Fresh fig season is coming to a close here in Chicago. Yes, it might seem a little silly to refer to Chicago as having a "fig season", or anything season really. We don't have orchards, vineyards or even cornfields really until you're miles out of the city center. And yet, here are figs for a limited time only, shipped in from somewhere where they have such things.
This recipe is a great excuse to pick up a basket of the last of the Fall fruit. I use black Mission figs since they're most common here, and they have a pretty deep purple color that goes well with the green jalapenos (why shouldn't food color coordinate?).
Look for figs that are plump (love that word), and don't have a "dusty" look because that means mold. They should smell sweet, or else they're not ripe yet. The sweet gooey-ness of a good batch of these combined with tangy goat cheese and a little smoky bite from jalapenos...good stuff.
My dear friend Tifanie sent me a great story about her recent adventures making composed warm salads. I was so happy to think of her humming around her new Manhattan kitchen with arms full of blue potatoes and heirloom this or that tossing it with abandon into effortlessly chic (just the same as she does everything) and delicious piles of goodness.
It got me thinking about the composed main-course salad on the whole as being a great way to throw together something relatively easily for unexpected company on a Sunday afternoon using whatever is available in your kitchen. For those of us for whom "composed" or "chic" aren't exactly "effortless" (me, very notably) it seems to me all you have to do is follow a formula for success...
Over a bed of greens layer 2 or more of the following elements: A protein: grilled chicken or steak, chickpeas, poached fish, soft-boiled eggs, you name it. A starch: boiled potatoes, wild rice box mixes, Israeli couscous, small-sized pasta. A cooked vegetable: sauteed French green beans, beets with citrus fruit, caramelized onions.
Just locate items in your kitchen that are similar to these, cook it up separately, then pile on a plate and serve to guests! Healthy, delicious, and only one plate to wash! Your friends with be in awe of your talents in the kitchen, and your consideration for their fat intake...and most importantly, they will never need to know that moments before they dropped by you were eating potato chips in sweatpants and watching cartoons. Everybody wins!
For this version I used just exactly what I had lying around the kitchen to throw this together:
3 Russet potatoes, cubed and boiled
Small handfull of fresh chives
1 tsp sesame oil
What I had for the Green Beans...
2 cups frozen French green beans (I love the Trader Joe's brand!)
Small handful of slivered almonds
1 clove of garlic
1 tsp Szechuan peppercorns (use black and some red pepper flakes if you don't have this)
1 tsp orange zest
1 Tbsp ponzu soy sauce (or mixing regular soy w/a squeeze of lime/lemon juice gets you close)
What to do with it all...
For potatoes simply toss all ingredients and set aside.
Heat vegetable oil in medium pan and add almonds and frozen green beans and sauté for 5 minutes, covered, on medium. Add the rest of your ingredients and sauté for another 10 minutes until cooked. Serve immediately over greens and topped with potatoes!
It's not often that I get to grill dates and olives...ok, I'd never grilled dates or olives before this. And while I know that technically the grilling season is over, this dish is very much fall-themed. A "tagine" dish typically refers to the conical lidded dish used throughout Northern Africa. The food slow cooks in the tagine with spices, olives and often dates (and preserved lemon but I didn't have that). I decided to forgo spending the $60 + for a tagine (for now) and see what a the grill would do for the same ingredients!
I start with the marinade for the lamb. Dried oregano, chili flakes, a few crushed garlic cloves, fresh mint & fennel fronds, lemon juice and ground coriander and cinnamon are added to a pound of cubed lamb along with sea salt and pepper. It marinates for an hour and then gets skewered with alternating pitted Medjool dates and pitted Kalamata olives (the stick goes right thru the holes!).
Brush with olive oil and it's on to the grill with fingers crossed! I'm worried the dates will shrivel into burnt gooey raisins or the olives will fall off the skewers...but all is well so far... I place directly over coals/flame until desired doneness is attained. This depends on your grill and can be 10 or 20 mins. The results were fantastic: the dates became nicely caramelized, the olives smoky. It's worth it to brush the leaves off the grill one more time... I served mine with pan-friend whole mushrooms dressed in butter and fresh tarragon and a plum chutney on the side!
I came out of the movie The Last Samurai embarrassingly choked up at yet another lame major studio production (stupid Ken Watanabe and his cherry blossoms!), but also with a serious craving for some fresh sashimi. Reading Cold Mountain left me hankerin' for some good corn pone and beans (and I didn't really even know exactly what 'pone' was at the time, I just knew it sounded kind of delicious and they couldn't get enough of it around there apparently), while Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events had me running out to the store for the ingredients for my own sugo alla puttanesca. What can I say - my tummy is highly suggestible. Obviously it's not alone, however, or millions of ad dollars wouldn't pay for towering flame-broiled burgers to whiz past your TV screen at every commercial break as you're TIVO-ing ahead to The Office.
It's these cravings that have led me to start exploring the food I watch and read about... mostly because I'm tired of the soggy, drool-covered pages in my copy of Like Water For Chocolate. Unlike Water For Chocolate, however, movies and books rarely spend the time to hand you recipes and instructions for making the food in them. Therefore, I've been forced to figure it out on my own. I think of this as a sort of wine and cheese pairing: a recipe to make and enjoy watching your movie, or read about the actual food you have bubbling on the stove next to you on a chilly Fall evening. It's like taste-o-vision, or 3-Dreading.
Artist's very accurate rendition of the origins of Pasta Puttanesca
I picked Pasta Puttanesca as my first recipe because it's one of my favorite dishes and Lemony Snicket one of my favorite movies (I can't speak for the books, sorry). Another really good reason? Claus remarks to Violet in the movie: "Pasta Puttanesca... that's Italian for very few ingredients, you know." Not exactly... it actually means "whore's pasta". Yeah. There's obviously a story to that... the most popular being that prostitutes in the 1950s (when the name was coined) were only allowed one day a week to shop for their groceries so they made their sauce with whatever was in the pantry - jarred olives and capers being two of those. Another theory is that because the houses of prostitution at the time were state run, they were required to keep their windows and doors shuttered to avoid exposing the public to the vices within. Therefore, the girls would cook a signature and pungent sauce that would attract customers to the door. Either way, it is the best name for a pasta sauce on planet.
Some recipes for Puttanesca will call for anchovies. I have opted, instead, for the more people-friendly (and less hairy) artichoke hearts. Frozen work best as they don't disintegrate or have any citric acid from canning to make them too tart with all rest of the vinegary things. You can find them at Trader Joe's and plenty of the "super" variety of markets. The artichokes give the sauce a rich, almost "meaty" flavor. The sauce takes a little prep time, as it has fresh, canned whole, and paste tomatoes but it is worth it. The varieties give the sauce depth and balances the consistency. If you want the Lemony Snicket feel, go get the mix of pasta varieties I mention - it'll look like it was pulled straight from the rusty tool drawer (for once that's a good thing!).
Celluloid + Paper Recipe: Pasta Puttanesca
Hands on prep time: 20 mins Total cook time: 1 1/2 hrs Special tools: large heavy bottom stock pot or similar, a hand blender, food processor or potato masher
What to get for the sauce
1 28 oz can of whole stewed tomatoes
1 6 oz can tomato paste
4 medium vine-ripened tomatoes (or best available - usually Romas) 8 oz frozen artichoke hearts
2/3 cup Italian green & black olives - mixed (buy the good ones and pit them yourself, it's worth it)
1/2 cup capers
1/2 cup sweet Marsala wine (or any sweet red wine)
1 handful of fresh sweet basil, chopped
4 medium shallots - diced
1 head of garlic
1 small wedge of Parmisiano-Reggiano rind (available at Italian food markets and sometimes TJ's; you can use 1/2 cup of shredded good parm if you can't find this)
Salt & pepper
Red pepper flakes (to taste)
What to get for the pasta - Fusilli col buco (long corkscrews), rotini, spaghetti, bowties, etc.
What to do with it all
Turn oven to 350 degrees and cut the top off of your garlic bulb so that the cloves are exposed. Drizzle on olive oil and wrap loosely in tin foil. Toss into oven and roast until soft while you prep and cook your sauce (about 45 mins). Add olive oil, shallots and frozen artichoke hearts to your large pot and cook on medium-low for 10 mins. While that's cooking, prep your stewed tomatoes by removing seeds of each tomato and dicing - set aside. Pour the Marsala wine into the pot to "deglaze", add your diced stewed tomatoes, can of tomato paste, Parmesan rind, salt & pepper and stir (if you are using shredded parm, wait until the end when all of the rest of the ingredients are added). Cook on a very low bubble, covered, for 45 minutes (add more Marsala wine or water if it looks too thick). While this is cooking, prep your fresh tomatoes by starting a medium pan of water boiling and adding ice water to a medium bowl. Once it reaches a roiling boil, drop in one tomato and let boil for 1 min. Then remove and place into ice bath. This will make removing the skin easy. Repeat for each tomato and then dice, removing seeds, and set the tomatoes aside. After the sauce has been simmering for 45 mins, remove garlic from oven and squeeze the cloves out into sauce. Add the rest of the ingredients, plus more salt and pepper. Cook for another 15 mins and then remove cheese rind and pulse the sauce on low with a hand blender until it's got a nice "light chunky" consistency. You can also ladle into a food processor or mash with a hand potato masher. You can add more whole capers, diced olives, and drizzle a little more olive oil at this point and let cool.
Makes approx. 3 standard spaghetti sauce jars worth of sauce.
I always remembered that line in Forrest Gump. It stuck in my head without a place to use it from 1994 until recently. Now I use it when referring to my boyfriend Jason and me (cause we do go together awfully well). And that, naturally, led me to me to name a blog in honor of us and our corresponding love of food.
It's named this, too, not just because of the quote, but because of Good Housekeeping magazines from the 1950s. Leaf thru just one issue and you will see what I mean. Pages of recipes so hideously inedible looking that it's downright good entertainment and impossible not to be utterly fascinating. Jellied ham and tuna molds, Vienna sausages in blankets and, of course, the ubiquitous frozen pea and carrot side dishes looking gray and dejected playing the support role to equally blanched-pale haunches of meat. All decorated with garish pimento pinwheels or radish rosettes... which is like putting makeup on a pig and just as perplexing.
It would seem the reason for the all this had something to do with World War II ending. Suddenly rationing was over so meat, eggs and dairy abounded. A flurry of technological advances had also brought frozen convenience goods into the everyday life. So here's the 1950's housewife, hypnotized by the bright electric hum of the freezer aisles and glossy rows of packaged butt roasts sunning themselves under the florescents in the newly born Supermarket. After years of shelling beans and eating boiled potatoes this will apparently make you go wild with food lust and begin constructing hideously mad dishes like Spam 'n' Limas.
While I'm glad we've since removed the deviled eggs from our eyes as far as food sense, I do sometimes oddly long for the nostalgia of a time I didn't live in. A time when I could deliver a tower of meat and vegetables encased in gelatin to a dinner table with a straight face. A proud face, even. And while I suppress the urge to make some of these unsavory dishes, I am left with the desire to "improve" upon some of the original favorites out of an odd respect to keep them alive. Dishes that might seem silly now, but were born out of a certain kind of hopeful nation on the other side of WWII. After all, it was what people ate as they returned from war to the dinner tables, and they were the first meals of the most influential generation of our time: the Baby Boomers.
So why not have peas and carrots? After, they really do go together so nicely... this version joins the 21st century with the addition of fresh mint, garam masala and orange zest. By the way, if you don't have a microplane grater, I highly recommend investing in one. They're not only practical and inexpensive, they're actually rather fun and I find myself creating excuses to "zest" things all the time... which leads to a refrigerator full of bald, slightly embarrassed-looking citrus fruit but some very tasty food. Go buy now!
Recipe: Peas ♥ Carrots
What to get
8 ounces of fresh or frozen peas (if frozen, keep them this way until they hit the pan)
Heat a medium skillet over medium heat for a few seconds before adding the diced bacon (I actually like to use kitchen shears for this and cut directly over the pan). Fry bacon until crisp and then remove. Add carrots to the bacon drippings and sauté for 7 minutes then reduce to low and add shallots with a sprinkling of salt. Salt removes moisture from vegetables so it's good here because you want to soften the shallots, not sauté them which would add some bitterness in this case. After about 5 minutes the shallots will be translucent and carrots will have given up some tasty juices. Turn the heat back to medium and add the rest of the ingredients and return the bacon. Sauté until the peas are cooked but not soggy (about 5 mins).
Fresh mint - Fresh tarragon or dry dill. Dry mint is a no-no as it doesn't retain a fresh taste very well.
Culinary pursuits were ever-present in the house that Mathea grew up in. Born to a Greek-American mother and French-Irish father with roots in the American South, there was always an assortment of dishes from Apple pie to Tsaziki being made.
She is a Chicago-based freelance writer/photographer balancing her passions with her 9-to-5 as an assistant and studies at DePaul University.
Here is the very first introductory post to Peas Love Carrots from October 2009...
I've put this off long enough. The "introduction" post. I have recipes and pictures and a whole head full of what I hope are super cool things to fill a blog with...and it's all piling up behind the task of this very necessary first post. For so long I've wanted to show you how incredibly freeing and fun the kitchen can be. Thru my eyes. Share the fretted-over recipes I've squirreled away into an obese file (ok, it's a Mac desktop file, but it can still be fat). The neat restaurant and odd food fact articles. Kitchen know-how I picked up from a truly quirky Greek-American cooking heritage. Kitchen disasters and proud fearless moments...and yet I still couldn't seem to get this started and had begun to come up with all kinds of excuses:
My head hurts.
I'm not in a "writing" mood.
I was attacked by man in a Subway sandwich costume and am now temporarily food-traumatized.
Ok, so that last one wasn't something that has actually happened to me, but I imagine it could have once as I stood waiting for an express bus in the South Loop and had a man so fed up with people not taking his coupon leaflets that he lost it and started screaming in people's faces "WHAT WILL IT TAKE FOR YOU TO LOOK AT ME??? I'M GIVING AWAY FREE FOOD FOR CHRIST'S SAKE!!!" I could sort of see his point but still...I have never stopped imagining what would've happened had he started flailing those oversized Mickey Mouse-style mitts at everyone.
With all these excuses popping up day after day, I had to start to ask myself why I was so incredibly hesitant to write this first little piece. It can't be shyness, can it? There have been more times than I can count that people have come up to me and said "Mathea! I remember the first time I met you - you were asking homeless people on the street to join us for breakfast/stealing restaurant silverware to give as gifts to the people you were dining with/wearing a bikini over your clothes at a bar and trying to get people to dance with you (no one would, oddly). Though I'm often surprised at myself when I hear these things mentioned out of context, the theme is clear: I'm not afraid to make a fool of myself if it means keeping people entertained. And if I can do it in person, doing it here on the faceless internet should not be an issue.
The answer came to me this morning as so many things occur to a person - as I was washing my hair in the shower. I'm not sure what it is about the shower, but I get a lot of my best thinking done there or at some other point during my morning ablutions. I don't think I'm alone in that because I've seen plenty of movies where a person stops mid-tooth brushing and stares in the mirror with that light bulb-over-the-head look and then runs off to rescue their kidnapped child or whatever armed with this brand new bathroom delivered epiphany. Anybody else want to back me up on this?
Anyway, so there I was washing my hair...and I realized that this all had to do with me hating small talk at parties. The part where you say what you do for a living. How long you've lived where you live. Whether or not you've seen any good movies lately. If this is something you are good at, or even enjoy, I admire you. To me this is agonizingly painful. A necessary evil, maybe, but I find myself wishing there was a fast forward button on the conversation so we can get to the part where we've been friends for 5 years and are laughing over "Remember whens". Or in this case, the part where I'm cooking in my kitchen and sharing tips while I wear a bikini over my apron. I'll bet 10 to 1 you'd remember the cooking tips way better this way, too!
So then I thought, why not do that? Why not jump into the blog as if I've been writing it for 5 years? After all, it's my blog and I can do whatever I want. Truth be told, some would say I'm late to the trend anyway, so it'll be my little way of playing catch up with the other food bloggers. As soon as this occurred to me, my anxiety miraculously disappeared, and I headed over to the computer to type.
So I'll start this post with "Hello", and end it with "Do you remember when you and I made those amazing peas and carrots together and then we practiced our Muppet Swedish Chef impersonations? No? Well, let me share the recipe to refresh your memory..."