Monthly Archives: April 2013

Pea and green garlic soup

My dad came home from the hospital today. He’s in terrific spirits and already well on the mend, though there are lingering effects from the surgery. For one thing, his voice has been temporarily pushed into falsetto, making him sound a bit like Hyacinth Bucket; for another, he’s preferring soft-to-swallow foods, to save his poor cut-up throat some effort. I wanted to treat him to a nice light-but-special lunch when he came home; my farmer’s market trip yesterday yielded, among other things, a bag of English peas and a purple-tinged bunch of green garlic. So I made soup.

This is, more or less, early spring in a bowl. Fresh peas are at their sugary plump best now, with a crisp starchiness that frozen peas just can’t match. I’m lazy and buy my peas shelled–for a premium–but supposedly, shelling the peas is the kind of meditative kitchen task people wait all year for. As for the green garlic, it’s not an ingredient I often use, since it only appears at farmer’s markets and must be used quickly. It’s also sometimes hard to spot, since in its smallest and sweetest form it looks like a bulbous scallion. As it grows, the bulb becomes more pronounced, and the flavor intensifies. The garlic I bought was more or less fully grown, but not yet cured and concentrated the way our more familiar garlic is. Either way, it’s a great find for delicate dishes, with all the sweetness and roundness of older garlic and none of the spicy aggression.

young garlic

I’m not usually one for minimalism and refinement in the kitchen. But today I wanted simple. Clean. Peas and green garlic at the front. I sauteed the garlic quickly in oil, then added peas, water, and a few featherweight flavorings–lemon juice, chili flakes, a mint sprig. The peas got cooked gently, just until they lost their last hint of chalkiness and became soft enough to puree. Then I stuck an immersion blender in the pot and whirred away, watching the soup get slowly thicker and minty-greener. A couple slices of bread, a tangerine for each of us, and voila–lunch in 20 minutes.

We had our soup in mugs, which I highly recommend. There’s a comfort factor to this soup–as airy as it is–that makes it perfect for sipping over a newspaper. It also stayed wonderful as it cooled to room temperature, which makes me think it would work just as well served cold. I suppose you could add a drizzle of cream or a swirl of yogurt, if you wanted, but I wouldn’t recommend it. With something this delicate, let the vegetables do the talking.

pea green garlic soup

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Enfrijoladas with chorizo and greens

For me, a warm corn tortilla is one of the most comforting foods there is. My childhood babysitter was from Guatemala, and she got me hooked early on. I still remember her spreading corn tortillas with butter, sprinkling them with sugar, rolling them into loose cigars on a plate, and microwaving them for just a few seconds, until the outside was steamy-warm and the inside was gooey. For a small child, there was no better afternoon treat.

I still take a lot of solace in corn tortillas, whether they’re simply steamed naked or doused in sauce. For the most part, I prefer to get my fix outside my house, at a local Mexican/Salvadoran dive that makes the best enchiladas in town. But recently I stumbled across a recipe for a tortilla dish I’d never seen before, where the sharp-and-spicy chile sauce was replaced with a thick robe of rough-pureed beans. Enfrijoladas. The bones of the dish are the same–tortillas soaked in sauce, sometimes filled with protein, rolled or folded–but the impact is totally different. Each bite is hefty, creamy, almost peanut-butter-thick. This is stick-to-your ribs Mexican food, but without the accompanying lardiness we Americans are so used to.

There’s something almost meditative about making a dish like this. It’s the kind of thing that forces you to get your hands and dishes and stovetop messy, dipping tortillas in warm sauce and folding them over themselves, laying them on a plate and scattering over a coarse-crumbled handful of queso fresco. In this case, there’s no baking to worry about, just assembly, so that you can hand off the bean-soaked tortillas to be eaten as soon as they’re folded. I used a pair of tongs to manipulate the tortillas in and out of the sauce, but folded them by hand, licking the starchy-chunky sauce from my fingers as I went.

Honestly, a tortilla this heartily dressed doesn’t really need a filling. Just drenching the tortillas in bean sauce and folding them over themselves would be enough. But I was feeding Sam, too, and he had a craving for sausage. So I cooked up a mass of Mexican chorizo–the squishy pork kind–to spoon into the bellies of the tortillas. I had the leftover greens from a bunch of radishes hanging around, so I whacked at them a little with a knife and wilted them into the chorizo. It would have been far too aggressive a filling for an enchilada, but for the creamy-mild bean sauce, it turned out nicely: gooey and pungent and just a touch spicy, with the milky saltiness of the queso fresco to round everything out. With a vinegary chopped salad and a cold fizzy beverage, these tortillas made for one soul-soothing dinner.


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A lot to process

I wrote this earlier today in a beat-up old notebook while waiting for my flight home. I’ll get back to recipes soon, but I wanted to push myself to share this first. I think it’ll be good for me.

I’m sitting in an airport terminal. It’s mid-afternoon, and hazy, with the sun just starting to send sharp bright beams through the windows. My flight doesn’t leave for another two hours, but I have nowhere better to be.

The news is still coming down from the boil of the Boston bombings. The two men behind the killings have been stopped–one dead, one badly hurt, possibly by his own hand. Four unrelated innocents lost their lives last week, and many more lost limbs. I have so many dear friends in Boston. They’re all unharmed–rattled and unhappy, but safe. I’ve spent many hours this week thinking of them, and of those who weren’t so fortunate. There’s a lot of emotion there, fizzing uncomfortably, and I don’t know what to do with it.

I sit, and I think of Boston, and my father. My father who went to the same college as me, who has similar connections to the state of Massachusetts. My father, who’s going in for another surgery tomorrow. The doctors had tried their best to avoid this, but there’s a tumor still inside him that won’t respond to radiation. Tomorrow he will be cut open, again, and very carefully maimed, as they cut through the healthy parts of him to get to the sick parts underneath. Once the tumor has been scooped away, they’ll stitch him meticulously back together and hope they haven’t damaged him too much. We’ve done this dance before, but not so intensely. He’s been quieter this week than usual, more contemplative, a little hollow, as he waits for his appointment. With any luck, he’ll be fine–just uncomfortable, with a long convalescence. That’s what I keep telling myself.

I won’t see my father before his surgery, because I’ve spent the weekend visiting my grandmother. She’s increasingly frail, and speeding towards 90. As she gets weaker and more exhausted, she despairs more, moans more, makes sadder faces. Her hearing aids sing and whine in the other room all day, because she hates wearing them and can’t turn them off. She has family nearby, and hired help, but sometimes I think the only thing that animates her is watching the hummingbirds tease each other at the feeder in her backyard. I’ve stayed the weekend, and help her with the small chores she can’t do anymore, and now I’m going home and won’t see her for weeks.

I sit in the terminal. My phone battery is dying. I think of Boston, and my father, and grandmother. There’s a lot to process.

A little girl, maybe four years old, climbs up into the empty seat next to me. She’s giggling and panting with the exertion. Her face is streaked with dried tears, but she’s grinning wickedly, as if she’s abandoning a tantrum in favor of some new and particularly excellent mischief. She pulls herself up close to my shoulder.

“Hi,” I say.

Her father calls her name from the other end of the row of seats. She giggles and sticks out her tongue, as if contemplating her next move. Then she wraps her arms around my neck and hugs me.

“Thank you,” I say.

Her mother comes over and nudges her away, apologizing sheepishly. She’s smiling too, as she leads her little one by the hand back to their seats. I laugh and wave goodbye.

For a few minutes, at least, the fizzing in my stomach and chest has quieted. My flight will board soon, and I’ll go home, and tomorrow we’ll go about the business of getting things done. As usual.

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Booms in Boston

There’s so much to say, and yet so little.

A bombing at the Boston Marathon. Another day turned from joy to wailing. Another day of shock and mourning, of heroism and despair, and of people hauling out soapboxes and shouting theories. I went to college in Massachusetts; a critical mass of my friends and acquaintances lives in or near Boston. We’ve spent the day checking in on each other across various arms of social media, making sure that everyone in our wide circle is all right.

And I’ve been struggling, too, with how to react to such horrific news, when even worse happens every day to people I don’t think of, in cities and countries I’ve only heard about in newspapers. There was a bombing in Baghdad, too, that killed and wounded more. It seems there should be a proper way to respond, to balance the immediate grief and shock with the outrage for all the world’s victims of bombings and gunfire. But I don’t think there is, and maybe there shouldn’t be.

We should feel upset when violence ruptures our lives. We should cry out for our close neighbors affected. We should grieve for serenity lost. And it should make us uncomfortable that we don’t cry out when the violence happens to those who are far away, or who look different, or who suffer more often and more gruesomely than we do. We shouldn’t be able to swallow the difference easily; it should stick in our craw.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with grieving sharply for those who are closer to us, while still struggling with the greater losses that happen around the world. The one does not diminish the other.

That’s what I’m grappling with today. So are many of my friends. Tomorrow the healing begins, and we’ll keep wondering where we go from here.

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Kimchi soba salad

When I’m in the mood for a lazy lunch, I make a soba salad. I’m a big fan of soba noodles themselves–all dark and slippery-soft and nutty–and they’re especially nice with a lightweight soy dressing and some scallion and sesame. Problem is, soba salads need either precision or pizzazz to be really special. I tend to just wing it, and so my salads come out…plain. Slightly soggy. Generic. I like them, but they don’t quite rock my world. So I haven’t shared any of my attempts here.

Until now. Because kimchi.

I don’t remember where I got the idea to add kimchi to a soba salad. Maybe it was because I had some leftovers kicking around after making kimchi fried rice. Maybe it was because so many soba salad recipes call for cabbage of some sort, and I hate hacking up a whole head to use only a handful. Maybe it was just a screaming urge to do something a little different. Whatever it was, it worked like gangbusters. Turns out that soba noodles, with their gutsy buckwheatiness, are a perfect foil for spicy, crunchy, oh-so-slightly fizzy kimchi.

Now, fair warning: I used a lot of kimchi in this salad. It ended up being almost half kimchi and half noodles. I had absolutely no problem with this, but if you’re not as crazy for kimchi as I am, you could easily back down the amount by half. I also tried mixing some of the leftover kimchi brine into the dressing, but the extra liquid made the salad soggy, so I’m going to say that’s unnecessary. Depending on your spice tolerance and the heat level of your kimchi, you could certainly boost the red-chili factor with a glob of Sriracha in the dressing–I can neither confirm nor deny that I did this.

The beauty of a soba salad like this is that it’s equally delicious at room temperature the day it’s made, and cold from the fridge the next day. My boyfriend–a software engineer who gets fed for free at work–was so smitten with this salad that he requested I leave him the leftovers. He told me later that they made a great midnight snack. That’s about the highest praise I can think of.

kimchi soba salad

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Steamed artichokes with lemon vinaigrette

It’s spring, and this girl’s fancy is turning to thoughts of artichokes.

I’m a sucker for a good steamed artichoke. I love the meditativeness of it, pulling off the leaves one by one and running them between my teeth to extract the meat. I love how the leaves get tenderer and more delicate the farther along I go, how more and more of the heart-meat clings to each leaf as I approach the center. I love pulling the last few tissue-paper leaves from the top of the heart and nibbling off as much of the filmy bottoms as I can. I love scraping the choke away with a spoon, revealing the soft cupola of the heart inside. I love breaking the heart into pieces with my fingers and eating it greedily, all sweet-and-bitter and always gone too soon.

For my money, you could just plunk a whole artichoke in a pot with a thin film of water on the bottom and steam it till it’s tender. I’ve done that for years. But it’s not much of a recipe, and for you, blog readers, I wanted something special. So for this post, I sliced off the tops, half-steamed the artichokes upside down, then turned them over and drizzled a little extra virgin olive oil over the top before steaming them the rest of the way. (If I’d wanted to get really fancy, I could have trimmed the thorny tips off of each individual leaf; but that’s far too much fuss for me, since the thorns soften anyway in the steam.) It turned out surprisingly lovely; the oil sank into the crevices and formed a light film on the leaves.

You could certainly eat your artichoke naked–I often do–but the leaves are perfect for dipping, and stand up to a variety of sauces. I’ve most often had artichokes with a mayonnaise sauce, or lemon and butter, which are both very nice but not really my thing. What I love, and make most often, is a simple lemon vinaigrette. (I make it so often, in fact, that I’ve written about it here before.) It’s not much on paper: good olive oil, fresh lemon juice, and just enough honey to tame and emulsify the two. Whisk it all together, and you have a smooth and tangy dressing, perfect for anointing any number of grilled or steamed vegetables. As a dip for artichoke leaves, it’s hands-down my favorite.

This is perhaps my ideal springtime lunch: a warm steamed artichoke, a custard cup of lemon vinaigrette, a loaf of crusty whole-grain bread, and some good cheese. It really doesn’t get much better.

artichoke with lemon vinaigrette

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Swiss chard and cheese tart

A little while ago, the lovely and talented Juls of Pepper and Sherry invited me to do a guest post about my experiences reconciling food and health. After my heart stopped leaping around in my chest, and I was able to wrap my head around the fact that someone would ask me to write a guest post for them, I said yes, absolutely!

Not only is this a chance to collaborate with a terrifically talented fellow blogger, but I also got to share one of the most satisfying recipes I’ve invented over the past few months: a Swiss chard and Swiss cheese tart. This is one of many things I’ve made recently with my new favorite rye pie crust, and it’s a winner.

Check out my post on Pepper and Sherry for the recipe, and my thoughts!


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Cuban black bean soup

It’s been a long winter, but finally spring seems to have taken over. The air is warming up as the thick April rainclouds descend, and Easter candy is on sale at the drugstore. As we say goodbye to the cold, here’s one more thick-and-hearty soup to give it a proper farewell.

I was initially going to use a long-bookmarked recipe for Cuban black bean soup as an excuse to (finally) inaugurate the slow cooker I bought last year. But when I eventually got around to taking it out of the box, I discovered that there wasn’t enough counter space for it in my small kitchen, and no unoccupied outlet near enough to plug it in. So my little slow-cooker is sitting, unloved, in a corner until I figure out what to do with it. (It doesn’t help that I’m actually a bit scared of slow-cookery, having never done it in my life. But that’s a story for another day.)

So I made this soup the old-fashioned way, burbling and steaming in a pot on a back burner while I lounged on the couch with my laptop and a mug of tea. It took less time than I expected for the beans to turn from hard and bouncy to soft and spoon-mashable, and then to start rupturing and giving up their muddy starchiness to the soup. In about three hours, what began as a mess of beans and vegetables turned into a creamy black pool studded with red and green bell pepper skins. The real surprise, though, is an enormous splash of vinegar stirred in right at the end; it seems like a lot, but rather than make the soup brassy and acidic, the vinegar somehow intensifies the sweetness of the beans and the peppers. Add a swirl of sour cream (or, in my case, full-fat Greek yogurt) and a torn handful of cilantro, and presto: a smoky-starchy comfort food meal in a bowl.

I decided to keep this one meatless, but it’s certainly not a requirement. The recipe I adapted calls for a ham hock, which would be a gorgeous and indulgent addition if you can get your hands on one. If you’re not inclined to chase down a bone, though, you could decrease the initial dose of oil to 1 tbsp and render a few chopped-up strips of bacon to cook the vegetables in.

Oh, and, of course, this is yet another recipe that benefits from a long hibernation. Make a lot, freeze a lot. Even in April, there are plenty of rainy nights that call for soup.

cuban black bean soup

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