Category Archives: Budget-friendly

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.

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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.

Wintry Butter Bean and Kale Saute

wintry butter bean and kale saute

Since the clock struck midnight on January 1st, it seems like every newsletter from the ever-proliferating world of daily deal websites has contacted me about my New Year’s resolution to sculpt my flabby arms, consume only liquids until the point of collapse, or finally lose that baby weight.  I was surprised because not only did I not make these resolutions in a public forum, I also did not make them at all (or even gain baby weight in the first place).

It’s not that I’m opposed to resolutions; in fact, the opposite is true: as a New Year’s baby I’m especially prone to thinking about January 1st as a time for change and renewal.  I even made a few resolutions of my own this year (ranging from being more giving to using a purse).  However, it’s disturbing to see this dietary yo-yo culture propagated by those who aim to profit off of it.  If Hallmark is believed by conspiracy theorists/bitter singles to have “invented” Valentine’s Day, then the American weight loss industry certainly concocted the concept of new and old years.

So this Wintry Butter Bean and Kale Sauté recipe isn’t because you made a resolution to eat healthier, cook more, eat vegetarian meals a couple days a week, or even–gasp!–lose weight, although it certainly fits the bill for those physical goals.  Instead, it’s a nutrient-packed, high-protein simple meal that will leave you energized to accomplish all your other goals and daily activities.  Like using a purse.

While many meat-eaters get too much protein in their daily diets, getting ample protein can still be an issue for some vegetarians and vegans if they don’t plan their meals well.  Personally in winter, I’m attracted to sweet complex carbohydrates like whole grains, squashes and fruit that leave me feeling sluggish if I don’t balance them out with proper proportions of beans, nuts, lentils, soy proteins or eggs and dairy.  This recipe is a balanced one-pot meal that has a hearty wintry feel, without relying too heavily on the classic starchy vegetables of the season.  Assembled just like a stir-fry, you can sub out beans, greens, and veggies based on what you have in your fridge.  If you do dairy, a tiny pat of butter and a sprinkle of Parmesan will make this divine.

This year, I’ve got a lot of exciting things planned for Urban Chickpea, including sharing recipes from my new supper club Seek and introducing a new series called Healthy Kitchen Essentials, which highlights key ingredients and tools to keep on hand to make healthy eating a snap.  Feel free to share with me anything else you’d like to see on the blog this year in the comments section.

Happy New Year!

wintry butter bean and kale saute 2

wintry butter bean and kale saute 3


Wintry Butter Bean and Kale Sauté

serves 2 as an entree

2 teaspoons olive oil or butter
1 teaspoon chili flakes, or to taste
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 cups shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and sliced (an 8-ounce package)
1/2 head of cauliflower, cut into small (1/2-inch) florets
1 can of butter beans, rinsed and drained
2 teaspoons of tamari (or other high quality soy sauce)
zest of one lemon
1 bunch of kale, stemmed and roughly chopped
juice of half a lemon
salt and pepper to taste
optional garnish: diced avocado/chopped nuts/ground flax seeds/shaved Parmesan

1. In a large skillet or pot, heat oil on medium until it shimmers and add chili flakes and garlic. Saute for 30 seconds. Add the shiitakes and a big pinch of salt and turn heat up to high. Saute until mushrooms have released their moisture and begin to brown, about 5 minutes.

2. Add the cauliflower and another pinch of salt and saute until cauliflower is browned at edges, about 3 minutes. Remove cauliflower and shiitakes from skillet into a bowl and set aside.

3. Over medium heat, add a little more oil to the pan and add the butter beans and a pinch of salt, browning each side, about 2 minutes. Add the tamari and lemon zest and stir to combine. Then add the kale, stir and cover for 2 minutes until it wilts slightly. Stir the cauliflower and shiitakes back to the skillet and let remain on heat until everything is warmed through. Turn off heat and add the lemon juice and salt and pepper if necessary. Garnish each portion with half an avocado, diced, or anything you’d like.

Roasted Delicata Squash Rings

roasted delicata squash rings

If you are in a pre-Thanksgiving panic and looking for an easy, healthy side dish to add to your Thanksgiving table, first check out this checklist from Jezebel of things you should have already done for Thanksgiving, like starting your own cranberry bog and hatching your own turkey eggs.  Then consider adding this simple Roasted Delicata Squash Rings recipe to your menu.  Delicata is a sweet fall squash that’s now available at many grocery stores and farmers’ markets.  Not only does it have a sweet, starchy flesh, but the peel is beautiful and edible, so you don’t even have to go through the work of peeling it like other squashes.  Just slice it and roast it and you’ve got a simple and visually stunning side dish to complement any fall meal.  You can even prep these ahead of time and just reheat them in the oven before Thanksgiving dinner.  They don’t taste too shabby at room temperature either.

Delicata tastes great roasted on its own like this, or you can add the roasted rings to a grain salad or any place you might add roasted butternut squash or sweet potato cubes.  Since delicata is naturally sweet and roasting enhances this quality, the squash rings could even been a substitute for the more time-consuming (and fat- and sugar-laden) classic of sweet potato casserole.  If you have a mandoline, try slicing the delicata very thinly to make oven chips as a great between-meal snack; follow the same procedure, just reduce the time in the oven by about half.  I’ll warn you though: these chips are ridiculously addictive.

Delicata Squash image

The shape of the squash slices reminds me of the flower-shaped butter cookies that I used to eat off of my fingers as a kid.  Which, for some reason, now only appear to be available on Amazon for $59.99.  From a food-safety standpoint, it’s probably a safer bet to just go with the squash.

Roasted Delicata Squash Rings

Roasted Delicata Squash Rings

Serves 4 as a side dish

2 – 3 delicata squashes
3 tablespoons of canola or grapeseed oil
1 teaspoon of salt
pinch of red pepper flake
freshly ground black pepper

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees and line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. Slice each delicata squash in half horizontally (to preserve circle-shape) and scoop out the seeds with a small spoon. Then slice 1/4-inch rings.

3. Toss the rings with the oil, salt, chili flake and pepper, making sure that there is just enough oil to coat. Place the rings in a single-layer on the prepared baking sheets and roast for 30 – 40 mins, turning them over halfway through. The squash should be fully cooked and lightly browned on each side.  Add more salt to taste, if desired.

Cantaloupe Food-Processor Sorbet

Cantaloupe food-processor sorbet

When I’m at the market and I see a fruit or vegetable I haven’t tried before, I’m compelled to buy it.  Basically, I’m the culinary version of an early adopter of technology, just think of, say, opo squash as my iPad.  I tried it first, and soon I’ll be trying to convince you all why you can’t live without it.  However, this approach is occasionally ill-advised.  Like yesterday, when I met the Microsoft Bob of the produce section: the muskmelon.

I should have known from its name.  I mean, you there, reading at home, are already disgusted by the muskmelon and you haven’t even seen it.  Nevertheless, I was intrigued by its unwieldy appearance that looked like what you would get if you bred a cantaloupe with an ogre.  After giving it a brief sniff to rule out the presence of its promised “musk,” I tossed it into my cart, hauled it home and sliced it open.

Ighhh.  The flesh looked like a cantaloupe’s, but while it had all of that cantaloupe-y flavor, it had none of the sweetness.  I dotted around my kitchen looking for anything to help remedy my mistaken purchase.  Inspired by a refreshing cantaloupe Italian ice that I’d recently had at Mario’s, I decided on a muskmelon sorbet, adding lemon, lime and mint to brighten it up.  I don’t normally like to use white sugar, but this was a muskmelon emergency.

So last night, as I let my muskmelon experiment chill in the freezer, I headed off with my friend Jess to mingle with conscious foodies at a book launch party for Fair Food, a book that outlines a plan for a better, sustainable food system in this country.  My frozen dessert sensors must have been on, because I fortuitously met Alison Bower, owner of Ruth and Phils Gourmet Ice Cream.   And just like when someone has a growing rash, runs into a doctor in public and makes her take a look at it right then and there, I immediately gushed to Alison my muskmelon/sorbet fiasco.  Alison offered a suggestion for my sorbet in case it came out less than ideal, “You can always turn it into a blended cocktail.”  WHAT.  No wonder she’s a pro.

When I gave my sorbet the final buzz in the food-processor this morning and gave it a taste, it was lovely: smooth and melon-y, with a slight kick from the tart citrus.  Yet it did just seem to be screaming for a shot of tequila on top.  Thanks Alison.  Good thing I made a quart of it and can enjoy it both ways.

The neat thing about this sorbet is that you don’t need an ice cream maker to make it, you just blend the ingredients, freeze them and then blend them one more time before serving.  The texture is slightly icier than store-bought sorbet, but that makes it light and cooling, and of course you don’t have added dairy, eggs or vegan fats to make it heavy like ice cream.  By pureeing the whole melon, rather than using a fruit juice, all the fiber and nutrients like beta-carotene and potassium are preserved.  This particular muskmelon desperately needed some sweetness, but if your cantaloupe is sweet, you could forgo the sugar or add a few teaspoons of agave for a more natural option.  If you are brave (read: obstinate), try this with a muskmelon; otherwise, give it a try with a more reliable member of the muskmelon family: the cantaloupe.

Cantaloupe food processor sorbet
Cantaloupe Food-Processor Sorbet
Makes about 1 quart

5 cups of cubed cantaloupe or muskmelon, rind and seeds removed (from 1 small melon)
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1 sprig mint
juice from 2 limes
juice from 1 lemon
pinch of salt

1. In a small pot, heat the sugar, water and mint, until the sugar just dissolves. Set aside to cool. Then discard the mint sprig.

2. In a food processor or blender, puree the melon, sugar water, lime juice, lemon juice and salt until very smooth. Pour this into a glass baking dish and put in the freezer for at least 4 hours or until frozen.  Stir occasionally; it will make the final step much easier.

3. Take the baking dish out of the freezer and let it sit on the counter for at least 5 minutes.  Using a spoon or a knife, break up the frozen mixture and put it into a food processor.  Pulse to break up the ice crystals, then puree until smooth and velvety.  Scoop and serve directly from the food processor.  Store any extra in a container in the freezer and just let it sit for a few minutes on the counter before scooping.

Lemon Cilantro Moong Dal

lemon cilantro mung dal

In the last few years, there’s been increased media coverage about the rising cost of food, the negative environmental and health effects of eating too much animal protein, and the importance of whole foods and fiber in our diets.  It’s actually surprising to me that more people aren’t looking to beans and lentils as an easy solution.  These members of the legume family are loaded with protein, fiber, trace nutrients and come in a variety of shapes, flavors and sizes.  Furthermore, they’re totally cheapsville.  A serving of beans or lentils will cost you around 10 – 50 cents.  Compare that with the even lowest quality meat that you are willing to eat.  Also since legumes usually come dried, canned or frozen, they last in your pantry for months to years, stretching your buck even further.

But you still aren’t cooking them at home.  Why, friends?  Because they take time?  You don’t know how?  You’re afraid to eat them?  They’re un-American?  Push those worries aside.  Today you’re learning how to make an easy, knockout lentil dish.

I’m taking inspiration from some of the fabulous lentil dishes in India called dal.  One of the most basic dals uses split and husked mung beans and is called moong dal (see the pic below).  This dal is considered very nutritious and easy to digest–so much so that it’s often given to people when they are recovering from an illness like the stomach flu.  Most dals are prepared the same way: you soak the lentils, then boil them in water, and then flavor the cooked lentils with a spiced oil.  The final texture can be anywhere from a thick puree to a thin soup.  It’s an easy process, but it does require planning.  I suggest soaking the lentils the night before you want to make this dish.  Then the lentils need to cook for about an hour, unattended, and then finishing them with the oil takes only 2 minutes.  Lentils also soak up a good amount of salt (just like soups), so don’t be afraid to be generous with your salting.  Lemon and cilantro are classic finishing flavors to many dals; here, I’ve amped up the quantity to make this dish really pop with bright flavors.

Each 1 cup serving of this Lemon Cilantro Moong Dal (from 1/4 cup of uncooked lentils) has about 170 calories, 14 grams of protein and 16 grams of fiber (about 61% of the recommended daily allowance) and each serving of the lentils cost 20 cents.  You can round out the meal with bread or rice and a side salad.  Leftover dal makes an easy, energizing breakfast as well.

mung dal

The dish on the left shows what dry moong dal looks like when you buy it.  The dish on the right shows what it looks like after soaking overnight.

Lemon Cilantro Moong Dal
Makes 4 1-cup servings

1 cup of moong dal (split and husked mung beans)
1 tablespoon of butter
2 teaspoons of olive oil
1/4 teaspoon of mustard seeds
1/4 teaspoon of cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon of turmeric
pinch of asofetida or garlic powder
1 1/2 teaspoons of salt
3 tablespoons of lemon juice, from about 1 1/2 lemons
1/2 cup of finely chopped cilantro leaves and stems (not roots)

1. In a fine mesh strainer, thoroughly rinse the moong dal in running water until the water runs clear.  Sift through the lentils to make sure there are no stones, husks, or dirt.  Put the rinsed lentils in a bowl, cover with several inches of water and let soak overnight on the counter or inside the refrigerator if your kitchen is hot.

2. The next day, drain the lentils and give them a quick rinse.  Put the lentils in a medium-sized pot and cover with 3 inches of water.  Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer, and let this cook for about 1 hour.  Skim off any foam that forms on the top and add more water if necessary, but mostly you can leave it alone.  You want the lentils to get fully softened (with no grittiness) and start to fall apart. Then give them a mash with the back of a ladle or an immersion blender to make a smoother puree.  You should end up with about 4 cups of a medium-bodied puree.  Add more liquid or cook longer to adjust the thickness to your liking.

3. Once the lentils are cooked, take another medium-sized pot and melt the butter and oil over medium heat. Then add the mustard seeds and cumin seeds, stirring, and let these cook for about 30 seconds until they start to sizzle and pop. Quickly add the turmeric and asofetida or garlic powder. Then immediately add the cooked lentils and stir to flavor them with the spices. Add the 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt and let the mixture come up to a simmer.  Turn off the heat and add the lemon juice and cilantro.  Taste to see if it needs more salt or lemon juice and then serve.