Saturday, April 26, 2014

Saag Aloo

Lo those many years ago, I, a transplanted Mid-Westerner, was introduced by a worldly DC resident to Indian food while I was studying Salt Lake City. Prior to college, I didn't know that garlic came unpowdered and that Cool Whip didn't count as cream. Certainly, my hometown did not boast any Indian restaurants, and as we have established, my mother was not exactly a culinary adventurer. 

Thus, the discovery of Bombay House led to one of those transformational moments where you cannot believe what a hollow shell your life once was. I walked in, a mere girl uninitiated in the seductions of curry, and walked out, a woman ready to sing its praises. We ordered as many vegetarian dishes as we could eat, along with a couple of different naans and papadum.  What I left with is multi-fold:
  • A lifelong love of Indian food.
  • The belief that a woman could survive on papadums alone.
  • A particular affinity for saag aloo.
  • A very, very full belly.

Since then, I have introduced the niece to Indian food (oh lord, that was a day of glory), and nowadays, Indian food finds its way onto our stove top (where I also include chopped garlic and eschew Cool Whip). An essential comfort food, saag aloo boasts a palate-pleasing spinach, but the potatoes stabilize this sometimes spicy mix (although there really are no hard and fast rules about the spice mixture, so feel free to play around a little).  Saag denotes any leafy-green--spinach, mustard greens, even finely chopped broccoli--although in most American restuarants, you will find only spinach. Further, asafetida, Madhur Jaffrey's optional ingredient (and tricky to find), is a bitter and acrid flavoring--use sparingly, but it will certainly add a kick of an onion-garlic flavors.

In this popular North Indian/Pakistani dish, you could remove the potatoes and add chickpeas, cubed chicken, or peeled and deveined shrimp and still have a wonderful dish (chana saag, saag murgh, or jhinga saag). Throw naan or daal or just plain lentils or rice on the side, and you have a full, sustaining, and delicious dinner. And if you're new to Indian food, I promise, everything will be different after a satisfying bowl of this saag aloo.


Saag Aloo
Adapted from Madhur Jaffrey Indian Cooking

4 main course servings, 6 side dish servings

1 pound frozen chopped spinach, thawed  (We used about 2 pounds fresh spinach, chopped)
1 large onion, peeled and cut crosswise into thin slices
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons black mustard seeds
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
4 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into small cubes
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 pinch ground asafetida (optional)
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons water

1.  Put the oil in a large, heavy frying pan and set over medium heat. When hot, add the mustard seeds. As soon as the mustard seeds begin to pop, which only takes a few seconds, put in the onion.

2  Cook until the onions are translucent, almost 15 minutes.  Be sure to stir often to keep the onions brown.

3.  Add the garlic. Stir and fry for 2 minutes. Put in the potatoes, cayenne and asafetida, if using. Stir and fry for a minute. Add the spinach, salt, and 2 tablespoons water. Bring to a boil. 

4.  Cover tightly, turn heat to very low, and cook for 40 minutes or until the potatoes are tender. Stir a few times during the cooking period and make sure that there is always a little liquid in the frying pan.

5.  This dish tastes good alone, over rice, or with lentils on the side.

Monday, April 21, 2014


I have been reading The Luminaries, this year's Man Booker prize winner, this year's present from my secret santa, who happened to be my dear friend who lives in North Carolina, and this month's book club selection. At first, this epic seems a 19th-century detective novel that will reveal itself as you go further into the story; however, six hundred pages in, and the detective story seems less compelling than the sheer artistry of Elizabeth Catton's narrative. Certainly the artifice of astrology plays heavily into her construction of the narrative, as each section wanes into half of the one before it.  Opposing characters face off (just as they would in their astrological signs) and keep the luminaries orbiting, leading me to wish that I had taken notes from the get-go with this book; however, by the time all is said and done, the revelations and betrayals of the narrative aren't what keep this book going; it's not even the characters themselves.  Instead, Catton's fine writing just makes me want to spend a few more hours in her deft hands. Lucky indeed, for the book does go on, clocking in at over 800 pages. A pleasant way to spend a few, spring-break sponsored, afternoons.  I found that as the end careened to its conclusion, I did not want the book to end--an unusual feeling, given that 300 pages prior I had thought I would never make it to the end.

I loved Catton's characterizations.  My favorites, all of which seem to fall around the 400 page mark--perhaps when it seemed as if we were most thoroughly in the thick of it:

"Ah Sook was very fond of Anna, and he believed that she was fond of him also. He knew, however, that the intimacy that they enjoyed together was less a togetherness than it was a shared isolation--for there is no relationship as private as that between the addict and his drug, and they both felt that isolation very keenly. Ah Sook loathed his own enslavement to opium, and the more he loathed it, the more his craving for the drug strengthened, taking a disgusted shape in his heart and mind."  (408)

"He conceded in panic--for it crushed Nilssen's spirit to be held in low esteem by other men. He could not bear to know that he was disliked, for to him there was no real difference between being disliked, and being dislikeable; every injury he sustained was an injury to his selfhood. It was for reasons of self-protection that Nilssen dressed int he latest fashions and spoke with affectation, and placed himself as the central character of every tale: he built his persona as a shield around his person, because he knew very well how little his person could withstand." (426)

"Walter Moody did not chastise himself for intrusions upon other people's privacy, and nor did he see any reason to confess them. His mind was of a most phlegmatic sort, cool in its private applications, quick, and excessively rational; he possessed a fault common to those of high intelligence; however, which was that he tended to regard the gift of his intellect as a license of a king, by whose rarefied authority he was protected, in all circumstances, from ever behaving ill. He considered his moral obligations to be of an altogether different class than those of lesser men, and so rarely felt shame or compunction, except in very general terms" (467)
(Here are two interesting book reviews, one from The Guardian and the other The New York Times: both of which will do a far better job than my own little discussion).

So beyond the book, I have a new cookbook, gifted this past Christmas by one of the fathers-in-law (I have two of those and four mothers-in-law; it took a village to raise that husband), who just so happens to also be a member of the book club. This cookbook comes in part because we have been salivating over his cookbooks. Written by Teresa Barrenechea, this cookbook is delightful. Meant to open the doors for the non-native Spaniard into the homes of Spain and with discrete cultural dishes and established culinary nationalism, the recipes in this book boast of the diversity of Spanish cooking, from Navarra to Andalusia, the Balearic Islands to Murcia. Opening with a gorgeous essay on the culinary history of Spain, this cookbook moves through tapas, soups, pies, stews, fish, meat, poultry and into dessert. She covers it all with some attractive photographs, easy to follow recipes, and little head notes that ground each dish in its region.

This flan, which is so ubiquitous that it does not boast a singular region, is the classic creme caramel of Spain. Barrenechea advises that it is the basis for a multitude of different flavored flans, where you can substitute another liquid for all or part of the milk--she recommends freshly squeezed orange juice to get that Valencian feel. Perhaps some coffee or chocolate to kick this flan up a notch or two. Or even a splash of vanilla.

Do make this flan early in the day, so that you can allow it to cool completely before serving.  And believe in the syrup.  I was convinced that it would not be runny after the fast hardening of the caramel to the ramekin before baking and the subsequent cool down of a few hours after baking. However, as you can see, it turned out just as one would hope flan would do.

In sum, it is glorious indeed to have two new books--one a Booker prize winner and the other a fabulous cookbook.  I do recommend The Luminaries, should you have the time to devote to it.  Perhaps you can get a chunk of it read as you wait for the flan to cool.

Now if only summer would come soon so I could spend even more time reading and cooking.


Adapted from The Cuisines of Spain: Exploring Regional Home Cooking

12 servings

1/2 cup granulated sugar

4 cups whole milk
2 strips lemon zest
1 cinnamon stick
5 whole eggs
2 egg yolks
1 cup granulated sugar

1.  Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.  Gather 12 ramekins or custard molds.

2.  Spread the 1/2 cup granulated sugar evenly in the bottom of a heavy saucepan and place over medium-low heat.  It may take several minutes before the sugar begins to melt. Without stirring, watch the sugar closely as it begins to liquefy at the edges. When the liquefied sugar begins to turn from golden to brown, immediately remove the saucepan from the heat. Working swiftly, pour the liquid caramel into the ramekins and tilt to cover the bottom and sides evenly. The caramel will harden swiftly when it hits the cold ramekin, so work as quickly as possible.  Don't worry too much if you can't spread it prettily or as evenly as you would like.

3.  In a saucepan, combine the milk, lemon zest and cinnamon stick over high heat and bring to a boil. Immediately decrease the heat to low and simmer 10 minutes to infuse the milk with the flavor of the seasonings.  Remove from the heat and let cool.

4.  In a bowl, combine the whole eggs, egg yolks, and granulated sugar, and whisk until foamy. Pour the cooled milk through a fine-mesh sieve held over the egg mixture and whisk until well blended.  pour the mixture into the coated custard cups.

5.  Arrange the ramekins, not touching, in a large, deep baking pan. Pour water to the dept of about 1 inch in the pan to create a water bath. Carefully put the pan in the oven and bake for 1 1/2 hours or until set when tested with a thin-bladed knife in the center. Carefully remove the custards from the water bath and set aside to cool completely.

6.  One at a time, run a knife around the inside of each ramekin to loosen the edges of the custard and then invert the custard onto a dessert plate.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Ottolenghi's Semolina, Coconut and Marmalade Cake

"When I stepped out into the bright sunlight, from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman, and a ride home." 

This week I did two very important things: I made Ottolenghi's Semolina, Coconut and Orange Blossom Cake and I rewatched The Outsiders. These two events are not related; however, they were both delightful.

Let's start with the cake, shall we? This cake is a light-in-texture-but-heavy-in-flavor take on the ubiquitous Eastern Mediterranean semolina cake. From Greece to Syria, Egypt to Turkey, this cake, well, takes the cake. Call it revani, basbousa, shamali, harisi, mix in yogurt, coconut, rose water instead of orange blossom water--no matter what, you're going to do all right.  
Ottolenghi's version adds coconut and marmalade to a large dose of sunflower oil and semolina. He also serves it with a dallop of Greek yogurt freshened with orange blossom water. However, this is the kind of recipe where you get to put your own stamp on it and it will still be amazing. Mix in some coconut with the yogurt at the end? Perhaps. Use ground pistachios instead of almonds? Sounds tempting to me. Use olive oil instead of sunflower oil? Tell me what time to be over for dessert.  Me, I made one into a bundt cake (which stuck to the edges of the pan), for it did make for a festive finish to our meal.

Also, it is important to note that this cake is ah-may-zing the next day, toasted, for breakfast.

Now onto The Outsiders, which has no bearing whatsoever on this cake. That movie was my absolute favorite thing when I was in about 5th grade (well, maybe after Wham! or jelly shoes). We rented it from the local video store; I swear, I watched that thing 15 times before we returned it (properly rewound, I am sure). Oh, Francis Ford Coppola, this was clearly an early work for you--what, with the schlocky music and the hilarious sound stage sunsets. However, your casting of Patrick Swayze as Darry and Ralph Macchio as Johnny was a choice that inspired many an imaginative fancy for the mind of a boy-crazy pre-teen (yes, I realize they were a decade or two older than I). Thank you. I do have some questions, however. Why would an elementary school take its field trip to an abandoned church? Why doesn't Johnny also dye his hair? 

Perhaps one should contemplate these important, unanswered questions over a piece of cake? Do it for Johnny.

Ottolenghi's Semolina, Coconut, and Marmalade Cake
Adapted from  Jerusalem: A Cookbook

2 loaves (or in our case, 1 loaf, and 1 mini-bundt cake)


For the cake:
3/4 cup sunflower oil (a light olive oil will also work)
1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1/2 cup orange marmalade
4 eggs, at room temperature
Zest of 1 orange
1/3 cup sugar
3/4 cup shredded coconut
3/4 cup (all purpose) flour
1 cup plus 1 1/2 tablespoons semolina (fine or coarse, depending on your desired texture)
2 tbsp ground almonds (also known as almond meal or almond flour; I substituted 2 tablespoons of very finely chopped sliced almonds)
2 tsp baking powder

For the syrup:
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1 tbsp orange blossom water 

Yogurt topping:
Greek Yogurt
1-2 drops orange blossom water

1.  Preheat oven to 350F.

2.  In a large bowl, whisk the oil, orange juice, marmalade, eggs and orange zest until the marmalade is smooth and well incorporated.

3.  In a separate bowl, whisk together the sugar, coconut, flour, semolina, almonds and baking powder. 

4.  Add to the wet ingredients and mix until just combined into a (quite) runny batter.

5.  Grease 2 standard bread loaf tins. Pour half of the batter into each tin, and bake for 45-60 minutes or until the top is a golden, orangey brown.  (I found 45 minutes was enough.)

6.  While the cake is baking, bring the sugar, water and orange blossom water to the boil in a small saucepan. Let boil until all of the sugar has been dissolved in the water, then remove from the heat.

7.  Remove the cakes from the oven and immediately brush each with half of the syrup, letting the syrup soak into the holes.  It will seem like a lot of syrup; however, it needs to permeate the whole of the cake, and it's what makes this cake moist and flavorful.  Allow the syrup to soak into the cake and then brush on more.  This will take a few goes.

8.  Mix a few spoonfuls of plain yogurt with sugar and orange blossom flower, to sweeten. Serve with slices of the cake.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Mushroom Risotto

It has been raining north of here, which means many, many mushrooms.  Of course, we are not eating personally harvested mushrooms.  No, no.  Without our transplanted back to the Mid-West mycologist-cum-farmer to guide us through a forest foraging, the husband trusts himself to gather one mushroom and one mushroom only--the chanterelle. I applaud his restraint.  However, that doesn't mean that we don't delight in finding (and photographing) mushrooms of all sorts.  And lucky for us, the redwoods up in Fort Bragg provide plenty of opportunity:

While I recognize that all of those mushrooms are probably poisonous, I once had a friend who owned a mushroom farm in Pennsylvania.  I met him while I was in Ireland, and upon my return to the states, he invited me to his mushroom farm in, I kid you not, the Mushroom Capital of the World (or so the Wikipedia page proclaims).  Sure, I was fascinated by all of the growing rooms, the sheer amount of button mushrooms in a a row, the proper way to pick mushrooms (on which I was summarily instructed), and the loamy smell of the compost.  However, it was the thrill of driving a backhoe that has remained with me.  Oh, pshaw, you say--you who drive backhoes all the time.  Let me tell you, for this woman, driving that contraption was a blast.  I was not very good at it, and I sure as rain could not pick up the compost with the digger arm thing (see, I am very technical), but I had a blast making a mess of it all.  Making a mess is serious business.  

In honor of all these mushrooms and mushroom-related memories, I made this mushroom risotto from Fields of Greens.  As you may know from previous entries, I am a huge fan of Greens Restaurant and their subsequent cookbooks.  While all of these recipes take ample time, if you have it, you will not find it wasted.  Further, go the extra step of making the stock.  Not only will the house smell amazing while the stock simmers on the stove, it makes the risotto rich and a little acidic, which is needed to counterbalance the earthiness of the mushrooms.  

Finally, we had great intentions of making these into risotto cakes the next day.  However, a reheated bowl of risotto with a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese is just as good.  Why mess with a good thing?  Unless it involves a backhoe.  Then mess all you want.

Mushroom Risotto with Leeks and Fennel
Adapted from Fields of Greens

Serves 4-6 

Tomato-Mushroom Stock (see recipe below)

1/4 ounce dried porcini, soaked in 1/2 cup warm water for 10 minutes
2 tbs extra virgin olive oil
1/2 lb white mushrooms, washed and sliced
salt and pepper
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 tbs unsalted butter
1 medium-sized leek, white part only, cut in half lengthwise, thinly sliced, and washed
1 medium-sized fennel bulb, quartered lengthwise, cored, and thinly sliced
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 tbs coarsely chopped Italian parsley
Grated Parmesan cheese

1.   Pour the stock into a saucepan, bring it to a boil, and reduce it to 6 cups. Keep the stock warm over low heat.

2.  Drain the porcini and save the soaking liquid to add to the risotto later.  (If the liquid is sandy, let the sand settle and then carefully pour off the liquid.)  Finely chop the porcini.  Set them aside.

3.  Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a large skillet; add the white mushrooms, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and a few pinches of pepper. Sauté over medium-high heat until the mushrooms are golden and crisp on the edges; add half the garlic. Sauté for another minute or two more and then transfer the mushrooms to a bowl.

4.  Heat the butter and remaining oil in the pan and add the leeks, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and a few pinches of pepper. Sauté over medium heat for 3-4 minutes, until the leeks are wilted. Add the fennel and remaining garlic; sauté for 1-2 minutes. Add the rice and sauté for 2-3 minutes, stirring constantly. Begin adding the stock a cup at a time, allowing the rice to absorb each cup of stock completely before adding more. Keep the pan on medium heat and continue to stir.

5.  When the rice has absorbed 3 cups of the stock, add the sautéed mushrooms and wine. 6.  Continue to add the stock, stirring constantly, until you have used 5 cups. . As you stir in the last cup of stock, add 1/4 teaspoon salt and a few pinches of pepper. At this point the grains of rice will be a little toothy and the risotto quite saucy; it's ready to serve. Stir in half of the parsley. 

6.  Serve immediately in warm bowls. Sprinkle with the Parmesan and the remaining parsley.

Tomato- Mushroom Stock for Risotto 

7 cups

2 quarts cold water
1 yellow onion, peeled and chopped
1 leek top, chopped

8 garlic cloves, crushed with the side of a knife blade
1 tsp salt
1 oz dried shiitake mushrooms

2 medium-sized carrots
1 large unpeeled potato, chopped
1/4 lb white mushrooms, sliced
2 celery ribs, chopped
1 28-oz can tomatoes with juice
6 parsley springs, chopped
6 fresh thyme sprigs
3 fresh sage leaves
2 fresh oregano sprigs
1/2 tsp peppercorns

1.   Pour 1/2 cup water into a stockpot and add the onion, leek top, garlic, and salt. Give them a stir, then cover the pot and cook vegetables gently over medium heat for 15 minutes. Add the rest of the ingredients and cover with remaining water.

2.  Bring the stock to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, for 1 hour. Pour the stock through a strainer, press as much liquid as you can from the vegetables, and discard them (or save the potatoes and eat them with salt as a snack, because the risotto is a long ways off). Use immediately or cool and refrigerate or freeze. The stock will keep in the refrigerator for 2 days and indefinitely in the freezer.