25 October 2009

Back to Morocco!

A couple months ago, my "traveling" supper club took a break just as we were about to visit Morocco. (Remember those b'stillas I told you about?) Well, we have bravely returned to the business of cooking and enjoying delicious food and wine together--not without a good dash of jubilation--picking back up at Morocco! We savored spicy keftas (meatballs), flatbread, baba ganoush, a butternut squash and chickpea ragout sweet with cinnamon, a chicken, cilantro, and rice dish, as well as this stew of tomatoes, chickpeas, and spices.

Wanting to expand my Moroccan repertoire beyond b'stillas, I looked around on the internet for (what I hoped were) authentic recipes. I found some descriptions of a tomato chickpea stew called harira, and cobbling together various recipes I ended up with this soup or stew. It's a fun medley of ingredients; chickpeas, lentils, and orzo pasta each contribute a unique shape and texture, a number of spices weave a deep flavor profile, and lemon juice and herbs add a light, fresh finish. It's super easy to make, healthy, and vegan-friendly (just replace the chicken broth), not to mention tasty! Four good reasons why you should try this Moroccan dish out.
Moroccan Chickpea Stew
(serves 12)

1 large onion, finely chopped
1 small celery rib (including leaves), finely chopped
2 cloves garlic
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
3 (15 oz.) cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed well
2 1/2 cups water
1 (35 oz.) can crushed tomatoes in puree (about 4 cups)
4 cups chicken broth
1 cup red lentils

1 cup chopped fresh cilantro, divided
3/4 cup dried orzo pasta
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
Extra lemon wedges for serving

Combine the first 14 ingredients plus 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro in a large heavy pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, until lentils are tender, about 35 minutes. (Can be made ahead to this point.)

Before serving, stir in orzo pasta and cook until tender, about 3 minutes. Stir in remaining cilantro, parsley, lemon zest and juice, and salt to taste. Garnish with more cilantro as desired and serve with lemon wedges.

21 October 2009

Panforte: the Italian strong bread

I'll always remember the road trip my family took through Italy six years ago. For one thing, it was the summer of the record-breaking heat wave in Europe 2003; there was one afternoon walking through the Roman Forum which would have seen us baked alive had it not been for the copious number of drinking fountains that Rome is so well known for. That was also the summer when my family learned that we should not go on road trips together. Wow. Let's just leave some of those stories untold. But, in between heat exhaustion and emotions running high over where we were going to eat next, there were some fantastic, happy moments that impressed themselves upon me deeply.
One of them was completely unexpected. It came on a day of visiting Assisi, birthplace of St. Francis. We were walking through the town, which is perched high on a hillside in Umbria. It was an overcast day, punctuated by intermittent showers that had us ducking into churches and shop doorways every now and then. One of the shops we took refuge in was a bakery. Surrounded by a vast array of incredible-looking creations, we decided to try some panforte for a morning snack. The shopkeeper cut off a wedge for us. It was a dense cake of dried fruits, nuts, and spices...much tastier than any Clif bar but probably just as good an energy source for the day. The wedge disappeared quickly as we meandered on through the streets of Assisi.
Days later, after visits south to Rome, Pompeii, and Accadia, we turned around and drove back north to Germany. Refueling in Tuscany, we noticed an exquisite array of biscotti and cakes in the gas station and asked, if by chance, they had any panforte. Sadly, they did not, and we were informed that they only offer it during the Christmas season. That made total sense to me, as the flavors of panforte ("strong bread") are reminiscent of those of the Lebkuchen ("life cake") that my German relatives make in their bakery from September through December.

So, it being October now, I believe we are well into panforte season too. I've looked around for a good recipe, and after tweaking one, I now have a recipe that I'll be enjoying for years to come. While it is called a cake, it is really more to be enjoyed as a confection in small pieces rather than as a slice of cake eaten with a fork. This sweet, fragrantly-spiced panforte is a luscious treat, and large wedges, decoratively wrapped, would make a great holiday gift. I hope you have a chance to try it out! I think the one I made a week and a half ago is in danger of disappearing just as quickly as the one we had in Assisi.

(adapted from Gourmet magazine)

4 teaspoons unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup whole almonds, toasted
1 cup whole hazelnuts, toasted and loose skins rubbed off with a kitchen towel
1 cup (8 oz.) soft dates, each cut into 6 pieces
1 cup (8 oz.) soft dried Mission figs, each cut into 6 pieces
1/2 cup soft golden raisins (4 oz.)
1/2 cup candied lemon peel (4 oz.)
1 tsp. (packed) finely grated fresh lemon peel
3/4 cup sugar
2/3 cup honey
1 Tbs. butter

Line a 9-inch springform pan with parchment, using a round for bottom and a strip for side. (Lightly oiling the pan first will help keep the parchment paper in place.) Lightly but thoroughly grease the inside surfaces of the parchment with non-stick spray or vegetable oil.

Whisk together flour, spices, salt, and 4 teaspoons cocoa in a large bowl, then stir in nuts and fruit and lemon peel.

Bring sugar, honey, and butter to a boil in a 2-quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat, stirring until sugar is dissolved, then boil without stirring until a candy thermometer registers 238 to 240°F, about 2 minutes.

Immediately pour honey over fruit mixture and quickly stir until combined (mixture will be very thick and sticky; if it cools and hardens too quickly, you might try setting the mixing bowl over a pan of simmering water, double boiler-style, as you stir, or try carefully microwaving a few seconds at a time in between stirs). Quickly spoon mixture into springform pan, spreading evenly with back of spoon. Dampen your hands and press mixture firmly and evenly into pan to compact as much as possible. Bake in middle of oven at 300°F until edges start to rise slightly and become matte, 50 to 55 minutes.

Cool panforte completely in pan on a rack, then remove side of pan and invert. Keeping parchment paper on, wrap well in plastic wrap and seal in a plastic bag. Store chilled one week to allow flavors to meld. Keeps up to one month when stored chilled. To serve, cut with a serrated knife into small pieces.

16 October 2009

Grandpa's Lentil Soup

I know that many of you, like me, are rejoicing that soup season is here. Soups can be so easy to make, and it is so much fun to play around with different combinations of ingredients! This past week, with cooler weather, darker evenings, and a huge rainstorm (that dumped over 10 inches of rain up on San Marcos Pass in the course of two days!), I have been in a soup mood. I've actually had three different soups this week. The first was a semi-homemade tortilla soup, the second was a semi-successful yellow curry soup with shrimp, cabbage, and roasted pumpkin, and the third was a lentil soup, made using a recipe from my Italian grandfather.

When my yen for soup set it, I knew this soup would hit the spot. It's been a while since my Grandpa passed away, but I still have a clear memory of him sharing this recipe with me. We were at his home in Florida (don't all New York-born Italian Americans dream of retiring in Florida?) 17 years ago. I think I had been asking about lentils or lentil soup for some reason, and he was surprised that my mom didn't have the recipe for his soup. A man of strong opinions, he averred that this soup was the lentil soup to make. He set his reading glasses on, pulled out a steno pad, and wrote this recipe down for me.

That's my grandpa sitting at the table, third from the left. He's passing a plate of food down the table. This photo must have been taken in the late 50s or early 60s. He sure loved to eat!

I'm not sure how this recipe was developed, whether my grandpa got it from his mother or from his own testing in the kitchen, but it has "family" stamped all over it for me now. It is a deeply satisfying lentil soup, savory with homey Italian flavors. I have to say that it is also ridiculously easy to make. No pre-sauteeing of mirepoix, no overnight soaking of legumes. Just chop a few vegetables and throw everything into the pot, then simmer away for 1-2 hours. You could make it on a slow weekend afternoon or throw it together for a quick dinner on a weeknight. And since it reheats well too, you can make it ahead of time and store it in the fridge for an even faster supper on a busy day.

So try this soup some evening soon, and when you do, remember my Grandpa, George Anthony Muligano.

Grandpa's Lentil Soup

2 cups dry lentils

2-3 slices bacon, raw and diced (I actually used chopped-up "Heart Healthy Ham" slices from Trader Joe's instead. The bacon is simmered, rather than fried, so don't be expecting crispy crunches of bacon in this soup.)

1/2 cup chopped onion (1 medium onion)

1/2 cup chopped celery (2 stalks celery)

1/2 cup chopped carrot (1 carrot)

3 T. snipped parsley

1 clove garlic minced

1 1/2 t. salt (to taste)

1/4 teaspoon pepper (to taste)

1 (16 oz.) can plum whole Italian tomatoes, cut up

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

Rinse lentils, drain. Place in large pot with 8 cups water. Add remaining ingredients except tomatoes and vinegar. Cover and simmer for 1 1/2 hours. Add tomatoes along with their juices and vinegar. Simmer covered for 30 minutes longer. Season to taste with salt and pepper. (For extra kick, I like to add a few dashes of hot sauce like Tabasco or Sriracha at the table!)

11 October 2009

Just enjoyed an exquisite lunch recently, featuring a lot of great produce from my garden. My eggplants, tomatoes, and basil are thriving beautifully, and I am loving it! This spring, don't forget to plant yourself some tomato plants...you might spend more on homegrown tomatoes (factoring in the cost of water here in Santa Barbara) but you will never, ever be able to buy tomatoes with such taste from the store, even if they're locally grown. The flavor of minutes-off-the-vine tomato can't be beat! I made a quick and easy salad of roasted eggplant slices (they get so creamy in the center!) layered with tomato over a bed of greens. Then I sprinkled balsamic vinegar, fresh corn kernels, torn basil, and crumbly goat cheese over and finished it off with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Life tastes pretty good about now.

10 October 2009

Perfect breakfast for an autumn morning

The air is crisp, and now people are turning in earnest to hobbies such as Saturday morning snuggling. Well slip on your cozy socks, grab a mug of tea, and check out this great recipe. What better way to wake up than with the smell of cinnamon and nutmeg and a hot stack of pancakes?

I am always amazed how simple ingredients like buttermilk and home-roasted pumpkin come together to form these delicious pancakes. Really, there is no pancake out there that I've tasted that rivals these pumpkin pancakes of mine. The recipe is fool-proof, turning out golden, fluffy pancakes with steaming hot, moist interiors. Still have some leftover roasted pumpkin from making your ravioli? Or do you have a pumpkin sitting around, as yet unroasted? (Or maybe you have a can of pure pumpkin on your pantry shelf but can't bring yourself to make a pie with it?) Well, here is another fantastic pumpkin-based recipe with fragrant spices and tummy-warming goodness that you will want to make again and again. Let these pancakes become your Saturday morning tradition this fall!

Pumpkin Pancakes

1 1/4 cups buttermilk

3/4 cup mashed, roasted pumpkin
4 large eggs, separated, room temperature
2 Tbs. sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 Tbs. melted butter
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon each ginger, allspice, and nutmeg
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt

Using an immersion stick blender (or electric hand mixer), blend buttermilk, pumpkin, egg yolks, sugar, and vanilla in medium bowl until pumpkin is pureed and all ingredients are thoroughly combined. With blender running, mix in melted butter. Whisk flour, spices, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in large bowl to blend. Add buttermilk mixture to dry ingredients and mix until just combined.

Using an electric mixer, beat egg whites in a clean, medium bowl until soft peaks form. Immediately fold whites into batter in two separate additions.

Lightly oil or butter heavy large skillet pre-heated and on medium heat. Working in batches, pour batter by 1/3 cupfuls onto skillet; cook until bubbles break on top and edges are cooked. Turn pancakes over and cook until second sides brown, about 1 minute.

Sprinkle with toasted pecans (tossed in a little melted, salty butter) and drizzle with pure maple syrup.

05 October 2009

No gelato maker? Try a semifreddo!

Do you ever wish you could make ice cream at home but don't have an ice cream maker? That's the quandary I have been facing after reading a procession of delicious-looking ice cream and gelato recipes over the course of the summer months. I dipped into the world of online reviews, determined to find myself the perfect ice cream maker and came across Cuisinart's ICE-50 BC and thought I had found the one. It goes for about $300, and while it is pricey, I thought that with its fully integrated freezing component (no pre-freezing of bowl inserts needed!) it would be worth it. But then my father, who knew of my search, came along and told me about an Italian machine, the Musso Lussino. After reading the description of the superior qualities of the Musso Lussino--sleek body, powerful engine, fast performance--how could I go back to the Cuisinart ice cream maker?

The huge hurdle, however, was the price. Not having $700 to drop on an ice cream machine, I suspended my shopping foray, hoping for a day when I could afford the bliss of homemade gelatos made on a machine I could be proud of. Then my uncle (a master baker and also experienced ice cream maker) suggested I try making semifreddo. Semifreddos are Italian frozen desserts much akin to ice cream, but with a key difference: air is incorporated into the creamy mass before freezing, rather than as a result of churning during the freezing process. Thus, if you have an electric beater and a freezer, creamy frozen desserts are within your reach!

I seized at the first semifreddo recipe I came across...a cantaloupe semifreddo from Gourmet magazine. It was surprisingly easy and gave delicious results! While their recipe calls for grappa (a pretty strong liqueur) and grenadine (for coloring), I omitted the grappa and replaced the grenadine with a few drops of red food coloring, which enhances the natural orange glow of the cantaloupe. Another thing to note, if you try their recipe, is that it makes about twice as much as would fit in one loaf pan. I froze half in a loaf pan, which looked nice when unmolded onto a serving platter, and the other half I froze in a plastic container and scooped out for serving. Either way, it has a pretty presentation!

Cantaloupe Semifreddo
from Gourmet magazine
  • 1 pound peeled chopped cantaloupe (about 2 1/2 cups)
  • 1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, divided
  • 3/4 teaspoon grenadine (for color; optional)
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 5 large egg yolks
  • 3/4 cup heavy cream

Line loaf pan with plastic wrap, leaving an overhang at each end. Purée melon with 1/3 cup sugar, grenadine (if using), and salt in a blender until smooth. Transfer to large metal bowl and stir in yolks. Set bowl over a saucepan of simmering water and beat with mixer until pale, thick, and tripled in volume and registers 170°F on an instant-read thermometer, about 8 minutes.

Remove bowl from saucepan and set in a large ice bath. Continue to beat until cold, about 6 minutes.

Beat cream with remaining 2 tablespoons sugar in other large bowl using cleaned beaters until it just holds soft peaks. Fold whipped cream into cantaloupe mixture gently but thoroughly.

Pour mixture into pan and freeze, loosely covered with plastic wrap, until firm, at least 5 hours. Uncover top and invert semifreddo onto a plate.

03 October 2009

Pumpkin Ravioli

Is it really fall? With temperatures in the seventies and all this sunshine, it's easy to think that it is still summer in Santa Barbara. This morning I went for a walk at Butterfly Beach and felt pretty warm in shorts and a tank top! But weather aside, the changing produce availability is telling me that summer truly is merging into fall. Just this past week, a friend of mine gave me a pumpkin that he picked over in the Valley (that is, the Santa Ynez Valley), and I have been thinking about what I most want to make with it. I love pumpkin pancakes and pumpkin soup, but with this first pumpkin of the season, I decided to make pumpkin ravioli. With onion, sage, and rosemary straight from my garden, the savory goodness of the pumpkin filling was irresistible.

Last year it struck me how little we appreciate this fruit of the vine. Certainly there is a huge market for the pumpkin in America, but the pumpkins we buy generally go to the front door with a jack-o-lantern face, doomed to a mouldery demise. Many Latin American cultures, however, prize the pumpkin as a culinary delight, which moved me to make a last minute decision not to carve my Halloween pumpkin but instead send it to the roasting oven. I cut it in half, scooped out the seeds, and placed the pumpkin on a baking sheet, cut side down. After one hour roasting at 420 F, the flesh was soft and the rind easily peeled away. This left me with fresh pumpkin, all roasty and golden, primed for a plethora of creative uses in the kitchen or ready to eat with just a simple sprinkling of sea salt. Who wants canned pumpkin now, with the abundance of fresh pumpkins available today? And who wants to stick to the trite pumpkin pie, when there are so many other great things you can do with pumpkin?

Pumpkin Ravioli
(makes 16)

1 Tbs. olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 large cloves of garlic, minced
2 Tbs. minced fresh sage
1 Tbs. minced fresh rosemary
1/2 cup white wine (my standby is pinot grigio)
1 tsp. sea salt
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
2 cups roasted pumpkin flesh (from a 2-lb. pumpkin)
32 Won ton wrappers

Saute onion and garlic in olive oil over medium heat until soft and translucent. Add herbs, wine, salt, and pepper, and cook until liquid has evaporated, stirring occasionally. Add roasted pumpkin and puree with an immersion stick blender until all ingredients are well blended. Continue cooking 5 minutes until liquid no longer gathers.

To assemble ravioli, place 1 rounded tablespoon of pumpkin filling at the center of a won ton wrapper, moisten the edges with water, then place a second wrapper over the filling and press firmly to seal edges. (While working, keep stack of won ton wrappers covered with a damp cloth to prevent premature drying.)

Cook ravioli in batches in gently boiling salted water for about 3 minutes. Avoid overcrowding the ravioli in the cooking water so that they don't stick together. Toss with a simple sauce of browned, melted butter and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

Celebrating Santa Barbara's food culture

This past Thursday kicked off epicure.SB October 2009, "a month to savor Santa Barbara cuisine, libations, and culture." It was a feast for the senses, looking at Fran Collin's photographs of chefs, kitchens, and local food on display at The Book Den, sipping local-brewed ale from the Telegraph Brewing Company, tasting the most exquisite avocado blossom honey from San Marcos Farms, and learning about cold-brewing coffee at The French Press.

If you live in Santa Barbara, October stretches before us with a bounty of food festivals and tasting events! Some of the events are ongoing throughout the month, such as the 31-day "Eat Local" challenge (you'll realize how diverse and plentiful the offerings are in Santa Barbara, support local business, and reduce your carbon footprint!), or restaurant "local spotlight" tasting menus at Coast, Downey's, Olio e Limone, and others, or art gallery shows featuring food-inspired paintings, mixed-media, photography, and more!

Then of course are the festivals, such as the 23rd Annual Avocado Festival this weekend in downtown Carpinteria. You can learn about the history of avocado farming in the area, vote for your favorite guacamole, and sample interesting avocado concoctions like avocado ice cream from McConnell's and beer-battered avocado (pictured below).

Next weekend stop by the Santa Barbara harbor for the annual Harbor & Seafood Festival. You'll enjoy looking over the fresh local catches, watching cooking demonstrations, and eating lobster, crab, and uni (sea urchin sushi)! Many more fun happenings are planned for the month, so check out the calendar of events and join in the celebration!

I just came across this season's issue of edible Santa Barbara, pictured at left, and loved reading more about the abundance of food and wine that comes from our land!