Sunday, November 27, 2011

contemplating nature and spice

Deborah takes a hike...
The perfect weather this Thanksgiving weekend led me out of doors to walk off some of the holiday meal.  Rockefeller State Park Preserve is touted for its scenic walking trails and it did not disappoint on Saturday when I wandered through the wooded areas taking pictures and enjoying the warm fresh air.
As I composed and shot my photos I began to think about my friend Michele Beck, a visual artist who keenly observes nature with a quiet poetry. Michele's work explores the quirky side of the human impulse to impose our physical presence, and our story telling, on the natural world. She makes these observations sometimes by discovery and sometimes by design, tapping in to spirituality, myth and creation. Her work is very contemplative and inspirational; perfect for a walk in the woods!

These photos, inspired by the work of my friend Michele Beck, were all taken on the 13 Bridges Trail at Rockefeller State Preserve, a two mile loop that was perfect for my casual stroll.

The walking of course made me hungry and it is always time to think about the next meal. A simple saute of vegetables livened up with a spice blend seemed like a good way to segue back into post holiday eating. I had been waiting to try the Moroccan spice blend Ras el Hanout that I had recently received as a gift and this seemed like a perfect occasion.

The blend has many ingredients including allspice, cumin, nutmeg, cardamom, clove and rose petals. I was excited about the rose petals but I have to admit they kind of got lost in the sauce. It seems there are many variations to this blend, not unlike curry powder.

The best way to get to know a spice blend is to use it.  I began by sauteing up some shallots in oil to create some caramelizing, then add the spices and let them simmer in the oil for a few minutes to infuse the oil with their flavor.  I like to let the vegetables cook until just tender so there is still a hint of crunch in the center.
What a shock to discover this morning that the carrot seeds I planted in the spring could actually yield something edible. So exciting!

Any number of vegetable combinations could work with this recipe. I like cauliflower cooked with assertive spices. I think it really holds up to bold flavor. The Ras el Hanout reminded me of a Jamaican jerk spice blend, very floral and woodsy. The carrots added a sweetness and the green beans bring crunch and color. The finished dish was addictive with the robust spice making this light dish really hearty and satisfying.

Mixed Vegetables Seasoned with Ras el Hanout
1 shallot minced
pinch of salt
2 Tbs. canola oil
1 teaspoon Ras el Hanout
1 cup of sliced carrots
1 cup cauliflower broken into florets
1cup of green beans chopped into two inch pieces
1/4 cup water
Juice of 1/2 lemon

•Cook the shallot with a pinch of salt, in the oil for 5-7 minutes, stirring frequently, until the shallots are golden brown and a bit gummy.
•Add the Ras el Hanout and stir to coat the spices completely in the oil. Toast the spices in the oil for 2-3 minutes on a medium heat.
•Add the chopped vegetables and stir to coat with the spice oil. Let the vegetables sit in the hot pan without moving, to get a few brown spots, turning up the heat a bit if you need to. Stir every few minutes until most sides of the vegetables have cooked in contact with the bottom of the pan.
•Add the water, let the water come to a simmer and then cover the pan and allow to cook for 5- 8 minutes, until the vegetables are tender and cooked through. Squeeze the juice of half a lemon over the vegetables and serve.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Deborah gets ready for a big cooking day...
Just because Thanksgiving is at our doorstep there is no need to panic. The beauty of this cooking-centric holiday is that so much can be done ahead of time. I would like to say, this leaves you free to do other things, but I find it just leaves you free to do more cooking. Ahem.

If you are going to make pies it is worth getting the dough preparation out of the way early.  My pie crusts were made well in advance. The dough gets chilled in the fridge and after an hour can be rolled out and fitted into a pie tin, then frozen till ready to use. I put the fillings into the frozen crust and just throw it in the oven. Voila!

Brussels Sprouts with pecans and lemon zest
Brussels sprouts can be cooked in salted water till tender the night before serving. To finish them, in a large saute pan I toast some chopped pecans in olive oil, add a dash of dried coriander and the jest of a lemon and then throw the Brussels sprouts into the pan to rewarm them, tossing with the seasoned oil. Allow the sprouts to brown in spots and pour a little lemon juice over them at the end of cooking.

Cranberry Sauce is a definite do-ahead, even days in advance. I like to roast the cranberries with a quartered orange, spreading the fruit out on a flat baking sheet covered with a few tablespoons of sugar. The roasting gives an extra depth of flavor to this otherwise ordinary condiment. Roast in a 400 degree oven for about twenty minutes till the cranberries begin to brown a bit and start to pop open. I then transfer everything to a saucepan, add a little water, more sugar and a star anise, and simmer till the cranberries are total mush. Fish out the orange and the star anise before serving.

If you are planning on making a dish with leafy greens like Swiss chard, spinach, kale or escarole, the greens can be cooked a day in advance and then stored in the fridge till you are ready to finish the dish. I am going to make a gratin with these Swiss chard leaves that I cooked in salted boiling water for 10 minutes. I am going to prepare them using the recipe for escarole gratin in my last post.

In my family it is not Thanksgiving without mashed potatoes, a huge chore for the cook. Peel and quarter the potatoes the night before and store them covered in cold water in the fridge. The next day add some salt to the water and cook till tender. I like to put my potatoes through a food mill for a consistent texture. Lots of cream and butter make this a once a year treat for me.

Have fun this Thanksgiving, relax and enjoy. No one wants a stressed out cook. Simple is always good!

Many thanks and Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

There's something about leftovers

Deborah takes home a doggie bag...

The trees say late fall, the weather says late summer. 
Any Italian restaurant that fills their antipasto display table with vegetable dishes gets a giddy reaction out of me. I am reminded of the restaurants I have wandered into in Rome that showcase multiple tiers of cooked vegetable dishes one can choose from to start a meal Roman style. Bellisimo!

The restaurant Pesce Pasta on the upper west side of Manhattan was a place I knew nothing about, but being hungry I peeked in. When I saw the vegetable antipasto sitting out on a display table right by the front door I was sold.  Ordering a plate of sauteed greens in Italian restaurants is a must for me when I feast on pasta. This night I ordered the escarole, a leafy member of the endive family that is also used as a lettuce green. A HUGE portion arrived at the table, far more than my dining companions and I could consume, although we tried.  The remaining greens came home with me. How lucky!
Pesce Pasta's Escarole with Garlic

Whole nutmeg shown here in its shell.
This time of year as we inch towards Thanksgiving, I have gratins on my mind. They are hit-the-spot soulful preparations that can be quickly assembled and lovingly devoured hot out of the oven. This recipe for Escarole Gratin can be made from leftover sauteed greens like I had on hand or made with uncooked escarole that is blanched in boiling water for a few minutes until tender. The white sauce, or bechamel, is a classic technique that I frequently use. It is really easy to make and is a recipe worth learning as it is a good basic sauce to add a hearty richness to any vegetable preparation.

Escarole Gratin
2 Tbs. Butter
2 Tbs. flour
1 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste
 2 cups of cooked escarole (either blanched or sauteed)
1/2 cup grated gruyere cheese

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees
Melt the butter in a small sauce pan. Add the flour and quickly whisk the two together. Pour in the milk and allow the mixture to come to a low boil. Continue to whisk to smooth out any lumps as the sauce begins to thicken. Add the nutmeg and salt and pepper. In a large bowl mix the thickened sauce with the cooked escarole and the grated cheese. Pour mixture into an oven proof dish. Bake for 25-30 minutes until the top starts to turn golden. Serve immediately.

Monday, November 7, 2011

long day's journey

Deborah runs her own mini marathon...
My poor little kitchen has been getting a real workout these days. Not quite the same kind of workout as the NYC Marathon runners this past Sunday, but somehow it feels like it.  I ran my own little endurance race on Sunday when I realized that the post-marathon party I was catering on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, situated right in the thick of the marathon route, could not be reached by car because of street closures. All the food, a buffet dinner for 50 people, would have to get there by city subway. This meant careful packing and serious lifting and carrying. I was not alone in this undertaking. One of the other cooks contributing to this party was coming from Brooklyn with a shopping cart brimming over with her food and she is five months pregnant.

NYC presents all kinds of logistic challenges to its denizens. We city dwellers are accustomed by necessity to carrying heavy bags of EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE. This may explain why so many NYC women have shapely arms and slim legs. There is a plus side to everything!

This Sunday's post-marathon party was a collaborative effort by several cooks from Wellness in the Schools to thank and honor the sponsors of our amazing marathon team who raised a very impressive amount of money for this worthy non-profit. Our culinary theme was seasonal, of course, and it had to be hearty to fill the bellies of those inspirational runners.
 This is the cake!!! Unbelievable! No way, I did not bake it.

 In addition to the spinach salad the buffet showcased the best of the season with a sprouted lentil salad, a sweet potato salad and tortellini in a porcini mushroom sauce.

My recipe for spinach salad with quinoa and walnuts is so easy to prepare. It is a light, but filling dish that could be served as a first course or as a light lunch.
The last spinach harvest will be in the farmers market about now. The salad is enlivened by a squeeze of lemon juice and the olive oil gives the walnuts a toasty warmth.
Spinach Salad with Walnuts and Quinoa
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup walnuts
16 oz baby spinach
1 cup cooked quinoa (prepare according to package directions)
juice of one lemon
salt and pepper to taste

Heat olive oil in a small sauce pan and add the walnuts. Cook on a low heat for 5-10 minutes until the walnuts begin to turn a golden color and you can smell the nutty flavor. Arrange the spinach leaves in a serving bowl and toss with the cooked quinoa. Squeeze the lemon juice and salt and pepper over the spinach and toss to combine. Pour the warm oil and walnuts over the salad, quickly toss again and serve immediately.