Chickpea Consolation

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Catalan Chickpeas with Tomatoes and Almonds 

 
I’ve lived in Edinburgh for nearly six years now. That’s long enough to have learned a thing or two about the weather here, such as that just because the calendar says July doesn’t mean you can retire your Gore-Tex® from active duty, that sunny days can turn into gale-force storms in the time it takes to put on a pair of shoes and run to the door, and that the word ‘picnic’ is usually followed by a rueful laugh. In other words, we expect bad weather anytime and anyplace, but somehow this year has surpassed even Scottish standards for unpredictability. In the words of my doctoral supervisor Miriam, a pragmatic and weather-hardened New Zealander herself, "there is no better word for the climate here this spring than vile."

Amen.

You see, Scotland did something downright mean this year. It offered us an April beyond compare; the birds were singing at full volume, the trees were blossoming weeks ahead of schedule, and day after day dawned sunny, bright and warm. "This global warming thing isn’t so bad after all!" was a refrain heard round the city, as the promise of a long, dry summer began to take shape in our imaginations. You know, the kind of summer everyone else gets every year. But then May arrived, and with it freezing rain, howling winds, and hailstorms. We turned our heater back on after more than a month of disuse. We switched back to the winter quilt. And worst of all, the shelves full of the season’s first produce were suddenly the last thing I wanted to eat.

I mean, I wanted to want to eat them. I certainly have been looking with envy at all those beautiful strawberries and early-season cherries, plump baby favas, purple artichokes and white asparagus splashed across the blogosphere. I should be eating that stuff too, I told myself wistfully, even if it has been imported from Turkey or Sudan or wherever they grow these things nowadays for the Scottish market. But when I actually went shopping, it became clear that all the good intentions in the world couldn’t change the impact the weather was having on my appetite: all I really wanted to eat were potatoes and pasta, sausages and stews and crispy-skinned roast chickens.

And chickpeas, so many chickpeas. Yes, sometime during this miserable month of May, I began bringing home two, three, four, six cans of chickpeas a week in an attempt to satisfy my sudden and inexplicable cravings for them. In fact, I’m beginning to wonder if they’re slipping some addictive anti-depressant drugs into the lining of those cans. I’ve been forcibly restricting myself to making Ximena’s chickpeas with spinach only once a week (try it with feta, mmmm!), and we’ve tried just about every variation we can dream up of a simple chickpea salad à la Molly. Then there’s hummus, which I’ve been eating like it’s going out of style, and I even experimented with a hot cream of chickpea soup flavored with sherry (which, admittedly, was the one dud in a sea of chickpea bliss). But nothing, nothing compares to these chickpeas from Catalonia, the recipe for which I found in what might be my new favorite cookbook. I’m almost at a loss to describe them, they’re so good; imagine the heady saffron-and-garlic pungency of a great paella blended with the nutty sweetness of romesco, but instead of finding rice or seafood lurking under all those explosive flavors you find chickpeas, soft as butter. This is a dish that hits all the right notes of versatility too; it’s a bold and intriguing side dish as part of an elaborate meal, and it’s also at home as the main event, with nothing but a piece of bread and a crunchy salad to help it down; it’s even fantastic cold (which, let’s face it, is probably more appealing to you right now than to me).

Anyway, I’m doing my best to stay optimistic that the long, hot summer of our dreams is still on its way, and should you wish to cross your fingers for us I’d be much obliged. On second thought, though, a shipment of any spare sweaters and wool socks you have lying around would probably be a better idea. And while you’re at it, throw in some extra cans of chickpeas, just in case.

 

Catalan Chickpeas with Tomatoes and Almonds

This wonderful dish comes from an equally wonderful cookbook that in my ever-humble opinion deserves to be far better known than it is. The Essential Mediterranean by Nancy Harmon Jenkins (a regular contributor to Food and Wine and the New York Times as well as a part-time resident in Italy) is easily one of the best cookbooks of its genre I’ve ever come across. While there are many books about regional cuisines that are fascinating reads yet are only mediocre books to cook from, and many more that are the reverse, few manage to be both simultaneously. This one is; its chapters on the basic foodstuffs common to the entire Mediterranean – olives, wine, wheat, salt, etc – are an eloquent weaving of history, travelogue, and memoir, followed by a selection of intriguing and well-researched recipes that illustrate the different ways the ingredients are used across the region. This is one book I find dangerous to keep on the bedside table, since once I pick it up to read I simply can’t put it down! Oh, and as for this recipe, try it with some spinach or other greens – blanched and coarsely chopped – stirred in with the stock and almond mixture for a slightly different take on a satisfying one-bowl meal.

Source: adapted from The Essential Mediterranean by Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Serves: 4-6 

2 (14oz/400g) cans chickpeas, drained
1/4 cup (60ml) extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, peeled and grated or finely minced
1 can (14oz/400g) plum tomatoes in juice, preferably Italian, drained and chopped
pinch sugar
pinch saffron threads
3 large cloves garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped
1/3 cup (50g) lightly toasted almonds
small handful flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1 1/2 cups (325ml) chicken or vegetable stock
salt

juice of 1/2 lemon, or to taste 

Try the chickpeas – if they’re not completely soft to the bite (and canned ones rarely are), bring them to a boil in lightly-salted water and cook them until they are, usually about 10-20 minutes. Drain.

In a heavy frying pan, heat the oil over medium-low heat and sauté the onion until it is golden brown and very soft, about 25 minutes. Add the chopped tomatoes and sugar, letting them fry until they melt into the onions and form a paste, about another 10-15 minutes. This is called a sofregit, and its intense flavor forms the basis of many Catalan dishes. Remove the pan from the heat.

In a large mortar or food processor, combine the saffron, garlic, almonds and parsley and pound (or pulse) to a thick paste (add a little water if necessary to keep things moving). Add the paste to the onion mixture along with the stock and the chickpeas, bring to a boil over medium-high heat and simmer until the liquid has reduced to a thick sauce, about 10-15 minutes. Season with salt and lemon juice to taste. Serve hot or at room temperature; you’ll find that this dish keeps developing in flavor th
e longer it sits.

 

Tiramisu and the Art of Birthday Happiness

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Tiramisu with Marsala and Crème Fraîche 

 

Birthdays are funny things. Aside from showing the world how well we’re accepting our advancing years with dignity and how gracefully we’re able to hide our disappointment that none of those presents was really what we wanted, our birthdays give the world a window on our fundamental relationship with food. In fact, I have this theory that you can tell a lot about a person’s character by what they choose to eat on their birthday. Not the exact dish, mind you, but the type of food – do you prefer going out on your special day, or staying in? Do you cook for yourself or prefer others to do it? And most importantly, do you want something elaborate, unusual and exciting, or are comfort and familiarity more your style?

Take my case, for example. I normally have a quite acute case of culinary ADD, but when I have a birthday this tendency spirals completely out of control. Birthdays, for me, are all about the new: new flavors, new recipes, new surroundings, new experiences. If we go out, the last place you’ll find me is a restaurant I’ve dined at before; if I cook, you can bet it’ll be something I’ve never made. Very occasionally this results in a truly fabulous meal; far more often, however, it results in disaster, either because the restaurant is an unmitigated flop or because the stress of pulling off kitchen acrobatics at such a psychologically fragile time (it’s the biorhythms, my stepfather says) ends in emotional meltdown. The last birthday I spent with my family, for example, I know I cooked for everyone but I have fewer memories of the actual dishes I made than I do of the waterfall of tears I shed into them. And last year when I dragged Manuel to a restaurant I had been eying for months, we were subjected to possibly the rudest service I have ever experienced – which unfortunately made an otherwise forgettable meal quite unforgettable. No matter how many failures I have, though, I can’t shake my belief that lurking just around the next corner is the perfect birthday meal, and all I have to do to find it is keep trying.

For Manuel, however, this couldn’t be further from what he wants. For him, a birthday is all about the familiar and the predictable. It’s about having something he knows he’ll like because he’s had it a million times before. It’s also about having everyone as relaxed and able to enjoy the occasion as he. Barbecues used to be a favorite for this reason; since we’ve moved to a barbecue-less housing, he opts for something equally casual like nachos or fajitas. And dessert – if he even wants any at all – is usually even simpler.

Last week he and I were discussing his upcoming birthday. "How about osso buco?" I asked, lifting my nose from the stack of cookbooks I was mining for ideas. "Or something with rabbit? Or how about I track down some fresh foie gras?"

He shook his head vehemently. "You know that the last thing I want is to have you spending my birthday in the kitchen. And no matter what you claim, if I let you cook any of those things that’s bound to happen."

I sighed. "Okay, well at least let me make you a birthday cake. I can make it in advance so I’m not occupied on your birthday itself. Maybe something like this?" I asked, flashing him a photo of a towering Pierre Hermé behemoth along with a hopeful smile.

He looked thoughtfully at the picture. "You know what I would really like?"

"What?" I said eagerly, praying that the glimpse of gratuitous cake porn had done the trick.

"A tiramisu."

They probably heard my groan all the way to London.

"Tiramisu? But that’s what you always want! I can’t even count the number of times I’ve made you a stupid tiramisu," I grumbled.

Unfazed, he just smiled and said, "I know. But that’s what I want."

It was his birthday, after all, so I couldn’t really argue. I made him the tiramisu he wanted, and like always it was a breeze, something so familiar it’s an instinct rather than a recipe. And of course he loved it, like he always does. But the funny thing was that contrary to my expectations, I did too. You see, something I tend to forget because of my constant search for new thrills is not only how good the familiar can taste, but how much better things get with a little practice. I’ve been making tiramisu so many times that I simply take for granted how wonderful the mascarpone tastes balanced with the acidity of crème fraîche, how much better cocoa melds with the filling than grated chocolate, and how much more fragrant the marsala seems mixed in with rich, cold cream rather than sharing space with espresso in the soaking liquid. And I never would have discovered any of these things if someone hadn’t been compelling me to keep making it year after year.

But the main thing was, Manuel was happy. There were no surprises, no rude waiters or large tabs for mediocre food – just a meal he’d knew he’d like, some relaxed time spent with friends and family, and a fuss-free dessert that everybody loved. And it got me thinking – maybe there is something to be said for knowing exactly what you’ll get on your birthday. Maybe it’s worth sacrificing that slim chance of gastronomic nirvana – with all its attendant pressures and expectations – for the guarantee of simple satisfaction. Maybe it’s time to start re-evaluating my own conceptions about what makes a birthday special, and ditch the rollercoaster I ride year after year in search of that elusive perfect meal. A few years ago I would have laughed at the very suggestion, but hey, as long as I’m getting older anyway, a little wisdom is the least I can show for it.

Tiramisu with Marsala and Crème Fraîche

This isn’t the easiest of tiramisus, but trust me, it really isn’t difficult either. Instead of the usual mixture of mascarpone cheese and raw eggs, I first boil a mixture of sugar and marsala into a thick syrup, which accomplishes two things: its heat effectively cooks the egg yolks (though it’s still a good idea to use the best quality organic eggs for this) and it also allows a healthy dose of marsala to be incorporated in the filling without making it too liquid. Traditionalists will also probably balk at my use of crème fraîche, but I think a touch of acidity is just what all that heavy mascarpone needs. Feel free, however, to adjust the relative proportions to your taste; I use 250g of each since that’s the size of the containers they come in. As for the soaking booze, use whatever you have on hand, or if you’re going to be serving this to little people, you can certainly leave it out entirely. By the way, my favorite marsala for desserts is a variety known as cremovo - it’s a sweet marsala that has been flavored with egg yolks, which only sounds strange until you discover how heavenly it tastes.
Serves: 8

1 cup (200g) sugar
1/2 cup (125ml) sweet marsala
4 large egg yolks, at room temperature
1 cup (250g) mascarpone cheese
1 cup (250g) crème fraîche
1 cup (250ml) heavy or double cream, whipped
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 (375ml) cups espresso or very strong coffee, cold
4-6 tablespoons rum or brandy (or to taste)
18-36 savoiardi or ladyfingers (the number will vary depending on the size of the cookies and the pan)
4 tablespoons cocoa powder
2 tablespoons powdered/icing sugar

fresh or frozen raspberries, mac
erated with a few tablespoons of sugar (optional)

Combine the sugar and marsala in a medium saucepan and bring it to a boil over medium heat. Continue to boil, swirling the pan occasionally to encourage even heating, until a candy thermometer registers 250F/120C, or a drop forms a firm ball in a cup of cold water – about 5-7 minutes.

While the syrup is cooking, put the egg yolks in the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a large bowl if you’re using an electric mixer) and beat at high speed for about 5 minutes, until they triple in volume and fall in a thick ribbon when the beaters are lifted. As soon as the sugar syrup has reached the correct temperature, take it off the heat and immediately begin to drizzle it in a thin, steady stream down the inside of the bowl with the egg yolks, beating constantly. Beat until all the syrup has been incorporated, and then continue beating for another 3-4 minutes, until the mixture is just warm to the touch. Let cool completely.

In another bowl, beat together the mascarpone and crème fraîche until smooth. Beat in the cooled egg and sugar mixture, and then fold in the whipped cream and vanilla. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and transfer to the fridge to chill for 1-2 hours.

Select your pan. I normally use a 9-inch (23cm) springform pan, but you can use any dish of roughly similar proportions; another option is to make individual tiramisus using 3- or 4-inch ring molds (that’s what you see in the photo above). In a shallow bowl combine the cold espresso and rum or brandy to taste. In another small bowl, stir together the cocoa powder and powdered sugar. One at a time, dip the savoiardi into the espresso mixture, letting them soak up a bit of the liquid, then lay them in an even layer on the bottom of the pan. You’ll have to figure out the correct length of time to let your savoiardi soak – you want them to absorb some of the coffee but not become completely sodden. When the bottom of the pan is covered (you can break some savoiardi to fill the gaps), spread half the chilled cream mixture on top. Sift half of the cocoa powder on top. Repeat with another layer of savoiardi, cream and cocoa. Cover the pan tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, or overnight.

Serve in slices or squares, accompanied by a spoonful of sweetened raspberries, if you like.
 

Shoot the Fridge

Okay, so Sam started this refrigerator-revelation thing, and I’ve found it inexplicably fascinating to see what’s going on in other food bloggers’ fridges. It’s kind of like watching a behind-the-scenes documentary of my favorite movie – I mean, we all know the sophisticated creations that appear on food blogs, but what kinds of things do bloggers eat when they think no one’s looking? I would never have guessed, for example, that Matt eats blue cherries. Or that everyone but me seems to have a bottle of bubbly handy for those unexpected champagne moments.

But it didn’t take long to realize that so far this exercise has been completely dominated by those living in the lush, sun-drenched, organic-farm-and-artisan-producer-on-every-corner utopia known as the Golden State. And since California gets more than its fair share of screen time already, I decided to join in, if only to show how some of the rest of the world lives.

Oh, and also because the recipe I was intending to post about this week ended up being a miserable flop, but that’s neither here nor there.

Anyhow, you’ll notice some things about my fridge. For example, it’s tiny. It is, however, standard size here for one and two bedroom apartments, and I knew a guy who lived in a five bedroom apartment whose fridge was only marginally bigger. The gigantic American-style models are catching on here, but they still remain the exception (and strictly the domain of the home-owning) rather than the norm.

It’s not as bad as you might think, though. The only time we really run into problems is when we have guests coming and we buy everything for their visit in advance. At times like those I wish I had played more Tetris in my youth. Otherwise, it holds a once-a-week shop for two people quite comfortably, and it forces me to do something regularly that I know many people with monster fridges avoid like the plague: clean it out! Seriously, when I go home to visit my family I often find in the back of their fridge leftovers of things I cooked the last time I visited (and we’re talking once-a-year visits, people). That just can’t happen with a tiny fridge – everything in there is on active duty, and should something slip through the cracks it is promptly discovered during the next weekly cull. I am, however, often forced to keep things out of the fridge that normally I would keep in it – things like mustard, mayo, jam, tortillas, pickles, even eggs (which are sold here at room temperature, unlike in the US) – but considering that we’ve lived to tell the tale so far I’m not losing any sleep over it.

The one regret I do have is the tiny freezer, which you can’t see in the photo, but is located behind a separate door at the top of the main fridge. It’s usually fine to store a few frozen veggies and a container of ice cream or two, but things start to get hairy when the weather turns warm and we want to have ice for cocktails (I mean smoothies – we drink far more smoothies than cocktails, okay mom?), or we have significant amounts of perishable leftovers that we can’t bear to part with. As for saving bones and vegetable parts for stock, or stocking up on 3-for-1 whole chicken offers… well, forget it.

The only other thing I’ll briefly say is that the amount of food is reasonably typical for the middle of the week (we normally do our big shopping on the weekend), but it’s actually an atypical week around here, as we’re hosting my German in-laws this weekend AND Manuel is having a birthday. So we skipped our big shop last weekend but we’ve bought a few extra things for the festivities, and more is yet to come today or tomorrow. And we did just make a trek out to Costco, which explains the large unopened packages of cheese, butter, etc.

But anyhow, enough blabbering from me…

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p.s. I didn’t shoot the door, because it’s full of beer and – heaven help us – more film. Oh, and a canister of Lavazza Tierra and a jar of Better Than Bouillon chicken base (yes, David, I’m busted too!).