Coconut Red Lentil Dip

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At our wedding, almost three years ago, Aaron and I gave bookmarks to our guests as tokens of our gratitude. These bookmarks were printed with various lines from a few of our favorite poems. One was the closing stanza of Margaret Atwood’s Variations on the Word Sleep:

I would like to be the air
that inhabits you for a moment
only. I would like to be that unnoticed
& that necessary.

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Lentils are stodgy things, unassuming and cheap. There’s an hippie strain about them, tainted with the implications of under-salted, uniformly brown meals. It’s easy to obsess over the beauty of fresh produce. There’s a vitality, brilliantly colored and beautifully arrayed. If lentils inspire love, it’s the love of gratitude. It’s a long running marriage to an heirloom’s passionate affairs. Lentils are supportive. There is always more they will be willing to give.

Perhaps we ought to celebrate lentils more. Lentils are accessible. They are sustaining. They give, quietly and without complaint, again and again. And they are happy to fade into the background, allowing their more glamorous accompaniments to take the spotlight. They are unnoticed. They are necessary.

In the spirit of generosity I offer this red lentil dip. Earthy from the lentils, sweet from coconut milk, and with a kiss of heat from ginger. My dreams of taking this dip on a picnic were destroyed by Aaron devouring half of it when he arrived home from work. I’m not fond of this habit of assigning any mashed beans the moniker “hummus”, because there’s no tahini and no chickpeas in most. But this is satisfying in the same way as hummus, with a similar texture and similar balance of flavors. And because red lentils are the uncelebrated workhorse of the kitchen, this dip comes together from start to finish in about twenty minutes. Pretty remarkable for something so unnoticed.

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Coconut Red Lentil Dip

Be careful when blending the dip- too fast or too long and it may start to take on paste-y quality. It doesn’t need to be perfectly smooth- in fact, a slightly nubby texture is delightful.

Makes about 2 cups of dip

4 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger, peeled
1 tablespoon coconut oil
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
salt
1 cup red lentils
1 fifteen ounce can coconut milk
4 tablespoons olive oil
juice of 1 lime

to serve

sesame seeds
crackers
vegetables

Melt the coconut oil in a heavy bottomed pot over medium-low heat. Add the garlic and ginger and cook gently for about five minutes, until the garlic and ginger are fragrant but not taking on any color. Add the coriander, black pepper, and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Stir well, then continue cooking for another minute. Stir in the red lentils until they are coated in the spice and shiny with the oil, then stir in the coconut milk. Bring the mixture to a simmer and stir often, cooking until most of the liquid is absorbed and the lentils are tender but firm, about ten to fifteen minutes. If the liquid is absorbed but the lentils are still hard, add water at half a cup at a time and keep simmering. You don’t want the lentils to dissolve for this.

Transfer your cooked lentils to a blender and blend until the lentils are mashed. While the blender is whirling, add in the olive oil, lime juice, and 1/4 cup of water. Taste, and add any salt you deem necessary. Serve at room temperature, sprinkled with sesame seeds surrounded by crackers and crudités of choice.

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Gougères with Gruyere and Shallots

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When I was 10 my parents made the decision to change churches. We went from attending Mass every Sunday at the a grand Cathedral to a small, scrappy church technically a mile away but actually in a different universe. It was no small decision. The Cathedral was where my parents had been married, where all three of their children had been baptized. It was where my dad had been an alter boy and a lector, and where many of my cousins attended school. It was large and elegant and intimidating.

Our new church was none of those things. The priests were Franciscans. They had nicknames and went barefoot on the alter. Babies were baptized naked. It was all new and exciting. And our new church was a bilingual parish.

My hometown had (and still has) a sizable Hispanic population. This was never something that I had encountered in my day-to-day life. My grandparents had been born in the same town I was. I knew where they had lived, the house my dad had been born into, where the only church that still spoke Slovak was located but somehow not about the huge swath of our town where signs were only in Spanish. Our neighborhood was mostly white. Our family was mostly white. My school was diverse, but the friends I hung out with outside of school were mostly white.

And my parents decided to change that. Soon we were attending bilingual services for feast days. After Mass in the summer we would eat paletas bought from the vender who arrived just as Mass was letting out. In the fall it turned to churros. My dad and I joined a choir and would sing verses alternating in Spanish and English. At church potlucks I happily ate tacos, but refused to eat more when I learned what lengua meant (tongue).

I want to be clear that this does not mean everything was all the sudden happy and easy. There were misunderstandings. There were missteps. I did not often want to go to services that would stretch to 2 hours, and where I only understood every 3 words. But it was good for us, as individuals and as a family.

I cannot, for the life of me, correctly use por and para, but there are hymns I will not sing in English. There is still nothing as good as a paleta in the summer heat. I am filled with gratitude of the humble  church where I was raised, where Aaron and I were married, that marched for immigration reform. It was not a wealthy church, but it was a rich one.

I was reminded of all of this last night, as the church I attended celebrated the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The church I attend here in Minneapolis is a Cathedral. It is large and elegant, but also warm. Last night there was a bilingual service. There was a procession of Aztec dancers. There were the words I have sung, hundreds of times, set to a different tune, but still “Santo, santo, santo, santo el Señor“. And there was a homily of hope in the darkness. About the radical nature of a brown-skinned Mary appearing in Aztec clothing and speaking Nahuatl to Juan Diego, an Aztec peasant. About how God is always with those who are oppressed, no matter when or where.

Gougères do not fit neatly with this story. But feeding people is one of the best ways I know to show love. I like to joke that I only speak culinary French, but the other half of the joke is that I only speak religious Spanish.

When we choose to love people it is not easy. It requires a steely resolve and great patience. It requires radical hope and realism. Love is not easy. But I would rather live actively working on love than live without it. And where I stand right now, love includes gougères .

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Gougères with Gruyere and Shallots

Makes about 30 gougères

Gougères freeze well, and can be baked straight from frozen. One great beauty of gougères is that they are so versatile. You could add herbs, spices, or different cheeses to these beauties to make them entirely your own. I’ve been known to bake gougères and eat them straight off the sheet tray. But if you pressed me for the best way to eat them I’d tell you to invite people over, make mulled wine, and serve gougères warm from the oven.

8 tablespoons (113 grams) butter
1 cup (226 grams) water
1/2 teaspoon (2 grams) salt
1 cup (125 grams) all-purpose flour
4 eggs
1/2 a shallot, diced
1/2 cup (40 grams) finely grated gruyere

In a medium saucepan over medium heat melt together the butter, water, and salt. Bring the mixture to a simmer, making certain that all the butter is mixed, then add in the flour. Use a rubber spatula to stir in the flour, being careful to completely incorporate the flour. Continue stirring on heat, using the spatula to pick up and turn the dough, until the dough looks smooth and even. Turn the dough out into a large bowl.

Stir the dough with a rubber spatula every few minutes until the dough is at room temperature. Once the dough is no longer warm, add in the eggs, one at a time, stirring completely between each addition. It will first look as though the egg will refuse to combine, but continue working and it will cooperate. After the eggs have all combined stir in the shallots and gruyere.

If you are using a piping bag, use a medium sized round tip (or do as I did, and just cut a opening in your bag and don’t use a tip) and fill your bag. Pipe out the gougères onto a sheet tray lined with parchment paper. I aimed for mine to be an inch and a half in diameter and an inch in height and found that to be a perfect size.

If you are not using a piping bag, use two spoons to scoop the batter onto a sheet tray lined with parchment paper. Aim to use about 2 tablespoons of batter in each gougère. Be careful, regardless of which method you choose, to not let the gougères touch.

Put a tiny bit of water in a shallow dish. Dip your fingers in the water, and then use your fingers to shape the gougères as necessary. If you’ve piped your gougères, flatten out the tail on top. If you’ve spooned your gougères, smooth out any rough lines.

The gougères can now be frozen, or baked off. If you want to freeze your gougères just pop the tray in the freezer, then transfer to a ziplock bag once frozen.

When you are ready to bake your gougères, preheat your oven to 400. Bake the gougères, spaced an inch apart, for 20-30 minutes (20 for fresh, 30 for frozen), rotating the baking tray every 10 minutes. The gougères are ready when they are golden in color, firm to the touch, and light when picked up. Enjoy warm.

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Brussels Sprouts Burrata with Pomegranate

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There’s a game I like to play at work, where I ask my fellow cooks if they’d rather give up butter or cheese. The answer is almost universally butter. One participant only responded, “Kill me”, which is not a fair answer. All the same I think “Kill me” speaks to our dedication to cheese.

I love butter. Some breakfasts are only a piece of toast smeared with butter and topped with salt. I try to have pounds of butter on hand at all times. It’s difficult to imagine life without butter- from perfectly flakey pies to a hearty pad on a steaming baked potato. But cheese, man. I would give up butter in a heartbeat before forsaking the creamy mozzarella, the pungent camembert, the smoked gouda, and the sharp cheddar.

I loved cheese as a kid, but never ate burrata. My cheese consumption was mainly limited to mac and cheese, cheese pizza, and quesadillas. Burrata is one thing that I had never heard of until I was an adult. I’m sure part of it is growing up in the suburbs, where my culinary world was rocked by the introduction to hummus as a teenager. But part of it is also that our collective food culture has changed a lot in the past 15 years. When I was a kid I had never heard of kale, or tahini, or pomegranates. Now all these things are sold at Walmart. It’s a bit strange, but it’s also welcome. I’m all for better access to good food for everyone.

Burrata is an absolute treat, a ball of mozzarella filled with cream and more mozzarella. I had to make it at work for a time. It’s difficult, aching work involving both strength and finesse, and I’m sometimes not capable of either, let alone both at the same time. It’s also a good reminder that just because I can make it doesn’t mean that I should. There are things that are best left to professionals, and burrata is one of them. The best place to get creative with burrata is the toppings.

If you’re in the habit of serving fancy cheeses at parties, this would be gorgeous. The mild, creamy burrata tops a tangle of butter softened, balsamic spiked Brussels sprouts and hot pink pomegranate seeds on good, crunchy bread. The whole thing gets a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt. It’s nutty and bright and creamy and just salty enough. It disappears quickly.

But if you are not someone who hosts parties, or if you host parties but are more likely to serve your guests lentil soup than fancy cheeses (me, mostly), this is still worth making. It’s an indulgent meal and a lovely break from the routine. I like to think of burrata (and other good cheese) as an affordable luxury. I may not have it all the time, but when I have burrata I make sure to enjoy them.  I would make this for yourself for a lovely solo dinner, or with someone you adore.
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Brussels Sprouts Burrata with Pomegranate

This is a good basic template for multiple ways to eat burrata. And if you don’t eat cheese but still want something special, I have a feeling this Brussels sprouts and pomegranate seed topping would be great on pureed white beans.

Serves 2 for a meal, or more for a snack

1 1 /2 cup shaved brussels sprouts
1 tablespoon butter
salt and pepper
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar

Good bread, cut into thin slices (I used 8)
1 ball of burrata
Pomegranate seeds
Olive oil
Flaked salt such as Maldon

Melt the butter over medium-low heat. Add the brussels sprouts and a pinch each of salt and pepper, then cook, stirring often, for 3-5 minutes until the brussels sprouts are broken down a bit but are still soft. Add the vinegar, stir well, taste and adjust for seasoning.

To serve, arrange the burrata in the center of a platter, surrounded by slices of bread. Top each of the bread slices with the Brussels sprouts and pomegranate seeds. Drizzle the burrata with olive oil and top with flaked salt. Serve at room temperature.

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Radicchio Salad with Gorgonzola and Hazelnuts

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Last week I made basically this salad at work for family meal. We had some radicchio to get rid of, and so I chopped it roughly and tossed it with some tarragon, bleu cheese from a new salad on my station, and some hazelnuts from an old salad. It was the first thing to disappear, and while eating it I thought it would fit in well here.

I love that this salad takes almost no time to make, but rewards with some big flavors. Radicchio is a bitter vegetable, with an almost medicinal bite. The tarragon brings in a sweet, anise note. The dressing plumps up currants and hazelnuts both with some red wine vinegar, which brings some sharpness and a wine-y sweetness to the salad. The hazelnuts and bleu cheese, however, really make this spectacular. In one bite you get bitter, tart, nutty, pungent, sweet, sharp, and creamy.

At family meal we ate this along side hoison and sriracha hot dogs. When making this at home I had it along side a baked potato. Neither of those were ideal, but hey, that’s how it works sometimes. If you’re looking for an ideal accompaniment, roast chicken (for meat eaters) or a quiche (for vegetarians) would be killer.

Sorry for the quick note, but I’m off experiencing “Up North” for the first time. I’ll be back with more soon. Until then, happy Monday.

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Radicchio Salad with Gorgonzola and Hazelnuts

To prepare the radicchio I cut the head into quarters, then cut each quarter in half and sliced very thinly. A mandoline would also work well. In order to crush the hazelnuts, you could use the flat side of a chef’s knife (or a heavy, flat bottomed glass or ramekin) to push the hazelnuts down until they break.

1 large head of radicchio, thinly sliced
1/4 cup tarragon leaves
2 ounces creamy, mild bleu cheese, like gorgonzola
1/2 a shallot, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon currants
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
4 tablespoons olive oil
salt
pepper
1/4 cup hazelnuts, crushed

In a small bowl combine the currents, shallots, and red wine vinegar. Allow it to sit for 15 minutes. Slowly whisk in the olive oil until emulsified. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

In a large bowl combine the radicchio, tarragon, and bleu cheese. Pinch the bleu cheese off into pieces about the size of a hazelnut. Add the dressing and toss well, making sure the whole thing is well covered and well combined. Top with the crushed hazelnuts and serve.

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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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