Thursday, December 3, 2015

Italian Favorite Meets Jewish Comfort Food: Vegan Bolognese Sauce with Kasha and Quinoa Pasta

It’s a pretty safe bet that most people don’t think about the origins of the dishes they see on a restaurant menu.  Diners want their food ASAP, not an etymology lesson—although it’s not such a big leap to connect the word “Milanese” to the city of Milan or “Bolognese” to Bologna, Italy.  Michel has invented a meatless version of the classic Bolognese Ragù, traditionally made with ground beef and/or pork. The preservation of this sauce recipe is so important that the Accademia Italiana della Cucina notarized an official version in 1982 "with a solemn decree." Really. 

The city of Bologna (bōh-lōh-nyah) is known for its culinary traditions, including this well-known meat sauce that locals refer to simply as ragù (which explains the name of the ubiquitous sauce brand found in jars on supermarket shelves in the US).  It all comes down to pasta with meat sauce.

The kasha part of this recipe mimics an old-school Jewish holiday dish called "Kasha Varnishkes." Don’t be alarmed; there is no actual varnish in the recipe. Here’s a description from a website called (you can’t make up this stuff):

Michel left Holland during his teens to continue his violin studies in Rome. He lived there for quite some time and he’s traveled Italy from top to bottom during his lifetime. He knows Italian food, clothing, cars, films, sculpture, playwrights, paintings, music—you name it.  Italy is special to Michel for very personal reasons. From his early youth he has studied the violin makers of Cremona and other important Italian centers for instrument making. He still spends time on a daily basis researching violin makers from Italy and beyond, and fielding questions from the people who frequently contact him to identify a particular instrument or bow. 

Beyond his interest in musical things connected to the city of Bologna, Michel has boundless respect for and utter fascination with the artist Giorgio Morandi, who spent most of his reclusive adult life in a small apartment (with his sisters) where he made his paintings and etchings.  His depictions of seemingly mundane objects become almost abstract as the bottles, etc., he painted again and again take on a monumentality of their own.  If you’re interested, he’s a fascinating subject for a Google search.  In fact, President Obama chose two Morandi paintings for the White House.

Here’s just one example of a beautiful Morandi still life.

Now for the cooking. 

Bolognese Sauce with Kasha

You will need:

3 tablespoons olive oil
½ an onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped        
½ bunch Italian parsley, chopped
5 cloves garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
1 teaspoon dried sage
1 teaspoon dried fennel
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 bay leaf
2 cups vegetable broth
Tomato paste—about 2-3 tablespoons or a bit more to taste (Michel prefers tomato paste in a tube rather than a can.)
1 cup kasha grains
1 egg
1 box quinoa pasta—penne or shells or whatever pasta you prefer
Grated parmesan cheese (vegans can skip the cheese or use alternate topping)

The Sauce

In a skillet or sauté pan:

Heat olive oil then add chopped onion, garlic, red pepper, and parsley. Top with rosemary, sage, fennel, salt, pepper flakes, and bay leaf.

Let the mixture cook over medium heat for 5-7 minutes until onion is transparent then add “a few squeezes of tomato paste” from a tube.  (Michel’s measurement descriptions have been addressed in a previous post—a good amount, a few squeezes—you know.) 

Stir and let simmer while you go to work on the kasha.

The Kasha

Bring two cups vegetable broth to a boil in a small saucepan. 
While you’re waiting for broth to boil, beat the egg with fork or whisk in a deep bowl or plastic container. 

Add the kasha to beaten egg and mix thoroughly (very important!) until grains are completely coated and egg is no longer visible, about 2-3 minutes.  

Note: The egg coating allows the kasha grains to hold their shape during cooking and creates a nutty, chewy texture.  Remarkably, the result will be that the kasha will have the appearance of chopped meat when mixed with the sauce/pasta in your finished dish.

Transfer the egg-coated kasha grains to a dry 3-quart skillet and stir continuously—again, very important!—over medium heat for 3-4 minutes to thoroughly cook the egg and toast the grains.

Add the boiling broth and allow liquid to cook down.  

Stir in sauce mixture from sauté pan.  

Looks like chopped meat, doesn't it?

Cover and simmer while you cook your chosen pasta. Add a little broth to the skillet mixture as needed.

The Pasta

Cook pasta to your liking.  Before you drain the pasta liquid away, add ¼ cup liquid to the kasha in the skillet just as you would do with any pasta dish to help the sauce to adhere to the noodles.  

Drain pasta and add to kasha skillet.  Stir to make sure noodles and sauce are well acquainted.

Top with grated parmesan cheese.  Vegans, this is delicious without cheese too.

Buon appetito and Happy Hannukah!

Friday, November 27, 2015

Tagine or not Tagine (Cooking): Vegan Moroccan Stew

Michel has often spoken about the influence of Indonesian and Moroccan immigrants (government-invited “guest workers”) on the Dutch culture and its food.  The Netherlands has a long and sometimes not-so-pretty history of colonization/immigration. Of course the U.S. has some karma coming its way for similar actions at home and abroad; we have no room to finger-point at the Dutch—don’t get me wrong. Given the numerous worldwide crises blaring at us from cable news day and night, it’s a highly sensitive time to have conversations about immigration but it’s certainly not a new issue. 

My previous post about the cabbage (kool) recipe made reference to Michel’s early interest in Indonesian food. This post will take a Moroccan turn.  Because I am a hopeless nerd and a compulsive reader, I always look for information about the ingredients or historical context of the dish Michel is making before I post his recipes.  He tells me I tend to include way too much information but I guess that’s my teacher brain at work. (Must cover all relevant content and provide context so students will understand the big picture.) #sorrynotsorry

This time around, Google magic led me to a master’s thesis by a student at Leiden University—the oldest university in the Netherlands, founded in 1575, alma mater of numerous Dutch royals and other VIPs.  Sounds dull? Not entirely. The research topic: Postwar Indonesian/Moroccan influences “at the Dutch table.”  To be clear, I didn’t read all 107 pages covering the period from 1950-2000 but I did learn some interesting socio-cultural tidbits about a popular women’s magazine, Margriet, and the food writer Wina Born—known as “the mother of Dutch gastronomy”—and her strong influence on home cooking and the growing restaurant scene in mid-century Holland. 

So while housewives in the U.S. were replicating colorful JELL-O dishes they found in Ladies Home Journal and discovering the wonders of frozen TV dinners, Dutch housewives were following Wina Born's advice columns as they experimented with non-traditional ingredients and occasionally tried restaurant dining instead of home cooked meals.  

Moroccan dishes are among Michel’s favorites to prepare.  He’s already shared his ideas about using preserved lemon in an earlier post (the one with the babouches).  This new recipe was created on the occasion of his acquisition of a tagine—the name that applies to the cooking vessel as well as the stew itself.  The tagine design allows the steam to rise into the conical lid and lets the liquid drip back down the sides into the dish. Some people prefer tagine cooking to a Crock Pot because they claim it produces more tender meat dishes—not an issue in Michel’s kitchen. 

We didn’t go for an ornamental model like the merchants sell in the exotic souks of Marrakech or a pricey Williams-Sonoma find.  We just went to the local World Market chain store and bought the basic twenty dollar glazed clay version. Turns out it works quite well.

One bit of advice from our “we learned it the hard way” file:  
You might want to place a sheet pan or some foil on the lowest oven rack below the tagine. Why? The first time Michel used the tagine the liquid bubbled out around the rim and baked onto the oven floor. (For the record, if you are a person who enjoys cleaning a dirty oven, you have my undying respect.) 

Ready?  Here goes. 
Moroccan Stew (Vegan)

You will need:

2-3 cups butternut squash cut into cubes.
(Peel/cut the squash yourself or buy a package of cubed squash from your favorite grocer. No need to tell you which option we prefer.)

10-12 Moroccan olives, pitted and chopped (or other seasoned olives will do if you can’t find Moroccan)

1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped

2 habanero peppers (or scotch bonnet/other mean little peppers) chopped together with ½ an onion*

½ an onion*

6 cloves garlic, chopped

½ bunch fresh cilantro, chopped

1 16 oz. can chickpeas, drained and rinsed

1 16 oz. can diced tomatoes, drained

6-7 dried figs, with stems removed and sliced into small pieces

1-2 tablespoons Craisins (cran-raisins)

1 cup vegetable broth

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 sticks cinnamon

1 teaspoon salt

1½ teaspoons sumac
1 tablespoon coriander seeds

1 tablespoon cumin

1 teaspoon nigella seeds (also known as black cumin)

In a dry skillet: Toast coriander seeds, cumin, and nigella seeds. Grind spices together after toasting and set aside.  For this task Michel uses an old-school electric coffee grinder that we found at a yard sale.  Nothing fancy. Works perfectly.

In a large deep skillet:

Heat olive oil then add chopped onion/habanero peppers, red bell pepper, and garlic. 

Cook over medium heat 5-8 minutes “so the onion will fry but don’t let it brown—if it starts to brown, lower the heat.”

Add salt, ground spices, sumac, chopped olives and cilantro, figs, craisins. Stir to make sure spices are evenly mixed. 

Add vegetable broth and cubed squash. Bring to a boil.

Lower heat and let simmer until squash has softened.

Add chickpeas and diced tomatoes to the mixture. 

At this point you have a choice: 
Option 1: You can finish cooking the dish in the large skillet for another half an hour.

Option 2: If you have a tagine, you can transfer the squash mixture to the tagine bowl and cover/cook in the oven for 30 minutes at 375 degrees. 

This dish can be served on its own or, if you like, on a bed of couscous or quinoa.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Kool and the Car Salesman: Braised Italian Cabbage with Mushrooms, Gnocchi, and Cannellini

To say that Michel has a prodigious memory is actually an understatement. It’s almost savant-like in its scope and depth. I often tell him that I wonder how he can carry his head around “with all that stuff in it.” Some researchers label this type of person a Super Memorizer (yes, that’s a thing).  Obviously this innate skill has served him well as a violin dealer; he can identify a fiddle from a fuzzy photo or a PBS broadcast of the NY Philharmonic even if he has seen the instrument only once many years ago. But—in addition to naming the instrument he can also recall its provenance, including what the owners paid, who wrote the certificates, how it sounds compared to other violins, damage/repairs, etc. This same alarming ability also applies to violin bows, by the way. Michel can rattle off the names of international music competition winners over many decades the way some guys recite World Series stats. It’s not just the first prize winners, either; it’s second, third, fourth, fifth place along with where they made their solo debuts, who conducted the concerts, etc. It’s exhausting (and scary) just to think about how much this man knows. One of his former violin-dealing associates teased him, saying: “Ask Michel what time it is and he’ll tell you how to build a watch.” Before you get the idea that his brain is filled with music-related data exclusively, let me add that his highly developed recall ability also applies to cars, food, historical figures and events, painters and sculptors, cigars, films and books, fountain pens, travel, etc. Not a day goes by that I don’t hear a new anecdote or learn something unexpected from Michel’s Massive Memory Bank.

When he decided to make this cabbage dish a few days ago, Michel related an interesting story about one particular man he recalls from his childhood. To provide a little context, keep in mind that Holland has long been the destination for many Indonesian and Moroccan immigrants (among others), hence the pervasive presence of foods from those cultures in The Netherlands to this day.  Michel’s parents had an Indonesian friend, Mr. Mehlbaum, who would visit from time to time.  Mr. Mehlbaum spoke with an Indonesian accent and he liked to express his opinions about classical music (which young Michel silently disagreed with based on his own music study and concert-going experiences).  Another common topic of conversation among the adults was food and Mr. Mehlbaum also liked to talk about Indonesian cuisine.  Michel recalls hearing him describe in mouth-watering detail an Indonesian stuffed cabbage dish that sounded just great, wondering why they couldn’t try it at home.  It wasn’t just some pitiful stuffed cabbage leaves à la Betty Crocker Cookbook; Mehlbaum was talking about an entire head of cabbage stuffed with all kinds of goodness and cooked whole. Why not? Well, aside from the limited cooking skills of his mother (previously noted), Michel’s father, Eduard, hated Indonesian food.  It turns out he only thought he didn’t like it because later on he changed his mind.  It also turns out that Eduard was considering buying an inexpensive car and Michel surmised that Mr. Mehlbaum’s unspoken motive for visiting his parents was trying to sell Eduard a pricey car.  This suspicion was confirmed when, at the ripe old age of eight, Michel took the train by himself from The Hague to Amsterdam to attend a special car show. (Parenting gets tiresome after one or two kids, so the youngest generally have more liberties, right?) Among the exhibits there Michel spotted Mr. Mehlbaum and put two and two together.  Eduard eventually bought a used car from another family acquaintance. 

End of Mehlbaum story. On to cabbage and gnocchi.  Part of the blog post process for a big nerd like me includes searching for information about the ingredients in a dish, so here’s some trivia you may opt to appreciate or disregard: The Dutch word for cabbage is kool (pronounced “cole”) and koolsla is Dutch for cabbage salad.  Now you know how we get to coleslaw which, sadly, some people think is “cold slaw” because it’s served cold.  We all know at least one of those people who is blissfully unconcerned about word choices.  If you think that cabbage is lacking nutritional value, you are mistaken; it has the same benefits as its cruciferous cousins (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, etc.)—Vitamins C and K as well as a host of antioxidants. Another found tidbit has to do with the origin of the word gnocchi, the little Italian dumplings.  The name derives from nocca, which translates to “knuckles”—and one knuckle is just about the size of one little dumpling.  I was hesitant to look at the nutrition info for gnocchi because I figured a pasta dumpling filled with potato or ricotta is probably not so healthful.  Some things it’s just better not to know.  Michel described this braised cabbage dish as “real Italian country food”—simple and delicious. 

Braised Italian Cabbage with Mushrooms, Gnocchi, and Cannellini

You will need:
8 oz. cremini mushrooms, sliced
½ a medium to large cabbage
2 tablespoons olive oil
¼ cup pitted seasoned olives
5 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon capers
1 teaspoon chopped dried rosemary
1 teaspoon dried tarragon
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 cup vegetable broth
1 can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
16 oz. package of gnocchi
Optional non-vegan topping: grated parmesan

Cut the core out of the cabbage, chop into quasi-julienne pieces, then set aside.

In a 3-quart skillet:
Heat olive oil then add sliced mushrooms, letting them start to cook while you chop the garlic, capers and olives together.

Add chopped capers, garlic, olives to skillet.  Add dried rosemary, tarragon, and pepper flakes, stirring gently to mix.
Allow the mushrooms and seasonings to cook for about ten minutes before adding cabbage and vegetable broth to the skillet.
Cover and cook over low to medium heat for half an hour.

Meanwhile, bring lightly salted water to a boil in your favorite pasta cooking vessel and prepare the gnocchi per package directions.  While the gnocchi cooks, add drained/rinsed cannellini to the skillet.

Replace cover and tend to the gnocchi, making sure it doesn’t overcook. Important: Before you drain the pasta water, add about ¼ cup to the skillet to act as a binding agent for the dish. 

Drain gnocchi, add to cabbage/mushroom/cannellini mixture and stir gently to make sure all your ingredients get acquainted. 

If you like, top your finished dish with grated parmesan.  Michel likes to put the skillet on the table and serve our plates straight from the pan.  No matter how you serve it, this country-style food makes a perfect autumn meal.

Monday, August 24, 2015

K is for Kelp: Kelp Noodle Salad. I promise it’s nothing like fish food.

Kelp Noodle Salad

By now you’ve learned that Michel is generally an intrepid kind of guy when it comes to food.  He loves to browse leisurely through farmers’ markets and ethnic groceries in hopes of coming across something he’s never tried before.  I, on the other hand, get very nervous when faced with strange places and things.  Take Chinatown in San Francisco, for example—or in Chicago or any other big-city Chinatown.  I struggle with the crowded sidewalks and the funky smells emanating from those ubiquitous food markets and eateries while Michel breathes it all in and seeks out a nice cup of Pu-Ehr tea.

It’s no surprise that Michel decided to try kelp noodles when he spotted them at Whole Foods.  No fat, near zero carbs, low calories, high mineral content—generally a wholesome alternative to regular pasta.  I initially had some difficulty getting around the word “kelp” because it reminded me of the fish tank filled with guppies and snails my father used to keep on his office desk. One of my jobs was sprinkling the smelly fish food flakes into the top of the tank—carefully so that I didn’t give them too much.  I admit I’m still carrying some residual childhood anxiety from learning that the mother guppies would eat the newborn baby guppies if they weren’t caught and separated from her immediately.  I was always on high alert, keeping watch over the little clear plastic hatchery periodically suspended in the tank, hoping all the baby guppies would swim through the partition to safety.  I’m still on high alert about pretty much everything in the world—but no longer about eating kelp noodles, at least. 

The Sea Tangle Noodle Company website is quite informative and its packaging is very friendly and straightforward—raw kelp noodles “made with mineral-rich sea kelp” and having a “neutral taste.”  Fair enough, but my mind goes right back to the 1970s television commercial for Grape Nuts cereal featuring natural foods guru Euell Gibbons who always asked us the same question: “Did you ever eat a pine tree? Many parts are edible.”  No, to this day I’ve never eaten a pine tree but I have eaten raw kelp.  The noodles are clear and non-threatening and enjoyably crunchy. 

"Did you ever eat a pine tree?"

Of course, a quick Google search for kelp benefits can take you on a crazy ride from reputable sites like WebMD to a YouTube video wherein a lady uses nori (sushi wrappers) as a facial mask.  Yep.  The consensus seems to be that kelp consumption boosts mineral intake and benefits the thyroid due to its high iodine content.  Of course the low-carb, low calorie, no fat aspects are obvious.  So here goes.  Buckle up, kelp virgins.  You will be pleasantly surprised.

Kelp Noodle Salad

1 package raw kelp noodles, rinsed (½ a package makes two generous servings for us)

1 bunch scallions, chopped

4 cloves garlic, chopped
5 thin slices fresh ginger, chopped

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

3 tablespoons soy sauce

¼ cup sesame seeds, toasted
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes (more to taste for spicy food fans)
2 tablespoons peanut butter
1 tablespoon sesame paste (tahini)
1 bunch cilantro, chopped
1 carrot, chopped into ½ inch pieces
½ cucumber, thinly sliced
1 piece of nori (sushi wrap), cut into small strips for garnish

Rinse kelp noodles under cold running water. Set aside to drain.

Combine scallions, garlic, ginger, rice vinegar, soy sauce, sesame seeds, and red pepper flakes in a container and gently stir to mix evenly. 

Add peanut butter, tahini, and cucumber slices.  Mix to coat all ingredients.

Cut noodles into 2-3 inch segments, adding them to salad dressing mixture. 

Add chopped carrot and stir to mix everything together.  Top with nori strips.  Eat!

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Cooking with Carlos: Easy Quinoa Black Bean Salad (quinoa guilt optional)

It’s one of those funny/not funny situations in our household that we feel guilty about something on practically a daily basis. Mostly we feel guilty every time we leave the house. Why? Because our dogs are powerful actors and they know how to pour it on.  Ruby gives us the “side eye” and positions herself in front of the door to the garage, Gandalf style: “You…shall…not…pass!” 

Ruby is the boss of everything in our house.  Really.  It’s a huge responsibility to look after three other Cavaliers and two humans, let alone to be on guard for any creature or vehicle passing by outside. She’s also very capable when it comes to grading Shakespeare essays, as you can see. So, we feel guilty when she puts on her pitiful face at the door   but we quietly pick up our keys, tuck our invisible tails, and go out anyway.   

Our dogs are also very particular when anyone enters the premises.  If you’ve been to our house in the past five years, you’ve experienced the deafening chorus of barking that is the standard welcoming/farewell protocol.  Once guests or piano students are inside and settled, the dogs quietly go about their business, i.e., sleeping.

One of Michel’s former violin students who now lives/works out of state comes to visit a few times a year and food is always an integral part of the fun. These visits are totally sanctioned by our dogs, even though Carlos is a cat person. Of course, there are lively conversations about violins and bows, violinists and conductors—good and bad, catching up on “whatever happened to…” various people, and the plight of orchestras and professional musicians in the U.S. and elsewhere. During his most recent visit, Carlos and his wife, Sakira, patiently tried to help us figure out how to watch YouTube videos on the new Smart TV in Michel’s library.  We are still honing our remote control navigation skills. So far the TV remains smarter than we are.

Part of the enjoyment when Carlos visits is planning and preparing a meal.  Michel and Carlos work together chopping and prepping (and Michel usually tells Carlos to chop things “smaller!”), talking about the ingredients going into whatever dish they are making, watching more YouTube violinist videos while things are cooking.  The dish they made most recently requires minimal cooking: Black Bean Quinoa Salad.  It’s a protein-packed combo that’s substantive enough for dinner.  If you have leftover cooked quinoa in your refrigerator (which we almost always do), then this becomes a no-cook recipe.  

Here’s the part about Quinoa Guilt.

Quinoa has become a staple in our house and its vast popularity has caused big changes for the Andean people who grow and harvest the grain.  Some people claim that the native growers are suffering because of the rampant first-world consumption of their crops.  

Here’s a snippet from a BBC post about the ethics of quinoa consumption: 
Quinoa has generated much debate in recent years. Since experiencing a rapid increase in demand, the domestic cost of production has also risen sharply, with the local Andean population unable to afford it and imported junk food being more budget-friendly. Land that once grew a multitude of diverse crops are now dedicated quinoa fields. Our well intentioned health goals may unwittingly be driving unfavorable conditions for local growers.” Read more here if you're interested: 

On the other side, there are those who claim that the quinoa boom is helping the farmers whose income has seen a dramatic increase.  Here’s more about that from NPR:

In addition to the health benefits of meatless living, many of us are eating quinoa and other vegetarian proteins to avoid feeling guilty about the environmental and moral consequences of meat consumption.  Now we have to worry about the Andean farmers, too?  I guess so.  It’s clear that quinoa has become a new “it” food when Budweiser builds an NFL television commercial around it. 

Here’s Michel's recipe for the Black Bean Quinoa Salad.  It’s a wonderful minimal-cooking option for a summer evening.  Hope you enjoy it, guilt-free. 

To make the salad you will need:

1 can black beans, rinsed

1 cup quinoa, cooked

2 cups fresh corn
2 avocados, peeled and cut into lengthwise segments
2 tomatoes cut into bite-sized cubes
½ cucumber, peeled and thinly sliced
1 cup baby arugula
 A “handful” of cilantro, finely chopped

You can add a handful of asparagus, broccoli, or whatever vegetables you like (or find languishing in your refrigerator).

To make the dressing you will need:

5 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3-4 thin slices fresh ginger, finely chopped
Juice of one lime
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes (or more to taste)
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon vinegar

Mix salad ingredients and drizzle with dressing.  EAT.  
Nice with a side of blue corn tortilla chips.