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spring is sproinging

By on May 24, 2015 in cooking, dinner, love, vegetarian | 0 comments

The winter was long and dreary. Yup, totally not an original statement. I am still not entirely sure if it is aging or actual changes in winter, but it feels like winters are getting harder in my beloved Midwest. Not necessarily in terms of snow, although Chicago did enjoy a 2′ in one day blizzard that buried my car so completely I could only see 1” of it after the snow plows came through, but in terms of the grey. The never… ending… grey… The cold that keeps a harsh snap way past any time that seems sane, though you know it happens every year. And for me, personally, in case the lack of writing wasn’t obvious, it was never… ending… work. Work is good, absolutely! I am lucky to have it. But being a studio of one, a freelancer, I piled on too much, deadlines slid around, and suddenly I found myself sitting in front of my computer for 14 hours a day, almost 7 days a week, cultivating that translucent pallor enjoyed by the most dedicated of gamers. And my nutritional intake… well it was beginning to be on par with those gamers. For all my wailing about ‘there is always time for food,’ I wasn’t making that time. I was eating crap. Constant takeout. Skipping meals, only to binge on some processed snack late in the night. And I am feeling it. Mind, body, and soul. Enter Wisconsin. Well not really. I entered Wisconsin. Wisconsin pretty much stays where it is. Every year my family does a giant gathering in southwest Wisconsin, which coincidentally happens to be the most fertile farmland in the country. I have no scientific basis for that, I just have the evidence of my own eyes as I drive through and raid every food coop I can get near. This is the part of the country I grew up in, where I thought all cows happily grazed on grass all over rolling hillsides. I had called my Mom the week before to ask if her lone asparagus plant was up already, and had she cooked any. She swiftly replied “oh you know that never makes it into the house.” You see, if you have never beheld an actual asparagus plant in spring, you are missing out. Asparagus is one of those magical vegetables that heralds the final arrival of spring in the Midwest. It’s the first really edible green thing we see, and after months of grey, we fall all over ourselves eating this marvelous chlorophyll-laced tribute to the lengthening, warming days. And if you have ever stood in front of an asparagus plant, snipped a stalk straight off, and ate it straight away, well… it would never make it into your kitchen, either. I couldn’t pilfer any of my mother’s asparagus, but I did manage to find fresh local bunches of it at the local food coop, glorious in their short trip from farm to store. Next up, the ramp. This is something I had never heard of growing up. They are purely wild, can’t really be cultivated. Ramps are a strange sort of wild onion, pungent and fragrant, appearing only for a few weeks and POOF! Gone. They smell marvelous, and need to be treated with some respect, as their flavor is ultimately quite delicate and can get lost. And finally… the mythical morel. Everyone at this point seems to know about morel mushrooms. Another one of those wild foods that simply can not be cultivated. People hunt them every year, and do not reveal the locations they find them in. Somewhere I imagine there are wills out there, revealing spots solely to the most trusted loved ones, but only after the original finder has passed. I have yet to ever find a morel, but I found the next best thing this year. Deep in the rolling hills of the Coulee Region live many, many Amish families. There is one in particular I visit every year to get maple syrup from. This year, the grandson had found morels, and they were selling them, for far less than a schmancy Whole Foods would. I can’t tell you my source, as it’s almost as valuable to me as if I had found them myself deep in the woods. And so I eagerly snatched up the last container, paid the nice woman, and ran. Once back in Chicago, it was time to assemble my tribute to spring. I had some heirloom flint cornmeal I had picked up the previous year from a farmer’s market, and decided to make polenta. I added no parmesan, no cheese of any sort, I wanted it to be as straight up as possible (but not without considerable quantities of butter.) While the polenta slowly burbled away (I use a brilliant method by Deborah Madison that takes a little longer, but does not require constant stirring,) I snapped the tough ends of the asparagus off, sniffing the juicy fresh green. The morels were soaked lightly to rid them of any hidden passengers, and simply sliced lengthwise. Their earthy pepperiness filled my small kitchen. A few ramps were minced, adding to the light scents floating about. A bit of butter and olive oil was heated in my ancient cast iron skillet, and first went in the morels. The butter and olive oil bubbled appreciatively at their arrival. A pinch of...

it’s not a spring renewal, it’s a summer one

By on Jun 23, 2014 in cooking, love, salad, vegetarian | 0 comments

It has been a while, has it not? Asparagus season is swiftly passing, and with it my urge to channel the Spargelfrau of Germany and prance merrily amongst the green stalks. Strawberries with all their intoxicating floral scent have arrived, leaving me with faintly stained fingertips and a culinary endorphin rush. Farmer’s market tables, being slightly delayed this year from the long winter, are suddenly exploding, tables heavily laden with a chorus of greens, oranges, and reds, every table calling out to the person hungry for fresh vegetables after the long winter. And where have I been, you might ask? Working. Working. And then working some more. But with this begins a renewed effort to maintain a regular round of postings, both of my own devising, and visiting folks who make such delicious things as, well, beer. Because beer is always in season.   I have been thinking of you, dear readers, these past mute months. I have made things, eaten them, consumed them. I have occasionally photographed them, and then more often than not, I have just plow through the cooking so I could get to the good stuff and be done with it so I could eat and get back to work, work, and more work. And so I present to you a recipe not of my own devising at all (but of course I modified it to my own tastes.) A recipe that transcends seasons, as it can be a comfort and remarkably hearty in the cold, as well as lighter and filling without weighing down the gut in the warmer months we are now so blissfully sailing through. And it is… lentil salad. I know, I know, the idea of lentil salad for some brings forth some horrific affair of muted brown colors and the bland vegetarian fare of the 70s-era variety. Or at least, it did for me. The last time I encountered a lentil salad it involved a well-meaning effort from an ex-boyfriend’s father who wanted to welcome me into their home and was accommodating his daughter’s vegetarian ways. Which to him meant lentils. And it was a pile of mushy brown lentils topped with some vinegar and oil. There might have been a scrap of carrot.   But did you know that there are many, many types of lentils? And they really don’t need to be mushy at all? Brown and green, the type we mostly know, the type I like to use in a nice pilaf. Red, which fall apart beautifully in soups. And the now more readily available ones with enticing, sexy sounding names like “French green” and “Beluga”, smaller, more saturated with color, glistening, more toothsome than the more standard fare. This recipe originated from one of my favorite sites, the Kitchn. I scanned the recipe, looking for something that I could make easily that I could then pack every day for lunch. And something vegetarian, as I have a weird tic and really do not, for the most part, enjoy meat reheated in a microwave, which is all I had available there. I knew I could get French Green lentils fairly easily, but then my eyes lit on the amount of sun-dried tomatoes, and I almost called the whole thing off. They seem to be one of those things you are supposed to like. People seem to ooh and ahh when something involves a scrap or two of these desiccated vermillion bites. Me? I will confess… I really do not like them. Something in the process of drying makes them so cloyingly sweet I think they overwhelm everything in their immediate vicinity. I am convinced that simply placing them next to my coffeepot would cause my delicious brew to be tainted with their syrupy sweet flavor. And in looking at this recipe, in looking at all the other lucscious things therein, I decided that I needed to come to the defense of the warm walnuts, the crisp sweet peppers, the showers of mint and parsley, and I had to chuck the tomatoes.   And it was delicious. There was a lovely balance of sweet and savory, none being too bold or meek, and it had the added lunchbox benefit of being a salad that improved with age. The week I ate it (because believe you me, this recipe made enough to last solo me for a week and not tire of it) the weather yo-yoed between chilly dank and perfect sunny breezes, and somehow this salad bolstered my spirits every single day. The rich earthiness of the lentils felt delightful on the grey days, and the bright tang of the peppers and onions, the fresh hit of mint and parsley spoke of the promise of the warmer days that inevitably really did come.   So try it. Try it using their original recipe, if you are a fan of sun-dried tomatoes, or try taking them out. They have optional cheese involved, and much as I love me some cheese, it didn’t seem right after the tomatoes were gone, and without it was flatout vegan.   And with that, I have a head of lettuce soaking in the sink right now, slowly releasing dirt as it is fresh from the ground. So I can eat the sunshine now here in leafy form. And photograph it. And write it. Because I am back, ready to eat! Colorful Lentil Salad with...

i shall eat all the green

By on Apr 10, 2014 in cooking, salad | 0 comments

Yesterday I drove home from work. With the window down. To those who live in a warmer clime, this may seem nothing, but to anyone in the northern half of the U.S. this winter, you know it is a big deal. The sensation of a warm sun and gentle air felt like a welcome madness. This morning I noticed fresh green grass beginning to force its way out of the ground, brazenly challenging Nature to snow on it. And Nature will likely oblige. But you see, the sun has warmed. The air is gentler. Hope springs eternal. Deep within my stocking feet, my toes are involuntarily flexing, imagining the day when they can be freed to the open air and sink deeply into fresh green grass. This hope runs in a giddy undercurrent through my brain, wrapping verdant tendrils around neurons frozen by this brutal winter, causing them to awake and demand green. To see green. To smell green. To eat it. Enter the Freekeh salad from The Kitchn. “Freekeh?” you might ask. To be sure, the only reason I had heard of this was because I live around the corner from a Middle Eastern market, even though I never knew what to do with it. It is a grain. Wheat, to be exact. Wheat in toasted green form. So this green wheat gets combined with chickpeas, warm spices, and deep green collard greens to create a salad of hopeful spring. When you cook freekeh (labeled “frika” at my market,) you will have to stop and take pause. It actually smells like a fresh cut field of hay. If I closed my eyes, I could imagine late summer sunlight spilling carelessly out of the simmering pot. It is a remarkable thing. It does not taste like fresh cut hay, or at least what I assume hay tastes like, having never actually eaten it, but it does have a lovely fresh nuttiness I have not encountered in a grain before. Then comes the dressing, a heady mix of olive oil, vinegar, tahini, and a generous round of a spice mix known as za’atar. Again, I luckily live around the corner from a Middle Eastern market that sells this in large packages, but it can be acquired online fairly readily, or you could make your own, should you be so inclined (and when I run through this giant pile of it I now have, I will be making my own!) Mix the fresh chew of the freekeh and the warm tang of the dressing with the fresh air of thinly sliced raw fennel, a fair quantity of chickpeas, and a pile of raw collard greens, and you believe for a moment that the mere act of moving fork from plate to mouth will cause trees to bud outside your window. Spring is pressing itself upon us. Why not help it along?   Mediterranean-Spiced Freekeh Salad with Collard Greens and Chickpeas (straight from The Kitchn)   Serves 8 For the salad: 1/3 cup (45 grams) sesame seeds 1 cup (185 grams) freekeh 1 bunch collard greens, de-stemmed, leaves thinly sliced (about 2 cups) 1 cup (170 grams) rinsed and drained chickpeas 1 small fennel bulb, quartered, cored and thinly sliced For the dressing: 2 small garlic cloves, finely minced 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil 3 tablespoons tahini 2 tablespoons lemon juice 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar 2 1/2 tablespoons za’atar 1 teaspoon ground coriander 1 teaspoon ground allspice Pinch sea salt and ground pepper Warm a small, dry saucepan over medium heat and add the sesame seeds. Toast until fragrant and light golden-brown, 6 to 7 minutes. Shake the pan periodically to avoid burning. Once toasted, pour the seeds onto a clean plate and aside to cool. Bring a medium pot of water to boil and add the freekeh. Bring back to a boil, then cover the pot and reduce the heat to low. Simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the grains are al dente. Drain excess water and set aside. In a large bowl, combine cooked freekeh, collard greens, chickpeas, and fennel. Whisk together garlic, tahini, lemon juice, red wine vinegar, and spices for the dressing in a small bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Toss the salad with the dressing; season with additional salt and pepper as needed. Sprinkle the sesame seeds over top before serving. Enjoy room temperature or cold. Cover and refrigerate leftovers for up to three days.   (And I’m not going to lie… I would make more dressing. Just do it. Trust...

tantalizing the microvilli

By on Jun 14, 2013 in cooking, dinner, experimenting | 0 comments

I have recently taken up reading a book on the subject of what really gets our human gustatory engines humming. Ostensibly, this book is about processed food, and how the sugar, salt, and fat therein are calibrated  by legions of food scientists to hit our deepest urges so we just want more and more, or at least that seems to be the trend. Fair enough. I have been known to mow down on a salty delicacy fished from the deepest recesses of a bag that crinkles just so as my fingers desperately search for that last little chip (and I must wonder if they engineer the crinkle of the bag as carefully as the food, because it is absolutely part of the sensory experience.). But this isn’t about the engineering of the chip or the bag. This is about a paragraph that basically debunked the long-held belief I have had that the tongue has different “taste zones.” Apparently, it really doesn’t. Apparently even the idea behind it was a misinterpretation. If you really want to read this paragraph, read the book and we’ll discuss. The thing that particularly caught my eye was where he talked about microvilli, tiny little hairs on each little bump on the tongue and how they were ultimately the taste receptors. And of course I tiptoed through the Wikipedia entries, and couldn’t find the word ‘microvilli’ in the taste bud entry, but plenty of info that ultimately led me to discover the term “gustatory hair,” but then I decided that was a far ickier headline than ‘microvilli’, since that word lacks association with hairs in food. And so here we are.   “Wait…” you might ask. “You were going somewhere with this? Seriously?” I am, dear reader, I am. You see, I am going to pull together sugar, salt, fat, sweet, salty, bitter, maybe even a hit of umami, if I really grasped what that meant (technically there is a description involving an aftertaste leaving a ‘furry taste’ on the roof of the mouth, but much like the gustatory hair of earlier, we are going to walk away from that for the moment so we don’t foment further negative associations.) So I give you… coy creamy cheese tortellini cooked to an al dente finish, spicy, salty Italian sausage, seductively earthy mushrooms, onions made sweet by low heat slowly coaxing forth the sugars nesting deep within their cells, a sharp bite of Parmesan, a subtle acid hit of lemon and crossing into a new realm for me, the vegetal  bitterness of broccoli rabe. (For those who have known me my whole life, they know broccoli and most cruciferous vegetables are my mortal enemy, but I accidentally ate some broccoli rabe one day at a restaurant and decided I should be a little more flexible.) And honestly… that’s actually about it. There are no fancy reductions, no little tricks, just simple ingredients combined simply and quickly. I’m sure proper chefs would have heart attacks at this, but sometimes… I only want to wash two pans. No hours of prep, just clean, fresh flavors, all mingling in a plate, each bite bringing different sensations to the table, each tickling the various taste receptors, tricking the brain into happy oblivion in a more satisfying manner than any crunchy item hatched from the labs of a major food magnate.   Tortellini for All the Microvilli Serves 4 hungry people, 6 people who have other stuff to eat as well.   1 lb. frozen cheese tortellini 1 lb. spicy Italian sausage (I get mine from Whole Foods, that makes a wickedly good one, and it’s pretty spicy… you can try sweet, but it just won’t be the same. Or you can go veggie and not use it at all) 1 lb. cremini mushrooms, thickly sliced 1/2 Vidalia or medium sweet onion, thinly wedged 1 bunch broccoli rabe, washed and roughly chopped olive oil a lemon, halved Parmesan for grating   Bring several quarts of water, salted, to a boil for the tortellini. While the water is boiling, heat about a tablespoon of olive oil in a large skillet over low heat. Add in the onions and sprinkle with a generous pinch salt. Cook for about 10 minutes, or until the onions have gotten all soft and luscious. Add in the sausage, breaking it up as much as you can while you cook it. When the sausage is almost fully cooked, add in the mushrooms. Keep stirring the whole time. Somewhere in here I am guessing your pasta water has come to a boil. Start cooking it. Keep an eye on it, since frozen pasta cooks very differently than the dried. Read the instructions on the package, since they might vary from brand to brand. You want it to be al dente. Do NOT drain fully when you are done. Trust me. Once the mushrooms look all deliciously moist and dark, taste one to test it and make sure it is fully cooked, then add in the broccoli rabe. Keep stirring until the broccoli rabe turns a vivid green. Squeeze the half a lemon over (I have decided that lemons are the most valuable thing in the world, and now add them and their brilliant acid hit to almost everything I make now) and cook for 30 more seconds. Taste again, and salt and pepper to taste. Now drain almost all of...

meditative pasta

By on Mar 6, 2012 in cooking, dinner, experimenting, love | 0 comments

Cooking. The act of peeling, chopping, sauteeing, stirring, whisking, etc. never fails to be a source of meditation for the likes of me. My whole brain shifts into another state where time becomes more fluid and scent comes to the forefront of my senses. Without cooking, there is turmoil. Unhappiness born of the constant struggle to make a living as a creative professional and coming to terms with how often that means failure, whether it be my own fault or the simple and persnickety circumstance of timing. Cooking is just for me. No one stands behind me to tell me to turn something red five seconds after they tell me they are not a visual person. There are no committees of people lurking over my shoulder, yammering as I feel my entire being turn into plastic and look down to realize I have become a very tall computer mouse with brightly colored sneakers. For several weeks I have not cooked, have not sunk into that state of meditation where the knife cleaves garlic cloves cleanly and swiftly, where the giddily aromatic scent of a sauteed onion reaches up and tickles my nose. And so today, with no recipe, only the idea of a recipe born of the tastes of a takeout meal eaten quickly and without relish while hovering over my keyboard at work, today I took the time to reclaim that meditative state, to rule over my small, 15 square foot kitchen where I alone call the shots and am free to fail from decisions that were mine. It began with a bottle of wine. White. Dry. A pinot grigio, a wine I only know to be consistently of the drier variety I prefer in a white wine. Then came the bag of rigatoni, a variety so over-sized as to be almost comic. A few locally sourced Italian sausages and delicately thin slices of a pancetta-esque bacon. Then came the beans, soft, creamy, and white, slowly cooked to perfection in the simple modern wonder that is the CrockPot. A large onion, a red pepper, a few cloves of garlic, and a large verdant bunch of Swiss chard, ruby stems ablaze in the rare sun that occupies the day. These ingredients were assembled and pondered, images in my head whirling around as I considered which pots and pans would best fit the purpose, and how few could I use, seeing as how I only have so many burners and no counter space to park random pans. The Italian sausage made it into one shallow skillet and was soon swimming in white wine. As soon as the scent of this poaching marriage hit my nostrils, time entered that fabulous liquid state, and the cooking began in earnest. The sausages burbled along in their private fermented grape hot tub, the pancetta was crisped, onions thinly wedged and slowly cooked until sugary soft, red pepper deveined and sliced even thinner than the onions, a long quiet moment was spent slowly ripping the Swiss chard apart by hand and leaving it to soak in a tub of cold water, and hovering in the background was the kettle boiling with water, waiting for the rigatoni. All other thoughts and worries fell away as I cooked. Even when the attempt at a creamy white wine sauce almost met epic failure, there was no panic. A work around, however imperfect, was found, and the results were still tasty. No one is here to tell me otherwise, although I’m sure I would have been shamed off any cooking show worth its salt. Finally, time started to solidify again as everything finished cooking. And then came the best part of all. The part that has been lost through weeks of eating out of plastic containers over keyboards. A plate, an honest ceramic plate, a real fork, a pile of luscious food, and the rare time to sit quietly and enjoy every bite. A subtly perfumed and lightly salted white wine “sauce” (remember, it was almost an epic fail) merrily flowed along the ridges of the al dente rigatoni which played host to the soft, creamy white beans playing hide and seek within. Sweet onions and red peppers piled gently on top, adding a counter to the salty sauce below. The deeply green heft of the Swiss chard held hands demurely with the peppers and onions. A few choice slices of the sausage, fragrant from their hot swim in white wine, perched high above, and on top of that, a sharp salty crisp bite of the cooked pancetta. And overall, a fresh, brilliant chiffonade of basil with a scent that swam up the back of the throat into the sinuses, causing a sigh of pleasure. With each bite it was something new. Salty, sweet, earthy, green, soft, toothsome, crispy, deeply aromatic. It is not often one can cook like this. Whether it be for a crowd or for one, however, it is always worth it. And occasionally necessary for sanity. No recipe for this one, folks. I will try it again and see if I can write it down. For today… it was pure, sanity-restoring meditation. Which I guess means I should say namaste. And bon...

the simplest of pilafs

By on Aug 13, 2011 in cooking, dinner | 0 comments

The weather is unrelenting. A cold and dreary spring gave way to a hot and sticky summer, with barely a day to transition. So finally, the last days of summer, nature gives us a week of respite. Cool, moderate temperatures with breezes that almost begin to gives hints of fall. In that brief window, the stove no longer likes like the enemy, something to add to the heavy ambient heat that has been riddling about the apartment for months. As the cool breezes gently blow out the last of the humidity, vivid orange carrots from the farmer’s market are scrubbed down and sliced thickly. A couple of small red onions from the same farmer are fished out of the refrigerated depths and sliced into brilliant stripes of magenta and pearly white. Fragrant basmati rice is set to the boil on one burner, delightfully earthy brown lentils pile into another pot with a bay leaf and a bit of the onion and set to merrily simmer on another, and in a flagrant flippant gesture towards the abated heat, a third burner is lit. Softly sweet olive oil is gently warmed in a heavy skillet, and the onions are poured in. Gently, they are coaxed into losing their cell wall’s rigidity, their sugars relaxing into the pan. The sweet crisp carrots are piled in, and the whole cooked until the carrots are just past their ability to elicit a crunch when bitten. The rice and lentils, by now thoroughly cooked, are added to the skillet with a generous hit of salt and pepper, letting everything briefly stew together. The result is not fancy, not riddled with complex flavor that leave the diner contemplating what rare spice is hidden in the depths. It is simple, earthy, and wondrous to eat in the cool summer breeze.   Simplest of Lentil Pilaf – Serves 2 generously, or one if this is all you have cooked today, good even when the second half is plucked, cool, from the skillet 1/2 c basmati rice 1/2 c brown lentils (if you can soak them for an hour beforehand, do, otherwise it’ll just take a hair longer to cook) 1 bay leaf 2 small red onions, 1/2 of one diced, the other 1 1/2 thinly sliced 2 medium carrots, scrubbed and not peeled (unless they are from the grocery store, but I have found farmer’s market ones are good just scrubbed) sliced slightly thickly Generous slathering of olive oil salt and pepper   In one pot, place the lentils with about 1 1/2 cups of water, a bay leaf, and the diced onions. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook, covered, until the lentils are “al dente”. This will take about 30-45 minutes, dependent on the mood and soaking conditions of the lentil. In another pot, combine the basmati rice, a generous pinch of salt, and about 1 1/4 cups of water. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, then simmer uncovered for about 25 minutes. When it looks like all the water has absorbed, slap a cover on and turn off the burner. This is a neat little trick my mother taught me that sort of gives the rice a last steaming.   While the lentils and rice are bubbling away, prep the rest of your veggies, if you need to, then heat a generous splash of extra virgin olive oil in a medium skillet. Throw the onions in and cook just until they start to become soft. Add the carrots and continue to cook over a low heat just until the carrots have lost their crunch. This is a personal preference, since I like the contrast of a slightly crunchy carrot, and it adds a bit of freshness. You could also just keep cooking them until the onions and carrots have a lovely bit of caramelization to them. Just add some more olive oil and turn up the heat, it will be delightful. Once all the ingredients are cooked (I occasionally manage to get this so everything is ready all at once, but more often than not, something has to sit waiting in its pot), throw everything into the skillet. NOTE!! I’m never good with lentil-water percentage. They should have soaked it all up, but a little excess won’t hurt anything. If there is a lot of water left, drain the lentils before you add them in. Add salt and pepper to taste. Find your most homey and favorite bowl and serve some up. Sit quietly and enjoy the simplicity, and then, if you are not alone, ask the other person, who by this point is hopefully caught in a food reverie, to wash the dishes. Perfect harmony.   Notes: I have made this a hundred times, never quite the same twice. Some days I have more lentils than others. I honestly think when I made it this time I may have had 3/4 c. lentils, since that is what I had in the pantry, and who wants to leave a 1/4 c. of lentils sitting all lonely in the bottom of a jar? I am sure some spices wouldn’t hurt in here, maybe some coriander thrown in while sauteeing the veggies, maybe some garlic, maybe some cumin. Play with it. This was a random invention born out of curiosity years ago, not a tried and true staple of any sort, so...