When traveling, I always have mixed feelings about relying on guidebooks for restaurant and bar suggestions. On the one hand, when you’re in a strange city and have no idea where to go, you might not want to spend limited funds taking a chance on a place that could be a dud. On the other hand, you might miss out on the opportunity to discover something wonderful that you wouldn’t have come upon if you were blindly following a book’s suggestions. Not to mention that guidebook-endorsed restaurants are often full of all the other tourists who bought the same book!
In Seville, as it happens, we came upon a microscopic bar (you can see pretty much the whole place in the top photo!) that we later learned was listed in our Lonely Planet. Happily, its charm was in no way diminished as a result of its having been recognized in print, and it ended up being one of our favorite bars of the entire trip. Bar Àlvaro, in the Calle Mateos Gago, is a quirky family-owned bar open since 1904 (as was conveyed to us in chalk; see photo). Its current owner is Àlvaro Peregil (translation: Oliver Parsley, hehe), who is hands down the most enthusiastic bartender I have ever seen on either side of the Atlantic. He presides over his domain with an infectious energy that makes you feel as if you’re privy to an impromptu celebration for no other reason than that it’s great to be alive. Tall for a Spaniard, he dominates the postage-stamp-sized space with his booming voice and animated gestures, taking orders one minute and grabbing a rhythm stick the next to demonstrate his percussive prowess. We knew instantly that this was our kind of place, and settled in for some drinks and tapas. Continue reading
Last year I had the rather brilliant (if I do say so myself) idea to host a soup swap for myself and some girlfriends. The concept was simple: do the work of cooking one soup, but wind up with a fridge full of 4 or 5 different soups. This was mostly born from the fact that while I love to cook big batches of things to take in my lunch for the week, I don’t exactly want to eat the same thing 5 days in a row. So, in what I hope will become an annual tradition, we got together and traded soups (and stories of youthful indiscretions, but that’s for another blog… or not!).
Once again I made two soups, this Cheese Soup with Caramelized Onions & Cumin (sooo good!!), and an “African-inspired” carrot soup from Moosewood Daily Special that had peanut butter, lime and chili sauce. The carrot soup sounded like a good idea at the time, but I had to majorly tweak it to get it to taste good to me. I added a pretty significant amount of brown sugar, upped the peanut butter, and also added coconut milk. It ended up tasting like peanut satay sauce, which I guess was not a bad thing, but the fact that I altered it so much makes it pretty impossible to give a recipe. (But make the cheese soup- that turned out great!)
This year’s batch of soups were no less delicious and satisfying than last year’s. So without further ado, here are my “tasting notes”. For the recipes, just follow the links.
French Lentil Soup
First of all, the “French” refers to the type of lentils used, not the style of the soup, so don’t worry- it’s not some heavy-cream-and-butter bomb! French green (Puy) lentils are so great in soup; they are much firmer than regular brown lentils and have a nice chew to them. This soup is seasoned with mint and cinnamon, among other things, which gives it a delightful Middle Eastern feel. There is an optional garnish of thick Greek yogurt. I would up the suggested salt content a tiny bit, but other than that I found it to be just right as-is. Oh, and there are greens in it too so it’s super healthy. Thanks Kate, this is definitely going into the rotation!
Caldo Tlalpeño (Chicken, Chipotle & Chickpea Soup)
The soup for those who like to eat alliteratively! Amanda says she makes this for weeknight suppers on a pretty regular basis, and it seems pretty straightforward and simple. The only thing that might throw you off is finding fresh epazote, but I believe she made this batch without and it was still delicious. I tend to prefer dark meat so I would probably sub out an equal weight of bone-in, skinned chicken leg quarters, but that’s just a personal preference and it was certainly good (and probably a bit healthier) with the breast meat. Although it’s not in the recipe, I couldn’t resist adding some chopped cilantro when I reheated mine.
Shrimp & Corn Chowder with Fennel
Shrimp, corn, fennel, bacon… what’s not to like about this soup? Some of the commenters on the Real Simple site (where this was taken from) were pretty harsh, saying it was very bland. I could definitely picture a dash or two of Tabasco, and just a wee bit more salt, but it was far from being as bland as they implied! (You’re probably starting to think I’m a salt freak at this point, but a pinch of salt can be the difference between bland and just right. Taste and add as you go… everyone’s taste buds are different!) Michelle made this with the suggested (optional) bacon and I would too, but I would maybe crumble it in just before serving. The only other tweak I would consider is adding a bit of cornstarch to give it a thicker, more “chowdery” feel (dissolve cornstarch in cold water before adding to the soup).
African Curried Coconut Soup
This vegan soup was delightful and looks really easy to make. The rice is listed as “optional” but I would definitely include it- not only does it make it a bit more filling, but it’s beneficial to eat rice and legumes together, especially for non-meat eaters. Sarah added some spinach at the end of the cooking (not in the recipe) and it was a nice touch.
Thanks again, ladies… Can’t wait for our next swap!
I’m sure most of you have heard of the Daring Bakers, the group of bloggers who bake a selected recipe each month and post about it on a specified day. The group recently expanded to a new branch, the Daring Cooks. I think this is the third month of the Daring Cooks and I decided to jump on board. I don’t know how regular I’ll be able to be, but this recipe appealed to me so I thought I’d give it a go.
The challenge (hosted by Debyi at Healthy Vegan Kitchen) was for dosas, a type of Indian pancake which was unfamiliar to me. (You can check out my annotated version of the recipe here.) It’s always interesting to prepare a recipe for which you have no point of reference… The perfectionist in me has a little bit of a hard time not knowing how something is “supposed to” turn out.
The recipe for the dosas was fairly similar to that of French crêpes, without the egg. However, some of the South Asians posting in the forums said dosa batter is typically made of soaked, fermented lentils and rice, which sounded great- similar to the bread in Ethiopian restaurants. Unfortunately I didn’t plan ahead enough to accommodate the 12-hour fermentation period, so I had to make the flour-based recipe. I chose a combination of whole wheat and buckwheat flours, and added a touch of cider vinegar to try to emulate the sourness of the fermented version. I have lots of leftover filling and sauce though, so I’m hoping to get a chance to try the more traditional recipe for the dosa pancakes later this week.
Marvin was off eating curry of a different sort (curried goat!) in Jamaica last weekend, so I invited a girlfriend over Sunday night to partake in the dosas with me. I did have a couple small issues with the recipe instructions, but the overall outcome was good (my guest had a second helping- never a bad sign!). I was happy to break bread with a friend, try something new, and especially to have leftovers for the week. Cheers to Debyi for hosting an interesting and delicious challenge!
The other day I was catching up a little on my blog reading, and came across something on a very well-known food blog that kind of blew me away. It was a recipe for a pepper salad, and was basically just red & yellow peppers, red onion, feta and cucumber. The kind of thing that I throw together without thinking twice; not the kind of dish I would deem “blog-worthy”. There was no cute story with it; just the recipe and a bit about how the author had stopped eating salads with lettuce. But there, underneath the post, were close to 150 comments saying how great it was, and how people were dropping everything to rush to the store to make this salad. I have to say, I was flabbergasted. Really?!?
Reading this person’s post, it jolted me back to the reality that many people (possibly even the majority?) who regularly read food blogs and watch the Food Network rarely cook! All those commenters that said stuff like “Wow, that looks so delicious”…? I would bet money that less than 5% of them go on to actually prepare the recipe. (I guess this isn’t so strange if you think about, for example, all the people who read fashion magazines but don’t dress fashionably.)
So what does this have to do with balela? (Huh? Remember that… the title of this post? Oh yeah…) Well, I made some a few weeks ago (or rather, my interpretation of it), and even took a couple photos, but never posted it because I didn’t think it was “fancy” enough or something. Clearly, I am out of touch with what the blog-reading public wants! I guess the moral of the story is that instead of trying to second-guess what people may want to read about, I should just post whatever I feel like?
Trader Joe’s sells balela in little plastic tubs, but the portion they sell amounts to about one whole serving, and it’s easy and much cheaper to make yourself. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big fan of making big batches of grain or legume-based salads to take in my lunch. They’re also good potluck fare- this one was for the Memorial Day BBQ I went to (the one with the grilled pizza). My version isn’t “authentic” balela in any way, as I added some extra veggies (peppers, cucumbers), but I like the extra crunch they add. The dressing is inspired by the dressing for fattoush and can be used in any salad where you want Middle Eastern flavors.
Mediterranean Chickpea Salad (aka Balela, my way) (printer-friendly version)
1 can chickpeas & 1 can black beans (or two cans chickpeas), drained & rinsed
1 pint grape or cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered
1/2 an English cucumber, peeled, seeds removed and diced
1/2 a small red onion, diced, or 3-5 scallions, thinly sliced
1/2 red or green bell pepper, diced
1 good handful flat-leaf parsley leaves, minced
Notes: I use grape tomatoes because they’re more reliable year-round, but if you have good-quality regular tomatoes, go ahead and use them. This salad is excellent with a bit of feta crumbled into it- I don’t believe it’s traditional, but it makes it a little more substantial and adds a welcome texture and richness to the austerity of raw vegetables. If you can’t be bothered with the za’atar and sumac, the salad will still be good without them- I threw them in because I happened to have some handy. And if you’re inclined to use a whole lemon, just sick with a 1:2 ratio of lemon to oil and up the seasonings a bit; if you have leftover dressing it’ll keep indefinitely in the fridge, and is great on green salad too.
Directions: Combine all of the vegetables in a large bowl. Smash the garlic clove with the flat side of a chef’s knife. Place in a small screw-top jar with the other dressing ingredients and shake well. Let the garlic clove marinate in the dressing for 5-10 minutes and then fish it out and discard. Pour the dressing over the salad and stir well to combine. Taste and adjust for salt and pepper, or for more oil or lemon juice according to your taste. (It will almost definitely need more salt, but I’d rather err on the side of you having to add some.) Let the salad sit for at least 15-20 minutes to let the vegetables marinate and release some of their juices. Taste again and add more salt or dressing if needed. If not serving immediately, wait until serving to add the parsley. For best flavor, serve at room temp or only slightly chilled.
When I worked at Book Beat, many of my co-workers were fine cooks and appreciators of fresh, organic and/or locally grown food. Conversation often turned to sharing ideas and recipes for whatever we had cooked recently, and especially in the winter, the topic was usually soup. I had the idea last winter that we should each make a big batch of something and then trade, since I would usually get tired of eating the same soup for a week straight. For whatever reason, it never came together, but I held on to the idea and finally decided that post-holidays was a perfect time to get a big pot of soup on and get together with a few girlfriends. There were four of us total, and we each made a 3-cup container of soup for each of the other participants to take home, as well as a bit extra for us to all sample that day. I made a loaf of bread and a salad, and we all ate small portions of everyone’s soup (and in my case, big portions of bread!). It was a wonderful way to spend a chilly winter afternoon. Dessert was courtesy of Marvin, who had just been at Shatila Bakery in Dearborn the day before.
All the soups were delicious and we had a great variety: from Michelle, a lamb, barley and escarole soup; from Sarah, an Eastern European-style vegetarian cabbage stew, and a creamy chicken noodle soup courtesy of Kate. I’m first going to post the recipes for the two soups I made (yes, I couldn’t help myself from making two… I already had all the ingredients and couldn’t decide!). The recipes for the other three will be posted shortly. I encourage you to organize your own soup swaps; it’s a great way to get a fridge full of great leftovers with only a little effort!
Note: Both of the soups below can easily be converted to vegetarian or vegan versions by using a good vegetable stock in place of the chicken stock, and by substituting vegetable oil where butter is called for. Also, both soups are adapted from a great little cookbook called Once Upon a Tart, which gets a good deal of use in my kitchen.
Tomato-Chickpea Soup with Rosemary (adapted from Once Upon a Tart)
This soup is ridiculously easy to make, and with the exception of the fresh rosemary, consists entirely of items I almost always have in my pantry. (I know, I need to grow some window herbs.) The partial puréeing gives it a rich, almost creamy consistency. If you wanted to, I bet cannellini beans would be a good stand-in for the chickpeas. It tastes great plain, but to take it to the next level, garnish with a little grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padana and some garlic croûtons.
1 28-oz can + 1 14-oz can diced tomatoes- I like the Petite Dice for this (see notes)
2 15-oz cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed (see notes)
1 large yellow onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced fine
1 large or 2 small sprigs fresh rosemary, needles removed from stem and chopped fine
4 cups chicken stock
3-4 tbs olive oil
salt, sugar and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Notes: If tomatoes are in season, by all means use fresh- you would need 4 lbs plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced. If you’d like to use dried chickpeas, soak 2 cups overnight in plenty of cold water. When ready to cook, drain and rinse the chickpeas and bring to a boil in 4 cups unsalted water. Reduce heat and simmer uncovered until tender; this will probably take about an hour.
Directions: Pour enough olive oil in your soup pot to generously coat the bottom, and warm over medium-high heat. Add the diced onions and a sprinkling of salt and cook, stirring frequently, until the onions begin to reduce in volume (about 10 minutes). After the first couple minute, lower the heat to medium. After the onions have softened and cooked down a bit, add the garlic and rosemary, adding a little additional olive oil if necessary so nothing sticks. Let the garlic cook for a few minutes to infuse its flavor into the oil.
Add the drained chickpeas and stock and bring to a simmer. Let simmer gently for 20 minutes; then turn off the heat and add the tomatoes, a pinch of sugar, and a few grinds of black pepper.
If you have an immersion blender, ladle about 1/3 of the soup into another container. Purée the remaining 2/3 of the soup in the pan, and then recombine. If you are using a blender or food processor, remove 2/3 of the soup and purée, then return it to the pan to recombine. Either way, be careful not to burn yourself with hot soup! Taste for salt, sugar and pepper (you may not need any salt depending on how salty your stock and tomatoes were). Gently reheat. The soup may separate on standing, but just give it a good stir before serving.
Curried Corn Chowder with Coconut Milk (adapted from Once Upon a Tart)
This soup also uses the technique of puréeing part of the soup to give a creamy texture, and leaving part chunky. It is best served the day it is made, but I ate some leftovers the next day and it still was pretty good!
1 large yellow onion, diced
1 14-oz can light coconut milk
1 16-oz bag frozen corn, preferably organic, or 4-5 ears fresh corn if in season, kernels sliced from cob
4 cups chicken stock
4-5 small redskin potatoes scrubbed and cut into bite-sized dice (if substituting a larger type of potato, peel it)- about 1 1/2 to 2 cups
1 tbs Madras curry powder
3-4 tbs clarified butter or ghee (directions on clarifying butter are here)
1 tsp brown sugar
salt & freshly gound black pepper
1 small sprig fresh thyme, leaves removed and chopped
1/4 cup loosely packed cilantro leaves, washed and chopped
thinly sliced scallion, for garnish
Directions: Sauté the onion and thyme in 2 tbs butter in a large soup pot over medium-high heat, stirring to prevent burning or sticking. After 5 minutes or so, reduce heat to medium and continue cooking, about 10-15 more minutes, until onion is soft and translucent.
Add the potatoes, stock, and sugar, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer until the potatoes are tender (this will vary depending on the potato variety and the size of your dice; begin checking after 15 minutes).
Meanwhile, heat the remaining clarified butter in the smallest saucepan you have. When it is melted, turn the heat to medium low and add the curry powder, stirring well. Cook 2-3 minutes or until fragrant, taking care that the curry powder does not burn- it will become bitter.
When potatoes are cooked through, turn off the heat and stir in the coconut milk, 2 tbs of the cilantro, and the curry butter (use a spatula and swish a little stock in the curry butter pan to get it all out). If you have an immersion blender, use that to partially purée the soup- you’re aiming for it to be about 50% puréed, with bites of potato remaining. Otherwise, purée half the soup in your blender or food processor and return it to the pot.
Put the soup back on the stove on medium heat and add the corn. If you’re using frozen corn, cook long enough to heat the corn through; if you’re using fresh, simmer for about 10 minutes and taste to make sure the corn has lost any raw flavor. Add salt and freshly ground black or white pepper to taste, as well as a pinch more sugar if you think it needs it. Garnish each bowl with a generous sprinkle of the remaining chopped cilantro and a few slivers of scallion.