Arros negre (black paella)

Normally I’m not one for esoteric ingredients. Most of the time, I’ll go for fresh and familiar over strange and exotic. But there are exceptions to everything, and here’s one of them: I love squid ink. Madly. I’d never cooked with it until recently, but after making my first-ever squid ink paella, I’m completely and utterly smitten.

To my mind, there are few more intriguing foods than black paella. In Catalan it’s called “arros negre,” or black rice, and it’s really unlike any other rice dish you’re likely to encounter. Fleshy pieces of squid or cuttlefish are cooked deep into the rice, and then the whole thing is tinted black with a healthy dose of ink. Where an ordinary paella is bright, flashy, a riot of meats and vegetables, this is something else altogether: subtler, calmer, with a darker and richer flavor. The ink stains the outsides of the rice a deep grayish-black; the squid pieces relax into tender nuggets scattered through the rice. There’s a hint of tomato and pepper, and a little prick of smoked paprika, but the dish itself seems to murmur rather than shout.

So what does the squid ink add, exactly? I tend to think of it in the same way I do turmeric: its biggest draw is its dramatic color, but it also has a muted flavor of its own. Most descriptions will tell you that squid ink tastes, “briny,” or “like the sea,” which is entirely unhelpful. Clams and mussels taste “like the sea.” Good-quality fish tastes “like the sea.” Squid ink is more than that. It’s briny, yes, but it also has a slight iodine-like tang to it, a kind of dark rustiness. To me, the flavor is a little reminiscent of saffron, but heavier and just a wee bit saltier. It takes a fair amount of ink for that flavor to come through, and it suits rice and other starches particularly well, since they can robe themselves in it without competing for attention. I used a full tablespoon of ink in my paella, and it was not at all too much–in fact, I could have stood a bit more inkiness.

This is definitely something to make when you have people to impress, or an extravagant event to celebrate. Squid ink is expensive, but squid and rice are relatively cheap, so it’s easy to make a big pan of rice look more indulgent than it is. It’s also just as delicious at room temperature as it is warm, making it surprisingly low-impact for a multi-course affair. I made this as the main course for a tapas party, and was able to set it by with a towel over it while Sam and I prepped the rest of the food. And, of course, since Spanish rice dishes like this one must be eaten directly from the pan, you get to bring a heaping pan of gleaming black rice to the table and bask in all the oohs and ahhs.

black paella

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Dried peach and amaretto galette

For some reason, I’m extra-impatient for stone fruit season this year. Maybe it’s all the news of the drought; maybe I’ve just burned myself out snacking on apples all winter. But somehow, I’ve convinced myself that the peaches and plums and nectarines will be extra-delicious and extra-hard to get my fill of this year. So I’m missing them terribly.

But try as I might, I can’t make peaches appear at the markets out of sheer willpower. So when, a couple weeks ago, my friends and I started craving a warm fruit tart, we had to improvise a little. Fortunately, we were able to get our hands on some truly phenomenal dried peaches and nectarines. I could have tried simmering them in water to soften them up for baking, but then I had another idea. What if I cut up the fruit and soaked it in Amaretto for a while? Would that make them suitable for piling into a tart?

The answer, I’m happy to say, is a (qualified) yes. The peaches soaked up the sugary liqueur, taking on an intense sweet almond perfume. Just eating pieces out of the bowl was enough to make our eyes roll back in our heads. The fruit didn’t soften quite as much as I’d hoped, making the tart a little difficult to slice, and the exposed edges singed a bit in the heat of the oven. But really, given how improvised this was, those are small and mean quibbles. The combination of squishy, boozy fruit and crumbly pastry was incredibly satisfying, and Sam said he thought the burned bits on the fruit were the best part, since they cut the sweetness with a bit of caramel-bitterness.

Is this ever going to replace a juicy, in-season peach tart? No, but it’s incredibly delicious in its own right. It’s a decidedly grown-up dessert, elegant and boozy without being too fussy. And as something easy and slapdash–the kind of thing you can rustle up from the pantry in a couple of hours and serve to a crowd–it’s mighty fine. I don’t even think you need whipped cream or ice cream here. Let the fruit and the liqueur do the talking.

dried peach amaretto tart 1

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Vegetable and goat cheese lasagna

This has been a bonanza year for people who like to complain about the weather. Between the drought in California and the…well, not-drought everywhere else, it’s been a strange, unsettling, and dangerous stretch of time. But–and I may be jinxing myself by saying this–it seems like things are starting to return to a sort of normal. At least, it’s been somewhat rainy in NorCal, the way it should be in spring.

This is the time of year when burly, rib-sticking meals are giving way to lighter, livelier fare. And for a rainy weekend afternoon, I think a vegetable lasagna is the perfect kitchen project. It’s got lots of little steps, none of which is particularly demanding: lots of chopping, some stirring, some simmering. It involves a bit of construction, layering sauce and pasta and cheese in a pan, but there’s no reason to worry about making it pretty or neat–in fact, the chunkier and more homemade it looks, the better. And it includes some of that precious oven-waiting time that’s so lovely on a wet day, when you can sit at the kitchen table with a mug of tea and enjoy the fact that the rain is outside and you’re inside.

The other great thing about a veggie lasagna for spring is how flexible it is. Any combination of in-season and in-fridge vegetables will work beautifully, as long as they’re cooked tender but not mushy before layering. The lasagna can be made as rich or as restrictive as you like, depending on how much cheese and pasta you work into it. I like a tomato-based sauce, personally, but spring vegetables take perfectly well to a cream or cheese sauce as well–or you could use both red and white sauces, if you’re in particularly ambitious spirits. The only thing I think is required is a generous shower of Parm on top.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, I went over to my parents’ house and puttered around for a few hours making a lasagna. I decided not to try for anything particularly seasonal, and just to go with the vegetables that seemed appealing and easy: mushrooms, carrots, bell peppers, zucchini, and broccoli. I also mixed in a fat log of goat cheese with the more traditional ricotta, figuring that the animal tang of it would do nicely to perk up the vegetables. It was a very good decision: the sharp goat cheese and milky ricotta tasted so good together that I couldn’t stop dipping my spoon into the mixing bowl. The lasagna came together just as I’d hoped, with tender vegetables, a bubbling tomato sauce, and that familiar ricotta graininess. As a one-pan meal on a gloomy day, it was just about perfect.

veggie goat cheese lasagna

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Lentil sloppy joes

I may not be a vegetarian, but I sure act like one sometimes. Case in point: I’m probably the only meat-eater I know who goes to Umami Burger, scans the menu, and says, “I’ll have the lentils.”

But in my defense, these weren’t just any lentils. They were lentil sloppy joes, which is one of those ideas that I’m now kicking myself for not coming up with years ago. The version I had at Umami Burger was bound in a thick sauce of tomato and mushrooms, and piled high with cheddar cheese, jalapeno slices, fried onions, and sour cream. The lentils were cooked into a slightly cobbled mush, far less sloppy than I would have expected, and nicely flavored with sweet-and-sour. It was an absurdly satisfying sandwich, and not just because of the MSG. So, of course, I set out to make it at home.

This is my take on lentil sloppy joes, and I think it’s wildly successful. I kept the lentils a bit on the nubbly side, to give the filling some meaty texture. The sauce is sharpened with vinegar and sweetened with molasses, for an instantly familiar sweet-and-sour sloppy joe impact. I also ratcheted up the spices, because lentils can handle them, and cooked the mixture down until it was cohesive but not sludgy. The result is a roughly textured, deeply flavored sandwich filling that holds together just long enough to get a bite to your mouth, then collapses onto the plate.

As with any sloppy joe, these can handle just about any topping you like. But I would highly, highly recommend doing what I did when I made this for my family, and adding some pickled jalapeno rings. The sour crunch and slow-moving heat of the jalapenos added a wonderful dimension to the sandwich, and cut through some of the starchy richness of the lentils. We ate our sandwiches on pumpkin buns, which was a very smart decision: my brother pointed out that the sweetness of the bread and the spiciness of the lentils gave the whole thing a chili-and-cornbread vibe. But really, any kind of bun will work, as long as you’re prepared to get a little sloppy.

lentil sloppy joe fingers

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Pumpkin burger buns

One of the most memorable meals we had in New Zealand was, unsurprisingly, at the beach. We rented bikes in Hawkes Bay–big clunky cruiser things–and went wine-tasting along the water. It was a postcard-perfect day, with a sharp blue sky, cottony clouds, and incredible jewel-green water. Needing to fill our bellies before a long afternoon of sipping sauvignon blanc in the vineyards, we stopped at a cafe at the end of the road in Te Awanga. It was a sweet-looking place, with red wooden walls and a gabled roof, overlooking a small cove and a rising mass of cliffs in the distance.

This was a place the bike tour company had recommended. It was also one of the few lunch spots around for miles. Based on those points, I think we were all expecting uninspired, overpriced tourist food. But we were pleasantly surprised: everything we ordered was fresh and tasty, with layers of bold and delicate flavor. We locked up our bikes and ate lunch out on the patio, crowding all nine of us onto a single park bench and watching the clouds drift past the sun.

Because several of us were on a quest to eat as much New Zealand lamb as possible, we ordered lamb burgers. They arrived majestically, each piled high with lettuce, carrots, and feta, and sandwiched between two halves of a pumpkin bun. The burgers themselves were juicy and delicious, of course. But the real surprise were those pumpkin buns. They were deeply orange and just the slightest bit sweet, and each was crowned with a sprinkle of pumpkin seeds that crackled and snapped with each bite. They were a perfect foil for the gamy lamb, with just enough character to be interesting but not enough to overwhelm. None of us had ever had a burger on a pumpkin bun before, and now we all wondered aloud why not, since it was clearly a brilliant idea.

I came home determined to recreate those buns, and after a bit of trial and error, I think I finally managed it. These are so much tastier and more interesting than your average hamburger bun, with just a hint of sugariness from the pumpkin and a welcome crunch from the pumpkin seeds. Skip the dainty turkey or salmon burgers here; these buns can stand up to any number of meaty, gutsy, spicy fillings. Lamb is a natural, of course, as is beef or any other red meat, or portobello mushrooms, or richly spiced legumes, or anything else that’s savory and strong. (In my next post, I’ll introduce my new favorite sloppy joe recipe, which was absolute perfection with these.)

pumpkin bun 2

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Nicaraguan guacamole

The summer I spent in Nicaragua as a teenager, working on a volunteer project, I spent a lot of time in people’s kitchens. I’d only recently been bitten by the cooking bug, and it seemed somehow that every woman in the community I was living in was an excellent cook. (With the exception of my host father–a former restaurant chef–every cook I met was female.) I spent a lot of time peering over the shoulders of these brisk, sandal-clad women, watching as they prepared the afternoon and evening meals. I learned how to fry plantains, how to mix rice and beans in just the right proportions to make gallo pinto, how to shred cabbage for a vinegary slaw that we ate on top of fat masa cakes. But the thing that surprised me the most was how the Nicas made guacamole.

I only had it once, in the home of a woman I didn’t know very well. She’d just finished showing my volunteer partner and me how to form tortillas by hand–a skill I’ve sadly since forgotten–and told us she would make us some guacamole to have with our lunch. There were avocado trees everywhere in town, and we ate enormous ripe avocados every day with a spoon and a sprinkle of salt, but no one had ever offered to make us guacamole before. After a few minutes of slicing and chopping, she presented us with a bowl: in it was a chunky mix of avocado cubes, onion slices, and smooth rounds of hard-boiled egg. “Es el guacamole Nica,” she said. It was absolutely unlike any guacamole I’d ever had, and the flavors wrestled around strangely in my mouth. I felt very far from home. I finished my portion, thanked her profusely, and then for the rest of the summer we ate half-avocados with salt.

nica guacamole

I hadn’t thought about that guacamole until last weekend, when avocados showed up at the farmer’s market. I went shopping with my friend Molly, and she was craving guacamole. We agreed that it might be fun to try recreating that strange and startling guacamole I’d had over a decade ago. All we needed was an onion, an avocado, a few eggs, and some limes. I wasn’t expecting much–it seemed way too simple to be exciting. But when I took a bite, the memory hit me square between the eyes. Suddenly I was back in that Nica kitchen, shy and out of my element, taking the spoonful offered to me.

And something else happened, too. Suddenly, tasting with a teenager’s emotions and an adult’s palate, I realized just how delicious Nicaraguan guacamole is. The flavor is clean and sharp, with a bit of welcome chewiness from the egg and a prick of pungent sweetness from the onion. This will absolutely be my go-to guacamole recipe from now on–it’s that good.

The traditional recipe is dead simple: avocado, onion, hard-boiled egg, lime, and salt. I added some scallion tops and cilantro, just because we had them around, but these are neither traditional nor necessary, and the guacamole is great without them. You can mash the avocado to whatever texture you like, but for a real authentic guacamole, keep it chunky, almost like a salad. That way, the squishy avocado, chewy egg, and crunchy onion each have their say.

nica guacamole 2

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Pink lady cake with lemon cream cheese frosting

Some time over the past few years, I became the kind of person who likes making layer cakes. I still don’t quite understand it. Considering how scattered and slapdash I am in other parts of my life, it seems odd that I’d derive so much satisfaction from stacking cakes on top of each other and painting them with frosting. But I do. I really do.

I think a big part of it is the love. A layer cake might be the purest edible expression of love I know of. There’s absolutely no reason to make one except out of love for (yourself and) others. Layer cakes are celebration food, the thing you make when it’s time to shower love on someone. Even if you make a layer cake to celebrate yourself, you’ll still end up feeding it to people you love. It’s a project–a messy, multi-hour project–the kind of thing you wouldn’t undertake unless you really cared about the person or people whom you’re making it for. But if you like baking, making a layer cake is also a kind of therapy, a way of showing yourself some love while preparing to spread it to others.

This cake is the perfect example. I made it for Audrey’s birthday party, partly at her request and partly of my own initiative. She wanted Smitten Kitchen’s pink lady cake; I know how much she loves lemon, so I decided to give the frosting a lemon kick. It was the perfect cake for Audrey, who loves berries and lemon and gets impatient with chocolate. As it turned out, the strawberry flavor in the cake was incredibly subtle, so that the puckery lemon frosting stole the show. When she sliced into the cake, the layers revealed themselves to be a delicate purple-pink, the perfect color for a non-girly-girl who likes wearing pink.

But there was also some self-care in it for me. The planning of the cake was elaborate and specific, but creating it was a lazy breeze, a perfect excuse to spend the day indoors. I rolled out of bed in the morning, slapped the batter together and threw it in the oven, then went back to bed and did crossword puzzles until the layers were baked. While they cooled, I showered, ate brunch, and watched a nature documentary. I had a little bit of strawberry puree left over from making the cake layers, so I mixed myself a berryoska and sipped it while I frosted the cake. And then I brought it to the party, covered it in sprinkles, and presented it with great affection to the birthday girl.

pink lady cake slices

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