Archive for February, 2008

Lentils, Merguez, and Memories of Morocco

Florence Fabricant’s Lentils with Merguez

Last week’s chilly weather and first snowstorm arrived without much warning, taking me by surprise after the mild, not-really-winter we’ve enjoyed for the past few months. During such cold spells I need food that will warm me up quickly, preferably without too much effort. When I saw Florence Fabricant’s recipe for Lentils with Merguez in last week’s New York Times, I knew I had found my dish. A meal inspired by sunny North Africa was practically guaranteed to infuse our apartment with heat and comfort.

While I’m usually not one for casserole-type dishes, this recipe’s North African twist intrigued me. Three years ago, Jim and I spent our honeymoon in Morocco, where we explored the local cuisine and fragrant spice markets. If this casserole could simultaneously remind us of our trip and leave just one pot to clean, I was all for it. (Any memory of Morocco is welcome to us, as our camera was stolen on our way home and we don’t have any photos. But that’s a story for another time.)

Even though the recipe takes about an hour and a half from start to finish, it’s pretty low maintenance overall. Basically, merguez, onions and carrots are baked in the same pot with lentils, vegetable stock, and sun-dried tomatoes. In addition to the North African lamb sausage, cumin and Spanish smoked paprika contribute to the dish’s exotic vibe. After about an hour in the oven, a mixture of panko flakes, reserved merguez fat, and parsley is sprinkled over the top of the casserole and baked for 10 minutes at high heat, resulting in a bright and sunny breadcrumb crust.

Florence Fabricant’s Lentils with Merguez

Jim ramped up the spice factor with some harissa on the side, but I wanted to enjoy the casserole’s smoky comfort. The rich merguez complemented the pearl-like lentils and sweet sun-dried tomatoes while the panko crust made itself known with a subtle crunch here and there. Served with a simple salad and a glass of red wine as suggested by Ms. Fabricant, this meal indeed warmed me up as I had hoped.

The recipe is said to serve 6, so Jim and I needed three days to finish it. But for some reason, we didn’t tire of it; the memories of our summertime honeymoon in Morocco must have helped a little bit. And as promised, there was only one pot to clean.


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Ravioli Nightmares

Over the past year on this blog, I’ve raved about making my own bread, delighted in the joys of homemade tagliatelle, and proudly displayed my Thanksgiving pumpkin pie. More often than not I’ve enjoyed the culinary challenges I’ve faced in the kitchen, learning from each failure and success. But last week I encountered a cooking project that almost destroyed me: homemade ravioli.

Arugula, Ricotta, and Sun-Dried Tomato Ravioli filling

For the dough, Jim and I started with Jamie Oliver’s recipe from his newest book, Cook with Jamie, which called for 5 cups of flour and 12 egg yolks. In the past, dear Jamie has never steered me wrong. But no matter what Jim and I did, this dough would not come together. We tried adding more eggs. When that didn’t help, we added a bit of water. Finally we begged. Immune to our desperate pleas, the dough remained a stubborn mess of dry flour, and we finally had to scrap it and start over. We turned to the recipe that came with my pasta machine, which simply needed 4 eggs and 500 grams of flour, and it formed a pliable dough right away. Perhaps the inclusion of egg whites significantly improved our pasta situation. Whatever the reason, we gave thanks and sighed with relief.

Sealing the Ravioli

We sent the dough through the pasta machine, producing smooth sheets of dough with ease. Our small kitchen table became ravioli central, as we sliced the sheets in two, placing small mounds of our arugula, ricotta, and sun-dried tomato filling on one half before covering them with the other. Next we carefully sealed the sheets together with water before cutting out the ravioli squares. But our troubles only continued: I criticized Jim’s sealing method, as I thought he was leaving too many air pockets in the dough; he thought I was too nitpicky. Our backs and our feet ached as we leaned over the table, sealing, cutting, and griping. After 3 hours we had produced 49 ravioli, and for the sake of our bodies (and our marriage), we called it quits.

Arugula, Ricotta, and Sun-Dried Tomato Ravioli

As we sat around the table with my sister Melissa and her boyfriend Nedim later that night, we regaled them with the trials of our dinner preparation. The ravioli, served with a simple tomato sauce, were certainly tasty, with the sweet sun-dried tomatoes, peppery arugula, and soft ricotta forming a tangy filling. I was thrilled that most of the delicate pasta packages survived the actual boiling process. But as I relaxed at the table, my feet encased in cushioned slippers, my sore back supported by my chair, I knew I was done. The most important lesson I learned from this cooking experience is that I won’t be making my own ravioli again anytime soon.

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Dim Sum at Pacificana Restaurant

Dumpling Soup at Pacificana Restaurant

I looked over the banister at the crowd of people waiting for dim sum at Pacificana, a vast Chinese restaurant in the heart of Brooklyn Chinatown. At noon on Sunday the place was packed, door to door, up and down the stairs leading to the restaurant’s lobby. A harried, petite woman stood in the center of the antsy crowd, simultaneously hugging a podium and holding a microphone, shouting numbers as tables became available. I jostled my way closer in order to hear the numbers, which were more often than not announced in Chinese.

Finally I heard it: “148! 148!” I frantically waved to Jim, our friends Dave and Rachel and their three-year-old son Joseph, and ran through the red-and-gold decorated dining room after the host. We settled into our small table, armed Joseph with magic markers and chopsticks, and waited for the carts of steaming dumplings, buns, and other treats to approach.

Luckily a dumpling-laden cart and its friendly female driver soon cruised by our table. After our hour-long wait, we were ravenous, and dove right into dumpling heaven: fried balls of shrimp encased in a spindly, airy crust; bacon-wrapped shrimp dumplings; sweet, soft pork buns; delicate fried dumplings filled with even more pork.

Assorted dumplings at Pacificana Restaurant

According to the Food Lover’s Companion, dim sum means “heart’s delight” in Cantonese. It’s a pretty accurate description for me, as Chinese dumplings are one of my favorite foods. But as we learned at Pacificana, dim sum dishes include more than just dumplings. I pointed wildly at the cart serving razor clams in a brown, spicy sauce in order to procure a plate of them for our table. We picked them apart as best we could with our chopsticks, and I concentrated so intently on my food that I barely noticed when Joseph threw a chopstick at my head. Neither did anyone else; Pacificana may be busy and bustling, but it’s also extremely child-friendly.

After resting for a few minutes, we started in on our second wave of food. Fried rice was passed around the table more than once, as we all ate small bites with our various dim sum. Silky, cool rice noodles in soy sauce provided a moment of peaceful comfort in the midst of our feast. We next sampled two small bowls of broth, each hosting a massive dumpling whose flavor developed with the addition of pickled ginger. Rachel and I delighted in a sweet, fried eggplant dish, while Jim and Dave ended the meal with spicy shrimp-stuffed peppers.

As we walked the three long avenues back towards the car, Joseph exclaimed, “What a fun day!” I couldn’t have agreed more. Supposedly Pacificana serves dim sum every day of the week. I’m envisioning a sick day from work pretty soon. Just don’t tell my boss.

Pacificana Restaurant, 813 55th Street (at 8th Avenue), Brooklyn, NY 11220  T: 718-871-2880 (I couldn’t keep track of how much each dim sum item cost, but our entire bill came to $56. Pretty darn reasonable, if you ask me.)

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Better Late Than Never II: Valentine’s Day

Moroccan-Spiced Rack of LambGrilled Asparagus 

Ah, love. For Jim and me, Valentine’s Day is spent at home, avoiding the over-crowded restaurants and cooking a celebratory meal that almost always includes a rack of lamb. 

This year was no different. On Thursday night we rushed home from work, arriving at the apartment within minutes of each other at 7 pm.  As I shrugged off my coat and reached to place it on a coat hook, I noticed Jim staring intently at me.

“Did you take the lamb out of the freezer this morning?” he asked.

“Um, no. Didn’t you?” I replied.

By now you have probably guessed the answer. We walked back to the living room and reached for our folder of take-out menus in disbelief. But as the shock of our mistake wore off, we decided not to fret; we would just create our Valentine’s Day meal the following day, without any stress. And so we spent that evening relaxing in front of the television, watching Lost, eating casual Italian take-out, and doing nothing, which turned out to be just what we needed during the hectic work week.

On Friday night we started over. Jim made a marvelous rack of lamb with a Moroccan-spiced crust. I grilled some asparagus and made a fresh salad. For dessert we enjoyed our own version of Cook’s Illustrated’s Chocolate Pots de Crème from the November/December 2006 issue. We had made them earlier in the week in preparation for Valentine’s Day (at least we thought ahead one time last week), but we took some liberties with the recipe based on what was available in our refrigerator. We ate this slightly too rich, dense dessert in small bites from the heart-shaped ramekins Jim bought for our first home-cooked Valentine’s Day dinner several years ago.

Chocolate Pots de Creme

So, even though we didn’t get the Chocolate Pots de Crème ingredients quite right, and we didn’t celebrate Valentine’s Day on its official day, it was okay. In fact, in our own way, Valentine’s Day was perfect.

Recipe for Christina and Jim’s Chocolate Pots de Crème, adapted from Cook’s Illustrated

  • 5 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped fine
  • 3 large egg yolks
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons sugar
  • a dash of table salt
  • 1 1/8 cups heavy cream
  • 1/2 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 tablespoons water

Place the chocolate in a heatproof bowl; set a fine-mesh strainer over the bowl and set aside. Next whisk yolks, sugar, and salt in a medium bowl combined. Whisk in the heavy cream. Transfer the mixture to a medium saucepan and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly. Mixture will be thick and silky when ready, in about 8 to 12 minutes.

Pour the custard through strainer over the chocolate. Let the mixture stand to melt the chocolate, about 5 minutes. Whisk in the vanilla. Divide evenly among 4 small ramekins. Gently tap the ramekins against the counter to remove air bubbles.

Cool the pots de crème to room temperature, and then cover with plastic wrap until chilled, at least 4 hours or up to 72 hours. Garnish with whipped cream if desired. Serves 4. Enjoy!

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Better Late Than Never: No-Knead Bread

Jim Lahey’s No-Knead Bread

Trends come and go, and I often find myself running far behind them, never able to keep up with newest gadget or fashion. BlackBerries? I’m afraid of them. Skinny jeans? I prefer the boot cut variety I’ve been wearing for the past seven years. But at least I’ve finally caught on to one of the most significant culinary revolutions of the past year and a half: Jim Lahey’s No-Knead Bread.

As soon as Mark Bittman published this recipe in his New York Times column back in November 2006, both experienced bread bakers and novices were amazed. The recipe proved itself time and time again: You too can make rustic, European-style bread in your home, and without a lot of work. Just combine some instant yeast, white flour, salt, and water, and let the mixture sit for a long time. I mean, a really long time, about 20 hours altogether. Time does all the work while your dough rises in the corner, out of sight and out of mind.

I read about this recipe everywhere, yet I didn’t consider trying it. I had never heard of instant yeast, and I didn’t own an enameled cast iron Dutch oven, which was recommended as the pot best suited for the recipe’s success. This bread wasn’t for me.

But this fall it re-entered my consciousness. Luisa of The Wednesday Chef (one of my favorite food blogs), tested a quicker variation of the recipe, also from the New York Times. After comparing the results, she still preferred the original No-Knead recipe. Suddenly I just had to make this bread. I started thinking about it all the time and even went on the prowl for instant yeast. I finally found some cellophane-wrapped packets high up on a shelf at the Red Hook Fairway, hidden among the birthday party supplies.

Next I resorted to begging, turning to Jim and my parents for a Le Creuset Dutch oven. Jim was reluctant, as our tiny kitchen was already overflowing with pots, pans, and appliances we barely used. But finally my parents gave me one for my birthday. I broke it in with those sausage sandwiches, but my second project was No-Knead Bread.

The recipe was just as easy as it sounded. I put the dough in to rise at around 12:30 pm on Saturday, ran some errands, went out to dinner, and finally, went to bed. I folded the dough a few times at 8 am on Sunday, let it sit a little longer, baked it at 10 am, and there it was: a beautiful, brown, crusty loaf of bread.

I dedicated that windy Sunday to Mark Bittman, making potato and leek soup from his new vegetarian cookbook. As soon as the creamy, soothing soup was ready, I took out my bread knife and cut into the rustic loaf. The crust crackled a bit, and then finally gave way to its soft, spongy interior.

Mark Bittman’s Potato and Leek Soup and a Slice of Jim Lahey’s No-Knead Bread

I’ve been eating it all week, bringing slices to work with the leftover soup. With my next try, I’m excited to mix some whole wheat flour into the dough recipe. This is one trend I can handle. For once it’s nice to follow the crowd, especially if the crowd is making bread.

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