Sunday, April 26, 2020

Moroccan Spiced Sweet Potato & Chickpea Stew

This time of year my pantry is usually beginning to fill with spring onions, radishes, young root vegetables, asparagus and young tender greens (chard, kale, spinach…).  It goes without saying that this year is different.  Because I’m pre-ordering from the farmers’ market I don’t have the abundance of local spring ingredients I usually do.  Pre-ordering limits my impulse shopping (a good thing for my wallet…but not so great for the growers…).  Furthermore, I don’t need that much—I’m still cooking a lot from my shelf-stable pantry.  (I’m almost to the bottom of the big bag of onions I bought in March just before the lockdowns started.)

So a couple of days ago when I had to make some flatbread for dinner (I had made some dough with my new starter and its refrigerated shelf life seemed to be nearing an end), a Moroccan spiced chickpea stew is what popped into my head (doesn’t everyone have several cans of chickpeas in their isolation pantries?).  I also had some Swiss chard (from the farmers’ market!) that really needed to be used…and a few sweet potatoes.  All of this sounded like a promising combination.  

As it turns out, this is not an unusual combination.  There are lots of Moroccan- and Indian-spiced stews floating around the blogosphere that include this combination of vegetables.  I’m not really adding a whole lot new to the conversation by posting this.  I’m mostly sharing it because the dish I came up with was delicious and I want to make it again.

My stew is different from many that I saw in one way:  Most of the stews I saw had a lot of tomato.  Mine does not.  I have big cans of tomatoes that I could have used, but I didn’t want a stew that felt like it was all about the tomatoes.  Canned tomatoes (especially when packed in puree) can be very assertive.  Sometimes I feel like recipes call for a whole can just because it was convenient to use the whole can…not because the food needed it.  For my stew I just wanted the tomato to be a background flavor—something that served to thicken…and add a little acidity.  I routinely freeze canned Italian plum tomatoes in quarter can/200 gram portions…just so I can use exactly the amount I want (and no more).  A cup of tomatoes added exactly the elements I was looking for…without making me feel like I was eating a bowl of tomato sauce.

When I started making the stew I decided to roast the sweet potatoes before adding them.  This ends up saving time (the sweet potatoes roast while you cook the onions), but that’s not the reason I chose to do it that way.  Sweet potatoes have a tendency to fall apart when cooked in liquid.  The roasting process seals the exterior (which helps them hold their shape).  Because they are fully cooked they can be added to the liquid right before serving (giving them no time to absorb liquid and disintegrate in the simmering broth).  On subsequent days, as I ate the leftovers, some of the sweet potatoes began to fall apart…but for leftovers, this is not the end of the world.  And the stew still tastes delicious.

I served the stew the first night with the aforementioned flatbreads, a spoonful of thick yogurt and a favorite cinnamon-scented couscous with golden raisins.  It was delicious.  On subsequent days (when I was eating it for lunch) I simply crumbled some salty Feta over the stew.  This too was delicious.   Since the weather is warming up…and my storage pantry is dwindling…this stew might not appear on my table again for a while.  But I will be certain to put it into regular rotation when the weather begins to cool off again in the fall.

Moroccan Spiced Sweet Potato & Chickpea Stew

1 t. paprika
3/4 t. cumin
3/4 t. coriander
1/2 t. ginger
1/2 t. turmeric
1/4 t. cinnamon
Pinch cayenne (or more to taste)
1 lb. sweet potatoes, peeled, quartered lengthwise and cut crosswise into generous 1/2-inch thick slices
Olive oil
1 small onion (5 to 6 oz.), minced
2 fat cloves garlic, sliced
A scant cup (1/4 of a can/200g.) canned Italian Plum Tomatoes, crushed with your hands
2 c. chicken stock (or vegetable stock would be fine too)
1 15.5-oz can chickpeas/garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
1 large bunch Swiss chard, stems removed, leaves cut crosswise in rough 1-inch ribbons and rinsed in several changes of water
Roughly chopped fresh Italian Parsley or Cilantro
Thick yogurt, Labneh, or crumbled Feta
Warm flatbreads (optional)
Couscous (optional)

Combine the spices in a small bowl and set aside.

Toss the sweet potatoes with just enough olive oil to coat.  Season the potatoes with salt and pepper and a heaped teaspoon of the spice mixture and toss to coat.  Spread the sweet potatoes on a rimmed baking sheet and place in a 400° oven.  Roast the sweet potatoes, turning them over with a pancake turner once about 2/3 way through the cooking, until they are tender and golden—about 40 minutes.

Meanwhile, warm a tablespoon or so of olive oil in a shallow, wide sauce pan set over moderate heat.  Add the onions along with a pinch of salt and cook until tender and just beginning to turn golden.  Add the garlic and cook a few minutes more.  Add the rest of the spice mixture and cook briefly (a minute or two) until fragrant and toasted. 

Add the tomatoes and simmer until thickened (about 5 minutes).  Add the stock along with the chickpeas and bring to a simmer.  Add the chard and cook until just tender.  Taste and correct the seasoning.  Gently fold in the roasted sweet potatoes and heat through. 

Serve with a large spoonful of couscous and a dollop of yogurt (or crumbled Feta).  Scatter the parsley over.  Serve with warm flatbreads on the side, if you like.

Serves 4 if serving couscous, 3 if not.
Cinnamon-Scented Couscous with Golden Raisins

1 cup couscous
1/2 t. salt
2 T. butter
1/2 c. golden raisins
1 1/4 c. water
1/4 t. cinnamon

 Place the couscous in a bowl with the salt, butter and raisins.  Bring the water to a boil and pour over the couscous.  Jiggle the bowl to make sure the water has penetrated all the couscous.  Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let stand for 10 minutes (or however long the package says).  Uncover, add the cinnamon and fluff with a fork.  Taste and correct the seasoning.  Serves 4.

(Couscous adapted from One Good Dish by David Tanis)

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Traditional Shortbread…to go with an English cup of tea

The first thing my landlady said to me as I entered her flat after I finally arrived in London was “Would you like a cup of tea?”  It has been almost thirty years since I abandoned my pursuit of a career in insurance and ran away to cooking school, but I can still hear her voice.  

My first reaction to her question as I stood there in my jet-lagged state was dismay. One of the things I had done in preparation for my trip was to gradually wean myself off of my caffeine habit.  The last thing I had wanted while I was introducing myself to a new country and to cooking school was to be tethered to a “must have coffee now!” schedule in order to avoid a blinding headache.  It had taken me a month to work down to zero caffeine consumption.  And the final break had still been a bit painful.  But as I stood there, exhausted by my first transatlantic trip and all the unforeseen bumps that had occurred navigating the trip from Gatwick to my new home in West London, I also thought about my promise to myself that I would fully embrace each moment of my stay in London.  I decided giving up caffeine had probably not been that important.  A cup of tea sounded like just the thing.

It was not the last time I would hear her ask.  She offered me tea regularly.  Tea was a constant in my London life.  There was always a pot on for breakfast…and often in the late afternoon (if I wasn’t out sightseeing or in classes)…and always in the evening while we watched “the telly.”  Moments of all kinds throughout the day were marked by tea.  Been shopping …or sightseeing…and your feet ache?  Completed a practical exam?  Had a bad day?  Received good news?  Feeling a bit peckish?  It’s cold outside (and in the flat)?  All time for a cup of tea.  This very British habit functions as a daily reward and pleasure.  It seems to help fortify you for the hard things…and increase your pleasure in the good.   I am unable to think of an equivalent universal in American culture. 

Tea in London tasted better than any tea I had ever had before…and I think this is due to the process.  Warming the pot in which the tea is brewed…and the cup in which it is to be served….  Adding the milk to the cup before the tea (I had never had milk in my tea before!  Now I won’t drink it without).  And of course high quality tea…brewed with enough leaves…and a sufficient amount of time…to give a good strong cup.  Ellen (my landlady) always had biscuits (small cookies) to serve with the tea.  McVities digestives were my favorite, but there were others.  The rituals were as much a part of the charm as the substance itself.

When I returned to the states my tea consumption gradually disappeared.  I tried to maintain it for a while, but coffee was (and is still) my natural habit.  I did drink coffee in London too.  In fact, I discovered truly good coffee while I was there.  There was a tiny café across the street from the Cordon Bleu.  I was a regular customer.  (Clearly I never needed to give up caffeine).  But tea was a better fit there.  Once home, coffee once again took over.  (Not that I’m bemoaning this fact.  I love coffee.)

Recently I was unexpectedly reminded of how much I loved the simple, comforting ritual of a cup of tea.  In the early days of our “shelter in place” orders I began watching Instagram video tutorials coming from a bakery based in central London called Bread Ahead Bakery.  I have no idea how I ran across them, but my initial attraction was that they were going to be doing a daily demonstration of how to start and maintain a sour dough starter—sort of a simple, repetitive, hand holding process.  I knew from my learning (and teaching) of other cooking skills that this is what is required to really get something.  You have to observe, execute, make mistakes, ask questions and observe again with the knowledge you gained from your mistake…then try again.  Then repeat.  And sour dough is something that takes time.  I had books…and “someday” intentions…but little time.  Suddenly I have had the time. 

You may be wondering what this has to do with tea.  Well, I was enjoying Chef Matthew and Erika (who is manning the camera and asking the questions) so much that I decided to watch some of their other tutorials (Ginger Cake, Chocolate Cake, Scones, Brownies…etc.).  A lot of the things he is teaching are traditional British baked goods—things I learned to love when I lived in London.  And during almost every session Matthew takes a moment to refresh himself with a cup of tea—brews it and begins sipping right on camera.  Seeing this everyday made me want some tea. 

So one evening I began pawing through my cabinets looking for some real English tea.  As it turns out, I had some.  It was a bit stale…but it still hit the spot.   Matthew mentioned that he thinks the perfect brew is two bags of PG Tips plus one of Earl Grey.  I admit I’m not a fan of Earl Grey.  But I love PG Tips—this was Ellen’s tea of choice.  I can get PG Tips in the states, but shortly after I returned I discovered a British tea I liked even better:  Yorkshire Gold.  I have just ordered a fresh supply (maybe I’ll order PG Tips next time…).

On about the third night I realized my lockdown evening tea ritual was missing something.  I didn’t have any biscuits. I usually have a freezer full of different kinds of cookies, but I had managed to decimate my supply in the first two or three weeks of our lockdown.  Since what I really wanted was a good tea biscuit, I turned to the copy of the Bread Ahead Bakery e-book which I had just ordered.  The last recipe in the book is for traditional shortbread.     

I was particularly attracted to the recipe because I recognized it. It is the “2-4-6 Shortbread” that I wrote about here several years ago.  But the one in Bread Ahead was made with a mixture of granulated, brown and demerara sugar instead of all white sugar.  I thought the caramel notes added by the brown and demerara sugars would be nice.  I didn’t have any demerara, so I used Turbinado—a somewhat lighter sugar, but with a similar coarse crystalline texture.  The results were fantastic—possibly the best shortbread I have ever had.  (I assume they would be as good or better with demerara sugar).  They are so good I wanted to share the recipe here. 

I have made one alteration to the recipe with the goal of giving Americans a textural experience as close as possible to what you would get if you made these in England.  The recipe calls for plain flour.  British plain flour is basically the British version of all-purpose flour.  Unfortunately, they aren’t really the same thing.  American national brand all-purpose flour is higher in protein than British plain flour.  It will make fine shortbread—although perhaps a bit harder and not quite as crisp.  By combining all purpose and cake flour you will get something that is closer to the protein content of British plain flour.  If you have access to a southern soft wheat flour (like White Lily) you don’t need to use part cake flour.  White Lily has a protein content that is closer to British plain flour.

I have of course been working on my sour dough, too.  My first bake was a complete flop (my starter wasn’t quite ready).  My second, while not stellar, was entirely edible.  I am looking forward to the next loaf (my starter is quite active!)  And I continue to tune in daily (sometimes twice) to watch Chef Matthew and Erika.  I have made the Ginger Cake (excellent…and sort of similar to my own English Gingerbread recipe)…and will probably make many of their other recipes.  I have to have something to enjoy with my rekindled tea habit. Watching them…and having a nice cup of tea in the evenings…has added a much needed rhythm to my very strange “shelter in place” days. 

Bread Ahead Bakery Shortbread

200 g. all-purpose flour (1 3/4 c.)
175 g. cake flour (1 3/4 c.)
250 g. sliced cold butter (17 1/2 T.)
65 g. granulated sugar (1/3 c.)
30 g light brown sugar (2 T. plus 1 t.)
30 g. Turbinado sugar (2 T. plus 1 t.)
4 g. fine salt. (5/8 t.)

Sift the flour into a large bowl and add the sliced cold butter.  Rub the butter into the flour until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs, then add the sugars and salt and continue to rub until a crumbly but smooth paste is reached.

On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough out 4 mm/1/6 inch thick and used a 6 cm/2 1/3 inch round fluted or smooth cutter to stamp out the cookies.  (It worked best for me to roll a generous half out first…and then combine the scraps from the first roll with the remainder of the dough.  You can roll out the final remaining bit of scrap to get a few more cookies, if you like).  Place the cookies on parchment lined sheets, spacing evenly. 

Chill the sheets for 30 minutes.  Bake in a preheated 275°F oven (see note) for about 55 minutes, rotating the sheets from top to bottom and front to back half way through the baking time.  The cookies are done when they are firm to the touch—they should not have too much color.  Once out of the oven, sprinkle generously with granulated sugar.  Cool completely (and put the kettle on…).

Makes about 3 dozen biscuits.


  • The original recipe uses 375 g. British plain flour (instead of a mix of all-purpose and cake flour) and 30 g. demerara sugar (in place of Turbinado sugar).
  • The original recipe calls for an oven temperature of 250°F, but in my oven they do better at 275°F.  
  • You can also roll and cut the dough into traditional 1 1/4-inch by 3-inch "fingers" (use a straight edge).  When cut this way you'll get about 3 1/2 dozen rectangular shortbread cookies.

(Recipe adapted from Bread Ahead Online Bakine Recipe Book)