Weeknight Yum Yum: Moroccan Lentil Soup

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The dead of winter leaves us craving hearty and filling foods, but this doesn't mean we have to always go for the beer-cheddar soup (although delicious) or pot roasts. Lentils are not only a winter food, but also extremely low in fat and calories and very good for you. And cheap! You can whip up a hearty and healthy soup in under an hour that's perfect for that snowy day with great leftovers for lunch. My Moroccan Lentil Soup uses an easy Moroccan-inspired spice blend I developed myself years ago back east. It's spicy, sweet, smoky, savory, peppery and exotic all in one and is just perfect for soups, stews, grilled meats and braised dishes like tagine. And the blend offers all the right notes combined with fresh garlic and ginger and earthy bay leaf.

I like serving this dish piping hot with some freshly sliced jalapenos right on top, and extra lime wedges. Sometimes I also include a small dollop of cold sour cream to combat the piping hotness of the soup. And nothing goes better than a fresh French baguette to dip inside. And if I'm really feeling naughty, some crisp bacon or pancetta will go on top as well.

Moroccan Lentil Soup
1 white onion, peeled and diced small
2 carrots, peeled and diced small
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbsp fresh ginger, minced
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 large bay leaf
2 Tbsp Mishy's Moroccan Spice Blend (recipe follows) + more to taste
1.5 cups brown lentils
6 cups vegetable broth or stock
2 Tbsp fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
1 Tbsp fresh mint, roughly chopped
1 lime cut into wedges
1 jalapeno, sliced thinly
3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil + more for garnish drizzle

Heat the 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a pot. Add the onions and carrots all at once and season with a pinch of salt and some black pepper. Saute on medium heat until vegetables are softened, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, 1 minute. Add the bay leaf, moroccan spice blend, and lentils and mix to incorporate. Add the stock and using a wooden spoon, scrape up the bottom of the pan for any "bits." Bring to a boil on high heat, then cover the pot with lid and lower to medium heat, letting the soup simmer until lentils are tender, about 30 minutes.

If you want a soupier soup (i.e. more liquid) then cook the lentils with the lid on; for a chunkier soup (i.e. less liquid, more lentil body) then cook the lentils with the lid off, allowing the liquid to evaporate.

Once lentils are tender (to check, simply take a bite and see), add the cilantro and mint and take the soup off the heat. Mix in. Ad this point, you can leave your lentils whole or puree some of the soup with an immersion blender to desired consistency. To serve, ladle the soup into bowls and drizzle with some olive oil. Garnish with a squeeze of fresh lime juice and some sliced jalapeno on top, the sour cream and/or the bacon/pancetta. Serve hot.

Mishy's Moroccan Spice Blend          makes around 1/2 cup total
2 Tbsp ground cumin
2 tsp paprika
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground cardamom
1 tsp tumeric
1 tsp granulated garlic
1 tsp onion powder
1/2 tsp ground clove
1/2 tsp ground allspice
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp smoked paprika
1/4 tsp ground white pepper

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and mix with whisk or fork to incorporate. Store in a glass, air-tight container for up to 6 months.

Cookbook Preview! Stuffed Shells with Fontina

Here are some pictures of the stuffed shells recipe in the winter chapter of the cookbook! A couple are "before bake" and the others are "after bake." Vote on your favorite picture/s in the comment section. I would really appreciate the feedback! 

Everything You Wanted To Know (or not) About: Wagyu

[boneless wagyu prime rib roast]
Chances are if you've watched Top Chef or live in a food-centric town, you've heard of wagyu beef. And if you've eaten out at a restaurant, you've probably paid a pretty penny for it. Pronounced "wag-yoo", it means "Japanese cow" in Japanese. Along with its cousins the kobe and lesser known mishima beefs, are specially fed and raised cattle from Japan that yield extremely flavorful and tender beef. Specifically, these meats are highly marbled. So much so that they are sometimes referred to as "white beef." This means they have more fat dispersed among the muscle tissue throughout the beef. Fat is what both flavors the beef and keeps it moist during cooking, which in turn then tastes quite tender. Sounds bad for you, right?


The type of marbling in the wagyu (and kobe) is monounsaturated. Which without getting into the whole biology of it, is "good" fat and actually quite low in calories. In fact, wagyu and kobe are used to reduce cholesterol and help maintain ideal weight. That's right -- this is beef that you can eat rare that is actually good for you!

But it comes with a price. Wagyu is one of the most expensive kinds of meat, reason being that it used to be exclusively raised in Japan. Which if you've looked on a map is not a large country, so cattle raising is very limited. The specific diet the Japanese farmers would feed the cattle produced the wagyu cattle. Originally wagyu cattle were used as a beast in Kobe to help cultivate rice and were specifically not slaughtered and eaten. In fact eating any meat from a four-legged animal was prohibited in Japan for about 200 hundred years until the 1830s. There are five major breeds of wagyu: black, brown, polled, shorthorn, and kumamoto reds.

America and other countries have successfully crossbred their domestic cattle with the wagyu. In fact, Australia and New Zealand have successfully bred wagyu, Australia being the second highest producer of wagyu behind Japan. In 1910 in America the price of crossbreeds dropped, so the practice of crossbreeding animals wasn't used anymore and instead replaced with line-breeding, where the cattle became specific to regions and terrain (interestingly, what wagyu was to begin with). In 1976 the first wagyu cattle from Japan were imported but not much success was found in breeding them here, as the wagyu are very climate and terrain-specific animals and thus thrived more back in Japan. But in the mid 1990s a few more wagyu were imported and studied at Washington State University. They were also brought to the US to extract and sell the semen to Australia for breeding, avoiding expensive taxes and trading issues between Japan and Australia. Japan then saw that Americans could also breed the cattle and they agreed to cross-breeding with our domestic herds. The result was higher marbling with red meat of our domestic cattle, called American Style Kobe Beef.

But still some retain the genetic strands of the wagyu. What we have today both in America and Europe and other countries in the world is an insanely intricate process by which other countries have to nominate, submit DNA and seminal samples to Japanese wagyu farmers, and upon their acceptance of that other country's domestic herd being "good enough to mate with the wagyu," the cattle or semen is sent to that country for breeding. The Japanese then issue its stamp of approval, for lack of better words, and the resulting cattle is then certified in that country as wagyu. In America, this is done by the American Wagyu Association. Despite all of this, Japan still considers its own domestic wagyu as the best in the world, with the US and Australia in disputed number 2 and 3 positions respectively.

So how does it taste????

Well, for research for this blog I picked up a wagyu prime rib roast for our Christmas dinner. It was only a 3 pounder but cost $80. I gain pounds and go into debt for you, dear readers. So I prepared it with a simple kosher salt and coarsely ground black pepper seasoning, placed it in a hot oven and roasted away until done.

The Verdict
This was insane. Truly, the best meat I'd ever had. More so than the flavor of the beef being pleasantly sweeter than most beefs, I was impressed most with the texture. You don't know Melt In Your Mouth beef until you've had wagyu. It was beyond tender, each piece cutting easily with your fork and knife and very easily chewed. Actually, I remember rather minimal chewing was required. It was very moist and retained the moisture well. That famous fat certainly did melt right within every crevice of the roast and just dispersed the goodness throughout. In conclusion: worth every penny. Although I enjoy a prime rib roast, the one we got was boneless and I'm a big fan of bone-in anything because I think it offers even more flavor. My next birthday I hoping to get a couple of bone-in wagyu rib eye steaks to grill up. Heaven.

Shrimp Stuffed Avocado

This is one of The Hubster's favorite dishes. Apparently, his mother made stuffed avocados for Christmas. And one of the first Christmases we had together back east, he asked me if I could figure out one too. And so I did. Back in Connecticut it was usually snowing or at the very least, bitterly cold, so any chance I got to brighten up our tiny condo with something yummy I took. For these avocados, I made a stuffing with tequila-sauteed shrimp in garlic and chile powder, red onion and jalapeno for a little heat, fresh and fragrant parsley and mint add an unexpected coolness to the dish, and seasoned the mixture with salt, pepepr and a small dash of smoky cumin. For a non-alcoholic version you can do olive oil and lemon juice and it's just as tasty.

The stuffing part can be made in advance, but the avocados shouldn't be cut and stuffed until just ready to serve because exposed avocado flesh oxodises very quickly. This recipe is for 4 individual servings, using 2 avocados that are cut in half and each person having one half as a serving. You can adjust to add more ingredients for a larger portion if you're planning to serve more people: a good rule is 3 shrimp per person and then some added filling (onion, cilantro, etc.)...eyeball it. These are best served at room temperature or even better, a little chilled.

Shrimp Stuffed Avocados
2 ripe Haas avocados
6-8 raw jumbo shrimp or large prawns -- peeled, deveined, and tails removed
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil + 1 Tbsp, divided
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup red onion, finely minced
1/2 jalapeno, finely minced (seeded if you want it less spicy; keep the seeds if you want it hotter)
2 Tbsp fresh parsley, roughly chopped
1 Tbsp fresh mint, roughly chopped
juice of 1 lemon or 2 limes
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ancho chile powder

Set avocados aside and prepare the filling.

Take the shrimp and wash them in cold water, then drain well and pat dry with paper towel. Cut the raw shrimp into small pieces -- easiest way to do this is slice the shrimp in half lengthwise and then chop up in to small bites. Heat the olive oil in a nonstick pan. Add the shrimp and season with a small pinch of salt and some pepper to taste, and the pinch of chile powder. Add the garlic and cook on medium-high heat until shrimp is cooked through and turns an opaque-pink color, about 2-4 minutes depending on the size you cut the shrimp, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat promptly when cooked and transfer to a medium sized bowl. Let stand to cool.

While the shrimp cools, prepare the rest of your stuffing mixture. Add the red onion, jalapeno, and cilantro to the bowl with the shrimp. Add the cumin, a small pinch of salt and more pepper to taste, the lemon or lime juice, and the remaining tablespoon of olive oil and gently toss to mix well. If you plan to stuff the avocados later, then cover bowl and chill in refrigerator until ready to serve. If serving immediately, then slice each avocado in half and take out the pit, discard pit. Spoon a generous amount of stuffing into the cavity of the avocado (where the pit used to be) and mount it on top. Place on plate and serve immediately.

Happy New Year! Some Champagne Cocktails to Ring In the New Year

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Happy New Year!

What better way to ring in the new year than with champagne! I don't know about you, but I get bored of the simple glass of the golden bubbly sometimes. Sometimes I want something crazier, something more fanciful, something...more wow.

And thus champagne cocktails are born! Often combined with various fruit juices and other liquors, these cocktails transform champagne (or let's face it, most of us can afford sparkling wine) into something even more delicious. I'm a HUGE fan of champagne cocktails. They're quite tasty and a nice departure from the mundane without getting too heavy and crazy like other cocktails. But don't let these recipes fool you -- they pack a punch so drink responsibly!

I am happy to report that this was by far the most fun posting to research and photograph. I got absolutely sloshed making these and tasting them in order to produce this blog. So it's all for you readers!! These are great and can be made with readily available ingredients and liquors to suit your tastes and budget. Champagnes and sparkling wines range from sweet to very dry, so use which ever one you like. I like to balance out the cocktails by using a drier champagne if I'm working with fruit juices or nectars, and sweeter champagnes if working with harder liquors and spirits.

Try one for this year's New Year celebration!

First off, we have:

The Reserve Basilica with Mint

Sweet notes from chambourd pair nicely with spicy dark rum and refreshing mint. Although the recipe originally calls for basil, I substituted with mint with much success. Add some ice cubes and serve in a larger wine glass for a super refreshing cocktail. Just perfect for warmer climate New Year's celebrations like for my friends back in California!

Reserve Basilica 
splash of unspiced rum (recommend: Mount Gay)
splash of chambourd
top with champagne  (given the sweetness of chambourd, I'd use a drier champagne)
ice cubes
fresh mint for garnish

Place a splash of rum and chambourd in the bottom of a wine glass. Add a few ice cubes (3-4) and top with champagne. Top with fresh mint and serve.

French 75

Although this classic French cocktail is traditionally made with gin, sugar, lemon and champagne, cognac can be faithfully substituted for the gin. And I say thank god because I don't do gin thanks to a 21st birthday party eons ago that involved one too many olive martinis. Anyhoo, this combination is wonderfully refreshing, the sugar and lemon giving a punch of brightness and sweetness to the cocktail and a big kick from the gin or cognac makes these rather dangerous. In fact, the French 75 was so named at Harry's New York Bary in Paris back in 1915 for the gin/cognac kick that felt like getting hit with a French 75mm howitzer. And believe me, after a couple of these on an emtpy stomach, you'll understand what I mean. The cocktail is also known as a Soixante Quinze in French and remains a popular classic throughout the world even today.

French 75
1/2 tsp superfine sugar or 1 cube of white sugar
splash of cognac
squeeze of fresh lemon
garnish: lemon twist or cherry

Place the sugar or sugar cube in the bottom of a champagne class and add a splash of cognac right on top and the lemon juice. Holding the glass by the stem, gently swish it around to help the sugar dissolve a little. Top with champagne and garnish with lemon twist or cherry. Do not stir.

Velvet Swing

This isn't a well known champagne cocktail, but one that I think could become popular especially among the guys. Most champagne cocktails are "girly" and thus turn off the males -- they're pretty colors, served and garnished in fancier glasses with things like raspberries and frilly mint. This champagne cocktail is decidedly more simple -- especially if you leave out the rose petals -- and packs a heavier and bitter punch from the port and cognac. I love the darker color too, and drinking it from a wine glass as opposed from a champagne flute.

The traditional garnish for this is a dramatic sprinkling of rose petals. I'm not sure of the exact genesis of this cocktail, but am going to guess it was born in Victorian times because of the rose petals when rose water and petals were a desired flavor and garnish especially in cocktails. If anyone has any information I'd love to know more, so give feedback in the comment section! If you want to make a different drink for Valentine's Day or an anniversary around New Year's, this might be your drink. Just remember to use organic petals that weren't sprayed with fertilizer -- they can be found at organic food stores like Whole Foods. Or your own garden if you don't use fertizlier on your flowers.

Velvet Swing

splash of cognac
good splash of port wine
rose petals for garnish

Add a splash of cognac to a small wine glass. Top with a good splash of port wine and top with champagne. Garnish with orange twist or edible rose petals.

Kir Royale

My favorite cocktail of all time. The Kir Royal will never go out of style for me. Ever. I could be 26 or 62 and I'll still drink a Kir or one of its variants.

The Kir Royal is the basic kir cocktail, which includes creme de cassis and white wine, but the white wine is substituted with champagne instead. The Kir is named after Felix Kir, the mayor of Dijon in Burgundy, France. As the story goes, he offered the kir cocktails as refreshments to international delegets post WWII in an effort to popularize local ingredients. Creme de cassis is a liquor made from black currants in Dijon, Burgundy. The resulting cocktail was a hit and is still enjoyed throughout the world today.

There are many variations using the Kir as a basis besides the Kir Royal. A Kir Petillant uses sparkling wine instead of champagne, a Pink Russian uses milk in addition to the basic kir, The Cardinal uses red wine instead of white, and other fruit liquors can be added like raspberry and peach to distinguish those versions. Even cider can be substituted for the wine.

Whichever you choose, the Kir Royal is not only a pretty cocktail but extremely tasty.

Kir Royal
splash of creme de cassis liquor
lemon twist garnish (optional

Place a splash of creme de cassis in the bottom of a fluted champagne glass and top with champagne. Garnish with lemon twist if desired.

Poire William

I never had this cocktail until I researched for this blog and I'm not in love. If I was going to cheat on the Kir Royal, it would be with the Poire William. The main flavoring agent here is the potently sweet Poire William liquor. Poire William is a pear liquor made in france, where they take glass bottles and place them on pear branches, letting the pears grow into the bottles. It's quite something to see in spring and summer apparently -- these orchards filled with glistening trees as the glass reflects off the sun. The resulting pear offers more flavor and intensifies the pear liquor that is then poured inside the bottle. It's very expensive, but incredible. This cocktail is simply this wonderfully sweet liquor with champange. You can use any pear brandy (I couldn't find Poire William so I used a darker pear brandy) and I like the pretty mint garnish on top, which is optional. Your resulting drink will range from pale to golden depending on what pear liquor or brandy you use.

Poire William
splah of pear brandy
mint garnish (optional)

Place a splash of pear brandy in the bottom of a champagne class and top with champagne. Garnish with fresh mint if desired.

And remember the first rule of champagne or sparkling wine cocktails: make sure your champagne is well chilled before use!

Shrimp Cocktail with Sriracha Cocktail Sauce

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Shrimp cocktail is by no means a modern dish, but its appeal lies in its classic combination of sweet, cold shrimp and spicy sauce. There are many variations from using shrimp versus the larger prawns, spiking the classic ketchup-based sauce with everything from vodka to rum, adding various heat elements from sliced jalapeno to exotic hot sauces, and even adding fresh chopped vegetables into the mix. Either way, it's a rather refreshing way to start off a dinner and always a perfect crowd pleaser that with its ability to be prepared far in advance, is also host-friendly.

The original shrimp cocktail comes from Britain in the 1970s where large prawns were served chilled, rimming a large cocktail glass that housed a mayo and lemon based sauce. The mayo has since been substituted and preferred by the lighter and more flavorful ketchup, and texture and heat added by a combination of horseradish and hot sauce with other various additions of acid ranging from Worchestishire sauce to lemon juice to spirits. Either way you make it, it's a wonderful appetizer and very popular in our house around the holidays, especially for New Year.

But like all simple recipes, these are most often the ones screwed up the most. First issue people run into is overcooked shrimp. Second is bland shrimp -- we are tempted to by the preboiled ones at the market but they have no flavor. And third, is a bizarre tasting sauce from the jar. I solve all these problems in this posting with minimal effort or cost -- in fact, buying your shrimp raw and cooking them yourself saves you a bunch over the precooked ones from your market. And my recipe for the sauce comes together in seconds, but tastes worlds away by using what I think is the best condiment ever: sriracha. This recipe serves 4-6 people for an appetizer, but can be easily doubled or tripled to serve a crowd.

Shrimp Cocktail with Sriracha Cocktail Sauce
1 lb raw shrimp, peeled and deveined but tails left on
1 Tbsp Old Bay seasoning
2 lemons
1 bay leaf
1 Tbsp whole black peppercorns
1/2 cup ketchup
1 Tbsp prepared horseradish (not cream)
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp Worcesteshire sauce
1 tsp sriracha hot sauce or to taste

Fill a medium sized pot with cold water. Add the Old Bay seasoning, one of the lemons cut in half, the bay leaf, and black peppercorns. Bring water to a boil and boil for 5 minutes to let seasonings flavor the water. Add the shrimp all at once and cook until they turn pink. Remove the shrimp from the water promptly and place into a bowl, then place in refrigerator to cool. Discard water.

To make the cocktail sauce, combine the ketchup, horseradish, salt and pepper to taste, Worcestershire sauce, and sriracha to taste in a small bowl. Either serve immediately or cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.

To serve, cut up the second lemon into wedges. Layer the shrimp onto a platter and add the sauce on the side, and garnish with the lemon wedges.

Shrimp and sauce can be made and refrigerated up to a day in advance. Best to serve both cold.

Serving Suggestion:
For a dramatic and classic display, place the sauce in individual cocktail glasses (martinis work well) and garnish the rim of the glass with the shrimp. Or, simply plate on a decorative platter.

Christmas Cookies Italian Style: Mostaciolli with Rum Icing

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Hands down my most favorite Christmas cookie of all time ever is Mostaciolli. They are little spiced chocolate cookies with rum flavored icing on top. They are insanely good. They're super dense, flavored with warming cocoa powder, cinnamon, black pepper, cloves and nutmeg and added crunch is provided by finely chopped walnuts. The dough is then rolled into small balls and baked off, then topped with a rum-flavored icing.

They are a traditional Christmas cookie of the Napoli region in Italy, and many variations of the cookie recipe can be found throughout Italy and America. Old, original recipes use honey as the main sweetener, which implies the birth of this cookie could have gone back as far as Roman times. The name, "mostaciolli," means "little mustache" in Italian and is often confused with the penne pasta shape with the same name. However, "mostaciolli" also refers to laurel (or bay leaf), which was a common spice used in ancient Roman cooking. Further, other recipes call for red wine as a main ingredient in making these, another indication these cookies are actually really quite old and traditional. Still other American-based recipes use molasses in addition to or in place of the honey for the main sweetener, while others like the one below use simple and easy to find granulated sugar.

The common denominator in these recipes is the use of finely chopped walnuts in the batter, and a a super dense dough most often flavored with cocoa powder. If the original Roman theory is correct, they would certainly not have used cocoa (as cocoa was brought from the New World much, much later) and the cookies would have appeared blonde rather than dark brown. Same goes for the use of rum. But whether you make your mostaciolli with honey and wine or cocoa and rum, they are wonderfully spicy cookies that are just perfect for any holiday table, and a nice treat the next morning with a cup of hot espresso.

Last year stuck home with a bad cold, baking was simply out of the question for me, so baking duties fell to The Hubsters. He opened up this book he gave me the Christmas before, called "Entertaining with The Sopranos," a spoof cookbook "written" by Carmela Soprano from the famous HBO show. Also happens to be one of our favorite shows of all time, and much to my delight the book ends up having incredible and authentic Italian-American recipes! In fact, two of our Christmas traditions now come form this book -- these cookies and the Shrimp Aragonate (post forthcoming). So The Hubsters chose this cookie recipe under their Christmas chapter mostly because it was the only one that we had all the ingredients for, thus saving him a trip to the store. And now he makes them every year for us! It's a wonderful treat that I seriously look forward to every winter.

I love eating them warm just out of the oven, but the best part of these cookies is they actually get better with age, so it's even better if you make them a day or even two in advance. The recipe makes about 6 dozen quarter-sized cookies or 2-3 dozen larger cookies -- they will all cook evenly so amount and size depends on your preference.

2 large eggs
10 Tbsp (1.5 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1/2 cup milk
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1 cup finely chopped toasted walnuts
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted
2.5 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp finely ground black pepper
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg

For the frosting:
2 cups powdered sugar
2 Tbsp dark rum
2 Tbsp milk

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs until blended. Add the butter, milk, and vanilla and mix.

In a larger bowl, stir together the flour, sugar, walnuts, cocoa powder, baking powder, cinnamon, salt, pepper, clove and nutmeg. A whisk or large dinner fork works nicely for this. Add the butter mixture and stir until combined. Conversely, you can mix the wet ingredients in the bowl of a standing mixer and add the dry ingredients slowly with the mixer on low.

Pinch off a small piece of dough and roll it into a ball. Again, size depends on your preference. Place the balls 1 inch apart on the baking sheets and bake in oven 18-20 minutes or until the cookies are puffed and slightly cracked. Transfer the cookies to a cooling rack when done baking.

To prepare the frosting, simply whisk together the sugar, rum and milk in a small bowl. Dip the top of each cookie in the frosting and place it back on a sheet or counter, frosting side up, to stand until frosting is set, about 20 minutes on the earlier end if eating right away and 2 hours if making in advance and planning to store in containers.

The Hubster's Notes: "Use tender loving care when making these cookies."

WTF Christmas Foods and The Cabbage Roll

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas can be a scary time. Like, frightful. Some scary-ass foods come out of the spooky forest, as Little Girl would say, and haunt our tables and our waistlines. I mean some really creepy, gravity-defying, puzzling culinary riddles that give you nightmares. Such, is the case, with Romanian food for Christmas.

I can speak of this with great experience, as I've had this food foisted on me for almost 30 years. Until finally I broke free from the chains of overcooked pork roast and dry sweet bread swirled with nuts and cocoa that somehow manage to taste nothing like nuts nor cocoa. I don't know if my mother was a particularly bad cook, because my grandma is amazing, or that Romanian food is just not that great. I'm venturing with Option #2 here.

Look -- all cultures have something funky. Americans have green jello with fruits inside. WTF? Why do we need some neon-green, atomic-lime tasting funky ass gelatinous blob with random fruits bizarrely suspended like some kind of screwed up time warping accident set on our table every December 25h? Or worse, when this is served with whipped cream?! Gasp! What the hell is that? WHY???

Or in Belgium they eat a bread that's shaped and baked in the shape of baby Jesus. The Brits have mince pies which are just...gross. But by far, in my humble opinion, the Romanians take the proverbial cake with their menu. A couple of years ago we had a traditional Romanian Christmas meal at my parents' house. Here are some pics for your viewing pleasure.

Every Christmas starts off with a toast of Tuica. The unofficial national spirit of Romania, it's a plum brandy that tastes more like pisco or grappa with the heft of a vodka. For Christmas, my dad boils some with sugar and black peppercorns. I actually rather enjoy it.

And yes, you have to serve boiled tuica in espresso cups. This is a must!

Next up on the appetizer-driven meal is Jumerele, or fried pork fat. Pieces of pork belly are cut up small and fried then seasoned heavily with salt. They are just perfect with the tuica. No seriously, it's quite good when you can get them fresh out of the fryer especially!

And the standard is Salata de Bouef, which is peculiarly named because it translates to "salad of beef" but Romanians make it with chicken. I don't know. It starts to go downhill from here.

The "salad" is more like a potato salad, involving very finely chopped boiled potatoes, boiled chicken, carrots, peas, onion, and pickles that are mixed in a Dijon-mayo dressing. It's then molded into a hill, covered in more mayo, and decorated with sliced green and red bell peppers, olives, and parsley. Actually I should point out here that this dish has very old roots. Frankly medieval Europe showcased dishes like this quite often, the cooks priding themselves on how intricately they could decorate the dish. This picture is nothing representative of what my grandma could actually do. Many years she creates rather intricate patterns and figures with cut vegetables. It's pretty amazing really. This technique is also classic French and can be found in their very old recipes as well.

And no Romanian get-together is complete with out our version of antipasto. Various salamis, cheeses, and olives are arranged decoratively on a platter for people to snack on while they drink their tuica.

[pictured: toba, hungarian salami, smoked pork belly, feta cheese, caskava, kalamata and green olives, fresh cow's milk cheese]
 But by far the scariest Christmas dish ever is the piftie.  Pigs feet suspended in pig-flavored gelatin served cold and jiggly, it's both nasty to look at and nastier to eat. Again, it's similar to another medieval dish called aspic. Piftie is Defcon 1, Level Orange WTF.

French bread is sliced thin and served with taramousalata or icre in Romanian. Taken from the Greeks, it's fish roe (usually from herring, carp or cod) and mixed with mayo. The Romanians add very finely chopped white onion to the mixture. It's served as a dip to be spread on fresh bread.

Usually we'd have homemade sausages as well but my mother never lets my dad make them. I remember he'd grind the meat himself, stuff the casings, and hang them dry in our garage high above in the rafters for about a month. He's use this 10 foot long pole to help move the sausages around and rotate their positions before finally balancing them down. A few years he'd make smoked sausages. I remember a little white house, much like a doll house, with a smoke box attached to the back. They turned out pretty good!

And then the main event...

Romanians are big on the pork for Christmas. We have roasted pork loin studded with garlic and roasted in wine with mashed potatoes, and stuffed cabbage or sarmale with mamaliga (aka corn mush or polenta) and muritur, or pickled vegetables. My grandma makes a batch of muritur every year -- carrots, pickles, cauliflower, spicy peppers, and cabbage all in a salty brine that cures for over a month.

And then after everyone complains they've over-eaten again this year, it's time for dessert! We usually have cozonac, a sweet egg bread flavored with finely chopped walnuts in cocoa and prajitura, or pastries of some kind. Usually my mom would make her walnut bread pastries with apricot jam and sprinkled with powdered sugar.

[cozonac on the left; prajitura on the right[
 So there you have it. A Romanian Christmas. After almost 30 years of enduring this, I've never been happier to marry a Sicilian-Colombian in my life!

What crazy Christmas traditions does your family have? Anything merriting the WTF label?

Merry Christmas! Enchanted Spoon Style...

So everyone curious what we make for Christmas at our house?

Well, on Christmas Eve we do Italian. Boy is half Sicilian so we do the "Feast of the Seven Fishes" as they call it -- all fish, all the time. It's a celebration found more so among Italian-Americans, and not widely celebrated in native Italy anymore. It dates back to Roman times when the early Christian church would sanctify holy days with a period of fast. This includes abstaining from eating meat, so Italians would look to the sea for their foods on these days instead. The birth of Jesus, being one of the most holiest of days was no exception to this rule, and so we would abstain from meat that day as well. As for the number 7, that's up for debate. Some say it's in reference to the number's meaning: perfection. Others say it refers to the number of the holy sacraments in the Catholic church, while others point to Creation and the idea it took God 7 days to make the earth and all in it. Given it's Christ's birthday, I'd go with option A: perfection. That seems to make the most sense.

Well, we don't go through and do all 7 courses of fish. For 2 adults and 2 little ones that's a little intense. But we have narrowed it down to a couple of courses of delicious yums:

I make Shrimp Aragonate for appetizer, which is shrimp roasted with a garlic-parmesan bread crumb topping. And then we make a big pot of Cioppino -- shellfish, white fish, basil and garlic in a tomato broth that is to die for, served with crostini to dip into the broth.

[Cioppino with shrimp, mussels, clams, and halibut in a spicy garlic-tomato broth]

And then for our pasta course I do Stuffed Shells, a play on the seafood theme. I stuff mine with a kale-spinach mixture with ricotta cheese, parmesan, and herbs and bake it off with marinara sauce and shredded fontina. Recipe forthcoming in the cookbook!

[Stuffed Shells with kale and spinach]
 And with all that shellfish, the next day has to be meat!

The Hubsters and I love English Christmas. Like, are unabashedly insanely in love with it. All of it. The carols, the medieval stuff, the holly AND the ivy...the whole lot. So the last two years we've done an English deal for Christmas Day. And that, of course, is a Christmas Roast of Prime Rib!

[Prime roast of beef]

For sides, I do mashed potatoes, creamed spinach, and Yorkshire pudding.

[mashed potatoes, yorkshire pudding made in the same pan the prime rib roasted in, creamed spinach]

And then for dessert we an assorted cookie and marshmallow galore! The recipes for the Peppermint and Creme Brulee marshmallows will be in the cookbook. Also pictured are THE brownies (check TES for recipe!), Lemon Blossoms (recipe also previously posted), and Italian Spice Cookies which I plan to blog in the next few days.  

So there you have it. Christmas Enchanted Spoon style! Merry Christmas everyone and have a happy and safe holiday.

Mele Kalikimaka! Saying "Merry Christmas" Hawaiian Style with Homemade Hawaiian Pizza!

Ok so yes, this is a stretch but I thought it was a adorable. And Hawaiian pizza, despite it's complete inauthenticity (I know that's not a word but should be one) both in the pizza world and Hawaii, is still a really delicious pizza, is a classic comfort food straight out of my AYSO soccer days, and thus therefore in conclusion merits this post with picture!

So it's no wonder that Hawaiian pizza is not in fact Hawaiian. In fact, if we must attribute an ethnicity to it, it's Canadian. The Panopoulos brothers in Chatham, Ontario lay uncontested claim to inventing the Hawaiian at once of their restaurants back in the 1950s. I personally believe it since a hallmark ingredient of the Hawaiian is thinly sliced Canadian bacon. Additional classic ingredients include basic tomato sauce, shredded mozzarella (not fresh), and of course, pineapple. Some versions include red onion, jalapeno, black olives, smoked bacon, beans, and even drizzle of BBQ sauce. It's the most popular style of pizza in Australia and people in Hawaii are actually not too fond of it.

Regardless, it's tasty and when you're craving something on the sweeter side of the Savory-Sweet Spectrum, it's gonna hit the spot. And is extremely easy to make.

Hawaiian Pizza
1 store-bought pizza dough
1/4 cup pizza sauce or basic marinara sauce
1/3 cup thinly sliced ham -- leftover from ham roast or Canadian bacon
1/4 cup very thinly sliced red onion
1/2 cup canned pineapple chunks, drained well
1-2 cups shredded mozzarella (not fresh)
freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp-1 Tbsp red pepper flakes

Special equipment:  parchment paper, baking sheets or pizza stone

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Roll or pull out your pizza dough to one even pizza; or cut and roll out into individual "personalized" portions. Set on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Spoon and spread out the tomato/marinara sauce in one even layer, leaving a 1/2 inch border around the outside. Add the ham, red onion, pineapple in an even layer, sprinkling ingredients about. Sprinkle desired amount of cheese right on top. Season with black pepper and red pepper flakes to taste. Bake in oven for 11-13 minutes or until cheese is bubbling and melted through. Let stand 3 minutes before slicing. Serve hot.

My Notes:
You must drain your pineapple before using -- putting all that pineapple juice will make a soggy pizza! To drain, simple place pineapple chunks through a sieve and gently pat dry with paper towel.

If using a pizza stone, preheat the stone according to directions. But you can really do pizzas easily with a simple baking sheet and parchment paper.

Kid Tested, Toddler Approved: Macaroni with Ham and Peas

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

I have a little dilemma in my house: Little Girl eats vegetables but doesn't like meat and Little Boy is a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy with a distaste for the veggies. Often, they end up switching their plates. Ingenious? Yes. But I need to outsmart them...

The only thing they can agree on is pasta. If I add meats and veggies to pasta, some fresh garlic, and parmesan cheese then it's a win-win for both sides and they both gobble it all up. All of it. I conceived this pasta dish last night with some leftover ham roast from a recipe testing for the cookbook (yay! it came out awesome!) and used frozen peas. How easy is this dish? You don't even have to defrost the peas!

Macaroni with Ham and Peas
1/2 lb elbow macaroni
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp butter
1/4 cup sweet onion (Maui or Vidalia), chopped small
2 cloves garlic, minced
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbsp all-purpose flour
splash of heavy cream
1/4 cup whole milk*
1 cup cooked ham (leftover from roast or store-bought), cut into bite-sized cubes
1/2 cup frozen petite peas
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese + more for garnish

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Once boiling, season the water with a good amount of of the kosher salt (about 2-3 Tbsp). Add the pasta, stir, and cook 11 minutes or according to package directions. Once done, drain pasta and set aside.

While the pasta cooks, prepare the sauce.

Heat the olive oil and butter in a large saute pan. Add the onion and cook on medium heat about 7 minutes until translucent and soft. Add the garlic and cook another minute until garlic is fragrant. Season with salt and pepper (a pinch of both or to taste). Add the flour and cook 2 minutes, stirring often. This is making a basic roux which is the base for your cream sauce. Add the cream and stir to combine, until the cream and flour have melted together and its uniform in consistency. Add the whole milk, a little at a time, stirring it in. Cook about 3 minutes until the sauce has thickened. Remove from heat and add the 1/4 cup parmesan cheese and mix in to combine until cheese melts. Add the drained pasta, ham, and frozen peas directly into the pan and mix to combine, coating the pasta and ham and peas with the sauce. The peas will defrost immediately from the heat of the sauce, and still retain their sweet flavor.

To serve, simply top with more grated parmesan. Serve hot.

Sunday Dinner Steak and Potatoes: Spice Rubbed Steak with Bar Americain Steak Sauce and Roasted Fingerling Potatoes

Monday, December 20, 2010

I like veggies, but even I sometimes just feel like a steak! Steak and potatoes to be exact! This past Sunday we picked up some gorgeous aged NY strips and I took the opportunity to try out Bobby Flay's recipe for a spice rub and homemade steak sauce. Turned out awesome. Normally I'm a salt and pepper kind of gal for steak, but I felt like something more...colorful...so this really hit the spot.

The seasonings consisted of a spice rub which gave the steak a really nice crust, deep with flavor from the smoky paprika and cumin and a hint of spice from the mustard. I used Coleman's dry mustard and always keep a little in the cupboard for such an occasion. Sweet coriander and chile powder added a hint of sweetness as well to balance it all out. I simply roasted fingerling potatoes seasoned with salt and pepper for a "chip" type feeling on this dinner. But the best part was actually the awesome steak sauce! Sweet, spicy, brightly flavored, it was amazing and so easy to make. Throw away the A1 and do this instead. So much flavor and you'll lick the plate!

Spice-Rubbed NY Strip Steak
4 NY strip steaks
2 Tbsp canola or olive oil
1/4 cup ancho chile powder
1.5 Tbsp sweet paprika
2 tsp dried oregano
2 tsp ground coriander
2 tsp dry mustard
1 Tbsp + 2 tsp kosher salt
2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp ground cumin

Whisk together the chile powder, paprika, oregano, coriander, mustard, salt, pepper and cumin. This is your rub.

Remove your steaks from the fridge about 20 min before grilling, and let stand covered at room temperature to warm up. Brush both sides of the steak with the oil and season with the rub. Heat your grill to high. Grill until golden brown and slightly charred on one side, 3-4 minutes. Flip the steak over, close the lid and continue to cook for 5-6 minutes for medium-rare (2 min longer intervals for more doneness so 8 min for medium; 10 for well)

Remove from grill and let stand 5 minutes before cutting so juices can redistribute. Serve with steak sauce on the side.

Bar Americain Steak Sauce
1/4 cup Dijon mustard
1/4 cup whole-grain mustard
1/3 cup molasses
2 Tbsp ketchup
2 Tbsp honey
1 Tbsp prepared horseradish
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper

Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or up to 1 day. Serve at room temperature.

Roasted Fingerling Potatoes
1 lb fingerling potatoes, washed and scrubbed clean
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
olive oil

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Cut each potato in half lengthwise. Place in bowl and drizzle with love oil until coated (about 2-3 Tbsp). Add salt and pepper to taste and toss well. Pour out on baking dish and roast in oven 20 minutes until soft and edges are golden brown. When you can pierce it easily with a fork, they are done. Serve hot.

Oatmeal-Cranberry-Walnut Cookies

Saturday, December 18, 2010

I'm not a baker. Seriously, I'm not. I don't have the patience for it. Cookies are a certifiable disaster for me, I can make like two cakes, I never make my own frosting...ever...and the most you'll get out of me is a pie or crumble. Croissants? Pass. Pastries? Ha. However, sometimes I get an overwhelming urge for something and I need to make it. The universe converges, the stars align, and the Food Gods bless me with the ability to make something not only decent, but insanely good.

And thus was born my Oatmeal Cranberry Walnut Cookies.

If I could give some to God, He'd eat them and say, "...and they were good."

I've had so many oatmeal cookies that are too sweet, not sweet enough, too doughy, too crispy. Most don't have enough raisins, they never have nuts which bugs me, and I'm left unsatisfied. Well yesterday to welcome The Hubsters home, I decided to make him a batch of oatmeal raisin cookies (his fave) except I'm not a huge fan of raisins. But I had cranberries. And Walnuts. And thought "yes!" So I went to work with a little of this, a little of that not even paying attention to measurements or other recipes and thus the best oatmeal cookies I've ever had were born. They're perfectly balanced: I love the crunch from the walnuts (would make these with pecans too!), love the subtle tartness from the cranberries, and they turned out a perfect chewy in the middle-crisp on the outside edges. Perfection. Try them -- they are very easy to make (again, I'm not a baker and whipped these up in 10 minutes flat) and taste wonderfully.

Oatmeal-Cranberry-Walnut Cookies
1 stick unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
2/3 cup brown sugar (like or dark), compacted*
1 egg
1 Tbsp vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground mace (or nutmeg)
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1.5 cups instant rolled oats (recommend: Quaker Oats)
3/4 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Place the butter and sugar in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. On medium-high speed, mix to combine until the sugar is well incorporated into the butter. Add the egg and vanilla and mix until combined, another minute or two. Add the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, mace, and salt to the butter mixture and mix on low speed until combined well. Use a spatula to scrape the sides down and the paddle so everything is evenly combined. Add the oats, cranberries, and walnuts and mix on low speed until mixed in. Conversely, you can fold these in by hand with a spatula.

Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Spoon out a heaping teaspoon's worth, spacing about an inch apart. Lightly press the cookies down to form a cookie shap (these will not expand out as other cookie doughs, so the way they go into the oven is the way they'll come out -- take the time to shape them up nicely!).

Bake in oven for 10-12 minutes or until edges just begin to turn light golden and cookie dough is set. Remove from heat and transfer cookies to cooling rack to finish cooling.
Serving Suggestion:
I LOVE these cookies with mulled cider or hot toddy for a dessert. Or, they're a nice treat for breakfast with some coffee the next day!

My Notes:
*Given brown sugar's "heftiness" from the molasses found in the sugar, you measure it two ways: uncompacted or "unpacked" meaning you place your measureing cup in and pull it out, level off and go; OR compacted or "packed" or "firmly packed," meaning you use your hands or spoon to pack the sugar into your measuring cup and then add more to it and then level it off. Basically lightly packed will have a little less and firmly packed will have more within that measuring cup.

Also, I did not sift the dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, etc.) before adding. I dumped it all in. Sifting these dry ingredients makes for fluffier consistencies which is important for cakes; I didn't see the need to do it for these denser cookies and they turned out perfectly without the sifting.

If you don't have a standing mixer, you can certainly use an electric hand-held mixer. Use your beater attachments (not the whisk attachements) and continue on the same speeds as stated above. You can also make this by hand -- if you do that I highly recommend using extremely soft butter and the egg at room temperature to help you incorporate it more easily.

Everything You Wanted To Know (or not) About: Garlic

Friday, December 17, 2010

You love it or hate it. Vampires are supposed to hate it, but admittedly we like it. ;) The flavor profile ranges from pungently spicy to sweetly caramelized. It can be eaten on its own or most likely, as a flavor builder in various dishes. People have even made ice cream with it.

Garlic comes from the Alliaceae family which includes onions, shallots, leeks, and chives. Most notably, we eat the bulb of the garlic plant (pictured above) which houses the individual cloves. However, the sprout of the garlic plant that looks like a very thick chive is also edible and quite delicious, offering a tougher texture than the tender chive, but with a decidedly background flavor of garlic rather than onion. These sprouts tend to really shoot up in spring and summer, so if you can find them at your local farmers markets make sure to pick some up. They're great chopped up raw in salads or with pastas, or garnishes in soups and stews.

There are many variations of garlic that can be found worldwide. The most common one we're used to in America is the European garlic. We've seen some super-sized garlic called Elephant Garlic, which is actually leek related as opposed to garlic on steroids. Which is a relief frankly. Garlic grows wildly all over the world, but the largest cultivater is China where garlic as we know it is thought to have originated. Garlic can be planted year-round and in any climate, making it a very popular ingredient in many cultures throughout the world. If you plant it in your own garden or are thinking about it, know garlic is a natural repellent of rabbits and moles so you may want to do an outline border of your vegetable garden with garlic!

Garlic is one of those ancient Everything Foods. You can use it raw or cooked. Take the clove and literally chop it up and add it to a vinaigrette raw or dishes to cook and help build flavors. You can take a clove and rub it on warmed bread to get a hint of garlic flavor from the abundant oils inside if you want to scale back on that pungent raw garlic flavor. You can flavor oils by slowly heating the garlic with olive oil for example and then letting it come to room temperature. The oil can be stored up to 2 weeks -- longer than that if you're making your own oil and you'll run into issues as a particularly nasty bacteria called clostridium could develop, which is a big no-no too if you're pregnant. So to be on the safe side, consume your garlic-infused oils within a week of making them.

So where does garlic come from? Most historians seem to point to southwestern Asia and China, although garlic has been found and mentioned as a steady ingredient used in Egyptian cooking and even in the Bible! Ancient Greek and Roman texts also write extensively on garlic's use as both a food flavoring agent as well as an antiseptic for wounds in the Roman army, and a medicine to treat various ailments from low energy to digestion problems. And the ancients were on to something. Modern studies have proven over and over again that large consumption of garlic on a regular basis (as say part of normal diet) has been successful in warding off heart disease and cancers. The antibacterial and antifungal properties are also used as a natural medicine to treat common wounds today much as the Roman army did thousands of years ago. I'll tell you, after a nasty cut on my finger that kept getting re-irritated over and over again by cooking, cleaning with household chemicals, etc. and it got to the point where no doctor-prescribed cream did anything. Finally in a desperate attempt I rubbed raw garlic on it. And although admittedly it stung like hell, the wound was healed! This said, some people are quite allergic to garlic and the whole onion family. Being such a strong plant full of intense oils, some people can develop digestive issues in response to the super concentrated oils and in some rare cases, even stop breathing! So if you're sensitive to the garlic, don't go sucking on whole cloves just yet.

Medicinal and historical purposes aside, it's a hell of a tasty ingredient to work with in the kitchen. Often found in Mediterranean, South American, European, Indian, African, and Asian cuisine, most likely you've eaten it and worked with it.

Here's a very simple recipe showcasing garlic as the star of the show. It's a simple pasta The Hubsters taught me to make when we first were dating. I added some spicy red pepper flakes to really elevate this dish into spicy stratosphere. It's very intense so if you like spicy and garlic then this is your dish. It comes together in 10 minutes (the time it takes to cook the pasta) and can be served piping hot or at room temperature. It's one of my go-to sick dishes and I swear I feel instantly better if I have a cold and eat this.

There aren't a lot of ingredients here so everything must be in its prime, fresh, and best quality you can find. The garlic needs to be fresh, the basil needs to be crisp, the pepper flakes need not to be old, and the Parmesan needs to be salty and imported. I like De Cecco spaghetti no. 11 for this dish the best.


Garlic Spaghettini
1 lb spaghettini
1 head garlic, cloves removed, peeled, smashed and roughly minced
1/2 Vidalia onion, peeled and finely chopped (or Maui onion)
good quality extra virgin olive oil
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbsp red pepper flakes
2 Tbsp fresh basil, chiffonade
imported Parmesan cheese

Bring a large pot of water to a boil for the pasta. Add a good handful of salt to the boiling water to season the pasta, then add the pasta all at once. Give it a stir and let cook for 11 minutes or according to package directions.

While pasta cooks, heat 1/4 cup of olive oil in a large saute pan. Add the onion, season with salt and pepper to taste, and saute on medium-low heat until just beginning to caramelized. Add the garlic all at once and the red pepper flakes and cook another 2 minutes.

Add the spaghettini straight from the pot of water to the saute pan (no need to drain -- you actually want a little of the pasta water to help thicken the sauce a little bit). Gently toss the pasta into the onion-garlic mixture and turn off heat. Add more olive oil on top, the basil, and some freshly grated parmesan and toss again. Portion out into bowls and then top with shavings of Parmesan. Serve.

Yes I said a handful of salt for a big pot of water for the pasta. Most people forget you need to season the pasta too. We think that the sauce does that -- it does not. The way the gluten works in the pasta it creates like a wall that shuts out everything from coming inside of it. The only time frame you have to season the pasta itself is when it's at the dry stage and then reconstituting to cooked -- in other words, when it's soaking up the water. So add your salt then.

Now my handful is about 3 Tbsp worth of kosher salt. Some of you have larger hands. Basically the more water the more salt. In fact, most Italians have a rule that the pasta water needs to be the same taste of sea water. Yes, I said that right: the water you boil you pasta in needs to taste like water from the ocean itself. So yes, I mean a hanful of salt.

You'd be surprised how much better your pasta dishes will taste after this simple step! Again, cooking well is about techniques like this, not much else!

Vegetable Braised Black Cod

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Because of all the rain up here in Seattle, I've grown used to cooking more indoors. And that means using the oven, especially on colder winter nights lately. I happily trade my grill for use of my Creuset, where I can whip up wonderful one-pot meals that are super easy to clean up. This recipe is literally a Throw It In One Pot And Cook It meal. It uses black cod, also known as sablefish or butterfish, it's a firm white fish with super soft buttery texture that melts in your mouth. The fish is thick and stable enough for grilling (unlike halibut that literally falls apart), but also yields itself nicely to frying, roasting, and braising. I found that by braising the black cod in vegetable juices gave it an even more delicate texture that was heavenly.

I chose red bell pepper and zucchini for this recipe not only for color but also for their water retention. The idea here is to create a natural braising liquid by using naturally watery vegetables (bell peppers, onions, squash, zucchini, and tomatoes are all great choices) and then others like asparagus for crunch and texture to break up the softness of the rest of the dish. The only fat I use here is olive oil (which is good for you!), and simple fresh herbs for seasonings with salt and pepper. It's low fat, low calorie, and extremely flavorful.

Vegetable Braised Black Cod
3-4 fillets black cod, skin removed

extra virgin olive oil
about 10 pearl onions, skins removed and left whole (you can substitute with shallots)
1 red bell pepper, seeded and sliced into strips
1 zucchini, ends chopped and sliced into strips
1/2 lb asparagus, rough ends trimmed and cut in half
4-5 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
1 bay leaf
splash of white wine (or 1 lemon, sliced)
2 Tbsp fresh basil, chiffonade
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Season the black cod with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Heat the olive oil (about 2-3 tablespoons) in a Dutch oven or le crueset. Add the onions or shallots and sprinkle with a little salt and pepper -- this will help them caramelize. Cook for 5 minutes on high heat turning occasionally. Add the bell pepper, zucchini, and asparagus all at once and mix in with the onions. Season with a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Add the garlic and bay leaf and mix in. Add the wine or lemon and basil and turn off heat. Layer the black cod right on top of the vegetable mixture, nuzzling the fillets to fit in snugly. Spoon a little of the vegetable mixture on top of the fillets and cover with lid. Place in the oven for 25 minutes or until vegetables are very soft, a juice has been rendered, and the fish is cooked through but still soft and buttery. Drizzle a little more extra virgin olive oil on top and serve hot.