Slow Cooker Red Lentil Stew

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This slow cooker red lentil stew is one of the best things I’ve made this year, or maybe ever.

It all started when I went to Small Business Saturday with my friend Anna. We had lunch at Union Loafers, a popular spot in St. Louis. I ordered a bowl of their kale garbanzo bean soup and I was blown away. The texture, spices, and color made me forget that it was raining. It improved my mood and increased my willingness to be anywhere besides my apartment.

I was going to try to recreate the soup exactly as it was, but then I realized that I wanted to add some red lentils. I also decided to put in onion, garlic, fresh ginger and turmeric, and pepper. I threw everything into my slow cooker at lunchtime on Sunday and went about my day, which involved lying on my coach watching back-to-back episodes of “The Crown.”

At around three hours into the cook time, I started smelling the soup from the other room. I wanted to open the lid and eat some, but I forced myself to hold back. A few minutes before the five hour mark, when you’re supposed to stop cooking the soup, I added chopped kale, garbanzo beans, coconut milk, and some salt. I would highly recommend tasting the soup at this stage to see if it needs more salt.

I poured myself a bowl and took it into the other room with some cut up Union Loafers baguette. I dipped my spoon in and took a sip. My first thought was, I can’t believe how good this is. My second thought is, I’m never using ground spices in soup again.

The latter might be hard to achieve, but in the case of this soup, I would recommend springing for the good stuff. Freshly grated ginger and turmeric takes your soup from tasting like box variety to restaurant quality. I also love the color it turned the soup. It was bright, vibrant, and warming, exactly what I needed after a carb-loaded Thanksgiving weekend.

When you drink this soup, it basically feels like someone waves a magic wand over your body and takes away all the stress and pain. I know that sounds dramatic, but it’s true. It has anti-inflammatories including turmeric and ginger, so it calms your insides down. It also warms you up, so if you’re like me and get cold in a 70 degree house, it comes in handy.

I heated up the leftovers for lunch today and the soup was still good on day two. It might have even been better, because the flavors had a chance to set.

Here’s a song to get you started on your slow cooker red lentil stew journey.

Slow Cooker Red Lentil Stew

Ingredients

1 yellow onion, chopped
2 large carrots, peeled and sliced thin
4 small garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 cups dried red lentils
4 cups chicken broth
1 cup water
2 Tbsp tomato paste
1 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 tsp freshly grated turmeric
1 Tbsp freshly grated ginger
1 bunch lacinato kale, roughly chopped
1 cup canned, full-fat coconut milk
1 15-oz can garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
juice of 2 limes

Directions

Combine the first 11 ingredients in your slow cooker and stir thoroughly. Put the lid on and cook for five hours on low. After five hours, stir in the kale, coconut milk, garbanzo beans, and lime juice. Add salt to taste. Put the lid back on the slow cooker and heat on the “warm” setting for 15 minutes. Enjoy!

 

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Cooking My Way Through ‘A Forest Feast,’ Part II: Warm Goat Cheese and Fig Salad

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Now comes the recipe from “The Forest Feast” cookbook that inspired me to buy the book in the first place: Warm goat cheese and fig salad.

What is warm goat cheese? you may ask. Well, it’s nothing short of heaven. You take super thin sheets of phyllo dough and wrap them around goat cheese Brie. Goat cheese Brie is like regular Brie; it just has a slightly different flavor since it’s made with goat milk. You brush the packets with a little olive oil, and toast them in the oven. When they’re done, you have little goat cheese pillows that melt in your mouth. Yes; they’re as good as they sound.

A word to the wise about baking with phyllo dough: It’s extremely fragile. I guess I should have realized this because of how thin it is, but I assumed it would be a little heartier, like pie dough. I was wrong. I almost had a disaster situation when the sheet of phyllo dough tore, but luckily I realized what was happening and stopped it before it started.

This might be the best salad I’ve ever made. It’s also a runner up for one of the best dishes I’ve ever made. I’m not even a huge fan of salads in the first place, so that’s saying something. The phyllo dough packets kind of act as croutons, and give some substance to the salad. The roasted walnuts pair well with the sweet figs, and the lemon vinaigrette adds some zest and ties everything together.

If you make this salad, I’d go with the vinaigrette recipe in the front of the cookbook. It’s bright and zesty, and light enough that you don’t feel like your salad leaves are drowning in dressing. You could throw together something similar, but once you try this recipe, I bet you’ll use it on most of your salads.

This is the kind of salad that you can eat comfortably during the winter. The goat cheese packets and roasted walnuts will warm you up, and the figs have just enough sweetness. This is the time of year I start eating cookies, cake, and pie nonstop, so it’s good to throw some natural sweetness into a recipe.

Here’s a song to get you started on your warm goat cheese and fig salad journey. Whenever I listen to Chris Lane, I pretend he’s singing to me.

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Pain au Chocolat

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Since making pain aux raisins went so well a few weeks ago, I decided to continue my French baking journey and make pain au chocolat over the weekend.

Little did I know that the process would span three days, and include me waking up at 5:30 AM today to finish them. I guess that was a personal choice, because I could have finished them last night instead. But why would I do that when I could enjoy them fresh out of the oven in the morning?

I used a recipe from King Arthur Flour instead of the one from my “Pâtisserie at Home” cookbook. I did it partly because King Arthur Flour’s recipe sounded more straightforward, and didn’t call for me making the chocolate filling from scratch.

However, the King Arthur Flour recipe takes *a lot* of time. I’m talking two to three days, depending on how you time it. It’s fine, because you can do steps of the recipe and then go and do other things. But just know that if you want these to turn out well, you have to devote some time.

I had a lot of success with this recipe, with some caveats: First of all, you should probably buy pain au chocolat sticks to go in the pastries. You can use regular chocolate from the store, but if you want your pastries to taste more authentic, you should invest a little in the right chocolate. I got mine from King Arthur Flour, and they worked really well. They melted down nicely and added just enough chocolate to each pastry.

Also, I read through all the comments before I started baking. I think this is a good rule in general if you’re cooking a recipe that’s posted online, because oftentimes, people will have tips about what worked for them and what didn’t. I read that one commenter added extra turns, or folds, to the dough before letting it rest for the final time in the fridge. This is a good idea because it makes the pastries even more flaky.

The same commenter said that she grated the butter for the dough instead of rolling it out as a solid block. I did the same thing, and it was way easier. Grating butter is not as bad as it sounds (it’s sort of like grating cheese), and then because it’s in small pieces, it’s easier to roll out.

Grating your butter also means that there’s less of a chance that it will leak out of the dough and get soupy during baking. I didn’t even realize that could happen until I read the comments.

In terms of choosing butter, go with the best you can find. For me, that means Plugra European Style butter, but maybe you have a favorite brand. Trust me when I say, using good butter makes a big difference. I used regular grocery store butter for my pain aux raisins, and they didn’t taste as good as my pain au chocolat.

Finally, let these rise in a very warm place, especially if you live somewhere where it’s cold. I have problems with my pastries rising every time I make them, so this time, I tried a trick I read online. I set my oven to 170 degrees F. Then I turned it off and put the pastries inside, and left the door open with the oven light on. This worked, more or less, but the pastries on the top shelf turned out best.

For the last part of the rise, I took them out and started to preheat the oven to 425 degrees F, and left them sitting on top of the oven covered with a dish towel. This worked extremely well. In all honesty, they should have sat for longer on the counter because they were not completely puffy when I put them in the oven. But I have little patience, especially when it comes to pain au chocolat.

The best part about these pastries, besides how they taste, is how your apartment/home tastes when they’re baking. The whole place smells like buttery, flaky croissant dough with a hint of chocolate. I’m pretty sure that’s what heaven smells like.

I enjoyed two of these fresh out of the oven, and they were delicious. You could see the layers after you bit into them. They were light and rich with just enough chocolate. I thought about eating more, but I’ve already promised a few to my neighbor, and I’m saving a few for other friends, too. I wish I could share one with my friend Julicia, who I used to share pain au chocolat with when we lived in France, but she’s in Philly. I’m virtually sending her one as I write this.

Here’s a song to get you started on your pain au chocolat journey.

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Cooking My Way Through ‘A Forest Feast,’ Part I: Lemony Pasta Fagioli

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A few weeks ago, I was browsing around Left Bank Books, one of my favorite bookstores in St. Louis, when I stumbled upon “The Forest Feast Mediterranean” cookbook. I’d never heard of Erin Gleeson or her “Forest Feast” series, but when I started paging through her cookbook, I immediately fell in love.

“The Forest Feast Mediterranean” is based on Gleeson’s travels through Spain, France, and Italy. I’ve been to the latter two countries and I’ve always wanted to visit Spain, so reading the cookbook felt a little like going abroad again. Gleeson is an artist and she illustrates her own books. The watercolor illustrations were bright and vibrant, and made the experience of reading the book even more enjoyable.

To be honest, I decided to buy the cookbook because when I opened it to a page with a recipe for salad with goat cheese phyllo puffs and figs. It sounded so good that I felt like I had to make it right then and there. Then I paged through the book more and I realized that I wanted to make most of the recipes. This is what is known in food blogger language as true love with a cookbook.

I had a “Julie & Julia” moment when I decided to cook my way through the cookbook. But unlike the movie, I wanted to skip around and cook recipes based on my preferences. Also, I might not make a few. I like most of the ideas and ingredients in the book, but there’s a whole section on party snacks, which I probably won’t use for a while. Although as I’m typing this, making cheese and almond-stuffed figs and eating them all myself sounds really good.

I’ll detail some of my experiences cooking from the book here. Look out for more installments of this mini-series over the next few weeks.

To start, I made lemony pasta fagioli (pictured above). As Gleeson writes in the cookbook, pasta e fagioli (pasta and beans) is a common dish in Italy. However, I hardly ever cook the two together. I decided to try out the combination and see what actual lemons would taste like in a pasta dish. I’ve included lemon juice in a sauce, but I’ve never sautéed lemon and put it in pasta, like Gleeson’s recipe calls for.

When you’re making this pasta, it’s very important not to sub noodles. It calls for orecchiette, and they’re the perfect vehicle for everything else in the dish. They soak up flavor, balance the beans in texture and shape, *and* they’re perfect for collecting grated Parmesan. If you can’t find orecchiette, I guess you could use another small noodle. I don’t think it would be as good, though.

At the end of the recipe, Gleeson says you could add chili oil and sautéed greens to the finished dish. I had some Swiss chard to use up, and some Aleppo chili flakes on the counter, so I decided to toss those in. It was a wise decision; the dish went up a level in terms of heartiness and flavor. The chiles gave it a kick, and the greens made it feel more nutritious.

Overall, this was a good recipe to start with. It’s the perfect amount of hearty and light, with bright, fresh ingredients that evoke summer. I don’t know about you, but I need a lot of citrus when the weather gets cold and the temperature drops 40 degrees overnight.

Now I’m thinking about other pasta and beans combinations. Stay tuned for some original recipes soon.

Here’s a song to get you started on your lemony pasta fagioli journey. The band sounds a lot like one of my favorite bands, Phoenix.

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Mushroom and Spaghetti Squash Soup

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This is one of those soups that will make you feel like you’re not eating soup. Does that make sense?

Even if it doesn’t, maybe you’ll understand what I mean when I describe it to you. It’s full of cavatelli noodles, which are little shells that soak up broth, chopped mushrooms, roasted spaghetti squash, and lots of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. It has all the flavors of a delicious pasta dish, with the added bonus of having rich, warming chicken broth.

It also gets a boost from a sprig of sage, which you toss in as you cook the soup. The flavor infuses the broth and pairs well with the salty cheese and mushrooms.

My favorite part about this dish is the roasted spaghetti squash. In the past, I think I’ve under-roasted spaghetti squash, which is easy to do. You usually roast it face down on a baking sheet, so sometimes it’s hard to tell if it’s done or not.

When it doubt, err on the side of more time. The squash will get slightly caramelized and tender, and it will break easily when you pull it apart with a fork. It kind of looks like a pile of hay. Then, you put some in a bowl and pour on the soup with the mushrooms and noodles.

I ate this for almost every meal for two days straight, and I wish that I had more. That’s saying a lot, because I usually get sick of leftovers after about a day, and I want to throw everything in the trash. It has to be really, really good to satisfy me.

This soup is especially good when the weather turns and it suddenly becomes unbearably cold outside. It will keep you warm if you need to go out, but it’s also the perfect excuse to stay in. I may or may not have eaten a bowl wrapped in a blanket curled up on the couch.

Here’s a song to get you started on your mushroom and spaghetti squash soup journey.

Mushroom and Spaghetti Squash Soup

Ingredients

1 pound spaghetti squash, halved and seeds discarded
3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt
Freshly ground pepper
2 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
1 1/4 pounds mixed mushrooms, stems discarded and roughly chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 quarts low-sodium chicken broth
1 sage sprig
1 cup cavatelli pasta
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for serving

Directions

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone mat. Rub the cut and seeded squash with 1 tablespoon of olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Place the squash cut side down on a baking sheet. Roast for about 35 minutes, or until tender. Scrape out the insides with a fork into a bowl. Cover with a tea towel to keep warm.

In a large pot, melt the butter with 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the onion and cook over medium heat, stirring often, until the golden. Add the mushrooms and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is golden. Add the chicken broth and sage, season the mixture with salt and pepper, and bring it to a boil. Add the pasta, stir, and cook it about 10-12 minutes, or until it’s tender. Take out the sage sprig and stir in the freshly grated cheese.

Fill bowls with spaghetti squash and top with the soup and more grated cheese. Enjoy!

 

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Pain aux Raisins

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The last time I was in Paris six years ago, I stopped by one of my favorite bookstores in the city (and honestly, the world), Shakespeare and Company. Located in Paris’s Left Bank neighborhood, it’s an English bookstore that once attracted some of America’s best expat writers including Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

In addition to being quaint and historic, it also has a resident cat that has very discerning tastes in people (it did not like the guy I met up with in the city), and it has a wonderful selection of books. When I saw Will Torrent’s “Pâtisserie at Home,” I knew I had to get it.IMG_1855.jpg
I sat on the book for a couple years. I loved to page through it; it has beautiful photos, as you can see from the cover, and everything looked amazing inside. I used it once when I lived in D.C. to make macarons with a friend.

But the real thing I wanted to use it for was making pain aux raisins. When I lived in France, pain aux raisins was my favorite pastry. It’s made out of snail-shaped croissant dough and full of plump raisins. My favorite part is the middle. I used to unroll the pastry and eat that part first. Picture a biscuit made out of buttery, flaky croissant dough, and slightly sweet, and that’s what eating the middle part of a pain aux raisins is like.

However, I doubted that I could pull it off at home. Will Torrent makes it sound doable in his cookbook, but I read through all the steps (there are many), and thought, this is a lot. That’s saying something for me, because I’m usually not afraid to invest a lot of time in a recipe.

Also, I had multiple people discourage me from doing it over the years, including a French baker who told me that croissants are impossible to make at home. A friend of mine from my old work told me he tried to do it, and they can’t compare to the ones you buy at a real bakery.

Still, I had a burning desire to make pain aux raisins that wouldn’t go away with time or discouragement. So yesterday, I impulsively decided to fulfill a years-long dream and make them. I read through Will Torrent’s recipe multiple times, assembled my ingredients, and decided to go step by step.

It’s going to sound corny, but making pain aux raisins is like life. You have to go slowly and focus on one step at a time to be successful.

Also, as with anything in baking, it helps to follow the recipe to the letter, especially if it’s your first time making it. I found myself wanting to cut corners and deviate, especially when I realized that it was almost 11 PM and I was locked in to the baking process until at least 1 AM. But I persisted.

All in all, the process was not bad. In fact, it’s easier than making other bread-like pastries such as Swedish cardamom buns. There’s a lot of rolling out dough and waiting, but you’re not twisting or tying anything with dough, which can often end in disaster. To make pain aux raisins, you follow the croissant recipe and then you roll the dough up, much like you would do for cinnamon rolls, cut the dough into 1-inch pieces, and wait for them to rise.

If you don’t want to wait for them to rise after you cut the dough, you can proof them in the refrigerator. I read about that technique on this helpful blog after I decided to stay up all night making them. Oh well; at least I know for next time.

Or, you can freeze the little cut pain aux raisins and proof them on a baking sheet overnight. I do this a lot with Trader Joe’s chocolate croissants. (If you’ve never had those, you might want to change that, soon.) It’s easier than waiting around for the dough to rise because you can set them out and go to sleep. For impatient people like me, this is important.

Also, another tip that Will Torrent didn’t have in his book, but I found on the aforementioned blog, is to spray the oven before you put the croissants in and once after you set them on the racks. You can do this using a spray bottle. I happened to have one from my watercolor class, so I filled it up and used it. It makes the croissants even more flaky and crisp on the outside.

The smell of these pain aux raisins while they were baking was other-worldly. I wanted to bottle up the smell and have it forever. It took me back to times when I would go into the bakery in France early in the morning to buy bread for lunch, and they would have all the glistening viennoiseries set out. The smell of fresh pastry filled the air. I would stand there for a few minutes, taking it all in. It’s one of the best smells in the world.

I’m not going to tell you these pain aux raisins are as good as the ones I had in France. I realized after the fact that Will Torrent’s recipe did not include crème pâtissière, which is found in most pain aux raisins, and it did not have the sugar glaze that most traditional bakers add to the pastries after baking them. It also had cinnamon, which I thought was weird because I didn’t remember that from traditional pain aux raisins. As it turns out, a more standard pain aux raisins calls for fresh vanilla beans and rum in the cream filling for flavoring.

Still, for a recipe that you make in your own kitchen without the added step of making crème pâtissière from scratch, it delivered. The croissant dough especially was delicious. It was buttery and flaky, and came close to what I remembered eating when I lived abroad. The raisins were juicy and slightly caramelized from baking, and the cinnamon paired well with the raisins, even if it wasn’t the taste I remembered.

I ate a pain aux raisins straight off the baking sheet at 1:30 AM, when I took them out of the oven. I fell asleep to the smell of fresh pastry, which is better than any scented candle or incense.

I’m glad that I finally took the plunge and tried a croissant recipe from Torrent’s cookbook. Next up? Pain au chocolat.

Here’s a song to get you started on your pain aux raisins journey.

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Apple Cake

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This apple cake may be one of the best cakes I’ve ever made. I am not exaggerating.

I made it last weekend after I got back from New Orleans. I’ve been eyeing the recipe for months, maybe even years, but for some reason, I never got around to it. When I saw an abundance of apples from the farmers’ market in my fridge, I realized the time is now.

This cake is pretty easy to make, but there is some prep work involved. Namely, the bundt pan. Is your worst nightmare making a cake that sticks to the pan, so you have to try to carve it out with a butter knife or hammer on the bottom with a spoon? Trust me, I’ve been there.

For this cake, make sure to butter AND flour the pan generously so it doesn’t stick. I like to prepare the pan over the sink so flour doesn’t fly all over the kitchen. If you tap the edges as you rotate the pan, you can ensure the best butter/flour: pan ratio.

If you’re not a fan of red raisins, you can sub in golden raisins. I’d highly recommend keeping the walnuts in the cake, though. They are dense and buttery, and they bake well into the cake.

I served the cake for dinner last weekend as a pre-birthday celebration for my boyfriend, Jim. After he ate a slice, I asked him what his favorite cake of all time was. He said that the apple cake I made might be it. He is an honest critic of my baked goods, so I took it as a high compliment.

Then, I gave pieces to my whole family, and to Jim’s mom when she came in town. Everyone talked about how the cake was not too light or dense. My mom told me twice how much she liked it.

If you need a good apple cake for fall or Rosh Hashanah, this is it. I bet it would also pair well with a scoop of ice cream or whipped cream.

Here’s a song to get you started on your apple cake journey. It’s also good to drown out your next door neighbors when they start sounding like frat boys on a Sunday.

Apple Cake

Ingredients

unsalted butter for greasing pan
3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting pan
1 1/2 cups vegetable oil
2 cups granulated sugar
3 eggs at room temperature
1 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 cups peeled, cored, and thickly sliced tart apples
1 cup roughly chopped walnuts
1 cup raisins

Directions

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and butter a bundt pan. Combine the vegetable oil and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer, and mix on medium for about five minutes. In the meantime, whisk together the flour, salt, cinnamon, and baking soda.

When the oil and sugar are done mixing, add the eggs. Beat on medium speed until the mixture is creamy. Stir in the flour mixture. Then, stir in the vanilla extract, sliced apples, walnuts, and raisins. Don’t worry if the apples fall apart a little in this stage. Make sure the batter is uniformly mixed.

Put the batter in the prepared bundt pan and bake the cake for about an hour and 15 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean. Cool completely in the pan before inverting the pan or lifting the cake out. I’d recommend inverting it onto a plate. Enjoy!

 

 

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