Cranberry beans in tomato-fennel sauce over polenta with Parmesan

I made this last night for a very small dinner party with two trusted friends. cranberry beans with tomato fennel sauce over parmesan polentaA safe environment for a gamble, in case it didn’t turn out. The photo is terrible because we didn’t eat until late, after talking for two hours while drinking wine, so the photo was an act of duty, without regard to aesthetics. But omg — all I can really say is yum. Which is what I said at least three times while eating. Because I was trying to restrain myself. It is, after all, somewhat unseemly to freak out over the goodness of your own cooking.

To balance things out a bit, my praise was not entirely self-directed. Unfortunately, this is not an original recipe. I got it from theKitchn, who in turn took it from Rancho Gordo. Here’s the link. (http://bit.ly/17RQGQ4) And here’s the recipe, which I followed almost slavishly. My only departures were these: I used frozen borlotti/cranberry beans, I didn’t add butter to the polenta, and I didn’t add parsley or extra cheese to the finished plates. Oh, and I used 1 small yellow onion instead of half a medium onion as in the original recipe. A friend recently suggested that cut onions absorb all kinds of nastiness if stored in the fridge. This appears to be mere rumor. (http://bit.ly/JWhiqo) But, just to be on the safe side, and also because I have been cooking less and therefore never seem to use the other half of a cut onion, I’ve started buying the smaller ones.

Okay. Now. Recipe. It’s seriously worth your time. The individual textures of the diced fennel, the tomatoes, and the beans remain distinct, creating a pretty exciting mouth feel, while the flavor is a delicate balance of sweet richness. The savory polenta is the perfect balance. I highly recommend. It made for an entirely satisfying and delicious vegetarian, gluten-free main course. You could make it vegan by subbing oil for butter and eliminating the cheese. But man. That would be a bummer. The dairy is good here. Enjoy.

Serves 4 to 6

Tomato Sauce
3 T. unsalted butter
1/2 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
1 medium fennel bulb, trimmed and diced medium
3 garlic cloves, minced
4 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Salt
1 small carrot, peeled and shredded
One 28-ounce can whole San Marzano tomatoes or plum tomatoes
Freshly ground pepper

2 cups drained, cooked cranberry/borlotti beans
1/3 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Polenta
4 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup polenta

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Freshly ground pepper

To make the sauce, melt the butter in a small dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion, fennel, garlic, 2 teaspoons of the oregano,  red pepper flakes, and a pinch of salt. Sauté for 8-10 minutes, until the vegetables are soft and fragrant. Grate the carrot directly into the pot, stir, and saute for another minute or two before adding the tomatoes. Add another pinch of salt and stir for a couple of minutes to break up the tomatoes.  Reduce the heat to low and cook, uncovered, at the barest simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 2-1/2 hours, until the tomatoes are reduced and beginning to separate from the oil. Add the remaining 2 teaspoons oregano and salt and pepper to taste. The sauce can be made up to this point 1 or 2 days ahead. Let cool and refrigerate.

frozen borlotti beans

For the beans, I highly recommend fresh or frozen beans if you can find them. Indeed, the reason I decided to make this dish was my recent discovery of frozen Borlotti beans at my favorite local grocery store, HarvesTime Foods. (http://bit.ly/ecrXBw) Borlotti beans are also known as cranberry beans, which, as I’ve posted about before, are my favorite beans. (http://bit.ly/19Kknpx)

To cook them, bring a pot of water to a boil, salt, and add the beans. Cook for 20-30 minutes, until tender. Drain, rinse, and add them to the tomato sauce after it’s finished cooking and sitting either off heat or in the fridge. They’ll absorb the flavor of the sauce. Extra deliciousness.

About 45 minutes before you plan to eat, make the polenta. (It will be okay if it winds up being more than 45 minutes, as happened last night.) Boil the water in a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add the salt and, whisking continuously, slowly pour the polenta into the water in a thin stream. Reduce the heat to low and cook for 40-45 minutes, stirring frequently, until the mixture thickens and the polenta begins to pull away from the sides of the pan. Stir in the Parmesan and season with pepper. Cover to keep warm. 

About 10 minutes before you’re ready to serve, warm the beans and tomato sauce over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally. Spoon the polenta into warmed shallow bowls and make a well in the center of each serving. Spoon the tomato sauce into the well.

I served this with my favorite simple salad: arugula with thinly sliced fennel and shaved Parmesan, lightly dressed with walnut oil, fresh lemon juice, salt and pepper. It was crazy delicious good.

Chickpeas and spinach with honeyed sweet potato, adapted from Ottolenghi

In the past few months I’ve read all three of Yotam Ottolenghi’s cookbooks, PlentyJerusalem, and, most recently, Ottolenghi. (http://bit.ly/1caF9BA) With each book, I had big plans for making some elaborate meal. But it never happened. These past few months have not been the highlight of my cooking life. I think I’ve been overwhelmed. Life has been good, but maybe a little too busy. Plus I had checked the books out from the library. With each book, before I got around to making anything, it was due back, requested by another patron. So it’s only now that I finally tried a recipe. Which I did without fanfare one morning last week, the day after I left FB. Instant infusion of extra time. But that’s another story. For now, recipe.

chickpeas with spinach and honeyed sweet potatoesAlthough there were several dishes that looked good, I decided to go with this one because (a) it involved beans, which meant I could blog about it, (b) I had all the ingredients on hand, and (c) the flavors sounded simple enough to be able to eat more than just once. That meant I’d be able to eat for lunch and dinner a couple of days. This was important because I knew I probably wouldn’t cook anything else for the week. It was a busy one.

For my first go with this recipe, my only departure was in cooking the chickpeas. The original calls for an overnight soak with baking soda. But I didn’t soak or use baking soda. Instead, I cooked the chickpeas in the slow cooker with kombu, as I always do. It’s super easy.

To cook the beans, measure out a generous cup of dried beans. Pick through them and remove any that are discolored or broken as well as any stones or dirt. Then rinse, drain, and place in the slow cooker insert. Add a 1″ piece of kombu (a sea vegetable that adds a hint of smoky flavor and allegedly helps make beans more digestible by breaking down the phytic acid), cover with 2-3″ of cold filtered water, and cook for 8-10 hours or until soft. Add salt to taste and either use right away or cool and refrigerate until you’re ready to make the recipe. Here it is:

2 T. olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 t. cumin seeds
1 t. coriander seeds
1 T. tomato paste
14 oz. canned tomatoes, chopped
1 t. sugar
1-1/2 t. ground cumin
2 c. baby spinach
2/3 c. cilantro leaves, for garnish (I skipped this because I didn’t have any cilantro on hand)
salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 lb (2 medium sized) sweet potatoes, peeled and sliced into 1″ rounds
3 c. water
3-1/2 T. unsalted butter, chopped into pieces
4 T. honey
1/2 t. salt

1/2 c. Greek yogurt
1 clove garlic, smashed
grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
3 T. olive oil
1 t. dried mint
salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Combine the water, butter, honey, and salt in large skillet, and arrange the sweet potatoes so that they’ve pretty evenly dispersed with the pieces of butter. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and cook for about an hour, turning the sweet potatoes halfway through so they’ve evenly colored on both sides.

2. While the sweet potatoes are cooking, make the sauce for the chickpeas by heating olive oil in a large frying pan. Add the onion, cumin seeds, and coriander seeds. Fry for 8 minutes, stirring, until golden grown. Add the tomato paste and stir for another minute. Then add the tomatoes, sugar, and ground cumin. Cook over medium heat for another 5 minutes or so. Add salt and pepper to taste, keeping in mind that the chickpeas are also salted.

3. Stir the spinach into the tomato sauce, then add the cooked chickpeas. Stir together and cook for another 5 minutes or so. Add salt and pepper to taste.

4. To make the yogurt sauce, whisk the garlic, lemon zest, lemon juice, olive oil, and mint into the garlic. Let the flavors meld for at least 10 minutes before serving.

5. To serve, simply transfer the chickpeas to a serving dish, place the sweet potatoes on top, and garnish with cilantro leaves. Either top with the yogurt sauce or serve it alongside.

When I made this, I was a little worried about eating whole coriander seeds. But they were delicious. As was the overall dish. Simple, but also fresh and interesting and somehow enlivening. I see what all the fuss is about. And I’m excited to try more recipes. Which I plan to do very soon. Because fall is here. And I’m tired of eating cheese and crackers for dinner. Ready to settle in, eat healthy food, reestablish a routine. Celebrate home and take care of myself by cooking. And writing. It’s a plan.

22 days of gratitude

This post has nothing to do with beans. Or cooking. I’ve been missing my blog, and had planned to write about black bean brownies today. Because I made some a couple of days ago, for my birthday. Not because I wanted them, but because I wanted to have something to blog about. But they didn’t turn out well and, when I tried to write a post, that didn’t turn out well either. So, after a long walk, on which I spent some time swinging and a little more time sitting (actually standing) with this Buddha headBuddha head, I decided to abandon that idea and go with this. I will write about black bean brownies sometime soon, though, when I have time to do a proper job. I think it’s a worthwhile pursuit. Just not workable for this week.

Instead, I decided to post about my gratitude project, which consisted of what was meant to be 44 Facebook posts ( either lost or failed to post one) for the 22 days up to and including my birthday, which was this past Friday. 10/4, good buddy. So. Here is the completely unedited list. I think it will speak for itself. But I will say that the execution of this idea was both more difficult and far more rewarding than I imagined when I dreamt it up. The difficulty was mostly in feeling so exposed, day and day after day. Because oftentimes what I was grateful for wasn’t something I would ordinarily post. Then I would go into struggle mode, trying to stay true to myself while also guarding (or trying to create) healthy boundaries. Also, during the course of this time I finally got officially divorced. That is a good thing, yet complicated. It added an element of difficulty to this project. But, overall, the good far outweighed the bad, at least from my end. I hope you like it. Here’s the list.

September 13, 2013

22 days from now I will be 44. Which, while I know absolutely nothing about and am highly skeptical of numerology, seems somehow significant, if only because of the lovely mathematical symmetry. And because I really like the number 11. So. To mark this day, and the days between now and 10/4, I’m going to celebrate by creating a daily ritual of posting two things for which I’m grateful, one upon waking, the other just before sleep. This morning I woke up filled with gratitude for this time alone, and the space I’ve been given to start trying to figure out, on my own, how I want to be in the world.

Embarrassment of riches in the gratitude department right now. Harmonizing with Joan Jett and the Blackhearts for Crimson and Clover? Gwar? The letter a friend sent that cut through my emotional fortress and went straight into a part of my heart that I didn’t even know was still there? Yes, I am grateful for all of those things. But the thing I’m most grateful for right now is that I have all of my teeth. Many people don’t. And they’re super useful for things like eating delicious sausages. Which I did tonight, at Riot Fest. So thanks, parents, for all the excellent dental care, and to the universe for letting me stay lucky thus far.

Grateful to be able to pet my (or any other) cat for as long as I like without suffering a rash, or an athsma attack, or any other allergic reaction.

Tonight’s gratitude is for the magic friend circle that happened today with Shaune, Michelle, Dana, Johnny, Dawn, Ken, and Connie. And also for affirmation that my high school obsession with the Violent Femmes was not misplaced.

3/22, am: grateful for all the second chances.

3/22, pm: foot massage. grateful doesn’t quite cut it.

4/22, am: grateful for waking up to the sound of house guests, laughing and rehashing perfect weekend, which included the Replacements.

4/22, pm: grateful that I did not have to use a port-o-poddy today.

5/22, am: grateful for this opportunity to start my days out by considering subjects of gratitude. Totally meta.

5/22 pm: grateful for the sound of wind in trees, and that I can still hear it.

6/22, am: grateful to wake up with a different perspective.

6/22, pm: grateful that the latch on my back door is fixed. And a trifle embarrassed that I hadn’t yet gotten around to doing it myself.

7/22, am: grateful for choices.

7/22, pm: grateful for my new air popper, popcorn, butter, maple syrup, and salt. Also that I was not born as a factory farmed chicken.

8/22, am: grateful for this moment, in which my cat is sleeping next to me with his paw stretched out, touching my leg, and I have just begun the most perfect cup of coffee.

8/22, pm: grateful to be letting go, and for how things always work out.

9/22, am: grateful for sunlight refracting off the glass blocks in my living room and the way in which it evokes mornings at the beach on St. George Island. And today is International Day of Peace, which is super cool. Maybe people can stop killing each other for a little while.

9/22, pm: grateful, generally. Today was pretty awesome.

10/22, am: grateful for the ability to change.

10/22, pm: grateful to be on the bus with Good Lookin’ Bill, who sounds exactly like Screamin’ Jays Hawkins.

11/22, am: grateful to be able to take so very things for granted.

11/22, pm: grateful that my sense of humor is so very, very dark. It comes in handy when reading articles like this one.

Pull quote: “He isn’t hopeful humans will rise to the challenge and save themselves. ‘Everything is worse and we’re still doing the same things,’ he says.
‘Because ecosystems are so resilient, they don’t exact immediate punishment on the stupid.'” (http://www.oceansidestar.com/news/web-of-life-unravelling-wildlife-biologist-says-1.605499)

12/22, am: grateful, despite everything, including my sometimes paralyzing fear about what’s happening to the environment, that the planet will run out of water, and horror at the myriad ways in which humans continue to be awful to one another, to have been born into this time. Because it also feels full of love and amazing opportunities for connection, growth. Today I’m going to focus on that.

12/22, pm: grateful for clear answers when they come.

13/22, am: grateful that my numbers have passed the stage of looking like a date. Also, that the longer this project continues, and the deeper I have to reach to figure out what I’m grateful for, the more rewarding it becomes. At least for me.

13/22, pm: grateful that I’m almost finished with monster brief, and that it includes a version of the argument I fought for.

14/22, am: grateful for breath and stillness, and the way in which they are pathways to change.

14/22, pm: grateful for the smell of rosemary and for kitchen dancing by myself.

15/22, am: grateful there’s a yoga class with Anne Paulson at 6:30, because it makes this otherwise completely sucky insomnia seem like a gift.

15/22, pm: grateful for my brain’s ability to summon the taste, sound, smell, sight, and feel of the Gulf of Mexico, right now, there.

16/22, am: grateful to wake up believing that things will work out as they should.

16/22, pm: tonight I’m generally grateful for Chicago’s theater scene, and specifically for getting to see Beyond Therapy, which was great. Disconcerting at times, but great.

17/22, am: grateful to have found such a good apartment. I like it here.

17/22, pm: [completely tired of the word] grateful for this day, which started with more than 2 hours of yoga to celebrate the birthday of one of my teachers. That was the high. But there was also a perfect blue sky, and San Francisco-style crispness to the air. That was good. And a long walk through the urban utopia that is Sauganash, where apples are literally falling to the sidewalk from a tree planted along the side of the road. The low point, which was also great in its intense weirdness, was coming across a giant repository for garbage somewhere near Hubbard and Damen. There literally was a pile of rotting waste sitting in a huge warehouse, fouling the perfect air so intensely that I had to hold my hand over my nose. Hence no photo.

18/22, am: thankful for the way this project is wearing a new groove into my brain, so that more and more I think about what I have, what is good, rather than focusing on the lack.

gratitude project, day 18 of 22, pm: pizza delivery, pajamas (or close equivalent), and television. Also I’m pretty sure I finally nailed the argument I’ve been struggling with for far too long. Which means I may escape probation at work.

gratitude project, day 19 of 22, am: When I thought about what I wanted to post this morning, the first thing that came up was photographs. Photographs both as art and as a means to feel connected to people and places and animals are and always have been deeply meaningful for me. My life without photos would be much smaller. Because of my incredible fortune, there were several possible posts for this morning. I decided on this one when I saw the attached story. While the idea of solitary confinement fills me with despair, projects such as this one remind me of the good. (http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2013/9/30/photo-requests-fromsolitary.html)

gratitude project, day 19 of 22, pm: so lucky in my friends. Thank you for being there for me, today and always.

day 20 of 22, pm: I am full of gratitude for the flexibility of my work schedule, which meant that without any advance planning or notice to anyone I was able to leave early today. Which in turn meant that I was able to spend hours outside on what was quite possibly the most perfectly beautiful day ever. Good.

day 21 of 22, am: grateful for my cat’s round teddy bear eyes, loud purr, and boundless, unconditional love. (I could do without his nibbling and awful breath, but, well, trying to focus on the positive.)

day 21 of 22, pm: incredibly grateful that there’s only one more day to go until I can stop doing this.

22/22, am: grateful for the dream I woke from this morning. My bedroom was the same except it had been built to accommodate a very large tree. So there was this one branch that went through the whole top of the room, like a giant elbow. And it was an apple tree. With fruit. I opened my eyes after sleep, looked up, and saw several perfectly ripe apples. Because it was a dream, one magically appeared in my hand. I ate the fruit.

22/22, pm: grateful for music. It makes life better. And love, which makes life possible. Thank you all for sending me so much of it today. I am seriously lucky.