spicy peanut stew with ginger and tomato

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when I think of the word “international”, a few cities jump to mind: new york city, london, washington, d.c. three starkly different cities with completely different atmospheres, and yet when I think of each one, the first word that comes to mind is “international”.

new york is bustling, its immigrant population in full display in the crowded streets and its immigrant-welcoming history commemorated by the statue of liberty. skyscrapers tower like trees fighting for sunlight in a concrete jungle. businesses from around the world are located in nyc, from large global corporations to small, immigrant-run bakeries.

london, on the other hand, feels like an old european city. there are the famous bridges, the castles, the colossal, centuries-old government buildings and museums. and yet there is undoubtedly an international presence felt in the monuments commemorating moments when the sun never set on the empire, and in the communities of immigrants (many from the former colonies that comprised britain’s “greatest” and most inhumane chapter), where the smells of spices not native to europe and the sounds of foreign languages spill into the streets.

and then there’s washington, d.c., the seat of the federal government and so wholly american, yet international. where embassies of small countries are tucked in basements of residential neighborhoods, where every block seems to have some sort of foreign language learning school or university building or government office. in washington d.c., one truly feels how internationalism is interwoven with american government and culture. so many parts of d.c. feel transient, from the revolving foreign staff to our own elected officials to the large student populace and young professionals.

even in my apartment building, I hear different languages in the elevator and in the halls and around dinnertime, delicious odors waft into my apartment. sometimes, it’s a whiff of kimchi, other times a roast chicken. while frying up the aromatics for this peanut stew, a riff on west african peanut stew, the scents of cumin, cayenne, peppers, and shallots quickly filled my kitchen. I can only hope that someone else in the building enjoyed the smells and that it perhaps inspired them.

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makes eight servings

1 medium eggplant, cut into 1/2-in dice
1 tsp kosher salt + more to taste
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1/4 tsp turmeric
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 cup vegetable oil, divided
2 shallots, thinly sliced
2 inches ginger, peeled and minced
1-2 jalapeño peppers, seeded and minced
1 onion, chopped
1/3 cup tomato paste
1 14-oz can diced tomatoes
3-4 cups vegetable stock
1/2 cup natural unsweetened peanut butter
1 medium-sized zucchini, cut in quarters lengthwise, then sliced 1/2 in thick
2 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/3 cup cilantro, coarsely chopped + more for garnish
chopped peanuts (optional)

julia moskin. spicy peanut stew with ginger and tomato. new york times. 24 january 2007. accessed 12 september 2017.

1 in a colander, toss eggplant with 1 tsp salt and set aside for 30 minutes. dry off with paper towels.
2 in a small bowl, combine cumin, coriander, turmeric, and cayenne; set aside.
3 in a large pot, heat 3 tbsp oil over medium-high heat. add shallots and fry, stirring often, until soft, crisp, and caramelized, ~10 minutes. using a slotted spoon, transfer shallots to a large bowl, leaving oil in pot. raise heat to high and add eggplant. cook, stirring often, until lightly browned and just tender, ~10 minutes. transfer to bowl with shallots.
4 add remaining 1 tbsp oil to pot and heat over medium-high heat. add ginger and chilies then cook, stirring for 30 seconds. add spices and cook, stirring, for another 30 seconds. add onion and cook, stirring to scrape up any browned bits, until softened and translucent, ~5 minutes. add tomato paste and cook, stirring, ~1 minute.
5 add diced tomatoes, vegetable stock, eggplants, shallots, and sprinkling of salt. bring to a boil and cook for 5 minutes. place peanut butter in a medium bowl, add 1-2 ladlefuls of hot soup and stir until emulsified, then pour mixture back into soup.
6 reduce heat to a simmer, add zucchini, cover, and cook for 10-15 minutes, until vegetables are tender. turn off heat and stir in lemon juice and chopped cilantro. let cool slightly and taste; add salt if necessary.
7 serve with rice, garnished with cilantro leaves and chopped peanuts.
*ingredients are flexible – juice of 1/2 a lime works well if you don’t have lemons; you can also add sweet potatoes (pan-fry with eggplant), collard greens/kale (add with diced tomatoes and vegetable stock), and/or chicken (1/2 chicken breast added after onions are softened and cooked for 3-4 additional minutes).

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rice crispy treats

rice crispy treat 1

a few years ago, I studied abroad in beijing. I had heard about the air quality and imagined that it would look something like los angeles, but the reality, a greyish-yellow fog that often obscured buildings across the street, was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. within days, I had developed a hacking cough that made it nearly impossible to speak in full sentences, a condition that ex-pats termed the “beijing cough”. 

a few weeks later, my cough had finally disappeared and my abroad program held a food preparation contest judged by our chinese professors. my friend and I, both huge dessert fiends, wanted to do something sweet, but in the hot and humid beijing climate, we did not want to use too much heat. we settled on rice krispie treats, trekking to a large carrefour to find marshmallows and rice krispie cereal, then melting it all together in a giant pot we borrowed from a chinese student. we actually ended up winning the contest because our chinese professors had never seen rice krispie treats before and thought they were really exotic and creative!

the contest took place on one of the few sunny days of that summer. the sky was a clear cloudless blue. the night before, a thunderstorm had hit with raindrops so huge, they hurt when they hit my bare skin. we half-joked that the government could control the weather, could create a rainstorm so ferocious that it washed away all the pollution. whether it was true or not, the day after  a thunderstorm in beijing was always clear and blue.

I cannot even remember what my friend and I won – it was probably some coupons to a local bubble tea store. but I do remember eating warm watermelon in the sweltering heat, happy to be able to see across the street for the first time in weeks and feeling like I could breathe again.

in the wake of dangerously high levels of air pollution that have made the city almost unlivable, beijing has issued its first red alert for the first time. and for the first time, the chinese government has put environmental concerns before its emphasis on rapid economic growth through industrialization and signed on to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

and here in the northeast, global warming has now made it possible to frolic on a beach in december, then head into the city for some outdoor ice skating (because apparently we still are willing to waste energy for “winter traditions”). so save some energy and add these (super-legitimate chinese teacher’s) award-winning, no-bake rice crispy treats into your holiday sweets repertoire. 

rice crispie

makes one 8•8in pan

1/4 lb (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 tbsp vanilla paste
1 10-oz bag marshmallows
heaping 1/4 tsp kosher salt
6 cups rice krispie cereal

deb perelman. salted brown butter crispy treats. smitten kitchen. 2 nov 2011. accessed 22 dec 2015.

1 grease an 8×8-in square pan.
2 in a large pot, melt butter over medium-low heat. using a silicone spatula, stir frequently until it turns brown and begins to smell nutty. immediately turn off the heat and mix in the vanilla paste.
3 stir in the marshmallows until smooth. if they are not completely melted, stir over low heat until completely smooth. add salt and stir until well-combined.
4 remove pot from stove and stir in rice krispie cereal. using spatula, quickly press into prepared pan.
5 let cool completely (~1 hr), cut into squares, and serve.

vegan momofuku milk bar funfetti cake

vegan funfetti 2

well that name’s a mouthful.

anyways, some backstory. the other day, a friend sent me a picture of christina tosi’s visually arresting funfetti cake. she’s one of the most creative bakers out there – it’s a treat to read through her recipes and marvel at the playful presentation of her desserts.

I actually took on the milk bar funfetti cake years ago. thankfully no pictures survive. my sister had requested it, and even though at that point the only cake products I’d made were muffins and brownies, I took on tosi’s recipe. it began to feel like the inception of cake recipe – layers upon layers of preparation of different components, then the assembly of said components into one round 6-inch cake.

first of all, man, does tosi have a sweet tooth. anyone who knows me (even if they’ve known me for only one day) can attest that I’m an unabashed sweets fiend, but even I have a limit to how much saccharine sweetness I can handle. the icing was fine, but the cake itself was sweet to the point that we all had two bites and just couldn’t take any more. I had also tried to assemble the cake without the acetate, and even though my cake layers were quite squat, the cake still managed to sag to one side. if I remember correctly, I also dumped too much liquid into the icing, so by the end of the meal, the icing had started to squelch out into a sad moat around the cake. so that was the last time in a looooong time that I tried to make a layer cake.

then earlier this year that I attempted a tosi-inspired cake again. and it actually won an office competition! (and made some enemies – success!) when my friend sent me that funfetti picture, I figured it was time to take on a real tosi recipe.

except then I didn’t. I veganified it so all my friends could enjoy it, and would you believe me if I said you really can’t tell it’s vegan? it’s just a really awesome, intensely vanilla cake filled with sugary pops of color. tosi recommends clear vanilla extract, which results in a whiter cake and a true boxed mix flavor, but I just love the savory undertones of vanilla beans. also, be careful with the sprinkles, I recently learned that some sprinkles use confectioner’s glaze, which is apparently the excrement of some kind of beetle?! (sorry if I just ruined your appetite…but hey, at least this cake is excrement-free!)

p.s. if you’re wondering, I’ve heard mccormick makes some vegan sprinkles, but I had no luck at my supermarket. I found my generic brand confectioner’s glaze-free sprinkles at a value store.

vegan funfetti
makes one 6-inch, 3-layer cake

cake
360g almond milk + 2 tsp apple cider vinegar
210g sugar
68g vegetable oil
18g vanilla paste
250g all-purpose flour
27g cornstarch
3/4 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
53g + 1 tbsp rainbow sprinkles
vanilla frosting
153g vegan butter (I used earth balance)
102g vegetable shortening
285-330g powdered sugar, sifted
13g vanilla paste
2 tbsp almond milk
cake crumbs
100g sugar
25g light brown sugar
90g cake flour
2g baking powder
2g kosher salt
20g rainbow sprinkles
40g vegetable oil
9g vanilla paste
milk soak
27g almond milk + 2g vanilla extract

christina tosi. momofuku milk bar. new york: clarkson potter, 2011.
isa chandra moskowitz. vegan cupcakes take over the world: 75 dairy-free recipes for cupcakes that rule. new york: da capo press, 2006.

cake|1 mix together the almond milk and apple cider vinegar and let sit for at least 5 minutes. grease three 6-inch cake pans and line with parchment paper. preheat oven to 350ºF.
2 in the bowl of a stand mixer with the whisk attachment, beat together sugar, oil, and vanilla paste until frothy.
3 in a medium bowl, sift together flour, cornstarch, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. using a spatula, gently fold the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients until just combined, then gently mix 2/3 cup sprinkles in to the batter.
4 pour into the cake pans (~330g/pan), tap on the counter to level the batter, then bake for 22-25 minutes, until the tops are springy. let cool in pans for another 15 minutes, then invert onto wire racks to cool.
frosting|1 in the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, beat together butter and shortening for 2-3 minutes, until light and creamy.
2 add powdered sugar and beat on low to incorporate, then beat on medium-high for 2 minutes. add vanilla paste and beat for another minute until well-combined.
crumbs|1 preheat oven to 300ºF.
2 in a small mixing bowl, combine sugars, flour, baking powder, salt, and sprinkles. using a fork, stir ingredients until well-combined.
3 add oil and vanilla and mix again with the fork until the mixture forms clusters.
4 pour crumb mixture onto a baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes. let cool completely before using.
milk soak|1 combine almond milk and vanilla. set aside.
assembly|1 if cakes are domed, level each layer. place the 2nd best-looking layer on the bottom and brush with the cake soak. dollop some icing on top, then spread almost to the edges. scatter some birthday crumbs on top, then press into the icing (with the back of your hand or a knife). spread some more icing over the top of the crumbs.
2 place the worst-looking layer on top, brush with cake soak, dollop icing on top, scatter crumbs, press them into the icing, and spread on more icing.
3 place the remaining cake layer on top. cover the top with icing, then crumb coat the cake with the remaining icing. press the remaining birthday crumbs into the top of the cake.
4 transfer the cake to the freezer and freeze for at least 12 hours to set the cake. at least 3 hours before serving, pull the sheet pan out of the freezer and defrost in the fridge.

pita bread

pita 1

over the years, I have attempted bread a few times, from very easy pita recipes to intensive brioche-based babkas. so much flour, so much yeast carnage, so many tears.

all of a sudden, after five years of sad pizza crusts (yeah, I couldn’t even make a good pizza crust) and tasteless dense bread loaves, I had a yeast breakthrough. after finally producing an edible loaf of bread (and then a few more to assure myself the first wasn’t a fluke), I returned to the pita. how does one achieve a fluffy, risen pita, yet retain the characteristic pocket of air inside? the recipes I tried had the pocket, but not fluffy texture inside the pita shell that I loved.

then michael solomonov published his long-awaited zahav: a world of israeli cooking. these days, a cookbook is more than a compendium of recipes – it serves as a culinary memoir for the chef. in zahav, solomonov relates with raw honesty how personal tragedy catalyzed his reconnection with israel, and from there, how his desire to bring israeli culinary experiences to america culminated in zahav, located in philadelphia, pairing relatable writing with accessible and (so far) delicious recipes.

there are incidences of cultural appropriation, most glaringly “israeli salad,” a salad with arab origins which solomonov admits is “technically a misnomer,” but persists in identifying as israeli. however, zahav is overall a worthy addition to the culinary world, where politics take the back burner to solomonov’s obvious talent as a chef. the book is a heartfelt introduction of middle eastern (or in solomonov’s words, israeli) food to the uninitiated, and a love letter to solomonov’s family and friends who supported him and to the food that sustained him through times of difficulty. another point of recommendation: his pita bread recipe is the one I’ve been searching for, the neo of pita breads.

hm. maybe finding perfect pita wasn’t such a good idea. two pitas in and I’ve lost all self-control. help!


pita 2
makes 8-12 pitas

2 1/2 tsp active dry yeast
2 tsp sugar
2 cups (250g) all-purpose flour
scant 2 cups (250g) bread flour
1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
2 tbsp olive oil

michael solomonov and steven cook. zahav: a world of israeli cooking. new york: houghton mifflin harcourt, 2015.

1 mix together 1/2 cup water, yeast, and sugar in a small bowl. let stand until foamy, ~5 minutes.
2 combine the flours and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer with the dough hook attachment. mix on low speed until blended. add the yeast mixture, another 1/2 cup water, and oil and mix on low until the dough forms a ball that pulls clear of the sides and bottom of the bowl. (if the mixture doesn’t form a ball after a minute, add a tbsp of water.)
3 the moment the dough starts to pull clear, add another 1/2 cup water and continue mixing until incorporated. the dough should look quite wet and feel sticky when slapped with a clean hand, but should not stick. (if it sticks, add more flour, 1/2 tbsp at a time.)
4 cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature until doubled in size, ~1 hour. (you could also let it rise in the fridge overnight.)
5 preheat to 480ºF convection (500º conventional) and place a baking stone or inverted baking sheet on a rack in the oven to preheat as well.
6 roll the dough into 8-12 balls the size of baseballs (3-in diameter). cover with a cloth and let rise until they are the size of softballs (3.7-in diameter).
7 roll each dough ball to 1/4-in thickness, the size of a hockey puck (3-in diameter) with a floured rolling pin on a floured work surface. place 2-3 at a time on the preheated baking sheet and bake until puffed and cooked through, ~3 minutes. remove with tongs, serve immediately, or let cool.

hummus

hummus1

this past weekend, spring finally arrived. even though the calendar claims spring has been here since march 20th, I couldn’t quite believe it until the first sunshine-flooded 65ºF day. (then because spring is such a tease, of course the next day was grey and rainy and so windy, it looked like everyone on the street was wearing ombre-dyed pants and the sidewalks became a graveyard of mangled umbrellas.)

the other sign of spring has been the sudden burst of spring blooms (and their little pollen bombs), the color-drained winter landscape suddenly awash with verdant green grass and trees thick with pastel flowers. waking up to color (and to sunlight!) truly makes the winter, with its ice-slicked roads and bone-shredding winds, seem like a best-forgotten nightmare.

tomato hummus diptych1

a while back, I planted some tomato seeds. they sat, patiently incubating in the weak winter sunlight, hiding so long that I had given up hope they would ever appear. then one morning, I woke up to little green sprouts reaching for the early light. even though the temperature has dropped again, the sunlight is stronger and the greenery outside somehow makes 45ºF warmer than it felt in the winter.

today was such a beautiful day, I made some celebratory hummus and was taken aback by the vibrancy of the paprika, the tart tang of the lemon juice in a hummus recipe that I have made many times before and that I swear tasted somehow duller in the winter. here’s to running through meadows and along creeks, to the softness of a spring bud, to the birdcalls like an alarm clock at 4am (yes! I’ve even missed the annoying birds! …we’ll see how long that lasts.) here’s to just being alive and surrounded by life – happy spring!!

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makes 6 servings

1 15oz can chickpeas
1/2 cup light tahini paste
2 tbsp fresh-squeezed lemon juice
2 cloves garlic
3/4 tsp salt (+ more to taste)
1/2 cup leftover chickpea juice
1 tsp paprika (optional)
olive oil, za’atar, cumin, sesame seeds, etc. for garnish

yotam ottolenghi and sami tamimi. jerusalem: a cookbook. new york: ten speed press, 2012.

1 peel the skins off of the chickpeas. discard skin.
2 in food processor (or a very good blender) process chickpeas until you have a powdery, clumpy paste. with the machine running, add tahini paste, lemon juice, garlic, and salt. slowly drizzle in leftover chickpea juice and allow to mix for 5 minutes, until you get a smooth and creamy paste.
3 transfer hummus to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rest for at least 30 minutes. refrigerate until needed.