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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GRANOLA BARS

I’m in Chicago for the weekend.  It’s cold here, but not too cold, grey and foggy instead of sunny, and I’m here because my friend Katie texted me a few months ago and said “bitch, when are you coming to visit me?”  Yes, I believe those were her exact words.

Katie and I first met as high schoolers at a school program called Close Up in Washington, D.C.  She was there from Michigan, me from Tennessee.  We started talking the first night in the lobby of the hotel where our groups were staying, and she wound up loaning me her giant CD collection and trying to explain that strange Yankee card game, Euchre.  The next day, we sat next to each other on the bus, and by the end of the five-day trip, she handed me a postcard with the Jefferson Memorial (her favorite) on the front and a note that included “I love you” on the back.

We are really such unlikely friends; I was the geekiest sixteen-year-old known to man, she was loud, sarcastic, a partier, the center of social attention.  For the longest time I was convinced that she was actually too cool to be friends with me and eventually she would figure that out and ditch our long-distance correspondence.  But the thing about Katie is that there are so many layers to her brash persona: fierce loyalty to family and friends, voracious reading habits, impatience for all things superficial, and her boundless generosity.

I like to think that I was able to see those things back then, when others couldn’t, or didn’t, and that she saw me—the, as it turns out, a little brash and mouthy and daring myself—underneath the suiting of a hopelessly self-conscious and sheltered sophomore. Katie wasted no time drawing me out of my shell.  She’s my delightfully corrupting influence. When Katie’s mom heard that I was coming to visit this weekend, she told her daughter, “Could you please not dye or tattoo or pierce anything this time around?”

This week marks our eleven-year friend-versary—in that time, we’ve probably spent less than two months in the other’s actual physical company.  But space and time don’t seem to matter for us; no matter how long it’s been, we always just pick right up where we left off.

HOMEMADE GRANOLA BARS


If historical trends are any indication, I’ll need to compensate for questionably healthy eating choices after spending a weekend with Katie.  Oh, yep, in fact, she’s banging around the kitchen right now, making pancakes.  Granola bars + serious gym time are going to be in order.

The folks at Superior Nuts were kind enough to send me some of their beautifully packaged sliced almonds and jumbo apricots, so I used them, but you could substitute any kind of nut or dried fruit.  I’m convinced that adding flavorings like cinnamon and nutmeg go a long way to putting these granola bars in a different stratosphere than the cardboard-replica-versions you so often find.
ingredients:

2 cups old-fashioned oats
1 cup sliced almonds
1 cup shredded, unsweetened coconut*
¼ cup golden flax meal
¼ cup wheat germ

*If you use sweetened, omit the brown sugar below.

oven: 350˚

Stir all ingredients together in a large bowl.  Spread out on two foil-lined baking sheets.  Toast for 10-15 minutes, stirring at least once, until the mixture has been lightly browned.

Return to the bowl and stir in:

1 cup dried fruit, chopped
½ tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. nutmeg
pinch of salt

For the wet ingredients, whisk the following together in a small saucepan over low heat:

½ cup honey
3 T butter
3 T brown sugar (optional)
1 tsp. vanilla

Pour the mixture into the bowl and stir to combine.  Be sure that all of the dry ingredients are well coated.  For thicker granola bars, use a square pan.  Thinner, a rectangle.  Line your pan of choice with parchment paper.

Drop the oven temperature down to 325˚.

Press the granola mixture into the pan, using your fingers to get an even layer and pressing down hard.  Use the back of a metal bowl or small water glass to smooth out the top.

Bake the bars for 10 minutes, just to help them harden.  Cool thoroughly (at least two hours) before lifting the parchment-lined bars out of the pan.  Cut into desired size using a sawing motion with a sharp serrated knife.  Store in an airtight container for up to a week.

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CINNAMON ROLLS

You, like Jill, may be one of those people who is mystified by my love for this:

Yes, that’s right, I am a Von Trapper, a girl who counts Christopher Plummer among her first crushes, who knows every word to every song and squeals unabashedly when the camera first opens onto the Viennese countryside.

I can’t rightly say how many times I have seen “The Sound of Music,” but I do know that every time I go back to it, I discover something new.  Like the first time I was old enough to understand that my beloved Captain Von Trapp wasn’t just a handsome military widower who could sing and dance BUT ALSO a radical who resisted the Anschluss and stood behind his political convictions.

Or the first time I realized I had outgrown any affection for the cheesy gazebo scene (“sixteen going on seventeen”) between Liesl and Rolf in favor of the cheesy gazebo scene (“must have done something good”) between Maria and the Captain.  Or this most recent encounter, in which I decided that there was maybe something to this “favorite things” business after all.

Cream colored ponies and crisp apple strudels
Doorbells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles
Wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings
These are a few of my favorite things

Or my version:

Babies with Afros and top-shelf margaritas
Rothko and Rilke and freshly-made pitas
Baristas who flirt with a glint in their eyes
These are the things that help me get by

So I’m not meant to be a songwriter–the sentiment still holds. Perhaps it’s ridiculous, but I think that conjuring up the memory or thought of things you like best can actually be rather useful.  Or you can actually conjure up some cinnamon rolls in real life.

Your favorites?

CINNAMON ROLLS

Cinnamon rolls from scratch do not a quick breakfast make.  Patience, grasshopper.  They are SO worth it.

For the dough:

1 package yeast
¼ cup warmer-than-your-finger water

Pour the water into a large bowl, then sprinkle the yeast on top with a pinch of sugar.  Let it stand for a few minutes—if it doesn’t foam, try, try again.

Now you’ll need these things:

¼ cup whole milk
2 T butter

Microwave them together for 30 seconds or until the butter is melting and it’s all warm (but not hot).  Toss the warm dairy into the bowl with the yeast, then add the following:

3 ½-4 cups all-purpose flour, added 1 cup at a time
¼ cup sugar
½ tsp. salt

I like to hand-mix but you can use a dough hook.  Knead until springy but still soft (you may not use all of the flour).  Don’t over-knead; you want a dough that’s loosely hanging together.

Butter the bowl you were just using & let the dough rise there for at least 1 hour, or until doubled in size (may take 1 ½ hours).

For the filling:

1 cup butter, completely softened
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 cup chopped pecans
1 ½ T cinnamon

Whip all of the filling ingredients together with a fork or spoon until fluffy.  Roll the dough out into a large rectangle about ¼-inch thick.  Spread the filling gently atop the dough, going out to the edges on all but one of the long sides.  Leave a ½-inch border along that final edge so you have something to seal the roll with.

Roll the dough up into a log, starting with the edge opposite the border.  When you get to the border, wet the dough a bit, then pull it up and over the log and press down to seal.

Line a jellyroll or spring form pan with parchment (cleanup is a nightmare if you skip this step, trust me).  Using a serrated knife, cut the dough log into inch-thick rolls, placing them swirl side up in the pan.  Don’t space them too closely together, as they will expand.  Cover the pan with a damp towel and let the dough puff up again, about 30-45 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 325˚.  Bake the cinnamon rolls for 20-25 minutes or until golden brown.

While they’re baking, whip up a simple icing: a whole lot of powdered sugar thinned with a little bit of liquid.  You can use just plain milk or milk  + some kind of flavoring (orange juice, vanilla, almond extract, etc.)

Once the rolls have cooled slightly, drizzle them generously with the icing.

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SPAGHETTI CARBONARA

This weekend I watched my best friend eulogize his sister.  I watched his sister’s widower, who is thirty-one, eulogize his wife, telling the sweet story of how they met as undergraduates at Rice, their first date an Old 97s concert, their sixth anniversary just a few months ago, just a week or so before she died in the midst of an earthquake in Haiti.

The same week that Dave flew home to begin the long vigil of waiting for news of his sister, my dear friend Wayne sat in an ICU waiting room night after night, keeping company and logging time as his mother recovered from emergency brain surgery to remove a cancerous mass.

Today I spoke to Wayne on the phone—his mother is doing well, feeling strong and working her way through chemo and radiation—but Wayne’s fiancée Elizabeth, if you can believe it, has been diagnosed with a brain tumor of her own.  It woke them both up a few nights ago, Elizabeth gripped by a seizure, her body revealing its secret.

Understanding isn’t welcome here, friends.  Answers, even if we had them, would do no good.  The rain falls on the just and unjust alike, moral indignance to the contrary be damned.  If anything, what we can cling to is our insistence on aliveness, the instantaneous dose of perspective such news brings, like my realization that most of what’s on my to-do list is useless; my list of complaints and grudges, bullshit.  I know it shouldn’t take catastrophe to get me to pause, to “what the hell” and toss out my agenda in favor of face-to-face time with the people I love, but all too often, it does.

I sat across from Dave tonight, espresso cups balanced on a rickety table between us, as we have done so many times before in our decade of friendship.  Of course, everything has changed now, inextricably and irreparably and inexplicably.  I make mix CDs and I hug him tight and try not to say anything idiotic, hope furiously that loving someone as much as I love him counts for something in this long-run weigh-in with grief.

SPAGHETTI CARBONARA

Something about this dish screams “carpe diem” to me, perhaps because it’s so decadent without being fussy, comforting and dead satisfying.  It’s the kind of thing you make when you’ve abandoned any healthy pretenses and instead decide to serve up a bowl of something unguent, tangled mess of joie de vivre.

Disclaimer: this is not a strictly authentic version of carbonara, and I know that.  It is, however, a much less cluttered version than many you’ll find out there.  To strip down further, omit the parsley and use guanciale instead of panchetta, splurge on fresh pasta.

ingredients:

1 lb. linguini or spaghetti
¼ lb. pancetta, roughly chopped
3 eggs
3 cloves garlic, crushed & minced with a little salt
¾ cup Parmesan or Pecorino Romano
¼ cup dry white wine
½ tsp. red pepper flakes
black pepper
olive oil

optional garnish: chopped flat-leaf parsley

First things first—get the pasta going.  Cook it as you normally would, but be sure to save about a ¼ cup of the cooking liquid when draining the noodles.

In the meantime, heat a little olive oil over high heat, then add the chopped pancetta and cook until it begins to brown.  When it does, turn down the heat to medium and add the garlic.  After about 5 minutes, your kitchen should be nice and fragrant.  Pour in the wine and let it cook down, another 5 minutes.

Sprinkle the red pepper flakes atop the garlic-panchetta brew.  In a separate bowl, crack and gently beat the eggs.  Add in the pasta water and beat further—this is to temper the eggs and keep them from scrambling when you add them to the hot pan, which you are about to do.

Bring everything together: remove the pan from heat, then add the drained pasta.  Pour the egg mixture over everything, tossing rapidly to coat.  Sprinkle on your cheese and grind in a generous helping of pepper, then mix again.

Serve hot, with parsley and a little extra cheese as garnish, if you wish.

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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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THE FOOD OF MY PEOPLE: LAMB KOFTA

One of the hardest things about losing my dad is that there are just so many things I’d like to cook for him.

After a certain passage of time, the distinguishable presence of a loved one begins to fade—the distinct quality of their voice, the shape of their face in three dimensions, the particular quirks and habits.  It becomes more difficult to guess what they might have said in a particular situation, how they would react to a comment or a joke, what books you might recommend to them now, or what movies you would take them to.  I find it terrifying, in fact, the way passage of time seems to make it increasingly difficult for me to conjure up my father the way he was, the way he might be now.

Difficult, too, because the more time that goes by, the more different I am, perhaps unrecognizable to him.  My dad died before I earned a Masters degree, before I got my first full-time job, before I bought myself a car and did my own taxes and grew my hair out long and then cut it again.

I hate that he has missed all of this, and I have missed him in it.  I have wondered, doubted, that I might be forgetting him, losing him.

But the one place I still feel certain of him is in the kitchen.  I know, instinctively, the dishes he would want, the moment he would sneak a warm treat from the oven, the recipes that would dazzle him and make him proud.  This is one of them.

LAMB KOFTA

This dish is rich, satisfying, and incredibly flavorful.  It also freezes well, so feel free to make a big batch!

meatballs:

1 lb. ground lamb
½ basin (chickpea flour)
½ cup crumbled paneer*
¼ cup cilantro, roughly chopped
½ onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 T garam masala
2 tsp. ground coriander
2 tsp. cumin
½ tsp. red mirchi (pepper)

Sauté the onion & garlic in a bit of vegetable oil until soft.  Once they cool, toss them into a big bowl with the rest of the meatball ingredients.

Using your hands, form meatballs about an inch in diameter.  (I like to keep them on a sheet pan until they’re all ready.)  Once you’re ready, heat a cup of vegetable oil in a deep saucepan over medium-high heat.  Fry the meatballs until light brown, approximately four minutes on each side.

If you want to freeze or keep the meatballs separate from the gravy, you can finish them in a 350˚ oven, which should take only 10-12 minutes.  If you’re planning to serve them, just keep them to the side or in a low oven while you make the gravy.

gravy:
2 large (28 oz.) cans diced tomatoes
1 pint sour cream
½ cup whole almonds
½ large red onion, sliced
3 T ginger, chopped
3 T garlic, chopped
2 tsp. whole cumin
2 tsp. whole coriander

In a large, heavy bottomed pot, heat a quarter cup of vegetable oil over medium-low heat until it shimmers.  Add the cumin and wait for it to crack before tossing in the garlic, ginger, & onion.  Cook for a few minutes, then add the almonds and whole coriander.

Cook it all down until soft, and the onions are translucent, adding more oil during the cooking if necessary.  This whole process will take about fifteen minutes.

Toss in the tomatoes and stir everything together.  If you have an immersion blender, go ahead and put it to work.  If you’re using a conventional blender, allow the mixture to cool before blending it in batches.  Process until the mixture has reached your desired texture (I like mine a little bit chunky).

Add the sour sour cream to the gravy, mixing thoroughly until it turns light pink.  Reheat the gravy over medium heat until bubbling—be sure to stir regularly so it doesn’t stick to the bottom.  Add the partially cooked meatballs to the gravy and let them finish cooking there.

Serve over basmati rice, garnish with cilantro.

*Many of you may be able to buy paneer, which is a mild Indian cheese, at a specialty grocery store.  If not, you can make your own (it’s actually very easy!) or substitute a similar soft, mild cheese: farmer’s cheese, queso fresco, or a ricotta.  If you’re using ricotta, which can sometimes be watery, squeeze it out in a cheesecloth first.

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