Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Jam Session

Strawberry jam seems to be everybody's favorite so you can never make too much. And you don't have to use what you keep just on croissants and scones.  You can slap it on vanilla ice cream, slather it on pancakes or smear it on a cheese or yogurt cake. In fact last week I made a flash batch--less than 15 minutes--of strawberry rhubarb and covered a yogurt cake with it for a very impressive potluck dessert. It was first to disappear.

Unfortunately strawberries are one of the trickier fruits to turn into jam. They don't have as much pectin as raspberries or apricots which jell in five minutes or less.  Strawberries need patience. Twenty minutes on average of stirring and feeling the heat. But later you get to feel the love.

So here's how to go about it.
A quart of fresh strawberries--not the large tasteless watery ones from California--will yield four maybe five half-pints of ruby red jam. With them you will need a lime for all its juice, a pinch or two of cinnamon, a pinch of nutmeg, optionally 2 tsp of rosewater, and 1 heaping cup of sugar. Lately I've been using turbinado instead of plain white. If you are using granulated white, try to mix in a tbsp of light brown as it will add richness.

Now this is MUCH LESS sugar than commercial brands and commercial recipes call for. You cannot eliminate sugar: it is the major preservative here, preventer of an evil bacteria takeover. But lime juice is also a bacteria killer/ preservative so you can use less sugar.  There will be a consequence though: once the jar is opened it will not last indefinitely the way sugar loaded commercial jam does. That's why it's sugar loaded: shelf life. Once opened, the jam must be kept in the refrigerator and eaten within 2-3 weeks. That's why I put it in small jars. ;o)

Get the jars boiling while you make the jam. You make the jam by putting all the ingredients in the tallest pot you have because when it gets hot sparks are gonna fly. You will need a spatter screen and mitts that go up your arm. You also need a long handled spoon, longer the better.

Do you cut up the strawberries? Depends on whether or not you want chunks in your jam. I recommend cutting up the large ones but not the smallest ones. I sometimes split the middle, sometimes not. 

Fire up the burner and stir up the pot.  Stir every minute or less. Eventually as the sugar heats up it will bubble. Stir away the bubbles. When it hits boiling, the whole mixture will rise up; you must stir it down.
If you see any foam on the surface, try to scrape it off: this is excess sugar and you don't want it in the jars. Now just keep stirring until you have thick jam.  How do you know that you do? If you pull up a spoonful and it's not willing to run off the spoon but tends to stick around and drop of in clumps, you've got jam.  If you run a spoon across the bottom of the pot and the jam clears a real path so you see the pot bottom, you've got jam.

You ladle the jam into the hot jars, almost but not quite to the top. Seal the jars and put them back into the boiling water bath. Water must cover them by at least 1 inch. Boil for 10 minutes. Remove and wait to hear the pop! that means they've sealed. Then cool and label and think sweet thoughts about how happy you are going to make everyone you love

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Let's Make a Date

For a while now, I've wanted to reveal my great love affair with fresh Medjool dates, which I only met last summer. Since it's now Ramadan, and dates are its core sustenance, this is a good time to admit I have at least one date a day. And they're remarkably easy to find. Just make sure you get fresh ones.

Dates are an amazing storehouse of nutrition: just about everything a body needs. Iron, vitamins, fiber, potassium and natural sweetness that can reduce your desire to overeat. That's why they're such a terrific fast-breaking food. 

You can just pop one in your mouth, beware the pit, and chew away to paradise. You can also pile them around cheese. I've started dressing up a plate of grilled Halloumi on a bed of arugula with a date or two. They sweeten up yogurt and oatmeal, as good partners for fresh walnuts. I also chop them into salads, any excuse for one, but my favorite is bitter arugula with thin red onion rings, fresh pea shoots, toasted walnuts and chopped dates with a hint of fresh mint. If you've got frisee around, chop in too. The person who introduced me to dates, not knowing I had never met fresh ones before, always combines them in salad with citrus: tangerine, orange, mandarin.

Here are some of my favorite recipes, and I do mean favorite thanks to the dates.

Celery Date Salad
This one was under the celery post but here it is again.
erves 6

8 celery stalks, thinly sliced on the diagonal. Chop the leaves too.
6 fresh dates, pitted and coarsely chopped
1/2 c roasted almonds, halve. Whole is okay too.
1/2 sm red onion, diced
2 tsp minced fresh mint leaves
pinch red pepper flakes
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 oz shaved Parmesan cheese 
3 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1/4 c extra good olive oil

Combine celery and leaves, dates, almonds, onion and pepper flakes in a serving bowl. Moisten with the lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper. Add the cheese and olive oil and lastly stir in the mint leaves.

Lamb with Fresh Dates
This has been my new all time company dish.
  Serves 8-10

3 lbs cubed lamb

5 lg garlic cloves, minced

2” fresh ginger, peeled and grated

1 tbsp paprika

2 1/2 tsp ground cumin

3 tbsp butter

1 lg onion, sliced into thin rings (you’ll need about 2 cups)

Pinch saffron

2 tbsp tomato paste

2 cinnamon sticks

2 tsp dried ginger

1/8 tsp ground cayenne (1/4 if you like hotter)

1/2 c chopped fresh dates plus 24 whole Medjool dates (yes, with pits)

1/2 cup raisins (preferably golden) soaked in hot water with 1 tsp rose water

Optionally: 1/2 c pomegranate arils

1/2 c chopped fresh cilantro leaves for garnish

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Season lamb generously with salt and pepper.

Combine garlic, fresh ginger, paprika and cumin in a small bowl, then smear it all over the lamb. Let the lamb sit in that on the counter for at least an hour or wrap it and leave it overnight in the fridge. Return to room temperature to continue.

In a Dutch oven or large heavy gauge lidded casserole (think Le Creuset), melt butter over medium heat. Add onions and saffron and generous salt. Sauté until onions are soft, about 5 minutes. Stir in tomato paste and continue cooking another minute. Add lamb and sauté until meat and onions are lightly browned.

Heat oven to 400º. To the lamb pot, add cinnamon sticks, dried ginger, chopped dates and enough water to just cover everything. Bring to a simmer, cover the pot tightly with a lid and put in the hot oven. Bake at 400 for 1/2 hr, then reduce heat to 350º. Check liquid and add water if it has fallen below the meat. Continue to bake another hr until the meat is almost falling apart.

Remove from the oven and skim off any obvious surface fat. Add the whole dates, stir, cover the pot and put it on a burner with medium/low heat. Cook about 5 minutes until dates are plump from the sauce. Remove from heat. To serve, pour into a large bowl, top with drained raisins, optional arils and cilantro
Anatolian Hot Bulghur with Fresh Dates
another great party dish 

Serves 6-8 (cut in half for 3-4)

2 cups coarse grain bulgur

4 tbsp butter or ghee (divided 3 & 1)

2 med/lg carrots peeled and julienned into matchsticks

¾ cup blanched slivered almonds

3 tbsp pine nuts

3 tbsp pistachio nutmeats (raw or roasted)

1/8 tsp ground cinnamon

¾ lb (12 oz) dates, pitted and coarsely chopped (use soft dates)

¼ lb (4 oz) dried figs, coarsely chopped (bite-size pieces)

1 tsp rose water

1 tsp salt

½ bunch cilantro, leaves only chopped for garnish

8 oz plain thick yogurt for serving

Put the bulgur in a large bowl and pour in enough boiling water to cover it with 1 extra inch. Stir to blend. Cover the bowl and let the bulgur steam for 25 minutes.

In a large heavy skillet or casserole, melt 3 tbsp of butter or ghee over medium heat. Add the carrots, lower heat slightly so they don’t burn, and sauté —stirring from time to time--until they’re soft and buttery, about 10 minutes. 

Add cinnamon and all nuts. Stir to blend; sauté on low heat another minute so the nuts begin to color. Add dates, figs and rose water. Blend everything.

Drain the bulgur and add it to the pot with salt and 1 tbsp butter.  Mix everything until the fruits, nuts and salt are distributed through the bulgur. Turn off the heat. Put a dishtowel across the top of the pot, put a lid on the pot and let the contents steam for at least 5 minutes.

Transfer bulgur to a large serving bowl and stir in chopped cilantro.

Serve the yogurt one of three ways: make a well in the bulgur and pour it in, or make a well in the bulgur and insert a small bowl filled with yogurt, or simply pass the yogurt around on its own. 

 Rhubarb Date Chutney
This recipe was filed in the rhubarb post, not long ago.  It is really yummy with hard cheeses!

Stuffed Dates
There are two ways I like to do this. One is to slit open the date, leaving a hinge on the back end; pop out the pit and stuff the date with soft goat cheese. Seal it back up.  If you are not vegetarian, you can then wrap the filled date in a thin slice of Iberico or Prosciutto.  The other option once you've stuffed it, is to bury it in ground lamb mixed with cumin, smoked paprika, garlic, salt and minced cilantro--making what looks like an oval meatball. You pan fry these "kofta" in olive or corn oil until brown on all sides--about 2 minutes per side, then serve warm on toothpicks or on a meze/tapas/antipasto plate. The date and cheese inside the meat makes a delightful surprise.

The other option is to forgo the more traditional goat cheese for sweeter mascarpone. You can actually half the date, remove the pit and slather each half with mascarpone, then top them with finely minced fresh mint to serve. Or you can seal the two halves together using the mascarpone as the glue. Either way, these are seriously scrumptious before or after the meal.

Berber Date Bars
from Veggiyana, the Dharma of Cooking

Makes about 24, which is never enough!

4 cups pitted dates (about 1 lb)½ cup ghee

Optional: splash of rose water or orange flower water1½ cup whole almonds or walnuts
pinch of ground cinnamon2 tbsp sesame seeds, lightly toasted
Optional: 1 tbsp lightly toasted shredded coconut

Line an 8” x 8” square pan with parchment or waxed paper, bringing it up the sides so you can grab it easily. Very lightly grease the paper with Crisco, corn oil or canola oil. If you are using coconut, sprinkle ½ tbsp around.

Toast the nuts on a baking sheet at 350 degrees for 5 minutes or until you can smell their aroma. While warm, coarsely chop and sprinkle with ground cinnamon.
Coarsely chop dates (you can use the pulse button on a food processor). Melt ghee in a large heavy gauge pot over medium heat. Lower heat and add chopped dates and optional fragrant water, stirring to blend. Cover and cook over low heat for 10 minutes or until the dates soften into a thick paste. Put half the date mixture into the square pan. Run cold water on an icing spatula or large spoon and use the cold, damp instrument to spread the hot dates evenly in the pan.

Pour chopped nuts on top. Put the spatula or spoon under cold water again and use it to spread them evenly, and also pushing them down into the dates. Cover the nuts with a layer of the remaining date paste, spreading it evenly with a cold, wet spatula or spoon. Push this layer down into the nut layer.
Sprinkle sesame seeds and optional remaining coconut on top and lightly press them down into the dates. Set the pan aside to cool for at least one hour.  Pull the parchment or waxed paper up so the date bars come out of the pan and can be put on a flat cutting surface.  Cut into small bars or squares. 

Kashmiri Compote
from Veggiyana, the Dharma of Cooking 
  Serves 6

2 tbsp ghee or butter 
¼ cup whole almonds 
¼ cup cashews, lightly toasted 
½ cup raisins 
1/3 cup coconut, chopped or shredded 
8 dates, pitted 
10 dried small apricots 
1 tsp whole black peppercorns 
½ cup water 
¼ cup brown sugar 
½ cup granulated or turbinado sugar
½ tsp ground cardamom or 6 crushed pods 
½ tsp saffron threads 
1 tsp fresh orange peel, minced 
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice

optional garnishes: candied ginger, fresh mint leaves, fried cheese.

In a medium saucepan, heat the ghee over medium flame. Add almonds, cashews, raisins, coconut, dates, apricots and peppercorns. Lightly sauté for one minute. Add water, sugars, orange peel, cinnamon and cardamom. Stir until the water boils. Lower heat and cook for five minutes. Soak the saffron in 2 tsp of hot water, crush it and pour into the fruits. Stir in lemon juice and continue cooking another 5 minutes, until the juice has become syrupy. Remove from heat. Fish out the cinnamon stick. Serve warm plain or garnished. (Suggestion: serve over cornmeal pound cake, oatmeal or pancakes.)

haven't tried it yet

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Oh, celery...comes with strings attached

Celery may be the most humiliated vegetable in America these days. It's common, well known but underestimated and misunderstood. Maybe because it has strings attached, what can be a majestic ingredient is mostly cut into sticks for the kids, or filled with cream cheese flavored one way or another. Or terribly miscast as the crunch in tuna salad. 

The Italians, who know a thing or two about comforting tasty food. rely on celery for its unique flavor, cooking it down from the get-go with the usual onions and garlic. You don't see it in the all-time champion comfort food, pasta e fagioli, that thick Tuscan macaroni and white bean soup, because it's been cooked down to nothing but a delicately bitter sensation that works in counterpoint with the sweetness of the carrots. It's in the starter, soffritto: carrots, onions and celery all chopped and sautéed together.

Same with the French. Celery is paired with onions and carrots to make their most basic flavoring ingredient: mirepoix. For the Germans, it's celery, leeks and carrots: Suppengrün. soup greens thought to give heart to any dish.  Celery is even part of the Cajun Holy Trinity-- celery, bell pepper and onion--that tantalize every dish. Nobody should ever stew a chicken or make chicken soup without it.

The Persians, whose cooking is legendarily voluptuous and scrumptious, anoint celery with saffron and braise it into its own stew that will knock your mocks off. It's hard to find a more elegant companion for, say, a roast chicken or Thanksgiving turkey or grilled lamb chops. I love it so much I included the recipe in Veggiyana, the Dharma of Cooking, and include it in the recipes below.

If it's crunch you want from your celery, spare the tuna. Give it center stage on the salad plate combined with dates, almonds, mint, red onion and salty Parmesan cheese. It's summer perfection with seafood or on an antipasto plate. You can also combine it with summer's other crunchy vegetables--carrots, kohlrabi, radishes, daikon, bell pepper-- into a thick slaw.

So you can learn to love celery. Let me count the ways:

1. Celery, Fennel and White Bean Soup
 serves 6

1 bunch celery stalks, washed

1 large fennel bulb

1 red onion, peeled and coarsely diced or sliced

1 leek, cut into ½” disks and washed

2 lg garlic cloves, minced

1 shallot, peeled and diced

2 cups cooked white beans (Great Northern, Navy, Cannellini—canned is okay)

4 lg Roma tomatoes, diced

1 red bell pepper, diced

4 cups vegetable broth

5 tbsp olive oil

1 tbsp butter

1 tsp dried thyme

1 tsp dried marjoram

1 tsp fennel seed

1 tsp celery seed

1 tsp salt

½ tsp coarsely ground black pepper

½ tsp black olive paste

juice of ½ large lemon

1 bay leaf

Heat 4 tbsp (1/4 cup) of olive oil over medium heat in a stockpot or large casserole. Add the garlic, onions, shallot and leeks. Sauté over medium heat for 10 minutes, or until onions and leeks are soft. Add fennel seed, half the tomatoes and 1cup of broth. Continue to cook over low heat for ten minutes or until everything starts to look mushy.  Remove from heat, stir in one cup of cooked beans and put the pot contents through a food mill or food processor to make a chunky puree. Don’t process to a silky texture.

Cut the leaves off the celery and set them aside. Wash the stalks and split the large ones down the center. Chop the celery into bite-sized pieces. Save the leaves from the heart.

Cut the stems and fringe off the fennel. Strip the fringe and save it.  Quarter the fennel, and slice it into thin strips.

In the same pot, heat the butter and 1 tbsp olive oil over medium heat.  Add the celery, fennel and red pepper and sauté ten minutes or until they start to soften.

Stir in the thyme, marjoram, celery seed, salt and black pepper. Add the remaining tomatoes and cook another five minutes.

Add 3 cups of broth, bay leaf, lemon juice and olive paste. Continue cooking over low heat for 15 minutes or until both the celery and fennel are soft and no longer chewy.

Stir in the coarse puree and the remaining cup of beans. Blend everything, adjust seasonings to your taste, cover and simmer 5-10 minutes. Remove the bay leaf.

Chop the celery leaves and fennel fringe for garnish.

2. Persian celery stew
 Serves 6-8

1½ bunches of celery, stalks apart and cleaned

4 tbsp butter

1 lg red onion, peeled and diced

¼ tsp freshly cracked or ground black pepper

2 bunches flat leaf parsley, cleaned and chopped (at least 3 cups)

¼ tsp saffron

2 cups vegetable broth

2 tbsp dried crushed mint

¼ tsp salt

1 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice

Cut celery into 1” pieces, even leaves.
Melt butter in a large saucepan or medium casserole. Sauté onion over medium heat until soft and translucent. Add black pepper and celery and continue to sauté 5 minutes.

Add half the parsley (1½ cups or one bunch), saffron and vegetable broth. Stir to blend. Bring to a boil. Cover and reduce heat to low. Simmer 30 minutes.

Add remainder of parsley except for 1 tbsp. Add mint, salt and lemon juice, stirring to blend. Continue cooking for 10-12 minutes or until celery is soft.

 Adjust for salt and pepper. Garnish with remaining chopped parsley to serve.

3. One from Mark Bittman
Braised and Roasted Chicken With Vegetables

serves 4

2 tablespoons chicken fat, reserved from the chicken-skin croutons (or use olive oil or butter)

2 skinless chicken leg-thigh quarters

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 skin-on chicken breast, split to yield 2 halves
3 leeks, trimmed, cleaned and chopped

4 carrots, chopped

6 celery ribs, chopped, leaves reserved for garnish

12 to 16 ounces cremini, shiitake, button or other fresh mushrooms, quartered or sliced

3 to 4 sprigs fresh thyme or rosemary

Chicken-wing meat
1. Heat the oven to 350. Put the chicken fat in a roasting pan or Dutch oven over medium heat. Sprinkle the leg quarters with salt and pepper and add them to the pan, flesh side down. Cook, turning and rotating the pieces as necessary, until well browned on both sides, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove, then add the breast halves, skin side down. Brown them well, then flip and cook for just 1 minute or so; remove to a separate plate.

2. Put the leeks, carrots, celery, mushrooms, herbs and chicken-wing meat in the same pan and cook until the vegetables are tender and beginning to brown, 10 to 15 minutes.

3. Nestle the leg quarters among the vegetables, meaty side up. Add enough of the stock to come about halfway up the thighs. (The amount will depend on the breadth of your pan; add a little water if necessary.)

4. Put the pan in the oven and cook, uncovered, for about 1 hour, checking occasionally and stirring the vegetables if they threaten to brown too much. When the thigh meat is tender, raise the heat to 400 and lay the breast halves on the vegetables, skin side up. Continue cooking until they are done, 20 to 30 minutes longer.

5. Transfer the vegetables to a platter. You can serve one of two ways: slice the breasts and shred the leg-and-thigh meat and lay the meat on top of the vegetables; or cut the leg-thigh pieces in half, cut the breasts in half and give each person a little of each. Garnish with reserved chopped celery leaves.

  4. Macedonian Bean Soup
 Serves 6

1 lb dried white beans (Great Northern, Kidney, navy, cannellini)

2 med/lg carrots, peeled and diced

2 stalks celery with leaves, diced

1 lg onion, peeled and diced

1/4 tsp freshly ground or cracked black pepper

1 tsp dried sage

3½ cups vegetable broth

3 red bell peppers, roasted and peeled

2 yellow or orange bell peppers, roasted and peeled

2 tbsp red wine vinegar (Balsamic is too strong)

5-6 tbsp olive oil

18-20 pitted Kalamata olives, slivered

Salt to your taste

1 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice

Pick over the beans. Soak in enough water to cover and refrigerate overnight.

Roast the peppers. Remove stems, skin membrane and seeds. Chop into small ¼” cubes.  Combine peppers, vinegar and 1 tbsp olive oil in a glass or ceramic small bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

Drain the beans. Put in a large pan, cover well with cold water and bring to a boil.

Boil for 5 minutes. Drain well.

In a large, heavy gauge pot, heat enough olive oil 4-5 tbsp to cover the bottom.

Add carrots, celery, onion, black pepper and sage. Sauté on low heat for 2 minutes or until vegetables are soft. Stir in the beans.

Add broth. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 1½ hours until beans are tender.

Drain peppers. Add peppers and olives to the warm soup. Add salt to your taste and finally the lemon juice.Serve immediately.

Great with an arugula salad, crusty bread and soft cheese. 

5. Celery Date Salad
serves 6

8 celery stalks, thinly sliced on the diagonal. Chop the leaves too.
6 fresh dates, pitted and coarsely chopped
1/2 c roasted almonds, halve. Whole is okay too.
1/2 sm red onion, diced
2 tsp minced fresh mint leaves
pinch red pepper flakes
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 oz shaved Parmesan cheese 
3 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1/4 c extra good olive oil

Combine celery and leaves, dates, almonds, onion and pepper flakes in a serving bowl. Moisten with the lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper. Add the cheese and olive oil and lastly stir in the mint leaves.

6. Summer Crunch Salad
serves up to 8

6 celery stalks, cleaned and thinly sliced on the diagonal
2 carrots, cleaned, halved and thinly sliced on the diagonal
1/2 sm kolhrabi, cut into thin strips
1/2 fennel bulb, sliced thinly
4 radishes, thinly sliced
1 sm firm red bell pepper, thinly sliced into strips
1 bunch flat leaf parsley, minced
juice of a lemon
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 c olive oil

Combine all vegetables and parsley in a serving bowl. Season with salt and pepper.
Dress with lemon juice and olive oil. Serve and enjoy.