Awesomely Overwhelming

Moving to a new city is so surreal. For starters, it’s an incredibly ginormous amount of work. You have to register your car (or just buy a new one and get your stuff in the mail!), change your address (which took 2 months to successfully complete, thanks to the Chicago post office), find all the nearby necessities, watch your husband near ’bout reach full panic mode when setting up the surround sound (that we need! we need!), sell and purchase furniture, deal with ‘craigslist crazies’, find a new home for the litter boxes, figure out the neighbors’ schedules so you know when they’re going to play their techno and when you get to play yours (well, not techno, but real music), and by now you probably get the point:

Moving is not something I hope to do again any time soon.

On top of the general logistics that are thankfully nearing an end, you get some fun things too – especially here in San Francisco, where fun seems somewhat contagious; if you don’t believe me, take a gander at the happenings of this past weekend. You get a brand new food culture: new restaurants to try, new delivery options (Indian! Mexican! Japanese! Burmese!), new farmers’ markets, and new seasonal produce. It’s awesomely overwhelming. But in a totally good way.

Last week, I realized that I am having a really hard time with the latter though; I can’t for the life of me adjust to the multitude of fresh produce, the differences in timing of say, the availability of ramps (I missed them this year – damnation!) or avocado (all year compared to never in the Midwest) or cherries (now! – I don’t have to wait until July/August!). I can’t figure it all out, at least not yet. But that’s probably because I’ve been buried under a box or two, or refinishing a desk, or putting the mattress I was conceived on out front for the Salvation Army pickup (too much?).

Either way, I am definitely thankful for the cheat-sheets. Luckily for me, a fellow Chicagoan to SF transplant and culinary school classmate moved out here about 6 months before me, and she’s found a handy guide to Bay Area produce that I plan to procure soon. And while the ones pictured here aren’t, I am excited about buying fresh peas, and berries, and avocado, and next April, those damn ramps I so sadly missed out on because I was busy doing, you know, other things.

But now, now I’m ready for the produce. I’m ready for the good food, the grilling out and having a drink on the back deck, the (hopefully soon) lazy Saturday that just begs for a trip out to an oil store or a new cheese shop (of which there are many), and the Sundays that are meant for bike rides through our neighbor, Golden Gate Park, or along the ocean, or maybe even just down the street for coffee.

Pea & Bacon Risotto
adapted from Food & Wine, May 2011; serves 6

Risotto, I have missed you. It’s been a while, but for some reason I had the urge to stand at the counter and stir, stir, stir. This is probably one of the best risottos I’ve had: the salty bacon, the squishy peas, and the rich cheesy, buttery finish – it deserves the time it takes, and even more.

time commitment: 50 minutes

printable version

ingredients
6 oz lean bacon, diced
2 c frozen baby peas, thawed
2 T olive oil
1 small onion, minced
2 c carnaroli rice (arborio works fine, too)
1/2 c dry white wine
7 c simmering chicken broth
1 T unsalted butter
1/2 c freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1 T fresh lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground pepper

instructions
In a large Dutch oven, cook the bacon over moderate heat until crisp, 6 minutes. Drain the bacon on paper towels; reserve 1 tablespoon of the bacon fat.

Meanwhile, in a food processor, puree half of the peas with 1/2 cup of water. Heat the chicken broth in a large saucepan and keep at a low simmer.

In the same Dutch oven, heat the oil. Add the onion and cook over moderate heat until softened, 5 minutes. Add the rice and cook, stirring, until the rice is evenly coated with the oil. Add the wine and simmer until almost evaporated, 3 minutes.

Add chicken broth, 1/2 cup at a time, to the rice mixture and cook over moderate heat, stirring, until the broth has been absorbed. Add more stock to cover the rice. Continue cooking and stirring, adding more broth as it is absorbed, until the rice is al dente and suspended in a creamy sauce, ~25 minutes. Add the pea puree, the remaining peas and the bacon and cook, stirring, until hot. Remove the risotto from the heat and stir in the butter, reserved bacon fat, cheese and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper.

Captain’s Corner

There was this store in my hometown, a store-slash-pseudo-restaurant, that was frequented by us highschoolers looking for afternoon cigarettes and the others who were going for an after-school hot dog. At some point, the Captain’s Corner turned into a regular hangout, a place of comfort where friends mingled, where we found older kids to buy us smokes, and where we people-watched till the joint closed for the day and we were forced to loiter elsewhere, which was usually behind “the mall”.

The word comfort emits a different connotation for me today, and in most cases, has something to do with food. And why shouldn’t it?

 

As a kid getting home from school, I had the swingset and a backyard with a grapevine-woven fence; today, it’s a balcony with a grill and a glass of wine. In high school, it was the Captain’s Corner or a drive up and down Vernon Avenue, with anything from Pearl Jam to Biggie Smalls blaring out of the busted speakers and vibrating the windows. Now, it’s an outdoor BYOB for Happy Hour or the tunes Hubs spins on his fancy record player while I whip up something for dinner. And in college, there was certainly alcohol and pizza, but comfort meant a trip home for fresh laundry and quiet time with the family. While I’d still love to have mom do my laundry, I instead find comfort in those carefully prepared, overly luscious dinners – the ones you eat slowly, bite by bite, because they just feel like home, childhood, and all those things you want to last forever.

This is one of those meals.

Country Captain, a dish I’d never heard of until exactly 1 month ago, is the ultimate comfort dish. Though it’s Indian at heart, it’s more commonly lauded as a Southern dish, which either means I’m a fake Southerner or that it’s made in a Southern area other than North Carolina (supposedly Savannah, mainly). Plus, when you have Aunt Faye and her chicken pastry and fried chicken – do you really need anything else? I rest my case, if there was one against me…

So this country captain business – it is really somethin’. And while the cauliflower was almost enough to make me toss this recipe aside, my curiousity and love of all the other ingredients won me over. Fortunately, I not only tolerated, but I thoroughly enjoyed the cauliflower. They are perfectly crunchy, buried in the absolute best smelling made-from-scratch curry powder and crushed tomato sauce you ever did smell, and not only do those little peas in your freezer add some color, they’re juicy in a way, and they pop between your teeth. Dried cherries, as odd as it may seem, are crucial, as they rehydrate and become chewy blips of sweetness.

If you need one more reason to make this, other than all the goodness listed above and the fact that this only dirties one pot, and that it freezes like a dream (I have one serving left), how does finishing this off with a healthy slap of peanut butter sound? I’ll stop here, and I’m heading straight for the freezer…

What’s your favorite comfort food?

Country Captain with Cauliflower and Peas
Adapted from Bon Appetit, March 2010; serves 6

printable version

ingredients
spice mixture
1 1/2 t coriander or coriander seeds
1 t fennel seeds
1 t cumin or cumin seeds
1/2 t whole black peppercorns
3 whole cloves
1/4 t cardamom seeds (from 3 whole green cardamom pods)
1 1/2-inch piece cinnamon stick
1/2 t turmeric
1/4 t cayenne pepper

chicken
5 T peanut oil, divided
1 small head of cauliflower, trimmed, cut into 1-inch florets (about 4 cups)
Kosher salt
2 lbs skinless boneless chicken thighs, trimmed, cut into 1- to 2-inch pieces
1 bunch green onions, dark green and white parts chopped separately
1 T finely grated peeled fresh ginger
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 c reduced-sodium chicken broth
1 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes with added puree
1/3 c dried Bing cherries, finely chopped
1 T smooth peanut butter
1 1/2 c frozen petite peas (9 to 10 ounces; do not thaw)
1/3 c coconut shavings (or unsweetened shredded coconut), lightly toasted

instructions
spice mixture
Place coriander, fennel seeds, cumin, black peppercorns, cloves, cardamom seeds, and cinnamon stick in small dry skillet (or, to save dishwork, in the bottom of the heavy large pot, below). Stir over medium heat until fragrant and slightly darker in color, 5 to 6 minutes. Remove from heat; cool. Finely grind spices in spice mill or in mortar with pestle. Transfer to small bowl; add turmeric and cayenne.

chicken
Heat 3 T oil in heavy large deep pot over medium-high heat. Add cauliflower florets; sprinkle with coarse kosher salt and sauté until beginning to soften and brown in spots, 6 to 7 minutes. Transfer to medium bowl.

Add remaining 2 T oil and half of chicken to same pot; sprinkle with coarse kosher salt and sauté until chicken is light brown on all sides, about 6 minutes. Transfer chicken to large bowl. Repeat with remaining chicken.

Add white parts of green onions, finely grated ginger, and minced garlic to same pot; reduce heat to medium and sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add ground spice mixture; stir 15 seconds. Stir in 1 1/2 cups chicken broth and bring to boil, scraping up any browned bits. Add crushed tomatoes; reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer 15 minutes. Stir in dried cherries and peanut butter; return chicken and any accumulated juices to pot. Cover and simmer 10 minutes. Add sautéed cauliflower to pot; cover and simmer until chicken is cooked through and cauliflower is tender, about 10 minutes longer. Season with coarse salt and pepper.

Add frozen peas to stew and simmer until heated through, about 5 minutes. Ladle stew into bowls. Sprinkle each serving with green onion tops and toasted coconut shavings and serve.

Combating the Jean-Tightening Genes w/ Alfredo

Lite Pasta Alfredo


I remember back in the day when I was young I’m not a kid anymore, but some days I sit and wish I was a kid again (Ahmad, circa 1994). But really – I remember back in the day when eating anything you wanted didn’t cause a cottage cheese-like effect on your thighs and booty. And mushy arms. And maybe the worst part – growing out of your favorite Martin & Osa jeans or trying on your favorite tank top from last summer, the one you looked oh so cute in, and realizing that your “flat tire” has miraculously been replaced by a spare.


I’m not sayin’ I was ever petite – with my Hall knees and cornbread-induced voluptuous backside. You were lucky to see me in shorts even as a kid; I prefer clamdiggers any day. My dad surely gave me some IQ points, love for NC State, & blue eyes, but he also gave me big knees, a head of cowlicks, and horrible [practically legally blind] vision. My mom – she gave me boobs, good teeth, and the confidence to speak my mind even when I shouldn’t, but she also gave me my love for sweets and slow metabolism. That damn metabolism!


The days of eating Big Macs, chimichangas, ranch dressing (loaded over some cheesy gooey french fries with bacon), and definitely alfredo sauce are long gone, or at least few and far between. Everything in moderation, right people?!

Wrong answer! One of the reasons I started cooking so much in the first place was the ability to be more in control of what I ate. Yes, me, wanting more control. Who woulda thought?! It’s too easy to live in Chicago (or any other city with great food) and pack on the poundage. There are way too many Thai restaurants with wonderfully fried tofu pad thai and curries, Italian restaurants with “family style” servings of chicken alfredo & parmesan (not to mention a thousand types of bruschetta), and definitely too many neighborhood bakeries with the cutest little cupcakes that of course, have the creamiest icing on top. I agree with the everything in moderation motto, but for me, I can’t really moderate what I eat if it’s already in front of me :). So along with keeping portion control in check, I’ve tried to find and make recipes that are delectable but don’t (always) leave me wondering how many hours of exercise I owe myself.


[Of course, none of this counts while in culinary school. Have I said that before?]


Cajun-spiced chicken strips


The first foodie magazine I ever subscribed to was Cuisine at Home (thanks to my mom-in-law), and believe-you-me, they have some lovely food in there. The down side? Almost every recipe uses heavy cream, which translates to the previously mentioned cottage cheese effect and snug jeans, not to mention a frown on my face. I almost stopped subscribing this year, but they must have sensed it and started a healthy eating section. If you can believe it, I’ve found a recipe for a light version of alfredo sauce. I tried it out recently, and I think Chris said how good it was in between each & every mouthful. Which looking back, may not have been that many times since he literally scarfed it down. I liked it too, but tried to savor each bite a little more than he.


mushrooms and peppers


One of the great things about this recipe is that it’s loaded with veggies, unlike your typical alfredo dish with just fettucine, chicken, and gopping thick sauce. It’s colorful too, so very easy on the eyes. Oh, and instead of just chicken, there is also kielbasa, and the chicken has cajun seasoning to spice it up a bit. I think next time I’ll add even more. The sauce is creamy and yummy, but made with evaporated milk instead of cream & one egg yolk instead of butter. I am willing to bet that the use of the bowtie pasta wasn’t a random idea, as the folds and crinks encase some of the sauce, and that way it seems to last longer even if there is less of it.


Now, don’t go into making this thinking it’s just like the classic fettucine alfredo. The sauce won’t coat your lips, and there won’t be a puddle at the bottom of your plate after you finish eating. But a great stand-in and healthy alternative to the low-cost artery clogger? Totally.


So, if you’re like me and have chosen red sauces over the whites for as long as you can remember, consider a brief switcheroo. Pretty pretty please? Just this once. You won’t regret it. And if you don’t like it, just head on over to Bucktown and drop that dish off at my pad. I love leftovers 🙂


lite pasta alfredo


Lite Pasta Alfredo w/ Cajun Chicken & KielbasaAdapted from Cuisine at Home; serves 4

printable recipe

ingredients
4 oz uncooked farfalle (bowtie) pasta
1/2 cup evaporated 2% milk
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 egg yolk
salt & pepper
1/8 t nutmeg, freshly grated
8 oz boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into strips
1 T Cajun seasoning (preferably no-salt version)
1 onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
2 cups button mushrooms, sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
8 oz kielbasa, cut into half moon slices
1 cup peas, frozen
1 green onion, sliced thin, for garnish

instructions
Cook farfalle accoring to package directions. Drain and reserve 1/4 cup of pasta liquid. Set pasta aside.

Meanwhile, combine milk, cheese, & yolk. Add in salt, pepper, nutmeg. Set aside.

Sprinkle Cajun seasoning on chicken and toss to coat. Spray large skillet with cooking spray and heat over med-hi. Saute chicken ~4 mins on each side until fully cooked. Remove and set aside. Add onions, pepper, mushrooms, garlic, kielbasa to skillet and cook ~4 mins until kielbasa begins to brown. Add 1/4 cup of pasta water to deglaze; scrape up browned bits and let simmer until water has almost evaporated.

Add in chicken, pasta, & peas. Stir to heat all ingredients and to break up frozen peas. Pour in alfredo sauce and simmer until thickened. Divide among 4 plates (or if you’re like me, 2 plates and two tupperwares) and garnish with green onion and a little cheese.

*Side note: I made a quick salad to go with – baby arugula with cherry tomatoes & English cucumbers. Made a quick tomato vinaigrette (1/2 cup cherry tomatoes, 2 T red wine vinegar, 2 t EVOO, 1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard, salt, pepper mixed in processor). The salad was a great addition and went well with the pasta.

This Little Piggy Went into My Belly

Mado brunch Chicago
I have come to a realization. Not today, but I came to this realization many many moons ago. I once thought that being a vegetarian would be cool. Now let me also add that I thought this during a time when I also thought I’d look good with dreadlocks, and during a time when I thought that a good excuse for not shaving would be to insulate myself during those cold cold winters in North Carolina. You know, the ones when it just might get into the 20’s. I am NOT saying that any of the above ideas are non-cool (or even un-cool). But I have changed my ways a wee bit since “the 90’s”. And so today, today wanting to become a vegetarian ranks in priority pretty close to wanting to visit Los Angeles again or wanting to have my fingernails ripped out or, well… you see where I’m going.



What I’ve realized is that meat, in all its shapes and sizes, is an essential part of my food pyramid and something I’m afraid I just could not live without. If truth be told, I haven’t really met a meat I didn’t like. Red or white – I don’t discriminate. Favorites? Sure, I have favorites. I’d choose lamb chops over chicken 9 times out of 10 (the exception being a chicken that might be fried or perhaps stuffed with cheese and other tasty treasures). And I’d fight a polar bear in the snow for a bite of a juicy, vinegar-based North Carolina barbeque sandwich with coleslaw and hushpuppies on the side. Oh and sweet tea with lemon too please. Yep, I’d say I am a fan of swine for sure. I’d go as far as to say that most things do actually taste better with a side of bacon. In fact, I’d originally intended to post specifically about one dish I made for dinner last night that included a “small smattering of pork”, but while thinking about it, I realized that I have officially eaten something of the pork variety for the last 3 meals. So again, vegetarian I am not.

cute pig



Sunday began just like most Sundays should – we’d reunited with long lost band members and rocked it out pretty late the night before (and for those of you who think Rock Band is not “real” you are most definitely un-cool) – so we awoke no earlier than 10 to find ourselves thirsty and hungry. Fortunately for us hungry people, we live near a long list of eateries with the majority serving brunch. And so, we made our way about three blocks east to Mado. We’d eaten dinner at this fine establishment a number of months ago and remembered the cuisine to be pretty good. In addition, they’d recently been listed by Bon Appetit as one of the “top places in the U.S. for brunch”. So when faced with the seemingly impossible task of choosing a restaurant, this was a no-brainer.


For those of you who are into sustainable eating, Mado is for you. They list, on their wall-spanning chalkboard, all the local farms from whom they purchase their produce and meat. They don’t lie when they flaunt their use of all parts of an animal and they even house-cure their meat and made their own apple butter and jams. Their website lists their menu, which is to be expected, but they also list a few events and links which again include the farms they use. One link I found to be particularly intriguing was the one called “Sky Full of Bacon” – series of video podcasts about food, centering on Chicago. I plan to subscribe. One reviewer summed his site up in one word – priceless. That’s my kinda food writer 😉

recipe ingredients


Anyway, brunch at Mado was just as tasty as what we’d remembered about the dinner. I had a dish called “eggs in purgatory” which was eggs baked in a spicy tomato sauce with fennel & olives. Served on a little piggy board. Chris had an omelet accompanied by an arugula salad, his favorite green. We split a side of toast with house-made apple butter (de-light-ful) and a side of house-cured ham (also de-light-ful). The ham side was plentiful and had that perfect saltiness. Needless to say, we were good to go until dinner.


proscuitto and peas pasta



Since our brunch was a little heftier than our usual cereal, I’d decided on a real spring-y dinner full of lots of fresh ingredients. I’d seen the recipe in Bon Appetit (yes, this is one of my favorite foodie mags) and it reeked of Spring – asparagus, butter lettuce, peas. The real kicker was the prosciutto topping. How can you resist a spring salad topped with prosciutto? And when you add parmesan cheese? Jeepers! In case you can’t tell, I was excited.

You’ll see below that the recipe makes a pretty ginormous dish. Which is great when you’re in school for three nights straight and unable to cook. I think, had I unbuttoned my jeans a bit and taken a couple of breaks between bowls, that I could have eaten it all in one sitting. It was that good. So, even though (at least in Chicago) it may not look or even feel like Spring, this salad will put you in some sort of a Spring trance – at least until it’s all gone. Oink! Oink!


butter lettuce and prosciutto side view


Pasta w/ Peas, Asparagus, Butter Lettuce, & Prosciutto
adapted from Bon Appetit, April 2009
6 servings (or less if you just can’t stop!)



ingredients
2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) butter
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil plus additional for drizzling
1/2 pound spring onions or green onions (dark green parts discarded); white parts cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices, pale green parts cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices (I used spring onions)
2 tablespoons minced shallot
Coarse kosher salt
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup low-salt chicken broth
1 1/2 pounds asparagus, cut crosswise into 3/4-inch pieces
2 cups shelled fresh peas (from about 2 pounds peas in pods) or 2 cups frozen petite peas, thawed
1 pound campanelle (trumpet-shaped pasta) or medium (about 1-inch) shell-shaped pasta
1 head of butter lettuce or Boston lettuce (about 6 ounces), cored, leaves cut into 3/4-inch-wide slices
1 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese plus additional for sprinkling
1/2 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
4 oz thinly sliced prosciutto, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch-wide strips


instructions
Melt butter with 2 tablespoons oil in heavy large skillet over medium heat. Add onions and shallot. Sprinkle with coarse salt and pepper. Sauté until tender (do not brown), about 8 minutes. Add wine; increase heat to medium-high and simmer until liquid is reduced to glaze, about 3 minutes. Add broth and bring to simmer; set aside.


 

Cook asparagus in large pot of boiling salted water until just tender, 2 to 4 minutes, depending on thickness of asparagus. Using skimmer or slotted spoon, transfer to large bowl of ice water. Return water to boil. Add peas and cook until just tender, about 2 minutes. Using skimmer, transfer to bowl with asparagus. Drain vegetables.


Return water in pot to boil. Cook pasta until tender but still firm to bite, stirring occasionally. Drain, reserving 1 cup pasta cooking liquid.
Meanwhile, reheat onion mixture. Add drained asparagus and peas; stir until heated through. Remove from heat.


Add pasta, 1 cup Parmesan cheese, lettuce and parsley to skillet with vegetables; toss, adding reserved pasta cooking liquid by 1/4 cupfuls if dry. Season with salt and pepper.


Transfer pasta to large shallow bowl. Sprinkle prosciutto over; drizzle with olive oil. Serve, passing more cheese alongside.