One thing that running has taught me, among other things, is that getting from points A to B–crossing the finish line–is not in and of itself the ultimate goal. Rather, it’s how you get there, what’s in between, the journey. Art school taught me a similar lesson, but it never quite stuck, especially when you’re left with a crappy painting unfit for even the closet walls. No, running is my process and the goal is to find shit out (work shit out, too) along the way. It can be therapeutic, or physically and mentally challenging, or aimless and exploratory. It’s those “aimless” runs that I often enjoy the most: hitting an unfamiliar trail or neighborhood is by far my favorite way toward discovery–of all kinds. I’ve been places I’d not ordinarily have visited any other way. Some people are welcoming, others suspicious and others downright hostile. That’s when I smile, nod and pick up the pace a bit. But I’m always glad to have seen something, learned something or met someone new.
Without beating the metaphor too much, cooking is like running. Ideally, I’d like the end result to be edible and not a colossal waste of ingredients, but it’s the learning along the way that really keeps me in the kitchen. The more foreign the food, the more of a challenge it is, and therefore the more obsessive I become. Which leads me to the subject of this post: Trinidadian Roti, a flaky, chewy/tender flat bread that’s cooked on a griddle and served with a rich and spicy curry. My neighbor, Dionne, who’s Trinidadian, introduced me to roti many years ago, taking me to just about the best place in the city for West Indian food, Gloria’s on Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn. (It should be spelled phonetically, Glorious, it’s that good) and I’ve been hooked ever since. According to the New York City’s Department of City Planning, “More persons of West Indian ancestry live in New York City than any city outside of the West Indies.” And I think they’d all agree about Gloria’s.
On a recent run though another very Caribbean part of Brooklyn, I spotted someone rolling roti on a big table, getting ready for the day’s lunch rush and was inspired to give it a try myself later that afternoon. Internet research shed some light on the topic which was a decent enough start, but, remember, I am in it for the discovery, so I gathered my ingredients and equipment and began.
Simple enough ingredients, flour, salt, baking powder and water come together to make a soft, pliable dough which gets shaped into balls and allowed to rest for 30 minutes. Then each ball gets floured and rolled to a thin disc, then brushed with a mixture of butter and oil, rolled into a coil and allowed to rest again. The coiling of the dough is what forms the flaky layers. Think Caribbean puff pastry. The whole thing gets repeated once more before rolling into a thin disc, oiled and cooked on a tawa (griddle) until blistered and golden. My first attempt was actually pretty close but a bit tough–I hadn’t added enough water or baking powder. My second attempt was far better–the right combination of flaky, chewy and tender. We had it for dinner last night with super spicy curried goat–thankful for the bread to sop up the rich, peppery sauce and thankful for that delicious place between A and B.
3 cups (400 grams) all-purpose flour, plus more for kneading and dusting
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 1/4 cups water
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
1. In a large bowl, combine the flour, salt and baking powder. Add the water and stir to form a sticky dough. On a lightly floured board, turn out the dough and knead briefly, adding a bit more flour to keep your hands from sticking. Shape the dough into 4 balls, place on a floured baking sheet and cover loosely with a sheet of oiled plastic. Let sit for 30 minutes.
2. In a small bowl, combine the butter and oil. On a floured surface, roll a ball of dough into a 10-inch disc. Brush with a thin layer of the fat. Using a knife, make a cut starting in the center and extending to one edge. Roll the dough into a cone-shaped coil and press the edges together. Using your fingers, pinch the ends together to form a ball. Return the ball to the baking sheet and repeat with the remaining dough. Cover and let rest for 30 minutes in a cool place. Repeat the rolling out, brushing and coiling once more, letting the dough balls sit for 30 minutes in a cool place. (The coils create the flaky layers.)
3. Preheat a griddle over moderate heat. Roll the roti dough to an 11-inch circle and brush one side with more of the butter mixture. Working with one or two at a time, place the roti on the griddle, buttered side down and cook over moderate heat until lightly golden, about 2 minutes. Brush the surface, flip and griddle until golden. Brush and flip the roti once or twice more until blistered in spots and cooked completely through, about 2 minutes longer. Lower the heat if the roti darken too quickly. Fold the roti into quarters and serve with curry, dal or grilled meats.
Hot damn, are these bars delicious! The toasted oat crust—nutty and buttery, and the mixed berry filling—fruity and sweet-tart, all add up to one pretty spectacular bar cookie. Is it mad skills or did I just get lucky? That’s entirely beside the point—which is to run right out, buy the ingredients and give this recipe a whirl!
I’m working backwards at the moment—no opening tale of inspiration, or process, or thinking—I’ll get to that in a minute. For now, it’s just eating and telling (and beseeching). Here goes:
Taking a bite, my teeth easily break into the chewy, yet tender bottom crust, then through the jam-y fruit center, the crumbly streusel topping, and then finally the creamy, sugary glaze which melts by the warmth of my tongue. The first taste reminds me of my favorite childhood coffee cake, Entenmann’s Raspberry Danish Twist, only exponentially better. The second taste reminds me of the berry Bomboloncini (jelly donut-holes) I had at Osteria del Circo in the mid 90’s. Followed remotely by the idea of glazed raspberry Pop-Tarts—I say idea because even as a kid, I realized that they could never quite live up to the expectation of a gooey, fruit-filled flaky pastry.
In the end, what I’m left with is the memory of a raspberry bar cookie my mother made at Christmas—her famed Raspberry Chews. Hers had a short bread crust, jam-y filling and a coconut-walnut meringue topping. They were delicious and would’ve been more suited to the palette of a 9-year old if only she’d have left out the walnuts—my 9-year old self says “Yuck” while my XX-year old self says “Mmmm”. I hadn’t thought about them much until my brother, Frank came over for dinner and was reminded of them after eating mine for dessert. When she died (sadly, 2 years ago today) my mom left me with a ton of cookbooks and recipe cards but nowhere in that endless pile is a recipe for her raspberry chews. I did an internet search and found several listings, but alas, no source. An email to one poster put me no closer to the origin, but at least I now have the recipe that I’ll make for Christmas with the dozen or so other “Fran” cookies.
My bars are fresh in my memory and on my taste buds and are pretty easy, requiring no special equipment or hard-to-find ingredients. For the crust, my intention was to use oats and almonds, both of which I keep on hand for granola but I don’t love the raw, powdery taste in baked goods without toasting them first. A quick flash in the pan yields a nutty, fragrant aroma and eliminates that powdery taste. The crust is simply a streusel/shortbread dough that gets pinched together with your fingers. A portion of the crumbs get packed into a pan and then the rest get crumbled over the fruit filling. For the filling, I cooked down a mixture of berries with sugar until thick and shiny like jam. I suppose store-bought preserves would be fine, but quite a bit sweeter and cooked down than fresh. Berries were on sale in my grocery store, but now that autumn is truly here, I ‘m excited to try this again with more seasonal fruit. In fact, I have a pot of quince-apple sauce (quinces courtesy of Quinciple) cooking down on the stove right now.
After baking until golden and fragrant, the whole “bar” gets carefully inverted onto a cutting board, flipped again right side up and cut into pieces. The powdered sugar glaze is kind of like a hard sauce—confectioners’ sugar, butter and a touch of cream. It hardens and crackles when cool but softens as soon as you take a bite.
The problem (at least in my experience) with things this delicious is that they disappear quickly, leaving me with the not-so-distant memory and longing for more. I suppose now, I’ll have to get cracking on another batch with that rosy-hued quince-apple butter once it cools. And as soon as my hands are free (these are bar cookies after all) I’ll report back with the results.
TOASTED OATS AND BERRY STREUSEL BARS
Active: 30 min; Total: 2 hrs, plus cooling
Makes 32 bars
6 cups mixed berries, such as sliced strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries (about 1 1/2 pounds)
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1 cup old fashioned rolled oats
1/2 cup sliced almonds
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
14 tablespoons (7 ounces) unsalted butter, cubed and chilled
1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 tablespoon heavy cream or milk
- Make the filling: In a large saucepan, combine the berries, sugar and water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer over moderate heat, stirring frequently, until very thick and jammy and reduced to 2 1/2 cups, 15 to 20 minutes. Let cool completely.
- Preheat the oven to 350° and butter a 9-inch square or 12-inch round baking pan. Make the crust: in a large skillet, toast the oats and almonds over moderately high heat, stirring constantly, until fragrant and lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a plate and let cool completely.
- Meanwhile, in a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking soda and salt. Add the butter and using your hands, work the mixture until it resembles very coarse meal. Add the oats and almonds and work until evenly combined. You should have 6 cups of crumbs. Press 2/3 of the mixture into the pan and press to compact. Spoon the berry mixture on top and spread to an even layer. Using your fingers, press the remaining crumbs into clumps and scatter them evenly on top. Bake in the center of the oven until the top is golden 40 to 45 minutes. Let cool completely. Run the tip of a blade all around the edges to loosen the bar. Place a cutting board on top and holding both, invert. Carefully remove the pan. Set another cutting board on top and holding both, invert again. Cut into 32 bars.
- Make the glaze: in a bowl, whisk the confectioners’ sugar with the melted butter and cream until smooth. Drizzle the mixture over the bars and refrigerate until set, about 15 minutes. Serve. Make ahead: the bars can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.
I’m sitting in my office listening to the gentle cooing of the pigeons nesting in the eaves outside my window—my blood pressure rising because I know that those disgusting birds are making an ungodly mess of my front yard below that I’ll have to scrub away tomorrow. Try as I might to calm down, I just work myself up into a bigger lather. I tap the window to scare them away, worried that I may actually break the glass, I’m that agitated. Then I see an index card for Mango Chutney (of all things) in my mother’s handwriting on my desk and immediately understand the source of my agitation.
Today is my mother’s birthday—she would have been 82. I last saw her a few days after her 80th birthday in September of 2011. The cause of death was congestive cardiomyopathy that originated from a virus that weakened her heart many years ago. The 2nd anniversary of her death is coming up and it’s almost as hard today as it was two years ago. Lots of stuff happening and she’s not here to field the mountain of questions I have…or give advice…or help her granddaughter with AP American History (her wheelhouse)…or tell me not to worry about this nonsense or that…and that everything will be fine. Whether it would’ve been fine or not entirely misses the point of that painfully beautiful exchange. No doubt it would’ve been fine, simply by virtue of my mother saying so. But… She’s not here and I am and it sucks. And I miss her, everyday but today especially.
Her name is Fran and she was a goddam firecracker. At 80 years old, her social life was way more robust than mine. She taught college classes on the United States Constitution and Immigration, and traveled all over the world with her best friend, Gracie (I joked that she was the Gracie my mom always wanted). They were planning a trip to Beijing before she died. She entertained regularly, had season tickets to the Metropolitan Opera, The Symphony and the theater. She gardened with the vigor of someone much younger. She took Zumba Dance and other fitness classes with women half her age and was twice as good as them. Best of all, she cooked like a fiend—especially for holidays and visits from her kids and grand kids.
It’s possibly a coincidence, but I believe that index card for Mango Chutney popped up for a reason. To connect with my mom and remind me that even though she’s gone, she can still join me at the table on her birthday.
¾ cup sugar
½ cup water
½ cup cider vinegar
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
6 cardamom pods
1 cinnamon stick
3 ripe mangos, peeled and cut into ½-inch pieces
1 cup golden raisins or currants
2 ounces crystallized ginger, finely chopped
In a large saucepan, combine the sugar, water, vinegar, ginger, cloves, cardamom and cinnamon and bring to a boil, stirring, until the sugar dissolves. Add the mangos and raisins and simmer over moderately low heat, stirring frequently, until the fruit is translucent and the liquid is thickened and glossy, about 45 minutes. Stir in the crystallized ginger and simmer for 2 minutes longer. Let cool, then transfer to a large jar and refrigerate. Serve with sliced meats, chunks of cheese and bread.
Like many proud Sicilian men of a certain generation, my maternal grandfather was a bit suspicious and more than a bit arrogant. He’d have taken one look at my veggie-packed pizza and said, “Why-a you put all-a dat crrrap on-a di peetza? Dayz-a weeds” My paternal grandmother, on the other hand would’ve been thrilled to see all that fluffy purslane put to good use. She, less affluent (and much less suspicious) than my grandfather, was a keen urban forager whose skills would’ve impressed even Fredrik Berselius of Aska. Same impulse (deliciousness), same motivation (it’s there and it’s free), yet totally different audiences (penniless diners paying complements vs. well-to-do diners paying big bucks). She picked dandelions and wild onions from secret patches near her home in Bensonhurst, mulberries from trees on her block and crabapples from our back yard when she came to visit. I can only imagine how disappointed she was with our beautiful, perfectly manicured suburban lawn–great sitting but not great eating.
I discovered purslane on my roof-top garden years and years ago and had no idea that it was edible until I came across a Turkish recipe from Paula Wolfert. Talk about disappointment! I still kick myself for having weeded and tossed out those delicious and highly nutritious greens for all those years! Luckily, it’s available at farmers’ markets and still dirt cheap. I wonder when it’ll go the way of skirt steak, monk fish and chicken wings.
Purslane, a.k.a. portulaca oleracea grows wild in the States but is cultivated just about every where else. This succulent plant figures prominently in many cultures, especially hot, dry climates like India and Iran because it’s so hardy and nutritionally dense. These greens are true nutritional heavy-hitters. They’re high in omega 3 fatty acids (the largest source per gram than any other plant) vitamins A, B, C and E, beta carotene, calcium, folate and potassium. These low-growing plants have smooth, red stems and spatula-shaped leaves that grow in groups of five. A tiny yellow flower sits in the center of the leaf cluster and only opens during the hottest time of day, closing up when the sun goes down. The seed pod contains loads of super-tiny black seeds like poppy seeds but half the size or less. Australian Aborigines would grind these seeds into flour to make bush bread–a dense loaf cooked over coals. It’s hard to imagine how many seeds went into a single loaf. Just thinking about that is too much work for me. I’d rather just eat the leaves and stems and buy a nice loaf of bread from Bien Cuit.
My favorite ways to use purslane are in salads (it has a baby spinach-like texture and flavor) in soups and stews (it thickens the liquid much like okra or file powder) but my favorite is dressed with lemon juice and olive oil on top of a hot-off-the-grill pizza. Sometimes I’ll sauté it first, but often I’ll just mound it on the pizza and allow the ambient heat to gently wilt the greens. It makes eating pizza down-right virtuous!
GRILLED PIZZA WITH PURSLANE, GOAT CHEESE AND OLIVES
1 pound pizza dough, divided into 4ths
Oil for brushing and drizzling
1 large red onion, cut into slivers
4 garlic scapes, or scallions, cut into 2-inch lengths
1 tablespoon rosemary leaves
Salt and freshly ground pepper
¼ cup pitted green olives, halved
4 ounces goat cheese, crumbled
4 cups purslane, baby arugula or whatever looks good at the market
1 tablespoon lemon juice
- Light a grill. Clean and oil the grates. On an oiled board, stretch the dough out to 8-inch rounds and brush generously with oil. Let sit for 10 minutes.
- Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a medium skillet. Add the onion, garlic scapes (or scallions) and rosemary, season with salt and pepper and cook on moderate heat until just softened, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and add the olives.
- Carefully drape the dough, working with one piece at a time, over the grates and season lightly with salt. Cook over moderately high heat just until lightly charred and set on the bottom, 3 to 4 minutes.. Flip the pizzas and quickly sprinkle on the onion, garlic scapes, olives and goat cheese, cover the grill and cook over moderate heat until the bottom is nicely charred and the dough is cooked through, 3 to 4 minutes. It may be necessary to move your pizzas around the grill if you have hot spots.
- Toss the greens with the lemon juice and 2 tablespoons oil, season with salt and pepper and mound on top. Let sit until barely wilted. Cut into wedges and serve.
Growing up Catholic, my mother would often make frittatas for our mandatory meatless Friday night dinners. Friends of mine thought it was exotic and intriguing, but for us it was just a big, thick omelet filled with lots of vegetables. Potatoes and onions were the constants, but peppers, asparagus, broccoli rabe or zucchini were the variables. As a little kid, I hated those variables. I did a lot of picking out and sneaking to the dog or my napkin in those days. But as I grew, so did my appreciation for those “weird, icky” vegetables, especially peppers. The one thing however, that always bothered me, even after learning to love them, was that their skins were so tough and indigestible. I still picked out the peppers, but only to remove the skins. Tender and sweet, they melted in my mouth, leaving a sweet little pocket in the eggs as I picked them out.
Another Friday night egg dish that my mom made occasionally was Eggs in Purgatory—eggs simmered in savory tomato sauce. I remember complaining, as a kid, how gross it sounded and that the whole miserable affair was an unfortunate waste of perfectly good tomato sauce that should only be served with macaroni (back when pasta was called macaroni). The fact that my mother did not smack me or send me to my room at that very minute, (she may very well have and my rose-colored glasses are closer to crimson ) either showed enormous self-control or a smug understanding of just how delicious she knew it was—probably both. The runny yolks melting into the tangy, rich tomato sauce, the crusty bread that sopped it all up. She was right— It was delicious.
This recipe combines the best of both dishes and is a tribute to my mom who really mastered the art of meatless Fridays, good Catholic that she was…mostly.
ROASTED PEPPER SHAKSHUKA
1 red pepper
1 yellow pepper
1 orange pepper
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large Vidalia onion, sliced into slivers
2 scallions (or garlic scapes) , cut into 2-inch strips
Thyme leaves for garnish
- Roast the peppers over a gas flame or under a broiler until lightly charred all over, but not too soft. Transfer them to a bowl, cover with a plate and let cool. Peel the peppers, remove the core and seeds and cut them into ½-inch wide strips.
- In a large cast-iron skillet, heat the oil over moderate heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, until softened and lightly browned, about 8 minutes. Add the pepper strips and scallions (or garlic scapes), season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally until the vegetables are very soft, about 8 minutes longer. Using a spoon, make 6 wells in the vegetables and place a teaspoon of butter into each. Crack the eggs into the wells, being careful not to break the yolks. Season lightly with salt and pepper, cover and cook over moderately low heat until just set, about 3 minutes. Sprinkle the thyme on top and serve with crusty bread.