Chicken Ttavas/Τταβας (Chicken Stew with Cumin and Onions)

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We decided to drive to Platres, a village resort up near the highest point of Cyprus, on the Troodos mountains. Even though it was mid-April, the weather was wintery. Low clouds played hide-and-seek among the mountain tops, coming down enough to envelop our cars in a thin fog. The sun triumphed occasionally, only to be followed by a short hailstorm and then rain and then back to sun again. Above us, we could see that the highest peaks were snow covered from the night before.DSC03982

We reached the village around noon and parked at its center. Unlike other villages we had seen, with their disorganized chaos of delapidated shacks, restored old houses, and construction garbage everywhere, Platres was pristine. Beautiful houses were dotting the landscape, with tended gardens and flowering trees. “Platres was a popular upscale resort during the British colonial times,” I explained, “and it remained so after independence.”DSC03977

It started to drizzle. “Lunch?” I asked. Everyone nodded. We walked into the closest restaurant, doubtful it was even open. The whole village was quiet and empty. This was Easter week and much earlier than the crowded tourist season. The door to the restaurant opened and we walked in to a dining room empty of any customers, except for three men at a table, with a laptop open. “Come in,” one of them said, the apparent owner.

We sat down and he explained what was available for the day. It was a limited menu but there was enough there to entice us. Steve and JC ordered ttavas, a lamb stew, cooked in onions and tomatoes with a heavy dose of cumin. Traditionally cooked in clay pots in outdoor wood-burning ovens, I always remember it from my childhood, tasting of sweet earth and smoke. When it arrived at our table and Steve took a bite, his eyes lit up. “This is amazing,” he said. JC nodded in agreement.

Last week, back in New York, I decided to create a version of it, tweaking my mom’s recipe and using chicken instead of lamb. No clay pots or wood-burning ovens are involved, but it will get you as close as possible to a cold spring afternoon in Platres without leaving your home.

DSC04012Chicken Ttavas/Τταβας (Chicken Stew with Cumin and Onions)

Ingredients:

½ cup olive oil
1½ teaspoons of salt, divided
2 lbs onions (about 4 medium onions), peeled, cut in half and sliced crosswise in ¼-inch thick slices
6 garlic cloves, peeled and lightly crushed with back of knife
1 tablespoon whole cumin seeds, lightly crushed in mortar and pestle
One 14.5 oz (411 gr) can of diced tomatoes in juice
¾ cup white wine
¼ cup rice vinegar
2 bay leaves
freshly ground black pepper
1½-1¾ lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs

Directions:

Preheat oven to 325° F.

In a large oven-safe pot with lid, heat olive-oil over medium heat. Add onions, garlic, and ½ teaspoon of salt. Cook, stirring frequently, until onions are soft but have not turned brown, about 15 minutes. Add cumin, and cook, stirring constantly for another minute.

Add diced tomatoes and their juices, wine, vinegar, bay leaves, an additional 1 teaspoon of salt, and freshly ground black pepper. Stir to combine well. Add chicken thighs and nestle them in the onion mixture to cover them. Bring back to a gentle simmer, cover pot and place in oven.

Cook covered for 60 minutes. Uncover pot and return to oven for an additional 20 minutes. Adjust salt and pepper, if necessary

To serve, use two forks to separate chicken thighs into large pieces. Serve in shallow bowls with chunks of bread to sop up the onions and tomatoes.

Filet Mignon with Green Peppercorn Cream Sauce

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A few weeks ago, Steve and I celebrated ten years since the day we met. Actually, since the night we met. It was a rather inelegant affair, in a dive bar, with a sloppy make out session in the corner. But that’s a story for another time.

After ten years, when we give each other gifts, they often end up being gifts for both of us. The most common gift we give each other is food. We love to find unique ingredients, strange and exotic edibles, and rare treats that we offer each other in order to then share them. A few years back, he gave me a can of green peppercorns for Christmas. I had never heard of them before and I was a little skeptical at first. I’ve never been a big black pepper fan. And I absolutely despise pink peppercorns.

So, I did an online search for recipes and found this recipe for a filet mignon with a green peppercorn cream sauce. It’s a pretty standard recipe for steak with a pepper cream sauce, except that instead of ground black peppercorns, it uses tender green ones. It turned out to be such a fantastic recipe, I’ve been making it for years.

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Filet Mignon with Green Peppercorn Cream Sauce – From Epicurious.com

Serves 4

Note: The can has a lot more green peppercorns than you’ll need. What I do with the left over peppercorns is rinse them of their brine and put them in a small bowl. I add distilled white vinegar to cover them, I cover the bowl with plastic wrap and I put them in the fridge. I find that they stay good for several weeks that way.

Ingredients:

1 3/4 cups beef stock or canned beef broth
3 tablespoons butter
4 6- to 8-ounce filet mignon steaks (each about 1 inch thick)
1/4 cup chopped shallots
1 cup whipping cream
3 tablespoons Cognac or brandy
2 tablespoons drained green peppercorns in brine

Directions:

Boil stock in small saucepan until reduced to 3/4 cup, about 7 minutes. Meanwhile, melt butter in large skillet over medium-high heat. Season steaks with salt and pepper. Cook steaks to desired doneness, about 4 minutes per side for medium-rare. Transfer steaks to plate (do not clean skillet).

Add chopped shallots to same skillet and sauté 2 minutes. Remove from heat. Add reduced beef stock, 1 cup whipping cream, 3 tablespoons Cognac and green peppercorns. Boil until mixture thickens to sauce consistency, about 6 minutes. Season sauce to taste with pepper. Spoon sauce over steaks and serve.

Miso-Creamed Kale

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Our trip to Cyprus was fantastic. In just a week, we did so much. We visited an ancient amphitheater, perched on a hill, overlooking the Mediterranean sea. We went to the little mountain church where I was baptized, built in the 15th century and still standing. In the village, where we stayed for part of the time, we got a private tour of the Byzantine icons museum from the most exuberant guide we’ve ever encountered, an elderly Cypriot man who told tales and mixed myths with science and at some point, serenaded us with a Byzantine hymn. We walked in the remains of a settlement from 9,000 B.C., their houses and retaining wall still partially intact.

And of course we ate. There was the dinner my mom prepared, with homemade pastitsiokoupepia (stuffed grape leaves), and kleftiko (lamb cooked in the oven until it melts in your mouth). She made a Lebanese mahallebi, a dessert of custard, pistachios and syrup, that we kept searching for during the rest of our trip, with no luck. We ate shamali, a syrup-soaked semolina cake that I absolutely love, and kolokotes (turnovers with pumpkin, bulgur wheat, and raisins). We had Syrian food as well, with deeply flavored muhammara, lovely fattoush salads, and the most delicious chicken livers I’ve ever eaten. They tasted of olive oil, lemon juice, and cumin. One rainy afternoon, we ate pork souvlaki and sheftalies (ground meat with spices, wrapped in caul fat) cooked over coals and served in the large, oval-shaped pita bread of Cyprus.

By the end of our trip, though, I started to really crave food from somewhere else. I wanted Chinese dumplings and mu shoo pork. I wanted pad thai or chicken laarb salad. I wanted kale with shitake mushrooms, smothered in a miso cream sauce. Something that didn’t include olive oil or lemon juice or ground lamb with parsley and onions or salad with tomatoes, cucumbers, and feta cheese .

Of course, it’s been just five days since we came back, and I’m already wishing I could get my hands on some sheftalies for dinner tonight.

DSC03472Miso-Creamed Kale – From Food52’s Genius Recipes

Ingredients:

3 to 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 large shallot, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 bunch lacinato kale, stems removed, roughly chopped
1/2 cup shimeji mushrooms with stems, or shitake mushroom tops
1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
1/4 cup dry vermouth
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon white (shiro) miso, or more to taste

Directions:

1. Place 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large, heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat. When melted, add the shallot, garlic, and a pinch of salt and pepper. Cook over low heat without letting the garlic and shallots color, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add the kale and continue to cook for a few more minutes until wilted. If it won’t all fit in the pan, just add what’s left after it’s cooked down a bit.

2. Meanwhile, in a small pan set over medium-high heat, melt 1 tablespoon of butter. Add the mushrooms and cook until softened and cooked through, about 5 minutes. If the mushrooms become too dry, add another tablespoon of butter. Stir in the soy sauce, cook another minute and turn off the heat.

3. Once the kale is wilted and soft, increase the heat to medium high, add the vermouth and cook until it’s just evaporated, about 1 minute. Add the cream and miso, stirring until completely incorporated. Reduce heat to medium and cook about 2 more minutes until the sauce reduces slightly and tightens up the around the kale. Taste for seasoning (but don’t forget the mushrooms have soy sauce). Place the kale on a warm platter and scatter the mushrooms over the top. Serve immediately.

Lemon Olive Oil Cake

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Spring is (sort of) finally here! Temperatures are above freezing and we have actual continuous periods of sunshine. Sure, it’s raining today, but I don’t care. Because Steve and I are taking off for a weeklong trip to Cyprus with three of our friends. We’ll visit my family and drive around the island in search of poppy covered mountainsides, turquoise blue seas, orange blossom scented villages, and lots and lots of good food. DSC03763

No two ingredients say “Meditteranean!” better than olive oil and lemons. They are at the very core of the soul of the people that have lived for millennia around this beautiful sea, with its temperate climate (though not always as warm or friendly as most people think) and plentiful fish (which are currently endangered from overfishing and pollution).

So, in honor of our Mediterranean adventure, I give you my favorite version of a lemon olive oil cake. You gotta love a cake that has a total of five ingredients. All things you probably have at home right now. With these humble ingredients you can have a cake that is not overly sweet and incredibly tender, making it an equally good option for afternoon tea or breakfast. Top it off with a dollop of lemon curd or sweetened whipped cream and you have a great dessert. This is a cake that in every bite, you can taste what it’s made of: the taste of eggs is right there, cut through by the acidity of the lemons, while everything is smoothed out by the mild grassiness of the olive oil.DSC03775Lemon Olive Oil Cake – Slightly adapted from Epicurious.com

Ingredients:

3/4 cup olive oil (extra-virgin if desired), plus additional for greasing pan
1 lemon (preferably organic/unsprayed)
1 cup cake flour (not self-rising) (see here for instructions on how to make your own cake flour)
5 large eggs, separated, reserving 1 white for another use
3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar

Directions:

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a 9-inch (24-cm) springform pan with some oil, then line bottom with a round of parchment paper. Oil parchment.

Finely grate enough all the lemon zest and whisk it together with flour. Halve lemon, then squeeze and reserve 1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice.

Beat together yolks and 1/2 cup sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at high speed until thick and pale, about 3 minutes. Reduce speed to medium and add olive oil (3/4 cup) and reserved lemon juice, beating until just combined (mixture may appear separated). Using a wooden spoon, stir in flour mixture (do not beat) until just combined.

Beat egg whites (from 4 eggs) with 1/2 teaspoon salt in another large bowl with cleaned beaters at medium-high speed until foamy, then add 1/4 cup sugar a little at a time, beating, and continue to beat until egg whites just hold soft peaks, about 3 minutes.

Gently fold one third of whites into yolk mixture to lighten, then fold in remaining whites gently but thoroughly.

Transfer batter to springform pan and gently rap against work surface once or twice to release any air bubbles. Sprinkle top evenly with remaining 1 tablespoon sugar. Bake until puffed and golden and a wooden pick or skewer inserted in center of cake comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Cool cake in pan on a rack 10 minutes, then run a thin knife around edge of pan and remove side of pan. Cool cake to room temperature, about 1 1/4 hours. Remove bottom of pan and peel off parchment, then transfer cake to a serving plate.

Crème Caramel

DSC03850During most of my childhood, my dad kept a chicken coop in the empty lot next to our house where he raised chickens and pigeons. The chickens were for fresh eggs (and the occasional chicken for dinner) and the pigeons were for eating. I know that to city dwellers, the idea of eating pigeons, a.k.a. flying rats, sounds pretty unappetizing, but these were not the kinds of pigeons you find in a city. They were fed a clean diet of grains and kept in a large coop. My dad slaughtered young pigeons and cooked them over hot coals. They were reserved for a special meal and I always loved eating them. They had a sweet, almost caramelized taste, and they were incredibly tender.
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But back to the chickens. When I was really little I was too scared to walk inside the chicken coop (it was big enough to hold several adults standing up) and collect the eggs. The chickens flapped around too much and seemed really menacing to me. But I remember that one time, my mom asked me if I felt ok going to get her two eggs. I must have been six or seven years old by then and in a rare moment of bravery I said yes. “Hold them carefully, ok?” she said. “Don’t drop them or they’ll break.”

I had my mission. I approached the coop and slowly opened the door. I was in luck. One of the hens was eating peacefully in the corner and she had left her two freshly laid eggs undefended.The other hens seemed quiet, sitting over their own eggs. Gingerly, I stepped forward with both eyes on the hen. I reached and took one egg in each hand and backed my way out of the coop, never losing sight of that hen. As soon as the door closed behind me, I knew I had done it. I had procured the eggs and conquered the chickens.DSC03798

Feeling relieved and elated I started to walk back to our house to triumphantly give the eggs to my mom. I’d show her how I was a big boy now, brave and helpful to her. I was ready to start running to the house when I remembered my mom’s words: Hold them carefully, ok? I realized I hadn’t been careful enough. So I held on to those two eggs tighter. I took only one more step before both eggs burst in my palms, egg whites and yolk dripping onto the ground. I looked at my hands and burst into tears, loud enough for my mom to hear me and come out. Between sobs I told her I was sorry and that I was trying to hold them tight so they wouldn’t drop and this is what happened. She smiled, took me inside and cleaned my hands, and explained to me that eggs are fragile and that it was ok, that next time I would know not to hold them too tight.

She went back to the coop herself and got two eggs from another hen. She needed them to make crème caramel, that wonderful desert that so many cuisines have riffed on. Hers was the classic French kind. Deep amber caramel and a quivering custard made with milk, eggs, and vanilla. By the time she finished making it and it chilled enough for me to eat, several hours later, I had forgotten all about the broken eggs.

DSC03824Crème Caramel – Translated and adapted from Meilleur du Chef

Note: When I was researching recipes for créme caramel online, I was pretty horrified at what I found. Recipes that use heavy cream, cornstarch, crème fraîche, and all kinds of other nonsense. So I looked for a recipe where I knew I could find an authentic one: the French. This is how créme caramel should be: just milk, eggs, sugar, and vanilla. Nothing else.

Ingredients:

For caramel:
200 g sugar
3 tablespoons water

For crème:
1 liter whole milk
7 large eggs
250 g sugar
1 vanilla bean
pinch of salt

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 325° F.

Place the sugar and water in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over low heat. Let the sugar dissolve. Increase the heat to medium-high and boil until the caramel turns light golden brown, about 10 minutes (it happens quickly towards the end; don’t let the caramel get too dark). Remove from the heat immediately and carefully divide the hot caramel among 8 ramekins, quickly swirling to cover the entire bottom of each ramekin. Let cool on the countertop. The caramel should harden. Arrange the ramekins in a deep baking pan (at least 2″ deep).

Cut the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape out the seeds. In a medium saucepan, add the milk, vanilla bean seeds, and the whole bean. Heat the milk to just below boil over medium heat. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, add the eggs and sugar and whisk together until combined thoroughly. When milk is hot, pour about 1/3 cup slowly in eggs while whisking continuously. Repeat with 1/3 cup of hot milk at a time until you have incorporated all the milk with the eggs (discard the vanilla bean). Strain the mixture through a fine mesh sieve. Pour into the 8 ramekins. Pour boiling water into the pan holding the ramekins until the water level reaches halfway up the sides of the ramekins.

Bake for about 40-45 minutes until the custard is just set. Remove from the oven and allow the ramekins to cool in the water bath for 5 minutes. Remove from the water bath and let cool to room temperature on a cooling rack. Cover ramekins with plastic wrap and refrigerate until cold.

To serve, run a knife around the edges of each ramekin and invert the custards onto serving plates.

Roasted Sunchokes with Orange, Rosemary, and Pine Nuts

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Yesterday was the first day of spring, and here in New York city we got…more snow. Yep, as I am writing this post, I am watching a furious swirl of wet snowflakes covering the oh-so-recently snow-free ground. I can almost hear them: You thought you could get rid of us that easily? <insert evil laugh here>

Nothing describes the absurdity of this winter better than this quote from today’s New York Times: “Snow starts around noon, as temperatures hover just above freezing, and roughs up the evening commute. At 6:46 p.m., spring begins, the snow stops abruptly and twittering robins drape the city with garlands of daffodils.” Steve and I laughed heartily when we read this and then we stopped laughing and each shed a single tear for the loss of our meteorological innocence.

What can I say? Prolonged and brutal winters can make you a little crazy.

So, just give up on the weather and simply eat and drink to your heart’s delight. To help you with that, here’s an easy recipe for an appetizer that you can make with things you can find right now in your grocery store. Sunchokes are also known as Jerusalem artichokes, for reasons that I can’t fathom, since they are closer to potatoes and carrots than artichokes. In any case, they crisp up in the oven really nicely and they pair very well with toasted pine nuts, orange, and rosemary. A hint of balsamic vinegar adds an additional note of acidity and the final dash of aleppo pepper gives it that unexpected smoky heat that draws you in for one more bite. 

DSC03877Roasted Sunchokes with Orange, Rosemary and Pine Nuts

Makes 4 appetizer servings

Ingredients:

1/4 cup pine nuts
1 lb sunchokes (jerusalem artichokes), washed and scrubbed clean
2 cloves garlic, peeled and slides in thin slices (about 2mm each)
1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
2 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper
1 orange
2 teaspoons of good balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon aleppo pepper

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 425°F.

In a sauté pan, toast the pine nuts over medium heat, tossing frequently, until they give off a toasted smell and they just start to turn golden brown. Immediately remove into a plate and allow to cool.

Slice sunchokes crosswise into 1/4″-1/2″ slices. In a large bowl, toss sunchoke slices with the garlic, rosemary, olive oil, and some salt and pepper. Spread on two large baking sheets, so that all sunchoke slices are lying flat on the pan. Make sure that all garlic slices are on top of sunchoke slices, otherwise they will burn. Roast in the preheated oven for about 30 minutes, without turning, until the bottoms of the slices turn dark brown, but don’t burn. The tops will stay yellow and become soft.

Meanwhile, peel orange and slice crosswise in four 1/2″ slices (there will be some orange left over). Place each slice in the bottom of an individual serving bowl.

Once sunchokes are roasted, pile them on top of the four orange slices. Top with roasted pine nuts, balsamic vinegar, and aleppo pepper, divided among the four bowls. Serve immediately

 

Pomegranate Aperitif

DSC03813For the last few weeks and until the end of the month I am working on Saturday afternoons. Every Saturday I leave home after lunch and get back around 6pm. As I am leaving work, I send a text message to Steve: “On my way. Cocktails?” I did it the first Saturday I had to work and it’s now become a tradition. I show up around 6pm and we share a cocktail, different each week. This is one of those cocktails. It’s a little tart and a little fizzy and one hundred percent refreshing. It’s the kind of cocktail you gulp down in less than 2 minutes without realizing it. In other words, my favorite kind.

Pomegranate Aperitif – Adapted from Bon Appétit

Makes 6 drinks

Note: If you don’t have boiled cider syrup or saba (wine-grape juice that’s been reduced until syrupy and concentrated), use a few drops of good balsamic vinegar.

Ingredients:

1 cup pomegranate juice
2 tablespoons boiled cider syrup or saba
2 cups Lillet Blanc
4 dashes celery bitters
Club soda

Directions:

Whisk pomegranate juice and cider syrup or saba in a large pitcher, then stir in Lillet and bitters. Pour into rocks glasses filled with ice; top off with club soda.