Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year

I didn't remember my mother making New Years' bread until I stumbled on the word-- vasilopita-- somewhere a few years ago. I immediately got a smell and an image in my head; somewhere in my past I watched either my mother or my yiayia making this sweet bread.

Vasilopita is a sweet yeast bread flavored with mahlepe, ground cherry pits. (Thank goodness for The Spice House, which had this spice, as it was very hard to find.) This bread is made in honor of the patron saint of Greece, St. Basil, on his name day, January 1st; hence the association with the new year. The tradition is to bake a coin or trinket into the bread; the person who gets the slice with the coin has good luck the rest of the year. I used a Chinese coin in honor of the other half of our family heritage.

This recipe is from Adventures in Greek Cookery by Kapulos and Jones.

1 cup milk
2 yeast cakes (or equivalent dry yeast)
3/4 cup + 2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup melted butter
3 eggs, well-beaten
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon mahlepe
1/3 cup lukewarm water
up to 6 cups all-purpose flour
1 or 2 clean coins

for topping:
3 tablespoons light cream
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/3 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup sesame seeds

Scald the milk and set aside to cool. Crumble the yeast in a small bowl, sprinkle with 2 teaspoons sugar, and set aside for 10 minutes, or prepare dry yeast per packet directions. Don't put the dry yeast straight into the mixture, however careful you are with temps. It doesn't work as well. *

When milk is cool (I cooled mine in the fridge, to about 100F/38C, or just warm to the touch) combine it with remaining sugar, and the next 5 ingredients (through the mahlepe) in a large bowl. Beat with electric beater for 5 minutes. If using fresh/cake yeast, add the lukewarm water to the yeast, blend until smooth, then stir into the mixture. For dry yeast, simply stir the foamy, activated yeast into the bread. Add the flour and cup at a time and knead the dough until soft and pliable. If you use a dough hook, use it for the first 4 cups of flours, then work in the last 1 or 2 cups by hand, kneading as you go. (I seldom use all 6 cups.)  Thoroughly grease the sides and bottom of a large bowl. Turn the dough into it and rotate until all sides are greased. Cover with a heavy cloth and put in a warm place to rise for two hours. It should at least double in size.

After two hours, turn the dough out on a floured board and knead lightly. Divide into two parts and put a clean coin in the center of each, or for one loaf leave dough in one piece and use one coin. Then knead until the coins are well hidden. Shape the dough to fit into two greased 9 inch round cake pans or one 12-inch round pan. Combine the cream, sugar and cinnamon, brush over the tops of the loaves and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Cover with a cloth and put in a warm place to rise for two hours. It will double or more in size again.

Bake at 350F/175C for 50 minutes (check at 45) for 9-inch loaves, or 1 hour for 12-inch loaf. Remove from pan immediately and cool.

The first slice is for the lord (or the goddess, depending on how you roll). The second is for St. Basil. Dole out the remaining slices from the youngest person at the table to the oldest.

* 2 packets of dry yeast

Sunday, December 27, 2009


When I was in college I lived on "leftovers" as a lifestyle. I would make a pot of spaghetti, or soup (pea or chicken, usually), or stew or a pastitio, on Sunday, and then eat it heated up all week. Leftovers nowadays are the province of Bill, who has a tendency to show up dinnerless around 11 p.m. and eat whatever I've made for dinner. Sometimes I leave him a nicely presented plate to heat up, but sometimes it's spooning something out of tupperware, a much more left-over-y thing to do.

Holidays, of course, generate days and days of leftovers, and an entire culture and recipe book based on them. Nowadays in our family there seems to be an unspoken consensus to send all the leftovers home with the starving musician, but I'm still left with a fridge-full of food.

Turkey generates soup, jook, hash, and sandwiches. Looking at that search page for jook, I see that you can also use ham (why not?), and ham is what we had this year. So that's added to the leftovers list this week.

But the major thing that a nice ham yields is that bone. That big juicy ham bone with all the yummy little bits hanging off it. Boil it up, throw in some peas or beans, black, white or red. Campbell's soup got it right. mmm mmm good.

Spicy Black Bean Soup with ham
1 or 2 cans or one-half to one whole bag dried black beans (depending on how much bean-to-soup ratio you like)
ham bone

2-3 jalapeno peppers
large red pepper, diced
large onion, diced
2 ears, nibletted, or 1 small bag frozen corn
1 large carrot, sliced
1-2 tomatoes, seeded and diced
2 celery stalks, sliced
other vegetables as the spirit moves you

seasoning (premixed "Mexican" or make your own: chili powder, cumin, red pepper flakes, cayenne, cilantro. That sound you heard was Rick Bayless spinning in his hacienda at the thought of premixed Mexican seasoning.)

If using dried beans, in the morning, boil them in 8 cups of water for 20 minutes, then let them sit at least 6 hours, or until dinnertime. Drain off the liquid and leave the beans in a large pot (at least two quarts; gallon even better). Canned beans should be drained, rinsed if you're particularly fastidious. Don't conserve the liquid; nothing against the taste or nutrition, it will just make the soup look nasty.

Cut as much loose meat off the bone as you can, dice, and set aside. Simmer the ham bone 1 hour in vegetable stock (or make the stock while boiling the bone, by putting in pepper corns, salt, a couple celery stalks, the onion skins and any other vegetable refuse lying about), using enough liquid to cover the bone, about 8 cups. this will reduce to about 6 cups. While the ham bone is simmering, sauté the celery, onion, bell pepper, jalapeno and spices in olive oil (I'm using jalapenos that were preserved in olive oil, so I used that oil, with its spicy overtones).

After an hour, strain the liquid into the beans, and add the sautéed veggies. Bring to a simmer. Adjust the spices. Cut any more meat off the bone and add that and the other conserved meat to the soup. Cook at a very low simmer as long as you can stand smelling it and not eating it.
Since this made about 4 quarts of soup, you can now have leftovers of your leftovers.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas meal, stage two

My mother was Greek, born aboard ship as her mother sailed into New York harbor, according to family legend. I always told this story, but never quite believed it until my aunt unearthed a birth certificate that noted her birth as three days earlier than we had always celebrated. We also have a birth certificate showing the later date. It made me wonder if someone got paid off to alter her official birth date so that she was born on American soil, and thus was a citizen.

Homemade dolmades, or stuffed grapevine leaves, are something I've eaten all my life. I mostly make them for holiday meals, because they're time consuming and use every pot in the house, as does a lot of Greek cooking. They're also great to make just before a manicure because you'll spend about 20 minutes with your fingers immersed in hot olive oil, which makes your skin soft and lovely.

We've always made these vegetarian. I never had meat-filled dolmas until I was an adult. This recipe is from the outstanding Can The Greeks Cook by Venos and Prichard. Their recipe calls for more grapevine leaves (15 oz.) and only half of what I've written for everything else; I've found that the following measures work better. The page for this recipe, the most stained in the book, shows the doubled measure in my mother's handwriting, and my note "Always double this recipe!"

Grapevine Leaves with rice filling

1 jar grapevine leaves (8 or 9 oz)
2 cups of rice
2 cups olive oil
2/3 cup lemon juice
6-10 cups water
1-2 large onions, diced
4 T. tomato paste
4 T. parsley, fresh or 2 1/2 dried (mint is also nice; don't use as much)
1 T sea salt
1 T green peppercorns, ground (black is also fine. Please grind your own)

Soak rice for 30 minutes in 2 cups cold water and 1 teaspoon table salt. Saute onion over medium flame in one cup water until tender, about 15 minutes. Add oil and simmer 5 minutes. Drain rice, add rice and tomato paste to the oil/onion mixture, add salt and pepper. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add parsley and cook 3 minutes. Add half of lemon juice and continue simmering for 5 minutes. Don't short the times! Allow this to sit a few minutes, covered. This will allow the rice to absorb some more moisture, and also to get cool enough to handle.

Spread the grapevine leaves on a large wooden cutting board. Starting from the stem, place about 2 T of rice per leaf; roll a little ways from the stem end, fold in the sides and continue rolling tightly. Arrange in layers in medium compact saucepan. pour remaining lemon juice over rolls, along with one cup of water and any remaining oil in the pan. I'm afraid you'll have to eat any left-over rice now.

Cover and bring to a boil; strong simmer for 5 minutes over high flame. Reduce heat and simmer lightly about 15 minutes. Add another cup of water if the first has been absorbed. Reduce heat to low, and continue cooking for 15 minutes or until rice is tender.

Serve hot or cold. Makes about 30-40 small rolls. Some of them will fall apart. Use those to taste-test.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

If I get an apple corer for Christmas, I'm going to be pissed

My sister-in-law makes a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner every year, although she confessed this year that preparing these meals makes her terribly anxious. Which is amazing, because she is such a rock in my life, and such a wonderful cook (in fact, more or less wonderful at everything).

I rather enjoy conceptualizing, planning and making these big meals. I love to plan them and to execute them, for the full sensory onslaught-- taste, and smell, and sight. I got the idea to do a maple-themed meal from a recipe on that insomniac's savior, the show Cultivating Life. Their recipe for maple scones will be on the menu for Friday.

I have the luxury of spreading out the cooking over several days (plus I cheated and got a ham this year, which means no main dish worries), so I'll be making the meal in stages. Today I started with the things that will keep the best.

Apple sauce
4-12 large Granny Smith apples
1T light brown sugar for each 2 apples
1/4 c. pure maple syrup
1 cup water
small handful to 1/2 c. dried cranberries (depending on how much applesauce you've made)

Peel and core the apples. Cut the apples into smallish chunks, conserve the peels and cores in a pot of cold water (or two pots if you're making a larger batch).

Dissolve the sugar in the water in a small saucepan, and simmer until the water is clear. This will prevent the sugar from burning in the apples. You can also just leave the sugar out entirely, although use a sweeter apple like a Gala, Mac, or Red Delicious if you don't use sugar. The Grannies are quite tart.

Put the sugar syrup, maple syrup and apples in a large pot or dutch oven and bring to a light simmer, stirring constantly. Continue simmer and stirring until the apples are a uniform chunky mush, then blend in the pot using a hand-held immersible blender (my best new toy of 2009).

Simmer the cranberries in a little bit of water just until they plump up, then mix them into the applesauce. Serve warm, cold, or room temp. Delicious no matter what.

Apple-Maple syrup
a TorXani original!

Apple cores and peels
1 cup maple syrup
1/2 cup maple sugar (or, since it's hideously expensive, 1 cup granulated sugar)
2 cups water, plus water for the apples

Put the conserved apple cores and peels in enough water to completely cover them, and simmer until the skins are soft (about 20 minutes). Since I used 12 apples for the applesauce, I ended up with two 2-quart pots of water and peels.

Combine the sugar, maple syrup, and 2 cups water and bring to a simmer. Simmer for 10 minutes.

Run the apples and their water through the food mill, scraping the pulp into a separate bowl (it's applesauce) and discarded the pips, skins and cores. You should now have an apply juice; pour this into the maple syrup mixture.

Boil the whole thing down to 2 1/2 or 3 cups (3 cups makes a thinner syrup). Strain it through a fine seive and cheesecloth. You can use this as an ice cream or waffle syrup, or add it to club soda for homemade apple soda.

I used the strained pulp as a glaze for a pan-fried catfish. Very nice.

By the way, these recipes are not for the faint of heart:

Monday, December 21, 2009

Blessed be

I tried something new for the Winter Solstice, as this day symbolizes newness with the start of the sun's return journey through longer days. It symbolizes renewal in every religion of the world. People have been celebrating the Solstices ever since some genius figured out that it marks the largest variance between day and night, nearly 5,000 years ago. It seemed to me a Solstice meal had to have body, and, here in the frozen north, had to come from the larder, rather than fresh-picked (or modernly preserved).

So, for a blessed Solstice, with a little help (okay, pretty much the entire recipe) from my friends at

Winter squash risotto
large acorn squash (or other winter squash)
6 cups vegetable or chicken broth
1 medium onion, diced
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice (9 oz)
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
5 tablespoons finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (1/2 oz) or other hard cheese
1 teaspoon salt
1-2 teaspoons white peppercorns, ground
2/3 cup walnut pieces, lightly crushed and toasted
4 oz arugula, swiss chard, or spinach (6 cups), or broccoli florets, chopped up.

Roast squash:
Halve squash lengthwise and seed, roast slices, skin side down, in a shallow baking pan in middle of oven until tender and golden, about 50 minutes at 350F/175C. Remove from oven and cool until you can handle it, then peel and cut roughly into 1/2-inch pieces. (Peel can be reserved to make more broth).

Toast walnuts by placing on an ungreased baking sheet in the cooling oven. Do not turn the oven back on; the residual heat is plenty.

for the risotto:
Bring broth to a simmer and keep at a bare simmer, covered. Meanwhile, cook onion in butter in a 4-quart heavy pot over moderate heat, stirring until softened. Add rice, garlic, and cumin and cook, stirring, 3 minutes. Stir in 1/2 cup simmering broth and cook at a strong simmer, stirring frequently, until broth is absorbed. Continue simmering and adding broth 1/2 cup at a time, stirring constantly and letting each addition be absorbed before adding the next, until rice is creamy-looking but still al dente (it should be the consistency of thick soup), about 18 minutes total. (There will be leftover broth.)
NB: I was completely amazed at the accuracy of this description for adding the broth, by the way. Having never made risotto before, I was a little worried about how to get that wonderful texture.

Stir in squash pieces. These broke down, as the squash was quite soft, giving the mixture a lovely golden color, and distributing the sweet flavor of the squash through the whole thing. Stir in cheese, salt, pepper, walnuts and greens and simmer, stirring, 1 minute. (If necessary, thin risotto with some leftover broth.) You can also add other herbs. Epicurious suggested sage, but I'd go "to taste" here.

Serve risotto immediately. It also tasted great the next day, but had lost the nice texture.

Blessed be is a traditional Wiccan greeting (or as traditional as Wicca gets, anyway), and I just like it as an all-purpose holiday greeting, nice and ecumenical.

Monday, December 7, 2009

A new dish and an old complaint

Coffee with Mealah and Isaac this morning-- lovely. They were amazed at my endless blogging. I often attribute it to either my insomnia or my manic episodes-- you can get a lot done on the happy edge of crazy, but actually I think it's more because the web is such a controllable environment.

On line, I have no boss, or deadline. I can delete the unpleasant comments, and only interact with people who agree with me. I don't care if people don't like me, or object to my pink hair, or think they are better than me. On line, no one is better than me. On line I'm an expert cook, and a master gardener, and a wonderful mom, and who's to say me nay?

Today, an experiment, drawn from the web and then tweaked to be my own. This is essentially pizza casserole

Baked mozzarella

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2-4 slices coarse country-style bread
salt and freshly ground pepper
2-3 tomatoes, cut into thick slices
13 oz mozzarella cheese, sliced
several slices hard salami, cut into small pieces
3 tablespoons fresh basil

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Pour the oil into a baking dish. Arrange the bread slices in the baking dish so they are slightly overlapping in a single layer. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Cover the bread with the tomatoes . Arrange the mozzarella over the toms, then put the salami over all. Sprinkle with the oregano or basil.

For vegetarian, substitute walnuts for the salami.

Bake in a preheated 400 degrees F oven for about 20 minutes.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The endless warmth

It's a funny autumn season this year. It's not actually summer-like, and October was perfectly miserable, but the weather feels like it is never going to break. It looks like autumn. The sun is at that autumn angle that makes everything still and golden. Sunset comes at the correct time, and the leaves all turned, and fell.

But the gentle air goes on and on, not really warm, but zephyrous. There hasn't been a day yet where the sun is bright and painful, the winter sun that hits like a shard of glass, or the frozen crystal in your eye that enslaves you to the ice queen.

So for a fall day in this year's endless wait between equinox and solstice, a one-pan autumn meal.

Autumn pan chicken

One cut-up chicken
3-4 pats of butter
2 T flour
one medium onion, sliced
fall vegetables (I used carrots, potatoes, turnips, but you could also do this with squash or pumpkin)
dried sage
2 cups apple cider
black pepper

Melt 2-3 pats of butter in a large saucepan. Heat the cider just short of boiling (about 5 minutes at 80% in the microwave.) Saute the chicken on both sides (to keep the skin from pulling off, wait for it to "release," meaning, when it's properly cooked on the first side, it will be easy to turn. If it resists and sticks to the pan, just wait until it wants to turn). Add the onions and vegetables and saute about 5 minutes. Add the rest of the butter, plus the sage, salt and pepper. When the butter is melted, dredge with flour, turning the chicken a couple of times. Add half the cider and reduce until it barely covers the bottom of the pan, scraping up the brownings. Add the rest of the cider, turn to a light simmer and cover for about 15 minutes, until chicken is cooked through.

Serve with noodles or rice and a fall vegetable like broccoli or brussels sprouts.

Please buy your chicken from a butcher or mercado, not from the chain stores, where it will have been chilled to 33F/1C meaning it will be tough and tasteless.