a bowl of spring and olive oil

My shoulders are lightly pink from running a race yesterday in Ithaca, Central New York’s sunniest of towns. (This is the place that collectively banned Wal-Mart from setting up shop — thus holding my cultural allegiance and continued patronship.) With temperatures hovering around 15 Celsius, the past two days have seen their share of rolled down windows, bike rides, hammocks and barbeques. (The latter two sent my way care of friends.)

Though I’ve cooked asparagus already — how unseasonal of me, I know— it’s time to officially welcome it into my repertoire as a spring staple. Woody stalks and blossoming tips, you are hereby declared most esteemed guest of dinners to come.

I’ve been inspired lately by Heidi’s healthy-looking goodies over at 101 Cookbooks, and so chose to indulge my asparagus fancies with one of her rice-bowl recipes. I must say that I wasn’t thrilled with the last two things I made from her blog (this is likely due to my own shortcomings and not her lack of culinary finesse), but was determined to find something in her wholesome foods database that would turn out as earthy and natural looking as her photos proclaimed. The chosen dish seemed like a smooth transition from a rice n’ beans winter to a fresh green spring.

Settling on a dinner that promised to come together in ten minutes (after cooking the rice) I got to work chopping onions, garlic and asparagus, and whisking tahini, garlic and lemon juice. It wasn’t until I was finished that I realized its uncanny similarity to another salad I featured on this here little site. Oh well, guess I’m a sucker for the nutty tartness of tahini- kissed chickpeas staring up at me like a pile of suns shining on my plate. (I might’ve clocked in at 13 or so minutes, a forgivable offense if there ever was one.)

What I wish to share with you tonight is a twofold lesson. One, experiment with rice, my friends. There are some darn good ones out there. For those of you in Syracuse, Wegman’s carries the Lundberg Family Farms’ line of ecologically- and sustainably-farmed rice blends. For this recipe I used their (very affordable) Wehani brown rice. If the following recipe doesn’t convince you, maybe the fact that it smells like pumpkin pie while it cooks will. (Also check out Han’s market for their massive bags of Thai black rice and other pretty shades of the ubiquitous white grain.)

Secondly, I want to talk about oil. Olive, coconut, safflower, sesame, walnut, peanut, flaxseed — it’s like a Romantic poem in the making. And frankly, this ever-expanding list of oils to try is starting to confuse me. Each with its own unique smoke point, health benefits, balance of omega-3s, etcetera etcetera, it’s all left me floundering. I’m going to try to be patient with myself and let my oil knowledge evolve at a natural pace.

But making tonight’s dinner taught me that what I’ve been reading about olive oil at least is correct. And that is that extra virgin olive oil is best consumed raw, in terms of taste and nutrition. I won’t bore you with all the technical talk about free radicals and fatty acids, saving my words instead for the veneration of olive oil as garnish: when a bite of tonight’s dinner proved a little dry, instead of adding more dressing I tried crowning it with a drizzle of olive oil — a technique applauded in cookbooks and on health websites. What followed was what you’d expect if all the flavours of the dish joined hands with a particle of silky butter and proceeded to tango all over my mouth.

When you bring virgin or first (cold)-pressed olive oil to high temperatures, you miss out on the liquid perfume that it truly is. In Alice Waters’ words, “It is simply a waste to expose extra virgin oil to the direct heat of a pan as its fruity character and color are soon lost.” Alternately, olive oil under the name “pure” is made from extracting the oil through other methods and then refining it. Refined oils are actually better to cook with, as they are already “accustomed” to heat. I will probably continue to cook with my liquid gold, given the industrial-sized tin of it we bought last fall (apparently another no-no), but will now consider it a tabletop companion to my salt and pepper shakers. Try it on grilled or steamed veggies, salads and appetizers, grilled meats, and drizzled over soups and pasta.

I keep olive oil, along with balsamic vinegar, in empty wine bottles with pour tops fitted into the necks. I stole this idea from a friend, and love its convenience and stylishness.

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squash this

Besides having been christened with the most appealing name among squashkind, the butternut, in my mind, reigns supreme in flavour and versatility. I have trouble holding myself back from any recipe with butternut in the title. It’s like those purple monsters from Sesame Street get into my subconscious and start murmuring butter; nut, over and over again until I just melt like a pat of butter on a hot nut. Ok, that was awful, but what were you expecting?

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When my explorations led me to Orangette’s recipe for Warm Butternut and Chickpea Salad with Tahini, it seemed like a perfectly logical thing to make for a special dinner companion on Saturday. Salad is a staple around these parts; I like to have one available with every meal I serve. But it’s winter, and the fresh crispy coolness of the salad just doesn’t cut it like it does in the summer. So all I had to read were the words warm and salad in the same sentence and I was hooked. Not to mention the butternut thing.

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In spite of the rest of the meal’s merit (augmented by the fact that it was the first time I’ve ever cooked a pork tenderloin and it turned out simply mah-velous), today I chose to highlight the little guy — the side dish. I’m a big advocate of vegetables and I think they deserve just as much of the spotlight as the big meaty mains. So move over porky.

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40 days of hummus

I just realized that I started this new site in sync with the beginning of Lent. What was I thinking? Isn’t this supposed to be a time of renunciation (at least for those of certain faith of which I happen to be a part of)?

But before I could even think about what on earth a Lenten food blog might look like, my thoughts turned to what Lent is about in the positive. Perhaps this is just an elaborate justification for not giving anything up. Whatever it is, it makes me grateful, and I think that’s kind of the point.

We usually associate Lent with self-denial. But this time in the Christian year is not just about becoming vegetarian or denying yourself a few meals. While these things have played a role in Lent, so has teaching new believers and restoring drifted ones, inviting the poor into one’s home, and cultivating divine awareness through prayer and meditation.

The 6 Sundays during Lent aren’t even counted in the 40 days, but instead are termed “Mini Easter” celebrations. I like how in the midst of the solemn 40-day procession towards Good Friday, people found ways to savour the things of the Earth.

Maybe the rest of us could focus our 40 days on filling our kitchens and diets with more hospitality, generosity, creativity, and life. I am reminded that the word lent quite literally means spring. Green things are on the horizon, however frozen our world may now appear.

Driving home from church last night, the words spoken to me echo in my mind: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Then I got to thinking about what any normal person would think about on such an holy day. Hummus.

It’s a mediterranean spread made with chickpeas, but it also refers to the organic material derived from partial decay of plant and animal matter. Mmmm, mmm. That went with the “returning to dust” theme, didn’t it? So while I pondered whether I’ll end up in the carrot or beet row of someone’s future garden, I whipped up a couple batches of spreadable earthiness. And they all taste better than compost, I promise.

Given the persistent grayness that has descended upon this city and the fact that the book I’m reading (though exquisitely written) is also bleak and dismal, I decided to put some colour into my day via hummus. Inspired by the “beet this hummus” at the restaurant I worked at for some time, I decided to see what other hues I could transform the humble chickpea into.

I felt like a 5 year old with three new cans of play-dough. For the plain one, I added some ground cumin, chili powder, and turmeric. For the fushcia one, I boiled up some beets — you really don’t need much, even one quarter-sized slice will turn the hummus pink. I garnished it with black pepper which I thought went nicely with the bright colour. For the green one: boiled spinach along, a drizzle of pumpkin oil and basil.

Go ahead and experiment! (I tried adding black beans once and it turned out purple!) These “hummi” would be great for theme parties (St. Patrick’s day, Valentine’s) or just to spice up a dreary February day.

Basic Hummus

1 large can (1lb/13 oz) chickpeas, or 2 smaller ones, liquid reserved

1-2 cloves garlic, minced

2 T fresh squeezed lemon juice (ok ok, the bottled stuff will do)

1-2 T tahini paste (peanut butter will also do, but the flavour is not as subtle)

salt and pepper

Pour the liquid off the chickpeas, reserving it. Rinse off the peas. Place into an empty yogurt container, or other cylindrical container (or into the pitcher part of a blender. I like the hand blending method much better, though.) Add either 2 T of the reserved liquid, or 1 T of olive oil (the first is higher in sodium, the second in fat). Add the garlic, depending on how peppy you like your spread. Blend, moving the hand blender in an up and down motion. You will have to stop periodically (unplug!) and scrape around the blade to “help” the blender get to all the peas. Continue until you have a nice, creamy paste. Add the tahini paste and salt and pepper. Blend again.

Now for the fun. Add any of the following, according to your tastes! Plain yogurt (for extra creaminess, but keep in mind it won’t last as long in the fridge), cumin or curry powder, coriander, cinnamon, turmeric, basil, lemon zest, pumpkin oil, chili powder, boiled spinach leaves, cooked beets, cooked carrot, other beans, etc.

Serve with toasted pita chips, pretzels, and fresh veggies. Or, spread on burgers, sandwiches, and in pitas.