Hello, “Pumking!”

The arrival of fall gives me all kinds of warm fuzzies, not the least of which are the comfort foods I’ve been sharing for the past month. But there’s another thing I look forward to beginning in September each year, and that is the return of the Pumking. Thank goodness this seasonal brew will be around another month or so, because I do love it.

This pumpkin and spiced imperial ale has become, for me, synonymous with autumn. My first experience of it was nearly a decade ago, much sooner than it showed up in the cold beer aisle or on local tap menus. The brew is crafted in small batches by Southern Tier Brewing Company in Lakewood, New York. This is my old stomping ground, and though my visits to the area are few and far between these days, I have a deep sense of loyalty to certain businesses there, just as I have passion for “supporting local” in my current home of North Carolina.

I had occasion to visit Southern Tier’s flagship tasting room seven years ago, when I made the trek “home” for a family member’s memorial service. My beer connoisseur cousin and his wife were also in town, and our meeting place was Southern Tier. As with most local breweries, the tap offerings far exceeded the variety available for commercial distribution, and Southern Tier had some great seasonals, but we were all in love with the Pumking. The beer has an almost creamy texture, with warm spices, pumpkin (of course), and hints of caramel and vanilla, but without tasting too sweet.

The Pumking family also includes Warlock, a stout with the same great pumpkin and spice flavors. It’s a little sweeter and heavier, but would also be terrific in a chili!

I will enjoy drinking it for its own sake, but I also plan to use it in other recipes, including bread—and you can bet I’ll find a way to slip it into an ice cream, too! To get things started, I’ve whipped up a fall-inspired chili that makes the most of savory roasted sweet potatoes and canned black beans, plus green chiles and fire roasted corn. Did I mention that it’s also vegan-friendly? Serve it up with your favorite cornbread and another bottle of Pumking—oh my, that’s tasty!


Pumking Black Bean Chili ingredients

1 lb. sweet potato, peeled and cut into chunks

1 medium onion, chopped

4 cloves garlic

1 can black beans, drained and rinsed

28 oz. can peeled tomatoes in puree (I used Cento brand)

1 small can green chiles, diced

1 cup fire roasted frozen corn

1/2 cup cooked wheat berries* (optional, see notes)

Half bottle Pumking imperial ale (enjoy the other half while you cook)

Chili spices* – chipotle powder, sweet Spanish paprika, cinnamon, smoked black pepper, cumin

*Notes

Wheat berries are the dried whole grain of wheat, and they add terrific texture and fiber to this chili. You can read more about them in my summer post for Healthy Wheat Berry Salad. If you cannot find wheat berries in your favorite food store, it’s fine to omit them. The other ingredients will provide plenty of body for the chili.

Combine your preferred spices into a bowl. Use whatever chili seasonings you like. If you aren’t sure how much to use of each, may I suggest: 1 tsp. chipotle powder, 1 tsp. sweet Spanish paprika, 1 tsp. kosher salt, 1/2 tsp. ground cumin, 1/2 tsp. smoked black pepper, 1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon.


Let’s make it!

Follow along with these slides, or scroll to the bottom of the post for a PDF version of the recipe you can download and print. Enjoy!

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Creamy Curried Butternut-Cauliflower Soup

This soup will help you slide nicely into autumn, with its bright and light vegetable flavors, seasoned with warm, aromatic Indian spices, and made richer with a last-minute swirl of cream. This is a recipe that moves along a sliding scale in many ways—you can make it with anything from chicken bone broth to vegetable broth, or spicy to mild, or light to creamy (either with real cream or coconut milk).

When my husband, Les, noticed my description of this soup as “curried,” he seemed surprised, and noted that he didn’t remember enjoying curry before. Sound familiar? If you’ve tasted something called “curry” in the past and found it weird or unpleasant, let me fill you in on the probable cause—poor labeling. You see, curry isn’t a flavor or a spice on its own. Curry is a method of cooking, not just in India but throughout much of Asia, and it happens to involve use of many spices, some of which you’d find in a grocery store “curry powder.” But just as “chili powder” is ambiguous (or even sketchy), so is curry powder. Depending on what brand you buy, you may end up with varying ratios (and quality) of spices. Check out this spice tin Les and I found in his mom’s cabinet a few years ago:

The idea of adding this stuff to a can of chicken gumbo soup has literally squashed my appetite for the rest of the day. Breaking news: adding a non-descript (and probably stale) spice blend will not improve an already overly-processed canned food. It’s no mystery why nobody ever uses this stuff, including Les’s mom—this can was never opened.

But curry cooking shouldn’t take the punishment for poor packaging. These flavors can be fantastic, and in my estimation, it may be better to make your own blend to match the spices to your taste, and also to enhance what you’re cooking, which is hopefully more fresh and interesting than condensed canned soup. If I had an Indian grandmother, I’m quite certain I would have learned to cook with one of these close at hand. A “masala dabba” holds a collection of individual spices, and the cook knows which combination is best for the meal.

This looks like beautiful art to me! How many of these spices can you identify?

Mixing and matching spice ingredients makes a lot more sense than a one-spice-fits-all approach, and I’d love to have my own masala dabba one day. For now, I’ll make do with what I have in the pantry, and for this veg-heavy soup, I’ve chosen warm, pungent spices, most of which are in another common Indian blend—garam masala. I’m trying to use up all my “pre-made” blends to make more space in the cabinet, so I’m beginning with the garam masala, and embellishing with extra ginger, pepper and cardamom, and also a bit of turmeric, to punch up the bright color of the butternut squash.

Garam masala literally translates as “warm spice mixture,” implying that the spices make you feel warm inside, and that certainly is true with this creamy, autumn-embracing soup. It brings a whole lot of healthy to a weekend meal (or meatless Monday), and you may as well make a large batch of it, because the leftovers will warm up in a jiffy for weekday lunches or dinner. Serve it with a salad or sandwich for a satisfying, comforting meal.

This recipe makes approximately 8 servings. I cooked it on the stove top, but it’s easily adapted to a slow cooker.


Ingredients

3 cups butternut squash, peeled and cubed

3 cups fresh cauliflower, cleaned, trimmed and chopped into florets

1 cup carrots, chopped

3 cups low sodium broth (I used vegetable, but chicken would work also)

1 tsp. kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil, drizzled over vegetables

1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1 medium sweet or yellow onion, chopped (about 1 cup)

5 cloves garlic, chopped (about 3 Tbsp.)

1 tsp. garam masala

1 tsp. ginger

1/4 tsp. turmeric

1/4 tsp. ground cardamom

1/4 tsp. ground cayenne (optional)

1/2 can coconut milk (regular or light)

Spiced crispy chickpeas (recipe follows) and chopped pistachios (optional), for serving


Instructions

It takes time for these flavors to develop, but the steps are very simple. Here’s the visual, then spelled out instructions, and a downloadable PDF version at the end.

  1. Place a large stock pot over medium heat. Add squash, cauliflower and carrots, plus 3 cups broth. Drizzle with 3 Tbsp. olive oil. Simmer 1 hour (or in slow cooker on high for 2 hours).
  2. Sauté onions until softened, caramelized and browned on edges, add garlic and seasonings and sauté 5 more minutes. When soup pot vegetables are soft enough to mash with a fork, add the onion-spice mixture and simmer another hour (or in slow cooker on low for an additional 2 hours).
  3. Use immersion blender to puree soup to desired smoothness. Add more vegetable broth if  needed for easy blending. Alternatively, allow mixture to cool somewhat, and transfer mix to a regular blender (in batches if necessary), then return soup to mixing pot. Taste and adjust seasonings as desired, simmer on low until ready to serve or refrigerate if cooking ahead.
  4. Just before serving, stir in coconut milk, stir until blended. This adds a wonderful, creamy richness to the soup and accents the warm spices.

A little extra somethin’

We gave this fragrant, flavorful soup a little decoration, with a sprinkling of roasted chopped pistachios and these seasoned crispy chickpeas:

1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1 can chickpeas (garbanzo beans), drained and patted dry with paper towels

1/4 tsp. garam masala, plus salt and pepper

Heat oil in small skillet over low heat, swirl chickpeas until coated, then add salt and spices. Stir and swirl frequently until the beans look smaller and feel firmer. Remove them from heat and allow them to cool completely before serving.


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Now, ‘fess up in the comments below. How many unopened, outdated spices are in your cabinet right now? 😉


Shakshuka (shiksa style)

We are inching toward a special day—and time of year—in Jewish tradition. Rosh Hashanah, in the simplest of terms, is the onset of the “High Holidays,” a 10-day celebration that concludes with Yom Kippur. The whole event is a spiritual reset button of sorts, a time for personal introspection leading to atonement. When I became engaged to my husband, Les, in 2016, I joined him for High Holidays services, and though I likely will not ever convert to Judaism, I love learning about this sacred part of my husband’s heritage. Going through the Hebrew readings and stages of reflection is something Jesus would have done as a regular practice (he was Jewish, remember?), and I have found that it gives me richer insight into my own Christian faith.

The fact that I am not Jewish, regardless of my stance on Jesus, earns me the unenviable title of “shiksa,” a Yiddish word politely translated as “a non-Jewish woman.” Some other definitions are less diplomatic and even derogatory, meaning something along the line of “sketchy non-Jewish woman who has taken romantic interest in a good, upstanding Jewish guy.” Yep, I’m guilty of all that! I take no offense, and our religious differences have never presented a conflict for Les and me. On the contrary, we find that it makes our relationship more interesting.

During our preparation for marriage, Les and I met a few times with Rabbi Mark, whom we had asked to officiate our small and informal ceremony. Over lunch, I mentioned how much I was enjoying exploration of the traditions, especially the foods. I had already learned to make latkes, one of the most recognizable Jewish foods (which I’ll share more about when we get closer to Hanukkah). Rabbi Mark made a recommendation for a next recipe to try—shakshuka. It’s fun to say (shock-SHOO-ka), and not the same as shiksa. 😀

I’d never heard of this, and neither had Les, so it was immediately placed at the top of the bucket list. Our first shakshuka turned out terrific, and when Les posted this picture of it to his Facebook page, he got an immediate thumbs-up from Cousin Caryn in Israel—“that is SO Jewish!”

Not a bad first effort in 2017!

Shakshuka is typically served at breakfast, so I’m counting it as part of my “better breakfast month” series, and it’s remarkably simple to make and flexible to accommodate a variety of ingredients. It usually begins with a thick tomato sauce base, though I’ve seen some interesting “green” shakshuka recipes on Pinterest. Any other favorite vegetables or ingredients can be incorporated, including cauliflower, eggplant, spinach, kale, peppers, onions, squash, chickpeas, or nearly anything else you have on hand. You stew it all together with Mediterranean spices in a cast-iron skillet, then you crack raw eggs directly into the sauce and simmer until they’re cooked to your liking, or (as I often do) slide it into the oven to finish.

It’s great for breakfast, or breakfast for dinner!

The result is a savory blend of nutrition and flavor, hearty enough to satisfy your morning hunger, or for “breaking the fast,” because after the 24 hours of fasting and prayer at Yom Kippur, you’re gonna get pretty hungry!

The cool thing about shakshuka (as if the flavor and flexibility aren’t cool enough) is that you do not have to be Jewish to enjoy it! You may have seen a similar dish from Italy called “eggs in purgatory,” featuring the same stewed tomato foundation. Both dishes are likely drawn from nearby North Africa during the Ottoman Empire, and during that time, meat (not tomatoes) was the original main ingredient.

My produce and pantry inventory included everything I needed for a hearty shakshuka, and it landed on our table last night as breakfast for dinner on Meatless Monday. I couldn’t resist serving this with the soft pita breads that have become such a staple in our home.

The soft pita is perfect for sopping up this rich tomato stew.

Basic Ingredients

Extra virgin olive oil (how much depends on what you’re adding)

1/2 medium onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic, chopped

1 28 oz. can whole peeled tomatoes in puree*

4 eggs

Optional Ingredients

Depending on your taste, and your inventory, consider adding any of these ingredients. It’s your kitchen, and you can make your shakshuka as chunky or saucy as you’d like. For the most authentic experience of this dish, I’d recommend keeping with ingredients that are common to the Middle East, where shakshuka was born.

Up to 1 cup other vegetables, such as fresh cauliflower, fresh cubed eggplant, fresh chopped bell peppers

Up to 1 cup canned chickpeas or cooked lentils, or 1/2 cup in combination with your favorite vegetables (above)

Up to 2 cups fresh greens, chopped (they will cook down to small amount, so be generous)

Other flavor enhancers, such as olives, capers, spices, tomato paste, chile peppers

There’s so much tangy, rich sauce in this dish, you’ll want to have some kind of bread nearby for sopping. Pita is a great option, or any other kind of soft bread is just right.

*Notes

I’ve never made the same shakshuka combination twice, but I tend to steer toward more body and texture when we are having it for dinner. And it always depends on what I find in the fridge. For this post, I used the basic ingredients, then reached into the fridge for some add-ins. Les made his fabulous pimiento cheese last weekend, and a half can of spicy Rotel tomatoes and a half jar of pimientos were still in the fridge. In they went, along with about a cup of chopped fresh cauliflower, 1/2 can garbanzo beans, a fat handful of chopped kale leaves, some briny olives and capers, tomato paste to thicken and harissa to add flavor and heat.

Harissa is a spicy paste-like seasoning that has origin in Northern Africa. It has hot chiles and garlic, plus what I call the three “C spices”—cumin, coriander and caraway. Harissa is common to Moroccan cuisine, and lends wonderful depth of flavor to stewed dishes like shakshuka.

Instructions

  1. Place a cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Swirl in olive oil and sauté onions, cauliflower and any other firm vegetables until lightly caramelized.
  2. Add garlic, canned tomatoes, tomato paste, and any other add-ins that strike your fancy. Season to taste with salt and pepper. For my recipe, I also added a little smoked paprika and ground cumin. Stir to combine ingredients evenly and cook over medium low heat for about 20 minutes so that the tomatoes lose the “canned” flavor and mixture begins to thicken like a stew.
  3. Use the back of a large spoon to create slight depressions to hold the eggs. Crack eggs, one at a time, into a custard cup and transfer them into the dents you’ve made, sprinkle them with salt and pepper, cover the skillet and simmer until eggs are set to your liking. Alternatively, you can slide the skillet into a 350° F oven and bake about 15 minutes, or until eggs reach your desired doneness.
  4. Garnish with fresh chopped parsley or oregano and serve with soft pita breads or other bread for sopping all the shakshuka sauce.
Oh, yes, some crumbled feta on top!

So easy, even a shiksa can make it! Shakshuka is delicious, easy and economical. Serve it family style, and let everyone scoop out their own portion into a bowl.

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“Leftovers” Corn Waffles and Southwest Bean Topping

One of these days, I may write a cookbook including only wild and wacky ideas for incorporating leftovers into new recipes. No matter what you had the first time, there’s always a creative way to re-purpose what’s left over into something delicious. Vegetables find their way into omelets or onto pizzas, a lone chicken breast can be diced and turned into a salad spread, and even stale bread can be reinvigorated into a delicious dessert (soon, I’ll share the recipe for my Gram’s unmatchable bread pudding).

Recently, I rallied together some black beans left over from Taco Tuesday, more (but different) beans left over from a take-out fried chicken meal, several bits and pieces of leftover peppers and onions, and the remnants of corn from the sweet corn ice cream that I highlighted during National Ice Cream Month (I promised I’d do something fun with them, and here it is)—and turning the whole thing into dinner, covering Meatless Monday and National Waffle Day, all in one swoop. Did you follow all that? This is how my brain works, friends, so when I share with you that I sometimes wake up thinking about recipes, I do hope you realize I’m not joking.

Flashback from the ice cream: Don’t think for a minute that I won’t find a good use for the leftover corn pulp!
Delivering on that promise today!

The truth is, I already had these waffles in mind for using the leftover corn from the ice cream.  These sourdough-based crispy gems are adapted from one of my favorite recipes from King Arthur Baking’s website. I’ve never made the recipe as written (theirs is for pancakes), but I have enjoyed various versions of it as waffles. If you don’t have sourdough going (this recipe requires it), use any other recipe for waffles with corn mix-in—maybe this one, but omit vanilla, cinnamon or anything else that would make them sweet or “breakfast-y.” The corn itself is sweet enough. Or just use cornmeal waffles or cornmeal pancakes—you know, be the boss of your own kitchen.

The southwest-inspired topping was a no-brainer for me, with the beans and bell peppers I had left over, and it will be a great dance partner to the corn and scallion flavors in the waffles. You may note that the King Arthur recipe calls for a “bean salad” topping, which is similar but more of a cool, relish-y accompaniment. I wanted something warm and hearty enough to be served as dinner.

I cook by instinct, rarely by recipe, and for no particular reason while dreaming up ideas for this meal, I had a question pop up in my mind about how to add another element to the finished dish so it didn’t seem dry, as waffles without a sauce sometimes do. We use sour cream as a topper on a lot of southwest-themed dishes, but I hate that it makes the entire dish cold before you take a single bite. Anything liquid would make the waffles soggy, completely defeating the purpose of the whole meal. And then, suddenly, every light in the world came on at once in my imagination. Perhaps one of the biggest “aha moments” my brain has ever experienced in the kitchen.

Whipped cream. But not sweet. Add a savory spice. But not salt. Boom!

The result was super light and airy, with a rich but subtle flavor that melted into a silky river all the way through the bean topping. It was absolutely delicious, and I cannot believe I’ve never had something like it in a restaurant. I seasoned it with chipotle, but paprika or cumin would’ve been just as tasty.

And oh man, just like that, I’m off and running with a million other things this savory whipped cream should accompany. Makes me ache for autumn, when I can spend a whole afternoon simmering black bean soup.

But it’s almost dinner time, so I’ll have to back-burner that idea for a few months. Let’s get cooking!

Hearty, satisfying, meatless and made entirely from leftovers.

Waffle Ingredients

Adapted from this recipe from King Arthur Baking (formerly King Arthur Flour). I halve the recipe for just the two of us, as follows. It made 5 waffles, each about 4×6 inches.

1/4 cup sourdough starter (recently fed)

1/2 cup plus 2 Tbsp. all purpose flour (remember to fluff, sprinkle, level when you measure)

1/2 cup milk

2 Tbsp. canola oil (if making pancakes, only use 1 1/2 tsp.)

1 tsp. baking soda

1/4 tsp. salt

1 large egg

1/2 cup cooked corn kernels

3 scallions, chopped (white and green parts)


Waffle Instructions

  1. Combine the starter, flour and milk in a large bowl, mixing until thoroughly incorporated. Cover and allow it to rest on the counter at least 30 minutes in a warm place, such as the microwave.
  2. Add the oil, baking soda, salt and egg, and stir until combined. Fold in the corn and scallions, plus about half of the chopped jalapeno listed in the topping ingredients. Note that if you are making waffles with the mixture, you should use the greater amount of oil noted above. The oil in the batter helps prevent sticking and also ensures a lovely crispy exterior to the waffles.
  3. Bake according to your waffle maker’s recommendations, and keep the waffles warm while you finish the topping.

I’ve made these waffles in both a Belgian waffle maker and a standard maker. Les and I decided we like the standard waffles best. If you don’t have a waffle maker, use the lesser amount of oil and make the recipe as pancakes, as suggested on the King Arthur website.


Topping Ingredients

Extra virgin olive oil

1/2 cup chopped red onion

1/4 cup chopped green bell pepper

1 small jalapeno, diced and divided* (see notes)

1 1/2 cups leftover cooked beans* (I used leftover black beans plus Bojangles’ takeout beans)

1/2 cup cherry tomatoes, halved

Juice of 1/2 lime

Handful fresh cilantro for garnish

1/4 cup heavy whipping cream

1/4 tsp. ground chipotle powder


*Notes

Maybe you don’t have this exact amount of leftover beans staring at you from the fridge? I get it. This is what I used because it was what I had. If you’re starting from scratch, any kind of canned beans would be suitable here, and you’ll need about a can and a half. Pinto beans would be closest to my leftover recipe, and I’d suggest do not drain or rinse them. The can liquid would be very similar to the leftover takeout beans I used.

We love spicy things in our house, but obviously you can simply omit the jalapeno if it isn’t your thing. I divided the total amount listed, using half in the waffles and the rest in the topping.

I recommend getting your waffles in order first, because the topping comes together quickly while they are baking in the iron. No waffle iron? Go get one. Just kidding—use the King Arthur recipe I suggested, which is technically designed for pancakes that would be every bit as wonderful in this kind of recipe. And then tomorrow, go get a waffle iron—I’ll give you plenty of reasons to love having one. 😊


Instructions for the topping


  1. Heat a small non-stick skillet over medium heat. Add olive oil and sauté the onions and peppers until softened and slightly translucent.
  2. Add the cooked beans and give the whole thing a quick stir to combine. If it seems dry, add some broth or tomato sauce to compensate.
  3. Slice and season the cherry tomatoes and toss them on top. Cover the pan and simmer over low heat to give the flavors time to mix.
  4. Use a hand mixer or whisk to whip the cream until it is soft and pillowy. You never want to push whipped cream too far (they call that butter), because once it gets to the “chunky” appearance, you cannot rein it back in. Sprinkle in chipotle, paprika or cumin and whisk gently to distribute it.
  5. When your waffles or pancakes are ready, spoon the bean mixture over the top and sprinkle with cilantro leaves. Dollop the whipped cream on top and dinner is served.
The savory chipotle whipped cream melted and oozed through the toppings, creating the most scrumptious sauce.

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Creamy Spinach & Mushroom Tortellini

It seems like a never-ending battle, trying to evict leftovers from our fridge and stay on top of the new groceries coming in. Four months into pandemic lockdown, I still haven’t mastered the challenges of “shopping for the week.” But my culinary muse has been on some kind of caffeine kick lately, and I’m at it again today with a Meatless Monday-worthy pasta dish, made almost entirely with leftovers. Not to worry, though—I’m sure it would be fantastic with fresh-bought ingredients, too.

This one uses up leftover fresh tortellini from a soup recipe last week, and a few fresh produce items starting clamoring when I opened the fridge, so in they went! Cremini mushrooms, with all their warm, earthy flavor, plus baby spinach, sweet onions and fresh garlic. I happened to have a half bag of sweetly sun-kissed dried tomatoes in the pantry cabinet, and we’re off and cooking. I’m gonna get to the bottom of this cluttered fridge yet!

We are empty nesters, and many of my recipes are designed to serve two people. But doubling a recipe such as this one is easy, as long as you’re mindful about the size of your pan.

It’s creamy, rich and packed with earthy flavor!

Ingredients

Extra virgin olive oil

1 medium sweet onion (tennis ball size), cut in half and sliced into crescent shapes

8 oz. cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

3 handfuls fresh baby spinach, rough chopped

1/4 cup soft sun-dried tomatoes*

2 cloves garlic, chopped

Kosher salt and black pepper

1/2 cup heavy cream* (see notes for a lighter option)

1/4 cup dry white wine* (something like Pinot Grigio is perfect)

2 cups fresh cheese tortellini (this was half a large package)

Trader Joe’s umami seasoning, optional

3 Tbsp. parm-romano blend* (plus extra for serving)


*Notes

My sun-dried tomatoes are the soft variety, packed in a zip-top bag. If yours are dry and hard, it’s probably a good idea to rehydrate them for a few minutes in hot water before proceeding. If they’re packed in olive oil, you’re good to go.

Want to lighten this up? Here’s a trick that works great in recipes where the fat of heavy cream isn’t as important as the texture. Swap it out in favor of canned evaporated milk. It is more concentrated than fresh milk, but with a fraction of the fat. Give it a try!

If you prefer, you could substitute a vegetable broth for the wine, plus a squeeze of lemon juice or splash of red wine vinegar. This will make up for the acidity the wine adds to the dish.

We go through a LOT of parm-romano blend at our house, and I mention this ingredient in many of my recipes. Rather than purchasing the pre-grated stuff at the market, we buy parmesan and romano in blocks and grate it in our food processor. It’s terrific to be able to reach into the fridge and have a container of it ready to go, plus it’s fresher and more flavorful with no added stabilizers or anti-caking agents. Did I mention we save money with this method?


I’m a visual learner, and if you are as well, have a look at the slideshow before you advance to the recipe. Fair warning: it might make you hungry!


Instructions

  1. Place a large pot of water on to boil over medium-high heat, for cooking the tortellini.
  2. Heat 2 Tbsp. olive oil in a large non-stick skillet over medium heat.
  3. Add onion slices to the skillet and cook, tossing occasionally, until softened and browned on the edges.
  4. Remove onions to a bowl, add another splash of olive oil to the pan and toss in the mushrooms, cooking and tossing until they are soft and moisture has evaporated. Season with salt and pepper.
  5. Move the mushrooms to the outside edges of the pan and add the spinach leaves to the middle. Toss them around until wilted then add the sun-dried tomato pieces.
  6. Stir in the heavy cream, then add the white wine and parmesan-romano blend and reduce heat. Return the caramelized onions to the pan. Cover and allow mixture to simmer on low heat a few minutes while the pasta cooks.
  7. When water comes to a boil, season with 2 teaspoons kosher salt (don’t worry—most of the salt ends up down the drain). Add tortellini and stir immediately to prevent sticking. Reduce heat to medium and allow pasta to cook at a low boil for about 5 minutes. It’s OK to undercook them slightly because they’ll cook further in the sauce.
  8. Drain tortellini (or use a large straining spoon, as I did) and add to the sauce mixture. At this point, I tasted and decided it need just a little something. Remember the Trader Joe’s “umami” seasoning we introduced in the Lentil Moussaka? It’s perfectly at home in this dish, underscoring the flavor of the mushrooms already in the dish, and throwing on just a touch of extra savory depth.
  9. Give it a good toss to thoroughly coat the tortellini, then go set the table. It’s a good time to pour another glass of wine, while you’re at it.
  10. Divide the creamy pasta between two pasta bowls, sprinkle with additional parm-romano blend and serve.

It doesn’t look like leftovers and it sure doesn’t taste like it, but I’ve regained some ground on the shelves of my refrigerator. Plus, we ended up with one lingering portion of this dish, perfect for my husband to reheat for a work lunch. And that’s a win-win!

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Creamy Garlic Mushroom Pizza

The savory, earthy flavors of this non-traditional pie will transform your ordinary pizza night into something far more elegant. The two different kinds of mushrooms provide a meaty texture in every bite, leeks and spinach add depth of flavor, and the trio of cheeses are in pleasantly sharp contrast to the creamy béchamel base.

I recommend prepping all the topping ingredients as much as a day ahead of time, as assembly of the pizza moves quickly and you won’t want to wait one extra minute for a bite of this!

Ingredients

1 Tbsp. butter

1 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

1/2 cup whole milk

Freshly grated nutmeg

Pinch white pepper

1 whole bulb roasted garlic

1 leek, cleaned and sliced thin (white and light green parts only)

4 oz. cremini mushrooms, cleaned, sliced and sautéed

8 oz. shiitake mushrooms, cleaned, sliced and sautéed

2 Tbsp. dry white wine (or dry vermouth, which is what I had open)

1 fat handful fresh baby spinach leaves

1/4 cup extra sharp white cheddar cheese (try Cabot’s “Seriously Sharp” or Trader Joe’s “Unexpected Cheddar”)

2 Tbsp. coarsely grated parmesan cheese

2 Tbsp. coarsely grated romano cheese

Pinch crushed red pepper flakes

1 ball real New York pizza dough

Instructions

Make the béchamel by melting butter in a small skillet, then sprinkle in flour and cook until bubbly. Add the milk and whisk until smooth and thickened. Season with fresh nutmeg and white pepper. Squeeze entire bulb of roasted garlic into sauce and whisk until fully incorporated. Remove from heat and set aside to cool (or refrigerate until ready to make the pizza).

Place a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat, swirl in about 2 Tbsp. olive oil and sauté leeks until cooked down and lightly browned. Remove from heat. Sauté mushrooms in two batches, being careful not to crowd the pan. Add a small amount of additional olive oil if needed. When all mushrooms are finished, remove them to a bowl, then de-glaze the skillet with wine or vermouth and scrape up all the browned bits. When liquid is almost fully evaporated, add spinach leaves and cook until wilted.

Shape pizza dough into a 12- to 14-inch disk. Remember how we do this?

Drizzle or brush the dough with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Carefully spread the roasted garlic béchamel onto the dough, and spread it out to within 1/2” of the edges. Distribute leeks, cremini mushrooms, spinach and shiitake mushrooms onto the pie, then scatter all cheeses evenly over the top. Add a quick shake of crushed red pepper, and slide it onto a steel in a 550° F oven for about 8 minutes, until crust is golden brown and cheese is bubbly.

This pie is earthy and savory, and not missing a thing.
But if you wanted to add crumbled cooked bacon? Who am I to judge?

For baking on a pizza stone, follow manufacturer’s instructions regarding maximum temperature. Some stones will crack or break at higher temperatures. For baking on a pizza pan, lightly grease the pan before placing dough on it, and bake in the lower third section of your oven for a few minutes longer than recommended in the above recipe. We do all our pizzas on a baking steel by Dough-Joe, and it is the best thing that has ever happened to our homemade pies.

The crust is perfectly crisp, and you can see the lovely char marks on the underside. Thank you, Dough-Joe!

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Ratatouille Pizza

Before I present my recent addition to the Meatless Monday lineup of recipes, some unfortunate news—it looks like my garden isn’t going to make it this year. After only four weeks in the soil, so many of my tender plants have succumbed either to the deluge of rain we had over Memorial Day or the woodland critters who have decided to munch on the leaves. The yellow squash is withering, its stems split wide open from too much water. The zucchini vine is missing several of its broad protective leaves, having fallen victim to the hungry deer. And at least three of my red bell pepper plants are nothing but stubs. Though the deer don’t particularly care for the fruit of the pepper plants, they’ve made it clear they don’t mind snacking on the tender leaves and blossoms. What’s left of the garden is looking sad and puny, and I fear the nutrients in the soil have washed away with last month’s rainwater. Poor plants hardly stood a chance.

Every single leaf, chomped.

The happy news is that I’ve been able to find some fresh and good-looking vegetables at the market, a little ahead of season, and I’m not going to waste any more time wishing for my beloved ratatouille. On the contrary—I intend to enjoy it in as many different ways as possible. The dish is a favorite of mine, though I didn’t really become acquainted with it until I was well into adulthood. In case you have trouble remembering what’s in ratatouille, let me share with you a simple word trick that makes it easy. Several years ago, during the season five competition of the “Next Food Network Star,” finalist Melissa D’Arabian (who went on to win the title that year) shared an acronym that perfectly describes ratatouille.

“Just remember E-Z-pot,” she told the judges. Eggplant, zucchini, peppers-onions-tomato, easy to put together and made in a pot. That’s a perfect description, and also an easy way to jot down the ingredients on my grocery list.

Ratatouille, in its most rustic, southern-French form, is a hearty, chunky summer vegetable stew, seasoned with garlic and fresh herbs—a satisfying meatless meal made complete with a piece of crusty baguette and a glass of Provençal wine. In a fancier version, you might see ratatouille assembled in a striking pattern of layered thinly sliced vegetables, elegantly stacked with a garlicky tomato sauce and fresh sprigs of thyme.

If you’re a fan (as I am) of the Disney-Pixar film Ratatouille, you probably can’t help but recall the scene near the end, in which harsh, unemotional food critic Anton Ego takes a single bite of such an elegantly presented ratatouille, prepared by Remy—a rat (yes, a rat) who defied convention to follow his dream of being a chef. In a fraction of a moment, the stodgy Ego is transported back in time to his mother’s kitchen, where, as a young boy, he created his early memory of the rustic dish considered by many to be “peasant food.” One taste brought back all the feelings for him, and the incident changed his mind and his heart. For real, that one scene sums up Comfort du Jour. I’m even crying a little bit right now.

Today, I’m taking the rustic, casual approach to ratatouille and adding yet another twist. We are going to put those fresh garden flavors onto a pizza. I’ll send hubby out to the grill with the eggplant, zucchini and red bell pepper to reduce their moisture and bring out the best of their flavors. The onions will be pan-caramelized with fragrant herbs de Provence, and just for the heck of it, I’m tossing in some sautéed mushrooms. With the application of ratatouille’s classic flavors on a pizza crust, I’m sort of visualizing the south of France knocking on neighboring Italy’s door to borrow a couple of ingredients. A simple Italian tomato sauce will lay on an airy, rye-infused crust (sourdough, naturally), with a combination of gruyere, parmesan and romano to punctuate the grilled vegetables. Wow, it’s making me sooo hungry.

You don’t have to make your own dough to enjoy this pizza—before I made my own bread, I favored the Boboli pre-made crusts. There’s no judgment here if you want to use a pre-made pizza dough or other favorite crust and just focus on the flavors of the vegetables. Or trade in the crust altogether for a fresh bowl of hot pasta, tossed with the grilled vegetables and herb-infused sauce. Or really merge Italian into it by serving it on risotto or polenta. Re-imagine it exactly however you like. Isn’t that the beauty of comfort food?

Ingredients

1 ball rye pizza dough*

1 medium eggplant, sliced into 1/2″ rounds, salted and sweated*

1 medium zucchini, cleaned and sliced 1/4″ thin, lengthwise

1 red bell pepper, seeded and cut into wedges

Extra virgin olive oil

Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper

1/2 large sweet onion

4 oz. cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced thick

1 cup cherry or grape tomatoes

1 bulb roasted garlic

1 tsp. herbs de Provence seasoning*

2 oz. dry white or rose wine

2 oz. finely shredded gruyere cheese

2 oz. coarsely shredded parmesan and romano blend cheeses

3 Tbsp. prepared pizza sauce (we love Dei Fratelli brand for its authentic, simple flavors)

*Notes

If you wish to make the rye pizza dough, follow my instructions for My Real NY Pizza Dough but swap out the sourdough starter with equal amount of starter fed with 100% rye flour. Allow the starter to ferment 14 hours at room temperature before building the final pizza dough.

An hour or so ahead of preparing the rest of the dish, spread a double layer of paper towels on a baking sheet, salt liberally and arrange the eggplant slices. Salt the tops of the slices, cover with additional paper towels and place a weighted baking sheet on top. This will draw out the moisture and remove any bitter flavor from the eggplant before you grill it. After the “salt and sweat” period, use a damp towel to wipe off all excess salt.

Herbs de Provence is a classic French blend of herbs and seasonings, including thyme, savory, basil, lemon and a hint of lavender. You can make your own, but it’s easier to pick up a bottle of McCormick or any other brand at the market. Take note of the salt content so you know how to adjust your recipe.

Spray or brush eggplant slices, zucchini and bell peppers with extra virgin olive oil. Season with salt and pepper, and grill at 350° F for approximately 10 minutes, or until they reach your preferred level of caramelization. We let them go until they were lightly charred, but still tender.

Place the grilled peppers in a bowl, cover with foil and wait 15 minutes until the skin is loosened enough to peel away. Cool all vegetables and chop into large, rough pieces.

Place a medium non-stick skillet over medium heat, add olive oil and sauté onions until they are softened with charred edges. Sprinkle onions with salt, pepper and 1/2 tsp. herbs de Provence. Remove onions to a bowl, and repeat the same process with the sliced mushrooms, seasoning with remaining herbs de Provence.

In the same non-stick skillet, heat 1 Tbsp. olive oil over low heat. Add the cherry tomatoes and heat slowly until tomatoes are soft enough to burst when pressed. Continue to cook until tomatoes are broken down and saucy and squeeze the roasted garlic into the pan.

Roasting the garlic makes a huge difference in flavor.

Season with salt and pepper, add dry wine and simmer until liquid dissipates. It should have the texture of a soft jam. Set all ingredients aside (or refrigerate them) until you’re ready to make pizza.

Time to bake!

Shape pizza dough into a 14” circle. Brush or spray with olive oil, season with salt and pepper. Swirl on tomato sauce, parmesan and romano, sauteed and grilled vegetables, then finely shredded gruyere. Finish the pie with the roasted garlic-tomato mixture and slide into a very hot oven on a preheated pizza steel or stone.

We bake our pizzas on a steel at 550° F for approximately 7 minutes. Please use the temperature and time best suited to your method.

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Lentil Moussaka

Sumptuous layers of Mediterranean flavor—béchamel-topped eggplant, potatoes and ground meat seasoned with a delightfully different tomato-y sauce. Moussaka is one of my favorite Greek-themed foods. It’s not quite lasagna, not quite eggplant parmesan, but 100% the comfort food value of both, and while the one pictured is a vegetarian version, there is also a simple switch to make it vegan.

You read correctly. Vegan moussaka. All the flavor, all the richness, all the comfort, but none of the meat. And it’s way easier to make than you might imagine. I’ve learned that when it comes to “converting” a meat-centric recipe into a vegan delight, if you keep your focus on the spices and flavors, you’ll have a winner. It’s not the meat that makes moussaka special, but the other layers of flavor around it, and especially the tomato sauce. Unlike an Italian red sauce, this one gets its distinct flavor from warm spices, such as cinnamon and coriander. And if we can nail those flavors, it really doesn’t matter what goes in place of the meat—but of course, I’ll offer some suggestions to get you started.

This is my approach to making a vegan version of a classic dish. I want protein, texture and flavor—the three things the meat would otherwise contribute to the moussaka, and the rest of the recipe will remain traditional. Lentils will bring the protein, and they’re one of the earliest crops domesticated in ancient Greece, so they’re already speaking the same language as the spices and eggplant. And I love lentils! One cup of cooked lentils packs a hefty 16 grams of protein, about the same as a 3-ounce serving of cooked ground beef. They add more than 15 grams of dietary fiber, too. Nutrition-wise, this is a very smart substitute. If I didn’t have them, I’d probably be looking at garbanzo beans.

Plenty of vegetables provide the other qualities my recipe needs, but I want to avoid the ones that might compete with the eggplant and especially that scrumptious sauce. Bell peppers are great with eggplant (I can’t wait to make ratatouille this summer), but the flavor feels a little off for moussaka. Broccoli is too bitter. Green beans are too specific in shape. Zucchini is a little high on water content. I need something I can chop or pulse into smaller pieces in the food processor. That leaves me with cauliflower, washed kale leaves, onions and carrots. There’s good body in all of them, and they’ll hold their shape after a quick sauté.

There are a few other tricks I’ll employ to make this dish hearty and satisfying. I’ll salt and sweat the eggplant slices to make them more “meat-like,” and nutritional yeast will help bring an umami experience to the vegan bechamel topping, which would otherwise be bland and uninteresting. My husband’s adult daughter has embraced the vegan lifestyle, and she comes to town every so often for special dinners. As a result, all these ideas have become very common to me, but I don’t want to assume all of this makes sense to you, dear friends, so let me back up a little bit.

What does it mean to “salt and sweat” the eggplant?

Layering the sliced eggplant on salted paper towels will draw out the moisture from the eggplant, which improves the texture a great deal, especially when I want to grill or roast the eggplant as a replacement for meat. If you’ve ever had slimy, bitter or soggy eggplant, somebody skipped this step. Please give eggplant another chance. Properly “sweated,” eggplant will be remarkably meaty and substantial—exactly what we want in this moussaka. Take care of this step a couple hours before you’re ready to make the full recipe.

What is nutritional yeast?

Nutritional yeast is a common substitute for cheesy flavor in vegan cuisine. It’s the same species, but not the same form as the yeast you’d use to bake bread. Nutritional yeast is a yellowish flaky substance, widely available at any natural foods store or online from Bob’s Red Mill. It provides some of the salty, savory quality you would expect in a hard cheese such as parmesan. It’s tasty just sprinkled on hot popcorn. And for the vegan moussaka, it will lend a familiar “cheesiness” to the béchamel alternative.

What does “umami” mean?

When I was a kid, we learned in science class that the human taste buds recognized four main things—sweet, sour, salty and bitter. But within the past decade or so, a fifth taste, “umami” was officially invited to join the party. It’s a savory flavor that is most easily described by example. Think of what you taste when you bite into a piece of steak, or a sautéed mushroom, or a piece of sharp cheese. This savory sensation is distinctly different from the other four tastes and is often the missing link in meatless dishes. If you can successfully supply this “umami” taste, you’ll be victorious in every vegan dish.

A.K.A. “The Bomb.”

This new seasoning from Trader Joe’s is one of the best ingredients ever for meeting this goal (no, they’re not paying me to say so). It is made from ground dried porcini and other mushrooms, plus garlic, onion, thyme, salt and some red pepper spice. I fell completely in love with this stuff last year at Thanksgiving, and I sometimes use it even in non-vegan dishes.

Ready? Let’s get cooking!


Ingredients

1 medium eggplant, sliced, salted and sweated

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

3 medium Yukon gold potatoes, with peels

1 medium sweet onion, chopped

4 cloves garlic, rough chopped

1/4 head fresh cauliflower florets, rough chopped

1 large carrot, peeled and rough chopped

Several handfuls of washed kale leaves

Spice blend (listed below)

2 cups cooked lentils (I used a blend of red, brown and green)

28 oz. can crushed tomatoes

1/4 cup dry red wine

Béchamel or vegan alternative (recipe below)


Spice Blend

1 tsp. cinnamon

1 tsp. Spanish sweet or smoked paprika

1 tsp. dried oregano

1/2 tsp. garlic powder

1/2 tsp. onion powder

1/4 tsp. ground coriander

1/4 tsp. ground cayenne pepper


Vegan Béchamel

4 Tbsp. vegan butter*

4 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

2 1/2 cups plain, unsweetened almond milk

Kosher salt

Fresh grated nutmeg

1/4 tsp. white pepper

2 Tbsp. nutritional yeast flakes

1/2 tsp. Trader Joe’s “umami” seasoning (optional)

1/4 cup dried potato flakes* (if needed for thickening)

*Notes

Some vegan butter brands will work better than others in this recipe. For the roux that will be the base of a cream sauce, choose an oil-based option. Earth Balance brand used to be my go-to, but my new favorite is the Country Crock line of plant-based butters (they’re not paying me, either). In this recipe, I used the avocado oil version. It melts perfectly and has a pleasant, neutral flavor.

When purchasing potato flakes (or any other processed ingredient) for vegan recipes, take notice of the label to be sure they don’t have some hidden dairy ingredient. I’m partial to the “instant mashed potatoes” available at Whole Foods. There’s only one ingredient—dehydrated potatoes. I love when something is simple.


Instructions

Wash the eggplant and trim the stem end, but do not peel it. Place a double layer of paper towels on a rimmed cookie sheet and sprinkle it liberally with kosher salt. Slice the eggplant into 1/2″ thick rounds and arrange them in a single layer on the salted towel. Sprinkle salt over the tops of the slices. Place another double layer of paper towels over the top of the eggplant slices, then place another cookie sheet, weighted by a cast iron pan, over the top. Allow this to rest on the counter a couple of hours.

When you are ready to proceed, pre-heat the oven to 350° F. Wipe the excess salt from the eggplant slices. You might be shocked at the amount of moisture the salting step has removed. Brush (or spray) both sides of the slices with extra virgin olive oil and arrange them on a parchment-lined cookie sheet. Grind some black pepper over them, and roast for about 30 minutes, turning once about halfway through. They will shrink considerably but that’s OK.

Scrub the potatoes clean and poke them all over with a fork. Microwave them for about 4 minutes, or until they are just tender enough to slice (not as tender as you’d serve). Cool, then slice them into rounds about 1/2” thick. This is a little thicker than I would slice them for a traditional meat-centric moussaka, but in this vegan version, I want them to provide a little extra body for the foundation of the casserole.

In a food processor with the chopping blade, add the rough chopped cauliflower and carrots. Pulse about 5 times, until vegetables have a coarse, uniform texture.

Place a large non-stick skillet over medium heat and add about 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil. When the oil begins to shimmer, add the chopped onions and the processed carrot-cauliflower pieces. Stir and sauté while you process the kale.

Fill the food processor bowl with kale leaves, and pulse about 5 times until the kale is reduced to about half the original volume. The appearance of chopped parsley is just about right.

Add the chopped kale to the skillet and sauté the whole mixture about 3 minutes. Add the garlic, season with kosher salt, then add the spice mixture and cook another 2 minutes. Add the cooked lentils and the entire can of crushed tomatoes. Get every bit of flavor by “rinsing” the can with the red wine. Simmer on medium low heat about 10 minutes until liquid is reduced.

Assembling the Moussaka

Spray an oblong (9 x 13) glass baking dish with olive oil spray. Arrange the cooked potato slices in a single layer, placing them as close to each other as possible to  provide a good base for the casserole. Add about half of the sauce mixture and spread it evenly over the potatoes. Arrange the eggplant slices in a single layer, then top with the remaining sauce mixture. If you’re working ahead, you can pop this in the fridge for a day or two until you’re ready to add the vegan béchamel and bake the casserole. If you prefer a classic dairy béchamel, follow this recipe but with dairy butter and milk, and skip the nutritional yeast and umami seasoning. We usually toss on a handful of fresh parm-romano blend also. After baking, it should come out pretty much like this one:

Lentil moussaka with dairy bechamel

To make a vegan béchamel, begin by melting the vegan butter and cooking the flour in it until it becomes lightly golden and bubbly. Add the almond milk, then cook and whisk over medium heat several minutes until mixture begins to thicken. Add salt, fresh nutmeg, white pepper, nutritional yeast and umami seasoning. Spread over the layered casserole and bake at 350° F for about 40 minutes, or until you can see the inside sauce bubbling around the edges of the béchamel. Give it a couple minutes to cool and firm up, then dive right in.

My brand of almond milk was on the thin side and didn’t thicken as well as I’d expected. I resolved the viscosity issue by whisking in about 1/4 cup of dehydrated potato flakes. I’m a bread-making nerd, so I have such things on hand. Without it, I probably would have made flour or corn starch slurry to whisk into the sauce instead. But the potato trick worked like a charm, and it made kind of an “echo” of potato-ness from the bottom of the casserole. If your béchamel seems to be the correct consistency, this step would not be necessary, but still delicious.

This dish has become a “go-to” recipe for our Meatless Monday rotation, and my husband, Les, and I generally don’t mind having some dairy ingredients in the béchamel topping. Frankly, we prefer it because we love his DIY parm-romano cheese blend lavishly sprinkled on top. But we were delightfully surprised on Memorial Day weekend to hear from his adult daughter—Syd was planning to drive two hours into town for a visit and wondered if she could bring her boyfriend to meet us around midday the next day. Of course! Let’s plan on lunch while we’re at it. Normally, a bit more notice gives me greater confidence in preparing a completely plant-based meal, but as fate would have it, this lentil moussaka was already in my plan for the weekend. Coincidence? We don’t believe in coincidences in our house.

By the time Syd phoned us, I had already prepped the moussaka up to the point of adding the béchamel, so we made a last-minute decision to divide the 9 x 13 casserole into two smaller 8 x 8 casseroles—one with dairy béchamel and the other with a vegan alternative.

Dairy on the left, vegan on the right.

Side by side, you can see the slight difference between our two versions. Underneath the topping, they were exactly the same. The spices offered a nice complexity, and the texture of the lentils, cauliflower and kale made it feel substantial—all the things I described when we first talked about Meatless Monday.

Les is a great dad (and husband), and he gets pretty excited any time either of his kids pay a visit, and we were extra lucky that day because his adult son also happened to join us for our moussaka dinner. Alex came home unexpectedly from Hungary during the early weeks of the pandemic and having both of his kids with us at once was a real treat. Honestly, it was the first sit-down meal we’ve hosted for guests since New Year’s Eve—five whole months ago. For a couple of hours, life felt almost normal.

So excuse me forgetting, but I got a little sidetracked and missed taking pictures of the casserole just out of the oven or even at the table. One of the new things I’m learning during this pandemic is to pay closer attention to the people you love while they’re in front of you. If that means I miss a photo of the plated food—well, no big deal. I’ll update this post when I make it again one day. 😊

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Healthy Wheat Berry Salad

This probably should have been one of the first recipes I shared on Comfort du Jour. It’s been in my rotation of favorite simple sides for years, ever since I first discovered wheat berries in the bulk section at Whole Foods. If you’ve never had wheat berries (or maybe never even heard of them), let me introduce you to these versatile little gems.

What are wheat berries?

First of all, they aren’t really berries—at least not the way you’d think of fruit. Wheat berries are the individual dried grains of whole wheat. In their dried state, each grain is about the size of a fat grain of rice. When cooked, they plump up to triple in size.

Clockwise, from top right: hard red winter wheat, spelt, rye and farro.

Where can you buy wheat berries?

Most natural foods stores and larger supermarkets with a bulk section are likely to stock varieties of whole grains, including wheat berries, oat groats, barley, and sometimes even rye, spelt or farro. You can also generally find them online from Bob’s Red Mill, though they’ve been in short supply during the pandemic. For this recipe, I’ve used Kamut, which is considered an ancient variety of wheat grain. I prefer it because it’s organically grown and hasn’t been hybridized and modified as conventional wheat has; it’s pretty much the same as it was thousands of years ago. Kamut is technically a brand name for the wheat variety Khorasan, native to Egypt and grown in abundance today in Montana and western parts of Canada. My aunt lives in Montana, and she sent the Kamut berries to me from her favorite natural foods market.

Kamut is a longer grain because it has not been hybridized for quicker harvest.

How do you cook wheat berries?

It’s a similar process to cooking beans from dried. Wheat berries are a natural product, so they need to be sorted and rinsed before cooking, in case of random small stones or other debris. After rinsing, combine them with water (at least 2:1 ratio) in a sauce pan. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and cook until the wheat berries are tender (about an hour), then drain and proceed with your favorite recipe. To use them in a cold dish, cool and refrigerate first.

What can you do with wheat berries?

Pretty much anything you can do with rice, you can do with wheat berries. They have a pleasant chewy texture, like al dente pasta, so they work really well in a main dish such as chili, soup or salad. If you’re into making homemade bread, knead about 1/2 cup of cooked wheat berries into the final dough to add more whole grain goodness. Of course, because they are wheat in whole grain state, you can also mill dried wheat berries into flour, if you happen to have the right equipment to do so. I’ve read recently that Kamut flour makes exceptional pasta, so I’m putting that on my culinary bucket list.

What do wheat berries taste like?

Wheat berries have a mild, almost nutty flavor that is similar to brown rice. Because they are neither sweet nor savory, you can take them in either direction, depending on what you add to them. Besides the chilies, soups and salads I’ve already mentioned, you could also easily toss them on top of Greek yogurt with fresh berries and cinnamon and just call it breakfast.

Now that you’re well acquainted with wheat berries, let’s talk about this salad!

How can something so good be so simple?

We’ve been eating entirely too many rich, heavy foods at our house lately. It’s interesting to me that most of the foods we think of as “comfort foods” are completely on the wrong side of healthy. Foods with simple starches, sugars and fats in abundance are usually what we reach for when we are under stress or facing uncertainty, so it’s not surprising, and maybe you’ve experienced the same.

Allow this salad to bring you back to a healthy place of comfort, with crunch, chew and fresh flavors, dressed in a light, Greek-inspired vinaigrette that’s easy to make from stuff you probably already have in the spice rack and the door of the fridge. Seriously, learn to make your own dressings and you’ll never buy it in the stores again.

We served this on a bed of baby spinach as a fresh, cool side to the meatless moussaka we had for a recent family dinner. If you can’t get your hands on wheat berries right away, any small size whole grain pasta would make an excellent stand in.

Ingredients

2 to 3 cups cooked wheat berries (or other whole grain)

1 can garbanzo beans (drained)

1/2 medium red onion, chopped

1 Persian cucumber*, trimmed and sliced

About 1 cup cherry or grape tomatoes, halved

1/3 cup pitted Kalamata olives, rough chopped

1/4 cup pepperoncini, chopped (optional)

chopped fresh parsley or dill for serving (optional)

Dressing

2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar

1 Tbsp. Sicilian lemon white balsamic vinegar*

1 tsp. garlic pepper seasoning* (see notes)

1/2 tsp. dried oregano leaves

3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil*

1 Tbsp. cold water

*Notes

Any kind of cucumber works here; I like the Persians for their compact size and minimal seeds. You want about 1 cup of cucumber slices or chunks. I’ve used my handy garnishing tool to strip part of the peel away, leaving a little bit for texture and the little bit of bitterness it adds to the salad. You could do the same with a small, sharp paring knife—or just peel the whole thing.

The lemon balsamic vinegar is a specialty item, purchased from one of the gourmet oil and vinegar shops that seem to have popped up everywhere. If you can’t find it, no problem—substitute a good squeeze of fresh lemon juice and a pinch of sugar.

Check your garlic pepper ingredients (or taste it) to see how much salt is in it. If you have a salt-free version such as Mrs. Dash, you’ll also want to add a couple pinches of salt to the dressing. We have McCormick brand, and the salt level is just about right. Lemon pepper seasoning would also be terrific.

There are so many choices for olive oil at most markets. This is a good recipe to bring out the “good stuff.” I generally use a more neutral flavor of olive oil (but still extra virgin) for everyday cooking and sautéing, but for a fresh dressing, I reach for the more pungent “grassy” varieties. If it has a little bit of bite or bitterness on the back end, it means it’s high in polyphenols—the stuff that makes it so good for you!

There’s no substitute for a good quality, REAL extra virgin olive oil.

The salad will come together on its own—you don’t need my help combining these simple, fresh ingredients. But if you’ve never made your own vinaigrette, it’s time you learn this simple and valuable trick. It takes less than a minute, and you don’t need any special tools or bottles. I usually make a vinaigrette in my glass measuring cup, just before I assemble my salad. For this one, work ahead a little bit so the dried oregano has time to soften and rehydrate.

Combine the vinegar and lemon white balsamic (or lemon juice and sugar), garlic pepper and dried oregano. Then drizzle the olive oil into the mixture in a slow, steady stream, while whisking constantly. This will help the oil and vinegar come together without separation. If you prefer, combine all the ingredients together in a covered jar and shake the dickens out of it. Allow the dressing to rest in the refrigerator for about an hour, then whisk or shake again and pour over the salad mixture and toss gently to combine.

The salad can be made ahead and it keeps in the fridge for several days. Fold it gently to redistribute the dressing just before serving, and sprinkle with fresh parsley or dill for an extra pop of color and flavor.

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Meatless Monday – 7 Tips to Make it Work

If you spend any time on the internet (you’re here, right?), you probably know about Meatless Monday, the movement to reduce meat consumption. The idea is rooted in wellness initiatives, and seems even more relevant today as we each try to do our part to keep things going during the pandemic. And because of my curiosity and passion for food, I’m always game for a challenge.

It takes gumption for a carnivorous household to embrace Meatless Monday and make it stick. How can you avoid feeling “deprived?” How do you keep it interesting? For crying out loud, how do you convince the other people you’re feeding to give it a try? I’ve circled this block enough to know what doesn’t work – today I’m breaking it down and offering you 7 tips for making Meatless Monday more manageable. Let’s do this!

1. Plan ahead

Like any other new habit, you must have a plan. I’ve failed this point in the past and learned from it. There are plenty of plant-based foods that offer substantial protein and other nutrients. Decide ahead which ones will make sense at your house. Do you and the others you cook for already like a lot of vegetables? Can you get them on board for this adventure? Can you rearrange your thinking (and your plate) to let the plant-based items shine, rather than putting meat in the spotlight? Start with a list of all the veggies and non-meat foods you and your people already love, and brainstorm some creative ways to enjoy them for the next two or three Mondays. More ideas will come.

2. Treat those veggies like meat

Seriously. Imagine a typical “salad for dinner.” You see slices of grilled steak or chicken or a piece of fish on top of a few leafy greens, maybe a few veggies for good measure? Take away the meat, and you probably won’t feel satisfied with the same salad. That’s because the meat brought more than protein and bulk to the plate. It also carried flavor, texture and succulence.  But guess what? The qualities you crave in meat can be found or mimicked in many plant-based foods. The secret is in how you cook it. Do you usually toss veggies raw on a salad? Leave them in fat chunks and throw them on the grill for a little char on the edges, instead. Do you steam broccoli as a side dish? Elevate broccoli by roasting it, then give it a starring role on top of a mushroom herb risotto and pair it with fresh greens tossed in simple vinaigrette. Give your vegetables some texture to make them satisfying and I promise, you won’t miss the meat.

3. Ease into it

Remember that Meatless Monday is only one day a week. Trying to do this doesn’t mean you have to starve, give up every animal product all at once or eat things that don’t seem like real food. Intimidated about doing it for the whole day? Start with just changing up dinner. Can’t imagine making it totally plant-based? Start with some favorite dishes that include eggs and dairy (“hello, spinach and mushroom omelet!”). This will help ease you into Meatless Monday until it becomes a habit that builds on your creativity and requires no more effort than your regular meals.

4. Keep it simple

You wouldn’t be able to stick to a new fitness routine if your starting goal was a marathon. So don’t pressure yourself to make a vegan showstopper like this puff pastry-wrapped lentil-mushroom wellington as your first Meatless Monday entry—or maybe even your 50th.

This was delicious on its own, but way over the top with the vegan mushroom gravy we served with it.

You may get there one day (and I’ll share a recipe for that delectable main dish when we get closer to the holidays), but for now, go with something innocent like creamy tomato bisque and a grilled cheese, a veggie stir-fry with brown rice, or zucchini noodles with chunky marinara (try this recipe, but skip the chicken). Pick up pre-chopped veggies from the produce case and ready-made sauces in the grocery aisles and build from there. Keep. It. Simple. (You’ve got this.)

5. Give yourself wiggle room

Sometimes our schedules don’t work for Meatless Monday. My day job runs in cycles—depending on the month, I can be slow, busy or completely slammed. My husband’s work schedule is based on his clients’ needs, and let’s face it, work-from-home with limited grocery runs has upended darn near everything. So, at our house, Meatless Monday occasionally happens on Tuesday—oh well. The goal is to reduce your overall meat consumption to feel better and offer a break to our resource-stressed planet and supply chain. Do what you can and make it work whenever.

6. Enjoy the adventure

Don’t sabotage yourself by turning Meatless Monday into an overly structured thing. I’ve done this, and it just wasn’t sustainable. Call out any attitude that says this is a chore and re-frame it so it feels more like a food adventure. Rather than saying, “I can’t have meat because it’s Monday and I’m already missing something,” how about, “Today we’re creating a flavorful, satisfying meal with fresh and healthful ingredients.” Sounds better already!

7. Let someone else do the cooking

If you want to give it a shot but cannot get it started at home, make Meatless Monday a take-out night. This doesn’t mean you have to find a vegan restaurant. Lots of traditional ethnic cuisines lean on plants for flavor and nutrition, so take the opportunity to try out the menu at that hot Asian restaurant you’ve been hearing about. Or Mexican. Or Indian. They need our support right now, and you may find inspiration in the dishes you discover there for one you make yourself, next Monday.

Feeling inspired to give Meatless Monday a go? Here’s a new recipe for you today, using simple pantry ingredients and a sweet potato. Enjoy!

Meatless Monday, easy and done!