Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Last Dance

Some of your may have noticed that I have been posting about the kitchen less and less in the past few months. This is because I have been absent from the kitchen for the better part of a month and a half. My year there is up and I'm being phased out. And even if my year weren't up-due to financial strain we're down to two women shifts again. There are simply too many women and not enough shifts.
The news that I wouldn't be working in the kitchen on a weekly basis anymore came rather suddenly. One evening, I came in for a workshop to learn from a chef a bit and to hang out with the women from my business management course and was then informed that I wouldn't be assigned weekly shifts anymore. If I had it my way, life would continue this way for another year at least: kitchen work and laughter-filled gatherings. It didn't even occur to me that it wouldn't. But by the next morning I was dragging myself out of my bed for what would be my last regular shift in the kitchen. It wasn't my last day- I have been, and will be back in the kitchen for occasional shifts, but the day did seem to carry extra emotional weight.
I walked in that Tuesday morning and donned my apron and cap. C. greeted me as usual, and as usual, I asked what needed to be done. She pointed me to the sink and pile of dirty fennel. At that point, I teared up a bit remembering my very first day in the kitchen and how overwhelmed I was, my fingers turning numb as I washed dirty fennel under a stream of cold water at the very same sink. My last day and first day in symmetry.
That day, R. stopped by the kitchen and I hovered as she made meatballs, looking for tips and recipes and stories about her time in Amsterdam. That day, L. turned the Middle Eastern music up high as he washed dishes and belly danced in his thick apron and rain boots and the few people lingering in the dining room laughed and laughed at the sight of him and came to dance with him. I don't remember what we served. I do remember that N. ate schnitzel and it felt like a victory. I do remember that M, with her flowing red hair, came up from behind me and threw arms around my waist and I held on tight. I said goodbye to everyone a million times that day. I said, see you next month. I said it to L and to R and to S and C. I said it even though I didn't have a shift scheduled for the next month, but there would have to be one. I wasn't ready to go. I wasn't ready to stop being tired and dirty and cranky from waking up to early. I wasn't ready to be cut loose; to do this whole cooking thing on my own. There was still too much to learn. There is still too much to learn.

I didn't plan on sharing  a recipe when I first conceived of this post. I couldn't remember what we cooked in the kitchen and I couldn't think of any recipe that seemed to resonate with the words in my head. Then I received Ottolenghi: The Cookbook from my friends as a birthday gift. Ottolenghi (the cookbook), is Sami Tamimi and Yotam Ottolenghi's first cookbook. Plenty, Ottolenghi's vegetarian follow-up, has gotten a lot of press, and not a little buzz. I do not yet own it, but I am glad that I got Ottolenghi (the cookbook) first. Without it I would not have met roast potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes with lemon and sage, or beef and lamb meatballs baked in tahini, or the star of this post, roast chicken with sumac, za'atar and lemon.
Sumac and za'atar are relatively new spices for me. Before moving to Israel I don't think I even knew what sumac was and it wasn't until just a few years ago that I actually started using it myself. But these two spices play a large role in Israeli cooking. You will find za'atar on bread and sprinkled over yogurt and labaneh- a soft white cheese. Sumac, bright red and tangy is dusted on salads and hummus.  These two spices, to me, symbolize my new kitchen- a kitchen I've built and am building far away from my mother's and grandmother's kitchens. It is filled with new tastes and techniques; influenced by different foods and different growing seasons.
The first time I made this recipe, though, I used a technique that was entirely from my mother's kitchen.  While making the chicken I was faced with the prospect of two extra, unexpected guests. Needing another side-dish, I grabbed some potatoes, sliced them and stuck them under the chicken before it went in to the oven to roast. For many years, this is what my family ate every Friday night- roast chicken with potatoes underneath. My mother used mostly paprika, salt and pepper for her spice mix, but the idea is the same-potatoes soaked in the flavor of roast chicken.This too, is part of my own kitchen.

I'm not going to stop blogging just because I'm no longer working in the community kitchen as often as I once did. There are still stories to be told. There always are. Now, however, the stories will most likely be about my own kitchen- this thing I'm building out of za'atar and sumac; paprika and potatoes; the very stuff of home.

Roast Chicken with Sumac, Za'atar and Lemon

Adapted from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook by Sami Tamimi and Yotam Ottolenghi

1 large chicken cut into 8 pieces
2 red onions, sliced
2 garlic cloves, crushed
4 tbsp olive oil
11/2 tsp ground allspice
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tbsp sumac
1 lemon, sliced
200 ml water
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
2 tbsp za'atar
4 medium potatoes, sliced
50 g pine nuts
4 tbsp chopped parsley

1. Mix the chicken with the onions, garlic, olive oil, allspice through sumac, lemon, water and salt and pepper. Cover and put in the fridge to marinate for a few hours or (even better) overnight.

2. Preheat the oven to 200 C (about 400 F). Place the potatoes at the bottom of a roasting tray large enough to accommodate the pieces of chicken so that they can lay flat without touching one another. Lay the chicken (skin side up) and onions over the potatoes and then add the marinade. Sprinkle the za'atar over the chicken. Roast for 30-40 minutes until the chicken is just cooked through.

3. In a small frying pan, toast the pine nuts until they are slightly brown and fragrant.

4. Serve the  hot chicken topped with the parsley and pine nuts.

Thursday, March 15, 2012


I have been super busy this past week or so and so my planned blog post did not get written. In lieu of said post which will be posted next week (there will be Ottolenghi! sumac! dancing!) I present you with today's lunch: leftover quinoa with pan grilled broccoli and a fried egg.  And, because it's Thursday you get bonus strawberry pictures. Happy Thursday, y'all.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Just fry it up a little


Blood orange curd, meet rhubarb curd, rhubarb, meet blood orange.

The pictures you see above are not stuffed cabbage but they are related to the subject of stuffed cabbage. Bear with me for a moment. All will be revealed. What you see above are various parts of my Purim prep-mini cupcakes, various curds (rhubarb and blood orange) etc, and for me Purim is synonymous with stuffed cabbage.

Every year for the past 30 or so years my parents have hosted the same group of friends at their annual Purim party. Some of these friends we would see only once or twice a year and some of them we would see weekly, daily even (hi, Saphs!). For the adults, it was (and I imagine,is) a time to catch up, eat, drink and talk. Us kids, inevitably bored with all the talk would make our way to the basement where we would watch old episodes of Rocky and Bullwinkle. One year, some of the kids decided to put on a skit, and that too, became tradition- a tradition that was passed on to my nieces and the other third generation party goers. Yes, the party still happens. Every year. The same people. The same group that started out as young couples and are now grandparents, still gather to talk, catch up and eat.

Like Rocky and Bullwinkle, the guest list and the skit, the food didn't vary much either. For starters, stuffed cabbage followed by vegetable soup, cornflake crumb chicken and occasionally, when my mother had time, shlishkalach- Hungarian potato gnocchi. Sometimes, the salads brought by guests would change a bit and sometimes my mother would make rice or some other starch in place of the shlishkalach, but we always, always started with stuffed cabbage.

It's been eight years since I've been at my parent's Purim party and I still miss it. Purim is nice, to be sure. I have a few traditions of my own, but I miss the gathering and the rootedness of my parent's house. I miss the chaos and the smells and the people I would see once or twice a year and the people I would see weekly and daily. Purim without stuffed cabbage just isn't the same. 

My mother got her stuffed cabbage recipe from her grandmother. When taking down the recipe from my great-grandmother (or, Big Babbe as we called her) my mother asked: "So you saute the onions, right?" To which Big Babbe replied: "What saute, you just fry it up a little". So, when I tell you to saute the onions you must know that what I mean is fry it up a little.

My  Mother's Stuffed Cabbage

1 head cabbage

1.5 pounds ground meat (or more, if your head of cabbage is very large)
1 large onion per pound of meat, chopped
1-2 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 egg per pound of meat
3/4 cup of rice (1/2 cup per pound of meat)

48 oz tomatojuice
1 can whole berry cranberry sauce
2 tbl ketchup
fistful of brown sugar
1-2 onions, sliced
odds and ends of the cabbage that you did not use for filling

1. The night before you make the stuffed cabbage stick the head of cabbage in the freezer.

2. The next day, remove the cabbage from the freezer, core it and then quickly blanch it in a pot of boiling water. The leaves should separate easily. Lay the leaves on a kitchen towel to dry a bit, and then cut out the tough, middle stem (the smaller leaves may be malleable enough that you don't need to do that).

3. Now, make the filling. Saute the onions and garlic in a bit of vegetable oil until soft and slightly browned. In a large bowl mix together the meat, egg and rice. Add the onion and garlic mixture. Knead briefly so that it holds together. You may need to add a drop or two of water to get the right consistency. Set aside.

4. Make the sauce. Line the bottom of a big, heavy pot (a stockpot will do) with onion slices and odds and ends of the cabbage (this will keep the stuffed cabbage from burning). Add the rest of the ingredient to the pot, mix and bring to a boil. (You want the sauce to be at a boil when you put the cabbage in).

5. Stuff the cabbage: put an egg sized amount of filling in the middle of a cabbage leaf. Fold the two vertical sides over the stuffing, then fold the side closest to you up and roll it so that you get a nice little neat meat-filled cabbage package. Place the cabbage roll, seam side down, in the pot. Repeat with the remaining cabbage.

6. Once all the cabbage has been placed in the pot, check the sauce. You want it to be just covering the cabbage. If it is not, add a bit of water. Turn the heat down to low. Cover the the cabbage and cook at a very low simmer for 2 hours or more, giving the pot a good shake every 20 minutes or so.  (The longer it cooks, the better it'll taste). Stuffed cabbage reheats nicely (on a very low heat) so feel free to make a day or two in advance and reheat before serving.