Ingredient TM_IN_CHILE_FI_001

Halfway into my first real Midwestern winter, it’s taking some creativity to figure out how to do warm, comforting meals night after night without everything tasting too rich, hefty and well, boring. There are only so many soups I can blend without craving something chunky and textured, and don’t ask me to make yet another delicious but depressingly dull roast.

Enter the dried chile pepper. Most commonly known for their starring roles in salsas and sauces, dried chiles are a great way to bring heat, complexity and warmth to any dish, without the weight of roasted veggies and thick stews.

Living and cooking in Texas for the past eight years, I generally took the nuances of many varieties of chile pepper for granted. Since moving up north, I’ve noticed that many menus in the Midwest tend to lump all kinds of dried peppers into one generic “chile pepper” category. Yet each kind of pepper has a unique personality, and once you become adept at incorporating them into your meals at home, it’s easy to appreciate the subtle nuances between the guajillo, pasilla, chipotle or ancho.
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Booze TM_DR_NONEW_FI_002

Among the worst instincts known to man is that of creation. Though creativity as utility or inspiration may well be a virtue, it is the incessant need of man to create infinite variations that steers away from the better practice of purposeful or thoughtful endeavor and heads straight over a jagged little cliff scattered with the wreckage of shallow, knee-jerk reactions coupled with unfulfilling, poor simulacra. And very, very bad cocktails.

But this should come as a surprise to no one, that the world is filled with bad art. Most of it we can tolerate or ignore but the problem is really not one of kind but one of volume, how steady a stream and how persistent an urge it becomes once something reaches the level of genuine fashion or trend. With cocktails in 2012, it became a waterfall. MORE

Ingredient TM_IN_PORTOB_FI_001

It’s not exactly groundbreaking to use mushrooms as a meat substitute. By now, most restaurants offer vegetarian options that include mushrooms in place of prized proteins — like Shake Shack’s ‘Shroom Burger, made of a deep-fried portobello cap fully stuffed with cheese. But it’s rare to see them being used creatively. And I think it’s about time for a mushroom transformation.

You most often see portobellos being used as a meat replacer, and for good reason: these oversized mushrooms are thick and meaty. But simply swapping out a piece of meat for a portobello cap can hardly be called creative. And filling them with cheese and deep-frying them is just repulsive. The portobello deserves more than to be grilled, buried in a dish, topped on some other cut of meat, or stuck between two buns. We should be giving them as much attention as we do meat, not just as a lackluster swap-out. So why not slowly braise a mushroom? Or roast a mushroom? You can even marinate them like you would a steak. MORE

Questionable Tastes TM_QT_CARBON_AP_010_1

“It’s not about a recipe,” said chef Riccardo De Pra. “It’s about a concept.” He was talking about spaghetti alla carbonara, the humble bachelor’s dish of pasta, eggs, and bacon that he serves “deconstructed” at his Michelin-starred restaurant, Dolada, in the foothills of the Alps, overlooking the serene Lago di Santa Croce. On the last evening of a very strange trip, I ate De Pra’s deconstructed spaghetti alla carbonara, paired with a profound Piemontese white wine made from an ancient grape called timorasso that had been rescued from near-extinction, and I wondered seriously if I would ever find my way home.

I’d been stranded in Italy for several days. This was in the spring of 2010, when an Icelandic volcano with the unpronounceable name of Eyjafjallajokull erupted, spewing tons of ash and causing havoc for air travel. Many, at the time, called Eyjafjallajokull the worst disruption in the history of transportation. My trip was supposed to be a four-day jaunt to visit wineries in the Veneto, focusing on Prosecco, Soave, and Valpolicella. The plan: jet in; visit a dozen wineries in four days; jet out; return home; write article. Like millions of others during that shutdown of European airspace, I hadn’t factored a volcano into my plans. So the airline canceled my Sunday morning flight from Venice, with the earliest possibility of return on Thursday. MORE

DIY TM_DY_ESPANO_FI_001

“Un pincho de tortilla y un café con leche, por favor.”

It was an almost-daily order. The café near my little casa in Madrid had the best tortilla española around. And with a cup of espresso with milk, I was a happy girl. My options at such cafés were usually limited because I was a vegetarian. I had underestimated how difficult studying abroad in meat-loving Spain would be. I usually had two possibilities: tortilla española and gazpacho. As winter was approaching in my time in Madrid, the chilled gazpacho was not usually served, so tortilla was my go-to dish. MORE

Baking TM_BK_HUNCHOC_AP_002

Humans are the only creatures who tell stories, and for many of us, we tell stories with the food we make and share. Rigó Jancsi, otherwise known as Hungarian chocolate cake, is a dessert that tells a beautiful story of late 19th century romance, passion, and adventure. But it also tells another story for me, personally — of my Grandma Betty, her baking, and the love of an artform she passed on to me.

In 1896, violinist and Hungarian gypsy Rigó Jancsi performed in a Parisian restaurant, where Prince Joseph de Caraman Chimay and his wife Clara Ward, the Princess de Caraman Chimay were dining. Story has it that Clara was seduced by the talented violinist, fell in love, and left the Belgian prince to be with him. Some sources claim the dessert is named after Rigó Jancsi because he worked with a pastry chef to create it to surprise Clara, while others state that the pastry chef named the cake after the violinist following his purchase of it for Clara.

Less than 40 years later, Betty Ward, née Elizabet Hamvas, traveled with her family from Hungary to the U.S. in 1930 at the age of six. And while I don’t remember growing up with many traditions from her home country, or even learning the story of the debonair Hungarian violinist until I was in my late twenties, I will never forget her Hungarian chocolate cake. MORE

Tea TM_DY_CHAI_AP_001

Of all the Madrid cafes that I could have been standing in, I somehow ended up at Starbucks.

Study abroad kept me away from home for a few months, and I was craving familiarity in the form of a warm, comforting drink. I wanted chai, the Indian take on tea. Masala chai is a daily Indian ritual – one cup in the morning and one following the afternoon nap. This variation on black tea is enhanced by spices and sometimes ginger. At first sip, the masala provides a kick that is accompanied by a rich black tea flavor. It has become comfortably settled in Indian culture, an inherent routine that simply exists without question. And so, because my parents drank chai twice daily, it had been incorporated into my routine back home in the States.
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Baking TM_BK_TRAVEL_FI_001

I know what it’s like to carry three dozen cupcakes on mass transit, and what happens when you pack a homemade pie into a carry-on bag for a multiple-hour bus trip. I’ll cut the suspense and tell you now: Neither story ends in catastrophe, but they surely were recipes for disaster.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. As bakers across the country dust off their rolling pins with holiday travel less than a week away, it’s possible to bake a dessert that makes it safely onto the table with proper planning and the right recipe. MORE

Ingredient TM_IN_RUTAB_FI_001

The Rutabaga. It sounds like the name of a retro car, like a cross between a Studebaker and a Winnebago. It might just be me, but this inconspicuous root vegetable is puzzling, and frankly, doesn’t look any more appealing than a Studebaker-Winnebago hybrid would. A waxy turnip-like nub that’s slightly purple-brown in color, the only thing that caught my eye about the humble vegetable was its price – on sale for 99 cents per pound. I loaded up my grocery basket with rutabagas.

Soon, I found myself in a conundrum, as I often do. As a thrifty shopper, my budget decides what I pick up in the grocery store, which usually includes in-season produce that, sometimes, is unrecognizable to me. Which is why I was staring at three pounds of rutabagas in my kitchen without the slightest clue what to do with them. I had never even eaten a rutabaga before, let alone cooked one. Are you supposed to peel it? Which side is the top? Clearly, I needed help. So I began researching recipes online, trying to find something to do with this week’s sale item.
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Baking TM_BK_SPICEC_AP_004

I was eight years old when I attempted to make spice cookies for the first time. I remember the day vividly. A snowy December day when my sister, brother, and I were all on vacation from school, stuck at home while our parents were at work. I started getting restless from watching Christmas movies all morning when I decided that I would bake. With no parental supervision, it was the perfect time to have the kitchen all to myself and get the mess cleaned before anyone returned home. With the kitchen left unguarded, I felt confident in trying a recipe from scratch.

But I was only a young girl. Still used to opening a box and adding eggs or oil and thinking I baked a masterpiece. Baking spice cookies was one of the times that I ventured away from the comforts of Betty Crocker or Duncan Hines and started from scratch. I dug through a drawer to pull out my mother’s recipe books. I sat on the floor, thumbing page after page trying to find a cookie recipe that interested me. Couldn’t do chocolate chip — I knew we didn’t have the chips. Oatmeal raisin was never my cookie of choice. But that’s when I came across spice cookies. That seemed interesting and different! I got up off the floor and started to get out the mixing bowl. MORE

Kitchen Hacks

The Rice Is Right

One cheap appliance that can practically make dinner by itself.

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Right after I graduated college in 2010, I joined a yearlong nonprofit fellowship program. Along with my public service job I got a spot in one of the organization’s group houses, each planted in a “vibrant” (euphemism much?) Philly neighborhood. There were vermin, there were muggings. But at least there was a kitchen. After four years of cafeteria food and oven-less dorms, I would finally have the chance to cook.

My five new housemates and I decided that we’d sit down for group dinners twice a week to bond and talk shop. We would pair up and take turns cooking. I pictured myself rambling through West Philly’s farmers’ markets like a young, urban Julia Child, searching for ingredients and then whipping them up into a feast for my new best friends, armed with my one cookbook: How To Boil Water. But that is not what went down.

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Thanksgiving TM_TG_SIDES_FI_002

As that fateful Thursday in November approaches, a seemingly endless shopping list runs through the mind of the cooks braving the task of cooking the Thanksgiving meal. Turkey? Check. Dinner rolls? Check. Potatoes? Check. Veggies? Check. Boxed stuffing, canned soup, canned cranberry sauce? Not for me.

For a holiday built around a soulful home-cooked feast, there sure are a lot of ingredients that come straight from a can or box. Now I understand for some who are feeding a family of 60 that cooking from scratch is an act of valor. But my family was never an overly large crowd, and even now as more of us get older, move away, have families of our own, the group is getting even smaller. So with this year’s smaller table, instead of sticking to the canned ingredients, we’ll be doing Thanksgiving sans the cans. MORE

Kitchen Hacks TM_KH_MUFFIN_FI_001

I hope the giddiness I get from not following the rules anymore never fades as I go further into adulthood.

For example, I slept perpendicular-ly on the bed last night. Why? (Well, partially because I’m pretty short). BECAUSE I CAN. Deal with it.

This may be most exciting with food choices. Want to have Nutella for (not with) lunch? You’re allowed. And even if your idiosyncratic cravings don’t flout nutritional wisdom, it’s liberating just to know that nobody’s watching what you do anymore. (Things I have eaten as meals in the past month include: a chicken finger wrapped in a slice of plastic American cheese; a tub of hummus; a batch of miniature donuts; a carrot; wine; a jar of sun-dried tomatoes I got free from work; and a bag of popcorn drizzled with hot sauce.) Again, deal with it. MORE

The Larder TM_TL_CANDY_FI_001

My mom grew up in the fifties and sixties, in one of those idyllic suburban neighborhoods where kids walked to school unsupervised and played outside in the afternoons until the streetlights came on.

There was no better day of the year in her community than October 31. The streets would fill with miniature hobos, ghosts and witches, all clutching brown paper shopping bags to hold their treats, warm winter coats concealing most of their costumes.

These were the days before candy companies got wise and started producing snack and “fun” sized candy bars and long before homemade treats were deemed dangerous. This meant that my mom’s grocery sack ended up filled with full-sized Snickers and Chunky bars, freshly baked gingerbread men from Mrs. Rath and Mr. Brown’s famous popcorn balls. MORE