Category Archives: Make-Ahead

MATZO TOFFEE

Last year, I was asked to be in charge of desserts for a renegade Seder.  Such is the path by which I discovered Matzo Toffee, which is what baby matzo hopes it will grow up to be someday and what you, once you make it, will be unable to stop eating.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.


You don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate the combination of all good flavors—the richness of bittersweet chocolate, the butteriness of toffee, the earthy snap of almonds, the crunch of matzo, & the edge and texture of quality sea salt—but if you are Jewish and observing Passover next week*, it might be exciting to discover that matzo can actually be delicious.

What is a renegade Seder, you might ask?  Well, consider that our hostess was a Jewess whose Twitter bio claims she is a “kosher pork authority.”  Her sweetheart is a Muslim and for Halloween, they dressed up as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (she taped settlements to his shirt as the night wore on).  For the reading of the Haggadah, we had gift bags full of “plagues” represented by various craft-store-acquisitions, including red foam cut-out boils.  There were Red Sea cocktails with drowned Egyptian ninja figurines.  (Please note: we love Egyptians.  We do not wish them any violence.  We were just going along with the Bible story).

And I, the Hindu, was unable to eat the desserts I had made for the Seder because I had given up desserts for Lent.  Heh.  But the toffee went over so well with the rest of the evening’s guests that they convinced me to save a bag for Easter Sunday, upon which occasion I promptly devoured what was left.

Before we dash off on vacation, I’ll be making up a batch of this good stuff in solidarity with my Jewish friends and students.  Now that I’m back from the 8th grade Washington, D.C. trip—a whirlwind, exhausting and unbelievably fun four days—I’m relishing the spring break life but already kinda miss my students.  Just don’t tell them that!

*To make this recipe kosher-for-Passover, ensure that all the ingredients are certified kosher-for-Passover and that the kitchen you’re cooking in and utensils you’re cooking with are as well.  Since this recipe contains a large amount of butter, serve it with a meatless meal or make it with kosher margarine.  You may need to omit the vanilla.

MATZO TOFFEE
Adapted slightly from David Lebovitz

You can also make this recipe with Saltines or another plain cracker, omitting the sea salt.  You might want to double the recipe, while you’re at it—it’s incredibly simple to make and very, very satisfying.

6 sheets unsalted matzo

1 cup unsalted butter, cut into pieces

1 cup packed light brown sugar
1

½ cup bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped or in chips

½ tsp. vanilla extract

a pinch of salt

optional toppings:

1 cup almonds or another nut, toasted & chopped

a few generous sprinklings of coarse sea salt

oven: 350˚
pan: Baking sheet(s) lined very well with foil, then top the foil with parchment paper.  Yes, this is necessary.  Toffee is messy business, you know.  Delicious, but messy.

Place the matzo along the bottom of the baking pan, breaking it up to cover the whole bottom.

In a big, thick saucepan, melt the butter and brown sugar together over medium heat.  Bring up to a boil, stirring regularly, for about three minutes, as the mixture thickens.  Remove from heat and stir in the salt & vanilla.  Pour over the matzo, distributing the caramel mixture evenly and quickly.

Move the baking sheet(s) to the oven and bake for 12-15 minutes, watching to make sure that the caramel doesn’t burn.  (If it begins to get too dark, remove from the oven & turn down the heat to 325˚.)  Once everything is nice and golden brown, remove from the oven and immediately sprinkle the matzo with the chocolate.  Wait a few minutes, then smooth out the now-melted chocolate with a spatula.  See how you just made the recipe work for you?  Love that.

As the chocolate is cooling, sprinkle with the toppings of your choice—in my case, some almonds & good sea salt.  Let the matzo toffee cool completely before breaking into pieces and devouring it.  If there’s any leftover, it will keep in an airtight container for up to a week.

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GREEN LENTIL SOUP

Forgive me in advance for my discombobulation.  Is “discombobulation” really a word?  No, it’s not.  But I’m an English teacher and so I think my made-up words should count.

Tomorrow morning I leave to chaperon the eighth grade trip to Washington, D.C. We’ll be packing in some l-o-n-g days of sight-seeing and I just don’t know that any blogging is going to happen while I’m gone.  I bet I’ll have some excellent stories to share when I get back, though; I’m fairly certain this trip is going to be exhausting, educational, and highly entertaining.

After D.C. comes Passover break!  (Some of you may recall that I work for a  Jewish school).  And, what do you know, Jill and I are actually GOING ON VACATION.  To a resort.  On a beach.  Just the two of us.  Where they make drinks with little umbrellas in them.  Aside from road trips to see my mom or her parents, Jill and I haven’t taken a non-work related trip since I graduated from college.  Which was five years ago in May.  So, it’s time.

Fret not, though, while I’m lounging on some sunny beach and finally reading The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, two excellent guest bloggers will be taking care of things around here.  And once April rolls around, we’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programming.

In the interim, I present you with some lentil soup.  Should you be experiencing the “cold snap” (feels more like the weather BROKE if you ask me, since it was sunny & 70 degrees yesterday, now blustery & 41, what gives?) that we are, or should you live somewhere that’s just straight-up cold, give this soup a try.   It’s very hearty but actually healthy at the same time, doesn’t take too long to throw together but gets better as it sits in the fridge for a few days.  Should you prefer a vegetarian version, Jess from Sweet Amandine read my mind and posted one.

Last but not least, I’m very proud to share that the Houston Press named Blue Jean Gourmet one of ten “Blog Stars” for the city!  You can read the full story here (and find me on page 5).

GREEN LENTIL SOUP

ingredients:

1 ¼ lb. sausage*
2 small yellow onions, diced
3 carrots, peeled & diced into small chunks
3 ribs celery, diced into small chunks
2-3 gloves garlic, minced
3 cups green (French) lentils, picked over & rinsed
6 cups water or chicken/vegetable stock (I used ½ & ½)
1 28-oz. can diced tomatoes (I like fire-roasted)
2 bay leaves
1 cinnamon stick
½ tsp dried thyme
splash of red or white wine vinegar
salt & pepper to taste

Slice the sausage into thick rounds and brown it at the bottom of a stockpot or Dutch oven.  There’s no need to cook it all the way through, just get good color on both sides, then remove it from the pot and set aside.

My sausage wasn’t very fatty, so I added a little olive oil before tossing in the onions.  You might not need any extra fat, or may even want to remove some of the sausage grease—it’s up to you.  Either way, get the onions going, and once they become translucent, toss in the garlic, carrots, & celery.

When the vegetables have lost a bit of their “tooth,” throw in the lentils, liquid, tomatoes, & aromatics (bay leaf, cinnamon, thyme, & about a tablespoon of salt).  Cover the pot and let everything cook until the lentils have reached your preferred softness, about 30-45 minutes.  You may need to add additional water or stock as you go.

At the end, stir in the vinegar and generous grinds of pepper, along with extra salt to taste.  Serve up in big bowls with a hunk of crusty bread or wholegrain crackers.

*I used a garlic sausage that we get from our meat share, but I think a mild Italian would work well here, too.

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THE FOOD OF MY PEOPLE: KHEER (RICE PUDDING)

I have a sweet tooth.  A serious, serious sweet tooth.


As a kid, my mom managed the sugary contents of our house with an iron fist; that is to say there weren’t really any sugary contents in our house.  Well, there was sugar, and I am ashamed to admit that more than once I snuck spoonfuls of the powdered sugar from the baking pantry and grabbed furtive handfuls of the Cinnamon Red Hots my mom kept as a secret ingredient for her holiday-time hot punch.

The first time I spent the night at a friend’s house, I opened her freezer to discover pints and pints of ice cream.  Just SITTING there.  Available for eating…whenever she wanted.  Staggering.

To be fair, my mom had good reasons to be strict about sugar.  My father developed typed-II diabetes when I was a little kid, and she was determined not to let genetics win with me.  But the truth is, much like a teetotaler’s kid, I went a little bit nuts with sugar when I achieved the freedom of adulthood.  My freshman 15 had nothing to do with beer and everything to do with Chef Roger, who took over my residential college’s kitchen and had a real way with pastry.

Those who know me know the affairs I’ve had with various kinds of ridiculous sugar products: Smarties, Bottlecaps, Laffy Taffy (but only the grape & strawberry flavors).  Chocolate isn’t safe around me, either.  I could SO have been one of those Willy Wonka kids.

In the last few years, though, I’ve worked to consciously change my tastes.  No more movie-theater-sized boxes of candy or cartons of Ben & Jerry’s for me.  Smaller spoonfuls of sugar in my tea, sometimes no sugar at all.  It’s amazing how I’ve been able to retrain my palate to the point where I can appreciate desserts and flavors I would have previously overlooked.

As a kid, kheer never appealed to me—not nearly sweet enough, of course.  But now, I love the subtlety of the cardamom and rosewater, tinged with just a bit of sweetness and finished with the salty texture from the nuts.

So I’m proud to say that my tastes have become a bit more sophisticated, though I have been known to buy a small bag Laffy Taffy at Walgreen’s every now and then…just don’t tell my mom!

KHEER (Indian Rice Pudding)

Kheer isn’t particularly difficult to make, but it does require patience.  Cook it slowly on the stove whenever you’re already planning to be in the kitchen for a while.

The best part? Kheer keeps extremely well—in fact, you may even find that it tastes better after a few days in the fridge.

ingredients:

4 cups milk*
½ cup basmati rice
½ cup chopped almonds and/or pistachios, toasted
¼ cup sweetened condensed milk
2 T ground cardamom (I love this flavor, but if you don’t, cut the amount in half)

optional: rosewater

Rinse the rice while heating the milk over medium-low heat in a heavy-bottomed pot.  Drain & add the rice to the milk, stirring to combine with a wooden spoon.

The main object while cooking kheer is to keep the milk from scorching at the bottom of the pan.  You don’t have to stir constantly, just regularly, and err on the side of caution when it comes to managing the heat on the stove.

As it cooks, the kheer will thicken.  If you prefer a thinner pudding, feel free to add extra milk.

When you’ve reached the thirty minute mark, check the rice for doneness.   Once it has been cooked through, remove the pot from the heat.  Stir in the cardamom, then swirl in the sweetened condensed milk, then check for sweetness—you may want to add a bit more.

Serve the kheer hot, warm, or cool.  Sprinkle each bowl-full with a handful of nuts and a teaspoon or so of rosewater.

*please use 2% or whole milk, it makes for far superior kheer.

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MINESTRONE

I didn’t grow up with many males in my life—twelve years in an all-girls’ school and no brother will do that to you—so it wasn’t until high school that I really began to build friendships with them.

Now, thankfully, there are these men in my life whom I love.  I mean, really, really love.  Men who can make me laugh with a one-line email, men who appreciate the noise my high heels make on pavement, men who care deeply for the people in their life, who watch “The West Wing” on DVD and keep Lincoln biographies and cookbooks and Spanish poetry and young adult fiction all stacked by their bedside.

Who have crushes on Mary Louise Parker.  Who have held my hand in art museums, or held me on a couch the night after my father’s funeral, or held their palm gently against the small of my back, ushering me into a door or through a crowded room.  Who write the most incredible letters, which I will save forever.  Who love their wives, their fiancées, their girlfriends, their sisters, mothers.  Who chide me into staying a little longer and drinking another beer (or Scotch or glass of wine).  Who will happily eat anything I put in front of them.


I look at my fourteen-year-old male students, who are so earnestly figuring out how to be men, how to flirt, how to build character, integrity, and swagger, and then I look at these men in my life: Dave, Phil, Stephen, Wayne, and I feel tremendous joy for the men I know my boys will grow up to become.

MINESTRONE

This recipe makes a big batch, but minestrone is the perfect “it’s still cold outside” refrigerator space-taker.  I always like to have mine with a good, golden-crusted grilled cheese.

1 large yellow onion
3 cloves garlic
3-4 small zucchini
3-4 small yellow squash
2 bunches fresh spinach (can substitute frozen), washed & roughly chopped
1 large (28 oz.) can crushed, fire-roasted tomatoes
4-6 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 cans kidney beans
2 T tomato paste
1 T dried oregano (double if using fresh)
¼ cup fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
salt & pepper
olive oil

secret ingredient: Parmesan rind
optional: a few cups of cooked pasta

Dice the onion & mince the garlic.  In a large soup pot or Dutch oven, heat a fair amount of olive oil over medium-high heat.  Throw the onions in first and cook until they are a bit brown, then dial back the heat to medium and add the garlic.

While those two ingredients are making your house smell incredibly delicious, cut the zucchini & squash into small cubes, trying to keep them uniform without worrying too much over precision.  Add to the pot & sauté 5-8 minutes, until soft.

Now it’s time to toss almost everything in and let soup magic happen.  Tomatoes, stock, herbs, tomato paste, & Parmesan rind, if you’re using it.  Let your soup simmer for at least 45 minutes before adding the fresh spinach in batches, folding it in so it will wilt on its own in the hot soup.

Pull out the Parmesan rind (it will be gooey!) and toss in the beans, plus pasta if you’re using it.  Once everything has heated through, serve up in bowls or big mugs, garnishing with some fresh Parmesan and/or extra parsley, if you like.

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GAME DAY CHILI

Every once in a while, we human beings are bold enough to take an idea, a possibility, a “what if” or a “hmm, could we?” and allow it to germinate in our mind, to take us over, to use us and pull us into creation mode.  Then, if we’re crazy enough, we begin to speak our idea aloud—we tell other people, they tell other people.  And before we know it, we are wed to the thing, we are given by it, we find ourselves sitting at the kitchen table (right, Julie?) in our pajamas, working and working but the work almost doesn’t feel like work.  Or at the very least it feels like the right kind of work to be doing.

For me, I find it’s all too easy to watch the news, to read the paper, to look at the world and think “I wish I could help,” to feel deeply for the suffering of others and then put that all aside and move on.  But not Julie van Rosendaal.  She created something, a beautiful something, something I am very proud to be a part of:

Inside this cookbook, you’ll find recipes and gorgeous photographs from some of the best chefs and bloggers on the internet, a group in which I’m honored to be included.  While the book was put together in record time (just under three weeks!), it’s lost absolutely nothing in terms of quality.  Preview a handful of the pages online; they’re gorgeous.

You can purchase the soft cover edition for $25, the hardcover for $50.  Every penny raised from sales will go straight to earthquake relief efforts in Haiti, via the Canadian Red Cross & Doctors Without Borders.

I think the Blog Aid cookbook would make a great birthday, housewarming, wedding, Mother’s or Father’s Day gift.  Or just buy it as a statement of faith, a vote on the side of hope and good work, a testament to the fact that one woman’s idea can become food in a child’s mouth, medicine for a wounded man, glossy cookbook pages you hold in your hand.

GAME-DAY CHILI (among other Superbowl food ideas)

I hardly ever make chili the same way twice—depending upon what’s in my pantry, spice cabinet, freezer, & fridge, all kinds of meats and seasonings have made their way into the pot.  Don’t be afraid to mix meats—pork, venison, beef—and change up the type of beans you use (if you use beans at all).  If you have a crock pot or slow cooker, now is the time to drag it out!  It serves perfectly for chili-making.  Don’t worry if you don’t have one, though, you can still brew up some perfectly good chili the old-fashioned, stovetop way.

Every chili has some “signature moves”—mine are dark beer, cinnamon, & a little cocoa powder.  All three of these do a little something to the flavor…you can’t pinpoint what you’re tasting, but it tastes good.  Mushrooms may seem like a strange ingredient, but they bump up the “meatiness” quotient of the chili without you actually having to add meat at all.  Control the heat to match your own preference, and bear in mind that big pots of chili usually get hotter after a day or two in the fridge!

ingredients:

2 lb. ground sirloin

1 cup chopped crimini or white mushrooms

1 onion, diced

3 carrots

3-4 cloves garlic, minced

1 serrano or 2 minced jalapeño peppers (if you like/can handle the heat!)

4 T chili powder

1 T cocoa powder

1 tsp. chipotle chili powder

1 tsp. allspice

1 tsp. cumin

1 tsp. salt

½ tsp. cayenne pepper

½ tsp. cinnamon

4 cups beef stock

1 dark beer (I used Negra Modelo)

1 28-oz. can fire-roasted, crushed tomatoes

2 14-oz cans kidney beans (but only if their presence won’t offend your sensibilities)

2 T Worcestershire sauce

2 T chipotle peppers in adobo sauce

1 dried ancho chile (you could certainly use another type)

a few dashes of liquid smoke

vegetable oil

potential accompaniments: white rice, spaghetti, tortilla chips, Fritos, cornbread, cheddar cheese, sour cream, scallions

Mix all of the spices in a small bowl.  Bring a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat, then  brown the meat, in batches if necessary.  As you cook the meat, add in some of the spice mixture to each batch.

Once the meat has browned, transfer to a crock pot or large, heat-proof bowl.  Drain most but not all of the accumulated fat—swirl in a little vegetable oil, then sauté the onions and garlic for a 3-4 minutes before adding the carrots & mushrooms.

If using a crock pot or slow cooker, once the vegetables are soft, add them to the beef.  Pour in all of the remaining ingredients and cover, cooking for full cycle or at least two hours before serving.  Check for spices & salt.

If cooking on the stove, return the meat to the pot and add the remaining ingredients.  Bring to a boil, then simmer for at least an hour before serving.  Check for spices & salt.

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CHICKEN & DUMPLINGS

Regarding the pain of others, I am ever at a loss.

I haven’t gotten any better at figuring out what to do with these masses of grim humanity that get hurled our way, without warning, without reason, without pattern.  How are we to negotiate a world in which I can sit here, typing away on an expensive computer in a comfortable home stocked with food and supplies, while a few hundred miles south and east of me survival is far from certain and bodies are piling up in the street?

At the gym this week I found myself standing on the elliptical machine, my usual routine interrupted by this footage of the rawest, gnarliest grief and despair in a place that really isn’t that far away from me at all and I thought to myself AND WE ARE WORRIED ABOUT BURNING SOME CALORIES?

Paradox is the sea we all swim in.  I think perhaps the trick is to be aware of our contradictory selves, to fleece out any illusions about this wild and willful world.  To delight in what there is to delight in, to mourn what there is to mourn.  To give our best shot to holding it all in somehow.  To look at the screen, because we must.

My old neighborhood in Tucson was very close to the University and its Medical Center; a whole crew of dogs lived on our particular block, lording over dusty yards behind battered fences.  Whenever an ambulance would go by, the dogs would howl.  Pure, unadulterated noise.  It always seemed to me an appropriate herald: here, you see, pay attention, someone’s life is changing forever.

Two of my favorite people in the whole wide world are right now in the hardest possible places: waiting for news about mother and sister, respectively.  The former in a hospital ICU, the latter in Haiti. I love these human beings so much, more than I can rightly say and yet I cannot make their pain go away, I cannot fix this, I cannot do anything that will make a damn difference.

This is me, howling.


CHICKEN & DUMPLINGS

Sometimes all you can do is dish up a big pot of comfort, stand over the stove with a whisk in hand, scrape dumplings with all your heart and trust that it all adds up to something.

I’m from Memphis, so it’s practically a genetic obligation to be able to make this stuff.  Started adding leeks a few years back when I saw the idea in Cook’s Country magazine—I like the flavor they add, but it’s especially nice to have a dimension of color in the stew which is traditionally all-white.  While I don’t like to clutter my chicken & dumpling up with other veggies, you could easily add diced carrots to the leeks & onions and/or toss in frozen peas at the end.

Also, I’ve at times made a modified version of this recipe which is a little bit less high-maintenance and ostensibly healthier, given that it doesn’t involve rendered chicken fat.  If you have chicken stock & leftover roasted chicken, you can skip steps involving browning the thighs & just add your chicken meat to the stew when you pour in the milk.  Since you won’t have schmaltz for the dumplings, substitute butter.

for the broth:

4 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs

3 leeks, white & light green parts only, cut into thick rings & then in half

1 large yellow onion, diced

3 T flour

3 T dry sherry or cooking sherry

4 ½ – 5 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade

¼ cup whole or 2 % milk

2 T fresh or 2 tsp. dried tarragon

1 T fresh or 1 tsp. dried thyme

1 bay leaf

vegetable oil

butter

salt & pepper

for the dumplings:

1 ½ cups flour

1 T baking powder

1 tsp. salt

½ cup buttermilk

2-3 T chicken fat or butter

equipment: If you have a Dutch oven or enameled soup pot, this is the occasion to use it.  If not, use something tall with a heavy bottom.

Get your chicken nice and dry with the aid of some paper towels—this step is essential or it won’t cook up properly.  Season the chicken generously with salt and pepper, then heat up a few tablespoons of vegetable oil in the bottom of your pot over medium-high heat.

Brace yourself for some splattering–cook the chicken until the skin is brown & crisp on both sides, about 4-6 minutes on each side.  Move the chicken to a plate to cool a bit.  Pour off and reserve the delicious! chicken! fat! that has gathered at the bottom of the pot.  (You’ll use some of it for the dumplings, but I urge you to save whatever’s leftover for adding flavor to soups, roasts, even pie dough).

Return the pot to medium heat & melt a big ole knob (2-3 T) of butter in the bottom.  Add the leeks and onions to cook until soft, about 8 minutes.  Sprinkle flour on top of the vegetables, then whisk in the sherry, thickening the broth base.  Scrape the bottom of the pot to get all of the juicy bits, then stir in the chicken stock, milk, & herbs.

Remove the skin from the chicken thighs, then return them to the pot, cover it all, and let them simmer in the goodness to cook fully, 30-45 minutes.

When the chicken has cooked fully, turn off the heat and remove the thighs & the bay leaves from the pot.  Using forks, carefully shred the chicken meat off of the bone & return it to the pot.  Check and adjust the salt & pepper in the stew, then bring it back up to a simmer for dumpling-dropping purposes.

For the dumpling dough, combine all ingredients in a small bowl and stir until it looks like unappetizing paste.  Fret not!  They are going to taste de-li-ci-ous.  Using two big spoons, gather up a tablespoon’s worth of dough into one spoon then scrape it into the stew with the other. You’ll get the hang of it.

Fill the top of the pot with dumplings, leaving a bit of room because they will grow.  Reduce the heat on the stove to low and let the dumplings cook, turning them once, after about 10 minutes.  Cook the other side of the dumplings for another 10 minutes and then serve.

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THE FOOD OF MY PEOPLE: GREEN BEAN & SWEET POTATO SABJI

Please allow me to begin with the requisite disclaimers: I am but one Indian girl.  I do not represent all Indian people everywhere and I am by NO MEANS an expert on Indian food or cooking.  India is home to twenty-eight states, twice as many languages, and innumerable incarnations of what “Indian food” can look like.  Not to mention the fact that we Indians have disseminated ourselves all across the globe, mish-mashing our food cultures with the British, American, South African, Malaysian, etc.

Still…when I put out the call the other day to see what folks wanted to see more of on the blog, Indian food was the definite winner.  So I am giving in!  “The Food of My People” series starts today and will run every Tuesday for the next few months.  Don’t worry, for those of you utterly uninterested in making Indian food at home (no offense taken), “regular” fare will continue to show up every Friday.

The Indian recipes I’m going to post will be a total hodge-podge of regions and technique, utterly subjective and reflective of me.  They will also be fantastically delicious and adhere to the BJG standard of unfussy food OR fussy food that’s worth it.  I hope to expose you to more Indian “home cooking,” the kind of thing you can’t get in a restaurant and can pretty easily make at home (lots of those restaurant dishes aren’t very authentic or simple to make).  If you have any requests, throw them out in the comments or send me an email.  I’ll do my best to accommodate them!


One of the main things that can make cooking Indian seem intimidating are the seemingly exhaustive lists of unfamiliar ingredients; even I think it’s asking a lot for folks to go out and buy twenty spice bottles just to try one recipe.  For the purposes of this series, I’m listing some essentials and extras, the latter of which will serve those of you who’d like to build your Indian food repertoire.  If you’re uncertain about how frequently you’ll use these ingredients, I recommend you buy in small quantities (at a store which sells in bulk is a good choice.)  For the extras, get yourself to an Indian or Asian grocery store!  They can help you find what you’re looking for and the prices will be much cheaper.

ESSENTIALS:

•    fresh garlic
•    fresh ginger
•    onions
•    whole cumin seeds
•    ground cumin
•    ground coriander
•    ground red mirchi (chili), for heat

EXTRAS:

•    asafetida
•    cardamom
•    fresh cilantro
•    cumin seeds
•    fennel seeds
•    fenugreek seeds
•    garam masala
•    mustard seeds
•    sambar powder
•    turmeric

You’ll find that this recipe, like most of the rest I’ll be posting, makes a pretty good quantity of food.  That’s because I DON’T KNOW HOW TO MAKE SMALL AMOUNTS OF INDIAN FOOD.  It’s like, contrary to what I believe in.  You know?  Ethnic mothers who stuff you full at the table, then send you out the door with a plastic grocery bag full of old sour cream and Cool Whip containers, stuffed with leftovers?  I’m totally turning into one.

GREEN BEAN & SWEET POTATO SABJI

Serves 4 as a side, with leftovers

“Sabji” just means vegetable dish and this one is a favorite.  Simple and satisfying, this dish is a riff off of my mom’s original, which she made with white potatoes.  I personally like the way the flavor of the sweet potatoes plays off of the rich spices in this dish; serve it as an accompaniment to a meat entrée or as the main course itself, with store-bought naan or pita bread.

This recipe calls for just a few tablespoons of tomato paste, so opening a whole can of it is a pain.  I am in love with these tubes of paste from Amore.  Use what you need, then store the rest neatly in your fridge.

•    4 medium-to-large sweet potatoes
•    1 pound green beans
•    1/4 cup fresh ginger, peeled & minced
•    1 T black mustard seeds
•    1 T sambar powder
•    2 T tomato paste
•    ¼ teaspoon asfoetida (optional)
•    ½ cup water
•    3 T canola oil
•    salt

Prep the vegetables: peel & dice the sweet potatoes into roughly 1-inch chunks, then wash & remove the ends from the green beans, chopping them into inch-long pieces.

In a large, heavy-bottomed pan (with a fitted lid), heat the oil over medium-high heat. After 3-4 minutes, the oil should be quite hot but not smoking. Throw in the mustard seeds & sprinkle in the asfoetida. It’s essential to heat these two ingredients at the outset and let them get very hot or they will make the whole dish taste bitter.

Turn down the heat to medium; remove the pan from the heat, then add ginger. Return to the burner and cook until the ginger begins to soften, adding the sweet potatoes, sambar powder, water, & 1 T salt. Toss to ensure that the potatoes are well-coated with the spices.

Cover the dish, turn the heat down to medium-low, and allow the sweet potatoes to cook until tender, about 15 minutes.  Once you can “smush” a sweet potato with the back of your cooking spoon, add the green beans and cook for another 8-10 minutes, tossing in more water if necessary.

Once the green beans are bright and cooked to desired tenderness, fold in tomato paste to bind the dish. Taste the dish for salt & season accordingly.

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MY MOM’S SHRIMP CREOLE

I don’t really know how my mom got to be such a badass cook.

{Facts about woman who brought me into the world—
She does not care for: goat cheese, the word “widow,” or folks who do not vote.
She is rather fond of: peanuts in all forms, the Allman Brothers song “Rambling Man,” & character-driven fiction.}

Like most Southern-women-who-can-make-anything-taste-good, she never had any formal training.  She can make thrifty one-pot or decadent dinners, improvise or plan something elaborate.  She has dishes for which she’s famous, the kind folks often request, she keeps a well-stocked pantry, bar, & wine rack, and of course, will insist that whatever item of hers you just ate which made you seriously think about licking your plate was “really no big deal.”

However, unlike many other Southern-women-who-cook-real-good, my mom isn’t actually from the South.  She was born in the mountainous and politically troubled region of Kashmir, India, and grew up in a household without a mother to learn from in the kitchen—though she did pay attention to the cooks her father employed.  When she and my father were newly married, my mom was suddenly responsible for all of the household cooking (and for an extremely fussy husband, I might add).

What I admire especially about my mom is that she never does anything halfway.  A new position at work means she’ll throw herself into graduate-level classes (even though she already has TWO masters degrees) to ensure she does the best possible job.  A trip to the wine store is always accompanied by a well-researched list and notes.

So in moving to a new continent and into myriad new food cultures, my indomitable mother took it all on.  She experimented until she could reproduce her and my father’s favorite dishes from home, inventing plenty of her own along the way.  But she also dove into learning America’s food culture—woman makes mean spaghetti & meatballs, squash casserole, and this shrimp creole.

Growing up, we ate this every New Year’s Day, so I’m actually running about a week late in posting it.  The bright side, though, is that while this dish is warm, homey, and comforting, it’s actually not so bad for you, so if you’re experiencing post-holiday-food-and-drink-consumption-guilt (I know I am), you can still fit this on your January meal plan.

Up until a few months ago, I had only ever eaten this dish over wild rice, and for good reason—it’s yummy that way.  But when I had some leftovers hanging out in my fridge and no wild rice in my pantry, inspiration struck.  I did have polenta, and topping it with this creole made for one of the best plays on shrimp & grits I’ve ever experienced.

My mom taught me pretty much everything I know about food, passing on her passion for collecting cookbooks, stocking the fridge with a million condiments, and clipping recipes for an ever-expanding file.  Though she makes fun of me now for going through “so much trouble” to try strange or elaborate dishes, she’s the one who once made her own pomegranate liquor, so I don’t think she has much room to talk.

Love you, Amma.  Lots & pots.

SHRIMP CREOLE

Like most dishes that originate from my mother’s kitchen, this one’s not fond of exact measurements.  I’ve done my best to accurately capture the method & flavor here, but this recipe is designed for tinkering.  Fiddle away—it’s still bound to taste good!

This concoction is best made ahead, and therefore is conducive to dinner guests.  Just be sure to reheat the sauce separate from the shrimp, adding them at the end so they don’t get rubbery.

1 ½ – 2 lb. shrimp, peeled & deveined
1/3 cup ketchup
2 T Worcestershire sauce
1 T garlic powder
1 tsp. (½ if you’re heat-shy) Tabasco sauce

Gently mix the above together.  Stash in a non-metal bowl in the refrigerator while you prep the vegetables or for up to two hours.

2 medium yellow onions
2 green bell peppers
4 ribs celery
— (fun fact: the above three items are considered “the trinity” of Cajun cooking, a riff on French cuisine’s mirepoix of onion, celery, & carrot)–
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 (14 oz.) cans fire-roasted tomatoes
1 small can diced tomatoes with green chiles
2-4 cups chicken or vegetable stock, for thinning*
1 tsp. oregano
olive oil
salt & pepper

Peel & dice the onions, seed & dice the peppers, trim the ends off of & dice the celery.  You want everything to be about the same size—I like ½ inch cubes.

In a heavy-bottomed soup pot or Dutch oven, pour in a generous swirl of olive oil and bring up to medium-high heat.  Cook the shrimp (in batches if necessary) until pink, just a few minutes on each side.  Remove shrimp to a bowl but don’t clean out the pot.

Toss in the onions and garlic first.  When they begin to sweat, add the bell peppers.  Celery comes last.  Once all of the vegetables have cooked, add the tomatoes & oregano.  Thin with your desired amount of stock and let simmer at least thirty minutes, but up to a few hours.

At this point, I like to taste the base and will probably toss in some extra Tabasco & Worcestershire sauce, plus salt if it’s needed and lots of pepper.  Once things are tasting dee-li-cious, add the shrimp and any accumulated juices back in.  Turn off the stove at this point–the creole should be hot enough to re-warm the shrimp without any added heat.

Serve over wild or white rice, polenta or grits, even pasta.

*I like my version of this dish to be quite chunky, while others prefer a thinner sauce.

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SPAGHETTI & MEATBALLS

It’s always a good idea to revisit a classic.


My students and I are finishing up our unit on To Kill a Mockingbird this week and I’m breathing a huge sigh of relief.  I was so hesitant to teach this text—some of you know that I switched from sixth to eighth grade English for this year—because I just didn’t know if I could do it justice.  Never have I been asked to teach a book I hold so close to my heart, and I was scared.

I read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time in the seventh grade.  My teacher, Mrs. Zehring, was a goddess whom we all worshipped; we were captivated by her, and so then by extension, the book.  I’ll never forget the afternoons sitting in that classroom, listening to her read passages from the book aloud in her lilting Southern accent.  The intensity of the storylines surrounding Boo Radley and Tom Robinson, the innocence and feistiness of Scout, the quiet and courageous dignity of Atticus—all of it made a profound impact on me.

Since then, I have read To Kill a Mockingbird many times, marveling in the adept writing, haunted by the timelessness of the social commentary, being ever moved to tears at the end.  What if I couldn’t convey all of this to my students?  What if they didn’t “get it?”  What if I became unfairly frustrated with them because I was so attached to the book?


I needn’t have been so worried.  Coming to the book as a teacher has only deepened my respect for and awe over its power, especially as I’ve watched my students go from skeptical (“It’s so confusing!”) to interested (“Okay, it got kinda good.”) to deeply impacted (“OMG, I cried!”).  And, of course, they have shown me facets of the book that feel new, energizing.  They have renewed my faith that classic literature really is classic—that it can still be read and cherished in a Lady Gaga, podcast kind of world.

For a dinner classic, I urge you to revisit spaghetti & meatballs.  If nothing else, the basic marinara sauce is worth getting under your belt.  The meatballs, while time consuming, are crazy-delicious.  Lighter and more flavorful than the ones you might have grown up eating, these still satisfy that “bowl o comfort” craving at the end of the day.


SPAGHETTI & MEATBALLS

My philosophy is that if I’m going to go through the trouble to make homemade marinara sauce and meatballs, I’d might as well make a bunch of both.  The sauce freezes so well, and on a night when you really need it, will help you answer the inevitable “What are we having for dinner?” Think: pasta, pizza, chili.

You can also freeze the meatballs, of course, either on their own or in the sauce.  But don’t feel limited to serving the two together—the meatballs will work just as well on a sandwich or you can toss them into all kinds of soups.

This recipe is very forgiving, so feel free to improvise as you see fit.

for the marinara
:

2 large yellow onions, diced
6-8 cloves garlic, minced (may sound like a lot, but I promise it mellows)
½ cup red or dry white wine
3 (28 oz. each) cans whole tomatoes
¼ cup tomato paste
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
1 T dried oregano
1 tsp. crushed red pepper
olive oil
salt & pepper

optional: fresh basil, to finish

In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, heat 3-4 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat.  Add the onions and cook 1-2 minutes before adding the garlic.  Cook together until translucent and soft, 8-10 minutes more.

Crank up the heat to medium-high and pour in the wine.  Reduce that mixture down until it’s thick and syrupy.  Now it’s time to toss everything else in: the tomatoes, tomato paste, balsamic, oregano, & crushed red pepper.

Allow the sauce to heat up until it’s bubbling, then turn down heat and simmer the marinara for at least 45 minutes, preferably an hour or two.   Serve as-is OR add meatballs to heat through (see below) OR cool and freeze the sauce for later use.


for the meatballs:

2 lbs. ground meat*
1 medium onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
¾ cup day-old bread, preferably white or an Italian-style loaf
approx. 1 cup milk, preferably 2% or whole
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
½ cup parsley, roughly chopped
1 tsp. lemon zest
salt & pepper
olive oil
vegetable oil

Sauté the onion & garlic in a small skillet with olive oil over medium heat until soft and translucent (sensing a theme here?).  Set aside to cool.

Tear or chop the bread into small pieces, then pour milk over the bread, enough to cover all of the pieces.  Let sit for five minutes, then remove the bread, squeezing out any excess milk.   Trust me on this, okay?

Add the milk-soaked bread to a large bowl, along with the cooled onion & garlic, parsley, lemon zest, and generous amounts of salt & pepper.  Using your hands (really, you must, and it’s so much fun anyway!), mix everything thoroughly.

Again, using your hands, shape the meat mixture into meatballs of the size you prefer—I like mine with a 1 to 1 ½ inch diameter—and line them up on baking sheets.

I use a deep, very heavy-bottomed saucepan for meatball-cooking purposes, and an oil ratio of 3 parts olive oil to 1 part vegetable oil.  The oil needs to get rather hot (not quite to smoking) and I recommend you wear long sleeves when you do this—safety first!

Cook the meatballs in small batches—don’t crowd!  Brown the meatballs on all sides (remember, you’re not cooking them through) and then return them to a clean baking sheet.  Depending on the size of your pan, each batch will take 8-12 minutes.

To finish the meatballs, you have a couple of options: toss them in the hot marinara sauce and let them simmer for about twenty minutes, or do the same with hot soup broth.  Otherwise, the meatballs can finish cooking in a 350˚ degree oven, 12-15 minutes if smaller, 15-20 if bigger.

Cool the meatballs thoroughly before freezing OR cook up some pasta and bust out the Parmesan.

*I have used all combinations of meats with great success: all ground beef, half beef/half pork, half beef/half ground turkey, all turkey.

TAKING STOCK & MAKING SOUP

Around here we say, “unfussy food from a fun-loving kitchen.”*  Essentially, what that means to me is you can make great food at home without slaving away for hours or blowing your budget on fancy ingredients.  The kitchen is a place where we should all feel free to make mistakes and make a mess, to play and focus, to relax and to express.  If it isn’t fun, or at the very least rewarding, we won’t do it.

To me, there’s no inherent virtue in fussy.  You know, three different curlique garnishes, half-a-dozen specialty ingredients, recipes that could fill a dishwasher with bowls and dishes just from the prep work?  I don’t do fussy for fussy’s sake.  But if the fuss is going to get me something, like crave-able onion rings,  light, buttery popovers, or delicate almond cookies sandwiched with jam and chocolate, then I’m totally in.

I first tried making my own stocks and broths in graduate school because I was on a serious budget, and it was the frugal thing to do.  Of course, I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that once I started making my own versions, I wouldn’t be able to buy the pre-packaged stuff anymore.  Hours of slow-simmered goodness from your own stove, it’ll spoil you.

It’ll also make you feel worthy of your grandmother or [insert personal kitchen icon here].  Making homemade stock, which you can then use in homemade soups and stews, is the ultimate I CAN DO THIS moment.  Make your own stock and see if you don’t feel like a bona fide, authentic, oh-so-capable blue jean gourmet!

Oh, and have I mentioned how easy it is?  All you really need is an extended period of time at home so you can let the stock simmer and check on it from time to time.  Four to six hours later, you’ll have a house that smells like heaven (warning: this can drive dogs craaaaaazy) and stock that’s richer and more flavorful than anything you can buy in a box or a can.

Of course, if you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to want some milk to go along with it, and if you decide to make stock, you’re going to want to cook with at least some of it ASAP (freezing the rest for future use, of course).  So I’m including an easy, hearty dinner soup recipe that will serve your new stock well.

Should you wish to go all the way with the “fussy but it’s worth it” theme, might I suggest you tackle the infamous Boeuf Bourguignon?  Made famous by the fabulous Julia Child and then re-famous by Julie & Julia fever this year, it really is something you ought to make at least ONCE in your culinary lifetime.  I made some this summer for Jill when I discovered she’d never had it.  She’s still raving about it, I tell you.

More interested in chicken, chicken stock, & chicken soup?  Don’t worry, we gotcha covered.

*Coming soon to a kitchen apron near you!  Yes, really.  Stay tuned.

BEEF STOCK

To make your own beef stock, you can simply buy soup bones from a butcher or save the bones from roasts & steaks as you cook.  If you are working with bones that have already been cooked, you can use a stovetop method: simply sauté all of the same vegetables listed below in a stock pot with some olive oil until soft & fragrant.  Then add the water, bones, & seasonings.

4 lb. beef soup bones (uncooked)
2 red onions, quartered
3 carrots, chunked
3 ribs celery, chunked
3-4 garlic cloves, peeled & smashed
2 T tomato paste
1-2 bay leaves
fresh thyme or rosemary
salt & pepper

optional: splash of red wine
oven: 450˚

Place the vegetables on the bottom of a large roasting pan.  Drizzle with olive oil, then place the soup bones on top.  Season everything liberally with salt & pepper.

Roast in the oven for 25-30 minutes, then transfer the contents of the roasting pan (plus any delicious, accumulated juices) to a large stock pot.  Fill the pot with as much water is needed to cover everything, somewhere around 8 cups.

Toss in the herbs, tomato paste, & red wine (if using).  Bring the mixture up to a boil, skimming off any foam that initially rises to the top.  then let the stock simmer gently for at least four hours, allowing it to reduce.

Taste-test the stock before deciding it’s through.  When you’re ready, strain the stock & save the meat from the soup bones for your dog or another purpose.

If you wish to skim the fat from your stock, the easiest way to do so is to refrigerate the finished stock in a large plastic container.  When it’s nice and cool, the fat solids will rise to the top, making them easier to removed.

Me personally?  I like fat.  It tastes delicious.

Once thoroughly cooled, beef stock will keep well in the freezer for several months.

ITALIAN SAUSAGE SOUP

Inspiration for this soup comes from Jill’s mother—my version is a bit different, but like hers, it’s hearty, easy to make, & goes wonderfully with a pan of cornbread or sliced loaf of crusty bread.  Like most soups, this one just gets better after a few days in the refrigerator!

The more flavorful the sausage, the more flavorful the soup.  Splurge, if you can, on well-crafted product, preferably fresh sausage from a grocery counter (as opposed to something frozen or packaged wholesale).  A tip—if you are a fan of parmesan cheese, save the rind!  I always add them to my soups, especially this one, and they impart excellent flavor.

6 cups beef stock
1 lb. Italian Sausage (hot or mild—the choice is yours!)
1 onion, sliced
2-3 cloves garlic
2 bunches fresh or 1 package frozen spinach
2 cans chickpeas, drained
fresh (1 T each) or dried (1 tsp. each) basil & oregano
olive oil
salt & pepper (1 tsp. each)

Slice or crumble the sausage into a tall, heavy-bottomed pot.  Turn heat to medium and brown the sausage, in two batches if necessary.  Transfer the browned sausage to a bowl with a slotted spoon.

Without cleaning the pot, add a bit of olive oil and cook the onions and garlic until translucent.  If you’re using frozen spinach, you’ll need to thaw & drain it while the onions cook.  If you’re using fresh, wash & dry it well before adding it to the onions & garlic, allowing the leaves to cook down quite a bit.

At this point, return the sausage to the pot along with the rest of the ingredients: stock, chickpeas, herbs, salt, pepper, & frozen spinach (if using).  Bring the soup to a boil, then simmer on low heat for at least thirty minutes before checking for flavor and adjusting salt, if necessary.

Serve hot.  Feel free to grate some parmesan on top—but only if you want to.

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