In the dead of February, braised short ribs and cheesy pastas and creamy soups are singing their siren song from chefs' winter menus. And even though we know in theory that grilled fish or salads are more sensible alternatives, sometimes we're just too cold and too hungry for that.
What we need right now is hearty cold-weather fare that nourishes but doesn't break the calorie bank. I turned to two chefs for inspiration.
Michael Merida's résumé includes stints at the Michelin-starred El Bulli in Spain and Le Bernardin in New York, but he chose a Mediterranean theme for Mezza, his new restaurant in Westwood.
The menu is packed with grilled and vegetable-heavy choices, so I was initially taken aback when Merida volunteered a recipe for the restaurant's ricotta gnocchi with cauliflower cream. It turns out that "cauliflower cream" is really a purée of skim milk and cauliflower, with a deceptively rich feel to it.
But his Moroccan chicken tagine ($18 at the restaurant) is an even better example of how to pack guilt-free flavor into a dish: in this case lemon confit, dried fruit and spices perk up a warming chicken stew. It's already brimming with vegetables, but Merida says you can easily throw in more: zucchini, cauliflower, or even broccoli rabe. He cooks it in a tagine (a North African pot with a conical lid), but you can use a simple roasting pan.
As a caterer who recently won Chef Central's Ultimate Chef Bergen County competition, Ninamarie Bojekian is used to clients ordering up indulgent fare, their reward for a normally frugal diet.
But when the executive chef and owner of Franklin Lakes-based Ooh La La Catering and Events Co. is at home cooking for herself or her family, she often turns to a quick dinner packed with protein and fiber from an unexpected ingredient - oatmeal.
Instead of turning the oats into the usual breakfast porridge with sweet toppings, Bojekian mixes it into sautéed shallots, brightens it with lemon juice, soy sauce and scallions, and adds a steamed egg and a peppery arugula salad.
"In 10 minutes, you can have a nice, big, piping hot dish," mostly made with ingredients you can keep on hand, Bojekian says. The recipe can be easily cut in half or made for one person, for those nights when you "don't feel like making a big production out of dinner, but you want something healthy." And filling, too.
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* MEZZA'S MOROCCAN CHICKEN TAGINE
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 3 1/2-pound chicken, cut up
1 medium onion, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 medium carrot, cut into 1/2-inch dice
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
2 plum tomatoes, de-seeded and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 small eggplant, cut into 3/4-inch dice
1/2 cup dried apricots, chopped
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup dark raisins
1/4 cup chopped or puréed lemon confit (available at some specialty markets, or recipe follows); or 1/4 cup jarred preserved lemons, chopped; or the zest of one lemon
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/4 cup mustard seeds
1 tablespoon cumin powder
1 tablespoon sumac powder
1 1/2 tablespoons paprika
1/2 tablespoon turmeric
3 cinnamon sticks
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 quart chicken stock
1 pound cooked couscous, for serving
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
In a roasting pan, braising pan or tagine, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Sauté chicken parts skin-side down until skin is crisp and golden, about 2 to 3 minutes. Remove chicken from pan and set aside.
Add onions, carrots and garlic and sauté until softened, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add eggplant, apricots, raisins, lemon confit (or preserved lemons or lemon rind) and tomato paste and cook for 2 minutes.
Add all spices and cinnamon sticks, season with salt and pepper.
Add chicken back to the pot, then pour in chicken stock. Cover with foil or tagine lid and bake in oven for about 2 1/2 to 3 hours, until chicken is very tender and sauce is thickened.
Serve over couscous.
Nutrition information per serving (not including couscous): 638 calories (35 percent from fat), 25 grams fat (6 grams saturated, 13 grams monounsaturated), 231 milligrams cholesterol, 67 grams protein, 40 grams carbohydrates, 8 grams fiber, 369 milligrams sodium.
* LEMON CONFIT
Lemon confit can brighten a variety of dishes – use the leftovers in salad dressings, sauces or desserts.
5 to 10 lemons, cut in half and de-seeded
2 cups sugar
2 cinnamon sticks
1/4 cup coriander seeds
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
Place lemons in pot, cover with water. Bring to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes.
Drain and place in a glass jar.
In another pot, combine sugar, 2 cups water, cinnamon sticks, coriander and turmeric. Bring to a boil, then remove from heat and pour over lemons.
Put lid on jar or seal with plastic wrap and refrigerate for a minimum of 2 weeks.
* NINAMARIE BOJEKIAN’S SAVORY OATMEAL AND EGGS
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 large shallot, finely diced
3 cups 5-minute old-fashioned oatmeal
3 3/4 cups water, divided
1 cup low-sodium chicken broth or stock
3 tablespoons grated Parmesan or pecorino Romano cheese
4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons soy sauce, regular or low-sodium
1 small bunch scallions, thinly sliced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
4 large eggs
Non-stick cooking spray
4 cups arugula
3/4 cup cherry tomatoes, cut in halves
2 tablespoons champagne vinegar
In a large saucepan, heat two tablespoons of the olive oil over medium heat. Add shallots and lightly sauté until translucent.
Add oatmeal and toss with the oil and shallots. Add three cups water. Turn heat to low and cover. Cook for 2 minutes, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon.
Add the stock, cheese, lemon juice, soy sauce, scallions, and black pepper and salt to taste. Stir, cover and continue to cook for an additional 2 to 3 minutes on low.
While oatmeal is finishing, prepare the eggs. Heat a large nonstick sauté pan with a lid over medium heat; coat with a light cooking spray.
Add 3/4 cup of water to pan, then quickly crack eggs into pan as you would to prepare fried eggs. Immediately cover. Check eggs after 1 minute. When done, the whites should be set and cooked through and the yolks should be jiggly when you shake the pan lightly.
In a bowl, toss together arugula, cherry tomatoes, champagne vinegar and the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add a little more broth or water to oatmeal if needed: it should be velvety, not sticky.
Divide oatmeal among four plates, top each with an egg, and serve with salad on the side.
Nutrition information per serving: 470 calories (45 percent from fat), 24 grams fat (4 grams saturated, 13 grams monounsaturated), 183 milligrams cholesterol, 18 grams protein, 47 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams fiber, 663 milligrams sodium.