Just Another Wednesday Night

Wednesday. Dinner. Our House. Just the two of us.dinnerMy husband loves to cook. Once everything is prepared and cooked and tossed and toasted it is time to take the elements and compose the plate.

Tonight was sliced avocado, topped with a salad composed of apple, radicchio, curly endive, red onion and blood orange tossed with a balsamic vinaigrette. Add to this garam masala seasoned scallops. Texas toast and white wine on the side.

Yes, just another Wednesday night. Bon Appetit!

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Let’s just have something simple

That’s what I said when Curt asked what I wanted for dinner tonight.

“How about a salad?” I said.

“Oh, I have something planned already. And it’s simple.” He said.

Here’s what he calls simple.

Roasted Tomatoes au Gratin

tomatoes But these are simple!  Preheat an oven to 400˚ F.  Cut a good sized ripe whole tomato in half (around the equator).  In a bowl, mix 2 Tbs breadcrumbs (I use panko style), 1 small clove garlic, finely minced, 1 Tbs minced fresh basil, 1 Tbs minced parsley, 1 Tbs freshly grated Parmesan cheese, and a light grind of black pepper.  Moisten the mixture with about 1 Tbs or so of good olive oil so the mixture holds its shape.  Put the tomato halves on a lightly oiled oven-proof dish and pack half the mixture on each half of the tomato.  Nestle a grape-sized chunk of some nice melting cheese into the breadcrumb mixture (I used Taleggio but most any soft or semi-soft cheese would work – try brie, camembert, colby, fontina, Gouda, Gruyère, Monterey Jack, or Muenster).  Bake for 15 minutes or until the tomato is soft and the the breadcrumb mixture is lightly browned.

Chicken Thighs w/ Herb Honey Sauce

chickenAgain, this couldn’t be simpler.  This is based on a duck preparation I had at the Auberge de la Reine Blanche  (The Inn of the White Queen).  I boned one skin-on thigh per diner but you cold use boneless, skinless thighs or bone-in thighs just as well – the bone-in thighs will take longer to cook.  Season the meat with salt, pepper and a light sprinkle of thyme, basil, oregano or some commercial herb mix (I used Penzeys’ Fox Point Seasoning mix which contains salt, shallots, chives, garlic onion and green peppercorns).  If using a commercial mix take care to account for any salt already in the mix when adding any extra salt to the meat).  Let rest for 1/2 hour.

Preheat the oven to 400˚ F. or simply leave the oven on if you just finished making the Roasted Tomatoes au Gratin.

Heat a medium/large oven-proof skillet that’s large enough to hold the thighs in one, uncrowded layer.  Lightly oil the skillet and put the thighs in the pan, skin side down.  Saute the thighs until the skin is nicely browned and starting to crisp (about 8 minutes).  Turn the thighs and put the the pan into the hot oven.  Roast for 10 minutes or until the chicken is just done. Carefully remove the skillet from the oven – TAKE CARE – the handle will be blisteringly hot.  Put the chicken on a platter to rest, covered with a sheet of aluminum foil.  Add a knob (about 1 Tbs) of butter to the hot skillet to melt.  Add 1/2 Tbs honey and 1/2 Tbs malt or cider vinegar to the pan.  Whisk the butter/honey/vinegar sauce to blend, add leaves of two springs of tarragon and one sprig of rosemary (you can substitute dried herbs or other herbs or seasonings like oregano, a little minced chili pepper, lemon zest or minced tart apple.  Heat for a minute or two to reduce slightly.  Pour the sauce over the chicken thighs and serve.

Celery and Mushroom Salad

saladIf you have time to make any salad, you have time to make this one. 

Thickly slice 4 large button mushrooms into 1/4″ slices.  Chop about half as much tender celery (the blanched inner ribs and leaves are best to use) and one small zucchini into similar sized pieces.  Thinly slice 2 cherry tomatoes and a small onion.  In a medium bowl, toss the vegetables and dress with 2 Tbs Extra-virgin Olive Oil, 2 tsp white wine vinegar, a pinch of coarse sea salt and a few grinds of fresh pepper.  Toss and serve.

Simple could be tacos or a grilled cheese sandwich and salad.  They are, but not any simpler than what I made.  Our dinner didn’t involve any special cooking techniques or exotic ingredients (or at least there are easy substitutions available if you don’t have everything that I used).

Simple doesn’t mean using fewer or plain ingredients.  It means using standard techniques to cook ingredients to their best advantage and using what you have at hand in interesting combinations.

Well there you have it. Curt’s simple dinner. My idea of simple is a salad, grilled cheese sandwiches or tacos. Was it good?  Yes very good and frankly pretty simple for me, I just had to set the table.

Simple dinner - Curt style.

Simple dinner – Curt style.

Old Standbys

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We all have them. Recipes we go back to over and over because they’re – easy, tasty, nostalgic, convenient, whatever. They’re rarely in the realm of gourmet or even elegant but rather they are what they are – reliable, simple and we just like them.

One of ours is Chicken Salad. Nothing fancy. This recipe comes from American Cooking volume 27 of the old Time-Life: Foods of the World series originally published between 1968 and 1971. When Jeanne and I were first married we subscribed to this series and each month (or was it bi-monthly?) we received a set consisting of a hard bound volume with lots of pictures, informative (or maybe just fanciful) text and some recipes for a specific country or cuisine and a spiral bound smaller volume that was all recipes (including many not published in the hard cover volume). America was broken down into an overview, American Cooking, and a series of 7 regions; New England, Eastern Heartland, Southern Style, The Great West, The Northwest, Creole & Acadian and The Melting Pot, all which came in later months.

Time-Life: Foods of the World, American Cooking

Time-Life: Foods of the World, American Cooking

With the subscription we could exam each volume and return those we weren’t interested in.  I think we only sent back one, Wines and Spirits, which was too heavy on mixed drinks, punches and such that didn’t fit our style back then.  Of the volumes we kept, some have gotten heavy use (Italy has been replaced twice).  American Cooking has several recipes we go to again and again, Chicken Salad, being one of those.  It’s a great recipe for using left over chicken from a roast and it doesn’t take much time.  Add some first-of-season ripe tomatoes and you have an elegantly simple lunch for a hot summer day.

Chicken Salad

Chicken Salad

Chicken Salad

4 C. cooked chicken, cooled and cut into 1/2″ pieces
1 tsp. salt
Black pepper
3 Tbs. scallion or onion, finely diced
1/2 C. celery, chopped (include some of the leaves)3 Tbs. capers, washed, drained and coarsely chopped.  Use fewer capers of desired or substitute chopped cornichons or other sour pickle.
1 C. mayonnaise (the real stuff, NOT Miracle Whip!!!)
1 C. sour cream
1 Tbs. parsley, chopped

1 large ripe tomato
Dill pollen or finely chopped dill weed

Mix everything but tomato and dill, taste for seasoning and adjust if needed.  Serve on large slices ripe tomatoes (or scoop out smaller tomatoes and stuff with the salad). Serves 2.

All Garden Dinner, Almost

Salad Nicoise detail

Elegant looking but soooo easy.

I’m talking Salad Niçoise (pronounced nee-suaz) a classic from the city of Nice on the French Mediterranean coast. This is a hardy composed salad much like the American Cobb Salad but with tuna, green beans and potatoes instead of chicken, bacon and avocado. It is also Americanized because the French would use anchovies and raw vegetables but we use tuna canned in oil, and we boil or blanch the vegetables.

To begin, gather your vegetables. If you don’t have a garden or a farmer’s market your local grocery store’s produce section will be just fine. Or if you have a friend with a great garden tell them if they give you vegetables you’ll prepare them a French dinner. Oui!

Some good choices are green beans, yellow beans, green onions or sliced red onion, baby carrots and peppers (red or yellow are best for color but if you only have green,  green will do). Potatoes should also be part of your salad and fingerlings like Russian Banana are perfect. We used small yellow beets and tomatoes (we used red and yellow cherry and a green fleshed variety) as well. I think cherry tomatoes are fine but wedges of a red ripe tomato are just beautiful in this salad.  Marinated artichokes are a welcome addition too.

You can stop there but a true Salad Niçoise should have some protein and as I mentioned earlier we use canned tuna. A light tuna in oil is what I prefer and I don’t even like fish but for some reason this is one of my exceptions. Another fine addition is hard-boiled eggs; one egg per diner. While you are at the store pick up some pitted olives, we prefer Kalamata; they are a nice salty addition and their dark purple color give a good contrast to all the reds and yellows and greens.

Once you’ve decided on your vegetables, blanch the beans until tender-crisp.  Boil potatoes, beets, carrots till tender (peel all after cooking) and hard-boil the eggs. Cut your tomatoes into wedges, peel and cut your eggs into halves. We roasted a red pepper and then cut it into strips or you could use jarred roasted peppers if you’d prefer not to roast them yourself.

Arrange everything, artfully on a large platter. You could put down a bed of nice lettuce, although we didn’t.   I usually put the potatoes in the middle and arrange the other vegetables in groups around the perimeter, put the tuna on top of the potatoes and strew the olives over the entire shebang.  Drizzle a vinaigaratte dressing over the top and voila! dinner for 4 or a smaller version can make for lunch a Nice lunch.  Nice, get it!

Salad Nicoise

Salad Niçoise

This can be expanded or contracted to suit your occasion, platter size or the availability of ingredients.

An Expanded Vinaigarette

1 tsp dry mustard
1 clove garlic, minced
1 shallot, minced
1 small Roma-type tomato, seeded and diced
3 green olives, minced
2 Tbs flat-leaf parsley, minced
2 Tbs red wine vinegar
6 Tbs extra virgin olive oil
salt/freshly ground pepper to taste

Put mustard, garlic, salt, pepper and vinegar in a bowl and whisk together. Continue whisking while slowly adding the oil until the dressing blends. Add the shallot, tomato, parsley and olives and whisk to combine.  Taste and adjust salt or pepper if needed.

Serve the salad with a nice Sauvignon blanc or a Petit Syrah. Your guests will love you for being so Nice to them.

Conor Bofin’s Kofta are keepers!

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There was the day when, if I wanted a new recipe, I would go through the many cookbooks we own or I would go the public library and scan the shelf looking for an interesting new cookbook. Now, of course, we all Google whatever we’re looking for and voila! up pops a recipe from epicurious, food.com, allrecipes, foodnetwork, americastestkitchen or any number of other sites devoted to food. However, when you look closely at the recipes that show up on those sites you discover that many are the exact same recipe, sometimes complete with the same typos and photos.

If you’re lucky or know how to compose a search better than I, you’ll sometimes get something closer to what you actually want.  You might even end up at a blog written by someone who actually cooks, who ventures to cook off the top of his or her head, who thinks like you and who has something useful to say about the recipe, procedure or presentation of a particular food or dish.

Somewhere, a couple of years or so ago, I stumbled onto just such a blog, Conor Bofin’s One Man’s Meat. What a treat! Someone who seems to cook like I do and, better yet, who gives an interesting commentary on his cooking. What makes Conor’s commentary interesting, I think, is the way he couches his recipes and food musing inside his relationship with his family and community.  He clearly thinks the world of his family but cuts them little slack when it comes to food.  He also, clearly, is thoughtful about what he cooks, how he cooks and about those who will eat his cooking.

A while back, one of his posts was ostensibly about his youngest daughter’s way of getting what she wants from her dad.  The end result were koftas, those middle-Eastern meatball-on-a-skewer sort of things.

Now, I had recently been thinking of trying to make kofta – I’ve had them in restaurants but had never attempted them myself.  They’re basically sausage shaped meatballs that are grilled on a skewer so there’s no great cooking challenge except for keeping the meat on the skewer.  When cooking Middle-Eastern cuisine, my go to reference is Paula Roden’s New Book of Middle Eastern Food, which I think is a wonderful resource and a worthy addition to any cook’s reference shelf.  Ms. Roden’s recipe for kofta, however, left me wanting more.  Besides the requisite ground lamb, she adds only parsley and onion.  For the adventuresome, she lists variations that include mint, OR cumin/coriander, OR chili flakes OR cinnamon/allspice but certainly not all of them.  Conor’s version used almost all of those options and then some including honey, tomato paste, garlic, chili flakes, cumin, caraway and mint among the more usual ingredients.  All right Conor! In for a dime – in for a dollar!!

Kofta ingredients

Kofta seasonings (in the foreground; Aleppo pepper, cumin seed, caraway seed & ground sumac berries)

I followed his recipe pretty closely but we were out of honey so I substituted agave syrup although I only used 2/3 the amount of the honey called for.  And I was a bit leery of the amount of chili flakes so I used the milder Aleppo pepper instead of the crushed red peppers that Conor used.  I also added a little cinnamon for its warmth; and some ground Sumac Berries, figuring that their pleasant sourness and deep brick red color couldn’t hurt in the kofta.  The sumac I used is from Turkey (via Penzey’s Spices) which is the sumac, Rhus coriaria, used in the Mediterranean region, most commonly in a table condiment mixture of sumac, thyme and sesame called Zatar.  It is different from but similar to the road-side sumac of North America, Rhus typhina, but I don’t know if they’re interchangeable in cooking.

Now, to the part of keeping the meat on a skewer.  The meat mix, with the grated onion, tomato paste, and agave is a bit loose or soft.  Getting it to stay put on a skewer is a challenge.  Conor used round bamboo skewers – I figured there was no way would they keep the meat in place.  In my first attempt at these, I had some flat bamboo skewers and figured they would offer some better support but they were marginally successful. The meat was just too loose for it to stay in place on a skewer.  In this, my second attempt, I just shaped the kofta and put them on the grill without any skewering nonsense.

Kofta patties on the grill

Kofta patties on the grill

Here is, what I think is my somewhat improved version of Conor’s recipe for Kofta.

Kofta

1# ground lamb
2 Tbs. tomato paste
2 Tbs. Agave syrup (or 3 Tbs. honey)
2 medium onions, grated on the large teeth of a box grater
6 – 8 cloves garlic, grated or finely minced
A big handful of fresh mint leaves (or 1 Tbs. dried mint)
1 Tbs. Aleppo pepper (or up to 1 Tbs. dried chili flakes – to your taste)
1 Tbs. Cumin seed, toasted and ground
1 Tbs. Caraway seeds, toasted and ground
1 Tbs. ground Sumac berries
Salt and black pepper

In a large bowl, mix all the ingredients and shape into 6 flat football-like shapes (that would be American footballs and not soccer balls).

Clean and oil your grill then heat the grill to HOT.  Turn grill down to low and grill the kofta over the low flame until they are done through.  It started raining as I was preparing to cook the kofta so, instead of using my outdoor grill, I cooked them indoors on a stove top grill pan.

kofta2

Serve with a watermelon/feta salad, pita and hummus.  Substitute Indian flat breads like nan, paratha, etc. for the pita or a standard Greek salad for the watermelon/feta salad.

Watermelon/cucumber salad

Watermelon/tomato/feta/cucumber salad

Crispy Tortillas

The other night was taco night at our house. We try to keep some leftover meats (smoked pork, lamb biria, turkey confit, Spanish chorizo, etc) in the freezer that can be adapted on short notice to make tacos, stretch a pasta or bean dish, maybe top a hearty salad, enrich a soup or other such uses of a little meat to make an otherwise slim meal into something a bit richer, more interesting or just different.

Once I had the meat picked out I wanted to make the tortillas a bit more interesting than right out of the package. I like the puffy, slightly crispy shells like the ones Taco Bell serves with their Chalupas but you can’t buy them ready to go like you can buy the crispy corn shells.  So I figured that if Taco Bell could figure out how to make a wheat tortilla crispy how hard could it be.  I ended up shallow frying them in 1/4″ of oil, a half of the shell at a time.  I folded the raw shell in half and, using tongs, held one half in the hot oil until it was somewhat puffy and crispy – maybe 30 seconds – then turned the shell over and fried the other half, again using the tongs to hold the tortilla in the familiar shell form.  Drain on a rack or paper toweling to cool and fill with your favorite meat and accompaniments.  Yum, yum.

Two crispy tortillas filled and ready to eat

Our tortillas were filled with shredded smoked pork shoulder, red onion, cilantro and a wedge of lime. The remainder of the plate that night had frijoles refritos, and a light salad of shredded lettuce, tomato and avocado with a sour cream/milk/lime juice dressing. Those are braised mushrooms on the side.

Dos taco placa especial

July is Potato Salad

All of summer for that matter. But the 4th of July seems to be the kick-off for potato salad season. Mine is pretty stock recipe that varies with what fresh veggies are available in my fridge at the time. This past fourth I had small yellow, purple and red potatoes (a gift from a close friend), celery, carrots, onions and radishes. I always hard boil a couple of eggs as well.

I’ve used scallions, red onions, cauliflower, green pepper and broccoli.  Anything crisp works well.
After the potatoes have been boiled and cooled, cut them into rough chunks. I leave the skins on.
They don’t have any extra vitamins but leaving them intact helps
preserve the nutrients in the flesh of the potato.

boiled and cut into pieces

Next, add the carrots. Shread them with a potato peeler and cut the remainder into tiny pieces.
Add 1-2 Tbls of vinegar, wine or plain, and toss.Cut up the remainder of the vegetables and add them to the potatoes and carrots
along with salt and pepper to taste.

Celery, onions, radishes, salt, pepper

Finally, put in the hard-boiled eggs. Stir in real mayonnaise, chill and serve.

Pretty simple, pretty good. Our guests had seconds.

We served ours with hamburgers that day.

Got Gazpacho?

Gazpacho ingredients (but I forgot to put the garlic in the photo)

For years we have been making Gazpacho based on a recipe from our dear friend Pam. Mostly we make it in summer when there are plenty of fresh ripe vegetables available from the garden. But passable Gazpacho can be made any time of the year, what with the almost universal availability of fresh key ingredients in local markets (we’ll ignore the carbon foot print for now and agree to disagree that, in fact, the produce in the supermarket is “fresh”).  In this version I used what vegetables were at hand in the pantry – salad tomatoes, salad peppers and small hot-house cucumbers.

This is a variation on Pam’s original (I don’t know where she got it from) that substitutes Maggi Seasoning for the Worcestershire Sauce in Pam’s version.  Maggi is popular in Hispanic cooking (even though it’s made in China by the Swiss company, NESTLÉ®).  It should be available in any well stocked market or from any Hispanic grocery, otherwise use Worcestershire.  Many, more traditional, gazpachos include bread to thicken the soup.  I don’t like what that does to the color of the finished dish so I include the bread as rustic croutons to top the soup.

Chopped ingredients, including the garlic

Gazpacho ala Pam

1 C. fresh Tomato, chopped (you can peel them if you wish – I don’t)
1/2 C. Bell Pepper, chopped
1/2 C. Celery, chopped (include any tender leaves you may have)
1/2 C. Cucumber, chopped
1/4 C. Onion, chopped

Note:  I chopped the vegetables above to 1/4″ – 3/8″.  You can chop more  finely if you want a more refined soup or puree about half the chopped vegetables in a blender reserving the rest to add back to the puree for some texture.  I like mine chunky so I don’t puree.  My end product is more like a liquid salad than a soup.

2 tsp. Parsley, snipped
1 tsp. Chives, snipped (include some blossoms if available)
1 clove Garlic (or more to taste), minced
2 – 3 Tbs. Sherry Vinegar
2 Tbs. Olive Oil
1 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. freshly ground Black Pepper
1/2 tsp. Maggi Seasoning (or substitute Worcestershire Sauce)
a couple of shakes of any hot sauce, like Franks, Tabasco, Cholula, etc.
2 C. Tomato juice

2 slices of rustic bread like Ciabatta or other similar country bread, crusts removed, torn into rough cubes
1 Tbs. Olive Oil

Everything added except the tomato juice

Combine all the ingredients except the bread and 1 Tbs. of olive oil in a stainless, ceramic or glass bowl.  Cover and chill.  This makes 1 liter of finished Gazpacho.

Toss the bread with 1 Tbs. olive oil and toast in a medium hot pan until the pieces are colored on a few sides.  Set aside to cool.

Serve the gazpacho cold, drizzled with some good extra virgin olive oil and topped with the toasted croutons and chive blossoms (if you have them).  Serves 6 as a soup or starter course or two, generously, as a main dish.

Gazpacho with crouton and chive blossom garnish

For a somewhat jazzier presentation, garnish with additional chopped tomato, pepper, celery, onion or chive blossoms; or for an spiffier version add cooked egg, avocado or chilled, chopped shrimp.

Beans & Greens: Tabbouleh

The saga of Beans & Greens continues with Episode 5, a variation on Tabbouleh, that familiar Middle Eastern herb salad.

Mint

Tabbouleh doesn’t usually have any beans or other legumes in it. But a few years back Mark Bittman published a book called Food Matters.  I found it to be an interesting and maybe even inspiring read.  In the book he includes some recipes, although it isn’t really a cookbook as its subtitle, A Guide to Conscious Eating, suggests. One of the recipes he does include, however, is for what he called Tabbouleh My Way which gave me license to present this version.

Tabbouleh with pecan garnish

Now traditional tabbouleh varies considerably through out the Middle East but is basically a salad of parsley, mint, bulgur (cracked, par-boiled wheat berries), tomatoes and onions dressed with lemon juice and olive oil.  Some places go heavy on the bulgur, some more so on the parsley.  Some include ripe olives, radishes or cucumber.  In most cases, tabbouleh is served as a part of a meze, or a selection of small plates of food that can serve as a meal in their own right or as a beginning to a larger meal.

Claudia Roden, in her classic and recently updated book, The New Book of Middle Eastern Food, comments on the ratio of bulgur to herbs in tabbouleh.  Ms. Roden’s family are from Syria via Egypt a hundred years ago so her recipe was heavy on the bulgur.  Many people commented that her version was old fashioned (being a hundred years old, I guess that was an accurate assessment) because it had too much bulgur and that it reflected a time when people needed to fill their stomachs.  The modern version in her revised cookbook, with a greater proportion of herbs, is lighter, presumably more elegant and not so much a “hard times”  or peasant dish.

Bittman’s push in Food Matters is for us to increase the proportion of whole grains, legumes and vegetables in our diet.  Nothing radical there but he does present the notion in a way that seems almost common sense.  In his version of tabbouleh, which is traditionally rich in greens and grain,  he adds green peas as a way to up the vegetable ante – otherwise, his recipe is fairly orthodox.

Well, if you’ve been reading my ramblings on food long enough, you know that I can’t leave any recipe “unimproved”.  So I took my lead and license from Bittman and included peas but skipped the radishes and olives.  Instead, as a way to increase the crunch factor (crunchy bits in a salad always make it better, don’t you think?), I added toasted pecans.  And to fit it into the Beans & Greens theme I added some cooked lentils (although the peas also serve as a “bean” or at least a legume), also upping the protein factor.

Tabbouleh ingredients: (clock-wise from left) Parsley, Lentils, Green Onions, Tomatoes, Bulgur, (in center) Peas and Mint

Tabbouleh, Curt’s Way

2 Tbs. chopped or broken Pecans
1/4 C. dry Lentils, picked over to remove any stones
1/2 Tbs. Olive oil
1/4 C. Bulgur (Bulgur comes in fine, medium and coarse grind.  I can only find one type in my area and it’s not labeled as such but I think it’s coarse)  If you want to make this in a gluten free form you can substitute quinoa for the bulgur.  You could also substitute couscous for the bulgur if you wanted a less chewy version.
Hot water
1/2 Tbs. Olive oil
Juice of 1 Lemon, to taste
1/4 – 1/2 C. Olive oil, to taste
1 ripe Tomato, seeded and coarsely diced
2 Scallions, thinly sliced
1 C. Flat-leaf Parsley, chopped
1/2 C. fresh Mint, chopped
Salt and pepper
1/2 C. Green Peas, fresh or frozen, defrosted if frozen

Toast the pecan pieces in a dry frying pan until they are lightly toasted.  Stir frequently and watch carefully to avoid burning.  Remove from the frying pan and reserve.

Cook the lentils in salted water.  Time will vary depending on which type of lentils you have.  The common brown lentils you’re likely to find in your grocery will take about 20 minutes.  Other varieties may take less time.  The French Gray or Puy variety I’ve used here are quite small and cook in only 10 minutes.  Once cooked, drain the lentils and dress with 1/2 Tbs. olive oil while they are still warm.

Soak the bulgur in several cups of hot (almost boiling) water for 20 minutes or until the bulgur is soften.   Drain well and add to the lentils.  If you use fine bulgur you can use cold water and the soaking time can be as little as 10  minutes.  Whichever grind of bulgur you use, you want to soak sufficiently to get a just slightly chewy texture.

Add the parsley, mint, tomato, peas, salt and pepper to the lentil/bulgur mix.  Dress with lemon juice and olive oil. Taste and adjust seasoning to suit your taste.  I like it a bit lemony but some people don’t find the lemony tartness to their taste.  Garnish with toasted pecans and serve immediately.  Serves 2 for a substantial lunch or part of a dinner.  Serves 4 – 6 as a part of a meze spread.

Afghan delights

When I was teaching at the University, I used to accompany student field trips to Chicago twice a year. We’d leave Green Bay at 6 a.m. and get back around midnight. Before leaving Chicago for the bus ride home we’d stop in the Clark/Belmont area, on the South edge of the Wrigleyville neighborhood, for dinner. Everyone was on their own for dinner – no restaurant, of course, could handle a bus full of college students en mass. Usually I would end up eating with my colleagues and whichever other adults were game for trying something different. Now, coming from Green Bay we didn’t have to go very far to find something “different”. Over the years we frequented Thai, Japanese, Indian, Moroccan, Ethiopian and Afghani restaurants.

The Afghani restaurant we found was called The Helmand. This was before our current involvement in Afghanistan and the name Helmand didn’t mean anything to me, so I couldn’t figure out why an Afghani restaurant would be called The Helmand – in my ear, the name seemed more connected to playwright Lillian Hellman than Afghanistan.  Helmand, we now know, is a province in Southern Afghanistan on the border with Pakistan, one of the major opium-poppy growing regions in the world, and the site of much of the fighting between NATO forces and the Taliban.

The Helmand turned out to be a nice little restaurant and we went there a number of times until, eventually, it closed. I don’t know if it closed through that process of natural attrition in the restaurant world where neighborhoods change, tastes change, owners change and restaurants come and go. Or maybe our activities in Afghanistan shaded people’s impression of The Helmand to a point where negative feelings about Afghanistan due to the war overcame their desire for good tasty food.

Afghan Ribs, Pea Shoot & Radish Salad, Potatoes with Cilantro & Mint

One of my favorite dishes at the Helmand was potatoes dressed with a vinegary cilantro and mint sauce.  Tonight I thought I would try to replicate that dish and find some other side dishes of Afghan origin or bent to go with the potatoes.  A quick search of the net found an Afghan Rib Rub for sale.  The ingredients were listed but with no proportions but I figured I could puzzle out my own blend that was close.  I had some baby back ribs in the freezer, not exactly halal fare in a Muslim cuisine but close enough for Wisconsin.  I’ll bet that this rub would be great on lamb, though.  I had also bought some pea shoots and radishes at the farmer’s market that morning and another scan of the net revealed an actual recipe for pea shoot and radish salad.  I was all set – protein, carbs and a salad all with at least some, strained Afghan authenticity.

Afghan Rib Rub

1/2 T. whole black pepper
1/2 T. whole cumin
3/4 t. whole cardamom, removed from the husks
1/2 T. whole coriander seed
1/2 T. turmeric
1 t. salt
1/2 T. sugar

Combine the whole spices in a spice grinder or clean coffee grinder and grind to a fairly even but slightly coarse powder.  Add the turmeric, salt and sugar and blend.

Coat 1 rack of baby back ribs with the rub.  Let set for 1/2 hour.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Lightly oil a shallow baking dish with cooking spray and put the ribs in the baking dish and cover tightly with foil.  Put into preheated oven and reduce oven temperature to 300 degrees.  Bake 1 hour.

Preheat gas or charcoal grill.  Put ribs on grill to color and crisp a little – 3 to 5 minutes per side.

Potatoes with Cilantro and Mint

1 # small new potatoes, skins on, quartered
2 T. Olive oil

Cook potatoes in salted water until tender.  Drain and dress with the olive oil.  Set aside to cool.

1 C. chopped cilantro
1/2 C. mint leaves
1 or 2 scallions, coarsely chopped
1/2 C. vinegar, malt vinegar would be ideal but any simple (not flavored) vinegar will work
1/2 t. ground black pepper
1 t. salt

NOTE:  Make the dressing at the last minute otherwise the acid in the vinegar will darken the green color.

Put everything into a blender and puree until smooth.  Add a little more vinegar if it seems too thick – the sauce should be fairly thick but pourable.  Add to the cooled potatoes to coat.

Pea Shoot and Radish Salad

Pick through the pea shoots reserving only the tips and blossoms.  Slice radishes.  Mix shoots and radishes and dress with a standard vinaigrette made from 1 T. lemon juice, 3 T. olive oil, salt and pepper.