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There are a zillion recipes out there for ratatouille, right? Everyone from Julia Child to Martha Stewart has a version. So why am I bothering with it it when I usually only write about dishes you’re not likely to run into or ones that I have a strong opinion about the right way to make it? Check the latter.  Ratatouille is one of the most abused dishes in the universe. It seems you can just bung a pile of veggies into a pot with some olive oil and garlic and 15 minutes later, voila, ratatouille!

It’s not a complicated dish but it does require some care. I think it’s important to cook the vegetables separately before combining them, allowing each one to maintain its individuality, so that you don’t end up with a sludgy mound of undercooked eggplant and overcooked zucchini.

With its olive oil, garlic, peppers, onions, tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini and herbs, ratatouille is about as Provençal as you can get. You can make it year ’round but it’s at its best in the summer when the veggies are at their peak. Not only is it delicious but it’s high in nutrients and low in calories, making it super healthy. I like to serve it on its own, warm or at room temperature, where its flavors can best be appreciated, but it is also good hot with roasts or grilled meat.  As it does take a bit of effort, I usually make a fairly large amount so that by the end of a week we never want to see ratatouille again.

Ratatouille

Serves 6 – 8

Ingredients:

3 medium eggplants (aubergines)

3-5 zucchini (courgettes) depending on size, the smaller the better

4-5 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

1 red and one either green or yellow pepper, sliced thinly into strips

3-4 ripe summer tomatoes (about 1 lb.), peeled and chopped coarsely

2 large cloves garlic, finely chopped

a few sprigs of fresh thyme, a bay leaf (optional), chopped parsley and basil

Cut the eggplant and the zucchini into 1/2 inch cubes.  (If the zucchini are less than 4″ long, cut them into rounds.)  Put them separately into colanders, salt them with a teaspoon of salt each, weigh them down with something heavy, and let them drain for at least 30 minutes.  Pat dry on paper towels.  I don’t like to saute eggplant because it absorbs too much oil. So I line an oven tray with foil, and toss the eggplant and zucchini separately, each with a tablespoon of olive oil. If your tray is big enough, spread the veggies out separately on the tray – otherwise use two trays. Heat the oven to broil and broil the eggplant/zucchini for about 10 minutes until beginning to brown. Turn them over and bake for a further 5 minutes, until soft and lightly browned.  Ovens and grills vary widely so keep a close watch and do not burn. 

While the eggplant and zucchini are draining and cooking, saute the onion in two tablespoons olive oil until softened, about 10 minutes. Add the peppers and cook for another 10 minutes.  Add 3/4 of the tomatoes, the garlic, thyme and optional bay leaf, salt and pepper, and simmer over low heat until the peppers are cooked and the liquid in the pan is reduced somewhat.  Add the eggplant and zucchini and continue to cook over low heat until you are satisfied with its texture.  I like it well cooked so let the combined mixture simmer gently for up to half an hour.  I also like to add the remaining tomato towards the end, especially if the mixture is beginning to stick, but also to give it a jolt of fresh tomato flavor.  This is of course optional.  Turn the ratatouille into a large serving bowl, check for seasoning, add the chopped parsley and torn  basil leaves and a splash of olive oil.  

Covered, it can last in the refrigerator for up to a week and is actually better on the second and third days.  

For something different, spread leftover ratatouille in a gratin dish, heat it and make indentations in its surface to accommodate as many eggs as you wish to serve.  Carefully break an egg into each indentation, return it to the oven at 350 degrees until the eggs are just set, about 10 minutes.

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(Photos by Jake)

Soon after I met Brad thirty-six and a half years ago, I cooked him osso buco for his birthday and he remarked,”This is the best thing I’ve ever eaten.” So I’ve continued to make it for him every birthday since, and he still reports that there is no better dish in the world. Then, when I had Fête Accomplie, my gourmet carry-out and catering business in Washington D.C. in the 80’s, a woman in the line of 30 customers declared loudly, “I’m Italian and I’ve never had better osso buco,” to which the other customers said, “What’s osso buco? I want it!”  From then on there was a constant demand. I do think it’s a wonderful dish and that simple cooking is best: No onion, no carrots, no celery in the sauce. Just the pure flavor of tomatoes and white wine and the incredible essences that pour out of the veal and the marrow. You must have the right cut of veal shank: Not those 3″ high solid bones with little marrow and less meat, but slices about 1 to1-1/2 inches thick with large marrow-filled bones and plenty of tender pale meat that falls off the bone and becomes slightly gelatinous when cooked. Osso buco means hollow bone and within the hollow bone is marrow and without it the purpose and perfection of the dish is sadly reduced. So, If the idea of eating this succulent morsel turns you off, then osso buco is probably not for you.

I like to serve it with the traditional risotto Milanese and gremolata, a chopped up mixture of lemon, garlic and parsley.

Steamed or sauteed zucchini is a nice accompaniment. It’s certainly a dish worthy of a special occasion.

Osso Buco

Serves 2-3 

Ingredients:

For the veal:

4 1 -1/2 inch meaty slices of veal shank

1 tablespoon butter

1/2 cup dry white wine

1-14 oz. can of the best tomatoes you can find

1 clove garlic, salt and pepper

For the risotto:

1/2 small onion, chopped

1 tablespoon butter

1-1/2 cups chicken stock

a pinch of saffron

3/4 cup arborio rice

For the gremolata:

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

1 large garlic clove, chopped fine

Grated rind of 1 lemon

3-4 small zucchini (optional)

Heat the butter in a sturdy pan over fairly high heat and brown the veal on each side for 2 minutes.  Pour over the wine and let it bubble and reduce by half.  Chop the tomatoes finely – I pulse them a few times in the food processor – and add them to the pan.  You may not need the full can, they should barely cover the veal.  Add the chopped clove of garlic and salt and pepper.  When it comes to the boil, turn down the heat, cover the pan, and let the veal simmer gently for 40 minutes.  Carefully turn the slices over, making sure you keep the veal and its marrow intact, cover the pan again, and continue to simmer.   Check after 20 minutes. The meat should show little resistance when pierced with a fork and the sauce should be thick – it may need another ten minutes or so with the lid off to further reduce the sauce.  The meat won’t mind.

For the risotto, cook the onion in the butter until softened, about five minutes.  Add the rice to the pan and stir it around for a good minute or two to make sure the rice is impregnated with the butter. Meantime warm the stock, add the saffron to it with a half-teaspoon of salt (if the stock isn’t salted) and add it to the rice, stirring.  As soon as it comes to the boil, cover the pan tightly, turn it down to the lowest possible heat, and cook for exactly 17 minutes.  Fluff it with a fork – it should be perfectly cooked but can rest, covered, for a few extra minutes.

For the gremolata, combine the parsley, garlic and lemon rind.

For the optional zucchini, cut it into either rounds or batons and steam it until just tender.  Or, if you prefer, you can saute it in a little butter.

Assemble the dish:  Mound the rice in the center of a large oval platter.  Surround it with the veal, placing the zucchini in between.  Spoon over the sauce, sprinkle with the gremolata and be ready to have one of the best things you’ve ever eaten.

“People wax eloquent about this dish for good reason,” said my husband Brad last night, polishing off his third helping of feijoada. “Wax eloquent” is the way he speaks. Sometimes even his fellow septuagenarians find his language a little archaic. But he’s right about feijoada (pronounced fayje-wada), it is truly one of the world’s great dishes. We first had it in Brazil 30 years ago when we went for Carnival–a street party that takes place the week leading up to Lent. Here in America, it takes the form of Mardi Gras, in New Orleans. Feijoada doesn’t have any direct connection with Carnival, except that it’s the Brazilian national dish and when you go there, you’re bound to run into it. In it’s pure form, it’s a dish you shouldn’t attempt to make for less than 12 greedy people because it involves 5-10 kinds of meat (smoked tongue, pigs feet, dried beef, and a variety of sausages, among others) and includes black beans, rice, kale, oranges, farofa and hot sauce.  I used to do an annual pre-lenten feijoada and people would come from far and wide to see who could eat the most, but these days I am less ambitious (and it seems like a lot trouble). So after Brad asked for the third year in a row–“no feijoada?”–I decided a mini version would be better than none at all.  The brilliance of the dish is its combination of diverse flavors and textures that blend deliciously together, either one on one or all at the same time. I decided that as long as I stuck to the basic ingredients I could cut down on the meat and, while it might not be a “real” feijaoda, it might, as Brad would say “pass muster.”

Serves 6

Ingredients:

1 lb. dried black beans

Water to soak them

1/4 lb. slab bacon

1 lb. linguiça sausages*

1 lb. smoked pork chops* (* These are usually pre-cooked.)

1 medium onion plus one cup chopped

3 large cloves garlic

2 bay leaves

1 lb. kale, stripped from its tough central stalks

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large clove garlic, chopped

Salt

1-1/2 cups rice

 6 oranges

 1/2 cup farofa (toasted manioc meal)

Hot sauce (the Mexican El Yucateco brand Green Chile Habanero makes a fine sub for the Brazilian)

The beans and meat

Soak the beans overnight in water to cover by 2″ (or use the quick-cook method of bringing them to the boil over high heat, boiling briskly for 2 minutes, turning off the heat and letting them sit for 2 hours). Add the bacon in one piece, the whole onion, one chopped garlic clove, and the bay leaves. Add enough water to cover again by two inches, bring to the boil, skim off any scum, turn the heat to low and cook until the beans are still a bit bitey, about an hour, depending on their freshness. In the meantime, brown the sausages briefly on all sides in a little oil, then drain off any fat.  If you can’t find linguica, good garlic pork sausages, chorizo, kielbasa, or a mixture will do (no fatty breakfast sausage or chicken sausage please!).   Cut the sausage into 1″ rounds and add to the beans.  Cut the pork chops, including the bones, into large bite size pieces and add them to the beans as well.  Simmer until the beans and meat are cooked, about 30 minutes more. You may need to add more water as you go – do not let the beans or meat stick. Remove and discard the whole onion, the bay leaves and the bacon. Add salt and pepper to taste.  In a separate pan, cook the chopped onion and the rest of the garlic in a little oil until softened, about 10 minutes.  Tip the onion mixture, along with a good cup of beans and their liquid (no meats) into a food processor and pulse several times to make a thick sauce, then pour it back into the bean pot. Or you can just mash the beans into the onion mixture.  Simmer for another 10 minutes or reheat when ready to use.

The Kale 

Blanch the kale for 3 minutes in boiling water.  Drain.  Roll up several leaves at a time and cut them into thin strips.  Repeat until it’s all shredded.  In batches, saute the kale in olive oil until tender, about 5 minutes, adding the garlic towards the end so that it doesn’t burn.  Salt to taste.   The kale can be sauteed ahead and warmed up when needed.

Cook the rice by your preferred method to be ready at the right moment.

Peel the oranges with a knife, removing all outside pith and if necessary a slice off the bottom so each orange stands proudly on its own.

 The Farofa

If you’re lucky enough to have a Brazilian store close by, as we do, they’re certain to have farofa. You can also purchase it online here.  It’s delicious, healthy and lasts forever. (It kind of resembles a finely ground panko.) Toast about a cup of farofa in a tablespoon of oil over very low heat until light brown, stirrring from time to time (about 15 minutes).

Serve the beans and the meats (sprinkled with the farofa) accompanied by the rice, the kale, the oranges, and with as much (or as little) hot sauce as you fancy.

BOM APETIT!

I just read that Super Bowl Sunday is the second largest food consumption day of the year in the U.S. (Thanksgiving being the first.) It must certainly be the unhealthiest: a license to indulge in the greasiest, saltiest, most calorific, cardiac-arrest-inducing offerings without guilt, all in the name of a football game. (We’re huge football fans around here.) No grilled chicken breast-Caesar salads but rather Buffalo chicken wings with blue cheese sauce, ribs, chips and dips, and, of course, chili. Not to be left out, I offer my recipe for both chili and a four-layer dip (seven layers have too many flavors, we think) which we have always called Plate o’ Slop.  This could, of course, be scooped up with carrot and celery sticks, but it really is much better mounded atop the best tortilla chips you can find. (We favor these.)

Plate O’ Slop

Serves: However many, until gone

Ingredients:

For the bean layer:

3-15 oz. cans black beans

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon chili powder

1 teaspoon garlic, finely chopped (do 3 at once, one each for the beans, salsa and guacamole)

Juice of 1 lime, salt

For the tomato salsa:

6-8  tomatoes (the ripest you can find), cubed

1 jalapeño pepper, finely chopped 

1 teaspoon garlic, finely chopped

1 tablespoon chopped mild onion, red or white

Salt, pinch of sugar

1 tablespoon cilantro, finely chopped

For the guacamole:

4 ripe avocados

1 teaspoon garlic, finely chopped

1 jalapeño pepper, chopped fine

1 tablespoon lime juice, salt

To assemble:

1 8 oz. pot sour cream

1/2 cup chopped cilantro

The ingredient list is long but there is a lot of overlap and, if you use a food processor, it comes together in no time at all.

For the  bean layer:  Put them in a pot with all of their liquid, the cumin, chili powder, and garlic.  Cook for about 10 minutes until the flavors are blended and most of the liquid has evaporated.  Mash the beans against the side of the pot or put the mixture in the food processor and pulse three or four times until you have a spreadable mixture – about half beans, half thick puree. 

For the tomato salsa:  Mix all the ingredients.  Let drain in a colander until ready to assemble the dip.

For the guacamole:  Either mash the avocados coarsely and add the rest of the ingredients or pulse everything in a food processor, stopping short of having a smooth mixture.

Assembling the dip:  Spread the beans on the bottom of an approximately 9″ x 12″ dish.  Cover with the drained salsa, then the guacamole, then about a 1/2″ of sour cream.  Sprinkle with the cilantro and devour.

Chili

There are probably more “award winning” recipes for chili than any other food item in existence, and people tend to think their recipe is the best. I don’t have any such illusions, but mine is fairly flexible in its ingredients, relatively easy to make, and has pleased family and friends for about 50 years. With regard to its “heat “and that of the dip, I leave it to you to decide how spicy you want things to be, particularly if kids are involved. You can always add hot sauce or extra chiles. As for the chocolate and the beer, I list them as optional because while I do think they add richness and complexity, if you don’t have them on hand you will still have a very flavorful chili without them.

Ingredients:

2 lbs. regular ground beef (20% fat)

1 pound lean ground pork (or use 3 lbs. ground beef)

1 cup chopped onion

1 tablespoon garlic, chopped fine

3 tablespoons chili powder

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon paprika

1 tablespoon salt

1-28 oz. can tomatoes, chopped

1-12 oz. can dark beer (optional)

3-15 oz. cans red kidney beans

1 oz. dark chocolate (optional)

Brown the meat in 3 batches over medium heat, draining each batch of most of its fat after browning. (I just tip them into the same colander, saving about a tablespoon of  fat for the onions.)  Cook the onions until softened (about 5 minutes) then add the garlic, the meat, all the spices and the salt.  Continue to cook and stir over medium heat for a few minutes until the meat has absorbed the spice flavors.  Add the tomatoes and the optional beer (or replace it with water).  Make sure the liquid just covers the meat mixture, adding more water if necessary.  When it comes to the boil, turn the heat to low and let it simmer for at least an hour, adding more water as needed to keep the liquid level just covering the meat.  It is important to taste as you go, making sure that it has the heat and chili flavor that you want, as well as enough salt.  Chili powders vary a great deal so you may want to add more at an early stage, or more cayenne, or a chopped jalapeño or two. 

Drain and rinse the beans and add them after the meat has cooked for an hour. 

Add the chocolate about 10 minutes before the end of cooking (earlier, it won’t add much to the flavor).

I like to serve the chili with rice and have bowls of guacamole, salsa, and sour cream available for garnish (you can make extras when making the Plate o’ Slop), but I recognize that these might not be your first choice.  So feel free to serve your chili with grated cheese, chopped onion, tortilla chips, corn bread, or whatever else suits your fancy. 

Shrimp with Feta and Tomatoes (Garides Saganaki)

This dish is robust and full of flavor – the sweet tomato sauce contrasting nicely with the salty cheese and the bitey shrimp. It’s also very easy to make and festive enough for a dinner party entree. Garides is the Greek word for shrimp and saganaki is the pan in which it is baked. But I simply make the dish in a skillet on top of the stove.

To tell the truth, when I lived on a Greek island for six months in the 60’s, I never once ran into this dish. Greece, like most of Europe, was quite poor at the time and fish were sparse in the Mediterranean – it had been “fished out” people said. Octopus was plentiful, but the arrival of a couple of barbounia (red mullet) in the market was cause for celebration and quick acquisition.

How things have changed. With the farming of fish worldwide, shrimp is readily available in a mutitude of shapes and sizes. I know that fish farming is detrimental to the environment, but I can’t help being glad that at least shrimp and prawns are not priced beyond reach — or that they’re not nearing extinction.

Serves 4

Ingredients

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 small onion, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves

1/2 cup white wine (or 1 tablespoon ouzo if you have it)

1 14-oz. can chopped tomatoes (or use fresh if they’re in season)

1 teaspoon dried oregano

salt and a pinch cayenne pepper

1-1/2 pounds peeled and deveined shrimp (the larger the better)

4 oz. good feta cheese

1 tablespoon fresh mint, chopped (or dill or parsley)

Saute the onion in the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet until soft.  Add the garlic and white wine or ouzo.  

Ouzo gives a slightly different, licorishy flavor but is more authentically Greek. Let it bubble and reduce, then add the chopped tomatoes, drained of most of their juice, a little salt (the feta is salty), the cayenne and dried oregano and cook over low heat until the sauce is slightly thickened and almost dry. Add the shrimp and cook briefly (3-5 minutes, depending on size).  Do not overcook. Add the feta and give it a minute to melt slightly, then add the chopped mint, or dill if you prefer. I like to serve this dish with simple boiled white rice and buttered spinach, but even on its own it will be sure to satisfy.

There are many kinds of fish tacos — good, bad, mediocre.  You can just grill or fry a piece of fish, use some bottled salsa, slice up some avocado, warm up a tortilla or two and be perfectly satisfied.  But a REALLY good fish taco is to die for and I think it’s worth the extra effort to come up with the best.  After a lot of trial and error, I’ve settled on two favorites, either of which I would consider having at my Last Supper.

The first is Baja-style: I use a firm-fleshed white fish such as cod, batter-fry it to a crisp, then put it in a warm tortilla along with sliced avocado and a wonderful fresh slaw. That’s it.

What’s so great about that, you ask?  Follow the recipe carefully and you’ll find out.

Baja-style Fish Tacos

Serves 4  (2 tacos per person)

For the batter:

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

Pinch of salt

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/2 cup tepid water

1 egg white

Sieve the flour with the salt, blend in the olive oil and then the water.  Stir to a smooth cream, then let sit for at least an hour, preferably two. Before using, fold in the stiffly whipped egg white.

For the Mexican slaw:

6 cups thinly-sliced cabbage

1 large garlic clove 

1 teaspoon cumin seeds (or 1/2 teaspoon ground)

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 tablespoon canned chipotle in adobo, chopped  

1 teaspoon lime juice

1/2 small red onion, chopped fine

6 cherry tomatoes, halved

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

Pound the garlic clove, cumin and salt together in a pestle and mortar (or bowl).  Add all the following ingredients and mix well.  Blend into the cabbage and let it sit for at least half an hour. This will make too much slaw for the tacos but it is so addictive that you won’t have any trouble polishing it off.

For assembling (making) the taco:

1 lb. fresh cod (or other firm-fleshed white fish)

8 – 8″ corn tortillas (size is important)

1 ripe avocado

Vegetable oil

Cut the washed and dried cod into 1/2″ x approx. 3″ pieces.  Coat the pieces well with the batter.

Heat enough oil to make 1/2″ deep in an approx. 9″ non-stick pan until a drop of batter immediately crisps.  Fry the fish on each side 2-3 minutes until golden.  Drain on paper towels.

In the meantime, wrap the tortillas in foil and heat in the oven or wrap them in a dampened paper towel and heat in a microwave.

Peel and cut the avocado into 16 slices (2 per taco).

Assemble the tacos: cup each tortilla in your hand and put in two or three pieces of the fish.  Load up with the slaw and a few slices of avocado. Devour immediately.

Salmon, Black Bean, Goat Cheese and Tomatillo-Guacamole Burritos

Serves 4 

This involves flour tortillas, so it’s technically more of a burrito than a taco. These ingedients make for a kaleidoscope of colors and flavors. I like it best with grilled salmon, but I’ve also made it with store-bought smoked salmon and liked it just fine.

Ingredients:

6 tomatillos

1  ripe avocado

1 clove garlic

1 jalapeño pepper

1tablespoon chopped cilantro

Salt

1 15 oz. can black beans

1/2 teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon lime juice

12 oz. salmon filet (or 2×6 oz.)

1 teaspoon olive oil 

4 – 8-10″ flour tortillas

4 oz. fresh goat cheese

For the Tomatillo-Guacamole:

Remove the husks from the tomatillos and rinse them under warm water to remove their stickiness.  Place them, along with the clove of garlic, in a skillet on a medium flame. Turn them a few times until blackened in spots and slightly softened, about 10 minutes.  Peel and chop the garlic and put it in a food processor along with the halved tomatillos, chopped jalapeño, avocado, cilantro and salt.  Puree on pulse until almost smooth, but with some texture remaining.  Transfer mixture to a bowl.

For the Black Beans:

Heat  the beans in a saucepan with about half of their liquid and the cumin, mashing them slightly.  Add salt and the lime juice.

For the Salmon:

Paint the filets with the olive oil, salt and pepper.  Broil or cook on a grill pan for 3-4 minutes a side, depending on the thickness of the filets, until still opaque in the center.

Assemble the burritos:

Wrap the tortillas in foil or paper towels, heating them in the oven/microwave.  Spread each one with 1/4 of the goat cheese, 1/4 of the salmon, placed across the center of the tortilla. Add a spoonful or two of black beans on one side and the same of the guacamole on the other.  Roll up and serve. (If you like your tortillas piping hot as I do, you can give them a minute in the microwave.) 

This dish is unusual, delicious, and simple to make.  It can easily be expanded for a bigger table.

In West Africa, groundnut is the local name for peanut, and variations of this dish abound.  Some countries add veggies such as yams or cabbage, but I think this muddies the spicy peanut flavor.  It’s best made with thighs or legs which add to the richness of the sauce. You can use breasts, but you will need to shorten the cooking time by about half. Garnish with chopped peanuts and cilantro. We like to serve it with rice so the sauce can shine through. We also add a simple salad of chopped tomatoes, red onion, and green pepper (roughly equal amounts of each), salt to taste, and and a bit of minced green chili.

West African Chicken Groundnut Stew

Serves 4 – 6

Ingredients:

Vegetable oil (not olive)

4 chicken thighs (skinned, halved along the bone if large)

1 medium white onion, chopped fine

2 cloves garlic, chopped

2″ piece of fresh ginger, peeled  and grated

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 cup canned tomatoes, chopped

1/2 cup peanut butter

1 cup chicken stock (or a stock cube dissolved in a cup of water)

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

2 tablespoons chopped peanuts

Salt the chicken thighs and brown them in the oil on both sides, about five minutes.  Set aside.  Add the onions to the pan – use more oil if needed – and cook them until softened.  Add the garlic, ginger, cayenne and tomatoes.  Simmer until well blended.   Dissolve the peanut butter in the warmed chicken stock, add to the tomato mixture and bring to the boil.  Add the browned chicken pieces, then simmer gently for 45 minutes to an hour (about a half hour for breasts) until the chicken is cooked but not falling off the bone. Garnish with the cilantro and chopped peanuts and serve with plain boiled rice and the optional salad.