Mujadara

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I first made mujadara in college. I spent senior year living with friends in a run down house half a mile from campus. When my dad came to help me move into the house he just looked at me and shook his head. It was dirty, but more than that it was rickety. It felt vaguely illegal to live there, even with paying rent and electricity. The landlord had no interest in maintaining something that he felt that college students would just ruin. Our roof was damaged by hail the year before. When my friend Hannah signed the lease he promised, on his word, that he would fix it. Conveniently written into the lease was that he was under no obligation make any repairs that were not written into the lease. It was a disappointingly adult lesson in the perils of promises.

But I loved that house. I loved the small yard where we strung a laundry line between two trees and our neighbors who allowed us to use their compost pile. I loved the front porch where we’d sit on summer nights and eat dinner, drinking wine out of mason jars. I loved my room, the first and only space I’ve ever had to myself with its mint green walls, sloping ceilings, and countertop where I kept my very own electric kettle. I didn’t love the creepy cellar underneath the house, but I loved the night when we invited all our friends over, got drunk, and painted the walls of the cellar.

We had one small kitchen between six girls. There were always fights about dishes and who used up the milk and didn’t replace it. But it was also a place where we’d study and catch up and share meals. Meals like mujarada were always on the stove- easy and cheap and delicious, and ideal to prepared while studying.

Mujadara. It’s a musical name for such a simple dish. Mujadara is made up essentially of four ingredients- olive oil, onions, lentils, and rice. It’s cheap and easy and mad delicious. I first heard of mujadara during that magical year of college from Orangette by Molly Wizenburg, whose elegant and clever writing paved the way for the abundance of food blogs we have today.

When I was in college I made mujadara much the way Molly describes. Now that I’m an adult and share my space with one person, not five and have a slightly larger grocery budget I add spices to the mix. Cumin, cardamamom, and cinnamon all accentuate the rich sweetness of caramelized onions. Bay leaves layer the earthy taste of lentils. Kept the same are the deeply caramelized onions, soft lentils, and tender rice. It’s comfort food in a deep way- you keep watch over a pot on the stove and just let it work its magic. I still use the same two and a half quart dutch oven and the same burnt wooden spoon. Across the years mujadara still is a celebration of things good and simple.

Mujadara

The base of this dish is the deeply caramelized onions. Don’t be afraid here- just keep an eye on the onions and stir occasionally. The color is where all the flavor lies. Ideally you’ll take these just to the teetering edge of burnt.

adapted from Orangette

serves 4

1/4 cup olive oil
2 yellow onions, thinly sliced
1 cup green lentils, picked through for rocks
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 cup long grain brown rice
salt

In a large, heavy bottomed pot with a lid warm the olive oil over medium low. Add the onions and stir to coat. Cook, stirring as often as necessary, until the onions are deeply caramelized. If they start to brown on the bottom of the pot make sure to scrape the brown bits up- that’s where all the flavor is. Depending on a whole gauntlet of features from your onions to your pot to your medium low heat, this could be anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour.

While the onions are cooking add the lentils and the bay leaves to a pot and cover generously with water. Bring the lentils to a boil, then cook for twenty minutes. They should be tender by this point. Drain, remove the bay leaves, and set aside.

Once the onions are dark amber and soft stir in the cumin, cardamom, and cinnamon. Add the lentils and rice and a half teaspoon of rice. Stir well, then add in 2 cups of water. Bring the pot to a boil, then cover with the lid and reduce the heat to a simmer.

At twenty minutes, check the mujadara- you’re looking for the water to be absorbed without the pot being dry and the rice to be tender. If it isn’t there yet, return the cover and and continue cooking. If the water is absorbed and the rice isn’t tender yet, add more water and continue cooking and checking periodically.

Once the rice is tender and the water absorbed, taste your mujadara and add salt as necessary. Serve warm.

 

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Radicchio Panzanella from “Eat This Poem”

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“Because when we eat and when we read, we honor what was made for us to consume. We savor every last bite.” -Nicole Gulotta, Eat This Poem

One of the great gifts of poetry is attention. Have you ever tried to read poetry like prose? It doesn’t work. You scan the lines and end up losing the thread halfway through. No, to read poetry you must slow down. Let the rhythm wash over you. Luxuriate with the feel of the words in your mouth. To understand poetry you have to fall in a little in love with it.

Cooking is the same. There’s a world of difference between cooking pasta and setting a pot of water to boil, adding a steady stream of salt, running your fingers through the pasta before adding it to the roiling water, and testing it until it embodies the perfect marriage of yielding and firm. When it’s done with attention and care,cooking ceases to be a chore and becomes a meditation.

If you care about both food and poetry you’re likely already following Nicole Gulotta’s brilliant site Eat This Poem. And if you’re following Nicole online- and even if you’re not- you need to check out her new book of the same name.

I say this as someone who was lucky enough to get a sneak peak of her  book. When I was taking notes for what to make I filled three pages of a legal pad. I started using symbols to keep everything straight- , a circle for make at work, a star for must-dos, a heart for date night. Her book is filled with simple, good food made with attention.

Nicole’s book is organized not around meals or seasons but by theme. These themes- On Splendor, On Moments in Time, among others- speak to the rhythms of our life. These themes are filled with poems and accompanying recipes. And what poems. I found myself lingering over old favorites from Theodore Roethke, Naomi Shihab Nye, Billy Collins, and Mary Oliver. And I fell for new to me poets like Jehanne Dubrow and Richard Levine (whose enclosed poem, “Believe This”, I emailed to two separate people in with the title OMG OMG. Look it up. Fall in Love.). There is splendor here.

It’s a brilliant idea. And what transforms a brilliant idea into a treasured work is that it works beautifully. The recipes are elegant creations, delicious and creative but written with life in mind. This is a working cookbook that exists in a space that’s been sorely neglected. Nicole is not preaching the gospel of a 30 minute meal. She’s not a chef whose sub-recipes have sub-recipes. Instead she’s an evangelist of the calming, attentive power cooking brings- choosing a peach, chopping parsley, gently cooking garlic until it’s just fragrant. These actions nourish us just as much as what we place in our mouth does, and Nicole appreciates these acts without fetishizing them.

In response to “Tree” by Jane Hirshfield, where Hirshfield speaks of “That great calm being/ This clutter of soup pots and books-” Nicole offers a segment of simple, comforting meals that feed the calm being in us. For this lovely radicchio panzanella found with Hirshfield’s poem radicchio is quickly seared then chopped. It’s then tossed with whole grain croutons, Parmesan cheese, white beans, and a punchy dressing and topped with chives. I was curious but cautious when I saw the recipe- radicchio is famously bitter and can be overwhelming. But I trusted Nicole and recommend you do the same. The heat tames radicchio’s bite enough that it will play nice with the other ingredients. It’s a dish unique enough to stop you in your tracks, but no harder than boiling and tossing pasta. And by the act of making something both commonplace and special you are are practicing the poetry of cooking.

Eat this Poem is released on March 21st and you can find it here. I already have a list of people I’ll be buying it for as gifts. Congratulations Nicole! You’ve created something truly exceptional.

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Radicchio Panzanella

Adapted from Eat This Poem: A Literary Feast of Recipes Inspired by Poetry by Nicole Gulotta, © 2017 by Nicole Gulotta. Reprinted by arrangement with Roost Books, an imprint of Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO. www.roostbooks.com
Nicole recommends drizzling the radicchio with olive oil and sprinkling with salt and pepper, then searing it in a dry pan. I seared my radicchio in a healthy drizzle of olive oil because I was distracted and not paying close attention. (I am fully aware of this irony.) This meant that the radicchio was a bit more cooked, but was still excellent.

Serves 2-4

4 cups whole grain bread cubes (cut from about 4 slices each an inch thick)
olive oil
salt and pepper
1 pound radicchio (about 2 medium), wilted outer leaves removed and quartered
1 1/2 cups cooked white beans such as cannellini, or one 14.5 ounce can
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
minced chives

For dressing:

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
2 teaspoons honey
1/2 cup olive oil
salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the bread cubes onto a sheet tray and toast until golden and crisp, about 12-15 minutes. Set aside and let cool.

In the meantime, warm a healthy drizzle of olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Place the quarters of radicchio in the pan and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Sear until the leaves are soft and just going brown in spots, then turn. Repeat until all sides of the radicchio have been kissed by oil. Transfer to a cutting board and roughly chop the radicchio. Place in a large bowl and top with the beans, bread, and Parmesan cheese.

To make the dressing, whisk together the balsamic vinegar, sherry vinegar, and honey. Add in the olive oil and whisk while it’s combining. Season to taste with a healthy pinch of both salt and pepper, then pour over the salad and toss well. Top with a flurry both of Parmesan and chives.

 

 

 

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Shakshuka

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This week I’ve been hanging with my dear friend Sara. We met in junior high when we attended different schools but the same youth group. She wasn’t yet my friend when our youth director showed us The Sixth Sense as a treat and I called my parents to take me home (still haven’t seen it). But we became friends in spite of my scaredy-cat tendencies. And we’ve stayed friends for over half our lives. She’s spent the week staying on a nest of sleeping bags in my living room, where we’ve occupied our time taking Buzzfeed quizzes, arguing about movies, and taking long walks around the lakes. And cooking.

Sara, my oldest friend, my penpal for almost 10 years, and owner of a key to my parent’s house, has Celiac’s disease. And so we’ve spent a lot of time in the kitchen together cooking and eating together. We went out for arepas one night and Italian another. There have been occasional impromptu dances to Earth, Wind, and Fire. She organized all the magnetic poetry on the fridge by type of speech. We made these beans and tomato sauce, threw together a lentil soup, and tried out some earl grey macaroons (verdict- delicious, but not very earl grey-y…). And there was shakshuka. Because what better way to celebrate a close friend’s visit than with tomatoes and peppers and onions and eggs?

Shakshuka is a North African dish that’s essentially eggs poached in a sauce of tomato and peppers. As with all straightforward sounding dishes, there’s a world of variations available. I found my recipe in Yotam Ottolenghi’s brilliant (and classic) book Plenty, which may be the first cookbook I ever obsessed over. I know I’m not alone in this. I used to carry Plenty around with me in my purse JUST IN CASE someone hadn’t seen it yet. I was insufferable. I still am.

I’ve heard the mark of friendship isn’t liking each other but understanding each other. I think there’s some truth to that. But when you’re lucky you have people who like and understand you. I’m lucky. I have friends like Sara, who doesn’t laugh or roll her eyes when I decide that the perfect writing outfit is leather leggings and Aaron’s sweater. She drags me bra shopping and makes sure to bring backup sizes. We debate what makes Pride and Prejudice a great novel, the love story or the social commentary, and still swoon together when Elizabeth and Darcy touch hands. We annoy each other with our music choices, and then both belt out Backstreet Boys in the car. There are many gifts of friendship, but one of the best is that it can make you more open to your shared joys and sorrows.

And that makes sharing a meal, breaking the (metaphorical) bread together, that much more sweet.

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Shakshuka

The spice and herbs here are flexible- you could up the cayenne pepper, add hot peppers, and change out the herbs. Cilantro, thyme, and chives would all be excellent. The saffron here is optional- the shakshuka will still be fantastic even if saffron runs a bit too dear.

adapted from Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi

serves 4

1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/4 cup olive oil
2 onions, sliced
2 red bell peppers, sliced
2 yellow bell peppers, sliced
2 tablespoons chopped oregano
1/4 cup chopped parsley
2 bay leaves
1 28 ounce can crushed tomatoes
pinch saffron (optional)
scant 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
salt and black pepper
juice of 1/2 a lemon
8 eggs

In a large pan over medium high heat add the cumin seeds. Toast them, stirring often, until they start to smell fragrant and get dark, about 2 minutes. Add the olive oil and the onions and sauté for 5 minutes, until the onions are soft.  Add both the peppers, the oregano, and the parsley and stir well. Continue to sauté for 10 minutes, until the peppers are soft.

Add the canned tomatoes, saffron, cayenne, and a good pinch of both salt and pepper. Reduce the heat to low and bring the sauce to a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes or until the sauce has reached the same consistency as pasta sauce. If you need to cook it a bit further to get it there, or add water to get that result, do what you need to do. Add the lemon juice and taste, then adjust seasonings as necessary. It should taste bold.

This can all be done ahead of time. To serve the shakshuka, place a portion into a skillet and warm it. Make as many nests in the tangle of peppers as you want eggs, then crack an egg into each nest. I find it easiest to crack an egg into a small bowl, then slip it into the nest. Season each egg with salt and pepper. Reduce the heat to low, and cover the skillet. Cook the eggs until they are set to your liking, starting to check at about the 6 minute mark and then for every 2 minutes after. Serve with a generous sprinkle of parsley.

 

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Chard and Chickpea Pasta with Golden Raisins

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I’m Catholic.  For a few years I was related to a bishop by marriage. I attended a Franciscan parish throughout childhood. I can pray in English, Spanish, and Latin. There was even a summer in high school when I went to Mass every morning, although that might have been more for seeing my then-boyfriend than for spiritual nourishment.

But my relationship to my childhood faith has changed. It changed for a million reasons. Some of these are benign- studying at a Lutheran college, marrying a Protestant, attending Anglican services while living in England. Others are not. I’ve had deep qualms with the theology and disgusts with the institution. I walked out of Mass once when a Priest compared the Affordable Care Act to Maoist persecution of religion and the congregation applauded. I’ve seen fellow Catholics defending the Muslim ban, conveniently forgetting that a hundred years ago our faith was targeted in the same way. But I keep being drawn back to the Church, with reservations and with uncertainty. For all of its flaws and darkness, Catholicism is still the way I best understand God.

This week marked the beginning of Lent. Lent is one of my absolute favorite times of year. I love it for many of the same reasons as I love New Year’s. There’s an austerity and a resolve. At Mass on Ash Wednesday the priest spoke about how Lent is not a time of punishment, but of reflection. That it doesn’t exist because we are bad, but because we can be better. Lent is an invitation.

Rituals matter. And these rituals are one aspect that keeps dragging me back to the Church, over my anger and over my concerns and over my doubts.

Not to find theology lessons in my dinner, but I find meals like this particularly suited for Lent. They are simple and nourishing. There is time for questions and contemplation. Meals are rituals just as the liturgical calendar is.

But onto the pasta. Pasta is one of my favorite meals- I make it two or three times a week. Sometimes I avoid posting pasta here so I have make other foods. My most made pasta is a fail safe formula of greens and seasonings and a can of beans. It’s sustained me for many quick lunches, back-of-the-pocket dinners, and lazy date nights involving Netflix.

Here, we get the greens in beautiful rainbow chard. The stems are sauteed in a healthy dose of olive oil with garlic, capers, and golden raisins. The leaves are added in thin ribbons with a can of chickpeas, and the whole dish is topped with a good handful of feta cheese and a flurry of chopped walnuts.For a bowl of food that looks quite monochromatic it tastes like sunshine- here earthy, here a hint of sweetness, here the mellow richness of garlic. It’s a slightly Greek-esque pasta, hearty and full of good things. Having never been to Greece, I imagine this pasta would be perfect to eat on a rooftop overlooking the sea. As it is it’s perfect to eat at a dining room table, huddling in from the cold, glorying in the mundane.

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Chard and Chickpea Pasta with Golden Raisins

If you do eat fish, I would highly recommend adding two or three anchovies in with the olive oil. They melt into the oil and make everything taste just a bit more savory and a bit more like the sea.

Serves 2-4

8 ounces fusilli or other short pasta (I like whole wheat for this)
1/3 cup olive oil
1 large bunch of rainbow chard, stems diced, leaves sliced into thin ribbons
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1/4 cup golden raisins
1 tablespoon capers
2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
1 fifteen ounce can chickpeas, or 2 cups cooked chickpeas, rinsed and drained
feta, for serving
chopped walnuts, for serving

Set a large pot of water on to boil for the pasta. Add a good amount of salt to the water.

While the water boils, warm the olive oil in another large pot over low heat. Add the chard stems, garlic, golden raisins, capers, and red pepper flakes with a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring often, until everything is soft and fragrant, about 10 minutes.

Cook the fusilli according to the packaged directions, until it has just a bit of bite left. Meanwhile, add the chard leaves and chickpeas to the chard stem mixture and stir well. Let it cook until the chard leaves are beginning to collapse. If the pot runs dry,  add a bit of water. Taste everything, and add salt as necessary.

When the pasta is ready, add about 1/4 cup pasta water to the chard mixture, then drain the pasta and add to the chard. Toss well, and turn the heat up to medium just long enough for the water to reduce.

Serve hot, topped with feta cheese and walnuts.

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