brutti ma buoni

gorgeous

“Brutti ma buoni!” I declare to everyone when I present them with one of these cookies, “Ugly but good!”

Don’t let the name ruin it for you. I had three egg whites left over from making these hamantaschen last weekend, and proceeded to convert them into another sweet treat. Many recipes for brutti ma buoni cookies call for grinding almonds with the sugar, but I happened to have hazelnuts on hand, and found that this was not an unprecedented substitution. When you grind the nuts and sugar together, it has the wonderful side-effect of making the sugar ever so much finer, allowing it to fold into the egg whites easily and uniformly.

separation is hard

We are nearing the time in the calendar when eggs will be abundant in the farmers’ markets. (It is not a coincidence that all of our major early spring festivals feature eggs—it’s because normal chickens kept in human conditions will produce massive amounts of eggs during this time period.) These cookies would be a great choice for celebrating spring. The way I formed the cookies, with an elongated serving spoon, meant that they even took on an egg shape. I think these would be a marvelous choice for Easter or Passover.

but good

The cookies do keep for a few weeks if they are left to cool completely (for several hours) the day they are made, and then stored in a dry, tightly sealed tin or container. They’re light as air, and crisp, fragrant with hazelnuts and ever so slightly chewy in the center. Good, indeed. Let’s be honest, sometimes “ugly but good” is how we would describe the essence of our lives. And we focus on the good, no? Can I get an amen?

Brutti ma buoni

Adapted from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan

  • 2 cups or 8.5 ounces hazelnuts
  • 3/4 cup plus 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
  • 3 egg whites, room temperature
  • pinch of kosher salt
  • pinch of cream of tartar (if you have it)
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Preheat oven to 300 F. Place hazelnuts on a single layer on baking sheet and put into oven. Toast for 10 (room temperature nuts) to 12 minutes (refrigerated nuts), until skins begin to loosen on nuts and they’re just toasting. Remove from oven and turn nuts onto a clean linen dish towel. Pull up the towel’s edges to fully enclose the nuts, and knead, rub,  and roll them on the countertop. Open towel and check; most of the nuts should now be free of their skins. Pick the nuts out of the chaff and add to the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. It is okay if some of them still have some skins on them. Allow nuts to cool a bit while you prepare to mix the cookies.

2. Line two baking sheets with parchment. (Alternatively you may butter the baking sheets.) Pour the egg whites into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the metal whisk. (Be sure the bowl and whisk are free of even the faintest trace of oil or grease. Add salt and cream of tartar (if using) to the egg whites. Set these aside and return to the food processor. Make sure nuts are just warm, and not hot. Add sugar and pulse with hazelnuts until they are finely chopped. Pour this into a separate bowl and add the vanilla. Set aside.

3. Whip the egg whites on medium speed until foamy, and then increase the speed to medium-high to high. Beat until stiff peaks just form, but not a moment longer. (They’ll go quickly from holding a soft speak to holding a stiff peak.) Remember, because you are not adding sugar at this point, the meringue will not become glossy. It will simply stiffen. Remove mixer bowl from stand, add nut-sugar mixture to egg whites and gently fold together until sugar and nuts are completely incorporated.

4. Drop batter onto prepared cookie sheets by the spoonful. You can make small teaspoon-size cookies, or larger tablespoon-size cookies. Bake in prepared oven for 25 minutes from smaller cookies, and 30-35 minutes for larger cookies. The cookies will be dry to the touch and slightly gold in color when done. Carefully remove cookies from parchment and allow them to cool thoroughly on a wire rack. Packed tightly, cookies will keep several weeks.

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hamantaschen | muhn or linzer

 pockets

When I was a little kid, when we got into bed at night, we listened to tapes of a guy reading the King James Version of the Bible. The tapes were in giant dark green upholstered fake leather cases, lined up row after row.  The man who narrated them was fairly expressionless. He didn’t really get into what he was reading, or act out the parts, or do accents or voices or anything. The tapes started at Genesis and went all the way through to Revelation. Deuteronomy got a little dry at a certain point and Ezekiel and Kings both have passages where you have to listen to a lot of building measurements in cubits. What are cubits?

bowl of butterMostly I did what I was supposed to—and this is what a rigorous religious upbringing gets you, if your parents play their cards right—I just listened to the next tape in order, cubits or so-and-so begetting so-and-so or what have you. But every once in a while I would beg to hear my two favorite books of the Bible. They were short books and you could pretty much hear the whole story on your way to sleep. One favorite was Ruth, and to this day my favorite name is Boaz because of that story. The other was Esther, the Jewish queen who saved her people from destruction.

ground poppyseeds

As a result, although I am not Jewish, I love the Purim holiday. In college I was beyond excited to learn that in Judaism, Esther has her own holiday! And people dress up for it! And it is super joyful. And there are special cookies to be made! See, all those nights, in my bed, I would be so angry at Haman and his outrageous abuses of power. I would curl up in a ball and think, Haman, you lying snake, I shake my fist at you! I would listen all the way through the part where the king honors Mordecai (Esther’s uncle), and makes Esther his queen, and hangs Haman, and Haman’s 10 sons.  At this point I would pump my fist in righteous celebration, and mutter, yesssss! The last chapter recounts all the details of the holiday of Purim, but somehow I never focused on that, and in all honesty, by then I may have been asleep. It is pretty exhausting stuff, after all.

linzer

These cookies are traditional at Purim, but I think they are one of the all-time great cookies. Crisp, buttery exterior, toothsome pastry interior, a burst of flavorsome filling: this is cookie heaven. Most sources say the name hamantaschen actually derives from the German word for poppy (the traditional filling), muhn, and the word for pocket, taschen. And when you look at these little triangles, they really are just pockets filled with poppyseeds. Here I use a second filling, which is not very traditional: a coating of melted chocolate topped with a dollop of raspberry preserves. Also delicious. The filling recipes below are each enough to fill an entire batch of cookies. You can halve the recipes to make half muhn and half linzer, or simply make one or the other. Leftover muhn filling is great dolloped into the middle of your favorite coffee cake.

muhn

The cookie here is a very short butter pastry, which doesn’t fold easily. I know, you’re thinking, that doesn’t make sense—the whole point of this cookie is that you fold it. But when you get to the part about forming the cookies, you’ll see that even though the pastry will mostly break along the fold, you can simply press it back together without risking flat, melting hamantaschen. (When I first read this post on SmittenKitchen I felt so much better after countless years of runny taschen.) Even though it is a pain in the neck to form these crumbly cookies, the truth is that they don’t spread or run on the baking sheet, and thus will save you countless hours of heartbreak. And therefore leave you even more time for listening to the King James Version of the Bible on tape, or whatever else it is you do for a fun time.

cookie of liberation

Hamantaschen | muhn or linzer

Adapted from SmittenKitchen, which is adapted from this recipe on the NY Times; makes 60 cookies.

Pastry

  • grated zest of 2 lemons
  • 1 and 1/2 cups powdered sugar
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 3 large egg yolks
  • 3 sticks (12 ounces) butter cut into small pieces, room temperature

1. Add zest, powdered sugar, flour, and salt to the bowl of your food processor fitted with the metal blade. Pulse to combine. Add yolks and pieces of butter. Pulse in long pulses (2 seconds or so) until the dough forms a clumpy mass, or a ball. This takes many pulses. Scrape dough onto plastic wrap, knead it two or three times, form it into a flatt-ish disc, and wrap it up tightly. Transfer to refrigerator for at least one hour, or overnight.

Muhn Filling (poppy seed, enough for a whole batch of cookies)

  • 1 cup poppy seeds
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • grated zest of 1 orange
  • 1/3 cup golden or black raisins, or chopped prunes
  • juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 1 tablespoon orange liqueur (such as Cointreau)
  • 1/2 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 tablespoon butter

1. In two batches, grind poppy seeds in your very clean coffee grinder (the kind with a blade, not a burr grinder) until they are sticky and chopped. Scrape into a saucepan. Add milk, sugar, zest and raisins. Warm over medium heat to a bare simmer, reduce heat and simmer until seeds absorb the milk. This takes about 20 minutes. Stir occasionally, and more frequently towards end of cooking.

2. Add remaining ingredients and stir well to mix. Set filling aside to cool completely. This can also be done the day before and kept in the refrigerator.

Linzer filling (enough for a whole batch of cookies)

  • 1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips
  • 2 ounces bittersweet dark chocolate (I used Lindt 70%)
  • 1/2 cup raspberry preserves (with seeds)

1. In a metal bowl suspended over a pan of boiling water, carefully melt the chocolate, stirring constantly once it begins to melt. When just a few solid pieces are left, remove from heat and continue stirring. Allow mixture to cool completely.

To assemble the cookies:

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Line up to 4 baking sheets with parchment.

2. Cut chilled pastry in half and place half on a floured counter. Lightly flour your rolling pin and roll dough (forming a circle) to just shy of 1/4-inch thick. Use a 2.5-inch round cookie cutter to cut circles, placing them on prepared baking sheets nearly touching. Add just 1/2 teaspoon of muhn filling on each cookie. If making the linzer version, place a smear of melted chocolate with 1/2 teaspoon of raspberry preserves on top of each. Do not overfill cookies.

3. Clean hands, then carefully fold cookies. First fold up one side across filling. The pastry will likely break along the fold; simply nudge and pinch it back together. Repeat with two more sides on each cookie, forming triangles. Pinch along the edges to seal the cookies.

4. Place cookies, one tray at a time, into the oven. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, until light brown. Let cookies rest on tray for 5 minutes before carefully removing to a wire rack.

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multigrain banana (smoothie) pancakes

shortstack

On the rare occasions when Ty goes away on a trip, his sister has asked me, “so, what is your secret single behavior?”

I seriously, seriously wish I was the sort of person who might have a saucy answer to that question.

But: know thyself, woman. My “secret single behavior” involves trying to remember to cook instead of reverting to eating only giant bowls of popcorn at mealtimes. (I’m sure upon my arrival in April the Italian authorities will arrest me for having consumed a glass of phenomenal nero d’Avola with a bowl of popcorn while watching an episode of “Bones.”) It involves rocking out to Brandi Carlisle at top volume (sorry neighbors) while trimming Brussels sprouts. (You should hear me on some of those key changes mid-song. Heart-stopping, I tell you.) It means that I use the blender in the morning. (Ty doesn’t like loud noises right after waking up.) It involves, I will not lie, watching BBC productions of Bleak House, Jane Eyre, or Persuasion, and, if I’m really given time to deteriorate, Emma. It involves cooking all of the very few foods that Ty won’t eat.

so lonely

Ty really doesn’t like to have pancakes on weekend mornings—he always wants something very savory, like eggs, bacon, sausage, home fries, grits, and what have you. I love these things, too! But sometimes a girl just wants to get her pancake on. The other thing he hates in the morning is noise, so I generally avoid using the blender when he’s around. I started to make a smoothie the other morning, because when I woke up I found myself face-to-face with that most common of kitchen gremlins: the single, almost-too-ripe banana. Without thinking, I threw that banana in the blender. But then I realized that I really just wanted a nice stack of pancakes. The following recipe was born. You can use a combination of flours, and I would always make at least one part of the flour all-purpose, just to get a light and fluffy pancake. And I always, always, use part cornmeal in my cakes—it gives you a nice crispy exterior, which I love. I had rye on hand, and you could use that or whole-wheat pastry flour, or oat flour, or anything else you had on hand.

foamy batter

With any pancake recipe relying on chemical leaveners (baking soda or baking powder) and buttermilk or yogurt—especially ones with whole-grain flours—you should let your batter rest for a few moments before you start to cook the pancakes. The acidic dairy and the baking soda interact and create millions of little air pockets in the batter. These are what lend your pancakes lightness. Typically I create time for resting by mixing the batter and then letting it rest while I get out my griddle, spray or butter it, and heat it up nice and hot. By then, 10 minutes have passed, and when you scoop into that batter to start cooking, you have a lovely, light, foamy, loamy pancake mixture. The mixture will be so airy that you may have a hard time dolloping it onto the griddle in circles. Just do the best you can—and don’t force it by manipulating or mashing it to make a circle—and you will be rewarded with the lightest pancakes you’ve ever had.

The recipe below makes just enough pancakes for two people. You can multiply it out to make enough for up to eight people. I just hope they’re eight people who don’t mind the noise of a blender in the morning.

last bite

Multigrain banana (smoothie) pancakes

This recipe makes enough for 2 people, multiple as necessary to feed more hungry folks

  • 3/4 cup flour (I use all-purpose, rye, cornmeal)
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 egg
  • 1 banana
  • 1/2 c buttermilk or plain yogurt
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • zest of 1 orange
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla
  • pinch of nutmeg

1. Sift together flours, baking powder, baking soda in a large bowl. Toss in the kosher salt and set aside.

2. Place all remaining ingredients in the pitcher of your blender. Blend until a smooth liquid forms. Pour liquid into dry ingredients and mix lightly, until completely smooth. Set aside for about 10 minutes to lighten while you prepare the griddle.

3. Heat a large nonstick skillet or griddle wiped with vegetable oil over medium-high heat, until very hot, but not smoking. Reduce heat to medium. Scoop batter by 1/4 cupfuls onto griddle. Allow pancakes to cook fully on first side (take a tiny peek using your spatula to lift up the edge) before gently flipping to cook the second side. If the pancake is turning too dark before it is cooked in the center, reduce the heat under the pan.

4. Plate pancakes on warm plates and serve with orange slices and maple syrup.

nice and brown

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construction site birthday cake

construction site

Birthday cakes are special. And making the birthday cake is an enormous responsibility, not to be taken lightly. It has to not only be scrumptious if it’s for a three-year-old, it also has to be enchanting.

On our nephew’s second birthday, I made this train cake. On his first birthday, it was a dump truck. The obsession with things with wheels, unsurprisingly, continues. However, he is a pretty hard-working little three-year-old, and he loves to help and work in the yard. Moreover, he loves this book, Good Night, Good Night, Construction Site, which is apparently  a sedative for three-year-olds in literary form. And what else does he love? Chocolate.

While I had absolutely no idea how to make a cake into a construction site, I did know a thing or two about how to make a fantastic chocolate cake. Cooking is like everything else: start with what you know. Rose Levy Berenbaum’s Cake Bible is still the greatest instruction manual and work of art on the subject of The Cake. I got my copy for my fourteenth birthday (speaking of birthdays) in 1988, the year it was first published.  There are little notes in pencil throughout it. Not because these are recipes that I have ever toyed with—most of my cookbooks have notes in them when I change recipes and make adjustments—but because they’re recipes that have been an integral part of nearly every special occasion involving dessert in my life, ever. One cake has a note that says “Robyn’s birthday” another that says “Christmas 1989” and another that says “Bob’s favorite.” This is not a book of recipes that you adapt, or transform. These recipes are precise; they are perfect. Measurements are given in volumes and weights, and ever since my fifteenth birthday (when I asked for a kitchen scale) I have used the weights. The point is: obtain this book and cook from it whenever a cake is called for. I would also add that the raised waffle recipe in there pretty much sums up the difference between eating to live and living to eat. Or, the difference between not living and really living.

rome wasn't built in a day

I decided to make my favorite chocolate cake from the book, the Chocolate Fudge Cake. It is the perfect cocoa-based chocolate cake, with a wonderful crumb, a fudgy texture, and with an incredible richness from its use of brown sugar instead of white. I made the cake into two 7.5- or 8-inch square pans. After the layers were baked and cooled, I measured the height of one of the layers. Then I cut one end off of one of the layers the same width as the height measurement. (So the piece you’re cutting off is a square when viewed from the end.) This is to make the ramps. You can see this in the picture, but you want to leave an inch or two before you start cutting the ramp on a gentle slant away from that plateau. You should come out with two ramps. One goes flush with the bottom layer (frost that first and then snuggle the ramp up to it). The second ramp goes up top along the cut side of the top layer (which is the one with the piece cut off of it).

engineering

Then you just frost the whole thing! And to frost it, I used the Cake Bible Milk Chocolate Buttercream, which, not to spoil anything, has three ingredients: milk chocolate, dark bittersweet chocolate, and butter. And these three ingredients only come in two measurements. One pound or one-half pound. (We found the high level of fat in the buttercream made for an easy clean-up of the birthday boy and it simultaneously provided a nice moisturizing treatment for the hands of the three people it took to clean him.)

As for decorations, we found these fantastic candy-coated “rocks,” which are filled with chocolate, and also used chocolate-covered almonds as “boulders.” This set of trucks plus the two men to go on the cake rounded out the design, along with—wait for it—birthday candles shaped like construction cones.

busy trucks

The cake inside this masterpiece is a marvelous delight for children and adults alike. It is wonderful to have such a whimsical cake for a little boy’s birthday, but it is even better to slice into it and find that inside is a very serious cake. As much as I get caught up in the appearance of the cake with each passing year (what will it be next year—dinosaurs?), I love knowing that there is a show-stopping cake inside that will be a treat for the entire family. It’s even good with a sturdy glass of red wine! Having a baking book like the Cake Bible is like having a true friend beside you in the kitchen, reassuring you that no matter what, your nephew’s third birthday cake is going to be fantastic.

When Harry woke up from his nap, after he rubbed his eyes, he saw the cake. His face lit up and he looked at me and said, “Good job, Auntie Joy! I love it.” What, I ask you, could be sweeter than that?

scrumptious cake

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lamb meatballs w zaatar + aleppo pepper

After having been snowed out of my house for four days—thanks to a giant winter storm—I am looking for ways to introduce the flavor of warmer climes into the kitchen. And at any time of year, who can resist a meatball? I have been experimenting with meatballs with no egg to bind them together. In this recipe, I make a paste out of the bread or breadcrumbs, garlic, fresh onion, and spices. There is so much moisture in the onion that it saturates the breadcrumbs and creates a fairly wet paste to work ever so lightly into the ground meat. If you don’t have access to za’atar you could use a combination of thyme, sesame seeds, and extra lemon zest.

We are fortunate that here in New Haven we can get ground lamb regularly from Sankow’s Beaver Brook Farm, at our CitySeed market. If you can’t find it at your market, you could ask the butcher to grind some lamb stew meat for you, or you could probably substitute ground beef.

frying

It’s really fun to serve these meatballs for supper with a nice chopped salad, dressed lightly with olive oil and lemon juice, along with a dish of olives or maybe some stuffed grape leaves. Or make a big batch of baba ganoush and serve alongside some za’atar pita. You can imagine you’re in a warmer place, feasting after sunset on a long, long midsummer day.

Lamb meatballs w zaatar + Aleppo pepper

Serves 4 as part of a larger meal, serves 8 as an appetizer.

  • 1 clove garlic, peeled
  • 1 c breadcrumbs, or a hunk of bread that looks like it would make that much
  • 1/2 onion, cut into chunks
  • 2 and 1/2 teaspoons za’atar
  • 1/2 teaspoon Aleppo pepper or crushed red pepper
  • zest of 1/2 lemon
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 lb ground lamb
  • 1/4 cup olive oil or vegetable oil
  • Maldon or sea salt for finishing
  • 1/2 lemon cut into wedges

1. In the bowl of food processor fitted with a metal blade, combine garlic, breadcrumbs, onion, za’atar, Aleppo pepper, lemon zest and salt. If you have only a hunk of bread, tear it into pieces and pulse it in the food processor first to make crumbs, then add the other ingredients. Scrape mixture into a large bowl. Add lamb and mix lightly with your hands until mixture is uniform. Set aside for 15 to 30 minutes, to allow moisture to redistribute.

2. Warm olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat.  Form lamb mixture into sausage shaped logs, about 1 inch in diameter and 3 inches long, or into 2-inch long torpedo shapes. Fry these in the hot oil until very well browned and cooked through, about 15 minutes in total.

3. Serve meatballs with lemon wedges and sprinkled with sea salt.

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borlotti beans w fennel + tomato

The beans and legumes are having a heyday here in our kitchen, even more than usual. With a recent shipment of beans from Rancho Gordo, we are on a bit of a tear. Borlottis, a type of cranberry bean, are a particular favorite, and if you have just two people in your family, you can cook a one-pound bag on Sunday and eat them all week. In fact, we made this dish with fennel and tomato in the same week that we made this other dish that involved serving the Borlotti beans over bread cubes toasted in olive oil, with just a little frizzled sage on top. They don’t need much adornment to really sing.

fenouil

Combining the Borlotti beans—you can use any cooked cranberry bean—with a lot of fennel, kale, and tomatoes seems less like a bean dish and more like a winter vegetable dish. For the first time in weeks, I felt like I had eaten vegetables in the way I feel I’ve eaten vegetables in the summer. It feels totally reckless to have so much fresh stuff in the pot, but really these are winter produce staples. The fennel mellows and loses its licorice-y taste, leaving behind a complicated sweetness. The kale is earthy and the tomatoes provide their characteristic acidity, which balances the dish. It is a bonus that if your beans are already cooked, this takes only a few minutes to get to the table.

beans and such

I based this concoction on a recipe in Paula Wolfert’s amazing book, The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen, which my sister bought me for Christmas. The book is marvelous, and I was enchanted by a recipe for black-eyed peas with fennel and tomatoes that Wolfert said was from Crete. That was enough to sell me on it. A little bit of Crete in my kitchen? In February? Yes, please.

Borlotti beans w fennel + tomato

Adapted from The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen by Paula Wolfert

  • 1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1 medium fennel bulb, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
  • 4 to 6 large kale leaves, ribs removed and cut into a fine chiffonnade
  • 3/4 cup plum tomatoes, chopped
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2 cups cooked Borlotti beans, or other cranberry type bean (about 14 oz)

1. Warm onion, fennel, and olive oil over medium heat. Toss and cook for about 15 minutes, until vegetables are pale gold in color. About halfway through, sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt and toss to continue cooking.

2. Then add kale and toss for a few moments. Add tomatoes and water and bring to a simmer. Stir and add cooked beans. Simmer for about 15 minutes to allow flavors to blend. Taste for seasoning, and add a bit more salt as needed. Serve warm.

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smoky glazed pork chops w crunchy almond crumble

My favorite thing to do to dress up a dish is to fry up some bread crumbs (I make them in the food processor as bread gets stale, and simply add them to a bag I keep in the freezer) and sprinkle them on top. Of whatever.

I love my ruts, and prefer to stay in them for as long as possible. But this particular rut has deepened, and broadened, to include some chopped almonds with the bread crumbs. If there is one thing that is as delicious as fried bread crumbs, it is fried almonds. They add more crunch and richness than the bread crumbs alone, and also taste delicious on everything.

almonds

Pork chops for dinner in this house are a common occurrence as well. It was only a matter of a few days before I recognized the unhatched potential of the crumb/almond mixture combined with the usual pork chop. Punched up with a slightly sweet, spicy, and smoky pan sauce, and we had a dish evocative of smoked and sugared almonds, with routine weeknight potential.

The big problem here is that the crunchy topping is a delicious snack. I always taste-test it when it is done frying, to make sure I have put enough salt in it. This is a terrible mistake, because I pinch up little bites of it while the chops cook, crunching away until there is barely enough left for supper. I suggest giving it to someone you trust, who will hide it from you until the time comes to heap a few spoonfuls on top of each pork chop. There; I can’t be held responsible when your family is having plain old pork chops once again for supper.

Smoky glazed pork chops w crunchy almond crumble

Serves 4

  • 4 large boneless center-cut pork chops
  • 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 1/2 cup coarsely chopped almonds
  • 1/2 cup fresh coarse bread crumbs
  • 1/2 teaspoon Maldon or kosher sea salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 3 tablespoons maple syrup

1. In a small bowl, combine smoked paprika and kosher salt. Dry pork chops with a paper towel and rub them evenly with the paprika-salt mixture. (You can set chops aside at this point in the refrigerator for up to one day.) In a large, nonstick skillet, warm 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium-high heat until shimmering and add chops. Cook on first side until dark brown, then flip them carefully and brown the second side. Reduce heat to medium and add a lid or cover, and cook until internal temperature of pork chops reaches 150 F.

2. Meanwhile, in a separate skillet, warm the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat until very hot. Add almonds and fry, stirring constantly, until toasted. Add bread crumbs and crushed red pepper, and continue stirring until they are toasted as well. Remove from heat and add Maldon salt or kosher salt and stir. Set aside until chops are cooked.

3. Remove lid from pork chops when they are cooked through, and drizzle with maple syrup. Flip chops and stir syrup into the pan liquid. Increase heat to medium-high and reduce sauce, turning chops regularly. To serve, place on chop on each plate and drizzle with one-quarter of pan sauce. Then scoop one-quarter cup of almond crumble topping onto the top of the chop and serve.

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split pea soup

I was serious when I said frugal was the watchword for January. And maybe February, too. I make no promises.

I read Joan Acocella’s review of two books about St. Francis of Assisi on the train on the way into New York earlier this month. I’m not going to lie: there is something about this guy that really appeals to me.

I don’t think he ate split pea soup, probably. But I think he would say we are on the right trail. Except that split pea soup is so delicious. I can’t understand how, when it only uses water, instead of broth. And split peas, well, they are so homely. But there is something delicious going on here. For me, the key is for the soup not to be too thick and pasty. As it simmers, I add splashes of boiling water as necessary to keep the consistency, well, soupy—instead of pasty. Maybe you like a much thicker split pea soup, so by all means adjust to your tastes, and then think about the possible connection between the frugal and the sublime.

Split pea soup

  • 16 oz dried split peas
  • 7 cups boiling water
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large onion, roughly chopped
  • 4 large carrots, trimmed and peeled, sliced
  • 4 stalks celery, trimmed, sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 1/2 tsp crushed pepper
  • 1/2 tsp dried thyme
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt

1. In a very large bowl, combine split peas and boiling water. Allow to sit and soak for 1 hour.

2. In a large soup pot, combine chopped onion, carrots, celery, and garlic with olive oil. Heat over medium-high heat. When mixture becomes fragrant, reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring, until vegetables are soft and onion is translucent and turning golden, about 10 to 12 minutes. Add crushed red pepper, thyme, and salt. Add soaked split peas and all the soaking water. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Bubbles should break the surface of the pot every few seconds. Cook for 1 to 1 and a half hours and then taste to see if peas are cooked and soft, and break up easily. Add a little salt if necessary. If peas aren’t done yet, cook for another 30 minutes or as needed until peas are fully cooked. Throughout the cooking, if the mixture becomes thick instead of soupy, add splashes of boiling water to the pot as needed.

3. When soup is cooked, remove from heat. Use an immersion blender to carefully blend it into a puree. Add a bit of boiling water if soup is too thick. Alternatively you can blend it in batches in a regular blender, being cautious to vent the top slightly, while still allowing no soup to spatter or escape.

4. Serve in heated bowls. If you aren’t feeling as ascetic as St. Francis, serve with these biscuits.

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rye drop biscuits

Oh, how I hate to go to the store in this wintry weather.

This tells you that I’m ridiculously lazy, since there is a lovely co-op only two blocks from my house. But January is a month in which I rely more than usual on my pantry, and rarely have a nice fresh loaf of bread in the house, in spite of the temptations routinely proffered by our talented neighborhood bakers. I make regular runs for aromatics (leeks, shallots, onions, garlic) and citrus (oranges, lemons, limes), but I mostly stock up at the weekly winter markets and hope for inspiration to strike each evening when I survey my kitchen in the dark hours after work.

biscuits on a tray

Often in these cases I resort to soup or beans, and the best way to provide these dishes some comfort is with a nice quick bread. Quick breads are breads leavened with baking powder or soda, rather than yeast, and include biscuits, cornbreads, soda breads, scones, and farls. Once my soup or stew is gurgling away on the simmering burner, I will often whisk together flour with a leavener or two and salt, fold in some melted butter and cream or buttermilk, and make some nice buttery breads to go with the supper. The trick to this recipe, and others in my repertoire, is one that I learned from Cooks Illustrated a long time ago: melt the butter and let it stand for a few minutes. Then pour it straight into the ice-cold buttermilk or milk. It curdles into small particles when it hits the cold liquid, which creates the same effect as cutting or rubbing the butter into the dry ingredients, but with none of the work. Perfect for someone too lazy to even walk two blocks to the co-op for a fresh loaf.

biscuit on a plate

For this batch, I used half-and-half mixed with lemon juice to sour it, which makes a rich and fluffy biscuit. You could use buttermilk for a less fatty version and omit the lemon juice. Or, you could whisk some plain nonfat yogurt into your milk or half-and-half as well. There is more than one way to skin this cat. Enjoy experimenting with it.

Rye drop biscuits

Makes 6 to 8 biscuits.

  • 1 stick (8 tablespoons or 1/2 cup) of butter
  • 1 cup dark rye flour
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoons granulated sugar
  • 1 cup of half-and-half
  • 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

1. Preheat oven to 425 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment or grease lightly with butter or shortening. Melt butter gently in the microwave (at 50% power) or on top of the stove just until barely melted. (I turn it off before it melts entirely and whisk to get the remaining solid butter to melt.) Set aside for 10 to 15 minutes.

2. In a 2-cup measure, combine half-and-half with the lemon juice. Stir with a fork. It will curdle. Pour in cooled butter. Stir again with a fork.

3. Whisk together flours, baking powder, baking soda, cream of tartar, salt, and sugar in a large bowl. Make a well in the center. Pour in the butter mixture and use a rubber spatula to mix into a large mass. Using a metal spoon, drop mixture into 6 or 8 large, craggy biscuits on the prepared baking sheet. Pop biscuits into the oven and bake for about 15 to 16 minutes, until golden brown on top and bottom. Serve immediately, while piping hot.

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zuppa lombarda

Beans are an ideal January food.

Frankly, beans are an ideal anytime food, but in January they meet my criteria for health and frugality after a holiday season of extravagant eating.

I found this recipe in of my most treasured cookbooks, Il Libro della Vera Cucina Fiorentina by Paolo Petroni. The book is a Florentine classic, and was given to me by an Italian friend who is also a phenomenal cook. It is in Italian, but my food Italian is okay, and this recipe is so simple that you don’t even need to know Italian to decode it. It contains: beans, olive oil, sage, garlic, and bread. I don’t count the water you need to cook the beans.

salvia

The cookbook claims the recipe was misnamed, as the dish does not appear in the Lombardy region at all, but rather may have been popular with immigrants from Lombardy who lived in Florence in the 1800s. I don’t quibble about these things when something is this simple and good. As with most simple dishes, it depends entirely on the quality of the ingredients used, and in this case that means the beans. I used Borlotti beans from Rancho Gordo, and can only recommend that you do the same. The soup in the cookbook is made with fresh shell beans, and I’m sure you could use cranberry, cannelini, or a similar bean. It is essential in any case not to use the canned beans—the broth that develops while cooking dried or fresh beans is essential to the glory of this dish.

I used dried Borlottis that had not been soaked, and just covered the beans with about four inches of water, because I wanted the beans to soak up most of the water, and for the rest to evaporate during cooking. If the water level in your bean pot becomes reduced below the surface of the beans, add splashes of boiling water as necessary until the beans have finished cooking. When finished, you will want beans that are just covered in the nice, rich broth.

zuppa

The original recipe includes bread that is toasted plain, and the sage is added to the pot with the beans, garlic and olive oil at the beginning of the cooking. I wanted something with a bit more of the sage flavor, and simply fried the chopped sage leaves and added them to the top of each dish of soup. Meanwhile, the bread was cubed and fried until a deep golden color in olive oil and sprinkled with salt before dishing the beans over with their broth and then topping with the sizzled sage. Perhaps a bit rich for the blood of the thrifty Florentines, but nonetheless extraordinary.

Zuppa lombarda

Adapted from Il Libro della Vera Cucina Fiorentina by Paolo Petroni

Serves 4 to 6

  • 1 lb dried Borlotti beans or other dried cranberry or white bean
  • water to cover by 4 inches
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 4 whole cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 and 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 20 or so fresh sage leaves, thinly sliced
  • 3 to 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 6 to 8 slices of stale ciabatta or other crusty Italian-style bread, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • sea salt or Maldon salt for finishing

1. Rinse and pick the beans over and add to a large soup pot. Cover with water by about four inches. Pour in the 1/3 cup of olive oil, add the garlic cloves, and set over medium-high heat. Bring the pot to the boil and then reduce to a bare simmer. Cook until the beans are tender (taste at least a dozen or so beans to make sure they are all tender), about 2 and 1/2 hours in my case. After about an hour of simmering, you can add he 1 and 1/2 teaspoons of kosher salt.

2. When beans are cooked through, prepare the rest of the components. Warm the 3 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat until quite hot. Add cubed bread to the hot oil, without crowding the bread cubes. When first side is golden brown, turn the bread and toast another side of the cube. This can be done in batches, adding more olive oil between batches as needed. When a batch of cubes are browned, place them in the warmed soup bowls, distributing evenly among the bowls. Each bowl needs the cubes from just 1 slice of bread. Sprinkle the browned bread cubes with a pinch or two of Maldon or sea salt.

3. When bread cubes are browned and in the soup bowls, warm a tablespoon or two more olive oil in your skillet. Add the sliced sage leaves and cook until fragrant and beginning to crisp. Turn off heat and sprinkle with a few pinches of Maldon or sea salt.

4. Assemble the soup. Ladle beans and some broth over the cubed bread. Sprinkle with some of the fried sage and drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil.

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