Tunisian Couscous With Lamb

Tunisian couscous

One of the great things about living in or near Washington, DC is the diversity of people and cultures here. If you’re here any time at all, chances are good you’ll meet people from just about every country on the planet. And, of course, you’ll almost certainly come across a restaurant or a gathering where the food of one of those countries is being featured. This Tunisian couscous recipe is a good example of that. I was introduced to it at a reception for a friend of mine who is running for a local office, found the cook who was, of course, Tunisian, and convinced her to give me the recipe. 

The key to making it authentic is harissa, a blend of spices and herbs that flavors many dishes from north Africa. It comes as either a paste, which will almost certainly have to be sourced at an ethnic grocery, or as a powder, which is more easily found at a conventional grocery or online. Just the aroma of harissa will transport you to the southern shores of the Mediterranean.

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Roasted Chicken with Grape Stuffing and Creamy Wine Sauce

Roasted Chicken with Grape Stuffing

I’ve had the base recipe for this roasted chicken in my notebook for several years and hadn’t tried it in all that time. I’m really sorry for that, because — with some minor adjustments — it’s one of the best chicken recipes I’ve ever come across. The sauce, by itself, is amazing. The earliest version of the recipe I could find with a quick search goes back at least five years, but there are several clones of that floating around the web, as well. From that research — and the ingredients and techniques — I have a sense that it probably is a take on a dish from northeastern or eastern France, but who knows, for sure.

To work well, the recipe requires a small chicken — enough to feed three or four people and no more than that. The bird is roasted quickly at a high temperature for a relatively short time, which really does a nice job of crisping up the skin, while the grape stuffing keeps the meat moist and juicy. It’s really a fantastic way to cook chicken and I suspect would work well with game birds like quail or even Cornish game hens.

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Soft Pretzel Buns

soft pretzel buns

A short while ago, I paid my first visit to Brine, a relatively new restaurant that’s part of a small group with locations in Richmond, VA and the DC area. It’s a fantastic place, great food and great people. And while everything we ordered was superb, the star of the evening was the little bucket of warm dinner rolls, which had the texture of ordinary rolls but the dark crust and flavor of a soft pretzel. They were so good, in fact, I immediately set out to see if I could duplicate them. I especially wanted to make a bun size version for sandwiches. After a good deal of research, I learned that the secret to soft pretzel buns — both flavor and appearance — is a short bath in an alkaline bath right before baking. The results weren’t a perfect match for the rolls at Brine, they were so good I decided to feature them here.

True soft pretzel dough is treated with a solution of water and (food grade) lye. The trouble is that lye in almost any form is pretty nasty stuff. Gloves and goggles are required for handling it, even when diluted in plenty of water. That’s not something I want to mess with, so I was happy to learn that a bath in boiling water with baking soda and sugar could get me close to the color and flavor I wanted. Baking the baking soda in 300F oven for an hour before dissolving in the boiling water enhances the effect somewhat.

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Green Curry Shrimp

green curry shrimp

I’m slowly but surely learning to love curry. It’s taken a while, in part because I spent my palate-shaping years in a part of the country where the flavors of Eastern Europe and Italy were dominant and where most of my meals were based on readily available ingredients and the cooking repertoire was pretty limited. My early aversion to curry was then made worse by a bad experience, when a business colleague in Singapore insisted on taking me to what may be the only really bad Indian restaurant in that entire tiny country. I’ve since learned that a good curry is nothing short of fantastic, and in the past year or so have developed several recipes — with help from some good cookbooks and talks with chefs and line cooks at some very good restaurants here in the DC area. Green curry shrimp is the latest of these.

Green curry is native to the inland, central parts of Thailand where it is more likely to be combined with river fish and vegetables than prawns. But substituting shrimp for the usual fish yields something that has a special flavor and texture that really works well.

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Orange Chicken

orange chicken

Strictly speaking, orange chicken isn’t something you would find at a table in China. It does have roots in Hunan province, where you can find a recipe that translates roughly as dried peel chicken, which refers to the use of dried or preserved orange peel as a flavoring, but it’s really an invention of Chinese chefs (possibly from Hunan) who were looking for something to suit the tastes of American diners.

There are dozens of orange chicken recipes on blogs all over the web, many of which attempt to recreate a dish offered by Panda Express, which seems to be the gold standard. I’ve not had that version and this is not an attempt to match it. Mainly what I set out to do with this recipe was to get a little closer to what I remember of Hunan cooking, which has a little heat, plenty of fragrance and isn’t overly sweet. I searched for real Hunan peppers, but couldn’t find them, so I resorted to a Chinese brand of chili oil from the local Asian market, which worked pretty well, actually.

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Malfadine with Veal Ragù Bolognese

Malfadine with Bolognese Veal Ragù

I love a good pasta dish. I seriously could eat pasta just about every day and feel like I’m living the good life. For a lot of reasons, I can’t do that, so I tend to focus on doing something special on those occasions when I do plan a pasta dish. That’s where veal ragù Bolognese comes into play.

First of all, ragù has nothing to do with the brand name we all know. Real ragù is braised minced or ground meat (or shredded perhaps) cooked long and slow until it is thick and full of concentrated flavors. In Italy, there are regional variations and as many individual recipes as there are Italian cooks, which is to say, lots of them.

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Seared Scallops and Sweet Corn Saute

seared scallops and sweet corn

Today it’s a quick and easy theme, prompted by stumbling across some beautiful dry scallops at one of the local markets and freshly picked sweet corn from a roadside farmer’s market. I can’t think of a better combination of flavors than seared scallops, corn, thyme and butter. The same is true of crab, but that’s another dish for another day.

I pulled this dish together after a day-long road trip. Driving home on a somewhat rural road, I came across a roadside market where a farmer was selling produce. As I browsed, I watched a work crew bring in a truckload of corn picked just hours before, and unceremoniously dump the corn on a large long table. It doesn’t get any fresher. That’s key, by the way. I’m a bit of a geek for food science, and a little research revealed that as soon as the corn is picked, the sugar it contains starts converting to starch. The process proceeds slowly, until the husks are removed, at which point it moves along much more quickly. So the rule is to get the freshest possible ears and leave them unshucked until just before serving, to preserve the sugar as long as possible.

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