Cajun Red Beans and Rice

Dear Beloved Fellow Veggies,

Happy Belated Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday, Pancake Day, Carnvial or whatever else you like to call the day of the year where you can gorge yourself on food, drink, and general merriment (beads anyone?) while pretending that you’re not going to do it again for 40 long days.

For those of you who have made it through the weekend without any major feats of debauchery, I tip my (chef’s) hat to you — we’ll see how you’re faring when Saint Patrick’s Day rolls around.

Boston isn’t exactly the place to celebrate Mardi Gras; we’re probably too busy preparing for epic St. Patty’s Day celebrations, which are pretty much unrivaled by all except those in Ireland. Bold statement? No, really, I kid you not. Up until this year, schools and government offices were closed for Saint Patrick’s Day in Boston — it’s just that big of a deal.

So where does the discerning glutton celebrate Mardi Gras in America? Well, if Boston is the place to be for St. Patty’s Day, then NOLA is where it’s at for Mardi Gras, which, from what I hear, New Orleanian’s pretty much celebrate all year long. I mean, let’s look at the facts: heart-attack inducing food laden with red meats and butter? Check! Cheap, strong drinks that you can glug from plastic cups in the streets? Check! Loud music and drunken tidings? Check and check! Yep, sounds like a year-round mardi gras party to me!

Ever since making my pilgrimage to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in December, New Orleans has shot straight to the top of my domestic travel to-do list. Since I am an aforementioned “discerning glutton,” NOLA sounds pretty much as close to paradise as you can get, and lately I’ve been regaled by the tales of my many friends who have visited and loved it. I’ve got the Bayou on the brain, that’s fo’ sho.

My sometimes-sous-chef has roots in NOLA (who dat?!) and is partially responsible for piquing my interest in cajun/creole food. New Orleans cuisine isn’t exactly known for its vegetarian friendliness, so I’ve never really tried my hand at cookin’ cajun, but when my buddy and I were planning our latest culinary quest, we kept pawin’ at the idea of a New Orleans theme.

And so, that weekend, we found out for ourselves that you don’t need to travel all the way to NOLA to feel the Mardi Gras spirit. Sometimes all you need is a bottle of Abita, a strong homemade hurricane, some good music with good company, a few killer kitchen dance moves, a fondness for real bacon, and a big sizzlin’ pot of cajun red beans. And when you pass out in your own bed early that night, over-indulged and slightly tipsy, still laughing from the night’s kitchen escapades, you realize you’ve had yourself as memorable a night as you could ever have in the real NOLA. 

Red beans and ricely yours,
Two Veggies

Yep, I just posted a picture of real bacon on my vegetarian blog. Whatcha gonna do about it?

Red Beans and Rice (adapted from Cook’s Illustrated)

  • 1 pound small red beans (about 2 cups), rinsed and picked over
  • 4 slices bacon (about 4 ounces), chopped fine (use fake bacon + some oil if you’re being a good vegetarian)
  • 1 medium onion , chopped fine (about 1 cup)
  • 1 small green bell pepper , seeded and chopped fine (about 1/2 cup)
  • 1 celery rib , chopped fine (about 1/2 cup)
  • 3 medium garlic cloves , minced or pressed through garlic press (about 1 tablespoon)
  • 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
  • 1 teaspoon sweet paprika (see note)
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • Ground black pepper
  • 3 cups low-sodium chicken broth (or veggie broth!)
  • 6 cups water
  • 8 ounces andouille sausage, halved lengthwise and cut into 1/4-inch slices (veggie sausage works great!)
  • 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar , plus extra for seasoning
  • 4 cups white rice, for serving
  • 3 scallions, white and green parts, sliced thin
  • Hot sauce (optional)
  1. Dissolve 3 tablespoons salt in 4 quarts cold water in large bowl or container. Add beans and soak at room temperature for at least 8 hours and up to 24 hours. Drain and rinse well.
  2. Heat bacon in large Dutch oven over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until browned and almost fully rendered, 5 to 8 minutes. Add onion, green pepper, and celery; cook, stirring frequently, until vegetables are softened, 6 to 7 minutes. Stir in garlic, thyme, paprika, bay leaves, cayenne pepper, and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper; cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in beans, broth, and water; bring to boil over high heat. Reduce heat and vigorously simmer, stirring occasionally, until beans are just soft and liquid begins to thicken, 45 to 60 minutes.
  3. Stir in sausage and 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar and cook until liquid is thick and beans are fully tender and creamy, about 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt, black pepper, and additional red wine vinegar. Serve over rice, sprinkling with scallions and passing hot sauce separately, if desired.

Vegetarian Poutine With Homemade Cheese Curds!

I know I’ve written extensively about my love affair with gravy. One of my favorite vehicles for indulging that passion is with poutine, which for those of you who have never heard of, is a Canadian specialty that’s pretty much just heaven on a plate.

Fries + Cheddar Cheese Curds + Gravy = *Choir of Angels*

My cooking buddy (and fellow poutine worshipper) and I have been on a search for the best poutine in Boston, and sadly we’ve found that only ONE restaurant in the entire city makes their “poutine” with real cheese curds (it’s Saus for all you lil’ Bostonian poutine connoisseurs out there). All the other imposters have frankly been an abomination to the institution that is truly authentic Canadian poutine.

In the many months we’ve been parading around as Boston’s premiere poutine critics, we’ve pretty much seen everything… ricotta masquerading as cheese curds, provolone hiding in the murky depths of lukewarm canned gravy, a complete horror show of cheese melted on kettle chips that laughed in the face of everything poutine stands for.

The horror show, a complete mockery of poutine, courtesy of Jaime K. on Yelp.

Yep, we’ve seen everything… except actual poutine.

Quite honestly the search has left us a little disgruntled and pretty darn disappointed, so at some point we decided we’d track down some cheese curds and just make our own. But after months of extensive internet searches, puzzled looks from shop owners, and countless false leads, we came to the conclusion that all of metro Boston just hates cheese curds. They were nowhere to be found.

I mean really, we’re 6 friggin’ hours from Montreal, where finding poutine is as common as finding a McDonald’s in any city in America. So freakin’ common, in fact, that they actually sell poutine at McDonald’s in Montreal. Come on people, even Ronald McDonald is on board! Somehow the Northeast just still hasn’t gotten the message that cheese curds are freakin’ delicious when slathered gravy and served on top of french fries.

It should be a testament to how deeply I love poutine that in a bought of frustration I ended up making my own cheese curds. At home. By myself. Yep, I ordered cheese making supplies and spent the better part of 12 hours hovering over a vat of milk with a thermometer for the sole goal of eventually making poutine. This recipe has truly been a labor of love months in the making.

There’s no way I can not blog about the process of making my own cheese. It has to be done. At some point. But I’m just too freakin’ excited that my poutine actually happened to do it now. In the meantime, you can follow these directions, like I did. It’s actually very simple to do, albeit a little time consuming.

Proof that I actually did it.

Instead, lets focus on these freakin’ delicious looking photos and the awesome oven fries recipe I found to form the base of such an awesome dish.

Aforementioned cooking buddy is a big, bigggg fan of Cooks Illustrated and has gotten me really into it too. Either of us has yet to find a recipe on Cook’s that has truly failed us, so with a million+ recipes out there for french fries, I figured why not stick to the big guns and consult my new favorite trusty resource.

Crispiness isn’t really an issue to consider when making fries for poutine since the gravy gets the fries nice and wet anyway, eliminating any possible crunch. Oven fries are usually a lot softer and “wetter” than deep fried fries, but they’re a lot less work and a lot bettah fo’ you (if you’re into that sort of thing). Cooks method for oven fries was extremely simple, but pretty darn genius… by soaking the potatoes and not coating the fries directly with oil, my final product was actually pretty comparable to the fried stuff… crispy and and everything! I would absolutely make these fries again, even just with a veggie burger on a regular ol’ weeknight.

I was so very happy with how this poutine turned out… it was better than any poutine I’ve had at a restaurant in the last couple of years AND it was entirely vegetarian. Even though I normally make exceptions for meaty gravy deliciousness, throwing on the veggie gravy really made it feel like mine, which is what cookin’ is all about, right? Hope you enjoy!

Vegetarian Poutine

  • 1 to 2 big handfuls of homemade cheese curds (or if you’re lucky enough to have found them, store-bought ones)
  • 3 medium-sized russet or yukon gold potatoes
  • 5 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • Any other spices you’d like to add to your fries (I used oregano, thyme, rosemary, garlic, cumin, paprika, and chile powder)
  • Ingredients for lentil gravy
    • 1/4 cup butter
    • 1/2 onion chopped
    • 3/4 cup lentils
    • 3 cups vegetable broth
    • 1/4 cup flour
    • 1 tablespoon poultry seasoning
  • 3 scallions, chopped fine, whites and green parts
  1. Adjust oven rack to lowest position; heat oven to 475 degrees. Chop the potatos into 1/4 inch to 1/2 inch matchsticks. Place potatoes in large bowl and cover with hot tap water; soak 10 minutes. Meanwhile, coat 18 by 12-inch heavy-duty rimmed baking sheet with 4 tablespoons oil and sprinkle evenly with 1 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper; set aside.
  2. Drain potatoes. Spread potatoes out on triple layer of paper towels and thoroughly pat dry with additional paper towels. Rinse and wipe out now-empty bowl; return potatoes to bowl and toss with remaining 1 tablespoon oil and any spices you desire. Arrange potatoes in single layer on prepared baking sheet; cover tightly with foil and bake 5 minutes.
  3. Once you put the fries in the oven, start the gravy. In a large skillet, melt the butter and add onion and lentils. Sautee for just a minute or two over high heat. Reduce heat to medium and add vegetable broth and soy sauce. Slowly add flour, stirring well to combine and prevent lumps from forming. Bring to a simmer or a low boil, then reduce heat. Add poultry seasoning, and salt and pepper to taste, stirring consistently. Allow to simmer while you bake the fries (lentils will take about 20 minutes to be cooked throughly).
  4. Once the fries have baked five minutes with the foil on, remove foil and continue to bake until bottoms of potatoes are spotty golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes, rotating baking sheet after 10 minutes. Using metal spatula and tongs, scrape to loosen potatoes from pan, then flip each fry, keeping potatoes in single layer. Continue baking until fries are golden and crisp, 5 to 15 minutes longer, rotating pan as needed if fries are browning unevenly.
  5. Transfer fries to second baking sheet lined with paper towels to drain. Season with additional salt and pepper to taste. Top with cheese curds, then a few ladle-fulls of gravy, followed by a light sprinkling of chopped scallions. Enjoy!

A Christmas Story

‘Twas the month of December, and blog posts? There were none.
But wait! Before you get angry…there was much to get done!

I had to make presents and eat cookies and decorate my house…
…and travel to Orlando to meet a famous big mouse.
There was butterbeer to be drunk and playgrounds on which to climb…
…and two very bestest friends having a wonderfully magical time.
Then it was back to Boston, my home sweet home,
where, Merry Christmas to me, I bought an iPhone.
Then a yankee swap at work, where we drank lots of wine with lunch…
I got a margherita gift basket from those mofos. Hey, thanks a bunch!

Then off to New Jersey for more presents to unwrap.
Santa was f***ing good this year, just look at all this cool crap…

I got a zebra hat and mittens to protect from winter’s rough bark…

…a macro lens to take badass photos, and a floating toy shark.
But the real reason I’m typing out this silly, long ballad,
is because tucked in my stocking this year…

…was the recipe for my grandma’s famous potato salad!

(more about the recipe after the recipe.)

Nonna’s Smashed Potato Salad

  • 5 pounds all-purpose potatoes
  • 6 eggs
  • 1 large carrot, grated
  • 1 medium sized sweet onion, grated so that the onion is essentially a pulp (more on this below)
  • Helman’s mayo (to taste…more on that, again, below)
  • Salt, pepper and garlic powder (to taste)
  • A whole lotta paprika
  1. Hard boil the eggs. (See below.) When cooled, peel and chop them.
  2. Boil the potatoes until easily pierced with a fork. They should be at a mashable consistency, not much firmer. Put in the fridge to cool. When cooled, peel off the skins (I pulled the skins off right after I took them out of the boiling pot…I see no reason why you can’t do the same).
  3. Cut the potatoes into evenly sized cubes and put into a large mixing bowl. Add the grated carrot, onion, egg, garlic powder, salt and pepper. Mix well with a wooden spoon. The potatoes should become slightly mashed.
  4. Little by little, add the mayonnaise to your liking. The salad shouldn’t be white with mayo, and should have a fairly thick, stable consistency (not soupy).
  5. Continue to mix until the potato salad has a consistency of mashed potatoes with lots of lumps.
  6. Top the entire bowl with lots and lots of paprika.

I’ve loved this potato salad since I was a kid. It was the only potato salad that ever called to me. In fact, I had sworn off potato salad before I tried my Nonna’s. I don’t like the potato salads that are soupy, covered in thick white stuff, crunchy…nope, I don’t want any of that shizzz…

I begged my Nonna forever for her recipe and I got the run-around for the better part of a year. Imagine my surprise when I found a little index card tucked in my stocking this year. At one point during the holiday, I proclaimed it my favorite gift, which invited dirty looks from my mom who had just bestowed upon me a $300 camera lens.

But of course, in typical Nonna fashion, the recipe was horrifyingly vague. Look at the picture I posted of the index card above… she lists only two ingredients: 5 pounds of potatoes and 6 hard-boiled eggs. Later in the recipe, she mentions all the other crap I need, but gives no quantities. Not to mention, she says nothing about how to hard boil eggs… which I may or may not have had to look up directions for…

One of my favorite things about this recipe is that the onion is so finely grated that there is no annoying onion-y crunch present when you bite into a fork full, just some pleasant onion taste. Obviously if you like just a liiiiiiiitle bit more crunch, you can dice the onion, slice it, or mix and match.

Anyway, above is my best interpretation of her recipe and the results were spot on to the potato salad that was present at every springtime family function when I was a kid. Sure, it’s a little out of season right now, but it reminds me of family…my family…my big, crazy, food-loving, grudge-holding, tradition-following, Italian family.

Pumpkin Mac and Cheese with Sage Breadcrumbs

Fall is weird…

Sometimes Fall is warm. Sometimes Fall drives you outside and takes you on long, ambling walks. Sometimes Fall wants you to put on a sweater and spend the day at a pumpkin patch, or a corn maze, or an apple orchard, or a football field. Sometimes Fall hands you a big bowl of pumpkin ice cream and tells you that you sho’ better get your fair share before Winter comes a-knockin’.

Sometimes Fall is cold. Sometimes Fall strongly calls for a large dose of pumpkin coffee and a pair of fuzzy socks. Sometimes Fall barges in through your open window and makes you want to curl up under the covers and never, ever leave your bed. Sometimes Fall urges you to bake apple pie solely so you can warm your feet by the oven.

Sometimes Fall is lonely. Sometimes Fall strips the landscape and drives everyone indoors. Sometimes Fall is selfish and hogs all the sunshine and makes you walk home in pitch dark at 5:30. Sometimes Fall likes to remind you of people who aren’t there anymore.

But sometimes Fall is uniting. Sometimes Fall takes you out to your favorite bar for a pumpkin beer and Sunday night football. Sometimes Fall dresses you up in silly costumes and lets you eat candy with all your friends. Sometimes Fall reminds you how important family is and urges you to bridge the gaps in geography and lifestyle to spend some time with them…

And sometimes…Fall puts a good friend in your life who loves the crazy, mixed-up season of Fall just as much as you do…

…A friend who will take those long, ambling walks with you when it’s warm and buy you pumpkin coffees when it’s cold…

…A friend who will talk to you about football over poutine at your favorite bar…

…A friend who will come over when Fall makes you feel lonely and play your guitar and teach you songs…

But if you’re really lucky, Fall might just give you a friend who has discovered an epic, heart-attack-inducing, belt-loosening recipe for pumpkin mac and cheese…

And if you’re really really lucky, that friend will want to help you make it!

And it’s a good thing, too… because this recipe is hard work! It took the two of us, working full-time on it roughly three hours to complete! Luckily we were armed with an arsenal of good music and flavored vodka to keep us entertained and focused (…sort of)!

The result was highly intriguing. Decedent? Hellers yes! Pumpkiny? Yes sir! Cheesy? Sho’ was! And yet, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing… my natural instinct is to say it needed mo’ salt (surprise surprise), but really, I just think it needed more oomph of any kind. Cheese and pumpkin and pasta and breadcrumbs all wrapped together can get kind of bland… if I were to do it again, I would go double or triple on the spices and make that shiz POP!

Don’t get me wrong… I nearly cried tears of bliss when I took the first bite from it straight out of the oven. But was it worth the three hours it took to make it? Given that time frame would I make it again? Hmmm, that’s up for debate. If I were making it by myself, I might have to give it some serious consideration… but for a lazy Saturday afternoon with a good friend, some good cocktails, and some good music? Nothing could be better. 🙂

Pumpkin Mac and Cheese With Sage Breadcrumbs (From The Small Boston Kitchen)

  • 1 – 2 1/2-3 lb. Sugar Pumpkin, scrubbed clean
  • 6-7 whole cloves (I didn’t have these so I left them out)
  • 3 pieces of whole wheat bread (I recommend getting a fresh loaf from the bakery on this one, with a similar consistency to french bread. Don’t use sliced bread from the Wonderbread aisle)
  • 1 lb. dried pasta
  • ½ Vidalia onion, diced (I used a whole one)
  • 6 TBS + 2 TBS butter unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 6 TBS flour
  • 2 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 1 cup shredded smoked Gouda
  • 1 + ½ cups sharp cheddar cheese
  • 1- 8 oz. log of goat cheese
  • 1 TBS whole grain mustard
  • 1 TBS + 1 tsp fresh sage, finely chopped
  • A generous pinch nutmeg
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • Olive Oil for drizzling
  • Salt and Pepper to taste
  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Carefully cut the pumpkin into six equal parts and scoop out the seeds. Pierce the insides of the pumpkin pieces with the cloves, salt generously and then lay onto a cookie sheet, flesh side down. Roast pumpkin until it is very soft, about 35-45 minutes. Set aside until cool enough to handle, then peel off the skin of the pumpkin and place the flesh into a blender or processor. Blend the pumpkin until smooth and velvety, and set the pumpkin puree aside.
  2. On a baking sheet, toast the three pieces of bread until they start to brown a bit. Set them aside to cool, then use a processor to pulse the bread crumbs. Mix in 1 tsp fresh sage and a pinch of nutmeg. Using your hands, combine 2 TBS of softened butter to the crumbs until they are evenly distributed. Season with salt and set aside.
  3. Heat a medium-sized sauce pot and add enough olive oil to lightly coat the pan. Add the diced onions and a generous pinch of salt and cook on medium heat until they start to lightly brown (about 15 minutes). Add the butter to the pot and once it has completely melted, gradually add the flour, stirring constantly. Let the butter-flour mixture heat for a minute or two and then remove the pan from the heat and gradually add in the milk, stirring constantly. Return the pan to medium heat and add two cups of the pumpkin puree, stir, then add the mustard, goat cheese, smoked Gouda and 1 cup of cheddar cheese. Stir until the cheese melts. Add the 1 TBS sage and cinnamon and season with salt and pepper to taste.
  4. In a large pot, bring water to a boil and add a generous amount of salt. Cook the pasta until very al dente (about 5 minutes). Strain pasta and add to the cheese sauce, and pour into an oven-safe casserole dish. Top with remaining ½ cup of cheddar cheese and Sage Breadcrumbs. Bake, uncovered at 400 degrees until the breadcrumbs brown, about 30 minutes. Let cool for 5-10 minutes before serving.

Zucchini Bread

If last week’s case of falling cake pops wasn’t evidence enough, here’s further proof of why I just don’t have the baker’s gene in me.

Every summer I seem to make a resolution to get on the ball with summer squashes and do something other than grill them or let them wilt sadly in a corner of my fridge. Every summer I’ve failed… and this summer has been shaking up to be no exception.

So last night I confronted the two zucchini hiding in the back of my fridge. “I will use you tonight!” I declared. Then, before they could protest, I quickly wielded my knife and chopped them into little half moons, raising a victory flag over my kitchen.

But then I got highly distracted by the avocados hanging out in a bowl on our kitchen shelf. Avocados are my kryptonite. So of course, what happened? I made myself a nice big bowl of avocado pesto (I am addicted) and totally forgot about the zucchini.

But I wasn’t just going to surrender and let the zucchini get the best of me. I would attempt zucchini bread.

With the exception of corn bread, I have never baked bread in my life. Ruh roh.

Here’s a word to the wise… zucchini bread requires grated zucchini. Grating a zucchini is a lot easier if you haven’t already chopped it into little half moons.

After 20 minutes of messy grating, with discarded scraps of zucchini all around me; I called in the big guns and grated my (still whole) yellow squash to make up the difference for all the zucchini I wasn’t getting out of my half moons. So now I had a hybrid squash-zucchini bread. Yep, my prospects were lookin’ pretty good already.

Thinking the hard part was over, I quickly mixed in all the other stuffs that goes into zucchini bread. Minus the nuts. Nuts in bread are a big “hell no” in my kitchen. Oh, and plus half a lime… because I had half a lime sitting around and figured “it’s all going downhill anyway, why the hell not?”

At some point, the improvisor in me decided adding some pumpkin pie spice would be a great idea. Little did I realize that our jar with pumpkin pie spice didn’t have one of those sprinkler lids on it.

Yep, pumpkin pie spice overload… this was going to be one spicy, squashy, lime-y bread.

Unfortunately, this story is pretty anti-climactic.

I’ve probably made this all out to sound much more disastrous than it actually was. The bread came out pretty near close to perfect for a first attempt. It was spicy and moist and sugary to boot… like carrot cake, but less offensive. Here’s proof that it came out whole, intact, and relatively normal looking:

The proof that it was acceptable tasting? I had one slice (I don’t really like spice breads…go figure), but when I woke up, half the loaf was gone. Someone(s) in this house must have found it worth eating. Victory over summer squashes? Accomplished!

Maybe for now I’ll leave the baking to my roomie. The oven scares me, I’m much more comfortable with the stove-top. Anyways, this zucchini bread is most certainly worth a shot if you have some wilting squashes that could use a little spicing up.

This recipe comes from Peter over at Souvlaki for the Soul. He seems to have a much better baker’s gene than I do, so I would certainly trust his judgement if you don’t trust mine. I mean, look at his photos… that bread sure looks deliciouso.

Zucchini Bread (From Souvlaki for the Soul, adapted it from Smitten Kitchen)

  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup of olive oil
  • 1 cup of brown organic sugar
  • 2 large zucchini grated
  • a good splash of vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 cups of self raising flour
  • 2 teaspoons of cinnamon
  • 1/2 a teaspoon of ground nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • 1/2 a cup of roughly chopped walnuts (I omitted and it turned out fine)
  1. Preheat your oven to 180 deg C (375 F)
  2. Lightly spray your baking tin with some olive oil or cooking spray
  3. In a large bowl whisk your eggs and gradually add the oil, sugar, vanilla and zucchini
  4. In a separate bowl combine the flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt and walnuts.  Stir this into the egg mixture until just combined
  5. Pour the batter into the pre greased baking tins and bake for approximately 50 mins…ensure the bread is cooked by inserting a skewer in the centre.
  6. Once cooked allow to sit in the tin for 5 mins and then invert onto a cooling rack.
  7. Enjoy with butter and a cup of coffee

Mushroom Risotto

A million years ago, I was a senior in high school gettin’ ready for my big adventure off to college. That was back in the olden days when you needed a college e-mail address to have a Facebook. Yep, a long, long time ago…

So while I was excited about a lot of the new things that would be coming my way: a fancy new class schedule, new stuffs for my brand new room… I was really excited about one thing in particular… getting my college e-mail address.

When I did, you can bet yo’ butt I went straight to Facebook and made myself a profile. As soon as I did, I got all these friend requests from other freshman who would be going to college with me… I didn’t know any of them, and I was obviously too super cool to be associated with these potential lame-Os, so I denied all of them… well… most of them. I accepted one, her name was Amanda… I accepted her because I liked her photo of bubbles:

Little did I know, I was also Amanda’s only Facebook friend from our new college. She friended me because she liked this photo of me eating chilli cheese fries:

So neither one of us thought much about it, until a few weeks later when we got our new roommate assignments… yep, in a creepy twist of fate, out of 4,000 new freshman, Amanda and I were matched together.

That, my friends, is a match made in heaven.

And oh what a match it was! Amanda and I are now the very bestest of friends who share many of the same passions, like eating cold leftovers straight out of the fridge, wearing fuzzy socks, and sleeping with the air conditioning on in Winter.

Why am I telling you all this? Because this week Amanda came to visit me!

We did lotsa fun things together!

We put on music in the mornings and danced around with mimosas. We went sailing. We crashed a 5K so that we could eat some free burritos. We visited the Museum of Fine Arts and saw this super cool Chihuly exhibition:

And we cooked!

Amanda and I share a deep love for all foods warm, mushy, gooey, buttery and cheesy… the perfect recipe for such a pair?

Uh, risotto of course!

This recipe comes from my hero, Mark Bittman. Out of his book “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.” For those of you who remember, I briefly tried to blog about cooking my way through said book, but the publishing company didn’t want me reprinting all the recipes. An occasional recipe, however? That’s ok by them, so it’s ok by me too!

Amanda and I made a double batch of this and ate it for lunch, dinner, AND breakfast. We think you should do that same, too.

Mushroom Risotto (From Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian)

  • 1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
  • 1 ½ cups hot water
  • 3-5 cups vegetable stock, or water
  • 2 T butter and/or olive oil
  • 2 shallots or 1 medium onion, minced
  • 1 ½ cups fresh cremini or porcini mushrooms, chopped
  • 1 ½ cups Arborio rice
  • Salt & pepper
  • ½ cup dry white wine
  • A big handful of freshly grated parmesan cheese
  1. Soak the dried mushrooms in the hot water. Warm the stock over medium heat and leave the heat on.
  2. When the mushrooms soften, place the butter/oil in a large saucepan and turn the heat to medium. When it’s hot, add the shallots or onion and cook, stirring occasionally, for 1 minute. Add the fresh mushrooms and cook, stirring frequently, for another 5-7 minutes. Drain the dried mushrooms, reserving the soaking liquid. Squeeze them dry, chop, and add to the pan. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 3 minutes; do not let the mushrooms brown.
  3. Add the rice and stir until it is coated with butter/oil. Add a little salt & pepper, then the wine or vermouth. Stir and let the liquid bubble away.
  4. Strain the mushroom-soaking liquid and add it to the rice; stir and let the liquid bubble away. Begin to add the stock, ½ cup at a time, stirring after each addition and every minute or so. When the stock is just about evaporated, add more. The mixture should be neither soupy nor dry. Keep the heat medium to medium-high, and stir frequently (constant stirring is not necessary).
  5. Begin tasting the rice 20 minutes after you add it to the pan; you want it to be tender but with still a tiny bit of crunch. It could take as long as 30 minutes to reach this stage. When it does, add the parmesan and remove from the heat. Check the seasoning, adjust if necessary, and serve immediately.

Improvising Guacamole

As the old adage goes, when life hands you lemons limes, make lemonlimeade, but when life hands you limes and avocados, well, you better make guacamole.

Unfortunately, if you’re like me, you’ll probably hem and haw over a guacamole recipe until your avocados have gone painfully soft and your limes have turned brown. Then you have to sit and wait patiently for life’s next shipment… and we all know life’s shipments are like CSA boxes; one week it’s a veritable rainbow of veggie variety and the next it’s 6 pounds of wilted swiss chard.

So we must learn to tame our foodie egos and resist the urge to scour the world for *the best* recipe that will distinguish our guacamole from everything else on the smorgasbord. Yep, we must learn to improvise.

constantly hear the refrain “I wish I were better at improvising.”

I’ll let you in on a little secret: I used to say that a lot too…

But one day I figured it out; the ability to improvise isn’t a character trait we’re either born with or not… nope, it’s something you have to work at. Some of the confidence needed to improvise comes with time and lots of cooking, but a big part of it is just taking risks, educating yourself, and starting small.

That’s why guacamole is a great dish for a newbie improviser to start with!

I mean, let’s face it…there are a million+ different recipes out there for the world’s best guacamole, but they all come down to variations on the same handful of ingredients: avocados, citrus, spices, and onion — sometimes more, sometimes less, but most of the time, just those few things. So why not work toward a guacamole you want to eat? Make it your very own and leave the search for praise until later.

Here’s a few easy steps to get you improvising a great guac on your own!

  1. Read a lot of different recipes. Pay attention to what appeals to you and what turns you off. Make a mental or a physical note of those things.
  2. Always start with the base. When you’re not using a recipe, it’s essential to start by thinking critically about the prime ingredient. That’s the foundation you’re going to build your dish off of, so it should be strong and solid and crystal clear in your head. In the case of guacamole, our star ingredient is avocado, so start by asking yourself (and answering) these key questions:
    1. “Do I like my avocado chunky or creamy?” For the former — cube the avocado, for the latter — mash it. Like a happy medium? cube half the avocado and mash the other half; the world is your oyster, little improvisor! Slice, dice, mash, whip, cream — it’s all up to you.
    2. “Do I want the avocado to be a vehicle for other ingredients or the sole star?” This, in addition to how much guac you actually want to make, will effect how much avocado you put into the dish. I’ve seen really good hybrid salsa/gaucs that use one avocado and pile on the toppings. I’ve also seen guacs that use 6 avocados and absolutely nothing else. Again, up to you.
  3. Add the additional “typical” ingredients and sample sample sample after every addition. Ask yourself: “Would I like it to have more of that flavor? less?” Add more if that’s your jive. If it’s too much for you, think about how you can counteract that flavor. In most cases with gauc, the answer will be “more avocado”, which has a bland and masking flavor. If you find yourself repulsed by the quantities you just added, more avocado will bring it back down to a base. A good jumping point to start with (for a guac made with two avocados):
    1. 1/2 a lime
    2. 2 tablespoons chopped onion (I prefer red)
    3. pinch salt
    4. various pinches of cumin, chile powder, coriander, paprika (totally up to you)
    5. 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
  4. Now the fun part! Ask yo’self “What do I really WANT to taste in my gauc?” For me, the answer is usually “spicy!”, so I often throw in lots of finely chopped chile pepper. Sometimes the answer is beans, corn, cheese, tomatoes or all of the above. Don’t be afraid to go a little crazy; most of the time you can usually pick out your additions before it’s too late. If you’re really concerned, put some guac aside and use a spoonful to try out mini-creations! Some of my all time favorite guacs have come from the weird stuff: siracha sauce, adobo peppers, banana peppers, you name it… it’s been thrown in there at some point. I make my guac based on my mood and so should you!