Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Christmas Treats for Chocolate Haters

My Christmas cooking problem is that I'm not wild about chocolate, and it shows up in so many guises at this time of year. (Chocolate lovers, I have nothing against you. Your kink is okay, it's just not my kink...)

The result of this is that I'm always on the lookout for festive recipes that don't involve chocolate. Gingerbread and spice snaps (I make mine with a little black pepper) are always good, but here are some recipes I just worked up that I'm really into.

For these recipes, I happened to have candied lemon peel around, but lemon zest also works well. If you want to make candied lemon peel, peel lemons into neat strips, place in a saucepan and cover with water, then bring to a boil for a minute. Drain off that water and replace it with 1 cup sugar and 1.5 cups water. Simmer the lemon peel in this syrup until it becomes translucent, then leave to dry on parchment-lined baking sheets. Sprinkle sanding sugar over the peel if that's your thing. Oh, and save the sugar syrup. It's great mixed with water or tea.

Lemon-Rosemary Meringues

Use a bigger bowl than you think you'll need for mixing these; I never do, then have meringue splatters all over my kitchen. Oh, and buy a cheapie zester to zest your citrus. Graters are a pain in the ass for this.

3 egg whites (or however many you need to use up)
1/3 cup sugar for each egg white
Splash lemon extract - 1 teaspoon, approx.
Zest of one lemon
1/2 teaspoon scissored rosemary

Beat the egg whites until they've trebled in size, then add the other ingredients and beat until the meringue holds moderate peaks. Drop by the spoonful onto parchment-lined baking sheets and let dry out in a slow oven (250 degrees) for an hour or so.

Lemon, Rosemary, and Pine Nut Cookies

1/2 cup butter
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon scissored rosemary
1 tablespoon chopped candied lemon peel OR zest from 1 lemon
1/2 teaspoon lemon extract
1 egg
3/4 cup flour
Pinch salt
1/3 cup pine nuts, toasted in a dry pan until they smell good

Cream the butter and sugar and add the rosemary, lemon peel/zest and lemon extract. Add the egg and mix well; then add flour, salt, and pine nuts. Drop by the generous teaspoonful onto parchment-lined cookie sheets, and bake at 350 degrees for 8-10 minutes. If you think of it, rotate the sheets halfway through the baking time, but I confess this is not my strong suit.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


I had leftover phyllo dough recently and figured I'd make spanakopita with it. I wanted, however, to make something a little more innovative than the traditional spinach pie. More to the point, we were out of spinach. We did have some beautiful purple broccoli from the farmers' market, so I figured I'd use that. The result -- "broccopita" for short -- is now going to become my default.

First, I made some ricotta by heating up a cup of whole milk to just under boiling, then adding a spoonful of vinegar and returning it to the near-boil. You can do this in the microwave and it makes ricotta that is tastier and cheaper than store-bought. Just drain it in a sieve or cheesecloth before use.

While that was going on, I steamed the broccoli -- two good-sized heads -- and sauteed an onion and three nice fat cloves of garlic in olive oil. I mixed the vegetables together in a bowl, shredding the broccoli into tiny florets, and grated a bunch of pecorino over the top. (Real parmesan would also work well here, though it would change the flavor palette. Substituting broccoli for spinach and pecorino for feta gives you more of an Italian dish than a Greek one, which is fine by me.)

After that, I added the ricotta, tossed to combine everything, and corrected the seasoning. Many spanakopita recipes include an egg for binding, but my ricotta was semi-liquid and bound everything nicely on its own.

I lined an eight-inch springform pan with the half-pack of phyllo dough, brushing the sheets with olive oil where possible, and spread the filling in the middle. I made a pie around the filling with the phyllo and sealed the top with olive oil and a dab of butter. Then I popped the pie in a medium-hot oven and cooked until it was an attractive golden brown. Tasty!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Etrog preserves - Just in time for the season!

Just kidding. Today's post is actually about pear butter, which is tasty and easy. I was put off home canning for years by that scene in Little Women where Meg tries to make currant jelly and it causes a scene of morally instructive marital discord. But now I know that her mistake was to start with jelly, which is hard and runs the risk of not setting. Instead, she should have made pear butter. Here's how to do it:

First, get some canning jars from the supermarket. I suggest the half-cup size, which are easy to deal with and leave you with many jars to keep or give. Also, make sure you have a stockpot and some kind of rack to hold the jars. A collapsible steamer insert (the kind that looks like a UFO) works fine here. Wash the jars, rings, and lids and set them to dry in a slow oven while you get busy with the pear butter.

Peel a bunch of pears, figuring on about 2 medium pears per half-cup jar. Core them, cut them into large chunks, and drop them in a big saucepan. Add the juice of a lemon or two and a half-cup of sugar. I also like a teaspoon or two of ginger in the mix; do this if it suits your taste. Other people like to add rum or brandy.

Cook until the pears start to come apart, then mash with a potato masher or fork. Taste and see if you want to add more sugar or lemon juice. Continue to cook down until the mixture is a bit thicker than applesauce. I like to leave it a little chunky and rustic, but you can make it beautifully smooth by pureeing it in a blender if you prefer. (Don't puree it straight off the stove unless you like to live dangerously.) Don't stress too much about exact quantities of ingredients or the pear butter's texture. This is low-maintenance stuff, and is meant to be fun.

When the pear butter is cooked down as much as you like, take your jars out of the oven and add the hot pear butter right to them. Make sure the rims aren't sticky and top the jars with lids and rings. Don't make the rings too tight -- you want air to be able to escape during the processing stage.

Process the jars according to the jar manufacturer's instructions. Really, this isn't hard. Botulism is very rare, even with home-canned goods, but you don't want to risk being That Person who gives botulism to all his/her friends. You'd soon have no friends, for a variety of reasons. If you don't have a fancy canning pot and rack, you'll still be fine. Just take your stockpot, put the steamer insert into it, and add the jars, winding a dishtowel around their sides so they won't bang into each other while they're boiling. Fill the stockpot with hot water so that the jar lids are submerged by about an inch, then set the pot to boil for twenty minutes or more. When this is done, turn off the heat and leave the jars in the pan for about five minutes before removing them with tongs. Don't fiddle with the lids for the first 12 hours or so. The lids will ping shut in a cheery manner.

(If you cannot cope with boiling jars, just bottle up your preserves and store them in the fridge once they're cool. They'll keep fine for a few weeks that way.)


Friday, April 2, 2010

Easter dinner

Ham is traditional for Easter where I grew up, but one spring I remember a friend of mine asking if gentiles served ham for Easter dinner as an impromptu religious test. I find that I usually serve lamb on Easter, not because I keep kosher -- far from it -- but rather because lamb has a fun aura of ecclesiastical correctness.

The other problem with ham is logistical: if you buy a fresh ham so you can have the fun of cooking it yourself, you have a lot of damn ham. Dave and I were given a country ham (ham preserved in what must be an equal weight of salt, for those of you unfamiliar with it) for Christmas many years ago. It was delicious. It was also about the size of a toddler, and by March we were desperate. They don't go bad, and you only want about an ounce at a time because it's so salty. So they last, and last, and last.

We have been very conservative ham buyers since then.

Lamb is tricky in its own right, though. I tend to like lamb very thoroughly cooked, and I horrify sensible friends by eating steak tartare. It's the membranes running through the meat that turn me off. So here's how I cook it:

The day before you plan to eat it, soak and cook some white beans. I go for cannellini, but navy beans work fine too. Buy a lamb roast -- I've used leg, shoulder, and shank, depending on how many people I'm cooking for -- and season it.

The next morning, chop some odori (an onion, a smallish celery rib, and a clove or two of garlic) and line the bottom of a baking dish with them. Add the lamb, some white wine, and a bottle of strained tomatoes. Cover this tightly and leave it in a slow oven for four hours. At that point, check that the lamb isn't drying out, add more wine if necessary, and add the beans. Re-cover the dish and pop it back in the oven. Give it another two hours; it can hold for longer if you need it to.

Serve this with a green salad, adding if possible some nice fresh dandelion leaves from your yard to give it an astringent feel.


The Goyim on Their Home Turf: Easter Weekend

Good Friday is traditionally a fast day, and this year we are having fish. I'm not sure if a beautiful fish baked with potatoes, white wine, and herbs really counts as penitential food -- any more than the organic, whole-wheat matzoh we had Tuesday night really counts as the bread of affliction -- but it sure tastes good. This is how you cook it:

Get a cleaned fish. Bass, flounder, and trout all work quite well, though anything that looks good and is about the right size would be fine. I usually get a fish that's a little over a pound for the two adults and two small children in my house, though we once took on a beautiful three-pound flounder and left no scrap. Cut up and parboil some potatoes in salted water. Season the fish's cavity and insert the flavoring of your choice: fresh rosemary, thyme, and lemon slices have all served us well in the past.

Arrange the drained, parboiled potatoes around the fish in a lightly oiled roasting pan and drizzle a little extra olive oil over the lot. Splash a little white wine in the pan and bake in a medium-hot oven until done. I start checking after about 15 minutes, though it usually needs more like 30. Big, thick fish can apparently take an hour; I'm partial to the small ones myself so have never tried it.

When the fish is done, prepare it for serving by lifting and removing the skin on the top side of the fish and removing the filets to plates. Run a knife under the vertebrae and lift out the spinal column (it is best to banish the squeamish from the kitchen around now), then remove the bottom filets. Don't forget the tasty, winy pan juices, which will be your sauce!

I like to serve this with bitter greens. This year we're having an ecclesiastically appropriate passion fruit cream for dessert: the pulp of two passion fruit whisked lightly into about a half cup of heavy cream, with a scant teaspoon of vanilla sugar thrown in to balance it.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Dear Goyim in the Kitchen,

This morning I find that I have four half-empty bottles of Manischewitz. What must I do with them?

Dear Reader:
No problem! Buy and chop a few packets of mixed dried fruit, and dump them in a Tupperware with the leftover Manischewitz. Let it stew in your basement until November, when you can use it for your Christmas fruitcake. (I told you I was Episcopalian.)
Love from the goyim

Monday, March 29, 2010

Lead Shot/Matzoh Balls

The thing about matzoh balls is that they tend to hit you like lead shot. To lighten their texture, follow the package directions, but separate your eggs and beat the whites until reasonably stiff. (You don't have to beat them as stiffly as for a meringue, but do incorporate a lot of air.)

Mix the yolks with the other ingredients and proceed as for a souffle: add about a third of the beaten whites to the yolk mixture, stirring tenaciously to mix thoroughly and lighten the yolk/matzoh dough. Then, fold the results gently into the egg whites, making sure there are no large streaks of yolk or white but not overstirring.

Let the batter rest in the fridge for at least a half hour while you fill a large pot halfway with water, salting it as for pasta, and bring it to the boil. Form the matzoh dough into balls smaller than you'd envision -- think rounded teaspoons, not tablespoons -- and drop them into the boiling water. When all your balls are in, cover the pot, turn it to low, and simmer for about a half hour.

These can stay in the fridge overnight and be simmered in the soup next day if you envision a last-minute kitchen rush.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Passover Desserts

I'm more a cook than a baker and have never gotten into the many flourless desserts that are traditional here. Usually after such a long dinner I figure people are happy to have berries. Do top and slice all your strawberries first; everyone's had their fill of table DIY with the Hillel sandwich and won't want to deal with the leafy berry tops.

You want cookies to go with the berries, though. This is your big chance to use up all the egg whites you stuck in the freezer and forgot about last year! Meringues are fine (beat 1/3 cup of sugar into each smartly beaten egg white, and let small dollops dry out in a slow oven for an hour or more), but I have a soft spot for macaroons. Two kinds are good here:

Basic Recipe:
To 1 1/2 cups of ground almonds (No! I don't grind them myself. I have a preschooler who hates loud noises, and am lazy to boot. Use Bob's Red Mill.) add 1 cup of sugar and 2 egg whites. Form into small balls with your wet hand, leaving a good inch and a half or more between each cookie, and bake at 325. I leave teaspoon-sized balls in the oven for 8 minutes. They will look squishy and underdone at that point. DON'T cook them until they look done. They stiffen up substantially upon cooling and you will be left with macaroons that are as dry as the desert of Sinai. Atmospheric for Passover, but not tasty.


Add grated orange zest and cinnamon to the basic recipe.

Add a heaping tablespoon of cocoa powder to the basic recipe. These can be crowded on the cookie sheet a bit more; the cocoa makes the dough a bit more cohesive.

The Gefilte Fish Problem

I don't like gefilte fish except as a vehicle for pink horseradish, even though my fabulous husband makes the best gefilte fish I've had. Nonetheless, it seems like it's as traditional at American Seders as cranberry sauce is at Thanksgiving. What to do? This year we are considering the polpettine di pesce from Cucina Ebraica. Will keep you posted.

Chicken and Its Understudies

Every time I have friends over -- and on at least a weekly basis when I don't -- I roast a chicken. You don't really need a recipe for this other than sticking a chicken in the oven for an hour or two, until the leg joint wiggles freely when manipulated. (Even the oven temperature is obliging! I usually go with 400 so I can caramelize a few vegetables too, but I've done anything from 325 to 425 with no apparent ill effect.)

But, in case you're new to chicken roasting, you should first find a pan that is a bit larger, but not massively larger, than the chicken. Take your chicken, rub it with olive oil and coarse salt, and stick something up its hiney. I recommend one or more of:

An onion half
Garlic cloves, unpeeled
Half an orange, lemon, or two halves of a lime
Ginger root

The onions and garlic go very well together and also with lemon. Lime and ginger is nice, particularly if you're having Asian vegetables with it. I love lemon, orange, and chopped ginger as a stuffing; a little garlic doesn't go amiss there, either.

If you've been responsible for the deaths of too many chickens lately, something even lower-maintenance is:

Pot Roast for Lazy People
Take a good-sized chuck steak.* Slick with a drop of olive oil and sprinkle very lightly with salt and pepper. If desired, add chopped onion, garlic, and celery, and some red wine, to the roasting pan. Place in roasting dish; cover tightly. Cook in a slow oven -- 225 is my norm -- for six to eight hours.

[*A note on this: I don't go for huge portions of meat, but I'd nonetheless buy more than you think you'd need. This cooks down, and you don't want people to leave hungry. Also, you can shred any leftovers and use them for tacos. On the other hand, keep in mind that large crowds of people will eat less than they would at a small party. I've gone with about a half pound per adult eater in the past and this has usually not been too far off.]

Haroset for Protestants

I've been told that my love for haroset is the true mark of an Episcopalian. Anyway, my ardor for it is undying and every year I make about a gallon of it in hopes that we will have leftovers. This year I made two kinds, the traditional one (apples, walnuts, wine, honey) and one I made up on the fly. Here is how I made it:

An apple
Dried figs
Dried apricots
The rest of the bottle of kosher wine you didn't use for the other haroset (I had a kosher muscat that was pretty tasty)

Chop what needs chopping and let the dried fruit soak in the wine for a day or so, if possible. Cook it until it looks like, well, haroset.

Seder Menu

This year we are having:

Matzoh ball soup
Pot roast (I almost always serve chicken. The part of the chicken is being played by chuck steak this year.)
Roasted root vegetables
Another green vegetable, also roasted
Macaroons and berries

Key Disclaimer

I am an Episcopalian with a treif kitchen. I am only tenuously connected to Judaism by marriage. That said, I enjoy cooking, particularly when I can pretend I'm Italian, and thought you might enjoy these recipes.