This is a very simple dish to prepare and great as a main dish if you add a protein but also works as a side dish. It's really another version of rice and beans, a dish found in just about every culture. Chickpeas, also called garbanzo beans are rich in protein and one of the earliest cultivated legumes. They have been found in Middle Eastern ruins dating back 7,500 years and have been eaten throughout history in France, Italy and Greece.
Curry is an English term used to describe a bunch of dishes that come from Southern and Southeastern Asian cuisines. For years, I thought curry was the name of one spice that you could buy in the supermarket but as I learned more about food, I figured out curry is combination of many spices and herbs. I'm guessing there are as many styles of curry depending on where you come from and what ingredients are available.
Grandma Mary's Homemade GnocchiFor Father's Day, I asked my friend Angelina, a young college student going to school in the Philadelphia area if she would like to write a post about her dad who just learned this week he was cancer free after a fight with the disease. To my delight, Angelina shared a story about lessons learned from her dad including how to prepare his mom's homemade gnocchi. We even have a photo of the actual recipe in her grandmother's handwriting.
An Ode to My Dad on Father’s Day
Growing up, there was a saying my dad constantly repeated to me that he acquired from his own father. If I ever complained to him about something trivial, he would begin by responding: “Ang, I’ll tell you one thing…” At which point I would lean in eagerly, hoping to catch a pearl of his wisdom—only to be disappointed when he said: “I can’t tell ya everything!”
He may not have all the answers, but my father has bestowed me with plenty of great lessons over the years. For instance, he taught me how to curse vehemently in Italian at a bad driver, why you should never bunt a runner over to third in the game of baseball, and, inadvertently, a lot about what to do in the kitchen.
Let me first say I am the most "reluctant" cook you can find. I grew up having the luxury of my parents putting meals on the table every night for my brother and I. Although my mother and father urged me time and time again to help prepare dinner, I avoided the kitchen like it was the plague. I never had much interest in cooking, and I was always afraid I would produce something utterly inedible.
Until I ventured out on my own into the real world, I don’t think I realized how many cooking tips I absorbed from my father over the years. I may not have been actively helping out, but I sure was watching and listening to him in the kitchen. My dad grew up in an Italian-American household, and his family abided by the saying, “Mangia E Statti Zitto” which translates to “Shut up and eat!”
Since moving out of my childhood home, I’ve learned about three important things. First, it’s always necessary to splurge on the really good olive oil and parmesan cheese. Next, playing Louis Prima’s music makes for a considerably better kitchen experience. And finally, it’s perfectly acceptable to have pasta three— or even four—times a week.
My dad is a darn good cook and a lot of what he does in the kitchen today is influenced by his late mother, Mary Matarozzi, who would make delicious Italian meals for her son and husband. Grandma Matarozzi was famous in South Jersey for two things: her work ethic and her handmade gnocchi.
As a kid, I can remember my dad making her gnocchi for us many times and it’s one of the best dishes that he prepares in memory of his mother.
What are Gnocchi?
Gnocchi are a type of dumpling pasta, made of semolina flour, egg, cheese, and potato. Gnocchi are generally eaten as a primi piatto (first course) and vary in shape and size. Sometimes my family eats gnocchi as a small side dish when my mother feels like the meal is otherwise a bit too carb-heavy.
Gnocchi is best when it’s homemade, but can be bought packaged from a grocery store as well. If you go to a specialty Italian supermarket, you may even be able to purchase the gnocchi fresh. There are also smaller forms available called gnocchetti (which literally means “little gnocchi”).
Gnocchi dates all the way back to the expansion of the Roman Empire, when the pasta was made out of porridge-like dough and eggs. The use of potato in gnocchi is a relatively recent development, as different countries and regions made their own variations to the ancient pasta dumplings.
The etymology of gnocchi derives from the Italian word nocchio, meaning “knot in the wood” (makes sense when you think about the fictional character Pinocchio, who was carved out of wood in a small Italian village).
Grandma Mary’s Recipe
You can see the actual picture of my grandmother’s handwritten recipe for the gnocchi dumplings below. It’s pretty cool that we still have this around the house and we can refer to it out of habit.
You can add a variety of sauces to gnocchi, both tomato and cream based. A lot of people love pesto sauce with their gnocchi. My brother’s favorite is a nice, hearty Bolognese sauce, but since my mother is a vegetarian, my dad will generally make both a vegetarian and meat option. He also makes a great Puttanesca sauce which we sometimes pair with the dish.
This is a particularly happy Father’s Day for my family because we are celebrating my dad and his recent clean bill of health—he is now cancer free after completing six grueling chemotherapy treatments. My family will be traveling back to the Motherland at the end of this month in celebration. I’m pretty sure after a 10 day vacation to Tuscany I’ll never want to hear the word ‘pasta’ again.
So dad, it may not seem like it, but I actually have been listening to you over the past twenty years and I’ve learned a thing or two. Every decision I make is intended to reflect what you have taught me. I wanted to thank you and wish you a healthy and happy Father’s Day—the next bowl of gnocchi is on me. Ti Voglio Bene.
Fueling the Fire
Summer is here and many of us are heading out to the backyard and dusting off our charcoal grills. Before you read any further, this isn’t an article about the difference between cooking with gas vs. cooking with charcoal. But, if you’re interested, check out my post about the pros and cons between using the two.
I’m also not going to discuss the differences between grilling and barbecuing, two words that are often used interchangeably. In my opinion, true barbecuing is cooking “low and slow”—barbecuing from a low-heat smoke for a long period of time. But that’s also an article for another time.
What I really want to talk about is charcoal. More specifically, charcoal briquettes vs. lump charcoal.
Back in the day, my father always used charcoal briquettes, and for years and years I did the same. But about four years ago, my buddy—we call him BBQ Bob—convinced me to make the switch over to lump charcoal.
Until I actually did the research to write this, I thought that lump charcoal was more gourmet because it was “all-natural.” The reason people don’t like briquette charcoal is because each piece supposedly contains a bunch of added toxins. But I learned that as long as you stay away from the self-igniting kind, you can avoid these harmful additives to enjoy the benefits of briquette charcoal.
So, since doing a little research, I’m back to my old fondness of briquette charcoal. But I’ll give you the information so you can decide for yourself.
What’s the Difference?
You’ve probably heard of Kingsford, a company who dominates the manufactured charcoal briquette market. Briquettes are produced by cutting scraps of wood into identical shapes and sizes. These pieces are then tossed into a charcoal retort (which is a steel barrel oven) for roasting. The resulting char produced from the retort is then mixed in with other materials to create the charcoal. Briquettes are then shaped, packaged, and commercially sold.
Lump charcoal pieces are produced in the same way. However, they are sold purely as natural hardwood products without any extra ingredients added. Instead of being uniformly cut and molded, lump charcoal pieces tend to vary in shape and size. Many of the pieces of lump charcoal I pull from my bag are uneven and difficult to grill in a consistent manner.
My word of caution: never use any sort of instant, self-igniting charcoal to start. The chemicals and additives contained in them will permeate the food, literally leaving you with a bad taste in your mouth. I would also advise against using lighter fluids which can cause flare-ups on the surface of the grill. Although flare-ups are fun to look at, you should try and avoid them.
The best way to light either briquette or lump charcoal is to use a chimney fire starter that can be purchased at most hardware stores. Just add some newspaper to a charcoal chimney and you’re good to go—no nasty additives necessary!
A lot of people, myself included, are hesitant to buy briquette charcoal because of the extra ingredients that manufactures add to the individual pieces. Before I did my research, I stayed away from briquette charcoal because I thought it contained toxic waste products and unhealthy additives.
In truth, manufactures are simply adding products that hold the charcoal together and enhance its combustibility on the grill. According to a press release from Kingsford, here is the list of extra ingredients added to their briquette charcoal:
None of these added ingredients will cause you any harm. So, don’t be deterred from buying briquette charcoal when you hear it contains “additives.”
Heat and Burning Time
Because of the condensed and uniform size of briquettes, they often burn longer and with more consistency compared to the uneven lump charcoal pieces. However, briquettes don’t burn quite as hot as lump charcoal, which is why some people prefer the latter.
In my opinion, how hot charcoal burns doesn’t really matter, especially if you’re truly barbequing and cooking on low heat for the long time required when barbecuing ribs or pork shoulder. But if you really want to make something especially hot on the grill, why not just add more briquettes or pile them up higher? Most of my grilling these days uses a two zone technique where I start on a very hot zone to get a sear and then finish on the cooler side of the grill with the cover on.
Lump charcoal is pricier than briquette charcoal—nearly twice the cost—but people tend to splurge on lump pieces because they are more efficient at producing heat. Again, how hot you want the grill depends on what you’re cooking.
So, there you have it. Personally, I'm going to relook at charcoal briquettes and see if there is any "funky" taste associated with them but if you really want to get your temps up on the grill, you may as well spend a few more bucks to get the lump variety. That being said, you still want to check the ingredients list on any charcoal briquesttes that you purchase to make sure there are no nasty additives.
Need More Wood Flavor
I recently read in the New York Times that it’s worth it to buy oak, cherry, or hickory flavored Hardwood chunks separately to get a nice wood smoked flavor. You can combine these chunks to either briquette or lump charcoal to add a more authentic smoky flavor to both.
Cooking Tip – Don’t press down on your hamburgers after you give them a flip or for that matter, at any time.
Easier said than done. I grew up watching my dad flip burgers on our round kettle barbecue grill and I can’t remember any time he DIDN’T press down on the chop meat paddies, igniting a flame from the fatty juices to our delight.
His way of cooking burgers is ingrained in me like I’m sure it is in many of you. I’m sure many of you can’t resist giving your patty a quick press on the grill. Even though I know it is the wrong thing to do when cooking a burger, I have to fight off the urge not to give them a little push with my silver spatula. Oh, how I love to watch the flames flare up.
Now as I’m writing this, I’m wondering how the ritual started in the first place. Did early cookbooks say it’s best to flip and press or is it just that we enjoy playing with the food?
Reasons for “Pressing” Down On A Burger
I did a little research to see if I could come up with some positive reasons for pressing down and here’s what I found:
Ok, all good answers (well maybe not the last one), but I don’t agree with any of them.
Reasons for Not “Pressing” Down On A Burger
As a kid I really did enjoy watching my father jump around and get excited when the grill became engulfed in flames from the fat he pressed into the hot charcoals. He would quickly try to move the burgers to a different spot on the grill—which was impossible because the rest of the grill was covered with hot dogs.
I can assure you he didn’t have a spray bottle of water to help put out the flames, but he may have used a bit of his beer to help quell the combustion. Come to think of it, I don’t have a water spray bottle around when I’m grilling either, but there’s no way I’m going to throw any of my wine on the flames.
Here are some reasons you don’t want to press down on your burgers when cooking and then you can decide for yourselves which method works best for you:
All About CouscousCouscous…so good they named it twice! We eat couscous a lot in our house, as a side dish and a fast alternative to pasta or rice. It’s certainly a funny name, and people always wonder what exactly this dish is. A rice? A grain? I’ll admit that I couldn’t have guessed what couscous is either.
What Is Couscous?Who would have thought that couscous is actually just another form of pasta? Nutritionally, couscous is extremely similar to spaghetti—both contain two grams of dietary fiber and have about the same amount of calories (200) per serving.
Many people think that couscous is a grain, but the base of both couscous and certain pastas (like spaghetti and macaroni) is semolina, a course wheat middling of durum that is yellow in color.
The traditional way of making couscous is a pretty cool process. Instead of combining the semolina with water and egg to make into a dough for pasta, couscous is produced by moistening the semolina with a little water or oil between your hands until it crumbles into tiny granules or pearls. Traditionally, the grains of couscous are then dried and steamed in a pretty intricate steaming vessel—known as a couscoussiére—to be served as a base or side dish.
How to Prepare It
I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t have a couscoussiére lying around my kitchen. But the good news is that instant couscous is readily available to be bought commercially. It’s quick and easy to reconstitute couscous after buying it from a grocery store.
All you have to do is combine 1 ½ cups of water to every cup of couscous plus a half teaspoon of salt. Next, add the couscous before the water has boiled. Unlike pasta, couscous should never be boiled! The water should be very hot but not boiling. Let sit for five minutes until the grains have swelled. Lastly, don’t forget to fluff the couscous once it’s done to prevent it from sticking together.
Commercially produced couscous—available as regular or whole wheat—is a fairly complicated process. I linked a video below so you can see how it’s done.
It is possible to make your own couscous at home with a food processor, but it takes a bit of practice to achieve the perfect grain size. However, if you have a couscoussiére at home, you can make perfect couscous as prepared in some of the finest restaurants. What's the difference? When you use instant couscous and add water to it, you extract some of the startch causing the grains to stick together. Using a couscoussiére insures a moist and fluffy result. Check out this very cool video produced by Williams - Sonoma on making it at home.
How to Serve It
Think about the actual taste of pasta without any sauce—pretty bland right? Couscous is the same way, which is why it’s typically served underneath a more flavorful meat or vegetable dish or sweetened with raisins.
Couscous is nice and light and I like it mixed in with a summer salad of cucumbers and tomatoes or stuffed into hollowed-out peppers.
Couscous can be served as a side dish, as I did with my Veal Scallopini and Artichokes, or you can create your own dish by adding ingredients to make a nice curried couscous.
Where Does It Come From?
Some people argue that couscous is a traditional meal from Trapani, a city on the west coast of Sicily, but it is generally attributed to have originated in North Africa.
Couscous is the traditional dish of the Berbers, the ethnic group of North Africa, who named the dish from their language to mean “well rolled” or “well formed.”
Couscous is a principal meal for Moroccans, Algerians, and Tunisians. The development of wheat farming in the 11th century spread the popularity of couscous to become a widely appreciated taste and texture, with many local variants all around the world.
The traditional North African serving of couscous uses lamb chops or skinless chicken pieces with chickpeas and a variety of spices.
Moroccan Israeli Lebanese
Types of Couscous
One interesting thing I discovered is that there are three main types of couscous: Moroccan, Israeli, and Lebanese.
Moroccan couscous tends to be the tiniest grain and cooks the quickest. Most of us are familiar with this type of couscous and it is the most readily available.
I really like the Israeli or “pearl” couscous which take a little longer to cook because the pellets are about the size of peppercorns. I bought an Israeli style couscous blended with orzo, baby garbanzo beans, and red quinoa and used it as a side dish for my roasted Cornish Game Hens meal this past week.
Lebanese couscous grains are even larger than the Israeli pearls and cook slowly, similar to a risotto.I have never tried cooking with Lebanese couscous, but I just purchased some and will give it a try and let you know.
Did You Know Cornish Game Hens Are Young Chickens?My wife found this recipe in this past weekend’s Sunday’s New York Times Eating & Drinking section and decided we should give it a try. The recipe is called Grilled BBQ Cornish Game Hen, but I’m not sure where the BBQ part of the recipe is (and in our case we didn’t even get the grilling right because we ran out of propane halfway through the cooking process).
No problem, like all home cooks, we were able to adapt and finish the game hens in the oven until they reached the desired internal temperature of 170° F, and then 175°F after they’ve rested for 5 minutes. The recipe in the NY Times says to cook “until a meat thermometer inserted into breast meat reads 160 degrees”—but that’s a little rare for my tastes.
Cornish Game Hens
For years and years I thought Cornish game hens were a unique breed of birds not related to chickens. I quickly learned that Cornish game hens are really just young chickens! Instead of being raised 42 days to become a full grown chicken, they are raised 28 to 32 days and stand about half the size of a typical chicken.
Cornish Game Hens also weigh a lot less than chickens today; makes sense because of their size: a typical Rock Cornish hen weighs between 1.25 to 2.5 pounds compared to a supermarket chicken that weighs between 5 to 7 pounds.
Cooking With Kids
My daughter helped prepare this recipe by making the vegetable vinaigrette (which is a bigger job than you might think) and sautéing the grapes for the garnish. The vinaigrette calls for Verjus, the “tart juice of unripe wine grapes.” I couldn’t believe I had a bottle of Verjus in my pantry but unfortunately it had expired about 7 years ago. Instead, we substituted Champaign vinegar for the Verjus.
Yesterday, I had to bid a sad farewell to my trusty cooking partner of 20 years. I was about to hand blend a bunch of ingredients for a sauce after braising a chuck roast for pot roast, so I pulled out my Braun hand blender, plugged it in and alas, it didn't have the strength to do the job. The blade turned vigilantly but just barely. You could hear the mini motor trying its very best to spin the little propeller at the end of the wand but to no avail. It was tired after 20 years of blending soups and sauces and anything else I could find for its use.
I have been waiting for this day knowing it would come and for the past several years I've been preparing myself for this eventual outcome. In fact, I'm surprised that my hand blender has lasted this long. Not many small appliances do. Just the other day I saw one of the new fancy hand blender models over on Amazon and thought I might pick one up but quickly came to my senses upon realizing I already owned a perfectly good hand blender so why bother. It must of been a premonition of what was to come.
Now as I sit here writing about the end of a truly great kitchen helper, I'm not so sure I want to run out and purchase a new one. Isn't there some period of bereavement for a faithful gadget? I can't tell you how many times my faithful hand blender helped me out of a jam especially that time when my regular blender was on the fritz.
When I do go out and purchase a new hand blender, I'll look for one as clean and simple as this one and it will probably be another Braun but I'll be sure to do my research to find the best rated model. With my 59th birthday coming up next month, I may be looking at a kitchen tool that will last me until I'm 80. Now that's a thought. I wonder what I'll be blending at that age? According to my wife, "Everything."
From Farm to Table
Back before the days of mass transportation and the global marketplace, it was natural to eat seasonally. Folks ate tomatoes in the summer. If they wanted them in the winter, they made sure to can some at the end of the growing season. If they didn’t have enough to can, they went without.
Most of us cannot even fathom not being able to find celery all year long. Or onions. Or green beans. We live in a fast paced world where food is shipped from one side of the globe to another. We import a lot of fruits and vegetables from South America where the seasons are the reverse of ours. Next time you’re at the grocery store, look at the labels on the produce. You might be surprised to see all of the fruits and vegetables from Argentina, Chile and Peru.
Because of globalization, we enjoy pineapples and bananas on the mainland. Folks in Minnesota can get fresh citrus fruits. Folks in Kansas can get lobster. Folks in New York can enjoy aloe and prickly pear cactus fruits. And don’t even get me started on world-wide chains.
The upside of globalization and the shipping of perishables long distances is that we can enjoy “exotic” or out-of-season foods at any time. This can expand our culinary horizons and educate our palates.
The Downside of a Global Supermarket
Unfortunately, there are many downsides, as well. One of the most pertinent in light of global warming is the carbon footprint involved with shipping. Think of the amount of petroleum products needed to ship foods over long distances. For every person who gets to enjoy a banana, there are greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere by the ships, trains and trucks that carry the bananas.
Another consideration is pesticide use. While the EPA, USDA and FDA has banned the use of certain pesticides in the United States because of health concerns, other countries might not have such strict standards. I am not saying that the fruits and vegetables grown in other countries are bad for you; I would just recommend that, if you have any concerns, you research the chemicals approved for use in the country in which the food was grown.
Since shipping perishables damages them, much research has gone into breeding “sturdy” fruits and vegetables that can stand up to the rigors of transport. Sadly, what is gained in hardiness is often lost in flavor. Many fruits and vegetables are harvested before they are ripe so that they continue to ripen during shipping. Vegetables lose begin to lose their natural sweetness once they are picked as sugars in the foods are converted to starches.
Plant Your Own Garden
There is nothing like the freshness and sweetness of freshly picked fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables, when picked at the height of ripeness, are also at the height of flavor and nutritional value. If you can, plant a garden with vegetables that will thrive in your USDA Hardiness Zone, and enjoy vegetables from spring through early fall. Talk about a small carbon footprint—I doubt you’ll need to drive out to the backyard to harvest your vegetable bounty!
This year we planted a small garden with my youngest daughter so she can experience growing her own vegetables. We are all very excited to see how we do. As a kid, my dad always had a small vegetable garden out back and I remember summer nights when he would come home from work, head back to his garden and pick some ripe tomatoes and dig around for new potatoes for dinner. What a treat!
Community Supported Agriculture
If you don’t have the space or the time to plant you own garden, consider signing up for local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). The rules vary from CSA to CSA, but generally, for a flat fee for the season, you can get fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables weekly from a local farm. Some deliver, but many require that you drive to pick them up. Regardless, the carbon footprint is pretty minimal, since the grower is local, and you can rest assured that the produce is freshly harvested.
We have belonged to a couple of CSAs that were affiliated with my wife's workplace and enjoyed finding out what we were getting each week. Yes, sometimes there would be an abundance of greens we weren't sure what to do with but all in all it has been a fabulous experience.
No CSA in your neck of the woods? Frequent your local farmer’s market. Besides produce, many farmer’s markets have expanded into meats, dairy, honey and even pastries—a one-stop shop for local food. My wife and I go to the year round farmer's market every Saturday morning. It has become a ritual for us and because we go so routinely, we've gotten to know and because friends with the butchers, fishmongers, cheesemongers, and farmers so we alway learn about what's fresh that day.
Eating seasonally requires a little forethought and planning. It also requires that you be flexible—you cook what’s available when it’s available. Eating seasonally also means environmentally friendly, healthier, more flavorful, fresher food for you and your family.
Thuffering Thucotash!I don’t know about you, but succotash sounds very appealing to me. I always think of Sylvester the Cat saying “Thuffering Thucotash!” The word succotash is actually a Native American word meaning “boiled corn kernels.” So, taken broadly, any cooked corn dish could be termed a succotash. Although succotash has sometimes gotten a bad name due to indifferent cafeteria cooking, it can be a very tasty and flavorful dish.
The main ingredients of succotash are generally fresh corn and lima beans, but there are any number of variations that you can make. Here is my simple take on succotash. Serve it as a summer side dish, when the corn is good and sweet like it is on the Jersey shore in August but don't let that stop you from making it other times of the year. I try to always use fresh vegetables when available but frozen can be used and still taste good.
Pack enough vegetables into it, along with other shell beans, and you have a really hearty meatless main course.
Consider this recipe a jumping off point. From this base, you can add almost any fresh vegetables that you have on hand and change up the seasonings to make the dish truly your own.
Helping Nat Learn How To Cook A couple of weeks ago, one of the neighborhood kids asked me if I could mentor him with his high school senior project. Nat wanted to learn how to cook so he is setting his goal to cook 14 different meals representing different cuisines and ingredients each night. Some of them are my recipes and some he found on the Internet.
Now Nat is not really a kid at 17 but then to me anyone under 25 is still a kid so I don't mind putting this in the Kids Can Cook category.
I'll be updating Nat's progress here and on my Facebook page if you are interested in how it's going.
Here's a list of what he is planning to cook.
|Chicken Dish||Chicken Maxengo Recipe|
|Beef Dish||Short Ribs with an Asian Touch, potatoes and salad|
|Fish Dish||Red Snapper, Veracruz Style, Salad|
|Vegetarian dish||Heart of Palm with Risotto|
|Italian Dish||Summer Fresh Pasta with Tomatoes and Prosciutto with Red Snapper and Shrimp(Grill)|
|Mexican Dish||Chicken with Rice (Arroz Con Pollo)|
|Oriental Dish||Chicken Lo-Mein|
|Indian Dish||Keema (Indian Spiced Ground Veal and Beef with Peas)|
|Frence Dish||Normandy Pork with apples shallots and cider|
|American Comfort||Burgers, pulled pork, and Fries, BBQ night|
|WeekNight Special||Meatloaf Nicois Recipe|
|Seafood and Pasta||Cilantro Shrimp Recipe|
|Tropical Flavors||Garlic Lime Grilled Chicken With Mango Salsa|
|The Ultimate Challenge||Beef Wellington--Gordon Ramsey|
Nat came over to talk about his menu and pick my brain for a few cooking tips. I think I overwhelmed with a little too much information cause he left with that glazed look in his eyes. We've been trading emails and yesterday he came back for another round of questions and answers and again left with that same look as the first time and a puck of Demi Glace Gold for making a wild mushroom sauce for one of his dishes.
Just can't help myself when I start talking food. No wonder he left dazed, I tried to give him 20 years of cooking experience in an hour. He did say he has been using The Reluctant Gourmet website to find out more about the cooking techniques needed for his recipes.
Here are some photos from his first couple of nights of cooking and I'll post more next week.
Nat's Chicken Maxengo
Red Snapper, Veracruz Style, Sala
Nat working on his red snapper