Articles in Holidays

My grandmother made this Kosha Dimer Dalna - egg curry - as a picnic treat for Bengali's New Year. Credit: Copyright Rinku Bhattacharya

In mid-April, the people of Bengal — a region straddling Bangladesh and parts of India, including my hometown in West Bengal — celebrate the Bengali New Year.

Bengalis of all religious persuasions celebrate this secular holiday with music, song and, of course, plenty of good food. So today I share with you food. Lots of it. Twenty-six Bengali dishes, to be precise

It’s only appropriate to go all out, food-wise, on naba barsha, as Bengalis call the holiday. Food in Bengali is synonymous with all events and happenings. But for festivals like the one for the new year, Bengalis go the whole nine yards on the dinner table.

People also buy new clothes and other new items with the belief that something done at the beginning of the year repeats itself year-round. Bengali traders crack open fresh new account books called the haal khata on this day.

A new year ahead, with taxes behind us

Ironically, the Bengali New Year, which falls during a season when the U.S. tax deadline looms, originated in the Mughal Empire, when it marked a fresh beginning after the collection of taxes.

So, celebrate the end of tax season with me by delving into this regional cuisine.

Bengal, with its west monsoon climate and proximity to rivers, offers a diet rich in fish, greens, rice and vegetables. Its seasonings are distinct and prominent with the use of mustard, poppy seeds, ginger and a Bengali Five Spice Blend consisting of mustard, cumin, nigella, fenugreek and fennel. This seasoning is called panch phoron: panch means five and phoron means tempering.

The Bengali meal ranges from light to heavy courses, with a sweet and sour chutney to cleanse the palate before dessert.

This slideshow offers an insight into some of the most traditional dishes on the Bengali table.

Starting the new year with a family recipe that travels well

The fact that the holiday lands midweek this year puts a wrinkle on food celebrations.

This year, however I’ve resurrected a well-seasoned egg dish that my grandmother used to call her “picnic dimer dalna” or picnic egg curry.

Our “picnics” consisted usually of multilayered lunch boxes, filled with puffy fried breads known as luchi and drier curries like alur dom. In our family’s case, it included these eggs, since my grandmother felt that we should get our protein as growing children.

This dish travels very well, and actually improves as leftovers. My children now love this as a special breakfast treat and it can be enjoyed with toasted bread almost as much as the luchi, which can be difficult to pull off on a school-day morning. The eggs, however, can be made the night before.

This particular recipe is also known as Kosha Dimer Dalna. The word kosha in Bengali refers to slow-cooked and refers to the slow-cooked onions in the dish.

This year, if you feel that you just might need an excuse for a new beginning and an opportunity to revisit your New Year’s resolutions, join the Bengalis in celebrating our Bengali New Year.

Kosha Dimer Dalna (Egg Curry with Clingy Caramelized Onion Sauce)

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 45 to 50 minutes

Total time: 65 to 70 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

4 tablespoons oil

3 medium-sized onions, sliced

1 tablespoon grated ginger

2 to 3 cardamoms

2 medium-sized tomatoes

1 teaspoon red cayenne pepper, or to taste

8 eggs, hard-boiled and shelled

1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1/4 teaspoon turmeric

Chopped cilantro to garnish

Directions

1. In a heavy-bottomed pan, heat the oil and add in the sliced onions. Cook the onions on low heat, until they gradually wilt, soften and turn golden brown. This process will take about 30 to 35 minutes, but should not be rushed.

2. Add in the ginger and stir well.

3. Add in the cardamoms, tomatoes and red cayenne pepper. Cook for about five minutes until the mixture thickens and the tomatoes begin to soften.

4. In the meantime, make slits on the sides of the eggs and rub them with the salt and the turmeric.

5. Mix the eggs into the tomato mixture and cook for about 5 minutes, until the eggs are well-coated with the onion base.

6. Sprinkle with the cilantro and serve.

Main photo: My grandmother made this Kosha Dimer Dalna or egg curry as a picnic treat for us when I was growing up in Kolkata in India’s West Bengal province. Credit: Copyright Rinku Bhattacharya

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Matzo pizzas are a great quick snack to eat warm out of the oven. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

If you celebrate Passover, you’re familiar with this scene: The closing prayers are sung, the last bite of seder brisket is a distant memory, and here you are facing the holiday’s inevitable final ritual:

piles of leftover matzo. This unleavened Passover staple never fails to divide the closest of kin — some claim it’s the best thing before sliced bread, while others dismiss it as gastronomically inferior to sawdust.

But whether you detest the stuff or eat it straight out of the box, by the time Passover ends, you’re probably less than thrilled at the idea of force-feeding yourself bland iterations of the same matzo sandwiches you’ve eaten for a week. Don’t let the “bread of affliction” bring you down! With a little creativity, matzo can be as refreshingly versatile in the kitchen as it is divisive at the dinner table. Here are five easy and delicious ways you can enjoy (or dispense with) your matzo leftovers.

Spiced matzo chips pair nicely with dips and spreads for an easy hors d'oeuvre. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

Spiced matzo chips pair nicely with dips and spreads for an easy hors d’oeuvre. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

1. Matzo is technically already a “cracker,” but let’s be honest, it could get much more adventurous with the term. Coat small matzo pieces in olive oil and sprinkle with any spice combination you prefer: za’atar and cumin; coriander, turmeric and paprika; dried parsley and garlic powder; or rosemary and salt are all good options. Bake in the oven until browned, then serve the newly transformed (read: yummy) chips with your favorite spreads, dips and toppings for an easy snack or hors d’oeuvre.  Alternatively, skip the herbs and just add cheese for Passover-friendly “matchos” (I had to).

Crumbled matzo can serve as a bread crumbs substitute. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

Crumbled matzo can serve as a bread crumbs substitute. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

2. Sneak leftover matzo into your dinner and get the added bonus of releasing stress by crushing the crackers with a food processor, mortar and pestle, or your bare hands. With that you have a ready-made bread crumbs substitute. Or take it one step further and combine the crumbs with flour and egg to provide a crispy matzo crust for proteins and veggies. That cardboard-esque matzo crunchiness really comes in handy here.

Matzo pizzas are a great quick snack to eat warm out of the oven. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

Matzo pizzas are a great quick snack to eat warm out of the oven. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

3. You know what they say … when not in Rome but wishing you could be, make matzo pizza! Place matzo on a foil-lined baking sheet, using full crackers for a “pie” or small bite-sized portions for snacking. Spread a thin layer of sauce, sprinkle with your choice of cheese and toppings, and bake at 400 F until the cheese melts and the toppings are cooked. If you’re willing to go the extra mile to avoid “crust” sogginess — remember, matzo is more permeable to sauce than normal pizza dough — melt a thin layer of cheese onto the matzo before adding the other ingredients on top.

Sweet and salty chocolate toffee bark is an addictive dessert, with matzo as the perfect crunchy base. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

Sweet and salty chocolate toffee bark is an addictive dessert, with matzo as the perfect crunchy base. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

4. Want to avoid being the empty-handed seder guest or need a quick treat to serve last-minute visitors? Chocolate toffee matzo bark is a quick and scrumptious solution. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil and matzo, mix butter or margarine with brown sugar until boiling, spread the toffee over the matzo and bake at 350 F until the coating bubbles. Take it out, dump chocolate chips on top, spread the melting chocolate evenly and sprinkle with your favorite toppings (mine are sea salt and chopped pecans). Refrigerate, and voila! Your extra matzo is now the perfectly flaky, crunchy base for an addictive bite-sized dessert.

Matzo brie is a warm and comforting brunch option that's delicious with sweet sides like jam. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

Matzo brie is a warm and comforting brunch option that’s delicious with sweet sides like jam. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

5. Brunch is a beloved meal all year round, so why neglect it at Passover just because you can’t eat the leavened stuff? Matzo brei is a simple, crowd-pleasing comfort food that’s perfect for any brunch table. Break the matzo into small pieces and run under hot water until it begins to soften (avoid mushiness). Beat some eggs in a bowl, season with salt and pepper and stir the matzo into the eggs. Heat oil or butter in a skillet, pour in the mixture and fry over high heat until golden. Serve with jam, cinnamon-sugar or whatever other sides you fancy and prepare yourself for that warm fuzzy feeling.

Main photo: Matzo pizzas are a great quick snack to eat warm out of the oven. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

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P is for Passover Cake can be adapted for use at other times of the year, too. Change the P to E, and you have a lovely Easter treat! Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

When it comes to the science of baking as opposed to the art of cooking, it doesn’t do to have clumsy, chubby fingers. Chemistry needs cool palms and a sweat-free brow.

A dear friend of mine, the late Zena Swerling, was a naturally gifted cook, but it was in the realm of baking that she truly shone. “Here’s another can’t-go-wrong recipe,” she’d offer breezily, and although they always worked, they were never quite the same as when served by Zena herself.

Zena started baking when she was “just tall enough to get my chin over my Russian mummy’s kitchen table.” She was a good, old-fashioned cook with a generous hand and heart, but it was not always easy to interpret and annotate her recipes unless you were by her side in the kitchen. Even then, it was difficult because she’d always insist you sit down instead for a light five-course snack with a good helping of juicy gossip.

With Passover here, I’m pleased to share her recipe for ingber, also known as ingberlach (also sometimes called pletzlach), an old-fashioned Ashkenazi carrot-and-ginger festive candy that too few have the patience to make anymore.

Zena, I hope you’re kvelling with pride.

Zena’s Ingber

Add more or less ginger as preferred, but this sweet confection of carrots and ginger should smolder in the mouth.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 50 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Yield: About 18 pieces

Ingredients

5 large carrots, peeled

2 cups superfine sugar

1 cup chopped almonds

3 teaspoons ground ginger

Directions

1. Finely grate the carrots in the processor and put them in a large pan.

2. Add the sugar; stir over low heat until it dissolves. Cook very slowly, stirring frequently, until the mixture is thick (test by dropping a little onto a plate to see if it sets, like jam). This will take 45 to 50 minutes. For chewy, syrupy candy cook until the soft-crack stage or 270 F on a thermometer; for a more brittle candy, cook until it reaches the hard-crack stage or 300 F.

3. Add the almonds and ginger and remove immediately from the heat. Pour the mixture into a baking tray lined with silicone paper.

4. As it cools, score the top into squares or diamonds, then cut into pieces when cold.

P is for Passover Cake

This is a good recipe either to make before Passover, when the cupboard is crammed with ingredients bought in a frenzy of last-minute panic buying, or when you’re on the homeward stretch and your stocks are running low. Bags of nuts, in particular, seem to get into the spirit of the thing and go forth and multiply under their own volition.

The cake can be made with almonds, walnuts or hazelnuts. Ground hazelnuts are widely available in Jewish stores at this time of the year and are much appreciated by the home baker as they save the tedious business of toasting the nuts, and rubbing their skins off with a tea towel before you pulverize them in a grinder … who needs it? Isn’t this the festival of freedom?

Note to self: Next year must buy nut futures.

And, I’d just like to share with you my favorite Passover joke:

Q: What do you call someone who derives pleasure from the bread of affliction?

A: A matzochist.

OK, let’s get to the cake.

Passover Cake

Prep time: 25 minutes

Cook time: 40 minutes

Total time: 65 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

1/2 cup ground nuts, plus a little extra for dusting

4 large eggs

1/4 cup superfine sugar

2/3 cup, plus 1 cup dark chocolate

Salt

2/3 cup sour cream

1 tablespoon sugar (optional)

3 tablespoons apricot jam

Whole nuts, for decoration (optional)

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 355 F (180 C).

2. Grease two 6-inch sandwich tins and line the base of each with a disc of oiled paper. Dust with some ground nuts.

3. Whisk the eggs and sugar until thick.

4. Melt 2/3 cup chocolate with a teaspoon of water.

5. Beat a little into the egg mixture along with a pinch of salt. Fold in the rest of the melted chocolate along with the 1/2 cup of ground nuts.

6. Pour into the tins and bake for 40 minutes or until springy to the touch.

7. Leave to cool on a wire rack, then turn out of the tin.

8. To make the frosting, melt the cup of chocolate and stir in the sour cream. Add a little sugar, if you wish, and allow to cool a little.

9. For the filling, spread the apricot jam and about half of the chocolate mixture over the top of one of the cakes. Place the other cake on top, and smear the remainder of the chocolate sauce over the top. Decorate, if preferred, with whole nuts in shape of a “P.”

Main photo: P is for Passover Cake can be adapted for use at other times of the year, too. Change the P to E, and you have a lovely Easter treat! Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

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Quarter-sized deviled eggs made with Italian parsley, anchovies and capers. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

What’s Easter without Easter eggs? Hide them. Roll them. And, best of all, eat them. Of the many dishes associated with Easter, deviled eggs have always been high on the list. Traditional deviled eggs are delicious but with some adventuresome spices, hardboiled Easter eggs become devilishly delicious.

Our fingers stained blue, red and yellow, my sister and I loved dyeing and decorating Easter eggs. Ultimately our mother turned our colored eggs into deviled eggs with a simple recipe: peel and slice open the eggs, chop up the yolks, add a bit of mayonnaise and season with salt and pepper, then spoon the mixture back onto the egg white halves.

When we were kids that seemed good enough. But for my adult palate, deviled eggs needed spicing up. With experimentation, I discovered that hard-boiled eggs are a great flavor delivery system because they provide a solid, neutral base of flavor to which exciting flavors can be added.

Doing something as simple as adding cayenne or Mexican chili ancho powder gives the mild-mannered eggs a mouth-pleasing heat. Sweeten the flavor up a notch by stirring in finely chopped currants or borrow from Indian cuisine and mix in curry powder that has first been dry roasted in a sauté pan.

Turn the eggs into an entrée by mixing in freshly cooked shellfish. Grill shrimp or steam a few Dungeness crab legs, finely chop the savory meat and add to the yolk mixture. The result is elegantly flavorful.

This year I’m using a Mediterranean approach. Capers add saltiness and Italian parsley adds freshness. Finely chopped and sautéed anchovy filets are the secret ingredient that takes deviled eggs to another level.

Plating the eggs adds more fun

Cut into quarters or halves, the deviled eggs make a visually arresting presentation. The eggs can also be served whole, the savory filling added to two halves, which are then put back together. Plate the reconstituted whole eggs on a bed of Italian parsley or arugula and they reference the Easter eggs my parents used to hide for us to find when we were kids.

Caper and Anchovy Deviled Eggs

Always worth mentioning, using quality ingredients improves any dish. Nowhere is that more true than with deviled eggs. Use farmers market fresh eggs, quality capers preserved in brine and good anchovy filets.

The easiest way to fill the egg white sections is with a disposable pastry bag. If one is not available, use a spoon to scoop up filling and a fork to distribute it into each egg white half.

The eggs and filling can be prepared the day before or in the morning. To keep them fresh, the eggs should not be filled until just before serving.

If desired, add a touch of heat with a pinch of cayenne.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Assembly time: 15 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

6 farm fresh eggs, large or extra large, washed

4 anchovy filets, finely chopped

1 tablespoon Italian parsley, washed, pat dried, finely chopped

1 teaspoon capers, finely chopped

2 tablespoons mayonnaise

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Pinch cayenne (optional)

Directions

1. Submerge the eggs in an uncovered saucepan of cold water. Heat the uncovered pot on a medium-high flame. Bring to a simmer and boil five minutes. Turn off the flame, cover and leave the eggs in the hot water 10 minutes. Drain the hot water. Add cold water to cool the eggs.

2. While the eggs are cooking, heat a small sauté or nonstick frying pan over a medium flame. No need to add oil. Sauté the anchovy filets until lightly brown. Set aside.

3. Peel the eggs. Discard the shells. Wash and dry the eggs to remove any bits of shell. Using a sharp paring knife, carefully slice the eggs in half, lengthwise. Remove the yolks and place into a bowl. Set aside the egg white halves.

4. Using a fork, finely crumble the yolks. Add the Italian parsley, capers and sautéed anchovy bits. Stir together all the ingredients. Add mayonnaise and mix well until creamy.

5. Spoon the filling into a disposable pastry bag. If serving the next day or later in the morning, place the egg white halves into an air-tight container and the filled pastry bag into the refrigerator.

6. Prepare a serving dish. The deviled eggs can be served as quarters, halves or reformed as whole. If quarters, cut each halve in two lengthwise. Just before serving the eggs, cut off the tip of the pastry bag. Have a paring knife or folk in hand. Carefully squeeze a generous amount of the filling into each egg white piece. If needed, use the knife or folk to tidy up the filling on each egg. Any leftover filling should be eaten on crackers as a chef’s treat.

7. As the eggs are filled, place them on the serving dish and garnish with Italian parsley or arugula. Serve cold.

Note: If the eggs are to be served whole, place the two filled halves together. Either avoid showing any of the filling along the cut edge to create a surprise or make the decorative choice to have a thin line of filling visible around the middle.

Main photo: Quarter-sized deviled eggs made with Italian parsley, anchovies and capers. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

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Great for a midweek Passover meal for a big family -- this lasagna is a truly satisfying one-pan wonder. Credit: Copyright 2015 TheWeiserKitchen

The differences between Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jewry’s foodways are clearest at Passover. Sephardim traditionally ate rice, legumes and other foods verboten to those from Northern and Eastern Europe and Russia, which makes borrowing traditions for an all-inclusive modern Passover table a bit challenging.

But an Ottoman lasagna, called mina, also known as miginas, meginas or mehinas, is easily suited to Jews of every ethnicity and historical identity. By any name, these savory layered matzo lasagnas are found in Jewish cuisine from Egypt to Turkey to the Isle of Rhodes. And they are anything but new.

Mina originated from medieval pasteles, according to John Cooper in his book, “Eat and Be Satisfied: A Social History of Jewish Food.” “Small meat pies, or migina, the equivalent of strudel … [were themselves] a variant of migas, and [were] filled with empanada-style fillings,” Cooper writes. Those Old World migas were filled with chopped meats or seasonal vegetable purées such as calabaza, aka pumpkin or eggplant, or a creamy, cheesy spinach version.

Traditionally, minas are cut into small mini-appetizer-sized bites and become a part of the Mediterranean mezze table — the selection of small dishes served at cocktail hour or as a long, lingering supper that is common everywhere from Greece through the Levant.

I love serving mina in the mezze style, filled with mint-infused roasted eggplant and lamb for a meat-based Seder alongside caponata, garlicky fried olives, bay-leaf-brined carrots and braised burnished leeks. But for a midweek meal, I go all cheesy and ooey-gooey.

Many recipes soak the all-but-hardtack matzo in water to soften. I rinse it lightly. I like the textural difference in the mina. I also go crazy with cheese sauce. During Passover, when that feeling of deprivation for “regular” foods has become more than a little bit wearing by midweek, a cheese-and-vegetable pie is a respite, one that offers a mac-and-cheese-like familiarity.

I lean toward Alsace, France and northern Italy for the flavors that have the heft to give this lasagna serious substance.

Spinach, Butternut Squash, Sweet Onion and Fontina Mina

Sephardic Passover lasagna, mina, can be — no, it should be — on every table at some point during Passover. This version, influenced by the cuisine of Ferrara, Italy, eats like a great mac and cheese packed with vegetables, but since it can prepared in stages over a few days, it’s as easy to make as lasagna. Great for a midweek Passover meal for a big family — a truly satisfying one-pan wonder. In fact, it’s a tasty change of pace at any time; feel free to add a few minced sage leaves if it’s cold outside for an autumnal feel.

Prep time: About 40 minutes

Cook time: About 1 1/4 hours

Total time: 1 hour, 55 minutes

Yield: About 12 pieces

Ingredients

½ cup (8 tablespoons/227 grams/1 stick) unsalted butter, divided

3 pounds fresh baby spinach

3 teaspoons kosher salt, divided

2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

1 large red onion, peeled and cut into into 1/2-inch dice (about 2 cups)

3 cloves garlic, peeled, halved and grated, any green centers discarded

1 cup Gewürztraminer or dry Riesling wine

2 large butternut squash (about 2 1/2 pounds), peeled and cut into rough 1/4- to 1/2-inch dice

Leaves of 8 fresh thyme sprigs, minced

Leaves of 3 small sprigs fresh marjoram, minced

1 quart milk

7 tablespoons potato starch

1 cup crème fraîche or sour cream

1 pound shredded Gruyère cheese, divided

1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

5 sheets matzo

2 cups (about 9 ounces) diced Fontina cheese

Directions

1. In a deep saucepan set over high heat, heat 2 tablespoons butter and swirl until it is just foaming. Add half the spinach, 1 teaspoon of the salt, 1/4 teaspoon of the pepper, and with tongs, toss gently in the butter. Cover, reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for 4 to 5 minutes, until just wilted.

2. Add the remaining spinach, tossing to coat. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, for 4 to 5 minutes, until all of the spinach is fully wilted. Transfer to a colander and drain. When the spinach is cool enough to handle, squeeze out excess liquid. The spinach will have shrunk quite a bit. Set aside. This can be done up to 2 days in advance, and the spinach stored in a covered container in the refrigerator.

3. In the same (now cleaned) saucepan, set over medium-high heat, heat 2 tablespoons butter and swirl until it is just foaming. Add the onions, garlic, 1 teaspoon of the salt, and 1/4 teaspoon of the black pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes, until the onions are soft and the edges browned.

3. Add the wine, butternut squash, thyme and marjoram and cook for about 20 minutes, until the liquid is reduced in volume by at least half. Set aside. This can be done up to 2 days in advance, and the mixture stored in a covered container in the refrigerator.

4. When you are ready to make the mina, preheat the oven to 350 F. Spray a deep 9-by-14-inch lasagna pan or glass Pyrex pan with nonstick vegetable oil spray.

5. Heat the milk in a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat until hot but not scalded.

6. In the same (again, cleaned) deep saucepan, heat the remaining 4 tablespoons butter over medium heat until it begins to foam. Immediately whisk in the potato starch and quickly add the warm milk, still whisking over medium heat, making sure there are no lumps. Cook for 3 to 5 minutes, until the mixture thickens slightly and comes to a gentle but active boil, adjusting the heat as necessary.

7. Reduce the heat to a simmer, add the crème fraîche and cook, whisking gently, until blended into the sauce.

8. Add about three-fourths of the shredded Gruyère cheese, reserving the rest for topping, and with a spoon, stir until the cheese melts. Add the nutmeg and stir to blend.

9. Spoon 1 cup of the cheese sauce over the bottom of the lasagna pan. Break the matzo into 3-inch wide slats, rinse them under cold water for about 5 seconds, and arrange them over the sauce in a single layer, breaking the sheets at the perforations as necessary. Add the spinach, arranging it in an even layer, and top with another cup of cheese sauce. Arrange another layer of matzo on top and spoon another cup of cheese sauce over it. Cover with the Fontina cheese and the remaining salt and pepper. Add another layer of matzo and top with the onions and butternut squash. Spoon the remaining cheese sauce over the top and scatter the reserved Gruyère over it.

10. Prepare a sheet of foil big enough to cover the lasagna pan and spray it with nonstick vegetable oil spray. Cover the mina loosely with the foil, greased side down. Bake for 1 to 1 1/4 hours, or until bubbling hot. Remove the foil, increase the heat to broil and broil for 2 to 3 minutes, until the top is lightly browned. Serve immediately.

Note: You may use frozen spinach, if you wish. Thaw it, rinse well, drain, squeeze out any excess liquid and proceed with the recipe.

Main photo: Great for a midweek Passover meal for a big family — this lasagna is a truly satisfying one-pan wonder. Credit: Copyright 2015 TheWeiserKitchen

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Beef and Guinness stew. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Not so long ago, most Americans’ idea of how to enjoy beef was to dig into a slab of steak as big as the plate it was served on. Thankfully, culinary fashions have changed. Today, the so-called lesser cuts are giving the primes a run for their money not only because they are cheaper but because they have more flavor. Delicious parts like short ribs and oxtail are so much the rage, that they, too, have become wildly pricey.

To my mind, chuck and blade steak, still relatively economical, are two of the most promising cuts for braising, my favorite cooking method for meat in general. This simple technique of searing and caramelizing foods in fat or oil before simmering them in a cooking liquid, often alcoholic, enriches their flavor and tenderizes them at the same time. Add vegetables, and you’ve made a classic stew. Not only are stews nourishing and sustaining in cold weather but, when made ahead, they actually improve.

The raw materials of stews around the world

There are pedestrian variants consisting simply of meat and root vegetables. And then there are the more artful braises at which the French are so adept, exemplified by boeuf à la Bourguignonne, which is laced during long, slow cooking with the namesake region’s fabled wine. The Italians have their own variations on the theme: The Sicilians enrich their spezzatino with Marsala, for instance, while the Piedmontese dedicate an entire bottle of Barolo for every kilo of beef in their brasato. The Belgians make heady carbonnades with beef chunks, abundant mushrooms and onions braised in light beer with a hint of vinegar and sugar. All of these braised stews are based on cheap cuts, the fat and connective tissue of which render the meat moist and incredibly tender during long, slow cooking.

For me, one of the most delicious is Ireland’s traditional beef stew fortified with rich, dark stout, a beer brewed with roasted, malted barley. The English have their version in the old prescription for “Sussex stew,” a beef braise simmered with mushroom ketchup and ale, but I believe no cooking liquid suits an Irish stew more than Dublin’s Guinness. This malty stout is creamy with a pleasant bitterness that makes for a powerful yet subtle cooking liquid, imparting its own complex layer of flavor while producing a velvety gravy. The resulting dish is one with a double life: Eat it as a stew, or cover it with a crust for a pie.

Candlelight dinner on St. Patrick’s Day. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Candlelight dinner on St. Patrick’s Day. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

What makes stout particularly suited to beef stews is what Chrissie Manion Zaepoor of Kookoolan Farms — a stout expert, craft mead maker and pasture-raised meat producer in Yamhill, Oregon — calls “roastiness.” “It’s like espresso,” she says. “It has a smoky, grilled flavor that’s nice with beef, and it’s herbaceous in a way that wine isn’t.”

Just how much stout to add depends on the other ingredients. Too little and, well, you’re missing the point; too much and the stew will be bitter. I find the best proportion is about one-third stout to two-thirds stock. Guinness is an old reliable for the Irish purist, but you can experiment with any of the local craft stouts that are widely available these days, each of which will impart their own individual character.

As for the stock, its quality is essential to the success of the stew. I rarely rely on commercially made stock, which (besides being close to tasteless) too often contains sugar, green pepper, mushroom or other ingredients I would not use in my own recipe. But if need be, I find most commercial chicken stocks more palatable than their beef counterparts. Whether the stock is homemade or store-bought, adding stout will enrich it.

What to drink with Irish stew?

The pleasure of eating this singular stew is increased manyfold when it is accompanied by a swig of the same good stout you’ve cooked with. The pleasant bitterness of the drink rises to the rich, deep flavors of the braise and so nicely sets off the sugars in the onions and carrots. The Irish, like the rest of their compatriates in the British Isles, drink their beer cool, not cold, like a fine red wine. Pour with care for a full, creamy head. On St. Patrick’s Day, be sure to have on hand a loaf of soda bread peppered with caraway seeds to slather with soft Irish butter for the proper holiday spirit. Slainte!

Irish Beef-and-Beer Stew

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cook time: About 2 1/4 hours

Total time: About 3 hours

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

4 pounds well-sourced (preferably organic) blade steaks or boneless beef chuck-eye roast, trimmed of excess fat, cut into 1 1/4-inch pieces

3/4 cup good-quality unsalted butter, preferably Irish

3 medium onions, chopped

3 large cloves garlic, peeled and smashed

Stems from 1 bunch parsley, minced

3 bay leaves

2 teaspoons dried herbes de Provence

1 1/4 cups stout, such as Guinness

2 3/4 cups homemade, salt-free meat stock, or low-sodium chicken broth

3 carrots, peeled and sliced

3 turnips, peeled and cubed

4 to 5 teaspoons fine sea salt, or to taste

Freshly milled black pepper to taste

3 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour

2 pounds small Yukon Gold, fingerling or Red Bliss potatoes, scrubbed, skin on

8 ounces freshly picked and shelled or frozen petite peas (optional)

Directions

1. Blot the meat with paper towels to remove moisture. In a heavy, ample, oven-proof braiser or Dutch oven, warm 1/4 cup of the butter over medium heat. Slip in just enough meat cubes to leave sufficient room around each one for proper searing. You will need to brown the meat in several batches, adding up to 1/4 cup of the remaining butter as needed (reserve the rest for browning vegetables later). Each batch will take about 10 minutes to brown all over; when it’s done, transfer it to a large bowl and repeat the process until all the meat is browned before starting the next.

2. Add the onion and garlic to the pan and sauté until they are softened and lightly caramelized, about 4 minutes. Stir occasionally to dislodge any meat bits from the pan surface. Stir in the parsley stems, bay leaves and dried herbs and sauté for another minute or two.

3. Return the browned meat and its juices to the pan. Pour in the stout followed by the stock. Stir the ingredients together well and bring to a simmer. Cover the pot and cook over the lowest possible heat for 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. (I like to set a metal heat diffuser, called a “flame tamer,” between the flame and the pot to neutralize any hot spots and ensure even cooking.) Alternatively, you can heat the oven to 300 F, slide the covered pot onto the middle shelf and cook for 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally.

4. Meanwhile, in a separate, ample skillet, warm the remaining butter. Add the carrots and turnips and sauté until they are nicely colored, 10 to 12 minutes. Reserve.

5. After 1 1/2 hours, stir the carrots and turnips into the stew. Cook for another 45 minutes, or until both the meat and root vegetables are very tender. When it is done, add salt and pepper to taste.

6. In the meantime, cover the potatoes in 3 inches of cold water and bring to a boil; then simmer over medium heat until tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Drain and keep warm.

7. In a small bowl, whisk together the flour with enough cold water (or cold stock) to make a thin, smooth paste or slurry. If you have been cooking the stew in the oven, remove it now and put it on the stove top over low heat.

8. Remove the cover from the pot and stir the slurry into the stew a little at a time to blend well. Add the peas if desired. Simmer until the gravy thickens and heats through and the peas are warm, no more than 5 minutes. Serve hot with boiled potatoes.

Notes: Using a well-marbled cut that will be rendered moist and tender during cooking is important to the success of any meat stew. Shoulder cuts, including blade steak or chuck, are ideal; avoid leg meat, which will be dry and tough by comparison. Searing small batches in hot butter before adding the cooking liquid caramelizes them, creating another layer of flavor. The root vegetables are sautéed separately and incorporated late to prevent them from disintegrating into the gravy. Peas are optional; I love them for their little bursts of sweetness, but don’t overcook! Boiled potatoes go well with the stew, and there will be plenty of gravy to sauce them. The stew will keep in a refrigerator for up to four days, or it can be frozen. To make a pie, cool the stew and divide it into individual crocks or larger baking dishes, as you prefer, then top with your favorite unsweetened pie crust or puff pastry. Brush the crust with egg wash (a whole egg yolk thinned with a little cold water or milk). Preheat the oven to 400 F and bake until it is heated through and the crust is golden, about 20 minutes, depending on pie size.

Main photo: Beef and Guinness stew. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales 

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Walnuts, oranges and orange blossom water make these hamantaschen burst with flavor. Credit: Copyright MayIHaveThatRecipe.com

The most recognizable symbol for the Jewish holiday of Purim is a three-cornered cookie, called a hamantaschen.

Purim, which begins March 4, is a particularly joyful festival, nicknamed the Id-al-Sukkar, or the sugar holiday, by Muslims because sweet treats are plentiful. It is a sweet spirited holiday, notwithstanding the ancient Persian tale associated with it featuring complex plot twists of deceit, prejudice, politics, sexual intrigue and revenge.

Purim is a time for celebratory imbibing of alcohol, vibrant costumes and joyful, raucous parties with comedians cracking jokes all night, called a Purim schpeil.

Now, all that is fun, but honestly, for Jews of Ashkenazi descent — especially those who aren’t particularly religious or observant — it’s all about that triangular cookie — that gloriously crisp sweetness embracing an unctuous, fruit filling.

Or maybe it’s about a plush, thick-rimmed yeast pastry version that is punctuated by the intriguingly textured sweet poppy seed filling. Or maybe it’s a savory three-cornered pastry, perfect as an amuse-bouche.

Hamantaschen, you see, are anything but boring. And they are nothing new. The first version was likely the poppy seed or mohn filling, even giving the cookie its name — ha-mohn-taschen, or haman’s hat (Haman was the villain in the ancient tale). Classic versions are wonderful and worthy of your time, every time, every year.

But like any cookie, the classic recipes inspire tremendous creativity among cooks. A survey of some of the web’s cooks, writers, bloggers, recipe developers and chefs reveals a wide swath of variations so numerous and enticing that it will seduce your palate and leave you eagerly awaiting next year’s treats.


Check out these websites for creative variations of the classic hamantaschen recipe:

» TheKitchn

» Tori Avey

» LilMissCakes

» The Kosher Foodies

» The Joy of Kosher

» WhatJewWannaEat

» Busy in Brooklyn

» Kitchen Tested

» CouldntBeParve

» Alibabka

» The Jewish Daily Forward

» My Jewish Learning

» May I Have That Recipe

» Ronnie Fein

» The Weiser Kitchen

Main photo: Walnuts, oranges and orange blossom water make these hamantaschen burst with flavor. Credit: Copyright MayIHaveThatRecipe.com

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Sandesh is an Indian version of cheesecake, can be cut into shapes with cookie cutters or formed into balls. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

This Valentine’s Day, as you look for foods besides oysters and chocolate to woo the object of your affection, consider exploring your spice cabinet.

You’ll be surprised at the flavors’ powers — as natural aphrodisiacs — to be found there.

To heighten the senses and set the mood, we need fragrance and beauty in our foods.

In fact, Ayurveda — the holistic method of medical treatment in India rooted in Hinduism — traditionally placed a fair amount of emphasis on aphrodisiac terminology. The intent was to ensure that people led healthy conjugal lives and the ruler appropriately produced the requisite heir. There is similar wisdom found in other ancient texts.

So, cull through this list of common spices for your Valentine’s Day menu that also may help you spice things up — in other ways — with your Valentine.

First up is cinnamon, whose lustrous and sweet aroma can make you both happy and calm. (And, it’s certainly good for your blood pressure.)

Right alongside, you might have cloves, whose essential quality is to uplift your mood and spirits. And then there is nutmeg, also known for its antioxidant and astringent qualities.

An aphrodisiac spice, says ‘The Arabian Nights’

To complete the fragrant collection, we also have cardamom, which “The Arabian Nights” extols for its passion-inducing properties.

All of these will find its place in a good garam masala blend. And when meshed with saffron — the exotic spice of the gods — your Valentine’s Day collection of aromas will be complete.

When planning your menu, consider a good one-pot dish such as a biryani that will bring to your table all of these spices and more. If that’s too complex, try rubbing a chicken with butter and garam masala and serving it roasted to perfection, with saffron mashed potatoes on the side.

But don’t forget the dessert. Fortunately, many Indian desserts bring together cardamom, saffron and rose. From the universe of puddings, halwas and burfees, I have dug up a Bengali specialty called the sandesh, which, when done right, can win over the most fastidious of hearts and palates.

A sandesh is a cheesecake of sorts, with the emphasis on a specific cheese: channa, or homemade white cheese. The art of the traditional sandesh rests in the right texture and handling of this channa. Although it is prolific in Indian confectionary shops, we’re often hard-pressed to find good sandesh in commercial Indian sweet shops — mainly because of the relatively short shelf life of this delicate sweet.

Spicing up cheesecake the sandesh way

Ricotta cheese, if treated right, can be a substitute for channa. This recipe features a cheater sandesh, using ricotta cheese streaked with saffron and subtly scented with freshly crushed cardamom.

I have created this recipe for days when time does not allow for the making and draining of channa. It’s a fairly good facsimile for the steamed sandesh known as bhapa sandesh that my grandmother used to make. In this sandesh, instead of cooking the channa over the stove top, it is steamed with gentle and continuous heat.

In my recipe, I bake it on low heat in the oven and then cool and shape it. If you wish, you can garnish these delicate morsels with pistachios, snipped rose petals and anything else that catches your fancy.

Serve them with some chilled saffron almond milk.

That’s bound to warm the cockles of your heart and soothe your senses, all at once.

Baked Orange-Flavored Cheesecake — Bhapa Sandesh

Adapted from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles,” by Rinku Bhattacharya

Prep time: 45 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes, plus time for cooling

Yield: 12 servings

Ingredients

For the cheesecake:

Clarified butter or ghee for greasing the casserole dish

1 1/2 cups low-fat ricotta cheese (about 30 ounces)

3/4 cup condensed milk (about 12 ounces)

1/2 teaspoon saffron strands

1/4 teaspoon freshly crushed cardamom (about 2 pods)

6 tablespoons fresh orange juice or tangerine juice (about one medium tangerine)

For optional garnishes:

Orange sections

Slivered almonds

Chocolate shavings

The sandesh can be formed into round balls and rolled in chocolate shavings. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

The sandesh can be formed into round balls and rolled in chocolate shavings. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 325 F.

2. Grease an 8-by-12-inch cake or casserole dish and set aside.

3. In a mixing bowl, beat together the ricotta cheese and condensed milk.

4. Stir in the saffron strands and cardamom, pour the mixture into the greased casserole dish. The objective is to achieve a streaked effect rather than uniform coloring.

5. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and bake for 30 minutes.

6. Drizzle with the orange juice and cool for one hour.

7. Carefully invert the prepared cheesecake onto a flat surface. This can be cut into shapes using a cooking cutter, or formed into round balls.

8. If desired, garnish with orange sections and almonds, or roll or sprinkle with chocolate shavings.

9. Chill for 45 minutes or longer, and serve.

Main photo: Sandesh, an Indian version of cheesecake, can be shaped with cookie cutters or formed into round balls. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

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