Archive for September, 2011

say it out loud

It’s apple picking time!Would you believe that I’ve never been? Yup, it’s true. I am an apple picking novice. But no longer.

With a group of friends, some old, some new, I drove about hour outside the city to the North Shore, passing farm stands along the way. It was actually so beautifully sunny that I got a sunburn. These days, I welcome any sunshine and color I can attract.

At the orchard, we forewent the hay ride and took the 15 minute walk (hike?) up to the orchards. On the way, we got in trouble for picking  bosc pears. After I snacked on one and stuck two in my bag.

Ten pounds of apples in a bag, I rushed home to make strudel.

Correction – apfelstrudel. And you have to call it apfelstrudel with a German accent. Roll the Rs in back of your throat. Ap-fel-shtroooodel. Say it out loud.  A few times. It’s fun.

Apfelstrudel with cinnamon caramel

I asked my German friend, Melanie, how she makes apfelstrudel. She laughed. She said she loves it, but have never made it. Even so, she had some important guidelines, er, taste preferences. Luckily our taste buds match up pretty well. Her main recommendation was not to add raisins. Another friend of mine seconded those instructions and, as a frequent strudel maker, gave me a few more tips. Add a little flour to the apples to help thicken the liquids. Cut the apples into larger chunks so they don’t get mushy when they bake. Make sure to stretch the pastry taut over the apple chunks so you can see their shapes through the dough. And use an egg wash over the top before baking. Try adding some toasted pecans or walnuts to the apples. 

This recipe makes 2 apfelstrudels. It’s a great last-minute Rosh Hashanah dessert, but you might have to double this recipe  (you can always have leftovers for breakfast). I held off on the pecans until the next batch.

– 1 box / 2 sheets puff pastry (I generally use Pepperidge Farm)

– 5 large apples – I often use a mix of firm sweet and tart apples – this time I used Jonagold and Granny Smith

– 3 T lemon juice

– 1 C sugar

– 1 T  flour

– 2 T cinnamon

– 1 egg

– confectioners sugar

Thaw. Thaw the puff pastry – don’t unfold it (I find that the pastry can crack at the 2 folds). Thawing takes about 20 minutes at room temperature.

Preheat. Preheat oven to 425º F.

Peel and chop. Peel the apples. Cut them into ~1/2 – 3/4 inch chunks. Not too small.

Mix. Add the apples to a big bowl and toss with the lemon juice. Sprinkle with flour, sugar, and cinnamon and mix.

Roll. Keep the puff pastry folded and place on a floured sheet of parchment paper (the same size as your cookie sheet.  Roll out the puff pastry pretty thin into a rectangle nearly as long as your cookie sheet.

Stretch. Use a slotted spoon to transfer half the apple mixture to the puff pastry in a line a few inches from the long edge. Spread the apples evenly end to end. Try not to get too much liquid onto the pastry – save this liquid in the bowl for later. Take the edge of the pastry and stretch it over the apples. Take the opposite edge of the pastry and stretch it over the apples (this is a little easier than rolling the apples). If you have extra pastry, keep stretching and rolling a until the seam side is down. Tuck the ends under.

Brush. Transfer the parchment with the strudel to a baking sheet. Whisk together the egg and some cold water. Brush the egg wash over the top of the strudel. Using a sharp knife, make a few diagonal slices in the dough. This mostly looks pretty.

Bake. Bake the strudel for about 20-25 minutes until golden brown and shiny. Cool for about 10 minutes before eating.

Boil. In a small saucepan, bring the lemon juice – sugar – cinnamon mixture to a  boil. It will thicken into a loose  caramel.

Serve. Once the strudel has cooled, serve slices dusted with confectioners sugar and a side of cinnamon caramel sauce.

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knead to breathe

Hi there. I know this is a really long post. Really long. Stay with me, though. And if you just want to learn how to weave a really cool round challah, just skip down about halfway to the diagrams. The instructions are still really long. But it’s a lot easier than the number of words would lead you to believe. Trust me.

I was asked by PresenTense a few weeks ago to contribute to the food column of their upcoming magazine, themed “Leadership and the Jewish World.”  They wanted me to take a photograph of a freshly baked challah to accompany a challah recipe and “a Rosh Hashanah meditation.”

They lost me at meditation. Especially when I initially though they wanted me to write the meditation.

I’m not spiritual. I giggle at a mere whiff of hooky kooky. Plus, I think I have challah pretty down pat, whether it’s my bread machine version or the recipe I carried back with me from Panama.

As karma would have it, though, on the day of our initial email introduction, Michal (the “meditator”) was in my city and my evening plans had been cancelled. So I invited her over for a little baking.

When Michal knocked on my door, I was on the phone, my 5 pm teleconference having run late. I invited her in, offered her a drink and anything else she could find in my refrigerator, and then promptly disappeared into my home office for another 20 minutes.

Phone in hand but computer off, I finally rejoined her in the kitchen, sink filled with dishes and pots that I hadn’t finished washing, and we settled down to work. She explained that her challah recipe was less about the ingredients and more about the process and experience.

“Right, so what do we need to get started?” I asked, turning to the pantry, grabbing two different flours and sugar.

My phone rang. “I’m sorry, I have to take this.” Phone cradled between ear and shoulder, I pulled out eggs and yeast from the refrigerator and continued my call, opening one of the silverware drawers and pointing towards the measuring cups, then running back to my office to draft a quick email. I then changed out of my work dress and into a tanktop and pair of gauchos.

Upon my return, Michal was measuring out ingredients, rifling through my cabinets to find what she needed. “Good, you made yourself at home.” I put my phone down at the far edge of the counter.

Michal stood in the middle of my kitchen, her feet comfortably turned out somewhere between first and second positions. She directed me to mix warm water, sugar, and dry yeast in a bowl until it bubbled. I reached for my KitchenAid mixing bowl – and she said we could use the bowl, but we wouldn’t be using the mixer. We’d be kneading it ourselves.

“Right. I forgot about that part.” I switched to a regular bowl, added the yeast, lukewarm water, and sugar, and we waited for the bubbles to show that the yeast has proofed.

While waiting, Michal explained the theory behind what she calls “deep breath baking.” She views the baking of challah as an allegory for the week: the reward for hard work is a period of much-needed (get it?) rest over shabbat. She recommends preparing the challah with intention and attention, savoring all the senses stimulated by the look, feel, smell, and taste.

We decided that our challah would be filled with the intentions of love and groundedness.

Once the yeast had proofed, we measured out flour, salt, oil, water, and eggs and began to mix. After a few swipes with a wooden spoon, I dug right in with my hands. I turned the shaggy dough out onto my counter and began to knead. Michal’s technique for kneading dough starts not with the arms and shoulders, but with the entire body, taking a bracing stance and rocking back and forth with the dough. She explained that kneading the dough strengthens the bonds between wheat proteins to form gluten and create elasticity. She instructed me to  breathe deeply, taking advantage of the elasticity of my own lungs and filling them to capacity.

I built up a rhythm: inhale – lean back – scoop and gather dough, exhale – lean forward – push dough, inhale- back – scoop and gather, exhale – forward – push.

For the next ten minutes, I focused on the rocking motion, watching my hands push and pull the dough. It reminded me of how I feel when I roll out pastry dough. Calming. My mind free and uncluttered. Thinking of little more than the back and forth and the responding dough.

Michal emphasized that rest is in the challah recipe. When she normally teaches her “deep breath baking” course, she spends the hour while the challah is rising to lead a yoga class. Participants often arrive to her class armed with a mat.

We knew the dough was ready to rise in the warmth of a recently turned off oven when the dimples made by sticking in two finger remained.  We spent the rising time preparing a dinner of udon and salad.

Despite my misgivings, I didn’t escape the meditation part. By the time the challah was in the oven, I was ready. We braided the loaves (more later on my newly-discovered round challah braiding technique), doused them with egg wash, and loaded them into the oven. While the air filled with the sweet scent of bread, Michal led me through two meditations, one to help ground me and another to open up my heart.

The timer buzzed. I felt invigorated.

We enjoyed the fruits of our labor.

How to weave a round challah

With Rosh Hashana just around the corner, I’ve been experimenting with different techniques to make round challah. In the past, I’ve always used the coil strategy, but I decided it wasn’t fancy enough. I searched around and found some great instructions for making a woven round challah. Trust the Chabad women – they know their challah! (Note: formatting on the website is difficult to read, so I’ve made a document that is easier to read. All of the content is exactly the same.)

On the night when Michal and I baked together, I made my first attempt. Not too bad, but with practice, I think I’ve gotten the technique down. It does take a bit of extra time and concentration. So, if you’re hurrying around the kitchen, trying to do a million things…it’s probably not the best time for a trial. But when you do have an extra few minutes, take a few breaths and try this technique. And let me know how it goes.

These instructions look much more complicated then they are – you can pretty much get by with looking at the  pictures, but I’ve tried to be as explicit as possible to make things easy on you.

Divide. After your dough has risen, divide it into four strands (or eight strands if you’re going to make 2 loaves).

Weave 1. Place two strands next to each other. The next two strands will be perpendicular to the first two. Take a third strand and from left to right, place it under the first strand and over the second strand. Take a fourth strand, put it beneath and parallel to the third strand, and from left to right, place it over the first strand and under the second strand. This should form a woven cross. Each of the parallel pairs has a strand that’s an “over” and a strand that’s an “under.” In the picture below, in the top pair, the left strand is an over (let’s call it #1) and the right strand is an under (let’s call it #2). Make sense?

Weave 2: Counterclockwise. In each parallel pair, cross the under over the over. So, in the top pair above, cross the right (#2) over the left (#1) and place #2 at a 90 degree angle counterclockwise from #1 (essentially at the 9 o’clock position). Repeat with all four pairs in a counterclockwise direction. The old overs are now unders and have not moved. The old unders are now overs and have moved counterclockwise 90 degrees. There are now 4 new sets of pairs –  line each pair up in parallel lines as best as you can.

Weave 3: Clockwise. Now we go clockwise. Are you still with me? Just a few more steps and we’re almost there. This is the same move as before – in each parallel pair, cross the unders over the overs — but clockwise this time. Looking at the top pair, you will want to cross the left over the right. In the picture below, I’m pulling the first under over its over (in the 3 o’clock position — sorry for not starting at the 12 o’clock position).

Repeat with all four pairs in a clockwise direction until it looks like this. Pretty cool, no? Not as hard as it sounded, right?

Keep going. If you still have some room on the strands, continue weaving, switching directions with each round. I was able to make one more counterclockwise weave.

Gather and flip. Cover a cookie sheet with parchment. When you can weave no more, gather the ends of all 8 strands in one hand and pull towards the center of the challah. With the other hand, pick up the bottom of the challah and then flip it over so that all the short strands are underneath, and place on the parchment.

Bake. Bake as you normally would. I typically brush the challah with an eggwash (egg beaten with a little cold water) and sprinkle with sesame seeds.

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Contrary to what you may believe, I do, every once in a while, make simple dinners and desserts. More often than you’d think, in fact. I’ve been trying my hand at a few classics. I mean, classics are classic for a reason. They’re tried and true. Reliable. Foolproof. So it’s high time I shared with you a few classic, good old standbys that I can throw together after a long day of work and know that they’ll be good. This way, you can throw them together too.

This look into classic dishes was inspired by a slow food campaign at my company. Our café sold, for $10 (!!!), all the ingredients (except for a chicken) necessary for a hearty,  healthy dinner for a family. They even provided recipes — chicken, salad, greens and pasta, and fresh fruit for dessert. This was too good to pass up. So I lugged home my bag of groceries and laminated recipe card.

I made the chicken with just a few modifications, using chicken cutlets instead of a whole chicken and a nice addition of lemon juice. I used chard to make a minestrone. And voilà – a few dinners and lunches for the week.

These recipes aren’t rocket science, but they’re great ones to have in your repertoire. They pretty much use ingredients that are probably already in your fridge and pantry. The most difficult step is rough chopping some vegetables. And then you leave the dish to cook while you write a blog post. You just need to check on the chicken or soup every once in a while. C’est tout. That’s all there is, folks.

Chicken and root vegetables

This chicken takes about 45 minutes to an hour, from start to finish. Most of the time, the chicken is just baking in the oven and you need to check it every 10-15 minutes to mix and baste.

– 1+ pound of boneless skinless chicken breast (cutlets) – or you could use chicken parts, or boneless thighs

– 3 large carrots

– 3 large parsnips

– 4-5 celery stalks

– 1 onion

– several cloves of garlic

– 3-4 sprigs fresh rosemary

– olive oil

– 1/4 C lemon juice (to taste)

Prep. Preheat oven to 425ºF. Rinse chicken and pat dry. Rough chop all the vegetables – try to get them approximately the same size (except the garlic of course).

Fill. Scatter the vegetables in a pan large enough to fit them more or less in a single layer. Douse with olive oil (maybe 2T) and sprinkle generously with salt and freshly ground pepper. Season the chicken with salt and pepper too. Place the chicken on top of the vegetables and douse the chicken with a little more olive oil (another 1-2 T) – you can omit this if you are using chicken with skin. Pour in the lemon juice.

Bake. Bake the chicken for about 45 minutes, stirring and basting every 10-15 minutes. Add water or more lemon juice if you notice that there aren’t many juices and the corners of your pan are starting to burn. The chicken is officially ready when it reaches an internal temperature of 160ºF. I generally take mine out at 155ºF, but I’m wild and crazy. If the vegetables don’t cook as fast as the chicken, take the chicken out when it is ready and let the vegetables finish baking. Add the chicken back to the pan to warm back up for 5 minutes.

Eat. Take it out. Let the chicken rest for 5 minutes, and then serve it straight from the pan. You can even eat it out of the pan if no one is looking.


Chard minestrone

I found this recipe in the New York Times earlier this year. You can freeze the soup before you add the chickpeas and chard. When you want to eat, just re-heat and add in chickpeas and chard for about 10 minutes.

– olive oil

– 6 carrots

– 1 onion

– 1 T chopped garlic (yup, I use the stuff in the jar)

– several handfuls of chard – separate stems from leaves

– 1 6-ounce can tomato paste

– 7 C water

– 1 t dry thyme

– 2 bay leaves

– 1 parmesan rind

– 2 15-ounce cans garbanzo beans

– 1 C pasta

– extra parmesan

Prep. Rough chop the carrots and onions – try to get them approximately the same size chunks. Wash the chard really well. Remove the stems from the chard and rough chop as you would celery. Make a few lengthwise cuts in the chard leaves and then cut them widthwise into thin strips (“chiffonade” if you want to be all fancy about it).

Simmer. Pour enough olive oil to coat the bottom of your pot. Add all the vegetables except for the chard leaves. Saute until they start to soften, about 5 minutes. Add tomato paste, water, thyme, bay leaves, and parm. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes or until the vegetables are cooked through. Add salt and pepper to taste. Be careful not to set the heat too high because the soup will  bubble over. Believe me – I know.

Store (optional). If you’re going to eat the soup at a later time, you can freeze or refrigerate the soup at this point. When you want to serve, proceed with the rest of the steps.

Simmer again. Rinse the chickpeas and add along with the chard leaves. Simmer for another 5-10 minutes until the chickpeas heat through and the chard wilts but still keeps its color.

Boil. Don’t boil the soup! Boil the pasta as directed, to just shy of al dente. Spoon into the soup right before serving (otherwise it will absorb the hot soup liquid and get overcooked and mushy).

Eat. Carefully. Let the soup cool off a bit before eating. I managed to burn my lip – and I was in pretty bad shape. Sprinkle with extra parm if you want.

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For the past 3 years, I have walked by my neighbor’s house nearly every day, staring at their carport. No, they don’t have a car that I covet. They have grapes that I covet. Big fat juicy concord grapes. I covet concords.

As I walked by their carport this morning I stared up at the vines normally heavy with grapes, and I saw … stems.

A father-son pair stood beneath those naked vines, hosing down the carport. “Good morning,” I said. “What happened to the grapes?”

“We just harvested them,” replied the father.

“Wanna see?” asked the son.

He grabbed my hand and scampered up the stairs. “We just picked boxes and boxes of them. I’m Noah.”

“I’m Gayle. You must really like grapes.”

Noah nodded.

“Are you gonna eat all of them?”

“No. Grampa makes jelly.”

“Wow, that’s a lot of jelly.”

Noah nodded.

“Do you know what I would do with all these grapes?”

Noah shrugged.

“I would make sorbet – it’s kinda like ice cream.”

Noah licked his lips. “Yum!”

“Would you like me to make some ice cream for you?”

Guess who brought  home a big bag of grapes!

The bunches climbed into a colander and took a few cold showers. The grapes said goodbye to their stems and assorted brethren – the travel weary, the old and wrinkly, the young and green.

The best of the crop took a dunk in the hot tub. A long dunk.

When they started to shed their skins, they knew they were done.

They left their skins and seeds behind, and, without a single glance back, dove right in to join their skinny dipping friends.

They then cozied up to a bar for a few cocktails, picked up some sweeties, and puckered up. (I added to the juice vodka, sugar, and lemon juice.)

Now, now, boys. It’s time to cool off. You’re gonna spend the night in the cooler.

These hooligans clean up nice, don’t they?

There was only one casualty.

I’m not sure there’s gonna be much left for Noah. But don’t feel bad for him. He has jelly.

Concord grape sorbet

I found inspiration for this sorbet in a few places. It seems that Gourmet, New York Magazine, and David Lebovitz all discovered and shared this gorgeous concoction in Autumn 2008 and 2009. I’m two to three years late here, folks. I guess that’s better than four years late. I always add some alcohol to sorbet so it keeps a smooth consistency and doesn’t get icy. I liked the NY Magazine version’s addition of a little lemon juice as well. I suspect you could make this with good pure grape juice (but what’s the fun in that?).

To get a smooth, silky texture that’s not icy, I use alcohol and an immersion blender. The alcohol (vodka here) prevents the sorbet from fully freezing. The immersion blender aerates the sorbet and this incorporated air helps with the texture. I happen to have the canister left over from an old Donvier ice cream maker — I keep it in the freezer to quick chill white wine — so that accelerated the process a bit. If you want the sorbet firmer, use less or no vodka. You can also adjust the suger based on the sweetness of the grape juice – as a general rule, sorbet should be a little bit sweeter than the juice (this is the case of all sorbets).

This recipe made approximately a quart (4 cups) of sorbet.

– 3.5 lbs grapes, straight from the vine, or 2.5 lbs grapes only (rinsed, de-stemmed, and yucky ones removed)

– 1/4 C water

– 1/4 C sugar

– 1/4 C vodka

– 2 T lemon juice

Clean. Rinse grapes in cold water, and then sort through, removing stems and any grapes that are dried, split, or green.

Simmer. In a non-reactive pot (I used hard-anonized), simmer, covered, the cleaned grapes with water until the grapes get soft. By this point, the smell of grape juice will entice you back to the kitchen. Give the grapes a stir a few times to loosen the skins. This whole process took about 20 minutes.

Strain. Pour the grape concoction into a fine-mesh sieve in batches, and push juice out into a bowl beneath, leaving the stems and seeds behind. I used a wooden spoon to press out as much juice as I could. I ended up with about 2.5 cups of pure grape juice.

Mix. Add sugar, vodka, and lemon juice to the grape juice and whir a few times with an immersion blender to dissolve the sugar. You’ll use the immersion blender again later.

Freeze and aerate. Pour the grape mix into a bowl, cake pan, or whatever you want and pop it into the freezer. The flatter the container, the quicker the sorbet will freeze. The more alcohol, the slower the sorbet will freeze. After about 2 hours, check on the sorbet. It should be about half frozen. Use the immersion blender to break up any icy bits. Return the sorbet to the freezer and repeat this every hour or so. If you forget and throw the sorbet in the freezer overnight, no problem – it will just take a few extra whirs with the blender to break up the solid mass the next morning.

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in great company

Very soon after la rentrée and the start of the school year is Rosh Hashana. The new year that feels more like a new year than New Year’s eve. This new year is an exciting one for me with a new job and some fun news.

I’ve been discovered!

Not by talent scouts. Or a modeling agency. Or to be one of the Solid Gold dancers. (Seriously, folks – please tell me I’m not the only one who wanted to be one of those sexy ladies.) But by the food community. Several magazines have recognized my (food-related) work and I’m enjoying the ride. You already know about PresenTense magazine’s planned article. Then, Saveur magazine stumbled upon my post about cold-brewed iced coffee and directed readers to it as part of their weekly “links we love” section.  They love me! And they listed me alongside the New York Times, USA Today, Food Republic, Serious Eats and two other blogs.

But before all that began, I was interviewed for Hadassah magazine. Check out the article! It even made it to good old paper.

I’m in great company these days. The Hadassah article is written by Adeena Sussman. Her mother was a good friend of mine’s. And she has written the wine section of the 2009 Fodor’s Israel travel guide…which my Aunt edited. Favoritism? Maybe. But I’ll take what I can get.

In writing the article, Adeena also spoke with Rivka Friedman who writes Not Derby Pie. She lives in DC (where I grew up) and is a health care consultant (like I am). Her pictures are gorgeous and she once introduced me to a wonderful CD. Adeena also spoke with Michelle Kemp-Nordell who writes Baroness Tapuzina. She is friends with my friend and travel buddy, Sarah Melamed who writes FoodBridge.

As Rosh Hashana rapidly approaches, and I start to think about what I’ll be cooking, I figured this was a good time to remind you all about the apple cake that I adapted from one of Rivka’s cakes a few years back. This is the recipe that is featured in the magazine. Go on – try it. You won’t be sorry. And your company will love it.

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Do you know what these are?

They’re pibá.

Since it’s 6 am and I’m wide awake (did  you hear that? awake!) a full hour before my alarm goes off, I figure I’ll tell you a little about pibá while baking a cake (bread?) to pass the time. Since I can’t fall back asleep. Yeah…I’m wierd that way.

So, here’s the deal. Pibá is a fruit. In fact it’s the fruit of the palm tree. And it started our trip out to Santa Clara.

In case you don’t remember, two years ago, my friend Elvera and I went to Panama and stayed with our friends Joe and Victoria and baby Jack. We ate very very very well. We arrived on the day that a long awaited new road was opened in Panama City, and were some of its first passengers. Midway through our trip was a national holiday as President Martinelli was sworn in. Everyone was off work, so Vic, Elvera, and I prepared a picnic lunch (including some pibá), Joe packed up the car, and we all drove out to Santa Clara beach about an hour southwest of Panama City on the Pacific Ocean.

We stop along the Pan-American Highway at Quesos Chela – arguably the best cheese maker in the country …

… and kosher to boot.

After stocking up on a lot of dairy to supplement the cooked pibá and salads we packed, I settle down with a coconut. And a straw.

(Hold on, the oven is beeping. The cake is done.)

Twenty more minutes in the car, barely enough time for the cheese to reach perfect-for-eating room temperature, we drive up to a house.

We pull up alongside this bicycle.

We walk down a path.

We find our own private beach.

Look what’s waiting for us.

The weather quickly turns from sunny to overcast to downright stormy.

We pack up our bags and bid our oasis adieu.

(There goes my alarm. Time to get ready for work. Do you think my new colleagues will like the cake?)


Rinse pibá.

Drop into salted boiling water.

Boil for about 20 minutes until tender.

Rinse with cold water.

Let cool.

With a salt shaker nearby and a sharp knife, peel the orange skin and eat the white, starchy fruit. It tastes a bit like a dense potato.

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la rentrée


It always feels like the beginning of the year. The French have the perfect term for this. La rentrée. It refers to the early days of September. Children returning to school. Families returning from vacation. The coasts emptying out. The cities filling up again. The July sales (the French government dictates that stores only have sales in January and July) long gone. A return to “regular life.”

To me, this September feels more like la rentrée than any in recent memory.


Well, thank you for asking.

Remember when I said that there were some things in the works? I wasn’t just talking about food. I’m starting a new job tomorrow! Talk about feeling like the first day of school.

I’ve laid my outfit on a chair, shoes beneath. I have a few pens and a new notebook in my bag. My blackberry’s charged. My alarm is set. I’ve practiced the route to the office.

I thought I’d be writing today about making some big, last-all-week, dish that I could dole out in my new lunchbox every morning with a piece of fruit, granola bar, and diet Coke. Who am I kidding? Do you honestly think I have a lunch box?

For now, I’ll share my dinner (leftovers) with you.

Here’s to hoping I still have time to cook!

Lahmajun-style sauce

Lahmajun in an arabic meat pizza. I first tried it when I was in summer camp and one of my Syrian friend’s family invited me for a picnic lunch on family visiting day when my parents got stuck in traffic. One taste and I was hooked. These mini meat pizzas, never larger than four inches in diameter according to my long-forgotten friend’s mother, are a little spicy, a little sour, and a lotta good. I usually make these with store-bought pizza dough, using recipes from FoodBridge and Blue Jean Gourmet as a guide. Thanks ladies for helping me out here.

Too lazy to even roll out dough earlier this week, I turned the lahmajun meat topping into a sauce to put on top of barley. This is a bit more tomato-y than when I put it on pizza dough. The pomegranate molasses provides a sweet piquancy. I add a fair amount of harissa for kick. The pizzas are traditionally made with pine nuts and parsley, but I leave both ingredients out and finish with a little fresh mint.

– 1-2 T olive oil

– 1 onion

– 4 cloves garlic

– 1 lb ground beef or lamb

– 2T lemon juice

– 28 oz can chopped tomatoes

– 2 T pomegranate concentrate or pomegranate molasses

– 1-2 t baharat (or cinnamon)

– 1 T harissa (yes, I really do mean a tablespoon — I like things spicy — adjust to your own taste)

– mint leaves

Saute. Chop onion and garlic and add to olive oil in a large skillet. Saute until golden brown and translucent.

Brown. Add meat and brown.

Keep cooking. Deglaze meat with lemon juice, scraping up all the good stuff. Add tomatoes, pomegranate, baharat, and harissa to taste. And of course, salt and pepper. Simmer for about 5-10 minutes until the sauce thickens. If it gets too dry, add some water.

Eat. Serve over rice or barley and sprinkle with torn fresh mint.

PS – that cutie up there, that’s Caroline‘s son.

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Last week, I asked Gedalia, an excellent photographer, over for dinner with his wife Rachela so that he could take a few pictures of me. No, they’re not for an online dating profile. I’ve sworn off of those. (I’ll keep you posted on how that’s going.) The head shot is for PresenTense magazine, which asked me to contribute content and photographs to their upcoming magazine. I’ll tell you more about that when it gets published, but for now, let’s chat about the picture.

Rachela helped me pick out an outfit and Gedalia snapped away. We all agreed that the mischievious ones were best.

Mischievious, not mischievous. Miss-cheeeeeee-ve-us. Rhymes with devious. That’s me. Mischievious, that is. Not devious.

To incentivize (bribe) Rachela and Gedalia to come over after a long day, I rewarded them with dinner. Check out what I made.

Penne alla vodka

A vodka sauce made with tomatoes, cream, and of course vodka, is one of my favorite pasta sauces and does take a little more effort than opening a jar, but this whole dish takes about 20 minutes. There’s no chopping! If you’re starving, snack on a few olives and pour yourself a glass of wine. I use Lidia Bastianich’s recipe as a starting point. Boil the pasta just shy of al dente because it will continue cooking when you add it to the sauce. Beware the sauce does splatter and make a mess of your stovetop. On second thought, that might just be me…whenever I cook I make a mess!

– 1 pound penne

– salt

– one 35-ounce can tomatoes (San Marzano are really good) – whole or chopped – if you use whole tomatoes, given them a quick whirl in a blender or food processor to break them up (but don’t over blend or you will end up with pink frothy aerated tomatoes)

– 2-3T olive oil

– 6-10 cloves garlic (depending on how big the cloves are)

– Crushed red pepper flakes

– 1/4 C vodka

– 1/4 – 1/2 C cream (I use a bit more than 1/4 C light cream but the original recipe calls for 1/2 C heavy cream)

–  3/4 C parmesan cheese (and more for sprinkling)

Boil. Put a huge pot of water on to boil. When the water comes to a rolling boil, add several large pinches of salt. The water should be as salty as chicken broth. Pretty salty. Cook pasta just shy of al dente and drain (don’t rinse), reserving a cup or two of the pasta liquid.

Saute. While pasta is cooking, heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat (large enough to hold the cooked pasta too). Whack garlic cloves with the side of a heavy knife to remove skin and crush the meat a bit. Add the cloves to the hot oil and cook until light brown.

Step back. Add the tomatoes carefully and step back. There will be a fair amount of sputtering and splattering here.

Boil. Bring tomatoes to a boil and add salt and a generous pinch of crushed red pepper flakes, and boil 2 more minutes.

Simmer. Pour in the vodka and lower the heat so the sauce simmers and continues to splatter. When you first add the vodka, it seems to float on top, so simmer until the vodka gets fully incorporated (about 10 more minutes). Take out the garlic cloves and pour in the cream.

Mix. Add the pasta to the sauce and gently simmer until the sauce sticks to the pasta. If it gets too dry, add some of the pasta liquid to bring the sauce to the right consistency. Add grated parmesan to the pasta and mix. Serve with lots of extra cheese.

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