Lentil Minestrone

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I had another recipe all queued up ready to go. It was a salad I had thrown together for a lunch that was pretty tasty. Aaron deemed it, unprompted, blogworthy. The photographs were beautiful, among the best that I’ve taken yet. It was simple and fast, two categories that my recipes are admittedly lacking in. But when I went to write about it my words felt dry. I struggled for an hour before dashing off to work. Over the past few days I’ve tried to find my angle in, but eventually I realized that I just don’t feel strongly enough about it to share with you here.

There’s a lot of advice floating out there on the internet about blogging and how to do it best. Find your niche, some say. So you blog about dessert? Try writing only about chocolate!  Put out content quickly, others say. The more content you have, the more google-able you are. You want to be google-able, don’t you? Use less words! More photos! Promote more on pinterest! Do giveaways! Everyone loves free things! Don’t fall in love. Perfect is the enemy of good. Don’t put anything up that you wouldn’t want to follow you around for the rest of your life. Have your site design ready before you start. Don’t worry about site design yet, just start. Always measure out the amount of chopped vegetables you need. One medium onion is not one medium onion. Never measure out the amount of chopped vegetables you need. We know what one medium onion looks like. The advice is interesting and useful, until it’s not anymore.

I’ve been trying to be more present here than I have in the past. I’ve also been trying to make sure I’m not putting out content for the sake of putting out content. There’s a tension inherent in these two ideas. There may be some bloggers who could just document their dinner every night, but I am not that person. Not everything I cook fits neatly into what I do in this space. After working in restaurants, sometimes the last thing I want to do is cook on my night off. And sometimes I have a good idea that’s not quite ready to be released.  I’m trying to find the middle ground, between doing good work and allowing myself to not always be working.

So I threw together this lentil minestrone before work last week. I had some vegetable broth that I made earlier in the week that was begging to be used. It was a chilly sort of morning, so I wanted something hearty and warming. I also wanted something nutrient dense and filling, and just slightly different than my normal lentil soup. I found my answer in Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison, one of my favorite all-purpose, can’t-go-wrong, encyclopedic references.

It’s easy, comforting, and you may already have all the ingredients in your pantry. If you omit the cheese, it’s vegan, and if you want it to be gluten-free, it’s easy enough to switch out the pasta. I ate this soup for three days in a row and each day I ate this soup I felt a subtle but significant energy boost. I couldn’t wait to come here and share it with you. Some days there’s no tension- just a recipe screaming to be shared.

Lentil Minestrone

adapted from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison

You could make this soup with either vegetable broth or water. I split the difference, using three cups of homemade broth and six cups of water. You could also cook the pasta and kale in the soup themselves and save a pot, but I wouldn’t- the pasta kept its shape much better being cooked separately.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, diced
3 carrots, diced
3 celery stalks, diced
4 garlic cloves, sliced
1/4 cup chopped parsley
2 tablespoons tomato paste
salt and pepper
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 cup beluga lentils
9 cups vegetable broth or water, or a combination of both
3/4 teaspoon tamari
4 ounces small pasta, such as fusilli
1 bunch of tuscan kale, stems removed and thinly sliced

Olive oil, to serve
Parmesan Cheese, to serve

Heat a large pot over medium heat. Add the olive oil and warm. Add the onion and stir well. Let cook for about ten minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onions are starting to take on a golden color and smell wonderful. Add the carrots, celery, garlic, parsley, tomato paste, 2 teaspoons of salt, and the crushed red pepper. Stir well and cook for another 3 minutes or so. Add the lentils and stock and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, and simmer for 30 minutes, until the lentils are tender. Add the tamari and then season with salt and pepper to taste.

While the soup is simmering bring another pot of water to boil. Salt generously, then add the pasta. Cook according to package directions or until tender. This changes depending on the type of pasta and the brand, but is usually somewhere between ten and fifteen minutes. Scoop the pasta out using a slotted spoon or a spider and place into a large bowl. In the same boiling water add the kale. Cook for two minutes, until tender and bright green. Drain the water.

To serve, combine the pasta, kale, and soup. Drizzle with olive oil and top with shavings of parmesan.

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Rhubarb Clafouits

Clafouits

I’ve been trying to convince Aaron that we should move to France.

Some context might be useful here. Aaron works in technology and communications, but his favorite thing to do is make things by hand. For the past few months he’s been playing with the idea of becoming a cooper. A cooper is a person who makes barrels for alcohol. There’s a grand total of two cooperages in Minnesota, both a fair drive from Minneapolis. And both of those cooperages are located in areas of the state we’re not interested in living. Most cooperages in America are in Kentucky, where Aaron grew up and doesn’t care to return. Most also make guns, which is something he’s not keen on doing. In America our coopers tend to make barrels for bourbon, which legally requires new charred oak barrels for every batch. Sometimes these barrels are used to make beer or other spirits. Most cooperages, however, are based in France and make barrels for wine. And if he got an apprenticeship at a cooperage in France it would be a four year commitment, rather than the state standard two.

My desire to move to France is rooted less in an idea of what it would be like and more in a daydream. I have a vision of living in a beautiful, remote town. We would bicycle to the market every day and bringing back fresh tulips, which I would arrange in leftover wine bottles. I would work at a boulangerie, learning the secrets to perfect levains and baguettes. We would both quickly master the language and our inevitable accent would be declared charming by the friends we would quickly find. We would sit in cafes for hours and I would learn to like coffee. We could jet off to our beloved England during long weekends. We could explore Paris for my first time. We could return to America every August to see our families. And if we happened to start a family during this time, they would emerge well-behaved and multi-lingual, born with an appreciation for croissants and dark chocolate.

This is what I see when I envision a time spent living in France. Aaron likes to check my daydreams by pointing out how hard it would be to get a visa, how expensive it would be to move to France, and how we don’t speak the language. I sometimes remind him that I took three years of French in high school, but as all I can remember is names for food and the chorus to song Champs-Élysées, he’s basically right.

I have a secret weapon, though. I’ve been feeding him French food for the past few weeks, hoping to build up a positive association that I can parlay into a move (or at least a visit- I’m not that particular). I’m not sure yet if it’s working, but we’re certainly eating well.

First it was quiche, then radishes with butter on toast. And now I have clafouits to add to this list, which is certainly the easiest dessert I’ve ever posted, and may well be my easiest recipe yet.

Clafouits, according to Wikipedia, comes from the Limousin region of France, and is traditionally made with cherries. You make a thin batter, pour it into a buttered pan, and dot it with fruit. I chose rhubarb, the herald of spring, because I love its shocking pink color, its tart edge, and the way it collapses with heat. The whole thing puffs up to twice its original size, then collapses dramatically as soon as its removed from heat. You’re left with a cross between a dutch baby and a cake, custardy in texture but light on the tongue. I made and shot this at my friend Bailey’s loft (with my new camera! What up, dSLR!) and we devoured it  on her roof along with brats, grilled asparagus, and jam jars of rosé.

Even if we don’t move to France I think I’ll keep up this campaign. It’s a delicious way to experience life.

Clafouits 2

Rhubarb Clafouits

butter and flour for pan
4 cups (about 6 stalks) thinly sliced rhubarb
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons orange juice
1 1/2 cup milk
6 eggs
6 tablespoons (1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons) sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup flour

Preheat the oven to 425. Butter and flour an eight inch cake pan. Set aside.

In a large pan combine the rhubarb, the two tablespoons of sugar, and orange juice over medium heat. Stir well to combine, and then let cook for a bit, until the rhubarb is softened and is starting to give off juices. This should only take about five minutes. Set aside.

In a blender combine the milk, eggs,  remainder of the sugar, vanilla, and salt and blend until smooth. Add the flour, and blend again until the batter is smooth. If you don’t have a blender, you could make do with a large bowl, a whisk, and some upper body strength. The flour should be completely incorporated when you’re done.

Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan and strew the rhubarb and its juices across the top. Stir to evenly distribute the rhubarb as necessary, then place in the oven to bake.

Bake until clafouits is puffy and starting to take on a beautiful burnished color, about 25-35 minutes. The clafouits should puff dramatically above the cake pan, and will begin to fall as soon as its removed from the oven. Let cool and fall, and serve at room temperature.

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Radishes on Toast, Three Ways

Radishes

I forget where I first heard of radishes on toast. It may have come from a children’s book, the old fashioned kind where heroic children who say things like “golly” and “shant” cheerfully play in gardens and never miss tea. It may have been from the cookbooks that I rented from the library on a weekly basis, before I ever considered cooking would be a good way to eat all this delicious food. It may have been later, on the internet, where I was exposed for the first time to food writing that treated food as more than a list of components, but a language that we speak. What I do know is that I was in my 20s the first time I ate a radish. And the first time I ate it was on toast.

I had a crush on radishes on toast for a long time before I ever tried one. It seemed intensely elegant, a fancy way that I could eat two of my favorite things, bread and butter, to my heart’s content. It helped that I couldn’t identify exactly what a radish was, besides that it was a vegetable. There are sillier things to crush on, an unknown vegetable on bread, but not many.

When I did try this radish on toast I was a college senior, living with friends in off-campus housing. I had started shopping at our local co-op, and one day picked up radishes, and then a baguette. At home I tore a corner off the baguette, slathered it with butter, and topped with sliced radishes. I soon learned to sprinkle flakey salt on top, and have been eating radishes on toast whenever I can find good baguettes ever since.

Earlier this week Aaron and I went to an excellent local bakery and I picked up a baguette on a whim. I had never had theirs before, but once we were home and had torn off a corner I was smitten. I knew it was time to slice radishes and swipe butter. And so today in celebration of good bread and lovely weather, I offer three variations of radishes on toast- traditional, tweaked, and twisted. They’re all delicious, and all perfectly suited for spring cocktails and starting dinner outside.

Happy Friday.

Radishes on Toast, Three Ways

The quantity of components depend on how many pieces of toast you’d like, how comfortable you are with fat, and how heavily you add your radishes. The process is the same for each toast- Slice the baguette. Slather on the spread. Top with radishes and a flaked salt, like Maldon.

Traditional

Traditional

A tradition for a reason. It’s creamy and smooth, with just the right amount of crunch. The peppery bite of the radishes come through most here, making it the ideal radish toast for the radish lover.

baguette
butter, unsalted and room temperature
radishes
salt, flaked

Tweaked

Tweaked

Elegant and playful, the radish greens give a vegetal edge to the the creamy butter, while the shallots accentuate the bite of the radish.

baguette
butter, compound of radish leaves and shallots (recipe below)
radishes
salt, flaked

Twisted

Twisted

The pickled radishes here have that tart, puckering taste of all good pickles, an edge that is tamed by the smooth, nutty-sweet avocado.

baguette
avocado, smashed
radishes, pickled (recipe below)
salt, flaked

Radish Leaf and Shallot Compound Butter

The process is quite easy for this. Feel free to adjust proportions as you like- the more things stuffed into the butter, the more intense the flavor, the less things, the smoother the texture.

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 handful clean radish leaves, finely chopped
1/2 shallot, minced

In a small bowl mix the butter with the radish leaves and shallot until well combined. Wrap in plastic and roll into a log, and refrigerate or freeze until you are ready to use. Be sure to bring to room temperature before trying to spread.

Pickled Radishes

I chose to make a small amount of pickled radishes because pickled radishes, unlike many other quick pickles, have a very short shelf life. The great advantage to pickled radishes is because they’re so thin they pickle very quickly.

4 radishes, cleaned and thinly sliced
1 cup white vinegar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon whole fennel seeds
1/4 teaspoon mustard seeds
1/4 teaspoon whole black peppercorns

Place the radishes into a clean jar. Boil together the vinegar, salt, sugar, and spices. Pour the vinegar mixture over the radishes and let cool. The pickles can be eaten after hanging out in vinegar for an hour, and will keep in the refrigerator for about 5 days.

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Leek and Spinach Quiche


I spent a long time thinking about what I wanted to make to officially mark the beginning of spring. Eggs always represent spring to me, with their promise of life and their thick, vivid yellow yolks. Sweet leeks and crisp spinach, which both grow nicely here for most of the year, would round out the eggs. And because spring is not summer, it calls for some baking and a bit more fat. A quiche, then,  with a butter crust and nutty gruyere and sips of heavy cream. And the day that I baked this quiche, this celebration of spring, I was rewarded with a fat flurry of snowflakes. As Anne Lamott says, if you want to make God laugh, tell her your plans.

The beginnings of spring in Minnesota resembles playing tug of war. You step forward into the sun, and then are pushed backwards towards the snow. It keeps going like this, inching forward a bit more every time, until finally with an almighty shove you topple into the season. I’m looking forward for this game to end. I have a fat bunch of seed packets to plant in my garden and a closet full of skirts and sandals to wear. In the meantime, restaurants all around are starting to clean off their patio furniture. Aaron and I have been taking long walks around Lake of the Isles in the brilliant sunlight and changed out the flannel sheets from our bed. Spring, we’re ready for you. Please be ready for us.

I enjoy eating quiche all year round, but I love it best in Spring. It’s an elegant meal (I included a quiche in 2 of the 3 Easter dinners I’ve cooked), but it’s also a simple one. It’s perfect for both Spring and psedu-Spring. You make a crust, bake it, fill it it, then bake it again. And while it’s not a 30 minute meal, most of the time is inactive time. I like to make the crust the day before I plan on baking quiche. The day of it’s as easy as assembling the filling, baking, and eating.  I eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, until I’m left quicheless. It’s a sad state to be quicheless, to face a breakfast routine of toast and peanut butter over one of flakey crust and airy custard. I’m planning on making this again just for breakfast leftovers.

Leek and Spinach Quiche

If you have a preferred pie crust recipe, then you could easily substitute it in for this one here. I would just decrease the sugar and make sure you only make enough for a single crust. Or you could just make a double crust recipe and save one crust for a future quiche. On second thought, do that. This recipe stands up well to improvisation, so please make this your own.

Crust:

1 1/2 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling dough
1 teaspoon sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons cold butter, cut into fine chunks
ice water

Filling:

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 medium leeks, thinly sliced
6 cups (8 ounces) packed baby spinach, roughly chopped
salt
4 eggs
1 cup cream
1/2 cup (2 ounces) grated gruyere cheese
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, and sugar until well combined. Add in the butter, and using a pastry knife or your fingers, cut the butter into the flour mixture. If you’re using the pastry knife cut and move the knife until the butter is about the size of peas. If you’re using your fingers (my preferred method), rub the butter into the flour until the butter is well distributed and about the size of a pea.

Use a fork to mix the flour and butter together. Slowly, slowly, slowly add the ice water, a tablespoon at a time, mixing with the fork the whole time. You want the dough to be just moistened enough to hold together, but not so much that it feels wet. The amount of water you’ll need depends on your flour, the water content of your butter, the air in your kitchen, and your confidence, but it should sit somewhere between 1/4 cup and 1/2 cup (4 to 8 tablespoons). If there are patches that are drier than others pour the water over those dry patches. The dough is ready when it just holds together. If you think you’re almost there, give it a squeeze. If it holds together on its own it’s ready. If it doesn’t, add another tablespoon.

Gather your dough into a ball and then flatten into a disk. Wrap this disk well and refrigerate for at least an hour. You can refrigerate the dough for a few days, or freeze for a few months, as long as it’s wrapped well.

When you’re ready to roll out your dough dust a clean surface with flour. Unwrap your dough and place on the surface. Use smooth, long strokes of a rolling pin to roll the dough out onto the surface. Every few strokes, turn the dough a quarter turn to make sure it’s rolling out evenly, and not sticking to the surface. If you’re having trouble with sticking, add a bit more flour.The dough is ready when you have a smooth, even expanse of dough about 12 inches in diameter.

Fold your dough into quarters and place in a 9 inch pie pan, then unfold. Center the dough, and trim off the overhang to about 1 inch. If you have any holes, now is the time to patch them with the extra dough. Crimp the ends of the dough to an even pattern, and poke the bottom with a fork half a dozen or so times. Return the dough to the fridge for 20 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 400.

Place a sheet of parchment paper over the dough, and cover with a weight such as dried beans. Bake for 20 minutes, then remove beans and parchment paper and return to oven for 8 minutes, until the crust is golden and smells of butter. Remove from oven, and reduce the heat to 350.

While the crust is baking, wash the leeks in several changes of clean water. When the leeks are clean and drained, warm the olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the leeks to the olive oil with a pinch of salt, and stir well. Let the leeks cook for a few minutes, until they’re starting to wilt and smell sweet and onion-y. Add the spinach, and cook for another few minutes, until the spinach is wilted. Set aside, and let cool. Drain any liquid you can easily drain.

In a medium bowl whisk together the eggs. Add the cream, cheese, pepper, and nutmeg. Add the cooled vegetables, and mix well. Pour into the pie crust and return to the oven.

Bake until the crust smells toasty and the filling is set, about 45 minutes. Serve warm or room temperature.

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Skordalia


Before Aaron sold out and got a job with health insurance and a 401k and PTO with a big company, he was a bartender. He started when we were in college, and bartended more or less full time for 5 years. He had a knack for finding the best possible place for him at the time. When we were living in England he worked as a bar back at a high volume cocktail bar that we frequented with friends for the Alice in Wonderland themed drinks. In our sleepy college town he worked behind the bar at the hotel where presidential candidates stay during their tours of Iowa. When we moved to Minneapolis he finagled his way into a bar back role at a fine dining restaurant that held one of Minnesota’s three James Beard awards. That role eventually morphed into bartending. I used to stop in on my nights off with a book. I would sip on a cocktail Aaron would slide over to me, watching the people around the room revel.

Back then I was a preschool teacher. When I decided to make the change to cooking, I was able to find a good job for someone so green right away because of the connections Aaron had made bartending. We were young and just out of college, and spent most of our “extra” money on eating out. It was hard not to- there were so many options out there. We had so much to learn. It felt like we were playing catch up. And there was always a new place to try. Some we heard about from Aaron’s coworkers. Some were recommended to us by the servers and bartenders we had become friendly with from our many late nights. Other times Aaron might mention a place offhand he wanted to try. “They’re in NSBG,” he’d say.

NSBG was the North Star Bartender’s Guild, Minnesota’s version of a bartender’s union. They provided the option to buy health insurance and continuing education and put on Iron Bartender every year. Most restaurants that had strong bar programs had bartenders in the guild. After meetings Aaron would complain about the drama of it all. There was always bad blood between some restaurants, and that would manifest in sniping. But he would also get to try new spirits that were just started to be imported to the US, and once he got a free hat, so it seemed to be a fairly even trade.

One hot August night we were in Rochester, Minnesota, looking for a place to get dinner. Aaron mentioned a place nearby. “They’re in NSBG.” In fact, he elaborated, they were the only restaurant outside the Twin Cities to make the drive for meetings. It sounded good, and much better than the Olive Gardens that Yelp was turning up, so we hit up Zzest Restaurant.

It was already full dark when we arrived, but we were still shown to a wrought iron table in the patio. Patio is the wrong word for it, though- it was like a full garden. People were sitting in clusters, some sipping wine, some snacking on truffle oil popcorn. Laughter drifted in the air. When the server arrived we ordered generously, and included a starter called skordalia. “It’s like a mashed potato hummus,” he told us, and with a description like that, how could we resist?

It came, a smooth white mound. It was creamy and light and fluffy, filled with a brave amount of garlic. The menu proclaimed that it contained both potatoes and white beans, a combination I’ve not seen anywhere else. It was so good I ended up running my fingers over the finished plate to lick the last bites off. Everything we had that night was delicious, but only the memory of the skordalia has stayed with me.

I’ve only had skordalia at Zzest, but the memory has stuck with me. It lives in the small notebook I carry with me at all times, the list of ideas for here that just keeps growing and growing. After Easter I was scanning that notebook. I needed a way to use up potatoes. 15 pounds of potatoes is far too many for 5 people, it turns out. Among the other suspects (roast potatoes with mustard, loaded potato wedges, shepherd’s pie) skoralia stuck out. It was time to make mashed potato hummus.

It’s quite easy to make. You roast potatoes, mash, bash garlic, and mix. It’s deeply flavorful, garlic-y and savory and slightly sweet. It would be a great dip for a party, as it’s the rare combination of unique and comforting. I imagine it would also excel in any role that mashed potatoes are commonly stuck in.

Happy April! I’m wishing you all beautiful weather and delicious potatoes.

Skordalia

The recipe originally calls for “ground almonds”. I made the substitution for almond flour, as it’s the same thing just already conveniently made. If you don’t keep almond flour on hand and have a food processor, go ahead and grind those almonds yourself. Additionally, the original recipe called for 1 cup of olive oil (and no water). If you are braver than I, please try it and tell me what you think.

Adapted from this recipe from the Culinary Institute of America via Epicurious

Yield: About three cups

1 pound small, starchy potatoes (I used half white, half purple potatoes)
5 cloves of garlic
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg yolk
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 cup almond flour
Juice of 1 lemon
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup water

To serve
Olive oil
Slivered almonds
Cut raw vegetables of choice, such as carrot batons and radish rounds
Crackers

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Prick the potatoes all over with a fork or small sharp knife. Roast the potatoes until tender. The time will depend on how large your potatoes are. Mine were quite small, and took about half an hour, but they may take an hour or more. Remove the potatoes when they’re tender, and set aside until they’re cool enough to touch. Once they’re cool enough to touch, place in a medium sized bowl and mash using a potato masher until tender.

In a mortar and pestle, or using a knife and cutting board, pound the garlic cloves with the salt until you have a smooth paste.

Add the garlic paste, yolk, pepper, almond flour, lemon, olive oil, and water to the smooth potato mash. Mix well and taste. Adjust the lemon, salt, and pepper according to taste, and if you’d like a looser consistency add more oil or water.

To serve, drizzle with olive oil and top with slivered almonds, and arrange vegetables and crackers as desired.

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