Saturday, March 22, 2014

Yitzi's Moroccan Carrot and Chickpea Salad

My mother was way ahead of her time when it came to certain things.  She was probably the first mother in our community to put grilled tofu on the table years before tofu became readily available in every supermarket.  She was a big believer in exposing us to new and interesting foods that most people didn't even know existed.  My siblings and I were served - besides all kinds of tofu-related foods - fiddleheads, okra (not a big fan), spaghetti squash, weird cheeses and foreign spices.  She was also a big believer in teaching all her children to bake, cook and be proficient in the kitchen.  Boys included.  So, it's no great surprise that all three of my brothers happen to be great cooks.  

Whereas they all have their own specialties, I have the privilege of tasting only one of my brother's culinary creations since he lives in Jerusalem and often comes to us for Shabbat.  He makes incredible homemade ice cream in unusual flavors (pear and ginger...), quirky cookies (chocolate chip and chili pepper), and funky chicken (tequila chicken).  He's fearless when it comes to experimenting and 95% of his experiments pay off big-time.  This weekend he made me a salad that was so flavorful and satisfying that I was sorry to finish it off.  Although I have two eaters in my house who have a strong aversion to fresh coriander, they absolutely loved this salad.

And while I have more than my fair share of kitchen gadgets and spices, I now have to purchase fresh coriander seeds and a mortar and pestle...

Yitzi's Morrocan Carrot and Chickpea Salad (serves 8)

1 tablespoon coriander seeds, toasted and ground using mortar and pestle
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more to taste
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

5-6 carrots, sliced whisper thin on a mandolin
2 cups cooked chickpeas (or one 15- ounce can, drained and rinsed)
2 cups of purple cabbage finely chopped
2/3 cup craisins
1/3 cup fresh coriander finely chopped

lots of toasted almond slices

Combine all dressing ingredients in a jar and shake vigorously.  
Combine all salad ingredients except toasted almonds in a large bowl.  Toss gently with dressing and add almonds before serving.


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Quinoa Bites with Lemony Sun-Dried Tomato Mayo Dip

I am a huge fan of quinoa.  Quinoa is a grain-like food that is unique in that unlike most plant-based foods, it provides a complete protein. What this means is that it is a source of all nine essential amino acids, in the right proportions, to support a person's nutritional needs.  Usually you would need to combine two foods (rice and beans, for instance) in order to make up a complete protein, but quinoa does this on its own.  While it resembles a grain and it is cooked pretty much the same way we cook rice, it's not actually a cereal grain.  It's actually a seed and it's related to spinach, swiss-chard and beets.  Quinoa originates from the Andes mountain region of South America, where it was cultivated as long as 5,000 years ago. To this day, most of the quinoa in the world comes from the Andean regions of Peru and Bolivia.  Why it only became popular in the last decade or so, is beyond me.  It's a super-food for those with celiac and those who are limiting their carbohydrate intake, but unlike other super-healthy foods, quinoa actually tastes good.  It's not overpowering or distinctive in any way and sort of acts as a neutral background and takes on any flavor you add to it.  Quinoa is the perfect alternative for rice, mashed potatoes or even pasta.  I use it not only as a base for hearty salads, but as a side dish to grilled fish, chicken or even as a bed for meatballs and tomato sauce.

I came across an interesting recipe about six months ago and adapted it to the ingredients that I had in my refrigerator.  It's super easy and you can have them on the table less than twenty-five minutes.  Lo and behold, my kids loved them and while they are great to eat all year round, they are also kosher for Passover...

Quinoa Bites with Lemony Sun-Dried Tomato Mayo Dip

For the bites:

1 1/2 c. quinoa, cooked according to package instructions
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 red pepper, diced 
1/2 large red onion, diced
3 handfuls of spinach, wilted and chopped, or three frozen spinach 'cakes', defrosted and chopped
2 eggs, whisked
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. Italian herb spice (or dried basil, oregano and parsley)
Pepper to taste


3 heaping tbsp. mayonnaise
1 tsp. preserved lemon sauce
2 tsp. sun-dried tomato paste in olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Prepare quinoa according to package instructions. (It's very important to rinse the dried quinoa very well before cooking, as it removes the soapy taste that sometimes lingers if it's not rinsed well). Set aside to cool.  (I've laid out specific instructions as to how I cook quinoa in a separate post, but most packages come with instructions printed on the back of the package.)

While the quinoa is cooking, set your oven to 350 degrees.  Take 2 mini cupcake trays and spray with Pam.  In a large frying pan on medium-high heat, sauté the red onion and red pepper in the olive oil until softened, golden at the edges and fragrant.  Let cool.  Add to cooked quinoa along with the spinach and spices.  Using a wooden spoon, stir in whisked eggs until mixed in evenly.  Adjust seasoning if necessary.  Spoon a heaping tablespoon quinoa mixture into each mini cupcake indentation and press down with back of spoon to pack it in tightly.  Bake for 15-20 minutes.  Let cool.  To remove from pan, run a sharp knife around each quinoa bite to loosen it from the pan and they should pop out.

For the dip, combine the mayonnaise with the preserved lemon sauce and the sun-dried tomato paste and mix well.  Serve quinoa bites at room temperature or slightly warmed with dipping sauce on the side.  Garnish with fresh sprigs of parsley or coriander.  Makes about 48 bites.

You can substitute any vegetables and spices and experiment with different flavors and textures.  Some ideas:
Mushroom, leeks and onions
Beet, arugula and caramelized onion 
Sweet potato and onion
Grated zucchini, yellow pepper and red onion
You can even make it dairy and add cheese!  Have fun with them!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Queen Esther....

I've never enjoyed fasting...depriving my body of food for a 24 hour period is not my typical idea of fun, but in truth, the deprivation makes us identify with what our people have suffered through in our long and drama-ridden history, and therefore serves a purpose.  It serves to remind us of certain events that shaped our legacy as a people.  We fast many times over the year - besides Yom Kippur - and these lesser-important fasts recall many dark and somber periods in our history: the destruction of our temple, the assassination of Gedalia, the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and the fast of Esther.  

While I try whole-heartedly to get through each fast until it's over, there are times that I break it in the late afternoon because of a raging headache, even if it's just for a drink of water or a bite of a cracker.  But I always make a special effort to get through the entire fast of Esther without breaking it.  There's something about Esther's bravery and her courage that makes me want to stand in unity with her.  It's not that I'm such an ardent feminist, but there's something empowering about a woman having lived in ancient times, who bravely stood up against the men who ruled her and exhibited her quiet strength and courage that ultimately saved our nation.  

Besides the age-old story of good rising up over evil, there's another deeper lesson that every girl can learn from the megilla.  There are two prominent women featured in this dramatic event: Queen Vashti who was the wife of King Ahashverosh, and Esther, a young orphaned Jewess, living with her uncle in Shushan, the capital of the Persian Empire.  Obviously, Esther has become a role model for all young Jewish girls.  After all, she was a queen, heroine and savior of our people.  

But she was much more than that.  

She was a modest woman who didn't set out to grab the attention of the King.  The Talmud alludes to the fact that in reality, Esther was not a very attractive woman, but that she had the 'thread of grace' upon her.  She was such a beautiful person inside that as a result, it shone through her exterior, making her beauty apparent to all those who cast eyes upon her.  Despite her attempts to hide her beauty from the King, he was instantly smitten by her quiet demeanor, her grace and her modesty.  Even after being crowned queen, she didn't allow her lofty position to go to her head.  She remained modest, faithful to her religion (she was careful to eat only kosher even in the palace) and treated her handmaidens with compassion and respect.  

Vashti, in comparison, was overconfident, haughty, immodest, egotistic and quite an extrovert.  She didn't seem to have any issue baring her body to a ballroom full of people.  In fact, her parading around naked was a regular occurrence.  The only reason she refused to in the story portrayed in the megilla was because she was suddenly stricken with boils and scars and was too vain to reveal her body in that state.  Ultimately, her refusal caused her demise.  

Unfortunately, many of today's young women follow Vashti's 'if you've got it, flaunt it' trend, be it in clothes or behavior.  The more public, the better.  The more revealing, the better. 

The young women of our generation could stand to learn a lot from our Queen Esther.  The root of her name comes from the word 'hester' - meaning hidden.  Being taken by force to be the wife of a powerful man who was not from her people, a man she did not love and a man capable of killing his own wife must have been terrifying for a young powerless girl like Esther.  But she kept her fear hidden and courageously put her life on the line, using the power of her beauty to lead a prominent man like Haman to the gallows and to ensure the continued protection of her people under the rule of Ahashverosh.  She kept not just her beauty and her identity hidden; she kept her ultimate plan to destroy Haman and his nefarious scheme to destroy the Jewish people hidden until the last moment when it would have the greatest impact.  She epitomizes what it means to be a true woman of valor.  

This is the Esther for whom we fast...

Indian-Spice Chicken with Spicy Pepper Relish and Quinoa with Peas

Adapted from Jamie Oliver...

I love Jamie Oliver.  There.  I said it.  He's adorable to watch, doesn't fuss too much with the food or the presentation and yet everything looks mouth-watering, colorful and so unbelievably appetizing.  I can almost smell the amazing aroma wafting from my television screen.  My favorite show of his is his 15-minute meals. Somehow (and I don't know how he does it...) he manages to put a gorgeous and well-balanced meal on the table in just under 15 minutes.  I've adapted one of his meals to suit my needs (quinoa instead of rice and chicken instead of lamb chops) and made it this week for dinner one night, and while it took me about 20 minutes instead of Jamie's 15, it was a super hit and there was not a single morsel left over.

What initially drew me to this recipe was Jamie's creativity with spices and flavors.  I've always been drawn to interesting spices.  My spice cabinet is filled with a whole array of not-your-usual stuff.  While I have friends that get by with just garlic powder, paprika and cinnamon, I love adding a pinch of saffron, a dash of cardamom or a shake of Chinese five-spice to my baking and cooking in an attempt to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary.  I come by my love for spices honestly.  My mother probably has more spices than anyone else I know and she loves to share her findings with me.  I've tasted her oregano straight from the Greek islands which made me want to throw out all ordinary dried oregano, and she's given me no less than five kinds of flavored flaked sea salt, from chili salt to rosemary salt to the most unusual black salt.  I suspect that in a past life, she might have been a rather active trader on the oriental spice route....

Since I teach everyday until after 6, I'm often at a loss what to serve for dinner and I feel stressed to get something nutritious on the table in a relatively short time.  Due to the time constraints, I usually grab something tried and true - like whole grain pasta with jarred tomato sauce and I might throw in some fried onion and a can of chick peas to elevate it from something boring to something a little more unusual, or I'll mix up some grainy mustard with a dollop of honey and rub it over chicken and shove it in the oven.  But I rarely get super-creative when time is of the essence.  Now I'm starting to think a little differently.

This recipe mostly consists of ingredients you have readily on hand.  The only item I had to purchase for this dinner besides boneless chicken thighs was a jar of roasted red peppers, which is an item I don't know how I've lived without.  While this recipe calls for hot peppers, you can adjust the heat to your liking, but don't leave them out!  

Indian-Spice Chicken with Spicy Pepper Relish and Quinoa with Peas

Serves 6

1 kilo of boneless chicken thighs
1 T. olive oil
1/2 tsp. curry powder
1/2 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. garlic powder
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. cardamom
1/8 tsp. hot pepper flakes
1/2 tsp. salt
Ground pepper to taste
Splash of balsamic vinegar - about 1- 2 T.
1 T. silaan

1 T. olive oil
1 1/2 large yellow onionse, cut into small chunks
About 1" hot green pepper, minced really small (you can add more if you like your food hot...)
4 roasted red peppers from a jar, cut into chunks
A small nob of fresh finger (about 1" - 1 1/2" chunk), sliced thinly
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
Salt and pepper to taste

3/4 c. quinoa, rinsed very well
1/2 c. frozen baby peas
1/4 tsp. salt

Combine all spices in a small bowl.  On a large cutting board, lay out all the chicken and sprinkle with half the spice mix.  Turn over and sprinkle remaining spices over the chicken.

Place quinoa in a small pot and add 3/4 c. water and salt.  Cover and bring to a boil then reduce heat to a low simmer and set oven timer for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, set two frying pans on the stove on high heat.  Add the oil to each pan.  When pans are piping hot, add the vegetables to one and the chicken to the other.  Keep stirring vegetables with wooden spoon until vegetables start to brown.  When chicken is browned on one side (about 6 - 7 minutes) then flip over using metal tongs or two forks and let cook on the other side until nicely browned and middle is no longer pink.

When oven timer beeps, fluff the quinoa with a fork making sure there's not water left at the bottom of the pot and quinoa is done.  Turn off heat and add frozen peas.  Mix in, season with salt and pepper, cover and set aside.

Add the balsamic vinegar and silaan to the hot pan with the chicken and after a minute or so, turn chicken over until evenly browned.  

Put quinoa on each plate, top with spiced chicken and spoon vegetable relish over the chicken.  You can sprinkle a couple fresh sprigs of chopped fresh herbs like parsley or coriander on top if you like.  Serve!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Sweet Spiced Sesame Thumbprint Cookies

I spent most of my childhood not giving much thought to sesame seeds.  Until these cookies made their debut, my mother sprinkled these little white seeds on top of her homemade challot and once in a while, used them as a decorative garnish for Chinese food.  Having grown up in an Ashkenazi community in Toronto, I wasn't aware of any other logical reason to use them.  I remember the first time my mother made these cookies and how my siblings and I wrinkled our noses, unsure of what she was doing.  Why ruin a perfectly good cookie by rolling it in something as mundane as sesame seeds?  But the fact that she added sesame seeds to something sweet as a cookie didn't come as a complete surprise - after all, she was a cooking teacher for the COR - the kashrut organization of Toronto - and was always experimenting in our kitchen.  And we - her children - were her (not always willing...) resident guinea pigs.  While we didn't always like the outcome of her culinary experiments (ie. the spinach tofu meatballs...), most of the time we lucked out.  Like we did with these cookies.  That first bite forever changed the way I thought about sesame seeds. 

As a result of her serious baking addiction, we had a spare full-size freezer in the corner of our laundry room that was filled to the brim with soups, challot, stuffed cabbage and an amazing array of baked goods, among them these cookies.  I would often wait until her back was turned - either when she was washing dishes or on an important phone call - and then I would sneak by into the laundry room and grab a couple of these cookies on my way to my room, hiding them in the palm of my hand.  Years later, when I was dating the man who became my husband, my mother would ply him with all kinds of baked goods and he remembers these cookies more than any of the others.  And I know why.  There's something unbelievably addictive about them, the way the lightly toasted sesame seeds and subtle saltiness create a perfect balance to the crisp cookie and the sweet jam filling.  
It wasn't until we were living in Israel, that sesame seeds became a staple in our diet, as the basis of halva and tahini as well as Middle Eastern sesame cookies, crackers and yes, as a topping for challot.  

 I love making (and eating!) these cookies and they always remind me of my childhood.  And while I don't have to sneak them out of the freezer anymore, I've found that my kids are doing just that.  And so continues the circle of life.  I've deviated from the original recipe a bit by adding some more sesame flavor and jazzing them up with a little more spices.  With Purim just around the corner, it's the perfect time to make them.  Legend has it that while Queen Esther fasted with her handmaidens before risking her life to save the Jewish people, she subsisted on sesame seeds.  Their pods are an excellent source of copper and manganese, but they also provide calcium, magnesium, iron, phosphoros, vitamin B1 and zinc.  Given their ingredients of sesame paste and cardamom and the addition of pomegranate jam, these are truly Persian cookies.  You can even shape them into triangles with your fingers before filling them to make them more reminiscent of hamentaschen.  While these cookies are meant to be filled with raspberry or apricot jam, my favorite filling is the pomegranate raspberry jam manufactured by St. Dalfour, which you can find relatively easily at your local supermarket.

Sweet Spiced Sesame Thumbprint Cookies Filled with Pomegranate Raspberry Jam

Yields approximately 4 dozen

1 c. margarine or butter, room temperature
1/2 c. sugar
1 tsp. almond extract
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1/4 tsp. cardamom
1/2 tsp. salt
2 c. flour
1/2 c. sesame seeds
1/4 (or more) pomegranate raspberry jam

Set oven temperature to 400 degrees.  In your food processor, cream butter and sugar until fluffy and light.  Add vanilla, almond, cardamom, salt and flour.  Process until dough comes together into a ball.  Line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper or silpat liners.  Put sesame seeds into a small bowl and the jam in another bowl.  Wash hands well.  Using a small cookie scooper or a small teaspoon, scoop out small balls of cookie dough (about 1" balls) and roll in sesame seeds.  Place cookies about 2" apart on cookie sheets and flatten slightly. Press a small yet deep indentation in each cookie and fill carefully with jam.  Do not overfill or jam will leak out over the top of the cookie.
Bake for 10-12 minutes until edges are slightly golden.  Let cool completely.  
These cookies freeze beautifully!

Monday, March 3, 2014

Quinoa Salad with Roasted Baby Carrots, Chick Peas, Arugula and Pumpkin Seed Praline

I'm a self-admitted salad freak. But I don't usually go for the lots-of-greens-swimming-in-dressing kind of salad. Firstly, I hate the process of washing and drying lettuce. The second reason I'm not a huge fan of lettuce salads is that you can't really keep the leftovers. The dressing renders it completely soggy within an hour and if you don't finish it on the spot the leftovers end up in the garbage. So I'm naturally drawn to salads that are heavy on the heartier vegetables and that keep well in the fridge for a good few days. For me, a great salad needs three basic things: color, contrast and texture. I love experimenting with flavor combinations and then throwing in the unexpected for that 'Wow!' factor.

This is not your typical peel, chop and toss kind of salad. It is a bit more time consuming but perfect for the winter months. It's robust and hearty and utilizes ingredients that are probably in your fridge and pantry right now. The best thing about this salad is that besides the fact that it has color, contrast and texture, it's the kind of salad that can be turned into a main course by simply adding some cooked fresh salmon, strips of roasted chicken or a handful of goat cheese. Feel free to mix it up a bit - substitute quinoa for toasted Israeli couscous (petitim) or wheat berries and maybe swap the carrots with roasted squash or sweet potato. Have fun with it!

Quinoa Salad with Roasted Baby Carrots, Chick Peas, Arugula, and Pumpkin Seed Praline

Serves a crowd (10-12 side dish portions, 6-8 main course)


1/4 c. good quality olive oil
1/4 c. canola oil
2-3 T rice wine vinegar or other mild vinegar
2 tsp. grated ginger
2 minced garlic cloves
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
Dash cinnamon
1 T. honey
Juice of 1/2 an orange
Juice of a lemon

Combine all ingredients in a jar and shake until mixture is emulsified. Adjust vinegar if necessary. Store in the fridge until needed.

Salad ingredients:

1 c. quinoa
1 bag baby carrots
2 T olive oil
1 T. honey
Salt and pepper to taste
1 can chick peas, drained
5 baby radishes, cleaned and sliced thinly
1 c. arugula leaves, cleaned and torn into bite-size pieces

Handful of chopped fresh parsley

1/2 c. craisins
1/2 c. pumpkin seeds
1/4 c. sugar

Set oven to 400 degrees. Rinse quinoa really well in a sieve. Put into a pot and add 1 c. water and a pinch of salt. Cover and bring to a rolling boil, then immediately turn the flame down to low and let simmer for 10 minutes. If quinoa is still not cooked and all the water has been absorbed, add up to 1/4 c. more water and continue cooking until quinoa is cooked and all the water is absorbed. Remove from the fire, uncover, fluff with a fork and then cover with a clean towel. Let sit until cooled.

Place one bag of frozen baby carrots on a cookie sheet lined with either foil or parchment paper. Drizzle with the olive oil, honey and season with salt and pepper. Roast for 30-45 minutes until carrots are lightly browned and caramelized. Remove from oven and let cool completely.

Pumpkin seed praline: Place a piece of parchment paper on your counter. Put 1/4 c. sugar in a dry frying pan and shake so it's an even layer and scatter pumpkin seeds evenly on top. Don't mix, but watch carefully. When sugar begins to melt and the pumpkin seeds begin to make a popping sound, then stir carefully with a wooden spoon. The sugar will begin to caramelize and turn a golden brown. At this point, watch closely since it will only take another minute or two before it's done. If you leave it for too long, the sugar will start to burn and the whole batch will be ruined. Turn off the flame and then carefully pour seeds onto a piece of parchment paper (it's super hot!), spread with the wooden spoon to separate clusters and let cool completely. Store in a sealed container for up to two weeks or store in the freezer long term.

To arrange salad:

In a large bowl add the quinoa, roasted carrots, chick peas, radishes, arugula and craisins. Toss with 1/2 of the dressing immediately before serving. Add more dressing if needed. (Store remaining dressing in the fridge - will keep for about two weeks.) Top with chopped parsley and pumpkin seed praline.

The Pantry Challenge...

Right about now is when I go into panic mode....I have a relatively large spare freezer in my storage room that is packed to the gills with all kinds of frozen food - from cookies, cupcakes, cakes, frozen vegetables and fruit to loaves of bread, bags of bagels and some frozen gefulte fish loaves.  In addition to all that is a bevy of Tupperware containers that are filled with I'm-not-sure-what, since I'm not very reliable when it comes to labeling containers.  I've often taken out what looked to me like a container of frozen vegetable soup only to discover that it's just extra gravy left over from some long forgotten roast.  And I haven't even discussed my pantry.  With Passover looming over us in the not so distant future, I chastise myself every day for not getting started on both the cleaning and the clearing out my freezer and pantry.  

Every year around January time, I promise myself that I will stop buying so much and work on finishing what I already have.  I'm not sure if it's just a Jewish-mother-thing, or a granddaughter-of-Holocaust-survivor-thing, but I seem to be a food hoarder.  It might just be the lure of a good sale (I mean, who couldn't use an extra six mayonnaise jars in their pantry when there's a 2-for-1 sale?), forgetting what I already have in stock, or impulse buys, but there's something comforting in opening my pantry and finding it full of food.  My grandparents cellar was filled to capacity with all kinds of canned goods - and we're not talking a couple cans of pickles and another couple cans of beans, but rather cases of each, along with corn, soups, soft drinks and much more - but I just chalked that up to their obsession with being able to feed an army in case of another war.  I just didn't expect that I would have a pantry to rival theirs...

Last year, I tried an experiment that actually worked.  I attempted to get through a period of a few weeks where I didn't purchase any food except for fresh produce and protein.  My goal was to finish whatever half-bags of rice, grains, beans, barley, pasta and whatever canned goods I had stacked in my pantry before Passover.  Besides the fact that my grocery bills were significantly less, we did indeed make a decent dent in clearing out some of those shelves.  

What this kind of experiment needs above all is creativity. Instead of building your menu by what you're craving to eat, you build it based on the ingredients you have readily on hand.  For those of you who have difficulty thinking outside the box, you can check out  This Conde Nast super-site has a great search engine where you can list several ingredients into the search bar and it will find you recipes that incorporate all those items that you've listed.  

In the past week I've kept my shopping to a minimum and managed to create some very interesting and tasty recipes. And from the lack of leftovers I'd say they were a hit.  For the next couple of weeks, I will be posting some of the recipes that I've created using whatever items I had in both my pantry and/or freezer.  

Take the challenge with me and share some of the creations that you've made!