Archive for May, 2011

Maakouda, a North African potato cake, makes an unusual and delicious side dish for a Middle-Eastern themed party meal.

A couple of weeks ago Hazel and I had lunch at a Moroccan restaurant called Oasis in San Luis Obispo. We loved everything we tasted, and since we ordered a bunch of appetizers in order to sample as much as possible, we tasted a lot. I particularly liked the maakouda, which the owner said he had learned to make from his mother.

His version was unlike others I’ve seen: made colorful with chunks of mashed carrots and sheathed in a crispy chickpea-flour crust and served with a spicy tomato sauce. I came home determined to replicate it as much as possible, and the pink soup birthday party gave me the perfect opportunity. All of our guests are adventurous eaters, so I knew no one would poke at the maakouda suspiciously and push the plate away.

(Moroccan Potato Patties)

2 pounds potatoes
1 medium onion, diced
3-4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 or 2 tablespoons butter or olive oil
1 ½ tablespoons ground cumin
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon turmeric
½ teaspoon harissa powder or a couple dashes of hot pepper sauce, to taste*
1 teaspoon crushed coriander seeds
¼ cup chopped cilantro
3 eggs, divided

Chickpea flour
Olive oil

I use Red Bliss potatoes because I hate to peel spuds (I spent my childhood peeling potatoes for a family of zillions. Okay, 12—but when you’re peeling potatoes, it’s zillions). Boil the whole potatoes in salted water until soft. Drain and mash then—you can remove some of the skin if you like (I usually do). While the potatoes are cooking, sauté the onions until they’re translucent and then add the garlic; sauté for another minute. Gently toss the spices, potatoes, onions and garlic and cilantro together. Taste and adjust seasoning. At this point you can refrigerate it until you are ready to fry the patties; I like to let the flavors meld.

When you’re ready to proceed, mix in two of the three eggs to help the potatoes stick together. Lightly beat the third egg with a little water or milk and pour into a shallow pan or a plate. Put a cup or two of chickpea flour on a second plate.

Heat the oil until it shimmers. Shape the potatoes into patties and dip each one in the egg mixture, then in the flour. Fry until crisp, turning once. Place the patties on a cookie sheet or jelly roll pan in a warm oven until all the patties are done.

I serve them with lebneh (kefir cheese) and a Moroccan-spiced tomato sauce, but they’re great right out of the frying pan.

*Harissa powder is available from various online sources. Mine comes from 54 Gourmet Spice Blends; no website, phone 818-546-1223.



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I felt like I was on one of those challenge reality TV shows. A birthday dinner for 12 on the patio means putting together three folding tables–and that leaves a lot of empty real estate in the middle that requires either a sizable centerpiece or a number of smaller centerpieces. Laurie was making dinner. My mission was to make the centerpiece.

Laurie planted this as a birthday gift but it made a great centerpiece as well.

I got to Laurie’s way later than I had planned, so time was short. Laurie, having taken a look at the time, feared I wouldn’t make it until the soup was being served and decided to place the guest of honor’s birthday gift in the center of the big square of tables. It was a huge low pot planted with salvia and petunias, among other things, which truly did make a spectacular centerpiece and will also be a lovely addition to the birthday girl’s patio. It looked great…but I thought the table looked a little incomplete even so.

But one of the reasons I was late was because I had been cutting roses from my garden. I had three dozen short-stemmed roses in a bucket, and I didn’t want to waste them. I asked Ms Laurie what she had in mind for me to do with them and rather than snapping the obvious, “You were late; do whatever you want,” she said, “Well, umm….” That was enough for me. I asked if she had small containers that matched and she said that she might have a few. A few? Not good enough. I asked her to break out the 12 cute yellow one-cup ramekins that her, ahem, good sister had given her for Christmas.

Hazel created adorable small arrangements that coordinated with the floral napkins as though they had been made for them. Come to think of it, they were.

They didn’t even need to be washed, so I cut a soaked block of Oasis into eight parts (and used half of a leftover block for the balance) to fill each ramekin with a custom-fitted water holder. I trimmed six ferns from her garden and systematically cut off each branchlet (I know it’s not a word, but you know exactly what I mean, don’t you?). I cut the ends off with my garden shears and filled the edges of each ramekin with fern.

After that, all I had to do was place three roses in each dish (depending on the size of the rose) in a triangle shape, and they were almost done. I went out to Laurie’s garden, where I found the cutest purple salvia and trimmed 12 of those stems and 12 purple sweet peas. I added one apiece to each arrangement. Done! I got them on the table before guests arrived, topping each place setting so that everyone had an individual arrangement.

The complete flower arrangements took only half an hour from start to tabletop – simple, huh? And because Laurie has a fabulous garden (and my roses were in bloom), we didn’t spend a penny on centerpieces! A bargain, once again.


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We call it pink soup, but its official name is cold beet borscht. A friend loves it so much, I make it every year for her birthday–and this year I turned an image of it into the simplest dinner party invitation ever. Really, it needed no explanation.

I fell for this soup, which is found in delis and in Jewish grandmas’ kitchens all over the country, at a wonderful Polish restaurant in Santa Monica called Warszawa. I spent a long time trying to re-create the luscious texture of that version and combine it with the ginger-inflected snap of Mel’s mom’s borscht and finally arrived at a version I was happy with. Last fall the Los Angeles Times printed a recipe for Warszawa’s cold beet borscht–which is when I realized just how much my cold beet borscht differed from Warszawa’s. It’s incredibly simple to make. Oh, um, it’s not really low-calorie, though you can mitigate the fat content a lot without materially affecting the flavor.

Laurie’s Cold Beet Borscht

3 one-pound cans of shoestring beets
3 16-ounce containers of sour cream
1 cup buttermilk
3 tablespoons sugar
3/4 cup lemon juice
1 1/2 teaspoons ginger
3 or 4 Persian cucumbers, peeled and diced
3 hard-boiled eggs, optional
chives, minced

My blender is not huge, so I make this in three batches; you can see that it breaks down into thirds pretty readily. Empty one can of beets and one container of sour cream into the blender and puree. Add a third of the ginger, sugar and lemon juice and puree again. Pour it into a bowl and make a second batch. For the third batch, drain the beet juices into the blender and put the shoestring beets into the bowl with the rest of the soup. Pour the buttermilk into the blender with the beet juices and half of the third container of sour cream, the rest of the sugar, ginger and lemon juice. Puree and add it to the bowl. Stir it and put in the fridge to chill and to let the flavors meld.

If you want a little heartier soup, hard boil the eggs, then peel and slice them and set them aside.

When you’re ready to serve, taste the soup and add more ginger, lemon or sugar if you think it needs a little something. Stir in the diced cucumbers, then top each serving with a couple of egg slices, a dollop of sour cream, a sprig of dill and a sprinkling of chives.

This makes about 12 first-course servings, plus extra to send home with the birthday girl for her lunch the next day.

Note: If the idea of using three containers of full-fat sour cream (yum!) makes you turn pale and tremble, you can substitute one container of nonfat sour cream and one container of reduced-fat or 2 percent Greek-style yogurt–but do use one container of the high-fat sour cream. After all, it’s for a party, right?


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It Goes on Top

By Mel

I’ve often spoken of my mother in these pages, always with affection, though she did occasionally make me a little crazy. After all, making me crazy was part of her job, just as it was part of mine to make her a little crazy.

Now that Mel can buy his own condiments, the refrigerator always contains at least two bottles of barbecue sauce--plus an assortment of other sauces his mother never heard of and would have regarded with the deepest suspicion.

Part of her craziness was her conservative approach to food, especially when her children were very young. In those days she had definite ideas about what people ate and what they didn’t. The fact that an item was sold at the grocery story was no guarantee that it wasn’t poison. This included condiments–foodstuffs that you sprinkled or spread on top rather than mixed in.

We always had mustard in the house, probably the yellow stuff with the red flag on the jar, but I really don’t remember. We also had something that the label called sandwich spread but we called mayonnaise. Something that as an adult I call pickle relish but we called piccalilli. I don’t know where Mom got that word. Maybe it is regional to Chicago, which was where she grew up.

But the condiment that caused me the most trouble was catsup. I liked it fine and put it on everything because it was all we had, but sometimes what I really wanted was barbecue sauce. I wished with all my little kid heart that the stuff in the bottle in our refrigerator would magically change in the night. After all, catsup was red; barbecue sauce was red, or at least reddish–why couldn’t it become barbecue sauce? It never did, of course, though I kept hoping. But, just as she blackballed pizza and other foods with which she was unfamiliar, she refused to purchase barbecue sauce until I was well into high school, no matter how much I pleaded.

Speaking of pizza, after her boys got her to try some at the Hancock Park elementary school Halloween carnival and we suffered no ill effects, we convinced her that the Betty Crocker do-it-yourself pizza would probably also not kill us. The Betty Crocker pizza was a pop-open can that contained ready-made dough and a can of pizza sauce. If you wanted toppings, you were on your own. (When nobody was looking, I would sometimes dip one finger into the open can of pizza sauce and then lick it off. What a rush!)

Pizza toppings are not condiments, exactly, but as the name implies, you do put them on top. Mom was a little slow to catch on with these as well. Instead of pepperoni, which I believe she had never heard of at that point, she might allow salami. Instead of an alien cheese such as mozzarella, she would apply Velveeta. As you might imagine, this made for a pretty strange pizza, but we had limited experience, and so it mostly seemed OK to us.

I grew up and eventually was able to try forbidden foods on my own. Sometimes I brought one of them home and was able to persuade Mom to give it a shot. Occasionally something I brought home was a hit. Toward the end of her life she became quite a connoisseur of restaurant barbecue. With sauce on it. What I would have given for some of that sauce when I was a kid!

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Last summer Laurie asked Mark to smoke some tomatoes from her garden. Mark jokingly told her to send along 20 pounds of tomatoes. She took him at his word.

When it comes to smoking, my honey is the king — at least in my book. He has smoked tomatoes, which we freeze and mince up and toss into tried-and-true recipes, giving them a new and unique flavor (smoked-tomato caponata, for instance). He smokes garlic, which we’ve added to most everything savory. He has cold-smoked oysters and cheeses. He’s smoked salt, pepper and paprika.

It should go without saying that he’s a master at meats, but one of my favorites is his smoked salmon. He doesn’t even like salmon (to which I say, more for me!), and I’m sure it annoys him a bit that I am always asking him to smoke it for me.

However, this past Christmas he gifted me with THE grill — nicknamed the Escalade because it’s huge and incredibly luxurious. Because this is Southern California, I started using it a couple days after Christmas (yes, it was raining, but I wouldn’t let a little thing like that stop me). So now my sweetie is teaching me how to smoke, and, believe me, it’s way easier than I thought. I don’t have his fancy smoker, but my grill can do everything his does — and so can yours, with a little help.

I have a flat tray with multiple holes in it, purchased at Barbeques Galore along with something called a smoke box. The box is made of sturdy metal and has a hinged cover full of holes, and you fill it with damp wood chips.

My slightly used smoker box

Place the chip-filled box to the left side of your grill and turn on that burner (or two burners). You can buy wood chips at Lowes, Home Depot or any of the barbecue-supply stores (Laurie once found hickory chips at the 99 Cent store–you know how the Party Know-It-Alls love a bargain). Salmon lends itself to alder or birch but hickory works just as well.

I started with a side of Costco line-caught salmon. I rinsed it, dried it and brushed it with olive oil. Then I sprinkled it with Montreal seasoning, rubbing it in on both sides of my fish (Emeril’s rub works great too). Place the salmon on the flat tray and then place your tray on the opposite side of the grill from the smoke box. Do not turn on the burners under or near the fish. My grill has a thermometer, which I maintain at 200 degrees to smoke salmon. If your grill doesn’t have an actual thermometer, purchase an oven thermometer because keeping the heat low is crucial. The heat from the wood chip/smoke side will float over the salmon and cook it in less than an hour.
Mine came out buttery and smokey and was perfect for my smoked-salmon sandwiches for tea (and Norah’s breakfast).

I’m planning on smoking again this Wednesday – I’ll vacuum-pack a side of smoked salmon and take it along on our annual spring break. I will serve it with homemade pasta in light lemon cream sauce. It’s every bit as good as it sounds.


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Crispy and chewy at the same, chocolate chip cookies are pretty much the perfect party dessert.

Ask me what’s for dessert on an average day, and I’ll say, “Cookies.” Ask me what the perfect party dessert is, and I’ll say, “Cookies.” Ask me what the perfect breakfast food is, and I’ll say, “Cookies.” (With coffee, of course. I mean, it’s breakfast, right?) Really, you can’t beat them. They’re tidy and simple. You don’t need a plate (neither paper nor plastic–nor porcelain); you don’t need a fork. You might need a little self-control, but that’s another issue.

I love bar cookies for their speed and convenience, but I have to say that drop cookies are my favorite. And of all the drop cookies I make, and I make lots, chocolate chip tops the list. There are many recipes, ranging from the Toll House recipe on the Nestle chocolate chip bag to the much-circulated but totally bogus Neiman-Marcus version (kids, don’t try that recipe at home unless you’re planning to build a wall with the results).

Here’s my version.

Chewy and Crispy Chocolate Chip Cookies

1/2 cup butter, almost melted
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 large egg

1 cup + 1 tablespoon flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt

2/3 cup chocolate chips
2/3 cup chopped walnuts or pecans

Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Cream together the butter, sugars, egg and vanilla. Beat in the dry ingredients. Stir in the chips and nuts. Drop by spoonsful on a parchment-paper-lined cookie sheet and bake for about eight minutes. Keep a close eye on them–they should be lightly browned but not dark brown. Take them out when they look almost but not quite done and let them finish cooking on the sheet. Try not to burn your fingers as you devour the first one. They will never be better than the moment they are just cool enough to eat, while the chocolate is still melted.

This recipe makes about two and a half dozen, and it can easily be doubled (in case you’re one of those people who like to eat half the batter and still have enough to bake some too). Like any very simple dish, its flavor depends on the quality of the ingredients. Use good chocolate chips–Valhrona or Callebaut or Trader Joe’s. I usually use Trader Joe’s unless I’ve been to Surfas and had a chance to stock up on Valhrona. Don’t use Nestle chips; they’re awful. Use good vanilla and good butter.


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