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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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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Cole Slaw Two Ways

There’s no good reason to depend on bottled cole slaw dressing, made up mostly of ingredients we’d never find in our own pantry cabinets. Not when it’s so quick and easy to make our own dressing from the fresh things we do have in our cabinets or refrigerators.

Whether you like the slightly tangy-sweet creaminess of a mayonnaise-based cole slaw (KFC-style) or an elegant, vinaigrette-type dressing that stands up better to extended time on a picnic table, you can handle it yourself in only a few minutes. The one thing for sure is it’ll taste infinitely better than the soybean oil-xanthan gum concoction you’d otherwise pick up in the dressing aisle.

Begin with a basic combination of 4 to 5 cups shredded or chopped cabbage (red, green or both—you decide) and carrots. Use a food processor to save time or chop by hand for a more rustic texture. Then, choose your style and dress it up!

Creamy Slaw Dressing

The creamy-style dressing is on the sweet side, with a distinctive white pepper flavor that is reminiscent of the “colonel’s” cole slaw.

Ingredients

About 1 Tbsp. finely grated onion* (see notes on this)

1/4 cup mayonnaise (I used canola mayo)

2 Tbsp. whole milk

2 Tbsp. buttermilk*

1 Tbsp. white vinegar or white balsamic vinegar*

1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice*

2 Tbsp. cane sugar*

1/2 tsp. kosher salt

A couple pinches white pepper

*Notes

Grate the onion and use a paper towel to absorb as much excess juice as possible before proceeding with the recipe.

Real cultured buttermilk works best, but you could have similar results with the same amount of plain yogurt or Greek yogurt.

I am a big fan of flavored balsamic vinegars and olive oils, and whenever I have it on hand, I substitute the “Sicilian Lemon” white balsamic for the combined amounts of vinegar and lemon juice in this recipe. If you have access to this product from a specialty store in your area, it’s worth the expense.

Reduce the sugar by half with the white balsamic substitution.

Instructions

Empty the grated onion into a glass measuring cup. Add remaining dressing ingredients and use a mini-whisk or small spoon to blend into a smooth, even mixture.

Use less dressing than you think is correct. Trust me, you won’t mind eating the extra dressing with a spoon!

Pour half of the dressing over the shredded cabbage and carrots and toss to coat, then add more dressing as desired. As the creamy dressing settles in, the cabbage will soften and shrink a good bit. It’s easier to add dressing than to take it away. Cover salad and refrigerate a couple of hours until ready to serve.

Poppy Seed and Lime Vinaigrette Slaw Dressing

The vinaigrette-style dressing is tangy and onion-y, an elegant change of pace for your backyard cookout. The poppy seeds can be left out if you aren’t a fan.

Ingredients

1/2 small onion (sweet, yellow or red—whatever you like)

2 tsp. poppy seeds*

2 Tbsp. sugar

Juice of 1/2 fresh lime

1 Tbsp. white wine vinegar

1/2 tsp. dry mustard powder

3/4 tsp. kosher salt

1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup canola oil (or other neutral-flavored oil)

2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil*

*Notes

Poppy seeds are sold by the bottle in the spice section of most grocery markets. Celery seed would be a good substitute here, or if seeds cause you trouble, you could easily skip them altogether, but you still want to begin the recipe on the stove.

Extra virgin olive oils provide the most health benefits, but some of them have a very “green” or pungent flavor. For this recipe, use the most neutral-flavored olive oil you can find, such as arbequina. Specialty oil and vinegar shops offer free tastings to help you find your favorites.

Instructions

Grate the onion into a bowl, keeping the juice. Combine sugar, lime juice, vinegar, mustard powder, salt and pepper in a glass measuring cup.

Place a small, heavy-bottomed sauce pan over medium heat and add the poppy seeds. Swirl the pan constantly and toast the seeds for 2 to 3 minutes, until lightly fragrant. All at once, add the onion (with juice) and the lime juice mixture and stir until sugar is dissolved and mixture begins to simmer at the edges of the pan. Remove from heat and transfer to the small bowl of a food processor. Turn on processor and slowly stream canola oil into the mixture, then repeat with olive oil.

When mixture is fully emulsified, pour about 1/3 cup of it over cabbage mixture. Toss to coat, add more dressing if desired, and refrigerate slaw until ready to serve. Save leftover dressing for use on other salads–perhaps a spinach salad with fresh strawberries.

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Colorful Sweet Potato Quinoa Salad

This dish practically sings “Meatless Monday!” It has lots of color and interesting texture, it works either warm or cold, it’s easy to make from simple ingredients, and it’s vegan, low-calorie, high-fiber, gluten-free and flexible on spice. Somehow, it still manages to taste delicious.

Skip straight down to the picture if you’re ready for the recipe, but if you’re new to the idea of quinoa, allow me to make a proper introduction:

What the heck is quinoa?

Quinoa has been around for thousands of years, but it only surfaced into the mainstream American diet a decade or so ago. It is native to South America—Peru and Bolivia specifically, but is now being grown in the southern part of Colorado (in an area where I once lived) and a few other regions in Washington state and Idaho. It’s pronounced “KEEN-wah,” and its nutritional value is exceptional, offering high levels of protein, B vitamins, manganese and phosphorous. It’s often lumped into the “grain” category, but quinoa is technically related to spinach and amaranth. Although the leaves are also edible, the part we usually eat is the seed, which can range in color from pale straw to red to nearly black, depending on the cultivar. On the pale end, it’s mild and almost nutty. On the dark side, expect a deeper earthy flavor.

Why does quinoa taste bitter?

It shouldn’t. If the quinoa dishes you’ve tried had a bitter or soapy taste, it may not have been rinsed well enough before cooking. Nature takes care of itself, and this tiny seed grows with its own special coating designed to keep birds and insects away. Much of that coating is removed during processing before the quinoa gets to market, but you may want to give it another thorough rinse under running water for about 1 minute before cooking it. Use a mesh strainer, because the seeds are very small and will slip right through a typical colander.

How do you cook quinoa?

You can cook quinoa either from its raw, dried state or you can lightly toast it (after rinsing) in the pan first. A basic recipe is a little less than 2 cups water (or broth) to 1 cup quinoa. Combine in a saucepan over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a very low simmer, cover and cook about 15 minutes. When it’s done, the quinoa will have absorbed all the water and the edges of the seed will separate a bit. It kind of looks like the seeds have little tails. Properly cooked quinoa is fluffy, not soggy or mushy. This recipe will make almost 3 cups of cooked quinoa.

How do you use quinoa?

Quinoa is a very versatile ingredient, and its mild flavor makes it suitable for all kinds of application. Serve it warm as a breakfast cereal with a dollop of vanilla yogurt and fresh blueberries (talk about a power breakfast!), or season it with herbs and spices as a bed for fish, meat or vegetables. You can also toss it into a salad in place of other grains such as rice or barley, or add it to soup for texture and protein.

Now, about this recipe for Colorful Sweet Potato Quinoa Salad…

It’s colorful, has texture and flavor galore, and so satisfying. What’s not to like?

Ingredients

2 cups cooked quinoa (I used tri-color)

1 large sweet potato (mine was a little bigger than the can of beans)

Extra virgin olive oil

Kosher salt, black pepper and cumin

1 can (15 oz.) black beans, drained and rinsed

1/2 medium red onion, chopped

1 cup frozen sweet corn*

2 Tbsp. chopped pickled jalapeno (optional)

Fresh chopped parsley or cilantro for serving

*My preferred corn for this would have been the fire roasted sweet corn from Trader Joe’s, but all we had in the freezer was this southwestern corn, and it worked great! Next time, I’ll probably add chopped red pepper to this recipe.

They will never convince me that it’s safe to steam food in a plastic bag.
I used about half this bag, from frozen, and the recipe turned out great.

Ingredients – the Dressing

Juice of one lime

1 clove garlic, finely minced

Pinch of sugar (I used coconut sugar)

1/2 tsp. Dijon mustard

Kosher salt, black pepper, cumin and (optional) ground chipotle

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Instructions

Preheat oven to 400° F. Peel sweet potato and cut into large, bite-size chunks. Toss on parchment lined baking sheet with a generous drizzle of olive oil, season with salt, pepper and cumin to taste, and roast about 20 minutes. Sweet potato chunks should be tender enough to pierce with a fork but not soft enough to smash. Set aside to cool.

Heat a small skillet over medium heat and add a swirl of olive oil. Sauté red onions about 5 minutes, or just until lightly softened. Add frozen corn, salt and pepper to taste, and cook just until corn is heated through.

In a large bowl, combine drained beans, cooked quinoa, roasted and cooled sweet potato, corn with onions, and chopped jalapeno.

Arranging the ingredients in the bowl this way helps me gauge how much of each is correct.

In a glass measuring cup, combine lime juice with Dijon, garlic and spices (use cumin and optional chipotle to your own taste), then whisk olive oil into the mixture until emulsified and slightly thickened. Taste the dressing and adjust as desired. Pour the dressing over the bowl ingredients, toss and serve.

We enjoyed this warm as a Meatless Monday entrée, but it would also be good as a side salad to chicken, burgers or fish, and the leftovers were just as delicious cold from the fridge.

Meatless Monday, easy and done!

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Hearts of Palm Citrus “Ceviche”

In case you haven’t tried them (or maybe even heard of them), hearts of palm are exactly as the name implies—the inner core of a palm plant. For whatever reason, you don’t often see them on restaurant menus, unless you’re in a swanky place with chandeliers and linen napkins and one of those servers who is compulsively whisking the crumbs off your table. I first learned of them during my tenure as a part-time catering kitchen helper, and though I didn’t mind hearts of palm, I have largely ignored them.

Until now.

There’s nothing terribly exciting about hearts of palm on their own—they’re neither strong in flavor nor impressive to look at. They’re just slender, creamy white-colored stalks which you might occasionally find playing a background role in a salad. But ever since I spotted a faux crab cake recipe on Pinterest, where hearts of palm stood in for crab, I’ve had it in my mind to give them a starring role in a vegan version of ceviche, and you know what? It works!

Ceviche is traditionally a tropical appetizer type of dish, centered on raw fish cured with citrus juices, and it is usually flavored up with some combination of onions, hot peppers, cilantro and avocado. But this is a Kentucky Derby party, so we are putting a classy twist on those ingredients, serving it up salad style, and swapping out the tropical notes for fresh spring flavors—cucumber and mint. Along the way, I’ll show you some of the easy tricks I learned from my catering mentors for making a dish prettier—which, obviously, also makes it tastier. Enjoy!

Ingredients

1/2 large pink or ruby red grapefruit, cut into sections, reserve juice
Juice of 1 fresh lime, divided
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
1 tsp. sugar* (see catering tips)
1/4 cup (4 Tbsp.) extra virgin olive oil (mild flavor)
2 Persian cucumbers, peeled* and cut lengthwise, then sliced into half moons
1 can (14 oz.) hearts of palm, chilled in fridge
2 Tbsp. finely chopped red onion
1/2 small, firm avocado
Mixed baby greens or leaf lettuce
Chopped parsley and mint leaves for garnish

Instructions

Section your grapefruit by cutting in half crosswise, then running a knife first around the outside edge of one half, then up close to each side of the section membranes. Spoon out the sections into a medium bowl and strain the remaining grapefruit peel over a measuring cup to save all the juice. Wrap the remaining grapefruit half and save it for another use.

Juice 1/2 of the lime, and add about 1 Tbsp. of the reserved grapefruit juice. Whisk in Dijon mustard and salt and pepper to taste. Add olive oil in a stream, whisking constantly, until dressing is thick and emulsified. If your olive oil is very robust, substitute something neutral—avocado or canola oil would be good.

Cut the avocado in half, carefully split the halves apart and use a paring knife to cut a crosshatch design into the flesh, then spoon around the edges to release the avocado pieces into the bowl with the grapefruit pieces. Immediately squeeze the remaining half of lime over the avocado to prevent browning. Squeeze any remaining lime juice into the dressing.

Drain hearts of palm. Blot dry on paper towels, cut lengthwise into quarters, then slice into 1/2” pieces and empty into a medium bowl with red onions, grapefruit sections, cucumbers and avocado pieces.

Pour dressing over hearts of palm mixture and gently fold with a rubber spatula to coat the salad with the dressing. Don’t stir the mixture, lest you reduce the avocado and hearts of palm to a mushy mess. Refrigerate up to an hour before serving a generous spoonful of “ceviche” atop a mound of mixed greens, and garnish with the chopped parsley and mint. If you happen to have some of my grandmother’s beautiful Depression glass fruit bowls, use those!

On a bed of baby greens and spinach, this is so pretty.

*Catering Tips

If you’re making the cucumber or mint simple syrups for the Kentucky Derby Sips recipes, substitute a couple teaspoons of that for the sugar here. When you repeat a flavor across different elements of your meal, it’s called “echoing,” and it helps tie things together in your senses. You don’t want to go overboard, of course, or everything will taste the same. But here, it will be cool and refreshing, a contrast to the rich hot browns, and in harmony with your Sparkly Britches or Kentucky Love Child (you can’t imagine how goofy it feels to write that sentence).

This weird looking little thing is one of my favorite tools for creating a prettier presentation. You should get one of these.

A garnish zester can be used in a couple of ways—a quick scrape of a lemon with the five tiny holes produces tiny shreds of zest, and in this recipe, I’ve used the channel blade to strip away part (but not all) of the cucumber peel. It’s also fine to peel the whole thing, but I think this elevates the look of the pieces. In hindsight, I could have also prepped some of the grapefruit zest for the top of the salad. Next time!

The bed of baby greens is edible of course (everything you put on a plate should be, including flowers), but it also serves two other purposes—visually, it’s prettier than the salad in a bowl by itself, and the lettuce also allows excess dressing to run underneath, which keeps your salad from getting mushy.

If you’re serving a salad for a crowd (Have hope—one day we will meet again this way!), consider a platter rather than a bowl. Line it with greens, as suggested for single serving on this recipe, and spoon the mixture over the leaves. It’s an easy way to really show off the pretty dish you’ve made and gives the impression of a larger dish. (Don’t forget to use a clean damp towel to tidy up the platter!)

A professional would never leave drips on the plate. Be a professional.

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