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    Mid-February, it's warm enough in California--and even in upstate New York! But we could all use a little sunshine and fresher takes right about now, and oranges are in season.

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The Afikomen Conundrum, plus a quiche for our times

zucchini crustless quiche

On the lighter side of Passover, now that it’s the last day for anyone outside Israel, I did catch Terry Gross’s wonderful Fresh Air interview with Adam Sandler and the Safdie brothers on NPR back in December and was delighted to hear that the brothers included the first-ever mention of the afikomen in an English-language film. It’s about time! I mean, bagel and chopped liver references can only take you so far with Jewish culture. Afikomen is the real insider stuff.

Then, of course, Terry realized that all four of them, herself included, were talking inside matzah-ball or at least Aramaic amongst themselves on-air, and the uninitiated radio listenership who had never even been to a Passover seder might need some enlightenment on the subject of afikomen. Yes, it was exactly like having to explain a joke, and no, the great mass of society probably still didn’t get why a broken matzah is more important than a whole one, or why you’d bribe the kids to give the other half back once you’ve hidden it somewhere cleverly during the meal.

But Sandler and the Safdies ran with it and tried not to make it any more like explaining a joke than they had to. At least Terry didn’t pick the Hillel sandwich to riff on. (Partly because no matter what the Haggadah says about it, there really is no good logical or culinary explanation for eating a combination of apples, nuts and horseradish all together on matzah. It just is, you know? Tradition!)

Anyway, the interview was actually enlightening and smart, and the link is still up online, so go listen to it and donate to your local NPR station while you are wondering, as I am, where we go from here.

I look back to where we were only a month ago and realize that I am thankful my daughter is with us, that my mother and sister and their families and my in-laws are all well if a bit frustrated at home, especially the younger generations with young kids. Back then I  was starting to wonder if there was actually going to be matzah in the stores by the time we needed it or whether I would have to enlist my daughter for some not-quite-kosher-but-best-we-can-do homemade matzah from the leftover bag of flour that I couldn’t bring myself to throw away this year–it seems like more than a sin to throw away anything you could use later, anything you might need, or that someone else could use now.

I mentioned this to a friend back east when Governor Hogan of Maryland decided to declare a statewide a lockdown a week or so after California’s, and we were comparing notes about having college-age kids stuck at home for the duration. It was about a week before Passover started, and a few days later not only was there finally some matzah available at the store, just in the nick of time, but a big mystery box arrived at our door later the same day. When we opened it, we discovered she’d sent us two boxes of Streit’s matzah, just in case. She’s really something else!

As mentioned above, today is the last day of Pesach (Passover in English) if you live outside Israel. My husband is hoping for pizza tonight but since  the stores are closing before sundown, I somehow doubt it’s going to happen tonight. Plus we have two whole boxes of matzah left and a bunch of rice, which I cooked starting with the second night. Turns out many, many American Jews other than us have also decided this year to expand their Passover cooking options to Sefardic traditions that include rice.

I even have most of a packet of quinoa, which is so recent in the Jewish world that rabbis everywhere have declared it kosher for Passover. Somehow that declaration annoys me. Quinoa’s an expensive grain compared to rice and the major importers and cultivators probably paid someone off under the table to get this vegan-trendy chic grain declared ritually different from all other grains, cereals and seeds including rice. Call it Dizengoffia or Beverly Hills Syndrome, and yes, I’m really that much of a cynic, but put it this way–nobody’s bribing anyone about rice as far as I know. Rice is common, inexpensive and traditional, and it’s already approved for Sefardim and most Mizrahi Jews as well.

Small wonder a lot of us have decided to go Sefardi this year, and possibly every year from now on.

Anyway, since this is me, I made some of the quinoa last night in the microwave just to see how it would go–answer, not bad, and pleased my daughter, who along with her college housemates is more conversant with quinoa than I am. I think it’s twice or three times as expensive as rice; they’re still young and excited and into brandname olive oil, gourmet coffee, designer vinegars and  and vegan-chic ingredients because they’re all so new to cooking on their own and still a bit gullible.

It takes time, practice and ruining a few expensive buys on your own dime to realize that fancy-label ingredients won’t make you a great cook automatically. You can go online all you want–even here, if you have the patience to read through all my grumbling and occasional bouts of wild enthusiasm. The fact is there’s no substitute for trying it yourself and being willing to eat your mistakes as far as they’re edible and figure out from them how to fix them up now and do better next time.

But in any case, the quinoa, microwaved or not, is still quinoa, with an earthy, bitter edge similar to buckwheat (kasha).  So definitely squeeze on some lemon or mix in some vinaigrette; instant improvement. My kid agrees–there’s vegan chic and then there’s too chic. And if you’re going to buy it and try it anyhow, you need to be willing to work with it and make it good or else. At least not waste it.

More to the point of frugality, I have been trying mostly to practice what I preach and buy and use cheap vegetables plentifully this week instead of reaching for yet more matzah and cheese at every turn, or using up more eggs at once than is wise in a time when you’re limited to two cartons a customer when you can even get them, and where a lot of supermarkets are now stocking medium-sized eggs when they can’t get enough large ones.

My standard Israeli-style spinach and feta flan for Passover (or any other time) calls for 6 large eggs for a pound of squeezed-out spinach, but you can reduce the eggs to 3-4 and increase the milk to 1.5 c and/or add a bit of bread or flour (if you’re not cooking for Passover), rice, matzah meal, grated or mashed cooked potato etc. –the starch absorbs some of the excess liquid and acts as a binder. And you can use a different vegetable as the main ingredient.

Zucchini are some of the common inexpensive fresh vegetables being neglected most often at the Ralph’s (Kroger affiliate here in the west). I bought a bargain bag for a dollar on my last shop (still doing that where possible) and washed them carefully à la COVID-19 precautions (spritz with dilute dish soap along with all the other groceries, rinse well, airdry, hope for the best). Today I decided it was time to use them for the last Pesach lunch and that they were better to use up now for a crustless quiche than the bags of frozen spinach which cost twice to four times as much and can stay in the freezer. Continue reading

Three Films on Food and Memory

In the weeks before all the shutdowns and my daughter coming home from university for spring break–and now staying, to our relief–I decided to give myself a day’s mini-filmfest break as a reward for doing taxes. By the time I looked up from the 1040 checklist, though, nothing I really wanted to sit through was still playing at any of the theaters, and I’d missed both The Farewell and Uncut Gems. And now the theaters are closed.

Since I’m not on one of the streaming services, I took advantage of my local library DVD collections before the libraries, like everything else, decided to close. If you can stream these and you like thoughtful movies with food somewhere in the mix of topics and character sketches, they’re all worth watching.

First is Oscar-nominated foreign documentary Honeyland. I’d missed its limited run at my local independent theater only the week before (taxes, as mentioned), so when I spotted it at the library I snatched it up along with two others that were also surprising finds.

Honeyland follows Hatidze Muratova, possibly the last traditional wild beekeeper who, in her fifties, lives alone with her bedridden, elderly mother in a one-room stone hut, part of an abandoned village outside Skopje, Macedonia. She takes the regional bus into town on market days to sell the jars of honey she’s harvested from beehives in the rocks and gets a good price for them, but it’s still just enough to buy groceries with. Then a large, noisy family moves their cattle into the abandoned homestead next door and she makes friends with them, helping with the younger children. The father, ambitious to make a go of things, tries beekeeping himself, but ignores her advice for handling his box hives gently, gets a bad price at market and contracts bulk sales he can’t deliver to an aggressive and ruthless middleman. His hives start to fail, and the hungry bees attack her carefully fostered hives while his neglected cattle start dying. Eventually the family gives up and moves on, having squandered much of their own living as well as what she relied on–but not all.

Honeyland is fascinating just for its portrait of Hatidze, her resilience and her forthright, cheerful way of dealing with both bees and people. She and her mother live on the absolute brink, in a hut with a Franklin stove, a few cats, no other neighbors and very little food. Most of their daily diet is just cooked grain and yogurt or ayran and she still feeds the scraps to the cats. But she makes the most of everything she can.

When she goes to the city market she brings back some bananas and watermelon to tempt her mother to eat and enjoy a few bites of sweetness. She has just her one yellow dress and her kerchief, and no one to appreciate them, but while she’s in Skopje she spends two euros on a bottle of hair dye just for herself, and once home, she combs it through her hair with a sense of satisfaction, as though she were being pampered at a salon, while she chats with her mother about old times. Even at the end of the film, you get the feeling that Hatidze will find a way to prosper.

You do wonder a little how this documentary was achieved–they found room to fit a camera inside the tiny hut as she feeds her mother and helps her turn over on the bed, they filmed the bees stinging the neighbor’s children and his calves weakening and dying in the yard, they filmed the neighbor and the businessman raiding a nearby wild hive Hatidze relies on, just to supplement their jar count–how did the filmmakers get all that? What happened afterward?

Sometimes an extraordinary documentary like this weaves its way into your imagination more intriguingly than fiction, and sometimes the filmmaking unintentionally affects the subjects and becomes its own kind of quasi-fiction just by the nature of what it shows, what it doesn’t, and what’s behind the scenes. Did she stay or go? You have to ask, you have to wonder. The filmmakers do actually answer many of these questions on the Honeyland website, but you have to poke around and follow the press kit link to download the “press notes” PDF–a fascinating read.

The next film, Ramen Shop, is fiction and a bit slighter, but still with some pretty good moments. A young ramen chef working for his hard-as-nails father in Japan arrives at the shop one morning to learn that his father has died of a sudden heart attack. The son consults his uncle, who also works for the shop, about his childhood in Singapore with his Chinese mother, who died young, and the impossibility of recreating the soup she used to make him. Against his uncle’s advice, he decides to go back in search of the recipe and his mother’s family. Continue reading

Rethinking “pantry staples”

Whenever I see the words, “pantry staples,” I immediately hear that line–the only one I can remember–from Saturday Night Live alumna Julia Sweeney’s one-woman show God said, Ha!, from the late 1980s or thereabouts. Sweeney’s midwestern mother comes to visit and pokes around in her New York City kitchen cabinets, then asks, “Where’re yer mixes, hon?” And Sweeney realizes how much living in New York has changed her–she no longer buys box mixes for anything because all her standards are higher.

Likewise, I’ve been thinking lately that it might be a good idea to redefine pantry staples as something more useful and better-suited to a heart-healthy, inexpensive and vegetabalia-filled diet than the usual stale set of dried-out spices, indestructible and tasteless boxes of mac ‘n’ cheese and Hamburger Helper,  bouillon cubes and Ritz crackers.

For people whose cooking experience and time are limited, or who grew up in the Pop-tart generation (what I’m calling most of my contemporaries from the ’70s and ’80s schoolyards), well, we’re all in our 50s and 60s now and our doctors are always telling us to lose weight, eat more vegetables,  get more fiber, cut back on takeout, etc. etc. And it’s now looking like we may get that extra incentive.

Food blog readers are a little more likely to shop like they mean it, but in practice, a lot of the otherwise bright and well-educated people I know are still either stuck in the where-are-your-mixes mindset or else buy unnecessarily expensive designer ingredients that aren’t flexible for day-to-day cooking–which in fact they don’t really do. Actually, none of them seem to cook much at all anymore.

The mixes crowd relies on drive-thrus for refueling on the way to the kids’ soccer practices. No veg. The foodies’ pantries contain 29 or so designer vinegars, but their actual dietary staples are Amy’s™ frozen vegetarian (but high-sodium) prepared meals and/or takeout containers from the Whole Foods deli counter, supplemented with wheatgrass-and-spirulina juice drinks, smart waters, kale chips, a snack baggie of dried goji berries, and those microwaveable frozen brown rice bowls-for-one that cost more than a two-pound bag of actual brown rice. Not much fresh veg there either.

To say this isn’t how we mean to eat is an understatement. But getting from our current conventions to a better daily diet is going to take some rethinking.

Or, of course, a crisis like the one we’ve got now.

If you’ve  been out panic-shopping for toilet paper this week anywhere in the US (and apparently in a lot of other countries as well) and come to a stunned halt at the sight of a completely empty aisle in the supermarket or big-box store, you’re hardly alone.

For the past week, panic has hit the US full-blast and people are trying to think ahead a little in case things don’t actually get better by next week. Last week I was still thinking “climate change” and how to reduce the amount of plastic we go through weekly and check the bargain bins as part of my weekly shopping to reduce food waste. The last few weeks have been full of good citrus finds–mandarins, grapefruit, a bag of cara cara oranges at a dollar apiece–a small, cheering upside to counter all the many, many downsides of the news.

And now this–my daughter just came home for spring break, her college is going online-only for the rest of the semester, she’s worked very hard for several months only to have everything suddenly upended, and she might be home with us more than for the expected week depending on how things continue. I might want her here rather than in upstate New York, just in case she’s got a better chance of getting food, supplies, and medical treatment. Even though the first day home was the usual vacation stake-out-the-exact-middle-of-the-couch-and-watch-movies.

So. Now it’s “what’s the best thing to stock up on if we needed to get through a couple of weeks without much available at the stores?” You can’t do a ton at once unless you have a big budget and a big storage area–an extra freezer?–but you can probably figure that most of us could make smarter choices if we have to.

I’m not sure the mother-daughter team just ahead of me at Trader Joe’s was doing that on Friday, even though they had corralled two extremely full shopping carts for the task (and mistakenly hijacked someone else’s cart for rebagging before they realized it wasn’t their stuff). A lot of frozen stuff, a lot of canned stuff, a lot of bottles of wine and several of something harder.

Maybe that’s a good way to cope, if you can drink? Priorities!

Me? about 5 pounds of frozen fish, two big cartons of plain yogurt, two cartons of eggs, 3 pounds of cheese, some for freezing for later, some spinach and a pound of almonds and two pounds of sunflower seeds. And tofu. And three big cans of unsalted tomatoes. Three pounds of carrots. Two pounds of whole-wheat spaghetti. And–mostly for encouragement–a big 17-oz bar of TJ’s 72% chocolate. Feel like it might be important, somehow. And it’s just hard enough to break up that we won’t scarf it. As I say, priorities.

I have dried lentils and chickpeas and rice; I already have a ton of cheap, hardy veg in the fridge, a big Kroger/Ralph’s bargain can of coffee that’s not bad if you grind it finer, and milk and so on.  And two bags of flour and one new bag of sugar. And two big cans of pumpkin. And spices and teabags and oil and wine. If we really have to, I suppose we could probably get through a couple of weeks if we’re careful. Now if I only felt safer.

Probably doesn’t help that it’s raining a lot and that I just did our taxes. And that our local NPR station has ditched its half-yearly fundraising campaign to the web so they can bring us uninterrupted wall-to-wall coverage of COVID-19 and All the Resident’s Follies (and follicles) at a 24/7 kind of level. All, and I do mean all, day long. All weekend long. I may ask them to return the donations I already gave them if they don’t give it a rest–or at least give me a rest.

I could only take a few minutes at a time while I was out running chores, and I barked horribly at my husband tonight to please, please spare me for at least 10 minutes and stop reading all the “latest” updates aloud from his smartphone while I was making dinner.

I could already recite every major news point myself without a TelePromptEr–unlike certain puffed-up White House windbags. So. Nothing new there.

I have officially hit my limit. At least for tonight.

I have shopped. I have cleaned. I have cooked. I have washed sheets and towels. I have called my sister and calmed my daughter and switched temporarily to cloth napkins in case we need to reserve the paper we have. I have skulked around the backlot of Target before they opened this morning to witness a line of at least 80 people hoping to snag the limited daily resupply of TP. The Stones couldn’t hope to do better this week–probably because their concerts are cancelled too.

So maybe it’s time to redefine pantry staples as reliable foods you keep on hand and use regularly to help you achieve a balanced real-food, DASH-style diet at home without a major production and daily shopping for specialty ingredients. To my mind, this means starting with the building blocks of the major food groups: lean and relatively unprocessed proteins, nonstarchy vegetables, starchy vegetables and whole grains, beans and legumes,  fruits and either low-fat dairy or calcium-containing nondairy equivalents.

Trying to set up your kitchen to follow a DASH-style diet without going broke  Whole Foods-style is a major shift for a lot of people–especially the call for eating more vegetables, which is the number one thing that seems to have gone missing. Everybody I know–including some dedicated vegetarians who don’t even blink at the prices for tiny packets of prepared seitan and tempeh meat substitutes–is used to protesting that buying fresh vegetables and cooking them every night would be too expensive and too much trouble.

But in fact, even at the major chain supermarkets, regular bulk vegetables are, pound for pound, cheaper than almost anything that comes in a box or jar or can, and they pack a lot more nutritional value without all the detriments of salt, fats, corn syrup, starch thickeners, artificial flavors and colors, preservatives and other unpronounceable additives.

And frankly, fresh veg and most ordinary fruit is still not out of stock at most supermarkets. It’s easy to find, reasonably easy to wash, cut up and microwave or steam or throw into a frying pan or stockpot or slow-cooker. It’s nutritious. It’s filling. It’s low-calorie and versatile. And it’s a good way to stretch the meat, the eggs, the beans and rice that have been snatched up ahead of it. And we have the time and the need for variety.

Be safe, be well, wash hands and do pick up some bulk veg and fruit if you’re shopping for food–and pick up one or two items to contribute to your local food pantry if you can. Check in on your neighbors and family.

Finally–if you have even a little time and room to try gardening, even in washed-out yogurt containers, it’s surprisingly satisfying to grow herbs and a few vegetables here and there. Save and plant a few seeds from things like peppers or beans or tomatoes or squash from the supermarket when you cook, and try peeling and potting the little shoots from the inner root stumps of bok choy and onions too. It’s a much better kind of thing to propagate than what we’re seeing in the headlines.

 

Zwetchgenkuchen: a lighter holiday plum tart

Zwetchgenkuchen or plum pie with almond filling

In spite of the recent weather snarling Thanksgiving traffic a few weeks ago and the upcoming winter holidays this week (Oy! Chanukah starts tonight! gotta get candles!), we still have plums in the market in southern California even now that it’s late December. Which adds a strange twist to the dessert I was going to post about belatedly, because I realize that’s probably not true in the rest of the country, so what now?

I first meant to post this recipe for a svelter pastry way back in October, on the heels of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, when plums are usually in season.

Zwetchgen, sometimes spelled zwetchken, or “quetches” in French, (could this possibly be the origin of the famed Yiddish word “kvetch”?–probably not, but it’s fun to think about it) are the elongated, blue-black Italian prune plums, which were in at my local Armenian corner grocery in September-October, along with the divine yellow-green sweet plums for eating raw. Unfortunately, most standard supermarket chains in the US don’t sell either fresh prunes or the yellow-green kind of plum in their produce sections, to say nothing of dinosaur plums (green and brown speckled outsides, variously pink and yellow insides, telltale dinosaur logo on the sticker) or Santa Rosa plums (pinkish-red outside, deep rose-pink insides), so it’s a good argument for seeking out your local mom-and-pop ethnic corner grocers wherever possible.

But my lightened-up method for a plum tart is still pretty adaptable to other fruits you probably do have–apples, pears, thickened berry jams or canned cherry filling, mincemeat,  or even, dare I suggest, canned pumpkin? (green tomatoes? even rarer than plums unless you garden, like my in-laws.)

So it’s not that you absolutely must have plums (only for a plum tart, it’s kind of required) nor that you should do the (nearly) unthinkable for a plum tart and use dried prunes somehow. Which, I promise, I am not doing here. Well, maybe they’d work in mincemeat, preferably a vegetarian version with no suet involved. Actually, someone back in the old days of the nursery rhyme probably was using prunes and it understandably fell out of favor when fresh fruits became available more widely during the winter months. Or when some bright young thing started selling premade mincemeat filling in jars…

This lightened-up European-style tart for a holiday or other party tastes good, makes the most of end-of-season fruit, and isn’t overwhelmingly rich or oversweetened. It’s got a thin, delicate crust, an almond filling, and tart, substantial wedges of fruit. The almond extract or amaretto (or you could use rum or brandy or kirsch, or orange liqueur, or orange blossom water if you’re going nonalcoholic) gives it something most American desserts these days sorely lack–not the alcohol, which quickly bakes out, but a depth and complexity of flavor that don’t depend on sugar or butter. Continue reading

Bourekas, Pastry Crust…How Low Can You Go? A Lower-Fat Flake-Off

Borekita "flakeoff" tests two types of dough

I know bourekas aren’t health food, they’re party food, but it doesn’t stop me from wanting to make and eat good ones in (small, sane, occasional) quantities.

Key to the desire for bourekas of worth is my never-ending hunt for a pastry dough with all the right qualities–lighter, tenderer, massively flaky, and oh, while we’re at it, much less heart-stopping than puff pastry or most pie dough, but still capable of flaking and puffing up nicely. I almost had it a couple of years ago with an Armenian dough that calls for a little vegetable oil in with the butter, a bit of cider vinegar for tenderness and an egg to help out the puff. But with butter, there’s automatically a lot of saturated fat, plus it takes more work than I like.

Enter the nondairy, oil-based borekita dough. Israeli (Turkish, Bulgarian, Sephardic…) bourekas, nowadays usually made with commercial puff pastry and sold in characterless boxes or plastic-wrapped trays from the supermarket, are nonetheless wildly popular with almost everyone in The Land whether they voted for Bibi or Benny. The boureka is not in doubt.

Puff pastry is nice enough in most circumstances–after all, it is what I’m aiming toward, or would ideally like to be aiming toward, if I can get away with something lighter. But after a while the packaged versions of puff-pastry bourekas all start to taste the same–salted potatoey stuff, indistinguishable through the mouthful of flakes, and not exactly fresh.

Homestyle boureka dough is much less puffy, more like the dough for sausage rolls. But still–less rich, usually made with oil rather than butter, so it’s both nondairy, to go with meat meals if you keep kosher, and lower in saturated fat (unless you go big on cheese fillings, anyhow) and lower on fat percentage generally. It’s also more economical, more delicate and less oversalted, and it doesn’t overwhelm the fillings.

But the real tests of how low on fat you can go–how well does it flake? How does it taste?–require a head-to-head comparison of different doughs with different fat content. Since it’s down in the 80s I decided to do small batches of each type and see how they worked.

There are two common versions of this home-style boureka dough, a more-oil version and a more-water version.

More oil than water

Al HaShulchan (“On the Table,” the Israeli food magazine) editor Janna Gur‘s recipe on her English-language site is very simple especially if you weigh everything out on a digital food scale (easier and more accurate than trying to juggle dry vs. wet measuring cups and scooping and sweeping and sifting). By weight, it’s about 50% fat to flour–four parts flour, two parts salad oil, one part water, a little but not too much salt. Her recipe makes about 50 borekitas; I decided to quarter that for this test because I’m not stupid and I know myself, and what was I going to do with 50?

Janna Gur borekita dough with more oil than water

The dough for this version has the texture of shortbread or playdoh, very short, and oil will definitely coat your hands when you pinch off walnut-sized balls to roll out for the borekitas, but at least it’s polyunsaturated, not solid fats. Because it’s so oily and you handle it so lightly, there’s no gluten built up. The dough is a bit fragile and rolls out a little ragged as you can see above, but you can roll, fill and bake right away.

Less oil, more water

Bureka Boy, whose Is-that-my-bureka blog, with its wealth of Sephardic and other Jewish recipes, paused for posterity in 2009 (though recently it looks like he may have shifted to Facebook or Instagram or both), has a smoother dough with the proportions of oil and water reversed, so about 25% oil to flour by weight. The water is added very hot when you stir it in (much like jao tze dough), so the dough develops gluten and needs an hour’s rest after mixing and kneading. It’s still quite oily when you go to pinch off individual balls for the borekitas, but it’s more elastic, with a smooth surface and better strength to roll it thin without breaking. You can handle it more and get neater pinched edges on the seal.

BurekaBoy's borekita dough with more water added hot to build gluten

 

So…on to the Flake-Off! Continue reading

New Year, New Food: Cabbage Rolls with a Greco-Ottoman Twist

Cabbage rolls with giant fava beans and tehina sauce

 

I always have such good intentions–and end up writing about them much later than I should. Let’s face it, it’s almost Thanksgiving. But not quite yet.

In late September, at the start of the High Holidays, we were finally starting to feel fall weather in Pasadena–one week quite cool, the next hot again, but at least for a while we were generally out of the 90s, so it was time to experiment in the kitchen, doing things I’ve wanted to try out for years.

Only it’s been a surprisingly busy month or two, so I’m just getting back to posting now. We traveled several times this summer visiting family, taking our kid back to college on the east coast, and heading up to Portland for a wedding–very impressive hotel with actual good food (it is Portland, after all) and its own kitchen garden with massive tomato vines.

Then I came home to articles due and a life-changing decision to make: after 25 years with the last of the noncomputerized Corollas, which I loved with or without adequate suspension and shocks, it was finally time to get on it and buy a new(er) and hopefully more fuel-efficient hybrid at a reasonable price if at all possible.  (Note to the Resident: who in their right mind would want a new car that gets worse mileage? Get real.) But I’m going to miss the crank windows of my old car something fierce.

But on to new food for the New Year–this is still occasionally a food blog!

I had a 25-oz (1.5 lb or 700 g) bag of giant fava beans, gigantes in Greek, and decided, what the heck, it would be nice to have a large batch I can eat cold or hot during the week for lunch or a casual-elegant side with some salad at dinner. Once my kid was off at school, you know, I could count on supper leftovers to stay uneaten until I took them back out of the fridge. I like to cook but really, it’s been handy doing the “cook once, eat at least twice more” thing.

So I microwaved the whole thing in two batches, switching two snaplid containers in and out of the microwave for a couple of rounds, letting one cook a few minutes in water to cover while the previous one sat to let its beans absorb hot water. Once both were done and the beans were tender, I drained them and started pinching off the loose dark gray skins. Great–well, I had enough for two different recipes. One was going to be the marinated beans with rosemary and rosé. The other batch–well, I could freeze it for later. Or…

And then I thought about two striking recipes I’ve meant to try for years, both for cabbage rolls very different from the sweet-and-sour stuffed cabbage my great-aunts used to make, and which I don’t really like very much even now that I’m a supposed adult.

One version from Rena Salaman’s The Greek Cook: Simple Seasonal Food (Anness, 2001) has a chunky filling of smoked pork and an avgolemono sauce, which I’ve wanted to do a vegetarian or at least kosher riff on for years. Combining lemony sauce with a smoky filling is right in line with my love for Middle Eastern food…and speaking of,  the other cabbage rolls, the ones that first stopped me in my tracks, came from The Turkish Cookbook: Regional Recipes and Stories by Nur Ilkin and Sheilah Kaufman (Interlink Books, 2010) and were vegetarian to begin with.

What makes a cookbook worth trying are the foods and flavors you don’t already know. The first photograph I saw the first time I opened The Turkish Cookbook, from somewhere in the middle of the book and the region of Marmara, was a beautiful plate of vegetarian cabbage rolls so translucent you could see the filling–roasted chestnuts and rice. These were flavored with cinnamon and allspice, mint, parsley and dill, stewed in olive oil and served cold, like most dolmas, with lemon wedges. Quite a combination of flavors, and unexpectedly beautiful.

Here was something I’d never seen in another Turkish or Middle Eastern cookbook, but I could tell from the description that the flavors would work. My imagination started running away with me and when I first saw them, I thought…chestnuts? Can I get them? It is fall–maybe they’re in my greengrocer’s this week. If not, is there something a little less expensive that tastes similar–a little potatoey, tinged with sweet–how about those giant dried fava beans? But it took me more than five years to try it. Now (meaning, back in September) seemed a pretty good time.

Bridging the gap between the two versions–Greek and Turkish–I decided to make a fava filling and flavor it more or less as for the Turkish version, but add the lemon and smoke factors of Rena Salaman’s cabbage rolls by saucing mine with tehina and sprinkling with paprika and caraway seed.

And of course, I was going to do most and frankly all of it in the microwave. Except for the rolling–microwaves don’t make that step shorter! But steaming the cabbage leaves, cooking the beans (already done), and stewing the cabbage rolls in sauce–all nicely microwaveable.

The only thing I didn’t do was add rice or currants and pine nuts to the bean filling. The rice might have held the cabbage rolls together a bit better when trying to eat them. But they were pretty delicious hot or cold and lasted me a couple of days.

Cabbage Rolls with Giant Favas and Tehina

Loosely adapted from The Turkish Cookbook and The Greek Cook Simple, Seasonal Food as noted above. You might want to stir in a bit of cooked plain rice to help keep the rolls together.

Filling (flexible on amounts here, but let’s say for a couple of cups of cooked beans):

  • cooked, peeled giant fava beans
  • chopped onion
  • Allspice, cinnamon, coriander, fennel seed, black peppercorns, (salt)
  • Mint, dill–chopped fresh if possible, about a small handful each, 2-3 sprigs
  • Garlic–minced/mashed/grated, 1 fairly sizeable clove or to taste
  • Olive oil
  • Lemon juice

Heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a nonstick pan with about half a chopped onion, a teaspoon each of ground allspice and cinnamon, half a teaspoon each of coriander and fennel seed and a good grinding of fresh-ground black pepper. Stir occasionally until the onion starts to brown. If needed, add a quarter-cup of water, stir, and let cook down to keep things from sticking and to get the onion cooked so it can start browning. Squeeze on a bit of lemon juice, then add the cooked, peeled favas and more juice and more olive oil. Add the garlic and the chopped fresh herbs and continue to stir/toss in the frying pan until the beans are coated but not swimming in liquid, and they’re quite tender–you can add bits of water once or twice and let it all cook down. Taste for salt before adding any. Continue reading

Why you shouldn’t buy precut veg

I know perfectly well that I’m preachy about buying bulk produce because it’s cheaper by far, the supposed “convenience” of precut amounts to less than a minute’s time difference in many cases, and the fiddly little precut plastic bags are a lot less fresh. But the current recall for a number of precut packaged veg products at Trader Joe’sand elsewhere reminded me of something my mother (who cooks reluctantly, very reluctantly) used to point out when I was a kid.

She would wash everything well under the tap and then (in a rare show of good lab technique) trim the cut ends off further because, as she pointed out, a lot of the produce is cut out in the field, where dirt and pesticides abound. People harvesting out in the field are not washing their hands or their knives every few minutes, nor are they in a position to wash the produce well before cutting it off the stalk or vine. It wouldn’t really improve things that much if they did.

The fancy precut veg producers are doing the washing and cutting up under less dusty conditions, but they’re actually creating more risk of contamination. Every time you cut into a vegetable, you’re exposing an inside surface. That’s usually fine when you’re cooking or serving it right afterward. But let it sit around, especially in a plastic bag, under dubious refrigeration, for several days, (how many more questionable conditions can I pile on here)–as the precut prepackaged veg does in the supermarket, and you’re pretty much begging for something to go wrong. The peel is there for a reason–it seals and filters out a lot of the bacteria and fungi that are always around in the soil, the air, the water, your hands.

Usually when fruit and vegetables are hand-harvested with a knife, it’s on an inedible stem or stalk, and if left in the open air, the cut will dry and more or less seal over–think how cauliflower and celery stumps look, or the dryish root ends of broccoli or cut asparagus. Not particularly appetizing, and generally that’s the bit you’d discard. The rest of the vegetable stays pretty fresh for several days–it’s essentially still alive (sometimes, as with bok choy, even still growing new shoots from the cut stump), so the plant’s own internal chemistry provides another natural hedge against outside bacteria.

But when it’s bagged and cut in small pieces, all the exposed surfaces provide a lot more opportunity for contamination and the plastic bag lets whatever moisture is lost collect on the outside of the pieces. Not good. So the less your vegetables and fruits are cut up before you buy them, the fewer chances to contaminate the inside parts of the vegetables.

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