End-of-Winter Lentil Stew with Sweet Potatoes and Cabbage

bowl lentil stew sweet potato soup one-pot meal cabbage

I know T.S. Eliot thought April was the cruelest month, but in New York City, it’s March. The winter seems to be over, as daylight savings time kicks in and temperatures finally creep above freezing. You might even get a day or two … Continue reading

Kapusta: Spicy Turkish Cabbage

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In my day job writing grants for a maritime non-profit, I sometimes get the chance to visit cargo ships calling on the Port of New York & New Jersey. Besides giving me first-hand experience of the services for which I’m raising money, these ship visits also provide a glimpse into the fascinating but rarely seen world of merchant mariners. Most of these men (and occasionally women) hail from the so-called global South, and when working on board vessels for six to nine months at a time, they maintain tenuous connections with their homelands.

I’ve noticed, however, that they tend to eat  as they would at home. This can be challenging when one cook and an assistant or two is serving meals to a 22 person crew representing India, the Philippines, Tanzania, Turkey, Indonesia, and Singapore. Usually the largest segment’s cuisine dominates, with separate meals for officers if they hail from Japan, the US, or Scandinavian countries (as they often do). Other times, the crew might all come from the same country, if not the same region; when that happens, the meals will feature the native cuisine almost exclusively.

If I’m ship-visiting around midday, as often happens, the crew will usually invite me to share their lunch. It’s an honor to receive such hospitality, and a privilege to share what is usually a delicious, well-prepared meal. The recipe below represents my efforts to recreate one such meal that I ate on board a ship with an all-Turkish crew — a dish I now know is called kapuska or kapusta. The version I had did not include meat, and was served with hot barley and thick plain yogurt as well as chili flakes on the side for those who wanted a spicier version. I remember exactly how it tasted — comforting yet simple, rich with flavor but light on the stomach. I regret not asking the cook for the recipe, but some googling has revealed different versions made with the identifiable ingredients of cabbage, tomato products, and pepper-based spices). I’ve tried and tasted and retried and continued testing various combinations of these ingredients over the years. Although this recipe surely isn’t exactly what I had on board that ship, it is delicious. And on a cold winter’s night, it’s comforting, nourishing, and extremely warming. (For those with delicate taste buds, go easy on the spices, especially the hot paprika!)

By the way, if you’re nervous about the cabbage giving off a nasty sulfur smell during cooking, don’t be. I couldn’t tell you why, but I’ve never experienced that phenomenon when making this dish. Maybe the rich spices and onions mask any malodorous emissions, or perhaps the acid content in the tomatoes balances them out. In any case, your kitchen will smell of delicious paprika and tomatoes while this dish is simmering away.


Spicy Turkish Cabbage (Kapusta)

1-2 lbs. stewing beef, cubed (optional)
2 large yellow onions, very thinly sliced
1 3-lb green or white cabbage, cored and thinly shredded (yields about 12-14 cups) Note that green cabbage is tougher than white, and will require a longer cooking time.
2-3 cups tomato purée
2-3 Tbs. tomato paste
1 Tbs. crushed red pepper
1 Tbs. or more sweet Hungarian paprika
1/4-1/2 tsp. hot Hungarian paprika
olive oil, salt, 1-2 cups water

Note: The spices in this dish can be adjusted to taste–there’s no need to make it as hot as I have it here. I will emphasize, however, that good quality spices are key. Many versions of kapusta use pepper paste which I haven’t been able to find. For this recipe, good sweet paprika (preferably Hungarian) is crucial. If you can’t find hot paprika,which is harder to track down, substitute cayenne pepper (you may need to increase the amount) or a high quality Indian chili powder made of pure chilies (not the melange of spices labeled “chili powder” in many American grocery stores).

(If not using beef, skip step 1 and proceed to step 2, substituting olive oil for beef fat.)

1. In a large, heavy pot or braising pan with lid, heat olive oil over high and brown beef in batches, setting aside. Drain all but 2 Tbs. fat.

2. Sauté onions in beef fat, adding olive oil if necessary, until soft, about five minutes.

3. Add crushed red pepper and stir constantly, one minute. Add both types of paprika and stir constantly, 30 seconds.

4. Add tomato paste and stir to combine; then add 1 cup tomato purée and stir to combine, 30 seconds.

5. Add half the cabbage and another cup of tomato purée, stirring to combine. Add 1 cup water and return beef (if using). Cover the pot and lower heat to medium for ten minutes.

6. After 10 minutes, add the remaining cabbage and tomato purée and a bit of salt. (Your tomato products may already contain a fair amount of salt, so add sparingly and taste often.) Turn heat to low and simmer at least 45 minutes and up to two hours–the longer the better. Check every 20-30 minutes, stirring and adding more water when necessary.

The dish is ready when the cabbage and onions are soft and indistinguishable from each other. Serve with cooked barley, Ebly, orzo, or rice and Greek yogurt or sour cream, which helps dampen the heat from the spices while retaining the rich flavor.


Autumn Mushroom Risotto

When I lived in France, I frequented the Saturday market around the corner from my apartment, stocking up on a week’s worth of aubergines, carrots, potatoes, and more from my usual vendor Abdel. Once I’d crossed off the necessities, I liked to wander the aisles, sniffing the cheeses and eyeballing the charcuterie gleaming in refrigerated carts. The stall that attracted me the most, however, was the mushroom man. I wish I’d taken a photo of his wares: boxes upon baskets upon barrels of mushrooms of every shape and variety imaginable, from the plain, white and cheap champignons de Paris (button mushrooms) to ultra-rare truffles priced far beyond the wildest dreams of a university student. My tongue practically hung out of my head as I goggled the vast array of fungi beckoning me with their earthy funk and whimsical shapes. Keeping close watch on my bank balance, I rarely had the funds to indulge.

Now, as I peruse the slim pickings of even the top New York food purveyors, I wish I’d impoverished myself a little more to enjoy those mushrooms. Luckily, one favorite stand at my local greenmarket frequently has had a variety of fresh mushrooms for sale this fall. I don’t know if they’re cultivated or foraged wild (I suspect a bit of both); in any case, the mushrooms are delicious, pretty to look at, and lovely to touch. If I get there early enough, I usually have a choice among button mushrooms, cremini, portobello, oyster, king oyster, shiitake, and maitake (also known as hen-of-the-woods).

If you’re a mushroom fanatic like me, you’re happy just sautéeing your treasures in some butter with maybe a dash of soy sauce, and then gobbling them down like a fiend. If you’re up for making a proper meal of it, however, a creamy, rich mushroom risotto can suffice by itself or pair easily with a roast chicken and green salad. I think it showcases the variety of several kinds of mushrooms while binding them together, both literally and metaphorically, into a harmonious, glutinous whole. Don’t be turned off by the amount of time risotto takes; besides the constant stirring (which you can outsource to kids, spouses, or helpful dinner guests), this dish is difficult to mess up and turns out very fancy.

Mixed Mushroom Risotto

I like a variety of mushrooms in my risotto but if you prefer just one or two types it will still be delicious. Adding a small amount of dried mushrooms can enhance the flavor nicely too. When using dried mushrooms, however, I recommend mixing in fresh sliced mushrooms in at least a 1:3 ratio of dry to fresh.

300 g/about 4 cups mixed fresh mushrooms such as maitake, shiitake, cremini, and oyster, sliced
8 g/2 Tbs dried porcini, crumbled
1 small onion or 2 shallots, finely minced
2 cloves of garlic, finely minced
1 cup arborio rice
1/2 cup white wine
4 cups chicken broth
1 cup boiling water
1 tsp. olive oil and 1 Tbs. butter, plus a knob of butter
salt and pepper

1. Place dried porcini in a bowl with boiling water; cover and let stand five minutes. After five minutes, strain through a sieve lined with a damp paper towel, reserving liquid, and rinse mushroom pieces to get rid of any grit. Set aside.

2. Place chicken broth in a saucepan over low heat. Bring to a simmer, and add the strained porcini liquid, totaling five cups of simmering liquid.

3. In a deep, heavy pot over low heat, sauté onion in olive oil and butter mixture until soft, about five minutes. Add garlic, fresh mushrooms and the additional knob of butter and sauté until the mushrooms are brown and any liquid they release has evaporated, about 4-5 minutes. Add the porcini and cook, stirring, one minute. Add the rice, stirring constantly, and cook until the grains become slightly translucent, about 3-5 minutes. Add the wine, stirring until absorbed.

4. Begin adding the broth in 1/2 cup increments, stirring constantly. The liquid should simmer as it is absorbed. Let nearly all of it be absorbed before adding the next 1/2 cup. Add salt and pepper to taste, and serve hot.

Note: Five cups of liquid (plus the white wine) should be enough to get the risotto ever-s0-slightly al dente and creamy smooth. If it’s not, however, keep adding in 1/4 cup increments until you’re satisfied.

Food for a Frankenstorm

The streets are all abuzz today with people out shopping in preparation for the oncoming Frankenstorm. I was on the Upper West Side for brunch and snapped this picture of a line at least 30 people deep, waiting to get into Whole Foods. No cheese in the world is worth that wait!

Queuing for organic tapioca and parsnip chips.

What are people buying? According to my completely anecdotal research (aka doing my own shopping at the C-Town), the popular items are batteries, beer, junk food, wine, and plantains. (Though that last one might be just the usual for my neighborhood’s demographic.) One lady’s shopping card had eight cartons of Lactaid; another, five boxes of Entenmann’s donuts and some grapes. Priorities emerge when foul weather is afoot.

I tried to stay away from refrigerated items and stocked up on fruit, canned stuff, grains and booze. Although I’m not too worried about losing power since a) I refuse to believe it will be as bad as they say and b) I have a gas stove, I’m still cooking a large batch of soup today which will reheat easily if necessary.

One of my favorite legumes appears fresh around this time of year: cranberry beans. Apparently they’re popular in Italian cooking, but my neighborhood is primarily Dominican and I see these suckers everywhere. They’re exceptionally tasty with a sort of chestnut-flavored flesh dotted with red speckles. (Sadly, when you cook them, the beans turn brown and the speckles disappear.) You can buy them dried (Bob’s Red Mill sells them, as does Williams-Sonoma and other specialty food stores), but if you ever see them fresh, I recommend snapping them up. You’ll need to buy at least two pounds to make a good sized pot of soup, but it’s worth it.

In the pod.

I made up this soup recipe after I cooked the beans with only garlic the first time. You can certainly boil the beans for a cold salad or to have by themselves, but because of their fleshy texture I think they make an excellent main soup anchor. Of course, you can make this recipe vegetarian by eliminating the bacon and using vegetable stock, but if you don’t have diet concerns I highly recommend sticking with the bacon — it matters.

Cranberry Bean Soup with Bacon and Herbes de Provence

Shelled and speckled before cooking.

2-3 lbs cranberry beans in shell (about 4-5 cups of shelled beans)
2 slices of thick-cut smoked bacon
5 cloves of garlic, minced
1 small onion, minced
2 carrots, grated
2 celery ribs + leaves, thinly sliced
8 cups chicken stock
1 bay leaf, 1-2 tsp. white pepper (to taste), 1 Tbs. herbes de Provence, salt to taste

1. In a thick-bottomed pot or Dutch oven, cook bacon and set aside.

2. On low heat, saute onion in bacon grease until softened. Add garlic and saute 1-2 minutes or until fragrant.

3. Add stock, beans, and spices. Crumble bacon and add. Bring to  a boil and then simmer until beans are tender, 45-55 minutes.

4. When beans are almost done (with about 10 minutes left of cooking time), add carrot and celery. The soup is done when the beans, cooled outside their liquid, split their skins.

5. Adjust seasoning and serve with crusty bread.

Note: If buying fresh beans, look for long pods with distinct bumps. The color seems to be less important — the ripest pods are usually dull, slightly dried out, and not nearly as attractive as less-ripe-but-more-colorful ones.

If using dried beans, soak overnight beforehand. You may also need to adjust the cooking time.

Stinging Nettle Soup

I’m a big believer in trying to eat like the locals, so when I saw stinging nettles at the Edinburgh farmers’ market, I snatched them up. (Yes, I realize that I could just go harvest my own from any park or garden, but I took the easy route). Nettles actually do sting, thanks to a pesky chemical compound, so, lacking gardening gloves, I wore plastic bags when washing and chopping them. The best part of the nettle is the youngest bit — the tender top leaves. If the plant has already flowered, don’t eat it — just mow it down and let the young stems sprout anew!

Knowing that nettles are commonly used for tea or soup, I found this recipe from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and adjusted it based on what I had on hand and to my own personal taste. I did not precisely shift the quantities when converting to non-metric measurements; for more precise measurements, please refer to the original recipe.

Stinging Nettle Soup

3 Tbs butter
1 large onion, chopped
2-4 cloves of garlic, chopped
2 celery ribs, chopped
Six cups of chicken or vegetable stock
3 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
2 cups stinging nettle tops, roughly chopped (Wear gloves while handling raw nettles!)
4-5 scallions or spring onions, chopped
salt and pepper
yogurt or sour cream (optional)

1. In a heavy, large saucepan over medium-high heat, melt the butter and add the onion, garlic, and celery, salt and pepper. Sweat until softened.

2. Add the stock and potatoes and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10-15 minutes or until potatoes are tender.

3. When potatoes are tender, stir in nettles and simmer about five minutes.

4. Remove from heat and stir in scallions. When cool enough, puree with an immersion blender or  food processor.

5. Reheat if necessary. Serve with yogurt or sour cream to garnish.

Oh nettle, where is thy sting?

For my first taste, though not first brush, of nettles, I was pleased. The soup was appropriate for spring as the taste of nettles can only be described as green. Lacking nettles, I could see myself making this with any young lettuce or other greens. I used chicken stock but if you want to make this 100% vegetarian then vegetable stock would work just as well. The yogurt added some necessary creaminess; without it, the soup had a sort of grainy mouthfeel — not altogether unpleasant, but a bit unsettling at first. I enjoyed the fact that I was eating a weed, quite literally. There’s something very satisfying about creating a delicious meal out of what would ordinarily be discarded as rubbish.