Crostata di Ricotta

Crostata di Ricotta is a prized cheesecake from the Garfagna region of Tuscany. This post was supposed to have been ready ahead of the Festival of Shavuot, which commemorates the spring harvest and the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. It is customary to eat dairy meals during the holiday so I thought this wold be perfect. However, I’m afraid that I was only able to actually get it made in time for us to enjoy it for the holiday. So keep this in your pocket for next year.

But who am I kidding? This delicious cheesecake, permeated with raisins soaked in Marsala and redolent of the grated zest of an orange is perfect any time. The recipe comes from Carol Field’s book The Italian Baker. She got the recipe from Joyce Goldstein who was a chef at Cafe Chez Panisse. I know – two Jewish women and not an Italian name in sight!

But when you smell this tart with its buttery melt-in-your-mouth sweet crust and bite into the airy, custardy Marsala-scented filling, you will think you are in Tuscany. I was brought up on and love a really good New York cheesecake – so dense and rich that a fork could stand up in it. This Crostata di Ricotta isn’t that. So rid yourself of any preconceptions and enjoy this ricotta tart for what it is – amazing.

Making the Crostata di Ricotta isn’t difficult and it is one of those things where you can make the pastry the day before. I really urge you not to use bought pastry dough for this recipe. Yes, it’s a little more work but the result is so worth it. And if you have a food processor, it actually comes together in no time.

There are many different pastry doughs that would work here as long as they are a rich, sweet dough. I normally like to use a Pâte Sucrée with eggs, but since I was running low on eggs, I made a Pasta Frolla from The Italian Baker that didn’t require any. That is the recipe below. It was not a recipe like any I had made before, but it did come together easily. And while rolling it out proved to be a bit problematic, I was able to pat it into place with my hands and knuckles. The finished product is beautiful and delicious.

My husband and I LOVED this. The crust is fragrant and incredibly delicate – just melting in your mouth with every bite. It is so delicate that it seems to disappear before you even have time to swallow. Oh and let’s not forget the filling. Ahhhhhhhh, the filling. It’s like eating the most flavorful, custardy cloud you can imagine. I’m really not doing justice to how delicious this is. Many things I think are too fussy and not worth the effort. This is absolutely worth the effort.

Carol Field suggests eating the Crostata when still warm or at least the day it is baked. However, if you make it ahead and refrigerate it, she says that it can be warmed in a 350 degree F oven for 20 to 30 minutes. Truthfully, I’m not sure that I would like it warm, but it was amazing eaten a few hours after it had come out of the oven. And even eating it right from the fridge was still pretty great. But your first bites should be from the fresh tart.

Recipes

Yield: One 9.5-inch cheesecake; 8 to 10 servings

For the Pasta Frolla

Ingredients

1.5 cups (200 grams) all-purpose, unbleached flour

3/4 cup plus 1 Tablespoon (100 grams) potato starch

1/2 cup (100 grams) granulated sugar

Pinch of kosher or fine sea salt

1.75 sticks (200 grams) unsalted butter, at cool room temperature and just malleable

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Grated zest of 1 lemon

Grated zest of 1/2 navel orange (the other half will be used for the filling)

Directions

Place the flour, potato starch, sugar and salt in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Pulse once to mix.

Cut the butter into small chunks and scatter over the flour. Process with about 6 long pulses until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Add the vanilla and grated zest. Process until the dough just starts to come together but before it forms a ball. Knead the dough by hand very briefly until it comes together in a ball that is no longer sticky. I did not have to add any flour to my surface to do this, but if you must just add a small amount. Form a disc, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour or up to overnight.

When you are ready to roll out the dough, remove it from the fridge for about 10 minutes so you can work with it.

For the Crostata di Ricotta

You will need a deep-sided tart pan with a removable bottom that measures 9.5 inches across the top. Absent that, you could use a spring-form pan but it won’t be quite as pretty as if you have the fluted sides.

Ingredients

1/2 cup (80 grams) golden or other raisins

4 Tablespoons Marsala (I only had a very fine dry Marsala instead of a sweet Marsala. It worked out fine.)

1 pound (450 grams) whole milk ricotta

1/2 cup (100 grams) granulated sugar

1 Tablespoon unbleached, all-purpose flour

4 large eggs, separated, at room temperature

1/4 cup heavy or whipping cream (I only had half & half so used that)

1/4 cup sour cream (I actually only had creme fraiche which has a higher fat content than sour cream. I figured it made up for not having heavy cream.)

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Zest of 1/2 navel orange

1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt or kosher salt

Directions

Soak the raisins in the Marsala for at least 15 minutes (I did overnight). Drain and reserve the Marsala.

Roll out your dough (Mine kept breaking but it actually was quite malleable and I was able to work it with my hands into the pan with the end result being beautiful!) Refrigerate the pan with the dough until you are ready to fill it. This keeps the dough from shrinking.

Heat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Place the ricotta, heavy cream and sour cream (or creme fraiche) in the processor and pulse until smooth. Add the flour and sugar and pulse until mixed. Now add the egg yolks, reserved Marsala and vanilla. Pulse until well combined. Add the raisins and pulse once to mix through. Pour the mixture into a large bowl.

In a clean bowl, whip the egg whites with the salt until stiff peaks form. Stir 1/3 of the whites into the ricotta mixture and then gently fold through the remaining whites. Don’t overdo this. You don’t want to deflate the whites.

Remove the tart pan with the pastry from the fridge. Place the pan on a baking sheet or aluminum foil to catch any butter drips. Fill the pastry with the ricotta mixture and even out the top. Place in the oven and bake for 50 to 60 minutes or until the pastry is golden and the filling just barely wobbles. Turn off the oven and open the door part way. Leave the cake in the oven for 30 minutes to cool down slowly. This prevents too much cracking and allows the cake to fully set. After 30 minutes remove the cake to a wire rack.

Once it is cool enough to easily handle, you can remove the tart from the baking ring. The easiest way is to place the tart pan over a large can. The outer tart ring falls off and the tart remains on the bottom. Be standing by to hold onto the Crostata. Then mangia!

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Italian Polenta Cookies

Everyone is looking for comfort right now, as well as ways to fill unaccustomed time at home. Baking makes your house smell absolutely safe, warm and inviting. But even after the aromas have dissipated, the delight of eating something delicious that you made lingers on. These Italian Polenta Cookies fit that description perfectly.

Grocery shopping has become challenging in the Time of Coronavirus. Many items are out of stock and getting deliveries scheduled can now take days (if at all) instead of hours. And who knows what will actually arrive when the delivery comes? I admit it. My pantry could probably survive the Zombie Apocalypse, but even I need to buy certain fresh staples like eggs, milk and produce.

In looking for some treat to make for my husband and me (because don’t we all need a little sweetness in our lives?) I came back to this recipe from David Lebovitz that I had seen about 18 months ago. I really love the not-overly-sweet variety of Italian cookies and I especially like cookies made from cornmeal or polenta. They just have this extra somethin’ somethin’. There is the zing of lemon with that slight crunch and flavor of the polenta. These Italian Polenta Cookies are perfect for afternoon tea, with a glass of Vin Santo or a cup of coffee.

Recipe

Yield: About 3 dozen cookies

Ingredients

3 tablespoons water

3/4 cup (90g) dried currant or another dried fruit, such as chopped cranberries or cherries

3 tablespoons eau-de-vie or grappa (I used Amaretto since I had neither grappa nor eau-de-vie)

1 3/4 cups (250g) flour

1 cup (160g) fine (or instant) polenta

3/4 cup (150g) granulated sugar, plus more for finishing the cookies

1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 large egg

1 large egg yolk

8 tablespoons (4oz) unsalted butter, melted and cooled

Grated zest of 1 lemon

Directions

Heat the water in a small saucepan until it starts to boil. Turn off the heat and add the currants, or other dried fruit, and liqueur. Set aside for 30 minutes to 1 hour. (They can be plumped a day or two in advance.)


In the bowl of a stand mixer, fitted with the paddle attachment, mix the flour, polenta, sugar, salt and baking powder. (You can also make this dough in a large bowl, stirring with a wooden spoon or spatula.)

In a medium bowl, mix together the egg and the egg yolks, then stir in the melted butter and lemon zest.

Add the egg mixture to the dry ingredients and stir together for about a minute, until they’re well-combined. Add the currants and any liquid, and beat them in at medium speed for about 30 seconds.

Remove the dough from the bowl, wrap it in plastic wrap, flatten it into a disk, and chill until firm, about an hour. (The dough can be made 2-3 days in advance, and baked later.)

To bake the cookies, preheat the oven to 350ºF. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats.

On a lightly floured counter top, pinch off tablespoon-sized pieces of dough, roll them into little logs (you may need to flour your hands as the dough can be slightly sticky), then press the logs gently to flatten them a bit, and pinch the ends to taper them. Place them on the baking sheet about an inch (3cm) apart, to allow for some spreading. Sprinkle the tops with granulated sugar.

Bake the cookies until golden brown across the top, about 15 minutes, rotating the baking sheets in the oven midway during baking. Let the cookies cool for a few minutes, then transfer them to a cooling rack.

Storage: The cookies can be kept up to one week in an airtight container at room temperature.

For other wonderful cookie options:

Lavender Mint Shortbread Cookies

Vegan Italian Chocolate Cookies

Tahini Cookies

Salted Chocolate Chip Tahini Cookies

Chewy Molasses Cookies

Tehina Shortbread Cookies

Vegan Oatmeal Raisin Chocolate Chip Cookies

Whole Wheat Chocolate Chip Cookies

Old Fashioned Sugar Cookies

Ribollita Soup

Ribollita Soup is the ultimate comfort food

Soup is comfort food. And Ribollita Soup may just be the ultimate winter comfort soup. This savory Tuscan bean porridge checks all of the right boxes. And it is easy to tailor it to your own tastes. In deciding which recipe to follow, I looked at no fewer than 8 versions before settling on this one that appeared in Food and Wine. I made a couple of tweaks. But this humble and cost-saving soup that makes use of simple ingredients and stale bread is one of the most satisfying wintery soups I have made. And I make a LOT of soup.

This version of Ribollita Soup does take some time to cook properly, but there is nothing difficult or fussy about it. And on these cold wintery days when you are snuggled up at home with a good book and some music in the background, put up a pot of Ribollita for ultimate comfort. You won’t be disappointed. Add a glass of wine, and you raise this peasant soup to fine dining.

I used canned beans here but if you like to cook your own (as I often do) the best can be found at Rancho Gordo. I was first introduced to Rancho Gordo beans at the Culinary Institute several years ago on a trip with our son and daughter-in-law. Their heirloom beans are well-worth exploring.

My ribollita was made using chicken stock and Parmesan rinds, but you can easily veganize the soup using a vegetable stock and leaving out the cheese. Do use a simple rustic bread for this soup. It doesn’t actually have to be stale. The origins of Ribollita were to make use of everything and to waste nothing.

Recipe

Yield: About 6-8 servings

Ingredients

3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for serving

1 large yellow onion, finely chopped

2 large carrots, finely chopped

1 celery stalks, finely chopped

1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more

8 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper (optional)

28 ounce can OR 24 ounce box crushed tomatoes (preferably San Marzano)

1 1/2 cups unoaked white wine

8 cups chicken or vegetable stock (You could also use a mixture of water and the liquid from your cooked beans if you cooked your own)

3 stale Tuscan-style bread (rustic country loaf or boule) slices, crusts removed and bread torn into 1/2-inch pieces (about 3 1/2 ounces)

2 large bunches of kale (preferable lacinato kale, stemmed and torn into bite-sized pieces (This may seem like a lot of kale but it cooks down)

Parmesan cheese rind (optional)

About 4 cups of peeled, diced Yukon Gold potatoes

4 cups cooked cannellini beans (or other thin-skinned white beans from 2 15-ounce cans or homemade).

Freshly ground black pepper

Grated Parmesan cheese, for serving (optional)

Directions

Heat olive oil in a large, heavy pot or Dutch oven over medium-low. When oil shimmers, add onion, carrot, and celery; stir to coat with oil. Stir in salt to help draw out liquid from onions and season the foundation of the soup. Cook, stirring often and scraping bottom of pot with a flat-bottomed wooden spoon, reducing heat as necessary to maintain a gentle sizzle, until mixture is very soft and translucent, about 30 minutes. Increase heat to medium; cook, stirring often, until sofrito is caramelized, about 10 minutes.

Sofrito

Stir in the garlic and crushed red pepper, if using; cook, stirring constantly, about 1 minute. Stir in crushed tomatoes and wine, and stir, scraping up any browned bits on bottom of pot, until mixture is well combined. Increase heat to maintain a vigorous simmer (be careful of splattering tomato). Cook, stirring occasionally, until mixture is reduced to a jam-like consistency, about 20 minutes.

Add 8 cups water or stock, bread, kale, and Parmesan rind, if using; stir, scraping bottom of pan to fully incorporate sofrito into liquid. Simmer until kale is tender and bread is dissolved, about 20 minutes. Stir in potatoes, and simmer until partially tender, about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, puree 1 cup beans with 1 cup tap water or bean cooking liquid (if not using canned). Add bean puree and remaining 3 cups beans, and simmer until beans and potatoes are completely tender but not falling apart, about 25 minutes. Season with about 1 teaspoon more salt, or to taste, and a generous amount of black pepper.

Let soup cool to room temperature if not eating immediately; cover and refrigerate. Reheat soup gently before serving, and adjust seasonings as necessary. Divide among bowls, and top each with a drizzle of olive oil and freshly grated Parmesan cheese, if desired. Serve hot. (I found the soup did not need any additional olive oil)

Socca Niçoise Chickpea Bread

Tonight we’re having Greek Red Lentil Soup for dinner and I wanted some kind of bread to go with it. Socca Niçoise chickpea bread is the perfect accompaniment. Between the lentils and the chickpeas I certainly don’t need to worry about protein or flavor. This would be the perfect “meatless Monday” meal! And while I have no issues with gluten and happen to love almost all breads and pastas, this recipe is not only vegan, but it is gluten-free. The Socca was especially delicious drizzled with EVOO and with either tapenade or roasted smushed garlic spread on top. I’m just sayin’.

I will never be able to eat Socca without thinking of Julia Child. She did one of her TV episodes on the South of France and highlighted Socca. At the end of the show, in that inimitable Julia Child voice and with her joie de vivre, she looked at the audience and said “Socca to me!” [For those too young to recall the TV show Laugh-In, “Sock it to me” was a recurring phrase.]

What is Socca, really?

Socca Niçoise chickpea bread is a traditional Southern French treat. There are a dozen different ways you can make it. You’ll most often find socca cooked street-side on fiery grills, where the resulting flatbread is coarsely chopped and served in a cone with a sprinkling of salt and pepper. While every home cook in the South of France may have their own technique for preparing the batter, the ingredients are almost always the same: chickpea flour water, and olive oil. The Socca sold on the street are more crepe-like than this recipe but it still is delicious and worth making.

What is chickpea flour and is it the same as besan?

Chickpea flour is made from dried chickpeas (garbanzo beans) and is also commonly known as garbanzo flourgram flour, and besan. However, besan or gram flour is a flour of chana dal or split brown chickpeas. Chickpea flour or garbanzo flour is ground up white chickpeas. I happened to have besan on hand the first time I made this so that is what I used. I then bought chickpea/garbanzo flour and made it again. I also used 4.5 ounces of flour the second time instead of going with 1 cup. It turned out that one cup actually weighed out to 5.33 ounces. So which was better?

Both were good, but if I had to choose, I preferred the one made with actual chickpea flour and when I measured by weight rather than cups. The resulting socca had more flavor and was more reminiscent of what you would buy from a street vendor in Nice. I also drizzled olive oil on the top after 5 minutes in the oven and then returned it to the oven for another 3 minutes. When it came out of the broiler, I then drizzled more EVOO and sprinkled on my za’atar. The edges and bottom were brown and crispy and the middle was just barely flexible. I could get addicted to this especially since it is sooooooooooo easy to make. The second time I ate it with my delicious split pea soup. So, so satisfying.

Recipe for Socca Niçoise Chickpea Bread

Yield: 2 to 4 servings

Ingredients

  • 1 cup chickpea flour (4 1/2 ounces)
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for the pan and drizzling
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 Tablespoon of finely chopped fresh rosemary
  • 1+ teaspoon za’atar (optional)

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Prepare the chickpea batter. Whisk the chickpea flour, water, olive oil, rosemary and salt together in a medium bowl until smooth. Let rest for 30 minutes to give the flour time to absorb the water.
  2. Preheat the oven with the pan. Arrange an oven rack 6 inches below the broiler element and heat to 450°F with a 10-inch cast iron skillet inside. About 5 minutes before the batter is done resting, turn the oven to broil. (Don’t try this with any other kind of pan. And if you don’t have a cast iron skillet – get one. They are the best for so many things but especially when you want to really sear or brown food.)
  3. Carefully remove the hot skillet from the oven. Add about 1+ teaspoon of oil, enough to coat the bottom of the pan when the pan is swirled. Pour the batter into the center of the pan. Tilt the pan so the batter coats the entire surface of the pan.
  4. Broil the socca for 5 to 8 minutes. Broil the socca for 5 minutes. The top will begin to look a bit cracked. Drizzle generously with EVOO and return the pan to the oven for about 3 more minutes. The socca should be fairly flexible in the middle but crispy on the edges.
  5. Slice and serve. Use a flat spatula to work your way under the socca and ease it from the pan onto a cutting board. It should come right out leaving your pan practically clean. Drizzle with more EVOO and sprinkle with za’atar. Slice it into wedges or squares.

RECIPE NOTES

Storage: Socca is best if eaten immediately after baking while still warm, but can be refrigerated and re-toasted for up to 1 week.

Chickpea flour: You can find chickpea flour in the bulk bins at Whole Foods and other natural foods-type stores. Bob’s Red Mill also sells it in packages. Look for it under the name “garbanzo bean flour” if you’re having trouble finding it.

Sheet-Pan Chicken with Chickpeas

So who needs one more chicken dinner recipe? Well, I do. And this Sheet-Pan Chicken with Chickpeas dinner by Alison Roman checks all of my boxes. It is easy to make, inexpensive and loaded with umami.

I came across this recipe and knew immediately that it was something I had to make – and it didn’t disappoint. With a few tweaks and served up with Mediterranean salads, I had a dinner that my husband loved and which I would gladly serve to guests.

Now as much as I hate cleaning and use foil-lined pans whenever possible, placing the ingredients on an unlined pan really gave me the crispy, roasted finish to the sheet-pan chicken and chickpeas that this dish cries out for. And with a good pan soak overnight, clean-up was easier than I had expected – especially since my husband supplied the elbow grease! If you really don’t want to do that, you may have to turn the broiler on towards the end of cooking to approximate the right effect.

My chicken marinated overnight, but you could do it all in the same day. However, the longer marinating left the chicken incredibly moist and flavorful. Give your family something special with this sheet-pan chicken and chickpeas or try it the next time you have friends over for dinner. Once everything is in the oven, you get to relax and enjoy the company.

One thing I have learned in over 35 years of cooking daily and entertaining is that you don’t have to make everything yourself. Find some good brands that you like and trust and augment your meals when you want to serve multiple courses. If you have access to good salads or dips, use them. I found a really excellent boxed soup brand (Pacific Foods) and I use their Butternut Squash, Spicy Red Lentil or “Creamy” Tomato Basil soup as a first course. I might tart them up a bit by adding some pumpkin seeds that I dry-roasted quickly in a pan and tossed with a wonderful spice blend that I bought or I add some fresh basil when serving. Nobody knows that I didn’t make these from scratch, but if asked, I’m happy to confess.

For some accompanying salad ideas, try any of the following:

Moroccan Beet Salad (Barba)

Moroccan Beet and Orange Salad with Pistachios

Greek Eggplant Dip

Moroccan Carrot Salad

Watermelon and Feta Salad

Easy Feta and Roasted Tomato Salad

Orange and Radish Salad

And, of course, don’t forget the hummus!

Recipe for Sheet-Pan Chicken and Chickpeas

Yield: 4 to 6 Servings, depending on sides and appetites

Ingredients

6 large bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs (About 3.25 pounds)

Kosher salt and Aleppo Pepper (Freshly cracked black pepper is fine too)

1.5 cups full-fat Greek yogurt, divided

Juice from 2 to 3 lemons

2 rounded teaspoons ground turmeric, divided

2 (15-ounce) cans chickpeas, drained, rinsed and patted dry

1 Tablespoon fennel seed

1 rounded teaspoon ground cumin

1 large red onion, peeled, thinly sliced and divided in half

EVOO for drizzling

Torn fresh mint or cilantro for garnish

2 Tablespoons tahini

1/4 teaspoon ground sumac (optional)

Directions

  1. Place the chicken thighs in a heavy-duty (freezer) resealable plastic bag. Combine 3/4 cup of the yogurt with the juice of 1.5 lemons, 1 teaspoon of turmeric and 2 Tablespoons of water. Season well with salt and whichever pepper you are using. (I used 1.5 teaspoons of salt here.) If you are using Kosher chicken, you will use less salt. Mix well to combine and pour it over the chicken. Seal the bag and using your hands, “massage” the yogurt mixture over all of the chicken. Refrigerate at least 4 hours but preferably overnight.
  2. When you are ready to cook, heat the oven to 425 degrees F. Place the oven rack in the top third of the oven.
  3. Mix half of the sliced onions with the juice of 1 lemon and season with about 1/4 teaspoon salt and whatever pepper you are using. Set this quick onion pickle aside until you are ready to serve.
  4. Combine the chickpeas, fennel seed, cumin, remaining turmeric and half of the red onion slices on an unlined, rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle with EVOO and season with salt (about 1/4 teaspoon) and whichever pepper you are using. Using tongs or your clean hands, toss everything together.
  5. Move the chickpea/onion mixture to the outer edges of the baking pan. Remove the chicken pieces from the marinade, scraping off any excess and place the thighs in the center of the baking pan, skin-side facing up.
  6. Place the baking pan in the oven and bake, moving the chickpeas around about every 15 minutes so they don’t stick. Bake until the skin on the chicken and chickpeas are well-browned and begin to crisp. This took about 45 minutes in my oven. I then turned the chicken pieces over and roasted for another 10 minutes to crisp up the skin on the underside of the chicken. Because you are using thighs, and because of the marinade, the chicken will not dry out.
  7. Combine the remaining yogurt with the juice of one lemon and season with 1/4 teaspoon salt, pepper, 2 Tablespoons of tahini and 1/4 teaspoon of ground sumac. This can be made ahead and refrigerated until ready to use. And if you like garlic, you could crush in 1 small clove as well, although it’s really not necessary.
  8. When you are ready to serve, scatter the pickled onions over the chicken and garnish with mint and/or cilantro. Serve the seasoned yogurt alongside.

Yemenite Beef and Bean Soup

Nothing is better on a cold wet day than this Yemenite Beef and Bean Soup. The days now are shorter, the winds are sharper and the damp is already beginning to seep into my bones. This may not cure all that ails you, but it sure comes close.

We eat a LOT of soup in our house – especially as a main meal with some homemade bread and maybe a salad. In the summer, the soups are usually served cold. However, as soon as the weather starts to turn, I am looking to hearty, warming soups that satisfy my soul. This Yemenite Beef and Bean soup is easy to make. I put it up in the morning and allowed it to cook over a low flame all day. When I left my apartment, the lovely, rich aroma greeted me before I even opened the door. I’m actually surprised that my neighbors didn’t come knocking to ask for a bowl.

The original recipe by Einat Admony and Janna Gur was truly a poor man’s soup. Mine is a slightly more middle class version, with a richer stock, more meat and the addition of carrots. Either way, it’s still a bargain. My instructions are also simplified because who wants to make more work? And when I make soup, it usually just sits on my stove, getting reheated each day until it’s gone. The depth of flavors are only enriched and I’m always ready when we need to drive away the blues or that chill.

The primary spice mixture is Hawaij – one of my absolute favorites. Hawaij means “mixture” in Arabic. I also use it in my Yemenite Chicken Soup and in my Cauliflower Tabbouleh. While you likely can purchase it in a Middle Eastern grocery or online, I make my own. It only takes minutes to grind your own spices and the difference in flavor is huge. Once you try making your own freshly ground spices, you will never go back. The recipe for Hawaij that I use can be found with my Yemenite Chicken Soup, but I will repeat it below.

Recipe

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

Ingredients

1 pound dried navy beans (Other white beans can be used such as cannellini or Great Northern)

2 Tablespoons vegetable oil

2 pounds of beef short ribs or beef shank

8 cups beef broth plus 4 cups of water (Use only 8 to 10 cups liquid total if you want a thicker soup. Depending on the bean you used, you may need then to add more liquid when reheating since generally beans expand and thicken the broth as it sits.)

6 ounces tomato paste

1 small bunch of flat-leaf parsley or cilantro, cleaned and tied in a bundle with kitchen twine

1 large yellow onion, peeled and coarsely chopped

2 to 3 carrots, sliced in thick rounds

1 whole head of garlic, with just the papery outer skin removed

2 to 3 teaspoons of Hawaij (See recipe below)

2.5 teaspoons kosher salt, or to taste

Directions

Place the beans in a large bowl or pot and cover with 3 to 4 inches of cold water. Soak for at least 8 hours or over night. Drain and rinse the beans and set aside.

Heat the oven to 425 degrees F. Place your short ribs, meat side up on a foil covered pan and sprinkle with salt and fresh-cracked black pepper. If you are using kosher meat, you do not need to add salt. Roast for 15 minutes. Then turn the ribs over and roast for 12 minutes. Turn them on their side and roast for about 8 to 10 more minutes or until well-browned. Set aside.

You can brown the meat in the pot instead of in the oven. I find this a tedious process and one that invariably spatters grease all over my stove. I also find that when I brown the meat in the oven, I really don’t have to skim the soup liquid – another tedious process. And almost all of the excess fat remains on the foil which I simply discard, instead of either having to clean the pot in between or later skim off.

In a large, heavy-duty pot or Dutch oven, heat the oil. Add the carrots and onions. Sprinkle with a little salt. Cook the vegetables until the carrots just begin to soften and the onion to brown – about 8 to 10 minutes. Add the meat to the pot, allowing the fat to remain on the foil, which you will discard. Add the beans, garlic head and parsley or cilantro bundle.

Mix the tomato paste with about 1/2 cup of the broth or water to thin out the paste. Add all of your liquid to the pot, including the tomato paste mixture. Add the Hawaij (Start with 2 teaspoons and add more later if you wish.) and mix through.

Bring the soup to a boil and then cover the pot. Reduce the heat to very low so the soup is just barely simmering. Allow it to cook for 4 to 5 hours. Remove the bundle of parsley/cilantro. Don’t worry if some pieces fall back into the soup or get loose. It’s fine. Remove the head of garlic and allow it to cool enough to handle. Then squeeze the softened, unctuous garlic cloves out of their skin, mash them slightly and add back to the pot. Taste and adjust your seasonings.

Hawaij

Yield: About 5 Tablespoons

2 Tablespoons black peppercorn

1 Tablespoon black caraway seed (Kalonji or Nigella)

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 teaspoon coriander seeds

1 teaspoon of the seeds from green cardamom

2 teaspoons turmeric

pinch of saffron (optional)

Either pound the spices with a mortar and pestle or use a coffee/spice grinder. This can also be purchased online. I made mine.

Za’atar Roasted Chicken Over Sumac Potatoes

Sababa, an Arabic word, has come to mean “cool” or “awesome” in Hebrew slang. The Za’atar Roasted Chicken over Sumac Potatoes included in the 2019 cookbook Sababa by Adeena Sussman, is the perfect Shabbat or Sunday dinner. It’s not difficult to make and is a wonderful change from the typical roast chicken. I can attest that it is truly Sababa! The resulting chicken is incredibly moist and juicy and loaded with flavor.

I find it amusing that all of a sudden Middle Eastern food is “in.” Every time I open a newspaper to the food section, another Middle Eastern dish, restaurant or chef is being lauded. It is wonderful that this rich and varied cuisine is receiving its due, but many of us happily been enjoying it for years.

Like this Za’atar Roasted Chicken over Sumac Potatoes, many of the dishes rely on fresh foods livened by a liberal use of herbs and spice mixtures. Za’atar can be found already mixed in many grocery stores these days and is easily available online. You can, of course, make your own if you wish. It is originally a blend of the Biblical hyssop, sesame and salt. Wild thyme is often used in place of the hyssop. Sumac, which was cultivated in Mishnaic times is high in vitamin C and lends a wonderful citrus flavor to foods as well as a lovely almost saffron color.

This dish is simple to create and I paired it with a tomato basil bisque and a lovely salad. For dessert I made tahini cookies, which can be easily whipped up and will last for days in an airtight container – that is, if you can resist eating them all!

Recipe

Yield: Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients

1 roasting chicken, approx. 4 pounds

5 to 6 smallish red potatoes, scrubbed and quartered

4 medium shallots, peeled and quartered

4 Tablespoons EVOO

2 Tablespoons ground sumac

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste (If you are using Kosher chickens, you will probably want less added salt.)

1 small lemon

5 Tablespoons Za’atar Spice blend

1/4 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes

2 to 3 large garlic cloves

6 fresh thyme sprigs

Directions

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.

Place the potatoes and shallots in a rectangular baking dish large enough to hold everything (about 9 x 13). Toss the potatoes and shallots with 1 Tablespoon of the EVOO, all of the sumac and about 3/4 teaspoon of salt and some generous cracks of black pepper.

Rinse and pat dry the chicken, being sure that there are no giblets inside. (If there are giblets, remove them and freeze them for soup.) Season the inside and outside of the chicken with salt and pepper.

Zest the lemon into a bowl and then halve the lemon and set the pieces aside. Add the remaining EVOO to the lemon zest along with 4 Tablespoons of the za’atar and the red pepper flakes. Mix gently.

Place the chicken, breast side up, on top of the potatoes and shallots. Stuff the lemon halves (I could only get one half in so saved the other half for another use), garlic and thyme sprigs into the cavity of the chicken. Tie the legs together with some kitchen twine.

Rub the za’atar mixture all over the outside of the chicken and a bit under the breast skin if you like.

Roast the chicken for 15 minutes and then reduce the heat to 350 degrees F. Continue roasting for 1 hour and 20 minutes more or until the juices run clear and the leg jiggles easily when pulled. Remove the chicken from the oven and allow it to rest for 10 minutes before carving. Cut the chicken right over the potatoes so that the juices run over the vegetables.

Watercress, Spinach & Chickpea Soup

Easy Does It

We recently hosted our nephew and his girlfriend for Shabbat dinner. Since I hadn’t been cooking for anyone but the two of us for awhile, I decided to go all out on a Mediterranean feast. I baked challah and made hummus, baba ghanoush, several salads, lamb with apricots and basmati rice and an apricot frangipane tart. With so many different pieces to the meal, I wanted something that was flavorful and bright for the soup but which wasn’t overly complicated. Surprisingly, I found it in my Jerusalem Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi.

While I like the foods that appear in this cookbook, I generally find that the recipes are overly complicated with unnecessary steps. This one was pretty simple and since I already happened to have the Ras El Hanout spice mix and rose water in my pantry, I didn’t even have to buy any special ingredients. You can, of course, make your own spice mix, but it is also perfectly acceptable to buy it. Any good spice shop such as Kalustyan’s should have it or it can be ordered online.

Herbaceous, Bright and Vegan

This creamy, bright green soup is perfect as part of a meat, vegetarian or vegan meal. And while I mentioned in an earlier post that my husband thinks foods with rose water taste like fancy hotel soaps, the amount used here is small. He was unaware that it was even in there. The rose water does lend the soup some indefinable, slightly exotic flavor, but the soup would still be delicious if you left it out.

Recipe

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

2-3 medium carrots, cut into 3/4-inch dice

3 Tablespoons of EVOO, divided

2.5 teaspoons Ras El Hanout

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

15 ounce can cooked chickpeas, well-drained

1 medium onion, thinly sliced

2.5 Tablespoons, peeled and finely chopped fresh ginger (I used the stuff in a jar)

2.5 cups of vegetable stock

7 ounces of fresh watercress

3.5 – 4 ounces fresh spinach leaves

2 teaspoons granulated sugar

1 teaspoon rose water (optional)

Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper

Directions

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F

Mix the carrots with 1 Tablespoon of the EVOO, the Ras El Hanout. cinnamon and a generous pinch of salt. Spread in a single layer on a pan lined with parchment paper. Roast in the oven for 15 minutes and then add 1/2 of the drained chickpeas. Mix well and continue roasting for 10 more minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside. This can be made ahead and refrigerated over-night.

Place the remaining 2 Tablespoons of EVOO in a large saucepan and add the ginger and onions. Saute for about 10 minutes over medium heat, until the onion is softened and becomes golden at the edges.

Add the remaining chickpeas, stock, watercress, spinach, sugar and 3/4 teaspoon of salt and a few cracks of black pepper. Stir well and bring to a boil. Cook for only about 2 minutes or just until the leaves wilt. You want the greens to remain bright.

When the soup has cooled somewhat, blend it until smooth in a food processor or blender. Add the rose water and check to see if you want more salt and pepper. This can also be made ahead and gently reheated.

To serve, divide the soup among four bowls and top with the carrot, chickpea mixture.

Lemon Semolina Almond Cake

As anyone who follows my blog knows, I absolutely LOVE Middle Eastern food. I love it’s use of fresh, seasonal vegetables and bright spices. And I love it’s use of lemon. So for my dinner tonight I made lamb burgers with a tahini yogurt sauce, hummus with garlic naan and za’atar, freekeh, chickpea and herb salad and this luscious lemon semolina almond cake. It doesn’t get any more flavorful than this.

After successfully making Basbousa, I was looking for another Mediterranean dessert that used semolina flour. The problem wasn’t finding one, but rather deciding on which one to make. This recipe had the added advantage of using almond flour which I happened to have a lot of and wanted to use up.

As with many Middle Eastern desserts, this one has a lovely sugar syrup that gets poured over the still warm cake. The syrup permeates the cake with the result being an almost custard-like interior. Despite the syrup, the cake is not overly sweet. The original recipe called for adding rose water to the syrup. However, my husband finds that the rose water makes him feel as if he is eating fancy hotel soap. Not what I was going for. Since he is my primary audience, I left it out. And if I am honest, I didn’t want any distraction from the lemon. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cointreau

This cake is not difficult to make but don’t skimp on the lemon and use a good quality and slightly fruity olive oil. The smell was intoxicating and we dove in while the cake was still warm! It cut like a dream after cooling for about 30 minutes. I’m sure that it will be equally delicious several days from now, although I have serious doubts that it will last that long.

Tip

For an extra special treat, macerate some fresh berries in confectioner’s sugar and Framboise, Cointreau or other fruity liqueur and serve alongside.

Recipe by Edouard Massih

Yield: About 8 servings

Ingredients

Lemon-Semolina Almond Cake:

  • 1 cup almond flour or almond meal
  • 1 cup semolina flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 3/4 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 lemons
  • 3 large eggs

Simple Syrup:

  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 lemon, juiced
  • 2 tbsp rosewater (Optional)

Candied Lemon:

  • 1 lemon, thinly sliced and any pits removed

Directions

Lemon-Semolina Almond Cake:

Preheat your oven to 350 F.

Grease a 9 x 5-inch loaf pan and line bottom and sides with parchment paper. Grease parchment. Sift together the almond flour, semolina flour and baking powder in a medium bowl. Add salt to the mixture and whisk everything to combine.

Using an electric mixer with a whisk attachment, whisk oil, sugar, and lemon zest from 2 lemons together, about 3 minutes on medium high. With motor running on low, gradually add eggs one at a time, beating to incorporate, about 1 minute. Add dry ingredients and juice of 1 lemon and whisk everything to combine, about 1 minute. Do not over-mix.

Transfer batter to prepared loaf pan. Place the cake on the middle rack, and bake until golden brown, approximately for 60 minutes. Lightly press the top of the cake to test — it should feel lightly springy when done. Let cool for 20 minutes or so in pan before removing and transferring to a cooling rack.

Spoon all of the syrup (See below) over the cake. I like to put a pan covered in foil under the cooling rack to collect the inevitable dribbles and to make clean-up easier.

Simple Syrup & Candied Lemon:

  1. In one easy step, combine water, sugar, juice of 1 lemon, and rosewater, if used, in a pot. Cook it over medium-heat until the sugar is fully dissolved, for 4-5 minutes.
  2. Add thinly-sliced lemon to the simple syrup, and cook it on medium-low heat for 10-12 minutes until the lemon is tender.
  3. Carefully transfer candied lemon to a wire rack.

Mina de Carne (Meat-Potato Matzah “Pie”)

The In-Between

So we are now in the in-between days of the Passover holiday, which lasts eight days in the Diaspora and seven days in Israel. I could simply broil or roast some meat or fish, make a salad and potatoes and call it a day. However, I like to make the holiday special and there are certain dishes that I only make during Passover even if I could serve them at other times.


Flexibility

This Sephardic dish is wonderful because it is so flexible. The simplest version of it is ground beef or lamb, mashed potatoes, matzah and eggs with a bit of seasoning. But with a little bit of imagination and time this dish can become something really special. And a little bit of meat will feed a family. I guess you could say that it is a Sephardic Shepard’s Pie.

If you are not feeling ambitious at all, then just use the basic technique that is given and season it to suit your tastes.

Recipe

Yield: 4-6 dinner servings or more if used as part of a multi-course meal

Ingredients

1 roasted eggplant* (optional)

1 pound lean ground beef or lamb

1.5 pounds Yukon Gold or “new” potatoes (They are the smallish red ones)

3 sheets of square plain matzah (NOT EGG Matzah)

Non-dairy “buttery” sticks (margarine)

2-3 Tablespoons olive or other oil, divided

1 medium onion, peeled and chopped

2-3 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped

2-3 Tablespoons chopped fresh herbs like parsley, cilantro or dill

2 rounded teaspoons hawayij or ras el hanout or other spice mix (Make your own or they can be purchased online and through spice shops). You could even use Garam Masala for an Indian twist.

Kosher salt and fresh cracked black pepper to taste

3 large eggs

Paprika for sprinkling (optional)

Directions

If using the roasted eggplant, make this first and set aside to cool. Chop it coarsely.

I don’t bother to peel my potatoes. The skins not only have nutrients, but they are relatively thin and add extra flavor, in my opinion. Simply cut each potato into quarters and then each quarter into half so you en up with eight pieces. Place them in a 3 quart saucepan with water to cover. Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat to simmer. Cook them uncovered for 20 minutes or until quite tender. Drain the potatoes well and then mash them with a potato masher or a fork. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Set the potatoes aside to cool.

Place some warm tap water into a deep 9-inch square baking dish and then add the whole squares of matzah. Allow them to soak for about 1+ minutes. You want them flexible but not falling apart.

Carefully lift each sheet of matzah out of the water and place it flat on paper or a tea towel to drain. Then dry the baking dish and grease it well with the margarine and then 1-2 Tablespoons of the oil. If you only use the oil the matzah won’t crisp up and it will stick. Set the pan aside.

In a large skillet over medium high heat, add one Tablespoon of the oil and brown the ground meat, chopped, roasted eggplant, if using, the onions and the garlic. Break up the meat as you brown it. I used a very lean meat so I did not have any extra fat or liquid to pour off. Add your spices, about 1 teaspoon of salt and some cracked black pepper. Add the chopped fresh herbs and mix everything through.

Lightly beat 2 of the eggs and add it to the mashed potatoes. Stir about 1/2 cup of the potato mixture into the ground beef mixture to bind it together.

Heat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Beat the remaining egg and pour it into a platter with a slightly raised edge. Coat both sides of one softened matzah sheet lightly with the egg. Lift it out carefully and allow any excess egg to drip back into the platter. Place the matzah in the bottom of the prepared pan. Use part of a second slice of matzah, if necessary, to cover any gaps so that the bottom is completely covered. Repeat with a second layer of matzah. Reserve any left-over egg. (I didn’t have any.)

Spread the meat mixture on top of the matzah in the dish. Spoon the potato mixture over the to and spread it evenly. Pour any left-over egg onto the potato mixture. Sprinkle with some paprika.

Bake the Mina for about 40 minutes or until the top is browned and the filling is firm. Remove the Mina from the oven and allow it to rest for 5 minutes before serving. Cut it into large squares. I serve mine with a large tossed salad.