Category Archives: Comfort Food

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.

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.

Black Lava Cakes

black lava cake

I know, I know.  I don’t normally tempt you with delicious-looking desserts like this.  As the name “Urban Chickpea” implies, you often find healthy, plant-based dishes on this site featuring greens, some new-fangled squash or maybe just a big plate of beans.  Today, however, I’m sharing a rich, decadent recipe for a molten lava cake spiced with cinnamon and cayenne and topped with the perfect contrast of sea salt.

Except…surprise!  The main ingredient in this cake is black beans.  Insert catchphrase here!

Now, I didn’t invent the bean dessert trend (check out some notable versions on Joy the Baker and My New Roots), but I like to think that I’m crushing it with this upscale, wholesome twist on the ’90s restaurant cliche: molten lava cake. Hey, as a friend told me, in the food world, somethings are ubiquitous because they are delicious.  (I was talking about St. Germain and she was talking about bacon, but I think we could both agree that the rule applies to gooey chocolate desserts as well.)

In addition to being made from protein-, fiber-, and iron-packed black beans, these cakes are gluten-free, vegan, and sweetened with maple syrup, not sugar.  So while they are still a dark chocolaty indulgence, they are filled with wholesome nutrients as well, like Omega-3s from the chia seeds.  Individual ramekins keep the portions in control, to prevent you from pulling a Miranda Hobbes and eating cake out of the trash.  After melting the chocolate, you just buzz up the ingredients in the food processor and the cakes are ready to go in the oven.  Feel free to play around with the flavors in this recipe.  I go coconuts for cinnamon and cayenne with dark chocolate, but you could try adding orange zest, a splash of frangelico or even more vanilla to make this cake suit your tastes.  Also, you can definitely omit the brown rice flour if you don’t have it on hand.  Without it, the cake will have a fudgier, more brownie-like consistency that’s equally delicious.

I’m typically not much of a dessert person (clarification: I don’t make them, but I definitely eat them) but I was inspired to create this recipe because I wanted to serve something special for a my new supper club, Seek.  It’s an underground dining event in Chicago that features a multi-course, whole foods-based vegetarian meal in a secret location.  Last weekend, we held an Anti-Valentine’s Day dinner and I figured what could be a more perfect dessert for jaded, cheeky urbanites than a rich chocolate cake for one?  Check photos from Seek’s Anti-Valentine’s Day dinner here.  The dinner and recipe were also featured this week in the wellness newsletter Vital Juice!

Come on, Treat Yo’ Self 2012.

Black Lava Cakes
makes 4 small cakes

1 tsp. chia seeds
3 tsp. water
1 4-oz. bar of dark chocolate (70 – 80% cacao), chopped into rough 1/2″ pieces
1 15-oz. can black beans, drained and rinsed
1/2 c. maple syrup
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. lemon juice
1 tsp. cinnamon (I recommend Vietnamese Cinnamon: it’s stronger and spicier)
pinch of cayenne
1/4 heaping tsp. fine grind sea salt
1/3 c. cocoa powder
1/4 c. brown rice flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
4 3-oz. ramekins
coconut oil and extra brown rice flour for prepping ramekins

Optional garnishes:
scoop of coconut-based vanilla ice cream
hiwa kai black lava sea salt (or black sesame seeds or coarse sea salt)
blackberries

1. Preheat oven to 350.

2. Mix chia seeds and water in a small bowl and let sit for five minutes.

3. Meanwhile, set aside four pieces of the chopped chocolate. Put the rest in a metal or glass bowl and place over a pot of simmering water to melt. Set aside.

4. In the food processor, combine black beans, maple syrup, vanilla, lemon juice, cinnamon, cayenne, fine sea salt, melted chocolate, cocoa powder and chia mixture. Process until smooth. Let sit five minutes in the food processor.

5. Oil the ramekins with coconut oil and dust with brown rice flour. This is an optional step if you want to unmold the ramekins after baking.

6. Add the 1/4 c. brown rice flour and baking powder to the processor and pulse to fully combine. Fill each ramekin with the mixture about 1/2 – 3/4 full. Push a piece of the reserved chopped chocolate into the center of each. Bake at 350 for 20 – 30 minutes. Let cool a few minutes before serving. Top with scoop of ice cream, hiwa kai sea salt and blackberries.

Zucchini Mac and Cheese

zucchini mac and cheese cooking light

Last week, I flew to New York to cook on stage for Cooking Light magazine’s Supper Club, a dinner gala at the Time Life building.  The magazine named me their “Healthy Cook of the Year” last October at the Taste of Atlanta based on original recipes, a cooking video I submitted, and a live cook-off.  My two original recipes were Afghani-Style Squash with Curried Kale and Apples and a pasta-free version of Macaroni and Cheese.  Can you guess which one was more popular?

If your eyes blurred out most of the words in that last paragraph and homed in on “mac and cheese,” you’d be like many people I’ve talked to who are eager to find a lighter version of this favorite comfort food.  (And like the judges at the Taste of Atlanta who awarded me $10,000 for the recipe!)  So this year, Cooking Light invited me to the Supper Club dinner to share my Zucchini Mac and Cheese–nicknamed “Mac-less Mac and Cheese” by Cooking Light Chef Allison Fishman–with about 200 guests.  Each guest got to sample the recipe during the hors d’oeurves part of the evening.  As the sit-down dinner began, the energetic and entertaining Executive Chef Billy Strynkowski invited me on stage to demo my recipe to the world’s most encouraging dinner party guests.  The whole evening benefited breast cancer research via Susan G. Komen for the Cure.  A great evening and a great cause and also a pretty nifty gift bag.  With my new Vera Bradley reusable shopping bag, I’ll now be the trendiest person in the Whole Foods parking lot the next time I get hit by a car there.  (Yes, that happened.)

This recipe is broken out into a number of steps, but the premise is fairly simple.  Instead of boiling pasta, slice zucchini into matchsticks and saute them for two minutes.  Then add to your cheese sauce.  Really any mild vegetable could work (I call these “canvas vegetables” because they take on the flavor of whatever you add them too); eggplant, summer squash, spaghetti squash–my good friend Elizabeth over at Brooklyn Supper created a version with parsnips after I taunted her with samples of mine at the office!

I jazzed up this basic idea by including roasted tomatoes for sweetness and color–I mean, come on people, I was trying to win a contest, here–but feel free to simplify and leave them out.  While I definitely use real cheese in the recipe, I balance out the ooey-gooeyiness of gruyere with strong flavors like sharp cheddar and Parmesan.  This means I have to use less cheese overall for the same strong cheesy flavor of other cheese sauces.  Each serving has only about 1.5 ounces of cheese total (generally equivalent to a 1-inch cube of cheese).

My favorite part of this recipe is the puffed amaranth topping.  I avoid cooking with processed ingredients like white pasta and bread crumbs, so I wanted to come up with a crunchy topping that was wholesome.  I took inspiration from one of my culinary school instructors who rolled chocolate truffles in puffed amaranth!  Amaranth is a South American whole grain similar to quinoa; it’s tiny and high in protein and when placed over dry heat, it puffs up with air like popcorn.  Amaranth is like the Kourtney to quinoa’s Kim Kardashian–tinier, now getting more press on its own, and, in this case, somewhat of an airhead.  The puffed topping is entirely optional, but I think it’s a neat way to incorporate a true whole grain into this dish and it’s really fun to make!

Here’s the recipe you’ve all been waiting for: My 10 G’s Mac and Cheese.  I got distracted at the dinner and forgot to take a close-up photo of the finished recipe, so please accept this photo of me with a novelty check from last year’s competition in its place.

Cooking Light Alia Dalal

Zucchini Mac and Cheese with Puffed Amaranth Topping
Makes 6 one-cup servings

1 pint grape tomatoes, halved
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1/4 cup amaranth
2 garlic cloves, minced
pinch of red pepper flakes
3 medium zucchini, peeled and sliced on the diagonal into 1/4 inch disks, then sliced into matchsticks or batons–basically cut the zucchini into the approximate size of macaroni
1 tablespoon minced chives
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1 tablespoons grated Parmesan
salt and pepper to taste

For the cheese sauce:
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3/4 cup of low-fat or nonfat milk
6 ounces of gruyere cheese
2 ounces of sharp white cheddar
pinch of grated nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste

special equipment: one-cup gratin dishes or oven-safe ramekins (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

2. Take halved grape tomatoes, toss with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and pinch of salt and pepper. Place on baking sheet and roast in oven at 400 degress for 20 minutes. Let cool.

3. Preheat Broiler.

4. Meanwhile, to make the puffed amaranth topping, heat a large heavy-bottomed pot over high heat and put 1 tablespoon of amaranth in the pot and cover with a lid. The amaranth will begin to pop like popcorn. Swirl the pot around to evenly distribute the heat. When the popping begins to slow, after about 30 seconds, pour out onto a plate to cool. Removing amaranth before its finished popping prevents it from burning. Repeat 1 tablespoon at a time until all the amaranth is puffed. Set aside.

5. Melt the 2 tablespoons of butter for the cheese sauce in a large pot and stir in the 2 tablespoons of flour. Stir over low heat for 2 minutes, then add 3/4 cup of milk, stirring constantly with a whisk to avoid lumps. Add grated nutmeg, salt and pepper and sauce will begin to thicken.

6. While the sauce is thickening, heat a large skillet with the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. When the oil begins to shimmer, add garlic and red pepper flake and saute for 30 seconds. Turn up heat to medium-high at add the zucchini batons and saute for 2 minutes. The zucchini should still be firm and retain it’s shape.

7. Turn off heat on cheese sauce and stir in shredded gruyere and cheddar. When the cheese is incorporated, stir in the roasted tomatoes, sauteed zucchini and chives. Divide the mixture evenly into the 6 gratin dishes.

8. Mix 2 tablespoons of melted butter with the puffed amaranth and top each gratin dish with the mixture. Sprinkle 1 teaspoon of Parmesan on each dish and place under the broiler until the cheese melts and the topping crisps, about 2 – 5 minutes.

Photos courtesy of Danielle Seltzer at Cooking Light (top) and John Cordero (bottom).