Iraqi cuisine: Almost four thousand years and counting

A cookbook that holds a special place in my collection is Delights from the Garden of Eden: A Cookbook and a History of the Iraqi Cuisine by Nawal Nasrallah. I have the first edition from 2003, a hefty, 650-page book that was self-published and printed in black and white (it was later released as a hardcover with color photos). It’s a book that I turn to when I need to get grounded again about food and cooking. Everything these days is so overheated, short-lived and hyper, and the social media attention keeps moving from one food trend and snippet and Instagram photo to the next within split seconds. Reading a page, or even just a paragraph, about Mesopotamian civilization that goes back to 6,000 BC, to the dawn of recorded human history, helps me to cool it and put things back in perspective. Continue reading

A Minestrone full of memories

For the longest time I found Minestrone rather bland. That is, until almost  ten years ago I tasted Marge’s, my late and beloved sister-in-law’s. Hers was wonderfully tasty. Of course I came home with the recipe. I have made it often ever since, always the whole recipe, although it yields a huge amount.  The soup is great when you have people trickling in, as it is very good reheated. It also freezes well.

I wish I could ask my sister-in-law for the origin of the recipe. She used to mail me a large Manila envelope once in a while with copies of recipes. A post-it said something like “I have been cooking lately”, and many recipes carried her handwritten comments such as “outstanding”, “superb” or “try this”. Sometimes she added her substitutes and the date when she made it. All very neat, always citing the source, always the librarian, even after she retired. The Minestrone recipe is the only one that I jotted down myself. Shortly after she died in the summer of 2006, I started the Master Gardener program at Penn State University. It was a welcome new focus and distraction in those days, and it put together my haphazard knowledge about gardening.

This week it was time for Marge’s Minestrone again. For the tomatoes, spinach, string beans, garlic and basil I used last year’s from my garden. When it comes to chickpeas, I am a purist – I cannot get myself to use canned ones. Since I forgot to soak them last night, I quick-soaked them this morning, boiling them in plenty of water for 1 minute and then letting them sit for 1 hour – exactly the time it took me to line up all the ingredients, which is most of the work. Cooking the soup is a cinch.

Marge’s Minestrone

¾ cup dried chickpeas (or 1½ cups canned)

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 pound ground beef

1 very large onion (¾ pound,), chopped

8 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

1½ tablespoons salt

¾ cup finely chopped boiled ham

3 stalks celery including leaves, finely chopped

½ cup finely chopped Italian parsley

1 small can (16 ounces) canned tomatoes, cut up with their juice

1 can (6 ounces) tomato paste

2 large carrots, peeled and sliced

4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh or frozen basil

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon dried oregano

½ cup dry red wine

10 ounces chopped fresh spinach

2 medium potatoes (¾ pound), peeled and cubed

1 cup fresh or frozen string or filet beans

1½ cups elbow macaroni

1. If using dried chickpeas, soak them in cold water to cover for 8 hours or overnight.

2. Heat the oil in a large pot (stockpot). Add the ground beef and brown, stirring.

3. Add the onion and cook until soft and translucent.

4. Add the garlic and all the ingredients up to the wine plus 4 quarts water.

5. If using fresh chickpeas, add the drained soaked chickpeas now.  Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 1 hour, covered.

6. Add the potatoes, the spinach and the beans. If using canned chickpeas, add them now. Cook over low-medium heat for 20 minutes.

7. Add the pasta and cook until just tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Add salt to taste.

Serve with plenty of freshly grated Parmesan and fresh country bread or baguette.

Makes 16 servings

Turning sweet into savory

Potato Pockets (Kartoffelmaultaschen) 1

On a recent trip to my native Germany where I ate my way up and down the list of foods that I miss living in America, my mother and I made potato pockets with apples (Kartoffelmaultaschen). It is a very filling dessert. The first night we had it warm straight from the oven. The second night we ate it cold with a hot white wine sabayon, and the third night we warmed up the final leftovers and ate them with the chilled sauce.

You would think that I would not want to eat those pockets for a while, but I found the potato dough so wonderfully light and tasty that I kept thinking how I could use it for a savory dish. In the back of my mind were also the loads of frozen spinach that need to go before the new harvest comes in.

Potato pockets (Kartoffelmaultaschen) 2

With the ground covered in snow in the last couple of days, it looks like I am not going to seed the new spinach very soon. But I made the potato pockets with spinach anyway. Here is the recipe, which can be easily cut in half to feed four people.

Potato pockets (Kartoffelmaultaschen) 3

Potato Pockets with Spinach Ricotta Filling (Kartoffelmaultaschen)


2¼ pounds (1 kg) starchy yellow potatoes


1 egg

2¼ cups (11 ounces/310 g) flour


2 pounds (900 g) cleaned and trimmed spinach

9 ounces (250 g) ricotta

2½ tablespoons (35 g) melted butter

1 egg



Grated nutmeg


4 tablespoons (55 g) melted butter

2/3 cup (160 ml) milk (2% or whole)

1. For the dough, brush the potatoes clean and cook them whole in their skins in salted water until they are easily pierced with a knife, about 25 to 40 minutes depending on size. Drain and cool.

2. Remove the skins and pass the potatoes through a potato ricer into a large bowl. Add the beaten egg, salt and flour. Knead to a smooth dough. Set aside and cover so the dough won’t dry out.

3. For the filling, place the spinach in a large pot or skillet and cook uncovered until it wilts, turning often. Remove to a colander to drain. Chop finely. Squeeze out any excess liquid. The spinach does not have to be totally dry but it should not release a lot of liquid neither.

4. Beat the ricotta with a whisk until smooth. Stir in the egg and the melted butter. Add the cooled spinach and mix well. Season generously with salt, pepper and nutmeg.

6. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (180 degrees C). Grease a lasagna dish, or a large rectangular gratin dish.

7. Divide the dough and the filling into 8 equal portions.

8. Cut a piece of wax paper or parchment paper and roll out a piece of dough to a rectangle, with a length that fits the width of the dish you are using, and about 4 to 5 inches (7.5 to 10 cm) wide.

Potato pockets (Kartoffelmaultaschen) 4

9. Place the filling in a long mount in the middle. Fold the sides over (if the dough sticks to the wax paper, loosen it carefully with a dough scraper) and pinch to seal.

Potato pockets (Kartoffelmaultaschen) 5

10. Place the pocket seam side down into the dish. Proceed the same way with the eight other pockets, fitting them snugly into the dish.

Potato pockets (Kartoffelmaultaschen) 6

11. For the topping brush the pockets with the melted butter and place the dish into the oven. Bake for 10 minutes, then pour the milk over them.

12. Bake for another 40 minutes, or until the pockets are golden on top. Let stand for 10 minutes before serving. Serve hot.

Makes 8 servings

Photos by Ted Rosen