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Recipe: Coda alla Vaccinara (Oxtail Stew) with Rigatoni

2 Dec

One of the pleasures of being in a new place is tasting local dishes and then trying to figure out how to make them. In Italy, part of the fun lies in consulting butchers, greengrocers, cheese purveyors, wine merchants, and really, any Italian who eats, because they are all happy to offer advice. As soon as the days grew cooler, I knew what I wanted to make: Coda alla Vaccinara (Oxtail Stew) served over rigatoni–an old-style dish appearing on many Roman menus.

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In previous times, the slaughterhouse workers of Testaccio (the vacccinari) were given offal and oxtails to pad their slim salaries. Their wives rose to the challenge and created dishes that made the most of the available ingredients. In Coda alla Vaccinara, the oxtails are braised in a sauce made with pancetta, lots of celery, onions, carrots, tomatoes, wine, and spices, though the stew is open to interpretation; everyone I asked prepares the dish in a slightly different way. Some people make it with red wine instead of white, some add water, some forego the carrot, some add raisins. Large pieces of celery are de rigueur, but in a rebellious break from tradition (and knowing I wanted to turn the entire stew into a sauce), I finely diced all the celery and survived to tell the tale.

However, I did not escape looks of shock and dismay on the faces of two Italian friends when I mentioned I had added a pinch of cinnamon to the stew. “Cinnamon? CINNAMON? No. NO.” But I say “Yes.” In addition to cloves, cinnamon very frequently appears in recipes for Coda, which is meant to have a warm-scented, delicately sweet undertone. So here is the resulting recipe, a hearty interpretation perfect for autumn and winter. And following on the advice of Alessandro Volpetti (and I’m happy to take the word of anyone at Volpetti’s), I topped the Coda with grated Ricotta Salata cheese, one of my favorites. But omit the cinnamon if you prefer, top with Parmesan or Pecorino Romano instead–this dish is yours to interpret.

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Rigatoni with Oxtail Sauce (con Coda alla Vaccinara)

1-2 tbsp. olive oil
2.2 lb. (1 kg.) oxtails
salt and pepper
4 oz. (about 112 grams) pancetta, cubed
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 large carrot, finely diced (or coarsely grated)
5 stalks celery, finely diced
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 bay leaf
1/8 -1/4 tsp. chili flakes
4 whole cloves (or 1/8 tsp. ground)
¼ tsp. ground cinnamon
1.5 tbsp. tomato paste
1.5 c. white wine
1 large (28 oz./800 grams) can peeled Italian tomatoes
fresh parsley and marjoram (or oregano)
tiny pinch sugar

1 lb. (500 grams) rigatoni
Ricotta salata cheese, grated

Preparation
1. Lightly season the oxtail pieces with salt and pepper. Heat the olive oil in a large Dutch oven, then brown the oxtail pieces, turning them on all sides. Remove from the pot and place in a bowl.
2. Add the pancetta to the pot and cook until mostly crispy and the fat has rendered; do not drain the fat. Add the onion, carrot, and celery and cook until soft, deglazing the pot as you go. Sprinkle the onion mixture with more black pepper, add the garlic and bay leaf, and cook for a couple of minutes. Add the chili flakes, cloves, and cinnamon and cook for a minute or two while stirring. Add the tomato paste and the wine. Simmer gently for about 5 minutes to reduce the liquid slightly.
3. With clean hands, take a peeled tomato from the can and crush it into the stew; repeat with all the tomatoes. This is a very satisfying technique—but moderation is key; if you are too enthusiastic, you may end up shooting tomato bits across the kitchen. If you prefer a slightly less visceral experience, you can cut the tomatoes while in the can, or remove them and dice, adding all the tomatoes and all the tomato sauce/juice from the can to the pot.
4. Mix in the pinch of sugar, nestle the oxtail pieces into the vegetable mixture, pour in any liquid from the bowl they were in, sprinkle with more black pepper, and then scatter some of the herbs on top.

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5. Cover the pot and simmer on low heat for about 3 hours, or until the meat is very tender when pierced with a fork (it may take longer depending on the oxtails). Remove the oxtails, place on a dish, let cool, then pull off as much meat from the bones as possible (this will require some patience). Return the shredded meat to the sauce; keep warm.
6. Cook the rigatoni according to package instructions until al dente, drain, return to its pot, and then mix in the Coda sauce. Scatter more fresh herbs on top and serve with the grated cheese.

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Recipe: Easy Lahm bi Ajin (Lebanese Lamb Pizza)

5 Oct

In Arabic, lahm means “meat,” and ajin means dough or pastry. Many cultures pair meat with pastry, and while I like just about every iteration of that theme, this Lebanese version is one of my favorites. This recipe is slightly easier and quicker to make than some traditional versions because it uses a pita-bread base instead of one requiring home-made dough. These Lahm bi Ajin are pretty hearty, and go quite nicely with Tabouli or other salads.

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Lahm bi Ajin
Serves 4

1 lb. ground lamb
3 tbsp. olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
5 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. allspice
1/8 tsp. chilli flakes
1/3 c. tomato paste
1 tbsp. pomegranate molasses, or juice of 1/2 a small lemon
1/4 c. yogurt
salt and pepper to taste

1/4 c. pine nuts (optional)
extra 2 tbsp. olive oil
4 medium-sized pitas, unopened
1 tbsp ea. fresh mint and parsley, or 1/2 tsp. dried mint and dried parsley

Preparation
1. Heat a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat, drizzle with a bit of olive oil, and cook the lamb until it is no longer pink, breaking it up as finely as possible. Remove the lamb from the pan, drain in a colander, and set aside.
2. Wipe the skillet, add the 3 tbsp. of olive oil, and when hot, add the onion and cook until translucent and slightly golden.
3. Add the garlic and spices, and cook for a few more minutes. Return the lamb to the pan along with the tomato paste and the pomegranate molasses/lemon juice; mix well to combine. Cook the lamb mixture for 5 minutes over low heat, mashing periodically with the back of a wooden spoon.
4. Turn off the heat, and add the yogurt to the lamb mixture in two batches, incorporating well after each batch. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Set the lamb mixture aside.
5. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Take out one large (or two medium) rimmed baking sheets–to accommodate the four pitas.
6. Toast the pine nuts in a small skillet until they start to turn golden; remove from skillet.
7. To assemble: pour the extra 2 tbsp. olive oil into a very small bowl; brush the top of each unopened pita with the olive oil. Place the pitas on the baking sheet(s).
8. Divide the lamb mixture among the four pitas, patting it down and spreading it to the edge of each pita. Sprinkle each pita with the mint, parsley, and pine nuts, pressing the pine nuts into the lamb mixture. Drizzle the pitas with any remaining olive oil from the small bowl.
9. Bake in the oven until the edges of the pitas start to get crisp and the lamb topping begins to brown, about 15 minutes.
10. Eat immediately.

Recipe: Roast Leg of Lamb with Red Wine and Herbs

17 Apr

On the Thursday before Easter, we always have a leg of lamb as part of our evening meal, a tradition that started before my husband and I were married–when we were young and foolish. We bought our first leg of lamb on impulse at a butcher shop in Greenwich Village, New York, on the Wednesday before Easter (we happened to be visiting NYC). We sprinkled some herbs over it, doused it with a bottle of wine, wrapped it up, refrigerated it overnight, and then drove it to Washington, DC the next day in time to roast it for dinner. It was a slightly boozy, but very delicious lamb we ate that evening; the excess alcohol probably helped preserve it, unrefrigerated, during the 4-hour trip.

Though we have very fond memories of that lamb, I have since refined the recipe, ensuring proper food-safety techniques and (unfortunately) eliminating the need for any road trips.

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Roast Leg of Lamb with Red Wine and Herbs
Serves 6-8
Note: This lamb needs to marinate overnight (or for at least 8 hours) prior to roasting.

1 bone-in leg of lamb (6-8 lb.)
salt and pepper
4-5 cloves garlic, cut into slivers
fresh rosemary, separated into small sprigs

Marinade:
1/3 c. olive oil
1/4 c. red wine of your preference
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
1/2 tsp. each dried basil, oregano, parsley, mint, etc.
1/2 tsp. sugar

Preparation

1. Rinse lamb and pat dry. Then, using a sharp knife, cut off  as much of the top, papery thin layer (the “fell”) as possible; it is not necessary to remove all of it. (Some cooks prefer to leave it on to help keep the lamb moist. Others remove it because they think it has a strong flavor. I remove it for aesthetic reasons; family members don’t like seeing the fell on the lamb.)
2. Trim off  excess fat, but make sure to leave a nice layer to ensure moistness and to help carry the flavor of the rosemary, garlic, and marinade.
3. Using the same sharp knife, make deep slits into the meaty portions of the leg.

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4. Insert one sliver of garlic and a small sprig of rosemary into each slit in the lamb. Sprinkle lamb with salt and freshly ground pepper.

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5. In a bowl, combine marinade ingredients.
6. Place lamb in 2-3 layers of clean, plastic grocery bags (or other large sealable bags) on a rimmed baking sheet large enough to hold the lamb. Holding the bags open, pour the marinade over the lamb, taking care to pour some of the marinade into each of the slits filled with garlic and rosemary.

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7.  Tie the plastic bags together tightly so that the marinade cannot leak out, then place the lamb (still on the baking sheet) in the refrigerator overnight (or for at least 8 hours). If you are so inclined, feel free to massage the marinade into the lamb every so often.

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8. In the morning (or after about 4 hours), turn the lamb over so that the other side of the lamb can soak up some of the marinade.
9. Preheat oven to 450 °F. Remove the lamb from the bags (reserving the marinade), pat dry, sprinkle with a bit more salt and pepper, then place the  lamb on a rack set inside a rimmed baking sheet or pan. Insert a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the lamb, but not near the bone. Cook lamb at 450°F for 20 minutes, then reduce heat to 325 °F. Roast lamb until meat thermometer reaches between 145 °F (medium rare) and 160 °F (medium), basting periodically with leftover marinade. For a 6 lb. leg of lamb, total cooking time should be about 2 hours, depending on preferred degree of doneness.
10. Remove lamb from oven, then let rest for at least 15 minutes before carving.

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Recipe: Corned Beef with Honey-Mustard Glaze

16 Mar

St. Patrick’s Day at our house has always meant three things: 1) a visit from a  leprechaun who somehow always manages to turn all our milk green; 2) an evening meal consisting of corned beef with honey-mustard glaze, crispy roast potatoes, and cabbage sauteed in olive oil and butter ; and 3) a green dessert — usually a torte made with a zesty lime filling, courtesy of my daughter whose specialty that has become.

However, the corned beef is without doubt the pièce de résistance, despite the fact it requires only three ingredients. It is cooked twice: first simmered until fork tender, and then glazed and finished off in the oven. It is such a beloved dish that we only make it once a year, to retain its special status. But we always make sure to have plenty of leftovers to enjoy for a day or two afterward. Most recently, we made three corned beef briskets — enough for two full meals for four hungry people, with some snacking in between.

Corned Beef with Honey-Mustard Glaze
Servings: 4

1 pkg. flat-cut corned beef brisket  (3-4 lb.), with spice packet
whole grain Dijon mustard (roughly 2.5-3 oz.)
honey (roughly 1-2 tbsp., or to taste)

Preparation

1. Remove the brisket from the package; reserve the spice packet that is usually included. Note: if there is no spice packet, use 1 tbsp. pickling spice, or make your own with 1 tsp. yellow mustard seeds, 1 tsp. black peppercorns, 8 whole cloves, 8 whole juniper berries, 8 whole allspice berries, and 2 bay leaves; place the spice(s) in a small bowl and set aside.
2. Rinse the corned beef, then place in a large pot and cover completely with water. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to a medium simmer. After the first boil, use a large cooking spoon to remove the foam that rises to the surface (I ladle the foam into a large bowl and keep the bowl by the stove until no longer needed). Keep removing the foam every 15 minutes or so until very little is being generated.
3. Add the contents of the spice packet (or your own reserved spices) to the corned beef in the pot, reduce heat to a low simmer (you want to see some gentle movement in the water, but do not want it at a full boil), partially cover the pot, and let the beef simmer for about 3 hours, or until fork tender. Top up with additional water as needed.
4. Carefully lift the brisket out of the pot and place on a rimmed cookie sheet. When cool enough to handle, use the side of a fork (the outer edge of one of the tines) to gently scrape off any fat that is on the brisket. Make sure to remove all visible fat.
5. Spray a baking dish (or another cookie sheet) with cooking spray, and place the brisket on the dish/sheet. Heat oven to 400 degrees.
6. Put the mustard in a small bowl and mix in the honey; adjust quantities of each to suit your taste. (I usually make the glaze without measuring either ingredient; I taste test until there is just enough sweetness to the mustard.)
7. Spoon the glaze over the corned beef, then bake until the corned beef is warm and the glaze is beginning to turn golden.
8. When serving, slice across the grain.

Recipe: Stuffed Grape Leaves

13 Feb

I would be hard pressed to come up with a last meal. I like so many foods, that I’d want something more along the lines of a smorgasbord. But one dish that would certainly be part of that smorgasbord would be stuffed grape leaves — the warm, simple, and oh so heavenly Lebanese version made with a lemony lamb and rice filling. In my very biased view, the versions of stuffed grape leaves that are meant to be eaten cold (usually meatless) cannot compare with their fragrant, hot-out-of the pot counterparts.

For a sublime gastronomic experience, dip these grape leaves in plain yogurt. The cool, smooth tanginess complements them perfectly. See photos below for step-by-step instructions on how to fill and roll grape leaves.

Stuffed Grape Leaves

1 (15-oz. ) jar grape leaves in vinegar brine
1 lb. ground lamb
1 c. white rice, such as jasmine
1/8 tsp. cinnamon
1/8 tsp. allspice
1 tbsp. salt
1/4 c. fresh lemon juice

Preparation

1. Open the jar of grape leaves, pour out the brine, and carefully ease the grape leaves out of the jar. (They will be tightly packed, in rolls.)
2. Put the grape leaves in warm water and let soak while making the filling.
3. For filling, combine lamb, rice, cinnamon, and allspice in a medium bowl, and mix well. Set aside.
4. Gently swish grape leaves around in the warm water, and slowly begin to separate as many as possible, taking care to not tear them. When most have come out of their rolls, drain the water.
5. Line the bottom of a medium saucepan with a layer of grape leaves (this is a good way to use any that are torn or too small).
6. Select a grape leaf and shake to remove any excess water that may be clinging to it. Place it on a cutting board glossy side down (veiny side up).  If there is a bit of stem still attached, cut it off (see photo below).

7. Take a bit of filling and shape into a small roll; lay horizontally across grape leaf, just above where the stem was.

8. Fold the bottom part of the grape leaf over the filling.

8. Tuck in each side, as if making a burrito.

9. Continue to roll the grape leaf, folding in the sides as you go.

10. Place the rolled grape leaf seam side down in the sauce pan, tucking tightly against the side of pan.

11. Repeat the process until you have run out of filling. Depending on the size of the saucepan, you should have about two layers of rolled grape leaves. Be sure to tuck them in tightly; you do not want them to unroll while cooking.
12. Sprinkle the 1 tbsp. salt on top of the grape leaves. Add enough water to the pan to just cover the grape leaves. Place an inverted heat-proof ceramic plate on top of the grape leaves (you can also use the lid of a smaller saucepan–you will need something that fits inside the main saucepan and can lay on top of the grape leaves to keep them from shifting while cooking). Cover the saucepan with a tight-fitting lid.
13.  Cook, covered, over medium heat for 15 minutes. Lift the lid, and pour in the lemon juice (you can pour it around the sides of the plate; it will seep underneath). Replace the lid, reduce heat to low/simmer, and cook for 15 more minutes, checking periodically to make sure the water has not completely dried up. Ideally, the water will be absorbed by the end of the cooking period, but you don’t want to run the risk of burning the grape leaves.
14. After 15 minutes, gently pour out any water that might remain, holding the grape leaves in place with the plate (or small lid).
15. Invert the sauce pan onto a serving platter, discard the grape leaves that lined the pan, and serve the stuffed grape leaves immediately, with plain yogurt as an accompaniment.

Adapted from Lebanese Cuisine, by Madelain Farah.

Recipe: Carnitas and Poblanos with Cream

13 Nov

My daughter informed me that the one thing she really looks forward to every evening, amid the many hours of homework she puts in, is dinner. A really good dinner has the power to make everything else — mounds of homework, the day’s worries — fade away. In this, she is her mother’s daughter.

This is one of her favorite dishes. It is a bit involved, but well worth the effort. Carnitas means “little meat” in Spanish; it is pork that has been cooked twice.  The pork in this version is braised, shredded, and then lightly fried. I have always served it with another dish, Poblanos with Cream (also known as Rajas) because the combination is so nice.  Poblanos are chili peppers–darker, smaller, pointier, and just a tiny bit hotter than green bell peppers (capsicums). Though most recipes for Rajas do not include mushrooms, mushrooms and cream have an affinity for each other, and I simply had to add them. With black beans and some chopped tomato as finishing touches, this is a meal for all the senses. Pile everything into a warm tortilla, roll it up, and enjoy.

Note: When cutting the raw poblanos, protect your hands. Poblanos are not a very hot chili pepper, but you do not want to cut them with bare hands and then accidentally rub your eyes. You will not be happy.  Since I do not have kitchen gloves lying around, I pop a plastic sandwich bag on each hand, and then proceed. Not the most elegant solution, but necessity is the mother of invention.

Carnitas  and Poblanos with Cream
Serves 6-8

Carnitas
3 – 3.5 lb. pork  (shouldn’t be super lean; boneless country-style ribs or non-loin boneless pork chops are good, as is cubed pork for stew)
4 bay leaves
2 tsp. black peppercorns

1/4-1/2 c. canola oil, divided
1 large onion, diced
1 tbsp. (or to taste) chicken bouillon powder, preferably a brand without MSG
freshly ground pepper
1 bunch cilantro leaves, chopped (I cut off the top of the bunch of cilantro at the point where leaves end and stems begin, discard any sub-par leaves and big bits of stem, then chop everything else)

Preparation

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1. Place the pork, bay leaves, and peppercorns in a large stockpot, add water to cover by about 2 inches, bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 1 to 1.5 hours, or until pork is tender. Add water if needed. Let pork cool in broth, if possible. If you are short on time, remove pork with tongs and place on a rimmed baking sheet until cool. With very clean hands,  shred pork, discarding any fat that may be on the meat. There should be about 6 c. total. If not, adjust amount of bouillon powder accordingly.

2. Heat 1/4 c. oil over medium heat in a large skillet, add onions, and cook until soft and slightly golden. Mix in shredded pork, taking care to distribute onions and oil as evenly as possible. Let pork cook without stirring for a few minutes until bottom layer is golden and getting crispy, then scrape up browned pork from bottom of skillet, and let new layer of pork on bottom of skillet get crispy. Repeat several times, until pork is golden and there are ample crispy bits throughout. Add up to 1/4 c. more oil as needed to keep pork from sticking and drying out too much.

3. When pork is just about done, add bouillon powder and pepper, and mix in very well. Cook for a few more minutes, check seasonings, and turn off heat. Add chopped cilantro and mix through.

4. Serve with flour tortillas, Poblanos in Cream, black beans, and chopped tomato.

Poblanos with Cream

5 large poblano chilies
2 tbsp. olive oil
8 oz.  mushrooms, sliced
1 c. cream
salt and freshly ground pepper

1. Cut poblanos in half lengthwise, and cut out the white membrane, including all seeds. Place the poblanos skin up on a baking sheet and broil until skin is bubbly and black, checking frequently. Immediately place poblanos in a glass container with lid, and put on the lid. Leave for 15 minutes, then remove the poblanos, peel the skin off, and slice into strips. Reserve.

2. Heat oil  in skillet, then add mushrooms and sauté until liquid has been released and mushrooms are soft; add poblano strips and sauté for a few more minutes. Add cream, and simmer gently until heated through. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste.

Recipe: Lamb Kafta Kabobs

8 Sep

In the United States, we tend to use cinnamon mostly in sweet dishes. But in other parts of the world, cinnamon has long been used in savory dishes, too, where it adds an extra layer of flavor and warmth. It is an ancient aromatic spice that was worth more than gold and was considered an appropriate gift for royalty.

These lamb kafta kabobs, which feature the traditional Lebanese flavor combination of cinnamon and allspice,  will make anyone who eats them feel like royalty, too. At our house, we put them in pita bread with hummus (and/or plain yogurt mixed with diced cucumber, garlic, and mint) and lettuce and tomatoes.  I usually make Tabouli as an accompaniment, and some of  us also add that to our pitas for a full flavor experience.

The traditional method of preparation involves shaping the kabobs around a skewer, but it is far easier (and faster) to make them without the skewer. If using wooden skewers, soak them in water for 30 minutes before assembling the kabobs.

Lamb Kafta Kabobs
Serves 4

1 lb. ground lamb (can use half lean ground beef if preferable)
1 small onion, finely chopped
1/2 c. finely chopped parsley
3/4-1 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
1/8 tsp. allspice

Preparation
1. Mix all ingredients well.
2. Take a small handful of the meat mixture and mold into a roughly 4 ” cylindrical shape around a skewer, or just mold into cylindrical shape without the skewer.
3. Grill and enjoy.

Source: Lebanese Cuisine by Madelain Farah