Saturday, February 27, 2010

Braised Chicken with Saffron Onions, Couscous, and Dates

So I recently decided that I need to stop farting around, and finalize the list of 10 cookbooks. I had decided to drop Tyler Florence's Real Kitchen because while I liked the savory aspect of some of the desserts, the rest of the book was just not too interesting.

Sunday Suppers at Lucques is a book that is frequently highly praised, so I figured I'd check it out. The library doesn't have it , so I went out on a limb and bought it sight unseen. I am so glad I did, because SSaL is full of exactly the kind of food I feel like eating right now, and the recipes are involved enough to keep me interested without overwhelming me.

I use little post-it tabs to mark the recipes that I would like to make in a book. This is Sunday Suppers at Lucques:

It almost seems silly to have those little stickies there, as almost every page is marked.
This was Tyler Florence's Real Kitchen:

Obviously, not so interesting.
This means that it's time for a random recipe. What did the random number generator say?

Page 141, Summer Squash Gratin with Gruyere and Salsa Verde
This recipe sounds great, and I was planning on making it anyway. It sounds like it will be perfect with some grilled meat or fish. Please come soon, summer.

I also decided to add Mario Batali's Italian Grill to the list, rather than his Babbo cookbook. I like the Babbo cookbook, but I was finding that the list could really use a book with quick, practical recipes that aren't dumbed down. We love to grill, so the Italian Grill looks perfect.

For Italian Grill, the random number generator says that it likes page 75: Foccacina with Coppa and Apricots. I won't explain what it is because I'll be making it later, but it sounds awesome, and it's something I wouldn't have necessarily picked without the number generator.

I decided that the inaugural recipe from Sunday Suppers at Lucques would be Braised Chicken with Saffron Onions, Couscous, and Dates because it is unfortunately still winter, so I liked the idea of braising.
Plus, the meal was overall economical because I already had some saffron and it sounded light and bright enough to counter the end-of-winter doldrums. Also, Nick wasn't sure what time he'd get home and a braised meal can be held indefinitely.

The night before cooking the meal, the chicken legs were rubbed with paprika, cilantro, freshly ground cumin and coriander, a crushed chile de arbol, fresh thyme, and garlic. Okay, I used just chicken thighs. And I thought that I had coriander seeds, but it turns out that I didn't.

I did, however, have cumin seeds, so they were toasted and ground. The freshly toasted and ground cumin seeds were about a billion times more fresh, potent, and savory than the ground coriander, so I was actually quite sad that I didn't have the right ingredients.

Because my car was in the shop to prevent it from blowing up, I couldn't just run out and get what I needed. Like fresh thyme. Wow, I suck. I have no idea how I managed to not get fresh thyme, but I'm just all-around lame so far on this recipe.

Nonetheless, the spice rub smelled fantastic. Unfortunately, it also made the fridge smell, so by the time I cooked the chicken, I was almost tired of it.

I'll stop my whining and tell you about the preserved lemons that I also made. Actually, I won't tell you much about them because it's top secret until March 14th.

I will tell you that Meyer lemons were blanched in boiling water for 4 minutes. The recipe said 5 minutes, but they were really small lemons.

When they were cool enough to handle, they were to be cut in wedges and tossed with kosher salt. I cut them in pinwheels, though, because I thought it would be prettier. Hopefully the pinwheel shape won't result in too much maceration.

They were then crammed into a jar and covered with lemon juice. This jar will sit on the counter for 5 days, at which point some olive oil will be added, and they'll go in the fridge for up to a year.

Maybe less if I decide they're nasty. You see, I've never had preserved lemons before, so I don't quite know what to expect. I should probably test them before giving them to my family in order to make sure I'm not going to give anyone botulism-laced lemons. It will be an anaerobic environment in there, after all.

The next day, I started by searing the chicken thighs. The chicken thighs were removed to a plate, and some bay leaves, sliced fennel and onion were sauteed...

Speaking of fennel, Suzanne Goin mentions in her book that she uses fennel rather than celery when she makes a miropoix. This was a revelation to me, because the celery in miripoix has always bugged me. First of all, it just doesn't taste that great. Also, I buy a whole bunch of celery only to use a few stalks, and the rest of it frequently goes bad because it's not very good for the bunnies to eat. The fennel solution is just brilliant because I prefer the taste, and I've lately always had it around. Nick wasn't as impressed by this as I was, but I still think it's pretty cool.
...So when the fennel and onions were soft, tomatoes were added, then white wine and sherry, then chicken stock and cilantro, and the thighs were returned to the pot.

The chicken thighs went in the oven for an hour and a half, and the onions for the saffron onions were sliced. In the meantime, the saffron was toasted. Suzanne Goin cautions you not to burn the 'precious' saffron. I won't burn it, I think to myself. And I have the perfect amount to use half tonight and half for the meal I'm planning for Tuesday.

What's that smell? Oh. Burnt saffron.

So I started over, and when the saffron was properly toasted, it was combined with some olive oil and butter. The onions were added, along with a bay leaf, a crushed chile de arbol, some fresh (ahem) thyme, and some salt and pepper. Despite the addition of the other spices, the saffron in the onions still caused them to smell like plastic to me.

Yes, I think that the most expensive spice in the world smells and tastes like plastic. I keep trying it in the hope that my taste buds will have changed, but no luck so far.

The onions cooked until they were soft and sweet, and in the meantime, I made the date relish by slicing dates and tossing them with olive oil, lemon juice, cilantro, parsley, salt and pepper.

When the chicken was meltingly tender, the sauce was reduced and the couscous was prepared. Goin tells you to strain the vegetables out of the sauce, but we decided that we would be "rustic" and un-Frenchy and leave them in.

We also decided to use regular couscous as opposed to the Italian couscous that Goin suggests, because Whole Foods didn't have the recommended 'fregola.' Next time, however, I would love to hunt down some Italian couscous, as Goin says that it has a nutty flavor that would have been just perfect with this dish.

When the couscous was cooked and over-salted (sorry, Nick!), it was plated with the onions on top of the couscous, the chicken and its sauce on top of the onions, and the date relish on top of the chicken.

How was it? Lovely. All of the flavors combined in a way that made the whole more than the sum of its parts. Perhaps most surprising was how perfect the date relish was. I hadn't been sure that I would like it, but it rounded out all of the other flavors and added a spark of freshness. Nick felt that the saffron onions were a bit overpowering, and I thought they still tasted like plastic, so maybe we'll leave out the saffron next time. I might also cut back a bit on the paprika.

Overall, this meal made me very excited to try some more recipes from this book.

Braised Chicken with Saffron Onions, Italian Couscous, and Dates
(From Sunday Suppers at Lucques)

  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 2 tablespoons coriander seeds
  • 6 chicken legs with thighs attached
  • 3 cloves garlic, smashed
  • 1 tablespoon thyme leaves
  • 2 tablespoons sliced flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 chile de arbol, crumbled
  • 2 teaspoons bittersweet paprika
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup sliced onion
  • 1 cup sliced fennel
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/4 cup chopped San Marzano canned tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 1/3 cup sherry
  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • 1/4 cup cilantro leaves
  • Italian couscous (recipe below)
  • Saffron onions (recipe below)
  • Date relish (recipe below)
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Toast the cumin seeds in a small pan for a few minutes, until the seeds release their aroma and are lightly browned. Using a mortar and pestle (or a spice grinder), pound them coarsely. Repeat with the coriander seeds.

Place the chicken in a large bowl with the smashed garlic, thyme, parsley, crumbled chile, cumin, coriander, and paprika. Using you hands, toss the chicken and spices together to coat the chicken well. Cover, and refrigerate at least 4 hours, preferably overnight.

Remove the chicken from the refrigerator 30 minutes before cooking, to allow it to come to room temperature. After 15 minutes, season the chicken on all sides with 1 teaspoon salt and lots of pepper.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Heat a large sauté pan over high heat for a minute or so. Swirl in the olive oil, and when it's shimmering, place the chicken legs, skin side down, in the pan, and cook 8 to 10 minutes, until golden brown and crispy. (If your pan is too small for all the legs to fit, brown them in batches so you don't overcrowd them.)

Every so often, swirl the oil and rendered fat around the pan. Turn the legs over, and reduce the heat to medium. Cook 2 minutes on the second side. Arrange the chicken (in one layer) in a braising dish. The chicken legs should just fit the pan.

Pour off some of the fat and return the sauté pan to medium heat. Add the onion, fennel, and bay leaves. Cook 6 to 7 minutes, stirring often, until the vegetables are lightly caramelized. Add the tomatoes and cook another 5 minutes, stirring and scraping with a wooden spoon. Add the sherry vinegar, white wine, and sherry. Turn the heat up to high and reduce by half. Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil.

Add the cilantro and pour the broth and vegetables over the chicken, scraping off any of the vegetables that have fallen on the chicken back into the liquid. The liquid should not quite cover the chicken. Cover the pan very tightly with aluminum foil and a tight-fitting lid, if you have one. Braise in the oven 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

To check the chicken for doneness, remove the lid and foil, being careful of the steam. Pierce a piece of the chicken  with a paring knife. If the meat is done, it will yield easily and be tender but not quite falling off the bone.

Turn the oven up to 400 degrees.
Transfer the chicken to a baking sheet, and return it to the oven to brown for about 10 minutes.

Strain the broth into a saucepan, pressing down on the vegetables with a ladle to extract all the juices. If necessary, reduce the broth over medium-high heat for about 10 minutes, to thicken it slightly.

Place the hot couscous on a large warm platter. Spoon the saffron onions over it, and arrange the chicken on top. Ladle some of the juices over the chicken, and top each leg with a spoonful of date relish. Serve the extra broth and date relish on the side.

Italian Couscous

  • 2 1/2 cups Italian couscous, or fregola sarda
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil over high heat.
Add the couscous and cook 8 to 10 minutes, until tender but still al dente.
Drain the couscous, return it to the pot, and toss with the butter, parsley, and a pinch of pepper. Taste for seasoning.

Saffron Onions

  • 1 teaspoon saffron threads
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 5 cups sliced onions (about 1 1/4 pounds)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 chile de arbol, crumbled
  • 1 teaspoon thyme leaves
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Toast the saffron threads in a small pan over meduim heat until they just dry out and become brittle. Be careful not to burn the saffron. Pound the saffron in a mortar to a fine powder. Dab a tablespoon of the butter into the powder, using the butter to pick up the saffron.

Heat a large sauté pan or Dutch oven over medium heat for 2 minutes. Add the olive oil, remaining butter, and saffron. When the butter foams, add the onions, bay leaf, chile, thyme, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, and some pepper. Cook 8 to 10 minutes, stirring often as the onions wilt. Turn the heat down to low, and cook another 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft and sweet. Taste for seasoning.

Date Relish

  • 1/2 cup Deglet Noor dates
  • 2 tablespoons super-good extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons sliced flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 tablespoon sliced cilantro
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Pit the dates, and slice them thinly lengthwise.
Toss the dates with the olive oil, lemon juice, parsley, and cilantro. Season with 1/2 teaspoon salt and some pepper.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Green Pasta with a Goat Cheese and Scallion Filling in an Olive Butter Sauce, Hot Italian Sausage, Broccoli Rabe, and Lemon Bars

If you can call an event of two years standing a tradition, then you could say that my family has a Valentine's Day tradition; namely, we make a nice dinner and hang out. Not a big deal, but a fun change from the usual depressing restaurant scramble.

It started last year when, for the first time in forever, Nick and I both had off on Valentine's Day, and we didn't know what to do with ourselves. We didn't especially want to make a nice dinner and stay at home because we do that all the time, and we were certainly not going to go to a restaurant.

Why do I say that? Because we both worked in restaurants long enough to know that if you go out on Valentine's Day, you'll be fighting your way through hordes of amateurs in order to be given sub-par food from the too-busy kitchen by a server who just wants to get you the heck out of that table because you're just a lousy two-top, and there are a million more behind you.

I don't mean to sound all anti-Valentine's Day, and I'm not going to whine about how it's a Hallmark holiday invented exclusively for commercial ends. I think it's a cute idea, but it seems rather silly when you've been together for over a decade.

On the other hand, maybe that's when you most need days like Valentine's Day, but I frequently find that days like Valentine's Day and New Years inherently come with so much pressure to make a special day out of them that it oftentimes backfires and you're left broke, grouchy, and disappointed.

Thus, the family V. Day was born. We figured that we wouldn't be sitting home doing the ordinary thing, we would be with people we love (which is, after all, the point), it's bound to be fun, and there's no pressure.

Here are some pictures from last year:

Super fun.

So this year, I wanted a meal that was special without being expensive, rich without being overly fancy, and highly portable.

This is what I came up with:

Hot Italian sausage, broccoli rabe sauteed with garlic, green pasta with a goat cheese scallion filling tossed in an olive butter, and gateau a l'orange chat.

Kidding. She's not dessert, she just likes to sleep in the bowl, and we disturbed her. I don't know why she likes to sleep in that bowl, but she does. Call the Health Department!

Did you know that female orange tabbys are very rare?

So I started prep the night before and I started by making the dough for the real dessert--Lemon Bars from Ad Hoc. I know that lemon doesn't exactly scream Valentine's Day, but Whole Foods once again had Meyer lemons for a great price, so I had some sitting in a fridge. And while this isn't an anti-Valentine's Day sort of night, but I figured there was no need to go with the usual chocolate dessert. I once again wanted some bright, sunny lemony-ness in the snow-covered depths of winter.

Back to the dough--this dough was quite unlike anything I've ever made before; it was sort of half cake and half tart. It started with creaming sugar and butter together in the stand mixer.

Which, by the way, I was actually able to do. You see, I had the bright idea to buy a stand mixer on eBay because I'm too broke to pay the retail price. I not only managed to buy two stand mixers and thereby establish a self-imposed ban on eBay buying, I bought one without the paddle attachment because I thought that the dough hook and whisk would be just fine.

Not so. It turns out that the paddle attachment is way more useful than the dough hook. Remember how I bent the whisk this past Christmas? Well, when it came time to get my birthday present, Nick thoughtfully went to get me a new whisk. This, however, turned out to be a complicated endeavor, so he ended up with the paddle attachment. Little did he know that it was exactly what I needed, and I had been putting off buying one.

Not that you care, though.

So I creamed together the butter and sugar, added some vanilla and a bit of flour, and that was that.

The dough was wrapped up and put in the fridge for later assembly. Now it was time to make the lemon curd. This process involved mixing together eggs, sugar and lemon juice, then adding butter.

I've mentioned before that I like really tart lemon desserts, so I was perturbed by the lack of lemon zest. I know, I know--I've also said that I like to make recipes the way they're written the first time, and I've said that Thomas Keller is The Man, and I'll do whatever he tells me to do.

So I went looking for the microplane zester, but it was nowhere to be found. And I mean nowhere. I looked for that little bugger for a long time, but it was to no avail. I think that Thomas Keller is such a mad genius that he knew I was going to attempt just such a move, so he snuck into my house and stole my zester.

So I tried using the tiny little holes on the side of the box grater, and this is what happened:

The zest just got all stuck in those little holes. What are they for, anyway?

So no zest went in the curd. Mr. Keller, if I promise not to mess up any more of your recipes, can I have my zester back? I like it a lot. Thank you.

When the curd was finished, its top was covered with plastic wrap, and it, too, was set aside to await later assembly. Or at least most of it was. It was so delicious that I just could not help taking the occasional spoonful or three, partially because it was so deliciously tart. I'm sorry, Master Keller; I'll never doubt you again!!

I should also mention that when I woke up that afternoon, yes afternoon, I mixed together some flour, water, salt and yeast for Jim Lahey's ciabatta bread and let it sit there because that's all you have to do. On Valentine's day, the first thing I did was dump out the dough and push it around in order to get its second rise started.

In the meantime, I made the green pasta dough by blanching some spinach (I read the directions properly this time), and mixed the chopped leaves with the eggs.

This all went into a flour well, and the egginess was spun around until it was combined with the flouriness.

The resulting dough was then kneaded for 10 minutes. There are times when 10 minutes go by in the blink of an eye, but not so much when you're pushing some dough around. It really does take 10 minutes for the dough to achieve the proper texture, though, so no slacking here.

When I finally finished and the dough was resting, I made the pasta filling by mixing together the goat cheese and scallions, olive oil, Parmesan, eggs, salt, pepper, and a pinch of nutmeg. Oh great. I need the microplane zester for the nutmeg.

Can I please have it back, T.K.? The box grater sufficed for this task, though.

At some point the bread was baked, and it was then time to roll out the tart dough. Eeesh. It was super-dry and crumbly when I first made it, but I had been hoping that the rest in the fridge would alleviate this problem.

Not so much. I did manage, though, to roll it out into an almost-rectangular shape. It was then flipped over into a half sheet pan, and the bits that broke were kind of smooshed back over to the edges. Like I've said before, that's the good thing about tart-like desserts--when you mess up the dough, it's not noticeable in the final product.

The tart shell was baked until golden, cooled, the lemon curd was poured in, and the whole thing went into the freezer. Thomas Keller states that freezing the dessert provides the curd with a lovely texture, "Somewhat firm but amazingly creamy." I wouldn't really know because my last-minute butt had this in the freezer a little too late, but more on that later.

Now it was time to roll out the pasta dough.

Every time I make pasta, there is some point at which I become fearfully convinced that this time, it's just not going to work. Sometimes it's when I'm swirling the eggs into the flour. Sometimes it's when I'm kneading the dough, but this time it was when I was rolling it out.

Actually, when I make pasta there are times when I think that none of those steps are going to work, but the necessary alchemy does somehow transpire.

The pasta was cut into "squares" and filled. I say "squares" because it turns out that I lacked the ability to cut the dough into uniform shapes that even remotely resembled squares, and my ravioli were therefore of wildly different sizes and shapes. Whatever. They'll overcook in the same time.

That's right, I overcooked the pasta. It's the penguins' fault.

I was just about ready to pull the pasta out of the boiling water when this penguin picture fell Splat! right in. I suppose they missed their usual watery environment. When I yelled, "F*&$!" my Dad probably thought that I had wrought massive destruction in his kitchen. Not quite massive, but I am sorry about the picture.

By the time I had fished out the penguins and run in a couple circles, the pasta was overcooked, and it didn't help that it was then tossed in a warm olive butter sauce. Oh, well. It was still delicious enough for Hunter to state that he could eat it every night of the week. That's quite a review from the guy who claims not to like pasta.

"That's not pasta," he says. Okay.

I liked it, but goat cheese is one of those things that's difficult to eat after you've been smelling it for hours. More problematic for me was the fact that it got a bit grainy when cooked. It's probably my fault somehow, though, and it still tasted quite delicious.

The sausage were excellent, and the broccoli rabe was awesome. Broccoli rabe is another one of those supposedly simple things that I just can't ever seem to cook properly. I've tried big-pot blanching and steaming followed by sauteing, and I've ended up with water-logged florets, even after thorough draining. I've tried just straight-up sauteing both the whole spears and the spears in pieces, and I end up with textural issues both ways. This time, however, I was inspired by a recipe that instructs you to peel the stalks. I think it was from a Mario Batali recipe, although it's a very Frenchy thing to do.

I don't know if it was the peeling that did it, or if the trick was to understeam them, but the broccoli were perfect. Yay, me.

After dinner, it was time to assemble the lemon bars. Thomas Keller instructs you to loosen the edges by running a knife around the edges of the sheet pan, and to lift the whole thing out and transfer it to a platter. Yeah, right, I said. This whole thing is totally not coming out in one totally did.

Okay! I'm sorry I doubted you! Again!

You're then supposed to cut the whole thing into squares, which you are to reassemble. I did this part, but I didn't cut off the crust edges like he told me to. Sorry! I really like crust and couldn't bear to part with it. I don't care if it's not pretty. I probably shouldn't have admitted to that, though, because I'm totally not getting that zester back now.

I had previously made meringue, which I had brought with me in a plastic container. The recipe states that ideally, the meringue is to be made right before serving the bars. I know that, but it just wasn't going to happen.

You know what else wasn't going to happen? Piping the meringue onto the reassembled bars in pretty little spirals.

I might have done that if I had been at home, but it was so not happening at someone else's house. What I did instead was make quenelles, and placed one or two on each of the bars. Good enough.

It was then time to brown them. T.K. says that you can skip this step it you must, but I decided not to be a slacker for once, so I broke out the torch. There's no need, by the way, to get a fancy $30 torch from some place like Williams-Sonoma. A $10 torch from the hardware store works just as well.

Okay, almost as well. My particular torch cannot be turned horizontally, or it extinguishes itself. No problem--just hold the food at an angle.

This is what Hunter thinks of the torch:

I had mentioned before that the lemon bars never had a chance to freeze all the way. Therefore, they sort of started oozing almost right away, and I didn't get a chance to experience what Keller describes as a "great" texture.

That's okay, though, because they were still delicious, and satisfyingly lemony in a way that kept me eating more and more of them. That's why I got Nick to take them to work the next morning--I didn't trust myself to be around them long enough to take them to work that night.

Nick's coworkers loved them, and one person even knew that they were made with Meyer lemons rather than regular lemons. These bars are another example of how contrasting textures create a dish that is just impossible to stop eating. In this case, the crisp shell filled with the oozy lemon curd and the fluffy meringue made a compulsively edible team.

I have to say, though, that I might prefer plain old lemon meringue pie, because the bars, while delicious, were just a bit too sweet for me. They weren't a pointless saccharine, though, as they were also rather rich, which helped support the sweetness.

Overall, I would have to say that this dinner was much better than a restaurant dinner would have been, and it was pressure-free. Who cares if what you cook for your family isn't perfect? They'll love you anyway, right?

Goat Cheese and Scallion Ravioli with Black Olive Butter
(From Molto Italiano)

Makes 6 servings

  • 1 1/4 pounds green pasta dough
  • 2 cups fresh soft goat cheese (about 1 pound)
  • 1/4 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 6 scallions, thinly sliced
  • Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
  • Slat and freshly ground black pepper
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons olive paste
  • 1/4 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano

Divide the pasta dough into 4 pieces. Roll each piece through the thinnest setting on a pasta machine and lay the sheets on a lightly floured surface. Cut each sheet into 12 three-inch squares. Cover with a towel.

To make the filling, combine the goat cheese, Pecorino, olive oil, egg, scallions, nutmeg, and salt and pepper to taste in a large bowl and mix until well blended.

To assemble the ravioli, place 1 scant tablespoon filling in the center of each pasta square. Fold the two opposite corners together to form a triangular pillow, gently pressing out any air pockets, then press the edges together to seal; if the pasta is a little dry, moisten the edges with a little water to help them adhere. Transfer to a lightly floured work surface.

Bring 6 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot, and add 2 tablespoons salt.

Meanwhile, to make the sauce, combine the butter and olive oil paste in a 12-inch sauté pan and heat over medium heat, stirring, until the butter is just starting to bubble. Remove from the heat.

Gently drop the ravioli into the boiling water, reduce the heat to a low boil, stir to separate the ravioli, and cook until the pasta is tender, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from the water with a slotted spoon or a skimmer, draining well, and place in the pan with the sauce. Simmer for 1 minute over low heat. 

Transfer the ravioli to a warmed serving platter, sprinkle with the Pecorino, and serve immediately.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Ropa Vieja

I think it's fun to emphatically shout "Ropa Vieja!" while attempting to roll the r's.

Nick thinks it's fun to ask "Donde es Tomatillo?" while looking at the fish tank. Tomatillo is a greenish/yellowish plecko; pleckos hide.

This isn't our particular plecko, but I couldn't get a picture of Tomatillo because he was hiding. He looks like this, though.

We should probably get out of the house. But guess what? There is way too much snow out there. We couldn't leave even if we wanted to. In fact, it's been declared a "Phase III," which means that no one but emergency vehicles are to be driving anywhere for any reason.

"Ropa Viejaaaa!!'


I'm thinking Ropa Vieja because that's what's in the oven. Nick just likes his fish.

When planning for the upcoming snOMG/Snowverkill/Snowmageddon (I've been spending way too much time on Facebook), I was again looking for something that could cook all day but was relatively simple.

Ropa Vieja came to mind, partially because it's very simple, and partially because I was determined to make it delicious. I once worked in a Cuban restaurant that served this classic dish, and it sucked. However, most of the food in this restaurant sucked, which is why I made no money and left within a few months.

But I figured that anything that involves seared meat cooked forever with peppers, onions, jalapenos and spices can't suck if it's done properly, right?

Nick just yelled, "Toma-Mother-F#$%in'-Tillo!!"

He agrees. We're feeling the Latin vibe whilst being buried under snow.

So this recipe was started the night before it was to be cooked, when I coated some flank steak with oregano, jalepenos, garlic, and salt. It sat in the fridge all night while I stuffed my face with bacony spinachy crusty goodness.

Today, after Nick came in from the snow, the meat was brushed off and seared in the dutch oven. Then the sliced onions were added, and then the sliced peppers were added.

Nick would like to point out that HE sliced the peppers. He also seared the meat because he's the Meat Master. I know that sounds weird, but that's part of why it's funny, right? Why did Nick slice the peppers? Because I am not competent.

We ate shrimp fajitas the other day, and we had some green peppers that were soggy, and some that were raw. That's because even though I have pretty good knife skills, I'm too lazy to cut the peppers into a consistent size. That is why Nick sliced the peppers today.

We then added some sherry and let it come to a simmer. Then I was supposed to add 8 plum tomatoes that had been peeled, cored, and cut in half. By the way, Daniel Boulud also suggested that we peel the peppers. SO not happening.

I've mentioned before that I cannot bring myself to buy tomatoes in the depths of winter because they would be pointlessly expensive and flavorless.

So I added canned tomatoes but tried to rip them in half before adding them to the pot. This is what happened:

So I cleaned the stove for the third time in one day, added some water and bay leaves to the dutch oven, and it went into a 275 degree oven.

Yes, that is a very not hot oven.

That's why this timer says not 4 minutes, and not 4 o'clock, but 4 hours. And that's why it's a great snow day meal. Even a losing-your-mind-because it-won't-stop-snowing-day meal.

It actually stopped snowing right when we put the pot in the oven.

But it's supposed to start again in a few hours.

Nick just noted that I posted a snow day blog a few days ago with a picture of an almost snow-devoid porch. That's pretty funny now.

Like I said before, this is one of the things that's pretty cool about a braised meal:

Look at that spiffily clean kitchen.

So how was it? It was great. Comforting and tasty without being overwhelmingly heavy. This was a good thing, as I had done nothing but eat for the past few days.

It could have been a little heavier on the onions, and I knew this before putting it in the oven, but it wasn't exactly feasible to run out to the store to grab an onion.

With some lime juice, hot sauce, and a little bit of sour cream, it was nice and wintery yet reminiscent of summer.

It might not look all that appetizing, but it's supposed to be shreds of meat. Its name means 'old clothes' or 'old rags' depending on who is translating.

And, as is often the case with stews and braised dishes, it was even better the next day for breakfast.

Ropa Vieja
(Slightly Adapted from Braise)

  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
  • 2 jalapeño peppers, chopped
  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano, preferably Cuban
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons Kosher salt, plus additional
  • 2 1/2 to 3 pound flank steak
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 2 medium Spanish onion, peeled, halved, and thinly sliced
  • 2 large green bell peppers, peeled (peeling is optional), cored, seeded, and thinly sliced
  • 1 rd bell pepper, peeled (peeling is optional), cored, seeded, and thinly sliced
  • 1/2 cup sherry
  • 1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes
  • 2 bay leaves
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Lime wedges, for serving

The day before you plan to make this dish, combine the garlic, jalapeños, oregano, and salt in a non-reactive container. Add the meat and rub the mixture all over it. Cover tightly with plastic wrap, and marinate overnight in the refrigerator.

Center a rack in the oven and preheat to 275 degrees.

Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil and the butter in a Dutch oven over high heat. Scrape the rub off the flank steak, and reserve. Add the flank steak to the pot and sear both sides until golden brown. Transfer the flank steak to a plate. 

If there is not enough fat in the pot, add another tablespoon of olive oil. Add the onions and cook until light golden brown. Add the bell peppers and cook for 5 minutes. Add the sherry and bring to a simmer, scraping up any brown bits on the bottom of the pot. 

With kitchen shears, cut the tomatoes into smaller pieces while they're still in the can. Add to the pot. Add 1 cup water, and the reserved rub. Return the flank steak to the pot, nestle it in amongst the vegetables, and add the bay leaves and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a simmer.

Cover the pot with a tight-fitting lid and transfer to the oven, and braise until the meat is very tender, 3 1/2 to 4 hours, turning the steak every hour or so. The meat is ready when it is falling apart in to ropy shreds--thus the name, Ropa Vieja.

Erbazzone, or Herb Sandwich from Parma


Wow that's a lot of snow, and wow I ate A LOT last night. It was just so good that I was not able to stop myself, even after I was so full I could barely move.

The problematic deliciousness was in the form of lots of spinach, cured pork product, and Parmesan wrapped in a pastry shell. Wow.

I love love love pie crust, which is why pie is so much better than cake. That's where this recipe started, with making the pie crust. Again, Mario tells me to cut in the butter with my fingers. So not happening. My food processor was one of the best $50 purchases I have ever made. I love you, food processor.

So while the dough was resting in the fridge, some finely minced bacon was sauteed. It was supposed to be pancetta, but blizzard #3 was approaching, and Whole Foods was too crowded to go wandering around in search of pancetta, and I did not intend to drive to Fresh Market for the pancetta that I know they have. Bacon was in the freezer, so bacon was in the herb sandwich.

Some onions were minced, and part of the onions, part of the bacon, some pepper and some garlic went into a separate bowl.

I suppose this was a way to add more flavor and texture when the pie/tart/sandwich was later assembled and cooked. I don't know.

The rest of the onions were sauteed with the "pancetta", and 2 pounds of spinach was added to the skillet. Two pounds of uncooked spinack takes up a lot of space, and Nick totally didn't believe me when I said that the spinach would cook down to a fraction of its original volume.

As I was pressing massive amounts of spinach into the skillet, I whispered to it, "Wilt! Don't prove me wrong!"

It wilted. I was supposed to add garlic at this point, but I forgot. Oops. I just added it later, because garlic is very necessary.

Holy cow. I just now noticed that the recipe instructs you to blanch the greens prior to adding them to the skillet. That makes so much more sense.

Even as I was shoving all of those greens into the skillet, I was thinking to myself that it would have made a lot more sense to have already blanched or steamed them. I was also thinking that the spinach released a TON of water, so why was Mario telling me that I might need to deglaze with water in order to get to the fond. Wow. I am such a genius.

Okay, so the spinach onion bacon mixture was allowed to cool a little, and the Parmesan, raw bacon and onion mix, and two eggs were stirred in.

The dough was then rolled out and the filling was placed on top. That is, the still-seeping filling that shouldn't have been seeping in the first place, but I didn't follow directions. I rock.

The second piece of rolled-out dough was placed on top and the edges were folded and crimped.

The sandwich baked for 20 minutes, at which point I brushed it with garlic oil and cooked it for 20 more minutes.

Reading this, it seems so quick and simple. Actually, though, it took forever. Nick and I usually eat late, but we ate very late last night. But when we did eat, wow I ate a lot. This pie/tart/sandwich thing was absolutely awesome. It smelled insanely good when it was taken out of the oven, and it did not disappoint.

Like I said, it was a combination of some of the best things in the whole world, so how could it not be great? I think I ate about 5,000 calories yesterday, but it doesn't count because it was a snow day. Right?

You're probably tired of hearing me talk about snow, right? And if you live in the Baltimore area, you're probably sick of dealing with snow.

This is blizzard #3 this year, and the second time in a week that a state of emergency and the hospital's corresponding code yellow have been called. Again, I am so lucky to not be stuck at work. Woo hoo.

Some Facebook buddies posted that we have now gotten more snow this year than both Buffalo and Alaska. That's totally crazy, but I believe it. Also, this is the most snowfall that this region has seen in recorded history.

Other Facebook people have published posts in which they detail the ways in which they are losing their minds. Especialy the people with kids. Even Nick is losing his mind because he's so bored.

He's out there shoveling in winds so strong that Facebookers are saying that it's scaring them. Apparently, the wind is strong enough to blow snow under the door and create a drift in the building's front entrance.

We had talked about building a snowman on the porch because that would be pretty cool, but I no longer know how to approach such an undertaking.

I guess we would first have to move that chest-high drift. Or maybe we could actually carve a snowman out of it.

I would just like to note, however, that I am not complaining about the snow (only because I haven't gotten stuck at work, knock on wood). I figure that if it has to be winter, it should be winter. It sucks when it's just cold and dreary. At least with all this snow it's less boring.

Speaking of bored, Nick's back, so it's time to cook more food.

Herb Sandwich from Parma

(Slightly Adapted from Molto Italiano)


  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup cake flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 5 tablespoons high-quality lard or unsalted butter, chilled
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, chilled
  • 7 to 10 tablespoons cold water


  • 5 ounces thinly sliced pancetta, minced
  • 3 large garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 medium red onion, cut into a 1/4 inch dice
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 1/2 pounds spinach, beet greens, or swiss chard leaves, or a blend, blanched in boiling water till barely wilted, drained, squeezed dry, and chopped
  • 1 cup Parmesan Reggiano 
  • Salt
  • 2 large eggs, beaten

Garlic Oil

  • 2 tablespoons high-quality lard or extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic, minced

To make the dough, combine the flours and salt in a food processor and mix for a couple seconds. Add the olive oil (or lard) and the butter. Pulse a few times until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Move to a large mixing bowl and sprinkle with 7 tablespoons cold water. With a spatula, gently mix. If it is too dry, add more water, a little at a time. Gather the dough into a bowl, wrap with plastic wrap, and chill for at least 30 minutes.

To make the filling, in a small bowl, combine about 1/4 cup of the pancetta with a little of the garlic, about 1/4 cup of the onion, and a generous amount of pepper. Set aside.

Cook the remaining pancetta in the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat until it has given off much of its fat, about 5 minutes. Add the remaining onion and cook, covered, for 15 minutes, or until the onion has softened.

Uncover, raise the heat to high, and cook until the filling is a rich golden brown. Add the spinach, reduce the heat to medium, and cook until the greens are tender, about 7 minutes if you're using one of the heartier greens. 

Stir in the remaining garlic and cook for another 30 seconds or so, until fragrant. If a brown glaze has formed on the skillet bottom, add a little water and simmer, scraping up the brown bits, until the water has evaporated. Turn the filling into a bowl and let it cool.

Add the Parmesan and the reserved pancetta mixture to the filling. Taste for seasoning and blend in the eggs.

Set a rack as close to the bottom of the oven as possible, and preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

For the garlic oil, combine the olive oil (or lard) and garlic in a small pan and heat over medium until fragrant. Remove from the heat.

Brush a 14-inch pizza pan with olive oil. Divide the dough in half. On a lightly floured surface, roll one piece to about a 14-inch circle, and place it on the pan. Spread the filling over the pastry, leaving about a 2-inch border.

Roll out the second piece of dough to a 14-inch round. Dampen the edges of the bottom crust with water, top with the second round of dough, and pinch the edges together. Fold the edges over toward the center of the torta, and crimp. Make a few slashes on the top of the crust for steam to escape.

Bake for 20 minutes. Brush the crust with the garlic oil, and bake for another 20 minutes, or until the top is pale gold and very crisp and the edges are golden brown. Cut into wedges to serve.