Mediterranean style seafood stew

If you are already suffering from feast overload before we've even hit the endpoint, I recommend you take a break with this--dare I say it--healthy meal. It's still festive and far from the spartan measures you may decide to take in a few days. (Poor you, poor everyone. Why do we have to pay for our sins?) It's also pretty easy to prepare. Think of it as a shortcut to making bouillabaisse, its elaborate cousin, in which you tear out your hair sourcing the elements to make fish stock. They have become scarcer and scarcer these days. Who would've though fish heads and bones, such unappetizing sounding ingredients, would be hard to find? Anyway, I don't know about you, but my holiday spirit is dwindling and I'm already eyeing the tree and harboring dark thoughts about its demise.

Nevermind. The whole fish stock thing will not be an obstacle here, and you still end up with a mighty celebratory dish for a winter night. (New Year's Eve perhaps?) A variety of fish and shellfish and a rich tomato broth imbued with saffron, wine, and fresh fennel cancel any doubts that this is a poor relation to the original. You can even make the broth a day or two in advance. That also goes for the croutons, which, if stored in an airtight tin can be revived in a warm oven, just hold off on the garlic until the last minute. If you do so, give yourself about a half an hour to complete the dish (Step 4.)

Leftovers? Just discard the shells, and heat the shellfish, fish chunks, and broth together in a skillet.  Add a can of diced tomatoes and simmer while you throw a pot of linguine on the stove. Oh, and hold back some croutons so you can crumble them on top of the pasta. Another festive meal on the table, my friends.

May your days be merry and bright
May your hearts be happy and light
Wishing you a wonderful new year, my friends!

Festive seafood stew with garlic croutons
Serves 6 


3/4/ long baguette, cut into 24 slices that are  1/4-inch thick
1/3 cup olive oil
3 cloves garlic, peeled

1. Set the oven at 375 degrees. Have on hand a baking sheet.

2. On the baking sheet, spread the baguette slices. With a pastry brush, brush them on both sides with oil. Bake for 12 to 14 minutes, or until golden brown.

3. Set the sheet on a rack to cool. Scrape the garlic cloves once or twice across each crouton.  


1 fennel bulb, stalks separated from the bulb
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 anchovy fillets, rinsed and finely chopped
1 can (28 ounces) whole peeled tomatoes, crushed in a bowl
1/2 cup fresh orange juice
1 bottle (8 ounces) clam juice
1 cup white wine
1 cup water
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme leaves
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 pound small clams such as littlenecks or steamers
1 pound mussels, scrubbed
1/2 teaspoon saffron
1/2 pound bay scallops
1 1/2 pounds firm, white fish fillets cut into 2-inch chunks (choose 2 or 3 kinds)
3 tablespoons chopped parsley

1. Cut a thin slice off the root end of the fennel bulb. Stand the bulb upright and cut into quarters (lengthwise from top to root end.) With a paring knife, cut out the tough core portion of each quarter. Slice each quarter crosswise into thin slices.

2. In a large casserole over medium heat, heat the olive oil. Add the onion, garlic, anchovies, and fennel. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 8 minutes.

3. Add the tomatoes, orange juice, clam juice, wine, water, thyme, bay leaf, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer for 15 minutes.

4. Add the clams, mussels, and saffron to the broth, and cook for 2 minutes. Add the scallops and fish, and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, or until the fish is opaque and cooked through, and the mussels and clams have opened. (Discard any that remain closed.)

5. With a slotted spoon, divide the fish and shellfish among 6 bowls. Ladle the remaining broth into the bowls. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve with garlic croutons.  

©2009-2015 Sally Pasley Vargas. Writing and photography, all rights reserved.

Posted on December 28, 2014 .

Linzer cookies

We're on the brink dear friends, so it's time to cut to the chase. These are dessert worthy. Make them small, and serve them with vanilla ice cream sprinkled with a little cinnamon. So at least your dessert troubles are over for any holiday meal. The dough can be made ahead. The cookies can be made ahead. Store them in an airtight tin for about a week. Fill them with jam a few hours before serving. Voila! To give as a gift, fill them and place between layers of waxed paper in a pretty cookie tin.

No blah, blah, blah today. Aren't you relieved? Be back soon with some more holiday-y ideas.

Happy days! Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Happy New Year, Kwanza, or whatever your choice--just celebrate. The dark days are about to turn, and that's a happy thought.

Linzer cookies
Makes 5 dozen 3-inch cookies for 30 jam sandwiches

1/2 cup almonds
1/3 cup sugar
2 1/4 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 jar Bonnie’s Raspberry Jam
1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar, for dusting.

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Have on hand 2 or 3 baking sheets. Line them with baker’s parchment.

2. In a food processor fitted with the metal blade, process the almonds and the sugar until finely ground. In a separate bowl, whisk the flour, cinnamon, and salt until combined

3. In a bowl or stand mixer with the paddle attachment, mix the butter on medium-low speed until smooth. Add the ground almonds, egg, lemon zest, and lemon juice. Mix on low speed until combined. Add the dry ingredients 1/2 cup at a time, and mix on low speed until combined, scraping down the sides as necessary.

4. Turn the dough onto the counter and divide in half. Shape each half into a flat rectangle. Roll between 2 sheets of parchment to a thickness of 1/4 inch. Refrigerate for 15 minutes.

5. Remove the dough from the refrigerator, and peel off the top parchment sheet. Flip the dough onto a clean parchment-lined baking sheet. Peel off the top parchment and cut into 3-inch shapes, such as wreaths and stars. If using multiple shapes, cut an even number of each to make the jam sandwiches. With a small cutter or pastry tip, cut out a circle in the center of each of half the shapes to make the tops of the sandwiches. Use a straw to cut out multiple holes, if you like. Reserve and re-roll the scraps until all of the dough is used.

6. Bake for 9 to 11 minutes, or until lightly browned. Set on wire racks to cool completely.

7. To assemble: Place the tops on one baking sheet. Use a small strainer to dust them with confectioner’s sugar. Turn the bottoms upside-down (so the flat side is facing up) and spread with a scant teaspoon of jam. Carefully place the tops over the jam and gently press. Store in an airtight tin between layers of waxed paper for up to 3 days, or freeze for 1 month. Alternatively, store the unfilled cookies for up to a week in an airtight container and assemble at the last minute.

Posted on December 17, 2014 .

Heads up biscuit eaters, the holidays are here. (Recipe for herb biscuits)

November 24, 2014

Hang on to your turkey.

The Final Thanksgiving I spent with extended family on my side of the tree ended with my mom (rest her soul) and me raiding the fridge for our traditional late evening turkey sandwiches. Except.

Turkey gone. Stuffing gone. Gravy gone. Nothing, nada, zip. Not even a teaspoon of mashed spuds. I was a hare’s breadth away from breaking down into a full, sobbing wail.

That was the moment. The moment I realized, as every adult must, that as much as you want to be part of one big happy family, for some of us, it’s never, ever gonna happen. (I’m not talking to you, Two Percent, you who are surrounded by abnormally normal family members.) For the other ninety-eight percent of us, there’s always one dysfunctional soul who’s going to burst that bubble. On the day of the mandatory family gathering you’ve tried lip-zipping, deep breathing, and spending an inordinate amount of time in the bathroom. Finally, finally you realize that Older Brother (or fill in the blank) will always and forever be three sheets to the wind before you can say Jack Robinson, and the inappropriate comments will flow from there. And then he’ll steal the turkey.

I mention this because for some, the holidays are not always so happy, happy, happy. They push our buttons and dredge up feelings we don’t have to look at during most of the year. But if we are very lucky and very proactive, we can create our own loving circle of family and friends without the trimmings. And we make our peace with that.

I keep things very, very simple now. I stop and appreciate a really good cup of coffee. I make my family’s favorite dishes. I resolve to be content whether there are two or twenty of us at the table. I say no to that which does not nourish me, and yes to that which feeds my soul, and that feels good.

Rest assured, I will make plenty of turkey this year and share the leftovers—so if you know me, and don’t have any leftovers of your own, come on over and I’ll make you the best turkey sandwich ever—or maybe you’ll get mini sandwiches with turkey tucked into these herby biscuits.

At the end of the day, Thanksgiving is about being grateful for what we have and what choices we can make despite what’s being served up by forces we can’t control. And oh, right, don’t forget: Hang on to your turkey.

Buttermilk herb biscuits
Makes 12

For a special breakfast, tuck sausages into these herby biscuits to make little sandwiches, but save a few to eat with soup or turkey later in the day. The acidity of buttermilk and moist dough make them light, with a subtle crunch on the outside. You may substitute a mixture of half plain yogurt and half milk if you don’t have buttermilk, or use milk by itself and leave out the baking soda. A powerful authority has informed me that the fluted cutter (in photo) is reserved for sweet scones, but hey—fancy pants over here wanted to make them special. Any cutter, including a juice glass, will do.

2 1/2 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
8 tablespoons (1 stick) cold, unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
2 teaspoons chopped chives
2 teaspoons chopped rosemary
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons buttermilk
Flour for the work surface

1. Set the oven at 400 degrees. Have on hand a baking sheet and a 2 1/2-inch round pastry cutter.

2. In a food processor, process the flour, baking powder, salt, and baking soda for a few seconds, to mix. Add the butter and process for 20 to 30 seconds, or until the mixture looks like coarse breadcrumbs with a few small butter pieces. Add the parsley, chives, and rosemary, and pulse once to mix. Add the  buttermilk and pulse in short bursts until the dough clumps together. If it seems dry, add 1 to 2 tablespoons additional buttermilk.  Scrape onto a lightly floured work surface.

3. Knead 2 or 3 times, just until the dough is smooth. Handle it as little as possible. Sprinkle the top lightly with flour and roll to a thickness of 3/4-inch.

5. With a 2 1/2-inch cutter, cut into biscuits. Press the cutter straight down into the dough without twisting it to keep the biscuits from becoming lopsided when they rise in the oven. Gently gather the scraps together, roll, and cut out more biscuits. Set 1-inch apart on the baking sheet.

6. Bake for 18 minutes, or until light golden brown. Biscuits are best served on the day they are made. 

Posted on November 24, 2014 .

Acorn squash baked with apples and cider

Thanksgiving countdown, people! And as we know, it’s all about the vegetables (ok, and the turkey, and the pie.) (Truthfully? The pie.) Tart apples, lightly sweetened with maple syrup and apple cider and spiced with a bit of nutmeg, fill these squash halves. They would make a fine side dish (you could halve them once they’re baked to make quarters,) but they’re also good for a light supper with a salad when you want to take a break from the heavy lifting your body will be undergoing on the day of the feast.

Depending on the size of the squash, they can take anywhere from 45 minutes to 1 1/4 hours to become tender, so check them early and often. Carnival squash are also good candidates, and as you can see, they are impressively colorful.

Use an apple variety that will hold its shape. Honeycrisp, Granny Smith, Pink Lady, Northern Spy, Golden Delicious, and Braeburn will do the trick. Apples that are BAD for baking are: Cortland, Macintosh, and Red Delicious—they turn into mush, so save them for applesauce if you want to cook with them.

Acorn squash baked with apples and cider
Serves 4

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

2 small (1 pound each) acorn or carnival squash

Salt and pepper, to taste

2 Granny Smith apples, peeled and cut into 3/4-inch dice

1 1/2 cups cider

2 tablespoons maple syrup

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

1. Set the oven at 375 degrees. Have on hand a large, shallow baking dish.

2. With a pastry brush, coat the bottom of the baking dish with some of the melted butter.

3. Cut a thin slice off both ends of each squash. Cut squash in half crosswise. Scoop out the seeds. Place halves in the baking dish with the cavity sides up, and brush with melted butter. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

4. In a bowl, combine the apples, 1/4 cup of the cider, the maple syrup, 1/8 teaspoon of the nutmeg and a pinch of salt. Divide the apples among the cavities of the 4 squash halves, distributing the excess liquid among them evenly. Drizzle with the remaining melted butter and sprinkle with the remaining nutmeg. Pour the remaining cider into the baking dish. Cover loosely with foil and bake for 45 minutes to 1 1/4 hours, until almost tender when pierced with a fork.

5. Remove the foil and continue to bake for 15 minutes, or until squash is tender. If apples brown before the squash is cooked, cover the tops with small squares of foil. Drizzle the cider from the baking dish over the squash just before serving.

Leftovers: Make a squash and apple soup. Scoop out the flesh and puree it with the apples in a blender. Add stock or water, salt, pepper and grated fresh ginger to taste. Drizzle with some of that leftover heavy cream in your fridge if you like.

Posted on November 11, 2014 and filed under Vegetables, Winter food, Thanksgiving.

Ladies and Gentlemen: The Roast/ Braised Chicken (with lemon and potatoes)

And so we have taken another spin around the year and arrived here at All Hallows’ Eve. The last day of October. The day before the day before they turn out the lights. Well, that’s how it seems anyway. It’s as if the final curtain on my favorite season (summer!) will come crashing down cartoon fashion on Sunday. I’ll grant you that summer is long gone and for those who, like me, are in deep denial, we've been resisting the obvious that it has been subtly sneaking away with each passing day for weeks. Okay, so maybe I do have SAD. (What would we do without a label for everything?) I need to find my smart wool socks and have a little chat with myself to buck up.

But there’s an up side to this shift. Namely, roast chicken. Actually roasted anything. One-pot meals. Stews. Belly-filling platefuls of potatoes, polenta, chicken pie. Bolognese on spaghetti. Baked apples. Oatmeal for breakfast. Oh ye Californians, you can’t begin to fathom what the deep, dark days of winter hold. I suppose it builds character.

So here’s something for you Northerners. Roast chicken that is also braised.  Brown the chicken pieces in a skillet to give them a golden crisp crust, then put them over potatoes (or fennel, or root vegetables of your choice.) With the help of a little lemon juice, wine, and stock you have a one-dish meal with a tasty sauce. Oven suppers are back. 

Roast thighs and breasts in separate dishes so each cooks just to the point of doneness.

Roast chicken with lemon, herbs, and potatoes
Serves 6

6 chicken thighs on the bone (2 3/4 pounds)
3 chicken breast halves on the bone (2 3/4 pounds)
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 lemons, each cut into 4 wedges
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
2 pounds fingerling or other small potatoes, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 cup white wine
2 cups chicken stock
2 tablespoons chopped parsley, for garnish

1. Set the oven at 400 degrees. Have on hand two large (9-by-13-inch) baking dishes.

2. With kitchen shears, trim excess skin and fat from the chicken thighs. Halve the chicken breasts crosswise.  Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper.

3. In a large skillet over medium-high heat, heat the oil. Add the chicken, skin side down, and cook for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the skin is golden and crisp. Turn and cook for 1 minute more. Transfer to a plate.

4. Pour off all but a thin layer of fat from the skillet. Add the lemon wedges, and cook, turning, for 2 to 3 minutes, or until lightly browned. Remove and set aside.

5. Add the wine to the pan and stir to scrape up the brown bits from the bottom. Add the potatoes, stock, and rosemary. Bring to the boil, lower the heat, and cover the pan. Simmer for 7 minutes, or until the potatoes begin to soften. Squeeze the juice from 4 of the lemon wedges into the pan and stir to distribute.

6. Divide the potatoes and sauce between the 2 baking dishes. With skin sides up, place the chicken thighs on top of the potatoes in one pan, and the breasts in the second pan. Roast the thighs for 20 to 25 minutes, or until a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of a thigh registers 165 degrees. Roast the breasts for 25 to 35 minutes, or until a thermometer registers 165 degrees when inserted into the thickest part of a breast.

7. Spoon some potatoes and sauce on each plate. Top with chicken. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and garnish with reserved lemon wedges.

Posted on October 31, 2014 .