August 2010

Cookbooks I Like: The Very Best of Recipes for Health

A couple of years ago when I first got interested in the traditional Mediterranean diet, I began experimenting with dinners composed of several smaller vegetable or grain dishes, rather than the meat+sides approach that I was used to. I liked a lot of vegetables just straight up, but was looking for ideas to give these meals some pizzazz.
 
My earliest inspiration for these Mediterranean menu adventures came from Martha Rose Shulman, whose “Recipes for Health” column at NYTimes.com always seemed to have a good answer to “What’s for dinner?”—flavor-packed suggestions for dishes using that week’s farm produce. In fact, I remember the exact menu that made my husband and I look at each other at the end of the meal and say, ‘wow, this really is a delicious way to eat, let’s do more of this.’ And we have.
 
That night, in what now reads like an Ode to Yogurt, I’d made Mediterranean Beets and Yogurt SaladMiddle Eastern Spinach With Spices and Yogurt, and, because I had leeks, and because it’s delicious, Julia Child’s braised leeks, which, I confess, involves a very un-Mediterranean quantity of butter. We ate the dishes one by one (with the leeks in between the two yogurt dishes as I recall), savoring the sweet of the beets paired with the garlicky yogurt, the velvety leeks, the spinach and its Middle Eastern spices. It was a culinary trip to faraway places, all at our own dinner table.
 
Since then, I’ve cooked dozens of Shulman’s recipes, for family dinners or to impress guests. They’re low-fuss and high-impact. Along the way I’ve built up quite a collection of spattered printouts from the column, which I stuff in a binder and have never gotten around to organizing. Now I’m delighted that the organizing has been done for me: Shulman has collected 250 of her favorites in a book, The Very Best of Recipes for Health, just out from Rodale Books, with beautiful photos by Andrew Scrivani, who also photographs the Times column.
 
I like the way the book is organized around themes such as breakfast, vegetarian main courses, salads, and pasta and risotto. A dietary index conveniently cross-references recipes under topics like gluten-free, low-calorie, or high in omega-3s, while a general index makes it easy to find recipes by ingredient. Shulman includes a useful section on the well-stocked pantry—I’ve found that putting together a Mediterranean pantry of my own (more on that later) is part of what makes it easy and pleasurable for me to keep exploring this new way of eating. 
 
To celebrate this Meatless Monday, here’s one of my favorite recipes from Shulman’s new book:
 
 
Corn and Vegetable Gratin with Cumin
By Martha Rose Shulman
 
Serves 6
 
1 tbs extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 medium red bell pepper, diced
Salt
1 large garlic clove, minced
1/2 lb zucchini, thinly sliced or diced
Freshly ground pepper
Kernels from 2 ears sweet corn (about 2 cups)
3 large eggs
1/2 cup 1% milk
1 tsp cumin seeds, lightly toasted and coarsely ground in a spice mill, or slightly crushed in a mortar and pestle
1/2 cup (2 oz) grated Gruyère cheese
 
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Oil a 2-quart gratin or baking dish. Set aside the kernels from one of the ears of corn. Heat the olive oil in a large, nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the onion. Cook, stirring often, until it begins to soften, about 3 minutes. Add the bell pepper and a generous pinch of salt. Cook, stirring often, until the onions and peppers are tender, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and zucchini, stir together, and add another generous pinch of salt and some pepper. Cook, stirring often, until the zucchini is just beginning to look bright green and some of the slices are translucent. Stir in half of the corn kernels. Stir together for 1 or 2 minutes, and remove from the heat. Scrape into a large bowl.
 
2. Place the eggs, milk, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and remaining corn kernels in a blender. Blend until smooth. Pour into the bowl with the vegetables. Add the cumin and the cheese, and stir everything together. Scrape into the gratin dish.
 
3. Bake 35 to 40 minutes, or until the top is browned and the gratin is firm to the touch. Serve hot or warm.

Advance preparation: The vegetable filling can be prepared a day ahead and kept in the refrigerator.
 
From The Very Best of Recipes for Health: 250 Recipes and More from the Popular Feature on NYTimes.com © 2010 by Martha Rose Shulman, published by Rodale Books.

Eataly Coming to New York: First Look

I WAS WALKING ALONG 24th Street last week and peeked in the window at Eataly, the 50,000-square-foot food hall Mario Batali is opening with partners Joe Bastianich, Lidia Bastianich and others.
 
 
Batali has described it as a “temple” to Italian food. It will have all sorts of food departments—butcher, fishmonger, greengrocer, bakery, cheese, dried goods, salumi—as well as restaurants and snack counters. A sign outside quotes Fellini: “Life is a combination of magic and pasta.” Sounds good to me.
 
 
The original Eataly, a Slow Food heaven in Turin, opened in 2007, followed by branches in other Italian cities and in Japan. We’ll all get to experience New York’s Eataly for ourselves on Tuesday, August 31 at 4 pm. To whet your appetite, here’s a preview from Eater.
 
See you there!
  
Eataly
Fifth Avenue and 24th Street 

RECIPE: Watermelon and Tomato Salad

I WAS SORRY TO HAVE MISSED NEW AMSTERDAM MARKET in NYC this Sunday. The only consolation was that I was actually in farm country enjoying the harvest firsthand. 
 
 
A visit to Millbrook Market in Dutchess County is always a great way to while away a Saturday morning, tasting and chatting and filling your bags. This week, we found lots of heirloom tomatoes and had a great talk about them (and Italy) with grower Gino Ianucci. Breezy Hill Orchard (coincidentally, also a vendor at New Amsterdam Market) had perfect white and yellow peaches, and there were lovely small round watermelons (and more tomatoes) from Sol Flower Farm.
 
We also managed to nab the last peach tart from Art of the Tart—made with fabulously buttery puff pastry in true French rustic style. I’d made the mistake once before of circling the market before buying one of these confections. This time I knew to take immediate decisive action the minute I set eyes on it. 
 
Most of what we bought was devoured in recipe-free eating—tomato slices on prosciutto sandwiches, peaches any time we wanted. But I’d been hearing about watermelon and tomato salad for a while, and now I had the ideal fresh-picked ingredients. So I decided to make one.
 
 
When I first heard about the pairing I thought it sounded unlikely. All summer when I was growing up, we ate watermelon just chopped off in lovely half rounds, which would get you soaked up to the ears. (Preferably, it was eaten outdoors so you could shoot the seeds off  “to plant another watermelon” or bop your brother.)
 
But the more I thought about the textures and tastes of tomatoes and watermelons, the more I liked the sound of it. The taste didn’t disappoint—sweet and tart, crisp and juicy, all combined to make a delicious salad. Here’s how I made it. I didn’t have any feta around, but next time I’d crumble it over the salad for a nice salty zest.
 
Watermelon and Tomato Salad
 
1 cup watermelon chunks
3 medium tomatoes, cut into similar size chunks
2 tbs olive oil
1 tsp balsamic or red wine vinegar
salt to taste
 
Combine the watermelon and tomato chunks.
 
Whisk together 2 tbs olive oil and 1 tsp balsamic or red wine vinegar. Pour dressing over watermelon and tomatoes. Toss lightly. Salt to taste. Crumble feta cheese over salad.
 
Happy Meatless Monday!

Enough with the Ratatouille. What's for Dessert?

I’d like to say “a plate of figs” but that’s the kind of answer that apparently can lead to culinary combat. (After taking pot shots at just such a dish, one New York chef got into quite a bit of trouble himself.) I’m pretty sure I can fly below the radar on this one, though. And seriously, the dessert you’re most likely to find on a Mediterranean table is a plate of figs—or peaches, or plums, or whatever the orchards and fields and markets happen to be spilling out that week.
 
 
Even if you’re “just” serving figs, as David Tanis points out (pre-controversy) in his aptly titled book A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes, you do need to know your figs.
“Are they sun-ripened and bursting with jammy sweetness? Are they succulent enough to eat as is, or do they want a sprinkling of salt, a drizzle of good olive oil, perhaps a thin slice of prosciutto? A dab of fresh ricotta and honey to heighten the flavor?”
For the last month in NYC greenmarkets, the bounty has been stone fruits: plums, apricots, peaches, nectarines, which are packed with the antioxidants and phytonutrients associated with disease prevention. (Antioxidants are thought to be central to the health benefits of the traditional Mediterranean diet.) Stone fruits have been plentiful and good this year, which isn’t always the case. 
 
 
 
I grew up in southwestern Ontario where August brought baskets and baskets of peaches that we ate freely—with every meal and in between. Cornflakes and peaches for breakfast, juicy peach eaten standing over the kitchen sink, sliced peaches with sour cream. And just like apples have names—Macintosh, Granny Smith, Northern Spy—these peaches all had names, too. (Red Haven is one I remember.) I thought that’s the way the world was—full of wonderful peaches. Then I moved away and spent the next decades being disappointed by peaches—pulpy ones, tasteless ones, green ones—until I practically gave up. But hope springs eternal and so it’s a happy day when the local peaches arrive and the crop is a good one and you can bite into a sweet, juicy one—or two—or three.
 
 
So, yes, peaches on a plate is a perfect dessert right now.
 
Or plums in a bowl.
 
 
And if you’re looking to fancy things up a bit, here are three other simple ways to serve fruit.
 
Shower berries (or cut fruit) over a big dollop of Greek yogurt (I know, dollop is not a technical term; let’s say 1/2 cup)  in your bowl. Add a drizzle of maple syrup if you’re a girl like me who likes to be reminded of home. (It tastes wonderful without, too.)
 
Macerate the fruit: Cut it up, removing any nasty bits (this method is a good way to deal with fruit that’s either side of the tipping point of ripeness). Sprinkle with 1 to 2 tbs sugar (I use turbinado) for every two cups of fruit, and let sit for half an hour or more. The juices from the fruit will emerge, making a wonderful sauce (and flavoring the yogurt if you use it).
 
I was introduced to eating fruit this way years ago when my brother John, who was just back from months spent traveling around Italy and the Mediterranean, served me the most beautiful bowl of oranges—sliced into rounds and steeped in their own juices: my first taste of Macedonia di Frutta.  I find that combining fewer different types of fruit works better than more; use ones that complement each other (peaches and blueberries are a winner at this time of year).
 
There are hundreds of variations on this basic idea, often inspired by products that grow together—like the wild strawberries outside of Ferrara and the balsamic vinegar from nearby Modena (as Babbo pastry chef Gina DePalma describes here). Wine or liqueurs are often involved.
 
So... add a tablespoon or two of balsamic vinegar to a pint of strawberries, or a 1/4 cup of Prosecco or Cava. Add white or rosé wine to peaches, a tablespoon or two of Grand Marnier to a bowl of orange macédoine. Or use lavender-flavored sugar or sprinkle crystallized ginger or fresh mint on top. (But perhaps not all of the above at once!)
 
What are your favorite combos? Let us know via the comment box below.
 
Poach the fruit: One of my favorite examples of this—made with pears—is from nouveau Greek chef Michael Psilakis. Poaching is a good method if the only fruit you can find is a bit hard, which is frequently the case through the winter months in NYC.
 
Peel, quarter and core 2 pears. Cut each quarter into thirds. Put in a saucepan with one cup water and ½ cup sugar (the recipe calls for a cup but I find ½ cup works just fine). Add 4 peppercorns, a star of anise and a cinnamon stick. Bring to a gentle boil, then turn down and simmer for 10 minutes.
 
Remove the spices. Put ½ cup of Greek yogurt in each of four bowls. Divide the pears and juice among the bowls. Top with toasted, chopped walnuts. (Or not, if you prefer.)
 
Et voilà, a fruit dessert fit for kings and queens. 

RECIPE: Briami, or Greek Vegetable Casserole

BRIAMI IS ONE OF MANY ratatouille-like dishes found around the Mediterranean, each with its own distinctive taste and slight variations of ingredients. Served with a green salad, this makes a great main dish. Meatless Monday anyone?
 
Serves 3-4 as a main dish, 4-6 as a side
 
1 large red pepper, roughly chopped
¼ cup olive oil
2 onions, sliced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 medium zucchini (about ¾ lb), thickly sliced
¾ lb small potatoes, unpeeled, cut into ½ inch slices
2 lbs ripe tomatoes, peeled and roughly chopped
(when tomatoes are out of season, use drained, canned Italian tomatoes—Marzano if possible)
1 tsp dried oregano
2 tbs chopped fresh flat-leaf (Italian) parsley
2 tbs chopped fresh dill
½ tsp ground cinnamon
 
Preheat oven to 350°F.
 
Place peppers, zucchini, potatoes, tomatoes, herbs and cinnamon in a bowl and season generously with salt and pepper.
 
Heat 2 tbs of the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed frying pan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until soft but not browned, about 10 minutes. Add garlic and cook until aromatic, about 2 minutes. Add the onion mixture to the other vegetables in the bowl and toss together. Transfer to a large baking dish and drizzle with remaining olive oil.
 
Cover and bake 1 to 1½ hours, stirring every 30 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender.
 
Eat as a main dish, with a salad, or as a side dish with chicken or fish. It can be served hot or at room temperature.
 
Adapted from The Essential Mediterranean Cookbook (Bay Books, an imprint of Murdoch Books). 

Ratatouille By Any Other Name...

When you talk about a Mediterranean diet, it’s hard to imagine that 20-plus countries bordering one sea could have anything identifiable as a single diet. Yet because of history and climate and customs, dishes that are really variations on a theme do show up quite often. The Provençal stew of eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, peppers, garlic, onions and olive oil is a good example.
 
 
Ratatouille has cousins all over the Mediterranean, each with its own distinctive personality and special taste. The core ingredients—eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, zucchini—are not even native to the Mediterranean (although the essential olive oil certainly is). They came to the region long ago by different routes. Eggplant was introduced throughout the Mediterranean basin by Arabs who brought it from its native India in the Middle Ages. Bell peppers, zucchini and tomatoes came from the New World, introduced to Europe by Christopher Columbus and his pals. (Strangely enough, all but the zucchini are members of the nightshade family. As in deadly nightshade. Which apparently is why Europeans were originally suspicious of the tomato, although the Mediterranean countries certainly came around, adopting it with passion and creativity as a quintessential Med ingredient.)
 
 
So about all those cousins…this is what I’ve come across so far. (Additions and corrections welcome! Add a comment below.)
 
Catalan samfaina, or xamfaina, is virtually identical to ratatouille. Colman Andrews speculates in his book Catalan Cuisine that perhaps, in fact, samfaina came first “considering the early popularity of eggplant [among] Catalans and the fact that [they] were using tomatoes, peppers, and zucchini widely before their French neighbors were.” It also sometimes takes the form of a sauce, when it’s cooked longer into an almost jammy consistency.
 
Then there’s the caponata side of the family:
 
Sicilian caponata adds celery to the basic four, plus sweetened vinegar and capers for a sweet-and-sour dish.
 
Maltese kapunata eliminates the zucchini and adds capers.
 
Moroccan kamfounata is spiced with cumin and fresh coriander (cilantro).
 
Tunisians call their stew of peppers and tomatoes shakhshūkha—to which they add eggs and cayenne, and maybe chickpeas. Tunisian Jews probably brought the dish to Israel, where it is very popular. (Try it right here in NYC at Hummus Place, where it includes eggplant and onions.) In fact, it’s become a common dish throughout North Africa, where it’s sometimes served with spicy Merguez sausage. 
 
Turks love their eggplant any way they can get it. Imam bayildi (“the priest swooned”) leaves behind ratatouille’s zucchini and pepper and gives center stage to braised eggplant, which is stuffed with onion, garlic and tomatoes. Karniyak keeps the eggplant, pepper, tomatoes trio and adds minced meat and rice.
 
Musakka was originally an Ottoman dish, but is widely known today in its Greek incarnation moussaka: stewed eggplant and tomatoes with meat, topped with a béchamel sauce. Various Turkish versions have zucchini or green peppers or chickpeas or no béchamel.
 
Then there’s the don’t-forget-that-other-nightshade-veggie crowd. We’re talking potatoes.
 
Mallorcan tumbet, or tombet, is made from eggplants, peppers, tomatoes—and potatoes—although sometimes zucchini pops in there, too.
 
Greek briami is a casserole of zucchini, potatoes, onions and tomatoes (sometimes peppers, too). It makes a great dish for Meatless Monday, as do many of these. I haven’t tried this briami recipe yet myself but the test kitchen of one hungry student named Stefan in Montreal vouches for it as a tasty and satisfying meal (good enough to eat two nights in a row).
 
 
And then, of course, there’s the fabulously high-style ratatouille of movie fame, actually a dish called confit byaldi, invented by chef Michel Guerard (of cuisine minceur fame) and created for the movie—with the vegetables fanned out accordion style—by French Laundry (Yountville, CA) chef Thomas Keller, who worked as a culinary consultant for the film. 
 
Here’s a simpler but equally stylish rendition of that dish from Smitten Kitchen.
 
The creativity just goes on and on. What’s your riff on ratatouille? Or your family’s tradition?  Write to us!

Another Salvo in the Ratatouille Skirmishes

Salon is reigniting the Great Ratatouille Debate. Is it a simple “what-the-hell-are-we-going-to-do-with-all-this-stuff kind of [stew],” as writer Francis Lam puts it (and was at first inclined toward), or is there much more to it? As readers of this blog know by now, Mediterraneanista tends to lean toward the lazy, er, easy approach to cooking.

But there’s nothing like a good writer (Lam was a contributing editor at Gourmet) to spark a little open-mindedness. As he recounts the story of spending four hours (!) in the kitchen to create a ratatouille that is “the BOMB,” I find myself getting curious and beginning to think maybe, one day, I’ll have to try the more complicated recipe. I mean, who can resist tasting a “weapons grade ratatouille—with flavor so deep it’ll drop your voice an octave”? At least once. Stay posted.

Plus Ça Change...

Eat local. Try beans. Home-grown is best. Serve just enough. The Meatless Monday campaign (see yesterday’s post) isn’t the first time Americans have been encouraged to eat differently.
 
This poster for a meatless menu is from World War I. Bean soup, olives, lettuce salad for dinner—sounds pretty Mediterranean to me.
 
When Beans Were Bulletsan exhibit at the National Agricultural Library in DC (closing August 30), documents public poster campaigns aimed at changing people’s eating habits during the war eras.
 
You’ll find an interview with designer and public historian Cory Bernat, who created the exhibit, on Smithsonian Magazine’s Food & Think blog.

Meatless Monday—How About Vegetable Couscous?

INTERESTING PIECE ON NPR THIS MORNING about how meat played an important evolutionary role in making our brains bigger—and us smarter. (Cooking did, too, by breaking down nutrients so the body could absorb them more effectively.)
 
Of course, what was good for evolution isn’t necessarily good for us now, given that we have a vastly different lifestyle from early Homo sapiens. (Not much chasing down of wildebeest.) This far down the evolutionary road, we’ve gone a little overboard with the meat, eating on average half a pound a day, a quantity that’s not so healthy, studies show (especially if it’s red or processed meats)—and that well exceeds any protein needs we might have.
 
Eating less meat is part of what makes a traditional Mediterranean diet more healthy, of course. If it seems hard to get there from here, Meatless Monday is one way to take a step in the right direction. The public awareness campaign was created in 2003 by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health with a goal of reducing people’s meat consumption by 15% “in order to improve your personal health and the health of the planet.” Monday was chosen as a good day for setting a pattern for the whole week.
 
Food editors and bloggers jumped on board, providing recipes for meatless dishes in their various publications. Chefs have, too. Mario Batali, who’s been called “Meat’s Best Friend”—two of his restaurants are Bar Jamon and Carnevino—announced that all 14 of his restaurants would feature two meatless dishes every Monday. Wolfgang Puck launched Meatless Mondays at his Pizzeria & Cucina in Las Vegas. And less surprisingly, given the proven health benefits, hospitals and schools have signed on.
 
You can, too. The Meatless Monday website publishes new recipes every Monday. Or you can choose your own favorite meatless main dish.
 
Mediterraneanista’s Meatless Monday pick for today is a North African vegetable stew that’s a favorite in our family:
 
Couscous with Vegetables

Adapted from The Best Recipes in the World, by Mark Bittman
 
Serves 4

Takes 1 hour (with precooked or canned chickpeas)


 
4 tbs extra-virgin olive oil

1 or 2 large onions, roughly chopped
1 red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded, and roughly chopped

salt and black pepper to taste

1 tbs peeled and minced fresh ginger

1/2 tsp ground turmeric

1/8 tsp cayenne, or to taste

1 tsp ground coriander

3 cloves

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

4 medium carrots, roughly chopped

1 lb winter squash, like butternut or pumpkin, trimmed and cut into chunks

2 medium zucchini, cut into chunks

vegetable stock or water

2 cups cooked or canned chickpeas
1/2 cup raisins
couscous, prepared according to directions


 
1. Prepare the ginger, turmeric, cayenne, coriander, cloves and cinnamon in a small prep bowl. Set aside. Put the olive oil in a large saucepan or flameproof casserole with a lid over medium heat. A minute or two later, add the onions and bell pepper, along with a couple of pinches of salt and 1/4 tsp black pepper (you should really taste the pepper in this dish). Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are quite tender, about 10 minutes. Add the spices and stir.


 
2. Add the carrots, winter squash and zucchini, along with a cup of stock. Turn the heat to low, cover and adjust the heat so the mixture simmers steadily. Cook until the carrots are tender, 20 to 30 minutes, checking and adding a bit more liquid if the mixture is drying out. Add the chickpeas and raisins and cook for another 10 minutes, adding liquid if the mixture is dry, raising the heat and boiling some of it off if the mixture seems too soupy (it should be like a stew).


 
3. Taste and adjust the seasoning; the flavors of black pepper and cayenne should be pronounced. Serve immediately over the couscous.