Tag Archives: Vegan

heart-healthy red salad for your valentine

It’s not often that you’ll see me extolling a dish for its hearth healthy qualities. It’s not that I don’t care about good health, it’s more that I prefer to focus on eating a diet that is balanced, with the philosophy that “all things in moderation” will render it unnecessary to have to specifically seek out recipes that are low cholesterol or low fat or whatever. But at the beginning of this year, Marvin let it be known that he’d like us to eat less meat and more vegetables and grains. He specifically requested whole grain salads, which I already make from time to time and which are great for quick lunches when you have the hectic schedule of a freelance photographer.

I happily obliged by adapting a recipe from Once Upon a Tart (a great cookbook for soups and side salads) with wheatberries, beets and pomegranate. The recipe instructs you to fold in the beets and pomegranate at the end so they don’t stain the salad, but I wanted the dramatic, deep reddish-magenta hue to soak into the wheatberries… so much prettier and seasonally appropriate. The salad is quite good as it is, but even better with a little crumbled feta or fresh goat cheese on top. (This I would add at the last minute though, since I draw the line at pink cheese.) Although there’s no reason not to make this any time of the year, it would make a dramatic Valentine side dish- I plan to serve it alongside a venison tenderloin tomorrow. And you can serve it feeling comforted in the knowledge that you’re not potentially bringing about your loved one’s early demise with rich foods. If you do have a decadent main dish or dessert planned, no worries- it’s all about balance.

Wheatberry Salad with Beets, Pomegranate & Cherries (loosely adapted from Once Upon a Tart)
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Prep time: 15 minutes/ Cook time: 30 minutes (inactive)/ Serves 8 as a side dish

2 cups wheatberries, rinsed
1 lb beets, peeled with a vegetable peeler and quartered
¼ cup dried cherries, chopped (cranberries may be substituted)
1 shallot, minced
seeds and juice of 1 pomegranate
2 Tbs red wine vinegar
2 Tbs olive oil plus additional for roasting beets
½ tsp salt plus additional for cooking
2 tsp minced fresh thyme
a few turns of black pepper
optional: 2 ounces crumbled feta or goat cheese

Preheat oven to 425°. Toss the beets with a little olive oil, salt and pepper and place on a foil-covered baking sheet. Roast until they are easily pierced with a fork, about 25-30 minutes.

Meanwhile, put the wheatberries in a medium pot with a lid. Cover with plenty of cold, salted water. Bring to a simmer and cook, covered, until done (about 20 minutes)- they should yield to the tooth but remain pleasantly chewy. Drain, return to the pot, add the cherries or cranberries and cover (this helps plump the fruit).

While the beets and wheatberries are cooking, combine the shallot, pomegranate juice, vinegar, and salt. You can do this in the bowl you plan to serve the salad in.

When the beets have cooled enough to handle, cut them into ½-inch dice. Place all ingredients except olive oil in a serving dish and stir well to combine, adding the olive oil after the wheatberries have had a chance to soak up some of the vinegar and pomegranate juice. Taste and adjust seasonings, adding more salt, vinegar or pepper as needed. If desired, serve with crumbled feta or goat cheese on top.

first dinner married

Ok, so technically our first dinner married (not counting the actual reception) was some carryout from Thang Long. But our first home-cooked meal- cooked as a joint effort, no less- was a simple but satisfying meal of grilled rib-eye steak, a green salad, some sliced heirloom tomatoes (left over from the wedding), and roasted cauliflower with garlic, parsley and lemon. (Oh, and a bottle of Zinfandel, also left over from the wedding, if you can believe it.)

It’s an understatement to say I’ve never been drawn to cauliflower. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I hate it, but it’s certainly not a favorite, especially when steamed or raw (allow me to insert an immature “blech“). So it was pretty uncharacteristic of me to pick up a head of it while we were shopping for dinner. But leave it to New York Times food writer and cookbook author Melissa Clark to make something as unsexy as cauliflower sound appealing. I’ve been making my way through her book In the Kitchen with A Good Appetite as bedtime reading, and came across a section where she talks about roasting vegetables- when in doubt, crank the oven to 425°, give the vegetable(s) a sheen of olive oil and a generous sprinkling of salt, and in 40 minutes or so, you’ll have roasty caramelized goodness. I’m no novice when it comes to roasted vegetables, but sometimes it takes someone else’s enthusiasm to reignite interest in a tried-and-true method.

Coincidentally, that morning I had come across an article in this month’s issue of Saveur by Lesley Porcelli entitled “The Soft Approach”, about cooking vegetables past what common kitchen wisdom would deem done. As someone who has never appreciated, say, the overly vegetal, grassy taste of a near-raw green bean, I recognized a kindred spirit. Porcelli talks about cooking vegetables as her Italian grandmother did, to the point where their sweetness develops; a stage many would call overcooked. This is exactly what I planned to do with my cauliflower: heat-blast it into submission.

I preheated my oven and cut my cauliflower into bite-sized florets. Into a large bowl it went, tossed with olive oil and salt, and then dumped on a baking sheet. If I’d been at home, I might have sprinkled on some additional seasonings at this point as Clark does in her recipe, like smoked paprika or even curry powder, depending on what I was serving it with. I put the cauliflower in the oven for 10 minutes before adding whole peeled cloves of garlic and chunks of red onion (also tossed in oil and salt). In retrospect I probably could have added the garlic from the beginning, but I wasn’t sure what the timing would be and didn’t want to risk it burning. When the onion and cauliflower were done, the garlic was soft and cooked through but not browned at all. Still, smashed and smeared on a piece of rare rib-eye and dragged through the tomato juices on our plates, neither of us was complaining.

To finish the dish, I sprinkled on some fresh chopped parsley and squeezed a bit of lemon juice over everything to brighten the flavors. Next time I might follow my friend Evan‘s lead and add capers and a dash of good-quality vinegar (a combination which I raved about in this post). For someone whose attitude toward cauliflower has been ambivalent at best, I was more than pleased at my results and would definitely repeat the experiment. In fact, if I’d had enough left over, I would have played around with a roasted cauliflower & garlic soup. Note to self: next time put an additional tray of veg in the oven to be used for this purpose!

All photos this post courtesy of the hubs. Check out his sweet new website.

Roasted Cauliflower with Garlic, Parsley & Lemon
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You can change this recipe up in a dozen different ways- substitute a sweet onion for the red, or leave it out altogether; ditto for the garlic (although… roasted garlic!). Add spices as you see fit, or finish the dish with the simple parsley/lemon combination I used. In her version, Melissa Clark uses whole spices cumin, coriander and mustard seed for an Indian-influenced dish, adding sliced almonds in the final 5 minutes of cooking. I was away from home and didn’t have my spices, so I settled on this simpler version.

1 head cauliflower
1 large red or sweet onion (optional)
cloves from one head garlic, peeled (see note)
about 3 Tablespoons olive oil (less if not using onion)
salt
1 handful fresh parsley, chopped
juice of half a lemon, or to taste

Note: If garlic cloves are on the small side, add them with the onions after the initial 10 minutes of cooking so they do not burn.

Preheat oven to 425°. Rinse cauliflower and trim away any brown spots. Cut into small bite-sized florets, about 3/4″ to 1″. Place cauliflower in a large bowl with the garlic cloves and toss with just enough olive oil to coat. Toss with sea salt to taste, about 1 teaspoon, and pepper or other spices if desired.

Spread cauliflower and garlic on a baking sheet large enough to hold it all without crowding; ideally, there should be a little space between all the pieces so they roast and don’t steam. Place in the oven for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, cut the onion into 1″ pieces; toss with olive oil and salt. When the 10 minutes is up, give the cauliflower a stir and add the onion. Cook for another 10 minutes and stir again. Continue cooking for a final 10-15 minutes or until cauliflower has plenty of browned spots (see photo). Transfer to a bowl and finish with the lemon juice and parsley to taste. Sample and adjust any seasonings as needed.

gu detroit sherry tasting party

So, I know it’s Christmas Eve and you’re all probably running around doing your last-minute preparations.  But I’ve been sitting on this post for a long while now and wanted to get it published- there’s a recipe for romesco sauce that you just might be interested in if you need a last-minute appetizer for a Christmas or New Year’s party.

There ain’t no party like a Detroit… sherry tasting!

Those of you who have been following this blog are familiar by now with the GU Detroit*, a loose collective of “food and drink professionals and serious enthusiasts”. A couple months ago the topic of sherry came up in the forums, and since no one was extremely knowledgeable, and because we all love an excuse to get together and imbibe, our friend and cohort Suzanne seized the occasion to host a sherry tasting.

*That’s “gee-you Detroit”, short for Gourmet Underground, not “goo Detroit”, in case you were wondering.

The GU Detroit gang being what it is, I shouldn’t have been surprised to walk in and see a large table groaning with the weight of what seemed like several tons of food- Spanish charcuterie, cheeses, olives, and tapas of all sorts were nestled in tightly, and I was challenged to find room for my contributions.  Although I should be used to this kind of spread at a GUD event, it was still a bit overwhelming and I had that “kid in a candy store” feeling for at least the first hour I was there.

In addition to about 10 or 12 types of sherry, there were wines (including several bottles of Les Hérétiques, a GUD favorite that Putnam and Jarred turned us on to) and homemade cider my brother brought.  The tasting was semi-organized in relation to the number of people there- someone (Evan or Putnam, I’m guessing?) had lined up the bottles in order from the pale finos to the darker, richer olorosos so that we could attempt some semblance of a proper tasting.  However, due to the somewhat chaotic nature of the event, I can’t tell you much beside the fact that I preferred the lighter sherries;  the intense raisiny flavors of the darker sherries were not as much to my liking.

I hadn’t had a chance to cook for quite some time, so the day of the party I decided to go all out and make three different tapas to bring.  Flipping through The New Spanish Table, I came across a recipe for deviled eggs with tuna (which I blogged about in a less breezy post than this) that sounded perfect. I also made a batch of romesco sauce from the same book, a paste (although that word makes it sound less appealing than it is) made from hazelnuts and peppers and garlic and sherry vinegar that can be eaten with crudites. Last but not least, I sauteed some button mushrooms with garlic and parsley.  I think I’m at my cooking-mojo best at times like these- when I have the day to consecrate to the task, and an event to prepare for.

I can’t wait for the next GU Detroit gathering, aka excuse for me to actually cook.  I’m not anticipating doing much cooking to speak of in the next month (not counting lots of scrambled eggs/omelettes and salads for dinner), as I focus on packing and moving house and getting the new house in order, so unless there’s an event to kick me into gear it may be a while before you hear from me, at least regarding new recipes! But I’ll be around, regaling you with other food-related news and happenings.

For now though, here’s the romesco recipe.  If you’ve never tried it, I strongly encourage you to do so- it’s a nice break from all the roasted red pepper hummus and cheese spreads and ranch flavored veggie dips so prominent around this time of year.  In addition to using it as a dip, it has other applications as well- in the Zuni Cafe Cookbook, Judy Rodgers cooks shrimp in it (I’ve made this too and it’s uhhh-mazing!!) and I can picture it as a great sauce for chicken too.

Romesco Sauce (adapted from The New Spanish Table)

1 medium-sized ñora pepper or ancho chile
⅔ cup hazelnuts, toasted and skinned
2 large garlic cloves, peeled
1 ½ Tbs toasted breadcrumbs
1 small ripe plum tomato, chopped (if unseasonal, substitute 1 good quality canned plum tomato or 3-4 Tbs canned diced tomatoes)
1 Tbs sweet (not smoked) paprika
pinch of cayenne
6 Tbs fragrant extra virgin olive oil
2 Tbs sherry vinegar (quality red wine vinegar may be substituted)
coarse salt

Notes: I could not locate a ñora pepper or ancho chile when I made this last time, so I used something labeled “chile California” which, although inauthentic, worked fine. Also, almonds may be substituted for the hazelnuts, or a combination used. The sauce will have a slightly different character but will still be delicious.  If you want to gild the lily, fry the nuts in olive oil instead of dry-toasting them.

Soak the dried pepper in very hot water until softened, about 30 minutes. Remove and discard the stem and seeds and tear into small pieces, either before or after the soaking, whichever is easiest. Reserve the soaking liquid.

Place the nuts in a food processor and pulse a few times until roughly chopped.  Add the garlic, pepper, paprika, tomato, breadcrumbs, cayenne and ⅓ cup of the pepper water and pulse until fairly smooth but retaining some texture.  With the motor running, drizzle in the olive oil, processing until completely incorporated.

Scrape the contents into a clean bowl, stir in the vinegar, and season with salt to taste.  Cover and let sit for at least 30 minutes at room temperature for the flavors to meld, then taste and season with more salt or vinegar as necessary.

Serve with crudités such as endive leaves, fennel or celery sticks, or use as a sauce for grilled shrimp, chicken or asparagus.

braised cod with pistachio & preserved lemon pesto

A few months ago I got an email from a gentleman at Oh! Nuts asking if I’d like to sample some product, and maybe I could write a recipe about it.  I was thinking of all kinds of treats to make- ice creams, tarts, etc.  But when the package came, I was too busy to do anything with it so I made like a drag queen and tucked the nuts away.  Then recently I checked out A16: Food + Wine from the library (yes I know, I’m behind the curve on this book that was much-hyped around Christmas 2008) and saw a recipe for halibut with a pistachio, parsley, and preserved lemon pesto (try saying that three times fast!).  It sounded like a perfect summer dish and a great excuse to use some of those pistachios.

Incidentally, can I just dork out for a moment and say how exciting it was to get my first shipment of free swag??  I’ve been offered a couple other things here and there but nothing I would actually use.  Free nuts was a major score, as A) I love nuts of all kinds, and B) nuts are freaking expensive!  The company sent me pistachios, hazelnuts, and steamed, peeled chestnuts, which I think I’ll save for an autumnal dish.  [Can I also say to all the bloggers who are always griping on Twitter about how many PR emails/offers they get, it’s a little hard to have pity.  Gee, you poor thing, your blog is well-known enough for you to get PR pitches and free stuff all the time.  Boo hoo!]

I was really happy about how this recipe turned out, and although I made it with fish, I could easily imagine this pesto-like sauce as an accompaniment to roast chicken or on pasta for a vegan dish.  As a side dish, I just drizzled some artichokes with olive oil and lemon and tossed a few olives in for good measure. I picked up a nice bottle of Auratus Alvarinho selected by Jeffrey at Holiday Market that was moderately priced and a great compliment to the food; A16 suggests a Sicilian Carricante if you can find that.  As far as a “review” of the nuts, they were perfectly fine, fresh, etc.  Of course I always advocate buying local first, but if you can’t find something you need, the Oh!Nuts website is a good alternative.

A note on fish: To find out whether a certain fish is on the endangered/ unsustainable list, check here.  Re: substituting fish, Mark Bittman’s book Fish: The Complete Guide to Buying and Cooking is an excellent resource; for each type of fish, he lists several other species which can be interchanged in recipes.

Pistachio & Preserved Lemon Pesto (adapted from A16: Food + Wine)
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1 cup shelled, unsalted pistachios
2 cups parsley leaves, loosely packed
1 Tbs capers (salt-packed if possible)
½ a preserved lemon, peel only
½ tsp dried chili flakes
½ cup olive oil
sea salt if needed
fresh lemon wedges and additional olive oil for serving

Note: This pesto is best served the day it is made.

Soak the capers and preserved lemon peel in cold water to remove some of the salt.  Roughly chop the parsley.  Put it in the bowl of a food processor (if you have a smaller-sized bowl, this works best) along with the pistachios, chili flakes and capers (drained and rinsed).  Pulse while adding the olive oil in a thin stream, scraping down the sides once or twice, until the pistachios are well-chopped.  Alternately, you can make the pesto in a mortar and pestle; you’ll want to chop the parsley more finely for this version.  For fish or chicken, I prefer a looser pesto where the nuts are left slightly chunky, but for pasta you could process it a bit more if desired.  Finely dice the preserved lemon peel and stir into the pesto; taste for salt (mine did not need any; the capers and preserved lemons were salty enough to season the mixture).

To serve with pasta, simply toss the pesto with 1 lb pasta that has been cooked in well-salted water.  Drizzle over a bit more olive oil if desired, and serve with fresh lemon wedges.

Braised Halibut with Pistachio & Preserved Lemon Pesto (adapted from A16: Food + Wine)
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One recipe Pistachio & Preserved Lemon Pesto
1½-2 lbs halibut fillets (sustainably sourced cod can be substituted), cut into 6 serving pieces
sea salt

Note: The A16 recipe calls for halibut, but at $19 a pound it was a bit out of reach for me so I substituted cod.  The cod was thinner but I folded under the thinnest ends to ensure a more even cooking, and adjusted my cooking time downward.

Season the halibut fillets with sea salt at least one hour and up to four hours prior to cooking.  Remove from refrigerator ½ hour before cooking to allow to come to room temperature (less time will be needed for thinner fish).  Preheat oven to 400°.  Drain off any liquid that has accumulated and place the fish in a glass baking dish.  Divide the pesto evenly among the fillets, pressing down so it adheres.  Place a small amount of water in the bottom of the dish, enough to come about a third of the way up the fish.

Cook for 10-15 minutes or until the fish is just cooked through; this will depend on type and thickness of fish, so keep a close eye on it.  (Fish is done when it is just firm to the touch; it will continue to cook for another couple minutes after removed from the oven, so it’s best to err on the side of ever-so-slightly underdone.)  Drizzle with a bit more olive oil.  Taste the braising liquid and drizzle some of this on top if desired.  Serve immediately with fresh lemon wedges.

taking a deep breath… tuscan beans with tomatoes & sage

Folks, I’m taking a deep breath.  This post is about one of the easiest, most laid-back dishes in my repertoire.  While I did snap a few photos, I didn’t stress about the lighting or try to style the food or plating.  I just wanted to do an easy-breezy blog post since it’s been a while.

Most everyone I know has a lot going on- everyone has periods where things get crazy, time is maxed out, and they feel completely spread thin.  So I try not to go on TOO much about how nuts everything feels, because it’s like “boo hoo, you’re not the only one who has a million things to do and no time to do them in”.  But the past couple weeks were frantic even by my standards.  Blogging, of course, didn’t even make the list of things to do during this time, but I hope to rectify that in the next week or two before things get busy again with my sister’s wedding.

The Friday morning of Memorial weekend, I left for my sister’s bachelorette party in Nashville.  I had worked all week and tried to get things ready bit by bit- shopping for gifts, laundry, making sure there was food for the cats, a trip to the library for books on tape and Nashville guides, and all the other little pre-trip things that needed attending to.  Packing and straightening the house, of course, always gets left until the last possible minute.  So, as I was trying to get things together at 10:30 Thursday night, I got an unexpected call from my friend Youn, an old acquaintance from my Toulouse days.  He and a friend were traveling around the U.S. and wanted to know, could they possibly come and stay for a few days?  Of course! I replied, while inwardly starting to panic.  The house was reasonably tidy- I don’t like to come home to a mess- but it was nowhere near “house-guest clean”.  I would have to drive 10 hours, then spend a few hours cleaning Monday night, because I had to work on Tuesday and they were arriving that evening. Also sandwiched into the week’s schedule were two Scarlet Oaks shows, one of which was in Cleveland.

Long story short, I pulled everything together the best I could and we had a nice time (more about their visit in a later post), but coming back from a trip and then entertaining for 5 days left me wiped out.  Sunday I wanted to cook, but I knew I needed to do something hyper-simple.  My mind jumped to this dish of white beans with tomato and sage (one I’ve made many times before) because of the abundance of sage in my herb garden right now.  This is one of the easiest dishes I know, and it goes great with some grilled Italian sausages.  Unfortunately the weather didn’t cooperate so our sausages were pan-grilled in the cast-iron skillet, but that actually made things even easier.  I threw together a green salad as well as some cucumbers with labneh (thick strained yogurt), scallion, lemon and parsley, we cracked open a bottle of red, and reveled in our simple feast as we breathed a sigh of relief at not having anywhere to be or anyone to entertain.  While I love having guests, a quiet evening with my sweetheart was just what I needed to get grounded and catch my breath.

If your sage is blowing up right now too, check out this post from Clotilde of Chocolate & Zucchini on 45 things to do with fresh sage!

Tuscan Beans with Tomatoes & Sage (adapted from Moosewood Low-Fat Favorites)
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This recipe is originally from a low-fat cookbook, and you can certainly choose to make it that way, but I of course like it with generous amounts of olive oil.  Obviously, you can cook the beans from dried, or use fresh tomatoes if in season, but the point is that you can open a few cans and have a pretty tasty and respectable side dish ready in about 15 minutes.  For the vegetarian folks out there, you could certainly serve this alongside veggie sausage or even some risotto to get the complete rice+beans protein combo.

2 15 or 19-oz cans cannellini beans*, rinsed and drained (I prefer the bigger cans if you can find them)
1 28-oz can good quality diced tomatoes, drained, juice reserved*
3-6 cloves garlic, depending on size, to yield about 2 Tbs minced
about 25-30 washed sage leaves, to yield 3-4 Tbs minced
olive oil
salt & pepper to taste

*Another type of white bean can be substituted if necessary.

**My version appears more “saucy” because I used whole canned plum tomatoes and just squished them up with my hands as I added them to the pot.  Remember, this dish is all about whatever’s easiest.

Put a few Tbs of olive oil in a medium-sized heavy saucepan over medium-low heat.  When warm, add the garlic, stirring frequently (you want it to soften but not brown).  After a couple minutes, increase the heat slightly and add the sage.  Cook for a couple more minutes, then add the drained tomatoes.  Cook for a few minutes to blend the flavors, then add the beans and cook until heated through.  If the dish seems too dry, add a bit of the reserved tomato juice.  Drizzle a little more olive oil on top if desired, and serve.

candied kumquat & coconut sorbet

Oh my poor little neglected blog! I haven’t really been any busier than usual; maybe I’m just going through a little slump.  I’ve still been cooking, but it’s been pretty utilitarian- soup and chili to get me through the week; a roasted chicken with some veg and risotto over the weekend.  I did make one “superfluous” thing, though- this really quick kumquat and coconut sorbet.  In my effort to try to take advantage of seasonal items while they’re around, I picked up a pint of kumquats at Trader Joe’s, without any clear idea what I was going to do with them.  I decided to candy them, which I’d done before and knew was a breeze… but then what?  Ice cream was an obvious answer; ever since I got my ice cream maker I’ve been using it whenever I have fruit I’m not sure what else to do with (see my posts on blood orange sorbet and Meyer lemon sherbet…).  I just wanted something quick and easy, so instead of making a custard as you would for ice cream, I just used coconut cream and the sugar syrup from candying the kumquats to make a sorbet.  The bonus is that it was vegan so I could serve it to a couple vegan friends who came by.

So, without further ado, here’s the recipe.  Grab a pint of kumquats while they’re still in season and whip up a batch this weekend!

Candied Kumquat & Coconut Sorbet
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1 pint kumquats (about 12 oz)
1 can coconut cream (14.5-oz size)
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups water
2 tbs coconut rum (you can sub a plain or orange-flavored rum or vodka)
optional: 1/2 cup sweetened shredded coconut

Note: for non-vegans, you can add a teaspoon of gelatin for a smoother, less icy texture; just dissolve it in 2 Tbs water in a small saucepan over low heat; when fully dissolved (no visible graininess), add it to the sorbet base before putting it in the refrigerator.

Wash the kumquats and slice into 1/8″ slices, removing the seeds.  Put the sugar and water in a small saucepan over low heat.  When the sugar has dissolved,  add the kumquats and bring to a very gentle simmer for about 10 minutes or until kumquats are tender.

Put the coconut cream and rum in a bowl.  Strain the kumquats over the bowl, pressing down with the back of a spoon. Stir the coconut cream and syrup to combine and place in the fridge until cool.  Chop the kumquats and set aside.  If you wish, you can reserve some of the kumquat rings for garnish.

Remove the coconut cream/ syrup mixture from the fridge, giving it a whisk to combine and stir out any solidified bits of coconut cream.  Freeze according to your ice cream maker’s directions. When the base is frozen but still semisoft, stir in the kumquats and coconut, if using, and transfer to a container.  Place in the freezer until firm.  Makes about 1 quart.

soup swap mach II: four soup recipes to see you through ’til spring

Last year I had the rather brilliant (if I do say so myself) idea to host a soup swap for myself and some girlfriends.  The concept was simple: do the work of cooking one soup, but wind up with a fridge full of 4 or 5 different soups.  This was mostly born from the fact that while I love to cook big batches of things to take in my lunch for the week, I don’t exactly want to eat the same thing 5 days in a row.  So, in what I hope will become an annual tradition, we got together and traded soups (and stories of youthful indiscretions, but that’s for another blog… or not!).

Once again I made two soups, this Cheese Soup with Caramelized Onions & Cumin (sooo good!!), and an “African-inspired” carrot soup from Moosewood Daily Special that had peanut butter, lime and chili sauce. The carrot soup sounded like a good idea at the time, but I had to majorly tweak it to get it to taste good to me.  I added a pretty significant amount of brown sugar, upped the peanut butter, and also added coconut milk.  It ended up tasting like peanut satay sauce, which I guess was not a bad thing, but the fact that I altered it so much makes it pretty impossible to give a recipe.  (But make the cheese soup- that turned out great!)

This year’s batch of soups were no less delicious and satisfying than last year’s. So without further ado, here are my “tasting notes”.  For the recipes, just follow the links.

French Lentil Soup
First of all, the “French” refers to the type of lentils used, not the style of the soup, so don’t worry- it’s not some heavy-cream-and-butter bomb!  French green (Puy) lentils are so great in soup; they are much firmer than regular brown lentils and have a nice chew to them.  This soup is seasoned with mint and cinnamon, among other things, which gives it a delightful Middle Eastern feel. There is an optional garnish of thick Greek yogurt.  I would up the suggested salt content a tiny bit, but other than that I found it to be just right as-is.  Oh, and there are greens in it too so it’s super healthy.  Thanks Kate, this is definitely going into the rotation!

Caldo Tlalpeño (Chicken, Chipotle & Chickpea Soup)
The soup for those who like to eat alliteratively! Amanda says she makes this for weeknight suppers on a pretty regular basis, and it seems pretty straightforward and simple.  The only thing that might throw you off is finding fresh epazote, but I believe she made this batch without and it was still delicious.  I tend to prefer dark meat so I would probably sub out an equal weight of bone-in, skinned chicken leg quarters, but that’s just a personal preference and it was certainly good (and probably a bit healthier) with the breast meat.  Although it’s not in the recipe, I couldn’t resist adding some chopped cilantro when I reheated mine.

Shrimp & Corn Chowder with Fennel
Shrimp, corn, fennel, bacon… what’s not to like about this soup?  Some of the commenters on the Real Simple site (where this was taken from) were pretty harsh, saying it was very bland.  I could definitely picture a dash or two of Tabasco, and just a wee bit more salt, but it was far from being as bland as they implied!  (You’re probably starting to think I’m a salt freak at this point, but a pinch of salt can be the difference between bland and just right.  Taste and add as you go… everyone’s taste buds are different!)  Michelle made this with the suggested (optional) bacon and I would too, but I would maybe crumble it in just before serving.  The only other tweak I would consider is adding a bit of cornstarch to give it a thicker, more “chowdery” feel (dissolve cornstarch in cold water before adding to the soup).

African Curried Coconut Soup
This vegan soup was delightful and looks really easy to make. The rice is listed as “optional” but I would definitely include it- not only does it make it a bit more filling, but it’s beneficial to eat rice and legumes together, especially for non-meat eaters.  Sarah added some spinach at the end of the cooking (not in the recipe) and it was a nice touch.

Thanks again, ladies… Can’t wait for our next swap!

acorn squash with paanch phoron, and reflections on modern spice

Even though I have a ridiculous amount of cookbooks, I never tire of exploring new ones.  In pursuit of some new flavors to perk up my repertoire,  I recently picked up Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen by Monica Bhide, a wonderful book in which Monica’s Indian heritage merges with her creative, contemporary approach to cooking and entertaining.  I’ve been following Monica on Twitter for a while, but hadn’t used any of her cookbooks until now (I’ve been missing out!).  The book has recipes for Indian food in the sense that Monica is Indian and she came up with the recipes, but instead of Indian restaurant staples such as Lamb Korma or Chicken Vindaloo, you’ll find recipes like Saffron Mussel Stew and Curried Egg Salad with Caramelized Onion.

In the introduction to Modern Spice, Monica discusses the question of “what is ‘authentic’ Indian food?”.  This really hit home with me because I know I do sometimes get hung up on what the “correct” or “truly” authentic version of something may be, instead of just being concerned with whether it tastes good!  I think it’s mostly because, especially when trying a new ethnic or regional dish,  I want some sort of baseline from which I can measure whether or not variations are preferable to the “original”.  But as Monica astutely points out, her mother’s version of “authentic lentils” is quite different from the “authentic lentils” of her mother-in-law!  With that in mind,  I am going to try to have a more open mind about recipe sources and culinary traditions.  Monica’s approach to Indian food reminds me of Clotilde Dusoulier‘s approach to French food- taking a culinary foundation and riffing on it in new and exciting ways.

Thus newly inspired, last weekend I made an Indian feast: three recipes from Modern Spice, as well as two from Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cooking.  I mainly chose the recipes based on what I had in the pantry and fridge (dried yellow split peas, a frozen bag of okra, a bunch of cilantro, a few beets, some yogurt) and then added a couple items (acorn squash, some trout) to round out the menu.  From Modern Spice I made Beet Salad with Yogurt Dressing, Acorn Squash with 5 Spices, and Pan-Fried Trout with Mint-Cilantro Chutney.   I added Madhur Jaffrey’s Sweet & Sour Okra and Masoor Daal for variety and to ensure I had plenty of leftovers to take in my lunch all week.

Of all the dishes, the acorn squash was my favorite, so that’s the recipe I’ll share.  The trout was delicious too, but you probably don’t need a recipe- all it entails is pan-frying the trout and drizzling the chutney on top.  The chutney recipe Monica gives (mint, cilantro, green chile, red onion, lemon juice) is a little astringent for my taste, probably because I’m used to a similar restaurant chutney that has coconut milk in it.  However, in keeping with her liberal philosophy on following “rules”, she does say in the instructions that this chutney can be varied however you like, with the addition of yogurt or other ingredients.

In addition to some great recipes (any book with a cocktail chapter is copacetic as far as I’m concerned), Monica is a talented writer. Regardless of how many recipes you try, the interludes between chapters, where she shares personal stories and experiences, make the book worth reading cover-to-cover.  If you’re seeking uncomplicated ways to jazz up your cooking and a good read to boot, look no further than Modern Spice for inspiration.

Acorn Squash with 5 Spices (from Modern Spice by Monica Bhide, with my cooking notes)
printer-friendly version

3 ½ cups acorn squash, peeled and diced in ¼-inch dice (see notes)
¼ cup neutral vegetable oil or ghee (see notes)
½ tsp cumin seeds
1 ½ tsp paanch phoron
pinch of asafetida (see notes)
2 large or 4-6 small shallots, diced
1 green serrano chile, minced
1 dried whole red bird’s eye chile
¼ tsp salt to start
½ tsp ground turmeric
½ cup water
warm honey (optional)

Notes: Monica indicates that a “medium” squash will give the necessary 3 ½ cups.  Looks are deceiving- I used a squash that looked small to me and it yielded 4 ½ cups! Try to select a squash whose grooves are not too deep for easier peeling.  For the spices, I found paanch phoron at World Market; I’m not sure where else you could find it unless you have access to Indian markets (except, of course, online).  I have not yet been able to locate any asafetida.  It is described as having an oniony/ garlicky aroma, so perhaps a clove of garlic smashed, fried in the oil and then removed could be substituted.  Last but not least, Monica calls for vegetable oil, but I chose to substitute ghee for a slightly richer flavor- I don’t think she would mind.

Directions: Peel and dice your squash, discarding the “guts”.  The skin of an acorn squash is not thick and can be removed with a vegetable peeler.

Warm the oil or ghee in a large lidded skillet over medium heat.  When hot, add the cumin seeds, paanch phoron, asafetida, and shallots.  Cook for about 2 minutes, until the shallots begin to  color.

Add the green chile, red chile (I crumbled mine for extra heat), and squash, mixing well.  Add the salt and turmeric and stir.  Raise the heat to medium high and cook for about 5 minutes, until the squash begins to brown.  (My squash never did brown- maybe I needed more heat?)

Add water and bring to a boil.  Cover and cook over low heat until the squash is totally soft and the water has almost dried up, about 20 minutes (mine was soft in less time; you may want to check it after 10-15 min so as not to overcook).

Serve hot, drizzled with warm honey if desired.  I kind of forgot about the honey, but I want to try it next time, as I love sweet and spicy flavors together.  Monica recommends about 2 teaspoons for the entire dish, so if you’re adding the honey per portion, do it sparingly.

dosas with curried chickpeas & coconut sauce (daring cooks)

dosa plated 3I’m sure most of you have heard of the Daring Bakers, the group of bloggers who bake a selected recipe each month and post about it on a specified day.  The group recently expanded to a new branch, the Daring Cooks.  I think this is the third month of the Daring Cooks and I decided to jump on board.  I don’t know how regular I’ll be able to be, but this recipe appealed to me so I thought I’d give it a go.

dosas & fillingsThe challenge (hosted by Debyi at Healthy Vegan Kitchen) was for dosas, a type of Indian pancake which was unfamiliar to me.  (You can check out my annotated version of the recipe here.)  It’s always interesting to prepare a recipe for which you have no point of reference…  The perfectionist in me has a little bit of a hard time not knowing how something is “supposed to” turn out.

dosa plated side view 1

The recipe for the dosas was fairly similar to that of French crêpes, without the egg.  However, some of the South Asians posting in the forums said dosa batter is typically made of soaked, fermented lentils and rice, which sounded great- similar to the bread in Ethiopian restaurants.  Unfortunately I didn’t plan ahead enough to accommodate the 12-hour fermentation period, so I had to make the flour-based recipe.  I chose a combination of whole wheat and buckwheat flours, and added a touch of cider vinegar to try to emulate the sourness of the fermented version.  I have lots of leftover filling and sauce though, so I’m hoping to get a chance to try the more traditional recipe for the dosa pancakes later this week.

curried chickpeasMarvin was off eating curry of a different sort (curried goat!) in Jamaica last weekend, so I invited a girlfriend over Sunday night to partake in the dosas with me.  I did have a couple small issues with the recipe instructions, but the overall outcome was good (my guest had a second helping- never a bad sign!).  I was happy to break bread with a friend, try something new, and especially to have leftovers for the week.  Cheers to Debyi for hosting an interesting and delicious challenge!dosa plated

mediterranean chickpea salad (aka balela, my way)

med chickpea saladThe other day I was catching up a little on my blog reading, and came across something on a very well-known food blog that kind of blew me away.  It was a recipe for a pepper salad, and was basically just red & yellow peppers, red onion, feta and cucumber.  The kind of thing that I throw together without thinking twice; not the kind of dish I would deem “blog-worthy”.  There was no cute story with it; just the recipe and a bit about how the author had stopped eating salads with lettuce.  But there, underneath the post, were close to 150 comments saying how great it was, and how people were dropping everything to rush to the store to make this salad.  I have to say, I was flabbergasted.  Really?!?

Reading this person’s post, it jolted me back to the reality that many people (possibly even the majority?) who regularly read food blogs and watch the Food Network rarely cook! All those commenters that said stuff like “Wow, that looks so delicious”…?  I would bet money that less than 5% of them go on to actually prepare the recipe.  (I guess this isn’t so strange if you think about, for example,  all the people who read fashion magazines but don’t dress fashionably.)

So what does this have to do with balela? (Huh?  Remember that… the title of this post? Oh yeah…)  Well, I made some a few weeks ago (or rather, my interpretation of it), and even took a couple photos, but never posted it because I didn’t think it was “fancy” enough or something.  Clearly, I am out of touch with what the blog-reading public wants!   I guess the moral of the story is that  instead of trying to second-guess what people may want to read about, I should just post whatever I feel like?

Trader Joe’s sells balela in little plastic tubs, but the portion they sell amounts to about one whole serving, and it’s easy and much cheaper to make yourself.  As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big fan of making big batches of grain or legume-based salads to take in my lunch.  They’re also good potluck fare- this one was for the Memorial Day BBQ I went to (the one with the grilled pizza).  My version isn’t “authentic” balela in any way, as I added some extra veggies (peppers, cucumbers), but I like the extra crunch they add.  The dressing is inspired by the dressing for fattoush and can be used in any salad where you want Middle Eastern flavors.

Mediterranean Chickpea Salad (aka Balela, my way) (printer-friendly version)

1 can chickpeas & 1 can black beans (or two cans chickpeas), drained & rinsed
1 pint grape or cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered
1/2 an English cucumber, peeled, seeds removed and diced
1/2 a small red onion, diced, or 3-5 scallions, thinly sliced
1/2 red or green bell pepper, diced
1 good handful flat-leaf parsley leaves, minced

salad dressing shakenDressing:
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tbs fresh lemon juice
1 large clove garlic
1 tsp za’atar
1/2 tsp sumac
1/2 tsp salt
several grinds black pepper

Notes: I use grape tomatoes because they’re more reliable year-round, but if you have good-quality regular tomatoes, go ahead and use them.  This salad is excellent with a bit of feta crumbled into it- I don’t believe it’s traditional, but it makes it a little more substantial and adds a welcome texture and richness to the austerity of raw vegetables.  If you can’t be bothered with the za’atar and sumac, the salad will still be good without them- I threw them in because I happened to have some handy. And if you’re inclined to use a whole lemon, just sick with a 1:2 ratio of lemon to oil and up the seasonings a bit; if you have leftover dressing it’ll keep indefinitely in the fridge, and is great on green salad too.

Directions: Combine all of the vegetables in a large bowl.  Smash the garlic clove with the flat side of a chef’s knife.  Place in a small screw-top jar with the other dressing ingredients and shake well.  Let the garlic clove marinate in the dressing for 5-10 minutes and then fish it out and discard. Pour the dressing over the salad and stir well to combine.  Taste and adjust for salt and pepper, or for more oil or lemon juice according to your taste.  (It will almost definitely need more salt, but I’d rather err on the side of you having to add some.) Let the salad sit for at least 15-20 minutes to let the vegetables marinate and release some of their juices. Taste again and add more salt or dressing if needed.  If not serving immediately, wait until serving to add the parsley. For best flavor, serve at room temp or only slightly chilled.