Tag Archives: Quick and Easy

Edamame hummus

I don’t often find inspiration in airplane food. But a few months ago I was on a Virgin America flight, hungry and fresh out of snacks. I ordered one of their cheese-and-cracker boxes, which came with a little tub of edamame hummus. I didn’t have high hopes, but the hummus was surprisingly great: smooth and solidly garlicky, like any good hummus should be, but lighter and more grassy. By the time I reached the bottom of the container, I was kicking myself for not having thought of it sooner.

It seems so simple, right? Just replace the chickpeas in a traditional hummus with cooked, cooled edamame. Ha! If only it were that easy. Trying to recreate that little tub of airplane hummus has taken me weeks and caused at least one tantrum. Turns out that frozen, thawed edamame don’t like to blend smooth, at least not without a lot of persuasion. It took at least three failed batches to produce a good one, but I finally got it down–a smooth green paste with the flavors of soy, lemon, tahini, and raw garlic in balance.

It all came down to the technique, and three things seem to have made the biggest difference. First, boil the frozen edamame for long enough, until the beans have lost lost their last hint of chalkiness. Second, add the edamame to the food processor in two or three batches, and make sure each addition is pureed as smooth as possible before adding the next. Third, and perhaps most importantly, puree everything for a good long while; I suggest letting the machine run for at least 30 seconds every time you add something, and let it run for a good solid minute or two once everything is in.

As with any hummus, the proportions here are entirely to taste. I like a strong but not antisocial garlic kick, a lot of lemon, and a ludicrous amount of black pepper. I like my hummus thinned with just a little bit of water, enough to make it scoopable but not saucy. I like to keep the olive oil out of the processor and drizzle it on just before serving, so that the flavor is fresh. And though I’m not usually one for food styling, I like a little dusting of something red on top–I believe sumac is traditional, but for my nonconformist green hummus, smoked paprika is just lovely.

edamame hummus

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Shrimp and baby bok choy stir-fry

This was the ostensible main course for our Christmas Chinese food feast. Delicious though the potstickers were, they do not a meal make; so to fill us out, I made a simple stir-fry of ingredients that looked good at the store.

I used to half-ass my stir-fries. It’s seductively easy to just dump a bunch of ingredients in a pan, stir until the slowest-cooking thing is cooked, and dump the whole mess onto a plate. But that way lies mushy vegetables and funky-textured meat, and after a while I wondered if I simply couldn’t stir-fry as deliciously as my favorite greasy takeout spot. It made me sad–and a good deal less frugal–to surrender to my laziness.

So over the past year or so, I’ve made an effort to be more deliberate. I’ve started thinking in terms of how quickly vegetables and proteins cook, how high I can take the heat under my pan, and how saucy or sticky I want the final product to be. I’ve learned when to add liquid to the pan, and when to let the heat and oil do the work. I discovered velveting over the summer, which has totally changed my relationship with meat in stir-fries. I’ve begun to relish the process of meticulously laying out a mise en place, and then tossing things into a hissing hot pan one after the other. And, surprise surprise, my stir-fries have gotten a lot better.

This was one of the best ones I’ve made. Not much to it, really: a pound of shrimp, a heap of baby bok choy torn into leaves, snow peas, aromatics, and a handful of toasted cashews. I decided I wanted a light sauce, no cornstarch, just soy sauce and rice vinegar and chili-garlic paste. I prepped the veggies lazily while the shrimp marinated in their cornstarch and egg white slurry, then poached the shrimp and stir-fried everything together right before we wanted to eat. It was the perfect unfussy dinner dish, with perfectly tender veggies and plump shrimp in a delicate but spicy sauce. As usual, I was too lazy to make rice; as usual, I wished I had.

shrimp bok choy stir fry

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Pasta with mizithra and garlic

This is the story of the oddest pasta dish I’ve ever made.

Over the summer, Sam and I took a trip up to Portland and Seattle. While we were in Seattle, we went out to dinner with some friends at a Greek restaurant in the Ballard neighborhood, called Plaka Estiatorio. It was a stunning meal–perfectly plump dolmas, crisp and sprightly Greek salad, crunchy fried smelts with their fishy little heads still on, fat orange mussels as big as my thumb. But the dish that really blew us all away was something the menu called Yannis Makaronia.

It arrived piled high in a bowl, with little fuss and less explanation: a tangled mass of spaghetti, each strand lightly coated with crisp brown flecks. The flavors were quite subtle–it was as if the pasta itself were somehow caramelized–but whatever was clinging to the pasta gave it texture, a kind of prickly resistance that felt wonderful on the tongue. It was, as Sam said, “dusted” instead of sauced. We ate and ate until the bowl was empty, and then chattered at each other, trying to figure out exactly we’d just eaten.

As we finished eating, the owner–a twinkly-eyed, gray-haired fellow named Yannis–came over to our table. He sat with us, told jokes, explained where the ingredients in our meal had come from, gave us straws and passed around the mussel bowl so we could drink the aromatic broth. Finally one of us–I think it was our friend Hilary–got up the nerve to ask just what was in that extraordinary pasta. He grinned proudly, sat down, and told us a story.

mizithra pasta 2

He’d first eaten this pasta, he told us, at a restaurant in Athens. He was so impressed that he walked straight into the kitchen and persuaded the chef to show him how to make it. Once he returned to Seattle, he began making it for himself, for lunch, to eat while he was working. One day he brought his lunch out into the dining area and sat down at the bar to eat. A customer asked him about it, and then another, and then another, and before long he was offering tastes to all and sundry. It was a huge hit, and that day he added it to the menu as a special. He had no idea what to call it, so he immodestly named it after himself: Yannis Makaronia. Before long, it became so popular that he promoted it to the regular dinner menu.

Wow, we said. That’s amazing. But how on earth do you make it? He sighed indulgently, leaned forward in his chair as if preparing to give a lesson, and explained:

“You take olive oil, extra virgin olive oil, and burn it. Then you take mizithra–you know mizithra? It is a cheese, a Greek cheese. You take it, and you grate it very small. You put that in the pan, with garlic, and you cook it until it turns brown. Then you mix with pasta. That’s it.”

We hung on his every word. Somewhere in that beautifully odd description was the secret to Yannis Makaronia. It seemed to violate every basic cooking principle I knew–burn olive oil? brown garlic? cook grated cheese directly in a hot pan?–and yet he explained it so matter-of-factly, as if it were the simplest thing in the world. I had no idea how I might replicate his signature dish at home, but I suspected that it all hinged on the cheese: mizithra. And, as it turns out, I was right.


As soon as I got home, I started researching. Mizithra (sometimes spelled myzithra) is an unpasteurized goat or sheep cheese. It’s made from whey and then aged with salt, becoming hard, white, and nearly as solid as styrofoam. The flavor is very similar to feta, sharp and salty and animal-funky. And mizithra also shares another quality with feta, a quality that makes Yannis Makaronia possible: it doesn’t melt. It browns. It caramelizes.

After a little searching, I found mizithra at Whole Foods, and also at a local specialty cheese shop. I brought home a hunk of cheese, and set about making the pasta just the way Yannis explained. I minced the garlic and grated the cheese, boiled water and cooked the spaghetti. I heated the oil just until the faintest plumes of smoke came off the surface, then dumped in the garlic and cheese and stirred like crazy. It felt so wrong. So weird. So completely counterintuitive. But it worked. It browned like he said it would. It coated the pasta like he said it would. The whole thing came together in less time than it took to grate the cheese. Doggone it, it worked.

In fact, that first time, I was too timid. I didn’t scorch the cheese enough, and the flavor was anemic. The next time I tried it, I made sure to cook the cheese to an even caramel-brown before adding the spaghetti. In less than 15 minutes, I had a bowl of glistening dark-flecked pasta, eerily reminiscent of the one we demolished in Seattle.

Sam says he could eat nothing but this pasta, all day long. I actually like it better as a side dish, served with an assortment of brightly-flavored Greek dishes, the way we ate it in Seattle. And here’s another unexpected and un-pasta-like thing about it: it tastes better at room temperature than it does warm. Every time I make it, I taste it straight from the pan, and am underwhelmed; but after 5 or 10 minutes on a plate, it’s difficult to stop eating it.

So if you’re in Seattle, go visit Yannis and eat his Makaronia. If you’re not, get some mizithra and make it at home. Either way, you’ll never look at a bag of spaghetti the same way again.

mizithra pasta

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Pan-roasted Padron peppers

I wish I could say I first had these in Spain, but I didn’t. It was actually at a tapas bar in San Francisco, on a chilly February night right around Valentine’s Day. Sam and I were going to a fancy party–tux for him, satin for me. We shared a bottle of very dry Iberian cider, and a cheese plate, and a little skillet of roasted Padron peppers. They astonished me, those peppers, sharp and smoky and once or twice fiery, punctuated with the occasional crunch of a salt-flake. So later that year, in summer, when I spotted Padron peppers at the farmer’s market, I snapped up a big bagful and roasted them myself. And I’ve been doing it regularly ever since.

This is one of those 1-2-3 food tricks that adds up to much more than the sum of its parts. It starts with fresh Padron peppers, adorably dimpled and bright leaf-green. Padrons have a flavor all their own–where jalapenos are fruity, and poblanos are sharp, these are grassy and light, almost parsley-like. They’re also conveniently bite-sized, with long elegant stems that make them an ideal finger food. They really don’t need much done to them: just a dance in a hot pan until they shudder and crackle and char all over. (Some recipes coat the pan with olive oil before adding the peppers, but that generates an awful lot of smoke, so I keep the pan dry.) Then just a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of flaky salt, and a tapa is born.

A slightly dangerous tapa, too, because there’s an element of chance involved. Padron peppers are naturally mild, but occasional cross-pollination with nearby chiles can produce the occasional spicy pepper. I’ve most often seen a pile of Padron peppers described like a roulette game: most are utterly mild, but about every one in 10 is shockingly spicy. I think there’s actually a little more nuance to it than that. Most are completely without heat, a few will prick you lightly, and every batch has one or two that detonate in your mouth. I’d say the hottest Padron I’ve tasted was about on par with a jalapeno. There’s no way to tell in advance which peppers are the spicy ones, so adventure is the only option. Which I happen to love.

These are at their absolute best when they’re hot from the pan. I’ve been to multiple restaurants that serve them in miniature cast-iron skillets; if you’re able, I definitely recommend going that way. Otherwise, use these as an excuse to gather people around the kitchen with their glasses of wine, and hand over the peppers the moment they’re oiled and salted.

pan roasted padron peppers with bread

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Chili-lime shrimp

Here’s an easy one for Cinco de Mayo: chili-lime shrimp.

Not much to it, really. Start with big shrimp, shell-on but deveined. Mix a simple marinade of lime juice, chili flakes, garlic, and scallion. Let the shrimp mingle with the marinade for a few minutes, just long enough for the lime juice to penetrate the meat without turning it ceviche-mushy. Cook. Eat, preferably with fingers. It’s one of those deeply satisfying party foods, a reminder of how much shrimp and chili and lime adore each other.

I’ve recently gotten into cooking shrimp with the shells still on. There’s an obvious flavor boost, for one thing–the shells make the shrimp taste sweeter and sharper and altogether shrimpier, and they help hold some of the marinade against the surface of the meat. The shells also protect the delicate flesh, keeping it tender and moist and preventing the surface from picking up that odd rubbery stiffness. The shells are edible, if they’re cooked right–lightly charred and crisp all over, giving the shrimp a light papery crunch. But even if you overcrowd your shrimp, like I did, and end up with floppy pink shells, you can just peel the shrimp as you eat them, licking the marinade from your fingers as you go. The shrimp will still taste better than if the shells were never there.

Once the shrimp are marinated–if you can even call it that–there are a couple ways to cook them. Here in California, where we’ve been sweating through an August-strength heat wave, grilling is the obvious choice. Just wiggle the shrimp onto skewers, slap them on a moderate-hot grill, and serve with plenty of cold Mexican beer. In other places, where I’ve heard tell there’s still snow, grab a cast iron skillet and sear the shrimp over medium heat, then mix up a pitcher of margaritas and pretend you’re somewhere warm. Eating chili-lime shrimp will make that much easier.

chili lime shrimp

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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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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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Clams with baby artichokes

Every once in a while, I’ll order something at a restaurant that’s so wildly delicious, yet apparently so simple, that I’m immediately determined to recreate it at home. This dish is one of those.

Like many of my favorite food travel memories, this one happened in Barcelona. Towards the end of our stay, Sam and I decided to visit the Mercat del Born, only to discover when we got there that it was closed for renovations. Suddenly loose in an unfamiliar neighborhood, with lunchtime looming, we ducked into an upscale-looking place with the auspicious name Cafe Kafka. It was dim and calculatedly deco inside, with a floor-to-ceiling bar and a dining room outfitted in black and grey. Three words jumped off the appetizers list at me: almejas con alcachofas. Clams with artichokes. Two of my favorite foods. I couldn’t resist.

It arrived in a teeny-tiny cast iron pot: a cluster of yawning clam shells, perched on a pile of baby artichokes. The clams were chewy and lovely, as usual, but the artichokes were the real revelation–tooth-tender and almost buttery, drenched in the seawater-sweet liquor from the clams. The combination of lightly vegetal artichoke tang and garlicky salty broth made for even better bread-dunking than usual. I knew immediately I had to recreate it at home.

Unfortunately, I’m dating a bivalve-hater, so my clam experiment had to wait. But a couple weeks ago, when Sam was busy and I was tapped to make an early birthday dinner for my mom, I saw my chance. It turns out that making clams with artichokes is a little more complex than just steaming clams on top of artichokes, but not by much. It’s quick, deceptively simple, and special enough for an Occasion. Good crusty bread is absolutely not negotiable here–every drop of that sweet-salty-tangy potion at the bottom of the bowl should be savored. This may require picking up the bowl and sipping the dregs.

clams and baby artichokes

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Country omelet

So far, it’s been an omelets-for-dinner kinda year.

Shortly before Christmas, I came home one day to a mass of ants hustling their way across my kitchen floor. They were fully fanned out, an ever-moving black army, and every time I blocked one point of access, they found another way in. I went on a cleaning spree, jarred and hid all my baking supplies, hid my honey bear in the fridge, laid down ant traps in every corner of my apartment. But in the middle of the night, when the mercury dropped near freezing, the ants would march right around the traps and back into my nice warm kitchen. It took over a month and a half to get rid of the infestation; I finally resorted to blanketing every flat surface in the kitchen with diatomaceous earth and leaving it untouched for two weeks.

Thus, for much of 2013 so far, my kitchen has been unusable–first swarming with ants, then blanketed with dead ants and dust. I could cook at Sam’s apartment on weekends, but not at all during the week. So I gave up on trying to feed myself well, reaching instead for crackers and frozen hot dogs and chicken tenders from the supermarket deli counter. And as it turns out, even when you’ve finally scrubbed and swept and vinegar-sprayed your kitchen back into service, the lure of processed foods is strong. I kept snacking instead of eating dinner, feeling increasingly salt-bloated and sugar-weighted and sick. Finally, about two weeks ago, I snapped myself out of it, marched myself down to the grocery store, and picked up a heavy bag’s worth of nourishing meal ingredients, to force myself to find something to do with them.

Of course, now that I’m back in the cooking swing, the holiday lull has worn off and I’m back to longer workdays and grumpier commutes. So the order of the day is stupid-simple meals. Sriracha shrimp with steamed broccoli. Veggie fried quinoa. And omelets. Lots and lots of omelets.

I’m picky about my omelets. I don’t like the fancy French ones, those piles of tiny fluffy egg-curds wrapped around themselves just so–they set off my scrambled-egg aversion something fierce. What I like is a good country-style omelet, hardly scrambled at all, a single springy egg-pillow with just a kiss of brown on the outside. Make a country omelet right, and you get a gorgeous progression of textures, from spongy outside to soft middle to creamy inside. You can fill an omelet with just about anything–it’s a great use-up for leftovers–but lately I’ve been on a straight-up cheddar cheese kick, with lots of black pepper on the eggs. Something about a mouthful of peppery egg and stringy-melted cheese is really hitting my comfort food spot these days. I suspect I’m not alone.

cheese omelet

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Pork fried quinoa

L’shana tova, everybody!

It’s Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. If there was ever a time for reflection and renewal, this is it. Today is the day we eat apple slices dipped in honey, so that the rest of the year may be sweet. I love this day–it’s quiet and suffused with warmth, and even for a severely lapsed Jew like me, it offers an opportunity to burrow down inside and find the parts of me that are ready for change.

I’m not a big believer in New Year’s resolutions, but I do like the idea of a surface wiped clean, ready for another year of markings. So that’s what today is for me–an opportunity to wash away last year’s labels and lines, and write myself some new ones. This year feels different, because I’m finally feeling out what my body needs and wants, and I feel like I can shape a year around that. I can eat more of the foods I love that nourish rather than drain me; I can get my rusty limbs moving, a little more every day.

So here’s a recipe for the day. Not traditional by any means–my mother points out that writing about pork fried anything on a Jewish High Holy Day is the height of irony–but still somehow fitting. I’ve been meaning for years to eat more quinoa–I love the pebbly nuttiness of it, and it always makes me feel whole and warm and satisfied. So this year, I’ll be eating more quinoa, in simple ways that make me feel at home. And one of my favorite homey preparations–fried rice–turns out to be a perfect vehicle for quinoa too.

This is fried grains my way: lighter and less greasy than familiar fried rice, with ham and vegetables and a quartet of fridge-standby sauces to lend depth and a little stickiness. As with so many things, this is tasty enough on its own, but downright transcendent with a runny-poached egg on top. If today’s intentions hold, I’ll be eating a lot more of this stuff in the future. I’m excited.

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