Archive | May, 2011

Cooking Class: India via Oakland

30 May

Every few months, my friend Dana asks that we do a cooking class together. I have no teaching credentials–cooking or otherwise–but I enjoy cooking, Dana enjoys cooking with me and my husband (and sometimes another friend) enjoy showing up for the grand finale: eating. Everyone leaves happy and my student is good about cleaning along the way. Cooking class has no particular structure; it usually involves drinking wine and making something Dana wouldn’t usually tackle at home. Sometimes I remember to throw in an instructional tidbit, such as: add garlic after the onions have been cooking for a bit so you don’t burn the hell out of your garlic and have to throw the whole thing out. Other times I just focus on that delicate balance of making sure the wine drinking doesn’t get in the way of injury-free chopping. Either way, we get a good dinner at the end and no one can argue with that.

Sometimes Dana has special requests but our last class was chef’s choice.  I had a cauliflower on its last legs from our CSA box and a yearning to try a chickpea date masala recipe I saw in the New York Times Magazine last fall, so I landed on Indian. I didn’t go for any particular region–really it was more of my interpretation of Indian though I did plan to follow the chickpea recipe faithfully and that came from an Indian restaurant in Vancouver. I am not remotely Indian–not even a teeny-tiny bit. I am Romanian/Polish Jewish on my mother’s side (think: kugel, babka, parts of the animal I think even meat-eaters would be grossed out by) and pilgrim (from the not-so-spicy lands of Holland, England and Scotland) on my father’s side.  True, Romanian cooking is a bit more colorful and if I really stretched, I could attribute my affinity for eggplant to my heritage, but bottom line: mustard seeds and chilies do not run through my blood.

Family history aside, I did grow up in a house of adventurous eaters and my parents broke free of the shackles of calf’s foot jelly and pot roast to expose us to the spice and color of more interesting (in my perspective) cuisines. Indian was high on our list, particularly after I stopped eating meat and fish  in 1993 in Eastern Pennsylvania. Eastern PA in the early 90s was not veggie friendly. It was all about meat, meat and more meat, and maybe some potatoes. Pig stomach dinners sold out in a flash. School sports banquets featured delicacies like salad with bacon dressing, filling (bread mixed with mashed potatoes) and as mentioned,  and lots and lots of meat. Lest I sound too harsh on the Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine, I will admit here in public that I love gefilte fish. I can’t honestly say that gefilte fish is any more sophisticated or delicious than filling but it’s a holiday thing and it’s really pretty good with a ton of horseradish. But I digress. Point is: I was a vegetarian in a land of pork and my savior was the Indian restaurant. Along with the Lebanese restaurant we sometimes frequented, it was the one place where I was guaranteed to find more than salad.

Although I’ve loved to eat Indian since that time, for years I was afraid to cook it.  It was a bit mysterious and intimidating and I thought it was better to just go out and have it done right. But given how veggie friendly it is, I decided at some point that I had to dive in. I took baby steps, starting with lentil dishes and have been gingerly exploring new territory. Sometimes I’ll use recipes and other times, I’ll just use some Indian spices and make things that while are likely not authentic, work for me.

For our cooking class the other week, I chose:

  • Indian-Spiced Cauliflower Soup–completely made up
  • Chickpea Date Masala–taken from an Indian restaurant and presumably authentic
  • Spinach with Ginger & Garlic–just a slight Indian twist on standard sauteed greens
  • Curry Rice Krispie Treats–taken from a cocktail book and completely unauthentic but also completely addictive

Indian-Spiced Cauliflower Soup (i.e. how to get rid of a cauliflower on its last legs)

Note:  Despite still being intimidated by Indian cooking, I am now the proud owner of several Indian cookbooks. I often see recipes call for asafetida and when I finally saw it in a spice shop, I was thrilled and immediately bought a bag and then nearly as immediately, forgot where I saw it used and what I was meant to do with it.  Apparently it adds an onion-like flavor and it seemed appropriate here but I think you could easily leave it out. This serves about 4-6 people.

1 head cauliflower, chopped into small pieces

1 onion, diced

2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and minced

1-2 green chilies, minced

Few cloves garlic, minced (vary depending on how much you like garlic)

1 tsp mustard seeds

2 tsp ground cumin

2 tsp ground coriander

Pinch asafetida

4 c light veggie broth (I used Imagine’s No-Chicken Broth)

1 can coconut milk

Salt to taste

1/2 cup cilantro, roughly choped

Juice of 1/2 lemon

1) Saute chopped onion and mustard seeds until onion is golden

2) Add garlic, ginger and green chilies and  saute for 1-2 minutes (be careful not to burn the garlic)

3) Add cumin,coriander and asteofedia and a pinch of salt, toast slightly

4) Add cauliflower and coat with spices, cook about 1 minute

5) Add broth and coconut milk, simmer, covered for 25 minutes or until cauliflower is soft

6) Blend soup with an immersion blender or in a standing blender

7) Season with salt and add lemon juice and cilantro.

Make ahead if possible–it will taste better.

Chickpeas in Star Anise and Date Masala

This recipe was published in the New York Times Magazine last November. It comes from Vij’s Restaurant in Vancouver, BC. It serves about six.

3 15-ounce cans chickpeas (or 11/2 cups dried chickpeas, soaked overnight and cooked)

2 black cardamom pods

13cup neutral cooking oil, like canola

1 medium-large Spanish onion, peeled and chopped

6 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

2 1/2tablespoons tomato paste

9 dried dates, pitted and chopped

4 tsp ground cumin

2 tsp kosher salt

1 tsp ground cayenne, or to taste

1 tsp freshly ground black pepper, or to taste

2 whole star anise, or 13 tsp ground

1)  Drain the chickpeas and set aside in a nonreactive bowl.

2) With a knife, lightly crack the cardamom pods. Peel the shell to release the seeds and collect them in a small bowl. Discard the shells. With a rolling pin or a mortar and pestle, crush the seeds (you can leave them whole if you don’t mind biting into them) and set aside.

3) In a medium pot set over medium-high heat, heat the oil until it begins to shimmer. Add the onions and sauté for 8 to 10 minutes, until they have softened and started to brown. Stir in the garlic and sauté for a minute or so, until it, too, has softened. Reduce heat to medium and stir in the tomato paste. Add the cardamom and all remaining ingredients and sauté for 2 or 3 minutes.

4) Add the chickpeas and 1/2 cup or more of water, enough to make them less than dry. Heat the mixture, stirring occasionally to incorporate the flavors, and keep warm until serving.

Eat Your Greens (with Chilies Ginger)

In my opinion, there’s no better accompaniment to a meal than a big bowl of sauteed dark leafy greens (think spinach, chard, kale, broccoli rabe, etc). Greens can go American, Italian, Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern… you name it. Plus, they’re quick, easy and healthy.  For our Indian-inspired meal, I added mustard seeds, chilies and ginger. This can serve 4-6 on the side or you could eat the whole thing by yourself if you really want to be big and strong.

2 lbs spinach (I used baby spinach here but you could use regular spinach or substitute another green)

1 thumb sized piece ginger, minced

2-3 garlic cloves, minced

1 green chili, minced

1 tsp mustard seeds

1 tbsp canola oil

Juice of 1/2 lemon

1/2 tbsp butter

Salt to taste

1) Heat canola oil over medium-high heat in a large skillet and when hot, add the mustard seeds

2) Once the mustard seeds start popping, add the garlic, ginger and chilies

3) Saute your aromatics for about 1 minute and then add the spinach, in batches

4) Turn the spinach until it’s coated with the oil and aromatics and cook until just wilted

5) Add the lemon, butter and salt to taste

Curried Rice Krispie Treats

I got this recipe from a Food and Wine compilation book of the best cocktails and bar snacks of 2008. I’d always wanted to make these Rice Krispie treats but never got around to it. The only problem with these is that despite living in the Bay Area and being confident of being able to find vegetarian marshmallows (since you can find veggie bacon, veggie kielbasa, vegan mac and cheese, etc), I came up short handed. Admittedly we only went to one store so next time, I’ll broaden my search.

3 tbsp butter

4 c. mini marshmallows

1 tbsp curry powder (recipe says  mild; I used the Madras curry powder I had in the house and it was great)

6 c. Rice Krispies

1/2 c. salted sunflower kernels

1) Butter or spray a 9 x 13 x 2 inch pan and set aside

2) Melt the butter in a large saucepan (a wok also works)

3) Add the marshmallows and stir until melted

4) Stir the curry powder into the melted marshmallows

5) Add the Rice Krispies and sunflower kernels and stir well

6) Press the mixture into the pan and cool until firm


Tuna Floats in an Endive Boat

15 May

Last week was a long one. Going the store after work for dinner ingredients seemed about as enticing as forgoing my evening at home for another round of meetings.  Lucky for our bank account, my frequent inability to face a checkout line leads us to what we should be doing: eating what’s already in the house. This dilemma is what weaned me off  a reliance on recipes in the first place.  What we have in the house doesn’t always naturally go together but that’s part of the fun of it. It’s like being on that British cooking show where two hapless home cooks show up with a bag of items they tend to buy at the store and two equally hapless chefs have to battle it out by creating easy, tasty dinners combining ingredients like zucchini, potato chips and mayonnaise.  Zucchini knows not to darken my door so that wasn’t an issue for us but we did have a lovely package of endives from our CSA (community supported agriculture) box that had to be used. Expensive and threatening to wilt, they stared us down, taunting us with their ability to turn bad the following day and leave us with the visual of our CSA dollars floating away never to be seen again.

It’s not like endive is that hard to use. It makes a great salad, it’s great for dips and there’s an amazing looking braised endive and grape recipe in one of my new cookbooks that I’m dying to try. But I didn’t have grapes and we weren’t in the mood to make more than one thing as it was already creeping past 8 pm. That’s when canned tuna and our fairly impressive selection of condiments came to the recipe.  The result: an Asian twist on tuna salad, floating merrily in endive boats.

Tuna Floats in an Endive Boat

Note: We served this as our main course for a post-workout dinner but it could serve 4 as a light meal.

Two cans water-packed tuna

1 small cucumber, diced (You could also use celery–it’s just nice to have something crunchy)

1 1/2 red bell pepper, diced

1/4 white onion, diced

Handful cilantro, chopped (Cilantro haters could try parsley instead)

Small handful toasted walnuts, chopped

Three endives, leaves separated


2 tbsp Schezuan  marinade (If you don’t have this, add soy, chili, garlic, ginger and some extra vinegar to your dressing. It won’t be quite the same but it’ll work)

Splash rice wine vinegar

1 tbsp dark sesame oil

1tbsp canola oil

1) Mix your dressing ingredients in a large bowl

2) Add your tuna and chopped veggies and mix well

3) Fold int he walnuts and cilantro

4) Scoop into endive leaves or if you’re lazy, as we were, serve the tuna with the endive leaves on the side and let your diners do their own scooping

Broccolini Meets Its Match in a Three-Round Date

8 May

One of my favorite commercials on TV is the one about the Olive Garden cooking school in Tuscany. I don’t have anything against Olive Garden and lest I come off like a foodie snob, I understand the appeal of chain restaurants like the Olive Garden and know that many towns are not as blessed with cheap, delicious dining options as is Oakland. There are also many expensive, delicious options but the point is that you can eat well, in a place where someone else serves you and cleans up, without selling all of your worldly possessions. So I get it: if you want to go out for a decent and reasonable meal, especially if you want to take your kids out and find a place that will both satisfy them and allow them to behave as children often do, than a place like the Olive Garden is likely high on your list. But really–a cooking school in Tuscany? One reason that the Olive Garden doesn’t break the bank is likely because the chefs are not trained at an exclusive villa by the finest Italian chefs. Not to mention the atmosphere. After having seen enough cooking reality shows to rot my brain for the next 50 years, I highly doubt that cooking school involves smiling white-hatted chefs stirring a vast pot of what appears to be glue and lifting it to their noses for ecstatic whiffs. My guess? Cooking school involves yelling, bloody thumbs, heaps of onions and tears. This is why I write a cooking blog instead of going to cooking school and let my husband deal with the onion chopping. But I digress. My point is not really to pound on poor Olive Garden but rather to point out that Italian food can be quick, easy, delicious and even economical when made inside your own Olive Garden cooking school. To save money, I suggest that you ask your cooking partner to fashion their own chef’s toque out of a pillowcase rather than buying your own. It won’t quite be like the commercial but you’ll get the general atmosphere.

In today’s installment, we’ll focus on pasta.  Pasta can certainly be elegant but on Friday night, after a long week at work and recovering from vacation over-spending, we wanted cheap and easy. I promised Ben a date night dinner so pasta was not the only thing on the menu. A date night calls for appetizers and dessert. Sadly for him, he was the waiter doing the serving and the dishwasher cleaning up. But in return, he got plenty of free wine.

To Start: Salmon Goes Swimming on a Baguette
I will admit that smoked salmon and watercress don’t necessarily fall into the “cheap” category but with both ingredients, a little goes a long way and the leftovers are great mixed into your morning eggs.

Smoked salmon, cut into bite-sized pieces

Watercress, roughly chopped (just enough to use as a garnish)

A bit of lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper to dress the watercress

Softened butter

Baguette, cut into small slivers (depending on how many people you’re serving, you may have leftover baguette to have alongside your eggs the next day)

This couldn’t be easier. Dress your watercress and set aside. Spread a bit of butter on each baguette slice, top with a piece of salmon and pile a bit of watercress on top of that.  If you have some Prosecco, this is even better.

To Continue: Broccolini Meets Its Match

Broccoli and anchovies are a match made in culinary heaven. Try this, even if you don’t like anchovies. I promise that it’s good. It doesn’t taste fishy–the anchovies just amp up the flavors of all of their friends in the pan. Also, if you don’t have broccolini, regular broccoli works just fine.

Bunch broccolini (for two people as a main course, I used three small bunches), chopped in one-inch pieces

Few baby cipollini onions (or shallots or one small regular onion), chopped

3-4 garlic cloves (or less if you don’t love garlic as much as I do), minced

2-3 dried red chilies, crumbled (or use a few good shakes of chili flakes)

1/3 cup+ (enough to keep the veggies saucy) veggie stock

1 tin anchovies

Olive oil, as much or little as you want, as long as you have enough to saute your veggies

Salt & pepper to taste

Dried long pasta of your choice, such as spaghetti, linguine, buccatini, etc

Reserved pasta water

To garnish:

Fresh grated parmesan

Bread crumbs, preferably Panko, toasted with a bit of olive oil, salt, pepper and dried chili

1) Boil water in a large stock pot (do not skimp on water!) and when it comes to a boil, salt it generously

2) Depending on how long your pasta needs to cook, put it in immediately or while your veggies are cooking. You’ll want to pull it out about two minutes early with your reserved pasta cooking water to add to your veggies.

3) Get your sauce started by heating your olive oil in a large pan over medium heat.

4) Add your garlic, onions and dried chilies and saute until the garlic and onions are golden but not brown.

5) Add your anchovies and mash with a spoon until they melt into the onions and garlic

6) Add the broccolini and toss to combine with the other ingredients. Once the broccolini is coated, add the veggie stock and cook until the broccolini is tender but not mushy and still nice and green. If the mixture gets dry, add more stock.

7) Two minutes before the pasta is done, drain it, reserving a cup or so of the cooking water, and add the pasta to the pan with your broccolini mix. Pour in enough pasta water to create a sauce and cook for two minutes, until the sauce has thickened and the pasta is coated. Season to taste, remembering that both the anchovies and cooking water have contributed salt. Top with cheese and toasted breadcrumbs.

A Cheesy Side of Strawberries

This ridiculously easy dessert is inspired (practically stolen, really) from a Naked Chef cookbook. I only make it in the spring, when strawberries are at their best.

About 1/2-2/3 cup of ricotta cheese (more if you’re serving more people)

About 1/3-1/2 cup of soft goat cheese

Splash vanilla

Zest of one lemon

2 tablespoons or so of sugar, to taste

1 basket strawberries, quartered

Splash of balsamic vinegar

Few grinds of black pepper

1) Mix the cheeses, lemon zest, 1 tbsp sugar and vanilla in a bowl. Set aside.

2) Mix the strawberries, remaining sugar, balsamic and pepper in another bowl. Set aside for at least one hour.

3) For each serving, take a big dollop of the cheese mixture and top with the strawberries. Throw some fresh mint on top if you’re so inclined.

Salad Days

8 May

Last weekend, Ben and I caught up with my best friend Stephanie and her husband Brandon. Steph and I met first semester of our freshman year and have been inseparable–even through our often vast geographical separation–ever since. We have been trying to get together for some time and finally were able to plan a four-day weekend.

We live in Oakland and Steph and Brandon live outside of Minneapolis, so we met in the most logical of places: Palm Desert. There was actually a method to the madness: Minneapolis is freezing and Palm Desert is not.  Plus, Steph’s cousin had generously offered to  let us stay in her condo in one of the many gated golf-obsessed communities that line the streets of the desert town. This made the golfers on the trip very happy. The 90+ degree weather and easily-accessible pool and hot tub (because can you ever be too warm?) satisfied those of us who prefer not to swing at balls while wearing funny plaid pants.  Often when Ben and I travel, it’s a trip. It involves unknown entities, bug bites, meandering walks through unfamiliar cities and the occasional near-death experience involving a cliff (there are differing opinions on whether this story is amusing so to stay out of trouble, I’m going to avoid it). Palm Desert was not a trip; it was a vacation in every sense of the word.  There were lazy mornings, vodka tonics by the pool, new shoes crammed into an already overstuffed suitcase and many meals out.  When we got back to reality, Ben and I decided we were in desperate need of some serious exercise and a salad detox. Here are a few of the salads that got us back on the road to healthy living.

Tuna Goes South of the Border

Writing about vacation has made me seriously lazy about proportions so I’m not putting any here. It’s a salad–make as much as you want or need for the amount of people you’re feeding. There’s no real science to it. Just do not dress any salad that you think will be leftover; it will be a wilted mess by the time you have a hankering for leftovers.


Mixed baby greens (or butter lettuce or romaine or whatever else you prefer. I just don’t recommend iceberg. It doesn’t have much flavor)

Green onion, minced

Avocado, chopped

Good quality canned tuna (either in olive oil or in water)

Toasted pumpkin seeds

Cilantro (leave it out if you are one of the many people who thinks cilantro tastes like soap)


Lime juice

Olive oil

Tomatillo salsa

Salt & pepper to taste

Mix your dressing in a large bowl. Pile all salad ingredients aside from the pumpkin seeds on top and toss until the salad is evenly coated. Be sure not to overdress your salad–you can always add more dressing if needed. Sprinkle the seeds on top and you’re done!

Go East Young Spinach


Baby spinach

Shiitake mushrooms, sliced thin

Green onions, minced

Bean sprouts

Red bell pepper, chopped

Tea-smoked tofu, sliced thin (you could use any kind of marinated tofu or you could substitute stir-fried plain tofu, fish or even chicken)

Snow peas

Tamari almonds


Schezuan marinade

Splash each of  rice wine vinegar, soy sauce, rice wine and canola oil

As with the tuna salad, just combine your dressing in a large bowl, top with your veggies and tofu, toss well and top with the almonds.

Rice Gone Wild

This was my desperate attempt to avoid yet another frozen meal at lunch, using leftovers scavenged from the fridge. It turned out to be colorful, quite tasty and a great use for a nub of goat cheese in its final days. There’s not a real dressing as I’m not that coordinated at 7 am.

Wild rice

Walnut oil

Lemon juice

Red bell pepper, chopped

Flat leaf parsley, torn

Mint, torn

Walnuts, roughly broken up

Goat cheese, crumbled

Salt & pepper to taste

Mix together while looking at the microwave in triumph.