Weeknight Wonder: Healthy Addiction Chicken

28 May

I’ve never been much of a planner. I like to think that the embarrassingly disproportionate chunk of my life I’ve spent satisfying an insatiable appetite for food media – the hours upon hours poring over countless food blogs and back issues of Food & Wine, the nights I’ve selected At Hoc at Home as an appropriate bedtime story, the many Sundays I’ve played Top Chef as a soundtrack to my stovetop scrubbing – has armed me with a few basic techniques to spice up an improvised weeknight dinner. Though these simple lifted tricks – things like finishing pasta with a raw egg at the end for a silky sauce – mostly serve me well, relying on what’s on hand inevitably means a lot of spaghetti. In fact, my lovely husband of almost six months (?!) likes to say that I have two addictions: pasta and  bell peppers. Frankly, I think we could be doing a lot worse.

Of course, my noble quest to read every word on food ever written also leads me to recipe gems for which I carefully purchase and plan, like Skinnytaste’s fabulously light Tikka Masala (I do it with shrimp instead of chicken) and Thomas Keller’s beyond perfect roast chicken. What I’m working on now that I’m cooking for two on a regular basis is a little forethought. This is mostly to avoid the embarrassment of a third party knowing I’ve eaten soba noodles with bottom-of-the-crisper, quick-before-they-go-too-bad greens three nights running. Moderation is, I think, an adult skill to master. So I’m now trying to meet in the middle, coming week by week to the realization that keeping chicken breast in the freezer and a reasonable number of versatile veggies on hand (such as, ahem, bell peppers!) can make a well-thought out weekday meal as simple as spontaneous pasta surprise – and at least half the time, more rewarding.

(Secret Author’s Note: I posted this recipe because it’s ridiculously easy, healthy and delicious, sure; but I think we’ve spent enough time together to understand that I usually have a decadent ulterior motive. Get excited. This is basically to justify my next post being the recipe for warbat, an Arabic dessert similar to baklava but with a layer of rose-flavored cream in the middle, OBVIOUSLY. Trust me, this one is worth an extra half hour… or eight… on the treadmill.)

Plenty of Soy Sauce 5-Point Chicken 

*This recipe is a caloric steal at just 5 Weight Watchers Points Plus for each of 4 reasonably sized servings. You could also substitute the breast for four boneless, skinless chicken thighs for an even more awesome 4 WWP+ total. Serve with rice for a filling, flavorful sub-10 WWP+ dinner.

  • 2 chicken breasts
  • 3 bell peppers (different colors, please)
  • a bunch of mushrooms
  • a spoonful of canola oil
  • low-sodium soy sauce (at least 3 spoonfuls, but to taste)
  • 1 small can of plain tomato sauce (ideally smooth but I only had diced this time and it was fine)
  • a spoonful or so of ginger, freshly grated or dried
  • a spoonful of oregano

a rainbow of healthy delicious.

  1. Cut chicken into bite-sized chunks, trimming fat and gross bits. Soak in water with a dash of vinegar while you prep the veggies. (This is a trick Moh’s dad taught me while showing me this recipe – it gives the chicken a clean, chicken-as-chicken-should-be sort of flavor.)
  2. Slice onion and bell peppers into strips. Quarter mushrooms (or slice, if they’re of the funky shape variety).
  3. Sautee onion strips in a small amount (max 1 tablespoon) of canola oil in a large stockpot over medium-high heat.
  4. Once golden, rinse chicken and add. Cook chicken through, about 15 minutes, making sure the pot doesn’t dry out of juices (just add water if it does).
  5. Add peppers. Sautee about 10 minutes. Give it a stir every once in awhile, throughout process.
  6. Add mushrooms. Give it another 5 – 10 minutes, until they’re getting soft.
  7. Add the little can of tomato sauce. Fill the can twice with water and add.
  8. Simmer for a while. If you’re serving with rice, make it now (which, incidentally, before I made all the time because let’s be real, my husband is addicted to rice, I thought took an hour. It doesn’t. It takes about 30 minutes and is actually quite easy once you’ve gotten the hang of it. Though I still can’t cook brown rice for the life of me).
  9. A few minutes before it’s as thick and saucy as you want it, add a spoonful of dried oregano, one of ginger, and a few of soy sauce to taste. Moh’s dad’s taste was two. Mine was four. Yes, I have always been unabashedly addicted to soy sauce.

Weeknight-Chic Champagne Risotto

15 Apr

I have become a firm believer in celebrating life’s little wins. There’s nothing like a bottle of sparkling wine to transform a Thursday night from the final day in the weekend countdown into an evening worthy of savoring.

Depending on on how many people you’ve invited to your personal pop-up party, you may wind up with some leftover less-than-bubbly. After all, this is a weekday indulgence – and waking up with a brick on your forehead would pretty much defeat the purpose. So rather than pour that extra glitter (that one’s for you, @itsamich!) to waste, why not use that last bit of liquid gold to elevate your next meal with effortless elegance?

Wanting to capture the richness of celebratory flavor without decimating any semblance of virtuosity – and yes, also having just dropped a $20 on a lusciously extravagant non-neccesity - I decided to make a champagne risotto so as to make going the meat-free route easy. I consulted Cooking Light, which I’ve come to rely on as a resource for expert shortcuts to lighten up heavy favorites, where I found a basic recipe from which I gave myself the freedom to improvise. The recipe uses feta cheese to provide the risotto’s requisite creaminess, reserving the parm as a topping, where it will leave a lingering taste impact for minimal calories.

Weeknight-chic champagne risotto.

As I hovered over my stovetop leisurely laboring over this notorious attention-hog of a classic, I  was viscerally struck with a memory of my first attempt at risotto. Now the stuff of culinary legend amongst my beautiful and amazing roommates of the time, it’s pretty incredible to think back on that Sunday evening almost four years ago when to cook what I thought was the ultimate in classy family dinner  I donned a sparkly thriftstore dress and secondhand heels, dumped some stuff in a nonstick sautee pan over very barely there heat, and an hour later served raw rice to my nearest dearest.

Some things never change - I've always been prone to the kitchen dance party.

While I can’t say I do much Sunday afternoon “menu planning” while throwing back Baileys’ at the Gold Cane these days, I guess it’s not quite fair to say I’ve just discovered the value of turning the ordinary into the revelatory. Four years and a dozen or so risottos later, it just looks – and thankfully, tastes – more than a little different.

Where would we be without Facebook? Spring 2008.

Weeknight-Chic Champagne Risotto

*Adapted from Cooking Light’s Champagne-Feta Risotto; I also doubled the recipe so we would have leftovers. The champagne and the feta infuse this rich dish with a tanginess perfectly cut by interlaced  sweet peas and economically bulked up with some spinach.

Weight Watchers Points Plus: 9 for a serving size of 1 cup risotto, topped with grated parm cheese; This recipe will make 8 WWP+ servings (or, 2 – 3 Katie servings and 5 – 6 Moh servings)

  • 2 cans of fat free chicken broth (note: you could easily use veggie stock and make this vegetarian. I think canned veggie broth has a weird, tinny flavor that detracts from finished dishes but it’s so easy to make your own – just boil some carrots and onions with salt for a while and then strain it – I think it’s worth it.)
  • a shake or two of some dried herb of choice – I used oregano
  • however much champagne you have left – between 3/4 cup and 2 cups will probably work best*
  • a tablespoon of olive oil
  • 3 shallots
  • 2 cups of arborio rice
  • 1 6-oz. container of crumbled feta cheese
  • a handful or two of frozen peas
  • a cup or two of chopped spinach (I used fresh but frozen would work fine)

*Quality Control Note: While it doesn’t matter so much for the cooking, do yourself right when you’re toasting you. You don’t have to break out the Veuve, but please don’t defeat the purpose and settle for Andres – I find Mumm Napa, a few steps up from Cook’s, a solid compromise.

  1. Combine the chicken broth, the herb and some of the champagne (you’ll want to save 3/4 – 1 cup, so just use whatever else you have – you can also add some white wine if you have an open bottle), along with a cup or so of water, in a pot. Bring to a low, steady simmer (don’t boil).
  2. Heat the olive oil in a dutch oven (ideally, you want something ceramic or with a pretty thick bottom. tee hee.) over medium-high heat. When it’s hot, sautee the shallots for a couple of minutes. Add the rice and toast for a couple minutes, stirring so that each baby grain gets some heat loving.
  3. Pour the champagne over the rice. Enjoy the hiss. Stir until it has been completely soaked up. When it has, add a cup of the simmering broth. Repeat. Just keep on repeating and, as Marcella Hazan my Italian demigoddess advises, start tasting after about 15 minutes.
  4. When it’s just about done – which is when the rice is still a bit chewy and toothsome but resting within a fluffy cloud of soft deliciousness – rinse your frozen peas under warm water for a minute, shake them dry, and add them. Stir in and cook for another minute.
  5. Add the feta and stir well.
  6. Add the chopped spinach and stir well.
  7. Top each portion with grated parm cheese and serve alongside a simple green salad (I just did balsamic, olive oil and fresh lemon juice).

Don't worry, this is a baby first helping :)

Aside

Taking the Guilt out of Guilty Pleasures

6 Apr

There’s nothing like a rapidly approaching wedding date to make a gal think twice about what she’s stuffing in her mouth. Truth be told, I hadn’t felt good about how I looked - or felt – since long before we booked City Hall. The balance between indulgence and sturdy choices I had worked so hard to cultivate over years of precarious swings back and forth in either direction had slowly, slowly slipped through my grasp as a year of major milestones sped by faster and faster.

It was easy for me to say no to the bowl of Tootsie Roll Pops in the office kitchen when I could think – will this be worth an extra pound as I pose for pictures bound for posterity on my (future) living room wall? The hard part is now, when it’s back to the everyday – when work feels like work, when I’m procrastinating or waiting for the hubs to come home from his unenviable library marathons, when I’m depressed over Craigslist listings foreboding of my impending banishment to the boonies (aka, the Richmond. Especially then.).

While it’s clear I love me some decadence, I’ve come to realize that  a chin-dribbling, sauce-slicked burger tastes even better when it’s truly a treat – not a weekly routine over which I’ll feel routinely guilty. So, to help myself to that extra serving of accountability I so crave, I’ve started writing an Examiner.com column featuring localized tips on making better food and fitness choices – all, naturally, while thoroughly enjoying each and every precious Weight Watchers Point Plus.

I’ll be aiming to post weekly here: http://www.examiner.com/weight-loss-in-san-francisco/katie-clark

For your easy clicking pleasure, if you’d care to take a gander at what I’ve posted thus far:

So, what’s in it for you? Why of course, dear readers, this means that my beloved blog has become  the new home of all those delicious, drool-worthy, decidedly un-weight loss friendly secret delights – so stay tuned :)

"Doughnut & a Shot" compliments of Jasper's Corner Tap & Kitchen on my family's pre-wedding dinner - well worth the splurge.

Abuhamad’s Mujaddara (mmm,jeddarah!)

10 Mar

Time definitely flies when you’re having fun. It flies even faster when that involves getting engaged, promoted, married and 15 pounds lighter. While I haven’t been writing, I’ve been digging right in and helping myself to the incredible changes life has served me.

One of the most amazing things about the past few months has been the welcome with open arms from my new family.  Lucky for my me, my husband and my faithful handful of dear readers, my amazing father-in-law lives just blocks away and has also welcomed me with an open kitchen. Since our wedding, I’ve had the pleasure of  spending Sunday nights peering over his shoulder into a giant stockpot simmering with crackling olive oil, a generously fragrant fistful of minced garlic, fresh vegetables carried up from the farmers’ market and  stewed lamb falling softly from its lovingly butchered bones.

Baba in his kitchen.

The cooking I’ve grown up with and so from which have felt most comfortable to experiment tends to involve a lot of “a la minute” sauteeing (clearly, I’ve been watching Top Chef while I plug away on PR plans this week). Watching my mom from across our granite counter at home, this coordination of colorful sides is casually but carefully timed. In my own closet of a kitchen, it’s frantic, leaving a trail of overturned prep bowls in its too-tiny wake. But the Middle Eastern cooking my Abuhamed has shown me is elegant, leisurely, leaving us time to put up our feet while the rice steams away, he smokes a forbidden cigarette and I try to memorize, fascinated, the lips of the characters on Arabic TV.

Moh and Baba "resting" while rice cooks.

It’s clear where my husband’s love of food comes from. One of my first and most distinct memories of talking to Abuhamad (“father of Mohammad”) is the way he described the flavor of the olives from the trees where he grew up in Nablus in the West Bank, when you would wait all year for them to come into season. “There is no olive oil in the world that tastes like where I come from,” he said wistfully. I struggled not to tear up as I witnessed this gentle man recount such a visceral memory of a place he will never again see in his lifetime. Even if he were to return, it wouldn’t be to the place he describes as he skillfully slices onion after onion – one of simple people who never had much, but were content.

One of the traditional dishes they ate there was “Mujaddara.” Some quick Googling reveals variations across the Middle East largely because it meets that universal jackpot of being delicious, healthy, filling, cheap and easy. Comprised primarily of ingredients you always have in your pantry – lentils, rice and cumin topped with onions and served alongside a quick salad of tomatoes, cucumber and lemon – mujaddara is comfort food at its simplest, guilt-free best.

Diced veggie salad to accompany mujaddara.

Mujaddara

Weight Watchers Points Plus: 2 per 1/4 cup (so divide into 6 servings for 8 points+, or 8 servings for 6 points+)

My camera phone photo is insulting to this dish. There’s a beautiful photo that looks like this version on Avocado Bravado.

  • A cup of brown lentils
  • Double the  rice for lentils  (2 cups will be enough to serve at least 6 people, or 2 people with many, many leftovers)
  • A heaping spoonful of cumin
  • An onion
  • Oil (olive if watching that weight, corn or canola if not)
  • Optional, but better: A dollop of Greek yogurt to serve with (1 WWP+ for 1/4 cup lowfat)

For salad:

Weight Watchers Points Plus: 1 (for every tsp. of olive oil you use)

  • A tomato
  • A cucumber
  • Juice from a fresh lemon
  • Part of a jalapeño
  • Any other veggie you want to use up (like red cabbage)
  • Olive oil (natch)
  1. Soak rice.
  2. Wash lentils (no need to soak them). Pick out and get ride of the uglies.
  3. Put lentils in a big stockpot and cover them with water. Bring to a boil and cook for about 5 – 7 minutes after it does so; you want the lentils to be just barely cooked, but it’s important that they not get soft yet or they’ll be mushy later.
  4. Rinse rice and add to the pot.
  5. Add cumin.
  6. Adjust water level so it’s where you’d want it if you were cooking rice – just covering it by about a half inch. You might have to add a little water, you might have to scoop some out.
  7. Stir everything. Add a generous pinch (or a small spoonful) of salt.
  8. Just like you would with rice, bring to a boil over highish heat, then cover and bring to a low simmer until rice is cooked.
  9. Meanwhile, slice onion into thin strips.
  10. If serving traditionally/not calorie consciously, fry the onion in corn or canola oil over high heat and dry on paper towels. Or, for my Weight Watchers friendly variation, caramelize the onions. I like to start them in a teaspoon or two of olive oil over fairly high heat, then bring them down to low and cover, stirring occasionally. Let them go until the rice is done.
  11. Prepare the salad. Dice tomatoes, cucumber and whatever else you’re using. If you like heat, cut off the top of the jalapeño and get rid of the seeds and ribbons. Dice into tiny pieces. Add all or part, depending on how spicy it is (and you are).
  12. Squeeze juice of a lemon over the top, toss with a small amount of olive oil, and S&P.
  13. Serve mujaddara with the onions on top, alongside the salad and yogurt.

Fresh diced veggie salad to accompany mujaddara.

The Joys of Moving

10 Jul

Moving. The very word evokes groans, sympathy, shudders, headaches. The curse of being an urbanite in your twenties seems to be that you’ll pack the crap you somehow managed to amass in a seemingly tiny amount of time on a seemingly tiny budget into cardboard liquor boxes with the same frequency you blow out birthday candles.

Until now, I’ve avoided the dreaded repack by avoiding the unpack.This time around, bolstered by immersion in Apartment Therapy and Philz Coffee, I’ve decided to turn my shoebox studio into a home.

Yes, I meant that literally... thank you, artist formerly known as Murphy bed.

For me, the heart of any home is its kitchen (though clearly, I started with the sole of this one).

I get herbs with a little help from my friends... Thank you, Su Su :)

So, I’ve spent the last month’s worth of weekends trekking down the hill from my new Nob Hill pad (happily Muni pass-free), tossing the ingredients of a well-stocked life into a series of SF-approved reusable bags as I go. And because whether you’re just moving in or already thinking of moving out there’s nothing like a little something new to spice up the domestic routine, here are the five essential Sunday shopping stops to make you feel truly settled into your humble abode.

  1. Heart of the City Farmers Market: I love this place as much for the unassuming way it takes the snobbery out of Northern California produce as for the cheap heaps of berries, squashes and greens themselves. Nestled between the glistening grime of the Tenderloin and the graffitied glory of mid-Market Street, I can only imagine the characters HOTC has fed over its 30+ years, more colorful even than the $1 afternoon bunches of cheerful carnations. Visit with a travel mug of home-brewed Philz and breathe in the smells of artisan olive oils mingled with the stench of dirty it’s-clear-what rising off a heated Market Street sidewalk, and you know you’ve truly arrived in San Francisco.

    Philz & Plowerz

  2. Kamei Restaurant Supply: I’ve quickly grown to love the minimalism required by studio life. Economy of space not exactly being an American virtue, traditional sources like Target have turned out to be severely lacking when it comes to getting more out of less stuff. It’s the Chinese to the rescue, with wares from an ingenious double-decker drying rack to beautiful bamboo cutting boards on hooks to immaculate bone china in asymmetrical cuts and hand-painted patterns.

    A dishrack as silly as it is sensible. Clearly, after my own heart.


  3. The Container Store: OK I’m caught, despite my righteous Target-bashing I am a huge fan of certain purely American indulgences, this evidently Texas-based, mid-box establishment being one of them. Where else can you create a make-your-own-spice-rack or find a sliding plastic mug-hanger? Never fear, when the fabulosuly bespectacled employees start to recognize you on your third trip in as many weeks, they judge not but instead see a kindred spirit drawn to this homeware oasis tucked illogically smack in the middle of Powell Street tourist madness.

    Who doesn't love a mug on a mug?

  4. The bargain bins: My life-long love affair with cheap shopping is genetic. More than one family member cried when Caldor went out of business. Yes, I wish I was kidding too. While I’ve long been acquainted with TJ Maxx and Marshalls, Ross, with a kitchen department that puts Sur La Table to bloated-price-tag shame, is a new West Coast fling. These are the spots to scour for all things Cuisinart and Kitchenaid. Who says you can’t be a price-conscious brand snob?

    You can take the girl out of Connecticut, but you can't take the rag rug out of the girl.

  5. Sunfat Seafood Co.: When Moh saw what I was willing to fork over at my new local hardware store for things like S-hooks (to hang my shoes, obviously), he decided it was time to introduce me to the Mission Street dollar store row. Giant plastic bags full of 40 necessities for $40 later, we were ready to cash in on the rewards of our sensical spree… and found ourselves conveniently (ok I planned it) across the street from Sunfat Seafood. Browsing bins of 30 different kinds of oysters with names as varied as their rainbow shells of briny sea blues, greens and purples, there is no better way to remember that all this shopping is just a means to an end – breaking in your new kitchen with your first home-cooked meal.

If you’re as lucky as I am, it’s an end filled with seafood and Sofia rose.

So delicious we barely noticed we had to eat standing up because I didn't have stools yet. Very European, no?

Tuesday Blues Strawberry Crumble

13 Apr

On the trip up to Wine Country we took for Moh’s birthday last weekend, he spotted a girl selling big boxes of bright strawberries on the side of a winding, sun-dappled road. Naturally, we whipped that rented Jeep Wrangler right over so he could yell out the side, “Are those organic??” Being Sonoma County, they were, and we were merrily back on track to Benziger Family Winery with a case of perfectly ripe fruit in plastic-topped tow.

Wine Country: open road and organics galore.

Of course by the time my Tuesday night return to reality hit (the weekend was so idyllic it took an extra day, making the sugar crash that much harder), the half of the strawberries we hadn’t devoured were beginning to look like I felt. Tired. Like they’d seen better days. But, with my new CSA-inspired waste not, want not ethos I just couldn’t bear to let them go.

Strawbs, before the fall.

Let me backtrack a bit. Though I’ve loved food since I was a wee(er) lass – seriously, ask my dad about fighting his four-year-old over the last of the pesto - my first post-college apartment boasted a charming kitchen that was essentially half of my poor roommate’s bedroom. Clearly, my first foray into “adulthood” was not so conducive to culinary exploration. As I moved on up in the world (dubious) and settled into my new apartment, which was conveniently outfitted with walls and doors and located two blustery blocks from Trader Joe’s, I came across a Mark Bittman nugget of a post: “Worry Less, Cook More.” And I embraced it.

More than a year and hundreds of dinners later, I find a nerdy joy in coming home after work to cobble together a simple meal for whomever’s around from whatever’s in the fridge. But I’ve never quite gotten there with baking. Cooking seems more forgiving, more free-form, while baking has always seemed to me like some kind of sugar-coated chemistry painstakingly performed in an apron instead of a lab coat. Tastier results, same intimidating procedure. Nevertheless, I decided to squash my domestic fears of scientific shortcomings alongside a Meyer lemon to make something with those strawberries, damnit,  using what I had on hand.

The results? Not the prettiest creation in the history of baking, and it did lack some of the depth and backbone that a mixed-berry melding would provide, but my Strawberry Crumble was sweet and comforting and I did it all by self. No recipes, no nagging fear of culinary perfection, it was a healthy dose of perspective, encouragement and sugar all in one. I suppose that’s just the way the crumble crumbles.

Who you callin' shortcake?

TUESDAY BLUES STRAWBERRY CRUMBLE

For filling:

  • Strawberries past their prime (I had three little green plastic cartons left)
  • A shot of whiskey (you could have one too, though I showed remarkable weeknight restraint)
  • Juice from a fresh lemon
  • Just a spoonful of sugar
  • Your favorite warm seasonings – I went with pumpkin pie spice and a cinnamon stick
  • A sprinkling of fresh ground pepper

For topping:

The real beauty of the crumble is that you can really use anything – cookies you have, nuts, oats, whatever. Here’s what I grabbed:

  • A stick of butter (cause why not)
  • A handful or two of rolled oats
  • A handful of cashews, or whatever nut you have, pulsed in a food processor or smashed by hand (if you’re more angry than melancholy)
  • A handful or two of flour
  • A handful of brown sugar
  1. Preheat oven to 350.
  2. Slice 2/3 of the strawberries in half, removing any questionable bits, and line the bottom of a smallish baking dish with them. Toss with half the lemon juice.
  3. Puree the remaining strawberries in a blender.

    Strawbs with their heads cut off.

  4. Pour them into a small saucepan with the whiskey, the remaining lemon juice, sugar, seasonings/pepper. Heat on low while you whip up the topping, stirring once in a while so it doesn’t stick, until the boozy smell has evaporated. Keep it classy.
  5. Cut the butter into small squares. Mix your topping ingredients in a large bowl with your hands. It’s fun and then you have an excuse to eat it off your fingers when you’re done. Note: Mine was a little too wet to crisp properly, which I suspected would happen because it started wet – but I kind of like the doughy cookiness of it. I’d use probably more oats and flour to the other ingredients next time around. Go nuts.
  6. Take the filling puree off the heat and mix up with the strawberries. Spread topping mix as evenly as you can over the top.
  7. Bake until juicy edges are bubbling up deliciously and the topping is goldeny goodness, at least 30 minutes, probably more.
  8. Serve with Häagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream. Or ya know, another kind, if you’re into settling :)

Wake up, Wake up, Wake up! Breakfast of Jordanian Champions

3 Apr Fresh tomato, cucumber and jalapeño salad and Greek yogurt.

Breakfast has always been my toughest meal. Cereal is king for the classic American kid, but all that carb and no protein always left me  cranky and slightly woozy by 10 a.m. Granted, this was before I discovered the eighth wonder of the world (coffee, as anyone who has ever come into contact with me before noon can attest), but even still the sugar-laden on-the-go pastries that fill the adult void left by Cap’n Crunch have never done it for me. That leaves basically one option: eggs and taters. While anyone who knows me is also aware that if asked to choose between picking up my next paycheck and plowing into a pile of potatoes I would genuinely struggle before reaching for the salt, variety is the spice of life.

Fresh tomato, cucumber and jalapeño salad and Greek yogurt.

So, when my wonderful boyfriend delivered a traditional Jordanian breakfast that turned out to be the answer to a lifetime of pre-noon struggles to my doorstep one morning, I knew I was hooked. (On the breakfast. The boy I’d long since fallen for.)

Come on and don't CHOP ME UP. That WAS a Justin Timberlake reference, I'm so glad you asked.

Fatteh is a blend of homemade hummus and Greek yogurt served over chunks of soft bread topped with jalapeño, garlic, sauteed almond slivers or pinenuts, olive oil, lemon juice, fresh parsley and chickpeas. It is also quite possibly the ninth wonder of the world. Spicy, fresh, and full of distinct flavors that bring out one another’s piquancy, it’s filling enough to stick with you for hours but never weighs you down. It’s one of the most decadent meals I’ve ever had that’s simple and healthy enough to make regularly at home, and it’s completely vegetarian.

Moh never cooks from a recipe, but I’ve watched him make it twice now and interrupted him several times this afternoon for reminders. Just for you, friends, I’m proud to divulge his divine breakfast secret. (Or as he’ll tell you, his mom’s divine breakfast secret.)

Hummus

First, start with fresh hummus. This you can do days ahead, but wait to add the lemon until you’re ready to serve.

  • Dried chickpeas (1 big bag)
  • Tahini (he uses about a third of a jar to make one batch)
  • Cumin
  • Fresh lemon juice
  1. Soak chickpeas in water overnight.
  2. Boil chickpeas in water with a couple spoonfuls of cumin and a little salt.
  3. Drain and puree chickpeas in batches in a food processer or blender.
  4. Mix with tahini.
  5. Season with more salt and cumin to taste. If you’re serving that day, add lemon juice. If not, wait and add when you do.

If, like Moh, you have far more patience and finesse than I do, make it look lovely and top with olive oil and fresh parsley.

Fatteh

  • The hummus you just made
  • Greek yogurt
  • A few soft sandwich rolls or buns, like potato bread
  • 1/2 can chickpeas (or you can use a scoop from the dried bag you used for hummus; just separate some after you’ve soaked them overnight).
  • More olive oil than seems possibly reasonable, but is
  • Juice from a few fresh lemons
  • 2 or 3 jalapeños
  • A clove of garlic
  • Pine nuts and/or slivered almonds
  • Optional: tomatoes, only if they’re really good – could be baby or big ones
  1. Bring chickpeas to a boil in water with some cumin and salt. When they’re soft, drain and reserve the cooking water.
  2. Meanwhile, make a spicy olive oil dressing. Dice jalapeños, garlic, and parsley into very small pieces and toss with olive oil, lemon juice and crushed red pepper.
  3. Heat some olive oil in a small pan and when it’s hot, fry the pine nuts and/or almonds, shaking often so they don’t burn. Remove from heat when they smell delicious and just before they’re perfectly toastily browned because they’ll keep cooking in the oil for a few minutes on their own.
  4. Tear the bread (or slice, I suppose, but ripping things is a good job when you’re a mostly helpless sous chef whose primary role is to harass the chef by obsessively snapping camera-phone shots of his every movement – is anything more annoying than a food blogger?) into bite-sized chunks and spread along the bottom of a big dish, like a glass baking dish. Pour a bit of the chickpea cooking water with cumin over the top and mix it up – not enough to be soupy, just slightly spongy.
  5. Mix the hummus with yogurt, about 7 parts hummus to 4 parts yogurt. Pour 2/3 of it over the bread, add the spicy olive oil dressing, and mix quickly and well.
  6. Pour the remaining hummus/yogurt blend over the top. Finish with more olive oil, the fried nuts, the whole chickpeas, fresh parsley, chunks of tomato if you have good ones, and salt, cumin and lemon juice to taste.

The spoils. That's the fatteh at the front.

Moh serves with toasted pita to scoop it up (if you want to go truly traditional, no forks allowed) and his favorite tea – Lipton’s steeped with heaps of sugar and fresh mint – in glasses. Sweet and delicious.

I’ve been planning to write this up for months but kept putting it off because I wanted to do it justice. An article in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine (“Does the Mediterranean Diet Even Exist?“), which I found an entitled, pot-boiling (har, har) brush-off of every culture (including ours) it examines through a superficial lens disguised as culinary, gave me the push I needed. So, Style Section, thank you for the excuse to answer your question – it sure does exist, and I’m just sorry (though not surprised) you never bothered to make any “local” friends who doubtless would have invited you into their homes to taste it. A “Mediterranean diet” is alive and well in the kitchens of those who prepare the food they’ve grown up eating with patience, love and, yes, an entire bottle of olive oil.

Food is Love

17 Mar

A former boss and dear friend used to say Food is Love. She would leave the office long after the rest of us (who were no strangers to the midnight oil)  had  cleared out and return the next day with a homemade birthday cake that so embodied the person she was baking for I’d tell her she should stop doing PR for the food and just make it for a living. But even though the gorgeous-as-it-was-delicious chocolate peanut butter cup cake (not to be confused with a cupcake) she made me for my first birthday on the West Coast warmed my long-distance heart, I’d missed the point.

Food is love not because you make a hobby of searching for the city’s best pumpkin curry or because your job perks include free Madagascar vanilla bean pods and an excuse to learn everything there is to know about Wine Spectator’s scoring system. Food is love because sometimes, when the world has slipped beyond your control and you can’t bear to see the people you would give anything for in pain, you take all that pent up hurt and everything you wish you could give them and pour your whole heart and whole-nutrient vegetables into a Dutch oven. It might be because  you don’t know what else to do, and the currency of circumstance might be dollars, but I truly believe that when what you put in your body comes from your heart you can feel it in your soul.

Some terrible things have happened to wonderful people in my life since I last wrote. Some even more horrible things have happened to people I don’t know by name – regime after regime in the Middle East gunning down its own people, the earth’s foundation erupting, wiping out lives and all their structures to be followed by a man-made horror whose consequences we may not even grasp within our lifetime. To try to make sense of any one of these things is staggering. But each shard of inevitability reminds me we have nothing but who we are and what we do today.

Reading an article in this week’s New York Times about the outpouring of monetary support for Japan’s relief efforts when they’re financially OK made me think about something a soup kitchen director told me when I first looked into volunteer opportunities around Thanksgiving. It’s the one day they’re overstaffed. If you really want to make a difference, come in on any one of the other 364. But even more importantly, I believe any difference we can make starts here, now, with the people we love.

There aren’t words in any language to express how grateful I am to live a life so rich in nourishment, not just for my body but for my soul. I’ve always been thankful for the incredible cultural opportunities I’ve had. But maybe for the first time, I’ve been thinking about what it means to truly count your blessings – and while I love my Le Creuset it’s not among them. Thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone who has touched my life with your courage, your perseverance and your perspective. I hope you can feel the love I’m sending out and I hope you know my heart carries you with me, always.

And a special spoonful of love for those in the neighborhood - I just split an Eatwell Farms CSA trial with the Lovely Miss MT and am planning to spend my spring helping you taste just a little piece of it.

Battle of the Butternut

31 Jan

Nothing quite matches the affection we home cooks feel for a food once we’ve conquered it. Conquering is very different than mastering, which I would imagine comes with its own satisfaction but isn’t something I’ll feign to know much about at this point in my culinary career (because I don’t think adding pumpkin spice to the Mr. Coffee counts, though it does make for a damn tasty travel mug on your morning commute).  Conquering a food involves taking whatever steps necessary, be they imaginative, embarrassing or downright ugly,  to transform a once-mystifying ingredient into something not only delicious, but decidedly different than your typical mealtime routine.

I feel this surge of fondness everytime I see butternut squash, its chalky yellow coat tucking in the rich orange flesh with its sweet, cara-mellow flavor. My first battle with the butternut occurred on a Tuesday night at Project Open Hand, an amazing SF-based organization that makes, serves and delivers meals to seniors and the chronically ill.  Founded in the early 80′s out of one woman’s kitchen to serve AIDS patients receiving no support (or even recognition of their disease) from the government or their families, and whose chosen families more often than not tragically found themselves in the same position, the group operates largely on the strength of its kitchen volunteer base. While I learned a ton about the community in which I live and my neighbors of all ages and walks of life during the year in which I spent every Tuesday night slicing, dicing and packing whatever slid my way across the Polk Street kitchen’s steel industrial counters, one of the most tangible lessons I is how to wrestle a squash into submission. Believe me, once you’ve determinedly hacked your way through 75 of these bulbous little buggers, you know it’s really love.

I still don’t understand how those with Jedi knife skills manage to slice them neatly lengthwise. The best I can do is  cut off the top and bottom nubs, slice across the base of its neck, and whack into whatever pieces I can from there. I find peelers do little on the tough skin except increase the chances of peeling your own, so I just slice off chunks of the skin piece by piece. This leaves you with beautiful building blocks of rich gold shaped more like what you typically find in a first-grade classroom than you do in a kitchen.

Scoop out the seeds and you now you have the pieces to make hundreds of varying dishes using this agreeable $1 starch as a centerpiece. Most of mine seem to start by cutting it into small chunks, tossing with olive oil, thyme, salt and pepper and roasting on baking sheets in a 400 degree oven until soft and just sweet, usually anywhere from 15 – 35 minutes depending  on size of your cubes.

It's kind of like seasonal baby food for adults on a budget.

You can make any number of simple soups without much planning, or with just a little, one my favorite recipes, Risotto with Butternut Squash, Jack Cheese & Pancetta from Cooking Light (check it out as much for the Dutch oven baked risotto trick, immeasurably simple than the notoriously laborious traditional stove-top method, as for the fact that the gooey cheese, crispy pancetta and creamy squash combo is beyond delicious).

But you know what? I have mastered something, damnit. The delicious weekday pasta, complete in the time it takes the water to boil and the easiest way to use whatever’s on its way out in your fridge,  that’s always ten times more satisfying (and no doubt healthier) than anything a Ragu can will produce. Here’s one recent Meatless Monday edition.

And please, because I love an indulgence – what foods have you conquered? Mastered? Dreamed about? Let us culinarily crowd-source our wisdom…

WHY LEAVE THE HOUSE BUTTERNUT SQUASH & MUSHROOM LINGUINI

Ingredients

  • Whole wheat linguini
  • Butternut squash, obv. For enough pasta for 2 plus lunch leftovers, I used about half of 1 squash, saving the rest of the roasted cubes to add to salads for lunch for the week.
  • A shallot (a little more delicate than onions)
  • A clove or two of garlic
  • Couple handfuls of mushrooms (because they were about to go bad in the fridge, but they always add heft  to a meatless meal, plus their robust earthiness is a nice complement to the smooth squash)
  • Thyme & nutmeg
  • Splash of white wine (since pretty much everyone I have over is a red drinker, I love not having to feel guilty about opening a bottle of white if you’re craving just a glass or two – save the rest in the fridge for months for cooking)
  • Yogurt (or milk, or buttermilk, again, whatever dairy you have to use up will work)
  • Fresh grated parm or good topping cheese
  1. Boil salted water. Add pasta when that’s happened.
  2. Quash that squash. Prep squash as above – cube, toss with olive soil, thyme, s/p and bake on a parchment or tin-foil lined tray at 400 until just soft, 15 – 25 minutes.
  3. Sautee away. Heat olive oil, add shallots, stir a bit for a couple minutes. Add garlic, let just brown. Add mushrooms, sprinkle on nutmeg, and let them sweat out their water. Toss in a splash of wine and reduce.
  4. Make liquid gold. Just before pasta is done, add a scoop of pasta water, plus a scoop or two of yogurt to the mushroom sautee pan on low heat, stirring until seamlessly combined. Add squash at last minute (I added earlier and it became a bit mushy)
  5. Mix it. Drain the pasta when it’s done, reserving a splash of the cooking water. Add pasta back to pot with the splash of cooking water, stirring over low heat until combined.
  6. Season. Top with salt ( if necessary),  plenty of fresh ground black pepper (always necessary) and grated cheese, if you have it.
  7. Check SurfTheChannel.com to see if there’s a new Gossip Girl. What else are Mondays good for?

Four Fab FiDi Lunches for those not in Finance

28 Jan

When you work in the Financial District but your lunch budget is more Mickey D. than Michael Mina, there will come  a point where you swear you’d rather become anorexic than consume  another Subway sandwich. This is of course an empty threat because food is your main joy in life (at least on weekdays) but seriously, how those damn subs manage to taste exactly the same no matter what the hell you put on them has haunted me for years.

For my fellow flavor-concious but fiscally strapped worker bees, I am thrilled to present  five personally approved, well under $10 lunch options, carefully culled over my many years roaming these mean lunchtime streets.

Happy Donut makes my Post-it problem less sad, no?

  1. HAPPY DONUT (Battery @ Bush). Obviously the first thrill is picking up your brown bag lunch at a place called “Happy Donut.” The second thrill is the House Special Chicken Noodle Soup. For $6, you get 6x the soup you would at Soup Co.  Carry yourself to deskside heaven on the wings of a tiny takeaway Sriracha container (you have to ask for it,  plus then you get to feel cool because you were loving this spicy red elixir long before it became the next big food thing, right?). These Vietnamese soups also make perfect comfort food if you’ve caught whatever horrible bug/flu/cold of death thing is cruelly circulating. Thanks for the tip on this one, @Danibird!
  2. YO YO’S (Pacific between Sansome and Battery).  This is a yummy husband-and-wife microwave-and-hot-pot kind of operation. It’s practically a challenge to spend more than $5. They prepare the soup to order, so you can pick which kind of noodles (Udon), if you want spicy sauce (you do), tempura (natch), seaweed etc. Tack on a set of decent sushi rolls, $2.50 for 6 pieces.
  3. LEE’S DELI (lotsa locales, but the biggest/best is “Far East Lee’s” on Battery between Pine and Bush, dubbed by the genius Mr. Cumpston). I am kind of obsessed with this place. An Asian deli? I was dubious. For my East Coast sensibilities, a true deli sandwich means a meatball parm grinder from Fortuna’s, with acceptable alternatives limited to Jewish and Greek. Lee’s turkey sammy is a steal at $4.50 and the turkey is roasted. You know, like Thanksgiving, but with mayonnaise. Also, they have a great hangover buffet. Anywhere I can fix my own special sodium-craving combo of cafeteria-style tater tots doused in Sriracha topped with a couple stray strips of bacon for under $3 has my bleary-eyed approval.
  4. CHEZ CARLA (Pine between Battery and Sansome). The sandwiches made fresh at the counter in the back are well above par, but we’re not here to talk about $10 lunches. No, no, my friends, here’s the goods: come past 2 p.m. and everything in the salad and hot bar is half off. They even have daily themes, like elementary school, but fancy. How endearing is that? Best in show is Monday’s Chicken Linguini with Hazelnut Pesto. Spoon it over some greens and call it healthy. Shhh.

I was going to make this list five and include my favorite baked potato stop (Napa Ranch), but I found out it just closed (DAMN!) and I don’t feel right making a subpar swap. Luckily for my English major and the obnoxiously alliterative title of this post, four also starts with F.

The silver lining in this 9-5 tragedy is that it leaves a cheap eats opening – any reccs? Please share. It’s all the currency we have in this un-Financial world, after all.

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