Category Archives: winter

Small comforts

chicken-pie

I KNOW IT’S A CLICHÉ to write about “comfort food,” but the anxiety I’ve experienced  since the election has made comfort seem more necessary than ever. There is something calming about the normality of cooking, especially if you’re making something both comforting and nourishing.

Last week I made a mushroom-chicken pot pie topped with biscuits that fit the bill. Aviva showed me how to do this basically in one pot: saute onions and garlic with your choice of vegetables –some options: mushrooms, chopped potatoes or sweet potatoes, carrots, peas, cauliflower greens– in butter and/or oil in a cast iron skillet. Add a few tablespoons of flour and seasonings (salt, pepper, rosemary or thyme) and then add enough broth (chicken or vegetarian) to make a nice “gravy” for your pie. Add cooked chicken or leave it out for a vegetarian version. The sauce should be a little thinner than you want it as it’ll thicken in the oven. You can top with a biscuit dough, as I did here (Mark Bittman’s biscuit topping works well) or with a typical pie crust.

puff-pastry-pot-pie

Or, for the easiest method, do as I did recently and use puff pastry (buy it frozen and thaw it). Lay a circle of puff pastry over your filling, and cut a few slits for the steam to escape.

For any of these toppings, bake at 400 degrees for about 30-40 minutes, until the filling is bubbling and the biscuits or other crust is golden.

The pot pie is a little more ambitious than my usual comfort nourishment though. I gravitate toward the simplest form of cooking. Faithful readers of this blog (thank you!) know that I love SOUP, especially in fall and winter, when my go-to supper is soup and bread (or toast, popovers, cornbread, etc.).

Indeed I have a long family history with soup, one part of which I wrote about in my latest sketchbook:

soupspoon-jpg_0001

In just the last few weeks, I’ve run through a lot of my soup favorites: lentil with spinach and lemon, parsley-potato; chicken soup with matzo balls, red lentil soup; and of course, minestrone.

My latest soup creation is another lentil soup, this time with lots of carrots to brighten its color, and some seasoning to perk up the flavors. I adapted it from a recipe by British food writer Diane Henry for “Turkish carrots and lentils with herbs” in the book Plenty (no, not the Ottolenghi Plenty).

Henry’s recipe is more a side dish with fewer lentils and no real broth; I doubled the lentils and added more water for a soup-ier version. She suggests fresh mint, parsley or dill for the herbs — I chose to use cilantro (but I do want to try the mint version sometime.) Henry also adds 2 teaspoons of sugar, but I left it out; it didn’t seem to need it. The coriander seeds and red pepper, along with the lemon and herbs give it a bright and lively flavor.

carrot-lentil

This first serving was more stew-like; when I heated it up the next day, I added more water to make it more of a soup. Really good either way.

Carrot-lentil soup

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 onion, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, thinly chopped
  • 2 teaspoons coriander seeds, crushed
  • 1/4 – 1/2 dried red pepper flakes
  • 1 cup lentils
  • 6 large carrots, sliced
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste (or you can use tomato puree)
  • 4 or 5 cups vegetable stock or water
  • salt and pepper
  • chopped cilantro
  • lemon juice
  1. Heat the oil in a saucepan and saute’ the onion until soft. Add garlic and spices and cook for two minutes. Then add everything else except the cilantro and lemon juice.
  2.  Bring to a boil and cook until tender, about 30 minutes. Add more water or broth as you like — it can be more of a lentil stew or a soup.
  3. Adjust the seasoning, adding salt and pepper to taste. If desired, add a glug of olive oil to the soup (I don’t but you might want to).
  4. Ladle into bowls, adding a generous squeeze of lemon juice and a good sprinkle of cilantro into each bowl.

I love Diane Henry’s concise description: “This shows just how delicious frugality can be.” And comforting too.

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Filed under Praise for other cooks, soup, supper time, vegetables, winter

Fresh from the pantry (almost)

RedLentils

Red lentils are also called Egyptian or Mansoor lentils

THE ENTRY FOR LENTILS in the Oxford Companion to Food follows closely behind the one for lemons — and that seems right, as lemons add brightness to this easy-to-cook-but-sometimes-a-little-dull legume. A recipe on my lemon blog for Lemony Lentil Soup with Spinach (scroll to second recipe) is testimony to this great marriage.

Lentils have been cultivated since antiquity in Egypt, and evidence of lentils has been found in many prehistoric sites in Europe. In India, the largest producer of lentils today, they are an everyday food called dal, often cooked with onion and spices and served with rice. Next to soy beans, lentils have the highest protein content of all vegetables.

There are dozens of different colors and sizes of lentils, each with their own character. Brown or green lentils are fine, but red lentils are very nice for soups as they cook quickly and break down into a puree. And, of course, there’s the color. Some of that lovely salmon color fades with cooking, though, so I was happy to find New York Times’ food writer Melissa Clark’s recipe for Red Lentil Soup with Lemon, which adds carrots and tomato paste to the pot to bring some of the color back. And this time of year, when it’s often grey and dismal outside, I really appreciate a burst of color in the soup bowl.

Lemonsqueeze

When cooking any kind of lentils, don’t forget the lemon

Another thing to love about this soup is that (as long as I’ve got the red lentils in the pantry), I usually have all the ingredients on hand. Lemon, onion, garlic — check. Cumin, chile powder or cayenne, tomato paste — check. I don’t always have fresh cilantro, but parsley or even chives will do in a pinch.

Truth be told, I very rarely follow a recipe precisely (often not even more-or-less) but this one was so simple and easy — and didn’t call for any unusual ingredients — that I didn’t have my usual tendency to depart from it. (That is, aside from adding an extra carrot for more orange flecks, and a good squeeze of lemon juice in the serving bowls for brighter flavor.)

I made some popovers and a green salad to go with it, and called it supper.

RedLentil soup

 

 

 

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Filed under Praise for other cooks, soup, spring, vegetables, winter

Marvelous mandarins

mandarins, MM

Mandarins at Monterey Market, Berkeley, California

I KNOW, I’VE SAID IT BEFORE, but it’s worth saying again: The mandarin is a wonderful winter treat, the season’s ultimate snack fruit.

If you can find mandarins in the store with leaves intact — and the leaves look nice and fresh — that’s the best indication that the fruit is fresh, picked only shortly before being shipped to market.

Mandarins, tangerines, clementines — what’s it all about? What are Pages and Sumos, Murcotts and Tangos? And what about Cuties and Halos (commercial brand names for mandarins) — and why are they better later in the season, from January to April?

Find out the answers to all of these questions and more in the excellent recent New York Times’ article, Mandarin Oranges: Rising Stars of the Fruit Bowl, by fruit expert David Karp.

For my other post about mandarins, including a mandarin cocktail, click here.

Bowlofmandarins

Mandarins and oranges — both in their winter prime.

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Filed under dessert, fruit, winter

The best food gift

Tobysfeedbarnrolls

The aluminum pan makes it easy to give a generous amount of homemade cinnamon rolls. No returns necessary.

OF COURSE THE BEST FOOD GIFT is (usually) something homemade. A lot of cookies and candy are exchanged this time of year, and I’ve enjoyed some marvelous biscotti, truffles and shortbread, but in years past I’ve also received homemade applesauce, spaghetti sauce, flavored vinegar and herbal salt, among other edible delights.

This week I made a couple pans of cinnamon rolls for my neighbors, and another for a special breakfast at home. They have some wheat and spelt flour along with all-purpose flour, no frosting and very little fat — so while I wouldn’t say they were “healthy,” they are not too destructive. And they have plenty of cinnamon and raisins, with a few walnuts on the top. My basic recipe is here.

Cinnamon rolls are more flexible than you might think. You could add other spices (cardamom), leave out the raisins or the nuts or add in some different things (dried cranberries and pistachios?) You can make the dough and shape the rolls the night before you want to bake them, and they will rise in the refrigerator. Once baked, they can be frozen or reheated.

CinnRolls

Toby’s Feed Barn (what a great name) is a terrific general store in Point Reyes Station, California

CINNAMON ROLLS will make your house smell wonderful.  And, best of all — if your neighbors are anything like mine — are the big smiles you’ll get when you appear at your neighbor’s door with a pan of the rolls, still warm from the oven.

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Filed under baked goods, bread and pizza, breakfast, winter

Mandarin love

mandarinsWHAT COULD BE MORE APPEALING in winter than the brightly glowing, highly fragrant little orange globes called mandarins? They come in various sizes, some with seeds and some without, some noted for their juiciness and others for their easy-to-peel “zipper” skins — and the best of them with a vivacious flavor and lively balance of tart and sweet.

If you are lucky enough to be in California during mandarin season, you can sample many different varieties — and buy them very fresh, from a farmers’ market or fruit stand. Otherwise, though you may have a smaller number of varieties to choose from, you can usually find good mandarins at the grocery to brighten your table and your winter diet.

Kishu mandarin

Kishu mandarins are tiny, seedless mandarins which peel easily, making it extraordinarily easy to eat half a dozen or so before you know it. These come from Churchill Orchard in Ojai.

So what’s the difference between mandarins and tangerines?

Citrus expert Tracy Kahn, curator of the Citrus Variety Collection at UC Riverside, had this to say about the subject:

“Mandarins refer to a group of cultivars and includes Clementine and Satsuma and many other mandarins. . . .  The word tangerine is often used interchangeably with the word mandarin but actually the term tangerine was coined for brightly colored sweet mandarins that were originally shipped out of the port of Tangiers, Morocco, to Florida in the late 1800s and the term stuck.  Another interesting thing about mandarins is that we now know that there were three basic citrus types (mandarin, citron and pummelo) and that others that we think of as basic types or species (sweet oranges, sour oranges, grapefruits) are actually ancient hybrids or backcrosses of these. Also, many of the cultivars that we think of as mandarins or tangerines may in fact not be true mandarins, but actually mandarin hybrids.”

Mandarin-gin cocktails

Page mandarin cocktails and Kishu mandarins in the bowl.      Photo by S. L. Sanger

Whatever you call them, they’re marvelous!

Steve and I had the good fortune to go to Anna Thomas’s home in Ojai for lunch the other day (last year I wrote about lunch at Anna’s here), and it turned into a mandarin appreciation day. Along with a great soup-and-salad lunch,  Anna made refreshing mandarin-gin cocktails, using Page mandarins–a vibrant juicy variety.  For dessert, she offered a big bowlful of the exceptional Kishu mandarins with dark chocolate. Then we all drove off to nearby Churchill Orchard to buy a big box of Kishu mandarins to share!

The cocktail recipe Anna used is from Henry of Ventura Spirits, and features the company’s Wilder gin, made with local botanicals including sage and mandarin peel. If you have trouble finding this gin or Page mandarins, make substitutions as necessary.

Henry’s Wilder Gin and Page Mandarin Cocktail:

For each drink, mix:

1 oz. fresh lime juice
2 oz. fresh Page mandarin juice
½ oz. agave nectar (Henry uses ½ maple syrup+ ½ water)
1 ½ oz. Wilder gin
pour over ice, add splash of seltzer or soda or mineral water, and enjoy.

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Filed under fruit, musings, Praise for other cooks, Uncategorized, winter

Another tip from the checkout counter

upside down pineapple

Pineapple upside down. No, do not add “cake” on the end of that phrase. I’m talking about the whole fruit.

That’s the tip I got at the Trader Joe’s checkout counter last week, when I was buying an extra-nice (heavy for its size and golden colored) and quite inexpensive pineapple.

The clerk said she’d lived in Hawaii, and the trick to a juicy pineapple was to cut part of the top so it is more-or-less level and leave it upside down on the counter for a few days.

Okay! I went home with our pineapple and followed instructions.

juicy sweet pineapple

And yes. It was sweet and juicy and very delicious.

But would it have been as sweet and juicy if I hadn’t turned it upside down? (Remember, I’m getting pretty skilled at judging good pineapples.) Steve was convinced that the upside-down treatment was effective. But really,  there was no way of knowing or testing this out.

Regardless, pineapple is so refreshing this time of year, a wonderful antidote to all the rich sweets of the holiday season — I highly recommend it!

For more on pineapples, see A Passion for Pineapples and A Passion for Pineapples, part 2

Pineapples in Istanbul

Cutting pineapples in Istanbul

p.s.  This wasn’t the first time I’d gotten a helpful food idea at the checkout counter. There was this tip, from my local grocery, for roasted brussels sprouts.

Have you received any good hints from the checkout counter, produce section, etc.? Let me know!

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December 18, 2014 · 5:02 am

Thanksgiving’s simpler sides

As usual this year, I am making cranberry chutney as well as a basic cranberry sauce with orange zest to take to the Thanksgiving feast. And green beans, perhaps with some toasted pecans or caramelized lemons (or both?). And rolls — not that anyone needs or even wants more carbs, but these are yet another Thanksgiving tradition (and there are so many).

Really, one day is not enough to appreciate all the side dishes of Thanksgiving tradition, and one doesn’t always have leftovers, so I decided to make a meal of some classic sides before Thanksgiving. When you’re just making a couple of dishes, of course it’s much simpler, and this meal was so good I may do another variation or two of side dishes after the big feast.

brussels

Roasted brussels sprouts were on my menu

I made a wild rice-brown rice pilaf with onions and mushrooms, topped with toasted pecans — the cranberry chutney on the side (I’d made extra) really perked up this dish. And I had just bought a bag of nice little brussels sprouts from the farmers’ market, so those were roasted, with a little pomegranate vinegar on top.

TdaysidesAnd of course, there were baked sweet potatoes.

Maybe it wasn’t the most beautiful or original supper plate we ever had, but it was very satisfying to give full attention to some of Thanksgiving’s less glamorous sidekicks!

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Filed under fall, supper time, Uncategorized, vegetables, winter

Feast for the eyes (and more)

Ventura farmers' market

Ventura farmers’ market

Well, I haven’t been keeping up with this blog lately. It’s not that I don’t cook — with all the farmers’ markets here in Southern California, there’s always fresh inspiration — but I’ve been too involved in other things to write the blog. Such as walking on the beach, volunteering for Carpinteria Seal Watch, watching surfers and dolphins and gray whales, going to farmers markets, eating at taquerias….etc.

annashousecitrus

Anna Thomas’ citrus display

If you’ve read my blog long enough, you know that I’m crazy about citrus. It’s local food here in the winter and a great reason to bend the rules about local if you live anywhere else. After all, people have been importing citrus for hundreds of years!  Its bright colors and tastes bring sunshine to any winter day.

annashouseannaSpeaking of brightness and color, one of the bright spots of our month here was a generous invitation to lunch at the home of Anna Thomas, known to many as The Vegetarian Epicure. She has an intuitive sense of combining color and flavor for dazzling effect, a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach. (You can find out more about the wonderful kitchen she designed in a recent issue of Fine Cooking).

annashouse1She had gone shopping at the farmers’ market early that morning, and red kuri pumpkins (a type of squash you don’t need to peel, she told me), green tomatoes and onions were tossed with some olive oil and salt and roasted for a delicious healthy dish.

This was served atop her “tweed” pilaf (which I don’t seem to have a photo of), composed of farro and black rice, cooked separately and then combined with sauteed onions. Another visually pleasing as well as tasty dish. What a good idea!annashouselunchAnd then there was a lovely salad of dandelion greens, radicchio, Asian pear and toasted pecans. Yum! It all tasted as good as it looked or visa versa, and kept us smiling the rest of the day. Thank you, Anna.

annashousepomegranate

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Filed under Praise for other cooks, salad, Uncategorized, vegetables, winter

Good things in March

Oatmeal scones with currants

Oatmeal scones with currants — and lemon marmalade

If not for St. Patrick’s Day coming up (a celebration in my family, which I wrote about here), mid-March would be kind of bleak, noted for the Ides of March (the occasion of Julius Caesar’s assassination). It’s an in-between season, neither winter or spring.

It is still rainy and blustery here, still a time to enjoy pots of soup accompanied by crusty bread.  But there are those times when you run out of bread and wish for some nice heart-warming baked goods you could whip up and take out of the oven in just about half an hour from the time you thought of it.  I’m here to tell you it can be done!

A recipe I came up with recently, oatmeal scones, is quick, easy and satisfying. You can make it plain or add currants, lemon zest or caraway seeds for a very respectable substitute for Irish soda bread (which Americans seem to remember only once a year — and then it turns out the authentic version is not what we had in mind anyway.)

oatscones3

This afternoon the idea of oatmeal scones materialized into a plateful of them so quickly that Steve could hardly believe it. Set the oven to 425 degrees now, and you can be eating them soon.

If you’re in the St. Patrick’s Day spirit, serve them with something green –perhaps Anna Thomas’ green soup,  a skillet full of sauteed chard or kale with some garlic and lemon, or maybe a chopped kale-lemon-walnut salad like the one I made today.

kalelemonsalad

Kale-lemon-walnut salad, inspired by a Portland friend

For the salad, finely chop a bunch of lacinato kale and one medium organic (or unwaxed) lemon, skin and all. Add a quarter cup of chopped toasted walnuts. (Some chopped apple would be good in this too. Or some dried cranberries.) Sprinkle with salt and drizzle in as much olive oil as you like, perhaps adding more lemon juice (stir in half a teaspoon of honey if it’s too sour for you). Very healthy!

Now would you like that scone recipe? I’ve kept the recipe small-ish (6 scones) because these really are best fresh. But if you’d like to make a dozen, it’s no problem at all to double the recipe.
oatscdoughcurrants

Oatmeal scones (makes 6)

  • 3/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour (or substitute all-purpose flour)
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup oats (not quick-cooking)
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons cold butter, cut in small pieces
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • 1/2 cup nonfat yogurt
  • 2 tablespoons currants (optional)
  • zest of one lemon; 1 teaspoon caraway seeds (both optional)
  1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees

  2. In a bowl, combine all dry ingredients (flours, oats, baking powder, baking soda, salt, brown sugar)

  3. Cut in the butter with a pastry cutter or your fingers until the butter is the size of small peas

  4. In a separate bowl or large measuring cup, mix the egg and yogurt together, then add to the dry ingredients, mixing only until it comes together into a soft dough.

  5. Sprinkle a generous portion of oats on a counter or wooden board. Form the dough into a thick circle about 6 inches in diameter and lightly press the dough into the oats on each side, so the disc is coated with oats on both sides. Then cut the dough into six wedges, like this:oatcurrant2

  6. Put the wedges on a baking sheet and bake for about 12 minutes, till golden. Serve them warm.

On any day of the year, these scones will go well with both savories and sweets, from breakfast to coffee or tea time to dinner.

oatsconesandtea

I must say these scones were delicious with lemon marmalade, accompanied by a  strong cup of Irish Breakfast tea. They lifted my spirits,  chased away the March blues, and almost made me forget the tea was decaf!

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Filed under baked goods, breakfast, dessert, Praise for other cooks, salad, soup, spring, supper time, vegetables, winter

Still winter…….

sweet potato with marinated feta and olives

Baked sweet potato with marinated feta and kalamata olives

Well, when we were in Southern California, it was all very well to subsist on loads of mandarins and quick meals of tacos or lemon fettucine (along with twice-weekly fabulous huevos rancheros breakfasts at Esau’s Cafe).

Back in the Pacific Northwest, it’s still winter and something heartier is needed. I made my usual round of soups — minestrone, potato-leek, mushroom-barley and lemony lentil with spinach — and then looked around for some non-soup inspirations.

In a used bookstore in San Francisco, on our way south to Carpinteria, I had picked up a book by Diana Henry, called “Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons.” (See why I had to buy it? … and more about those pickled lemons later.) Henry is a food columnist for The Telegraph in London and her writing is very appealing, as are the recipes.

Henry offers many Middle Eastern recipes, but this one is not traditional, as sweet potatoes are seldom eaten in the Mediterranean. I think it would be excellent with regular baking potatoes too, and it’s simple and quick to put together.

Break up 6 or 7 ounces of feta cheese and mix with 1/2 a tablespoon of fennel seeds, a medium red chili, seeded and cut into fine slivers, a crushed garlic clove, 1/2 teaspoon of crushed coriander seeds and enough olive oil to moisten. Cover and set in a cool place or refrigerator to allow the flavors to blend.

Bake four medium sweet potatoes until tender.  Split them open lengthwise and sprinkle with a little olive oil and freshly ground black pepper, then fill with the marinated feta and sliced kalamata olives. Scatter chopped cilantro over all and serve.

Another recent inspiration was from the engaging Italian cook, Lidia Bastianich, whose braised Swiss chard and cannellini beans recipe is very satisfying. It was similar to some greens-and-beans I make, but in this case the chard is cooked till very tender, and crushed tomatoes add a lively note. The original recipe called for more olive oil than I thought it needed and for a dab of tomato paste, which I didn’t have. I’m sure it’s dandy as she made it, but I’ll give you my slight adaptation, below.

beansandchard

Cannellini Beans with Swiss chard, adapted from Lidia Bastianich

  • 1/2 pound dried cannellini beans (or 3 cups canned beans, drained and rinsed. You can also make this with Great Northern beans)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • a big bunch of Swiss chard
  • about 1/4 cup of olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 cup canned crushed tomatoes (such as San Marzano)
  1. Rinse the beans and soak overnight in plenty of cold water. Drain, transfer beans to a large saucepan and cover with fresh cold water. Boil for about 40 minutes, until tender but not mushy. Turn off the heat, stir in 1/2 teaspoon of salt and let the beans cool to absorb the cooking liquid.

  2. Rinse the Swiss chard and cut off the stems (save for soup stock). Slice the leaves crosswise about every two inches.

  3. Fill a large pot with water and bring it to the boil. Drop in all the chard at once, stir and cover the pot. Cook for five to ten minutes, until the chard is thoroughly tender. Drain the cooked chard well in a colander. Also drain the beans.

  4. Heat 3 tablespoons of oil with the sliced garlic in a skillet over medium-high heat, until the garlic is sizzling. Toast the red pepper flakes in the skillet, then pour in the crushed tomatoes and bring to a boil.

  5. Add the beans, season with salt, and heat rapidly, stirring. As it’s simmering, stir in the chard and bring to a boil over high heat for a couple of minutes, tossing the mixture and stirring constantly. As the juices thicken, drizzle in the remaining tablespoon of olive oil and simmer another two or three minutes.

sausagepolentabeans

The next night, I served the leftovers with some polenta and a grilled chicken sausage. Great winter meal!

mandarinbowl

Mandarins were perfect for dessert

Oh yes –what about those pickled lemons?

pickledlemons

Diana Henry’s recipe for pickled lemons is very simple: sliced lemons, sprinkled with salt and paprika. How do they taste? I don’t know yet… it takes about three weeks before they’re ready. Stay tuned.

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Filed under baked goods, Praise for other cooks, soup, supper time, vegetables, winter