One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating.

-Luciano Pavarotti and William Wright, "Pavarotti, My Own Story"

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Rosemary-Pine Nut Biscotti

The holidays are almost upon us and for those of us who are culinarily inclined, that only means one thing: Cookies. My kitchen is under a perpetual haze of flour these days. But much as I like cookies, I have to admit that all the butter and sugar can make them too heavy and cloying. While searching for a lighter, but still festive, alternative to my regular cookies, I came upon this recipe which I had clipped out of a magazine a couple of years ago. The minute I read the words rosemary and pine nut biscotti, I was sold. I love rosemary, whether it's in a marinade for grilled lamb, on a crostini with honey, walnuts and goat cheese, or infused into a simple syrup to be added to fizzy cocktails. 

Biscotti are Italian cookies with a dense, crunchy texture which comes from being baked twice. These are made with olive oil rather than butter, and are not too sweet. They are easy to make, too: Just stir everything together, bake, let cool, then slice and bake some more. The olive oil and rosemary give them a haunting, woodsy flavor. Add in crunchy cornmeal and buttery pine nuts, and I can definitely say that these biscotti are the most elegant things to ever come out of my kitchen. Dunk them in coffee, pack them in a box to gift them, or just eat them by the handful like I did.

Rosemary-Pine Nut Biscotti
Adapted from Eating Well magazine. The biscotti can be kept in an airtight container for 3-4 days. Makes approximately 20 biscotti.

1.5 cups (210 g) flour
2/3 cup (80 g) fine yellow cornmeal
2/3 cup (90 g) pine nuts
2 tbsp fresh rosemary, minced
2 tsp baking powder
2 eggs, at room temperature
2/3 cup (135 g) sugar
1/3 cup (80 ml) extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp salt

1. Preheat the oven to 350F (175C). Lightly brush a baking sheet with olive oil.

2. Thoroughly mix the flour, cornmeal, pine nuts, rosemary and baking powder in a large bowl.

3. Whisk the eggs, sugar, oil and salt in a medium bowl just until combined and uniform (but not until the sugar dissolves).

4. Stir the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients to form a dough. Transfer to a lightly floured surface and form into a 12x2.5 inch (30x7 cm) log. Transfer to the oiled baking sheet.

5. Bake for 30 minutes. Let cool on the baking sheet for 15 to 20 minutes.

6. Reduce oven temperature to 325°F (160C). With a serrated knife, gently slice the log crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick slices; place them cut-side down on the baking sheet. Some of the slices might break apart and that's OK, just bake them and save them for yourself.

7. Bake for 10 minutes. Turn over and continue baking for 10 minutes more. Cool on the baking sheet for 5 minutes, then transfer the biscotti to a wire rack to cool completely.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Bresaola with Fuyu Persimmons

I have a new love these days. We have been spending quite a bit of time together, and I have to say, it's going really, really well. You want to know who it is? Well, I'll tell you: It's the public library. Yes, that dusty-looking, neglected building in your city that you've been passing by all the time without a second glance. I was just like you. Once I left school, I never stepped foot inside a library again, until a few weeks ago when somebody told me that the public library stocks tons of cookbooks. Given my addiction to the latter, it shouldn't surprise you that I didn't wait too long before registering for a library card! 

There is something about libraries that always takes me back to my college days. My university had a huge library. You would enter it through a gorgeous, airy marble rotunda, then branch off into hallways and stairs that would take you to the different rooms. I used to love spending time there, studying in the quiet corners among stacks of forgotten books that hadn't been checked out in years. There were classic Hitchcock movies in the A/V department, Chopin sheet music in the music room, and books, oh, so many books. To my book-loving geeky heart, the library was like a treasure cave. I would borrow Beatles autobiographies, Neil Gaiman novels, books on everything from Greek mythology to the making of Blade Runner, and be happy as a clam. I am so glad to have found my way back to libraries, even if I am now far from the wonderful sunny library of my college days. 

The first book that I borrowed from the public library is one whose name you'll hear often if you read food blogs: the renowned The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, written by the head chef of the eponymous restaurant, Judy Rogers. Rogers takes on Italian and French foods with a California sensibility and the book is chock full of innovative combinations. Some of her recipes are too fussy for my taste, but there are simpler preparations like a risotto with grapefruits and oranges, short ribs braised in Belgian beer, and a pesto of sage and walnuts that I am looking forward to trying out. The one recipe that I've already made, presented below, was an absolute winner! 

This appetizer, which pairs Fuyu persimmons with ephemeral slices of air-dried beef, is Judy Rogers' elegant take on the Italian classic of melon with prosciutto. The Fuyu persimmon is a mild, not-too-sweet fruit with a delightful star-shaped cross section. It tastes a little bit like canteloupe melons and can also be sold under the name "sharon fruit". Don't substitute the torpedo-shaped Hachiya persimmons, which need to ripen to the texture of jelly to be edible and won't hold a sliced shape. Most shops selling Italian foods carry bresaola, which is an air-dried cured beef. Bresaola's creamy streaks of fat and its saltiness make a delicious counterpoint to the sweet persimmons in this recipe, but Rogers also has instructions for serving it in a salad with fromage blanc and lemon-infused olive oil, or with butter lettuce and a vinaigrette with cracked coriander seeds. Don't wait too long to make this after you purchase the bresaola, as it dries out and toughens in the fridge after a few days. 

Bresaola with Fuyu Persimmons
Adapted from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook. The original recipe can be viewed online here. Persimmon skin is edible but some have thicker skin than others. Rogers instructs you to taste two slivers of persimmon, one peeled and the other not, and to peel the fruit if you decide you don't like the skin. Serves 4 as an appetizer. 

4-5 oz (100-120 gr) thinly-sliced bresaola
2 medium Fuyu persimmons, washed
Extra-virgin olive oil
Balsamic vinegar

1. Cut out the stem of the persimmons and cut the fruit horizontally into thin slices.

2. Lay the persimmon and bresaola slices haphazardly on a large platter. Drizzle on a small bit of of olive oil and an even smaller bit of balsamic vinegar. Tilt the plate in a couple of directions to distribute the oil and vinegar, lifting the fruit and meat slices if necessary so the dressing can flow under them, and serve. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Thai Chicken Lettuce Wraps a.k.a. Larb Gai

Phew. I hope everyone had a nice Thanksgiving! Mine was great fun, even though I drank a full bottle of champagne and felt kind of lousy the next day... But let's not talk about that! There was juicy turkey, mashed potatoes and apple-cranberry-maple pie and that's all that matters. Of course, now that the big feast is behind us, I have a huge craving for something light and healthy and not bloat-inducing. Larb gai is just such a dish.

Most people who have been to the popular Chinese-American restaurant chain P. F. Chang's are familiar with its chicken lettuce wraps. In fact, they have almost a cult following. I, on the other hand, cannot see the appeal of that dish, as the chicken filling is terribly bland. This Thai lettuce-wrapped chicken is much better. Imagine tender minced meat; its seasoning perfectly balanced - like all Thai dishes - between salty, sour and spicy; enlivened with a shot of lime juice and served with an exuberant shower of fresh herbs. Is your mouth watering yet?

The key to good larb is to use very fresh, crisp lettuce and herbs. Discard any browned or wilted leaves. The traditional herbs are mint and cilantro. I cannot abide the latter, so in keeping with the Thai theme of the dish, I substituted Thai basil, which tastes more anise-y than regular basil. Its stems are purple and the edges of the leaves are slightly serrated. You can see it next to the mint in the photo above. The substitution was delicious, but feel free to use cilantro if you can tolerate it. Be very generous with the herbs! The other key is to use fish sauce instead of soy sauce or salt. As I've said before, its pungent odor dissipates once it's added to the dish. Don't be afraid of it!

The ingredients for this dish can all be found at the supermarket. The only exception is the toasted rice powder, which is nothing more than roasted and ground up rice. It gives a nutty taste to the meat and thickens up the juices. of the meat Please don't omit this ingredient - you can make it in five minutes at home. Instructions follow the larb recipe. The amounts of seasoning that I've given are all approximate. You should set out small bowls of fish sauce, lime wedges and chili powder on the table so that each diner can further season his portion according to his preference. 

Larb Gai
I've substituted ground turkey for the chicken here. You can use any kind of white or red meat as long as it is not super lean. Add steamed sticky rice to each serving if you want to  make this into a more substantial meal. If you follow a gluten-free diet, make sure the fish sauce you buy doesn't include any gluten. Serves 4 as an appetizer or light main course.

1 lb (500 g) ground chicken or turkey
2 shallots, thinly sliced
Juice of one lime
1.5 tbsp fish sauce
1/2 tsp Thai chili powder (I used cayenne)
2 tbsp toasted rice powder (instructions below)
1 handful mint leaves, coarsely chopped
1 handful Thai basil leaves, coarsely chopped
12-16 lettuce leaves
Extra herb leaves and lime wedges to serve

1. Wash and dry the lettuce leaves in a salad spinner. Combine the lime juice, fish sauce, chili powder and shallots in a small bowl.

2. Heat a nonstick pan over medium heat. (If you don't have a nonstick pan, add a couple of spoonfuls of water or chicken stock before the meat.) Add the chicken or turkey and cook, stirring occasionally, until no pink shows. The meat will release its juices then reabsorb them.  Don't let it brown and don't let it reabsorb all the juices. It should be just-cooked and a bit moist.

3. Stir in the lime juice, fish sauce, chili and shallots and cook for 30 seconds. Add the toasted rice powder, stir for another 30 seconds and take off the heat. Taste and add more lime juice, fish sauce or chili powder if needed. Stir in the chopped herbs.

4. Serve with the lettuce leaves, extra herbs and lime wedges. Each diner should create his own wraps after adjusting the seasoning of his larb.

Toasted Rice Powder
The toasted rice is pulverized very easily in a spice or coffee grinder. I simply empty my pepper mill and grind it there.

1. Heat 2 tbsp of white rice in a small pan over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until golden brown. Let cool, then grind to a powder. 

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Thanksgiving 2011: Purple Yam Pie

All Thanksgiving related posts here.
My intention today was to take on that Southern classic: Sweet potato pie. I adore sweet potatoes no matter how they are cooked and thought that the pie would be a great addition to the Thanksgiving menu. Yet, when I went to the store, I saw some purple yams on sale and inspiration struck: Why not use these as the filling? I thought the bright purple color would bring a touch of whimsy to the table. 

Purple yams are even sweeter than sweet potatoes. When cooked for a long time, their flesh takes on a jammy consistency and an almost caramel taste. My mother hit upon it: They taste exactly like a less sweet version of the chestnut cream used in European and Turkish desserts. The yams are great cut into wedges and roasted at high heat with a bit of oil. You'll be astonished at how delicious they smell while roasting. However, I'm usually too lazy to peel and cut them, so I eat them simply baked and slathered with creme fraiche. The latter, which can be thought of as the less tangy French cousin of sour cream, is an amazing partner for the yams - each has a certain nuttiness that is echoed in the other. 

I'm not a fan of sweet potato or pumpkin pies that mask the taste of the vegetable with tons of spices, so I used only a small pinch of nutmeg in this pie. The flavor of the yams comes through bright and clear. The filling was not as brilliantly purple as I would have liked, but the taste of the chestnut-y yams combined with the rich creme fraiche more than made up for it. 

Purple yams are available at farmer's markets and many large groceries, but if you cannot get your hands on any, this would be just as good with regular sweet potatoes. Purple sweet potatoes, which are technically a different vegetable than purple yams but taste pretty similar to the latter, would also make a good substitute. 

Purple Yam Pie
I find this pie is best if made one day ahead and chilled overnight. The filling is a touch mushy right out of the oven but a night in the fridge firms it up nicely. Make the crust and chill it while the yams bake and cool. Feel free to use your own pie crust recipe instead of the one provided below. For added textural interest, you can sprinkle some chopped pecans into the crust before pouring in the filling. Serve with creme fraiche or whipped cream on the side. 

1 cup flour
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup (60 g / half a stick) melted butter 
3 tbsp milk

3 medium purple yams
1/4 tsp salt
6 tbsp sugar
Scant 1/4 tsp nutmeg, preferably freshly-grated
1 tbsp butter, cut into small pieces
5 tbsp creme fraiche
2 eggs

1. Bake the yams in a 400F (200C) oven until a sharp knife goes through them the same way it would go through butter. Lower the oven temperature to 350F (175C). Peel, mash and cool the yams.

2. For the crust, mix the flour and salt in a bowl. Mix the butter and milk in a small bowl and add to the flour. Stir until the dough comes together.

3. Gather the dough into a ball with your hands. Roll it out between two sheets of waxed paper. Peel it off the paper and transfer it to a 9 inch pie plate. Chill the dough in the fridge while the yams are baking and cooling.

4. Mix the salt, sugar, nutmeg and creme fraiche into the yams, then beat in the eggs and butter with a mixer until the filling is smooth. Pour the filling into the pie crust. The filling will expand a bit in the oven, so don't fill the crust to the rim. If there is too much filling, you can bake it in a small dish alongside the pie and have it as a pudding.

5. Bake at 350F (175C) for 50 minutes. Check the crust around the 40 minute mark. If it is browning too much, cover it with a little foil.  Let cool completely before serving.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Thanksgiving 2011: Squash and Kale Salad

Thanksgiving is almost upon us again. All the food magazine covers are adorned with burnished turkeys and the Thanksgiving posts I wrote last year are getting more and more hits every day. In 2010, I used a simple strategy of making everything but the turkey ahead of time, which let me have a stress-free evening and enjoy the company of my fellow diners. You can find the write-up of this simple, make-ahead Thanksgiving meal here. I'm particularly fond of the turkey recipe as it roasts in only seventy minutes and has delicious, crispy skin. If I cook again this year, I will definitely use the same method!

Although I adore traditional Thanksgiving foods, the meal as a whole is often a butter and cream-laden starch-fest. My palate is not used to such heavy foods and once at the table, I find myself wanting something light and acidic. While brainstorming ideas, I came up with this butternut squash and lacinato kale salad. Its bright, mustardy dressing cuts through the richness of the meal and the jewel-toned vegetables make a nice complement to the cranberry sauce and turkey on your plate. Toasted pine nuts and sweet currants add a festive touch. 

Lacinato kale (also called Tuscan kale) is one of my favorite vegetables. It is normally too tough to eat raw, but there is a trick to making raw kale edible: Salt it a little bit ahead of time and let it sit. The salt will draw water out of the kale which causes the leaves to wilt just enough to be edible. You can use the same trick with shredded cabbage to make coleslaw. 

This salad can be made largely ahead of time, which is a boon for Thanksgiving. Roast the squash, make the dressing and cut the kale leaves up to a day before the meal. Refrigerate all components seperately. On the day, wilt the kale, then toss with the dressing before topping with the pine nuts and currants. Speaking of the latter two, they can be substituted with dried cranberries and pecans to give an even more colorful salad. 

Winter Squash and Kale Salad
I used pumpkin in this salad, but any kind of flavorful winter squash, or even sweet potatoes, will do. You can either roast the squash halves whole, or after dicing them. The second method will give more delicious browned surfaces but the first method is easier. Don't substitute the lacinato kale with regular curly kale, the texture doesn't quite work. Even if you do prepare the salad components ahead of time, toast the nuts at the last minute. If your dried currants are tough and shriveled instead of plump and moist, let them sit for a few minutes in hot water before draining and adding to the salad. Serves 8 as an appetizer or side dish.

1 small bunch lacinato kale, washed and drained, tough center stems cut out
1 small (3-4 lb) sugar pumpkin, butternut squash, acorn squash or 2 large sweet potatoes
1/4 cup pine nuts 
1/4 cup dried currants 
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup sherry vinegar
1 tbsp plain or whole grain Dijon mustard

1. Preheat oven to 400F and line a baking sheet with foil. Cut the squash in half, spoon out the seeds and stringy material, drizzle with a little oil and place cut-side down on the tray. Roast for 30-40 minutes, until a knife slides easily in and out of the squash, then let cool. (If you decide to peel and dice the squash before roasting, toss the cubes with oil and roast for only 10-15 minutes until slightly browned and tender.)

2. While the squash is cooling, stack the kale leaves and cut them length-wise into 1/4 inch thick strips. Put them in a colander and add a generous amount of salt. Don't worry about oversalting as you'll rinse the kale later. Massage the salt into the leaves for 2 minutes, then let sit for 15-20 minutes.

3. Toast the pine nuts in a small dry pan over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until golden. Let cool.

4. Once the squash is cool, peel it and cut into 1 inch cubes. Season the cubes with some salt and pepper. Hold the colander with the kale leaves in it under running water to rinse off the salt, then drain. Combine the oil, vinegar and mustard in a jar and shake to emulsify.

5. To assemble the salad, spread the kale strips on a wide plate. Toss with half the dressing and season with salt and pepper. Put the squash cubes in the center and drizzle on the rest of the dressing. Top with the nuts and currants and serve.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Thailand's Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tom Kha Gai

Is there anything that tastes as good as a bowl of chicken soup when you're feeling under the weather? It's warming, homey and soothing, and the reason it instantly makes you feel better isn't just psychological, either: The minerals and collagen that leech from the chicken into homemade chicken stock really have healing properties. As chicken stock is both an economical way of using up chicken scraps and carcasses that might otherwise be thrown away, and a healthy base for a delicious meal, most cultures around the world have developed popular recipes for using it. Today I'd like to talk about Thailand's version. It is called "tom kha gai" and is a chicken stock and coconut milk base infused with some aromatic Thai ingredients. Sweat-inducing because of the hot peppers, intensely citrus-y from the kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass, with a touch of the tropics from the coconut and a shot of brightness from the lime juice, tom kha gai is like an exotic vacation in a bowl. Make this recipe and you will thank me afterwards for curing your winter blues!

The only difficult part of making tom kha gai is finding the ingredients. While most can be found at the supermarket, the kaffir lime leaves and galangal might require a trip to an Asian shop or a specialty spice store. Luckily, these two ingredients can be frozen and don't lose any of their flavor after a stint in the freezer, so you only need to stock up once. Once you have all of the ingredients ready, making the soup is as easy as throwing everything in a pot and simmering for a few minutes. 

Here's an explanation of the flavoring ingredients that you will need:

Fish sauce: Thailand's answer to soy sauce, fish sauce is made from fermented anchovies. It smells to high heaven when you open the bottle but don't let that deter you. The smell won't make it into your dish; it will simply add a delicious salty depth.

Coconut milk: While a lot of people avoid coconut milk because coconut fat is mostly saturated, the type of saturated fat found in coconut is a special one called medium-chain triglyceride. MCTs have been found to have lots of health benefits such as improving liver and thyroid function, increasing metabolism and thus helping weight loss, and increasing HDL (the "good" cholesterol) You can read more about the health benefits of coconut fat here and here. Given that you see a lot less obese people in Thailand, where coconut milk is widely consumed, than you do in the Western world, I'm choosing to believe that coconut milk can't be all that bad for you! Please don't use "light" coconut milk when making tom kha gai.

Galangal: Galangal is the knobby root on the top left of the plate. It is a relative of ginger but has a much stronger, almost medicinal taste. This soup is named for galangal ("kha" in Thai) so don't substitute it with ginger or powdered galangal! You can chop the galangal up into chunks and freeze it in a ziplock bag. Slicing becomes easier after defrosting.

Limes: A good squeeze of lime juice right before serving adds tang to the soup.

Lemongrass: A subtle, citrusy grass, available in most supermarkets.

Thai chile peppers: Also called "bird's eye" chiles, these small red peppers are insanely hot. Since my heat tolerance is piss poor, I only add a slice or two to my bowl. If you like it spicy, go to town! Make sure you wear gloves when cutting them up as they can irritate your skin.

Kaffir lime leaves: The leaves of a special kind of lime tree, these have an immensely strong, almost floral citrus aroma. The ones in the picture came out of the freezer which is why they are a bit discolored. When buying them, look for ones that are bright green and without blemishes. You can freeze them in a ziplock bag. 

Not shown: Cilantro, aka the worst-tasting substance to ever grow out of God's green earth.

I kid.

No, I don't.

Tom Kha Gai
Adapted slightly from here. Serve the chopped cilantro, sliced chiles and lime wedges in separate bowls, for each diner to add to the soup according to their taste. Low-sodium canned chicken stock is OK in a pinch, but homemade chicken stock (instructions here) will make the soup a million times better. If you follow a gluten-free diet, check to make sure that your fish sauce and canned chicken stock have no gluten. Serves 4.

1 14 oz. (400 ml) can of coconut milk
2 cups (500 ml) of chicken stock, preferably homemade
2 stalks of lemongrass
6 kaffir lime leaves
6 slices of galangal, each 2 mm thick (no need to peel)
Fish sauce
8 oz (250 g) white or straw mushrooms, thinly sliced
1 lb (500 g) boneless, skinless chicken breast, thinly sliced against the grain
3-4 bird's eye chiles, thinly sliced
2 limes, cut into wedges
Cilantro leaves

1. Cut the lemongrass into a few pieces and smash these with the butt of your knife. This will expose the inner, more aromatic parts, for easier infusion.

2. Put the chicken stock in a pot. Bring it to a boil, then lower the heat to medium low.

3. Add the coconut milk, galangal, kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass. Cook at a bare simmer for 15-20 minutes. When the liquid is nicely fragrant, fish out the herbs with a slotted spoon and discard. Stir in 2 tablespoons of fish sauce and taste. Add more fish sauce until you find the soup sufficiently salty.

4. Maintaining the soup at a bare simmer (no more than a bubble every few seconds), add the mushrooms and chicken and gently cook for 3-4 minutes until the chicken is just cooked. Take off the heat.

5. Serve with cilantro, sliced chiles and lime wedges on the side. A healthy squeeze of lime juice in each bowl is essential!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Bicolor Roasted Beet Salad with Pistachios and Lemon

I've talked about roasting before. It is my go-to method of cooking any vegetable that cannot simply be sliced raw and tossed into a salad. Half an hour in a hot oven does wonders for even the most despited veggies. It gets rid of the water-logged texture you get with boiling and allows the natural sugars of the vegetables to brown and caramelize, giving them a delicious sweet-savory, nutty taste. Beets are great when roasted. In fact, a roasted beet salad with goat cheese is a staple on bistro menus. I found some golden beets at the market the other day and thought I'd do a twist on the bistro classic by introducing some Mediterranean flavors like lemon, toasted pistachios and mint. 

The stain left in my baking pan by the roasted beets. Isn't it pretty?
Golden beets taste exactly like the more common red beets, but unlike the latter, they won't stain your hands and clothing. Red beet juice is a powerful (very powerful!) dye so use gloves when cutting red beets and don't let wooden cutting boards or utensils come into contact with them. Using one red and one golden beet makes for a very pretty presentation but the taste will remain the same even if you use just gold or just red beets. Assemble the salad just before serving or the red beets will dye the golden ones.

You can roast the beets ahead of time and refrigerate them in an airtight container, which allows you to serve this salad at a moment's notice. Unpeeled, the cooked beets will keep in the fridge for 4-5 days. 
Roasted Beet Salad with Pistachios and Lemon
I like my salad dressing to be very zingy, which is why I use a 1:1 ratio of oil to lemon juice rather than the more common 2:1 or 3:1. Adjust the dressing to your taste if you find this too sharp. You can boil the beets until they can be easily pierced by a knife if you don't want to turn on your oven. Serves 4 as a light appetizer or side dish.

2 large beets, preferably one golden and one red
2 tbsp shelled pistachios
2 oz feta or fresh goat cheese
6-7 mint leaves
1 lemon
1 tsp honey
1 tsp Dijon mustard, plain or whole-grain
1/2 shallot, finely diced (optional)
1 tbsp olive oil

1. Drizzle the beets with a little olive oil, wrap them tightly in foil and put the foil package inside a baking dish. Roast in a 400F (200C) oven for 40-50 minutes, until a sharp knife goes easily through the beets (no need to open the package when checking), then cool.

2. While the beets are cooling, toast the pistachios in a dry pan over medium heat until slightly browned, 5-6 minutes, then cool and coarsely chop them. Stack the mint leaves and cut into thin strips with scissors. Grate the zest of the lemon, then squeeze one tablespoon of lemon juice.

3. Mix the minced shallot with the lemon juice and a little salt. Let rest for a few minutes. This takes away the bite of the shallot. Mix in the honey and mustard, then drizzle in the olive oil while whisking with a fork.

4. Wearing gloves, peel and slice the beets into 1/4 inch thick slices. Lay the slices in an overlapping manner on a plate. Drizzle the dressing all over the beets, grind some black pepper over the top, then sprinkle with the pistachios, mint and lemon. Mound the cheese in the middle of the plate and serve.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Halloween alla Turca: Turkish Poached Pumpkin Dessert a.k.a. Kabak Tatlısı

With Halloween imminent, bright orange jack o'lanterns are hanging out on every stoop on my street, making ghoulish faces at the road. Of course, this puts me in the mood for some pumpkin. Halloween is not celebrated in Turkey. We do, however, celebrate the arrival of fall fruit such as pumpkin and quince with desserts that put the fruits front and center. One such preparation is "kabak tatlısı" which translates simply as "pumpkin dessert". It is, to my knowledge, the only pumpkin dish in all of Turkish cuisine. I decided to forgo a jack o'lantern this year and have a Halloween alla Turca instead by learning how to make this popular dish.

You'll be astonished at the ease of preparation of this dessert. It has just two main ingredients, and the only difficult part is peeling and cutting the pumpkin. Even this is not so hard if you have a sharp knife. You put the diced pumpkin into a pot, sprinkle on some sugar, turn on the heat, and wait. After a while, the pumpkin will release a surprising amount of water. Gently poaching the fruit in its own liquid concentrates its sweetness. At the end of 45 minutes, you will be left with glistening pieces of candied pumpkin. The flavor of the fruit comes through bright and clear in this dessert: A true taste of fall. 

Kabak tatlısı is always served sprinkled with finely chopped walnuts. In my family, we also like it with a bit of kaymak on the side. This is a thick, clotted cream which is a traditional accompaniment to many Turkish desserts. A lot of Middle Eastern markets carry kaymak; if you cannot find it, English double cream makes a decent substitute.

Happy Halloween to you all!

Turkish Poached Pumpkin Dessert
This recipe comes from my good friend Zeynep. Don't use the huge jack o'lantern pumpkins for this, as they are usually tasteless and tough. Small sugar pumpkins are a better choice. Serves 6-8.

1 small sugar pumpkin, peeled and cut into 1x2 inch pieces (you need about 5 cups of chopped fruit)
1.5 cups (300 g) sugar
1 cup walnuts, pulsed 4-5 times in the food processor until very coarsely ground
Kaymak to serve (optional)

1. Put the pumpkin into a heavy-bottomed pot. Sprinkle on the sugar. Don't stir as you want some of the sugar to remain on top. Put the pot on medium-low heat. 

2. After a few minutes, you will see that the pumpkin has released some water. Cover and cook for 30 minutes.

3. After 30 minutes, taste a piece. It won't be cooked yet, but you need to check for sweetness. Pumpkins have varying levels of sugar, so if the dessert is not sweet enough to your taste, gently stir in a few more tablespoons of sugar. Cover and continue cooking for another 10-15 minutes, until the pumpkin is tender when pierced with a fork. Transfer the pumpkin to a serving dish, leaving behind any liquid that may still be in the pot, and let cool completely.

4. Serve with a generous sprinkling of walnuts and a dollop of kaymak on the side. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Georgia on My Mind: Circassian Chicken a.k.a. Çerkez Tavuğu

Georgia the country that is, and not the US state. One of the first people I met after arriving in the States for grad school was a girl from Georgia called Thea. We hit it off immediately and she remains a dear friend to this day. Being of a generous heart, Thea invited a bunch of us to dinner soon after our first semester started. Among the dishes she cooked was a chicken dish so delicious that it became renowned and had me begging her to make it all the time. Strangely enough, it also tasted very, very familiar. It wasn't until much later that I realized she was making a version of a dish that is very popular in Turkey as well: Circassian Chicken, or in Turkish, çerkez tavuğu. It consists of poached chicken in a garlicky sauce made from walnuts and vinegar. Thea's dish was very soupy whereas ours has a thick sauce with the consistency of porridge, but the flavors were the same. Now, my patriotism kicked in when I first came to this realization, and I thought that the Georgians must have simply learnt of this dish from Turks during Ottoman times, when we ruled over them, but further research reveals that the opposite is true. It originated in Georgia, where walnuts are a hallmark of the cuisine. In fact, the provenance of the dish is obvious even from its name, "Çerkez" being the Turkish designation for a region which encompasses parts of modern-day Georgia.

The Ottoman empire ruled over vast swaths of land in its heyday. The sultans were always embroiled in some war or other to enlarge their territory and when victorious, returned from the newly conquered lands with wives, servants and soldiers to add to their court. Each of these people brought with them native dishes that entered the Ottoman culinary repertoire, so that over the years, Ottoman cuisine became a melting pot of influences ranging from Eastern European to African and Arabian. Circassian Chicken no doubt arrived in Turkey this way, then was subjected to elaborate reworkings in the huge kitchens of the sultan's Istanbul home, Topkapı Palace, before trickling down into the households of ordinary Turks. The Topkapı Palace had a veritable battalion of cooks whose only job was to prepare sumptuous feasts for the royal court, therefore the recipes that have come to us from them are usually elaborate and time consuming to prepare. Circassian Chicken is no exception but the explosive flavor and exquisite texture are well worth the time. The combination of garlic and ground walnuts with the silky chicken and the sharp vinegar is unexpected but one you won't soon forget. It is also a make ahead dish, as the flavors benefit from a day of melding together in the fridge.

Circassian Chicken
A drizzle of paprika cooked in oil is the traditional finishing touch for this dish. If you want to be hardcore, you can obtain the oil by putting the blended walnut-bread mixture in a cheesecloth and squeezing hard to extract the oil from the walnuts, but I'll leave this finicky step to the palace cooks. I use olive oil. Walnut oil, if you have it, will give the best flavor. This makes a lot - enough to serve 8-10 people as an appetizer. If you want to halve the recipe, just poach a bone-in, skin-on chicken breast. Serve cold or at room temperature, with bread.

1 whole chicken, 3-4 lb (1.5-2 kg)
1 onion, peeled and quartered
1 small carrot, washed but not peeled, halved
Few sprigs of parsley (optional)
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 cups walnuts
White bread, crust removed and torn into pieces, approximately 1.5 cups
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp vinegar (you can use red or white wine vinegar or even regular distilled vinegar)
1 tbsp olive oil, walnut oil or butter
1/4 tsp hot or mild paprika

1. Put the first four ingredients in a pot big enough to hold the chicken. Pour in just enough cold water to cover the chicken completely.

2. Turn the heat to medium-low and let the water come to a simmer. Cover and cook for 30 minutes. Don't let the water boil - bubbles should not be breaking the surface. After 30 minutes, turn off the heat but keep the pot covered and leave the bird in the hot water for another 30 minutes.

3. Take the chicken out of the pot. Discard the onion, carrot and parsley but not the poaching water as you'll be using it to make your sauce. Cut into the chicken's thigh and breast to make sure that the juices aren't pink. If they are pink, simmer the chicken for a bit longer until it is completely cooked. Once cooked, put the chicken in a bowl of iced water to halt the cooking and let it cool for a bit.

4. Once the chicken is cool, take off its skin and discard it. Using your hands, take as much meat off the bones as you can and shred it.

5. In a food processor, grind the walnuts, bread and garlic until the mixture has the consistency of coarse breadcrumbs. Transfer this mixture to a large skillet.

6. To make the sauce, add a ladle-ful of the chicken poaching liquid to the skillet and stir until it is absorbed by the bread-walnut mixture. Repeat this step until the sauce has the consistency of porridge. I usually end up using about 2.5-3 cups of liquid. Stir in the salt and vinegar.

7. Mix in the shredded chicken. Taste and add more salt if needed. Refrigerate until serving time.

8. To serve, put the chicken mixture on a wide plate. Heat 1 tbsp oil or butter over medium-low heat in a small skillet and cook the paprika for a minute or two, then drizzle this over the chicken. Serve with bread.

Note: If you have any remaining poaching liquid after making the sauce, don't throw it away. You can use it in any soup that calls for chicken stock. It can also be frozen.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Greek Salad

I had the chance to spend a day on a Greek island this summer. While a day might sound short, it was ample time to fall in love with the beauty of the place and also to have one of the best meals of my life at a fish restaurant by the water. We ordered no less than ten or twelve dishes for the table and I was amazed by every single one of them. From the crispy, paper-thin slices of fried eggplant and the tender char-grilled octopus to the tiny shrimp and feta casserole and the crusty bread dipped in fragrant olive oil and oregano, each dish was simple but expertly prepared to showcase the freshness and quality of the ingredients. Since my return from that trip, I've managed to pester my Greek friends to cook for me and realized that Greeks and I are very much alike in at least one thing: We are ridiculously passionate about food and happy to spend hours discussing it! I am armed with tons of notes from these discussions and meals, so look for some more Greek recipes here soon.

One of the dishes that stood out the most during that meal was the Greek salad. It was a delicious marriage of sun-warmed vegetables with salty, creamy feta and the dried oregano in it blew me away with its strong aroma. Here in the US, we are so used to the stale jarred dried herbs from the supermarket that a taste of the real thing was a revelation and a powerful reminder at the same time.  I ate the whole salad, sopped up every last drop of the dressing, and barely kept myself from licking the bowl.

Us Turks are no strangers to the chopped tomato/cucumber/green pepper salad (we have çoban salatası and gavurdağı salatası, to name but two) but the Greek version is pretty different: The vegetables in the salad I had were roughly chopped as opposed to the very small pieces we'd have, and they were sprinkled with dried oregano whereas we would use fresh parsley or mint. Oh, and of course, the Greeks have that feta fetish...

I reverse-engineered this recipe from the salad I had in Greece and Wikipedia confirms that I have the correct ingredients, so I am certain that this is an authentic version. The keys to this salad are to get the best quality ingredients. Try to find smaller cucumbers rather than the arm-length, woody grocery store ones. Most important of all, make sure your dried oregano is not stale. Its flavor absolutely makes the salad. The oregano in your supermarket's spice section has probably been sitting there in its plastic jar for months if not years and will have lost most of its potency. I use oregano which my mom and aunt pick and dry when they go to Turkey's west coast, where the air is always fragrant with herbs growing wild on the earth. Failing a Mediterranean source, buy your oregano from specialty spice shops with high turnover and ask to smell a sample before purchasing. You can also dry a big bunch of fresh oregano yourself in the oven. Here's how.

Greek Salad
I don't season the salad with salt. Instead, I just make sure that each bite of vegetable is accompanied by a bite of olive or feta cheese. Don't use pitted olives. Leave the cheese in one piece on the top instead of crumbling it into the salad. Serve with crusty bread to soak up the dressing. Serves 2-3 as a side dish. 

1 medium tomato, chopped into 10-12 pieces
1 small cucumbers, peeled and cut into 1/4 inch thick slices
1/2 small red or white onion, cut into rings
1/2 small green bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and cut into rings
10 oil-cured black olives, preferably Kalamata
Large pinch of dried oregano
2-3 oz feta cheese, preferably Greek
3/4 tbsp red wine vinegar
1.5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1. Toss the first six ingredients with the vinegar in a shallow bowl or soup plate. 

2. Lay the feta over the top and drizzle the whole thing with the olive oil.