Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Lamb Kofte

In my search for new and different meals to bring for lunch, I stumbled across this Bon Appetit recipe for lamb kofte. I wanted food that was portable and utensil-less, making for easy eating during the work day. I've always found it weird to wield a fork a knife to cut a piece of chicken inside of a Gladware container. Lunch should not be a struggle, but rather a small moment of respite.

Enter the lamb kofte. Pita is a great option when another ham sandwich won't cut it. Of course, you could just make a ham pita. But instead of letting your lunch fall flat, let it fall on flatbread. Let's put some flavor into the mid-day meal with this Middle Eastern classic.

Lamb Kofte
Yields 6 servings, adapted from Bon Appetit Magazine

Yogurt Sauce
1 cup plain yogurt
2 tbsp tahini
1 tbsp lemon juice
1/2 tsp salt
2 lbs ground lamb
1/2 cup fresh mint, minced
1/2 cup onion, grated
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 tbsp paprika
1 tbsp cumin
1.5 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
6 pitas
2 tbsp olive oil, divided
2 large onions, halved and sliced
1/2 cup roasted red peppers
1/2 cup water
3 tbsp molasses
2 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped

For the yogurt sauce, combine all ingredients in a medium bowl. Cover and chill.


For the kofte, gently mix lamb, mint, onion, garlic, paprika, cumin, salt, and pepper in a large bowl. Use gentle motions and don't overwork the meat or else you'll have tough meatballs. Roll the mixture into 1.5" meatballs. Arrange them on a baking sheet lined with plastic wrap.

Sauteed Onions

Heat 1 tbsp oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the sliced onion and sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Saute until golden brown, about 8 minutes. Set aside.


To make the muhammara, add roasted red peppers to the same skillet used to cook the onions, stirring for 1 minute over medium-high heat. Add 1/2 cup water and 2 tbsp molasses (pomegranate if you wish). Bring to a simmer, scraping up any brown bits. Cook until reduced to 2/3 cup, stirring occasionally, about 4 minutes. Mix in parsley. Season to taste with salt and pepper, then transfer to a small bowl.

Add 1 tbsp oil to the skillet and place over medium-high heat. Saute the meatballs in batches until just cooked through, 7-8 minutes.

Lamb Kofte in Pita

To assemble the pitas, tuck the meatballs in the pocket (or place on flatbread if that's what you prefer). Top with onions, muhammara and tahini sauce. You can eat it cold or warm, depending on what you like.

What a perfect lunch this sandwich makes. No sliced deli meat and wilted lettuce. Instead, it's packed with delicious Middle Eastern flavors with that lovely caramelization in the background to unite it all. Tired of the usual bag lunch? Then you should opt for something decidedly international, but still totally portable.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Mixed Berry Pandowdy

Berry season is about at an end with the last of the fresh blueberries disappearing quickly and the rest of the berries are but a memory. A Southern classic with berries and, really, any fruit, is a cobbler. But to celebrate these small fruits, I wanted something a little out of the ordinary.

It turns out that cobblers are but a small subset of desserts that all have two-layer (fruit and cake) construction. Whether it's a cobbler, grunt, slump, brown betty, buckle, sonker, crisp, or crumble. The major distinctions that separate these varieties is the preparation of each layer. The fruit can be sauteed or baked. The cake layer can be crumbly, biscuit-like or cakey. Flip the layers and, technically, it's a pie. From all of these, I went for a recipe for a mixed berry pandowdy, where the berries are left whole and covered with a cake batter and baked until done.

Mixed Berry Pandowdy
Adapted from Elle's New England Kitchen, makes 6-8 servings

5-6 cups mixed berries
3 tbsp maple syrup
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1 cup flour
1/4 cup sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup milk
1 egg
6 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
2 tsp vanilla extract


Berry Mixture

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly grease a glass 2 quart baking dish (about 12"x7"). Place berries in baking dish and drizzle with maple syrup. Sprinkle with cinnamon and nutmeg and toss to combine. Bake berries for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, whisk the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl.

After the berries have finished baking, whisk milk and egg together in a small bowl. Stir in the butter and vanilla. Stir this wet mixture into the flour mixture and pour over the hot berries. Spread out the batter with a spatula. Return to the oven and bake for 25-30 minutes or until lightly brown and a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean.

Mixed Berry Pandowdy

Cool for a bit, then scoop into bowls while it is still warm. The servings will be messy no matter how you do it, so you may as well give into the rustic nature of the dish. Add a touch of vanilla ice cream if you wish.

Pandowdy Bowls

The great part about this dessert is that it lets the berries shine through. In theory, the best way to enjoy berries is fresh and plain or with yogurt or whipped cream. In reality, who does not love a great berry dessert that lets the berries do their thing. The cake on top of the berry mixture is not overly sweet and helps to contrast the intense berry taste with some plain vanilla cake flavor and texture. Plus the fruit looks beautiful studded onto the canvas of the cake. This dessert has all the makings of a summer favorite - quick, easy, light, and tasty.

The Treats Truck - NYC

While the food truck business has been booming in Durham this past year, the idea started in cities like New York. One truck we tracked down is The Treats Truck. Having seen the truck on TV, we knew we wanted to find it in real life.

The Treats Truck

The truck publishes its tentative locations and times on its website, so it's generally pretty easy to track down. The desserts we were most excited about were the dessert brownies (cookies covered in chocolate, brownies and various other toppings) and the ice cream cone cupcake (cupcake placed into a sugar cone). When we arrived and had the full menu at our disposal, though, it was hard to decide. Some free samples of wonderful raspberry brownies did not help and neither did the plexiglass window offering a view of all the baked goods to be had.

Cran Almond Crispy Square

The first treat we selected was a cranberry-almond crispy square. It was literally a hunk of a cereal treat that was made for adult tastes by the addition of dried berries and nuts. Simply wonderful.

Treat Truck Cookies

On the left in the above picture are two peanut butter cookies sandwiched around chocolate filling. They were everything a PB cookie should be - crumbly, buttery, nutty, sweet. The chocolate did not hurt either. Lastly, I chose an oatmeal cookie made into a large thumbprint with a dollop of apricot jam. The cookie was good and the jam brightened its flavor to make for a sumptuous whole.

The owner, Kim Ima, was kind, gracious and pleasant to talk to, especially by New York standards. When she found out that we were from out-of-state, she made sure to recommend some places in the city we should visit. While there are fleets of food trucks from which to eat, the Treats Truck should be one you find for a nice afternoon pick-me-up in the city.

Fiore's & Carlo's Bakery - Hoboken, NJ

While New York City has more to explore than can be accomplished on any one trip, New Jersey sits right across the river. We decided to make a pilgrimage to see what Jersey had to offer.

Since it was lunchtime when we arrived by ferry to Hoboken, we found a truly authentic Italian deli at Fiore's. In my previous post, I wrote of the Carnegie Deli as a truly New York-style deli. While New York has a great deal of Italian influences, the Carnegie Deli has more of a Jewish feel. Fiore's is definitely Italian (or Italian-American, depending on which way you slice it).

After entering the deli and taking in the fact that there is no visible menu, you start to mimic the other patrons (almost like Jane Goodall). You select a poppy seed roll or a longer baguette and hand it to the next available sandwich-man. I ended up choosing a meat at random and hoping for the best. The man disappears behind a very tall counter and emerges on the other side by a selection of toppings.

Sandwiches from Fiore's

In the end, we ordered a roast beef sandwich and a capicola sandwich, both with slices of fresh mozzarella cheese and sun-dried tomatoes. These sandwiches were absolutely monstrous. The meat was very high quality (yes, better than Boar's head), but the toppings really make the sandwich delicious. The fresh mozzarella was moist, creamy and without that odd rubber they sometimes have. This is, hands down, the best mozzarella I've found outside of Italy. To top it off, the sun-dried tomatoes were tender and packed in some extra flavor to round out the sandwiches. No wonder their tagline is "House of Quality."

Carlo's Bakery

Anyone who loves TV shows about cake-baking (and there are many at the moment) probably knows about Cake Boss. Buddy Valastro is a native Jersey-ite (in case you couldn't tell from his accent and grammar) who has an artistic eye when it comes to making cakes and desserts. His work is rooted in the recipes handed down to him by his father, but he is not afraid to break with tradition when necessary. The show usually features two cake projects, one of which puts Buddy and his crew (sua famiglia) in an interesting situation (jousting, Polar Bear Club swimming, etc.).

Part of my goal for this trip across the river was to visit Carlo's Bakery, the headquarters of everything Cake Boss. I wanted to buy a couple desserts, maybe see one of the family members, snap a couple quick pictures, and, if fate smiled upon me, get caught on camera. Apparently fate was smacking us upside the head that day. At first glance, there was a bit of a line to get into the bakery, but upon closer inspection this line stretched from one block and all the way down the next. Some were estimating that it was 2-3 hours long! I love me some dessert and Cake Boss, but that is not worth 2-3 hours of vacation time. We did get to peek through the windows a bit, but did not see any of our favorite people, just a bunch of bakery lackeys. So we went back to New York just a little downtrodden, but our stomachs were full of delicious Italian sandwiches, so it was not all that bad.

Carnegie Deli - NYC

The adventures in New York City continue! I love immersing myself in the cultural traditions of whatever area I visit. Even with all of the various cultural influences in any metropolis, there are some foods that are decidedly New York. One restaurant that I love to visit that serves a classic NYC menu is The Carnegie Deli. This eatery is nearly three-quarters of a century old, but the food is as fresh and tasty as you'll find anywhere in Manhattan. This restaurant is a typical New York-style deli with obvious Jewish influences (matzoh balls and knishes are proudly displayed at the long to-go service counter). They keep the food straightforward (simple is too, well, simplistic) but never compromise on flavor.

After sitting at our table in the middle of the hustle and bustle of a Sunday morning, we perused the menu for a while, trying to find the one thing we would order among the myriad of deletable possibilities. If they ever invent a bottomless stomach, it would make choices like this so much easier. Meanwhile, piles of sliced meats kept passing our table and immense cakes spinning in a cooler case were visible from my seat, a prelude of tastes to come.

Pickle Appetizer

After you order, a huge pile of pickles appears at the table. These Kosher dills are beautifully pickled, not as much as the ones in the store. They are perfectly crisp but packed with garlic acidity. Pickles at 11am does not usually sound like a good idea, but it's hard not to partake. When in Rome...

Hot Pastrami Sandwich

Unlike most restaurants, this deli does not attempt to have all entrees reach the table at the same time. If you order one of their sandwiches, it will be out faster than you can spell "gefilte fish." They slice the hot deli meats to order. I ordered hot pastrami on rye, which was about 5-6 inches tall in the middle of the sandwich. Most of the sandwiches passing by were combinations of hot pastrami and corned beef that were twice as thick as mine, but I decided to get the "lite" version. The meat was sumptuously warmed and just melted in your mouth from the marbled fat throughout. I had to eat half the meat with a fork, but that was not a problem. If you make food tasty enough, it does not matter how you have to eat it. Once the sandwich was manageable, I applied a smidge of deli mustard to the bread and devoured this hand-held wonder in short order.


The other entree we ordered which came out about 10 minutes after the sandwich was a trio of blintzes. This breakfast fare is a little like a sweet burrito. The shell is very thin and a bit crispy. The innards can be a variety of flavors and we selected cheese (a sweetened ricotta-like cheese filling) and strawberry (tasted more fresh than the saccharine berry gel you buy at the store). Both types had an amazing flavor that really is a must if you've never tried them.

Blueberry Cheesecake

As if all that was not enough, I was not going to leave without some dessert. While the Carnegie Deli's sandwiches and entrees are awesome, they have some of my favorite New York-style cheesecake in all of Manhattan. Cheesecakes come in many flavors, but the major difference between them all is texture. Some are more gritty from the incorporation of ricotta. Others are very dense (a la Cheesecake Factory) or crumbly. But in New York, you find the richest, creamiest, dreamiest cheesecake known to mankind. The Carnegie Deli makes cheesecakes in this traditional fashion, even including some fruit on top in case you need some antioxidants. It is hard to describe just how astonishingly creamy this cheesecake is, but it's almost like eating a block of sweetened, flavored cream cheese. The crust is tender enough to add a little different texture to the cake, but it does not distract you from the goods in the center of your slice. The deli sells cheesecakes from 6" to 12" in a few different flavors. They will even ship the cheesecakes overnight to anywhere in the country. The next time I'm in the mood, I might do this instead of going all the way to New York for a slice.

The Carnegie Deli is a wonderful experience that showcases New York's traditional food offerings. Like many institutions on the island, the walls are covered with signed photographs of various celebrities (we had Bret "Hitman" Hart watching over us during our meal). The restaurant is open from 6:30am until 4am and it can get quite busy during peak hours. Try to find an off time to go if you don't want to wait in line. And you can always arrange for a Carnegie Deli package to come to you via Fed-Ex.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Magnolia Bakery - NYC

GPS is a wonderful invention. Especially now that with a decent smart phone (and a good cell signal), you can make your way around any city with ease. That is how we managed on our recent trip to New York City. One benefit of this technology, as we discovered, is that it can help you discover places that you did not know were there. That is how we stumbled across one of the Magnolia Bakery storefronts while meandering on Bleecker Street.

Over the past 14 years, the Magnolia Bakery has become a New York institution. Some credit the cupcake's recent rise in popularity to this bakery. Walking into the store, they have a "self-serve" section just for their cupcakes.

Magnolia Bakery Cupcakes

You can find all sorts of varieties including, but not limited to, chocolate, vanilla, red velvet, and lemon. The frostings appear in a range of colors with the very interesting decoration style that almost makes the cupcakes appear like they have nests on top. Some festive white sugar orbs finish off the cakes to give them a sophisticated but playful look.

Magic Cookie Bar

We, however, opted to buy some goodies out of the huge display cases. We ordered a refreshing, unsweetened, raspberry iced tea to sip on while we perused the dozens of cakes, cookies and other goodies. The banana pudding and hummingbird cake looked incredible, but I wanted something smaller. The first item I chose was the magic cookie bar. On top of a graham cracker crust sits a dense combination of coconut, nuts and chocolate chips. The cookie bar was definitely sweet, but not cloyingly so, which is often a flaw in this type of treat. It was very delicious and I made short work of it.

Red Velvet Cheesecake

By far, my favorite dessert was the most surprising - red velvet cheesecake. Somehow, the bakers have infused a light, creamy (likely no-bake) cheesecake base with the earthy chocolate flavor and ruby red of the Southern classic. This cheesecake tasted just like the original cake and it did not feel immensely heavy. It sat atop a thick Oreo cookie crust to give it some extra chocolate crunch. A dollop of whipped cream and some chocolate shavings on top made the cheesecake look especially appealing.

Not only did my phone help me find this incredible bakery by total happenstance, but I was able to see that they are great at more than just cupcakes. You can see evidence of this in the park across the street where patrons sit beneath the trees to enjoy their various sugary treats. Though if I lived in the city, I'm sure a dozen cupcakes would follow me home whenever I stopped by.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

To Loukoumi - Astoria, NYC

New York City abounds with different cultural heritages. It's a city comprised of some hundreds of neighborhoods where immigrants from all of the world have built their homes in the New World. I found out that Astoria in Queens has it's own Greek area, so we took the Metro to where it ends on Astoria Boulevard, and walked east on Ditmars Boulevard to see what we could find. There was a definite Greek presence, but it was hard to decide on which restaurant would be authentic without overcharging us tourists. We walked east past a few overcrowded eateries until we came upon To Loukoumi.

The restaurant gets its name from sweet, chewy candies like Turkish delight, but the word has also come to mean "tasty," which is a good descriptor for all of their food. The menu avoids common dishes such as gyros in favor of authentic dishes that you don't find at your local Pita Pit. Everything you can imagine is on the menu, including saganaki (flambeed cheese) and chargrilled octopus. I was sad I could only fit so much food in my stomach because there were a number of dishes I wanted to try.

Dips Sampler

I could not decide on just one item from the extensive menu, so I ordered a selection of dips, served with fresh, warm pita bread points. On the left is skordalia, a thick garlic dip that just sings and begs to be spread on almost every piece of food that goes into your mouth. In the back is melitzanosalata, made from eggplant. Some unexpected sweetness came out of the earthy, smokey taste of this delicious dip. On the right is one of my favorites and what is seen as the most popular dip in Greek-American food - tzatziki. A combination of yogurt, shredded cucumber, garlic, lemon, and some other spices make a cool, refreshing, and astonishingly flavorful dip that is good on all sorts of pita sandwiches and meats. Lastly, in the foreground of the picture, is a spread made out of orange fish roe. This final dip tasted more like a smoked fish spread than I expected and was a delectable, salty counter to the other flavors.

Ground Chicken Patties

The entree we ordered was ground chicken formed into these patties, then grilled. It reminded me of a flat meatball or a slice of meatloaf in some ways. The patties contained feta and some other unknown spices that really made it stand out. I'll admit that chicken patty does not sound that outstanding, but these were flavorful and moist, so what more could you ask for? On the side are sauteed dandelion greens which are like a hearty sauteed spinach.

Greek Coffee

It was a quiet evening in the restaurant and after we paid the check we were just about ready to head back to Manhattan when one of the owners approached our table and struck up a conversation. She, like her staff, was very pleasant and even convinced us to try some Greek coffee, free of charge. Like many Mediterranean cultures, this coffee is small, strong and sweet. The coffee is poured over sugar at a temperature that caramelizes the sugar and adds an interesting flavor to the coffee. Just don't drink too deep or you might hit some of the bitter grounds at the bottom.

While we were enjoying our coffee, the proprietor brought us a plate of Greek yogurt with blueberries, peaches and honey. We ate it so fast I did not have time to take a picture, but it was very delicious and a light end to a wonderful meal.

After talking with the owner for a while longer about the area, her family and some of the history of the restaurant, we left with stomachs full of good food and hearts content from good conversation. If you plan on visiting the Greek area of Astoria, go past the overcrowded standard restaurants for a couple more blocks to find this out-of-the-way, but worth-the-trip tavern.

Homemade Yogurt

The health benefits of eating yogurt are fairly well known. If you eat a kind with live cultures, it can help your digestion. Not to mention that it is full of calcium and people who tend to eat more dairy products have better overall health. I became interested in making my own yogurt for two reasons. Firstly, I have worked with bacteria myself and I wanted to see what it would be like to use them at home. Secondly, if you start reading the ingredients in store-bought yogurts, you see that there is a lot more in those cups than just milk and bacteria. They use all sorts of stabilizers, thickeners and sweeteners to attain the proper consistency, flavor (Boston cream pie? really?) and shelf-life. With the rise in popularity of Greek yogurt, I've grown more accustomed to thick, tangy yogurt that does not need a lot of sweeteners (real or artificial). So with that, I set out on my quest to make homemade yogurt.

After some internet perusing, I found that most people buy yogurt makers to help incubate their cultures at the proper temperature until they are ready. It seems it is more difficult to get everything right on your own, but it is doable. For my first batch, I heated 1 quart of whole milk to 140 degrees F on the stove, then allowed it to cool to 110 degrees F. At this point, I mixed in a few heaping tablespoons of the starter culture (plain yogurt with active cultures). Be sure to blend the yogurt in well. If you want, you can use a small portion of the heated milk to thin out the yogurt, then add this mixture into the rest of the milk for easier mixing. Let this sit on the counter for 16-24 hours. The longer it sits, the more firm and tangy it will become. I had a moderate success with this version, though my yogurt did not set up to a rich, thick density as I had hoped.
Milk Lineup

The next step was to turn this initial pilot study into a full fledged experiment. Luckily for me, my local kitchen store was having a sale, so I got a Donvier electronic yogurt maker for a decent price. The maker comes with 8 individual cups that contain a nice size serving of yogurt. This gadget may not be ideal for making a large quantity of yogurt, but it works for my needs.

Yogurt Experiment Setup

I had heard that milks with a higher fat content made a thicker yogurt. So my first experiment was to see if this was true. I chose eight different milks: soy, skim, 1%, 2%, whole, half-and-half, heavy cream, and chocolate. The directions are pretty much the same as for the counter-top yogurt above, though the machine came with a handy thermometer that tells you when to add the starter culture. I ran the machine for 11 hours, then put the yogurt in the fridge for 12 hours.

Yogurt Experiment Results

The overall trend was that milks with lower fat content formed looser yogurts, but this was not 100% true across the board. Soy and skim milks produced very soft yogurts with a sharp tang. 1% milk made a yogurt similar in consistency to Yoplait with a decent tang. 2% and whole milk were a bit thicker and I noticed that as the fat content increased, the overall smoothness of the yogurt also increased. Heavy cream, which I expected to be even thicker, was almost as liquidy as skim milk and it just tasted very fatty.

Half-and-half Yogurt

Half-and-half, on the other hand, turned out very thick, almost like Greek yogurt. It was smooth and creamy with a good balance of tang.

Chocolate Yogurt

The real surprise of the group was chocolate. It had a thickness more like whole milk (they have similar fat contents), but the taste was amazingly earthy. The bacteria consumed the high sugar content of the milk (30g/cup compared to 13g/cup in whole milk) and left the chocolate flavor behind. So you end up with an unsweetened chocolate yogurt that was quite delicious. I may make it again at some point as a surprising dessert.

While I did have my answer, I was sad to learn that I would have to eat half-and-half yogurt to get the consistency I wanted. So next I turned to tricks to thicken up the yogurt. Many people recommend adding skim milk powder to the initial mixture to add thickness. Lastly, you can strain your yogurt through a coffee filter or paper towels set in a colander in a large bowl to collect the water. I did this with my first batch of yogurt and found I had a delicious, thick yogurt at the end. The only problem with this method is that you end up losing about 1/3 to 1/2 the volume of the yogurt and you also condense the caloric content. If you read the yogurt containers, they add either gelatin (not vegetarian) or agar (from seaweed, so it's vegetarian) to thicken up the yogurt. On subsequent batches, I have bloomed a 0.25oz package of gelatin in 1/4 cup of water, then added this to the yogurt. The result was very firm, so I will likely use only about half of a package in the future, but the gelatin definitely did its job.

Yogurt and Granola

There's nothing more satisfying than a meal for which you have made everything from scratch. One of the few ingredients you cannot buy at the store is a sense of accomplishment, and yet it is one of the best ways to make your meal taste ten times better. Homemade yogurt with homemade granola may sound simple, but you get a lot more joy crafting everything yourself than you do buying it in the refrigerator section. So go ahead, start playing with some bacteria.