Happy 2012

We bucked tradition this year. I usually cook up a pot of Hoppin’ John and braise some cabbage on January 1. This year I made red beans and rice and braised some kale. I know, I know – when will the madness stop?

My crew of two always compliments the Hoppin’ John and eats the luck-filled meal with good cheer. The red beans and rice? They were too busy shoveling it into their mouths to say much of anything until their bowls were empty, at which point they each, in their turn, got up from the table, headed into the kitchen, and loaded those bowls back up with seconds. I was left to mention, casually of course, that I thought the beans were rather good. They nodded their heads and mumbled something in agreement through their bean-filled mouths.

That dinner felt lucky, not just for the bounty symbolized by the many beans, but by their tenderness, the rich flavor from the smoked ham hock, the restorative nutrition of the whole combination. And, most of all, of course, by the fine company in which we ate.

We spent a slice of the winter break back in Minneapolis. While there I do crazy things like read the newspaper in its paper form. This causes me to read parts of the newspaper I don’t seek out online, like advice columns. One such column published a letter from a woman bereft at her holiday circumstances: because she doesn’t get along with her extended family and doesn’t really have any friends, she and her husband and daughter end up spending holidays “alone” and it is very depressing. That little ditty put a whole world to be grateful for into perspective for me, but mainly I was glad that the idea of spending a holiday with “just” my husband and son always strikes me as a delightful prospect.

Our new year was rung in not just with tasty red beans, but by several rounds of my favorite Christmas present: the Pride & Prejudice board game from Ashgrove Press:

Yep. It exists and it is awesome. It was given and received as a bit of a gag gift. Or, rather, the gift was as much the knowledge of the incredible fact that such a thing exists as it was the thing itself. But we punched out the paper shillings, separated the “Regency Life” cards from the “Novel” cards, chose our characters, and gave it a go. Rousing good fun ensued. My son insisted we play again. Yes. The eight-year-old boy wanted to play again. We’ve now played several times – enough so the cards have started to repeat, which takes away a bit, but by no means all, of the fun.

May 2012 be filled with peace and joy, of course, and also bounty and tenderness and rich flavors and health. What I wish for you and me both, though, is that it is also filled with delight. Expected delights – like dinner with friends and family – are nice but, just to keep things interesting, I also hope for plenty of unexpected delights like crazy board games based on classic novels.


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Onigiri (rice balls)

Sometimes a favor flips itself over. You start off thinking you are doing someone else a favor and end up so grateful for what they have done for you.

About a week ago the lovely Tara Austen Weaver, author of The Butcher and the Vegetarian: One Woman’s Romp through a World of Men, Meat, and Moral Crisis, sent out a request. She asked that people check out her new e-book, Tales from High Mountain, part 1, about the months she lived in a very traditional house in a very traditional town high the mountains of Japan. It costs only $3.99, as a PDF or a Kindle download, with all proceeds going to on-going relief efforts in Japan. She set the price low to encourage buyers, but you can enter any amount you want in the final purchase price to give more, if you’re so inclined.

So I bought it and stayed up late reading it – remembering so well the unbelievable fatigue that can come when living in a foreign country, in a foreign language, in other people’s houses – and tweeted about it, trying to get the word out about her great writing and inspiring goal of raising money to help a country she deeply loves.

But I kept thinking. Her descriptions of the food were, of course, so tempting. I do not cook a lot of Japanese food. Hardly any, really. But that night of reading about Japanese food made me turn the next morning to Everyday Harumi: Simple Japanese Food for Family & Friends by Harumi Kurihara who, according to the press release sent with the book from the publisher, is the Martha Stewart of Japan. I have absolutely no idea how accurate that comparison is, but I do know that the recipes in this book are super simple and beautiful and there are at leasta  dozen post-its sticking out from its pages marking the recipes I meant to cook when I first looked through it. Then recipes for work needed to be cooked and other books showed up and piled on top and I simply lost track of those intentions.

Until, of course, I read Tales from High Mountain. So I cooked up the onigiri, rice balls with chopped chicken (although the book has you use ground, which I didn’t note until I’d chopped the chicken – I’m a good recipe writer and not really the best recipe follower). We loved them. Origiri are, according to this book, what Japanese people might eat when we would turn to a sandwich. Lightbulb. My son, age 8, does not like sandwiches. This makes packing his punch everyday sort of a pain. Not so this week. We made another batch of origiri together and have popped them in his lunch bag two days in a row now.

I thought I was doing Tara a favor and in the process giving some more money to natural disaster survivors (something no San Franciscan every sneezes at). In the process I had a stupid, quotidian, boring, and unremarkable problem that has vexed me regularly for years – what to put in that lunch bag – solved.

How is that for a lead-in to asking you for a favor or two? First, check out Tara’s post and consider ordering her book. Second, cook something totally new this week. Who knows what other problems – big or small – we might solve?

Origiri – chicken rice balls

This is my version – a bit less sweet and with a bit more chicken in the chicken-to-rice ratio.

Rinse 1 cup sushi rice (long grain really won’t work) in cool water until the water runs clear. Put in a rice cooker or pot with 1 1/2 cups water and 1/2 teaspoon salt, bring to a boil, cover, and simmer 15 minutes. Take off the heat and let sit 5 minutes. Uncover and let cool.

Meanwhile, put 1/2 pound finely chopped chicken thigh meat (or ground chicken if it doesn’t freak you out the way it freaks me out), 3 tablespoons tamari or soy sauce, 2 tablespoons sake, and 2 tablespoons mirin in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook, stirring, until the chicken is cooked through and the liquid is pretty much absorbed, about 5 minutes. Let cool.

Combine the rice and chicken mixture thoroughly. With damp hands grad a small handful of the mixture and press – press really hard – into a ball or patty. Set on a plate and repeat – being sure to rinse and re-wet your hands between each one (you’ll be tempted to try to do a second without rinsing your hands first, don’t give in to this temptation, it will only lead to super-sticky rice-covered hands). Cover let sit a bit before eating or chill and eat later.

If the mixture is still a bit warm, the balls will not hold together as well, so don’t fret if they start plopping apart a bit if you’ve jumped the gun and made them before things are cooled off.


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Green pea, mint, and bacon risotto

If anyone out there is re-doing their kitchen I have one piece of advice: for the love of all that is holy, do not go with black granite for your counters.

We inherited ours from the previous owners of our humble abode. They are out of sync with the rest of the very 1912 house, but that isn’t why I hate them. I hate them because 1) they look dirty when they aren’t – water spots, for example, can be seen from two rooms away – and 2) they look clean when they aren’t. Coffee grounds and grease splatters aren’t as obvious as one might hope when one is cleaning, and – I cannot begin to express the degree to which I wish I didn’t know this – mouse droppings blend right into the surface.

Mice have taken refuge from the rain this winter by scurrying into our house. They seem to find particular comfort hanging out in the closet in my study. They also enjoy the space behind the bookshelf in the kitchen. They are not eating our food, which is odd because our food is crazy awesome delicious, but they are leaving droppings on the counters every now and again and while that makes me not thrilled with the mice, it makes me furious at our counters.

Then this morning I edited the pictures I took of dinner last night and a new surge of hatred welled up inside me. After months of shooting dishes in the light box I made out of white foam board and packing tape (it folds down for easy storage!), my kitchen is finally staying light enough late enough for me to take pictures of our dinners in natural light. And so shoot I did, but I was in a rush and didn’t bother to check them very carefully. I’d forgotten that when the sun is shining into the kitchen from the west the black granite counters act as a mirror – as you can see from my hands and camera reflected in the surface of our evil counters above.

We brought our bowls into the dining room (onto a glass table that requires endless cleaning to look streaky at best) and tucked into the risotto of green peas, mint, and a bit of bacon topped with plenty of pecorino cheese and black pepper that came to mind when we were at Zuni Sunday night for spur-of-the-moment drinks and nibbles with a friend. My dashing husband’s mussels with peas and mint and our friend’s risotto with sorrell and pancetta were each tasty, but I saw them as perhaps benefiting more fully from one another. I’ve written here about Zuni before, so I won’t sum it up again, but we grabbed a table in the bar (walked right in and sat right down at 6 on a Sunday – I didn’t steal the table from anyone, but I did see it from half a block away, make a decided and serious bee line for it, and feel like a rock star for nabbing it). As always at Zuni, I felt very much in San Francisco in the very best of ways.

I couldn’t help, though, eying that shiny copper bar: easily stained and highly reflective, but you would be able to see mouse shit on it from a mile away.


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Thunder bowl

My dashing husband calls these concotions – of rice and beans topped with salsa and pretty much anything he can scrounge in the kitchen thrown in for good measure – “thunder bowls.” He picked up the term when we were traveling in New Mexico and West Texas. Why thunder bowl? My theory is that they are named after the thunderous clap of a fart such a meal can create.

He made me this thunder bowl for lunch the other day. He heated up leftover short grain brown rice that had been cooked in chicken broth and some chickpeas. While those warmed up, he threw together a salsa fresca from all the tomatoes sitting around and chopped a perfectly ripe and amazingly delicious avocado. It was a reminder that sometimes some crap sitting around in the fridge or on the counter can make a crazy delicious meal. It also reminded me of how perfectly lovely it is to have someone cook for you. As I like to tell people who express nerves or concern about inviting me to dinner or otherwise cooking for me: everything tastes better when you didn’t have to make it and people hardly ever cook for me, so it’s a total (and much appreciated!) treat.

was served

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Spring risotto

Delicate green spring vegetables – the asparagus, the peas, the fava beans – are plentiful, but our San Francisco spring is not keeping pace. Lots of gray and rain and chilly wind and not as much sunshine and clear days as we’re used to this time of year. It’s hard to get excited about simply steamed asparagus with aïoli when I’m chilled to the bone.

A big warm bowl of creamy risotto, though? That I can tuck into with glee.

Spring risotto

Go ahead and play around with the proportions of veggies here – nothing’s set in stone. Add some chopped fennel in with the green garlic, use spring onions instead of green garlic, add mint or dill or chervil at the end.You will find plenty of risotto recipes than demand that you stir the rice constantly. This is not one of them.

1 to 2 pounds fava beans

1/2 pound sweet peas/garden peas/English peas

1/2 bunch asparagus

2 green garlics

5 cups broth (I use homemade chicken stock – if you used commercial broth dilute 4 cups of it with 1 cup of water)

2 Tablespoons butter

1 Tablespoon olive oil

1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste

1 cup aborio rice

About 3/4 cup freshly shredded not-super-aged Pecorino cheese

First things first – and experience spring cooks know what this is going to be – you need to double shell the fava beans (I even have this step-by-step guide on how to do it!). I’m sorry. It really is a complete pain if you’re not in the mood to slowly but surely work your way through those beans. Grab the phone, put on the radio, have a chat, or just take a moment and have a little day dream while your hands and eyes are busy.

Set the shelled, blanched, and shelled favas aside.

Shell the peas – doesn’t that seem like a breeze after the favas? – and set them aside with the favas.

Snap the asparagus spears where they break naturally and discard the ends. Cut the asparagus into relatively thin, angled slices, leaving the 1-inch to 2-inch tips intact. Set aside.

Cut off the root ends off the green garlics. Cut the white and light green part of the stalks in half lengthwise – the darker green top will hold the whole things together. Chop the white and light green parts. Reserve the dark green tops for making stock, if you’re so inclined.

Put the broth in a medium saucepan and bring to a simmer. Keep it at a very low simmer.

Meanwhile, heat another medium-ish saucepan over medium high heat. Add 1 tablespoon of the butter and the olive oil. When the butter is melted and stops foaming, add the chopped green garlic and the salt. Cook, stirring, until the green garlic is wilted, about 2 minutes.

Add the rice and stir to completely coat it with the butter and oil. Cook, stirring until the opaque rice grains turn a bit translucent around the edges.

Add about a cup of the warm broth to the rice and cook, stirring as you like. Adjust teh heat so that when you’re not stirring the mixture simmers a bit but doesn’t boil or get too excited. When most of the broth is absorbed – when you can see the bottom of the pot for a few seconds when you stir because the mixture is thicker than the broth – add another 1/2 cup broth. Continue cooking, with some stirring, and adding 1/2 cup of broth at a time until the rice is almost tender to the bite but still has a kernel of uncooked-ness in the center – it took mine a bit over 15 minutes to get there.

Add the asparagus and more broth and continue cooking and stirring and adding broth as needed until the asparagus is almost done and the rice is al dente – tender but with structure to each grain. Add the peas and fava beans.

Continue cooking, adding a bit more broth and stirring, until the peas and beans are warm, just a minute or two. Stir in the cheese and remaining tablespoon of butter and taste – add more salt if you want. We found more cheese on top and some freshly ground black pepper was tasty indeed. As mentioned above, a bit of chopped spring herbs would be lovely too.

We had ours with a boiled egg on the side – we have all these picture-perfect pastured eggs in the house and they are difficult to resist. I meant to soft boil them – start in cold water, bring to a boil, cover, remove from heat, let sit exactly three minutes, remove from hot water, and peel. But the risotto timing with the rice and vegetables and whatnot had the bulk of my attention and the eggs sat around on the counter after I took them from their hot water bath and kept cooking and they weren’t soft-boiled at all. They were, however, delicious and super-spring-y with the risotto.

fava beans
green garlic

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Rice bowl

This is for all the lovelies out there just trying to get a tasty dinner on the table – you know who you are. It isn’t fancy, but the bright ginger, fresh asparagus, rich pork, and hearty brown rice make for a deeply satisfying dinner after a long, hard day. You start cooking the pork and asparagus while the rice and egg cook, so while there is sort of a lot going on at once, much of it is hands-off.

Rice bowl

This – and by “this” I mean a bowl of rice with stuff on it – is a favorite around our house. I’m partial to the ground pork and asparagus combo, but greens, butternut squash, and minced chicken has its fans, as does the tofu, peas, and spinach combo I’ve broken out on occasion.

2  cups  short-grain brown rice

1/2  teaspoon  salt

4  eggs (optional)

1  pound  ground pork

1/2  cup  sake or white wine (optional)

2  tablespoons tamari or soy sauce, plus more to taste and/or for serving

2  bunches asparagus or similar amount (lots) of your favorite vegetable

1  piece ginger, about 4 in. long

3  cloves garlic

8  green onions

2  tablespoons  vegetable oil, divided

Cilantro for garnishing

Bring 4 cups water, the rice, and the salt to a boil in a medium saucepan, cover, reduce heat to a simmer, and cook until tender to the bite, about 35 minutes. Or, do as I do and set it all up in a rice cooker and forget all about it.

While the rice is cooking, cook everything else. First things first: Hard boil the eggs. I use Julia Child’s method and it turns out a perfect egg every single goddamn time: put eggs in a medium sauce pan and cover with water. Bring to a boil. Once the water is boiling – not just tiny bubbles along the edges of the pan, but big bubbles coming up all over – cover the pan, turn off the heat, and let sit 14 minutes. Drain and peel the eggs under cool running water. Slice and set aside.

While the eggs are cooking, put the pork in a medium bowl and pour the sake or white wine and the tamari or soy sauce over it. Mix gently and let sit until you’re done with the eggs.

If you still have some time waiting for the eggs, snap off the woody ends of the asparagus and cut the spears into bite-size pieces (or peel/chop/prep whatever vegetable you’re using).

Now grate the ginger, mince the garlic, and chop the green onions.

Heat a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Add a tablespoon of the oil and the pork and cook, stirring once in a while, until the pork is about half-way cooked – some is cooked through and some isn’t and none if it is starting to brown yet. Add 3/4 of the grated ginger. Stir in the ginger and cook until the pork is cooked through and starting to get brown in some spots.

Transfer the pork to a bowl or plate and cover to keep warm. Return the pan to the stove and add the remaining tablespoon of oil, the remaining ginger, garlic, and green onions. Cook, stirring, until the fragrances blend, about a minute. Add the asparagus, stir to combine, add 1/4 cup of water, cover, and cook until the asparagus is tender, about 4 minutes (other vegetables may take longer).

While the asparagus cooks, chop or mince the cilantro.

The rice should be done now. Divide the rice between four deep cereal or chili bowls. Top with asparagus, pork, and a sliced hard boiled egg. Sprinkle with cilantro and serve with tamari or soy sauce on the side for people to add to taste. We put various hot sauces and hoisin on the table at our house, too.


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Morel mushroom risotto

Yesterday was a very gloomy gray by the Bay. It’s the last weekend in May, the farmers market is absolutely overflowing with cherries and peaches are coming in at a quick pace behind, but the produce couldn’t quite convince me that summer was anywhere in the air. It was a day for spring flavors and winter comfort, which happens a lot in San Francisco, where chilly winds pick up in time for dinner on even the most promising sunny spring days. So the morel mushrooms I bought were not simply sauteed in butter or tossed with asparagus spears in a spring-y / early summer way. I chopped them up and cooked them with rice and broth and a bit of cream and a generous handful of cheese for an easy, calming morel mushroom risotto. Since it is spring, though, I topped the whole thing with chiffonade of mint (that’s thin slices or “ribbons” of mint to you and me) and a few minced green onions (chives would have been even better). A bit of lightly steamed spinach topped with finishing salt and burnt caramel ice cream from an unidentified source completed our dinner. All were pleased with the dinner, but my dashing husband proclaimed the ice cream the best he’d ever had. Too bad it isn’t for sale. And too bad we don’t have any more in the freezer. Perhaps I’ll get to work on figuring out how to make my own….

cooked it

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Dal, cabbage, and forbidden rice

We had a head of cabbage burning a hole in our fridge. My dashing husband is a huge fan of this butter-braised cabbage I make, but I wanted something with just the tiniest bit something more going on. So I popped a few mustard seeds and fenugreek seeds in a bit of grapeseed oil before pouring 1/2 cup of water to cool down the pan, melting the butter in that, and then braising the cabbage. Everyone was happy. Even Ernest, who ate a pile of shredded raw cabbage before I got a chance to get it all in the pot.

With the cabbage I cooked up a family favorite – brown butter dal – and some black “forbidden” rice that had been burning a hole in our cupboard, thus continuing Project Eat That Rice.

cooked it

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Wild rice congee

The sky is crying. It’s that kind of rain: It actually feels sad. It’s cold and still and wet, wet, wet. Boy am I glad I made wild rice congee last night and got to heat up the leftovers for lunch. Regular readers will well guess that this dinner fit very nicely into Project Eat That Rice – it used three kinds! Feel free to experiment with different types of rice, although the wild rice retains more of its texture under the long cooking and gives the porridge a slightly less porridge-y consistency.

This dish is always a big hit with the family since everyone can customize their bowl with the garnishes of their choice. Green onions or chives or some sort of allium are sort of key, from my point of view, and most uncharacteristically we didn’t have any in the fridge. So last night found me pulling long green leaves in the backyard in the dark, smelling each handful to identify the garlic chives that were deeply integrated with rogue grass in our un-weeded garden. Our fridge did contain some lemongrass, though, so I peeled off the tough outer layers and chopped up the tender inner core, which was a lovely addition to the congee, adding a little bright kick to this warm and cozy dish.

Last night Ernest took particular interest in the garnishing process, asking, when he was done, “Does that look beautiful?” Yes, we told him. Yes it does.

cooked it
wild rice

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Stuffed grape leaves (a.k.a. dolmas)

These stuffed grape leaves were part of Project Eat That Rice and part the result of my dashing husband opening a jar of preserved grape leaves a friend had jarred and given to me. He thought they were already stuffed and ready to eat. Just imagine his disppointment when instead of luscious and rich rice filled leaves with plenty of olive oil he was met with plain old leaves blanched and jarred in salt water. It’s quite sad, really.

But it has a happy ending: I made stuffed grape leaves and they were delicious, if I do say so myself. And I have a back-up source, my toughest critic. My dashing husband declared them remarkably flavorful and served himself three (3!) helpings. Eat them as you like, but we liked them with a squirt of lemon juice and a bit of fresh goat cheese alongside.

Brown rice stuffed grape leaves

2 Tbsp. olive oil
4 onions, finely chopped
1 tsp. salt
2 garlic cloves, minced
8 green onions, finely chopped
2 cups short grain brown rice
1/2 cup pine nuts
1/2 cup sunflower seeds
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper (it seems like a lot, but it works)
1/4 cup minced fresh mint (same as for pepper :) )
5 dozen grape leaves
Extra delicioso olive oil for drizzling
Lemon wedges
Fresh goat cheese or soft feta (optional)

Heat a saute pan or medium pot over medium-high heat. Add oil, onion, and salt. Cook, stirring a fair amount, until onions are tender, about 3 minutes. Add garlic and cook until tender, about 1 minute. Add green onion and cook, stirring, until wilted, about 1 minute. Add rice, stir to coat thoroughly, and add 3 cups water. Bring to a boil, cover, and reduce heat to low. Cook, undisturbed, for 30 minutes. Turn off heat and let sit 15 minutes. Uncover, fluff, and stir in pine nuts and sunflower seeds. Let sit until just warm and stir in pepper and mint. Taste and adjust salt and pepper to taste.

Lay a grape leaf in front of you. Add a spoonful of filling to the center by the stem. Fold up the bits of leaf below the stem and tuck under – as you can – to form a little bundle. Fold sides of leaves over the filling bundle and roll entire bundle to wrap completely in the remaining grape leaf.

Place stuffed and rolled grape leaves on a lightly oiled baking tray. Cover with aluminum foil and bake at 350 for about half and hour. Uncover and drizzle grape leaves with high quality, really tasty olive oil. Let sit until warm or cool and serve with lemon wedges for spritzing and goat cheese, if that’s your style.

cooked it
grape leaves

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