31 March 2010

Meemaw's Tzimmes

There are some foods we love simply because someone we care for deeply makes them for us. I can think of no better explanation for the fact that I always ate my grandmother’s tzimmes, and loved it, despite being a strict vegetarian for my entire childhood and young adulthood (not for health-related or political reasons, mind you, but a natural distaste for meat). It didn’t hurt, of course, that Meemaw’s tzimmes was also incredibly delicious.

Tzimmes (roughly pronounced sim-mus), is a classic example of European Jewish peasant food—some meat, cooked with some garlic and onion, and stewed for a long time with potatoes, readily available veggies, and maybe some fruit for sweetness. It is simple, honest food that is a comfort to eat and an inexpensive, satisfying meal in one bowl. You would never know it was so simple, however, given its esteemed and sacred position in my family.

We only eat tzimmes at Passover. Let me rephrase that…We used to eat tzimmes at Passover. Someone will probably correct me on this but I really don’t believe it’s been a part of our seder meal for about a decade now, ever since Meemaw, the keeper of all tzimmes secrets, got sick with cancer and passed way. As she was getting older, Meemaw started writing down her recipes and even gave both of her daughters-in-law a handwritten cookbook that included a recipe for tzimmes (as well one for pistachio gelatin salad—a dish apparently in her repertoire which I, sadly, never had the opportunity to sample). Referring to this list of measurement-less ingredients and the sketchy outline of steps that followed as a recipe was really pushing it, however. Perhaps because of the recipe’s lack of precision, but more likely because of the missing singular ingredient (Meemaw), the few attempts family members have made to cook the dish without her always seemed lackluster.

This week while home preparing for Passover I had a strong urge to try my hand at it. Now there’s nothing, really, in my cooking ‘career’ to have led me to believe with much confidence that I could pull off even a passably similar rendition of my grandmother’s fabled dish. First of all, I don’t cook beef (the star ingredient in Meemaw’s tzimmes although some people make vegetarian or chicken versions). Also, unlike other members of the family, I never really paid much attention to what Meemaw was doing in the kitchen, I guess simply because I had not yet developed my own interest in all things culinary while she was alive. So I went into this with a few handicaps, which makes what I’m about to tell you even more remarkable, or perhaps proof of some kind of ghostly intervention from the other side…I made Meemaw’s tzimmes and it was good. Really good.

So good, in fact, that I am going to record my own more detailed version of her recipe here for you, as well as for myself, as a guideline to follow when I try making it again next Passover (or maybe at some other special occasion—some things, after all, must remain sacred). Although the recipe is more detailed, please keep in mind that I have only made this once, with a great degree of trepidation and guesswork and not a whole lot of scientific method, so things might still seem a bit vague and imprecise. Which brings us to the other secret of Meemaw’s tzimmes: it’s a pretty resilient dish and difficult to royally screw up. I’d recommend sticking fairly close to the list of ingredients (don’t throw anything green in there, for G-Ds sake!), but otherwise you can do this to taste, varying amounts here and there as you like. One of the greatest revelations to come out of this process for me, for example, came from deviating from Meemaw’s fuzzy directions to cook the thing on top of the stove (where, according to my mom, she would potchke (mess) with it incessantly) and, instead, cooking it mostly in the oven. In other words, you have my permission to take creative license, as long as you cook it with love. For I think it’s love, cheesy as it may seem, that is the true secret ingredient in Meemaw’s tzimmes, and thankfully, it’s in steady supply and knows no measurements.

Meemaw’s Tzimmes

Recipe inspired by Betty Lee Mason, the inimitable Meemaw

Shout out to Mark Mason for (re)interpreting the recipe and guiding me through the foreign land of beef cookery-thanks Dad!

About 10 or 12 main course servings

1 medium brisket, preferably grass-fed, local, organic, petted-every-day beef (I used a 5.5 lb brisket); you don’t want one that’s trimmed as the ‘fat cap’ is essential to the dish’s, um, lusciousness.

1 large onion, diced plus another ½ an onion for grating with the potato

3 large potatoes (I used plain old baking potatoes), peeled

2 sweet potatoes, peeled, quartered and cut into chunks (maybe 2 inch chunks—not too small otherwise they will just turn to mush)

1 lb. carrots, sliced into rounds (again not too small)

1.5 cups pitted prunes (or to taste)

1 tablespoon or so canola or other high-heat oil

3 cups hot water

1 tablespoon honey

4 tablespoons brown sugar

¼ teaspoon cinnamon (or more to taste—I’m not a big fan of cinnamon so I used a small amount)

4-5 cloves garlic, peeled and quartered

salt & pepper to taste

optional: 1-2 cups red wine

Use a paring knife to pierce brisket and insert garlic pieces all over on both sides. Salt and pepper the meat. On the stove, over medium-high heat, place a heavy dutch oven large enough to hold the meat in one layer (you can also cut the brisket into two pieces, brown them separately, and then rotate them frequently during cooking to ensure even cooking). You can also use a deep roasting pan with a tight fitting lid. Add oil to the warm pan and brown meat for several minutes on both sides (it’s important not to mess with the meat too much while browning in order to get a good crust on it—when it’s fully browned it will release easily from the bottom of the pan). Remove meat from pan, leaving drippings and add diced onion, stirring until softened. Add optional red wine to the onions or a bit of water and deglaze the pan, scraping the bottom with your spoon to release all the good stuff. Return the meat to the pan, cover, and cook over medium heat for about an hour, stirring about every 15 minutes and making sure nothing’s burning.

While brisket cooks do the following:

-preheat oven to 350

-grate the potatoes and ½ onion (Meemaw certainly did this by hand but I used the grater attachment on my cuisinart). Mix together with salt (maybe 1 teaspoon?) and pepper and cover with a thin layer of flour (or matzoh meal if it’s Passover).

-mix honey, brown sugar, and cinnamon into the hot water (this is the liquid you will braise and baste with)

After about an hour of cooking, add about 1-2 cups of the sugar water mixture, cover, and put the whole thing in the oven to cook for about another hour, checking periodically to baste with accumulated cooking liquid or add more if it’s drying out.

When you’ve hit the two hour total cooking mark, remove from oven, pull out the brisket and place on a plate. Form slightly compact balls of the grated potato, squeezing out any excess liquid, and then place them in the hot fat/liquid at the bottom of the baking dish—try not to stir or disturb these grated potatoes during the rest of the cooking process so that they can sit there, gathering fat and flavor and forming a golden brown crust. Return the meat to the dish, covering the grated potatoes and then place the carrots, sweet potato, and prunes on top, adding another cup or so of the sugar water mixture. Cover and return to oven and cook for about another 2 hours, checking frequently (every 15-30 minutes) to stir the vegetables and baste the whole thing with liquid accumulating in the pan. Occasionally flip the meat, especially if you have it cooking in layers. I had plenty of liquid in the pan but if yours seems to dry out and risk burning toward the end of cooking, add some water. You should taste the veggies and cooking liquid too so you can be sure it’s seasoned to your liking.

After about 4 hours of cooking time the meat should be very tender. Remove the whole dish from the oven and pull out the brisket, tenting on a plate with foil for about 10 minutes or until cool enough to slice. Slice across grain with sharp knife and return to pan with vegetables. Season w/ salt & pepper to taste. If you ended up with a lot of liquid, return the whole thing to a 325 degree oven, uncovered, for about ½ an hour. The final result should be a stewy but not soupy tzimmes.

29 March 2010

Asian Slaw with Tofu

For the past week, I have been painting a cabbage in my watercolor class. Spending hours staring at the flowery veggie got me dreaming of some sort of vegetarian version of a chinese chicken salad. Searching the web, I came upon epicurious' "Super Slaw" which got rave reviews. So, I adapted it a bit, cut down the quantity significantly, and just enjoyed a yummy springtime salad.

Ingredients for Dressing:
6 T rice vinegar
6 T vegetable oil
5 T peanut butter (I used chunky)
3 T soy sauce
3 T brown sugar
2 T minced ginger
1.5 T minced garlic

Salad Options:
5 c sliced green cabbage
2 c thinly sliced red cabbage (I just had green)
2 red or yellow bell peppers, cut into matchstick strips (I didn't have this)
2 medium carrots, cut into matchstick strips
8 large green onion, chopped finely
1/2 c cilantro, chopped fresh

*I added some tofu lightly sauteed in bragg's and sriracha.
*You could also add some chopped up peanuts to garnish or sesame seeds.
*Or, possibly add some crunchy noodles crumbled on top.

22 March 2010

Rule Breakin' Chicken

Today I will be breaking a cardinal rule of food blogging and will share with you, verbatim, a recipe blogged elsewhere. Why do I debase myself so? Well, I'm doing it for you, of course! This recipe, from none other than the esteemed David Lebovitz at http://www.davidlebovitz.com/, is just so darned easy and delicious to boot that it practically begs for rule breaking. (As an aside, if you don't already read David's blog, you should, especially if you, like I, enjoy stories of expat life in Paris accompanied by lots of chocolate and ice cream.)

I halved the recipe and used just chicken thighs rather than a whole chicken and it turned out just fine (although if you cook smaller portions you might cut down on cooking time a smidge--after 40 minutes my shallots were a tad more than caramelized if you know what I mean).

This is the perfect dish for anyone who's pressed for time or just too darn lazy to cook. And it's great with a size of lemony orzo and asparagus salad, which I should blog about too but I'm just too darned lazy.

Here's David's recipe...Enjoy!

Roast Chicken with Caramelized Shallots
Serves 4 to 6

Adapted from French Farmhouse Cookbook (Workman) by Susan Herrmann Loomis

I use a whole chicken cut into eight pieces; two legs, two thighs, and I cut each breast piece in half, crosswise, keeping the wings attached. You could also just use eight of your favorite chicken pieces.

3 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
4 large shallots, peeled and minced
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
One whole chicken, cut into 8 pieces
one generous handful of coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley

1. Preheat the oven to 425ºF (220ºC).

2. In a large baking dish, one which will hold all the chicken pieces in a single layer, mix the olive oil, vinegar, soy sauce, shallots, and some salt and pepper.

3. Toss the chicken in the mixture, so they're completely coated with the shallots. Turn the chicken pieces so they are all skin side up.

4. Roast the chicken for about twenty minutes, until it starts to brown on top. Turn the pieces of chicken over. Scrape any juices and shallots over the chicken that may be clinging to the pan, and bake for another twenty minutes, or until the pieces of chicken are cooked through and the shallots are well-caramelized.

5. Remove from oven and toss in the chopped parsley, then serve.

09 March 2010

Apricot & Raspberry Squares

After my body finally gave in and I caught Jonah's cold, I was looking for something new and inspiring to bake to cheer me up. I was tempted by Smitten Kitchen's "St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake" but saw that it involved corn syrup and reconsidered. Then I remembered I had Bear Moon Bakery's Raspberry Squares recipe and boy was this a fruitful discovery. So, if you suddenly find yourself nostalgic for Boerne (or for a very cute kitty who lives there) here is a super yummy treat for you.

Raspberry Squares
Source: Bear Moon Bakery, Boerne, Tx
Servings: 9 generous portions

1 cup butter, room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1 egg
2 cups flour
1 cup chopped pecans
1 1/2 cups jam ( I did half apricot preserves and half seedless raspberry)

- Preheat oven to 350.
- Line 9-inch square baking pan with parchment or aluminum foil.
- Combine butter and sugar thoroughly with an electric mixer (until light and fluffy).
- Add egg, mix well, then add flour and nuts. Mix until incorporated.
- Divide dough in half. Press first half of dough into bottom of pan. Spread jam evenly over top.
- Drop remaining dough in small clumps over the jam.
- Bake in lower third of oven for 35-40 minutes, or until top is golden.
- Cool before cutting into squares. (FYI- Bear Moon cools them, then freezes them before cutting to get a clean edge.)
- Share with friends and family. Beware- These are seriously addicting!

04 March 2010

Tofu in Peanut Sauce

At the ranch with my folks this weekend, I decided it was my turn to make dinner. Too lazy to drive to the store, I opted instead for the challenge of making do with what they had on hand already. A bit of scrounging about led to this list of potential ingredients: one carton of firm tofu (what everyone on a ranch in Texas has in their fridge, right?), some brown rice, and one freshly harvested head of green cabbage (i've never felt more like a murderer than when retrieving this from the garden--it was so precious and alive and then whack! I am ruthless when it comes to food, apparently). The trick was to figure out how to turn this bounty of healthful grub into something I actually might be excited to eat.

Oh, and just to make things even trickier, I discovered that my parents' gas cooktop was mysteriously out of juice. Improvising, I stuck the rice in an electric rice cooker, prepared the cabbage for a quick steam in the microwave, and then attacked the tofu. Using a Deborah Madison recipe as a guide, I decided to press the water out of the tofu, bake it until crisp, and then slather it in a sweet and spicy peanut sauce (in my opinion, pretty much anything is better with peanut sauce). As they say, necessity is the mother of invention...in this case, a very tasty, easy, and quick-to-make invention at that!

Tofu in Sweet and Spicy Peanut Sauce
adapted from Deborah Madison's
This Can't Be Tofu!
serves 4-5
1 carton firm tofu, drained and pressed (I'm impatient when it comes to pressing the water out of tofu but it's worth the trouble--helps it crisp when baked)

1/4 cup soy sauce

1/4 cup peanut butter (could also try tahini, almond, or cashew buter)
2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
2 tablespoons light brown sugar (can use white, or maybe honey or agave)
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes or hot chili oil

2 scallions, chopped (I didn't have--used a small amount of regular onion)

1/3 cup water or stock

Preheat oven to 375 (350 if you have a convection oven)
Slice drained tofu into 1/4 inch slabs and place on cookie sheet coated with baking spray (or a little canola or other cooking oil). Bake for 15 minutes, flip each piece of tofu over, and bake for another 15 or until crispy and browned but not burned.

Meanwhile combine all the ingredients for the sauce in a food processor (I used a hand-held blender) and puree until smooth. When the tofu is finished, place it in one layer in a small casserole or baking dish and pour the sauce over it. Return to oven at 350 and bake for about 5-10 minutes until the sauce is reduced and slightly thickened. Remove from oven, garnish with cilantro, scallion, sesame seeds, etc. to taste, and serve!