A New Standby

I’ll admit one thing to you today, and that’s this: I like to plan.  You probably know this by now, if you’ve paid attention. You probably know that we’re pretty on the ball when it comes to vacations, like last year when we drove down the Pacific Coast Highway. We had most of the hotels booked, a few points of interest mapped out, and just enough free time reserved for last-minute stuff, too. That’s the crux of it: planning is great, but in doing so, you need flexibility, too, or else you just screw yourself. You don’t want to screw yourself.

[I just read through the PCH post. What a crazy coincidence that we now live near all of that. That vacation totally rocked, and now everyday life does too (not that it didn’t before…). Also! the area around my poison oak did flare up again a couple of weeks ago, as some strange reaction to sunburn. That’s gone now, but man, was it weird.]

We’re heading on a couple more trips this fall, though they aren’t quite as lavish as last year’s. First, we’re invading my in-laws’ road trip and spending some time with them in Sedona for a long weekend, at which point I’m sure we’ll do some hiking, sight-seeing, and if things go our way, some wine-tasting (um. obviously.). Then, we’ll head back to Chicago for my favorite ex-co-worker’s wedding (and many hopeful reunions!), and start a road trip from the Midwest to the Deep South, ending up in New Orleans for the weekend. If you have any recommendations for St. Louis, Memphis, or New Orleans, send them my way. There will be barbeque, I’m sure. Maybe some honky-tonks, too.

As you might imagine, I’m also a kitchen planner. I’d love to be the person who grocery shops for individual dishes, but I’m just not. I’d spend too much money that way, and I’d have way too little time to actually cook if I stopped at the g-store on the way home every night. That said, I plan 3-4 meals each week, buy the ingredients, and stock up on a few standby items, for the days that an hour in the kitchen seems like too long, either because I exercised for a change, or because I got stuck in traffic, or when Chris decides he wants to work late (he does love working late!) and roll in at 8:30.

This is one of my standbys. Well, now it is, seeing as how I’ve made it exactly twice in a month. This is also perfect for those of you sweating your faces off in other parts of the country that aren’t northern California – you turn on absolutely no heat source to get this dinner on the table. You need only a few staples – something to fill, like lavash bread, or a pita, or even tortillas, and you need something canned, preferably chickpeas, but other beans would work too. And finally, greens; I’d suggest something other than arugula, which is what I had, but you be the judge. The rest of the ingredients can come and go as you have them, a true testament to the standing-by nature of this dish.

It’s a pinch hitter, really. Meant entirely for the days you haven’t planned – the days you want to just wing it. And by wing it, I mean hit the ball outta the park without even trying. Standbys are good like that.

Chickpea Wraps
Adapted from Super, Natural, Every Day; serves 4

time commitment: 20 minutes

printable version

ingredients
2 15 oz cans chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1/3 c shallots, small dice
1/2 c celery, small dice
2 T fresh dill, chopped
1 t Za’atar (optional, I still have some)
2 T Dijon mustard
1 c Greek yogurt
1/2 t sea salt
1/2 a lemon’s worth of zest
1 T fresh lemon juice
4 pieces of whole wheat lavash or 4 whole wheat pitas
2 c mixed greens (whatever you have)

instructions
pour half of chickpeas into a large bowl and mash with a potato masher (or fork) to break up a bit. add remaining chickpeas, shallots, celery, and dill.

in a small bowl, whisk together the za’atar (if using), mustard, yogurt, and salt. toss chickpeas with most of the mixture. add lemon zest and juice; taste and add more lemon juice if needed.

spread remaining yogurt onto/into the lavash/pita/whatever you’re using. add 1/4 of the mixed greens to each piece of lavash/pita/whatever, and top each with 1/4 of the chickpea mixture. fold into a wrap and devour. if using pita bread, just devour.

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Otto-who? Otto-what?

Over a year ago, I had this crazy idea of going vegetarian. Okay, I’m not telling the truth here. I had the idea of going pescatarian, and only for a month – it was not to be a permanent change. It seemed doable, and this is coming from someone who tends to really like meat. I fought my way through it, even tossing away a lovely piece of pork that I mistakenly ordered, thinking it was a dish full of wheat berries and ramps (don’t ask how I screwed up there….). I didn’t order beef pho the first time I went to a place that served it, and at a tapas restaurant, I chewed on cheese and peppers, drank lots of wine, and tossed back mussels like it was my job.

All in all, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be. Would I ever give up meat completely? I seriously doubt it. For one, I couldn’t imagine a visit to the South without barbeque (not the fake stuff). And two, I love the smell of cheeseburgers on the grill. Also, bacon is pretty awesome.

But sometimes, I do manage to go a few days without eating meat, and I can honestly say that I usually don’t even notice it. I’d even go further to say that, sometimes, eating vegetarian is a lot healthier, as long as you watch the cheese and carbs.

It seems that every time I talk about vegetarian food, I feel the need to insure you people that I do not intend to eat this way full-time. I’m not sure why? Maybe because I know many of you enjoy the meaty posts, and I assure you they are here to stay.

But the other day, I discovered lentils. Don’t ask me why I’ve never cooked them before; I have no intelligent answer. A friend of mine let me borrow a cookbook of hers that is all-vegetarian, and while I didn’t expect this to be the case, I have a lot of the pages marked and as a result, wonder if I should just buy the dang thing myself.

Yottam Ottolenghi’s Plenty is that book. And of course, I’ve cooked a slew of things (no, I haven’t written about them all) from Heidi Swanson’s new book too, which also happens to be vegetarian. What I’ve realized is this: as long as flavor is brought to the dish, I don’t miss the meat. But the second you make something bland and boring, I may as well be eating tofu from the container. Or tempeh, which is still gross to me.

Ottolenghi seems to know what’s up on that front. His secret? He’s not vegetarian. Of course, some people seem to have a problem with that, but for me, it’s a match made in heaven. He knows that meat tastes good, and he knows that many vegetarian dishes lack flavor. The result? He makes his recipes scream with flavor, belting out ingredients like mustard seeds and curry powder, fenugreek and pomegranate molasses – and it works.

Also! he made me fall madly in love with lentils, an ingredient I’ve never really taken an interest in before. So yeah, maybe I just realized that I’m probably never giving this cookbook back to my friend (shhhhh!), and maybe as long as I locate vegetarian recipes that are actually locked and loaded with flavor I’ll be able to eat somewhat like a ‘flexitarian’, or whatever it’s called. But at the end of the day, I’m sticking to my beliefs – and that’s that meat is meant for me to eat, and I was meant to eat meat.

Spiced Red Lentils with Cucumber Yogurt
adapted from Plenty; serves 4 as a light dinner 

time commitment: 1 hour, about half of which is active

printable version

notice the piece of naan tucked alongside this dish. I didn’t make it this time, but you can. Or you can just buy some :). also, one of these spices is possibly tricky to find: fenugreek. It’s nice, if you have it, but don’t sweat it if you don’t.

ingredients
1 c split red lentils
1 1/2 c water
half a regular bunch of cilantro
1 small onion, peeled and quartered
1 1-2″ piece of fresh ginger, peeled
3 garlic cloves, peeled
1 green chile
1 1/2 t black mustard seeds
4 T sunflower oil
1 1/2 t g coriander
1 t g cumin
1/2 t g turmeric
1/4 t sweet paprika
3 Roma tomatoes, diced
2 t sugar
1/4 t fenugreek (if you can find it)
1 small container of Greek yogurt
1/2 of a cucumber, finely diced
1 1/2 T olive oil
3 T butter
1 1/2 T fresh lime juice
salt and pepper

instructions
wash the lentils under cold water and pour into a bowl with the water. let soak for 30 minutes. get the rest of your ingredients ready and chopped.

meanwhile, cut the cilantro bunch halfway between the top and bottom. give the leaf top a rough chop and set aside. add the bottom stalky part to a food processor along with the onion, ginger, garlic and chili. pulse a few times until ingredients are broken up, but not pasty.

grab a heavy pot (Dutch oven time!) and turn on medium heat. add the mustard seeds and when they start to pop, add the chopped mixture and the sunflower oil. cook on low heat for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. add the coriander through the paprika, and continue cooking/stirring for five minutes. the mixture may appear very dark, which is just fine.

add the lentils and their soaking water, tomatoes, sugar, and fenugreek, as well as a little salt. cover and simmer for 30 minutes, or until lentils are cooked. you’ll probably want to check on them occasionally, as mine were about 5 minutes overdone since I abandoned the kitchen for too long…

meanwhile, make the  yogurt by whisking the yogurt, cucumber, and olive oil together. add salt and pepper to taste.

once the lentils are cooked, stir in the butter, lime juice, and most of the cilantro leaves. season with salt/pepper if needed. divide into 4 dishes, topping each with a large dollop of yogurt and cilantro leaves to garnish.

On the Lamb

I’m sure you’re all just as ready as I am for me to be settled in San Francisco, right? It seems to be a hot topic in my life these days, and the move essentially dominates every conversation I have lately. I guess I can understand that; in fact, in some ways I feel like all I’ve done is think about and prepare for the big move.

And now, step 2 of that big move is here: we close on our house and move the F out of it.

I mean that in the kindest way ever, really I do. This condo means a lot to us and I’m sure when tomorrow comes and all its’ contents are packed into boxes, I’m going to burst into tears, which is sorta common lately. Again, in a good way. I like to think that crying means we’ve really, and I mean really, lived here. Made friends here, made a life here, really lived here. But selling a home is hard and stressful, I tell ya, and I will be glad when Step 2 has come and gone.

Which brings me to this next minor detail. I will be a little homeless this month. And I do mean a little, because I have some really great friends who have offered to let me shack up with them, so while I won’t be in my home, I’ll be in theirs. I’ll also be heading to another one of those conferences that I love so much, and even making an unplanned trip to California in an effort to start this job-hunting quest that is entirely inevitable.

As if I need to say so, I’ll be busy, and I might, might, be MIA around here. You’ll understand, won’t you?

For now though, there is this simply divine lamb burger we have to talk about before I head back out into condo-packing-and-cleaning land. I made this a long time ago, well a couple of months ago, and it is certainly one of my very favorite home-cooked burgers. Do you ever look at a recipe and say to yourself, “man, there is no way whatsoever that this dish can be anything less than super”? That’s what I said with this recipe, and it’s true. A really pungent French-Indian spice/onion mixture, called vadouvan, is made and mixed into the lamb, creating an über flavorful burger that just gets better when topped with a yogurt-mint sauce. I couldn’t stop thinking about this burger while eating another burger leftover for lunch today, and took that as a hint to take a break to tell you about it.

But, alas, that break’s over, and there is trash to take out and clothes to pack. Aren’t you jealous?!

Oh! I should also say this, in an effort to appease you: I’ve updated the recipes (during another, er, break) so if you start to miss me, should I happen to disappear for a bit, there’s always a ton of recipes to fall back on..

Indian-Spiced Lamb Burgers with Yogurt-Mint Sauce
adapted from Cooking Light, July 2010; makes 4 burgers

time commitment: 1 hour or less, all active

printable version

ingredients
1  T  olive oil
3/4  c  finely chopped onion
1/4  c  finely chopped shallots
2  T  minced garlic, divided
3/4  t  ground cumin
3/4  t  ground coriander
1/4  t  ground cardamom
1/4  t  ground mustard
1/4  t  ground turmeric
1/8  t  ground red pepper
Dash of grated whole nutmeg
1  lb  ground lamb
2  T  finely chopped fresh mint, divided
3/4  t  kosher salt, divided
1  red bell pepper
1/2  c  2% low-fat Greek-style plain yogurt
1  T  fresh lemon juice
1/4  t  freshly ground black pepper, divided
Cooking spray
4  (1 1/2-ounce) hamburger buns
1 c thinly shredded red cabbage

instructions
Heat oil in a medium nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add onion and shallots; cook 15 minutes or until onions are golden, stirring frequently. Stir in 1 1/2 tablespoons garlic, cumin, and next 6 ingredients (through nutmeg); cook 1 minute. Remove from heat; cool to room temperature.

Meanwhile, turn burner on high and place bell pepper directly onto flame. Turn with tongs until pepper is charred all over. Place in a zip-top plastic bag; seal. Let stand 10 minutes. Peel, remove core and seeds, and cut into 4 pieces.

Combine lamb, onion mixture, 1 T mint, and 1/4 t salt. Divide mixture into 4 equal portions, gently shaping each into a 1/2-inch-thick patty. Press a nickel-sized indentation in the center of each patty. Cover and chill until ready to grill.

Preheat grill to medium-high heat. Meanwhile, combine remaining 1 1/2 t garlic, remaining 1 T mint, yogurt, juice, 1/4 t salt, and 1/8 t black pepper in a medium bowl. Set aside.

Sprinkle patties evenly with remaining salt/pepper. Place patties on a grill rack coated with cooking spray; grill 4 minutes or until grill marks appear. Carefully turn patties; grill 3 minutes or until desired degree of doneness. Place 1 patty on bottom half of each bun; top each serving with 2 tablespoons yogurt mixture, 1/4 of cabbage, 1 piece of bell pepper, and top half of bun.