In a world of coffee drinkers, Sam and I are tea fanatics. Our cupboards are bursting with tins and boxes, strainers and saucers. We drink black tea in the morning, green tea after dinner, and herbal tea late at night. We even have one of those fancy tea kettles that heats water to different temperatures for different types of tea.
I love cooking with tea–and with one tea in particular–almost as much as drinking it. Lapsang souchong tea is dried over wood fires, giving it a distinctive smoky flavor. Add some leaves or a bag to a pot of soup broth, and you’ve got something deeper and huskier than any non-meat broth I know. My new favorite trick? Cooking black lentils–sometimes called beluga lentils, because they resemble caviar when cooked–in a cauldron of smoky tea, tomatoes, and spices.
The recipe I adapted this from called for simmering everything together at once–lentils, tomatoes, the works. I’ve tried that, and don’t recommend it; the acid in the tomatoes keeps the lentils from softening. Instead, I use the method from my grandmother’s bean and tomato soup. In that recipe, you start simmering the legumes on their own, cook up a saucy tomato mix in a separate pan, then bring everything together towards the end of the cooking time. I added a handful of greens, too, which wilted down and made the whole dish more substantive.
At first taste, you might assume there’s meat in these lentils. It’s a nifty little trick, brought about by the marriage of smoky tea and glutamate-rich tomatoes. You could easily serve this as a standalone vegan meal–I have, and my omnivorous dinner guests loved it. If you eat eggs, these lentils are incredible with a poached or soft-boiled egg on top. And as with so many soups and stews, the flavor gets even better after some time in the fridge or freezer.
It’s phyllo central over here. Something about that golden, flaky crackle-crunch is really hitting the spot right now. And if I feel myself burning out on layered pies, there’s always the trusty triangle.
This particular recipe was my contribution to an Ethiopian-food potluck. It’s a riff on lentil sambusas, one of my favorite things to order at an Ethiopian restaurant. Picture an Indian samosa if that’s more familiar, but smaller and lighter, with a filling of gently spiced lentils. I love a good samosa, but the combination of pastry and potato always makes me feel like I’ve eaten a brick. Not so with sambusas–the best ones I’ve had are earthy but delicate, with a thin-and-crisp shell.
Normally, sambusas in restaurants are deep-fried. But I hate the mess and hassle of deep-frying, so I decided to bake my sambusas instead. As always, the challenge when turning a deep-fried food into a baked one is texture–it’s hard to really mimic that great golden crunch. Of everything I’ve tried, phyllo’s flaky crispness gets the closest.
I started with the classic triangle instructions on the back of the phyllo box, and added a sambusa-inspired filling of lentils and spiced, sauteed onions. You could make the filling all in one pot, but I decided to cook the lentils on their own and then fold in the spiced onion mix to keep the textures and flavors distinct. I used ordinary, cheap green lentils, but beluga or Puy lentils would be lovely since they keep their shape when cooked. Make sure to use plenty of butter or oil–it’s what gives these little pastries their color and crunch.
Just under the wire before Christmas, here’s an edible gift idea: candied citrus peels. Start them tonight, and they’ll be ready by Saturday.
I’ve been doing this for years, and it’s probably my greatest kitchen love-hate relationship. On the one hand, candied citrus peels are incredibly delicious, a real show-offy gift, and a great way to use up food scraps. On the other hand, making them is labor-intensive. Not difficult or complicated–just a lot of f’n work.
That said, this is the kind of elaborate kitchen project that even a rank newbie can take on. All you need is a sharp knife, a pot or two, a lot of water and some sugar, and a place to set your peels to dry. Beyond that, what matters isn’t skill so much–it’s patience.
Below is a long, elaborate explanation of how I do this. The short version is: peel yourself some citrus and cut the peels into pieces. Blanch the peels in boiling water a few times. Simmer the peels in simple syrup for about an hour. Lay the peels out to dry for a day or two. Coat the dried peels in sugar or chocolate. Done.
I usually save citrus peels in the freezer and make a big batch of candy every few months. Every time, about 24 hours into the process, I wonder why I got myself into this. Then I take a nibble, and remember: oh, yeah. It’s because candied citrus peels are amazing.
God, what a year. I wish I could share some neat, precisely turned summary of everything that’s happened since I last blogged here in April. My head is a stew pot these days, full to the brim with this and that, and I’ve been trying to simmer it all together into a coherent something for months now.
On a personal scale, things have taken a happy turn towards domesticity. Sam and I got engaged in March and courthouse-married in September. We’re planning a big family-and-friends wedding for next summer (don’t ask how that’s going). We bought a townhouse–I still can’t quite believe we bought a townhouse–and moved in at the beginning of November. And we adopted a cat, who as I type this is draped full-length across my lap, purring his glossy black head off.
Meanwhile, of course, the world around us swerved in a scary direction. Our personal happiness has been complicated by fear, anger, frustration, and sadness. I was mostly holding it together until the night of the US elections, but the result of the presidential race cracked me wide open. I’ve made my political opinions clear on this blog before, and what happened on November 8th was the worst of a worst-case scenario. It also exposed some fraying ends in my mental health that I’d been trying to ignore for a while. Like many people, I suspect, I’ve spent the past month and a half relying on a mix of therapy and home-grown self-care to keep afloat.
As usual for me, the home-grown self-care includes lots of cooking in our new kitchen. The weekend after the election, we invited friends over and fed them lasagna. I’ve been batch cooking and freezing lots of kitchen-sink stuff–soups, stews, and casseroles. And I got fancy one night and baked some chili in a pumpkin, a warming seasonal treat for Sam and me. This isn’t going to resolve the topsy-turviness of the world, but it’s nourishing, absorbing, and even kind of fun–just what I need these days.
This chili started with a not-so-spectacular sugar pumpkin. It arrived in our CSA, cute as a button, and I could tell as soon as I picked it up that it wasn’t a winner. It felt light for its size, and a good pumpkin should feel heavy. When I roasted and pureed it, my instincts were confirmed: the flesh was starchy rather than sweet, and the pumpkin flavor was muted. I’d been planning to make pie, but I knew at first taste it’d be a dud.
Still, the puree had some of the lovely earthiness I expect from freshly roasted pumpkin. What about a savory use? I’d been to the Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Festival a couple weeks before and tried pumpkin chili for the first time. For something sold out of a concession tent in a styrofoam bowl, it was pretty good–the pumpkin made a nice match for the beany warmth of the chili. But I wished with every spoonful that it was spicier, gutsier, more like my favorite bean chili. So when I found myself with a batch of boring pumpkin puree, I decided to try marrying the two chilis.
If it’s possible, I think I like this version even better than the original I based it on. The pumpkin gives the whole thing some backbone, adding sweetness and depth to balance the intense smoky heat. It also helps thicken the chili, creating a rich gravy-like sauce. The chili is ready after as little as an hour of simmering, but if you have the time, let it go for closer to three hours–the long simmer really takes the flavor from good to glorious. The whole thing is wonderfully rib-sticking, perfect for chilly nights like the ones we’ve been having in the Bay Area recently.
This is fabulous with any kind of pumpkin, homemade or canned. I know I’m not the only one to end up with a bland roasted pumpkin, and this is the perfect use for less-than-stellar puree. I ended up adding a bit of sugar at the end to compensate for the lack of sweetness in my pumpkin; this is totally a taste-and-adjust situation. Or you could just use canned puree, which provides plenty of sweetness and makes this a meal you could whip up from the pantry.
I’ve had a couple tubs of Thai curry paste kicking around in my fridge since the summer. But when butternut squash came into season this year, I started putting them into heavy rotation. I love butternut squash soup as it is, but lately I’ve been liking my winter squash on the spicy side. So I make a very simple soup–just leeks, garlic, ginger, and squash, plus enough broth to make it soupy–and add a little dollop of curry paste. Squash loves curry in all forms, and its sweetness really welcomes the spiciness of Thai curry. It makes for a really terrific soup.
I’ve used red and green curry here, and they were both great. The red curry is a cleaner, sourer heat, and I find I need a little less paste to do the job. Green curry is richer, darker, maybe slightly less spicy, and I use a little more of it to really zing. In either case, the effect is both surprising and subtle: lots of fire up front and a quiet thrum of curry in the background.
The soup is nice enough on its own, but adding a little pile of fried shallots to each bowl really makes it special. Pureed squash can be a bit sugary and boring on its own, and the fried shallots add a lovely crackly-crisp texture and bittersweet contrast that I just love. If you’re serving the whole batch of soup at once, I’d suggest frying all the shallots right in the soup pot, then using the shallot-infused oil to make the soup. But if, like me, you like making soup ahead of time and freezing it for later, just fry up a little batch of shallots whenever you’re ready to eat.
I’m not normally one for adding cream to pureed soups, but this soup really benefits from something rich stirred in at the end. The curry paste I use is very spicy, and it needs a bit of fat to tame it so that the other flavors come through. Coconut milk is the obvious choice, but I don’t always want to open a whole can just to use a drizzle. I’ve finished this soup with different dairy and non-dairy milks, depending on what was in my fridge at the time, and it comes out great every time. The recipe includes a bunch of options; use what you like, or what you’ve got on hand. It’s that kind of soup.
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.