Pomegranate braised lamb shanks

Like a fair few folks I know, I don’t really get excited about meat. I’ll eat it, and enjoy it just fine, but it doesn’t ring my chimes the way, say, an over-medium egg yolk does. For me, at least, it’s a texture thing: I like the flavor and richness of meat, but not the way it feels under my teeth. For the most part, when I cook with meat, it’s as a component of a larger and more complex dish, rather than simply a piece of animal on a plate. The joy of a juicy, medium-rare steak or a lovely Sunday roast is mostly lost on me.

When that meat is braised, though, all bets are off. I love me a tender hunk of falling-apart meat. I grew up eating brisket braised in red wine every year for Passover, and it was basically the only time of year I’d willingly eat red meat. When a piece of tough, bone-in beef or lamb gets cooked for hours in a powerful liquid, it turns into something totally deserving of swoons. Stick a fork in, and the meat falls into tender strands. The liquid and the meat juices become thick, gelatinous, slow-moving on the tongue. There’s barely any chewing required, and so much more flavor and interest than a simple steak can muster.

Of all the braise-able cuts of meat, I think lamb shanks are my favorite. Cook a lamb shank for long enough, and the meat becomes soft, almost cushiony, and relaxes away from the bone. It’s juicier and gamier than many braised beef cuts I’ve had, and it plays remarkably well with explosive flavors from around the world. I’ve had a Thai curried lamb shank, and a Moroccan lamb shank tagine, both of which blew my mind. But when I wanted to make a special dinner for Sam recently, I decided to go for something simpler, using two of my favorite flavor partners with lamb: pomegranate and rosemary.

This is the kind of dish that takes practically forever to cook, but almost all the time is hands-off. I stuck the lamb in the oven for a few hours while I was working, and it perfumed my little dining room office most distractingly. You could turn up the oven temperature and braise for less time, but I love meat cooked like this, as slowly and gently as possible. You can reduce the braising liquid right down to a sticky glaze, if you want; I left mine a bit saucier, the better for spooning over couscous. Not only was the meat exactly how I love it–tender, plump, nearly falling apart–but the sauce itself was phenomenal, sweet and sour and slightly resiny from the rosemary. This one is a keeper.

pomegranate braised lamb shanks

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Smoky three-bean chili

I’m normally pretty bad at resisting the lure of processed food. (I’m currently typing this blog post with one hand and eating honey mustard pretzels with the other.) But there is one consistent exception. One of my favorite food websites, The Kitchn, recently ran a blog post titled “How My Freezer Replaces Canned Soups.” I read it and found myself nodding vigorously the whole time. I may be pretty lazy most days, but I’ve pretty much stopped trying to convince myself that a can of soup is a satisfying dinner. It’s freezer soup all the way these days.

I’ve written about this before–how I love stocking my freezer with the building blocks of meals. It’s a habit I got into when I was living alone, working long days and commuting over an hour each way. At any given point, my freezer usually has some homemade chicken or turkey stock; a couple different kinds of soup, stew, or curry; and a double batch of tomato sauce. (Lately I’ve been adding little containers of sweet potato filling to my stash as well.) If I remember, I’ll take a portion out of the freezer the night before I want to eat it and let it partially thaw in the fridge; if I forget, I’ll run hot tap water over the frozen container just until the contents release from the sides. It takes nearly as little time to reheat frozen soup as canned, and it’s just as quick to eat.

This is the point at which my boyfriend would accuse me of being philosophically opposed to canned soup, and claim that I’m judging him when he chooses to eat it. That’s really not it at all, though; if it works for Sam as a quick and filling meal, then I’ll happily keep cans of his favorite soups in the house. But for me, canned soup no longer really registers as food. When I eat a can of soup for dinner, I’m never really full afterward; my body doesn’t seem to register it as a meal, and I find myself hungry again in less than an hour. It’s just so much more filling and satisfying to eat something I made myself and tailored to my own tastes.

This chili is a great example. I’ve had bean chili out of a can more times than I can count, and most of the time it’s perfectly okay. But to have my very own three-bean chili squirreled away means I’ll actually enjoy the meal when I heat it up. This is a chili made to my specifications: smoky and brick-red, studded with chunks of sweet potato and shot through with enough heat to make my nose run. I froze some leftover cornbread alongside, so that I could have a wedge of something crumbly to stick in my bowl. I also love adding some big chunks of avocado and a scattering of scallions on top, for buttery smoothness and oniony crunch. But even without the extra toppings–even just scraped out of a freezer container and microwaved–this chili is miles away from the stuff in the can.

smoky three-bean chili

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Simple braided bread

I learned to knead from my mother. I remember her beckoning me over one day and showing me how she worked a mass of bread dough back and forth across the counter. She put my hands on the dough, explained her method: push the dough forward with the heel of one hand, pull it back with the other hand. Push right, pull left. Push right, pull left. I practiced alongside her, pushing and pulling the dough, until the movement worked its way into my muscles and became a reflex.

It’s a funny memory, because when I was first teaching myself to cook, I always imitated my father first. He’s an extravagantly creative cook, the kind of cook who barely ever glances at a recipe. He’s great at making kitchen-sink stews, pulling out the entire contents of the crisper drawer and the spice cupboard and having his way with all of it. I’m my father’s daughter in so many ways, and fundamentally my cooking temperament matches his. I have limited patience for recipes and rules, and an overwhelming tendency to tinker and embellish. For a long time I stuck stubbornly to that, insisting that it was the way I was made.

But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that my mother’s way of cooking has value for me too. She’s more deliberate in the kitchen, more of a planner. She has a drawer of recipes that she consults regularly, and keeps a stable of favorites in heavy rotation. Where my dad is creative, she’s curious; she’ll seek out an existing recipe to learn the techniques, then adapt it to what she likes and has on hand. She also bakes, which my father doesn’t really do, because the precision and deliberateness required come more easily to her. Slowing down like this isn’t natural for me, but I think it’s good. I’ve expanded my repertoire of dishes, adding things that require a bit more forethought and deliberateness than a kitchen-sink stew. I’ve realized that repeating recipes, and learning a few standbys to make repeatedly without thinking, are things to celebrate rather than hang my head over. Particularly as a blogger, paying attention to the way my mother uses recipes has helped me improve my own.

Over the years, I’ve learned on my own what a good bread dough feels like–soft, supple, almost fleshy–and how to know when it’s risen enough. But every loaf I’ve baked comes back to that push right, pull left that Mom taught me years ago. Knowing how to knead has grounded me, in a way. So when I went over to my parents’ house the other week to bake with my mother and sister, there was no question I was going to make bread. This was a gorgeous, airy loaf, with a thin crackling crust and a delicately spongy interior–perfect for sopping up soup. I kneaded the dough while Mom watched, and then she helped me braid the dough and sprinkle it with seeds. We bickered over how long to let it rest–it turns out she was right. After all these years, I’m still learning.

braided seed bread

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Chicken chorizo meatloaf

I really can’t leave well enough alone. A little while ago, I made some tasty little cocktail meatballs with chicken and chorizo. They were a raging success, and I blogged about them and set the recipe aside. By rights, that should have been it.

And then I kept thinking about them. I had a theory that meatballs and meatloaf were just the same thing in different guises. Clearly, the only way to prove this was to try the recipe again in meatloaf form. So I did, and I think it’s even better this way.

The quantities here yield a fairly small meatloaf, enough for four hungry eaters or six demure ones. I love just how different it is from a traditional meatloaf’s beefy softness and sugary glaze. The flavor is deeper and more interesting, with the spicy sourness of the chorizo tempered and rounded out by the mild-mannered chicken. I added a poblano pepper to the vegetable mix this time around, which was lovely both for its sharp flavor and the flecks of green it contributed to the loaf itself. The whole thing is vaguely Southwestern in flavor, a sort of Tex-Mex thing, which makes it both special and casual, the kind of homespun main course that impresses without coming off as fussy.

When I made this recipe as meatballs, they turned out loose and soft, threatening to collapse under their own weight. With the meatloaf version, that wasn’t a problem. The mixture shaped easily and held together perfectly, baking up slightly crusty on the outside and incredibly juicy within. Even though it took us close to an hour after the meatloaf was cooked to actually eat it, it was still warm and inviting inside when we sliced it. It yielded obligingly under a bread knife, as easily as cutting warm butter.

There’s also another reason this works better as a meatloaf, I think: the texture. The recipe calls for crushed tortilla chips in place of the usual breadcrumbs. Last time, I wrote that processing the chips in a food processor would break the chips down finer; I was wrong. I tried processing them, which didn’t accomplish much, so I switched to bashing them in a zip-top bag with a rolling pin; after a lot of noise and mess, they were still much coarser than ordinary breadcrumbs. In meatball form, that chunkiness was less than ideal; in meatloaf, it’s wonderful. I find traditional meatloaf texture to be a bit boring, and this is anything but, with soft nuggets of tortilla and slippery bits of onion and pepper. That alone is enough to earn this recipe a spot in my regular dinner rotation.

chicken chorizo meatloaf

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Stuffed sweet potatoes with chipotle black beans and greens

Most of the recipes I post on this blog are one-offs. They’re things I dream up, cook, photograph, eat, enjoy, and then never make again. But every so often a new recipe is so simple, so tasty, and so adaptable that it wriggles its way into my regular rotation and lives there for months before it ends up here. This is one of those.

I got the idea for these stuffed sweet potatoes from a brilliant recipe over at The Kitchn. The basic premise is this: you scrub and roast a few sweet potatoes until they’re squishy all the way through. (Use small sweet potatoes, since they’ll cook more quickly and give a better flesh-to-filling ratio.) Sweat an onion, garlic, and a few flavorings in oil, then add a bunch of chopped greens and a splash of some flavorful liquid. Let the greens wilt for a few minutes, then stir in a drained can of beans and warm the whole thing through. Cut a slit in each sweet potato, drizzle the flesh with oil or butter, and pile it high with the filling. Grab a fork and a steak knife, and devour, skin and all.

That’s the outline, and I’ve had a lot of fun filling it in. Sweet potatoes need strong flavors to cut through their baby-food sweetness, and the best fillings I tried are tangy, smoky, and spicy all at once. The original recipe used white beans, shallot, rosemary, fresh lemon, and chile flakes. I’ve also done a Spanish-inspired version, with chickpeas, sweet onion, smoked paprika, and preserved lemon. But this version is my favorite so far: black beans, red onion, chipotle, and lime. Based on a few rounds of trial and error, I recommend using a bit more chipotle than you might otherwise like; even if the filling is searingly spicy when you taste it from the pan, the sweet potato will tromp all over it. Be brave.

One other great thing about this recipe: it’s made to be made ahead. You can freeze the filling in portions, and bake the sweet potatoes a few days in advance; just reheat as many portions as you need in the microwave. During the last couple months of 2014, when I was commuting two hours each way to work, I’d come home and throw together a potato as a late dinner. Since New Year’s, I’ve been working from home, and eating these as a hearty desk lunch. And if I ever burn out on this flavor combination, I’ll just start experimenting with others.

chipotle stuffed sweet potato 2

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Green vegetable soup with miso

One of the first things Sam and I did after we got the keys to our new place was to sign up for a CSA membership. It’s been great fun so far, having a big box of exuberantly dirty produce show up quietly on our doorstep every other week. We stuff it all into the fridge, and then methodically cook or snack on it for the next fourteen days. Normally I relish this kind of cooking challenge–being handed a bunch of ingredients and told, “Go!” But, if I’m being honest, my creativity has been wearing a little thin.

So this recipe is a case of extremely fortunate timing. Last Tuesday, I opened our CSA box to find, among other things, a huge bunch of dinosaur kale, three bundled broccoli heads, a bunch of gorgeous carrots, and a lemon. On Wednesday, I opened up my RSS reader to find a Food in Jars post with a soup recipe calling for kale, broccoli, carrot, and lemon. All it took was putting two and two together, and I had lunch for the rest of the week.

Marisa from Food in Jars calls this “hippie soup,” which seems accurate. For one thing, it starts by boiling vegetables instead of sweating them in oil. You just toss a big pile of greens and herbs, an armful of broccoli florets, some alliums, and a grated carrot into a pot with water, and cook everything until it’s blendable. The recipe called for nutritional yeast, which I didn’t have and don’t intend to buy. But I had some white miso in the fridge, and figured that adding it would give the soup body and savory saltiness. I also tweaked the ingredients a bit based on my mood and the contents of the fridge, swapping scallions for onions and skipping the spinach in favor of more kale. The soup came out vividly Christmas-green, and the flavor was surprisingly complex–I was worried it’d be bitter, but it was mellow and herbal instead. It definitely tasted “good-for-you” green, but in the best way. (I suppose this is how people feel about green smoothies, but I like this soup way better than any green smoothie I’ve ever had.)

Normally, when I write recipes, I try to give approximate weights and volumes for things like “a bunch of kale” or “the juice of a lemon.” But I’m not doing that here, because precision really, really does not matter with this soup. This kind of recipe begs to be fiddled with, and the greens and herbs are totally interchangeable. I used kale and parsley, but this recipe is a great use-up for whatever greens and leafy herbs you have around–chard, spinach, radish greens, beet greens, turnip greens, collards, carrot tops, cilantro, arugula, watercress, etc. You want about half the mass of the soup to be leafy greens and herbs of some kind, and the other half to be broccoli, scallions, carrot, and garlic. Beyond that, go nuts.

green veggie soup with miso

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Bison bolognese

Sam and I moved in together just as the weather took a turn for the colder. I’m actually glad it worked out that way, because I’ve jumped right into cooking lots of slow, stewy things–my favorite way to turn a house into a home. Our freezer is already full of stock, soup, and sauce, the bones of many hearty homemade meals to come. And when it came to the bolognese, I went a little overboard.

Shortly after the move, on a weekend day when we unexpectedly had no plans, I got a wild hankering for a nice rich meat sauce. It suddenly seemed utterly urgent that we have bolognese for days, not just a single dinner’s worth but a freezer-full. So I pulled out a Marcella Hazan recipe I’d had bookmarked for a while and set about making a double batch of sauce. We had pasta to use up anyway, I reasoned, and besides, I like a full freezer.

I swapped out bison for beef, because I like the flavor better and thought the substitution would make the sauce special. It took hours and hours, the way so many good sauces do, and became the basis of an incredibly comforting pasta meal that night. I’ve been slowly working through the leftovers, poaching eggs in the sauce and eating it with bread. It’s familiar and ultra-comforting: rubbly and meaty and rich, the perfect thickness for coating pasta or cradling eggs.

Now, honesty time. The bison in here was delicious, but also nearly indistinguishable from beef. Normally, for burgers and soups, I prefer ground bison to ground beef. I like where the flavor lands: very much like beef, but a little gamier and leaner. In a slow-simmered sauce like this, though, I’m hard-pressed to tell the difference. The meat nearly melts into the sauce, and the gaminess and leanness do too. It tastes for all the world like a classic beef bolognese–just a really, really good one.

bison bolognese

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