Fika: Kärleksmums

One of the best things I’ve learned in the last two days is that “mums” means “yummy” in Swedish.

“Mum’s the word” takes on a whole new meaning.

I share this because my next Fika recipe is kärleksmums, or “love yummy”—a name that sounds pulled from the pages of a particularly jubilant Chinese restaurant menu. According to the authors of Fika, this is but one way to refer to this particular, very popular baked good. Others include fiffirutor, mockarutor and, most elegantly, snoddas.

Regardless of which name is used in Malmö and Stockholm, in English the dish is essentially Chocolate Coffee Squares.

On Sunday, I felt inspired to fika, so I pulled out my squishy little cookbook and paged through it until I landed on something I had ingredients for (NOT elderflower cordial) and the inclination to eat (NOT caraway crisps). Chocolate Coffee Squares would work perfectly.

“These cakes are the perfect blend of dark chocolate and strong coffee,” assure the writers. While usually topped with powdered sugar, here kärleksmums get a ganache topping—thereby making them “the perfect thing to enjoy on a cold autumn day.” I nodded, knowingly, as the 81-degree weather outside sparkled un-El Nino-like.

To make these tempting squares, I preheated the oven to 375 degrees and then greased and floured a square baking pan. (Note: I’d decided to half the recipe because I couldn’t imagine having 24 of these bad boys hanging around the house.)

I melted 5 tablespoons of butter in a small saucepan and set it aside. In my favorite green melamine mixing bowl, I mixed together 1 cup of flour, 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder, 1 teaspoon baking powder and ¼ teaspoon salt. Simple enough.

In a smaller yellow bowl, I whisked one egg with ½ cup sugar until it was smooth and “frothy” according to the recipe’s guidance. Then I put on my Big Math Hat, figured out I needed to add 5 tablespoons of milk, and poured that in, along with the melted butter from the stovetop and ½ teaspoon of vanilla. Once the wet ingredients were smooth, I folded in the dry ingredients carefully until nary a lump remained. I poured the batter into the prepared pan, coaxed the surprisingly thick concoction into the corners so it was spread more or less evenly, and then popped the pan into the oven to cook for 20 minutes of baking time.

Next up: the ganache. First, I warmed ¼ cup of heavy cream with a tablespoon and a half of cold, strong coffee over medium heat until little bubbles appeared at the edges (about five to seven minutes). I lowered the heat and stirred in 2 ounces of bittersweet chocolate smashings until they were completely melted. I removed the pot from the heat and plopped in 1 tablespoon of butter, stirring non-stop, until the tiny pale square disappeared into the luscious, creamy dark liquid. It smelled heavenly—like stepping into a fine chocolate shop.

I found a spot on the cook-top for the ganache to cool for about 10 minutes, and then ushered it into the fridge to thoroughly chill for about an hour.

The cake was done when I stuck a toothpick into the center and pulled it out with nary a crumb attached (that took about 22 minutes). I put the pan on the cook-top to cool while the ganache finished firming up. To fill the 40-or-so minutes remaining on the ganache, I tackled the dish pile in the sink, worked through my LA Times pile on the table, and admired a new Lego creation of Roxy’s.

The results:

With about 5 minutes to go on the ganache, I gave up, removed the pot from the fridge and spread the chocolate goo all over the cake. I cut a tiny corner piece for myself. The cake was simple, basic, reassuring…exactly what I crave when brewing a hot beverage on a weekend afternoon.

In fact, my Chocolate Coffee Square resembled, smelled like, and fundamentally tasted like a brownie…except for one key difference: the warm, smooth note of the coffee. That powerful ingredient, with its whisper of fruit, when paired with the rich ganache blanket elevated the kärleksmum above its fairly ordinary (albeit tasty) American picnic-staple cousin. It’s a subtle difference, but definitely distinct.

Ciao, February—and Hallå, Fika

As a regular supporter of our local NPR station KCRW, I receive cookbooks in the mail on a monthly basis. They’ve ranged from the obscure—an assortment of recipes and essays on the theme of “bitter”—to the comforting: collections of recipes from the Southern U.S., as well as a Jewish grandmother in New York City. The most recent, eye-catching delivery was Fika—a lovely illustrated book by Anna Brones and Johanna Kindvall that celebrates “The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break.”

Fika cover

Published by Ten Speed Press, Fika (pronounced “fee-ka”) is a small format book—journal-sized, square—with a matte cover that’s almost squishy; it reminded me immediately of the puffy stickers I used to collect and trade in 4th grade. Flip by the bright orange flyleaf and a brief table of contents and you find an introductory chapter that provides some helpful background, including the definition of fika, which is basically “coffee plus something to eat”:

“Functioning as both a verb and a noun, the concept of fika is simple. It is the moment that you take a break, often with a cup of coffee, but alternatively with tea, and find a baked good to pair with it. You can do it alone, you can do it with friends. You can do it at home, in a park, or at work. But the essential thing is that you do it, that you make time to take a break: that’s what fika is all about.”

What’s interesting about that paragraph is that it sounds very similar to material in the meaty leadership training I’m immersed in at work—we’re discussing the importance of managing one’s energy and taking care of oneself. Fika sounds like an excellent energy management method.

Ska vi fika? is what Swedes ask one another: Should we fika? Looking through the recipes, my answer is a most definite JA. Chocolate, nuts, cinnamon and spices abound.

Similar to an IKEA catalogue, the recipes’ names provide native English speakers with page after page of linguistic amuse bouches that you can hear the Muppets’ Swedish chef sing out from miles away: vetebullar (cinnamon and cardamom buns), fikonrutor (fig squares), finska pinnar (Finish sticks), hasselnötsflarn (hazelnut crisps), rägbröd (rye bread), glögg (Swedish mulled wine, natch).

I decided to first try a Swedish specialty: kladdkaka, otherwise known as sticky chocolate cake.

Fika kladdkaka

The cool thing here is that I’ve got a new Swedish friend—a co-worker named Linda who joined our team in December. Near Christmas, she brought homemade kladdkaka for each of us to enjoy and it was absolutely delicious: a fudgy, dense brownie that, yes, absolutely called for a cup of coffee to go along with it. So, as I embarked on making my own kladdkaka for a friend’s visit, I had a model to which I could aspire.

Fika the book calls kladdkaka “one of the basics of Swedish home baking: the kind of recipe that you memorize and can make at the drop of a hat” (see: Americans with chocolate chip cookies). Brones and Kindvall’s version apparently departs from tradition in the use of ground almonds, rather than flour…making it perfect for the gluten-free among us.

To start, I preheated the oven to 350 and fished out my dusty spring-form pan in order to first wash and then grease it with a bit of butter using a paper towel. Next, I blanched ½ cup of almonds. As a blanching newbie, I hit the Net and found some helpful instructions: boil a small pot of water, dump the almonds in and let them hang out in their hot bath for about a minute. Then drain them with your favorite colander, rinse the pile and, once they’ve cooled a bit, squeeze them to pop the nut out of the now loosened skin.

Who knew blanching would be so easy? And so satisfying! The only downside is that the leftover skins look like a pile of cockroaches, so I quickly scraped them into the compost bin and slammed the lid.

I took my shiny, freshly blanched almonds and tossed them into the Cuisinart for a few quick bursts of pulverizing until they were just this side of finely ground. After that loud, rackety step, I quietly melted ½ cup of butter in a saucepan—a much more trusted approach then putting the half stick in the microwave and hearing it explode 25 seconds later.

Back to the kitchen island I went to whisk 2 eggs and 1 cup of “natural cane sugar” (I figure you can use whatever you have) into a grainy paste. I sifted together 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder and ¼ teaspoon salt and added that to the egg sugar, followed by the ground almonds, and then the cooled butter. All this I stirred until it was smooth and thick.

I poured the batter into the prepared spring-form pan and made sure it was evenly distributed. The recipe says you can sprinkle poppy seeds on top at this point, but I completely forgot. Into the preheated oven the cake went for about 20 minutes; it can come out when it’s set but still sticky, cuz, you know, it’s sticky cake.

The results: It was one of those super chilly weekends early in the year, and my friend Lisa and her daughter Alice were over for an afternoon of dolls, football, and catching up. In other words, a perfect opportunity for fika!

When I pulled it from the oven, my kladdkaka looked and smelled delicious—deeply chocolate-y, with a nutty rich warmth. I cut slices for Jon, Lisa and I (Roxy and Alice had zero interest), dolloped each piece with whipped cream, and made hot cups of tea. Only the presence of snow would’ve made the scene more Swedish.

And the kaka? Fantastiskt!

Sheesh, it was good. Moist, slightly chewy, and satisfyingly flavorful with a hint of fruitiness…either from the almonds or the natural cane sugar, I’m not quite sure. The almond base made for a less overwhelmingly sweet dessert—maybe by countering the sugar better than mere flour could. And the whipped cream was a perfect topper—a smooth cloud of calm against the assertive chocolate. Lisa and I talked, we chewed, we ooohed and aaahed over this simple cake; we fika-ed, for sure.

The following day, a Monday, I brought a slice of kladdkaka in a Tupperware to work for Linda. I left it on her desk with a little note, and held my breath. Later in the morning, she sent a quick email. “Your kladdkaka is amazing! I’m happy to be your Fika tester any time.”

Random recipes from Bon Appétit, The Lemonade Cookbook and more

I do cook over the summer, but you’d never know it from this blog.

And, frankly, over the last few months it was harder than usual to muster up enthusiasm for turning on the oven or cranking up a burner. With the extra-intense heat and El Nino/Pacific hurricane-related humidity, all I ever felt like eating was salad or a taco grilled outside.

I did crack open my new Lemonade cookbook for one afternoon BBQ and made the very delicious, simple Broccoli, Ricotta, Champagne Vinaigrette recipe. This is one of my favorite salads at Lemonade café and the recipe didn’t disappoint (although, note to all: when the recipe calls for “ricotta salata” you actually need to buy that hard, typically sheep’s milk-based cheese, not the ricotta slubs in their salty puddle from the refrigerated section of the store).

With the unused ricotta cheese, I baked—on two different occasions—the tangy, moist, absolutely delicious Blueberry Ricotta Muffins from the Eva Bakes site. Yum times 10 on those, and ridiculously easy to make. Definitely try them out.

During one of our extended family camping trips, we made Bon Appétit‘s Seared Cod with Potato and Chorizo Hobo Packs using “soyrizo.” The recipe has a series of multiple steps, but actually isn’t that complicated to follow. While Cook #1 oversees baby potatoes, wads of soyrizo and olive oil roasting in tinfoil packs over the grill, Cook #2 pan fries cod fillets that are then slathered with a pumpkin seed-lime butter. Everything gets dumped on the plate or in the bowl, and then inhaled by happy campers (to make it even more deluxe, we sautéed some spinach to add to the pile).

Then, last night, as the temperature finally started to drop a bit with rain in the forecast, I made Bon App’s Green Posole with Cod and Cilantro. This is a terrific “swimmatarian” alternative to traditional pork-packed posole, a hominy-based Mexican stew that I otherwise love. With its tomatillo-cilantro base, this soup is bright green and light, while still including enough oomph—fish chunks, hominy—to fill you up. And the lime juice, sliced radishes and sliced Serrano toppings add even more zest and tang. I wonder if Italian parsley could replace the cilantro for those who find that tricky herb soapy tasting?

Thug Kitchen: Redux

One Saturday in June, Jon and Roxy got up at 4 a.m. to catch a plane to camp.

Rather, Jon accompanied Roxy to the Midwest, handed her to the very nice camp employees who would transport her (and a busload of others) to their bucolic Ozark paradise, and then turned around and flew home. I stayed in L.A., slept fitfully and felt that odd stomach whirling sensation of excitement battling it out with worry.

Father’s Day morning we woke up—groggy and discombobulated—and pondered the breakfast possibilities. Since Roxy wasn’t there, we could skip pancakes, eggs and toast (what a giddy thought!). In fact, we could make something gourmet with a challenging ingredient or two—sumac or perhaps spelt. I stumbled out of bed, threw on some shorts and headed to the kitchen to investigate.

I leafed through The Lemonade Cookbook, but sadly there was no breakfast section or even a breakfast stand-in section filled with baked goods one can eat before noon without guilt. My new cookbook would have to wait.

Jon, meanwhile, opened Thug Kitchen and found a little family of breakfast items under the banner “Carpe Fucking Diem.” While many sounded yummy, as usual, we based our decision on the ingredients we had in the pantry. Enter the Maple Berry Grits.

Five years ago, if my former self could’ve seen my future self pulling out pots and pans to make some grits, she (former) would’ve shaken her head, barked a dismissive laugh, and said “Wrong Erin.”

But somewhere in my late 30s/early 40s, things changed. My horror of grits—stemming from childhood travels in the South and Midwest where every laminated breakfast menu features photos of the bubbling bright-white pools with a small disk of butter smack dab in the middle like a bellybutton—started to dissipate. I had a subscription to Bon Appétit and occasionally it published savory grits recipes that sounded, shockingly, kind of ok. Finally, last year, in a fit of experimentation, I even made one of these recipes and it was good—cheesy, creamy, a terrific side for grilled salmon.

So, grits for breakfast? Sure, I was ready; I even had leftover grits in the pantry from that BA-inspired foray. And as TK’s intro to the recipe says, “You’ve had enough oatmeal, it’s about damn time to try something new.”

While I got the coffee going, Jon boiled 2 cups of water and 2 cups of rice milk in a saucepan and then whisked in 1 cup of grits, along with ¼ teaspoon salt. TK makes a big loud point about these not being the instant kind; we had “quick,” which probably wasn’t that much better. Once the mixture was lump-free, Jon brought it back to a boil before slapping a lid on top and letting it simmer for about 20 minutes.

When the grits had absorbed pretty much all of the liquid, Jon stirred in a teaspoon of maple syrup, which did just about nothing flavor-wise. Many teaspoons later, plus a tad more salt, the recipe tasted right—richly maple without being overly sweet. To finish, he took some frozen raspberries he’d warmed in the microwave and spooned them over individual servings of the grits. It was time to eat.

The results: We grabbed our bowls and some coffee and parked ourselves at the long everything table in the middle of our living room/kitchen/dining room/art space. I blew on a spoonful of the red-dabbed grits and then popped it in.

Even though the grits were lava hot, and it took a few bites before I could actually taste anything, the dish was really good: toothy, without being obnoxiously tough. And it was pleasantly mellow, like a polenta. The round, rich warmth of the maple syrup was a perfect foil to the tangy-sweet earthiness of the raspberries. And – note to self – the whole presentation looked cookbook cover-ready: pale grits rimmed with gold from the syrup and topped with a jewel-rich red.

You could take this in any number of directions—topping it with fruit compote, jam, even chopped fresh apples in cinnamon and lemon. All would play nicely with the grits, which are essentially a substrate for whatever sweet or savory flavors you feel like packing on top.

I’ll make this again. It’s fairly healthy, simple and delectable.

The Lemonade Cookbook: Introduction

It’s time to leave profanity and veganism behind—and enter the gingham and sunshine realm of The Lemonade Cookbook.

To those of you outside L.A., this might sound like an exhaustive guide to the much loved, summertime-in-America drink. The Lemonade Cookbook definitely includes lemonade recipes—Old Fashioned, Blueberry Mint, Pineapple Coriander—but it is, thankfully, so much more.

That’s because the cookbook is a collection of recipes from Lemonade, one of the best local eateries to come to The City of Angels in years. Founded by Chef Alan Jackson, the first Lemonade café sprang to life in West Hollywood in 2007; eight years later you can visit branches in Pasadena, Downtown, Culver City and even the ground floor patio of MOCA.

Jackson refers to his cafés as “modern cafeterias,” which is like calling opera a bunch of songs strung together with warbling. Sure, hungry patrons get in line, grab a tray and then slide along a little metal track before case after case of food. But instead of finding gray meatloaf with congealed gravy there’s seared tuna with green apple slaw. In place of wilting iceberg lettuce, there’s Israeli couscous with mushrooms. And no, there won’t be any rice pudding in an unbreakable little bowl at the end. Rather, you’ll find mini cupcakes, blondies, macaroons, and a lineup of those intoxicating lemonade varieties. Good luck choosing.

Reading the introduction, I learned that Jackson is the cooking genius behind a restaurant called Jackson’s in Hollywood (never ate there) and The Farm in Beverly Hills. I used to love to visit The Farm’s outpost at The Grove, a shopping mecca in Mid-City, before seeing a movie or, actually, shopping. Then I moved east, had a child, stopped shopping, and discovered Taco Spot. But I miss The Farm—especially its unbelievable grilled artichoke.

Jackson’s philosophy about food is refreshingly Californian. A native Angelino who grew up eating artichokes and avocados before the rest of the country discovered them in the 1980s, he celebrates the state’s almost countless ethnic cuisines and relaxed culture. “As a chef, I appreciate the fact that heavy, overwrought dishes have little place in today’s diet,” he writes. Rather, food “must be alive and interesting enough for people to actually enjoy eating.” As an eater, I appreciate that fact as well.

Jackson co-wrote The Lemonade Cookbook with foodie and author Joann Cianciulli. St. Martin’s Press published the book in 2013, and I unwrapped it on my birthday earlier this year. Lemonade has one of those trendy, full-color, matte hard covers—and enough rich photography to meet your daily caloric intake. Best of all, it has recipes for some of my favorite Lemonade dishes: the broccoli salad with ricotta and champagne vinaigrette; the soba noodles with kimchi vegetables in a creamy sesame vinaigrette; the heavenly peach ginger lemonade.

After years of eating at the downtown locations, I’m going to love seeing whether I can replicate some of these recipes.

Thug Kitchen: The results

Cooking with Thug Kitchen was a rollercoaster ride.

There were big highs—oh, the belly laughs at the hilarious writing—and some swooping delights courtesy of the ginger-lime sparklers and chili-hot tortilla soup.

There was apprehension! Would plantain chips doused in little more than lime juice and a heap of pungent spices fly or fail?

And, sadly, there were lows—a botched dessert in chocolate fudge pops and a dressing-drenched slaw.

Most of all, there were leftovers. WAY too many leftovers. Heaps of peanuty slaw. Troughs of tortilla soup. That part’s my fault: I cooked for a mob, rather than my little family of three. To honestly assess this book, I should probably experiment with it more minus the tripling and quadrupling. Hell, I just opened to the Big-Ass Cup of Cozy section and skimmed the Wedding Soup with White Bean Balls and Kale recipe…

That sounds good enough to fucking eat.

The results: 6.5 spatulas

Thug Kitchen–Recipe #5: Creamy Peanut Slaw & Recipe #6: Chocolate Fudge Pops

We’re in the home stretch of the recap of the big dinner party. That means it’s time to cover the side dish—Creamy Peanut Slaw—and the dessert—Chocolate Fudge Pops before closing this chapter of Embarrassing Culinary Lessons Learned.

Creamy Peanut Slaw

“Stop serving the same old soggy sadness,” urges Creamy Peanut Slaw’s recipe, “and try this slawsome side dish.” I like a peanuty, tangy, mayo-free slaw, so I was completely game, although why I thought it would be a good side dish for tortilla soup I’m not sure.

I decided to quadruple the recipe for my 14 guests plus me and Jon. That seemed about right since the recipe “makes enough for 4 as a side dish” and I had four times that planning to belly up to the table. How I moved from that simple math to leaving Gelsons 24 hours later with a bulging 45-pound bag of 6 cabbages—three green and three purple—will be one of life’s little mysteries, I guess.

Anyhow. I prepped my vat of slaw the night before by first assembling the peanut dressing. That involved mixing 12 tablespoons of peanut butter, 8 tablespoons of warm water, 12 tablespoons of rice vinegar, 8 tablespoons of lime juice, 4 tablespoons of minced ginger, 6 teaspoons of Sriracha and 2 teaspoons tamari into a bubbling brew. At some point, Jon pointed out that, rather than counting to 12 tablespoons for all these different liquids, I could simply pour ¾ cup but I was In Too Deep at that point. I had a rhythm, and there was no stopping the careful, whispered measuring, the mid-point panic that I’d double-counted, followed by the visual assessment of the puddle in the bowl—Is that what 4 tablespoons of lime juice looks like? Or is it closer to 5?

Step 2—the Slaw—begins with thinly slicing 12 cups’ worth of both purple and green cabbage. I awkwardly grab-rolled four of the cabbages from the fridge’s lowest shelf, which was at that point dedicated to storing nothing but cabbage, and peeled one each with reckless, wasteful abandon. Like an exacting gourmet chef, I decided I’d use nothing but the innermost pristine layers, since, lo and behold, I apparently had cabbage to spare. Even with this frivolous approach, it took only one of each cabbage to fill the recipe’s quota. In fact, I think you could probably get six cups of thinly sliced goodness from a single cabbage without even sharpening your knife.

“What am I going to do with four cabbages?” I yelled down the hall, as I dumped four-carrots worth of shreddlings from the pre-shredded carrot bag into the mighty salad bowl. Jon didn’t bother answering.

To finish, I chopped 1-1/3 cups green onions and scraped the pungent little bands on to the top of the veggie mountain. Then, I sealed up the veggies, poured the dressing into a jar, and stuck everything into the fridge for the night; I’d mix it all the evening of the party.

The results: Holy squirrel, this was a lot of Creamy Peanut Slaw.

It tasted good—lots of crunch, and snapping green freshness—but I think pouring all of the dressing, as instructed, over the veggies was a bit too much. I liked the dressing, too, although it could’ve used even more tamari and Sriracha. The students ate a fair amount of the stuff and some even stirred it inexplicably into their soup. Still, I had buckets left—and four whole cabbages waiting for another one of my brilliant cooking ideas.

Chocolate Fudge Pops

Don’t make these with firm tofu.

The recipe calls for “firm silken tofu” and I couldn’t find it at the store, so I just grabbed whatever tofu and figured I’d make it work. WRONG. Yes, there’s almond milk and semisweet chocolate chips in the filling, but that was clearly not enough to obliterate the sin of poor shopping choices. I heated the milk, melted the chips in a double boiler, and then carefully blended everything with the tofu before pouring the filling into little red cups and plunking a popsicle stick in the middle as they started to firm up in the freezer. And it didn’t matter.

The results: The pops were chocolate-y, yes, but overwhelmingly grainy and unpleasant. And really, really vegan in that disappointing way desserts without dairy often turn out.

MAJOR FAIL.

And at dessert-time! That most important part of the meal.

I solemnly swear I’ll never do the tofu switcheroo again.

Thug Kitchen–Recipe #3: Baked Spicy Plantain Chips & Recipe #4: Tortilla Soup

During April—which included a magnificent five-day camping trip to Death Valley during Roxy’s Spring Break—I got some new perspective on the Big Dinner Thing I threw for the visiting students. These fresh thoughts enabled me to cobble together some personal Entertaining Do’s and Entertaining Don’ts, which I share here:

Stick to cooking familiar, tried-and-true recipes for very large groups of people. For smaller clutches of friends and family, experiment away! But for any event featuring more than 6 or 7 guests, stick to the basics. It’s just less stressful.

If compelled to experiment, tuck the new recipes into harmless corners of the menu—the appetizer lineup, beverages, even a side. If people like the main dish and dessert, they’ll probably leave happy.

Put out plates, silverware, napkins, etc. more than 20 minutes before the guests arrive. If you don’t have enough of anything you can rethink (insert or mix in disposable, unearth those IKEA cocktail napkins that live in the hostess-gift stash in the linen closet, dispatch a loved one to the store).

Follow the recipe’s instructions. Now is not the time to see if firm tofu is an excellent substitute for fluffy-silky tofu.

And there’s probably other stuff, too, which I’ll learn the next time a bunch of folks come over.

So, back to the Thug Kitchen recipes I made for the students…

Baked Spicy Plantain Chips

“This is a chip with some motherfucking backbone,” opens the recipe’s introduction. A confident claim if ever I’ve read one. I also liked the unintimidating look of the 4-step process, so I added this to my menu for the night.

I made these a few hours before the dinner party so that I’d be able to serve them hot, crisp and fresh. First I “cranked” the oven to 400 degrees and misted a baking sheet with cooking spray, which I always do outside on my back deck, which feels only slightly less gross than doing it inside. Next, I attempted to peel the 2 green (as instructed) plantains I bought for the double version of the recipe. This was a sticky, annoying process—lots of peel clinging doggedly to the fruit, lots of fraying peel strings once detached. In fact, the plantain soon turned a sickly gray (from the extensive manhandling, I presume) leading me to abandon the artisanal, by-hand method and grab a knife. I did my best to get the peel-and-just-the-peel off the plantains but probably lost a lot of the fruit in the process. Had I grabbed too green a bunch?

Once I’d peeled those plantains, I sliced them coin-thin. After scrubbing all the stickiness off my hands, I pulled out two of my favorite stacking bowls (yellow and orange). Into the first went 2 tablespoons of olive oil and 4 tablespoons of lime juice, followed by the plantain coins. I mixed it all until the plantains were beautifully and evenly covered (hint: that’s not how the recipe described it). Then, I scraped the plantains into the second bowl, along with 4 teaspoons chili powder, ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper and ½ teaspoon salt, and mixed some more.

To bake the coins, I arranged them into a single layer on the baking sheet and stuck that into the oven for 20 minutes. This proved to be a bit too long for our cranky old oven; the plantains came out on the crispy Cajun-blackened side rather than “golden” as described. Crap.

The results: The recipe says to eat these chips the day they’re made for crisp retention. “Yeah that’s right, crisp retention, some highbrow shit right there.” I tried a few right out of the oven and they were tasty—albeit a tad over-spiced (although that may have been the char talking). I used one to scoop up some Cilantro Bean Dip and that combination was deelish, all sweet-spicy crunch playing nice with the cool blast from the lime and cilantro. Even with the over-baking oops, I thought the chips were a solid B.

Once the students had settled in later that evening, I scraped the plantain chips into a bowl and put them on the coffee table beside the gigantic buckets of tortilla chips I’d already deployed.

Guess which ones disappeared?

Once again, I’d failed to properly think about presentation. Dark little chips in a dark little bowl resembled compost-ready trimmings from an ancient vegetable, not a tasty appetizer. This shit, to borrow a phrase from Thug, needs bright, small and appealing to entice guests to grab and try.

I ate a bunch, Jon ate a bunch. Someone else probably did, too. But there were still leftovers.

Oh well.

Tortilla Soup

I had a hell of a time figuring out how much of this, my main course for the night, to make. It wasn’t like it was raining and cold that week. But it was Friday night after five straight days of volunteering around L.A. and these students would be hungry. Or so I reasoned.

Thus I quadrupled the recipe.

Soup, I also reasoned, would be easy. Only bowls and spoons required…choose your own amount, decorate at will. And I love soup! Other main dishes—lasagna, various bakes and ricey bowls, pad thai—just looked hard.

I made the soup the afternoon of the dinner. This involved chopping up 4 onions (which, in this case, meant opening a bag of frozen diced onions…my one shortcut), 4 carrots and 4 red peppers; spooning 16-cloves’ worth of chopped garlic from my trusty jar (I guess that’s another shortcut, but I always do that); and mincing about 6 jalapeños. Then I pulled out our largest soup kettle and sautéed the gleaming onion mound in some olive oil, followed by the carrot and peppers. Into that tastiness, I dumped the jalapeños, garlic, and veritable anthills of ground cumin, dried oregano, chili powder and salt. Once all that had cooked for about 30 seconds, I added 4 cans of low-salt diced tomatoes plus a cup of tomato paste (you know you’re cooking for a crowd when you measure out an unfathomable CUP of tomato paste). “Make sure that you stir that son of a bitch around enough so that the paste isn’t just sitting in a clump,” Thug advises. Then I poured in 20 cups of vegetable broth.

Uh, huh. 20. You read that right. And around 14 cups or so I realized there was no way all those ingredients were going to fit into one soup kettle.

I grabbed another enormous pot, splashily transferred 7 cups of soup into it and split the remaining broth between the two kettles. I let it all come to a good simmer over medium-high heat.

In the spirit of “taking [it] up a notch,” I tossed in lime juice and piles of corn tortillas (28 or so) that I’d cut into 1-inch squares with my handy kitchen scissors, brought both pots to a gentle simmer yet again and listened to it all bubble quietly away for about 10 minutes while I did some dishes.

The next step calls for firing up your immersion blender and “pulverizing that bastard” (or in my case, the bastard twins) until smooth. Watching immersion blenders do their thing always amazes me. Into the whirling blades go chunks and colors and odd shapes—out comes professional-looking uniformity. It’s a bit of a trip.

To finish up, the recipe says to add any more seasonings the soup may need—I think I put in a bit more salt—and you’re ready to serve.

The results: I chopped up a ton of different yummy toppings for the soup—avocado, cilantro, the rest of the jalapeños—and laid them out in bowls along with the bits from the tortilla chip bag—once everyone was ready to eat. The soup really smelled good: spicy/pungent and hearty without the greasy chicken undertone you often get in restaurants.

I brought out both kettles, stuck in ladles, pointed to the bowls piled at one end of the table, and welcomed everyone to dig in. And dig, ladle, splash, stir and slurp they did!

The soup was pretty spicy—I’d definitely cut down on the jalapeños next time, although I didn’t mind the chili powder and cumin—and really good, especially piled with cool, mellow avocado and tangy-bright cilantro. The soup was filling, too, which wasn’t a surprise given all those chopped tortilla squares.

The students seemed to like the soup; many had seconds and a few thirds. Jon wandered in from the office to grab another bowlful, too. Even so, at the end of the night, after everyone had Ubered off into the misty dark, I had GALLONS left. The only vessel big enough to hold it all was our giant 6.8-liter Tupperware container usually reserved for cakes and storing all the other Tupperware.

We enjoyed the leftovers for three, maybe four nights. Then, we dragged the sloshing remains up the hill and poured them into the compost.

 

 

Thug Kitchen–Recipe #1: Ginger-Lime Sparklers & Recipe #2: Creamy Black Bean and Cilantro Dip

As the Ancient Greeks intoned from their stony Delphic perch, it’s important to know thyself.

I sort of know myself. I know, for example, that I am impatient with computers, have an inexplicable weakness for Keanu Reeves, avoid ketchup like the plague and love reading in bed late into the night.

I also know that I’m not very good at cooking for large groups of people.

It’s not that the desire isn’t there. I like throwing parties, dinners, brunches and dessert things. They’re opportunities to throw open the door, welcome loved ones in and nurture them with homemade deliciousness.

I’m just not very good at it.

To be more specific, I’m not very good at figuring out HOW MUCH TO COOK.

Last month I made dinner for 14 Pomona students at the end of their Alternabreak. They showed up in three shiny Ubers, deposited a mountain of backpacks on the floor and proceeded to be delightful, fun, interesting, appreciative and a lovely reminder that [college] kids are still [college] kids in spite of old folks’ worries about technology swallowing them whole.

Cracking open my brand-new copy of Thug Kitchen, I made half the menu the night before the dinner; the other half the afternoon of. Here’s how it all went—in two-recipe posts.

Ginger-Lime Sparklers

As the recipe’s intro promises: “No need to sit on your ass waiting around for syrups to boil and cool. You can have this fizzy ginger limeade ready in less than 5 minutes.” That’s mostly true. The recipe serves four, which is great in my everyday life, but a pain in the tush when cooking for 14. So, times-ing twice, and then twice again, I cut four limes into small wedges and tossed them in my blender, along with 6 tablespoons of fresh minced ginger, 12 tablespoons of agave syrup and 4 cups of water. “Yeah, the whole fucking lime,” as the recipe says. “Just have some faith.” I blended the concoction on high—Mix button, then Puree button for good measure—for about a minute.

Next, I dragged our large fine-mesh sieve out of the way-low cupboards, plunked it over a bowl and strained the blender’s contents. Into the compost bin went the pulp, and into our largest pitcher went the liquid, along with another four cups of water. At this point, the pitcher was nearly full, but I gently stirred the contents a few times without losing too much to slosh. Once I realized I still needed to add the tonic water, I poured half the liquid into another pitcher and then equally divided 12 CUPS of tonic water into the two pitchers.

The results: Once everyone was crowded around the coffee table munching on pita chips, tortilla chips, salsa and dip, I announced the Ginger-Lime Sparklers. About 10 of the students wanted one—and slurped them up as I doled them out. Everyone pronounced them delicious.

I totally agreed. The ginger-lime combo is a no-brainer that stretches back to our Caribbean and Indian ancestors, if not further. The tangy-sharp green of the lime pairs perfectly, comfortably, with the earthy-sweet hum of ginger. Mixed with tonic water in a tall cup of ice, the sparkler is utterly refreshing—the very definition of brisk without swerving into menthol territory. I’d make this again in a heartbeat. And I bet adding a fistful of fresh mint to the blender might not be a bad idea either.

Creamy Black Bean and Cilantro Dip

“This savory dip can elevate even the lamest party,” brags the recipe’s introduction. “YES, IT’S THAT FUCKING GOOD. It has the power to make you cool.”

I was sold, especially when I noticed the recipe is only four sentences long.

First sentence: “Throw all of that shit in a food processor and run until creamy.” “That shit” would be—and I doubled this, my first mistake—a little over four cups of canned black beans, 2/3 cup veggie broth, 4 cloves garlic, juice from 2 limes, several pinches of salt, 1 teaspoon chili powder, ½ cup chopped cilantro and 1 cup chopped green onions.

The second sentence offers an alternative to a food processor—a potato masher—so I ignored it.

Third sentence: “Serve warm, room temperature, or cold.” Check.

Fourth sentence: “This is a dope spread for a wrap or sandwich, too.”

The results: After making this on Thursday night, I sampled some with a cracker. Although it looked like sludge—a purple-brown, oddly, even with all that green matter in it—the taste was divine. The veggie broth, plus all that lime juice, elevate this from typical bean-dip boring to a much fresher, zippier land.

The problem was, on the night of the dinner party, we (because by now Jon was helping out, God love him) didn’t present it correctly. We scraped the dip into a single dark-blue bowl, arranged it on the coffee table with the chips and salsas, and there it sat, mostly untouched.

I should’ve dusted it with a garnish—maybe more chopped cilantro? Or a few crumbles of feta cheese perhaps (although with one lactose intolerant student in the mix I was trying to avoid dairy entirely). Even chip crumbs would’ve worked. But a big lonely blob of dark whatever in a bowl just doesn’t scream out “Taste me now.”

When I looked back at Thug Kitchen’s own presentation of the dip on its opening pages to the chapter “Dip, Dip, Pass Motherfucker” I saw that they did it right, using a small, even cute, bright yellow bowl for contrast and containment. I’d totally dip a chip into that. Lesson learned.

Thug Kitchen: Eat Like You Give a F&ck—Introduction

Thug Kitchen, one of 2014’s bestselling cookbooks, arrived on my doorstep last week encased in its Amazon cardboard wrapper.

It’s a fucking good thing, too.

Months ago I offered to host a dinner for 14 Pomona College students in my home. I felt generous of spirit, eager to learn from and share with young people attending my alma mater, and happy to support their “Alternabreak” volunteer activities at several L.A. nonprofits. The uplift! The good karma! The networking!

Well, here we are the week of—in fact they’ll be here in 48 hours—and I couldn’t be less prepared.

I blame expectations. Expectation #1: Take-out won’t be served. Expectation #2: The house will be clean. Expectation #3: Sparkling conversation will occur.

I’m having a hard time moving from frazzled and paralyzed to eager and productive. My week has been busier than expected; I’ve also successfully procrastinated for several evenings in a row. Worst of all, I can’t decide on the menu.

And did I say one of the students is lactose intolerant?

Say a huge fucking prayer for Thug Kitchen. Published by Rodale in New York, the 212-page book is written by Thug Kitchen LLC. That caused a bit of a double-take when I first read it. Is that a person? A club? Some Girl Scouts? Google says it’s Matt Holloway and Michelle Davis, whoever they are, but I rather like how TK puts it on their website: “This site is here to help your narrow dietary mind explore some goddamn options so that you can look and feel like a fucking champ.”

Well, then.

All the recipes are vegan and the book, which looks and feels great, has one of those durable matte, full-color covers that makes you want to pet it and dive right in.

The tone of the book, like the site and the blog and the posts and all that other crap, is hilarious. More importantly, it’s wise and straightforward and encouraging. The intro serves as their manifesto—why they feel everyone, not just fancy people who talk a certain way, should and can make tasty, healthy food without killing themselves and the planet. I like this Every Person ethos.

I also like the writing, especially when they’re explaining something to a cooking newbie: “If you don’t like an ingredient, say mushrooms, then don’t try a recipe where the main ingredient is a motherfucking mushroom. And don’t go thinking you can just leave out some core ingredient like that and the dish will still work out. That shit is not going to fly in any recipe. EVER.

“Don’t fucking email us when you try switching bananas out for bell peppers and you’re disappointed with how it tasted,” TK continues. “You did that shit. Not us. Own it.”

I could keep typing lines from the cookbook all day, but I’ll stop. Needless to say, after much page turning and calculating, I finally came up with the following Amazing Dinner Plan:

* Ginger-Lime Sparklers

* Creamy Black Bean and Cilantro Dip

* Baked Spicy Plantain Chips

* Creamy Peanut Slaw

* Tortilla Soup (“This old-school Southwestern soup is so goddamn good, even your grandma would approve. Just don’t let her catch you swearing in the house.”)

* and, for dessert, Chocolate Fudge Pops

DAMN.

I don’t swear this much in a calendar year, so there’s something cathartic about reading lines like “You are going to be one clever culinary motherfucker when we are done with you. Let’s get to fucking work.”

Yes, ma’am. The clock is ticking.