Saturday, August 27, 2011

Rutabiya: Tagine of Meat with Dates

I love a tagine.  So much so that one fine Christmas morning, I came downstairs to find that Santa had left a tagine for me under the tree.  Santa knows me well.

The clay pot with the conical lid, itself called a tagine or tajine, lends its name to the dish itself.  Tagines blend meat with vegetables and savory with sweet, and they pack a punch with a pretty spectacular blend of spices ranging from cumin to cinnamon, ginger to saffron.  According to Claudia Roden, Middle Eastern cooking sage,  Moroccan cooking was the most of all the North African cuisines to be influenced by the Arab invasion from the seventh to the fourteenth centuries.  The culinary culture of medieval Baghdad is blended with the indigenous Berber traditions and the Spanish influence.   That's a blending of gastronomic customs that I can get behind.

This week at book club, where we discussed The Tiger's Wife, one of the members brought a tagine.  Yes, please.  While the tagine has its roots in Moroccan cooking rather than in Yugoslavian cooking (Yugoslavia being where the novel is set), it was still quite a welcome addition to the buffet as we talked about what we really thought that fabulous freshman novel was all about.  [I would argue that as much as it is a story of identity and of self discovery, it is a war story about how a culture comes to suffer and possibly make reparations through storytelling; however, I am known to float bogus theories.  My final assessment of the novel, by the way, was that it is stunningly written, if a little hard to get into.]

Back to the cooking: Tagines are simply long-braised stews of generally inexpensive meats, liberally laden with vegetables of all kinds.  Making a tagine is pretty easy.  Braise meat (lamb, chicken, beef) and/or vegetables (onions, eggplant, butternut squash, sweet potatoes) in water and a spice mixture (ras el hanout, cinnamon with ginger and saffron, cumin with cinnamon and chiles) for about an hour and a half, add fruit (dates, raisins, quince, preserved lemons, apricots, prunes) and honey, if desired, and cook for another twenty minutes.  Sometimes add beans (chickpeas) or olives.  Eat.  Lick fingers. 

That said, this particular recipe, entitled Rutabiya after the Arabic word for date (rutab), is rather liberally adapted from Roden's cookbook. She does not include eggplant and uses only lamb.  I went the beef/lamb route, for I can find lamb a little gamy from time to time.  However, if I were to make this again, I would keep this at 1 1/2 pounds of lamb.  The braised onions and eggplant with the dates are an unctuous and sweet counterbalance to the strength of the lamb.

Overall, cooking this number was a pretty spectacular way to spend a Friday evening after a week of back-to-school meetings.  Just perfect.  And thank you again, Santa, for the pot to cook it in.

One Year Ago: Crusty Baked Tamal

Rutabiya (Tagine of Meat with Dates)
Adapted from  The New Book of Middle Eastern Food

4-6 Servings

2 tablespoons oil
3/4 lb beef
3/4 lb lamb
3/4 lb eggplant
Salt and Pepper
1/4 teaspoon saffron
1/2 teaspoon ginger
2 large onions, finely chopped
1 tablespoon honey
1/4 lb dates
1.2 cup toasted almonds, chopped

1.  Heat the oil.  Cut the meat into 1-2 inch chunks and dice the eggplant.  Add the meat and eggplant to the oil.  Add salt, a generous amount of pepper, ginger, 1 teaspoon of the cinnamon, and onions.  Cover with water and simmer, covered, for 1 1/2 hours, or until the meat is very tender.  Add water to keep the meat covered and turn the pieces over from time to time.

2.  After the hour and a half, add the honey, the remaining cinnamon, and the dates.  Cook 10-15 minutes more.

3.  Sprinkle with almonds and serve.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Quesadillas with Mushrooms, Asparagus, Goat Cheese, and Poblano Cream

About one year ago, I made watermelon sangria from the Dona Tomas CookbookWe also just got a watermelon in this week's CSA box.  Guess what I am going to make tomorrow afternoon?

In the mean time, one should embrace the quesadilla from the fantastic restaurant Dona Tomas.  These fancy little quesadillas can be as high end as you desire (morels, you cheer) or as low end as your budget necessitates (button, you mumble).  We split the difference and went the oyster mushroom route, mostly because I like the color of oyster mushrooms.

What delights me about this recipe is its unabashed embrasure of three--count them, three--types of milk fat.  Milk, sour cream, and whipping cream.  Well, yes, please.

 This little number is also pretty easy.  The only "difficult" part is making the poblano cream just because you do need to roast up a poblano and make a roux.  However, neither of those are difficult, just a little time intensive for a lunch.  Nonetheless, you can make the poblano cream in advance and then just reheat it--or at least so I have found.

And once you have made the poblano cream, it's just a matter of tossing together the mushrooms and asparagus.

And then assembling the little quesadillas.  Now, that's a lunchtime activity I can get behind.

Finally, it's just about time to head back to school.  The pile of work I am thinking about sits behind my just-bitten-into quesadillas.  But I am looking forward to the return to the classroom after a summer of travel.  However, tonight, I am engaging in one last  hurrah with friends--we're heading to see Toad the Wet Sprockett.  I am merely returning to my own high school days for a night.  You better believe I will be singing at the top of my lungs.  Don't judge. -->

One Year Ago: Baked Crêpes Pie with Eggplant and Peppers
Quesadillas Con Hongos, Esparragos, Y Crema Con Chile Poblano (quesadillas with mushrooms, asparagus, goat cheese, and poblano cream)
Adapted from  Dona Tomas

4 Servings

Poblano Cream
1 large poblano chile, toasted, peeled, stemmed, and seeded
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 1/2 tablespoons flour
1/2 tablespoon salt
1/2 cup sour cream
1/4 cup heavy whipping cream
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 shallot, minced
2-3 tablespoons butter
1/2 pound fresh mushrooms (I used oyster, but you could use any yummy mushroom)
1/2 bunch of asparagus, sliced diagonally 1/8 inch thick
12 corn tortillas
5 ounces goat cheese
1/4 bunch cilantro, stemmed and chopped

Poblano Cream
1.  To prepare the poblano cream place the chile and the milk into a blender or food processor and puree until smooth. Transfer the mixture to a saucepan and bring to a boil.

2.  Meanwhile, make a roux by heating the butter in a small skillet and adding the flour when melted. Stir it constantly over low heat until it becomes golden brown with a nutty aroma (about 10 minutes).

3.  Whisk the roux into the boiling milk mixture and decrease the heat to achieve a gentle simmer; the sauce should begin to thicken immediately. Simmer for about 20 minutes to cook out the flour taste, adding salt to taste. Remove the mixture from the heat and whisk in the sour cream and the whipping cream.  Adjust the salt and keep warm.

Filling and Quesadillas
4.  To prepare the filling, place a large saute pan over high heat and add oil. Add the shallots and saute until translucent, about 3-5 minutes. Next, add the butter and mushrooms and decrease the heat to medium. Cook, stirring frequently, 1-2 minutes until the mushrooms are heated through. Add the asparagus and a little more butter if necessary and saute until the asparagus is tender.  Adjust the seasoning with salt if necessary.

5.  Heat and lightly grease a griddle or cast iron skillet.  Working in batches, place the tortillas on the griddle to warm.  Place a small scoop of the filling on one half of each tortilla, sprinkle with goat cheese, and fold in half with the spatula.  Brown the quesadillas for about 3 minutes on each side, until the cheese is melted and the outside is crisp.  (You can keep the quesadillas warm in a 200-degree oven while you prepare the rest of them).

6.  To serve, arrange the quesadillas on plates or a platter.  Drizzle the quesadillas with cream and garnish with cilantro.  Serve warm.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Devil's Food Cake

Some people love cake.*  Growing up, we were not cake and ice cream eaters.  Sure, Mom would trot out the Betty Crocker box of chocolate cake mix on birthdays and graduations, but we ate only our obligatory slice.  There were games of Squirrel! (a game my kindergarten-teaching mother made up) to be played and presents to unwrap.  But cake was always present at such occasions.  While I am not a huge cake eater, I do believe that cake should make an appearance when there is something to celebrate.
*I think this blog is one of the funniest things out there.

It's not everyday that I make a cake.  In fact, it wasn't even recently that I made a cake.

But I did make a cake this spring.  I teach high school, and one of my students had something to celebrate, and I have always wanted to make a layer cake, so I took it upon myself to spend a Monday night baking and a Tuesday morning frosting the cake in my office.  And then we all huddled around the cake, ready to dig in.

Verdict from teenagers:  frosting is so seriously good it might cause you harm.  Cake was a little dry, but still quite yummy.  Serve with a glass of milk or some vanilla ice cream, and you would be set.

So while I am still not a huge cake fan, this is one worth pulling out when you have something worth celebrating.  Or maybe you could just make the frosting and eat it with a spoon.  While watching TV.  That's worth a celebration, right?

It's that good.

Excuse the background.  That would be my office.

Devil's Food Cake
Adapted from  Baking in America

1 9-inch, 2-layer cake (12-16 servings)

Chocolate Custard
1/2 cup milk
3 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 large egg yolk

2 1/4 cups sifted cake flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
2 large eggs, separated
1/2 cup milk
1 large egg white
2 tablespoons sugar

4 ounces unsweetened chocolate
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3/4 cup sour cream
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
 4 cups confectioners' sugar  [I actually used less than a cup.  Just add sugar until you get to your desired sweetness]

1.  For the chocolate custard, heat the milk in a small heavy saucepan over medium-low heat until steaming hot.  Add the chocolate and stir occasionally with a whisk as the chocolate and stir occasionally with a whisk as the chocolate melts, then whisk until smooth.  Add the brown sugar and whisk it in until partly dissolved.  Stir in the egg yolk with a heatproof rubber spatula.  Increase the heat to medium and stir constantly until the mixture is slightly thickened.  Remove from the heat and sit occasionally until the custard reaches room temperature; it will thicken as it cools.

2.  For the cake, adjust an oven rack to the lower third position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Butter two 9-inch round cake pans. Line the bottoms with rounds of waxed paper or cooking parchment.  Butter the papers and dust the bottoms of the pans with all-purpose flour.  Knock out the excess and set aside.

3.  Resift the flour with the baking soda and salt.  Set aside.

4.  In a large bowl, beat the butter with an electric mixer on medium speed until smooth, about 1 minute. Add the vanilla and 1/4 cup of the brown sugar and beat on medium-high speed for 1 minute.  Add the remaining 1/2 cup brown sugar 1/4 cup at a time, beating for 20 to 30 seconds after each addition.  Scrape the bowl and beaters and beat for 5 minutes.  Add the egg yolks and beat for 1 minute.

5.  On low speed, beat in the flour mixture in 3 additions, alternating with the milk, beginning and ending with the flour and beating only until each addition in thoroughly incorporated.  Stop to scrape the bowl and beaters as necessary.  Add the cooled chocolate custard and beat it in only until incorporated.  Set aside.

6.  In a medium bowl, with clean beaters, beat the 3 egg whites on medium speed until they form soft peaks that droop at their tips when the beaters are raised.  Gradually beat in the sugar.  Increase the speed to medium-high and continue beating until the whites form stiff, shiny peaks that curl slightly at their tips when the beaters are raised.  Fold the whites into the chocolate batter in 2 additions, folding only until no white show.  Divide the batter between the prepared pans.  To level the batter, briskly rotate the pans on your counter top.

7.  Bake for 35 to 45 minutes, until the layers barely spring back when gently pressed in the center.   (They should not have started to shrink away from the side of the pans.)  Cool i the pans on a wire rack for 10 minutes.  Loosen the cakes from the pans by running the tip of a small sharp knife all around them.  Cover with wire racks and carefully lift off the pans and papers.  Cover the lawyers with other racks, invert, and cool completely right side up.

8.  For the frosting, melt the chocolate with the butter in a small heavy saucepan over low heat, whisking occasionally until smooth.  Remove from the heat and set aside until completely cool.  Whisk the sour cream, vanilla, and salt together in a large bowl.  Add the confectioners' sugar about one fourth at a time, whisking until very smooth [See above note about sugar].  Whisk in the cooled chocolate until very smooth.  If necessary, let stand until spreadable.

9.  To frost the cake, trim away any crusty edges with a small sharp knife.  Place one layer upside down on a cake plate and spread with abut 3/4 cup of the frosting.  Place the second layer right side up on the first layer and frost the sides and top with the remaining frosting.  Use the back of a teaspoon to make peaks and swirls in the frosting on top of the cake, if you wish.  Let stand about 1 hour until the frosting is set.  To serve, rinse a sharp knife in hot water and shake off the excess water before making each cut.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Mussels Linguica

It has been a while since I posted.  There are excuses--many of them involve the ocean and John Steinbeck.  I see nothing wrong with blaming both of them equally for a month of intensity.  At Steinbeck camp, an NEH-sponsored seminar for secondary (and some middle) school teachers (and a librarian) in the past month, I have been thinking a lot and cooking not at all.  I am happy to return home, to put my hands back into the kitchen.  To wash things.  To chop things.  To steam things.

I find myself back in my house, unpacking, cleaning, getting ready for guests this week; instead, I think I just want to think about the smell of the ocean--mussels smell exactly the way the ocean does.  Salty, fresh, and a tiny bit like decay.  

To make everything even more exciting, this is a recipe from page 210 (see my about page to find out why that's important to me) in the Mark Bittman The Best Recipes in the World cookbook, a gift from the husband.  Boy, it feels good to be back in the kitchen.

And these mussels are prepared the Portuguese way.   Perhaps such a preparation is appropriate as it was the Portuguese who first spotted Monterey, where I have been happily holed up, back in 1542.  However, the Spanish were more persistent, and Monterey became the capital of Spanish California in 1776.  Nonetheless, let's at least take a gander at this traditional Portuguese preparation of mussels: 

Linguiça is simply a Portuguese pork butt sausage with heavy garlic, red chilles, peppercorns, turmeric, and salt.  But it turns into a rather mild, lovely little flavoring for mussels.  This recipe is simple to make, and if I were to do anything to this easy (and weeknight) dish, it would be to add white wine as the mussels are cooking, just to have a little more broth.  Definitely serve with bread to sop up the broth. 

Finally, I just want to share one of my favorite, and highly yogic, quotations from The Sea of Cortez, a little joint project between John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts (and Carol Steinbeck, John's first wife, even though she is not named in the book):
"The truest reason for anything's being so is that it is.  This is actually and truly a reason, more valid and clearer than all the other separate reasons, or than any group of them short of the whole.  Anything less than the whole forms part of the picture only, and the infinite whole is unknowable except by being it, by living into it."

Yep.  While the eating of mussels is a poor substitute for the experience of an early morning walk by the ocean, which I am grateful I got to do almost every morning for three weeks, I am happy to return to my own kitchen, to cook again.

Mussels Linguiça

4 Servings

1/2-1 pound linguiça or kielbasa
1 tablespoon extra virgin live oil
2 plum tomatoes, cored and roughly chopped
3 pounds mussels, cleaned
1 tablespoon minced garlic

1. Cut the sausage into slices about 1/8-inch thick.  Heat olive oil in stock pot over medium-high heat.  Add the sausage.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until the sausage begins to brown, about 10 minutes.  Add the tomatoes.  Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes begin to break apart.

2.  [Now would also be a good time to add a little white wine, say 1/2 a cup.  But apparently the addition of the white wine is a little more French than Portuguese.  You make the call.]  Add the mussels and cook until they open about 10 minutes.  Covering the pot is optional, but covering the pot does make it go a little faster.

3.  When almost all of the mussels are open, add the garlic and cook for another minute or two. 

Family Feast July 2011

July 02, 2011
Campari and Soda

Peach Bruschetta

Watercress, Grapefruit, Beet, and Avocado Salad

Grilled Corn Salad
Grilled Salmon

Cherry Clafoutis

Family Feast May 2011

May 28, 2011

An all Ad Hoc Menu

Cipollini Onion Chutney
Olive Tapanade
Herbed Toasted Walnuts
Spiced Mixed Nuts

Grilled Asparagus with Prosciutto, Fried Bread, Poached Egg, and Aged Balsamic Vinegar

Chicken Mar i Muntanya 
(with Shrimp, Mussels, Green Beans, Piquillo Peppers and Chorizo)
Saffron Rice
Cheese Plate with Quince Paste