Nosh: Hot Pepper and Tomato Sauce

Hey, all.

First things first: regarding my previous post about damage done to my external hard drive, the verdict is in. My photographs have been deemed unrecoverable. Gone. Kaput. I still have some stored in various places, and (silver lining, I suppose) most of the images I posted on this blog are what I considered among the best of my photographs. So I have the blog photos too, of course. It breaks my heart; there were a lot of shots I wasn’t done with yet, but I wallowed long enough and wallowing won’t bring them back. The fact remains that they are unrecoverable and I am tired of wallowing. Ever forward.

Now. On to the good stuff.

Oh, this pepper…sauce? Condiment? Magical addition to one’s food lineup? A word of warning: if you don’t like garlic or hot and spicy food, then this recipe is soooooo not for you. But for me? Garlic + spicy = perfect. We are in the home stretch of vegan January (necessary to rid myself of the clutter of forty pounds of butter I ate while making cookies this holiday season) so it’s perfect for us to eat right now, but it’s always good. I’ve made this so many times that I don’t remember where I first heard about it, and I think by now the recipe for it has coded itself into my DNA. Do note: it takes 40-45 minutes to cook, so it’s not a super-speedy recipe, but it’s all delicious. Here’s what you need:

  • 2 large-ish bell peppers (whichever color you prefer)
  • 2 hot peppers; I generally stick with serranos but use whatever you’d like
  • 2 or 3 or 4 cloves of garlic; it’s all dependent on your taste. And my taste for garlic is deep and abiding.
  • 2 cups tomato puree
  • 1 (ish) cup vegetable stock
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Oil

That’s it! No long list of spices, no hard-to-get ingredients. That’s one of the things I love about this pepper sauce. It’s a simple approach that makes things that already taste really good, like peppers and tomatoes and garlic, even better. Getting started: Assemble your ingredients.

Off to a good start!

Off to a good start!

Start some oil in a pan, over low-to-medium heat. Cut the bell peppers into nice, bitey chunks. Slice the serranos into nice, thin wheels. The sauce is supposed to be hot, so don’t remove the seeds from the hot peppers. Cut the garlic into thin slivers. Toss everything in the pan and add some salt.

Use gentle heat to coax out the flavors.

Use gentle heat to coax out the flavors.

Let these start to cook, but stay nearby and stir the peppers and garlic fairly regularly. You want them to get soft, you don’t want them to fry and get crisp. After about twenty minutes, they should be nice and soft–not totally squishy, but definitely flexible.

On their way to savory goodness.

On their way to savory goodness.

Once the peppers and garlic are ready, add the tomato puree and enough vegetable stock to give the ingredients something to hang out in for a while. I found that a cup of stock tends to work. Give the mixture a taste; because of the varying and unpredictable heat of hot peppers (if you look up serranos on the Scoville Heat Scale, you’ll see their heat ranges from 6,000 to 23,000 units, and there’s no way to tell which peppers are hottest without cutting them open and tasting them), your sauce may actually need another jolt of spice.

If you find that’s the case, don’t be afraid to shake in a little more hot pepper; cayenne works well. But be judicious about adding in extra cayenne. The sauce will thicken and concentrate the flavors, and you don’t want your beautiful spicy sauce to morph into a pan full of molten agony. If it’s still not spicy enough for your liking at the end of the cooking time, sprinkle in a little more cayenne and call it a day. Continue the cooking at the same medium-low temperature, and–again–stir it fairly regularly. At the end of another twenty minutes or so, you should have a nice, thick sauce. You can always use the back of the spoon test to see if the sauce is thick enough. Add salt and black pepper to taste.

Yep. Plenty thick.

Yep. Plenty thick.

Ahhhh…now it’s ready.

So what do we do with this? Oh, so very many things. This hot pepper sauce can be:

  • Schmeared on sandwiches
  • Stirred into pasta sauce
  • On top of chicken breast
  • It tastes great with arugula. So…anything with that
  • Mixed into beans
  • Over a baked potato topped with broccoli and cheese (I speak from experience)
  • And so on. The possibilities are endless!

The first thing we made with this batch was hummus and pita pizzas. Homemade pizzas of any ilk are a great way to use up random leftovers and/or open things in the fridge, so see what you’ve got in there and go for it. Here’s how:

Preheat the oven to 400°. Smear some hummus on howevermany pita breads you want to make and place them on a cookie tray. Spread some of your delicious, spicy, peppery, tomato-y sauce on the hummus.

Oh, hells yeah!

Oh, hells yeah!

This is a delicious nosh as it stands, right now, with nothing else done to it. But hold on! We can make it even better.

Top this with whatever you choose. George and I had some onions we’d chopped up and an open bag of arugula (a staple in this house) sitting in our fridge, so on they went. We also had a bunch of leftover roasted acorn squash, so that got chopped up and put on top.

Almost home!

Almost home!

We put that in the oven and let it all roast for 12-ish minutes; turn the baking sheet once after 8 minutes or so to check on how it’s doing. When you take the pitas out of the oven, top them with some fresh parsley, if  you have any on hand. In the end, you’ll have a lovely, toasty pita topped with roasted veggies, hummus that turns almost nutty in the oven, and this amazing, savory, thick, spicy, all-around vegtastic, and (best of all) healthy sauce. Because that’s how we do in central PA.

Plus, it's good cold the next day.

Plus, it’s good cold the next day.

Vegan January ain’t so hard to handle when you get to eat food like this. Enjoy!

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Nosh: Zaalouk al Qarnabit (Cauliflower Dip)

I was looking at a friend’s photos of the lovely Thanksgiving event they attended, when I noticed a sign for something called “zaalouk al qarnabit”. Hmmm, I thought. Food I don’t know about? Zaalouk whaaa…? I am so intrigued! What on Earth could that be?

Turns out, as exotic as this sounds, it’s a cauliflower dip. If you must know, it translates as “mashed cauliflower”, which sounds like something far less shrouded in dusky mystery, but it is delicious all the same. Zaalouk al qarnabit is almost, kind of but not really, like a Moroccan-style cauliflower salsa that could be modified for any variety of things. It’s delicious as a dip, scooped up on a nice, crisp crostini, but I could also imagine it on top of some cous cous, or on top of a piece of grilled chicken (or fish, I suppose, but I’m not really a seafood fan). I need to make it again because I keep on imagining it with cinnamon added to the spice mix, but that’s for a future blog. The recipe, as written below, is the one I used.

A word to potential zaalouk al qarnabit eaters: if you do not like garlic, this dish is not for you.

  •  1 large head cauliflower
  • 2 ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
  • 1 heaping teaspoon tomato paste, if necessary
  • 6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1/4 cup (I generally think of fresh parsley in terms of handsful, so if you would prefer to think of it this way, take one large handful) chopped parsley, divided in half
  • 4 teaspoons paprika — or a combination of 2 tsp sweet/2 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1 tablespoon cumin
  • 2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon or more urfa biber
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/2 of a preserved lemon, cut into small dice
  • Olive oil

Urfa biber is ground Turkish pepper, that is incredibly complex. It’s a little spicy, a little smoky, almost raisin-y/licorice-y/vanilla-y. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, even here in central PA it’s not terribly hard to get your hands on, but if you don’t have any, toss in a little additional black pepper and maybe some healthy pinches of red pepper flakes/smoked paprika/ground fennel, if you’re feeling creative. It still won’t be quite the same, but you know. Close enough.

As for preserved lemons, what can I say? Buy some. They’ll last forever in your fridge. If you’ve got a few weeks you can make them; they’re apparently not hard to make, but they need time to sit. (FUTURE PROJECT! Stay tuned; I’ll let you know how it goes.) Apparently, if you absolutely don’t have access to preserved lemons you can peel them and saute the rind (pith and all) in some oil with salt and a touch of sugar, which will mellow the lemony bite, but the salty briny bite of preserved lemon is pretty distinct and difficult to approximate. Seriously. Buy some.

Put a nice big pot of water on the stove to boil, big enough to boil an entire head of cauliflower in. You’ll add salt to the water for the cauliflower, but let it come to a boil first. Take your tomatoes in hand. Put little X’s in the bottoms of the tomatoes and, when the unsalted water comes to a boil, dunk the tomatoes in the boiling water for 30 seconds or so to loosen their skins and make them easier to peel.

Just peel along the X.

Just peel along the X. I was making a double-batch of zaalouk al qarnabit, which is why I have a ton of tomatoes in this photo.

Set them aside to cool, so they’re ready to peel, seed, and chop later. Using the same pot of water, add salt, and keep it hot for cauliflower.

One of the nice things about this dish–besides its being delicious and relatively easy to make–is that it uses nearly every part of the cauliflower. Leaves, stem, florets, everything can go in except for any gnarly bits you may trim off, so there’s virtually no waste. I found the cauliflower trimming to be the most taxing part of this zaalouk process, so take care of that first. Cut stems and florets into chunks that are roughly the same size. You want them to be a comparable consistency when you mash them, but don’t make yourself crazy. Keep leaves, stems, and florets in distinct piles.

Really. This was the hardest part.

Really. This was the hardest part.

Put the sturdy stems of the cauliflower into the boiling water first and let them soften for two or three minutes before adding the florets; they’re tougher and need a little more time in the water. Next, add the florets and let them boil until everything is nice and soft to the tooth, another 7 or 8 minutes.

Meanwhile, peel, seed, and chop the tomatoes, and chop as much garlic as you think you can stand.

Vampire-free food, right here.

Vampire-free food, right here.

When the cauliflower is soft, reserve about a half a cup of the salted water, then drain off the water. Let the cauliflower sit in the sink to drain as much as possible. Get some olive oil going in a roomy pan and add the tomatoes and garlic. Since these tomatoes are off-season and not terribly…tomato-y…I added a healthy teaspoon of tomato paste to the pan, so this food had a really solid flavor base to build on. Once the tomatoes start to break down and convert into a sauce, add the pepper and/or urfa biber, paprika(s), and cumin. Don’t add any salt yet; see if you want or need it at the end. The cauliflower is salted, and preserved lemons are really salty, so you might not need any more. Wait and see.

Cook the tomatoes and spices all together, until they’re heady and fragrant and brown and the pan looks almost dry.

Rich, brown, delicious flavors happening here.

Rich, brown, delicious flavors happening here.

While this is cooking, chop half the parsley, the preserved lemon (I picked out the seeds and used all the rest of it) and the cauliflower leaves. Chop the preserved lemons very small! They’re quite powerful. You don’t want to blast someone with a large chunk of lemon. Toss in some of that reserved cauliflower water in the bottom of the pan, just enough to make it easy to pull up the browned and luscious bits from the bottom, and give the parsley, etc., something to hang out in.

Yep. Just like that.

Yep. Just like that.

Give them a few minutes to cook together, then add the drained cauliflower and mash. And mash. And mash. Keep the heat on low, as you’re trying to cook out any remaining water. Who wants a watery dip that oozes all over everyone? Not this girl. You could probably throw everything into a food processor, but 1) the cauliflower is super-soft, so if this takes you any longer than five minutes to mash, something isn’t right, 2) you’d lose the benefit of cooking out the excess water and 3) it’s supposed to be a little textured, rather than smooth and pasty. When the cauliflower is fully integrated with the tomato/spice mixture, and it’s the consistency you want, and it’s not watery, you’re ready. Now give it a taste, and add salt if you think it’s necessary.

You can make this a day ahead of time, if necessary. Overnight in the fridge won’t hurt it at all. In fact, the flavors get to mingle that way. I liked it even more once it sat for a night.

Chop the remainder of the fresh parsley, and garnish. Sprinkle some additional paprika on top if you’re so inspired. You can also garnish with slivers of olives, or some more preserved lemon peel. Serve with crostini, or pita, or crackers. And feast.

Snack time!

Snack time!

Delicious. Vegan. Healthy. Gorgeous. Interesting. And you can pretty much rest assured that if you bring zaalouk al qarnabit to a party, you won’t have anyone else’s version of this dish to compete with. Dazzle your friends! And–more importantly–dazzle yourself. Enjoy!

Nosh: Potato Tatin

Lest I run the risk of sounding like I am a corporate shill for a publishing house or for a high-end celebrity chef, I’m only going to say this once: if you want to find new ways to fall in love with vegetables, buy anything ever written by Yotam Ottolenghi. He’s not a vegetarian but he cooks veggies like a superstar, and should I ever find myself in front of him I would fall to the ground and kiss the hem of his robe. Chef’s apron (so long as it was the beginning of his shift). Whatever. He is that good.

This recipe is taken from his book Plentywhich is easily one of the best cookbooks I’ve ever bought and is sort of a gateway drug. After buying it (family, please do take note), his other books have ended up on my Amazon wish list and you all know how I feel about the items on my Amazon wish list: Shop early, shop often. All contributions to my cookery appreciated.

So. Here is a beautiful potato tatin recipe, adapted from Plenty. Ottolenghi calls it a “surprise” tatin, I suppose because tatins are usually desserty and sweet, and this one’s surprise is its savory goodness. Nevertheless, it works. I’ve made this for us, and for guests, and it hasn’t disappointed yet. Be forewarned: this tatin does take a while, but it’s all easy work–the hardest part comes right at the end. It’s a great recipe for kitchen puttering on those long, slow Sundays. You’ll need:

  • 1 pint grape tomatoes
  • 1 1/2 lb unpeeled potatoes, cut in 1-inch cubes
  • 1 medium-to-large onion, thinly sliced
  • 3 tbsp sugar
  • 2 tsp butter
  • oregano sprigs/thyme sprigs/rosemary, all to taste and to flavor preference
  • 1 4-oz package of goat cheese, sliced
  • 1 puff pastry sheet, thawed
  • salt/pepper/olive oil, as necessary

Preheat your oven to 275°. Take a sheet of puff pastry out of the freezer and put it in the fridge to thaw. Wash the pint of grape tomatoes and cut them all in half. The tomatoes are going into the oven to slow-roast for 45 minutes, so toss them with some oil, salt and pepper, and arrange them on a baking sheet. Face down, face up, it doesn’t matter, since you need to stir everything about half-way through the roasting time and really, we needn’t be so fussy. Put them in, let the oven do the work for you. You can, if you’re pressed for time, use store-bought sundried tomatoes, but, two things: 1) If you’re pressed for time, don’t make this recipe and 2) When you can work with this…

Who needs the sun when you've got steady, dry oven heat?

Who needs the sun to dry tomatoes when you’ve got steady, dry oven heat?

…why settle for anything less?  Side note: should you discover, when you assemble the tatin, that you have more tomatoes than you want or need, then the worst thing that happens is you have leftover slow-roasted tomatoes. You’ll thank me when you eat them in your salad tomorrow.

Moving on.

While the tomatoes roast, prepare your potatoes and onions. Give the potatoes a good scrub, then cut them and put them in a pot of water so you can boil them. You do want them to be roughly uniform one-inch cubes (but don’t make yourself crazy when some chunks aren’t exactly an inch; it will be fine), and yes, cook them thoroughly, but not to the point of mushiness. Drain them and set aside. Slice the onion in thin slices and toss in a big saute pan with some oil and let them get beautifully soft and golden, stirring as necessary so they don’t stick and overly brown. Set aside.

As far as the timing of this recipe goes, it’s very important that all your ingredients are fully prepped before you move on to the next step. You can park this recipe here for several hours or overnight, if you’re not planning to move forward. If you are, then make sure your potatoes are boiled and drained, the tomatoes are roasted, the onions are golden. If you’re using fresh herbs, make sure they’re washed and dried. If you’re using dried herbs, have them at the ready. Because next you’ll be making the caramel, and it will not wait for you.

Take a 9-inch cake pan and brush the sides and bottom with oil, then cut a piece of baker’s parchment to fit the cake pan. Brush the top of the parchment with oil, too.

Seriously. Have this ready.

Seriously. Have this ready.

Take a small pan and add in the butter and sugar. Let both things start to soften in the heat.

I swear, I did NOT arrange my pan this way.

I swear, I did NOT arrange my pan this way.

And then stir stir stir and keep stirring until you get a beautiful, rich brown caramel, which we will NOT stick our fingers in and taste because we never mess with hot sugar and we want to avoid second-degree burns as much as possible.

Look! But no touch.

Look! But no touch.

Then pour this into your prepared cake pan. Get it to smooth out as evenly as possible, but bear in mind that it won’t be smooth because the caramel will start to seize as soon as it leaves the heat.

Smooth! Meh. We do what we can.

Smooth! Meh. We do what we can.

Top with herbs, then start to arrange potatoes so they sit, relatively neatly, in a tight but not necessarily super-tight formation

Fairly even sizes. See why?

Fairly even sizes. See why?

Then layer with the gorgeous roasted tomatoes, kind of sticking them in the crevasses between potatoes.

Like so!

Like so!

And then layer with onions, doing much the same thing.

Laying things out and then jamming them into corners is *kind of* like how I clean.

Laying things out and then jamming them into corners is *kind of* like how I clean. Only this yields happier results.

Add on the layer of goat cheese and then top everything with the puff pastry, rolling it long enough so it’s an even thickness that you can trim and tuck into the sides of the pan.

Nothing that a good pair of kitchen shears can't fix.

If it’s slightly long, that’s nothing that a good pair of kitchen shears can’t fix.

A word about puff pastry: to dock, or not to dock? It’s a good question. If you dock it (i.e., poke the dough a bunch of times with a fork so the steam that makes the pastry rise escapes instead), it won’t puff as dramatically, but will still be delicious. If you don’t dock it, you’ll get a super-puffy crust that can be intimidating when you have to finish the tatin. It’s up to you. I’ve made it both ways, and they’re equally beneficial…though docked dough is probably easier, in the end, to work with. It’s your call.

Once the dough is placed and tucked, you can once again park this recipe in the fridge overnight; just take it out about an hour before you’re ready to cook it, so it can warm up to room temperature before it goes in the oven. If you’re ready to finish the tatin, then raise the oven temp to 400° and put it in the oven for 25 minutes. After 25 minutes, rotate it in the oven (if yours cooks unevenly, like mine does), then drop the temp to 350° and let it bake for another 10 minutes. The puff pastry should be beautifully golden and (if undocked) quite puffy.

Behold, le pouf!

Behold, le pouf!

Let this settle for a few minutes, then (this is the hardest part) place a large serving plate over the top of the crust and flip the whole thing, inverting the tatin onto the serving place like it’s a great big savory upside-down cake. Pie. Tatin.

Which is really what it is.

Et voila!

Et voila!

We had friends over for dinner, and served this with parmesan roasted acorn squash, a fattoush salad and chocolate panna cotta with pepita brittle (recipe coming soon). For real. It was almost too good.

So you see, nothing in this recipe is hard, though it does take time. The hardest part is the inversion to the serving plate at the end. Work out with some wrist weights if that makes you anxious. Otherwise…enjoy!

Nosh: Braised Eggplant with Mushrooms

Ahh, the cooler weather is settling in (unless you live south of the Equator; in that case, happy Spring!) and–I know, people don’t get this, there’s such a cult of summer, but whatever–I am glad to see the heat gone.  I admit that flip flops are my favorite form of footwear, but I’ll happily trade them for tights and cute shoes and the likelihood that I won’t break out in a sweat when I get up from the couch to get a glass of water.

Anyway.

Cooler weather means a return to using the oven on a regular basis, and the oven is one of my favorite ways to cook.  You get your food going, and then?  You walk away and let heat do the work for you.  Amen.

I already had an eggplant in my fridge, thanks to my mom unloading the contents of her home on us at the end of a visit (“Here, take these eggplant.  And some lettuce.  These onions. This stepstool.  Some recycled newspapers.  And the neighbor’s new dog, I really don’t like the yappy little thing.”…and I digress…Love you, Mom!).  We had two eggplants at one point, but the first had already been used for parmesan and two large eggplantses parmed up for two people?  More than we needed, really.  So.

I am here to sing the praise of the braise.

Braising, basically, means “browning your food and then letting it cook for a while, and it’s best if it’s a steady, constant heat”.  I grew up eating pot roast; it’s the same principle here, only applied to eggplant and mushrooms.  Here’s what you need:

  • 1 medium-to-large eggplant
  • 1 medium-to-large onion
  • 6-7 white button mushrooms (or cremini, if you prefer), coarsely chopped in big chunks
  • Approximately one ton of garlic, minced, or a tonne to my UK/Canadian/Aussie friends (honestly, I think I ended up using like 8 cloves)
  • 4-5 stalks of Swiss chard, stems chopped, leaves sliced (totally, entirely optional; I had these on hand and wanted to use them and only mention chard because it’s in the pictures)
  • 1 large heirloom or 2 Roma tomatoes, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped
  • 2 large handsful (3 tablespoons, if you’re a measurer) pine nuts
  • 1/4 cup raisins/golden raisins/currants/any combination thereof
  • 1 teaspoon sumac (we’ll talk about this in a minute)
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 1/2 cup vegetable broth or water
  • 2-3 Bay leaves
  • Salt & Pepper to taste (go heavy on the pepper)
  • Chopped parsley to garnish
Chop everything first so it's all ready to go.

Chop everything first so it’s all ready to go.

Preheat the oven to 350°.

FIRST, I must disclose: my boyfriend is a fastidious eggplant salter.  I don’t care about it at all and think it wastes time and paper towels.  If you must salt your eggplant and press it, by all means do it first, do it now, so you have time to let it sit for 20-30 minutes before you rinse it, dry it and saute it.  Otherwise, just chop it into a nice dice and set it off to the side.

You need a large pot or Dutch oven, something that can go from stovetop to oven.  On the stovetop, start heating up said large pot since you’re going to brown everything first over a medium heat.  Once it’s hot add some olive oil and then toss in your coarsely chopped mushrooms.  Grind some pepper onto them but don’t add salt, since that will leach the water out of them before you want that to happen.  Leave them alone in the bottom of the pan for a few minutes–don’t stir them, don’t touch them…don’t even look at them–and they’ll get all nice and caramelly brown.  Only after that can you give them a stir and then remove them from the pot into a bowl you have waiting to serve as a landing pad.

In the same pot, add more oil if necessary and your onions.  Give them a few minutes to cook and then add the garlic, chard stems (those red things, upper right, in the picture above) and pine nuts.

"Two large handsful" is accurate enough, people.

“Two large handsful” is accurate enough, people.

Let these cook together for five or seven minutes or so, until the onions get soft and translucent and your ridiculous amount of garlic gets beautifully fragrant.  And then?  Into the same bowl with the mushrooms, so they can hang out together and start to let their flavors mingle while you get busy with the eggplant.

There's a party in my kitchen!

There’s a party in my kitchen!  Woot!

Now.  Eggplant.  Your lovely diced eggplant needs to be rinsed and dried if you salted it, or…picked up and tossed into some hot oil if you didn’t.  However you prepped your eggplant, add more oil to your pot if you need it, get it nice and hot and toss the eggplant in.  Let the eggplant start to saute for a few minutes before moving on to the next step, but once it starts to sort-of stick it’s time to move on.

And moving on means adding spices.  Assemble your (clockwise from the top) sugar, cumin, sumac, cayenne and cinnamon.

Mmmm, here's where things start to get awesome.

Mmmm, here’s where things start to get awesome.

A word about sumac, which isn’t common in American pantries: it’s delicious, you should get some.  It adds a particular tart tanginess to your food and there isn’t really a good substitute for it.  But.  If you can’t find it/don’t want to buy it, then add a tablespoon of lemon juice to your dish instead.  It won’t match the flavor but will bring in the tartness.  Only don’t add lemon juice until just before you’re ready to eat, as prolonged exposure to heat can turn lemon juice bitter.

Toss your spices in.  Add in some salt and pepper.  Right on top of the eggplant.  And let them simmer together until the spices get kind of dry and everything starts to stick to the bottom of the pan, which shouldn’t take more than a minute or so.  Deglaze with the peeled and chopped tomatoes (the acid in the tomatoes will start to pull up the brown bits on the pan right away) and the quarter-cup of vinegar. Give that a minute or so to cook together, and add the raisins or currants and the chopped Swiss chard leaves.  Stir it all together then add the mushrooms and onions back into the mix with the vegetable stock and bay leaves.

You say stew, I say braise. Whatever, so long as it's dinner.

You say stew, I say braise. Whatever, so long as it’s dinner.

Put this in your nicely preheated oven and leave it alone for the next 30-45 minutes.  Enjoy the smells, because they will be extraordinary.  At the end of its time in the oven everything should be soft and delicious and thoroughly cooked in a rich, fragrant, spicy sauce (you won’t have much sauce, but you will have some).  Taste, as always, to adjust your seasonings.  Garnish with chopped parsley and enjoy the heck out of your dinner!  It makes for some amazing leftovers, too.

I can almost smell it anew.

I can almost smell it anew.

We served it with roasted potatoes with rosemary and roasted kale (which I have to walk away from if it’s on the table as I will eat every last morsel of it in one sitting), since we had the oven on so why not?  Ohhh, so good.  This will go into my make again and again file.

I hope you enjoy!  I know I did.

Nosh: Tortellini Soup

You know when you go away from your regular routine…say, you go on vacation, perhaps, to Myrtle Beach for a week.  And you completely fall out of sync with your own routine because you’re on vacation so who wants to be practical…so sure I’ll have the nachos and beer for lunch and burgers and fries for dinner every night!  Woo hoo!  The laws of food do not affect me!  I am impervious to the effects of excess!

Let me just say: It seems?  That I am, indeed, pervious.

When George and I get home from almost anywhere that generates a change in our habits and creates an opportunity for excess–a vacation, a long weekend out of town, an overnighter at a wedding, whatever–we generally come back craving something that will be a) filling and satisfying and b) crammed with non-fried vegetables.  Tortellini soup has become our go-to dish to get us back on the track of our regular, generally healthy eating habits.

This soup is wonderfully flexible and can be a device for using those sad-looking bits of vegetables that have started to wilt in your fridge after you’ve been away for a few days (as all soups can be) though I confess I am in love with the version I bring to you today.  So yes, you can (of course!) put in whatever you’d like but I recommend sticking to this version if you’re so inclined.  Here’s what you need:

  • 1 or 2 glugs of olive oil in the bottom of your soup pot
  • 3 white mushrooms, cut in a small dice
  • 1 sweet onion, diced
  • 2-3 medium carrots, sliced
  • 3 (or more!) cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1/2 zucchini, cut in half-moons
  • a few large handfuls (sorry, that’s the best measurement I’ve got) of kale (or spinach or whatever leafy greens you prefer)
  • 1 – 9oz. package fresh tortellini (hahahaha, no I don’t make my own)
  • 1 – 35oz. can whole tomatoes (when tomatoes aren’t in season and are mealy, or you want to make this as easy as possible, do yourself a tremendous favor and use canned)
  • 4 cups vegetable broth (or chicken broth, if you’re not keeping it vegetarian), plus additional water to reach desired consistency
  • 3-4 bay leaves
  • 1 healthy teaspoon fennel seeds
  • 1 healthy teaspoon rosemary
  • red chili flakes to taste
  • a goodly pinch of nutmeg (freshly grated if you’ve got it)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • extra-virgin olive oil and shredded parmesan, for garnish (optional)

Get your soup pot heating and when it’s warm, add olive oil to said pot.  Dice mushrooms into about a half-inch dice, throw them in the hot oil and grind in a little fresh pepper.  Leave them alone for the next five minutes.  DO NOT TOUCH THEM.  Your objective is to get them caramelized, and if you stir them around they’ll just steam and won’t brown.

Get those 'shrooms going in the bottom of your pot.

I repeat: DON’T TOUCH THEM!

While they’re cooking, chop the onions, garlic and carrots.  You’re going to want the onions and carrots to roughly match the size of the mushrooms as they meld into one delicious flavor base for your soup.  Mince the garlic, of course, because who wants to bite into a half-inch dice of garlic?  Not me, unless I’m prepared for it.  Anyway.

There we go.

There we go.

Once the mushrooms have browned unmolested in your soup pot, start adding your veggies.  Add the onions first and let them saute for 3-5 minutes, until they soften and start to turn golden. Then add the carrots and garlic. Let them cook together for another 2-3 minutes.  While the veggies are all cooking together you can measure out your herbs. I tossed the dried fennel and rosemary in a mortar and pestle and crushed them lightly to help release their flavors, but you don’t have to if you don’t want to.  The herbs just won’t taste quite as strong.

I put the bay leaves in the mortar and pestle for ease of photography. Don't crush them.

I put the bay leaves in the mortar and pestle for ease of photography. Don’t crush them.

Once the mushrooms, carrots, onions and garlic have cooked together for a few minutes, add the herbs (and the crushed red pepper to taste, if you’re using it), a decent pinch of salt and a few shakes of pepper.  Let them saute for another few minutes; by this point the bottom of the pot should be developing a nice fond, which is the brown residue from the veggies (fond is a French term, it means “foundation”, get it?)

While your veggies and fond are cooking, manhandle your tomatoes. I mean, really, get ready to stick your mitts into them.  Crush them to bits. Yes, you could buy pre-crushed tomatoes but I just…the more other people process your food for you, the less it tastes like the thing it is.  So you get your hands dirty, so what?

Your hands: the best tomato crushing tools on the planet.

Your hands: the best tomato crushing tools on the planet.

I mean, I’m not suggesting you stick your (impeccably clean, to start this job) hands in a bucket of acid.  They’re just tomatoes.  You’ll recover.

Once they’re smooshed (which should really take you no more than a minute or two) check your veggies, and make sure you look at how brown it’s getting on the bottom of the pan.  I ended up taking this fond exactly as far as it would go before it started to burn, which is great but can make a person a little nervous.

Fifteen seconds longer and it would have started to burn.

Fifteen seconds longer and it would have started to burn.

If you don’t want to let it get quite this brown, I totally understand.  But.  Once the fond is the color you want, add your beautifully crushed tomatoes and start to scrape up the fond from the bottom of the pot, because it is jam-packed with deliciousness.  Let that all simmer together for a minute, then add the stock and water to get it to a soupy consistency.  You can add a little more water than you originally might think you need.  The soup is going to cook down and you’re also going to cook the tortellini right in the pot, so an extra shot of water in preparation isn’t a bad thing.

Looking more like soup all the time.

Looking more like soup all the time.

Bring this to a boil and then let it simmer for twenty minutes or so. If you’ve just gotten in from a long trip, this is a great time to empty out a suitcase or put away toiletries or log into Facebook to see what’s going on.  Slice your half-a-zucchini into half-moons.

These?  Don't dice. Half-moons are funner.

These? Don’t dice. Half-moons are funner.

Toss ’em in the pot.  Let them go for another fifteen minutes or so.  Open your package of tortellini and chop your kale into manageable bites.

When you've got this ready, dinner is mere minutes away.

When you’ve got this ready, dinner is mere minutes away.

You want the zucchini to soften but you don’t want it to cook into an unrecognizable mush, so really only let that go for 10 minutes before you add the tortellini.  The pasta will cook quickly; it only takes about three minutes for it to go from this

Scrawny raw tortellini.

Scrawny raw tortellini.

To this

Mmmm! Nice plump pillows of cheesy pasta.

Mmmm! Nice plump pillows of cheesy pasta.

Once your pasta reaches this stage, add the greens, which will wilt within moments of being in the hot soup.  Add the pinch of nutmeg, or give it a few passes with a nutmeg grater, if that’s what you use.

Of course I use a nutmeg grater.

Of course I use a nutmeg grater.

Because it is true: nutmeg + bitter greens = true love.

Once your greens are fully wilted, it’s SOUP TIME!

This soup has become our go-to, full-on comfort, I am home and cooking how I want to and done eating nachos for a while-type soup.  You can go from unprocessed to done in about an hour, and much of that is unattended, so you’re not tied to your stove and can take care of the business of coming home from a trip while your dinner cooks.  And maybe detox with a little herbal tea (I recommend the hibiscus).  Serve this with a nice grainy piece of bread and a green salad and you’ve got a hearty, savory, satisfying way to get yourself back into the healthy groove.

And if you have a great back porch to eat this on on a summer night?  Bliss.

And if you have a great back porch to eat this on on a summer night? Bliss.

This is a recipe I intend to make for the rest of my cookin’ life.  I hope you enjoy it!

Nosh: Homemade Orecchiette with Broccoli Rabe Sauce

Just writing the words “orecchiette with broccoli rabe sauce” makes me happy.  I’m kind of a simple creature, really.  That’s all I need.  Well, that and having a plate of the actual food in front of me, because I am a hungry girl with a love for the delicious.

This brings me to orecchiette, which I love for many reasons.  Let me count the ways.  First, I love it for its name, which means “little ears” in Italian.  They are round, disc-like things that have depressions in the middle, kind of like ears do.  Adorbs!  Next, I love them because they are dense.  You don’t need to completely load them down with cheeses and fats to give orecchiette some heft because they’re made with semolina.  That’s a serious, no-nonsense flour, so they’re hearty and kind of chewy and you really know you’re digging in and eating something.  Finally, I love orecchiette because people are seemingly compelled to pair it with broccoli rabe, and I am down with anything that puts rapini in my trough.  And yes, broccoli rabe = rapini = these words are interchangeable.  I didn’t necessarily know that at first, and I’m still trying to figure out where broccolini fits into the broccoli family, but I digress.

Unfortunately, I’ve yet to see a store in Lewisburg and its environs that sells orecchiette, so my feasting upon it has largely been confined to restaurants and/or bags brought back from forays into shops in nearby metro areas.  But who needs that?  I have thumbs, I can cook.  I’ll make my own!  Do note, please: if you’re interested in making a pasta with broccoli rabe sauce but have no interest in making orecchiette, I understand.  Skip this part, scroll down to where I talk about the super-easy sauce which comes together in about twenty minutes, and feel free to use a store-bought pasta.  Just make sure you choose something hearty, like whole-wheat rotini.  If you are interested in making the orecchiette as well, then read on!

First, mix your dry ingredients.  Orecchiette seems to favor a 2:1 ratio for its flour.  I used a cup of semolina flour and subsequently, I used a half-cup of AP flour.  Mix the flours together with some salt (for this recipe, no more than a quarter-teaspoon) and have a half-cup of warm-ish water handy, though you may not use all of it.  Also, keep a baking tray dusted with semolina flour nearby to serve as a landing pad for your shaped pasta.

Ready to roll.

Ready to roll.

Put in about half the water and start kneading, and add more water in small increments until you get a ball of dough that is cohesive and elastic.  You can put it in a stand mixer if you have one with a good dough hook, but I don’t.  I just did it by hand.  It only took about five minutes of work to get it from a gnarly pile of mess…

Trust me, it gets better.

Trust me, it gets better.  Though I really want to put googly eyes on this.

To beautiful elastic ball of dough.

OMG, I can't hardly believe it.

OMG, I can’t hardly believe it.

When researching orecchiette, I read a bunch of food blogs offering conflicting advice about how to proceed.  Let it rest, don’t let it rest.  Wrap it in plastic, don’t wrap it.  There doesn’t seem to be a consensus on what to do, but here’s the thing: it’s never really a bad idea to let your dough rest, though it doesn’t seem that it would be criminal if you didn’t rest it.  I wanted to tend to some onions I had cooking on the stove so I took the opportunity to let it rest, and covered it with the bowl I originally measured out the flour in so my dough didn’t dry out in the open air.  If you need to park your dough for a little while, this is a perfect time to do so though if you’re going to let sit for more than a half an hour I’d at least lay down some plastic under it.  When you’re ready, cut your dough into eight pieces and roll those eight pieces out into doughy dowels about 18 inches long.  Ish.

That moment of perfect potential, when things can go great or really, really poorly.

That perfect moment of total potential, when things can go great or really, really poorly.

Cut them into pieces about an inch long and then?  Squish them into shape.  Again, in my research I read blogs that advised wrapping your dough around a spoon, or allowing the friction from the back of a dull knife to cause the pasta to curl, but then I thought, if I were some traditional Puglian nonna trying to make dinner, would I worry about ever-so-carefully fussing with the back of a knife?  Or would I use the most basic tools available to me and have at them with my thumbs?

Thumbs won.  I stuck my thumb in the middle of one piece of dough and shaped it with the other hand.  Voila, little indented pastas.  And they’re supposed to be rustic, so if they don’t look perfect, that’s fine.

Orecchiette!

Orecchiette!

Again, there are different schools of thought regarding what to do with your pasta now.  I’ve seen sites that advise you to let the shaped pasta sit at least one hour before cooking, I’ve seen sites that say you can use it right away.  I let mine sit–in the open, uncovered, just as you see it here–for the twenty minutes or so that it took me to prepare the sauce, and they didn’t dry out much and cooked super-super fast once I got them in boiling water.  So.  Once they’re at this point you can walk away and take care of other business.

For us, that other business is sauce.  This is pretty straightforward, and adapted from Mario Batali.  First, cut onions and garlic.  I used a TON of garlic because (regular readers, you know this) I am a junkie for garlic and am even more so when it comes to bitter greens, but of course you don’t have to use five cloves of garlic if you think that’s excessive.  This would also be a good time to get your pasta water started, so it’s boiling and ready by the time you want it.  If you’re using dried pasta, start the water before you cut a single bit of onion since you need to let the water boil and then let the pasta cook for eight or ten minutes before it’s ready to use.

What?  No, it's good for you!

What? No, garlic is good for you!

Let the onions and garlic saute in a very large pan at a medium heat with a dose of crushed red pepper to taste (I like the spicy) for five or six minutes, until they’re nice and soft and taking on that beautiful oniony-golden hue.  Add in your broccoli rabe, which has been rinsed, had the tough bottom ends of the stems removed, and roughly chopped.

So. Close. To done.

So. Close. To done.

Once that’s in the pan, grate a little fresh nutmeg over it (yes, really, it just makes it warm and homey) and toss in some salt and pepper.  This should saute for about five minutes before you add the tomatoes.

Come on, it even LOOKS festive.

Come on, it even LOOKS festive.

p.s. Is your water boiling yet?

Allow the tomatoes to cook in with the rapini for two or three minutes and put your fresh orecchiette in to boil.  Give it a stir and then watch it; within a minute or so it should start to float and when that happens, it’s ready to drain.  Reserve a ladle full of pasta water and drain your noodles.  Check the sauce.  If it seems kind of watery and needs to tighten up, add in some of your ladle of starchy pasta water, give it a stir, and then add your drained noodles to your pan.  Let them cook together for a minute or two.  Check for seasonings and adjust salt and pepper–I hit mine with a pretty sizeable amount of fresh-ground black pepper.  Make a chiffonade from ten or so fresh mint leaves, stir this in and remove from heat.  Give it a little kiss from some pecorino-romano and serve.  We ate ours with Parmesan-roasted acorn squash and bread with Fiery Onion Relish.

Fact: I can't wait to eat the leftovers, either.

Score!

Fact: I can’t wait to eat the leftovers, either.

Nosh: Squash and Black Bean Chili

I just had my first delivery from my winter CSA.  I enjoy a good cold-weather crop; all those root veggies and dark greens and winter squashes are among my favorites, though it is true that since I became an adult I haven’t met a vegetable I didn’t like.

With one exception.  I’m looking at you, jicama.

Among the pickin’s was a nice big butternut squash.  If you’ve heard that my general approach is, “If it’s a gourd, I want to eat it”, then let me assure you the stories are true.  It was like angels packed my CSA box, because not even a full day before–less than 24 measly hours–I came across this recipe for pumpkin-black bean chili.

Wait, hold on a second…the recipe says “pumpkin”, but I’m talking about using butternut squash like they’re interchangeable.  What gives?

Here’s the deal: for the most part, they are.  Entirely.  Squash and pumpkin are all part of the same family; in much of the world they call all the variants (butternut, acorn, kabocha, etc) “pumpkin” and reserve the term “squash” for thin-skinned varieties like the pattypan.  Since the flesh of the (American term) pumpkin–and I mean the pie pumpkin, not the jack-o-lantern pumpkin, which is generally bred for its shell and not its meat–and the butternut squash are nearly identical in flavor, texture, useability in recipes and cooking characteristics, they are about as interchangeable as two different food stuffs can be.  So pumpkin and butternut squash = same, and that means I am ready to tear into my recipe, right?  Right?

Now what?

Getting into the squash itself is easily the biggest obstacle between you and dinner, but it can seem daunting.  The skin of a butternut squash is thick and hard, and impervious to things like vegetable peelers, small knives, and in all likelihood flamethrowers, but it can be overcome!  Don’t let it dissuade you from getting at the delicious meat just on the other side of the skin.  There are a couple of different ways to get at it, and equally valid depending on what you want your end product to look like.  Since the recipe calls for a puree, I’m going to roast one half whole and scoop it out of the skin; the other half, I’m going to peel before cooking and dice so I can roast the squares.  Step one: cut the squash in half lengthwise, and using my favorite, most underappreciated kitchen tool, scoop out the seeds with that unglamorous multi-tasker, the teaspoon.

Cut in half lengthwise, dig out the seeds.

Then coat one of the halves with a little olive oil, salt and pepper, put it cut side down on a baking sheet and into a waiting, pre-heated 350° oven.  You don’t have to peel it…you don’t have to oil up the skin side, either, but you can and should leave the skin on this one.  Forget about it for the next half an hour.

Dicing and roasting the other half of the squash is a little more complicated at first.  It does have to be peeled.  Cut the straight neck away from the bulb, stand the neck on end and slice down, keeping as close to the skin as possible.  For the bulb, I find that it’s easier and less dangerous to cut the bulb into slices along which you can guide your knife blade.  With patience and practice you’ll be able to dispatch the skin within a matter of a few minutes (though I’m not gonna lie; the first time I cut a butternut squash I think it took me like twenty minutes and I’m pretty sure I was crying by the end. It’s a good thing it’s so delicious or else I might never have gone back and tried, tried again).

Once it’s peeled, chop the squash into whatever size squares you feel is appropriate for your needs (I like them on the smallish side) and toss it in a pan with some olive oil, salt, pepper and thyme.  Or whatever flavors you prefer.  Cumin.  Coriander.  Oregano.  Cayenne.  They all work, so let your imagination roam free.  It’s your kitchen.

To the oven with ye!

I roasted the unchopped half for about an hour (flipping once midway through) and the chunks probably forty minutes or so (stirring after twenty minutes).  The unchopped half is done when you can sink a knife into the thickest part of the neck and it meets with no resistance.  Let it get cool enough to handle and then take your beloved teaspoon and scoop that flesh straight out.  It’s so soft, it won’t be a problem.

Now that’s soft.

And then mash it with the back of your spoon, or a fork, or a masher-type thing if you must use specialized equipment.  You could throw it in the food processor, but really, why?  Anyway.  You’ll have something that looks like this:

Mmmmm, mashed butternut squash. Now set it aside for later.

Move on to the rest of your chili.

The fun thing about chili is that it’s always hearty and filling, even if it’s meatless.  It can come together quickly, once you get the ingredients assembled.  And it really is open to whatever ingredients you have around the house, though I know the hardcore Texas all-meat, no beans people would probably come for me with pitchforks and torches if they heard me say that.

I have profound love for the Texas chili.  If I got boneless beef chuck in my CSA box I would make some, but that’s not the case so all-meat chili people…lighten up.  It’s not personal.

Assemble your first round of ingredients.

Stage One ready to go in five…four…three…two…

I know you were all waiting for this, right?  Here’s what I did differently:

The recipe does not call for hot peppers; however, I fully intended to add some in there, because I like spicy food.  But we didn’t have any, so I also added a ground chipotle powder, which gave it a nice starter kick and added to the overall smokiness of the dish, which I thought was necessary to add in since I didn’t have fire-roasted tomatoes, as the recipe calls for.  When I realized I wanted more heat, I went for the spicy mainline and added a shot of sriracha.  Perfect!  I added cinnamon, because for me it’s not chili unless I toss a little cinnamon in there.  Not much, no more than a quarter teaspoon (unless you’re a junkie).  It’s just enough to cause that warm, savory cinnamon goodness to linger in the background.  If you think it sounds crazy you don’t have to add it, but I don’t make chili without it anymore.  And it only calls for eight ounces of beer, but that would mean that four ounces would be left over in the bottle.  It was the middle of the day, I still had Zumba to go to, it didn’t make sense that I would have leftover beer and not drink it, but it made less sense to have a pre-workout beer.  The entire bottle went in the chili.  You need to let that simmer for a little bit longer than the directions say, to burn off the additional alcohol, but your nose knows when it’s ready for the next step.  When the smell coming from the pot is one of savory harmony instead of hot beer, it’s ready for your next round of ingredients.

Rinsed black beans, crushed tomatoes, mashed squash, and corn. Seems like the start of a party.

And then these?  In.  I put the tomatoes in first and let them hang out in the beer and onion mixture that was in the pot already, just to let the liquids mingle and create a symphonic welcome for the beans and the rest of the veggies.  Once it’s cooked together for a few minutes, put in the rest of the goodies, taste and season.  Tinker, if necessary, since your taste is different than mine.  Depending on what kind of beer you use, you might want to add a little honey or sugar to balance the tartness.  You may want more sage, or more smoked paprika.  Mine was a little thicker than I wanted it to start, so I added some vegetable broth.  Bring it to a boil, and then simmer it for 45 minutes, stirring fairly regularly.

I’d show you a picture of it cooking but frankly, chili in process is an un-lovely thing to photograph.  It looked like a bad science experiment.

I made mine a little early in the day and let it sit while I went to Zumba, and I do recommend giving the flavors that extra time to mingle in the pot.  (Note: that post-chili-making downtime is also beneficial in getting your boyfriend to make cornbread.  But I digress.)  The full sweetness of the squash was completely evident, and the hearty earthiness of the beer and sage and browned onions harmonized into a lovely background.  I took some of the roasted chunks of butternut and used that as a topping, so I could enjoy little pockets of pure squashy love in my chili, along with the traditional toppings of cheese and scallions and some chopped pickled jalapenos.

Voila! Dinner, she is served!

The leftover nuggets of squash can be used in a million ways.  You can wrap them with refried beans and chicken into a burrito.  They can get tossed in pasta.  You can reheat them in the microwave–or saute them with some onions, mmmm!–for a side dish.  I had them with my lunch today, topping a pita with salad and hummus and blueberries and feta.

Hands off. This is MY lunch.

This chili would also be a great way to dispense with some Thanksgiving leftovers, as I would imagine it would be fantastic with turkey replacing one of the cans of beans.  Toss some of the carcass in to simmer at the beginning to really add that turkey flavor.  Wow.  Now I know my post-Thanksgiving project.

The recipe as it’s printed does say that you can use canned pumpkin (NOT the pie mix!) and that’s totally viable, especially if you want to make this fairly quickly, as the squash from scratch does take some time.  But if you’re looking to learn about how to take butternut squash from its raw state to cooked, this provides you with two suggestions.  If you’re looking to be in control of your food, understand what you’re eating, and want to ensure that your food is as additive-free as possible, then take the extra time to cook from scratch.  And seriously, those little squash nuggets go with everything.

Enjoy!

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