Category Archives: Fruit

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.

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.