Thursday, July 30, 2015

Nivik: Chickpeas with Spinach

Chickpeas and spinach may not sound like much; however it is a budget-friendly and absolutely tasty way to bring more protein and veggies into your diet. And, according to Claudia Roden (the queen bee of Middle Eastern cooking), it's a pretty ubiquitous way to do so in the Middle East. There are as many different recipes on how to combine these two ingredients as there are people willing to share them, and Tess Mallos, our cookbook's author, chose an Armenian preparation for them.

And I am so glad she did, for this is a recipe where the sum is much more than its humble parts.

Simple chickpeas. Spinach. Some tomato paste. Onions.

Really, it didn't sound all that interesting, and I wasn't particularly looking forward to making it. In fact, I waited until the husband had gone up to Fort Bragg (his mother is in town visiting, and they got to enjoy the beautiful, sunny weather on the coast this weekend and early week), so that I could make it on my own. I didn't want to foist what I thought would be a pretty unremarkable this dish upon them.

I was wrong, and I am not afraid to admit it.

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, really, as I have have empirical evidence of how much I like beans with greens; however, I am a bit thick headed and have to be reminded again.

Happily, this recipe is simple and forgiving. It encourages messing around with it on your own.Want more beans? Just add them. Have white beans instead of garbanzos? No problem. Have an almost insatiable need for spinach? Go ahead, add some more. Want to eat the whole pot because you're the only one home? Perhaps resist that one.

Admittedly, this version of the recipe is a little time consuming, for it calls to presoak your dried beans overnight, to cook said beans for two hours, and to sautee a fresh bunch of spinach with the beans--all points I followed. However, if you don't have the time to make this dish from scratch, I have a sneaking suspicion that it would be just as satisfying made from canned chickpeas and frozen spinach.

The end result was savory, a little sweet, completely filling, and so soft on the pocketbook (which, I admit, some of the recipes featured on this website have not been. And let's also admit some have not been easy on the waistline either, so this recipe was a relief all around). Finally, the only thing I would add is a dallop of yogurt on the side, just to round out the whole of the dish. Mellos recommends some bread. She also suggests that the dish is as good warm as it is cold.

It looks as if I have dinner already planned for next week. With the husband this time.

Nivik: Chickpeas with Spinach
Adapted from  Tess Mallos's The Complete Middle Eastern Cookbook

Serves 4-6

1 1/2 cups dried chickpeas
1/4 cup olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1/2 cup tomato paste
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 lbs spinach, roughly chopped
lemon wedges, to serve
Yogurt, to serve (optional)

1. Soak well-washed chickpeas in a bowl with 4 1/2 cups water overnight.

2. The next day, put the chickpeas and soaking water in a deep saucepan and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer gently for about 2 hours, or until tender. Drain (and reserve the soaking water).

3.  Heat the oil in a frying pan and sautee the onion until translucent. Stir in the tomato paste and season with salt and pepper. Add to the cooled chickpeas.

4.  Stir the spinach throughout the chickpea mixture.

5. Place the chickpea mixture back in the pot. Simmer, uncovered, for a further 15-20 minutes, adding more of the bean soaking water as necessary. Nivik should be moist, but not too liquid. Serve with lemon wedges (and yogurt, optional).

Monday, July 27, 2015

Saffron-Spiked Ratatouille with Eggs

The other day, the husband and I were walking through a cute little homegoods store in our neighborhood. We were shopping for a present for one of his parents, and of course we were perusing the cookware section. He stopped dead in his tracks and said, "That's a beautiful cookbook."

Of course, he was referring to Anna Jones' A Modern Way to Eat.  It wasn't the photograph  of whom I presume to be Jones digging into the Walnut and Marjoram Pesto with Radicchio on the cover. He said it was the particular font on the clean white background.

It's funny what catches your eye.

For me, it's the gorgeous photographs within the cookbook paired with the healthy recipes that made me want the book. And what a cookbook this one is! Chockful of more than 200 recipes, this cookbook wants to end your cookbook addiction, for you'll never need another vegetarian cookbook after this one (don't worry, I am still addicted. I said it wants to end my addiction; I am not saying that it did).

Jones was once Jamie Oliver's food stylist, and boy, her food sure is pretty. I am almost ashamed to post my own photographs, considering hers are so inviting, warm, and clean. She makes you want to eat, and she makes you want to eat healthy.

I'll admit, this book make me want to eat Farro with Roasted Leeks and Smoked Sweet Romesco (and while I like farro, I don't often reach for it) or Mushroom and Parsnip Rosti Pie (I don't even like parsnips, and I am making that this fall!). She even has a whole section entitled "Satisfying Salads"--an adjective that does not always get associated with salads, and given the photographs in this section, people, I cannot wait to dig in.

Beyond the pretty pictures, this book has I would say precisely a bazillion other recipes I want to try (already flagged and waiting for me), including Blueberry Pie Oatmeal; Caper, Herb, and Soft-Boiled Egg Sandwich; Sweet Tomato and Black Bean Tortilla Bowls; Cardamom and Star Anise Winter Squash Soup; Dal with Crispy Sweet Potato and Quick Coconut Chutney; Seeded Yorkshire Pudding. Oh my. There's a distinctive British flair to her food, but Jones branches into the international with clear aplomb.

With her healthy recipes that are not in the slightest bit about denial (one of her first promises in this book is that it will be "indulgent and delicious" and her last promise is that the food will "impress your family and friends"), Jones cares tremendously about sustainability and stewardship. She gives vegan and gluten-free options when available, but she never sacrifices satisfaction. What's even better, at least to me anyway, is that we share a similar philosophy about why those of us who are not gluten intolerant might, from time to time, want to have a gluten-free option: as she says, "just as with fruits and vegetables, it's important to vary the grains you eat too." (Amen!)

My first foray into this book is Saffron-Spiked Ratatouille with Eggs. Could there be a more summery dish than ratatouille? Zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes, onions, red peppers--these are all the vegetables of the dog days, the vegetables that remind us that we need to settle into the heat and laziness of July and August. Sure, you can make ratatouille other times of the year, but the zucchinis will not be as crunchy, the tomatoes as sweet, or the eggplant as firm. 

The only problem with making ratatouille in the summer, however, is that you have to turn the oven on.  Talk about sacrifices for one's meal.

Some argue that ratatouille can be made by sautéing all of the veggies together, which in a pinch for time, you might do here. However, Jones, like Julia Child before her, prefers the layering method, where the veggies are cooked separate from the tomato sauce. Jones then mixes the cooked vegetables together before putting them atop the tomato mixture.

I chose to layer them atop the tomato mixture separately: I think it's prettier that way. However, the flavors stay more distinct (which may or may not be your preference, especially considering that Jones delightfully spikes this otherwise traditional ratatouille with that sweet, dusty flavor of saffron).

Finally a note on timing: this recipe takes a long time. In fact, it took me about three hours from start to finish. Sweet business, that's a commitment! I can think of a few ways to cut back the time: have simultaneous pans going if you do wish to sauté the veggies separately, or you could break down and sauté all the veggies at the same time. Otherwise, just plan to spend the afternoon in the kitchen working with eggplant and zucchini. I spent it reading at the kitchen table. That's certainly not a bad way to spend the summer. 

Even if, in the end, it took about 5 minutes to eat because, my friends, this ratatouille is just that good.


Saffron-Spiked Ratatouille with Eggs

Adapted from Anna Jones' A Modern Way to Eat

While Anna Jones' original recipe does not include the eggs, she does say she likes to serve her ratatouille with them; I added them here. With the eggs, this recipe easily serves four as a hearty meal. Without the eggs, this recipe would serve 8 as a substantial side dish. You make your own call.

Serves 4

2 red peppers, seeded and cut into eighths
olive oil, for frying
salt and pepper
2 onions, sliced
2 cloves garlic
6 sprigs of fresh thyme, leaves removed
6 tomatoes, roughly chopped (or 1 15-ounce can of tomatoes)
pinch of saffron
1 Tbsp vinegar, red wine or sherry
2 eggplants, cut into 1/2 inch-slices
3 zucchini, cut into 1/2 inch-slices
a small bunch of basil
4 eggs

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

2. In a baking tray, drizzle a little olive oil over the red peppers. Sprinkle them with salt and pepper, and then roast the red peppers in the oven for 25 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, put enough olive oil in a large frying pan to thinly coat the bottom. Add the onions and a pinch of salt. Cook for 10 minutes, until golden, then add the garlic and thyme and cook for another couple of minutes.

4. Add the tomatoes, saffron, and vinegar to the onions and cook for a few minutes more, until almost all the liquid has evaporated. Put this sauce into a deep baking dish or tray.

5. Put the frying pan back on the heat, add a little more olive oil, and fry the eggplants in batches until golden on both sides, adding more oil as needed. Eggplants will soak up the oil. Once cooked, layer the eggplant slices atop of the tomato and onion sauce.

6. Fry the zucchini the same way and layer these atop the eggplant, as well.

7. Once the red peppers are ready, layer them atop the zucchini. Season with a little more salt and pepper, and return to the oven for 40 minutes to cook through.

8. Just before the ratatouille is done, in a medium frying pan, fry the eggs to desired hardness. (I prefer a over easy egg so that the yolk can seep through the ratatouille.)

9. Once the ratatouille is ready, stir again to mix it all together, including the sauce. Top with a fried egg. Then add the basil leaves (torn) to the top, add more salt and pepper if needed, and drizzle with olive oil.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Chicken with Plums (Tabaka Piliç)

Friends, are you familiar with Marjane Satrapi? Of course you are, you smartypants, you.

Certainly she is most famous for her book Persepolis (which comes in two volumes) about growing up in Tehran and Vienna during the Islamic Revolution in Iran, which was made into a beautiful movie. Beyond that though, Satrapi has collaborated on two other movies, written and illustrated two children's books, and written two more comics--including her graphic novel, Chicken with Plums. What I love about Satrapi in all of her work is that she marries whimsy and sharp humor with melancholy and deadly seriousness. She is a woman who believes in true justice of an individual and personal nature, but never forgets (as she has put it in interviews) that life is too serious to take seriously.

Thus, when I saw that Claudia Roden's The New Book of Middle Eastern Food featured Chicken with Plums on page 215, I was over the moon.

For, you see, I had the most amazing opportunity to interview Satrapi last November, in what may have been one of the (so freaking awesome) highlights of 2014. She was funny and iconoclastic and light and sometimes downright serious. In the midst of some hilarious stories, she argued that artists are the true creators and subsequent preservers of culture--when we devalue art, we end up without culture and thus without a true sense of ourselves. (Yes!) She argued that art needs to hold one of the most valued roles within our communities. Such a sentiment I think often gets lost in our production- and efficiency-based culture. (I knew I loved her most then.)

To boot, the dish Chicken with Plums features in that graphic novel by the same name (one of her few actual fictional tales although it is based upon one of Satrapi's uncles) in a delightful (and we'll admit it, a PG-13) way. Here's how part of the story goes: a famous musician named Nasser Ali Khan has lost his will to live. On his self-determined death bed, he remembers all of his most beloved foods and settles on the dish with chicken, plums, caramelized onions, tomatoes, turmeric, and saffron. The memory then morphs into a fantasy involving Sophia Loren, which I will leave to you, dear, intrepid reader to discover.

Oh, the dish itself sounds divine and worthy of a deathbed memory.

Which is a shame because this particular dish is not the Iranian version, which I confess, I have scoured my current cookbooks and cannot find a recipe (a challenge: let me know if you know where to find Satrapi's version!).  Indeed, this dish from Roden's cookbook does not have the same spices or tomatoes, so Satrapi may scoff that I mention this dish in the same sentence as the one written about in her own book.

Instead, this particular offering of chicken with plums, according to Roden, is a Turkish speciality of Georgian origin. Georgia, which borders Turkey in the northeast, is famous for its plums and its sour plum sauce (tkemali). This dish is more traditionally made with a whole chicken seasoned with crushed garlic, salt and pepper and then flattened with a weight; however, Roden simplifies this recipe into one you can easily make on a weeknight (before a round of board games as we did with a pair of friends). She simply slowly sautees chicken fillets or pieces, then adds the plums until they are softened, and serves with a plum jam sauce. (I used boneless breasts and bone-in thighs and a nectarine-plum jam.)

One small surprising note, and one you might consider: if you use red-fleshed plums, rather than say green, the chicken will turn a little pinkish-purple. Don't be alarmed. Otherwise, this is something you could make for dinner tonight.  Just throw together some couscous and a simple salad, and my friends, you have a meal--even if it's not the Chicken with Plums dish that Marjane Satrapi writes about. It's still wickedly simple and good.


Chicken with Plums (Tabaka Piliç)

Adapted from Claudia Roden's The New Book of Middle Eastern Food

Serves 6

6 boned and skinned chicken fillets (a mix of breasts, thighs, and legs)
2 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp vegetable oil
salt and pepper
3 cloves garlic, chopped
6 large or 12 small plums, either cut in half or sliced
4 tablespoons plum jam
1/3 cup chicken broth
1 Tbsp red- or white-wine vinegar
1 clove garlic, crushed
Pinch of chile-pepper flakes

1.  In a large skillet, saute the chicken pieces in a mixture of butter and oil over very low heat for about 15-20 minutes, until they are no longer pink inside when you cut in with a knife. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and turn the pieces over at least once, adding the 3 cloves of garlic towards the end.

2.  Put the plums into the skillet and cook briefly, turning them over, until they soften.

3.  For the sauce, heat the plum jam with the chicken broth and the vinegar in a small saucepan, stir in the garlic and chile flakes, and cook for a few moments longer until heated thoroughly.

4.  Serve the chicken pieces with the sauce drizzled over them, garnished with the plums.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Plum-Nectarine Chutney

Summer is always my time to reconnect--to myself, to my home, to my family, and most certainly to my friends. A little over a week ago, I met up with a dear friend of mine (whom I have known since the very early summer of 2003); we sipped tea and nibbled on astonishingly delicious salted chocolate rye cookies at Tartine in the city. (Okay, I ate my cookie in about two bites, but they were just so good.) She brought me a bag of plums from the bounty of her yard--some from a Green Gage plum tree and some from a Santa Rosa plum tree. She apologized for being a little late to our tea date, but she had almost forgotten the bag of plums on the table and had to turn back, for she knew I would hardly forgive her if she had left them behind.

As we settled in, I asked her to tell me the story of these plums. Often when I ask someone this question about food, the story is as simple as the one that our former neighbors (who just moved, darn them) have to give: that apricot tree was just there when we moved in. However, such was not the case with my friend. 

Indeed, when her grandparents were young, living in Leipzig, Germany, they had a Green Gage plum tree in their yard. They would feast on these plums, not surprisingly given that Gage plums are cultivars of the common European plum. Her grandparents had to leave Leipzig to escape persecution as European Jews prior to World War II, and they settled in the United States. To my friend, the Gage plum tree is this connection back to her family, back to a history that had sweetness in the midst of having to leave one's homeland.

When she and her husband had a home in Oakland, her husband bought her a Green Gage plum tree and planted it in their own yard. They were settling down roots. However, luck would have it that they moved to the South Bay, but her husband dug up that plum tree to bring to their new home. 

But luck is just that--luck. One never knows how long it will last. In an uncanny event, another tree felled her beloved plum tree (and a beautiful stone wall curving around their front yard). However my dear friend is not one to ever be daunted. In fact, I don't know that she's capable of it. They planted yet another Green Gage plum tree as well as a Santa Rosa plum tree. These trees equal family to her, and there is nothing that is going to come between her and these plums. This year, both trees have been producing prolifically, and she is willing to share the bounty with her friends. 

I love this story. I love the connection to her grandparents, the deep rooting of her own family in the Bay Area, the refusal to be razed, and her own perennial optimism (demonstrated both in her plum trees but in just about everything she does). 

I also love that I have my own connection to Leipzig. Over a decade ago, the husband found a summer job in Leipzig--during those sweltering summer months, we lived in a room with one twin bed, a chair and a desk with a communal kitchen down the hall. However, what we also had was a beautiful balcony from which we watched countless sunsets and one day even lay on our backs to watch a hot air balloon festival, beautiful balloons floating by as we wilted in the heat of, what was then, the hottest summer on record (although I hear that this summer is giving that record a run for its money). 

I have a fondness for this city, which boasts Bach and Goethe as former inhabitants. So when I learned that it even more delightfully boasts having once been the home of my dear friend's grandparents, and that the plums she was bringing me rooted her back to Leipzig, I was all the more grateful that she turned back, grabbed those plums from her kitchen table, and was a little late to our tea date.

One might think that this is a lot of pressure on a humble plum. But it, like all the food we eat, comes with a story, sometimes slight (as is the case with my former neighbors' apricot tree) but often rich and full. And I do love all of those stories.

And so, I made a chutney with the Santa Rosa plums (and stood over the kitchen sink while I ate the Green Gage plums for they were so juicy and so sweet--just as William Carlos Williams' poem promises that they will be). 

Simple and bountiful, a chutney plays a supporting but essential role in a meal. We served it without much more adornment alongside a marinated and grilled pork tenderloin, but we have enough left over that I am considering using it as part of a grilled cheese sandwich (imagine with me: sourdough, Manchego, arugula, plum chutney). But it would work wonders on a cheese plate or layered between two halves of a wheel of Brie, wrapped in puff pastry, and set in the oven to bake. Or even in a tart with chevre. Now I am just getting hungry again.

No matter the final destination for my second little jar of chutney, I do know that I am grateful for the story of these plums for my friend. Hearing it was a perfect way to reconnect this summer, my new favorite time of year because it's becoming so full now of stories.


Plum-Nectarine Chutney

Adapted from  The Thrill of the Grill

4 servings

1 tablespoon butter
1 small onion, sliced
3 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
8 tablespoons brown sugar
4 plums, pitted and cut into eighths
4 nectarines, pitted and cut into eighths
4 tablespoons golden raisins
3 tablespoons cider vinegar
1/2 cup orange juice
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste

1.  In a heavy saucepan, melt the butter over low heat.  Add onion slices and ginger, and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onion is golden.

2.  Add the brown sugar and stir until fully dissolved.

3.  Add the plums and nectarines, raisins, vinegar, orange juice, spices and salt and pepper to taste.  Simmer over low heat, stirring often for 15-20 minutes, until the mixture is thick. Be careful not to let it burn. Will keep up to 2 weeks, covered, in the refrigerator.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Barley, Zucchini, and Red Pepper Risotto

Continuing in my newest interest in expanding my repertoire of grains, I present to you a simple summer barley risotto.

Sure, sure, you purists out there (I see you!) are scoffing right now. Barley cannot be risotto, you say. Okay, fair enough. You're right: that hearty and heartwarming Italian rice dish is steeped in the history of that country, and to suggest that barley can waltz right in and claim to be risotto is a little ridiculous. I hear you.

However, we're trying to mix up the diet here, people.

While its history is somewhat contentious, most agree that Italian rice has origins in India, the Arab world, and Spain. Emerging from India, rice was probably introduced to Spain by the Arabs in the Middle Ages; the Spanish then brought rice to Italy, probably through the Po Valley (with its rivers and flat lands--the ideal rice-growing environment) in the 14th century. Both the Spanish and Italian cooks ran with it. From paella to risotto, rice became associated with some of the signature dishes of these Mediterranean cuisines.

The simple technique to make risotto probably came from an earlier recipe for a slow-cooked porridge-like soup called puls, where rice was boiled in milk, water, or broth until soft. (Corn was also prepared this way, and eventually led to polenta.) Due to the starchy quality of the short-grained rice, the grains became creamy and sticky in the liquid, unlike the longer-grained varieties.

Nowadays, to make risotto, you simply start with a short-grain rice toasted in a little butter or oil and some aromatics (onion, garlic). Then, you can add a little wine or vermouth or even some lemon juice, just to brighten everything up, or you can that just start with broth. Then ladle after ladle of liquid is added, waiting until the rice has absorbed all of the broth between each ladle-full. This slow cooking process smooths and blends the flavors throughout the grain and creates that lush texture for which risotto is so beloved. While this method can take awhile, the results are creamy with a little bit of bite to the grain, and when you add a little cheese or butter at the end, it's just downright rich and satisfying food.

And the reason this barley recipe even gets to breathe the name risotto is because of this very technique of preparation, resulting in a creamy and gratifying alternative to rice.

Why would you want to replace the gorgeous short-grained Arborio or Carnaroli or Vialone Nano? Well, let's explore the differences between rice and barley. As for calories, the two (short-grained rice and pearled barley) are neck and neck. Barley has a little more sodium than rice, but barley packs a whopping three to six times more fiber than does an equivalent amount of short-grained rice (depending on your variety of rice). Barley, on the other hand, has less protein than does rice. And if you're gluten-intolerant, barley is not your friend, for it does, indeed, contain gluten. Further, barley takes a bit longer to cook and requires a little more liquid than does rice.

Thus, it seems to me that I am not wholly committed to giving up rice entirely, but to mix it up a little, barley makes a fine alternative.

This recipe is a lovely and versatile one. With zucchini and bell pepper becoming quite abundant, in our CSA box, we race to use them up each week. However, there's no need to get caught up in this recipe at all. Just use it as an inspiration and add whatever veggies you have on hand. I'll admit, I even added a little cooked and drained spinach post photographs because I had some in the refrigerator. And go ahead and get seasonal. Why not some butternut squash and sage this fall? Or spring peas and leeks next May?

No matter the add-ins, this proudly barley dish is a pleasant change of pace, whether or not you decide to call it risotto.


Barley, Zucchini, and Red Pepper Risotto

Adapted from  The New Sonoma Cookbook

Before you begin this recipe, heat the stock you're using and sautee or roast your veggies to add in at the end.

4 servings

1 cup onion, chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon garlic, minced
3/4 cups pearl barley
1/2 cup white wine
5 cups hot chicken or vegetable stock
1 bay leaf
1 cup roasted red pepper strips**
1 cup sauteed zucchini**
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
1 teaspoon lemon zest

1.  In a large skillet, saute the onions in the olive oil until golden.  Add garlic and cook until aromatic.  Add barley and stir to coat with the olive oil.  Then add the wine and stir until the liquid has been absorbed.

2.  Add about 1 cup of hot stock and the bay leaf to the barley, just enough to come to the top of the grain. Cook over medium heat until the liquid is absorbed, stirring occasionally. Repeat with 4 more cups of hot stock, adding 1 cup at a time and cooking until the liquid is absorbed before adding more. This should take about 35-45 minutes. If you use up all the stock and the barley is still a little stiff, just add more hot liquid, 1 cup at a time. Cook until the barley is slightly creamy and just tender.

3.  When the barley is al dente, gently stir in the zucchini and bell peppers; cook until the vegetables are wamed, about another 5 minutes.  Just before serving, remove the bay leaf; stir in the cheese and zest. Adjust the seasoning with salt, pepper, and additional lemon juice to taste.

**Connie Gutterson, our cookbook's author, gives a variety of options for the combinations. I used zucchini and red peppers, but you might use any of the following or come up with a combination of your own:
  • 1.5 cups cooked asparagus and 1.5 cups cooked peas in the spring, 
  • 2 cups artichoke hearts (cut into 1/2-inch pieces) and 1/2 cup roasted red pepper in the spring, 
  • 1 cup corn and 2 cups spinach in the summer, 
  • 1.5 cups sliced cherry tomatoes and 2 cups spinach in the summer, 
  • 2 cups broccoli and 1/4 cup sun-dried tomatoes in the fall or winter, 
  • 2 cups julienned Brussels sprouts in the fall or winter, 
  • or one of my favorite standbys, 2 cups sliced and sauteed mushrooms all year round.