Tired, pale, wrinkled — it’s a sad lot of vegetables gracing the farmers’ market tables these days.
But I’m not judging. Those very three words came to mind as I looked in the mirror this morning. I could use a little help right now — some sun, some fresh air, spring — and so could those vegetables. And I’ve got just the thing.
I will consider this post a success if, by the end, one of two things happens:
1. You feel inspired to tackle Moroccan cooking, immediately buy a tagine, preserve and then purée a batch of lemons, find a source for ras-el-hanout, and, in the short term at least, join me on a tagine-making bender, throwing any and everything possible into your new favorite kitchen tool.
2. You move to Schenectady so you, as I, have a Moroccan pantry in your backyard, a supply of Aneesa’s ras-el-hanout, preseved lemons, tomato jam, parsley chermoula, all of which make throwing together a Moroccan feast as effortless as popping a frozen pizza in the oven.
Either outcome will be a win for me, especially number two — perhaps we could meet for lunch? — but let’s start from the top.
Scenario #1. If you are more inclined to stay where you are and take a stab at tagine-style cooking…
…first disregard everything you know about braising, which typically calls for searing meat then finishing it in a covered pot with a small amount of liquid. Tagine cooking in essence is braising but there is no initial browning, no deglazing of the pan, no multi-step process. Everything gets thrown into the tagine at step one and forgotten until step two, at which point your food is cooked and you, pita bread in hand, are ready to attack it.
I left Tara Kitchen on Saturday afternoon, my belly filled with chicken and preserved lemons, my bag with jars of harissa, tomato jam, and ras-el-hanout. I had just spent two hours learning about Moroccan cooking, scribbling notes while sipping on mint tea, assembling tagines, photographing each step, savoring every bite and finally departing, only hoping my brain might retain a fraction of what I had learned, already regretting not having purchased a tagine.
But before returning home, I had to swing by the Co-op for one thing — a bag of frozen peas and carrots — an integral mix in Tara Kitchen’s chickpea tagine, a dish I would make at home later that evening. Aneesa Waheed, the owner of Tara Kitchen, takes pride in the simplicity of the dishes she serves and noted as class began that all of the ingredients she uses can be found at any market. Her chickpea tagine, a slightly sweet mixture of vegetables and dried fruits mixed with chickpeas and her homemade tomato jam, is one of my favorites.
Never would I have guessed that such a flavorful mixture — a vegan, nut-free one to boot — could be so simple to prepare, but as I learned in class, this is the beauty of tagine cooking. Aneesa fell in love with Moroccan food for this very reason: she could throw a handful of ingredients in a tagine, set it on the stove, go take a shower, make a few phone calls, and return to a steaming hot, delicious and satisfying dinner. And while the success of the finished tagines certainly depends on the sauces and spice mixtures that have been prepped in advance, I can attest to the simplicity of the tagine-making process.
A little over a year ago, I made Kesté’s lemon pizza, whose beguiling combination of smoked mozzarella, sliced lemon and fresh basil defied all conventions and challenged my ideal of pizza.
When I first began experimenting with preserved lemons, this pizza came to mind, and then it materialized on the dinner table, the preserved lemons replacing the slices, everything else remaining the same. It has been awhile since I made Kesté’s original version, but the preserved lemons offer that same brightness and intensity, and the combination is one of my favorites. As I am learning, preserved lemons work nicely anywhere lemon and salt work nicely — so, everywhere? — and while there is something about the combination of smoked mozzarella and lemon that just can’t be beat, this is a fun pizza combination, too: za’atar with olive oil, fresh ricotta, preserved lemon and basil.
The key when using preserved lemons is to adhere to the maxim less is more: a little preserved lemon goes a long way. I now understand why the two preserved lemon recipes I followed called for so few lemons, and that doubling each of those recipes, which seemed the obvious move at the time, may have been unnecessary.
Can we agree that there never is enough crispy topping on the baked pasta gratin? Didn’t we just discuss this? Yes. I’ll keep this brief. Without a bread crumb topping, this sheet pan pasta gratin comes together even faster than the mac n’ cheese, and the addition of chopped raw kale not only provides some tasty roughage but also bolsters the crispness effect — think: kale chip meets gratin edge.
Like the mac n’ cheese, the elements in this gratin include a light béchamel made with equal parts milk and water, two cheeses, and parboiled pasta, something like penne or campanelle, whose fluted, petal-like edges brown up so beautifully.
You know how sometimes a day — a year — can rip by in an instant? But somehow the ten minutes while the steak is resting feel interminable? Without gainful employment, that steak will draw you in, those crispy bits will dangle and taunt, that carving knife will reflect light in your eye until you succumb.
The only possible way to survive those torturous ten minutes is to stay busy, and I have the perfect distraction: make a simple pan sauce, something like this red wine-shallot reduction, a delectable Daniel Boulud recipe. Those ten minutes never will pass so quickly. That steak, at last, will rest without fear.
Just a quick hello today. With Valentine’s Day quickly approaching, I thought I’d check in in case you are menu planning or perhaps needing a card?
Last week, a friend, a reliable source of all things cooking — books, ingredients, attire, drinks — texted me a recipe. It came from Canal House Cooking Volume No. 6: The Grocery Store, and she described it as a small miracle.
I, of course, made the dish, “chicken and rice,” immediately, and then made it again, and then made it once more last night. The dish is miraculous foremost for its reception — we ALL gobble it up — but also for its simplicity: it’s a one-pot wonder calling for nothing more than butter, one onion, a few stalks of celery, one chicken, rice and water. I added a bay leaf because I can’t not when cooking rice — that’s what my mother does — but otherwise, I followed the text-message recipe to a T.
So you probably have your Super Bowl menu all lined up. Chips and dips, sliders and smokies — your bases are covered. But have you thought about dessert? No? Phew. Because I’ve got just the thing: Mollie Katzen’s Chocolate Eclipse, a pudding cake that feeds a crowd. Everyone will go gaga.
I learned about Chocolate Eclipse from one of you — thank you! — via email, and after finding the recipe online, I made it immediately. It was too intriguing not to.
Now, let me preface this by saying I know absolutely nothing about making pudding cakes — chocolate, lemon, buttermilk, whatever — but this cake was like none I had made before, including its dainty, molten soft chocolate kin.
The process starts off familiarly: wet ingredients (buttermilk, vanilla, melted chocolate and butter) get stirred into dry ingredients (flour, brown sugar, salt and leavenings), chocolate chips are folded in, and after everything is mixed together, the batter gets spread into a 9×13-inch pan.
But then the assembly takes a wild turn. After the batter is covered by a blanket of brown sugar and cocoa powder (which ultimately become the pudding), 2.5 cups of boiling water get poured overtop. As the water meets this sandy layer, plumes of cocoa rise and swirl, and when the cake begins looking like a Breaking Bad set prop, you’ll need some encouragement. Katzen offers it: “It will look terrible, and you will not believe you are actually doing this, but try to persevere.”
Before Thanksgiving this past year, I experimented with baking stuffing on a jelly roll pan. Many of you, I imagine, understand the thought process: Why limit the best part of the stuffing to a single layer? Why not make the entire stuffing taste like the crispy bits bobbing at the top?
The stuffing came out well — not well enough to share with you — but I’m hoping to have that taken care of before this November.
The experiment, however, made me want to bake everything (within reason — bread pudding, pasta gratin, etc.) on a sheet pan and thus far, I’ve had one success: this mac n’ cheese. And when I tell you there’s no going back, I mean it.