Monthly Archives: November 2007

Goals, Dreams, and Moroccan Chicken with Lemon and Olives

One day, hopefully in the not too distant future (but probably not in the near future, unfortunately), I will turn off my computer. I will rise up from my desk, and the dissertation will be done. And then, I will get myself on a plane, and I will go to Morocco. I will go to the land of olives and preserved lemons and taste the marvelous couscous and tagines for myself.

I can’t remember what is was that first made me fall in love with Moroccan food. Was it the abundance of olives? Or perhaps the meats, slow-cooked until they are fall off the bone tender? Or perhaps the couscous, piled high in a fluffy mound in the center of a large platter, surrounding by a comforting stew of vegetables? Or perhaps it was this very dish, tender, moist chicken flavored with the briny bite of preserved lemons and salty olives.

Moroccans are perhaps the original slow cooks. No wok-searing, flash-frying here. To conserve cooking fuel, a tagine pot can be stuck into the dying embers of a fire.  Flavor blooms with long, slow gentle heat. In contrast to the brazenness of South and Southeast Asian curries, the herbs and spices in Moroccan cuisine become just a warm, subtle backdrop, gently bathing the main meat or vegetable. In this dish, the lemons and olives wake the flavors: sour, bitter, earthy, warm. Tradition says to serve it with bread, but I love the combination of the slippery braised chicken in its unctuous sauce with jasmine rice.

I cook this chicken dish not out of any connection with my past, but to remind myself of my hopes and dreams for the future. I eat this my warming, slow-cooked chicken, and I can hope that it won’t be winter forever, I will make it through the semester, and I will finish my dissertation. And one day, I will eat this dish in Morocco. One day.

Moroccan Chicken with Lemon and Olives

I resisted making my own preserved lemons for a long time, but I couldn’t find a source for them in my neighborhood, and I didn’t have time to go looking. The next time I was at the store, organic lemons were on sale, so I grabbed a bunch and brined them in one of my Mason jars left over from pickling. They take a month to mature, so if you have a desperate hankering for this dish, check your local Middle Eastern grocer for the tiny pickled Egyptian lemons.

The original recipe is for a whole chicken, but I don’t like white meat.

4 chicken leg quarters, separated into legs and thighs
6 cloves garlic
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. paprika
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
a pinch saffron
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp powdered ginger (don’t substitute fresh)
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/4 c. canola or peanut oil

2 large yellow onions, grated and drained in a colander
1/4 c. packed chopped cilantro
1/4 c. packed chopped parsley
1/2-3/4 c. olives*
1 preserved lemon, peel only, sliced finely
juice of 1/2-1 lemon

*You may use any brine-cured olive green or black. Don’t use those flavorless canned American olives. Be sure you like the taste of your olive all by itself. If they are bitter, you may blanch them in boiling water and drain.

The day before, pound the garlic in the mortar and pestle with the other spices. Moisten mixture with the oil. Pull the skin off the chicken and rub with garlic paste. Refrigerate overnight.

The next day, place chickens in a large, heavy pot, preferably enameled cast iron. Add grated onions, herbs and about 2 c. water. Bring to boil, cover and lower heat. Simmer 40 minutes.

When chicken is tender and falling off the bone, add olives and lemon peel. Continue cooking 10-15 minutes. When ready to serve, pull chicken and as many olives as you can out of the sauce and arrange on serving platter. Boil sauce vigorously until reduced and thickened. Taste and season with lemon juice and additional sauce if necessary. Pour sauce over chicken and serve.

Preserved Lemons

Lemons (as many as will fit in your sterilized jar)
coarse salt
enough freshly squeezed lemon juice to cover lemons

Slice ends off of lemons, and cut lemons into quarters, but leave slices attached at the end. In other words, don’t slice all the way through lemons. Pack salt into the crevices of the cut lemons, and drop into sterilized jar. (Word of warning: I would start with a small jar.) Leave overnight, during which lemons will exude quite a bit of juice.

The next day, cover lemons with fresh lemon juice, seal and leave to ripen one month before use. These will keep indefinitely.

Sources: Paula Wolfert’s Couscous and Other Good Foods from Morocco
Claudia Rodin’s The New Book of Middle Eastern Food



Filed under gluten-free, Middle Eastern/North African

Candied Cranberry and Chocolate Tart

I’m feeling a little left out of Thanksgiving this year. In the huge division of labor for the big day, I have no responsibility for any part of the meal. My dad will be shucking oysters. My mom will be marinading lamb (turkey-free zone here) and cooking her way through the four courses she’s managed to come up with. Family friends will be bringing dessert. But I will be racing to the airport and catching an early morning flight to North Carolina on Thanksgiving Day itself. With any luck, I’ll arrive in time to eat.I had to do something to satisfy the baking urge that possesses me before every major holiday. You know, that urge to take on an immensely complicated, finicky and tedious, show-stopping dessert, just so you can unveil it to ooo’s and aaah’s at the table? I channeled the Thanksgiving baking urge into this candied cranberry and chocolate tart, and shared it at a dinner party this weekend.

Even though I don’t care for the traditional Thanksgiving foods, having never grown up with them myself (marshmallows on sweet potatoes???), I do love the sour punch of cranberries. They appear here not in the traditional relish or jelly, but crowning a luscious dark chocolate ganache in a walnut crust. Tempered with plenty of sugar and cut by the bitterness of the chocolate, this cranberry dessert tinkled my latent Thanksgiving chimes. Maybe I can make it for my family next year.

Candied Cranberry and Chocolate Tart

Makes 1 9-inch tart

Truth be told, this dessert isn’t that finicky or labor-intensive. The most time-consuming part is the crust, but you can spread the work out over two or three days.

1 pre-baked walnut crust–see recipe below
12 oz. cranberries
1 cup sugar
1 tsp orange zest
6 oz. good quality chocolate, 60-70% cacao, finely chopped
3/4 c. heavy cream

For the cranberries: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Heat sugar with 1/4 c. water in medium saucepan. When sugar has dissolved, add cranberries and orange zest. Stir to combine. Pour cranberries onto greased baking sheet, and bake for 10-15 minutes. Let cool completely.

Make the ganache: Bring cream to simmer in a small, heavy-bottomed pot. When at a simmer, remove from heat and add chopped chocolate. Stir until chocolate has dissolved.

Pour into walnut crust. Let cool, then top with candied cranberries and their syrup.

Walnut Crust

1 large egg, separated
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 c. walnuts
1/2 c. powdered sugar
1 c. unbleached, all-purpose flour
pinch salt
5 tbsp. cold, unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 in. cubes

Spray tart pan with removable bottom with non-stick spray. Toast walnuts in 375 degree oven for 8-10 minutes or until fragrant. When cool, grind in a food processor until fine, but not pasty.

Beat the egg yolk and white separately. Measure out 1 tbsp of the egg white and add to egg yolk. Add vanilla and beat lightly. Combine flour, walnuts, sugar, and salt. Cut butter into flour mixture until largest pieces are the size of small peas. (Regarding cutting the fat into the flour, see my instructions for pie crust.) Add egg mixture, and mix with your fingertips until mixture is evenly moistened. Add a teaspoon or two of water if necessary.

Press mixture directly into tart pan. Freeze for at least 30 minutes. Line pan with aluminum foil, prick all over with a fork, line with pie weights (I use dried beans) and bake for 30 minutes in a 375 degree oven, until golden brown. Let cool completely on wire rack.

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Pushing Daisies’ Apple-Gruyère Pie

Sometimes a picture is not worth a thousand words.

I know the above picture looks like your average, ho-hum apple pie. But trust me when I say that this is a very special apple pie, having the distinction of being the only post on this site inspired by a TV show.

Pushing Daisies is a quirky, magical-realist comedy with shades of Amélie Poulain and Tim Burton. It’s protagonist is a pie-maker who can bring the dead back to life with a touch–and kill them again with a second touch. Needless to say, the hapless pie-maker brings a dead woman back to life and falls in love with her, realizing that he can never touch her. In addition to all the macabre antics surrounding reanimated corpses and the like, the show features two spinster aunts who are afflicted both with social anxiety disorder and a great love of expensive cheese. Make sense? No…? Well, like I said, it’s quirky.

Well, anyway. The idea for the pie came about after I had bought an expensive piece of Gruyère, only to find upon getting home that it was hard and dry. I planned to return it, but that night, on Pushing Daisies, Chuck, the pie-maker’s undead girlfriend sends her cheese-loving aunts an apple pie with Gruyère baked into the crust. In an attempt to cheer them up and alleviate their social anxiety disorder, she laces the pie with homeopathic anti-depressants.

My own version lacked the homeopathic anti-depressants, but I borrowed the idea of grating Gruyère into the crust. I don’t know if the show’s writers are baking divas, but the Gruyère is a stroke of genius. Imagine a perfectly flaky, tender pie crust flavored with the salty piquancy of Gruyère, like a cross between a pie crust and a gougère. Unlike the cheddar traditionally used in pie crusts, Gruyère doesn’t turn oily and leathery when melted and cooled, but instead takes the texture of the surrounding flour. The crust holds between your teeth for just a moment, then shatters delicately into the juicy apple filling. And those apples! So juicy and fresh, they tasted like they had been picked that morning. (Which, come to think of it, they probably had.)

My pie and I went to a pot-luck that evening, and believe me, this pie is a dreamy, swoon-worthy, be-sure-you’re-sitting-down-when-you-taste-it, best-crust-ever kind of pie. After snagging the tiniest piece to take home with me, I was left with a little pinprick of regret. Perhaps I shouldn’t have shared my pie with quite so many people. Or maybe next time, I should add a healthy dose of homeopathic anti-depressants so I don’t miss the pie quite so much when it’s gone.

Note: The pie crust recipe below contains extensive instructions, summarizing everything I’ve ever learned about making this finicky dessert.

Charlotte Charles’ Apple-Gruyère Pie

Makes 1 9-inch, deep-dish apple pie

3 lbs. tart red apples (Northern Spy, Romes, Empires, or Harralsons)
1/2 c. sugar
1 tbsp. lemon juice
1/8 tsp. cinnamon
5 tsp. cornstarch or all-purpose flour
1 egg, lightly beaten

1 Gruyère Pie Crust–recipe below

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Take dough out of fridge.

Peel, core and slice apples into quarters. Slice each quarter thinly. Mix with other ingredients.

Roll the larger piece of dough into a disk about fourteen inches in diameter. I use a piece of parchment paper dusted with flour to prevent sticking. Flip parchment paper over 9 inch deep dish or 10 inch glass pie plate, and ease dough into plate.

Roll smaller piece of dough into circle twelve inches in diameter. Pile apples into pie plate, scraping any juice on top of the apples. Place smaller round of dough on top of the apples. Seal two crusts together, brush with the beaten egg, and make three parallel slits in the top crust to allow steam to escape.

Place pie on a cookie sheet to catch any drips, put in oven, and reduce oven temperature to 375 degrees. Bake 50 minutes to an hour, or until you can see the filling bubbling up between the slits in the crust. Cool on a wire rack at least 20 minutes before serving.

Gruyère Pie Crust

Making pie dough is governed by three principles. 1) Use leaf-lard. Spare me your gasp of horror; leaf lard makes the most tender pie crust around and unlike Crisco, contains no transfats and doesn’t leave an unpleasant, soapy taste in your mouth. Don’t use lard from the grocery store; it is most likely rancid. Leaf lard should smell pure. Buy from a butcher, or order here. And okay, if you are utterly opposed to lard, you may use butter. 2) Leave pea sized lumps of butter in the dough. Under the pressure of the rolling pin, the lumps of butter flatten into thin sheets that alternate with the flour. In the heat of the oven, they create the flaky layers that characterize the best pie doughs. 3) Keep in mind the pie ough rule of escalating insanity. The more your pie dough makes you weep, gnash your teeth and lie on the kitchen floor convinced that the whole enterprise is a complete disaster, the more likely it is that your pie dough will be heavenly. Beware the pie dough that is easy to work with; it will most likely end up dry and tough.

While everyone from Cook’s Illustrated to Rose Levy Berenbaum recommends the food processor for quick and easy pie crusts, I have never had luck with it. The food processor overprocesses the dough, and my crusts end up tough. If you use the food processor, only use it to cut the butter into the flour. After that mix with a fork. If you don’t use a food processor, a pastry blender will do. You can use your fingers, but you run the risk of melting the butter with the heat of your hands, ruining the effect of those pea sized pockets of butter. Luckily for me, my icy, grim reaper fingers pose no such threat to the pie dough.

Makes one double-crusted 9-10 inch pie.
2 1/2 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp. sugar
13 tbsp. cold, unsalted butter, cut into 1 in pieces and stored in the fridge
7 tbsp. leaf lard (or more butter, if you must)
2 oz. Gruyère, grated with a microplane rasp grater
6-7 tbsp. ice water

Mix flour, salt, sugar and Gruyere in a large mixing bowl or bowl of a food processor. Using a food processor, pastry blender, or your fingers, cut in the large until no large pieces remain. Add the butter, and cut into flour until the largest pieces of butter are the size of large peas.

Remove flour-butter mixture from food processor, if using, and place in a large mixing bowl. Sprinkle ice water over flour in increments of one tablespoon, toss with fork after each addition. (Try not to add too much extra water, but I usually end up going over the recommended amount.) When dough clumps together when squeezed in your palm, gather dough together into two disks, one slightly larger than the other, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

Sources: Regan Daly’s In the Sweet Kitchen, Cook’s


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Two Roasted Vegetables and a Tale of Childhood Trauma

Roasted Butternut Squash and Roasted Brussels Sprouts

The publication of Jessica Seinfeld’s cookbook has set off a veritable storm of discussion about the best ways to get your children to eat their vegetables. Jessica Seinfeld’s own methods include tricking the kiddies by baking spinach into brownies and squash into macaroni and cheese. She even goes so far as to suggest leaving an empty box of Kraft macaroni and cheese on the counter while you working your magic with various pre-pureed vegetables. I will refrain from entering the fray here with my own (very strong) opinions on the matter, other than to share a repressed memory which emerged in the wake of all the coverage about childhood food trauma.

As a child, I liked vegetables. Kale, cabbage, broccoli, bitter gourd, asparagus: I ate them all. I never even knew that I wasn’t supposed to like them. Until the day I was at my best friend’s house during Brussels sprouts night. Vicki’s mom was from England and her cooking was, unfortunately, very British. On that evening, she carried a large, sulfurous-smelling dish to the table. “Brussels sprouts!” she announced. “Now, no complaints,” she said, catching the expression on Vicki’s face. “You both have to finish your Brussels sprouts before you leave the table.”

You both? I look up in alarm. My own mother was not only a good cook, but was philosophically opposed to forcing her children to eat anything she didn’t like herself. The circumstance of being forced to eat something disgusting was unprecedented. Surely I wasn’t expected to eat whatever lurked inside that bowl.

But without further ado, Vicki’s mom heaped a large mound of greyish-green, slimy, overcooked Brussels sprouts onto my plate. What could I do? I choked every Brussels sprout past the large lump in my throat to get away from this nightmare of a dinner as soon as possible. They tasted every bit as horrible as they looked and smelled.

More than twenty years later, this injustice still rankles. It’s one thing to force your culinary ineptitude on your own child; it’s quite another to force it on someone else’s. It was years before I learned to like Brussels sprouts again. And what of the injustice done to the sprouts themselves? What on earth did the poor Brussels sprout do to deserve such a fate as being boiled to greyish-green sliminess?

Surely Brussels sprouts deserve much better treatment. It’s just as easy to roast the sprouts briefly in a hot oven to caramelize their natural sugars, making them succulent and slightly sweet.

And if your kids still won’t eat Brussels sprouts, try slow-roasting butternut squash, dusted in flour and generously drizzled with olive oil. It’s the contrast of textures that make this dish. The flour and oil render some of the squash pieces crisp, while others bake to a satisfying chewiness. The squash at the bottom of the dish becomes smooth and silky.

And if your kids don’t like the squash either, then give them a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese and enjoy these roasted vegetables yourself.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts

The very best Brussels sprouts have been kissed by the first frost of autumn. Make sure that the sprouts are fresh; avoid ones with yellow outer leaves.

Brussel sprouts, cut in half
enough olive oil to coat
salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Toss sprouts with olive oil. Spread on cookie sheet. Roast 30-40 minutes, or until sprouts are tender when pierced with the tip of a sharp knife.

Butternut Squash Provencal

1 butternut squash
1 clove garlic, minced
5 tbsp flour
1 tbsp fresh sage
salt and pepper
olive oil

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Peel butternut squash, making sure to remove every trace of pale orange and green that lurks beneath the surface of the peel. Make sure the deep orange flesh is exposed completely. Remove the seeds and the stringy flesh attached to the seeds. Scrape cavity thoroughly. Chop squash into 1 in cubes.

Toss squash in flour. Place in buttered casserole, making sure to leave excess flour behind. Generously salt and pepper the squash, sprinkle with minced garlic and sage, and toss again. Generously drizzle with olive oil. Bake for 2 hours, or until squash is completely tender when pierced with tip of a sharp knife.


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Mushroom Umami Pizza

Several years ago, I dated a guy who hated mushrooms. He ranted about mushrooms the way vegans rant about veal. You could hardly get him to be in the same room as a mushroom. The saddest thing about this relationship (and believe me, there were many sad things about it) is that I stopped eating mushrooms too. Why do we do this? More than one friend of mine has become vegetarian under the influence of a vegetarian partner. While I understand the draw of the ethical foundation of vegetarianism, it’s curious how such conversions end with the relationship. In any case, my ex’s mushroom-rage was hardly philosophical in nature. The only argument he could come up with against mushroom-eating had to do with the fact that mushrooms are fungi. Like yeast. Except that he had no such problem with bread.

I have noticed that all of my friends who change their diets to that of their partners’ have one thing in common: they are people who love food and love sharing the pleasures of the table with the people they love the most. A great meal that can’t be shared somehow misses the point. So I stopped eating mushrooms, because as long as I was with mushroom guy, it didn’t make sense to eat mushrooms alone.

Maybe the moral of the story is that compatibility of palette is as important as all the other things on my already-long checklist. Food is meant to be shared, and this pizza cries out for a great bottle of wine and a table surrounded by people you love. Crunching into the crust is a pure hit of meaty mushroom umami: a puree of mushrooms topped with even more mushrooms. The pizza is creamy with pungent fontina and fragrant with garlic, both sauteed with the mushrooms and minced and sprinkled raw over the dough before topping and baking.

As for the mushroom-hating ex-boyfriend, I was sad when the relationship ended, but it never would have worked anyway. Had I stayed with him, I never would have discovered this pizza, and that would have been a real tragedy.

Mushroom Umami Pizza

While the pizza above was made with American fontina, which was perfectly serviceable, the real, creamy Italian Fontina Val D’aosta elevates the pizza from delicious to transcendent. There are other, cheaper Italian fontinas which are also good, just make sure to avoid Danish fontina, which stinks. (And this is coming from someone who loves stinky cheeses. Danish fontina does not stink in a good way.)

2 cups mushrooms–I usually use a mixture of button, crimini, and if I can get them, wild mushrooms such as wood-ears, chantarelles, or shitakes
1 shallot, finely sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tbsp olive oil
1/4 c. heavy cream
salt and pepper
4 oz. fontina (preferable Val D’aosta)
3 portabello mushroom caps, thinly sliced
2 tbsp. parmaggiano reggiano cheese, grated
1 tbsp. parsley, minced (omitted in the above photo)

2 rounds pizza dough, rolled as thin as possible
1 clove garlic, minced
drizzle of olive oil
salt and pepper

Preheat oven as high as it will go (500-550 degrees).

In a food processor, process the mushrooms until finely chopped. (I do this in batches as I have a small food processor.) Saute shallots and garlic in the olive oil until soft and golden. Add mushrooms. Mushrooms will exude a fair amount of liquid. Cook until this liquid has evaporated. Stir in cream, take of heat, and season with salt and pepper.

Slice fontina. This may be easier if cheese is partially frozen.

Place rounds of pizza dough on a floured peel (if using a baking stone) or a floured cookie sheet. Scatter clove of finely minced garlic onto the dough, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. With the back of a spoon, spread the mushroom puree on the dough. Top with the thin slices of fontina and the sliced portabello caps. Sprinkle pizza with parmesan cheese and slide either directly onto baking stone or place cookie sheet into the oven.

Bake 7-8 minutes if using a baking stone, or 15 minutes with a cookie sheet. Sprinkle with parsley, cut with a pair of scissors and serve.

Source: Todd English, The Figs Table


Filed under Italian