smoky sweet potato soup

Who would’ve thought that after moving to Southern California from Canada I’d start finding culinary Southwestern inspiration in a book out of Victoria, B.C? Well, it happened.

I’ve been wanting the Rebar Modern Food Cookbook ever since a cold late-winter day in 2008 at my friend Lenora’s in Ottawa. In hopes of distracting myself from thinking about whether Syracuse University was going to accept me into their Masters of Journalism program, I drank coffee and flipped through this colorful book. It’s one of those cookbooks you just never get around to buying for yourself, but then when someone finally gives it to you, you wonder how you lived without it.

The masterpiece

OK, OK, so I’ve only made three things out of it so far. And two of them were soups. Hardly thorough sampling. But I’ll be the first to tell you: these soups are made of smoky chile-infused dreams. The perfect comfort meals for this prairie transplant, new to a part of the country where cliffs and cacti make up my backyard. Perfect for a place where avocados and limes daily compete for my affection. (If gin’s nearby, the latter usually wins out—especially when priced at 10 cents apiece).

You start by roasting three of the best-tasting earthy things known to eaters: Sweet potatoes, garlic, and red peppers. They’ll fill your house with aromas as they pop and spit away in the stove.

Sweet potatoes are my second-favorite root vegetable (beets have my heart). Not only because of their “superfood” status (they’re packed with fiber, beta-carotene, and vitamins A and C), but because they are just so good. They’re the candy of the earth—would that be “bon-bon de terre”? Taste some of the syrup that leakes from the roasted ones and you’ll know what I’m talking about. (I was so excited I forgot to get out the camera…hence having to borrow this one!)

Another trick this soup taught me? Chipotle puree. Mix this stuff up once and it will give back to you for months. You’ll forsake all others: ketchup, salsa, possibly even Sriracha. (The horror!) All ya do? Buy a can of chipotle chiles in adobo sauce and puree away.

addictive

good on everything

While roasting everything takes a bit of time, it’s 100% worth it. Plus, you won’t spend as much time chopping as you normally do. With this one (boringly named Roasted Yam and Garlic Soup with Chiles and Lime), most of the time is spent sitting around waiting for the roasting to finish. I recommend a cup of coffee and a book to help make this time go speedily.

Give this soup an hour of your time, and it’ll reward you with silky, smoky (I said that already, didn’t I?), sweet-tart bursts of flavor. Whether you’re smokin in the Southwest or freezing in Philly, D.C., or New York, I promise you’ll love this soup.

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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

punjabi spinach and chickpeas

This week has flown by. Reunited with my love of swimming (thank you, one-week trial gym pass!), I plunged into cool water on Tuesday night after two months of land-based workouts. I emerged an hour and fifteen minutes later with my sore muscles, a refreshed mind, and a hungry belly.

Thank goodness this was waiting for me when I arrived home.

On Monday night I’d finally gotten around to trying this recipe, collecting digital dust in my recipe bookmarks. It’s the kind of thing you just might already have everything on hand for, provided you’re a hummus, stew, and salad eater who always has garlic around.

In other words, me.

I don’t know why I bookmarked this particular recipe, and I don’t know what made me pick it out of my long list of delicious-sounding dinner candidates. It’s not that it looked that different—I make things with curry and tomatoes and chickpeas all the time. The appeal of habit? Perhaps.

Well, it turns out it lived up to its bookmark-worthy status. With a depth and complexity of flavor I can only describe as more “authentic” than my usual curry-powder based curries, this stew radiates turmeric, cumin, garlic, and ginger. I learned later that its author (the famed Indian chef Madhur Jaffrey) deems this dish characteristically Punjabi. Perhaps that’s why it seemed new to me.

And I always like a recipe that suprises: usually, you chop up the garlic and saute it along with the onions, right? Not in this stew. I had to re-read the recipe about four times until I believed that yes, putting garlic, ginger, and water in the blender would produce something I’d want to add to my dinner.

This frothy mixture, and the addition of lemon juice at the end, take this bright yellow curry to a whole new level: you just might want to back your chair up a little from your co-workers if you decide to take it for lunch.

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grainy waldorf salad

While crunching my way toward lunch at the gym today, I was interrupted by a tentative voice.

“Can I ask you a question?” said a slim woman stretched out beside me on the mat, a second-year student at the oldest. “Sure!” I responded, anticipating a question about form or my Lululemon tank top, as has happened before. “How many days a week do you work out?”

She proceeded to disclose her desire for more muscle definition, and I advised away until I the “you’re boring me” cloud came over her expression. Not that I’m any expert, I just love talking about this stuff. Plus, I have a few fellow nuts in my life who exacerbate the tendency to preach the gospel of health and fitness.

This little salad I whipped up from fridge remnants is for you, dear. It’s got protein and all the post-crunch crunch you need to get you through your afternoon.

I don’t usually post on things I throw together on everyday afternoons. Just because I’m a food blogger does not license me to share every morsel chewed and swallowed.  My readers have better things to do than hear about Finn Crisps spread with peanut butter, sardines straight from the tin, and numerous kefir smoothies. (Ok, that last one did get a post, but only because I’m evangelical about kefir!)

But sometimes random is best, as I’ve written about before. Random is beautiful, and when you start with good, wholesome ingredients, you really can’t go wrong.

Today’s creation was good enough to share, at least for inspirations’ sake. The cup or so of quinoa I’d cooked to use in these muffins was sitting neglected beside my eggs. I had a two sticks of celery, a Macintosh apple that was looking to retire, and all kinds of other worthy additions hiding in my freezer and cupboards.

In went the chopped apple and celery. In went the dried cranberries and sunflower seeds. In went the red onion, salt, pepper, and drizzles of sherry vinegar. One bite revealed that no further tweaks were needed. I poured myself a glass of kombucha and settled into my writing.

So wherever you are, ab-girl, keep crunching. And squatting and lifting and curling. You’re already beautiful, but you deserve to be as strong and powerful as I know you can be.

Muffin Mondays: Jessie Bea’s Vegan Apple Muffins

Hello, fresh cracked pepper readers! Jen sweetly asked me to write a post for her new series, Muffin Mondays. I’m Jessie Bea from Jessie Bea Eats, and here’s my contribution:

Autumn in upstate New York is one of the biggest reasons why I’ve lived here for most of my life. Sure, Syracuse winters are pretty tough, but I like snow, outdoor winter activities, and hot cocoa, so it really isn’t a problem for me. And sure, we might get 30 °F weather in October sometimes, but the leaves are pretty, the apples ripe for picking, and hot mulled cider is one of the best things in the world, if you ask me. It all evens out.

That being said, I have many pounds of handpicked apples from Beak & Skiff Apple Orchard in Lafayette, N.Y. to use up. This recipe for Autumn Apple Muffins is a great way to have a quick, seasonal and healthy breakfast treat. The recipe makes 6 muffins, which is perfect for those of us living alone. I hate wasting baked goods when I make too much! Another bonus of making this recipe is that most 6 cup muffin tins fit inside my toaster oven, which makes these take even less time.

Jessie from Jessie Bea Eats

Jessie from Jessie Bea Eats

Autumn Apple Muffins

makes 6 muffins

Preheat (toaster or regular) oven to 375 degrees.

Dry Ingredients:
¾ cup flour (either all purpose or whole wheat pastry, or a combination of both)
2 tablespoons brown sugar, packed
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
pinch of salt

Wet Ingredients:
½ cup apple cider or apple juice
3 Tbsp canola oil
½ capful vanilla extract
¾ cup apple, finely diced (I used Jonagold)
sliced almonds (optional)

Directions:

Stir together dry ingredients in a medium mixing bowl. Combine wet ingredients, except for the apple, in a measuring cup. Add wet to dry and mix until just combined. Fold in apples.

Divide batter evenly between 6 muffin cups (either greased, or with muffin liners), top with a few sliced almonds. Bake for 20-22 minutes. Let cool slightly, then enjoy!

buttercup lentil soup

Squash is a rather deceiving name for the vegetable to which it refers. With pudgy approachability and even cuteness, the squash family is far from cushy. Take, for example, this buttercup. Looks delightful enough. With its little cap and almost folded-in appearance, it’s the grandmother of the fall harvest.

But set a knife to it and it sure puts up a fight. This hard fact is what led me to one of the most important realizations of my cooking life: squash need not be peeled before cooking. Nope. No matter what those recipes tell you, “squash, peeled, seeded, and chopped” need not require a follow-up cool down and protein shake.

The secret’s in roasting the squash first: Hack it up (or not, as some argue) throw it in the oven, and digging into that squishy soft squash-flesh will become one of your happiest soup making memories.

Lately I’ve been trying to venture out of my butternut rut. There are just so many other squashes to try: hubbard (not so impressed with my specimen), spaghetti, and acorn (one of my favorites to stuff), to name a few. I finally got around to this buttercup, whose dense, creamy flesh surprised me. I’ve also got two Delicatas on hand to try sometime this week.

There are as many ways to prepare squash as there are to love it, but one of my favorites has to be soup. I know I could have just substituted this buttercup into any squash soup recipe, but instead decided to do an off-the-cuff version with whatever needed to be used.

And it was good. Very good. With bright tomato red, spinach green, and buttercup orange, this soup is fall’s palate in a bowl.

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tempeh two ways

Besides the “stuffed” part, these two recipes have little to do with our Canadian Thanksgiving up in Ottawa this past weekend. Fermented soy beans don’t have much in common with turkey and pumpkin pie, but somehow, last week’s discovery of tempeh reminded me of all I have to be thankful for.

The weekend was a cornucopia of food delights. Friday we scarfed injera and doro wat at an Ethiopian restaurant with an old friend of mine. After a delicious brunch at my aunt and uncle’s, Mark and I indulged all afternoon in delicious home-roasted coffee and mile-high ginger cookies — this time, the old friends were his.

All that food fueled a good cause— the true highlight of the weekend. On Sunday morning I hit a personal best half marathon time at the Ottawa Fall Colours Marathon. With the hubby’s support and 8 weeks of hard training, I achieved a time of 1:51:35. Knocking 2 minutes a mile off my last half marathon time made me finally feel like a woman who doesn’t just finish. She races.

It was a great way to begin a day stuffed with turkey, cabbage gratin, and pie (of which there were multiple slices).

And there were other, non-homemade treats. Sunday, at one of Ottawa’s esteemed Bridgehead coffeehouses, we got to try Clover coffee for the first time.  A late lunch at Von’s Bistro in the Glebe chased down the luscious mugs nicely. Both get five Fresh Cracked Pepper stars.

As I got to thinking about what I’m thankful for, a few things came to mind. One, the incredible variety of food available to me here, today. I’m so grateful to be able to sample the abundance of the world so freely, and so relatively cheaply. This brings me to my latest discovery and the topic of this post: tempeh (pronounced temp-ay), my latest experiment with a new plant-based protein source.

Tempeh is an old food. It’s been made for centuries in Indonesia from fermented soy beans, and it’s more nutty and chewy than even the firmest tofu.

I tracked some down at the Syracuse Real Food Co-op, and quickly discovered that tempeh can be used just about anywhere: stir-fries, burritos, pastas, and sandwiches are all worthy vessels. It’s low in fat and high in protein, and best of all, it’s fermented. (Yes, I have a thing for fermented things. Case in point.)

I searched for a few tempeh recipes online, and taking a pinch of inspiration from this one, concocted fajitas that showcased tempeh’s satisfying chew (pictured above). The next day I mixed up the leftover filling and stuffed it into poblano pepper halves, one of my favorite ways to use up leftovers.

One dinner is often a door opening into another. Along the way, two fabulous new ingredients boldly introduced themselves: tempeh, and canned chipotle peppers in adobo sauce. As I face the lows that a cold and rainy, post-race week will bring, I look forward to new experiments in the cozy refuge of my kitchen.

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