My Favorite Vietnamese Dish is So Easy….

I know I said that I would continue posting recipes from my trip to Italy here, but the other night I made this fantastic dish and couldn’t wait to share…

There used to be a small local chain of 4-5 Vietnamese restaurants in Boston called “Pho Pasteur”.   My favorite dish was bun, a type of cool noodle salad.  Sadly, the restaurants closed many years ago but, as I discovered recently while in Chinatown, one remains!  A trip is imminent…..

With the heat of summer approaching, bun makes a great dinner.  The rice noodles sit underneath a bed of crunchy bean sprouts, cucumbers, and lettuce, and they’re topped with warm seafood, chicken, or beef.  When you drizzle over it a dressing made of soy sauce, sugar, ginger, and garlic, it becomes a wonderfully-flavored dish of different tastes, textures, and temperatures.  I love this dish, not because it showcases some of the flavors of Vietnamese cuisine, but because it’s also very healthy.

As always, use the freshest ingredients.

Fresh, crispy veggies

Although the recipe doesn’t call for it, you can also include fresh mint or basil leaves.

I did not have any fish sauce on hand for the dressing, so I substituted soy sauce and the dish was still amazing.

Vietnamese Bun

(serves 4)

For the dressing:

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 cup rice vinegar
  • 1 cup Asian fish sauce (nuoc mam)
  • 3-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
In a bowl, combine the sugar and vinegar.  Stir well until the sugar dissolves.  Add the fish sauce, ginger, and garlic.  Set aside.
For the Bun:
  • 8 oz rice vermicelli
  • 4 chicken breast halves, on the bone (you can also use beef or shrimp)
  • 1 tbsp peanut oil
  • 1 tbsp soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp sriracha, or other hot sauce
  • 1/2 head red or green leaf lettuce, cored and coarsely chopped
  • 4 carrots, grated
  • 2 cups fresh sprouts
  • 6 pickling cukes, thinly sliced
  • 1 bunch scallions, cut into 1-inch lengths
  • 1/2 cup peanuts, chopped

Turn on the broiler.

Bring a kettle of water to a boil.  In a bowl, combine the noodles with enough boiling water to submerge to cover the noodles.  Set aside for about 15 minutes.  Drain the noodles and transfer to a bowl.  Add 3 tbsps of the dressing and toss well.

Place the chicken, skin side up, in a broiler pan.  In a bowl, combine the oil, soy sauce, and sriracha. Rub the mixture over the chicken skin.  Broil about 10 inches from the element for about 5 minutes, or until the chicken starts to brown.  Reduce the temperature to 400 degrees and continue cooking for 30 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through.  Set aside to cool.

Remove the meat from the bone in one large piece.  Cut diagonal slices.

Divide the noodles among 4 bowls.  Add lettuce to each one.  Top with the carrots, sprouts, and cucumbers.  Spoon some of the dressing over the vegetables.

Add the chicken and spoon more dressing on top.  Garnish with the scallions and the peanuts.

The noodles are hidden at the bottom for a nice surprise!

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Summer’s Not Here Yet Tabouleh Salad

The weather here in the Northeast the past two days has been almost summer-like (ok, maybe very-late-spring-like).  I wanted to make something light and healthy for lunch other than a standard salad.  Luckily, I had most of the ingredients for tabouleh…or tabouli, or tabboule, or tabbouleh.

Tabouleh is a Middle Eastern salad that is traditionally made with bulgur, tomato, cucumber, and herbs.  Traditionally, it was served as part of a mezze (a selection of small dishes) served in the Mediterranean and Middle East.  There are different variations of it in Turkey and Armenia, and it has become a very popular ethnic food in the US.

Instead of bulgur, I used quinoa, which bumps up the protein a bit, but feel free to use either.  I have made this in the past also with couscous.  The one important thing, however, is to make sure you let the tabouleh sit for a few hours, or overnight, in the fridge so that the flavors can marry together.

I bet the addition of fresh basil leaves would be a nice touch to this salad also.  Perhaps next time.

Tabouleh

Probably serves about 6 people

  • 1 cup uncooked quinoa
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 cucumber, seeded and chopped
  • 1 tomato, or 20 grape tomatoes, seeded and chopped
  • 1/2 cup chopped red onion
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 1 cup fresh parsley leaves, chopped
  • 2 tbsp dried mint leaves
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • Juice of one fresh lemon or lime
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Place quinoa and water in a pot and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat, cover, and simmer until all of the water has been absorbed by the quinoa, about 15 minutes.  Remove and let cool completely.

Slice cucumber lengthwise and scoop out seeds with a spoon.  Cut the cucumber and tomato into pieces about the size of a kernel of corn and place into a large bowl.  Chop onion and garlic.  Add to bowl along with the parsley and mint.

Once the quinoa has completely cooled, add to the bowl, along with the olive oil and the juice of the lemon or lime. Stir until all the ingredients are combined.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  You can serve immediately, but it will be better if you cover with plastic and refrigerate for a few hours or overnight.

Dolmathes / Stuffed Grape Leaves

Those of you that know me know that I come from a Greek background.  Since I have been writing this blog, more than one person has indicated on occasion that I don’t have enough Greek recipes.  Generally, my response to them has been that I want to learn and write about recipes and food from many different cultures, and not just focus on one specific type of food.

Dishes that many of us consider to be Greek are actually quite common throughout the Middle East and Turkey.  A lot of Greek cuisine has a heavy emphasis on lamb, eggplant, olive oil and heavy spices, and is actually quite similar to many Middle Eastern dishes.  There are only slight differences in some of these dishes.  A proud Greek might acknowledge the similarities, but will likely insist that these dishes originated in Greece and were then brought to the different regions.  One such dish is “dolmathes” (pronounced “dol-MA-thes”), or stuffed grape leaves.  The name comes from the Turkish word “dolma” which means “to stuff.”

A 1983 article in the New York Times about the history of grape leaves does, in fact, credit the Greeks for this dish.  It also indicates that it was most likely Alexander the Great who brought it to the Middle East when he conquered Thebes: “Food became so scarce that the Thebans cut what meat they had into little bits and rolled it in grape leaves.”  The article goes on to say that “later, it has been suggested the Byzantines refined and spiced the preparation and filled not only grape leaves but leaves of other vines as well…”  This would then justify the different variations of this dish in different cultures.

In Greek and Middle Eastern cuisine, dolmathes can be any of various stuffed vegetable dishes.  Most common, however, is a dish made of grape leaves, stuffed with a lemon-flavored mixture of rice, onion, and frequently, ground lamb.  Although you can exclude the meat and eat them cold as an appetizer with yogurt, Greek-style dolmathes with lamb are served hot as a main course with an avgolemono sauce made of egg and lemon juice.

The recipe I include below, is a variation of this.  I used ground turkey because that’s what I had.  There are so many variations to this recipe, that I suggest using whatever meats, grains (yup, even quinoa), spices, and herbs that you like.  The point is to understand the preparation and cooking technique when making dolmathes.

Dolmathes are very time- and labor-intensive to make, so if you decide to make a large quantity, they can be stored in the refrigerator for several days, or frozen.

Stuffed Grape Leaves with Avgolemono Sauce (Dolmathes Me Avgolemono)

(to be served as a main dish, probably serves about 4)

  • 1/2 jar of large grape leaves in brine
  • 1 lb ground meat of your choice
  • 1/2 cup uncooked rice
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 3 tbsp dried mint
  • 2 tbsp dried oregano
  • Juice of one fresh lemon
  • Zest of one fresh lemon
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp pepper
  • About 4 cups of chicken broth or water

Optional:  To make the grape leaves easier to work with and to remove some of the briny-ness, bring a large pot of water to a boil and then turn off the heat.  Carefully unroll the leaves (but do not separate) and place in the hot water for 2-3 minutes.  Remove the leaves and place them in a bowl and cover with cold water until they have cooled.  Place the leaves to drain in a colander.

Saute the onions and uncooked rice in 1 tablespoon of olive oil until the onions are softened, but not browned.  In a bowl, combine the onions, rice, ground meat, remaining olive oil, mint, oregano, lemon juice, lemon zest, salt and pepper.  Mix well with your hands.

Gently separate one grape leaf and place it, shiny side down, on a work surface or a large plate.  Place one heaping tablespoon of filling on the leaf at the point where the stem joined the leaf.  Fold up the bottom of the leaf over the filling, then the right and left sides towards the middle, overlapping one side over the other and pulling in a bit to make sure it’s tightly folded in.  Then roll up the leaf.  The roll should be firm, but not too tight, as the filling will expand during cooking.  Repeat until all of the filling has been used.  As you are rolling, set aside any torn leaves that are not suitable for stuffing.  You’ll use them as part of the cooking process in a different way.

Place any torn, unused leaves that you have on the bottom of the pot.  This will prevent the bottom layer of dolmathes from possibly burning.  Place the dolmathes on top, packing them closely together (but not “squished”) with the seam side facing down.  Layer them until they’re all in the pot.  Place more unused leaves on the top and press down gently in order to ensure that the dolmathes don’t unroll during cooking.  Add enough broth or water to the pot to cover about 2/3 or so of the grape leaves.

Cover and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and continue to simmer for approximately one hour.  They’re done once the rice appears to be fully cooked.

If you’re also making avgolemono sauce, add it to the dolmathes about 10 minutes before you anticipate them to be finished cooking.

  • 2 eggs, separated
  • Juice of one lemon
  • Some hot broth/water from the pot

Beat or whisk the egg whites until foamy.  Beat in the yolks, lemon juice and 2-3 ladles of hot broth.  (Adding the hot broth to the eggs will raise the temperature of the sauce so that when you pour it into the pot, the eggs won’t curdle and become scrambled eggs.)   Continue to beat or whisk.  Carefully add the avgolemono sauce to the dolmathes and continue to cook for another ten minutes or so.

A Taste of the Middle East….Right at Home (Part II)

I went to my local library the other day and took out a few cookbooks that I wanted to flip through since I’d likely be indoors because they were forecasting extremely cold weather this weekend. One was called “The Iraqi Cookbook” by Lamees Ibrahim. It caught my eye on the shelf because it is a large, gorgeously photographed book:

It is filled with traditional recipes that have been handed down through the generations. The book was written with the goal of bringing these recipes to the diaspora — perhaps those who can no longer read Arabic cookbooks, or those who grew up in Western households who didn’t learn how to cook these traditional meals.

The author uses mainly ingredients available to Western readers, as well as gives useful tips. She also suggests appropriate substitutions when necessary. Each recipe is accompanied by a beautiful color photo, making this cookbook a feast for the eyes as well as the appetite.

One recipe that caught my attention was Eggplant Turnover (Maqloobat Bathinjan), a wonderful “turnover” dish made of layers of rice, ground meat, onions, tomatoes, peppers with eggplant at the bottom of the pot. The pot is then inverted onto a plate for an impressive presentation.

The first time I made this, I failed miserably by overcooking the rice. It’s not a hard recipe, however. So, today I tried again and it came out perfectly. I made about 1/3 of the recipe below, and it’s still enough for three people.

What I learned:

1. As you layer the saucepan with the different ingredients, press each layer down firmly, otherwise when you add the water , everything will float up and it will become a soup. When making this the second time, after I layered and pressed each layer, I took a small plate and placed it on top and pressed the ingredients down one final time.

2. Don’t add too much water. Use only as much as the recipe indicates, even if it doesn’t look like enough. Add it slowly.

3. Do not overcook the rice!

I skipped soaking the eggplant and used drained canned chopped tomatoes instead of the paste and fresh tomatoes. I added slivered almonds to the rice for additional texture. You could probably also add raisins or another dried fruit into the rice for a bit of sweetness.

The dish was delicious.

Eggplant Turnover (Maqloobat Bathinjan)

(serves 6-8)

  • 3 cups rice
  • 1 lb ground meat
  • 2 large eggplants
  • 2 medium onions, chopped
  • 1-2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2 tbsp mixed spices (garam masala, see below)
  • 2 tbsp fresh or dried parsley
  • 2 tbsp tomato paste
  • 3 tomatoes
  • 3 green peppers
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • olive oil
Slice the eggplants into round discs about 1/2 inch thick. Soak in heavily salted water for at least one hour.
Chop the onions and saute for a few minutes until soft. Add the ground meat and cook for a few minutes. Add the garlic, the mixed spices, the parsley, salt and pepper. Cook for a few minutes until fully cooked through. Remove from pan and set aside.
Drain the eggplant and wash in cold water and dry. Place some olive oil in the pan and lightly fry the eggplant on both sides.
Line the eggplant slices at the bottom of a sauce pan. Add the meat mixture.
Chop the tomatoes and peppers. Mix together and add as the third layer.
Rinse the rice in cold water a few times. Add to the top of the tomato and pepper mixture.
Add 4 cups of water, or until the water is just above the level of the rice. Bring to a boil and then turn down the heat and simmer for about 20 minutes.
Using a large platter, place it on top of the pan. Hold firmly and turn it upside down. Serve immediately.
Garam Masala

There’s no need to run out and buy this spice. You can make it at home. It’s simply a mixture of spices you most likely have. I had all except the cloves, but that’s fine. The recipe below makes about 1/4 cup.

  • 1 tbsp ground cumin
  • 1 1/2 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 1/2 tsp ground cardamom
  • 1 1/2 tsp ground pepper
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
Mix all the ingredients together and store in an airtight container. Store in a cool, dry place.

Vegetarian-in-a-Bowl

I was looking to clean out my pantry and use up some veggies that I’ve had in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks and put together this recipe.  I was craving Indian/Middle Eastern flavors (which you know I love) and put this together.  While I listed the exact ingredients I used below, you can substitute olive oil for the sesame and you can use any starch other than potato (perhaps a sweet potato or maybe a rutabaga).  I had only baby spinach, but I think kale would also be nice in this.

This is a relatively healthy dish, the only fat is in the oil, which is minimal.  The rest of the dish is vegetarian, and in fact vegan.  Adjust the spices as you like.

I served it over some whole-grain couscous for a nice meal.  Although this ideally serves two people, it is probably enough for three, as I had it for dinner, then again for lunch the next two days.

Indian Chickpea Bowl

(serves 2)

  • 1/2 onion, diced,
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 tsp ginger, chopped
  • 1/2 tsp sesame oil (other oil may be substituted)
  • 1/8 tsp sea salt
  • One 15 oz can of chickpeas
  • 1 small red potato (sweet potato or rutabaga can be substituted), diced
  • 2 carrots, sliced or diced
  • 1/8 – 1/4 cup tomato paste
  • 1/2 tsp chili powder
  • 1/2 tsp cumin
  • 1/2 tsp curry powder
  • 8 oz baby spinach

Saute the onion in the oil on medium-high heat for 2 minutes.  Add the ginger and saute for another minute and then add garlic. Sprinkle the salt while cooking.

Add the can of chickpeas (including the liquid), carrots, diced potato, tomato paste and spices. Bring to a low boil. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes, or until the vegetables are soft.

Add the greens, cover and cook for 5 more minutes.

Spanakopita…Eat Greek Tonight

Spanakopita is one of the most popular snacks in Greece.  It’s relatively healthy, tastes delicious and can be eaten anytime of the day…even for breakfast…cold…yum!

I made this for Thanksgiving and it was the first thing to go.

Spanakopita

Makes two 12×9 inch pans.  Make one for now and freeze the second one.

  • 3 lbs. spinach, chopped (you can substitute frozen, thawed well)
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 4 large onions, diced
  • 2 bunches green onions, diced (incl. 4 inches green)
  • 1/2 cup fresh parsley, chopped (or 3 tbsp dried parsley)
  • 1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1/2 lb. feta cheese, crumbled
  • 4 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1/2 lb. cottage cheese (or ricotta)
  • 1/4 cup butter, melted
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 lb. phyllo pastry sheets

Wash and drain the chopped spinach. If you use frozen spinach, thaw completely and squeeze out excess water. The spinach should be dry.

Heat the olive oil in a deep saute pan. Saute the onions and green onions until tender.

Add the spinach and parsley, and cook for 5 to 10 minutes until the spinach is wilted and heated through.  If you’re using frozen spinach, cook until the excess moisture evaporates.  The spinach mixture should be on the dry side.  Add the nutmeg and season with salt and pepper.

Remove from the heat and set aside to cool.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the feta, eggs, and cottage (or ricotta) cheese. Add the cooled spinach mixture and mix until well combined.

Combine the melted butter with the olive oil in a bowl. Using a pastry brush, grease two 9 x 12 rectangular pans.

Carefully remove the phyllo from the plastic sleeve. Most packages come in 12 x 18 inch sheets when opened fully. Using scissors or a sharp knife, cut the sheets in half to make two stacks of 9×12 inch sheets. To prevent drying, cover one stack with wax paper and a damp paper towel while working with the other.

Working quickly, Layer about 10 sheets on the bottom of the pan and brush each sheet with the butter/olive oil mixture. Add half of the spinach mixture in an even layer and press with a spatula to flatten.

Layer another 10 sheets on top of the spinach mixture, again brushing each sheet well with the butter/olive oil mixture. Repeat the process with the second pan.

Before baking, score the top layer of phyllo (making sure not to puncture filling layer) to enable easier cutting of pieces later.

Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven until the spanakopita turns a deep golden brown. If the pita is frozen when you put it in the oven, you will need approximately 60 minutes cooking time. If it’s fresh, cook for approximately 40-45 minutes.   All ovens vary, so keep an eye on it.

“Everything but the Kitchen Sink” Curry (a.k.a., Thai Vegetable Curry)

There are occasions when I tend to get carried away in the produce section of the grocery store. I’m a sucker when I see beautifully arranged produce and will grab whatever looks good, which is sometimes lots.  I tend to get ambitious, thinking “Oh, with this, I will make X!”. When I get home, however, sometimes I leave my ambitions at the door.  The veggies will sit in the fridge for a while.  Oh sure, I will give them a glance whenever I open the refrigerator door and think, “Oh yeah, I need to do something with that.”

Well, the other day, I had had enough. I was tired of sneaking glances at the remaining cauliflower head I had purchased almost a month ago. And I felt guilty when I would try to ignore the beautiful yellow Daisy squash that I bought two weeks ago. If I didn’t use the veggies soon, they’d end up being frozen for the next batch of stock that I would make at some point in the future, or worse, tossed in the trash. *Gasp!*  So, what better way to use all these veggies at once than to make a yummy curry?

The word “curry” is derived from an Indian word for “sauce.”. It’s a generic description of many different dishes from Southeast Asia, including but not limited to India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.

One common thread in many curry powder mixtures is turmeric, which gives curries a distinctive color. Other spices in curry powder tend to include coriander, ginger, garlic, chiles, pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, cardamom, cumin and tamarind.  The main types of curry you might encounter in an Indian or Thai restaurant are red, yellow, and green curry. Red curry is made with red chiles, while green curry is made with green chiles. Yellow curry is made mostly with turmeric and cumin, though it may include hot peppers or pepper flakes also.

Curry paste, which is what is used in the recipe here, is a moist blend of many of the above ground herbs and spices.

This recipe can be served over steamed jasmine or brown rice.  Rice noodles would be good too.  Be creative and use whatever vegetables you may have — the recipe here lists what I had in my fridge.  The amount of curry paste listed is not aggressive and can be altered to your liking. 

This curry is totally healthy as well, with the only fat coming from the olive oil (healthy fat) and the coconut milk.  I used light coconut milk, which tends to be a little more watery than the regular version.  You can, however, thicken the sauce at the end with a little bit of cornstarch.  I served it over brown rice.

Thai Vegetable Curry

(serves 4)

  • 1 Tbsp Olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1/2 head of fresh cauliflower, cut into little florets
  • 2 medium carrots, diced
  • 1 medium yellow squash, sliced into semicircles
  • 1 medium zucchini, sliced into semicircles
  • 1/2 cup mushrooms, any type, sliced
  • 1 small red bliss potato, diced
  • 1 tsp fish sauce (or soy sauce)
  • 1.5 tsp red curry paste
  • 1 cup coconut milk (regular or light is fine)

In a large, nonstick skillet, heat the olive oil. Cook the onion until soft.  Add garlic and cook until both begin to brown, 1 to 2 minutes.

Mix the curry paste with 2 tablespoons of the coconut milk. Add the paste mixture, remaining coconut milk and fish/soy sauce to skillet. Bring to a boil. Add the all of the veggies except the mushrooms, which tend to cook very fast. Simmer until vegetables are tender, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes.  About 10 minutes from the finish, add the mushrooms in and stir until finished.  Serve with jasmine or brown rice.

If you wish to make a thicker sauce, then continue reading:

After the vegetables are cooked and soft, remove them from the pan with a slotted spoon and keep warm.

Mix about 1 tsp of cornstarch with a little bit of water. Add to the sauce, bring to a boil, stirring until thickened.  Add the vegetables back in and serve.

The finished dish

Gemista (Stuffed Peppers)

Gemista is a classic Greek dish of stuffed peppers or other vegetables.  “Gemista” literally means “filled” or “stuffed” and is generally made with vegetables such as peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, potatoes (or any other vegetable you like that can be stuffed). The filling can be made with meat or without for a vegetarian option.

Historically, gemista was considered a summer food, because that was when many of the vegetables ripened.  Also, the dish could be eaten during the very hot Mediterranean summers as either a slightly hot or cold dish. 

This is one of my favorite Greek meals and it’s actually better on the second day, when all of the flavors have spent some time getting to know one another 🙂 .  The vegetarian version is also a good meal during Lent.

The stuffing options, as well as the spices used, are limitless.  Use whatever you like.  The one constant, however, is that rice must be part of the ingredients.  If you are making the vegetarian version, simply replace the ground meat with an equal amount (by volume) of rice.

Gemista

(serves 2)

  • 4  items of any of the following: peppers, eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, potatoes
  • Sea salt
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 4 tbsp rice
  • 8 oz ground beef or turkey
  • Salt and pepper
  • Dried mint
  • Dried oregano
  • Dried basil
  • 14 oz can of diced tomatoes

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Wash the vegetables to be stuffed.  Cut a horizontal slice across the top to form a sort of  “cap”.  With a spoon, scoop out the insides into a bowl as these will be included in the stuffing.  (Note:  do not include the seeds of the peppers.)   Place the vegetables in an oiled baking dish large enough for all of them to “stand” comfortably.  Sprinkle the insides with sea salt.

In the bowl with the insides of the vegetables, add the meat (if using), along with salt and pepper and the mint, oregano, and basil.  As indicated above, if you are making the vegetarian version, substitute rice for the meat.  Mix well.

Heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a sauté pan and sauté the onions and garlic until translucent then add the rice and stir to coat well and cook for one minute.  Add the meat and vegetable mixture and cook for another ten minutes until browned.

Fill the vegetables about 2/3 of the way full, the rice will expand as it cooks in the oven. Cover with the caps. Pour the diced tomatoes in the dish between the gemista and bake for about one hour.

Flavors of Morocco

The past few weeks, I have been limited in terms of physical activity due to an old ankle injury.  I have been walking in a cast and unfortunately, am unable to enjoy much of the warm weather we have been having, other than sitting outside and reading.  On the flip side, I have been able to spend a lot of time researching, cooking, and trying new recipes — which has been great.

The combination of cooking with no physical activity, however, can be dangerous, so I have been trying to adapt my recipes so that they are lighter versions of the original, with as little impact to flavor as possible.

In keeping with my general theme of Middle Eastern-type cuisine, which seems to be running throughout on this site, today I made a wonderful Chicken Tagine with Apricots and Sliced Almonds. 

A “tagine” is a dish from Northern Africa that is named after the special clay pot in which it is cooked, which looks like this:

The conical shape of the cover allows steam to circulate inside and to push all of the condensation to the bottom, keeping the food tender and moist.  I don’t have one of these vessels, but my everyday saute pan is an excellent substitute.

A Moroccan tagine dish is basically a slow-cooked stew that is braised at a low temperature, resulting in tender meat with aromatic vegetables and sauce.  Sound familiar? Remember Osso Buco?  A Tunisian tagine is quite different — it resembles more of a frittata than a stew.  I’m going to focus on Moroccan tagine in this post.

A Moroccan tagine is usually made with lamb or chicken with some combination of  ingredients, such as: olives, quinces, apples, apricots, dates, raisins, prunes, nuts, and fresh or preserved lemons (found at Middle Eastern grocery stores).  Sometimes honey may be used.  Traditional spices in a tagine may include cinnamon, ginger, cumin, paprika, and saffron. 

Most of the ingredients are items that one would normally have around the house.  The recipe below contains components that I liked from two different recipes.  Also, I tried to lighten it up from the traditional tagine by using much less oil than is normally called for, and by using boneless, skinless chicken breasts.  However, if I were to make for company, I’d likely use chicken legs and thighs with the bones.  The flavors remind me of the Greek dish “Chicken Kapama” that my mother used to make, which is very similar except that it has tomatoes.

This would be great served with a side dish of couscous or risotto with chopped apricots and raisins.

Isn’t it gorgeous?

 

Chicken Tagine with Apricots and Sliced Almonds

(serves 4)

  • 4 tsp olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 2 chicken breasts, 6 oz each
  • Coarse sea salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/4 cup fresh ginger, peeled and julienned
  • 15 dried apricots
  • Zest of 1/2 lemon
  • Juice of 1/2 fresh lemon
  • 1/4 cup slivered almonds
  • Chopped cilantro for garnish, optional

In a large saute pan, heat the oil.  Add the onion and cinnamon sticks and cook until the onions are softened, about 4-5 minutes.  Push to the side of the pan.  Place the chicken breasts in the pan and brown on all sides, seasoning with the salt and pepper.   Mix the onions occasionally so that they don’t burn.  They will begin to caramelize after about 20 minutes.

Once the chicken has browned and the onions caramelized, add the wine and the water and bring to a boil.  Turn the heat down to low.  Add the ginger and lemon zest.  Cover and simmer for 45 minutes.

Add the apricots to the pan, nestling between the chicken, and cook for another 20 minutes.
 
 In a small frying pan, toast the slivered almonds until nicely browned.  Set aside.  (DP note: don’t take your eyes off the almonds while they toast – because they are slivered they will toast VERY quickly.  I overcooked the first batch because I wasn’t paying attention and had to throw them away.)
 
Ten minutes before cooking is completed, squeeze the lemon juice over the chicken.  Serve the dish sprinkled with toasted almonds, and some chopped cilantro.
 
Tip:  If you’re using chicken with bones, cook the Tagine until the chicken is literally falling off the bone.

Easter Bread / Tsoureki

(Updated with photos.)
 
So, I know it’s kind of late for this posting and most of you probably have already figured out your Easter menus, but tonight I am making “Tsoureki”.  Tsoureki is a rich egg-bread, almost like a brioche or a challah.  It’s one of several different types of similar breads made for different holidays in the Greek tradition.  It is also known as “Christopsomo” for Christmas and “Vasilopita” for New Years.  The same recipe can be used for all of these breads.
 
What gives these breads a unique and deliciously sweet flavor is the addition of ground mahlepi, a seed that comes from a wild cherry, and has been used for hundreds of years in baking and cooking throughout the Middle East, Turkey, and Greece.  You can find it in a Middle Eastern or Greek grocery store.  Substitutions can be made for mahlepi if you are unable to find it.  Some alternatives are grated orange rind, cardamom, or vanilla — but the flavor of the bread will change significantly.
 
(Note: There are a number of variations of the English spelling depending on the language used: mahalab, mahleb, mahaleb, mahlep, mahalep, mahlepi, machlepi or makhlepi.)

I haven’t made this recipe in about ten years, and after posting my earlier entry about how easy it is to make no-knead bread, I was not looking forward to the amount of work I had to do.  However, as I was reading through the recipe, I realized that it was simpler than I thought it would be.  However, you do have to let it rise three times — for a total of four hours.  I got a late start today and it’s now after 11 pm, and I have a half hour to go with the second rise, and then form the bread and let it rise for another hour before I can bake it.  This means I won’t be hitting my pillow until well past 1 am.  However, I don’t mind, because the end result is so worth it.

Tsoureki

(makes 3 10-inch rounds)

DP note:  I usually exclude the dyed eggs from the recipe, although they are fine to eat if you decide to include them.

  • 3 packages dry yeast
  • 1/2 cup lukewarm water
  • 5 lb bag of all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 lb (3 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 8 eggs
  • 1 1/2 cups lukewarm milk
  • 1 teaspoon ground mahlepi (or cardamom, vanilla, or grated rind of 1 orange)
  • 9 hard-cooked eggs, dyed red (optional)
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten (for glaze)
  • 1/2 cup slivered almonds or 1/4 cup sesame seeds (for decoration)

In a bowl, sprinkle the yeast over the water.  Stir the mixture, then stir in 1/2 cup of the flour.

With an electric mixer, cream the butter, add the sugar and beat until light and fluffy.  Add the eggs one at a time.  Add 2 cups of the flour and beat well.

Transfer the mixture to a large  bowl.  With a wooden spoon, add the lukewarm milk, yeast mixture, and mahlepi.  When the mixture is smooth, add the rest of the bag of flour a little bit at a time, until it is all added and the mixture starts to form a dough.

Knead the mixture in the bowl for a few minutes until the dough is smooth and elastic.  Cover it with plastic wrap and set it in a warm place.  Let the dough rise for 1.5 – 2 hours or until it has doubled in size. 

Punch down the dough, cover it, and let it rise again for one hour.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface.  Divide it into thirds.  Cut each piece into three strips and form the strips into ropes – you should have nine ropes.  Use three ropes to form each braid – you’ll end up with three braids. 

Shape each braid into rounds, pinching the ends together.

Lightly butter three baking sheets.  Transfer one round to each baking sheet.  Tuck 3 eggs (optional) into each braid, setting them into the spaces in the strands of the braids.

Let the breads rise again for about one hour, or until doubled in bulk. 

Heat the oven to 350 degrees.  Brush the top of each bread (not the eggs) with glaze and sprinkle with the almonds or sesame seeds. 

Bake the breads for 30-35 minutes, or until their tops are golden brown and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.  If the breads seem to be browning too quickly during baking, cover them loosely with foil.

Cool on racks and cut into wedges for serving.

Note:  If you don’t have room for all the breads to bake at once, let one of the breads rise in a slightly cooler place than the others, so it wont be ready as quickly.  Then bake the other two breads first.