The genius of the Mediterranean

I love the food of the Mediterranean. I lived in France for a year – in the Loire Valley, but I prefer the food of Provence. I’ve never been to Italy or Greece, except in my fantasies, but I have been to Spain and Portugal and Israel and Argentina…cultures that emphasize fresh, delicious, in-season produce in their cooking. Cultures that melt tomatoes in olive oil, that brilliantly combine garlic and lemon parts to make miraculous, simple un-sauces, where perfect olives of infinite variety are tapas…

In all of these places, veganism would seem preposterous to most people. Why would you willingly cut out whole categories of food? No matter. I’m grateful for the inspiration. Grateful for the history and tradition and invention.

And so, voila, my homage to the Mediterranean.

I should note that when my 5-year-old tasted this, she said, unsolicited, “You should definitely serve this to your clients. Definitely.” I also think this would make a super yummy pizza topping. And a little secret: the broccoli and tomatoes were left over from a crudite tray. Ew – refrigerated tomatoes. But in this dish, delicious!!

Mediterranean pasta

  • 1 tbsp + 1/4 cup olive oil, divided
  • 2 shallots, finely chopped
  • 2 cups broccoli florets, broken into small pieces
  • 2 cups cherry or grape tomatoes
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 1/2 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 15-oz can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 4-5 fat garlic-stuffed olives (or Greek-cured or kalamata), sliced
  • Juice and zest of half of a lemon (I used a Meyer)
  • Kosher salt to taste
  • 1 lb whole wheat penne
  • 1/2 cup almond meal

Put a large covered saucepan of water to boil over high heat. Once boiling, cook the pasta (add salt!) until al dente, and then drain. Meanwhile, heat a large cast iron pan over a bit over medium heat and add the tbsp of oil, and then, one it’s shimmering, add the shallots and broccoli. Saute for 3 or 4 minutes, then add the tomatoes, garlic, and oregano. Coax the tomatoes into melting by poking them with a sharp knife. Add the rest of the oil, the chickpeas, olives, lemon zest and juice, and salt to taste. Let simmer and melt while the pasta cooks.

Heat a small cast iron pan over medium heat, and add the almond meal. Toast, stirring often, for about ten minutes until well toasted but not burned.

Toss the pasta with the sauce, adding a drizzle of olive oil if you like. Sprinkle each serving with almond meal, and serve.

How I learned to stop worrying and buy asparagus

I’m from California’s San Joaquin Valley. Growing seasons, orchards, farms as far as the eye can see…this is my homeland. I generally know when different crops are in season, and as much as I might have a taste for grapes in January, I won’t buy them on principle. I’m heartily committed to buying local whenever I can, and I can’t bring myself to reward grocers for selling out-of-season produce that had to travel thousands of miles to get to me. Corn, figs, grapes, TOMATOES: summer. Apples, persimmons, pomegranates: fall. Oranges: winter.

My problem is that the produce I always thought came in the springtime, the vegetables that ARE spring to me – artichokes and asparagus – have been showing up in the fall. I don’t get it. And they’re cheap. And they’re gorgeous. And they’re from the places they’re supposed to be from in California. Well, I’ve given in, and have bought asparagus the last couple of weeks. Today, I turned it into a creamy soup that warmed me on a particularly blustery fall day, but also reminded me of the blossoms and puffy white clouds of spring. (And it’s low fat. No oil added!)

Cream of asparagus soup

  • 1 lb asparagus, trimmed and chopped into 2″ pieces
  • 4 shallots, peeled and sliced
  • Kosher salt to taste
  • 4 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 2 red-skinned potatoes, shredded
  • 1 1/2 tsp freshly grated turmeric
  • 4 cups veg stock
  • 1/2 cup sunflower seeds
  • Juice and zest of 1 lemon
  • 2 tbsp chopped parsley

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Spray a cookie sheet with cooking spray, then add the asparagus and the shallots, spray with cooking spray, and sprinkle with kosher salt. Roast for about ten minutes.

Heat a Dutch oven over medium heat, and add the potatoes, garlic, and turmeric (1/2 tsp dried turmeric if you can’t get fresh). Stir regularly, and saute for about 3 minutes. Add the veg stock, cover, increase the heat to medium-high, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to medium-low, and let simmer for 5 minutes. Add the sunflower seeds and the roasted vegetables, and let simmer for another 5 minutes. Remove from the heat.

Place half the soup into a blender and puree until very smooth. Remove to a bowl, and puree the other half. Stir the soup to combine, and then add the lemon juice and zest. Heat if necessary, and add parsley.

If I had a hammer

Coconut tools

It happens frequently that I make a meal for a client of which I’m particularly proud. I enjoy creating dishes, but what I really love is pulling recipes together – whether they be my own or someone else’s – to make a meal that turns into something magical. This week, that meal was inspired by the works of Madhur Jaffrey. Close to 2 decades ago, a friend gave me his used copy of World of the East Vegetarian Cooking. I’ve used it some. Not as much as I’d like. For various reasons. Since I started my work as a personal chef, I’ve used it a few times, because my first client has an adventurous palate and likes lots of vegetables. Still, I find that I often don’t end up using the cookbook, even when I’ve pulled it out.

My newest client has some particular dietary requirements necessitating meals low in carbohydrates and kid-friendly. And the family has requested a rotation of various cuisines, including Indian. And so, enter Madhur Jaffrey.

My favorite Indian dish – and the one I’ve been pining for for two years since going vegan – is saag paneer. I don’t know why it took me so damn long to veganize it. I made it three times in two days for three different clients, all with different needs. This is the Platonic ideal of vegan saag paneer. But don’t miss the sides of this meal. The salad – in which the above coconut makes its appearance – is OUTSTANDING and well worth the tools and manual labor (just for the coconut; the rest of the salad is SUPER easy and fast).

Saag paneer, turmeric-scented quinoa, sesame green beans, and Gujarati cucumber and peanut salad

Saag paneer

  • 1 14-oz tub firm tofu
  • 3 tbsp peanut oil
  • 1/4 tsp garam masala
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne
  • Kosher salt to taste
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tbsp freshly grated ginger
  • 1/4 cup sliced pickled jalapenos, minced
  • 2 lbs baby spinach, well washed (not dried) and pureed in a food processor
  • Kosher salt to taste
  • 1/4 cup coconut milk

Press the tofu between layers of paper towels and place something heavy – like a cast iron pan – on top.  Let it sit for about 20 minutes, and then cut it into about 1/2″ cubes.  Heat the oil in a large cast iron pan over medium heat, and add the tofu.  BE PATIENT.  Don’t touch the tofu until it’s good and golden, otherwise you’ll lose the best part to the pan.  Turn it with a thin metal spatula.  Let it get golden on a couple sides, then remove to a plate in a single layer, and sprinkle with the garam masala, cayenne, and salt.  Set aside.

Turn the heat on the pan to medium-high or slightly lower, add a little oil, if necessary, and add the garlic, ginger, and jalapenos.  Saute for about 30 seconds until fragrant.  Add the spinach and kosher salt, and toss and saute for about 2 minutes.  Turn the heat to medium, and let the liquid evaporate for about 10 minutes.  Add the tofu back to the pan, scraping the plate into the pan to get all the yummy bits of oil and spices.  Add the coconut milk, and let simmer until creamy.

Turmeric-scented quinoa

  • 4 cups water
  • 2 cups quinoa
  • Kosher salt to taste
  • 2 tsp freshly grated turmeric root

Boil the water in a medium saucepan.  Rinse the quinoa in a sieve and add it to the boiling water, along with the salt and turmeric.  Reduce the heat to medium-low, and let simmer until all of the water has been absorbed, about 20 minutes.

Sesame green beans

  • 2 lbs fresh green beans, cut into 1″ pieces
  • Kosher salt to taste
  • 6 tbsp coconut oil
  • 2 tsp brown mustard seeds
  • 6 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tbsp freshly grated ginger
  • 1 tsp freshly grated turmeric
  • 1/4 cup sesame seeds, toasted
  • 1/4 cup chopped cilantro
  • Zest of half of a lemon
  • Juice of 1 lemon

Bring a large pot of water to a boil, and add the green beans and a healthy handful of kosher salt to the pot.  Let the beans boil for about 4 minutes, then drain and rinse under cold water.  Set aside.

Heat the coconut oil over medium-high heat, and add the mustard seeds.  After about 30 seconds, add the garlic, ginger, and turmeric, sauteeing until the garlic is golden, then add the green beans, sesame seeds, cilantro, and the zest and juice of the lemon.  Toss until heated through.

Gujarati cucumber and peanut salad

  • 1 cup roasted peanuts, coarsely chopped
  • 3/4 lb Persian cucumbers, diced into small pieces
  • 2 tbsp sesame seeds, toasted
  • 1/2 cup freshly minced coconut meat
  • 1 fresh jalapeno, minced (I omitted this for my clients, but I think it would only make it more awesome)
  • 2 tbsp chopped cilantro
  • 2 tbsp coconut oil
  • 2 tsp brown mustard seeds
  • Kosher salt to taste
  • Juice of half a lemon

Put the peanuts, cucumbers, sesame seeds, coconut, jalapeno, and cilantro in a bowl.  Place the coconut oil in a small cast iron pan over medium-high heat.  Add the mustard seeds, and fry for about 30 seconds, then add them to the bowl, along with the salt and lemon juice.  Try to not eat it all before serving it to your guests.