BRAISED RAINBOW CARROTS

I know, I know—two braised vegetable dishes, two weeks in a row.  What can I say?  I’m on a kick of sorts.


There’s something so satisfying about cooking from the hip or on the fly.  No real recipe, no measuring, just a smattering of what you have around the house (whether it be freezer, refrigerator, pantry, liquor cabinet, spice rack, and/or garden) that might taste good together.

I find that vegetables are a great place to do this.  They’re a bit more forgiving than proteins, and if you’re trying to eat more of them, as we are, variety is key to staying on the wagon.  Not to mention, I find that it often just takes one dish, one new preparation, that can turn a palate’s veggie-tude around: broccoli roasted instead of steamed, spinach raw instead of frozen, pickled beets, caramelized Brussels sprouts, and so on.

Carrots have always been a particular favorite of mine, a proclivity attributable to my mother’s propagation of the “they’ll improve your eyesight!” exaggeration many of us were party to as kids.  I started wearing glasses when I was two-and-a-half and, as you can see here, they were of the impossibly thick plastic-frame variety.  (Kids today have no idea how good they have it when it comes to glasses frame design options.)

I would have done anything to rid myself of those glasses, including eating pounds upon pounds of carrots.  Which I did, causing my mom to back off of her urgings a bit when I seemed to be turning an alarming Oompa-Loompa-like orange.  But the thing is, much as I loved carrots, I loved them only and always raw.  Crunchy and crisp and jaw-tiringly raw.  Show me a cooked carrot and I would wrinkle my nose.

Trouble is, a plate of raw carrots isn’t the most elegant dinner side dish.  Great in salads and dandy in a plastic bag as a mid-day snack, but still a bit one-trick-pony-ish.  Until I learned to quick pickle them, a gateway of sorts.  Leading to this past weekend when I voluntarily cooked carrots for the first time.  And ate them!  And enjoyed them.  So much that I forgot to ask Sonya to take a picture of the finished dish.  Oops!

BRAISED RAINBOW CARROTS

If you can find lovely market carrots like these, I urge you to use them.  Otherwise, grab the thinnest, “youngest” carrots you can find, lopping off the greens as soon as you buy them.   Feel free to swap in dried thyme for the fresh; if you do this, you’ll need less.

ingredients:
1-2 bunch baby carrots, scrubbed but not peeled, ends cut
½ of a yellow onion, thinly sliced
4-5 springs fresh thyme
1-2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
white wine
red wine vinegar
olive oil
salt & pepper

Heat the olive oil in a wide skillet over medium-low heat.  Add the onions and garlic, sautéing over low heat until translucent.  Toss in the carrots and push them around the pan to absorb some of the onion-garlic-olive-oil-y goodness.

After a minute or two, add a generous glug of white wine, enough to form a thin layer at the bottom of the skillet.  Lay the thyme inside the skillet as well and cover with a lid, turning up the heat a bit so that the wine will just simmer.

Cook until the carrots have reached your desired state of tenderness, anywhere from 12-20 minutes, depending on the size of your carrots.  Finish with a splash of red wine vinegar and salt and pepper to taste.  Serve hot or warm.

FARRO, FENNEL, & TUNA SALAD

Jill has taken to calling farro “the ancient grain of the ancients.”  Quinoa, which we’ve also come to enjoy as a pasta and rice alternative, is known in our house as “the ancient Incan grain of the Incas.”

There’s this thing I like to do; I like to go through people’s wallets.  Not in order to take anything, of course, and not without their permission, but I take great pleasure in unpacking the business cards and receipts, membership notices and frequent buyer cards, pieces of plastic, movie ticket stubs, and general detritus of everyday life.

If I were to unpack my relationships in the same way, what might I find scattered across the coffee table?  Long dinners shared, favorite books in common, nicknames, emails, hazy memories of piquant nights, crisp remembrance of things they said that I loved hearing.

But probably most of what I’d find, and incidentally what I value the most, are the pennies-and-lint equivalents like “ancient grain of the ancients.”  The goofy, we-don’t-know-where-that-came-from particularities of a love or friendship.  The little, inexplicable things that accumulate as we walk through life with another, witnessing them and having them witness us.

FARRO, FENNEL, & TUNA SALAD
adapted from Food & Wine, October 2010

1 cup farro
3 cups chicken broth, vegetable broth, or water
2 large carrots, sliced
1-2 cloves garlic, minced

2 cans tuna of your choice
1 can chickpeas, drained
1 ½ cups arugula
1 fennel bulb, thinly sliced
1 onion, thinly sliced
juice of 1 lemon

olive oil
salt & pepper

Bring the broth and farro to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook until the farro is tender and all of the liquid has been absorbed, about 25-30 minutes.  Remove from the heat and cool.

Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat, then add the carrot and garlic and cook until just softened, approximately 3-4 minutes.  Remove from heat and stir into the farro.

To the farro mixture, add the tuna, chickpeas, fennel, & onion.  Squeeze in the lemon juice & season with salt and pepper.  Stir to combine, garnish with arugula.

GREEN LENTIL HUMMUS & HARD LEMONADE

As Jill recently announced to the whole world in a blog post, we read the Declaration of Independence aloud on the Fourth of July.  Geeky, I know, but we’re both so moved and inspired by our nation’s founding document—seriously, have you ever read it?  It’s grand and angry and beautiful.  They just don’t write ‘em like that anymore.

Of course, once you start reading the Declaration of Independence aloud on the Fourth of July, it’s not like you can quit.  These rituals take on their own weight and significance; they transform into tradition.  And me?  I’m like that dude from Fiddler on the Roof. I love me some tradition.

So share away—what are your Fourth of July traditions?  Or, for friends up north, Canada Day traditions?

GREEN LENTIL HUMMUS
barely adapted from Food & Wine

Admittedly, this play on hummus is not the most beautiful color in the whole wide world…but it tastes delicious, so try and look past that, would you?  If you’re in a chickpea hummus rut, give this one a whirl—lentils are good for you!

ingredients:

3 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 cup green lentils
1 bay leaf
1 cinnamon stick
3 garlic cloves*
¼ cup tahini (sesame seed paste)
¼ cup olive oil
¼ cup fresh cilantro
1 tsp. ground cumin
juice of 1 lemon
salt to taste

optional:

cayenne pepper, for heat
sweet or smoked paprika, for garnish

Bring the stock and lentils to a boil with the bay leaf & cinnamon stick.  Cover and simmer over low heat until the lentils are cooked through, about 45 minutes.  Uncover and turn up the heat, to cook away the excess liquid, another 2-3 minutes.  Remove from the heat and let the lentils cool.

In a food processor or blender, combine the lentils, garlic, tahini, cilantro, cumin, lemon juice, & a pinch of cayenne (if using).  Process until a paste begins to form, then drizzle in the olive oil slowly.  Mix until smooth, then add salt and taste-test.

Serve the hummus with pita chips and/or vegetables, sprinkling paprika on top and drizzling with a little extra olive oil.  Make a day ahead & keep in an airtight container in the fridge.

*I used garlic I had previously roasted and it added a wonderful flavor to the hummus.

HARD LEMONADE

A while back, the lovely Julie van Rosendaal of Dinner with Julie wrote a sweet blog post about an impromptu lemonade stand, including a recipe for this lemon syrup, promising that it made the perfect lemonade easily achievable.  My thoughts immediately turned to the possibilities of a “grownup” lemonade-leave it to my devilish mind.

I used frozen strawberries as “ice cubes” because we keep a giant bag from Costco in the freezer, but feel free to sub in frozen raspberries or blueberries, or make your own ice cubes with mint leaves suspended inside, for a color & flavor twist.

for one serving, I used 2 T lemon syrup, topped with fizzy water, a shot of vodka, & a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.

for a pitcher, I’d recommend 1 cup lemon syrup & 1 ½ cups vodka, fill to the top with fizzy water & the juice of 4 lemons.

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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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KALE CHIPS

With the deadly back-to-back combo of Valentine’s Day, Chinese New Year, Presidents’ Day, & Mardi Gras, you might have overdone it the last few days.  Fear not—I have vegetables for you.  Vegetables you’ll actually WANT to eat.

The season of Lent begins in earnest at the exact moment Mardi Gras (known to the church-going as Shrove Tuesday) ends.  While an abstemious season might not sound so appealing, the Episcopalian schoolgirl in me appreciates the opportunity to reflect and scale back.  Blame it on the way I was raised, but I actually look forward to giving something up for Lent.

In the past, I’ve done without chocolate, meat, desserts, Diet Coke, and gossip.  This year, I’m saying goodbye to alcohol for forty days—so long, margaritas, au revoir glasses of red wine, bye-bye beer.

What I appreciate about this discipline is that it forces some thoughtfulness into my daily life.  During Lent, I have to work around the commitment I’ve made; I have to remind myself why I made the commitment in the first place.

For the past few months, Jill and I have been consciously working to integrate many more servings of vegetables into our regular diet.  Seriously, when you look at the recommended amount of green (or purple) things one is supposed to eat in any given day, it’s kind of shocking.  Shocking how rarely I meet those guidelines, that is.


Until kale chips came into my life.  You’ve probably read about or at least seen these guys dancing around lots of blogs in the last few months, and I had, too, but somehow it took my stubborn self entirely too long to try them.  I pray you won’t make the same mistake.

These damn things are so good they even passed the muster of my “fry everything!” Louisiana-in-laws.  In the words of my friend John, “You just can’t understand how KALE could taste this good.”  It’s true.  These chips are now a regular in my kitchen, and whether I’m serving them to company or just for me and Jill, they disappear quickly.  I know you won’t believe me until you try it yourself, but you can get the crunch & salt factor of potato chips without having to fry anything and with the satisfaction of, well, eating a vegetable.

Whether you’re giving up an indulgence for Lent, or are just tired of salad, I urge you to give these pretty kale chips a whirl.  Just don’t blame me if they leave you dumbfounded.

KALE CHIPS

This basic recipe calls only for salt, but you’re certainly welcome to add other seasonings—garlic powder, Creole seasoning, pepper—but they lack nothing as-is.

Prepping the kale takes a little work, but once you’ve done that, the chips are incredibly simple to make.  If your grocery store sells pre-washed & bagged kale, feel free to cheat!  I usually prep two bunches at once, storing the washed and dried leaves from one bunch in a Ziploc bag for future use.

ingredients:

1-2 bunches kale*
olive oil
salt

oven: 400˚
pan: baking sheets

Cut or tear the kale leaf off of the middle rib, then cut or tear the leaves into bite-sized pieces.  Rinse the kale thoroughly in a sink full of cold water, then transfer into a colander to drain.

If you have a salad spinner, employ it here.  If not, proceed straight to towel-stacking, which goes something like this:

On a clean kitchen counter, spread out a very absorbent kitchen towel.  Line it with some paper towels.  Top the paper towels with a few handfuls of kale leaves, distributed evenly into one layer.  Place more paper towels on top of the kale, then another kitchen towel on top of all that.  Repeat.  Stack until the kale’s all hidden away, then press down lightly on the towel stack.  Let the kale sit for 5-10 minutes.

[My method may seem extreme, and yes, it’s a little time-consuming, but having very dry kale leaves makes a big difference when it comes to getting your chips crunchy.  Patience, grasshopper.]

Unwrap the kale and shake it into a big bowl (unless you’re reserving some of it for future use).  Drizzle a few tablespoons of oil over the kale, then toss to coat.  You don’t want to drown it, just barely cover each piece.

Spread the kale out onto two baking sheets—if you’re cooking two bunches at once, you’ll need to work in batches.  Salt the kale just before you slide it into the oven.

Bake for10-12 minutes, or until the edges of the kale pieces have become crinkly and any remaining moisture has left the leaves.  Serve warm.

Due to the inconsistency of ovens, please watch your kale closely!  You might want to try the chips first on lower heat, to prevent burning.

*I’ve used both flat (Tuscan) and curly kale, but prefer the latter.

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MARINATED SALAD

I can’t take any credit for this recipe. All of it goes to Veena.

marinated salad top view

This is one of those dishes that acquires a following, the kind that makes people come back for seconds and beg a recipe card, the kind they start making themselves and hooking others onto. Like those charts they showed us in high school about how quickly & widely an STD can spread, only far less terrifying.

There’s nothing unlikeable about this dish (I know, Emma, I can hear you protesting—go ahead and leave out the capers, okay?)

a) You can make it ahead of time, in fact, in tastes much, much better that way.

b) It lasts an incredibly long time in the fridge.

c) Works equally well in all seasons.

d) Is dirt cheap.

e) OH YEAH, it’s also crazy-delicious & good for you.

I’ve served this alongside sandwiches and burgers, in the midst of a potluck spread, with pita & hummus, as an easy dinner-party vegetable. I bring it to work on a regular basis because it keeps so darn long and goes with almost anything else I decide on for lunch. This salad is also a great choice to make for a family who is grieving, just had a baby, or is in a similar state of overwhelm—you can provide a healthier counterpoint to the usually carb-and-cheese-laden dishes that tend to be delivered in such circumstances.

My mom’s been making this salad for as long as I can remember; the tradition in our family evolved such that we always had it on New Year’s Day, along with the equally famous shrimp creole (that’s coming this winter, ya’ll, don’t worry) & wild rice. Marinated salad works wonderfully alongside this main course, but also serves another purpose; allowing everyone to fulfill their black-eyed pea quotient in a tasty way.

If you are not familiar with the food commandments down here below the Mason-Dixon line, one very strong and non-negotiable one is that you must eat black eyed peas on the first day of the new year, or face twelve months of bad luck. For kids who were tortured by the taste, the compromise became one bean per month, but I’m pretty sure with this dish, you and/or your kids won’t have any trouble eating more than twelve peas.

MOM’S MARINATED SALAD

This is dead easy to make, I promise you can’t mess it up. Feel free to substitute fresh herbs for the dried or dried beans for the canned. You can also used canned corn instead of fresh, but since corn on the cob is so plentiful, cheap, & delicious right now, I recommend you go that route.

Any combination of beans will work, so throw in what you have on hand (cannelini beans are nice, as are pintos). Make sure not to use any with added salt or flavor. If you normally object to red onion, I heartily encourage you to try it here—the vinegar will cut much of the bite, and it just looks so much prettier than white or yellow would.

ingredients: marinated salad

1 can each:

dark red kidney beans

garbanzo beans (a.k.a. chickpeas)

black eyed peas

green beans*

2 ears’ worth of fresh corn kernels corn

1 small jar marinated artichoke hearts, roughly chopped

Drain the beans in a large colander & rinse. Transfer to a sizeable bowl, then add corn and artichoke hearts.  Heat the following in a small saucepan:

1 cup white vinegar

1 cup sugar

Once the sugar has fully dissolved and the mixture boils, remove from heat.

Stir in:

½ red onion, very thinly sliced

2 T capers

1 T dried parsley

1 T garlic powder (less if you aren’t a garlic fan)

1 tsp. chives, minced salt & pepper (be generous!)

Let the vinegar mixture sit for about 5 minutes, then pour over the vegetables. Mix thoroughly and then drizzle with a few tablespoons of olive oil. For the best taste, allow to sit on room temperature for 1 hour before serving or storing in the fridge for future use.

*If you want to use fresh green beans, you’ll need to blanch them first.

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FRUIT SALAD

I grew up with a strange sense of family—if you ask me about them, I’ll say, “They’re all in India.  But my real family…” My parents have always been the only people I am related to by blood on the entire North American continent.  Actually, in the entire Western hemisphere.  There are relatives in India whom I feel close to, but they have always been a long plane ride or static-y phone call away.

fruit salad from the side

So my immediate sense of family has never been about blood or marriage, never about people to whom I was “actually” related. In fact, I’ve grown to kind of resent the implication that blood is somehow thicker than water, since all of my blood relatives lived two oceans away and didn’t know me.  Why do I need to be related to someone for them to be my family—and just because I am related to someone, what does that mean?  Why should I care about someone just because we share the same DNA?

My real family is the one my parents, then I, now Jill and I together, have chosen and created for ourselves.  I use the terms “sister,” “brother-in-law, “nephew,” freely, even though they don’t technically hold water.  Jill and I might not have a legal certificate that affirms such, but I have a mother-in-law who makes the best fried okra in the whole world, and a father-in-law who loves my chocolate cake.  These are the people who know me, who see me roundly and regularly, who have the authority and intimacy to nickname me and tease me.

In my book, adopted family is family, and so I proudly present this fruit salad, inspired by my best friend’s father, Bill, (also the father of our Blue Jean Sommelier), who in the last few years has become a kind of father to me and I am so grateful to him for it.  He’s generous and kind and loves food, so it’s truly as if we are related.

His is really a stellar, unusual take on fruit salad—tastes fresh, keeps well, and works with pretty much any combination of fruit (excepting bananas).  It’s a no-brainer in the summer, when the options are endless, but what I especially love about this recipe is that you can adapt it for the winter, using citrus, apples, even jicama for crunch.

BILL’S FRUIT SALAD

Bill says the key is to cut the fruit into smaller pieces, approximately half-inch cubes or slices.  I know halving the grapes may seem like a pain, but it makes a difference in the overall taste, I promise.  If you’re wary about the flavor of the crystallized ginger, feel free to cut back a bit.

Feel free to use any combination of fruit (adding mango, kiwi, orange segments) and keep in mind that this recipe double easily.

½ pineapple, cubed fruit salad from above

1 bunch green grapes, halved lengthwise

1 pint strawberries, hulled & quartered

1 pint of blackberries, whole

juice of 1 lime

2 T crystallized ginger, minced very finely*

½ cup sliced, NOT slivered almonds (Bill toasts his before adding them)

To start the salad, place the ginger in a big bowl with the lime juice—this will help distribute the ginger flavor throughout the salad.  Toss in all of the fruit and leave, covered, in the refrigerator for as long as you like.  Mix in the sliced almonds close to serving so they’ll keep their snap.

* I recently made my own crystallized ginger following this recipe and wow is it about 100 times more delicious than the storebought stuff (not to mention cheaper!)

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HOMEMADE GRANOLA

The summer of 2006 was a big one for me.  It’s the pivot point in my life that I would point to, if asked, and say “That’s the summer that changed everything.”

granola spices

It was the summer between the two years I spent in Arizona for graduate school.  It was the summer I traveled to India for the first time in over a decade.  It was the summer I spent more time with my parents than I had since I lived in their house.  It was the summer my twin godsons were born, the summer I spent living with them & their parents, an extra pair of hands in the diaper-changing rotation, offering bottles and lullabies to tiny six-week-olds.  It was a magical, luminous summer that haunts and carries me because it suddenly, at the end, became the summer that my father died.

Before everything changed, I began the quest to make exceptional granola because I was spending my days with two regular granola-eaters: my mama, and Stephen, the twins’ dad.  Both of them purchased boxed versions which seemed bland and sad.  I was convinced that I could do better.  Turns out, I can.  And you can too.

Granola is infinitely adaptable in terms of the fruits, nuts, spices, and flavorings involved; since that summer, I’ve made a dozen varieties, customizing one blend for a friend who loves dried cherries with cashews, packing others full of dried pineapple and toasted coconut.

What I’ve learned is that there are a few principles or guidelines that, when applied, insure that your homemade granola will kick store bought granola’s ass:

a)    Always pre-toast any nuts you are using.  They’ll add much more flavor and hold up better in milk, yogurt, etc.

b)    If you’re using dried fruit, add it at the very end of baking or it will dry out.  If the fruit you’re using seems extra-dry, pre-soak it in a few tablespoons of fruit juice or even water to re-constitute.

c)    Spice the granola beyond what seems like a reasonable amount.  Whenever someone asks to watch me make my granola, I illicit a “Wow, that’s a lot!” when tossing in heaps of cinnamon, ground ginger, cloves, nutmeg, and cardamom.  Of course, I get a second “Wow, this is good!” that proves my point—spice so that you can see the color of the oats change.

d)    When combining the dry ingredients with the liquid, make certain every bit of granola becomes wet before you bake it.  If you need to extend your liquid, try a fruit juice, such as apple, which adds flavor but not fat.

I suppose granola has become, for me, a relic from a wild, lightning-strike kind of summer, a connection to that strange bridge of time where two lives were starting and one was ending, a creation that feels almost like an act of faith.  One of my last memories of my dad is as he came downstairs from his traditional, epic, Saturday-afternoon baths, which always followed his traditional, epic, Saturday-afternoon naps.

Once she heard the water drain upstairs, my father singing along to old Indian music, my mother would put the teakettle on for afternoon tea.  I had just taken my first batch of granola out of the oven.  My father, who loved all things related to food (hi, genetics) but never falsely praised anything I did, especially anything I cooked, walked into the kitchen, grabbed a hot handful, chomped around and said, “Hey Nito, this is pretty good.”

granola, ready to be eaten

Indeed it is.

BASIC GRANOLA FORMULA

I’m calling it a “formula” and not a “recipe” for a reason; use what you like or what you have around.  Play with flavor combinations!  Whatever you do, I guarantee it will taste better than anything that comes in a box.  If you’d like more hard-and-fast measurements, please see my two flavor combinations below*

dry ingredients:

4 cups old-fashioned oats (do NOT use quick-cooking)

¾ cup steel-cut oats (you could easily leave these out and simply increase the amount of old-fashioned oats to 4 ½ cups)

¾ to 1 cup toasted, unsalted nuts (if you only have salted on-hand, don’t add additional salt to the granola)

¼ cup each wheat germ & flaxseed meal (you can find these in the bulk aisles of health food stores & conventional groceries have also started carrying the Bob’s Red Mill versions of these products, but again, they’re not deal breakers)

generous amounts of good-quality spices in any combination you like

1 tsp. salt

liquid ingredients:

5-6 T unsalted butter

½ cup canola or similarly mild-flavored oil (I’ve used safflower in the past)

½ cup brown sugar OR maple syrup

vanilla or other flavoring such as orange, almond, etc. (quantity will vary from 1 tsp- 2 T depending on the potency of flavoring)

oven: 325° to start

pan: two foil-lined, sprayed baking sheets (this will make your life so much easier when cleanup rolls around)

method:

Combine dry ingredients in a very large bowl.  Melt the butter in a small saucepan; remove from heat, then add the rest of the liquid ingredients and whisk together.

Using a spatula, pour the liquid mixture into the dry ingredients and fold it all together, taking the time to ensure that each piece has been coated.

Spread the granola out in thin layers on the baking sheets.  Depending on the size of your baking sheets, you may need to bake in two batches.  Do not pile granola on the baking sheets or it won’t cook evenly!

Bake for 20 minutes at 325°, then turn the oven down to 300° and remove the baking sheets from the oven to stir the granola with a wooden spoon or spatula, just to bring the browner edge pieces into the middle and the center stuff out to the edge.

Add dried fruit at this point, if using, and place the baking sheets back in the oven on opposite racks from the first round of baking (moving the previous top sheet to the bottom and the bottom sheet to top).  Bake for an additional 5-10 minutes, until granola is light golden brown and incredibly fragrant.

Cool on racks before storing in an airtight container for up to several weeks.  It’s delicious with fresh fruit, milk or soymilk, on top of yogurt or ice cream!

*These are the variations I made most recently; I actually measured what I did so I could share with you here!  Both versions turned out lovely, though the first is definitely more traditional, the latter more exotic.

CRANBERRY-ALMOND-VANILLA GRANOLA

1 cup toasted, chopped almonds
1 cup dried cranberries
½ cup brown sugar
2 T vanilla extract (doubling the amount make the flavor more pronounced)
2 T cinnamon
1 ½ tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp. cloves

CHERRY-PECAN-COCONUT GRANOLA

1 cup toasted, chopped pecans
1 cup dried cherries, chopped
1 cup dried coconut, dry-toasted in a skillet (if you use sweetened, cut the maple syrup in half)
½ cup maple syrup
1 T orange flower water, also called orange blossom water*
2 tsp. cinnamon
1 ½ tsp. ground ginger
1 tsp. ground cardamom
1 tsp. nutmeg

*This is a potentially tricky ingredient; I had it in my pantry from a recent trip to a Middle Eastern grocery.  If you don’t want to go out and get it, but still want the orange flavor, you could use 1 tsp of orange extract or a squeeze half an orange into the liquid ingredients.

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SNAP PEA SALAD

Ya’ll.  I am so tired and so full.  My in-laws are in town.

Jill’s parents are what you might call “good country people,” Louisiana folk who grow big gardens, hunt deer, & wear me out even though they are fifty and sixty years older than me, respectively.  I think it’s because they work so hard and all of the time that they can eat the way they do; which is to say that if I ate what they eat all of the time, I’d be six months out from a triple-bypass surgery and forty extra pounds.

snap pea salad

Our running joke when we come home from their house or when they leave ours is “I need something green, please!”  Most of what we eat with them is fried—for example, tonight’s meal consisted of onion rings, fried shrimp, this coleslaw, squash casserole (with cheese!), and double-chocolate brownies.  With whipped cream.

So, I think I’m going to make this salad tomorrow and eat it all myself.  Let’s hear it for vegetables.

SNAP PEA SALAD

The following is not a prescriptive recipe; please feel free to tinker.  And it tastes even better if you can make it an hour or two before serving.

ingredients: snap peas

2 cups snap peas, washed & trimmed*
3 carrots, grated (yielding about 1 cup)
1 ½ T fresh ginger, minced
¼ cup cilantro, picked
toasted sesame seeds for garnish

dressing:

¼ cup bottled garlic dressing (I used Annie’s Roasted Garlic Vinaigrette because I am obsessed)
1 T toasted sesame oil
1 T rice wine vinegar or the juice of ½ a lime
soy sauce or salt to taste

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl.  Toss with dressing & adjust salt, etc. to taste.  Serve immediately or refrigerate until you’re ready.

*To trim, just snap off the ends & remove the middle “string.”

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MAKE-YOUR-OWN HUMMUS

Hummus has become almost ubiquitous on the American food scene in the last few years—and I think this is a good thing. I love hummus; it’s delicious, good for you, and pretty much everybody likes it. It can even motivate finicky kids to voluntarily eat carrot and celery spears (as vehicles for dipping, of course). Unfortunately, ubiquity often leads to mediocrity and such, I find, is the case for poor hummus.

Too many pre-made versions are slimy and unappetizingly pasty; even the stuff that comes out of some restaurant kitchens is seasoned with such a tame hand as to induce yawning. But it doesn’t have to be that way! Now, great people of the internet, is the time for change.

chickpea goodness

If you own a food processor or a blender, out-of-this-world hummus is within your grasp. All it takes is a few (cheap) ingredients and the willingness to taste-test until you get the seasonings the way you like. Hummus is the perfect dinner-party staple because you can make it wayyyyyy ahead of time and, should you make it from scratch, you will impress the heck out of all of your guests.  I like to make a big batch and take it to work on Monday and eat my way through it all week.

A note about fussiness: you can (and should) make this recipe with canned chickpeas—it will still taste MUCH better than the store-bought variety and can literally be done in minutes. However, this is one place where high-maintenance-foodery does prevail. Starting with dried chickpeas instead of canned will take you to a new level of hummus enjoyment. If you’re up for giving dried chickpeas a whirl (added broken economy bonus = they’re even cheaper than the canned stuff!), please do; I promise it will be worth it.

HUMMUS…MAKE THAT REALLY, REALLY GOOD HUMMUS

special equipment: Cuisinart or other food processor, blender (only the heavy-duty kind)

ingredients:

partial components

partial components

1 16 oz. can (approx. 2 cups) chickpeas, a.k.a. garbanzo beans /ceci beans*

2 T tahini a.k.a tahina/tahine**

2-4 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped

1 tsp. salt (if you soak your own chickpeas, you may need to add more)

½ tsp. ground cumin

juice of 1 lemon

½ cup water (reserve the cooking liquid if using dried beans), more if needed

¼ cup olive oil

optional garnishes—oregano, paprika, or za’tar spice blend
pine nuts (toasted or untoasted)
drizzle of olive oil

Place all ingredients except olive oil in food processor or blender. Process until smooth, adding water as needed until desired texture is reached. Check the hummus’ taste and add extra garlic, salt, or cumin accordingly. Finally, with the processor or blender running, pour in olive oil.
Transfer to bowl and garnish with any of the options listed above. Goes excellently well with pita chips (storebought or homemade), crackers, and any kind of cut vegetable.

hummus with veggies

*If using dried, you’ll need to soak your beans overnight and then cook them for an hour before making your hummus. The chickpeas will double in amount, so if you want to end up with 2 cups, you only need to soak 1 cup of beans. Cover them with room temperature water and allow to soak overnight. You can stash them in the fridge at this point if you’re not planning to use them right away. Drain off the soaking liquid and transfer to a medium saucepan, covering with fresh water. Bring the mixture to a boil and allow the beans to simmer for an hour or until soft. Drain the beans but RESERVE THE COOKING LIQUID! Save it to thin your hummus; it will add more flavor than plain water.

**Tahini is a sesame seed paste most often used in Middle Eastern food. You may need to go to an ethnic grocery store for this, but it’s actually become readily available—check the “International Foods” aisle of your regular grocery store or call around to more foodie-inclined locations. Once you’ve opened it, keep your jar in the fridge for months. Like natural peanut butter, you’ll need to stir it when using again.

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