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Roasting as a Pastime

Roasted Italian Memories

The evening was stormy. Cracks of thunder played overhead. As we hurried up the old cobbled street, our feet danced around the growing puddles and streams. We were staying in an ancient hamlet buried in the hilly Umbrian countryside. Upon stepping into the trattoria, we took in the aromas of roasting meats, pizzas, breads, and vegetables.

A gorgeous and massive medieval pizza oven took up one entire wall of the kitchen. Stacks of olivewood sat neatly stacked to one side. This was my first exposure to the unabashed, divine nature of roasting. The cozy warmth on a cold and rainy night. The taste of a perfectly charred beet, halved garlic heads drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, wild mushrooms and fennel bulbs. They pulled me in. I was hooked and haven’t looked back. I relegated the taste of bland canned beets and garlic powder from my childhood to the cobweb-filled attic of my memory bank. Going forward, it was roasting or nothing. This was a sort of genesis, a new horizon. I moved from steamed carrots to roasted carrots, from boiled baby potatoes to toasted wedges.

Roasting Beets

Let’s take beets. It seems simple enough. I slice the freshly scrubbed beets into wedges, toss them in olive oil, sea salt, and coarsely ground black pepper. Next I spread them in a single layer on a parchment-lined cookie sheet, placing them in a hot oven to roast (400 F). After cooling the beets, I drizzle red wine vinegar and a good quality olive oil and then add sliced green onions and toasted pumpkin seeds. I lightly toss the mixture and lay the salad over a bed of arugula.

As we tuck our forks into this ruby salad, a refreshing sweetness greets us. Roasting the beets has concentrated their sugars and given the tips of the wedges a slight crunch. The overall result is delicious.

Roasting vegetables produces a depth of flavor one doesn’t get with the other types of cooking. An almost caramel tone develops in them.

Roasting Cauliflower

Let’s look at cauliflower. Take a whole cauliflower, steam it for a few minutes in a pot of boiling salted water, after taking it out, rub it all over with olive oil, salt and pepper, and place it in a very hot oven (475 degrees) for 20 minutes or until toasty on the top surface. This version of roasted cauliflower is absolutely scrumptious served with a cool yogurt cilantro sauce.

Roasting Eggplant

Another vegetable that benefits immensely from roasting is eggplant. Roasting transforms the interior of eggplant into an almost buttery consistency. I recently made an iteration of an Israeli staple where I roasted the scored and oiled halves of an eggplant until they became nicely browned. Then I topped each half with a citrus, pomegranate molasses, and tahini mixture and broiled those halves for a couple minutes until they turned caramel in color. I covered these halves with dollops of a yogurt cucumber mixture, sprinkled toasted pistachios, slivered mint, and Italian parsley.

Adding Complexity with Sauces

The dry heat of an oven amps up the flavor of what can normally be a rather plain tasting vegetable. Roasting adds the char on the edges and a caramel-like sweetness. With a bit of creativity accented by fresh herbs and cool flavor filled sauces, roasted vegetables move from the ordinary to the deliciously sublime.

Using whole-milk yogurt as a base and adding refreshing ingredients such as lime, lemon, cilantro, Italian parsley, basil, dill, cucumber, scallions, and spring greens like arugula, sauces and dips can compliment the depth of flavor in roasted vegetables. It’s the savory counter to ice cream on a slice of pie. You can definitely do without it, but oh, its addition is so wonderful!

Vegetables Galore

We are about to enter into the season of ubiquitous vegetables. Tomatoes, potatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, beets, carrots, onions, cabbages, and squash of all varieties will soon be at our fingertips. Try roasting these.

When garden produce is starting to pile up on my counter, I pull out a sheet pan, lay down parchment, spread out any variety of vegetables, drizzle them with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and add whole garlic cloves, sea salt, and freshly ground pepper. Then I place the pan in a very hot oven (400 F). Simple prep, yet it yields a divinely complex result.

However you end up using the vegetables in the end, roasting first will give a new dimension of flavor to the dish. Be it a salad, a soup, a side, an hors d’oeuvres, or a braise, roast and then combine. You won’t have any regrets.

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My Kind of Bowling

A Bowl for a Chilly Night

It was the evening of Valentine’s Day. The temperature outside hovered around 20 degrees below zero as the coldness sunk into the cellar. We couldn’t bring ourselves to venture outside to dine in a restaurant. It was just too cold. We needed a hot meal in steaming bowls to enjoy in the coziness of our snug house.

As I considered what to make that would be both a special meal and fit the warming requirement, my mind went to a spicy Asian noodle bowl I’d been wanting to try for some time.  This recipe overflows with my favorite ingredients: lemongrass, ginger root, turmeric, garlic, and chicken thighs. I started to chop, sauté, and stir. Soon the rich aromas filled the kitchen, satisfying my soul like the temperature outside could not. 

The steam swirling off the bowls at the dinner table was intoxicating. The first sip, pure pleasure. In addition to the temperature, it held just enough spice to heat up our mouths as we slurped and swallowed. The mix of herbs and spices created a complex and simply divine flavor. On that frigid eve, this bowl hit the spot.

Asian Bowls Aplenty

What is it with Asian soups and bowls? They have become all the rage, and for good reason. Whether they come from Japan, Vietnam, South Korea, Thailand, or Singapore, they burst with flavor and are simple to prepare. In many parts of Asia, people eat these soups for breakfast. I can see why. They are nourishing and contain just enough kick to wake you up.

Serving food in bowls has been a tradition in many parts of Asia for centuries. The bowls serve a dual purpose: they retain the heat, and because they are pretty much a one-dish meal, clean-up is a dream. The artwork on them reflects the culture’s love of beauty.

Hot and Cold Varieties

To me these bowls of food seem a bit schizophrenic in that they can be either hot or cold. In hot bowls, the broth carries the bulk of the divine flavor. The cold versions contain similar ingredients, except they are mostly fresh or raw with the dressing and marinades holding the flavor. The hot versions are perfect for a cold, wintry night. The cold serves as a quick, refreshing meal on a hot summer’s evening when you have all those garden herbs and vegetables available.  

Hot Bowls

One thing I have noticed about most hot bowls is the ease of preparation. You simply sauté the aromatics and spices in a little oil, and then you add water and meat to the pot. Leave it to simmer for a while, making an unctuous broth. Meanwhile, prepare any toppings, such as cilantro leaves, scallions, or lime wedges. When the broth has finished cooking, add the fresh vegetables, cook the noodles in a separate pot of hot water, drain them, and you’re ready to eat.  

Depending on the country of origin, the meats and other ingredients can vary. Some of my favorites include a Vietnamese soup that has little meatballs made of ground pork, scallions, and spices. Immediately before serving, add a couple handfuls of watercress for a lemony freshness. Another hails from South Korea. It includes small strips of pork tenderloin and Napa cabbage kimchi, a staple in Korean cuisine. The spicy kimchi juice adds a complex heat to the final dish.  

Cold Bowls

The cold versions don’t take much more time to prepare. I usually include some kind of starch, either rice or Asian noodles. I leave room in the bowl for many of the fresh vegetables to which I’m partial: sweet pea pods, strips of red and yellow peppers, julienned zucchini and carrot, Romaine lettuce leaves, and bean sprouts. The meat can be anything from chicken to shrimp, tossed in garlic, ginger, and chili and then sautéed. I’m particularly partial to the accompanying peanut dipping sauces or any sort of dressing made of flat-leaf parsley, cilantro, or mint leaves. I could almost drink this stuff it’s so delicious.

For years, I have thought these bowls are better left to the experts in Thai or Vietnamese restaurants. I had no idea how simple it is to develop their complex flavor given a few key ingredients, a sharp knife, and a little creativity.

The next time you are thinking of making chicken noodle soup, pivot. Add some grated ginger root, curry powder, a squeeze of fresh lime juice, and you have a soup such as what millions wake up to everyday. It is so tasty, it may even inspire you to give up that bowl of daily oatmeal you enjoy so much and replace it with Laska, a shrimp and chicken noodle soup eaten for breakfast in Singapore.

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Celebrate with a Thankful Heart

Tradition

It seems that everyone has stories to tell about their Thanksgiving traditions. The preparation for this meal usually involves several days. Turkeys are bought days ahead. They fill our refrigerators as they thaw. The aromas begin to fill our homes: cranberry sauce cooking on the stove, pies baking in the oven. These are the reminiscent smells that welcome family as they gather.

The actual day of Thanksgiving arises early as the final rubs and fillings are applied to the big bird before we slide it into the oven to roast. If you are like most cooks, you breathe a sigh of relief once this step is done. The day is still early, and the house is quiet. It is the perfect time to sit for a minute and sip some coffee.

Next up, think about the side dishes, the hors d’oeuvres, and last but certainly not least, the desserts. Vegetables need scrubbing, potatoes need peeling, green beans need trimming. Time to start mixing up the dinner rolls. We must always include favorite foods. Is your pie of choice pumpkin, apple, or pecan? Do you eat marshmallows on your sweet potatoes?

Our culinary traditions bring us together as friends and families, but also together as a country. This is the time we remember to give thanks. We give thanks for loved ones, food, warm houses, freedom, friendships. We also think about and give in record amounts to those who do not have loved ones, who are going hungry this November, and who lack a warm house to call their own. This is a time for thankfulness, and out of this full heart comes generosity.

Our Past

The tradition of a harvest festival grew up with our country, starting in the early 1600s. This celebration took many forms in fits and starts before it finally settled in to what it is today. George Washington declared a national day of Thanksgiving on September 25, 1789. This was sporadically observed for a number of years following his declaration.

The idea of a designated Thanksgiving Day, however, was championed by a most unlikely suspect. Sarah Josepha Hale, a poor young widow who then rose to become the editor of the most popular magazine of its time, Godey’s Lady Book, talked about this idea for many years, presenting it to multiple presidents. Finally Abraham Lincoln listened and declared in his Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1863 that the last Thursday of November should be set aside. It wasn’t until 1941, thanks to President Roosevelt, that Congress officially established that day as a national holiday.

New Twists

In our home, Thanksgiving tends to be tradition with a twist. While the basic food items such as turkey, potatoes, sweet potatoes, cranberries, etc, are present at the Thanksgiving table, their form and what dish they show up in is constantly changing. One year cranberries are in the stuffing, the next year they appear in the beverage, the next, in a dessert. Likewise with apples or pecans.

Our turkey may appear green thanks to the herb paste stuffed under the skin or have copper sheen due to being glazed with sweet mix of pomegranate molasses and orange juice. Sometimes we roast it upside down, other times on high heat. Some years we stuff it with apples, onions, lemon, garlic, and sage leaves, other times with cornbread sausage stuffing. Every year is an opportunity to try new versions of the trusty old ingredients.

Trio of cranberry sauces: cranberry pear, cranberry jalapeño, and cranberry fig.

This year the cranberries are going to have some added kick, sauteed with shallots and jalapeno peppers. A second sweet variation will include Bosc pears, quince paste, and ginger root. A butternut squash will be pan-roasted with sage leaves, tossed with fresh mozzarella cheese, and then drizzled all over with pistachio pesto. Our stuffing will be gluten-free by using a base of wild rice.

Roasted butternut squash with fresh mozzarella, sage, and pistachio pesto.

With so much change, does anything stay the same? Yes, the tender, fresh from the oven dinner rolls. These never change. They must show up every year. They are so pristinely baked that a goodly number of them never make it to the dinner table.

Find your own recipe for melding tradition with change. We are a blessed people, so this Thanksgiving, both give and give thanks.