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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...

preserved sunshine

By on Feb 8, 2014 in love, preserving, process | 0 comments

(This was originally written (and promptly not posted) before I went off on a film shoot for several weeks that involved many a night shooting overnight, outdoors, in the coldest winter in 30 years, where I redefined how cold I thought I could be. So it seems doubly true, especially as I watch yet another volley of snow fall from the grey sky.)   There is a wonderful episode of Doctor Who where they reference the solstice in December, saying it is celebrated because it is “halfway past the dark.”  This is a lovely sentiment, but as a Midwesterner, let’s be honest. It doesn’t feel that way.  Yes, after December 21st, the days technically do start to get longer. But that just gives you more daylight time to watch the flat grey expanse of winter that is January and February. Maybe this is why so many New Year’s resolutions are broken. You start out with this ideal of the fresh start in January. Maybe you stick to them all through January. Screw the grey skies and frigid cold, you are doing this! Then February hits. The grey skies are still there. It feels like they have sunk a little lower. You sit on the couch, under a nice blanket, and from your cozy position you eye the sinking grey sky and think… “oh just one more episode of Breaking Bad…” Your resolve cracks. The lack of sunshine begins to wear on your psyche. By the end of February, that couch has become an extension of you, and you wonder why you keep living in such a cold, icy place.   The thing is, the grocery store does not help this much. Veggies start to look as disinterested in being there as you are. You are pretty sure that half-wilted pile of swiss chard would also like to be catching up on some episodes of Law & Order. Even in our age of shipping veggies and fruit willy nilly all over the country, by the end of February, it’s looking pretty grim. The one thing that is great this time of year? Citrus. Glorious citrus. Brightly colored orbs of tangy, juicy flesh, reminding you of a warmer clime far from here. Somewhere sun is shining on citrus fruit. Secretly, you get a little jealous. Enter the lemon. I am a huge fan of the lemon. The bright acid hit of its juice is a welcome addition to almost everything. The zest has a seductive aroma that brings even the biggest humbug a momentary bump in mood. Recently I learned of this beautiful thing called a preserved lemon. The concept is simple, based on the ages old phenomenon known as preserving. Salt, lemon, and time combine to create a moment of preserved sunshine that you can eat. The origins are from the Middle East and Northern Africa, and I have to stop and applaud these people. There is a particular tang to a preserved lemon that instantly fills you with culinary light. Or maybe that’s just me. Every time I sprinkle a bit of minced preserved lemon on a dish, each bite drives that lowering grey sky away, inch by inch. There are, of course, many recipes out there, but I started with one from Judith Jones. Take four lemons. Almost quarter them, leaving a bit at the end to keep it held together. Jam the inside of the lemons with kosher salt. Massage them deeply, taking long deep inhales of the glorious lemon scent. Let them sit for a day in a jar. Take 8-9 more lemons and juice them right into the jar until the juice covers the salted stuffed lemons. Cover, and let sit for three weeks. And that’s it. To use, just pull off a quarter of lemon, cut out the pulp, and use just the peel. Every time I crack open that jar, any troubles I might be having get pushed aside by the bright sunny aroma that comes forth. What to do with the lemon, other than inhale the aroma? Chop up a bunch of veggies. Potatoes, zucchini, red peppers, onion, maybe some mushrooms. Douse them in olive oil and a bit of salt and pepper, and let them roast. Near the end, add a load of chickpeas and a fistful of finely chopped parsley, and dill if you are lucky enough to find it. Top it with some harissa, if you have some made, and the minced preserved lemon. And that’s it. In the dead of winter, my bowl is glowing with flavor. So try it. Go start it right now, and when February comes, you will be ready to combat the grey. (note: so sorry… I meant this to go up earlier, but you can still get it in time for March, since that damned groundhog says we will still be having deep winter then.)...

the nuances of brain juice

By on Dec 3, 2013 in craft food, love, process | 7 comments

When I was 14, I started to drink coffee while at camp, thin bitter dark coffee dosed heavily with packets of hot chocolate mix. When I was 17 I was an exchange student in Denmark, where my host father looked me in the eye and declared that he was going to teach me how to drink proper coffee (and alcohol,) because if I learned how to do it in the U.S., I was going to learn to do it wrong. When I was 23 I lived in New York City and became enamored of the barrels of beans at Porto Rico Imports in the Village, making a pilgrimage from Brooklyn every time I ran out. When I was 27 I did a grad school project for an interactive media project called “The Obsessive Compulsive’s Guide to Coffee.” Now, at age 38 I have a kettle that heats my water to precisely to 200 degrees, which I slowly pour into a french press with precisely 4 tablespoons of beans for two cups of coffee, then let sit for 4 minutes, which I can now do without using a real timer, and I drink it black. Slowly. I say all this because even with all that evolution and slow learning, I know approximately nothing compared to the eloquent Tim Coonan, owner and roaster at Big Shoulders Coffee. Go ahead and look up Tim Coonan. You will find he has been a chef in some of the finest places in the world. He was at Spiaggia here in Chicago for nine years. And when you drink his coffee, it is not a fanciful mélange of bean and foam, a place where you will find beans excreted from a civet cat wreathed in such mystery and exclusivity you expect there to be armed guards around the cup of coffee. You will drink coffee. With flavor. No-nonsense and yet highly nuanced flavor. On a grey Saturday morning, Mr. Coonan was kind enough to let me come in as he roasted his last batch of coffee for the day. I was there at 10:30AM, and he had already roasted 100 pounds of beans. I walked in the door of his coffee shop and was immediately embraced by the heavenly scent of freshly roasted coffee. I had recently been introduced to this glorious scent by my cousin, owner of  Cimarron Books & Coffee out in Colorado who has become entranced with the coffee bean and had bought a home roaster to do experiment with roasting. The scent of roasting beans wafting through their house was for me akin to living inside a glorious caffeinated bakery where I was not sure I could inhale deeply enough. So walking into a place where they just roasted 100 pounds… well it was beyond any kid in a candy store analogy you have ever envisioned. Way beyond. Right in the front window of Big Shoulders sits a commercial roaster, all vivid, shiny, and green. Tim began to work on roasting a batch of Ugandan beans. He explained the stages, such as first crack, and we watched the beans shift from green to brown, far more swiftly than you might imagine. His eyes constantly flicked between the beans and his nearby laptop, where he had charts for previous roasts of this bean, and a gauge showing temperature. His nose was watching even more keenly. Despite the careful gauging of temperature and time, checking against previous roasts, a lot of this really does still come down to the nose. He said there are machines where you can just program a profile for the roast you want and let it go, but there are so many variables that can affect the batch that day he prefers to watch every roast and do it all manually. I asked about dark vs. medium roasts, and what I had heard about West Coast vs. East Coast roasts, and his answer was not really what I would have expected. I knew about dark roasts being really more about char than coffee, but when it came to the other descriptives, he spoke of how we keep using words like “terroir” and these other coastal definitions, but they are really borrowed from other parts of the culinary lexicon. We don’t really have language yet for just coffee. Terroir is about wine, and about where it is grown, the environment around it. While there is definitely something to that in coffee, it goes farther. It also is what the farmer does to the bean after it is harvested. There is a farmer in Mexico that lets the bean ferment just a little in the bean, giving it this lactic flavor that is unlike anything you will experience in coffee (no civet cats required.) Tim was kind enough to have the folks at the coffee shop make me a couple of cups of coffee, from a couple of batches he really liked. We stood next to a wall where he had some of these beans in glass jars, and he held up an Ethiopian to smell, which smelled pretty much like I expected (still lovely,) and then he held up a jar of this Mexican coffee with the fermented bean, and I think all of my neurons, faithfully fueled by coffee for many a year, did a double take. He said the first time he had this coffee, he had a...

crunchy granola, sans hacky sack

By on Nov 5, 2013 in baking, experimenting, love, snacks, vegetarian | 0 comments

Granola. You know what just popped into your head. You do. I will bet it has nothing to do with cityscapes, suits, ties, evening gowns or limos. I will bet it has something to do with mountain landscapes, flannel shirts, hiking boots, and possibly white boy dreadlocks. And there is good reason. Granola is not sleek, nor is it sophisticated, likely not drunk with a martini while wearing heels. But it is really, really, tasty. Years ago I witnessed Alton Brown whip together granola on his show “Good Eats”. At the time I was an absolute acolyte, worshiping at the Food Network altar, dutifully engaging in the ritual drooling required of all viewers, back when they actually showed you how to cook. There were many, many things done on his show I could not do in a crappy apartment kitchen in Brooklyn (and frankly still can’t now in my tiny Chicago kitchen,) but granola… that I could do. I followed his recipe exactly, and thought it was tasty. I wrote it down, I sent it to other people, I never strayed, fearful that… well I honestly can’t say what I was fearful of. Secret agents employed solely by Alton Brown busting down my door and confiscating my spatulas? A team of granola-sniffing hounds arriving at my door, ratting me out the second they smelled ½ cup of sugar instead of the required ¾ cup? Oats programmed to spontaneously combust if they were not actually stirred exactly every 15 minutes in the oven? On the day I finally broke with the recipe, none of this happened. I didn’t break with it that much. Just a little. And then a little more. And at this point, I do not know if I strayed far or I am only a few tablespoons of oats off. I have made it so many times I can’t remember. And homemade granola is so delicious, so much lighter and full of life that I can’t bring myself to buy even the fancy stuff at Whole Foods. Frankly, after years of making my own, even the “high end” stuff feels like it might break my teeth from the rock hard oaten gravel found within. So of course I had to figure out granola bars. Granola bars proved a little trickier. Recipes abound, and there seems to be no through line. One called for a whopping two sticks of butter, another for piles of goopy corn syrup. I do love butter, but don’t relish the idea of a bar that left my fingers shiny and slick. And I want to avoid corn syrup. The first batch I ever made used granola I had already baked. I am fairly sure you could have used them in light construction projects. The next batch was oatmeal gone horribly, goopily wrong. And then I started to figure things out. A hair less oil. Something other than solid oats to fill it out. 50 degrees less, 25 degrees more, 35 minutes more, 10 minutes less, score them 5 minutes after, 15 minutes after, use an 8×11 pan, use a 9×13 pan, a never ending parade of oaty delights. My colon wept, wondering when the assault would end. And then finally, one day, it all clicked into place, and I found the ratio. Ingredients, times, everything sunk into place, and a crispy bar that held together (until you bit in, then bits of it become a bit graceless, but as per the previous associations, I am fairly sure no one is eating granola in an evening gown,) but did not threaten to carve up the inside of your mouth like a Christmas roast, but not goopy, leaving you with sticky hands you are unwilling to swipe across your smartphone screen. OK, maybe that would have been a nice break, we do spend too much time on those damned things, but I digress. I had it. Granola bars. Ultimately, for all the research and experimentation, it ended up being not far off from the original granola recipe, with a few adjustments to make the whole thing hold together. And it means much like regular granola, I will never buy granola bars again. But I might figure out how to pair one with a martini. Granola bars makes 12 bars, roughly 1 ½”x3” each Dry Ingredients 1 ¾ c. whole rolled oats (I do not use quick-cooking, I use regular) 1 ½ c. puffed rice cereal (no, I do not mean a certain cereal championed by a trio of elves, go look in the natural food aisle. I probably wouldn’t eat this on its own, but it lightens this up a bit) ½ c. pecans (or other nut, if you like, but you don’t have to, this is just what I prefer) ½ c. unsweetened flaked coconut (important: do not substitute sweetened shredded coconut. Find the unsweetened stuff.) 2 Tbsp. flax seed (because it totally makes it healthy. Also totally optional) 1 ½ tsp. kosher salt ¼ c. dark brown sugar ½ c. dark chocolate chips (again, optional, but… it’s dark chocolate, so why would you not want it?) Wet Ingredients scant ¼ c. sunflower or safflower oil (I like these better than canola, as they are light but with a touch of warmth to them, but you can use canola if you like) ¼ c. brown rice syrup (found in natural food places, call it...

inhale deeply

By on Oct 22, 2013 in love, process | 1 comment

Make no mistake; I am from the Midwest. I was born into a culture of casseroles (or hot dish, depending on your exact location,) rife with of cans of condensed soup, a grind or two of black pepper being the closest thing to spice around. Wait, I phrased that incorrectly. No grinding. A pinch of pepper from a tin canister, already ground, neutering the ethereal bite of a freshly cracked peppercorn. This is not actually all a bad thing. There are still moments I desperately crave a tuna noodle casserole, one of the few possible ways you will ever see me eat fish. And a casserole is a quick way of getting hot dinner to your family. But this isn’t about casserole. It is about that pinch of pepper. It is about spice. While my mother did expose me to a wider range of spices and flavors than the average Wisconsin kid had in the 80s, there was only so much she could do, given what was available at the time, at least in a mid-sized city in Wisconsin. A favorite joke in our house: Q: How do you make Norwegian salsa? A: Chop up a tomato. It’s not that far from the truth. But as I grew older, I grew more entranced with the art of cooking, and while I definitely will occasionally go to my mother’s house and bust out the stash of egg noodles I know are stored in a 35-year old coffee can (we take recycling VERY seriously in our family, those containers last forever) and whip up a classic tuna noodle casserole, I now take great pleasure in spice. Not the spice that blows your head off. I can take a fair amount of heat in my spice, although my pride on how spicy of food I could take was dented a little when I befriended a few folks from India and China. When the person from India tells you they think it is too spicy, believe them. Trust me. But I digress. Spice does not necessarily mean heat. Pull open my spice drawer and you will get assaulted with a thousand scents, only a few of which will actually make you tear up. I have a little marble mortar and pestle I bought well over a decade ago to grind them fresh by hand, and even though it can be a challenge, it is pretty much a given that freshly ground spices are always better. And one of the finer examples of it is harissa. No, that is not the misspelling of an arch-villain of Rocky and Bullwinkle’s. It is actually a Tunisian condiment. I must say, the Tunisians are brilliant. It has a long list of ingredients, but it holds for a few weeks and is one of the finer things to keep around the house. Of course there are many a recipe for this delectable little paste, but in the end I like it with plenty of aromatic spice, flirting with the edge of heat without taking out your tastebuds in a wall of culinary flame. I am absolutely positive there are those in my family who would turn red and start sweating just looking at it sideways, but for the rest I can assure them that it is divine. The making of it is a sensual act, each ingredient releasing headily distinct scents as you prepare them, and you start to rack up ideas in your head of what to put the final product on. I once had a student from Egypt tell me that they use it for breakfast to top off a nice bit of bread or chickpea soup. Dried ancho chiles release a sweet smoky scent, red bell peppers and jalapenos let loose a juicy edge of sweet. Cumin, caraway, and coriander seeds roast briefly in a pan, and the second you start to grind them in the mortar and pestle, the warm scent causes you to close your eyes as your mind flies away to a far away market that pretty much looks exactly like one in the market swordfight scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Salty fresh garlic, a clean fresh hail of mint, a touch of earthy sweet honey, and the magical final component of the food processor to bring it all together into a smoky sweet warm salty concoction with the slightest bitter edge of pepper, and just a touch of heat. Now that is a luscious bit of spice. Harissa 2 oz. dried ancho chiles (about 5-7 chiles, don’t worry about getting too many, they keep. And yes, they are actually pretty easy to find, especially if your grocery store has a “Hispanic” section) 3 jalapenos, halved and seeded 1 red bell pepper, halved and seeded 1 tsp. whole cumin seed ½ tsp. whole caraway seed 1 tsp. whole coriander seed (yes, you can use ground if you have it, but I beseech you to try whole. And go buy a spice grinder or a mortar and pestle. I’ll wait. Go ahead. No, you can’t use your coffee grinder, you need something just for spice. OK. Have you got it? OK. Good.we shall continue.) 2 serrano peppers, halved and seeded 2 Tbsp. chopped mint leaves 1 Tbsp. honey generous pinch salt extra virgin olive oil Cut the tops off of all the ancho chiles and remove as many of the seeds...

coveted chocolate hazelnut deliciousness

By on Oct 14, 2013 in dessert, love, snacks, unprocessed october | 0 comments

There is a substance out there in the universe so coveted, the mere presence of it brought chaos to an Ivy League university as students hoarded it like gold. The name of it, when called out, causes heads to swivel in the hopes there is some to be had. People clamor for it as if it is some sort of currency. Except it would do no good as currency. You would eat it so fast you would be “broke” in a matter of minutes. It is Nutella. And I love it. Or at least, I did love it. It now contains the ominous spectre of high fructose corn syrup, a substance I try to avoid. There are other varieties out there, but honestly, they fall a little flat in comparison to the original. I was resigned to abandoning my love affair with the chocolatey hazelnut goodness. And then one day a cookbook arrived on my door. A magical cookbook full of ways to make your own things most sane people would just buy already made. Inside the wondrous pages of this cookbook lies a simple recipe for chocolate hazelnut spread. Nutella. From scratch. With six ingredients. I had to try it (with a tiny tweak here and there, of course.) It all begins with the roasting of hazelnuts, an always welcome task, the warm scent of roasting hazelnuts gently draping across the kitchen. A vigorous shake in a bowl sends the dark papery skins flying, and you inevitably sit, pinching at the skins that have refused to release themselves, wondering why on earth you decided to do this? What insanity would drive you to sift through over a hundred hazelnuts, plunking them one by one into the bowl of the waiting food processor? These thoughts are lost quickly, though, in the gentle crackle of the cooling nuts, each crack letting loose a little more of that warm roasted aroma. And from there… magic. A press of the button on the food processor, and the whirling blades (after an initial noise that sounds like the end of times) pulverize the hazelnuts into dust. They blades keep whirling, slowly drawing the natural oils out of the nuts. The whole mass suddenly seizes into a ball, clunking about the bowl, and then, with a shudder, the oils fully release and the whole thing sinks back into a creamy smooth paste (this will never have the absolute smoothness of actual Nutella.) Some confectioner’s sugar and cocoa powder is thrown in. A generous pinch of salt and a splash of vanilla extract gets thrown into the fray. The button is depressed again, a poof of powdered sugar and cocoa powder explode inside the bowl. A bit of hazelnut oil is drizzled through the top, the dust settles, and suddenly a dark and glossy substance appears. The substance that caused chaos. The substance that causes heads to swivel. And here it is. Warm. Gooey. Nutty. Chocolaty. You will consider whether or not you will share it. You wonder how long it will keep. And then you realize you will never know, because you have already dipped a spoon in to taste, and you know without a shadow of a doubt that this spread is not long for this world. Chocolate Hazelnut Spread (adapted ever so slightly from the America’s Test Kitchen DIY cookbook) Makes a little less than a pint 2 cups raw whole hazelnuts (if you can find them unskinned, this will go all the quicker) 1 c. confectioner’s sugar 1/3 c. unsweetened cocoa powder 1 tsp. salt 1 tsp. vanilla extract 2 Tbsp. hazelnut oil (a quick aside here. Hazelnut oil is not cheap, no two ways about it, but it does add a lovely hazelnut kick to this. If you parse it out, one bottle will likely get you dozens upon dozens of batches, so it will be worth it, but it is really hard to swallow the price of the initial purchase. If you don’t’ want to do it, you can use a neutral oil like canola or sunflower.) Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Spread hazelnuts out on a baking sheet. Roast for 12 – 15 minutes, until the skins have turned dark brown, the exposed parts a lovely light gold. You will also know by scent. When you actually start to really smell them, they are likely done. Don’t let them go too long. Even 30 seconds too long can burn them. Pull them out of the oven and pour them into a large bowl. When they are cool enough to handle, place a plate or another bowl over them and shake vigorously. This should get most of the skins off. Carefully remove the skinned hazelnuts and place them in the bowl of a food processor. It is not the end of the world if there are some skins in there, but try to get rid of as many as you can, as they will make it bitter. Bribe people into helping you by saying they get to like the bowl when it’s done. Once all the hazelnuts are in the food processor, pulse a few times until they are pulverized. This will be unbelievably loud. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and then just… hit the button. Let the food processor run. After a minute or two, the nuts will seize up into a cohesive mass. Keep letting...