a mighty spoonful of persuasion

For the past several months, I have been happily imbibing the intoxicating grace and simplicity of this very chickpea salad at a sustained, near-daily pace. The situation is becoming so serious, in fact, that when my eye doctor routinely inquired during a recent visit as to if and how often I smoke (never) and consume alcohol (when there’s something worth celebrating, even if that something is just the end of a day), part of me felt compelled to admit that I oftentimes find happiness at the bottom of a can of garbanzo beans.

To be honest, I was afraid she wouldn’t understand. The trouble is that no one seems to understand the spirited qualities of these powerhouse legumes. My enthusiastic attempts at describing their gloriousness in this salad have largely fallen flat. And I’m not surprised, really. Grocery stores tend to stack them in back shelves, often in boring, towering configurations unbecoming the ingenious choreography they enable even in the company of the most rustic ingredients (when will they make it to those spotlighted endcaps?, I ask!). Most dishes, it seems, treat chickpeas as a meaty embellishment, a non-essential albeit pleasant inclusion. Even chickpeas’ starring role in hummus becomes disguised with the whirring of a food processor. Such injustice is not present in this salad, and that may be what I like about it most.

I simply cannot guarantee that words, or even pictures, will ever adequately describe the richly nutty, luxuriously creamy, and intensely versatile notes of a salad that requires less time to prepare than you might spend tying your shoes.

I’ve shook and stirred and tugged at the heartstrings of family and friends, hoping to convey some degree of persuasion by way of an impassioned speech containing elements reminiscent of the fervor of heated political debates.

When I’ve regaled my captive listeners with a description of garbanzo beans mixed with a judicious pour of olive oil and grating of parmesan cheese, I’ve been met with feigned enthusiasm and unconscious-but-obvious-on-their-faces skepticism. So now I’ve taken to a different strategy: chasing my house guests with spoons full of the stuff, imploring them to take just one indulgent bite in a final attempt to recruit them to my side. And let me tell you, it is a mighty spoonful of persuasion indeed.

Because I am unable to chase you with a spoon – as disappointing as that may be for you – perhaps you’ll take my word for it, and Molly‘s. The recipe is hers, after all, by way of her husband’s culinary genius. And if you won’t take my word for it, then you most certainly should trust this dynamic duo.

What’s so great about this chickpea salad is its versatility. A garbanzo bean’s humility surely peaks in its hospitality toward other ingredients – taking on all other flavors and complimenting each with a gracious subtlety. Care to add some garlic? Go for it. Hot sauce? You bet. Cilantro, parsley, any herb under the sun? Be my guest.

And after you find your concoction, invite your friends and family to be your guest and chase them with a spoon until they believe in you and your perfect little chickpea salad.

Chickpea Salad
From: Molly Wizenberg

1 15-ounce can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 tsp. fresh lemon juice
1 ½ tsp. olive oil
A pinch of salt
¼ cup loosely packed shredded Parmigiano Reggiano

Combine all ingredients in a bowl, and stir gently to mix. Taste, and adjust seasoning as necessary. Serve immediately, or chill, covered, until serving.

**I encourage you to take Molly’s advice to enjoy this chilled. The time it takes to chill is just as important for flavor melding as it is for sheer convenience of always having this in your refrigerator for lunch at the office or indulgent spoonfuls for a satisfying snack.

happy to dwell

I am a lover of routine.

Perhaps you’ll remember that this is not entirely my fault. The love was awakened in me in part by family road trips of the invariable variety, the kind that likely wore tire ruts into the highways of central Nebraska in much the same way my graduate school reading mileage has left a depression, in the shape of me, in my sofa.

I imagine wise sofa owners understand the importance of distributing one’s effects from cushion to cushion. There is, after all, plenty of room to do so. But because the sun shines in my window at a certain angle and by nightfall my reading lamp offers a generous yet directed glow, I find myself taking to the same spot each day. The spot is mine; it knows me, welcomes me. And, to be honest, I’m not likely to throw my weight around in situations where everything seems to be working just fine. Pay no attention to the fact that I apply my definition of ‘fine’ as liberally as I douse most things that are good – from bread or oatmeal to vegetables and cheese – with olive oil. Let’s just say: I’m happy to dwell where I do.

Routine feels a lot, to me, like this spot on my sofa. It fits my daily goals and energies like a glove. It is warm and generous, a glimmer of refuge from chaotic days and those occasional pangs of purposelessness. I welcome days marked by clear and familiar plans with the warm embrace of immeasurable amounts of coffee from the local shop on the corner, habitual lunches of chickpea salads, inescapable afternoon Nutella indulgences, and strict adherence to a system of task lists and checkmarks. Following a week during which the meal I want to share with you today hit my dinner (and many times lunch, too) plate with impressive – dare I say boring? – consistency, I’m excited to announce that farro will be permanently joining the fold.

If you were to ask my mother, she’d likely tell you that I tend to become unbearable in the wake of disrupted routine. She knows my tears and fears well, anticipating and receiving my sob-ridden emails and phone calls with a grace and candor I can only hope to emulate, and I am continually and forever grateful for that. I’m not proud of this part of me, certainly. Even though it, too, has somehow permeated my cyclical consciousness, popping up – as it routinely does – in moments I should expect. I’ve been doing this student thing for, wow, 20 years now, and yet every spring semester’s end ushers in a period of existential crises, trepidation at the thought of a new schedule, and a seemingly unavoidable rush to decipher what’s next?

Well, that’s why I’m here, writing in this space again.

Sometimes the realities of graduate school, like any career-like trajectory (is this where we are?, talking careers and trajectories instead of spring break plans and adolescent-oh-wait-I-still-have-them dreams of running away to Europe?), can be sobering. I find myself with several unfinished drafts of papers and article attempts that really ought to maybe go somewhere beyond the ol’ desktop, half-read (and half-understood) books, gaps in health insurance, and a particular identification with the sentiment behind this gem of a song. But I’ve come to see how creating a routine that works for you can nearly erase most of the anxiety that may arise surrounding these sorts of things.

I’m part of the crowd that feels lucky to be here. For me, for now, it is a pace of life – one flanked by long hours at my desk, ever-towering piles of books, constant reminders of how much more I have to learn, and the general uncertainty of where it all will lead – that suits me well. The point of the matter is that the routine can be demanding and yet is – to my delight, I should note – largely self-directed. I have loads of free time; free, meaning that I choose my routines and attempt to ensure they produce something, anything. Now at semester’s end, I want to make this place a larger part of my routine. I want to recommit myself to this space with a promise to write, and share, and talk with you about the sights, sounds, and foods that help us be happy to dwell where we are. What do you think – are you in?

If you’re still with me – and, golly, I thank you if you are – why don’t we get to the recipe?

Let’s talk asparagus.

When it’s good, it’s darn good.

Asparagus might just be its best self when in the company of sugar snap peas, feta cheese, and bursting-red tomatoes – as it is in this dish – and especially so when said entourage chooses to hang around in the midst of a slightly sweet, supremely mild-mannered vinaigrette. Were I asparagus’ concerned guardian – and, let me tell you, at this point I don’t feel so far off – surely I’d probingly inquire about that nice, young Feta. You two really ought to spend more time together, I’d say with a gentle nudge.

My search for this recipe began as a sort of flare signal, a pronouncement of hope in a valiant rescue from the cooking rut into which I had fallen. A girl cannot live on chickpeas alone, I had begun to see. But, like the highways in Nebraska and my beloved spot in the sofa, I will continue to cherish their familiar embrace, knowing they’ll still be there even as I come and go from disruptions in routine.

Farro, I now know, will forever be a welcome disruption. Likely to never overstay its welcome, its slightly nutty, undeniably hearty, and general agreeableness with most any other ingredient it meets make it a welcome guest in my routine.

All of these wonderful things – the crisp and healthful green of the peas and asparagus, the salty bite of the feta cheese, the luxuriously tender chew of the farro, and the overwhelming sense that you’re feeding your body and your soul with the harmonious accompaniment it all creates, woven together – make for a truly fabulous side or main dish. It also, as I’ve found, is a perfect excuse to sneak away to your kitchen, with just a spoon, to indulge in a brilliantly perfect bite while standing in the the path of the refrigerator’s escaping chill.

Inviting a meal to join your routine is a high compliment. I hope you’ll take my inviting you to share this space with me as a compliment, too. I’d love to hear about the recipes you’ve elevated to your daily repertoire.

Farro Salad with Asparagus, Sugar Snap Peas, and Feta
Adapted from Bon Appetit

1 1/2 cups semi-pearled farro
12 ounces asparagus, trimmed, cut into 1 1/2-inch lengths
1 8-ounce package sugar snap peas
12 ounces grape tomatoes, halved
1/2 cup chopped red onion
6 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
Juice of half of a lemon
1 tsp., plus more to taste, honey (or agave syrup, or maple syrup for that matter)
Salt and pepper

Cook farro in large saucepan of boiling salted water until just tender, about 10 minutes. Drain. Transfer to large bowl.

Meanwhile, cook asparagus and sugar snap peas in another saucepan of boiling salted water until crisp-tender, about 3 minutes. Drain. Add to farro with tomatoes, onion, and dill.

Whisk vinegar and lemon juice in small bowl. Gradually add the olive oil, whisking. Stir honey into the oil mixture, tasting as you go. Season dressing with salt and pepper. Add dressing and feta to salad; toss to coat and serve.

salmon with whole wheat pasta and spinach

That the greatest victory I encountered preparing this recipe might have been in its, for the first time, remaining a smoke-alarm-free event, should not scare you away.

The quietly luxurious marriage of salmon, pasta, and spinach is at once so unassuming and overwhelming, you might very well be blindsided by the sudden abandonment of the need to prepare anything more to complete the meal. If it weren’t for the spectacular freshness of the ingredients – with the lemons and the spinach and the basil, oh my – I’d say it was this all-in-one sort of attribute that makes the dish most attractive. But these wonderfully simple ingredients compete for that spot, too.

I blame my several prior smoke-filled preparations, of which there have been several since I just love this meal to bits, on the lack of a proper hood in my kitchen. Though when I tried this trick recently by blaming my aging nylon strings to account for my mediocre guitar playing, I was gently, and in good humor, reminded that a poor craftswoman always blames her tools. With that, I fold.

There is, in fact, very little room for me to take much responsibility at all in the preparation of this dish. It is so simple to prepare, it might not even need me (though I don’t dare utter that too loudly).

The salmon’s crust, achieved by mere salt and pepper and a quick sear in a judiciously olive-oiled pan, elevates simple techniques to undeniably elegant results. It is this searing, however, from which the smoke usually arises.

I’m willing to take it as it rises, you see. The smoke shouldn’t scare you away, and the ease ought to entice you. Not only is this meal truly simple, the fish and the whole wheat pasta makes it feel like a really good decision. I hope you decide to try it. And don’t worry about blaming your tools if the smoke-alarm sounds. Consider perhaps, that the alarm is just raucously joining in the applause to your efforts.

Salmon with Whole Wheat Pasta and Spinach

1 pound whole-wheat spaghetti
1 clove garlic, minced
extra-virgin olive oil
6 (4 oz.) pieces salmon
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
capers
1 lemon, zested
Juice of one lemon
2 cups fresh baby spinach leaves
Salt and paper, to taste

Warm a couple of tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Season the salmon with salt and pepper and add the fish to the pan once it is warm. Cook on both sides for about 2 minutes (try not to move the fish during these two minutes, so that a nice crust can form). Remove from the pan.

Meanwhile bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add a handful of salt and the pasta. Cook pasta until tender, about 8-10 minutes. Drain pasta and transfer to a large bowl. Add to the pasta the garlic, olive oil, salt, and pepper.

Prepare plates by placing a handful of spinach leaves on each. Just before serving add the basil, lemon zest, and lemon juice to the pasta. Top the spinach with the hot pasta, and the leaves will wilt slightly. Top the pasta with the salmon. Garnish with more basil as you like. Enjoy!

feeling fancy en français: Luxury Dinner Party

My sophomore year dorm room had all the usual, truly essential ornaments that a dorm room should. Stacks of important romantic comedies on DVD, jars of peanut butter, closets always open for swapping, and coffee ever at the ready. A large orange Halloween bowl, constantly filled to the brim with assorted chocolate candy lay perched on my roommates’ refrigerator, always at the ready for…well…all sorts of reasons that girls need chocolate.

Late one fateful February night, I slinked into the door as composed as I could. My three dear roommates, sitting round that orange bowl like it was a campfire, looked up at me with inquiring eyes. I had just broken up with my first long-term boyfriend in the hallway, I explained. Honey, you need some chocolate, they retorted. I obliged. Diving into the candy as I nestled into our futon, we laughed off occasional male stupidity, confidently declared tomorrow would be a better day, and I felt so darn lucky to call these people my friends. And, in fact, that bowl of chocolate continued to serve us well that year as we all faced heartbreak, losses, and triumphs together, all while trying to figure out just who we were supposed to be. These celebrations and struggles together continue still, marking almost ten years of friendship now. But we decided to graduate to a little more substantial fare this weekend, as one cannot live on chocolate alone. (Champagne is necessary as well).

When I began planning the menu for Project Food Blog’s Challenge #3 – Luxury Dinner Party, I was concerned that my choice of main course – Coq au Vin – was too rustic or pastoral to fit into the category of the luxurious. But, you know what I decided? Home feels much more luxurious to me than I’d ever want to feel. And having the kind of family and friends who make you want to call them home is gosh darn fancy indeed. Luxury is comfort. And there seems no better comfort than a meal with the kind of people who just know when you need a bit of chocolate. So these were the people, without question, included on the guest list for a French-inspired dinner party.

I chose French because there is something fancy and beautifully elusive to me about French haute cuisine and classic French culinary techniques. And yet all of the dishes I made, from the Carrot Confiture to the Lavender Crème Brûlée, were made simply and from simple ingredients. Plus, as a bunch that really enjoys champagne, there seemed to be no better lines to cross than the Brut-soaked borders of France.

I did all of my grocery shopping the day before, but only because I was positive I would find everything on my list. No problem. That’s the great part about using simple ingredients.

But then I couldn’t find culinary-grade lavender for the Lavender Crème Brûlée, and I was forced to head out the day of the dinner to find it. Let that be a lesson to you for keeping your stress level down, if you’re into that kind of thing. Though I actually quite enjoyed having that sense of purpose when I woke up. I’ve got to find that lavender, I told myself. I did, and one whiff of its aroma and taste of its spice were enough to convince me to never be without it again.

I did a little prep work the night before, assembling the Fig and Olive Tapenade, so I had time to spare. This is something really quite important for taste as well as time management. The flavors blend together in the refrigerator overnight in the most irresistible of ways. It is a melding process that should not be missed.

Early in the day I began making the appetizers. First up was the Carrot Confiture, whose glassy, candy-like sweetness spreads deliciously well on a crusty bread of your choice. And though it appears fancy, it’s a real cinch to make.

Then a decorated wheel of brie – dried currants, fresh dill, poppy seeds, and slivered almonds – made for a fast, yet gorgeous nibbler for guests to pair with their first glass of wine.

And, finally, a Caramelized Onion and Gruyere Tart. The buttery cornmeal pastry might look intimidating at first, but a few whirls of cornmeal and flour in the food processor, some time in the refrigerator, a quick bake in the oven and it’s set to go. Add the gruyere on the bottom, top with caramelized onions and after a 10-minute quick bake, the cheese is now gorgeously melted and melded with the slightly sweet caramelized onions.

Also early in the day, I made the custard for the Lavender Crème Brûlée in order to bake and let cool in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours. This is a great dessert to make since you can do most of the work long before (even a day before) and still serve the dessert hot immediately after caramelizing the sugar on top either with a kitchen torch or under the broiler.

Coq au Vin, paired with Tomatoes Provençal and Green Beans Amande served as the main course. As with anything simmered in wine, the chicken was wonderfully flavorful and tenderly fell away from the bone on its own. The tomatoes and green beans add color and freshness to complete the plate.

A few bottles of champagne and wine later, we moved outside to enjoy our crème brûlée. As the cool wind blew, it felt as if we were single-handedly ushering in fall. And, reminiscent of those nights in college spent around the chocolate bowl, we sat hovered around our lavender crème brûlée, agreeing that we ought to start up a committee in order to instruct people in the best way to live this life. We, of course, will be the chairpersons. Why couldn’t we, ever so humbly, solve the world’s problems? In addition to our decrees ensuring champagne and chocolate for everyone, we would strive to make known the luxurious comforts of home. Making for a joyful look into the people and places in which you find comfort, and celebrating it all in the luxury of good food.

I was honored to share the night with such wonderful people, and I thank each of them – Bridget, Julie, Megan, Jason, and Jim – for not only attending, but also helping with a speedy cleanup, too.

*Recipes to follow in later posts.

Bolivian Silpancho

Voting in Project Food Blog for this post begins September 27. Please head over here to place your vote. I will also post a direct link on the 27th.

As you may recall from an earlier post, one of my favorite things about food is the way it gingerly invites me to pack my bags and travel to its land of origin.

So when Project Food Blog Challenge #2 called for an exploration of a classic dish from a culture unfamiliar, I immediately turned to a conversation I had with my friend, Jim, who recently returned from a five-month stay in Bolivia. I, of course, took interest in the food there and he regaled me with a story of Bolivian Silpancho. And he kindly agreed to help me envision the final product, holding me to a high standard of authenticity as I attempted to recreate it. I must thank him for being the potato peeler, egg fryer, dish dryer, and all around pleasant kitchen comrade.

I use ‘comrade’ deliberately, a term that has historically been dragged through the dirt of many a political movement, absorbing dusty particles of connotation that might as well speak to the style of this dish. For Silpancho is a staple in Bolivia, in contrast to its somewhat tumultuous political instability. Jim would like you to know that this dish is, essentially, utilitarian in nature. Though I might try to infuse it with romance and dreams of a trip to this country flanked by the gorgeous Andes Mountains, such ethereal travel will most likely be interrupted by corrupt visa acquisition and my highly imperfect Spanish language skills. But Silpancho will do its job, giving you the energy you need to survive any of it. And boy does that sound like the kind of adventure I’d like to take.

But, then again, this is why I loved making this dish in my very own kitchen. Nothing there could stop me from a Bolivian excursion. And, in fact, I think the product was – if just a little bit – beautiful.

Now, Jim is the kind of guy who infuses conversations with the sort of unassuming educational tone that gives you so much knowledge, but does so without your feeling like a freshman in a lecture hall. So it was no surprise to me that about 3 minutes in to our cooking endeavor, I already learned of the astounding 3,000 potato varietals housed within the borders of Bolivia alone. I settled on these adorable little Yukon Golds.

Potatoes and rice form the foundation for the Silpancho, something you can easily compare to chicken fried steak. And I looked to this recipe from Saveur magazine for Patatas Bravas. These fried potatoes are crunchy on the outside, flavorful on the inside, and line your plate like golden medallions as if you’ve won some sort of price at the state fair. And, really, I’m sure this meal probably would.

A stacked layer of fried food items – fried potatoes, fried meat, fried egg – and there’s really no room for complaining, at least from anyone I know.

The bread crumbs rolled into the ground meat as you flatten it (I used lamb) into disks “the thinness of a crêpe” provide this light, crunchy texture that the yolk of the egg and the creamy rice soften just enough.

The Patatas Bravas call for a brava sauce to be served alongside. The sauce draws its spice from a serrano chile, and is a pleasant surprise when it peeks out from beneath the fried egg. My vision was to create an eggs-in-purgatory-esque top layer. It just seems such a shame to ever leave Italian influence completely behind. So I placed the sauce on top of the lamb, then allowed the egg to rest in its limbo of tomato and spice.

It is important, Jim tells me, to build a perfect bite when eating Silpancho. The parts of the meal are nothing on their own. A lot like all of us, I imagine. But together – the potatoes, rice, lamb, spicy brava sauce, and fried egg – form this creamy, little bit spicy, surprisingly delicious, yet unwavering utilitarian meal. It hits all its bases. And that’s not a bad thing in the slightest.

Care to pack your bags? Vamos.

Patatas Bravas
From Saveur magazine, here.

Bolivian Silpancho (serves 4)
Adapted from Lindsey Sterling and found here.

1 c. white rice
1 small green pepper, diced.
4 yukon gold potatoes (made into Patatas Bravas)
1lb. ground lamb
salt
pepper
3/4 cup breadcrumbs

Cook rice in boiling water. Set aside.

Massage salt and pepper into lamb with hands. Separate ground lamb into 4 balls. Put the breadcrumbs in a pile on a cutting board. Flatten each ball and press both sides into breadcrumbs. Roll with a rolling pin on top of breadcrumbs. Flip over patty and roll again. Continue rolling and flipping until the lamb is the thinness of a crêpe. Make a stack of four on a plate.

Drizzle olive oil into saute pan and warm at medium high heat. Cook lamb, one at at time. Flip when brown starts to show through the raw pink. Stack as they’re fully cooked on a fresh plate. At the same time, fry four eggs and leave yolk runny.

Slice Patatas Braves into 1/4 inch rounds and place them around the edge of each plate. Then place a scoop of rice in the center. Put the lamb on top of the rice – the potatoes should be poking out from underneath. Put the brava sauce on top of the lamb, top with diced green pepper, and place the egg on top of the sauce.

Serve with more brava sauce on the side if you like.

sentimental hearts, seasonal goodness, and sentimental eating: creamy cucumber velouté

I wouldn’t say that I’m an expert at convincing people of things. Well, some things at least. For instance when I spent a summer conducting telephone surveys, I had pangs of anxiety each time the phone dialed my next unsuspecting victim, as I would soon be forced to convince them that the purpose of my job was not to waste their time. Other times I can manage to get by, especially if my gentle nudges are set in motion by something I can be passionate about, like food or Italy or music or philosophy. You get the picture.

But since I’ve admitted it, I’ll be clear that I think this post will go a lot more smoothly if I don’t try too hard to convince you that I should be given the chance to progress through the challenges of Foodbuzz’s Project Food Blog (though I do hope you’ll vote for me). Instead I’d just like to show you what this blog and its writer are about through the best way I know how – by way of a story about a delicious meal I had.

She & Him played a gig in my town a couple of weekends ago and while I had looked forward to seeing them live since I first heard their music a couple of summer’s ago, I had no idea how the night would cap off this summer in the way a swanky digestif ends a beautiful meal.

If you haven’t yet heard their music, I really recommend you give it a listen. And that’s all I’ll say in the convincing-you-of-something department. Well, except for my asking how you can ignore a band whose biography looks like this:

“She & Him make music for an eternal springtime, when the temperature is warm enough to go riding with the top (or at least the windows) rolled down and the radio turned up. They occupy an alternate universe where the saddest of songs feel as warm as sun showers; the rain may be coming down, but somewhere nearby, everything looks bright.”

Ah. Just soak in that optimism.

The band played at an outdoor venue, a stand-wherever-you-can-find-a-spot kind of place. Standing on the pavement in front of the stage, you could feel every pluck of the bass and every kick of the bass drum in your chest and in your jaw. And it’s even better than the boom of fireworks you feel in your chest because this resonates through all of you, from the ground up, and not merely from somewhere up in the clouds.

The lyrics and notes are refreshingly upbeat, innocent, and even nostalgic, if I dare say so. The sound is decidedly old fashioned. The kind of pure, good music whose romance would inspire a boy with the good looks of Ryan Gosling to ask me to dance in the street, and whose tambourine interludes would make me swoon in my wonderfully vintage wardrobe. (This is a reference to The Notebook, for any of you out there living under a rock of romantic realism, chosen or otherwise, that shields you from the hopelessly romantic novel-to-film works of Nicholas Sparks).

It’s the optimistic purity of the music that I love so much, similar to the purity that I love to discover in food. The kind of freshness and simplicity that transcends a mere combination of ingredients, but plays like a cohesive, beautiful song on your tongue.

This cold cucumber soup works a lot like this. It makes me feel like I could settle into an eternal springtime, just as long as outdoor summertime concerts settled there as well. Although the way that the words ‘cold’ and ‘soup’ clumsily trip off your tongue does little justice to this dish.

What I made was a version of Josiah Citrin’s Creamy Cucumber Velouté. And it warrants every gorgeous French syllable of that distinction – a vell-oo-tay – which in French literally means, ‘velvety’.

And velvety it is indeed. The ingredients are few and simple to boot, and the presentation is fancy without much credit to your preparation. (Though I absolutely give you permission to accept any praise extended to you as all your own.)

I added a decorative drizzle of crème fraîche atop, just to make it a little extra special, even though it didn’t really need my help. The original recipes calls for this to be served in shot glasses, which I think would be absolutely delicious and elegant. Though I had fewer guests when I served this, I served it up in soup bowls.

You see, I just love the way that a dish like this, or making your grandmother’s famous recipe, or spending a summer holiday with family can carry the kind of emotions that only food can hold.

I hope to continue building a blog that reflects the simplicity and sentimentality of food, and in that effort I am participating in Foodbuzz’s Project Food Blog.

So, why does this blog “have what it takes to become the next food blog star”?

I like to think of this blog as a cocktail party of sorts. It’s one that you can show up to as you are, but gives you the freedom to feel a little bit fancy too. When we meet at the bar, I lead with a little bit about me, and I anticipate that you will lend a little bit about yourself. Hopefully, if all goes as planned and no one has too much wine, we will both come away having become better by knowing one another.
I can’t tear food away from my life, so I experience the joy of food in the anecdotal, the beauty of everyday experiences, and food’s precious ability to bring back old memories and forge on ahead with new ones. And I encourage anyone who stops by here to do the same.

I guess you could say that what defines me as a food blogger, is the sentimental eating that goes on around here.
My favorite She & Him song asks “what can you do with a sentimental heart?”. Oh, the sentimental heart. The kind of heart that unapologetically showboats on the sleeves of people everywhere. And my answer to the question of what do with it?: let it be sentimental, I say. Laugh. Cry. Be joyful. And enjoy it all. I can’t imagine a better way to do that then sharing in it all around the table.

If I’ve convinced you, then please head over to foodbuzz.com to vote for my blog starting September 20, 2010 in the Project Food Blog challenge. The link to my Project Food Blog profile is here.

And just stop over at foodbuzz.com anyway, because there are a lot of fantastic people over there doing a lot of fantastic things with food.

Cheers!

Creamy Cucumber Velouté
Adapted from Food and Wine Magazine, by Josiah Citrin

1 pound cucumbers, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
3/4 cup plan Greek yogurt
1/4 cup water
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Pinch of curry powder
Pinch of cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons crème fraîche, plus more for drizzling
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
1/4 cup heavy cream
16 small mint leaves

In a blender, combine the cucumbers, yogurt, water, lemon juice, curry powder and cayenne and puree until very smooth. Blend in the crème fraîche. Strain the soup through a fine sieve, pressing down on the solids to extract as much liquid as possible. Season the velouté with salt and white pepper and refrigerate until chilled.
In a medium bowl, gently whip the cream. Season with salt and white pepper and chill. Just before serving, stir the velouté and pour it into 8 small glasses or demitasse cups. Garnish each serving with a heaping teaspoon of the whipped cream and 2 mint leaves.

*This can be made one day ahead, and refrigerated overnight.

Greek tomato fritters: don’t let these stay Greek to you

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of meeting new people. It’s a great opportunity to gain new perspectives and also learn more about your own. And, if nothing else, you’re closer to getting to know someone who might know someone who knows Kevin Bacon.

But there is just one thing I don’t look forward to in the getting-to-know-you-stages of life, and that’s the question that inevitably comes tucked in somewhere between the introductory handshake, the hurried exchange of names and hellos, and the uncertainty of where to go from here. It’s the, … so…what do you do for fun? question.

I have no idea how to answer this.

For instance, let’s say this question arises on a date. What do I say to him? ‘I really like to eat. But I take pictures of most things before I eat them. And then I post it all on a blog, complete with a conversational tone, as if I’m convinced of a friendship with passerbys in the ether. Oh, hey, and if you stick around long enough, I’ll write about you and what you eat, too.’
I don’t think so.

So I usually come up with something that sounds like a mumbled knot of weak passions, and even I begin to wonder if I know myself at all. What do I do with my time?

Well, lately I’ve been reading up a bit on the ways that different cultures look at things like health and well-being (also a great lead on a date). When it comes to eating, I have a penchant for the Mediterranean, mainly because a scene there would probably look like me somewhere in Italy with a glass of red wine in one hand and a jar of Nutella in the other. But, then again, the unrestrained consumption of chocolate-hazelnut spread might interfere with all the things that attract me to the Mediterranean’s healthful style of eating lots of fruits and vegetables, grains, and fish from the nearby blue.

So I went in search of a recipe that would also put to good use the ingredients that are fresh to me now. Santorini’s famous tomato fritters, more formally referred to as Domatokeftedes, incorporate perfectly all the tomatoes and herbs overflowing from late-summer backyard gardens.

And let me tell you, I am absolutely shocked by how good these are.

I’m shocked that I’ve been on this earth this long without having tasted the slightly crunchy texture, the understated but powerful herby tone, and the delectable package size of these little tomato patties. And I’m shocked to admit that I’d swap a stack of these for that jar of Nutella in my Mediterranean dreams in a heartbeat. But I would. I’d keep the wine, of course.

I found a couple of different recipes for these. Most came from travelers who had had their first taste on a trip to Santorini, and were doing their best to bring a little delicious piece of Greece back home with them. Following their suggestions, and a couple of more formal recipes like this one and this one, I ended up with the recipe you’ll find below.

Besides being one of the most artful ways I’ve found to use your garden plenty, these tomato fritters are the kind of thing that force me to seriously consider how plausible it might be to catch the next flight to Greece. In case you’re interested, I could well be on my way by this afternoon at 1:48pm.

So I guess maybe what I do for fun, is dream about going places. And not only in the way that I dream of that flight leaving for Athens just before 2:00pm, but also in the way that what I do right here in my world can lead me to anywhere I want to go. What I love about food is that it has a real knack for coordinating mini-trips across the globe. So if you feel like exploring a bit, I think you better give these a try. I dare you not fall in love with them.

Domatokeftedes
AKA Greek Tomato Fritters

4 ripe tomatoes
Handful of cherry/grape tomatoes
½ medium onion
½ cup parsley, chopped finely
½ cup basil, chopped finely
2 cloves garlic, chopped finely
1 teaspoon dried oregano
Salt
Pepper
1 ½ cups flour mixed with 1 ½ tsp. baking powder
Canola oil, for frying

In a large bowl, mix the tomatoes, onion, parsley, basil, garlic, oregano, salt and pepper together in a large bowl.

In a separate bowl, mix the flour and baking powder together well, then stir into the tomato mixture to make a batter that will hold its shape. Add a little water if too thick, a little more flour if too thin.

Heat about ½ inch of canola oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Shape two tablespoons worth of tomato mixture into a round in your hand, flatten, and slide into the oil. Fry until golden brown on each side, about 1-2 minutes each side. Drain on paper towels and repeat with the remainder of the batter. Serve hot or at room temperature.

honey-cumin mascarpone lamb burgers

Until about five years ago, the closest I had come to eating lamb was the lamb-shaped butter I insisted on inviting to Easter dinner every year. Actually, insisted isn’t strong enough. For me it has always been, and still remains, a stringent requirement. Without it I would throw up my jelly-bean-stained hands in dramatic disbelief, exclaiming that I couldn’t have done anything so wrong to warrant this.

I was actually paid to take my first taste of lamb. I’d love to regale you with an impressive story, but really it was part of the training protocol at the bussing job I took at a fine-dining restaurant during high school. We had to taste everything on the menu (bummer, right?), which meant I fell in love with meats of every luxurious cut, Caesar salads, champagne-infused Brie, lobster tails, and lamb chops.

But even before that, the only Lamb Chop I had come to know was Shari Lewis’ hilarious creation. With an infectious laugh and a Brooklynesque accent, Lamb Chop brightened my Sunday mornings with knock-knock jokes, the song that never ended, and customary PBS life lessons (like this one, about the importance of being independent). Does anyone else remember this show?

I’ve recently been hearing a lot of good things about lamb, and I’ve been increasingly interested in the prospect of it making it to my table at home. So I made up a little bit of my own concoction with the help of this recipe.

I began by making the Honey-Cumin Mascarpone sauce, whose original recipe presents itself as a dipping sauce for lamb chops.

But for these lamb burgers, I decided to use the sauce more like one might use a mayonnaise. So I mixed a bit of the mascarpone into the ground lamb before forming them into patties. The chopped mint leaves remain a visible clue to the goodness that is to be found inside.

I think what is most surprising is how well and deliciously the cumin just shines when you bite into these.

I much prefer a more rustic bread with my burgers, so I like to add a drizzle of olive oil to some ciabatta and toss it on the grill just long enough for subtle grill marks to appear.

Now, I sometimes doubt the honesty of my family. It’s not that they’re not trustworthy people. It’s just that there’s no way that every joke I relayed to them from my Sunday morning with Lamb Chop warranted the laughs they gave me. And there’s no way that I delivered them with enough comic timing to leave them wanting more. But they always humored me, and continue to do so still today.

I don’t think they were merely appeasing me when they told me they liked these lamb burgers, though. You can always tell when people take seconds. So, I invite you to give these a try. I really don’t think you’ll be disappointed. And that’s no joke.

Honey-Cumin Mascarpone Lamb Burgers
With the help of this recipe, from Food Network.

For the Sauce:
1/2 cup creme fraiche
2 tablespoons honey
3/4 tablespoon ground cumin
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint leaves
1/2 cup mascarpone cheese, at room temperature
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a small bowl, combine the creme fraiche, honey, cumin, and mint. Add the mascarpone cheese and stir until just combined. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.

For the lamb burgers:
1 pound ground lamb
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 ciabatta buns
2 tablespoons olive oil

Heat the grill to medium-high heat.
Begin by adding 1/4 cup of the honey-cumin mascarpone sauce to the ground lamb and mix. Add more as you like. Don’t worry too much about the mixture becoming too wet, it will make for a moist burger. Form into patties and grill to desired temperature.

Drizzle the ciabatta buns with olive oil and grill for one minute, or until grill marks have formed. Spread the remaining honey-cumin mascarpone sauce on the buns, top with your choice of green, and add the lamb burgers.

Enjoy!

quinoa and The Parsley Monster: spice-grilled shrimp and pistou

‘Quinoa’ is one of those words I just cannot seem to pronounce. Flanked by a different number of syllables each time, I whispered the word to myself as I was skimming the aisles of the grocery store and hoping that some ‘helpful smile on every aisle’ wouldn’t see my dazed look and ask me if there was something they could help me find. Thank goodness I found it in time on my own. I left there like a bandit, never having had to reveal out loud why I was there.

Luckily the quinoa I bought shouted from its package that the proper pronunciation is “keen wa.” So for anyone out there who has never tried this rustic, ancient grain, don’t be intimidated if you have to ask directions when you’re navigating the market aisles. Because, let me tell you, it is well worth the search.

My version of John Currence’s Quinoa with Spice-Roasted Shrimp and Pistou was my first encounter with the grain. (I’ve found that there is actually an organization, Quinoa Corporation, whose website offers a wealth of information such as the history of the grain and its nutritional digits.) And it was a delightful one, I have to admit.

You see, lately I’ve noticed within myself this serious streak of wanting to try new things. Until recently, I’ve only ever wanted to make Italian food. (Probably because I can semi-pronounce most of the words.) I think this wave of newness rides closely on the heels of the somewhat sobering – but also very enlightening – realization that hmm, maybe we don’t know exactly what we want every part of our life to look like. Which is okay, really, because I guess its better to live in the moment than look towards things I can’t be sure of.

But I do so love to plan for tomorrow. Mainly because that’s where dreams live. Not to mention that one thing I can see for certain: my leftover quinoa and pistou sitting in the staff lounge refrigerator, playing it cool until sometime around noon when I invite it back to my desk to keep me company.

I started off by deveining the ½ lb. of shrimp. It’s not the most exciting ten (feels like twenty) minutes of your life, but it does make you feel a certain level of profound involvement with your meal that you might not have found with frozen shrimp.

Once the shrimp is prepared, you assemble a tour de force of a spice mixture, contain its gorgeous scent within the walls of a resealable bag, and let the shrimp sit in this room temperature bath of Spanish paprika, oregano, thyme, garlic, and fennel for 30 minutes.

The original recipe directs the shrimp into the oven for a bit of roasting after this short marinade, but I opted to keep the heat outside during what seems like the heat-wave-to-end-all-heat-waves. So I filed the shrimp onto skewers and grilled them for about 10 minutes.

It’s cute, almost, the way the shrimp, now reddened from their dip in spice, line up on the skewers – standing at attention to the Spanish paprika as if it were some kind of General.

But it’s true, in a way, the spice mixture really does lead this meal. It’s an exquisite blend, and one I wouldn’t have thought to craft myself. The way the chopped fennel seeds retain a bit of their shape and hug the shrimp throughout the process only adds to the rustic, herby feel of the whole thing.

Which brings me to the pistou. Now, from what I can gather, a pistou is much like a pesto other than the fact that it does not contain pine nuts. What really stands out, and makes up for this otherwise costly omission, is the addition of several fresh herbs: rosemary, thyme, and parsley.

The parsley, I thought, should be no problem. Growing in my backyard, I looked forward to the opportunity to pluck and enjoy. Until I ran into this guy:

We’ll call him, TPM (The Parsley Monster). If you know his real name, please let me know.

I’m not going to lie to you, TPM creeps me out. He shouldn’t. He’s adorable, really. Look at those vibrant colors. But I didn’t want to bother him (read: didn’t want him to bother me), and I thought seriously about making a trip to the store for the whopping 2 tablespoons of called-for-parsley. But then a certain voice of reason stepped in and said to me, “You don’t think there’s ever been a bug on the herbs you’ve bought at the store?” To which I respond with a hopeful, “No.” No, I don’t think about that.

Anyway, the combination of herbs makes for a fresh taste that pairs especially well with the near-oatness taste of the quinoa. And the original recipe’s measurements are perfect. I was worried a bit at first when the pistou didn’t fill much of the food processor, but I found that all you need from the pistou is a gracious spotting. Be sure to use a fork to fluff up the quinoa after it’s finished simmering, and the herby mixture will float among it seamlessly.

Then cut the shrimp in half, at least, to top it all off. I love the colors of it all.

It’s a light but filling summertime meal, as well as a great opportunity to pay some attention to the herbs in your garden (and its residents, apparently).

Quinoa with Spice-Grilled Shrimp and Pistou
Adapted slightly from John Currence’s September 2010 recipe in Food and Wine magazine.

1/2 pound medium shrimp, shelled and deveined
1 garlic glove, minced
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds, chopped
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup basil leaves
2 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary leaves
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
1 garlic glove, smashed
2 tablespoons grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1 1/2 cups quinoa, rinsed
2 1/4 cups water

In a resealable plastic bag, toss the shrimp with the garlic, paprika, oregano, fennel seeds, dried thyme, 1 tablespoon of the oil and 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper until coated. Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes.

Heat the grill to medium or medium-high heat. In a food processor, pulse the basil, parsley, rosemary, thyme leaves, garlic and cheese. Add 2 tablespoons of the olive oil; puree until smooth. Season with salt and pepper.

In a saucepan, combine the quinoa, water, and the remaining 1 tablespoon of canola oil. Season lightly with salt and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer over low heat until the quinoa is tender, about 15 minutes.

Grill the shrimp for about 10 minutes. Cut the shrimp into thirds and add to the quinoa and the pistou. Toss well, season with salt and pepper and serve.

remembering grandma in her cinnamon rolls

I don’t know that I could ever consider myself a baker. Mainly because I don’t keep bakers’ hours.

(Also, I only just recently learned that a baker’s dozen is actually thirteen. And while I’ve looked into it, I still haven’t found a worthy explanation for why exactly this is the case.)

Though I do quite enjoy the act of baking. And I certainly adore its results. It’s just that I won’t wake up at 4:00am unless it’s for something especially exciting, like catching an early flight or leaving on a road trip or to answer the door for balloons and a big giant check. Even then I’d probably be groggy and not easy to handle.

And while I was dragging still at 9:00am this Saturday, I began the process – which I have formerly underestimated – of making my grandma’s cinnamon rolls. At first, it didn’t look like it was going well. In my early morning stupor, I dropped everything I touched and couldn’t for the life of me open this can of evaporated milk.

I felt a little bit like a civilized criminal. Like I was being forced to siphon the last drops of available evaporated milk following a tragic dairy spill.

My grandma’s “Twisters”, as she called them, woke her several early weekend mornings before the sun had risen – probably just a few short hours after the rest of us had gone to sleep – so that she could pass them out to anyone and everyone who might stop by. You see, she was much more of a baker than I’ll ever be.

She was a woman of preparation and presentation, there’s no doubt about that. A lot like these cinnamon rolls, she took a lot of time to make you feel special. (The rolls take a collective 3 hours to rise). A meal at her house began hours before you arrived, and her years of restaurant experience manifested itself in flawless fine dining tabletop aesthetics, no matter the occasion.

And I really mean it when I say she was prepared for everything. The moment a dark cloud formed in the sky, she set her flashlight by the stairs to her basement in case the need for shelter suddenly arose. She knit a blanket to give to each of her grandchildren for their wedding long before they had even met their significant other, and stowed them in her closet for the later date. And a week before that later date, she would begin baking cakes which she would one day prior cover in white frosting and situate into a multi-tiered, bride-and-groom-topped masterpiece.

But most heartwarmingly to me, she placed a strip of masking tape under nearly every item in her home, directing those things to their new homes after she was gone. Holidays at her house were often spent jokingly looking under lamps, tables, and other keepsakes, finding out who got what. I say ‘jokingly’, because all any of us ever really hoped for was her. A piece of her to carry with us. And things aren’t always perfect at accomplishing this.

But because she had chosen so thoughtfully what each person should have, I get this feeling that these things will remain things no longer. They will now forever be a piece of her. Take this bowl, for instance. This bowl that is at least fifty years old:

I found my name on masking tape beneath this bowl (as well as a ceramic turkey napkin holder, but I’ll put that on hold until Thanksgiving) and put it to use for the first time this weekend, just as grandma did, making her cinnamon rolls.

I really didn’t want to disappoint her legacy, or my family, by falling short on this baking endeavor, so I took the piece of her that came with this bowl and crossed my fingers. Since I spent many days over at her house when I was growing up, I had helped make these cinnamon rolls before. But I had never seen the kneading and rising process. That part had happened long before I had even thought about greeting the day. Once you’ve mixed the butter, milk, eggs, sugar, and flour in the bowl, you continue adding flour until the dough is no longer sticky. And I now know why we spent summer mornings trimming coupons for flour. I estimate it takes between 8-10 cups of flour in the end.

And it’s so worth it, because the dough becomes this pillow of a thing, rising to meet you after you’ve left it sit for any amount of time. Once you’ve allowed it to rise the first round, for one hour, it nearly explodes out of the bowl. So you punch it down, and then help it back up again by letting it rest for another hour. It’s amazing to me how dough has a mind of its own.

Finally rolling out the dough is gratifying either because its such smooth dough to work with, or because you’ve been waiting at least two hours to get your hands on it.

It was a little bit like riding a bike once I got to the part that I remember. Rolling out the dough, cutting into strips, twisting and dipping in melted butter and then brown sugar and cinnamon.

And it all just smelled a lot like, well, grandma.

In the end they turned out a lot like I remember, actually. Though they did rise up a bit over the sides of the pans, while hers seemed pristinely manufactured with perfect edges and uniform shape.

But I’m not perfect. And if there’s one thing she taught me with the utmost tenderness, it’s that being imperfect is perfectly fine.

Because just like stepping into her house, recognizing from the scent in the air that cinnamon rolls had been in the works since early that morning, things (and food, especially) are much more about what you recognize within them than how perfectly they might appear.

So maybe I’ll never be a baker. But I’ll remember her every time I make her cinnamon rolls.