Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Vegetarian Harira

Winter is officially over, but there are gray days still happening. We all know I love gray days, and gray days call for soup.

Enter harira.

Harira is a Northwest African soup generally served during Ramadan as way to break the daily fast. Typically made with small chunks or strands of lamb, this stew erupts with fragrant herbs and spices--including ginger, saffron, cinnamon, paprika, cumin, and red pepper--and thickens late in its cooking with a swirl flour and water. It bursts with complex flavor, satisfying chickpeas and lentils, and unexpected pasta.

And, Heidi Swanson, in her latest cookbook, Near and Far, makes this hearty dish into a flavorful vegetarian option that doesn't make you miss the lamb at all.

There is no doubt Swanson has a huge following of devoted home cooks (or take-out orderers who happen to read blogs for fun). Her blog certainly paved the way for those, like me, who have too many cookbooks, perhaps too little time, and a penchant for writing and photography. Her cookbooks are as delightful as her almost daily musings, and like many, I have copies of them all. 

However, her ingredients list can sometimes be a little precious: prickly pears, sansho peppers, chive blossoms in this cookbook.  It's not that these things aren't available--it's more that these things are available only in the best stocked grocery stores that sometimes require an out-of-the-way trip. 

Thankfully, I have The Bowl whenever we're in the Bay Area. However, I know that this is not a cookbook I'll be lugging up the coast, where the grocery stores--while still impressive--lack some of these edibles. 

Rest assured, however, that this stew can be made with what we probably all have on hand--some beans and pasta, maybe some lentils--but will require a quick jaunt to the store for usually easy-to-find saffron and fresh veggies. Once you have gathered all your goodies, this soup comes together with ease and a little time. 

And it makes way more than you think it will make. In fact, we halved the recipe, and I had two days of lunches at the ready. 

While Ramadan doesn't begin until June this year, Swanson's take on this soup is certainly worth whipping up, for a pot of this bubbling away on your stove will stave off any lingering winter colds as we move into spring. Gray days, sunny days, whatever your late March and early April days bring.


6-8 Servings 

1 bunch cilantro
Extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
2 medium onions, diced
3 celery stalks, diced
6 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
Pinch of saffron (about 30 threads)
2 1/2 teaspoons fine-grain sea salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 1/2 teaspoons sweet paprika
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 cups (about 10 ounces) cooked chickpeas
1 1/2 cups dried lentils, picked over and rinsed
6 cups water
4 to 5 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 cup  freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 (28-oz) can whole tomatoes
2 tablespoons chopped fresh marjoram or oregano
3 oz angel hair pasta, broken into 1-inch pieces
Chopped fresh dates, to serve

1. Chop the cilantro stems finely and set aside in a pile. Chop the leaves and reserve separately. Heat several spoonfuls of the olive oil in a large soup pot over medium-high heat. Add the onions, celery, crushed garlic, ginger, and cilantro stems, stir to coat, and cook until everything softens a bit, 5 minutes or so. 

2. Add the saffron, salt, cinnamon, sweet paprika, red pepper flakes, and cumin to the pot. Stir well before adding the chickpeas and lentils. Stir in 4 cups of the water and bring to a simmer.
3. In a separate large bowl, gradually whisk the remaining 2 cups of water into the flour, a little at a time to avoid lumps. Add the lemon juice, tomatoes with their juice, and most of the remaining cilantro. Stir well, breaking up the tomatoes somewhat. [I did this with my hands, breaking up the tomatoes as I went.] Add this mixture to the soup and bring to a simmer, stirring often. Once at a simmer, cook for another 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the lentils are cooked through.

4. When you have about 5 minutes left, stir in the oregano (or marjoram) and pasta. Once the pasta is cooked, adjust the seasoning and serve topped with dates, the remaining cilantro. Drizzle each portion with some more olive oil and serve.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Cacio e Pepe

Let's talk pasta. 

Let's talk pasta eaten in a tiny Roman restaurant down an alley that you can never seem to find on return visits. Let's talk pasta that boasts simplicity and requires a quick hand. Let's talk pasta made from a cheese that has its own Roman dialect-ed name. 

Sounds like we're talking Spaghetti with Cacio e Pepe, my favorite pasta ever, especially if eaten while snuggled up with family at Osteria del Gallo in Rome, and more easily found in Katie Parla and Kristina Gill's delightful new cookbook Tasting Rome.

With lovely little essays that span the history of Roman cuisine (not surprising since Parla's graduate degree is in Italian gastronomic culture), the book has stunning photography (not surprising given that Gill is a Rome-based freelance photographer) and definitive travelogues through different areas of Rome, including Testaccio, the historic Jewish quarter, and the some 120 mercati rionali. 

A small requirement for this cookbook: you should love guanciale and fennel pollen and pecorino romano and peperoncino and of course pasta. Such loves are not problematic for me, so I suspect that I'll be trotting this cookbook out multiple times this spring.  You see, there are Fried Cod Fillets (Filetti di Baccala), Babolotto all'Amatriciana, and Almond and Cinnamon Biscotti (Biscotti con Mandorle e Cannella), and a whole litany of cocktails to make. Cocktails! There is a backyard calling my name in a slight Italian accent! 

Okay, back to the pasta. Cacio e Pepe is quite trendy these days. You'll find it on popcorn, pizza, and rice.  But if you want to make it at home (because you cannot get to Rome or you're just handy that way), you'll need finely grated Pecorino Romano, or known as cacio, the local Roman dialect word for this hard, sharp and salty sheep's milk cheese. You're also going to need very hot starchy water and a fast hand. If the water cools before melting the cheese, it will clump.

Which mine did.  In fact it seized up, giving me lumps of cheese and then a watery base.

Which is not concerning to me. It just means I need to make this again. 

Or go to Rome.


4-6 Servings 

1 lb spaghetti or tonnarelli
2 cups finely grated
 Pecorino Romano
2 tsp freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Salt the water. Add the pasta and cook until al dente.

2.  Meanwhile in a large bowl, combine 1 1/2 cups of the Pecorino Romano, the pepper, and a small ladle of the pasta-cooking water. Using the back of a large wooden spoon, mix vigorously and quickly to form a paste.

3.  When the pasta is cooked, use a large strainer to remove it from the cooking water and quickly add it to the sauce int he bowl, keeping the cooking water boiling on the stove. Toss vigorously, adding additional hot water a tablespoon or two at a time as necessary to melt the cheese and to obtain a velvetty sauce that completely coats the pasta.

4. Plate and sprinkle each portion with some of the remaining Pecorino Romano and pepper to taste.  Serve immediately.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Dal with Crispy Sweet Potato and Quick Coconut Chutney

Oh, what a lovely meal for a late, rainy Sunday afternoon. Coconut milk, curry leaves, sweet potatoes, red lentils, all mixed up with the warm cinnamon and ginger, red chiles and turmeric. Anna Jones, you are welcome to recommend a recipe to me any day of the week.

Back in July, I got Anna Jones' cookbook, A Modern Way to Eat, and immediately fell in love with her sensible cooking that embraces a simple mantra that we are merely stewards of the land. Our maximalist lifestyles often forget the simple pleasures and become the catalyst for some pretty destructive tendencies. The cookbook calms us down, gives us sustainable food, and guarantees we won't want for anything, even as we let go of unhealthy eating.

This beautiful dal (dhal) recipe seems to have a long list of ingredients, but most of them are spices; everything else you just might have on hand, including the lentils. Back in 2015, I wrote about the different types of lentils, and this recipe calls for red lentils, which are quick cooking; but don't get too hung up on your lentil. Use what you have on hand. 

Red lentils happen to break down easily, so they're perfect is stews and curries. And their mild, slightly sweet flavor pairs spectacularly with the overtly candied taste of sweet potatoes. Toss in some coconut milk, and this dish is a sweet-tooth dream. However, the spicy curry leaves (which I added to the dal itself, although Jones called only for their inclusion in the chutney) and the dusty ground cumin balance this legume dish perfectly.

The only disappointment with this dish was the Quick Coconut Chutney. I found it a bit bland and really not worth the fuss. I actually ended up spooning it off of my dal once the photographs were over and the true eating began. 

You make the call based on your commitment to coconut and the amount of time on your hands.  

Which might be a lot, given these lovely, lazy, rainy Sunday afternoons (and Monday evenings) we have been having out here in California (a sentiment I have not been able to express for years).


Dal with Crispy Sweet Potato and Quick Coconut Chutney

Adapted from Anna Jones' A Modern Way to Eat

4 Servings 

For the sweet potatoes:
2 sweet potatoes, skins on, roughly chopped into 1/2-inch cubes
salt and pepper
1 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp fennel seeds
olive oil

For the dal:
2 cloves garlic, chopped
a thumb-sized piece of ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
1 green chile, finely chopped
1 red onion, roughly chopped
1 tsp cumin seeds or 1/2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp coriander seeds or 1/2 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 Tbsp mustard seeds
7-9 curry leaves
1 cup red lentils
1 15-ounce can of coconut milk, regular or light
1 2/3 cup vegetable stock
2 large handfuls of spinach, kale, chard, or other mixed greens 
1 bunch of cilantro, with stalks, roughly chopped
juice of 1 lemon

For the coconut chutney:
1/2 cup unsweetened dried coconut
1 tsp black mustard seeds
10 curry leaves
vegetable or coconut oil
1 ounce piece of fresh ginger, grated
1 red chile, finely chopped

1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Pour 2/3 cup of boiling water over the coconut and set aside to soak.

2. Put sweet potatoes into a roasting tray add a good pinch of salt and pepper, the cumin and fennel seeds and a drizzle of olive oil. Roast for about 20-25 minutes in the oven, until soft and sweet on the inside and crispy brown on the outside 

3. In a large saucepan, saute the garlic, ginger, chile and red onion in a little oil for about ten minutes. 

4. Grind the cumin and coriander seeds in a pestle and mortar then add to the pan with the turmeric, cinnamon, mustard seeds, and curry leaves and cook for a few minutes to toast and release the oils. (If you are not grinding your own cumin and coriander, just add the ground spices to the other spices and toast.) Add the lentils, coconut milk and stock to the pan and bring to a simmer then turn the heat down and simmer for about 25-30 minutes.

5. While that is cooking, make your chutney (or skip it altogether, see entry above). Drain the coconut and put it into a bowl. fry the mustard seeds and curry leaves in a bit of oil until they begin to crackle then pour the mixture over the coconut, season with salt and pepper then stir in the ginger and chile and mix.

6. To finish the dal, take it off the heat then stir in the spinach, kale, chard, or other greens and allow them to wilt a little, stirring in half the chopped cilantro and the lemon juice. Pile into bowls and top with the crispy sweet potatoes, spoonfuls of the coconut chutney and the remaining cilantro.  You can serve with chapattis, roti or brown basmati rice. Or simply eat with a big spoon.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Two Tapas: Black Sausage with Raisins and Pine Nuts Canape and Roasted Vegetable Canape

Sometimes you just need a snack. A canape. A tapa. A morsel. 

And sometimes the husband makes a request that said snack include blood sausage.  He's like that. 

And when someone makes a special request that I make a blood sausage tapa, I pretend that I selflessly do this for said someone. But we all know, I have just been waiting for an excuse.

You see, blood sausage is not something frequently in our dinner rotation, and for good reason. While protein and iron are high, so is fat; thus, blood sausage appears only on special occasions.

We were invited to an Oscars Night dinner at the in-laws and instructed to bring appetizers. Enter blood sausage request. I couldn't, however, serve only the blood sausage canapes, as they are not to everyone's liking--plus I have an ill-placed anxiety about showing up without enough food. So in a gesture of good will, I coupled this hearty bread-forward tapa with a lighter, solely vegetable one.

(For the record, the blood sausage ones were gone first.)

I have waxed on about my love of Penelope Casas's Spanish cooking (see here, here, and here), and this entry is no different. The Black Sausage with Raisins and Pine Nuts tapa is a simple, salty, sturdy appetizer that holds hunger at bay easily. Spaniards take their blood sausage seriously, and Casas lets the paprika, onions, and fat coupled with blood shine. I know it sounds a little off putting, but trust me, it really is worth getting over any queasiness and trying this appetizer at least once. 

The recipe calls for only 8-10 toast rounds. Believe it. You will have an abundance of topping left over: but save that crumbly mixture with sweet raisins and crunchy pine nuts for a piece of crusty bread for lunch tomorrow with a drizzle of olive oil. Tonight, don't fill up on these little appetizers... because the zucchini rounds are equally worth saving some room for.

The Roasted Vegetable Canape is a mash of roasted and chopped vegetables piled high on a raw zucchini round (toast rounds will do, too, but Casas recommends the lighter zucchini slices). With a generous pinch of salt atop, low-calorie and high-virtuosity counter the heaviness of the blood sausage. And, yes, you'll make too much topping again, but it's divine mixed the next day with some orzo and goat cheese. 

We snacked on both of these appetizers before a delicious meal from the in-laws and plenty of reactions to the Oscar debacle of 2016 (I have a multitude of thoughts, not all of them pleasant, about how the Oscars went this year). We left, waddling to the car, stuffed full from the first bite of tapas to the final bite of a banana cake. 

Delightfully, we had plenty of toppings left for lunch the next day. And the next after that. I just hope the husband makes another blood sausage request for next year's Oscars, which will hopefully be a little more aware of its audience.


Black Sausage with Raisins and Pine Nuts (Morcilla Con Pasas Y Piñones)

8-10 Canapes

2 Tbsp raisins
1 tsp olive oil
1/2 lb morcilla (black/blood sausage, preferably stuffed with rice rather than oatmeal, potatoes, or barley)
2 Tbsp toasted pine nuts
8-10 1/4-inch bread rounds, cut from a long narrow loaf

1.  Soak the raisins in warm water to cover for about 20 minutes, until they plump up.  Drain.

2.  Heat the oil in a skillet until the morcilla begins to brown and gives off its fat. Drain the morcilla on paer towels and pour off the fat from the skillet.

3.  Skin the morcilla, mash with a fork, and return to the skillet. Cook for 1 minute, then stir in the raisins and pine nuts, and cook for another minute.  Serve on bread rounds.

Roasted Vegetable Canape (Canape de Escalivada)

6 servings

1 small eggplant (about 1/2 pound)
1 red bell pepper
1 green bell pepper
1 medium zucchini
1 medium onion, peeled
1 Tbsp olive oil
Freshly squeezed lemon
1 Tbsp chopped parsley
1 tsp thyme leaves (or 1/8 tsp dried thyme)
salt and pepper
1 large zucchini, skin on, in 1/8-inch crosswise slices or 8-10 1/4-inch bread rounds, cut from a long narrow loaf

1. Preheat the oven to 500 degrees.

2.  Pierce the eggplant with a fork to allow steam to escape. Arrange the eggplant, red bell pepper, green bell pepper, 1 medium zucchini, and onion in a roasting pan and roast for about 30 minutes, turning the eggplant and peppers once. Cool. Skin, core, and seed the peppers. Cut the eggplant, peppers, zucchini, and onions roughly into julienned strips about 1 inch long. Place in a bowl, and gently mix in the olive oil, a few squeezes of lemon juice, the parsley, thyme, salt and pepper.

3.  Lightly sprinkle the zucchini rounds and let sit for a few minutes. Top the zucchini rounds, or bread rounds if you're using those instead, with the vegetable mixture. Serve at room temperature.