What to Cook in the New Kitchen? An Untraditional Easter Dinner.
On April 10, 2017, all take-out food R.I.P.!
For three-and-a-half weeks we were without the use of our kitchen. Everything with the exception of the floor tiles has been replaced and refreshed.
On April 11, I was finally able to test drive the new kitchen space and appliances, and prepared our first home-cooked meal in the new digs. We were once again able to enjoy fresh ingredients the way we like them—comfort food cooked at home—instead of having to settle for the overpriced, oversalted, overconceptualized fuel masquerading as fine food which is peddled in the area in which we live.
Truth be told, we were invited guests of friends on two occasions where we were able to enjoy a good meal.
Needless to say, I didn’t spend any time food shopping during the renovation, so the cupboards were a little spare, so to speak.
When the kitchen remodel was finally completed, I made a few quick trips to the markets, supplemented what I purchased with what I had in the larder and a few meals al Dante were cobbled together to get things started. Although not the very first meal I prepared in the new space, the recipes I am going to share with you now made up our untraditional Easter dinner and are a good example of what is possible whether you have a new kitchen or not.
When I was growing up, Easter dinner, in some fashion, might have included a pasta dish, a leg of lamb, asparagus, maybe a pizza rustica-type cake, and perhaps a Neopolitan-style-tart made with rice and ricotta and sweetened with citron.
But I didn’t have any of those foods at the ready so our meal consisted of aromatic braised duck legs served with a bulgur wheat and mixed vegetable salad, sweet and sour cipollini onions, and a side of Roman-style spinach.
You can always find duck in some form in our larder, whether it’s Moulard breasts, whole legs, or sausages. In choosing the legs, which I often prepare as confit, I wanted to try something different, something more aromatic where the braising liquid could later be used to steep the bulgur and to lightly glaze the legs when finished in the oven. Using a combination of both aromatic vegetables and spices along with some honey for a touch of sweetness and small dried Calabrian chilies for a little heat, I prepared the braising liquid in water rather than stock.
Once the cooking was complete the rich broth was strained, and as much of the rendered fat as possible was ladled away. The remaining broth was then heated, with some used to prepare the bulgur for the salad while the remainder was cooked down to the consistency of a light syrup and used to finish the duck legs.
Braised Duck Legs in an Aromatic Broth
2 large duck legs (leg and thigh attached), skin on
1 large onion, peeled and cut into eighths leaving the root end in place
1 large carrot, roughly chopped
2 large celery ribs, roughly chopped
3 to 4 large garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
2 small whole red chilies, or to taste
2 quarts of water
1 large cinnamon stick broken in half
3 to 4 star anise
½ generous teaspoon ground cardamom
½ teaspoon toasted whole fennel seeds
1/8 teaspoon saffron threads
1/3 cup honey (many options)
With the exception of the duck legs, place all the ingredients and the water in a large stockpot and bring to a gentle boil. Add the duck legs, lower the heat to a steady simmer, place a plate or another pot lid over the duck legs to keep them submerged so they braise evenly, and simmer for 1½ hours until the meat is very tender, but not falling off the bone.
Carefully remove the legs to a platter, tent, and set aside. Strain the braising liquid into a large bowl, removing all the solids. Ladle off as much of the rendered fat as possible and return the strained liquid to the cleaned stockpot. Heat the liquid to a boil, ladling out 2¼ cups and set aside to be used for the preparation of the bulgur.
Continue to cook down the remaining liquid until it reaches a syrup-like consistency to be drizzled over the duck legs before finishing them under the broiler in the oven, which will crisp and caramelize the skin.
Bulgur Wheat and Mixed Roasted and Sautéed Vegetable Salad
Bulgur is an ancient grain that has been predominant in the Eastern Mediterranean. It was a main ingredient in foods prepared in countries that included Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon, and it has been recorded that the Babylonians, Hebrews, and Romans ate the grain as well.
Bulgur is a precooked and dried cracked wheat used as a food source long before wheat was ground into flour to make breads and later pasta. It can be compared to how rice is used today—in soups, stews, salads, stuffing, and pilafs. However, it has less fat, less calories, and more fiber than an equal amount of rice.
It is also compared to farro, another ancient wheat product again popular today and often found in Italian cuisine. They are both great sources of protein, fiber, and nutrients, with farro higher in calories, fat, protein, fiber, and having the edge with vitamins, and some nutrients.
Either grain could have been used in this dish with similar results, but it just so happened that in restocking my pantry I found a box of bulgur and wanted to use it in a salad to accompany the Easter meal.
Many of you are probably familiar with the classic Lebanese tabbouleh salad—the lemony parsley and herb salad that includes some bulgur rather than a bulgur salad mixed with parsley and herbs. Lemon was not the flavor I was after as I wanted the bulgur to be the main ingredient in the salad, punctuated instead with a medley of roasted and sautéed vegetables, along with some fresh herbs and a little spice. The recipe that follows turned out to be a flavorful and colorful underlay for the braised duck legs, however this salad could easily stand on its own, especially for those who follow a more vegetable-centric diet.
2 cups coarse ground bulgur wheat
2¼ cups stock (braising liquid from the duck) or water
1 small eggplant, ends removed, large dice, skin on, set aside for roasting
1 large red bell pepper, sliced down the center through the stem. Remove the stem, seeds, and ribs, then set aside for roasting.
1 small zucchini squash plus 1 small yellow squash, ends removed, quartered lengthwise then large diced and set aside to be sautéed
2 to 3 cloves of garlic, skinned and thinly sliced
3 large dried figs, stemmed, cut into a small dice
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
2 to 3 scallions, root end removed and both green and white parts diced fine
1 15-oz can of chickpeas, drained, rinsed, placed in a bowl, drizzled with a generous tablespoon of olive oil and mixed with 1 teaspoon of smoked paprika or Spanish pimentón until coated
2 fresh oregano sprigs, leaves removed
2 fresh mint sprigs, leaves removed and torn
Pinch of red chili flakes to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
Prepare the vegetables first. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Place the diced eggplant in a roasting pan, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt. Place the halved red pepper cut side down in a roasting pan, drizzle with olive oil. Roast both the eggplant and the pepper until easily pierced with a fork. Set the eggplant aside to cool and place the pepper in a bowl covered with clear film. The pepper will steam as it cools so that the skin is easily removed. When cooled, remove and discard the skin but remember to save all the juices that have collected from the roasting. Chop the pepper into large pieces.
In a large sauté pan, large enough to eventually hold all the vegetable ingredients, heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot but not smoking add the zucchini and yellow squash, stirring to coat and sauté until the squashes begin to color. Add some salt and pepper to season and then the garlic, figs, and wine vinegar, stirring to thoroughly combine. Sauté until the garlic softens and the vinegar evaporates.
Fold in the eggplant, roasted pepper and juices, scallions, chickpeas, herbs, chili flakes, and a little more salt and pepper. Taste and correct seasoning as needed, remove the pan from the stove and set aside until the vegetable mix is ready to combine with the bulgur.
To prepare the bulgur, place it in a large work bowl, heat the stock or water, and pour over the bulgur and cover the bowl with a towel. Let it rest for 20 to 25 minutes until most all the liquid has been absorbed. Stir with a fork.
Add the vegetable mix and gently fold it into the bulgur until thoroughly combined. Again, cover the bowl with a towel and set aside for another 30 minutes allowing the flavors to meld before serving.
The remaining recipes are for the two vegetable side dishes I included in this meal. However, these dishes could be included in any meal as a side dish or even part of a larger vegetable antipasto course.
Little Onions—Sweet and Sour
The cipollini onion is a small, flattened, oval-shaped variety with a slightly sweet taste, and wrapped in a pale yellowish or reddish outer skin. They are equally good either braised on the stovetop or oven roasted, and best served at room temperature with salumi, sharp cheese, and olives in an antipasto or as they are in this meal, as a side condiment similar as to how a chutney might be used.
I recall as a youngster being introduced to cipollini onions by an aunt from the Sicilian side of the family. But curiously, she did not serve them agrodolce style, a taste I learned years later, that Sicilians favor with many dishes. Needless to say, at the time, the cipollini onions I was introduced to were too bitter for my inexperienced palate.
This is an ancient preparation before there was refined sugar to sweeten the dish. Cooks would instead use grapes that were reduced to a syrup or used the local honey to provide the sweetness. Since I don’t spend a lot of time cooking grapes into syrup these days, I prefer to use honey to sweeten my take on the agrodolce. For me the finished dish becomes more interesting using honey because the final flavor and level of sweetness takes on the personality of the particular honey used—wildflower versus clover versus chestnut versus orange blossom … you get the idea!
13 cipollini onions, peeled
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 large garlic clove, thinly sliced
1 medium sweet onion, finely minced
3 tablespoons of honey, or to taste
3 bay leaves
Salt and pepper to taste
Red wine vinegar and water (50/50)
Place the unpeeled cipollini in a pot of boiling water for 8 minutes, drain and cool. Once cool enough to handle, make a small slit in the outer skin that allows that layer to be removed easily. Snip the long top if it is still attached, but keep the root end in tact. Set aside.
Over medium-high heat warm the oil in a sauté pan with high sides. Once the oil is hot but not smoking, sauté the minced onion and garlic until they begin to soften. Reduce the heat to medium and add the cipollini, stirring to coat. Drizzle the honey over and around and pour in the vinegar and water to cover the cipollini by half, again stirring to thoroughly combine the ingredients and dissolve the honey.
Simmer slowly for 1 to 1½ hours, turning the cipollini from time to time, until all the liquid has evaporated, and the cipollini are soft and glazed in a dark, sweet sauce.
Plate and serve at room temperature.
Roman-Style Spinach with Raisins and Pine Nuts
There is something about the combination of fresh spinach, raisins, and pine nuts— they just go together. I don’t know if the Romans invented this dish, however I have often read that it is served this way in the Roman trattorias around the city as I would believe throughout much of Italy.
It is a dish that can be put together quickly and the spinach almost cooks itself.
In my interpretation I like to:
- Bloom the raisins in either Marsala wine or red vermouth to give them a little extra flavor
- Lightly toast the pine nuts to bring out their natural resins
- Use butter along with the olive oil because the butter softens the spinach bite while the oil prevents the butter from burning
- Add a pinch of red chili flakes for punctuation
Don’t use what is sold as “baby spinach,” but instead look for the more mature, savoyed-leaf variety such as Bloomsdale or Emperor for example. Although they will generally have thick stems that need to be removed before cooking, these varieties will remain firmer when cooked and present a better-finished dish.
2 pounds leaf spinach, stems removed and thoroughly washed
2 garlic cloves, finely minced
¼ cup raisins
¼ cup pine nuts
2 tablespoons olive oil plus 2 tablespoons butter
Salt, pepper, red chili flakes
Wash the spinach in several changes of cold water to remove all the sand and grit. Spin dry but leave some residual water clinging to the leaves as that will aid in the sauté of the spinach. Set aside.
In a small sauté pan warm several tablespoons of either Marsala or red vermouth. Add the raisins, remove from the heat and allow the raisins to bloom and absorb most all of the liquid. Set aside.
In another small sauté pan, add the pine nuts and gently dry toast over medium heat, tossing from time to time until just beginning to brown. Remove from the heat and set a side.
In a large sauté pan over medium-high heat melt the butter in the olive oil. When the butter is melted and begins to foam add the spinach, tossing to coat as it begins to soften and wilt.
Sprinkle over the minced garlic and toss again so that the garlic is distributed within the spinach.
Toss in the raisins and the pine nuts, again mixing to distribute. Season with salt, pepper, and the chili flakes to taste, toss once more, and serve immediately.
Untraditional, perhaps, but glad to have my kitchen back and cooking again. I hope you try one of these recipes either as separate dishes, or all as the complete meal presented here.
Although I did not include a dessert here, I am confident that you will find a way to include something sweet to round out the end of your meal.
Eat Well. Be Well.
There are no new classic recipes . . . the one you prepare is the right one, and it will always be delicious!