Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Pasta with Lentil Sauce

Did everyone have a good Thanksgiving? Mine was everything I could’ve hoped for. I spent lots of time with family, tried Zumba for the first time with my mom, did lots of cooking and eating, and did a bit of shopping, too. I loved being home on Thursday and Friday and then I headed back to the city to perform in the final two performances of Madama Butterfly this weekend. It all went very well and, despite all the hard work, I had a really great time making friends, learning, and having the chance to perform somewhere!

As I’ve mentioned before, I stopped eating meat a little over 3 years ago. The decision was made for health and environmental reasons, and because I felt an overall dissatisfaction with meat. I never had a desire to eat steak, burgers, or fried chicken, so subtracting those items and others from my diet seemed natural. I have since incorporated fish back into my eating routine when the desire strikes and for now, I’m content with how it’s all going.

One of the last meat filled meals I ate before giving it up was spaghetti bolognese at a cute little restaurant in Venice. I can’t recall the name of the place, but I’ll never forget sitting down to lunch by myself, watching the energy pulsate throughout the dining room, speaking in Italian to the waiter and trying to remember whether or not I had to tip extra before leaving. The pasta was incredible, and was covered with a thick, meaty sauce that lay on top of the spaghetti strands like a thick, warm blanket. It was an amazingly simple dish that remained in my memory far after the last morsels left the plate.


 

I gave up meat shortly after this experience, but I’m going to be honest and admit, with guilt, that I’ve cheated and voluntarily eaten it twice since I gave it up. (The horror!) Both instances were induced by a copious amount of red wine, both took place in Italian restaurants, and both times I ate the same thing: pasta with meat ragu. And it was very good, from what I remember.

My subconscious must have been trying to tell me something.

I know it’s impossible to recreate this dish as a vegetarian, but until recently, I hadn’t found a sauce to serve on pasta that I felt could match its heftiness and texture. Some people say that soy crumbles or crumbled tofu could serve the purpose well, but since I don’t generally cook with fake meat, I didn’t feel the need to start. (Unless you’re taking about these babies, which fall into my “guilty pleasures” category.) Then one day, I came across this recipe, and instantly found exactly what I had been looking for. Look at those beautiful pictures! Red lentils! One of my favorites.

The recipe turned out wonderfully the first time, and has become a staple in my kitchen ever since. The sauce is thick, meaty (in the most meatless way possible), fragrant, and very sturdy. The tomatoes and lentils simmer together with stock, garlic, red pepper flakes and thyme and create a harmonious stew of all the flavors and textures I remember from my favorite dishes as a kid. The lentils surrender some of their texture and become soft and velvety, covering the pasta with a hearty cloak of warmth.

You should know, though, that the intention is not to replace meat here. This dish is not going to taste exactly like pasta with meat ragu, nor will it fool a meat eater who likes that dish. What it will do, though, is serve as a healthy, very satisfying reminder of flavors and textures from one of the classics from any Italian’s childhood. And sometimes that’s all you need after a long day.

One Year Ago: Pumpkin Risotto

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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Brown Butter, Ginger & Sour Cream Coffee Cake

I can’t wait for Thanksgiving. Something about heading home on Wednesday after work, walking through Penn Station on the night before Thanksgiving, seeing the throng of other travelers with their luggage preparing for a trip home to family or headed to see friends, being a part of the madness and chaos that defines the “busiest day of the year,” makes me happy.

Perhaps when I’m in the midst of this chaos, dodging slow walkers, waiting on a ridiculously long line to buy a ticket out of the vending machine while trying not to miss my train, and having to stand on said train for an hour because there are no seats left, I’ll think differently, but for now, I’m ready and eager.

I can’t wait to be home, plop my things upstairs in my “room” (my old room is now occupied by my younger brother; it has a full bathroom attached, so it’s popular real estate), take our dogs for a long walk, catch up with the family, cook, eat and hang out. That’s the best part of going home, these days. Now that I don’t live there, it’s a treat to be back. I don’t get distracted there by to-do’s and other silly things, and I look forward to the break, especially around the holidays when it seems as if the entire world gravitates towards family and close friends, eager to be near the people they care about, warm and content at home. 

Of course, I’m ignoring the inevitable drama/possible disaster factor here. Someone will be yelling at someone else, some kind of food will arrive at the table cold or wind up being forgotten in the microwave, but isn’t all of that completely normal and expected?

As far as recipes go, you know you won’t find a turkey or stuffing recipe on this meatless blog, but that doesn’t mean I have nothing to share with you as a pre-Thanksgiving treat.

While browsing this month’s Bon Appetit magazine, I came across a recipe for brown butter, ginger and sour cream coffee cake and pulled that page out so fast that it practically ripped right in half. I can’t think of a more fun idea than gathering with family the morning of Thanksgiving, or even the morning after, to enjoy a slice of coffee cake and a cup of steaming hot coffee before diving into the day of cooking, preparing, hosting, and socializing.

I’m not usually a fan of coffee cake because it’s almost always so bland. This particular cake, though, is moist, vibrant, and comes with a hint of spice at times because of the caramelized ginger, which is speckled throughout the topping. It’d be perfect on a Thanksgiving morning table or even for an unconventional addition to the dessert round up. This coffee cake may not be as sweet or predictable as pumpkin or pecan pie, but it stands up well for itself and makes up for its lack of saccharine quality with its deep browned butter flavor and crumbly, nutty topping.

I hope all of my wonderful readers have a lovely, relaxing Thanksgiving full of family, friends, good food, and contentment. Enjoy!

**Here are some other Thanksgiving-friendly recipes that may catch your eye: pumpkin risotto, key lime pie, pumpkin cookies, cranberry shortbread bars**

One Year Ago: Snickerdoodles

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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Red Lentil Dal

My life has been full lately, in the best possible way, and that makes me happy because I love being busy with things I enjoy doing. I’ve been seeing old friends, making new friends, rehearsing for an opera that opens this Saturday, seeing this and this (Daniel Radcliffe! <3), and have been spending the rest of the time trying to relax, work out, and dabble in the kitchen, too.

Foremost on my mind this week (I guess 10 hour dress rehearsals will do that to you), though, is that show I mentioned called Madama Butterfly, a Puccini opera set in Japan. In the opera, a Japanese girl (Cio-Cio San) meets a man in the Navy from America (Pinkerton), she falls in love with him even though it seems like all he wants to do is get laid, she gets pregnant, he goes back to America, and when he returns several years later, he’s married to an American woman, Cio-Cio San is forced to give up her child, and then she kills herself. That’s the short version, of course, but I think you get the idea.

It’s an absolutely awful, over the top story, and, despite my usual dislike for Puccini operas, this particular show is so, utterly depressing and emotionally exhausting that it’s nearly impossible not to be moved by the music and emotion which is so raw and cathartic.

I don’t have a major part in this show, but I do sing a little tiny bit and, in the performances when I’m not singing, I play one of 3 background characters (called Kuroko) dressed completely in black that have been added to this production to provide a foreboding effect and also, more practically, to be prop movers and helpers. Being on stage for the entire show as a Kuroko is something I’m not used to, and there’s a lot of staging to remember. I find myself standing on stage digging deep into my brain attempting stay a step ahead and remind myself of what I need to do next.

While it’s been tough rehearsing this part, which can be really boring, tiring, and seemingly pointless at times, it’s also been really refreshing to work with the other cast members, who are amazing people, and who make every rehearsal so much more bearable. Every time I am in a show, I think about why we all do it. I consider why we spend hours every week looking at music, staging and singing at rehearsal and traveling to this particular opera hall, which is more than an hour from my apartment. (and I’m one of the lucky ones; some other people live much farther than I do)

Even though we’re not getting paid for our work at this point, we’re involved because we have to make music, because little else gives us the kind of satisfaction that we get from performing some of the best music ever written. Knowing that we’ve discovered our passion for this art is comforting and fulfilling in many ways. It might sound dumb for me to say that about being a part of a small, community opera production, but that’s how I feel. We’re all getting experience, so the dedication is worth it for that reason, and being involved sounds way better than going at home after work every day and never interacting with other people who enjoy the same things we do. I’ve met some amazing, vibrant, interesting people because of opera (and some not so great people, too, but that’s life), and I’ve learned so much from so many of them. And I never would have met Scott if it wasn’t for opera, either. We met on stage and haven’t looked back since.

In the midst of rehearsals and all of the other fun things going on, I’ve been cooking with red lentils a lot lately. I think they’ve taken the top spot as my favorite food, and I am constantly trying to find new ways to use them. Something about the reddish-yellow hue of a bowl of cooked red lentils and the way that they surrender their texture and become soupy and thick is beautiful, warming, and SO filling. The process of preparing these lentils, which is similar to the way you’d make lentil soup, is like magic, to me. First, the garlic, onions, and any other vegetables you’ll be using cook down in some oil in a large, heavy bottomed pot. Once the vegetables soften, you add the spices to the pot and let them simmer before adding the liquid and, lastly the lentils. The mixture comes to a boil, you lower the heat, cover, and let the lentils do their thing for 20-30 minutes. By the time you open the pot again, the lentils have transformed and there’s a rich, velvety soup/dal there that’s just begging to be poured over rice and enjoyed.

This dal recipe, found here (love her), involves the addition of a cinnamon stick, coconut milk, cilantro and fresh mint, along with other famed spices, which result in an intensely aromatic pot of  spiced, thick lentils. The coconut milk adds a hint of sweet creaminess and the fresh mint and cilantro, stirred in at the end of cooking, keep the dal fresh, light, and from seeming weighed down. This dal, which I served over brown basmati rice, was one of the best dishes I’ve made in several weeks. And the leftovers, which happily served as lunch for a couple of days after I made this dish, were even better.

One Year Ago: Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce

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Thursday, November 10, 2011

No Knead Olive Bread

When I met my boyfriend, Scott, in 2009, he was living in a cozy 3 bedroom apartment in Harlem with two roommates from college and studying for his masters in vocal performance at a local conservatory. His version of cooking was boiling a pot of pasta and throwing in frozen peas, ground beef and jarred vodka sauce, mixing it together, and eating it every day until it was gone. I suppose this version of cooking was better than the buying-stuff-from-the-local-bodega-for-every-meal alternative, but he still had a lot to learn.


We spent a good deal of time in the kitchen when we were getting to know each other. We’d cook dinner together after long days of work and school, chopping and stirring while catching up about the things that had happened since the week before. I think one of the first things we made was this with chickpeas for me and chicken for him. I’ll never forget handing Scott an onion and a head of garlic and asking him to chop them while I doled out the spices. He stared back at me, quizzically, as if I’d asked him to walk through fire.



We’ve both grown tremendously as cooks since those days when I’d walk eagerly up Broadway to the Westside Market on 110th Street while listening to This American Life, utterly thrilled to be meeting up with my new guy to buy groceries for dinner and then head back to cook together. These days, we’re both more comfortable in the kitchen, more knowledgeable about methods, ingredients, and what we enjoy cooking most. We take more risks, experiment a little more, and use cooking as a way to de-stress and share joy with the people we care about most.



I can’t take all the credit for teaching Scott what he knows about cooking because his curiosity and determination to learn more about the subject has been his greatest asset. In fact, I think that he may even be a more intuitive cook than I am. I’m methodical about all of it, but he just sort of feels it. Irony, eh? 



What Scott does best, though, is bread. He’s become the resident bread baker and dough maker of our duo, completely unafraid of activating a packet of yeast and getting his hands (and everything else) dirty in the kitchen, or growing a sourdough starter and seeing where that will take him. He stares extra long at the fresh bread counter at the bakery, proudly toted an Eric Kayser baguette all through Paris and a trip up the Eiffel tower (we were planning a picnic and bought everything ahead of time) and, earlier this year, beamed with happiness when he opened one of the gifts I bought him for our 2nd anniversary, a 4 loaf package of Zingerman’s bread, made at the store he visited on a daily basis when he went to college in Ann Arbor. (This bread was life changing, by the way, even after being shipped to NY from Michigan and then hidden in a closet for a few days until it was time to exchange gifts.)

While bread isn’t always the first thing I decide to bake when the urge strikes, I certainly enjoy watching a few simple ingredients turn into a yeasty, chewy loaf of bread after a little kneading, rising and baking. I think it’s pretty cool. Recently, a no knead bread filled with kalamata olives caught my eye, and I decided to take bread baking into my own hands and try it out myself.

It turns out that no knead bread is not all that difficult to bake, and doesn’t require any crazy ingredients that you’ll never find or don’t care to look for at the grocery store. It’s simple. Flour, water, yeast, and salt make the base, and then additions can be made according to the particular type of bread you’d like to make. Cracked blacked pepper? Cheddar cheese?  Cinnamon and raisins? These are all great possibilities for no knead bread that I think would be wonderful.

In this case, the briny, dark kalamata olives are scattered generously throughout the crusty, light slices of bread, and they offer a salty punch to each bite. The cornmeal, which is dusted onto the bottom of the sheet pan, becomes golden brown and slightly toasty as the bread bakes and provides a hint of rustic charm to the loaf.

I would’ve liked my bread to come out looking a little prettier than it did, but I guess this wasn’t too bad for a first attempt. And, it tasted absolutely wonderful with a slight crunch of crust on the outside, and a sublimely chewy interior with the olive pieces scattered throughout.

I may not take over as head bread maker around here, but I can certainly step in and take care of business when the time arises.

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Sunday, November 6, 2011

Roasted Broccoli and Shrimp

My first trip out of the country was a few weeks after college graduation in 2008. I had been desperate to travel to Italy for years before that but for some reason, I never went despite my school’s amazing study abroad programs and the fact that I minored in Italian

When graduation rolled around, my parents asked me what I might want as a gift, and I knew that their help towards a trip to Italy was exactly what I wanted. I’m a lucky girl. I thought about going for a few weeks and traveling by myself, hitting up the big cities and small towns I always dreamed of visiting and taking the train between each. That idea turned out to be a bit more expensive than I had anticipated so I searched for alternatives and found a travel group of people between the ages of 18 and 25 that was going at a time that was convenient, so I booked the trip and anxiously awaited the departure date. 



I was surprisingly unafraid to go by myself, meet up with a bunch of strangers in Milan and then be forced to <gasp> make friends. It was probably one of the most exhilarating things I’ve ever done. I remember sitting on the plane, about to depart from JFK on a peaceful spring night in May, not really sure what to expect, but knowing that my travels would be different than anything I’d ever experienced before.



When I arrived in Milan, met up with the rest of the group, explored a bit, and then headed to Venice on a bus with 30 people I had never seen before in my life, I was exhausted, wishing I had thought to pack my toothbrush and deodorant in my carry on, and suddenly I became slightly intimidated by all the people there. It was a classic, “Will I be able to make friends here?” moment and it scared me. I looked out the window at the night sky of Northern Italy, and realized I’d make that experience the best it could be for myself, and everything would work out as it should.



We checked into our hotel and I was put into a room with a bunch of amazing gals who traveled alone, as well. We all hit it off immediately and talked til we fell asleep. The next morning we headed to Venice. Typical for me, I left the group pretty much as soon as we got there. I can’t handle tour guides and knew that our time there was limited and that I’d be far better off exploring by myself, so I broke off from the group and spent the entire day wandering the streets of glorious, mystical Venice with no Smartphone in hand to tell me where I was, marveling at Piazza San Marco and the Rialto Bridge, the outdoor markets, a gondola ride, a lunch of fettuccini bolognese (one of my last meat-filled meals) and red wine in a small restaurant off the beaten path, and taking a trip to La Fenice, which thrilled me beyond comprehension because I had just begun my opera obsession and taking serious voice lessons about a month before.



Despite my initial concerns, most everyone in our travel group became wonderful friends and we frolicked happily (and nauseatingly) through Florence, Rome, Assisi, Sorrento, Capri and Florence together, eating amazing meals, tons of gelato, and seeing all of the amazing, timeless sights everywhere we went.

I hold this experience close to me, especially on days when I’m particularly frustrated with work, overwhelmed by the to-do list, or just in a bad mood.  I don’t speak regularly to my travel buddies these days, but because we’re all on Facebook, it’s fun to catch up every once in a while and see how everyone is doing. Then there are the photos, too.



One of the many wonderful things about my trip was my constant astonishment at what I was seeing. The sprawling green, hilled landscapes, standing in front of the Coliseum and taking in its sheer magnitude, and being overwhelmed by the immense beauty everywhere, gave me so much peace and happiness. Making friends with some wonderful people shocked me and thrilled me all at the same time. All of it was so simple, in a way, but so divine in another. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to find a part of myself that I never knew was there.

While the experience of traveling to Europe for the first time was grand and life changing in so many ways, I’ve found that since this experience, and many other wonderful, notable ones along the way, the challenge has been more about finding beauty and magnitude in small, everyday things. It’s the quintessential events that matter so much of the time, the smile from a stranger on the street, the little victories at work, the chat on the subway home with friends – all of that is worthy of our attention, and is what we should work towards appreciating. The big stuff still matters, but the little stuff does, too. I’m still learning this every day.

Sometimes the little stuff that stays with us, especially if you’re reading this, is the food we make. I’m all about risotto and the carefully frosted layer cakes, but much of the time, simple, unfussy sorts of meals are my favorite. I never expected that shrimp and broccoli roasted with a few spices would turn my head all that far, but it did and I welcomed that surprise on a random Monday night as we sat down to eat dinner at around 9PM after a crazy day, and we savored every bite.

I’m pretty new to the food community and I’m just beginning to learn all the names out there that are repeated over and over again, but I understand now why Melissa Clark is so respected. Every recipe I’ve encountered that came from her pen has been perfect, and her column is one I have been looking forward to every week. Now I just have to get my hands on that book of hers.

If you don’t think roasting shrimp is something you’d normally think of doing, I assure you that it’s nothing to fear. Don’t worry about over cooking it; as long as you make sure that it doesn’t stay in the oven for longer than 10 minutes, you shouldn’t have a problem.

Roasting broccoli is one of my favorite ways to draw out the best of what it can do. When it roasts, it browns slowly and acquires a deep, savory caramel flavor that is accented in this dish by coriander, cumin and chili powder. You wonder if you’re even eating broccoli anymore. The shrimp are roasted until tender, and the zip from the lemon zest and lemon juice binds the whole dish together in to a bright, approachable heap of goodness.

 

While roasted shrimp and broccoli might not be exactly as exciting as a trip to Italy, it’s a dish you’ll welcome onto your dinner table after a long day, and plan on making again as soon as you’ve finished it.

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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Pumpkin Cookies

Those that know me are aware of my candy fiend tendencies. I’m the kind of person who will dive head first into a candy bowl, exhibiting very little self control in the process. And, I don’t discriminate with candy; I’m quite partial to Twix, but I’ll take just about anything…except licorice.

Apparently this isn’t a new thing for me. One Halloween memory I vividly recall was related to the post-holiday candy situation. My parents pretty much let us have our way with the candy on Halloween itself, but the next day, as if by magic, a good portion of the candy “disappeared.” We were allowed a few pieces here and there in the days following, but most of what we collected from the neighborhood never crossed our lips. Some years, we were told that my dad had given the candy to a homeless person whom he had befriended near his office. And I believed him. (I still do…I think. I may have to ask about that.) Other times, I knew it was somewhere in the house until my parents could decide what to do with it, and my mission was to find it and secure it.

When I was about 8-years-old, my mom hid the candy in large pillowcases in the laundry room cabinet. It didn’t take me long to find it and each day I went and snuck a piece or two. I’m not sure why I did this, especially since the candy tasted more like laundry detergent than it did like candy by that point. Maybe I liked the idea of being a little bad-ass. One day, though, I was caught red handed, standing on the dryer and poking my head into the cabinet.

I think my parents were a little more lenient about the candy situation after that. And we all turned out okay. You know…pretty much okay.

In case you’re reading this and thinking, “Please stop, I can’t even look at another piece of candy!” you’re in the right place. Because I’ve got a cookie recipe for you that’ll help wean you off of all that sugar laced stuff and add to the gorgeous surplus of pumpkin recipes in blog land this fall.

These pumpkin cookies are truly the real deal. They’re like small, chewy, moist bites of pumpkin pillows that will remind you of cake more than they will of cookies. The pumpkin, ginger and nutmeg flavors wind themselves into the batter and result in a cookie that’s deep and intriguing. You know there’s pumpkin there, but it introduces itself subtly and with a hint of warm spice. The cookies are crowned with a bit of sweet frosting and chopped pecans, both providing perfect contrast to the subdued, soft cookies.

Making the cookies is a fairly easy affair, but the frosting needs a little attention. Once cooled, it tends to harden pretty fast, so when you frost the cookies you’ll have to work quickly. The good news is that you can lightly re-heat the frosting and loosen it up if it hardens too much. I did this a few times as I frosted them and the cookies turned out just fine.

Instead of sneaking candy these next few days, I’ll probably grab a pumpkin cookie (or two) instead. And I’m particularly glad they won’t be laced with laundry detergent.

One Year Ago: Vegan Chocolate Cake with Avocado Frosting

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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Sweet Potato Black Bean Chili

What’s your current “food of the moment?” Is there anything you’ve been trying out a lot these days, experimenting with and planning recipes around?  Anything you’ve been buying in bulk and, against all odds, finishing completely despite your initial worries that you’ve purchased too much and could never possibly plow through an entire package?

I went through a raging red lentil phase earlier this year which is destined to come back in full force now that I’ve begun using them again more since the weather is cooler (apparently warm weather and red lentils don’t mix in my book). Then there were chickpeas, then kale chips (ohh the kale chips. Have I never discussed them here? That’s probably because they never even make it onto a dinner plate for a picture since I usually down them ravenously right off the baking sheet.) Now, though? Now there are sweet potatoes.

Most often, baked sweet potato fries are in my weekly rotation (topped with salt, pepper and garlic powder…a surprisingly easy and wonderful combination), as are roasted sweet potatoes (mixed with olive oil, salt & pepper), which I have been putting in my salads lately.

But my new favorite way to eat this vitamin A and C laden root vegetable is in the form of sweet potato black bean chili which is, if you haven’t already had it, a perfectly hearty one pot fall comfort food whose leftovers are, as if by magic, even better than the original.

Smoky, sweet, spicy hot chili is one of the quintessential cool weather foods to which I most look forward once summer slips away and fall takes its place. Besides being filling and delicious, this chili is remarkably healthy and full of colorful, vibrant vegetables and beans that, once added to the pot and simmered with the spices and diced tomatoes, practically glimmer and burst with paprika, chili powder, garlic, cayenne and cumin. The chili exudes warmth and comfort in the best way possible.

The next best part? It’s easy. It’s one of those chop, plop, simmer away types of meals that finds life in one big pot and then transfers beautifully to large bowls for serving. I topped mine with greek yogurt, lime juice and chives for garnish, but you could add sour cream, cheddar cheese, cilantro, or any other combination of toppings that appeal to you. I think the next time I make this, a side of corn bread will be essential.

One Year Ago: Clam Dip and Goat Cheese Bruschetta

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Friday, October 21, 2011

Goat Cheese Brownies

If there is an array of dessert choices in front of me from which I have to choose my favorite, I will almost always steer completely clear of brownies because there’s a good chance they’ve originated from a box, and that is the last place any brownie (or other baked good) should come from considering that made from scratch versions are fairly easy to pull off and taste a million times better. I learned this one the long, hard way.

Even regular brownies sort of sit on the edge of “things I like” and “things I don’t like,” but sometimes they possess a certain quality that makes them practically jump right out of the platter, begging to be eaten.

I have trouble resisting brownies that are filled with other things like caramel, pumpkin or peanut butter. There’s something so delectable about biting into a brownie and having a multitude of different flavors imbue every bite. And when you fill brownies with cheese? That is a combination that is destined for complete glory in my book. And I’m not talking about just any cheese here, I’m talking about goat cheese.

I wish I could take credit for brilliant ideas like these, but the inspiration for this one came from here.

After I put a batch of these in the oven, I walked out of the kitchen visibly affected by the baking process. Batter covered my face, hands and shirt (oops). I stood by the oven pacing, staring, peeking (I’m so impatient!), just waiting for the brownies to be done, out, cooled, and ready to eat.

If, like me, you think that brownies sometimes have the tendency to be too rich and dense, know that these don’t have that problem. The goat cheese, which is characterized by a prominent tartness, is able to balance out the rich chocolate from the brownies. Each bite begins with a familiar chocolate foundation and then expands with sweet tanginess.

The process of baking these is pretty straight forward, as far as brownies go. Add ingredients to a bowl, mix, pour, layer, repeat. The kind of recipe that comes out of the oven tasting wonderful and that barely breaks a sweat.

 One Year Ago: Roasted Cauliflower

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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Chana Punjabi

 

For a while, one of my favorite weekend rituals was to go out for dinner and try new (to me) restaurants. I constantly kept my eyes open for new restaurant ideas, different cuisine options in my neighborhood and throughout the city, and found myself very interested in keeping track of openings, closings, hot spots, holes in the wall that served excellent food, and everything in between.

While I still really look forward to nights out with good friends, great food, and a constant flow of conversation and a couple of drinks, my gears have shifted a bit. These days, unwinding doesn’t only happen at restaurants on Saturday nights; it happens at home in my kitchen where I have found, practically overnight, that I’ve been seriously cherishing recipe inspiration, shopping for the best ingredients I can find, and preparing a meal in my own kitchen. And it makes me very happy.

I’m not trying to imply that my cooking compares even remotely to the food I could get in a restaurant in this city where a truly wonderful meal is never more than a few blocks away. What I’m saying is that the process of working through a new recipe, making my own food, and continuing to learn simple techniques and skills that any home cook can learn in a relatively short amount of time given the immense amount of resources available to us, is becoming one of my favorite things to do. Sharing that food with others? That’s even better.

Despite this recent shift (which has nearly thrown all of my grocery budgeting out my 4  story window), there are some cuisines that puzzle me. I’m talking mostly Asian cooking here. Thai, Indian, and Japanese food, in my opinion (and as a result of my mediocre-at-best attempts with these cuisines), is best left to the professionals. I’ve dabbled with them here and there and will continue to do so as the urges strike, but when I’m looking for a great meal from any of those regions, I know I’m better off going out. And that is ok. I love that.

It’s odd, I suppose, that I’m about to share an Indian chickpea curry recipe at this point. After I’ve gone out of my way to tell a long, drawn out story about how I’d rather go out for Indian food than make it myself, here’s an Indian recipe for you.

What I’ll say about this, though, is that if you’re looking for a chickpea curry dish to make at home that will not disappoint, this Chana Punjabi recipe is a very good bet. I spent weeks last year trying different recipes for chickpea curry to see how they’d turn out, and none of them completely appealed to me. I vaguely remember nearly gagging while eating the leftovers from one of them, and at that point I vowed that an Indian chickpea curry dish would never again be attempted in my home again!! That was until I saw this recipe.

Something about the way that Luisa raves with her elusive honesty about these chickpeas made me literally go home and make it that day (or maybe it was the next day…). I’d been in the mood for a good chickpea dish, and this one, which circulated the internet a few years ago, was perfect. And the leftovers did not make me gag, which I consider a welcome change.

I think what I like best about this dish is that it’s not soupy and that the spices and chickpeas, not the broth they sit in, steal the show. The flavor isn’t muted by tomato, which often happens to me when I make chickpea curry, and the rich, warm paprika, turmeric, coriander, garam masala blend add the depth that morphs chickpeas from a simple addition to the main star of a recipe. I wound up using a Serrano chili instead of a jalapeno in this, and the heat was so wonderful. It was very spicy, though, maybe more-so than most people would prefer.

I served this dish over fresh spinach and brown basmati rice with a dollop of Greek yogurt and chopped cilantro and red pepper flakes strewn across the top. I saw the serving suggestion here, and it turned out delicious. Without the yogurt this dish is vegan.

One Year Ago: NY Times Chocolate Chip Cookies

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Friday, October 14, 2011

Banana Bread with Cinnamon Crumble Topping

My freezer, like my kitchen and most of my appliances, it not full size. As a result, every time I go grocery shopping and buy something that needs to be frozen, there has to be a huge re-haul of whatever is in the freezer at the time to make room for the new stuff. While cleaning it out recently and repeating phrases like, “Woah! Frozen spinach!” or “Oh no…what is this?” I also managed to find three very ripe bananas chilling out all the way in the back. I took them out, let them defrost a bit, and then did what I usually do when I need recipe inspiration: I headed to the computer.

I knew 2 things. One was that I wanted to use these bananas. The second was that I was lazy and unwilling to walk to the store so whatever recipe I decided to make would have to contain ingredients that I already had at home.

And, a few minutes later, my search led me here (as so many of our searches do, yes?) and I found the banana bread of my dreams staring right at me on the page. I headed to the kitchen, preheated my (small, naturally) oven, and made the best banana bread that’s gone past my lips in a long, long time.

 

I love the smell of banana bread. It reminds me of rare, lazy Sunday afternoons when the most trying thing on the to-do list is lounging around the house, thinking of what to make for dinner. There’s comfort in having a partially eaten loaf of banana bread on the counter with crumbs strewn around it, just waiting for someone to walk past and peel off another slice.

This bread turns out marvelously. It’s moist and simple but with a pure banana flavor that’s enhanced by the cinnamon sugar that toasts slightly on the top while the bread bakes. Each bite is like a biting into a cloud of sweet banana with hints of cinnamon throughout.

One of the best things you can do for your banana bread is to use bananas that are completely brown. I wouldn’t leave bananas out on the counter long enough to reach this state, but I would put them into the freezer once you find them getting exceedingly speckled. You can remove them to defrost the day you need to use them. These over-ripe bananas are as sweet as candy, they easily incorporate into quick bread batter, and they make the flavor of banana bread much more rich and pungent than ordinary ripe bananas would. While I wouldn’t be caught dead eating an over-ripe banana by itself (the thought! Ew!), I wouldn’t use anything else for my banana bread.

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