September 30th, 2011 § § permalink
For me one of the best parts of travel is experiencing how and what other cultures eat. When I’m away from home, I try not only to eat like the locals but also to pick up the ingredients needed to cook like them. By the end of a trip I’ve invariably weighed down my bag with hastily jotted recipes, odd cooking pots, rare spices and exotic edibles. Out of the countless things that I’ve dragged through U.S. customs, the warm, zesty zahtar (also spelled za’atar or zaatar) remains a particular favorite.
Originating in the Middle East, zahtar is an aromatic herb and spice blend. Its name likely comes from the Arabic word for wild thyme, zaatar. In fact, dried thyme is one of the main ingredients. Ground sumac, sesame seeds and sometimes dried marjoram likewise appear in this seasoning.
People use zahtar to spice up an array of foods. Some cooks sprinkle it over labneh, a strained yogurt from the Middle East. Others mix zahtar with olive oil and slather this over breads. Then there are those who season vegetables or meats with it. Me? I add a little excitement to humdrum baked chicken by spreading zahtar over it.
You can find zahtar at specialty and Middle Eastern markets as well as online at such stores as Kalustyan’s. Better yet, you can make zahtar yourself. It takes only a few minutes and ingredients to make this versatile blend.
Makes 1/3 cup
3 tablespoons sesame seeds
2 tablespoons dried thyme
1 tablespoon ground sumac
1 1/2 teaspoons dried marjoram
1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt
Mix the ingredients together in a small bowl. Store in an airtight container until ready to use.
3 tablespoons zahtar
4 skinless chicken breasts
3 tablespoons olive oil plus extra for greasing the baking dish
Spread the zahtar evenly over a clean work surface.
Rinse off the chicken breasts and lay them on a large serving platter or baking dish. Coat them with olive oil and then dredge them through the zahtar, covering them completely. Place the coated chicken on a large plate, cover and refrigerate for 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Coat the bottom of a baking dish with olive oil. Add the chicken to the dish.
Bake the chicken for 40 minutes or until cooked completely. A probe thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the chicken should read 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Serve immediately alongside couscous or shepherd’s salad.
September 23rd, 2011 § § permalink
When I was in my twenties, I became a wishy-washy vegetarian. You know the type — won’t eat meat but still wolfs down cheese; won’t touch roast chicken but has no problem with soup made from chicken stock. Unsurprisingly, my mother was outraged. What infuriated her most was my refusal to eat bacon. ‘How can you eat eggs/pancakes/French toast/waffles without bacon? It’s unheard of.’
In retrospect she should have been pleased that I’d kept eggs in my diet. As one of my main sources of protein, they sustained me far better than a few strips of bacon ever would have. And, yes, even back then I knew that they were high in cholesterol; one large egg contained as much as 213 milligrams. However, the amount of protein, percentage of Vitamins B, D and E, and versatility that they provided far outweighed their downside. Plus, when I withheld the yolks, I still ended up with a darned nice omelet.
Regarding eggs, the late author and food historian Alan Davidson said it best: They are ‘. . . the astonishing and unintentional gift from birds to human beings . . ..’ Extremely versatile, they serve a variety of culinary roles. They can be eaten on their own after being baked, boiled, pan-fried, poached or scrambled. They can act as a leavener in baking and a thickener in custards, sauces and dressings. They can dress up pastries. Just think about shiny, golden-topped, fruit studded or braided breads; those beautiful crusts came courtesy of egg washes. They’re also the base of many classic offerings such as eggnog, mayonnaise and souffles.
Eggs have a wealth of flavor affinities. They partner wonderfully with asparagus, basil, pepper, potatoes, spinach and such cheeses as feta, Gruyere, mozzarella and Parmesan. They likewise pair well with cream, creme fraiche, garlic, ham, mushrooms, onions, parsley, smoked salmon, scallions, shallots, sausage, steak, tomatoes, truffles and, my mother’s all-time favorite, bacon.
The beauty of eggs is that they require little preparation and no additional ingredients. Heat a little olive oil in a frying pan. Crack an egg and plop it into the heated pan. In a snap dinner is served. Along with pan-frying, I like to poach eggs and serve them over a smoked salmon-topped English muffin. Replace the smoked salmon with sauteed wild mushrooms and I’ve got a light take on eggs Benedict.
Beyond the usual Benedicts, omelets, frittatas and souffles I occasionally use eggs in such savory dishes as pasta and polenta. With that I’ll offer a hearty polenta dish featuring, yep, an egg.
EGG AND PARM POLENTA
2 cups water
2 cups chicken stock
1 cup coarse yellow cornmeal
2 tablespoons salted butter
2/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/3 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted
1/2 tablespoon ground black pepper, divided
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 large eggs
In a large saucepan bring the water and chicken stock to a boil. Slowly pour in the cornmeal, stirring with a wooden spoon as you add it. Reduce the heat to low and continue stirring for about 30 minutes or until the polenta is extremely thick and the spoon can support itself in the pan.
Five minutes before the polenta has finished cooking, start making your sunny side-up eggs. Heat the olive oil in a large, non-stick frying pan on medium. Once the oil has heated, crack an egg and pour it into the pan. Repeat with the remaining three eggs, making sure that no eggs touch. Depending on the size of your pan, you may need to fry the eggs in batches.
Fry the eggs on one side until the whites have browned slightly on the edges and the yolks have set slightly. Take the pan off the heat.
At this point you should also remove the polenta from the heat and stir in the butter, Parmesan cheese, 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper and pine nuts. Spoon equal amounts of polenta onto four plates. Top each mound of polenta with a fried egg and dash of ground black pepper. Serve immediately.
September 16th, 2011 § § permalink
This week I’ve been working on non-Kitchen Kat cookbook reviews, one of which explores cheese. I can think of no better person to critique a cheese book for I am an absolute fromage fanatic. Whenever I’m on vacation or craving comfort food, I skip the ice cream, cookies and candy. Instead I buy a wedge of Manchego, Emmental or drunken goat and a loaf of good bread and I eat cheese.
The writer Clifton Fadiman once described cheese as “milk’s leap toward immortality.” How true. It all begins with milk. Allow natural bacteria or starter culture work its magic on goat’s, sheep’s, cow’s or buffalo’s milk. Eventually the milk thickens and then separates into curds and whey. Drain off the liquid whey and you’re left with curds. From here it’s all about shaping and ripening or aging those milk solids. The end result? Cheese.
Rather than muddling through how a gallon of whole cow’s milk becomes a pound of provolone, I’ll stick with what I know — cooking with and eating cheese. However, if you’re interested in learning more about cheese making, look at Steven Jenkins’ Cheese Primer (Workman Publishing, 1996) or Mary Karlin’s Artisan Cheese Making at Home (Ten Speed Press, 2011). Online you can check out CurdNerds and New England Cheesemaking Supply. If you’re in NY, stop by Murray’s Cheese in the Village. Along with Zabar’s and Fairway, it’s one of my favorite places to sample and learn about cheese.
In addition to nibbling on it as a snack, main course or savory dessert, I like to cook with cheese. Often I’ll do something as simple as sprinkling goat, feta or Stilton over mixed greens or layering grilled Haloumi between basil and slices of tomato and whole grain bread. Truthfully, that’s hardly cooking at all. Other times, though, I’ll whip together a batch of cheese scones, fondue, raclette, soup, polenta or casserole as well as the standard mac ‘n’ cheese or pizza. Whether I use it as a main or secondary ingredient, cheese always seems to make my resulting dish shine.
1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes
4 ounces Haloumi cheese, diced
1 scallion, minced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
dash of salt, optional
Wash then cut the tomatoes into small cubes and place in a large bowl. Skin, slice into quarters length-wise then remove the seeds of the cucumber. Once de-seeded, cut the cucumber into small pieces and place into the bowl. Add the Haloumi, minced scallion, mint and freshly ground black pepper to the bowl and toss the ingredients together.
Fill four 6-ounce ramekins with the tartare. Note that if you don’t own ramekins, you can use four empty, lidless and washed tuna cans as substitutes. Refrigerate the ramekins for 10 to 15 minutes, until the tartare has chilled and set. Remove them from the refrigerator and invert each ramekin onto a plate. Drizzle the top of each tartare with extra virgin olive oil and an optional dash of salt. Serve immediately.
September 9th, 2011 § § permalink
In a rare move for this night owl I was up early this morning, testing recipes. While I can’t say much for marinating swordfish at dawn, the act did get me thinking about the origins of my subject, kebabs. This meal of skewered, grilled meat is attributed to medieval Turkish soldiers who used their swords to cook over campfires. As the Ottoman Empire grew, the popularity of this technique spread across the Mediterranean and Middle East. Eventually it caught on around the world.
Almost every country seems to have its own kebab. In India folks eat tikka, chunks of chicken soaked in yogurt, coriander, garam masala and other spices and then cooked on rods. The French dine on brochettes while diners in Russia and Armenia consume shashlik. In Greece kebabs come in the form of souvlaki, large lamb or chicken cubes marinated in oil, lemon juice and oregano before being lanced alongside onions or green peppers and grilled. Across Southeast Asia satay, small pieces of chicken, pork, goat, beef or fish macerated in fish and soy sauces, sugar, lime juice and spices, remain all the rage.
It doesn’t take much effort to make a kebab. Cut a piece of beef, chicken, lamb or firm-fleshed fish into one-inch cubes. Allow the cubes to steep in a marinade for at least 30 minutes. Once they’ve finished marinating, skewer the cubes, along with optional chunks of onions, eggplant, peppers or mushrooms, on metal or bamboo sticks and grill them over hot charcoal. If using bamboo sticks, remember to soak them in water first. Otherwise, they’ll catch on fire, providing you with an inedible, albeit memorable, meal.
Kebabs finished, I drizzle a little lemon or lime juice, olive oil or sauce over them. Paired with fresh pita, lettuce, tomato and a yogurt dressing, they become a filling sandwich. Laid across a bed of rice or mixed greens, they make a beautiful entree.
1 ½ pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch cubes
¼ cup olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
2 teaspoons oregano
tzatziki, for serving
4 individual pitas, optional
2 tomatoes, sliced, optional
For the tzatziki
8 ounces plain yogurt, excess water drained
½ cucumber, peeled, seeded and diced
1 clove garlic, grated
¼ teaspoon dried mint
dash of salt
Mix together the olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper and oregano in a small bowl. Place the chicken cubes in a medium-sized bowl and pour the marinade over top. Cover the bowl, place it in the refrigerator and allow the chicken to marinate for 30 minutes to 1 hour.
Meanwhile, in a small bowl whisk together the yogurt, cucumber, garlic, dried mint and salt and refrigerate the tzatziki.
Preheat the grill.
Using metal skewers, insert the cubes of chicken lengthwise on each skewer, leaving a little room between each chunk of meat. Place the skewers on the hot grill and cook for approximately 5 to 10 minutes or until chicken is completely cooked. Remove the skewers from the grill and place on a platter. Serve immediately with a side of tzatziki sauce and optional pita and tomato.