Mediterranean

Chicken Tagine with Apricots, Raisins and Dates

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I have been on a Mediterranean kick lately. Not only is the food healthy, but they have some intriguing flavor combinations. When exploring Mediterranean cooking, Moroccan food is mandatory. I fell in love with Moroccan food years ago at Epcot in Disney World. I know an “international experience” at Epcot is rather lame, but at the time Epcot did grant exposure to the world to rather insular Americans which I was at the time.

Moroccan cooking uses typical spices of the region: cumin, coriander, cinnamon, allspice, saffron, and nutmeg. They also use fruits in their cooking which seems somewhat unique. For this recipe, I was looking for the right savory spice profile balanced with some sweetness from the fruit. I was looking for the balance to tip more to the savory than sweet.

A tagine is a Moroccan dish named after the traditional earthenware pot in which it is traditionally cooked. So I guess this recipe is not really a “Chicken Tagine”. It is a “Chicken Dutch Oven.” I don’t have a traditional earthenware tagine, but can use the traditional ingredients and spices and find an appropriate, if not traditional, vessel in which to cook them.

I used whole spices, toasted and ground them. You could use store-bought ground spices. As long as they are fresh, the flavor profile should be okay.

I have a niece that is allergic to apricots. Other dried fruits can be substituted. I would stay away from overly sweet fruits. Dried papaya, mango, or pear would be interesting. Dried strawberries would be a different twist, but I would probably crank back on the orange juice. I wanted to add some pomegranates, but, sadly, couldn’t find any.

Concerning dried fruits, I have discovered that most are heavy in chemical preservatives. I tend toward their organic cousins that have nothing but fruit. Without fail, if my wife has a head-ache, I can trace it to a food label I did not read closely enough the prior day. You could read that as, if my wife has a head-ache, it’s probably my fault. But then again, that’s a given.

This meal was great on the first night and even better as leftovers the second as the spices intensified.

I served the tagine over whole wheat Israeli Couscous with some whole wheat garlic Naan. Yes, I know Israeli Couscous and Naan are not Moroccan, buy it made for a delicious meal.

Ingredients:
1 Tbsp Olive Oil
4 Chicken Legs, separated into Thighs and Drumsticks
1 Onion, chopped
1 Small Hot Pepper, minced
1 cup Dried Apricots, roughly chopped
3/4 cup Fresh Dates, pitted and roughly chopped
3/4 cup Raisins
2 Tsp whole Cumin seeds
2 Tsp whole Coriander seeds
3 inch stick of Cinnamon
2 pinches of Saffron
10 Allspice Seeds
1 Tsp freshly grated Nutmeg
3 Cups Apple Cider
3 Cups Water
Juice of 1 Orange
Salt and Pepper, to taste

Direction:
1) Heat Olive Oil in a Dutch Oven over medium-high heat.
2) Salt and Pepper chicken and place in the Dutch Oven. Brown on all sides, approximately 10 minutes.
3) Meanwhile, toast spices in a hot, dry skillet until fragrant and lightly browned. Remove spices to a mortar and grind with a pestle or pop into your handy, dandy spice grinder. Pre-ground spices are acceptable, but fresh ground are better.
4) When browned, remove chicken from Dutch Oven and reserve. Add onion and peppers and sauté until soft, about 5 minutes.
5) Add ground spices to the onions and peppers and cook for an additional minute.
6) Return chicken to the Dutch Oven. Add fruit, orange juice and enough half-cider, half-water mixture to cover. Increase heat to a boil and the reduce to a simmer. Cook for 45 minutes. If more liquid is needed during cooking, add cider and water in equal proportions.
7) Remove chicken to a plate and cover to keep warm.
8) Increase heat on Dutch Oven to a boil and reduce broth for 10 minutes.
9) Serve chicken plated over couscous and top with the reduced broth.

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Beef and Spinach Börek

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There are plenty of recipes for beef börek and plenty for spinach börek, but not so much for beef and spinach borek. So that is the recipe du jour. Okay, let’s backtrack a little. What in the world is a börek?

According to the fount of all knowledge and wisdom, Wikipedia, “Börek … is a family of baked or fried filled pastries made of a thin flaky dough known as phyllo (or yufka). … It was most probably invented in what is now Modern Turkey.” Yes, börek is Turkish, but it has spread. There is Serbian börek and Bulkan börek. There are African and Israeli variations. There are börek, bureks and briks. They are made as pies, spirals, cigar shaped cylinders, triangular or crescent bit size pieces and tarts. What is their essence? A thin flaky crust and some filling. I can work with that!

Back to beef böreks and spinach böreks, my recipe is the best of both worlds; a beef and spinach börek with authentic Mediterranean spices. I used non-fat Feta which is common in spinach böreks, but not beef variations. I also added non-fat Greek yogurt to the egg wash instead of the milk which is more common in beef böreks. I used fresh spinach, but you could use its frozen cousin, thaw it and squeeze out all the liquid.

I developed my own blend of Turkish spices for this recipe and have added the recipe below. For this one, I chose the spiral form since it looks cooler. Doing a simple pie would be easier, but the spiral was much more elegant with little extra effort.

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With endless varieties, you can play with this recipe for many delicious meals to come. I served it with a side salad for a simple, delicious and healthy meal.

Ingredients:
2 Tbsp. Olive Oil
1 lb. Ground Beef
1 Medium Yellow Onion, chopped
3 Cloves Garlic, minced
2 cups fresh Spinach, finely chopped
1/2 cup Non-fat Feta Cheese, crumbled
3 tsp. Turkish Spice Blend (see below)
Salt and Pepper, to taste
1/2 cup Non-fat Greek Yogurt
2 Large Eggs
1 tsp. Ground Cumin
10 sheets of Phyllo dough
Poppy Seeds

Directions:
1) Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F.
2) In a large skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of Olive oil over medium-high heat. Add ground beef and brown until thoroughly cooked.
3) Remove ground beef to a large mixing bowl leaving and liquid in the skillet.
4) Add onions to the skillet and cook until translucent, about 5 minutes.
5) Add garlic to skillet and cook for an additional 1-2 minutes.
6) Strain onions and garlic an add to the mixing bowl with the ground beef.
7) Add the spinach, feta cheese, Turkish spice blend, salt and pepper to the beef mixture and mix thoroughly. Set aside to cool.
8) In a separate mixing bowl, combine 1 tablespoon of Olive oil, the Greek yogurt, eggs and cumin. Whisk until smooth.
9) On a clean dry surface, lay out one layer of phyllo. Brush lightly with the yogurt-egg mixture, top with another layer of phyllo and brush it with the yogurt-egg mixture, as well.
10) Use 1 cup of the ground beef mixture and spread along the long edge of the phyllo to within one inch of each side.
11) Fold the sides over the filling and roll the phyllo into a long cylinder. Roll the cylinder into a spiral and place on a lightly greased sheet pan. Repeat until the ground beef mixture is gone. It should make 5 spirals.
12) Brush the tops of each spiral with the yogurt-egg mixture. Sprinkle with poppy seeds.
13) Bake for 40 minutes until golden brown. Let rest for 5 minutes before serving.

Turkish Spice Blend:

Ingredients:
1 tsp. Whole Cumin Seeds
1/2 tsp. Whole Coriander Seeds
2 inch Cinnamon Stick
1/2 tsp. Whole Cloves
1/2 tsp. Whole Allspice
1/2 tsp. Ground Nutmeg

Directions:
1) In a hot, dry sauce pan, toast all spices except for the nutmeg until fragrant and the cumin is just starting to brown.
2) Place toasted spices into a mortar and pestle.
3) Grate nutmeg into the spice mix.
4) Grind the spices into a fine powder.

Thanksgiving Dinner 2013

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A Yiddish proverb says, “Man plans and God laughs.” The plan was to be in Rochester, NY with family for Thanksgiving. Weather intervened and we ended up staying in Chapel Hill, NC where we had attended our daughter’s Ph.D. dissertation seminar earlier in the week. Luckily, there had been a possibility that we would be home for turkey day so I had already given a menu some thought.

I don’t normally build a menu around a salad, but I recently had a Kale Salad at Agricola Eatery in Princeton, NJ and wanted to start the meal with my version of that salad. The one at Agricola had roasted cauliflower, pickled pumpkin, shaved radish and a pumpkin seed vinaigrette. I would have liked to include pickled pumpkin, but mine were at home and they take time to cure. I opted for roasted butternut squash instead. In lieu of cauliflower and radishes, I used apples and dried cranberries and topped the salad with croutons and roasted pumpkin seeds. The roasted squash and pumpkin seeds became ingredients to tie the menu together.

I wanted a hearty, healthy bread for the croutons and dressing. I was thinking of an ancient grain bread that Wegman’s makes, but, alas, they have not yet expanded this far south. I did find some Omega-3 Seed bread with whole wheat and flax, sunflower and sesame seeds from Ninth Street Bakery in Durham, NC at Whole Foods that worked great.

For the turkey, I went with a Mediterranean recipe that I developed a couple of years ago. Last time, I used a traditional brine. This year, I did a shortened dry brine. I experimented with dry brining last year and will never go back to a soaking brine. The bird is much moister and flavorful with dry brining. The only reason I shortened the process this year was the time available for prep before the big day. The decision to stick it out was made Tuesday morning with freezing rain, ice, sleet and snow all along the route of travel. The recipe linked below has the full timing.

Sticking with a healthy, Mediterranean theme, I developed a pumpkin hummus for the appetizer and served it with apple slices and toasted pita chips. For this meal, we had cranberry orange relish made by my wife, daughter and sister-in-law. A Cranberry, Apple and Orange Chutney that has not yet made it out of my head and onto a plate would have gone great, as well, but that will have to wait for a future meal.

The “girls” also made the pies: apple and pumpkin. Both were outstanding.

Most of the prep was done the day before so little was left to do on Thanksgiving itself but spend time with the marooned part of the family.

All measurements referenced in the below recipes are approximate. I actually measured very little so I am not sure exactly how much I used. I realize there is some repetition in the linked recipes, but I wanted each to be able to stand on its own as well as being compiled here.

THE MENU

First Course:

  • Pumpkin Hummus with apple slices and whole wheat and garlic pita chips

Second Course:

  • Kale Salad with apples, dried cranberries, roasted butternut squash, roasted pumpkin seed vinaigrette, artisan bread croutons and roasted pumpkin seeds

Main Course:

  • Mediterranean Turkey dry brined in za’atar, garlic, EVOO and pomegranate molasses
  • Artisan Bread Dressing with green onions, garlic, roasted butternut squash and porcini mushrooms seasoned with za’atar
  • Homemade Turkey Gravy
  • Sautéed Green Beans with roasted butternut squash and roasted pumpkin seeds
  • Cranberry Orange Relish

Dessert:

  • French Apple Pie
  • Pumpkin Pie

Mediterranean Turkey – 2013

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It’s amazing how many people I speak with who don’t think they can cook a turkey, at least one with moisture and flavor. Turkey is not difficult if you know a few tricks.

I guess the first would be getting the right bird. I avoid all those pre-brined (“Honey Brined”) birds. Pumping water into the meat will give you moisture, but who wants a watery turkey. I buy a good quality, fresh turkey with as little added water as possible.

As an aside, how come my “fresh”, “never frozen” turkeys and chickens always range from down right crispy with ice crystals to rock-hard frozen? Does the butcher use a different definition of “frozen” than I do?

Okay, we’re back. Number One: high quality bird. Number Two: dry brining. We will ignore the controversy about whether this is really brining or actually curing. A rose by any other name…. We are not going to dump our high quality bird into gallons of water and salt to sit for hours. Yes, this method will introduce moisture into the bird, but we are right back to the watery turkey again.

With dry brining, we are going to spice the turkey, cover it with a couple tablespoons of kosher salt, put it into a bag and refrigerate it. We are then going to let it sit for three day, turning it over every day. I don’t know the science behind it, but here is what I think happens. The salt draws moisture out of the turkey. The moisture mixes with the spices that you put on the bird. Then the spiced moisture is drawn back into the meat. You will notice that the bag will develop a watery mixture after a day and that by day three it is gone. I think something changes in the cellular structure of the meat, as well, but I will leave that to the scientists. From the chef’s perspective all you need to know is you end up with a moist, flavorful turkey and, after all, is our goal.

The night before cooking, remove the turkey from the bag and pat the skin dry with paper towels. Place the turkey on a plate and refrigerate uncovered overnight. This step ensures you end up with nice crispy skin. . . . or I should say, your turkey ends up with nice crispy skin. It is probably not your goal to turn your skin crispy! If it is, while the turkey is brining, visit the local tanning salon for three days, turning daily.

A few word on spices: let your imagination run wild! I have done Southwestern Turkeys with Ancho chili. I have done Miso Turkeys. You can use any citrus. I have used lemons, limes and oranges (not all together, but you could). This year it was Mediterranean Turkey, but more on that in a minute. The point is, think outside of the box . . . the Bell’s Poultry Season box that is.

Another trick is you want to get under the turkey’s skin, literally not figuratively. Get your fingers between the skin and the breast meat and work the skin loose. Liberally apply spice under the skin. This gets more spice into the meat and not just on the surface. Spicing well is trick #3.

There are many different ways to cook a turkey. You can roast it, grill it, smoke, fry it, sous vide it and probably a dozen other ways. I roast it in a Reynolds Oven Bag. I use the bag because it cooks faster and stays moister. Not a bad combination. Reynolds is still using old guideline on the turkey temperature. You can safely cook the turkey to 165 degrees F. You do not need to go all the way to 180 degrees. Concerning temperature, pull that little plastic pop-up thermometer out of the bird when you first get it and throw it away. Get a reliable meat thermometer and use it. Trick #4: proper cooking.

That is all there is to it! Buy a high quality bird, use some interesting spices, dry brine it and cook it properly. Overcooking the turkey is probably the biggest problem that people have. Overcooked turkey is tough and dry. The solution: a good thermometer and cooking to the proper temperature.

Thanksgiving Dinner was at my daughter’s house this year and I cooked my Mediterranean Turkey. The spice combo: Za’atar, Pomegranate Molasses and Garlic.

Za’atar is a Middle Eastern blend of herbs, sesame and salt. The blend varies from region to region, but is widely used. One of the main ingredients is Sumac. No, no, not the poison stuff we know in the Northeastern US. Sumac spice is the dried, ground fruit of the Elm-Leaved Sumach or Tanner’s Sumach shrub. The za’atar I used is thyme based. Za’atar can be purchased in any Mediterranean Grocery or the international section of most chain groceries.

Pomegranate Molasses might be a little harder to find. I can buy it a Wegman’s in the international section right near the za’atar. This time, I bought it at Whole Foods who had it with the regular molasses.

Ingredients:
13 lb. Fresh Turkey
6 Tbsp. Za’atar
4 Tbsp. Pomegranate Molasses
4 cloves Garlic, minsed
6 Tbsp. Olive Oil
2 Tbsp. Kosher Salt
Juice of two limes

Directions:
1) Rinse and dry Turkey
2) Combine 4 Tbsp. Za’atar, Pomegranate Molasses, Garlic and 4 Tbsp. Olive Oil in a small bowl.
3) Generously coat Turkey with spices including all surfaces and under the skin.
4) Sprinkle Turkey with Kosher salt on all surfaces and rub to ensure it is evenly coated.
5) Place Turkey in brining bag and refrigerate for 3 days, turning daily. (Reynolds nicely supplies two oven bags. I use one for brining and the other for cooking.)
6) The night before cooking, remove the Turkey from the brining bag. Pat dry with paper towels. Put Turkey on a plate and let sit overnight in the refrigerator, uncovered.
7) Remove Turkey from the refrigerator one hour before cooking to bring to room temperature.
8) Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F.
9) Place Turkey in clean oven bag.
10) Mix 2 Tbsp. Olive Oil and Lime Juice in a small bowl.
11) Pour Oil/Lime mixture over Turkey and sprinkle with 2 Tbsp. Za’atar.
12) Close bag with provided tie and make slits in bag, as directed.
13) Roast for 2 – 2 1/2 hours, until thermometer in thickest part of the breast reads 165 degrees F.
14) Remove from oven and let stand covered with aluminum foil for 30 minutes.
15) Slice, serve and enjoy.