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February 2012

Maria Speck's Artichoke Tart with Polenta Crust


Thank you so much for all your cheers, congratulations and excitement! Sometime in the last few weeks, the little guy in my belly went from being a very abstract sort of thing to a real person who likes to wiggle around like clockwork at midnight (oh dear) and whose face I cannot wait to see. I was waiting for this to happen, for the pregnancy to morph from something I couldn't really wrap my head around to something that makes my heart leap. Now that that feeling is here, it's even better than I imagined. I'm so lucky that I get to share our happy news with all of you fantastic people. I'm so lucky, period.

A few months back, actually, more like last summer, when Max turned 35, we had a bunch of friends over for brunch before retiring to our local beer garden down the block and sitting outside under the leafy canopy while drinking beers until dinnertime. (If you are planning a trip to Berlin, ever, make it in summer. It's magic.) While we were still at home, Max made a big pitcher of Pimm's and I put out a coffee cake of some kind and frittata, too, if I remember correctly, but neither one was really more than picked at because I'd also made this artichoke tart with a polenta crust and it was inhaled in record speed. Gone in a flash. Zip, boom, bang.


I got the recipe from Maria Speck's fantastic book, Ancient Grains for Modern Meals, a pretty incredible collection of recipes featuring whole grains such as rye berries and cornmeal and rolled oats and wheat berries and spelt flour, not to mention amaranth, millet and quinoa. Just as with Kim Boyce's Good to the Grain, Maria's book is less focused on the health aspects of whole grains and more focused on the delicious flavor that these ingredients bring to the table (har). She uses cream and butter with aplomb and has a beautiful way with words - each of her headnotes makes me hungry all over again.

(Full disclosure: I learned about the book after meeting Maria at a conference a few years ago and later blurbed the book after I'd read the proofs, stomach a-growling.)

Raised in Germany with a Greek mother and a German father, Maria has fused the whole grains of her German childhood with the gutsy flavors of her Greek heritage into every recipe she put into the book (along with a wealth of knowledge on each whole grain she uses). This means you get things like farro cooked with cream and served with grapes roasted in honey for breakfast or bulgur cooked in Aleppo-pepper-spiced tomato sauce for dinner. There's Greek-style cornbread (layered with feta and thyme, served with salad for lunch, perhaps) and a brandy-soaked fruit bread made with rye flour, spices and nuts.


The artichoke tart is brilliant for the pastry-averse or just those looking for a more wholesome version of a quiche or vegetable tart. You make a pot of polenta, flavoring it with broth and cheese (an egg adds body) and then pat it out into a cake or tart pan. Then you defrost artichoke hearts (or open a can, which is what I did because I've yet to find frozen artichokes in Germany) and cut them into quarters, laying them down on the polenta base. On top goes crumbled goat cheese and then a scalliony-herby mixture of eggs and Greek yogurt and a generous sprinkling of Parmesan cheese. And that's it.

After 45 minutes in the oven, what emerges is bound to make everything else on your brunch table pale in comparison. It did on mine. What I like especially about it is that it's hearty and savory, full of wonderful flavors (the artichokes really do shine through, as does the rosemary and creamy-sourness of the yogurt and goat cheese), yet it still feels relatively light. A big wedge of this won't weigh you down the way a piece of quiche, full of cream and sporting a butter crust, would. Also, I like the fact that the polenta crust makes people first do a double-take and then ask for a second helping.

I would have given you a photo of a slice of the tart, too, just for some cross-section action, but, uh, it happened again this weekend - the tart was gone too fast for me to react (or eat a piece!). Next time, I thought, I'm making one all for myself.

Maria Speck's Artichoke Tart with Polenta Crust
Make one 10-inch tart
Recipe from Ancient Grains for Modern Meals

1 1/2 cups low-sodium vegetable broth
1 1/4 cups water
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 1/4 cups polenta
1/2 cup (about 2.5 ounces) grated Parmesan cheese
1 large egg, room temperature
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1. Bring the broth and water to a boil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the salt. Slowly add the polenta in a thin stream, whisking constantly, and continue whisking for 30 seconds. Decrease the heat to low and cover. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring with a wooden spoon every few minutes to keep the polenta from sticking to the bottom of the pot. Remove the saucepan from the heat and let sit, covered, for 10 minutes, stirring a few times. Stir in the cheese, egg and pepper.

2. Grease a 10-inch tart pan or cake pan with olive oil. Have a glass of cold water ready. Spoon the polenta into the pan and press it out, pushing it up the sides. Dip a wooden spoon or your hands in the cold water to help the polenta along. Set aside for 15 minutes and then form an even rim about 3/4 of an inch thick with moist fingers, pressing firmly. Don't worry if the crust looks rustic.

3. Put a rack in the center of the oven and heat to 375 F.

Artichoke filling:
1 cup plain Greek yogurt
2 large eggs
1/2 cup finely chopped scallions
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
12 ounces artichoke hearts, canned or frozen
1/2 cup (2 ounces) crumbled goat cheese
1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

1. Whisk the yogurt, eggs, scallions, parsley, rosemary, salt and pepper together until well-combined. Cut the artichoke hearts into quarters and distribute them evenly over the polenta crust. Sprinkle the goat cheese on top of the artichokes and pour the yogurt filling evenly over the artichokes. Sprinkle with the Parmesan cheese.

2. Bake the tart until the top turns golden brown and the filling is set, about 45 minutes. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and let cool for at least 20 minutes, though 40 is better. The tart can be prepared up to one day ahead.

Bess Feigenbaum's Cabbage Soup


I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, girl, of course you're posting about cabbage soup. It's January 6th, for Pete's sake, and we're all supposed to be on the New Year, New You! plan. You know, the one in which, just two weeks after Christmas, you swear to get up early each morning to sweat at the gym, eat whole-grain hot cereal for breakfast and drink nothing but green tea and think soothing thoughts about everything and everyone for at least, shall we say, two weeks before collapsing in a heap and eating an entire bag of Cape Cod potato chips for dinner in front of the television.

But no! You're wrong! That's not at all why I'm posting about cabbage soup. Sure, cabbage is good for you, all packed with vitamin C and flavonoids (or maybe it was antioxidants? Whatever it was, it's not goose fat or almond paste, thank Jeebus, because I can't look at either right now without wincing.). But take a closer look: There's ketchup in this soup, people. Ketchup. KETCH-UP. And brown sugar. And you're supposed to dollop sour cream on top. Okay? No diet soup here, no sirree, I don't think so.

It's not that I'm not into New Year's resolutions. Last year I made a bang-up list (uh, yes, drinking more green tea was on there, but so was stuff like "get a pedicure"and "buy a standmixer" (got the former, not the latter)). By February, though, it devolved into a to-do list of wedding-related errands and things like "open a German credit card" and "go to the cemetery in Kassel" and before too long, I hied that list of resolutions to the curb.

This year, I was too busy to make a list. I wanted to enjoy every blessed minute that Max was here over the holidays (two whole weeks!) and we had our very first Christmas at home (which has been one of my life goals since I was a small child - check!), replete with a candle-lit tree that the poor man lugged home the day before Christmas Eve and that is still perfuming our living room almost two weeks later. (Before you throw out your Christmas tree, have you seen this?)

Plus, I was sort of consumed with thoughts about the book, you know, and this other thing that has been occupying whatever spare part of my mind I've still got left (it's not much) (good grief, the parentheses in this post are multiplying like bacteria) (more on that, the other thing, not the parenthesiitis, in a minute)).

So there's no official list of virtuous resolutions this year. In fact, a few days ago I even canceled my gym membership (if you must know, it's because my gym stinks - well, figuratively, not literally). I was pretty sure the gods of January were going to smite me for doing such a profane thing, but miraculously I made it home in one piece. Being virtuous for a few weeks feels like a waste of time when I've got so much more in my lap right now. Instead I've decided to do things like "use up the vegetables languishing in the fridge instead of letting them calcify" or "embrace self-indulgence every once in a while, you mean old hag, you" and I've also decided I don't need a pretty list doodled on good paper to do that, either.


Which leads me back to the ketchup soup. The other night, I had nothing but three moldy carrots, half a green cabbage and several lemons so dried out you could have cracked them like eggs skulking around my fridge. The carrots especially were starting to seriously irritate me. Carrot frittata? I wondered as I stared at this motley crew. Lemon sandwiches? Cabbage spaghetti? No, no and no.

Instead I vaguely remembered reading something about a cabbage soup, but who knows when, my mind is a sieve these days. A few clicks later and there was Bess Feigenbaum's Cabbage Soup staring back at me from the computer screen. As I scrolled through the ingredient list, I felt more and more triumphant. I had everything I needed, everything except for the raisins which I didn't want in my soup anyway, no way, no how. How perfect was this?

Also, as I might have already mentioned, there was ketchup in this soup. KETCHUP. In the soup. People. When I saw that, I scrambled to the kitchen so fast that dust clouds kicked up under my feet.

To start, you make a simple tomato sauce base, really - sautéeing onions and garlic in olive oil, adding sliced carrots and canned tomatoes and tomato paste. But then you throw in a bay leaf and ketchup and brown sugar (and not a small amount either, though I confess to halving the sugar, because I just couldn't bring myself to use the full amount, not with a whole half-cup of ketchup in the soup to boot) and when this has cooked for about twenty minutes you render it coarsely mashed or puréed, depending on your taste, and then you add an enormous amount of sliced cabbage and water and what seems like far too much lemon juice, but do not skimp, please, because the lemon juice is crucial.

This whole messy concoction, cabbage strips sticking every which way, then gets cooked until it's good and silky. Two hours at least. I had a bowl after an hour and I don't advise you do the same. You want the cabbage to go limp and soft, really soft. Practically melting. And you want all those crazy flavors to meld into something a little less nuts (don't worry, the ketchup does blend into the background). (Also, it feeds a blessed multitude, so invite your whole block over for dinner or else be prepared to eat this for days.)

A dollop of something cool and creamy on top is sort of crucial when you serve the soup. Otherwise it could err a little on the sweet-and-strange side. You could go for sour cream or plain yogurt, if you were feeling virtuous (or if that's all you had in the house, ahem). But don't skip this bit either. You want that final hit of bracing acidity and smoothing lactic power, brightening the coldest and darkest of winter days.

My father arrived this morning for a two-week visit and I served this to him for lunch, along with a slice of dark bread. (He always eats a slice of buttered dark bread when he gets off the airplane in Berlin and then, with a deep sigh, tells me how good it tastes.) (Also, he is a cabbage man, if you know what I mean. Never met a cabbage he didn't like.) He said it tasted like the stuffed cabbage his mother used to make, which is exactly the point, according to Zoe Feigenbaum (Bess was Zoe's grandmother and Bess's stuffed cabbage was the inspiration for the soup.)


But wait! We're not done yet! There's still that thing I have to tell you about, the thing I mentioned just above. I have been wracking my mind for days (weeks! months!), trying to figure out a good way to tell you all, my darling readers, my friends who I've never met, and I keep on coming up empty. It's just too big, I guess, too good.

So. You know how I said I was hiding from you because I was so wrapped up in the book and all the craziness that goes along with the final weeks of revisions and writing? Well. Um. I might not have been telling you the whole, entire truth. Technically.

You see, that other something I mentioned above, well, it's not just a little thing, though, actually, it is pretty little. With wee legs and arms and delicious cheeks to nibble on soon and a thumpy, steady heartbeat and the cutest little profile I ever did see, already turning 2012 into the best year of my life, hands down, without a doubt, book or no book.

What I'm trying to say is, that thing occupying whatever space I've got left in my mind and taking up all the space in my belly is our baby. Our baby! A boy, our son, due in June. This June! Our baby! Our son!


Bess Feigenbaum's Cabbage Soup
Original recipe here
Serves 8

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
1 cup chopped onion
1 cup peeled and sliced carrots
1 28-ounce can plum tomatoes
1 cup tomato paste
1/2 cup tomato ketchup
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup lemon juice
3 pounds green cabbage, approximately half of one large head (tough outer leaves, core and ribs removed), sliced into 1/4-inch-wide strips
1/2 cup golden raisins (optional)
Fresh ground black pepper
Sour cream or plain yogurt

1. In a large pot over medium-low heat, heat olive oil and add garlic. Cook, stirring, until garlic is tender but not browned, about 2 minutes. Add onion and sauté until translucent. Add 3 cups water, carrots, tomatoes and purée, tomato paste, ketchup, brown sugar and bay leaf. Simmer for 10 minutes, then crush the tomatoes with a fork or wooden spoon. Continue to simmer until carrots are tender, about 10 minutes. Discard bay leaf. 

 2. Using an immersion blender, process mixture until it is coarse, not puréed. Add lemon juice, cabbage strips and 3 additional cups water. Place over medium-high heat and cook at a lively simmer until cabbage is meltingly soft, about 2 hours. Add water to thin to desired consistency. Ten minutes before serving, stir in raisins and a few twists of black pepper. Garnish each serving with a dollop of sour cream or yogurt.