Spaghetti Pancake or Baked Pasta alla Norma

When my son was little he had a VERY limited palate that largely consisted of one form of pasta or another. In an effort to expand his horizons and to keep me from getting incredibly bored, I would make individual spaghetti pancakes for him out of left-over pasta. It didn’t really matter if I had made a pesto sauce or a red sauce – pretty much any left-over pasta would work, including just butter, garlic, pepper and cheese.

The other day I was looking at one of the food blogs I follow and I saw a recipe for “Baked Pasta alla Norma.” I thought, wow, this is a great name and is sure to be something that I would want to make. When I actually got down to reading the recipe, I realized that it was just a fancy version of my old friend, the spaghetti pancake! Give it a try and if you have picky eaters, leave out the eggplant, hot pepper flakes and capers and simply add some extra cheese. It’s kind of hard to go wrong with a dish like this. So if you want sausage in your version, add some cooked, crumbled sausage or try zucchini instead of eggplant or add some sliced cured black olives. Use left-over pasta instead of making pasta just for the dish and make individual portions in smaller oven-safe frying pans or do it on your stove-top, flipping the “pancake” over half-way through until you have a nice crust on top and bottom and the egg is cooked through. Just have fun with it and if you want to tell your significant other that it is Baked Pasta alla Norma, I won’t tell them that it really is just spaghetti pancake.

Baked Pasta alla Norma or Spaghetti Pancake by Claire Saffitz from Bon Appétit, October 2018 Baked Pasta alla Norma

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

INGREDIENTS

1 medium globe eggplant, peeled, cut into ½” pieces

2 pints cherry tomatoes

8 garlic cloves, smashed

¼ cup EVOO, plus more for skillet and drizzling

½ tsp. crushed red pepper flakes, plus more for sprinkling

Kosher salt

2 large eggs
1 Tbsp. cream or milk

2 Tbsp. tomato paste

4 oz. finely grated Parmesan, divided (You could also use Asiago or Pecorino Romano or any combination.)

1 lb. spaghetti, linguine or other pasta

2 Tbsp. drained capers

½ cup torn basil, plus a few whole leaves

DIRECTIONS

  1. Preheat oven to 425°. Combine eggplant, tomatoes, garlic, ¼ cup oil, and ½ tsp. red pepper flakes in a large ovenproof skillet, preferably cast iron. Season generously with salt and toss to combine. Roast, shaking skillet once or twice, until eggplant is tender and tomatoes burst, 25–35 minutes. Let vegetables cool while you prepare the pasta (watch out for the hot handle when you take the skillet out of the oven). Reduce oven temperature to 400°. Baked Pasta alla Norma6

  2. Whisk eggs, cream or milk and tomato paste in a medium bowl until smooth, then whisk in about three-quarters of Parmesan. (Truthfully, I just eye-balled how much cheese I used and put more on top to form a nice crust.)

  3. Cook spaghetti in a pot of boiling salted water, stirring occasionally, until al dente. Immediately drain pasta in a colander and shake to remove excess water; transfer pasta back to pot.

  4. Add cooled vegetable mixture to pot with pasta. Wipe out skillet and drizzle in a little oil; roll around in skillet to coat. Add egg mixture to pasta and toss vigorously with tongs until pasta is evenly coated. Add capers and ½ cup basil and toss again to combine.

  5. Transfer pasta mixture to skillet and press gently into an even layer. Top with remaining Parmesan, a few whole basil leaves, and an extra sprinkle of red pepper flakes, if desired. Drizzle with EVOO.

  6. Bake pasta until surface is nicely browned, 30–35 minutes. Let cool 10 minutes before cutting into wedges for serving. Baked Pasta alla Norma5You can top with a few fresh basil leaves for a bit of color.

Chicken Shawarma with Tahini Sauce

As anyone who reads my blog knows, I LOVE Mediterranean/Middle Eastern food. I could happily eat it every day and have for weeks at a time. So when I came across this recipe for chicken shawarma that you could make at home,  I simply had to try it. This recipe did not disappoint. Is it exactly like the shawarma you get off of the spit at a restaurant? No, but it is really, really close and truth to tell, I undoubtedly used a much better quality chicken then most shawarma stands would. It’s a fun weeknight dinner that can be prepped the night before. Serve it casually stuffed in a pita or alongside some dill rice or cauliflower tabbouleh, accompanied by salads and a tahini sauce. Left-overs can be easily re-warmed.

Chicken Shawarma with Tahini Sauce by Tori Avey

Yield: About 6 servings

Ingredients

1 lb boneless skinless chicken breasts (about 2 large breasts)

1 lb boneless skinless chicken thighs (about 4 large thighs)

8 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, divided

2 tsp cumin

2 tsp paprika

1 tsp allspice

3/4 tsp turmeric

1/4 tsp garlic powder

1/4 tsp cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper or to taste

Kosher salt and fresh cracked black pepper

About 2 Tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro for garnish

For Tahini Sauce

1/2 cup good quality tahini like Soom brand

1 teaspoon garlic powder

Juice of 1 lemon

About 1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt

About 1/4 to 1/2 cup of cold water

Directions

Prepare Marinade

  1. Slice the chicken breasts into 5-6 pieces each and the thighs into 3-4 pieces each. Place them in a glass or stainless dish or large plastic zipper bag.
  2. In a small bowl, whisk together 6 Tablespoons olive oil, the spices, 1 tsp salt and 1/4 tsp black pepper (if you are salt sensitive or are using Kosher chicken, reduce the amount of salt). Pour the spice marinade over the chicken pieces. Stir with a spoon till all the chicken pieces are evenly coated in the marinade.
  3. Cover the dish with plastic wrap, or seal the zipper bag. Place chicken in the refrigerator and let it marinate at least 1 hour, up to overnight. [For maximum flavor, allow to marinate for 8 to 12 hours.]

Oven Cooking Method

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and spray with a nonstick cooking oil. Place the chicken pieces on the sheet, evenly spaced.
  2. Place the chicken in the oven. Let it roast for about 15 minutes until cooked through, turning the chicken pieces once with tongs halfway through cooking.
  3. Take chicken out of the oven and let it cool slightly. Use a sharp knife to slice the meat into small, thin shawarma-like pieces. [You could do this first cooking ahead and then do the next step when you are ready to actually sit down and eat.] 
  4. Heat 1 tbsp of oil in a skillet on the stove-top over medium high heat. A cast iron pan is great for this step. Pour half of the chicken into the skillet and sauté for 3-4 minutes till the smallest pieces of chicken turn brown and crisp.
  5. Remove the cooked chicken from the skillet. Heat another 1 tbsp of oil and sauté the remaining chicken in the same way. Serve warm.

For Tahini Sauce

  1. Mix all of the ingredients together. Use 1/4 cup of water to start and mix it through. Here’s where it gets personal. I like a thick sauce so I may only use a little more water, but if you prefer a thinner sauce with the consistency of heavy cream – and also because different brands of tahini differ in density – use water, mixing until you get the consistency you want. The tahini will actually thicken when you first add the lemon juice and then you thin it with water. Extra sauce (should you have any) will keep for a day or two in the fridge and can be used to make salad dressing or with any other grilled meat or poultry.

Roasted Tomato Soup

While my family and I eat meat, we don’t eat it every night. And since it is generally just me and my husband now, we often like something a little bit lighter for dinner yet still full of flavor. This is a lovely, herbaceous, slightly smoky soup that really only requires some well-toasted, crusty bread topped with smushed avocado or hummus if you are keeping it vegan or adding some cheese if you just want it vegetarian. The original recipe claimed that it served four, but unless you are also serving a large salad or are very, very tiny people with very, very small appetites, we found that it was just right for two people with one of them having seconds. Of course, if this is just a first course, it will obviously serve more. Should you have any left-overs, they can be gently re-heated.

This recipe relies on having access to really flavorful tomatoes and I think that Roma/plum tomatoes are best here. And while I suppose you could use dried herbs, please, please use fresh. It’s just that kind of fresh, herbal flavor that makes this dish. There are no fancy techniques here and it is wonderful as is, but when I make it again, I very likely will also add a couple of roasted red peppers – just because I can.

Roasted Tomato Soup by  

Yield: 4 small or 2 generous servings

Ingredients

2 lb tomatoes

2 tbsp olive oil

1/2 tsp Kosher salt or to taste

1/4 tsp cracked black pepper or to taste

2 cups vegetable broth, preferably low sodium

3 tbsp olive oil

1 large onion chopped – about 2 cups

3 cloves garlic minced

1/4 cup fresh basil, chopped plus extra for garnish

1 tbsp fresh thyme, chopped plus extra for garnish

2 tbsp all-purpose, unbleached flour

1 tbsp brown sugar

2 tsp Balsamic vinegar

1 tsp Spanish smoked paprika  

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 400 F degrees.
  2. Cut the tomatoes in half length-wise. Add the tomatoes to a 9 x 13 baking pan and drizzle with 2 tbsp of olive oil, then season with salt and pepper. Bake for about 30 minutes or until tomatoes start to char slightly.Roasted Tomato Soup 3Roasted Tomato Soup7

  3. Add the tomatoes (with skin on) to a blender along with 1 cup of vegetable broth. Blend until tomatoes are smooth. [I found that the tomatoes blended just fine without adding the broth at this point. Your choice.]

  4. In a Dutch oven or heavy soup pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat.

  5. Add the chopped onion and garlic cloves and cook for 5 minutes or until the onion is soft and translucent.

  6. Add chopped fresh basil and thyme and stir. Roasted Tomato Soup8Sprinkle the flour over the onions and stir. Add remaining 1 cup of vegetable broth and whisk, just to make sure there are no lumps from the flour.

  7. Pour the blended tomatoes into the pot and stir.

  8. Add brown sugar, Balsamic vinegar, smoked paprika and season with salt and pepper if needed.

  9. Simmer uncovered for 20 to 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

  10. Serve with some additional chopped fresh herbs, grated cheese and/or toasted bread or any combination. Roasted Tomato Soup1

Cornish Hens with Fruits, Walnuts and Honey Apple Glaze

This recipe is lovely any time of the year, but it seems particularly appropriate for the holiday of Sukkot, a harvest festival which is one of three great Jewish Pilgrimage festivals. According to rabbinic tradition, these flimsy sukkot represent the huts in which the Israelites dwelt during their 40 years of wandering in the desert after escaping from slavery in Egypt.

There used to be an Israeli restaurant in Chicago that made Cornish Hens similar to these. I always ordered it whenever I was there, so when it went out of business, I was forced to find a way to recreate the recipe at home. I came across this recipe in Food and Wine and used it as a jumping off point. The original restaurant version used to stuff the birds with some of the dried fruit and nuts instead of having the birds simply sit on top of them.  While this still is not quite as wonderful as what I recall eating, this version is  close and is absolutely delicious.

Cornish Hens available in the grocery store often seem to run around 2 to 2.5 pounds each, which is huge. I was fortunate to come across these Cornish Hens which are only about 1.25 pounds each – the perfect size. The were available in the freezer section and because of their size, they will defrost quickly. This recipe only requires either a wild rice or bulghur wheat pilaf to accompany it and, of course, a salad.  While the amount of meat isn’t huge, the richness of the fruit, nuts and sauce means that a little goes a long way. This can easily be doubled or tripled. If you don’t observe Sukkot, just enjoy this dish as the perfect autumn meal.

Cornish Hens with Fruits, Walnuts and Honey Apple Glaze from Food and Wine, September 2012 and tweaked by me

Yield: 4 portions

Ingredients  Cornish Hens with Fruit, Walnuts and Honey Glaze3

2 tart apples, such as Granny Smith, peeled, cored, and diced

2/3 cup dried apricots, cut into thin slices OR half apricots and half prunes

2/3 cup raisins

1 cup walnuts, chopped

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon  Cornish Hens with Fruit, Walnuts and Honey Glaze2

1/4 teaspoon each ground: cumin, turmeric, coriander, ginger, cardamom

1/8 teaspoon ground clove

1 teaspoon crushed garlic

2 tablespoons melted butter

1/4 cup apple juice [If you don’t have apple juice or cider, you can just as easily use orange juice.]

2 tablespoons honey or date honey

1/4 teaspoon dried thyme

About 1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt

2 Cornish hens (about 1 1/4 pounds each), halved

1/4 teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper

Directions

  1. Heat the oven to 400°. In a roasting pan, combine the apples, apricots, prunes, raisins, walnuts, spices, garlic, and butter. Spread the mixture over the bottom of the pan.
  2. In a small bowl, combine the apple juice, honey, thyme, and 1/4 teaspoon of the salt to make a glaze. Sprinkle the Cornish hens with the remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt and the pepper and set them breast-side down on top of the fruit-and-nut mixture. Cornish Hens with Fruit, Walnuts and Honey Glaze1Brush the hens with some of the glaze and then cook for 20 minutes.   
  3. Remove the roasting pan from the oven. Stir the fruit-and-nut mixture and turn the hens over. [I found that this worked best if I placed the hens on a platter while I stirred through the fruit and nuts.] Brush them with more of the glaze, return the pan to the oven, and cook for another 10 minutes. Glaze the birds again and continue cooking them until just done, about 10 to 15 minutes longer. Glaze the hens one final time and serve them with the fruit-and-nut dressing and a bulghur wheat pilaf.

Apple Cinnamon Noodle Kugel

As we prepare to complete the 10 Days of Awe with the observance of Yom Kippur, the Day of Repentance, Jews everywhere not only each reflect on how they could become a better person in the coming year, but also on what they will eat to break the fast.  I don’t know about you, but if I have been fasting for more than 24 hours, I don’t want to wait while something heats up in order to break my fast. Some people set out an elaborate dairy spread, but I also want something traditional, quick and delicious. So while I likely will have bagels and lox for my husband, I want kugel. People tend to fall into two camps – those who like potato kugel and those who like noodle kugel. Some swing both ways, but I’m not one of them. And while I always say that I never met a potato that I didn’t like, I’m actually not a fan of potato kugel.

This simple and wonderful recipe is perfect for a “break-the-fast” or as a side to the pre-fast meal. It is sweet and flavorful without being cloying and can be eaten hot or at room temperature. I’ve been known to snack on it right from the fridge. Unlike many noodle kugels, especially the kind you find at synagogue functions, this does not contain cheese or vanilla. While those make perfect-looking pieces to serve, I personally find them overly sweet, overly heavy and often with a phony vanilla taste. This kugel doesn’t require any of that. The natural apple flavor is clean, naturally sweet with just a little “bite” from the cinnamon. The pineapple adds a very subtle background note.

The recipe was passed down to me from the actor Mandy Patinkin’s Aunt Ida – a lovely woman who attended my synagogue and was a neighbor for many years. I have made a few small tweaks, but the essential recipe is from the Patinkin family. It pairs beautifully with roast chicken or brisket and is also ideal for a brunch. Left-overs never last long, but it does also freeze well. I make several different noodle kugel recipes throughout the year, but this one is still my favorite. And you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy it!

May you all be sealed in the Book of Life.

Apple Cinnamon Noodle Kugel Apple Cinnamon Kugel

Yield: About 10 to 12 portions

Ingredients

8 ounces medium/broad egg noodles

1 stick (4 ounces) of unsalted butter (or margarine if you need it to be pareve) melted

1/2 cup of granulated sugar mixed with 2 teaspoons cinnamon or to taste (It will partly depend on how sweet your apples are, but this is generally what I use.) [Reserve about 2-3 Tablespoons for the topping or just make an additional amount which is what I generally do.]

1 lemon cut in half for rubbing on apples to prevent them from turning brown

6 medium flavorful apples peeled, rubbed with a cut lemon and thinly sliced (Macintosh is traditional, but pretty much any good baking apple except for Granny Smith, which I think gets too woody.)

Kosher salt to taste but about 3/4 to 1 teaspoon should be right

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

8.5 ounces of canned, crushed pineapple in juice or syrup (It depends what I can find. Syrup was in the original recipe, but my preference is for pineapple in juice. If it is in syrup, I might go a little lighter on the sugar.)

About 1/4 cup of unsalted butter, melted  for drizzling over the top (Optional)

The original recipe called for crushed cornflakes tossed with cinnamon sugar which was very big in the 1950’s. It goes over the top of the kugel before baking. I don’t use it myself. I simply sprinkle with a bit of cinnamon sugar most of the time, and if I’m getting fancy, I sometimes add chopped nuts or crushed amaretti cookies. 

Apple Cinnamon Kugel1

Directions

  1. Prepare your apples while the water is boiling and the noodles are cooking. Place them in a very large bowl. Squeeze a bit of the lemon juice over the apples to prevent them from browning.
  2. Cook the noodles according to the shortest cooking time on the package directions – usually 8 minutes. Drain the cooked noodles very well.
  3. Heat your oven to 400 degrees F.
  4. Mix in all of the remaining ingredients to the apples, including the drained noodles and melted butter. Save adding the eggs for last. If you forgot to set aside some of the cinnamon sugar, don’t fret. This is a very forgiving recipe and you can just make a little more to add at the end, which is generally what I do. It will look as if the mixture is too much for the pan, but trust me – it fits. Do NOT skimp on the apples!
  5. Pour the mixture into a buttered (margarined or PAM’d) 11 x 9 x 2-inch rectangular pan and spread it evenly. If you are using the cornflakes topping, add it now. Otherwise just sprinkle with the reserved or additional cinnamon sugar. This would be when you add your nuts or amaretti cookies if you are using them. I like to drizzle a bit of additional melted butter on top, but you don’t have to. It’s just better if you do!
  6. Bake for 20 minutes uncovered. Then reduce the heat to 350 degrees F. and continue baking for about another hour or until well-browned. Allow it to cool a bit before cutting in order for the “pudding” to set. If you plan on serving it at room temperature, this won’t be an issue. And no matter how it looks, it tastes AMAZING. My father always used to tell my mother when her incredibly flaky pie crust would crumble when cut that we weren’t making a dress out of it. He would then proceed to eat a huge piece of her apple pie and say that it was a nice sample and cut himself another slice which he also devoured.

 

 

 

Apricot Almond Cake

My husband is 6’3″ and weighs 170 pounds. So let’s just say he is quite thin. His idea of watching his weight is to eat 2 desserts instead of three in the course of a day. I’d hate him, except for the fact that I love him so much. On the other hand, I never feel guilty for baking because I know that I’m not leading him astray. His weight, blood pressure and cholesterol are all textbook wonderful.

He truly enjoys having a piece of cake or some cookies with his morning coffee and after dinner. We are just about finished with my most recent cake so I was looking for something to make that didn’t require me going to the store. I looked through my well-worn copy of Beard on Bread for inspiration and came across his Apricot Bread. However, when I read the recipe it just seemed lacking somehow to me and so I made a few tweaks. This lovely coffee (or tea) cake is easy to make and stores well. In fact, the flavors improve and intensify each day, so if you want it at its peak for serving to guests, I would recommend making it a couple of days ahead. It is not uber-rich or sweet and you will notice that the only fat comes from the 2 eggs and the almonds. My husband likes it best slathered with butter and toasted under the broiler! I enjoy it straight.

Apricot Almond Cake from the Beard on Bread cookbook and tweaked by me

Apricot Almond Cake3

Yield: 1 bundt cake – 10 to 12 servings

Ingredients

1 cup boiling water

1.5 cups of dried apricots

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt

Zest of one orange

1 cup granulated sugar

2 large eggs

2.75 cups of all-purpose, unbleached flour OR 2.5 cups of flour and 1/4 cup of stone ground corn meal

3 teaspoons (1 Tablespoon) double-acting baking powder

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste

1/4 teaspoon pure almond extract

1 cup coarsely chopped almonds (I used mostly blanched almonds but threw in a few raw almonds since I didn’t have quite enough)

Powdered sugar for dusting (optional)

Directions

  1. Heat your oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. Pour the boiling water over the apricots and allow them to stand until just tender. Since my dried apricots were very moist already, I only let them stand for 10 minutes. Drain off the water, reserving it. If the reserved isn’t quite a cup, add enough cold tap water to make one cup.
  3. Roughly chop the apricots. Toss the apricots with 1/4 cup of flour and set aside.
  4. Pour the liquid into a large mixing bowl and add the baking soda, salt, sugar and eggs and mix well. Then add the orange zest, vanilla and almond extract and mix through.
  5. Add the apricots, remaining flour, baking powder and nuts and mix until everything is well mixed.
  6. Butter and flour (or use the baking spray which has flour in it and works amazingly well) a large 10 cup bundt pan, preferably non-stick. Pour the batter, which is fairly thick, into the pan and even it out. Bake for about 45 minutes or until the cake is a lovely golden brown and a cake tester or toothpick comes out clean when inserted. Cool for 10 minutes in the pan on a rack and then turn out the cake to continue cooling completely. Apricot Almond Cake4Dust with powdered sugar if desired. Wrap tightly or store in a covered cake plate.

Apricot Almond Cake2

Herbed Chicken Breasts

I love things that can be prepped ahead and then cooked quickly. I also like to feed my family as if they are guests so when I make these lovely, light and flavorful chicken breasts, I’m happy to make a weekday dinner into an occasion. There is no careful measuring and I can make as few as two chicken breasts or as many as a dozen. These could be grilled or made in the oven as I do since I do not own a grill. The chicken is best prepped so that it sits overnight in the fridge, but even a few hours ahead of cooking will work. The flavors and aromas are so bright and the chicken is so tender and moist that you forget that it is simply a boring boneless, skinless chicken breast. I serve them with herbed roasted potatoes and a crispy veg like barely steamed broccoli, but the sides are up to you. I would only make these with fresh herbs. And the added bonus to this dish is that the preparation is a wonderful way to work out any of your aggression from the day!

Herbed Chicken Breasts

Yield: That is up to you!

Ingredients for 2 chicken breasts

Roasted Herbed Chicken6

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts

2-3 Tablespoons of roughly chopped fresh herbs (My favorites are rosemary and Greek Oregano, but thyme is also good. I would not use a softer herb like basil for this.)

1-2 lemons, with the ends trimmed off and thinly sliced

2 fat garlic cloves, thinly sliced Roasted Herbed Chicken3

Kosher salt and fresh cracked black pepper to taste

EVOO (flavored if you have it – I used Meyer lemon EVOO)

Hungarian sweet paprika for sprinkling (optional)

Directions

  1. Place your chicken breast about 3 inches apart between two sheets of parchment that is placed over a cutting board (the board will absorb some of the pounding). Roasted Herbed Chicken5Using a meat tenderizer (the round flat kind pictured above) or a small, heavy frying pan, pound each breast until it is flattened and even in thickness. The breast should be about twice the size of the original. Use even pressure so as not to tear the meat. A little tearing is no big deal, but you want one nice, flat breast.
  2. Salt and pepper each side of the chicken Roasted Herbed Chicken4and carefully place in a plastic zip-lock bag or in a glass dish. Drizzle with EVOO – about 1-2 Tablespoons.
  3. Add the thinly sliced lemons, placing half on one side of the bag and the other half on the other side. Distribute the herbs and garlic in the same manner. Roasted Herbed ChickenSeal the bag, getting out as much of the air as you can. With your hand, gently massage the herbs, lemon, garlic and EVOO into the breasts. Place the bag in the fridge, keeping it flat if possible.
  4. When you are ready to cook the chicken, heat your oven to 425 degrees F with the pan in the oven. If you have a grill pan, this would be a great use for it. Otherwise, a shallow baking pan covered with foil will work. When the oven and the pan have come to temperature, drizzle a little EVOO in the pan. Using tongs,  place the chicken breasts,without any liquid that may have collected in the bag, on the pan. Place the lemons around, but not on the chicken. Distribute any herbs and garlic.  Sprinkle with a bit of paprika if you like. Drizzle with EVOO. Roast for about 9 minutes a side, turning once. You will have to watch the chicken since the sizes of the breasts these days are so variable and tend to be large. They could take a little longer or shorter, but you want the chicken to be totally cooked through without being over-cooked. If you have a broiler in your oven, I like to turn it on for the final few minutes of cooking to give a really good color to the chicken and lemons. If you don’t have a broiler, just cook the chicken until nicely browned. When you are plating the chicken, place a couple of slices of the lemon along with some of the herbs and garlic on each piece. I love to eat the roasted lemon, but that is up to you.

Roasted Herbed Chicken8

Baked Stuffed Eggplant with Lamb and Bulghur

As anyone who follows my blog knows, I love vegetables and I love lamb. Mediterraneans stuff all kinds of vegetables and the ingredients and seasonings are only limited by your imagination and personal tastes. You can keep the dish vegetarian – as I do at times – or you can blend grains with ground lamb or beef. This time I decided to stuff my eggplant and zucchini with ground lamb mixed with cooked bulghur wheat, onions, garlic and Ras El Hanout, a Moroccan spice mix.   My spice mix came from Kalustyan and combines, coriander, cumin, fennel, allspice, cinnamon, anise, cardamom, ginger, nutmeg, turmeric, rose petals, lavender and black pepper. Any good spice store or Middle Eastern market should carry it and each will have its own combination of spices. You can, of course, make your own and adjust the mix to suit your own personal tastes.

The different parts of this dish can be assembled ahead and heated through when you are ready to serve. All that is needed to round out the meal is salad, maybe some hummus and pita and some fruit. Get creative and go stuff some vegetables!

Baked Stuffed Eggplant with Lamb and Bulghur

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

2 medium eggplants (about 1.25 pounds each)

EVOO

1 cup cooked bulghur wheat, farro or rice

1 pound of ground lamb or beef

1 medium yellow onion, peeled and finely chopped

3 cloves of peeled, minced garlic

Kosher salt and fresh cracked black pepper to taste

About 2.5 teaspoons Ras El Hanout or other spice combination like Baharat 

28 ounces of good quality canned tomatoes (preferably San Marzano)

2 Tablespoons of tomato paste

1 Tablespoon of either balsamic vinegar or pomegranate molasses

About 4 ounces of a melty cheese like a mozzarella provolone blend or a Haloumi (Optional)

Dried bread crumbs, preferably Panko (Optional)

1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley or cilantro

Directions

  1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees F. and place the rack in the center of the oven.
  2. Cut each eggplant in half lengthwise. Leaving a 1/2-inch border, use a paring knife to cut around the insides of each half. Scoop out the flesh carefully so as not to go beyond your border. If you go too far the vegetable “boats” will collapse when cooked. Coarsely cut up the flesh and set aside. Stuffed eggplant with lamb and bulghur7
  3. Rub the insides of the vegetable “boats” with about 1 Tablespoon of the EVOO and season with the salt and pepper. Place the “boats” in a baking dish (or dishes as in my case) large enough to hold them fairly snugly. I like to alternate the pieces head to foot for a better fit.  Roast until tender, about 30 to 35 minutes, depending on the size of the vegetable. You know when it is done if there is no resistance when pierced with a sharp knife. Remove the vegetables from the oven and set aside.
  4. In a large frying pan, heat 2-3 tablespoons of EVOO and brown the ground lamb with about 3/4  teaspoon of salt. Remove the lamb from the pan and put it in a strainer to remove any excess fat and liquid. Without cleaning the pan, add the chopped eggplant flesh, onion and garlic to the pan along with 1/2 teaspoon of salt and some cracked black pepper and cook until the onion begins to brown at the edges and the eggplant is cooked. This will take about 8 to 10 minutes. Depending on your eggplant you may need to add some additional EVOO. Add back the lamb and add the cooked bulghur and 2 teaspoons of Ras El Hanout and just cook for about another  two to three minutes, stirring through until the air is perfumed with the spice mix. Allow to cool enough until it is easy to handle. This can be made a day ahead and refrigerated. [NOTE: Any left-overs can be frozen or used later in the week for another dinner.]
  5. If using whole canned tomatoes, break them up with your hands into a bowl. Add the tomato paste, 1 Tablespoon of either balsamic vinegar or pomegranate molasses and some fresh cracked black pepper to the tomatoes along with 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 1/2 teaspoon of Ras El Hanout. Stir through. If you want things spicier and your Ras El Hanout did not contain chili pepper, you can add some to taste here. Add 1/2 cup of the tomato mixture to the eggplant, onion, bulghur wheat mixture and stir through. Pour the remaining tomato mixture into the bottom of the baking dish(es).
  6. When you are ready to serve, heat the broiler (or heat your oven to 450 degrees F. if you don’t have a good broiler or if your baking pan is not broiler-safe.) Take each eggplant “boat” and place onto a cutting board or work surface and fill it to the top, mounding it a bit. If you are using cheese, crumble it over the top of each eggplant “boat.” Sprinkle with breadcrumbs and drizzle with EVOO. If you choose not to use the cheese, you can simply sprinkle with some bread crumbs. Stuffed eggplant with lamb and bulghur4Broil or roast until the cheese is melted and browned (or until the breadcrumbs are browned). It will be faster under the broiler but should not take long in either case so be sure to watch it. Serve each eggplant “boat” with some  of the tomato sauce and sprinkle with chopped parsley or cilantro. Any left-overs can be refrigerated and reheated. Stuffed eggplant with lamb and bulghur

Tahini and Halva Brownies

By now, putting tahini in sweet desserts is no longer a novel idea. However, using halva, which is still not commonly eaten in the United States is. Halva is a Middle Eastern confection made of sesame flour and honey or sugar with nuts or other flavorings added at times. It is often referred to as Middle Eastern “fudge.” When I first tasted halva over 50 years ago (YIKES!) I thought that it tasted like sweetened sawdust. I have since come to love it – so much so that on my last visit to Israel a few years ago, I decided to bring back a large slice of halva from simply the best halva maker in the world – Halva King in Jerusalem. The slice was brick-shaped and fairly substantial and I had it in the bottom of my carry-on luggage. When I was going through customs, I was stopped and asked to empty out my bag after it had been through the X-ray machine. I was confused as to what could have raised concern since I knew that I didn’t have any banned materials. It turned out that the piece of halva looked just like a brick of C4 explosive! Thankfully the TSA person actually knew what halva was and we were both able to laugh about the incident.

So when I came across this Yotam Ottolenghi & Helen Goh recipe I thought it would be fun to try. I tried it, carefully measuring and weighing everything, but the brownies just were sooooooooooooooooo gooey that you couldn’t cut a clean piece – and they never firmed up. And the walnuts were a complete waste of ingredients since the flavor couldn’t fight its way through. I then came across this version that is converted into ounces and measuring cups which came from the Ottolenghi and Goh cookbook Sweet: Desserts from London’s Ottolenghi. There are some pretty significant differences between this version and the one that is on Ottolenghi’s UK website so go figure. This second version is what I have presented here and which corrected all of my problems with the first version that I tried. I finally made these brownies to my satisfaction. It won’t replace my favorite Java Brownies which are still the best brownies – ever – but my husband says that these are a pretty close contender.

Halva comes in many varieties and some are drier than others and the number of flavors is only limited by your imagination. Not being overwhelmed with options that were easily accessible, however, I went with a “plain” vanilla halva by Ziyad brand. It was moderately dry but moist enough to be able to cut into pieces without it totally crumbling.  This final version, which I baked for the full 40 minutes, has a good balance of gooey goodness along with the slightly crispier edges, which I love. We always fight over the corners in my house!

Tahini and Halva Brownies by Yotam Ottolenghi & Helen Goh and ever-so-slightly tweaked by me

Tahini and Halva Brownies11

Yield: About 20 brownies

Ingredients

1 cup plus 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into ¾-inch cubes

11 ounces dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids), broken into 1½-inch pieces

5 large eggs

1¾ cups granulated sugar

1¼ cups all-purpose flour

⅓ cup plus 2 tablespoons Dutch-processed cocoa powder

¾ teaspoon salt

7 to 8¾ ounces halva, broken into ¾-inch pieces (I used Ziyad plain halva with vanilla)

Up to ⅓ cup tahini paste

Directions

  1. Heat your oven to 375 degrees F. Grease a 9 by 13-inch pan and line with enough parchment to create a 3/4-inch overhang.
  2. You want to melt the butter with the chocolate. You can do this over a double boiler or a bowl set over simmering water, but I found that it was quicker and less to clean up using the microwave. I placed the chocolate and butter in a bowl and microwaved it on high for 45 seconds, I removed the bowl, gave everything a stir and returned it to the microwave for another 30 seconds. I then stirred the chocolate and melted butter until all of the chocolate was melted. I allowed the mixture to cool to just barely warm.
  3. Sift the flour and cocoa together and add the salt. Set aside.
  4. In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the sugar and eggs until light in color and thickened. It should form ribbons when you lift the beaters. Gently fold in the chocolate mixture by hand. Do not over mix. Then fold in the flour and cocoa just until incorporated. Finally add the halva pieces and gently fold through. (I actually cut my halva pieces into odd-sized chunks with most being a little smaller than was recommended. I remembered from the first version that I ended up with rather obvious chunks of halva, which were okay, but gave an odd mouth-feel. These smaller pieces gave the flavor and a little texture but were not as obvious when you bit into the brownie. This is personal choice.) 

  5. Pour the mixture into the parchment-lined pan and spread to an even layer. Using a spoon, dollop the tahini over the brownie mixture. Don’t worry overmuch about being especially neat or perfect. Using a spoon or skewer, swirl the tahini through the mixture. You don’t want to be too perfect or too even. It should be marbled. Tahini and Halva Brownies3
  6. Place the pan in the center of your oven. You want to bake them until the top is crisp and the middle is a bit wobbly – between 36-40 minutes. Ovens do vary so you will just have to watch them. Tahini and Halva Brownies13If you are not a lover of the crispy corners, then you likely will go with the shorter baking time. Either way, there will be some jiggle to the center, but once they cool they will firm up some yet retain their gooeyness. In theory, the brownies can last up to 5 days in an airtight container, but who are we kidding?! They also freeze although I have not personally tried this.

Fresh Fig and Walnut Bread

About 10 years ago, I brought a group of Catholic High School teachers to Israel for a program that I created. Among the many wonderful things that we did during that visit was to travel to the Catholic Maronite Palestinian village of Fassuta on the Lebanon border in the Upper Galilee. We were given a tour of the village by the then mayor, who seemed to know everyone there. We were unable to move more than a few feet without someone greeting us and inviting us in for fruit or coffee or juice. One older woman had a small but beautiful garden with fig trees and grapes. We happened to be there at the exact moment of fig ripeness perfection and she immediately started plucking these plump beauties right off of the tree and passing them around. I probably ate six or eight of them before I had to cry “uncle.” I have been spoiled for fresh figs ever since and have never been able to find any in my market that even come close to tasting like those figs from a garden in Fassuta.

However, I was watching a video from POV Italian Cooking about making fig bread from slightly over-ripe fresh figs and decided that the figs that I could find in my market would probably work for this recipe. I made a couple of small changes, including adding toasted walnuts and the result is an AMAZING “tea” cake. If I close my eyes, it can make me conjure up that beautiful garden in the Galilee.

Fig and Walnut Bread8

Fresh Fig and Walnut Bread from POV Italian Cooking and tweaked by me

Yield: One 9 x 5 inch loaf

Ingredients

1 pint (2 cups) fresh, ripe figs

1 stick (8 Tablespoons) unsalted butter at room temperature

2 large eggs, lightly whisked with the vanilla

1 cup plus 2 rounded Tablespoons granulated sugar

2 cups all-purpose, unbleached flour (or substitute 1/4 cup for whole wheat flour)

1/2 teaspoon Kosher or sea salt

1 packet Lievito Pane Degli Angeli OR 1.5 teaspoons baking soda plus 1 teaspoon vanilla

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract or 1 Tablespoon cognac (Even though there is vanilla in the Lievito Pane degli Angeli, I like to add additional vanilla.)

1 cup toasted and coarsely broken walnuts

Fig and Walnut Bread7

Directions

  1. Heat your oven to 350 degrees F. with the rack in the center. Lavishly butter a 9 x 5 inch loaf pan (preferably non-stick) and line the bottom with parchment or waxed paper which you then also butter. Pour 2 rounded Tablespoons of granulated sugar into the bottom. Carefully angle and tap the pan so that the sugar coats the bottom and sides. This gives a lovely sugary crust to the outside of the bread. Fig and Walnut Bread4
  2. Cut off the bottom and stem of each fig. Split the fig into quarters and cut the quarters into 2 or 3 pieces, depending on the size of the fig. Place in a bowl and with the back of a fork, slightly mash the figs. Take 2 tablespoons of the flour you will measure out and toss it with the figs. This will prevent the fig pieces from all falling to the bottom. Set aside.
  3. In a standing mixer (or by hand) cream the softened butter and sugar. Add the eggs and vanilla and mix through.
  4. In a medium bowl, measure out the flour, salt and Lievito Pane degli Angeli or the baking soda and stir through to mix.
  5. In 2 or 3 additions, mix the dry ingredients with the butter, sugar and egg mixture until you have a fairly thick batter. Fold through the walnuts and figs by hand. Don’t worry too much about smushing the figs, although try not to over-do it!
  6. Spoon the mixture into the prepared pan and bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes or until the top is a lovely dark brown and the smell is intoxicating. And yes, when a cake tester or toothpick comes out clean! Allow the bread to cool in the pan for 20 minutes on a cooling rack. Fig and Walnut Bread3By then you should be able to handle the pan with your bare hands. Run a thin spatula or knife around the edges of the pan. Turn the bread out onto the rack, remove the parchment and allow it to cool completely (if you can wait that long.) The bread is then ready to eat.