Saturday, December 29, 2007

Ain't No Chinese Food Here...

A Jewish Christmas Eve in Brooklyn

Like all good Jews, each Christmas Eve my family invites over twenty of our closest friends and family to our home and attempts to kill them all with gluttunous amounts of red sauce, pork and shellfish.

Each of my parents makes their signature sauce. My Mom's is a shellfish stew which she has adapted from Dom DeLuise's cookbook. After years of tweaking and fidgeting, Mom's sauce is still the best seafood sauce I've ever had:

My Dad's is a meat sauce, the recipe for which he received from a coworker years ago and has since made all his own. Teeming with meatballs, hot and sweet sausage, pork ribs and braciole, his sauce is always amazing and forms the basis for a great lasagne. This Christmas Eve marked the first in three years where I allowed myself to eat his sauce (I had a no-red meat thing going on for a while there, but that is now kaput). His meatballs made me wonder why I had ever tortured myself like that in the first place.

There were eight trays set up above sternos for everyone to feed themselves to their heart's content, but like most family gatherings, there was an overwhelming amount of leftovers. But with this stuff, as you can imagine, I have had no problem complying with my parents and trying to make a dent in what's left.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Soupy Homage

Then there was the question as to what to do with the rest of the squash. The stew itself had used slightly less than half the squash. I had sated my desire to do something unexpected (at least for me) with the squash – so this time the decision was easier. I found a recipe for butternut squash ravioli in a cider broth.

I have always been a big fan of soup and dumplings in all its incarnations. Wontons, tortellini, throw any of these in a steaming bowl of broth and you’ve got me. In all fairness, I am a bit promiscuous in my love for things in soup in general (I’m talking delicious things here, not bug-like things or inedible things in general) – I have an equal soft spot for noodles, especially udon (so enjoyably squishy) and meatballs and matzoh balls as well.

This was more of a first-course recipe than a main course, and it called for only a bit of broth to flavor the ravioli, but nonetheless, I couldn’t resist. The flavors were pure fall, the perfect treatment for a butternut squash. It was just meant to be in a dish such as this, where all of the flavors seem to pay tribute to the same brisk feel and spicy air. It deserved nothing less than this – a bowl of pure homage, where all the flavors and elements seem to bow down and gladly take supporting roles.

In late-November and early-December, there is absolutely no going wrong with a recipe starring squash, apple cider and maple syrup. Now don’t get me wrong, this is not an incredibly sweet recipe. The broth was a bit sweet, but there was more chicken broth than cider in it, along with a great deal of butter and scallions, so it wasn’t overpoweringly so. A whole bowlful of the broth would have been far too much, though, so the ladle and a half I used was more than enough. The ravioli themselves were delicious, and would have been fantastic plated beneath a brown butter and sage sauce – the combination of squash and brown butter combination as complimentary as bread and butter. There’s really no going wrong there. One of these days I’ll tackle fresh pasta, but not with finals lingering.

The squash was first roasted and then mashed with ricotta cheese, parsley and salt and pepper. It was all shockingly easy – no doubt attributable to the use of wonton wrappers. The recipe suggested pot sticker wrappers, but I didn’t feel like making the trek down to Chinatown, so wonton wrappers from the grocery store were going to have to do. This made my ravioli a bit smaller than I think they were supposed to be. Since the wrappers were square, I used the cap of a cocktail shaker to cut out circles.

A nice dollop spooned into the center of each wrapper was packaged inside after I wet the edges with a damn paper towel and pressed them together between my thumb and forefinger. I made a whole bunch of these, but instead of being tedious and tiring as I had anticipated it would be, the whole process was surprisingly calming, much like getting a knot out of a necklace, which I also find oddly entrancing.

Butternut Squash Ravioli in Cider Broth
From Bon Appetit, December 2000
Recipe can also be found here

1 1/2 lbs. butternut squash, halved lengthwise, seeded
2Ts brown sugar
1/8 t ground cinnamon
1/4 C pure maple syrup
3 T butter
1/2 C water

1 C ricotta cheese
1/4 C grated Parmesan cheese
3 t chopped fresh parsley
1/2 t chopped fresh thyme

Wonton wrappers, cut into circles

1/3 C chopped shallots
1 1/2 C chicken brother
1/2 C apple cider

Shaved Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Place squash, cut side up, in baking pan. Sprinkle with brown sugar and cinnamon; season with salt and pepper. Drizzle with syrup; dot with 1 tablespoon butter. Pour 1/2 cup water into bottom of pan. Bake until squash is tender, about 1 hour. Cool completely.

Scoop out squash from the shell and mash in a bowl. Place 3/4 C squash to medium bowl (reserve remaining squash for another use). Add in ricotta, 1/4 C grated Parmesan, 2 T parsley and thyme to bowl and mix to combine. Season with salt and pepper to taste

Lay the wonton wrappers on a flat surface and place a dollop of filling in center of each, trying to judge how much will fill the wrapper without overflowing (I guess I used about 2 teaspoons or so per ravioli – it took me a while to get the measurement right). Wet the edges of the wrapper with water (I didn’t have a pastry brush or anything, so I just used a damp paper towel); fold in half and press the edges to seal them.

Melt the remaining butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add shallots and sauté for a minute, until the shallots begin to turn translucent and soft. Add the chicken stock and cider and simmer 8 minutes. Add a tablespoon of parsley and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Cook ravioli a few at a time in salted boiling water. Remove from water gently with a slotted spoon and place a few in each bowl. Bring the soup to a simmer and spoon a bit of broth over the ravioli.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Starring Squash

I had a butternut squash staring at me from the counter for a couple of weeks. It looked at me longingly, begging for me to take it out of limbo and just do something with it already. Each time I walked into the kitchen, I felt as if I needed to avoid its accusing stare, as if it would rush me into doing something with it without thinking. I didn’t just want another butternut squash soup, and I wasn’t willing to be forced into settling for the usual. I wanted to do something where the squash could be the star, where its presence could be seen and felt – where it was the substance of the dish. I wanted a dish that was unmistakably (and unapologetically) orange.

I did a laborious Epicurious search and after much deliberation I settled on a Moroccan butternut squash stew, rich with spices and color, served atop a gorgeous pile of quinoa, which was something I had also been waiting to try my hand at for a while. I had eaten quinoa before, but I had never ventured to make it. This dish was perfect for a chilly fall evening (since I made it a while ago but I have been unable to document it as yet, because of that whole finals thing). The stew was spicy, but not overwhelmingly so, but just spicy enough so that it warmed my body from the inside out – not unlike a nice glass of whiskey served up neat.

I had to tweak the recipe a bit, since I didn’t have saffron (or coriander, shame on me), so I bumped up the measurements of some of the other spices as I saw fit. Saffron is pretty expensive, and I didn’t really want to purchase a bottle just for this, so I just left it out. I’m sure it added something to the dish, but I did not miss it at all. I even messed it up a bit and didn’t add the spices at the correct time, dumping them carelessly into the pot after the liquids, but it still came out deliciously. The dish was hearty, spicy and wholesome, providing me with a whopping serving of nutrients of which I am probably deficient. Suffice it to say that the recipe is quite forgiving.

The quinoa itself was delicious – I ate it for days later, since the recipe, though cut in half, was still far too much. I had it a couple of days later beneath a couple of fried eggs, and would find myself just eating it straight out of the Tupperware container from time to time. I could only find red quinoa, which came pre-rinsed and everything, and it turned out very nicely. The red added a nice pop of color even beneath the heavy stain of the turmeric. Quinoa is incredibly easy to cook – just make sure you use a 2:1 ratio of liquid to quinoa.

Butternut Squash and Carrot Stew

Adapted from Bon Appetit, January 2006

Squash and Carrot Stew
2 T olive oil
1 C onion, coarsely chopped
3 garlic cloves, chopped
2 t paprika
1 t salt
½ t ground black pepper
½ t ground cumin
½ t turmeric
½ t ground ginger
¾ t cayenne pepper
1 C water
1 can (14.5 oz) diced tomatoes, drained
2 T fresh lemon juice
3 C diced, peeled butternut squash, cut into one-inch dice
2 C diced, peeled carrots, cut into ½ - ¾ inch dice

1 C red quinoa
2 t butter
1 T olive oil
½ C finely chopped onion
¼ C finely chopped peeled carrot
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ t salt
½ t turmeric
¼ t ground black pepper
2 C water

½cup chopped fresh cilantro, divided

To make the stew:

Heat oil in large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion to the oil and sauté until soft, stirring often so it doesn’t burn, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and stir for 1 minute. Mix in paprika, salt and the rest of the spices. Add one cup of water, the tomatoes, and the lemon juice to the pot. Bring to boil and then add the squash and the carrots. Cover the pot and simmer over medium-low heat until the vegetables are fork-tender, stirring occasionally, for about 20 minutes. Season the stew with salt and pepper to taste. Immediately prior to serving, stir in half of the chopped cilantro.

For the quinoa:

If your quinoa has not been pre-rinsed (this will be indicated on the package), rinse the quinoa and drain. If it has, obviously skip the rinsing.

Melt butter with oil in large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and carrot. Cover; cook for about ten minutes until vegetables begin to brown, stirring frequently so that they do not burn. Add garlic, salt, and turmeric and sauté for one minute. Add the quinoa; stir one minute to coat the quinoa with the oil. Add 2 cups water. Bring to boil and reduce heat to medium-low. Cover and simmer until liquid is absorbed and quinoa is tender, which should be about 15 minutes.

Serve warm stew over quinoa and sprinkle with the chopped cilantro.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Oh My Darling

December is never really fully embraced by me. It comes about unwanted, forcing upon me sleet, cold, and the worst of the worst, finals. Especially in Chicago, where the weather just turns to grey. The sun, which not long ago played a lead role in the adventure of each day, returns now only once in a while for an always long-awaited cameo. Yes, that picture above is beautiful and yes, my street is gorgeous when blanketed by a fresh coat of powder. Though it does bring about the first snow, the holidays and general good cheer, I get caught up in the winter-ness of the December. Autumn is great, the leaves turn colors, the air smells of spice. Winter brings to mind pictures of slush, especially in this early part, when the temperature has not quite steadied itself, and snow turns to sleet, rain into ice. The roads go from looking serene and gorgeous to being slick and dangerous. But among all of this, is one of my favorite things about the winter.

Clementines are a little bright spot in the greyness of the coming season. They're sweet and summerish, and though I've never been a true fan of oranges, these things can do me no wrong. It's just hard to get a good orange, one that's perfectly juicy and whose sweetness is unobstructed by the bitter pith. Orange juice also has never been a favorite of mine. But these clementines, they know how to get me. It is just a bit harder to get a bad clementine than it is to get a good one. And in spite of everything else that December brings, they are one of the bright spots, one of the cures to the winter gloom. They're Mother Nature's little apology for the elements she has thrust my way. And I accept graciously, put on my gloves, and gleefully go about my winter.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

A Little Distraction

I apologize for the lack of posting. It's finals season so I'm hunkered down. However, I figure we could all use a little distraction now and then, and this one helps fight hunger.

Free Rice

For every word answered correctly, 20 grains of rice are donated through the United Nations to help fight world hunger. So when you need to take a break from whatever you're doing, make that break a worthwhile one.