Meatballs Braised in Tomato Sauce

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Many cultures have some version of a meatball in their cuisine: sweet and sour Swedish meatballs, lion head Chinese pork meatballs with cabbage, fish balls in Viet phò, albondigas in Mexico and Levantine kibbeh. Although it seems the odds were against it, I do not come from a culture of meatballs. Southerners will eat the living daylights out of a sausage ball or a meatloaf, but I can’t really say those qualify as meatballs and in a household that skewed toward vegetarian, we didn’t eat them at home anyway. They were not part of my kitchen vernacular.

When I learned to cook as an adult, I would occasionally dabble in meatball cookery, the odd broiled lamb and cherry meatball with saffron rice, spaghetti with meatballs every once in a while, but it just seemed like too much trouble to roll them all up, fry or bake them, and then mix them with the sauce. But then I cubed up some leftover meatloaf once and used it to make spaghetti sauce and I “got” it. I got the appeal of the Italian style meatball with sauce, seasoned, tender chunks of meat- not like a stew, not like ground meat. The meat was at once distinct from and at one with the sauce. I was in. I wanted more. So I set about making the best meatballs I could. And what it boiled down to was getting a technique I liked and layering a lot of complex flavor into the meatballs.

Braising them made a huge difference for me. No more extra cooking step, no more lopsided meatballs, with hard edges. Braising, they cooked beautifully and tenderly, exchanging their flavor with the sauces, rich but not greasy and much, much easier.

The real key for me though was in layering so much really good seasoning into the meat mixture that it was like a really glorious rich music chord- high notes of sweet tomato and fennel, sharp notes of capsicum and, deep down the mushroom and pecorino flavors, all seasonings that I pull from my pantry or refrigerator over and over to build these exciting and complex chords of flavor in the cooking.

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Harissa is a North African chile sauce. As far as I can tell, there is no a definitive formula for harissa; I’ve had harissa so hot I can only tolerate a few drops on my falafel sandwich and harissa that is thicker, made with some vegetables as the base instead of just peppers and spices. Each serves a purpose, but the second is a pantry staple that I always keep on hand to add a spicy earthy savoriness. It doesn’t  add much heat, maybe just a subconscious tingle to your taste buds, but it isn’t as sweet as tomato paste so I often use a combination or harissa and tomato paste to create a broader flavor profile. I keep a tube of DEA harissa in the refrigerator all the time.

 Another of my flavor must-haves is dried porcini mushrooms. A few dried porcini added to risotto or meat sauce or a vegetarian sautéed mushroom sauce just brings so much depth of earthy savory flavor. I soak them in hot water to rehydrate; after the mushrooms are removed, the water has a lot of flavor and usually gets added to the dish too.

 And finally, whether you are jarring your own homemade marinara sauce from farmers market tomatoes or you’ve found a  brand that  you love, a few jars of simple but flavorful tomato sauce are great to have on hand. I like a sauce with as few ingredients as possible, maybe a basic marinara or one with a little hit of capsicum heat. check the label though, a lot of commercial sauces have a lot of sugar, soybean oil, and other ingredients that don’t need to be there.

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Tomato Sauce Braised Meatballs

serves 6-8

1 pound Italian sausage (I use the spicy version)

1 pound ground beef chuck

1/2 cup bread crumbs

1 egg

2 tablespoons dried porcini (rehydrated in boiling water and chopped fine)

1 tablespoon harissa

3 cloves garlic (minced or grated on a microplane)

1/4 cup minced onion

1 ounce finely grated pecorino cheese

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon oregano

1 teaspoon dried basil

1/3 cup milk

1 jar marinara sauce

1 14 ounce can tomato sauce (unseasoned)

Mix the meats, bread crumbs, mushrooms, and seasonings gently in a large bowl. mix the milk, egg and any leftover porcini soaking liquid, and incorporate into the meat mixture.  Let the breadcrumbs soak up the milk and seasoning for about 10 minutes. Roll meatballs the size of  the circle made by the tip of your index finger against the top knuckle of your thumb. In a large sauté pan or stock pot, place the meatballs close to each other but not touching in a single layer in the bottom. Pour marinara and tomato sauce over them just to cover and bring to a simmer. As the first layer begins to get firm, add another layer and more sauce. Continue this process until all of the meatball mixture is used. Cover with a lid and simmer gently for 20 minutes. Higher heat can break up the meatballs and cause them to release more fat making a greasier sauce and a tougher drier meatball.

If there is a lot of fat rising to the top, skim it off. I have found that a coarser more handmade style of  sausage seems to be less fatty and I get less fat in my sauce, but a little of the seasoned sausage fat mixing into the sauce isn’t a bad thing in my opinion; you just don’t want it to be greasy. These meatballs are even better if made a day ahead, refrigerated in the sauce and then re-heated right before serving. Toss some of the sauce with pasta, pile a few meatballs on top, grate on some more pecorino and enjoy!

These meatballs also freeze in the sauce really well.

I have a meat grinder and grind the beef for the meatballs at home. If you want to do this too, choose a cut of beef that doesn’t have large pieces of fat or cartilage, cut it into 1 inch cubes, and grind it on the small or medium grinder die.

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Win some, lose some: The Homemade Sriracha Experiment

Day 4 of the sriracha fermentation process and I have one disaster and one success.

The disaster: I was gone all day yesterday and didn’t check the sauces last night and unfortunately, bad bacteria took the opportunity to take over the red sauce. There was a thick layer of fuzzy mold in the top and a smell of fruity acetone in the jar. I scraped the mold off just to see what the condition of the sauce was underneath and it was still brilliant red but smelling of pepper garlic alcohol. I think that a combination of very ripe and juicy peppers and a warmer than desirable fermentation temperature got the best of me. I’m going to try it again soon though because up until last night, the mash smelled amazing. Chalk this one up to environmental factors. I’d consider using a narrower mouthed jar next time too to see if that helps, but the lack of temperature control in my apartment is probably a much more critical factor. Once the radiators go off and I can get some more red chiles I’m going to make another batch because it. smelled. awesome.

The green sauce, on the other hand stayed much more stable. A little bubbling but nothing like the jar of red sauce and there wasn’t any mold on the surface. The color softened a little from the original bright green but stayed pretty bright. I added the vinegar and simmered the sauce for 5-8 minutes before blending the mash into a smooth puree and sieving it. The green sriracha is tangy and garlicky and hot hot hot with a little ginger kick that I’m really happy about. I think it will be great in soup and beans and maybe even with some skirt steak with chopped cilantro and onions as a little fusion take on chimmichurri sauce.

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Gingery Green Sriracha 

makes about 1 1/2 cups

3/4 pound green jalapeños

2-3 cloves garlic

1 knob of ginger (about 1 ounce)

1 teaspoon natural sea salt

2 tablespoons raw sugar

1/4 cup distilled white vinegar

Snip off just the long end of the jalapeño stems and coarsely chop the whole chile into 5 or 6 pieces; coarsely chop the garlic cloves and ginger. Along with the salt and sugar, put the chiles, garlic, and ginger into the bowl of a food processor. Make sure you cover the spout so you don’t burn your eyes. Pulse the jalapeño mixture until it is a rough purée without any uneven chunks.

Pour the jalapeño purée into a clean glass jar and loosely cover with a lid. Don’t tighten the lid so that the gasses that form during fermentation can escape. Place the jar in a cool (if you have it) dark place and allow it to begin to bubble and expand.  It should smell like garlic and chiles but pay attention to any sharp alcohol smells or excessive mold sprouting on the top. Allow it to ferment for 2-3 days, stirring occasionally.

Pour the fermented mash into a small sauce pan, mix with the white vinegar and bring to a boil. lower the heat and cook for 5 to 8 minutes at a simmer. Remove from the heat and allow to cool off. Pour it into the bowl of your food processor or blender and process until very smooth, 2-3 minutes. Sieve the smooth puree through a fine mesh strainer to remove bits of skin and seeds. Scrape the mash through the strainer until there is just a little dry pulp left in the sieve.

Use a funnel to pour the strained sauce into a bottle or jar; I used a squeeze bottle I got from a restaurant supply store, but a glass jar or recycled sriracha bottle would be great too. Refrigerate.

Hot Apartment Hacks- how to keep your hot sauce cool

We live in an old row house apartment building with radiators that are controlled by a thermostat in the hallway upstairs. The heating system seems to have a mind of its own and while we can go turn the heat down if we need to, it comes on sometimes during the day if a lot of people are opening the street door or it gets really cold outside. It can be excessively toasty in our place; overheating can cause problems when we brew beer, it can cause bread dough to rise too quickly, and it can cause over-fermentation of hot sauce or yogurt or kefir. Since I can’t control the temperature in the apartment very well, I figured out a way to control the temperature of the beer fermenter hot sauce jars with a very crude evaporative cooler, also known as a swamp cooler.

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The concept is that evaporating water is a couple of degrees cooler than the room temperature air; this is the same principle behind why our bodies sweat to cool themselves. We found that by placing our fermenter bucket in a larger basin with a couple of inches of water in it, then smoothing a damp towel up the side of the bucket to act as a wick for the water so that it was evaporating over part of the surface area of the bucket, it kept the beer at a more even temperature and kept the yeast from heating itself up as much as it eats up the sugar.

When I checked on the sriracha yesterday, it was already bubbly and expanding in the jars. I hadn’t expected it to be working for a couple more days but since it has been so warm in here, I wasn’t surprised. I don’t want it to ferment so quickly that the complex flavors that develop during a slow and moderated fermentation to get lost and the whole mash to go sour so I put the jars in larger plastic boxes and poured a little water in the bottom, then wrapped one side of the jars in a wet paper towel. Most of the water had evaporated out of the plastic containers today, so I topped them up. That’s a good sign that they’re working.

I’ll continue to stir the mash and keep an eye and nose on the jars for the next couple of days but it smelled good and there wasn’t anything too funky going on yet. I’ll keep checking on it over the next few days and add water as needed.

Shhhhh….Super Secret Valentine’s Gift Experiment

As much as an experiment that I’m posting about on a public blog and which is fermenting odiferously away in our pantry/wine cellar/storage closet, whiffing more and more garlic and chile fumes into the apartment by the hour can BE super secret, I am making a pair of sriracha sauces for my Valentine.

We are the sort of family that has a significant percentage of refrigerator door shelf space allocated to bottles and bottles of hot sauce because each one has a specific and non transferable purpose and we really really need all of them. From classic Tabasco and Caribbean scotch bonnet sauce for black beans to earthy harissa that I use in a lot of my braised sauces and smoky hot chipotle in adobo, amarillo paste from Peru to the green-capped Rooster brand sriracha sauce, we keep adding to our collection.

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Garlicky sriracha is a favorite. It goes so well on so many things and I’ve been wanting to try to make some at home for a while. So I used the impetus of upcoming Valentine’s Day to go ahead and make it. It seems like gifts that can be consumed are a sure hit, particularly since we don’t really like accumulating a lot of stuff.

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I used two recipe sources: this write-up on Serious Eats  and another on Viet World Kitchen by Andrea Nguyen. Both compared fresh sauce vs. fermented and had used several different types of chiles. While I’m not trying to duplicate the Huy Fong “Rooster” sauce, I wanted to be along the same lines so I decided to use the red jalapeños and fermentation method they use for the first red sauce. I had bought green jalapeños intending to try to ripen them before I ran across the red ones at Manhattan Fruit Exchange so I used those for a green sriracha with a little ginger addition.

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Yesterday I did the first step, processing the chiles and garlic and then putting them in loosely covered jars in the closet to get the sauce to ferment.

When I checked them this afternoon, some of yesterday’s vivid color had begun to soften and I could smell a mellower garlic and chile fragrance. The puree had separated from the liquid a little and started to bubble and expand. I had expected it to take a couple of days to start fermenting but with it being so cold here, the radiators have been on a lot which makes the apartment a little warmer than normal. Warmth quickens dough fermentation so I’m pretty sure that’s why they’re so active. I stirred and re-covered them and put them back in the closet but I may put them beside a window tonight to cool them down a little. I don’t want to get them too cold and put the bacteria to sleep so I’ll have to keep an eye on it- maybe do a condensation cooler like we do to regulate the temperature of our beer while it ferments.

Here’s a picture of the fermenting sauce:

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So, y’all just keep this surprise between us until Friday and I’ll keep you posted on how it goes and write up the process I used, including the recipes and variations.

Have a “super bowl” of Vegetable Bean Chili

As far as I’m concerned, football season was over on January 6 when my Auburn Tigers played (and sadly lost) for the national championship, but we here in northern New Jersey are hosting another big football game this weekend. Like I said in this gumbo post a couple of years ago, I usually pick a team based on the city with the most interesting food, but this year, I can’t dispute that chili is one of the most iconic Super Bowl party foods. I love rich spicy chili con carne, but this year I’m making my just-as-rich but less heavy vegetable bean chili.

To me, a key in making any dish interesting is thinking a lot about texture. Either a single consistent texture (smooth and creamy for example) or a thoughtful combination of  contrasting textures make a dish as much as flavor makes a dish. This challenge has been even more apparent to me when cooking vegetarian dishes without the ability to fall back on the chewy resistance of meat. Finding the right mix of contrasting textures without straying too far from the classic flavors of a bean chili was my challenge- and I really love what I finally came up with; the sweet pop of a corn kernel between your teeth, the silky collapse of eggplant over the tongue, the creamy interior of beans yielding into smooth spicy chili gravy- these take what can be a mushy stew  from utilitarian to sensorily engaging and delicious.

I’ve been working on this chili for a long time and in fact, wasn’t able to decide which chili method I preferred. I’ve done the dry toasting and then grinding to chili powder method and the soak, blend and sieve chili method (the same that I do for chili salsa) and while both were a great way to get that rich chili baseline I want in chili, the trade-off of smooth, skinless chili texture that comes with the extra step of sieving wasn’t absolutely compelling. And I know a lot of people will want the ability to make this with a (very fresh and flavorful I hope) ground chili powder, so I wrote this recipe up with those instructions. I encourage you to try the soaking method- it’s such a great way to make smooth enchilada sauce, chili salsas, and chili based soups and is really worth learning the technique.

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 Vegetable Bean Chili

makes 3-4 quarts

1/2 pound dried red kidney beans

½ pound dried pink or pinto beans

water to cook beans (about 6 cups)

5 dried ancho chiles, stems and seeds removed

4 dried pasilla chiles, stems and seeds removed

4 dried Serrano chiles, stemmed (or fewer, depending on your heat tolerance)

 or about ¼ -1/3 cup total of ground chile powders

 1 teaspoon Mexican oregano

1 Tablespoon cumin powder

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

 1 chipotle in adobo

 olive oil

1 large onion, diced

6 cloves garlic, minced

1 jalapeno, deseeded and minced (optional)

1 cup corn kernels (optional)

2 Asian eggplants, cubed

1 red bell pepper, diced

1 28 ounce can  diced tomatoes

 Sea salt to taste

Rinse the dried beans. Cover them with at least 4 cups of water in a saucepan. Cook them, either by first doing a quick soak, an overnight soak,( or if the dried beans are pretty fresh, without pre-soaking) for about an hour until tender. Keep them well covered with water; this liquid will be the broth for the chili.

 In a dry skillet over medium heat, toast all of the dried chiles in a single layer, pressing them against the hot surface with a spoon or spatula until they become soft and fragrant. After allowing them to cool, blend them all in a spice grinder or coffee grinder until they are a fine powder.

 Heat a couple tablespoons of oil in a stockpot over medium heat. Sweat the diced onion with a pinch of salt until they begin to soften; add the eggplant, garlic and peppers and another pinch of salt. Once the vegetables are soft, sprinkle the oregano, cumin and pepper into the pot and stir into the vegetables. Once they have become fragrant, push everything to the edges of the pan and add a couple more tablespoons of oil. Pour the chile powder into the oil and stir, “frying” the powder in the oil until it becomes fragrant. Stir everything so the spices are incorporated into the vegetables, scraping any that stick off the bottom of the pot. Mix in the tomatoes (including the liquid from the can) and corn kernels and then pour in the beans and their cooking liquid; stir and bring to a simmer.

 Taste for salt; I added a tablespoon (at least- more like a small palmful) of sea salt since the beans were unsalted.  Simmer everything together low for 30 minutes before serving, or better yet, let it sit overnight, reheat and serve the next day.

An Update: Leek and Potato Soup with Turnips

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My sister Grace lives in Atlanta and is the new mother of my two scrumptious little nieces. After she traded in her flight attendant’s uniform for maternity jeans a couple of years ago and got a schedule that allows her to be at home for more than a couple of days at a time, she’s become a kitchen enthusiast, even started canning last summer. She texted me this after I posted the split pea soup last week:

Glad you posted that soup recipe. I’m cooking again and it feels nice. I have two comments about the potato leek soup before I forget them.

1. We need proportions and 2. using an immersion blender turns it into paste.

How do you keep that from happening?”

A few months after I started this blog, I wrote a post about a neighbor in our community garden who gave me a bunch of leeks. I used them to make a simple potato leeks soup but didn’t really post a recipe, more of a general description of the process. Grace has been asking me to write down the actual recipe ever since I made it for her and her now-husband when they came out for a visit but I never got around to it. Now that she’s feeding it to her children, I figured it’s time to take my responsibility as an aunt seriously and finally get her the recipe.

The paste issue is another story. We have a family Christmas tradition that my mom started of making a pińata with newspaper and flour paste. Most starch can be turned into some kind of glue when it’s mixed with water and potatoes are no exception. Overworking potatoes, which is easy to do with any tool more powerful than your arm, turns them into paste. I’ve made mashed potatoes that you could mortar bricks with before I learned better.

 So, the goal is to blend the soup enough so that it’s smooth but not so much that it becomes gluey. Julia Child recommends either beating the soup with a fork or using a food mill, but I like a smoother puree than a fork will get me and I know a lot of kitchens aren’t equipped with food mills, so I use a hand-held stick blender as my first choice; it’s the easiest tool to control. A blender or food processor will work, but be judicious and just do a few quick pulses until it is smooth.

Another way to minimize the amount of blending is to cut the vegetables into small pieces to begin with; they will soften a lot while they cook and melt into a smooth puree with the cream almost instantly when they are blended.

Adding turnips to the soup sweeten the flavor a little, lighten the texture and make it less starchy, and also help minimize the glue factor.

Leek and Potato Soup with Turnips

 serves 4-6

4 medium-sized leeks (usually about 1 bunch of leeks, about 4 cups chopped)

3 medium russet potatoes (with the turnips, about 4 cups diced)

2 medium turnips

Water

Sea salt

¼ cup organic heavy cream (grass-fed, if possible)

Fill your kitchen sink or a large bowl with cold water. Trim the root ends and dark green ends off the leeks; I hold them by the white end and then use a knife to sort of shave the dark green outer leaves off into a point. Split the leeks lengthwise down the middle. Swish each half in the cold water thoroughly to and then let them float. Grit and dirt will sink to the bottom of the sink and then you can just lift the clean floating leeks from the top. Chop the leeks into ½ inch crescents.

 Peel and dice the potatoes and turnips. The size of the dice isn’t crucial, but the smaller the dice the more quickly they will cook to tenderness and the less blending is needed to make a smooth soup. I try to do about a 1/2 inch dice. If you prefer not to use turnips, use one more potato instead.

 Put all of the vegetables into a large heavy bottomed pot with about ½ teaspoon of sea salt. Add enough water to just barely come to the top of the vegetables. Remember, the vegetables will release a lot of liquid as they cook and we don’t want to water down the flavor with too much extra water, and you can always add a little extra if the pot begins to look a little dry. Cover the pot with a lid and bring to a simmer. Cook for 20-30 minutes until all the vegetables are very tender, stirring occasionally. I mash a piece of potato against the side of the pot to check tenderness. It should give no resistance to the spoon when it’s done.

 Using a handheld stick blender (my preference), a food processor, or a blender, puree the soup until it is completely smooth and velvety. Add ¼ cup of organic heavy cream, blend until combined and then check for salt. The cream will coat your tongue slightly so it’s best to wait until after adding the cream to add the final salt.

 Although I don’t have a slow cooker right now, I see no reason why you couldn’t simmer the vegetables on low in a slow cooker for several hours. Add maybe a little less water to the vegetables and stir once or twice to make sure the sugar in the leeks isn’t sticking, then blend and season as you would with a stove top version.

My Favorite Food Books of 2013

I ran across some really great food books in ’13 that I wanted to share, in case y’all got gift cards for Christmas or are looking for some food inspiration in the new year. They weren’t all published in 2013, a couple are from 2012 and one is much older, but they all really captured my mind this past year.

Check out my top 7

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50 Foods: The Essentials of Good Taste

I just finished this book by Edward Behr yesterday. It’s a scholarly, refined compendium of the author’s 50 most essential foods from Anchovies to Green Beans to Pears to Walnuts with guidance on how to select, store, prepare, and compliment each food. It was educational without being pedantic; I actually learned a lot about cheese! I enjoyed reading the book as a whole but it’s also one that I’ll regularly pick up as a resource on specific topics.

 

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Smoke and Pickles: Recipes and Stories from a New Southern Kitchen

Edward Lee‘s cookbook is a panegyric to the simultaneous elasticity and rootedness of Southern foodways. The Brooklyn-raised son of Korean immigrants has made his home in Louisville, Kentucky, cooking Southern food in a way that makes the most of both his location and his own roots. As an “ex-pat” southerner who brings both my background and my experience of life and travel to my kitchen, Lee’s approach resonates with me, as did his comparison of the ephemeral art expressed in both graffiti and cooking. He also expressed my long-held position that along with sour, salty, bitter, sweet, and umami, smoke is the sixth flavor.

I’ve chosen two books about cheese this year. They are sufficiently different from one another so I’m not overlapping – the first covers both European and American cheese while the second is solely American cheese and cheese culture – but both as written in such a friendly, accessible, and helpful way. I know that a lot of people are a little daunted by the sight of a cheese counter. The pronunciation of cheese names, the difficulty visualizing what a third of a pound looks like, the range of varieties and flavors – people are reluctant to ask questions that might make them look foolish. In person, I try to provide that friendly “face of cheese” to my customers; think of these books as your friendly local cheesemonger in book form.

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Di Bruno Bros. House of Cheese: A Guide to Wedges, Recipes, and Pairings

I talked about this book right after I attended a party celebrating its launch last summer. Tenaya Darlington told us that she really wanted to name the book “How to Find a Hunk” and that’s pretty much what she’s written – a matchmaking book for finding your perfect cheese. She describes the triple cream Delice de Bourgogne as “The Vixen” and a Comté as “The Mountain Man.” She’ll make you fall in love (or lust) with cheese all over again.

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It’s Not You, It’s Brie: Unwrapping America’s Unique Culture of Cheese

 In this fun book-from-blog, Kirsten Jackson disabuses us of the notion that American cheese only comes in orange individually-wrapped slices. In what feels like a cheese-themed road trip memoir, she breaks the topic down into chapters about 16 types of cheeses with profiles of 50 specific cheeses, some uniquely American and some that evolved from traditional European styles. She interviewed dozens of the cheesemakers, many of whom have led the charge in the American artisan cheese revolution. This book isn’t a cranky, stuffy cheese encyclopedia, although I learned a tremendous amount about how certain cheese are made and how it affects their texture and flavor. She also emphasizes beer pairings with cheese- not surprising for someone from the SF Bay Area- with which I agree completely. Beer and cheese are much easier to pair successfully than wine and cheese!

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Plenty: Vibrant Recipes from London’s Ottolenghi

I had an omnivorous friend over for dinner recently who, upon noticing that it happened to be a vegetarian meal, said “it’s not really vegetarian, it just doesn’t have meat in it.” When I got this book by Yotam Ottolenghi, I felt, similarly, that it was so gorgeous and inspiring that you only notice later that it’s a vegetarian book. Each chapter is based on one of the author’s favorite ingredients (The Mighty Aubergine, Capsicums, Tomatoes) and is influenced by the flavors of his Mediterranean background. Whether you want to create over the top vegetarian meals or add more vegetables to your diet, this book will give you fresh inspiration.

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Food in Jars: Preserving in Small Batches Year-Round

For the generations that precede mine, canning was often a necessity, a yearly marathon to preserve whatever was fresh for leaner months. While most people now don’t have the garden, the storage space or the time to put up hundreds of quarts of green beans and tomatoes and peaches, spending weeks of the summer sweltering in sauna-like kitchens, I’m happy to see a renewed interest in food preservation. Marisa McClellan’s blog Food in Jars has been a great resource and inspiration for canning on a more apartment-friendly scale and I was excited when she published this book of recipes and techniques. It’s not your grandmother’s “chow-chow by the quart” kind of canning book and there are some nice accompaniments to a cheese board (Peach Jalapeño Jelly!).

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The Zuni Cafe Cookbook: A Compendium of Recipes and Cooking Lessons from San Francisco’s Beloved Restaurant

Last but not least is this older book by the sadly late Judy Rodgers. This is a book that I return too again and again especially when cooking meat. Judy Rodgers wrote about “early salting” as a way to season meat, a technique that is now being talked about a lot as “dry brining.” I used it for both my Thanksgiving “turchetta” roast and my Christmas pork roast, dry rubbing the meat with a salt and spice mixture several days before I cooked them.

Judy Rodgers writes with a gently authoritative voice that doesn’t substitute personality for skill. Her approach is deceptively simple, a combination of basic but crucial techniques and high quality ingredients that is the essence of the Northern California “food movement” absent pretense. Zuni Cafe always had a simple bowl of polenta on the menu and kept the cafe open after the terrible earthquake of 1989 selling $4 bowls of it to stunned San Franciscans, something that illustrates that she understood the real purpose of food.

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The weather outside is frightful: Split Pea Soup

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It’s blizzarding and frigid outside here in Hoboken!  Our mayor robo-called today to tell us that “street sweeping rules were not in effect during the winter storm but meters and parking rules were and that cars parked in snow evacuation routes would be towed and sidewalks are to be shoveled within 6 hours of the end of the storm but not to shovel the snow back into the street.” So, while blizzards always make me think of Pa eating all the Christmas candy in the snow cave when he got lost in a blizzard in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s On the Banks of Plum Creek out on the wild western prairie, Winter Storm Hercules is being managed with small-town New Jersey efficiency here. And I’m making soup. 

I cooked this soup after Christmas as my in-laws during a visit when our nephew was about 2. He’s the one that said “Good job” to his grandmother when she made a pan of biscuits that particularly pleased him. He was such a fan of this soup that my mother-in-law decided to make more split pea soup for him a few weeks later. She called me laughing hysterically and asked for my recipe. She had put a bowl of soup on the high chair tray in front of our nephew and after one bite, he looked up at with the absolute crushed disappointment that only a toddler can muster and said “BLECH!” and refused to eat any more. She said “I’m not used to getting ‘blech’ comments on the food I cook!” So for what it’s worth, this soup is toddler-approved.

Split Pea Soup

serves about 8

1- 1 pound bag of split peas

2 meaty smoked ham hocks or 1 meaty ham bone

About 6 cups water

Oil (to sauté’ the vegetables)

1 large white onion, chopped

1 large russet potato, peeled and diced to about ¼ inch dice

2 medium turnips, peeled and diced

2 medium carrots, peeled and diced

2 cloves garlic, minced fine

Salt and pepper to taste

In a large pot, simmer the ham in about 4 cups of water over very low heat until the meat is very soft and beginning to fall of the bones. Using a slotted spoon, remove the meat and bones from the water. Allow the meat to cool and then remove from the bones, shred into small chunks, and set aside.

 Meanwhile, prepare your vegetables.

 In another pot or sauté pan, heat enough oil to just lightly coat the bottom and sauté the vegetables in it just until they begin to steam and soften.

 Add the split peas and vegetables to the ham stock.  Bring to a low simmer and cover with a lid, allowing it to cook slowly until the peas are soft and the vegetables are beginning to melt into the soup, probably about 30 minutes, depending on the freshness of the peas. Add more water as needed to keep it from getting too dry or sticking to the bottom of the pot, but not so much that it is watery. Add the shredded ham back into the soup and allow it to heat through.

 Since the ham broth will vary in saltiness, don’t salt until the end of cooking; you may need less than you think and it is easier to add salt than take away. Add black pepper to taste.

A couple of notes:

 1. I am inexact about the amount of water because the amount needed varies so much. Start with the amount on the package of peas, or with the amount I suggest, but use your judgment about adding more; you don’t want it to be too dry and thick.

 2. Cooking the pork slowly in the water first serves a couple of purposes. First, it infuses the water with flavor so that it really mixes into the beans and vegetables as the beans absorb water. Second, if you are using ham hock, shank, or any part of the leg with the bones and all, the connective tissue from the cartilage  melts into the water, giving it a rich texture that makes the stock very tasty and silky, the same as using wings or feet for rich chicken stock.

Making a list, checking it twice

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We crossed our Christmas shopping finish line today. I’m breathing a huge sigh of relief; I’ll be working flat-out at the store until Christmas Eve selling Christmas goodies, putting the finishing touches on customer’s holiday meals with cheeses and bottles of wine. I feel good knowing that my bases are covered at home now. Because, of course, when I speak of Christmas shopping, I am talking about shopping for our Christmas dinner!

We met up this morning in Chelsea for brunch after S had a doctor’s appointment and then went to Chelsea Market to pick up groceries. First stop was Dickson’s Farmstand Meats. I want to make something porchetta-ish. The traditional porchetta is a pork loin wrapped in pork belly with all the spices inside then roasted, a volume of meat that would daunt even the most committed pair of carnivores. I knew we wanted leftovers (just not for the next 4 months) so I consulted with one of the women behind the counter about options – pork belly only, pork belly wrapped tenderloin, pork shoulder…she offered to cut to size, talked about the amount we would need. I needed to think about it and get the rest of my provisions now that I knew what options were available so I told her I’d be back in a few minutes.

Next, the Italian market Buonitalia to get semolina flour and dried porcini mushrooms for our Christmas Eve lasagna bianco. Naturally, because it was the week before Christmas and surely one of their busiest days of the year, their register system was malfunctioning, grim-faced staff trying to ring  up the growing line of customers, a manager clutching the counter and muttering into the phone. Eh, these things happen.

Manhattan Fruit Exchange is one of my favorite places to shop, one of my weekly stops for groceries. It comes the closest to replacing some of the great produce markets in the Bay Area (not even close, but the closest option I have available) with a huge variety of produce, from sea beans to quince to chiles to lacinato kale at not-fancy prices. I got baby artichokes and lacinato kale (cavollo nero), sprigs of rosemary and sage, king oyster and shitake mushrooms, sour oranges, red navel oranges, and little gem lettuce for the salads and seasonings and green parts of our dinners.

Another favorite, we walked through The Lobster Place to ogle the gorgeous seafood. It looks like jewels laid out on crushed ice, luminous under the lights. The fishmongers were breaking down whole salmon today, filleting them as cleanly as unzipping a dress. I love good knife work (and get pretty snippy about lackluster work). It’s something I enjoy practicing when I’m cooking myself and work hard to cut as cleanly and precisely as possible at work. I couldn’t resist a pretty little filet of pearly pink  fish to take home for tonight’s supper.

So back around to the butcher shop: I decided to get a pork sirloin roast with a beautiful white cap of fat, butterfly it, and as the late Judy Rodgers of Zuni Cafe’ Cookbook taught, “early salt” the meat with a herb mixture for a few days to infuse the meat with herby goodness. The counter woman found a nice sized one and then had a butcher with a sharp curved knife slice it open like a trifold wallet, fold it back up, and wrap it up for me. I also got a link of salt and pepper sausage for the lasagna.

I have a grocery delivery coming in the morning before work with some of the heavier things I normally order (truly, you can get almost anything imaginable delivered to your door here) like orange juice, eggs, bacon (for Christmas breakfast bacon oatmeal scones), milk and butter. It makes life a lot easier not to have to carry all of that home from the store but I can’t stand not to pick out my own meat and produce. I need to see how my fruits and vegetables look and smell,  and I don’t like buying a pig in a poke either literally or figuratively.

I may pick up something here or there if I happen to run across something interesting, and I’m sure I’ll bring home some cheese from the store but it is so relaxing to have it all in hand, to be cooked and enjoyed at our leisure but, there it is, Christmas shopping done with a bow on it. And I am deeply grateful for the luxurious gift of an overflowing refrigerator.