Monday, April 23, 2018

in praise of pickled jalapenos

I am sorry for a longer than intended absence. Transitions are odd things and while I have been cooking plenty, writing has been a struggle. Thanks for checking back in and reading. Last weekend I tried a new dish that was so good I forced myself back to the keyboard to share it with you.

I think my love for pickled jalapenos started with a pizza. There is a restaurant in downtown Claremont, CA called Union on Yale. When we lived in SoCal it was our go-to for special celebration dinners and date nights. The setting is like out of a Nancy Meyer film set: a large outdoor eating space with patio tables surrounding a regulation sized bocce ball court. Strands of outdoor lights stretch from an old oak tree to the the main restaurant building, crisscrossing above diners heads and giving just the right early evening glow. There is a fire pit and the sounds of street musicians carry up the block. We sat outside year round. In the waning weeks of our time in California, it became a ritual Friday night supper, we knew we would miss it so much. In addition to amazing fried chicken and cheery seasonal cocktails, they serve wood fired pizzas. Our favorite is the spicy pickled pepper: tomato sauce, pickled cherry peppers, pepperoni, mozzarella, and prison garlic. The vinegar tang of the peppers is perfect against the salty crispy edges of pepperoni.

Although the pizza had a different kind of pepper on it (cherry), after that I started to include pickled jalapenos whenever given the option. On tacos and overstuffed baked potatoes are a personal favorite and I'd like to share a new recipe that pairs the pepper with roasted cauliflower (a constant favorite) and makes use of both the peppers themselves and the pickling liquid they're packed in.

One of the new behaviors of my life in Washington is checking out cookbooks from my local library (I also listen to a lot of classical music, but that's a story for another time). I confidently share that my town has a kick-ass library. Staffed with knowledgeable people, the new release section always surprises me with how good it is. I obtained a library card the first week we arrived. Our first landing spot was a 750 square foot rental house and most of our belongings (and all of my books), stayed packed and stacked in boxes that filled the second bedroom and unfinished basement. I missed the joy of leafing through a cookbook for inspiration. The library was a perfect solution. Even now that I have full access to my personal book collection, I have continued to check out a new cookbook every few weeks. I find that a cookbook on loan comes with it's own impetus to use it. Knowing that I have a "return by" date looming out there motivates me to try out recipes and include them in meal planning.

I recently checked out "Casa Marcela: Recipes and Food Stories of My Life in the Californias" by Marcela Valladolid (You may recognize her from FoodNetwork). Her book is filled with recipes and photos from life in a warmer climate. On my first flip through, I tagged about a dozen recipes with post-it notes. One friday night I made a jalapeno roasted chicken, which included stuffing slices of fresh jalapeno under the skin of a chicken and roasting it until crispy. In the heat of the oven, the jalapeno slices softened and basted the breast of the chicken in their juices, so the meat was infused with a smokey heat. Another night I made a kale salad coated with cilantro yogurt dressing. We wolfed it down.

One of the recipes I flagged from the start was "Roasted-Cauliflower Steaks with Pickled-Jalapeno Vinagrette." Unfortunately, we have long since eaten through the dozen jars of pickled jalapenos I canned this past fall, so I picked up a standard grocery store jar. The great thing about a recipe like this is it takes ingredients that I am likely to already have in my house and, with just a little more effort, elevates a weeknight go-to, like roasted cauliflower. The combination of sweet, char-edged cauliflower, heat of the peppers, salty parmesan and nutty pumpkin seeds is addicting. I polished off the platter by myself.

I've always kind-of side-eyed recipes for cauliflower steak. I somehow read it as pretentious- "you're just cutting up cauliflower!" But now I get it- it is actually an efficient way to prep it, saving the hassle of breaking the whole head into florets. One note: Marcela Valladolid's recipe calls for roasting the veggies on a pan lined with parchment paper. My experience is cooking on parchment paper steams veggies more than roasts them and prevents the gorgeous caramelized bits from forming. If your experience is otherwise, than by all means, please use it.

Roasted Cauliflower Steaks with Pickled-Jalapeno Vinaigrette

1 large head cauliflower (about 1 1/2 pounds)
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
salt and black pepper
2 tablespoons jalapeno pickling juice
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
about 1/4 cup of pickled jalapeno slices (or however much you desire)
3 tablespoons finely grated parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons roasted pumpkin seeds

1) Preheat the oven to 375. Prepare the cauliflower by removing any leaves and trimming the stem. Set the cauliflower right side up on the cutting board and cut into 1 inch wide slices, starting from the top center. As the cuts get closer to the edge of the cauliflower, the slices will start to break into florets. That's okay. You can roast the florets along with the "steak" slices.

2) Set the cut cauliflower slices on a large rimmed baking sheet. Tuck any extra florets around the edges. Take 2 of the 5 tablespoons of olive oil and brush both sides of the cauliflower steaks. Then sprinkle with salt and pepper.

3) Cook the cauliflower in the oven until it is golden brown and cooked through, about 40-50 minutes. Unlike when cooking only florets, there is no need to toss or flip the cauliflower while it roasts. When there is about 7 minutes of cooking time remaining, scatter the pumpkin seeds on a second baking sheet and slide into a separate rack of the oven. The pumpkin seeds can roast along with the cauliflower for the last few minutes of cooking time (about 5-7 minutes), but keep an eye on them as burnt seeds are no good.

4) In the meantime, in a small bowl, whisk together the jalapeno pickling juice, sherry vinegar, and remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Give it a quick taste and add salt and pepper as needed.

5) Remove the cauliflower from the oven and transfer to a large platter. Drizzle with the vinaigrette, and then scatter over grated parmesan, pumpkin seeds and jalapeno slices. Serve immediately.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

If you're invited to my house for dinner, here is what I am probably going to serve you (currently): pork and mushroom lettuce cups

I go through phases of what is my "go-to" meal to feed dinner guests. The criteria are I have to feel confident in my abilities to cook it and it must be generally acceptable to most people's tastes. I feel that I have overlooked some pretty obvious good blog content by not sharing my favorite dinner guest recipes here. Today is my first step in addressing this.

In my early years of learning to cook, I made for dinner guests a tomato based Penne Rosa pasta and sometimes added a splash of vodka to it. In the next phase the penne pasta stayed but I traded the creamy tomato sauce for peas and pancetta, a dish I still love. From there, I side-stepped pasta completely and went to "snacksgiving": a casual spread of veggies and dip, really good cheese, crackers, sliced pepperoni and salami, and assorted pickles and olives.

I have no real explanation for this latest evolution. Maybe it reflects my own increasing awareness of eating healthy and my guests more frequent needs to eat gluten and/or dairy free. If I were to have you over for dinner now it is likely I would serve you an asian flavor profile inspired lettuce cup, filled with ground pork and mushrooms. I love them and I love sharing them. The lettuce cup filling can be made in advance and all the veggies prepped too, which helps me avoid the panic of last minute kitchen chaos. It easily caters to guests dietary needs but without anyone feeling like they are missing out on anything. If my guests are light eaters, this is a lovely supper on it's own but if not, I can easily double the recipe, add on a a side of coconut rice and spicy roasted green beans and even teenagers can be filled up (I speak from experience here). I also like any meal that empowers guests to make their own choices: You don't like radishes? cilantro? peanuts? No problem- just don't add them.

This is a great weeknight meal but I would never actually cook it on a weeknight. I generally make a large batch of the filling on a Sunday evening and if, making just for my husband and I, it will feed the two of us for at least 4-5 lunches or dinners. All we have to do is reheat the pork and mushroom mixture and pull out the prepped veggies.

I have been making these lettuce cups on and off for about five years but in the last six months made a concerted effort to dial in the flavors. The dish starts with caramelized onions and then builds with garlic and ginger and adds a whopping 16 oz of mushrooms to serve like little flavor sponges to soak it all in. That veggie mixture is then set aside and the pork is browned and drained. The pork, onions, garlic and mushrooms are then stirred together and lacquered with hoisin and soy sauce. At the end, water chestnuts give a good crunch and lime juice, cilantro and mint provide an herbal zingy lift. If you happen to have some Thai basil, I would recommend adding it. If you have an aversion to cilantro, feel free to leave it out of the filling, but I would recommend making some available as a topping for guests. I dearly love it here and would hate for a fellow cilantro lover to miss out. This glossy goodness of filling is then dolloped into ruffle edged butter lettuce leaves and topped with chopped and diced veggies.

The topping options is where the asian theme becomes even less defined. You can be more or less fussy about these. A little frilly grated carrot adds crunch and while there is onion in the filling itself, I like the bite of fresh chopped scallions as a topping. Unless there is an allergy issue, I think the salted peanuts are a must. If I learned anything in 2017, it was that my meals are much better with a jar of quick pickles in the fridge. I love to have some of Smitten Kitchen's pickled sandwich slaw on hand, which we freely eat on nearly everything and provide a particularly good sharpness here.

pork and mushroom lettuce cups

2 large yellow onion, chopped
5 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
1 inch of fresh ginger, peeled then minced
16 oz mushrooms, chopped (a mixture of cremini and white button mushrooms is nice, but okay to use all one type, your preference)
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 pounds ground pork or chicken
5-9 tablespoons of hoisin sauce (about 3/4 of an 8.5 oz jar)
2 tablespoons soy sauce
8 oz can water chestnuts, sliced then chopped
1/2 lime
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
1-2 tablespoons chopped mint

to assemble:
2 heads butter lettuce, leaves separated and washed
additional options:
grated carrot
chopped salted peanuts
sliced scallions
chopped cilantro
lime wedges
sambal oelek
pickled red onions and radishes

1) In a large skillet on medium heat, add 2 of the 3 tablespoons of the olive oil and saute chopped onion until translucent, then reduce heat to low to allow onions to caramelize, about 15-20 minutes. Stir occasionally. Add the garlic and ginger and cook for about 2-3 minutes, or until fragrant.

2) To the onion/garlic/ginger, add the chopped mushrooms and increase the heat back up to medium. The pan will initially be dry but once the mushrooms start cooking, they will release moisture. However, it looks like it is too dry, you can add a splash of water or chicken stock. Cook until mushrooms have cooked through, the moisture is mostly cooked out and the mushrooms are now starting to soak up the onion/garlic/ginger goodness.

3) At this point, remove the vegetables from the pan but do not wipe out the pan. Put it back on medium heat and add the last tablespoon of olive oil. Then add the ground pork or chicken and brown, breaking it up with a spatula. I like the meat pretty well broken down, so I do quite a bit of chopping with the edge of my spatula. Once the meat is completely cooked through and any moisture has been cooked off, you can drain it briefly on paper towels (if your preference is to remove some of the fat) or you can proceed. Personally, ground chicken is pretty low in fat and ground pork is too. Keeping the fat in adds a little more luxury to the final sauce but you certainly can drain it off.

4) To the ground meat, fold in the previously cooked onion/garlic/ginger/mushrooms and hoisin and soy sauce. Add 1/2 cup of water and reduce heat until it is a simmer. I will let it simmer like this for a good 20-30 minutes, adding more water as needed. As the moisture reduces out, the hoisin sauce sort of glazes everything. During this time I work on washing, chopping and slicing the accompaniments.

5) To finish, add the chopped water chestnuts, lime juice, cilantro and mint. Give a couple big stirs to incorporate. Serve with a pile of lettuce leaves and the veggies and condiments of your choice.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

cranberry and mulled spice sorbet

I know we are past Thanksgiving and I promise this is not a recipe strictly for Thanksgiving, but please bear with me while I ramble down the trail:

In numerous posts, I express my love for the many facets of Thanksgiving. In my praise, one area I have neglected is the Thanksgiving dessert buffet. From my perspective, the end to the Thanksgiving meal, especially if you're with a large family, is often an array of desserts: there is ubiquitous pumpkin pie, some type of apple dessert, and often also something involving pear. At my sister-in-laws Thanksgiving, there are generally five to six types of desserts, one of which is a pistachio pudding folded with whipped cream and studded with mini marshmallows and maraschino cherries. I dearly love it.

Just like a savory buffet, a good dessert buffet includes a balance of flavors and textures. While I would never be one to decline three types of pie in a sitting, I think there is something about having different formats represented. Four years ago, I hosted Thanksgiving and a number of my guests, for health reasons, were strictly off gluten and dairy. I wanted to provide a dessert option that met their dietary requirements, felt rich and indulgent, and balanced out the Thanksgiving dessert buffet. Enter: cranberry sorbet.

First off, it is gorgeous. Look at that color! It is the sort of vibrancy I miss in the winter months, when the available produce appears in the same shade range of pale to squash. Which is why I am sharing this recipe with you now. I suspect you, like me, have an errant bag of fresh or frozen cranberries kicking around in your fridge. Wouldn't you love to have a little tub of this zingy sweet in your freezer, just waiting to dip into? To bump up the seasonal flavor, I also include some classic "mulling" spices. We enjoyed a few rounds of mulled wine this winter and I thought the flavors would be a good match here, warming up the tartness of the berries. Finally, to cut the mouth-drying sour of the cranberries, the sorbet base includes mixed berries. I use a bag of "assorted berries" in the grocery store freezer case and it often includes raspberries, blackberries and blueberries, but really I think you could try this with cranberries plus one berry, say raspberries, if that's your preference.

I like to think of this as a winter berry sorbet and it would be a shame to limit the enjoyment of it to a singular holiday. To further the point, it would be stunning to pair a scoop of this with a scoop of mandarin orange sorbet. As I believe with all ice creams and sorbets, they are a perfect make-ahead dessert to have on hand for houseguests or a weeknight dinner party or Winter Olympics viewing party(!). I have not done the research but am curious as to how a scoop of this would do if floated in a little sparkling wine. If anyone tries it out, please let me know.

cranberry and mulled spiced sorbet

for the simple syrup:
2 cups water
2 cups granulated sugar

for the berry and spice base:
1 pound frozen mixed berries- blackberries, blueberries, raspberries
6 oz fresh or frozen cranberries
1 mandarin orange or clementine, cut in half
1/2 fresh ginger, roughly chopped
2 cinnamon sticks, roughly broken
1 star anise
3 cloves
1 cup of water

1) Make the simple syrup: in a medium sized heavy bottomed saucepan, mix together the water and granulated sugar. Heat over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar is completely dissolved. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.

2) Make the berry and spice base: in a medium sized heavy bottomed saucepan, mix all the ingredients together. Heat to a simmer and then lower heat and cook for about 45 minutes. What you're looking for is for all the berries to have burst and broken down and the clementine too. Remove mixture from the heat and let cool slightly. Then pour the mixture through a fine mesh strainer to hold back all the pulp and whole spices, reserving the gorgeous spiced berry juice.

3) To the spiced berry juice, mix in about 1 1/2 to 2 cups of the simple syrup. How much sugar to add really depends on the sweetness of the berries and your own palette. Although, I will say that flavors dull once they are frozen and so what may be perfect at room temperature will likely not be as balanced once it whirls in the ice cream maker. I tend to lean towards the sweet side but just a smidge over. Take this mixture and refrigerate at least 4 hours, preferably overnight. Once it is throughly chilled, add to the ice cream maker and follow manufacturers instructions. Once the sorbet is mixed, I like to freeze overnight so that it is a fully firm texture.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Roasted tomato and carrot soup

I did not own an umbrella until I lived in California. I was thinking about this, last week, as I walked to my car, in what the locals call "freezing rain", and I was wearing the wrong jacket, sans umbrella. It is funny that I did not own an umbrella because where I grew up, Southeast Alaska, is considered a temperate rain forest. My hometown receives a yearly average of 49 inches of rain. But, when I lived there, I did not carry an umbrella and neither did most people I knew. I suspect there were a couple of drivers for this: first, when it rains with such frequency, you dress for it. I think most of what I owned, outwear wise, was water resistant. (The one exception being a pair of 80's "moon boots" for the snow that really served as sponges to absorb slush and water. Anyone else have a pair of those worthless things?) Second, umbrella's are kind of a pain to deal with: opening and closing while getting in and out of a car, and drying them out, bleh. In SoCal, the rain was so rare, it was a fun diversion to pull out my umbrella and rain boots, (both striped, natch.) A rainy day felt like it's own type of holiday, where we could justifiably eat hot soup and grilled cheese and stay in and watch movies. Now, living in Washington, once again rain is a regular part of my life and so I need to find my umbrella. I am learning about all sorts of new weather too- inversion fog, the aforementioned freezing rain, and a regular wind that blows so strong, neighborhood trees grow at a tilt. Soup, rather than being a holiday treat, is de rigueur.

As a I shared in my post on split pea soup, I have been stocking my freezer up, which pleases my inner Marilla Cuthburt. These past months I returned to an old favorite- roasted tomato carrot soup. I first made this about 16 years ago. That December, for my 21st birthday, my friends threw me a beautiful dinner party at their apartment. The starter was Ina Garten's roasted tomato basil soup. The finish of the meal was when the party guests took turns saying kind things to me, which included one friend confessing, to a table of people and my new husband, that he secretly had a crush on me for two years. The evening was a memorable one for many reasons.

While I do not recall how I replied to my friends confession, I do remember I loved the soup. At the time, my husband and I rented a small one bedroom second story apartment that faced a courtyard with a pool. An architectural throw-back to the 1950s, I don't believe the stuccoed walls held a stitch of insulation. When temperatures would get "chilly", in the 50 degree range, (hilarious, now that my daily high is in the 30s), I liked to cook in the oven, as the apartment was small enough that a good casserole could really warm things up.

I wanted to re-make Ina's soup, but round out the acidity of the tomatoes. Also, while the roasted tomato and basil is delicious, sometimes it reads too much like pasta sauce to my palette. The solution became adding a pan of carrots to the oven, along with the tomatoes. This addition also results in soup that is a gorgeous orangey-red, like a color from a J.Crew catalog.

Over the years, I have made many iterations of this soup, tinkering to get my desired flavor and texture. I think it is perfect all on it's own, and for those of us making more healthful choices after two months of drinking eggnog in our morning coffee (ahem), it is a good fit. But, it is also sublime when finished with a splash of heavy cream or dollop of sour cream.

roasted tomato and carrot soup

roasted tomatoes:
3 lbs roma tomatoes, halved, cored and seeds scooped out (about 15 tomatoes, but do weigh them)
1/4 cup olive oil
good pinch of kosher salt

roasted carrots:
3 large carrots, scrubbed and halved (I don't bother with peeling)
2 tablespoons olive oil
good pinch of kosher salt

soup base:
1 medium yellow onion, chopped (about 1 cup)
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
4 cups chicken stock (or use vegetable stock for a vegetarian/vegan version)
28 oz can whole tomatoes
3/4 teaspoon fresh thyme
salt & pepper to taste

1) Preheat oven to 400. On a large rimmed baking sheet, toss the halved tomatoes with olive oil and salt. Roast for 90 minutes or until the tomatoes lose their shape and start to char. On a second rimmed baking sheet, toss the carrots with olive oil and salt and add to the oven, alongside the tomatoes. Roast the carrots for 60 minutes or until they are tender and edges start to char.

2) Meanwhile, prepare the soup base: heat the olive oil in a large soup pot (preferably one with a heavy base). Saute the onion over medium heat until translucent. Add the garlic and cook briefly, (seriously, like 30 seconds) and then add the chicken stock. To this soup base, add the roasted carrots and simmer for about 15 minutes. (Why? The carrots have a tendency to get a bit shriveled around the edges and it do not blend up as smoothly in the final product. I like the flavor that roasting produces but recommend softening them up in the soup base for a bit).

3) Once tomatoes are roasted, add to the simmering carrots and stock and then also add the can of tomatoes and fresh thyme. Bring it all to a simmer. Remove from heat and, using an immersion blender, blitz it all until consistent smooth texture. Please take care not to splatter yourself with hot soup. If it's all a bit thick, you can thin out with a water that's been swirled in the leftover can from the tomatoes (just and idea).

Monday, January 1, 2018

a few of my favorite things- new years day edition 1/01/18

Our first holiday season in our new home was special: we hosted family for both Thanksgiving and Christmas. I felt so fortunate to have space for everyone to feel comfortable. We made Christmas cookies and then delivered them door to door in our neighborhood, singing "We Wish You A Merry Christmas".

We had a white Christmas and took afternoon drives with family into the snow covered passes around our town. At one point, we had to stop the truck to let a group of wild turkey march across the road. We decided that the group of turkeys should be called a "gobble".

During the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I did so much cooking y'all. Even I admit to being impressed with how much I pulled off: vanilla marshmallows, peanut brittle, fruit nut balls (not as well received as I wanted them to be), coconut meltaway cookies, iced sugar cookies, blueberry cobbler, chocolate loaf cake, creme fraiche ice cream, spiced cranberry sorbet, apple tart, gingerbread cake, and, as always, salted dark chocolate chip cookies. That is just the sweet stuff- does not include the ham, turkeys, brisket, roasts, etc. I think I will always remember this Christmas as the one I was not working and had the time to cook my little heart out. I suspect every holiday after this will be a bit of a disappointment to myself. But I am thankful that this year I was able to immerse myself in it. Nothing makes me happier than a table with friends and family and good food.

Like most years, we had a quiet New Years Eve. Today I will make my own resolutions and goals for 2018. Yesterrday I had a sad thought: 2017 is the last year that I will be able to say I lived in Southern California. In 2018, I will only have lived in Washington. I have been feeling pretty homesick for my SoCal friends. Just after Thanksgiving, one of my dear friends had the loveliest fresh balsam fir wreath delivered to my home. The Christmas holidays were a nice diversion but on Saturday a package arrived from two of my close friends and it was filled with so many thoughtful gifts, one of which was a small box of chocolate covered espresso beans from a favorite downtown LA patisserie and I went ahead and started crying. Change is hard and sometimes it feels like the more I settle in to my new life and surroundings the more I realize the loss of what I left behind. I really miss my friends. So, one of my goals for the new year is planning a So Cal visit.

One thing is for sure: I am thankful for this space and you, dear reader, for continuing to visit. I look forward to writing and sharing in the new year. Blessings to you and those you love!

Here are a few of my favorite things (lately):

For supper, I made this pasta dish with kale and red pepper flakes and we wolfed it down.

One of my favorite writers, Ann Patchett, wrote a fascinating piece in the New York Times about not shopping for a year.

If you're looking for something to listen to while taking down the Christmas tree, here is a link to the top ten interviews from NPRs "Fresh Air" with Terry Gross.

Something to think about as you head back to work: according to Harvard Business Review "Research: Men get credit for voicing ideas, but not problems. Women don't get credit for either."

Did you get a gift card to a bookstore (ahem, Amazon) and it's burning a hole in your pocket? Here are some of my favorite reads from this year*:
**books I read this year, but not necessarily published this year :) 

Friday, December 29, 2017

Christmas Eve nachos

Here is my favorite Christmas memory: I was 20 years old and home in Haines, Alaska, on break from college in So Cal. Our family tradition is attending the Presbyterian Christmas Eve candlelight service. It attracts quite a holiday crowd and is a great chance to see everyone who is visiting. As a college student, it was an opportunity to sit with my childhood friends, all of whom were spread out around the US. With my family, it was a chance to connect over a well-loved tradition. As we funneled into the sanctuary, we picked up a service program and small white candle punched through a heavy paper round. The paper round serves as a drip protector for the candle wax. The service can vary from year to year in the opening carols and text of the message but it always ends the same: the congregation lights their candles, starting from the front of the church, passing the flame to the neighbors in the pew and then the church overhead lights are extinguished and we all sing "Silent Night." This moment feels the most like Christmas to me- the sound of our voices swelling to the music and the glow of candlelight.

This particular year I was sitting with my friends and two sisters. As one does, we had been a little jokey and teasing to each other through the service but nothing too disruptive. Reliving childhood antics, we used our hands to warm the bottom end of our candles to shape the wax into hooks or small twists- an activity that entertained us through many a childhood Christmas Eve service. I never fail to be amazed that everyone who walks in the door is given a candle- even kids. In a residential setting I would never give a five year old an open flame and then ask them to sit still for eight minutes, but it is such a sacred activity that I think we collectively overlook the logic of it.
This year felt special. I was engaged and this would be my last Christmas home with my family as a single person. In this same church, in just six short months, I would walk down the aisle. My friends and sisters, in dusty pastel dresses and dyed to match pumps, would stand up with me.

As we neared the end of the service, the interior lights were turned off and at first, the room was dark, but the candlelight glow increased as more candles were lit. We were sitting in a row of chairs at the back of the room, in the overflow section. Momentarily, there was a hush through the group and then the congregation stood and began to sing "Silent Night, Holy Night" led by a lone piano accompaniment. I believe somewhere around the third verse, in the space where we all paused for breath between the lines "Silent Night, Holy Night" and "Son of God loves pure light", my younger sisters voice rang out clearly across the silence, an emphatic "SHIT!" Turns out the paper round "drip protector" had not quite done it's job and, at just the right moment, her drippy candle rolled hot melted wax onto her hand, startling her with it's blistery pain. My friends and I lost it in giggles. It was all we could do to keep from howling out in laughter. In an attempt to maintain some composure, I remember closing my eyes so I could not see the expressions on my friends faces, tears rolling down my cheeks to hold the hilarity in. The faithful gathered in the church soldiered on with the song and when the service concluded and the lights went up, our row and the rows in front and behind us, exploded in laughter. I turned to see my sisters face, beet red in embarrassment. She had been concerned that she would get in trouble or be chided for her expletive slip but it was so damn perfect in it's execution that we couldn't help but find it absolutely hilarious.

That was 17 years ago and still, every time I sing "Silent Night" at the end of any candlelight service, I have to check myself to not start cracking up. I guess I like a little profanity with my sacred moments. Or maybe what I like is a little reality. I am all for Christmas magic. I believe in it. The way Christmas lights symbolize such optimism in our dark nights, the hope of the redemption that Jesus' birth brings to the world. But sometimes I think I put too much pressure on myself to manufacturer some movie set of a Christmas experience: the perfect food, lighting, table setting, gifts under the tree, and velvet and bows picture. I was thinking about Mary, Jesus' mother, and wondering what she would think of the lyrics in "Silent Night." Would she say "Yes, it really was a holy experience- I felt the presence of God the whole time." Or would she confess that she was worried that the cattle would accidentally nibble on baby Jesus in the hay manger if she nodded off? I wonder if the reality of the experience was not one of reverence but rather scary, painful and cold. All that to say, if our holiday traditions are feeling a little ragged around the edges or if the impossible logistics of Christmas wore you down, I think it is okay if our Christmas does not look like how we think it is "supposed to look". I don't think Jesus' birth looked the way we think it should either.

A year after that night of candlelight service hilarity, my new husband and I had to decide how we would celebrate Christmas Eve. Holiday's in the early years of marriage are leaving the familiar comfort of your family's traditions and expose the awkwardness of not yet having honed your own new traditions. There is some negotiating for which traditions you keep and which you alter or discard. On Christmas morning of our first year of marriage I was alarmed to discover that my husband had hidden my Christmas stocking. With a huge grin on his face he explained "It's like a big game of 'hot and cold'- you have to find the stocking!" I responded that a Christmas stocking is not an Easter basket and I was not in the mood for games. (Just so you know who prevailed, I now have 17 years of experience both hiding and finding Christmas stockings.) But this first Christmas Eve, we didn't quite know what to do with ourselves. Christmas Eve with my parents always included a beautiful oyster chowder, but with Southern California temperatures in the 80s, that did not sound good. As an homage to our new warm-temperature Christmas life, we settled on making nachos with homemade pico de gallo: it was something that we love to eat, felt a little indulgent and we could enjoy making together. Christmas Eve nachos are now our annual tradition. I love it's simple beginning but also the ease of it. While I love the formality of a big holiday meal, it feels like a bit much to have them back to back on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Also, it's fun to have a slightly dressed up version of a guilty pleasure. The crunchy salty gooeyness of the chips and cheese and seasoned beef, the tang of tomatoes and onion and, because it is a holiday, we eat as much sour cream as we want. Now that we have moved away from California, this tradition feels even sweeter.

These nachos are, of course, welcome at anytime.

Christmas Eve nachos
The recipe below yields enough for 2 large sheet pans of oven nachos but if making for more than 3-4 adults, I would definitely double the nacho topping and pick up a 2nd bag of chips and more cheddar cheese.

taco seasoning- makes enough to season six pounds of burger
1/4 cup chili powder
3 tablespoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon each paprika, crushed red pepper, and salt
1 1/2 teaspoons each garlic powder, onion powder, dried oregano, black pepper

nacho topping
1.3 pounds ground beef (splurge on good quality, like sirloin, if you can. It's Christmas time!)
2- 3 tablespoons taco seasoning (see above)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
15.25 oz can of black beans, drained and rinsed

pico de gallo
3 pounds roma tomatoes (about 15 tomatoes)
juice from 1 lemon
1/2 - 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt (see note at step 3)
9 scallions (1 bunch), chopped on the bias
1 cup chopped cilantro
1 small serrano or jalapeno (optional)

2 ripe avocados
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
good squeeze of half a lemon or lime

to assemble
15 oz large bag of salted tortilla chips
4 cups shredded medium sharp cheddar cheese (2 cups per sheet pan)
1 pint sour cream
pickled jalapenos
guacamole (see recipe above)

1) Make taco seasoning: in a small bowl, stir all taco seasoning ingredients together, until evenly mixed. Save 3 tablespoons for this batch of nachos and store the rest for later use. Alternately, you can use one of the pre-mixed seasoning packets at the grocery store.

2) Make nacho topping: in a large skillet over medium high heat, cook the ground beef. Use a spatula to chop and cook until beef is completely browned. To drain, transfer the ground beef to a plate lined with paper towels and wipe the skillet out. Return beef to the skillet and add 1 cup of water and 3 tablespoons of the seasoning. Stir to combine and heat mixture until it boils, then reduce heat to a simmer. While beef is simmering, make pico de gallo. (Keep an eye on the pan and add additional water to keep from drying out). The longer the burger simmers, the more tender the meat will become. Think of this almost like making a taco meat bolognese.

3) Make pico de gallo: Cut roma tomatoes in half and scoop out and discard seeds. Chop tomatoes into 1/2 inch dice and add to a large bowl (you want a very large bowl to mix it all together.) To the bowl add the juice of one lemon and the kosher salt. Give it all a big stir. (Note: I HIGHLY recommend starting our conservative on the salt and tasting the salsa mixture with your tortilla chip, as you may want to adjust the salt level to the salsa based on the saltiness of the chip- i.e. the saltier your tortilla chip, the less salt you'll want in your salsa.) Then chop the scallions and cilantro and add to the tomatoes and stir together. If making the salsa in advance, cover and refrigerate but allow 20 minutes for it to come to room temperature before serving.

5) The beef should still be simmering and to it add the drained and rinsed black beans.

4) Make guacamole: Cut the avocados in half and remove the seed. Take a butter knife and, while the avocado is still in it's skin, score the flesh into cubes. Then, take a spoon and scoop the flesh into a medium bowl. Add the salt and a good squeeze of lemon or lime and stir but take care to not smash completely into a puree- I like guacamole that has a bit of the avocado cube textures in it.

5) To assemble: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a sheet pan with aluminum foil and scatter a good layer of tortilla chips. To the tortilla chips, sprinkle about 3/4 cup of the shredded cheddar cheese and then top with half of the ground beef and black bean topping. Top with 1 1/4 cup shredded cheese and bake for 7-10 minutes or until cheese is melted and gooey. Remove pan from oven and serve with salsa, guacamole, sour cream and pickled jalapeƱos.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

split pea soup

First off, my most sincere thanks for all the kind words and messages on my last post. It really meant a lot to me. I read every single comment and felt your love and care. Thank you.

We have now entered the time of year where I want to eat and do all the holiday things. There is no shortage of activities and to-dos and I am on board for all of it. Really, sign me up. But I also don't want to be shackled to my kitchen while everyone else is off having fun. My latest trick has been making a big batch of soup and freezing half of it. I know, this is not new nor really a trick. I bet most people already do this but it's kind of like I just remembered it and man, am I glad I did. In the past month I made the following soups: chicken noodle, tomato carrot, spiced lentil, and split pea. With each batch I freeze a portion for future consumption and I when I arrive at that future need, I am so thrilled with my own foresight: "Well done me from 10 days ago! Look at how well you planned ahead!" I pull one of the frozen soups, put in the fridge to unthaw for a couple days and we have a wonderful weeknight meal.

Split pea soup has been a favorite since I was a kid and my Dad used to put a batch in the crockpot, to cook all day with a ham hock. It was a comfort to walk in the door, from out of a cold snowy day, and have a bowl of it.

If there is split pea soup on a menu, I almost always have to order it. For years if I went to California Pizza Kitchen with friends, I ordered the split pea and barley soup. People would talk about the CPK barbecue chicken pizza and I had no idea what was being referenced because I was too busy eating soup. (My husband and I also used to really love their waldorf chicken salad but they changed the recipe a bit and it's no longer my favorite.)

While some soup recipes requiring doubling so that there is enough for leftovers, this recipe makes a whopping large batch of soup. I'd be impressed if someone had a soup pot large enough for doubling it. But what I really love about this recipe is the addition of dried oregano. In a million years I would not have thought to include it but Ina Garten, as she does so well, knows that the subtle herb note provides the perfect lift to the split peas.

The only slight change I have made to the recipe is to add all the split peas at once and to cook until they are soft. Ina's original instructions have to cook 1 1/2 pounds of the split peas and then halfway through the cooking time, add the remaining half pound. The idea is that this adds a little bit of texture to the soup but I've found that I prefer the split peas cooked all the way through and smooth.

split pea soup

2 cups chopped yellow onions (about 2 large onions)
1 tablespoon minced garlic (about 3 cloves)
1/4 cup good olive oil
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
4 cups medium-diced carrots (about 6-8 carrots)
2 cups medium-diced red boiling potatoes, unpeeled but well scrubbed (about 6 small)
2 pounds dried split peas
8 cups chicken stock (for vegetarian split pea soup, please feel free to use all water)
8 cups water

1) In a large stockpot over medium heat, add the olive oil and, once heated, add the onions, oregano, salt and pepper. Do not let the onions brown, but cook until they are translucent, about 10 to 15 minutes. Then add the garlic and saute for about a minute.

2) Add the carrots, potatoes, split peas and stock and water. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat so that the soup simmers. Split peas take a good long time to soften up. I find I need to cook for about an hour. While the soup cooks, a bit of foam with form at the surface. Take a spoon to skim off and discard. Give the whole mixture a good stir, every once in a while and take care that the bottom of the soup is not getting burned.

3) Before serving, taste for salt and pepper. It is at this point that I divide the soup and serve half and freeze the remaining portion.