Category: Turf

A Break with Tradition

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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.

Kitchen

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

Ingredients
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)

Method
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.

Duck legs, after braise, drizzled with the syrup

Duck legs, from the broiler

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.

Ingredients
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.

Vegetable sauté and bulgur

Bulgur-vegetable salad

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.

 

Cipollini Agrodolce
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!

Ingredients
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)

Method
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.

Cipollini agrodolce

 

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.

Ingredients
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

Method
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.

Roman-style spinach sauté

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.

Plated

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.
DM
There are no new classic recipes . . . the one you prepare is the right one, and it will always be delicious!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hold the Spaghetti!

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Now it wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration for me to say that most of you have eaten that ubiquitous bowl of spaghetti and meatballs—that old-school Italian dish generally found in restaurants and home kitchens everywhere.

But this post is not about spaghetti and meatballs, in fact we are going to skip the pasta entirely!

However, there was a time when meat was a luxury food item only families of means could afford while many others had to stretch their meals by substituting bread and cheese to fashion meatless meatballs. These rustic polpette, or polpettine as they are known, were assembled using day-old bread, grated cheese, eggs, garlic, and basil or parsley. They were lightly pan fried and finished in a tomato sauce.

These had the appearance, flavor, and texture so that someone who liked meatballs could appreciate them even without any meat in them at all.

But as meat became more accessible to many more people, both in their home country as well as for those who migrated here, meatballs made mostly with meat replaced those more humble offerings made only with bread.

It is not uncommon to find meatballs on restaurant menus as a stand-alone dish sans the pasta, served as a small plate starter, or as a bar snack. When offered as a main course accompanied by a side dish or two and a basket of toasted bread to sop up the sauce, a more substantial meal is achieved. That is mainly how I like to prepare them at home.

Now I realize many of you have your go-to meatball recipe, something tried and true that you have prepared many times over the years. It would be safe to say there are probably as many meatball recipes as there are home cooks and restaurant chefs who make them. For example, I have read recipes using only one kind of meat instead of a combination of two or three.

Recipes that include basil instead of parsley, or oregano instead of basil. One with the addition of minced Swiss chard for added moisture or another including green peas. Those that include grated cheese and those that don’t. Or even some substituting ground chicken or turkey for the more traditional beef, pork, or veal, and even some “designer” meatballs that don’t use “turf” at all and instead substitute some “surf” in the form of shrimp or lobster meat, but that is for another discussion.

What I would like to share with you is my approach to preparing meatballs as a stand-alone dish, not so much to change what you already know and love, but instead to leave you with some steps I have learned in an effort to perhaps enhance what you are already doing.

So here are some ideas and techniques to consider, followed by my preferred meatball recipe and a recipe for a simple tomato sauce used to finish and serve them.

I don’t grind my own meat, as I think most of you don’t either. For those of you who do, you most likely have all the equipment and understand the process so I will not focus on that here.
For those of us who don’t, my recommendation is to source a good local butcher and get the meat ground to order instead of purchasing any prepackaged grocery store variety. My preference is to use a coarsely ground mix of beef, pork, and veal. Be sure to include some pork fat in the grind. Lean meat will produce a less flavorful and less tender meatball, and the addition of fat gives the sauce extra flavor and body during the braising step.

Another key ingredient is bread. The bread should be day old, air dried, and cut into small pieces instead of using bread crumbs which tend to draw moisture from the ground meat yielding a less tender meatball. The bread should be soaked in whole milk or Half & Half because the bread and milk combination act as a binder requiring the use of a minimum number of eggs or no eggs at all in the ground meat mix. Generally I include one large egg in the mix along with enough bread to bind the mixture well, that  yields a lighter overall texture to the finished meatballs.

Some garlic, seasonings, and grated cheese round out the mix. Let the formed meatballs rest 1 hour or more before cooking to allow all the flavors to meld and the meatballs to firm up.
I prefer to quickly roast the meatballs in a hot oven before braising in the tomato sauce to finish, however you can pan fry the meatballs first instead.

These meatballs can be made in advance, roasted, cooled, and then frozen. When the time comes to finish them, defrost them completely and finish the cooking in the tomato sauce.
One last thought: these same recipe ingredients in different proportions can be used to prepare a meatloaf (polettone), another childhood favorite which is finished in the oven with or without the tomato sauce.

 

Meatballs with Tomato Sauce

Ingredients
2 cups rough chopped, dried day-old bread, crust removed
¾ cup Half & Half
1 pound each coarsely ground beef, pork, and veal with extra pork fat
1 medium onion finely chopped
2 medium garlic cloves finely minced
½ cup finely chopped parsley
To taste: pinch of dried oregano, crushed fennel seeds or fennel pollen, red chili flakes, salt and pepper
1 large egg beaten
¾ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or an aged Pecorino

Method
Remove the crust from the day-old bread and rough chop it into half-inch cubes.

Soak the chopped bread in Half & Half until it is absorbed.

Squeeze the excess liquid from the bread and in a large work bowl add the bread to the ground meat mix.

Add the onion, garlic, parsley, oregano, fennel, chili flakes, salt and pepper, along with the beaten egg and the cheese.

Using your hands gently fold all the ingredients together. Be thorough but mix only enough to evenly combine and distribute all the ingredients.

Before forming the meatballs, take a tablespoon-size sample, flatten it and sauté it on both sides until cooked through. Taste it to determine if the seasoning is right or needs to be adjusted.

Wet your hands and form the mix into approximately 1½-inch diameter meatballs placing them on an oiled, ovenproof sheet pan. There should be between 30 to 40 meatballs when done. Allow the meatballs to rest for at least an hour, keeping them chilled.

Ready to bake

When ready to cook, allow the meatballs to return to room temperature, then either roast them in a preheated 400-degree oven for no more than 12 minutes or pan fry them in olive oil until lightly browned.

Cool the meatballs and freeze them on the sheet pan and then place them in freezer bags for later use.

Out of oven ready to braise

Alternately, lower the oven temperature to 325 degrees, place the meatballs in a roasting pan or an ovenproof pan with a lid.

After browning, the meatballs are finished in a simple tomato sauce. Pour the tomato sauce over the meatballs and braise them, covered for 30 minutes.

Meatballs ready to braise

This same tomato sauce can also be used as the base for other, more complex tomato sauces or ragus, such as one of many Bolognese sauce variations, for example.

The following is the recipe I prepare most often when I’m looking for a quick, flavorful, uncomplicated tomato sauce.

 

Simple Tomato Sauce

Ingredients
¼ cup olive oil
1 medium red onion cut in half
1 medium carrot, quartered
1 large garlic clove peeled and lightly flattened
2 bay leaves
1 35-oz can of peeled whole tomatoes with juice

Method
Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat.

Slowly saute the onion, carrot, and garlic for 10 minutes, then add the bay leaves.

Aromatic vegetable sauté for tomato sauce

While the vegetables are cooking, over a large work bowl pass the tomatoes through a food mill that will remove any seeds and what skin and core remains, to yield a smooth tomato sauce base.

Food mill

Or if you prefer a sauce with a little more more texture, simply crush the tomatoes by hand in a large bowl breaking up all the large pieces.

Add the prepared tomatoes to the saucepan, bring to a quick boil, then lower to a simmer uncovered for 45 minutes, stirring from time to time.

Once the sauce is done, remove the vegetables, check and season with salt and pepper to taste.

This sauce can be kept in the refrigerator for up to a week or frozen for six months.

To serve, plate 3 to 4 meatballs per person, spoon some sauce over and around, sprinkle some additional cheese and minced parsley over the top, and drizzle with a little olive oil to finish.

Served

Pair this dish accompanied by a sautéed green, (spinach, escarole, or radicchio), or a mixed green salad instead. Toasted crusty bread or grilled polenta are also good additions to help sop up the sauce. And don’t forget the red wine!

Enjoy . . .
Eat Well. Be Well.
DM
Never overlook the details. They can make the difference between just a good meal or an extraordinary dining experience.

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