Sunday, November 25, 2012

Wheat Berries with Caramelized Onions and Maple Roasted Squash: 'Tis the season

Let's slow down.

Let's go see Silver Linings Playbook on a Saturday afternoon at the local theater.

Let's pay $3.75 for a small (regular) coke just for nostalgia's sake.

Let's paint our toenails gold.

Let's buy holiday dresses that we'll have no use for in January.

Let's drive to Beverly Hills to see the Christmas lights on Rodeo Drive.

Let's watch Love Actually.

Let's light candles that smell like apple cider and mulling spices.

Let's listen to the Michael Buble holiday station on Pandora.

Let's watch Love Actually again.

Let's make hot chocolate with whole milk and extra marshmallows.

Let's sing along to "All I Want for Christmas is You" at the top of our lungs.

Let's send holiday cards.

Let's roast butternut squash in maple syrup and walnut oil.

Let's caramelize onions until they are sweet like candy.

Let's make wheat berries.

Let's sit down at a table set with cloth napkins, the "good" glasses and real china.

Let's open a bottle -- and then finish two more.

Let's celebrate the season.


Wheat Berries with Caramelized Onions and Maple Roasted Squash
Serves 4-6

Notes: I made this recipe for my family's Thanksgiving dinner this year -- my contribution to a table already overflowing with mashed potatoes, pecan praline sweet potatoes, stuffing, green beans, two kinds of cranberry sauce, roasted Brussels sprouts, and, of course, a 17-lb turkey. For four people.

My addition was not particularly necessary, but then again, nothing about Thanksgiving is particularly necessary -- certainly not the canned cranberry sauce my mom insists upon nor the third glass of wine nor that second helping of pumpkin spice cake. I wanted to take the time to create something special for my family that, while wholesome, could still hold its own next to more indulgent offerings at the table. This dish succeeded in doing just that -- even if my older brother did refuse to try any.

The secret (that he missed out on - hmmph!) is in the varying textures -- the sweet strands of onion sluggishly woven around cubes of butternut squash and chewy wheat berries, and surprising interludes of dried mulberries and toasted pepitas. If you can't find dried mulberries (mine were purchased in the bulk bins at Whole Foods), feel free to omit or substitute golden raisins or dried cranberries. Though, I wouldn't raise an eyebrow even a centimeter if somehow a smattering of well-rendered bacon bits found their way into this dish in their stead. 'Tis the season, no?

1 small butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes (approximately 3 cups)
1 tablespoon walnut oil
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme
1 teaspoon salt, divided
1 red onion, sliced thin
1 tablespoon olive oil (or bacon fat, if available)
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
3/4 cup soft wheat berries
1/4 cup dried mulberries
1/4 cup pepitas, toasted

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Toss butternut squash with walnut oil, maple syrup, fresh thyme, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Spread out into a single layer onto a baking sheet. Roast, stirring once, 20-30 minutes or until tender and lightly caramelized.

While butternut squash is roasting, prepare the onions and wheat berries.

Heat large nonstick or cast iron pan over medium heat. Add the tablespoon of olive oil (or bacon fat, if using), swirling to coat the base of the pan. Add the red onion, lower the heat and let cook down for 10 minutes. Add 1/4 teaspoon salt, and continue cooking, over medium low heat, stirring occasionally, until caramelized, approximately 20 more minutes. Reduce the heat to low, and add the tablespoon of balsamic vinegar.

As the onions are caramelizing and the squash is roasting, bring 3 cups water to a boil. Add 1/4 teaspoon of salt and the wheat berries. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 25 to 30 minutes until wheat berries are tender. Drain and toss into the pan with the caramelized onions. When ready, add the butternut squash, mulberries, and pepitas, as well, stirring until well-combined.  Serve immediately.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Couscous with Spiced Zucchini: Make every bite count

"I don't like food - I love it! And if I don't love it, I don't swallow."

The quote, the most iconic line from the villainous Anton Ego in the film Ratatouille, is at the center of our conversation as we sit, huddled around the table, mouths deep into burgers.

We're comfortable in the indulgence, licking the juice from our lips, peeling off stray pieces of slaw to eat with our fingers, and nonchalantly dipping fat onion rings into swimming pools of housemade ranch dressing.

Despite the decadence of the spread before us, we are all in agreement that it's worth it -- worth the calories that we'll inevitably have to work off at the gym the next morning, and worth the stomach space which, in our industry, has become an all too precious commodity.

As a restaurant publicist and food writer like the friends and colleagues sitting around me at the table, I'm never in danger of missing a meal. There's always a festival, a new restaurant to try, a preview tasting, a dozen prim cupcakes idling in the kitchen at the office, or new recipe for the ultimate chocolate chip cookie that I need to make. Now.

The sheer quantity of opportunities for me to eat, and eat well, is often overwhelming -- to the point where (woe is me) the greatest occupational hazard I can site is that there's too much food available for me to eat. I'm the jerk who groans when presented with a tasting menu, who has actually whined the words, "Mom, I have to go out to another five-course dinner...again."

While I would no longer describe myself as a picky eater a la the days when my mom had to strain the onions out of sauces for me, working in this industry has made me increasingly particular about the quality of the food I consume. I'll eat almost anything -- the only prerequisite being that it tastes good.

I, like many of my contemporaries, have turned Anton Ego's declaration into my mantra. That doesn't mean my purse is filled with napkins containing half-chewed pieces of well-done steak and gummy noodles, but rather that I strive to make every single bite (and sip) count.

It's why I turn down a slice of store-bought cake without an ounce of hesitation, why I would rather drink water than an astringent glass of wine, and why I take time to plan my meals -- from the carefully simmered stove-top oatmeal I eat for breakfast to the salads I bring with me to lunch.

On Sundays, I'll scour the farmers market for the perfect, unblemished zucchini. I'll soak and cook dried black beans rather than opening up a can. And I'll spend $6.99 on a block of imported feta cheese with a label I can't pronounce. Because I love food and want every bite to be worth swallowing. Even when it's something as simple as couscous.

Couscous with Spiced Zucchini and Black Beans
Adapted from Gourmet Magazine
Serves 4

Notes: This recipe. in various permutations, was my go-to lunch recipe during late summer and early fall. In August, I tucked in fresh corn, and swapped in garbanzo beans and sunflower seeds in place of the black beans and feta -- an iteration that may be my favorite to date. Whichever way you decide to toss it, yes, even with canned black beans, this salad is a great one to have in your wheelhouse for a quick side dish or satisfying lunch.

I took several liberties with the original recipe -- the most notable being significantly upping the spices, swapping cilantro for the mint, and adding black beans and feta. I see the original as a great template for creating a dish that is worth every bite to you.

1 1/2 cups chicken broth
3/4 cup whole wheat couscous
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1/2 teaspoon salt, divided
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 lbs. zucchini, cut into 1/2'' cubes
1 1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
3/4 teaspoon chili powder
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 16-ounce can black beans or 1 1/2 cups cooked black beans
1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Crumbled feta cheese, for serving

Bring broth to a boil in a medium saucepan. Stir in the couscous, turn off the heat, cover and let stand for 5-7 minutes. Fluff with a fork and set aside.

Meanwhile, heat oil in large skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the onion, 1/4 teaspoon of the salt, and saute, stirring occasionally until golden brown, approximately 6-8 minutes. Add garlic and saute for a minute over medium heat, stirring frequently so it doesn't burn. Once fragrant, add the zucchini and remaining 1/4 teaspoon of salt, and saute, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 5 minutes. Reduce the heat slightly, and add the coriander, chili powder, cumin, and pepper. Stir to coat the the veggies, and let cook for two minutes, stirring frequently to toast the spices. 

Toss the zucchini with the couscous and black beans, and refrigerate till chilled. Just prior to serving, toss the salad with the cilantro and lemon juice. Top with crumbled feta.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Roasted Brussels Sprouts: The antidote to pumpkin lattes

It sat on the kitchen counter, a glossy congealed mass of pumpkin standing tall, proud and gelatinous in its pale, buttery crust. I groaned at the sight, disdain circling the circumference of my stomach as I struggled to keep my distaste from becoming an audible disturbance to my officemates in the other room.

"I hate pumpkin pie," I muttered, quickly placing my quinoa salad in the fridge, far away from the object of my disaffection.

"What?!" My coworker sputtered in disbelief, as though I'd just confessed something truly horrifying, like I was giving up wine, or wanted to punch a baby.

It wasn't the first time my lack of enthusiasm for the ceremonial gourd had registered such an appalled response. It's not that I hate pumpkin in its entirety -- I'm quite fond of the seeds, can get down with it in cookie form, and have even been known to order it on my pizza when the mood so strikes.

What drives me to the edge -- to punching a baby territory -- is the pumpkin obsession that descends on the population this time of year. The signs shrieking about the return of the pumpkin latte. In September. The endless parade of recipes for pumpkin chili, pumpkin macaroni cheese, pumpkin gnocchi with pumpkin seed pesto in a sea of pumpkin-infused butter.

And the staunch devotion to the flavorless mush of canned pumpkin smashed together with the equally egregious can of evaporated milk on the most food-focused day of the year.

Pumpkin pie, in most iterations, is not dessert.

It's baby food.

For me, the thing that makes me shriek with elfin glee at the first gasp of fall is not a neon coffee beverage or congealed slice of pie, but rather a cruciferous vegetable.

Brussels sprouts.

This past weekend three pounds were purchased and subsequently roasted into submission. As a side to chicken. As the key mix-in to one of my favorite quinoa salads. As the crux of my dinner tonight -- the other ingredients mere excuses to continue in this harried pursuit to consume as many Brussels sprouts as possible in a four-day period.

They're my pumpkin pie.
My signifier that summer is officially over -- that fall, giant ugly sweaters, thick socks, and clanging heaters are marginally acceptable in a city where 65 degrees is considered chilly.

And, gratefully, the heart of a dish that is not at all fit for a baby.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts, Carrots and Chickpeas
Serves 4-6

Notes: This dish was initially an afterthought. The result of an immediate craving that was realized with a roasting pan, a surplus of chickpeas, and the inevitable additions of garlic and lemon (the yins to all the yangs that come out of my kitchen). It's simple, rustic, and for the so-inclined, a hearty addition to round out yet another bowl of quinoa. Serve it independently as a side or piled high and proud on a plate for dinner. I opted for the latter. 

2 carrots, peeled and sliced on the diagonal into thin pieces
1 1/2 lbs Brussels sprouts, outer shells removed and cut into quarters
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
Sea salt, ground pepper
1 16-ounce can chickpeas, drained and rinsed well
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
Zest and juice of half a lemon
1/2 cup chicken broth

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Toss Brussels sprouts and carrots with 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil, thyme, and salt and pepper to taste. Spread out on a baking sheet, and roast, stirring once or twice, for 20-25 minutes or until tender and lightly caramelized and browned.

While vegetables are roasting, heat large nonstick pan over medium-high heat. Add the remaining olive oil, then the chickpeas and garlic. Reduce heat slightly so the garlic doesn't burn, and cook, stirring constantly, until the chickpeas are lightly browned and the garlic is fragrant, approximately 5 minutes.

Combine chicken broth and lemon juice in a small saucepan and bring to a low boil. Let simmer for 2 minutes, then turn off the heat.

Toss vegetables with chickpeas, garlic, and lemon zest, then drizzle with the lemon-scented broth. Serve immediately.