Thursday, February 27, 2014

Transitioning toward Spring

We're not quite at the wearing of the green but Spring is getting closer so it may be time for spring cleaning of the pantry: using up whatever's stashed, and time for thinking greens. That makes Ribollita the recipe of the moment. Ribolitta is simply Italian for re-boiled because the dish is more or less yesterday's soup and bread served today. The soup itself is a brilliant way to use up leftovers and pantry staples still hanging around, so you can clean out the kitchen before Farmer's Markets open. And it features greens available at winter markets.

Ribolitta comes from Tuscany, from peasants who couldn't afford to waste anything and it showcases their beloved local produce: kale, cabbage, white beans and Tuscan (salt-free)  bread. The idea was to use leftover minestrone and bread by combining the two and letting them meld overnight into an entirely new casserole-like dish. So there is no pat, uniform recipe for Ribollita: there are as many versions as there are Tuscan grandmothers. What's consistent is the blending of greens and beans with bread. That makes it perfect comfort food for right now when we're oh so ready for something hearty and bright green on the table.

I've been playing with recipes that vary widely from boil to bake, potatoes or not, and haven't settled on the ultimate ...yet. But here's a good start.  I didn't use potatoes because I figured bread was starch enough but I did throw in an old Parmesan rind for its rich smokiness. (Note: this is stomach and heart warming food that doesn't use any spices or hot peppers; it just purveys the flavors of kale, chard and cabbage.)

For 6 as main course
(Remember, you can tweak this anyway you want.)

3 tbsp and 2 tsp olive oil
1 med onion, peeled and diced
1 lg garlic clove, peeled and minced
½ tsp dried rosemary leaves (if you prefer oregano, go for it.)
2 sm or 1 lg celery stalks, finely chopped
1 lg carrot, peeled and finely chopped
½ Savoy cabbage, shredded
5 stalks red chard, stems removed and leaves chopped
1 bunch Tuscan/lacinto/blue kale, stems removed and chopped
6-7 cups broth or water
salt and freshly ground black pepper to your taste
2 cans (about 14 oz) cannellini (white kidney) beans, drained
1-2 tbsp tomato paste
6 slices day or two old (i.e.stale) Tuscan or other dense crusty Italian bread (dense is the key word)
Fruity olive oil for final garnish
Optional: 1 sm parmesan rind

Coat bottom of a large heavy-gauge pot with 3 tbsp olive oil and heat on medium flame.  Add onion, garlic, rosemary, celery and carrots. Sauté until soft, 5 minutes.  Season with freshly ground black pepper to your taste.

Add Savoy cabbage and chard, stirring to blend, and cook until they wilt.

Add broth, optional Parmesan rind, salt and kale. Bring to boil, reduce heat to simmer, cover pot and simmer 40-45 minutes, until vegetables are soft. Timing does not have to be precise.

Purée 1 can of beans. Add puréed and whole beans to the soup along with the tomato paste. (suit yourself with how much) Stir to blend everything. Continue to simmer with lid on pot 15 minutes. Stir from time to time so nothing sticks to the bottom.  Taste for salt and correct if necessary.

At this point, you can be very Tuscan and get out a large earthenware casserole pot, then layer the bread and soup in it. Or you can simply add the bread to the soup pot you’re already using, trying to “layer” it in. In either case, remove soup from heat and let cool. Refrigerate overnight so it sets up.

To serve: stir in 2 tsp olive oil. Reheat on low flame or in the oven until hot enough to eat. Garnish with more fruity olive oil. Serve with simple green salad.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

More colorful, tasty winter food: butternut squash in a whole new way

Sticking with the idea of brightening the blahs of winter with vivid, fragrant food, here's an easy to make but complex dish that's filling and seriously delicious. It features winter squash. It's gluten-free, if that's your thing now. It can also be vegan, if that's your thing. This very thick soup is a winner every which way.

Roasted Butternut Squash and Chickpea Soup
serves 4-6 depending on size of serving

       1 butternut squash, peeled and diced, reserving the seeds*
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 dried red chili, crumbled
2-3 tbsp olive oil
2 sticks celery, trimmed and finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
a few sprigs of fresh flat-leaf parsley, leaves picked and chopped, stalks finely chopped
2 small red onions, peeled and finely chopped
6 cups organic chicken or vegetable stock
2 cans (13/5-14 oz) chickpeas, drained
1/3 c ground/finely chopped almonds
½ tablespoon fennel seeds
½ tablespoon sesame seeds
½ tablespoon poppy seeds
       sea salt
              freshly ground black pepper
              zest of  2 lemons
              a few sprigs of fresh mint, leaves picked and chopped
              harissa or other hot sauce
              extra virgin olive oil
*if you don’t have squash seeds, use ½ cup packaged pumpkin seeds

Preheat oven to 400°F. Place the squash, cumin and crumbled chili on to a baking tray. Drizzle with olive oil, mix together and place in the preheated oven. Roast for 45 minutes until the squash is tender.

Once the squash is roasted, heat a large saucepan and pour in 2 tbsp olive oil. Add celery, garlic, parsley stalks and two-thirds of the onion. Cook gently with a lid on until the veggies are soft, about 5-8 minutes. Add the roasted squash and let it sweat for a few minutes, then pour in the stock. Bring to a boil, turn down heat and simmer for 15 minutes.

Add the chickpeas and simmer for 15 minutes more.
Meanwhile, in 2 tsp olive oil, toast the squash/pumpkin seeds with the ground almonds, fennel, sesame and poppy seeds until they are nicely browned all over.

Season the soup well with salt and pepper.  If you have a hand-held blender, whiz the soup for a few seconds so it thickens, but there are still some chunky bits. If you don’t have one, pour about 2/3 of the soup into a food processor and whiz a few rounds. Pour it back into the pot and blend.

Keep the soup on simmer. Mix together lemon zest, chopped parsley leaves and mint leaves. Chop remaining onion until it’s really fine, then mix into the zesty mixture.

To serve, spoon ½ tsp harissa paste or other hot sauce into each bowl. Divide the zesty herb mixture between the bowls. Ladle in the soup and stir each bowl once with a spoon to blend everything. Sprinkle on top the toasted seeds and almonds, and finish with a drizzle of really fruity olive oil.

Serve this with toasted pita, naan or lavash, a green salad, and perhaps a cheese platter if you're not vegan.

NOTE: if you use vegetable stock, this soup is vegan and gluten-free.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Spice up your life right now

Strong spices can go a long way to relieve the bleak tedium of winter and the few foods it still offers fresh. Many of them actually warm the body. All of them wake the taste buds. They are a great benefit.

Many cultures have their own mix for the job. In South Asia (India, Pakistan, Nepal) it's garam masala, literally 'mixed spice'. It's subtler than our version, "curry powder," and often added at the final moment of cooking so it hits the tongue with full force. The key ingredients of garam masala are turmeric, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, clove and black pepper.  Moroccans have "ras al hanout", a fragrant concoction  whose name means "head of the shop" as in "best available spices in the shop." It's likely to include cardamom, clove, cinnamon, paprika, coriander, cumin, mace, nutmeg, peppercorn, turmeric and sometimes even rose petals or lavender.

My favorite is Ethiopian berbere, which has a zing of heat. I use it to roast pumpkin seeds, steam cauliflower and mash winter squash. I love it on chicken, especially fried, and put a pinch on ribs. It's terrific in a chickpea tagine or soup, or with any beans.  Here's my version, which I bother to make every few months and keep in a jar in the fridge to grab at any moment my taste buds need a wake-up call.

Ethiopian Berbere
1/2 tsp cumin seeds

2 tsp. coriander seeds
1 tsp. fenugreek seeds
12 tsp. whole black peppercorns
6 white cardamom pods
4 whole cloves
3 dried arbol chiles, stemmed, seeded,
and broken into small pieces
3 tbsp. paprika
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground allspice
1 tsp. ground nutmeg
12 tsp. ground ginger
12 tsp. ground cinnamon

1. In a small skillet, combine coriander seeds, fenugreek seeds, black peppercorns, allspice, chilies, cardamom pods, and cloves. Toast spices over medium heat, swirling skillet constantly, until fragrant, about 4 minutes.
2. Let cool slightly; transfer to a spice grinder and grind until fine. Mix with the other salt and spices until everything is thoroughly blended.
3. Transfer the mixture to a bowl and stir in paprika, salt, allspice, nutmeg, ginger, and cinnamon.
NOTE: when ready to use you will have to add a garlic clove or two blended with minced with 1 tsp freshly minced ginger root. 

Here's an easy way to try this with ingredients from the pantry and winter market:
Spicy Green Lentils with Carrot

1 cup french green lentils
3 c vegetable broth
2 cups diced onions
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp  fresh ginger, minced
1 cup diced carrot
1 cup diced tomatoes (boxed are fine right now)
2-3 tbsp Berbere spice mix
1 tsp salt
3 tbsp olive oil
Fresh Italian parsley for garnish

In a medium heavy bottom pot, or dutch oven, sauté the diced onion, carrots, garlic and ginger in the olive oil, until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the berbere, blend and sauté 2-3 minutes. Add green lentils,  diced tomatoes,  and 3 broth.  Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat to low and cook until lentils are just past al dente, about 30-40 minutes. Check there is enough liquid as they cook and add 1/4 cup at a time if necessary.  Serve garnished with chopped fresh Italian parsley. 

These are great for vegetarians on a bed of basmati rice or couscous with garlic laced sauteed broccoli rabe on the side. Carnivores can enjoy them with deep fried chicken that's dusted with berbere before getting coated, with pan fried chicken, roasted turkey, or flank steak marinated in red wine to soften tough fibers and dusted with berbere before being grilled or broiled. Just remember to get chicken and beef from your local farmer so it's poison free.

For carnivores, fragrant and filling lamb tagine is another good option right now. A tagine is a North African stew made in the oven or on the stove top that mixes meat with the sweetness of fruits, nuts and sensuous spices. For 4-6 people, you'll need 2 lbs of good quality stewing lamb cut into chunks. After that, it's up to you.  I just made a lazy lamb tagine with raisins, dried apricots, green olives and raw almonds.  I seasoned the lamb with salt and pepper, then browned it in olive oil in a heavy casserole pot with lid. I threw in a diced onion and when it was soft and golden, I added in lieu of 2 tbsp ras al hanout 4 minced garlic cloves, an inch of fresh ginger minced, 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon, 2 tsp ground coriander, 2 tsp ground cumin, 2 tsp paprika, a lg pinch of saffron threads, 1/2 tsp dried mint and 1/2 tsp salt. I let that saute a minute and added raisins, about a doz dried apricots and a dozen pitted green olives. (Some people would add an inch of orange peel but I didn't.) I covered everything with water that was about 1" over the top, stirred in a tbsp tomato paste, brought everything to a boil. covered the pot, reduced heat to low and let the tagine stew for 90 minutes. Then I skimmed off impurities and fat, threw in a dozen raw almonds and let it cook another 5 minutes while I made couscous to serve underneath where it could sop up that scented sauce.  I garnished the whole shebang with freshly chopped cilantro leaves and savored the sublime smell in the house.