Sunday, June 22, 2014


This is the last post in my recent series on comfort food recipes. I wrote this series to memorialize, share and celebrate a handful of worthy recipes from family and friends. The first post features a simple American chicken braise (here); the second explores an Italian spinach gnocco (here). Today’s recipe makes an Armenian fermented cabbage, wheat berry and beef stew called tutoo (sometimes spelled tutu and tatoo). The recipe comes from my paternal grandmother who was the only member of my family that made this dish because, I’m guessing, the fermentation process scared away anyone else in my family interested in making it. In truth, once you get comfortable with fermenting the cabbage, the recipe is a snap. Hopefully, this post demystifies the process and encourages you to make this unique and comforting Armenian stew.

Tutoo means sour in Armenian, and the stew can live up to its name. The dish includes both fermented cabbage and the brine used to pickle the cabbage. Most Armenian cookbooks and on-line recipes call for a 10-day fermentation period. This duration might be perfectly fine depending upon one’s taste, but my family likes its tutoo really sour. My dad will sometimes squeeze lemon juice into his stew if it doesn’t meet his sour threshold. To keep the lemons at bay, I let the cabbage ferment for around 21 days.

My grandmother made her tutoo without a written recipe. My grandfather adored the stew, so she knew the recipe by heart.  In order to learn how to make it, I filmed my grandmother while she prepared the cabbage to ferment and again when she cooked the stew. During the filming, she patiently waited as I measured out all the ingredients. Since that time—over 20 years past as I write this post—I have converted the amounts of the brining ingredients from volumes to metric weights, which I think produces more consistent results.

For the Fermented Cabbage

90 grams sea salt
3 kilograms water
45 grams hard red wheat berries
5 grams sugar
55 grams champagne vinegar
3 heads small-sized cabbage, cored and cut into 1/8-inch wedges

1) In a large pot, add the salt and water and bring to a boil. Cool the brine to 120ºF.

2) While the brine cools, rinse the wheat berries and put them into a wide-mouth 1-gallon glass jar. Add the sugar and vinegar. Tightly pack the cabbage wedges into the jar. As you work your way to the top of the jar you may need to cut the wedges into smaller pieces. Don’t worry if you cannot fit all three heads of cabbage into the jar; tightly pack in as much of the cabbage as possible.

 3) Pour the brine into the jar to cover the cabbage. Insert a small plate or bowl into the jar’s mouth to help keep the cabbage submerged in the brine. Loosely cap the jar. Retain 1 cup of brine to add to the jar during fermentation to keep the cabbage covered with liquid.

4) Place the jar on a plate (in case your fermentation bubbles over) and store out of direct sunlight in your kitchen.  Ferment the cabbage for 21 days (or to taste) at room temperature. Check on the cabbage every day or so to make sure it is submerged in brine. Use the retained brine to top off the jar as necessary.

For the Stew

2 pounds bone-in beef short ribs, each rib cut into 3-inch pieces
beef bone(s) [optional]
½ cup hard red wheat berries
2 medium onions, halved and sliced
fermented cabbage, cut into 2-inch pieces
8 ounces tomato sauce
1 tablespoon dried sweet basil
⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper

1) Remove any excess fat from the beef ribs. Place the ribs (and beef bone(s), if using) in a heavy enameled 7-quart pot. Strain the brine from the fermented cabbage into the pot. Rinse and add the ½ cup wheat berries to the pot. (Do not use the spent berries from the fermentation jar; throw these berries out). Bring the pot to a boil, reduce to a gentle simmer and cook for 1 hour. Skim off any impurities.

2) After 1 hour, remove the beef bone(s), if using. Add the sliced onions, fermented cabbage, tomato sauce, dried sweet basil and cayenne pepper. Bring pot back to a gentle simmer, cover and cook for approximately 2 hours until the beef becomes tender.

I imagine that everyone has a food that, upon taking in its smell or the first bite, magically transports one back to childhood. So it is for me with this dish. When I smell it cooking, it is like when the food critic Anton Ego in Pixar’s Ratatouille first samples Remy’s version of the film’s titular dish. I am back at my grandmother’s table, surrounded with family, sharing a special meal that, yes, takes weeks to make, but tastes so delicious and comforting. Its rarity made it all the more special. How can I let such a glorious food fade away with time and the passing of a generation of Armenian grandmothers? I cannot, so I happily share this family recipe.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Strangolapreti alla Trentina

This post is the second installment in a short series on comfort food recipes. In my first post, I shared a recipe for Vermouth-braised Chicken (here) from my wife's maternal grandmother who lived in Nashota, Wisconsin. Now we travel to Italy’s Trentino-Alto Adige region to cook Strangolapreti alla Trentina. The recipe for this delicious spinach and ricotta gnocchi comes from the Satori family, who live in the village of Levico Terme. Michele Satori, the newly elected mayor of Levico, graciously agreed to transcribe and translate his mother’s dumpling recipe into English. I want to extend a heartfelt grazie mille to Michele and his mother, Michelina, for sharing their wonderful family recipe and showing us how to make Strangolapreti alla Trentina.

Ingredients yield 4 to 5 servings

For the gnocchi:

1 kilogram of spinach
3 eggs
150 grams of ricotta cheese
approximately 100 to 150 grams of tipo 00 flour
freshly grated Parmesan cheese
nutmeg, salt and pepper

For the sauce:


Boil the spinach in a large pot filled with lightly salted water, then strain and press the spinach to eliminate any water. Finely mince the spinach and place in a large bowl.

Now add the eggs, some nutmeg powder, the ricotta cheese, 100 grams of flour, some spoons of grated Parmesan, salt and pepper into the spinach. Mix it all well.

Now, with a spoon, build a gnocco about the size of a nut, and put it in the boiling water in which you cooked the spinach. See if the gnocco holds together or if it melts in the water. If the dumpling dissolves, add some more flour to the green mixture.

When the spinach mixture is at the correct consistency, start to make the gnocchi one at a time and put them into the boiling water. When they come to surface—it should take about 4 to 5 minutes—they are ready. Now strain them and lay them in a casserole dish.

Meanwhile you have prepared the brown butter with sage (that is, a good piece of butter, melted and cooked to become a little brown with some sage leaves). Pour the melted butter over the gnocchi, sprinkle Parmesan cheese over them and BUON APPETITO !!!

These photographs show Nonna Michelina making Strangolapreti alla Trentina.

A few notes. The recipe calls for 1 kilogram of spinach, which is an untrimmed weight (i.e., the spinach’s weight with stems). Stem and clean the spinach before adding it to the boiling water. Nonna Michelina minces the cooked spinach by hand. I tried this method, but I couldn’t duplicate her fine knife skills. I default to using a food processor to purée the spinach.

If you live in the US, use large eggs; you want to find eggs that weigh about 60 grams each in shell.

The amount of flour that you need to add to the spinach mixture depends upon a number of factors (e.g., the amount of / moisture in the spinach, the size of the eggs, and moisture of the ricotta). Start with 100 grams of flour and adjust as necessary.

And speaking of ricotta, you will note from Michele’s photographs that the Italian ricotta that Nonna Michelina uses looks drier than most of the ricotta available here in the US. To address this difference, I use a fine sieve to drain the 150 grams of ricotta in the refrigerator overnight.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Vermouth-braised Chicken

Over the course of this year I plan to explore a number of comfort food recipes graciously supplied by my family and friends. Most of these recipes memorialize beloved dishes made by grandmothers and great-grandmothers. We’ll travel to Trentino-Alto Adige in Northern Italy to cook Strangolapreti, a delicious spinach and ricotta gnocchi. We’ll make an Armenian beef and fermented cabbage stew called Tutoo. But first, let’s start this new series of posts with a braised chicken recipe mentioned in passing here, that my wife’s family affectionately refers to as Grandma’s Chicken. This dish embodies the type of simple comfort food that I look forward to sharing with you in the months to come.

The grandma of Grandma’s Chicken-fame was born in 1890 and lived on a dairy farm located about 30 miles west of Milwaukee. Clara Lucinda Dreyer Solveson raised three beautiful daughters, and the youngest, Joy, brought the recipe with her to the West Coast. Clara’s recipe epitomizes straightforward homey fare. Accomplished cooks can likely approximate this family favorite dish based solely upon these instructions: dust a sectioned chicken in flour; brown; add vermouth, herbs and spices; braise until tender. But why leave something that tastes so good to chance? Here’s the family’s recipe.

½ cup all-purpose flour
3 to 4 pound chicken, sectioned into 10 pieces
3 tablespoons canola oil
½ to ¾ cup dry vermouth
3 tablespoons freshly chopped Italian parsley
Freshly ground black pepper
Cayenne (or paprika)

1. Put ½ cup flour into a bowl and dredge the chicken pieces, with skin on, in flour to lightly coat. The chicken skin adds fat, and thus flavor, to the dish; the flour thickens the sauce.

2. Warm a heavy 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat for a minute or two. Add 3 tablespoons of canola oil to the skillet. When the oil is hot (but not smoking), add the chicken pieces to the skillet skin-side down. Do not crowd the pan otherwise the chicken will steam and not brown. You may need to brown the chicken in batches. Take care not to scorch the chicken; your goal is to create a golden, light brown chicken skin.

3. When the skin is browned, turn the pieces over and brown the other side. Don’t worry if flour (or even bits of the chicken) sticks to the skillet. These will help to flavor your sauce. Rotate and turn the chicken around the pan to uniformly brown the pieces.

4. After browning the chicken, add ½ to ¾ cup of dry vermouth to the skillet and cook for about 2 minutes or so. The amount of liquid at this stage in the cooking process determines if the final sauce is thick or thin. Use a wooden spoon to carefully mix the vermouth into the browned chicken. Scrape any browned bits to incorporate this flavoring into your sauce. Once done, reduce the heat to achieve a gentle simmer. Add the parsley and season the chicken with salt, freshly ground pepper and a pinch of cayenne (or paprika).

5. Cover and cook at a gentle simmer until the chicken is tender. This should take approximately 45 minutes to 1 hour. Occasionally check in on the braise to make sure that the heat is just right and that the sauce is neither too thick nor too thin. If too thick for your taste, add a splash of water or stock.

Once the chicken is tender, serve with rice or buttered noodles. You should have enough chicken to feed 6 people (or 2 to 3 hungry nephews).