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Cauliflower pakoras, lightened up

Cauliflower pakoras

Back at the beginning of Chanukah in mid-December, I was too busy to do much celebrating or posting. We were traveling more than usual and my daughter’s college application essays were still in rough shape and we were both a little panicked. My poor husband was working 13-hour days and trying to calm down the younger post-docs that this wasn’t ALWAYS how R&D goes–just sometimes. It’s the price you pay for doing rocket science.

And it was pretty hot and dry around Los Angeles–hence all those fires in the news. Makes it hard to feel safe breathing. Still, we did manage to celebrate modestly, even though the first night of Chanukah was during the nailbiter Alabama special election, whose results wouldn’t be in until after supper.

In any case, I’m posting this now because these are relatively quick and easy (and inexpensive) appetizers. They’re not super-svelte but not overloaded either, and they taste good, even after Chanukah is over (but please, make a fresh batch…)

I don’t do deep frying for Chanukah, particularly not with olive oil, which is expensive and wastes the oil and the calories (gotta save a few for the gelt–chocolate coins). And the cleanup. As my forebears did, I want to make a little olive oil last a longer time by using it sparingly with foods that deliver a slightly better svelte potential than potato latkes. Well–most of my forebears were more worried about getting enough food during the winter, not about eating too much, but let’s say my parents, who grew up in America with enough potatoes and enough oil to give you a gallbladder (and if that’s not a Jewish expression, I don’t know what is). In any case, frugality is warranted but so is enjoyment. How to balance the two?

I’m in love with gilded cauliflower–I think I’ve mentioned it a few (hundred) times. It’s quicker to prepare and probably even somewhat cheaper in salad bowl volumes than pasta or potato salad most of the year. Certainly more nutritious and sophisticated. And it contains garlic. I recently reinforced that view with my entire congregation when I brought a Sicilian (Roman? don’t exactly know) roasted cauliflower, pepper and artichoke salad to a brunch buffet after services. I was pleasantly surprised that by the end of the meal most of it was eaten and actually complimented on. I know, that’s not a true indicator in a lot of places, but Jews aren’t generally shy about telling each other what they really think, especially my congregation, and especially about food.

But I wasn’t totally in the mood for more of the same, even though I had about a third of a big head of cauliflower and some marinated artichokes left over from a frittata. Somewhere in the depths of my grains-and-beans drawer in the fridge (most people use it as a meat drawer; I use it to foil moths) I had stashed a bag of chickpea flour (Bob’s Red Mill; about $2-3 for a 16-ounce bag) because I thought I might make felafel (microwaved and pan-browned, still not deep-fried). But that seemed like a bit of work and kind of heavy.

When I went to pick up my daughter from school, I still hadn’t quite figured out how or what I was going to do quickly but semi-festively on a weeknight with homework and college applications looming. I knew I wasn’t even going to bother wrapping the presents I had for her and my husband, and I had to scrounge for enough candles to light the first night’s lights (note to self, get an extra box, one for next year).

As we passed a new Indian restaurant on the way home, though, it finally clicked.

“How about if I tried making some cauliflower pakoras?” I asked.

“That would be freaking delicious!”

OK, then. Continue reading

Surviving the holiday table

Yeah, yeah, I know. Last month every newspaper and online health magazine was brimming with handy top-10 tips to avoid stuffing yourself into a coma when you got over the river and through the woods to your in-laws’. Did it work? Did you try any of them? Was it even possible with the food available? MMMmmmph.

And…now we’ve started on the next round of holiday parties. And yes, I’m well aware, after last week’s “let the fools have their tartar sauce” tax subversion bill, that the tenor of my questions could equally apply to trickle-down economics, neocon “efficient” remote war management in Iraq and Afghanistan, “I am not a crook,” “too big to fail,” “No Collusion,” “FAKE NEWS,” and other fantasy favorites.

I don’t want to add to the burden of public speculation on the kinds of people who could genuinely fall for those slogans or excuse them in the face of the visible harm they do to all of us (okay, MOST of us. 99.9 percent of us). I’ve met some of these true believers, a few are actually friends, and they are otherwise decent, but really, stubbornly naïve is the kindest thing I can say. Tunnel vision, perhaps.

But back to holiday food–an even more fraught social topic. Because the same stubborn naïveté applies.

The trouble with most of the dutifully published top-10s for navigating party fare is how incredibly vague and trivial they are. They don’t give you a plate plan diagram like the ones for DASH/MyPlate balanced meals and the Idaho Plate™-style recommendations for Type II diabetes management. They don’t help you set a reasonable goal number for carb grams for the total meal including desserts and appetizers, and they don’t help you estimate anything or give you some sample sizes to go by.

Instead, they put the burden on you (or your kid) to select and use the fictitious ideal of self-control (more accurately known as “winging it”) in an environment that, to put it mildly, probably won’t support it. Oh, dear. JUST like the tax boondoggle.

There is also a big, big missing ingredient for most of these party suggestions: vegetables of worth. People don’t cook as much as they used to, chain restaurants and drive-thrus don’t really serve them, and the big food mags have almost dropped them from any party spread that isn’t for summer.

If there aren’t greens on the table, how do you fill half your plate with them as recommended by doctors and CDEs and RDs everywhere? If there’s one green vegetable dish and it’s breaded, panko’ed, crusted, dressed, nutted, topped, creamed or cream sauced, gratinéed, gravied, stuffed, sweetened, pancetta’ed, buttered or cheesed (I know, some of that litany is starting to sound a little obscene, as it should) to within an inch of its life, is it still worthwhile counting it as a green? Or is it actually mostly yet another starch with cheese, cream, butter, breadcrumbs, bacon bits and so on?

If you need to cover up any dish that thoroughly, it should tell you something pretty important about the recipe:

It is not exactly a taste explosion.*

Sorry, I WAS trying to get away from the obvious political metaphor, but it looks like it’s going to stick. (*And my thanks to the much-mourned Douglas Adams of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series–and more specifically another of his books, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, for that line).

In any case, to survive the holidays and look good doing it, you need a winter holiday table that works better and tastes fresher and is actually lighter than the usual stuff and won’t leave you wishing for a sleigh to schlep your stomach home in after the party.

You need vegetabalia, ungunked. Some actual greens (or purples) on the table to lighten the load and redress the balance.

Actually, vegetabalia has always been a key part of classic dinner parties and it would be a shame to forget it, especially when you’re in the heart of winter. I don’t think I actually have ten ideas here, because as you may have seen in my previous attempts at top-10 lists, I tend to go a little overboard. Let’s see.

One way to do it without too much shock is to make the starch dishes a little smaller and the greens platters a little bigger and more numerous, colored, varied and–this is actually important, at least for a party–pretty.

Another is to add a green salad worthy of a celebration–keep it simple, elegant, just a couple of key and colorful ingredients that go together, not like something you scooped out of your local chain restaurant salad bar. See the big box of salad post for some inexpensive and winter-worthy vegetable selections that are easy to prep and store in the fridge for showtime and won’t look like “rabbit food.”

The third is to provide appetizers that are bigger on vegetabalia, ones that get beyond celery sticks, baby-cut carrots and bottled ranch dressing and are actually appetizing.

…Of course, the key element for avoiding idiots who take one look and say, “Oh. Rabbit food.” is not to invite them in the first place. The second strategy is surprise (in a good way, that is, not as in “celery with marshmallow fluff!”)

Good-looking vegetable appetizers that won’t bore people aren’t necessarily more expensive, especially if you buy bulk vegetables and wash and cut them up yourself. And some can actually be easier to make, and make look impressive, than lining up all those crackers and cheese slices neatly on a circular tray (my bane, I just don’t have the hostess/catering gene). The bonus: if you’re the host, you won’t have a load of crackers and cheese sitting around the house the next day, and you might have some fresh noshing vegetables left over, ready to grab and go.

Here are a couple of more specific (forgotten?) ways to make vegetabalia rock, cold and hot.

Crudités (#4)

The “just wash and nosh” scheme for raw vegetables is pretty easy and can even be elegant for a raw vegetable tray. You don’t need fancy chef-school knife skills or fancy expensive knife sets to make the magic happen, either.

You don’t have to do a massive tray or a zillion different expensive designer raw vegetables–three or four types on a medium platter with some contrast and a good fresh dip make a nice party display. At between $1 and $5-6 (for heirloom, top-end stuff or for portobello mushrooms) per pound, most noshing vegetables are also cheaper than many chips-and-dips junk foods, designer breads, cheeses, sliced deli meats, and premade party platters of just about any kind.

Do get away from the tedious carrots-and-celery-sticks-and-ranch-dressing version, even if you are doing carrots and/or celery. Celery and carrots are still good, mind you, but you might want to grow them up a bit, cut them differently, add one or two less common dipping vegetables for variety and something fresher and more interesting than ranch dressing for a dip or spread.

Usually I’m against “fashion vegetables,” heirloom everything and bagged, prewashed/pretrimmed veg because of the price markup compared to bulk. But if you’ve got access to something a little extra in an unexpected color (purple is good, so is bright yellow), like purple cauliflower or multicolored peppers, you might want to go for it just once in limited amounts and mix them up with the regular vegetables.

And there are non-designer vegetables with enough mix of color and flavor to do the pretty at a slightly lower price point.

  • Regular globe radishes are pretty bright and crunchy and eye-catching and peppery–lop off the thin root and most of the stem; wash them really well to get out any sand and keep them whole or slice them in half lengthwise. If you have a local farmer’s market that doesn’t slap on chichi markups in the price per pound, or you happen to see a bunch of longer or otherwise eye-catching radishes for about the same price in the produce section of your grocery store, go for it.
  • Fancy variety pods like sugar snap peas and snow peas–even raw green beans–are a nice choice too. You can get bulk snap and snow peas for about $3/lb. at the Ralph’s/Kroger’s and fresh green beans are sometimes on sale between Thanksgiving and New Year’s for under $1/lb. but usually about $2/lb.
  • Trader Joe’s sells 2-lb. bags of multicolored full-sized organic carrots for about $2 at this writing. White, deep purple with a gold core, bright yellow…pretty dramatic and they mix up nicely with the cheaper orange ones without being a lot more expensive.
  • If you can get colored full-sized bell peppers, maybe get one or two, and choose colors other than green. Sliced lengthwise they go pretty far in brightening up a vegetable tray.

Continue reading

Artichoke-olive spanakopita for a party crowd

Artichoke and olive spanakopita tastes authentic even though it's completely nondairy. The party round is pretty quick to put together, too.

Artichoke and olive spanakopita tastes authentic,  even though it’s completely nondairy by request–which makes it a good vegan choice too. And it’s easy to put together.

Last night we went to a big New Year’s Eve party–a rarity for us; we’re usually with family one coast or the other. Of course, getting to go to a party means rushing around the house a few hours ahead to find an outfit that fits, is clean, looks about right, doesn’t require very high heels or an engineering degree to figure out how to put it on. Luckily most of our friends are low-key that way.

The party was potluck–the hosts provided a couple of solid main dishes and we and the other guests brought the side dishes and accoutrements. A pretty good division of labor, I think. So I offered to bring spanakopita, which is pretty easy. Or at least, I figured out an easier way last week to get the spinach squeezed out than by doing three pounds of spinach handful by painful handful, and it was pretty good for the Chanukah party, so why not do it again?

But our hosts’ family, all five of them, have a cluster of serious food allergies–primarily eggs and dairy, but a couple of other odd ones like cinnamon as well, and not all of the allergies match up from person to person. It’s a testament to their bravery and sociability (which I admire and wish I had greater stores of) that they throw big parties and let other people bring food.

I decided to do spanakopita anyway and just leave out the dairy–butter isn’t a big deal if you have olive oil for the fillo leaves, and I don’t make it with eggs in the filling. So far, so good. But what should I substitute for the feta? Feta’s usually a big part of the show.

Tofu might have been easy, and it’s a protein source, but one of the kids can’t do soy, and it doesn’t really taste right. Nuts–don’t know. Nondairy cheese substitutes–I haven’t tasted these myself and they have so many ingredients plus loads of salt that it wasn’t worth chancing without consulting the family.

My best options to add to the spinach came down to:

1. Greek olives, pitted and chopped–right on the saltiness, but maybe odd-looking. No one else I know has ever paired up spinach filling with olives.

2. Cooked and drained mushrooms–I would do this, but my daughter confesses she doesn’t like them when I make spinach quiche. And she does like my spanakopita. So…

3. Marinated artichoke hearts–they have a little saltiness, but mostly lemon and garlic, which is just about right. And artichoke hearts pair pretty nicely with spinach and are a familiar enough combination that most people will probably be okay with them. You just have to remember to drain them well so they don’t make everything soggy.

I thought I’d go with the artichoke hearts alone, but after tasting the spinach and artichoke heart filling, adding more lemon and garlic (because you can never have enough) and herbs and scallions, I decided what the heck and threw in a handful of Alfonso olives I had in the fridge–12 big purple, winy olives, pitted and slivered, did not look weird after all and they gave just enough distinctive tang and salt for the big salad bowl worth of filling to satisfy without overpowering it.

I figure, when you try something new or off-beat with a substitution, you have to test-taste to know if it’s worth doing again or recommending to anyone else. Maybe no one will agree with you, or maybe they will, but if you don’t like the result to start with, you’ll feel bad serving it up. Or maybe you’re made of tougher stuff than I am and it depends on who you’re serving it to and what have they done for you lately?

So anyway, if you can’t have feta or other dairy, this is definitely a good way to go. The olives and marinated artichoke hearts are authentically Greek enough not to taste or feel like fakey or second-rate substitutions. The spanakopita ended up tasting pretty good, and got eaten up amid some serious competition.

Also, I’ve decided this is also a good time for a slideshow. For a while now I’ve been meaning to do a step-by-step post on setting up a round tray of spanakopita or baklava, because I think it’s simpler and quicker than a plain rectangular casserole, and it looks more impressive and party-ready too. So I took some pictures as I went along (note to self: wipe olive oil thumbprints off camera grip), Continue reading

Fennel Mania

way too much fennel for one salad bowl

This much whole fennel kind of overwhelms my largest mixing bowl.
What was I thinking?

I hear a lot of complaints, among those of my friends and relatives who subscribe to CSAs, about weekly baskets arriving at the doorstep with surprise odd vegetables in unusually large amounts, and what the heck do you do with it all? I’ve never experienced that myself–I’m my own worst (or best) CSA challenge. So I can’t really blame this dilemma on anyone else, because I do my own shopping at my local greengrocer’s. And because the prices are low and the vegetables generally better than what I can get at the supermarket, I sometimes go a little overboard. Fresno tomatoes, when they’re in, are so good I end up with a 7 or 8 lb sack of them every week while I can. If I had more room in the fridge (oh, sacrilege! but they’re already so ripe it doesn’t hurt them), I’d buy even more. An overload of good tomatoes is no problem. However…

too much fennel from the greengrocer's

This week’s hot purchase: fresh fennel at a fabulous–too-fabulous?–price. Fifty cents apiece for large, clean-looking fennel bulbs with about two feet of stalk attached. They’re never less than two dollars apiece in the supermarket, and usually more like three.

So of course I couldn’t resist. I bought FOUR. Yeah. Two dollars total. For what turned out to be more than five pounds of useable produce, because if the fennel’s fresh, it’s all good eating. After washing and cutting it up into useable sections (only a 10-minute operation, surprisingly; fennel’s pretty cooperative for a big frondy vegetable), I actually weighed everything on our food scale.

Three pounds of bulbs for salads or grilling or whatever, two pounds of cleaned stalks chopped into celery-stick-length batons, and about six ounces of the cleaned chopped fronds to use as anise-to-dill-like herbs in tomato vegetable soup, fish, etc.

i1035 FW1.1

But how to use it all in a small household? We have only three people, and I’m the one who likes the anise-y taste of fennel most. Can I freeze some of it for later use (other than the fronds, which I did)? Are we going to be stuck eating it every day for weeks? How long before it starts going bad? What the heck was I thinking?

But it’s enough, and cheap enough, that I get to play around with it. Maybe I can find something good and even original to do with it that doesn’t require long roasting steps (Italian), stewing, or cheese-and-cream-filled gratin-type disguises (French) for the anise flavor, because really, for that you could have just bought celery.

The most obvious thing to do with fennel is slice it up and nosh on it raw. The first time I ever ate it was at the home of a large Moroccan Jewish family up in the  north of Israel. The mother, who invited me over for Shabbat lunch, started the meal with hraime, fish steaks (served cold, thank g-d) in a garlicky broth with enough evil birds’ eye chiles floating in it that the younger children (all the ones under 20, anyhow) started whimpering. “Only one pepper!” their mother replied, but none of them were fooled. I, the self-conscious guest just out of college, took the first bite and nearly fell off my chair as all the brothers and sisters laughed. Luckily the rest of the lunch was pretty unspiced–brisket, long-cooked eggs, farro with chickpeas, a lot of little cooked and raw vegetable salad dishes. I was still recovering from the “appetizer” though; I reached repeatedly for both water and the sliced fennel. Actually, I miss Esther’s hraime still, these many years later…

But mostly you don’t want to just gnaw on raw fennel for relief from the evil chiles. Fennel is pretty. Continue reading

Microwave tricks: 5-Minute Plum Jam for Fall

Italian prune or blue plums

These Italian prunes are some of the fresher, better-looking specimens from my greengrocer’s bin this week. But overripe plums work fine too.

Italian blue or prune plums are probably the last round of plums to appear at my local greengrocers for the year (well, until they start getting in carboys of plums and peaches from Chile). Prune plums aren’t much to look at–well, okay, they have a graceful enough elongated shape, but cut into one and you won’t be terribly impressed–the peel is thick and slightly bitter, the flesh is yellow-brownish, not very juicy, and a bit stickier and less brilliantly flavored than the red and black plums of summer, to say nothing of the gorgeous green and mottled dinosaur and Santa Rosa plums we can get here in LA. Many of the fresh prunes end up overripe and still untaken at the end of the day.

Which, I’ve discovered this week, is actually quite a shame. Because if you buy them early and firm, while there’s still a tint of reddish purple about them, they’re closer to regular plums–crisper, juicier and livelier tasting raw. Still not the ideal eating plum, but not bad.

And if you take the ones that are fully ripe and disappointing and bland and not too pretty, cut them up and microwave them, suddenly everything transforms. Italian prune plums make a gorgeous, rose-red, vibrantly flavored low-sugar jam. A lot like cranberry sauce in both color and flavor, but somehow a little mellower, with the bitter edge off, and a hint of spicy perfumed depth.

Microwave plum jam on wholewheat toast

Five minutes in the microwave, and everything changes.

Many stone fruits react this way to heat–sometimes sugar too, but mostly it’s the heat. Even very bland, mushy pale apricots seem to bloom into vibrant flavor and acidity when baked or simmered, and sour cherries go from slightly bitter and dull raw to world-famous classic pie filling with a strong almond aroma. I’ve rescued bland, spongy supermarket nectarines and peaches by microwaving them into fruit spreads with real flavor, but obviously good fruit makes even better jams and compotes. It’s just that when the fruit is good raw, I’d usually rather eat it raw, because the season is short.

The prune plums I bought this past week don’t provoke that dilemma of choice; they’re definitely better turned into a quick fruit spread, and maybe I’ll freeze a second batch for later. These plums would also make a great pie filling, like the zwetchgenkuchen that Joan Nathan first published as a traditional German Jewish dessert for Rosh Hashanah in The Jewish Holiday Kitchen. Baked conventionally, the quartered prune plums would probably hold their shape somewhat in the crust and look beautiful.

In the microwave, the plums quickly break down to a bubbling mass and gradually take on color from the peel–at first, bronze with a hint of pink, and after a minute or two the color spreads and deepens to cranberry red (as does the flavor). Sugar just to taste, a tiny squeeze of lemon, and a pinch each of clove and ginger balance out the tartness, and after a day in the fridge, the jam has mellowed and integrated beautifully.

The accents of brandy, cinnamon, nutmeg and lemon peel in Nathan’s recipe make me want to run back to the store and try it this instant, but after a week of baking challah for the high holidays and prospects for 100 degree temperatures yet again, I’m not sure today’s the day. Maybe for Sukkot, which starts later this week.

But the combination of plums with aromatic spices is right on, and if you’re adventurous you could always take this fruit spread one step further and add a small spoonful of brandy, a few shakes of cinnamon and an even tinier hint of nutmeg, even a little grated lemon peel. The simple version below is good on toast, delicious with Greek yogurt and plenty complex enough for me before or after the second cup of coffee.

However, the full-on dressed-up version would probably be a wonderful accent for goat cheese tartlets or a baked brie if you were doing swanky appetizers for a dinner party. I’d test-taste a small batch of the jam first just to make sure it wasn’t too rich with the brandy and nutmeg, because a little goes a long way, but otherwise, let ‘er rip. The plum-jam-with-cheese appetizers would also be an unexpectedly good accompaniment to mead, sherry or other apéritifs for fall.

5-Minute Microwave Plum Fruit Spread (makes about a cup)

  • 5-6 ripe Italian blue or prune plums (or any other plums), washed, pitted and cut up
  • 2-3 T sugar (or more to taste–I like mine less sweet, more fruit)
  • squeeze of lemon juice
  • pinch of cloves (maybe 1/8 t, probably a little less)
  • pinch of powdered ginger (a little less than 1/8 t)

Put all ingredients in a microwaveable ceramic bowl big enough to hold them with a couple of inches to spare, because the plum mixture will bubble up as it cooks. Remember to handle the edges of the bowl with a towel or oven mitt or something (folded paper sandwich bags also work okay in a pinch) because this will heat long enough for the bowl itself to get hot.

Microwave 1-2 minutes on HIGH (I have an 1100 W oven, so adjust times to whatever works for you if yours is older and lower power). The plums should be starting to break down and just starting to color pinkish. Stir the mixture and microwave another minute or so, stir again. If it’s not cooked as much as you think it should be, microwave another minute or so but be prepared to hit the stop button if you see it start to boil over. If it’s fully colored and broken down to a fruit spread, take a small spoonful, let it cool, and taste carefully. It will probably taste a lot like not-very-sweetened cranberry sauce. If it’s not sweet enough for you, add a little more sugar to taste, and maybe another squeeze of lemon, then let it cool all the way covered and refrigerate. It will thicken a little further and mellow overnight and taste more like plums, especially with the clove and ginger notes.

You can, obviously, also boil the ingredients a few minutes in a saucepan on the stovetop if you prefer. If you want it completely smooth, cool it and put it through a food mill or food processor.

This isn’t canned, so store it in the fridge for up to a week or freeze it for later. When you thaw it, taste it again–you might need to add another squeeze of lemon and/or reheat in the microwave just a minute or so to refresh it.

Stuffed cabbage in the microwave

stuffed Nappa cabbage rolls-unsauced

I was originally going to call this post “Nappa 9-1-1” because it’s about salvaging a cabbage quickly and semi-artfully from the back of my fridge, but realized how bad that would be once I read the recent earthquake damage assessments up in the real city of Napa from the 6.0 earthquake a couple of weeks ago. Things are still kind of rough up there. The Napa Valley Vintners association have donated an impressive amount–$10M–and have instructions on how to donate to the local community disaster relief fund. You can find a number of local funds to donate to online at norcalwine.com.

I love bringing home a bag (or more) of produce from my local greengrocer each week–especially in the summer, when Fresno tomatoes are in and brilliant red, green beans are green and snappy, apricots and plums and pluots are spilling ripely out of the bins at under a dollar a pound, and herbs like purple basil and tarragon and mint and za’atar are 75 cents a bunch. You can’t help but feel like you’re going to be a great cook that day, just by cutting up a few vegetables and sprinkling on some oil and vinegar and strewing herbs (and feta or Alfonso olives) on top.

I always mean to use up all my vegetables before they start showing their age, but occasionally I get caught with something unintended at the back of the fridge. This week it was a Nappa cabbage, which is longer and less sulfurous (when lightly cooked) than the more traditional green and Savoy cabbages. A little closer to bok choy. So I peeled back the rusted layers, hoping that some of the inner leaves could be salvaged, at least, and I got fairly lucky.

But what to do with them? Chop and eat raw as a salad? Always an option. But I’d bought the cabbage in the first place to try out a quick microwave version of stuffed cabbage that would fulfill a couple of challenges I’d posed myself:

1. Vegetarian (not a big beef fan, personally)–I’m using the lentil/rice stuffing I developed for stuffed eggplants and onions  three years ago (has it already been that long???), because I actually made stuffed onions again last week and had some leftover stuffing in the fridge.

2. Microwaveable in a few minutes (to combat cooked cabbage stench and do it as more fresh-tasting than long-cooked)

3. Non-stinky, and not drowning in cloying sweet-and-sour tomato sauce (my two overwhelming childhood objections to holishkes)

4. Bridges the cultural/culinary gap between European and Syrian Jewish versions of stuffed cabbage by spicing the filling AND adding garlic and onions. It can be done, and should. And yet, I’m not stewing it to death (actually, that means overturning both Euro and Syrian traditional cooking methods in equal measures).

5. Fulfills the Prunes and Lentils Challenge, or at least hints at what’s possible, since today I had (gasp) no prunes left and had to resort to leftover tamarind sauce from the aforementioned batch of stuffed onions… close enough for folk music.

Stuffed cabbage rolls, as I’ve noted before, are popular throughout at least eastern Europe and Syria. Most versions contain meat–beef for Jews, beef or lamb for Arabs, some mixture of pork and beef for European Christians. But I’ve also seen some really beautiful-looking vegetarian ones in Nur Ilkin’s The Turkish Cookbook, and those were stuffed–of all things–with whole cooked chestnuts.

Cabbage lends itself to enveloping stuffings almost as well as grape leaves, and it’s easier to work with, cheaper, and (big bonus) unbrined.

In addition to meat or lentil fillings, you could try something like curry-spiced or Mexican-style beans and/or vegetables, a mu shu or samosa filling, whole cooked grains like brown rice or bulgur with or without dried cranberries or raisins and sunflower seeds or chopped nuts, maybe even fish (though I’m shying away from Joan Nathan’s recommendation for wrapping up gefilte fish and giving them the stuffed cabbage treatment). Perhaps for fish I’d want smoked (fake or real) whitefish salad. Or sausage–real or vegetarian, smoky and spicy.

It seems to me for sauces you could go well beyond sweet-and-sour traditional: a garlicky tomato sauce, a mustard vinaigrette, a smoky salsa with or without tamarind sauce, a chili-paste or z’khug-laden soy/molasses/vinegar/sesame oil dipping sauce with ginger and scallions, a polished herb and wine-type tomato sauce with prunes or mushrooms and onions, even (maybe definitely?) Korean or Thai peanut dipping sauce, especially if you stuffed your Nappa cabbage leaves with a combination of pressed tofu and/or omelet strips, spinach leaves, maybe some sprouts and shiitake mushrooms.

Whatever version you do, this can either be a quick path to dinner (use the big leaves and more filling per leaf) or to a platter of appetizers (using the small inner leaves).

Microwaving doesn’t develop every possible flavor (in the case of cabbage, I’m childish enough to say that’s a good thing), but it’s a quick way to play around with a classic at least on a trial basis. You could always do the huge foil-covered pan in the oven thing if you decide to scale up and go old-school.

Stuffed Vegetarian Cabbage Rolls

  • 1 head Nappa cabbage, washed and with the core cut out
  • 1 lb (2 cups, more or less) of (in this case) allspice/cinnamon-spiced lentil hashu (made w/cooked rice or bulgur, not uncooked) OR peppery lentil mititei-style sausage filling (substituting 1/3 c. cooked rice for the wheat gluten), or your choice of savory/spicy filling, preferably one that includes some garlic….
  • 1/2 c. sauce–in this case, 1/4 c. tamarind sauce plus a tablespoon of chipotle salsa and a few tablespoons of water. OR–just tamarind sauce, or just smoky salsa, or tamarind with a bit of tomato paste and a spoonful of sugar, or peanut dipping sauce, or dim sum dipping sauce, or Asian-type prune sauce, or prune and wine sauce with some tomato paste mixed in. Or mustard/garlic vinaigrette (as a dipping sauce, not necessarily to cook with)…YEESH! too many choices…

 

Microwaved cabbage leaves, ready for rolling

Microwaved cabbage leaves, ready for rolling

1. Separate the cabbage leaves, put in a microwave container, drizzle on a quarter-inch of water and put on a lid. Microwave 2-3 minutes until the leaves are just tender enough to roll without snapping the center.

rolling stuffed cabbage

Start the cabbage roll with the filling at the stem end

2. Drain the leaves and lay them out on a plate for stuffing and rolling. Put a tablespoon of fairly stiff filling an inch or so from the stem end of the leaf and pack it into a little sausage shape. Roll the stem end over the filling gently but as tightly as you can manage, then tuck the side frills of the leaf over the ends and continue rolling toward the top of the leaf. Place seam-side down in a microwave container or casserole. Roll up all the leaves and pack them into the container fairly tightly.

stuffed cabbage rolls with tamarind sauce

3. If the filling is completely cooked already (the rice in the lentil stuffing is not raw or par-cooked), just drizzle a bit of your sauce of choice over the stuffed cabbage rolls, maybe with a tiny drizzle of water in the bottom of the container. Put a lid on and microwave another 2-3 minutes or until just cooked through and steaming hot. If the flavor is still too raw or radishy for you, obviously you can cook it further, going a minute or so at a time, until it smells and tastes right to you.

Drain and serve with a little more sauce on the side.

An Appreciation of Lox

bagel with nova lox

Homemade bagel with nova from a local Los Angeles smoked fish company

 

For its annual Mother’s Day brunch, the Men’s Club at our synagogue always serves a surprisingly lavish spread with the woiks–lox, bagels, fruit salad, eggs and mimosas. Although I’m not a huge fan of big and slightly-kitschy gatherings featuring big and slightly-kitschy piano acts, I really deserved someone else making me a lox-and-eggs Sunday brunch right about then. But at the last minute I had to miss it in order to hock my kid about her last oversized ridiculous semester projects for 8th grade (due the next day, naturally). Better mothers complained to the principal, who just smiled nicely but did nothing useful. I just figured we’d get through it all so my daughter never had to be an 8th grader again. It worked–salutatorian, even–so, moving on but not required to give a speech: win/win.

But the lost lox! and the not having to cook or do dishes for Mother’s Day! Then I agreed to chaperone a school science camping trip the last week before graduation and  ended up with sand, grime, KP duty, outdoor showers, iffy Boy Scout Camp-style food, and not just one but 32 whole teenagers preoccupied with their hair and late to class.

So now that it’s all over I’m in serious need of payback.

My local Armenian greengrocer has locally-smoked nova lox (they have sable, too–I was tempted) and I had a bowl of dough in the fridge just sitting there waiting to be used up–so I made a few impromptu bagels the last Sunday morning of the school year, as soon as I’d gotten all the sand back out of everything and my kid was done with classes for the year. The bagels weren’t quite as dense as they ought to be because I used my standard pizza/pita/calzone dough instead of the genuine classic, but they did well enough because the dough was several days old, cold-proofed and straight from the fridge, and I boiled them before baking. And there was lox. Throw in a few once-over-medium eggs and some shmear and some fruit and hot coffee and you’ve got the ideal late-spring/early-summer breakfast, even if you have to make it yourself.

Now I know lox is a high-salt item–even the Nova. I anticipate it not for the salt, which I always think we could do with a little less of, but because it’s lox. A delicacy. Something to enjoy on the rare occasion when you get to celebrate. Something to treat with respect.

I’m not going to apologize for enjoying it, either. In the modern world of food publishing, people are forgetting how to do that. Even Jews. Maybe especially Jews, some of whom act as though our traditional deli and “appetizing” (bagels, cream cheese and smoked fish of all kinds) is suddenly something to shove under a rug or apologize for liking on the grounds that it’s not organic or locally sourced or Whole Foods or food-mag-trendy enough, and because it doesn’t include bacon or pancetta. Or kale.

The idea that enjoying lox simply because it’s lox isn’t cool enough anymore has gained a lot of traction in the past few years of foodieism. A couple of years ago, Martha Rose Shulman committed a serious travesty in the New York Times with “Lavash Pizza with Smoked Salmon” (she didn’t even call it lox). Toasted lavash is perfectly good for other things, but not for lox. Too fragile, and frankly too flavorless. I mean, why not rice cakes, as long as you’re being tasteless? But it wasn’t just the bread choice.

Somehow Shulman had abandoned the Joy of Lox. Shulman actually called her lox on lavash “a great way to work more salmon, rich in omega-3 fats, into your diet.” I have to ask, are most of us really having that much trouble “working in” more salmon? More to the point, does any lox fanatic really want to be thinking about fatty acids of any kind while eating it?

But at least she wasn’t agonizing over it as too Jewish. Mark Bittman pulled this inexplicable self-flagellation-in-print a few weeks ago in the New York Times, apologizing publicly for eating lox and bagels on a Sunday morning. In New York, yet. (Maybe it’s because he moved to Connecticut?) He’s kvetching about skipping his morning run, his usually-so-virtuous-but-betrayed-just-this-once-by-shameful-genetic-temptation stance on (gasp) farm-raised salmon, his devouring of shmear, which he says is too bland for the calories to like officially. He even had the nerve to blame his decision to eat it all on a sudden mental breakdown. And then he went further and called bagels and lox “comfort food.” As though it were in the same low-grade category as mac and cheese or mashed potatoes from a box.

Vey ist mir! I mean, come on. I’m pretty sure Woody Allen still eats lox without apologizing for it.

Bittman should be apologizing for being ashamed of enjoying lox (all the while glupping it). Along with apologizing for promoting pancetta and guanciale while professing a greener and more affordable diet. And for forgetting to add garlic to his recipes. That’s almost worse than deprecating lox.

More recently, Melissa Clark met with one of the scions of Russ & Daughters, which by now you’d think was the only serious lox and whitefish emporium left–it’s the subject of a documentary I just missed at the last LA Jewish film festival. The two laid out a spread for at least thirty or forty very lucky people, by my standards, but I think they were doing it mostly for a few family and friends–maybe 10-15 people–and posing it all on the table for the camera. It was beautiful but way too much. At least, though, she was both thrilled and nostalgic, the right way to be when faced with a complete beauty pageant of smoked fish.

Altogether, I could only think Shulman, Bittman and Clark all grew up in big cities with too much lox around. Because when I was a kid in the small-town South, we could only get lox twice a year when one or another set of grandparents came down from New York.

Other people’s grandparents bring toys. Ours brought pastrami, corned beef, half-sour kosher dills, pickled green tomatoes, real bagels, serious breads you just couldn’t get down South, and lox. All of them were special, not just to us but to our grandparents–real deli was part nostalgia, part roots, part pride, part simply great eats.

Pastrami and corned beef to go with the pickles and the tough, chewy pumpernickel and rye with the union label pasted on the end (you were supposed to fight for it)–these were the working people’s foods of their youth on the Lower East Side and the Bronx,  and they still loved them. And so did we.

My mother’s parents, born in the shtetls of Poland and Ukraine, came to America as children and, thank G-d [only instance of poverty being worthwhile], couldn’t afford to go back when their parents got homesick.

Fast forward to the ’70s: My Grandma Thel, short, plump but ladylike, coiffed, and wearing those pale oxford pumps I used to think of as librarian shoes, would step off the little regional plane in Charlottesville loaded down with huge grocery bags full of chewy, crackle-crusted bagels, Jewish kornbroyt or “corn bread” (a heavy European wholegrain sourdough; no actual cornmeal except what’s dusted on the baking sheets to keep the loaves from sticking), rye bread laced with bitter caraway seeds, sometimes a babka, and always, a huge half-wheel of her own light chocolate-flecked sponge cake (for which I’ve inherited the recipe but haven’t tried it yet–will post when I get it right). I hope the other passengers were smart enough to be jealous. The aromas alone should have clued them in. Grandpa Abe, of vishniak fame, was a lucky man.

On the drive home from the airport, Grandma Thel would tell me and my sister how she just managed to argue another customer at Andell’s or Goodman’s out of the last loaf of kornbroyt with seeds because she was bringing it down to her very special grandchildren so we would grow up knowing the real thing, and that the other lady Continue reading

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