About Me

I'm happiest when the food I make becomes a backdrop to a lively conversation. When I'm not cooking, I'm traveling or dreaming about travel. Come sit with me, and enjoy! Read more here.

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blueberry coconut almond cake: dessert for any time of day

I nosh on this cake at breakfast with a dollop of Greek yogurt on the side, savor it after lunch with a shot of espresso, or linger over it after dinner with a sip of cognac. Remarkably moist with pops of juicy blueberry fruit and crunchy almond slices in each bite, this cake is delicious any time of day. It's also gluten free with half the carbs and sugar of regular cake but (shhh!)  you'd never know.

Blueberry Coconut Almond Cake

1-1/2 cups Bob's Red Mill almond flour
1/2 cup coconut flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
Pinch of salt
3/4 cup milk
1-1/2 cup blueberries, washed, drained, and dried of excess water with a paper towel
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1/3 cup sugar
4 eggs
1/2 cup of virgin coconut oil
1/3 cup almond slices

Line a springform baking pan with parchment paper and preheat the oven to 375.

Beat the coconut oil and sugar together until smooth. With the beater running, add eggs, one at a time. Beat until smooth and then slowly drizzle in the milk.

In a separate bowl, combine the flours, baking powder, and salt. Whisk into the egg mixture until combined. Add the berries and fold them in with a spoon. Pour into the parchment-lined springform pan. Smooth the top of the cake dough so it's flat. Top with almond slices. Place the cake in the oven, turn down the temperature to 350 and bake for about 40 minutes. (I always heat the oven a little hotter at first because of all the heat that escapes when you open the door). Test it with a toothpick for doneness and cook longer if needed.


fennel fish soup with salami and piment d’esplette: earthy and briny with a touch of spice

On a recent trip to Union Market in Washington D.C., I spotted a single, small plastic baggie of piment d'esplette at the spice shop. “Oh my god,” I called out to Paul. “What? What?” He rushed over. I picked up the baggie, eyeballed it, pressed my nose to it, and breathed deeply. The aroma was complex and sweet with a hint of heat. “Amazing. Smell this.” I lifted it to his nostrils.

The high culinary praise and relative scarcity of piment d’esplette has intrigued me for years. I occasionally see it in recipes but have never seen it for sale.

After he breathed through the plastic and swooned over the same mysterious aroma, I noticed the price sticker: $25. “I’m not paying that.” He grabbed it from me. “We’re getting it.” Paul lives to spoil me. I live to prevent such spoilage (and preserve our collective wallets). But against this precious baggie, I had no defenses. He handed it to the cashier, who placed it in a small paper bag. I squeezed Paul's arm. “Thanks, honey.”

I discovered that the rich-flavored esplette pepper is cultivated in the small French commune of Esplette near the border of Spain, and hung on balconies to dry. An annual pepper festival attracts thousands of tourists, marking the end of harvest season. I pictured French grandmas with pale blue sundresses and big arms wrestling shiny red pepper bundles from balconies and felt better about the $25. (The reality is the AOC-designated spice has spurred an entire industry of hard working farmers with regulated production techniques. Still, I picture the grandmas and smile.)

I sprinkle the jewel-red powder on everything from baked eggs and frittatas to soups and braised dishes. It lends a complex, mild and sweet heat to many dishes. Occasionally, I combine it with a pinch of paprika and a pinch of cayenne to give my dish the full spectrum of pepper flavor.

For this fish stew, I drew inspiration from Lynn Rossetto Kasper’s Sicilian fish soup recipe in her iBook “Italian Holidays.” I admire Rossetto Kasper but found her version lacked heat and acid. Piment d’esplette – and a touch of Pernod (another recent discovery) – was exactly what it needed. My coveted French ingredients transformed this stalwart Italian fare to a remarkably delicious bowl of soup.

When I returned to the spice store at Union Market last week to plop down $25 for another baggie, they were out of stock. The young woman tending to customers said she had never heard of it but she was intrigued. "What does it taste like?"

Fennel Fish Soup with Salami and Piment d'Esplette

2 tablespoon olive oil
1/3 cup diced spicy Italian salami
3 large leeks, white part only, coarsely chopped
2 medium fennel bulbs, trimmed and thinly sliced into sticks (fronds reserved for garnish)
1 tablespoon fennel seeds, bruised with a mortar and pestle
1/2 cup tightly packed Italian parsley leaves, minced
6 garlic cloves, crushed and quartered
grated zest of one orange (reserving a small amount for garnish)
2 cups drained whole canned tomatoes
8 cups fish stock
15 pitted black oil-cured olives (for garnish)
salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon (or more to taste) piment d’esplette (if you can't find it, substitute paprika with a pinch of cayenne)
2 tablespoon Pernod

2 pounds of mussels, scrubbed and debearded
1 pounds white fish
1 pound shrimp, shells on, or shelled with tail left intact (if you shell the shrimp, use the shells to enhance or supplement the fish broth by simmering the shells in water or fish stock, and straining out the shells, before adding the stock)

In a large Dutch oven or soup pot, sautee the salami in olive oil over medium heat for two minutes. Add the leeks, fennel bulb, and parsley and cook until the leeks are soft. Stir in the garlic, bruised fennel seed, and three-quarters of the orange zest. Sautee for another minute. Add the tomatoes. Cook over medium high heat for three minutes. Add the broth. Bring to a boil and then let simmer for 20 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste, then the piment d’esplette and Pernod.

About 30 minutes before serving, add the mussels and fish and cook covered for 2 - 3 minutes. Finally, add the shrimp and cook uncovered for another 2- 3 minutes. Once the shellfish are open and the shrimp have turned completely pink, it’s time to eat. Garnish each bowl with chopped olives, fennel fronds, and remaining orange zest.


three-pepper beef chili with corn and queso fresco polenta: a chili to call my own

When I was growing up, any dish that simmered on the stove for more than an hour signaled a special occasion. Dad's chili, a hearty, meat-and-bean fest loaded cayenne, was one of those dishes. We devoured big bowls of it, cooling off our mouths with sweet Jiffy corn muffins.

I watched my barrel-chested Dad, who cooked in Hanes cotton tank tops, brown the beef and then add layers of chili powder, chopped yellow onion, minced garlic, canned chopped tomatoes, and kidney beans. To finish, he tossed a spoonful of sugar into the giant, steaming pot, and let all the flavors meld together for another hour or two or until our bellies howled with hunger.

My job was easy: I shook the cornmeal mix from the Jiffy box into a ceramic bowl, cracked an egg, and poured in skim milk. It was fail-proof, even for a 12-year-old. The muffins always turned out golden and fluffy just like the sunshine yellow muffins on the box cover.

I've made chili a couple of times since childhood but my attempts fell flat. I was no longer cooking with Dad and I missed the simple sweetness and chew of those Jiffy muffins!

Discovering Daniel Boulud's chili in his book "Braise" awakened me to a different kind of chili, a no-bean chili with various dried peppers, roasted and then ground, adding layers of heat and flavor. It inspired this version, which relies on more widely available chiles, alters technique and timing, uses a mix of fresh and processed tomatoes, and, like Dad's, adds a touch of sweet at the end. I transformed the cornbread platform into a steaming pot of polenta with fresh, sweet corn kernels and diced queso fresco, a sweet-salty combo that cools off the mouth from the arbol-pepper burn and varies the texture. Thankfully, a delicious, soulful chili no longer lives in the past. The nostalgia is here and now.

Spicy, Three-Pepper Beef Chili and Fresh Corn and Queso Fresco Polenta

2-1/2 pounds beef chuck roast, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1-1/2 pounds ground beef
1/4 pound slab bacon, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons canola oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 large onion, diced
2 limes (juice and zest)
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon Mexican oregano (use regular oregano if you don’t have Mexican)
1/4 cup homemade chili powder (see recipe, below)
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 box (26.5 ounces) of Pomi chopped tomatoes
1 large, fresh garden tomato, chopped
2-1/2 cups water
1 bay leaf
2-3 tablespoons honey to taste
1/4 cup fresh cilantro
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Brown the chuck roast cubes on all sides in 3 - 4 batches (about 5 minutes per batch), then remove from the pan. Add the slab bacon and cook until the fat is rendered. Add the diced onion and garlic and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the ground beef and cook for another 5 minutes. Add the reserved beef cubes and all remaining ingredients except the cilantro, and combine.  Cover on low heat for two hours. Check periodically and adjust seasoning and add water if it's too dry. Top each bowl with cilantro leaves when serving.

Three-Pepper Chili Powder

(makes about ¼ cup, enough for one batch of chili)
4 ancho peppers
4 guajillo peppers
4 chilies de arbol

In a dry skillet over medium heat, toast the chili peppers on all sides for 5 to 7 minutes, ensuring they do not burn. Let them cool, then stem and seed them. Grind them in a spice grinder (I tasked an old coffee grinder with the job).

Fresh Corn and Queso Fresco Polenta

1 cup polenta
1/4 cup diced queso fresco
2 ears of corn, kernels cut from the husk and set aside
1 tablespoon of butter
Salt to taste

Heat the butter in a skillet. Add the corn kernels and the salt and sauté until soft. Cook the polenta with water as package indicates. When the polenta is three-quarters of the way finished cooking, add the queso fresco and the corn. Season with salt to taste.

Pour the chili over the polenta and top with fresh cilantro.


whole wheat amaranth blueberry muffins with cinnamon and walnuts: good to the last whole grain

I've been on a muffin tear for about two years and have made dozens of variations with different flours, sugars, oils, fruits, nuts, and even liqueurs. Ask Paul. He tries a new one almost every week. “What do you think?” I say, as he samples each new creation, usually before he can finish his first bite. He narrows his eyes and gets a serious look on his face while still chewing, then remarks on texture, sweetness, flavor, moistness. Each week, I tweak and adjust.

My muffin experiments have coincided with my obsession with whole grains. Aside from the health benefits of whole grains, which have high fiber and protein, whole grains taste good, especially in breads and muffins.

At the moment, amaranth rules my muffin world. The ancient whole grain, native to the Americas and once prized by Aztecs, adds a remarkable moistness and lightness to muffins. The grain, when cooked and stirred into the batter, softens the dough giving it a spongy quality while amaranth flour lightens it, adding an airiness.

I make these in advance for the week, store them in the fridge, and then reheat them in the morning on a panini grill (the single best way to reheat a muffin). Since I munch on them daily for breakfast and like a healthier alternative to the standard sugar-packed muffin, I limit the sugar in this recipe and serve them with a drizzle of raw honey. If you like a sweeter muffin, add another quarter cup of turbinado sugar.


Whole Wheat Amaranth Blueberry Muffins with Cinnamon and Walnuts

2 eggs
1 cup milk
1/3 cup amaranth grain, cooked (one part amaranth to three parts water)*
1/2 cup turbinado sugar
4 tablespoons of coconut oil
1-1/2 cups whole wheat flour (I like Arrowhead Mills organic stone ground whole wheat flour)
1/2 cup amaranth flour
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 tablespoon Madagascar vanilla bean paste (use vanilla extract if you can't find the paste)
1 tablespoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
6 ounces blueberries
½ cup chopped walnuts

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Cook the amaranth grain according to the instructions on the package. Set aside and cool to room temperature.

In a large mixing or KitchenAid bowl, combine eggs, milk, sugar, and vanilla. If using a KitchenAid, mix with a paddle attachment. If using a mixing bowl, use a hand blender. Blend in the cooled amaranth grain and the coconut oil (if the oil is solid, warm it for 10 seconds in the microwave so it's liquid and room temperature).

In a separate bowl, combine the whole wheat flour, amaranth flour, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger, and salt, and mix well, making sure there are no clumps of baking powder.

Slowly blend the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients until mixed through. Do not over mix; this can result in a denser muffin. Blend in the blueberries and walnuts. Grease a 12-muffin tin with butter or canola oil spray. Divide batter into a muffin tin and bake for 25 minutes.

*The amaranth grain takes about 20 minutes to cook. You can cool it quickly by spreading it on a plate and putting it in the freezer for a few minutes, then adding it to the batter.


crispy cumin salmon and braised lentils with tomato-caper vinaigrette: a return to center

After a week of tight deadlines, doctors appointments, bills, and last minute travel preparations, I needed good food to restore me. Even more: good wine, a nice steep pour. You know the kind of week?

This is my go-to dish to return to center state. It’s healthy enough to make me feel virtuous and rich enough to serve as an indulgence. It’s also wine-friendly and pairs well with anything from pinot noir to Cotes du Rhone and Corbières.

I use wild caught coho or sockeye cut from the tail, which has no discernible bones, eliminating extra work. Wild caught salmon offers cleaner, richer flavor than its farmed counterparts, not to mention more nutrients and omega-3s.

Broiling the salmon, skin up, produces a deliciously crispy skin that Paul and I call “salmon bacon” (it's THAT good). Topped with tomato-caper vinaigrette and served over pancetta-braised lentils, the cumin-rubbed salmon shines.

I’ve been making it for years, without variation, and am amazed every time how good it is and how it centers me after a long, stressful week.

Crispy Cumin Salmon and Braised Lentils with Tomato-Caper Vinaigrette

For 2

Crispy cumin salmon
3/4 pound wild caught salmon, cut from the tail
2 tablespoons dried cumin
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons high-heat cooking oil such as canola or grapeseed
2 wedges of lemon or fresh lemon juice (to serve)

Score the salmon skin with a sharp knife, making diagonal cuts about an inch apart. Mix the cumin and a generous amount of salt and pepper with the oil to form a paste. Place the salmon on a broiler pan and slather the paste on both sides so it coats the salmon evenly. Place the salmon, skin up, under a broiler (above the middle mark of your oven but not too close to the flame) with the thickest part of the salmon under the flame. Broil for 6 – 7 minutes or until the skin is golden brown and crisp.

Braised lentils
1/2 cup Puy lentils
2-1/4 cups chicken stock
1/2 yellow onion, finely diced
1 small carrot, finely diced
1 small celery stalk, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 slices pancetta or 1 slice of bacon, diced
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

In a medium-sized saucepan, heat the olive oil until hot but not smoking. Add the garlic, onions, carrots, and celery and sauté about 3 – 4 minutes. Add lentils and chicken stock. Season generously with salt and pepper. Simmer, uncovered, for about 30 – 35 minutes until the lentils are soft. Taste to adjust seasoning again before serving.

Tomato-caper vinaigrette
3 vine-ripened tomatoes, cored, seeded, and diced
1/2 red onion, diced
2 tablespoons capers
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
4 tablespoons walnut oil (I prefer Spectrum brand; it has a simple, clean flavor)
4 – 5 sprigs of thyme, stems removed
Salt and pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients, mix well, and set aside.

To plate

Spoon the lentils onto two plates. Slice the salmon into two pieces and place over the lentils. Top with tomato-caper vinaigrette. Squeeze fresh lemon juice over the top or serve with a wedge of lemon on the side. Top the dish with a sprig or two of fresh thyme.


merguez lamb pizza with mint pesto, caramelized onions, and crispy kale: pizza like no other

Spicy, fatty North African Merguez lamb sausage combined with caramelized onions, Bel Paese (semi-soft Italian cheese), mint pesto, and crispy kale, create a gobsmackingly good pizza.

I first posted a photo of this pizza on Facebook where it got several thumbs up, including one that came with a caveat: “but for the kale,” this person wrote. “I know it’s good for you but…” I get it. I might have said the same thing a few years back. After several attempts at a number of preparations, I finally learned to transform the tough, leafy green into some surprisingly tasty dishes, and I’m not turning back. When kale is good, it’s really good.

Oven-baked kale is one of my favorite preparations. If you roast it with oil, salt, and pepper, it crisps up nicely and tastes more like a potato chip. The slightly bitter flavor provides a nice counterpoint to the Merguez sausage, a combo that came to me while staring at my computer screen at the office, wishing I were in the kitchen instead of editing documents. I’ve been combining these flavors in various ways for several months now and the pizza seemed like a natural progression. I scribbled it down on a notepad and saved it for the weekend (despite how simple it looks, it does take some time to prepare). The experiment, partly improvised on the fly, proved so flavorful, I had to memorialize it on the blog so I could remember it for next time.

Merguez Lamb Sausage Pizza with Mint Pesto, Caramelized Onions, and Crispy Kale

1 whole wheat pizza dough recipe, below (or dough recipe of your choice)
1 mint pesto recipe, below
1 crispy kale recipe, below
2 links Merguez lamb sausage, casings removed, sautéed for 8 – 10 minutes, and then drained of excess fat
5 ounces or so of Bel Paese cheese, diced
1 red onion, thinly sliced and slowly cooked on low heat for 35 – 40 minutes
3 – 4 heirloom tomatoes (enough to cover the pizza), thinly sliced
½ cup balsamic vinegar, reduced in saucepan until it becomes a syrup

Whole wheat pizza dough
1 package active dry yeast (2 1/4 teaspoons), such as Red Star
1-1/2 cups whole wheat flour (plus more for kneading)*
1/2 cup warm water (120 – 130 degrees)*
Pinch of salt
1 tablespoon olive oil

*Start with the minimum amounts, then add and adjust until your dough is smooth and firm, not sticky.

In a food processor, blend the dry ingredients. Then, slowly drizzle in the water and the oil until the dough starts to clump together. If the dough is still crumbly, add slightly more water (about a tablespoon) until it starts to clump. Empty the dough onto a floured cutting board, form it into a ball, and knead for three minutes, sprinkling in more flour on the dough if it's sticky (you want a nice smooth texture that does not stick to your hand or the board). Grease a bowl with olive oil and place the dough in the bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit for one hour. Once risen, knead for another 3 – 5 minutes, then roll out onto a pizza stone or cast iron pizza pan greased with olive oil. I love the pure whole wheat flour but if you like a more traditional pizza dough, add half whole wheat, half all-purpose or use an all-purpose recipe of your choice.

Mint pesto
1 cup mint leaves
3/4 cup parsley leaves
1 small chunk (about 2 tablespoons) parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons of pine nuts
½ cup olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients except for the oil and salt and pepper in a food processor. While blending, pour in the oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Crispy kale
1 bunch of kale, washed, stems removed, and sliced into strips
3 tablespoons canola oil
Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Combine kale, oil, and salt and pepper. On a baking sheet, spread out in an even layer so the kale does not overlap. Bake for 30 minutes or until the kale is crispy and slightly browned.

Assembling the Pizza
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Roll out the dough onto a cast iron pizza pan greased with olive oil. Top the dough with slices of heirloom tomato, seasoned with salt and pepper. Bake for 7 minutes. Add the Bel Paese cheese, caramelized onions, and sausage. Bake for another 7 minutes. Top with a drizzle of mint pesto, crispy kale, and the finest drizzle of reduced balsamic vinegar. Serve immediately.

Oh, and P.S., my flash of inspiration coincided with National Pizza Month! How cool is that?