a year in food and life

Chickpea curry December 21, 2009

Filed under: food,grains — superspark @ 12:47 pm

It’s dishes like this one that are dampening my enthusiasm for cooking and are instead driving me to read style blogs.

I’ve been getting a perverse thrill out of seeing other people’s OOTD (“outfit of the day”, as I deduced) and viewing their clandestine dressing room photos in Anthropologie or J. Crew.  Maybe its that I miss seeing super stylish people in LA or even the preppy undergrads of Cambridge, MA.  In upstate NY, style is trumped by warmth and down coats are practically a uniform.  I invested a retro prep pair of plaid “duck boots” to combat the snow that promises to linger for the next four months.  They are cute in their own way, but I long for the frivolity and whimsy of summer dressing.  Sigh.  Luckily my new must-read fashion blogs provide a little inspiration, not to mention making me feel incredibly virtuous for not racking up astronomical shopping bills on a regular basis.

So what does this have to do with chickpea curry, you might ask?  Well, nothing per se.  Except that meals like this one are discouraging enough to make me want to hang up my spatula temporarily. The best thing I could say about this dish was that it was really quick and easy to make.  It was awfully, horribly spicy, so much so that large dollops of cooling yogurt couldn’t even rescue it.  Which is not to say that we didn’t eat it, but as opposed to some leftovers which are eaten with a speed that nears competitive levels, these were eaten grudgingly with hidden hopes that they might go bad before we managed to choke them all down.

This chickpea curry didn’t come from a blog, but from All Recipes, and our reaction and the comments on the original post serve as a reminder that there’s something to be said for cookbook recipes which are repeatedly tested and tweaked until the spice combinations are just right.  In this case, some commenters quadrupled the spices, whereas we followed the recipe more or less as written and found it nearly inedible.   I can’t begin to explain the discrepancy, only to say that All Recipes will not be getting many visits from me in the near future.  But my favorite fashion blogs will.

Chickpea curry (serves 6 when served over rice)

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 onions, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons fresh ginger root, finely chopped
6 whole cloves
2 (2 inch) sticks cinnamon, crushed
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
2 (15 ounce) cans garbanzo beans
1 cup chopped fresh cilantro

1. Heat oil in a large frying pan over medium heat, and fry onions until tender.

2. Stir in garlic, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, cumin, coriander, salt, cayenne, and turmeric. Cook for 1 minute over medium heat, stirring constantly. Mix in garbanzo beans and their liquid. Continue to cook and stir until all ingredients are well blended and heated through. Remove from heat. Stir in cilantro just before serving, reserving 1 tablespoon for garnish.


Kalyn’s spicy red lentil and chickpea stew October 30, 2009

Filed under: food,grains,soups — superspark @ 9:26 am

kalyns red lentil and chickpea stew

Yikes! Is it already almost November?! It feels like I posted just yesterday and yet it’s been nearly a month. Time flies when you’re maniacally writing grants. But I can’t complain because for the most part, I’ve been able to leave work at work and enjoy my hours at home. Mostly that means chasing Maddie around the house, but on occasion she manages to entertain herself for long enough that I can whip up a quick dinner. Unfortunately, these days I seem to be plagued with (1) a tendency to pick seriously ho-hum recipes including a slew from my go-to, the New York Times; and (2) a tendency to forget to take a picture in the rare instance that I actually make something tasty enough to merit writing about. Bah humbug!

So I hope Kalyn can forgive me for this first, borrowing a photo from another blog. So lame, I know, but it seemed better to borrow than to let this recipe slip by due to my negligent photography. It’s the perfect autumn meal- warm, healthy, and hearty.  Even better, it’s pretty quick and easy to put together save from extracting the cardamom from the pods- may I strongly recommend buying it ground for this purpose? That’s right, cardamom. I usually think of it in desserts- like these two (yum!) But it can work in savory dishes as well, as it does here, combining with the cayenne, garam masala, and cumin to create a stew with an unusually deep flavor profile (have I been watching too much Top Chef?).    And though I’ve had my issues with lentils, there work terrifically here, melting down and thickening the broth into a hearty stew.  We served it over brown rice, allowing us to sanctimoniously snarf down a huge batch of homemade chocolate ice cream for dessert.  Consider that my personal serving tip for this and all other meals- always garnish with a bowl of chocolate ice cream for dessert.  After all, cardamom works great with desserts.

Spicy Red Lentil and Chickpea Stew (from reader Paula B. via Kalyn’s Kitchen)
(serves 6, we doubled it and froze some)

1 large onion, finely chopped
1 T olive oil (or perhaps a little more, depending on your pan)
1-2 tsp. finely grated fresh ginger (original recipe said 1 tsp, but I used 2 tsp.)
1 T finely minced garlic
1 tsp. ground turmeric
3/4 cup celery, finely diced
1 tsp. Garam Masala
1 1/2 tsp. ground cardamom
1/2 tsp. ground cayenne pepper
1 tsp. ground cumin
6 cups chicken stock
1 1/2 cups red lentils
1 can (15 oz) chickpeas, rinsed until no more foam appears
1 can (14.5 oz.) diced tomatoes (I used petite dice, do not drain tomatoes)
cooked brown rice for serving (optional)
sour cream or plain yogurt for serving (optional)

1. Heat olive oil in a heavy pot with a tight-fitting lid. Add onions, ginger, garlic, and turmeric and gently saute, stirring often, for about 7 minutes, or until onions are quite soft but not browned.

2. Add diced celery, garam masala, ground cardamom, cayenne pepper, and ground cumin and saute 3-4 minutes more, until celery barely starts to soften.

3. Add the stock, red lentils, canned tomatoes, and rinsed chickpeas and bring mixture to a gentle boil. When it starts to bubble, reduce heat to the barest simmer and cover pan with lid. Let mixture simmer, stirring a few times, until lentils are dissolved enough that mixture has thickened into a chunky stew. (Kalyn suggested 60 minutes which I roughly approximated, but a little longer or shorter shouldn’t hurt.)

4. Serve over brown rice (so virtuous!) with or without a dollop or sour cream or plain yogurt on top.


Baked quinoa with spinach and cheese July 8, 2009

Filed under: food,grains — superspark @ 10:20 am


I’m back! It has been two months, to the day, since Superspark went on hiatus during our big cross-country move from LA to upstate NY.   Two months so busy that I had to renounce my 5-day a week exercise addiction.  Two months so busy that I went through long spells with barely a moment to check my e-mail.  Needless to say, cooking (let alone writing about cooking) has not been at the forefront of my mind.

Culinarily speaking, it’s been a pretty dire couple of months.  Going from having no debt and a very low cost of living (thanks to the whole RA gig), to having a mortgage plus payments on two new cars is enough to make one think twice about splurging at the grocery store.  I hope this admission won’t cause any readers to permanently flee Superspark, but we not only partook of boxed mac and cheese several times in the last two months, but it was the generic brand.  Not even Kraft. Sad, I know.

Now that Dylan and I have started work and are again receiving paychecks, the situation is not quite as dire, nevertheless, we’re trying to pinch our pennies a bit more than we might have in the past.  And truth be told, we generally prefer to eat relatively cheap whole grains, fresh fruits and veggies anyway, with cheese being our main luxury food item.

The flagship store of the great upstate NY supermarket chain, Wegman’s, happens to be in our new hometown and so we were pretty excited to raid their bulk grains section, stocking up on favorites like quinoa and lentils.  So we were more than a little disappointed to find that most of the bulk goods were candies and that any grain that was a little out of the ordinary could only be found in boxes at higher prices in the chichi organic section.

So it makes me a little sad to look back on this recipe for baked quinoa with spinach and cheese, something I made before the move but never managed to post.  Yummy, gooey, and satisfying, the recipe, found here on on the New York Times website, is a slightly healthier, glorified comfort food.  You know, for those days when you want something with a little more nutrition and class than say, generic boxed mac and cheese.

Baked quinoa with spinach and cheese (serves 4-6)

1 6-ounce bag baby spinach
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 plump garlic cloves
4 cups cooked quinoa, (1 cup uncooked)
2 large eggs
3 ounces Gruyère cheese, grated (3/4 cup)
1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh sage
1 ounce Parmesan, grated (1/4 cup)

1. Preheat the oven to 400ºF. Oil a 2-quart gratin or baking dish.

2. Heat a medium frying pan or a wide saucepan over medium-high heat. Wash the spinach and without spinning dry, add to the pan and wilt in the liquid left on the leaves after washing. You may have to do this in 2 batches. As soon as the spinach wilts, remove from the heat and rinse with cold water. Squeeze dry and chop. Set aside.

3. Wipe the pan dry and heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in it over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring often, until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and stir with the onion until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in the spinach and season with salt and pepper. Remove from the heat.

4. Beat the eggs in a large bowl and add 1/2 teaspoon salt. Stir in the quinoa, the onion and spinach mixture, the Gruyère, and the sage. Add freshly ground pepper and stir the mixture together. Scrape into the gratin dish. Sprinkle the Parmesan over the top and drizzle on the remaining tablespoon of olive oil. Place in the oven and bake until nicely browned on top, about 25 minutes. Remove from the heat, allow to sit for about 5 minutes, and serve.


Quinoa soup with avocado and corn March 9, 2009

Filed under: food,grains,soups,veggies — superspark @ 8:28 am


City living requires a little bit of flexibility and a “roll with the punches” attitude.  Our apartment seemed small but manageable before Maddie came along and with plans to relocate this summer, we figured we’d just squeeze her in with us.  How much room could one small baby need?  Not much for Maddie herself, of course, but today’s babies come with all sorts of accoutrements- cribs, strollers, toys, clothes, changing pads…did I mention that the child has three varieties of chair?

She spent the first 4 months or so of life sleeping only a few feet away from us in her crib, an arrangement that seemed perfectly lovely until she started doing a vocalization I call “Dolphin Speak”, a high-pitched shriek (not unlike Flipper) that could come at any hour of day or night.  Having had enough of awakening to midnight squeals, I came home one day to find Dylan moving Maddie’s crib into the all-purpose room that serves as a dining space and office.  So now it’s Maddie’s room as well, which has worked out swimmingly aside from the fact that all of its contents are off limits once she goes to bed around 7:30 pm.  How unfortunate that for nights on end our good camera, the amazing Nikon D70 which lets even the most clueless among us take beautiful photos, was shut in the dining room/office/nursery along with our slumbering baby.  All of which is a roundabout way of saying that yes, I know this photo sucks, but I hope you won’t hope it against this perfectly delicious and insanely simple soup.

It comes from a blog I recently discovered and has quickly become one of my favorites, Cheap Healthy Good.  I like the attitude, the writing, the variety, but above all, the postings tend to be the kind of things I like to eat from day to day.  This quinoa soup with avocado and corn, found here, is the first recipe I’ve tried from the site, but based on its success, I’ll certainly try more.  To give credit where credit is due, I think it orginally comes from Lorna Sass’ Whole Grains for Busy People.

It was so simple a monkey could put it together in minutes (so says the anthropologist in me) and yet had lots of interesting flavor and texture.  I had never tried quinoa in a soup before, to my recollection, but I’m sold. Sweet corn, creamy avocado, a splash of lime, and tiny grains of quinoa added up to a delightful weeknight meal that we liked so much that we ate the whole pot in just one sitting.

Quinoa soup with avocado and corn (serves 4)

4 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1 cup quinoa
1 cup frozen corn kernels
1/3 cup chunky salsa, to taste
1 ripe but firm Hass avocado, diced
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
Lime wedges, for serving

1. In a large saucepan over high heat, bring the broth to a boil. Stir in the quinoa, reduce heat to medium-high, and continue boiling, uncovered, for 15 minutes.

2. Stir in the corn and salsa, then return to a simmer. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the avocado. Season with salt and stir in the cilantro. Ladle into large bowls, accompanied with lime wedges.


Vegetable casserole November 19, 2008

Filed under: grains,veggies — superspark @ 9:03 am


Yowza, it’s been a while! A good couple of weeks have passed since my last post, which is a bit pathetic considering I actually have been cooking. It’s more the uploading photos and writing part that has eluded me. With Dylan away for the past month doing a surgical rotation at UCSF, between work and taking care of Maddie I’ve been busy enough that in my spare moments I usually just want to collapse on the couch. I hate to say it, but blogging sometimes begins to feel like work. Added to that, our super-duper Nikon D70 and all its fancy lenses travelled up to San Francisco with Dylan, leaving me with our little point-and-click which clearly can’t compete, at least not with my limited skills as a photographer.

But enough bellyaching- no one wants to read a post full of ranting and complaining. After all, we’re all tired at the end of the day, right? We all have moments when even our favorite hobbies lose their appeal, don’t we? Enter the slow-cooker. My mom sent us one as a gift last year, knowing how much I love her crock pot apple sauce. But the thing is enormous, so much so that it doesn’t fit anywhere in our tiny kitchen, and I’ll admit I still think of it (unfairly) as a 70s fad, less appropriate for a modern gal like me.

That said, with Maddie’s arrival, I just don’t have as much time to cook, even though I want to try new dishes and hate to rely on take-out or packaged foods. And so begins my relationship with the crock pot. I saw this recipe, originally from Better Homes and Gardens, on YumSugar a few weeks ago and with many of my favorite ingredients (beans, polenta, veggies, and CHEESE!), it seemed like a good way to start.  Paradoxically and somewhat inexplicably, I decided to take a short-cut and use packaged polenta (as suggested) for the first time only to decide that I had to make my own pesto, which then required additional prep work. Clearly, it will turn out best if you put in the extra effort of doing it all yourself, but regardless, it was a nice little nutritious dish and the leftovers have just kept going and going. And did I mention how awesome it was that dinner cooked itself while I went to the gym and picked up Maddie from day care? Yeah, I could get into this slow cooker thing…


Vegetable Casserole (serves 6-8)


2 19-oz. cans cannellini beans
1 19-oz. can garbanzo or fava beans
1/4 cup purchased basil pesto (or use your favorite recipe- I did the America’s Test Kitchen one)
1 medium onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1-1/2 tsp. dried Italian seasoning, crushed (I used the same amount of assorted dried savory spices instead)
1 16-oz. pkg. refrigerated cooked plain polenta cut in 1/2-inch-thick slices
1 large tomato, thinly sliced
1 8-oz. pkg. finely shredded Italian cheese blend (2 cups)
2 cups fresh spinach (I used frozen and added it earlier)
1 cup torn radicchio (I omitted this)

1. Rinse and drain beans.
2. In large bowl combine beans, 2 tablespoons of pesto, onion, garlic, and Italian seasoning.
3. In 4- to 5-quart slow cooker layer half of bean mixture, half of polenta, and half of cheese. Add remaining beans and polenta.
4. Cover; cook on low heat setting for 4 to 6 hours (or on high heat setting 2 to 2-1/2 hours).
5. Add tomato, remaining cheese, spinach, and radicchio.
6. Combine remaining pesto and 1 tablespoon water. Drizzle pesto mixture on casserole.
7. Let stand, uncovered, 5 minutes.


Hearty lentil soup October 24, 2008

Filed under: grains,soups,Uncategorized — superspark @ 6:16 am

Yeah, this is a food blog, I know, but you’ll just have to bear with me when I feel the need to put up with a picture of my little Madeleine now and then. Though we’re back in LA and I’m back at work, life in our family still revolves around our little cupcake, shown here lounging, a la Hugh Hefner, in her bathrobe. I’m happy to report that having had about 2 1/2 months now to get used to this whole parenting thing, we’ve managed to get a routine down whereby we no longer have to rely entirely on frozen foods or the kindness of friends who like to cook.

Which is not to say that there’s lots of extra time to whip up haute cuisine. No, at this point we’re all about easy recipes and making things in giant batches to freeze or eat over the course of a week. Take, for instance, this recipe for hearty lentil soup from our beloved The New Best Recipe: All-New Edition with 1,000 Recipes (from America’s Test Kitchen). We’ve made it a number of times and it’s a favorite in our household. It makes 4-6 servings as presented in the book and as we made up our grocery list this time, Dylan turned to me and said, “What do you think about multiplying it by six?”

Six?! That’s 12 quarts of lentil soup! While I’m all for saving time and effort by doubling recipes, that’s a lot of lentil soup for two people to eat. In the end we doubled it, ate half while enjoying our favorite cheap Trader Joe’s wine, and stashed half away in the freezer to come in handy for those moments when there’s just not enough time in the day to put something fresh together.

And as the weather grows cooler (well, it’s all relative in Southern California), I’m happy knowing that we have a big stash of this fall favorite. Often I find lentil soups to be bland and mushy, but this one is downright flavorful, a perfect blend of spices. Lentils de puy (or french green lentils) are preferred, but it can be made with green, black, or brown lentils. Served atop a bed of rice, it’s a terrifically filling meal for those moments when you want something that will really stick to your ribs but is also healthy.

Hearty lentil soup (make 2 quarts, about 4-6 servings)


1 large onion, chopped fine
2 medium carrots, peeled and chopped fine
1 tbsp oil
3 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed
1 14.5 oz can of diced tomatoes, drained
1 bay leaf
1 tsp minced fresh thyme
1 cup lentils, rinsed and picked over
1 tsp salt
ground black pepper
1/2 cup dry white wine (we subbed red)
4 1/2 cups chicken broth
1 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 tsp balsamic vinegar
3 tbsp minced parsley leaves (for garnish)

1. Saute the onions and carrots in the oil, stirring occasionally until the vegetables begin to soften, about 2 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in the tomatoes, bay leaf, and thyme and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in the lentils, salt, and pepper, then cover and reduce heat to medium-low and cook until vegetables have softened and lentils have darkened, about 8-10 minutes.

2. Uncover and turn heat to high. Add wine and bring to a simmmer. Add the broth and water, then bring to a boil. Cover partially and turn the heat to low. Simmer until the lentils are tender but still hold their shape, about 30-35 minutes. Discard the bay leaf.

3. Puree 3 cups of the soup in a blender then return to the pot (or use a hand blender to partly puree the soup for about 10-15 seconds). Stir in the vinegar and heat the soup over medium-low until hot, about 5 minutes. Stir in 2 tbsp parsley and serve, garnishing each bowl with remaining parsley, if desired.


Bulgur, tahini, and pinto bean veggie burgers July 25, 2008

Filed under: food,grains,veggies — superspark @ 7:39 am

Whereas many people only eat veggie burgers in times of diress (such as when there’s nothing else vegetarian available at a BBQ), I really like them. We keep a stash of them at home, I’ll order them at restaurants, and I even try to make them from scratch from time to time. But I’ve actually found it surprisingly, shockingly hard to come up with a homemade veggie burger that both tastes great and is simple to make. I seem to recall reading in Cook’s Illustrated at some point that a really good veggie burger requires a fair bit of work to put together, much more so than a good hamburger, which just doesn’t seem fair, does it? I have yet to tackle any of the really time, labor, and ingredient intense recipes that have crossed my path, but as for the simpler ones, I have yet to be wowed.

This recipe for bulgur, tahini, and pinto bean burgers was recently featured on Martha Stewart’s food blog, dinnertonight. The quick prep time (about 20 minutes active), the simple ingredient list, and the fact that most of the Martha recipes I’ve tried have turned out pretty well gave me hope that these homemade veggie burgers might turn out to be better than most. And as it turns out, they were pretty good. I liked the overall taste and texture well enough- a little bean, a little grain, a little vegetable, but not too much of any of them. They were especially good when left to saute for just a little longer than needed, making them browned and slightly crispy (more fry=more delicious, huge shock!).

My main complaint with these, as with many homemade veggie burgers, however, is that they were a bit pain to actually put together. The “dough” was so sticky that as I tried to form patties, I routinely found my hands absolutely coated with the stuff, to the point that it became incredibly hard to shape the burgers. Flouring my hands and the patties helped a tiny bit, but it was still a total mess. On the plus side, when it came time to cook these burgers, they actually stuck together, unlike veggie patties I’ve had before that instantly crumble upon being touched by a spatula. So all in all, my verdict was good enough to make again, but not so overwhelmingly fabulous as to become my go-to veggie burger recipe. For that, I’m still on the lookout…

Bulgur, tahini, and pinto bean veggie burgers
(makes about 6 burgers)

1/2 cup medium-grind bulgur
Coarse salt and ground pepper
1 can (14 1/2 ounces) pinto beans, rinsed and drained
1/4 cup plain dried breadcrumbs
4 scallions, thinly sliced
1 large egg
1 large carrot, coarsely grated
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons tahini (sesame-seed paste)
3 tablespoons vegetable oil

  1. In a medium bowl, mix bulgur with 1/4 teaspoon coarse salt and 1 cup boiling water. Cover bowl, and let sit until bulgur is tender (but still slightly chewy), about 30 minutes. Drain in a fine-mesh sieve, pressing to remove liquid.
  2. Place beans in a medium bowl; mash with a potato masher until a coarse paste forms. Add breadcrumbs, scallions, egg, carrot, cayenne, tahini, and bulgur. Season with salt and pepper, and mix to combine. Form mixture into patties, each about 1 inch thick.
  3. In a large skillet, heat oil over medium-low. Cook patties until browned and firm, 5 to 8 minutes per side. Serve on rolls with your preferred burger condiments.