Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Fusilli with Butternut Squash, Purple Kale & Preserved Lemon

Trying to get back into the swing of Meat-free Mondays and not wanting to rush out to the market on a holiday Monday when I had A. and Fe. to myself, I accidentally threw together a truly stellar pasta dish for dinner. I say accidentally, because the process was so haphazard and really just the result of rooting through the pantry and fridge.

Sometimes the planets align and flavors magically cooperate and you manage to unexpectedly delight yourself. You must know what I mean. You actually surprise yourself.

I wasn't expecting anything special, so I didn't bother taking a picture until the next day when Fe. and I were eating the pasta cold for lunch.

The crisper had just been replenished by the Silver Lake Farms C.S.A. I had a fat butternut squash begging to be used and a vibrant bunch of purple kale whispering sweet nothings in my ear. I knew that's where I would start. This weeks haul also included a heap of onions and a fragrant bunch of cilantro. In the pantry garlic, raisins and pine nuts are always standing at the ready.

The final ingredient that really transformed this dish was the half preserved lemon that I pulled from the large jar that is tucked in the back corner of my refrigerator. I threw that batch together during the summer. I'll share my recipe with you soon -- I promise -- when I write about spinach later in the week. Everyone should keep a stash of preserved lemons in their kitchen. They make almost everything taste better -- more exotic and more delicious.

I sliced several onions and cloves of garlic and cooked them for only a brief time before tossing in the purple kale. The kale was so young and lovely. It lent a sweet and mildly bitter, vegetal taste to the dish. Adding crushed red pepper would have been a good idea, but I intended to share this with Fe. and he is not quite there yet with the spicy food.

I used Mark Bittman's recipe for glazed butternut squash with garlic. I almost always roast butternut squash, so this was something of a revelation for me. You can prepare it on the stove in about 20 minutes! I tossed this into the pasta at the end.

The Trader Joe's organic raisins are so soft, they needed no plumping. I gave the pine nuts a little toast in a diminutive, yet heavy pan, and threw them along with the raisins into the sauté pan.

It was all there. Sweetness from the squash, raisins and onions, pine nuttiness, pungency from the garlic and kale, sauciness from the pasta water and olive oil, the salty, tangy mystery of the preserved lemon, and an herbaceous kick from a handful of chopped cilantro.

A short tubby pasta was needed and fusilli was what was in the pasta drawer. I had wanted Pecorino Romano to shave over, but all that was left was Parmigiano Reggiano, so we went with that. Although, quite frankly the cheese was really unnecessary.

This isn't much of a recipe, more a suggestion of flavors that go really really well together. All of the amounts are variable, depending on what is on hand. You could certainly use chard in lieu of kale or acorn squash instead of butternut. Although, who wants to mess with acorn, when butternut is so much easier to manage? Hazelnuts would be equally tasty, if not more so.

Fusilli with Butternut Squash, Purple Kale, and Preserved Lemon

For Mark Bittman's butternut squash:

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 pound or so butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1 inch cubes
1/4 cup stock or water
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Put the oil and garlic in a large skillet with a tight-fitting lid over medium heat, (no need to cover at this point). When the garlic starts to turn golden, after approximately 2 minutes, add the squash and stock and season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, cover, and turn the heat to low. Cook, stirring once or twice, until the squash is tender, about 15 minutes. Don't over-cook it. You don't want it to fall apart!

Uncover the pan and turn the heat up to medium-high. Cook, shaking the pan every so often and stirring even less, until the liquid is gone and the squash starts to brown, 5 to 10 minutes. Lower the heat and cook until the squash is as brown and crispy as you like. For this application, I didn't let the squash crisp up much at all.

For the pasta:
1/3 pound fusilli pasta (or more depending on your favored pasta to vegetable ratio)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 large onion, sliced, not too thinly
2 or 3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 medium bunch purple kale, washed, stemmed, and roughly chopped
1/4 cup water or stock
1/4 cup raisins, plumped or not
A very scant 1/4 cup pine nuts -- maybe just an 1/8 cup, toasted
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 preserved lemon, flesh removed and discarded, peel finely chopped
1 batch of the aforementioned butternut squash
1 cup reserved pasta cooking water
A handful or two cilantro, roughly chopped

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Cook the fusilli. Drain when al dente.

Heat the oil in a large heavy skillet. Add the onions and garlic, and cook, stirring frequently, until just beginning to turn translucent. Add the kale and stir well. Add the water or stock and cover, until just wilted, about 5 minutes. If your kale is older and thicker, you may need to cook it longer and you may need to add additional stock or water. Uncover and add the pine nuts and raisins. Season with salt and pepper. Add the preserved lemon, stirring. Stir in the butternut squash. Fold in the cooked fusilli. Pour in a little pasta cooking water if the pasta needs a bit of saucing up. Drizzle additional olive oil on as you see fit. Sprinkle with chopped cilantro and serve.

Serves approximately 3 plus a little one

Friday, January 14, 2011

Sole Fillet Rolls Stuffed with Herbs

For quite a long time I had a very small-minded opinion of Greek cuisine, not having a clue about how much that region had to offer. Back in my early twenties, I thought Jeffrey Steingarten said it best when he quipped in The Man Who Ate Everything:

Typical of modern-day Greek cuisine are feta cheese and retsina wine. Any country that pickles its national cheese in brine and adulterates its national wine with pine pitch should order dinner at the local Chinese place and save its energies for other things.


With great relief, I can say that my beliefs have evolved over the last fifteen or so years.


Although it's probably a little early for me to have a definitive opinion on the 700-plus page Greek Joy of Cooking, Vefa's Kitchen, I think it's safe to say that it will dramatically help me continue to expand my knowledge and appreciation of Greek food.

Vefa's Kitchen has put something of a spell on me. Every time I open the book randomly, I find something new I want to whip up. It's as if I've been granted entry into a foreign land. The recipes are for dishes that I've never prepared before, that I haven't conceived of at all. And thankfully, so many of them seem completely realistic for my life at this time. The glossy pages feel good to my fingertips. The photographs are gorgeous and there are lots of them, which I really appreciate in a cookbook.

Fish was what I had in mind, and while I was tempted by many of the salt cod preparations, I didn't want to wait the extra day or two (required for soaking) for dinner. I selected a recipe, Sole Fillet Rolls Stuffed with Herbs, that was perfectly suited to satisfy two of my strong desires -- one for fish, the other for greens.

This sole recipe is an elegant preparation. Rolling up sole around a savory herb and onion mixture makes so much sense. I can't believe that I've never rolled sole before! It's so easy to manipulate before it is cooked. The contrast of colors between the white flesh, emerald green spinach (or sorrel) and brilliant red tomatoes is stunning.

Onion (try finely chopping, instead of grating), garlic and scallions are cooked until translucent in olive oil. The half cup of parsley and half cup of mint that are then added give the dish a remarkably fresh and healthy flavor. A good portion of this mix is used to stuff the sole. The rest is folded into the blanched spinach.

I opted for spinach because it was the easiest to come buy in great quantity, but the recipe first suggests sorrel. The sorrel would probably have lent the lemony note that I felt the dish was missing. If you use spinach, my recommendation would be to add lemon at some point, either during the cooking process or at least at the end, to finish the dish. You'll want a little brightness and acid.

I dig the hint of spice that comes from the nutmeg that is sprinkled on the fish. The recipe calls for ground, but I preferred grating my own.

Rolling up the fish is a cinch. The rolls are placed on the bed of greens and topped with a slice of tomato. Those red slices bathe each roll in sweet juices during the cooking -- another very good idea.

The remaining olive oil is then drizzled over the fish. Here, I might suggest one other small change. You're asked to pour a half cup, minus two tablespoons, over the dish. That seems excessive to me. I'd go just shy of a third of a cup or perhaps even a little less.

Psst. I also didn't brush my baking dish with oil. Depending on your ovenware, you probably can skip this step.

The sole cooks for approximately twenty minutes in a 400 degree oven. You could serve it alone, but I opted for a little mound of basmati rice to soak up the herbaceous juices. Delicious! I felt quite proud to be serving such a beautiful meal.

If you're not going to eat it all in one sitting, I'd recommend halving the recipe. The sole does not reheat well, which I knew would be the case and foolishly ignored. While I loved the meal the first night, I did not at all the second time around.

Sole Fillet Rolls Stuffed With Herbs

1/2 cup olive oil, plus extra for brushing
8 sole fillets, 3 1/4 lb total weight, skinned
Salt and pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 onion grated
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
3 scallions, thinly sliced
1/2 cup finely chopped fresh mint
1/2 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
1 pound 2 ounces sorrel leaves or spinach, coarse stalks removed
2 small tomatoes, sliced

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and brush an ovenproof dish with oil. Season the fish fillets with salt and pepper and sprinkle with the nutmeg. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a pan. Add the onion, garlic, and scallions and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes, until softened. Stir in the mint and parsley, season with salt and pepper, and remove from the heat. Briefly blanch the sorrel or spinach in boiling water and drain. Spread 1-2 tablespoons of the onion and herb mixture over each fish fillet and roll it up. Mix the remaining onion and herb mixture with the sorrel and spread out over the base of the prepared dish. Put the sole rolls on top. Place a tomato slice on top of each roll. Season with a little salt and pepper and drizzle the remaining oil all over the fish. Bake for 20 minutes, or until the vegetables and fish are tender.

Serves 4

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Sautéed Fennel with Garlic

This week I am cooking Greek food.

My sister gave me Vefa Alexadiou's massive Greek tome, Vefa's Kitchen, for Christmas. It was at the top of my list(along with India, The Cookbook) of most-desired cookbooks this season. Both are beautifully published by Phaidon. So far, I'm delighted.

I've got a number of Alexadiou's dishes that I am anxious to share, but I thought I'd start with the simplest. Her sautéed fennel with garlic(Sarah, check this one out!) is a whole lot more than its name suggests.

The fennel is sautéed with whole cloves of garlic for fifteen minutes and then you add either water or tomato juice and simmer for another fifteen minutes. I used water, because the other dish I was serving already featured tomato juice, but I'm looking forward to trying it the other way, soon. You add a healthy dose of lemon juice at the end and that's it.

The fennel is soft, sweet, and tender, and the liquids reduce to produce a glaze-like sauce that is tangy and delicious. My sister felt that there could have been even more lemon, so you'll want to play around with it, to see what suits you.

I didn't have eight small fennel bulbs, so I cut two large bulbs into eighths. This worked just fine. I also didn't have the fronds left on the bulbs, so I did without. I didn't find the dish lacking at all.

If made properly, the dish might be even more terrific, but I was thoroughly pleased.

Sautéed Fennel with Garlic
5 tablespoons olive oil
8 small fennel bulbs, halved
6 garlic cloves, peeled (feel free to add more!)
1/2 cup water or tomato juice
salt and pepper
4 tablespoons finely chopped fennel fronds
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

Heat the oil in a large heavy skillet. Add the fennel and garlic, and cook, frequently turning, for approximately 15 minutes, until golden brown. Pour in the water or tomato juice. Season with salt and pepper, and simmer, covered, for 15 minutes. The fennel should be tender when pierced with a knife or fork and the sauce will have reduced.

Stir in the fennel fronds and lemon juice, gently shaking the pan. Serve immediately.

Serves 4

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Gorbals

I'd been to Top Chef Season 2 winner, Ilan Hall's, The Gorbals in downtown Los Angeles twice before.

When I got the Blackboard Eats coupon for 30% off, I attempted to convince A. to try it again. See, the first time we had only sampled the much-talked-about matzoh balls wrapped in bacon(not so great) and the gribenes, lettuce, and tomato sandwich. So the second time was our only real meal.

I distinctly remembered A. liking it, as did I. He claims that I had a bit of a buzz going from the cocktail I was drinking and that my festive mood had colored my judgement. I of course didn't believe him for a second.

So crossing A. off of my list of whom to dine with at The Gorbals, I immediately turned to my sister, Mo. We easily got a 9:30 reservation for the next Saturday night.

I'd just like to mention right now, that it drives me up the wall when A. is right. And the killer is that he so often is. And just as a quick aside, he orders perfectly 90% of the time. The rascal!

Of course I had a blast with Mo, but it had nothing whatsoever to do with the food at The Gorbals.

Not a lot jumped out at me from the funny little menu. I know Ilan Hall prides himself on being somewhat cutting edge, but it goes back to what A. says about the place. There isn't much you want to eat.

Four pig dishes. We ordered two of those. The cow dish was tongue confit. There was a curried goat poutine and the bird dishes on offer were cornish game hen, and the gribenes sandwich. I love gribenes, but when we sampled it last time it was laden with mayonnaise.

The herbivore dishes were the most enticing. We selected three of those, including chips & dill, grilled romaine with anchovy butter and croutons, and broccoli with soy and chiles.

Sorry my pictures are a little dim. But look at the plating of the romaine! It looks like it was just dumped on the plate.

While some effort was certainly taken with the interior of the restaurant, the same cannot really be said for the visual appeal of the food itself.

I'm a fan of grilled romaine, and I intend to make some variation of it at home soon. While this dish was tasty with a nice char and good anchovy flavor, there was way too much butter or dressing on it. The leaves were sodden with the stuff -- a little too rich and oily.

Surprisingly the chips and dill are a favorite of Jonathan Gold's. I found them to be pretty ordinary, thickish-cut fries with very little dill present and an unreal amount of salt dusted on top. Not at all the type of chips that keep you reaching back into the bowl for more. The acidic aioli that came along side helped a little.

I fondly remembered the broccoli with soy and chiles, and I was pleased again. I love Hall's heavy hand with vinegar in this dish. We enjoyed it so much we ordered a second round, which unfortunately was a mistake.

The second batch was either not drained or it sat in the deep-fryer for far too long, because it was downright soggy with oil. The amount of vinegar used had been cut back dramatically. It was almost a completely different dish. Weird to have such inconsistency in one evening.

The meal was rounded out with porcine offerings. We shared the pork belly with baked beans and the pork spare-rib tips.

We were excited when the belly came, because what doesn't taste better with an egg on top? But sadly the pork and the beans were very flat and one-dimensional. A bit of sweetness or a kick of vinegar would have helped immensely. It wasn't until the last bite that I tasted a green onion. I sure wish there had been more of those to perk things up.

Mo liked the spare-rib tips, and she's right, the pure pork flavor was good. I, however, felt that there should have been more to it then simply roasting the tips in the oven. There just wasn't anything distinguishing them from any pork dish one of us could throw together -- no intriguing sauce or accompaniment -- just pork on plate.

I will say this. Our waiter was dynamite, very helpful and a real charmer. The space is lovely(once you traverse the dingy hotel lobby), especially the communal table and the warm lighting. The late hours are certainly handy. And it is funny to see Ilan Hall parading around in his short-sleeve chef's coat. But in the end, I just can't say that I'll be rushing back to The Gorbals.

The Gorbals
501 South Spring Street
Los Angeles, CA 90013

Monday, January 10, 2011

Happy New Year!

Forgive me!

I am so sorry to have been gone for such a long time. And with no explanation. I've been positively racked with guilt.

I completely forgot how overwhelming November and December always prove to be. We've got anniversaries, birthdays, holidays, traveling (Anacortes, WA!) and the general hustle and bustle that sets in around Christmas.

Everything has been exceptionally merry, and the overindulgence has been great. Yet the time has sped by, leaving me anxious to settle into the routine, mundane and simple days of January.

I thought I'd be back on track starting last week. Foolish, me. Today, the 10th of January, will have to do for my fresh start.

So, Merry Christmas! Happy New Year! I've missed you!

I thought I'd share a few pictures of our traditional Christmas feast to kick things off.

We can't shake the habit. Every year, it's prime rib and Yorkshire pudding. A twenty-something pound beast this year.

Cheers! Here's to many wonderful meals together in 2011!