Sunday, March 11, 2018

My Favorite Store Is Closing

My favorite grocery store in Pittsburgh is closing its doors. After more than 70 years in the business, family owned McGinnis Sisters will cease operations as soon as their inventory is gone. I made one last trip a few days after the announcement and it was a really emotional experience. The folks I'd relied on for fresh fish, locally raised meats and produce and a kick-ass bakery were packing it up and preparing to walk away from a community institution. The produce guy commiserated with me and made some suggestions for where I might find the same kind of quality items that McGinnis Sisters stocks. A woman in the deli expressed her fears to me about finding a new job after working there for 42 years. The guys at the meat counter who saw me every couple of weeks were too sad to even meet my gaze, let alone engage in small talk. As I walked past the empty produce bins, empty fish counter and abandoned bakery, I thought a lot about why I love this grocery store so much and what is has in common with the other small, family-owned stored I've loved in the past.

When I lived in Texas, small, family owned stores were a little harder to find, but in its early years Whole Foods, which started in Austin, Texas, very much fit the bill for me in terms of selection and quality. I lived in Philadelphia for a year and was pleased to find small grocery stores and food co-ops everywhere. The Italian market in my neighborhood had incredible meats, cheeses and specialty items. When we moved to New Hampshire, the closest Whole Foods and the wonderful Lebanon food co-op were an hour away and I'd make the trip every couple of months, but my weekly food shopping always included a stop at Quality Cash for meat. It was owned by a guy who'd spent 20 years working for large grocery chains and he made the commitment to carry the very best quality chicken, lamb, beef and smoked meats from small producers in the region. When I found McGinnis Sister shortly after moving to Pittsburgh, it felt just as familiar and welcoming as the places I'd loved before.   

There are a set of characteristics that, for me, define a great food store. Some of them are obvious, such as the ability to stock local products and keen attention to quality, but there are other things that combine to make for a pleasant grocery experience. How the store is laid out, how the inventory is displayed, how things are priced and how much is made and/or packed in-house are all important considerations. My favorite small grocery stores all have their unique specialties. The Italian market I loved in Philadelphia had outstanding meats with a great selection of exotic cuts like fresh duck breasts and veal shank. They had a small but excellent deli and a small produce section with enough to make a nice salad or fresh green side dish. Quality Cash focused much of their attention on their chicken, meats and lunch counter. Their chicken came from a specific producer in Salisbury, MD and was air chilled, never frozen and was the best tasting chicken I've ever prepared. They carried extremely good beef and lamb, some raised locally and some from other producers in the region, and their lunch business was very active with an in-house kitchen that served pulled pork, fried chicken, sausage sandwiches and lovely breakfast sandwiches. I've also shopped at a wonderful family owned Italian market here in Pittsburgh called Labriola's, which has awesome imported deli meats, sausages, really good prepared classic Italian dishes and all the imported pasta, canned tomato products and olive oil your little heart could desire. These places are all modest businesses, occupying maybe 3000 square feet in a small shopping center or in a stand-alone building no bigger than a large single family home. These are the kinds of places that are crowded when 20 or 30 customers are shopping at once.

McGinnis Sisters locations were more the size of small supermarkets at maybe 10,000 square feet, but in many ways had the same vibe as my favorite small stores. Much of their seasonal produce had signs indicating which farm or town they came from. Their selection of apples was second to none and when they were in peak season, I would walk out with varieties such as Stayman, Idared or ginger gold, all grown within a 100 mile radius. Not all of their produce was local, but there was enough of it to make me happy. The same was true for their meat department with beef, chicken, turkey and pork all coming from regional producers and for not much more money than I'd spend at a big box supermarket, I regularly stocked up on fresh ground beef, pork tenderloins and the very best chicken wings I've ever cooked. Every Friday, the fish department received fresh Alaskan salmon, Atlantic cod or scallops from New England. Its the only place I've ever found fresh skate wing. McGinnis Sisters bakery featured the most scrumptious pepperoni rolls, small loaves of ciabatta and sourdough bread and amazing pastries, cookies, pies and cakes, all made right in plain site of the general public. They also had a nice cheese case and a good selection of fresh eggs, Amish butter and local dairy products. When it came to general staples, dry goods and pantry items, McGinnis Sister honored the European roots of the population and the shelves were graced with exotic types of mustard, condiments, jams and canned goods, plus a small but mighty selection of chocolates and sweets that beckoned as I stood in line at the register. It wasn't a huge store, but it was big enough to stock an interesting variety of stuff and no matter how many times I've shopped there, something unique usually caught my eye.

While there are advantages to shopping at smaller local chains and mom & pop stores, there are drawbacks. Many of them don't carry everything on your grocery list or if they do, the prices are unreasonable. I can't buy toothpaste, cleaning supplies or cat litter at most of my favorites places, so I do end up making several stops on my weekly run for supplies. I certainly spend more money when I make multiple stops and while I found McGinnis Sisters produce and meats to be priced competitively, a lot of their other items were much higher than they are at the big chains. That said, I'm willing to make that choice so I can feel good about what I'm putting in my body and where I spend my money on the foodstuffs I desire. However, I realize this lifestyle isn't for everyone. During a recent conversation with some of my colleagues, it was surprising to discover how many people despise their regular trips to the supermarket. They were raving about the convenience of ordering online and having someone bring their haul right to their car or even just shipped directly to their house. The world has changed and it has become increasingly more difficult for small businesses to compete in the everything-at-your-fingertips marketplace we live in. The personal touch isn't as valued as it once was.

Ultimately, that's what I will miss most about McGinnis Sisters - the people. The guy who ran the fish counter never steered me wrong, I was always pleased with his recommendations, even his advice on cooking methods. The guys in the meat department and the women in the bakery were always kind and attentive. The checkers were pleasant and engaged. I never saw employees standing around playing with their phones or chattering with each other as if the customers didn't exist. They were genuinely happy to serve me. They cared. They cared enough about their customers to be responsive, to give them the very best and to regard their own business as an integral part of the communities they served. I get it, I really do. The profit margins in the grocery business are quite thin and overhead is high. McGinnis Sisters had three locations and about 100 employees. But it still hurts to lose this beloved business and my sadness is nothing compared to those 100 people and the family who was no longer able to sustain a business that nourished a community for more than 70 years. I'll find other places to fill the food void, but McGinnis Sisters will always occupy a special place in my heart.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Wontons & Dumplings

Sometimes meal planning can be an enormous challenge, especially when we are watching our calories and a lot of our favorite fresh produce is mostly out of season. We are sick to death of boring salads and boneless, skinless chicken. In my continuing efforts to cook lighter dishes without sacrificing on flavor, I decided to take an Asian route and make some soup with lots of vegetables and wontons. I had a bunch of odds and ends in the freezer ready to be made into a healthy broth and I also had pork chops and shrimp. All I needed was veggies and wonton skins.

Wontons are one of the most popular and oldest types of dumplings in Chinese cuisine. There are hundreds of types of dumplings filled with many combinations of meat, poultry, seafood and vegetables, but wontons have been enjoyed all over Asia for 1,000 years. Wontons vary in shape, flavors and serving methods from region to region. For instance, Cantonese style wontons have an irregular shape and are served in noodle soup while Sichuan wontons are triangular and are dressed with chili oil. They are not terribly difficult to make and the ingredients are easy to find.


1/2 lb pork, moderately fatty
1/2 lb cleaned and peeled raw shrimp
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp fresh ginger, minced or grated
1 minced garlic clove
1 tbsp sweet Chinese rice wine, such as Mirin
1 tsp sugar
1/2 cup chopped scallions, white and green portions
salt & pepper to taste
1 package wonton skins

The day before I made wontons, I made a big pot of stock from the chicken bones and veggie remnants that were in my freezer. To give it an Asian flavor, I added a couple nubs of fresh ginger and a bunch of scallion tops while it was simmering. Before I started making wontons, I took the stock out of the fridge, put it in a big pot on the stove and added some shredded Napa cabbage, bok choy greens, thinly sliced carrots and celery and some snow peas, just so the veggies could begin to cook in the broth. Then I turned my attention to the little bundles of deliciousness.

Wonton filling should be juicy and firm inside its wrapper. If the pork is too lean, the wonton filling will be dry and crumbly. Ground pork is fine for this recipe, but it should be 80% lean. However, I like a little more chunky texture to my wonton filling and I figured I could also make some dumplings with the same filling and steam or fry them. Therefore, I decided to use a Porterhouse cut pork chop that had some fat along the edges and a nice section of tenderloin on one side of the bone. Making sure to save all the fat, I cut the meat off the bone of my pork chop and cut it into large chunks, which I put in the bowl of my food processor fitted with the metal blade attachment. I also peeled and de-veined the shrimp, cut them in half and added them to the pork.

When I cook, nothing goes to waste and since I had a pork bone and a bunch of shrimp shells, I decided to make a quick broth that I could add to the soup for an extra punch of flavor. I put the shells and pork bone into a small pot with a chopped green onion, a nub of ginger and a garlic clove and turned the burner to medium high. I sauteed the shells briefly before adding water and turning the heat to low. This small pot slowly simmered away while I made the wontons.

I planned to just finish making the filling entirely in the food processor, but I also didn't want to pulverize the pork and shrimp and lose that toothsome texture I was going for. Before adding the rest of the ingredients, I pulsed the food processor three or four times to roughly chop the pork and shrimp. I measured the rest of the ingredients right on top of the meat and pulsed a few more times to make sure everything was well incorporated, then scooped the filling out into a bowl. Before assembly, I set up a wonton making station with a small bowl of water, small pile of wonton wrappers, some filling and a plate with a thin dusting of corn starch on it to keep the wontons from sticking. One at a time, I put a small blob of filling in the middle of each wrapper, moistened all the edges with a tiny bit of water, then brought the corners of the wrapper up to make a little bundle. Its important to squeeze out any air as the wontons get sealed to prevent them from exploding while they cook. I pressed the moistened edges of the wrapper together to make sure it was well sealed before moving on to the next wonton.

I got about 10 wontons made, which was enough for dinner, then put the rest of the filling in the freezer. I took the wrappers out of their plastic container, wrapped them in a slightly damp paper towel, slipped them into a sandwich bag and put them in the freezer with the filling. By the time I was done making wontons, my broth was simmering gently, so I strained the broth I'd made from the shrimp shells into the pot, dropped the wontons in and let them cook gently until they floated, which only took about 5 minutes. The soup was fantastic with the veggies still kind of firm and the wonderful flavors of shrimp, pork and ginger in the wontons. The filling had that meaty chew that I was hoping for and it was a healthy and satisfying meal for a cold Sunday night.

As the weekend approached, I moved the filling and wrappers from the freezer to the fridge in anticipation of making dumplings by the following weekend. By the end of the week all the soup was gone and when I got home from work on Friday evening, I took the filling and wrappers out of the fridge.

I wanted to see how these dumplings performed both steamed and fried, so opted to steam half the dumplings and fry the other half. I put about an inch of water in a large pot, put my steamer basket in the bottom and laid several cabbage leaves on the steamer to keep the dumplings from sticking. In a small pot, I put about two inches of vegetable oil and turned both burners to medium high. As I was making the dumplings, I tried a few different shapes. For the steamed dumplings, I pinched the corners of the wrapper, then wrapped them around the side, leaving the filling exposed. For the fried dumplings, I made triangles, little bundles and tiny little cylinders that looked like mini egg rolls. I put the open-top dumplings on the steamer basked and put a lid on the pot. Two by two, I fried the other dumplings in the hot oil until they were crispy and dark brown. We enjoyed our dumplings with a little soy, hoisin sauce and sriracha. And they were a wonderful, tasty Friday night treat. There are lots of different types of fillings and cooking methods to experiment with, but this filling is a great all-purpose wonton and dumpling mixture that I know I'll make again and again.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Holla for Challah

I kind of love how inspiration travels and spreads like a weed. One of my very favorite food writers Kathy Gunst published a book in 2016 called Soup Swap and my husband gave it to me as a holiday gift that year. It inspired me to do my own soup swap with my neighbors just a few months later. Kathy's soup swap was born during a harsh winter in Maine as a way for her and her friends to stay sane in the darkest, most frigid days of a long season. They found comfort, creativity and togetherness in bowls of soup. In the midst of a very grey, snowy and dark winter in Pittsburgh, Kathy inspired me yet again! I posed an idea to some friends over drinks recently that we get together once a month and make something, whatever it is that we enjoy making. Marie makes really delicious pickles, Suzanne is an expert cookie baker, Lynn makes amazing ravioli and my bread-making skills are pretty sharp. The more we talked about the varied and interesting culinary skills we all have, the more this idea started to take shape. We are also a bunch of bawdy women who can't resist a glass of wine, a dirty joke and rousing game of Cards Against Humanity. This is how "Bitchin in the Kitchen" got started.

We decided to start small with a group of 6 women, so I invited them all over to my house to teach everyone how to make challah - my absolute favorite go-to homemade bread. For novice bread bakers, this is a perfect recipe for teaching. Its relatively simple and only takes about four hours from beginning to end. Its a really soft dough that can be made without a stand mixer. Its a braided loaf, so there is an opportunity to learn some good technique and its also visually stunning, which leaves people with a sense of accomplishment when they're done. Since I've posted this recipe before, I'll just ask you to CLICK HERE if you're interested in making your own challah.

Lynn, Suzanne and I making dough
One person was unable to attend, so there were 5 of us baking challah in my kitchen. Normally, one recipe makes two large or three small loaves of bread, so I figured if we doubled the recipe we'd end up with six loaves - one to eat right away and one for each person to take home. Instead of combining them into a single batch of dough, we made two separate batches so everyone would have a turn to get their hands in the dough and knead. We all gathered in the kitchen, put on our aprons and assumed our roles. I started the yeast with warm water and honey in two separate mixing bowls while Marie read the proportions of ingredients out loud from my Baking with Julia cookbook. I put two pots on the stove and gently heated the milk, butter, sugar and salt until everything was melted and dissolved. Lynn and Suzanne each took a bowl and broke the eggs into the yeast, stirring to combine, then I poured the warm milk & butter mixture in and added three cups of King Arthur bread flour to each bowl while Suzanne and Lynn stirred. As the dough came together, we added flour gradually until the dough could be turned out onto the work surface and kneaded. Once Nancy arrived, we all got our hands dirty and took turns kneading the dough and as we made this beautiful dough, I talked about texture and feel and how to know when the dough is ready for its first rise. And of course, we drank wine, which lead to silliness and lots of laughter.
The kneading

When the dough was smooth and soft, we put it into two separate containers to rise and spent the next hour and a half playing games and howling with laughter. We took a break to deflate the dough and give it its second rise, then went back for more games , wine and hilarity. Finally, it was time to shape the dough. We turned it out onto the work surface and I cut it into three pieces each, then into smaller pieces for braiding. I showed everyone how to shape the dough and they all did a really terrific job. We ended up with four braided loaves and two twisted, round loaves. We set them aside for their final rise of about 30 minutes and turned the oven on to 375 degrees.

And there was much laughter
Just before baking, we brushed each loaf with an egg wash and sprinkled them with salt and seeds. During the 35 minute baking time, we hung out in the kitchen, cleaned up a little bit and talked about our day and what we learned. I rotated the pans a couple times and reglazed as the loaves as they expanded in the oven. When the challah was done, we stood in the kitchen and admired our work, but I can never wait until the bread is completely cool to cut into it. I chose a loaf and sliced it while it was still quite warm. The best part of the day for me was watching everyone's faces as they took that first bite of buttery, fluffy warm challah. It really is a moment of pure delight and half that challah was gone before we knew it. Everyone brought a challah home and they took my advice and made french toast out of it. So, we all had a ridiculous amount of fun, learned how to make bread and bonded over a shared experience. I ask you, what better way is there to spend a cold, winter day? We will be Bitchin in the Kitchen again next month, this time at Suzanne's house to learn how to make pierogies. I can't wait!!

Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Best Honey Cake

Sometimes inspiration can surprise you just at the right moment. I was hanging around the house last night relaxing after a Saturday morning at work. I'd started making a list for my weekly Sunday grocery run and as I considered what I wanted to cook for Sunday dinner, my phone buzzed to let me know I had an instant message. It was my friend Sue Wasserman who lives in Asheville, NC. Now, its not unusual to get a random message from a far away friend, but I have not seen or spoken to Sue since I was 16 years old. We grew up together in White Meadow Lake, NJ, a small predominantly Jewish community about an hour east of New York City. My family relocated to far southeast Texas just weeks after my 16th birthday and by the time I got to college, I'd lost touch with all my Jersey friends. But thanks to social media, we've all reconnected and gotten to virtually know each other as adults. I am a big fan of Sue's photography and her abundant joy and she's a fan of this blog.

Sue just moved in to a new place and as she was unpacking she came across a loaf pan, which triggered a flashback to the honey cake she ate as a kid. She was sure I'd have a recipe, which I didn't, but I believe life puts up guideposts to help us find our way when we are uncertain. It was as if Sue somehow knew I was looking for inspiration and inadvertently gave me exactly what I was looking for - a challenge to make something I'd never made before. 

Honey cake was a familiar dish for all of us Jewish kids growing up in New Jersey. Its traditionally served at Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, in the hopes for a sweet year to come. The recipe dates back to the middle ages when European travelers brought the recipe home from Egypt and the holy land. Because it is based on such an old recipe, the honey cake I remember tended to be dense, dry and heavily spiced. There was always a honey cake on the table at Rosh Hashana, but only the old people ate it. Sue inspired me to see if I could make a moist, light and flavorful honey cake that didn't taste like it was made in the 1300's.


3 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 tbsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup vegetable oil 
1 cup good quality honey
1 cup strong coffee or tea
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar
3 large eggs
1/2 cup orange juice
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
zest from one orange and one lemon
1/2 cup sliced almonds

As these projects go, I started by doing a bunch of research and quickly found Two Lazy Gourmets. When I read Juliana's honey cake recipe with its crunchy exterior and moist crumb, I understood what good honey cake was supposed to be. The same proportions and ingredients turned up in just about every other recipe I found with the exception of the spices. Most recipes call for clove and allspice, which just has too much of a pumpkin pie flavor, and Two Lazy Gourmets omitted the spices all together. My variation features the flavors I like most with honey - cinnamon, ginger and citrus zest.  

I have an unusually large collection of jars of honey in my pantry right now. For Christmas, I received a generous basket of local goodies including a big jar of honey from Aunt Sandy who lives just outside of Philadelphia. I also had a jar of rosemary infused artisanal honey from a local producer called Apoidea Apiary right here in Pittsburgh. It turned out both of them were made from knotweed also called Japanese red bamboo, which produces a dark honey with a mild taste. This recipe allowed me to showcase these beautiful local honeys and make them the star of the show. 

This may be the easiest cake I've ever made. This recipe makes 3 loaves or one large round cake. I opted for loaves and sprayed my loaf pans with cooking spray, then set my oven to 350 degrees. I measured out my dry ingredients into the bowl of the stand mixer. Then I basically just dumped the rest of the ingredients into bowl and using the paddle attachment, I mixed it all on low speed until it was smooth and all the lumps were gone, which only took a couple of minutes. I divided the loose batter between the three pans, sprinkled the top of each one with a generous handful of sliced almonds and popped them into the oven.

Forty five minutes later, I removed three deeply browned, shiny honey cakes from the oven and set them aside to cool for at least fifteen minutes before removing them from the pans. They took a little loosening with an offset spatula to get them to release from the pan. I let them cool on a rack for about 2 hours before I tried a slice. Sure enough, the cake was very moist and the crumb was tight but fluffy, almost bread-like in texture. The honey was the predominant flavor with hints of lemon and orange in the background. The exterior had a pleasant chewiness and the almonds brought delightful crunch to the party. Because it is full of honey which is a natural preservative, this cake can last for weeks and the final slice will taste just as good as the first. Serve it with a little whipped cream, marinated fruit or even vanilla ice cream if you want to gild the lily. Or you can just enjoy a slice with a cup of coffee or tea. If you think honey cake is the Jewish version of fruitcake, more appreciated for its cultural connection than its flavor, this recipe will change your mind. 

Sunday, January 21, 2018


I'd never heard of shakshuka until about two years ago. On a bitter cold winter day, my coworker Maddie mentioned that she was making this dish for dinner and when she described eggs poached in thick, spicy tomato sauce, it piqued my curiosity. A few weeks later, a friend posted on Facebook that she was making the same dish. The following month, I saw it featured in one of my favorite food magazines. Every couple of months since Maddie mentioned shakshuka at work, it has popped up somewhere in articles, on my social media feeds and in conversations. It's like there is some karmic force trying to guide my hands to make shakshuka. So, yeah, I'm taking the hint. The added benefit of this hearty and warming dish is that its very low in Weight Watchers points, which means I have room for dessert!

Shakshuka originated in Tunisia and its commonly found all over North Africa and the Middle East. Tunisian, Moroccan and Algerian Jews brought it with them to Israel during the mass exodus from Arab and Muslim countries that began in 1948 when the State of Israel was established. Tomatoes, onions and peppers are simmered until thick, then eggs are dropped into the sauce and poached until the whites are firm and the yolks are runny. Its served with pita, challah or crusty bread and is commonly found on the breakfast table, but is also a great brunch, lunch or dinner option with a salad on the side. Some recipes I saw called for fresh chilies like jalapeno, some had greens like spinach or kale in them and some added cheese or cream to the sauce. Other variations included sprinkling crumbled feta cheese, chopped olives and chopped mint or basil on top. It didn't turn up in any of the recipes I found in my research, but I added diced eggplant just for giggles. 


1 28 oz can whole, peeled tomatoes
1/2 medium yellow onion, diced
1 sweet red pepper, diced
1 small eggplant, peeled and diced
3 cloves minced garlic
1 tbsp cumin
1 tbsp sweet paprika
1 tsp red pepper flakes
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper (optional)
salt and black pepper
2 tbsp chopped parsley (optional)
6 eggs

This dish dates back to the 13th century and I can imagine people cooking shakshuka over an open flame in a hand-forged iron pan and eating it with bread baked in a clay oven. From everything I'd read, it seemed ridiculously easy to prepare. I put a cast iron skillet on medium high and let it heat up while I diced my veg. I decided to saute the eggplant first and allow it to soften and char a bit, which took about 10 minutes, before adding the onions, peppers and spices. We like spicy food, so I added the cayenne pepper, just to jack it up a bit, but for folks who might not appreciate the heat, the cayenne can be omitted. A good technique to develop deep, charred flavor is not to disturb the vegetables in the pan.

Resist the urge to stir and allow them to caramelize in the pan. I cooked my veg for another 10 minutes and it was nice and browned when I added the tomato paste and garlic and gave it all a good stir.  I let this cook for just a few minutes until the garlic became fragrant, then added the tomatoes. I like to drain my tomatoes into a bowl, reserving the liquid, and crush them with my hand before adding them to the pan. Set the liquid aside in case you need it later to thin out the sauce. 

Using a flat wooden spatula, I scraped all the charred goodness, browned bits and caramelized tomato paste off the bottom of the pan and incorporated it back into the sauce. At this point, the sauce was pretty loose and I allowed it to simmer over medium heat for a good 15 minutes to allow everything to cook down and thicken and the flavors to meld. I knew it needed to be thick enough to support the eggs and yet still be saucy enough to gently poach them. When it was time to add the eggs, I turned the stove to its lowest setting and made indentations in the sauce with the back of a large spoon. One by one, I cracked the eggs right into those indentations and gently spooned the sauce up and over the whites of each egg, leaving the yolks exposed.

I covered the pan to allow the eggs to poach slowly while I made a salad and sliced and toasted a baguette. Once the whites were firm, the eggs were done, although I did slightly overcook mine and didn't achieve the creamy loveliness of the runny yolk I was hoping for. Still, my shakshuka was pretty tasty. The sauce was rich and complex and the spices married nicely with the vegetables. The eggplant added body and an earthy lusciousness that was so satisfying and the crusty bread was an excellent accompaniment.  On a cold winter night, this saucy, spicy dish of tomato, eggs and crusty bread was perfect. The kitchen karma worked its magic and introduced me one of my new favorite dishes. And with just 3 Weight Watchers points per serving, its a great addition to the regular rotation. 

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Not Your Mother's Shepherds Pie

Winter in Pittsburgh and the house I love to cook in. 
I love cooking in winter. I love soups and stews and slow cooker dishes like pot roast and pork & beans. I love cranking up the oven when its below freezing outside and I love standing over a steaming skillet while watching the snow fall out my kitchen window. I especially love the warm, satisfied feeling and sense of accomplishment that washes over me after eating that steaming bowl of chicken soup with homemade bread or that slow-cooked tomato sauce with eggplant, mushrooms and meatballs.

My husband and I started on Weight Watchers a few months ago and we've slowly but steadily been dropping weight. The best foods for this program are lean proteins and lots of fresh fruit and veggies. Its particularly challenging in the winter because so much of what I crave tends to be heavy, starchy and full of carbs. Of course, nothing is off limits in moderation, but some of my favorite winter foods like pasta, potatoes, rice and bread are all terrible when you're trying to lose weight. In an effort to make healthier choices and still enjoy my favorite cold weather recipes, I've been experimenting with a few variations. So when my friend Jenny told me she was making shepherds pie with mashed cauliflower in place of potatoes, I almost lost my mind.

Shepherds pie is a layered dish made with ground lamb or mutton cooked in gravy with onions and veggies, topped with mashed potatoes and baked until golden brown. It was my mother's favorite way to use leftover leg of lamb and she even had a specific baking dish that she used for shepherds pie. Made properly, this dish is hearty, rich and comforting, but its certainly not "diet" food. This variation delivers maximum flavor without maximum calories.


For the topping:
1 large head of cauliflower
2 tbsp fat free half and half
2 tbsp butter or margarine
1/2 cup Panko breadcrumbs
1/4 cup finely grated sharp cheddar cheese
1/2 cup chopped parsley
salt and pepper to taste

For the filling:
2 lbs ground lamb
1 lb cremini or white button mushrooms
1 small yellow onion
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 cup white wine or chicken broth
1 tbsp flour
2 tbsp olive oil, bacon fat or chicken fat
2 tbsp tomato paste
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp dried thyme
salt & pepper to taste

Cauliflower is an underappreciated vegetable. Its very low in fat and carbs, high in vitamin c and its incredibly versatile. It can be eaten boiled, roasted, braised, fried, steamed, pickled or just raw in a salad. The last time I bought a head of cauliflower, I sliced it into thick planks, drizzled it with a little olive oil and roasted it in a 350 degree oven and it was scrumptious. Its also excellent steamed with sweet potatoes or butternut squash and pureed together. Riced cauliflower is starting to show up frequently as a substitute for white rice. However, for a dish like shepherds pie, it does present a challenge. Cauliflower has a moderately high moisture content and isn't starchy and stiff like mashed potatoes. The puree needs to have some structure to hold its shape while baking. I knew I'd need to get as much excess moisture out of it as possible. I decided to steam the cauliflower in the microwave with just a tiny bit of water in the bottom of the bowl. I left it in large pieces and chose a deep bowl so the steam would rise and circulate around the cauliflower. I covered the bowl with plastic wrap and cooked the cauliflower on high until is was soft, about 10 minutes, then left it sitting on the counter, still covered, until it cooled down. Once it was cooled, I put the cooked cauliflower into a strainer over a bowl and put it in the fridge. I figured it would be easier to squeeze any remaining liquid out of it when it was cold, which turned out to be a good call. By the time I needed it, a lot of the water had drained off and I squeezed out the remaining liquid before moving on to the next step. 

The filling for this dish should be saucy and savory and each step of the recipe builds layers of flavor. Any root vegetables would be good in this dish. This is a relatively simple preparation, but you should feel free to experiment with carrots, parsnips, celeriac, leeks, fennel of whatever you like. I got my onions chopped and mushrooms sliced before putting a skillet with one tablespoon of  bacon fat over medium. I sauteed the onions until just barely translucent, then added a tablespoon of tomato paste, the chopped garlic, cinnamon, dried thyme, about a teaspoon of salt and a couple grinds of black pepper. The tomato paste darkens and caramelizes as it cooks and the spices bloom, adding deep flavor to the sauce. When the onions were starting to brown, I added the mushrooms. As they cooked, the mushrooms released a little liquid, which I used to loosen up the caramelized tomato paste and scrape the brown bits off the bottom of the pan, adding more flavor. Once the mushrooms were soft, I removed this mixture from the pan so I could cook the lamb.

Before adding the lamb to the pan, I turned the heat up to medium high and added the rest of the bacon fat, the rest of the tomato paste and the flour, stirring briefly to combine and toast the flour briefly. Little by little, I added small handfuls of ground lamb to the pan, giving it a chance to brown slightly before stirring and adding the next handful. If you dump all the cold meat in at once, it cools down the pan and the meat boils instead of browns. I added a little more salt and pepper and cooked the lamb until no raw meat was visible, then I returned the onions and mushrooms to the pan and added the wine. As the sauce cooks and reduces, it thickens and the flavors become more concentrated and luscious, which takes about 15 minutes. Finally, I folded in the peas and set the filling aside while I made the topping.

Normally when I puree squash or make mashed potatoes, my hand mixer does an admirable job. But cauliflower is lumpy and fibrous and I wanted a perfectly smooth and spreadable puree. The food processor was the right tool for this job and it broke down all the tough fibers, resulting in a lovely, soft puree. I added the half & half and melted butter while the cauliflower was processing and its texture was absolutely perfect. One last thing remained to be done before assembly - I mixed the Panko crumbs with the grated cheese and chopped parsley. Finally it was time for the fun part. I cranked the oven to 350 and got ready to assemble a world class shepherds pie. I chose an 8 quart oval baking dish for this task and decided to spread a thin layer of puree along the bottom and up the sides. Then I ladled that lovely lamb and mushroom mixture into that bed of silky pureed cauliflower and they settled in together like an old married couple. I spooned the cauliflower puree in a thick layer over the filling, sprinkled the breadcrumbs all over the top, drizzled a little bit of olive oil over the breadcrumbs and put it on a sheet tray in the oven. Boom!!

About 45 minutes later when I looked in the oven and saw a beautiful brown and crunchy top, I knew I'd hit this one out of the ballpark. This shepherds pie looked magnificent. The breadcrumbs and cheese had baked into each other and turned into a hard-baked crust. The remaining moisture in the puree had evaporated as it baked and it looked perfectly firm. I took the tray out of the oven and allowed my creation to cool while I made a lightly dressed herb salad with cherry tomatoes to accompany our hearty winter fare. After cooling for about 15 minutes, it was time to dig in. The cauliflower held its shape very nicely and yet still had that silky quality to it. The filling had deep, rich flavor with small hints of warm cinnamon and earthy thyme and a fresh pop from the green peas. All in all, this dish was a smashing success and with a lot less fat and calories than the traditional recipe. I think my mom would have loved it. Just as Jenny did for me, I hope I inspired you to try this amazing dish and put your own twist on it. Good luck!


Monday, January 8, 2018

Homemade French Onion Soup

In the depths of winter, I become obsessed with soup. To me, soup is the ultimate celebration of the circle of life. After the choice cuts of meat and the tender goodness of fresh vegetables have been enjoyed at their peak, all the nutrients and flavors of the remnants can be extracted to make soup. Soup gives discarded things like onion skins, celery leaves, carrot peelings and animal bones a chance to play the starring role on the dinner table rather than suffering a bleak ending in the compost bin. Soup means virtually nothing goes to waste. When I roast a chicken or turkey, I always make stock from the bones. My freezer usually has at least two quarts of stock in it and there are always bags of vegetable trimmings and bones in my freezer, which I save up and use to make soup all winter long.

Nothing says "you are loved" like a bowl of beautifully prepared homemade soup. Its tremendously healthy and nourishing because the long, slow cooking process allows for the greatest extraction of life-giving nutrients. Plus, after the stock has cooled, it becomes very easy to remove all the fat that renders out during cooking. Sure, you can buy canned soup, but have you ever read the list of ingredients? Homemade stock can be used to make any soup your heart desires and because you made it yourself, you know exactly what's in it. No preservatives, chemicals or hidden sugars and you get to control the amount of sodium.

All different kinds of stock are made the same way. Combinations of bones, meat and vegetables such as onions, carrots and celery are slowly simmered together until they release all their goodness into the cooking liquid. Vegetarian broth can include things like mushrooms, leaks, parsnips and other root vegetables. Seafood stock can be made using shrimp or lobster shells, fish bones and clam juice. You get the idea. Roasting the ingredients before simmering adds complexity and depth of flavor in the final stock, but if you don't have the time or ability to roast everything, you can just toss it all together in a big pot and your stock will still taste delicious.

We hosted my in-laws for Christmas this year and I cooked a scrumptious prime rib. There were two sizable beef bones left over that were crying out to be turned into stock. As I imagined what to make with my homemade beef stock, french onion soup sprang to mind. With a snowstorm and bitterly cold temperatures coming for New Years weekend, a hearty bowl of french onion soup with its oozing cheese, crusty croutons and rich savory broth sounded perfect.


Beef stock:
About 4 lbs beef soup bones
2 tbsp tomato paste
1/2 large yellow onion
2 ribs celery
1 large carrot
2 bay leaves
1 tsp whole peppercorns
3 large garlic cloves
1 can beef broth
8 cups water

Onion soup:
About 6 cups sliced yellow onion
2 thick slices of bacon, chopped
2 tbsp sherry or brandy
Salt & pepper to taste
1 small loaf of crusty bread
Grated Swiss, provolone or muenster cheese

The two bones I had left over were not enough to make a respectable quantity of stock. Fortunately, I found both soup bones and small pieces of oxtail at the grocery store. Oxtail is perfect for stock as it has a lot of connective tissue and collagen that breaks down as it cooks, adding body and richness.  If you've never made your own stock before, there's nothing to it. But there are some steps you can take to achieve the best possible outcome and roasting the bones makes a huge difference in the flavor, color and body of your stock. I cranked my oven to 300, scattered all the bones out in my roasting pan and brushed them lightly with tomato paste. The bones roast for about an hour and the tomato paste caramelizes and concentrates, adding another layer of flavor to the final stock. I put the roasting pan in the oven and turned my attention to the veggies. No need to peel anything as the stock will simmer for at least four hours and by the time its finished cooking, there won't be much recognizable vegetables left. Onion skins add a deep golden color to your stock and celery leaves have a ton of flavor. You could actually roast the vegetables along with the bones, tossing them in about half way through roasting, but I browned mine on the stove top. I cut the onion, carrot and celery into large chunks and slowly browned them over medium heat in the bottom of my stock pot. A small drizzle of olive oil aids in browning. I also added a tablespoon of tomato paste to the veggies and stirred them periodically so they didn't burn. I turned the bones over half way through roasting and after an hour in the oven, they were a deep reddish brown color and there was a generous crust of caramelized juices in the bottom of the pan. A couple of the soup bones had marrow in the middle, which is very fatty and can make your stock cloudy if you leave it in there. The good news is that it is also quite delicious on its own. I scooped the small dollops of marrow into a small dish and tossed all the bones into the stock pot with the veggies. The caramelized juices in the pan, or "fond" as its sometimes called, is chock full of flavor. I poured all the beef fat out of the roasting pan, then splashed a little water in there and started scraping up all the fond and dissolving it into the water before pouring that into the stock pot as well.

I have made all kinds of stock over the years and I find that adding just one can of store-bought broth gives your final product the head start it needs to develop excellent flavor. Your liquid should just barely cover the bones and it will reduce a bit as it cooks. For this amount of bones and veggies, I used 1 can of broth, which is about two cups, to eight cups of water. I tossed in the garlic cloves, bay leaves and peppercorns, turned the heat down to low, covered the pot and ate that bone marrow on a thin crispy cracker. Nom nom!!

I stirred the stock a few times during its four hour simmer, just to make sure it was behaving itself. Cooking the stock covered keeps all the steam inside, whereas an uncovered pot allows the liquid to evaporate and that concentrates the stock. After four hours, your stock should have deep color and rich flavor, but if its too weak, take the cover off and let the stock reduce. When its done cooking, strain the stock into a big bowl and allow it to cool before putting it in jars and putting it in the fridge or freezer. If you've done this right, your stock should have a gelatinous, jiggly and even somewhat solid consistency after its chilled. That means you have extracted a good amount of collagen from the soup bones. You can make any kind of soup you like with a stock like this.

Onions, raw
I ended up with about two quarts of beef stock, which I turned into french onion soup the following day. Again, this is not a difficult recipe to make and requires just a few ingredients, a little technique and a bit of patience. The onions need to caramelize slowly over low heat to reach the perfect deep golden color and texture, which takes about 45 minutes. Onions have a lot of natural sugar in them, which means they can go from charred to burned very quickly, so you can't walk away from that pot for too long or your onions will burn.
Onions, after 15 minutes
Use that time to toast your bread and shred your cheese. You can use a food processor to slice your onions, but I like doing mine by hand. To avoid crying while you cut onions, make sure you sharpen your knife. A sharp knife will glide through the onion easily, but a dull knife will bruise the onion, sending more of its eye-watering juices flying into your face. Sharpen your knife, cut the onion in half through the root end and lay the cut surface flat on your cutting board. Then you can slice your onion into thin strands, which is the best texture for this soup.

Onions, after 30 minutes
Before I sliced my onions, I chopped my bacon into small pieces and got them rendering over medium heat in the bottom of my stock pot. When they were brown and crispy, I removed the cooked bacon and used the bacon fat to start cooking my onions. I put all the onions in the pot at once, sprinkled them with salt and pepper, and turned the heat to low. Again, this takes time and while you don't have to stir constantly, check the onions frequently so they don't burn. I stirred mine every 10 minutes or so as they cooked and became soft and translucent.
Onions, after 45 minutes
While the onions were cooking, I sliced the bread, put it on a sheet pan with a drizzle of olive oil and put the pan is a 325 degree oven to toast. After about 10 minutes, I flipped the bread over and let it toast on the other side. It took about 20 minutes for the bread to toast to a light golden brown. I also grated a little cheese and set it aside. Once the onions were nicely caramelized, I added the sherry and let that bubble and cook off the alcohol for a few minutes. Once the sherry has almost cooked away, I added the beef stock and turned the heat up to medium. As soon as the soup begins to boil, its ready to eat! Taste it and adjust the seasoning if necessary, then ladle the rich soup into crocks or bowls. I like to float the toasted bread on top, then sprinkle it with cheese and pop the whole thing under the broiler for a few minutes to get that cheese melted and bubbling. This can also be done in the microwave, but the broiler imparts a little bit of browning on the cheese, which is nice.  Finally, I sprinkled the cooked bacon bits on top and served this amazing soup with a small salad on the side. A bowl of homemade soup is like getting a hug on the inside. Next time you're in the mood for soup, try making your own stock instead of opening a can. It may just change your life.

Voila! Homemade French Onion Soup!

Monday, January 1, 2018

Hungarian roots, part 4: Cabbage rolls

Many of the recipes and preparations that are staples on the Hungarian table are found in the local cuisines throughout eastern Europe and even into parts of Asia. The simple cabbage roll might be one of the most iconic foods that cuts across cultural lines. The cabbage roll itself, little bundles of meat and rice rolled in a softened cabbage leaf, is the blank canvas on which native cultures use their indigenous flavors to paint a portrait of their lives. In northern Europe where the climate is colder and the growing season shorter, its not uncommon to find this dish with a sour cream based sauce and caraway seeds in the filling. As it travels south to warmer climates, its more commonly prepared with a tomato based sauce and fresh herbs or greens in the filling. I've had Bulgarian cabbage rolls that had warn spices like cinnamon and cloves in the filling. A colleague of mine who is of Croatian heritage brought me a sample of his mom's cabbage rolls and she softens the cabbage by souring it in a vinegar based brine and then cooks the rolls in sauerkraut.  The variations are seemingly endless.

The flavors I was raised by my Romanian relatives to appreciate have a unique combinations of sweet and savory that is reminiscent of Turkish cooking. I make these cabbage rolls exactly as my mother did because in my humble opinion, they need no improvement. If I was stranded on a desert island for five years, this would be the first hot meal I would request after being rescued.


1 large head of green cabbage
2 lbs of 85/15 ground beef
1/2 cup of raw, long grain rice
2 large eggs
1 small onion
1/4 cup water
2 cloves of garlic
1/2 cup golden raisins
1 tsp paprika
1 tbsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
lemon zest

For the sauce:
1 28 oz. can tomato sauce
2 large lemons
2 tbsp light brown sugar

There are three parts to this dish - cabbage, filling and sauce - none of which are terribly difficult to make. The cabbage needs to be softened so it is pliable and easy to roll and the best way to do that is to blanch it in boiling water. The sauce is just three ingredients, mixed together in the bottom of a deep casserole dish. The filling gets rolled up into cabbage leaves, nestled into the sauce and baked at 350 degrees for an hour. Good preparation will make each step go faster.

Start by preheating your oven and putting a stock pot filled with water over medium high heat. While you are waiting for the water to boil, get your sauce ready. Add the can of tomato sauce to the bottom of your casserole dish. You will be using lemon juice in the sauce, but you need the lemon zest for the filling. Zest both lemons into a large mixing bowl, then juice them into the tomato sauce. Finally, add the brown sugar, stir it all together and set it aside.

To prep the cabbage, slice off the bottom of the core as close to the leaves as possible. Using a small parking knife, begin to cut the leaves away from the thick core. If the head of cabbage is lose enough, you can try gently removing the leaves as you loosen them from the core, but that is often more challenging than it seems. I usually just put the entire head of cabbage into the boiling water and as it softens, I remove the leaves and let them steep briefly before shocking them in a bowl of ice water.

While your cabbage is blanching, you can get started on the filling. Dice the onion very finely and saute it along with the spices in a skillet over medium heat. When the onions are translucent, add the chopped garlic and saute just until fragrant. Add the onions to the bowl with the lemon zest, then add the rice, water and raisins and let that sit for a few minutes while you tend to your cabbage. Don't let the cabbage overcook! You want it to retain enough of its structure to stay wrapped around the filling and not fall apart while its baking. As the cabbage leaves soften, remove them from the pot and plunge them into a big bowl of ice water to stop the cooking, then place them on a towel to drain.

Finally, add the eggs to the rice and onion mixture and beat them slightly before adding the meat. Mix everything thoroughly, the best tool for this is your hands, and add a final bit of salt and pepper to make sure your filling is flavorful. Its a somewhat sticky and wet filling, but the rice will absorb the extra moisture and will bind the ingredients together. Now its time to rock & roll!

If you have some partial cabbage leaves, especially the dark outer leaves, lay them over the top of the sauce and line the bottom of the casserole so the rolls don't stick. If you've ever rolled a burrito or an eggroll, you'll be able to make a cabbage roll with ease. Cut the core out of the middle of the cabbage leaf in a v-shape. Then grab a small handful of filling, about a third of a cup, and roll it into a log. Place the filling just above the point of the v-shape and bring the bottom flaps of the cabbage leaf up around the filling. Fold the side of the cabbage leaf in, then roll the whole thing up and place it into
the casserole dish. When you fill the bottom of the dish, lay a few cabbage leaves over the bottom layer and starts a new layer on top. Keep going until you run out of filling, then shred what's left of the cabbage and sprinkle it over the top of the cabbage rolls.

Cover the casserole with a lid or foil and bake it for an hour. The sauce should be bubbling up around the edges and in between the cabbage rolls.
You absolutely MUST serve these cabbage rolls over mashed potatoes. You MUST. Okay, if you prefer mashed squash, that is a nice alternative, but that sauce needs a companion and mashed potatoes are the perfect match. This classic Hungarian cabbage role recipe takes me back to my childhood and I guarantee it will warm your soul on a cold winter day.