Monday, December 22, 2014

This is a Test: Spinach and White Bean Stew

I'm testing recipes for my forthcoming book, Red Velvet Underground: A Memoir with Recipes, and today was the perfect day to test Spinach and White Bean Stew, a garlicky, nourishing meal-in-a-bowl, the perfect lunch at home. Try it! And let me know how it turns out...

Spinach and White Bean Stew

This dish is rich and flavorful, as if you worked on it for hours, but it comes together in 15 minutes thanks to the use of canned beans and pre-washed baby spinach. This was a great recipe to teach to my teenage son—it’s foolproof and satisfying! It is one of my favorite winter lunches or quick suppers. Serve with a good-quality baguette or hunk of bread.

Yield: 3-4 Servings

4 tablespoons olive oil (plus more, optional, to drizzle on top)
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
3 cans small white beans, drained
1 scant tablespoon dried thyme
2 cups water
½ lb. bag pre-washed baby spinach or baby kale
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (plus more, optional, to sprinkle on top)

1. Warm olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add garlic and cook one minute, stirring constantly.

2. Add beans, thyme and water, bring to a gentle boil, reduce heat, and simmer uncovered ten minutes.

3. Add spinach in big handfuls, stirring to incorporate and wilt.

4. Add salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes. Taste and adjust seasoning.

5. Let soup sit and cool off for a few minutes to allow flavors to meld. Serve with optional olive oil and red pepper flakes on top.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

I'm on Fire: Chickpeas and Chorizo

If it's grey and cloudy in your head AND in the sky, you might want to try this dish, guaranteed to burn those clouds away. The ones in your head, anyway.

Chickpeas and Chorizo is inspired by my recent interview with Chuck Prophet (read it here), in which he shares his version of this Spanish dish. Chuck's recipe is beautifully bare-bones, and totally rock and roll, but I wanted something richer and more complex, and here's what I came up with. The combination of spicy sausage (vegetarian "chorizo" works perfectly, vegetarians), hot paprika, and crushed red pepper is intense, but offset nicely by the creamy mouthfeel of the sauce. We served the leftovers for breakfast with a fried egg on top and it was a revelation. 

Chickpeas and Chorizo
Serves 4

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, finely diced
2 stalks celery, finely diced
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
½ cup dry sherry or dry white wine
14.5-ounce can fire roasted tomatoes
3 or 4 Spanish chorizo sausages, cut into large bite-sized pieces (vegetarian chorizo works great, I tried it)
2 15-ounce cans chickpeas, drained
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
¼ teaspoon hot smoked paprika, optional
Large handful parsley, coarsely chopped

Warm olive oil in a large, heavy pot. Add onions and celery, stir until they sizzle, then reduce heat to medium-low for ten minutes. Add garlic and stir well. Partially cover, and cook at least ten more minutes, until onions are golden brown and very soft.

Add crushed red pepper, sherry, and tomatoes and bring up to a strong simmer for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Optional: After simmering, blend mixture until smooth and return to pot. Skip this if you prefer, but I recommend it—blending results in a wonderful color and texture.

Add chorizo, chickpeas, salt, pepper, and paprika (if using vegetarian sausage, wait and add after 30 minutes). Bring to a low simmer and cook partially covered for 45 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning (maybe a little more paprika?). Stir in parsley and serve. Cry and sweat. It's good for you.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

How Sweet It Is: Apple Butter

OK Autumn, I resisted, but you got me; I am beguiled. You've become a sweet taste in my mouth, now. You wooed me with golden light, blazing trees, and crunchy carpets of leaves, and closed it with apple butter: Honeycrisps cooked for hours and hours with cider and cinnamon, transformed into a spoonful of heaven on earth.

Apple Butter
(A grateful nod to Martha Stewart)

2 tablespoons coconut oil (or unsalted butter)
7 medium apples, peeled, cored, and quartered
2 1/2 cups apple cider
small pinch salt
2 tablespoons ume vinegar (or lemon juice, but ume vinegar is divine!)
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Preheat oven to 250.

Melt coconut oil in a dutch oven or big pot, add apples and stir over medium heat for five minutes.

Add cider and salt, bring to a boil, simmer 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Allow mixture to cool a little. Add ume vinegar or lemon juice and cinnamon. Blend using handheld blender or regular blender.

Spread into a large baking dish and bake 4 hours.

Turn oven off (don't open the door) and let apple butter sit overnight, or at least a few hours. The alchemy will happen; it will darken and thicken and become concentrated and sweet. Wait for it.

Keeps in a sealed container in the fridge for several days, but it will not last that long so don't worry about it.

Apple butter is amazing with biscuits. I was too slow to take a "before" picture.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

It's Over: Summer's End Succotash

Today is the first full day of autumn and the first day of classes at the esteemed institution where I'm lucky enough to work. I usually welcome this back-to-school season and leap right into jacket weather, a box of new pencils in my pocket. But some years I feel autumn for what it really is; a wrackful effing siege. Goodbye sun, farewell beach, hello darkness my old friend.

But this is a blog about food, not death, and now is a spectacular time of year for food, I'll give you that. I'll give you this too: a recipe perfectly suited for saying goodbye to summer, whether it was the best one of your life or the hardest one of your life, or a particularly exquisite combination of the two.

Summer's End Succotash
Serves 8

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, minced very finely
1 clove garlic, minced
1 or more jalapeƱo (or other) pepper, minced
1 sweet pepper, chopped
1 cup okra, chopped
1 cup green beans, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 pound summer squash, cut into 1-inch chunks
1 teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons water
2 teaspoons fresh sage, minced
4 ears of corn, kernels cut from cobs

Heat oil and cook onion with a tiny pinch of salt over medium-low heat for at least ten minutes.

Add all the rest of the ingredients except corn, bring to a boil, reduce to simmer covered for ten minutes.

Add corn, stir well, cook ten minutes more, covered and undisturbed.

Serve immediately. Garnish with more sage if you want. Maybe the fall will be okay after all.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Summer Fruit Crisp: When the Living is Lazy

When the berries are perfect but you're too lazy to make pie, make berry crisp.

When you're too lazy to write a real blog post, post an easy recipe for berry crisp that you've tested a  bunch of times and always turns out crazy good.

Berry Crisp (Vegan)
Serves 6-8

1 cup oats, divided
1/3 cup flour
1/4 cup brown sugar or coconut sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup coconut oil, melted

8 cups berries
3/4 cup sugar (haven't tried coconut sugar in the filling - would that work?)
2 Tbsp. cornstarch
Grated zest of 1 lemon
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
Big pinch salt

Preheat oven to 375.

Prepare topping: Combine 3/4 cup of oats, flour, sugar, salt, and coconut oil in a medium bowl and stir with a fork to combine. Use your fingers to work in remaining 1/4 cup oats.

Prepare filling: Mix everything together and spread in a baking dish.

Scatter topping over fruit mixture and bake until topping is brown, at least 60 minutes. Maybe 70.

Cool one hour before serving.

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Pie Who Loved Me: Perfect Blueberry Pie

Sorry about the title of this post. But I have had two intense emotional experiences with this particular blueberry pie and therefore feel entitled to my goofy, grammatically nonsensical pun, okay?

The first was at its place of origin, The Grit in Athens, Georgia. I was on tour, feeling homesick and fragile, and a slice of this pie moved me to tears. I don't know if it was the crying or the eating that helped, all I know is I cleaned my plate and was happier, and since then I have attributed therapeutic powers to The Grit's blueberry pie. I acquired the recipe years ago, but haven't turned to it until this summer, on a tough weekend when I felt too down to do much of anything. Once again, the pie did not disappoint.

I guess that any absorbing activity, anything that takes your focus out of your bad brain, can assuage a bout of the blues. The specific advantages of making perfect blueberry pie are: 1) there is a fair amount of booze involved, and 2) the activity concludes with YOU EATING PIE. Which in itself makes everything at least a little bit better.

Perfect Blueberry Pie
Adapted from a recipe in The Grit Restaurant Cookbook  

Pie Crust for double-crust pie (we use the Cook’s Illustrated recipe for vodka piecrust and it turns out great every time)
2 tablespoons cornstarch
Juice and zest of 1 medium lemon
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 teaspoons brandy
4 -1/2 cups fresh blueberries
¾ cup sugar
2 tablespoons butter, chopped into small pieces
1 heaping tablespoon sour cream
1 tablespoon flour
¼ teaspoon cinnamon

Preheat oven to 450. Line a deep pie pan with ½ of pie crust.

Combine cornstarch, lemon juice, lemon zest, vanilla, and brandy and mix well. Add blueberries, sugar, butter, sour cream, flour and cinnamon and gently stir until combined. Pour into pie crust and cover with top crust.

Place pie on a large cookie sheet (Very important! This is a very juicy pie that will explode all over your oven!).

Bake at 450 for ten minutes, then reduce heat to 350. Bake an additional 50-55 minutes until golden and bubbling.

Cool completely at room temperature and then refrigerate until tomorrow, if you can stand to wait. Your patience will be rewarded. 

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Alone in the Kitchen with Some Okra: Grits with Spicy Greens Gumbo (Vegan)

Today ends a two-week stretch of much alone time and many quiet meals. My partner has been in Germany, my oldest kid wrapped up in his new adult life, my youngest occupied with a summer internship. Nobody has been saying, "what's for dinner?" Have I missed hearing this question? It's complicated.

Tonight my family will reunite around the dinner table and I am truly looking forward to it. But last night I treated myself to one final solo meal, my dream dinner: grits topped with spicy greens gumbo. Nobody in my family but me could enjoy this dish - Henry hates onions, Jake's not fond of okra, Jonah won't eat grits. But it made me sigh happily and contentedly into my big empty apartment.

The inspiration for this meal came from the tiny handful of gorgeous okra pictured above, all that remained by the time my lazy ass rolled into the Evanston Farmers Market on Saturday morning. I wouldn't have even bothered buying such a small amount if I'd had a group to feed, but it was just enough for me, just enough to elevate an otherwise plain pot of greens into an indulgent and memorable meal.

Grits with Spicy Greens Gumbo
Serves 1. Very generously. You're worth it.

1/2 cup grits
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, sliced thinly
1 big bunch of greens (kale or whatever - or use a mixture)
Okra (3 or 4, or more if they're tiny like mine)
2 tablespoons flour
1/4 cup or so of greens cooking liquid (see below)
1/2 teaspoon salt
Crushed red pepper flakes

Cook grits in 1.5 cups of water with a big pinch of salt.

Heat oil in a very big skillet, add onions with a pinch of salt. When onions sizzle, reduce heat to medium-low and cook for as long as you possibly can until onions are incredibly tender and sweet and golden. 15 minutes, minimum. Don't let them brown.

Meanwhile, put washed, un-chopped greens and okra in a big pot, cover with water, and bring to a boil. Boil 5 minutes, drain but RESERVE COOKING WATER and set vegetables aside to cool a bit.

Give your onions a stir. Check on your grits. Do whatever you want: drum along to some disco songs really loud, anything, you've got the place to yourself.

Chop greens and okra very fine. Remove stems from greens only if they are big and tough.

How are your onions doing? They should taste amazing. If they don't, cook them a bit more. Don't rush. Don't cheat yourself. When they do taste amazing, add the chopped greens and okra and stir well to combine. Add flour and stir until flour is fully incorporated and smells a little nutty, probably a minute or so. Add greens cooking liquid and increase heat to bring mixture to a simmer. Add salt and crushed red pepper.

Allow gumbo to simmer covered for ten minutes (check and add more greens cooking liquid if you need to) or until greens are very tender and melt in your mouth. Your teeth should meet no resistance here.

Serve on top of grits, garnished with more red pepper flakes.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Everything's Coming Up Lemon Bars

Lemon bars divide people into those who think, 'they're fine, whatever, what's the big deal,' and those who think they're everything in the world. I fall into the latter camp. Big time.

It is surprising then, that I've never perfected a lemon bar recipe, have never had much luck making them myself. And most bakery versions are deeply disappointing. So I don't eat lemon bars very often. But I always want to.

This longing of mine filtered into a weird short story I wrote a few years ago, "And the Lemon Bar Stared Back at Me," whose protagonist is seduced, you might say, by an extremely good lemon bar. When it was published by the lovely online magazine Punchnel's last week (you can read it here), I felt inspired to once and for all make a lemon bar that would satisfy me. I started by gathering together recipes from the most popular and beloved food blogs and websites. I bought a big bag of lemons. A very big bag.

And it didn't go well at all. Four batches in and I did NOT have what I was looking for: too floury, too sugary, oily crust, not enough filling. Ugh. My house smelled great, but it was depressing to throw out all those inferior bars.

Fifth time was the charm. I should have started with Cooks Illustrated; in my experience their recipes are not always exciting, but they are almost always sturdy and reliable, and this lemon bar recipe is completely perfect: worthy of adoration; capable of seduction.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Kale and Pineapple Smoothie

Maybe you've had just a few nips too many lately.

For whatever reason.

Maybe you've been waiting and waiting for news that never will come, or maybe you're pining for some happy day gone by. Maybe you feel like you've been working two jobs (wait, maybe you have been working two jobs) and all-work-no-play is killing your soul. Maybe you wrote the chorus but the verses won't come, maybe your body is exhausted but your brain won't let you sleep, maybe your kid just moved into an apartment and you feel that terrible blend of relieved and shattered.

The reasons don't matter. What matters, for our purposes here, is this: your liver needs some love. It has to filter every drop of that so-called blood of yours.

Try this kale and pineapple smoothie for breakfast. According to my friend who mostly eats raw food and looks annoyingly good, pineapple is full of detoxifying agents that help neutralize toxins in the liver, and leafy greens have lots of chlorophyl which supports the liver and cleans the blood.

By my calculations, one of these smoothies cancels out one of last night's units, so do your own math and figure out how many servings you'll need. Okay I made that up, but I am trying to help.

Kale and Pineapple Smoothie
2 servings

2 cups kale or other greens, or mixture (I like kale, wheatgrass, and a few sprouts)
2 cups chopped fresh pineapple
1 banana
1 cup coconut milk or other milk

Blend. Drink. Repeat.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

This is the Smoothie: Strawberry Banana Smoothie

This is the smoothie for when you are determined to make unreasonable demands of your smoothie; when you want it to contain a full serving of greens and huge amounts of vitamin c; when you want it to have enough protein to keep you satisfied all morning; when you want it to nudge your brain chemistry towards the sunny side, to open your eyes, to please your tastebuds, to quicken your pulse. It seems like an awful lot to ask from a smoothie, but lovesmiths asked, and many blenders-full later we cried eureka.

Strawberry Banana Smoothie 
Serves 2

1 and 1/2 cups strawberries (I like frozen for a milkshake-like texture)
1 banana (frozen if possible, but I always forget and it's fine)
1/2 cup micro-greens or sprouts
2 heaping tablespoons hemp seeds
2-3 tablepsoons raw cacao powder (or cocoa powder, not as delicious but still good)
1 1/2 cup non-dairy beverage (almond, soy, or my favorite - coconut)

Combine in blender and blend until smooth. Drink immediately. Now go get 'em, tiger.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Bob Dylan Story

My dad tells me he beat this guy up at a party because he’d never heard of Bob Dylan. That’s how strong his love was. He tells me love is always enough of a reason. It was 1966, the year before I was born, and my dad was a radical civil rights activist living in Nashville, Tennessee. There is a picture of him and my mother from that year, each holding acoustic guitars, smiling big smiles and gazing into each other’s eyes. Playing Dylan songs, I’d guess. Did either of them think: I might hate you in five years?
The details of the beating-up incident are fuzzy.  I wonder, what was his poison back then. And what is it now?
The thing I can’t figure out is why I love this story so much, why it makes me happy. Why I can relate to it unquestioningly. It’s not like I go around hitting people. I’ve never hit anyone.
The last time I went to a party, everybody there except me was an evangelical Christian. There were guitars, but no violence.

I work with this Welsh philosophy student. He told me he hates Bob Dylan. Thinks he’s overrated. Listen, I said, my dad once punched a guy for not knowing Bob Dylan. If there’s a gene for that, I’ve got it. So look out.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Me And My Meal Plan: A Photo Essay

I live in a university dorm as faculty-in-residence, and the position comes with a meal plan. I probably eat four meals a week in the cafeteria, and usually the food is just okay, perfectly fine. But last week, I had these green beans and they were amazing, generously seasoned and slightly crisp, not bland, rubbery and overcooked as they tend to be. I had seconds. I had thirds. I finally approached one of the cafeteria workers and expressed my admiration. Turns out, he was the guy who made the beans. "Butter," he said. "Butter, lots of garlic, salt, and fresh basil." Fresh basil. Damn, Northwestern.
This mostly vegan meal resembled something I'd cook myself; collard greens, rice with lentils, and hush puppies. I am not vegan; I eat a plant-based diet that includes a little dairy, the occasional egg, fish once in a while. I thought it would be hard to find enough to eat in the dorm, but it is usually surprisingly easy. Industrial food has changed since I was first in college.
Although here was a dinner that could have come straight out of 1986. Remember all those baked potatoes we used to eat? The idea to add the tuna came from my years of living in England. They will put anything on a baked potato over there (they call them "jacket potatoes"), and as it turns out pretty much anything tastes good on one.
Some things are just not for me. I don't at all get why students freak out over and line up for something called the "hot cookie bar." A tray of hot, gooey, undercooked cookies. That's it. But I do love that the students leap from their seats when this comes out every Friday. I'm surprised by how much I enjoy this aspect of communal living, the group rituals and rhythms of the week. I have always considered myself a very private person, but it is fun to inhabit a bigger and more social world. I never lived in a dorm when I was in college, so it's interesting to have this experience as a middle-aged woman.
One thing we can all agree on is this: Sriracha is absolutely essential. I have always been a fan: now I'm an addict. Forever after, when I am squirting Sriracha all over my stir fry, my roasted potatoes, my omelette, my tomato soup (try it!), I will remember these weird and wonderful years.

No groceries to buy on the way home. No exhausted and uninspired weeknight vegetable chopping. No dishes to wash. What do I care if I end up eating some strange dinners once in a while? The meal plan has brought gender equality to my family - I am writing more, playing music, I even go out to see shows once in a while, maybe because I'm not exhausted from my second shift. It's a big adjustment for me, and a bit of a conundrum - I love food, I love to cook, I am a huge proponent of home cooking, but I have got to admit: my life is better with a meal plan.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Taste of a Place: Lemon Mint Drink

I spent an amazing week in the Middle East over spring break, as a trip advisor for a group of Northwestern students visiting our campus in Qatar. I've been back for two weeks now, my jet-lag is finally gone, my camel photos have made the rounds, and all that remains is to reconcile my intense craving for an addictive drink I had in Qatar, a local specialty called lemon mint drink.

I've experienced this kind of thing before, especially back in the day when I was routinely traipsing around the country as a rock drummer. The first tamale I ever had in my life was in New Mexico, from a stand by the side of some highway, and it blew my mind. I got home to Indiana suffering from terrible cravings, and there was no place to go to satisfy them, no way I was going to try to make tamales myself, nothing to do but live with the longing. My list of foods to pine for grew over the years - burritos in San Francisco, fish tacos in Southern California, the impossibly good whole wheat biscuits at the Bluebird Cafe in Athens, pizza in New York (sorry, Chicago).

Add to that list now this pretty, refreshing Middle Eastern drink, basically a strong sweet lemonade flavored and colored with a lot of fresh mint, the perfect thing after a day in the sun. I thought this might be a craving I could satisfy at home, and after a couple of attempts I think I came very very close. I closed my eyes, took a deep sip, and was almost back in the (camel) saddle again.

Bookmark this one for when all the gardens are exploding with mint. And I think a shot of vodka or gin added to the mix might possibly make this the perfect summer cocktail.

Lemon Mint Drink
serves 4

1 cup hot water
5 tablespoons sugar
Juice of 5 lemons
1.5 ounces mint leaves, rinsed and dried. No stems.
3 cups water
1-2 cups ice

Combine sugar and hot water and stir until sugar is dissolved. Pour into blender.

Add lemon juice, mint leaves, water and ice, and blend blend blend.

Press through a strainer and pour over ice.

(You can skip the straining, but the texture won't be quite as nice).

(I know this is a basically immoral amount of sugar - I am going to work on a version with agave, coming soon!)

Nothing hits the spot (after a camel ride by the Persian Gulf) like a glass of lemon mint drink.