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 indigenous flavors paint the picture of their cultures. In northern Europe, 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, the cabbage roll is made with a tomato based sauce and herbs in the filling. I've had Bulgarian cabbage rolls that had warn spices like cinnamon and cloves in the filling. I was talking about this dish with a colleague recently who is of Croatian heritage and he described his mother's recipe in which she softens the cabbage by souring it in a vinegar based brine and then cooks the rolls in sauerkraut.  The variations are seemingly endless.

My mother's side of the family has deep Romanian roots and our familiar dishes had a unique combinations of sweet and savory flavors that are 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.