Sunday, May 31, 2009

Spaghetti al Burro e Formaggio

This is really an amalgam of two comfort dishes from the Italian restaurants I worked at a million years ago when I was still cooking for pay. At Ciro and Sal's the pasta al burro e formaggio is pure solace: a whiff of garlic, handfuls of freshly grated cheese and lots of chopped parley to brighten the whole thing up. At Carmine's the lemon butter sauce is also a favorite of mine -- the flavors given extra depth and complexity with the addition of white wine and chicken stock and basil. So here, then, is Ciro and Carmine's love child, all grown up: a little lighter and more modern, with the combined wisdom of north and south. (Bill went back for third helpings. How bad could it be?)

1/2 pound whole wheat spaghetti
4 tablespoons of butter
1 clove garlic, finely minced (or more to taste)
1 hearty glug of white wine
1 hearty glug of chicken stock
1 small zucchini, cut in half lengthwise and then crosswise into thin half moons
2 handfuls of fresh baby spinach (or substitute 1/2 fresh basil, if you have it)
1/2 cup fresh parley, chopped
freshly grated Parmesan cheese, to taste
salt and pepper to taste

CJ's Pesto

Well, it turns out this is really Marcella Hazan's pesto recipe, but since it was passed down to me almost twenty years ago by the lovely and inimitable Courtia Jay Worth, I will always think of it as "CJ's pesto" whenever I make it. It is life-affirming, verdant and-- ah, that reminds me. There's a word for all of that in Spanish: reverdecer. It means to become green again, as in fields after a winter frost. Maybe that's what I need a little dose of right about now.

2 cups fresh basil
1/2 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons pine nuts
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons freshly grated Romano cheese
3 tablespoons butter, softened to room temperature

Blend first 5 ingredients to a paste in a blender. When evenly blended, pour into a bowl and beat in the cheeses by hand. Incorporate the butter.

Before spooning over pasta, add a tablespoon or so of the pasta cooking water to achieve the desired consistency.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Scallion Spinach Pesto

I adapted this recipe from the Wild Leek Pesto over at Kalofagas, using almonds instead of walnuts, and changing all of the proportions in little ways, to suit my tastes. It was extremely delicious on pasta the first night; equally tasty smeared on a piece of broiled fish the next; and finally, tonight, wickedly good stuffed into brined and pan-roasted chicken breasts. (Bill's favorite variation.)

Looks like the scallion pesto may stay in regular rotation for a while...Thanks, Kalofagas!

1/2 cup almonds
1 cup chopped scallions (green part only)
1 clove of garlic
1 1/2 cup of baby spinach
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/3 cup grated Romano cheese
Salt and pepper, to taste

Blend. Taste. Adjust. Apply liberally.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Sizzling Rice Soup

I loved this soup when I was a kid. Over the years it has completely and inexplicably disappeared from all but a few old-school NYC Chinese restaurant menus; but no matter, I've started making it at home. In fact, we've eaten it three times this week, in an effort to make up for lost time.

The loud sizzle is a special moment in my day. What can I say? I've always loved those little tableside flourishes. Plus, it's a kind of perfect duo: combining the guilty-pleasure-sensation of pop rocks, with the inarguable health benefits of chicken vegetable soup.

3-4 ounces frozen shrimp, thawed
2 tablespoon rice wine
2 teaspoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 large skinless, boneless chicken breast
4 cups chicken broth
1 cup chopped raw broccoli
½ can of sliced water chestnuts
¼ cup sliced scallions
handful of snow peas
4-6 rice cakes from 1 package Chinese rice cakes (or you can make your own, which I did the other day but would prefer to not ever have to do again in the future.)

In a bowl, mix together the shrimp, cornstarch, sherry and soy sauce and set aside. Poach the chicken breast in the chicken broth in a soup pot over medium heat. Bring to a boil and then immediately reduce the heat and allow it to simmer until the chicken is just barely cooked through. Remove the chicken breast and set aside too cool slightly.

Add the shrimp mixture, green onions, water chestnuts and broccoli to the pot over medium heat. Simmer for 3 minutes. While the shrimp is simmering, cut the reserved chicken breast into chunks and add the chicken back into the soup. Add the snow peas and adjust for seasoning.

Meanwhile, heat 3 tablespoons of oil in a frying pan. Brown the rice cakes in the oil very briefly on each side. They should be very hot. Remove the rice cakes from the oil with a slotted spoon, and blot on paper towels.

Add the rice cakes to the soup at the table. If both are hot enough, the soup will sizzle loudly.

The Apple Cake of Righteousness

It's Shavuot...
So why am I baking an apple cake, one might wonder, on the one day of the year I could completely justify making blintzes for dinner, or even a cheesecake...

I'm really not sure. It just sort of happened; but now that I think about it, I suspect it has something to do with the fact that my main peeps have been sick for the last couple of weeks. First my mom and now Bill. I've been nursing both of the patients -- which for me mostly means cooking enormous batches of soup, loading everyone up with Chinese herbs and kvetching loudly that no one is washing their hands often enough. Last week I produced multiple batches of matzoh balls for my poor sick mom, and now for the last three days I've been turning out pots of sizzling rice soup, meal after meal (luckily, Bill loves sizzling rice soup, or the repetition wouldn't be much of a comfort to him in his drippy, feverish state.)

I suddenly found myself making many of his faves yesterday -- fish with wild leek pesto, popovers, tom kha gai, and now this -- this apple cake that he loves best of all. I couldn't swear to it, but I believe the original recipe came out of the Settlement House Cookbook a million years ago. And did I mention that this apple cake, which my grandmother used to make for Rosh Hashanah, is also my mom's favorite thing to eat? Strangely, she and Bill have the same favorite foods, along with sharing the same hypervigilant, overly analytical nursemaid. Of course, this is the best apple cake in the world, so it isn't hard to love.

Anyway, since it is, in fact, Shavuot, let me quote Megillat Ruth by way of reminding my sick mother and my sick husband where I'm coming from and where it's at...

"But Ruth replied: Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you; for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God."

(Ohhhh...the righteousness...the righteousness...)


6 apples
1 tablespoon cinnamon
pinch of allspice and nutmeg (optional)
1 cup raisins
5 tablespoons sugar

2 3/4 cups flour, sifted
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup vegetable oil
2 cups sugar, or a little less according to taste
1/4 cup apple juice
2 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
4 eggs
1 cup chopped walnuts (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a bundt pan. Peel, core and chop apples into chunks. Toss with spices, raisins and sugar and set aside.

Stir together flour, baking powder and salt in a large mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together oil, apple juice, sugar and vanilla. Mix wet ingredients into the dry ones, then add eggs, one at a time. Scrape down the bowl to ensure all ingredients are incorporated.

Pour half of batter into prepared pan. Spread half of apple/raisin mixture over it. Pour the remaining batter over the apples and arrange the remaining apples/raisins on top. Bake for about 1 1/2 hours, or until a tester comes out clean

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Lemony Herbed Rice Salad

I adapted this recipe from Viana La Place, adding a variety of fresh produce that was still warm from from Irwin's garden. It's a keeper -- light, fresh and full of flavor.

1 cup arborio rice
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
juice of 1/2 large or 1 small lemon
1 cup tightly packed flat-leaf parsley leaves, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup chopped chives
1/3 cup chopped fresh dill
1 cup chopped cooked vegetables (we had leftover steamed asparagus and broccoli, so I used those -- but it could have been any variety of vegetables, really)
1/3 cup green olives, coarsely chopped (optional)
1 tablespoon capers, rinsed and drained
grated zest of 1 lemon
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add the rice and simmer over moderate heat until just tender, about 14 minutes. Drain thoroughly.

In a large bowl, toss the rice with the olive oil and lemon juice. Stir in the fresh herbs and other ingredients and season with salt and pepper. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Lemon Bars

I didn't have a camera at the ready to record Bill's exultant lemon bar dance, so this happy photo from last summer will have to suffice. Make these lemon bars. Do it now. They cause spontaneous dancing.

The warm filling has to be added to a warm crust for the chemistry to work out correctly, so start making the filling as soon as the crust goes into the oven. Be sure to cool the bars completely before cutting them.

Photo by Tim Connor
Recipe from Baking Illustrated (America's Test Kitchen, 2004)

1 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar, plus more to decorate the finished bars
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick unsalted butter, softened but still cool, cut into 1-inch pieces

7 large egg yolks, plus 2 large eggs
1 cup plus 2 tablespoon granulated sugar
2/3 cup from 4 or 5 medium lemons, plus 1/4 cup finely grated zest
1/2 stick unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
3 tablespoons heavy cream

1.To line a 9-inch square baking pan, fold two 16-inch pieces of foil or parchment paper lengthwise to measure 9 inches wide. Fit 1 sheet in the bottom of the greased pan, pushing it into the corners and up the sides of the pan (overhang will help in removal of baked bars). Fit the second sheet in the pan in the same manner, perpendicular to the first sheet. Spray the sheets with nonstick cooking spray.

2. Place the flour, confectioners' sugar, and salt in a food processor and process briefly. Add the butter and process to blend, 8 to 10 seconds, then process until the mixture is pale yellow and resembles coarse meal, about three 1-second pulses. Sprinkle the mixture into the prepared pan and press firmly with your fingers into an even layer over the entire pan bottom. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

3. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350°F. Bake the crust until golden brown, about 20 minutes.

1. In a medium non-reactive bowl, whisk together the yolks and whole eggs until combined, about 5 seconds. Add the granulated sugar and whisk until just combined, about 5 seconds. Add the lemon juice, zest, and salt; whisk until combined, about 5 seconds. Transfer the mixture to a medium non-reactive saucepan, add the butter pieces, and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the curd thickens to a thin sauce-like consistency and registers 170°F (76°C) on an instant-read thermometer, about 5 minutes. Immediately pour the curd through a single-mesh stainless steel strainer set over a clean non-reactive bowl. Stir in the heavy cream; pour the curd into the warm crust immediately.
2. Bake until the filling is shiny and opaque and the center 3 inches jiggle slightly when shaken, 10 to 25 minutes, depending on too many factors to name. Cool on a wire rack to room temperature, about 45 minutes. Remove the bars from the pan using the foil or parchment handles and transfer to a cutting board. Cut into 2 1/2 inch squares, wiping the knife clean between cuts as necessary. Sieve confectioners' sugar over the bars, before serving. Makes 16 bars

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Saag Paneer

This is a much lighter version of saag paneer than you would get in an Indian restaurant, but the flavor is right on the money.

10 ounces frozen chopped spinach, defrosted
8 ounces paneer
1 large onion, chopped fine
2 tablespoons ginger garlic paste
1 tablespoon dried fenugreek leaves
peanut oil or ghee
2 teaspoon dhanna jheera powder or 1 tsp ground cumin and 1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 tsp mustard seeds
1/2 tsp red chili powder
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 tsp salt, or to taste
1/4 tsp sugar, or to taste
condensed milk, to taste
tsp garam masala (optional)

Dice paneer into 1 inch cubes. (In restaurants, they fry the paneer cubes briefly in a pan to seal and lightly color the surface. One could do this, although I generally do not.) Drain on paper towels and set aside.

In a blender or food processor, puree the chopped onion, ginger garlic paste and fenugreek leaves with 2 tablespoons of water. Set aside.

Heat the oil or ghee in a heavy-bottomed medium saucepan, snf stir fry the pureed ingredients for 5 - 6 minutes. Add the dhanna jeera powder and stir fry for another 30 seconds. Add the spinach and stir fry until most of the liquid has evaporated, moving the mixture in the pan constantly so it does not burn. Add the tumeric and red chili powder, stirring for a minute. Add the tomato paste and warm water (only add the water if the mixture is too thick at this point)

Add the prepared spinach and stir constantly over a low heat for 5 minutes. Add the paneer cubes, salt and sugar to taste (add only enough sugar for a rounded flavour; the mixture should not taste sweet). Cook slowly for another 5 minutes. Finally, stir in the condensed milk (adding less or more depending on how thick and/orcreamy you like it). Sprinkle with garam masala and serve.

Serves 4 as part of a meal.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Bean Burgers

Photo by Becky Luigart-Stayner

These taste significantly better than they look. In fact, I somehow scarfed two of them down while I was "testing" the recipe. I've been looking for a great bean burger recipe, to go along with those homemade whole wheat hamburger buns I've been turning out. We'll see if Bill likes them, too...

1-1/2 cups cooked beans of any kind
1 cooked potato (any sort, soft enough to mash)
1/2 yellow onion, minced
1 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tablespoon cumin
cayenne to taste
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon chili powder
paprika to taste
1/3 cup cornmeal (enough to form patties)
1 ear of corn cooked & shaved
6 meatless meatballs, cooked and mashed

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Mash the the beans and potato together in a large bowl and set aside. In a food processor, pulse the garlic, onion, cilantro and lemon juice together until no big chunks are left. Add to the bean mixture. Add the spices and corn and taste for seasoning. Add the cornmeal and mashed vegetable meatballs and taste for seasoning. Form into patties of desired size. Put the patties on a parchment lined baking sheet and bake for 40 minutes.
Turn on the broiler and broil the patties for five minutes on each side. Serve on hamburger buns.

The pattie mix will keep well in the fridge for about a week.

Slow Cooker Moroccan Chicken 'Tagine' with Olives and Preserved Lemons

Bill says this was even better than the food he ate in the prince's palace in Marakesh. ( sweet...)

8 chicken thighs, skin removed
2 tablespoons ginger garlic paste
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon adobo (optional)
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon cinammon
pinch of ground allspice
pinch of cayenne
1/4 cup salad oil
juice of 1 lemon

2 grated onions
1 Yukon Gold potato, peeled, cut in half lengthwise and each half cut crosswise into 3 wedges
1 cup chicken stock

1 - 2 preserved lemons, pulp removed and discarded, peel finely diced
1/2 cup mixed, chopped fresh cilantro and parsley
1 1/2 cups ripe green olives, pitted and diced small

1. The day before serving, remove the ceramic insert from the slow cooker. Layer the potato wedges on the bottom of the ceramic insert. Rub the chicken thighs with a paste made of the spices, oil and lemon juice. Stack the chicken pieces on top of the potatoes and pour any remaining marinade over all. Refrigerate, covered, overnight.

2. The next day, set the filled ceramic insert on the base of the slow cooker and turn to low heat. Add the grated onion and chicken stock. Cover and let cook for 6-8 hours. DO NOT LIFT THE LID DURING COOKING.

4. Add the olives and fresh herbs to the sauce when the chicken is very tender and the flesh falls easily from the bone. Continue cooking 5 to 10 minutes, uncovered.

5. Adjust for seasoning, and add more lemon juice, if desired, to taste. Pour the sauce over the chicken and serve at once, over couscous.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Coffee Cake for Mary

John's mom, Mary Wieczorek, passed away this week. Her memorial service was this afternoon, and everyone present spoke very movingly about what a wonderful cook she was, how generous she was, and how much she will be missed.

I have some of her recipe cards here, for recipes she sent me at various moments. I am looking forward to making them, and to keeping her memory alive in that way.

I made a coffee cake to bring to the memorial, with a cinnamon chocolate streusel topping. It was an easy cake to make, but I sweated over every step, fully as much as if I had been making it to pass Mary's inspection. She had high standards and a great palate.

I'd like to think that she would have enjoyed the afternoon, the cake, the new rosebushes and her beautiful family and friends coming together to celebrate her life and her gifts.


1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1/2 cup chocolate morsels
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 stick of butter, softened
1 cup of vanilla sugar
2 large eggs, beaten
1 cup yogurt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 tsp salt

butter or shortening for greasing pans

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Blend the filling ingredients together and set aside. In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar. Add the eggs, one at a time, and mix well. Add the yogurt and vanilla and blend until smooth. Add the dry ingredients, and mix well. Turn half the batter out into either two greased loaf pans or one greased 8 inch square pan. Scatter half of the filling over the batter, then top with remaining batter. Bake for 15 minutes and then carefully top with the remaining filling mixture. Bake for 30 minutes or until the top is brown and the center is firm when pressed lightly. Let cool in the pan for five minutes and then turn out onto a rack to cool completely.

Friday, May 1, 2009

(Leftover) Rice Pudding

This was a Tyler Florence recipe, until I started messing with the proportions and adding nutmeg and whatnot. Now it's just ridiculous. Rich and creamy and good. Bill says Viola used to make a baked leftover rice pudding that was out of this world. I'll get to that next.

3 cups white rice, cooked (I used jasmine rice, since that's what we had in the house)
3 cups milk
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup raisins
1 teaspoon vanilla extract or more, to taste
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch of ground nutmeg

Combine cooked rice, milk, sugar and butter in a medium saucepan. Add raisins and vanilla. Cook for 25 minutes until most of the liquid is absorbed. Mix in 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon and the ground nutmeg. Spoon pudding into a serving dish and dust with remaining cinnamon. Serve chilled or at room temperature.

Lagrimas Negras and Perfect Cuban Black Beans

Today, on this date, I would normally be in Miami, en route to Havana. Every year for the last eight years, I've been teaching a film intensive at the EICTV during the week of my father's yarzteit, quietly mourning and celebrating at the same time, in one of the places where I feel most at home and most fulfilled. This year, for the first time, I cancelled my trip. There's a little too much going on in my life and not enough time to get everything done. I'll go to Cuba in November instead. It was the right decision, but I'm having a momentarily deep pang of regret nonetheless. I wasn't even aware of it, until I suddenly found myself loading up the pressure cooker with black beans this morning, and humming Lagrimas Negras under my breath. When I realized what I was doing, I burst into a chuckle. (Lord only knows what Bill thinks I'm doing, laughing by myself in the kitchen.)

Cuba is changing, of course, in unforeseeable ways, and people constantly ask me what I think will happen next. For me, the biggest changes have not involved the new administrations or the changing travel restrictions or the rising exchange rate of the dollar. The biggest change in this last period of time has been the dissolution of my Cuban family, as I have watched my closest friends in Havana (one of the happiest couples I have ever known) go through a bitter divorce and estrangement. Just last month one of them moved to Italy, taking their son Marcel with her, after several astonishing years and finally reaching the point of no-turning-back.

Now, I have many friends in Cuba, and I am always very happy to see them when I arrive, but my family, that beautiful and bright little jewel in La Vibora, is gone forever, and even now I mourn that loss.

This first week in May is Marcel's birthday, and this will be the first year out of his seven years of life that I am not there to celebrate with them. The houses have been sold, the parents have remarried, and I am left wondering what it means to still have these addresses in my head, ready to direct taxi drivers through the hills of La Vibora and Santo Suarez to homes that no longer exist: Calle Heredia, entre Infante y O'Farril. Estrada Palma entre Goicuria y Juan Delgado. These phones numbers I've known by heart for years - my first call when I land and the last before my plane takes off. The number I repeatedly ask the operator to dial during any kind of personal transition, so I can talk to my beloved sister: "cuarenta, ochenta, setenta y siete, por favor."

What will they eat in Padua on Marcel's birthday this year, I wonder. Will his father call from Cuba during the party? Will I call from New York, I, his auntie, who suggested that they name him Marcel after Duchamp? Will they sing Happy Birthday to him in Italian? I'll visit them all separately in Italy and in Cuba, of course, and life will go on. Of course, I know that. Of course. But how I miss that family and that home where I spent so very many happy hours talking, laughing, eating and feeling loved. I will always miss them as they were, that inimitable little constellation of stars.

I hope Marcel's parents find it in their hearts to forgive each other someday, as in the words of the bolero -- the one every Cuban knows how to sing, the one about leaving:

Aunque tu me has dejado en el abandono
aunque ya se han muerto todas mis ilusiones.

En vez de despedirme
con justo encono
en mis sueños te colmo
en mis sueños te colmo
de bendiciones.

Even though you have left me abandoned
even though all my hopes have died
instead of saying goodbye
with justified rage,
in my dreams I shower you
in my dreams I shower you with blessings.

Perfect Cuban Black Beans
1 pound dried black beans
8 cups water
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 pieces smoked pork neck bones or 1 large ham hock
2 bay leaves

1 1/2 cups chopped onion
1 1/2 cups chopped green bell pepper
3 cloves garlic, peeled, and mashed with 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
Olive oil for sautéing
(OR 1 jar of prepared sofrito instead of the previous 4 ingredients)

1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon ground cumin
3 tablespoons vinegar
1 clove of garlic mashed to a paste (or garlic powder, to taste)
1/2 cup dry red wine (optional)
1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
olive oil (optional)
chopped cilantro and white onion for garnish (optional)

Combine dry beans with water, olives oil, bay leaves and pork bones in a 4 - 6 quart pressure cooker. Cook at high pressure for 22 minutes and let the pressure release naturally. Ideally, leave time for the beans to cool in the liquid. If there isn't time for this step, it is probably better to cook the beans at high pressure for 24 or 25 minutes instead of 22 minutes at the outset.

Meanwhile, prepare the sofrito if making it from scratch: chop onion and green pepper. Mash the garlic with salt and peppercorns in a mortar and pestle. Sauté the onions and green pepper in olive oil until the onions are translucent. Add mashed garlic and sauté for another minute or so.

When the beans have cooled slightly, remove the pork neck bones. Remove any edible meat from the bones. Discard the bones and chop the meat up finely, adding it back to the pot along with the sofrito, oregano, cumin, vinegar, and wine. Cover and simmer over low heat for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the finely mashed garlic clove or garlic powder, to taste.

Thicken the beans by taking about 1 cup of beans and mashing them to make a thick paste. Mix the mashed beans back into the pot. Add additional salt and pepper to taste.

Stir in the sugar; then drizzle a couple of tablespoons of olive oil over the beans. Immediately cover the pot, remove from heat, and let stand for 10 minutes. Serve the black beans over white rice, garnished with cilantro and chopped white onions.