Monthly Archives: May 2012

Fennel and Fruit Salad

Fennel. Beautiful fennel. How you terrified me at first. Your soft, feathery fronds perplexed me,  your delicately interwoven stalks intimidated. At first I played coy, stripping you down to your core and slowly braising with olive oil. But that first bite of roasted fennel served  alongside a fillet of salmon turned me into a fennel fiend. My dalliance quickly turned into a full fledged love affair.

There is something primordial about fennel. It looks like it came from another planet, a wild, untamed world. The bulb of the fennel plant is the sweet spot. Crisp and crunchy with a subdued licorice flavor, a hint of celery, fennel can beckon and entice. Most people prefer to saute or roast fennel, but I prefer to slice it raw and make  luscious salads.

Get out the mandolin slicer and set it on the thinnest setting. I love, love, love shaved fennel. Fennel can be a little tough when raw, slicing it paper thin makes light and tender. Now, I know I could eat this as is, but I have bigger plans for my fennel.

Fennel and Fruit Salad

 1 bulb fennel

1 Granny Smith apple

1 small apricot, pitted and sliced

1-2 Tblsp raisins

A pinch of salt

2 Tblsp yogurt

1 Tblsp sweetener (agave syrup or honey)

1 bunch sliced basil leaves

Tart green apples sliced paper thin make a wonderful pairing with fennel root. The sweet fennel counters the sour apple.

I found these beautiful mixed raisins at an ethnic market in town. They add the perfect sweetness to the salad. I added apricots because I had some on hand, but this salad could easily be made with fennel and apples alone.

Sweet, tart, crunchy, creamy.

Oh fennel, how I love thee.


Creamy Chickpea Salad

I have a confession to make. For nearly four years I was vegan. Yes, you heard me right, I just  dropped the “V-bomb”. During my early twenties I was one of those obnoxious, militant vegetarians who shunned not only flesh, but any and all animal products. I shook my fist at dairy of all sorts. Goodbye Brie, so long Swiss, see ya later Cheddar. I referred to eggs as “liquid chicken.” I stopped making my all time favorite breakfast of coffee and eggs over-easy and in exchange guzzled wheatgrass juice and algae smoothies and fists full of sprouts. I consumed my body weight many times over in tofu  and became all too familiar with the world of meat analogues (and if you ever need advice on meat analogues, I got some).

There are plenty of jokes and angry rants about the fascist-vegan-birkenstock-wearing-crunchy-granola-hippy stereotypes of herbivores.  I can understand where some of it comes from having been one myself.  There were times when I was overwrought with grief and confusion as to why anyone would slaughter another life simply to indulge their hedonistic whims that I acted out in embarrassing ways. For example,  I once smooshed a Reese’s peanut butter cup in my roommate’s hand out of sheer anger and frustration  (sorry, Lani). It was very rude.

Of course, times have changed and I realized that my life was on a completely different track when I caught myself on a Chicago rooftop bar scarfing a grilled bratwurst slathered in kraut. Veganism can be a tough sell in a culture of meat consumption. All of the dinners I was invited to that I couldn’t partake in, all of the baked goods brought to work that I couldn’t sample made for a very sad vegan indeed. Without a solid community of other vegans, I fell back into meat eating big time.

My former-vegan self still occasionally haunts me and one thing I learned from all those years of algae smoothies is this:  it just feels better to eat veggies.  I feel sluggish and lethargic after a heavy meat or dairy laden meal. I never, ever feel that way after, say, a carrot or an apple.  So I listen to my body and I give it those veggies and only on occasion do I let the little meat demon who sits on my shoulder have his way (and yes, he is made out of meat).

Creamy Vegan Chickpea Salad

14 oz chickpeas

1 large carrot, peeled and grated

2-3tbsp tahini

1 red pepper, chopped

1/4 cup chopped red onion

The juice of 1 lemon

1/2 bunch of parsley, minced

Salt and Pepper to taste

 Mix the ingredients in the bowl and voila!

This salad is a vegan’s dream, it’s rich in protein from the chickpeas, high in vitamin C from the peppers, beta carotene from the carrots, calcium from the tahini and it tastes awesome. The tahini in this recipe gives the salad the creaminess of mayo with no cholesterol. In fact, if you’re looking for an amazing plant food that mimics the creaminess of milk products, nuts and seeds are your best bet. They are fatty and silky and have that unmistakeably full bodied texture.  I’ve suffered from lactose intolerance since early adolescence and I can tell you first hand how tough it can be to go without cheese, mayo, milk or cream. I always keep tahini on hand when I want a robust, fatty flavor.

If you go to a barbecue this summer and/or  you meet a sad vegan, bring along a bowl of chickpea salad. They will probably give you a hug.

Rainy Day Romesco Sauce

The view from my bedroom window

One of the most frustrating things about food photography in my itsy bitsy apartment is the lack of natural sunlight. I have quite a few windows in the kitchen/living room space, but the surrounding buildings seem to block out the sun half the time and the other half of the time the abundant clouds and rainstorms keep me from taking bright, sunny photos.

It’s another rainy May day in Chicago and I’m stuck inside, but at least  my weekly grocery trip is out of the way and I’m stocked up for some quality time in the kitchen.

Some recipes turn out best when you have a little extra time. Romesco sauce is one of those lovely condiments that can be thrown together in a hurry (with roasted peppers from a jar) or painstakingly made at home, cooked low and slow until the flavors concentrate and the smoky aroma of capsicum and carmelized garlic fill the air. Whenever I find myself with an afternoon to spare, I like to take my time.

Fresh peppers, red bells and poblanos.

There are a number of ways to make romesco sauce, but the basic recipe includes roasted peppers (or dried ancho peppers), tomatoes, garlic, and toasted almonds. The almonds are the central ingredient that make this sauce more than just a peppery marinara. They add  creaminess and that unmistakable nutty sweetness of almonds.

Romesco Sauce

2 Red Bell Peppers, chopped

2 poblano peppers (or dried ancho peppers, soaked)

2-4 cloves garlic

1/2 cup almonds, roasted

1 cup chopped tomato

2 Tblsp smoked, sweet paprika

1 Tblsp red wine vinegar

1 Tblsp olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

Pre-heat oven to 400. Roughly chop peppers, add chopped garlic cloves and mix with olive oil. Spread on a baking sheet and bake for 15-2o mins until  the peppers are tender and slightly caramelized around the edges.  While the peppers are cooking, heat the tomato in a sauce pan on medium heat until cooked through.

I put the almonds in a spice grinder for 10 seconds or so and make a course almond meal. I find this make blending the mixture easier.

Once the peppers are done cooking, transfer to a blender. Add remaining ingredients and blend until smooth. I like to put it back on the stovetop and cook for a minute or two until thickened.

The smoky richness of romesco sauce pairs wonderfully with steamed or grilled vegetables like leeks, onions or eggplant. It’s also a perfect sauce for lean fish or spooned over mussels.

I found a bunch of scallions in my fridge that needed some perking up.

Steamed scallions and romesco sauce.


Time to go spend the rest of my rainy day lounging on the couch with a good book.

Beluga Lentil “Caviar” or How to Make an Elegant Appetizer for less than $5

Meet beluga lentils. A vegetarian’s best friend, these protein packed little gems are 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. As far as deals go, lentils are a huge bang for your buck. They’re cheap and nutritious, high in protein, iron and vitamin B1, and (in my opinion) 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 1/2 cup lentils and 2 1/2 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. Elegant enough for a dinner party, easy enough for every day eating.

Whether you’re vegetarian or simply on a budget, there’s no reason to feel like you’re skimping.

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Sweet Beet Relish

Scrub a beet.

The deep red will color the white bristles of your vegetable brush. Scrub off the thin layer of earth, only later to find that its soil has penetrated the deepest parts of the flesh. Place the beet in a small pot of salted water to boil. The water will bubble and the beet will slowly bleed into the pot until it becomes like a single beating heart, thrusting against the rising currents. Pierce it with a fork and watch the juice bleed like a wounded soldier, or a knifed assassin, a melodramatic scorned lover of Shakespearean proportion. A freshly boiled beet, drained of its crimson liquid and placed steaming on a wooden cutting board is a thing of beauty.

Step away from it for a moment. Watch the steam rise and think of your own beating organ. Think of the shape, the heat of your own machinery. Palm the newly heated beet and feel the heaviness, swollen with hot water and now fleshy. Marvel over the sudden metamorphosis from hard knotted fist, to soft, delicate, meat.

Pickled beets are one of my favorite snacks. The brilliant vermilion color of the beets, dressed in a tangy brine, brighten up salads, rice dishes or meat entrees. They are certainly an acquired taste and I can honestly say that for the first 20 years of my life I HATED them. My experience of beets consisted of my mother slopping them out of the can, heating them in the microwave and serving with a pat of butter. They tasted like dirt and mold and all things unholy.

I refined my palette over time and now fresh beets boiled or baked or grated raw into a salad taste of  sugar and earth. It’s true that this humble root can take on a musty, dirt-like flavor if not properly prepared. Which is why I prefer eating beets with acidic ingredients like balsamic, lemon, salt or tart cheeses.

Sweet Beet Relish

      • 1-2 pounds of beets, boiled, peeled and diced. I think precooked beets work just fine, but avoid canned.
      • 1/2 cup orange juice
      • 1/2 large red onion, finely diced
      • 1-2  tbsp  pickling spices (or a mixture of mustard seed, juniper berries, clove, thyme and bay)
      • 2 Tbsps  brown sugar
      • 1 Tbsp salt (pickling salt or sea salt is fine)
      • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
      • Cracked pepper to taste

Put all ingredients into a medium sauce pan. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and cover. Simmer for 20-35 mins until liquid had evaporated. Taste. You can make the relish sweeter or saltier if you like.


       The end result is a tangy, delicate pickle, more silky than  crunchy. It makes a colorful accompaniment to salads and you can use it on hotdogs and sandwiches in place of cucumber relish.  I like to enjoy this relish on toast with tea, but straight out of the bowl is good too.