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My portable spinach pies are easy to make, healthy, and travel quite well.Yep, not the best picture. Took it with my BBerry on an overcast day. I'll try to swap it out with a beauty shot of the pies very soon.

Sometimes recipes come together in the oddest ways. And so it goes with my Portable Spinach Pies. I’ve made spinach pies before, but never really committed to making them a staple of my cooking repertoire. I have no idea why, now that I’ve made them again. They’re delicious, nutritious, and highly portable. Bonus: They taste great at any temperature: hot, warm, and even cold.

Maybe it was the Phyllo Factor that kept me away so long? Or the simple fear of the unknown? Before we get into the recipe itself, here’s a quick slide show of a recent day trip I took to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. What does this have to do with spinach pies? Well, spinach pies were my lunch that day. In fact, the very spinach pie recipe I’m sharing with you. Please forgive the fact that some of the pics have captions and others don’t. I’m still learning how to work this cool new WordPress slideshow feature.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Those scenes were lovely, weren’t they? Ok, now back to cooking:

So I made and odd and wonderful time-saving discovery when making this pie. The first time I made the filling, I was going out of my way to saute plenty of onions and the perfect amount of garlic, to spice it “just” so, adding fresh lemon zest, and so on. I kept having to taste and adjust the seasoning. Was it good? Yes, it actually was, but it wasn’t quite perfect.

The second time I made the pies, I was super short on time–needed to leave within the hour. By this point, I had a pretty good idea of what the pie needed to have inside to taste good. But I didn’t have time to zest a lemon, to snip sun-dried tomatoes into bits, or to play around with getting the spices just right. In other words, this is what everyday life is like for a lot of us.

All of a sudden, I remembered that I had some fresh homemade salsa in the fridge that I’d made earlier in the week.  I thought, “I wonder if it would work? After all, it has onions, garlic, cumin, lemon, and even tomato. Yeah, there’s some cilantro in there, but not that much. Uhhhh, what time is it? Uh ok, wow, I gotta get outta here. Let’s just do this and pray.” So that’s exactly what happened.

I threw in a few spoonfuls of the salsa, along with some Arabic Spice Mixture, a few bits of chopped black olives, and sauteed it all together, adjusting the salt and pepper as it cooked. Bingo! It was perfect and took less than five minutes. The tomatoes added a richness to the pie, but you’d never know they’re in there unless you made them yourselves. The cilantro didn’t overpower. And the beautiful flavors of the onion and garlic were liberated the second they hit the hot olive oil. Luckily I’d made the salsa mild, so the jalapeno pepper taste didn’t even register. Amazing stuff!

Sometimes stumbled-upon shortcuts are just okay. I can honestly say this shortcut improved the recipe significantly.

So while it might seem tedious to make a fresh salsa just to use a few spoons of it in a spinach pie, please flip that script and think of it in a more positive light. The salsa is so excellent in many other contexts: as a snack, as topped for veggies and/or meats, mixed into beans as they simmer. Basically it’s magic, because it boosts and rounds out the flavor of pretty much anything it touches.  So we’ll start with that salsa recipe, then move on to the pie.


Magical Mild Homemade Salsa

1 28 ounce can of whole tomatoes and juice

1 medium onion, cut into large chunks

4-6 large garlic cloves, peeled and cut in half

1 jalapeno pepper, seeds and ribs removed

1/2 cup cilantro leaves (or parsley leaves if you have the “I hate cilantro” gene)

Juice of one lime or lemon

Dash of cumin (optional)

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

1. Add all ingredients to a blender or food processor and pulse once. (Resist the urge to just let it rip and whip all of the ingredients together at once). Pulse one or two more times (or more if preferred) to get desired consistency. I like my salsas to have quite a bit of chunkiness to them, but you may prefer a smoother blend. Either way works.

Highly Portable Spinach Pies

Ingredients:

Olive oil

1 pound bag of frozen spinach, thawed and drained of excess water

1 tablespoon of Arabic Spice Blend ( or a few dashes of whatever spices you like, such as cumin, coriander, etc)

1/2 tablespoon fenugreek powder

1/4 cup fresh homemade salsa (recipe above)

3-4 Tablespoons of black olives cut into chunks (optional)

2-3 sundried tomatoes, snipped into bits (optional)

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 275 F. Then start with a couple of teaspoons of olive oil. Heat it over medium heat in a large skillet or saute pan. Once the oil is shimmery and a drop of water skitters across its surface easily, add the spinach. (If you feel you need more oil, add it as needed).

2. As spinach sautes, keep it moving with your cooking tongs or a wooden spoon. Add the spices to the spinach. Stir and cook for 30 seconds to one minute, until spices’ aroma begins to bloom. Then add in the salsa, sundried tomato piece, and the olive chunks. Cook for one minute more.

3. Remove the filling from the heat and let it cool as you prep the phyllo dough.

4. Wrap 2-3 tablespoons of spinach mixture  in 2-3 sheets of phyllo dough. I like to wrap mine like burritos–I place the filling in the middle, fold the short edges upwards on each side, then wrap the rest of the dough around the pie. Click here for some visuals.

5. Place pies, seam side down,  in a well-oiled baking sheet. Slather the top of pies with olive oil. Bake for 45 minutes to an hour, flipping once. Pies should be light golden brown when removed from the pan. The low heat is a key element of this recipe, so please don’t blast that oven to save time. It doesn’t work. I know; I’ve tried.

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Beautiful ground and whole spices. For today's easy Persian and Arabic spice blends, I used pre-ground spices. Photo courtesy of http://www.sxc.hu/profile/nkzs

Like organizing my shoe collection or that abyss underneath the kitchen sink, putting together some handy spice blends was something I’ve been putting off. Once I did it though, I felt very liberated. Funny how that works, isn’t it?

To be quite honest, I don’t even really know why I kept avoiding this simple, time-saving task. Much like getting a closet or pantry organized, having spice blends handy will save you so darn much time. But I guess the process of putting them together can appear tedious.

But guess what’s a hundred times more tedious? Scooping out bits of spices from multiple jars almost every time you cook!

To save time when making these spice mixes, I bought my spices pre-ground. Sure, you can grind your own, if that’s your thing. Hey, I’ll admit that I have a spice grinder and I do get a real kick out of grinding my own sometimes. But in the interest of saving time, I just used powdered spices, as fresh as I could find them. Since I cook a lot, using these blends up should be no problem.

So here are a couple of handy spice blends of the Persian and Arabic persuasion that I finally rigged up. Feel free to adjust amounts of any (or all) of the spices up or down to suit your personal tastes:

Bria’s Quick Persian Spice Blend (Advieh)

In a clean, airtight jar, combine:

1-2 teaspoons each of ground:

cardamom, cinnamom, nutmeg, rose petals (optional)

1 teaspoon of:

orange peel (dried and finely minced or zested)

Bria’s Easy Arabic Spice Blend

In a clean, airtight jar, combine:

2-3 teaspoons each of ground:

Allspice, cardamom, cloves, coriander, cumin, nutmeg, paprika

1 teaspoon each of:

cinnamon, ginger, sumac

1/2 teaspoon of:

cumin

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Khorest Fesenjan, a classic Persian chicken dish with a sauce made of pomegranate and toasted walnut. Photo by Stacey Young.

Hey guys! We recently explored a vegetarian (actually vegan) version of today’s Persian dish, Khoresht Fesejan. Today, here’s the more classic version of this luxurious Persian stew with pomegranate, walnuts, and chicken. Enjoy this dish on top of the delicious rice dish of your choice. Classic chelo rice would work beautifully, or you could try my super easy basmati rice technique. Enjoy this richly flavored, slightly sweet, slightly sour stew.

Khoresht Fesenjan: Persian Pomegranate Walnut Stew

Note: Since pomegranate juice is so popular now and pretty easy to find in supermarkets, you can use that instead of pomegranate syrup. However, pomegranate syrup/molasses is available in some grocery stores, and also in Middle Eastern/Mediterranean stores. A lot of oil will come to the top of the dish. This is normal and nothing to worry about; it is the oil from the walnuts.

Ingredients:

2 tablespoons olive oil, ghee, butter, or neutral cooking oil of choice
2 medium onions, finely chopped
1 pound bone-in chicken thighs, legs, and/or breasts, skin removed
1/2 pound walnuts, finely ground (shells removed)
4 cups pomegranate juice or 1/2 cup pomegranate syrup/molasses diluted in 2 cups of water
1/4 teaspoon saffron, dissolved in 1 tablespoon of hot water
Salt, to taste
Honey or sugar
Cardamom pod (optional) OR 1/2 teaspoon cardamom powder
Pinch of allspice (optional)

Directions:

1. Heat the fat in a large pan Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until tender, about 10-15 minutes. Remove onions.

2. Salt chicken. Add chicken and brown on both sides, about three minutes per side. Remove from pan, and set aside.

3. Place the ground walnuts in the remaining oil in the frying pan. Cook and stir over low heat 5 to 10 minutes or until lightly browned.

4. Return the onion and chicken to the frying pan with the walnuts. Stir in the pomegranate juice or diluted pomegranate syrup. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer 20 to 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until chicken is no longer pink and juices run clear. (You can simmer longer to deepen the flavor, adding water as necessary so the pan doesn’t dry out).

5. Adjust seasoning to taste. If stew tastes too sour, add a little honey or sugar and simmer a bit longer. Serve over basmati rice. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

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Pomegranate is a base flavor for today's Persian stew, Fesenjan. It gives the stew depth and a bit of a sweet and sour taste. Photo courtesy of http://www.sxc.hu/

The lively, warm, and rich flavors of pomegranate and walnuts seemed like a perfect way to send winter packing. Koresht fesenjan combines those flavors and more. It’s actually a dish I discovered as an adult. I read about it in a book, “Guests of the Sheik,” did some research, and eventually came up with a version of it that’s pretty traditional, but with a couple of my personal tweaks. It’s become a favorite!

In a stroke of dumb stroke of luck: I recently had everything on hand to make this koresht fesenjan except for the meat (typically chicken or duck is used.) Grinding the walnuts is usually the most tedious part of this recipe for me, so I was thrilled that I had some pre-ground walnuts on hand. I wasn’t in the mood to rush out and buy meat, and anyways, I’m always down with a good vegetarian meal. I remembered butternut squash being part of the recipe in a version of this dish byNajmieh Batmanglij.

Madame Najmieh? She’s kind of the Queen of Persian Cooking, by the way. She literally wrote the book on it. Several, actually. So I figure that if butternut squash is good enough for her, it’s good enough for me! And this would be my chance to finally explore a vegan version of this lovely dish, something I’d been meaning to do.

Earthy walnuts give this stew a filling and meaty quality, even though the recipe is meatless. Photo courtesy of http://www.sxc.hu/

So in the butternut squash went, along with some leftover sliced mushrooms I had on hand from another night’s salad. (Yes, the mushrooms were my addition, and I admit I felt nervous as I tossed them in. No need. The stew turned out great and the mushrooms absorbed the other flavors beautifully).

This recipe calls for pomegranate syrup or juice. Since pomegranate juice is so popular now and pretty easy to find in supermarkets, you can use that instead of pomegranate syrup. However, pomegranate syrup/molasses is available in some regular grocery stores, and also in Middle Eastern/Mediterranean stores. Another thing: A lot of oil will come to the top of the dish. This is normal and nothing to worry about; it is the oil from the walnuts. And walnut oil is good fat. Anti-inflammatory and great for the heart and the skin, as a matter of fact.


Khoresht Fesenjan: Persian Pomegranate Walnut Stew

2 tablespoons olive oil or neutral oil of choice

2 medium onions, finely chopped

1/2 pound walnuts, finely ground (shells removed)

1 pound of butternut squash, peeled and cut into large chunks

8-10 ounces of sliced mushrooms (optional)

4 cups pomegranate juice or 1/2 cup pomegranate syrup/molasses diluted in 2 cups of water

1/4 teaspoon saffron, dissolved in 1 tablespoon of hot water

Salt, to taste
Honey, agave, or sugar

Optional Spices: Cardamom pod  OR 1/2 teaspoon cardamom powder and/or a pinch of ground allspice

Directions:

1. Heat the oil in a large pan Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until tender, about 10-15 minutes. Add mushrooms and cook 5 minutes more. Remove onions and mushrooms.

2.  Place the ground walnuts in the remaining oil in the frying pan over low heat. Cook and stir 5 to 10 minutes or until lightly browned. If using optional spices, add now and allow to cook for 30 seconds or until fragrant.

3.  Return the onion to the frying pan with the walnuts. Stir in the pomegranate juice or diluted pomegranate syrup. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Adjust seasoning to taste. If stew tastes too sour, add a little honey or sugar.

4.  Serve over basmati rice. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

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Easy Turksih Coffee Pudding. No cooking required. Find the recipe here: http://westofpersia.wordpress.com/2009/11/13/easy-turkish-coffee-pudding/ Photo by Stacey Young.

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Shakshuka with eggplant. This is one variation, as there are many types of shakshuka.

Shakshuka is a dish popular in many different countries of the Middle East. Before anyone gets up in arms and says today’s recipe isn’t done “right,” ;-)  please consider this: This is but one version of shakshuka.

Shakshuka is many different things to many different people. There are numerous versions, all too delicious and unique to have one “correct” version. Some use meat; some use eggs; still others are vegetarian. This is the type of food, by the way, that often tastes better the next day.

The shakshuka we’re exploring today is eggplant-based, earth-toned, and mild, but others are spicy and/or pepper based and reddish. There are other differences, which I personally think it’s great, because it means there are infinite ways to enjoy this dish. So if anyone wants to chime in in the comments section with their own take on shakshuka, feel free!

Chinese eggplants, they're called. I love their mild flavor and festive purple hue, but regular eggplants work just as well.Photo: http://www.Stock.Xchng.com

My sources tell me that shakshuka (pronounced shake-shoo-kuh) is a popular dish to use up vegetables and meats, which may explain why the dish is so flexible and has so many variations. Today’s version, while Syrian in origin, somewhat reminds me of Persian eggplant koresh (Koresh e Badenjan). However, that that stew has its own special flavor, which we’ll explore another time.

Speaking of Persian, the Persian girl in me loves shakshuka served over rice with dollop of yogurt on top, but for a more traditional presentation, you could ladle some of the stew on top of warm pita bread or serve the pita on the side. Do try to sprinkle some parsley or fresh cilantro on top for a color pop and flavor boost. Use more water to make the shakshuka more stew-like. For a dip, use less liquid.


Slow Cooker Shakshuka

Serves 4-6

Ingredients:

1 bunch of fresh cilantro (about 1 cup, rinsed. Leaving stems on is okay–they have good flavor)

1  medium onion, halved

4 garlic cloves

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom

1 teaspoon salt (can use more or less, according to your  to taste)

1 teaspoon black pepper (can use more or less, according to your taste)

4 Chinese eggplants, or one large eggplant (about 1 pound of eggplant total)

2 Tablespoons tomato paste

1/2 cup ketchup (better to get the kind without cornsyrup if possible)

1 Tablespoon paprika

3-4 cups filtered water

Optional: 1 14-16 ounce can of chickpeas, drained

Optional: Freshly chopped parsley or cilantro for garnish

Directions:

1.  In a blender or food processor, blend the half of the onion plus the cumin, coriander, cardamom, cilantro, garlic, salt and pepper until this all forms a pesto-like paste. Add water as needed to keep things moving.

2. If removing peel from eggplant, remove. Then chop the eggplant into 1/2 inch disks or half moons, or chunks. Chop the remaining onion and add it, along with the tomato paste, ketchup, and paprika, to the slow cooker. Add water and stir everything thoroughly.

3. Cook on high for 4 to 6 hours, or on low for 8 hours.

4. A few minutes before serving, add in the drained chickpeas and stir. Check seasoning and make any adjustments to the amount of salt and pepper.  Garnish with fresh herbs (if using) and enjoy!

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Did you know the cookie was actually invented in ancient Persia (now Iran) in the 7th century, A.D.? My Vegan Biscotti with a Persian twist are a much more recent addition to the cookie lexicon.

Up until a few days ago, I’d never made biscotti at home. I don’t know what switch got flipped in my brain, but suddenly it seemed like a great idea. Plus, adding a Persian twist (Persianizing, as my friend My Persian Kitchen says)  would be a way to get creative. What if I upped the ante and tried to make them vegan? Hmmm, now that’s a thought.

By the way, did you know that the cookie dates back to Ancient Persia? From WikiAnswers:

The earliest cookie-style cakes are thought to date back to 7th century Persia A.D. (now Iran), one of the first countries to cultivate sugar (luxurious cakes and pastries in large and small versions were well known in the Persian empire). According to historians, sugar originated either in the lowlands of Bengal or elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Sugar spread to Persia and then to the Eastern Mediterranean.

With centuries of culinary history behind me, you’d have thought my cookies would be perfect on Take One. Ehhh, not so much. My first attempt looked promising, but ultimately ended up overbaked. It was totally due to miscalculations and wrong assumptions on my part.  I thought the cookies weren’t done, so I kept baking them. I swear they looked undercooked. Almost raw in spots.

Thankfully they didn’t burn, and still tasted fine when dunked in tea and allowed to soak, but unless soaked a bit, they were a hazard to my dental work, and that of anyone else who ate them. Lesson learned.

The very next morning, I made another attempt. Humbled, I learned from past mistakes, followed the recipe to the letter, and got perfect biscotti:

Biscotti jazzed up with pistachios, cardamom, and dried cranberries. Sour cherries would work well, too!

I made two types– for half of the biscotti I added pistachios, cardamom powder, and dried cranberries to the dough. For the other half, I did sour (tart) cherries, almond extract, and slivered almonds. Tart cherries were on offer at my local Trader Joe’s this week, by the way. Love that, because they’re not always there, and their dried bing cherries get a thumbs down from me. Sorry, TJ’s. I call ‘em like I see ‘em.

The Cherry Almond Biscotti were, taste-wise, my favorites. They're in the foreground, on the the plate. The Pistachio Cardamom Cranberry biscotti were quite good as well, and more photogenic.

Taste-wise, the sour cherry biscotti were my favorites. But the pistachio cranberry cookies, while no slouch in the taste department either,  were notably more photogenic. This is probably due to the interplay of the green pistachios against the dough and in contrast to the jewel-toned dried cranberries.

So yes, while the combo of tart/sour cherries and almonds was my personal favorite, the cool thing about biscotti is how easy it is to customize them to fit your own tastes and pantry. Next time, by the way, I think I might just have to dip these biscotti in chocolate. And/or add in some vegan chocolate chips. That would be awesome. But I’ll make sure to stay true to the recipe’s general directions! Wouldn’t want to disappoint my ancestors too much, after all. ;-)

Persian Biscotti

Adapted from a recipe on RecipeZaar.com  http://www.recipezaar.com/Vegan-Almond-Biscotti-32416

Makes 30-40 biscotti

Ingredients:

3 cups of flour (I used equal amounts of organic pastry flour and all purpose flour)

1 Tablespoon baking powder (Yes, a Tablespoon!)

1/2 teaspoon of salt

3/4 cup of agave necar OR 3/4 cup of granulated sugar

3/4 cup of smooth unsweetened applesauce or apple butter

1-3 Tablespoons neutral tasting oil of choice (I used coconut oil; Use more oil for softer biscotti, less oil for crunchier biscotti)

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon almond extract

For Sour Cherry and Almond Biscotti: 1/2 cup tart (sour) cherries AND 1/2 cup almonds

For Cranberry Pistachio and Cardamom Biscotti: 1/2 cup cranberries AND 1/2 cup pistachios AND 1 teaspoon of ground cardamom

Directions:

1. Preheat your oven to 325 F and lightly oil one large or two smaller cookie sheets.

2.  In a large bowl, whisk together flours, salt, baking powder, and cardamom powder if using.

3.  In another bowl, mix together the agave or sugar, applesauce, oil, and extracts. (Use more oil for a softer biscotti, less oil for a crunchier biscotti)

4.  In thirds, gently add and stir sugar mixture into the flour mixture. Batter will be very thick. Add the nuts and fruits. Finish the mixing with your hands.

5. With floured hands, shape the dough into two 3-inch wide “logs” about 3/4 inch thick, with the ends squared off. (Measure if you have to; I did!)

6.  Bake the logs for about 25 minutes. Remove from the oven, and cool on a wire rack. As they cool, drop the oven temp to 300 F.

7.  Cool the logs on a rack for 15 minutes. Cut the logs carefully with a sharp knife straight across into 1/2 inch wide slices.

8.  Place the slices cut side down on the cookie sheets and bake for 5-10 minutes more.

9.  Turn the slices over and cook 5-10 minutes more, or until golden on bottom. NOTE: The biscotti might look under-cooked. They almost certainly are not. They will harden up as they sit.

10.  Cool on racks, then store in an  airtight container for up to two weeks.

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