Friday, March 22, 2013

Not Quite In Time for the Holiday...

It's funny that I have been craving lamb stew in the past week.  St. Patrick's Day was last weekend.  Lamb stew just sort of makes sense.  Well, I should say it made sense.  I spent St. Patrick's Day eating leftover chicken meat loaf and drinking whatever bizarre cocktails I could coax from my liquor cabinet. 

March has not come in like a lion this year.  It has come in like an entire pride - likely the pride Simba left behind in Scar's care where food has become scarce and those lions are hungry.  The official start of spring is only 3 days away and there is no sign of the angry, wintry weather ever letting up. 

Since March isn't going out like a lamb, I might as make like a lion and just eat that lamb myself.  St. Patrick's Day might be over, but I'm going to combat this endless cold, rain, sleet, and snow with some lamb stew.

Let me point out before we begin, that there is nothing Irish about my lamb stew at all.  My stew had a Middle Eastern flair to it.

I started with lamb neck bones.  I sprinkled them with salt and pepper and browned them well.  I wanted to find some shoulder chunks instead, but the store didn't have any.  The neck bones looked good for stewing.

I cooked some onions and then added garlic and finally some chunks of carrots.  I seasoned everything with cumin, ground coriander, and cinnamon.

I added the lamb back to the pot with some beef stock mixed with tomato paste, a cup of frozen chopped spinach (fresh would have been fine, but I had frozen on hand), a can of chickpeas, and a cup of golden raisins.  Then the whole pot went into the oven for about 90 minutes.

You would not believe how good the house smelled while this was cooking!

I served it over rice, although I suppose couscous would have been more appropriate.  It was a truly delcious stew either way.  I wasn't really crazy about the lamb neck bones though.  They have too much connective tissue on them.  I had the same issues with them that I had with beef shanks - they're a little chewy.  They probably needed much more cooking.  I hope I can find shoulder the next time.

Lamb Stew with Spinach, Chick Peas, and Raisins

  • 4 pounds lamb neck bones
  • Salt and pepper for sprinkling
  • 2 Tbl olive oil
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 medium carrots, cut into chunks
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 quart beef stock
  • 3 Tbl tomato paste
  • 1 15 oz. can chick peas
  • 1 cup golden raisins
  • 1 cup frozen chopped spinach
Heat oven to 300 degrees.

Sprinkle lamb with salt and pepper.  Heat olive oil in a large pan and add the meat.  Brown well on all sides over medium heat.  Remove.

Add the onion to the pan and cook until soft.  Add the garlic and cook another minute.  Add the carrots and cook until they begin to brown a bit.  Add cinnamon, cumin, garlic, and salt.  Make sure they coat the vegetables well and cook until fragrant. 

Mix together beef stock and tomato paste.  Add to the pan along with the lamb bones, the spinach and the chick peas.  Cover the pot and place in the oven.  Cook for 90 minutes or until lamb is tender.

Serve over rice or couscous

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Salsa Meat Loaf for a Guiltless Friday Dinner

Sometimes Friday are "casual Fridays" where I want to make the easiest dishes that require the least amount of thought and effort. 

Sometimes Fridays are a little fancy.  After all, the weekend has arrived and I should celebrate.

This Friday was in between.  I wasn't looking for something extraordinary, but I had enough energy to put some time and effort in the meal.

I guess one could say the meal I ended up making was just sacreligious.  I think I felt my grandmother turning in her grave as I cooked and ate last night.  I do occasionally remember that it's Lent.  Much to Grandma's ghost's dismay (as well as to some of the rest of my family and friends) I'm afraid I don't observe that sort of thing anymore.

Still, it's hard not to think about how much it would have distressed Grandma to see me thumb my nose at the rules.  I remember eating dinner on Lenten Fridays at her house while I was growing up.  The meals were never very substantial.  It was always tuna salad (the only fish I could choke down in those days) or grilled cheese sandwiches.  I don't know why it never occurred to her to make something like a meatless pasta dish.  I would complain bitterly and ask why the Protestants ate what they wanted during Lent and presumably weren't sent to Hell for it. 

After taking that trip down memory lane, I feel a little guilty.  I don't feel guilty for what I had for dinner.  I feel guilty for not feeling guilty.

Anyway, after all of this pointless babble, what did I have for my not-fancy-but-not-overly-simple dinner?


Every time I ask my husband what he would like for dinner, if he can think of an answer, it's almost always something that contains ground meat.  He wants turkey burgers or chili or spaghetti and meatballs.  I thought it would be fun to combine some of those foods in to one new dish.  The blog needs a new recipe.

I mixed the best elements of chili - meat, chili powder, tomatoes, hot pepper, onions, and cumin - into a loaf form and baked it up.  It took less time than making a pot of chili (especially the way I make it) but it did take some effort with the chopping, shredding, and sauteeing needed to put the whole mess together. 

There are other many other recipes like it, but this one is mine.  I use ground chicken with almond flour as a binder.  If you prefer beef and more traditional bread crumbs, please feel free to experiment.  My meatloaf is quite soft.  My hatred of meatloaf in my early childhood came from the fact that I wasn't fond of those dry bricks of beef (even if the crispy edges were good).  I only liked meatballs because simmering in the sauce softened and flavored them more.  This is a very soft meatloaf due to eggs and a binder that isn't very dry.  If you like a firmer meatloaf, then definitely take to heart what I said about bread crumbs.

I liked this, but I thought it could use a little more spice.  I might double the amount the next time I make it.  Maybe I'll add another chili pepper or some chipotle powder.

Salsa Meat Loaf

  • 2 pounds ground chicken 
  • 2 Tbl olive oil
  • 1 large yellow onion, diced
  • 1 jalapeno pepper, cored, seeded* and finely diced
  • 2-3 carrots (depending on size), shredded
  • 4 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • 2 tsp ancho chili powder
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 15 oz. can diced tomatoes
  • 2 eggs
Heat oven to 400 degrees.

Heat olive oil in a frying pan.  Add onions and cook until soft.  Add garlic and cook another minute.  Add carrots and jalpeno.  Mix together cumin, chili powder, oregano and salt.  Add to pan and coat vegetables well, cooking until they are very fragrant and softened.  Remove from heat and allow to cool a few minutes.

Mix the onion mixutre together in a large bowl with the tomatoes.  Taste for seasoning here.  Make sure you like the amount of salt and spice and then add the chicken and the eggs.  Mix gently until combined.

Grease a loaf pan and gently pour your turkey mixture into it.

Bake for for about 75-90 minutes.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

New Kid in Town - Fiamma Trattoria

Fiamma is one of those restaurants that have opened in town fairly recently and opened with little fanfare or publicity.  One day the place just appeared.  There was no grand opening, no website, and no indication what type of Italian restaurant it would be.  It sits in a small place on the corner of one of my favorite streets in town (a historic residential street that is filled with gorgeous Victorian homes and doesn't turn commercial until the street terminates) in a space once occupied by a Mexican dive bar.  My husband, always suspicious of new establishments (I don't call him Sir Pickypants for nothing), started out very reluctant to try it.  The memories of the previous tenant were still in his head and he wondered if Fiamma was going to be a little trashy.  I suppose I can't blame him.  Fiamma was determined to fly under the radar and not announce to the world what it was all about.  What was it hiding?

I don't like to ignore new restaurants. I hate to think I'm possibly passing over something wonderful.  In that spirit, I became an internet detective and began searching every site I could think of to find more information.  I started seeing stuff in dribs and drabs.  Everything I was reading about it was positive.

It took a few months before I finally was able to go myself.  It helps to have SPP's sister-in-law around.  She is separated for weeks at at time from her home in Chicago.  She can feel a bit bored and lonely at times.  She's also interested in exploring everything her temporary New York home has to offer.  We made a date to try the place this week. Kevin even decided he wanted to join us. 

There is a reason they don't post their menu online.  The menu changes every day.  The restaurant is so small (maybe 10 tables) that the chef has to buy everything fresh.  He goes to the market daily and gets what looks good and then creates that day's menu from it.  Each night the menu is posted on the blackboard.

When we entered we saw it was fairly busy for late on a Tuesday night.  Even so, we were greeted warmly and seated promptly.  The hostess explained the menu to us.  Certain dishes are served every night.  If you're not adventurous, you can always have tagilatelle bolognese, pork chops with vinegar peppers, or chicken or eggplant parmigiana.  Salads and side vegetables aren't listed on the menu, but they are quick to point out you can have one with your meal if the appetizer selection doesn't tickle your fancy. 

They started us off with the bread basket.  Rather than butter they brought us a bottle of olive oil and a small container of tomato topping.  (The server called it "bruschetta" but I refuse to use that word to refer to tomato topping.  The word bruschetta referrs to grilled bread - not what one typically puts on top of it.)

 Please forgive the quality of the photos.  I forgot my good camera and had to use my phone all evening.

Although Kevin and his SIL had salads, I was very keen to try the homemade mozzarella.  There are plenty of places to get homemade mozzarella in my neighborhood, but I can never resist it when someone offers it.  I was not disappointed. 

Next was the main course.  My dining companions stuck with the homemade pasta dishes.  I was an even bigger doodyhead and forgot to take photos of them.  Kevin had a dish with lobster and crab in pink sauce. 

I chose a braised pork shank.  This was like a pork club.  I could have used it as a weapon (along with the parsnip).  I never needed my knife to eat this.  It just fell off the bone in lovely, succulent chunks.  The light tomato and mushroom sauce combined perfectly with the creamy poltenta beneath it. 

For dessert we had zeppoli.  The word zeppoli has multiple meanings here in the NY area.  Zeppoli can be more like cream puffs with pate a choux dough and either fried or baked and filled with cannoli cream (which makes them St. Joseph's pastries).  They can also be fried pizza dough doused in powdered sugar, also called pizza fritta, which are more of a carnival food. 

Fiamma's zeppoli were more like the latter version than the former.  Unlike carnival zeppoli, and more like the bakery pastries, these had a filling.  They were filled with Nutella.  Since they come four to an order and we were sharing them, they offered to fill half with Nutella and half with cannoli cream.  The cannoli cream ones also had chocolate chips in them.

These were ridiculously good.  They were so delicious and fattening they should have been illegal. 

Since I usually don't like to drink on weeknights (I'm a chronic insomniac and alcohol disrupts my already fragile sleep), I don't know what their wine offerings were.  They had a "wine cellar" (labelled as such with a wooden sign), which was a very large rack covering a large part of one wall.  I will have to go back on a weekend to try out their offerings.

We left feeling happy and well fed.  We really do want to come back again.  I do most of my eating out on weekends, so it will be interesting trying to go back.  They don't take reservations for fewer than six people.  If they're busy on a Tuesday, I can imagine the wait for a table on a weekend would be long.  Oh well.  It might be worth the risk.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Ribollita - (Or at least veggie, bean and bread soup)

Lately I have been getting into beans. I’ve never been a huge lover of the legumes, and am not sure how well my body responds to them, but I’ve been getting into them anyway. These days I like to buy a bag of dried beans and soak and simmer them myself. It’s not a complicated process. I soak them overnight on Friday. On Saturday I let them simmer while I do my morning chores. I add a halved onion, some sprigs of herbs, and some fatback and/or any pork or beef bones I have lying around, and let them do their thing for an hour or so. I freeze them in small batches so I have them for chili, soups, or quickie meals of rice and beans. I also save the cooking liquid for soup bases. One of these days I want to develop my own baked beans recipe. I need someone to invite me to a barbecue where I can bring some homemade baked beans.

I have experimented with two or three soups using my beans and my bean stock, but one soup I have never made is ribollita.

I only had ribollita once in my life. That was when I was in Italy, experiencing true Tuscan country cooking. I remember how after a morning spent riding through mediaeval villages and expansive vineyards, my fellow riders and I relaxed on the clubhouse porch with our Italian hosts and ate ribollita for lunch while drinking red wine and watching the horses graze in the field. Like all of the dishes I ate on that trip, it was homemade and heavenly. It would be hard to beat a memory like that, but I could at least make a tasty soup, even if it wouldn’t be quite as tasty as Sadio’s.

Authentic ribollita is a long and drawn-out process. It is a practical soup made of leftovers and whatever is around the house, developed over a period of a few days. The idea is you start with a vegetable soup and then you keep mixing and cooking the soup with your leftover stale bread. It comes from the practical Italian peasant belief that one should waste nothing. I have a great cookbook showing many typical Italian peasant dishes and ribollita is one of them. First you make a minestrone type of soup. The next day you layer it with bread. The next day the soup and bread are baked in the oven. On the final day you have the actual ribollita that you make into patties and grill.

My ribollita wasn’t going to be like that. I was going to make it all in one night. I was going to make it as an actual soup. Perhaps I shouldn’t be calling it ribollita. I should have called it Zuppa di Pane, Fagioli, e Verdure.

I’m not giving a recipe. This is the kind of soup everyone needs to simply improvise in his or her own way. My method is just suggestions, not instructions.

I started by cooking up some Italian chicken sausage and then removed it. This is one of the main differences from authentic ribollita, which I never saw contain meat.  I  just wanted to up my protein levels for this meal.

Next came a diced onion, which I softened up in a mixture of butter and olive oil.  I followed it with plenty of minced garlic.

I added about 6 shredded carrots and and let them cook down.I meant to add some shredded zucchini too, but my zucchini had been hanging around the fridge too long and had gone soft.

My bean stock went in and then I whirled a half a small round loaf of Italian bread in the food processor. This went into the soup next along with the beans, which were stirred in very gently. Then I added a bag of fresh spinach and several basil leaves and finally the turkey sausage went back into the pot.

I realize I should have added the delicate beans after the spinach had cooked down so I would have done less damage to them.

I let that all cook together for an hour or so. I served it in big bowls with grated pecorino and a drizzle of my best olive oil on top.

It might not be the most authentic three-day ribollita, but it was a delicious soup anyway.  I can't wait to keep experimenting with this.