An Ode to Allston, MA with a Bowl of Homemade Pho Ga

 

The Allston neighborhood of Boston–which I happen to live right near though not in–is more often than not ridiculed as a college slum. It is affectionately called Allston Rock City because of its music scene and do it yourself house shows and Allston Rat City, well, because there sure are a lot of rats come trash day.

I will concede that there are more than a lot of college kids in the heart of Allston. Harvard Avenue, the main drag filled with food, bars, and cheap furniture stores, fills up on  most nights with college kids in every direction. The trolley or T  that runs out to the neighborhood is notoriously slow and glutted with students. Then there’s the crowding into apartments and subsequent waste that accumulates every time a semester or lease ends. On September first it’s even called Allston Christmas since on every corner a mountainous pile of futons, cheap lamps, and discarded couches grows dangerously high in a mere 24-hour period as college kids either move out, move in, or simply start new somewhere else in the city. (Be wary of taking something you find on the street. There are rules to Allston.)

But despite all this, I have to admit it I actually love Allston, because below the surface, there is so much culinary flavor and cheap eats, how could I not come to love the place?  There are at least two shabu shabu restaurants, the kind that serve big portions for low prices, blocks away from each other. There is middle eastern, sushi, Korean BBQ and Fried chicken, Salvadorean, VEgan pizza, and Nepalese to name a few and bars with more craft beer than is humanly possible to try (two of which were named by Draft Magazine as part of the 100 best beer bars in America!)  I dislike the constant ragging on Allston as a college-this or college-that because it obscures the fact that thriving immigrant communities live and make Allston interesting too.  At a point making fun of and trashing the neighborhood as a result of it’s college reputation seems to close to trashing on the other people that live there.

The crowning jewel of my love for Allston is the Super 88 grocery store and food court (or is a Hong Kong supermarket now? The sign still hasn’t changed.) It’s part pan-asian supermarket and part pan-asian food court. Mostly, it is all awesome. In the food court side, you’ve got everything from Hong Kong style dim sum to Northern Indian take out to Koream bimbimbap. My favorite is the Vietnamese counter, where you can get massive bowls of pho bo and pho ga for under 10 dollars. If you feel inspired by the tastes of the food court the grocery store has everything under the sun you may need to recreate the cuisines of Asia. I’ve spent so many lazy sundays in the Super 88, waiting out the harsh Boston winters with bowsl of pho or tracking down that final ingredients for a new recipe. Galangal ginger! Purple basil! Thai chilies! Oh my.

So when I finally decided to a try making a version of pho ga at home, Vietnamese chick noodle soup in my over simplification of this immensely popular national dish, it seemed only right to dedicate the effort to Allston in all it’s rough-and-tumble glory. Firstly, because my love of pho is born of my time at the Super 88, my Allston go-to. Secondly, because I’m always thankful to I can hop on a bus and appreciate the little extras the neighborhood has, experiencing it underneath the empty stereotypes. And lastly because homemade pho seems a perfect way to honor a section of the city where everything comes crashing at once, from college kids to rock shows in basements to hardworking immigrants to cheap eats from all over the world. It’s not about making the most authentic pho, or finding the best in the city, its just about the process.

I like you just the way you are Allston, rats and all. (Okay, maybe fewer rats would be better for everyone…)

Quick Homemade Pho Ga

Adapted from: Steamy Kitchen & Chez Us

Serves 4-6

For the Broth:

1/2 white onion
1 3 inch chunk of ginger, peeled
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
3 star anise pods
fennel seeds, 1 tablespoon
1 cinnamon stick
8 cups of chicken broth
1 small bunch of cilantro, washed
1 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce (or to taste)
2-3 cups of water

Main:
1 whole skinless and boneless chicken breast. Mine was around 1.5 pounds of breast meat.
1 lb of noodles

Toppings:

mint, roughly torn
basil, roughly torn
scallions, sliced
quarters of lime
bean sprouts
thinly sliced red onions
Sriracha
Hoisin sauce

Directions:

1.  In a broil safe pan (like a cast iron skillet) brown the peeled ginger and onion until beginning to blacken, around 10 minutes. Peel away any burnt areas.

2. Toast the coriander seeds, the anise pods, fennel seeds, and cinnamon stick in a deep stock pot until just fragrant. Be careful not to burn.

3. Add the chicken broth, onion, ginger, 1 small bunch of cilantro (stem and leaves), and the fish sauce to the stock pot with the toasted spices. Bring to boil. Add the chicken breast. Reduce to just below a boil. Poach the chicken for around 20 minutes until cooked. Remove and shred.

4. While the chicken is poaching cook the rice noodles according to the package.

5. The Pho Ga stock may have reduced now by some. Taste and adjust for taste. You may want to add another 2-3 cups of water. Once ready, remove from heat.

6. Strain the chicken broth in a fine mesh colander. I found lining the colander with a paper towel helped catch any small spices that may have broken down while simmering.

7. Divide the broth into bowls. Add noodles, shredded chicken, and then top to your fancy.

8. Store leftovers in separate containers so you can quickly reassemble for another meal!

Sriracha Salt & Here’s Looking at You, 2012

Homemade gifts tend to be a theme of my December as I’ve inherited the cheap gene (thanks, Dad.) I’m also inclined to making catastrophic messes in my free time. This year I made around five batches of biscotti, salted caramels, spiced nuts, flour free peanut butter and dark chocolate cookies, and sriracha salt. The former were all on purpose, the latter a surprise impulse last gift but now a personal favorite salt.

Now that the time of homemade gift giving is basically over, I’m able to reflect on the things I made, the burnt chocolate, the scorched sugar, and the wooden spoon that appeared to be permanently stuck to the bottom of the beloved pot. And it’s interesting to see the tricky dance and politics of making it from scratch at the holidays.

I’m speaking directly to an New York Times article from last month titled “‘Store Bought’ Spoils the Potluck Spirit“, which caused a little internet stir about whether it was fair to criticize people who brought store items to holiday potlucks and such. I happened to read this article a few days before I had decided to bake around thirty biscotti cookies for an office cookie swap party I signed up for on impulse. I didn’t think much about the debate-does this author pretend all people (and specificaly women) have the time to cook? Does store bought really ruin tradition?- since I literally had a lot of cookies to make in a few short hours.

But after making a fairly disappointing bunch of cookies (undercooked, flavor all off, etc), I didn’t feel so sure making something from scratch really meant anything more than well, deciding to make something from scratch with my time. I could see exactly the backlash against the an article criticizing those who don’t want to do it themselves or just decide not to.

Let’s be honest: sometime making something can be a disguised judgement of others, trying to say “Look I’m great! I’m skilled!” I admit it,  I started out thinking: I Will Bake The Worlds Best Cookies   ,Everyone Will Love Me. In the end, I didn’t even like what I made. But I brought them in, swapped cookies, and realized that my personal effort in baking cookies really wasn’t the point. Serving cookies that looked misshapen, kind of like mangled fingers, was an epiphany of sorts. Making things yourself should not be about forcing other people to recognize your skills or about judging the free time of others. It should be about having fun, or not having fun and realizing you aren’t much of a baker, or about watching Home Alone 1 and Home Alone 2 back-to-back while creaming butter and sugar. Food shouldn’t be a judgement of yourself or others, or a responsibilty, since it ignores the privilege some people have in taking the time to cook.

I happened to find out during the cookie swap that my favorite coworker made cookie was based on a store-bought sugar cookie mix, too. They were awesome, spiced with chai tea and glazed with eggnog.

That’s why I’m in love with this sriracha salt  because it isn’t stuffy or put-on. It’s easy, not really homemade as it’s based on store-bought ingredients, but still a little crafty. If you are of the rooster sauce persuasion you can sprinkle this salt on anything:  eggs, popcorn, shredded meats for tacos, soup.  I’ve been keeping it in a little jar by the stove,  making everything I eat from breakfast to dinner a little rooster-y.

Sriracha salt, believe it or not, is symbolic of my 2012 theme: don’t take yourself so seriously, Lindsey, but make things count. I’m changing up the meaning of my blog, too. I’m making this blog less serious in a way. That is, I want this blog to be about both food and writing, recipes and thoughts, not just a blog I feel I have to write to be A True Food Blogger. I quit my ad network as a way of rethinking everything here too. The world of food blogging  became so serious in 2011, sometimes good and sometimes bad, and I’m not sure what I want out of blogging about food but I do know I want it to be less serious and more fun.  I’m lessening the restriction and just freeing this space, to make and write about food in a new way. The emphasis is still on tinkering and D.I.Y., but also about the ideas behind what I’m making and eating.

So I hope 2012 is a full of traveling the US, baking better bread, writing & Sriracha salt.

Sriracha Salt
From The Sriracha Cookbook (accessed from Epicurious)

Makes 1/2 cup of salt

Ingredients:

1/2 cup kosher salt
5 teaspoons Sriracha

Directions:

1. Combine salt and sriracha in a bowl. Mix thoroughly.

2. There are two ways to dry the salt: the first is just leaving the salt out on a parchment lined cookie sheet for a day or two. The second method is to preheat the oven to 200 and turn off immediately before placing the salt on a parchment lined cookie sheet into the oven to dry out slowly over a few hours.

Homemade Creme Fraiche + Bacon/Corn Pizza with Creme Fraiche

When I visited Chicago over labor day weekend there was a pizza (not deep dish, though) that started my interest in creme fraiche. In the Andersonville neighborhood there was an itsy bitsy pizza shop, recommended by the friend we were staying with, called Great Lake. It is the kind of the place that has few seats and where the pizzas are made by the owner from scratch so they take upwards of an hour to craft. But guess what? The pizza was out of this world good. It was the crust, springy and bread-like, that made me understand all the hype. .  One of the pies we shared had a creme fraiche base topped with corn, bacon, and red onion. It tasted kinda like: “Damn! I wish I had thought of these flavors on a pizza before.” I knew I had to recreate the flavors at home.

A little investigation taught me that there is no need to buy creme fraiche. In science class fashion, you can make it yourself with a little effort and trust. Homemade creme fraiche means stirring a small amount of yogurt or buttermilk into heavy cream and letting it sit out of the fridge, covered, until thick. Magically the cultures  thicken the mixture, giving it a slightly sour tang, like a gentler relative of sour cream. I now have creme fraiche in the fridge, ready to use in savory and sweet dishes, just like that. First thing I did was reconstruct the pizza, though. I had to. It rocked.

Homemade Creme Fraiche

Makes 1 cup

Ingredients:
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons yogurt or buttermilk
a container or jar with a lid

Directions:

1.  Mix the cream and yogurt (or buttermilk) together in the container/jar. A whisk helps if using the yogurt.

2. Leave in warm area–ideally around 70 degrees–covered for up to 24 hours. Make sure the seal is good. If you don’t have a cover  you could use plastic wrap and a rubber band on the top of a washed out jar.

3. You will know the creme fraiche is ready when it is thick but still pourable plus it will be slightly sour. If it is not getting thicker try placing it in a warmer place like under a lamp or near a warm stove.

4. Store in the fridge for about week.

5. Besides pizza creme fraiche works in deserts, in pasta with ham/peas, on crepes, in soups, etc. Really anywhere a little richness can be used.

Of course here is the outline for the pizza I had. I’m not saying it was Great Lake quality because that pizza was just too good to replicate at home but the flavors are what I was looking for. The combination does not disappoint:

Bacon and Corn Pizza with Creme Fraiche

Serves around 2

Ingredients:
Pizza dough made by hand or buy some ready to bake at the store.
2 slices of bacon, cut into lardons/chunks
1 small red onion, sliced
1 cup of corn kernels (fresh or frozen)
1/2 cup creme fraiche
salt and freshly ground pepper

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 500. If you have a pizza stone put it in to preheat too.

2. In a skillet over medium high heat cook the bacon until almost crispy. Add in the onion and corn. Cook until just browned. Remove from heat.

3. Top pizza, either before going into the oven or after prebaking the crust, with creme fraiche and the bacon/corn/onion mixture.

4. Cook for 5-7 minutes until browned.

5. Sprinkle a liberal amount of salt and pepper when finished. This is key, trust me.

6. Eat away!

 

Blueberry Oatmeal Pancakes

Making pancakes on a weekend morning always feels fancy and lazy. It means taking out the flour and spilling it all over the red tiled flour without noticing for longer than a while. It means lingering with coffee that goes from hot to cold because I’m not getting up off the couch. It means watching Disney Channel TV shows on ABC because we don’t have cable. It means not taking a shower for a long, long time. Pancakes are a rebellion against the nine to five life. At least I think so.

For the longest time now I have been using the Mark Bittman everyday pancake recipe exactly–why mess with something that works? After sampling some oatmeal waffles, though, I began making a few changes to the standard recipe. Just adding some oatmeal, a little vanilla extract, and brown sugar turned the regular everyday pancake into something reminiscent of a baked good.

Now that the farmer’s market is full of pretty, colorful things I couldn’t resist blueberries for breakfast. I plopped around eight blueberries into each pancake as it bubbled on the skillet. They sizzled and exploded with color. The cinnamon and brown sugar make theses pancakes like muffins. The end result is a chewier pancake with bursting blueberries.

 

Blueberry Oatmeal Pancakes
Adapted from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything

Serves 3-4

Ingredients:

1 1/2 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup old fashioned oatmeal pulsed in a food processor to become flour
1/4 cup old fashioned oats
2 teaspoons  baking power
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup of washed blueberries
butter for a skillet

Directions:

1.  Combine all purpose flour, the oatmeal flour (created by processing old fashioned oats in a food processor), the old fashioned oats, baking powder, salt, brown sugar, and cinnamon in a bowl. Sift.

2. In another bowl combine the eggs, milk, and vanilla extract.

3. Combine the dry ingredients with the wet ingredients until almost smooth.

4. Heat a skillet on medium. Add some butter.  Add 1/4 cup of batter.  Drop around 8-10 blueberries into each pancake. Flip once lots of little bubbles appear. Cook until browned on both sides. Repeat. Add extra butter after each pancake if needed.

 

Cold Brewed Iced Tea

 

I’ve never really made iced tea other than this cold brewed way. Is that a summer sacrilege?  Maybe I have let a hot cup of tea cool down with the intention of pouring it over ice but I don’t call that purposeful iced tea making. I call that the lazy persons guide to a beverage. So for me the summer drink staple comes in mason jars that I’ve stuck in the fridge at night or in the morning depending on my schedule for the day. The tea bags steep slowly in the jars to create that simple but distinct tea flavor. And cold brewing iced tea creates the same refreshing, light  flavor that those  expensive tea beverages provide (I’m thinking Honest tea), but without the price and plastic bottle waste.  You can easily cold brew tea not just in a mason jar but in your to- go cup or water bottle.

The technique relies on a slow, cold brewingtea  instead of brewing tea hot and then cooling it down. The tea is steeped in cold water in the fridge for 5-8 hours until the flavor is pleasant and mild. The cold brewing process tones down bitterness. Not a tea bag kind of person? You can steep the leaves in the jar and then just strain them away. Any tea works. I’ve tried: chai, green, white, earl grey, and even mint. Lately the Morrocan mint is my favorite. I think the mint makes for a better drink in  heat wave weather. Once the tea is ready I throw out of the tea bags. At this point I might flavor the tea with a simple syrup mix I keep on hand (1 cup sugar in 1 cup boiling water cooled down and stuck in a jar in the fridge) or I just drink it unsweetened,

Additions are great with this method too: lemon slices, spice mixtures, mint leaves, rosemary sprigs, etc. You could even make a flavored simple syrup.

Cold Brewed Iced Tea

Servings depend

Ingredients:
tea bags or lose leaf tea of any kind
water
additions (get creative people)
a jar, or water bottle, or pitcher
a simple syrup (equal parts of hot water + sugar, let cool)  or agave

Directions:

1. Place tea and water  in a jar/water bottle/pitcher. I use about 2 bags for 4 cups of water. You can add any additions too. Cover and place in the fridge.

2. Remove tea bags when ready.

3. Sweeten if desired.

 

Sunflower Seed Butter

Or what I like to call Sunflowah Buttah.

I was thinking the other day about how some fancy grocery stores let you grind your own nut butters. Then I thought “wait, I can do that at home!” Now I’m hatching an unlikely but fun plan to create a nut butter business called Nut Your Butter (oh har har har..)

Sunflower seed butter is incredibly easy to make. You take about 2 cups of shelled, roasted, and unsalted sunflower seeds. You add them to a food processor. You begin processing the seeds, adding slowly 1/4 cup of neutral oil like canola. Then you can customize it any way you want. I went with 1/2 tablespoon of brown sugar, a few pinches of sea salt, and 1/4 tablespoon of cinnamon. A little bit of sugar, salt, cinnamon really go a long way. Just watch the processor until a nearly smooth butter emerges, tasting as you go.

Sunflower seed butter is reminiscent of sesame tahini crossed with peanut butter. It is creamy and rich, very spreadable, and worthy of making a sandwich with. Or eating by the spoonful.

Sunflower Seed Butter

Makes about 2 cups

Ingredients:

2 cups of shelled, roasted, and unsalted sunflower seeds
1/4 cup of a neutral oil (or less depending on your desired consistency)

Optional but darn good additions:

1/2 tablespoon of brown sugar
a few pinches of sea salt
1/4 tablespoon cinnamon

Directions:

1. Add seeds to the bowl of a food processor or blender.

2. Turn on and slowly pour in oil as the butter forms.

3. Grind/process until smooth, about 5-7 minutes.

Not Your Average Tuna and White Bean Burgers

Cooking on a budget.

That is a hard thing to fess up to, with the craft beer and charcuterie plates of the world calling my name, but my food budget is paltry. Welcome to the world of publishing, friends. But does budget necessarily mean not fancy?

I watch a lot of Anthony Bourdain episodes these days. He often makes fun of Rachel Ray by saying something like: “well she just throws some tuna in some tomato sauce and calls it gourmet.” I mostly agree with him on the criticism. A lot of the food celebrity hype is just dolled up packaged food from big-brand-this and big-brand that. But Rachel Ray aside, I actually think there can be something tasty and maybe even a bit gourmet about budget friendly cooking at home. When you start shopping with purpose and away from packaged foods, a well stocked pantry can and will produce fancy meals. I also must admit that I don’t think good taste and canned tuna need to be mutually exclusive.

Does saying that make me Rachel Ray? I hope not.

Tonight I experimented in budget cooking to much success:  First, I mashed some white beans that I cooked from dried and store in easy portions in the freezer. I added olive oil I brought back from France, aromatics like celery, carrot, and green onion, the zest of a lemon, fresh ground black pepper and sea salt. Next came a can of tuna (if it had been oil packed it would have been even better.) Fresh bread crumbs from one of the best bakeries I’ve ever been to and a single egg finished it off. Then everthing was shaped into six patties. I coated each burger in medium grind cornmeal before pan frying in olive until crispy on each side. I topped each burger with a secret love of mine, something I am both excited and afraid to admit to, which is  mayo + Siracha mixed to taste. Yes, even less fancy than tuna, but don’t knock it until you try it.  It is a secret sauce of champions.

And you know what? I’m not afraid to say that these tuna and white bean burgers are good, even really good. They are cheap, easy to make, and dare I say kind of fancy.

(Not Your Average) Tuna and White Bean Burgers

Makes 6 burgers (which really feeds 2 for a main course so double to feed 4)

Ingredients

2 cups white beans
2 tablespoons of olive oil
1/4 cup minced celery
1/4 cup minced carrot
2 green onions minced
the zest of one lemon plus a squirt of lemon juice
salt and pepper
1 can of tuna drained (if using oil packed don’t drain and use less or no extra olive oil)
1 cup of bread crumbs, freshly made are even better
1 egg, lightly beaten with a fork in a bowl before adding
1/2 cup (or more) cornmeal or extra bread crumbs
extra oil for pan frying
lemon wedges

Extras: 2 tablespoons of mayo (store bought or homemade) mixed with Siracha or chili garlic sauce to taste

Directions:

1. Mash white beans in a bowl until a thick paste forms, with only a few beans retaining their shape. Add in the olive oil, celery, carrot, green onion, and lemon zest. Mix thoroughly. Salt and pepper to taste.

2. Before adding the canned tuna use a fork to gently break apart the pieces in the can, making smaller tuna flakes. Add and mix.

3. Add the bread crumbs and egg. Mix thorougly.

4. Shape into 6 patties. Heat olive oil over medium heat in a skillet. Pan fry each patty until brown, flipping a few times, around 12 minutes.

5. Serve with lemon wedges. If using Siracha mayo, add a big dollop on each burger.

Soba Noodles in Ginger Broth for One


Kitchen failures. That is the theme of January so far.

First, my pita breads did not puff up in the oven. I pleaded with them. I rolled them thinner. But they ended up as limp mini pizzas. Was it me or the recipe? I can’t tell. Worst of all is that I just don’t have it in me to retry the recipe yet.

Next came Guinness brownies that wouldn’t be no matter how much melted chocolate I spread on top. I got inventive–a little cinnamon here, a little Guinness syrup there–but I baked bad brownies in the end. I actually threw them away. I never throw things away either. I finally made a dark beer cake that was pretty perfect except for the fact that it collapsed in the middle. A sunken cake that tastes great doesn’t quite fix everything. It worked a little bit, though.

Oh well. I guess failing is part of getting better? It still bothers me, but I can move on.

I’ve decided instead to write about the easiest recipe I’ve ever invented. Best of all it feeds one (me) so I can make it fast, without thinking too much or writing a recipe. And it is the kind of comforting warm and carb loaded dish that in the bitter temperatures and icy air I crave.

I came up with the dish this past week out of boredom. I’ve adapted it twice already. I was stuck inside because of a rain, sleet, and snow. I made a huge bowl of soba noodles in a ginger broth and just lingered, sitting, reading, and watching tv. The nutty soba noodles and the light ginger broth work perfectly, the kind of creation that owes a lot to the fast food Asian dishes I’ve come to love.

The fixings are customizable. Collards, carrot matchsticks, and scallion seemed easy enough, but sliced cooked chicken or pork could be added at the end. Not to mention the affinity this dish has for an egg in any form. Fried egg on top? Why not! Hard boiled may even be better, sliced thin and topped right before serving. Chili garlic sauce, for me, is essential. A heaping tablespoon adds a spicy depth.

Sometimes food that is so basic you forget about it altogether is the best kind to eat because it won’t end up like failed brownies, lonely in your trash. And it will keep you warm.

I present the cure for kitchen disasters in January:

Soba Noodles in Ginger Broth (for one)

Ingredients for broth:
3 cups of water
1 tablespoon of soy sauce, with more for serving
1 chunk of peeled ginger (about a tablespoon)
1 garlic clove
1/2-1 bunch of soba noodles
1 teaspoon of sesame oil
fixings:
1/2 cup of chopped greens
2 scallions, sliced thinly
1 carrot, cut into matchsticks
sesame seeds
optional fixings:
chili garlic sauce
hard boiled or fried egg
sliced cooked chicken or pork
whatever your heart desires

Directions:

1. In a sauce pan heat 3 cups of water and 1 tablespoon of soy sauce with chunk of ginger and the peeled garlic clove. Bring to a boil. Remove the garlic clove but let the ginger remain. Turn down to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes. Drizzle with a teaspoon of sesame oil.

2. Add the soba noodles and fixings. If using meat, add here. If using fried or hard boiled egg, wait until the end. Chili garlic sauce can be added now or at the end. Cook for 3-5 minutes. The noodles will be done quite quickly, so the fixings should be sliced thin so that they cook fast as well.

3. In a large bowl serve the noodles first with the fixings on top. Then pour broth into bowl. Serve with additional sesame seeds, soy sauce, sesame oil, and chili garlic sauce (if using). Top with additional fixings if you decide to like: egg, meat, additional vegetables and scallions, etc.

4. Eat with a fork and a spoon if you don’t own chopsticks (regretfully, like me)

Kalamata Olive and Spinach Tapenade

I break with tradition more often than not when it comes to food.

Black olive tapenade is supposed to be done one way. Take a few anchovies, a dash of brandy, olive oil, herbs de provence, black olives and capers, and maybe if daring, some smashed garlic cloves, and you will have yourself the very traditional provencal condiment and dip known as black olive tapenade. I thought about following that path in my search for tapenade. I even bought some anchoives. Instead, I’m saving up my anxiety about using those tiny sea creatures until another recipe adventure.

I decided this time to just create a recipe based on my own whimsical desire. I’m the hedonistic do it yourself chef, after all. The end result of my olive craving is this iconoclastic but delicious kalamata olive and spinach tapenade.

And let me first say that kalamata olives are glorious. They are rich, salty, distinct in flavor and texture, and easy to eat by the forkful. They are the best of the best in my opinion. I have a hard time accepting that some people may not like them, let alone dislike any other kind of olive. But I guess that is another story for another blog post.

I’ve been dreaming up tapenade recipes all week. A trip to the grocery store meant I could finally attack that dream. With several kinds of olives in my cabinent plus the strange but alluring anchovies (read: I have never eaten one before), I began scouring recipe sources. After finding a bounty of traditional recipes, I decided to crack open The Mediterranean Vegan Cookbook I acquired at a thrift store about a year ago.

In the end, I decided to use Kalamata olives, fresh lemon juice, and a handful of two or two of shredded baby spinach, for a twist on the traditional. The end result is simply addictive, especially spread on freshly bought seeded sourdough bread or as dip for kettle salt and pepper chips.  Even Brian, a normally olive averse person, said he would enjoy this tapenade in a sandwich or on meat or fish.

Kalamata Olive and Spinach Tapenade
Loosely Adapted from The Mediterranean Vegan Kitchen

Ingredients:
1 cup of olive oil cured pitted kalamata olives, drained
1 cup of loosely packed baby spinach, torn
1/4 cup of drained capers
2 cloves of garlic
the juice of one lemon
a few glugs of olive oil (about two tablespoons)
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon of dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon of dried rosemary

Directions:
1. Pulse all ingredients in a food processor until roughly pureed. Adjust the texture and consistency with more olive oil or lemon juice.

2. Keep in the fridge in a tightly closed container. Tapenade should keep for up to a month.

Falafel Party Time

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This blog post should really be titled “Adventures In Deep Frying.” Until last night, I had no idea I needed to actually deep fry falafel. I mean, it makes sense now that I know but at the time when I naively chose falafel for a small dinner party I didn’t think that I would need the two inches of hot oil to achieve the desired end result. Falafel? No problem I thought. Count me in!

Miss Julia Metro, her visit to Boston being the reason for the small gathering, burst my fry-less falafel dream. But I’m glad she did. I was just about ready to run in fear of ever making falafel. I was considering what last minutes things I could make with uncooked chickpeas (hmmm, nothing?) yet she held fast. Julia volunteered to heat the oil, citing her father’s adventures with a fry daddy as sufficient experience in the world of deep frying, while Brian and I measured out the ingredients. Then the two of them took hold of the whole dropping-chickpea-balls-into-350-degree-oil because next to spiders I think hot oil is second on my list of Things To Avoid.

I tried the first falafel with skepticism. But I was amazed that it tasted so much like, well, falafel!  Falafel reminds me of New York City, wandering the streets, and eating street food on a tight budget. It was a nostalgic meal to say the least. And it was just so rewarding to recreate a simple but familiar food.

The falafel balls didn’t hold together as well as we wanted them to at first. But after compacting them they cooked perfectly; the outside was crisp and browned but the inside was warm with just the right amount of softness. A one pound bag of chickpeas, soaked but not cooked beforehand, made more than enough to feed six hungry mouths. With all the fixings, the falafel were better than most restaurants claim to be falafel. Tahini dressing is a definite must.

More adventures in deep frying are yet to be had, I suspect.

p.s. I apologize for not getting the best shot of a finish falafel sandwich. A dinner party usually means wine which usually means I’m not much of a photographer. )

Falafel
Adapted from Mark Bittman

Serves 3-4. Double recipe to feed more.

Ingredients:

1/2 of a bag of dried chickpeas, soaked for 24 hours and drained. Do not cook!
1 cup of fresh parsley
1 small onion, quartered
2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 tablespoon ground cumin
teaspoon cayenne or chili powder, or to taste
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Neutral oil for frying

Directions:

1. Heat two inches of oil in either a saucepan or large deep skillet until it reaches 350 degrees. We used an instant read thermometer to test the oil.

2. Add all ingredients to a food processor. Pulse until minced but not pureed. Add a tablespoon of water if you need to keep the machine going. But beware of making the batter too wet which will hurt the frying process.

3. Drop heaping tablespoon sized balls or patties of the chickpea mixture into the heated oil. Do not over crowd the oil. Cook each ball until brown, which will be under 5 minutes. Eat hot or at room temperature. I reheated the falafel on a baking sheet in the oven which worked out well.