Saturday, November 18, 2017

GOLDEN SAFFRON, THE NOVEMBER SPICE


La Mancha where saffron is grown.

In La Mancha, the upland plateau region of central Spain, early November is the season for harvesting saffron flowers. Saffron, the spice, consists of the dried stigmas of a small, mauve-colored, autumn-blooming crocus. The plant originated in the Middle East and was introduced into Spain by the Moors in the ninth century. Saffron became the flavor of status in medieval cuisine. It has been grown in Spain’s La Mancha region ever since.

Autumn-blooming saffron crocuses.

The three orange-gold stigmas of each flower are extracted by hand.


Saffron, of course, is essential to real paella. It also goes into other rice dishes and some stews such as gallina en pepitoria, chicken braised in almond-saffron sauce. I’m making a Manchegan rice dish that combines the two—stewed chicken and rice. This is caldoso or "soupy" rice, not dry like paella.

Golden rice with chicken stewed in almond sauce.

This is a real farmhouse dish, where a free-range barnyard fowl might be used. Use a smaller “fryer” (3 ½ pounds) instead. It cooks in water or stock until completely tender before the rice is added.

Vegetables can be included—green beans or artichokes being the most common. I’ve added sliced butternut squash.

To extract all the flavor and color from saffron, first crush the wispy threads in a mortar. Place the saffron in a cup and pour over hot liquid. Let the saffron infuse at least 5 minutes and up to 30 minutes.

Use Spanish “round,” medium-grain, paella rice for this dish, preferably the variety called Bomba. Bomba rice is preferred for caldoso dishes as it doesn’t “flower” when cooked with lots of liquid.

I started with a whole chicken, cut into joints. With the breast cut into four, this made eight serving pieces. I separated out the bony back, neck and wings and used them to make a light stock. You can use store-bought stock or just plain water. If using water, be sure to add plenty of salt to taste.

The chicken liver gets fried and mashed up with almonds and garlic to thicken the cooking liquid slightly. If you don’t have a liver (or prefer to put it on toast and eat it straight up), fry a slice of bread to mash.

How soupy is soupy rice? You’ll need at least four times the volume of liquid to rice, i.e., 2 cups rice and 8 cups water or stock. You will be surprised how much liquid the rice absorbs in the five minutes settling period after you remove it from the heat. So a total of 9 or 10 cups liquid is better if you’re aiming for “soupy.”

Vegetables can be included--here, butternut squash and green beans.



(Free-Range) Chicken with Soupy Rice
Pollo de Corral con Arroz Caldoso


Serves 6

Bomba variety is best for caldoso rice.
2- 2 ½ pounds chicken pieces
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Thyme
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 chicken liver, cut in 3 or 4 pieces, or 1 slice bread, crusts removed
¼ cup blanched and skinned almonds
6 cloves garlic
½ cup chopped onion
½ cup grated tomato pulp
½ teaspoon saffron threads
1 clove
¼ cup hot water
1 tablespoon chopped parsley plus additional for garnish
¼ cup white wine
2 bay leaves
9-10 cups water or chicken stock (or a combination)
2 cups medium-grain rice, preferably Bomba variety
Sliced butternut squash (optional)
Cut-up green beans (optional)


Sprinkle the chicken with salt, pepper and thyme and allow it to come to room temperature.

Heat the oil in a large pan or cazuela. Fry the chicken liver (or bread), almonds and 2 whole cloves of the garlic until they are lightly browned. Remove and reserve. Set a few toasted almonds aside to garnish the finished dish.

Add the chicken pieces to the pan and brown them on medium-high heat, 10-12 minutes. Remove.

Chop 2 cloves of the remaining garlic and add to the pan with the chopped onion. Sauté several minutes, then add the tomato pulp. Continue frying until tomato cooks up somewhat.

Meanwhile, crush the saffron and clove in a mortar. Place the spices in a small bowl and add the ¼ cup hot water. Allow the saffron to infuse 5 minutes.

Place the chicken liver, almonds, fried garlic and 2 cloves of raw garlic  in a blender with the wine. Blend to make a smooth paste.

Stir the paste into the pan. Add the saffron-clove mixture and bay leaves. Add 4 cups of the water or chicken stock. If using water, add 1 teaspoon of salt. Chicken stock may not need additional salt.

Return the chicken pieces to the pan. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer the chicken, uncovered, turning it once or twice, until tender, about 40 minutes if you started with a 3-pound “fryer,” longer for a larger, free-range chicken.

Add about 5 cups additional water or stock to the pan. Add more salt to taste. Bring to a boil and stir in the rice. Add the pieces of squash and beans, if using. Cook, uncovered, on high for 5 minutes. Reduce heat so liquid bubbles gently. Cook 10 minutes longer and remove the pan from the heat. Allow the chicken and rice to set for 5 minutes before serving. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and the reserved toasted almonds.

Caldoso rice is "spoon food." Chicken should be falling-off-the-bones tender.

La Mancha, processing saffron by hand.

More recipes with saffron:

Saturday, November 11, 2017

LIVE IT UP!



Celebration! Chocolate birthday cake, bubbly cava and friends.

With a major birthday this week, a date that also marks the anniversary of the day I quit smoking (32 years ago), plus the eighth anniversary of starting this blog, I was all set to live it up. I would bake myself a sugar-free chocolate birthday cake, regale myself with flowers, invite some friends over and pop open a bottle of bubbly cava.


Birthday bouquet.


Not enough candles for my cake.

The taste test--- (Cake is topped with whipped cream sweetened with stevia.)

The gala event went sort of according to plan. The cake, which I photographed earlier in the day, looked gorgeous. But I noticed that the friends politely pushed the cake aside. I tasted. The cake was awful! A disaster.

My idea was to use pureed prunes to stand in for sugar and to use dark (85%) chocolate sweetened with malitol and stevia plus unsweetened cocoa in the cake batter. Oh, and also to sub olive oil for butter. Prunes would point up the fruitiness of chocolate. A hint of coffee would also deepen the chocolate. A shot of Sherry vinegar, conversely, to emphasize the sweetness of prunes and stevia. (The recipe was based on one for Chocolate Prune Cake in Joy of Cooking.)

The cake didn’t rise. It tasted great--a deep, bittersweet chocolate. But it was dense and heavy as lead. Inedible. The cava went down nicely. The friends were fun, the pressies nice.

I couldn’t give up on the cake. A couple days later I made a second one, using more liquid to make a lighter batter. It rose nicely. Full of optimism, I spread a chocolate ganache on the top.

The second cake, topped with ganache.

Alas! The texture was horrid, dense, sort of like steamed pudding. “Throw it out,” said my son Ben. “Too chocolate-y,” said grandson Leo.

I know that sugar in baking does more than just sweeten. It gives texture and volume as well. And I know that creaming butter with sugar creates a cakey texture that olive oil can’t match.

I’m just now googling sugar-free cake entries. Perhaps I’ll have another try for the next celebration. But, this week you get no blog recipe, just some pretty pictures.

It's my party and I'll cry if I want to! Just pour me another cava, please.


Other (successful) recipes for sugar-free desserts:
Sugar-Free Almond Torte.
Date Bars.
Apricot Mousse.

More recipes for baking with olive oil:
Apple-Almond Crumble.
Olive Oil Carrot Cake.
Fig Pudding.
Zucchini Chocolate Cake.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

PHOTO TOUR TO MOROCCO

“I’m interested in where you put your eye,” said Antonio, as he downloaded my nearly 800 photos onto a pen drive. Antonio Martín led a landscape photography tour to Merzouga, in the south of Morocco. We were eight people on the tour—Antonio and his wife, Martina Reich, three Spanish guys and three American women—traveling in two four-wheel drive vehicles from southern Spain.


Where I put my eye seemed to be mainly on food! In kitchens, in markets, food on the hoof and fruits on the tree. I recorded every meal we ate on the eight-day trip, from Tangier to Azrou to Merzouga and return via Midelt, Moulay Idriss and back to the port of Tangier. 

One of our photo group has climbed part way up the Great Dune to capture the sunrise.

My eye also took in ravishing landscapes, from the escarpments and gorges of the High Atlas Mountains to golden dunes, from rocky desert to lush oases of date palms. Antonio took us on night photography expeditions and showed us how to photograph sundown silhouettes of a camel caravan. (Photos and recipes are in the previous five blogs.)


Bread and Pastries


Three kinds of breads served at breakfast with honey, fruit jam and olives. (Dar Zerhoune guest house in Moulay Idriss.)

Layered flat bread called rghaif, baked on a griddle. It is made with a yeast dough, folded and brushed with oil. (Kasbah Asmaa Hotel, Midelt.)


Fried cruller, for breakfast.
Flat bread rolled with spicy onion, sliced and fried.













Moroccan bread, baked in a round loaf, accompanies every meal.

A selection of Moroccan pastries. These were served on the breakfast buffet. (Hotel Les Dunes d'Or, Merzouga.)

Food Vendors and Markets


We buy apples from a roadside vendor.


Dried figs strung together at a stall in the souk of Moulay Idriss.

Sheep market at the big souk in Rissani. Lamb is slaughtered for special festivals and for wedding feasts.
Spices, grains and legumes at Rissani market.

Grilled brochettes in Rissani.

People of the Erg Chebbi Desert






"Farmyard" in the desert.

Open-air kitchen in the desert.

Antonio, a superb portraitist, delivers a photo he made last year to this elderly desert man. A gregarious, exuberant and always curious human being, Antonio makes friends with people everywhere he goes. He took us along to visit people of the desert whom he had met and photographed on previous trips.

The ceiling in the elderly man's desert home. Note the light switch and bulb, powered by solar panel outside.

Berber Villages


Hospitality--always a pot of mint tea. We leave our shoes at the door and are seated on carpets on the floor. The large room has no furniture other than the low table, a few cushions and a large flat-screen TV.

Seated outside her home, this woman cleans and sorts dried herbs.

All dressed up for a Berber wedding.


Antonio Martín--photographer, galleryist, biker, horse guy, world traveller. (http://antoniomartin.com/)

The Morocco trip was a privately organized tour with experienced guides, Antonio and Martina, who have been traveling in Morocco for many years. They usually make two photo tours each year for small groups. For more information, contact martina@antoniomartin.com.

Leaving Moulay Idriss, we needed three donkeys to transport luggage from the guest house to the cars.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

THE SPICE THAT’S CUMIN IN


On a Moroccan table, not salt and pepper, but salt and cumin.

“Pass the salt and pepper, please” said one of my tablemates at our first meal in Morocco. I passed him two small ramekins, one a salt cellar and the other, presumably, containing pepper.


“Not pepper!” he exclaimed. “What is it? Sort of like curry.” I tasted. Cumin, comino, in Spanish. After salt, cumin is the most prevalent seasoning in Moroccan food. It’s added to many dishes during cooking and it’s placed on the table for each person to add according to taste.


Whole cumin seeds and ground cumin. Toast the whole seeds and add, sparingly, to potatoes, beans, legumes.
Cumin is the whole or ground seeds of a plant belonging to the same family as parsley, dill and caraway. Its aroma is pungent, nutty. Its taste, slightly bitter, warm and earthy. A native of south Asia and the Middle East, the spice has found its way into cuisines right around the world, especially in spice blends such as Moroccan ras el hanout; Indian garum masala and curry; Tex-Mex chili powder, and Latin American adobo. It’s often a cohort of hot chile.

I’m always exploring connections between cooking styles and cultures. So, of course I noted that cumin is a spice also used in Andalusia, the region of Spain just across the Mediterranean from Morocco. (So close that, on a clear day, I can see the mountains of North Africa from my kitchen window.)

For instance, the tapa bar favorite, pinchitos, spicy mini-kebabs, is spiced almost identically to the brochettes grilled by street vendors in Morocco, heavy on the cumin, with a little heat from chile. In Málaga and Cádiz, pinchitos are usually made with pork, while in Tangier, just across the narrow Straits of Gibraltar, they are made with lamb or beef.

Cumin even turns up in some versions of gazpacho. It’s used in that favorite Sevilla dish, espinacas con garbanzos, spinach with chickpeas, as well as with lentils and black-eyed peas. Surprisingly, a hint of cumin appears in Andalusian braised vegetables, such as asparagus, artichokes, fava beans and pumpkin.

The Andalusia-North Africa connection is more than just proximity. The “Moors” who ruled Al-Andaluz for seven centuries were Arabs and Berbers from North Africa. They left an indelible mark on the cuisine, customs and language of southern Spain. (Spanish words such as almendras, almonds; albóndigas, meatballs, and aceite, oil, all derive from Arabic.)


This Andalusian vegetable dish seasoned with cumin is a little like Moroccan tagine.

I’ve been cooking a lot of Moroccan food since I returned from a week’s travels there (see the previous four blog posts for recipes). But this week I’m looking for cumin connections in Andalusian food. This is a village recipe—calabaza guisada, or stewed pumpkin—that reminds me a little of tagine, the Moroccan stew of vegetables and meat.

Brown rice makes this vegetable melange a vegetarian main dish.

A dollop of yogurt is a good addition to rice with butternut squash.


Butternut squash in my garden.
The Spanish recipe calls for pumpkin, peppers, onion and tomatoes to be layered in a pan and simmered or baked until tender. I’ve turned the dish into a vegetarian main course, by baking all the veggies on top of a layer of brown rice. I’ve used butternut squash from the garden instead of the more traditional pumpkin.











Baked Squash with Rice
Calabaza Guisada con Arroz


1 ½ cups brown rice
6 cups water
Salt
2 pounds butternut squash
3 plum tomatoes, sliced
1 onion, sliced
2 green peppers, cut in strips
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
½ teaspoon cumin
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon Sherry vinegar
¼ cup olive oil
1 cup boiling water
Greek yogurt to serve (optional)

Cook the rice in 6 cups of boiling water with 1 teaspoon salt for 8 minutes. Drain. (Rice can be par-boiled in advance of assembling the casserole.)

Preheat oven to 375ºF. 

Cut the squash in half, remove seeds and peel. Slice it crosswise ½ inch thick. Spread the drained rice in the bottom of a lightly oiled cazuela or oven casserole. Layer the sliced squash, tomatoes, onion, green peppers and garlic on top of the rice. Break the bay leaf into pieces and tuck them among the vegetables. Sprinkle with parsley, cumin, salt to taste and pepper. Drizzle over the vinegar and oil. Pour over the boiling water.

Cover the casserole with a lid or foil and bake until squash is tender, about 75 minutes.

Serve hot or room temperature with a dollop of yogurt, if desired.



Some more Andalusian dishes spiced with cumin:

Saturday, October 21, 2017

MOROCCO—DINNER IN THE DESERT



In the desert, late afternoon sun turns the dunes to gold.

The late rays of sun turn the dunes golden orange. We are trekking by dromedary through the Erg Chebbi desert (southeastern Morocco), heading towards a camp of jaimas, for dinner, a night under stars and dawn on the Great Dune. As the sun descends, shadows grow long. The day’s radiant heat abates.

Shadows grow long. Selfie with camel.



Camp for the night--tents in a watering hole set amongst the dunes. Camels wait outside the enclosure.

The caravansary is a group of tents enclosing an open area with low tables and carpets spread on the sand. A few trees ring the enclosure that is tucked in the folds of a sea of dunes. The camels are parked outside for the night.

What's for dinner? Tagine bubbling on a rustic cooker inside a tent.
In a rustic kitchen, our dinner is bubbling away. Dinner is tagine. Tagine is the word for both the finished dish, a stew of meat and vegetables, as well as the cooking vessel, which is an earthenware or metal pot with a shallow base and conical lid.


Morning. First rays of sun break over the dunes.

Salutation to the sun. We've climbed a short way up the Grand Dune.

In a week travelling in Morocco, I ate tagine every single day. There was beef with prunes (twice); kefta meatballs with eggs (twice); chicken with carrots, eggplant and potatoes, and chicken with preserved lemon and olives.

Tagine has long been one of my favorite dishes to cook for family and for guests. I love the simplicity of its preparation—ingredients are layered in the tagine with spices and a little liquid is added. Grated onions in the bottom provide flavor and substance. On top, pieces of meat or chicken and vegetables simmer slowly beneath that conical lid. The lid traps steam and keeps it circulating, resulting in tender food, full of flavor. There’s no browning, no stirring.

However, since I converted last year to an induction cooktop (requiring only steel pans), I haven’t prepared tagine at all. I decided that, instead of getting rid of the clay tagine, I would try it in the oven!

Tagine with kefta meatballs, eggplant, spices and eggs. This version has been cooked in the oven.

Kefta Meatball Tagine with Eggs
Tagín con Albóndigas con Huevo
s

Kefta are very small (1 inch) meatballs, well-seasoned with spices and simmered in a spicy tomato sauce. Ground lamb is best, but beef or chicken can be used instead. Neither bread nor egg is added to the meat, so the kefta are quite dense. (The seasoned meat can also be pressed onto skewers and grilled as kebabs.)

A clay tagine is heavy. Take care in lifting it in and out of the oven. Remove lid first, taking care not to release steam towards your face. Then lift out the bottom. Place each on an insulated board, never on a cold surface.

If you don’t have an earthenware or ceramic tagine, use an oven-safe lidded pan or shallow lidded casserole.

Use a food processor to finely chop together the onion (2 or 3, depending on size) and garlic. Use it for both the meatballs and the sauce. Spices, too, are divided between meatballs and sauce.

Bread for dipping into spicy sauce.



How to serve tagine. In a  Moroccan home, the tagine is served on a low table. Family members sit around the table and eat right out of the tagine, using fingers and bread to help themselves to the delicious nuggets of meat and vegetables. As part of a meal, the tagine might be served with soup or a selection of salads or an additional meat or chicken dish. It is not customary to serve rice or cous cous as a side with tagine. However, if tagine is the main dish, you may want to accompany it with more than just bread. 

Serves 4 to 6 as part of a meal.




1 pound ground lamb
1 ½ cups finely chopped onion
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Cumin
Pimentón (sweet paprika)
Hot pimentón or cayenne
Grated fresh nutmeg
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
1 tablespoon finely chopped cilantro
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups eggplant cut in 1-inch cubes
1 ¼ cups grated fresh tomatoes
¼ teaspoon saffron threads, crushed
¼ cup hot water
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch of turmeric
Sprig of fresh parsley
Sprig of cilantro
Chile pepper (optional)
3 eggs
Bread, to serve

Place the meat in a bowl. Add 2 tablespoons of the chopped onion and garlic. Add 1 teaspoon each of salt, cumin and sweet pimentón. Add ¼ teaspoon each of black pepper and hot pimentón. Add a grating of fresh nutmeg. Add the chopped parsley and cilantro. Using hands, mix the meat and spices until they are combined very well.

Shape the meat mixture into small (1-inch) balls. Place them on a sheet pan and refrigerate until ready to cook the tagine.

Place kefta on a base of finely chopped onions.
Place 2 tablespoons oil in the bottom of tagine or alternative lidded casserole. Spread the remaining chopped onion and garlic in the bottom of the pan. Place the meatballs in a single layer on top of the onions. Tuck the cubes of eggplant in among the meatballs. Spread the grated tomato pulp on top.

Add the crushed saffron to the hot water in a small bowl and let soak 5 minutes. Add 1 teaspoon each of salt, cumin and sweet pimentón to the bowl. Add ¼ teaspoon each of black pepper, hot pimentón and cinnamon to the bowl. Stir in a pinch of turmeric. Stir in remaining 2 tablespoons of oil.

Drizzle the spice-oil mixture over the tomatoes. Place sprigs of parsley and cilantro in the center and chile, if using, on top. Cover the tagine or casserole.

Ready to cook--tomatoes and spices on top of the meatballs and eggplant cubes.

Place the tagine in a cold oven and set temperature to 350ºF (180ºC). Let the tagine cook 1 hour.

Very carefully, lift off the tagine lid. Remove the tagine from the oven to check if it needs additional liquid. Do not stir it. Return the tagine to the oven. Replace the lid.

Cook 45 minutes more. Remove carefully, as before. Tomatoes should be thickened and eggplant very soft. Use a spoon to make indentations in the surface. Break an egg into each. Return the tagine to the oven and replace the lid. Cook until whites are set, but yolks still liquid, 8 to 10 minutes.

Remove the tagine from the oven. Eggs will continue to cook from residual heat. Serve the kefta from the tagine, removing the lid when the tagine is placed on the table. Accompany with bread.

Place the tagine right on the table. Not one egg per person--expect to break up the eggs when serving.


Bread is the essential accompaniment to tagine.



Another recipe for tagine: Chicken Tagine with Olives and Lemon.

More about clay-pot cooking in the oven: Baked Rice and Seafood Cazuela.

Erg Chebbi, desert near Merzouga, Morocco.