Velvety Harissa-Spiked Tomato Sauce

tomato sauce with harissa and cilantro

I have a friend who used to date a guy who was more giving and generous than anyone I’d ever met–but almost to an uncomfortable point.  Mention you liked his shoes?  He would take them off and give them to you.  Never met him before, but he heard you played the drums?  He’d invite you to his parents’ house in the suburbs to jam and sleepover.

However, on a Saturday night not too long ago, I turned into that guy.  My buddy Nate and I were hosting our second Seek Supper Club event, when in the middle of the 2nd course, a diner burst into the kitchen raving about the tomato sauce I’d put on the plate.  I immediately packaged the remainder of the sauce into a quart container, and foisted it upon him before he left.

There are thousands of marinara sauce recipes out there, and certainly rules about what makes one “authentic” or not.  I’ve nicknamed this sauce “Not-Your-Nonna’s Tomato Sauce” because it really doesn’t follow any of those rules.  The recipe has three unexpected ingredients that are key to its balanced flavor and that would make your Nonna shudder: pureed white beans, cilantro and harissa.

Since I’m not Italian, I don’t have an Official Nonna, but I’m pretty sure neither of my actual “nonnas”–one is Pakistani, the other, German–would have approved of this sauce either.  It doesn’t take a whole day to make and there’s no secret pinch of sugar.  This shortcut method, however, creates a balanced, smooth sauce: the carrot and onion sweeten up the sauce naturally, the white beans lend a velvety texture, and the cilantro and harissa add brightness and spiciness to balance out the tomato’s acidity.

Harissa is a North African chili paste that’s pretty easy to find in the international food aisle of most supermarkets.  I’ve seen gourmet jarred versions that I’m sure are delicious but I find myself drawn to the kind that looks like a terrifying, red toothpaste and costs less than $2 at the grocery store.

While I served this sauce as an accompaniment to quinoa patties, you can use it anywhere you’d use a regular marinara.  This tomato sauce especially makes a great topping to a vegetarian pasta, since it has extra protein from the white beans.  Make a double-batch and freeze it in one-cup portions.  Add some water and fresh veggies and you’ve got a great tomato soup as well.

Velvety Harissa-Spiked Tomato Sauce
makes about 3 cups

1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 yellow onion, chopped
1/2 carrot, chopped
1 box (about 26 ounces) pureed tomatoes (recommended:Pomi)
2 cloves of garlic, smashed and peeled
1/2 can of cannelini beans
3 sprigs cilantro, tied together
1 teaspoon of salt or more to taste
1 – 2 tablespoons of harissa

1. Heat up the oil in a pot and saute the onion, carrot and garlic for 5 – 8 minutes until soft, but not brown. Add the tomatoes, cannelini beans, cilantro, salt and harissa and simmer for 20 – 30 minutes, adding water to thin if necessary.

2. Remove the cilantro sprigs and blend the sauce in a blender until smooth. Add water to thin to desired consistency. Taste and add more salt or harissa if necessary.

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.

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.

Marinated Mixed Olives

With the holiday season upon us, it seems that every other night there is a holiday party to attend (yay!), often with the request to bring a snack to share (boo!).  But forget that three-dollar bottle of Trader Joe’s wine;  Mixed Marinated Olives are a festive, no-cook recipe that’s easy to tote along to a cocktail party.  More flavorful and colorful that regular olives in brine, they have a homemade look with minimal effort.  The strong pine flavor of rosemary and thyme hold up to the salty olives and give the dish a wintry flair.

Olives are packed with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds and contain high amounts of copper and iron.  While they are high in fat (80-85% of the calories in an olive come from fat), it’s the “good kind” that we hear about–monounsaturated fat, which the same good fat found in extra virgin olive oil.  No surprise there.  Olives are also a good, wholesome way to satisfy that salty snack craving that seems to arise at a party about one beer in.

For these Marinated Mixed Olives, I used a mixture of pitted castelvetrano (bright green), kalamata (large purple) and nicoise (small purple), but use any olives that you like (I’m a big fan of meaty-tasting gaetas as well).  I think olives with pits tend to taste better than pitted, but depending on the familiarity of the party guests with one another, you might want to go pit-less.  It can be hard to pick up a dude while spitting an olive pit out of your mouth.  Or so I’ve heard.

marinated olives 2
Marinated Mixed Olives

makes 1 quart

1 quart of olives (I used a mixture of castelvetrano, kalamata and nicoise)
1/8 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon red chili flake, or more to taste
zest from 1 lemon (use a microplane or fine grater)
2 tablespoons minced rosemary
2 tablespoons minced thyme
4 garlic cloves

1. Drain the olives from their brine and put the olives in a large bowl.

2. Add the olive oil, chili flake, lemon zest, rosemary and thyme to the bowl. Using the side of your knife blade, smash each garlic clove and peel of the skin and discard. Add the peeled garlic cloves to the bowl and stir everything to combine. Refrigerate and return to room temperature before serving.

These can be served immediately or days later but taste best after one day of marinating.

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).