Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Vegetarian Cheese-Potato “Meatballs” for Spaghetti Sauce

My granddaughter Clara has tended away from meat for some months now. These cheese-potato “meatballs” are what I developed recently for her and those others in the family who eat some meat but also seek out vegetarian dishes. Using a double batch of the same sauce as for meat meatballs (which was in an earlier blog post on 7/30/2019), but splitting it and cooking the meatballs in the one half of the sauce in another pot, I made a pasta dinner for the crowd with options of beef-pork meatballs or cheese-potato “meatballs” to cover the preferences.

Cheese-potato balls with "trotole" pasta
These are a somewhat firmer variation on potato dumplings or matzo balls, and contain cheese for extra flavor and protein. I poached (cooked) the veggie balls in water before putting them in the prepared sauce.

The recipe for the cheese-potato balls and sauce serves six, enough for a pound of pasta.

Make cheese-potato “meatballs” first:
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup milk or water
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice or vinegar
1 1/2 cups grated cheddar cheese
1/2 cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
2 cups matzo meal (from Kosher or International section of supermarket)
1 cup dry instant mashed potatoes (such as Idahoan, from supermarket)
1/4 cup dry unseasoned breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons grated or finely minced onion
1 medium clove garlic, finely minced or put through press
2 teaspoons salt
3/4 teaspoon dry oregano
3/4 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg or allspice
Pinch of cayenne

In large bowl, beat eggs and mix in liquid ingredients. Add remaining ingredients and mix then knead well to make a dry dough. Shape and roll into 1-inch balls, moistening hands from time to time, setting the balls on a baking sheet or large platter.

Boil a large pot of water, at least 3 inches deep, and salt it with a tablespoon of salt. Drop the balls into the boiling water. They will sink to the bottom initially then start to float after a few minutes. Stir them gently from time to time. Once they float, reduce heat and simmer them 15 minutes. Lift them out of the water with a slotted spoon.

When sauce is made and still simmering, add the cooked cheese-potato balls and heat a few minutes. Serve over pasta as you would for real meatballs, adding some sauce and sprinkling with grated Parmesan or Romano cheese.

Use a favorite tomato “Marinara” sauce, or the one below:
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon whole fennel seeds (optional)
6 tablespoons olive oil
1 large (28-ounce) cans crushed tomatoes (I prefer Hunts or Kroger, among American brands)
1/2 cup water (rinse the tomato can with it before adding it to the tomatoes)
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt plus more to taste
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
Large pinch thyme or oregano
6 fresh basil leaves (optional)

In large wide pot (not cast iron), gently fry garlic and fennel seed, if used, in oil until garlic is softened but not golden. Stir in tomatoes, water and all other ingredients except basil. Bring to a simmer and let cook for 5 minutes. Stir occasionally, scraping bottom of the pan well. Taste and add salt if needed.

Add the cooked, drained cheese-potato balls. Heat to simmering, stirring carefully.
Taste sauce. Add salt if needed. Stir in basil leaves, if used. Remove from heat.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Lima Beans prepared like Greek Fava Beans

This dish, based on a traditional Greek way to prepare fresh fava beans, works extremely well with frozen Fordhook limas, which are available at supermarkets. I’ve compared the limas side by side with true favas, and they come out very close.

Bowl: Nancy Green, Watkinsville, GA
True fava beans are Old World beans common in the Mediterranean, while limas are New World beans (from Peru originally, indicated by their name). Favas are tediously difficult to shell from their pods, need to have the skins individually removed from around the beans, and are limited in season plus expensive. Fordhook style lima beans can be bought frozen relatively inexpensively in the supermarket.

I’ve taught the recipe several times to classes in Athens (GA) that had pretty extensive international experience, and the dish was very popular.

The recipe serves six as a side dish.

3 tablespoons minced onion
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup water
3/4 teaspoon salt
Large pinch black pepper
1 (12-ounce) bag frozen Fordhook (large) lima beans
1 tablespoon tomato paste or 1 Roma tomato, diced
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon snipped fresh dill (strongly preferred) or minced flat parsley

In cooking pot, gently fry onion in oil until it softens but does not start to brown. Add water, salt and pepper.

When mixture boils, stir in frozen limas. Bring back to a boil, stirring frequently. Then cover pot and simmer, stirring occasionally, until beans become tender, 15 minutes or so.

Add tomato paste or diced tomato, plus a little water if becoming dry. Simmer, covered, stirring occasionally, five minutes. Taste a bean. It should be fairly tender and creamy. If salt is needed, add a little. Add a little water if too dry.

Remove from heat and stir in lemon juice and dill or parsley.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Meatloaf, Large and Gluten-Free

This meatloaf, which I the kind I would make for a crowd or to have many meatloaf sandwiches over subsequent days, is based on a French meatloaf with finely chopped olives in it. But it has a variation from the usual meatloaf, and includes neither eggs nor breadcrumbs. And since it is eggless, the baking temperature does not need to be as high for safety as if eggs were used (unless part ground chicken or turkey is used with the meat).

Chickpea or channa dhal flour (“Besan”) is used in Indian cooking and replaces egg in batter for religiously vegetarian dishes. But it also by coincidence replaces wheat flour in the batter, conveniently making the batter gluten-free. I recently used this chickpea flour in a Pakistani meatball curry, where it replaced the usual egg for binding and breadcrumbs for extending the meat. It worked so well that I tried besan in meatloaf. I and members of the family who tried the meatloaf, thought the results were great.

Here’s the recipe, for a large (three-pound) gluten-free and eggless meatloaf. The recipe can be halved to use 1-1/2 pounds of meat for a smaller roast.

Besan or chickpea flour is available at Indian grocery stores or at some health food stores

3 pounds ground beef (or 2 pounds beef plus 1 pound ground pork or lamb)
1 cup pitted green or stuffed olives, very finely chopped
1 small onion, finely minced
3 tablespoons ketchup
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 cup ground chickpea flour (“besan”)
1/2 cup water
2-1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon oregano
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and knead well to mix everything evenly.

On a large baking pan or cookie sheet that has edges, shape mixture into a loaf about 2-1/2 inches high and fairly flat across the top. Pat this well so there are not air pockets.

Bake at 350 degrees for 50-60 minutes until an internal temperature of 155 degrees is reached on a meat thermometer (or when oils come out from the loaf, the surface browns somewhat, and a skewer stuck into the top does not cause pink juices to flow out).

Serve hot, or cool and refrigerate for later use (slices can be microwaved) or for meatloaf sandwiches.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Bolognese, Italian Meat Sauce for Pasta


I was once a purist on Italian pasta sauces, or so I thought. I liked either a clean, meatless, tomato-based marinara or a rich red sauce with Italian sausage or meat balls. I grew up around southern Italians.

Served on Spaghetti Squash; Plate by Maria Dondero, Athens GA
In contrast to the precise, elegant red sauces, the “meat sauce” of my childhood seemed clunky, like dull loose hamburger cooked up with tomato. However, as an adult I encountered really excellent “Bolognese” and learned how subtle and luscious a meat sauce can be. Local, freshly ground meat makes it even better.

“Ragù alla Bolognese” [bo-lohn-N(Y)AY-zay], named after the Northern Italian city Bologna, is a regional specialty commonly served with tagliatelle there and with spaghetti elsewhere. Bologna, less auspiciously, also gave its name to baloney, that greasy cold cut which on Wonder Bread makes the gummy, horrible sandwiches downed by generations of kids at school and homeless people at soup kitchens.

Although the real Bolognese would generally contain ground beef or veal, or sometimes pork, I frequently use ground turkey, which gives a light-bodied richness. The sauce often has a little cured pork cooked into it, like pancetta or bacon.

A “short” pasta, like penne rigate or rigatoni, or even vegetable spaghetti squash, is good with Bolognese, despite long pasta’s typical role. And although in general I prefer the hearty sheep’s milk cheese, Pecorino Romano, with pasta (showing my culinary exposure to Sicilians), the lighter and more elegant Parmesan (Parmigiano-Reggiano), a Northern Italian cow’s milk cheese, is more traditional for Bolognese.

The recipe makes enough sauce for a pound of pasta.

1 medium-large carrot, finely diced
1 medium stick celery, finely diced
1 small onion, finely diced
1/4 of a red bell pepper, diced
2 thin strips of bacon or slices of pancetta (optional), finely diced
3 tablespoons olive oil (4 if not using bacon or pancetta)
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1-1/2 pounds ground turkey, pork or beef
1 large bay leaf
1 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper or a pinch cayenne
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 cup red wine
1 large (28-ounce) can crushed tomato (Hunt’s or Kroger’s is good)
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons salt, plus to taste
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 pound pasta (such as penne rigate)
Grated Parmesan or Romano cheese

In a heavy stainless steel or enamel pan, gently fry diced vegetables and bacon or pancetta in the olive oil, stirring occasionally, until carrot is tender. Stir in garlic, and fry 1 minute.

Ragù alla Bolognese simmering
Raise heat and stir in ground meat, breaking it up as it heats. Add herbs and spices. When meat color has fully changed, add wine and simmer 10 minutes, covered. Add crushed tomato plus a little water for rinsing out the can. Simmer 10 minutes, covered. Add sugar and salt. Simmer 5 more minutes, stirring occasionally.

Taste, and add salt if needed. Add parsley and simmer another minute. Remove from heat, but keep warm.

When sauce is done, cook pasta in a large amount of boiling salted water, stirring frequently at the beginning, so pasta will not stick together. When just tender to the bite, drain pasta well in a colander, but do not rinse.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Chinese Braised Pork (“Red Cooked”) with Tofu  (Chinese from Southeast Asia)

“Red Cooking” is an old Chinese braising method for meat and poultry, practiced more at home than in restaurants. The “red” refers to the soy sauce in the broth with flavoring vegetables before adding the meat.

This recipe is based on the original method that I learned for braising chicken in Malaysia. The recipe serves six to eight, accompanied by white, unsalted rice.

2 1/2 pounds (before trimming) pork shoulder
1 tablespoon oil
1 large clove garlic or 2 medium cloves
3 medium shallots or 3 green onions
4 slices (1/8-inch) ginger, unpeeled
2 segments star anise
2-1/2 cups water
1 teaspoon black soy sauce
2 teaspoons oyster sauce
2 teaspoons rice wine or sherry
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 (1-pound) block firm-style tofu
Several sprigs of cilantro or thinly sliced green onion for garnish

Trim off excess fat from pork. Remove, but save, any bone, and cut meat into 1-inch pieces. Bruise garlic and shallots or green onions. Slice ginger.
Red cooked pork and tofu served in antique Chinese bowl

Heat oil in heavy pot. Briefly fry (15 seconds) bone, garlic, shallots or green onions, ginger and star anise. As soon as fragrant, add water and soy sauces, wine and oyster sauce. Bring back to boil.

Add pork pieces a few at a time, the tougher parts first, so as to keep the mixture boiling. Stir, cover and reduce heat. Stew until pork is tender, 40-50 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add sugar and salt toward the end of cooking. Liquid should be reduced somewhat but not thick. Add a little water if necessary. When meat is cooked, remove ginger, bone, and star anise pieces.

Cut drained tofu into 1/2-inch chunks. Drop these, part at a time into the simmering liquid. Gently shake and swirl pot to mix. After a minute or two, stir very carefully so as not to break tofu pieces. Simmer a total of about 4 minutes. Taste and add salt if necessary.

Serve with rice. Accompany with a simple stir-fried green vegetable.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Easy: Lemon-Dill Roasted Salmon

Here is the main course I prepared for family this Christmas. Salmon, at least smoked salmon, is a traditional Christmas dish in the British Isles, Scandinavia and north-central Europe. Roasted salmon also appears, especially in Scandinavia as part of the main course at Christmas dinner. I fix salmon because I like it and, more important, because my family likes it.

A double recipe, served for our family Christmas, 2018
I learned this way of roasting salmon from a Greek Cypriot friend whose mother prepared her fish (though not salmon in those days) this way. Pani, as he was called, was one of the founders of Decatur’s Café Istanbul, along with another friend of mine, a Turkish guy named Kazim. They were at the time both married to women I worked with. The idea of a Greek and a Turk starting a joint venture seemed, well, unlikely. They did part company after a while, but it was over very different views on how to run a restaurant rather than politics or religion. But the establishment they founded has gone on to considerable popularity, though under subsequent – and primarily Turkish – ownership.  

Salmon is not traditional in the Mediterranean, but has become popular now even there as local fish has become more expensive and difficult to find. Lemon and dill are both used extensively in the Eastern Mediterranean, including with fish as a natural partner. But lemon and dill are also used with fish in Scandinavia, where salmon is common.

A crisp Sauvignon Blanc or a not-too-heavy Chardonnay go well with this. Viognier is a wine grape I’m more recently familiar with and love with salmon as well as roasted turkey or pork. Oh yes, and a lemon rice pilaf will be in the spirit of the eastern Mediterranean. (See my pilaf recipe in the 8/24/2019 blog posting, and eliminate the peppers, onions, and fruits, and simply add to the rice-cooking water 2 tablespoons of lemon juice, 1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest, and a bay leaf, broken in half.) 

The salmon recipe serves six generously.

2 pounds salmon filet in one piece, as fresh as possible, and preferably without skin
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper,
1/4 cup freshly chopped dill (a weak substitute is 1-1/2 tablespoons dry dill weed)
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 lemons
Extra lemon and sprigs of dill for garnish

Preheat oven to 500 degrees (very hot), and temporarily turn off the smoke alarm! 

Rinse the salmon and dry it with a paper towel. Liberally sprinkle salt and pepper on both sides and dust both sides with dill. Cut the lemons in half crosswise. Slice a very thin slice off each of the halves and reserve them.

On a large shallow-edged glass or metal pan, such as a cookie sheet with sides, spread 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over an area of the size of the fish, then squeeze two of the lemon halves over this area. Place the seasoned fish on the prepared pan. Drench the surface of the fish with the juice squeezed from the remaining lemon halves. Lay the slices of lemon up the middle of the fish, placed so that when the fish is cut into six pieces, each will have a lemon slice. Drizzle the whole surface with the remaining olive oil and lightly dust a few bits of dill on top of the lemon slices. Let the fish season for 10 to 20 minutes.

When oven is very hot, place the pan on the shelf highest in the oven. Roast the salmon for 11-12 minutes or just until the surface and edges of the fish are beginning to turn crispy and when a knife inserted into the thickest part of the fish and twisted slightly shows a pale opaque pink color. Do not overcook.

Serve hot, accompanied by lemon wedges and sprigs of dill. Alternately, this dish can be cooked ahead and served cold as a buffet dish.

The fish can be cut into six serving-sized pieces before seasoning and roasting rather than treated as an entire piece.

Minted Cream Sauce for Salmon or Lamb

This easy sauce, based on Irish cooking, is a delightful accompaniment to a roast of salmon or lamb or grilled lamb meatballs. I served it with our roasted salmon (blog post of 12/28/2019) for Christmas dinner for family this year.

The recipe makes enough for eight to ten people

1 cup heavy cream
Juice of 1 lemon, plus more as needed
1/4 teaspoon salt, plus more if needed
1/2 cup mint leaves pulled off the stems, lightly packed
A few tops of sprigs of mint for garnish

In small mixing bowl, stir lemon juice into the cream, until it thickens well. If more lemon juice is needed, add it a little at a time until cream is thick. Stir in the salt.

Mince mint finely with a chef’s knife on a cutting board. Stir it into the thickened cream. Taste and add a little salt or more mint, to taste.

Serve in a small, decorative bowl. Place one or more small mint sprigs on top of sauce for garnish.