Keftedes (lamb meatballs) & Roasted Cabbage

lamb meatballs, just broiled

It had been a successful week in the kitchen. Lamb meatballs, loaded with mint and parsley, broiled and sprinkled with vinegar, tasted as yummy as ever; olive bread, a two-day labor of love, proved as it always does, a worthwhile effort; and tiropitas (cheese-stuffed fillo triangles), irresistibly delicious, burned my tongue far too many times.

My Easter menu was all but finalized. I was feeling really good. And then I called my mother.

We chatted about meatballs, a wheat berry cake she’s been eyeing, and some other Easter menu ideas, and then she asked: “Are you planning on making a salad?”

“No,” I replied, “I’ve discovered roasted cabbage. It is so delicious and so easy. We have been devouring heads of it in single sittings.”

“Mmm hmm,” my mother responded.

Now, let me explain something. “Mmm hmm,” in my family is code for, “I don’t like what I’m hearing.”

What?! I wanted to scream, but before I could, my mother explained: “Well, you never make cabbage for company. Your whole house will smell of it.”

I did not know this. Did you?

I protested. I insisted there could be no possible way a few roasted cabbage wedges could overpower the smells of olive bread baking and of layers of fillo crisping and of lamb meatballs broiling. I affirmed, cabbage it would be.

“Sounds wonderful,” she replied. We said our goodbyes.

Of course I crossed cabbage off my grocery list upon hanging up the phone. Even if my suspicions are correct — that if the smells of bread and pita and lamb do in fact mask the cabbage — how could I possibly make it? Why add another worry to the list? Why tempt my guests to whisper on their ways home, “Great party, but boy, what was she simmering on that stove? Cat food?” I couldn’t take the risk.

A Greek salad it would be. Oh, mothers. Mother! I love you.

lamb meatballs

Keftedes
Yield = 23 to 25 small or 12 to 14 large

1 lb. ground lamb*
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon oregano plus more for sprinkling
1 small red onion, finely minced (about 1/3 cup or more to taste)
2 heaping tablespoons mint, chopped
2 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoons olive oil
2 slices of white bread**, crusts removed
2 tablespoons red wine
1 eggs, lightly beaten
red wine vinegar for sprinkling (optional)

* If you can’t find ground lamb, buy a piece of lamb (shoulder is nice) and grind it yourself or have the butcher grind it for you at the market.
** We always use white sandwich bread (not Wonderbread) but you probably could use a bakery-style loaf of white bread, too.

1. Put the ground lamb in a large bowl and spread out to create a thin layer. Season all over with salt and pepper. Sprinkle the onion over the meat. Top with the herbs and the olive oil.

2. Meanwhile, toast the bread so it’s just dried out — not browned. (If you plan ahead, you can leave a few slices of bread out for a few hours. You also could dry out the bread in a 300ºF oven for 10 to 15 minutes.) Crumble bread slices into a separate bowl. Moisten with the wine, then add to the meat bowl. Add the egg to the meat bowl and then gently mix all of the ingredients together being careful not to over mix.

OK, it’s time to test your mixture. Preheat the broiler. Using a tablespoon (a measuring tablespoon), scoop out a level spoonful and roll it into a ball with your hands. If it holds together, you’re good to go. If it doesn’t hold together, toast another slice of bread, crumble it up, soak it in a tablespoon more of wine, and add it to the mixture. When the consistency is such that a ball holds together, place it on a sheetpan. Season with a pinch more salt, pepper and oregano. Broil 4 minutes. Remove from oven, let cool, then taste it. Adjust meat mixture accordingly with more salt, pepper, oregano, onion or herbs. Broil another one, taste it, etc. — repeat process until you’re happy with the flavors. Chill your meatball mixture for at least an hour. This mixture can be made up to a day in advance, too.

3. Preheat the broiler. Coat a sheetpan very lightly in olive oil. Shape your meatballs again using a tablespoon as a measure and place them on the prepared sheetpan as you go. Season with a pinch more salt, pepper and oregano. Broil 4 minutes or until done. (Note: You can make the meatballs any size you wish. Just adjust the time accordingly. My mother makes larger meatballs and broils them for 4 minutes a side.)

This might be a Greek tradition, but we sprinkle the just-broiled meatballs with a little bit of vinegar. Try it. You might like it, too.

Roasted Cabbage

Preheat oven to 400ºF. Toss cabbage wedges with olive oil and kosher salt on a sheetpan. Roast for 20 to 30 minutes. Test with a knife — they should be tender.

Spanakopita Strudels

spanakopita streudel

I am Greek. I did not, however, grow up in a family like the one portrayed in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. My mother did not pack me “mouss-ka-ka” for lunch. My aunt never chased me around with a roasted lamb’s eyeball. And I never felt pressure to marry a nice Greek boy nor to become a Greek baby-breeding machine.

But I do have about 50 uncles named Nicky. And my aunt’s vegetarian chili does contain lamb. And many family celebrations do culminate in circular dances stepped to the rhythm of Macedonian folk music. And every woman in my family does make it her mission to feed everyone around her till the day she dies.

Greek food is comfort food for me, and yet, if you searched the recipe archive of my blog, you’d never know it. You’d never know that before my mother comes to visit, I request she make a spanakopita, and that once she’s here, keftedes (lamb meatballs), and that before she departs, kourabiedes (powdered-sugar almond cookies).

In preparation for Easter, I’ve started brushing up on a few of my favorite Greek recipes, starting with spanakopita. Here I’ve halved my family’s recipe, which fills a 10×13-inch roasting pan with enough spanakopita to feed a large family for weeks, and made 10 strudels instead — isn’t everything more delicious when baked in small packages? In strudel form, spanakopita assumes an almost breakfast croissant-like character, a perfect bundle of flaky pastry, egg, cheese, and greens. Yum.

Over the next few weeks, as my Easter menu — spanakopita, keftedes, tzatziki, and olive bread — comes together, I hope the all-but-absent Greek category on this blog starts gaining a presence. I’ll be sure to keep you posted. Happy spring everyone.

spanakopita streudel

spanakopita ingredients

filling

When making spanakopita, don’t be tempted to brush each layer with butter. If you spoon a few teaspoons of butter over each layer, the resulting pastry will be lighter and flakier.
spanakopita assembly

streudels, unbaked

Spanakopita Strudels
Yield = 9 to 10

10oz. baby spinach
8 oz. cottage cheese (small curd)
12 oz. feta
5 eggs, beaten

1 box fillo dough,* thawed (I let mine sit out at room temperature for a few hours, but you could thaw this in the fridge overnight as well.)

1 1/2 sticks butter (gasp! melted)

*Fillo comes in all shapes and sizes these days. The variety I can find, Athens brand, weighs 1 pound and contains two 8-oz bags of 20 sheets each measuring 9 x 14-inches. This size sheet is perfect for strudels. If your fillo comes in the larger sheets, cut it in half so that it’s roughly 9 x 14-inches. (Don’t cut the fillo until you’re ready to assemble. See step 4 below.) If you’re making a large pan of spanakopita, this small size of fillo is kind of pain — use two sheets per layer.

1. In three batches, place spinach in food process and pulse until just roughly chopped. Place in a large bowl.

2. Add cottage cheese, feta cheese (break this into pieces as you add it to the bowl) and eggs. Use a spatula to stir it all up.

3. Set up your work station: A large cutting board is helpful (see picture below). I use a 1/2 cup measuring cup to measure out the filling. You need a teaspoon (like one you eat cereal with not a measuring teaspoon) to spoon butter onto the fillo dough and you need a brush to brush butter onto the assembled strudels. Line a sheetpan with parchment paper and set aside.

4. Open up the box of fillo. If your fillo is like mine — in that it comes in two sealed bags — open up one bag and unroll it. Place it next to your cutting board. Fillo dries out quickly, so if you need to step away from your assembly process, be sure to gently re-roll it or fold it up and place it in a ziplock bag. If you are working with the larger sheets, cut them in half to roughly measure 9 x 14-inches. Place half (about 20 sheets) in a ziplock bag.

5. Preheat oven to 350ºF. Place one sheet of fillo on your cutting board or work surface. Spoon three teaspoons (again, an eating spoon vs. a measuring spoon) of the melted butter over the layer of fillo (see picture above in the upper-left corner of the montage). Note: You do not have to brush it or make sure that every bit of the dough is covered with butter. The finished spanakopita is actually lighter when you don’t brush the dough with butter. Top with another layer of fillo. Spoon three more teaspoons of butter over the areas of this layer that were not covered in the previous. Top with one more layer of fillo and again spoon over three teaspoons of butter.

6. Using your 1/2-cup measuring cup, scoop out a level 1/2-cup filling and place on fillo about 2-inches from the bottom (see photo above). Pull bottom of fillo overtop of this filling. Fold sides in. Then, fold this bottom portion up and over itself and keep folding till you’ve made a little parcel. Place this parcel seam side down on your parchment-lined baking sheet. Brush top with butter. Repeat with remaining fillo and filling.

Note: I made 9 strudels, but I think I could get 10 next time around if I portion out a scant 1/2-cup versus a level 1/2-cup. Unfortunately, I had to open up my second bag of fillo and only used half of the sheets. I re-froze (not sure if this is a good idea) the remaining sheets for a future use, but if you’re feeling creative, you might be able to find a fun use for these remaining sheets. If I come up with something, I will report back.

7. Bake strudels for 30 to 45 minutes or until nice and golden brown on top. Mine baked for a little over 40 minutes but I started checking them at the 30-minute mark. Cool briefly and serve.

spanakopita assembly

Update: 7-17-2012: Full-size spanakopita for your reference. This was from this past Easter:
full-size spanakopita

full-size spanakopita

Large Spanakopita

2 10oz. pkg of baby spinach or 3 6oz pkgs (about 20 oz total)
16 oz. cottage cheese (small curd)
3 8-oz. pkgs feta (24 oz. total)
10 eggs (well beaten)

1 pkg fillo dough (20-28 layers)

3 sticks butter (gasp! melted)

1. Chop up baby spinach — you can do this very quickly in the food processor. Just do a rough chop.

2. In a large bowl, combine the spinach, cottage cheese, feta cheese (break this into pieces) and eggs. You can whisk this all together or use a spatula.

3. Butter the bottom and sides of a large roasting pan. Use about two sheets of fillo per layer — they’ll overlap a little bit, but you need about two to cover the surface of the pan. In between each layer, spoon three teaspoons (an eating spoon vs. a measuring spoon) of the butter over the layer of fillo. You don’t have to brush it or make sure that every bit of the dough is covered with butter. The finished spanakopita is actually lighter when you don’t brush the dough with butter. Depending on how many layers of dough your box of fillo has, layer half of the number of sheets in the pan to form the bottom layer of the spanakopita. Pour the filling over top. Repeat layering the fillo dough on top of the filling with butter in between each layer until you are out of dough. Brush the top layer with butter. Bake at 350ºF for 1 hour.

Farro Salad with Toasted Pine Nuts, Currants & Mustard Greens

farro salad

Toasted pine nuts, Zante currants, a handful of mustard greens — smells awfully familiar, doesn’t it? That’s likely because it’s the exact makeup of the Zuni Cafe bread salad minus the bread. If it doesn’t ring a bell, I recommend familiarizing yourself with this most adored salad first, then making your way back here where a springy variation awaits, a farro-for-bread substitution making it a touch lighter but no less delicious.

I can hear your grumbles. Without the bread (literally) and butter of the Zuni salad, flavor, you suspect, must be compromised? You’ll just have to take a leap of faith and trust that farro, surrounded by all the elements of the Zuni salad — sweet onions, crunchy nuts, spicy greens, a simple olive oil and vinegar dressing — soaks up the goodness nearly as well as bread all the while maintaining its chewy texture and nutty flavor.

And if you can get your hands on some semi-pearled farro, which cooks in 15 minutes, you’ll find yourself eating more grains than you ever imagined. At least that’s what happened to me. Since discovering semi-pearled farro just over a week ago, I’ve made this salad or some sort of variation of it four times and have consumed (with the help of my husband) nearly 2 pounds of farro.

While semi-pearled farro is not quite as nutritious as whole farro — pearling strips off part of the germ and bran — it’s still a healthy starch (high in fiber and protein) and a welcome addition to my kitchen pantry. I don’t know why the lengthy cooking time of many whole grains deters me from making them, but it does, and as a result, I don’t eat them as much as I would like. I love the idea of making grains in their whole state a staple in my diet. I hope the semi-pearled varieties are paving the way for that transition.

After several days in a row of the Zuni-inspired farro salad, I changed it up a bit and roasted some carrots alongside the onion and substituted chopped toasted hazelnuts for the pine nuts, which made for a nice variation. Just know that this salad is infinitely adaptable — currants are nice but other dried fruits will offer the same texture and flavors; nothing is tastier (to me) than pine nuts but any nut will provide that crunch; and greens provide color, a little roughage and a wonderful spiciness but are not critical.

Mix it up. I hope you find it as addictive as I do.

We received an incredible “Asian mix” of greens in our CSA this week. Mustard greens were included and the whole combo was incredibly tasty.
Asian mix

This is really nice farro. It’s semi-pearled, which means a portion of the outer bran has been removed, which cuts the cooking time way down — it cooks in about 15 minutes. You might be able to find some at your local supermarket, but if not, you can order it here.
Roland farro

Farro Salad with Roasted Onion, Toasted Pine Nuts, Currants & Greens
Serves 2

1 red onion, diced
olive oil
kosher salt
1 cup of semi-pearled farro*
2 tablespoons dried currants — I use Zante currants
white balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons (or more) pine nuts or any nut you like
a handful or more of mustard greens (about 2 loosely packed cups) — If you can’t find mustard greens, arugula or spinach or any green that can stand up to some heat without completely wilting will do. Add as many greens as you want as well — I tend to go overboard on the greens

*Roland semi-pearled farro is particularly nice but any type of farro or grain — wheat berry, barley, etc. — will work nicely. You might be able to find semi-pearled farro at your local supermarket, but if not, you can order it here Of course, whole farro will work just as well.

1. Preheat the oven to 450ºF. Place a pot of water on to boil. Toss diced onion with olive oil (about a tablespoon) on a sheet pan and season with salt. Place in the oven. Roast for about 12 to 15 minutes or until the onion is just beginning to char — you don’t want the pieces to get too charred (or maybe you do… I kind of love them a little charred.)

2. Meanwhile, add farro to pot of boiling water. Add a big pinch of kosher salt. Cook for about 15 minutes — taste a few kernels after 15 minutes. For me it takes just a minute more than 15.

3. Place currants in a small bowl. Moisten with 1 tablespoon boiling water and 1 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar. Set aside. Toast pine nuts in a small dry skillet over medium heat until golden brown — watch them carefully! Set aside.

4. Place the greens in a large mixing bowl. When the onions are finished cooking, scrape them off of the pan into the bowl over the greens. Drain the farro, and add to bowl. Season with a big pinch of kosher salt. Drizzle olive oil over the farro while it’s still warm. I haven’t been measuring, but if you’re looking for some guidance, start with about 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Splash white balsamic over top — again, you don’t have to measure, but if you like to, start with about 1 tablespoon and adjust after everything has all been mixed together.

5. Drain the currants and add to the bowl. Add the pine nuts to the bowl and toss to coat. Taste. If it’s a little dry, add more oil and white balsamic. If it needs a little more seasoning, add a pinch more salt. I didn’t add pepper, but by all means, add some.

Farro salad, Zuni Cafe inspired

Mrs. Myers’ Banana Bread

Mrs. Myers' Banana Bread

It likely comes as no surprise that many fond memories of childhood sports center around food. From the orange slices at half time, to the post game treats, to the end-of-season celebrations, food visions rival the victories, the losses, the nail biters.

When I think of soccer season, I especially remember one thing: Valentina’s brownies and rice crispy treats. Valentina, a tall, striking Venezuelan, never missed a game and always arrived with big smiles, huge hugs and loads of treats, the perfect antidote for a colossal whopping. I would share the recipes with you all — I tried to get them about a year ago — but Valentina swears she always just “followed the recipe on the box.” Likely story, Valentina. Her brownies and rice crispy treats were legendary.

When I think of lacrosse season, again, I especially remember another surrogate mother, Mrs. Myers, and again, her treats. Mrs. Myers’ banana bread was moist, perfectly sweet, and always first to disappear from the dessert buffet — I looked forward to it before the games even started. Midseason I remember even devising a post-game-buffet plan of attack, hitting up the dessert table first, tucking slices of banana bread under a napkin, sometimes stashing them in my bag for later. What can I say? This stuff was gold.

I was lucky enough to obtain Mrs. Myers’ recipe from her daughter, a dear friend with whom I spent many hours in the kitchen, mostly baking, always some sort of biscotti, often cinnamon flavored with chocolate chips. I’ve been making this banana bread for about 10 years now, and it never fails to please, kids and adults alike.

I can’t wait to assume the role as soccer mom. With this recipe on hand, I’m destined to become a legend, too.

Mrs. Myers' Banana Bread

Mrs. Myers' Banana Bread

Mrs. Myers' Banana Bread

Mrs. Myers' Banana Bread

frozen bananas

Mrs. Myers’ Banana Bread

Yield=2 large loaves

2 cups sugar
1 cup butter, softened
3 cups sifted flour (I never sift)
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. table salt
5 eggs (I use 4)
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup nuts (I never add nuts)
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 quart mashed bananas*, about 8 (ripe to overripe)

Note: I’m probably stating the obvious, but in case you don’t know, overripe bananas freeze beautifully — just peel them and place them in a ziplock back in the freezer. When you’re ready to use them, place them in a colander in the sink to drain — they’ll give up a lot of liquid and look totally repulsive, but they work beautifully.

1. Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Butter two loaf pans. (I butter generously.)

2. In a stand mixer, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy.

3. Meanwhile, in a separate bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda and salt.

4. With the mixer on low, add the eggs one at a time, beating after each addition. Add the vanilla, buttermilk and bananas.

5. Add the flour mixture and mix until just combined. Divide batter between the two prepared pans. Bake for approximately 1 hour.

6. Remove from oven and turn loaves out onto cooling rack immediately. Let cool.

Mrs. Myers Banana Bread

Crustless Quiche, Loaded with Kale

crustless quiche, loaded with kale

I was so lazy this week. Looking to add a little more roughage to my diet, I piled a whole head of barely chopped kale into a pie dish, submerged it with custard, and threw it in the oven.

I suspected it would be good. I make crustless quiche nearly once a week, always with uncooked greens, always with fresh thyme, always with crème fraîche, always following the Tartine recipe. But I worried a bit about the quantity of greens this time. It was a little absurd.

The result, however, couldn’t have made me happier. My crustless quiche had in fact become crusty, thanks to the upper most layer of leaves poking though the custard surface, which, having cooked for 40 minutes unprotected by the custard, had essentially crisped into a layer of kale chips. Yum.

That said, I felt fortunate to have been cooking for one that evening. The quiche was impossible to cut — the knife snagged greens from right and left at every stroke — and it looked like total slop on the plate. Perfect for me — I love slop — not so perfect for company, not so perfect for sharing with all of you.

Aesthetics asides, I love the flavor of loads of raw greens in quiche. And so I made another one, this time with just a few fewer greens, which I chopped just ever so coarsely. The result? A delectable balance of roughage and custard, suitable even for company.

Without a crust in the equation (a traditional crust that is), this sort of quiche is effortless to whip up for a weeknight dinner. It still takes time, however — 40 minutes in the oven and an essential 20 minutes of resting, which allows its light and creamy texture to set. But if you’re looking to make the whole shebang, here’s Tartine’s quiche recipe in its entirety.

kale

crustless quiche loaded with kale

crustless quiche loaded with kale

Crustless Quiche, Loaded (or not) with Kale

5 large eggs
3 T. all-purpose flour
1 cup crème fraîche (see recipe below)
1 cup whole milk
1 tsp. kosher salt
½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 T. fresh thyme*, finely chopped
1 to 3 cups** uncooked coarsely chopped kale or chard or mustard greens, etc

* Thyme is amazing (seriously, so good), but tarragon, chives, basil, really whatever herb you like will work.
** Aesthetically, 1 cup is perhaps the ideal amount, but if you’re looking to add some more roughage to your diet, 2.5 to 3 cups will do the trick. Definitely give it at least a rough chop.

1. Preheat the oven to 375ºF.

2. Place 1 egg and the flour in a large bowl and whisk until smooth. Whisk in the remaining 4 eggs until blended.

3. In a medium bowl, whisk the crème fraîche until smooth. Whisk in the milk. Pour the egg mixture through a fine mesh sieve held over the milk mixture. Whisk in the salt, pepper and thyme (or other herb).

4. Pile your greens into a pie plate. Pour the egg mixture over the greens, then press the greens down with a spatula so they are submerged in the custard. Place in the oven and bake for 10 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 325ºF and bake until the filling is just set, about 30 minutes longer. The center of the quiche should still feel slightly firm, rather than liquidy, when touched. Let cool on a wire rack for at least 20 minutes to allow the custard to set up, so that it will slice neatly. It can be served warm or at room temperature. To serve a fully cooled quiche warm, cover it with aluminum foil and reheat it in a 325ºF for about 15 minutes.

* To make crème fraîche, place 2 cups heavy cream in bowl. Add 2 tablespoons of yogurt or 2 tablespoons of buttermilk. Stir to combine. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature for 12 to 24 hours. Stir. Mixture will be nice and thick. Store in the fridge until ready to use.

This is how I chopped the greens second time around — the smaller pieces make for a slightly nicer eating experience.

chopped kale

Cheese Sticks for Oscar Night

cheese sticks

When it comes to hors d’ouevres, I never know what to make. Fortunately, I have friends that do. Oscar night is fixin’ to be a good one thanks to these cheese sticks brought to my attention by my friend Darcy. Oh my. Spicy, salty, crispy — these cheesy cocktail straws are addictive and will never not appear at a party I host from here on out. They take just minutes to whip up. They look beautiful. And they couldn’t be more party friendly — who doesn’t like butter, cheese, salt and a little spice?

I’m looking forward to Oscar night already. Well, that’s only partially true. I actually haven’t seen a single movie being nominated. I don’t know what happened this year. Part of the trouble is, in recent months at least, that I’ve been totally distracted by Foyle’s War — haven’t been able to watch a single other show since beginning the series. Disc one of the final season is sitting on my kitchen table, too. Hmmm. It seems the only certainty for Sunday evening is cheese straws. I can live with that.

Foyle's War

cheese sticks

cheese stick dough

cheese stick dough

cheese stick dough

cheese sticks, unbaked

cheese sticks

Cheese Sticks
The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook via The Garden of Eden via Smitten Kitchen

1 1/2 cups (about 6 ounces) grated extra-sharp Cheddar cheese (I love the Cabot Extra Sharp)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened and cut into 4 pieces
3/4 cup flour, plus more for dusting
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon half and half or milk or heavy cream

1. Preheat oven to 350°F.

2. In a food processor, combine the cheese, butter, flour, salt and red pepper flakes. Pulse until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add the half and half and process until the dough forms a ball, about 10 seconds.

3. On a lightly floured surface, using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll the dough into an 8- by 10-inch rectangle that is 1/8-inch thick. With a sharp knife, cut the dough into thin 8-inch strips, each 1/4- to 1/3-inch wide. (Note: It might be helpful to dip your knife in flour after every few cuts to ensure a clean cut — I did not have to, but Deb of Smitten Kitchen recommends doing so.). Gently transfer the strips to a parchment-lined cookie sheet, leaving at least 1/4-inch between them.

4. Bake the straws on the middle rack for 12 to 15 minutes, or until the ends are barely browned. Remove from the oven and set the cookie sheet on a rack to cool.

5. Serve at room temperature. Cheese straws will keep in the refrigerator, in a sealed container, for two days, but they taste best when freshly baked and served shortly thereafter.

cheese sticks

Turnip & Apple Purée, Venison Backstrap, A Jean-Georges Chocolate Tart & A Valentine’s Day Recap

Venison Backstrap with Apple & Turnip Purée and wilted Watercress

Am I becoming too predictable? Are you sick of seeing vegetables puréed with apples? Do you think I should perhaps explore a cookbook other than this one and this one?

I hope not, because I’m really loving this latest variation on the vegetable-and-apple-cooked-in-milk-with-a-small-amount-of-starch technique. Similar to the cauliflower purée, the inclusion of an apple in this purée enhances the sweetness of the main vegetable — here turnips — and a small amount of starch — this time white rice — ensures a silky smooth purée, tasting as if it has lots of cream and butter, when it in fact has neither. Sally Schneider credits the technique to chef Michel Guerard and notes that celery root, carrots, rutabaga or beets — any watery or fibrous root vegetable really — could replace the turnips. I love the idea of a beet purée.

While it’s delicious on its own — I ate nearly all of it at lunch — this purée becomes exceptionally tasty aside any sort of meat, where it can sop up all of the juices pooling around its base. A drizzling of port wine reduction doesn’t hurt either, and together, the meat drippings, mash and sauce just beg to be mopped up by a slice of warm, crusty bread.

So, a Valentine’s Day dinner did in fact materialize at our house on Tuesday evening. Dessert happened, too, after a craving for something chocolaty and Valentinesy, something like the beautiful cocoa-powdered topped tart I watched Jean-Georges Vongerichten bake on tv that morning, sent me straight into the kitchen. In this tart, whipped egg whites lighten a fudgy base of dark chocolate, melted butter and egg yolks. Almond flour provides nearly all of the structure as well as a wonderful flavor, and confectioners’ sugar sweetens it ever so slightly. It’s simple to whip up, bakes for 17 minutes, and tastes just as lovely as it looks. Light and rich at the same time, it demands a dollop of homemade whipped cream. It’s not Valentine’s Day without some sort of chocolate indulgence, and this tart couldn’t be more perfect for the occasion… something to keep in mind for next year I suppose.

Beautiful turnips from our Olin-Fox Farms CSA:

On Black Friday, Ben and I bought a free-standing freezer. Shortly thereafter, Ben started hunting. And before too long, our freezer was filled to the gills with duck and deer. He cleaned one deer himself, but for the rest of the season, let a butcher in Fredericksburg handle the cleaning and portioning. I never imagined eating deer burger on a regular basis, but oh my it is delicious.
Ben, carving up a deer

free standing freezer

This is a deer backstrap (an enormous one) marinating in olive oil, garlic, thyme and sliced onions. Backstrap is a very tender cut — perhaps the most tender after the tenderloin — and extremely flavorful. It tastes best (to us at least) on the rare side. We’ve been cutting the backstrap into medallions and searing them for just one to two minutes a side. When we haven’t made our favorite sauce, we simply deglaze the pan with a little tawny port and let it reduce till it’s slightly thickened.
venison backstrap, marinating

On Tuesday morning’s Martha Stewart Show, Jean-Georges Vongerichten whipped up a beautiful, nearly flourless, chocolate cake, a recipe from his latest book Home Cooking with Jean-Georges. Watch the video here.

Jean-Georges chocolate cake

Jean-Georges chocolate cake

Jean-Georges chocolate cake

Turnip and Apple Purée
Source: Sally Schneider’s A New Way to Cook
Serves 4

1 pound turnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
3 cups low-fat (1 or 2%) milk* (2 cups will be left over for another use)
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 1/2 tablespoons white rice
1 apple, peeled, cored, and quartered
2 teaspoons unsalted butter (optional — I tasted it at the end and thought adding butter seemed unnecessary, so I didn’t.)

* I used only 2 cups of milk because I was feeling guilty about using 3. It worked just fine.

1. Place the turnips in a medium saucepan, add the milk, 1/2 teaspoon of the salt, and a grinding or two of pepper, and bring to a boil over moderate heat. Stir in the rice, lower the heat, partially cover, and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the apples and simmer for 10 minutes longer, or until the turnips are very tender. (The milk will curdle, but the curds will be incorporated when the turnips are pureed.) Drain the mixture in a colander set over a bowl; save the cooking liquid.

2. In a food processor, puree the turnip mixture for 1 to 2 minutes, until perfectly smooth, adding a tablespoon or two of cooking liquid if necessary. (Save the remaining flavorful liquid for soup; it can be frozen.) Process for several minutes more, scraping down the sides several times, until you have a fine puree. Season with the remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt and pepper to taste. Taste and add the butter if you wish — I didn’t think it needed any.

3. You can make the puree several hours ahead and reheat it (or keep it warm), stirring frequently, in a covered double boiler.

Chocolate Tart
Source: Jean-Georges Vongerichten via Martha Stewart
Serves 6

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, preferably cultured, plus more for pan
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour, plus more for pan
3 large eggs, separated
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
3 1/2 ounces bittersweet chocolate (66% cacao), chopped
1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
1/2 cup almond flour
Dutch-process cocoa powder, for dusting (optional)

homemade whipped cream for topping (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour an 8-inch round fluted tart pan with a removable bottom or a springform pan, tapping out excess.

2. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whisk together egg whites and sugar until medium-stiff peaks form.

3. Meanwhile, melt chocolate and butter in a large heatproof bowl set over (but not touching) simmering water, stirring occasionally until smooth. Remove from heat.

4. Add 1 yolk to chocolate mixture and beat to combine. Add remaining yolks and mix to combine. Add confectioners’ sugar, almond flour, and all-purpose flour; mix until combined. Add 1/3 of the egg white mixture and mix to loosen chocolate mixture. Gently fold in remaining egg white mixture.

5. Transfer to prepared cake pan and evenly spread. Transfer cake pan to oven and bake until puffed and knife inserted into the center comes out clean, about 17 minutes. Transfer pan to a wire rack and let cool 10 minutes. Invert cake onto wire rack. Carefully re-invert and let cool completely. Dust with cocoa powder, if desired.

WARNING: Ridiculously cheesy Valentine’s Day snapshots lie ahead.
card front

I used this template for the birds. I know, I know. Totally ridiculous.
card inside

Some snapshots from the evening:
Valentine's Day

Rosemary Semolina Bread with Sea Salt from Seattle’s Macrina Bakery

Macrina's Bakery Rosemary-Olive Oil-Semolina Bread

Last Saturday I spotted a sample table in the wine section of Wegmans and made a beeline for it. When I arrived, a nice man asked me if I’d like to try a couple of wines with a slice of chocolate bread. I couldn’t think of a more fantastic idea at 10 in the morning. Yes please, I said. One of the wines, a grenache, was quite nice, and while the bread, a cake-like quick bread, was a little bland, I liked the idea of pairing wine with chocolate bread.

The folks at Wegmans were on to something. If the bread had been less sweet and textured more like a yeast-risen bread, could it possibly be topped with a cheese — maybe a soft, honey-infused chévre — and served with wine as a festive Valentine’s Day hors d’oeuvre?

Immediately reminded of Metropolitan Bakery’s chocolate and cherry bread, I set to work scouring the internet to see if anybody had taken a stab at recreating that loaf at home, an exercise I undertake every six months or so. That recipe, I’m afraid, is still under tight lock and key. It’s conspicuously absent from the cookbook, as well. For good reason, I imagine.

Without delving into too much detail, I combined a few recipes, slapped together a nice-looking dough, threw it in a hot oven, and waited anxiously while promising smells wafted from the oven. Unfortunately, the resulting loaf, although edible, was nothing worth sharing. It was good. I found myself eating slice after slice in fact, perhaps hoping each next slice might taste better, but each did not. Chocolate bread, I’m afraid, would not make it to this year’s Valentine’s Day table.

Alas, maybe forcing chocolate into a savory bread was weird anyway. It was time to get back to basics. Time to try a more natural combination of flavors. Time to break out the rosemary and sea salt and olive oil and share with you all a most delectable bread recipe, one I can say with the utmost confidence will not disappoint. I eat slice after slice of this bread not because I doubt its deliciousness but because I can’t hold myself back. Olive oil makes this bread super moist, but it’s the presence of semolina flour, an ingredient I am only just discovering, that gives this bread such a unique texture and flavor. The owner of Macrina Bakery, Leslie Mackie, to whom we can thank for this creation, says it best: “Semolina flour gives the bread a hearty texture but also a kind of creamy, almost corn-like flavor.” A salty, crusty exterior moreover makes the bread irresistible.

It’s perhaps not as dreamy as chocolate bread, but it’s far more delicious, and in the event that a romantic dinner for two materializes in my kitchen next Tuesday, it will make an appearance. Happy Almost Valentine’s Day Everyone.

Semolina flour is sometimes labeled as “pasta flour.”
Semolina Flour

Macrina's Bakery Rosemary-Olive Oil-Semolina Bread

Failed chocolate bread, rising:
chocolate bread, rising

Failed chocolate bread, baked:
chocolate bread, baked

Rosemary semolina bread mixed (left) and risen (right):
dough, just mixed (left) and risen (right)

shaping the loaf

loaf, ready for the oven

Macrina's Bakery Rosemary-Olive Oil-Semolina Bread

Rosemary Semolina Bread
Source: Bon Appetit via Seattle’s Macrina Bakery & Cafe
Yield = 1 very large round

1 3/4 cups warm water (105°F to 115°F), divided
1 tablespoon active dry yeast (measured from 2 envelopes)
2 1/4 cups (about) unbleached all purpose flour, divided
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons minced fresh rosemary
2 1/2 cups semolina flour (pasta flour)*
2 teaspoons fine-grained sea salt
Additional semolina flour
1 tablespoon sesame seeds, divided

1 teaspoon coarse-grained sea salt

1. Place 1 1/4 cups warm water in medium bowl; sprinkle yeast over and stir to blend. Let stand 5 minutes to soften. Whisk to dissolve yeast. Add 1 1/4 cups all purpose flour; whisk until smooth. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let stand at room temperature (about 75°F) until bubbles form and yeast mixture has more than doubled in volume, about 45 minutes.

2. Whisk remaining 1/2 cup warm water, olive oil, and rosemary in large bowl to blend. Using rubber spatula, mix in semolina flour and 2 teaspoons fine-grained sea salt (dough will be very dry). Stir in yeast mixture. Work in 3/4 cup all purpose flour. Turn dough out onto lightly floured surface. Knead until smooth, adding more all purpose flour by tablespoonfuls if sticky. Let rest 5 minutes. Knead until dough springs back when pressed with thumb, about 8 minutes.

3. Lightly oil large bowl. Transfer dough to bowl; turn to coat. Cover with plastic wrap. Let rise at room temperature until doubled in volume, about 1 hour. Transfer dough to lightly floured surface. Flatten dough into 18×12-inch rectangle. Starting from 1 long side, roll tightly to form 2 1/2-inch-diameter, 20-inch-long log. With seam side down, shape log into ring, inserting 1 end into second end; smooth seam. (Note: As you can see from the photos, I did not make this shape. If I had, my ring would have been massive. I opted to just coil into one mass. Next time, however, I might even divide the dough in half and bake two simple boule-shaped loaves.)

4. Line baking sheet with parchment paper. Sprinkle sheet with additional semolina flour. Transfer dough ring to prepared sheet, reshaping as necessary to form smooth circle. Sprinkle with 1 1/2 teaspoons sesame seeds, pressing lightly to adhere. Cover loosely with plastic wrap. Let bread rise at room temperature until almost doubled in volume, about 45 minutes.

5. Preheat oven to 400°F. Remove plastic wrap from bread. Using sharp knife, cut 1/4-inch-deep slit all the way around top of loaf. Spray bread lightly with water. (I did not do this — I don’t own a spray bottle.) Sprinkle with 1 1/2 teaspoons sesame seeds and 1 teaspoon coarse-grained salt. Transfer to oven. Bake bread 15 minutes, spraying lightly with water every 5 minutes. (I did not do this either, again because I do not own a spray bottle.) Continue to bake without spraying until bread is golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped on bottom, about 30 minutes longer. Transfer bread to rack and cool completely.

*Semolina flour is available at specialty foods stores, Italian markets, and some supermarkets.

Macrina's Bakery Rosemary-Olive Oil-Semolina Bread

rosemary semolina loaf

A Second Marcella Hazan Tomato Sauce + Hot Italian Sausage + Gragnano Pasta = Utter Deliciousness

Gragnana Vesuvio Pasta with Marcella Hazan's Tomato Sauce

It’s only February 2nd, and already I’m dreaming about Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce — you know, the one and only most delicious tomato sauce in the world. I won’t belabor my love for that sauce a sentence more, but I’d like to share with you a second Hazan tomato sauce I recently discovered.

You see, while the famed Hazan tomato sauce can indeed be made with canned San Marzano tomatoes — I’ve made it several times, and it’s very good — I find it leaves me wanting. In this other Hazan sauce recipe, from Marcella Cucina, canned tomatoes are brightened by olive oil and sautéed onions, a few cloves of crushed garlic, a little white wine, some chopped fresh parsley, and a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes. After about 20 minutes of simmering, it’s done. And it’s delicious.

While making this sauce, I learned something, too, from a note in the book:

As tomatoes cook down and their watery part evaporates, the fat you have used begins to run clear. When you skim the surface of the sauce with the side of a wooden spoon, or wipe away the sauce with the spoon from the bottom of the skillet, you see clear fat following the spoon’s trail, an indication that the tomato sauce is done.

It’s hard to envision this occurrence — clear fat trailing the path of your wooden spoon — but it happens, and when it does, your sauce is done. Cool, right? That Marcella, she knows her stuff.

I admit, this sauce doesn’t compare to the Hazan tomato sauce — what sauce does? — but it doesn’t leave me wanting. And it just might help these months leading up to tomato season pass a wee more quickly.

ingredients for pasta sauce

This is by far the best pasta I have ever tasted. I have a dear friend in NYC to thank for introducing it to me. It’s dry pasta from the Gragnano region of Italy, and my friend finds it at Eataly, a spot I have yet to explore, but which I hear I might like. The pasta hardly needs a sauce — it tastes delectable on its own with butter and Parmigiano Reggiano — but its shape is ideal for catching all of the goodies in any sauce, especially this one. It’s a real treat. Unfortunately, I cannot find an online source for this pasta. If any of you out there know of one, please let me know. I will be forever grateful! Eataly and Po Valley Foods now sell this pasta online.
dry Gragnano pasta from Eataly

Gragnano pasta from Eataly

Afeltra pasta from Eataly

Parmigiano Reggiano

I found a link to this Saveur video — How to Peel a Head of Garlic in Less than 10 seconds — on Food52. Totally amazing. It really works!
garlic, peeled after watching an incredible video

tomato sauce, just finished stewing

Ella, such a little helper

Browned hot Italian venison sausage… the husband has been hunting again. Venison, by the way, is so delicious. More on that soon.
venison sausage

Pasta with Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce & Hot Italian Sausage
Adapted from Marcella Cucina
Yield = enough for about 1/2 lb. to 3/4 lb. pasta depending on how saucy you like your pasta

For the tomato sauce:
1/3 cup olive oil
2 cups finely chopped white or yellow onion
3 cloves garlic, minced, be sure to watch this video
1/3 cup finely chopped parsley
1/2 cup white wine (I made this with Sherry once, too, and really liked it)
1 28-oz can of peeled whole San Marzano tomatoes,* crushed
crushed chili flakes
kosher salt

* I saw this trick on the Martha Stewart Show: Empty your can of tomatoes into a large bowl. Use scissors to cut the tomatoes into smallish pieces. Normally, I just get my hands in the bowl and squish the tomatoes to break them up, but this is really messy. If you are messy-averse, try the scissor method.

For the pasta dish:

1/2 lb. hot Italian sausage* (or more or less to taste)
1/2 to 3/4 lb. pasta**
freshly chopped parsley***
freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano to taste

* Optional — The sauce is flavorful enough without sausage, but if you’re looking to add a little protein to the dish, sausage is a good fit. I used hot Italian venison sausage, but any hot Italian sausage will be delicious. In Hazan’s book, the sauce is paired with lobster.

** New Yorkers — If you can get a hold of some Gragnana Vesuvio Pasta from Eataly, use it. It’s unbelievably delicious. I imagine it is available in other places as well, but I’m just not sure where — I can’t find an online source for it in the states. Eataly and Po Valley Foods now sell this pasta online. When I run out of my stash of the good stuff, I’ll return to using my favorites from my local supermarket — Barilla or DeCecco gemelli or orecchiette.

*** Optional — this is merely to add some color to the finished dish. The sauce is flavorful enough without the additional parsley

1. Place the olive oil in a medium-sized saucepan with the onions and sauté on medium until pale gold — you’re not trying to brown the onions here; you just want to sweat the onions.

2. Add the garlic and cook just a few seconds until you smell its aroma.

3. Add the parsley, stir once or twice, and then add the wine. Let it simmer for a couple of minutes until the alcohol smell dissipates.

4. Add the tomatoes, the crushed chili flakes and a generous pinch of salt, and cook at a steady simmer, until the fat begins to separate from the sauce (see note below*), about 20 minutes.

5. Meanwhile, brown the sausage in a large skillet until cooked through.

6. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Cook your pasta al dente. Drain, reserving some of the pasta cooking liquid only if you’ve made the sauce in advance and are reheating it to toss with pasta.

7. Place pasta in a large serving bowl. Toss with enough sauce to coat. Fold in sausage (if using). Sprinkle with some more parsley (optional). Pass cheese on the side.

*Hazan’s note: As tomatoes cook down and their watery part evaporates, the fat you have used begins to run clear. When you skim the surface of the sauce with the side of a wooden spoon, or wipe away the sauce from the spoon from the bottom of the skillet, you see clear fat following the spoon’s trail, an indication that the tomato sauce is done.

**My note: The sauce can be made ahead and heated as needed. It will definitely thicken up as it sits (especially in the fridge), so you might want to reserve some pasta cooking liquid to thin it out when you reheat it. It’s not necessary, but I’ve found this to be helpful.

Gragnana Vesuvio Pasta with Marcella Hazan's Tomato Sauce

IndriVanilla Beans & Buttermilk Panna Cotta

indri vanilla beans

Until about a month ago, I had altogether stopped purchasing vanilla beans. I couldn’t justify paying $12 for a single bean — a desiccated looking one at that — at the grocery store when I could substitute vanilla extract with little harm done.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered IndriVanilla, a source for Fair Trade, organically grown vanilla beans at beyond reasonable prices — I ordered 19 beans online for a grand total of $13.50 including shipping. The beans arrived just days after I placed the order, their beautiful fleshy bodies visible through the cryovacked pack.

I didn’t want to break the seal, but I couldn’t resist. I snipped the corner, releasing a waft of vanilla aroma, and pulled out the bundle of tightly nestled glistening beans. But holding the pods in my hands wasn’t enough, nor was inhaling their perfume as I ran them under my nose. I grabbed my knife and made an incision, prying open the seam with the blade to reveal the caviar. Vanilla caviar — it’s an incredible sight. How could these beans cost only 50 cents a piece?

I contacted the company to learn more. The owner of IndriVanilla buys the beans directly from a farmer in Indonesia at his asking price. Without a middleman involved in the exchange, prices stay low. What’s more, this family-run co-op practices sustainable growing methods, using sheep to fertilize the crops and to control insect populations, precluding the need for pesticides, insecticides or synthetic fertilizers. While this farm has been growing organically for over ten years, they are not yet certified, the high cost of certification prohibiting the process at the moment.

So many recipes — Balzano apple cake, vanilla ice cream, homemade vanilla extract — flashed in my mind as I stared at that split-open bean, but I decided on panna cotta, a recipe I’ve been meaning to revisit after recently discovering my go-to recipe to be too sweet. I found this Claudia Fleming recipe on Saveur.com and frankly can’t find a thing wrong with it. Creamy, beautiful and delicious, it’s a perfect medium for showcasing these beans.

I know it’s still January, and we really shouldn’t be thinking about creamy desserts just yet, but keep this one in mind for Valentine’s Day, which is right around the corner. Those of you who have already made panna cotta know that it doesn’t get much more simple than this in the dessert department. It can be made ahead — several days in advance in fact — and the only cooking involved is bringing a little cream to a boil.

And if you don’t have time to whip anything up for a special someone, I think these beans alone would make a lovely gift. A bundle of vanilla beans, perhaps tied with a red ribbon? It doesn’t get much more romantic than that.

buttermilk panna cotta

buttermilk panna cotta

indri vanilla beans

pot of cream

strainer

whisking

buttermilk panna cotta

This is how the vanilla beans arrive — in a nice cryovacked pack. After you break the seal and are ready to store the remaining beans you are not using, it’s important to get the beans back into an air-sealed environment. If you have a FoodSaver, that is ideal, but that could become a pain if you are planning on using the beans frequently. The owner of IndriVanilla advises coiling them up and storing them in a glass jar with a rubberized lid and coiled ring. I bundled mine up really tightly in plastic wrap and then stored them in a mason jar. They seem to be staying very fresh. Pictured below are the premium beans — I have yet to open these beauties.
IndriVanilla beans

empty ramekin

Buttermilk Panna Cotta
Source: Claudia Fleming via Saveur
SERVES 6

Notes from Saveur: This recipe is adapted from one in Claudia Fleming’s The Last Course (Random House, 2001). Panna cotta means cooked cream.

1 1/2 tsp. unflavored gelatin
1 1/4 cups heavy cream*
7 tbsp. sugar
1/2 vanilla pod, split lengthwise
1 3/4 cups buttermilk

*If you want to lighten it up a bit, you could substitute whole milk (probably even 1% or 2%) for the heavy cream. This might alter the texture a bit, but I imagine the flavor will still be nice.

1. Soften gelatin in 1 tbsp. cold water in a medium bowl for about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, put cream and sugar into a small saucepan. Scrape seeds from vanilla pod into pan, then add pod. Heat cream over medium heat, stirring until sugar dissolves, 3–5 minutes, then stir into bowl with gelatin. Stir in buttermilk, then strain into another bowl.

2. Divide custard between six 8-oz. ramekins and refrigerate until set, about 3 hours. To unmold, dip ramekins into a dish of hot water, then invert custards onto plates. (Note: I don’t invert — I prefer serving the panna cotta in their ramekins with a spoon.) Garnish with raspberries or other fruit, if you like.

empty ramekin