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From the Dept. of Sick Days: Shrimp & Fennel Stew

Merf. Today I am feeling unaccountably barfy and, since the snow day that was foretold did not, helas, materialize, I stayed home and slept most of the day. I did, however, manage to sklathe myself out of bed just long enough to accomplish one thing; I took a few snaps of this shrimp stew while the sun tried to shine. Why? Because this simple dish is so ridiculously good I couldn’t wait any longer to share it.

Seriously, this is shockingly tasty, particularly for something that involves little more than a quick chop and simmer. I was quite blown away by its robust and warming deliciousity. Mr. T, too, was unusually effusive in his praise.

The depth of flavor is remarkable; everything–from the pungent onion and anise-y fennel to the acid tomato and briny shrimp–seems to stack together into a greater whole rather than cancelling each other out. In thinking about it now, it may be the backbone of subtle sweetness that those primary ingredients all share that brings it all together.

Oh, and if you’re worried about the fennel and it’s licorice-y taste, two things: one, you’re wrong, it is delicious; and two, it’s very mild and background-y by the time the dish is complete. Try it anyway. It’s a perfect gateway for the delights of fennel.

I would be happy to serve this for company with some good bread and a salad of soft lettuces. It’s perfectly cockle-warming, a good thing now that it seems winter has finally decided to arrive.

And now, back to bed with me.

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Samak Yemeni: Spicy Yemenite Fish Stew

So, I’ve been making this lush and rawther exotic fish stew for years, but it took a recipe request from one of Mr. T’s colleagues for me to get my act together and write it down. The dish is really quite special–simply TEEMING with flavor, but it manages somehow to maintain its coherence under an onslaught of warm spice, bright herbs, and tangy lemon.

My first intro to samak Yemeni was in a Jewish diaspora cookbook, given to me by a friend with the injunction that I was not to make fun of her bubbie’s wallpaper until I could make knishes better than hers. (In my defense, the wallpaper in question was a glossy optic white with velvet burnt orange foliate patterns.) I’ve not yet managed to make any knish, but this stew is something I keep coming back to. Also, obviously, I am a bad person, but who else gets a cookbook for cracking wise about wallpaper?

In doing further research for this post, I turned up another version from The Splendid Table, hosted by the always delightful Lynn Rossetto Kasper, but suffice to say, the much fiddled-with version below is the one that I like best as it is delicious and does not require fish stock, making oddball spice blends, or other such tomfoolery.

Even with such rich cultural antecedents, I’m still not quite sure why it all works–but it does. Even the fishiest fish is tamed–but not drowned out– by the richly spiced sauce, which in turn is enriched by the fish’s umami-y juices. The dish is spicy, but not threateningly so, with a flavor that’s at once deep and envigoratingly bright. Its captivating scent is the very definition of appetizing.

Being quite easy and very quick, it’s also perfect–served with a quick cous-cous and some salad greens–for a weeknight dinner requiring a little pizzazz. There’s no pre-sautéing of the aromatics; everything just gets dumped and simmered together. It took me some time to get over this, but having been OCD enough to have done it both ways, I can say that sautéing the onions and spices in advance makes no real difference to the recipe. There are so many strong flavors at play already that a brief simmer is all that’s required for everything to come together and get happy. Hooray for uncompromising shortcuts!

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Vegetarian Dinner Crisis Averted: Lentil Shepherd’s Pie

Pop quiz, hotshot. You’ve got people coming to dinner: Ms. Foodie Italian, Mrs. Foodie Indian-American, and Mr. Foodie Italian-Peruvian-Nerd. Two of them are vegetarian. What do you serve? WHAT do you serve?

Ok, so not exactly as pressing as saving a bus full of screaming passengers with Sandra Bullock at the wheel, but this was still the closest thing to a crisis that I had to deal with last weekend. I was not about to throw down anything Italian, and Indian too–my go-to vegetarian dinner party option–was similarly off the menu. I toyed with Indonesian, given the “I” theme that had developed, but then it got a bit chilly and the idea of gado gado and smoked tofu summer rolls seemed a bit premature.

Instead, at the suggestion of  dear friend and PassionFruits Edinburgh correspondent Lady Dae-Dae, I whipped up a lentil-based shepherd’s pie based very loosely on several recipes by Nigel Slater (English foodie institution) and Sophie Dahl (English foodie… something).

Yes, yes, I know I just wrote about my “African” sheperd’s pie, but bracketed by tapenade and goat cheese toasts, fennel apple salad, and a flourless chocolate torte, the lentil-based pie made a perfect, hearty centerpiece to a tasty, veggie-friendly meal that didn’t rely on any of my guest’s native cuisines.

While definitely savory and substantial enough to stand on its own, the shepherd’s pie would also be absolutely stellar as a side for lamb chops… but then, what DOESN’T go with a good lamb chop? In any event, though, it was such a delicious success that Ms. Foodie Italian refused to leave till she’d extracted a promise that I’d share the recipe–which I gladly agreed to, with the warning that I’d have to write it down first!

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Is There Turkey in Mozambique?: “African” Shepherd’s Pie

Last week I got a rather plaintive remonstrance from my friend C, wondering if I’d quit the food blogger biz (such as it is…). Though it may say more about the quality of entertainments in rural Mozambique than about my prowess as cook or blogger, it was still very nice to know that someone was left wanting by my protracted winter vacation…

Somewhat chastened, I assured her that I was merely taking a break, and that things should be picking up very shortly indeed. And, in sifting through my backlog of recipes and ideas, this “African” shepherd’s pie seemed to be just the thing.

So this one goes out to you, C. I’m hoping that enough of these ingredients are available to you right now–where local and seasonal aren’t just foodie buzzwords, but the WAY. THINGS. ARE. I do, though, have every confidence that you’ll be able to make it work regardless.

In any case, the shepherd’s pie itself was inspired by half a jar of homemade berbere I’d rummaged up from the back of the spice drawer. I’d ended making a batch of this incendiary African spice blend in a somewhat-more-OCD-than-usual spasm of making Ethiopian food from scratch.

Which… mmmyeah… happened all of once. Take it from the pros, by the way, and just buy the bread ready made. Not even real Ethiopians make their own injera these days.

In any case, faced with a mess of face-meltingly hot African spice mix, I got to gooving in a most hippie-dippie Moosewood goddess vibe and came up with this somewhat idiosycratic riff on peanutty west African groundnut stew and traditional sheperd’s pie. I’m sure there’s a multiethnic farming collective somewhere in the Catskills that just got its wings.

For all it’s syncretic liberties– and I DO apologize to Africans and shepherds everywhere–this is really a great dish. With just the right mix of, well, everything, it’s spicy and sweet and savory and packs a ton of virtuous vegetables without really trying (should you care about such things…).

Even now, having finished up the berbere, I regularly whip this out on a weeknight when something delicious and easy is the order of the day. It’s also got an ingredient list that pulls almost entirely from the freezer and pantry cupboard, so I can prepare it with minimal to zero shopping.

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Hot Summer in the City: Grilled Daurade

So, while I’m currently in Charlotte, NC, for a conference–and managing to enjoy quite a few tasty meals inbetwixt thrilling work stuff–I want to reach back a few weekends ago to a trip Mr. T and I made to visit some friends in the City.

Though our hosts were literally in the midst of moving into their fabulous new home, they managed to shoehorn us all into their very busy schedules and not only did we squeeze in some serious beach time, we also cooked up a simple but mindbendingly gorgeous meal in their brand-new (still totally empty) kitchen.

And, while I am generally thrilled to cook FOR people, rare is the person I can cook WITH. Though I don’t really know him all that well, sadly, I quickly cottoned to the fact that Chef M was someone I’d probably be quite happy to sous for. A rare occurence indeed, as I generally just steamroller people out of their own kitchens. It’s for their own good, really… Shortly after reporting for duty, though, I found that I’d been right, and we fell into a companionable rythm while trimming up a seemingly endless parade of prickly, pain-in-the-arse artichokes.

With the mere handful of of basics from their old kitchen and a few Fresh Direct boxes, Chef M worked wonders–grilled daurade (aka sea bream, aka orata, aka dorata, etc.) along with lots of cold white, those damned grilled artichoke hearts (whose arduous prep was in stark contrast to the easy-breezy fish), and a lush green salad. We finished everything off with peaches and strawberries tossed with a little sugar and a good splash of that cold white–a perfect end to a hot night in the city.

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Baby, It’s Cold Outside: Mushroom Asparagus Risotto

Holy crap, it’s cold. I mean, for D.C. And dark. It’s dark, too. What better time then, to have some friends over and huddle around the stove stirring a delicious pot of risotto? Done and done. Since our guests were mostly veggie, I even made veggie stock from scratch. (Yes, that light you see is my halo glowing.)
Fortunately, the effort involved in risotto is quite a convivial one, and I don’t think anyone suffered for having to keep me company in the kitchen as the rice made its magical transformation into silky wonderfulness. You could go wild with the additions, of course, but having made several risottos in the past few weeks, I can say with confidence that a few judiciously chosen ingredients of quality is better than several. Here, woodsy mushrooms and bright, verdant asparagus and depth and perfume. A little lemon zest at the end could be nice too, but then I think a little lemon zest improves just about anything.
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Veggie Sunday Dinner: Parmesan Polenta & Eggplant Caponata

Inspired in part by a long-ago Martha recipe for a layered eggplant & polenta casserole that’s long been one of my go-to veggie recipes, I came up with this really rather tasty update for Sunday dinner with one of most militantly vegetarian friends (and his long-suffering BF). Happily, it was quite the hit and not one of us felt ill used by the lack of meat.

The polenta–homemade rather than from a tube as Martha dictates (which might suggest that Ms. Stewart’s standards are slipping)–gets a flavorful boost with parmesan cheese and, after being cut into half-moons, emerges from a quick saute crispy-edged yet creamy on the inside. Arranged in a pinwheel pattern and paired with a brightly tangy caponata, it makes for a handsome meat-free meal. Indeed, if one were just to serve the caponata–and the mixture of meaty eggplant enlivened with capers, tomato, and a touch of balsamic vinegar is definitely a worthy dish on it own–you’d even keep the vegans happy.

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The Dutiful Spouse Kitchen: Turkish Köfte a la WASP

The “t” in Mr. T stands for many things: trendy (he loves urban lifestyle sneakers), tea (he drinks a lot), terrific (he is). But it also stands for Turkish, and he is half. He even spent his early childhood in Ankara. His English half, what with the gin and the bon mot, gets a lot more play and while I’ve worked on English food items like the Victoria Sponge, I’ve not really done anything Turkish. So, when he mentioned köfte and brought a pound of ground lamb back from Whole Foods, it was clear I was due for a little project.
“Köfte”, writ large, are meatballs: minced meat–usually either beef or lamb–mixed with breadcrumbs or bulgur, and herbs and spices. There are myriad variations of the köfte themselves as well as how they’re served–in soup, with yogurt, on a stick, in a pita… And, as Mr. T’s desire for köfte was fairly unspecific–”simple ones”–I had my work cut out for me. Having done just enough research to grasp the enormity of the köfte universe and give myself a headache, I decided to piece something together on my own.

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