Monday, January 30, 2012

A good soak

I may have become the shopper I've always wanted to be by making my purchases at the Co-op, but that doesn't necessarily make the me the cook I want to be. Let me explain: my increased access to ingredients like whole grains, healthy oils, organic produce and unprocessed foods--and the low prices for all of this bounty--has certainly led to my cupboards being filled to the bursting, but sometimes those things just find their way in there and stay, never getting the chance to show their stuff in my pots, or in my stomach.

Case in point: dried legumes. Having spent a fair amount of time working on organic farms, where the proprietors grow what they eat and store-bought foods don't often come into the picture, I've eaten some lovely dishes made with dried and soaked beans. And I've noticed that their flavor and texture is exponentially better than the canned stuff. And so when I joined the Co-op, I determined to never again pick up a can of Goya. From now on, I brazenly declared to myself, I will cook exclusively with dried beans! And I lined my shelves with chickpeas, kidney beans, and black eyed peas.

I'm sure you know where this is going. Those bags of beans sat in my cupboards, taunting me, ever since June. Turns out, canned beans are pretty darn convenient: no thinking ahead required. Right? A working farm, though an intensely active place, also has, in its own way, a slower pace than city life, and there's time built into the day to do things like soak some dried beans in water.

The thing is, I don't really even believe the above--that my life is just way too busy to think about my dinner more than an hour before I sit down to eat it. In fact, I do little but think about food and cooking all day long, so I believe I should be able to commit to preparing some beans a day ahead of time.

I had already been stewing over those chickpeas sitting in my kitchen cabinet when I spied a tasty-looking recipe for coconut-braised chickpeas over at the site of my new employer, Serious Eats. The dish sounded like it had some nice flavors going on--lemon, ginger and coconut--and I was keen to try it. The recipe actually called for canned chickpeas, but I would use dried--finally. I knew I would have all the time in the world to cook on Sunday, so on Saturday night, I filled a pot with those clattering little peas, and covered them in twice the amount of water. They'd be (nearly) ready for me when I needed them.

The next day, about an hour before I was ready to cook, I put the pot of chickpeas on the stove, added some salt, and simmered them, covered. Then, as I set to work on the recipe, I simply allowed the garbanzos to steam to toothy perfection before they got to cook for a second time in the dish's flavorful broth.

I used the recipe only as a starting point: though it sounded like a good base, I could tell it would need some punching up. The only spice it called for was ginger and an optional shaking of red pepper flakes, and for me, coconut milk cries out for a complex, heady mixture of aromatics. I also wanted to add some chopped carrot for added sweetness, and some cubed potatoes for some starch to help thicken the broth. The end result was sweet and fragrant, with the tender, creamy chickpeas providing a welcome contrast to the softness of the spinach and the potatoes. Eating it reaffirmed my conviction that cooking with dried legumes is just better. I won't be able to do it all the time--some nights, those ready-to-go Goya beans will still be attractive--but I definitely plan to try this more often. I may not normally possess the virtue of patience, but when it comes to good food, I'm happy to make an exception.

Coconut-Braised Chickpeas with Spinach and Lemon

Adapted (heavily) from
Serves 4 - 6


- About 8 ounces dried chickpeas, soaked overnight in 16 oz. water, or one 15-oz. can, drained
- 2 tbsp. vegetable oil
- 2 small (or 1 large) onions, peeled and finely chopped
- 1 carrot, peeled and thinly sliced
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 tbsp. grated ginger
- 1 large lemon, zested and juiced
- 1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
- 1/2 tsp. curry powder
- 1/2 tsp. turmeric
- 1/2 tsp. ground coriander
- 3 medium waxy potatoes, scrubbed and cut into a medium dice
- One 14-oz. can coconut milk (I used light--I don't notice the difference)
- About 1 c. water
- 5 oz. baby spinach, rinsed
- Fish sauce (nam pla), to taste
- Salt
- About 1/2 c. unsweetened coconut flakes, toasted, for serving
- Chopped cilantro, for serving
- Cooked white rice, for serving


1. If using dried, soaked chickpeas: about one hour before starting to cook, transfer the chickpeas in soaking liquid to the stove. Add a pinch of salt, cover, and simmer for one hour. As you proceed, leave chickpeas covered.
2. Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot (Dutch oven) over medium heat. Add the onions and carrot, stir, and when they begin to soften, add the garlic and ginger. Add the lemon zest and all the spices and cook, stirring, until onions are translucent and spices are toasted and fragrant.
3. Drain the chickpeas and add to the pot along with the potatoes. Add the coconut milk and water, cover, and bring to a simmer. Cook for 15 - 20 minutes, until potatoes are tender.
4. Uncover pot and taste broth. Add a few dashes of fish sauce, to taste, and salt. Add the spinach, cover again, and let wilt. Cook for about 5 more minutes.
5. Turn off heat and stir in lemon juice. Check again for seasoning. Serve over hot white rice, garnished with cilantro and coconut.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

26 years + 1 complicated recipe

Earlier this month I turned 26 years old and over the weekend I celebrated with friends by throwing a somewhat belated birthday party. Over the past few years I've developed a tradition for my birthday: I invite over a ton of people and then stress myself out by committing to cooking them a huge dinner feast. It's an interesting way to fête my own birthday, I admit, but I'm mostly kidding about the stressful part: in fact, I enjoy making large, complicated meals. Years of producing food on a huge scale as a freelance caterer have made the feat of preparing a meal for 20 people seem like a piece of cake.

In the years that I've been writing on this blog, I've made pork, pork, and legumes for my birthday parties. This year, I wanted to try something different, something a little out of my comfort zone. I'm not as impoverished this year as I was last, so I could afford to buy and serve flesh, and I decided on something that most meat eaters deem commonplace, even mundane: chicken. You see, I've been eating mostly vegetarian for the past few months, and I found that the first thing to disappear from my diet with me hardly even noticing was chicken. It's always been my least favorite meat: I prefer proteins that pack a wallop of flavor, like pork, lamb, and game such as rabbit and venison. I simply find chicken dull, and before my party I honestly can't remember the last time I cooked or ate it. So, of course, that meant that I was sort of craving chicken, after all this time. But since it takes a lot to make chicken exciting, I wanted to impart as much flavor as possible to the meat. Here are some of the ingredients I used in the dish; can you guess what I made?

Not sure yet? Maybe this will clue you in:

Chocolate...? In a savory dish...? Why, it must be mole! Yes, for my birthday I prepared chicken mole poblano, meaning that the recipe comes from Puebla, in Mexico. You see, most people are familiar with mole poblano because of its inclusion of sweet chocolate, which most people wouldn't ordinarily associate with a spicy, savory dish. But in actuality the chocolate forms only a very small proportion of the ingredients, which also include (from top) three types of dried chiles; a spice blend made of whole toasted spices (sesame seeds, chile seeds, cloves, anise seeds, peppercorns, cloves, thyme, oregano, bay leaves, and cinnamon) which are then ground; fried almonds, peanuts, pumpkin seeds, and raisins; and fried bread and corn tortillas. Only at the very end of the hours-long cooking process is a small amount of chocolate and sugar stirred into the nearly-completed sauce.

Another misconception about mole is that poblano--the best-known type--is the only type. In fact, there are many many types of moles--really just a base sauce that meat is then cooked in--prepared all over Mexico, depending on the region and which ingredients are available there. Some other types include negro (black, includes similar ingredients to the poblano but adding dried prunes and ripe plantain); rojo (red, heavier on the tomatillos and also including not a small amount of rendered pork lard); amarillo (yellow, with ground cumin and corn flour); colorado ("colored," with fresh herbs); and verde (green, with fresh green chiles, cilantro, and green pumpkin seeds), among many other varieties. you know. Tell your friends about mole.

I did, however, want to stick with the classic and widely recognized poblano version of this dish. Always served over chicken or turkey, this sauce is incredibly complex-tasting, thanks to its many ingredients. It's not an easy thing to make--it's very time consuming and demands a measure of organization and thoughtful planning--but neither is it as complicated as it might first appear when you read through the recipe. Very basically, you first create a spicy chile sauce made from the fried, then rehydrated and puréed dried chiles, and then you make a sweet sauce from the nuts, dried fruit, and floral spices. Only at the very end do you combine these two sauces and then reduce the result into a silky mixture that is both hot and sweet at the same time.

I talk a lot of game on this site about how I don't follow recipes, preferring instead to follow my muse wherever she might lead me and charting my own way as I go. It's a talent I'm proud of, because it's pretty much my only creative outlet: I don't play music, make art or write anything that's nonfiction. As important as that skill is to me, though, it's also immensely satisfying, once in a while, to cook from a recipe, particularly one that's foreign to me and that I probably wouldn't be able to riff on my own. The mole was a perfect example of such a dish. In the initial stages of the cooking process, I was kind of groping along blindly; I had an idea of where I needed to go, but I wasn't altogether sure how to get there. As I progressed, though, I began to see how everything would come together in the end. A recipe like this is really like a puzzle: you can taste the separate components (basically, the two "mother" sauces) as you go along, but even so, it will be incredibly difficult to imagine how they'll taste when they're finally wedded together. But when they are, they fit perfectly. A recipe that keeps even an experienced cook guessing until the very end? That's certainly my idea of birthday fun.

Chicken Mole Poblano

Adapted from Rick Bayless via Saveur
Serves 15 - 20

A few notes about this recipe. You'll need to visit a Mexican grocery store to get a number of the ingredients (the dried chiles, the Mexican chocolate, and possibly the tortillas). You'll need access to a few appliances: a spice/coffee grinder and, if you want to cut your labor load (as I did), a food processor. I condensed a few of the steps in Bayless's recipe to make things go a little faster. The amount of oil called for seems like a lot, but you'll need it all, because many of the ingredients get fried. You can pour off whatever seems like excess later on.


- 12 dried ancho chiles
- 12 dried guajillo chiles
- 6 dried pasilla chiles
- 6 tbsp. sesame seeds
- 1 tsp. whole aniseed
- 1 tsp. black peppercorns
- 1⁄2 tsp. whole cloves
- 1 tsp. dried thyme
- 1⁄2 tsp. dried marjoram or oregano
- 3 dried bay leaves, crumbled
- 1 1⁄2" stick cinnamon, broken into pieces
- 2 cups canola oil
- 7 1⁄4 cups chicken or turkey stock
- 1⁄2 cup skin-on almonds
- 1⁄2 cup raw shelled peanuts
- 1⁄3 cup hulled pumpkin seeds
- 1⁄3 cup raisins
- 2 slices white bread
- 2 stale corn tortillas
- 10 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
- 2 medium onions, peeled and chopped
- 5 tomatillos, husked, rinsed, and halved
- 2 large tomato, quartered
- 12 whole chicken legs, skin removed and separated into thighs and drumsticks
- Kosher salt, to taste
- 1 cup finely chopped Mexican chocolate
- 4 tbsp. sugar, plus more to taste
- Tortillas, plain white rice and cilantro sprigs, for serving


1. Stem chiles and shake seeds into a bowl. Set chiles aside. Measure 4 tbsp. chile seeds (discard the rest) and 4 tbsp. sesame seeds into a small skillet set over medium heat. Toast seeds, swirling pan, for 2 minutes. Transfer to a spice grinder. Toast aniseed, peppercorns, and cloves; transfer to grinder along with thyme, marjoram, bay leaves, and cinnamon. Grind into a powder and transfer to a large bowl; set spice mixture aside.

2. Heat oil in an 8-quart Dutch oven set over medium heat. Working in small batches, add chiles and cook, turning, until toasted, about 20 seconds. Using a slotted spoon and reserving oil in skillet, transfer chiles to paper towels to drain. Transfer fried chiles to a large bowl; add boiling water to cover (about 4 cups). Let chiles steep for 30 minutes. Strain chiles, reserving soaking liquid.

3. Place the chiles, 3⁄4 cup soaking liquid, and 3⁄4 cup stock into the bowl of a food processor; blend until smooth. Set a sieve over a bowl and strain chile mixture, pushing it through sieve with a rubber spatula; discard solids. Rinse food processor; set chile purée aside.

4. Return pan with oil to medium heat. In quick succession, fry the almonds, then peanuts, then pumpkin seeds, then raisins until toasted, about 1 minute from the time you add the almonds. Transfer all ingredients to paper towels to drain. Return pan to medium heat and fry the bread, turning once, until golden brown, about 3 minutes; transfer to paper towels. Repeat with tortillas. Break bread and tortillas into small pieces and transfer to bowl, along with the almonds, peanuts, pumpkin seeds, raisins, and ground spice mixture; set aside.

5. Set a fine strainer over a large bowl. Strain oil and return it to Dutch oven. Remove 2 tbsp. of the oil and heat it in an 8” skillet set to medium-high. Place onions, garlic, tomatillos and tomatoes into the bowl of the food processor; pulse until finely chopped. Rinse food processor. Add mixture to skillet and cook, stirring, until mixture has softened and the liquid has evaporated, about 12 minutes. Transfer to bowl with spice mixture along with 2 1⁄2 cups stock. Blend onion/nut/spice mixture in food processor until smooth. Press through the strainer into a bowl; set purée aside.

6. Heat reserved Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Season chicken pieces with salt. Working in batches, brown each piece, turning once. Transfer chicken to a plate. Pour off all but 3 tbsp. of oil in Dutch oven and return to medium-high heat. Add chile purée; cook, stirring, until thick, 10–12 minutes. Add spice purée, reduce heat, and cook, stirring, for 30 minutes. Stir in 4 cups stock and chocolate; simmer, partially covered and stirring often, for 1 hour. Season mole sauce with salt and sugar to taste; remove from heat.

Heat oven to 350°. Nestle chicken in mole sauce, dividing among oven-safe dishes if necessary. Bake, covered, for 2 hours. Remove from oven and sprinkle with remaining sesame seeds; serve with tortillas, white rice, and cilantro sprigs.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The kitchen sink of stuffed veggie recipes

Recently, while shopping at the Co-op, I noticed some beautiful-looking Delicata squashes, and decided to grab a couple. Though I had never cooked with them, I knew they were among my mom's favorite vegetables, and that she'd be able to recommend a good recipe. And I was right: when I queried her via email, she responded that she bakes them, stuffed with a mixture of cottage cheese, apples, and raisins, then tops them with Swiss cheese, which creates a browned, gooey crust. I liked her idea, but it sounded a little too sweet for me, so using that recipe as a base, I riffed my own version of a stuffing.

First, I sautéed chopped onions and apples in some olive oil, adding some minced garlic and dried thyme once the first ingredients began to break down. Once everything was well cooked, I took some nice clean kale, shredded it up and added it to the pan, covering it to allow the kale to steam. Once that mixture had cooled slightly, I added the rest of the stuffing ingredients: cottage cheese, eggs, breadcrumbs, and grated Parmesan cheese. I portioned this generously between my two halved, par-baked squashes, then topped with more Parmesan cheese, as, well, I didn't have any Swiss. If you wanted to get more decadent, you could add more breadcrumbs to the top along with the cheese, and dot everything with butter before sending it off to the oven. Even if you go that route, you'll still have a pretty virtuous, complete, vegetarian meal:


Baked Stuffed Delicata Squash
Serves 4


2 medium to large Delicata squashes, halved and seeds removed
Olive oil
2 medium onions, peeled and finely chopped
2 medium apples, peeled and finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. dried thyme
1/2 c. raisins
1 bunch of kale, rinsed, thick stems removed, and shredded
About 1 c. cottage cheese, any style
2 eggs
About 1/2 c. breadcrumbs
About 1/4 c. grated Parmesan cheese


1. Preheat the oven to 350
°. Lightly season the squash with salt and pepper, then bake for about 25 minutes or until flesh is slightly tender. (Make sure the squash halves sit flat on the baking pan. If they don't, use a vegetable peeler to trim a strip or two away from the bottom.)

2. Prepare the stuffing: in a large, heavy-bottomed pan, heat about 3 tbsp. olive oil over medium heat. Add the apples and onions; a few minutes later, stir in the garlic, raisins and thyme. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes.

3. Add the shredded kale and cook, stirring occasionally, until kale is mostly wilted, about 5 - 7 minutes. Turn off the heat, cover the pan, and allow mixture to cool slightly.

4. Add cottage cheese, eggs, breadcrumbs, Parmesan, and salt and pepper to taste. Mix well. Remove squash from oven and divide filling evenly among 4 halves. (If you have any leftover stuffing, bake it in a greased dish alongside.) Top squash with more Parmesan, or, if you prefer, Parmesan + breadcrumbs and some dots of butter.

5. Return to oven and bake until squash is tender and stuffing is nicely browned, about 25 more minutes. I served the squash with a brown rice pilaf and a beet salad.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

When life gives you...carrots?

I'm a proud member of the wonderful Crown Heights Farm Share, and I split a winter share with two friends. As such, I'm pretty well covered on root vegetables right now. Just to give you an idea of what farms produce through the cold winter months (or can store through the season), here's an example of what my friends and I received at the last pickup: 5 pounds sweet potatoes, 8 pounds Kueka Gold potatoes, 10 pounds storage carrots, 2 stalks of Brussels sprouts, 2 heads of broccoli, 1 piece of daikon radish, 1 head of Arrow cabbage, 1 bulb kohlrabi, 1 bunch of fresh field carrots, 5 pounds storage beets, 1 head of Napa cabbage, 1 bunch kale, 1 bunch green Romaine lettuce, 1 bunch red Romaine lettuce, 1 bunch green Oak lettuce, and 1 head green Boston lettuce.

As you can see, what we got was a mix of fresh produce (probably grown in a greenhouse or under plastic tarps) as well as storage produce, that's likely being kept in a cool, dark cellar. Getting a winter farm share is interesting, because it gives you some insight into what people were dealing with back in the days of eating truly locally. Although I supplement my share with imported produce like bananas and avocados, I also try to put myself in the mindset of, oh, say, a 19th century self-sufficient farmer, and try to envision what I would do to keep all those dark greens and starchy roots interesting for my family through the cold, dark months.

Altogether, my friends and I got more than ten pounds of carrots, in an array of beautiful colors. Here's my share of the loot:

Figuring out what to do with them wasn't hard. I instantly thought of soup, as most cooks do when faced with a surplus of perishable product. I knew I would cook the carrots down and purée them into something smooth and silky, but I wanted to keep the flavors zingy, as sometimes carrots (especially cooked carrots) can tend towards the blandly sweet. First, I decided that I would roast the carrots in the oven before cooking them in the broth, in order to bring out some of the complexities that high heat imparts to vegetables. Then I decided that I would throw a lot of strong, warming spices in with the usual salt and pepper on my carrots. So after a lot of peeling and chopping, I ended up with this:

That's the carrots, some oil and seasoning, plus generous amounts of whole cumin, coriander and mustard seeds. I tossed them and into the oven they went, emerging burnished and fragrant after about forty minutes. Then I sweated some onions, garlic and grated ginger in some olive oil, added the carrots and enough chicken stock to cover, and simmered for about forty minutes, until the carrots rehydrated and melded with the other flavors in the pot. Then, I busted out my handy immersion blender and puréed it all up, adding dollops of plain yogurt as I went. The end result is a surprisingly complex-tasting soup, warm and spicy from the whole seeds, but also cool and tangy from the addition of the yogurt. I actually think this would be excellent cold, but as it's (sort of) chilly outside, I've been eating it hot:

But wait, I'm not done with my carrot transformations yet! I kept the slender, fresh carrots to the side, cut them into little sticks, and pickled them in a brine made with apple cider vinegar, garlic, mustard seeds and fresh cilantro (I wanted to use dill, but I forgot to buy some). They'll be ready in ten days; I can hardly wait!

Spice-Roasted Carrot Soup with Yogurt
Serves 10 - 12


3 lbs. carrots, peeled and cut into large, uniform chunks
Grapeseed, canola or other neutral oil
2 tsp. cumin seeds
2 tsp. coriander seeds
1 tbsp. mustard seeds
2 large onions, peeled and cut into a medium dice
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 tbsp. grated ginger
About 1 quart chicken or vegetable broth
About 1 1/2 c. plain yogurt
1 lime


1. Preheat the oven to 425°. Toss the carrots with a small amount of oil, the cumin, coriander and mustard seeds, and a generous amount of salt and pepper. Turn out onto a sheet tray and place in the oven, stirring occasionally, for about 40 minutes, or until the carrots are nicely browned. Set aside.

2. When the carrots come out of the oven, heat about 3 tbsp. of olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed soup pot. Add the onions and stir; a minute or two later, add the garlic and ginger. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, until the onions sweat and break down, about ten minutes. Add the roasted carrots and enough broth to cover. Bring to a boil, then drop to a simmer and cook for about 40 minutes, until carrots plump up again.

3. Use an immersion or standard blender to blend the soup until smooth, adding more chicken stock as needed to maintain a fluid consistency. Work in the yogurt as you go. Squeeze in the juice of the lime and check for seasoning, adding more salt or pepper as needed. Serve hot or cold.

Pickled Carrots
Adapted from
Makes one jar


1 lb. carrots, peeled and cut into sticks
1 1/4 c. water
1 c. apple cider vinegar
1/4 c. sugar
1 1/2 tbsp. salt
1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed
1 tsp. mustard seeds
Sprig of fresh herbs, such as dill or cilantro


1. Fill a medium pot with water and bring to a boil. Blanch the carrots in the water for one minute, then remove with a slotted spoon and place in an ice bath, or run under cold water, to stop the cooking.

2. Choose an appropriate-sized glass jar for the carrots and place it and its lid in the boiling water. Boil for about 7 minutes to sanitize, then remove with tongs.

3. Combine the water, vinegar, sugar and salt in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Turn off heat.

4. Place carrot sticks in jar. They should fit closely together. Add mustard seeds, garlic and fresh herbs to the jar. Using a funnel, pour in the pickling liquid to top of jar, then seal tightly with the lid. The carrots should be left to pickle for about 10 days. Unopened, they will last for several months.