On this solemn day of remembrance, we pause to recall that ninety-five years ago one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century began. In that dark moment of history, 1.5 million Armenians were massacred or marched to their death in the final days of the Ottoman Empire.
~Barack Obama, April 24, 2010

Apricots were originally cultivated in China or India, depending on the source. They arrived in Europe through Armenia, which explains the scientific name Prunus armenaica. While this small, densely canopied tree first arrived in Virginia in the early 18th century, its appearance in the Spanish missions of California several decades later marked the real arrival on North America’s center stage. As the climate on the west coast is perfectly suited to apricot culture, these pastelled gems are grown primarily in sunny orchards there.

A drupe similar to a small peach, flesh tones range from yellow to orange, and even tinged red on the side most exposed to the sun. A single seed is enclosed in a hard stony shell which has three ridges running down one side. The skin can be glabrous or display short pubescent hairs—some catholic priests’ dreams. (Just this week, northwest Jesuits agreed to pay $166 million to more than 500 victims of sexual abuse, many of whom were American Indians and Alaska Natives who were debased decades ago at boarding schools and on the safe grounds of remote villages.)

Apricots are a good source of vitamins A and C, and also provide needed dietary fiber and potassium.

In the mood, once again, for my luscious little pearly friends known as Israeli couscous. This version is chocked with texture: the distinct pop of couscous, the nutty crunch of almonds, the tender chew of sweet apricots and currants. An apotheosis when nestled up to roasted or grilled meats.

ISRAELI COUSCOUS WITH APRICOTS, ALMONDS & CURRANTS

Sea salt
2 C Israeli couscous

Extra virgin olive oil
4 fresh, plump garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
Pinch crushed red pepper flakes
1 t cumin seeds, lightly toasted and ground
1/2 C sliced almonds, toasted
1 C chicken stock

1/2 C dried apricots, diced into 1/2″ pieces
1/4 C black currants, plumped in warm water and drained
4 scallions, both white and green parts, cut thin on the bias
Fresh mint, minced

Bring a saucepan or pot of generously salted cold water to a boil over high heat. Add the Israeli couscous and cook until cooked through, about 6-7 minutes. Strain from the water and reserve.

Coat a large sauté pan with olive oil. Add the garlic, crushed red pepper and cum, then bring to medium high heat. After a few minutes, add the almonds to toast them in the oil. When the garlic is golden and aromatic, remove from the pan and discard. Do not brown or the garlic will become bitter. Add the cooked couscous and chicken stock. Season with salt and cook until the stock has reduced by half. Add the apricots, currants, scallions and mint. Stir to combine well and serve.

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Rainbow Chard

February 2, 2011

the snow doesn’t give a soft white damn whom it touches
~e.e. cummings

A furious blizzard trekked across the midsection this week, paralyzing cities and towns, closing airports, interstates, schools, and businesses. The often blinding storm left behind frigid temperatures, ebullient students, “the sky is falling” forecasters and stark winterscapes. Some color seemed in order.

Our fortune lay quietly in the frig—the previous day the grocer was unloading tender, glossy leafed bunches of rainbow chard with crisp, vividly hued stems. As usual, I could not resist. Rainbow chard displays vibrant red, pink, white, and gold ribs that contrast with veined green leaves. A visual treat amid this cold, austere white.

A delicate side chocked with nutrients, chard may be steamed, sautéed, or braised.

RAINBOW CHARD WITH GARLIC & PARMIGIANO REGGIANO (OR LEMON)

1 large bunch rainbow chard, thick stems discarded and leaves cut into 2″ strips

3 T extra virgin olive oil
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled, minced or very thinly sliced
1/4 C chicken or vegetable stock
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Parmigiano reggiano, freshly grated or
Lemon zest, freshly grated

Add olive oil and garlic to a skillet over medium high heat. Sauté for 1-2 minutes, until garlic is fragrant but before it browns. Then add chard in handfuls and chicken stock, tossing. Season with salt and pepper and let cook until soft over medium high heat, stirring occassionally.

Remove, plate or toss in bowl and lightly sprinkle with parmigiano reggiano or lemon zest.

RAINBOW CHARD WITH CURRANTS & PINE NUTS

1 large bunch rainbow chard, thick stems discarded and leaves cut into 2″ strips

3 T extra virgin olive oil
1/3 C pine nuts
1/3 C currants
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a dry small skillet, toast the pine nuts until just lightly golden, stirring occasionally. Set aside.

Add olive oil to a large skillet and heat over medium high heat. Add chard in handfuls, season with salt and pepper and cook until it begins to wilt. Then, toss in the pine nuts and currants. Stir and continue to cook until chard is pleasantly softened.

Pourboire: Before cooking, chard needs to be thoroughly washed and dried since sand and other debris tend to nestle in the leaves. Instead of discarding, reserve the chard ribs for stocks and soups.

Smooth skins hued from deep purple to violet white, and bodies styled from pleasingly plump to gracefully slender, eggplants always bare tender, creamy flesh inside.

Though commonly thought of as a vegetable, eggplant is actually a fruit, and specifically a berry. Eggplants belong to the Solanaceae plant family, commonly known as nightshades, and are kinsfolk with tomatoes, bell peppers and potatoes. Eggplants have nothing to do with eggs other than their oblong shape which spurred their ovular name. Other cultures favored the term aubergine which is derived from the Sanskrit meaning “to cure wind disorder,” since eggplants were once thought to alleviate flatulence. The Sanskrit word vatinganah was somehow morphed to badingan by the Persians, then al-badinjan by the Arabs, alberengena by the Spanish, and finally aubergine by the French.

Native to India in wild form, eggplants were later cultivated in China around 500 B.C. The fruit was then introduced to the Mediterranean basin and Africa. Italy’s ardent affair with eggplant began in the 14th century. Myths persisted that eating eggplant caused insanity, not to mention leprosy and bad breath, which explains why eggplant was often used solely for decoration in many homes. Thankfully, so far I have at least avoided leprosy.

The Sicilian antipasto relish known as caponata is a poster child for food’s mottled history. An alluring triangular island smack dab in the middle of Meditteranean trade routes, Sicily has been conquered over centuries by the likes of Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Goths, Byzantines, Arabs, Germans, French, and Spaniards. Through all this rape, pillage and survival, Sicilians subtly borrowed along the way to engender a cradle of singular cuisine. But, it comes as no surprise that the origins of caponata are disputed.

Some say caponata is of Spanish descent, derived from the Catalan word caponada, a similar relish. Others emphasize that the root word, capón, a type of fish, suggest it was prepared with fish as in capón de galera which is a form of gazpacho served shipboard. Another school claims that the dish had to be a mariner’s breakfast because of the vinegar, which may have acted as a preservative. A final, yet less accepted, theory is that the word derives from the Latin word caupo (tavern) where cauponae was served—a form of gastropub for ancient travelers.

Caponata is protean, having as many versions as uses. Antipasto, contorno, bruschetta, pasta, frittata, paninis, with fish, atop grilled meats, etc.

CAPONATA ALLA SICILIANA

Extra virgin olive oil
3 medium eggplants, cut into 1/2″ cubes

3 T extra virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion, peeled and roughly chopped
2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced
1 T red chile pepper flakes

2-3 ripe medium tomatoes, cored, seeded, and chopped
3 T capers, drained, rinsed and dried
1/3 C green olives, such as cerignola, pitted and chopped
2 T pine nuts
2 T currants
2 t fresh thyme leaves, chopped

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 T balsamic vinegar
1 T sugar
1 t ground cinnamon
1/2 t premier unsweetened cocoa powder
1 T tomato paste

Fresh mint, stemmed and chopped
Red chile pepper flakes

In a heavy pot or large sauce pan, pour in olive oil until about 2 1/2″ deep. Heat over medium high heat and bring the temperature to about 300 F. You can drop small pieces of eggplant or bread in the oil and when it starts bubbling vigorously, it is ready. Add the eggplant and cook, until lightly golden, about 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer cooked eggplant to paper towels and drain.

Meanwhile, in a deep, sauté pan, heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil to medium high, add the onions, garlic and pepper flakes and sauté until onions are softened, about 8 minutes. Add tomatoes, capers, olives, pine nuts, currants and thyme. Stir some and cook until the tomatoes release their juices, about 6 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Whisk together balsamic vinegar, sugar, cinnamon, cocoa and tomato paste, add to pan, and cook until thickened, about 5 minutes.

Add the cooked eggplant, and continue to cook at a simmer until heated, about 2 more minutes.

Remove from the heat and allow to cool to room temperature. Garnish with mint and a pinch of chile flakes.

Pourboire:  consider dribbling caponata on bruschetta slices.

Bread Pudding & Alchemy

September 7, 2009

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. By a small sample we may judge of the whole piece.
~Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

Not for the cardiopathic or even faint of heart, bread pudding had its genesis in 13th century England. Known as “poor man’s pudding” it was created as a means of salvaging stale bread. Before it was baked, the bread was soaked in water, and then sugar, butter, fruit, and spices were added. The luscious, decadent modern version has been traced back to antebellum America when cooks began thickening custard based desserts with either powder or cornstarch and then flavoring them with vanilla, chocolate, nuts, or fruits. The powder and cornstarch were later replaced by bread.

Bain Marie (Mary’s bath) refers to the method of placing a pan of food in another pan with hot water in it to stabilize the heat reaching the food. Bain maries are rooted in the practice of alchemy as a means to heat materials slowly and gently. The term purportedly derived from the Italian bagno maria, named after a legendary medieval alchemist, Maria de’Cleofa, who developed the technique in Firenze in the 16th century. She was the reputed author of Tradtor della Distillazone (About Medicine, Magic, and Cookery). This thermodynamic concept was soon introduced to the French court’s kitchens by the cooks of Catherine de’ Medici. It has also been asserted that the process was named after Mary the Jewess (or Maria Prophetissima), an esteemed yet more ancient alchemist who was said to have discovered hydrochloric acid. Some have equated her to Moses’ sister Miriam—a chronologically disputed claim.

There are almost endless possibilities of added flavors and textures—chopped nuts, chocolate, citrus zest, brandy or rum, dried or fresh fruits. My weapons of choice for bread are brioche, boules, challah, or even croissants or buttermilk scones (Scones, May 23, 2009 post). To rachet up the richness, serve with crème anglaise (March 27, 2009 post).

BREAD PUDDING

10 C bread cubes, crusts removed, cut into 1″ cubes
4 large eggs
4 egg yolks
1 C granulated white sugar
1 1/2 t pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 t ground cinnamon
1 t freshly grated nutmeg
4 T unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2 C heavy whipping cream
2 C whole milk
3/4 C black currants, plumped in hot water, then drained
3/4 C walnuts, roughly chopped

Preheat oven to 300 F

Lightly butter a 9″ x 13″ baking dish.

With an electric mixer or whisk beat the eggs, yolks and sugar until thick, ribboned and lemon colored. Beat in the vanilla extract, ground cinnamon and nutmeg. Then beat in the milk and cream.

Toss the bread cubes with the melted butter in the baking dish and strew the raisins and nuts over the bread. Gently pour the prepared custard over the bread cubes until completely covered. Press down the bread cubes some so they are covered with the custard.

Prepare a bain marie. Place the filled baking dish into a larger pan, such as a roasting pan. Carefully pour in enough hot water in the larger pan so that the water is halfway up sides of the baking pan. Bake until the custard sets, about 45 minutes to 1 hour or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove and cool slightly before serving.

There are five elements: earth, air, fire, water and garlic.
~Louis Diat

A member of the beet family and a prolific grower, chard (Beta vulgaris var. cicla) is wholly underappreciated. It tolerates poor soil, inattention, and withstands frost and mild freezes. Chard comes in varying hues—red to white to multicolored—and can be served raw, sautéed, creamed…you name it.

Chard is a nutritional monarch, bringing to the table calcium, potassium, vitamin C, vitamin A and beta carotene, as well as two carotenoids (lutein and zeaxanthin).

SWISS CHARD WITH CURRANTS & GARLIC

4 T currants

2 lbs Swiss chard, stemmed, washed and drained
2 T extra virgin olive oil
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced
Pinch of crushed red pepper

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Parmigiano reggiano, grated

Plump the currants by placing them in a bowl of hot water and soaking for 10 minutes, then drain well.

Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil and add the chard. Cook until tender, about for 1 to 2 minutes. Drain and immediately shock in aa bowl of ice water, then drain and squeeze out liquid. Chop very coarsely.

Heat olive oil over medium heat in a large, heavy nonstick skillet. Add the garlic, red pepper and cook until garlic is lightly colored but not browned, about 1 minute. Add the chard and currants until well coated with oil and heated through, around 2 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper, grate with parmigiano reggiano and serve.

Pourboire: the stalks should be saved and can be used in pastas or as an aside by themselves.

Chicken Curry

June 1, 2009

I’m not confused, I’m just well mixed.
~Robert Frost

Curry — a pervasive word with disputed origins. Members of the East India Company which expanded to become the British Empire in India may have adopted, then transformed the word “curry” from the Portuguese who had adopted the term from Tamil term, karil or kaari. Others posit that the word may have originated from karahi, a wok style metal vessel in which some Indian dishes are prepared. Another theory is that curry evolved from kadhi or khari which is a northern Indian yogurt based dish. To further confuse matters, some linguists suggest that the word has English origins in the first place. During Richard II’s reign, the first English cook book was authored by a consortium of staff cooks and even philosophers whose work was entitled The Forme of Cury (ca 1390). Cury was the Old English word for cooking derived from the French verb cuire — to cook.

Curry is meant to appeal to the senses, and these bowls will not disappoint.

CHICKEN CURRY

6 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced (or sweet yellow onions)
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
1 – 2″ piece fresh ginger root, peeled and finely chopped
3 serrano chiles, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped
2 T water

3 lbs chicken leg-thigh quarters
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Curry powder*
2 T unsalted butter
1 T canola or vegetable oil

2 T curry powder
1+ T green, red or yellow curry paste
1/2 T biryani masala powder
1 t coriander, roasted and ground
1 t cumin, roasted and ground
1+ 14 oz can unsweetened coconut milk, stirred
2 C fresh chicken broth
1 jalapeño chile, stemmed, seeded and sliced (optional)
1 cinnamon stick
4 whole cloves
4 star anise
3/4 C black currants, plumped in hot tap water

Unsalted roasted cashews, chopped (for garnish)
Fresh cilantro, chopped (for garnish)

In a food processor chop fine shallots, garlic, ginger root, and chiles. Add water and purée to a paste.

Pat chicken dry thoroughly with paper towels and season with salt, pepper and curry powder. In a large, heavy casserole heat butter and oil over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking and brown chicken in 2 batches, about 5 minutes per side. Transfer to a platter and loosely tent with foil.

Over medium high heat add shallot paste and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Add curry powder, curry paste, biryani masala, coriander and cumin and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Add chicken with any accumulated juices and coconut milk, broth, chiles, cinnamon, cloves, star anise and black currants, then cover and adjust heat to a simmer. Turn chicken once, and braise until cooked through, about 20-25 minutes.

Transfer chicken to plate with tongs and boil sauce gently, stirring occasionally, until thickened, about 5 minutes. Discard cinnamon stick, cloves, and star anise and season sauce with salt. Serve chicken over jasmine or basmati rice in shallow soup bowls, topped by the sauce along with naan.

*Curry Powder:

2 dried red chili peppers
2 T coriander seeds
1 T cumin seeds
1/2 t mustard seeds
1/2 T black peppercorns
1 t ground ginger
1 t ground turmeric
1/2 t ground red pepper

In a small heavy skillet, combine the chile peppers, coriander, cumin, mustard seeds and peppercorns. Toast over medium heat, shaking the pan until slightly browned but not burned, 2-3 minutes. Cool and then ad to a spice grinder or coffee mill and grind to a fine powder. Stir in the ground ginger, turmeric and red pepper until well mixed.

An Homage to Brussels Sprouts

February 15, 2009

There is no love sincerer than the love of food.
~George Bernard Shaw

For all the carping, bitching and moaning about this much maligned vegetable, Brussels sprouts deserve our utmost respect and gratitude. Not only are they downright delectable, Brussels sprouts are one of those exceedingly healthy foods. A top tier vegetable in my book—and I am talking food, not medicine.

Brussels sprouts were named after Brussels (Bruxelles), the capital of Belgium where they were allegedly first cultivated, one of the few vegetables to have originated in northern Europe. French settlers who settled in Louisiana introduced them to America. Merci to another French culinary import.

Brussels sprouts look like perfect miniature versions of cabbage since they are closely related, both belonging to the cruciferous family. Available year round, they are at their best from autumn through early spring which is the peak of growing season.

Brussels sprouts grow in bunches of 20 to 40 on the stem of a plant that grows from two to three feet tall. Choose firm compact sprouts that are bright green in color. Hopefully, you are fortunate enough to have a neighborhood grocer that carries them still on the stem.

If the sprouts have already been removed from the stem when purchased, cut a very thin slice off the bottom to expose a fresh surface. Some cut a shallow crosshatch on the bottom as well. Remove all discolored and wilted outer leaves. Cooking time varies depending on size, but please do not overcook, so you can savor their al dente texture.

The health benefits of brussels sprouts are manifold. They contain significant amounts of the antioxidants vitamin C and beta-carotene (vitamin A), and nitrogen compounds called indoles which may reduce the risk of certain cancers. Brussels sprouts are also a good source of vegetable protein. Scientists have found that sulforaphane, found in Brussels sprouts, boosts the body’s detoxification enzymes which helps to clear potentially carcinogenic substances more rapidly.

A perfect dish for those obsessed by somatic concerns.

So, below are three huzzahs to brussels sprouts.

ROASTED BRUSSELS SPROUTS WITH PANCETTA

3 T olive oil
1/2 lb sliced pancetta, diced
4 shallots, thinly sliced
1 1/2 lbs brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
2 T unsalted butter

Preheat oven to 425.

Heat oil over medium heat in a roasting pan or heavy large skillet. Add the pancetta and cook until golden brown and crisp. Remove the pancetta to a plate lined with paper towels to drain. Add the shallots to the pan and cook until soft—sweat them. Add the Brussels sprouts and toss to combine. Season with salt and pepper and roast in the oven until the sprouts are cooked through and light golden, a little caramelized, about 35 minutes. Remove the sprouts from the oven and stir in the butter. Transfer to a platter and toss with the reserved pancetta.

BRUSSELS SPROUTS WITH CURRANTS

1 1/2 lbs brussels sprouts, trimmed
1 C black currants
2 T unsalted butter
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Place currants in warm water for 10 minutes or so, until they plump; drain through a sieve. Bring water to a rapid boil in a large pot, add brussels sprouts, and quickly return the water to a boil. Cook until just tender, then drain. Toss with plumped currants and butter.

For an even healthier version, use a steamer.

SHAVED BRUSSELS SPROUTS AND SHALLOTS

1 1/2 lbs brussels sprouts, trimmed

2 T unsalted butter
3 T olive oil
4 cipollini onions (bulbs), peeled and thinly sliced
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
4 T pine nuts, toasted

Slice brussels sprouts with a knife or by using the slicing disk of a food processor.

Melt butter with olive oil in a heavy large skillet over medium heat. Add shallots; sauté until almost translucent, about 3 minutes. Add garlic; stir 1 minute. Add brussels sprouts and increase heat to medium high and sauté until tender, about 8 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, toss with pine nuts and serve.