inaugural adventures on the gas range

Recipe using this fire-roasted poblano coming soon…

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detox

I just came back from spending two days in Kansas City, which was a really lovely place to visit. It has a small-town feel, but there was plenty going on to enjoy during the day and night, and a surprisingly large number of beautiful fountains to see all around the city (fun fact: Kansas City is known as the City of Fountains). While the trip was short, I didn’t fail to take advantage of the Kansas City food scene, which, given its reputation as the barbecue capital of the world, is pretty darn meat-heavy. Although I’m a total omnivore, I typically eat meat only a couple times a week, so this two-day carnivorous marathon was a bit of a shock to my system, albeit a delicious one. Let’s just say between the grass-fed beef, lamb chops, ribs, and pulled pork, I think I satisfied my meat quota for the next month.
I arrived back in Chicago craving nothing more than a big salad. I didn’t think I had much to work with, but I was pleased to find a few fruits and vegetables in my fridge that I threw together to make a light and refreshing lunch with plenty of vitamins and a good dose of healthy fats. The perfect way to refresh and recharge.

Detox Salad

2 cups of kale, chopped

1/4 – 1/2 an avocado

1/2 apple, chopped

Handful of dried cranberries

Handful of sliced almonds

Juice of 1/2 lemon

2 tsp olive oil

Combine ingredients in a salad bowl. Toss well to coat in lemon juice and olive oil (it helps to use your hands to massage and soften the kale a bit). Enjoy!

gems of summer

Although I have lived in the Midwest for five years, this is the first summer I have spent away from my hometown of Miami. When you grow up in a place where the average temperature is always 80+ degrees and beach-going vacationers abound year-round, there’s just not as much excitement surrounding the summer months. But here in Midwest, I’ve noticed summer takes on an entirely different meaning. It is celebrated as a precious time where the weather is predictably warm. Countless outdoor festivals and festivities make for endless, often free, entertainment. The lakefront, which not long ago was frigid and ferociously wavy, invites beach-goers into its refreshing waters (I must admit my ocean-jaded self was impressed by the niceness of Lake Michigan!). Best of all, summer produce is abundant, not only in stores, but in farms just a short drive outside the city of Chicago.

Two weekends ago, I had what has thus far been one of my most treasured Midwest summer experiences: blueberry picking in Michigan. This was not only my first time in Michigan, it was also my first time blueberry picking. I was determined to make the most of this new experience, so with a big white bucket hung around my neck, I immersed myself in the blueberry bushes, using both hands to pluck the juicy blue gems off their branches and letting a more than justifiable amount of berries find their way straight into my mouth rather than into my pail. I emerged with three pounds of the plumpest, freshest blueberries I had ever tasted, and with all sorts of plans for what they’d become.

To be honest, they were so delicious in their natural state that I ended up enjoying the bulk of them raw. But, luckily, I had a worthy cause to motivate me to incorporate them into a baked good. Alyssa, one of my closest friends and college roommates, was having a birthday, and even though we now live 1,000 miles away, I still wanted to send her a token of my love.

Given the abundance of this fresh fruit and Alyssa’s love for all things lemon, I knew there was no better way to wish her a happy birthday than in the form of a blueberry lemon loaf. I had to use every ounce of restraint to package it up without snagging a bite, so I can only tell you that it smelled heavenly while baking, but I’ll let Alyssa’s expression provide a testament to the taste.


Though summer seems to be fading away faster than I’d like, I am looking forward to continuing to enjoy many more beautiful moments and morsels in this celebrated season.

slightly sweetened

There’s no denying that it has been a sweet summer in the sugarcured kitchens. First there was my best purchase in recent memory: the ice cream maker. Then came my favorite coffee shop’s decision to put a bottle of simple syrup out beside the milk and sugar and my subsequent conversion from a diehard black iced coffee drinker to the sugary side. And then there’s the fact that Joanna sent me home with a box of brownies on Monday night and I’ve been eating them for breakfast all week, sure that the chocolate will help me cope with the length of my to-do list.

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You readers deserve some savory, I thought, so I decided to share another summer pasta. Then I realized that what makes this particular pasta really special is the sweetener. Eggplant with honey and cinnamon… I have to tell you, it’s “different.” Some of you will know that this word has two meanings in the Midwesterner’s dictionary. In one sense, it’s about the meanest insult certain Iowans can muster. If someone tells me “Kate, that pasta you brought to the church potluck sure was different,” what they mean to say is “you probably shouldn’t even feed the leftovers to the dog for fear that he’ll get sick.” I mean to tell you that this recipe is different in a you-never-would-have-paired-these-flavors-but-they-totally-work sense of the word.

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Up until a few years ago, I definitely would have called eggplant different in the “get it out of my sight before I vom” sense of the word. I eventually came around to the realization that eggplant is right up there with tofu as Best of Show in the flavor sponge department. While a flavor sponge may taste rather disgusting on its own (no judgment for those of you who eat raw unflavored tofu- you know who you are- but i might rather eat an actual sponge), it is a professional at melding interesting flavors. Enter honey, cinnamon, basil, garlic, and red pepper flakes and you have an amalgam of yum.

Roasted Eggplant Pasta (adapted from The Cowgirl Chef)

2 medium eggplants, skins on, chopped into 1/2 inch pieces

3 T olive oil

Sea salt and ground black pepper

2 garlic cloves, minced

18 oz of cherry tomatoes, halved

10 kalamata olives, halved and pits removed

1 t honey

One large pinch of cinnamon

One large pinch of red pepper flakes

2 oz fresh mozzerella, chopped

1/3 to 1/2 lb pasta (whole wheat works well)

1/2 c basil, sliced

Preheat the oven to 450 and line a baking sheet with foil. Toss the eggplant with oil, salt, and pepper and spread out on the pan. Roast the eggplant about 30 minutes, stirring a few times, until the edges are brown and it looks well-done.

While the eggplant is roasting, put a little oil (a few teaspoons) in a skillet and cook the garlic and red pepper over medium heat just until you can smell the garlic, not until it begins to brown. Add the tomatoes, honey, olives, and cinnamon. When the eggplant is roasted, add that too.

Cook your pasta until al dente, drain it, and add it to the skillet with the sauce. Stir until pasta is coated and add the cheese and basil at the last minute. Serve hot or warm.

deceptively delicious

This might go down in history as one of the strangest desserts I have ever made. But it is also one of the more healthy, decadent, and whimsical sweets to have emerged from my kitchen, and one I wouldn’t hesitate to make again.

Behold: Raw Vegan Chocolate Avocado Pudding Birthday Torte with a Clif Bar Crust.


This torte was inspired by a few things. First, I had eaten a raw vegan chocolate avocado pudding a few months ago and was blown away by how rich, chocolatey, and not obviously avocado-ey it was. I immediately stored it away in my ever-growing mental file of things to make, and I knew this would be the perfect occasion to bring it to life.

But to make it extra special for the birthday boy, who has a deep fondness for the Clif bar, I was compelled to engineer a Clif bar crust. Simply laying the bars in the bottom of the pan seemed far too boring, so I adapted this recipe, swapping out pecans for crumbled Clif bars, and it made a deliciously chewy, Chocolate Mint/Chocolate Brownie/Chocolate Chip-y base that was the perfect vehicle for the cool and creamy pudding.


Not only did the birthday boy enjoy his unconventional cake, so did the 20 high school, college, and medical students with whom I’m working this summer. Although some raised quite the eyebrow at the sight of a health bar encrusted greenish-brown tinged “cake,” practically every last plate was licked clean.

I hope this inspires you to think outside of the usual recipe box and try this relatively healthy, amazingly decadent, and totally weird dessert. I promise you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

The proof is in the pudding.

Chocolate Avocado Torte with Clif Bar Crust (adapted from Oh She Glows)

Clif Bar Crust:

3 Clif bars (choose your favorite flavors – the chocolate based ones worked well here)
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1/4 cup agave nectar
1/2 tsp salt

Pulse Clif bars in food processor until they are coarsely ground. Add oil, cocoa powder, agave nectar, and salt and pulse until combined. Press crust into a greased 9×13 baking dish and place pan in the freezer while you make the pudding.

Chocolate Avocado Pudding:

6 avocados, pitted and scooped
1/3 cup vanilla soy milk
2/3  cup agave nectar

1 tbsp almond butter (or other nut butter)
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup cocoa powder 
1 cup + 2 tbsp chocolate chips, melted*
Combine all pudding ingredients except melted chocolate in food processor until smooth. Add melted chocolate and process again until smooth.

To assemble: Place pudding mixture on top of chilled Clif bar crust. Cover well and store in freezer for 2 hours to firm (or can be stored longer). Remove from freezer 15 minutes before serving.

*My foolproof method for melting chocolate in the microwave: microwave chocolate at 1-minute intervals on Power Level 6, stirring after each minute until fully melted.

putting the sugar in sugar cured

“I found an old measuring cup from Grandma Nette’s house while I was cleaning out the kitchen today. Can you guess what size it is?” my mom asked me on the phone last night

I didn’t miss a beat. It had to be a third of a cup. Yes, I am becoming more like my mom every day, but we have yet to reach that level of mind-melding. Grandma Nette left us a well-loved recipe for vanilla cream pie in which she clearly doctored the original measurements, increasing everything by one third.  Grandma Nette was of the precision school of baking and she would tsk-tsk at my tendency to eschew measuring spoons for ‘a pinch of sugar, 2 glugs of olive oil, and enough salt to make it taste good.’ But whenever I make Grandma’s vanilla cream pie, I dutifully measure out the one and one third tablespoon of flour and one and two thirds teaspoon of vanilla, imagining her calculating the adapted measurements on the back of an envelope.

Grandma Nette and her vanilla cream pie were on my mind as I searched for recipes to make for the bridal shower I hosted tonight; you see, the lady knew how to throw a classy party. She was hostess supreme for the United Methodist Women’s Circle, keeping the church women in constant supply of her famous cinnamon rolls. So proper and charming was Antoinette, I harbored suspicions as a child that she must be the long lost sister of the Queen of England. In reality, she was born poor, never finished high school, and worked herself silly running a small-town grocery store with my Grandpa Jim while raising two boys and making pies and grinning all the way.  She passed away 5 years ago this summer at the age of 100, and that I got to spend 18 Thanksgivings in her dining room and celebrate 19 birthdays on her front porch are some of the greatest blessings of my entire life.

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This frozen vanilla custard, inspired by her vanilla cream pie, would suit her taste: it’s classy, simple, and rich. I inherited her rolling pin, her love of poetry, and her taste for coffee, scalding hot, with something sweet after dinner. I hope inherited even a third of her grace.

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We served the custard as part of our bridal shower spread with these sugar cones dipped in dark chocolate and sprinkle covered.  Classy, no? Congratulations to Shannon and Michael: an ice cream toast to all the sweetness ahead for you two!!

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 Frozen Vanilla Custard (adapted from David Lebovitz)

1 c whole milk

2/3 c sugar

2 c heavy cream

pinch of salt

1 1/2 t good quality vanilla extract

6 large egg yolks

Warm the milk, sugar, and one cup of the cream in a medium sized saucepan. Heat until the mixture just starts to bubble.

Pour the remaining cream into a large bowl and set a mesh strainer on top. In a separate medium bowl, whisk the egg yolks well. Slowly pour the warmed milk mixture into the eggs, whisking constantly. Then scrape this mixture back into the saucepan.  Stir the mixture constantly over medium heat, scraping the bottom as you stir, until the mixture thickens enough to coat the spatula. Add the vanilla. Pour the custard through the strainer and mix into the cream. Put the bowl into an ice bath and let cool completely, stirring occasionally.

Chill thoroughly in the fridge and then freeze according to your ice cream maker’s instructions

taste of tuscany/iowa/chicago

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Someday when I write a cookbook, the longest chapter will be called “summer pastas.”

“Why not just make a whole cookbook about summer pastas, then?” you will ask.

“Think of all the cookies that would never get their moment of glory if I did that!” I will reply.

But who has the energy to fire up her oven and bake cookies when it’s hotter than the hinges hanging on the gates of hell outside? Unless it’s for a really really good cause, (ahem, blueberry pieI’d rather not leave my stove on any longer than it takes to boil a pot of pasta water.

My sister and I invented this recipe one summer when we were both in high school and proceeded to make it for lunch at least four times a week until school started up again. We clearly share the gene for “creatures of habit,” nestled on some chromosome right next to the parts that code for freckles and bullheadedness. We call this one summer pasta to rule them all “Tuscan,” but a more accurate name would be “July in Iowa,” since it relies heavily on the bounty of my parents’ garden or the Des Moines farmers’ market. I brought a big bag of produce back to Chicago from my trip to Iowa last weekend and made Tuscan pasta for the first time all summer. Tastes like home to me no matter where I make it.

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It seems strange to me to write out a recipe for Tuscan pasta since it is a decidedly anti-recipe sort of dish. You should use whatever kinds of fresh vegetables and melty cheese you happen to have on hand. At least one tomato and a hearty handful of basil are really the only irreplacable elements.

If I write about summer pastas a fraction as often in the next few months as I cook them, prepare for a deluge of recipes. Happy cooking!

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Tuscan Pasta

1/2 lb pasta, any shape

3 T olive oil

1/2 red bell pepper and two banana peppers, sliced

1 medium zucchini or summer squash, thinly sliced

1 medium onion, chopped

2-3 cloves garlic, minced

1 or 2 medium ripe tomatoes, diced

2 large handfuls baby spinach

1/4 t dried red pepper flakes

1/2 t dried oregano

4 T balsamic vinegar

salt and black pepper, to taste

1/4 c fresh basil, roughly chopped

1/2 c crumbled feta cheese

Put a large pot of water on to boil and cook according to directions on the box

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a large skillet. Saute the onions over medium heat until they just start to get some color. Add the garlic and cook for one minute. Add the peppers and squash and continue to saute until everything is soft but not soggy. Stir in the red pepper, oregano, and salt and pepper to taste. Add the tomatoes and cook for 3-4 minutes until they start to release juice. Add the balsamic vinegar and cook down a little until things start to look saucy.  Taste to adjust the seasoning. Just before serving, add the spinach and basil. Mix the sauce together with the pasta in a big bowl. Top with feta

The Great Taco Tour

My sister Erica visited Chicago this weekend. Her visit was merely 36-hours short, and I wanted to show her the best that this city has to offer. To most that would probably mean hopping around Museum Campus, snapping photos at the Bean in Millennium Park, and ascending 95 floors to see the cityscape at the Top of the Hancock. But I know my sister better. Just as much as I love finding delicious eats in the most unassuming of places, she loves it more. In fact, I’d attribute most of my seeking out hole-in-the-wall establishments behavior to Erica, who is always on the lookout for new adventures.

With this in mind, the plan I hatched for our Saturday afternoon in Chicago was a no-brainer: a food tour of Little Village and Pilsen, predominantly Mexican neighborhoods southwest of downtown. Although Erica and I grew up in Miami and have were privy to as many Cuban pastelitos, Venezuelan arepas, and Colombian steak joints as any girl could dream of, Miami does not have a huge amount of authentic Mexican fare. When I moved to Chicago last year and had my first encounters with tantalizing taquerias that for $2 or less pile juicy meats and fresh cilantro into warm corn tortillas, I was enamored, and I wanted to let my sister experience these great eats herself.

Erica and I successfully ate our way through three establishments, although if our stomachs had allowed for it, we would have gladly entered the door of every charmingly decorated taqueria that dotted the streets. Here’s what we ate.

First on our list: La Chaparrita (2500 S Whipple St), a small grocery store and restaurant, and a true gem. The first wonderful touch is the delivery of fresh cut limes and radishes to each table—cool accompaniments to the hot and spicy tacos. The two sauces they provide are also delicious, the red one a smokier chipotle sauce, and the green one more of a spicy salsa verde.

We ordered three tacos: el pastor (pork and pineapple), suadero (beef shoulder), and tripa (tripe, a.k.a. pig intestines). The latter choice was made with the most hesitancy, but we channeled our father’s adventurous organ-eating spirit and boy, were we glad we did. The crispy tripa taco was by far the winner amongst the three, reminiscent of the best kind of bacon, and the one that if when I return, I will definitely re-order.

We balanced our carnivorous fare with a mushroom huarache. Huaraches are pan-fried masa cakes shaped like the sandals from which they get their name. They are topped with refried beans, green and red salsa, cheese, and a choice of meat or vegetable. The mushrooms had an unctuousness that paired incredibly well with the salsas and soft huarache. A definite must-order for vegetarians!

One of my favorite parts of the meal was the cebollas asadas, small grilled and salted onions. Erica and I joked that any high-end small plates restaurant would get away with charging $10 a pop for these, but dear La Chaparrita served us this sweet, salty, slightly soft, yet still crunchy side dish for just $1.50. I can still taste them.

To top it off, we got a pineapple agua fresca, which was simply fresh pineapple whirred in a blender to create a refreshing and frothy drink to wash down our meal.

Our next stop was just a short walk around the corner: El Milagro (3050 W 26th St). Some may know El Milagro for their brand of tortilla products that grace the shelves of Chicago grocery stores, but they also have a restaurant where they put their delicious tortillas to the finest of uses, as well as serve up some tasty tamales. I had been here once before, and I ordered us my favorites from that trip: a taco with pork in salsa verde and two tamales, one with beans and cheese, and a sweet one with pineapples and pecans. Everything was as delicious as I had remembered.

We were pretty stuffed by this point, but there was still room for dessert. The Churro Factory (2214 S Wolcott) beckoned, a small outpost off the side of Cermak Road with a no-frills menu of churros, chocolate and coffee drinks, and a wildly amusing contraption they use to stuff churros with fillings such as chocolate and dulce de leche. We ordered two churros, one plain, one cream-cheese filled, and an iced Aztec chocolate drink that was spiced with cinnamon. Even though we barely made it through half the order, it was the perfect cinnamon-sugar coated ending to an afternoon of gustatory exploration.

I can’t encourage you enough to check these restaurants out yourself, be it marathon-style like Erica and I, or by drawing your visits out over time. I dare say these are some of the best tastes of Chicago you’ll find!

(red white and)blue

Remember that scene in Willy Wonka (the Gene Wilder version, not the subpar remake, of course) when Violet Beauregard turns into a blueberry? I’ve been checking my skin for signs of purple discoloration all week, but I’m happy to report that the only change is the freckle intensification that happens every summer. I’m feeling rounder, but that’s probably because I’ve eaten my weight in blueberry desserts this week. If you are what you eat, Violet and I are destined for the same sad fate.

If you need some advice on how to use up 5 pounds of freshly picked blueberries in 5 days, I’m your girl. First, have friends who love fresh fruit and share as many as they will take off your hands. Cook up a big batch of oatmeal and eat it with blueberries and almonds and cinnamon every morning.

Make this cake for all your snacking purposes. (Recipe here: http://smittenkitchen.com/2009/07/blueberry-boy-bait/ ) I can’t vouch for its usefulness as boy bait because the girls of the bloggers’ apartments ate the whole thing with no help from the boys at all. Their loss.

Finally, and most importantly, use the balance of the berries to make Joanna’s excellent blueberry pie recipe. True, the pastry gods did not intend for pie crusts to be created on days when the heat index is >115 degrees.

But this pie is worth the trouble, pilgrim. Especially warm, a la mode, after a day at the beach, right before the fireworks start. I hope your 4th of July celebration carries right onto into the weekend!

Blueberry Pie

2 pie crusts, premade or prepared (I’ll write a post about making pastry soon. Let’s focus on the blueberries for now)

4 c fresh blueberries

3/4 c sugar

3 T cornstarch

1/4 t salt

1/2 t cinnamon

1 T butter

Preheat oven to 425. Mix berries, sugar, starch, salt, and cinnamon all together. Line pie plate with one crust and pour berry mixture in. Dot with cubes of butter. Top with a lattice or whole crust. Bake 45-50 minutes on the bottom shelf of the oven, until crust is golden.

good eggs, or confessions of a cheap/broke foodie

The other day, scanning food blogs while eating a quick dinner of scrambled eggs with veggies, I bookmarked a recipe for ratatouille with baked eggs. The author called “a great date recipe,” and I had to laugh at one of the commenter’s response to his claim: “pretty sure I’d be onto the fact that my date was cheap/broke if he served me eggs for dinner!”

While I can think of dozens of dinners more romantic than ratatouille with eggs, I’m pretty sure that this 20something cheap/broke vegetarian foodie would be onto the fact that my date knew a thing or two about quick, delicious, inexpensive suppers. While some would call my eggs-for-dinner habit cheap or lazy, I’ll side with Julia Child on this one: she called her rolled omelet recipe “dinner in half a minute.” Maybe ten years and a regular paycheck down the road, I’ll see things from that snarky commenter’s perspective. But it’s more likely that I will have perfected Julia’s omelet technique by then and I’ll be showing it off to anyone who’ll deign to have such a peasant’s meal.

This shakshuka, another gem of a recipe from Plenty (see green couscous and baba ghanoush posts), is pretty nearly my perfect food. It’s comforting but light , it’s tomatoey, and it has a kick. I served it- without shame of being judged as cheap- at a potluck dinner this week, and my only regret was that I had to share it. It’s great for feeding a crowd but could easily be scaled down. Ottolenghi’s recipe doesn’t call for hot peppers, but I added a poblano to intensify the smoky flavor.

Shakshuka

1/2 tsp cumin seeds

1/2 cup olive oil or vegetable oil

1 large onion, sliced

1 red and one yellow pepper, sliced

1 poblano pepper, seeds removed, diced

1 T sugar

2 T fresh thyme leaves, removed from stems

1/4 c chopped parsly

2 T chopped cilantro, plus extra for garnish

6 medium-sized ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped

4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

2 tsp paprika

Salt and black pepper

8 eggs

Start by prepping all of the vegetables. This isn’t absolutely necessary, but it will make the process run much more smoothly.

In a large pan (I used my soup pot), dry roast the cumin seeds on high heat for 2 minutes or until fragrant. Add the oil and onion and saute until the onions are soft and have a little color. Add the garlic and cook for one more minute. Add peppers, sugar, herbs, and paprika and continue cooking on high heat for 5-10 minutes, until everything is fairly soft.

Add the tomatoes (with any juice that escaped while you chopped them) and some salt and pepper. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook for 15 minutes. The mix should have the consistency of a pasta sauce. Add water if it seems too thick and simmer longer if it seems too thin. Taste and adjust the seasonings.

Divide the sauce between 2 medium sized frying pans. Make 4 gaps in the mixture in each pan with the back of a spoon and carefully break an egg into each gap. Sprinkle with salt and cover the pans with lids. Cook on a gentle heat for 5-10 minutes until the eggs are done to your liking. The white should be just set and the yolk runny. You can baste the egg whites with the tomato liquid while they cook, but don’t disturb the yolk. Sprinkle with cilantro and feta cheese and serve with crusty bread or pita.