Category Archives: Fall

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.

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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.

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.

Golden Wild Rice Salad

Wild Rice Salad

Beets.  Nothing polarizes the sexes quite like them.  Well, maybe frozen yogurt, strip clubs, and perhaps inane declarations about the differences between men and women.  Nevertheless, lots of men I know think that beets taste like dirt, and many of the women I know like the fact that they taste like dirt.

But that’s where golden beets come in.  They have a slightly mellower, less “earthy” flavor than their red brethren and they are still packed with folate, potassium, and beta-carotene.  Also, you won’t have Lady Macbeth hands after handling the golden variety.  Roasting any beet enhances its natural sweetness; then after roasting, the skin easily slips off under running cold water and they can be sliced into bite-sized wedges.

The sweet, roasted golden beets are the star of this balanced wild rice salad.  To round it out, I added a mixture of wild and brown rice, black-eyed peas, pistachios, basil and an orange dressing.  Basically you could use this basic formula to construct your own sophisticated bean and grain salad out of whatever you have in your fridge: cooked grain + cooked (or canned/frozen) bean + veg + herb + nut + dressing.  I keep this general formula in mind when I’m making myself a salad to ensure that it will have enough protein and healthy fat to keep me full and enough flavor and variety of textures to keep me interested.  Inspired by an autumnal color palate, I chose the golden beets as a starting point and branched off from there.  The basil really brightens up the energy of this hearty salad, but another fresh green herb like tarragon, parsley or even baby spinach leaves would work just fine.  This warm salad doesn’t need much of a dressing–just a squeeze of orange and a pat of butter.

Golden Wild Rice Salad
Serves 4

1/2 cup wild rice
1/2 cup brown basmati rice
8 small golden beets
1 1/2 cups of frozen black eyed peas (or canned, rinsed)
1/2 cup pistachios, toasted
2 tablespoons butter or olive oil
juice from 2 oranges
juice from 1/2 lemon
1/4 cup chopped basil
1 teaspoon salt or to taste
black pepper

1. Wrap whole beets in foil together and place on a sheet tray. Roast in the oven at 375 degrees for 1 hour, or until they are fork tender. Let cool for a few minutes, then run under cold water and rub off the skin with your fingers.  Slice into wedges and set aside.

2. Meanwhile, bring 1 1/4 cup of water up to a boil, add wild rice and brown rice and reduce to a simmer and cover until all the water is absorbed. Remove from heat and let sit, covered, for 10 minutes.

3. Defrost black-eyed peas in hot water and drain. Combine warm rice, black-eyed peas, beets, pistachios, butter, orange and lemon juice, basil and salt and pepper.  Taste and add more salt or lemon juice if necessary.

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).