Gourmet Unbound: Bruschetta With White Beans and Walnuts

When we were kids, my brother punched a hole in the wall of our hallway.  He’s going to kill me for telling you all about his temper, but I really do have a point here.  You see, my mother, ever practical, decided that if punching was his most natural method of venting his anger, she just had to give him something better to punch.  So she bought a punching bag (and Evan, of course, got a laundry list of household chores in order to pay off the wall repairs).

When nobody else was home, I used to sneak into the garage and beat the hell out of that bag.  OK, actually, the beating was probably pretty mild since I had no idea what I was doing. And it was likely only luck that prevented me from breaking a knuckle.  But technique aside, I loved it.  Until that punching bag arrived, I’d had no idea that anything other than a good sob-fest or a bowl of chocolate ice cream could be so soothing.

Now, you’re probably assuming that I’m going to tout the benefits of exercise for reducing stress, but who are we kidding?  When stressed, my first instinct is to take to the kitchen.  But even in the kitchen there are wonderfully violent ways to expend energy.  So tonight, when I decided to make this bruschetta, I knew that the food processor was just not going to do it for me.  Nope.  Tonight was a mortar and pestle night. 

basil and bean pasteYears ago, my step father gave me a huge, heavy mortar and pestle.  At the time, I wondered what on earth I would use it for.  Silly me!  I now use it for everything from grinding pepper to crushing tomatoes, to making peanut butter.  Often, like tonight, I simply choose the mortar and pestle because I need to pound something (and I have no punching bag of my own).  There is something about the clang of the heavy bat-shaped club hitting the bowl that is oddly fulfilling.  And that I get to eat the product of my aggression is icing on the cake (or, in this case, topping on the bruschetta).

Of course, you can certainly make this bruschetta in a food processor as the recipe states, but if you’re feeling a bit tense, I highly suggest the old-fashioned method.  The food processor would have produced a smoother spread than you see here, but I actually quite liked the rustic texture.  And I was having so much fun with the mortar and pestle that I decided to go ahead and pulverize the nuts too, and fold them into the bean paste, although the original recipe called for the paste to be spread on the bread and topped with chopped nuts. A word of caution:  if you are not a garlic fan, you might consider using just one clove as two produced a pretty pungent product.  The original recipe stated that it made six bruschetta, but I found that it made many more than that.

walnut and bean bruschett and tomato basil brushetta

Bruschetta With White Beans and Walnuts

Adapted From Gourmet Magazine, February 1999

1/3 cup walnuts

1 15 ounce can white beans, drained

2 cloves garlic

1 1/2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

about a dozen slices of italian bread, toasted

1/4 cup chopped fresh basil (original recipe called for parsley)

Toast the walnuts in a 350 degree oven for about 10 minutes.  Combine the nuts, beans, garlic, lemon juice, and half of the olive oil in the food processor (or in a huge  mortar and pestle) and pulse until smooth.  Add salt and pepper to taste, and then stir in half of the basil.  Drizzle the toasts with remaining oil. Top each toast with some of the paste and a sprinkle of basil.

Published in: on January 31, 2010 at 8:17 pm  Comments (8)  
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Shakespeare and Peanut Sauce

  peanut sauce and crudite

I’ve heard that scents can trigger the strongest memories.  I’m not sure I agree.  Think of Proust and that madeleine; it was the texture, the crumble, the feel of the tea-soaked little cake in his mouth that opened a trap door to the past. For me it’s the whole experience; the tenderness of my Nannie’s brisket and the way a soggy slice of bread felt when sopping up the salty juices, or the stealth involved as my mother and I deftly wrangled soft apple bits out of Nannie’s warm apple cake, always pulling from the bottom so that nobody would notice once it was served. My strongest food memories are intensified by the use of all my senses and the foods I actually touched are the ones that hum to me the most. But the foods I love the best are my favorites simply because of the memories to which they are attached. saute

Which brings me to Shakespeare in the Park.  Hundreds of us residents, those who haven’t thought of Shakespeare since high school, along with those who can recite Othello on a whim, sprawl on blankets with families and picnics and relax in the glow of Hamlet, or Two Gentlemen of Verona, or Midsummer Nights Dream.  Children stare awed at the make-shift stage and parents congratulate themselves as their offspring show unexpected decorum.  Shaded by the massive oak trees of this magical little ordinary town green, families actually enjoy each other’s company. And they enjoy the food. Some folks come with sandwiches from the sub shop around the corner, but most use the opportunity to pack elaborate feasts.  From fresh tomato brushetta to thermoses of lobster bisque, enjoying the tastes and smells of Shakespeare in the Park has become as important as the play itself. Friends show off their gourmand status, revealing fabulously stinky cheeses and imported cured meats. While most choose to stick to the usual flavors of a RI summer, in my family, we had our own Shakespeare in the Park tradition. I don’t actually remember how or when it started, but for us, Shakespeare in the park always meant Chuck’s peanut sauce.  My step-father would make vats of the stuff, pack it all up in a big Tupperware, and present it proudly on the picnic blanket.  We fought to dip our skewers of cold grilled chicken and spears of cucumber, and he soon learned to pack each of us a separate container. We fenced with our leftover bamboo skewer and we battled over whether the peanut sauce should be chunky or smooth. Chuck preferred the texture of little peanut bits and my brother and I whined that a sauce should not have to be chewed. We discovered new dippers, pretzels were fun (and satisfied Chuck’s desire for that crunch factor) and so were carrot sticks, but my favorite was a hunk of crusty bread that would soak up the intense flavor of the garlic and ginger.

 Of course, peanut sauce is not relegcarrots, cauliflower, cucumberated to Shakespeare in the Park only.  In fact, I make it quite often since Jeff has discovered that it is wonderful on just about anything.  His latest creation is a Thai burger, basted with peanut sauce and topped with marinated cucumbers.  It’s also amazing on pizza in place of tomato sauce, when topped with chunks of chicken and slices of red onion, or thinned with some broth and tossed with soba noodles and chopped bell pepper. But I still prefer that dipped slice of crusty bread above all else.

 And tonight, with my tummy full of peanut sauce, instead of shoveling my walkway as I should, I will pull a battered copy of Romeo and Juliet off the bookshelf, and pretend that I’m sitting on the grass. 

 peanut sauce

Chuck’s Peanut Sauce 

1 tablespoon vegetable oil 

1 tablespoon minced onion 

1 tablespoon minced garlic 

1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger 

1 cup smooth peanut butter 

1 cup coconut milk 

3 tablespoons soy sauce 

2 tablespoons Thai fish sauce 

1-2 teaspoons Thai garlic chili sauce (to taste) 

Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium heat.  Add in the onion, and sauté one minute.  Add the garlic and ginger, and cook, stirring, until slightly soft, about 5 minutes.  Add the peanut butter and reduce heat to low.  Allow the peanut butter to melt slightly, and then add the coconut milk, soy sauce, and fish sauce.  Wisk all together until smooth.  Add the garlic chili sauce to taste (based on how much spice you enjoy, and also based on the brand of sauce you buy, as each has a different level of heat). Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes.  Serve warm with bread and veggies for dipping.  Or serve over grilled chicken, on sandwiches, on a stir-fry, or use in any which way you like!

Published in: on January 28, 2010 at 6:57 pm  Comments (6)  
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Winter Blues (and Bright Red Candied Cranberries)

candied cranberries

I always feel this way after the holidays are over.  Usually I can hold out until February, but the let down is inevitable.  The snow is no longer sparkling and white, instead the yard is just dull patches of brown and gray.  The cold that made my cheeks an adorable pink just last month has now taken its toll, causing my lips to chap, my skin to flake, and my hair to dull.  The months stretch on, dark and cold, with few distractions (I’m sorry but the Superbowl does NOT count as a distraction).  Here in New England we kid ourselves into thinking that come March, we’ll get a reprieve.  But in reality it’s not chilly March, or windy April or rainy May that will lift my spirits.  For bright little flowers and the smell of cut grass and the first early strawberries, I will have to wait until June.

fresh cranberriesSo with more than four months of the winter blues ahead of me, I have decided to go back.  Back to holiday cheer and the spirit of giving.  Back to pies and presents and cookies and crafts.  Just back. sugar and cranberry

Which led me to these amazing little candied cranberries. So often it’s the simplest things that are so addictive.  I honestly can’t believe that I had any berries left to get a picture of!  I can’t stop popping them in my mouth. Crispy sugared outsides give way to a gentle burst as the berry spurts open, revealing its tart and tangy interior. They are ridiculously simple to make, and so beautiful.  They would be lovely in a little tin as a gift, or put a bowl of these lovelies on the coffee table the next time you have friends over – they will be gone in seconds!

multigran waffles with candied cranberriesThese cranberries are delicious and fun, but most importantly, they are festive.  Which is exactly what I needed this weekend.  In addition to obsessively munching on them as I pass through the kitchen, I have also discovered how wonderful they are on homemade waffles.  They fit perfectly into the little divots in my waffles, and, along with a handful of walnuts, added the essential crunch and bite to breakfast.

The cranberries keep their texture for a few days, but don’t try to keep them for more than a week or they will get very soggy.candied cranberries recipe

Candied Cranberries

1 cup water

2 1/2 cups granulated sugar, divided

1 cup fresh cranberries

Bring the water and one cup of sugar to a boil in a small saucepan.  Stir until the sugar dissolves and then remove from the heat.  Let cool 10 minutes and then add the cranberries and cool completely.  Transfer the cranberries and sugar-water to an airtight container and let sit at room temperature at least 6 hours or overnight. Spread the remaining sugar on a plate.  By the small handful, shake excess liquid from the cranberries and then roll them in the sugar.  Place the rolled berries on a baking sheet to dry.  Repeat with all the berries and then allow to dry for at least an hour.

Published in: on January 24, 2010 at 12:03 pm  Comments (11)  
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Gotta Love Granola

cranberry walnut granola

I adore Bear Naked granola.  Crunchy, flavorful, and chock full of fiber.  Did your insides ever just feel good after eating something?  I think it’s purely psychological.  I met the founder of Bear Naked once – a tall blond, athletic, godess-like granola chick (who also happened to be quite personable, actually).  Somewhere deep down I think I fooled myself into believing that if I eat enough of her granola I’ll grow six inches, sprout blond locks, and exchange cellulite for muscle. 

granolaEating Bear Naked does satisfy one of my goals for the new year; eating healthy, whole foods that make me feel good.  But it contradicts the other, which is to spend less money  Especially on groceries.  I can go a year without buying new lipstick or shoes, but I most certainly make up for it with extravagant food purchases.  So lately, I’ve given up buying granola and started making my own.  It’s not quite Bear Naked – and it never will be since I happen to know that they have special oats grown just for their granola – but it’s pretty darn good.  I wrote about the ease of granola-making for my column in this month’s Dedham Transcript. The best thing about making your own granola is really the ability to customize.  You can add anything or exchange anything and it still works.  I published a basic cranberry walnut granola recipe in the newspaper (follow the link above to check it out), but if you’re a bit more adventurous, play around, go nuts, or feel free to try this Moroccan inspired version.


Sesame Cardamom Granola

Serves 6-8

2 cups rolled oats

¼ cup wheat bran

1/8 cup bulgur

2 tablespoons light brown sugar

¾ teaspoon salt, divided

1/2 teaspoon cardamom

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

4 tablespoons honey

2 tablespoons canola oil

¼ cup shelled pistachios, unsalted

2 tablespoons sesame seeds

¼ cup chopped dried Medjool dates

1 tablespoon orange zest

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a medium bowl mix together the oats, wheat bran, bulgur, brown sugar, ½ teaspoon salt, and spices. Put the honey in a microwave safe bowl and heat on high for 20 seconds until warmed and fluid. Add the honey to the oat mixture and stir well to combine. Add the oil and stir again. Coarsely chop the nuts and stir in to the oat mixture along with the sesame seeds. Spread the granola out on a greased baking sheet. Bake 20-25 minutes until slightly browned. Remove from the oven, sprinkle with remaining salt, and let cool (granola will crisp as it cools). Break up the granola and stir in the dates and orange zest.

Published in: on January 18, 2010 at 8:49 am  Comments (7)  
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Welcome home baby!

Hearty Meat Ragu

When times are good, we eat.  When times are bad, we eat.  When something wonderful happens, we celebrate with a big meal and a big glass of wine, and when something terrible happens, we are consoled by friends and family bearing casseroles. 

I am truly bubbling with excitement to be an Auntie for the very first time – and I’m sure my excitement will actually boil over when I get to meet my brand new nephew tomorrow.  But it hasn’t escaped my notice that the last time I saw this much food all packed into aluminum pans and freezer containers was during Shiva for my grandmother. The parallels are undeniable. Clearly, as we come into the world and as we leave it, the same rule applies; celebrating life means FOOD.  In a very big way!

meat raguSo as I head to the Amtrak station tomorrow I will be toting with me a shopping bag packed with chocolate chip scones (from this old Bon Apetit Recipe), Bran Raisin Muffins (right off the Bob’s Red Mill wheat bran package), corn bread (a simple version from the Food Network), granola, and homemade chocolate truffles.  Plus, I’m stuffing a little cooler full of freezer containers filled with BBQ pulled pork (so simple – just toss pork shoulder and root beer in a slow cooker for 8 hours, drain, shred, and mix with BBQ sauce) and a thick and hearty meat ragu. 

This meat sauce is so savory and satisfying, and reheats incredibly well.  It’s the perfect thing to tuck in the freezer for a warm and comforting meal anytime.  Just pop it in the microwave, boil up some pasta, mix the two together, and you have dinner.  Exactly what the new Mom and Dad need!  Of course, by microwaving you miss the incredible aroma that fills the house when you let the ragu simmer.  I love the smell, and I also love the waiting and simmering.  Meat ragu and light readingI could lie and tell you that while the sauce cooked I did something productive (like washing the pile of laundry currently overtaking my closet), but making this sauce put me in a very indulgent mood, so I spent the evening deep in an easy novel – my guilty pleasure!

cheeseI have a crazy little quirk about pasta shapes, and generally hate any and all long pasta.  Maybe it’s all that twirling, or perhaps my mother’s voice in my head screaming about ruining my Laura Ashley dress with tomato splatter.  In any case, no matter how you feel about angel hair and spaghetti, this ragu really calls for a less delicate shape, preferably something that will capture all the chunky goodness in every bite.  Wagon wheels are my favorite, but ziti will work just as well.

Hearty Meat Ragu

Serves 10

2 tablespoons olive oil

3/4 cup chopped onion

1/2 cup chopped carrot

1/2 cup chopped celery

1/2 cup chopped bell pepper

2 tablespoons chopped garlic

3 ounces pancetta, chopped

1 pound ground veal

1 pound sweet italian sausage

1 28 ounce can tomato sauce

1 15 ounce can diced tomato

1 cup red wine

2 teaspoons dried basil

2 teaspoons dried thyme

2 teaspoons dried oregano

1 teaspoon red pepper flakes

a 2 inch by 2 inch by 1 inch piece of parmesan cheese rind

Salt to taste

In a large dutch oven or soup pot, sauté the onion, carrot, celery, and pepper in oil over medium heat, until all vegetables are tender, about 15 minutes.  Stir in the garlic and pancetta and cook another 10 minutes.  Add the veal and the sausage and continue to cook, breaking up the meat with a wooden spoon, until all the meat is browned.  Stir in the cans of tomato sauce and tomatoes, along with the wine, herbs, pepper, and hunk of cheese rind.  Reduce heat to low and simmer for at least one hour.  Add salt to taste. Remove what remains of the cheese rind before serving.

basil tomato meat sauce

Published in: on January 15, 2010 at 7:47 pm  Comments (3)  
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Hearty Stuffed Peppers

Stuffed peppers

I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to have my computer back in my very own hands. My poor, old laptop had a nice vacation at the PC Guys spa and has come home running better than ever.  If you have ever had a computer crisis, you can probably relate to how naked I have felt these past few days without my laptop.  But all is well now, so here I am!

Over the past two weeks, while my laptop was getting fit and trim, I was busy gorging myself on the remnants of holiday treats. But the mocha cake is gone, only a tiny sliver of fudge remains in the tin, and crumbs are all that remain of the cheese straws. Which, I suppose, means it’s time to get back to reality, and do something about that little roll that developed over my jeans during the holidays.

Puy lentils and brown riceIn the interest of good health I am turning to one of my very favorite staples – lentils!  I often cook a pot of lentils and leave them in the refrigerator to throw in salads and soups for quick dinners.  But tonight I decided to go for something a little more fun. These stuffed peppers are wonderfully quick to make, and keep very well in the fridge for a healthy, hearty lunch that’s easy to reheat.  I prefer Puy lentils (also called French green lentils) because they hold their shape better than other varieties and have a slightly richer flavor.  Brown lentils would work too, but they are easily overcooked, and I usually end up with lentil mush when I use them. 

basil pestoI used some leftover pesto to flavor the rice and lentil mixture, but you can certainly play around.  An olive tapenade would be lovely, as would  sun-dried tomatoes.  I happened to have green bell peppers, but red or yellow bell peppers would probably be even better (although I actually really love green peppers). The real trick to stuffed peppers is getting them to stand up as they cook.  There’s nothing worse than a stuffed pepper that loses its stuffing!  To that end, I cook my stuffed peppers in a loaf pan, packed tightly together to keep from falling over.  stuffed peppers

Lentil Stuffed Peppers

Serves 2

11/2 cups cooked brown rice

11/2 cooked Puy lentils

2 tablespoons basil pesto

1/2 cup shredded part skim mozzarella cheese, divided

2 medium-sized bell peppers

salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  In a medium bowl, mix together the rice, lentils, pesto and all but 2 tablespoons of the cheese.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  Stem and core the peppers, removing all seeds.  Sprinkle the inside of the peppers with salt and pepper.  Stuff the peppers with the lentil mixture.  Top the peppers with the remaining cheese and arrange tightly in a greased loaf pan. Bake 35-45 minutes, until peppers are slightly shriveled and cheese is brown. Serve hot.

Published in: on January 9, 2010 at 7:40 pm  Comments (8)  
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