Nosh: Grilled Fennel with Orange and Parsley

Ahhh, the weather is warming up! Birds are singing, flowers are blooming, and spring is springing itself all over the place. This breezy, glorious weather also beckons us outside, making us think of back yard parties and long candle-lit summer nights with friends, after a feast that you’ve grilled outdoors. With this in mind, I’m offering up grilled fennel with orange and parsley. It’s one of my favorite grilled sides, one that’s easy and quick, and takes almost no skill to execute successfully. 

Ironically, I am not an outdoorsy girl (mosquitos love me) and I grill inside. Eh. Whatever works. (And, bonus! I do this all through the winter.) If you love to grill your food then invest in a grill pan; you won’t regret it. To the grilling purists who are apoplectic at the thought of taking it indoors, I apologize if I hurt your heart. But it won’t change me. Moving on.

I love the savory twist that comes from a fresh fennel plant. Yes, the seeds are pungent and taste of licorice. When fennel is raw the sharp licorice taste remains. Once it starts to cook, the flavor mellows into a sort of caramel-crisp-crunchy, mildly-anise-y flavor bomb that moves into your brain as one of those, “Oh, man, I don’t know when I’ve had this but I know I’ve always liked it!” sort of taste memories. There is much to love about a good bulb of fennel. And you can use all of it, bulb, stem and leaf, so none of it goes to waste. Extra-fun!

When you do cook it, bear in mind that one bulb will produce a tremendous amount of food. I’ve never needed more than one bulb when I cook for two people, and we always have leftovers. If you’re cooking for four, you might need to add in another bulb, but if there’s only two people to feed…here’s what I used:

  • 1 fresh fennel bulb, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 tsp dried rosemary (or other favorite herb)
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper (to taste)
  • 1 Tablespoon orange zest
  • 2 Tablespoons chopped parsley

Put a grill pan on your stovetop and turn the burners on (or heat your grill) so it will be ready and waiting for the fennel. You’ll want it to get kind of hot, so a medium-to-medium-high heat will do nicely.

If any of the outside leaves of the fennel look gnarly or damaged, peel them off and throw them away. Cut fennel stalks and fronds off the bulb and save them for another use (think garnishes, or soup stocks). Cut the fennel bulb in half. You could cut the core out if you’d prefer. I usually cut the core because it’s a little tougher than the rest of the fennel, but if you don’t feel like it, it’s not a big deal. You’ll be cutting thin slices, it will all cook. Cut fennel into nice narrow strips and toss in a mixing bowl. Then add in rosemary, salt, pepper, and oil. Give it a stir.

Isn't it gorgeous?

Isn’t it gorgeous?

Turn fennel on to your waiting, heated grill pan. If you have a single-burner pan (like the one I used here) you may have to cook the fennel in two batches. Like I said, one bulb can provide an enormous amount of food; and you really need to provide food with adequate room to cook in. It’s OK. The fennel is nice and thin, so even if you have to split the batch it won’t take long.

Give it room. Show it love. Or, use a larger grilling surface if you're in a hurry.

Give it room. Show it love. Or, use a larger grilling surface–an outdoor grill, or a double-burner grill pan– if you’re in a hurry.

Leave the fennel strips alone for a few minutes. While they cook you can zest your orange and clean and chop the parsley. Give the fennel a stir on the grill after they’ve been browning for a few minutes. If they’ve been on your grill for five minutes and haven’t started to brown yet, then turn up the heat because your pan isn’t hot enough. Once they’ve gotten that lovely, grill-specific, brown-in-some-places-kind-of-charred-in-others look, and are soft and mellow (yet savory and still pleasantly crunchy), put it back in the mixing bowl. Add in orange zest and parsley.

Really. All there is to it.

Really. All there is to it.

Combine all ingredients. Taste a piece and decide if you need to adjust for more seasonings. More salt? Pepper? Nothing? Something? Ready? FEAST!

We served this with some ravioli and a side salad, but this could go with anything. With burgers. ON burgers. With grilled chicken, or crepes, or as a fruity and refreshing counter to a rich pulled pork. It’s such a simple side with readily-available ingredients, and it’s so easy to make. 

Plus, it looks great. Helloooo, you sexy dish.

Plus, it looks great. Helloooo, you sexy dish.

Don’t let the licorice-y reputation of fennel turn you off. When cooked, fennel offers an entirely different taste experience. Give it a shot! Explore your produce department. You never know what kind of new favorite thing you might encounter along the way.

Enjoy!

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Nosh: Super-Garlicky Mashed Potatoes (Sort-Of Skordalia)

Hi all! I know my food writing hasn’t been happening much. So much of my time has been taken up teaching Zumba and getting certified to teach Body Combat…and baking cookies…and blah blah blah…that I haven’t spent nearly as much time in the kitchen as I would have liked. Thank goodness for George. Well, thank goodness for him for many reasons; among those is the fact that he’s a great cook and has picked up my kitchen slack without complaint, keeping me fed and watered and healthy.

Today’s recipe is a take on skordalia, a classic Greek appetizer/dip/sauce made of garlic and potatoes. I can’t remember the first place I’d ever even heard of skordalia, though I suspect it was somewhere in Toronto’s Greektown. (Side note: if you go to Toronto, GO TO GREEKTOWN. Because yum! And fun. And why not? I digress.) What is this thing, I thought to myself, as I looked at the fragrant dish before me. This rich, super-garlicky, potato-tastic thing, that gives me so much joy to eat? Why have I not heard of it before? And why am I not eating more of it?

It’s that sort of moment that forces me to take a situation into my own hands. Now, I readily admit that this is in no way a traditional, dippable, sauce-able skordalia recipe, and I don’t want to infuriate the Greek community by trying to claim otherwise. Rather, I took the ingredients and now enjoy sort-of skordalia as beautiful, smooth, super-garlicky mashed potatoes, ones that are totally vegan.

Vegan? Mashed potatoes? That are rich and creamy and mooshy and delicious? Yes, way! You’ll need:

  • 2-ish pounds of your favorite mashing potato (I favor Yukon golds, but it’s your call)
  • 5 or 6 or 8 cloves of garlic. As much as you can stand, really. Peeled and smashed.
  • A good, flavorful extra-virgin olive oil. Amount is dependent on the texture you want
  • 1/2 tsp (ish) dried rosemary, or thyme, or your favorite herb
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Chopped parsley, or chives, for garnish
  • Note: traditionally, skordalia involves mixing in lemon juice too. I don’t care for it, but if you want to try it, go for it!

Wash and peel your potatoes, and chop them into 1-inch (or so) cubes. Smash and peel garlic. Put them all in a big pot and cover with water.

Notice the big clove of garlic, front and center.

Notice the big clove of garlic, front and center.

Make sure the pot you use is big enough to accommodate everything. Food needs adequate space to cook in. The starch from the potatoes will foam in the pot; if you don’t allow enough room for that then you’ll spend much of your time cleaning up foam overspill on your stove. Let the potatoes and garlic come to a boil and cook for 15 or 20 minutes, until the potatoes are fork tender. Before draining, reserve about a cup’s worth of the starchy, potato-y boiling water. Then drain, and put the potatoes and garlic back in the pot you boiled them in, and have at them with a masher.

Could these ingredients be any simpler?

Could these ingredients be any simpler?

As you begin mashing the potatoes and garlic (yes, all together), start incorporating the other ingredients. Add some salt and pepper and rosemary right away, so the hot potatoes can soak up all that good flavor. Then add in the starchy water and olive oil incrementally. Mash, and test for texture and taste. And mash, and add some more pepper and rosemary if necessary, and test again, until you’re happy with the flavor and have all the lumps out. You’ll be amazed by how successfully the water and oil come together to form a deceptively creamy potato mash.  When you’re ready, give the potatoes a whip.

Whip it good.

Whip it good.

Whip the potatoes until they’re pillowy. They were so soft and pliable I didn’t even need the electric blender, which remained in its box, unopened and forlorn.

Then spoon the potatoes out into a lovely serving bowl and top with a little additional olive oil and your garnish of choice. This dish is ridiculously versatile and goes with anything you’d normally eat with traditional mashed potatoes, whether it’s at a backyard summer party or at the holiday table.

I'm going to go and have some right now.

I’m going to go and have some right now.

Plus, they taste even better the next day.

Now, I know as well as anybody that it’s hard to compete with a buttery, creamy batch of mashed potatoes, and when I was in the throes of my picky-kid eating stage, traditional mashed potatoes were one of the few things I would eat without complaint. I still adore them. But this version, with loads of garlic flavor and zero dairy, is an incredibly satisfying alternative.

Give ’em a shot! Let me know what you think. Happy cooking!

Nosh: Roasted Parsnip Fries

Welcome to the easiest and most versatile recipe you’ll ever…ever…encounter.

In the long, cold winter nights, like everybody else, I long for comfort foods. You know the kind, the ones that exude savory warmth and just make you feel good and safe and warm, from your heart outwards. For me–and believe me when I say I have no idea why–I get the warm-fuzzies from parsnips.

Parsnips are a less-popular cousin of the carrot, and while I enjoy the noble carrot, I have no idea why parsnips take second place. They taste better. You can do more things with them. And their flesh is almost-creamy, so you get a textural treat as well. If parsnips are still in the ground when the first frost hits, they become even sweeter than they are in summer, so yay for winter produce! They weren’t anything I ever ate when I was a kid; I didn’t have my first parsnip until well into my adulthood, but I took to them so fast it’s like I’m making up for lost time. I’ve eaten them practically every way possible; roasted with balsamic glaze, mashed, sauteed…you name it, I’ve tried it. But turning them into oven-roasted fries is my current favorite parnsip incarnation, as it fills both my inner yearnings for yummy parsnips and the “I want to eat my weight in french fries” craving.  Here’s what you need:

  • 1 lb. parsnips
  • Olive oil, enough to coat the parsnips
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Seriously. That is all you need. More on this in a little bit.

Preheat your oven. Remember how I said this was versatile? Well. Are you roasting anything else this evening? Put the parsnips in at that temperature. Depending on the size and thickness at which you slice them, they may take a little more time, or a little less, than the expected 400°, 25-30 minutes, cooking time and temp. For example: we have sliced them thicker, and let them cook in a 450° oven for twenty minutes, turning them once mid-cook-time. In today’s blog, the parsnips were cut super-thin and cooked for exactly 22 minutes at 390° (the spinach and mushroom tart we made for dinner had a very specific temperature, it was kind of funny), and they came out beautifully browned and crispy. (And the tart was OK, but I won’t be blogging about it. Please focus on my beautiful parsnips.) The point is, you can make this recipe work with whatever else you’re roasting.

Often, the core of a parsnip is a little woody. Your first objective once the ‘snip is washed and peeled is to take out that woody core, so cut the parsnip in half. You’ll see a definite line where the core differentiates from the flesh. Carve out the core and start slicing your parsnips into surprisingly addictive ersatz fries.

Cored, and ready for fry creation.

Cored, and ready for fry creation.

A few things.

1) If you have a mandoline you’re not terrified of using, that would make the julienning process easier. I do not have a mandoline that doesn’t terrify me. Look at this as an opportunity to improve your knife skills. Slicing them is the hardest part of the entire recipe, and slicing’s not so bad, right?

2) I think thinner is better, in this instance. The parsnips bake up nice and crispy when they’re cut thin, but of course, this is your kitchen so cut the fries as thick or thin as you like.

When you’re done, you’ll have a beautiful pile of parsnips.

IMG_0223-001

Just waiting for you to do with them what you will.

Toss them with the oil and your choice of seasonings. I’ve seen them roasted with a wide range of herbs and spices, so if you’re devoted to the idea of adding in more spices, the go for it! You can use thyme, or rosemary, or Aleppo pepper,  or chili powder, or Parmesan cheese, and so on, and so on. But I recommend making them relatively au naturel the first time ’round, so you get to experience beautiful parsnips in their inherent radiant beauty. Sometimes, less is more.

Once you’ve herbed and spiced and oiled your ‘snips, lay them out in a single layer on a baking sheet.

Pretty much it.

That’s pretty much it.

Then pop them into your nice hot oven. Turn them once every ten minutes to ensure even cooking and so you can check on them. As I said before, these were in for exactly 22 minutes. We probably could have pulled them at the 20-minute mark, but we gave them a few extra moments to maximize future crunch. When we were done, we had a beautiful pile of gorgeous, totally delicious parsnip fries.

Don't even think about trying to steal fries off my plate.

Don’t even think about trying to steal these fries off my plate.

George and I have been known to eat every last bit of parsnip in one sitting; they are THAT good. And they’re best when they’re crispy-fresh, straight out of the oven. Overnight, they tend to soften, though they still taste incredible. We’ve probably made these a dozen times in the past few months, and will make them again and again. Because parsnips.

(Side note: Mom, did you ever imagine, when I was a kid, that I would be such a vegetable junkie? No. Me neither.) 

 

Nosh: Baked Zucchini Coins

Note: However much I tell you to make of this dish…double it. George and I used two medium-sized zucchini when we made this, and had only a teeny tiny little bit left over, which he ate all of the next day and I didn’t get any and I’m still pouting about it because I wanted more. That is all. Time for business.

Ahhhh, zucchini. It’s one of those vegetables. It can be kind of bland, kind of squishy, is often overly-dunked in butter to the point of being slick. And it is everywhere, as it is force-grown year round (though it’s best in summer…grilled, with some fresh herbs to finish, but I digress) so it almost becomes overlooked. Zucchini is that song you’ve heard a thousand times and aren’t quite sick of, but meh, it’s OK; it’s that perfunctory sandwich you eat at your desk because you need to eat so you don’t die. That’s often how I feel about zucchini’s contribution to the vegetable world.

There are notable exceptions to zucchini’s meh standing. Happily, this is one. As an added bonus, it’s pretty easy. Slicing the zucchini is the hardest part. That and the waiting, because they do take about a half an hour or forty minutes to cook. Here’s what you need:

  • 2 (at least) zucchinis
  • 1-2 Tablespoons your choice of flour (rice, AP, chickpea…whatever you prefer)
  • 1/2 to 1 teaspoon thyme (or herb/herbs of your choice*)
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper/Aleppo pepper, entirely optional
  • Salt and black pepper to taste
  • Olive oil cooking spray

 Preheat the oven at 350°.  Spray baking sheets with cooking spray. Take zucchinis and slice them fairly thin; aim for slices that are about the width of a quarter (or a Euro, if you’re more familiar with cash across the pond). If you let the slices sit and they start to weep (release the water in their cells), blot them. If they don’t start to weep, carry on!

Toss the veggies in a mixing bowl. Sprinkle them with thyme, red pepper flakes, and salt and pepper. *Or, use whatever combination of herbs you’d like. Ground fennel and onion? Go for it. Herbes de Provence? Sounds yummy. Garlic powder and oregano? Molto bene! It’s your kitchen, it’s up to you. Toss the zucchini slices with the herbs, then add the flour (full disclosure: I used rice flour here) and toss again. You just want the flour to lightly adhere to the zucchini; in no way do you want a thick coating.

Right.

Right.

Lay the zucchini slices in a single layer on your oil-sprayed baking sheets. Redistribute any seasonings that stayed in the bottom of your mixing bowl, onto the zucchini, because who wants to waste anything that tastes good? Once this is done, spray the up-sides of the zucchini with cooking spray, so both sides of it have a nice, but light, oven-crisping-friendly layer of oil.

Ready to roll.

Ready to roll.

NOTE: Some of the slices you see before you are kind of thick. These will still be delicious, they just won’t get super-crispy. I admit that crispy = even yummier, but you’ll hardly suffer if you end up with some thicker slices.

Put this in the oven. Bake for 30-40 minutes, until they’re done, flipping the slices every ten minutes. You’ll end up with an insanely addictive zucchini side dish that looks kind of like this.

I'd eat it.

I’d eat it.

We served these with herb and cheese grits and a green salad, and OMG yes, they were fan-fricking-tastic. George and I love us some grits but we couldn’t decide which of the dishes were the star of the dinner show, which (if you’re going to have problems) is a great problem to have. We could have doubled the amount of zucchini we made and not gotten sick of eating it; next time we make these coins, we’ll make extra for sure. This is an easy, tasty, not-your-run-of-the-mill approach to a common and often sadly under-loved vegetable. Try this dish and let your love run deep.

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!

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: Two Way Fennel and Capers with Pasta

Hi folks.

Good to see you all again.

I know, it’s been a few weeks.  I had a rough one.  I had a bout of the blues, a touch of PTSD after my car accident, and a major funk when I reflected on 2013, which was a dismal year for me.  Thankfully I have a patient boyfriend and friends who care enough to let me open up to them.  Right now, it’s all good.

So I’m back!  And I want to talk to you all about the savory goodness of fennel.  Consider it a New Year’s gift.  Resolutions often involve eating more vegetables.  Sticking with more vegetables means eating them in surprising and tasty ways.

Fennel, fennel, fennel.  Big oniony-looking bulb, stalks that resemble celery, frothy fronds at the top.  Vaguely smells of licorice. What. The hell. Does one do with that sort of thing?

Delicious dietary addition or freak veggie?

Delicious dietary addition or freak veggie?

The answer, friends, is a simple one.  EAT IT!!!

Currently in the US, fennel is mostly seen a sort of curious, marginally exotic mystery vegetable that one can only cook if one is a wizard or a professional chef.  In the US the bulb usually shows up sliced thin and raw, in salads, with oranges, which is certainly delicious but, limited in its scope, a sad underuse of fennel and all its works.  If a vegetable is nose-to-tail friendly, as it were, this would be the one.  The fronds are a fantastic garnish for everything from chicken to pasta to green beans to potatoes to hummus.  The stalks are nice and crunchy and would be a great addition to any snack bag or crudite tray, and they shave nicely into salads.  The bulb, though…you can do anything with it.  Saute it.  Fennel is fantastic grilled.  Braise it in milk (yes, really).  You’ll thank me for it.  Or…

You can turn it into healthy and delicious pasta sauce.  Because yum.  Here’s what I used:

  • 2 medium-to-large fennel; stalks very thinly sliced, bulbs cored and diced, fronds set aside
  • 1 medium onion
  • 2-3 cloves garlic (to taste)
  • 1 teaspooon thyme
  • ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes (or to taste)
  • 1 lemon, zest and juice
  • 1 or 2 bay leaves
  • Salt and pepper (to taste)
  • 1 cup (ish) of vegetable broth
  • 2 generous tablespoons drained and rinsed capers (or more, if you’d like)
  • A handful of fresh chopped parsley

And I always cook for one package of pasta, because I completely lack the patience to measure ounces of pasta.  I’m no stranger to leftovers, and this sauce is even better the next day.  Moving on.

The first thing to do is attack the fennel, so to get started…scroll back up and look at the picture above.  Halve your fennel bulbs and cut out the knobby core at the bottom of the bulb.  Cut off the stalks and slice them very thinly; set them off to the side.  Dice the bulb like you would an onion: planks, sticks, then cubes.

planks sticks cubes-001

Straightforward, no?

While you’re at it, cut an onion in the same way, and mince however much garlic you’d like.  Get a big pan warming to a steady medium-level saute heat, and when it’s hot enough (you don’t need it screaming hot, just hot), add oil and toss in the diced fennel.  Fennel can be dense and it often surprises me that it takes longer than onions to cook, but there’s the truth.  So.  It goes in first, and let it cook happily for a few minutes.  It may start to brown; that’s fine, just don’t let it burn.  After five minutes or so, add the onions, garlic, thyme, red pepper flakes and some fresh-ground pepper.  Zest the lemon right over your pan; the essential oils that spray out of the skin when you zest will go directly into the pan, adding to the subtle, but present, lemony goodness.

Like so.

Like so.

Juice the lemon and set the juice aside.

Get a pot of water going for your pasta, if you haven’t done so already.  When your water is ready and you cook the pasta, you’ll take it to not-quite-doneness, as it will finish cooking when you add it in to the fennel sauce at the end.  And before you drain your not-entirely-cooked pasta, reserve a half-cup or so of pasta water, some of which you’ll add to the fennel sauce to finish.

Let the fennel and onion mixture all cook together in your pan, over a nice medium heat.  You’ll want to see the onions get soft and the garlic fragrant, which should take another 8 or 10 minutes.  Again, some browning and sticking to the bottom of the pan is fine.  Desirable, even, since it creates the fond which, when pulled up with some stock and stirred back into the pan, adds a tremendous flavor boost.  When the fennel is soft and the onions are translucent, pour in the stock and stir well with a wooden spoon, so any browning on the bottom of your pan comes up.  Add the bay leaves.  Simmer for 10 minutes or so.

This is moving along as it ought.

This is moving along as it ought.

You can also deglaze the pan with 1/4 cup of white wine before adding in the stock, since fennel loves to work with white wine.  I just didn’t have any in the house.  If you do, then pour in the wine, give it all a stir to pull up the fond.  Simmer for a few minutes, until the alcohol cooks out and the wine smells more like sauce and less like hot wine.  Add the stock at this point and carry on.

A note about the amount of stock: I say use about a cup, but this is entirely dependent on how you prefer your pasta sauce.  I want the sauce to be nice and thick, so I’m not going to use enough stock to make the sauce soupy.  The stock is going to cook off a little in the simmer, and then the entire thing will be blended together.  You’ll have an opportunity to thin the sauce after blending if you’d like, so my advice is to approach stock with a gentle hand and see how it goes.

Anyway.

Get another pan going and add your very thin slices of fennel stalk, with just a little salt and pepper added to bring out the flavor. You’re going to want to get these nice and browned and yummy, to serve as a crisp contrast to the soft fennel of the sauce.

Truth: cut them thinner than this.

Truth: Next time, I will cut them thinner than this.

Once these are nice and brown, remove them from the heat and top with the reserved lemon juice.  Set aside until the pasta is complete.

When all the contents of your pan have cooked together and the veggies are nice and tender, remove the bay leaves and give everything else a whirl in a blender or food processor.  Put the blended sauce back in the pan and back on the heat and if you feel like it’s too gloppy for your liking, thin your sauce by adding very small increments of stock.  Add in your drained pasta and the grilled fennel stalks, and a splash or two of reserved pasta water.  Let that cook together a minute or two longer, until the pasta is al dente and the sauce has become a lovely, clingy unit.  Check for seasonings and adjust salt and pepper as necessary.  Chop some fresh parsley, and drain and rinse your capers.

Normally I’d say capers and parsley are optional, but…not in this dish, they’re not.  The capers add a playful, deep, briny punch to the mellowed aroma of the fennel and heightens the hints of lemon in the sauce, and the parsley adds a fresh green pungency that lifts this dish off the plate and right into yo’ mouth.  You can also add some of the fennel fronds as a garnish, but I used most of them in the salad.

I want to make this again.  Right now.

I want to make this again. Right now.

When we sat down to eat dinner, my boyfriend took his first bite, then looked at me with a big smile on his face and said, “Wow!  And it’s not…totally weird!  You don’t need some fancy palate to enjoy this!”

Ummm.

Actually, though, that’s really cool.  Reviewer Number One thinks my fennel pasta sauce is yummy and generally accessible.  I’ll take it!  As this dish stands it’s entirely vegan, but that’s not to say it wouldn’t be amenable to a shot of cream or butter at the end, or a sprinkling of good, hard cheese.  We ate this with a fresh salad and sweet and spicy Brussels sprouts that were insanely good.  We ate it the next day, too.  We’re going to eat this again and again.  Yay for fennel!  Eat more of it, because it’s delicious!  You don’t even have to be a wizard.

George standing between two absolutely enormous wild fennel plants; Inis Mor, Aran Islands, Ireland.

George standing between two absolutely enormous wild fennel plants; Inis Mor, Aran Islands, Ireland.

Enjoy!

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