Monthly Archives: February 2011

Soup for the masses

Pasta e fagioli 1

This here’s just a crack-diggity soup recipe that you’ll need to cook if you have a) a vegetarian at the table, b) a certain someone in your life (it might be someone you sleep next to every night) who whines and roars and gnashes when anyone says anything about eating vegetarian, and/or c) a faint desire to stick with the Meatless Monday thing. It requires porcini powder, which I buy at DeLaurenti in Seattle. (It’s available online here.)

Pasta e Fagioli with Controne, Kale, Carrots, and Porcini Powder (PDF)
Made with a few special ingredients that may take a hunt but take really no more work to cook than what you find in a regular grocery store, this vegetarian version of pasta e fagioli, the traditional Italian pasta and bean stew, has an unctuous, meaty flavor that comes from porcini powder. Also called porcini dust, porcini powder is made from dried porcini mushrooms. Used like a ground spice, it adds depth and a rich background flavor—perfect for someone who might not be too keen on eating a vegetarian meal.

If you can’t find small, round controne beans, which don’t need to be soaked, use about 1/2 pound of other dried white beans (except soak them overnight and only simmer them for 60 to 90 minutes), or stir in two (15-ounce) cans of drained white beans (with the liquid) instead.

Time: 1 hour active time
Makes: 6 to 8 servings

One (300g) package controne beans (or 10 ounces other dried white beans)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 pound carrots, peeled and sliced into 1/4” coins
4 stalks celery, cut into 1/4” half moons
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme (or 1 teaspoon dried)
2 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano (or 1/2 teaspoon dried)
2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary (or 1/2 teaspoon dried)
2 tablespoons porcini powder
Bay leaf
6 cups vegetable broth
1 bunch dark, leafy greens, chopped (kale, collards, or chard work well)
One (15-ounce) can diced tomatoes
1 cup small pasta, such as macaroni or ditalini
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
Parmesan cheese, for serving (optional)

Place the beans in a large saucepan and add water to cover by about 2 inches. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook for 2 to 3 hours, or until the beans are tender, adding water as necessary to keep the water level just above the beans. (You can salt the water as the beans cook, if you want.) When the beans are tender, drain off enough water for the water level to remain just at the top of the beans. Set aside.

Heat a large, heavy soup pot over medium heat. When hot, add the oil, then the onion, and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes, until the onion begins to soften. Add the garlic, carrots, and celery, season with salt and pepper, and cook another 5 minutes, covered. Stir in the tomato paste, thyme, oregano, rosemary, and porcini powder, and cook, stirring, for another 3 or 4 minutes, until the mixture begins to darken a bit. Add the bay leaf, broth, greens, and tomatoes, as well as the reserved beans. Bring to a simmer, and cook for about an hour, stirring occasionally. Add the pasta, and cook until tender, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the vinegar, then season to taste with additional salt, pepper, and vinegar, if necessary. Serve hot, garnished with Parmesan cheese, if desired.

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Filed under garden, gluten-free, Italian, recipe, soup, vegetables, vegetarian

Live to Tell

Curried Cumin Crackers 1

There was a time in my youth—maybe six weeks, if I had to approximate, which must have been a very long time for my mother—when I listened to Madonna’s Live to Tell on repeat for hours on end. Hours, people. And oh, goodness, Madonna understood. Clearly the secret I wanted to live to tell wasn’t all that important, because I can remember neither the tale I had to tell nor who needed to hear it. But it was there, with me, suspended heavily in the air like my legs off the floor of back seat of our silver Volvo 840.

The thing is, I do remember putting the emphasis on the telling—not on the living. Today—a few years wiser, maybe, and slightly more experienced with health complications—I wonder sometimes what I’m living to tell.

As more and more of my relatives enter their anecdotage, it becomes clear to me that humans are predisposed to a good yammer. We all live to tell something, and to tell it over and over. The topic varies, though—some people want to talk family history, others want to rehash the past, and still others just want to have a story to tell about every topic that comes up. Telling is remembering. Or it’s proving you’re smarter than someone else, but for the sake of argument, let’s pretend that doesn’t ever apply to me or you.

Back to me, though. What am I doing now that will stay with me? Sometimes it’s hard to know, but once in a while, in a blinding flash of clarity, I know I’m living a moment that will be with me forever. My father teaching my son how to lick an ice cream cone. Walking past the explosion of daffodils each spring on the corner of 1st and 73rd. New England’s ice storm of 1998. Watching my husband stand on the bed, using the cat as a flyswatter against some unwanted bug. Cornering my sister at a family wine dinner, whispering to her that I was pregnant, and watching her get ridiculously drunk downing all her own wine and all of mine as well.

What I do know, very clearly, is that I want something to stick with me. And I want it to stick for a really, really long time.

There’s a point in every person’s life, I suppose, when one recognizes ones own mortality. I think for most youngish adults, the realization comes (if it does come that early) as a result of some sort of trauma—a car crash, maybe, or a bad fall. For me, it came in the form of a very long, very big needle.

Nine months ago, I had a kidney biopsy. I thought it was routine; the doctor intended to get a baseline measurement of how my organs were working, in case of any future complications. The next day, he called me and told me my kidneys were on the verge of failing. Between dinner and breakfast, we decided which chemotherapy treatment I’d try, and the following day, I cancelled a trip to San Diego and headed to the hospital. I’ll be telling that story for a while, I’m sure.

And now? Well, now my kidneys are fine. There’s nothing wrong with them. Nada. Zilch. Problems gone. When I go in for a check-up, my nephrologist (who has purple hair and a nose piercing, how Seattle is that?) is clearly bored. But somehow, on my lower back, right below my ribs, I feel a keen sense of awareness, a constant sense of care that I take with me everywhere. It’s a sense of living, after realizing for the first time that my own life is inevitably limited. And lately—maybe it’s this whole clean eating thing—I’ve been much more aware of taking care of those kids.

Last year, I met a woman whose condition is similar to mine, only sixty thousand times more dramatic. She’s a food writer and blogger. Her name is Jess. She has lupus. (Sound familiar?) She lives in San Francisco, and she’s my lupus superhero.

See, Jess approaches her disease with grace. She accepts that her life has to be different, but doesn’t mope or whine; she exudes an energetic peace that any perfectly healthy person would admire. She practically oozes happy, leaving behind her a wake of hope and cheerfulness that I’m not sure anyone could ignore. Her kidneys are much more sensitive than mine—so sensitive, in fact, that she has to eat entirely sodium-free, to make sure her kidneys stay happy. In her kitchen, she replaces salt with cups and cups of creativity. This month, she’s celebrating National Heart Health Month on her blog, Sodium Girl, by asking bloggers and readers to consider the USDA’s newest dietary guidelines, which (among other things) recommend that Americans cut way back on their salt intake. It’s called the Love Your Heart Recipe Rally. And that recipe up there? Your heart will love it.

But, okay, I really didn’t do it for my heart. I did it because even though my kidneys are healthy now, I want to become more constantly cognizant of what I’m feeding them, so that they last as long as humanly possible. So they live to tell. Naturally, that should mean less salt.

So, I don’t mean to get all serious on you here, but do me a favor: Take a moment. Here. Now. Is there one thing you can do that will make you healthier? It might not necessarily be cutting out salt entirely, and it might not have anything to do with salt. It might mean eating more green vegetables. It might mean drinking red wine instead of hard liquor, because at least wine arguably has a couple health benefits. Or it might mean making a batch of crunchy curried cumin crackers, so you stop snacking on your son’s outrageously salty Goldfish crackers six times a day.

Realistically, I don’t think I can cut out sodium altogether. And I don’t plan on it. But if I can choose one thing today to do differently in my kitchen that pleases the kids, maybe I’ll be able to choose something else next month. Of course, the spirit of the Recipe Rally is to remake a specific salty food, replacing it with a low-sodium alternative. I chose those Goldfish. Readers, I love you. But there is no way in hell you’ll find me cutting anything out in 3/4” fish shapes, especially when I can’t guarantee the correct proportion of swimmers with that special smile. And strike me down for lack of ambition, but I wasn’t sure I could mimic that awesome orange color without a special trip to a chemical plant.

So I made a different cracker. It’s got a base of masa harina, a finely ground corn flour, and ground curry, which gives it the pleasing sunny hue that I associate with mindless snacking, which, in this case, is a good thing. I added an egg, canola oil, and some sodium-free baking powder for body, and stuffed the dough with flavorful seeds that become little grenades between the teeth—things like whole fennel, cumin, and mustard seed. There’s a bit of sugar, which guarantees addiction (let’s work with one vice at a time, please), but there’s no salt added. Half a batch in, I certainly don’t miss it, and I feel a little smug knowing that someday, my kidneys (and, okay fine, my heart) might live to tell me thanks.

I’m sorry, what was that? You have a Madonna song stuck in your head now? You can thank me later.

Click here for a full list of Love Your Heart Recipe Rally posts.

Curried Cumin Crackers after baking

Curried Cumin Crackers (PDF)

Made with whole seeds that burst between your teeth, releasing little time bombs of earthy flavor, these easy-to-make crackers aren’t for spreading or dipping. They’re for eating. For something a little spicy, add a pinch of cayenne pepper. For best flavor, use fresh spices. And you know what? They really taste best the second or third day.

Time: 20 minutes active time
Makes: 4 servings

Spray vegetable oil
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups masa harina
3 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon sesame seeds (white or black)
1 tablespoon yellow mustard seeds
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
2 teaspoons ground curry powder
1 teaspoon granulated garlic
2 teaspoons baking powder (sodium-free)
1/2 cup canola oil
1 large egg
1/2 cup warm water

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 12” by 18” baking sheet with vegetable oil, and set aside.

Combine all the dry ingredients in the work bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, and blend on low speed until mixed. With the machine running, add the oil in a slow, steady stream, then add the egg, then the warm water. Mix until the dough comes together and there are no dry spots left at the bottom of the bowl. (You may have to add another tablespoon of water.)

Curried Cumin Crackers pre-bake

Scatter the dough out across the prepared baking sheet, and gently pat it evenly into the pan. Using a small rolling pin or a wine bottle (I find the latter works best), roll the dough into an even, thin layer, rolling all the way to the edges. Use a small, sharp knife to score the dough all the way through to the sheet into crackers of any shape, and trim the edges. (You can make squares or triangles, but anything bigger than about 2” in either direction may crack while baking.)

Spray the crackers all over with vegetable oil spray, and bake for 30 minutes, rotating once halfway through, or until the crackers are firm and the edges are light golden brown. Let cool completely on baking sheets, gently break apart, and serve. Store cooled crackers in an airtight container.

Curried Cumin Crackers 3

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Filed under appetizers, recipe, snack, vegetarian

A Clean Start

Carrot Hummus with Harissa 2

There’s something about the concept of the Western world’s New Year that never sits quite right with me. Until now, I thought I was simply anti-diet. The New Year’s pooch is a symbol for me; it represents the cookies and cake I’ve consumed, and also the people I’ve shared them with. If I pour my energy into dieting on January 1st, like half this country seems to do, I effectively cut myself off from the biggest soul-quenching time of the year, because food connects me to memory. It’s like ruling out bright sunlight in August. (Sure, we could all use fewer UV rays, but what would August be without sunburns?) I usually start the year out bingeing on soups and stews, precisely because so many other people are avoiding them.

This year, for the first time, I figured out why January 1st seems so meaningless: Here, it seems like the same new year every time around. We’re supposed to create a resolution to battle whatever it was about the previous year that left us feeling unsettled, but there’s no rhyme or reason to what’s intrinsically needed. Every year, there’s basically the same expectation: This year will be better. Why?

2010 was kind of an outrageous year for me. There were months with no appetite, followed by an experiment with eating gluten-free. In the end, the culprit was something close to kidney failure. Then there was chemotherapy, crazy complications with my son’s health, and (surprise!) two cookbook deals. It was a roller coaster, for sure. As December faded to January, I had trouble resolving to do anything but make sure 2011 was a little more calm.

This past weekend, my parents visited, and I was somehow able to drop everything. (Not my son, of course. I didn’t drop him.) We played human-sized chess at the Pacific Science Center, and gobbled soup dumplings, and watched humans pretend to be dogs driving cars, and it was all light-hearted and boatloads of fun. Last night, as I read Graham a book before bed, my eyes fell to the Chinese zodiac hanging in his bedroom. Now there is the right approach to the new year thing.

Chinese zodiac

2010 was the Year of the Tiger, right? In my world, certainly. The Chinese zodiac called for unpredictability, recklessness, and aggressiveness, but also generosity. My year couldn’t match more perfectly. Last night, as I looked down the chain of animals, I realized that long, long ago, someone realized this next year is just the year I need.

This New Year – the one that started this week, for me, with a calm mind and my son emerging happy and clear-sighted from eye surgery on the first day of the Chinese New Year – will hopefully be more rabbity. I want the year to be soft-spoken and flexible, creative and gentle. Luck would be good, but it’s not necessary.

In this kitchen, the Year of the Rabbit means clean food. It means being kind to my body – more Zumba, less zeppole. (Yes, I tried Zumba. It’s like a dance party for those of us who can’t stay awake past 9 p.m., and it’s fabulous, even on days like today, when the average participant age is about 103.) Anyway. For some reason, I’ve been all hopped up on the idea of eating a little less meat. Crazy, I know, but for some reason, right now, it feels right. It feels clean.

Clean Start

It started with a book. Clean Start showed up on my doorstep, and I thought, Really? Do I need a book to tell me how to eat well? But it had an orange cloth cover, and if there’s one thing I’m a sucker for, it’s the color orange. I opened it, and fell in love with the photographs – tahini-glazed heirloom carrots, sautéed greens with sesame seeds, and this wacky Carrot Cashew Miso Spread (PDF) I immediately wanted to dip my fingers into. The concept of a carrot spread made my brain whir.

I realized, as I started listing out all the recipes I wanted to try, that not a single one had meat. It took me a good day or two before it registered that the book is totally vegan, which I thought was a good sign; my body seems to be craving what’s in those pages regardless of the ingredients. Well, almost regardless.

See, I’m sort of in a carrot phase. Last week, I made a carrot and chickpea tagine for the cookbook (which will most likely be called Pike Place Market Recipes, but more on that another time). Then, when my parents were here, there was an Indian coconut curry with carrots and chicken, and a mysteriously carrot-heavy tom kha gai. On Superbowl Sunday, neither the television nor the tacos held much appeal for me (only the latter is really a mystery), but I was all about the raw carrots. I might in fact be turning into a rabbit.

This morning, when second breakfast seemed inevitable, I simmered up some carrots, and whirled them into a hummus rich with olive oil inspired by that spread in Terry Walters’ book, and flavored it with lemon juice and harissa. Healthy? Perhaps, but not intentionally. Just what I happen to need right now, that’s all. The harissa (an African chili paste) gives it a touch of heat, but because it’s still a bit warm after you being pureed, it feels soothing soothing. I think it should be the new snack du jour in preschools, because its effect is somehow calming.

Please don’t be surprised if I appear to have a slightly orange hue next time we see each other. I’m sure I’ll get over it. I just hope my teeth don’t start growing first.

Carrot Hummus with Harissa 1

Carrot Hummus with Harissa and Lemon (PDF)
Made by whirling cooked carrots, chickpeas, lemon juice, olive oil, and harissa (a North African spice paste) together, this simple spread is healthy and a little addictive. Adjust the spice level as you see fit.

Time: 10 minutes active time
Makes: 4 servings

1/2 pound carrots, chopped (3 large or 2 big handfuls baby carrots)
1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
Juice of 1 large lemon
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt, to taste
1 tablespoon harissa, or to taste

Place the carrots in a small saucepan. Add water to cover, bring to a simmer, and cook until completely tender. (Time will depend on the size of your carrots, but about 10 minutes should do it.) Drain the carrots, then transfer them to a food processor with the remaining ingredients. Blend until completely smooth, then transfer to a bowl and serve warm.

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Filed under appetizers, gluten-free, Lunch, recipe, vegetables, vegetarian