Best ever “Mexican” layer dip

Tonight I came home even more starved than usual. There were several dinner options in the fridge, but I was so hungry that nothing sounded good. I wasn’t in the mood for black bean burgers. Pasta would be okay, but it would just create more leftovers. More leftovers is the very last thing I need, as my fridge is already filled with several ready-made foods that I’ve cooked or taken from the freezer in the past week.

I find it interesting that, so far, my biggest challenge in learning to live on my own is trying to keep up with my cooking. Before my ex moved out, I thought about what it would be like, of course. I worried about having to take out the garbage and clean the litter box. Not to mention the specter of crushing loneliness. But no. My biggest problem, at least so far, has been a struggle to figure out what to do with all the extra food. And I should not be surprised. My life has always revolved around food.

Actually, I suppose my love affair with food, and cooking, is the reason why I’m not being crushed by loneliness. Not that I don’t have days. I do. And I’m certain I’d be lost without yoga and my large network of loving friends and family. Yet, as my life is now, today, my most consistent, difficult-to-figure-out struggle is around meals, primarily dinner. At least on the nights, like tonight, when I don’t have something planned out in advance. And that’s incredibly cool. Because it means that even in the midst of what is a fairly difficult period, I am constantly nourishing myself with food that I made, with love.

Tonight, when I got home and looked in the fridge, the most tempting option was the refried beans leftover from the other night (, when I made burritos. But I wasn’t in the mood for burritos again so soon. And refried beans alone seemed somehow depressing. Then, as I stood before the open fridge, inspiration struck–Mexican layer dip! It would not be a traditional dinner, true, but, well, one of the advantages of cooking for one is that you don’t have to please anyone other than yourself. So cool. So fun. And quick! This dish, which is actually reasonably healthy–avocado is a superfood, after all (, came together in less than 10 minutes.

The following recipe filled a small casserole dish, half of which made for a rather filling single portion. I recommend doubling or quadrupling if you’re making this for a party.

1/2 c. cold refried beans (the temperature will help keep the other ingredients from mixing into the beans as you spread)
1/4 c. prepared salsa (I used green tomatillo salsa, because that’s what I had, but in the past I’ve used red salsa. Either will be good.)
1 ripe avocado, mashed with 1 T. fresh lime juice
1/4 c. Greek yogurt or sour cream (or Tofutti)
1/2 ripe tomato, chopped, optional (I didn’t use any tomato tonight because I didn’t have any. The dip turned out fine without but I think it’s better with)
1 – 2 T. chopped, canned black olives (I tried this once using Kalamata olives from the olive bar. Not as good.)
1/2 c. grated pepperjack cheese

Mix the salsa into the beans. Salt to taste and spread the beans over the bottom of a shallow bowl, small casserole dish, or a serving dish with 2″ sides. Spread the avocado over the beans and then spread the yogurt over the avocado. Don’t worry if they mix together a little bit. Sprinkle the chopped tomato (if using) and black olives over the yogurt and then top with cheese. You can cover and refrigerate at this point or serve immediately, with tortilla chips.

Refried beans

Last night, I was on the el, starving and trying to figure out what to have for dinner after a long day. I wanted Thai food. But that would have delayed getting home and required additional time outside, in the cold, as I would have had to get out at a different stop.  And it would have required spending money unnecessarily, which I’m trying not to do.

So, no Thai. What, though? A burrito from the awesome little Mexican/Korean place around the corner? No. Same problems. Yet this sparked a thought–I had a container of cooked pinto beans in the fridge from my freezer reorganization/voyage of discovery a few days ago. Yay! This meant I could come home and have dinner within 15 minutes. Which I did. Bean burritos. (Or maybe they’re actually soft tacos? I’m not sure. No matter what you call them, though, they’re delicious. And fast.)

This recipe is based on one I found several years ago, on Stephanie O’Dea’s blog, A Year of Slow Cooking, when I got really into my crock pot/slow cooker. If you  don’t know this blog already, I highly recommend checking it out. It’s great. As the title suggests, the blog originated from a plan to use the slow cooker every day, for a year. As you can imagine, there’s a lot of great information and many, many good recipes.

Here’s the link to Stephanie’s refried beans recipe (, which you may prefer to mine. I’ve adapted my version because I found the original a bit heavy on onion and cumin and lacking in heat. Here’s the recipe.

1 lb. dried pinto beans
1 onion, skin removed, halved, core intact
10 cloves garlic
1 t. cumin
dried chilies to taste (I generally use about 7)
thumb-sized piece of kombu

1. Pick through the beans to remove any that are broken or discolored, as well as any pebbles or other debris. Rinse and place in the insert of your slow cooker. Add cold water to cover the beans by 2 inches. Then add the remaining ingredients. Cover and cook on low for 10 hours.

2. When the beans are done, remove the onion and kombu. I usually leave the garlic, which will have become sweet and mild after the long cooking. It’s also fine to have a few stray pieces of onion. I also leave the chilies, but if you’re nervous about the heat, take those out as well. Now add salt. I think you probably want to end up with about a tablespoon, but it’s best to go slow.  I have a tendency to go overboard. Yet this does require quite a bit of salt.

3. If you have time, allow the beans to cool in the salted cooking liquid, as that will permit the salt to penetrate the center of the beans. Once they’re cool, I generally divide most of the beans into containers for the freezer, making sure the beans are fully immersed in liquid.

4. When you’re ready to eat, transfer the cooked beans to a bowl. Depending on appetites, use about one cup of beans, with some cooking liquid, per person. Mash the beans with a potato masher or, for a very smooth consistency, you can use an immersion blender. Although at this point they are not actually refried, this is where I generally stop cooking. But if you like, heat 1-2 tablespoons of butter or olive oil in a skillet and saute the beans for a few minutes, stirring, until glossy.

Serve with warm tortillas, grated cheese (I like pepperjack), sliced avocado, salsa, chopped cilantro, and anything else you like. Such as Greek yogurt. Which, let’s face it, makes everything better.


Vegetable stew with wheatberries and cranberry beans

This dish is actually two separate recipes, both of which are all-day, long cooking kinda foods. I posted the cranberry bean recipe on January 3, when I made the beans that became part of this dish. It makes a large batch, so I simply froze some for later.

The vegetable stew component, which I made yesterday, is my adaptation of a recipe that appears in Terry Walters’ Clean Food ( as “Stovetop Barley with Sweet Vegetables.” I switched it up by using wheatberries instead of barley and soy sauce instead of tamari. And I added the beans. So, really, this is a completely different recipe. I can’t vouch for the original, as I’ve never tried it, but this version is very good. If you make it, be aware that this is a LOT of food, especially with the beans. I’m afraid to freeze it, as I fear the vegetables would turn to mush, but I may try this time. Also, I haven’t yet tried, but I suspect this recipe would work in the crock pot…

4 cups cooked cranberry beans with garlic, sage, and olive oil (

1 c. wheatberries
1/2 c. brown rice (I use basmati, but I don’t think it matters)
1 thumb-sized piece kombu
2 T dark soy sauce or tamari
4-1/2 c. water
1 onion, chopped
3 carrots, chopped
1 rutabaga, peeled and cubed
12 Brussels sprouts, halved
1 sm. fennel bulb, halved, cored, and sliced

1. Soak wheatberries and rice together for 1 hour with water to cover. Rinse and drain, and place in a large pot or Dutch oven. Add kombu, soy sauce or tamari, and water. Cover and bring to a boil.

2. When the grains begin to boil, add the vegetables in the order listed. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer for 2 to 2-1/2 hours. Remove from the heat and stir in beans.

Saying “Yes”

This post is about beans. Really, it is. Just not about cooking beans, or eating them. Instead it’s about the dream aspect. Except, as an aside, I did eat some beans last night, at Ed’s Potsticker House, where they’re served in small bowls, waiting on the table when you first arrive, a snack. Unfortunately, though, I can’t tell you what those beans, which were glazed with some deliciousness, tasted like. Starving, talking to the people around me, I reached for what I thought was a piece of lotus root. I should have looked more carefully. What I saw was not lotus root. It was star anise. The spice. Which I realized only when I actually bit into and chewed it. My first bite therefore kind’ve overpowered the subtle flavors of, well, everything else. Not smart. But funny. And awesome.

The fact that I actually bit into the star anise in a mistaken belief that it was food is awesome because it was so completely ridiculous. The reason I’m writing about it, however, is to celebrate my recognition and appreciation of the ridiculousness in the moment.

What does all of this have to do with beans, you ask? Or saying “Yes”? Everything.

Six months ago, had I mistaken the star anise for food and therefore temporarily destroyed my sense of taste just before what was expected to be a marvelous feast with friends, an event that I’d been looking forward to for days, I would have beaten myself up, embarrassed and angry and sad. I would also have recognized the humor, of course, but it would have been tainted. Last night, however, I didn’t have to sort through any complicated barriers to get to enjoyment.

The difference, I believe, is that six months ago a dear friend and I started taking improv classes. Everyone who knew me well was shocked, as I was universally considered to be, as one person put it, the very last person on earth one could imagine taking–or doing–improv. I’m a planner. An analyzer. An over thinker. I make lists and ponder and agonize, plotting out my life years in advance in a series of short and long term goals. Of course few if any of these plans have ever worked out exactly as anticipated, but that does not stop me from trying.

My original plan for improv was to take a single class, both as a diversion from grief over my failed marriage and also as a tool to overcome my terror of oral argument. I had no interest in performing. In fact, the thought was absolutely horrifying. But at the time I was in the process of drafting a cert petition that actually had a chance of being granted, and figured that I needed to do whatever I could to prepare myself for a possible appearance in front of Justice Scalia.

To some extent, the plan worked. I discovered a whole new world within Chicago, one that had nothing whatsoever to do with the life I led with my then-husband. Diversion. And, while my cert petition was denied and therefore I don’t have to worry about arguing in front of the U.S. Supreme Court anytime soon (or, probably, ever), I have grown more comfortable with oral argument. I’m no longer so afraid.

The part of the plan that didn’t work, or, rather, worked out much differently than what I expected, was that improv changed my life.

When I started Level A, I had been practicing yoga for about 15 years. The entire point of yoga as I understand it is to stop thinking, to be in what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has called “Flow.” ( In all my years of yoga I’ve rarely experienced Flow. Yet I found it in my first night of improv. And since then I’ve found myself connecting more deeply in my yoga practice.

This past week was the first class of Level D, my fourth term of improv. I don’t know whether I’ll keep going after this, whether I have any desire to perform. The idea still terrifies me. Yet this past week also reminded me of how short life is. Two people I know, one a colleague, one a very close friend of several of my close friends, died. Neither reached the age of 50. Life is short. It must be lived, fear and all. Which is why I signed up for a free workshop tonight,  with Sirens, an all-female improv group. ( After the workshop, we, the students, will open for Sirens. Eeeeeek! I’m petrified. But I’m saying yes.

I can’t claim to have found flow in every improv class. In fact, much of the time I’ve been actively miserable. It’s terrifying to be so exposed, doing and saying things without time to think. Yet I keep going. Because I feel myself growing and stretching, learning that the more I risk failure, the greater the reward. Which brings me to my point. I decided to write about this today after reading an article ( about Tina Fey’s secret to success: say “Yes.”

“There are limits of reason to this idea of saying yes to everything, but when I meet someone whose first instinct is ‘No, how can we do that? That doesn’t seem possible,’ I’m always kind of taken aback. Almost anyone would say, ‘It’s Friday at two in the morning. We don’t have an opening political sketch. We can’t do it.’ Yeah, of course you can. There’s no choice. And even if you abandon one idea for another one, saying yes allows you to move forward.”

The article resonated with me because, like Tina Fey, learning to say “yes” has changed my life, has made me less afraid to move forward even when I have absolutely no idea of where I’m going. I still plan, because that’s what I do. But I now do so without rigidity, knowing (or at least trying to remember) that I can’t control the outcome, that things may not turn out as anticipated.

As I wrote in my very first post, on January 1, “[t]his is the year I’m embracing the possibility of failure, trying new things, overcoming my fear of change.” So I started this blog. Which is pretty cool. I don’t know whether it will actually result in a cookbook, as per my plan. But regardless of what happens, I’m enjoying the process. Because, really, that’s what it’s all about.

Black bean cheeseburgers with mango salsa

Last night, in a fit of chickpea-related frustration, I decided to go through and organize my freezer. Where I found a treasure trove of beans, including black ones, that I had cooked in weeks past, frozen for later use, and promptly forgotten. My first thought was that I really need to come up with a better system. But I quickly moved on, delighting in the fact that I could cook something other than chickpeas today. I immediately thought of this wonderful recipe, which I discovered last summer. It’s so good! So easy! It also freezes perfectly, which is a bonus for people like me, who cook in large batches in order to have quick homemade meals later. And, let’s face it. Because I like food better when I get to share it with my people. So I always make too much. On purpose.

If you’re pro-grain, which until this morning I believed myself to be, this recipe is also a nice way to sneak some oats into your diet. In researching for this post I came across another blog (, which suggests grains actually are not all that great for everyone. I had no idea. Nutrition is so confusing! Sigh. I eat grains all the time. As far as I know they seem to agree with me just fine. But I’ll definitely think more on this topic. Later. For now, I’m going to make these burgers. For research. After I eat them, during which time I’ll undoubtedly say yum at least once, I’ll pay special attention to how they make me feel.

The original recipe, from Fine Cooking (, treats these as traditional burgers, with buns, and recommends serving with prepared salsa and avocado. The original recipe also calls for canned beans, which will certainly work.

My adapted version differs in that I start with dried beans (or beans that I cooked and froze), omit the chopped scallions, and serve with a fresh mango salsa. I also generally don’t use a bun. Instead, the burger takes center stage as part of a composed plate that often includes sauteed kale and a baked sweet potato. But it’s also great as a traditional burger, on a bun. I generally make 6 medium sized patties, but, if you like a large burger, go for 4. Also, because these freeze so well, consider doubling, particularly if you’re feeding more than just yourself. While you’ll spend a little more time on the front end, it’s a big time-saver long term.

1/2 cup rolled oats
2 c. cooked black beans (or 1 15.5 oz. can, rinsed and drained)
1 large egg
1 tsp. ground cumin
Kosher salt
2 oz. finely grated pepper Jack cheese (1/2 cup)
2 T. chopped fresh cilantro
1 T. olive oil; more for the plate
1. Pulse the oats in a food processor 3or 4 times, until they are roughly chopped. Add half of the beans and pulse for an additional  times, until the mixture forms a coarse paste.  Add the egg, cumin, and 1/2 tsp. salt and process to mix well, about 1 minute. Transfer the bean mixture to a large bowl. Stir in the remaining beans, cheese, and cilantro.

2. With wet hands, form the bean mixture into four or six 1/2-inch-thick patties and transfer to a lightly oiled plate. Refrigerate for 10 to 15 minutes to let the burgers set up.

3. Heat a large heavy-duty skillet (preferably cast iron) on high heat until very hot; add the oil and swirl the pan to coat the bottom. Cook the burgers until browned, with a good crust, 2 to 3 minutes; then carefully flip and cook, flipping again if necessary, until the burgers feel firm when pressed with a fingertip, another 3 to 5 minutes.

Mango Salsa
1 large, ripe mango, diced
1/2 poblano chili, seeded and finely diced
1/4 small red onion, diced
2 tsp. fresh ginger, minced
4 T. fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
1 T. honey, or to taste
3 T. fresh lime juice
salt to taste

Combine all of the ingredients and stir gently. Refrigerate, covered, until serving. This tastes best if you make it ahead of time, ideally 2-3 hours, in order to give the flavors time to meld. The salsa is also nice on its own, with chips. Super fresh and delicious.

(almost) Mark Bittman’s Warm Chickpea Salad with Arugula

I’ve almost reached the bottom of the veritable ocean of chickpeas that has taken over my refrigerator this past week. Thank goodness. I love chickpeas about as much as I love anything. But, well, fill in your favorite cliche here about how too much of anything is a bad thing. Happily, I haven’t quite reached that point. Yet.

This salad, like so many of the other recipes in my regular rotation, is from Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything Vegetarian. My version tracks his exactly but for two ingredients: (1) Bittman calls for 1/2 t. cumin seeds, whereas I, not being all that crazy for cumin, use 1/4 t. cumin powder; and (2) he uses 1 small red onion, halved and thinly sliced, which I omit. Also, in the original recipe the hard boiled egg is optional.

This recipe serves two as a main course.

3 T. extra virgin olive oil
1 T. minced peeled fresh ginger
1 T. minced garlic
1/4 t. cumin powder
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1-1/4 c. cooked chickpeas, drained and rinsed (canned chickpeas are fine in this recipe)
1 T. rice wine vinegar
1 t. honey
4 c. arugula leaves
4 hard boiled eggs, quartered

1. Heat the olive oil in a deep skillet over medium heat. Add the ginger, garlic, and cumin. Cook, stirring, for about a minute, until the vegetables are soft and the mixture is fragrant. Add salt and pepper, then the chickpeas. Stir gently for another 3 minutes or so, until the chickpeas are hot and well coated in the oil and spices.

2. Remove from heat and stir in the vinegar, honey, and 1 T. water. Use a wooden spoon to mash some of the chickpeas against the bottom of the skillet. This will add texture to the dressing. I usually plate the arugula and top with the warmed chickpea dressing, but Bittman suggests putting it together in a bowl and tossing. Your choice.

chickpea sandwich

Chickpeas. That’s pretty much the theme of my week, food-wise. Which is why I didn’t post yesterday. I came home from work, planning to cook. But when I looked in the fridge I realized that the last thing on earth I needed to do was cook more food. It’s packed. Mostly with chickpeas. Because, really, I made too many. There’s a steep learning curve in cooking for one, particularly for someone like me, who defaults to always cooking enough to host a dinner party for 10. I’ll figure it out. In the meantime, though, I’m going to get even better at repurposing ingredients into completely new meals, phoenix style.

My idea of the day, which probably does not warrant the title “recipe,” is a chickpea sandwich. Today I simply stuffed marinated chickpeas into lightly toasted pita bread. It was surprisingly tasty and satisfying. Another idea, which I didn’t actually execute (because I’m out of greens and didn’t have time to stop by the store), is to add spinach, baby greens, or even arugula. And maybe some feta cheese. Finally, while I used a pita, this would probably work nicely as a wrap. Just  use the back of a knife  to lightly crush the chickpeas against the tortilla, spread the greens on top, add optional cheese, and roll it together. Lunch! Or dinner. Enjoy.