spaghetti squash nests with moroccan spices

Seasons are now things of the past. Figments of memory, slices of lives lived farther north. With brisk days and crisp leaves behind me, I must now cultivate awareness—try to notice the small changes around me that signal the onset of what has always been my favorite time of year. McIntosh apples appearing at the grocery store (finally!), slightly cooler mornings and evenings, clearer coastal skies, an indigo-colored ocean. And yes, a tree here and there that’s decided to ignore it’s southerly surroundings, shedding a brown leaf here and there on the sidewalk to wait for the crush of my sandal.

I do miss the fall I have loved so much. But sitting on the beach at “negative tide” (a new term that I’ve learned is a synonym for “wow”) isn’t all that bad. And thank the newly cloudless skies there’s still squash, that harbinger of cozy, indoor evenings to come.

We’ve been eating a lot of spaghetti squash lately. It’s easy to square away in the oven while you prepare the accompaniments, and it’s just so, well, fun. (Not that I don’t LOVE the other offerings in the squash family, as my kabocha-udon noodles, quinoa-stuffed acorn squash, and warm butternut and chickpea salad can attest to. Not to mention the many other squash recipes that have showed up around these parts.) Scraping out the stringy flesh, I always think about the peasant who first discovered this freak of nature gourd: did she giggle when she set the fruits of her family’s labor down on the table? I would have.

Spaghetti squash is as versatile as the rest of the squash family, equally as delicious baked with butter and maple syrup as it is topped with more savory ingredients. But this variety of squash lends itself especially well to the pasta treatment, somewhat obviously, and my favorite way to eat it has been with a garlicky homemade puttanesca sauce. That is until I applied one of my favorite spice combinations to the stringy mass.

When I need some inspiration, there’s nothing like the good ‘ol Internet to help marinate the creativity. I was excited to find this recipe (from the 2002 issue of Gourmet – RIP), and after perusing some of the reviews and suggestions, took to the kitchen. Chickpeas are usually the featured legume in Moroccan cuisine, but they didn’t go very well with the squash, color-wise, so I chose my favorite lentil instead. My culinary compadre had already cooked up both the squash and the lentils, so all that was left was spicing and assembling.

The results? This is one easy dinner. Bake and scrape squash. Simmer lentils. Whip up a buttery spice mixture. Toss, garnish, and dig in! I think it would be a kid-friendly meal, too (not that I would know), as you can assemble these little nests if you so desire. Alternatively, you could mix the squash, spice mixture, and lentils all together for a more “complete” meal to serve to more sophisticated diners.


That’s all there is to it. As my triathlon training ramps down to base-building and my need for calories drops, these are the kinds of veggie-heavy dinners I want on my plate. A low-glycemic index meal that contains protein (yogurt and lentils) and good fat (cashews), and is vegan/vegetarian to boot? Bring it on. The optional raisins add just a little in the way of quick carbs, and the warming spices kept me satisfied until bedtime. And now, with these darker, post-time change evenings, even life in Southern California has begun to feel a little cozier. Continue reading

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lebanese-style stuffed baby eggplants

The city is finally shedding its white crust. Our luminous winter cover is turning to brown slush, as snow melts into blinding, sunlit puddles. After spending last Monday, Wednesday and Thursday working from home (or battling treacherous sidewalks hunting for coffee and wifi), I was craving company and food more nuanced than snowbound snacks of popcorn, toast, and leftovers.

Thankfully, Mark was on the way, offering not only companionship, but a car to chauffeur me around on my quest for baby eggplants.

I’ve had this recipe bookmarked for some time; waiting, I guess, for the right opportunity to try it. Saturday seemed as good a day as any to host my first dinner guests since moving to Hyattsville in January. (I guess most weekends have had me out exploring the city, or more recently, surviving “Snowpocalypse 2010.” But as spring approaches, it’s high time I picked up the dinner party pace.)

The day provided the perfect foundation on which to build a good meal: A lazy morning, good coffee, an exercise day off, and a kitchen confidant/soux chef rolled into one. We set out around noon to explore the collection of international markets near my neighborhood.

Things didn’t turn out exactly as I’d hoped. The traffic was horrendous: I’m not sure if Marylanders were still dealing with these foreign driving conditions, or that people were venturing out to restock their shelves. Then, after sitting through about 10 cycles of green lights near our destination (where baby eggplants were not to be found), I had to make an unexpected trip home to troubleshoot something work-related. Disappointment threatened.  Frustration encroached on my formerly good mood.

When we set out again it was already two o’clock and I still didn’t have my main ingredient. Mark had been on the phone with the local grocery chains, only to be met with busy signals and reports of large eggplants. I started scheming Plan B. But Oh how I’d coveted those eggplants!

We weren’t ready to give up quite yet. Recently equipped with smart phones, Mark could drive while I perused the nearby grocery options. A Halal Meat Market showed up on my map, and I clicked their phone number. I was met with cheerful answers to my questions: Yes, they had ground lamb. What about eggplants? “Yes, we got a vegetable delivery just today,” came the reply. “I’m looking for the small ones, not the big ones…” I began. “The Indian eggplants, yes.” The voice sounded confident enough.

We fought more traffic to the little shop, aromas of patchouli and spice wafting out the jingling front door. Sure enough, there beside the limes and chili peppers a box overflowed with deep purple globes no bigger than a child’s fist. The proprietor had spoken the truth. I immediately squashed Plan B, and left with a warm samosa and plenty of time to make dessert.

The dish was a hit: Stuffed with raw rice, ground lamb, onions, garlic, pine nuts and allspice, a simmering tomato sauce slowly cooks the vegetables into tender purple dumplings. On the plate, garnished with saffron yogurt, goat feta, and parsley, each one bursts with robust and game-y flavors. I followed the eggplants with a lemon pie (post forthcoming), making the meal into a well-rounded foray not only into international flavors, but back into cooking and entertaining.

I can’t wait to do it all over again soon.

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moroccan roasted vegetables

The markets and orchards of Central New York are swollen with colors more vibrant than a box of Lucky Charms. From procuring ingredients for my first salsa to picking apples with visiting family, all this bounty has kept me busy.

And then there was Saturday night’s excursion to the bedimmed Manlius Theater to see Food, Inc., a new documentary on the evils of the modern food industry. There were the expected appearances by Michael Pollan and his crony EricSchlosser of Fast Food Nation. There were undercover slaughterhouse cameras and dejected farmers. There was an appearance by the grieving mother of a 2-year-old poisoned by contaminated ground beef.

There were as many “corporation X refused to comment for this film” as there were new reasons to eat real food.

Check out this quote by Pollan on the backwardness of the modern food industry:

It’s a whole lot easier to slap a health claim on a box of sugary cereal than on a raw potato or a carrot … the most healthful foods in the supermarket sit there quietly in the produce section, silent as stroke victims, while a few aisles over the Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms are screaming their newfound ‘whole-grain goodness’ to the rafters. Watch out for those health claims.

We have a warped system where Coke and Doritos are more affordable than the ingredients for a salad. We sit blindly by while a handful of corporations mess with our kitchens. I watch documentaries like King Corn and Food, Inc., and still it’s hard to say no sometimes to chicken wings. Ignorance may truly be bliss, but for me a daily commitment to  real, raw, unprocessed food brings a more continuous joy.

Take these delicious Moroccan roasted vegetables, an idea lifted from my old standby, the Moosewood New Classics. Plain old yam wrested from the earth, shiny purple eggplant and zucchini from a local farmer, red pepper and onion all tossed with lemon juice and the fire-colored spices of northern Africa. Easy as chopping, seasoning and baking, this saucy mix yields enough to last for a few days.

Better than the lack of additives and sweeteners was the simplicity of flavors. The original Happy Meal was never patented and is not sold along suburban byways. It’s right here, in our fields and on our plates.

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quinoa tabbouleh

I debated calling this next series of posts “The Unemployment Project, Part I (etc).” Since I’m not sure how long this is going to last, however, I figured I’d spare you from an ever-lengthening string of Roman numerals. Until my employment prospects crystallize, I’ve decided to give this neglected website of mine some love: Get ready to eat.

As I wrote in my last post, I’ve had to adjust lately to this strange new thing called free time.  Sure, there have been weekend road trips to weddings and triathlons and concerts. There have gatherings with friends and leisurely walks. But the consuming projects and imperatives, not so much.

It’s like returning to an older verison of myself. There are going to be days where I’ll have to dig through those familiar storerooms of strength.

That said, things haven’t been so bad.

I shot photos for Edible Finger Lakes magazine on Monday (wait! I’m supposed to be a writer!), and got to meet the ringleader of Central New York’s Slow Food Chapter. Dipping into a different medium however, shooting his kitchen, meeting his bees, and marvelling at his asparagus plants was inspiring. And the invitation to pick fresh mint, marjoram and lavender whenever I need to? Priceless.

Tuesday was a frustrating day spent trying to secure certification to work in this country. But this is a food blog, not a rant, so I’ll spare you the story. Three things helped redeem that day: Wegman’s air-conditioning and rotisserie chickens, and this tabbouleh salad.

Tabbouleh (ta-boo-lee) is a Middle-Eastern dish that showcases fresh herbs. If you don’t like to be hit over the head with parsley, simply use the lesser amount.

It’s also traditionally made with coarsely-ground bulgur wheat, but since my life is basically one big steamy love affair with quinoa, I decided to try mixing it up a little. More protein and ancient grains never hurt anybody.

It’s funny how one little conversation with my mother about her parsley plant led to subsequent days of fresh, tangy leftover salad. Not a bad way to start off this new, as yet unnamed season in my life.

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za’atar from afar

Since I last posted, I don’t  really have much to say for myself,  food-wise. Late nights in the lab learning advanced digital editing software, long meetings trying to plan the production of a satire magazine, early-morning swims and hours studying Media Law result in meals of bananas and hummus-cucumber roll ups.  Save for a chocolate cake made with last summer’s frozen zucchini (will post on that one, soon) and a pretty ordinary Mexican Pizza, I haven’t been cooking up any show-stoppers lately.

And that’s OK, isn’t it? It’s these times when I’m glad I wrote blog posts months ago and stored them up, like little jars of oats, for a bleaker tomorrow. It’s also interesting how some things you think are toss aways come back and speak squarely to the present.

On a stifling day last summer I made an Israeli salad in a kitchen that had sumac, a spice I’d never cooked with. Now, nine months later, I’m going to Israel. I put the pictures  on the back shelf to share with you sometime when it seemed right, and now here it is, newly appropriate.

It’s called Za’atar Salad, and is a dish often deemed Israeli but eaten all over the Middle East. If any of you have seen the film The Visitor, Mouna makes this salad for Walter when he first joins her for dinner. It’s the most sensual salad-making scene I’ve seen in a long time — the way she juices the lemons by hand over the bowl of glistening primary colors.

I leave a week today for Jerusalem, a place that has existed largely in my imagination. It’s the place where my faith has its roots. I am imagining it will feel strangely familiar, almost enveloping. I know it will seem alien, too, separate and distinct from this North American Christianity I have been nurtured in. Sites might seem like felt board scenes or picture Bible pages writ large.

A Barn Birth. A Good Samaritan. A road in Damascus. Anger in a temple-turned-marketplace. A goblet of wine and some bread. A betrayal and an ear, cut away from a cheek. One man’s death, and a cold stone tomb. All these stories swirling in the dust, suddenly louder than words.

It will likely be touristy, politically charged, mystical and commercial all wrapped up like a gyro, and yet I can’t wait.

My companions will be thirteen other students and three of the chaplains from Syracuse University’s interfaith chapel. Like this salad, we will be a colorful mix of personalities and stories, flecked with the new flavors of a place we might not have been able to visit in another time. Muslims, Jews and Christians we will share our stories and play their colors off  each other.

As this simple salad did, maybe we’ll show each other a new way of experiencing the ingredients of the three Abrahamic faiths.

And so while I prepared rather poorly  for Lent this year (yoga followed by free pancakes at IHOP), a visit to the Holy Land seems like a good way to kick-start my journey toward the joy of Easter. I think it would be so easy to feel pressure regarding a trip like this, especially if you’re a person who derives part of their spiritual identity from the place. You know, pressure to see the right things, feel profound emotions, that kind of thing.

I think I’ll just try to take it all in—slowly, and making sure to chew after every bite.

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dolmas done right

I first tasted dolmas, or stuffed grape leaves, in Greece. I was 19 and still more or less uneducated in the cuisines of the near East. They were delicately Mediterranean, bursting with new combinations of taste and texture.

My friend and I were sharing a white stucco flat on the island of Naxos, overlooking the Aegean Sea. We had met an Australian woman named Grace, who introduced us to the cigar-shaped delicacies packed in olive oil. I was a sucker for anything offered to me in that accent — or any accent, for that matter. To this day I still adore two of her recommendations: dolmas and halwa, a sweet spun from sesame-seeds.

In those lazy days we lived on dolmas and baklava. These days all I can find are the canned ones packed in excessive amounts of oil, unless I want to pay a dollar apiece just up the street. With the way the weather has turned, that seems like a steep price to pay to have a cool Greek snack at hand. If you love the nutty, lemony squish of a chilled dolma on a dog-day afternoon, a dolma’s all that will do ya.

And then — thank Zeus! — along came my friend Susan. Being schooled herself in these mysterious dolmatic ways, she passed on her expertise to me. Though I observed more than I participated, I learned that making them yourself cuts the oil and the need to fly back to Naxos. I also found out that dolma is from the Turkish word for “stuffed thing.” Turns out I have more in common with this finger food than I thought.

Grape leaves should be easy to find in a well-stocked international grocery store. I used a California-Style brand called Castella, but the choice was rather arbitrary in front of a shelf full of them. Grape leaves must be one of those foods, like the “single use appliance,” that doesn’t seem to have many other uses. I declare these, however, to be wise stewardship of the leaves that nurture our wine-producing grapes the world over. If they’re good enough for grapes, they’re good enough for me.

These are an easy substitute for the endless chopping, precision rolling, and meticulous fish- handling of sushi. They are deliciously cool and light, the perfect compliment to a serene back porch gathering around a pitcher of Sangria, or to a rollicking twilight tapas bash. Easy to make and easy to eat, these dolmas are so good you might just want to break a plate or two. Just make sure they’re your own, and not someone else’s Royal Daulton.

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oui, chutzpah! (israeli couscous and french lentil salad)

It’s hard to top summer’s abundance of leafy greens piled high with fresh-picked vegetables from the garden. The Queen of Summer cuisine is back, in shades of fern and chartreuse. The Salad has arrived, piled high on our plates like hibiscus blossoms offered to a Hindu god, to cleanse us of any vegetable estrangement that might still linger from winter.

Yet there’s another kind of salad that’s captured my coeur. A salad with chew and bulk and just the right amount of cheekiness. A salad merging the semolina pearls of Israeli couscous with the freckled indigo lentilles du Puy. A salad with chutzpah.

Like other pasta- or grain-based salads like tabbouleh, this salad will do double-duty as a side or the main show. Cool enough for company and easy enough for Monday, it shines alongside burgers or lugged along to potluck. Or how about stashed away in the fridge for a lunch-hour crisis that might otherwise send you to the snack cupboard? Sharing is so overrated.

When I first made this salad, it was the not-so-obvious combination of textures and tastes that really struck the “make again” sensors. As I get more comfortable making “ethnic” food, I have learned that mint and cinnamon, dates and pine nuts are perfectly happy co-habiting. These surprise minglings are one of the most basic pleasures of eating — something that too often gets lost to convenience and habit.

Let this salad break you out of a romaine n’ ranch rut. I promise it will make your taste buds bellow a different kind of Tradition! from the rooftop.

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