Thursday, February 10, 2011

Chicken-Pita Casserole with Yogurt Topping

Do you make a lot of casseroles? I wouldn't say that I do (although some appear in our permanent repertoire, namely these fantastic enchiladas that Mike makes). After today's recipe, I'm thinking about these homey baked dishes in a new way. The term "casserole" encompasses such a huge array of recipes, it's impossible not to find a few recipes that you love...and none of them need to involve cream of mushroom soup.

The idea for the chicken-pita casserole came from Martha Rose Shulman's turkey and rice casserole with yogurt topping in her New York Times' Recipes for Health column. She mentions in the head notes that this Middle Eastern dish often includes a layer of crisp pita. I loved that idea (and I always seem to have whole wheat pitas in the freezer), so I ran with it and altered the recipe to my style and available ingredients (chicken instead of turkey, brown rice instead of white, almonds instead of walnuts...I really played it fast and loose here).

Two big things to note: First, I made sure to season every component, from the pita, to the rice, to the pre-cooked chicken. Not just with salt and pepper, but with spices and sauteed onion and garlic. This guarantees a highly flavorful dish that tastes just as great the next day. And second, the yogurt topping is absolutely amazing. I was a little worried about how it would turn out. I used Fage brand lowfat plain Greek yogurt. I personally would not use fat free because the texture might suffer, and it's the incredible cheese-like texture you're going for. Somehow, the thick rich yogurt dries out a bit in the oven, solidifying and concentrating the tangy flavor. It is so good. I'm imagining all sorts of ways to use this discovery, starting with other casseroles and gratins.

More casseroles I love:
Healthy Spanakopita
Turkey Lasagna with Eggplant and Spinach
Bobotie, an African sort of Shepherd's Pie with a custard top
Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

Chicken-Pita Casserole with Yogurt Topping
Loosely adapted from The New York Times
You can use any leftover shredded chicken or turkey for this casserole, and a rotisserie chicken would also work well. For the yogurt, I used lowfat Fage. Other brands should be fine, but I'd stay away from fat-free varieties. I liked the topping so much, I might use 2 1/2 to 3 cups of yogurt next time I make this.

Serves 6

Pita layer:
2 (6-inch) whole wheat pitas (with pockets)
Cooking spray
Chile powder, salt and pepper to taste

4 tsp olive oil (divided use)
1 large onion, chopped (divided)
4 cloves garlic, chopped (divided)
1 1/2 tsp ground allspice (divided)
1 tsp ground cinnamon (divided)
3 cups chicken broth (divided)
1 cup long-grain brown rice
1/3 cup dried currants
10 to 12 oz chicken breasts (about 2 large), poached and shredded (about 2 1/2 cups)
Chile powder to taste

1 clove garlic
2 cups lowfat Greek yogurt (do not use fat free)
2 Tbs lemon juice
1/3 cup slivered almonds

To make pita layer, preheat broiler to high, line a baking sheet with foil and coat with cooking spray. Cut pitas in half crosswise, then split the halves open (you should have 8 half circles total). Arrange on baking sheet in a single layer and mist with cooking spray. Sprinkle with chile powder, salt and pepper taste. Broiler until toasted and crisp, turning if necessary. Watch pita very carefully—they cook quickly and can burn in seconds! Arrange in a single layer in a 9 x 13-inch baking dish.

Make the filling: In a medium saucepan, heat 2 tsp of the oil on medium heat. Add about a quarter of the chopped onion and cook until tender; season with salt and pepper. Add half the garlic, 1/2 tsp of the allspice and 1/2 tsp of the cinnamon; add rice and cook, stirring often, 2 minutes. Add 2 cups of the broth and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer 50 minutes, or until rice is cooked through. Remove from heat, add the currants, and rest covered 10 minutes.

Heat remaining oil in a large skillet on medium heat. Add remaining onion and season with salt and pepper. Cook slowly (reduce heat if browning too quickly) until very tender and deep golden brown, about 12 minutes. Add remaining garlic and cook 1 minute. Add chicken, chile powder, salt and pepper to taste, and remaining allspice and cinnamon. Stir well and add 1/2 cup of broth. Simmer until reduced slightly, but still very moist. Remove from heat.

To make the topping, crush the garlic clove with the flat side of a knife and finely chop. Combine yogurt, garlic and lemon juice.

Assemble casserole: Douse pita layer with 1/4 cup of broth. Top with a layer of rice, then a layer of chicken. Douse chicken with remaining 1/4 cup broth. Top with yogurt mixture and sprinkle with almonds. Bake at 350 for 20 minutes, or until heated through. Yogurt will become firm, but should not bubble. Rest 5 minutes and serve.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Socca Pizza

Have you  heard about socca? It's a popular street food in southern France, and it's called farinata in Italy. It's also the easiest skillet flatbread you'll ever make. With its popularity in western Europe, you may be surprised to find out that the main ingredient (pretty much the only ingredient) can be found for the best price at Indian grocery stores.

To make socca, all you do is whisk chickpea flour with spices, olive oil and water to make a batter, then bake it in a hot skillet. The result is most similar to baked or grilled polenta, only more dense and flavorful. Chickpea flour itself is a very fine powder make from nothing but ground garbanzo beans. The great thing to my mind is that you're getting tons of protein and fiber from the chickpeas. Polenta and traditional flatbread/pizza dough are made from grains, not legumes, and therefore lower in protein and high in carbohydrates. That's not to say whole grain carbs aren't healthy--they absolutely are; but subbing protein-rich beans for grains on occasion can be a nice way to balance out your diet.

I first read about socca in a Mark Bittman Minimalist column, which apparently ran FIVE years ago. When I started shopping at my favorite Indian grocery store in Chicago and spied a bag of chickpea flour, I grabbed it in the hopes that I'd get around to making socca (No India market? Don't worry. Bob's Red Mill makes garbanzo flour, which is available at Whole Foods and online; and Lucini now sells a farinata mix that's worth keeping an eye out for.). It still took awhile, but after reading about authentic socca here and ideas for socca pizza here, I finally tried it.

This is a great alternative to pizza, especially if you don't have any homemade dough in the freezer and don't want to make any (I'm kind of a pizza snob. I'll use fresh dough from Whole Foods if I absolutely must, but I just love homemade.). With the chickpea flavor and very moist texture, it's really a whole different category of flatbread. You can top your socca with anything. I wanted something substantial, so I used thin roasted potatoes, caramelized onions, sauteed spinach and goat cheese. Just delicious.

Socca Pizza with Potatoes, Spinach and Goat Cheese
Adapted from and Mark Bittman.
Find chickpea flour at India markets (called besan or gram flour), or see sources discussed above. The toppings I used for this pizza--roasted potatoes, sauteed spinach, caramelized onions--can be done ahead of time to make things easier. Socca itself is quick and simple, and you can definitely use less labor-intensive toppings. I'd try broiled zucchini and eggplant, sausage, fresh tomatoes...anything simple that you'd put on pizza.

Serves 2 to 3 as a main dish or 4 to 6 as a starter.

For socca:
1 1/4 cups chickpea flour (150 g)
1/2 to 3/4 tsp salt
Generous freshly ground black pepper
Pinch dried thyme
Pinch dried rosemary
1 1/4 cups water
1 1/2 Tbs olive oil

For toppings:
Cooking spray
1 medium to large Russet potato, peeled
Salt, pepper and dried rosemary to taste
1 Tbs olive oil
1 medium red onion, sliced into half moons
6 ounces spinach (approx.), sauteed
3 ounces goat cheese

To make socca, preheat oven to 450 F, and place a 12-inch cast iron in the oven to heat up as well.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, pepper and herbs. Add water and whisk to form a smooth batter. Rest 20 minutes (may be made several hours ahead). Add olive oil to hot skillet and return to oven just until oil is shimmering, 1 to 2 minutes (don't let it smoke). Swirl oil around skillet to coat sides, then pour hot oil into batter; stir to combine. Pour batter into skillet and return to oven. Bake 15 to 20 minutes, or until center is set and top is golden brown.

Switch oven to broil. Top socca with roasted potato slices (see below), caramelized onions, sauteed spinach and goat cheese. Return to oven and broil until goat cheese is lightly browned, about 5 minutes (Don't get too close too broiler's heat; I kept my skillet in the center of the oven). Rest 5 minutes. Cut into 6 or 8 wedges and serve.

For toppings: Line a baking sheet with foil and coat with cooking spray.Using a mandoline, slice the potato in 1/8-inch thick rounds (you can also try this, carefully, by hand). Arrange in a single layer on prepared baking sheet. If you have more potatoes than can fit in 1 layer, you can discard or use for something else--you need enough potatoes to cover the socca, overlapping slightly. Coat potatoes with cooking spray and season with salt, pepper and rosemary. Roast in the center of the oven until lightly browned and tender, flipping halfway through, 15 to 20 minutes.

Heat the oil in a large skillet on medium-low heat. Add onion, season with salt and pepper and cook until very soft and deep golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Beet Stew with Lamb Meatballs

Happy Groundhog Day! If you can brave the midwestern snow-pocalypse enough to get to the supermarket, consider making this unique and utterly fantastic stew. It's an Iraqi-Jewish recipe I saw in Saveur ages ago, and finally got around to making one recent Saturday. It's great. I tweaked the version in the magazine, adding more meatballs, beet greens and spices. It makes enough for 6 average servings, which was 3 delicious dinners for my small family of two. And we never got tired of eating it!

I recommend using ground lamb, although substituting turkey or beef wouldn't hurt. I love the flavor of lamb, and the meat I bought was rather lean. On the day I made the stew, it wasn't greasy or fatty, but after chilling overnight, there was a thin layer of fat that was easily removed. So, if you want to keep this ultra-healthy, you can either make it ahead, so the fat can separate and harden, or put the broth through a handy fat separator after you simmer the meatballs. When I make this again, I'll probably do it exactly the same way, just skimming the fat off the chilled leftovers.

I can't think of another way to say how GREAT this dish is. Especially if you love both beets and Middle Eastern flavors as much as I do. This dish unites them beautifully. It's also worth noting that the basmati rice is soaked for 20 minutes before cooking. I followed the directions in Saveur precisely, and their method resulted in perfect rice. Although the stew requires multiple steps and isn't exactly a streamlined, "weeknight" meal, it's not complicated or fussy. And it's quite the show-stopper dish, in my opinion.

Beet Stew with Lamb Meatballs
Adapted from Saveur magazine.

According to Saveur, “Test kitchen assistant Yael Coty learned to make this dish from her grandparents, who left Iraq for Israel in 1950.” I changed the proportions of the original recipe to make more of the delicious lamb meatballs. I also included beet greens and increased some of the spices. Finally, I freshly ground the cumin and coriander, which is a worthwhile step if you have the means to do so. If your beets are not attached to some lovely, fresh greens, use Swiss chard or spinach. The addition of greens really completes the meal nutritionally and looks pretty too.

Serves 4 to 6

1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
1 1/4 lb. ground lamb
1/4 cup dried currants
3 tbsp. chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves
2 tbsp. pine nuts or chopped pistachios
1 tsp. paprika
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper, or to taste
1 egg
1 tsp kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 1⁄2 cups basmati rice, soaked in water for 20 minutes
2 cups water
1 1/4 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. turmeric

8 small to medium red beets (preferably with their greens, see below), peeled and cut into sixths or eighths
7 cups water
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
3 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tbs coriander seeds, toasted and ground
1 Tbs cumin seeds, toasted and ground
1 Tbs curry powder
2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp mild chile powder (such as ancho)
1 tsp. ground ginger
1⁄8 tsp cayenne, or to taste
1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
1⁄4 cup tomato paste
1 Tbs sugar
1 bunch beet greens, thick stems trimmed, chopped (Swiss chard or spinach may be substituted)
4 Tbs fresh lemon juice
Chopped parsley for serving
Chopped fresh mint for serving (optional)

1. Make the meatballs: Heat oil in an medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, about 7 minutes. Remove from heat; let cool slightly. Add onions to a medium bowl along with lamb, currants, parsley, pine nuts, paprika, cayenne and egg and combine with your hands. Roll into 1 1⁄2-inch meatballs (you’ll get 26 to 30) and transfer to a parchment paper–lined baking sheet. Cover meatballs with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 45 minutes.

2. Prepare the rice: Strain and rinse rice and transfer to a 2-qt. saucepan along with the water, salt, turmeric. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, cover, and cook for 10 minutes. Remove pot from heat and keep covered in a warm place.

3. Meanwhile, make the stew: Bring beets and 7 cups water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer until beets are tender, 25 to 30 minutes. Remove pot from heat and, using a slotted spoon, transfer beets to a bowl; reserve beet juice.

4. Put garlic on a work surface and sprinkle with a little salt; finely chop. Scrape the garlic into a paste with the side of the chef's knife. In a small bowl, combine garlic paste, 2 Tbs of the oil, coriander, cumin, curry powder, turmeric, chile powder, ginger, and cayenne; set spice paste aside. Heat remaining olive oil in a Dutch oven or 6-qt. pot over medium-high heat. Add onions, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, about 7 minutes. Add reserved spice paste and tomato paste and cook, stirring constantly, until mixture is lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Stir in 1 cup of the reserved beet juice and scrape any bits stuck to the bottom of the pot. Add remaining beet juice and sugar; simmer for 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper (I used about 1/2 tsp). Place reserved meatballs in the simmering stew. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, for 6 minutes. Add beet greens if using, cover and simmer 2 minutes more, or until meatballs are cooked through. Add beets and cook 2 minutes more. Skim surface of stew, and stir in lemon juice. Check seasoning. To serve, fluff rice with a fork and spoon it into serving bowls along with ladlefuls of the stew and meatballs; garnish with parsley and mint, if using