Creamy Broccoli Soup

creamy vegan broccoli soup

The phrase “comfort food” conjures up images in my mind of Italian grandmothers slaving over hot stoves all day, of Southern dishes laden with butter and bacon, and of slow-simmered Indian dishes served with more rice than should fit in a human stomach.  But for me–and for many people who grew up in my generation–our real comfort foods are often the packaged, industrial kinds that frequently nourished us at dinnertime and whose cartoon mascots coached us after-school on TV.  Foods like Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and Trix Yogurt are often what pop up when millennials think of our first food memories.  I mean, I’ve already shared how Nutella was basically a third parent to me.

But one of the weird packaged foods like I absolutely loved as a kid was Lipton Cup-a-Soup in the Broccoli Cheddar flavor.  Basically it’s a “food” powder that you rehydrate in hot water and that should only be served to monkeys in space.  Somehow we thought that feeding this to a sick person would make them healthy again.  But admittedly, a lot of things that happened in the late 80s/early 90s don’t make that much sense to me: (See: shoulder pads, mall bangs, crack cocaine, WHY WINNIE AND KEVIN DON’T END UP TOGETHER etc. etc.)

But what does make sense to me is creating a healthy, vegan version of broccoli cheddar soup with–gasp!–real food.  Onions and garlic give a solid flavor base, and cannellini beans create that creamy texture and pack the protein, while lightly cooked broccoli adds vitamins C, K, and A, folate, and a brilliant green color.  Broccoli, like kale, bok choy, collards and other members of the cruciferous family, is thought to help prevent cancer because of its anti-inflammatory properties and high antioxidant concentration.

If you are hungering for that old-school broccoli cheddar flavor, you could even add a tablespoon or two of nutritional yeast flakes to give it a cheesy flavor and add B vitamins.  Like most blended soups, this freezes beautifully and is great to have on hand for days you aren’t feeling great or just don’t feel like cooking.  No food powder required.

Creamy Broccoli Soup
Serves 4

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 yellow onions, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
2 (15 oz) cans cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
1 teaspoon sea salt
4 cups of water
2 heads of broccoli, broken into small florets (about 1 lb)
juice of half lemon
salt, pepper, and chili flake to taste

1. Heat a drizzle of olive oil in a large pot and add onions.  Saute until they soften but don’t brown, about 5 – 7 minutes.

2. Add garlic and saute an additional 30 seconds.  Stir in the beans and add salt and water.  Cover and bring to a boil.  Add broccoli florets and let sit until they turn bright green, about 30 – 60 seconds.  Remove a few florets and set aside for garnish.  Blend the soup in batches in a blender until very smooth, adding lemon juice, salt, pepper and chili flake to taste.

3. Serve immediately, garnished with broccoli florets and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

Note: The lemon juice will turn the broccoli an olive green as it sits.  If you aren’t serving the soup until later, add the lemon juice and re-season right before serving if you want to keep it bright green.

Raw Brownie Bites with Hemp Seeds

raw hemp seed brownie bites

When WTTW’s cult restaurant review show Check, Please! announced they were looking for a new host, I knew I had to apply.  My family has been watching the show for over 10 years and it’s how we were introduced to great Chicago restaurants like Noon O Kabab, Icosium KafeCoobah, and Kabul House.  The show features a diverse, rotating cast of everyday Chicagoans sitting around a table and sharing their favorite restaurants with each other, in a way that’s both honest and accessible.  In my audition video, I tried to showcase my hosting skills and culinary expertise by taste-testing the difference between wine and cough syrup, eating a salad and laughing in front of the mirror, and trying to shove as many sugary Italian cookies into my mouth as humanly possible. (It makes more sense if you watch the video below, I promise.)

While I love a fistful of sweet and crumbly Italian cookies as much as any other Chicago gal (whose parents met on Taylor Street, no less), this week I decided to mix it up by creating a satisfying raw treat to have on hand when I get the craving for something sweet.  Made with just a handful of pantry ingredients, these Raw Brownie Bites with Hemp Seeds take only minutes to make and no baking or precise measuring is required.  I’m a fan of savory breakfasts like dal, eggs, soup, or even leftovers, but these little bites have found their way into my early morning routine as well.  Truth be told: “breakfast dessert” is a common phrase in our apartment.

These raw brownies are really just fruit and nut bars where dates and walnuts are pulverized in the food processor and cocoa powder is added to give them that chocolatey goodness.  These could also be shaped into little balls and then rolled in hemp seeds to look like truffles.  Either method is great to make with kids since eating the batter is strongly encouraged and hands are the preferred tool for mixing.  You can eat them immediately, but they greatly improve in flavor and texture after an hour or two chilling in the fridge.

In addition to helping you avoid the food coma that traditional baked goods can induce (at least in the quantities I consume…see video), Raw Brownie Bites with Hemp Seeds are Omega 3 powerhouses since both walnuts and hemp seeds provide the essential good-for-you fats.  Hemp seeds have become my little best friends when it comes to adding protein quickly to vegan and vegetarian dishes.  They have a bit of a strong taste in smoothies, but the cocoa here masks it beautifully.

Check, Please! has narrowed down the pool of potential hosts from over 1000 to a list of 17 finalists–and I’m included!  Now it’s up to the public to vote for their favorite candidate to help choose the next host to showcase great restaurants and interesting diners in this fabulous food city.  Voting for the next host of Check, Please! continues through April 17.  Check out the great applicants here, but you know, vote for me. ;) In the meantime, I’ll be on the edge of my seat, snacking on mini brownies.

Raw Brownie Bites with Hemp Seeds
makes 25 mini brownies

1 1/2 cups walnuts
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons hemp seeds, divided
1 1/2 cups pitted Medjool dates (about 15 dates)
1/2 cup cocoa powder or raw cacao powder
pinch of sea salt

1. In the food processor, pulse walnuts and 1/4 cup hemp seeds until finely ground, but not smooth. Add dates, cocoa/cacao powder and sea salt and blend until the dates are pulverized and a crumbly mixture forms.

2. Remove from food processor and press into a ball. Press mixture evenly into an 8 x 8 glass baking dish, using the bottom of a measuring cup to make the top smooth. Sprinkle the 2 tablespoons of hemp seeds on top and lightly press down. Cover with plastic wrap and chill for 2 hours to let the brownies firm up. Cut into small squares and store in the fridge.

Indian Hot and Sour Cashews

hot and sour cashews

My bucket list includes a number of places where I’d like to travel, professional things I’d like to accomplish and then a few harder to classify items: learn to do the splits, have a squash named after me, hug a Muppet, be in a Bollywood movie.  That last goal is perhaps what inspired me to join a professional Bollywood-style dance team called Bollywood Groove last fall, and I have been having a blast dancing with them ever since.  And despite the fact that that goal sounds ridiculously unattainable, I actually got surprisingly close when Dhoom 3, a Bollywood movie, was being shot in Chicago this Fall and Bollywood Groove was asked–and then, ahem, un-asked–to be dancers in the movie.  For the record, we’ve been described as “sizzling” on our own website.  It’s their loss.

A few days ago, my friend Ajanta, who founded Bollywood Groove, asked me if I would share a holiday recipe with her newsletter followers.  Ajanta also teaches amazing cardio classes through Bollywood Groove (Think Indian Zumba.  What??  I KNOW.), so her followers like to celebrate Indian culture, but are often looking for healthier, active ways to do so.  I wanted to share something easy and festive with a little Indian flair, so I decided to share my all-time favorite spiced nuts blend.  By using lots of flavorful Indian spices, I’ve created a snack that’s crunchy and satisfying and will be an unexpected hit on any holiday hors d’oeuvres spread.  If you aren’t hosting, these are a great gift to bring along to a party as well, just package them up in a pretty glass jar.  And of course, filled with protein and healthy fats, these Indian Hot and Sour Cashews also double as an excellent post-workout snack should you ever hit up a Bollywood Groove dance class.

Amchur (green mango powder) is a souring agent used frequently in Indian cookery.  Most sour spices, like sumac and black limes that I used in the Persian Black Lime and Herb Soup, can be harder to find since they aren’t as popular in American cuisine.  Check out Indian markets for amchur or find it online.  If you don’t have it on hand, a squeeze of fresh lime juice on the spiced cashews before serving will give that same sour kick.  Asafoetida is a pungent seasoning reminiscent of onions and garlic that’s used all over India, but garlic powder is an easy substitute.  And the pomegranate seed and cilantro garnish is entirely optional, but I love the festive, holiday look that it gives to this dish.

If you are looking for more ideas for holiday entertaining, I’ll be teaching a cooking class on easy an inexpensive appetizers at the Whole Foods Market in Downtown Evanston on Thursday, December 6, 7pm.  Read more and reserve your spot here.

hot and sour cashews

hot and sour cashews
Indian Hot and Sour Cashews
Makes 2 cups

2 tablespoons grapeseed oil (or other light oil)
2 teaspoons brown mustard seeds
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1 teaspoon chili flake
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
2 teaspoons amchur
large pinch asafoetida or garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon fine grind sea salt
2 cups raw whole cashews
pomegranate seeds and chopped cilantro for garnish (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 300.  Line a sheet tray with parchment paper.

2. Heat oil in a large skillet. Add mustard seeds and cumin seeds and saute until they start to pop out of the pan. Add chili flake, turmeric, amchur, asafoetida/garlic powder and salt.

3. Turn off the heat and add the cashews to the pan, coating them thoroughly in the spiced oil.  Spread evenly on the sheet tray.  Bake at 300 for 12 – 15 minutes, stirring twice during cooking time. Cool and garnish with pomegranate seeds and cilantro.  Eat and enjoy.

Chickpea and Sweet Potato Tagine with Apricots

chickpea and sweet potato tagine with apricots

When I started this blog last year, I agonized over what to name it.  For some reason I knew I wanted the word “chickpea” in there (or cecci or channa), and eventually my buddy Justin came up with “Urban Chickpea” and I loved it.  But it took a solid three months of meditating on the word “chickpea” and obnoxiously recruiting my friends for help for me to land there.  Based on that experience, it will take me at least 6 years to name my first child.  And there’s a 90% chance his/her name will be Chickpea.

And that’s why it’s a total outrage that I haven’t featured a recipe with chickpeas on this blog until today.  EVERYBODY CALM DOWN.  I’m finally giving you what you want: a healthy, vegan meal starring Chickpea.  In addition to looking great holding a fork and a handbag, chickpeas are a great source of protein and extremely high in folate, in addition to being good sources of other minerals like iron and manganese.  From a culinary perspective, they are a fantastically versatile legume because of their firm texture and unique shape and they hold up well in a dish like this.

Although the ingredient list looks long, this recipe is super flexible once you understand the basic seasonings.  Since it’s October, I used both summer squash and sweet potatoes, but you could sub in other vegetables like eggplant or butternut based on what’s available.  The key flavoring agent is Ras el hanout, a Moroccan spice blend that features a number of spices like cardamom, turmeric and cinnamon and gives this dish a warming, perfumed quality.  I also added harissa (which I’ve used before in pasta sauce), and the combination of rich spices, slow-cooked vegetables and dried fruits transported me back to a college trip to Marrakesh, where I was first exposed to the sweet-spicy combination that is characteristic of much Moroccan food.  (Although truthfully, the most memorable part of the trip was when a street vendor appeared out of nowhere and placed a filthy, 30-lb monkey on my then-boyfriend’s head and said–in what was meant to be the monkey’s voice–”Don’t be afraid….I like you.”)

This tagine can easily stand alone, or you can cook up a whole grain like millet or quinoa to accompany it.  I was making this dish to share with a friend who just had a baby, so a large quantity of a refined starch seemed totally necessary.   I love the pearled look and tapioca-like chewiness of Israeli couscous, so I experimented with ways to cook up a perfect batch and the results are below. Israeli couscous is also sometimes called Pearl Couscous, although my grocery store has taken to calling it “Middle Eastern Couscous” perhaps to avoid seeming political.  Not that it helps to distinguish it from all other couscous…that it also Middle Eastern.

Ahh, chickpea love.

Chickpea and Sweet Potato Tagine with Apricots
serves 4

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds (optional)
1 onion, chopped
3 carrots, sliced into 1/4-inch rounds
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 sweet potato, peeled and diced into 1/2-inch cubes
1 tablespoon Ras el hanout
1 cinnamon stick
1 tablespoon harissa
pinch of saffron in a couple tablespoons of hot water
1 zucchini, chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
1 28-ounce can of chopped tomatoes
1 15-ounce can chickpeas
1/2 cup dried Turkish apricots, sliced into half-moons
1 cup water
1-2 teaspoons salt, to taste
1/2 bunch parsley, chopped
1/2 bunch cilantro, chopped
juice from half of lemon, to taste

1. In a large pot or dutch oven, heat oil. Add cumin seeds, and when they start to sizzle and pop, add onion and saute until soft, 5 minutes.

2. Add carrot and sweet potato and saute 5 more minutes. Then add Ras el hanout, cinnamon stick, harissa and saffron and stir until you can smell the spices, about 30 seconds. Then add the zucchini, chopped tomatoes, chickpeas, apricots, water and salt. Bring up to a boil, reduce to a low simmer and cover. Cook on low until sweet potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes–but the longer the better.

3. Remove from heat and add parsley, cilantro and lemon juice. Taste and add more lemon or salt if necessary. Serve alone or with a cooked whole grain or couscous.

Perfect Israeli Couscous
serves 4

1 teaspoon olive oil
1 cup Israeli couscous (also called pearl couscous or Middle Eastern couscous)
1 3/4 cups water
pinch of salt

1. In a medium pot, heat oil and add couscous. Stir to toast couscous until you start to smell a toasty scent or until the couscous starts to turn a light golden color, about 2 minutes. Add water and salt, bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Cover and let cook 15 minutes.

Healthy Kitchen Essentials: Salad Spinner

The first in a new series about products, pantry items and tools to facilitate healthy cooking and eating, Healthy Kitchen Essentials shares personal tips and tricks out of my home kitchen and from my professional experience. I don’t endorse any products here, and I haven’t received any freebies.salad spinner

I’m not a big fan of kitchen gadgets that only do one thing.  For example: the apple slicer.  Sure it’s great to slice up an apple without getting out a cutting board, but the 99.9% of the time that you are eating something other than an apple?  It just takes up space in the Sharp Utensil Drawer that you already have trouble shutting.  I prefer the old-fashioned apple slicer–a knife–because it also slices all your other food, and generally does a better job even with the apple.

But there are a few tasks that an all-purpose tool can’t handle, like cleaning and drying leafy greens like lettuce, kale, spinach, collards and herbs like cilantro and parsley.  For that, it’s worth investing in a salad spinner.  I prefer one like the Oxo pictured above where you push down and pump to spin the greens but I’ve also used ones that are powered like a lawn mower starter, or an old-school coffee-grinder and those work just fine too.  In addition to cleaning greens, I also use my salad spinner to dry off boiled, steamed, and blanched-and-shocked vegetables.  And in a tight space, the basket can double as a colander and the plastic bowl, an additional mixing bowl when you aren’t using it for its salad spinning capabilities.

But yes, even with a few extra uses, the salad spinner is still clearly a one-trick pony.  But the good news is that it can only be used to make your diet healthier and fresher (not to mention cheaper when comparing home-cleaned greens with the bagged versions at the store that are often twice the price).  Compare that to other single-function tools like the ice cream maker, deep fryer, pizza cutter and waffle iron.  Even that blender you said you were getting for smoothies, I know you are using to make margaritas.  You can’t outsmart the salad spinner like that.

Persian Black Lime and Herb Soup

persian black lime and herb soup rezas

Some of my earliest memories as a child take place on food tours of
Chicago.  A given excursion might take me from buying mangoes and
ten-pound sacks of basmati rice on Devon to eating the city’s best
chicken koubideh in Andersonville and then finishing up the evening
with a quick swing by Taylor Street for Italian ice.  And while
these tours weren’t formal—in fact, they were mandatory and led by two
bickering parents cruising in a Subaru station wagon—they are really the root of my interest in food and culture.  And of course, why I now give food tours in Chicago.

One of my family’s major hotspots in Chicago was always Reza’s, a Persian restaurant in Andersonville, and not just because we were for some reason treated like royalty by the Indian maitre d’.  While my family certainly craved Reza’s chicken koubideh and the aromatic dill rice, the first course of an herbaceous lentil soup is what made us go truly bananas.  It was healthy and light, but also hearty and filling, with a tangy depth of flavor.  Even to this day, my sister/roommate/hero/Game of Thrones-watching partner and I have mastered the mathematical acrobatics necessary to exactly meet the minimum delivery requirement for Reza’s to get this soup delivered when we aren’t feeling well.

My mom spent a good part of my childhood trying to perfectly recreate this soup at home with sumac, a dried, ground, sour berry used in Middle Eastern cooking.  With this recipe, I’ve continued her good work with the discovery of black lime, another spice common in this region’s cuisine.  Black limes are basically salted, boiled, and sun-dried limes, and they impart a hard-to-match sourness to balance other flavors in a dish.  Now, yes, I realize you probably don’t have either of these spices on hand, but I strongly recommend seeking them out to add to your pantry, as you’ll likely find many uses for them, adding a brightness to otherwise flat dishes.  I picked up a huge bag of  black limes at a Persian grocery store in Chicago for under $3.  You can also find them online from LA’s Spice Station.  Just make sure to poke a couple holes in them before cooking to make sure the flavors fully infuse.  Sumac is easier to find in stores, but it is also available online.

The other characteristic quality of this soup comes from bucketloads of dried herbs, added at the beginning of cooking.  I’m the unofficial ninja master of my local grocery store’s bulk section, so I snatch up dried herbs for pennies, but you can also substitute handfuls of fresh herbs, finely chopped, if that’s more convenient.  Just be sure to add them at the beginning of cooking as well to ensure the right final consistency.

Now that the weather is getting cooler, you can skip the delivery charge and warm up with this unique homemade soup.  Because winter is coming.

black limes and sumac

Persian Black Lime and Herb Soup

serves 4

1 onion, chopped
3 carrots, sliced into 1/4-inch rounds
2 celery stalks, sliced 1/4-inch thick
1/3 cup red lentils, rinsed
1/3 cup beluga lentils, rinsed
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon paprika
1/4 cup dried parsley
1/4 cup dried dill
2 tablespoons dried mint
1 or 2 black limes, poked with a knife
1 tablespoon sumac
about 6 cups water
1 28-ounce can chopped tomatoes
1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste

1. In a large pot, heat up oil and saute onion, carrots and celery until soft, about 8 minutes.

2. Add red lentils, beluga lentils, turmeric paprika, dried, parsley, dried dill, and dried mint, black limes and sumac.  Stir to combine.  Add enough water to cover and so that the lentils have something to absorb, about 6 cups.

3. Once the lentils are fully cooked, about 15 – 20 minutes, add the chopped tomatoes and salt.  Let simmer an additional 10 minutes, then taste for freshness (add more herbs), tartness (add more sumac) and seasoning (add more salt).

Very Vegetable Fried Brown Rice

vegetable fried rice

Part of my responsibility as a food tour guide in Chicago’s Chinatown is educating my guests on the difference between authentic regional Chinese food like siu mai and xiaolongbao, and Americanized Chinese food like Kung Pao Chicken and Fortune Cookies.  Chef Tony Hu (chef-owner of six fabulous authentic Chinese restaurants and also nicknamed the “Mayor of Chinatown”) calls these inauthentic dishes “Western Classics,” which seems a perfectly apt name to me since these items have become classic American comfort food.

While I often play around and try to mimic dishes in my own kitchen that I’ve tasted in Chinatown–and have since come up with a mean version of Tony’s renowned Ma Po Tofu–lately I’ve ironically had a craving for one of the most plebeian, Americanized Chinese dishes out there: fried rice.

It seemed to me that with a little doctoring, this often-greasy restaurant staple could be a healthy, flavorful, whole-grain and vegetable entree and a great way to use up any kind of leftover grain.  I pumped up the vegetable-to-grain ratio, adding lots of extra carrots, celery and peas, and substituted leftover brown rice for the white.  I think fried egg is characteristic in a good fried rice, and it’s extra fun to watch it cook in seconds, swirled up in the pan with the vegetables.  For the flavoring, I used a mix of tamari, Sriracha, and concentrated shiitake broth.  That’s likely the one ingredient you don’t have already on hand to make this dish.  I think it adds an extra earthy, umami flavor that balances out the saltiness of the tamari, but definitely feel free to leave it out or create your own quick shiitake broth with some hot water and mushroom stems or dried mushrooms.  I added some chopped shiitakes to this as well, even though mushrooms aren’t traditional in fried rice.  Then again, the point of this post is that fried rice isn’t traditional at all, so I’m feeling pretty good about the addition.

Big thanks again to Tom Blakely for snapping photos of this fried rice in action.  And if you’re ever in the mood to join me in Chicago’s Chinatown, check out Chicago Food Planet for more details.

healthy vegetable fried rice

Very Vegetable Fried Rice
serves 4

2 teaspoons grapeseed oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 8oz package of shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and chopped
3 carrots, chopped
3 celery ribs, chopped
1 bunch scallions, sliced with the whites and greens separated
1 egg
2 – 3 cups cooked long grain brown rice (from 1 cup uncooked)
1 teaspoon concentrated shiitake broth (or oyster sauce or just leave out)
1 tablespoon tamari
1 teaspoon Sriracha or chili flake
2 tablespoons water
1 cup frozen peas

1. In a large pot, heat oil and saute garlic for 30 seconds. Add chopped shiitakes and saute until all their water is released, about 5 minutes. Then add carrots, celery, and scallion whites and saute 5 minutes more.

2. Crack an egg into the pot and stir until the egg is broken up and full cooked. Add the rice and stir to coat. Combine the shiitake broth, tamari, Sriracha, and water in a small bowl and then pour the mixture into the pot and stir to mix evenly. Add frozen peas. Cook a few minutes until the liquid is absorbed and the rice is heated through. Taste and add more tamari or Sriracha if necessary. Finish with scallion greens and serve.  Makes great leftovers.