January 2009

I love cookbooks.  I love to buy them and keep them in stacks around my kitchen, always within arm’s reach when I need a little bit of information or inspiration.  I like to read a good cookbook almost as much as a novel, for the way it can take me someplace far away or remind me of things comfortable and familiar.  But, in truth, I rarely cook from them.  So when a new cookbook has me dog-earing pages and running for my grocery list — especially when the recipes are not particularly flashy or exotic — it’s worth mentioning.

Mark Bittman is a practical cook.  His books, of which I now own four, are full of reliable and accessible dishes, as is his “Minimalist” column in the New York Times.  But as much as I can appreciate his talent, I’ve never been inspired to follow his recipes (except for this one, of course).  Until now.

Bittman’s newest book, Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating, speaks to me.  If you’ve already read a book or two by Michael Pollan, the first 75 pages of Food Matters — a manifesto on the perils of the modern industrial food complex — will sound very familiar.  The next 50 pages are devoted to nutrition and weight-loss (the author’s weight loss, to be specific).  It’s a lot to wade through, but in essence Bittman is answering Pollan’s call to “eat food, not too much, mostly plants” with his signature pragmatism, laying out a concrete plan of action for incorporating more vegetables, fruit, legumes, and whole grains into your diet and decreasing your reliance on meat and dairy.

The recipes that follow are wonderful in their simplicity, flexibility, and utility.  Our grocery budget is stretched pretty thin these days (the responsibly-raised meat and wild-caught fish I love so much are awfully expensive), and trying to cook family meals that accommodate multiple food allergies (dairy is the most onerous) is a constant challenge.  So I appreciate Bittman’s novel spin on traditional favorites:  brown rice pudding made with coconut milk (pulse the rice briefly in the food processor to rough up the grains so they’ll release enough starch to thicken the pudding — brilliant!), savory porridge made out all manner of whole grains, cassoulet with lots of vegetables, and brown rice paella, to name a few.

In honor of the Super Bowl, which I won’t actually watch but feel compelled to cook for anyway, I give you Mark Bittman’s chili.  His recipes are so easy and well-edited, I actually followed this one (almost) as written.

Bean and Vegetable Chili

Adapted from Food Matters

Yield:  Serves 6-8

3 tbsp. olive oil

1/2 lb. ground beef, pork, turkey, or chicken (optional — I left it out)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 small onion, chopped fine

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 medium eggplant, diced (1/2″ – 3/4″ is good)

1 zucchini, diced

1 or 2 carrots, diced

1 c. chopped mushrooms

1 fresh or dried hot chile, seeded and minced (I used 1 tsp. ancho chili powder instead)

1 tsp. ground cumin

1 tsp. minced fresh oregano (or 1/2 tsp. dried)

1 c. chopped, canned plum tomatoes (3 or 4), with their juice

4 c. cooked, drained beans (I used navy and cranberry), cooking liquid reserved (drained, canned beans is fine, too)

2 c. vegetable stock or water, as needed (you’ll need it if you use canned beans)

Minced fresh parsley or cilantro, for garnish

Warm a large pot or dutch oven over medium heat.  Drizzle in the olive oil, then add the ground meat, if you’re using it, and cook, breaking up large pieces with the back of a spoon, until well browned, about 10 minutes.  Using a slotted spoon, remove the meat from the pot and pour off all but about 3 tbsp. of fat. (If omitting meat, just heat the olive oil and continue below.)

Add onion and cook for 5 minutes or until softened.  Add remaining vegetables and spices, a generous pinch of salt, and black pepper and cook until vegetables have released their juices and are starting to caramelize, about 10 minutes more.  Stir in the oregano, tomatoes, and beans, and pour in enough of the reserved bean cooking liquid (or vegetable stock, or water) to just cover.  Turn up the heat, bring chili to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 15 minutes to allow flavors to meld and beans to get very tender.  Add additional liquid, if you like your chili on the soupier side, and adjust the seasonings to taste.

Garnish with cilantro or parsley, and serve with brown rice or cornbread.


People can be very particular about their cornbread.  Some like it dense, rich, and grainy, but not me.  I prefer mine light, moist, and barely sweet.

This is an easy recipe to adapt for all sorts of special diets, and I like the egg-, dairy-, and gluten-free versions just as much as the original.


Yield: 6 to 8 servings.

1 c. all-purpose flour

1 c. cornmeal

1/4 c. granulated sugar

2 tsp. baking powder

3/4 tsp. salt

1 c. whole milk

1/4 c. safflower or canola oil

1 egg, lightly beaten

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Sift flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, and salt into a mixing bowl.

Whisk milk, oil, and egg together in a small bowl, then add to flour mixture and stir until just combined.

Spread batter into an oiled or buttered 8 x 8-inch square baking dish (or preheated, oiled cast-iron skillet) and bake for 25 minutes, or until lightly browned and a toothpick inserted into the center of the bread comes out clean.

Make it egg-free:

Increase baking powder to 4 tsp., and replace egg with 1 tbsp. ground flaxseed (from about 2 tsp. whole flaxseed, if you’re grinding it yourself — use your coffee grinder) cooked in 3 tbsp. water.  Here’s the method:  Bring water to a boil in a small saucepan. Add ground flaxseeds, reduce heat to low, and cook, whisking constantly, until mixture becomes thick and viscous, about one minute. Using a spatula, transfer mixture to a small bowl and let cool slightly, then stir into flour mixture along with other wet ingredients.

Even if you don’t have an egg allergy, flaxseeds are worth experimenting with.  They’re very good for you, and — unlike eggs — they keep indefinitely (in their whole form) so they’re easy to always have on hand.  Flaxseed works particularly well in place of eggs in quick breads, muffins, cookies, and waffles — just remember that in most cases, you’ll need an extra teaspoon or two of baking powder for rise.


Make it dairy-free:

Replace whole milk with soy or rice milk, and use oil instead of butter.

Make it gluten-free:

Use a cornmeal and baking powder you trust, replace the all-purpose flour with 3/4 c. sorghum flour and 1/4 c. tapioca starch, and add 1 tsp. xanthan gum.

Note:  I tested the gluten-free version with the flaxseed egg replacer, and it turned out great!  Soft and moist and just as good as the original.  I assume it would work as well using the egg — if anyone tries it this way, let me know how it goes.

We buy apple cider from our local farm store all fall and winter.  We drink it cold and hot, and I use it frequently in cooking — its flavor melds nicely with root vegetables, winter squash, and bitter greens, and it’s the secret ingredient in my favorite braised pork shoulder.  Cider has just enough acid to give simple sweet potatoes a little zip (fresh orange juice works well, too, though it’s more assertive) — a pinch of salt and pepper and a turn in the food processor and it’s done.

I like to keep pureed sweet potatoes on hand in my fridge.  They’re a great side dish for everything from beans to lamb, the kids will always eat them, and they can dress up a simple soup, muffin, cornbread, or even waffle on a whim.

Whipped Sweet Potatoes with Apple Cider

Yield:  Serves 8

4 lbs. sweet potatoes (aobut 5 big ones)

1/2 – 3/4 c. apple cider

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.  Prick each sweet potato with a fork and place on a foil lined baking sheet.  Bake 1 to 1 1/2 hours (time will vary depending on size of potatoes), or until a knife inserted into potato meets with no resistance.  Set aside until cool enough to handle.

Cut potatoes in half lengthwise and slip off skins.  Whip them in a food processor with salt, pepper, and cider as needed for a smooth puree (drier potatoes will absorb more cider).  Alternatively, you can just mash the potatoes with a fork — I like it this way, but the kids are turned off by the slight stringiness.


I never used to cook dried beans.  The effort involved seemed like too much planning and pot-watching for something I could so easily and cheaply buy in a can.

Then one evening, browsing my cookbooks for a novel way to use up some leftover carrots and celery, I happened upon a bean gratin in one of Alice Waters’s books and figured I’d give it a try.  As it turns out, the soaking and simmering aren’t such a big deal and the results are pretty wonderful.

The ingredients are all inexpensive things I always have on hand: dried beans and canned tomatoes in the pantry, onions, garlic, and stale bread on the counter, carrots and celery in the fridge, and sage growing rampantly against the back porch (at least until late November).  Tight times call for frugal measures, and this gratin is one of the most economical meals you can cook.  And, as is the case with most simply prepared foods, the kids like it.

Navy Bean Gratin

Adapted from The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters

Yield:  Serves 6

1 1/4 c. dried navy beans, soaked overnight in 1 qt. water

Kosher or sea salt

1/2 c. olive oil, divided

1 small onion, finely chopped

1 small carrot, peeled and diced

1 small stalk celery, peeled and diced

4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

6 fresh sage leaves, finely chopped

1/2 c. chopped tomatoes, fresh or canned

3/4 c. toasted breadcrumbs *

Drain soaked beans and place them in a saucepan.  Cover beans by 2 inches with fresh, cold water.  Bring to a boil over high heat.  Skim as much of the froth from the surface as possible, lower the heat, and simmer the beans until tender but not falling apart, about an hour and twenty minutes.  (Sidebar: there is no such thing as an al dente bean!  If you can’t crush a cooked bean between your thumb and index finger, it’s not done yet.  Also, never salt beans until the end of their cooking time.  It makes them tough.)  Add salt to taste, remove pan from heat, and let beans cool in their cooking liquid — this helps keep the beans intact.  At this point, if you wish, you can transfer the beans and their liquid to a container and store them in the fridge for a day or two.

Drain the beans, reserving the cooking liquid.  Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Warm a saucepan over medium heat.  Drizzle in a few tablespoons of olive oil, then add the onions, carrots, and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are very soft and very lightly browned, about 10 minutes.  Don’t skimp on this step:  onions take at least 10 minutes to really break down (and, like the beans, don’t salt them until they’re very tender or they won’t soften properly).  If they start to brown too quickly, turn the heat down and stir more attentively.  Add the garlic and sage, season with salt, and cook a few minutes more, until the garlic is fragrant but not browned.  Stir in the tomatoes and cook another 5 minutes, until the tomatoes loosen and their juices evaporate.

Remove from heat, stir in the drained beans, and add a pinch more salt if necessary.  Rub a 2-quart casserole dish with a few tablespoons olive oil, spoon in the bean mixture, and pour in enough reserved bean cooking liquid to almost cover.  (Save the leftover liquid — it makes a great soup base.)  Drizzle with remaining olive oil and sprinkle with breadcrumbs.  Bake, uncovered, for 40 minutes.

I love these beans with pureed sweet potatoes or winter squash and braised greens.

* To make this gratin gluten-free, use crumbs made from gluten-free bread or — I read this recently and thought it was an ingenious idea — savory waffles!  Or forget the crumbs and just simmer the beans with the cooked vegetables and a little bean cooking liquid for 10-15 minutes to meld flavors.

When I set out to recreate the pretzel dumplings and braised red cabbage from a recent episode of Top Chef, it was the dumplings I was most excited about.  And they were very, very good, but the cabbage stole the show.  If you like red cabbage as much as I do, this recipe will be a revelation.  I usually braise it simply, in its own juices, with some chopped onion and apple and a splash of cider vinegar.  Generally, I’m skeptical of recipes with long lists of ingredients — especially when it comes to vegetables, where I think less is definitely more — but in this recipe, the combination of sweet and tart fruit, earthy wine and herbs, and warm, penetrating spice really makes the humble cabbage sing.

I made a few changes to the original recipe, replacing the port wine and apple juice with apple cider, using red currant jam instead of lingonberry, and omitting the duck fat and cornstarch, finishing the cabbage with a bit of butter instead.

The cabbage and pretzel dumplings were such a perfect pair that the pork tenderloin I made to accompany them was utterly superfluous.  The next time I make this — and I’m already planning the next time — I’ll skip the meat and serve it as a vegetarian dish.

Braised Red Cabbage

Adapted from Stefan’s recipe

Yield: Makes about 10 cups

2 onions, chopped

2 tbsp. canola oil or butter

1 large head red cabbage (about 3 lbs.), tough outer leaves removed, quartered, cored, and sliced crosswise about 1/3″ thick

4 apples, peeled, cored, and grated

12 oz. lingonberry or red currant jam

2 c. red wine (ideally something light, fruity, and dry)

3 c. apple cider

2-3 tbsp. granulated sugar (start with 2 and add more to taste)

2 bay leaves

2 cinnamon sticks

1/4 tsp. ground cloves

1/4 c. butter

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

In a dutch oven over medium heat, warm 2 tbsp. oil or butter.  Add onions and cook until soft, about 8 minutes.  Add cabbage, apples, jam, wine, cider, 2 tbsp. sugar, bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, and cloves.  Raise heat and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer gently, stirring occasionally, for two hours.  Remove from heat, stir in 1/4 c. butter, season with salt and pepper and additional sugar, if desired.

Note: 10 cups of cooked cabbage is a lot of cabbage!  Invite some friends to help you eat it or have it for lunch, as I have this week, with some rye crackers and gouda cheese.

Make it dairy-free: Earth Balance Buttery Sticks make a fine substitute for butter in this recipe.

As promised, here are the dumplings that have been preoccupying me since I saw Stefan make them on Top Chef a few weeks ago.  They’re every bit as wonderful as I’d imagined — soft and fluffy and rich and absolutely perfect alongside his braised red cabbage.  Instead of the duck breast from the original dish, I cooked a simple pork tenderloin.

Stefan’s recipe calls for chanterelles, but a handful of button mushrooms makes a fine substitute.

Pretzel Dumplings

Adapted from Stefan’s recipe

Yield:  Makes about 30 dumplings.

6 oz. day-old soft pretzels (about 2)

6 slices white sandwich bread

8 oz. cremini or button mushrooms, finely diced

1/2 onion, finely diced

6 tbsp. butter, divided

2 c. whole milk

1 whole egg plus 3 yolks, lightly beaten

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 tbsp. chopped fresh parsley, divided

Rip pretzels into pieces and pulse in a food processor until coarsely ground.  Stack 3 slices of the white bread, remove crusts, then dice.  Repeat with remaining 3 slices.  Combine ground pretzels and diced bread in a large mixing bowl.

Melt 2 tbsp. butter in a saucepan over medium-high heat.  Add mushrooms and onions and cook until mushrooms release their liquid and it evaporates, about 5 minutes.  Reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring frequently, until vegetables are very tender and lightly browned, about 5 minutes more.  Pour in milk, raise heat to high, and bring to a boil.  Immediately remove from heat and pour over pretzels and bread.  Set aside until pretzels are softened and mixture has cooled to lukewarm, then stir in eggs, 1 tbsp. parsley, 1 tsp. salt, and a few grinds of pepper.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil.  Shape dumpling mixture into rounds slightly smaller than a golf ball.  The dumpling mixture is fairly loose, and you’ll need clean, wet hands to form it into balls — it helps to keep a bowl of water nearby so you can rinse your hands frequently without having to go back and forth to the sink a dozen times.  Cook dumplings in simmering water for 5 minutes, occasionally turning with a slotted spoon.  Remove to a paper towel-lined plate.

Melt 2 tbsp. butter in a large saute pan over medium heat.  Add half the dumplings and cook a few minutes until bottoms of dumplings are lightly browned.  Turn dumplings, sprinkle with half the remaining parsley and a little salt and cook a few minutes longer.  Transfer dumplings to a serving dish and pour butter over.  Wipe out pan and repeat with remaining dumplings.  Serve immediately.

We are snowed in AGAIN here in Boston, and desperate times call for a kid-friendly kitchen activity using ingredients already in my pantry.  Soft pretzels it is!  The dough is quick and easy to make, requires very little resting or rising, and is sturdy and forgiving, making it perfect for little hands.

Before you start mailing in your nominations for Mother of the Year (She’s so spontaneous and fun!  Creative and resourceful!), I should confess an ulterior motive.  I am a huge fan of Bravo’s Top Chef (though as a cook and as a person who cannot, under any circumstances, think on her feet, I find it very stressful to watch).  Two weeks ago, the Finnish and studiously unlikeable cheftestant Stefan cooked a dish I have not been able to stop thinking about:  duck breast with pretzel dumplings and braised red cabbage.  Oh boy!  I love red cabbage.  And pretzel dumplings?!  How exotic!  How whimsical!  Stefan’s recipe is, predictably, a little brusque, so it took a bit of research to figure out that the pretzels he calls for are the soft, German-style ones, and that his dish is basically Bavarian comfort food.

So, I needed to make the pretzels.  The internet almost unanimously agrees on the recipe, with only one minor point of contention:  most recipes call for briefly boiling the pretzels in a mixture of water and baking soda before baking, but hard-core aficionados insist on using food-grade lye instead of the soda for a truly authentic, Oktoberfest-worthy pretzel.  I used baking soda, and thought the pretzels were magnificent.

If you’re cooking with small children, please keep them away from the boiling water.  And don’t eat the whole batch!  You’ll need two or three stale pretzels for the dumplings.

Bavarian Pretzels

Yield:  Makes 8, 6-inch pretzels

1 pkg. active dry yeast

1 1/3 c. plus 2 tbsp. warm water (about 100-110 degrees)

1/3 c. brown sugar

4 1/2 c. all-purpose flour

2 qts. water

1 c. baking soda

Kosher or coarse sea salt, for sprinkling

In a large mixing bowl, dissolve yeast in 2 tbsp. warm water, stirring with your fingers to break up lumps.  Add remaining warm water, brown sugar, and flour, and stir to combine.  The dough will be very shaggy and the flour won’t fully incorporate — this is okay!  Turn the dough out onto the counter and knead, bringing scraps together, until dough is uniform and smooth, about 5 minutes.  Return to mixing bowl, cover with a clean dishtowel, and let rest 10 minutes.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.  Divide dough into 8 pieces (larger than a golf ball but smaller than a baseball) and roll each into a rope about 15 inches long.  Bend rope into a U-shape, then cross ends.  Fold bottom loop up, resting rounded end just above cross, and gently press overlapping pieces together.

Let pretzels rest while you bring 2 qts. of water and baking soda to a boil in a medium saucepan, stirring to dissolve soda.  Reduce heat and keep water at a simmer.  Gently slide one pretzel into the water and simmer 10 seconds, then flip it over using a slotted spoon and simmer another 10 seconds.  Remove to a parchment-lined baking sheet and sprinkle with salt.  Repeat with remaining pretzels.

Bake for about 10 minutes, until deeply golden brown.  Serve warm (ideally with mustard, sausages, and beer!  Or just plain is fine, too).

Coming later this week:  Braised red cabbage and Pretzel dumplings.

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