Archive for Home Cooking

Eggs in Purgatory

Let’s just cut to the chase, shall we? I don’t have an easy explanation for where I’ve been the past few months. All I can say is that I dropped off the grid for a while, and now I’m doing my best to resurface. I’ve missed my little blog. It’s a bigger part of me than I realized, and I’ve deeply felt its absence. For the past three years, Artichoke Heart has been my primary creative outlet, and this too-long pause made me wonder what I enjoyed most about blogging: thinking about food, writing about food, or being excited about food. Because honestly, I wasn’t feeling any of it, and wasn’t sure when or if I would again.

But I have been cooking. I experimented with this recipe for Drunken Noodles, and another one for stuffed cabbage. I made spaghetti and meatballs and an ice cream icebox cake that caused my dear friend’s children to squeal with delight. And after each successful (or not successful) meal, I wondered if it would lead me back to the blog. I came close a few times, sitting at the computer, fingers on the keys and staring at the blank screen, but the words wouldn’t come. Finally, on Friday night, I made a dish that reflected my self-inflicted, in-between state: Eggs in Purgatory.

It’s a dramatic name for a simple Southern Italian dish, a classic example of cucina povera where a robust, healthy meal is made from a few basic ingredients. Eggs in Purgatory are just poached eggs in tomato sauce. Yup, that’s it. You crack a few eggs over a simmering onion- or garlic-based tomato sauce, and let them slowly cook, the golden centers and creamy whites quivering in a bubbling, crimson sea of tomatoes. Gently pour the gleaming eggs and sauce over a piece of toast, and dinner is served.

Something about the flavors of this dish hit Jim and me right away. Our forks returned time and time again, the soft egg yolks bleeding gently into the sweet tomatoes. I overcooked the eggs a little bit (they were closer to soft-boiled than poached) but no matter. The crunchy bread beneath was the perfect base for the liquid mass of protein and tomatoes above.

Perhaps the allusion to Purgatory is derived from the image of eggs momentarily suspended in the tomato sauce, a symbolic transitory state between Heaven and Hell. Whatever the connotation of this dish may be, I hope my extended blogging lapse is over, and that I’ve found my way back to the Choke.

Recipe for Eggs In Purgatory (with garlic-based tomato sauce), adapted from Smitten Kitchen

  • 1 14-ounce can of crushed tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • Pinch of sugar
  • Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
  • Sea salt
  • Fresh ground black pepper
  • 4 large eggs
  • 2 slices of toasted peasant bread
  • Fresh grated Parmesan cheese

Warm the olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes. Cook until the garlic has browned, stirring frequently, for about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and season with sugar, a pinch of salt, and black pepper. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook for about 10 to 20 minutes.

Gently crack the eggs into the tomato sauce, allowing the interiors to spread throughout the sauce. Cover the pan and let the eggs cook for 5 minutes. Remove from heat, uncover, and let the pan stand for 2 to 3 minutes.

Transfer 2 eggs to each piece of toast and cover with sauce. Garnish with cheese, and season with salt and pepper. Serves 2 as a main dish. Enjoy!

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Cooking from the CSA: Collard Greens

After almost three years of writing this blog, I have finally realized something fairly obvious: When I come across a food-related issue I’m excited about—no matter whether it’s a restaurant, recipe, or trend—I need to write about it immediately. Putting the story on the back burner just never works; the struggle to get my words down becomes more intense, convoluted, and difficult.

Take this post, for example. I’ve wanted to tell you about the great fun I had last month cooking collard greens for the first time. Did you hear that—I cooked them last month! Twice! But first I decided to write about that farro soup I made sometime in October. And then I didn’t have any time to blog last week or over the weekend. So before I knew it, even more time had passed, the collard greens were a faint memory, and I dreaded trying to write about them. But while blogging about them was hard, it doesn’t mean I enjoyed the collards any less. Here, I’ll try to remember everything that happened:

When I received my first bunch of this floppy, wide-leafed vegetable from my CSA, I had no idea what to do with it. I knew collard greens were often used in Southern cooking, and a little research confirmed that they are traditionally cooked for a couple of hours, perhaps with some ham hocks, and served as a side. Not that this is necessary—further reading confirmed that a 30 to 45 minute simmer is usually enough to adequately soften the leaves. As with many greens, collards are high in several vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A and C, and potassium. With all this good news about collards, I started to wonder why I hadn’t worked with them before.

For my first attempt at cooking them, I tried this spicy white bean and sweet potato soup. (Another reason why I need to blog about these meals right away: Weeks later, I can’t find any of my photos of this soup. And it was truly gorgeous, a beautiful mix of vibrant colors. Sigh.) The thick greens held their own against the other hearty elements in this sweet yet spicy soup, and I strutted through my apartment afterwards, proud of myself for creating a successful meal with this foreign vegetable.

But then I received another bunch just two weeks later in my CSA shipment. While I briefly contemplated another soup, I really wanted to try something different. I guess great minds think alike, because that week both Mark Bittman and I decided to use these leaves as wrappers. Mr. Bittman encased Middle Eastern-inspired meatballs in his collard greens, while I adapted Claudia Roden’s recipe for hot dolma, using collards instead of grape leaves.

The process of making hot dolma is not much different from making cold ones, and using fresh collard greens instead of jarred grape leaves makes the process much simpler. (Jarred leaves require soaking, which fresh ones do not.) After blanching the leaves for a few minutes, I simply stuffed them with a mix of rice, ground lamb, spices, and tomato paste. Then, after an additional hour on the stovetop, they were ready.

Jim and I ate them for dinner, eagerly biting into the compact little bundles of spiced rice and meat. The lemony collards yielded easily to the tomato-spiked rice mixture inside, and I just couldn’t get enough of this sturdy, versatile, and healthy green. Although it was a struggle to write about these collard greens, there’s no way I could forget about them.

Recipe for Hot Dolma with Collard Greens (adapted from Claudia Roden’s The New Book of Middle Eastern Food)

  • 1 bunch of large collard greens

For the filling:

  • 1/2 cup long-grain rice
  • 1/2 pound ground lamb
  • 1 small tomato, peeled and chopped (We actually just chopped up a bunch of cherry tomatoes, and they worked fine.)
  • 1/2 white onion, finely diced
  • 3 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • salt and pepper

For the pans/cooking time:

  • 1/2 tomato, sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic, slivered
  • Juice of 1 lemon

Prepare your collard greens. Wash them thoroughly under running water, and remove the stem from the bottom of each leaf. Simmer the leaves in boiling water for about 5 minutes, then remove from heat. Blot the leaves dry and let them cool completely. Then cut the leaf into 3 equal pieces: Slice once across the top of the leaf, and set the top aside. Then cut the remaining part of the leaf in half, discarding the thick center stem. Continue with the rest of the leaves.

Wash the rice in boiling water, then rinse under cold water and drain. In a large bowl, mix the rice with the ground meat, chopped tomato, onion, parsley, cinnamon, tomato paste, salt, and pepper.

Now stuff your collard leaves with the mixture. Take one slice of the collard leaves, and place it on a flat surface, vein side up. Place about 1 1/2 small spoonfuls of the rice mixture in the center of the leaf. Fold the end over the filling. Fold the sides of the leaf in towards the middle, and the roll the leaf upwards. Make sure the sides of the leaf continue to fold inward as you roll the leaf upwards. Repeat with the rest of the leaves. Set aside.

Line the bottom of a large, high-sided sauté pan or one Dutch oven with the sliced tomatoes. Tightly pack the grape leaves into one layer, on top of the tomatoes. Slip the garlic cloves in between the rolls if desired. Sprinkle the bundles with lemon juice, and add about 2/3 cup water to the pan.

Place a small plate on top of the leaves to prevent them from possibly unwinding. Cover the pan with a lid, set the heat to low, and simmer gently for about an hour. Roden’s book suggests adding small cups of water if the pans run out of liquid, but I did not have this problem. Serve hot. We made about 20 dolma with this recipe. Serves 4. Enjoy!

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Gina DePalma’s Zuppa di Farro

Have you ever come across a recipe—whether online, or in a cookbook or magazine—and fallen in love with it immediately, before even tasting the results? Similar to finally finding the one, I think you just know when it happens. Lucky for me, I’ve been struck by this culinary bolt of lightning more than once, most recently with chef Gina DePalma’s recipe for zuppa di farro (farro soup). I found it at the beginning of last month on Serious Eats, bookmarked it immediately, and couldn’t wait to try it.

soup

I’m not sure what inspired my strong feelings about this recipe. Perhaps it was DePalma’s evocative prose about discovering this soup in Italy during lunch on a blustery day, or maybe it was her appetizing photo. In addition, a closer look at the recipe revealed two things: many of my favorite ingredients were included (tomatoes, farro, pancetta, parmesan cheese) and I had almost all of them in my pantry or refrigerator. Like any great love story, it was meant to be.

All I needed was time, as DePalma suggests soaking the farro for two hours before cooking. Most recipes I’ve seen soak the grains for 20 minutes, but on a chilly Sunday afternoon with nothing to do and nowhere to be, I did as the recipe instructed. The rest of the steps were simple: I sautéed the onions, garlic, and pancetta, then added the tomatoes, farro, and some homemade chicken stock (instead of DePalma’s suggested beef stock). The soup simmered for a while on the stovetop, and then rested so the flavors could come together. A cup of the mixture was pureed and then added back into the pot before serving, creating a more liquid base of flavor.

Oh boy, were my instincts right about this soup. The chewy grains melded with the tomato-infused broth to create a rustic, hearty-but-not-heavy dish that delighted with each spoonful. Meaty chunks of pancetta swam here and there, peeking out between the sprinklings of tangy parmesan cheese and spicy fresh parsley. Jim and I ate it for two nights in a row, almost reluctant to finish it off; we just didn’t want this love story to end. But by the end of the bowl, I realized that although recipes may come and go, at least this one would have a permanent place in my heart.

Recipe for Zuppa di Farro (adapted from Gina DePalma’s recipe on Serious Eats)

  • 1 cup farro
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 small clove of garlic, peeled and smashed
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 1-1 1/2 ounces of pancetta, diced
  • 1 sprig fresh thyme
  • a dash of dried sage
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2 cup canned plum tomatoes, crushed and chopped
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 3 to 6 cups good-quality chicken stock

Start by placing the farro in a medium bowl, and covering the grains with cold water. Soak for 2 hours. Drain and set the grains aside.

Heat the olive oil over low heat in a large stockpot or Dutch oven. Add the garlic. Sauté the garlic until it starts to brown, then remove it and discard. Add the onions and the pancetta to the pot and stir. Season with a pinch of salt and keep stirring. Sauté the onions and pancetta until they soften and turn translucent at the edges, then add the herbs. Sauté for another minute, but don’t allow the mixture to brown.

Add the tomatoes to the pot and stir. Then add the farro, about 2 cups of the stock and 1 cup of water. Bring the soup to a gentle simmer, then cover and lower the heat. Simmer the soup while covered for about 45 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes or so. As the soup thickens, add ladles of stock to the pot. The soup shouldn’t be too thick; the grains should be loose and floating in liquid.

When the farro is tender, the soup is ready. Allow it to cool for 30 minutes in the pot. Remove 1 cup of soup to a blender and puree. Stir the mixture back into the soup, and add more stock if necessary.

Heat the soup a little bit before serving. Garnish with parsley, a drizzle of olive oil, and grated cheese.

Serves 4. Enjoy! (Jim and I ate this soup over 2 days. On the 2nd day it had absorbed quite a bit of moisture, so I added some stock to thin it out.)

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So Many Greens, So Little Time

Every two weeks, I grab a handful of plastic bags from the cupboard and stroll a few blocks over to my CSA pick-up spot. Immediately upon arrival I survey the bounty of vegetables I’m about to receive. The best weeks offer a large variety: perhaps a few zucchini, a head of lettuce, maybe some tomatoes, corn, string beans, or peppers. Usually I can barely contain my excitement as I start to fill my bags with produce, eagerly looking forward to the dishes I will cook that week.

But this year’s unpredictable weather has lead to an abundance of greens from my CSA. Arugula, spinach, bok choy, lettuce, kale, chard, you name it. Now, don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against leafy vegetables. But receiving multiple bags of greens at once, all of which need to be eaten quickly before they wilt, presents a daunting challenge, especially when you hate wasting food like I do.

Last Saturday’s pick-up was one of those oh-my-goodness-how-will-I-finish-these-greens moments. When I arrived home and examined my haul on the kitchen table, I was faced with overflowing bags of bok choy, arugula, and chard, not to mention a huge head of romaine lettuce. How on earth were Jim and I going to eat all of these greens before they spoiled in a few days?

shrimp

1. Bok Choy, Brussels Sprouts, and Shrimp Stir-Fry
We didn’t waste any time. On Saturday night we whipped up a quick stir-fry using the bok choy, some week-old brussels sprouts leaves from the farmers’ market, and shrimp. Jim created a light sauce using sesame oil, rice vinegar, and soy sauce, and we also seasoned the dish with fresh garlic and ginger. The slightly sweet sauce perfectly complemented both the meaty shrimp and the crisp, healthy greens. For a very off-the-cuff sort of meal, we were pleasantly surprised by its success.

spanikopita_process_01spanikopita_prefold_02soanikopita_folding_2.5span_oven_04

2. Arugula Spanakopita
When I took my massive bunch of arugula out of the fridge on Sunday, it was already starting to wilt. Fortunately we had already planned to use these peppery greens in some spanakopita appetizers for the Sunday football games. In our version of this Greek snack, we replaced its traditional spinach-based filling with arugula. After some slicing and folding of filo dough, these bite-size, flaky triangles of ricotta, feta, and chopped arugula were quickly assembled on Sunday morning, and devoured just as quickly a few hours later.

chard

3. Italian-Style Swiss Chard
As a finale to our weekend of greens, on Sunday night after the football games I blanched and sautéed the swiss chard as a side dish to some lovely braised short ribs my sister and her husband prepared for us. Lightly dressed with olive oil and lemon juice, the chard was a fresh, simple side dish to accompany the rich beef ribs.

So that was our weekend marathon of greens. I think we did a pretty admirable job with them, don’t you? We’re still working our way through that head of romaine lettuce, eating salads as quickly as we can. I’m optimistic that we’ll make it to the finish line without wasting any food, just in time for our next CSA challenge.

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Peach Buttermilk Soup

Once I get on a roll with something, I can’t stop. You may remember that over the winter I was obsessed with soup, trying out several different recipes in response to the never-ending, freezing weather outside. This summer, in comparison, has turned into my season of the peach.

A stone fruit tea cake packed with peaches was so delicious it inspired me to return to the blog after a long absence. Soon after came my successful attempt at Terra Luna’s imaginative peach carpaccio. And over this past weekend, I was inspired by Martha Rose Shulman of the New York Times to puree my favorite stone fruit into a tangy, Indian-inspired soup. (On second thought, perhaps my winter soup fixation isn’t resolved after all.)

makingpeachsoup

I soon realized that fruit soups are the perfect summer food. With most of them, there’s barely any cooking involved, whether you’re using peaches for this recipe, melons for that one, or even tomatoes for gazpacho. No hot oven is needed, no long-simmering pots on the stove. The peaches for my Sunday soup required only a brief swim in boiling water and then a quick dip in ice water, so that their skins slipped off easily. After peeling them, I quickly chopped the fruit into small pieces, and pureed most of them with some buttermilk, honey, and lemon juice. Cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, and vanilla extract were added right before I put the soup in the refrigerator to chill. It was really that easy.

peachdrink01

Shulman compares this soup to a lassi, which is an Indian milkshake drink. Jim and I sipped it slowly for dessert, after an appropriate home-cooked meal of tandoori chicken and basmati rice. The thick mixture slowly slid down our throats, the slightly sour buttermilk tamed by the sweet peaches and rich, almost warmth-inducing spices. Toasted almonds, added at the last minute as a garnish, provided a crunchy contrast to the smooth liquid. It was just as good for breakfast the next morning, while I sat at my desk and reviewed my work for the rest of the day.

I cut all of the measurements for this recipe exactly in half, so that I only had enough soup for three people instead of six. In retrospect that may have been a mistake, as I was left craving more by the time I emptied the bowl. Obviously I’m not ready for my summer of peaches to end.

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Memories of Essaouira

During our honeymoon in Morocco, Jim and I spent a few days in the seaside town of Essaouira. We strolled the narrow stone streets overlooking the ocean and relaxed on the beach, breathing in the salt air with each step. One hot, sunny day at lunchtime, we walked down to the port and seated ourselves at one of the myriad fish stands right by the water. Seagulls swarmed overhead, swooping down every so often to investigate the fresh seafood that local fishermen unloaded from their boats.

At the time, Jim and I didn’t eat fish often. But there was no way we could avoid it in Essaouira, and neither did we want to. Maybe we were still giddy from our wedding or something, I’m not sure. Anyway, we ordered a big platter of straight-from-the-sea, grilled sardines for lunch. Using our hands, we picked our way past the charred, salty skin and spindly bones to the cleanest, freshest meat we had ever tasted. Four years later, we still talk about about that lunch and its effect on us.

sardines_cooking

This past weekend we tried to recreate that meal—or at least the spirit of it—in a very different setting. We pulled our grill pan out from under the sink, heated it through, and grilled 2 pounds of barely seasoned sardines for dinner. A Brooklyn apartment might seem a shabby substitute for an exotic African port, but it didn’t hinder us at all. After cooking for just a couple of minutes on each side, the skin of the shimmery fish was transformed into a crackly coating, and our apartment was quickly infused with salty scents of the sea. (That’s my nice way of saying it smelled like fish.)

I don’t know why it took us four years to cook sardines at home, especially when there are so many benefits to eating them. Sardines are a highly sustainable fish source, which at least puts my mind at ease in terms of purchasing and eating them. And in addition to being a great source of omega-3s, they are low in all those scary contaminants I keep reading about. These small, oily fish surprisingly pack a big nutritional punch.

sardines_cooked

But let’s not forget how good they taste. I served ours atop a bed of rice, with some fresh lemon wedges on the side. The crisp skin was a perfect foil to the fresh, flaky meat hidden within. Even though we were miles away from Morocco, Jim and I were transported there for just a moment, as we once again used our hands to pick past the tiny bones towards the light, clean flesh of the sardines. Fishy apartment aside, it was a great trip.

Recipe for Indoor Grilled Sardines (adapted from Martha Rose Shulman’s recipe in the Recipes for Health section of the New York Times)

  • 2 pounds of cleaned sardines
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • sea salt
  • pepper
  • lemon wedges

Heat a grill pan over medium heat, until it is very hot. While the pan is heating, rinse the sardines, and dry them with paper towels. Toss with olive oil, and season them generously with salt and pepper.

When the grill is ready, place the sardines on it. Grill for 1 to 2 minutes on each side. Transfer to a platter using tongs and serve with lemon wedges. Serves 2. Enjoy!

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A Rustic Fruit Dessert

Usually after a prolonged absence from the blog I take a few minutes to explain where I’ve been and what I’ve been up to. Well, this time is different, as I don’t have any excuses or stories to share. The simple and short explanation is that I got lazy, swept up in the easygoing vibe of summertime. I pushed the blog to the back burner and spent some quality time at the beach, computer be gone. But one look at the piles of fresh peaches and plums at the farmers’ market near my office last week quickly changed my attitude. The multiple baskets of tender stone fruit, bursting with their sweet, sticky juices, instantly awakened my urge for cooking, and yes, blogging.

cake

I knew exactly what I wanted to make with this summertime bounty. During one of those relaxing afternoons at the beach (as I sat under an umbrella with my toes buried in the sand, of course) I came across a gorgeous-looking recipe for a stone fruit tea cake in Gourmet magazine. Published from a new cookbook called Rustic Fruit Desserts, this recipe seemed perfect for me and this sunniest of seasons: simple, forgiving, and filled with ripe fruit. 

The key to this recipe is in the dough. Instead of a traditional pie dough, flour, baking powder, salt, sugar, and eggs are combined into a loose, almost cream-like mixture. No rolling or painful dough transport required here, as I carefully spread half of the sticky dough into an even layer across my tart pan. After tossing the peaches and plums on top, I dropped the remaining dough in tablespoon-size pieces across the mounds of fruit, wherever I found room. This liquidy batter doesn’t follow any rules, but that’s what being “rustic” is all about, right? A sprinkle of brown sugar, 40 minutes in the oven, and my cake emerged. Bits of pink plums and orange peaches peeked through browned cushions of cake, promising a sweet taste of the season.

slice

I brought the cake to a barbecue over the weekend, and all I can say is that if the rest of the recipes in Rustic Fruit Desserts are this good, then I have to run out and buy the book. Every bite revealed the inherent luscious nature of the fresh fruit, while the surrounding cake was light and airy in its own right. The recipe suggests serving this dessert with a dollop of cream, but we didn’t bother. Oh, and if you can’t tell, you don’t need to serve tea with this tea cake either. It is perfect on its own.

I didn’t change the recipe (except for substituting a sprinkling of turbinado sugar with brown sugar before baking), so I am not reprinting it here. You can access it in the August 2009 issue of Gourmet, on Gourmet’s website, or in the new cookbook Rustic Fruit Desserts.

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