In the garden

I have a garden! If you follow me on Facebook/Instagram/Twitter, you probably know this already, but I’m so, so excited that this will be my first year growing more than a little pot of lettuce and some flowers on my porch.

Plant markers

I learned about Chicago’s Peterson Garden Project and their pop-up victory gardens last year, but finally joined after urging from a friend who’s gardened with them in the past. For $75, I get a 4×8 plot with organic soil that’s all mine from April through October. Most people with a garden this size use the square foot gardening method (I’ll share more about that in another post), so I’m following suit for now. It’s definitely different than what I remember from my dad’s garden growing up and its orderly rows of beans and carrots and lettuce and corn.

So far I’ve planted seeds for:

I also bought baby plants of:

Other plants I still need to buy are:

  • Cucumbers (I hope I can find a baby cucumber to use for making cornichons!)
  • Strawberries
  • Herbs: Genovese basil, parsley, thyme, chives/garlic chives, oregano, mint (only in a pot)
  • Hot pepper

Baby plants

The history of victory gardens goes back to World War II and, reassuringly, I learned that people back then knew about as much as I do about having a vegetable garden than I do (which is pretty much nil, but luckily I have plenty of green thumb-ed friends and family as guides)! The Peterson Garden Project is a lot more recent, but is doing great work in a lot of areas I’m passionate about: eating locally, making good food accessible to under-served communities, helping people (like me!) learn to grow their own food, putting neglected urban spaces to good use, and building strong communities around Chicago. They’re doing much more than that, which I’ll talk about in another post, but for now I’ll direct you to their website if you want to learn more.

I’m positively giddy to see how this experiment goes and how different this view looks come July!

My garden!

(P.S. I don’t have any association with PGP other than thinking what they do is worth sharing.)

Good food doesn’t need a label

A lot of vegetarian food gets a bad rap, undeservedly so. I’ve had bad dishes with meat in them; I’ve had bad dishes with no meat. Meat rarely makes a dish good or bad simply by being there. I think the “bad” vegetarian food that people have, and which colors their perception, is just bad food, period. And good food, with meat or without, is just so, so good. (Fair warning, a little bit of a soapbox ahead. I won’t mind if you just skip to the delicious recipe at the end.)

Yum

The vast majority of the food I try to eat falls into the vegetarian category, particularly the whole food vegetarian category (i.e. vegetables, beans, seeds, nuts, grains as close to their original form as possible). I’ll be honest that I’m not a fan of tofu unless it’s fried or in miso soup, I don’t like seitan, I’m on the border with tempeh (I don’t mind it, it but it doesn’t like me). I don’t think frozen fake meat that has as many not-whole ingredients as a chicken nugget are doing anyone any favors.

But set me down in front of a well-seasoned portabella mushroom just off the grill with lettuce, tomato, grilled onions, ketchup, mustard, and cheese on a perfectly toasted bun, and watch it disappear as quickly as any beef burger. (P.S. I miss you summer, please come back so I can grill again.)

Spices
Walnuts
All ground up

I’m also not a fan of labeling “meatless” meals as such. It seems counter-intuitive to label them based on the thing that’s not there. You wouldn’t call a burger and fries a pasta-less meal, would you? Or a mid-summer salad of perfect tomatoes, peppers, and lettuce a grain-less meal. What sense does that make? As soon as you make the focus the thing that’s missing, you can’t focus on the delicious food that is actually in front of you.

A breakfast of fruit and yogurt is vegetarian, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is vegetarian, but it seems silly to label them that way, doesn’t it?

Ready for shaping
Patties

The thing I love about food, about cooking seasonally, about taking a pile of random things and turning them into a delicious dish, is that the final dish honors the flavors and textures of the ingredients. Meatless, meat-full, vegetarian, vegan, raw, gluten-free labels be damned–it’s not trying to be anything other than good food. That, to me, is cooking at its absolute best. (Ok, I’m off my soapbox now.)

Golden brown and delicious
Pita pocket-ed

I found this recipe forever ago, and only dug it up again recently. I don’t know why it fell out of my lunch and dinner rotation; it was one of my favorites for a long time. The cumin and coriander give it a sort-of middle eastern-y flavor similar to falafels. It’s easy to make a double batch, shape, and freeze for lunches at work or fast dinners on nights I really don’t feel like cooking.

Tzatziki-d

Lentil Walnut Burgers
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Finding tiny bits of beauty

To be fair, I did warn you. I said that I could live on soup through fall and I wasn’t lying. As I also seem to have come down with the latest strain of the plague making its rounds of my office (why are students so germy? even college students, eesh), I was craving a soup flavorful enough that I could have some chance of actually tasting it.

Creamy lentil soup

For about a year lentil soup was my shoot-I-forgot-my-lunch lunch from a little Mediterranean kinda-fast-food-but-not-really joint: a cup of lentil soup, a fresh pita, and three falafels for under $5. I was so sad when the place closed, and still haven’t found a good cheap-and-reasonably-healthy lunch replacement. This lentil soup is nothing like theirs, except for the hit of lemon at the end, but it’s delicious in a totally different way. (I don’t think there were enough hyphenates in that paragraph so here’s an I-need-another-hyphen hyphen: – )

Lentil soup ingredients

This soup is creamy (without any cream), rich (with a minimum of butter and oil), so packed with flavor I can still taste it with a compromised olfactory system (thanks onion, garlic, and curry powder), and just so simple (all the ingredients were in my cupboard). Perfect.

Can I stop for a second and point out how beautiful French lentils are? Indulge your inner child, scoop up a handful, and really look closely–tiny saucers of deep olive green with blue-black speckles, stripes, swirls remind me of pictures of Jupiter and its whirlpool of clouds or the jar of spotted, striated river stones my mom keeps in a glass jar on a shelf.

French lentils

Just gorgeous. How can you not love food and cooking when it involves tiny bits of beauty like this?

French lentils

I also love that this soup gives me an excuse to use a lot of really good curry powder, breaking one of the cardinal rules of cooking in an apartment: no seafood or curry if it’s too cold to open a window.

Curry powder for lentil soup

Oh well, I can’t smell anything right now anyways, and my neighbors can just indulge me for a day.

Creamy Lentil Soup

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Peak summer chili

As I was making a ridiculously oversized pot of my favorite chili earlier this week and began planning to share the recipe here, I started thinking about the recipe’s origins and all the memories associated with it.

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That may sound like this is some treasured family heirloom recipe, passed down through generations. In fact, the recipe is from Emeril Legasse and his show on the Food Network back when it was in its “celebrity chef-catchphrase” phase. But it made me remember when the network first started and the Saturday afternoons when my mom, sisters, and I would all cram onto our big white couch in our little house and watch a show called, so simply, Taste. Continue reading

Playing hostess

Growing up, one of my favorite things to do was help my mom get ready for a party, and it’s now one of the things I miss most living 600 miles away from home. Sorting through my mom’s recipes and cookbooks to come up with a menu, creating grocery lists and trips to Wegmans (and I miss Wegmans!), serving as sous chef to my mom’s head chef role, getting the house ready, chit chatting with guests, and cleaning up after everyone left–each part of the process had its own challenges and rewards, but I learned a lot in the process about being organized, being flexible, but most of all, making people feel comfortable and welcome.

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