What’s Cooking Wednesday: Spring Rolls!

Technically this was what was cooking on Tuesday, but let’s not nitpick. Last night I went to my first class at the new Fearless Food Kitchen on making one of my favorite dishes on earth, fresh Vietnamese spring rolls. It was fantastic!

Shrimp and tofu was my favorite combination

If you ever had Vietnamese spring rolls, you know they bear little resemblance to the deep fried versions at Chinese restaurants. These delicious bites are about as fresh as it gets: delicate (but sturdier than you’d think) rice paper wrappers stuffed with fresh herbs and vegetables, noodles, plus shrimp, pork, and/or tofu and dipped in a sweet, salty, peanut-y sauce. They’re also great for using up whatever bits and pieces you have in the fridge.

The group was small, maybe eight people–perfect for chatting and asking our teacher plenty of questions. I’ve made these rolls before but what I loved about the class was learning the little tips that only someone who’s been making them for decades knows–things like what order to layer the ingredients (protein on the bottom so it looks pretty when it’s done, followed by noodles, vegetables, herbs, then lettuce), how to roll them to keep all the good stuff inside and look pretty too. She even taught us that you could make a simple light soup from the broth made after cooking the shrimp and pork to serve with the rolls.

Great class in a beautiful space!

After our lovely instructor gave us a spring roll assembly demo, we all got to make as many rolls as we liked with our favorite mix of ingredients. It was great fun to try different variations and especially to see what other people were making. The only think I’m bummed about is that I missed how to make the dipping sauce! I know it involves peanut butter and possibly hoisin. I hope someone in the class reads this and shares what I missed, it’s probably my hands-down favorite part of eating spring rolls.

Dipping the rice paper wrappers Beautiful!

If you’re looking for a fun way to spend an evening, try out one of the Fearless Food Kitchen classes (and class volunteers get to take the class for free in exchange for some help prepping and cleaning up–totally worth it in my opinion). They have a class tonight on making seasonal salads that sounds awesome and I’ve heard great things about the juicing and smoothie classes too.

Recipe to come soon!

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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The art of simplicity

I do so love synchronicity. Also, soup.

Cauliflower soup with a drizzle of butterHere’s what happened:

  1. Bought a cauliflower 2 weeks ago with good intentions to use it in…something. It sat, staring at me, every time I opened the fridge.
  2. Randomly joined a cooking class! First class focused on learning tastes and flavors and how they interact (including the importance of acid and salt as essential components of a dish or meal).
  3. Received an email from my beloved America’s Test Kitchen the next day with a 5-ingredient recipe for cauliflower soup highlighting the simple flavor of cauliflower (and calling for the exact amount of cauliflower I had).

This soup turned out to be perfect, and with perfect timing, in so many ways. First, let me start with this–you know the traditional, creamy, potato-leek soup? This is its equally tasty, equally creamy (but without the cream), less carb-y cousin. It’s cozy and warm and filling and fast.
Simple head of cauliflower It was also the perfect vehicle for applying what I learned in last week’s Cooking Lab class. Try this: as you make the soup, taste the ingredients at different stages in the process. What does the raw cauliflower taste like? To me, a little bitter, maybe a little earthy (that’s umami), maybe a tiny bit sweet. How about raw leeks and onions? (I got an F in tasting on this one–I don’t like raw onions.)
Sliced cauliflower Split leek Thinly sliced onions How do the onions and leeks taste once they’ve softened with the salt? Kind of sweet, but also a little salty? What about the cauliflower once it’s cooked and softened? More sweet, less bitter.
Leeks and onions, softenedCauliflower, just addedSoftThe well-browned butter? Sweet and nutty, earthy. The browned cauliflower mixed with sherry vinegar? Sour, obviously from the acid, but also sweeter than I’d expected.
Butter-fried cauliflowerHow about when it all comes together? How does the flavor of the basic soup change with a little of the butter, a piece of the vinegar-ed cauliflower, the chives? A balance of all five flavors in a perfect little bowl.
Creamy cauliflower soup, garnishedIt’s so fascinating to me to intentionally taste how ingredients change as they cook, and in a soup like this with so few components, the changes are easier to taste. Plus, blah blah flavors and tastes, it’s the perfect warm and cozy when we’re in the midst of yet another cold snap (also known as “winter in Chicago”).

Creamy Cauliflower Soup Continue reading

A little mustard seed

Halfway through, I’m officially declaring January the month of simple things. We’ve made tea, I have plans to share the most amazing, tangy cultured butter, and then there’s this mustard. Let me just say, telling people you made your own mustard? Ok, they may look at you crazy for a second, but then they’ll taste it and will be begging for a jar of their own.

Blend

This is quite literally a 4-ingredient recipe (5 if you want to add sugar or make honey mustard). Your best option for getting a good quantity of mustard seeds is to hit up a good spice shop (or order online from one if you don’t have one nearby). It’s also quite economical compared to what you would pay for a fancy whole grain mustard at the store!

Combine in a jarAnd 24 hours laterBlend some moreHard cider mustard

On a different note–how do you celebrate your birthday? Big, festive blowout? Something low key? Where do you fall on the question of making your own cake? Personally I love low-key and making my own cake–time to actually talk with the people who are important to me, and I know exactly the kind of cake I want and how I want it. I had grand plans to share the most amazing cake with you, with chocolate and red wine and marscapone cheese and…yeah, it’s as good as it sounds. But I also enjoy being kind of lazy on my birthday, so I didn’t actually get around to it–sorry to get your hopes up! Soon, I promise.

Hard Cider Mustard
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Pizza, pizza!

Normally when I find or create a recipe that I want to share with you, I mess around with it for at least a few weeks to make sure it’s just the way I want it; it’s relatively rare that I find a recipe and almost immediately want to post it. But last Thursday, Deb at the inimitable Smitten Kitchen posted the holy grail of pizza dough. I mixed up the dough that night, ate it for dinner the next, made it again yesterday, and did my damndest to share with you as quickly as possible, because, well, pizza.

Is there anything better?

Great pizza dough seems to have a similar mysterious quality as great pie dough. Tomes have been written about the process for both, which is horrifically intimidating (I’m supposed to read what?! I just want dinner, not a dissertation!) Since it takes so few ingredients, undue emphasis (some would say fanaticism) is placed on what type of flour, where the water was sourced. People get scared of dealing with yeast and rising dough. Some say great pizza can just never be replicated at home without a wood-burning oven or a baking stone or a full-blooded Italian in the kitchen.

I call bull.

Escaping cheese didn't get very far

Look, it’s really not as complicated as all that, so please don’t be scared. I’ve struggled with pizza dough too, I’ve had versions I’ve liked for various reasons, but the biggest killer to me is the timing, which is what is so absolutely perfect about this recipe. Make it in 5 minutes the night before and it will be ready just in time for dinner the next night (and will keep in the fridge for even a few days after that)–no 6 hours or 16 hours or some similarly inconvenient timing for someone who actually has a day job (which is not making pizza).

All you need for amazing pizza Sticky doughIt is risen!

This dough doesn’t require kneading or rolling out, another confidence killer when it comes to pizza (and pie, now that I think about it)–just poke and pat it into whatever shape you like. You can get fancy with the flour if you want (I like half white/half bread flour), but you don’t have to; you can use a pizza stone, but a pre-heated baking sheet works quite well. Once baked, the pizza crust has a crackly outside but the inside is tender and chewy.

Topped Cheesed Bubbly

The toppings are up to you (though try to use a light hand with ingredients like sausage–for a topping-heavy pizza, you may prefer this), and you can make it thinner or thicker depending on your preference.

Golden brown and delicious

I implore you, if you have ever wanted to make pizza at home, give this a try, it may just change your weekly dinner rotation and will most certainly change your mind about easy homemade pizza.

Easy Pizza Dough Continue reading

Resisting the siren call of takeout, aka red pepper soup

I confess, I can cook for the transition of fall to winter, winter to spring, spring to summer, but when it comes to the beginning of fall, I’ve drawn a blank. I know I should be reveling in squash and carrots and apples during what has really been a spectacular fall–and I will be savoring all those things soon, I promise–but I just haven’t had a taste for any of it yet.

Yum

It’s too dark too early to grill, and too (blissfully, gloriously) warm for me to want to turn on the oven for anything other than dessert (and I have an awesome one for you soon), meaning a lot more staring contests with my refrigerator and subsequent calls for takeout than I like to admit.

Everything good starts with onions and garlic Lots of peppers

Let’s ignore the takeout and instead talk about the soup I ended up making with the giant bowl of grilled peppers languishing after my last grilling session. These are the kind of impromptu dishes that make me feel like a good cook–random components assembled in the right order somehow end up as a really tasty, really easy dish…that I may have eaten with grilled cheese every night this week. Yeah, let’s not talk about that either.

Smoothed out Creamy

In any case, this is a great soup that you can easily make any season with ingredients you probably have on hand–a few jars of grilled peppers (or grill your own if they’re in season), onion, garlic, a few spices, a little honey and vinegar, some broth and some milk. A pretty good alternative to takeout, I’d say.

Needs cheese Loving my new lens!

(On a sidenote, thanks to my dad and especially my photographer sister Laura this week in helping me hunt down a new, better lens after mine had an unfortunate encounter with an imbalanced cooling rack and, subsequently, my floor. I love my new toy!)

Roasted Red Pepper Soup Continue reading

New inspiration, and chili season

This post will be quick, but I had two tidbits I just had to share.

First, this time of year is the perfect time for chili what with football and changing leaves and the chill in the air after the sun sets. Coincidentally, the key ingredients of my favorite chili–tomatoes, corn, peppers, and zucchini–have just a week or so left in season at the market. I’ve shared the recipe for this chili here once before but it’s worth sharing again. Plus I recently entered it in a cooking contest that ends Tuesday, and you can vote for it by just clicking like!

Peak summer chili

Second, I have to quickly rave about the fantastic event I went to yesterday, the  first Chicago Food Bloggers get-together. I’ve mentioned the group before, and I’m sure I’ll talk about the event in more detail soon, but it was a perfect opportunity to put faces to names (and URLs), meet some new like-minded folks, and learn about their great blogs and other projects. I absolutely adore cooking for and feeding my supremely appreciative and patient friends and family (this blog wouldn’t exist without them!), but when I start blabbering about the finer points of pie crust testing, spice shopping, my latest recipe trials, or cry about daylight waning before I can take my pictures, I know it’s only a matter of time before their eyes start glazing over.

Yesterday it was exciting and inspiring to be able to talk about all this and more for 2+ hours with a community of people who are or have been or will be going through the same things. One of the best connections I made is with Kerry, the owner of the beautiful blog Milk Glass Kitchen. If you know me, you know anything vintage gets my vote! (But shhh, turns out we’re both competing in that chili cook-off I just mentioned!).

That’s all for now, but I can’t wait to learn and share more with you soon!

2013-09-29 12.39.50

Best Veggie Chili Continue reading

Seasonal identity crisis

Yes, it’s officially fall, leaves are changing, pumpkin lattes, blah blah blah. But I haven’t given up on you yet tomatoes!

Cherry tomatoesShiny

It usually takes me a week or so to fully embrace fall (by which time the season is half over) and get over my grumpiness that my beautiful sunlight is long gone by 8 p.m., so my cooking lately has been a weird mish-mash of summer freshness and fall coziness.

Cherry tomatoes Everything is better with cheese Best part of summer, hands down

Call it a seasonal identity crisis. Corn and tomatoes–summer! Apples everywhere–fall! Watermelons ripe and bursting–summer! Baking–fall! Fresh, raw everything–summer! It’s 60 degrees–fall! It’s 95–summer! (Ok, getting those last two in the same week was odd even for September in Chicago).

ThinThicker Polenta, goat-cheesed Dolloped

So I’m just embracing the identity crisis with baking and corn and tomatoes and basil and cheese. Everything is better with cheese. This little tart is such a perfect dish that I’m sad I only found it recently, but it will be one of the first things I make next summer when tomatoes and corn come around again. Hopefully you can find one last ear of corn and a few perfect tiny tomatoes for a final summer hurrah.

Summer on a plate

(And for someone who still says she doesn’t really like raw tomatoes, and says she doesn’t understand how people can eat little tomatoes like grapes, I definitely worked through half of these little beauties before I even got around to making this recipe. Can you possibly blame me? God I love summer.)

Cherry tomatoes Cherry tomatoes

Polenta Tarts with Goat Cheese and Roasted Tomatoes

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Wait summer, we’re not done yet!

Somehow I blinked and summer almost got past me. Last thing I remember, I was elbow deep in berries and cherries, anxious for some really good beach days. The next thing I know baskets of plums, peaches, and even apples replaced the strawberries, shadows stretch too far across the path on my post-work jog, and September is really just too close for comfort.

Fried green tomatoes

I’ve been running all over this summer, it seems–Boulder, Cleveland, Rochester, here, there, everywhere. And if the precarious balancing act of plates, bowls, jars, bags and baskets of fruits and vegetables in my fridge and around my kitchen is any indication, I’ve also been cooking up a storm–but haven’t had time to share the treats I’ve made. Blueberry jam with orange and mint (my new favorite), buttermilk cake with blackberries as big as my thumb, sweet corn ice cream (don’t make that face, it’s really good!), blue cheese coleslaw, and my very first fried green tomatoes.

All in a row

I’d only tried fried green tomatoes once at a restaurant before I found myself with half a dozen unripe tomatoes sitting on my counter a few weeks ago. I’ve made them three times since and the recipe is earning its keep as a staple in my summer kitchen.  They’re incredibly good hot and fresh with homemade ranch dressing for dipping, but I’ve also found they’re amazing on a burger, or even cold the next day on a buttery, lightly toasted bun with lettuce and just a wee bit of mayo.

Little spill Cornmeal, parsley, paprika

The rest of August and September are shaping up to be just as jam-packed (also probably packed with jam) as the past few months. Next weekend I’m heading to a yoga/music festival I’ve been helping publicize over the past few months. Then my sister Erica will be here to sell her awesome jewelry (stop by the Renegade Craft Fair September 7-8!).

Starting to ripen First round of breading Buttermilk dunk

After that, my very first food swap! I’m not inclined to deal with the time/paperwork/money investment of actually selling what I make, and I can only foist so much off on my friends and family. A food swap is the perfect chance to get to try some new things, clear out some of the projects that are taking over my kitchen (I’m looking at you, pickle/pepper relish), and meet some like-minded Chicago cooking enthusiasts.

Breaded and ready Frying

Finally, I added my blog to the new Chicago Food Blogger directory and I’m hoping some fun get-togethers will come out of that. One of the things I was looking for  last year when I claimed this corner of the Internet was a list of other people around Chicago who loved to cook, and talk about cooking, as much as I do; this new directory fits the bill perfectly. I’ve already found some new sites to read, and hope there will be some fun chances to get to know other foodies nearby.

But before I get too ahead of myself with all these plans and doings and such, there’s still some summer-ing to eke out (especially watermelon-ing, I really need to get on that).

Fried green tomatoes

Fried Green Tomatoes
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Cure for the crazies

Sometimes I’m a little crazy. Five people coming to stay for three days in my two-bedroom apartment? Perfect time to  start a dozen different projects that have been on my list for a year into the few free hours I can eke out after work! And hey, can’t have my guests go hungry, best make granola, a batch of carrot cupcakes, blackstrap molasses ice cream with pecan praline (um, yum), and…well, at least I had one easy thing on my list.

Ready for dipping!

Everyone needs a go-to dish for when you’re slightly crazed–last minute guests, forgotten party you promised a dish for, or just bordering on hangry (my new favorite word=hungry+angry. Because who hasn’t been there?). For me, this is that dish.

More than a dip, kind of a spread, it’s all delicious however you use it. Plus–and this is key–it takes all of 30 seconds to make and can be made with pretty standard cupboard fare. Dump everything in the food processor, turn it on, scoop it into a pretty bowl (or don’t, I know how demanding the hangry can be), devour. Pita chips, crackers, vegetables, spread on a sandwich instead of hummus…all are perfectly valid and perfectly delicious options.

Ready to goDumb and blendWhirrrr

There is one thing that makes this dip extra special–namely, pomegranate molasses. If you’ve never tried–or heard of– it, it’s a great little secret ingredient in everything from salad dressings to a marinade for grilling meat or vegetables, or even drizzled over strawberries. Tangy and tart, it provides a depth to the dip that you can’t quite put your finger on. (Ok, maybe pomegranate molasses isn’t “standard” cupboard fare, but it should be! And it actually lasts a long time in the fridge, so if you can find some it’s worth a purchase. Otherwise you can easily cook down pomegranate juice with some sugar and lemon juice until it’s nice and syrupy–look, Alton Brown even has a recipe!)

In any case, thank god for easy recipes in between frantic project-doing, apartment-cleaning, cupcake-baking, and general chicken-sans-head-running. Molasses is blitzed together with toasty cumin and spicy cayenne, walnuts, roasted sweet peppers, olive oil, and bread crumbs. Done. If nothing else for my guests, I knew this would go over well.

So I may make myself crazy, but at least I make some damn good dip too.

Just a little chunky

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