In Morocco, it’s possible to see the Atlantic and the Mediterranean at the same time.
~Tahar Ben Jelloun

A tajine (طاجين), is a cooking vessel—a partially glazed earthenware dish with a pointed, conical lid. But, tajine also refers to the traditional North African method of slowly braising succulent meat (often lamb and chicken) with sweet & savory fruit woven in a prolific complexity of aromatic spices.

Couscous is a coarsely ground semolina pasta which has been a staple in North Africa since the 12th century. It is often steamed in a device the French call a couscoussier. which resembles a double boiler with the upper part having a perforated bottom which is set over a pot of boiling water or over the tajine served with the couscous. The recipes below are created using more conventional cookware.

Couscous scents are unmistakable—intricate, ambrosial with thoughts drifting to Paul Bowles’ contemplative Moroccan sojourn in The Sheltering Sky and the doleful blue magic of Ali Farka Touré’s guitar and plaintive voice.

CHICKEN MAROCAIN

1 1/2 T coriander seeds
1 1/2 T cumin seeds
6 cardamom pods

1 T paprika
1 T turmeric
1/2 T ground cinnamon
1/2 T cayenne pepper
Sea salt & freshly ground pepper

4 local, free range, organic chicken leg-thigh quarters or one whole chicken cut into 8 pieces, room temperature
Extra virgin olive oil
3 peeled, slightly crushed fresh garlic cloves

3/4 C medium yellow onion, diced
1+ T fresh ginger, minced
2 T garlic, minced
1 T red pepper flakes
2 cinnamon sticks
2 jalapeno or other chile peppers, diced

1 C dry white wine
1 T tomato paste

1 28 oz can of san marzano tomatoes, drained and chopped
1 C chicken broth
1 C canned chickpeas, drained and well rinsed
3/4 C kalamata olives, pitted and halved
2 T honey
2 preserved lemons,* cut into wedges
2 bay leaves
1/2 C chopped dried figs
3/4 C currants, plumped in warm water, then drained

Toast cumin seeds, coriander seeds and cardamom pods in a medium saucepan over low heat until fragrant. In a spice or coffee grinder since devoted to spices, blend until fine. Combine with remainder of rub spices, then rub over chicken liberally. Let stand for at least 1/2 hour or refrigerate longer. Keep unused spice rub in pantry for later use in other dishes.

Heat 3 TB oil a high-sided, heavy bottomed pan or dutch oven over medium high heat with smashed garlics. Remove garlic, then add chicken skin side down, sauté chicken until browned on both sides, 5 minutes each side. Remove and loosely tent. Pour off all but 1-2 TB drippings.

Add onions and sauté 2 minutes. Stir in peppers and saute another minute. Then, stir in the ginger, garlic, pepper flakes, cinnamon stick. Cook until fragrant, for another 1 minute.

Deglaze with wine and tomato paste, stirring. Simmer gently until liquid almost evaporates.

Add tomatoes, broth, chickpeas, olives, honey, lemons, bay leaves, figs, currants and stir to combine. Arrange chicken in pan, cover and reduce heat to medium low. Simmer until chicken is cooked through and sauce is somewhat reduced, about 20 minutes.

Finish with:

Fresh mint & cilantro, chopped
Grated lemon rind
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

*Preserved lemons are among the most widely used ingredients in Moroccan cuisine.

4 large lemons (preferably thin skinned), scrubbed
2/3 cup coarse sea salt
1 cup fresh lemon juice
4 caradamom pods
olive oil

Dry lemons well and cut each into 8 wedges. In a bowl, toss wedges with salt and transfer to a glass jar (about 6-cup capacity). Add lemon juice and cardamom pods; cover jar with a tight fitting glass lid. Let lemons stand at room temperature 7 days, shaking jar each day to redistribute salt and juice. Add thin layer of olive oil to cover lemons and store, covered and chilled, up to 6 months.

COUSCOUS WITH APRICOTS

2 T extra virgin olive oil
1 small or medium yellow onion, peeled and minced

1 T turmeric
1 t coriander (toasted & ground)

1 cup couscous
1 1/2 C chicken stock, slightly simmering
1/2 t lemon zest

2 T green onions, sliced
1/4 C dried apricots, coarsely chopped
1/4 C whole almonds, toasted & coarsely chopped

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a heavy medium saucepan add olive oil. Sauté onion in oil until soft and translucent. Add the turmeric and ground coriander and sauté gently over low heat until slightly fragrant. Add the couscous then the warm chicken broth. Stir with a fork to combine, add lemon zest and cover. Remove from heat and let stand for 10 minutes, then uncover and add the green onions, almonds and apricots. Fluff again with a fork. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Toss gently to combine.

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I am Sam, Sam I Am

January 29, 2009

Do you like green eggs and ham? Would you like them here or there? … Would you like them in a house? on a train? in the rain? with a goat? on a boat? You may like them you will see…

P.S. to an earlier post about developments in the White House culinary staff (Obama Fare—Gratin Dauphinois).

Sam Kass, a private chef who cooked for the Obamas while they were living in Chicago, will now serve them in the White House.

A Chicago native, Mr. Kass, 28, graduated from the University of Chicago and received his formal training at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Europe. He later worked at Avec, a Chicago wine bar serving Mediterranean food.

Mr. Kass then founded Inevitable Table, a private chef service in the Windy City that purports to be a “link to clean, healthy food.” The services advertised include cooking and shopping “mainly from local farms,” buying wines from “small sustainable wineries,” and offering meals for children and private parties.

Not to worry White House executive chef, Cristeta Comerford—a spokeswoman for Michelle Obama said Mr. Kass will not be the only cook preparing the first family’s meals, but “he knows what they like and he happens to have a particular interest in healthy food and local food.”

Mr. Kass’s appointment again underscores the Obama family’s commitment to healthy, local and sustainable foodstuffs. Is an organic vegetable and herb garden on the White House grounds in the offing? Imagine the bounty from the White House kitchen waste alone which could reaped to create an official presidential compost bin. A science project for Malia or Sasha?

I do so like green eggs and ham, thank you, thank you, Sam I am…

GREEN EGGS AND HAM

Pesto

3 cups fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped
4 fresh, plump garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
1/4 C pine nuts, lightly toasted
1/3 C grated Parmigiano Reggiano
1/2 C extra virgin olive oil, more if needed
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Put the basil, parsley, garlic, pine nuts, cheese, and olive oil into a food processor or blender. Blend in pulses until the paste is fairly smooth, adding more oil if it is too thick. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper; set aside.

Bruschetta & Proscuitto

1 loaf Tuscan bread or baguette
1 head garlic, cut in 1/2 crosswise
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

8 thin slices of proscuitto di parma or san daniele del fruili
Extra virgin olive oil

Preheat broiler, placing rack 6″ from the element

Slice the loaf of bread, on the bias, into 3/4-inch slices. Place bread in oven on sheet pan and broil until golden brown on both sides, approximately 2 minutes for the first side and 1 to 1 1/2 for second side. Remove to a platter and rub each slice of bread with the garlic and then brush with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper; set aside.

Heat olive oil in skillet and sauté proscuitto briefly, 1-2 minutes.

Poached Eggs

1-2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
8 local, fresh, free range organic eggs,* room temperature
Parmigiano-Reggiano, freshly grated or shaven

Fresh eggs are mandatory as they will gather compactly around the yolk, resulting in a rounder, neater shape.

Fill a large heavy based skillet deep enough to cover the eggs with water; bring it to a boil, and add the white wine vinegar The vinegar helps to strengthen the albumin in the egg white which will help to retain shape. Reduce the heat until the water is at a simmer. If the water is too cool, the egg will separate before cooking; if the water is boiling too rapidly, the whites will be tough and the yolks over cooked.

Crack each egg into a shallow bowl to assure they are not broken.

Then, using a slotted spoon, spin the boiling water into a sort of vortex, whirlpool. Once the water is spinning rapidly, gently drop the egg from the bowl in the center of the whirlpool, where it will spin around and coat the yolk in a ball of egg white. Cook until the eggs are barely set, about 3 minutes. Remove the eggs, draining well with a slotted spoon and dab the bottom with paper towels to dry them off. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper.

To assemble: put a slice of bruschetta on a plate, toppped by a slice of crisp proscuitto; then place 2 poached eggs on top. Spoon a tablespoon of pesto over each egg. Finish with grated or thin shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano.

*Free range, organic eggs: Organic eggs are produced from hens that consume a special feed in which all of the ingredients are free from commercial fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides. Free range chickens usually have a covered shelter and access to an outside scratch yard. They are pasture-fed, also foraging for worms and bugs, which are ideal for their health and immunity systems.

…I do, I like them, Sam I am.

(“Fast and Frugal”)

Damn, I love frittatas.

In our ever budget conscious and frenetically paced world, there may be no better plate than a simple, rustic frittata. Frittatas are closely related to omelets, but instead of being gently folded on a skillet, they are served open and flat—more like its cousin, the tortilla española. At first, they are partially cooked in a pan over low heat and then finished under the broiler until firm. A wide array of “fillings” and cheeses are used which alter the heft and character of each frittata, ranging from simple herbs to heartier fare such as ham or sausage. Better yet, raid your refrigerator leftovers for frittata morsels.

Frittatas are often served just slightly warm or more often at room temperature; they can be served as an anytime meal — brunch, lunch, light dinner, midnight fare and are a fine match with a salad or even used as a sandwich filling.

SPINACH & MUSHROOM FRITTATA

1 1/2 T extra virgin olive oil

4 C loosely packed fresh spinach leaves, rinsed, dried and cut into thin ribbons
1 C sliced crimini mushrooms or stemmed and sliced shiitake mushrooms

8 large organic, free range eggs
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Slight dollop of heavy whipping cream
Pinch of cayenne pepper
A fresh sparse grating of nutmeg

1/2 C gruyère cheese, freshly shredded
1 C freshly grated parmigianno-reggiano cheese divided in two equal parts

Preheat the broiler.

Sauté the sliced mushrooms and leeks in butter and some olive oil, salt and pepper, then slowly cool them to room temperature—so the mushrooms and leeks do not cook the egg mixture with their ambient heat.

Crack the eggs into a large bowl and beat lightly with a wire whisk. Add the salt, peppers, nutmeg, spinach, leeks, mushrooms, half the parmigiano-reggiano, then beat and combine those ingredients.

In a 9″ ovenproof non-stick omelet pan or skillet, heat the oil over moderate heat, swirling the pat to coat the bottom and sides evenly. When the oil is hot, but not smoking, add the frittata mixture. Reduce the heat to low and cook slowly, stirring the top part of the mixture, but allowing the bottom to set until the egg mixture has begun to form small curds and the frittata is browning on the bottom (4-5 minutes). With a spatula, gently loosen the the frittata from the edges of the pan. Sprinkle with the remaining parmigiano-reggiano and the gruyère.

Transfer the skillet to the broiler, placing it about 6″ from the heating element, and broil until the frittata browns lightly on top. It will puff up and become firm in about 3-4 minutes, but watch carefully as ovens differ. However, take care to not open the oven too often during the process as the resulting drop in temperatures affects the cooking process.

Remove the pan from the broiler, give it a slight fresh grate of parmiggiano-reggiano, and let it cool for at least couple of minutes, allowing it to set. Next, either slide or preferably invert the frittata onto a flat plate.

A chilled, crisp sauvignon blanc makes a toothsome companion.

Yield: 4 servings

Pourboire: For an even more robust version, consider adding sauteed pancetta and/or 1 cup thinly sliced leeks (white and pale green parts only) or grated zucchini to the egg mixture. As always, think fresh seasonal greens, such as red or white chard, turnip, collard or mustard greens.

A Divinity: Roast Chicken

January 22, 2009

We were not satisfied with the qualities which nature gave to poultry; art stepped in and, under the pretext of improving fowls, has made martyrs of them.
~Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

Having authored another blog on a somewhat different topic, I became keenly aware of the shortcomings inherent in this medium. For instance, the reading is done in reverse chronological order, much as many of us tend to peruse magazines—from back to front. On a news oriented blog, this sequence works ideally as the most recent story is the first item you see. While I may intersperse news pieces on this site (see Obama Fare), the overall intent is to create an ongoing, yet comprehensive work which shares and discusses cooking techniques, recipes and food lore. Why this self conscious ramble? I suppose it is merely meant to enlist your patience as this work in progress unfolds given the somewhat backwards gait and unwieldy subject matter.

There may be nothing more comforting than a succulent, golden hued, crispy skinned roast chicken—the kind of meal that centers you. Maybe it’s due to tradition alone or the intense olfactory experience or perhaps the process of transforming the simple to the sublime. Here, we will explore a cooking method and techniques which will enhance this elegant, yet altogether rustic, dish.

While strongly suggested, but not mandatory, truss thy bird. Securing the tucked wings and legs of the chicken to the body with butcher’s twine creates a compact shape that allows for more uniform cooking. The main reason to truss is to ensure a juicy breast…dry bird dugs are not desired at most tables. When not trussed, oven heat circulates in the bird’s cavity and usually overcooks the breast before the legs and thighs are done. Should you opt out from trussing, at least stuff the cavity with citrus and onions or shallots, which will provide some prophylaxis.

ROAST CHICKEN

1 local, free range, organic roasting chicken (around 4-5 lbs), giblets reserved
3 T unsalted butter, softened
1/2 T dried thyme
Sea salt & freshly ground pepper
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
4 sprigs fresh thyme
2 dried apricots (optional)
2 prunes (optional)

1-3 heads fresh garlic, cut transversely (crosswise)

3-6 T brandy or cognac
3-4 T chicken stock, if needed

Preheat oven to 425.

Preparation:
Allow the chicken to sit at room temperature for at least 1/2 hour. Thoroughly rub the chicken inside and out with butter and season inside the cavity and outside with salt, pepper and dried thyme. Encourage more hands on that step. Place 1 sprig of rosemary, 2 sprigs thyme (and the optional dried fruits) inside the cavity of the chicken.

While this is suggested, but not mandatory, truss the bird. Securing the wings and legs of the chicken to the body with trussing string creates a compact shape that allows for more uniform cooking.

Place the chicken on a roasting rack on one side. In the bottom of the roasting pan, strew the neck, (the other giblets will be used later), remaining fresh thyme, rosemary and garlic heads with cut side up. The number of garlics you use is dependent upon their size and your preference for this versatile, supremely aromatic member of the lily family; but, I would suggest at least two heads.

Roasting:
Put the rack with the chicken on its side onto the roasting pan, and place into the center of the oven; roast for 20 minutes, uncovered, basting occasionally. Turn the chicken to the other side for 20 minutes, still basting. Then, turn the chicken breast side up and roast for 20 more minutes. During this last 20 minutes, drop in the remaining giblets. Reduce the heat to 375 and continue roasting with breast side up for 15 minutes more, still occasionally basting, until done. The bird should have a robust golden tone, and juices should run clear, yellow (not pink) when the thigh is pierced with a carving fork. Remove the herb sprigs and dried fruits from the cavity and place into roasting pan. Set the roasted garlics aside to serve.

Place an overturned soup bowl under one end of a platter or moated cutting board so it is tilted at an angle. Remove the roasting pan from the oven and turn the chicken so that the juices in the cavity are emptied onto the pan. Then, transfer the chicken to the angulated platter or board, with breast side down and tail in the air. This allows gravity to do its job as the juices flow down into the breast meat. Cut the trussing string free and remove.

Loosely tent the chicken with foil and let rest on the incline at least 15 minutes—it will actually keep cooking some, and the juices will disperse evenly throughout the meat.

Sauce:
Place the roasting pan over moderate heat, likely using two burners in order to heat the juices. With a wood spatula, scrape those bits stuck to the surface of the pan. If the pan is a lacking some liquid, just add some chicken broth. Then, when the pan is hot, add several tablespoons of brandy to deglaze* and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer several minutes until thickened—when it coats the spatula. (Consider also adding apple cider vinegar to the mix when adding the brandy to give it some pungency, acidity.)

While the sauce is reducing, carve the chicken. Strain the sauce, preferably through a fine chinois sieve, pour into a sauceboat and serve over or under the chicken. The straining will produce a velvety end product. The heads of garlic will have buttery texture and very subtle flavor, suitable for spreading on a fresh baguette.

This meal dances well with many forms of potatoes (particularly mashed), rice pilaf and green beans (haricots verts) with pine nuts. Also, a French burgundy or pinot noir will make your life whole.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

*Deglazing: a simple process by which liquid–stock, water, wine, cream–is added to the pan after the meat browning process to dissolve the residue. The bits adhering to the sides of the pan are scraped off and incorporated into the liquid. Deglazing ensures that the concentrated flavors are retained and become one with the sauce.

Not to beg, but does this plate rise to Obama Fare, Mr. President and Madame First Lady?