how to save dinner

Invite your mother to come for an impromptu dinner. Warn her that you have no idea what you’ll serve, and that you don’t plan to tidy up.

Then tidy up just a smidge, because you don’t want people to see it like this.

Since a) it’s chilly out, b) there’s nothing exciting in the fridge, and c) you feel like being lazy cozy, decide to make snowday food: canned tomato soup & grilled cheese sandwiches. Because your mom deserves better, decide to glam it up. Here’s how.

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herbs, onions, tomatoes, and comfort

It’s been raining and dreary here for days, and will be raining and dreary for many more days. I count myself lucky, though; friends just an hour to the south are being rained out of their businesses and homes.

I’m also lucky that my momma taught me to cook whatever is on hand in the pantry, without going out in the driving rain to pick up groceries. That’s exactly what I did last night at her house; we had a comforting but tempting dinner cobbled together from whatever I found on the pantry shelves. Most of the recipes were experiments, and they turned out so well that I wanted to document them here, for future rainy nights*.

soup: cream of tomato with golden sherry
tartines: sun-dried tomato, sautéed mushrooms, black olives, herbed neufchatel, and parmesan on onion herb bread
oven-fries: potatoes and sweet potatoes
salad: mixed greens with chile-spiced almond slivers and balsamic vinaigrette

* The next of these future rainy nights was sooner than you think: D and I had the soup, sandwiches, and sweet potato fries for dinner the very next night. I had my camera (thanks, Elli!) along, and just plain forgot to take photos. Infuriating.

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Is My Blog Burning? 11: Thai peanut and black bean soup

When I saw that Cathy at My Little Kitchen had chosen beans (or, more specifically, legumes) as the featured ingredient for this round of Is My Blog Burning?, I was flooded with ideas. Hummus? Black bean quesadillas? Dal? Roasted chickpeas? Panzanella? As a near-vegetarian and a poor student, I rely on beans as a cheap, delicious protein source, so I make all of these dishes regularly. I have also been planning to create my own recipe for casado, the dish of black beans and rice (with assorted sides) that I was served every day of my recent trip to Costa Rica.

Then, just a few days ago, I treated myself to a cheap lunch at a local sandwich joint, and skeptically ordered something called spicy Thai peanut and black bean chili. It was rich and zingy, wholesome and surprising. I decided to recreate it as closely as possible for IMBB?

I started by examining recipes for groundnut stew and West African peanut soup in Sundays at the Moosewood Restaurant, but the final product has only a few elements in common with Moosewoos recipes. You will see that this recipe is highly improvisational, with amounts listed very approximately. I tossed this dish together from ingredients on hand, taking mental notes as I went.

I admit to being startled at the resemblance of the finished dish to that yummy, exotic, but comforting chili I was served earlier in the week. And with two legumes, this soup is doubly qualified for this edition of IMBB! Thanks, Cathy, for spurring me to give this a try!

Thai peanut and black bean soup

2 medium onions, roughly chopped
1 large white potato, diced (I used Yukon Gold)
1 sweet potato, diced (I used leftover roasted slices of sweet potato,
chopped and added with the soup stock))
1 medium carrot, sliced (I used a handful of baby carrots, sliced)
2 teaspoons minced ginger
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 small red chile, seeded and chopped fine *
2 teaspoons Massaman curry paste
4 cups mild vegetable stock
1 tablespoon vodka
3/4 cup natural (or old-fashioned) peanut butter
3 cups cooked black beans
cilantro
chopped scallions
vegetable oil
salt
water as necessary

* I don’t know the variety of chile I keep on hand, but they are the long, slim, ferocious kind that are sometimes served in Kung Pao dishes. They are known in my family as “the little red pods of death.” Dried chiles would work well, too, I suppose.

Heat a large pot over medium heat; add 1 – 2 teaspoons oil. Add onions, sprinkle with a generous pinch of salt, and sweat until just translucent. Add potatoes (white and sweet) and carrots; cook until a golden fond develops on the bottom of your pot. Add ginger, garlic, and chile. Saute until fragrant, 2 -3 minutes, deglaze with vodka. Cook off the alcohol for a minute or two, and add vegetable stock, scraping pan to loosen fond.

Turn down heat to low; cook until potatoes soften. Stir in peanut butter. You may like to thin it first with a small amount of water or stock, which reduces clumping, but I hate to dirty an extra dish and prefer to stir like crazy, so I plunk the peanut butter right into the pot. Add black beans. Taste for seasoning: you may prefer more salt, or some hot sauce. If the soup is thick and lumpy, thin down with water.

Serve hot, topping each dish with cilantro and scallion. These additions are not garnishes, but legitimate ingredients making enormous contributions to the flavor of the dish. Lime wedges to squeeze over the soup would be zingy and refreshing, too, although I did not have any.

The restaurant served this with fresh tortilla chips, which complemented the silky texture of the peanut broth and the chunkiness of the vegetables. Tonight, I ripped open a bag of Goya brand garlic cassava chips to serve on the side. Delicious!

Another time, I think I would add some diced green chiles and maybe some tomato paste to the last stage of the saute, for an extra burst of flavor.

Delusions of foodblogging: yogurt cheese

I am thankful that my grocery store has started providing plain lowfat organic yogurt in the massive tubs. Until now, I have had to buy on massive tub of full-fat yogurt and one massive tub of nonfat yogurt and mixed them. No onerous task, I admit, but it did leave me with an immense vat of yogurt. Sixty-four ounces of yogurt is too much yogurt for a single woman, Yoplait ads suggesting our limitless capacity for the stuff notwithstanding!

Hmm. Where were we? Yogurt cheese! I used to set up a precarious and messy arrangement of seive, cheesecloth (or coffee filter or paper towel), glass bowl, and cling film, then try to empty a large space in the fridge for this unwieldy assembly. No more! I liberally pierced the bottom of a large yogurt tub, which fits snugly in an unperforated tub, leaving a reservoir for the whey to drain into, and one lid seals the whole container. It is compact, easy to clean, and free. I suspect that you could do away with the cheesecloth (or filter or paper towel) if the holes were fine enough, but I still use a filter just in case.

I like to mix salt, lemon juice and rind, pepper, garlic, and herbs into a bit of the finished yogurt cheese and treat it like Boursin: serve it with croustades, crudites, or in sandwiches. Whipped light with extra lemon juice or even milk, it makes a nice binder for egg salad, or a creamy salad dressing, especially for spinach or arugala. I have yet to follow the example of Alton Brown in using yogurt cheese as the base for frozen yogurt. I dot have an ice cream maker, but Monkey knows a way around that!

Delusions of foodblogging: Mimi’s artichoke dip

For the past few days, my meals have been heavily reliant on Mimi’s artichoke dip.

Take a can of (unmarinated) artichoke hearts and drain those puppies. (Oh sorry. Not puppies. I forgot this was addressed to vegans.) Add 8-10 oz of drained soft tofu, two tablespoons lemon juice, one tablespoon olive oil, some chopped fresh basil, a garlic clove, and some salt. WHIRL! PULSE! PROCESS! EAT WITH CRACKERS! It makes a lot. Be warned.

It is embarrassingly easy to make, tangy and refreshing on a hot day, and most of the ingredients can be kept on hand. In my case, all of the ingredients are on hand, since I tend to go basil-mad at the farmer’s market, buying absurdly large, absurdly cheap bunches even if I have a bunch at home. Accordingly, I have small tubs of basil, chopped and packed in olive oil, tucked away in my freezer, and can make artichoke dip anytime I please. (Gloating.)

Mimi suggests serving it with crackers; I prefer homemade pita chips. It makes an excellent sandwich filling. On a slice of toasted sourdough bread, topped with lightly salted tomatoes, it is perhaps my favorite summer sandwich. If you can stand the delight, try it mixed with chopped tomatoes and served with garlic cassava chips. If you possibly can, resist eating so much you get sick.

I have now served this to several of the least-vegan (if you get my concept, and I think we can agree that you do) people I know, with great success. My red-meat-eating Mom looked meaningfully at me over her chip, saying, “I would really love to know how you make this.” It could hardly be easier. I have some suggestions to add to the recipe linked above:
a) I add some freshly ground pepper, a dash of hot sauce, and plenty of lemon zest.
b) Chopping the artichokes before dropping into the food processor eliminates the occasional whiskerlike artichoke hairs that can be so disconcerting to the diner.

c. If I have time, I like to drain the tofu well to make a thicker dip that’s less prone to separate in the fridge. I put the tofu into a salad spinner (a colander in a bowl works fine but is less stable), put a flat-bottomed plate or dish on top, and place a heavy can on top of that. Refrigerate a few hours or overnight, occasionally draining the liquid collecting in the bottom.

Is My Blog Burning? The Tartine Edition

Midterms start tomorrow, in all their grueling glory, so my tartine will be a simple, satisfying dish. Given a bit of forethought, this can be thrown together by a ravenous student in the few minutes between classes and study sessions.

I regret being unable to post a photo, as the colors are stunning: the vivid magenta of the beets and the deep jewel green of the asparagus against soft green of the avocado, all blanketed by the pale cream of the melting cheddar, and the contrast of these yielding textures and mingling colors against the springy tangle and mixed shades of the baby greens…Is quite lovely, and inspired in me a Cézanne-like appreciation of color as color and shape as shape.

I have included a recipe for items marked with an asterisk*.

Cézanne tartine:
(all amounts are approximate; serves one)
2 slices wheat bread*, lightly toasted
1 small roasted beet* (beetroot, betterave)
5-6 stalks roasted asparagus*
2 mushrooms, sliced thin
1/4 ripe avocado
1 ounce sharp cheddar cheese or mild goat cheese
2 cups mixed greens
splash of balsamic vinaigrette
1 ounce dried cranberries
1 ounce glazed walnuts*
kosher salt, black pepper, lemon juice (optional)

Mash avocado coarsely with a few drops of lemon juice, a pinch of kosher salt, and a few grinds of black pepper. Spread avocado on slices of lightly toasted whole wheat bread. Top with beet slices, asparagus, carrots, and sliced mushrooms. Dot with goat cheese or top with slice of cheddar; broil until cheese melts.

Slice diagonally; serve on bed of mixed greens lightly dressed with balsamic vinaigrette and tossed with glazed walnuts and dried cranberries.

The suave creaminess of the avocado and cheddar, barely seasoned with lemon and salt, melds beautifully with the earthy, sweet intensity of the roasted vegetables. The salad, with its slightly bitter mix of greens and piquant dressing, is fresh and crisp, an excellent foil for all that complex sweetness. The walnuts provide a crunch and echo the earthiness of the beets, while the cranberries give a bright flavor to each bite of greens.

While I love the simplicity and smoothness of cheddar for this tartine, the tang of a mild goat cheese works well, too, making a slightly more sophisticated dish of these simple ingredients.

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