10 November 2011

Sweet Sweet Potatoes

See that photo there? That's a picture of a meal I made (and ate) sometime in early September.* I have an embarrassing stash of similar photos--pictures of meals gone by, snapped hurriedly just before digging in, on the off chance that I might want to write about them someday. Usually they end up gathering cobwebs in iphoto, never to see the light of day. But not this one. This one lives again because I want to tell you about something special, something delicious, something you see right there in the lower left corner of the frame.

This very special thing, my friends, is a sweet potato. Now I don't know about you but I've always felt kind of meh about sweet potatoes. Sure, I like sweet potato fries or sweet potato biscuits as much as the next girl, but faced with a baked sweet potato on my plate right there next to the meatloaf (or tofu), seasonally appropriate superfood or not, I lose enthusiasm. Even gussied up with a generous pat of butter and maybe a shake or two of cinnamon, they're just so...sweet. Endlessly, monotonously sweet. Don't get me wrong, sweet is good, but I guess I tend to think it's best when tempered with a bit of savory. I like contrast.

To my very great delight, I recently stumbled upon a recipe from an old Gourmet that has turned the sigh-inducing baked sweet potato into something I crave. They call it Japanese Sweet Potatoes and really, it's so simple, it's more of a treatment than a recipe. All you need are some sweet potatoes, some butter, a bit of miso, and some green onions or chives and you're set. Even better, it can be scaled up to feed a crowd or down to feed your lone (but awesome) party of one as needed. So eat your potatoes, my sweets, they're good for ya!

*And those are Ciel's Spicy Chickpeas! Kale salad recipe coming soon...

Japanese Sweet Potatoes
Gourmet, 2007

8 small sweet potatoes (4-5 lbs total)
1 1/2 stick unsalted butter, well softened
1 1/2 tablespoons miso paste (preferably white)
3 Tablespoons finely chopped scallion (or chives)

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F with rack in upper third of oven.

Prick potatoes all over with a fork, place on foil-lined baking sheet and bake until very soft, 45 mins to an hour.

While potatoes cook, stir together remaining ingredients until combined, reserving a few of teh scallions.

When ready, slice hot potatoes lengthwise and squeeze from each end to open and puff them up a bit. Spoon the seasoned butter into the center and serve garnished with a sprinkle of scallions.

16 August 2011

Pasta Salad with Arugula, Tuna, and Corn

When I studied abroad in Florence, Italy for a semester during college, I ate lunch at the same place almost every day. I'd avoid the mediocre offerings and clique-ish scene at the college's little in-house cafe and instead venture to a little coffee shop and bar about a block and a half away. If I ever knew the name of this place it's long forgotten now, but I will never forget the courage I had to muster to place my order in Italian, choosing a sandwich from the offerings behind a small glass case, and later when I had a better command of the language, from the daily menu written on a chalkboard. I will always remember, and continue to crave even now a decade later, the delicious sandwiches that were my reward.

Incredibly tiny by American standards, this little shop run by two middle-aged sisters and their elderly father was usually packed with locals and students, young and old. I would place my order with one of the sisters, and the other would compose the sandwich on a small, perfectly crusty loaf of bread baked in-house. Their white-haired father ran the bar, pulling espresso and liquor shots, and he also served as cashier. While I occasionally ventured to try one of the daily offerings--grilled eggplant and cheese being a favorite--I was committed, mostly, to the tuna sandwich.

Simple and unfussy with only a few ingredients, this was by no means an ordinary tuna sandwich. Large chunks of oil-packed tuna, the flavor and texture of which is unmatched by any I've ever found stateside, were layered in with very thinly sliced tomato, some arugula, and a few capers. Sometimes I'd request a bit of spicy mustard too. Pressed firmly together and wrapped in paper, I'd carry the sandwich a few blocks down the street to the photography studio where I spent the afternoons. There I'd savor it as slowly as I could, quietly enjoying the simple perfection of quality ingredients--the slightly metallic taste of the tuna, cut by the bite of arugula, sweetness of the tomato, and acidity of the capers and mustard. Binding it all together, the incomparably tasty olive oil from the tuna soaked through the ends of the bread by the time I got to the last few bites.

I have never been able to recreate that sandwich. There's just not the right bread here, not to mention the tuna or even the tomatoes. I think about it from time to time, though, and try to conjure up something similarly simple and delicious in its honor. This pasta salad is one such attempt.

Pasta Salad with Tuna, Arugula, and Corn

1 bunch arugula
1 shallot
handful of green olives or about 2 tablespoons capers
1 ear of corn
1 can olive-oil packed tuna, partially drained
about 1/2 box or bag of small pasta (I use Racconto whole wheat bowties-my fave)
salt and pepper to taste, red pepper flakes (optional)
chopped cherry tomatoes (optional, I didn't have any but suggest adding)

Bring a pot of salted water to boil and cook the pasta according to package directions. Meanwhile, cook the corn (I like to shuck it and cook, turning once, for 2 minutes in the microwave). When it's cool enough, cut the kernels from the cob. Wash, stem and roughly chop arugula. Dice olives and shallot. Combine shallot and olives/capers in a bowl with the tuna, breaking it apart a bit with a fork. Add corn, tomatoes, and arugula and then the pasta after it's cooked, drained and mostly cooled. Toss together with a little olive oil, salt & pepper, and red pepper flakes to taste and enjoy!

30 May 2011

A Bean Breakthrough

The Bean: not exactly a food that gets a lot of people excited. Luckily, I've eaten some really amazing beans in my lifetime and am convinced that humble though they may be, when cooked well they can be nothing short of a revelation.

I know this because I grew up with a dad with a real gift for bean cookery (he has a gift for most cookery, it's true) and though he never seems to cook them the same way twice, his black beans are always the best. I'm still dreaming of the tomato-stewed garbanzos or 'ceci' I ate in the foothills of the Italian Alps almost a decade ago, and I make regular pilgrimages to Casa de Luz, Austin's macrobiotic restaurant, for their impeccably tender and flavorful beans of all kinds.

Up until recently, though, I've been unable to work any bean magic in my own kitchen. It's not for lack of trying. I even bought a pressure cooker a few months ago with the hope that it would kick my bean cooking abilities up a notch. Unfortunately, I've churned out batch after batch of bad to mediocre beans. At the worst, I cook them forever and they never seem to get tender. At best, they're tender but the texture's somehow wrong or they just fall apart into a beany sludge. The frustrating part is that I've been following all the cardinal rules of cooking beans: I buy shiny, fresh-looking beans from stores with lots of turnover, I soak them overnight, I don't salt or add acidic ingredients until the end, etc. All for nought.

So a few weeks ago I decided to throw out all the rules. Specifically, I decided to follow in the footsteps of the renegade bean cook Russ Parsons of the LA Times. Parsons made waves a while back by declaring soaking to be a bunch of bunk and encouraging folks to salt throughout the bean-cooking process. A true maverick, Parsons also cooks his beans in the oven rather than on the stove. I like this guy.

Guess what?! Ignoring all the rules works! I've tried his method twice now with great results--a beany breakthrough at last!

If you're interested in giving this method a whirl, here's a long discussion about it: http://forums.egullet.org/index.php?%2Ftopic%2F99104-no-soak-beans-in-the-oven-in-90-minutes%2F

And a summary:
--preheat oven to 250 degrees
--use a pot with a tight-fitting lid (I use my cast iron dutch oven)
--pick through your beans for broken pieces, dirt, etc., rinse if you like, and cover with water about 1.5 inches higher than the beans. no soaking needed! (I didn't use this formula but if you're the formulaic type, you can try 6 cups of water/ 1 lb of beans)
--cover and bring to boil on the stove, then transfer the pot into the oven
--cook for about 40 mins, check the beans to make sure they have enough water, give 'em a stir, add salt (about 1 tsp kosher salt/lb beans) and return to the oven for about another 35 mins.
--after 75 mins total oven cooking, your beans should be cooked to perfection. Some batches may need a little more time (one of mine, when I was cooking some old beans that had been in my pantry for several years, needed about 20 more mins). Just keep an eye on them.

The first time I used this method I made some giant lima beans and turned them into this delicious Greece-inspired dish. It got rave reviews at a picnic and would be great on bruschetta.


1 lb gigates beans or peruvian limas
3-4 tomatoes or 5-6 canned whole san marzanos (I used canned), diced
1 large carrot
4 celery stalks
4 bay leaves
1 yellow onion
6 cloves garlic
1/4 cup plus 1 T olive oil
1/4 cup tomato paste
1 tsp red pepper flakes
2.5 tbs red wine vinegar
1/3 cup chopped fresh dill (I used about 1/6 cup dried--yep, lots!)
1/2 cup chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
salt and pepper to taste

Cook the beans and bay leaves using the Parsons method discussed above. Turn oven up to 350 when done with beans. (You can cook beans ahead of time too)

Meanwhile, dice the onion, celery, carrots, and finely chop garlic. Heat the 1/4 cup olive oil in a very large skillet and add onions and garlic. Cook, stirring, until just translucent, then add carrot and celery. When carrots begin to get soft, add tomatoes, tomato paste, and red wine vinegar, and pepper flakes. Cover and let simmer, stirring frequently, about 30 mins or until tomatoes have broken down. Add parsley and dill and salt and pepper to taste.

Drain the beans, reserving 1/2 cup of cooking liquid and discard bay leaves. Combine the tomato mixture and beans, and cook a bit more to meld flavors, adding the reserved liquid if it seems too dry.

Cool to room temperature or chill and serve cold as a salad. You can also place the beans in a casserole in the oven at 425, covered in foil for about 30 mins, uncovered for another 10 and serve over bruschetta.

17 April 2011

Cheer Up Chipotle Chicken Soup

Well, that was a long, unintentional blog hiatus! These past few months have been busy for some reason, and though I've been cooking as usual, I haven't concocted much lately from that experimental, playful place that usually leads me to post here. Hopefully these spirit-lifting sunny spring days and overflowing veggie bounty from my CSA basket will reverse the trend.

This week I found some kitchen inspiration in a gift. After celebrating an early Passover seder with my family (Passofaux), I came home with a big jar of my mom's homemade chicken soup and a bag full of tender chicken meat. Very uncharacteristically for this indecisive cook, I knew almost immediately what I'd make with this generous gift: a simple, spicy chicken soup. It would be light and brothy, sweet with carrots and potatoes, but pack a punch with smoky chipotle and a bit of lime. Just the kind of soup that works perfectly, somehow, even on a warm day.

I did my usual internet sleuthing for an inspirational recipe and found an old one from Gourmet that seemed about right. I followed it loosely (also as usual) and, amazingly, it worked! From Gourmet came the idea to use a spicy, oniony puree to add fullness to the soup base. From my brain (and taste-memories of soups in Mexico, and of Kim Abernethy's tortilla soup) came the addition of tomatillos, hominy, and potato. Though the homemade soup from fancy organic chicken that my mom made surely made this soup a standout, I'm sure you could come close, in a pinch, with stock from a box and rotisserie chicken. It's a soup that stands up well to improvisation, so jump on in and slurp a spring into your step!

**A note for all you vegetarians: I think you could make something very similar with your favorite veggie stock, perhaps adding more veggies (zucchini?) and maybe chickpeas or black beans instead of chicken.


8 cups chicken broth, preferably homemade
2 cups cooked chicken, torn into bite-size pieces
1 large white onion, halved, one half diced
2 cloves garlic, peeled
3 carrots, cut into rounds
1 russet potato, peeled and cubed
6 tomatillos, husks removed, cut into bite-size chunks
1 T canola or veggie oil
1 and 1/2 chipotle chiles in adobo (use just one if you're feeling shy, 2 if you like a burn)
1 tsp ground cumin
1 big handful cilantro
1 can (15 oz? small can) white hominy, drained
salt and pepper

*optional, but in my opinion essential, garnish ingredients:
avocado, lime, fresh chopped cilantro, a bit of crumbled mild feta or queso fresco

Heat oil in a heavy soup pot over medium low heat. Add diced onion and saute a couple minutes. Add carrot and potatoes and saute, stirring frequently, until they begin to tenderize, adding a few splashes of water to the veggies as they cook if they're sticking to the pan. Meanwhile, in a food processor, make the spice puree: blend together remaining onion, garlic, chipotle, and cumin into a fairly smooth paste. Warning: this is powerful stuff--may bring tears to your eyes!

Pour puree into the pot, stir a few times, and then add the stock. Drop in a big handful of cilantro, stems and all (you can remove these at the end--they add great flavor). Cook, covered, over medium heat for about 15 minutes or until the potato is almost fully cooked. Add tomatillos and hominy, stir and cook maybe 5 minutes more until all the veggies are tender to your liking. Salt and pepper to taste.

Serve garnished to your heart's content, making sure to squeeze a slice of lime over the top. With a cold beer in hand, your meal is complete!

26 January 2011

Something Old and Something New

There's no denying it: new is sexy. And the same old thing? The old standby? Not so much. I've been thinking about this a lot ever since a friend of my neighbors' backed into my car last week, leaving a significant dent. The poor girl was already quite battle scarred and, by most accounts, OLD for her 11 years, but still runs just fine. The financially prudent thing to do would be to just keep driving her trusty wheels on into the sunset. But, instead, all I can think about now is how soon I can trade her in for a new, sleek, young thing. The temptation is too great...someday soon, I will succumb.

The appeal of the new is even stronger in my relationship with food and cooking. Though I complain about our culture of disposability, and resist it in some areas of my life (wearing old clothes, using hand-me-down furniture, repairing instead of replacing appliances), I also spend countless hours devouring information about the latest restaurant menu trends, perusing new cookbooks, seeking out new recipes, flavors, and food combinations. I very rarely cook the same thing twice.

Variety is a privilege. It is also naturally a good nutritional choice, so I'll give myself a break there. But when I think about it, I'm really not so sure that so much 'new' in my food-filled life has made me a better cook or a happier eater. It's really the time-honored and tested recipes--my dad's black bean salad, Mom's lasagna, Meemaw's latkes, to name but a few--that I find the most satisfying. And I think it's telling that some of the best cooks I know, while surely phenomenal improvisers in kitchen, also all have their signature dishes and recipes that they make time and time again. They've come to be associated so strongly with these dishes, in fact, that should they risk showing up at a pot-luck dinner without them in tow, all hell breaks loose.

Missy is one of those cooks. She's a natural, and is constantly inventing tasty new things, but she's also, thankfully, devoted to her old standbys. Viennese almond crescent cookies sound good? You haven't lived until you've tasted hers. The Indonesian Rice Salad from one of the original Moosewood cookbooks? Not just hippy food--her version is killer. I could go on but thinking about Missy's food just makes me hungry for a second dinner.

My long-winded point, I think, is simply to try more often to remember that though it may not always be the sexiest option, something old or routine can often be the most satisfying in the end. With that in mind, I hope to resist the pull of uncharted food territory and refine a few standby, signature dishes of my own in the coming year. I'll share them here with you when they're ready.

Meanwhile, for your cooking and tasting pleasure, here's Missy's Cheese Bread. It's spectacularly good, and quick and easy to make too. A slice of this and a bowl of soup and you'll never want to eat anything else again. Well maybe not never again...

Missy's Cheese Bread

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar or honey
1 egg mixed with enough milk to make 1 cup
2-3 tablespoons oil or butter (melted and cooled)
1/4 of an onion, diced
1 cup grated sharp cheese (Missy uses a blend of Asiago and sharp Cheddar)
small handful of parsley, chopped
2-3 tablespoons caraway seeds
poppy seeds

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Saute chopped onions, cool, and mix into liquids. Mix together dry ingredients in a medium bowl. Add liquids and mix until just blended (if batter seems dry, add a little more milk). Scrape batter into prepared 9 inch cake pan or ceramic baking dish, sprinkle poppy seeds on top, and bake 20-30 minutes (it's done when a toothpick comes out dry).

(photo credit: the one and only Emilio Scoti)