Saturday, September 27, 2008


The woman is supposed to remember all the details of the relationship, right? She is supposed to recall the specific day and location of the first date...all goings-on, both important and insignificant, of the early courtship...birthdays, anniversaries...favorite songs, special places. Right?

When the Daring Bakers' September challenge was announced and I learned I would be baking crackers and a vegan, gluten-free dip to go with them, I thought...excellent. I can flavor my crackers with zatar! I can make some version of ful medames, a traditional Middle Eastern fava bean dish! I can tell the story about the second date I went on with Husband back in 1996, when we had dinner at Olive Mountain, a yummy Middle Eastern restaurant close to campus! I can reminisce about a time and place directly related to the recipe at hand! This month's savory challenge was the perfect excuse to talk about those ridiculous, carefree days when I thought Husband was just some dude who I would date for a few months and then watch ride gloriously off into the sunset, as he was a year ahead of me at Northwestern and graduated not long after we met. I believe I actually did used to refer to him as "Ride Off Into the Sunset Guy" to my friends.

Except for the fact that our second date took place at Thai Sookdee, which was next door to Olive Mountain. Husband reminded me of this fact. He had the early relationship details right; I had them wrong. Thankfully, one of us remembers. I had to hang my head a shame and lose myself in stacks of old scrapbooks and our wedding DVD just to make myself feel like a woman again.

Even given this memory lapse, I still decided to devote the September challenge to zatar crackers and ful medames. Once I started thinking about zatar and fava beans -- whether they were a part of my second date with Husband or not -- I just couldn't stop. If you've never had zatar, you simply must try it. It is amazing; a tangy, salty, almost citrusy Middle Eastern spice blend composed of sumac, thyme, sesame seeds and salt. I have a huge jar of the stuff just calling to me from the spice cupboard -- I went overboard one day when shopping at Penzeys -- and I'm always looking for ways to use it. Zatar-laced crackers just make sense to me as an accompaniment to the ful medames.

Ful medames (I just call it "ful" for short) is fabulously tasty, and as long as you don't suffer from favism I'm certain you'll enjoy it. I remember it on the Olive Mountain menu as a chunky dip-like appetizer; recently I watched Anthony Bourdain enjoy a plate of it for breakfast in Cairo; Jewish food expert Gil Marks tells of a version of the dish that contains hard-boiled eggs. So there seems to be several versions of traditional ful, which just makes sense to me because you know that when something is good, it shows up here and there, in many countries, demonstrating delicious regional variations. Someday I'd like to try it with eggs, but today it sits next to my zatar crackers, lookin' all green and scrumptious and gorgeous.

So thank you, Daring Bakers, for giving me an excuse to consume zatar and favas. And thank you, Husband, for caring enough to remember the little details of our shared life. Now, if only you could get over your bean-phobia and share the ful with me....


Cracker recipe adapted from The Bread Baker's Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread, by Peter Reinhart
Ful medames recipe adapted from Olives Trees and Honey: A Treasury of Vegetarian Recipes from Jewish Communities Around the World, by Gil Marks

For the crackers:

1 1/2 c. unbleached bread flour

1/2 t. kosher salt

1/2 t. active dry yeast (about half of one packet)

1 T. sugar

1 T. vegetable oil

4 to 6 oz. water, at room temperature

2 T. zatar

In a mixing bowl, combine flour, salt, yeast, sugar and vegetable oil. Begin to mix the ingredients using your hands, and add the water -- a little at a time -- until the mixture just forms a ball. Don't add more water than it takes for this to happen; the amount used will vary given the humidity, flour, etc. When I made the crackers, I used a full 6 oz. of water.

Sprinkle some flour on the counter. Turn out the dough and knead for 10-15 minutes to evenly distribute the ingredients and develop the gluten. You will know you have kneaded enough when the dough passes the windowpane test; registers between 77 and 81 degrees Fahrenheit as measured by a probe thermometer; and/or is medium-firm, satiny to the touch, not tacky and supple enough to stretch when pulled. This is not a particularly difficult step, but it is kind of boring. So set yourself up at a kitchen window so you can gaze at the trees, birds, neighborhood goings-on, what have you. Alternatively, this time passes more quickly if you have an entertaining dog who will attempt to wedge her nose between you and the edge of the counter top, sniffing madly at what she thinks must surely be homemade dog biscuit dough. You can also have your husband perform tricks and/or dance around the kitchen. Ask him; he should humor you, you are making him crackers.

Lightly coat a bowl with vegetable oil. Place the dough in the bowl and turn to coat with oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and a kitchen towel, then place in a warm corner of the kitchen. Allow the dough to rise for about 90 minutes, or until it doubles in size.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Mist the counter lightly with spray oil and transfer the risen dough from the bowl to the counter. Press the dough into a square and lightly sprinkle flour over the surface of the dough. Using a rolling pin, roll out the dough into a paper-thin sheet about 12" x 15". You might have to stop a few times throughout this process to allow the gluten to relax; just cover it with a towel or plastic wrap while it relaxes. When the dough is at the desired thinness, allow it to relax for 5 minutes.

Line a sheet pan with a Silpat or parchment paper. Fold the dough in half onto itself and quickly -- but gently -- lift it and place on the sheet pan. Immediately unfold the dough so that it covers the Silpat. If the dough is larger than the Silpat, trim away the edges using a pizza cutter, scissors or a small paring knife. (Cut gently! You don't want to harm the Silpat. It never did anything to you.) Set aside the scraps; you can roll these out a second time and bake them as a second batch.

Moisten your hand with water and spread the water around the surface of the dough (or you can use a spray bottle filled with water, if you have one.) Sprinkle the zatar evenly on the surface of the dough, then press into the dough gently using the palm of your hand. Cut the dough into the shape and size you wish your crackers to be; or you can bake the sheet whole, then snap into shards when the crackers are done.

Bake the crackers for 12-17 minutes; the time will vary based on the thinness of your crackers. After about 10 minutes, start watching to assure that the crackers don't burn. When the crackers are baked, remove from the oven and allow them to cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then remove to a rack to cool completely.

Congratulations, you have so totally made homemade crackers. If you wish to be fancy and foodie, refer to them as "housemade crackers" as you serve them to your guests.

For the ful medames:

24 oz. jar of fava beans

1 c. water

2/3 c. olive oil

1 t. freshly-cracked black pepper

6 garlic cloves, minced

1/4 c. fresh parsley, chopped

1/4 c. fresh cilantro, chopped

1/4 c. freshly-squeezed lemon juice

3/4 t. kosher salt

1 t. dried mint flakes, to garnish

Drain and rinse the fava beans. Place the fava beans and water in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Heat the beans through, stirring frequently, until most of the water evaporates. Add the olive oil, pepper and garlic, stir through. Reduce the heat to low and cook the fava beans slowly, stirring occasionally, for about 25 minutes.

While the favas are still in the skillet, using an immersion blender or a potato masher, mash about half the beans. You want some smoothness to the ful, but it's important to maintain some whole beans to give the dip a chunky texture. Add the flat-leaf parsley, cilantro, lemon juice and salt; stir to combine well.

Remove the ful to a plate and garnish with dried mint. Serve with zatar crackers.

Makes 8 servings.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A way that makes sense

So I am trying to eat in a more healthy manner. You know, maybe a little less butter, a little more fresh produce. A little less pizza, a little more lean chicken. Less of the "bad" carbs, more of the "good" ones. (Though I generally don't like pitting foodstuffs against each other.) I'm finding that the older I get, the less I can happily suffer a less-than-stellar diet. Which is to say, I am starting to feel a little creaky and I'm guessing my diet is not helping.

(Please do not think that I am turning my back on those more calorie-laden comfort foods. I am not. There are plenty more recipes where those came from and while I strive for a healthier lifestyle, I, frankly, do not believe that life is worth living if you can't indulge every so often. But generally speaking -- at least Monday through Friday -- I am going to do what I can to eat in a way that makes sense to my taste buds and to my hips.)

This more mindful consumption complements a new-found commitment to regular exercise and increased outdoor recreational pursuits. I recently started running and weight training and the time I spend horseback riding every Tuesday and Thursday has proven to be the Best Two Hours Of My Week.** I dusted off the old golf clubs and put my spikes in the car. I even inflated the tires on my bike and starting hiking local trails. The largest investment I made this month was in new recreational gear -- riding breeches, some running clothes, a new exercise ball. Damn.

When my bitchin' trainer, Heather, who is like my own personal Jillian Michaels, was discussing some good ways to welcome healthier eating into my life, she suggested that I have a serving of good carbs at dinner. I asked her what, exactly, that meant. She said, "Sweet potatoes." When I replied that I cannot stomach the sweet potato, she said, " beans."

"Can I have a black bean salad? With olive oil?"

"Of course," Heather replied.

And thus I became inordinately excited to have a good excuse to pull out my very favorite black bean recipe. I'm doing it for my health! I can eat well and still indulge in beloved old standby recipes! See, this is how to get excited about healthy eating. Well, this is how I get excited about healthy eating.

The recipe is Alton Brown' know, the Man Who Would Save the Food Network. This salad is so very delicious: a sturdy base of black beans highlighted by the bright tang of lime juice, the slight bite of teeny red onion cubes, the grassy yumminess of cilantro and the complex smokiness of cumin. You might be tempted to eat the entire batch, but, you know, a healthy diet is all about portion control. So do your best to get a hold of yourself. I certainly am.

And Max here is thanking me for it. After all, the less I weigh, the less he has to carry around on his back.

**UPDATE: Check that. What I should have written is, "Next to Saturdays and Sundays, which Dad spends at my house building a large and fancy pantry in which I can store all my black beans, the time I spend horseback riding every Tuesday and Thursday has proven to be the Second Best Two Hours Of My Week."


Adapted from Alton Brown's recipe

Note that you must soak the beans overnight before beginning this recipe, so plan ahead to allow yourself enough time.

1 lb. dried black beans

1 celery stalk

1 carrot

A few sprigs fresh thyme

A few sprigs fresh flat-leaf parsley

1 bay leaf

1/2 white or yellow onion

2 t. kosher salt

1/3 c. extra-virgin olive oil

1/3 c. freshly-squeezed lime juice

1 red onion, minced

1/3 c. fresh cilantro, chopped

2 t. ground cumin

1 t. chili powder

Kosher salt and freshly-cracked black pepper, to taste

The night before you wish to make this salad, pour the beans onto a baking sheet and examine for any small stones or other non-bean material. After you've picked them over, place them in a wire-mesh strainer and rinse. Place the rinsed beans in a large container or bowl and cover with a few inches of water. Cover the container and let the beans soak at room temperature overnight, or up to 24 hours.

When you are ready to cook the beans, tie the celery, carrot, thyme, parsley and bay leaf into a bundle using butcher's twine. Drain the beans and place them in a large pot with the celery bundle and onion. Add just enough water to barely cover the beans.

Uncovered, bring the beans to a simmer over medium-low heat. When the beans are simmering, partially cover and cook for 1 to 2 hours over low heat until the beans are barely tender. About 30 minutes into the cooking time, add the salt to the beans and stir to combine. Occasionally check on the beans and add water to cover them if necessary.

When the beans are just barely tender, drain them and remove the celery bundle and onion. (Discard the carrot bundle and onion.) Toss the beans while hot with the olive oil, lime juice, red onion, cilantro, cumin and chili powder. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Can be served warm or chilled; it is delicious regardless of the temperature.

Makes 8 servings.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Time is well-spent in the service of great sauce

If there is one dish that is truly my own -- that defines me, in the culinary sense -- it is my marinara. Or "red sauce," as my family calls it. This is the meal that I turn to more than any other, the one of which Husband says, "I can eat your sauce each and every night of the week and I am being serious." When Mom says, "Are you feeding your father tonight?" what she means is, "Are you making red sauce?" Even Mom, who is not a fan of pasta and would just as soon eat a fried egg or a boring old salad for dinner, will from time to time eat and enjoy a bowl of rigatoni if it's topped with this sauce. And if you know Mom, that is quite a compliment.

The recipe for my red sauce varies depending on the time of year and the availability of delicious, ripe tomatoes. If it's fall, winter, spring or early summer and I can't get my hands on really amazing fresh tomatoes, I reach for a can of whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes or -- better yet -- a jar of my own homegrown beauties that I put up the previous summer. But if it's late summer and the plants are producing copious amounts of glorious, sun-kissed tomatoes, well, friends, it is roasting time.

The late-summer, roasted tomato version of the marinara is, quite literally, good enough to eat with a spoon. Husband sometimes does. The slow roasting of the fresh garden tomatoes lends a delectable smokiness to the sauce that just cannot be duplicated any other time of the year -- well, any other time of the year here in Northeast Ohio, where the growing season is short and the cold, blustery months long.

I can't really recall the origin of this recipe. I just sort of made it up one day and have been perfecting it over the years. Though it is not rocket science, people really seem to respond to this recipe. And by "people," I mean my family and various friends -- the people who really count when it comes to cooking and feeding and sharing and entertaining. Roasted tomato marinara takes tomato sauce to an entirely new level. It is well worth the months spent cultivating my garden, then the time spent peeling and roasting the fresh-picked tomatoes. Time is well-spent in the service of great sauce.

You know, for a dish that is so central to what I do in the kitchen -- and what I do in my yard during the warm months -- I have surprisingly little to say about it. No elaborate background story; no effusive foodie language. Maybe this is because my red sauce is such an elemental part of my kitchen and of the way my family eats and of the way I feed them. It's hard to describe the importance of something so central to one's life, so omnipresent in one's kitchen. It's challenging to articulate why you love your husband, what makes your nephews so special, why your dog is a beloved member of the family, what it is about the national anthem that brings a tear to your eye. These things just are. They are in your soul.

And roasted tomato marinara is in my kitchen.



This recipe doubles quite easily, if you have a lot of tomatoes in your garden and wish to make a large vat of sauce. Also, I never measure ingredients when I make this sauce. So if you have a little extra basil on hand, or wish to polish off the last of the wine but there's a little more in the bottle than 1/4 c., by all means go for it. Play with the ingredients. That's what makes it fun, and that's what makes it your own. 

For the roasted tomatoes:

4 T. olive oil, divided

6 lbs. tomatoes, from the garden or farmers' market, peeled

1/4 c. fresh basil, packed

1 T. fresh rosemary

2 T. fresh oregano

2 T. fresh flat-leaf parsley

1/2 t. kosher salt

1/2 t. freshly-cracked black pepper

For the sauce:

3 T. olive oil

1 medium onion, halved and sliced

3 cloves of garlic, sliced

1/8 t. kosher salt

1/8 t. freshly-cracked black pepper

1/4 c. red wine

6 T. grated Pecorino cheese

Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Pour 2 T. of the olive oil on a heavy-duty sheet pan and spread it around to coat the surface. Peel the tomatoes. First, fill a medium saucepan about halfway with water and place over medium heat. Bring to a slow boil, then reduce the heat to low and keep the water at a simmer. Using a serrated knife, cut an "X" into the bottom of the tomatoes. Working in batches, place them in the simmering water for 30 seconds to a minute to loosen the skins. Remove the tomatoes from the water and peel them under cool running water using a paring knife. Cut each tomato in half, then remove the core and some of the seeds. (It is not necessary to remove all of the seeds -- no need to be fanatical about this step.) If you are working with particularly large tomatoes, cut them into three or four pieces. Place the peeled, halved tomatoes on the sheet pan.

Place the basil, rosemary, oregano and flat-leaf parsley in a big pile on a cutting board. Roughly chop; set aside.

Drizzle the tomatoes with the remaining 2 T. of olive oil, then sprinkle with 3/4 of the chopped herb mixture, the salt and the pepper. (Reserve the remaining 1/4 of the herb mixture.) Place the sheet pan in the oven and roast the tomatoes for 45 minutes, until they develop some char along the edges and are hot and sizzling.

About 10 minutes before the tomatoes are finished roasting, in a large pot heat 3 T. of olive oil over medium-low heat. Add the sliced onion, garlic, salt and pepper to the oil and cook gently, stirring occasionally, until the onions are softened and begin to take on a lovely brown color.

Remove the tomatoes from the oven. Spoon the tomatoes into the pot with the onions. When most of the tomatoes are in the pot, carefully pour the reserved liquid and oil from the sheet pan into the pot, using a wooden spoon to loosen and scrape any caramelized tomato pieces into the sauce. It is important to get as much of the roasted goodness from the sheet pan into the pot of sauce, so do not skip this step. Reduce the heat to low. Stir in the red wine. Cook the sauce for about 10 minutes.

Using an immersion blender, puree the sauce until smooth. (You can perform this step in a traditional blender, but the immersion blender works extremely well with little to no mess.) Add the Pecorino cheese; stir to combine. Cook for another 15 minutes.

Finely chop the remaining herb mixture. Add to the sauce; stir through and turn off the heat. Adding the herbs at two different points -- at the beginning, before roasting the tomatoes, and at the very end -- brings a depth of flavor and freshness to the sauce.

Serve over hot pasta and garnish with a sprinkling of Pecorino, or allow the sauce to cool to room temperature then store in the refrigerator in a covered container for up to 5 days. The sauce also freezes well.

Makes about 6 cups of sauce.

Friday, September 5, 2008

A much higher purpose

Gardening is one of my favorite pastimes, at least during the warmer months. But when you garden -- especially as I do, which is to say when you grow a large amount of a few select crops -- sometimes you have to develop associated hobbies to prevent your homegrown bounty from going to waste. Hobbies like home canning. Ketchup-making. Pickling. You develop a love for the Ball jar, an appreciation for tasks not undertaken since yore. As you sanitize yet another flat metal lid and band, you feel a little like Laura Ingalls Wilder, helping Ma and Pa prepare for the upcoming blustery prairie winter.

So far this summer I've put up five jars of garden tomatoes, with many more to come as we head into September. I didn't grow any cucumbers this year, but in years past I have prepared dozens of jars of bread and butter pickles from the cucumber harvest. I'm planning on cooking up at least one batch of homemade ketchup, which is sweeter and more essentially tomato than anything you can buy in the supermarket. And yesterday I "preserved" -- at least for a short time -- the excessively large number of green and cubanelle peppers that I allowed to turn red. They were numerous and lovely and a bright shade of crimson; I looked at them weighing heavily on their plants and envisioned, yes, roasted red peppers.

Now I know that roasting peppers and packing them into jars with olive oil is not preservation, per se. I know that I cannot keep these jars in my pantry for months and months. But I also know that I can keep them in my refrigerator for a week or so and that they will last longer than the fresh peppers would have. So in that sense I am "preserving" my bumper pepper crop. Bonus: I can share the jars with family and friends. My peppers will serve a much higher purpose in this way than they certainly would have if left to languish, pathetically, in their pots on the back porch.

I can think of a million and one amazing things to do with roasted red peppers. Eat them right out of the jar, as Dad does. Spread slices of toasted baguette with goat cheese then top the crostini with bright curls of roasted pepper. Toss the peppers with warm pasta, kalamata olives and fresh basil leaves. Whiz together a romesco sauce to serve with grilled fish. Add pureed roasted red peppers to homemade tomato sauce for a unique and unexpected depth of flavor. Present roasted red peppers alongside some aged Provolone, fresh mozzarella, Sicilian olives, fresh tomatoes and giardiniera for a fantastic antipasto. All that is just for starters.

As I've written before, this recipe really isn't a recipe, but more of a method -- or an inspiration, if you will -- to use productively all the peppers that might be growing in your garden or for sale at your local farmers' market. This simple method is a reminder that simple homegrown food is good. It satisfies the belly and nurtures the soul. And finding ways to stretch the goodness of the summer garden into the fall and winter months is a wonderful way to connect with food as sustenance, with food as rustic beauty, with food as elemental.

Glass jars full of colorful garden gems -- lined up in their gleaming, primitive beauty on a kitchen shelf or in a refrigerator door -- recall summer's warm soil and long sunny days. They are happy reminders of a productive season gone by, and you welcome such stores as the evenings get chilly and, for the first time in many months, you wrap a jacket around your shoulders under a cool blue September sky.



This recipe makes enough pepper slivers to fill one 8-oz. Ball jar. Last night, I had enough peppers to fill three jars. This recipe is not scientific; if you can't fit in the entire 1/4 c. of olive oil, no worries. Just add what you can without overflowing the jar.

Regarding roasting: I char my peppers directly over the flame of the stove. If you have electric burners, you could perform this step on a grill or in a grill pan -- just make sure you run the exhaust fan if you're going the grill pan route.

6 red peppers

1/4 c. olive oil

1/8 t. kosher salt

1/8 t. freshly-cracked pepper

1 t. dried basil

First, roast the peppers. Place the peppers, two to a burner, directly over a medium flame.

Watch the peppers the entire time they're over the flame, turning frequently with a pair of tongs to char as much of the surface as possible. Do not be afraid of burning the peppers -- you want the skin to be blackened.

Though it makes a bit of a flaky black mess on the stove, this step is kind of fun. At least if you're somewhat of a pyro like me. At any rate: be careful, and I don't have to tell you that every well-outfitted kitchen has a fire extinguisher within easy reach, yes? Yes.

When the peppers are thoroughly charred, remove them from the flame, place in a large bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. The peppers will thus "steam" inside the bowl, releasing their skins. Keep the peppers covered while you continue roasting, adding peppers to the bowl as they are charred. After all the peppers are roasted and in the bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap and drape with a kitchen towel. Allow the peppers to sit for about 30 minutes, until they are cool enough to handle.

When you can hold the peppers comfortably in your hand, begin peeling. I use an old dull knife that used to belong to my grandmother -- it is perfect for peeling peppers and tomatoes and hulling strawberries (and completing other tasks where I have to cut toward my hand) because the blade is sharp enough to get work done but not sharp enough to slice my fingers. Plus there is the added bonus of working with a tool that my grandmother used -- a boon for a nostalgia-phile like me. Much of the blackened skin will simply flake off but you may have to pull away any of the skin that was not thoroughly singed. As much as you think it will assist the process, do not place the roasted peppers under running water. Doing so will wash away lots of the delicious smokiness. It's OK if you have tiny pieces of blackened skin left on the peppers; this adds marvelous flavor.

One at a time, place the peeled peppers on a cutting board. Using a proper sharp knife, cut off the stem end. Cut the pepper in half length-wise, open the two halves and scrape out the seeds. Discard the seeds. Cut the seeded halves into long strips about 1/4"-1/2" wide and set aside. Continue processing all of the roasted peppers in this manner.

Fill an 8-oz. Ball jar with pepper slices. Add the olive oil, salt, pepper and dried basil. Using a fork, "mix" the contents of the jar as best you can to distribute the oil and spices throughout. Tightly close the lid on the jar. Stare admiringly at your gorgeous jar of roasted red peppers, dream about how yummy they will be and pat yourself on the back for bringing produce from seed to larder.

Makes one 8-oz. jar of peppers. Keep refrigerated! The peppers will last for about a week if refrigerated properly.