Spicy roasted okra (~3 servings)

Within the first year of living in Chapel Hill, I passed a culinary milestone: I tasted okra. Do we have okra in Pennsylvania? Yes, we do, but I never knew anyone who dared to make it. In fact, I grew up frightened of okra. My only connection to it was a cautionary tale, rehashed by my parents, of two unsuspecting, naive eaters being passed a slimy, gummy substance that made them both gag. I knew that trying okra could lead to dire consequences (everyone knows okra is a gateway veggie that usually leads to greener, often leafier produce), so I was in no hurry to try it myself.

But once an adult daughter moves away from her parents, she often rebels against her upbringing. Unsupervised and unapologetic, she will often take risks and experiment with things her parents may have frowned upon -- nay, gasped at -- back home. Okra, you say? Roasted and wrapped in crispy coating? Set me UP!

Truth be told, when roasted, okra is quite lovely. It lacks the mucus-like ooze (let's be honest, friends) of its boiled brethren and is instead crispy on the outside and pleasantly soft on the inside. Pair that with a spicy coating, and you've got a zesty, crunchy vegetable that will surprise even the most hesitant of okra-haters.

You will need:

  • 1 lb okra
  • 1/8 cup cornmeal
  • 1 tsp chili powder
  • 1/2 to 1 tsp chipotle powder
  • 1/4 tsp garlic powder
  • 1/2 tsp coarse salt

Steps:

  1. Preheat the oven to 450˚ F.
  2. Rinse the okra and pat it dry with a towel to remove any remaining water.
  3. Using a paring knife and cutting board, slice off the stem ends and tips of the okra pods, and then slice the pods in half lengthwise. Place the okra halves in a large zipper bag. 
  4. Sprinkle the cornmeal, spices, and salt into the bag. Seal it up and shake it gently to coat the okra evenly.
  5. Spread the okra out on a baking pan lined with non-stick foil. Bake 18-20 minutes, turning once, or until the okra is crispy and starting to turn brown.

I based this recipe on one from The Fitchen, leaving out the jalapeños (I'm a wimp), adding garlic, and subbing cornmeal for the millet flour. Besides the flavor, what I really like about this recipe is that it doesn't require any oil! Although the slimy texture disappears after the okra is roasted, it does make the cornmeal coating stick to the raw vegetables, so no oil is necessary. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by this recipe! I know Bryan and I were!

Zesty lemon pasta with broccoli (~3 servings)

We've all got that one friend who, no matter the event or the group of surrounding peers, can liven up any situation. Maybe you're at a interminable family dinner with the most dull of relatives, but if that particular friend is in attendance, the laughter flows freely and the times speeds by. You barely even notice how soul-crushingly boring your family is, because you're so focused on the enthusiasm your friend -- literally and figuratively -- brings to the table.

Sauce is that friend. It makes drab, predictable dishes new again! It makes ordinary ingredients taste exotic and exciting! It takes the edge off listening to your Aunt Edna tell the story about her trip to Fort Lauderdale -- AGAIN! (Okay, so maybe that last one is a bit of a stretch.)

In this situation, a bright, acidic, just-barely-decadent sauce livens up doughy noodles and nutritious-but-not-always-exciting broccoli. I based the sauce on this recipe, adding some basil and changing up the proportions a bit. If you are lucky enough to find a lemon-flavored pasta (I used Trader Joe's lemon pepper pappardelle), you'll end up with extra lemony zestiness!

You will need:

  • Half a pound of dried wide noodles (pappardelle, fettuccine, mafalde, tagliatelle, etc.)
  • One bunch of fresh broccoli, cut into florets
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 lemon
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Fresh basil leaves
  • Grated Parmesan

Steps:

  1. Start the water boiling in a large stockpot.
  2. Meanwhile, cut the garlic clove in half and rub the inside of a large serving bowl with the garlic. (I know that sounds weird, but it gently whispers "garlic" to the dish instead of screaming in its face.)
  3. Zest the lemon and place that zest in a jar with a tight-fitting lid. Cut the lemon in half and squeeze the juice into the jar. Finally, pour in an amount of olive oil equal to double the lemon juice you were able to squeeze out. (Just eyeball it.) Season with salt and pepper, put the lid on securely, and shake the heck out of it.
  4. Once the water boils, cook the pasta until just al dente. Add the broccoli florets to the boiling water for the last three minutes of that cooking time. Drain thoroughly and immediately transfer the pasta and broccoli to the serving dish.
  5. Pour the sauce from the jar onto the pasta; toss gently to combine. Top with torn basil leaves and a handful of grated Parmesan; toss gently again. Serve immediately.

I'd love to try this again with roasted garlic and some artichoke hearts! Sliced black olives would probably be lovely, too.

Warm lentil salad with grapes, cheese, and mint (4 servings)

Unusual flavor combinations are both arresting and intriguing. They make me stop and think, "Hmm, now how would those things taste together?" This recipe from Vegetarian Times is a perfect example, since it features grapes, mustard, lentils, nuts, cheese, and mint. I like all those things separately, but I wasn't sure how they'd get along together. One way I break down a strange list of ingredients is to try to pair or group elements from the recipe, thinking about how two or three ingredients harmonize. In this case, I figured the earthy depth of the lentils and mustard would pair well and then be offset by the sweetness of the mint and grapes, which would, in turn, by balanced by the richness of the nuts and cheese. Texture is another factor to consider, and this combination of ingredients runs the gamut from soft (cheese) to crunchy (pecans) to juicy (grapes). See? It isn't that scary!

I'm already looking for an excuse to make this one again and bring it to a picnic or potluck. It's versatile (I swapped the feta for bleu cheese and the pistachios for pecans) and easy to transport (it could be served warm or even cool). Bryan and I had this last night as our main dish, but it would also work well as a side dish alongside grilled tofu or pasta. If you're willing to take a little risk with something new and unusual, I think you'll love it!

You will need:

  • 2/3 cup dried brown lentils, picked through and rinsed
  • 3 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp red wine vinegar
  • 1/2 tsp onion powder
  • 2 tsp whole-grain mustard
  • 1 1/2 cups red grapes, halved
  • 1/4 cup chopped, toasted pecans (or roasted pistachios)
  • 3 Tbsp finely chopped mint
  • 1/4 cup crumbled bleu cheese (or feta)

Steps:

  1. Bring lentils and 1 1/3 cup water to a boil in a small pan. Reduce to a simmer and cook with the lid vented for 30 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, pour the oil and vinegar into a small jar or container with a lid; add in the onion powder and mustard, too. Shake (shake, shake your moneymaker) and set aside.
  3. Once the lentils are cooked, transfer them to a serving bowl. To the same bowl, add the grapes, pecans, mint, and cheese, and then pour the dressing over. Toss gently to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper and then serve the salad warm or cool.

I hope the leftovers are just as tasty for lunch today!

Chocolate-marbled banana bread

Oh. Hello there.

Certain words, when incorporated into food descriptions, make any dish immediately sound  appetizing. Stuffed. Toasted. Encrusted. Another favorite is marbled. "Chocolate-marbled banana bread" sounds a gazillion times more drool-worthy than just "chocolate banana bread." Of course, adding chocolate enhances the bread, too!

This is a great weekend recipe, and by that I mean it's a great one to bake when you've got a little extra time on your hands and don't mind dirtying a few dishes (or every single bowl in the kitchen, if you bake the way I do.) It's chewy, sweet (although not overly so), and comforting, and the marbled look gives it that little extra something special. Oh, and it's vegan! (Thanks, PPK!)

You will need:

  • 1 cup mashed very-ripe bananas (1-2 bananas, depending on size)
  • 3/4 cup sugar (coconut sugar works well, if you're into that sort of thing)
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 Tbsp canola oil
  • 1/3 cup almond or soy milk
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp baking powder
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • 3 Tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
  • a handful of vegan chocolate chips (optional)
  • 6 Tbsp boiling water, divided

Steps:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350° F and prep a loaf pan with non-stick spray or a little oil. Set aside.
  2. Using a fork, mash the bananas in a large bowl until they're pretty smooth. (I'd echo Isa's advice and say it's worthwhile to measure out a cup afterwards to make sure you have the right amount.) Add the sugar, vanilla, oil, and milk to the same bowl; mix with a wooden spoon until everything is incorporated.
  3. Next, add the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt to the same bowl, and mix gently only until everything is just incorporated. (I think I over-mixed here, as my loaf didn't look as fluffy as Isa's version! It still tastes amazing though, so don't worry too much.)
  4. Measure out one cup of this batter and move it to a different bowl. Keep this to the side for now. (This will become the chocolate part.)
  5. Use a mug and a fork to stir 3 Tbsp of the boiling water into the cocoa powder until it's dissolved. Pour the cocoa mixture into the one cup of banana batter, tossing in a handful of chocolate chips if desired. (Um, yes.) Mix the chocolatiness (yes, it's a word) into the one cup of batter until it's smooth and beautifully brown.
  6. Add the remaining 3 Tbsp of boiling water to the original (plain) banana batter; mix until it's relatively smooth.
  7. Scoop alternating 1/2 cups of the plain banana batter and the chocolate-banana batter into the greased loaf ban. Don't worry about it looking pretty just yet! After all the batter is in the pan, swirl a butter knife in a random pattern through the pan, creating a marbled effect.
  8. Bake for 50-55 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out clean. Let cool before slicing and serving.

And that's it! It's not a difficult recipe, but it does involve quite a few steps. As I said, my loaf came out more dense than Isa's, judging by her picture, and I think that's down to slightly over-mixing and maybe using a bigger pan than she used. But nonetheless, it turned out delicious, and Bryan and I have each had at least two pieces per day so far! (P.S. How amazing would this be with peanut butter chips mixed into the chocolate batter?)

***Update (8/8/14):

I made this a second time and added 1/4 teaspoon of baking powder, which made a more classic, top-rounded loaf. I also discovered this recipe makes enough batter for three mini loaves -- perfect for thank-you gifts or just-because-I-freaking-felt-like-it presents. The second time around, I used Trader Joe's gluten-free baking mix instead of all-purpose flour, since I'm planning to give one of these to a friend who's nice enough to take our butts back and forth to the airport later in the week. (Can't wait to be back in PA for a couple days! Boehringer's is tops on my list of food priorities!)

Garlic butter roasted mushrooms (2 servings)

Sometimes, as an Eastern Pennsylvanian who has moved to North Carolina, I forget that people down here don't understand Pennsylvania Dutch terms. Of course, I'm not surprised that Southerners are unfamiliar with the blatantly "Dutchy" turns of phrase (Obviously, nobody here parts ways with, "Y'all come back now, vuntz!") but I was surprised to learn how many of the things I grew up saying without a second thought are actually part of a very specific regional vernacular. Admittedly, most of these linguistic lightbulb moments came to me when I was teaching. In a moment of frustration, I once scolded a group of restless pupils, telling them, "Stop rutsching and just do your work," only to have them respond with blank stares. (Hey, at least it shut them up momentarily.) Just the other day, I discovered that no one here says, "It's spritzing" when the rain comes down in fine droplets. I've also learned that "Hush your fussin'!" is the South's version of the "Stop grexing!" that my Mom-Mom sometimes hissed at me and my sister if we whined too much.

Image from http://suzyssitcom.com

But I miss the colorful local language of Lancaster and Berks County. Each time I go home, I hear less and less of the true Dutchy accent, as in "Meet me dahn at the Ranch Haas," or "I'm from Berks Cahney." Pennsylvania Dutch is, of course, not actually Dutch but a corruption and modernization of German. It's characterized by unique words and phrases but also for the order of words, as in, "Throw the cow over the fence some hay." (That one always makes me giggle.) As with modern German, Pennsylvania Dutch has some situation-specific, difficult-to-translate words. Some of my favorites are "nix nootz" to describe a trouble-making but good-hearted child, or "schusslich" to describe hasty, sloppy, last-minute actions.

However, the PA Dutch word I most miss, simply because it describes the action it names so well, is "fress." To fress is eat, but it's a specific kind of eating; fressing is like grazing or snacking leisurely throughout the day. We fress on holidays, when we're already stuffed so full of gustatory goodness but we don't want to hurt the host's feelings, so we pick at the cheese plate. We fress when it's hot outside and a heavy meal would make us lethargic, so we just eat a few bites of whatever we can find in the fridge. We fress at picnics and holidays, where there's so much temptation that choosing one or two main dishes is too difficult, so we take bits of this and that and load up our plates until they start to bow. In my understanding, fressing isn't so much about the quantity or type of food; it's more about a variety of small samples, often spread out over time.

Bryan and I are most likely to fress at the end of the week, when energy levels are low and leftovers are diverse. Usually, by the end of the week, I have an assortment of ingredients sitting around, either due to purposeful exclusion ("I don't feel like putting tomatoes in this dish tonight") or accidental amnesia ("What the hell did I buy this leek for again?") and "Fressing Friday" is a wonderful (wunnerful goot?) opportunity to use up those things. Friday evening is a time for dressed-up finger foods, dips, side dishes, and cut-up fruits. It's a chance to relax and unwind without going to any extra trouble. And one of my favorite last-minute fressing dishes is Smitten Kitchen's garlic butter roasted mushrooms. I halved Deb's recipe since it was just two of us.

(I know, I know -- you were just starting to think, "Soooo... is there a recipe in all this, or are you just waxing nostalgic this week?")

You will need:

  • 1/2 pound medium sized button mushrooms, cleaned and stemmed
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 Tbsp vegetable or canola oil
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp butter, cut into small chunks
  • Parmesan cheese

Steps:

  1. Preheat the oven to 450° F. Coat the insides of a small baking dish (you could even use a round pie plate) with a little non-stick spray or oil and set it aside.
  2. Place the mushrooms in a resealable plastic bag; add the garlic, vegetable/canola oil, and a dash of salt and pepper to the bag, too. Toss gently to combine. 
  3. Place the mushrooms, gill-side up, in the baking dish. Spread the butter pieces out on top of the mushrooms and sprinkle with a bit of parmesan. 
  4. Roast the mushrooms for 15-20 minutes, or until the mushrooms are tender and the buttery sauce around them is bubbling. Top with chopped parsley, if desired, and serve warm.

These mushrooms are chewy, dense, and earthy. The garlicky-buttery juice they roast in is flavorful but not overpowering. I served this two Fridays ago with a sliced Fuji apple, some leftover roasted green beans, chunks of warm pretzel bread (Thank goodness for the Elysium that is A Southern Season), whole-grain mustard, and salty hunks of cheese. At the end of a long week, it was a feast for all the senses and a welcome respite!

Southwestern confetti salad (6-8 servings)

Visual approximation.

Visual approximation.

I've whined about this time of year before. It's that tempting, sneaky period of time where the sun is shining, all the flowers are in bloom (Don't even get me started on Chapel Hill's slutty plants that gleefully spread their genetic material all over the damn place), and the afternoons are warm. The sunlight and heat make you want to rush to the farmers' market and scoop up all your summer favorites, like corn on the cob and juicy tomatoes. However, even thought you feel like it's summer, it isn't, which means there aren't many local fruits and veggies quite yet. Spring is such a tease that way.

So this is the ideal time of year for "summer preview" recipes  -- ones you can make with pantry ingredients for now and then make again with local produce in the summer. Today's offering is based on this Epicurious recipe, although I changed the Mediterranean flavors to more of a Southwest theme. 

You will need:

  • 3 cups corn kernels
  • 1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 14-16 oz frozen or canned legumes (I used frozen butter peas, but I'm sure black-eyed peas or black beans would be lovely)
  • 2 cups green beans, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 avocado

Dressing:

  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/8 cup red wine vinegar
  • a splash of lime juice
  • 1/4 tsp dried oregano
  • 1/2 a chipotle pepper in adobo, minced 
  • 1/4 Tbsp onion powder
  • 1 Tbsp chopped cilantro
  • 1 tsp salt (smoked salt, if you have it)

Steps:

  1. Mix all the dressing ingredients in a jar or small bowl. Set aside.
  2. Place the corn and tomatoes in a large serving bowl.
  3. If you're using canned beans, drain and rinse them, and then add them to the corn and tomatoes. If you're using frozen beans, cook them according to package directions, using the low end of the time recommended. (You don't want them to get mushy!) Drain and rinse in cold water and add to corn and tomatoes.
  4. Blanch the green beans for a minute or two -- just until they're bright green. Drain and rinse in cold water; add to corn, tomatoes, and beans. (If you're boiling frozen beans, add the green beans to the water for the last two minutes and then drain along with the beans.)
  5. Give the dressing a final shake or stir and drizzle it over the veggies. Toss gently. Taste for salt; add some cracked black pepper if desired.
  6. Once the mixture is seasoned to your liking, cut the avocado into chunks and add it to the mixture. Toss gently once more. Store salad in the fridge for a few hours before serving.

I can't wait to make this again with fresh ingredients in a few more months! Feel free to change up the veggies; bell pepper would be delicious (if your insides are braver than mine) and I'd imagine chopped carrots could add flavor and crunch.

Review: Emile Noël organic pumpkin seed oil

One of the nicest things about blogging is that occasionally, a company contacts you to ask if they can send you something free so you can write about it! So when Emile Noël -- a French, family-owned company that produces organic, virgin, fair-trade oils -- asked me to pick a flavor to review, I was thrilled but stumped. How would I choose from the 12 oils they produce? 

After much consideration, I decided on the most unusual of their offerings, organic pumpkin seed oil. Cold-pressed and chock full of omega-6 fatty acids, the oil has a low smoke point, so it's best used for finishing dishes and in salad dressings. 

The scent of the oil is toasty and deep -- somewhere between dark sesame oil and roasted peanuts. The color is a dark amber reminiscent of maple syrup but with the gorgeous sheen of liquid caramel. On its own, the flavor is intensely nutty and dark, and it was clear from my small spoonful that a little bit of the oil goes a long way.

Since the oil was new to me, I had to do some research online to learn how to use it. Apparently, in parts of Eastern Europe, the oil is often used as an ice cream topping; however, I wasn't thrilled by the idea of oily ice cream, so I decided to look for other ideas. Here is a brief summary of the ways I tried using the oil, with a short review of each method:

  • As a finishing oil on roasted broccoli: I roasted broccoli florets in olive oil and salt and then drizzled a bit of the pumpkin seed oil on top when I served it. I couldn't really pick out the oil's flavor as I was eating the broccoli, which means either I didn't use enough of it, or it just blends very harmoniously with the broccoli.

  • As salad dressing: I dressed a salad of spring mix, Gorgonzola, and chopped apples with a vinaigrette made from the pumpkin seed oil, some olive oil, mustard, lemon juice, dried thyme, and salt and pepper. Here, the pumpkin seed flavor was more pronounced and worked as a nice complement to the sweetness of the apple and the tang of the cheese. I'm glad, however, that I cut the pumpkin seed oil with olive oil, as I think the flavor would have been too intense on its own.

  • With roasted sweet potatoes in a cranberry-chipotle sauce: Unfortunately, the smoky, spicy chipotle flavor dominated here, and I couldn't taste the pumpkin seed oil at all. (However, that recipe was BANGIN' and I will definitely make it again this fall!)

  • In pumpkin chocolate chip bread: I replaced 2 Tbsp of the vegetable oil with the pumpkin seed oil, and wow. Just wow. This bread was intensely moist, nutty, and comforting. This was definitely my favorite recipe of the ideas I tried out. I doubt that anyone would try the bread and immediately recognize the addition of the pumpkin seed oil, but it did add that autumnal je ne sais quoi that an average pumpkin bread recipe is missing. I'll definitely bake this again later in the year.

In fact, I think I'll continue to find more ways to use the oil once the weather turns cold again. Most of the ideas I found online called for ingredients that are seasonal to fall, so I'm sure I will be bringing it out again during that time.

My only complaint about the oil is that the recipe section of the company's website does not give any recommendations for this particular oil. In my opinion, if a company wants American consumers to try out an unfamiliar ingredient, it should give specific suggestions for how to use it. In fact, some of the recipes I found came from Emile Nöel's competitors!

But I will continue to look online for new ideas for using this smooth, nutty, versatile oil!

(And congrats again to Erin M. for winning a free bottle of Emile Nöel organic mild olive oil!)