Vegetarian Indian dish packs heat, authentic flavor: Tofu Curry

We’re not big on new year’s resolutions at Blue Kitchen.There’s something so rigid and formal about ‘resolving’ to do something: “Be it hereby resolved that…” But there are things that we talk about doing, directions we talk about taking. The first post of the new year seems like a good place to explore a couple of them.

One is something we’ve actually been doing for a while—eating less meat. The other is getting into cooking more Indian food at home. This simple, spicy, big-flavored Tofu Curry let me do both.

The recipe is adapted fromVegan Indian Cooking: 140 Simple and Healthy Vegan Recipes, by Anupy Singla. Published by the Agate Surrey imprint, the cookbook contains background on Indian cuisine and helpful tips on spices, spice blends and shortcuts. A former TV news journalist, Anupy has turned full time to sharing Indian cuisine with the world. Her first cookbook, The Indian Slow Cooker, has been the number-one best selling Indian cookbook on Amazon since its release.

We met Anupy and sampled her delicious cooking at a dinner she hosted in her home last fall for SideTour Chicago. Anupy has been a vegan for years. Her husband, whose family eats meat, is primarily a vegetarian. Indian cooking easily accommodates all of these dietary choices because 30 percent of India’s population is vegetarian and, as Anupy puts it, “Indian food is the only major cuisine in which vegetables take center stage.” For the SideTour dinner, she included one lamb dish and one shrimp dish in an otherwise vegan meal.

A vegan, Anupy cooks with oils rather than ghee, the clarified butter used by many Indian home cooks and professional chefs. There arguments for the health benefits of each approach, but she likes the lighter flavor and lower saturated fat content she gets cooking with oils. She also cooks with spices. Lots of them. She points out that spices don’t always equal heat; sometimes they just produce big flavors.

Sometimes, though, as with this Tofu Curry, the heat is plentiful. And this was even with me toning it down for our Western palates. It was also wonderfully authentic. One reason is that, as you look over the ingredients, you’ll note that while curry is in the name, curry powder isn’t on the list. Like most Indian cooks, Anupy never uses curry powder. In India, the term curry is generally used to to refer to a dish that has broth or a sauce, as opposed to dry dishes. Those sauces vary from dish to dish and family to family.

Curry powder, it turns out, was created by Brits to mimic the tastes and smells of cuisines they’d sampled while visiting or living in India. That said, prepared curry powders have become quite popular and are now found in kitchens around the world (including ours, I must admit). By following Anupy’s lead and leaving the curry powder in the pantry for this dish, I ended up with big, bold flavors that didn’t taste kind of Indian or Indian-inspired, but Indian.

Tofu Curry
Makes about 2 cups

1 12-to-14-ounce package extra firm tofu
3 teaspoons garam masala, divided (see Kitchen Notes)
4 tablespoons canola oil, divided
1 small yellow onion, peeled and quartered
1 2-inch piece ginger root, peeled and chopped
5 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
1 medium tomato, quartered
2 Serrano chiles, stemmed and halved
1 cup plain yogurt (see Kitchen Notes)
1 teaspoon coarse kosher or sea salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon asafetida (hing—see Kitchen Notes)
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1 2-inch cinnamon stick
2 green cardamom pods, lightly crushed
2 whole cloves
1/2 cup water

cooked rice
chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish

Prepare the tofu. Cut the tofu block crosswise into 1/2-inch slices, then cut those into bite-sized pieces; I cut mine into thirds. Gently lay them in a single layer on a plate covered with a double layer of paper towels. Gently press another double layer of paper towels on top of the tofu (you’ll notice I use the word gently a lot in discussing handling the tofu—it’s fragile). This will remove a lot of the moisture in the tofu and make it easier to sauté. Let the tofu drain for at least 15 minutes.

Season the tofu pieces on both sides with 1 teaspoon of garam masala. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium flame for at least 90 seconds. Sauté the tofu in batches—overcrowding the pan will make it difficult to handle without breaking—gently turning with a spatula and a wooden spoon occasionally until browned on the edges, about 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer to a plate and set aside.

Prepare the curry. While the tofu is draining, place the onion, ginger, garlic, tomato and chiles in a food processor bowl. Process into a smooth, slightly watery paste, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a spatula as needed. Transfer mixture to a bowl. Add yogurt, salt, remaining 2 teaspoons of garam masala and cayenne pepper. Stir well to combine.

When tofu has been sautéed, heat remaining 2 tablespoons of oil in a large, heavy pot (I used a Dutch oven) over medium flame. Add asafetida, cumin seeds, turmeric, cinnamon stick, cardamom pods and cloves. Cook, stirring for 30 seconds. Add yogurt mixture and water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, until the sauce thickens slightly.

Remove cinnamon stick and cardamom pods (and cloves, if you can find them—if not, apologize in advance). Add tofu to the pot, stirring (yes, gently) to coat with sauce. Cook for 4 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat.

Serve. There are a couple of options. We treated this as a main course, and I plated individual servings over cooked rice, garnishing with cilantro. It can also be passed around as one dish in a larger meal; Place it in a serving bowl and garnish with cilantro. It can be passed around the table with rice and other dishes.

Kitchen Notes

Spices, Indian and otherwise. The list of spices for this recipe is impressive, I’ll admit. But most should be fairly easily found either in supermarkets or specialty shops. Garam masala is a ground spice blend used in North Indian cooking. If you can’t track it down, you’ll find a recipe for a simplified version here. Asafetida is unpromisingly also known as devil’s dung or stinking gum. Raw, it has an unpleasant odor, but when cooked into food, it adds a delicious mild onion/garlic flavor—it’s featured in lots of Indian cooking. If you can’t find it, this dish already has plenty of onion and garlic in it.

Go vegan with soy yogurt. Anupy’s original recipe calls for soy yogurt. I used regular plain yogurt instead for a vegetarian but non-vegan version. Either works just fine.

The winter of our meaty content: Korean Oven-braised Short Ribs

One of the best things about exploring other countries’ cuisines is shopping. Saturday found us at H Mart in suburban Chicago, conveniently at lunchtime. We headed straight to the food court, where we ordered generous, steaming bowls of pork and kimchi dumpling soup. H Mart is an Asian-inspired supermarket chain that started in Queens, New York.

The name is short for “Han Ah Reum,” Korean for “One Arm Full of Groceries.” You’re lucky if you can get out of this sprawling treasure trove of all things Asian carrying just one armful of groceries. The vast produce section has beautiful examples of all the usual suspects as well as things hard to find elsewhere—lotus root, enoki mushrooms, turmeric (not the powder, but the actual gnarly little rhizomes), tiny, speckled fresh quail eggs… The specific ingredient I’d gone in search of was Korean-style beef short ribs. We left, of course, with our arms more than full.

Korean-style short ribs actually come in a few different cuts. One is also known as the flanken cut, in which the ribs are sliced thinly across the bone, with three or more bones in each slice. What I was looking for were more like the standard short ribs you see in the supermarket, only shorter—they’re cut into two-inch (or so) sections. H Mart had both these cuts as well as others.

As winter seriously settles in, we’re looking for excuses to turn on the oven and fill the apartment with meaty cooking smells. There’s a dazzling array of variations on Galbi Jjim, traditional Korean braised short ribs, out there. One thing virtually all of them share is cooking them on the stovetop. I chose to oven braise them. Besides the reason stated above, oven braising wraps the whole pan in even, moderate heat instead of concentrating all of it on the bottom of the pan. However you cook them, the results are satisfyingly chewy/tender and delicious, flavorful but not spicy.

Korean Braised Short Ribs (Galbi Jjim)
Serves 4

2-1/2 pounds Korean style short ribs
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1 inch fresh ginger, peeled and minced
6 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 Asian or Bosc pear, peeled and grated on box grater
3/4-cup reduced-sodium soy sauce
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 cups water
4 teaspoons sesame oil
2 teaspoons sugar
freshly ground black pepper
3 carrots, peeled and sliced into a large dice
1/2 pound piece of daikon (Japanese radish), peeled and cut into large dice (see Kitchen Notes)
1/2 cup chopped scallions
1 tablespoon white sesame seeds, toasted (see Kitchen Notes)

cooked white rice

special equipment: parchment paper

Preheat oven to 350ºF. Score ribs on the meaty side with 1/2-inch slices across the grain; this will allow the meat to absorb more flavor from the braising liquid. Put short ribs in a large pot and cover with lots of cold water. Bring to a boil and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. You can spoon off the scum that forms or not—you’re going to discard this water anyway. Remove the ribs with tongs and rinse under cold running water. This step gets rid of some of the blood and excess fat.

While the meat is simmering, combine ginger, garlic, pear, soy sauce, wine, water, sesame oil and sugar in a large bowl. Season with a generous grind of black pepper.

Heat the oil in a large Dutch oven over medium flame and sweat the onion until translucent and softening, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the braising liquid mixture to the Dutch oven and nestle the ribs, meaty side down, into the sauce. Bring to a boil and remove from heat. Press a piece of parchment paper cut to fit inside the Dutch oven down on top of the ribs. Cover the Dutch oven with lid and transfer to oven.

Braise ribs for 60 minutes. Remove from oven and add carrots, daikon and scallions, pressing down into the braising liquid. Replace the parchment  paper and lid and return to oven. Braise for another 30 minutes.

Using tongs and a slotted spoon, transfer ribs and vegetables to a large bowl and tent with foil. Bring braising liquid to a boil over medium high flame and reduce slightly to a sauce, about 5 minutes.

Plate cooked rice in individual shallow bowls or rimmed plates. Top with ribs and vegetables and spoon sauce over. Sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds and serve.

Kitchen Notes

Daikon. In Japanese, daikon means “large root.” While you can find it in most Asian markets, the trick may be finding a non-giant piece. But find it if you can; it adds a tangy, sweet, crunchy bite to this dish. If not, some suggested substitutes include turnips, jicama or water chestnuts. I can’t vouch for these, because I haven’t tried them.

Toasting sesame seeds. Crazy easy. Spread them in a single layer in a cold, dry nonstick skillet. Toast over medium heat, stirring frequently to avoid burning, until slightly golden and fragrant, 3 to 5 minutes.

Southwestern antifreeze: lively, hearty Black Bean Soup with Ham Hocks

This is being a strange winter. Last Friday, for instance, the high flirted with 60ºF. In Chicago. Saturday, it dropped all day to the 20s. By Sunday night, it was 15. And on top of everything else, it isn’t snowing. As Marion points out in a post about a 6-inch tall fop on her blog, 9591 Iris, there has been no measurable snow in Chicago for more than 300 days.

But strange or not, it’s still winter, and that had me thinking soup. This soup started with a remembered ham hock not getting any younger in the freezer. My first thought was black-eyed peas, but there was also a bag of dried black beans in the pantry with similar faded youth issues. So black bean soup it was.

The prolific Anonymous once said, “Success has many fathers, while failure is an orphan.” Black bean soup must be successful indeed. Its origin has been credited to Mexico, Michigan, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Central America, Europe… Lydia over at Soup Chick even makes a delicious soundingKorean-style black bean soup. Most versions I found when I started thinking about making it took their inspiration from the American Southwest. So did I.

This is a great soup to make a day ahead. It gets better when allowed to rest in the fridge and let the flavors blend. Speaking of flavors, the many potent ingredients—cumin, garlic, celery, bell pepper and even the smoked ham hock—each add their distinctive flavors without taking over the dish. And the jalapeño pepper, while only subtly affecting the taste, brings needed heat. With the volume of soup this recipe produces, the pepper doesn’t make it fiery—it just delivers a tingly kick, giving it another layer of interest.

Black Bean Soup with Ham Hocks
Serves 4 or 5 as main course

1 pound dried black beans, soaked (see Kitchen Notes for fast and slow soaking methods)
1 smoked ham hock, 3/4 to 1 pound
8 cups water
2 bay leaves
canola oil
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 large jalapeño pepper, finely chopped (see Kitchen Notes)
2 carrots, peeled and diced
2 ribs celery, peeled and diced
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes, drained
freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice (see Kitchen Notes)

sour cream (optional)
chopped cilantro for garnish

Place soaked beans and ham hock in large, heavy stock pot or Dutch oven. Add water and bay leaves and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 1-1/2 hours.

Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large sauté pan or skillet. Add onion, bell pepper, jalapeño pepper, carrots and celery. Toss to coat with oil and sweat vegetables for 4 or 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Clear a space in center of pan, drizzling in extra oil if needed, and add garlic and cumin. Cook until fragrant, about 45 seconds, stirring constantly. Remove pan from heat and toss vegetables to combine. Set aside.

Using tongs, transfer ham hock to shallow bowl and set aside. Remove and discard bay leaves; add vegetable mixture and tomatoes to pot. Season generously with fresh ground black pepper, but don’t add any salt at this point. Transfer 4 cups of soup to food processor and carefully purée (do this in two batches, if necessary). Return to pot.

Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for 1/2 hour or more. Meanwhile, when ham hock has cooled enough to handle, remove the skin, fat and bones and chop the meat into small pieces. Return to pot. As the soup simmers, you may get a bit of foam on the top. If so, skim it off and discard. This happened late in the cooking process for me.

Add lime juice and adjust seasoning with salt, if needed—the ham hock will provide plenty of saltiness, so you probably won’t need much. Ladle soup into bowls, giving it a good stir with the ladle to make sure everyone gets plenty of beans, vegetables and meat. Top with a dollop of sour cream, if using, and garnish with cilantro. Serve.

Kitchen Notes

Soaking beans. Here are two methods, the traditional slow soak and a convenient fast soak. Whichever method you choose, pick through the beans first to remove any pebbles and shriveled looking beans and give them a quick rinse.

  • Slow: Place beans in a large pot or bowl and cover with water by at least three inches. Soak them overnight, drain and rinse. They are now ready to cook.
  • Fast: I’m really liking this method these days—cuts way down on the need to plan ahead. Place picked over and rinsed beans in a large stock pot or Dutch oven. Cover with cold tap water by at least three inches. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat and simmer uncovered for 2 minutes. Turn off heat, cover pot and let beans soak for 1 hour. Drain and rinse. They’re now ready to cook.

Spice it up with the jalapeño. When you chop the jalapeño, include at least some of the seeds and ribs. They’ll add just enough heat to this big pot of soup give it an interesting kick.

Buy plenty of limes. Unlike lemons, limes are notoriously stingy when it comes to producing juice. It could take three or four limes to get the needed two tablespoons of juice for this recipe. And yes, lime juice is necessary. We sampled the soup when it was fully cooked before adding the lime juice. Despite all the various big-flavored ingredients, it was surprisingly bland. The lime juice brought it to life.

Small Bites: an underground dinner and a downloadable documentary on organic food

Underground dining experiences combine lots of our favorite things. Eating great food, meeting new people and doing it all in nontraditional spaces. Tuesday Night Dinner has been creating just such creative dinners for Chicagoans since 2009. TND  is an underground dining community committed to creating an environment where guests feel a closer connection to their food and its sources. During the winter, TND hosts a communal dinner the last Tuesday of each month. This month’s dinner,  ”Off the Boat, Into the Kitchen,” is an interpretation of Old World favorites tweaked through the lens of the Windy City.

For $30, guests will enjoy a four-course meal, libations by Strange Pelican Brewery, live music by New Millennium Orchestra and art by No Sandbox Studio resident artist Lindsey Clair. The menu will include Hen of the Woods Vesuvio, ‘Czech me out’ Boar Loin, Devon St. Tacos and Lavender & Candied Ginger ‘Flan-ton.’ There are limited spaces left for the event this Tuesday, January 29. Order tickets through Brown Paper Tickets.

What exactly is organic? And what other ideas do you have?

In 2011, certified organic food production surpassed the $30 billion mark in America. But according to filmmaker Kip Pastor, that roughly represents just one percent of farmland. In his new documentary In Organic We Trust, he explores social and economic aspects of our food system and its impact on our health.

The health of farm workers, animals, consumers and the environment has become a growing concern with our current industrial agriculture model. Organic farming is one answer, but it’s only one. And organic farming itself is in danger of being co-opted and watered down by agribusiness.

Pastor questions exactly what organic means and what it’s becoming. And he looks beyond organic for other possible solutions. No one sustainable food production system or model can feed the entire planet. As we’ve said here before, local farmers markets, school gardens and urban farms are revolutionizing the way we eat.

In Organic We Trust has been starting conversations and winning acclaim at screenings around the country. It is now available On Demand with a number of cable providers and online through iTunes, Amazon Video, YouTube and other broadband sources. You can find out more at the In Organic We Trust website.

What’s not to like? Mustard-Maple Glazed Brussels Sprouts with Bacon

To all of you who think you hate Brussels sprouts, you’re wrong. Well, most of you are anyway. And more than ever, chefs these days are out to prove it. In fact, Brussels sprouts have starred as delicious small plates in two recent meals we’ve had.

Quick cooking is part of what makes them so good. Pan frying until they’re just caramelized or even deep frying, instead of boiling them into the mushy, sulfur-smelling mess you learned to hate. So is pairing them with ingredients that make the most of Brussels sprouts’ pleasantly bitter natural flavor.

At Revolution Grille in Toledo, Ohio, Chef/Proprietor Rob Campbell serves what he calls Crispy Fried Brussels Sprouts. For this so-called small bites dish (all of the small plates we ordered were huge by Chicago standards), the sprouts were flash-fried in the deep frier (not breaded) and served with pine nuts, Pecorino Romano, pea tendrils and white truffle-maple mustard. We had stopped in Toledo after a deliciously food-filled visit to Columbus, and these sprouts ranked among the best things we ate on the entire trip.

A couple of weekends ago, an antiquing day trip took us to La Grange, Illinois, where we discovered Wild Monk, a relaxed gastro pub on a charming street of shops and restaurants. Much of the inventive, beer-friendly menu is the work of chef Francisco Velasquez. Credit for the caramelized Brussels sprouts with bacon jam, lemon and sea salt, however, goes to former executive chef Riley Huddleston. We hit the antique mall in La Grange a few times a year. Now we know where we’ll be eating when we do.

For this recipe, I borrowed techniques and ingredients from both chefs above—and I threw in some of my own. I sautéed the Brussels sprouts quickly, getting a nice caramelized char on them and adding a little garlic at the end of the sautéing. Then I tossed them with some bacon and chopped walnuts and gave everything a maple-mustard glaze. Finally, I topped it all with freshly grated Pecorino Romano. It was delicious, if I say so myself—something even most Brussels sprouts haters would probably like.

Mustard-Maple Glazed Brussels Sprouts with Bacon
Serves 2 to 4 as a side/starter (see Kitchen Notes)

1/4 cup shelled walnut halves or pieces
1/2 Brussels sprouts (15 to 20)
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1-1/2 teaspoons maple syrup
canola or olive oil
2 strips bacon
1 clove garlic, minced
salt and freshly ground black pepper
freshly grated Pecorino Romano or Parmesan cheese

Place walnuts in a cold nonstick skillet. Toast over a medium flame, stirring occasionally, until just golden brown and fragrant. Be careful not to burn. Transfer to a small plate. When cool enough to handle, break into smallish pieces.

Rinse Brussels sprouts, dry with a paper towel. Trim the bases and halve Brussels sprouts lengthwise, peeling away any loose leaves. Set aside. Whisk Dijon mustard and maple syrup together in a small bowl. Set aside.

Drizzle a little oil into a large nonstick skillet or sauté pan. Place bacon strips in pan and cook until crisp, turning frequently. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate. Drizzle a little more oil in the pan, enough to coat the bottom. Place Brussels sprouts cut side down in the pan and sauté until caramelized, about 2 minutes (check the first ones you put in the pan a little before 2 minutes). Using a pair of wooden spoons or spatulas, turn and cook on rounded side for 1 to 2 minutes. Season with salt and a generous grind of pepper.

Push sprouts aside and add garlic and walnuts to pan. Cook until garlic is just fragrant, about 45 seconds. Turn off heat and toss to combine. Crumble bacon over pan. Drizzle mustard-maple syrup mixture over pan and toss to coat everything. Transfer Brussels sprouts to a serving bowl and top with grated Pecorino Romano. Serve.

Kitchen Notes

“Can I double this?” Sure, but you’ll probably need two pans to have room to cook the sprouts. And they cook up quickly, so getting them all turned and properly caramelized without burning them could be a challenge. A better bet might be to cook the sprouts in batches, transferring the first batch to a warmed bowl and tenting it with foil. Then you could combine them with the second batch as they finish cooking, adding the doubled walnuts, bacon and glaze at the end.

Mussels with Fennel and Star Anise: wow power that’s weeknight quick

A funny thing happened on the way to this recipe, and it illustrates the twists and turns that often occur in our kitchen. The idea to do something with mussels started with a comment on my Black Bean Soup with Ham Hocks post, oddly enough. In passing, reader Dani H. mentioned that she’d finally gotten around to cooking the Moules Marinières recipe I’d posted a couple of years ago. The next day, I came across a recipe for mussels using fresh ginger and lemongrass. Okay, the delicious, easy-to-cook bivalves were back on my radar screen.

Lemongrass, ginger and fresh mussels were acquired. I was busily mapping out how I would make the recipe my own. Then I took a quick look at past Blue Kitchen mussels recipes (and was shocked to find four of them) and realized I had cooked mussels with lemongrass and ginger already. Granted, it was a curried version, but it still seemed like time for a new direction.

Sticking, for the moment, with the Asian direction the ginger and lemongrass had suggested, I thought of star anise. This seed pod of an evergreen tree grown in China, Vietnam and Japan is a staple in Eastern Chinese cooking. It also is featured in Vietnamese and Indian cuisines.

I assumed my search for “mussels star anise” would yield Asian or Asian-influenced dishes. Instead, numerous recipes took advantage of its distinctive licorice taste to enhance that same flavor in fennel. This appealed to me for a couple of reasons. First, we’ve been enjoying cooking with—and eating—fennel bulbs lately. Ziti with Sausage and Fennel has become an instant favorite at our house. And second, this unexpected mash-up of ingredients from different corners of the globe is at the heart of much of Blue Kitchen’s approach to cooking.

There are any number of reasons to love mussels. They’re delicious and insanely versatile, playing nicely with all kinds of cuisines and flavors. Mussels are fast and easy to cook—in fact, about the only way to screw them up is to overcook them. They’re cheap too, especially for seafood. The most I’ve ever paid for them is five dollars a pound—usually, they’re less.

One of the coolest things about mussels, though, is that they’re sustainable. Even—or perhaps especially—the farmed variety. They’re filter feeders, so farming mussels doesn’t require feeding them wild fish and doesn’t deplete the wild fish stock, as does farming of many other species. And they actually clean the water, instead of polluting it as some farmed seafood does. In fact, David W. Dunlap reported in the New York Times last summer that New York City was installing an artificial mussel bed in the East River. No, the city isn’t looking to get into aquaculture; their goal is to have the them help clean up the river.

Need another reason to love mussels? This dish just might be it. There are so many wonderful flavors working together here, from the faint, fresh hint of licorice from the fennel and the star anise to the bite of the garlic, the buttery, winy broth, the bright tang of the tomato and the briny goodness of the mussels themselves.

Mussels with Fennel and Star Anise
Serves 2

A quick note: Prep everything else before you clean the mussels—or even remove them from the fridge. (See Kitchen Notes for more on handling mussels.)

2 tablespoons butter
1/2 fennel bulb, cored and thinly sliced (about 1/2 cup)
1 shallot, finely chopped
2 whole star anise (available in Asian markets and many supermarkets)
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 cup dry white wine
1 Roma (plum) tomato, diced
freshly ground black pepper
2 pounds mussels
chopped fennel fronds, for garnish

crusty bread or baguette

After you’ve prepped everything else and are set to cook, clean the mussels. Farmed mussels are fairly clean to begin with and require little effort. Scrub them with a stiff brush under cold running water, discarding any mussels with broken or cracked shells, or any opened mussels that don’t close when you tap them lightly on the counter. Remove the beards which may appear along the hinge side of the shell, using a sharp knife or pulling with your fingers. Set aside in a bowl.

Melt the butter in a large, lidded sauté pan over medium heat. Add the fennel, shallot and star anise and cook for 4 to 5 minutes, stirring frequently to avoid burning. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 45 seconds, stirring constantly. Add wine and tomato and season generously with black pepper. Stir and bring wine to a boil before proceeding.

Quickly add mussels in a single layer and cover pan. Cook, shaking pan occasionally, until mussels open, 4 to 6 minutes (you don’t want to overcook and make them rubbery). Remove from heat. Discard any mussels that don’t open, along with star anise. Using a slotted spoon, transfer mussels to two shallow serving bowls. Spoon broth and vegetables over mussels. Garnish with fennel fronds and serve with crusty bread for sopping up the broth. Serve a simple salad alongside and you’ve got dinner.

Kitchen Notes

Just one note this time, but an important one. Treat the mussels right. When you eat meat or seafood, it means an animal has died for you to do so. Those of us who don’t hunt or fish are usually comfortably removed from that fact. Supermarkets, butcher shops and fishmongers wrap our fillets, steaks, chops and other cuts in plastic or paper for us, ready to be taken home and prepared. Mussels are another story. Like lobsters and a few other seafood choices, they’re live when you buy them. Remember that as you handle them.

Keep them cold. Ask to have them packed with a little ice when you buy them, and make sure the bag is left open, especially if it’s plastic; the mussels need to breathe. Then take them right home. There, store them in the fridge, without the ice. One fishmonger helpfully suggested putting them in a colander over a shallow pan; that way, they won’t end up sitting in any brine they cast off. Don’t put them in water; the fresh water will kill them.

For the same reason, don’t “rinse them in several water baths,” as some recipes suggest. It won’t kill them that quickly, but it will cause unnecessary irritation. And when it’s time to cook them, bring your broth to a full boil before adding them and cover the pan immediately after adding them. That will make the end as swift as possible. I say all this not to put you off eating mussels—or other seafood or meat, for that matter. Just respect the animals that feed us.

Greek Green Bean Salad – Perfect For Potlucks – Recipe

These green beans are perfect for a potluck; the beans themselves are blanched and shocked and you can then hold them cold a day in advance and dress them close to serving time. They can be cooked traditionally in a big pot, or in a simple sous vide setup if you are so inclined – I’ve offered both options in the recipe.

I’ve been on a big fresh marjoram kick lately. It is in the same family as oregano, but I think the flavor is more complex and resinous and interesting. It is especially well loved in Greek cuisine and pairs beautifully with feta and olives. If you can’t find fresh marjoram, use fresh oregano and/or thyme.

This dish is so simple that the quality of the feta and olives you use will make a big difference; buy the best you can afford. You might also add a bit of lemon or orange zest for even more flavor.

Also, you may have noticed that my new recipes have a shiny Save Recipe button next to them now. This will let you save recipes into a ZipList recipe box, which you can always get to from or the “Recipe Box” link in the menu at the top of the site. ZipList manages the recipe boxes for a lot of major sites, so I’m excited to offer this service. My favorite feature is that you can add recipes right to a shopping list and then have them show up in the app on your phone. I plan to go back and move some of my most popular older recipes into the ZipList format over time. Try it out and let me know how you like it!

Greek Gren Bean Salad

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 25 minutes

Yield: 12

  • 1200 grams (2 1/2 pounds) green beans, trimmed and rinsed
  • 70 grams (1/3 cup) extra-virgin olive oil
  • 5 grams (1 teaspoon) kosher salt
  • 200 grams (1 1/3 cups) creamy feta, crumbled
  • 300 grams (1 1/2 cups) pitted taste black olives (I used Taggiascas), sliced
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Lots of fresh marjoram or oregano
  1. Set up an ice bath for shocking the blanched green beans.
  2. Cooking option 1: combine the green beans, olive oil and salt in a bag, seal, and cook sous vide at 85 C for 15 minutes. This can be done using the improvised sous vide method if you don’t have an immersion circulator. Shock in the bag in ice water to stop the cooking.
  3. Cooking option 2: bring a very large pot of salted water to a boil. Boil the green beans until just barely tender and still bright green, working in two batches if necessary. Shock in the ice water.
  4. When the beans are well chilled, transfer to serving bowl. If cooked using option 2, add the olive oil and salt now and toss well. Garnish with the feta, black olives, pepper and marjoram. Toss just before serving, as it looks beautiful before tossing.

The Perfect Chai Recipe


When I was nineteen, I launched my very first entrepreneurial enterprise: I started a very tiny chai-making operation. I made it in my mother’s kitchen, bottled it in gallon-size milk jugs, and delivered it in the basket of my old, avocado-green Schwinn bicycle to my single client: the coffee shop where I worked at the time. I was inspired to make chai because I had a life-altering cup of it from another young company: Nub Chai. Theirs was pretty mind blowing: it packed a ridiculously strong ginger punch, and was teeth-achingly sweet with the rich, molasses flavor of whole cane sugar. You know what they say about imitation being the sincerest form of flattery? Well, my little enterprise was just that. I wasn’t really trying to make my own mind blowing cup of chai. I was trying to recreate theirs.

Chai spices

Fast forward two years. At twenty-one I was confused and restless and searching, intently, for some kind of meaning or bigness or system or structure. I don’t know what I was looking for, but I was having a hard time finding it. A friend and I schemed a three month trip to India. It was probably the craziest thing I had ever done. It was certainly the most brave and definitely the most foolhardy. And we did it. We spent three challenging, difficult, overwhelming and eye-opening months in India.


By far my favorite thing about those three months was traveling the country by train. It was an experience unto itself: a world-in-miniature happening in motion. Most of the train windows didn’t have glass; they were just rectangular spaces with a metal grate, which made me feel closer to the landscape outside the car. It was a more subdued way of observing the culture, considering that nothing was censored along the tracks. Whole shanty towns sprung up along the edges of stations, and so many of the rituals of living – cleaning, cooking, fighting, sleeping and shitting – could be witnessed from the train window.

Tea party

At all hours of day and night, a parade of sellers would pass through with all kinds of sweets and snacks and chai and coffee. The chai wallah called out loudly: chai, chai; chai, chai, over and over. It was often served in little earth-colored clay cups, and they were meant to be smashed on the tracks when you finished. I loved those little bowls and brought a few home, but I have no idea where they are now.

I hadn’t made chai for years before coming upon this recipe from my friend Rachel. It tastes best if you add the milk and let it simmer all together for a little bit, as this recipe does. It’s rather making me fall in love all over again. And writing about India makes me want to go back there – it’s the first time since going, so very many years ago, that I’ve had any desire to return. I need to gather some more of those clay cups.

Perennial Plate’s recent video on a day in India does a pretty spot-on job of capturing the sense of the place.

And Darjeeling Limited captures that surreal, detached world that happens so uniquely on the train in India so very well.


5 one-inch slices of ginger
1.5 cups water
4 whole cardamom pods, crushed
4 black peppercorns
1 stick cinnamon
4 teaspoons loose black tea, such as Assam
1/2 cup milk of choice (I used almond milk)
2 tablespoons honey or sugar

In a saucepan over medium heat, add the ginger slices and water. When the water is hot, but before it begins to boil, add the cardamom pods, peppercorns and cinnamon. Once the water boils, add the black tea and turn off heat. Cover and allow to steep for three to four minutes.

Heat the pot over a medium flame once more, and add the milk and honey now. Let the mixture simmer for another three or four minutes. Turn off heat, and serve.


Fire is optional, flavor isn’t, with Giardiniera Aioli and Cumin Coriander Pork Chops

We went to an underground dinner last week hosted by Tuesday Night Dinner. The TND crew creates pop-up dining events throughout the year, each in a different location and each with a different theme. This one was held at No Sandbox Studios, just west of Chicago’s Loop, and the theme was ”Off the Boat, Into the Kitchen,” an interpretation of immigrant fare reimagined by the TND chefs.

The four courses were delicious and inventive, but the thing that caught my eye—or more accurately, my taste buds—was an accompaniment for one of the courses, a giardiniera aioli. Usually, aioli is a sauce made of fresh mayonnaise and garlic, but chef Jeremy Leven substituted spicy giardiniera for the garlic. The result was amazing.

Giardiniera is an Italian condiment, a mix of pickled vegetables and peppers usually packed in vinegar and oil. It can be hot or mild. Jeremy chose hot, an excellent decision. The giardiniera aioli made its first appearance at the dinner with grilled hen of the woods mushrooms. The briny, tangy, spicy sauce played beautifully with the smoky earthiness of the mushrooms. Later, it reappeared as a probably impromptu topping for Indian tacos. Again, it worked well. (To read more about this lovely dinner, check out the post on Marion’s blog, 9591 Iris.)

At its most basic, aioli is made with garlic (or in this case, giardiniera), egg yolk and oil. It is ridiculously easy to make. The most difficult (make that tedious) part is repeatedly scraping down the sides of the blender jar; it spatters spectacularly as you blend it. For me, the funnest old-school-cooking part is separating out the egg yolk. Yes, there are gadgets for doing this now, but cracking the shell in half and pouring the yolk back and forth between the halves, letting the whites separate off and fall away is wonderfully gratifying.

Jeremy made his aioli thick, almost chunky. It was closer to a spread or a dip than sauce, not unlike hummus. I opted for a thinner version, slightly more free flowing, but still not a drizzly sauce.

In looking for something to pair with the aioli, I quickly settled on pork chops. No reason other than I like pork chops. The Indian tacos made me think of cumin and coriander. You could go with simple salt and pepper, but this spice combo lets the chops bring something to the flavor party too.

Winter having finally gotten serious in Chicago, I pan seared them rather than firing up the snow-covered grill. These chops would be delicious grilled. And the aioli would be delicious on fish, grilled chicken breasts or sautéed tofu (especially seasoned with cumin and coriander, I think). For the chops, I used a technique I often use with lamb shoulder chops to tenderize them, coating them with a layer of kosher salt and letting them rest for 20 minutes, then rinsing the salt off.

Giardiniera Aioli
Makes about 3/4 cup

5 tablespoons oil-packed giardiniera, drained (see Kitchen Notes)
1 large egg yolk
2-1/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2-1/2 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil

Combine drained giardiniera and egg yolk in blender and purée until smooth, scraping down the sides of the jar with a spatula as necessary. Combine oils in a measuring cup. Drizzle oil slowly into running blender, a little at a time, again scraping down the sides as needed. Blend until oil is emulsified in giardiniera mixture and creamy. If you want it slightly thinner, add a little more oil.

Can be made ahead and refrigerated. If you do so, be sure to bring it out of the fridge before you need it, so it can come to room temperature and reach the right consistency.

Cumin Coriander Pork Chops
Serves 4

1 tablespoon cumin seeds (or 1 tablespoon cumin powder)
1 tablespoon coriander seeds (or 1 tablespoon coriander powder)
4 bone-in pork chops, 3/4-inch thick, about 8 ounces each
coarse kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
canola oil

giardiniera aioli (see above)

If you’re working with whole cumin and coriander seeds, place them in a dry, cold nonstick skillet and toast them over a medium-low flame. Shaking the skillet frequently, toast seeds until they’re fragrant and beginning to pop, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a bowl to cool. When completely cool, grind in a spice grinder. Set aside. (If you’re working with ground spices, simply combine them in a bowl.)

Arrange chops on a plate. Season on both sides with half the cumin/coriander spice mix and a generous coating of kosher salt (use a heavy hand—you’ll wash it off later). Let the chops rest for 20 minutes at room temperature. Rinse under cold running water and pat dry with paper towels.

Season chops with the remaining cumin/coriander mix and freshly ground black pepper. Heat a skillet large enough to hold chops in a single layer over medium-high flame. Add enough oil to coat bottom of the pan. When oil is shimmering, add chops. Cook about 4 minutes per side, or until an instant read thermometer registers at least 145ºF. Plate chops and top with a dollop of aioli. Serve. Pass additional aioli at the table.

Kitchen Notes

Spicy? Not spicy? We’re big fans of a little heat. As such, we heartily recommend using hot giardiniera. But if heat is a deal breaker, use mild giardiniera—you’ll get the wonderful flavor without the pain.

Oily? Not oily? Traditional giardiniera is packed in oil and vinegar. Often, though, we’ll seek out the variety packed in water and vinegar instead, to save some calories. This version needs the oil-packed version. Even when you drain it, there will be some residual oil; it adds to the smooth creaminess of the aioli. Residual water would fight the creamy texture.

Osso Buco, meet Cassoulet: Braised Veal Shanks with White Beans

Don’t get me wrong. I love osso buco. I’ve even made the time-honored Italian dish. But when I recently got my hands on some nice looking veal shanks, I wanted to try something different. Apparently, I’m not alone in that. Nestled among a bazillion osso buco recipes that a quick search for veal shanks recipes brought up was this plaintive cry on Chowhound: “Need veal shank recipe—Not Osso Buco.”

In my head, I traveled the culinary globe off and on for a couple of days. I spent a lot of virtual time in Mexico and Latin America, conjuring up tangy, spicy, chipotle-smoky dishes. Morocco ca

lled to me, with cumin, paprika, cinnamon and golden raisins. In the end, though, I landed right next door to Italy, in France. And the resulting recipe borrowed from classic dishes of both.

For osso buco, veal shanks are braised for a couple of hours, often on the stovetop (for my version, I oven-braised them). This slow cooking makes the mild-flavored meat fork tender and infusesit with the flavors of the braising liquid—aromatics, herbs, wine and stock. Small wonder this rustic dish is a favorite in Italian restaurants and home kitchens alike.

Cassoulet, comfort food as only the French can do it, blows right past two hours for cooking time. Not only do you cook everything for hours—one of the ingredients, duck confit, is duck that’s already been cooked for hours. And you are further encouraged to cook the whole thing a day ahead and then cook it some more before serving.

For this braised veal shanks with white beans recipe, I took advantage of some of the overlap in these two timeless dishes. Then I skewed the whole thing in a cassoulet direction. Traditional cassoulet is a real meat festival. In addition to the aforementioned duck, it usually contains lamb and/or various cuts of pork, and it always includes sausage. The shanks are plenty meaty, so I just used a little bacon to achieve some of the smoky flavor sausage adds. And of course, white beans and bread crumbs are key cassoulet ingredients. They help anchor this dish too.

Braised Veal Shanks with White Beans
Serves 4

4 cross-cut veal shanks (osso buco cut, 1/2- to 3/4-pound each)
salt and freshly ground black pepper
flour (about 1/4 cup or so)
3 slices bacon
canola oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 shallots, sliced (or 1 medium yellow onion)
3 carrots, sliced on an angle
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves (or 1 teaspoon dry)
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary needles (or 1 teaspoon dry)
2 plum tomatoes, chopped
1 cup dry white wine (I used a muscadet)
2 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth (plus more, if needed)
2 small bay leaves (or 1 large)
1/2 cup bread crumbs
2 15-ounce cans white beans, such as cannellini

Preheat oven to 325ºF. Pat the veal shanks dry with paper towels and tie them with kitchen twine around the outside. Season generously with salt and pepper and dredge in flour, shaking off excess. Set aside. In a cold Dutch oven large enough to hold shanks in a single layer, drizzle a little canola oil and add bacon strips. Cook bacon over medium heat until crisp, turning frequently. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate.

Working in batches, brown shanks on both sides, 3 to 5 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate. Reduce heat to medium-low. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon of fat from Dutch oven and add 1 tablespoon butter. Add shallots and carrots. Cook until shallots are beginning to soften, stirring frequently to avoid burning, 3 to 4 minutes. Add garlic, thyme and rosemary to pot and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 45 seconds.

Add tomatoes, wine and 1 cup of chicken broth and scrape up any browned bits. Crumble in the cooked bacon. Season with pepper, but no salt at this point. Nestle shanks into pot, adding any accumulated juices. Add second cup of broth. Shanks should be about 2/3 submerged in liquid. Add a little water if more liquid is needed (or cut back on broth if you don’t need it all). Bring to a boil over high heat, then cover Dutch oven and transfer to the oven.

Braise shanks for 2 hours, until meat is completely tender, checking every 30 minutes to see if additional liquid is needed. If so, add water; adding more broth could make it too salty—and too brothy.

Meanwhile, toast bread crumbs. I used Japanese panko—it tends to be lighter and crunchier than other bread crumbs, and the toasted crumbs tend to maintain their crispiness even when sprinkled over cooked foods. But feel free to use whatever white bread or bread crumbs you have on hand. Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-low flame. Add 1/2 tablespoon oil to pan, swirl to coat. Add bread crumbs and toss to coat with oil. Toast until golden brown, stirring frequently, about 3 to 5 minutes. Watch closely—they will remain stubbornly pale for a while and then suddenly turn brown. Don’t burn them. Transfer to a shallow bowl or plate and allow to cool completely. You can toast the bread crumbs a day ahead and, after they’re cooled, store at room temperature in an airtight container.

When shanks are just about done, drain and rinse the beans. Set aside one cup of beans. Transfer Dutch oven to stovetop and turn off the oven. Transfer shanks to a platter and tent with foil. Return to oven to keep them warm.

Discard bay leaves. Add beans (all but the one cup you’ve reserved) to Dutch oven and heat over medium flame. Using a hand masher, mash the reserved beans in a pot or sturdy bowl until smooth, adding a little braising liquid to make it easier. Add mashed beans to Dutch oven and stir to combine. If braising liquid is thin, raise heat to medium-high and thicken slightly. Taste and adjust seasonings—chances are, you won’t need to add salt.

Divide bean/braising liquid mixture among 4 shallow bowls and top with bread crumbs. Place a shank in the middle of each bowl, removing string. Serve.