QUICK-PICKLED CARROTS

One week left in the school year; please forgive my inability to say much of anything of substance.

But—blessed, blessed Memorial Day weekend lies ahead!  Three day weekends, I love you so.  I plan to putter around my kitchen, sleep, attend a graduation party (homemade Chinese food, anyone?), go to the theatre, and host dinner + movie night with pasta, two of my best friends, and “An Education.”

On Monday, the festivities continue, as we will be performing our patriotic duty by grilling meat outdoors, drinking beer, and enjoying the company of loved ones.  I will certainly be making these carrot sticks, to which I have recently become addicted.  They are fast and easy to make, and really bring out the flavor of the beautiful Farmers Market carrots we’ve been getting lately—like the purple beauties you see above.

If you need some ideas for Memorial Day eats, I’ve listed a couple of favorites below.  Wishing ya’ll a very restful long weekend!

Potato Salad

Orzo Pasta Salad

Lamb Burgers

Blackberry Upside-Down Cake

Ice Cream Pie


QUICK-PICKLED CARROT STICKS

When you buy beautiful carrots with greens still attached, be sure to cut off the tops as soon as the carrots arrive home.  Otherwise, they will sap moisture & nutrients from the carrots themselves.

This isn’t so much a recipe as an idea—once you have the concept, you can swap out the spices and flavorings based on whatever you have on hand or on the brain.

ingredients:

1 bunch carrots
1 cup water
½ cup vinegar
¼ cup sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 garlic clove
pinch of cumin and/or coriander seeds

Combine the water, vinegar, & sugar in a saucepan.  Bring the mixture up to a boil, stirring to ensure the sugar dissolves.  Toss in the seasonings and let the mixture “steep” for 10-15 minutes.

In the meantime, trim and peel the carrots, cutting them into manageable sticks.  Lay them at the bottom of a shallow dish and pour the vinegar mixture on top.  Let the carrots sit in the vinegar mixture for at least a half-hour before enjoying.  At this point, you can include fresh herbs: dill or cilantro are both good choices.

Carrots will keep in a covered container in the fridge for several weeks.  Personally, I like to remove the carrots from the vinegar after the initial “soak” because I prefer my carrots still have some snap.  If you feel differently, you can leave the carrots in their bath indefinitely.

SALADE NIÇOISE

I’ve been on a big reading kick of late.  It seems a bit counterintuitive that, as an English teacher & writer, I’d ever go “off” of reading, but the truth is that I often fail to make time for pleasure reading, just like everyone else.

One of the things that’s most important to me in my job as a teacher or more generally, an authority figure in the eyes of teenagers, is being rigorous with myself when it comes to hypocrisy.  I do my dead-level best never to ask of my students what I won’t follow through on myself: coming on time to class, showing up prepared, telling the truth, and being respectful.

There’s a lot of harping among adults these days about how “kids these days” don’t read anymore and their brains are all going to rot and the world is going to hell in a hand basket, etc.  But I wonder how many of those adults make time regularly in their daily lives to read.  You want kids to read more?  Let them see you closing your computer screen & picking up a book.

I’m lucky that my English department colleagues at school feel equally passionate about the importance of reading for pleasure; two years ago we instituted BYOB (that’s “Bring Your Own Book,” don’t worry) days across all grade levels.  It’s a regular expectation in my curriculum that I devote whole class periods, every 4-6 weeks, to pleasure reading.  And I have to sit down and read too—no grading or emailing.

Last time I had a BYOB day in my classroom, my principal, dean of students, history colleague, and both PE coaches came to join my students. I can lecture my kids about how reading will improve their vocabularies, writing abilities, & build their sense of empathy.  But the best argument of all for getting them to read more is to sit down and do it with them.  [a few suggested titles here]

SALADE NIÇOISE

Sometimes the books I read influence the foods I eat, as when The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo made me crave smoked salmon, rye bread, & pickles to no end.  I’m currently listening to the audio book of The Elegance of the Hedgehog on my ipod, & the perfect pronunciations of lovely French words has me craving lovely French food with fancy names, like this classic, composed salad.

I love this salad for a weekend lunch, with a bottle of white wine, a nice baguette, & good butter.  If the idea of anchovy paste freaks you out, PLEASE reconsider.  Anchovy paste is the ultimate secret weapon; it adds incredible flavor that people can never quite pinpoint.  Been hearing all about “umami,” the fifth taste?  Well, anchovy paste is chock full of umami.  You only need a little bit—I dare you to try!

Best of all, anchovy paste comes in a nice toothpaste-like tube which you can seal up & keep in the fridge for future use.  I use it in my marinara sauce, tossed with roasted broccoli, and to make this compound butter, which is amazing smeared on steaks & grilled salmon.

for the dressing:

1 ½ cups extra-virgin olive oil
½ cup white wine or Champagne vinegar
2 T Dijon mustard
1 tsp. anchovy paste (optional, but adds amazing flavor)
salt & freshly ground pepper
a handful of chopped, fresh herbs—your choice!
-basil, dill, flat-leaf parsley, and/or tarragon

Whisk the ingredients together—I like to do this in my Pyrex measuring cup, which makes it easier to pour over the salad.

salad components:

2 cans good-quality tuna, drained

-If you want to splurge, buy fresh tuna steaks and grill or sauté them with olive oil, salt & pepper, just a few minutes on each side.  Slice to serve; the tuna should be rare in the middle.

1 lb. new potatoes, scrubbed

-Cook the potatoes in boiling water until soft enough to be pierced with a fork.  Allow to cool, then quarter.  Season with a little salt & pepper.

½ lb. haricots verts or green beans

-Trim the ends, then halve the beans.  Blanch the beans: steam them until bright green, then plunge them into ice-cold water to set the color.

½ red onion, thinly sliced

12 cherry tomatoes, halved or 6 Roma tomatoes, quartered

4 hard-boiled eggs, peeled & halved

½ cup good-quality black olives

2 T capers, for garnish

1 head lettuce + 1 bunch arugula (for flavor; omit if you can’t find arugula or don’t care for its peppery “bite”)

Compose all of the ingredients on a large platter, using the greenery as a starting point.  I like the serve the salad with a pair of tongs, four bowls, & the measuring cup of dressing out together so everyone can assemble their own perfect salad.

CHEDDAR COINS OF CHEESY GOODNESS

My friend Coco is amazing.  She’s going to blush when she reads this, one of her many endearing quirks.  She will say, “I am not amazing, I’m just me!”  But that’s how it is with the people we love; they amaze us simply by being themselves.

Courtney is many things: the English department chair at my school, a passionate, gifted teacher, a non-cutesy crafter, a baker and a cook, the mother of the cutest dachshund in the world, a voraciously intelligent nerd.  She is married to a very tall cycling enthusiast named John, for whom I will be making this blackberry-upside-down-cake many times this summer, because it’s his favorite.

She has an unabashed laugh, a mama who makes a mean gumbo, and some beautiful, literary tattoos: Whitman on her wrists—Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes—and when she finished her rather brilliant Master’s thesis on Joyce’s Ulysses (who voluntarily writes a thesis on Ulysses? Coco does.), she had the book’s final line, “Yes I said yes I will yes” inked on her pale inner arm in a curling, celebratory script.

If you are like me, you look back through the catalogue of your friendships and relationships and see each one banded with a distinct hue, like library bindings or an email inbox.  The timing and the circumstances lend a particular flavor to each.   We can’t help but associate others with the ways we ourselves have changed in their sight, the life events they watched us navigate, time passed with each other.

And then, because we cannot separate out what course our life might have taken without the particular influence of say, a Courtney, the edges and the colors start to bleed and the narrative shifts.  We become new through them.

I realized today that my impulse to act like I always, totally have my shit together has waned, that I am more willing to ask for help than ever before, and that’s probably due to the fact that my friend Coco is willing to march past any protest and call BS on my “I’ve got it” act and just start washing dishes in my kitchen.  She picks up the heavy things that I’m not supposed to, takes it upon herself to buy beautiful plates, platters, & bowls for this blog, buys me iced coffee, and talks me back to myself time and time again.

It has taken some time, and a friend with untiring generosity, for me to realize that what’s happening over there is exactly what’s happening over here.  Courtney has managed to convince me that what she loves about me is me—because she is, quite frankly, exactly what I love about her.

CHEDDAR COINS OF CHEESY GOODNESS

This is a recipe Coco discovered and adapted from Epicurious about a year ago, and it has become one of her signature—and winning—baked goods.  The name, of course, is our addition, but one taste and you will agree, “cheddar coins of cheesy goodness” is exactly what they should be called.

Don’t feel limited by their nickname, though; while sharp, aged cheddar works extremely well here, so do Dubliner and double Gloucester.  Any hard, distinctly flavored cheese would fit the bill.

Paired with sliced apples and salami, plus the beer or wine of your choice, these babies will disappear fast.

ingredients:

½ cup unsalted butter, softened
8 oz. extra-sharp cheddar or cheese of your choice, finely grated
1 cup flour
½ tsp. salt
generous grinds of black pepper
(optional) pinch of cayenne pepper

oven: 350˚
pan: two baking sheets lined with parchment

In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat together the butter & seasonings before adding the cheddar and flour.  Mix on low until just combined—do not overmix!

Courtney’s tip: turn the mixture into the middle of a large piece of plastic wrap.  Fold the wrap in half over the dough and twist the ends like a Tootsie Roll to form a manageable log of dough.  Chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

Slice the chilled dough into ¼-inch rounds (thinner if you’d like them to be more crisp).  Arrange on baking sheets and bake until they just brown at the edges, 10-15 minutes.  Cool on racks before serving warm, or cool completely and store in an airtight container.

ROASTED CHICKPEAS

We celebrated Blue Jean Gourmet’s first birthday last night with a backyard happy hour: beer, margaritas, two kinds of sangria, & lots of snacks.  It was a beautiful, overcast-but-not grey day and we were blessed with the presence of friends, fans, & even a few strangers (i.e. Twitter friends we’d never met in person!) to help us commemorate the day.

Party pictures and a more detailed menu still to come, but in the meantime I bring you chickpeas, because we served them yesterday, because they are delicious, and because they also serve as a nice Mother’s Day crossover.  You see, when you have a mother like mine, who is an incredible, instinctive cook and from whom you learned everything you know about making food—it feels like a real victory to introduce her to a dish or a method or an ingredient that she ends up loving.  There’s nothing more fun than your culinary badass mama calling or emailing to say “I love that!”  And roasted chickpeas are one such victory.

In one hilariously ironic twist, my mother now fusses at me on the phone, “Don’t work too hard, don’t do too much,” when all I ever saw her do as a kid was work hard, both inside and outside of our house, and cook beautiful meals for eager guests, never letting anyone help, insisting on doing every bit of the prepping, cooking, & cleaning herself, all the while making it look easy and being incredibly gracious.

So when I find myself sending guests out the door with leftovers or insisting “I’ve got it,” when someone tries to help, or when I notice how much like Veena I’m starting to look in pictures as I get older, I’m thrilled.  And sometime soon, I hope to notice myself worrying and fussing over a child of my own, raising him or her with as much freedom, love, and unconditional support as I have been blessed to receive over the last twenty-seven years.

To all mamas—biological, adoptive, step-moms, aunts, big sisters, grandmothers, and the women who take on mothering roles in our lives—Happy Mother’s Day.

ROASTED CHICKPEAS

If you have not discovered how delicious chickpeas (also known as garbanzo beans or ceci beans) are when roasted in the oven, please remedy as soon as possible.  This is a dead-easy snack; you can make a big, inexpensive batch for a crowd by soaking & cooking a bag of dried beans before roasting, or drain a can at a moment’s notice when unexpected company comes calling.

These spicy chickpeas are a fantastic partner to beer, margaritas, even champagne—you can season them a dozen different ways—and the best part?  Healthier than potato or tortilla chips.  But no less addictive!

ingredients:

cooked chickpeas
a few tablespoons of olive oil
sea salt
seasoning of your choice*

oven: 425˚
pan: baking sheets (optional: line with parchment for easy clean-up)
Drain the chickpeas well, then get them as dry as possible.  I like to line my salad spinner with a few paper towels & send the chickpeas flying.  Not only does it make a cool noise, it helps the olive oil stick.

Toss the dried chickpeas with a few drizzles of olive oil—you want them to be lightly coated, not drowning.  Roast in the oven for 20-30 minutes, checking after the 15 minute mark to shake the baking sheet to ensure that the chickpeas don’t burn.

Once the chickpeas have browned nicely, remove from the oven and let cool a few minutes before sprinkling with salt & seasoning of your choice.  Serve warm or allow to the chickpeas to cool to room temperature before storing in an airtight container for up to a week.

*For each can of chickpeas, I recommend between 1-2 tsp. of seasoning.  My favorite flavorings include: za’atar, smoked paprika, cumin & cayenne, thyme & lemon zest, or chili powder and a squeeze of fresh lime juice.

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BERRY SLUMP

I don’t think I can thank ya’ll enough.  Blue Jean Gourmet is a year old!

Life has the ability to stun me, and human beings to dazzle me, and I all too often forget that.  But forgetting has become much more difficult with you out there over the last 365 days.

Starting a blog is an inherently conceited act; it’s done with the assumption that people will actually want to read what you have to write.  Heh.  The thing is, I find myself altered by you, my audience, every day.  It doesn’t matter who you are or how many of you are out there—if I am going to say something to you, I figure I’d better make damn well sure that I mean it.

Thank you for pushing me to pay attention, to choose my words as if the mattered, for sharing your suggestions, appetites, & joie de vivre.

If this blog is worth anything, it’s due to genuine words, empathy, & curiosity from you, the folks who read it.  It’s this crazy thing, the way we can connect through food and words, the ways in which we can honestly know something of each other and grow to respect, admire, even love folks on whom we might never set eyes.

Thank you to the many individuals who help me do what I do, especially Sonya the photography badass, and everyone who has ever washed a dish, written a guest blog, volunteered as a guinea pig, encouraged, complimented, or commented me or this site.  When I started Blue Jean Gourmet, I promised myself I would only do it as long as I was having fun.  And boy am I ever.

BERRY SLUMP
barely adapted from Saveur magazine

The original recipe called for straight blackberries, but I liked a version with a mix of blackberries & blueberries just as well.  I imagine this would also be delicious with raspberries, but haven’t had the chance to test that theory.

Don’t let the call for dry white wine throw you, although it surprised me.  You can’t taste it at all in the final product; I think it adds a lightness and edge to the batter and allows the edges to crisp well.

ingredients:

2 ¼ cup flour
1 ½ cup sugar
½ cup dry white wine
2 eggs
2 T butter, cut into cubes & chilled
8 T butter, melted
a bit more butter, for greasing the ramekins
1 tsp. vanilla
½ tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
1 pint fresh blackberries, or a combination of blackberries & blueberries, rinsed

accompaniments: vanilla ice cream or homemade whipped cream
oven: 350°

To make the crumb topping for the slump, pulse ¼ cup sugar, ¼ cup flour, & 2 T of the chilled butter in a food processor until it looks like bread crumbs.  Refrigerate the crumbs for 30 minutes.

In the meantime, preheat the oven & grease 8 ramekins with butter, then dust with flour. Combine 1⁄4 cup sugar, and 2 tbsp. chilled and cubed butter in the bowl of a food processor and process until mixture takes on texture of coarse bread crumbs, about 10 seconds. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Grease eight 6-oz. ramekins with butter and dust with flour; set aside.  Whisk the remaining 2 cups flour, baking powder, & salt together in a medium bowl, then set aside.  In a small bowl, whisk the melted butter & wine together.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the remaining sugar, vanilla, and eggs until pale and thick, about 2 minutes. Add the wine mixture to the eggs and whisk until smooth. Add the flour mixture and mix until just combined.

Divide the batter evenly between ramekins and top each with berries. Sprinkle the crumb topping evenly over berries. Place the ramekins on a baking sheet and bake until golden brown and bubbly, about 1 hour. Transfer to a rack and let cool; serve with ice cream or whipped cream.

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LAHMAJUN

Jill is the world traveler in our family.  Given the nature of her work, she finds herself among the air-mile elite, logging thousands of miles a year for book tours, speaking engagements, and a few times at the behest of Her Majesty Queen Rania of Jordan.  She has been four times to Turkey, to Israel, Jordan, & Egypt, and all over Europe—at the moment, as the scholar-in-residence on a group trip to Macedonia & Croatia.

There are things I don’t love about the frequency of her travel.  Our dog, Dolly, who is convinced that Jill is God & I am God’s secondary consort who will do if God is not around, pouts from the moment she sees Jill pack a suitcase to the moment Jill walks back through the front door.  Selfishly speaking, it’s inconvenient to go from a two-person household to a one-person.  I enjoy my alone time, but I hate doing all of the dishes, all of the cooking, all of the chores, all of the dog-attending.  And I miss Jill.  She is my favorite person to spend time with, my beloved, my sounding-board.  I feel a bit thrown when she’s away; I worry.

At the same time, I wouldn’t put a stop to her travel even if I could.  When I signed up to live my life with Jill, I did so with the understanding that it’s my job to broaden her, to cheerlead the pursuits to which she is so clearly suited, to celebrate the work about which she is so passionate.  To push her to be her biggest and most expansive self.  And that she would, as she so gracefully does, do the same for me.

Of course, there are tremendous benefits to Jill’s travel.  Frequent flier miles, a thousand stories and hundreds of photographs, and the sense of having contributed to the growth and expansion of all those whom she meets and inspires on her travels.  Not to mention—exposure to all kinds of food.  Jill has been lucky to eat at some incredibly drool-worthy places, from river cruises on the Nile to the humble kitchens of local hosts and hostesses, who generously treat her to sumptuous home-cooked meals.

Now Jill loves food, but she’s not obsessed with it the way I am.  She has, though, in one of those non-ostentatious but incredibly meaningful displays of affection, altered her travel habits to include regular pictures of and notes on the food she eats.  And she’s learned that the presents that thrill me most—like this Scandinavian honey—are food related.  (I’m still hording the homemade, mystery fruit preserves from her last trip to Jordan and a tiny bottle of mystery liquor from Latvia.)

We’ve also, as a family, adopted many of the tastes and preferences she brings back with her from various countries.  It pushes us to seek out restaurants, grocery stores, & home cooks here in Houston with whose help we can attempt to replicate the good stuff she has eaten, allowing me to taste along with her.  Lahmajun, a classic Turkish dish, is one of our favorites and I am proud to say that Jill declared my version “just as good” as the best ones she had eaten abroad.

LAHMAJUN

These make for a perfect weekend lunch or light dinner, especially when served with a green salad and cold, pale beer or white wine.  A bit labor intensive but well worth it—these flew off the serving platter on blog-recipe-test day!

Many recipes for lahmajun topping will call for the addition of pomegranate molasses or syrup, which you can pick up at most Middle Eastern grocery stores.  I didn’t have any on hand that day, so I substituted preserved lemon to add a similar tart edge to the dish.

dough:

1 cup bread flour (substitute all-purpose if need be, but bread flour truly does yield better results)
½ cup all-purpose flour
½ cup warm water
1 T olive oil
1 tsp. yeast
pinch of sugar
pinch of salt

Sprinkle the yeast & sugar over the warm water and leave five minutes.  If the yeast hasn’t bloomed, throw it out and start over.  If not, add the flours & oil and knead by hand or with the dough hook on a mixer.  Knead until dough is smooth and elastic.

Leave the dough to rise in an oiled bowl, covered with a cloth or plastic warp, for about an hour.  Place the dough in a warm place to help it double in size.

topping:

1 lb. ground lamb (substitute: ground beef or turkey)
½ onion, chopped
3 gloves garlic, minced
¼ cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped
¼ cup pine nuts, toasted
1 preserved lemon, minced (substitute: juice + zest of 1 regular lemon)
2 tsp. allspice
1 tsp. harissa paste (optional)
1 tsp. salt

Sauté the onion & garlic in a little olive oil.  When they become translucent, add the lamb and cook until it browns.  Remove from heat, stir in the remaining ingredients.

to assemble:

extra parsley, chopped
3 T melted butter

oven: 425˚

Once the dough has risen, punch it back down and divide into eight pieces.  A bench scraper is very handy for this step; just keep halving the dough until you get to eight.  You can also use a kitchen scale if you are a fanatic for equal-sized pieces of dough.  I’m not.

There are two ways to bake the lahmajun—all at once, on baking sheets or one at a time, on a pizza stone.  I used the latter method because it seems more authentic and because I like the crisp edges it achieves.  However, if you need all of your lahmajun to be ready at once, just assemble them all, move them carefully to greased baking sheets, and bake for 10-12 minutes, rotating the sheets halfway through.

If you plan to make them in succession, though, I suggest waiting to roll each piece of dough until you’re ready to top it & put it in the oven—it is likely to dry out otherwise.  Keeping the dough pieces covered with a damp cloth will help as well.

Roll each piece of dough into a rough circle.  Top with about a quarter-cup of the lamb mixture, spreading out evenly but leaving a half-inch border of plain dough.  Brush the border with melted butter.

Use a large spatula to transfer directly to a well-preheated pizza stone and cook for 8-10 minutes or until the edges become nice and brown.  Remove from oven and garnish with extra parsley.  Enjoy when warm.

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