Thursday, May 26, 2011

ingredient: OREGANO

I seem to be the only person I know who makes use of those plastic containers of oregano that come gratis at NYC pizza places. My dining companions are with me with the spicy red pepper flakes, and sometimes they're even asking me to hand over the pseudo parmesan. But oregano? Here I'm alone.

Oregano has a particular earthy flavor that is not to everyone's taste. I urge those people to buy a fresh container of dried oregano and keep it in their fridge. Those same old-as-dirt shakers at pizza places are misleading (though clearly not enough to deter me) because the herbs inside are usually so dead and dried out that it's like shaking flavored dust onto your pizza. Good quality dried oregano, particularly of the Greek or Mexican varieties, has a piney, slightly minty flavor that pairs perfectly with spicy food. Another good move is to do as the Turks do and accompany dried oregano with grilled meat. And the old classics are worth repeating: oregano is key in Greek salads and adds panache to creamy stewed white beans.

Not convinced that this herb deserves a place beyond the slice? On a per gram fresh weight basis, oregano has 42 times more antioxidants than apples. It's also a great source of fiber and vitamin C.

Greek Stuffed Eggplants

These kind of look like eggplant boats and I love the idea of sailing away in one. I'm joking but I'm also serious, because I love eggplant so much that I would be happy not sad if I found myself Shanghaied in a boat made out of eggplant. Well, until I ate my vessel and drowned.

More to the point, if you've never stuffed vegetables with other vegetables and eaten them, you're missing out. I do a lot of stuffed tomatoes and stuffed red bell peppers , and they're delicious. What's great about eggplant is that just one big purple beauty will feed about two people (if you have something like grilled sausages or shrimp on the side) or, for vegetable-lovers, one eggplant per person makes an incredibly satisfying meal. In short: it's a delicious, cheap dinner for a group.

I particularly enjoy making eggplant this way because the filling includes some of my favorite herbs and spices (oregano, red pepper flakes, cumin, parsley) and anytime that you finish a dish by adding a layer salty, crumbly feta cheese, well, it's hard to go wrong.

serves 8 as a side or 4 as a main
4 medium eggplants

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil plus more for drizzling
1 large or two small onions, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped

3 teaspoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon dried oregano, plus more for sprinkling
1 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes

1 1/2 cups canned chopped tomatoes

1/4 cup chopped parsley
1 cup feta, crumbled


Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Slice each eggplant in half lengthwise. Score with a knife and drizzle with olive oil and a sprinkle of salt. Bake until center is almost completely cooked, about 30 minutes.

When eggplants have cooled enough to handle, scoop out the flesh and reserve the shells. Roughly chop eggplant meat.

In a large saute pan over medium high heat, heat 3 tablespoons olive oil. Saute onions until turning translucent, about 8 minutes. Add garlic, cumin, hot pepper flakes, 1 tablespoon oregano, and eggplant meat. Cook until eggplant is fully cooked, about 5 minutes. Take off heat. Add tomatoes, parsley, and salt and pepper to taste. (As a note, when you see that "salt and pepper to taste" comes in early in a recipe like this it means, "this is your chance to season the hell out of your filling. There won't be another." So grab that shaker and don't be shy).

Stir eggplant mixture to make sure it's fully combined. Place eggplant shells in a large baking dish. Fill each shell with mixture.

Pour just enough water to cover the bottom of the baking dish and cook for 18 minutes. Sprinkle tops of eggplant with feta cheese and continue to bake until starting to melt, 2 minutes.

Serve eggplants with an extra sprinkle of oregano over the top.

Friday, May 20, 2011

ingredient: POPPY SEEDS

Am I the only one who totally missed what was happening in that scene in the Wizard of Oz where they fall asleep in the field of poppies?


Ok. Good.

Yes children, poppy seeds, those same little black sprinkles which adorn your bagel, come from the opium poppy plant which, true to its name, can be used to produce the drug opium. But while the ancient people who attributed the power of invisibility to eating poppy seeds may have actually been tripping balls, you will not get stoned from eating poppy seeds. Though I'm sure many, many a teenager has tried.

More than any other geographical area (except the Upper West Side of New York City), Eastern Europe loves poppy seeds. They sprinkle them in breads, kneed them into dumplings, and grind them into a paste which is rolled up in strudels and cookies. Poppy seeds are also popular in Turkey and India, where you'll sometimes come across the white version (which tastes the same but looks cooler).

One pound of these little guys can contain over two million seeds. They're expensive to produce and, because of their natural oils, they turn rancid easily. So if you buy poppy seeds, store them in your freezer to extend the life of your seeds, and your money. A last fun fact: if you've ever seen that episode of Seinfeld where Elaine eats a poppy seed muffin then tests positive for drugs and wondered, "Can that really happen?" the answer is yes. So potential candidates for the C.I.A, beware.

Lemon Poppy Seed Muffins

For my Serious Entertaining column this week, I made a series of edible party favors. While I've been eating my way through the incredibly decadent fudge and I shipped off the sweet and salty nuts, I've let friends do most of the damage to the lemon poppy seed mini muffins. Why? Because (I'm sorry Ajay) because the truth is that I'm not a huge fan of muffins.

I know it doesn't make any sense. I love bread. I love sweets. Muffins should totally be my thing. And I'll admit that as a kid I freakin' loved those Entenmann's mini-muffins. You know the ones that came like five to a white bag? They were were always so moist! (Yes I know it's probably because they're made out of emulsified plastic or something else I don't want to think about.) My issue with muffins is that they either a) don't have enough flavor or b) are dry and crusty.

Everyone seems to love muffin tops. I don't want to reference Seinfeld twice in one post but, well, you all know that episode with the muffin tops. I didn't get it. "Hey Elaine!" I called to the TV. "You can keep your tops! I'll eat those muffin bottoms. Hey homeless woman! Why aren't you eating those delicious fluffy bottoms? Are you crazy!?" And on.

I like muffin bottoms. If I could I'd scalp the crust right off my muffin and leave nothing but airy center. Anyway, I hope this helps you understand my issue with mini-muffins. Not enough fluff. And thus I decided to make a new batch of the lemon poppy seed muffins, but this time they were normal sized. I do love the flavor of these particular muffins. Bright and citrusy from the lemon, they also get a slight nuttiness (and fun texture) from the poppy seeds.

Makes 12 normal sized muffins

1 cup sugar
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 tablespoons lemon zest
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
3/4 cup sour cream
3 tablespoons poppy seeds


Preheat oven to 400°F. Line 12 muffin cups with liners.

In a large bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, lemon zest, and salt.

In a medium bowl, whisk together melted butter, eggs, vanilla, and sour cream until well combined.

Add wet ingredients to flour mixture and stir with a spoon until just combined. Mix in poppy seeds until evenly distributed.

Fill each muffin cup 3/4 of the way full.

Bake until golden brown and a cake tester comes out clean, about 18 minutes. Let muffins cool on wire rack.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

ingredient: RAS EL HANOUT

A phrase I don't hear nearly enough is "What looks good?" And I'm not looking for a compliment, either.

It's a phrase that customers should pose to their vendors, their butchers, their fish mongers and their bakers. In places where eating locally and seasonally is still the norm, this phrase is much more common. You depend on the person who is selling you your vegetables or your meat to be an expert in their field. They know what's lookin good, they know what's going to taste the best. So you trust them with your dinner.

Ras el Hanout means something along the lines of "best in the shop" in Arabic. It's a spice blend that is made by the spice vendors in North Africa. They can blend over 50 different ingredients to make a delicious, aromatic mixture of sweet, fiery and savory spices. In fact it's a point of pride for spice vendors in countries like Morocco to sell the best ras el hanout. Meanwhile, I had to tell the man in the vegetable department of my supermarket what a leek was.

You can certainly mix your own blend with ingredients such as cinnamon, ground chilies, turmeric, nutmeg, clove, coriander, cardamon, and cumin. And then you could guard that recipe with your life, never sharing it with a soul but occasionally giving the mix as a gift so that people will come, begging, for your secrets. That would probably be the authentic thing to do. Or you can also just do as I did and buy it at a gourmet market when you see it sitting right between the poppy seeds and the rosemary (N.B.D) and exclaim "weee" with delight while the person next to you hurries away with their boring old nutmeg.

Couscous with Red Peppers, Apricots
and Ras el Hanout

After the aforementioned episode, I couldn't wait to get home and use my ras el hanout. At that same market I had also followed my own advice and bought a ton of what looked good, which happened to be red peppers. Now, it might not be the right season for red peppers, but usually you can find some good looking specimens in the off-season. Unless, as happened this year, deep winter freezes kill most of Mexico's crop, leaving red pepper and tomato fiending Americans paying 3 dollars a pepper for shriveled little things even though we should just give up the ghost and eat more perfectly unharmed Idaho potatos. (Somewhere Alice Waters is gloating.) Anyway, these peppers finally looked all plump and red and beautiful, so I bought 4 and ran home to eat.

In homage to North Africa, I sauteed the peppers with the ras el hanout, some dried apricots, orange zest, and pine-nuts and finished them with a good bunch of parsley. The result was a mix of sweet and savory, with a subtle heat and a bit of freshness. Put over some fluffy couscous, it was "top of the shop."

serves three as a side

ingredients: 3 tablespoons olive oil
4 red peppers, roughly chopped

zest of one orange
10 dried apricots (the good quality, juicy ones), finely chopped
2 tablespoons pine nuts

1 tablespoon ras el hanout

1 tablespoon sherry vinegar (or orange juice if that orange is all you have on hand)
1/3 cup chopped parsley
salt and pepper
1 cup isreali couscous (I had this on hand, regular couscous is more than fine)


In a medium saucepan, heat 1 1/2 cups water until boiling. Add couscous and turn heat to medium low. Cook, covered, for 10 minutes.

Heat olive oil in a large saute pan over medium high heat. Add the pinenuts and the apricots and saute two minutes. Add the peppers and saute until starting to get tender, about 8 minutes. Add the ras el hanout and sautee for 5 minutes, or until peppers are crisp-tender.

Add the sherry vinegar and saute one minute. Add salt and pepper to taste. Stir in chopped parsley.

Divide couscous among plates and top with peppers.

*photo of spices from wikipedia (to be subbed out when I finally take that trip to Morocco.)

Monday, May 9, 2011

ingredient: PIMENTÓN

I'm one of those people who thinks everything sounds better in another language. So it was no surprise that as I was doing my souvenir shopping in Madrid a few years ago, I was immediately drawn to pimentón. I knew it was paprika. I knew we had it in the States. I worried that I was being a little silly, though clearly that didn't stop me from buying it anyway. But the truth is that I was totally justified in that purchase (maybe less so with the ashtray shaped like a bull) because Spanish paprika is different from other versions.

But let's start with the broadest term: Paprika is a spice made from grinding chili peppers, and as such its flavor can vary widely depending on the type of peppers used. In Spain, you'll find three main versions of pimentón: Pimentón Dulce or Sweet Paprika, Pimentón Agridulce or Medium Hot Paprika and Pimentón Picante or Hot Paprika. Then there is Pimentón de la Vera, which has a distinctly smoky flavor and a D.O.C protection to keep it that way. The smokey taste is a result of the way that freshly harvested peppers are dried slowly over an oak burning fire for several weeks. Pimentón de la Vera is so deliciously spicy, smokey and sweet that there is very little I wouldn't want to dust this over. The Spanish feel the same way: chorizos, paella, stews. If you've never had the crispy fried, spicy deliciousness that is patatas bravas, get yourself a plane ticket A.S.A.P

I believe that Pimentón even helps explain the Spanish Paradox. You know, similarly to the French version, it's the head-scratching situation in which the Spanish people fry everything in tons of oil yet stay slim and sexy. How do they do it? Well a main ingredient in paprika is capsicum. That spicy compound is extremely high in Vitamin C, antioxidents, and can help boost your metabolism. Hooray! I mean, olé!

Carrots with Pimentón

I do so much baking that when it comes time to make dinner, I rarely want to follow a recipe. I've spent all day measuring and pouring to a scientific exactness. I'm hungry and I want to throw some s*** in a pot.

Luckily I love vegetables enough that I could eat them plain, or just sauteed in olive oil. But my other staples are lemon juice (and zest!), parsley, and my spice rack. Green beans with lemon vinaigrette and toasted pine nuts? Yes please. A wilted, steaming pile of spinach, feta, lemon, dill, and a sprinkle of nutmeg? Don't mind if I do. Eggplant sauteed to a creamy/crispy texture with lemon, crushed red pepper, and balsamic reduced to a glaze? Hells yeah. Maybe I'll throw some yogurt on there too. It takes so little to make me happy if there are vegetables involved that I thought my veggie recipes weren't worth sharing.

But then I thought, you know what, this is pretty darn good. And it's fast. And its fresh. And if I could just get myself to write down how much of everything I was throwing in that pot then technically it'd be a recipe just like anything else. So here you go. These carrots are steamed until crisp-tender then tossed with a mixture of lemon juice, lemon zest (for extra citrus zing), bright green parsley, smooth sherry vinegar, rich fruity olive oil, and, of course, spicy smokey pimenton. These carrots have heat: if you're not into spicy then choose a mild Spanish paprika such as
Pimentón Dulce.

serves four

1 1lb baby carrots (that's usually one of those little bags)

1/2 cup chopped parsley
juice and zest of one large lemon

1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon Pimentón de la Vera or other Spanish paprika
salt and pepper to taste


Place carrots in a steamer basket over boiling water. Steam until crisp tender (al dente as I like to call them) about 10 minutes.

In a medium bowl, whisk together lemon juice, zest, sherry vinegar, olive oil, pimenton, and parsley. Season with salt and pepper.

Cut carrots into thirds and toss with vinaigrette. Serve warm.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

ingredient: καρύδι

Ok, ok, you got me. I've already done a post on walnuts. And honey for that matter. But I couldn't resist sharing this recipe for Karithopita, or Greek Walnut Syrup Cake. It's completely delicious and like all good baking it hits close to home.

When I was growing up, I always looked forward to eating out at Gus's Place, a Greek restaurant in the West Village that was run by some family friends. Gus was always more than just an owner of a restaurant- he was a gregarious host who gave the place heart and warmth in a way that has become sadly hard to find. The restaurant at that time was in a beautiful corner spot on Waverly Place. In the summer months, they'd throw open the entire front wall of glass doors and you could sit, enjoying the food and watching the people happily stroll by. (And if you got there at the right hour, you'd also see the drunk, festive group from the show Tony and Tina's Wedding parade past on the way to the "reception" next door.)

Though it's hard to choose, my favorite dishes at Gus's were the tiny fried fish and the ravani. The tiny fried fish were only available when Gus could procure them- I seem to remember him saying something about ocean tides- which definitely added to the allure. You ate the little fish whole, eyeballs and tailfins and all. They had a salty, slightly oily but freshest ocean taste and a crispy, flaky batter.

Of course my other favorite dish is a dessert. Ravani is a traditional Greek semolina cake that's soaked in syrup. Semolina flour gives the cake a dense texture and slightly toasted, nutty flavor. I loved the way the cake stays firm though it's been drenched in honeyed syrup, each bite containing a hit of sugar that you could feel in your toes.

This cake is not ravani- instead of semolina flour you use ground toasted wanuts. But the type of cake is the same: dense, nutty, each bite deeply satisying. Of course this is also soaked in a honey syrup (NB: I'll eat anything soaked in honey syrup. Baklava. Galaktoboureko. Bougatsa. Figs. Yogurt. Honey. That's right, honey soaked in honey syrup. Bring it on.) Left to soak overnight (or more), this cake is fool-proofly moist. So in the spirit of Gus and all the Theodoros, I give you this recipe.

(Greek Walnut Syrup Cake)

Serves 8
adapted from George Calombaris


for cake:
2 1/4 cups flour
2 1/4 cups sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 stick plus 2 tbsp diced butter
12 ounces milk
2 eggs
9 ounces walnuts, toasted and ground to a coarse meal

for syrup:

2 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups water
9 ounces honey
juice of one lemon


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8 by 8 inch baking pan.

Put flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon into a food processor. Pulse for five seconds. Add butter and blend until smooth.

Add milk and eggs and pulse until smooth. Add crushed walnuts and pulse for 5 seconds.

Pour batter into prepared baking pan. Bake for 45 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean. Set cake aside to cool.

Combine all ingredients for syrup in a medium saucepan. Place saucepan over medium high heat. Bring mixture to a boil, stirring until syrup is smooth.

Cut a few diagonal lines across the top of the cake. Pour syrup over cake and let soak, at least 30 minutes and up to over night.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011


America can thank the state of Puebla in Mexico for two particularly awesome achievements. The first is that it was there that Mexico defeated a horde of French forces on May 5th, 1862. For whatever reason (well actually there are lots of theories, most of them involving accusations that the French were trying to sabotage the North by helping the South in the Civil War but couldn't lend a hand once they were defeated in Mexico) the United States has decided that it really wants to celebrate this achievement with Cinco de Mayo, despite the fact that Mexico itself feels happy yet lukewarm about the event (it's kind of like how Christians view Hanukkah. People, Hanukkah is not the equivalent of a Jewish Christmas.) But as I like Coronas and I really like guacamole, I'm OK with this arrangement. Viva Cinco de Mayo!

The second achievement of the state of Puebla is growing the Poblano pepper. Poblano peppers are mild chile peppers that typically grow to the size of a medium bell pepper. Poblanos are picked before they're ripe. So though we think of poblanos being green, mature poblanos are actually red and contain a bit more heat. But in what I like to call "Poblano Roulette" sometimes even a green pepper will be super spicy.

Poblanos are delicious and versatile and used in a ton of Mexican dishes. They're particularly good when they're roasted and skinned because the pepper takes on a smokey, meaty quality. Chiles rellenos is a well known dish where poblanos are stuffed with cheese and meat and deep fried. In fact poblanos seem the perfect anecdote to roasted bell pepper fatigue. Twenty bucks on Mexican-Italian fusion as the next big trend.

Grilled Steak Tacos with Roasted Poblanos and Tomato-Chile Salsa
Adapted from Rick Bayless

I really love Mexican food. I don't cook enough Mexican food. Why not? It's New York's fault. And, I'm lazy.

It's New York's fault because my grocery store doesn't sell many of the required peppers to cook proper Mexican food. They started stocking jalapenos only a year ago (!) and I'm lucky if they haven't run out by the time I get there. So while I could walk to a larger, gourmet supermarket or ethnic grocery, I'm mired by my laziness in a bog of bland, Mexican-free food. I know. It's a damn shame.

But here I am again, in California, Mexico's own home away from home. With so many chiles of various size, shapes, and spice levels at my disposal, it seemed a shame not to use them all. For these tacos, poblanos are roasted and cut into smoky, silky strips. Skirt steak is marinated, grilled to medium rare perfection, then cut into strips to mimic the peppers (I think I've just given away that I'm a former vegetarian. I still think of the peppers as the star of this dish with the steak as the supporting player.) Best of all, this salsa is legitimately spicy. Finally, I can buy enough serranos to make my tongue tingle and justify downing a few Coronas with lunch.

serves 4-6


For Tacos:
1/4 cup chopped white onion
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons lime juice
1/4 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 pounds skirt steak, fat trimmed
3-4 poblano peppers
24 small corn tortillas

For Salsa:
3 tomatoes
4 serrano chilies
3 cloves garlic
1/4 cup chopped white onion
1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

Marinate Steak: Combine white onion, minced garlic, lime juice, cumin, and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until smooth. Place steak in a large zip-lock bag or baking dish. Cover with marinade and let rest in refrigerator for 2-4 hours.

Make Salsa: Roast tomatoes under a broiler until they've started to blacken and are soft and cooked through, about 12 minutes. Cool tomatoes then pull off blackened skin and discard.

In a small heavy skillet over medium high heat, roast serrano chilies and garlic (in their skin) until they have softened and begun to darken, 5 minutes for the chilies and 15 minutes for the garlic. Take off heat. When garlic has cooled, discard skins.

In a food processor, combine roasted garlic and serrano chilies. Pulse until smooth. Add tomatoes and pulse until almost smooth with a few chunks. Transfer tomato mixture to a small bowl. Stir in onions, cilantro, and lime juice. Season with salt.
Make Tacos: Roast poblanos under a broiler until black on all sides. Wrap in a dish towel and let sit for 5 minutes. Rub off blackened skin. Cut off stem and discard any seeds. Cut peppers into 1/4 inch strips.

Heat a gas grill to medium high or put a grill pan over medium high heat. Lightly grease grill with oil. Grill steak until medium rare, about 2 minutes per side. Let steak rest for 5 minutes then cut into 3 inch strips. Fill each tortilla with steak mixture, roasted poblanos, and salsa.