Tuesday, April 10, 2007


Back when I was writing for Wellfed.net I reviewed a recipe for Muhammara from Ana Sortun's Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean, a wonderful book by the owner of Oleana in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I had been jonesing for another taste of this roasted red pepper and walnut spread ever since the Middle Eastern restaurant owner down the street from the knitting shop suddenly closed his doors and moved back home. So I was thrilled to find the recipe and whipped up a batch.

Which was ok, but not really like the smooth creamy spread I was used to. It was thick and and lumpy, and a little gummy. I figured that was due to two things: 1) there was too high a proportion of bread crumbs to the rest of the ingredients and 2) I didn't process it long enough.

Back when I was roasting all those peppers, I decided to try it again. This time, I used twice as many peppers and half the amount of bread crumbs. That did the trick. It was smooth and creamy, with just the right taste and texture. It's delicious with pita, crackers or vegetables, and makes a wonderful complement to hummus if you're looking for some new appetizers.

I have not seen pomegranate syrup in any of my neighborhood stores and I haven't ventured further afield in search of it. Instead, I bought some pomegranate juice and reduced it down to slightly less than half. I've since seen a recipe that calls for sugar, but the reduced juice is sweet enough without it. It also makes for a mean vinaigrette.
Muhammara (Red Pepper and Walnut Puree)

3/4 cup olive oil, plus 1 Tbsp for garnish
4 large red bell peppers (about 2 pounds total), roasted and peeled
4 whole scallions, root ends trimmed and finely chopped (reserve 1 Tbsp for garnish)
1 tsp chopped garlic (about 1 large clove)
1/3 cup walnut halves, lightly toasted
1/3 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted, plus 1 Tbsp for garnish
1/4 cup finely ground toasted bread crumbs
1 Tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice (almost 1/2 lemon)
1 Tbsp pomegranate molasses
1 Tbsp Aleppo chilies plus 1/2 tsp for garnish
1 Tbsp Urfa chilies plus 1/2 tsp for garnish
1 tsp ground cumin
1 Tbsp yogurt
3/4 tsp salt plus more to taste

Remove seeds from the red peppers and place them in a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Add the scallions, garlic, walnuts, pine nuts, bread crumbs, lemon juice, pomegranate molasses, Aleppo and Urfa chilies, cumin, yogurt, and the remaining 1/4 cup of olive oil. Puree the ingredients until smooth. Season to taste with salt.

Serve with warm or toasted pita bread, crackers, or vegetables.

Adapted from Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean, by Ana Sortun (ReganBooks, 2006)

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Thai Roasted Red Pepper Stir-Fry

This weekend I went up to Bob's neighborhood for our Saturday morning walk. We started at the Morse Street El Stop, and after walking a block east for coffee at Ennui, we headed west so he could show me some of West Rogers Park. It's a beautiful neighborhood and they have a lovely park with its own zoo. Of course, none of the animals were out because it was so freakin' cold. It was about 22 degrees with a wind chill of 9. Happy spring, everyone.

But even in the cold it was a lovely walk because the neighborhood is so nice. I've never been further west of Clark street that far north. Nice big tree-lined streets, very quiet, gorgeous houses - a mix of bungalows, apartment buildings and older houses. I only saw one new development, compared to the one or two a week that seem to be popping up all over my neighborhood. I think Bob is trying to talk me into moving up there and I have to admit, it's an attractive prospect.

After breakfast at the Heartland, a restaurant that takes me back to Austin in the '70s with it's wide selection of political magazines, natural products, hand-crafted jewelry and Che t-shirts, we went to the Morse Fresh Market, a neighborhood grocery store that has a nice selection for a small store, especially the produce. The produce section easily took up a third of the store, with items I rarely see at my neighborhood Jewel. Yuca, papaya, jicama, epazote, and those teeny little eggplants in the picture above. I couldn't resist bringing some of those home with me. The orange pepper in the background should give you some idea of the scale. These are about the size of a plum they're so tiny.

They were called Indian eggplants and I toyed with the idea of cooking them up with some garam masala and Madras curry powder, but I opted to stir fry them instead. I've had the Thai Roasted Red Chili Paste since my birthday last year and have been wanting to use it, and it's been a while since I've had tofu.
I wasn't sure how spicy the Roasted Red Chili Paste would be, so I only used a teaspoon. It gave the sauce a little kick, but next time I will use more. I used soy sauce because I don't have fish sauce, but I think I will hunt that down for the next time. All in all, it was a satisfying meal for a colder than usual spring dinner.

Thai Roasted Red Pepper Stir-Fry

Serves 4

2 Tbsp peanut or canola oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbsp ginger, minced
1/2 red onion, chopped
1/2 lb. asparagus, cut into 1" pieces
1 orange bell pepper, cut into 1" pieces
4-5 baby eggplants, sliced into fourths lengthwise
1/2 lb. extra-firm tofu, with the water pressed out*
1 Tbsp cornstarch
1 tsp sugar
1 Tbsp sherry
1 Tbsp fish sauce or soy sauce
1/2 cup chicken stock

Combine cornstarch, sugar, sherry, fish sauce and chicken and mix well. Set aside.

Heat oil in wok over high heat. Add garlic and ginger and cook for 30 seconds, then add eggplant and cook for 2-3 minutes, until beginning to look tender (it's important to make sure the eggplant is cooked enough before adding the other vegetables). Add onion, pepper, and asparagus and cook for another 2-3 minutes. Add tofu and cook until heated through.

Add cornstarch mixture and stir until sauce thickens. Remove from heat and serve immediately.

Adapted from a recipe for Asparagus, Red Pepper, and Curried Tofu in 12 Best Foods Cookbook, by Dana Jacobi (Rodale Press, 2005)

Wednesday, April 04, 2007


Back in January I wrote this post about Sumac, which I bought on one of my trips to The Spice House here in Chicago. I was looking through Herbs & Spices: The Cook's Reference and ran into a recipe for something called za'atar. According to Gernot Katzer's Spice Pages, the name za'atar, or savory (Satureja hortensis), is used interchangeably among a variety of native Middle Eastern mint-related herbs including oregano, marjoram, and thyme, as well as to describe the spice mixture made from any combination of these spices mixed with sesame seeds and sumac.

And as often happens, I started seeing references to za'atar all over the place, most notably when Clotilde wrote about it on Chocolate & Zucchini back in February. So the sumac sat in my cupboard for a while, biding its time until I decided to toast up some sesame seeds and put together a batch.

I've already confessed to being something of a spice geek, so it should come as no surprise to anyone that I have an inordinate fondness for toasting nuts and seeds on the stovetop. I even have a little non-stick skillet made in Italy that I bought just for this purpose. I love how you can start to smell the nuts/seeds as the heat starts to release their oils, and I love watching them turn golden brown. I must confess to burning my share as they turn from golden brown to charcoal black fairly quickly, but overall I think I have mastered the art of toasting them to just the right point. And for my money, it's much better to toast your own than to buy pre-toasted. Pre-toasted nuts and seeds have a short shelf life and the rich warm flavor just doesn't hold up as well as what you get when you toast them right before you're going to use them. Just my two cents.

I found several recipes in some of my cookbooks and online, and they were all different. Some versions have you crush the sesame seeds and some leave them whole. The proportions of the ingredients also varies depending on the recipe you use. Some call for sesame seeds, sumac and oregano; some also include marjoram and/or thyme. The bottom line is to find the blend that works best for you.

I love sesame seeds, so I decided to use a 2 to 1 ratio for them and each of the other ingredients. I crushed them because I thought it would help their subtle flavor permeate through the mix. As you can see below, it made a wonderful rub for roast chicken. I also used it on lamb chops for a refreshing change from my usual salt, pepper, garlic and mint combination.

Za'atar is an excellent addition to my growing repertoire of spice blends. It's wonderful for seasoning meat and vegetables, and tastes delicious spread on pita bread, or baked into the dough.

But the best use I've found for it so far was not mentioned in any of the recipes I found. It's simply fabulous sprinkled over popcorn.

Note: This receipe is my adaptation from several I found; the main two being About.com and Herbs & Spices: The Cook's Reference , by Jill Norman.

2 Tbsp toasted sesame seeds
1 Tbsp sumac
1 Tbsp oregano
1 Tbsp marjoram
Coarse (kosher) salt to taste

Crush sesame seeds in a mortar and pestle if desired, or they can be left whole. Combine all other ingredients and mix well.

Monday, April 02, 2007

African Chicken

Work has been crazy for the past few weeks and what little capacity my brain cells have were totally exhausted there. I have finally realized why I will never make it as a professional writer. (Well, one of the reasons, anyway). You have to use your brain to write, and I guess my poor little cells are too delicate to put in more than a couple of hours a day. By the time I got home in the evening it took all of my concentration just to sit on the couch and watch endless reruns of the "Law and Order" syndicates. Last Monday I even forgot to watch "24," but I guess that's as much an indictment of how crappy this season is as an indication of how overtired my brain is.

But I wasn't even knitting much, and that's a definite indication that something is wrong. And then I stopped cooking and then I stopped eating well and the dishes started to pile up and it was not such a pretty sight, I can tell you. But work has finally eased up and I've had a chance to pull things together somewhat and get back into the kitchen.

Something else that usually happens when I get overly stressed is that I start thinking about comfort food, and old recipes that I used to make all the time but haven't thought of in years. I don't know what made me think of African Chicken, but once I did I knew I had to make it. It was the first recipe I had ever seen that called for peanut butter in a savory application (nope, no Thai food yet) and I was skeptical, but intrigued enough to give it a try

I liked it so much that for a while it became my go-to dish when I had company for dinner. The sauce thickens into a kind of paste that is delicious with brown rice. It is easy to make, with few ingredients that come together for a whole that is much greater than the sum of its parts

I have had this recipe for so long that I don't remember where I found it. I think it was a magazine, or maybe the weekly food section in the Austin paper. I'm pretty sure it wasn't from a cookbook. It was long before the internet so it never occurred ot me that I might need the attribution. I did a quick Google search and found an unattributed version of it here

I wasn't sure I wanted to post it here without attributions, but since it's already out there anyway I will go ahead, with apologies to the original source. It's too good a recipe not to share.
Home Cookin Chapter: Poultry

African Chicken
Serves 6

4 lb. chicken, cut into pieces
2 Tbsp oil
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
2 cloves minced garlic
1/4 cup peanut butter
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1 Tbsp red wine vinegar
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
15-oz. can tomato sauce

Arrange chicken in large baking dish. In 10" skillet heat oil; add onion and garlic; cook until wilted. Stir in peanut butter, coriander and red pepper flakes. Gradually stir in tomato sauce and vinegar. Pour over chicken.

Bake uncovered in 400-degree oven until chicken is tender--about 50 minutes.

Exported from Home Cookin 5.4 (www.mountain-software.com)

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