Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Tarka Dal

One of the best surprises about my first trip to London was that the Indian food there was beyond incredible. I thought I’d be traipsing around eating fish and chips for every meal but instead, I was downing fish curries, lentils, paneer and naan at every turn and hoarding samosas from Brick Lane in my bag…for later.

I had eaten Indian food before my trip, but I never really tasted it and appreciated it as I had in London. Something about the careful, extremely detail-oriented preparation there and the bold, bright flavors executed so delicately made me fall in love with the cuisine. Now it’s probably some of my favorite food to eat because of that experience.

I had the great opportunity to head back to London recently to celebrate the New Year and I was so excited to see what kind of Indian food I could try this time. The trip was an amazing whirlwind, and on our last day there, we still hadn’t indulged in any Indian food so after spending the day walking everywhere (our specialty!), we were tired and hungry, and were craving a good last meal in London, so we took the tube farther east than I’d ever been, to the Whitechapel stop, walked down the stairs, and stood on the street wondering what we had gotten ourselves into.

The neighborhood was quiet and a little bit creepy. It was dark but not too late, at around 9PM, and we figured that since we weren’t far from the restaurant, we’d keep going and see what it looked like before deciding whether or not we should go somewhere else.

As we walked up the street to the restaurant, we noticed immediately that it was buzzing wildly with activity and that the quiet streets were a stark contrast from the pandemoniom taking place within. We happily continued inside and, instead of putting our names on the “list,” as we do in NY, we waited on the first come-first served line that they had snaking throughout the restaurant, patiently waiting until we could score a table.

At some point while we were on line, it became clear that this restaurant was BYOB only, which posed a bit of a problem for us mid-twenties kids who neglected to keep any emergency booze on us for moments just like this. Scott decided to go out, find a corner store, and get some beer. Good man. Was I worried he wouldn’t come back? Nah!

When we finally sat down for dinner, we were served a wonderful meal. We started with charred tandoor paneer and vegetables and a healthy amount of pappadums and chutnies (so good) which were followed by the main event, where I enjoyed something new (to me), tarka dal.

Usually, when I’m feeling feisty, I’ll order malai kofta or something a little more exciting than a lentil dish when I’m out for Indian food, but something about tarka dal’s explanation on the menu as being characterized by “pure flavors” intrigued me. I had indulged a lot in the previous few days and pure flavors seemed like exactly what I needed. I was right.

The lentils were thick, soft, and falling apart among the tomatoes, green chilis and onions within the bowl. The dal was spicy, intensely flavored with turmeric and garlic, and had an incredible depth, which was shocking to me, as I stared into the yellow pool of lentils, which seemed so unassuming. I soaked up every ounce of the dal with roti and basmati rice, unable to grasp how good the dish was, vowing to try this again in NY as soon as possible.

So when I got home, I put “make tarka dal” on my bucket cooking list, and set out to try it as soon as I could. Surprisingly, finding a solid, consistent recipe was a little confusing. Many recipes used red lentils. Others used a combination of red lentils and yellow split peas. I consulted one of my good friends, whose family is gujarati, and she confirmed that yellow lentils were used for tarka dal.

This dal, which I adapted a bit to use what I could reasonably find at my grocery store, is almost exactly how I remember it from Tayyabs. It’s soupy with just the right amount of texture from the lentils, which fall apart a bit, and a perfect, earthy combination of spices with a little hit of chili in the background. I topped mine with caramelized onions and a hint of cilantro and served it over some brown basmati rice, and the whole dish felt full and utterly complete. It may not have been exactly like the dal I had in London (perhaps fresh ground spices and a little ghee would remedy that), but it was certainly a great reminder of that last meal we had there before we walked through quiet, sort-of-creepy Whitechapel, took the tube back to pack all of our things, and flew home to New York the next day.

One Year Ago: Tofu with Soba Noodles, Shiitake Mushrooms & Spinach

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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Salted Caramel Bundt Cake

I love surprising, contrasting flavor combinations. Pour me a jalapeno-passion fruit martini, hot chocolate laced with chili powder, or a handful of chocolate covered pretzels any day and I will be quite pleased.  I love being surprised with each bite or sip and discovering new combinations that I never would’ve dreamed would work well together.

So, it’s not a surprise that the words “salted” and “caramel” in the same sentence generally cause me to jump with joy. (When they are mixed, also, with the word “chocolate,” I enter my red zone, a scary, yet delicious place that we’ll have to discuss another day.)

The most incredible salted caramel combination that I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying was the ice cream at Molly Moon’s  in Seattle last summer. That stuff was crazy. It was the most creamy, delicate, vibrant flavor of ice cream I’d ever had. The caramel and salt were balanced perfectly, toying almost hyperactictively with each other, and the flavors exploded, together, with each spoon full. I somehow managed to give Scott a taste without putting him into a head lock when he asked if he could try it. (I’m notoriously bad at sharing. Ask my mom.) I remember reaching the end of that cup of ice cream and wanting to turn back and go for seconds, but after a roasted onion sandwich at Paseo for lunch that day, and then the ice cream, there wasn’t room for much else.

It seems that the salted caramel combination is pretty popular these days, but I’ve found that it’s not always done properly. At its best, the combination is a welcome revelation, but the rest of the time, it sort of tastes like there might be maple syrup hiding beneath the surface or, worse, there is barely any detectable salt present. That’s a real shame.

When I acquired a bundt pan recently, thanks to a Williams Sonoma gift card from my grandparents (thanks!!) I wasn’t sure what to make in it first. Chocolate cake? Pumpkin? Sweet potato?!?!And then I saw a recipe for a salted caramel bundt cake, and my search was over.

This cake has an inherently subtle sweetness and elegance that makes it very approachable. It’s the sort of thing you can walk over to and taste a bite of, without feeling like you’re going to overwhelm yourself with decadence. The caramel is smooth and silky on top of the moist cake, and the salt is a little surprising at first, popping through the sweetness of the caramel, reminding you, in a not-so-subtle way that it’s there.

Baking the cake itself is a relatively straight forward process and doesn’t  require all that much work besides dropping ingredients into the stand mixer and whirling away. The one bit of advice I can offer here is that you should try your best not to over mix the batter. It’s perfectly light and fluffy when mixed properly, but as soon as you go a little too far, you run the risk of making the cake too dense. Stop mixing the batter a few seconds before all of the dry ingredients are combined with the wet. Then finish it off carefully by stirring with a wooden spoon.

I didn’t use a candy thermometer to make the caramel and it turned out just fine despite this being my first time experimenting with it. The key to the caramel is to keep whisking and to not be afraid of it. (It’s bubbling, AHH!!!!!!!) As long as you’re on top of it and paying attention to it, the sugar will melt with the butter, form a luscious, thick caramel, and then you’ll remove the pot from the heat and gently mix in the cream. (Don’t do as I did, though, and be tempted to to stick your finger in the caramel pot once you think it’s cool. Ouch. Beginner’s mistake.)

I could hardly notice the faint burn in my finger when I sat down to take a bite of this cake, though. It was certainly worth the trouble.

One Year Ago: 5-minute tomato sauce

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Thursday, February 23, 2012

Orecchiette with Chard, White Beans & Sun-dried Tomatoes

Sometimes the same old things get boring. Take, for example, where I grew up: Long Island. A place that’s famous for Levitt-style houses, the Gotti’s and the LIRR drunk train (did anyone else see How I Met Your Mother last week? What they’re talking about is real!) Most of the island is just how you’d expect a suburb to be. There are mini-vans, little league games, PTA and community pools. Pizza, bagel stores and Dunkin Donuts litter practically every shopping center. For a long time, this was the exact Long Island I was desperate to get away from because it always seemed stereotypical and boring and I knew I wanted to be among more exciting, faster paced things. So I moved to “the city,” as us Long Islanders call it, also known as Manhattan.

Since I’ve left Long Island, I’ve begun to appreciate it so much more than I ever thought I would. First of all, I love that I can go home with relative ease (1/2 hour on the subway and an hour on the train). Many of my friends live there and most of my family is there, too. Most of all, my personal story was created there; there are memories everywhere.

Recently, I was reminded that there are places on Long Island that I haven’t really explored all that much. I’ve been to my usual haunts, to Jones Beach and Tobay Beach, Huntington Village, Long Beach, and Roosevelt Field Mall. I’ve been to the Hamptons a handful of times, too. But up until a few days ago, I’d never seen most of the North Fork, in eastern Long Island, which is filled with numerous wineries, restaurants and beaches.

It was strange to be out there this past weekend, traipsing through Greenport, drinking wine flights with friends, and driving as far east as we could go (to the tip of the North Fork called Orient Point ), parking the car, and walking out to the quiet beach where almost all we could see was ocean. The water was crisp, blue and quiet. There were hardly any other people around. The rocks and shells lay practically untouched on the sand and we were enveloped by complete silence and peacefulness.

If you’re ever thinking of heading out to the North Fork, I can’t think of a better time to go than winter. I’m sure that if I had been out there during the summer, I would’ve felt differently about it, but being there when it felt like we were practically the only people around, made the experience that much more special. I kept thinking, “All of this exists and I’ve never taken the opportunity to come here?” I guess not everything worth while needs to be accessible by plane, which is how I sometimes determine the solidity and excitement of an adventure.

When the weekend was over and we came back to the city and ascended the steps of the 86th Street 1 stop, the symbol of “home,” I was glad to be back, but I was so refreshed by the simple idea that I had seen a place I thought I knew so well in a completely new way. And I was grateful for that.

It would only be fitting, then, that I talk about pasta. Even though I could eat it, slathered in marinara sauce, every day for the rest of my life and never get bored, sometimes it feels like there’s no real way to make it unique again. It’s as if all of the possibilities have been tried over and over to the point where no one even cares about it anymore. But apparently when you make pasta and toss in some steamed chard, white beans and sun-dried tomatoes, there’s a sudden change of pace on the plate that you don’t quite expect at first glance.

The chard, which I used in place of broccoli rabe, which the recipe suggests, adds a slight bitterness to the pasta while the creamy, tender white beans make the dish more substantial. The sun-dried tomatoes add tartness and a bit of sweetness and, above all, the addition of the warm water in which the tomatoes have been reconstituted, creates the base of the light yet deeply lively sauce that clings to each bite and adds layers of vibrancy that you can’t detect by simply looking at the plate. It’s a perfect way to give pasta a new way to shine, and it’s really, surprisingly good. 

I’m learning now that sometimes the same old things don’t always have to be the same old things. I like that idea.

One Year Ago: Julia’s Brownies

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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Chickpea and Sweet Potato Stew with Couscous

I’m not sure about where you live, but around here it has been ridiculously warm this winter (see exhibits A and B). For the first time that I can remember, I’m wishing that it would snow hard just one time so that the season doesn’t end without a blanket of white on the ground, in the trees, and on top of cars.

On one hand, the unseasonably warm weather is kind of convenient. No shoveling, snow boots or even excessive use of the heater. (Unlike many landlords in New York City, mine does not pay for my heat. Therefore, we don’t turn it on unless we really need to.) On the other, it sort of feels like winter never came and that we’re in a perpetual state of fall except with no colorful leaves and winter coats everywhere out of habit, not because they’re actually needed every day.

It’s also strange to be at home in a tank top and cooking soup or marinara sauce because I haven’t been craving those things that much. But it’s hard to eat otherwise, I feel, as the farmer’s markets are full of kale, brussels sprouts, parsnips and cabbage, food that screams winter. It’s a strange and not all that serious dilemma, but it’s made me think about the food we eat, why we eat it, and what motivates us to prepare certain foods in certain seasons.

I guess part of it is the human condition. We need heartier food in the colder months to help shield us against the winter freeze. Our bodies work better that way. And in the summer we turn to salads or cold pasta dishes with fresh herbs and lemon zest because weighing ourselves down during those months just wouldn’t feel right.

My meals have sort of been all over the place this winter. I’ll crave a salad one day and the next I’ll be all over a big bowl of hot lentil soup. And there have been lots and lots of sweet potatoes. Like, almost every day, in all forms (sweet potato fries, curries, soups, tostadas, and most recently, COOKIES! Recipe coming soon.)

Scott received this cookbook for Christmas and I’ve been swooning over the pictures in it ever since. Naturally, I cooked the recipe whose picture I fixated on the most, and the winner in this case was a sweet potato and chickpea stew with couscous.

The preparation of the stew itself was pretty straight forward and included chopping, dropping, sauteeing, and seasoning. The interesting part of the preparation here was for how to make the couscous.

When I first read the recipe and it suggested steaming the couscous, I was bewildered. I had never seen it prepared this way and was sure that if I followed the recipe, I’d mess it up. I decided to forge ahead, anyway, and am SO glad I did, despite the extra time it took. The resulting couscous from this recipe is fluffy and soft, and all of the granules remain separate when you steam them so there are no clumps!  Adding chopped almonds, toasted coconut and raisins makes it more full and nuanced with bits of  sweetness from the raisins and the occasional bite of light almond or coconut throughout. It’s some of the best couscous I’ve ever had.

The accompanying stew works perfectly on top of the couscous. The chickpeas and sweet potatoes soften after stewing with the tomatoes, stock and spices, and the whole stew mingles together, each flavor streaming through the others while the separate ingredients keep their own identities, too. The sweet potatoes shine through and add a buoyant sweetness to the dish while the chickpeas add heft and the curry powder offers a spicy, fragrant background. Served over the couscous, this stew is hearty and warming, but still retains a bit of lightness, lending itself well to this unseasonable warmth while reminding me that it is still really winter. And I like that.

One Year Ago: Restaurants | ilili

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Monday, February 13, 2012

Strawberry Swirl Cheesecake with Chocolate Ganache

The non-conformist in me doesn’t want to admit that I sort of like Valentine’s Day. For most of my life, I was happy to participate in the holiday if candy and chocolate was involved, and the rest of the time, I was pretty indifferent to the whole thing. Despite the commercialism of the day and the expectations that it often brings forth, I don’t hate on Valentine’s Day because it’s a day to celebrate love. I like that idea.

I never thought I’d be in love. I was sure that my cynicism and desire to assert my independence were too prominent in my personality for me to ever find someone I’d want to be with. I realize now that this is silly, but at one time, I really felt like love wasn’t in my future. I went on a few dates in college but I didn’t like any of the people enough to see them more than a few times. After college I developed crushes so ridiculous that a friend had to sit with me in the bathroom of a restaurant on her birthday one year and ask, “Nicole, are you serious?” She was so right.

Then, in an instant, it all changed. I’m not sure why or how, but it did. I met him, a cute blond baritone with glasses, on stage at an opera rehearsal. He appeared in front of me with a frantic look on his face and his head buried in his score reviewing his music. Later that day we introduced ourselves. Scott was his name. We talked. We laughed. We spent free time at every rehearsal walking around the block and learning more about each other. We became Facebook friends. A few weeks later I asked him out for coffee. (You want it? Go get it!) A week after that we went out for tapas and wine. The next it was Central Park and Indian food. Each date led to another and another (and another) and now we’re here, happy, together, almost three years later, journeying along, dealing with all of the great stuff, the not-so-great stuff, and everything else that life brings. And we’ve never looked back.

When Valentine’s Day rolls around, we won’t be out at a restaurant or exchanging presents because that really isn’t our style. Since one of our favorite ways to spend time together is to cook a nice, simple meal, hang on the couch with some wine, and play cards or, lately, Monopoly, that’s what we’re going to do. Because we rarely do that on a Tuesday due to obligations, rehearsals, practicing, working out, blogging, whatever, I think Valentine’s Day is the perfect time to forget about the to-do list for an evening and enjoy each other’s company. It’s going to be an awesome change of pace. And there will probably be cake.

I’d never personally made a cheesecake before I made this one. I was very, very hesitant to bake it because I’d heard horror stories about cheesecakes splitting and not cooking properly or being overcooked, and I thought the whole thing was way too complicated. But, despite my reservations, it wound up turning out very well. I chose to make a strawberry cheesecake with chocolate ganache because it seemed so, impossibly decadent and I was in the mood for a dessert that was over the top in sweetness and richness, which this one most definitely is.

The combination of cream cheese and mascarpone here creates a smooth, creamy cake base that’s sweetened with sugar and swirled, just before baking, with strawberry preserves that have been slightly diluted with water to thin them out. The cake lays atop a crust that’s simply a mixture of chocolate cookies (or you could use ginger snaps or almond biscotti) and melted butter. The crust is sturdy and thick, holds up to the cake well, but doesn’t take any glory away from the cheesecake filling itself. The ganache, poured over the top before serving, adds a sweet, deepness to the top of the cake; each bite into the ganache, which hardens a bit over time, mixed with a bite of the strawberry cheesecake, is defined by a creamy fullness that’s made light and sweet by the cheesecake and dark and rich by the ganache.

This cake is so decadent that after one piece I was so satisfied, I didn’t even want another. It’s perfect, filling, and the balance of flavor is just right. The cake took up an entire shelf in our small refrigerator for a week, greeting us every time we opened the door, and begging to be eaten all day. If, like us, you’re not serving this cake to a group and would like to keep it for more than a few days, you can refrigerate the cake for 3-5 days or freeze it, wrapped in foil, for up to a month. (Freeze the cake uncovered (you can leave it on the bottom of the spring form pan) for an hour before wrapping it very well in foil and then freezing it until you need it, at which point you can thaw it overnight in the refrigerator.)

Whether you celebrate Valentine’s Day or not, have a great Tuesday. And if there’s cake and wine involved, even better!

One Year Ago: Butternut Squash Gratin

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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Curried Butternut Squash & Red Lentil Soup

I’m not sure when it happened, exactly, but a few months ago I decided that I could really use a Vitamix. There wasn’t a real reason and I didn’t know exactly what I’d do with it or how I’d get it, but I wanted one, and I remained fixated on this (expensive) household item, dreaming up all sorts of ways I’d be able to use it and how much *easier* my time in the kitchen would be if I had one. I even got my mom, who had never even heard of a Vitamix, deeply curious about it. (She now owns one and uses it multiple times a day.)

So, for Christmas (and my birthday), my parents generously gifted a Vitamix to me, and it has earned a coveted spot underneath a shelf in my kitchen on the floor where all the other things that don’t fit anywhere else go. It’s easily accessible, and I use it just about every day. Could I have lived without it? Umm, yes, definitely, but now that I have it and its 7-year warrantee, I enjoy messing around with it whenever I can.

With the exeption of the one time a cauliflower puree with raw cauliflower and no liquid was attempted in the Vita (wasn’t me!), we have had a very easy-going and mutually beneficial relationship.  

I’ve been asked (often) what I use the blender for. (Usually to the tune of, “What the hell does this blender do? Turn food to gold?”) Personally, I enjoy making homemade almond milk, smoothies with spinach or any other vegetable (which can barely be detected, in taste!), protein shakes, and, most especially, for pureeing soups. The way the vitamix purees soups is ridiculous. The results are creamy and velvety, with a texture that’s silky smooth and rich.

This particular soup, which I put together on a whim one night after not really being able to decide what to make for dinner, may look simple, but it’s so much more detailed and nuanced than it appears. First, the red lentils and butternut squash provide a great deal of heft to the soup, making it perfectly filling as a meal without any other fillers (although toasted pita bread pairs very well with it). They’re both full of protein and fiber, and, once seasoned with the curry powder and cayenne, develop a rounder, more full flavor that begins simply with the first slurp, and then becomes more and more vibrant and rich with each spoonful.

If you don’t like too much heat in your food, you should probably tone down the spices a bit and use half of the curry powder and either just a pinch of cayenne, or none at all. The addition of some sort of dried fruit or the pomegranate aerils, which I chose to use as garnish, lend a perfect amount of subtle sweetness to the thick, spicy soup. The nuts on top provide a texture contrast as well, and a welcome, interesting change of pace throughout the soup eating venture.

Even though this winter has been useasonably mild in New York, the way the nights grow dark so early and the temperatures chill a bit at night, give a warm bowl of this soup  magical warming and comforting abilities. Best of all, it’s relatively low maintenance (chop, stir, simmer, blend), and economical, too. Even if the Vitamix you’ve blended it in isn’t.

One Year Ago: Homemade Oreos

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Friday, February 3, 2012

Alfajores

I played JV soccer until the end of my sophomore year of high school when I decided to focus on playing violin instead because I was way better at it. I also stopped playing because I HATED running and in order to try out for varsity soccer in junior year, I’d have had to run 2 miles on the track without stopping in 18 minutes. I said, “HELL no,” and proceeded to spend the rest of my high school years as a proud member of the orchestra, which I loved.

From that point until about a year and a half ago, I didn’t run at all, but one day last year I woke up and decided I wanted to start running as a way to exercise more and to spend more time outdoors. I started sloooow. I remember running from 155th St. and Saint Nicholas Ave down Riverside Drive to 122nd St near Grant’s Tomb and after that distance, about a mile and a half, I was pissed, sweaty, angry, and totally bummed at how little stamina I had. Slowly, I began running farther and farther, and now, a year and a half later, I run the full Central Park loop  without thinking twice.

A few days ago, after happily running the loop one morning, and after itching for the past several months to run more competitively, I knew it was time to go one step further so I signed up for a half marathon. It’ll take place the first weekend of May on Long Island. My first thought as I clicked “submit” and paid my fee was, “Woo hoo! I’m going to kick some butt!” and now I’m sort of scared, wondering why I’d do such a thing, and trying to figure out how I’m going to train properly while working full time, rehearsing for an opera, blogging, and having a life. We’ll make it happen.

Training for this half is going to be a step out of my running and life comfort zone, for sure, but I’m ready to work towards this new goal, which I never thought I’d have in a million years. 

You know what else I’ve been doing these days besides signing up for this race? I’ve been making dulce de leche.  I found the method for making it here and have been obsessed over how easy, cheap, and ridiculously amazing it is to turn a can of sweetened condensed milk into dulce de leche. It’s SO good! And practically effortless! This dulce de leche is perfect plopped into a cup of coffee, smeared onto an apple or just eaten right off a spoon (my preferred method of consumption), but after searching for desserts to make with it, I came up with the perfect solution: Alfajores!

Alfajores, cookies which you’re likely to find if you travel to Argentina or Peru, are essentially simple butter and sugar cookie sandwiches filled with dulce de leche. They may seem like cute, managable cookies as they sit on a platter looking clean cut and with a bit of confectioners’ sugar on top, but in reality they’re overwhelmingly sweet and creamy sandwich cookies that dance in your mouth and cause your taste buds to immediately want to reach for another once you’ve finished one. The outer cookies, which seem to be non-entities compared to the dulce de leche, are actually sturdy, flaky, buttery discs that yield perfectly to the filling. They are really, really good. Post run snack, anyone? Juuust kidding :)

I’ll keep you posted on the status of my new running adventure in addition to all my cooking ones. I’m a little scared at this point, but I have a few months to train, and even though I don’t know how the whole thing is going to turn out, I do know that I’m motivated by the challenge, and will leave the rest to training and my competitive personality. I know it’s in there somewhere.

One Year Ago: Restaurants | Po

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Monday, January 30, 2012

Vegetarian Chili

My dad and brothers are die hard New York Jets fans and they’ve been season ticket holders for as long as I can remember.  Because they’re such big fans, I’m also a Jets fan, by default, and although I may not actually admit this in public, I do know (mostly) how the games work, and kind of enjoy watching them, too, when I can. I like the quick pace, the gnarliness, and the relatively short season. I also enjoy the food generally associated with football; Beer, nachos, guacamole, and chili come to mind when I think of it, and I love all those things, so if watching football is a chance for me to partake in it, then count me in.

Despite having to put up with seemingly endless Jets losses, my family is still devoted to the team and while I wish the Jets were heading to Indianapolis on Sunday, I’m still really glad the other New York team will be there. (And so is my grandfather who wears head to toe Giants gear while watching every game, and who said that he was “flying 35,000 feet in the air” after the win against the 49ers last week. He is so cute.)

To be honest, though, the Superbowl is never my favorite thing to watch since the New York teams are rarely playing.  The only reason I’m interested in the the game at all is for the excuse to drink booze and eat chips and chili, and I very much like it that way.

Vegetarian chili, one of my favorite game day foods, often gets a bad reputation. For purists who think that chili with beans or without meat isn’t actually chili, they scoff at the thought that the photo above pictures anything besides a thick soup with beans and vegetables. For me, though, vegetarian chili like this is exactly what I enjoy eating while watching football or old ER episodes (my favorite show, EVER) or nothing at all. It’s the kind of stuff that makes a bad day better as it simmers away on the stove, emitting aromas of chili powder and cumin throughout the house, slowly and effortlessly stewing and becoming more vibrant, deep, and mysterious with every minute. That’s the kind of thing I call chili and crave all winter as I lounge around in my thick sweaters, feeling perpetually cold, craving something that exudes warmth.

This recipe was derived from a version of chili I used to make a while ago ago when I still lived at home. I don’t remember where the recipe was from, but I pretty much memorized what was in it and knew exactly what I wanted to add to it to make it “mine.” A fresh cup of hot, strong coffee and a lot of extra spices along with some roasted frozen corn (a la Trader Joe’s) fit perfectly into the mix.

The coffee, especially, helps to deepen the chili in a way that I hadn’t been able to achieve in the homemade version before. It seems so simple, but the addition adds a touch of mystery and curious depth to the dish. I’m sure that adding a bottle of porter to the chili would have the same sort of effect, in case you’d rather try that. The chili has a great texture, too, aided by the contrast of the two types of beans, the pop of the corn, and the tenderness of the pepper, carrot, celery and onion. The end result is hearty, rich, and thick chili that’s perfect for a chilly winter evening when the darkness strikes early and the world quiets itself as night approaches. And it’s perfect for a Sunday game, too.

One Year Ago: Goat Cheese Ravioli

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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

One of my favorites

After all the cake, sweets, and overall indulgences that took place throughout my wonderful birthday weekend, it’s time to take it all down a notch and start getting back to eating food that makes me feel energized. I’m completely ready.

I had an amazing birthday. I started celebrating on Saturday night at one of my favorite restaurants, Dhaba, a vibrant, colorful Northern Indian restaurant in Curry Hill. Dhaba is a great place for a group outing with some serious curries on their menu. Some of my favorite dishes there are the saag paneer and malai kofta. After dinner, some friends and I continued celebrating at a local bar, keeping out of trouble, and enjoying a few pints of good beer. :)

On Sunday, my actual birthday, I requested that we head out early to my favorite NYC breakfast spot, Absolute Bagels, for everything bagels covered with a heavy handed schmear of scallion cream cheese (ooooh!! So good), which was followed by a couple of tums (totally necessary), ice skating at Bryant Park (falling children everywhere!) and dinner at Ai Fiori .  The meal at Ai Fiori was truly incredible. Between the lobster soup, spaghetti with crab and chilis, and halibut with lentils, all of which were tastefully and flawlessly prepared, by the time I saw dessert I nearly cried out in desperation; I was so full! We headed home after dinner and caught the tail end of the Giants game (the best part!) before crashing. It was an exciting, very happy 26th birthday. Just how I like them!

Now that I’m back to reality, I’m craving familiarity and simplicity and meals that are easy, healthful, and economical.  At times like these, when I feel like eating a little lighter and more thoughtfully, I head back to old favorites, and this time, I tried out a kicked up version of one of the best comfort foods that I can think of: rice and beans.

My love for this food truly knows no bounds. Having a pot of beans on the stove and a batch of rice in the rice cooker while I putter around the apartment, knowing that a satisfying, easy meal is just minutes away, is truly therapeutic after a long day at work.

This recipe, in particular, takes the usual notion of rice and beans and adds a bit more substance and flavor in the form of dried spices, chipotle peppers, and corn. The chipotle peppers paired with the rice, sauteed onions, oregano and cumin add a smoky background to the dish while the tender, soupy black beans add hearty warmth and a silky, hearty texture. I topped my version with a simple guacamole (just avocado, lemon juice, cilantro and salt), and some chopped cherry tomatoes, but you could add cheddar cheese, sour cream, diced green or red onions or anything you have around that might work well with this dish.

If you’ve never cooked beans from scratch before and would like to give it a go, it’s really not that difficult. All you need to do is plan a bit in advance (the morning of is fine).

For a 4 person serving:

1. Rinse and drain 2 cups of dried beans, pour them into a large bowl and cover them generously with water until they’re all submerged. Top with foil and leave in the refrigerator for 8-10 hours.

2. Drain the beans of their water after 8-10 hours, rinse them again, and then put them in a large pot and add water so that it comes up above the beans 2-3 inches. Add a few garlic cloves and some dried oregano or any kind of spices you’d like (or you can add nothing at all which I have done on particularly lazy days). Turn on the heat to medium, bring the mixture to a boil, and then reduce the heat and cover the beans for 1-1 1/2 hours, depending on the type of bean (chickpeas will take longer than black beans, for example).

3. Start to check the beans after 45 to see if they’re tender.  This will help you gauge how long they’re going to take to finish cooking. Once the beans are ready, you can either serve them immediately or store them in the refrigerator in their cooking liquid for 3-5 days or  in the freezer for up to 3 months.

One Year Ago: Apple Crisp

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Friday, January 20, 2012

Chocolate Peanut Butter Cake

Last year on the day before my birthday, I came home from work to get ready for a celebratory dinner and walked into the apartment to see to a kitchen that looked like a scene out of my worst nightmare. There were dishes piled high in the sink, bowls littering the floor, and flour dusting every discernible surface.

Scott was making my birthday cake.

In his defense, the cake recipe complicated, involved multiple steps, several layers, caramel, filling and frosting, and he worked for a couple of days putting it together before and after work when I wasn’t home, hoping to surprise me with it (so sweet!). The end result was fabulous and worth every ounce of effort, and we savored that cake for days, not wanting it to be done.

Keeping with the high standard birthday cake baking that has inadvertently become our tradition, I knew that when Scott’s birthday rolled around a few weeks ago, I wanted to treat him to a cake that we’d enjoy just as much. I practically put myself into a cold sweat trying to look for a cake that I thought he’d like and after some serious internet scouring and thought, I settled on a cake featuring one of my favorite sweet combinations. It was very a good idea.

Best of all, it took me  just over 2 hours (not 2 days! Ah! I have no patience for that.) in all to make this cake, clean up, and frost it, which I consider a decent accomplishment. And Scott loved it, which made me happy.

Something about homemade layer cakes for a birthday are so right. As a kid, my mom always baked cakes for our birthdays. Every single year.  It was one of her (and my dad’s) many ways of taking time to show us that our birthdays were important and worth celebrating. We probably didn’t realize that at the time, of course, but now it makes so much sense. You bake a cake (or something sweet) for the people you love on their birthdays because it’s a great, special thing to do and because it makes everyone happy to celebrate. Cakes mean celebration!

Every aspect of this chocolate peanut butter cake I baked for Scott is complete perfection, worthy of a birthday celebration (or any kind of celebration, for that matter). The layers are moist and rich with a subtle hint of coffee and vanilla. The cake base is creamy and silky with a noticable, but not overwhelming, chocolate flavor that is just strong enough to hold its own against the creamy, addictive frosting. I wanted to bathe in that frosting  It’s like sweet peanut butter cream that’s completely addictive and matches incredibly well to the chocolate cake beneath it.

The only slight problem I encountered while making this was that after I refrigerated the frosting, it hardened slightly and was difficult to apply to the cake. After fighting with it for a few minutes, I left it out on the counter for a while to let it thin a bit, and then the consistency was perfect for frosting the cake.

We savored this cake for several days before it was gone, and it was incredible the whole time, even after sitting out on the kitchen table barely covered by foil for part of it (which I wouldn’t necessarily advise, but…that’s how we do).  

Best of all, we don’t have long to wait for the next birthday cake to make an appearance at our place; my birthday is this Sunday (!) and I think I will be having two cakes this year. (I know. Crazy. My mom wants to bake me a vegan cake from the cookbook I bought her for Christmas. How could I say no to an extra cake?!)

Have a happy weekend!

One Year Ago: Restaurants | Gramercy Tavern

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