Borracho Black Beans

 Cooking is therapeutic, nourishing, compassionate.  It is how I cope, how I take care of myself, how I show my affection.  Recently, now more than ever, cooking is also how I connect with the people who aren't here to sit down and share a meal with me.

All of us build up these associations in our minds, the neural connections that weave together our past and present experiences in a network of memories, sounds, textures, tastes, and smells.  Not surprisingly for me, my strongest associational triggers are food-related.

I have no memories of my father's mother, only pictures of her holding me when I was much, much smaller than I am now.  She is the woman whose recipes I've learned to make from my dad and her recipes, whose crepe pan we still use only for blintz and nothing else.  My dad has a picture of her and my grandfather, whom I also never had the chance to meet, when they were around my age.  The color of my hair is hers, and several of my facial features are echoes of her too.  For someone I don't remember, I think about her often.  Food is my only real connection with her, and with my identity as a Ukrainian woman.  Easter always reminds me of this -- cooking the food that she used to cook, exactly as she did -- and triggers my constructed memories of her, what she was like, what she would have been like if she were alive now.  

Most of the cooking I do is spontaneous -- a recipe piques my interest, some fruit or vegetable I love is finally in season, or random inspiration hits as I'm wandering through the store with an empty stomach.  But there are moments when I need to be comforted, when I want to feel not so alone, and my food becomes more deliberate.  These are the times when I rely on recipes like those from my Grandma Z.  Last weekend, Orthodox Easter and Catholic Easter coincided (I celebrate both), so Tor and I prepared a combined Russian-Greek dinner for eight people.  This weekend was dedicated to borracho beans, borracho meaning drunken from the addition of a bottle of beer (don't worry, they're not boozy-tasting, just faintly hop-y).  Jimmy has been making them in Chile quite often, with pinto beans I think, but I had a bag of black beans in my pantry that I wanted to use up.  We're both busy students, leading our lives on different continents, but sometimes a simple meal makes him seem not so far away.

Borracho Black Beans
adapted loosely from the Red Beans & Rice recipe in Cooking Texas Style

1 pound dried black beans
2 tablespoons butter (or bacon fat if you're not trying to be a good little vegetarian)
1 large onion
2 large carrots (or 4 small)
1 poblano pepper
1 serrano chili
2 enormous garlic cloves (or 4 regular)
1/4-1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
Salt to taste
1 bottle medium/dark beer (like a lager)
2 c rice
Handful cilantro
Lime wedges

Rinse and sort through the beans, making sure there are no stray rocks (contrary to my 5-year-old-self's belief, rocks are not tasty).  Put the dry beans in a large bowl and cover them completely with water.  Let them soak for 24 hours.  Check on them once in a while to make sure they're still covered with water, and add water as needed.

Drain and rinse the soaked beans.  Put them in a stockpot and cover with an inch of water.  Bring them to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook, covered with the lid tilted slightly, for 2 hours or so.

After an hour has passed, heat the butter in a saucepan over medium heat.  Meanwhile, dice the onion, carrot, and poblano pepper, and mince the serrano and garlic.  Once the butter is bubbling, add in the veggies and sauté until the onions have become translucent.  Add in salt, cumin, and coriander to your taste, and sauté until the vegetables have begun to caramelize.  If the water level in the pot of beans has reduced significantly, add more water so that there's an inch covering the beans.

At this point, the beans should have been cooking for 90 minutes total (that is, it should have been a half hour or so since you began prepping the veggies).  Add the cooked vegetables into the pot.  Taste the broth and season with salt if necessary.

In the pot where you just cooked the veggies, bring 4 cups of water to a boil.  Add in the rice, cover, and reduce to a simmer until cooked.  If the rice finishes before the beans, set aside and keep covered.

While the rice is cooking, add the beer into the beans.  Cook until the beans are soft and the broth has reduced and thickened.  Serve with the cooked rice, lime, and some cilantro.

Coconut-Braised Chard and Tofu

I see you over there, scrunching up your face at mere mention of the evil tofu.  Calm down.  It's gonna be alright.

Yes, it can be really tasty.  Yes, it can also be pretty gross if you don't doctor it somehow.  No, it is not meat, nor should it pretend to be meat (nobody's fooled, honey).  No, you don't have to deep fry it for it to be edible.

If I could give you any pro tips about eating tofu (firm or extra-firm tofu, specifically), it would be these three:

1) Before you do any cooking, remove as much water as possible;
2) Marinades are your friends; and
3) When in doubt, use the oven.

To remove the water, put your block of tofu on a plate between a few sheets of paper towel, then put something heavy on top (a tea kettle full of water or a cast iron skillet with a can of beans will do).  Let it sit for 20 minutes or so.  I find this works best when the tofu is an inch thick, probably two inches max (cut it width-wise before pressing if your block comes any thicker).

Now that you've pressed the water out, you could do a couple different things.  You could marinade the tofu, maybe in some soy and honey, or just toss it in some oil and spices before baking, sautéing, frying, et cetera.  I usually end up cutting the tofu into cubes, tossing with canola oil and spices like cumin, allspice, coriander, and chili powder (plus salt of course), and baking at 400 degrees F until golden and crispy.

If you go the marinade route, just make sure you pat down the tofu well before cooking it, or else it'll never get crispy.  I'm totally cool with having nice soft steamed tofu covered in chili sauce and served over rice, but when I'm working with firm (or extra-firm) tofu, I've already committed to having a substantial texture, which I'd like to be crispy rather than rubbery.  But seriously, something magical happens to tofu in the oven.

Spoiler alert for Sunday's post, featuring a combined Greek-Russian Orthodox Easter Feast: I'm going to break my good little vegetarian streak.  If I'm going to spend the time to roast a whole leg of lamb, you better believe I'm going to eat it.

Coconut-Braised Chard and Tofu

2 sweet potatoes (you could serve with rice or couscous instead)
1/2 package firm tofu
~2 tablespoons canola or other neutral-tasting oil
1 bundle red chard
2 carrots
1 shallot
~1 inch piece fresh ginger
1/4-1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (depending on how spicy you like it; you could also sub sriracha or chili paste)
1 14 ounce can coconut milk, shaken
1 lime (zest and juice)
2 Kaffir lime leaves (optional, it's not a big deal if you can't find or don't want them)
Salt to taste (you could use soy sauce too, by all means)
Handful mint and cilantro

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.  Cut the sweet potatoes in half length-wise (to accelerate the cooking), rub with canola oil, sprinkle with salt, and bake until soft.  Meanwhile, place the tofu on a plate between several sheets of paper towel and weigh down with something relatively heavy, like a tea kettle full of water.  Leave the tofu to press for 20 minutes or so.  Cut into cubes, toss with canola oil and salt, and place on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper.  After the potatoes have been baking for 15 minutes, put the tofu in the oven as well.  You'll know it's done when the cubes have visibly shrunken in size and the outside is golden brown.

Prep your vegetables in the meantime.  Chard can harbor a lot of dirt, so wash it well, cut off the very ends of the stem (the bottoms can get very tough), and slice thinly.  Peel the carrots, then create ribbons of carrot using the vegetable peeler.  Slice the shallot into half moons, grate the ginger, zest the lime, and chop the herbs.

When the tofu only has a few minutes left to cook, set a sauté pan over medium-low heat with a tablespoon or so of canola oil.  Once the oil is warm, add the shallot, ginger, and chili flakes, and sauté until the shallots have softened and become more translucent.  Add in the coconut milk and Kaffir lime leaves, then bring to a simmer before adding the chard (in batches if necessary).  Once the chard has wilted so that there is sufficient room in the pan, add in the cooked tofu and carrot, then check the broth for seasoning.  Simmer for a couple minutes so that the flavors can combine, then add in the juice of the lime and remove the Kaffir lime leaves.  Serve over the sweet potatoes with lime zest and a bit of mint and cilantro.

Espinacas con Garbanzos

I don't have anything terribly thoughtful to say today.  I realized that it's been almost 2 months since I reverted back to pescetarianism (which has mostly been vegetarianism plus fish sometimes when I can get my hands on it), I've been in college for almost 3 years now (which means I am approaching The Beginning of the End, when I will be expected to know what I'm doing with my life and how I'm going to do it), and I'll be going to Chile in 129 days (no, I don't have a countdown on my lapt- okay yea I have a countdown).  It's funny how these things sneak up on you when you're not looking, or when you're just keeping your head down and trying not to watch the clock.

Espinacas con Garbanzos 
(Spinach with Chickpeas)
adapted from Smitten Kitchen

1/2 pound dried chickpeas, cooked until soft, or one 29 ounce can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
6 tablespoon olive oil
1 pound spinach, washed
1 inch slice hearty bread or about 2 slices from sandwich loaf bread, crusts removed and cut into small cubes
1/2 c ground tomatoes or tomato sauce
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
Pinch of red pepper flakes
1 1/2 tablespoons red wine or sherry vinegar
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika (or regular paprika is fine)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Lemon juice, to taste (this was half a pretty juicy lemon for me)

Place a large pot over medium heat and warm up half of the olive oil until hot and rippling (but not smoking).  Add the spinach with a pinch of salt and wilt the leaves, stirring, until just tender.  Drain in a colander and set aside.  Dump out the remaining spinach liquid from the pot, then wipe it out with a cloth to remove any excess moisture.

Heat 2 more tablespoons olive oil over medium heat.  Fry the bread for about 5 minutes or until golden brown all over, then remove from the pot.  Add the remaining tablespoon of oil with the garlic, cumin and pepper flakes. Cook for about a minute, until the garlic has begun to brown, then add the bread back in and toss with the aromatics.  Turn off the heat and add in the vinegar (stand back unless you want to clear your sinuses out), stirring to lift all the yummy crusty bits off the bottom of the pan.

Transfer to a food processor, blender, or mortar and pestle, and mash to a paste. Return the mixture to the pan and add the drained chickpeas and tomato sauce.  Cook until the chickpeas are hot and have begun to absorb the tomato and spices, 5-10 minutes.  If the consistency is too thick, add a little water (I used ground tomatoes instead of tomato sauce for mine, and had to add about a 1/3 c water, but use your judgment).  Season with salt and pepper.  Add the spinach and paprika, cooking until everything is combined and warmed through.  This would be lovely on some toasty bread, or a baked sweet potato, or just with some broccoli slaw like I did.

Dark Molasses Cake

This cake.  This cake right here.  It is awesome.  You should make it.  All the ginger haters have probably stopped reading this blog by now (except for my mommy because she's supposed to love me unconditionally and read everything I write *mischievous smile*), so I have no reservations about adding crystallized ginger to the original recipe.  Feel free to make some sort of glaze too, perhaps with coffee or espresso involved, or lemon, or both?  Let me know how it turns out.  Like for real though -- I would love it if you would write comments on my posts.  

In other news, we're launching our new Arete website on Monday!  Short story version of Arete is that we're the research development branch of UChicago's research administration, and we launch complex initiatives that enhance UChicago's research enterprise (our mission statement that will feature prominently on our new site, spoilers).  This whole business of restructuring our website has been an interesting, exhausting exercise in psychology: from identity, branding, vision, what have you, to issues of perception and usability.  Is it intuitive to scroll here?  How do you feel about this color?  That font is horrible, disgusting, awful, what were you thinking.  Too many clicks to get here.  What do we do exactly?  How can we talk about ourselves?  How much are people actually going to read?  It's amazing how many aspects of human cognition you have to consider when you're just trying to tell people what you do.  

Dark Molasses Cake
adapted from The Kitchn

12 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into chunks
1 1/2 c (12 ounces) unsulphured blackstrap molasses
3/4 c brown sugar
1/3 c white sugar
3 1/4 c all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon fine salt
2 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon allspice
2 teaspoons espresso powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 large eggs, beaten
1 1/2 c whole milk
~1/2 c crystallized ginger, chopped

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Lightly butter and flour a Bundt pan.

Place the chunks of butter in a saucepan over medium heat, then whisk in the molasses, brown sugar, and white sugar.  Once the butter has completely melted and the sugar has dissolved, set the pan aside to cool.

In a large bowl combine the flour, salt, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon and espresso powder.

Whisk the vanilla, eggs, and milk in with the molasses and melted butter, then incorporate slowly into the bowl of dry ingredients. Whisk thoroughly to combine, making sure there are no lumps.  Using a rubber spatula, fold in the crystallized ginger.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan.  Bake at 350°F for 45-50 minutes until a toothpick or knife inserted into the cake comes out clean.  Let cool for 30 minutes, then run a thin knife around the inside of the pan to loosen the cake from the pan. Remove the cake and let it cool completely on a cooling rack before slicing.  Or just cut into it immediately and suffer the consequences reap the rewards.

Schiacciata alla Fiorentina

We often speak as though we must earn the right to enjoy our lives.  The pleasures of being alive are couched in this language of deserving.  It can be as innocuous as thinking I've been working really hard this week, I deserve to buy this thing -- dress, bottle of olive oil, what have you -- or it can be as dangerous as This person has hurt me deeply, (s)he doesn't deserve to be happy.  Who am I to say what I, or anyone else, deserve?  My buying whatever thing isn't really connected to how hard I've worked this week, and someone else's happiness isn't really connected to what they've done to me.  I want to buy X, so I moralize why I should have it -- and I want X person to be unhappy, so I moralize why it should be so.  

No matter the extent to which we are religious or philosophical, we as individuals hold our own moral codes -- and we can see them in action when we talk about what we, and those around us, deserve.  This moralizing becomes tricky when we look at these scenarios another way.  What happens when I want this thing, but I don't have the money or This person was horrible to me, but look at how happy (s)he is.  What about what I deserve?  What about what that person deserves?  I've decided that, for me, it's healthier to stop myself from moralizing, and ask the real questions behind what I deserve.  Is this (buying X or wanting X to be unhappy) worth my money/time/effort?  Do I have the money/time/effort to spend?  If I am completely willing and able, I don't need to couch my decisions, to buy something or put something behind me, in this language of morality.  I make the decision and follow through -- that's it.  

I'm sure you didn't come here for my philosophical musings, and so, I present you with cake.  This is no ordinary cake -- it starts like a bread, with yeast.  It's a traditional pastry from Florence, ubiquitous in bakeries around the time of Carnival, in late February.  It's scented with orange and vanilla, and is an excellent snack with coffee for these sunny, melty days, when the air feels more like spring -- wet and smelling like new grass -- but still holds on to the chill of winter.  This also happens to be the perfect time to buy yourself tulips, because you can, and you are more than completely willing.

Schiacciata alla Fiorentina

2 1/2 c (300 grams) all-purpose flour
3/4 ounces (20 grams) fresh yeast dissolved in some warm water (or 7 grams instant dry yeast bloomed in some warm water)
3 1/2 ounces (100 grams) lard (or, less traditional, softened butter)
1/2 c (100 grams) sugar
1 egg plus 2 egg yolks
Zest of 1 orange
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
Powdered sugar for dusting (optional)
Powdered bittersweet cocoa for dusting (optional)

In a medium bowl, combine the flour and yeast (along with the water) until you have a dough.  The original recipe didn't specify a specific amount of water, but you can start around 1/2 c.  Cover with a clean towel and place in a warm, dry spot to rise for about one hour or until it has doubled in size.

In another bowl, beat together the lard (I went the less traditional route with butter), sugar, eggs, orange zest, vanilla and salt until well combined.  Add the butter mixture into the yeast dough and beat until combined.  Place the dough in a buttered rectangular tin, cover with a clean towel, and let rise for 2 more hours.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F before the dough has finished rising.

Bake for 30 minutes or until the surface is golden brown and a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean. Turn onto a wire rack to cool.  Once cooled completely, dust liberally with powdered sugar.
If you are feeling crafty, cut out a mask of the Florentine lily and dust with cocoa powder. 

Baked Sweet Potato Falafel

Friends, it's spring break.  And Chicago says: WOOHOOOO SPRING BREAK TAKE YOUR HOODS AND SCARVES OFF YEAHHHH!!!!  Because can I tell you something gross?  It snowed here last night.  What even.

Also, I can't take credit for the anthropomorphism of Chicago -- my roommate Alexander gets all the snaps for that one.  It's just so fitting that I had to use it.  We've been bro-ing around the apartment this weekend, watching Netflix and eating and pretending that we don't have papers we should be writing (for my fourth year roommates, their BA deadlines are approaching, and I have grant proposals to be working on -- oh well).  And I've been on a cooking spree of epic proportions.  Last night's gem was an awesome apple cake from Luisa of The Wednesday Chef, which was completely devoured before I could even take pictures.  I also made a traditional Italian orange-scented, yeast-based cake called Schiacciata alla Fiorentina yesterday that you'll see a post for soon.  Homemade ricotta cheese and pasta will be turned into lemon herb agnolotti from Kelsey of Happy Yolks tonight for dinner (I'm terribly excited to see how this turns out, it's involved a lot of labor), and I plan to make the super delicious sesame bread I made last spring break again.  And, of course, the star of this post, sweet potato falafel were made and devoured for lunch today.  

Like I said, a cooking spree.  And not soon enough.  I've been so neglectful of my need for cooking this past week, with studying for finals and writing grant applications and generally soaking in the depression that seeps out of all the campus libraries during this week of every quarter.  I came home on Friday after all of my responsibilities were done for the week, and cleansed myself by cleaning all 3 of our apartment's bathrooms with an alarming amount of bleach (but damn, those showers are sparkling now, let me tell you).  These are small victories that snap me out of the too-lazy-to-function zone I can fall into when finals week hits, and remind me that cooking is something integral to my being a well-functioning human.

Baked Sweet Potato Falafel (for 4 people)

2 medium sweet potatoes, cooked, cooled, and peeled (I roasted mine at 425 degrees F for an hour or so until soft)
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 small cloves of garlic, chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 big handfuls of fresh cilantro, chopped
Juice of half a lemon
Scant cup (120g) chickpea flour
Splash of olive oil
Salt and pepper

To be served with:

4 pitas, warmed
2-4 avocados, sliced length-wise
2-3 carrots, peeled
2 handfuls parsley leaves, whole
Juice of half a lemon
Splash of olive oil
2 tablespoons tahini
Couple dashes hot sauce 
Salt and pepper

In a medium bowl, mash the cooked sweet potatoes with cumin, garlic, coriander, fresh cilantro, and lemon juice.  Season with salt and pepper to taste, then add the chickpea flour and mix until completely incorporated.  Let the mixture chill in the fridge for at least an hour.  If the mixture seems too wet (it should be sticky and hold its shape when you mold it), add a little more flour.  The sweet potatoes vary in how much water they contain, and yours may not be the same size as mine were, so use your judgment.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.  Drizzle a baking sheet with olive oil, then roll heaping tablespoons of the mixture into balls and place on the pan.  The original recipe said it would make 18 falafel, but I ended up with 28 pretty good-sized ones, so it's really up to you what size you make them.  Bake in the middle of the oven for 15-25 minutes, until the falafel are firm and the bottoms are golden brown.

Meanwhile, prep the sides.  Warm the pitas in the oven during the last couple minutes of cooking.  In a medium bowl, use a vegetable peeler to create thin ribbons of carrot.  Toss the carrot ribbons with parsley (I left the leaves whole, just pull them off the stems), a squeeze of lemon juice (around a quarter of the lemon), a drizzle of olive oil, and salt and pepper.  Slice the avocado and set aside.  In another bowl, whisk together the tahini, the remaining lemon juice, salt and pepper, and enough water to create a sauce.  

When the falafel are done, cut the pitas in half and stuff them with the carrot-parsley salad, avocado, and a couple falafel, then top with the tahini sauce.  

Cannellini Bean Pasta

I felt incredibly inspired to cook and photograph today.  Even with the fleeting promise of spring buried under yet another snowfall, and the illusion that I am on top of my work confronted with the reality of finals week, there was so much gentle, beautiful sunlight this afternoon.  I couldn't wait to be barefoot in the living room, styling my food, taking pictures.  As I walked home, splashing through slush and bowing under branches laden with snow, the light streamed through the trees and warmed my face, lifted like a sunflower toward the sky.   

I set my groceries on the counter and went to work, fixing dinner.  I felt the weight of the chef's knife in my hand and the warm, tomato-infused steam against my face.  There was nothing else, just me and my hands and my meal coming to life in the late sun.  

The tall windows in our living room captured the soft edges of the afternoon light and scattered them across the floor, across the tables and chairs, across my arms and hands.  My world was still and quiet, and bright.  I was so at peace. 

Cannellini Bean Pasta

1 pound pasta (I used the gemelli shape, but it doesn't really matter)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, sliced in half moons
Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste
Palmful of capers
1 15 ounce can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
~1 c ground tomatoes
1-2 tablespoons tomato paste
~1/2 c water
1 bunch beet greens and stems, washed and sliced
Shaved parmesan cheese, to taste

Put a large pot of water over high heat and bring to a boil.  Meanwhile, in a medium sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat.  Add in the sliced onion with salt and pepper to taste.  Cook for 5-10 minutes until softened and beginning to caramelize.  Toss in the beans and capers, cooking for ~2 minutes until they've begun to incorporate with the soft onion, then add in the tomatoes, tomato paste, and water.  Simmer until the sauce has begun to thicken and reduce, and the onions are beginning to melt.

Once the water has come to a boil and you've begun to cook the pasta, fold the beet greens and stems into the tomato mixture.  Stir frequently to wilt down the greens and incorporate them into the sauce.  With the pasta cooked and drained, add it back into the hot pot and cover with the bean mixture.  Serve with shards of parmesan cheese (unless you want this to be vegan or are not keen on cheese).