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October 2006

Nevin Halici's Sour Spinach


It felt like divine comedy when, after an entire week of cooking absolutely nothing, the one thing I chose to make for dinner last night turned out to be awful. Not fit for eating awful. Scraped into the bin awful. It's been a while since I got a real doozy, but I made up for lost time last night.

The recipe comes from one of Turkey's most famous food writers, Nevin Halici. Halici is a Sufi, and recently wrote a cookbook featuring recipes mentioned by one of the world's most famous Sufis, the poet Rumi, in his poems.

I was totally enchanted by the idea of making a one-pot lamb stew for dinner that Rumi had mused about more than 700 hundred years ago and set out happily to gather my ingredients for dinner. But that damned FDA warning had cleared out fresh spinach from all the grocery stores I frequent. I wasn't even looking for baby spinach in clear bags (which, by the way, I think is an abomination and should be banned from the free market for the plain fact that it tastes bad. Who on God's green earth ever came up with the ridiculous idea that spinach tastes good raw?)

I used the best substitute I could muster, a bunch of rainbow chard. At home, I set about sauteeing an onion in butter, added cubed lamb to brown, and then simmered both in water until the lamb was tender. But this didn't exactly happen. The lamb grew tough and rubbery, and the more I simmered, the more stubbornly hard it got.

So I went ahead with the recipe, adding some bulgur and the chopped chard and cooking it until both were tender. When I poured in the requisite amount of pomegranate molasses, I did think to myself that it seemed like an awful lot. But what did I know? If it was good enough for Rumi, it was good enough for me.


I'm not sure I'll really stick with that pronouncement from here on out. The stew was sickly sweet and unpleasantly sour - as if I had melted green apple Jolly Ranchers down between the chunks of meat. If I picked out the lamb (chewy, rubbery lamb) and ate a piece with a mouthful of rice it was bearable, but with the bulgur-spotted, chardy sauce? Absolutely, positively awful.

Maybe it was the brand of pomegranate molasses? Perhaps a tablespoon would have been better than a quarter-cup? If you feel like figuring that out, be my guest. I'm not sure I've got the stomach for it.

Nevin Halici's Sour Spinach
Serves 4

1 1/4 pounds spinach (about 2 bunches), stemmed
3 tablespoons butter
1 onion, minced
1/2 pound boneless lamb, cut in 1/2-inch pieces
1/4 cup bulgur
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup pomegranate molasses, or to taste

1. Wash, drain and chop the spinach. Set aside.

2. Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and fry until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the lamb and brown with the onions, about 5 minutes. Add 2 1/4 cups water and simmer until the lamb is quite tender, 30 to 40 minutes.

3. Stir in the bulgur and salt and add the spinach. Cover and cook over low heat until the spinach is done, 8 to 10 minutes.

4. Stir in the pomegranate molasses. Bring the mixture to a boil, remove from the heat and let it stand 10 minutes before serving. Serve with rice.

Amy Scattergood's Carrot and Pomegranate Soup


After self-medicating with chocolate-toffee cookies (truly a splendid way to pass the weekend), life does seem rosier. The apex of my work hysteria has been scaled, the family crisis in Italy has been defused, and Ben is no longer a hospital-bound invalid. I've also decided to be less of a glutton, so I brought in the remaining cookies to work today, where I've been watching wretchedly as the pile grows smaller and smaller with each passing hour.

Generosity can be such a chore.

In an attempt to defuse the havoc that chocolate-toffee cookies for breakfast, lunch and dinner could be wreaking on my waistline and in order to feed a convalescent Ben something other than chicken broth or dry toast, I decided to make a carrot soup enlivened with pomegranate molasses that Amy Scattergood wrote about last week in her article on cooking for Rosh Hashanah.

It was my first time cooking with pomegranate molasses (found, quite cheaply, at Zabar's yesterday), though I feel like I'm about three years late to the party. Better late than never! What a find. In cooking, pomegranate molasses has the brightening effect that both lemon juice and vinegar have, but with a barely-there shimmer of exotic flavor and sweetness. I can't wait to use more of it.

The soup is quite simple - you cook onions and carrots and pomegranate molasses and cumin (though I substituted 1/2 teaspoon of ground coriander, and could have used even a 1/4 teaspoon more) together until they begin to soften, then you simmer all of it in chicken stock until it's pureeable. I didn't bother straining the soup after I processed it; I just thinned it with the extra stock.

No kosher salt was needed - the chicken broth I use is salty enough - and I left off the molasses drizzle at the end, too. The soup was smooth and delicious, savory and sweet, and with a faintly acidic backnote that really made the carrot flavor pop. The pomegranate seeds on top were pretty to look at, and for a special occasion it might be fun to use them for garnish, but for every day use, I find them a bit too fussy.

It was the kind of Sunday meal, with a heel of crusty bread and a wedge of hard cheese, that I absolutely love: simple but interesting, satisfying and healthy. And as much as I enjoyed my bowl of soup for dinner, it was even better to see Ben eat it with gusto. I'm so glad he's better.

Carrot and Pomegranate Soup
Serves 4 to 6

4 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups coarsely chopped onion
4 cups coarsely chopped carrots
1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses, plus extra for garnish
1 teaspoon ground cumin
4 cups chicken stock
3/8 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup pomegranate seeds

1. Heat the olive oil over moderate heat in a large heavy-bottomed stock pot. Add the onion, carrots, pomegranate molasses and cumin. Cover the pot and lower the heat. Cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

2. Add 3 cups of stock and simmer, covered, until the carrots are very tender, about an hour. Take off the heat and let cool.

3. Purée, in batches if necessary, in a blender, adding the final cup of stock. The purée should be very smooth; if it isn't, you may want to pour the soup through a strainer.

4. Return to the burner and heat through until hot. Season with salt and pepper.

5. Ladle the soup into soup plates, spooning extra pomegranate molasses around the center (about one-half teaspoon per bowl) and sprinkling with pomegranate seeds. Serve immediately.

Barbara Fairchild's Chocolate-Toffee Cookies


Behold, the chocolate-toffee cookie. Isn't it a darling? All creviced and cracked and filled with nubby surprises? There are 26 more of those at home and I'm finding it very difficult to share them with anyone. Anyone at all.

The structure of this cookie is pretty amazing: just a half cup of flour to an entire pound of chocolate. When I first read the recipe, I rubbed my eyes a few times. Would I really go to the expense of purchasing a pound of chocolate (not to mention run to every bodega in my neighborhood looking for those darn toffee bars) if the cookies would end up melting all over the pan?

I trusted my gut. And Barbara. It's a good thing I did. The cookie batter was gorgeous - a bowlful of chilled fudge, practically, doled out on baking sheets (I couldn't bring myself to make 1/4 cup cookies as instructed in the article - who can eat half a cookie and save the rest for the next day? Just make a smaller cookie and eat it all at once. No?).

It tasted a bit like a brownie with that delectable shattering crust - the structure is the same, I suppose. But a brownie studded with melty, buttery chips of toffee bars (not to mention those toasty walnuts - though I'm more of a brownie-cookie purist: no nuts for me. So if I made these again, you get the picture.).

With the week I've had (work, work and more work, a trip to the ER with Ben, bad dreams about my work - did I mention the work? - and a bit of a family crisis in Italy) - baking these cookies was the closest I came to therapy. Eating them is helping, too.

Chocolate-Toffee Cookies
Makes 27 cookies

1/2 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 pound bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
1/4 cup ( 1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1 3/4 cups (packed) golden brown sugar
4 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
5 (1.4-ounce) chocolate-covered English toffee candy bars (such as Heath or Skor), coarsely chopped
1 cup walnuts, toasted, chopped

1. Combine the flour, baking powder and salt in a small bowl; whisk to blend.

2. Stir the chocolate and butter in the top of a double boiler set over simmering water until melted and smooth. Remove the mixture from the heat and cool to lukewarm. Using an electric mixer, beat the sugar and eggs in a large bowl until thick, about 5 minutes. Beat in the chocolate mixture and the vanilla. Stir in the flour mixture, then the toffee and nuts. Chill the batter until firm, at least 45 minutes and up to one day.

3. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line two large, rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper. Drop the batter by ice-cream scoopfuls onto the baking sheets, spacing them about 2 1/2 inches apart. Bake the cookies just until dry and cracked on top but still soft to the touch in the center, about 15 minutes. Cool on the baking sheets. (The cookies can be prepared two days ahead; store in an airtight container at room temperature.)

Barbara Fairchild's Spicy Roast Chicken

Work is threatening to eat me alive. I don't seem able to do much more than stew some canned beans for dinner, or pour myself a bowl of cereal. And so, in order to feed myself something a bit more interesting, I resorted to a source I've usually turned my nose up at. Desperate times call for desperate measures, or so I thought.

You see, I'm a bit of a snob when it comes to food. Well, you knew that already, right? A snob to some, a principled eater to others. When it comes to food magazines, there are only a few that print recipes I find appealing, and Bon Appetit always seemed a little too reliant on packaged foodstuffs to whet my appetite consistently (though it does have some damned fine contributers: Dorie Greenspan and David Lebovitz, I'm looking at you).

But then Bon Appetit went and issued their 50th anniversary cookbook, and Leslie Brenner at the LA Times had lunch with Barbara Fairchild and forced her to name her favorite recipes. And lo, Barbara listed a dish of roasted bone-in chicken breasts with cherry tomatoes (is there a better tomato?) that sounded absolutely luscious (don't even get me started on the chocolate-toffee cookies named in the article - don't you worry, they're next. I went to five different stores last night seeking Skor bars.).

And Barbara was absolutely right. This is one delicious dinner dish. You take bone-in chicken breasts, plop them on a rimmed sheet, and top them with cherry tomatoes that have been slicked with oil and sprinkled with fresh marjoram (I didn't have any, so I went with the dried rosemary from my grandfather's garden that my mother wrapped up in newspaper and I smuggled across the Italian ocean - shhh). There are some crushed garlic cloves in there as well, and then a judicious sprinkling of salt across the top.

In the hot oven, the chicken crisps and blisters deliciously, while the tomatoes shrivel and caramelize and their sweet flavor intensifies. The rosemary scent blooms and the garlic toasts and the whole thing smells maddeningly good.

It also tastes fantastic, and is so easy that you don't even really need the recipe once you've made it for the first time. I halved the recipe, because I was cooking only for myself last night, and now I've got glorious leftovers for lunch. (Oh, and if you steam up a pile of green beans to round out the meal, dribbling them with the pan juices is a lovely way to dress them. The fact that your dressing is partially made of chicken fat is completely beside the point. The salty, herbal, pungent drippings make for a delicious green-bean dunker.)

I'm not signing up for a Bon Appetit subscription any time soon, but this dish is going in the vault.

Spicy Roast Chicken
Serves 4

24 ounces whole cherry tomatoes (about 4 cups), stemmed
1/4 cup olive oil
5 garlic cloves, pressed
1 1/4 teaspoons dried crushed red pepper
2 tablespoons chopped fresh marjoram, divided (or 1 tablespoon dried rosemary, and none for garnish)
4 bone-in chicken breasts (10 to 12 ounces each)
Salt and freshly ground pepper

1. Heat the oven to 450 degrees. Toss the tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, crushed red pepper and 1 tablespoon marjoram in a large bowl to combine.

2. Place the chicken on a rimmed baking sheet. Pour the tomato mixture over the chicken, arranging the tomatoes in a single layer on the sheet around the chicken. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Roast until the chicken is cooked through and the tomatoes are blistered, about 35 minutes.

3. Transfer the chicken to plates. Spoon the tomatoes and juices over the chicken. Sprinkle with the remaining 1 tablespoon marjoram and serve.

Ori Apple's Shakshuka


I've had my appetite whetted for eggs cooked with tomatoes since Molly's gratin, and reading about Lindy's breakfast of champignons and Deb's version with lettuce pesto has only served to deepen this hunger as of late. So when the New York Times ran an article about hummus in July (not to be outdone, the Los Angeles Times swiftly followed suit six weeks later - though their article actually included a recipe for the stuff) and featured hummus guru Ori Apple's shakshuka - a North African breakfast dish of stewy tomatoes and peppers with just-set eggs - I considered the whole thing a fait accompli.

But once I got around to actually reading the recipe and writing down my grocery list, it didn't take long for me to realize that something wasn't right. My first tip-off? Oh, I don't know, maybe those two entire 28-ounce cans of tomatoes in addition to eight fresh plum tomatoes in a recipe meant for two people? Obliging blogger that I am, I bought both cans, but in case you're wondering, one of them still stands unopened in my cupboard.

The next thing that seemed odd was the entire honking tablespoon of salt. Now, as we all know (don't we?), canned tomatoes have salt added to them, so even if I had resorted to following the recipe and using both cans, that much salt would have been insane. And finally, I'm just not sure I understand the concept of za'atar being used as a garnish here. Not in this stewy, soupy dish. Why not just stir the fragrant mixture into the stew, so that when you eat a spoonful dusty, dry herbs don't get lodged in your windpipe while you try to chew?

I made my shakshuka with two red peppers (because the green ones, well, I hate them), no jalapenos (and it was remarkably spicy all the same), eight fresh plum tomatoes, a cup of tomato juice, water instead of vegetable broth, 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt and still this dish was so salty that I found myself diluting the mixture at the end with water (I didn't have any potatoes around).

I don't know - did Ori ever actually use these quantities for the stuff he serves at the Hummus Place? Do his customers leave the restaurant in water-starved delirium? People, I love salt. I'll happily sprinkle it on almost anything I eat. But for God's sakes, if you make this, start out with no salt at all and proceed cautiously. Okay? Let Mama Wednesday help you.

With all those adjustments, this could be such a nice dinner meal, especially with warmed pita (we ate it with La Brea bread that I saw for the first time at D'Agostino's and was so overcome by that I had to buy it. The verdict? Oh, Nancy. What were you thinking?). But proceed with caution. That's all I'm saying.

Serves 2

5 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, roughly chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon minced, seeded jalapeño (optional)
2 red or green bell peppers, roughly chopped
8 fresh plum tomatoes, roughly chopped
2 28-ounce cans peeled Italian plum tomatoes, strained (juices reserved) and roughly chopped (I used 1 cup of tomato juice instead of this)
½ teaspoon hot paprika or cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons sweet paprika
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 tablespoon salt, more to taste
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, more to taste
1 teaspoon sugar (I left this out)
1 cup vegetable broth (I used water)
4 large eggs
Za'atar, for serving
Warm pita bread, for serving

1. Place a large sauté pan over medium heat, and heat oil. Add onion and sauté until lightly browned. Add garlic, jalapeño and bell peppers, and sauté 2 minutes more. Add fresh tomatoes and canned tomatoes. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 5 minutes.

2. Add hot paprika, sweet paprika, turmeric, salt, pepper and sugar. Stir for 1 minute. Add 1 cup canned tomato juice, and ½ cup vegetable broth. Bring to a full boil, then reduce heat to low. Simmer uncovered until mixture is very thick and has little liquid left, about 1 hour; stir occasionally to make sure vegetables do not stick to bottom of pan, and add more tomato juice or vegetable broth as needed.

3. To serve, season to taste with salt and pepper. Gently crack eggs into pan, taking care not to break yolks. Simmer until whites start to solidify but yolks remain runny, 6 to 8 minutes. Ladle equal portions of vegetables and eggs into two serving bowls. Sprinkle with za'atar to taste, and serve with warm pita bread.

Bill Granger's Coconut Bread


While googling Bill Granger's name in preparation for my post on his delectable corn fritters, I came across a restaurant review that Johnny Apple wrote when he visited Bill's cafe in Sydney. Not only did I discover that Bill apparently hates the way the first letter of his name, capitalized, looks and therefore insists on spelling it only lower-case (which, for some reason, I'm having a hard time imitating since apparently I take far grammar rules Far Too Seriously), but Johnny also included a recipe for B bill's coconut bread that is so popular he cannot take it off the menu.

I hardly needed encouragement to clip that recipe, well, right that very minute. And what a recipe it is! It's so good, I'm wondering just how much else I've been missing by not owning a copy of one of B (dammit!) bill's cookbooks. Tell me, dear readers, what else am I missing?

Not only does this coconut bread emerge toasty and golden and delicious from the oven, but it's resilient and versatile (toasted for breakfast? Check. Eating as is for mid-afternoon snack? Check. Sliced and covered with some sort of fruit salad or perhaps a glug of homemade chocolate sauce for dessert? Check.). I had to use cake flour instead of all-purpose, and unsweetened shredded coconut instead of that gluey Angel brand kind because it's what I had at home, and regular sugar instead of superfine - and still this bread turned out fantastically.

Warmly spiced with cinnamon, agreeably textured from the small coconut flakes, moist and not too sweet - I think (dare I say it?) that this is my new favorite sweet bread. Move over, banana bread! There's a new kid in town.

Coconut Bread
Yields 8 to 10 servings

2 large eggs
1 1/4 cups milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups flour, more for dusting pan
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 cup superfine sugar
5 ounces flaked coconut (about 1 1/2 cups)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
Vegetable oil or nonstick cooking spray
Butter, optional
Confectioners' sugar, optional

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a small bowl, whisk together eggs, milk and vanilla.

2. In a medium bowl, sift together 2 1/2 cups flour, baking powder and cinnamon. Add sugar and coconut, and stir to mix. Make a well in the center, and pour in egg mixture. Gradually mix with dry ingredients, until just combined. Add melted butter, and stir until smooth. Do not overmix.

3. Oil and flour an 8 1/2-by-4-inch loaf pan. Pour batter into pan. Bake until a toothpick inserted into center comes out clean, 1 to 1 1/4 hours. Cool in pan 5 minutes, remove bread from pan, and finish cooling on a rack.

4. To serve, cut into 8 to 10 thick slices. If desired, toast lightly, spread with butter, and dust lightly with confectioners' sugar.