Finally, Falafel!

If at first you don’t succeed, wait a year and try again. Yes, I know that isn’t exactly how the adage goes, but it seems to be my M.O. when I get discouraged over failed recipes. Falafel has confounded me as much as it has enchanted me, from my first-ever taste of it at a now-closed corner diner near the campus of UNC-Greensboro to my most recent experience of it at Miznon in New York’s Chelsea Market. It was that most recent taste that inspired me to give falafel another go.


I love the texture of these crispy little gems and especially the vibrant flavor that is jam-packed into every delicious bite. Falafel is a Middle Eastern specialty, made from ground-up chickpeas and a ton of fresh herbs and spices. It is usually shaped into balls or disc shapes and fried until crispy, though I have also seen oven-baked falafel, which has a somewhat pale and less visually enticing appearance. Undoubtedly, it can be made in an air fryer—and perhaps someone reading this will chime in to share their results of that method. I have tried both fried and oven-baked falafel a few times but got increasingly frustrated with each fail, and then put off trying again for longer and longer stretches of time. How could this be so difficult, I wondered? The dish eventually moved to the top of my culinary “bucket list,” and I’m pleased to say that I finally won the falafel challenge.

As it turns out, falafel was only difficult to make because I was resisting the instructions that were right in front of me the whole time. I tried to make them from canned chickpeas (which doesn’t work) and then I tried making them with canned chickpeas that were subsequently roasted and dried out in the oven (which also doesn’t work). When I finally gave in and tried them the correct way, they turned out terrific! What is the correct way, you ask? Using chickpeas that have been soaked but not cooked.

My favorite thing about cooking—besides the obvious enjoyment of delicious food that’s made cheaper at home than you would buy somewhere out—is the science behind it, and it turns out there is a perfectly good reason that soaked, uncooked chickpeas are the best bet for perfect falafel. Thank goodness for J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, the culinary genius who runs “The Food Lab,” and a frequent contributor on the Serious Eats website. He is sort of an Alton Brown for the new generation, and his scientific explanation on falafel is the best I’ve read to date. Here’s the upshot: soaking rehydrates the chickpeas so you can work with them, and it keeps the sticky starches trapped inside. Those starches get released when the chickpeas are cooked during frying (or baking), and that starch release is what helps the falafel rounds hold together. If the chickpeas are already cooked (as in canned), the starch is spent, and you end up with a mess. My ridiculous attempts to return canned chickpeas to a firmer, drier texture by roasting them in the oven didn’t work because they were still already cooked. This time around, I followed the science offered by J. Kenji, and guess what I ended up with? Near-perfect falafel.

Crispy on the outside, moist and soft on the inside, and sooo much flavor!

In a weird twist of fate, the best way also happened to be the easiest of the methods I had previously tried. Soaking the chickpeas took almost no effort, then I drained and rinsed them in a colander, rolled them around on paper towels to wick away excess moisture, and then pulsed them in my food processor with a fat handful of fresh herbs and generous amounts of Mediterranean spices. Further following J. Kenji’s advice, I kept my falafel small, using my large cookie dough scoop to compact them into rounds, which I fried up nicely in a shallow skillet. For the love of flavor, why did I wait so long to follow the rules?

As much as I love falafel in a wrap sandwich, I also love just dipping and snacking on them.

Falafel is great as a pick-up snack, dipped in tahini-lemon sauce. We enjoyed it as a sandwich filler, nestled with lettuce, tomatoes and pickles into a warm, whole grain soft pita. My husband and I agreed that the flavors in this revelatory batch of falafel could stand to be a little bolder, and maybe even a bit more garlicky. I will play with the seasonings a bit on my next go, and you can bet that I won’t be waiting a year.


Ingredients

1 cup dried chickpeas, sorted and rinsed

4 cups cold or room temperature water

Several scallions (white and green parts)

About 2 cups loosely packed fresh Mediterranean herbs* (see notes)

2 large garlic cloves, peeled and rough-chopped

1 tsp. each cumin and coriander seeds*

1/4 tsp. ground cayenne (optional)

1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt

Several grinds black pepper

A few teaspoons flour (if needed), as a binder for overly wet falafel mixture*


*Notes

Falafel is of Middle East origin, so the Mediterranean herbs work best here. Parsley (curly or flat), mint, dill and cilantro (also called “fresh coriander”) all work great in this recipe, but I would not recommend basil, thyme or rosemary. It is essential that you use fresh herbs for this recipe, as they contribute texture in addition to flavor. After rinsing the fresh herbs, take time to also dry them on a clean kitchen towel or layers of paper towel, so that you don’t add unwanted moisture to the falafel mixture.

I prefer the intensity of freshly ground seed spices, but if you only have pre-ground cumin and coriander, it’s no problem. Use slightly less, perhaps 3/4 tsp. of each.

Ideally, the chickpea mixture will hold together without the flour binder. But I found that a few sprinkles of flour were necessary to pick up lingering moisture. I used a tablespoon of garbanzo bean flour, but all-purpose or rice flour would probably work also.


Instructions




“Cincy” Chili

Everything about this recipe is upside-down for me. It defies almost every cooking instinct I live by, except the most important one—it’s delicious! Cincinnati Chili is unlike any other chili you’ve tried. It does not have spicy Mexican or even smoky Tex-Mex flavors, and that’s because its roots are Mediterranean. The cooking begins not with browning meat and onions, but with water and a small amount of tomato juice in the pan. The spices come next, and they are not the ones you would ordinarily associate with chili—including cinnamon, cloves, allspice and bay leaf. The raw meat is simmered directly in the liquid, so it stays very fine-textured (much like my recipe for hot dog chili). And the most noticeable difference is in the presentation—this “chili” is served on a bed of spaghetti and buried under shredded cheddar cheese, and any “way” you like it. Honestly, it doesn’t seem like chili at all.

Top with any of the traditional ingredients. Make it “all the way” with heated kidney beans, onions and fine shredded cheddar cheese.

This tasty dish was born when two brothers settled in Cincinnati, Ohio from their native Greece and opened a restaurant. Their recipe for a hot dog chili topping was seasoned with all the flavors of the Mediterranean, and it was such a hit with the locals, they eventually began serving it as a signature entrée, and “Cincinnati chili” earned its title as the most iconic food of the city.

My first taste of Cincinnati chili did not happen in southwestern Ohio, but in Greensboro, N.C., in a hidden little downtown gem called Cincy’s. It’s a woman-owned business with bragging rights of being the city’s oldest downtown eatery. This out-of-the-way place is only open three hours a day for lunch, and it happens to be a short walk from the radio station where I used to work. Despite the limited hours, Cincy’s was usually jumping, and though it offers a wide variety of sandwiches, wraps and burgers, the restaurant is best known for its namesake, Cincinnati-style chili.

I looked at several “authentic” online recipes for this dish, and especially at the reviews, to see what natives of Cincy—the experts, if you will—had to say in feedback, and that became the basis for my version. This final composition is based on my taste buds’ memory of those downtown lunches from yesteryear.

What I have plated up here is every bit as good as I remember, though I’m sure I’ll have to visit Cincy’s again soon, just to be sure!


Ingredients

2 3/4 cups water

1 cup tomato sauce or strained puree (no chunks!)

1 lb. lean ground meat* (see ingredient notes)

4 cloves fresh garlic, minced

¼ cup red wine vinegar*


Dry Seasonings:

Is there anything from my spice cabinet that ISN’T in this so-called chili?

1 Tbsp. chili powder*

1 ½ tsp. cocoa powder

1 tsp. ground cinnamon

1 tsp. sweet Spanish paprika

1 tsp. smoked paprika*

½ tsp. ground cumin

½ tsp. dried oregano

¼ tsp. ground cloves

¼ tsp. ground allspice

1 tsp. kosher salt (or 3/4 tsp. regular table salt)

Several twists freshly ground black pepper

2 dried bay leaves


For serving:

½ lb. spaghetti (I used whole wheat)

1 can light red kidney beans, rinsed and warmed

½ cup finely minced onion

4 oz. finely shredded cheddar (I used medium sharpness)

Oyster crackers, if desired


*Notes

Any combination of lean (90%) ground beef or turkey works well in this recipe, but for a vegetarian version you could substitute with a combination of cooked lentils and cracked bulgur wheat, as they do at the restaurant where I first enjoyed this dish. Follow the package recommendations for cooking time of those products and add them to the pot at the appropriate time to avoid overcooking them.

Apple cider vinegar would probably work in this recipe as well, but given that the recipe has Mediterranean roots, I used red wine vinegar, which is typical in Greek cuisine.

Chili powder is one of those spice ingredients that is different from one brand to the next. Peek at the label to see whether your chili powder contains salt or any other ingredients you may want to adjust in the overall recipe.

My smoked paprika is a sweet (not hot) variety. The slight smokiness was nice in this dish, but if you don’t have this, you could simply double the amount of regular sweet paprika.


Instructions

  1. Combine all the dry seasonings (except bay leaves) in a bowl and set aside.
  2. Combine the water and tomato sauce in a large saucepot, over medium-low heat. Stir in the dry seasonings, garlic and red wine.
  3. Crumble the raw ground meat into the pot and use a utensil or potato masher to break it up as much as possible into a fine texture. Add the bay leaves. Bring the mixture to a low boil, then reduce heat and cover the pot. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until liquid is reduced, and sauce is thick but not dry. Give it at least an hour. Add a bit more tomato sauce and water, as needed, if the sauce has cooked down too much. It should be more meaty than “saucy.”
  4. Cook spaghetti noodles to al dente stage, then drain and immediately toss with a bit of oil or butter to keep the noodles from sticking.
  5. Plate spaghetti and top with meat sauce, plus any of the other toppings you like. Here’s how they break it down, Cincy style:

“2-way” = spaghetti with chili only

“3-way” = with chili and cheese

“4-way” = with chili, cheese and beans OR chili, cheese and onions

“5-way” = with chili, cheese, beans AND onions (the best)!




Zero-Proof Sangria (for Dry January)

My husband and I are 16 days into our alcohol-free pledge to start the new year. For the most part, I have not minded this experiment of Dry January. The break from alcohol has already had some positive effects on my body; most noticeably, I feel more hydrated in ways that I did not expect. My skin and hair are not as parched, despite the recent cold snap that has kept us indoors with the heat running constantly. I have found more focus and energy for tasks that need to be done around the house, so that’s a good thing. And I am astonished at how much more sleep I am getting, and that alone makes it worth the sacrifice. Still, I have caught myself counting the days, making it unlikely that this would become a permanent lifestyle change.

When my husband and I made the decision to give our bodies a break from alcohol, we guessed correctly that the biggest challenge to our lifestyle would come on Friday nights. Our ritual, since the beginning of the pandemic, has been to finish the work week with (usually bourbon) cocktails, homemade pizza and, whenever it was scheduled, Quarantunes, the Facebook Live concert featuring our pals Glenn and Oria Alexander.

Ahead of the first dry weekend, I threw all my creative effort into an attempt at zero-proof cocktails. In my mixology experimenting over the past couple of years, I have already learned how valuable infused simple syrups can be for delivering extra flavors into a drink, so that is where I started my chemistry challenge.

For Les, I whipped up a smoky, spicy cherry simple syrup—featuring smoked black peppercorn, pink peppercorn, unsweetened black cherry juice and real vanilla paste—to mimic the essence of an Old Fashioned. For myself, I made another simple syrup—steeped with white peppercorns and coriander seed—and it had a nice balance of bite and spice that I thought could be a reasonable stand-in for tequila in either a paloma- or margarita-style drink. I liked this one so much that I named it “white-hot syrup,” and I expect that I will use it in real cocktails at some point in the future.

When Friday night arrived, I pulled out all my usual tools for cocktail setup—my mixing glass, shaker, citrus juicer, bitters, rocks glasses and giant ice cubes. Only it wasn’t as easy as mixing up real drinks, which I have had plenty of practice doing. I was a novice again, and I measured, squeezed, stirred, tasted, adjusted, stirred again, tasted again and finally ended up with a couple of drinks that were enjoyable.


Les’s drink had the smoky black cherry syrup, mixed with freshly squeezed blood orange juice, a couple shakes of orange bitters and a slight splash of oak wood tonic (an interesting find that I’ll describe in a moment), and I even garnished it with a ribbon of blood orange peel and a Luxardo cherry. For my own drink, I blended the white-hot syrup in a shaker with fresh lemon, lime and orange, plus coconut water. I strained it into a salt-rimmed rocks glass, tossed in an orange peel and it called it a “mock-arita.”

Finally, our faux cocktails!

They turned out beautiful, but I spent so much time in the kitchen fiddling with these faux drinks that I missed 35 minutes of Quarantunes, which was the whole purpose of Friday night “cocktails.” And then, cleanup, which was sticky and ridiculous. This past Friday night, I decided on a better, simpler alternative—a zero-proof sangria! I appreciated that I could make it (and adjust to taste) ahead of time so that enjoying it on Friday night was only a matter of pouring it over ice and dressing it up with fresh fruit. No muss, no fuss. More time for pizza and Quarantunes. Perfect!

These were fruity, spicy and delicious. Exactly what we needed for Friday night, and no hangover or sluggish feeling on Saturday morning! 🙂

The base of my zero-proof sangria was a “de-alcoholized” Merlot wine. I have seen no-alcohol “wines” before, but for the most part, they were just unfermented, unsweetened grape juice. In other words, flat and mostly flavorless. But a de-alcoholized wine has gone through the process of fermentation, and then has the alcohol removed, either by vacuum distillation or reverse osmosis, just before bottling. It is a fascinating concept, and one that is gaining traction with a significant audience of adults who aim to reduce their booze consumption, whether short-term or for good.


So how does this de-alcoholized wine taste? I’ll be honest—it’s different. I do taste the Merlot in this bottle, but it is missing the complexity and (obviously) the bite of real wine. I chose this for its base flavor but also its lack of sweetness, as I planned to jazz up our sangria with a few sweet ingredients. If I had used any regular grape juice, the sangria would have been cloyingly sweet, not to mention that it would have smacked of Welch’s grape jelly flavor.

I enhanced the dry “wine” with some of the smoky black cherry simple syrup that I had made the first weekend (recipe is included below), plus cinnamon syrup (also below), fresh citrus, unsweetened black cherry juice, ginger-berry kombucha and (again) the oak wood tonic. This tonic, on its own, has a sharp and bitter flavor with distinctive woodsy flavor. It’s an acquired taste, and one that I’m not sure I’ll ever appreciate on its own. But blended with the other ingredients, it brings a just-right, edgy bite to make my zero-proof sangria feel more “Friday night worthy.”

Cheers!

I would absolutely make this again, for myself or for guests who prefer to abstain from alcohol. There are still plenty of ingredients in my pantry and spice cabinet to experiment with in these remaining days of Dry January, and I’m sure if I keep at it, I’ll discover the perfect formula for amazing zero-proof cocktails. Of course by then, it will be February. 😊


Ingredients for Zero-Proof Sangria

1/2 bottle de-alcoholized Merlot wine (Pinot Noir variety would also be good)

1 large blood orange, washed and sliced thin

1 good-size lime, washed and sliced thin

3 oz. smoky-spicy black cherry syrup (recipe follows)

1 oz. cinnamon syrup (recipe follows)

4 oz. unsweetened black cherry juice

2 oz. tonic water (San Pellegrino Oak Wood Tonica, if you can find it)


For each serving:

1 oz. berry flavored kombucha (adds a “fermented” flavor)

1 oz. strong ginger beer (adds bite and effervescence)

Fresh slice of citrus to garnish


Instructions

Load the citrus slices into a 1-liter carafe or pitcher. Add the simple syrups, black cherry juice, de-alcoholized wine and tonic. Stir to blend. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

At serving time, fill 10 oz. glasses about 2/3 with ice. Pour kombucha and ginger beer over ice. Give the sangria a good stir to blend ingredients that may have settled. Pour over the ice to the top of each glass. Garnish with fresh citrus.


Smoky-Spicy Black Cherry Syrup

Combine 1/2 cup water and 1/2 cup unsweetened black cherry juice in a saucepan. Add 3/4 cup organic cane sugar. Heat over medium heat, stirring frequently, to dissolve sugar. Use a mortar and pestle or spice grinder to lightly crush 2 tsp. smoked black peppercorns and 1 tsp. pink peppercorns. Add to the syrup and stir to blend. When syrup reaches a slight boil, remove from heat. Add 1/2 tsp. real vanilla paste. Cool completely and strain into a canning jar. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Cinnamon Syrup

Combine 1/2 cup water and 1/2 cup organic cane sugar in a saucepan. Add 3 pieces of cinnamon stick (each about 3” long) and bring syrup to a slight simmer. Continue to steep the cinnamon in the syrup until it is completely cool. Strain into a jar or bottle and refrigerate until ready to use.



Authentic Arroz con Pollo

If you do an internet search for “authentic arroz con pollo recipe,” you will get at least a dozen pages of results, with very few duplicates. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Some of the ingredients are consistent across the recipes, but there are many variations and even the pictures can look dramatically different. The reason there are so many “real” arroz con pollo recipes is that there are many, many Hispanic grandmothers passing down their own recipes. And this dish—which is not definitively native to a single country or people—has become a blend of whatever ingredients are available in all the regions where those grandmothers have lived and cooked.

My previous experience of arroz con pollo—or “ACP,” as it is usually listed on many of our local Mexican restaurant menus—has not been completely positive, and that’s because here in the South, the recipe has morphed into an “Americanized” dish that is oozing with cheese and basically bland (it’s a rare instance of a dish being too much about the cheese, in my opinion). And that is a shame because at its roots, arroz con pollo has a lot going on!  

Recently, I had a front-row seat to watch and learn the authentic, real-deal Puerto Rican version of this flavorful dish. During our vacation up north, my husband and I spent a few days on Long Island, where we visited his cousin, Evan. To my good fortune, Evan’s husband, Will, became my own personal “ACP” instructor! His mother hails from P.R. and his father is of Spanish heritage, so Will has good reason to be passionate about this dish that is representative of his family. We had a joyful afternoon in the kitchen!

Will took the day off work to teach me how to make ACP. Love you, Sweetheart! ❤

Throughout this private cooking lesson, Will shared with me all the culinary wisdom handed down to him from his mother, who learned it from her mother, and so on. Because this was an authentic Puerto Rican variation of arroz con pollo, it was packed with layers of flavor, beginning with Sazón and finishing with saffron, and all in one giant pot, called a “caldero.” The pictures of Will’s family recipe tell the story far better than I can, so please join us at the stove as we celebrate this last day of Hispanic Heritage Month!


Ingredients

First, let’s take a look at the special ingredients that make this dish uniquely Puerto Rican.


Hold up, what exactly is “culantro?”

It can seem a little confusing, so let’s address the difference between cilantro, which most of us are familiar with, and culantro, which is an ingredient in both of these cooking bases. Unlike cilantro, which is wispy and delicate and mostly used to finish or garnish a dish after cooking, culantro is sturdier and stronger, both in texture and flavor. It has a similar flavor to cilantro, but its long, slender leaves are mainly included as a cooked ingredient, and during the cooking process, the hearty flavor calms down a bit. This herb is extremely common throughout the Caribbean, so of course it is a staple in the cuisine of Puerto Rico.

The remaining ingredients for the arroz con pollo included bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs, corn oil, onions, peppers, garlic, tomato sauce and rice. I did my best to take notes and catch all the details, but this is the kind of recipe you make from instinct, and that’s exactly how Will prepared it. He was cracking me up as he went along, and reminded me so much of myself—occasionally cursing his stove and fretting about ways that his dish might not turn out perfectly. We are always our own harshest critics in the kitchen, can I get an amen? Trust me, this arroz con pollo was delicious!

Made with love, heart and soul!

At the end of the post, I’ve included a PDF that you can download for your recipe files. You will need to tweak seasonings to suit your taste and adjust cooking times for your own stove, of course, but my outline should provide a good starting point. Here we go!


Instructions

Arroz con Pollo!


Roasted Pork Loin with Gingered Rhubarb Chutney

I had all but given up hope on finding more rhubarb this spring, after my earlier, monthlong, city-wide search that resulted in my first few stalks of this tart, springtime treasure. But my sweet-toothed husband, Les, made a bold announcement after his first taste of the Rhubarb-Berry Crunch dessert—“OK, I like rhubarb,” so the hunt was on for more. I lucked out, at the same store I had found it before, and I bought the last of what they had. As with any rare find, I have been trying to ration my rhubarb stash to enjoy it in as many forms as possible, and I have a few more ideas brewing in the back of my mind that I’ll spring on you soon.

The ginger addition to the rhubarb filling in the crunch dessert was so delicious; I wanted to pair the flavors again in a sweet-meets-savory chutney for pork roast. A smart lesson I learned in my part-time catering years was the easy trick of “echoing” flavors across various dishes in a meal, and I put that idea fully to work here, giving the chutney a shout out with complementary flavors in both the brine and dry rub. I incorporated cardamom, star anise, more ginger and one colorful ingredient I purchased recently from the gourmet kitchen section of TJ Maxx:

These pretty little dried berries are not related to black peppercorns, and they are very easy to crush.

I’ve seen them, of course, but didn’t know much about pink peppercorns, other than their occasional appearance in one of the “mélange” blends that goes into my Peugeot peppermill. As it turns out, pink peppercorns are not related to black pepper at all! They are named merely for their resemblance to peppercorns and also for their slight peppery flavor, but they are brighter and fruitier than ordinary pepper, and they turned out to be a nice complement to the tart rhubarb. They are also much softer than regular peppercorns, as I learned when I easily crushed them with my mortar and pestle. Another fact about pink peppercorns—one that is more on the serious side—they are closely related to cashews, so they pose a significant safety risk to anyone with allergies to tree nuts (yikes).

The pork loin was a great find at a local farmer’s market. The seller was mindful to point out the advantages of local, pastured pork, which is more humane and sustainable than most conventional processes, and I have no problem paying the higher cost for those benefits. It is also more flavorful than typical, bland grocery store cuts. The loin is a very lean cut, prone to become dry, so I brined it for a few hours before roasting. The end result was perfectly tender, juicy and flavorful, and the gingered chutney was just the right touch, though a bit intense for Les, so I would ease up on the ginger next time. We served this delicious roast with simple boiled red potatoes and our favorite homemade collard greens, another prize from the farmer’s market.

I dipped each slice in the roast pan juices before serving with the gingered rhubarb chutney. A perfect Sunday Supper!

The extra layers of attention that I gave to this meal earns it a spot in my Sunday Supper category, which I suspect has been feeling a little neglected recently. We have done a lot of very casual cooking at our house in recent months, but after so many weeks of playing “hard to get,” this rhubarb deserved a special seat at the table. Enjoy!


Ingredients & Instructions

Brine for pork loin

2 1/4 lb. pasture-raised pork loin

4 cups cold water

1/4 cup canning and pickling salt (or kosher salt)

1/4 cup brown sugar

1 Tbsp. crushed pink peppercorns

2 cardamom pods, crushed

1 piece star anise

Be sure your brine container is non-reactive; a large, deep glass bowl works great. It isn’t necessary to heat the water, as pickling or kosher salt will dissolve pretty easily. If you do choose to heat the water for quicker dissolving, be sure the brine has time to cool completely before you add the roast to it.

Stir brine ingredients until salt and sugar are dissolved; submerge pork loin, cover and refrigerate 4 to 5 hours; remove from brine, pat dry all over with paper towels. Rest a few minutes, pat dry again, then follow rub instructions.


Rub for pork loin

1/2 tsp. garlic powder

1/2 tsp. onion powder

1/4 tsp. ground cardamom

1/4 tsp. ground ginger

1/2 tsp. five spice powder

1/2 tsp. ground black pepper

Spray olive oil onto dried pork loin, and sprinkle rub all over, especially the lean surfaces. Let roast remain uncovered at room temperature for about an hour before roasting.

Preheat oven to 450° F. Place loin roast (fat side up) on rack above parchment-lined baking sheet, or inside a shallow glass baking dish. Roast at 450° for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 400° and roast or convect roast for 30 to 45 additional minutes, or more as needed to reach 145° F internal temp. Rest at least 10 minutes, then slice thinly. Dip slices into any clean pan drippings for extra flavor at serving.


Rhubarb Apple Chutney

1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1/2 cup diced sweet onion

½ tsp. pink peppercorn, crushed

1 cardamom pod, crushed

1 heaping cup diced rhubarb

1/2 cup chopped apple

1/4 cup packed brown sugar

2 Tbsp. minced crystallized ginger

2 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar

Kosher salt and black pepper

Leaves from about two sprigs of fresh thyme

Heat olive oil in a small saucepan and sauté onions until softened. Season with salt and pepper, pink pepper and crushed cardamom pods. Add rhubarb and apple and toss to combine. Add brown sugar and crystallized ginger. Cook over medium-low heat until sugar is dissolved and fruit begins to break down. Add vinegar and continue to cook over low heat until fruit is completely softened and mixture is thickened. Stir in thyme leaves. If not using immediately, chill then reheat.




Mexican Chocolate Skillet Brownies

Before we talk about these amazing chocolate-and-spice brownies, let’s clear this up: Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s Independence Day. This has long been the belief of many Americans who assume that all the revelry and celebration associated with the 5th of May must be hugely significant to Mexico’s overall history, but it is not correct—Independence Day in Mexico happens in September. Cinco de Mayo is observed in commemoration of what happened half a century later, in 1862, in one Mexican state.

But the story of Cinco de Mayo is a great tale of triumph by a people whose love for their land outweighed the military might of a wealthy bully, and my brownies pay tribute to their passion. It is a tale so inspiring, it cannot be properly told without an incredible, dramatic anthem, like this one by Ennio Morricone (take a listen as you read). Yes, he is Italian, but Morricone’s composition is perfect for this story of a proud and dedicated people. You may also recognize this stunning piece from the ads for Modelo Mexican beer.

Mexico’s newly elected president, Benito Juárez—who was also the first indigenous political leader of the country—had inherited some economic troubles and overdue loans by European governments, and they were demanding payment. Juárez was able to cut a deal with the leaders of the U.K. and Spain, but the French president at that time wanted to call their loans by foreclosing on the region of Puebla, which was along the main road between the capital of Mexico City and the port city of Veracruz. This obviously did not sit well with Juárez. He rallied the loyal locals to stand with the Mexican Army in holding their ground (figuratively and literally) in Puebla, and when the French troops arrived the morning of May 5, outnumbering the Mexican troops and patriots by nearly 3-1, they were in for a surprise. What the Mexicans lacked in numbers, they more than tripled in might and spirit, and the French troops were forced to retreat by the end of the same day.

It was only one battle in a lengthier saga that later ended with the French taking the land for a short few years, but the story rings patriotic for anyone with a heart for civil rights, which was also playing out in the U.S. during those years. Cinco de Mayo is considered a minor holiday in most of Mexico, but here in the States, someone else’s one-day battle victory has become reason enough to throw a party. This one, not surprisingly, works out especially well for the distributors of Mexican beer. Come to think of it, the Cinco de Mayo story itself should be in one of those Modelo commercials. That would make a lot of sense.

My idea of a party, naturally, always comes back to the food. For Cinco de Mayo, I’ve skipped the obvious margaritas in favor of a sweet treat that honors the Mexican tradition of chocolate, which was so revered by the ancient Mayans and Aztecs that they used it as currency. Today, chocolate continues to play a significant role in the traditional moles of the Puebla region. Chile peppers complement chocolate exceptionally well, so I’ve added a hint of chipotle powder to these brownies, which are also kissed with extra dark cocoa, a good dose of cinnamon and real vanilla. And all the Mexican grandmothers shouted, “amén!”

Crazy as it sounds, the crunch of the sea salt is what sends it over the top.

If these brownies sound a bit too gourmet for your kitchen skills, relax, because this decadent dessert begins with a box of Ghirardelli. I’m all in favor of a shortcut that makes sense, and they are, in my opinion, the best box brownies, but use the one you like. The oh-so-easy ganache is optional, but allow me to tempt you further by mentioning that I spiked it with a splash of Patron XO Café Dark, a coffee- and cocoa-infused Mexican tequila. To keep it humble, I’ve baked it up in a cast-iron skillet, but don’t be fooled—this is a rich and decadent dessert for the ages, and it is worth fighting for. Call it “the ecstasy of chocolate,” if you wish.

Can you believe how fudgy and delicious this is?

Ingredients

1 box brownie mix* (I love Ghirardelli dark chocolate, but use your favorite), plus listed ingredients to make them

1 Tbsp. dark cocoa powder (Mine is from King Arthur Baking, but Hershey Special Dark would be OK)

1 tsp. espresso powder*, optional (deepens the chocolate, but does not add coffee flavor)

1 tsp. ground cinnamon

1/2 tsp. pure ground chipotle* (see notes)

1 tsp. real vanilla extract

1/3 cup Ghirardelli semi-sweet chocolate chips

A few pinches of coarse sea salt or kosher salt

Butter, for greasing the skillet or brownie pan*

Ganache

1/2 cup heavy cream

4 oz. Ghirardelli semi-sweet chocolate chips*

1 Tbsp. Kahlua or Patron XO Café Dark liqueur, optional

*Notes

The brownie mix I use produces a chewy, fudge-style brownie. In addition to the mix, be sure you also have the ingredients listed on the box for making them.

Espresso powder is a specialty ingredient that I found in the baking aisle of a gourmet supermarket. You could also substitute a good quality instant coffee, such as Starbucks Via brand, or simply omit it.

I am crazy about the combination of chocolate and chiles! Chipotle, which is smoked jalapeno, is especially nice here. You could also use up to the same amount of pure cayenne powder, which is spicier, or pure ancho powder, which is milder and more fruity. Please do not use what is generically labeled as “chili powder,” as these random blends usually also include salt, garlic, oregano and other spices you wouldn’t want in brownies. Check your labels, always.

My decision to use the cast-iron skillet presented a few other adjustments, because a 10.25” skillet means a slightly different distribution of brownie batter. Also, the cast iron is heavy and retains heat differently than my usual 8 x 8 glass dish. I have adjusted the baking time accordingly in my instructions, but please consider your mix recommendations as well as your baking vessel.

According to my digital kitchen scale, 1/2 cup of chocolate chips was only three ounces, which falls short of “equal parts” with the cream. If you don’t have a scale, measure out 1/2 cup, then pile on as many more chips as you can without them spilling, and you’ll be in good shape.

Instructions


As if the brownies are not decadent enough, believe that the next step makes them even better. If you have ever thought of ganache as “fancy,” you can lay that idea to rest. It is nothing more than equal parts hot cream and rich chocolate. I’ve spiked it with a Mexican liqueur, and it sends these brownies into purely heroic territory.

Make the ganache:


I have no words for this image.


Not Quite Katz’s (but darn good pastrami)

April, I have decided, is a lovely time to visit New York. When my husband, Les, and I traveled there for our honeymoon trip a few years ago, I realized that being in the city with someone who grew up in the city is the best experience of all. When you are traveling with a “native son,” you don’t feel as much like a tourist, but you quickly get used to the idea of walking—a lot. Les and I walked, on average, about 6 miles each day, and I was free to enjoy the scenery along the way. In New York, in April, there were tulips everywhere.


The city was abuzz with the sounds, sights and smell of spring, and I was positively in love—with N.Y., of course, but especially with my husband of only a few days. His confidence in navigating the city of his youth gave me even more reason to appreciate being with him. I didn’t have to worry about a thing! Les knew instinctively which subway trains to take for various planned excursions, what time to leave and (most importantly) where to go for the best food, including John’s on Bleecker Street for pizza, which became the gold standard in my own effort to achieve the perfect N.Y. pizza dough.

One of our day trips included a visit to the Freedom Tower, now the tallest building in N.Y., at the site where the North Tower of the World Trade Center once stood. We had visited the landmark and the memorial earlier in the week, and merely seeing the names of the people who died on that dark day of history was truly devastating. I cannot (and don’t want to) imagine what it must have been like to witness those events.

There are not enough words.

We had intended to ascend the Freedom Tower on that first visit, but were offered a reschedule on our tickets because of heavy fog that apparently made visibility from the top almost nil. We had better luck on the second visit, and the view from the One World Observatory was jaw-dropping.

I wondered how many people down there might have been looking up to where we were standing.
And how about that dreadful smog?

All that walking left us feeling pretty hungry, and our steps (and appetite) led us to the Lower East Side, to the most iconic eatery in all of Manhattan.


From the outside, Katz’s Delicatessen is pretty unassuming—just an old-school corner building with a neon-letter sign—but inside, the joint was jumping! We squeezed into line with all the other hungry tourists and locals, pulled our tickets and shouted our orders to the sandwich makers behind the counter, who were generously offering samples of the deliciousness to come. It was the most exciting lunch I’ve ever eaten, in a place you’ve probably seen, even if you have never visited New York. Katz’s Deli was the setting for the famous “I’ll have what she’s having” scene in the film, When Harry Met Sally. And if you do visit the city—you know, when the world reopens—I highly recommend a visit to Katz’s, and I highly recommend that you have what I had—the $23 pastrami on rye. Worth. Every. Penny.

My pastrami in the foreground; Les’s corned beef in the back. It was a collective mountain of food!

When business is booming, Katz’s reportedly sells 15,000 pounds of pastrami a week—and as you can see, most of that ends up on one sandwich. I did my best to stretch my jaw onto that thing, and my city-savvy hubby had to show me how it’s done, face-first and with both hands.


We had a ton of leftovers, of course, so we wrapped up the remains of our sammies and took them back to our room. It was on this trip that I learned cold leftover pastrami on rye is fantastic for breakfast.

I’ve had a hankering to try making pastrami at home ever since that trip, and although we cannot match what they do at Katz’s (at least, not without giving up our full-time jobs), Les and I were pretty darn excited with the results of our first pastrami effort. When we began our corned beef adventure this year, we had purchased two large, grass-fed briskets, knowing that both would be brined at least a week, and that one would travel on to the smoker with a spicy dry rub to become pastrami. My inspiration came from Katz’s, but my recipe is drawn mostly from The Gefilte Manifesto (Jeffrey Yoskowitz and Liz Alpern), the same book that inspired my pierogi with potato, leek and spinach last fall. Jeffrey’s pastrami recipe instructed a 7-day brine, followed by extensive rinsing, a generous rub-down with copious amounts of spices and, finally, several hours in the smoker.

Our driveway, where the smoker was set up, smelled like the stuff deli dreams are made of, and our first pastrami was fabulous! I will not torture you with three pages of ingredients and details, because you probably just want to see the pictures, anyway. So, here you go!



In reviewing all my notes and looking back at the instructions offered in The Gefilte Manifesto, we realize that we made a couple of missteps, primarily with the finishing of the pastrami. We should have waited to cut into it, pending an overnight in the fridge and a two-hour steaming. But the aroma caused us to lose our minds a bit, and so we just charged in and cut the thing. Fantastic flavors, and we will steam the slices as we go. We’ve got nothing on Katz’s Delicatessen, but our pastrami was pretty darn delicious. We will absolutely do this again, and by that time, we hope to invite all of our meat-loving friends to join us for a pastrami feast, fresh and hot off the smoker. Who’s bringing the potato salad? 😀


Tex-Mex Stuffed Sweet Potatoes

Tomorrow at daybreak, about 80 miles outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, one of the strangest of all American traditions will occur. Punxsutawney Phil, the notorious groundhog (or woodchuck, as he is known in my old neck of the woods), will be dragged out of bed by the scruff of his neck and ordered to break the news to the faithful fans who have traveled there to get a verdict on winter. The mayor of Punxsutawney will hold this oversized rodent up to the crowd as Mufasa did in the presentation of Simba, and poor Phil will probably be some combination of terrified, confused and sleepy. Depending on whether he sees his shadow, we will either have an early spring or six more weeks of winter. I can never remember which scenario leads to which outcome, but how do we really know what he sees, anyway?

Such a curious thing, to imagine this whole scene is a valid means of setting expectation for what’s to come. Surely these folks have calendars. Winter ends March 20, when spring begins, and from Groundhog Day, the calendar states clearly that it is six more weeks, plus a few days. I suppose that everywhere else in the world, people just think of it as Feb. 2. I’m in favor of letting the rascal sleep.

At least we can watch the amusing Bill Murray movie. Again. 😉

From a purely whimsical standpoint, the observance of Groundhog Day does, if nothing else, provide a little comic relief from the heaviness of winter. Punxsutawney Phil may not be a real prognosticator, but he is a beacon of hope, a light at the end of the tunnel that was gray January. I’ve been trying to offer the same recently with presentation of bright and colorful dishes to chase away that gray.

A sprinkling of cilantro and squeeze of fresh lime completes this colorful Meatless Monday meal!

These Tex-Mex stuffed sweet potatoes will bring a big generous pop of color to your Meatless Monday, and vibrant flavors, too. Zesty peppers and fire-roasted sweet corn, combined with black beans and cheese on an oven-roasted sweet potato is both nourishing and tasty, customized to your own heat preference, and you can top it with avocado, your favorite salsa, sour cream or whatever else you like. Our go-to seasoning for Tex-Mex dishes is my own spice blend, lovingly named “Fire & Brimstone,” given its multiple layers of spicy heat and smoky depth. Of course, I’ll share that, too.

This is one recipe that takes almost no skill in the kitchen. Really, if you can chop an onion, you’ve got this. You could even pop the sweet potatoes in the oven while you watch Groundhog Day on TBS (they’ll have it on a 24/7 loop, I’m sure), and finish the rest of the prep during the commercial breaks.

Serves 2 (or double it so you can have it again tomorrow)

Beautiful colors, and loads of Tex-Mex flavor!

Ingredients

2 large fresh sweet potatoes, scrubbed clean

1 Tbsp. kosher salt

1/2 medium red onion, chopped

1/2 red bell pepper, chopped

1 Tbsp. jalapeno, chopped

1/4 cup fire-roasted frozen corn (or regular corn)

A few shakes of Fire & Brimstone* (or another Tex-Mex seasoning, see notes)

About 2 oz. finely shredded mild cheddar cheese (or Colby, Monterey Jack, etc.)

1/2 can black beans, drained and rinsed

1/2 ripe avocado, cubed

Fresh cilantro and lime, for serving

Side accoutrements as desired, such as sour cream, salsa or pico de gallo


*Notes

My homemade spice blends do not have salt in them. Be mindful of the sodium content in whatever seasoning you use, so you don’t overdo it on additional salt while preparing the dish. If you’d like to try my Fire & Brimstone, see the ingredients listed at the end of the post.


Instructions


  1. In a large bowl, combine kosher salt with enough hot water to cover both sweet potatoes completely. Allow the potatoes to rest in this quick brine for about 20 minutes.
  2. Preheat oven to 400° F, with rack in center of the oven.
  3. Remove potatoes from brine and dry completely with paper towels. Use a sharp knife to cut an “X” about 3/4″ deep into the top of each sweet potato. This will be an “escape valve” for steam as the potato bakes. Place the potatoes on a parchment lined baking sheet.
  4. Bake the sweet potatoes for about 1 hour plus 15 minutes, or until soft enough to squeeze easily with a towel. About halfway through baking time, remove the pan and carefully cut the X marks a little bit deeper, but not all the way through.
  5. Near the end of baking time, heat olive oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add onions, red bell pepper, jalapeno (if using) and corn. Sauté until onions are softened and translucent, about five minutes. Add black beans to the mixture and toss to heat through.
  6. Transfer sweet potatoes to serving plates. Carefully squeeze open the potato, using the X marks to guide them open. Use a fork to lightly smash the potato. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
  7. Divide the shredded cheese directly onto the hot potato, then top with the bean-corn mixture.
  8. Use a sharp paring knife to score the avocado flesh for easy scooping. Divide the avocado onto the plates as a side to the sweet potato. Sprinkle with cilantro, give it a squeeze of fresh lime and serve.

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Fire & Brimstone Spice Blend

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire! This is a recipe blend I developed after repeated disappointment with all the salt in commercial blends. I use a variety of pepper ingredients, from mild and fruity to hot and smoky, and it works well as a sprinkle-on seasoning, chili add-in or even a dry rub on steaks or roasts. Adjust the amounts of any ingredient to suit your preferences. This recipe makes about 1/2 cup of spice blend. Store in an airtight jar in a cool, dry cabinet.

2 Tbsp. granulated garlic

2 Tbsp. ground black pepper

1 tsp. cayenne pepper (hot)

1 1/2 tsp. ground ancho pepper (mildly hot, fruity)

1 1/2 tsp. ground chipotle pepper (medium hot, smoky)

1 tsp. dried chipotle flakes (substitute additional ground chipotle if you cannot find these)

1 1/2 tsp. cumin (mild, smoky)

1 1/2 tsp dried thyme leaves


Moroccan Chicken

During earlier years of Food Network, the contestants vying to become “the next Food Network star” were actually given a contract to host their own cooking show, usually slotted for Sunday mornings. That was before the network became its entirely competition-based format, where everything has to be done in 20 minutes and somebody always “wins.” I still watch, but I miss the days when more of the chefs (or cooks, in the case of ever-popular Rachael Ray) walked you through the steps of making a meal in what looked like a real home kitchen. They still have some weekend morning “how-to” shows, but the rest of the time, it’s either a big ol’ showdown, or a bunch of chefs talking in bold color about the food at places they visit (I’m looking at you, Guy Fieri). 😉

Speaking of bold color, I’ve been working on restoring some color to things around here in the tail end of a very gray January. The recipe I’m sharing today has been a favorite of mine since the third season of said “Food Network Star,” and I learned it by watching an episode of the show hosted by Amy Finley, the first woman to win the network’s competition.

Amy’s show, endearingly named “The Gourmet Next Door,” showcased elegantly simple French cooking methods, and Amy exuded confidence in the kitchen. I was disappointed, along with everyone at Food Network, when Amy decided not to return for a second season. During her six episodes of TV fame, she managed to get through to me with this simple and really flavorful recipe, which she said was inspired by the foods of French Morocco, on the northern coast of Africa. The bone-in chicken thighs are marinated in a spicy blend of chiles and seed spices—known in those parts as “harissa”—and surrounded by tender and colorful vegetables, plus dried fruit and fried almonds. If it sounds like a weird combination, trust me, you will change your mind after you taste it. It’s spicy and savory, yet sweet with fruit and wholly satisfying.

For now, the tagine will remain purely decorative. I’ll be on the lookout for a real one that I can actually put in the oven.

Traditionally, a Moroccan dish such as this would be prepared in a clayware vessel called a tagine, which looks like the red pot above. The shape of the tagine keeps moisture inside for perfectly tender roasts and stews. I’ve had this tagine on display for several years, but have only recently considered cooking in it, at the urging of my husband, Les. However, after much discussion with my aunt, who spent decades as a clay potter, we concluded that the finish on this one probably makes it purely decorative and unsuitable for cooking. No worries, I’ve prepared the dish today as I always have, in a simple cast-iron skillet.

This dish is pretty and delicious, as spicy as you want it to be, easy to make and a welcome flavor change-up from the usual weeknight chicken dinner. I hope you like it!

Colorful veggies, dried fruit and nuts make this a satisfying, healthful meal.

Serves 4

Ingredients

2 Tbsp. neutral oil, such as canola

2 tsp. harissa blend spices* (see notes)

4 large bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs

1 small sweet onion, chopped into large pieces

1 small zucchini, cut into uniform chunks

1 small yellow squash, cut into uniform chunks

Handful of fresh baby tomatoes, whole

Small handful each dried plums (prunes) and apricots

1/2 cup low-sodium vegetable or chicken broth

1 tsp. neutral oil, such as canola

1/4 cup whole, raw almonds, unsalted

Cooked couscous for serving


*Notes

Traditionally, harissa is presented as a paste made from fresh whole chiles, and it really tips the scale on Scoville heat units. My dry blend of harissa spices allows for some flexibility in the heat department and includes red chile, garlic, black pepper, cayenne, and what I call the “three C spices,” which are caraway, coriander and cumin. The seeds should be slightly toasted and then ground into a rough powder before blending with the other ingredients. If you prefer, substitute a ready-made harissa blend, or use the harissa paste seasoning available at Trader Joe’s (brace yourself, it’s hot). My harissa dry spice blend recipe is listed at the end of this post.

You will need an oven safe skillet with a tight-fitting lid for this recipe. Alternatively, you could make it in an electric skillet with a lid. Or a tagine, if yours is safe to cook in. 🙂


Instructions

Let’s walk through it together in pictures first. You’ll find written instructions below, and keep scrolling for a downloadable PDF version for your recipe files.


  1. Combine the oil and spice blend in a large, deep bowl that is large enough to hold the chicken thighs for marinating. Season the chicken pieces on both sides with kosher salt. Add them to the spice marinade and turn several times to coat evenly. Cover and refrigerate at least two hours.
  2. Preheat oven to 350° F, with oven rack in the center.
  3. Heat a 10-inch cast-iron skillet over medium heat. When skillet is warm (but not hot), add chicken pieces, skin side-down. Do not move or turn the pieces for about 10 minutes, until the fat is rendered and skin is golden and crispy. Cook the second side about 5 minutes, until browned. Remove pieces to a plate and keep warm.
  4. Add the chopped onions, then zucchini and squash to the remaining oil in the skillet, tossing briefly to coat and lightly sauté them. Salt to taste. Remove skillet from heat.
  5. Arrange the baby tomatoes among the skillet vegetables, then tuck in the dried fruit pieces evenly throughout the skillet. Place the chicken thighs on top of the mixture.
  6. Swirl broth in the bowl that held the chicken pieces, to grab all the flavors lingering there. Pour the broth down the sides of the skillet, so that it flows underneath to the vegetables.
  7. Cover the skillet and transfer to the preheated oven. Bake for 45-60 minutes, until vegetables and fruit are soft and chicken pieces are tender. Prep the couscous near the end of the cooking time.
  8. Heat teaspoon of oil in a small skillet until it’s quite hot and shimmery. Add raw almonds and toss them about for about two minutes. They will pop and sputter a bit, so be careful. When they are toasty and fragrant, use a slotted spoon to remove them.
  9. Serve the vegetables and chicken over cooked couscous, and spoon the fried almonds over the top.
We’ll keep the tagine in the background, just for effect. 😉

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Harissa Dry Spice Blend

1 Tbsp. crushed red pepper flakes (more or less to your heat preference)

1 Tbsp. granulated dried garlic

1 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper (adds bite with minimal heat)

1 1/2 tsp. whole coriander seed, toasted and ground

1 tsp. cumin seed, toasted and ground

1 tsp. caraway seed, toasted and ground

2 or 3 shakes ground cayenne pepper (adjust to your heat preference)


Pumpkin Chipotle Deviled Eggs

At our house, the Thanksgiving “pre-feast” is almost as traditional as the feast itself. Even in this weird pandemic year, which finds us home alone for Turkey Day, we will have an eclectic spread of snacks and finger foods that will serve as sustenance until dinner.

We always have deviled eggs in the mix; they are a perfect little bite, savory and delicious, and packing enough protein to fill our bellies in a healthy way rather than just scarfing on carbs. As I mentioned back in the spring when I shared an egg-stravaganza, deviled eggs are a blank canvas for any flavor that strikes your fancy. This time, it’s the savory side of pumpkin, highlighted with a little garlic and ground chipotle powder.

By the way, this recipe would also work great with equal substitution of pureed sweet potato, if you prefer.

The pumpkin and chipotle flavors are a savory surprise with these deviled eggs.

Ingredients

6 hard-boiled eggs

3 Tbsp. pure pumpkin puree (not pie filling)

2 Tbsp. canola mayonnaise

1/4 tsp. ground chipotle powder

Sprinkle of garlic powder

Kosher sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


Instructions

The pictures tell the story, but you’ll also find written steps below, and a link for a downloadable PDF for your recipe files.


  1. Cut hard-boiled eggs in half lengthwise and drop the yolks into a small bowl (I used the small bowl of my food processor, but this is not essential).
  2. Add pumpkin puree, mayonnaise and spices to the cooked yolks.
  3. Process or mash together until the mixture is completely uniform. Add another small spoonful of mayonnaise if needed for creamy consistency.
  4. Fill the cavities of the egg whites with the yolk mixture. You can spoon this in for a quick finish, or take a simple shortcut for a more polished presentation by using a small zip top bag with a snipped corner.

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