Winter Warmer – Spiced Roasted Vegetables with Chickpeas & Apricots

We’re in the midst of a relentless winter here in the Northeast, with snowfall totals that have likely earned this season a place in the record books. I can’t remember what the city looks like without snow on the ground, and I’m becoming well acquainted with the sound of spinning wheels outside my window as people try to free their cars from some stubborn snowbanks. It’s fair to say that most of us are feeling a little weary of this weather by now, so why not take solace in a cozy meal – the kind that requires roasting tasty things in the oven and permeating the kitchen with lovely smells.

I’d been itching to try this recipe from Plenty for ages, and I finally gave it a spin during one of the latest snow days. The shallots, carrots, parsnips, and butternut squash take on a sweet, mellow flavor when they’re roasted, and the addition of chickpeas makes it a hearty vegetarian meal. The dried apricots are a nice touch – they add a little sweetness to the dish and soften up a bit in the oven, a bit like prunes in a tagine. I used quinoa instead of the couscous called for in the original recipe – but I think any small grain (or seed, in the case of quinoa) will do. And the spices – star anise, ginger, turmeric, paprika – not only impart plenty of warmth and depth, but give the dish great color. The finished product has a golden, sunny hue -reminiscent of warmer days that (I hope!) lie ahead. These spiced roasted vegetables are just the thing to see you through another snow day; easily eaten while you’re curled up on the sofa making a dent in your Netflix queue.

Roasted spiced vegetables over quinoa
Makes 4 servings
Adapted from Plenty (“The ultimate winter couscous”)
2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into ¾-inch chunks
2 medium parsnips, peeled and cut into ¾-inch chunks
8 small or 4 large shallots, peeled
2 cinnamon sticks
4 star anise
3 bay leaves
5 tbsp olive oil
salt
½ tsp ground ginger
¼ tsp turmeric
¼ tsp hot paprika
¼ tsp chile flakes
2 ½ cups diced butternut squash (about 10 oz.)
½ cup dried apricots, roughly chopped
1 cup chickpeas (canned or freshly cooked)
1 – 1 ½ cups chickpea cooking liquid and/or water
1 cup quinoa
pinch of saffron
3 tbsp butter
2 tbsp harissa paste
1 oz preserved lemon, finely chopped
2 cups cilantro leaves, roughly chopped

  1.  Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Put the carrots, parsnips and shallots into a large, ovenproof dish and add the cinnamon, star anise and bay leaves. In a small bowl mix ¾ teaspoon of salt with all the other spices. Add the spices and four tablespoons of oil to the vegetables and mix well. Place in the oven and roast for 15 minutes.
  2. Add the squash, stir, and return to the oven. Roast for an additional 35 minutes, by which time the vegetables should have softened while retaining a bite.
  3. Add the apricots, chickpeas, and cooking liquid/water, then return to the oven for 10 minutes or until hot.
  4. Around 15 minutes before the vegetables will be ready, cook the quinoa according to the package instructions. Stir the remaining olive oil, butter, and saffron into the cooked quinoa.
  5. To serve, fill the base of a deep plate with quinoa. Stir the harissa and lemon into the vegetables, taste, adjust the seasoning and spoon on to the centre of the couscous. Garnish with the cilantro leaves. 
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Our Primal Experiment…

We’re deep into our  21-Day Primal Challenge; as of today we’re more than two-thirds of the way to the finish line. Based on Mark Sisson’s Primal Blueprint, it’s a lifestyle framework that includes a diet comprised of whole, unprocessed foods, along with plenty of exercise, sleep, sunshine, and play. When it came time to shake things up a bit (in the culinary sense at least) for the new year, this challenge seemed like just the thing to purge the holiday excess (from our kitchen) in a way that wouldn’t take the fun out of our meals.

For the most part, I’d say it’s worked well these first 16 days. We’ve steered clear of sweets with the exception of some dark chocolate (which is on the “ok” list), and we’ve been piling our plates high with veggies like cauliflower, kale, sweet potatoes. We’ve had to set aside a little more time for planning and cooking our meals, but it’s been well worth it. Some winners so far have included roast beef with a garlic-thyme jus and cauliflower gratin, chicken thighs braised in tomatoes and red wine with porcini mushrooms, pancetta, shallots, and herbs, and mussels in a tomato and wine broth with crispy chorizo. Here are a few shots from the last couple of weeks:

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One thing that we both remarked on was that neither of us feels especially different. I’m not sure what we were expecting exactly, but we’re both feeling the same as we usually do, which is to say, pretty good. There are still a few more days to go, but I’m not sure that we’ll see any drastic about-face. So unfortunately, I don’t have any insightful pearls of wisdom to impart; I think I’ll keep going on as I’ve always been – truly enjoying whatever is on my plate, whether that’s a chocolate chip walnut cookie from Levain, a pile of roasted Brussels sprouts.

Shakshuka - our first meal of 2014

A new challenge for the new year…beginning with brunch

Happy New Year! Here’s hoping that 2014 brings everyone much joy, lots of laughter, and a few adventures.

After a fantastic holiday season that’s been full of family, friends, food, and drink, my husband and I decided to kick off 2014 by embarking on the 21-Day Primal Challenge, beginning today. For those that aren’t familiar, the Primal Challenge is based on Mark Sisson’s Primal Blueprint, a lifestyle framework that includes a diet comprised of whole, unprocessed foods – like produce, meat, fish and nuts – the stuff most of us would eat more frequently in a perfect world.  In addition to diet, the challenge addresses several other factors that play important roles in health, such as exercise, sleep, sunshine, and play. In accordance with the challenge, here’s a short list of the things we will and won’t be eating over the next three weeks:
What’s in – vegetables, fruit, nuts, meat, fish, eggs, olive oil, coconut oil, dairy (in moderation)
What’s out – sugar & sweets, grains (including baked goods, pasta, rice, cereal, crackers and the rest), processed vegetable oils (canola, soybean, corn) and legumes
If you’re interested, you’ll find more details on the challenge here.

In all honesty, this isn’t far off the way my husband and I already cook and eat at home, but I have to raise my hand and admit to indulging in far too many chocolates, cookies, and a multitude of other tempting treats over the last few weeks. It was fun (and tasty) while it lasted, but I’m feeling a need to break out of that pattern and hit the “reset” button now that the new year is here, and I think committing to a challenge like this is just what we need to keep us honest. I’m looking forward to the next three weeks, and curious to see what, if any, changes we observe in ourselves – physically or otherwise – as a result. I’ll be posting about our experience, and of course, our meals. It’s also been a good excuse to do some menu-planning and recipe-scouting – among my favorite activities. I’ve already started compiling a roster of “primal” dishes, and I’m feeling inspired about the next few weeks.

We kicked off the challenge this morning (well, actually this afternoon) with shakshuka – our very own breakfast of champions and a perfect choice to spark our recovery from a New Year’s Day hangover. Shakshuka is a North African creation that nestles eggs inside a hearty and slightly sweet mixture of tomatoes, peppers, and onions, with warm earthy flavors coming from cumin seeds, thyme, and bay leaves. And it’s not just for breakfast – we usually turn to this go-to recipe for dinner at our house. While there are many different versions of this dish, I’m devoted to the one found in Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty, and I’ve adjusted the recipe to serve two below.

Shakshuka
Serves 2
Ingredients
¼ tsp cumin seeds
1/3 cup light olive oil
1 large onion, sliced
2 bell peppers (red, orange, or yellow), sliced into ¾ inch strips
1 tsp brown sugar (see note)
1 bay leaf
3 thyme sprigs, leaves picked
1 tbsp chopped parsley
1 tbsp chopped cilantro, plus more to garnish
1 14 oz can diced tomatoes
¼ tsp saffron threads
pinch of cayenne pepper
salt and pepper
up to ½ cup water
4-6 eggs (depending on your appetites)
Note: I’ve cut the sugar down from the original recipe, but I didn’t remove it altogether because it helps the vegetables brown. It only amounts to a ½ tsp (about 2 grams) of sugar per person, but you can always omit it if you prefer.

  1. In a very large pan (make sure to choose one that has a lid – you’ll need it later), toast the cumin seeds on a high heat for about 2 minutes.
  2. Add the oil and onions and sauté for 5 minutes.
  3. Add the peppers, sugar, parsley, cilantro, thyme, and bay leaf, and continue cooking on high heat for 5 to 10 minutes, allowing it to color a bit.
  4. Add the tomatoes, saffron, cayenne, and some salt and pepper, then reduce the heat to low and cook for 15 minutes. Keep an eye on the pan, and add water as needed so that the mixture retains the consistency of pasta sauce. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. Remove the bay leaf.
  5. Make gaps in the tomato-pepper mixture (one gap per egg), and crack an egg into each gap. Sprinkle with salt, cover the pan with a lid and cook over a very gentle heat for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the eggs are just set. (Note: you can also divide the tomato-pepper mixture into two smaller pans and finish each serving in its own individual pan. Make sure the smaller pans have fitted lids if that’s the case.) Sprinkle with cilantro and serve.
Mince pies in a new form - easy to make and perfect for sharing

Christmas treats for my sweet – mince pies with a twist

Having grown up in two different countries, my husband and I each bring our own set of holiday traditions to the relationship, which I love.  We now alternate between celebrating Christmas in the US and UK, and I feel very fortunate that we’re able to share our own personal versions of the holidays with each other. Many of those holiday traditions revolve around food (of course!), and he and I each have our own distinct dishes and flavors that we associate with Christmas. For me, Christmas with my family, like many Italian-American families, is synonymous with seafood. I think immediately of my grandmother’s seafood salad with calamari, shrimp, olives and lemon that always kicks off our Christmas Eve dinner. For my husband, it’s the roast dinner on Christmas day – a spread that includes turkey, lamb, crisp roast potatoes and Yorkshire pudding.

But the undisputed highlight of an English Christmas for my other half is definitely mince pies – in his experience, an essential Christmas treat. He’d go as far as to say that it’s not Christmas without them. For those of you that aren’t familiar with mince pies, these bite size pies are filled with fruit, spices, and booze and you’ll find them just about everywhere in the UK at this time of year. On this side of the pond however, they’re still relatively rare. Back when we were dating and decided to spend our first Christmas together in New York, I decided I would attempt homemade mince pies so I could give him a taste of home during the holidays. He declared my efforts a success, and ever since, it’s been a tradition to make our own mince pies whenever we spend Christmas stateside.

Making the filling, or mincemeat, is the fun part as far as I’m concerned. It’s kind of soothing, and a perfect way to pass the time on a chilly December Sunday. I put on some Christmas music, and get to work weighing and mixing everything into a fruity, boozy, sugary concoction. My husband is the official taster, and his feedback usually amounts to “add some more brandy.” I’m told you can’t have too much brandy in a mince pie. The filling is at its best after it’s been left to sit for a few days, or even longer if you’ve got the time.

Then it’s on to making the pies, which is the stressful part – for me at least.  I’ll admit that I’m no expert when it comes to working with pastry, and getting these mince pies to stay in one piece after baking them often eludes me. No matter how I approach the task, some of those little guys don’t make it out of the pan in one piece. This year, I managed to get a handful of intact pies, along with several others that require a fork to eat. It’s safe to say this part remains a work in progress for me.

I had a lot more mincemeat to use after making that first batch of (moderately successful) pies, so I wanted to try a variation that would deliver the familiar taste and texture in an easier to handle format. I decided to try putting the mincemeat in a crostata – basically an Italian free-form tart that’s usually topped with jam. Mincemeat makes a great replacement for the jam, and topped with toasted slivered almonds and confectioners sugar, it makes for an elegant-looking holiday treat. And since it’s one large tart, it’s much easier to work with than a bunch of small, delicate pies. It delivers the confluence of sweet, buttery, boozy flavors that you’d get in a mince pie, in a lot less time than it takes to roll out and assemble all those little pie shells and lids. This British-Italian fusion is time-saving twist on my husband’s favorite festive treat, and maybe even a new holiday tradition at our house.

If you’re looking for a new festive treat, try your hand at this mince pie crostata. It’s something you can eat all day long – for dessert, for a snack, and alongside your morning coffee too.

Mincemeat
Makes about 3 lbs
Adapted from The Good Food Channel
1 large cooking apple, peeled, cored and cut into large chunks
1 orange, finely grated zest and juice
1 lemon, finely grated zest and juice
125g butter, chilled and grated*
140g raisins
140g currants, or dried cranberries
140g golden raisins
60g candied peel (candied lemon or candied ginger will also work), chopped
325g soft dark brown sugar
25g chopped almonds, or chopped pecans
Approx 1tsp mixed spice (1/2 tsp cinnamon, 1/2 tsp nutmeg, and good pinch each of clove and ginger)
40ml brandy, or to taste (be prepared to add more)
*Traditionally, this is made with suet, or beef fat, but butter works very well as a substitute.

  1.  Place the apple chunks in a small saucepan with 1/2 teaspoon of water, cover and cook over a low heat for about 8–10 minutes until the apple is cooked down to a pulp. Allow to cool.
  2. Mix the apple with all the remaining ingredients in a large bowl and put into a sealed container (or sterilized jars).
  3. Leave to mature for at least a few days before using. Anything not used during the holidays will keep for ages in the refrigerator.

Mincemeat Crostata
Serves 8
250g all-purpose flour
2 tbsp sugar
Grated zest of one lemon
¼ teaspoon salt
140g (10 tbsp)  butter, chilled and diced into ½-inch pieces
3 tbsp ice water
¾ – 1 cup of mincemeat
1 tbsp sliced almonds, toasted
confectioners sugar, for dusting

  1. Add the flour, sugar, lemon zest, and salt to a food processor and pulse briefly to combine. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture has the texture of coarse meal. Add the ice water a little at a time and pulse until moist clumps begin to form. Dump the dough onto a clean table or workspace, shape it into a ball and then flatten it into a disk. Wrap it in cling film and refrigerate for about an hour, or until firm.
  2. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and place a rack in the center.
  3. Roll out the dough on a piece of parchment paper to an approximate 11-inch round. Carefully place the dough and parchment paper onto a baking sheet. Spread the mincemeat on the dough beginning from the center and leaving a 2-inch border around the edge. Fold the edges of the dough over to form a crust, pleating it loosely and sealing any cracks with your fingers.
  4. Place in the oven and bake until the crust is golden, about 40 minutes. Place the baking sheet on a rack to cool for 10 minutes, then remove from the parchment and cool until lukewarm. Transfer to a plate, and sprinkle with almonds and sugar before serving.

Baby, it’s cold outside! Chicken soup with ginger, sweet potato, & broccoli

Winter has most definitely arrived. We had our first snowfall in the city this week, and we’re now in the midst of some bone-chilling temperatures. As I write this, AccuWeather tells me that the “realfeel” is a brutal 16 degrees (!)
When it’s this cold outside, homemade soup is an easy choice. Last night, I made a chicken soup with ginger, sweet potato, and broccoli. I love the way the ginger infuses the broth in this dish– it smells fantastic and imparts a clean and slightly spicy taste. And it’s quick – everything gets simmered directly in the broth, with a total cooking time of about 15 minutes.
It’s also a perfect choice when I need a little break from all the holiday treats that seem to be waiting at every turn this time of year. This dish packs a lot of veggies and helps to restore a bit of balance in the midst of all the cookies and cocktails.
All in all, it’s a great recipe to have up your sleeve during the long winter months…

Chicken soup with sweet potato, broccoli and ginger
Adapted from Leon: Ingredients and Recipes
Serves 2

Ingredients
1 medium sweet potato, peeled and cut into ¼ inch thick slices
1 carrot, peeled and cut into ¼ inch thick slices
3 cups chicken stock (homemade if at all possible, otherwise a good-quality store bought stock)
2-3 tablespoons of grated fresh ginger, unpeeled
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 2 inch pieces
½ head of broccoli, cut into florets
3-4 oz. French beans/green beans, topped and tailed
small handful of fresh cilantro, chopped
1 lime
salt and pepper

  1. Put the sweet potato, carrot, stock and ginger into a large pot and bring to a rolling boil for about 2-3 minutes, then turn down the heat and simmer for 5 additional minutes.
  2. Add the chicken pieces and cook for another 5 minutes.
  3. Add the broccoli and beans, stir well, season and cook for 3 more minutes.
  4. Finish with the fresh cilantro and some lime juice. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Emerging from the holiday food hangover

After a brilliant Thanksgiving dinner, an ample supply of leftovers and various other festivities during the weekend, I’m officially stuffed! With the holiday behind us, my husband and I were craving something clean, healthy, and flavorful  – in other words, something that would taste good and make us feel good. We definitely don’t buy into the idea that eating well should feel like a form of deprivation. Last night, we put together a soup and salad combo that rose to the challenge.

I found this recipe for Tom Kha Gai (Thai coconut chicken soup) on Food52, one of my favorite sites to search for dinner inspiration. The galangal (use ginger if you can’t find it), lemongrass, and lime really brighten up the flavor of this soup and contrast perfectly with the creamy coconut milk. Since we’d eaten plenty of poultry over the last few days, we opted to use shrimp instead. They only require a few minutes to cook, so we added about 6 ounces of shrimp (peeled and deveined) to the hot soup 3 to 5 minutes before we were ready to eat.

To go with the soup, I made a cucumber salad with smashed ginger and garlic, based on a recipe in Plenty, one of Yotam Ottolenghi’s fantastic cookbooks. It’s been one of our favorites since it landed on the kitchen bookshelf a couple of years ago; it’s full of creative vegetable dishes that have definitely expanded our culinary repertoire and the gorgeous photography doesn’t hurt either. The cucumber salad is a great option when you’re looking for a fresh, clean dish. The cucumbers make a great partner for the garlic, ginger and vinegar and the result is vibrant and pleasantly sharp.

The soup and salad combo makes enough to feed a hungry couple for dinner, with leftovers to supply lunch for one of you the next day.

Cucumber salad with smashed ginger and garlic
From Plenty

Ingredients
Dressing
3 tbsp rice wine vinegar
2 tsp sugar
2 tbsp sunflower oil or olive oil (not extra virgin)
2 tsp toasted sesame oil
Salad
1/2 a red onion, very thinly sliced
1 1/2 inches fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
1 teaspoon sea salt
2 garlic cloves, peeled
4 small, or 8 mini cucumbers (about 1 1/4 lbs in total), peeled
1 tbsp toasted sesame seeds
3 tbsp chopped cilantro

  1. Whisk all the dressing ingredients together in a medium bowl. Add the sliced red onion, combine well, and leave to marinate for up to an hour.
  2. Place the ginger and salt in a mortar and pound well with a pestle. Add the garlic and continue pounding until it is crushed, but stop before it becomes a paste. Using a spatula, scrape the garlic, ginger and salt mixture into the bowl with the onion and dressing and stir everything together.
  3. Cut the cucumbers lengthwise in half, then slice on an angle into 1/4 inch thick slices. Add the cucumber, sesame seeds and cilantro to the bowl. Stir well and let the salad sit for 10 minutes.
  4. Before serving, stir the salad again, and if a lot of liquid has accumulated at the bottom of the bowl, pour some of it out. Taste for seasoning, and add a few more drops of toasted sesame oil if you like.

Thanksgiving, Italian Style

We’re just a few days away from Thanksgiving, which for most of us probably means a weekend full of food, family, friends, and…. food. Many of us have a roster of food-centered rituals and familiar recipes that we break out at this time of year. I grew up in an Italian family, which means broccoli rabe and homemade focaccia appear alongside the turkey and cranberry sauce on our Thanksgiving table. It definitely ranks as one of my favorite meals of the year, and something I was very excited to share with my now husband when we first got together. Being from England, it wasn’t just a new meal, but a new holiday for him, one that he was excited to learn involved plenty of eating and drinking, along with a four day weekend.

We always kick off our Thanksgiving dinner with a course of antipasti – some cheese, cured meat and marinated vegetables. I’ve inevitably eaten too little (or nothing) at breakfast earlier that day to save room, which means I’m starving by this time and usually tend to overdo it on this course. Then it’s on to the pasta course – turkey soup with tortellini – a well-established Thanksgiving favorite among my family. Then, and only then, it’s on to the main event. And while the turkey is the centerpiece of the meal, isn’t the necessarily the highlight– at least for me. It’s mainly a vehicle for things like cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, all manner of roasted veggies, and of course, stuffing. And my parents’ stuffing is one of the dishes I look forward to most each year. It’s definitely an Italian spin on the dish – made with sweet sausage, mozzarella, and rice. It’s best served hot, when the edges are browned and you’ve got slightly crisp pieces of sausage and gooey cheese scattered throughout. It’s not a typical stuffing, but it tastes unmistakably like Thanksgiving to me. Want to give it a try at your Thanksgiving dinner? Check out the recipe below…

Thanksgiving stuffing ingredients

My parents’ Thanksgiving stuffing
Serves 6-8, with leftovers

Ingredients
2 tbsp olive oil
2 medium onions, diced
4 celery stalks, diced, and leaves chopped and reserved
¼ cup parsley, chopped
2 lbs sweet Italian sausage, removed from the casing (or use ground pork)
(Optional) a couple of pinches of crushed red pepper
3 cups white rice
1 lb mozzarella, cut into small cubes
½ cup grated Parmiggiano-Reggiano cheese
2 eggs, beaten
½ cup chicken stock
salt & pepper

Note: The stuffing can be prepared ahead through step 5 and stored in the refrigerator until you’re ready to bake it.

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Heat the oil in a large pan over medium heat (or use two pans if needed to avoid overcrowding). Add the onion, celery, and parsley and sauté until the onion and celery are soft and translucent.
  3. Add the sausage meat to the pan, breaking it up into small pieces with a spatula or wooden spoon as it cooks. At this stage, you can add a couple of pinches of crushed red pepper flakes. If you’re using unseasoned ground pork, you can also add a pinch of crushed fennel seeds (if you’re using sweet Italian sausage they’ll already be in the mix). Once the sausage is cooked and has started to brown, remove the mixture from the heat and allow it to cool.Sausage, onion, celery and parsley at work
  4. Meanwhile, cook the rice according to the package instructions. Remove from the heat and allow it to cool.
  5. Combine the sausage mixture and rice in a large bowl. Add in the mozzarella, celery leaves, stock, and all but two tablespoons of the Parmiggiano-Reggiano. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper as needed, then mix in the beaten eggs until everything is combined.
  6. Fill two 9 x 13 baking pans with the stuffing – the pans shouldn’t be filled all the way to the top.  Sprinkle the remaining cheese on top.
  7. Thanksgiving stuffing ready to bakeBake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes, until the cheese is melted and the stuffing is heated through and starting to brown at the edges. Serve with turkey, gravy, cranberry sauce and the rest of your Thanksgiving lineup!   

Thanksgiving stuffing