Saturday, February 25, 2012


Beets. We use them all the time in the kitchen. I cannot count how many times I have finished my shift with my hands stained red from beet juice. Cooked beets, fresh beets, beet salad. We make them all. After a year in the kitchen, frankly, I was beginning to get sick of beets. I mean, really, how much can you do with beets? Oh, how little did I know.
A word about my uncles: My mother's two brothers live here in Israel. One is a poet/writer/teacher/linguist/general knower of knowledge.He's the person I call when I need something translated from the French, or you know, need to know the origins of the word gamba. He lives in an old, crumbling apartment in Florentine, which is probably the hippest neighborhood in Tel Aviv right now.  My other uncle, the baby of the family, lives in Kfar Saba in a beautiful little house, with a beautiful little garden and a lemon tree that drips lemons (and a wife and three adorable, precocious kids) He works in hi-tech. He also knows a lot of things. Practical things. Things like, help my computer crashed and won't turn back on; and should I buy an Ipad, etc.
 Both of my maternal uncles are superb cooks. They are, however, in keeping with their personalities and general tendencies, very different cooks. I call my Tel Aviv uncle when I want to know why my tart dough keeps shrinking, and how to make untergeshlugeneh bundlach (Hungarian vichyssoise. A family recipe). I call my Kfar Saba uncle when I have an odd conglomeration of ingredients sitting around and I don't know what to do with them. Inevitably, he will think of something creative and absolutely delicious, that I would have never though of on my own. In Tel Aviv I am liable to be served little cookies, rich with butter. In Kfar Saba, I get grilled salmon and grain salad. In both cases, I leave sated and very, very happy.
All this was a very long way of introducing my uncle Tzvi's (Tel Aviv uncle) Florentine Chamitzah, which I first heard about in Kfar Saba, as my uncle and I were waiting for our nephew/nieces/cousins to gather around the table so we could eat the best roast chicken in the world. In any case, a chamitzah is a tart soup that often features kubbe as its star. When my uncle originally told me about the soup, he presented it as a borscht-a beet soup. And the truth is that it is sort of cross between a beet soup and a chamitzah. It is deep red and beety, but also tart and spicy. It is not one of those soups that you just sort of throw into the pot. You have to build this soup. First comes the sauerkraut, then the broth vegetables and the heat, in the form of chili peppers. Then comes the chicken stock. The resulting broth, simmered for an hour and strained of its vegetables, is delicious, but the soup is not done. Nope, in goes tomato paste, red wine and a touch of honey. Simmer, simmer and at the end you will have this thing- this beautiful, smooth, tangy layered thing. It is a wonder to behold. My uncle Tzvi calls it a sipping soup, and drinks it from a mug. I served it in bowls to company, with a kneidel (a matzoh ball). The kneidel was pretty good, but honestly, what this soup wants is a nice piece of kubbe.
So, thank you Uncle Tzvi, for introducing me to this soup. It's a good one.

Tzvi Mermelstein's Florentine Chamitzah

1 560 gram can of sauerkraut, drained
1 onion, chopped
4 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
1 green chilli pepper (or more, to taste) chopped.
paprika, a pinch (or, to taste)
cayenne pepper (to taste)
1 carrot, chopped
1 beet, chopped
1 celery root, chopped
1 liter chicken stock
400 grams tomato paste
1 cup red wine
2 cups water
a splash of white vinegar (optional)
1 tbl honey or brown sugar

1. Heat a few glugs of vegetable oil in a large soup pot. Add the sauerkraut and saute for a few minutes until fragrant. Add the onion, garlic, chili, paprika and cayenne. Saute till slightly translucent. Then, add the carrot, beet and celery root. Saute till warmed through. Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for an hour or more.

2. After about an hour, remove the soup from the heat and strain. Toss the veggies (or, eat em if you'd like, but they shouldn't have much flavor left, so you might as well just compost em). To the broth add the tomato past, red wine and water. Bring to a boil and then lower the heat to a simmer. Taste, adjust seasoning (you may need to add some salt). If the soup is not tart enough add a splash of vinegar. Otherwise, just a tablespoon of honey or brown sugar to bring all the flavors together. Simmer for 15-20 minutes.

3. Serve, either in mugs as a "sipping" soup or in bowls  (with a nice a piece of kubbe or a kniedel).

Thursday, February 2, 2012

In Development

C. says I am an expert at couscous. This is not true. I am not a couscous expert. I have never steamed couscous in a steamer. I've never made it from scratch. Like most people, I know how to pour water over couscous grains and let it sit. I've learned some tricks over the years, and that's, perhaps, why C calls me the couscous expert. I've learned that when you drizzle the couscous with oil, pre-water, your really need to mix well and make sure that all the grains get coated. I've also learned to cover the couscous tightly as it steams. And lastly, I've learned that you've got get your hands in there to avoid clumps, especially when dealing with a large amount of couscous. As soon as it is cool enough to handle, you need to dig and rub the grains of couscous between your finger to break up the clumps. Just a fork won't do.
While these tricks do not make me an expert, by any stretch of the imagination, they do make me the maker of couscous in the kitchen. We don't stock couscous that often-it's more expensive than other grains such bulgur- but when we do, I'm usually the one making it. Not that I mind. I really like plunging my hands into the still-warm couscous and feeling it pass through my fingers like sand. There's joy and a little bit of wonder in the absolute tactile-ness of it. Once, I played like this, moving things through my hand.  Now, that same motion feeds people. How about that?

In the kitchen we serve couscous with a light, vegetable laden soup, which is how it is traditionally served. The turmeric tinged broth is chock full of pumpkin, zucchini, celery, onions and chickpeas. At home, I don't make the soup. I don't know why. It's a lovely soup and served over couscous, it's a meal all on its own. At home, couscous is usually a side dish. Mostly it gets turned into a grain salad of some sort. For the past few days I've been playing with couscous with roasted carrots and fennel dressed with harissa and preserved lemon. I've been thinking of the idea roasted carrots and harissa for a while. In North African cooking, harissa and carrots often go together, and I thought that roasting the carrots would give an extra layer of depth and sweetness to the flavor profile. Then, I thought, hey, I really like roasted fennel with my roasted carrots, and fennel and harrisa could work too. So fennel got added into the mix. After the harissa and carrots and fennel, couscous just seemed the like natural thing.

Originally, when thinking about the dressing for my couscous salad/sidedish/meal thingie, I was stuck on yogurt. I felt that the yogurt would be a nice cool counterpoint to the harissa. But when I tried a dressing of yogurt, harissa and some lemon juice I found that the tang of the yogurt overwhelmed everything and that strangely enough, the lemon was both too astringent and not *bright lemony!* enough. So it was back to the dressing drawing board.  Eventually I arrived at a non-vinaigrette vinaigrette, with harissa and preserved lemon standing in for the acid of vinegar or lemon juice. On a whim, I also roasted a clove of garlic with the veggies, smashed it and added to the dressing. It added a nice mellowness. And that, my friends, is where I stopped.

I'm post this recipe today, but in reality it's still in development. I still want to play with it. It could probably use some raisins. And I'm thinking maybe that the harissa should come with the roasting part instead of in the dressing. I"m fairly certain it  also wants some cilantro. But, here it is in any case, cuz it's  still pretty good as it is.

Couscous with Roasted Carrots and Fennel with Harissa "Vinaigrette"

So when you taste this dish, at first you're going to be all whoa, spicy! tart! flavor!, what with all that harissa, preserved lemon and roasted garlic, but then you're going to get a piece of carrot or fennel and you're going to be all, hey, sweet! fennely! nice! And that's the way it should be.

Serves 2

For the vegetables:
2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 1/4-1/2 inch chunks
2 medium bulbs of fennel, trimmed and chopped into slightly bigger than bite sized pieces
1 clove of garlic, unpeeled
olive oil

For the couscous:
1/3 cup medium grained instant couscous
water, at a boil
olive oil

For the "vinaigrette":
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon harissa (or more, to taste)
3, or so, strips of preserved lemon, minced
1 clove roasted garlic (see above)

1. Preheat the oven to 400 F (about 200 C). Place vegetables in a single layer on a lined baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt and freshly ground pepper. Drizzle with olive oil and toss, coating the vegetables. Slide the baking tray into the oven. After about 20 minutes, remove the garlic. It should be soft and golden in its papery skin. Continue roasting vegetables for another 10 minutes or so until they are soft and caramelizing at the edges. Remove from oven.

2. While the vegetables are roasting, make the vinaigrette. In a small bowl, whisk together the oil, harissa and preserved lemon. When the garlic is done roasting, peel it and give it a good smash and chop. Add it to the dressing. Then, add a good pinch of salt and a grind of pepper. Taste and adjust the seasoning.

3. Make the couscous. Place the couscous in a bowl, tupperware, or pot- anything that can be tightly covered. Add a pinch of salt and pepper and a drizzle of olive oil. With a fork, mix thoroughly, making sure that the grains aren't clumping together and that they are coated in oil. Add boiling water until it just tops the grains of couscous. Cover the bowl/tupperware/pot tightly. Let sit for 5-7 minutes until the couscous as swelled and is cooked though.  Remove cover. Wait a few minutes and then run your fingers through the couscous, declumpifying any clumps (or, just fluff it with a fork, with this amount of couscous, clumps are unlikely).

4. Pour couscous into a serving bowl. Top with roasted vegetables. Pour most, but not all of the dressing over the salad and mix. Taste and adjust, adding more dressing if needed. Serve.