Friday, July 1, 2011

Moussaka, Gazpacho, Jajukh, Mace Cake, and “mise en place”

Moussaka Light
Most of Mama’s and Papa’s recipes are “light” in the sense that they have far less fat (butter, oil, etc.) than regular recipes, and we use cooking techniques that add fewer calories to our dishes; for example, here the eggplant slices are brushed with a little olive oil and baked, rather than frying them in oil, and onions are sautéed in a small amount of olive oil. I generally keep a 2 tablespoon glass measure as my limit for sautéing in oil, despite what the recipe calls for, though sometimes a judgment call is needed. Our desserts (the Chocolate Volcano Cake and the Best Chocolate Chip Cookies in the World, both in previous posts) certainly aren’t light and are at most a once a week treat. Mostly it is fruit for dessert or a Trader Joe’s “ice cream mango bar” (60 calories) or our favorite coffee bar (90 calories) when Joe’s is not out of stock.

However, I don’t want to get into calorie-carb counts and all the complexity they involve, and I’ll only occasionally indicate if a recipe is “light,” as with our Moussaka, which does not use the Béchamel sauce the Greeks place as the top layer on Moussaka. We Armenians use a simple vegetable topping of tomatoes and peppers.

2 large eggplant (or 3 smaller ones), skin on: cut them lengthwise in quarter-inch slices. If the eggplant is fresh and has no blemishes, there is no need for the next step: lightly salt the slices on each side with Kosher salt, and let rest on wax paper for about an hour. Then blot the salty moisture from the slices with paper towel. Brush on (or use finger) 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, and place on a cookie sheet (lined with parchment or sprayed with a non-stick cooking spray); bake in a preheated 425 degree oven, 10 minutes per side (until easily pierced with a fork – also, carefully open the oven slowly, and stand back a bit, for that high steamy heat can hit one).  The eggplant slices may need to be done in two batches. Set aside.

Meat mixture (you can prepare this while the eggplant slices are baking): Sauté 1 finely chopped onion in two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil until onions are translucent (several minutes); add 1 red pepper cut into 1 inch cubes (plus 1 jalapeno if you like heat) and sauté for another several minutes. Remove to bowl. Brown 1 pound lean ground beef (you can use ground turkey or chicken as well). When the meat is browned, return the onion pepper mixture to the pan, salt to taste (1 teaspoon), freshly ground pepper to taste, and add chopped basil (1 tablespoon fresh or 1 teaspoon dry), plus ¼ teaspoon each ground cinnamon and allspice (for that Eastern Mediterranean flavor), approximately 15 ounce can of whole tomatoes cut up with juice, 2 cups of water; bring the mixture to a boil, and simmer for 20 minutes.

Thinly oil the bottom and sides of a 9” by 13” oven proof pan. Place one half of the eggplant slices on the bottom. Cover with the meat mixture, and then place the remaining eggplant slices over the meat mixture. Slice fresh tomatoes on top, and if desired sprinkle with a little sautéed chopped red or yellow pepper; salt and pepper to taste. Cover the casserole with foil, and bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 30 minutes; then remove the foil carefully (the steam can be hot), and bake an additional 30 minutes, or until the tomato-meat sauce looks thickened. You can garnish with finely chopped Italian parsley. This dish is delicious with Armenian pilaf and green salad (see my previous posts).

Soup or Salad? – Gazpacho and Jajukh:

These summer treats are a wonderful combination of the old restaurant combination, soup or salad, for these two dishes can be either or both. They are tasty simple extras and cool additions to the summer meal.

Traditional Gazpacho:

Gazpacho is at its best when the tomatoes are fully ripe, and I may be a little early here, but I cannot wait to post one of my favorite foods. My first taste of Gazpacho was in 1967, when just off the train with Papa in a small Spanish town – San Sebastian – it was love at first taste. Perhaps because it was a soupy version of our Armenian summer salad with bread added (also, a little like a Tuscan specialty). Over the years, when I have ordered Gazpacho in restaurants in the States, I have been disappointed, for usually it is too oniony, which was not the Spanish way. The following version is an authentic Spanish Gazpacho, with the added luxury of freeing us from peeling the tomatoes. Ingredients are:

5 inch hunk of day old baguette (crusts removed)
1 small clove garlic
1 medium cucumber, peeled and roughly chopped
1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and roughly chopped
3 large ripe tomatoes (beefsteak or any really tasty variety) cored and roughly chopped
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1½ teaspoons red wine vinegar
½ teaspoon kosher salt.  [Optional: a pinch of cayenne, if you like the heat.]

Soak the bread in cold water for 10 minutes. Peel garlic clove (which can be boiled or microwaves in water for 1 minute, to reduce pungency); put in blender or food processor, and blend until finely minced. Squeeze the bread until as dry as possible, and put in blender (with garlic already in it) along with cucumber, and blend until smooth. Then add tomatoes, and blend. Add the oil, vinegar, and salt. Taste and add more vinegar and/or salt as needed. Chill and serve over ice, if desired. For a more festive touch – say, at a dinner party – you can offer individual little condiment bowls of the chopped gazpacho ingredients: diced tomatoes, cucumbers, red or yellow pepper finely diced, and for raw onion fans, finely chopped Vidalia or purple onion.

Jajukh – Armenian Cucumber Soup: This is especially good as a side dish with grilled meats (it’s very much like an Indian raita) – so refreshing. Ingredients are:

1 cup plain yogurt (not Greek style)
¼ cup cold water
1 cucumber, peeled (and seeded if seeds are large) and cut into ¼ inch pieces
1 small clove crushed garlic (boiled or microwaved in water for 1 minute, to reduce pungency)
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons fresh mint, finely chopped, or 1 teaspoon dry mint

In a glass bowl, mix yogurt and water until smooth. Add the rest of the ingredients. Cover and chill for a couple of hours in the refrigerator. Serve in small bowls over ice.

 Mace Cake has a  wonderful texture and taste. Silly me, I had our dear friends drive Papa and me all over northern New Jersey to find a decent spice shop, where I found a lovely mace sold by a grumpy spice man, only to discover when I got home that there is a wonderful Penzeys spice shop next to our nearby Trader Joe’s. If you suspect your mace is not of excellent quality in terms of taste, I suggest you use two teaspoons instead of the full tablespoon. Mace cake forms its own top and needs no icing; it is great on its own, wonderful with fruit, delicious with berries and cream. The cake (adapted from an old Gourmet recipe) serves 10 or 12. Ingredients are:

4 large eggs
2 cups plus ½ cup sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon plus ½ teaspoon ground mace
1 cup whole milk
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 9 by 13 inch baking pan, knocking our excess flour. Beat eggs with 2 cups sugar in a large bowl using an electric mixer at high speed until tripled in volume and thick enough to form a ribbon the takes 2 seconds to dissolve into batter when beater is lifted (7 to 8 minutes in a stand mixer, or about 15 minutes with a handheld). Whisk together flour, baking powder, salt and 1 tablespoon mace. Bring milk and butter to a boil in a small heavy saucepan, and then remove from heat. Add flour mixture to the beaten egg mixture, stirring until just combined. Stir in hot milk mixture until combined (batter will be thin). Stir together remaining ½ cup sugar and remaining ½ teaspoon mace in a small bowl. Pour batter into baking pan and sprinkle evenly with the mace sugar (the sugar will form a top crust as the cake bakes). Bake until pale golden and a wooden pick or skewer inserted in center comes out clear, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool cake in pan or on a rack until it is warm, at least 30 minutes. Cut into squares and serve warm or at room temperature. Cake can keep in an airtight container at room temperature for three days. Note: the cake part is so good that last time I made it without the mace and sugar topping, substituting 1 tablespoon vanilla for the mace in the cake; half of the cake I frosted with chocolate and the other with lemon icing to please the two birthday friends the cake was for. A big hit!

“Mise en place” – put in place:

Cooking with grandchildren is such a pleasure for a former schoolteacher like Mama, but with them I always use “mise en place” – a technique in most of my cooking, just to make sure I have all the necessary ingredients. Try making Gingerbread without molasses; there is no good substitute. And the technique of “putting the ingredients in place” is especially useful and necessary with children. Even little ones can “help in the kitchen,” along with Mommy, Daddy, Grandma, Grandpa, or other loving helper setting the perimeters. Making and decorating cookies is a favorite. Last week, the little ones made and decorated sugar cookies. Since our pantry is being renovated, I could not find my decorating supplies, so I cut up plastic straws in two inch segments, and the children decorated some lovely birds, fish, and butterfly cookies to take home to Mommy, Daddy, and Grandma. My new food coloring (used only occasionally) was out of sight, and we were able to make blue, green, yellow, and orange frosting with the little coloring we had available. See the illustration below.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Armenian picnic: Lamb Shish Kebob, Pilaf, Summer Salad

In time for my 5th birthday, my family moved inland, from California’s Bay Area to Fresno in the San Joaquin Valley. Summers in the Valley were often in the triple digits, and Sunday afternoons, the large Armenian community of Fresno seemed to have huge weekly picnics attended by hundreds of Armenian families; the picnics were sometimes sponsored by the Church – the blessing of the grapes – or by organizations to help Armenians in difficult situations around the world, or simply by groups gathering from their ancestral village or town in Turkey, such as Karpet, Bursa, Erzerum, or Izmir (Smyrna).They took place in various parks  with tall trees and stationary picnic wooden picnic tables with attached benches covered with clean white paper.  What fun it was to draw on the paper, but mom always would make me wait until after people had eaten.   My memories go back to the mid-forties and fifties, the men wore mostly dark pants and white shirts or print cotton shirts, with the boys miniature versions of their dads (nary a blue jeans was to be seen). The women and girls mostly wore cotton ginghams and prints – pretty dresses and lovely sun dresses with little bolero jackets; strappy sandals, that would not look out of date today, were worn by many. Older women – many widowed, my father’s mother included – always wore all black. The American uniform of jeans and tee-shirts was not seen. Of course women and girls did not wear jeans at the time, but we were cool in our cotton dresses and full skirts. And what a colorful spectacle the picnics presented: Armenian and English with other languages could all be heard, and everyone ate basically the same Armenian meal each week – oddly it was too delicious to tire of.
First there was peda bread – a round 10-inch loaf topped with sesame seeds and around 2½ inches high, shaped with an inner circle of dough (like a huge doughnut with the hole still in place). The bread was sliced, usually in quarters, with each quarter split horizontally up to a hinge of crust left at the edge; this was the basis of a shish kebob sandwich. Peda bread had a fantastic chewy crust, but in the late 50s, the noted Fresno bakery of Peda began to turn out a more spongy type bread. I surmised to Papa that it was because they began to put the Peda in plastic bags instead of the paper bags they had used before. However, the cause was not so simple. My cousin told me a few years ago that the bakery had switched from their original brick oven to an electric over in the late 50s, so Peda can never taste the same, at least from that bakery in that city. But there are so many good breads, so a shish kebob sandwich today can be made with many choices (including pita or French bread).
So here is a typical Armenian picnic meal: Shish Kebob sandwich, pilaf, summer salad, ice-cold watermelon, ice cream (thanks to dry ice, which fascinated me as a child), 6-oz cokes (in glass bottles, and made with care sugar – coca cola has never tasted so good),there was creme soda and strawberry soda-too fake even then for my childish tastes, and 7-up  which mom would call "nice 7-up" but I dislike as well. The men might have a bottle of beer with their meal but women in those days usually drank soda or ton if available. Ton is an acquired taste, I actually loved it, but not better than cola, it was plain yogurt mixed with water and served very cold.. Water-alas there were no bottles of water in these times and our valley water was pure and delicious then, but there always seemed to be a water fountain of some sort around and of course in such heat it was the ultimate thirst quencher. And finally in the fifties, the stand appeared for snow cones, now to our tastes an overly sweet concoction, but it did manage to keep us cool. The Dads would volunteer to barbecue the meat on skewers, and they seemed always to cook it just right! Big pots of pilaf appeared as if by magic. Somehow, though there were so many people, there always seemed to be enough food. I never understood much about the food since we kids were too busy running around, playing, eating, and cooling off with snow cones. My Dad, a natural speaker, was the master of ceremonies at many of these picnics, for there were always ceremonies of one sort or another. Then the Armenian musicians would take out their instruments, and the dancing would start- so many wonderful circle dances, village folk dances enjoyed by young adults and the middle aged alike. One dance started slowly and ended up in a frenzy, as the dancers and musicians would work to keep up with each other. I would watch in awe, thinking what fun I was going to have when I was old enough to circle dance.
It has been years since we have been to an Armenian picnic, though I’m sure they still exist and probably with a similar menu. This menu remains a favorite family meal for a celebration, in fact great for a Father’s Day cookout. As lamb can be costly, I’ve added chicken shish kebob as a great substitute.

Lamb Shish Kebob – serves 8:
1 leg of lamb (about 4 ½ pounds)
1 teaspoon kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
3 medium onions (red or yellow) coarsely chopped
2 cups coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon plus 1 teaspoon wine vinegar
3 dashes (appx. 1 teaspoon) Lea and Perrins Worchestershire sauce – optional.

The butcher should be able to cut up your lamb into shish kebob pieces for you: he will bone the lamb, trim the fat, and then cut the lamb into even 1½ inch cubes, eliminating the gristle and extra fat as he proceeds. Sometimes Papa does this – it’s not difficult, but is time consuming. Stress to the butcher that it is for shish kebob and you want the pieces as even as possible. Next, I use a large glass or stainless bowl (anything non-reactive) and salt and pepper the meat. Then mix the rest of the ingredients in a smaller bowl, and then thoroughly mix the lamb and marinade together. Cover and marinate in the fridge 2 to 3 hours (not more than 6). Bring out of the fridge 30 minutes before cooking. Preheat your gas grill to medium hot, or prepare a medium hot charcoal fire. Meanwhile skewer the meat on steel skewers (best are square shaped, so meat won’t twirl around as it does on round skewers). Cook the lamb as you like it (we prefer medium rare), rotating in one quarter turns for about 8 minutes. Also, it’s delicious to grill whole tomatoes, medium onions, and Cuban peppers, and split Japanese eggplant as an accompaniment to the shish kebob; we brush the vegetables with a mix of olive oil, salt, crushed garlic, and squeezed lemon, both before and after grilling, and then set it aside while the meat is cooking.

For the Chicken Shish Kebob alternative, use 2 pounds of boneless chicken thighs cut up into 1½ inch chunks, and for the marinade, use the same ingredients as above except: only one coarsely chopped onion, only 1 cup of the parsley, and add 2 minced cloves of garlic and a teaspoon of dried mint or tablespoon of fresh mint. Marinate and grill as detailed above. You can also add yogurt either to the marinade itself or afterwards as a sauce to the pita sandwich; for the sauce mix together 1 cup plain yogurt, ½ teaspoon salt, and 1 clove of garlic minced (if used as a sauce, we boil the clove for 45 seconds to make it fully digestible).

Pilaf – serves 8:

There is something wonderful about the smell of pilaf, as welcoming to people entering your home as the smell of the best cookies in the world. When I was a child, pilaf was a rich indulgence in many homes, for many Armenians used a stick (½ cup) of butter per cup of rice. However, my mother – ever the enlightened healthy eater and cook – never subjected her family to that excess.
The ingredients:
2 tablespoons sweet (unsalted) butter
¾ cup angel hair pasta – broken up into 1 or 2 inch lengths (I use DeCecco’s, but any will do).
2 cups chicken broth (msg-free is best)
1 cup long grain white rice (Carolina-style)
¾ teaspoon salt (kosher)
Freshly ground pepper to taste.

Melt butter in 1 quart saucepan over medium-low heat. Add broken-up pasta and sauté, watching carefully until golden; it will smell wonderful, but it can darken if not watched). Add rice, salt, and pepper, and sauté for a minute or two. Then add the chicken broth, bring to a boil, cover and turn to simmer for 20 minutes. Test with a fork to be sure pilaf is done, and remove from heat; toss with fork and cover. It’s ready to serve and always delicious.

Summer Salad (for 8):

4 large ripe tomatoes
1 cucumber, peeled (we prefer English cucumber; best would be Armenian cucumber: gouda)
1 cup chopped Italian parsley
1 red pepper (optional)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice or wine vinegar or apple vinegar

Chop tomato in ½ inch chunks and place in bowl. Do the same with cucumber. Then add chopped parsley. (If using red pepper, chop into ¼ inch chunks.) Mix together olive oil, lemon juice and/or vinegar, salt and pepper, and pour over the salad and toss. Let sit for 20 minutes before serving. Here are added options: A couple of teaspoons of fresh mint can be a delicious addition. Chopped red onion is used by many Armenians in their summer salad, though I do not, for good reason – raw onion gives me (and many others) a serious headache; so I slice or chop red onion and provide it as one would a condiment to gazpacho, and each guest may add their own. Traditionally red onion is sliced like a thin wedge of orange.

 About dessert, I’ll stick to tradition and serve ice cold watermelon. However, “the best chocolate chip cookies in the world” ought to be on hand (see my previous post, from May 7). I hope I have some batter in the freezer!

I especially love Father’s Day. It is a day of memory for my wonderful father and Papa’s father and Papa himself – and all the great Dads in our family. Happy Father’s Day to the wonderful fathers in our lives. 

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The best chocolate chip cookie recipe

 Sorry that we have not written for a while – I sort of went to Venice, by book. I listened on cd to The City of Falling Angles by John Berendt (author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil). Venice has always been a favorite city, and this book was almost like being there. There’s no other city like it, and each visit is different from the last. (To look at the book, here's an link: The City of Falling Angels.)

Chocolate chip Cookies As Good As They Get
I would say that these are the best chocolate chip cookies in the world, but I know that hyperbole often disappoints, yet that is how I title these luscious cookies in Papa’s and my personal cooking binder. I adapted this recipe from the New York Times, which in turn adapted it from the marvelous baker Jacques Torres (here's a link to his great cookbook: Jacques Torres' A Year in Chocolate: 80 Recipes for Holidays and Special Occasions). It is different in three ways from other chocolate chip cookies. First is the use of two different flours (both cake and bread flour). Second is chilling the dough for twenty-four to thirty-six hours; probably this is the crucial difference, according to the science explained by the recipe, for the dough and other ingredients need the chilling time to soak up the liquid among the ingredients (the eggs) – whatever, though, it does make a wonderful cookie. Third is sprinkling each cookie lightly with the sea salt (I use coarse sea salt, just a bit of it). Everybody loves the bit of salt, even those who don’t think they will, and not to worry, for the few grains of sea salt won’t make your blood pressure go crazy. Note: it’s best not to undertake this recipe unless you can chill the cookie dough for at least 24 hours.
Ingredients: 2 cups minus 2 tablespoons cake flour (8 ½ ounces) – don’t pack; 1 and 2/3 cup bread flour (8 ½ ounces); 1 ¼ teaspoon baking soda; 1 ½ teaspoon backing powder; 1 teaspoon salt; 2 ½ sticks unsalted butter (room temperature); 1 ¼ cup light brown sugar (10 ounces); 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar; 2 large eggs; 1 tablespoon vanilla extract; 16 to 20 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate (optimally 60% or more cacao content) – this can be in the form of chips, or chunks, or even cut up bars (it’s easier when the bars are on the thinner side). It’s not always easy to find good quality chocolate at a fair price.
I often freeze half of the dough and use it another time. I chill all the dough first, so I can bake as soon as the second half thaws out. Steps: Sift flours, baking soda and powder, and salt in a bowl and set aside. Then fit mixer with paddle attachment, and cream the butter and sugars together for 5 or 6 minutes, until very light. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Stir in vanilla. Reduce mixer speed to low, and add the dry ingredients; mix for 5 to 10 seconds, until just combined. Add chocolate pieces, and mix without breaking them. Place dough in another bowl, put plastic wrap over the dough, and refrigerate from 24 to 36 hours. Dough can be refrigerated for 72 hours and used in batches.
When ready to form cookies and bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line baking sheet with parchment (insulated sheets work best). The original recipe calls for 3 ½ ounce balls, which I found a bit too large. I make them into 1inch in diameter mounds. Sprinkle each cookie very lightly with coarse sea salt, and bake for about 16 minutes, turning cookie sheet at the halfway mark (8 minutes) to ensure even baking. Check sooner to establish your correct time, in case your thermostat is a bit high or low. Cookies will be done when they are golden brown, but still soft. Transfer the sheet to a wire rack for ten minutes, and then slip these wonderful cookies onto another rack to cool. I usually have two pieces of parchment ready, so I can put one in to bake while the other is cooling. Parchment paper is expansive, but it may be reused many times; when baking is completed, just wipe the parchment with a paper towel, fold, and store in the freezer in a plastic bag.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Easter dinner

For a traditional Easter dinner, you could well try a roast lamb. I’ll just repeat the note in our third blog: Lamb Roast: There are similar basic recipes in every general cookbook (whether Mark Bittman's How To Cook Everything: Simple Recipes for Great Food, Betty Crocker Cookbook: Everything You Need to Know to Cook Today, New Tenth Edition, or either Joy of Cooking - here's the link to Joy of Cooking: 75th Anniversary Edition - 2006); we stud the lamb with garlic as well as smear it with crushed garlic, sprinkle salt and much black pepper over it. Serve on the rare side. It’s rather odd that, though Papa and I rarely eat meat, when we do it must be carnivorously rare (or at least medium rare). Or you could use a basic recipe for baking a ham.
With the lamb, we usually eat on the side sautéed carrots or green beans. So, again, I’ll just repeat what we’d written on our first blog post: Here is a simple tasty dish to enhance any meal – a Sautéed Carrots recipe. We first tasted these deliciously simple carrots when we lived in England for a year and visited friends the Hagopians in Branbury Cross near Oxford; the recipe stems from their teaching days near Paris in the decade after World War II. Green beans are also excellent cooked in this way. The ingredients: 1 pound fresh carrots, peeled, halves or quartered long-ways (depending on size of carrots), and cut into 2 or 3 inch lengths; 2 cloves of garlic, squeezed or minced; 1 ½ tablespoons extra virgin olive oil. Steam the cut carrots for 10 minutes. When done, heat oil and garlic together in a frying pan, under high heat. Add the carrots and stir fry until the edges of the carrots show small signs of browning, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and serve these savory, slightly caramelized carrots (or green beans).
Also with lamb roast, Armenian Souboreg is a delicious cheese and noodle dish that compliments lamb, ham, or any meat, and can be eaten as a side dish with an Easter dinner, or with a salad, or as a wonderful vegetarian meal. This can be made ahead and baked at dinner time. Ingredients: 12 oz. wide egg noodles (Mrs. Weiss’s Halushka noodles or De Cecco’s papardelli);  12 oz. Monterrey Jack cheese; 12 oz. small curd cottage cheese (either 2 % or full fat is fine); 3 eggs, beaten; ½ cup Italian (flat-leaf) parsley, finely chopped; 4 tablespoons sweet (unsalted) butter; 1 teaspoon salt; freshly ground pepper to taste; a pinch of ground nutmeg, if desired. Boil the noodles in salted water until al dente. Drain and rinse in cold water. The cheese mixture: mix coarsely grated jack cheese, the cottage cheese, and the beaten eggs together. Add salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Put half of the cheese mixture in a separate bowl and mix in parsley to it. In a buttered 9x13 inch oven-proof (such as Pyrex) pan, put half the noodles, then the parsley-cheese mixture. Then add the rest of the noodles to cover, and over this layer, on top, spread the remaining cheese mixture (the one without parsley). Place dabs of butter evenly over the top. Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 30 to 40 minutes, until golden brown on top. As a delicious side dish, this serves 8; as a main dish, this will serve 4 to 6 people.
In my old Armenian cookbook, a version of this recipe is listed as “mock sou-boreg.” This would be akin to listing any recipe using dry pasta as mock spaghetti. There is nothing “mock” about it. Of course, our grandmothers did make the dough from scratch; alas, some made it well, while others made it doughy. At least the noodles we purchase provide consistently good quality. (Here, by the way, are links to two fine Armenian cookbooks: The Armenian Table: More than 165 Treasured Recipes that Bring Together Ancient Flavors and 21st-Century Style and The Cuisine of Armenia by Sonia Uvezian.)
California Sweets: Here is a recipe for a wonderful, healthy, yummy cookie – easy to make, too. Ingredients: 2 large eggs; 8 oz. chopped dates; ½ cup raisins; 2 ½ cups coarsely chopped walnuts; 1/3 cup sugar; 1 tablespoon flour. Beat eggs in a large bowl. Add the rest of the ingredients. Pour into a 9 inch square pan, greased or lined with parchment. Bake in a pre-heated 350 degree oven for 30 minutes. When cooked, cut these luscious and simple cookies into 25 squares.
Next: Chocolate Chip Cookies – as good as they get.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Matzo Ball Soup, finally!

Matzo Balls were for a long time the only food that was too intimidating for me to make. I had tried puff pastry and all manner of sweet and sour yeast breads (I even taught a class in Gingerbread House Making, staying one step ahead of my class: things worked out). But matzo balls? Perhaps I had heard one too many stories about how difficult it is to make light matzo balls. Fearing that they would be heavy and sink to the bottom, I never tried to make them until about five years ago, when I learned from a step by step photo recipe the ridiculously simple secret to making the light fluffy matzo balls: don’t overwork or compress the batter as you work. When I mentioned my discovery to a friend, she frowned: “I don’t like light fluffy matzo balls,” so I assume she compresses her batter as she works. In either case, then, light and fluffy or compressed and heavy, here is the recipe.
Matzo Balls (yield 10 balls – don’t double the recipe; for more, simply make another batch). Ingredients: 4 large eggs; ¼ cup canola oil (or melted butter); ¼ cup water (or plain seltzer); 1 teaspoon salt; ½ teaspoon sugar; ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper; 1 cup matzo meal; ¼ cup finely chopped Italian parsley; a pinch of fresh ground nutmeg (optional).
In a large bowl, beat eggs, and mix in oil (or butter), water, sugar, salt, and pepper (plus nutmeg, if used). Add matzo meal, stirring until thoroughly combined. Cover the bowl and refrigerate at least one hour. When ready to shape the balls, mix in parsley.
Bring a large pot of water (salted) to boil. Meanwhile, moisten hands with cold water. Take a walnut-sized amount of batter in your wet hands and lightly roll into a ball – don’t compress or overwork it if you want your matzo balls to be light and fluffy. Put it on a large plate. Make the remaining balls in the same way – you should have 10 or so approximately one-inch matzo balls.
Drop the matzo balls into the boiling liquid. Cover the pot, lowering the heat to medium, and simmer for 30 minutes. Then remove. (For the firmer matzo balls, pack batter more tightly and roll repeatedly between palms, you should cook them uncovered.) Then remove with a slotted spoon, and place directly in delicious warm chicken broth. Here is the recipe:
Simple Chicken Soup: I like to make my chicken soup the day before I make the Matzo Ball Soup, so I can chill and defat my broth. Here is a good basic recipe adapted from Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything: Simple Recipes for Great Food, which is my favorite basic cookbook (there is also a revised edition).
Ingredients: 3 to 4 pound chicken (whole or cut up – a cut up chicken will cook faster); 1 large onion, cut in fourths; 1 carrot and 1 celery stalk, both roughly chopped; ½ teaspoon thyme; ½ cup Italian parsley; 1 teaspoon salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste.
Place all the ingredients into a large pot, and add 13 to 14 cups water; heat on high. When the water is just about to boil, lower heat to the point where only a few bubbles at a time rise to the surface. Skim off any foam that accumulates, and cook gently until the chicken is done, 45 minutes to an hour, partially covered.
Cool the soup slightly. Then strain with a colander while pressing the meat and other solids with a spoon to extract more flavor into the soup. Put the chicken aside and use as you wish (for enchiladas, chicken sandwiches, etc.). You can use the stock immediately or refrigerate (skim the fat that forms on the surface before using). Use refrigerated stock within 3 days, or freeze stock for up to 3 months.
For matzo ball soup (6 to 8 servings): In about eight cups of your chicken stock, simmer 4 carrots, peeled and cut into chunks, until tender (about 20 minutes). When the matzo balls you made are done, remove them from the pot of boiling water with a slotted spoon, and gently place them in the soup. Ladle into individual bowls.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Armenian Lavash (updated version) and Eastern Mediterranean Hummus

In our introduction to Mama and Papa Metafora’s blog, we mentioned that over the years we have simplified our cooking. Well, lavash is not one of those simplified recipes, though it’s not impossibly complex, either. It is an Armenian flat bread, yet it contains yeast – hence bubbles. Along with crumpets (good quality ones are not available in Cleveland), we cannot buy Lavash here, at least not the 20 inch rounds. We recently had several packages mailed to us by an excellent lavash bakery in Fresno, California; for double the cost of the bread, they promised special packaging so the bread, which resembles huge crackers (though it’s a totally different experience), would not fall to pieces in the mail. The bread arrived in pieces. So it is worth baking it yourself. For a picutre and more information about lavash, see below - at the end of the blog posts.
When I was teaching fifth grade, I shared lavash with my class – first dry, then wet – calling it the bread that “can be washed.” I briefly ran it under the classroom sink, placed it in a tea towel for a few minutes, and then spread butter and jam over it. The kids loved it. “Any more ‘lawash,’” they kept asking until the end of the year. But my favorite memory of lavash is from the 1950s: wetting it (but no tea towel treatment) and topping it with a few thick slices of tomatoes from my Dad’s garden, grown to perfection in the San Joaquin Valley sun, and then adding from last night’s barbeque a slice of eggplant and roasted jalapeno – and finally back to the garden for a little handful of Mom’s purple basil (she called it Armenian basil) topped with a pinch of salt, crushed red pepper, and coarsely ground black pepper. This was an open-faced sandwich on bread which was crispy yet slightly moist. Yum!

If you are into yeast breads, this is a fairly straightforward recipe. I use my Kitchen-Aid to mix, but our lavash-expert son prefers the “zen” of hand mixing. The annoying part is rolling out the yeast dough, which thinks it is the ocean and wants to come back on itself. This recipe makes eight wonderful 11-inch rounds (rather than the much harder-to-handle 20-inch ones), though I usually make four at a time and freeze the other half of the dough after first rising. Homemade lavash tastes just as wonderful but is thinner and crispier than bakery lavash. It keeps for up to a month in a cool, dry place.
Lavash recipe (revised version). Ingredients: 1½ cups warm water (110-115 degrees); ½ teaspoon active dry yeast (preferably not rapid-rise); ½ teaspoon granulated sugar; 2 ¾ to 3 cups all-purpose unbleached flour (can use up to half whole wheat flour, if you’d like); 1 teaspoon salt; and 2 tablespoons honey.
First proof your yeast, in order to avoid heartbreak of inactive yeast (which in over 55 years of baking has never yet happened to me, though it could). Pour ¼th cup of the water into a small bowl, stir in ½ teaspoon of sugar, and sprinkle the yeast. After a minute or so, stir to dissolve the yeast. In the next couple of minutes, yeast should grow thicker and bubbly (if it does not, discard and try again). In the MIXER version, pour in rest of water, yeast mixture, honey, and mix with the paddle beater. In a bowl whisk together the flour and salt, and add half to the mixer and beat until smooth. Replace paddle beater with the dough hook, and gradually add the rest of the flour mixture; you may not need it all, or you may need a little more flour, in order to make the dough smooth and elastic, just like hand-kneaded dough. In the HAND-KNEADED version, mix in a deep bowl the flour and salt. Mix well in center and pour in yeast mixture plus the remaining cup of water. Mix with a large spoon until ingredients are well blended. Add flour as necessary, until firm dough is formed. Knead on lightly floured surface for ten minutes, sprinkling occasionally with just enough flour to keep from sticking. The goal is a smooth and elastic dough (ideal consistency should feel like one’s earlobe).
Now, in EITHER VERSION, the next step is to gather the dough in a ball and place in a lightly oiled or buttered bowl, turning it over to coat the dough. Cover lightly with a kitchen towel, and place the bowl in a warm place free from drafts (about 85 degrees) for about 2 to 3 hours, or until dough has doubled in size. Punch the dough down, and divide in 8 equal parts. You may now freeze some of the individual balls, and thaw them out when you want to proceed to the next step. Place the balls you plan to roll out on a lightly floured surface. Cover with a towel and let rest at room temperature for about 30 minutes. With a rolling pin, make each ball into a flattened round, working on two pieces at a time. Roll out first piece on lightly floured surface (circle desired) as far as it wants to go, usually 5 or 6 inches in diameter. Set aside this piece, and give the second piece the same treatment; return then to the first piece and roll out some more until it seems to go as far as it wants to, and again return to the second piece – alternating until you have “round” (or oval) approximately 11 to 12 inches in diameter. Gently place the dough on a thin (not insulated) cookie sheet, ungreased. With a fork, prick the top of the dough in 6 or 7 places. Continue making the next pair of lavash in the same way, up to the number you desire. Bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for 3 to 5 minutes (turning cooking sheet around at the half way point). The lavash is done when the rounds are slightly browned and puffy; watch closely to prevent burning – for these cooking times can vary widely due to ovens and thickness of breads. Cool this excellent flat bread on a rack, and store in a cool dry place. 
Here are some ways to serve lavash. CRISP: Just break the dry crackery rounds apart to eat in a size you like – it is great with cheese, peanut or almond butter, hummus, etc. MOIST: Sprinkle lavash lightly with water (or very briefly hold it under running cool water) and immediately shake off excess and wrap in a clean (of course) kitchen towel for a minute or more, depending on how soft you’d like it to become. All kinds of sandwiches can be made from here, leaving lots of room for creativity. Perhaps spread it with cream cheese and add lox on top, then roll up. Or make a great Italian sandwich with cheese, salami, tomato, etc. Wonderful shish kebob sandwiches can be made (as described earlier in the post). It’s also great with falafel or chopped liver or egg salad. The everything bread. Sometimes I sprinkle my dough rounds at the end with sesame seeds or “sev gundigs” (black seeds in Armenian, Nigella seeds in India); if seeds are added, sprinkle at the end and go over the raw rounds once with a rolling pin before baking.
Since Hummus is so good with lavash, there seems to be a true multicultural spirit at work, and so what better place for Papa’s recipe for hummus. Here it is.
Hummus recipe. Ingredients: 1 can of garbanzo beans (i.e., chick peas – appx. 15 ounces – if you wish, of course, you may want to soak a bag of dried garbanzos overnight); 1 large clove of garlic, boiled or microwaved in water for 45 seconds and crushed (this is our method of making garlic easier on our stomachs at this point in our lives!); juice of half a lemon (about 1½ tablespoons); 1½ tablespoons of water; 1½ tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil; 1½ tablespoons of tahini; ¼ teaspoon salt; ground cumin and cayenne pepper. Drain the garbanzos and rinse them; put them into a food processor along with the crushed garlic, lemon juice, water, olive oil, tahini, and salt. Process for two or three minutes until it is quite creamy (the best texture). If the mixture seems too dry, add a little more olive oil and lemon juice. Spoon out the mixture into a bowl and dust lightly with cumin and cayenne (to taste – and tolerance). This tasty hummus goes well also with oil-cured black olives.
My next post will offer recipes for Easter and Passover goodies, including the “Secret to light Matzo Balls.”

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Yummy Orange Cookies and Vietnamese Sandwiches

I will post our Lavash recipe soon, but for now I’m offering a couple of other favorite recipes.
Yummy Orange Cookies: Ingredients: 1 cup unsalted butter (room temperature); 1 ¾ cups sugar; 2 large eggs (room temp.); 1 orange ground peel and all in a food processor; 4 cups flour; 1 teaspoon baking soda; 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder; 1/8 teaspoon salt; 1 cup sour cream (low or full fat). Mix the dry ingredients – flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt – in a medium bowl with whisk, to blend. In a mixer or by hand, separately blend the butter and sugar, and beat in the two eggs and the ground orange. Add the flour mixture in thirds to the creamed sugar mixture, beating after each addition; then similarly add the sour cream in halves. Using about an even tablespoon for each of the cookies, scoop and place them on parchment paper or greased cookie sheet, and bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes, turning sheet when half baked, in order to ensure even baking. Cool on a rack and then frost. Frosting: Soften 2 tablespoons butter, mix with 3 cups confectioner sugar – the mixture will be dry at this point. Working with a spoon, add 2 teaspoons of grated orange rind to the frosting; then, working slowly especially near the end, add up to two tablespoons of orange juice (maybe even a bit more) until the icing is spreadable. Then spread it onto the cookies for a wonderfully flavorful cookie with tea or coffee.
Papa’s Vietnamese Sandwiches: An old friend from Papa’s and my college days introduced us to these delicious sandwiches at a little Vietnamese deli in Oakland about fifteen (or more!) years ago. This is truly “fusion” cooking, for two ingredients – the bread and the mayo – originate from the time the French ruled Vietnam. Here in Cleveland, the sandwiches are made mostly with pate added, which is even more French though not a favorite addition for us. I prefer the lighter fillings of California-style Vietnamese sandwiches: a fillet of chicken or fish or pork. Good quality canned tuna can be used as well.
Ingredients (serving two to four people, depending on appetite): 1 regular sized French baguette, to be cut into four portions; ½ cup mayonnaise mixed with a teaspoon of sesame oil; ½ cup grated daikon radish; ½ cup grated carrots; ½ thinly sliced cucumber; ½ cup chopped cilantro; either 4 pork chops or fillets of pork tenderloin, sautéed in olive oil with salt, pepper, and a little garlic, or 4 chicken or boned fish fillets similarly cooked. Assemble the sandwiches by cutting open each baguette portion and coating the inside of each with the mayo mixture; then divide the vegetable ingredients up in four portions each and layer them in each sandwich; add the fillet to each and close the sandwich pressing it slightly to hold it together. These make a juicy, tasty lunch or dinner. [Note: there may be some mayo mixture left over.]
Remodeling Regrets on the subject of “coulda, shoulda, didn’t:” A couple of years ago, papa and I decided to do an update on our kitchen. I planned to make my own counter tiles but remembered what a big job it was making floor tiles for our screened-in porch five years ago. We settled for the ubiquitous granite – also, no grout to clean. The very day our counters were installed, the science section of the newspaper featured an article about possible radiation risks of granite (especially the lighter colors), but I decided we had enough to worry about already (also, our granite was dark). The “coulda, shoulda” part of this note involves my sink. Practically every sink we have had in our 45 years of marriage has been stainless steel, which is still very stylish. But I wanted a porcelain sink, especially the beautiful 30” long one, divided into 9 and 21 inch segments, with the divider only 4 inches high, so that if one wanted to soak a large pan, just fill above the 4 inch mark: a cook’s dream. I love this part for washing cookie sheets, large pans, dinner party dishes. The big mistake part, however, is the white porcelain. After two years, it already looks a bit battered, with tiny cracks, etc., despite constant babying (in cleaning, I of course don’t scratch the glaze). The silly thing is that as a potter, I know about the fragility of glazes – what did I get myself into?

Monday, February 28, 2011

Lamb Roast, Green Beans, Roesti, Caesar Salad, and Carrot Cake

For two cold and sunny days after a recent ice storm, all the trees down to the smallest branches were encased in glistening transparent ice. For miles around, the landscape was transformed. It was very much like moving through a bejeweled zone, where diamonds shone in the trees, brighter and more numerous than a bright night sky. I brought out my paints and tried to capture the glowing tree outside my kitchen window, but the result looked more like spring buds or tiny lights, rather than diamonds. It would be wonderful to find the trick to get that glow. And it made me think of Frost’s metaphors in “Fire and Ice,” though without the world-ending sentiments: fire from the bright sun and ice covering all the trees and bushes – a wondrous confluence. Our octogenarian neighbor, born and raised a Clevelander, said she had never seen anything quite like it (“like something out of Doctor Zhivago”). The photographs below capture only a bit of the magic.

Now, on to the food. February’s otherwise endless snow has made it (not April) the cruelest month. But there have been the highpoints of two family birthdays – one a 40th, the other a 4th, and of course the jeweled trees brought joy. For our son’s 40th birthday (making Mama feel a bit old), the menu requested was: lamb roast, green beans sautéed with garlic, roesti, and carrot cake for dessert. And we added Papa Metafora’s salmonella-free Caesar salad.
Lamb Roast: There are basic (and quite similar) recipes in every general cookbook, whether Bittman's How to Cook Everything, Completely Revised 10th Anniversary Edition: 2,000 Simple Recipes for Great Food, or the Betty Crocker Cookbook: Everything You Need to Know to Cook Today, New Tenth Edition , or either Joy of Cooking - Joy of Cooking: 75th Anniversary Edition - 2006 or The 1997 Joy of Cooking; we stud  the roast with garlic and also smear it with crushed garlic, and sprinkle salt and much black pepper over it. Serve on the rare side. It’s rather odd that, though Papa and I rarely eat meat, when we do it must be carnivorously rare (or at least medium rare).
Roesti (or Rösti ): Our first experience with this wonderful potato dish was on our “European Grand Tour” – student version – in 1967, a mythical year in which on could tour Europe “on $5 a day.” We flew to Paris and back from London on a Cal Charter for $150 each (before too much envy takes over, remember the cost of living and the worth of the dollar in those days). We ordered Roesti at a little restaurant in Zurich, and it was amazing: a giant “latke” but much creamier and not so crispy. It is great as a side dish with beef, chicken, or pork.
Here is the version Papa Metafora makes. Ingredients: 2 pounds of Idaho potatoes, boiled for a quarter of an hour, then cooled, peeled, and coarsely grated; 1 small onion coarsely grated; 1 teaspoon of salt; ½ teaspoon coarsely ground pepper; 2 tablespoons sweet butter, and 2 tablespoons olive oil. Mix the potato, onion, salt and pepper together in a bowl. In a large seasoned skillet, heat two-thirds of the butter and olive oil to medium high heat, so that the potato mixture sizzles when it is ladled into it. Toss the potato shreds in the hot oil and butter, and then quickly press the potatoes neatly to form a cake covering the pan’s surface. Cook for twenty minutes on medium-low heat, remove from the heat for a minute, place a large enough plate on the potato pancake, and holding the plate in place, turn the large pancake onto the plate; heat the remaining butter and olive oil in the now medium-hot pan until sizzling, and slip the large pancake back into the pan. Cook on medium-low until the bottom is as golden as the top, and serve immediately. This delicious crunchy Roesti, creamy within, can be served with dollops of sour cream or with Gruyère cheese grated and melting on the top.
For the Green Beans, see our recipe for sautéed carrots in my first post on the blog.
Caesar Salad: I miss those days of using raw eggs: Goodbye to old fashioned chocolate mouse. Goodbye homemade mayo and alioli. Goodbye to our original Caesar Salad. But Papa Metafora has developed a delicious alternative, using mayonnaise (for the best flavor, use only Hellman’s in the east, or Best Foods in the west). Apparently, also, anchovies were not included in chef Caesar Cardini’s original creation in 1924 at his restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico; however, you can of course add minced anchovies to the dressing if you know all your guests will like them (or you could pass a plate of anchovies around for people to help themselves).
Here’s Papa’s current recipe. Ingredients: ½ cup mayonnaise; juice of ½ large lemon (about 2 tablespoons); 2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil; 2 medium-sized cloves of garlic, boiled for 45 seconds, cooled and crushed; 2/3 cup shaved Parmesan cheese; 1 avocado cut into pieces; one head of Romaine lettuce, washed and dried, and torn into edible pieces; ½ baguette cut into 1” or smaller cubes, plus extra oil,1 large clove of crushed (unboiled) garlic, and coarse salt; salt and pepper to taste. Before baking the bread croutons, mix the unboiled crushed garlic with two tablespoons of olive oil, and then drizzle the mixture over the croutons as you toss them in a bowl; bake them on a foil covered cookie sheet for ten minutes in a 375 degree oven; remove and reserve them. For the dressing itself, mix together until smooth the mayonnaise, lemon juice, and olive oil, and then mix in the crushed garlic; add the avocado to the mixture, turning gently to cover the pieces. Pour the dressing over the lettuce and toss thoroughly, and then keep tossing as you add the Parmesan and the delicious garlicky croutons.
Carrot Cake is the favorite dessert of the birthday man, and this year I tried a new recipe, which oddly was disappointingly dry (the recipe had me strain the carrots in a colander, and I think too much carrot juice was removed!). Also, the cake’s ingredients can add up to quite a bit, so a good bakery’s carrot cake would have been okay, but then our son and the rest of the family would have been disappointed. However, the new lighter frosting I made was more wonderful than ever (perhaps due to a smaller amount of butter than usual), so I will include the frosting recipe here. Once finished, the frosting must be refrigerated, of course. Also, beautiful marzipan carrots were made by our grandchildren to decorate the birthday cake.
Here is the recipe for Cream Cheese Frosting: This recipe will frost either a 9” by 13” pan cake or an 8” or 9” layer cake; the frosting would be delicious also on other spicy cakes, pumpkin bread, or gingerbread. Ingredients: 16 ounces cream cheese (softened); 3 tablespoons unsalted butter (softened); 2 cups confectioner’s sugar; 2 tablespoons sour cream. First beat the softened cream cheese and butter with an electric mixer on low speed, until homogeneous – 3 to 4 minutes. Next add the confectioners’ sugar and sour cream, and beat until well blended – 2 or more minutes. To frost the cake, place one layer on a cake plate, anchoring it with a small dab of frosting, and frost the top of the layer. Add the second layer on top of the first, and frost the top and then the sides.
Winter’s Cabin Fever (especially during this, the snowiest winter I remember) brings on childhood cravings, Proustian in their power. This winter it was Lavash, the Armenian flatbread from my youth in California. A couple of years ago, we bought enough Lavash for our family here in the east, about $20 worth, though it was in cracker form (normally Lavash is a large circle of bread, two feet in diameter – it can be moistened and softened in a tea towel, if you like); but shipping cost us $40, and it arrived the worse for wear, mostly crumbled. What to do: make it myself. Even though it is a flatbread, it contains yeast and so there are bubbles. It is great with cheese: Bring on the manchego cheese for a great fusion snack, lunch, or appetizer.
Spring is just three weeks away! All the best, Mama and Papa Metafora
Our next post will offer Mama Metafora’s and our son’s Lavash recipe.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Mama Metafora's Salad Dressing, Armenian Potato Salad, and wonderful Volcano Cake


I’m not sure why everyone asks for this dressing after eating one of our tossed green salads – it’s a version of my Mother's wonderful dressing! - using a simple basically Mediterranean recipe: For a salad serving four, use juice from half a lemon and/or half a lime adding up to a tablespoon, add a half a teaspoon or so of vinegar (apple or wine vinegar, for flavor); mix in a half teaspoon of salt (and if you’d like a split garlic clove, to be removed before pouring over the salad); then add four tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil. The proportion, in other words, is one to four, for us, or if you would like a more acidic dressing, one to three. Our salad consists of two or three types of lettuce, arugula if available, tomatoes (when good), torn basil, and if you wish, avocado, some chopped parsley (and sometimes chopped fresh basil and/or mint) and sliced cucumber.


This is a very simple potato salad, consisting of only potatoes, a lemony dressing, and parsley. Made without mayo, it is extremely picnic-/warm weather-friendly. I am always amazed at how popular this simple recipe is – great with bar-b-cued chicken or lamb or spareribs. There is a secret to the preparation, which I’ll tell you before you start. As soon as you drain the potatoes, you put the dressing on; that way the flavor is absorbed by the hot potatoes – this means that the dressing must be made while the potatoes are cooking.

INGREDIENTS, part one: 9 to 10 medium waxy new potatoes (thoroughly washed, skin left on) – approximately three pounds; and 1 teaspoon salt. Cut potatoes in 1 ½ by ½ inch thick pieces. Bring water to boil, add potatoes and the teaspoon salt, bring to simmer, and partially cover (I use a large frying pan). This takes about 15 minutes, mixing around gently from time to time. Meanwhile mix the dressing.

INGREDIENTS, part two: Juice of one medium lemon (strained, almost a quarter of a cup); 1 teaspoon apple cider or wine vinegar (optional); 1 ½ teaspoons salt, dissolved in lemon juice; freshly ground pepper to taste; add to mixture a quarter of a cup of extra-virgin olive oil. When potatoes are fork tender, drain and place them in a shallow bowl. Immediately pour the dressing over the potatoes, mixing gently. Taste for salt. Let cool (chill if serving half a day later). At serving time, mix gently into the salad ½ cup finely chopped Italian (flat-leaf) parsley. Serve at room temperature.


We first had this cake with our very dear friends at JoJo’s, one of the wonderful (and more affordable) restaurants of the chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. I would say it is probably the best chocolate dessert I’ve ever eaten. I’ve read that it might be because of the warmth of the chocolate. Something happens to chocolate when it is very warm that makes it taste even better than usual. Since then a version has been in practically every restaurant menu I’ve been to, but never as good as the first version. Soon after we ate it at JoJo’s Chef Jean-Georges happened to be on Martha Stewart’s TV show, and coincidentally he happened to make the chocolate cake we had recently eaten at his restaurant. If you want an excellent version of this dessert, I would advise you to make it yourself, with just three caveats:

1. Use GOOD quality chocolate (I use Callebaut, and Valrhona is also great; do not use chocolate chips, unless of remarkable quality).

2. Use sweet butter.

3. Watch the baking time, pulling the cakes from the oven when a quarter-size wet spot remains on top.

The recipe can be made in the morning and chilled before baking – just add a couple of minutes to the bake time. The best way to tell it is done (and still oozy in the center) is making sure the small moist spot the size of a quarter shows in the center.

INGREDIENTS: 8 tablespoons (i.e., one stick) unsalted butter – plus more for buttering the molds; 4 ounces of good dark (bittersweet) chocolate; 2 large whole eggs plus 2 large egg yolks; punch of salt; 2 teaspoons flour, plus more for dusting the molds; ¼ cup granulated sugar.

ONE: Preheat oven to 450 degrees (hot!). Butter and lightly flour four 4 ounce molds or ramekins (I use brioche molds). Tap out excess flour. TWO: Place butter and chocolate in top of double boiler, and heat until chocolate has almost completely melted. Or microwave in 40 second increments, stirring after each time. THREE: In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or by hand), beat together the eggs, salt, yolks, and sugar until light and thick. FOUR: Add the melted chocolate mixture, and beat to combine. Quickly beat in the flour until just combined. Divide batter evenly among the molds. FIVE: Place filled molds on a rimmed cookie sheet, and put it in the oven preheated to 450, and bake until the sides have set, but centers remain soft with wet spot visible on top – about six to seven minutes. SIX: Invert each mold onto a plate, and let rest ten seconds. Unmold by lifting up one corner of the mold using tongs; the cake will release onto the plate. Serve immediately. In restaurants, the cake is served with vanilla ice cream. These are called volcano cakes because, when eaten, some of the hot chocolate in the middle oozes out. It’s heavenly!

Ribollita Soup and Light Oatmeal Cookies

Here are two new recipes from Mama Metafora. The following one for Ribolitta Soup reminds me of the wonderful cooking of Tuscany and of summers spent visiting Italy. However, this Tuscan bread soup is a great winter meal with a good salad.
Ingredients: Olive oil; 1 medium onion, coarsely chopped; 2 stalks celery, minced; 1 carrot, scraped and minced; 6 cloves minced garlic (2 tablespoons); 2 small russet potatoes, peeled and coarsely chopped; 1 can (appx. 15 ounces) of tomatoes, undrained, or 2 cups chopped fresh tomatoes; 6 cups water; 1 bunch kale, spinach or other dark leafy vegetable chopped; ¼ cup chopped fresh Italian parsley; ¼ cup basil leaves, chopped (or 1 tablespoon dry); ½ teaspoon dry thyme; ½ teaspoon dry rosemary; salt and pepper to taste; 1 can (appx. 15 ounces) Great Northern beans, drained (or you can cook your own dry beans); 4 ounces day old Tuscan or other dense country-style bread or baguette, cut into bite-sized pieces; 1/3 cup Parmesan or Romano cheese.
Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy casserole dish (or Dutch oven) over medium-high heat and sauté onion, celery, carrot, garlic, and potato until onion begins slightly to brown and caramelize. Add tomatoes, water, kale, parsley, basil, thyme, and rosemary; bring to boil, then reduce heat, partially cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and if desired, red pepper flakes; stir in beans. In your oven-safe tureen, layer bread and soup (2 layers each works well). Cover and refrigerate for 2 hours or overnight. Top with cheese. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes; let stand for 10 minutes before serving. Drizzle with additional olive oil to finish this richly satisfying Italian soup.
Light Oatmeal Cookies:
Ingredients: 1 cup rolled oats; ¾ cup unbleached all-purpose flour; ¼ teaspoon baking soda; ¼ teaspoon cinnamon and if desired, ¼ teaspoon nutmeg or cloves; ¼ teaspoon salt; 4 tablespoons of unsalted butter, melted and cooled; 1 large egg; 1 tablespoon vanilla; ¾ cup dark brown sugar; ½ cup raisins.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Whisk oats, flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and if desired, nutmeg (or even cloves) in a bowl, and set aside. In a larger bowl, stir the butter, egg, and vanilla together. Next stir in the brown sugar until the mixture is smooth. Then stir in the oat mixture and the raisins until thoroughly mixed. Roll the dough into 1-inch balls (one level tablespoon each) – if the dough is too soft, refrigerate it for ten minutes. Place the balls on two parchment-lined cookie sheets, about 2 inches apart. Bake the cookies until the edges are golden and the centers are just set, about 12 minutes, turning the tray around halfway through the baking. Cool the cookies for 5 minutes, then serve them warm or put them on a wire rack to cool completely (while you're cooking the second tray). Instead of raisins, you can substitute dried cranberries or cherries in these delicious cookies.
In my next post, Mama Metafora will offer some of our Armenian and eastern Mediterranean recipes.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Mama Metafora's first post

Hi and welcome to Mama Metafora’s Market!
This site is mostly about food – food as a metaphor: for health and love, for hospitality and comfort and much much more. The negative aspects – junk food, bad food, etc. – won’t be engaged here. Other goodies will appear, since this is a “market:” some book and film reviews and whatever seems interestingly strange or beautiful.
Papa Metafora and I (pictured above in 1965 and 2010) hope to include here a collective lifetime of cooking experiences, how over the years our tastes have simplified to a healthier and increasingly more vegetable-based cuisine than we ate at the beginning of our marriage, over 45 years ago.
I have been a chef, a pastry chef, a caterer, and the creator, chief chef, and bottle-washer of a Biscotti company in the 1980s and 1990s. “Mama Metafora” is the copyrighted name for that biscotti company, which made those wonderful twice-baked, long Italian cookies (with no butter), made for dipping in coffee or wine (or milk, too). I’ll start with my original recipe, made with lots of almonds or other nuts – Warning: these biscotti will be quite crispy, not like American “nabiscotti” as I call them. Every week, we hope to offer a post with new recipes, etc.
All my best from J.M., Mama Metafora

This recipe yields about 36 biscotti. Ingredients: 2 cups flour; 2/3 cup sugar; ½ teaspoon baking soda; 1/8 teaspoon salt; 3 large eggs; 1 cup whole roasted almonds (with skin). [To roast almonds, place them on an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees until aroma is released, basically 10 or more minutes – be sure to check them, for nuts burn easily. Let cool a bit before using.]
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a cookie sheet (or use parchment or silpat). In a mixing bowl, whisk to mix dry ingredients: flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt. Add eggs and mix with a wooden spoon or hands; then, mix in the nuts. Divide the dough in half, and shape into two logs approximately 10” long by 3 1/2” wide. Bake for 20 minutes, turning cooking sheet after 10 minutes. Cool slightly, and then slice each loaf into 18 slices. Place slices upright (bottom of the cookie down) leaving at least half an inch between slices (this eliminates the unnecessary step of turning the cookies over half way through the baking process). Bake for 20 minutes, again turning around the cookie sheet after the first ten minutes in order to ensure even baking. Biscotti – meaning “twice baked” – can vary in the time of this second baking (according to taste and elevation). Probably the most difficult part of biscotti is the judgment call about when it is done. I like mine crisp, others softer; you will want to do a bit of testing for best results. Cool on rack.
Here is a simple tasty dish to enhance any meal – a SAUTÉD CARROTS recipe:
We first tasted these deliciously simple carrots when we lived in England for a year and visited friends the Hagopians in Branbury Cross near Oxford; the recipe stems from their teaching days near Paris in the decade after World War II. Green beans are also excellent cooked in this way.
Ingredients: 1 pound fresh carrots, peeled, halves or quartered long-ways (depending on size of carrots), and cut into 2 or 3 inch lengths; 2 cloves of garlic, squeezed or minced; 1 ½ tablespoons extra virgin olive oil.
Steam the cut carrots for 10 to 15 minutes, depending on how firm or tender you would like them. When done, heat oil and garlic together in a frying pan, under high heat. Add the carrots and stir fry until the edges of the carrots show small signs of browning, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and serve.
IN MY NEXT POST, I’ll offer recipes for a wonderful Ribolitta Soup and for great Light Oatmeal Cookies.