Friday, April 24, 2015

Flights of Fancy Food
What’s cooking? Artichoke Pesto and Salad Shirazi

The Kitchen Goddess is chagrined to note that it’s been more than two weeks since my last post. A shameful situation, to be sure, but we – my hubby and I – have done an obscene amount of travel this year (at least one trip per month), and it’s difficult if not impossible to collect my already scattered thoughts while on the road. But I will attempt to catch up today with not one but two easy recipes that celebrate spring.

In light of all this travel, it’s a vast understatement to say that I’ve had my fill of airport food lately. Of course, there’s no such thing as airline food anymore, unless you’re flying first class, where, believe me, the food they’re serving isn’t even up to what they used to serve in coach. So my habit of packing a few snacks has become something of an obsession. Part of it is driven by my desire not to throw away perfectly good food, yet it’s tough to imagine showing up at my neighbor’s doorstep with, “Hi, would you like some leftover risotto? Or this half of an apple? How about a cup of cucumber salad?”

The packing almost always takes place in the last few minutes before we leave. My prince checks his watch and paces while I stuff the food into baggies and wedge it carefully into my carry-on, adding one of those little cellophane packages of fork/spoon/salt/pepper and a couple of paper towels, because you can’t rely on airplane napkins to keep your hands clean. For our latest trip, I took a hard-boiled egg, an apple (which I sliced), and a pear (also sliced). I thought about adding some cheese, then decided against it to save my marriage.

The flight was just to Houston, only 35 minutes long, and he reminded me more than once that we’d have time to grab lunch in the Houston airport, so the food was really superfluous. Then a funny thing happened on the way to Houston. There was lots of turbulence, and as the plane neared the landing strip, the pilot made an abrupt adjustment and took us back up into the clouds. Whoa, what was that about?

“Sorry, folks,” said the pilot. He added something that sounded like, “Blah blah wind shear blah blah.” After which we spent an extra 20 minutes or so flying around for a new approach. A little unsettling, but we finally made it to the gate. Can you see where this is going?

“I hope we don’t miss our connection,” said my husband. “Looks like we won’t have time for lunch.”

I said nothing, but smiled triumphantly to myself as I thought about my stash. We made the connection (just barely), and as I unearthed my “lunch,” the look on his face reminded me of a golden retriever we once had who would follow me around the kitchen hoping for anything edible to fall on the floor. “Don’t worry,” I said. “We can share this.” But next time, I’m also packing that cheese.

* * *

All this travel has played havoc with my diet, so I’ve been concentrating lately on salads and other veggie-centric dishes. Today, I have two great finds for you: an hors d’oeuvre and a salad. Both would be great, by the way, as airplane lunches.

The hors d’oeuvre is Artichoke Pesto, another on my list of great pestos and a winner for anyone who likes artichokes. The Kitchen Goddess loves them. It was a find of my friend, Ellen, who says it began life as a Weight Watchers recipe. I’ve tweaked it a bit, increasing the garlic and adding lemon juice, but the master stroke was to use those marinated artichokes you find in the relish bars offered by most large grocers these days. You can trim back the calories by using canned artichoke hearts, but I think the oil- and herb-marinated hearts offer a huge improvement with very few added calories. If your grocer doesn’t have a relish bar, or it doesn’t stock artichoke hearts, go for the jars in the relish aisle. Just find a brand that incorporates some seasoning. And the marinated hearts don’t turn brown like the ones packed in brine.

This pesto is best if it’s the tiniest bit chunky, so I wouldn’t just turn on the food processor and walk away. Pulse it until the mixture reaches a consistency that’s spreadable, but not a purée. The Kitchen Goddess is so fond of this stuff that she’ll eat a large scoop of it over lettuce for lunch with crackers. Or over scrambled eggs with blue corn tortilla chips, like this, for breakfast.

Artichoke Pesto

Adapted from Weight Watchers, Inc.

Makes about 2 cups.

1¼ cups marinated artichoke hearts, drained with 1 tablespoon of the flavored oil reserved
2 medium cloves garlic, minced
1¼ cups fresh basil leaves (packed)
¼ cup pine nuts
3-4 tablespoons grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
½ teaspoon (rounded) kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
freshly ground pepper, to taste

In a small Teflon skillet over medium heat, toast the pine nuts until they turn a golden brown (about 5 minutes). Add the nuts and the rest of the ingredients (including the reserved oil) to the bowl of a food processor and pulse until coarsely ground. Adjust seasoning to taste.

Transfer the pesto to a bowl, cover and refrigerate about an hour before serving, to allow the flavors to come together. Serve as a spread with crackers or chips or vegetable crudité.

* * *

My grocery store has this year been stocking bags of what I thought to be some variety of hothouse cucumbers. But in researching about this recipe, I discovered that they’re actually Persian cucumbers, a variety that’s been around for more than 3000 years! I wonder what took my grocer so long...

These cukes – also sold as Gourmet Baby Cucumbers – look more like the large English cucumbers than the darker, thicker-skinned ones we’re used to seeing. Persian cucumbers are about 6 inches long, with thin, textured skin that there’s no need to peel. They’re sweeter and crisper than common garden cucumbers, and have no developed seeds. They retain their water, so they stay cool tasting – one source I found said the interior can be as much as 20 degrees cooler than the skin. So they’re great in salads, and a terrific accompaniment to rich meats like lamb.

This particular salad is a traditional dish from Shiraz, a 4000-year old city and the sixth most populous in Iran. It’s light, fresh, crisp, and low-cal, and it takes almost no time to make.

Salad Shirazi

Adapted from Ellie on

Serves 4

For the dressing:
4 tablespoons olive oil
juice of 1 lime (about 2 tablespoons)
1 garlic clove, minced
½ teaspoon honey
salt and pepper to taste

For the salad:
5 Persian cucumbers
1 pint (11-12 ounces) sweet cherry tomatoes
2 scallions, white and light green parts only
½ cup mint, chopped
1 jalapeño, seeded and diced (or 1-2 tablespoons diced jalapeños from a jar. Yes, the KG is not too proud to get her jalapeños from a jar.)

Put all ingredients for the dressing into a jar and shake it well.

Slice the cucumbers lengthwise into quarters, then slice across in ⅜-inch cuts. [KG note: If this sounds too precious, just know that I thought ¼-inch cuts were too thin and ½-inch cuts too thick. So there.] Put them into a medium-sized salad bowl.

Slice the tomatoes into quarters, and add them to the bowl.

Slice the scallions thinly on a diagonal, and add them to the bowl. Add the mint and jalapeño, and pour the dressing over all. Adjust salt and pepper to taste. Toss well, cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before serving. Now, wasn't that easy?

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Dependable Dozen: 12 Dinnerworthy Staples for Avoiding a Trip to the Store
What’s cooking? Farfalle with Tuna, Artichoke Hearts, Spinach, and Capers

You arrive home after a long absence. You let yourself in the front door, kick off your shoes, and decide to unpack later, because the vibes coming from your body are calling “Feed me... feed me....”

It’s early in the evening, and, airplane food being, well... airplane food, you’ve had essentially nothing to eat since early afternoon when you turned a blind eye to your diet and ate the best you could find at the airport. But you really really don’t have the energy for a run to the grocery store, and as easy as it would be to order in pizza, that just seems like more fast food. You want something not too heavy, but with vegetables in it. Something you don’t have to work hard at creating, but something that’ll satisfy your need for real food.

You grab a glass of wine (you do have a chilled bottle available, don’t you?), sigh and stand in the door to your pantry, looking for inspiration. And maybe it’s the wine, but as you scan the shelves, some of those items start to look like the basis for... dinner.

That was the scene I faced recently on a trip to New Jersey. I hadn’t been in our condo since Christmas, so the fridge was pretty bare (jams, ketchup, pickles, and that bottle of wine). Thankfully, the Kitchen Goddess stocks the pantry – and the freezer – with any number of items that can be put to work for just the dinner I envisioned.

You, too, might find yourself yearning for real food and looking to your pantry for inspiration. You don’t even have to go on a long trip – it might just be a day when you haven’t the time or energy for a trip to the store. So here are a dozen of my tried and true fallback ingredients, followed by the lovely dish of pasta with tuna, artichoke hearts, spinach and capers that I concocted in my hour of need.

The Dependable Dozen – Staples You Can Count On to Become Dinner

This list assumes you have stuff like olive oil and a reasonable assortment of spices.

1. Tuna and/or Salmon – either the foil-packaged kind, which has less water, or oil-packed in cans, which has more flavor. Of course it’s not as good as fresh, but for fresh, you’d have to go to the store.

2. Cannellini beans – for making the classic pasta e fagioli soup or a nice, garlicky dip.

3. Diced tomatoes – for juicing up and flavoring a pasta dish.

4. Artichoke hearts – in a jar, please, where they are usually marinating in oil and spices. The canned ones taste tinny and soggy. Go for the best quality you can find. Artichokes dress up a multitude of dishes. Among other uses, they make a great dip with frozen spinach, a bit of mayo, and some Parmigiano-Reggiano, or add them to risotto.

5. Capers – those tiny things that look like soft seeds. They’re flower buds, salted and pickled, and they are great in seasoning or garnishing a dish, especially one with a Mediterranean flavor. An opened jar should be kept in the fridge.

6. Pasta – I try always to have on hand the long-cut kind (e.g., spaghetti, linguini, fettuccine) and the short-cut kind (farfalle or fusilli).

7. Marinara sauce – in a jar. My favorite is Rao’s, but Newman’s has a nice line, too.

8. Oil-cured olives – in the fridge. Oil-cured olives will keep several months, especially if steeped in oil.

9. Frozen spinach and/or frozen peas – great in soup, pasta, risotto, frittata, ... you name it.

10. Roasted garlic – you do make this stuff, don’t you? Next time, make some extra and freeze it.

11. Dried mushrooms – which will keep for years, as long as they’re kept dry and out of the light. Rehydrating is a snap, and you can rehydrate with water or broth or wine or sherry, just to keep things interesting.

12. Shallots and raw garlic – that’s right. The little buggers will stay reasonably fresh for a couple of months, as long as you keep them in a dark, cool, dry place that’s well-ventilated – but not in the fridge, where they’ll only last a couple of weeks.

So here’s the dish I put together from my pantry. Not only easy, but fast and delicious. All that I had hoped for in my travel-weary state.

Farfalle with Tuna, Artichoke Hearts, Spinach, and Capers

Serves 2 with leftovers.

8 ounces farfalle pasta (or other short-cut pasta like fusilli)
1 tablespoon olive oil
¼ cup shallots, minced
1-2 large cloves garlic, minced
7-ounce foil pack albacore tuna
1 small jar marinated artichoke hearts, drained and quartered
8 ounces frozen spinach, barely thawed
1 heaping tablespoon capers (no juice)
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Cook pasta in a large pot of salted water. When the pasta is almost ready, scoop out 1 cup of the pasta water and reserve. When pasta is done to al dente state, drain and return to the pot. Cover and reserve.

While the pasta is cooking:
In a separate large skillet, set over medium-low heat, add the oil and allow it to warm. Add the shallots and cook, stirring, for about 2 minutes until soft. Add the garlic and stir 30 seconds. Add the tuna, the artichoke hearts, the spinach, and the capers, and stir to combine.

Pour in the reserved pasta water, cover and let cook long enough to heat all ingredients, about 8-10 minutes. Stir in the reserved pasta, and continue to cook until pasta is also well warmed. Season to taste with kosher salt and pepper.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Time to Celebrate!
What’s cooking? Persian-Spiced Lamb Shanks with Saffron Rice

Ok, here’s your trivia for the week. In most Latin- and Greek-based languages, the word for the holiday English speakers call Easter is some version of Pasch or Pesach, both Hebrew words for Passover. The Latin “Pascha” and the Greek “Paskha” evolved into Pascuas in Spanish, Pâques in French, Pasqua in Italian, and Páscoa in Portuguese.

But English-speakers take our cue from the Germans, who call it Ostern. The English and German words stem from Ēostre, an ancient goddess of spring, for whom a feast was celebrated at the spring equinox. (Don’t you just love this linguistic arcana? You can always rely on the Kitchen Goddess for tidbits of stuff you never really wanted to know. I can picture my sons rolling their eyes right now.) I’m not going to try to figure out why we use a non-religious root for “Easter,” but I do think it’s curious.

Regardless of what you call it and why, this is a great time of year for celebrating. Jews celebrate the Israelites’ escape from slavery in ancient Egypt, Christians celebrate the resurrection of Christ, and everyone else can celebrate the arrival of Spring. Hallelujah!

Whatever your reason for celebrating, the focus of the meal is traditionally lamb. It’s a symbol of spring, when lamb is most available; it’s symbolic to Christians of Christ as the Lamb of God; and it’s symbolic to Jews as the Passover sacrifice.

For me, it’s about the taste. Lamb is simultaneously bolder in flavor and more delicate than beef, and the meat responds well to seasonings.

One of the Kitchen Goddess’s new year’s resolutions for 2015 was to try new things – new foods, new spices, new processes. “Hah!” you are saying, “The Kitchen Goddess is always trying new things.” Not true. She’s as likely as the next person to keep churning out the same dishes over and over.

But my hubby and I are part of a gourmet group, and it was recently our turn to host. Which meant I had to come up with a theme and a dish. With all the current attention on the Middle East, that seemed like a good place to start. In fact, I hope one day to wander the spice bazaars of that region without worrying about getting blown up.

For the dinner, I considered lamb chops (too simple), shish kebab (too 70s), and leg of lamb (too traditional). Then I saw it. A recipe for Persian-spiced lamb shanks, from David Tanis in The New York Times. I’d never tried the cut before. Turns out, they’re easy to find at most grocery stores that have a butcher. Lamb shanks are not generally on display, but all you have to do is ask.

You will not be sorry. They require braising to really bring out their flavor – a long, slow, simmer in a broth so fragrant you will be tempted to climb into the oven with them. Oh, my – the meat literally falls off the bone. Talk about under-appreciated – lamb shanks (which are also a relative bargain) are easily the richest, most succulent cut of meat I’ve found, and this preparation produces such a delightful mix of flavors – both fruity and spicy – that it’ll cause the top of your head to lift off just slightly and twirl around as you dive in. And the sprinkling of herbs on top nicely balances the richness of the meat and broth. Be sure to cook the meat a day or two in advance – the flavors only get better with that overnight nap.

Kitchen Goddess note: Persian cuisine makes generous use of spices, but rarely includes hot pepper. So you can relax about that. The list of ingredients looks a bit daunting at first, but take heart. Tanis recommends “Middle Eastern grocery shops,” which makes me think, “Yes, well, maybe in Manhattan.” But in Austin, I found everything I needed at a local organic/natural food store. So look around.

The dish is best served over Basmati rice, either plain with butter, or colored bright yellow and lightly flavored from a few strands of saffron dissolved in hot water. Because it’s very rich, the Kitchen Goddess added a cucumber and tomato salad dressed with olive oil and lime juice on the side.

Persian-Spiced Lamb Shanks with Saffron Rice

Adapted from David Tanis in The New York Times

4 meaty lamb shanks (4½ -5 pounds total)
kosher salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon ground dried rosebuds (optional)
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon turmeric
vegetable oil or canola oil
¼ teaspoon crumbled saffron, plus a few strands for the rice
juice of 2 limes (approximately 4 tablespoons)
3 teaspoons rosewater
1 large onion, cut in ½-inch dice
zest from 1 lime
zest from 1½ oranges (1 tablespoon of which to be saved for garnish)
3-4 sprigs fresh thyme
2 fresh bay leaves or 4 dried bay leaves
6 cups hot chicken broth
2 tablespoons chopped parsley, for garnish
2 tablespoons chopped mint or dill, for garnish
Basmati rice

Trim excess fat from the lamb shanks, pat them dry with paper towels, and season them generously with kosher salt. Don't skimp on the salt, as it’s critical to the flavor of the meat.

In a small bowl, combine the cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, rosebuds (if using), black pepper and turmeric. (If, like me, you found dried rose petals – not yet ground – you’ll need to pulverize them with a mortar and pestle – or some similar weapon – before mixing with the other spices.) Rub the spice mixture evenly all over the shanks. Set the meat aside to rest at room temperature for at least an hour. (You may prefer to wrap and refrigerate the meat overnight. If you do that, be sure to let it come to room temperature before proceeding.)

In a Dutch oven or deep, heavy pot over medium-high heat, pour in oil to a depth of ½ inch. Once the oil is hot (i.e., a drop of water in it will sizzle), sear the lamb shanks two at a time for 2-3 minutes per side, until browned all over. For best results, do not disturb the meat except to turn it over once.

While the meat is browning, dissolve the saffron in a small bowl with the lime juice, 2 teaspoons of the rosewater and ½ cup warm water. Let the mixture steep for 10 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350º.

Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of the oil from the pot. Add the chopped onion and cook over medium heat for 8-10 minutes, until softened and pale yellow. Sprinkle the onion with salt, and add the lime zest, orange zest, thyme sprigs, and bay leaves. Add the saffron liquid, and stir well to combine. Lay the lamb shanks on top of the onion/spice mixture and pour the warm broth over all. Raise the temperature to medium high until the broth reaches a boil, then cover the pot and transfer it to the oven.

Bake 1½ hours, covered, until meat is fork-tender and beginning to pull away from the bone.

If you are serving immediately, remove the shanks to a covered serving dish and keep them warm. If you’ll be serving in a day or two, move them to a covered container large enough to hold the shanks and the strained braising liquid.

Using a fine-mesh sieve, strain the braising liquid into a bowl, pressing on the solids with a wooden spoon to squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Discard the solids. Skim as much fat as you can from the surface, using a spoon or a gravy separator, if you have one. Taste the liquid, add the final teaspoon of rosewater, and salt if necessary. Bring the strained broth to a boil and simmer 5 minutes. Pour the broth over the lamb shanks.

If you’re cooking the meat ahead of time, refrigerate the shanks covered in the broth. To reheat, place the shanks and broth, covered, in a 350º oven for 30 minutes, or over low- to medium-low heat on the stovetop for the same amount of time.

Prepare the rice according to your package instructions, adding the remaining saffron to the water.

When you are ready to serve, toss together the parsley, mint, and reserved orange zest. [Kitchen Goddess note: This parsley/mint/zest combo is called gremolata, and it is way more than a foo-foo garnish. Particularly for a rich meat preparation, it can wake up your senses and take the dish from good to great. Trust the Kitchen Goddess.] Serve lamb shanks with a small amount of broth in wide, shallow soup plates, either on top of the rice or next to it. If you prefer, you can use a spoon to break the meat off the bone and serve it in large chunks. Sprinkle the gremolata on top of the meat.

A final Kitchen Goddess note: As a special touch to the meal, try adding a couple of drops (only a couple!) of rosewater to your guests’ water glasses. The difference in taste is small, but the scent will give your guests the sensation that they’re dining in an exotic garden.

For the winos among you, we served a 2009 Domaine Thunevin-Calvet "Les Dentelles" Cotes
du Roussillon Villages, a full-bodied red blend from southern France, made from carignan, grenache, and perhaps a bit of syrah grapes. The Kitchen Goddess’s professional assessment is that it was mmmm-good.