Brothers
7.  The books.  From Steinbeck camp to refalling in love with Mrs. Dalloway all over again.  The dedicated time to think about literature and place. 

This little photo is from the Hamilton Ranch, as it figures prominently in East of Eden by Steinbeck
8.  The last 16 years with Jujubee.  She died about a month ago.  She was a traveller, that one, living in Illinois, Ohio, DC, Colorado, and California.  She saw it all.    

Juubee is the third one back. 
9.  My parking god.  He was the recipient of last year's Thanksgiving letter, but I have appreciated his presence again and again this year.  He has found me spots when I was ready to give up and he kept me from getting a parking ticket just this past week.  He is a good man.

10.  And this little place to write it all down just for a little while.  Thanks for being here...  I have enjoyed having this place to think about food and literature and friends and family.  And I have been glad to have you here to share it.  Thank you.

May your Thanksgiving be wonderful and full.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Roast Pork with Apricots

Growing up, we would eat dinner at my paternal grandmother's house at least once a month.  My grandmother was, as most grandmothers are, a character.  Her name was Gertrude.  Legend has it that she wanted to be called Trudy, but people called her only Gert.  And she was most certainly a Gert, not a Trudy.  Further legend has it that she even changed her name from Ruby to Gertrude when she was young because her last name was Stone, and she didn't want to be know as Ruby Stone any longer.  Both legends may be apocryphal.  The truth may be that she was Gert Stone from the start, but I like the idea of this young woman wanting to reinvent herself.

When I knew her, Gert was in her 70s and 80s.  She wore the most beautiful shades of red lipstick and had fabulous ceramic chicken dishes loaded with butterscotch candies.  She would cook pedestrian pot roasts when we came to visit, and after dinner my brother and I would wash and dry the dishes in her little kitchen with these wonderful flour sack dish towels.  The sounds of Lawrence Welk would float from the living room as my brother and I stood over the sink.   

Sometimes Gert would mix it up and serve Waldorf Salad with dinner.  Other times, when she was feeling particularly adventurous, we would eat chop suey.  But pot roast always reminds me of Gert. It feels homey, a tiny bit obligatory, and steeped in another age.

However, sometimes you need to mix up what you stick in the slow cooker.  And so I made pork with apricots.

Here's what I loved--sweet Jesus, the sauce.  The apricots in orange juice with garlic and onions!  Who knew that would be so divine?  Here's what I did not like--the pork was a little dry.  I would probably put a little more orange juice and broth into the slow cooker so that it covered more of the meat.  I would also cook the meat longer.  I added times below in brackets.  But when you slice the pork and slather it in the sauce, sweet business.  This is the kind of meal that Gert would have gotten behind. Then she would have gone straight to the living room to catch Mr. Welk's show.

One Year Ago: Homemade Granola
Roast Pork with Apricots
Adapted from  Williams Sonoma's Essentials of Slow Cooking

4-6 Servings

1/4 cup flour
Salt and pepper
1 boneless pork loin roast, about 2 1/2 pounds
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 yellow onion, thinly sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 cup chicken broth [I would add more--maybe 2-3 cups, enough to cover 2/3 of the meat]
3 cups dried apricots
1/2 cup fresh orange juice
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1.  On a plate, stir together the flour, 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper.  Turn the pork in the seasoned flour, shaking off any excess.  In a large frying pan over medium-high heat, warm the oil.  Cook the pork, turning frequently, until browned on all sides, about 5 minutes.  Remove from the pan and set aside.

2.  Pour off all but 1 tablespoon of the fat in the pan.  Add the onion and saute until softened, 3-5 minutes.  Add the garlic and saute for 1 minute.  Pour in the broth and deglaze the pan, stirring and scraping up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon.

3.  Transfer the pork to a slow cooker and pour in the broth mixture.  Add the apricots, orange juice and thyme.  Cover and cook until the pork is very tender, about 2-3 [4-5 might be better] hours on the high-heat setting or 4-6 hours on the low-heat setting.  [I would definitely do 6-8 hours on the low.]

4.  Transfer the pork to a cutting board and cover loosely with aluminum foil to keep warm.  Using a slotted spoon, remove the apricots and set aside.  Use a large, shallow spoon or a ladle to skim as much fat as possible from the surface of the cooking liquid.  Strain the juices into a large saucepan.  Brings to a boil over high heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until reduced and concentrated, about 10 minutes.  Stir the mustard into the sauce and add the apricots.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.

5.  Cut the pork across the grain into thin slices and arrange on a warmed platter.  Serve with sauce and apricots.

Wicklow Pancake


Carrying on with my non-Thanksgiving-themed meals, I bring you the Wicklow Pancake.  Today’s entry is decidedly non-Irish, although this recipe for a not-quite-a-pancake, not-yet-an-omelet* comes from one of my favorite regional cookbooks, The Country Cooking of Ireland.  This cookbook is a real pleasure, and I have not one but two recipes from this book already filed on this blog.  However, the entry begins in Ireland and ends in Oakland, with a stop on Virginia Woolf's Bond Street in between. 

(Yes, the Brittney pun was intended, but has no bearing on the rest of the post.  I just couldn't resist.)

I turned 21 in Wicklow in the little border town of Bray.  Famous residents of this seaside vacation spot south of Dublin include James Joyce, Bono, and Oscar Wilde.  Count me in their company for a short while and merely by geography.  However, I will take the company any chance I can get.  When I first arrived in Ireland in the fall of 1995, I stayed with a family near Bray Head.  The mother of the family would sit in the afternoons with her pot of tea, teaching me Irishisms, and the two little boys in the family clamored to ride piggyback as we hiked to beautiful overlooks to watch the sunset.  

The top of Bray Head (some pictures from 1995.  The hillside was badly burnt, but the views were gorgeous.)

On the night of my 21st birthday, the entire family was kind, the boys making me a card, the mother tying the house key around my neck before sending me out to celebrate with my newfound friends.  That night, I swam in the Irish Sea and sang tunes in the local pub.  When I returned “home,” the mother of the family was waiting up, and she kindly put me to bed.

Later that year in Ireland, I moved to the West coast and studied in Galway, where I took 10 literature classes, I kid you not.  For one of them (forget which—was it Women Writers?  Modernism?), I read Mrs. Dalloway, a book I am reading for book club next month and teaching this coming spring.  I just reread the book this past week, but that fall I cracked the spine on my first copy of Mrs. Dalloway: I remember being in love with it the moment I began on somewhat unsteady feet.  I didn't quite understand the structure of the book, but my first copy of this book is dogeared and underlined every couple of pages, and the final page is covered in notes.  This is one of those books that ranks up there with Ulysses (even though Woolf thought the book and its squalid, little goat writer to be unimpressive, smutty, and a bit boring), Beloved, Jane Eyre, and The Great Gatsby for me. 

Sure, Virginia said to Vita Sackville-West that To the Lighthouse was her best book—but she said it ironically when she sent Vita a dummy copy of the cover with the interior of the book filled with only blank pages.  Virginia worried that Vita would not get the joke and sent a follow-up letter to clarify.  Deep down, I am convinced, even Virginia knew that Mrs. Dalloway was her best book.  Or at least it was the book that most beautifully affirmed life.  Yes, Clarissa “always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.”  And yes, she confronts the courage and beauty of Septimus’ death as it enters her party.  But she begins the day, watching sky writing, thinking, “overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.”  And in the end “there she was,” her identity not fixed, as fluid as it ever was.  But she is as much in life at the final moment of the party as she was when at the opening moment of buying her own flowers.  “I meant to write about death, only life came breaking in as usual,” Woolf wrote in her diary on the 17th of February in 1922 as she was writing this novel.  I do feel it with this book—the life breaking in as usual.   

There is this sense that in the midst of horror for Clarissa (the aftermath of war, the encroaching madness, the news of a suicide, the loss of a daughter’s affection) and for all of us that life does, indeed, break in.  I find this beautiful book strangely and hauntingly hopeful in the end, as Clarissa reenters the room after having faced death and as old friends Peter (her once-rejected love) and Sally (the woman whose kiss marks the happiest moment in her life) gaze upon her and know that she is indeed there, or as there as she ever was and ever will be.  Maybe it’s the act of this fiftyish woman re-entering a room to her lovesfirst, current, and taboo—who know her in a way that she does not know herself and whom she knows in ways they do not know themselves that pleases me.

All of this brings us to Oakland, some 16 years after a fall and winter studying in Ireland and some 86 years after the publication of Mrs. Dalloway (86!).  This morning, I have been reading a Virginia Woolf biography, and I have fantasies of going to Cornwall to stay at Talland House, where Woolf spent much of her childhood summers. While I am not making the food mentioned in the novel (chicken in aspic, anyone?), I whipped up this little breakfast goodie.  Clearly, this breakfast was a way to use up day-old bread.  The texture is smooth like a pancake, but the taste is more like a frittata.  I tried to invert it, but the bottom (now the top) stuck a little to the pan.  But it turned out alright in the end.  

My attempt to turn the pancake on its head.

So I sat to eat my Wicklow pancake and think back on the time in Bray.  Like Clarissa, I find the past weaves with seams exposed into the present.  And now, as much as I would rather garden or cook or write or run, it's time to start grading those final exams.  In the mean time, enjoy...

See you can even see the stack of finals that I need to grade.

One Year Ago: Homemade Granola (I make this recipe ALL THE TIME now without the oil and with varying grains, seeds and fruit.  I sometimes use agave syrup instead of honey.  Seriously, this one is good.)

Wicklow Pancake

4 Servings

4 eggs
1 cup milk
1 cup heavy cream  [I used 1/4 cup cream, and 1 3/4 cup milk, because that's what I had.  The world did not stop turning]
1 1/2 cups bread crumbs [preferably fresh ones that you have made yourself from day-old bread]
4 scallions, trimmed and minced
2-3 sprigs parsley, trimmed and minced
1 tsp fresh thyme, chives, rosemary [whatever herbs you have handy]
salt and pepper
4 tablespoons butter

1.  Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

2.  In a large bowl, beat the eggs lightly, then gently beat in the milk and cream.  Stir in the bread crumbs, scallions, parsley sprigs, and thyme, then season to taste with salt and pepper.

3.  Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter over medium-low heat in a large, heavy, ovenproof skillet, then pour in the egg mixture.  Cook fro 5 to 8 minutes or until the bottom of the pancake browns.  Put the skillet in the oven and bake until the pancake puffs slightly and the top browns, 20 to 25 minutes.

4.  Turn the pancake out onto a large plate and garnish with parsley leaves.  To serve, cut the pancake into 4 wedges.  Put a pat of butter atop the pancake if you wish.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Moroccan Chicken with Dates and Couscous

Yesterday, I gave my final exams for the first term.  I am always amazed at how much gets packed into the first trimester.  An open house here, a stack of papers there, a set of student-parent conferences to follow, and I am just about wiped out.  Whew.  We're eyeballing Thanksgiving with a bit of glee, but in the mean time, I am making decidedly non-Thanksgiving fare.  Be prepared!

So we begin with this Moroccan Chicken with Dates.  Dates are really just an excuse to mainline sugar with dinner.  Those of you with sweet tooths (teeth?) know what I am talking about.

But before we get too far, let's indulge in some fun facts about the date:  Apparently there are 1500 varieties of dates--a dateganza, if you will--and the most popular American date, the Medjool date, came to California in 1927.  A singular Dr. Walter Swingle, an American horticulturalist for the Bureau of Plant Industry, took a little trip to the French-colonial-controlled Bou Denib oasis in Morocco to "save" the Medjool date palm, which was facing extinction from a little soil-fungal disease called Bayoud.  Nine of eleven offshoots from one date palm survived in sunny California and Arizona. (I love how much you can learn about the date!).  Nowadays, Coachella is not just the home of a sweaty-and-dehydrated-hipster music show; its valley is also the home to hundreds of acres of date palm orchards (quaintly called date gardens).  We Americans boast about 250,000 fruit-bearing trees, which seems pretty paltry when compared to the once 30 million date palms in Iraq--a number slashed by 8 million in the past three decades of war.  Suitably, it is the Arab world that has the rights to boasting about the date.  The Moors brought the date to Spain, Muslim tales tell of god feeding Adam dates in the garden of Eden, and dates are often the first food to break the fast of Ramadan each night.

This dish is not necessarily one of the gods nor does it transplant you to the shores of North Africa, but it is delightful and very simple to make.  Alice Waters, cookbook author extraordinaire, in all her foodie glory recommends using the Zahidi (a semidry date with fibrous flesh) or the Halawi (small, golden-brown, sugary date with a very sweet, concentrated flavor) dates.  I merely used what was available at the local grocer, which happened to be Medjool.  Futher, Alice calls for grating the onions, but I think that a simple chopping would be fine.  After plumping up the dates for fifteen minutes in the broth, I cooked the couscous in the liquid rather than spooning it over the couscous.  I wanted it to be soaked in saffron and cilantro, some of my favorite flavors, rather than merely topped with it.  All of these adjustments did nothing to ruin the simplicity of something so infallibly good.

Finally, indulge me for a moment.  I have always wanted to go to Morocco.  A friend of mine in passing has mentioned her time spent studying abroad there.  She brought back tiles that she then inlaid into her steps.  She doesn't know it (well, I guess she knows it now!) I am in love with those tiles.  I, of course, realize that I am sublimating my desire to travel into a desire for tiles.  But I can live with that.  She just may not be able to to live with it when she wakes one morning to find her tiles transferred into the inlay of my front steps.

And now to enjoy the sweetness of this simple dish.  Happy date feeding!

One Year Ago: Filets de Poisson Bercy aux Champignons (Fish Fillets Poached in White Wine With Mushrooms)

Moroccan Chicken with Dates and Couscous
Adapted from  Chez Panisse Fruit

2-3 Servings [I made a 1/2 recipe.  Alice calls for double of all of this, but I am merely feeding me and the husband]

2-3 chicken breasts
salt and pepper
1 onion
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/8 teaspoon saffron threads
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1/4 cup cilantro
1/4 pound dates--about 6
2 cups couscous, cooked

1.  Season the chicken well with salt and pepper.  Peel and grate the onion.  Melt the butter in a large heavy-bottomed pot.  Add the onion, saffron, cinnamon, ginger, and chopped cilantro; season with salt and stir over high heat for 2-3 minutes.  Add the chicken and cook another few minutes before pouring in enough water [I used chicken broth] to just cover the chicken.  Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer until the chicken is tender, about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure nothing is sticking.  Add water if necessary.

2.  When the chicken is done, remove it from the pan and set aside while you finish the sauce.  Skim the fat from the liquid left in the pan, taste for salt, and adjust as needed.  Add the dates and simmer for 15 minutes over medium heat.  Stir occasionally, but be careful not to break up or smash the dates.  Return the chicken to the sauce.  After 5 minutes or so, when the chicken is hot again, arrange on a platter over a bed of couscous and pour the sauce over the meat. [Like I said above, I cooked the couscous in the sauce and then transferred all to my plate and then my gullet].

Friday, October 28, 2011

Chicken Lasagna with Greens

This late summer, I unexpectedly received in the mail two cookbooks on the same day--one from my darling roommate from Steinbeck camp and one from a longtime friend from high school.  I was so filled with gratitude on that day because both of the women (who actually remind me of one another) are strong, wicked smart, and uproariously funny.  They are both the kinds of women I would hope to be.

Let me focus on the giver of this cookbook*--my friend from high school (the other cookbook shall be a focus for a later date).  Where I went to high school is not like your normal high school.  My high school was a 3-year, residential high school for students in the state of Illinois who were talented in math and science (ironically, almost all of my friends went into humanities or business, but that's for another day).  We came together, wide-eyed and nerdy as sophomores and left, perhaps, just as nerdy but surrounded by those who became, in some sense, the most dear to us in our lives.  No one else understood what it was like to spend three years in this school.  In this place, we learned how to fall in love for the first (saccharine and misguided) time, how to cook Ramen, how to defend our closest friends, how to become passionate about learning usually in the wee hours of the night (for me, particularly poetry and more particularly Denise Levertov), how to bend rules to suit our needs and desires (some of which involved ceiling tiles), how to do laundry, how to surround ourselves with books as we lay out in the sun (it was the 90s in Illinois--I regret this part), and how to dance with sweet abandon in any space.

*This cookbook is pretty cool, but I am going to wax on about my high school days.  In another post when I cook from this cookbook again, I shall tell you more about it.  P.S.  This recipe is from page 210!

My closest group of girlfriends was filled with rockstars--one is a brilliant earth mama living a couple hours north of me now who loves fiercely and loyally (and with really good food); another is a lawyer-turned-weekend-warrior who inspires me almost everyday when I see just how much she pushes herself to be the very best; one is a milky-skinned redhead (who understood not to lay out in the sun) whose generosity once extended to sending my a box of food during my starving graduate school days because I wasn't sure I could make it to the next week; another is a breast cancer survivor with whom I once stayed up way too late during finals week not studying but learning how to laugh and laugh and laugh (something I am eternally grateful to her for); one is a stellar veterinarian (one of two scientists!) to whom all beings (furry or not) flock because she accepts them for who they are no matter what or when with an enviable ease and patience; one who left us for southern climes (hurray for New Zealand!) to become an environmentalist whom I have not seen in almost two decades but I think of her often; and then the giver of this book--a hilarious writer whose eye for detail, whose quick wit, and whose fast brain makes mincemeat of those who dare to cross the ones she loves most deeply.  She is one of those people you want to be around because you know you will laugh a lot with her, but she will also ask you to be your most vulnerable.

I never imagined we would become these women.  But I am glad that we did. 

I wish I could have shared this lasagna with them (it makes enough to feed us all--all eight of us!) but we would have had to travel from Miami to Ukiah, Boston to La Jolla, New Zealand to North Carolina, Chicago to Oakland.  But I can imagine now, the dinner would have been filled with five conversations happening at once, most of us involved in two or three of them at the same time.  There would have been a lot of laughing.  There would have been raised voices to make oneself heard.  There would have been a lot of hair.  We were always vain about our hair.

But there would have been a lot of love.

So thank you, my dear friend, for sending me this cookbook, for allowing me to make this fantastic white lasagna laced with tarragon and chard, and for providing me the opportunity to write you this internet love letter. May you all make this lasagna and have the same results.

Chicken Lasagna with Greens

Serves 8

4 tablespoons olive oil
5 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups chicken broth (reduced sodium recommended)
1/2 cup heavy (whipping) cream
1/2 cup milk
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons fresh tarragon, chopped
14-16 ounces rainbow or red chard (about 2 bunches)
9-12 lasagna noodles
3 cups shredded, poached chicken
3 cups (12 ounces) shredded Gruyere cheese

1.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Oil an 11x7 inch glass baking dish with olive oil or coat with nonstick cooking spray.  Heat 3 tablespoons of the oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat.  Add 3 of the garlic cloves and cook for 30-60 seconds or until fragrant.  Whisk in the flour and cook for 1 minute, whisking constantly.  Whisk in the broth, cream, milk, 1/2 teaspoon of the salt, and 1/4 teaspoon of the pepper.  Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, whisking constantly.  reduce the heat and simmer for 3 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Stir in the tarragon and set aside.

2.  Cut off the chard leaves and the stems.  Slice the leaves about 1/2 inch wide.  There should be about 8 firmly packed cups.  Thinly slice the stems, about 1 cup.

3.  Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet over medium heat, add the chard stems, and cook for 3 minutes, stirring constantly.  Increase the heat to medium-high and add the chard leaves.  Cook, stirring and turning with tongs for 3-4 minutes or until wilted, and add the remaining 2 garlic cloves and 1/4 teaspoon each of salt and pepper.  Transfer to a large bowl and cool slightly, pressing on the chard and pouring out any accumulated liquid.

4.  Spoon a light coating of sauce over the bottom of the pan.  Lay 3 noodles in the pan, overlapping as necessary.  Layer one-third of the chard, chicken, sauce, and cheese.  Repeat the layers two more times.  Bake for 55-60 minutes or until golden brown, hot, and bubbly.  Let sit for 10 minutes before serving.