My Kind of Caviar

These beautiful little jewels are beluga lentils. Protein packed, easy to cook, and uncannily similar in appearance to caviar, beluga lentils or black lentils, can transform your next soiree into an elegant affair. Who needs to plunk down $100 for a can of salty fish eggs when you can have a heaping jar of nutty, flavorful lentils for around $2?

I’m the queen of thrifty eating. I’ve been known to get out the calculator and tally up the per serving cost of my daily meals. Lentils are a huge bang for your buck. They’re cheap and nutritious, high in protein, iron and vitamin B1, and they taste great.

Beluga Lentil “Caviar”

1 cup lentils
4 cups salted water
2 tblsp red wine vinegar
1 tblsp extra virgin olive oil
Salt to taste

Lentils require a 1:4 cooking ratio. This makes quite a lot of lentils. To half the recipe, simply use 1/2cup lentils and 2.5 cups of water. Bring the water to a boil, add salt to taste. Add lentils and cook covered for 20-25mins. After lentils have absorbed the water, add vinegar and olive oil.

This simplest of recipes also works great on top of salads, as a side dish for fish, or mixed with rice.

I made this dainty appetizer with the lentil caviar, a dollop of creme fraiche and a sliver of sundried tomato as a garnish.


Who’s ready for their next cocktail party?


Caprese, mon amour

Probably the best thing about summer cooking is that it takes so little to make something wonderful.
Think about it.
Winter revolves around generating heat, warming yourself over the hot oven, roasting tubers and boiling soups, glutting on fat and starch and heavy cream.
Chicago’s long, ragged season of frost lasts for nearly six months and the summers are short, and often brutally hot and humid.

I don’t want to bother with an oven right now. So, it’s a good thing I have a long, varied playlist of salads in my mental repertoire. I am so good at combining raw vegetables and fruits that I even considered becoming a raw vegan at one point! Seriously. And with all this juicy, summertime produce laying around, why bother messing with perfection?

I think a nice Caprese salad is just about one of the best things ever thought up by the human mind. Shakespeare? Meh, I could take it or leave it, but bring on the Caprese!

All you really need to make a delicious caprese salad are the following ingredients:
Really good heirloom tomatoes, bright red and at their peak of ripeness.
Really good mozzarella, not the spongy, block kind of processed mozarella, but real, honest-to-goodness, soft mozzarella packed in brine.
Really good basil, I prefer large leaves, deep green and fragrant.
Really good olive oil, extra virgin, preferably cold pressed, with a lovely greenish-yellow sheen and a buttery flavor.
(P.S. Spectrum makes the best olive oil I’ve ever tasted in my life).

Cut the tomatoes and the mozzarella in thick, hearty slices. Alternate tomato slices with basil leaves, then mozzarella slices. Sprinkle with sea salt and coarse black pepper and drizzle with olive oil.
I think the best way to enjoy caprese is while reclining, on a beach, or in a hammock or the sunny greenery of your own backyard.


Cucumber and Mint

Crisp and refreshing, those are the words I want to describe every meal I make from now until September.
I’ve lost my appetite for just about anything heated, as I sit in my sweltering living room and try to survive the 90 degree temps without air conditioning.

It’s salads and sandwiches for us, with maybe a popsicle or two for good measure.

When I think of cool and refreshing summer dishes, I think a nice, chilled cucumber and mint soup.
How can you go wrong? Not only is it fast to whip up, it tastes like something you spent all day slaving over. Big on flavor, low on labor. That’s my favorite kind of summer “cooking.”

Chilled Cucumber Soup
2 large English cucumbers (the long, thin variety)
1/4 small red onion
6oz fresh mint
1 cup chilled water
Juice of 1 lemon
Sea salt to taste
Dollop of yogurt

Peel and de-seed cucumbers, cut into 1/2 inch chunks. Set aside in large bowl. Dice onions and add to cucumbers. Roughly chop the mint and add to cucumbers. Pour water and lemon juice into large blender, add about 1/4 of the cuke mixture. Blend until only slightly chunky. Keep adding cucumber/onion/mint mixture until all is finely blended. I like a slightly pulpy texture to the final product. Add sea salt to taste (I put in about 1/2 tsp).
Top with a dollop of yogurt.

That’s all.
That’s it.
You can whip this up and serve as a refreshing appetizer for your BBQ or your cocktail party.
There’s no way you can eat this and not feel refreshed.


The Chicago Dog

Can you believe I’ve lived in Chicago for nearly two years and have never managed to eat a Chicago dog?
It shouldn’t be a surprise to people who know me personally, but I’m not much of a meat fan.
Hotdogs especially make me suspicious. Aside from a brief period in my pre-kindergarten years when I enjoyed noshing on uncooked weiners straight from the package, I have largely managed to avoid most tube-shaped, processed meat products. You just never know what’s in those things.
Since I don’t have a natural appetite for hotdogs, I have never stood in a two hour line outside Hot Doug’s or gone for a late night, drunken, catcalling, weenie-fest at The Weiner’s Circle, nor have I ever grubbed at Chubby Weiner’s in Lincoln Square, a corner store bedecked with a giant, cartoon hotdog outside it’s entrance. I feel like I’m missing an essential Chicago experience.

Chicago loves hotdogs and it’s hard to blend in and pretend to be a true Chicagoan when you don’t partake.
So in the spirit of getting to know my new hometown a little better, I’ve decided to finally try out the Chicago dog, sans the actual dog.

But first, a little background: Chicago hotdog lore has the Chicago-style hotdog originating sometime during the Great Depression around the famous and now non-existent Maxwell Street Market. Nowadays, there are hotdog joints galore and a particularly cult-like following for the hometown favorite.

The ingredients, listed in topping order, are:
1. poppyseed bun
2. yellow mustard
3. two tomato wedges
4. a dill pickle spear
5. chopped white onions
6. pickled sport peppers
7. neon green sweet relish (which is somewhat difficult to find outside of Chicago)
8. a sprinkling of celery salt
9. Never, ever, ever ketchup

When it’s all said and done it should look a little something like this:

Technically, a Chicago dog is made with a Vienna beef hotdog, but the results are easy enough to replicate using a faux-dog. As a side note: my favorite brand of fake weenie is Lightlife Smartdogs, I find them eerily realistic in texture and flavor.

So what did I think of the famous Chicago dog?

Amazing!

Really. I grew up eating hotdogs with mustard and ketchup and maybe, if things got fancy, a little relish. Most of the time, we didn’t have buns and used a folded slice of bread, resulting in a soggy doggy mess. The Chicago dog is a revelation. With two, ripe tomato wedges, I honestly didn’t miss the ketchup and that’s saying something because I’m a ketchup fiend. I don’t really understand the aversion to ketchup in Chicago, it may have something to do with this particular type of hotdog pre-dating the corn syrup sweetened Heinz ketchup we all have come to love.
I had a hard time tracking down “sport peppers,” and I had to settle for pepperoncini instead. Why did it take me so long to put hot peppers on a hotdog? Genius!
Yes, Chicago gets props for it’s salad-dog, as I like to call it.

Just be careful and make sure you have a plate conveniently placed directly below the fist that’s stuffing the dog in your mouth, otherwise you’ll probably have to change your shirt.


Conjuring Spring

Cold and Rainy. That’s Chicago in April and it’s so not fair. I read that my old hometown Phoenix, Arizona was approaching its first 100 degree temp. I’m kind of jealous. Six months of unrelenting cold weather has practically broken my spirit. I just want a little bit of sunshine, the teeniest bit of warmth. It doesn’t help that my Chris is studying abroad in Germany for the next two months and will miss the season completely. Spring is on its way and I’ll just have to enjoy it by my lonesome.

There’s something about spring, isn’t there? It’s a time for return, a resurrection from the agonizingly long winter. Everything sparkles with the glow of new life as trees begin to bud and blossom and baby birds chirp from their nests. I’m bursting with excitement for the warm days ahead. I can’t wait for the fresh produce and farmers’ markets waiting around the corner. Until the sun starts shining, I’m going to have to settle for a little spring in the kitchen.

Citrus always reminds me warm weather. Just close your eyes and think about lemonade, sweet navel oranges, bright green limes. Oh, can’t you just feel the summer sun bristling against your skin? I am trying, really trying to get there in one piece. So here’s a pasta salad I made the other day, because pasta salad reminds me of picnics and picnics remind me of summer. I’m always amazed at the wonderful things that can be done with a single lemon, some olive oil and fresh herbs. I used orzo, a rice-shaped pasta, but really any pasta will do.

Lemon Basil Orzo Salad
1 cup of orzo pasta
Juice of 1 lemon
1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
½-1 tsp sea salt
1 large clove garlic
2-3 sprigs of fresh basil
1 small tomato
1 tsp coarse ground black pepper
3-4 stalks of asparagus

In a quart size pot, bring 6 cups of water to a boil. Add the orzo and cook for 5-7 minutes. Be careful not to overcook the orzo, it should be slightly al dente. Drain and rinse with cold water.

Cut the asparagus into quarters and blanch in boiling water for 1 min. You don’t want to boil the asparagus. Plunge into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process. This will make the asparagus nice and crisp.

For the dressing: crush the garlic clove with the sea salt until there is a fine pulp. You can do this with the back of the knife, or use a mortar and pestle. In a small dish or bowl, add the lemon juice and continue crushing. Slowly add the olive oil while mixing.

Slice the fresh basil into strips and add to the dressing.

Chop the tomato into large chunks.

Mix all the ingredients and top with pepper. Serve on a bed of fresh spinach. (You can double the dressing recipe and dress the spinach for extra zing.)

I am convinced that by making this dish I am effectively expunging all traces of winter from my kitchen. This pasta salad will make the seasons finally change, the cold winds will blow far out over the sea, the heat will settle over my tiny corner of the city, and I will finally have a sunny day.
Let’s hope it works.


Blueberry Morning

I love breakfast. I love that feeling of waking up after a good sleep, stomach rumbling and ready to fill, and preparing the first meal of the day. How the aroma of freshly ground coffee beans entices me, the sizzling of a griddle like an ode to the morning, and ah, the feeling of utter satisfaction as my hunger pains are quelled by, pancakes, omelets, waffles, muffins, crepes…

I have a special kind of hatred for cereal. The last thing I want on a frigid, snowy morning is a bowl of mush drenched in cold milk. Blech.
When I was a kid it was usually catch as catch can in my house, and there were plenty of days that began with cereal or overcooked slop served in the school cafeteria. Rehydrated eggs tinged green, little plastic cups of sugary orange juice and patties of grayish sausages that sat in puddles of water as if they had been boiled, were a part of daily life during the less fortunate portions of my impoverished upbringing. But on weekends, I used to wake up and make french toast with leftover, slightly stale bread for my brothers and sister. Sometimes my sister and I would make scrambled eggs with a side of tomatoes in vinaigrette. I learned through my own experience that the first meal of the day should take a little extra time and care.

A hearty breakfast sets the tone for my day and keeps me alert on my nearly two hour commute on the subway. Usually I have a slice of toast with hummus or jam and a piece of fruit, or a bowl of oatmeal, but on Saturdays, I like to indulge in a grander affair. I make whole wheat pancakes, blueberry jam, frittata served hot, and don’t forget the maple syrup. Oh, if only the entire world were drenched in sweet, sweet maple syrup, what a world that would be.

Last weekend, I got these amazing, giant and juicy organic blueberries that were just calling out to me. When I ran into a recipe for baked oatmeal, I knew it was the perfect vehicle for these blueberries. I took a relatively fat and sugar laden recipe and made it my own.

Baked Blueberry Oatmeal
1 ½ cups quick oats
¼ cup molasses
1 Tbsp evaporated cane sugar
¾ cup milk
¼ olive oil
1 egg (or the equivalent, to cut fat you can use a ¼ cup of applesauce instead)
2 Tbsp flax seed meal
¼ cup sliced almonds (optional)
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
½ cup fresh blueberries

Preheat oven to 350. Mix all the ingredients in a 9×9 baking dish. Bake for 20-25 mins.

That’s it. Flax seeds are a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, which as we all know, helps protect arteries and the heart from building up cholesterol. Oatmeal and flax go well together as flavor components. They are both nutty and the creaminess of the oats compliments the slight bitter taste of flax.

The original recipe called for ¼ cup butter, and a ½ cup of sugar. I’ve made it healthier with flax, replacing the butter for olive oil and trading the sugar with molasses and evaporated cane sugar. Molasses is much healthier than processed sugar, it retains vitamins and minerals lost in the refining process. It is slightly less sweet than sugar, so I add a titch of unprocessed cane sugar to boost the sweetness a bit. I think in the future a mashed banana would do better for sweetness or a few chopped dates rather than adding more sugar.

This is my kind of hot breakfast. Stick to your ribs goodness.


Spanakotiropita with a Twist

I’m a novice when it comes to Mediterranean cooking. I have never traveled to Greece or Italy or Southern France; I have only the romantic notions of the region instilled through literature and my experiences patronizing Mediterranean restaurants in Chicago. Last year I fell in love with a beautiful Greek cookbook that practically winked at me from the library shelf, Vefa’s Kitchen. The book inspired me to try a few things for myself with its excellent writing and gorgeous photographs.

I settled on spanakotiropita, the classic spinach and cheese pie of Greek legend. My first go went remarkably well for an initial effort. I have to confess, I cut a few corners. There is simply no way, in my pint-sized kitchen, where there exists a meager one square foot of available counter space, and a moderately sized, wobbly kitchen table to do all my chopping and mixing, that I can roll out footlong sheets of phyllo. I used frozen phyllo, but the recipe still required that each layer be painstakingly brushed with olive oil. The spinach was cleaned, chopped, boiled, strained and squeezed of excess liquid, the dill was washed and chopped finely, mixed with thinly sliced scallions and slowly folded into the egg and feta mixture for even distribution.

The end product supported the authenticity of the recipe. The phyllo flaked perfectly, the spinach was soft without being spongy, the feta dotted the filling in even striations. The seemingly simple, rustic dish took far more effort than anticipated, but darn if it didn’t pay off.

It has been nearly a year since my last spinach pie, so a week ago I went ahead and bought phyllo dough, spinach, feta, dill, and scallions with the intention of recreating the magic. Exhaustion and hunger got the better of me by the middle of the week and I decided to make a frittata variation instead. This crustless wonder retains the spirit of the original with about half the work and is just as delectable and filling. Added bonus: it’s gluten free!*

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Spanakotiropita Frittata
Two cups spinach, either frozen or fresh will do, chopped, Boiled a few minutes until softened, drained and squeezed of excess moisture.
2-3 thinly sliced scallions
2 Tbsp chopped, fresh dill
1/2 cup crumbled feta
4 eggs
3-4 Tbsp milk
salt and pepper to taste

Combine eggs and milk and whisk until blended. In a separate bowl, combine spinach, feta and herbs. Slowly fold in the spinach mixture to avoid clumps. Pre-heat oven to 375.
In a lightly oiled 9×9 baking dish or small cast iron skillet, add the mixture and cook over medium high heat for 5mins to brown the bottom. Then transfer pan to the oven and continue cooking for 10-15mins, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

This is truly divine and delicious. It makes for an elegant brunch or a quick dinner.

*I do not have any allergies or problems with gluten, but I’ve heard that too much gluten is a bad thing. I personally try to cut back on wheat.