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red rice pulao with roasted vegetables

March 31st, 2012 | 3 Comments »

When I was 15 or 16, my Mom broke her left elbow roller skating. Outside of the fact that my MOM -gasp!- was roller skating (and apparently getting rather cocky about it) she happened to be left-handed, and in breaking her elbow, this rendered her incapable of doing much of anything. She lamented one day, as I helped her in the kitchen, “I wish I had learned to use my right arm more.” and somehow this struck a chord with me, as did her inability to manage even the most mundane of daily tasks.

It’s been in the back of my mind since then to train my hands to work equally. Although my left handed writing looks like an overly caffeinated six year old, and my knife skills in my left hand are nothing compared to my right, I can whisk, scoop, stir, twist, grind, mix and pour from either right or left. I can reach and function and do just about anything needed during the course of my day without having to switch gears, hands or mindset.

There is always more that your body can do, when allowed. If you’ve learned how to type on a standard keyboard, then you can teach your non-dominant hand to do any number of things. Even though one side of our brain dominates, and we develop a set of skills with that dominant hand, there is far more that one is capable of if you’re willing to put your mind to it.

That goes for recipe usage too. Recipes are not cut in stone; they should serve as a guideline, a base from which we can expand exponentially in many different directions. I love recipes because someone else has already done most of the work for me, but I am free to remove this and substitute that, increase this or decrease that or look at how it comes out in one form and think “I know this can be better.” and then trust that my skills can take me there. These skills have been especially useful in the re-development of this incredible Red Rice Pulao.

The origin of this recipe comes from Robin Asbells New Whole Grains Cookbook, which, in a soft yet grand way simply changed my life in 2008. Long before the intense embrace by food lovers of all things whole grain, I’d run through a bookful of recipes using quinoa, millet, bulgur and various rices, finding great things to love about these simple staples. Grains are one of the easiest foods to work with in any kitchen, and require no special treatment. Particularly fond of the vibrant rices available, this Red Rice Pulao made for an chewy and delicious experience, and like many wonderful recipes on this blog, I simply posted it once and never went back. What a mistake.

Because that means no one’s ever going to see it, as really, does anyone look in to the archives of a food blog? Rarely. And I loved the recipe when followed to a ‘T’. As I thought about it again, with more capability to be flexible in my cooking, I decided a second go of this dish was in order and am I ever glad I stepped up and made a few changes because this 2.0 version is light years better than the original. No offense to Robin, but the very task of cooking is to learn to feed oneself in the manner that makes you happiest. No cookbook author outside of us knows what makes us happy; only we do, and we owe it to ourselves to learn just enough kitchen skills to take the humblest of foods, such as rice and vegetables, and make them extraordinary. Let the recipe author be your guide, but let your imagination, your tastes and your skills drive you to cook with instinct instead of blind faith.

Task-wise, this has a few moments of chopping and prep, but largely you are passing a great deal of idle time as rice simmers, and vegetables roast, while heady fragrances take over your home. This isn’t high-tech stuff here; with the heat of an oven and the magic alchemy of boiling water with rice, you can make an exceptional dish that tastes far more grand than it’s humble beginnings. If you’re unfamiliar with red rice, it’s an intensely chewy rice, often found labeled as Himalayan Red Rice, or Wehani. Properly cooked, it takes up to an hour, all hands off. Finished, it’s a really hearty and satisfying grain, deeper in flavor than brown rice, not as earthy as wild rice. This dish is easily a main course, or can be eaten as a side with any number of proteins. I can vouch that it’s especially good with grilled pork tenderloin.

Here’s where you get to decide what you do with this recipe, because if you want, outside of making the rice you can experiment wildly, with everything else. Instead of carrots and cauliflower, add whatever vegetables you have on hand, or swap almonds, walnuts, pecans or peanuts for the pistachios. This is your base, and when you read through it, your tastes will direct you, just as they should. Trust those instincts. And enjoy.

Red Rice Pulao with Roasted Vegetables

1 T. oil of choice
1 T. chopped ginger
1 T. brown mustard seeds
1 shallot, finely chopped
1/2 t. chili powder
1 t. ground turmeric
1 c. red rice or brown basmati rice
2 c. water
1 T. brown sugar
1 t. salt
2 T. lemon juice
1 head of cauliflower, cut to bite sized pieces
2 medium carrots, sliced
1/2 c. shelled pistachios or toasted slivered almonds

In a 2-qt saucepan, heat oil briefly and add ginger, mustard seed and shallot. Cook for a few minutes, until the ginger is fragrant and the seeds are popping slightly, then add chili powder and turmeric. Stir it up well and cook for a few seconds until the smell is amazing. Add rice, water, brown sugar and salt, stir it up good to combine it all and bring to a boil. Cover tightly, reduce heat to low. The amount of time needed to cook the rice will depend on what rice you use. Test the grains after the time specified on the package, and adjust to your personal taste. Allow to cool slightly. If you are using a true red rice, be patient with it. The time required for me to make mine was slightly over an hour. And every minute was well worth it.

While the rice cooks, heat the oven to 400°, and toss the vegetables with a bit of oil and salt. Since these two cook differently, I put the cauliflower on one pan, the carrots on another and roast until each are tender, shaking the pan often, and stirring to insure even browning. They can hang out in their finished state, until the rice is done.

If you love a good deep flavor for pistachios, take a few minutes and toast them in a skillet over medium heat. It’s well worth it, and that rice gives you plenty of time.

When the rice is done and cooled, dump it all in a large bowl and add the roasted vegetables. Toss together gently and add a few tablespoons of those nicely toasted pistachios. Toss a bit more, taste and add salt and pepper if you wish, then serve it, topped with more pistachios. This dish is good whether served cold, hot or at room temperature. You can garnish it with chopped scallions too, for a bit more flavor.

weekend of nothing {{Just Write 28}}

March 27th, 2012 | 2 Comments »

Saturday used to be my most favorite day of the week.

Sleeping late, leisurely coffee in the morning, with the newspaper that I used to obsess about reading. There were different clothes for Saturday, the light seemed brighter, the hours an endless stretch in front of you that led to a Saturday night that morphed into an even lazier Sunday morning, a bigger newspaper, more coffee and even more comfortable clothes.

Then life came along, with it’s endless responsibilities, and children that don’t get the ‘sleeping in’ on Saturday and suddenly it’s a free day that you don’t get during the week while you work and so you rush, do, move, make, clean, go, visit, fix, tend, leap and eventually, collapse. And then Sunday comes, and it’s a short segue into Monday, where the cycle starts all over again.

Or, like me, you take a job where you work every single Saturday, the busiest day of all in the grocery business and then Sunday takes on a whole new meaning. The one day of complete and total rest that you get. And you realize, quickly, that it isn’t enough. You realize how much you miss those lazy, long Saturdays.

My teenager, as teens go, never gets up early. I loved that stage when he finally stopped bouncing out of bed so early, where I could wake up late on the weekend without the gasp of panic that I’d missed something, that he’d woken and stealthily slipped downstairs to wreak havoc on our house and our kitchen. And now, with working every Saturday, I miss those quiet and loose mornings of nothing.

This past weekend I had one of those throwback weekends, where I could wake on Saturday with the entire day ahead of me, that light and those clothes and the coffee that somehow tastes so different and no real tasks that needed immediate attention. I could just stare down the hours, flitting from one point of interest in my home to another and think ‘If I want to just stop, right here, and just be right here, right now, I can do that.’ and it felt amazing, and lazy and grand. And when Sunday came around, instead of using those hours to recharge and rethink, I felt enough energy to bust out several tasks on the home front, especially after a vigorous morning hike.

I miss my weekends. Real weekends of down time and recharging. I miss lazy mornings with Saturday coffee, staring out the window as the world wakes up. Because somehow, on Tuesday, when my real weekend starts, it doesn’t feel the same. It’s Tuesday light and air, and the clothes don’t speak in the same way. It’s Tuesday, not Saturday, but it is a ‘Saturday’ because it’s my ‘weekend’ even though it’s the middle of the week and that just doesn’t make much sense in my head.

So I guess, instead of trying to force one day to always feel like another, sort of like expecting Easter to feel like Christmas, I’ll just remember to take off a Saturday when I can manage it, to not expect Tuesday to be anything besides Monday’s follow-up and to embrace my mid-week ‘weekend’, time off when the majority are at work, coffee in the Tuesday morning, a different light. It’s still a long stretch of hours that morph in to an evening that follows through with another long day of hours.

And all those hours are mine. Whether Saturday, or Tuesday.

Can you believe it’s the 28th installment of Just Write???
Visit The Extraordinary Ordinary for more links. 

smashed potatoes with olive tapenade

March 24th, 2012 | 3 Comments »

Long ago, through some rather perfect serendipity, I came across this recipe (method, really) in both a cookbook I happened to pick up for browsing in a bookstore, and again, in an New York Times article just about the same day. Both times, reading of softly boiled red potatoes topped with briny tapenade, my mouth did that sort of happy dance that one gets when a food is particularly appealing. I made them. Once. And then, every time I see tiny little red potatoes I think ‘Why have I not repeated that dish?’

I don’t have much of an excuse, really. And it isn’t that it’s even that difficult. You can use prepared tapenade, instead of making your own and you’ve got half the battle done, right there. And really, does boiling little red potatoes take up SO much of my time? Who am I?

The flavors marry in the most unusual way. Soft and simple, a boiled potato isn’t a whole lot all on it’s own; it needs a friend to help wake it up, make someone take notice. That’s the tapenade’s job. It’s a loudmouth, all right. Sharp, briny and out there, it sidles up next to the humble boiled potato and says ‘Hey, let’s make some noise’ and pretty soon, with the addition of half a jalapeno pepper languishing in the fridge, and a shallot for good measure (potatoes and onions are so utterly complimentary) you’ve got yourself a plate of something that’s risen to greater gustatory heights. It’s humble and basic, still. But fantastically more. It’s the type of dish that soothes the rough spots out of your week, gives you pause. A forkful raised to your mouth is at once sharp and fragrant, then through the bite of olive, lemon and caper, soft in the way only a perfectly boiled potato can be.

Best part about making this simple and humble dish is that you’re likely to have leftover tapenade, and spreading that on a bit of toasted bread is one of my most memorable treats. In fact, eyeing the simmering pot of potatoes while I scooped tapenade on freshly toasted asiago cheese bread, I quickly calculated the merits of actually finishing the recipe, versus sitting down with the remains of the bread and the tiny dish of olive spread, but soon realized how boring that would sound. I’d had enough of boring, and it was time to make a little noise.

Smashed Potatoes and Olive Tapenade

For the Tapenade:
1 c. kalamata olives, minced
2 T. capers, minced
1 t. grated lemon zest
1 T. fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 t. fresh thyme, chopped
1/2 c. extra virgin olive oil
Fresh ground black pepper

Mix everything together in a bowl and allow to stand for a while to blend. You can whiz everything in a food processor to make it easier. Don’t skip the lemon zest and juice. It’s delightful in this.

For the Potatoes:

About 1-1/2 pounds of waxy small red or white potatoes,
2 T. red wine vinegar
1 bay leaf
6 black peppercorns

Wash potatoes. If not uniform in size, cut to size and boil, with all added seasonings, until tender. Drain and discard seasonings. Allow the potatoes to cool slightly, then gently crush them with your palm so they break open, but don’t bust them apart too much.

Heat a heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Cast iron works beautifully for this. Add a small amount of butter and oil and swirl to coat the pan. When hot, place potatoes in a single layer in the pan. You may not use all of them. Cook for 10 minutes or so, until a good crust forms on the bottom. Dot the top with about 1/4 cup of the tapenade, and carefully turn the potatoes over. Allow to cook on the other side for an additional 5-10 minutes. Serve with tapenade on the side.

NOTE: You can add a finely minced shallot and jalapeno at the same time you add the tapenade. These added a nice dimension of flavor to the finished dish.

Original recipe: “Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way” by Francis Mallman and Peter Kaminsky (via the New York Times Dining Section, 5/20/09)

melancholy, and sweet potato hummus

March 13th, 2012 | 7 Comments »

There’s something going around in my life lately, that’s been apparent in this space. And that’s nothing. Nothing at all. I’ve had some posts here and there (five total in February, which is not much at all) and yet they’ve all felt like I’ve dragged them kicking and screaming from my brain. Nothing has landed in me, a late winter melancholia, a heavy weight that’s latched itself around my neck, like I’m just hauling around with no real purpose. My dear friend Angharad, who writes in this lovely space, put it so succinctly in this post that I feel like she reached right inside me, flipping on a light and said, in her delightful lilting English accent “Oh, there you are, you beastly thoughts. Get OUT of there!”

And it’s just this time of year, this wrinkle between the winter that never really was and a Spring that is still so so far away. Without snow coverage on the landscape, it’s been this flat and dull brown for the last six months and it makes my eyes, and my heart ache to look at it. The lack of color punches me in the ribs and knocks the wind out of me, because there is just nothing there, and it’s this nothing that’s dropped like a stone in to my life. I missed my snow, the squeak of my boots, the crystalline cold that penetrates you and takes your breath away, and I missed my cross country skis. And in this space that is neither one season or the other, I’m bored with the foods and the tastes and the textures of a Winter that never came. I’ve been repeating recipes, sticking with simple meals and just coasting. Coasting through the nothing, and waiting, patient, and with eyes on the sky for the breath of Spring to come and lift this nothing away.

And in the meantime, I’m eating sweet potato hummus, coveting every bite because it’s this incredible thing I’ve found and although there are people out there talking about it, it still feels like a secret that maybe you want to keep, but you know it’s worth spreading around. Because, as hummus goes, this one is the bees knees to this hummus loving girl. While I could sit down with a full food processor bowl of freshly made hummus and scoop to my heart’s content, the addition of a soft and fragrant roasted sweet potato turns this humble condiment into something really kind of extraordinary, like that first real Spring day when you wake up and remember that there really is a definitive end to Winter.

And there’s really nothing to it, this Sweet Potato Hummus. One nice sized sweet potato, roasted almost to a point of collapse until it’s juicy and delectably sweet gets mixed in to any standard Hummus recipe, whizzed together in your food processor or high-speed blender and then, best of all, eaten in any manner you would consume this easy snack. Roasting the sweet potato gives it such an incredibly deep flavor, especially if you use the dark orange skinned variety like Red Jewel or Garnet (the ones most people refer to as Yams, even though they aren’t true Yams at all). The darker orange flesh contains more moisture, as well as a higher level of antioxidants. Eat your colors, remember? Sweet potatoes are just brimming with vitamins and minerals, are very low on the Glycemic Index and contain a high level of anti-inflammatory properties. Add in a good source of fiber, without saturated fat or cholesterol and this nutritional workhorse has far more going for it than just good taste or a pretty face. Maybe the consumption of this, chock full of good ingredients, might be the crane that lifts me from this nothing I’ve been experiencing, in to the something that I’m craving, mind and heart, right now.

Another good thing? You can bake off an entire sheet pan of sweet potatoes, slip them from their skins when they’re cool and freeze them in plastic bags to have on hand for any manner of baking or cooking. I’ve had sweet potatoes in the freezer for more than six months (due to getting buried) and the texture hasn’t shown much change at all, other than maybe a bit more watery.

But back to that Hummus. Or better yet, I’ll stop my endless blathering so you can skip in to your own kitchen and make this for yourself. Because there’s some left in my fridge, and I’m off to cut up a few carrots, dip a few crackers and work on stoking my creation fire that I know is still in my brain. Eventually this nothing will lift; it does every year. I hope the grocer has enough sweet potatoes in stock.


Easy Sweet Potato Hummus

1 15-oz can chickpeas, rinsed
1/3 c. tahini
1/4 c. fresh squeezed lemon juice
3 T. olive oil
1-2 t. kosher salt
1 medium roasted sweet potato, cooled and skinned
1/4 c. water (or more, depending on how creamy you like your hummus)

In the work bowl of a food processor, or in a high speed blender, add all the ingredients and process, adding water if necessary, until the consistency you like. Serve immediately, or chill overnight.



Elsewhere on the blog, regarding Sweet Potatoes:

Sweet Potato Biscuits

Oatmeal Sweet Potato Muffins

Whole Wheat Muffins with Squash and Quinoa

Curried Sweet Potato and Corn Risotto

leek & lemon pasta

March 4th, 2012 | 1 Comment »

This time of year is a hard one.

I seem to start slipping off the tightrope each February. Bored, restless, tired and too stunted by the dull landscape, I stand on the figurative ledge and think ‘Ugh.’ as I look around. The vertigo makes me twitchy, and thankfully, a trusted friend is there to pull me back and say ‘You know, you go through this every year at this time.’. I’m grateful for someone standing outside of me, who can rationalize this wandering mind, drawing it back to the reality that it’s just late winter and I could use some green and some color in my life.

Surrounding myself with a few hours of plant life, of colorful flowers, weeping ferns and a warmth that left me sweaty certainly helped a great deal, and it seems to become more important in the last gasp of winter to put sunny, warm foods in to the body, like an infusion of heat and sunshine that lights us up from the inside. Like this lemony pasta.

Eating anything with lemon in it is like ingesting sunshine, it’s so bright and engaging. This couldn’t be simpler to make, with a few leeks, a juicy lemon and a shower of fresh herbs, and parmesan cheese. I’ve done so much with lemons in my baking, like this Lemon Pound Cake, these intense Lemongrass Bars, and a delicious Lemon Ricotta Cookie, but adding sparkling citrus flavor to savory dishes has been few and far between, with maybe the exception of these exceptional Garlicky Lemon White Beans. That’s to an end though, after discovering this bright and lively pasta dish.

From the February issue of Eating Well magazine, resplendent with juicy lemon slices on it’s cover, this is a quick and easy recipe to put together. In the time it takes you to make a pot of pasta, you can have the leeks sauteed, ready and waiting. A few turns in the pan, with a splash of that ever-important pasta water and dinner is served.

Leek and Lemon Pasta

1# whole-wheat linguine or thin spaghetti
2 large lemons, plus lemon wedges for garnish
2 medium leeks (white and pale green parts only), thinly sliced and rinsed well
2 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley, divided
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
3/4 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese, divided
1/4 cup snipped fresh chives, divided (I used thyme and it was delicious)

Cook pasta in a large pot of boiling water until just tender or according to package directions. Reserve 1-1/2 cups of the cooking liquid and drain the pasta in a colander.

Meanwhile, finely grate the zest from one lemon and squeeze juice from both lemons; set the juice aside. Pat leek slices dry. Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the leek, the lemon zest, 1/4 cup parsley, garlic, salt and pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, until the leek is lightly browned and softened, about 6 minutes.

Add the pasta, 1 cup of the reserved cooking liquid, 1/4 cup of the lemon juice and the remaining 1/4 cup parsley to the pan. Cook, stirring constantly, until the liquid is mostly absorbed, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Add the remaining 1/2 cup liquid, or more lemon juice, if desired. Remove from the heat. Toss the pasta with 1/4 cup Parmesan and 2 tablespoons chives. Transfer to a serving bowl or bowls; sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan and 2 tablespoons chives and serve with lemon wedges, if desired.

Recipe in full, from Eating Well magazine, February 2012.

RECIPE NOTES: A simple reminder to yourself to catch the pasta water when draining it is to place a pyrex measuring cup in the bottom of your strainer when you put it in the sink. Pour some of the pasta water in it, set it aside, then drain the pasta completely. Another method, which I prefer, is to remove the cooked pasta from the water with tongs and add it directly to the skillet. It takes a bit of timing to get it right, but instead of draining all that beneficial starch away, it clings to the pasta and helps to create the pan sauce needed.

This dish would be wonderful with a broiled mild fish, such as Cod or Tilapia, some seared Scallops or Shrimp would also taste good. If you like chicken, a good lemon-herb rub and a run under the broiler would make a perfect accompaniment to this pasta.

what 48 looks like

March 1st, 2012 | 1 Comment »

It’s my birthday. I’m 48. It sounds odd to say; 48 years and plenty of life gone past.

But, it isn’t so bad. At heart, I don’t feel 48. My friends tell me they can’t believe I’m 48 (do they not see the wrinkles??)  and I can’t understand how I got to be this age. It’s just a number, really; a chronology of passing years that says nothing of how that time has slipped by. But this day to day thing, each passing month and year that goes by gives me a deeper level of acceptance with my life. And that’s where I feel 48, more than anything.

And being 48, there’s a lot of other things far easier to accept too; such as Me, with a capital ‘M’. Confidence comes with age, that settling in to who you are and where you’ve landed in life; the comfort level of accepting your quirky oddities, the off-beat traits and nuances of your personality is much easier, as is being completely at ease with running your life in a way that is important to you, and not to anyone else.  I fight against always wanting something more for my life, but the farther I get in it, the easier it becomes to see the glory of what’s around me, and how much quicker I find acceptance with where I am. This life I’ve got is pretty good. I’ve spent a lot of my 48 years striving for something better, and I’ve struggled with seasons of that life that have been disheartening, bleak, and very cold. Something internal within this heart of mine lies a yearning that may never be fully satisfied. I’m ok with always wanting something more, as long as I know in which direction to let it loose. That comes with age too, with being 48.

But 48 doesn’t come without loss, either. There’s been dozens of jobs with hundreds of duties that have given me incredible experiences, both good and bad, many, many places where I’ve lived (again, good and bad), milestones in years and passages that have come and gone, the loss of my mom and my sister, friends who have come in for a season and faded, relationships that tore at my heart. All of these life experiences have a way of leaving painful scars behind. I’ve struggled so hard through the darkness of these experiences, hopeful the despair will lift and I’ll feel upbeat and entire once more; and sometimes the losses, the pain and the sting of a bad experience still tug at my soul on occasion, whispering in that quiet tone of memory ‘Hey! Remember me?’ and I finger the scars carefully, recalling the agony and seeing how growth springs forth through healing, a metamorphosis that transformed me, bringing me closer to Me, to 48. Loss changes us forever; years pass before we realize that breaking the chains and running free, while embracing our new normal is what really makes us whole.

All that ever stays the same is change, isn’t it?

I used to hate my birthday, and would never tell anyone. I’d take the day off work, home alone and quiet about it. Somewhere though, I realized that I was missing out on something huge; a day to celebrate Me. Of all the millions of possibilities that could have occurred between my parents, there was only one Me that eventually did; one set of DNA that makes me unique, no one before me and no one after will ever be Me. Why wouldn’t that be worthy of celebrating??

“Do not be satisfied with the stories that come before you. Unfold your own myth.” 
― Rumi