Thursday, December 20, 2012

Food for the cold

I’ve eaten bolognese maybe a handful of times in my life. And that’s a guess, because the meals weren’t particularly memorable. Actually, I’m really just going off of this photo from the summer my family spent a month in the south of France when I was 17. As evidenced by this photo of me eating what looks like pappardelle bolognese (with Sam, though clearly I was more interested in my meal at the moment), I’ve always loved food. Though back then, I didn’t know a thing about it. (Case in point: When I ordered spaghetti carbonara in Nice and was served a plate of pasta with a raw egg perched on top, I thought the chef was totally deranged, and possibly trying to kill me.)

I became vegan shortly after coming home from this trip, for reasons unrelated. Though the vegan thing didn’t last, I haven’t eaten meat in almost ten years—so no more bolognese.

The other week, Austin’s approximation of winter finally descended (for a few days, anyway, then it got warm again). In addition to relishing in the opportunity to wear socks and a jacket, I started wanting cozy winter food in a big way. Soup, definitely, and a really hearty, filling pasta that would make me curl up on the couch afterwards and fall asleep.

I thought of pappardelle bolognese, with the wide, chewy noodles and sauce so thick you could barely call it that. And the super-concentrated tomato flavor, and lots of salty cheese on top. This lentil version, made richer with ground walnuts, is the outcome, and I urge you to try it.

I don’t know how close it is to “real” bolognese, but delicious and deeply satsifying. Quicker and cheaper to make, too, which is always nice. I’ll be turning to it throughout the next few months whenever winter comes around. 

Lentil Bolognese
I used a Grüner Veltliner because it was what I had around, but any clean, mineral-y white wine works.

1 cup green lentils
1/3 cup walnuts
1 medium onion, quartered
2 medium carrots, peeled and chopped
1 clove garlic
1/4 cup olive oil
1 6-ounce can tomato paste
1 cup white wine
1 cup vegetable stock
Salt and pepper

Place the lentils in a medium pot with enough water to cover by about an inch. Cover, bring to a boil, then simmer, partially covered, for 20 to 25 minutes, or until tender.

While the lentils finish cooking, put the walnuts in a food processer and process until very finely chopped, like a coarse flour. Set aside in a bowl. Add the onion, carrots, and garlic to the food processor and process until very finely chopped.

In a large, deep skillet, warm the olive oil over medium heat. Add the vegetable mixture with a big pinch of salt and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the lentils, walnuts, and tomato paste with another pinch or two of salt and cook 2 to 3 minutes more. Pour in the wine and vegetable stock, stirring until the tomato paste is evenly distributed. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, or until slightly thickened. Taste for seasoning.

Spoon generously over hot pappardelle, linguine, or any other pasta and garnish with plenty of grated Parmesan. 

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Sallies for Sally

The holidays are a time of joyful overindulgence. Why make one type of pie when you can make three? One main dish is nice—but why not two, so everyone can try a little of each?

Nowhere is this more true than with Christmas cookies. This month, most of the big food magazines have entire features devoted to cookies alone, and we all know a holiday cookie platter isn’t complete unless it includes at least three different kinds.

We all need to let loose sometime, right? And I’m all for it.

But what if you could only make one kind of Christmas cookie? Clearly, it’d have to be a knockout, and it would also have to include all the wonderful flavors that make this time of year so warm and toasty—regardless of the weather.

I set out to do that, and these sweet, spicy, ginger-flecked gems are the result. And not to brag or anything, but if these were the only Christmas cookies I got to eat this year, I’d be okay with it. Happily, it doesn’t have to be that way, and I can bake and eat and share as many different Christmas cookies as I want. But these will still be my favorite.

And the name? I have no idea. Well, I do, but it doesn’t make much sense, at least the Sally part. I was watching Mad Men last night and while baking this morning, poor, misunderstood Sally Draper popped into my mind. I’m sure Betty would flip out if she found her daughter snacking on any kind of treat, but Sallies sound like a sort of wholesome, classic name for a cookie, right? Right.

Pecan-Spice Sallies
If you don’t have pecans on hand, walnuts make a good substitute. But then you’ll have to change the name!

1/2 cup pecans
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup honey
1 large egg
Zest of 1 lemon
1/4 cup crystallized ginger, very finely chopped
1/2 cup powdered sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 350°. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
2. Place the pecans in a food processor and process until very fine. Transfer to a medium bowl along with the flour, spices, and salt. Mix well to combine.
3. In a large bowl or stand mixer, cream the butter and brown sugar until fluffy, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the honey, egg, and lemon zest and beat 1 more minute. Add the dry ingredients in batches, mixing until just combined. The dough will look slightly crumbly, but will hold together if you pinch a piece between your fingers. Fold in the crystallized ginger.
4. Roll the dough into gumball-size balls and place on the prepared baking sheets. (The cookies won’t expand, so there’s no need to worry about spacing them very far apart.) Bake 15 to 16 minutes, or until just set. They’ll look slightly underdone on top, but the bottoms will be lightly brown.
5. Allow cookies to cool for 5 to 10 minutes before rolling in the powdered sugar. Once cooled completely, they’ll store in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

Makes about 30 cookies

Monday, December 10, 2012

A big improvement

I could probably write a book about all the delicious things I’ve eaten in California. But today I want to talk about veggie burgers. Before Sam and I went to Los Angeles so he could look at grad schools during the spring of our senior year of college, I’d eaten plenty of them. But they’d all been the frozen, microwaveable type that you eat purely for convenience, not for taste or even nourishment.

One night on our trip, we had dinner at M Café because we heard it had great vegetarian food. Our meal was sort of hijacked by an Adrien Grenier sighting, but I’ll never forget the veggie burger, because it was a revelation. It had brown rice and actual vegetables and seaweed and avocado and some amazing secret sauce. It was not microwaved. And it was the first time I realized that veggie burgers could actually be something delicious that people might set out to eat, rather than settle for in a moment of desperation.

Since that trip, I’ve had some other excellent veggie burgers, and not just in Los Angeles. (If you’re ever in Austin, Kerbey Lane, Mother’s, and 24 Diner all have great ones.) I also found M Café’s recipe online and tried to recreate it a few times, along with tons of other different recipes. They’re all delicious, and they’re all a HUGE pain, because you have to cook about 10 different ingredients in 10 different ways, committing to a two-hour prep time and using up every clean pot and pan you have. No thanks.

Happily, I figured out that it didn’t have to be that way. That you could have a really, really good veggie burger and not spend all night making it. With these, the only thing you have to prep in advance is the lentils, and they only take 20 minutes or so. After that, it’s another 15 minutes to mix up the ingredients and cook the patties in a cast-iron skillet. Not a lot of fuss or mess, but a really great sandwich.  

Lentil-Mushroom Burgers
I was feeling fancy, so we ate these on Sprouted Kitchen’s wheat brioche rolls. Make them if you have time, but store-bought ones are good, too.

1 cup dried brown lentils
2 tablespoons dried porcini mushrooms
3/4 pound cremini mushrooms, stems removed
1 shallot
2 tablespoons peanut butter
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 to 3/4 cup plain breadcrumbs
Salt, to taste
Grapeseed or canola oil

6 whole wheat rolls
Sprouts or lettuce and sliced avocado, tomato, and red onion

1. Cook the lentils in a small stockpot until tender, about 20 minutes. While the lentils cook, pour boiling water over the cremini mushrooms and soak until soft.
2. Add the cremini mushrooms to a food processor and process until finely chopped. Add the lentils, porcinis, and shallot and pulse to form a homogenous mixture.
3. Transfer the mushroom-lentil mixture to a bowl. Add the peanut butter, soy sauce, and thyme; use a fork or your hands to mix well. Mix in a big pinch of salt and 1/2 cup of breadcrumbs—you’re looking for a mixture that’s still moist but that holds together easily. If it seems a little wet, add the remaining breadcrumbs.
4. Heat a cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. While the skillet warms up, form the mixture into 6 flat patties, about 1/2 cup each. Drizzle a tablespoon or two of oil into the skillet and add the patties (in batches, if your skillet is on the small side). Cook 5 to 6 minutes, or until a thick, crisp crust forms on the bottom. Flip and cook 3 to 4 more minutes, until burgers are firm. Serve on whole wheat buns with lettuce or a big pile of sprouts, avocado and other fixings, and your favorite ketchup. 

Makes 6 burgers

Monday, December 3, 2012

Smitten Kitchen Appreciation Day

If you asked me about the first food blog I ever read, I don’t think I’d be able to give an exact answer. It could have been 101 Cookbooks, or Orangette, or David Lebovitz. Or it could’ve been Smitten Kitchen. Back in early 2006, there might’ve been a few more choices, but not that many.

By the time I was a freshman in college, I’d already sort of become obsessed with food. Trouble was, I was living in a shared dorm at a small school in the suburbs, and it was way before the days when your average college had any interest in serving food that was even mildly appetizing. (In fact, during my first semester, I found a piece of cooked bell pepper on my plate still had the sticker on it. I almost had a nervous breakdown.) I couldn’t cook in my living space, and didn’t even have a car to drive off-campus to eat somewhere else.

That year in school, I remember eating a lot of flavorless black bean soup and stale bagels with peanut butter. So looking back, reading blogs was probably my way of vicariously savoring food that was delicious—and maybe also a lifestyle that didn’t involve sharing a postage stamp-size space with a roommate who’d plant thumbtacks on the floor next to my bed. I’m not kidding.

Until very recently, there was a while where I didn’t have much time to read food blogs often anymore. So I found out from my friend Shannon that Deb Perelman was coming to our local bookstore this past Friday. For some reason, I tend to hold off on buying the things that I really, really want for a long time (and instead buy things I realize I don’t want that much…I bet there’s some interesting psychological work going on there), so I didn’t actually pick up a copy of the Smitten Kitchen cookbook until Thursday. But I’ve been reading and re-reading it ever since, and getting to see Deb talk in person on Friday just made me love her book even more.

The first thing I made was her Apricot Breakfast Crisp, with a few tweaks to have it make sense for fall. I hit on the idea of dessert for breakfast about a year ago, and it seems like Deb and I are on the same page.

Don’t feel bad about eating this first thing in the morning. It’s too delicious for debate.

Comice Pear Breakfast Crisp
Adapted from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

For the fruit
1 1/4 pounds Comice pears, peeled, cored, and chopped into 1/2-inch cubes
2 tablespoons turbinado sugar
1 tablespoon white whole wheat flour
Pinch of nutmeg

For the topping
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1/3 cup turbinado sugar
1/2 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup white whole wheat flour
Pinch of salt
2 tablespoons chopped walnuts

1. Preheat the oven to 400°. Lightly grease a 1-quart baking dish with butter.
2. Add the pears, sugar, flour, and nutmeg to the baking dish. Use your fingers to toss the pears until they’re completely coated.
3. Melt the butter in a small saucepan. Stir in the sugar, then the oats, the flour, the salt, and the walnuts. Mix to combine.
4. Dollop the topping over the fruit evenly. Bake for 45 minutes, or until topping is golden brown and pears are soft. Serve warm 

Friday, November 30, 2012

Older and wiser

It was a weeknight in 11th grade, one of the first cold nights of fall. I was spending my time just like every other kid in high school in the early 2000’s did: chatting online with my friends. (Nowadays, I guess they’d just text? I still chat tethered to my computer, but something about it feels totally antiquated.)

So: I was talking with my best friend Richard when I was struck with a craving for hot chocolate. “BRB, going to make some hot choc,” I typed, cutting off whatever hilarious conversation we were in the middle of.

I don’t remember if we were out of the little packets of Swiss Miss (with the crunchy dried marshmallows, I loved those) or if I was just feeling adventurous. But I ended up pulling out a canister of Hershey’s unsweetened cocoa to make my toasty chocolate drink from scratch.

Somewhere along the way, things went wrong. I think what happened was the Hershey’s instructions on the side of the canister were for like, four servings of hot chocolate. I started out with just a cup of milk, knowing I wanted to make the recipe for just one. But me being me, forgot to keep cutting down the rest of the ingredients, and ended up putting something like a half cup of cocoa powder in my eight ounces of milk. At the time, the only cooking I knew how to do was toast an English muffin, so I didn’t even flinch at the ridiculous ratio.

When the hot chocolate was finally ready, I wrapped my hands around the mug, smiled, and took a sip. And immediately started choking on the insane amount of dry, bitter powder that hadn’t been absorbed into the milk. I might’ve collapsed on the floor or dropped the mug or both out of sheer disgust.

I wasn’t a total teenage fool, so it only took me a few minutes to realize what I’d done wrong, and I ran back to the computer to tell Richard what I did. I don’t remember his response, but the experience left enough of an impression on me that I still remember it almost ten years later.

Made with a creamy almond butter base, this delicious version of hot chocolate has almost nothing in common with the original—save for the fact that I still used Hershey’s cocoa powder. But it won’t make you choke or collapse, I promise.

Almond Butter Hot Chocolate
It might seem a little strange to put all the ingredients in the blender before warming them up, but I’ve found it prevents those dry chocolate lumps that form when you add cocoa powder directly to hot liquid.

1 3/4 cups water
2 1/2 tablespoons almond butter, chunky or smooth
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon brewed coffee (optional, but makes the cocoa taste extra chocolate-y)
Pinch salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. In a blender, add the water and almond butter and blend until smooth. Add the cocoa powder, sugar, coffee, and salt and blend again.
2. If you prefer a super-smooth hot cocoa, run the mixture through a strainer. I really like the slight graininess and even the small pieces of almond from the chunky almond butter, so I skip this step.
3. Transfer the mixture to a small saucepan and bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally. Once simmering, turn off the heat and stir in the vanilla. Pour into mugs and drink hot.

Makes 2 cups

Monday, November 26, 2012

Vegetable Monday

It happened sometime yesterday afternoon. I got sick of creamy foods (hi, Brussels sprouts gratin) and buttery pie and all the other heavy, heavy food from the glorious holiday sloth weekend. We still had leftovers, but I couldn’t really bear the thought of eating them for lunch this week.

Or ever, really, because heavy lunches make me want to sleep all afternoon. As someone who’s self employed, I could probably do that if I really wanted to, but the guilt would totally overwhelm me.

Weekday lunches around here are usually simple. When Sam and I eat together, I’ll make some variation of a kale salad, usually with a tahini-based dressing. When I run out of kale, I’ll make a chickpea salad, usually with more of the same dressing, or maybe with a little olive oil, lemon, and Parmesan. And on the days I eat alone, it’s usually a sweet potato. I wrap it in foil and stick it in the toaster when I sit down to work and take it out when I get hungry in the afternoon. Usually I top it with yogurt or hummus or miso and ginger, and I’m happy.

But I was sick of all that this week. In search of something a little different—but still easy enough that I could climb out of my office fifteen minutes before lunchtime and have something fresh on the table—I tried this. And it’s delicious! The maple-soy vinaigrette makes anything taste good, but the sweet-salty combination is especially good with sweet potatoes. Served warm, it’s a good salad to have when salad days are pretty much over for the year.

Warm Sweet Potato, Kale, and Chickpea Salad with Maple-Soy Vinaigrette
To make lunchtime quicker, I like to steam the sweet potatoes and kale ahead of time and store in the fridge, where they’ll last for several days.

For the salad
1 medium sweet potato, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/2 pound kale, stems removed and thinly sliced
1 cup cooked chickpeas
1/4 cup chopped toasted pecans

For the dressing
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 clove garlic, grated
Salt and pepper

1. Place the sweet potatoes in a steamer and steam for 10 to 15 minutes, or until they pierce easily with a fork. About halfway through, add the kale so everything is finished at the same time. (You don’t need a Real Steamer to do this. A colander placed over top of a stockpot filled partially with boiling water works just as well.)
2. While the vegetables steam, make the dressing. In a jar, add the olive oil, vinegar, maple syrup, soy sauce, garlic, and a pinch of salt and pepper. Shake well and taste to adjust seasoning, if necessary.
3. Add the sweet potatoes and kale to a large bowl, along with the chickpeas. Pour on about half the dressing (save the rest for green salads, or for noodles, or a dipping sauce) and toss to coat. Taste again to adjust seasoning and top with the pecans. Serve warm.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Brussels Sprouts Gratin with Smoked Gouda

Last Saturday night, Sam and I did something unusual: We went downtown for dinner. Even weirder: We ate at what might constitute as a chain restaurant. I won’t name names, but know that it was a super loud, super trendy wine bar that served the kind of gussied up comfort food that sort of made you feel like you were stepping into Guy Fieri’s man cave.

It was the fall menu that pulled me in. I’d read a few good things about the small plates and was really excited about trying the acorn squash wedge salad, chanterelle ravioli with dried cherries, quinoa risotto with sweet potatoes, and most importantly, the Brussels sprouts gratin.

Here’s the short of what happened: The place was super packed because Formula 1 was in town. When we were seated, I excitedly opened the menu and the fall dishes were nowhere to be found. Apparently they were doing a “limited” menu for the busy weekend. No fall specials—except! the Brussels sprouts gratin, which I ordered right away.

And it was SO good. It was only mildly creamy and had this fireplace earthiness from lots of smoked Gouda. And the buttery breadcrumbs on top. We ordered a few other things too, but the gratin was the only thing I cared about.

I knew I had to recreate it at home. And after a few tries, Sam and I agreed the bubbly skillet I pulled out of the oven was spot on. We ate it on Tuesday night, again on Thanksgiving, and again for dinner last night, and there’s still some left (but probably not for long). With a hunk of bread to sop up the extra cheese, it’s a meal—make it.

Brussels Sprouts Gratin with Smoked Gouda
I like the ease and presentation of making this with a cast iron skillet, but you don’t need one. You can place the Brussels sprouts in a greased, 9-inch baking dish, make the sauce in a separate pot, and pour it over top.

2 pounds Brussels sprouts
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups vegetable stock
1 clove garlic, sliced
1 heaping cup shredded smoked Gouda
3/4 cup plain breadcrumbs
Salt and pepper, to taste.

1. Preheat the oven to 375°.
2. In a large stockpot, boil the Brussels sprouts for 1 to 2 minutes, or until bright green. You want to cook them just enough to take the rawness out. Drain and run under cold water until cool enough to touch. Trim the ends off the sprouts and slice the sprouts into quarters (or halves, if they’re very small).
3. In a 9- or 10-inch cast iron skillet over medium heat, melt a tablespoon of the butter. Add the flour and cook until it just begins to brown, about a minute. Whisk in the vegetable stock and cook about a minute, then add the garlic and the cheese, stirring to incorporate Dial down the heat to low and cook another minute or two until the cheese melts and the sauce begins to thicken. Taste and add a pinch of salt if necessary (depending on your stock and cheese, you might not need it). Take the skillet off the stovetop.
4. Add the Brussels sprouts to the skillet, spreading in an even layer. Scatter the breadcrumbs over top and dot with the remaining tablespoon of butter.
5. Bake for 20 minutes, or until the breadcrumbs are just beginning to brown. Broil on high for 2 or 3 minutes until breadcrumbs are golden. Serve hot.