Too Good to Toss

Thanksgiving, with its signature feasts, is a fitting time to thank the farmers, bakers and specialty food producers who make it possible for us to find mounds of fresh vegetables, pastured poultry and cut-to-order domestic cheeses. While families and friends usher in the high season for sharing food and drinks, your to-do list should include a plan for leftovers. Finishing off the stuffing and sweet potatoes not only saves time and money but controls food waste. Ever slathered leftover sweet potatoes on corn tortillas to grill?

minimized-cranberry-sauce-compote-copySome food waste is unavoidable, but after the second or third day of overlooking leftovers in the refrigerator, options diminish. For those who eat turkey and welcome its protein value, eating the dark or white meat on Thanksgiving may be plenty, though some of us look forward to building a sandwich on toasty rye bread. To revive your leftovers, let them stand in for a breakfast change, like cranberry sauce compote, spiked with crunchy granola. Reserve potato peels for a vegetable stock and put the mashed potatoes to work in a classic dish.

With this year’s leftover turkey, I’m making a mashed potato dish that resembles shepherd’s pie and its close cousin, cottage pie. Traditionalists insist that only lamb can be used to make shepherd’s pie and beef is required for cottage pie. But whatever you want to call it, turkey works for me. In fact, this comfort dish can be made with fish or a mixture of lentils and crunchy carrots folded under the layer of potatoes.minimized-slice-of-leftovers-pie

Though this post-Thanksgiving mashup, which I call Gobbler Pie, may look like a shepherd’s pie, it takes on a character of its own with the help of blended spices and caramelized onions. If you can find a batch or grind your own, Lebanese seven-spice blend carries the pie across cultures.

To further prevent food waste and help alleviate hunger in the region, contact the Food Bank of the Hudson Valley (foodbankofhudsonvalley.org or 845-534-5344). It collects millions of pounds of food each year for distribution in Dutchess, Putnam and three other nearby counties.

Cranberry sauce compote

Serves 4

2 soft bananas
8 ounces plain yogurt
2 cups granola
leftover cranberry sauce (water, fresh cranberries, grated orange or lemon peel, sugar)
Blend bananas and yogurt. Layer yogurt, granola, cranberry sauce and more granola to enjoy the remains of fresh cranberry sauce.

Gobbler Pie

Serves 6

olive oil
1 large onion, thinly sliced
½ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons Lebanese seven-spice blend (a mixture of equal parts ground allspice, black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, fenugreek, ginger, nutmeg) or your own favorite spice blend
4 cups shredded turkey
mashed potatoes

Shake shredded turkey with spice blend and 1 tablespoon olive oil in plastic bag or covered bowl until evenly coated. Set spiced turkey aside. In large pan, cook onions with salt in olive oil over high heat. Stir continuously until onions turn brown in color. Add spiced turkey and warm through.

Spoon turkey and onion mixture into greased baking dish. Cover turkey layer with leftover mashed potatoes. Drizzle olive oil over potatoes. Bake 25 to 30 minutes at 375 degrees until the top begins to turn golden brown. Sprinkle top lightly with spice blend.

All-Purpose Pasta

Although average strands of spaghetti dressed with a homemade sauce typically fill the dinner plates at our house, there’s no argument that to appreciate the beauty of true noodles — prepared with eggs, flour and a little olive oil — you need fresh pasta.

For fine pasta selections, like the hand-rolled pasta at Manhattan restaurant Felidia, it’s hard to beat what culinary pros create with dough. It’s completely unlikely that the pasta from my own kitchen will ever measure up to the delicate egg pastas turned out at Felidia, but every now and then I attempt to roll my own dough.minimized-beating-eggs-in-bowl

Purchasing high-end dried pasta that’s perfect in flavor and texture is another option. A couple of weeks ago, my family dropped in at the newest location of Eataly, the gastronomic store, at 4 World Trade Center. Lidia Bastianich, who created Felidia, has a hand in Eataly, along with her son, Joe Bastianich, and chef Mario Batali. Besides its selection of fine pasta, Eataly includes a restaurant and gourmet marketplace stocked with spices, oils, olives, bread, cheeses, wine — anything imaginable to create an “Eatalian” dinner.

Shelf after shelf of perfectly packaged nests of noodles filled me up even before I tasted (and devoured) the agnolotti during dinner. Long pastas, short pastas, pastas for soup, little pillows of pasta and thick, ridged and hollow pastas were all within reach. It’s an inspirational place.

With so many shapes and sizes to choose from at groceries like Foodtown in Cold Spring — including selections of gluten-free rice- and corn-blended noodles — it’s convenient to buy ready-to-cook pasta. But making basic egg pasta dough isn’t all that taxing. It’s not essential, but a pasta-making machine might simplify the rolling and bring more fun to the task with its hand-cranking mechanism.

If you don’t have a machine, roll out dough by hand and slice pasta with a knife or pizza cutter. Rolling dough as paper-thin as possible results in beautiful ribbons, but appearance is not all that counts. The texture and width of a noodle determine what type of sauce pairs best with it.

For thoroughly indulgent egg pasta, use only egg yolks. Gather a couple of ingredients and a rolling pin and turn out fresh sheets of dough. My daily dining partners favor a thicker fettuccine-type noodle that holds up under a layer of stout red sauce. It tastes good any time, but especially on a dark winter’s day. This time of year, as colors change and autumn leaves fall, the pasta serves as a bed for a hearty mix of vegetables anchored by acorn squash. The real work comes with the squash, and once you’ve managed to peel its firm skin, you’ll probably find the pasta prep painless.

Sautéed Squash

1 large acorn squash, peeled and cubed
2 carrots, diced
½ sweet onion, diced
1 stalk celery, thinly sliced
2 cups hominy, rinsed
⅓ cup olive oil
1 teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon chili powder
½ teaspoon cinnamon
salt and pepper to taste

Mix olive oil with spices over medium heat. Add onions, celery, carrots and squash. Cook until tender. Add hominy. Mix thoroughly and season with salt and pepper. Serve over pasta.

Pasta Dough

Serves 4 to 6

2½ cups all-purpose flour
4 eggs
2 tablespoons olive oil

Place flour in mixing bowl (if especially coordinated, pour the flour directly onto work surface) and create a well in the center. Crack eggs into the well and slowly beat eggs. Mix in olive oil and gradually work eggs into flour. If necessary, add a tablespoon of water to moisten. Knead dough until smooth. Finish kneading on flat surface. Form a ball of dough, cover and let dough rest 30 minutes. Slice the dough into sections, dust with flour and, using a pasta machine, pass the sections through flat pasta rollers. Lightly flour pasta sections after each pass. Repeat, adjusting the width for a thinner sheet. Once desired thickness is reached, pass dough sheets through cutters. If hand-rolling, roll dough to thin consistency and cut into desired types.

Bring a large pan of salted water to boil. Drop pasta into water little by little and cook uncovered until pasta rises and floats. Test a noodle to make sure it’s tender and done before removing from the cooking pot. Toss with sauce, vegetables, or top with light butter and finish with freshly grated cheese.

Text and photos by Mary Ann Ebner, first published by The Highlands Current

Chocolate Reserve

By Mary Ann Ebner

It often pays off to stash a little chocolate — and cocoa  — in the cupboard. The confectionery staples embellish everything and cool weather calls for cocoa.

To those who temper chocolate, temperature matters beyond the chocolate thermometer. As autumn arrives, chocolate delicacies hold up longer, while demand from chocolate lovers increases.

When temperatures dipped, Alps Sweet Shop stepped up chocolate production. The family business, which has locations in Beacon and Fishkill, has handcrafted small-batch fine confections for more than 90 years. It was founded by Peter Charkalis and today is run by his granddaughter, Sally Charkalis-Craft, and her husband, Terry Craft, a master chocolatier.

minimized-terry-craft-prepares-salted-caramel-copy

Terry Craft, master chocolatier and co-owner of Alps Sweet Shop, pours 110  pounds of salted caramel onto a cooling tray at their Beacon location. 

Customers streamed in to Beacon’s Main Street location last week to choose from sweets in cases brimming with chocolate-covered caramels, heaven-and-earth truffles, chocolate glace fruits, almond butter crunch and molded chocolates.

Terry Craft and his candy makers work year round but fall production keeps them in the kitchen even longer, stirring kettles bubbling with the likes of salted caramel and dark chocolate. He studied his craft in the U.S., Belgium, France, Canada and England, and although producing confections is labor intensive, he says he finds the work rewarding.

“It’s a feel-good type of business,” Craft said. “People are either coming in here to make themselves happy or to make someone else happy.”

The recipes haven’t changed since Peter Charkalis’s day, but the production methods have evolved from the days when every morsel was handmade. Sally’s mother, Mary Charkalis, recalled a turning point in 1968 when the shop bought its first piece of machinery, an enrober. Sally’s grandfather was not happy about the purchase, so her father waited until he was on vacation in Greece to have it delivered. (He eventually came around to appreciate its benefits.)

An enrober — which moves confections down a conveyor belt, along a cold plate to set the bottom and then through a curtain of chocolate for coating — still stands ready in the Beacon shop. Alps has since further modernized its methods by purchasing an automated candy wrapper and computerized molding equipment.

Like any connoisseur in matters of taste, Craft knows cocoa (or cacao, as it is more commonly known where it’s grown). He prefers a Criollo cocoa bean from Ecuador. The common Forastero bean is a close second but he says it doesn’t have the pronounced flavor. As a third option there’s the Trinitario, a hybrid of the Criollo and the Forastero.

“The best of the best [chocolatiers] can tell you while eating them not only what part of the world a bean is from but the region or plantation where they’re grown,” Craft said. “This particular plantation has a patented fermentation process and right now I have exclusive U.S. rights. These Ecuadorian Criollo beans are right off the plantation.” He cracked open a bean, removed the nib and gently crushed it.

“The nib is where the excitement starts,” he explained. “The nib is pressed and the cocoa butter is extracted and what’s left is called the chocolate liquor,” the paste that serves as the essential ingredient for chocolate. Craft sells the Ecuadorian product to restaurants and pastry chefs as well as a microbrewer. He also coats whole beans in organic chocolate and recently filled an order for 25,000.

“You can taste the earthiness, a savory touch, fruitiness and the soil of the region,” he said. “And the cocoa bean is off the charts with its flavonoids and high in vitamins and minerals.”

Savor a piece of gourmet chocolate or make the cake recipe here that calls for cocoa powder and bits of chocolate. Some chip chocolates have a high melting point, so a better choice is a premium chocolate like the break-up bars that Alps produces in milk, dark and organic white chocolate.minimized-chocolate-kahlua-cake-two

Fragrant cocoa powder, Kahlua and rich chocolate enhance this Bundt cake. 

Home cooks should be able to find small quantities of good cocoa at local markets. Natural unsweetened cocoa, non-alkalized, will be darker while alkalized will soften bitterness. Some cocoas may also affect rise and texture of a cake. This chocolate cake always pleases, thanks in part to flavorful chocolate, powerful cocoa and a dose of Kahlua.

Chocolate Kahlua Cake

1 ¼ cups sugar
1 ¾ cups flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup natural unsweetened cocoa powder
4 eggs, beaten
16 ounces sour cream
¾ cups canola oil
⅓ cup Kahlua
6 ounces chocolate, broken into small pieces

Glaze

2 tablespoons cocoa powder
3 cups powdered sugar
1 ½ cups Kahlua

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter Bundt pan and dust with cocoa. Mix flour, cocoa powder, sugar, baking soda and salt. Add eggs, sour cream, oil and Kahlua. Stir thoroughly and fold in chocolate pieces. Pour batter into pan and bake 1 hour.

Whisk glaze ingredients and set aside.

Allow cake to cool, then invert. Pour glaze over cake and set 1 hour. Refrigerate if serving next day. Serve with fresh mint leaves.

Photos by M.A. Ebner, first published by The Highlands Current

Share an artichoke

Artichokes sprout a few thorns, but underneath all that armor, their tough leaves protect delicate creamy flesh.

Harvested before they blossom with spiky flowers, artichokes are actually unopened buds from a type of thistle plant. The plants produce clusters of large buds, not only tasty to eat but striking enough to use as a centerpiece. With many distant relatives in the daisy family of flowering plants, artichokes remind me of a stunning flower, the giant protea, with a cone-shaped appearance and tropical beauty. A bin of harvested artichoke globes draws more than a passing look at our local grocery store, but a field of green artichoke plants with thick stems shooting up several feet toward the California sky can stop traffic, or perhaps prompt drivers to slow down to admire roadside fields.

minimized-california-artichokesSometimes we all need to take a good look at what we’re cooking and eating. Driving along California’s Highway 1 through Castroville a few weeks ago, we stopped our car to check out the dreamy fields of artichoke plants. The small unincorporated town of Castroville touts itself as the world’s artichoke capital, rich in fertile farmland with a cool coastal climate ideal for growing the plants as well as other crops like lettuce and strawberries that flourish in the Salinas Valley. We’ve enjoyed sharing artichokes around our table since my husband and I lived not far from Castroville nearly 20 years ago. Seeing again one of our favorite foods ready for harvest in this small community that is the big-time producer of the plant reminded us why we appreciate artichokes so much. Working away through each layer of leaves to reach the prized heart allows time to linger over conversation.

I’ve found steaming rather than roasting or stuffing them the simplest way to celebrate a meal of artichokes, with one for each of us if they’re small, served up with a warm garlicky butter and toast. Prep includes nothing more than cutting off the stem and any tough lower leaves to flatten the bottom, trimming the thorniest top leaves with kitchen scissors, and placing them in a pot of salted water doused with a splash of olive oil and lemon juice. After 20 minutes of steaming, when leaves pull away easily, it’s dipping time. We peel off each leaf to eat them one by one, gently pulling leaves through teeth for the mini reward of a buttery bite of the underside of each leaf, and then carefully remove the fuzzy choke and slice up the meaty bottom for the long-awaited honors of its center.

Anyone in a hurry should be banned from the table when the meal includes whole steamed artichokes. A diner who moves too quickly on the heart is often rewarded with a forkful of hairy choke.

Artichokes enhance so many recipes. One of my favored sauces is an artichoke-mushroom medley made with heavy cream. Spinach and artichoke quiche never fails for brunch, and fried artichokes make their case as the perfect appetizer. A friend and I recently shared a fine plate of fried baby artichokes, — lightly crisped and served with a roasted garlic-olive tapenade aioli — on the open airy patio at The Roundhouse in Beacon. Steamed, marinated, pickled or fried, artichokes can go solo or harmonize to finish a dish. Nothing beats fresh, but even frozen, jarred or canned artichokes add a little extra bloom to a meal.minimized-steamed-artichokes

Steam your own to dip leaves in butter and slide across those teeth, toss marinated hearts in a leafy green salad or fry a batch of baby artichokes and savor them with garlic sauce.

Artichokes (Fried or Steamed)

Serves 4

4 medium artichokes

2 eggs, lightly beaten

1 cup corn meal

1 cup bread crumbs

salt

pepper

1 cup olive oil

juice of half lemon (if needed)

Fried: Mix corn meal, bread crumbs, salt and pepper and set aside. Trim top and stem of artichoke with sharp knife. Peel away tough outer leaves to expose soft inner layers. Open the center using fingers to pull leaves apart and with a metal spoon remove fuzzy choke, or cut artichoke in half and spoon or cut away choke and surrounding purplish leaves. Cut in half again for quartered pieces. (If not using right away, place pieces in lemon water.) Dredge pieces in beaten eggs and dry mixture and fry in olive oil over medium heat until lightly golden. Remove fried pieces to paper towels to drain excess oil. Serve immediately.

Steamed: For the alternative steamed version, place cut pieces in a heavy pan with enough water to cover pan’s bottom below steamer basket. Steam 15 minutes until tender and serve with lemon wedges, garlic butter or aioli.

Aioli

(Makes 1 cup)

3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

3 egg yolks

1 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon boiling water

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1 teaspoon sriracha chili sauce (or any hot sauce)

½ teaspoon salt

Mix garlic and egg yolks in bowl with whisk. Add salt and boiling water and mix thoroughly. Gradually beat in olive oil. Mix in lemon juice, sriracha and salt. Serve with prepared artichokes.

By Mary Ann Ebner, first published by The Highlands Current

Twist your own salty pretzels

Quarts of local blueberries, ears of Hudson Valley sweet corn and a mess of fresh greens boasted just-picked prominence at the Beacon Farmer’s Market last weekend, but crusty-on-the-outside, delicate-on-the-inside pretzels added to the market’s choice. These weren’t the stadium-style commercial fare thawed at the riverside and warmed up in assembly-line fashion, but individually prepared pretzels made with locally milled flour and pulled recently from the oven.

To describe the pretzels as “adequate” in size would be unforgivable. Twisted and baked by Beacon’s All You Knead Artisan Bakers, the day’s offerings ranged from generous to gigantic, so good and perfectly satiating for hungry market shoppers. My son (who worked up an appetite while playing Pokémon GO around town) promptly polished off one of the crispy golden purchases — hand-rolled, boiled, baked and finished with sea salt and butter — and we each saved another for later … but not much later. We shared them at home that afternoon and made plans to test our own old-fashioned recipe.Minimized salty soft pretzels

A couple of years ago, friends took my family on a tour of one of the country’s oldest bakeries, the Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery in Pennsylvania’s Amish country. Tucked into an historic stone house in the town of Lititz, the bakery’s owners still turn out soft pretzels on site, in their building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Before tasting their boiled and baked specialty, we learned how to hand-roll our own baking rope using a premeasured piece of dough to shape it into a traditional design with three open loops. We didn’t actually pop our own rope twists into the oven, but while we practiced the rolling and shaping technique, our docent shared a lengthy backstory of the pretzel and its early beginnings as a noble treat of baked dough twisted into a semblance reflecting crossed arms held in prayer. I hadn’t really made much of a connection between prayer and pretzels prior to that but lately I’ll admit to a quiet reflection with my pretzel indulgence, in hopes that I can polish off the salted symbol without seeing an immediate body bulge along with unwelcome pounds.

That’s the thing with just-baked bread and other wheat-based foods. Their richness packs a few calories but appreciating the taste of a warm slice of sourdough or a buttery garlic knot once in a while can be too much to resist. And freshly baked bread or just-twisted pretzels don’t have to fall into the luxury goods shopping cart. Homemade and bakery-fresh bread puts loaves with a long shelf life to shame and preparing yeast breads at home costs little — for ingredients or baking tools. For this pretzel recipe, the dough also works well in loaf form. Instead of breaking pieces into pretzel-sized portions, divide the batch of dough into four parts and shape into mini loaves. Follow all other directions for boiling and baking. When ready to eat the loaf, slice it down the middle but only half way through the loaf and stuff with a spoonful of egg salad or grilled vegetables. Or thinly slice your pretzel loaf and drizzle it with honey.

Working with a few ingredients turns basic dough into a shared pleasure and letting friends and family roll their own ropes into a range of custom shapes from twists to knots makes the real work easy. The end result: a pretzel far better than any stadium-bought substitute.

Salty Soft Pretzels

Yield: 1 dozen pretzels

1 package active dry yeast

1¼ cups water (85 degrees)

1 teaspoon granulated maple sugar

4 cups flour

2 tablespoons kosher salt

For pretzel boil

3 cups water

¼ cup baking soda

In a large bowl, combine yeast and sugar in warmed water, (not exceeding temperature guidelines). Without stirring, yeast should activate in 5 to 10 minutes. Once activated, gradually add flour to bowl. Mix thoroughly until all flour is absorbed. Remove ball of dough and place on lightly floured surface. Knead dough firmly for a few minutes and cover dough mound with a moistened towel. Let rise 20 minutes. Uncover and pinch dough off into desired number of pieces for pretzels.

Individually roll dough pieces on lightly floured surface into rope forms, about 15 inches in length. Twist the dough into any shape you like or go traditional starting with an upside-down U, crossing ends twice and dropping the large loop down to fold over onto the ends of the rope. Tuck ends under or over large loop.

In a medium saucepan, bring water and baking soda to a low boil. With a slotted metal spatula, lower pretzels one at a time into boiling water and allow to float in boiling solution 30 seconds. Remove and place onto parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Sprinkle immediately with kosher salt or sesame seeds or your custom spice blend. Bake about 20 minutes at 400 degrees until golden brown. Remove from oven and serve warm or add your favorite dip … hummus, mustard or salted caramel.Minimized Pretzel twistMinimized pretzel twist two

By Mary Ann Ebner, first published by The Highlands Current

Fish Taco Fill-Up

Summer may not always live up to its lazy reputation, but when the season arrives, meals come together with a little less prep and a lot less urgency. With July’s warmth and a more relaxed pace, salads and raw food medleys stand in as main dishes. And with minimal time at the grill while the rice cooker steams up a batch of long grain, anyone can pull together a platter of fish tacos to lighten up mealtime.

Old friends know that I share a fish taco romance with my husband. He deserves credit for making taco night part of the ritual during our courtship when we lived along California’s Central Coast. After evening runs from Monterey to Pacific Grove, dinner called and the caller was typically a plate of savory fish tacos somewhere on the peninsula, usually in town or the next town over. Fish tacos had long replaced sardines in this coastal community — once a canning capital — but even transplants like us could appreciate the town’s fishy history. We ate our share of fish tacos and even enjoyed a few sardines.

Corn tortilla fish tacos minimizedAfter we left California and moved five or six more times before landing in New York’s Hudson Valley, we realized that we’d let our favorite fish dish slip away. When we became parents on a tighter budget and splurged on fish, we occasionally broiled salmon with dill weed. We turned out perfectly fine meals but they didn’t remind us much of earlier fish taco endeavors. We’d drifted a little too far from beer-battered and fried whitefish topped with crunchy salsa and finished with zesty lime juice all tucked into fresh corn tortillas.

But as life seems to go, things often have a way of repeating themselves, even if reinvented with just a hint of resemblance. It was our 2014 trip to Costa Rica that took us back not only to our own vows to each other but to fish tacos (though our personal vows run far deeper than those to any food devotion). Definitely not a California Baja fish-fried classic taco, but the ones we sampled near Arenal and Manuel Antonio rekindled our affinity for this lost symbol of our courtship and set our sons’ hearts ablaze with a great taste they could appreciate. Served primarily with fresh corn tortillas slathered with a creamy curry sauce, our favorite taco tasting in Costa Rica was anchored with flaky grilled white fish, smothered with tomatoes and bright green cilantro.

Making them at home is now a family affair. Everybody helps out, from whipping up a curry sauce to grilling the fish. It’s hard to pass on a Baja-style fried fish filet perched in a fresh tortilla, but for a slightly healthier plate, we lean more closely to a quick-cooking fish prepared in minutes on the grill. From Foodtown or the farmers’ market, almost any fish will do. Try halibut, tilapia, mahi mahi or even tuna. Personally, I think the whiter fish are better in tacos. With a fork, flake cooked fish into bite-sized pieces and layer the fish with rice and beans into tortillas. If someone around your table doesn’t eat seafood, fill tortillas with the rice and beans and generously spoon on the cilantro, tomato and onion salsa or your favorite fresh fruit salsa. To finish a proper fish taco, add a generous squeeze of lime juice to your creation. The tarty juice of the lime enhances the flavor of the fish and everything else along with it, even complementing steamed rice.Lime wedges minimized

Fish Tacos make a fast and fresh option for hopeless romantics of the heart or the discriminating palate. For a summer meal that offers simplicity and a little fun, skip the utensils and roll out the fish taco bar.

Fish Tacos

Yield: Makes 8 generous servings.

1 to 1 ½ pounds flaky whitefish or your preferred fish

salt

freshly ground black pepper

pinch of cayenne pepper

2 large whole tomatoes (diced)

1 sweet onion (chopped)

¼ cup olive oil

1 bunch fresh cilantro (chopped)

1 tablespoon curry powder

1 cup mayonnaise (plus 2 tablespoons olive oil if using commercial mayonnaise)

2 fresh limes (1 for juicing and 1 sliced in wedges)

1 avocado (pitted, peeled and thinly sliced)

16 small corn tortillas or (8 medium flour tortillas)

  1. Fold together diced fresh tomatoes, chopped onion and cilantro in mixing bowl. Add a splash of olive oil, salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.
  2. Mix curry powder with mayonnaise and freshly squeezed juice of 1 lime. If using basic bottled mayo, beat in two tablespoons of quality olive oil. Set aside.
  3. Brush fish with remaining olive oil and dust with salt, a twist of black pepper and cayenne pepper. Grill (or pan-sear) over medium heat until cooked just through.
  4. Warm tortillas on stove top or in microwave and make your own fish tacos immediately by slathering tortillas with curry sauce and filling with flaky fish and salsa. Rice and beans are also perfect options to fold into the tortillas. Serve with avocado slices and lime wedges. Try fresh pineapple and mango chunks as a side.

By Mary Ann Ebner, First published by The Highlands Current

 

Share Shopska Summertime Salad

A savory aroma met me at my front door and led the way to our kitchen as a spicy blend of sweet and sour promised the evening’s menu included no regular fare. But before any tasting, a cross-cultural lesson was in order. My personal chef-for-a-day, working away, wanted to adjust the temperature on an oven that looked completely foreign to her. She opened the oven to reveal a stout clay pot filled with a hearty mix of ingredients smothered in paprika. Sound more like fiction than fact?

Far from illusion — a Bulgarian houseguest, Elena — surprised my family with Bulgarian home cooking. She traveled to New York, her first trip across an ocean, to see her son receive his undergraduate degree in computer science. Elena’s family called our place home for a week while they toured the region and attended graduation activities. We encourage guests to make themselves at home, and visitors who take over the cooking receive an open invitation to return.

As for the Bulgarians, a group of five, they thanked us with the evening meal prepared by Elena who hails from the southern part of the country. We learned that any self-respecting Bulgarian begins a proper dinner with the hard stuff — shots — and they procured a bottle of kicky Bulgarian plum brandy from who knows where … the airport, Manhattan, their luggage? Sometimes, it’s best not to ask. It was an “our house is your house” kind of week.

Once we polished off the shots — not quite the full bottle — eating commenced with a tossing-at-the-table of the classic Bulgarian starter, the shopska salad. Elena had gathered the freshest tomatoes, cucumbers and red peppers in the Hudson Valley, and she must have smuggled in a few pounds of Bulgarian white cheese, a briny feta-type that arguably makes the salad. Dressed with a little sunflower oil, this Eastern European mix of fresh raw vegetables and cheese may be a starter back in Bulgaria, but it could have easily headlined here as a satiable dinner on its own.Shopska Salad minimized

Along with the shopska salad, the large clay pot, the guvech, doing real work in the oven throughout the afternoon, made its way to the table. This slow-roasting casserole of sorts contained a dish called kapama, a traditional meal of meats, rice and sauerkraut prepared in layers. As if that weren’t enough to experience the flavors of the Balkans, we sampled a puffy serving of phyllo dough stuffed with more Bulgarian cheese. Elena’s family calls the dish banica (ba–neet-za), a typical Bulgarian pastry, cut in squares, triangles, or shaped in a spiral. Again, Bulgarian white cheese represented the cornerstone ingredient.

Beacon Pantry, a purveyor of specialty foods and fine cheese as well as a resource in helping the community learn about cheese through its classes and events, classifies Bulgarian white cheese in the fresh category. These cheeses, including chevre, mozzarella, paneer, feta, and ricotta, are fresh milk cheeses to be enjoyed soon after purchase and once opened.

“Feta is a fresh cheese,” Beacon Pantry owner Stacey Penlon said. “The milk is cooked but it’s not then aged and pressed and the cheeses have a shorter shelf life. With Greek and Bulgarian feta made with sheep’s or goat’s milk, it tends to be quite expensive. Sheep’s milk is the fattiest of the common milk types but its cheeses are rich and luscious and it goes a long way.”Guvech clay cooking pot minimized

The creamy texture of feta makes a lush addition to mealtime. If you’re up for an Eastern European change of pace with cheese, ask an expert to help track it down.

“We buy cheese shipped from cheesemakers all the time,” Penlon said. “As long as it’s a reputable cheese store, they should handle it properly.”

For those who want to try making their own cheese, Beacon Pantry (beaconpantry.com) will offer a class in making fresh cheese (mozzarella and ricotta) in August. Finding tangy, salty Bulgarian white cheese (also called sirene cheese), tastes worth the trouble of searching. Similar brined white cheese made with sheep’s, goat’s or cow’s milk will work in the recipes shared here as fine substitutions.

Shopska Salad

Serves 8

4 -5 medium tomatoes, largely diced

2 cucumbers, peeled, and diced

2 sweet red peppers, chopped

1 medium red onion, diced

1 bunch green onions, diced

1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped

½ cup sunflower or olive oil

2 cups Bulgarian white cheese or feta, grated

(optional: green peppers, roasted red peppers, kalamata olives)

  1. Mix prepared vegetables in large bowl. Add sunflower or olive oil and coat thoroughly. Fold in parsley. Layer salad mixture onto platter or serving bowl.
  1. Before serving, pile a mound of grated white cheese over vegetables. Mix at the table.

Banica

Serves 8

15 sheets phyllo dough

3 cups Bulgarian white cheese or feta, grated or crumbled

3/4 cups butter

1 cup carbonated water

(optional: beaten egg, spinach, green onions to stack in cheese layer)

  1. Butter bottom and sides of 9×13-inch baking dish. Melt butter.
  1. Layer 3 dough sheets in dish. Drizzle with butter. Repeat layering and drizzling twice. Cover top layer with cheese. Add 3 more dough sheets and drizzle with butter. Repeat layering and drizzling. Pour carbonated water evenly over top layer.
  1. Bake at 375 degrees 20 minutes or until golden.

Fresh from Bulgaria by Mary Ann Ebner

First published by The Highlands Current