Monday, October 12, 2009

Moroccan Pumpkin Stew: Recreating Autumn.

My least favorite thing about the Bay Area is the absence of autumn.

It's pretty pathetic compared to autumn in Chicago, or even autumn in Washington D.C. (and that's saying something). We live in the East Bay flats, where trees are pretty few and far between and most of those don't change colors. If they do, they go from green to dull brown. I mean, c'mon, I'm not feeling your enthusiasm here, trees! Where's the Glory, the Passion?? And the lack of crispness in the air, what's up with that? My hands down favorite thing about moving to the Northern Hemisphere after a childhood near the Equator was breaking out the cute sweater/mitten/scarf/hat/boots outfits, with crisp wind, red cheeks, hot cider, new textbooks for school. Hitting the pavement after summer with infectious enthusiasm about all the possibilities of a new year. Feeling driven to change the universe. Because, hey, if the trees are breaking out in the visual equivalent of Beetoven's 5th, by god I can put in my all too.

A pathetic autumn leaves me feeling lethargic, apathetic.

So I attempt to recreate fall. Kind of like when we were kids in Africa, we decorated our Christmas bush, hung our Christmas stockings on the back of couches, and ate Christmas cookies to round out the experience. Food and ritual really are critical to seasonal make-believe. To recreate fall, I haul out my boots and sweaters, glorify in my new textbooks, and cook with as many squash and apples as possible. It's not the same, but it's closer.

This pumpkin stew is from the same North African cookbook that gave us the harissa soup, the brik, and a number of other exotic dishes that we haven't posted about. Long term blog followers will remember that, as we discovered during Lent 2008, our biggest struggle with vegetarian dishes is making sure that they're flavorful enough. Hence the significant prejudice against Northern European vegetarian dishes in favor of Indian, Thai, Greek, Tunisian. When I earmarked this pumpkin stew for this week, I was imagining a heavily spiced, hearty concoction. The kind where the flavor combinations blow your mind and meat isn't necessary to provide an underlying robustness.

I should really have read the recipe more closely.

You may like this recipe, which is why I'm posting it. It wasn't what I was going for. Hearty, yes, good texture, but delicately spiced and sweet. Sweet like sweet potatoes lightly drizzled in maple syrup and baked are sweet: not a desert, but more appropriate as a side than as a main. At least to our taste. New discovery: we really far prefer savory main courses to sweet. As Do put it: "if it's sweet, there better be a big hunk of meat in there to counter-balance the flavor." It's not bland at all, but because we really wanted something savory we ended up tripling all spices and serving the stew with generous dollops of Siracha Chili sauce.

Anyways. For those of you less weird than us, enjoy!

Pumpkin Stew (Marak dar Marhzin). Serves 4-6
3 Tbs oil or butter
2 large onions, chopped
2-4 cloves garlic (N: up to 3 more if you have mediocre Harissa, or are omitting the Harissa)
1 tsp Tumeric
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
2 medium carrots, sliced
2 small white turnips, peeled and cut into quarters
3 cups of water (my recommendation: add a veggie or chicken bouillon cube)
1 lb butternut squash or pumpkin, peeled and cubed
1 lb sweet potato, cubed
1 tsp Harissa (N: supplement w 1 tsp Thai Siracha Chili sauce for heat)
1/3 cup raisins
3 tsp honey (N: omit if you don't like sweet main courses)
salt and pepper
cilantro for serving
couscous for seving

Chop onions, peel and cube the squash, cube the sweet potato. Now bribe someone to re-sharpen all your knives.

Melt butter in a large heavy pot. Add onion and cook gently for 5 min. Add garlic, tumeric, ginger and cinnamon, and cook, stirring occasionally for 2 min. Stir in carrots, turnips, and water (and bouillon cube if using). Bring to boil. Cover and simmer for 10 min. Add pumpkin, sweet potato, harissa, chili sauce if using, raisins, honey, and salt and pepper to taste. Cover and simmer until the vegetables are tender (~20min).

Meanwhile, cook the couscous. Add couscous and boiling water to a bowl in equal amounts (1 cup couscous = 1 cup water), cover tightly for 5-10 min. Fluff with a fork to get lumps out.

Serving ideas: pile hot couscous onto a warm platter, make a crater in the middle and pile pumpkin stew into that crater. OR transfer stew to a warm bowl and serve alongside the couscous. OR prepare individual plates of couscous and stew. Don't forget to garnish with cilantro.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Best German-style Pork Chops ever.

You wouldn't tell it from this blog, but eating habits in the Do-Neen household have changed dramatically since we moved to the land of amazing produce/long growing seasons. Without really meaning to, and despite Do's meat-and-potatoes midwestern background, we're cooking predominantly vegetarian these days. The other day I even put my foot down and declared that meat is too much of a pain in the ass to prepare, takes too long to cook for my grad student schedule, and that I just don't enjoy cooking it. This may or may not have been related to a browning chicken pieces incident, for which the damn browning took longer than the rest of the recipe and the oil splatters dirtied everything within 5 feet of the pot. And then there was that amazing NYtimes article about the dangers of mass produced ground beef. Maybe Michael Pollan has put something in the water. In any case, I rarely cook meat anymore.

Which leaves it up to Do. Every so often he'll put his foot down: "I. Need. MEAT." Then a series of things will happen:
1. He'll reach for Julia Child's MTAOFC Vol 1.
2. He'll realize the dish he wants is fairly time consuming (i.e. weekend only) and/or serves 12.
3. We end up throwing a spontaneous dinner party, for the sole purpose of drafting others to help us consume the product of his labors.

This happened, almost exactly as described, a few weeks ago. It started with Do deciding that he couldn't go another week without pork chops, and ended with one of the larger dinner+board game parties that we've hosted since moving to California. The whole experience yielded some revealing insights:
  • This is why we've become closer to our meat-eating friends than to our vegetarian friends, even though we eat mostly vegetarian ourselves. We can (and do) have our meat-eating friends over at the drop of a hat -- or a couple hours after meat-related inspiration strikes Do. Vegetarian dishes are simply easier to scale and less of an event, and so less likely to prompt a last minute "We're making X, want to come over?"
  • Do loves Julia Child. This cracks me up. I think his inner scientist really appreciates how precise she is, and his inner Midwesterner hearts her meat-centric take on food.
  • Do makes effing good pork chops. I had always thought of pork chops as dry and leathery. Oh no. Not this recipe. Not this cook.
  • Always serve a Julia Child dish over noodles. Best pasta sauce EVER. And face it, what else are you going to do with all that cream?
Cotes de Porc Sauce Nenette (serves 6)
6 thick pork chops (min 1"). Can be marinated ahead of time*
3-4 Tbs cooking oil
2 Tbs butter
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup white wine or beef stock
1 1/2 c whipping cream
2 Tbs mustard
2 Tbs tomato paste
2 Tbs fresh chopped basil or parsely
salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Dry the pork chops with paper towels. Heat oil until almost smoking in a large heavy-bottomed casserole. Brown the chops, 2 or 3 at a time, on each side for 3-4min. Transfer to side dish. If you didn't marinate them, season with salt, pepper, and 1/4 tsp thyme.

Add butter and garlic to casserole. Return the chops, overlapping them slightly. Baste them with the butter. Cover and heat the casserole until the meat is sizzling, then set in lower third of preheated oven for 10-15min. Turn and baste the chops once or twice.

While the pork chops are cooking, simmer the cream, 1/4 tsp salt and a pinch of pepper in a small saucepan for 8 - 10 min, or until it has reduced to one cup. Meanwhile, beat the mustard and the tomato paste together in a small bowl, then beat into the hot cream. Set aside.

Once the chops are done, remove them to a serving platter and pour the cream mixture into the casserole. Simmer 3-4 min, deglazing. Correct seasoning, stir in the basil, return the pork to the casserole and let heat.

Serve over noodles.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Neen's Roasted Yam salad

I don't invent recipes. I really don't. I'm not the type of person who walks into a Farmer's Market and designs the week's menu based on what's available, nor am I the type who has all recipes memorized. I'm the chick with the planner and the mountain of (organized) recipe index cards and one list of ingredients assigned to each person shopping. Yeah. I don't do spontaneous. I'm slowly moving away from teaspoon and tablespoon measures. Very, very slowly.

So you can imagine how impressed and dubious Do was when he came home last night and I presented him with a dish that I had invented. In the grocery store, on the fly. Yah. Who da man.

I swung by the grocery store yesterday to pick up some eggs (for challah) and a head of cauliflower (for spiced Cauliflower soup, recipe to follow). The Piedmont Groceries had just set up its fall display, with pumpkins, Indian corn, and all those cool squash. My brain went from "aaaw, I guess it is fall. Maybe I should do something fall-like for dinner." to "Oh, crap, tonight is the first night of Sukkot [Jewish harvest festival]. I should definitely do something fall-like." to "I think I have a recipe clipping at home for a roasted yam salad that sounded yummy. Ok, let's work from there."

I did end up using the recipe clipping for inspiration (Food & Wine's Roasted Yam and Apple Salad, unknown issue). It had a great method for roasting the yams: sesame oil and cumin. And, with a few tweaks to suit our preference for strong flavor, the vinaigrette was pretty damn good too. The lettuce is indispensable, both for color and because it alone adds crunch to an otherwise creamy salad. You may want to soak the lettuce ahead of time to make it extra crunchy. The tangerines add citrus, again to balance out the creamy flavor of the roast yams. Red Cabbage for color. And the rest, just because I'm the type who likes a lot of "stuff" in my salads and on my pizzas.

It was damn good: we had thirds. Really addictive. FYI, for those celebrating Thanksgiving with us, this may well occur.

Neen's Roasted Yam Salad (serves 8-10)
2 yams or sweet potatoes
1 small butternut squash (alternative: use two more yams)
1 Tbs cumin (on the plus side)
1 Tbs sesame oil (on the plus side)
vegetable oil or spray-on oil
1 cup raisins or dried cranberries
2 heads butter lettuce, torn into bite size pieces.
2 tangerines or apples
1/3 of a small purple cabbage
1/2 cup pine nuts
1/2 bunch of cilantro, coarsely chopped.

1/2 cup olive oil
2 1/2 Tbs apple cider vinegar
1 1/2 Tbs Dijon Mustard (on the plus side)
2 garlic cloves, crushed.
1 Tbs Korean Chili paste or any curry paste.
1 tsp Balsamic vinegar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Peel butternut squash. Chop squash and yams into 1" cubes. Spread on a baking sheet, drizzle with the vegetable oil, the sesame oil, the cumin, salt and pepper to taste. Roast approximately 1 hour.

Meanwhile, whisk all vinaigrette ingredients together in a small bowl and set aside. Separate tangerines into sections, and cut each section into three. Put tangerines into a large salad bowl, along with the pine nuts, the raisins, the lettuce*, and the cilantro. Using a Cuisinart, shred the red cabbage and add it to the salad bowl.

Once the yams are roasted until tender, add them to the salad bowl and mix with the vinaigrette.

*ALTERNATIVE PRESENTATION: Do really liked the contrast between the crunchy lettuce and the creamy yams. One way to keep the lettuce crunchy for as long as possible is to prepare the salad as stated above without adding the lettuce, and instead to prepare a mound of lettuce on each person's plate. Then the salad can simply be heaped on top of the lettuce bed, and mixed together by each guest.