Peach and Brie Grilled Cheese

Oh hey, I turned 21 this weekend, fancy that.

We like to celebrate birthdays in my family -- I think mostly because it's an excuse to get the family all together and eat excessively -- but we usually don't do birthday surprises. So I was totally shocked (and incredibly happy) that two of my aunties came to Chicago to visit and celebrate with me! I got to have birthday eve lunch with them, and birthday dinner at A10. Birthday fun also included lumpy pancakes for the Lumpy Space Princess (they weren't that lumpy, but Tor likes to be self-deprecating about her cooking abilities) and Batman decorations a la Tor, as well as a cute and awesome (but enormous) BMO cake. BMO, or Beemo, is a character from Adventure Time (so is Lumpy Space Princess -- Tor and I watch the show together at home), and he's one of my favorites. LSP (Lumpy Space Princess) is too -- if you watch the show you can probably imagine why I identify with her.

In addition to my thing for mason jars, I have a thing for mis-matched plates. For most of the gift-giving holidays since I started college, my mom has given me a new plate to add to my collection. She gave me an especially nice plate for my birthday this year that's more on the order of fine china than usual. The pattern is beautiful and delicate, and I love it -- I don't know if I can bring myself to put food on it. She was searching for one with a pattern that was especially significant, and found this one called Santiago. She's a very thoughtful mommy, that one.

And so, in honor of my birthday, I present to you one of my favorite sandwiches.

Peach and Brie Grilled Cheese

2 pats of softened butter
1 small barely ripe peach
Enough brie to make you happy
Salt and pepper to taste
Drizzle of honey
(Arugula or radicchio if you've got some)
2 slices nutty wheat bread

Two protips for awesome grilled cheese: heat management and sufficient pressure. As Emeril Lagasse would say: you see this knob right here (as he takes the knob off his stove and shows it to the audience) -- it's there for a reason, use your knob! Burnt grilled cheeses are sad. For weighing down the sandwich to achieve optimal bread crispiness and cheese meltiness, I fill up my tea kettle with water and put it on top of the sandwich (after cleaning off the bottom of course).

Heat a nonstick pan over medium. Slice the peach and brie thinly. Brush the first slice of bread with butter, and place it butter-side down in the hot pan. Arrange the brie over the bread, followed by the peach slices (keep in mind that you're going to have to flip this over when you're arranging), honey, seasoning, and greens if you're using them. Place the second piece of bread over the top, then weigh down with the kettle.

Check the bottom to make sure you've achieved perfect golden brown deliciousness, then spread the top piece of bread with the remaining butter. Turn over, then weight down again with the kettle. Usually I put a piece of tin foil in between the bread and kettle at this point (both to insulate for cheese melting purposes and to prevent buttering the bottom of my kettle), but if you're feeling especially lazy then it's not a big deal.

It's advised that you eat standing up at the kitchen counter with peach juice dribbling down to your elbow, because it's finally summer.

Banana Pudding

Fact: some days, you are sad, and banana pudding is the only answer.  And not the cop-out Jell-O instant pudding with Nilla wafers kind (#sorrynotsorry for the sass).  I mean like making an actual sponge cake with actual pudding (or pastry cream, I'll try that next time) and borderline too ripe bananas, with the little hint of chocolate and lots of whipped cream.  If you're having a super terrible day, get a good night's sleep and eat some for breakfast too (i.e. what I'm doing right now as I type).  

Banana Pudding

1 recipe vanilla bean pudding (below)
1 recipe Génoise cake (below)
4 ripe bananas, sliced
1/3 c cold heavy cream
Several tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder, for dusting

Cut the Génoise into small cubes. I cut the cake into two semicircles, then turned each semicircle onto its side to easily cut it in half again into two thinner semicircles. Use whatever technique you prefer to break down the cake. I didn't end up using all of my cake, so you'll have some good snackage later.

If you have a glass bowl with high sides, you'll probably be able to get two layers of filling going. I just used a 9x13 inch Pyrex baking dish because it's what I had (plus one of the pretty glass cups I used for pictures), so I only did one layer. Cover the bottom of your vessel of choice with cake cubes, followed by banana slices, and then pudding (I find it's easier to spread pudding over bananas than cake when you have a big bowl of it... For the small glasses it doesn't really matter, so that's why they're layered differently in the pictures). If you have space and material for two layers, repeat. Once you've finished layering, dust the surface with cocoa powder through a fine-mesh sifter. Let the pudding sit for a few hours before serving. 

Whip the heavy cream into soft peaks, with sugar if you prefer (I didn't feel the need to sweeten mine). Dish up your pudding with a spoonful of whipped cream. Protip: the pudding is even better the next day, for breakfast.

Vanilla Bean Pudding

2 2/3 cups whole milk, divided
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon salt
Seeds from 1/2 vanilla bean (or 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract)
1 large egg

Bring 2 c of the milk to a boil in a medium saucepan. Be sure to stir frequently, and be careful to scrape the bottom completely so it doesn't burn. While it is heating, combine sugar, cornstarch, salt and vanilla bean in the bottom of a medium, heatproof bowl. Slowly pour the remaining 2/3 c milk over the cornstarch mixture, whisking the whole time so lumps do not form.  Whisk in the egg. Once the milk has come to a boil, very gradually add it into the cornstarch mixture while whisking.

Return the mixture back to the saucepan, stirring constantly with a silicon spatula or wooden spoon (switch to a whisk if lumps begin to form from the cornstarch). Once it comes to a simmer, cook it for one minute longer. Set it aside in a clean bowl to cool to room temperature.

Génoise Cake
from The Ciao Bella Book of Gelato and Sorbetto

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for the pan
1 c cake flour, sifted
4 large eggs, at room temperature (this point is very important, the eggs cannot be cold)
2/3 c sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter a 9-inch round cake pan and line with parchment paper. Butter and flour the parchment, knocking out any excess flour.

Melt the butter in a small dish in the microwave and set aside to cool. In the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a large bowl for a hand mixer), combine the eggs, sugar, vanilla, and salt.  Beat the mixture on high 5-7 minutes until it has tripled in volume, and is thick enough that the ribbon formed by the beater takes a couple seconds to dissolve (you won't be able to incorporate enough air if your eggs are not room temperature). 

Using a rubber spatula, gently fold in 1/3 c flour at a time, then the butter as well. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top with the spatula. Bake for 20-30 minutes, until the top is golden brown and the cake has set. Absolutely do not open the oven in the first 20 minutes, or your cake will fall. Let the finished cake cool for 20 minutes, then turn out onto a plate and remove the parchment.  Flip onto a wire rack to let cool completely. 

Snap Pea + Cilantro Quinoa

I can feel myself becoming increasingly more frantic.  The more stress I put on myself, the less I am able to concentrate, to sit still and do all the things that would relieve that stress.  I'm sure you're familiar with this feeling.  The impulse to hide under my covers curled up in the fetal position grows stronger as finals become more of a reality, as I am pulled into more urgent work projects at the last second, as everyone tries to say goodbye for the summer.  I'm more worried than usual about the outcome of this finals week (rather than just the horrible prospect of the whole finals process), since it'll shape my schedule next year.  I'm generally pretty chill about grades.  Sure, I'm terribly disappointed in myself when I don't do well; but if I've learned anything in college (especially one like UChicago), it's that my best is all I can give.  And that has to be enough, lest I drive myself crazy.

If I prepared as well as I could, and did as well as I could in the moment, then there was nothing else for me to do.  There's peace in that.  When it comes time to sit down and take a test, or write a paper, if I haven't prepared adequately, there is no sense in being upset about it.  And there's no sense in getting upset about it when I get the grade, because what is there to do about it then?  

Up until my second year here, I would actually cry when I got a poor grade on an assignment or exam.  Crying is one way that I deal with stress, disappointment, frustration (as I've probably talked about here before, I'm quite skilled at crying in public) -- but I've since stopped crying over my grades.  There's the moment of disappointment, that sinking feeling in my gut -- and then I fold the paper in half, shove it in my bag, and it's gone.  Maybe this is an immature defense mechanism I've developed, but I like to think that maybe it's a sign that I've matured.  We'll see what happens when I graduate with this degree that nobody seems to think is employable or leads to a successful (read: high-earning) career (and that, friends, is a rant for another day).

Snap Pea + Cilantro Quinoa

2 handfuls snap peas
1 handful cilantro
very heaping 1/3 c sliced almonds
2 cloves garlic
1/4 c grated parmesan cheese
1/3 c olive oil
1/2 lemon, juiced
1 sweet potato, sliced into thin half-moons
Salt to taste
1 c quinoa
2 kaffir lime leaves (optional)

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.  Toss the sweet potato slices in a tablespoon or two of olive oil, sprinkle with salt to taste, and roast until soft inside and golden brown on the outside.  On a separate baking sheet, toast the almonds until lightly golden.

Meanwhile, bring 2 c water to a boil, add the lime leaves if using and a teaspoon or so of salt, then add in the quinoa.  Cook for ~12 minutes with the cover on until the water has been absorbed, then let sit covered for another 15 minutes off the heat.  Remove the lime leaves and drizzle with a couple tablespoons of olive oil.

In a food processor, add the snap peas, garlic, and cilantro.  Process until chopped finely.  Add in a scant 1/3 c toasted almonds (you want to leave a few tablespoons to have whole in the final dish) and process those as well.  Add in the parmesan and a couple tablespoons of olive oil.  With the machine on, drizzle in enough olive oil for the mixture to become a smooth paste.  Add in the lemon juice and process until combined.  Adjust seasoning as needed.

Once the quinoa has cooled briefly, toss with enough snap pea pesto to coat (but not drown) the quinoa, then toss in the sweet potato slices and almonds.  This can be served at any temperature, but I preferred it at room temperature.  

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.