Wheat Berries with Radishes and Pecans; Or, a Winter Trip to the Farmer’s Market

Here in Chicago, the granddaddy of all farmer’s markets is the Green City Market, the only market to stay open all year round.  If you’re interested in local, sustainable, organic, farm-direct food (and we certainly all are, am I right?  Every meal, right?), you’re bound to end up shopping at Green City for most of your food.

Their rigorous standards for their vendors guarantee that everything is as it appears, that you actually are buying those apples or tomatoes from the nice lady or man who grew them, not from a re-seller.  And in the depths of Winter, when every other farmer’s market has shut down, Green City remains not as a deplorable sole option with a captive market, but as glamorous and worthy a destination as it is any other time of year.

too cold for most markets

Green City Market recently ran a photo essay contest, in which they invited food and photography junkies to shop at the market on a particular date, cook the food at home, and share the photos of the whole experience.  I decided to participate on a whim, mostly because any excuse to practice and improve my photography skills is probably good for me.

You can see the photos I entered, along with all the other entries, on this site they’ve set up.  If you like, you can rate each entry by clicking on the stars at the top of each one.  And remember, thumbnails rarely do justice, so click on each photo to see it full-size.

As there was a limit to the number of pictures one could submit, I had to whittle down the over 100 photos I took that day, so I’m posting some extras here.  And as a special bonus to all my lovely, lucky readers, below you’ll find the recipe I created to showcase the bounty I brought home from the market.

you can't pay someone enough to shell pecans for you. these are from three sisters garden.
excellent cannelés from floriole bakery
floriole bakery
heritage prairie farms
heritage prairie farms
heritage prairie farms
genesis growers
genesis growers
genesis growers

Don’t forget to check out the rest of the pictures from this contest!

Wheat Berries with Radishes and Pecans
Serves 4 to 6

This recipe has a lot of different steps, true, but they are all accomplished in the time it takes the wheat berries to cook.  Even better, you only use two pans: one for the wheat berries, one for every other step (with no washing-up required in between).  The flavors here are Spanish-inspired, with smoked paprika, thyme, Sherry, and anchovy; the chewy wheat berries soak them all up with gusto. This dish would be great any time of year, warm in the Winter, and cold in the Summer.  We ate this as a main dish, but it would also be a special side dish for any simply-prepared meat or poultry.

For wheat berries:
6 cups chicken stock or water
2 cups wheat berries, rinsed and drained
1 teaspoon salt
3 anchovy fillets packed in oil, drained
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
1 tablespoon Sherry vinegar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice (zest it first!)
1/4 cup (packed) chopped parsley
3 scallions, chopped
Salt and black pepper, to taste

For anchovy-toasted pecans:
3 anchovy fillets packed in oil, drained
1 tablespoon butter
1 cup raw pecans, chopped roughly
Salt, to taste

For smoked paprika breadcrumbs:
1 scant tablespoon butter
1/2 cup panko
1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
Zest from 1 lemon
Salt, to taste

For sautéed radishes:
2 to 3 teaspoons butter
1 bunch radishes (about 1 pound), cut into quarters
Salt and black pepper, to taste

Optional finish: fried or soft-boiled eggs

1.  Bring the chicken stock or water to a boil in a saucepan over high heat.  Add the wheat berries and salt, and return to a boil.  Reduce the heat to low and simmer, covered, until wheat berries are tender.  Depending on the type of wheat berry, this may take anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes; taste occasionally to determine doneness.  Add additional liquid if the pot begins to dry out before the wheat berries are cooked.  When fully cooked, drain wheat berries of any remaining liquid if necessary.

2.  Meanwhile,  heat a skillet over medium-low heat.  Add the anchovy fillets and cook, stirring, until broken up, just a minute or two.  Scrape into a large, non-reactive bowl, and whisk in olive oil.  Let cool briefly.  Add thyme and set aside.  Don’t bother washing the skillet.

3.  While wheat berries finish cooking, make the remaining accompaniments.  To make the toasted pecans, heat the same skillet over medium heat.  Add the anchovy fillets and cook, stirring, until broken up.  Add the butter, and let melt.  Toss the pecans in, and stir often until fragrant and toasted, about 5 minutes.  Sprinkle with a little salt.  Remove to a plate to cool.  Wipe the skillet out with a paper towel if necessary to remove any dark or burnt bits that may remain, but don’t bother washing it.

4.  Heat the same skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the butter, and melt.  Add the panko, and toss until evenly coated with butter.  Cook just until beginning to turn golden brown.  Remove from heat, and stir in the paprika, lemon zest, and a pinch of salt.   Transfer to a bowl.  Don’t bother washing the skillet.

5.  Heat the same skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the butter, and melt.  Add the radishes and sauté until cooked to desired doneness, 2 to 3 minutes for al dente, slightly spicy radishes, or up to 8 to 10 minutes for softer, less peppery ones.  Remove from the heat and set aside.

6.  To finish, add the Sherry vinegar, lemon juice, parsley, and scallions to the flavored olive oil in the large bowl.  When the wheat berries are fully cooked, drain if necessary.  Add to the bowl while still warm, and toss with the dressing.  Let stand 5 minutes or so to absorb some of the dressing.  This is a good time to fry or soft-boil an egg (follow these directions, but let stand only 4 minutes) if you’d like one; a runny egg yolk is highly recommended here.  (If you’re frying an egg, there’s no reason you can’t use the same skillet again.  Bonus.)

7.  Toss the wheat berries with the toasted pecans and sautéed radishes.  Serve each portion topped with an egg (if using) and a heavy-handed sprinkling of paprika breadcrumbs on top.  Leftovers keep quite well in a refrigerator for up to a week, and are even better the second and third day.

Chiles Rellenos; Or, How To Get Rid of Some Extra Luck

Every New Year’s Day, like a good Southern girl, I cook up a large batch of luck and money.  That is, I fix a huge pot of black-eyed peas (for luck), with a side of cabbage (for money).  I invite everyone and prepare enough to feed an army of hangovers.  And every year, hardly anyone manages to drag themselves through the cold to our remote neighborhood, except for a brave few stragglers.


This, in turn, means that every year, I have enough leftover black-eyed peas to last until practically next year.  This year was no exception.  And delicious and fortuitous though they may be, after eating them for six days straight, they start to wear a little thin.  Or, more correctly, if I had to choke down one more black-eyed pea, luck or no luck, I might scream.

With a packed-full freezer prohibiting long-term storage of the remaining glut (what on Earth is even in there?), the only option was to get creative.  Since we had been drowning our plates of leftovers in jalapeño-based green Tabasco sauce, and because I’m obsessed lately with poblano peppers, I settled on pea-filled chiles rellenos.

It’s traditional to fry the filled chiles in an airy, whipped egg white batter; but as January is the most ascetic month, an unadorned and healthier baked version was more in order.

I’m not a proponent of unnecessary gadgets in the kitchen, but there’s one particular item that I never get to use enough.  I know it’s not in everyone’s arsenal, but I couldn’t resist pulling it out to char the peppers.

oh yes

The rationale was that the propane torch would char the skin more evenly than the broiler (which it did), it would leave the flesh itself less cooked and therefore holding its shape better (which it also did), and be entirely delightful to use (which it always is).

Unfortunately, it didn’t really work as well as intended.  The small, though agile, flame handily blackened the skin, but made it fairly difficult to peel off, even with the aid of paper towels (I dared not try rinsing it off with water, for fear of losing flavor in the process).  And yes, the flesh remained firm and resilient, but it never really achieved that seductive sweetness of a softer and more thoroughly-cooked roasted pepper.  Next time, skip the power tools and go with the tried and true method of using a broiler.

The filling was a blend of the aforementioned black-eyed peas and an equal measure of crumbled queso fresco, to add richness.  Any soft, mild, melting cheese is appropriate here, and practically requisite; I don’t think I’ve had a chile relleno yet that didn’t include a significant amount of cheese melting seductively under the spicy green cloak of poblano.

ugly but good

For a sauce, I wanted a sharp acidity to counteract the relative sweetness of the roasted poblanos and the creamy peas; tomatillos were a natural fit.  Suppressing a natural urge to char the paper-clad darlings, I blended up a vibrant raw salsa, brightened with celery, onion, cilantro, and lime.

it looks like it'll never work...
...but then it always does.

A batch of polenta cooked in chicken stock anchored the whole dish, and provided a bed to soak up any errant juices.  I simply had to include corn, since I’m a sucker for cornbread with any kind of peas or beans, not to mention how beautifully cornmeal and green peppers play together.

The final dish was exactly what I needed: spicy, bright, creamy, even a bit glamorous.  After the previous six nights of dowdy dinners, those chiles rellenos looked like Dolores del Río.  Most appealing of all, of course, I didn’t have to endure any more ghastly plates of plain black-eyed peas.

Lucky me?  I should say so.  Now I just need that lucrative cabbage to kick in….

Black-Eyed Pea Chiles Rellenos with Raw Tomatillo Salsa
Makes 6

Do be careful with the poblano peppers, and consider wearing rubber gloves to deal with them, something I usually obstinately refuse to don.  They aren’t quite as spicy as a Serrano or jalapeño, but after seeding six of them, they can still leave plenty of capsaicin in your fingertips.  I discovered this after replacing a fallen-out contact lens the next morning, a painfully tearful lesson.  Someday, I may learn.

The tomatillo salsa has an unusual but optional ingredient: cocktail bitters.  In some sauces, I find that bitters help round out the flavors, just as they do in cocktails.  Magic!  If you don’t have any, they can certainly be left out; in that case, the longer you can let the salsa sit, the better.  It’ll be much better the next day anyway.

For the raw tomatillo salsa:
12 ounces tomatillos (about 8 to 10), paper removed, and rinsed
1 small white onion (1/2 large onion)
3 ribs celery
1 large clove garlic
1/2 to 1 cup cilantro, packed
Juice of 1/2 lime (about 1 tablespoon), or to taste
3 dashes Peychaud’s bitters (optional)
Salt and black pepper, to taste

For the chiles:
6 poblano peppers
2 cups leftover cooked black-eyed peas (or canned), drained of as much liquid as possible
2 cups crumbled queso fresco (or queso chihuahua, jack, mozzarella, or any other mild and soft cheese), about 8 ounces
Salt and black pepper, as needed

For the polenta:
4 cups chicken stock (or water)
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup polenta or coarse cornmeal (preferably stone-ground)
1 bay leaf

1.  To make the tomatillo salsa, cut the tomatillos into quarters, and roughly chop the onion and celery into 1 inch pieces.  Place all ingredients except salt and pepper into the jar of a blender.  Process until smooth.  Taste, and correct seasoning with salt, pepper, and lime juice.  Transfer to a bowl, and let sit at least 1 hour.

2.  To make the chiles rellenos, preheat the broiler to high, and position a rack as close to it as possible.  Place the poblanos on a rimmed baking sheet, and broil until charred and well blackened.  Turn each poblano as necessary to blacken evenly.  Remove from oven, and place peppers in a plastic or paper bag, sealing it tightly.  Let rest 10 to 15 minutes.  Turn the oven to 375º F, and position a rack in the middle of the oven.

3.  Meanwhile, combine the black-eyed peas with the crumbled cheese.  Season to taste with salt and pepper if necessary.  Set aside.

4.  For this step, wear rubber gloves, unless you’d rather not touch your face for two days.  Remove the peppers from the bag, and gently peel off the blackened skin, which should come off easily.  Make a single slice lengthwise into each pepper (if the pepper has split open, use that side).

do as I say, not as I do: wear gloves

Using kitchen scissors, carefully cut away the seeds and membranes.  You may need to make a short crossways cut close to the stem in order to fully access the seeds.

all them seeds gotta go

Remove and discard as many seeds as possible, using your hands.  Do not ever rinse peppers after roasting, as that washes away much of the smoky flavor that has developed.

5.  Fill each pepper with as much of the black-eyed peas as it will allow, taking care to not overfill and rupture the pepper.  Close the pepper with toothpicks, if desired, and place again on the rimmed baking sheet.  Wash your hands thoroughly if you’ve touched the peppers (particularly the insides) with your bare hands.

6.  Bake the filled peppers at 375º F for 15 to 20 minutes, or until warmed through, and cheese is melty.

7.  Meanwhile, make the polenta.  Bring the chicken stock to a boil in a medium saucepan.  Add the salt.  Slowly add the polenta, whisking as you pour it in order to prevent lumps.  Add the bay leaf.  Reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer until tender, whisking occasionally.  This will take between 15 to 40 minutes, depending on the coarseness of the grain used.  Remove the bay leaf.

8.  To serve, spread the polenta on a plate.  Top with a warm chile relleno, and garnish with tomatillo sauce.  A cold beer on the side doesn’t hurt things one bit.

to pick good tomatillos, make sure they fill out or even burst through their papery wraps, like this little guy

Cranberry Beans Two Ways: Part II

As mentioned in my last post, I recently brought home a couple of pounds of fresh cranberry beans.  But, having never prepared cranberry beans before (or any fresh beans, for that matter), I turned to my cookbooks and to the internets for help.

In looking through recipes, one in particular stood out like a sore thumb.  From Dennis Cotter’s book Wild Garlic, Gooseberries, and Me came something (via 101 Cookbooks) that looked healthful, fresh, and completely unique: a baked cranberry bean and winter squash mole.

I’m familiar with mole sauces served with meat, or most commonly chicken; but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a mole with vegetables.  And here, of all fantastic things to combine, were cranberry beans, winter squash, chilies, nuts, and chocolate.

Yes, please.

As luck would have it, I just so happened to have a small butternut squash sitting on my counter, though any similar winter squash would certainly work here.  And just because I’m indulgent like that, and because I had some, I used a bit of rendered bacon fat to sauté the onion, celery, chilies, and garlic that became the base of the sauce.  It lent a gorgeous hint of smoke to the robust dish, as did the spot of Bourbon I deglazed the pan with.

I didn’t have any of the 70% chocolate specified in the original recipe, but the block of unsweetened chocolate in my pantry seemed close enough.  The resulting sauce was just a touch too bitter, too earthy for my tastes.  A squeeze of honey, however, and the sauce snapped into harmonious balance.

My only problem with this dish is one that I commonly have: my understanding of the heat level of chilies and other spices can sometimes be off the mark.  Way off.  Yes, I thought the red jalapeños weren’t quite enough, so a rogue Aurora chili pepper got minced in as well.  And then I decided to use the hot paprika instead of the sweet.  And I tossed in a cavalier pinch of cayenne for good measure.

The result was a fantastically complex and building heat that might actually have been perfect, were it turned down about two notches.  As it was, a small bowl of cooling yogurt was a necessary condiment to even make it through one plate.  It was that spicy.  I loved it.

But, being kind to the others in my household meant that the mole couldn’t be served in that form again.  (The recipe has also been amended to give a more reasonable heat.)  Leftover mole, then, was whizzed in the food processor into a sort of spicy, dark pesto that was simply outstanding on penne and gemelli pasta.  Yogurt may have also been necessary here, for some; unnecessary though I found it, I used it all the same for the creaminess it gave the dish.

The truly remarkable thing about the dish was how long we ate at it before it disappeared.  The original mole served three or four meals, and the resurrected “pesto” served at least six meals.  It really was a loaves-and-fishes kind of situation.

mole pesto on gemelli with goat cheese and parsley

In both iterations, though, the mole was hugely flavorful, bold and full of the rich tones achieved only through slow cooking.  Chocolatey, too, but not in a saccharine brownie-fudge-cake way; only the deep savory notes shone through.  The next day, it was even better after the flavors had properly melded (though still extremely spicy).

These fantastic dishes are part of the reason I love treating myself to new produce, to stepping outside of my culinary comfort zone from time to time.  No, I’m probably not about to start making moles every night, or even cooking fresh beans every day; but now I understand them a little more, and I’ll probably jump at the chance to buy fresh beans whenever I see them in the store.  My world is now a little bigger, a little more flavorful, a little more adventurous.

And all from a few simple beans.

Baked Cranberry Bean and Butternut Squash Mole
Makes between 4 and 5000 servings
Adapted from Wild Garlic, Gooseberries, and Me, by Dennis Cotter, via 101 Cookbooks

If you’re preparing the Basic Cooked Cranberry Beans (see below) for this recipe, you’ll have the white bits of the leeks left over.  You should absolutely use those, washed well and chopped, in this sauce, either in lieu of or in addition to the onion.  If you want to make the “pesto” with any leftovers, you may want to thin the purée with a bit of liquid, such as the water an accompanying pasta is cooked in.

1 small butternut squash (about 1 1/2 pounds), peeled, seeded, and chopped into 1/2 inch cubes
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon rendered bacon fat (or butter, or olive oil)
1 medium onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 jalapeño peppers, preferably red, seeds removed, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 splash Bourbon (or white wine)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
1 bay leaf
2 cups vegetable or chicken broth
1 1/2 ounces pecans, chopped finely or ground in a food processor
1 1/2 to 2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 recipe (about 8 ounces) Basic Cooked Cranberry Beans, recipe below (or 8 ounces canned cannellini beans)
Salt and pepper, as needed
Goat cheese, for serving (optional)
Chopped fresh parsley, for serving (optional)

1.  Preheat oven to 400º F.  Prepare the butternut squash.  Toss the cubes with the olive oil, and season lightly with salt and pepper.  Spread into a single layer, and roast for 15 minutes, or until softened and beginning to color.  Remove from oven and let cool slightly.  Reduce heat to 325º F.

2.  While squash roasts, heat the bacon fat in a medium pan over medium-high heat.  Add the onion and celery, and cook for 5 minutes, or until softened.  Reduce heat to medium-low, add the jalapeños, and cook until lightly caramelized, 20 to 30 minutes, stirring often.

3.  Add the minced garlic and cook until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes.  Increase heat to medium.  Deglaze the pan with the Bourbon, scraping the pan to release any brown bits.  Add the tomato paste, paprika, and bay leaf, stirring to combine.  Sprinkle with a bit of salt and pepper.  Add the broth, and bring to a simmer.

4.  When broth is hot, add the ground pecans, chocolate, and honey, stirring until chocolate melts.  Add the cooked beans and the roasted squash.  Remove from heat.  Taste, and correct seasoning as needed with salt, pepper, and honey.

5.  Pour mole into a ceramic baking dish, and cover.  Bake for about 1 1/2 hours.  Let cool briefly before serving, with rice, polenta, tortillas, potatoes, or similar.  Top with crumbled goat cheese and chopped fresh parsley, if desired.  Yogurt is good on top as well.

Basic Cooked Cranberry Beans
Makes about 1 pound (or 3 cups) cooked beans

I don’t specify in this particular recipe what may be done with either the broth or the beans, but both are so flavorful that I don’t think you’ll have many problems finding uses.  Use the broth in most places you would use chicken or vegetable stock (it will be rather cloudy); see above for a recipe for the beans.

5 or so stems fresh parsley
2 to 3 stalks fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
5 dried pequin peppers (optional, also may substitute other small dried chili peppers)
5 whole juniper berries (optional)
3 whole allspice berries
1 onion, peeled and quartered
2 stalks celery, chopped roughly
Green tops from 1 bunch leeks (save whites for another use), washed well
2 pounds fresh cranberry beans in pods, shelled and rinsed

1.  In a triple-thick layer of cheesecloth, tie up the parsley, thyme, bay leaves, peppercorns, peppers, juniper, and allspice into a bouquet garni.  Twine may be used, or simply tie the corners of the cheesecloth together.

2.  Place bouquet garni and all remaining ingredients into a 5 to 6 quart pot, and cover with cold water.  Bring just to the boiling point over high or medium-high heat, then reduce heat to maintain a simmer, over medium-low or low.

3.  Simmer uncovered for about 15 minutes, or until beans are fully cooked.  If unsure, cut a bean in half.  If the center looks chalky and white, continue cooking another 5 minutes or so, until beans are done.

4.  Using a strainer, lift out leek tops, onion, celery, and bouquet garni.  Discard.  Strain beans from broth with either a colander or strainer, reserving both.

Cranberry Beans Two Ways: Part I

Recently at the store, I came across some fresh cranberry beans.  Or rather, I came across some strikingly mottled magenta and cream pods that (upon further research back at home) turned out to be cranberry beans.

Sometimes, I like to treat myself to some unfamiliar fresh produce.  I like the challenge of knowing that there must be something people do with a certain item, but having only the slightest clue to what exactly it might be.  Such was the case here.  Obviously, people cook fresh beans all the time, but it’s one thing that I had somehow managed to avoid thus far in my culinary exploits.  But those pretty pods turned my head, and two pounds of them charmed their way home with me.

A little searching turned up a boatload of very basic and similar ways to cook the fresh beans: basically in salted water, perhaps with an onion or bit of celery.  One common (and initially puzzling) thread among those recipes was that, invariably, at least one commenter remarked on how bland they turned out.

After a moment’s pondering, it struck me that of course they’re going to be bland.  They’re plain beans.  One wouldn’t enjoy them any more than any other pile of unadorned, ungarnished, unglamorous, plain beans (unless one really enjoys plain beans, that is).

But toss those beans with with a quick vinaigrette, plenty of fresh herbs, and a few other highly-flavorful supporting players, and there’s no way they could be derided as “bland”.  Even better would be to make sure they’re cooked in something more interesting than just salted water.  The leek tops in my freezer waiting to be used for stock were just the thing to help; a quartered onion, some celery, and a quick bouquet garni provided needed backup.

In this particular bouquet garni were a few sprigs of parsley, some fresh thyme, black peppercorns, whole allspice, a couple of juniper berries, some ultra-hot dried pequin peppers, and two bay leaves.  Tied up in cheesecloth, they were easy to remove from the broth when the beans were fully cooked.

As I knew it would, the gorgeous pink striping on the beans disappeared completely in cooking, and the broth took on a faintly rosy hue.  The leeks, onion, and bouquet garni remained floating on top of the broth, easily lifted out when necessary.  The cranberry beans settled to the bottom, and had to be strained from the broth.

The broth is highly flavorful; don’t even think about throwing it out.  It makes the most amazing soup, especially due to the starch content from the beans, which provides a delightful body absent in most broth-based soups.  I can see simply simmering kale or mustard greens in it, with maybe a parmesan rind tossed in for good measure.

I’ve written two recipes below.  One is for the plain old cooked beans, to be used however you see fit; the other is for the warm bean salad I made with half of the cooked beans.  Stay tuned for what to make with the other half!

Basic Cooked Cranberry Beans
Makes about 1 pound (or 3 cups) cooked beans

I don’t specify in this particular recipe what may be done with either the broth or the beans, but both are so flavorful that I don’t think you’ll have many problems finding uses.  Use the broth in most places you would use chicken or vegetable stock (it will be rather cloudy); see below for a recipe specifically for the warm, just-cooked beans.

5 or so stems fresh parsley
2 to 3 stalks fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
5 dried pequin peppers (optional, also may substitute other small dried chili peppers)
5 whole juniper berries (optional)
3 whole allspice berries
1 onion, peeled and quartered
2 stalks celery, chopped roughly
Green tops from 1 bunch leeks (save whites for another use), washed well
2 pounds fresh cranberry beans in pods, shelled and rinsed

1.  In a triple-thick layer of cheesecloth, tie up the parsley, thyme, bay leaves, peppercorns, peppers, juniper, and allspice into a bouquet garni.  Twine may be used, or simply tie the corners of the cheesecloth together.

2.  Place bouquet garni and all remaining ingredients into a 5 to 6 quart pot, and cover with cold water.  Bring just to the boiling point over high or medium-high heat, then reduce heat to maintain a simmer, over medium-low or low.

3.  Simmer uncovered for about 15 minutes, or until beans are fully cooked.  If unsure, cut a bean in half.  If the center looks chalky and white, continue cooking another 5 minutes or so, until beans are done.

4.  Using a strainer, lift out leek tops, onion, celery, and bouquet garni.  Discard.  Strain beans from broth with either a colander or strainer, reserving both.

Warm Cranberry Bean Salad
Makes 2 large or 4 small servings

1/2 cup pecans
2 teaspoons olive oil
1/4 cup panko (Japanese-style breadcrumbs)
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 to 3 tablespoons Sherry vinegar
1/4 to 1/3 cup good quality olive oil, as needed
1/4 cup roughly chopped fresh basil
1/4 cup roughly chopped fresh parsley leaves
1 1/2 cups warm Basic Cooked Cranberry Beans (see above)
Salt and pepper, as needed

1.  Heat the oven to 350º F.  Spread the pecans in a single layer on a baking sheet and toast in the oven for 6 to 8 minutes, or until fragrant.  While still warm, chop roughly.

2.  In a sauté pan, heat the 2 teaspoons olive oil over medium-high heat.  When hot, add the panko and toast until just beginning to turn golden brown.  Remove from heat, season to taste with salt and pepper (and a little cayenne, if you like), and add 2 to 3 tablespoons of the more finely chopped pecans.  Toss, and set aside.

3.  In a large bowl, whisk together the Dijon mustard and Sherry vinegar.  Drizzle in the olive oil slowly, whisking constantly to emulsify, until glossy and the dressing balances into a flavor that tastes good to you.

4.  Add the basil, parsley, warm beans, and remaining pecans to the dressing in the bowl.  Toss to combine.  Serve, topped with the panko mixture as desired.  (A little grating of Parmesan would not be out of place here.)

Buttermilk Mushroom Soup

I’m not a big fan of cold weather, or Winter in general.  It’s endless months of frozen toes, fingers stiff with cold, the shock of crawling reluctantly from a warm bed, bright red noses that won’t stop running.  But despite the physical discomforts, I can find spots of cheer: tiny sparkling holiday lights everywhere, the rush of warmth from a cup of tea and a thick blanket, watching fat snowflakes flutter past my window.

And soup.

Soup, in my house, is most decidedly a cold-weather affair.  You can make your gazpachos, and corn bisques, and chilled cucumber things all summer long; and they are certainly fine and well.  But for my money, I’d rather have a proper meal of soup, a filling bowl of hot and deeply flavored stuff, far more than some thin, cold liquid that’s halfway to being a beverage.

So soups are reserved for the cold, and I can scarcely think of a better way to warm both you and your house than with a big, bubbling pot of broth.  I made this particular soup the other day, when a craving for mushrooms struck me hard, and the chill creeping in through the windows demanded a bowl of something hot.

Browsing through my bookmarked recipes, I came across a recipe for Buttermilk Squash Soup, from Heidi of 101 Cookbooks.  And, as luck would have it, I just so happened to have a bit of good-quality leftover buttermilk knocking about in my fridge, threatening to go South if I didn’t use it post-haste.

Knowing mushrooms’ affinity for things creamy and tangy, I decided that buttermilk-enriched recipe was the perfect starting point.  Using the loose framework of “make soup” and “add buttermilk at the end”, I patched a recipe together starting with a base of plenty of onion and garlic, with a potato thrown in for some body.

When making soup, after sweating the vegetables together I like to deglaze the pan (whether it needs it or not) with a spot of wine, or some other liquor, or even beer, depending on the primary flavor of the soup.  Alcohol, scientifically speaking, opens up different and more complex flavors than can be achieved without it, especially in slow-simmered things.  And, you know, if some happens to accidentally spill into a nearby glass, it would surely be a crime to let it go to waste.  Purely on accident, of course.

In this soup, I used a combination of white wine (since I had some) and only a splash of brandy, as brandy and mushrooms are great friends, but I didn’t want the other flavors to get overwhelmed with its strong caramel and vanilla nature.  A generous dose of thyme added a light, herbaceous note to complement the earthy mushrooms.

I personally prefer soups with a few bits of items in them, so a few handfuls of mushrooms were set aside to be added in later, after cooking and blending the other ingredients to a smooth purée.  Soups are simply more interesting if you have things in them to chew on.

mushrooms reserved for later addition

To prevent the buttermilk from possibly separating or curdling, the soup was cooked and puréed first, and the buttermilk added at the last minute, along with some fresh parsley for a little brightness.  A quenelle of pesto on top was a welcome garnish, but if you have none on hand, a swirl of good olive oil is just as lovely.

Thick and full-flavored, robust and so slightly tangy, this soup was exactly what I wanted on that cold evening.  Despite its drab hue, it was the prettiest thing I’d seen all day.  It warmed, and comforted; and if there’s more soups like this in store for me this Winter, I say bring on the cold.

Buttermilk Mushroom Soup
Makes 6 to 8 servings

This is a fairly thick soup, one with a bit of heft to it.  If you prefer a thinner soup, just add additional water or stock to thin it to the desired consistency.

2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped
3 ribs of celery, chopped
1 large potato (about 12 ounces), diced
6 cloves garlic, minced
5 ounces oyster mushrooms
5 ounces shiitake mushrooms, stemmed
1 pound crimini mushrooms
1/2 cup white wine (or dry vermouth, or a splash of brandy)
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons dried thyme (or several sprigs of fresh thyme)
2 cups vegetable or chicken stock
1/4 cup minced fresh parsley
1 1/4 cups buttermilk, at room temperature
Salt and pepper, as needed
Olive oil, for garnish

1.  In a large pot, heat the butter and olive oil together over medium-high heat.  Add the onions, and cook until just translucent, 5 to 10 minutes.  Add the celery, potato, and garlic, and cook until softened, another 5 to 10 minutes.

2.  Meanwhile, chop the mushrooms into 1 inch pieces as needed.  Reserve about 2 cups, to be added in later.  Add the remaining mushrooms to the pot, and cook until softened, about 5 minutes.

3.  Add the white wine or vermouth, scraping the bottom of the pot to release any browned bits.  Cook until nearly dry, then season lightly with salt and pepper.  Add the bay leaf, thyme, and stock.  Add enough water to cover all vegetables with liquid; you may not need much.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for at least 15 minutes, or until all vegetables are very soft.

4.  Purée soup in the pot with an immersion blender, or by transferring in batches to a blender, taking care to hold the lid securely on when puréeing the hot soup.  The blended soup will be very thick.  Return soup to the pot, and add the reserved mushrooms.  Cover and cook over medium-low heat for about 10 minutes, or until mushrooms have softened.  Add the chopped parsley and buttermilk.  Taste, and correct seasoning with salt and pepper.  Serve with a drizzle of olive oil on top and some crusty bread.

Spicy Eggplant Caviar

One of the grandest things about living in Chicago is the park system.  Aside from the beautifully-tended landscapes all up and down the shore of Lake Michigan, there are constantly free events for the public to enjoy.  During the Summer, you can find something to do every day of the week.  Free movies?  Free concerts?  Free dance performances?  Free exercise classes?  Check, check, check, and check.

The crown jewel of these venues is Millennium Park, in the heart of downtown.  There, the Pritzker Pavilion, with its exuberantly swooping facade, hosts a daily (sometimes twice a day) concert for lovers of all types of music, from Classical to Hip-Hop and everything in between.

Though there is proper seating near the stage, I’ve never used it.  Further back is a gorgeous lawn under a loose and arching grid that suspends speakers overhead, giving pitch-perfect sound no matter how far away from the stage you have to sit.

Bring a blanket, bring a crowd, and bring a picnic.  (Did I mention you can bring food and wine?  Well, mostly you can.)  Sit and enjoy one of our breathtaking Chicago Summer nights, looking up at the surrounding skyscrapers.  Watch the sun set.  See the lights flick on and then off in the offices within.  Be grateful you’re not in one.

Recently, a few friends and I decided to get together for an evening of music and food at the Pritzker, as we often do when the weather agrees.  And, faced with the glut of cheap eggplant at the store, I decided it was the perfect opportunity to try out a recipe from one of my best-loved new cookbooks (new to me, anyway), Susan Spicer’s Crescent City Cooking.

Chef Spicer is the mastermind behind my Mom’s favorite restaurant, Bayona; and in a food capital like New Orleans, that’s saying something.  Like the food at her restaurant, the cookbook is filled with uncomplicated and carefully-tuned recipes that make the absolute most of each ingredient.  Nothing is fussy, but everything is good enough to serve to honored guests.  I can’t stop cooking out of it.

The recipe for Eggplant Caviar caught my eye immediately, mainly because of the accompanying photo of a charred, burnt-paper-skinned eggplant, cut open to reveal a creamy and slumping interior.  I didn’t really care what else it involved, I wanted to scoop up that eggplant and eat it with a spoon.

I discovered that the method detailed in the recipe (chop everything by hand) left the dip with bits of red onion that were too large and too abundant for my tastes; they overwhelmed everything else.  Beautiful, yes, but if you are sans food processor, I suggest reducing the amount of onion by up to half.

A quick spin in the food processor to tame the pungency, though, and it was perfect.

Well, nearly perfect.  I do love a smoky eggplant flavor, but I love it even more with some heat to brighten it.  I happened to have some pickled Aurora chilies in the fridge from a previous farmers market experiment, and two of them were just the thing to add the capsaicin I craved.  (I’ve written the recipe to use a more available chili, since I assume no one out there has pickled Aurora chilies sitting around.  If you do, I’m coming over for dinner.)

This is probably one of those recipes that benefits from an overnight rest in the refrigerator, giving the flavors a chance to become acquainted and meld together.  I’m sure it would become positively transcendental.  But I’ll probably never know for sure, since it disappeared completely at the picnic, and I can’t actually imagine having it around for more than a few hours and keeping my hands off the stuff.

As the sun went down behind the city, the changing light transformed the park.  The stage turned into a luminous jewel box, all crimson and gold.

Behind us, the new Modern Wing of the Art Institute hung glowing above the trees.

We finished off the wine and the eggplant and the strawberries and the bread, and we hung around long after the music stopped thrumming from the speakers above.  The moon came out, and the sky dissolved into that perfect, rich indigo.  And we left, and we were grateful.  Let’s do it again next week.

Spicy Eggplant Caviar
Adapted from Crescent City Cooking, by Susan Spicer
Makes about 2 cups

Be sure to not skip the first step, pricking the eggplant with a fork.  If you don’t do this, your eggplant will explode in the oven, and you will have bigger problems than a lack of eggplant caviar.  And don’t be afraid of getting the eggplant too close to the broiler; you want to really char it.  I put mine about 4 inches away from the heat, and the flesh began to slump long before the skin blackened properly.

1 1/2 to 2 pounds eggplant (2 small or 1 large)
1 cup red onion (about 1/2 medium onion, less if chopping by hand)
2 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
1 small chili pepper (such as Serrano)
2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil (to taste)
1 tablespoon lemon juice (from 1/2 lemon)
1/4 teaspoon smoked pimentón (Spanish smoked paprika), or cayenne pepper (to taste)
Salt and black pepper (to taste)

1.  Turn the broiler to high, and let preheat for 5 to 10 minutes.  Pierce the eggplant a few times with a fork.  Broil on a rimmed baking sheet very close to the heat until the skin is charred and black, turning about every 5 minutes, cooking 15 to 20 minutes total.  The flesh should feel very soft, and the juices that run out will turn syrupy and thick.  Let cool.

2.  Meanwhile, prepare the other ingredients.  If using a food processor, roughly chop the onion, garlic, basil, parsley, and chili pepper, and place in the bowl of the processor.  If making by hand, chop everything as finely as possible, and place in a large bowl.  Add 2 tablespoons olive oil, and lemon juice.

3.  When the eggplant is cool enough to handle, peel the skin away from the flesh.  Cut the eggplant in half, and remove any seeds that are large and easily visible (some seeds are small and not easily distinguishable from the flesh; these will not be so bitter and are okay to leave in).  Roughly chop the flesh, and add to the other prepared ingredients.  Purée in the food processor, or mix by hand.  Season to taste with pimentón, salt, and pepper, and add extra olive oil if desired.  Serve warm or at room temperature, with pita bread or toasted baguette slices.

Roasted Eggplant With Tahini Sauce

Normally, this is where I’d insert photo after photo of lovely ingredients.

Imagine then, the plump aubergine, the cream-colored garlic, the crisp onion.  Imagine the anchovies, swimming eerily in olive oil.  Imagine the cumin seeds, the sunny lemon, the putty-hued tahini, the jarring red of the tomato.

You’ll have to imagine these things because I was foolish enough to think that this thrown-together mess wouldn’t be worth mentioning.  While running an errand yesterday afternoon, I realized that I hadn’t even thought about dinner yet.  Not wanting to go out a second time for any ingredients, I quickly scanned my mental inventory of the refrigerator, and remembered the jar of tahini left over from these beauties.

Stopping in at the grocery store, and without really knowing why, I picked up one eggplant and one tomato.  Something about the persistent (though lessening) chill in the air suggested something roasted.  Eggplant seemed to match the tahini that nagged at me to be used; the tomato would lend freshness and acidity.  Somehow.

Back home, I surveyed the refrigerator, pulling out anything that seemed like it would play nice.  Out came the tahini.  Out came a container of cooked brown rice.  Three lonely anchovy fillets in a jar, risking expiration, joined in.  There was an onion, chopped and frozen.  Cloves of garlic and a naked, previously-zested lemon followed.  And then I let them tell me what to do.

The eggplant demanded to be chopped, and roasted with the onion and the garlic.  The few anchovies decided that the hot oven was far too much for them to handle, and asked to be melted into some sort of sauce.  The tahini insisted on being used raw, with no heat applied, as did the tomato, while the rice politely offered to play a supporting role.  From the spice cabinet, cumin seed, dried thyme, and oregano cried out to be used, and I was more than happy to accommodate them.

I knew I couldn’t exactly go wrong with roasted eggplant; but the scents wafting from the pan as the anchovies gently simmered with the cumin, mingling with the sweet smell of the caramelizing onion and eggplant, told me that I had something special on my hands.

But after tasting the finished sauce, the boldness of anchovy mixed with nutty tahini and vibrant lemon, punctuated with the smoke of cumin, and I knew I couldn’t keep this one to myself.  With the somehow meaty flavor of the roasted eggplant, over a plate of brown rice, it was the best kind of simple dinner: the one you didn’t expect could possibly taste so incredibly good.

And then, I started kicking myself.  Why, oh why, hadn’t I taken even one picture?

(Good thing there were leftovers for lunch today.)


Roasted Eggplant With Tahini Sauce

Yield: 2 to 3 servings

This earthy mixture of roasted vegetables is extremely versatile. Serve it over rice, with a dollop of yogurt and a garnish of parsley, as pictured; serve it tossed with pasta and bits of salty feta; purée it and garnish with mint for a dip to go with toasted pita wedges; use it as is for a flavorful side dish with simply-prepared pork, fish, or chicken.


    For the eggplant:
  • 1 eggplant, cut into 1 inch cubes
  • 1 medium onion, diced (about 1 cup)
  • 5 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Salt and black pepper, to taste
  • For the sauce:
  • 3 olive oil-packed anchovy fillets, with 1 tablespoon of the oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon whole cumin
  • 2 tablespoons well-stirred tahini
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • Salt and black pepper (optional)
  • To finish:
  • 1 medium tomato, diced


1. Preheat the oven to 450º F. While the oven heats, prepare the vegetables.

2. Toss the eggplant, onion, and garlic together in a large roasting pan. Add 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, and toss to combine at once, before the eggplant soaks up the oil. Add the remaining tablespoon oil if the mixture looks very dry; do not be tempted to add any more than that, however. Add the thyme, oregano, cayenne, and bay leaf. Salt and pepper to taste, and toss until incorporated.

3. Roast the mixture at 450º F for 30 to 40 minutes, or until well-browned and very soft. Set aside to cool slightly.

4. While the vegetables cool, make the sauce. Heat the anchovies in their oil in a small pan over medium heat. When they begin to sizzle and break down, add the cumin and reduce the heat to low. Let cook until the cumin is fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the heat, and add the tahini. Stir until smooth, then stir in the lemon juice. Taste, and add salt and pepper if needed.

5. Pour the sauce over the roasted eggplant. Add the diced raw tomato, and toss. Serve warm, or at room temperature.