Author Archives for Swati Raje

Middle Eastern Kebabs

This recipe was completely improvised at the last minute to use up some excess ground beef I had after making meatballs for a friend. I looked at my pantry and refrigerator and ten minutes later these kebabs were born. Everyone who ate them loved them. My mother used the recipe to make them for Thanksgiving with ground lamb instead of beef and grilled them on a outdoor grill, but I prefer the ones with beef and the kebabs hold up better on an indoor grill pan.  So, here’s the recipe with beef.  Feel free to try out with other meats like chicken or turkey too.

Middle Eastern Kebabs

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: easy
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Make ahead: You can grill the kebabs up to an hour before serving, then just warm them for an extra five minutes in the oven to finish when ready to serve.

Za’atar is an herb & spice blend found in Middle Eastern markets containing thyme, marjoram, oregano, sumac, toasted sesame seeds and other ingredients.

Harissa is a Moroccan chili paste found in Middle Eastern markets as well as many grocery stores

Serve the kebabs with a yogurt sauce by mixing Greek yogurt, 1 clove of grated garlic, chopped mint, salt & pepper.

Ingredients

  • 1 lb ground beef (large grind if available)1 Tbsp Za’atar1 Tbsp Harissa1 Tbsp Sriracha sauce3 cloves garlic – grated or mashed1 inch piece of fresh ginger – grated½ Cup finely chopped cilantro2 eggs1/2 tsp fresh ground black pepper1 tsp salt (add per taste)

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 375 F
  2. In a large bowl, combine all ingredients
  3. Mix with hands until just combinedForm small flat kebabs no more than 2 inches in lengthHeat an indoor grill pan on medium high heat, and spray with cooking oil or brush with canola oilPlace kebabs on hot pan and brown on one side (approx. 2 mins)Turn kebabs over and brown on the other side (approx 2 mins)Place grilled kebabs on a sheet pan in one layer and continue grilling till all are doneOnce all kebabs have been grilled, finish cooking in the oven for 5 – 8 minutesServe plain or on warm pita bread, with a minty yogurt dip (see notes above)

 

Turkey Empanadas

Thanksgiving is an all day affair in our family. We start with appetizers and cocktails at 1pm and end the evening with a game of Taboo late into the evening. In between, there is lots of food, wine, football, ping pong and fun. And of course, there is always the traditional turkey.

My son and I are not fans of turkey. There, I admitted it. I love Thanksgiving and most of the traditional meal, but have just never warmed up to turkey. It is the only day in the year that I will eat this fowl. I do not order turkey burgers or use ground turkey for meatballs. If I’m going the healthy route, I will always choose chicken instead. So, as you can imagine, I rarely bring home turkey leftovers. This year, I must have had one too many glasses of wine because my leftovers bag had lots of turkey in it. Not quite sure what to do with it, I decided to experiment a bit. Since one the appetizers served each year is an assortment of fresh empanadas ordered from a restaurant which makes really great ones, I decided it would appropriate to try my hand at making some from scratch and give the leftover turkey some new life.

And that is how this recipe came about. The experiment was more successful than I imagined and I hope you will try them also as they were really easy to make.  These went really fast so you might want to make an extra batch.

Turkey Empanadas

  • Servings: 12 empanadas
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Flaky pastry filled with a spicy turkey filling

Empanada dough recipe courtesy of Epicurious.com  Link : https://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/empanada-dough-230786

Mustard greens may be substituted with kale, spinach or Swiss chard

Ingredients

  • 1 recipe empanada dough (see link in recipe notes above)
  • 3 Cups cooked turkey diced into small pieces (I used white & dark meat combo)
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 medium red onion, diced
  • 1 chipotle in adobo, chopped (with 2 Tbsp of adobo sauce)
  • 5 cloves garlic finely chopped
  • 6 sprigs of fresh thyme
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 8 leaves mustard greens, chopped
  • ½ tsp salt
  • ½ tsp black pepper
  • egg wash – 1 egg beaten with 1 Tbsp of water

Directions

In a large sauté pan, heat 2 Tbsp of the olive oil on medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and saute for 2 mins until they have softened and have started to brown.  Add the chopped chipotle, thyme sprigs, and cumin.  Stir and cook for one minute.  Add the adobo sauce and stir.  Then add the chopped greens and stir until all leaves are wilted. Then add the cooked turkey, salt and pepper and stir.  Add 1 Tbsp cold water, cover and cook until turkey is thoroughly heated through – approximately 5 minutes.  Allow to cool for 20 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 F.  Divide the prepared and refrigerated empanada dough into 12 equal portions and keep covered under a damp towel.  Take one portion of dough and roll out into a 5 inch circle on a lightly floured surface with a lightly floured rolling pin. Fill with 2 Tbsps of prepared turkey filling in the center.  Fold the dough over to form the empanada, and press to seal. Then use the tines of a fork to crimp the edges for a decorative touch.  Place on a cookie sheet and cover with a damp towel.  Continue until all empanadas are finished. You will need two cookie sheets for 12 empanadas.   Brush each empanada with the egg wash.  Bake for 25 minutes until golden brown in upper & lower thirds of the oven switching the sheets halfway through baking.  Serve with a sauce made by blending garlic, parsley, cilantro, lime juice and olive oil.  I served mine with an Indian cilantro chutney.     

 

Bagel vs Bagel

Having grown up primarily in the Northeast, I grew up with New York bagels. The dense, chewy, bready, delicious rounds smeared with smooth cream cheese could be a wonderful start to any Sunday morning. Add some lox & capers and a Bloody Mary and you have a breakfast fit for royalty – ok, that might be pushing it a bit.

I don’t remember eating a bagel until well into adulthood while attending college in Brooklyn. That’s when I met friends who went to diners regularly and thus the bagel was introduced. Over the years, I’ve eaten countless bagels from many many establishments all over the perimeter of New York City & New Jersey. Some were wonderful, others not so much, but ask me to eat a bagel outside the New York/New Jersey area and I will most likely pass, unless it’s the only option and there’s a chance I will faint from hunger otherwise. I’ve always found bagels outside this general geographic area to be just plain bad, and I’m now convinced that it really is primarily about the water.

In the past few years, a good friend has been touting Montreal bagels to me and exclaiming that not only are they better, but “they’re the best”. Well, I just couldn’t fathom this concept. I have been to Montreal many times, have even had a bagel or two, but do not remember them leaving an impression on me. So, on a recent visit to that city, I decided to make a purposeful visit to the famous St Viateur bagel shop which my friend recommended. To keep it fair, I ordered what I always order at the bagel shop near my home – everything bagel with herb cream cheese.

Before I give you my verdict, I must first tell you that I don’t eat bagels very often these days. Too many carbs which seem to have an immediate impact on my middle aged middle. So when I eat a bagel, I want to enjoy the guilty pleasure thoroughly. Then I want to walk off the calories fairly immediately to minimize the damage. Since Montreal is a great walking city on a beautiful day, the stars were aligned for a perfect Sunday morning as I walked to the bagel shop and knew I’d have a two mile walk back.

I waited on the somewhat long line in anticipation, slowly making my way to the front. I placed my order to go and walked over to a park I had passed to sit down and eat what I had thought would be an equal to all the delicious bagels I had eaten in the past, but different. I trusted my friend who enjoys good food and loves to cook as much as I…….

In looks, the Montreal bagel is thinner, and smaller with a larger, more prominent hole in the middle. It smelled good. I took my first bite and was underwhelmed. Alas, I was disappointed. I didn’t like it. The texture was more tough on the outside and more airy on the inside than I’m used to in a New York bagel, and it was missing a certain yeasty characteristic. But these weren’t reasons to dislike this bagel. In fact, I could only forcibly eat half of the bagel and tossed the remaining half into the trash. It was not worth the extra calories and carbs I decided. I walked around afterwards for miles trying to think about why I didn’t like this famous bagel. Was it because I was just used to something different? Was it a stubbornness that made me want to not accept its good qualities? Were my expectations too high? None of these were accurate nor made any sense.

It came to me on my drive back home later that day – the Montreal bagel was too sweet. Yes, I said sweet. In addition to a lack of salt, there is a distinct sweetness to the bagel which I’d never experienced before, nor anticipated. Anyone who knows me knows I don’t like sweet foods that are meant to be savory. Don’t even get me started on raisins or dried fruit in my savory dishes. I’m ok with the addition of some sweet to balance heat, but it must be muted and barely noticeable. But there is was – the distinct sweet flavor. So much so that the cream cheese tasted salty which I originally thought was due to my recent switch to a low sodium diet for health reasons.

Mystery solved, I continued down the New York State Thruway to the place I call home and where my favorite bagels are still being made daily. The next weekend, I had to indulge in my regular order at the local favorite “bagelry” followed by a four mile walk on my favorite walking track. Life was good again!!

A Weekend in Los Cabos

Brunch at the Beach

Recently, I was lucky enough to have to travel to Los Cabos Mexico for a business meeting. Unfortunately, it would be a very quick trip over a weekend with meetings all day Saturday. I had never been to Baja California before so I was excited nonetheless and vowed to have some fun.

Knowing someone locally who is as obsessed with food as I am, is always a welcome treat when traveling, and this was one of those destinations. Everything had been arranged for the weekend, which made it very efficient to pursue some foodie adventures in such a short time.

After a full day of flying through a connection in Houston, I landed at Los Cabos airport. A very long immigration line in a frigid airport later, I exited to sunshine and warmth and was greeted by my local collegue. When you exit the airport, you have the option of choosing the bar at the right or left for a little cerveza or tequila before heading to your destination. Since we had a short wait before another colleague landed, we chose the bar to the left for a bit of Don Julio. We were off to a good start.

I hadn’t eaten since early morning and needed food when we got to our hotel. Next to the hotel was El Mercato, a food hall with different vendors offering a variety of foods from pizza to gyros to Chinese. My philosophy of always eating local, took me to a small Mexican place called The Office where I enjoyed a delicious Vegetable Sope topped with mushrooms, squash blossoms, cabbage, and so much more.

A quick nap at the hotel later we took the scenic route to Metate in San Jose Del Cabo for dinner. Metate is a grinding stone used to grind things like corn for tortillas. The restaurant is off an unpaved road, and is primarily an outdoor space with a bar that has a screen behind it showing old movies, a water fountain and tables right on the ground. The tables are colorfully set with Mexican plates, runners and placemats. The menu is authentically Mexican. This is not your average American idea of Mexican with Burritos and Chimichangas. This is just incredibly good food prepared with a lot of pride and love. I started with a glass of mezcal which is always served with worm salt and orange wedges as I learned. One can also order their guacamole “crunchy” with insects and grasshoppers which our local colleagues indulged on while we watched without the nerve to try them. For my dinner, I opted for the Chicken Mole which was the best I’ve ever eaten. It was rich and flavorful made even better with the homemade corn tortillas which were incredible. I’ve eaten a lot of tortillas and none have compared to these made clearly with stone ground corn by hand. They were so good, I could have eaten them with the variety of salsas that were offered, as my meal and been very satisfied. A surprisingly good hibiscus margarita topped off the night.

The next day was spent in a conference room in meetings and by 5pm, we were all ready for a break from work. Our local hosts picked us up at 6:30 and drove us to Cabo San Lucas to a resort called Acre (pronounce AA-Kray in spanish) which is set amidst cactus and palm trees with paths that lead to individual guest rooms designed as tree houses. At the center is a restaurant, bar and swimming pool.

Upon arrival, we were asked if we were interested in a Mezcal tasting and we responded with an unanimous “yes”. In America, mezcal has a reputation of being a cheap tequila that doesn’t taste very good, but this is far from the truth. We tasted three different artisanal Mezcals, each very different from the other. I learned much including the various types of agave fruit used and how to actually taste the spirit without allowing the alcohol to overwhelm the tastebuds. I also learned that while all tequila is a type of mezcal, not all mezcal can be called tequila because tequila can only be made from the blue agave plant. The bowls used to taste are made of dried pomegranate skins and other similar fruits which allow the opening to be wide enough to allow for the aroma to penetrate properly. Orange slices dusted with a salt that is mixed with ground up worms are used to cleanse the palette between sips. What a fascinating experience!!

After our mezcal tasting, we were escorted to our dinner table. Our hosts know the owners and had requested a private table for our party. These tables are set in open spaces surrounded by greenery throughout the resort. It was a lovely setting and we felt pampered as the waiters took our order and the chef came out to greet us and make recommendations. We opted to share in a variety of foods including beet salad, grilled octopus, roasted suckling pig (Lechon) with warm tortillas, vegetables, green salad and hands down THE BEST cheddar biscuits I’ve ever eaten. We accompanied the meal with a delicious Mexican Nebbiolo. We lingered over conversation about food intermingled with talk of our earlier meeting, but felt very relaxed until we were ready to head back to the hotel for some sleep before our morning flights.

Everyone except me had early flights home the next day and so the day began with a dropoff to the airport. With a few more hours before my flight, we headed to brunch at Cabo Azul, a resort about 15 minutes from the airport. They serve a substantial buffet brunch on a terrace by the beach with live music for entertainment. The buffet consists of your usual fare of eggs & omelettes, baked goods, cheeses, fruit, cereal, etc., inside the restaurant, but outside there is a display of Mexican specialties like tamales, salsas, tortillas, beef roast. By the bar there is a variety of ceviches and seafood. I opted for a chicken tamal, mushroom quesadilla, lobster claw and a strawberry mimosa. I also went back for some mango and papaya that were incredibly ripe and sweet. I was quite content and later happy that I had indulged since I was unable to eat for the remainder of the day.

Brunch over and flight time drawing near, we made our way back to the airport. It had been a whirlwind weekend of 47 hours in Los Cabos, but we certainly made the best of it and did not starve.

Food Adventure : Charlotte NC

A recent comment I posted on a Facebook post, somehow led to a weekend trip to Charlotte, NC to visit a friend who lives there and another who was traveling there for a business trip.  With all the negative things we hear about social media, I have to say it has led to many a personal connection for me with people I rarely see in the most unexpected places.

The weekend begins….

I had been to Charlotte a few times in the past, but always for business and only for one or two days during the week.  So, I was not only excited to see my friends after many months, but also to have an actual weekend in this city that I had heard so many great things about.

As with any other vacation, my focus begins with finding great places to eat and new foods to try at my destination.  Lately, I’m also on the hunt for great cocktail bars.  The experience is even better when you’re with friends who are equally obsessed with food. Our list was long and our time short, but we had a wonderful time exploring the various neighborhoods of Charlotte including South End, NoDa, Uptown, Matthews, and more.  The amount of ground three determined women can cover in two days is astounding.  I even managed to meet a former co-worker/friend for dinner one night.

Living so close to New York City, one tends to dismiss the culinary scene in smaller cities in the U.S.  Having traveled a fair amount, I know better and have learned that great chefs are everywhere and sometimes the smaller cities can surprise me when I discover a place that is on par with or better than any New York City restaurant.  Charlotte, NC is most certainly one of these cities.  Would I move here? Likely not. Would I come back for the restaurants? Absolutely!!

From my brief experience, I learned that while Charlotte is growing like crazy, there really isn’t much to do in Charlotte, but restaurants are aplenty in every neighborhood.  So, we spent most of our time eating and drinking our way through the city for two and a half days.

Here’s where we ate and drank………..

Friday night

Blackfinn AmeripubBallantyne Village – A great neighborhood feel restaurant near our hotel with an energetic vibe. The food and service were very good. We loved the Cauli-tots and Ying Yang Shrimp which we shared as appetizers. I had the Chicken & Biscuits (it’s required when you’re in the South) for my entree and it was delicious. Not bad for a pub style restaurant with multiple locations in NC, VA and IL.

ZinicolaBallantyne Village – We went here for cocktails in the late evening and did not eat any food. Bar staff was very friendly and we enjoyed discovering a Bourbon made in California called The Burning Chair. It was different than Kentucky bourbons; a bit sweeter and mellower that felt like, well, California.

Saturday

Trade & Lore – NoDa stands for North Davidson and is an up and coming district in Charlotte that is reminiscent of SoHo in New York City the way it used to be many years ago before the designer shops and galleries moved in. It has an artistic, eclectic feel along with some wonderful cafes and eateries. With many of the brunch restaurants not yet open, we decided to spend some time in this cafe which is an interesting concept – they rent space for part of the day in an establishment that turns into a bar after 5pm. My friends ordered cappuccinos and I ordered a turmeric & ginger tea. Both were made with such precision and care that it was evident in the taste. My friends declared it the best cappuccino they’ve had and I’m now on the hunt for this tea. The barista also offered us a taste of their cold tea and coffee that they serve from beer taps and are an option in the evenings when the bar is open. Both are non-alcoholic, have a bit of fizz and tasted delicious.

Crepe Cellar – After our Coffee & Tea, we moved on to our brunch destination which specializes in what else but crepes, but more specifically we were looking for buckwheat crepes. We were not disappointed. This was a delicious meal which we started with some local blue cheese served with spiced walnuts and a plate of fresh burrata cheese served with caramelized Meyer lemon. Both were simple perfection and we asked for more bread to sop up every last bit. Then we moved on to our buckwheat crepes, mine filled with spinach and wild mushrooms, topped with a fried egg and accompanied by a red cabbage slaw. Despite eating far too much cheese and bread, I finished my plate and especially enjoyed the red cabbage slaw which had a hint of horseradish. We walked off our meal in the neighborhood and enjoyed the beautiful sunny day before moving on to explore more of the city.

Bardo – This newer restaurant in Mint Hill was our favorite of the weekend. Everything from start to finish was a wonderful experience – friendly staff, inventive cocktails, interesting & delicious food and a lively ambiance. We sat at the bar since we had no reservations and the restaurant was packed. I prefer to sit at a bar any way because it allows me to mingle with the bar staff and others. I ordered a spicy gin based cocktail which was delicious and we decided to share a hand full of dishes so as to try as many as possible. This included Oysters, Steak Tartare, Spanish Octopus, Hamachi Crudo, Lamb Neck, and Tempura Maitake. We loved the oysters so much that we ordered another plate. Every dish was perfectly executed and had a wonderful balance of flavors. The open kitchen allowed me to see chef/co-owner, Michael Noll & his staff in action and speak to him for a few minutes. The Managing Partner, Jayson Whiteside, stopped by to talk with us and insisted we try the Kabocha squash dessert which of course we did. As he had claimed, it was different and excellent and I was happy we veered from our usual no dessert rule. The talented mixologist, Amanda Britton, gave us samplings of various liqueurs and concoctions. What a fun evening and an experience I will not soon forget and makes me want to go back as I write.

Buona Vita – After walking around for a bit in downtown Charlotte (which they call Uptown), we made our way back to the hotel but realized that we were hungry again. With very few options at that hour, we stopped at this restaurant that primarily serves pizza. You will likely never find me seeking out pizza in Charlotte and this was nothing to rave about but the place had an old time diner feel to it, was very clean and the pizza was better than your average pizza chain. More importantly, it satisfied our hungry stomachs.

Sunday

La Belle Helene – Our final food destination before heading to the airport for our flights home was brunch at La Belle Helene. This French restaurant serves a very classic French brunch with pastries, eggs, croque monsieur/madame, etc. I had a croque madame which was very good, but my favorite thing here was the Golden Mary which was a twist on the traditional Bloody Mary made with a fresh pressed yellow tomato juice, and a touch of honey. It was a fun surprise and the right cocktail to end our fun, food filled weekend!!

Next time you find yourself in Charlotte, check out some of these restaurants and enjoy their Southern hospitality!!!

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