Archive | March 2012

Silk Road Cooking

Herb Basket

I see exciting culinary travels ahead in my kitchen. Dear friends Joe and Suzy sent a cookbook for my birthday entitled Silk Road Cooking, by Najmieh Batmanglij. It is a gorgeous book, full of wonderful photographs and stories of the author’s Iranian childhood and travels along the Silk Road over the last 25 years. I love the way she weaves together the history of ingredients, people, and recipes…and that the subtitle is A Vegetarian Journey. She reminds us that cooking is sharing, and is a joyful communal activity. It seems to me perfect that her travels from Xian in China through Samarkand, Isfahan, and Istanbul ended on the shores of Southern Italy. So, I too feel connected to the cultures of the Silk Road…to people celebrating vegetables and keeping alive a legacy of “tasty, inexpensive, and cheerful food.”

Of course, I wanted to cook something from this book right away. The very first recipe in the book–“Caspian Olives with Pomegranate and Angelica”–fit perfectly into my celebration dinner menu. The only problem was that I couldn’t go to the store, so everything had to come from the garden or pantry. No problem! I had the 1 cup toasted walnuts and 5 peeled garlic cloves. Instead of a whole cup fresh mint leaves (my mint is still tiny), I used 1/2 cup mint and 1/2 cup parsley. There’s no cilantro in my garden yet, but I have wonderful sorrel, so in went a cup of tart sorrel leaves. I had the 1 Tbs fresh oregano, 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper, 1/2 tsp salt, 1 tsp toasted and ground cumin seed, and a fresh jalapeno pepper. No angelica powder, so I used 1/4 tsp crushed fennel seed. I didn’t have the 1 lb. green olives–I only had about 1/4 lb.–so I added 2 Tbs capers to the mix. The most important lacking ingredient was one cup fresh pomegranate juice. I had fresh cranberries (which are sour but not quite as bright as pomegranate), so I used about 4 Tbs cranberries, 1 tsp honey, the juice of one small orange, and the juice of 1/2 lime.


All of this went into the food processor with about 6 Tbs extra virgin olive oil. I pushed the pulse button to make a chunky paste. It was fabulous! Very herby, but not so strong that the other flavors didn’t get their chance. I felt that it could have traveled on the Silk Road. I have named it “Silk Road Tapenade”.

We ate the tapenade with bread and crackers. Najmieh suggests combining it with chunks of avocado for a salad. Maybe with watercress and sections of orange? I can’t wait to try the recipe again with cilantro, and someday sprinkled with pomegranate seeds.

I made cranberry sauce from the rest of the fresh cranberries. I cooked them in fresh orange juice and added the zest and a couple of Tbs orange marmalade for sweetening. Then, in the spirit of the Silk Road, I chopped some fresh mint and sprinkled it in. That was perfect.

Cranberry Sauce

Lentil Soup

Lentil Soup

I make soups for lunch all winter long for my husband, Drew, and his woodworking students. Many of the soups begin at the beginning…heat some olive oil with onion, carrot, celery, garlic, red chile…But many others start by foraging in the refrigerator. I call these “serendipity soups”. For instance, I suddenly had extra guests for lunch and needed enough soup to go around . I found a quart of cooked lentils (with onion, carrot, and celery), a cup or so of extra marinara sauce, a couple links of cooked smoked sausage, some chard leaves, and a jar of salsa. I put the lentils in a pot with the tomato sauce and added chicken broth to make it “soupy”. I diced the sausage, added it to the lentils and left it simmering on very low heat. It was a little thin at this point, so I  cooked about 3/4 cup tiny pasta called “aci di pepe”  in boiling, salted water (the chard got blanched in there, too). The drained pasta and chopped chard went into the soup with a few spoonfuls of salsa, and a little chopped parsley and a few grinds of black pepper  on top. Then I found out this soup has a name! Sicilian Pasta and Lentil Soup.

Today it will be a different lentil soup. I have  leftover rice pilaf made with brown basmati, red bhutanese, and wild rice with sauteed carrot and onion… and a pint or so of delicious cabbage braised with garlic and thyme in red wine.  Oh, and a few garbanzo beans from a dish I call “Delicious greens and beans” that I named after eating garbanzo beans cooked with chard in garlicy, chile-hot olive oil –a dish made by my friend Vicki Skemp.

I didn’t have the lentils this time, so I simmered a cup of green lentils in about 6 cups of water with a bay leaf, whole red chile, whole garlic clove, a couple of shallots, and a big sprig of fresh thyme. Lentils cook quickly, so in about 20-25 minutes they were almost tender. I added about 1/2 tsp. salt and some freshly ground black pepper ,  and turned off the heat to let them absorb the flavors of the broth. I removed the herbs and chile before I  stirred the lentils together with the rice, cabbage, and garbanzo beans.

The components of this soup are very much like a Moroccan soup called “Harira” that I used to make with lentils, garbanzo beans, and bulgar wheat. Harira  is made with lamb and eaten during the fast of Ramadan. It is a very hearty meal-in-a-bowl, and delicious garnished with chopped  fresh parsley and cilantro, as well as a squeeze of fresh lemon. I still have parsley in the garden, but my cilantro is gone, so I will go find some fresh mint leaves to use instead.


If you are starting from the beginning, make the soup like this. You can simplify things by starting the sofritto  and  just add the lentils and water into it, but I prefer to make the soup in two stages. A pot of lentils simmering with fresh herbs and garlic smells quite wonderful.


Lentil Soup with Sofritto 

The lentils: 1 1/2 cups green or brown lentils (rinsed), 2 garlic cloves  (lightly smashed), 2 shallots or 1 small onion, 1 dried red chile, 2-3 sprigs fresh thyme, 1 bay leaf, 1 tsp kosher salt.

Put the lentils in a pot with the garlic, shallots, chile, thyme, bay leaf, and  8 cups water, bring to a boil, then cover and simmer over low heat until the lentils are barely tender, about 20-25 minutes. Add the salt and turn off the heat.

While the lentils cook, make the Sofritto:

3 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil

1 medium onion (about 1 cup diced)

2 carrots (about 1 cup diced)

1 celery stalk with leaves (about 1 cup diced)

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1/4 tsp. red chile flakes

1/3 cup chopped parsley leaves and stems

1 14-oz can whole Italian plum tomatoes with juice (or substitute home-made tomato sauce, puree, or fresh chopped tomatoes)

1/2 tsp kosher salt

Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Stir in the onion, carrot, and celery. Stir often until the vegetables are softened, about 7-8 minutes. You want them to release their flavor into the oil, but not to brown. Stir in the garlic, chile, and parsley and cook about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and their juice, breaking the tomatoes into pieces, and the salt. Stir to blend well, and simmer gently 10 minutes. When the lentils are tender, stir the tomato sofritto into the pot and continue to simmer another 10 to 15 minutes to blend the flavors. Stir in any of the following additions:

*crumbled, cooked bacon

*2-3 links cooked Italian sausage, sliced (substitute diced smoked ham)

*1 bunch broccoli rabe, chard, or kale, steamed or blanched until tender, drained, and chopped

*1 tsp. toasted and ground cumin seed

*Leftover roasted vegetables: potato, winter squash, parsnip, carrot…

*Fresh tomato salsa

Simmer another minute or two. Taste and adjust the seasoning—salt, pepper, chile, a squeeze of lemon juice or red wine vinegar, a sprinkling of chopped fresh parsley or mint leaves.

How to make Lentils taste wonderful!


Lentils have an earthiness about them…they are unassertive, but quite lovely cooked with just a few sprigs of fresh rosemary and thyme, a hot chile, and garlic. Add some sauteed onion, maybe carrot, and a dressing of sherry vinegar and extra virgin olive oil with freshly toasted and ground cumin seed. Fresh herbs like parsley, cilantro, and mint add a little sparkle.  Toasted walnuts or hazelnuts add crunch.

Lentils pair well with all kinds of sausage, and equally well with deeply flavored green like broccoli rabe, chard and kale.

Citrus FruitCitrus brightens a lentil dish. Use lemon or orange juice  and zest to season a soup or salad at the last minute.




Antipasti: Welcome to the table!

Antipasti are a brilliant invitation to a meal, or a meal in itself. I love eating this way–little plates of savory tid-bits to choose from, mixing contrasting flavors, texture and color as you take each bite. It reminds you that you’re hungry, and that food is glorious. Cured meats, fresh and aged cheeses, grilled and marinated vegetables, pickles, cooked greens, salads of tomatoes and arugula, olives…a single dish or many may appear on the antipasto table. The preparations are typically simple, and the flavors vibrant and enticing.

Antipasti with Bread

For our first meal at Tenuta SantArcangelo, our host Gerardo went all out with the antipasti offerings. The table looked like a promotional display for all the products of Southern Italy…a plate of thinly sliced prosciutto and salumi, fresh mozzarella and ciocavallo cheese…an onion fritatta…a basket of bruschetta, and a bowl of fresh diced tomatoes. Then, because Gerardo knew that I am very fond of vegetables, he brought in a plate if pickled wild asparagus, a saute of sweet peppers with onion, and another dish of lambasconi (a slightly bitter bulb of wild hyacinth) with hot pepper and pancetta. Potatoes with aglio, olio, e pepperoncino (garlic, olive oil, and hot pepper) and broccoli given the same treatment followed shortly. This was not the whole meal, but you can see how it easily could be.

Bruschetta is simply grilled bread– a good place to start. You need a loaf of rustic Italian bread, a crusty baguette, or ciabatta and extra virgin olive oil. Cut the bread into slices 1/2-inch thick, brush them with oil, and toast on an outdoor or stovetop grill on both sides. Drizzle with more garlic-infused oil, or use your bruschetta to hold one of the following toppings.

Tomato Salad*Tomato salad: We had this tomato salad with bread every morning at Serra Gambetta. To make it, dice perfectly ripe tomatoes, sprinkle them with coarse salt and a bit of dried oregano, and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. Mix gently.

Variations: add finely chopped garlic, replace the oregano with torn fresh basil leaves, or toss the tomatoes with chopped arugula and a splash of balsamic vinegar.

*Roasted red pepper spread: mix roasted red peppers (1 cup chopped) with sun-dried or oven-dried tomatoes (1/2 cup chopped), caramelized onion (1/2 cup), roasted garlic, 1/4 tsp crushed fennel seed, a little salt and some hot chile flakes. Chop coarsely in a food processor or by hand and stir in 2 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil.

*Pepperonata with Capers and Olives: Heat 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil in a large skillet with 1/2 cup chopped onion over medium heat. Cook 3 or 4 minutes until the onion softens. Raise the heat a bit and stir in 3 or 4 (about 1 lb.) diced sweet red peppers. Sauté, stirring often, 8 to 10 minutes, until the peppers are tender. Stir in 2 tsp minced garlic, 1 Tbs rinsed capers, and 1/4 cup coarsely chopped olives, cook 1 minute. Stir in 2 or 3 Tbs chopped parsley. Remove from the heat and season with red wine vinegar, salt and black pepper to taste.

Antipasti Table VariationsVariations: Sauté sliced mushrooms with the peppers. Add 1 or 2 chopped anchovy fillets when you add the garlic.

*Green Olive-Artichoke Tapenade: Mix together 12 chopped green olives, 4-6 chopped marinated artichoke hearts, 3-4 chopped oven-dried (or sun-dried in oil) tomatoes, 1 Tbs. capers, 1 finely chopped garlic clove, 4 Tbs. chopped fresh parsley leaves, and 1 Tbs chopped fresh mint. Stir in 2 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil.

*Herbed Cheese: Mix 1 cup fresh ricotta or goat cheese with 1 tsp. chopped fresh thyme leaves, 1 or 2 Tsp. chopped fresh mint, 1 tsp. lemon zest, and freshly ground black pepper.

*White Bean Puree: Heat 3 Tbs extra virgin olive oil with 1/2 cup chopped onion. Cook over medium low heat until the onion is soft. Add 1 tbs. chopped garlic and 1/4 tsp. red chile flakes and stir 1 minute. Add 1 1/2 to 2 cups cooked white beans. Stir to coat the beans well and cook over low heat 5 to 10 minutes to let the beans absorb the flavors. Season with salt to taste. Put the beans and 1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley in a food processor and process to a coarse puree.

*Sauté of Greens: Steam or parboil a bunch of chicory, chard, kale, broccoli rabe, or mustard greens until tender (3 to 5 minutes). Heat chopped garlic in extra virgin olive oil 1-2 minutes. Stir in the chopped greens to coat with oil and continue to cook over low heat until tender. Beat 2 eggs with 2 Tbs grated Parmesan. Stir the egg mixture into the greens; cook just until the eggs are set. Or leave the egg out–it’s good that way, too.

*Grilled Eggplant, Zucchini, and Peppers: Heat a grill to medium-high heat, or use a stovetop grill pan or broiler. Slice the eggplant 1/2-inch thick. Slice the zucchini lengthwise 1/4-inch thick. Brush both sides with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Grill the sliced vegetables 3-4 minutes per side, until they have dark grill marks and are tender. Grill the whole peppers (or roast them over the flame of a gas burner), rotating them so that their skin is blistered and charred all over. Put them in a bowl and cover with a dishtowel to cool, 10-15 minutes. Peel, seed and slice them into narrow strips. Arrange the vegetables on a platter. Drizzle them with extra virgin olive oil, sprinkle with salt and a few drops red wine vinegar. Garnish with chopped flat-leaf parsley or mint. Roast the vegetables in a hot oven if you don’t want to grill.

*Marinated Olives: Mix green and black olives with enough extra virgin olive oil to coat them well. Sprinkle with orange zest, crushed fennel seed, red chile flakes (or minced fresh hot chile), and minced garlic. Toss and marinate several hours before serving.