Last year we went to Spain over the kids’ spring break, and when I realized we’d be in Barcelona for Passover, I slipped a couple of my parents’ marked up, falling-apart haggadahs into my suitcase and decided I’d pull together a small family seder, Spanish style—at least “Spanish” according to my imagination and a few basic references.
I would shop for the meal at the Boqueria, Barcelona’s famous market, and turn to the Sephardic culinary tradition instead of the Ashkenazic (Eastern European) one I’m used to. Having come from a relaxed Reform-Jewish family, for whom traditions were rooted in holiday celebrations rather than actual religious observance (yes, Virginia, we had a Christmas tree), and being married to a lapsed Catholic, who’s open to any type of ritual gathering as long as it’s free of orthodoxy, we were happy to dispel with the matzo and horseradish, with the matzo-ball soup and brisket, and instead turn to braised dishes sweetened with dried fruit, to rice and legumes—foods that Ashkenazi Jews traditionally avoid during the Passover week.
Unlike our customary pale brown apple-walnut charoset, the Sephardic version is dark and sticky with dried dates and raisins. (In both cases the mixture is supposed to resemble the maror, or mortar, that it symbolizes, used to make the clay bricks the Israelites built with when they were slaves in the land of Egypt. (Charoset comes from cheres, the hebrew word for clay.)
I didn’t find matzo or horseradish in Barcelona (and honestly, I didn’t spend time looking), so at the seder we would read aloud about their significance as always, this time relying on our taste memory while eating the charoset on its own, and not sandwiched between crispy matzo flavored with a dollop of the bitter herb, our usual method.
I was all set to make a version of Claudia Roden’s beef tagine with sweet potatoes. I’d found it in her Book of Jewish Food before I left, and was glad to see that it was also online, along with a few other of her Passover suggestions, so I wouldn’t have to carry the hardcover in my luggage. Roden says that the stew works for Passover because the sweet potatoes solve the ever-present Pesach dilemma of what starch to serve with the meal.
Then a funny, slightly mystical-feeling thing happened. I’m not really a dreamer, in that I almost never remember my dreams and don’t take much stock in them when I do. But on the morning of the first seder (our only seder), I dreamt vividly that I was braising a leg of lamb in wine and stock. When it was nearly done, I felt an urgency to run out for apricots, fresh mint, and honey to add to the pot. I woke up shaking my head. Spring lamb, pascal lamb… I wondered if this was a traditional Sephardic seder meal.
What did we do before the Internet? I Googled “braised lamb for passover?” and in a few seconds I had my answer: In 1988 Florence Fabricant wrote in the New York Times, “As a mark of respect for the memory of the temple sacrifices, the eating of a whole roasted lamb on Passover is forbidden by the code of Jewish law called Shulhan Arukh, which was first printed in Venice in 1565. Jews who strictly interpret this rule will not eat roasted meat or poultry of any kind for their seder. Others will simply not eat roasted lamb. Jews who accept a looser interpretation of the law will eat lamb, but not if it is roasted.”
Braised lamb, she wrote, is fine, and further, it turns out to be a common dish on the Sephardic Passover table. I didn’t have a recipe, and I didn’t want one. I would follow my dream, minus the honey, which I thought would make the dried-fruit-laced dish too sweet. Plus, our rental kitchen came with absolutely no pantry—not even salt—so I wanted to keep the ingredients to a minimum, and not buy staples that the housekeeper would toss in the trash as soon as we were gone.
At the Boqueria, I bought the leg of lamb—pierna de cordera—at a stall called Carnes Serrano Calidad, where the butchers, all women, didn’t speak a word of English between them. I tried to explain that I needed the leg cut in half—otherwise I couldn’t fit it into the biggest of the thin aluminum pots my rental kitchen came with. (I thought I’d communicated it—thought, in fact, that I saw the butcher cutting it in two—but when I got it home and unwrapped it, I found that she had hacked through the bone but left the two pieces in tact as one. The apartment came with just one knife—a small, flimsy serrated thing marked Ikea—to work with, so cutting was a challenge. In any case, I was able to saw through the sinewy meat and make two pieces that fit perfectly in the pot.)
I waded through crowds of tourists snapping photos on cellphones and slurping brightly colored juices from plastc cups and picked up the rest of the ingredients: salt and cinnamon from a fragrant spice stand; dried dates, apricots, and roasted Marcona almonds from a vendor of jewel-like nuts and dried and candied fruits; leeks, garlic, asparagus, apples, oranges, and fresh mint from a stall brimming with vibrant produce.
Now I had a new dilemma—the traditional “What starch to serve with the Passover meal” one that Roden had referred to. I fingered a bag of rice, considering the possibility of a saffron-infused pilaf to serve with the meat, but my heart wasn’t in it. I love braised lamb with white beans, which turn out to be permissible on the Sephardic seder menu but not the Ashkenazic. The problem was, I wouldn’t have time to soak them. The meal was in a matter of hours.
I’m not a bean purist: I make fine chili with well rinsed black or red beans from a can. But white beans are different. I find the canned version to be mushy and more glaringly without the fine character of “real” ones, so I prefer to soak and simmer my own. But it was now afternoon so I resolved to stop at the grocery store by the apartment for the broth, wine, and either rice or canned beans—I’d figure it out when I got there.
We began heading home, and that’s when the second bit of Passover mysticism struck. We soon found ourselves on a little street I hadn’t walked down before, dotted with small food shops. Suddenly there was a little store, open to the street, with mint-colored walls, its counter laden with big bowls of what looked like—could it be?—cooked legumes. Lentils. Chickpeas. And there they were: fat, white cannelini beans. All plain, undressed, ready to be incorporated into any dish the cook might imagine.
The shop, on a street called Villarroel, was aptly called LLegums Cuits—Cooked Legumes. I shook my head for the second time that day and headed home with a heavy plastic bag filled with lovely beans, which I’d enhance with garlic and olive oil, the perfect bed for braised lamb with leeks, apricots, and mint.
* * *
Sephardic Passover Lamb
If you don’t have a pot large enough to accommodate the whole leg of lamb, ask the butcher to cut it into two pieces.
- 2 teaspoons cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 3-4 pound leg of lamb on the bone, cut in half to fit into the pot (see note below)
- 2 leeks, sliced into rounds
- 6 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
- 1 quart chicken broth
- 2 cups white Rioja or other dry white wine
- 1 cup dried apricots, roughly chopped
- ½ cup fresh mint leaves, torn
- Freshly grated black pepper
- In a small bowl combine cinnamon and salt and rub all over lamb. In a large, heavy pot, brown lamb in half the olive oil over medium-high heat, adding additional oil if necessary. Remove lamb and lower heat. Drain excess fat from pot and add remaining oil.
- Add leeks and garlic and cook, stirring, 3-4 minutes, until softened. Return lamb to the pot and add chicken broth and wine. Simmer 2½ hours over low heat.
- Add apricots and simmer ½ hour more. Taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper as necessary. Serve over white beans, garnished with mint.
* * *
- 1 pound jumbo dates, chopped
- 1 golden delicious apple or similar, diced
- 1 cup red wine such as Rioja
- 2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- Marcona almonds, chopped
Combine all ingredients and serve with (or without) matzo.
Additional photography (images of Liza) by Mark Jannot
Mexico was magnificent, and man, did we have fun. We stayed in a rambling thatch-roofed house set back from our own little patch of beach and shaded by palms.
Our casa had a well-stocked cocina, but I didn’t cook.
Instead, we ate our way up and down the funky little boho strip of Mexico’s “Mayan Riviera,” enjoying cozy breakfasts of fresh fruit and homemade bread and jam at Cabanas La Luna, which managed our property; paper-thin brick-oven pizza and delicious salads at Zamas; wood-fire broiled meats at Casa Banana (see previous post); and fish tacos for lunch just about everywhere, with no two being remotely similar. (On our last day, at a place called Ziggy’s, I finally landed upon the simple baha-style version I’d been longing for—just fried fish topped with some slaw and doused with a bit of chipotle-spiked crema—along with some rather delightful coconut shrimp with a mango dip.)
Here’s Rex eyeing my last taco.
I’m not that generous.
When Rex was a toddler, he was in possession of a bunch of cute little toddler malapropisms, as small children often are. When he finished a task, for example, he liked to announce, “Mission of complish!”
Rex is now a junior in high school and his language skills are much improved—so much so, in fact, that we thought it was time to seek out institutions of higher learning and yesterday embarked on the beginning of said quest, hopping a plane to Los Angeles, California, to visit colleges.
“Do you want Rex to go to school in California?” everyone inevitably asked when they heard this plan. Of course not, but Rex might. And it was cold in New York, and it’s spring vacation, and Mark and Teddy are each off on exciting travel adventures of their own.
L.A. seems like a good idea: We could see a lot of schools at once, some small liberal arts colleges, others big universities, all under the bluest of skies.
Last night we checked into our hotel, ordered delicious room service, and watched as much of Gatsby as we could before dozing off in our airy white beds. We were awakened a little before 6:30 this morning when those beds and everything around us began to shake.
I picked up the bedside telephone and called the front desk. “I’ve never experienced one of those,” I said. “When would it be necessary to act, and what should we do?” (We’re on the second floor of a tall building, so I thought I should know.)
“Oh, please don’t worry,” the friendly voice said. “This happens just about every day. We haven’t had a big one in years.” Turns out, he was underplaying the event. The earthquake registered 4.4 on the richter scale and its epicenter was a mere 5 or 6 miles from the hotel.
In any case, I relayed what he told me to Rex, who sleeps through everything but hadn’t slept through this.
“I like New York,” he replied groggily.
Mission of complish?
The approach of Friday evening so often puts me in the mood for roast chicken, and if you’ve been reading the blog, you know that I prepare it in myriad forms but with the consistent message that however you vary the details, you just can’t go wrong.
Looking over my various recipes, I see that sometimes I cook the bird fast; sometimes slow. Sometimes I sprinkle it with nothing but salt and pepper; other times I coat it with a spice blend like zatar, garam masala, or Chinese 5-spice powder. I usually stuff it with herbs, lemon, and either garlic, shallot, or onion. Often, I roast two whole chickens in a large pan, but if I have just one I’ll make it in my heavy black cast-iron skillet.
Perhaps the only consistent factor is that I always buy the best chicken I can, not from a factory farm but from someplace small and more-or-less local. Not only do I feel better about what I’m feeding us, but the chicken tastes better, too.
The small bird pictured above was sprinkled with nothing more than olive oil, salt, and pepper, then roasted in the cast-iron pan at 450 degrees for about an hour. When I checked it, the breast meat was just cooked through but there was too much pink when I started to separate the leg from the thigh. Being impatient (and hungry), and knowing that if I put the chicken back whole it would need another 20 minutes at least, I cut the legs off, placed them pink-side down in the pan, and put it back in the oven for about 10 minutes more, at which point everything was not only cooked just right, but the legs had the benefit of having sizzled in all those delectable pan juices.
While the chicken roasted, I tossed vegetables (in this case golden beets, butternut squash, and Brussels sprouts) with olive oil, salt, and pepper. I realized that I needed to stagger the cooking, because the squash and beets would take longer than the Brussels sprouts. I put the ones that seemed like they’d need longer to cook—the beets and squash—on a jelly roll pan and put it into the hot oven after the chicken had been roasting for 15 minutes or so. Fifteen minutes later, I added the Brussels sprouts. (If you’re nervous about the timing and afraid that some of the vegetables won’t be done when the chicken comes out, by all means just start them when you start the chicken. If they end up finished earlier, it’s fine if you take them out and they cool down slightly. Cover them very loosely with a piece of aluminum foil if you like, but don’t let them steam, or they’ll get soft.
I’m not going to give you a formal recipe for this meal because the freeform method above is probably all you need, but if you prefer to work with a recipe, why not try one of these from previous posts:
I love slow-cooked dishes—their tenderness, their depth of flavor, the hominess of it all—but in many ways I’m not a slow-cooker kind of girl. For one thing, I’m impatient. For another, I’m not the best planner. With slow cooking, as with traditional long braising, you need to start the meal well before you actually want to eat it, and that’s where I tend to have trouble. I like to walk in the door a little before dinnertime, decide I want something that should have been cooking all day, and have it on the table an hour later.
That’s where my pressure cooker comes in. I use this wondrous tool to make beef stew, chicken or lamb tagine, braised pork, and soup. When I read in The New York Times that you could make black bean soup using dried, unsoaked beans—and that it would cook in 30 minutes—I had to try it. I was delighted with the result. I’m going to serve this spicy, chorizo-laced brew to a stressed-out houseguest and hope it has the desired comforting effect. (It sounds obvious, but soup is a terrific thing to make in bulk when people are staying with you. They can ladle up a bowl and heat it in the microwave whenever they’re hungry, so you never have to worry about them.)
The soup was adapted by Mark Bittman from a recipe by Lorna Sass from her book Pressure Perfect. The only thing I did differently was to partially purée mine for a somewhat smoother consistency, and serve it over rice with a dollop of cooling sour cream. My chili powder was particularly hot. If yours is mild and you like heat, I suggest adding some in the form of chili flakes, a pepper, or some hot sauce. Also, my beans were old and therefore very dry, so 30 minutes wasn’t enough. Still, there was no soaking, and I made the soup from start to finish in under an hour.
I use my pressure cooker to make a lot of stewed chicken dishes with a Moroccan influence. Spices vary depending on my mood and what I have around. Often I cook the chicken on the bone; sometimes off. Usually I use whole pieces; occasionally, bite-size chunks. If I have dried dates, I put them in. If I have apricots, I use those. Same goes for olives—black or green; big or small. If I have a lot of mouths to feed, I’ll bolster the dish with chickpeas. If i have preserved lemons, I’ll use them; if not, I’ll add lemon zest. I usually finish with a sprinkle of toasted almonds, but if I have shelled pistachios, I might use them instead.
Here’s a recent version, which was quite delicious:
Chicken Tagine with Olives and Figs, For the Time Pressed
I’m not going to encourage you to whip this up on a work night. The prep takes about 45 minutes and is followed by 30 minutes of pressure-cooking time. But if you’re interested in making what tastes like a proper slow-cooked tagine—a spicy, complex North African-inspired stew with meat that’s moist and tender—in a fraction of the time it would normally take, I encourage you to try this. And if you don’t have a pressure cooker, go ahead and simmer the stew on the stovetop in a heavy pot, covered, for an hour or so.
- 1 medium onion, very roughly chopped
- 3 garlic cloves, very roughly chopped
- 1 bell pepper, very roughly chopped
- 2 carrots, very roughly chopped
- 1 2-inch piece of fresh ginger
- 3 tablespoons grapeseed or other neutral oil, divided
- 4 pounds of boneless, skinless chicken thighs
- 2 teaspoons Chinese 5-spice powder
- ¼ teaspoon turmeric
- ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 32 ounces low-sodium chicken broth or stock, divided
- 2 15.5-ounce cans of chickpeas, rinsed
- 8 dried figs, quartered
- 1 preserved lemon, rinsed, pulp removed, and diced
- ½ cup pitted olives, such as calamata (green olives are good here too)
- 1 cup diced tomatoes
- Chopped parsley or cilantro for garnish
- Toasted slivered almonds for garnish
- Place the first five ingredients into the bowl of a food processor and pulse until medium-fine. Heat the oil in a large pan over medium-low heat and add the vegetables. Cook, stirring, about 5 minutes.
- Meanwhile, heat oil in pressure cooker pot over medium-high heat. Sprinkle chicken with the 5 spice, turmeric, cayenne, and salt and pepper and brown, in batches, until golden brown.
- When all the chicken has browned, remove from pot and add the wine and one cup of the broth broth and scrape up all the brown bits stuck to the pot. Return chicken and add vegetable mixture, along with chickpeas, figs, preserved lemon, and olives.
- Add remaining broth and the tomatoes, secure the lid, and cook on high pressure for 25 minutes. Turn off heat and let pressure subside naturally. When pressure has been released, remove lid, spoon chicken and sauce over rice, couscous, or quinoa and garnish with herbs and almonds.
Sitting in a café on the Upper West Side, having peeled off enough layers of clothing to create a small mountain on the chair beside me (but barely enough to insulate me from the polar vortex outside), I sighed heavily when my friend Judy asked whether we had travel plans for the boys’ spring break. This was yet another thing I’d allowed to fall by the wayside in the busy blur between the holidays and the present, and I was kicking myself.
“I’m going to solve this one for you right now,” Judy said. Judy is an opera director and the president of the PTA at her son’s high school. She’s masterful at solving problems. “Tulum,” Judy said. “It’s beautiful, it’s not terribly expensive, and it’s a short nonstop plane ride.”
I went home and booked the trip. And now, sitting at the kitchen table staring out my garden doors at over a foot of snow, as Mark shovels the sidewalk in front of our house for the third time today, I just can’t wait.
I did have a little taste of Mexico last weekend, and it was delicious.
My friend Victoria Behm, an amazing artist who’s currently having a show at 440 Gallery in Park Slope (a couple of her drawings are at left), and who makes art in Mexico every summer, asked me to do an event at the gallery: I’d demonstrate how to make salsas and guacamole, then read a little from the book I’m working on. Vicki supplied a highly capable helper by the name of Briana, a 10-year-old who’s one of Vicki’s Studio-in-a-School students and an avid cook. (Her favorite things to make are apple pie and pizza.) Another dexterous 10-year-old, my son Teddy, was my second sous chef. Both kids chopped and sliced and diced; no one lost a finger; and we produced some delicious dips.
We served them with tortilla chips, but it occurred to me that the mango salsa in particular would be an incredible accompaniment to grilled fish, chicken, or pork. The next day I reproduced them at home, made some pork chops and tested my theory. I was right.
This is a bright, sunny dish to serve on a cold, snowy night.
Pork Chops with Salsa
I used bone-in pork chops from two New York farms: Northwind Farms in Tivoli and Sir William Angus, in Cranyville. I got them from my CSA, Farmigo. Look for the best bone-in loin chops you can find. The more marbled they are, the juicier they’ll be. (And the longer you marinate them, the more tender they’ll be.)
- Juice of one tangerine
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- ½ teaspoon hot red chili flakes
- ½ teaspoon chili powder
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 4 1-inch-thick bone-in pork chops
- Combine first five ingredients in a baking dish or other shallow container large enough to hold all the chops in one layer. Stir, then add the pork, turning in the marinade to coat. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to grill, from 30 minutes to overnight.
- Heat a grill pan over medium-high heat and oil it lightly. Pat the chops dry and place on grill pan. Cook four to five minutes per side then check for doneness, either by slicing into a chop or testing with a meat thermometer. (Cook until internal temperature reaches 145 degrees F, or until just barely pink inside—or really, whatever you’re comfortable with.) Let rest for 5-10 minutes before serving. (The internal temperature will rise while resting.)
- Top each chop with mango salsa (see recipe below) and serve.
If using as a chip dip, dice the mangos very fine. This is also fabulous over grilled fish, chicken, or pork.
- 2 mangoes, finely diced
- ¼ red bell pepper, finely diced
- ½ jalapeño pepper, minced (or to taste)
- Juice of 1 lime
- ¼ teaspoon salt or to taste
Stir ingredients together and serve. (If you have time, let the salsa sit before serving to allow the flavors to meld.)
Pico de Gallo
The heat of jalapeños varies wildly. Start with a little, taste, and add more as needed. This salsa serves as a major ingredient in the guacamole below.
- ½ pound tomatoes, diced
- ¼ cup minced onion
- ¼ cup minced cilantro
- ½ jalapeño, finely diced (or to taste)
- Juice of 2 limes
- ¼ teaspoon salt (or to taste)
Stir ingredients together and serve. (If you have time, let the salsa sit before serving to allow the flavors to meld.)
This is so easy to make once you’ve made the pico de gallo, but if you’re starting from scratch, try this recipe instead. (Add jalapeño and a teaspoon or so of minced onion if you like.)
- 2 ripe avocadoes
- 2 tablespoons of Pico de Gallo
- ½ teaspoon minced garlic or to taste
Combine ingredients in a bowl and mash with a fork, leaving the avocado a little chunky. Taste for seasoning, adding salt and minced jalapeño as needed.
After a bit of a hiatus, the blog is back. I’ve missed the writing and the recipes, the responses from readers and the energy the whole enterprise lends my daily cooking. Christmas Eve seemed like a fine time to offer up a new post—and festive, delicious cookies seemed like an appropriate topic to inspire you as you gather in the coming week with family and friends to celebrate Christmas and New Year’s.
This time last winter, I was invited to join a holiday cookie swap and had to overcome some serious insecurity—I don’t think of myself as much of a baker, and the other people in the group are all top notch. After much deliberation, I ended up making hazelnut-chocolate sandwich cookies, the recipe for which I discovered on David Lebovitz’s terrific blog. (You can read about that particular culinary adventure here.)
The cookies turned out to be excellent and I was asked back this year, so I decided to stick with David, whose baking instincts seem as close to perfect as you can get. He’d recently traveled to Sicily and written about the amaretti cookies he’d eaten there—simple ovals that are soft in the middle and crunchy on the outside, rolled in slivered almonds or pine nuts.
One of the things I love about this cookie is that it contains almond meal instead of wheat flour, which I’ve been trying to avoid (though not religiously).
Another is the dollop of apricot jam in the batter, which is undetectable to the taste but contributes to the cookie’s terrific chewy texture.
One Passover recently I decided to try my hand at chocolate-dipped coconut macaroons, which my mom always served as part of dessert at the seder. I found them both ridiculously easy and incredibly delicious, so for the cookie exchange I decided to make both types of cookie.
I used a macaroon recipe that didn’t contain flour, but I suspect they’d hold together a bit better if you used one that did, like this one from Real Simple:
Merry Christmas, everyone, and here’s to a happy, healthy, peaceful, and delicious 2014.
Everyone and everything seems to be gluten-free these days.
I would roll my eyes, except for one thing: As much as I adore bread and pasta, I’ve noticed lately that bread and pasta don’t seem to love me. So I did a little experiment over the past few weeks, eliminating them along with other foods that contained wheat, and I have to say: I’ve never felt better. I don’t plan to be religious about this in any way — I’m not going to reject the crusty loaves of artisanal bread my friend Monica brings over from her fabulous Grandaisy Bakery, and if I’m faced with a lovely homemade pasta dinner at our neighbors’, I’m going to eat that too—and love it.
But for everyday, I’m finding plenty of alternatives to wheat: yogurt and fruit—maybe a hard-boiled egg—for breakfast; a big salad topped with crumbled goat cheese and sunflower seeds or sliced chicken for lunch; and masses of sweet roasted veggies for dinner with some kind of lean protein. My stomach is flat and my head is clear.
For a second I wondered how to reconcile this realization with my desire to make the incredible pork ragu I discovered last fall in the fabulous Dinner: A Love Story blog and book. I wrote about this particular sauce last year, and it was just as delectable when I made it again Friday night. Only this time, instead of serving mine over the pappardelle I gave everyone else, I ladled it into half of a roasted acorn squash. (Drizzle the squash with olive oil; sprinkle with salt and pepper; and roast on 425 until soft.)
I first experienced this touch of brilliance at a dinner years ago cooked by our old friend Pat Clinton, who simmered a Mexican-style pork stew and served it up in small pumpkins. I found the combination and the presentation revelatory. What could be better for the Halloween/Thanksgiving season? So, wheat-sensitive or not, why not use this sweet, edible vessel for soup, stew, or meat sauce? Guaranteed, you won’t miss the pasta.