Toasty Cinnamon Brown Basmati Rice

I grew up eating lots of rice at home.  We ate so much of it that I was convinced it was a vegetable for most of my youth.  (Don’t waste your time trying to figure out the logic there.)  Rice was synonymous with white basmati rice, a long, fragrant grain from India that my mom would cook with a good with a pinch of floral saffron or wrapped in tendrils of dried dill.

While I still look to white rice when I’m trying to create an elegant meal for a special occasion, brown rice is one of my everyday go-to foods.  Since brown rice has both the bran and germ intact, it has more nutrients, protein and healthy fats present.  Out of all the grains, it’s the highest in energy-giving B vitamins, and also contains significant amounts of vitamin E, manganese and selenium.

The key to cooking brown rice is to work with its idiosyncrasies rather than against them.  Brown rice is chewier and heartier than white rice, so I try to cook it with strong, toasty flavors like cumin, cinnamon and clove that complement its texture.  Compared to sticky short-grain rice, basmati grains are longer, crunchier and more separated.  After toasting the spices in the oil to release their flavor, I also toast the rice to accentuate its individual grains and keep them separate.

This rice is spicy and flavorful and is a great accompaniment to an Indian meal.  Try it with dal or tandoori chicken with a side of Sauteed Broccoli with Cumin and Mustard Seeds.  Its flavors are versatile enough to accompany an American or Middle Eastern-style meal as well.

A warm bowl of brown rice also makes a great, hearty breakfast on its own.  It’s really not so different from a breakfast of commercial dry cereal or oatmeal, except that the whole grains are intact and no additional sweetener is required.

Toasty Cinnamon Brown Basmati Rice
Serves 4

1 cup brown basmati rice
1 tablespoon of olive oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 cinnamon stick
4 cloves
5 green cardamom pods
1 3/4 cups of water
pinch of salt

1. In a mesh strainer, rinse the brown basmati rice until the water runs clear. Drain and set aside.

2. In a medium pot with a lid, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add the cumin seeds and gently stir until they start to sizzle and pop, about 30 – 60 seconds. Then add the cinnamon stick, cloves and green cardamom pods, stirring gently for about 30 seconds. Add the drained rice, stirring occasionally until the water has evaporated from the grains. Pour in the water and the pinch of salt and bring the pot up to a boil. Once it has reached a boil, turn the heat down so the water is only simmering and cover with the lid. The rice will need to cook for about 30 – 45 minutes. When all the water is absorbed, turn off the heat and let the rice sit and steam for 10 minutes. This well help soften the grains.  Remove cloves, cinnamon stick and cardamom pods before serving.  Or just warn your guests.

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Peanut Butter Banana Green Smoothie

Now, I know one of the words in the title of this recipe seems glaringly out of place to you, and it’s not “peanut butter” “banana” or “smoothie.”  In fact, you might even think  that I placed the wrong photo here, instead inserting one from my gallery of vintage Ecto-Cooler glam shots.  But today is Earth Day, and I’m giving you an appropriately green gift: introducing you to the trend of Green Smoothies.

Green Smoothies are an easy way to incorporate more raw leafy greens into your diet by blending them with fruit and drinking the mix like a smoothie.  Pioneered by fervent raw foodists like Victoria Boutenko, green smoothies taste like fruit but are packed with all the nutrients that we know come from leafy greens like calcium, iron, B vitamins and cancer-fighting antioxidants.  They make a great snack or a quick breakfast in the morning.

Since this green smoothie is likely your first, I’ve used banana and natural peanut butter because they have very strong, dominating flavors.  Baby spinach has such a delicate flavor so all you will taste in the final smoothie will be peanut butter and banana.  I promise.  But boy will it be green.  If you are hesitant, try using only 1 cup of the baby spinach.

Have you ever tried green smoothies before or heard the health claims about them?  Are you afraid or excited to try this?

Peanut Butter Banana Green Smoothie
makes 1 smoothie

1 banana
1 tablespoon natural peanut butter
2 cups of baby spinach
juice from 1/2 lemon
3-4 ice cubes (optional)

1. Put the banana and peanut butter into the blender and puree until smooth.  Then, 1 cup at a time, add the spinach, each time blending until smooth.  Scrape down the sides of the blender with a spatula between blends and add a tablespoon or so of water if you need to get the spinach blending.  Then add the ice cubes, if using, and pulse until smooth.

Celery Leaf Salad with Honey Vinaigrette

People give three major reasons for not eating lots of vegetables: 1) they are expensive with lots of waste; 2) they go bad in the fridge before they can be used up and 3) they don’t taste that great, particularly without a lot of cooking and work.  I can’t think of a vegetable that more embodies those complaints than celery.  Recipes rarely call for more than a stalk or two, and by the time you cut off the tops and the bottoms, you’ve wasted half the plant.  Then it sits in your fridge for weeks until it’s all pale and flaccid because, let’s be honest, you don’t like celery that much.  It’s just too celery-y.

But celery, particularly the leaves, have a fresh, verdant taste that can be lovely and unique.  The first day or two after you buy your celery, pick off the leaves for this salad; you’ll likely get between 2-3 cups.  The leaves are slightly bitter with a distinct celery taste, so the trick is to balance out that flavor with others, particularly sweet, salty and smoky.  I sweetened up the vinaigrette with a bit of honey, added baby spinach, fresh berries and salty, smoky almonds to offset that slight bitterness.  Sweet flavors are especially good at balancing bitterness, which is why chocolate needs sugar and why honey is fabulous in this vinaigrette.

The result is both thrifty and gourmet: you stretch that $1 bunch of celery by using the greens, and the salad elegant enough to serve to guests, with the celery leaf lending an unusual, almost exotic flair.  Celery is also one of the foods highest in Vitamin K, a fat-soluble vitamin that is believed to help regulate blood pressure and clotting.

The only new ingredient on this list might be brown rice vinegar.  It’s a sweet, mild vinegar that can be used in almost equal proportions to oil in a vinaigrette (as opposed to a more typical 1: 3 vinegar to oil ratio).  It’s less processed than many other commercial vinegars, but if you don’t have it, substitute rice wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar for a similar, delicate vinaigrette.

Celery Leaf Salad with Honey Vinaigrette
Serves 1 as a main; 2 as a side

For the Salad:
2 cups of celery leaves
1 cup of baby spinach
1/2 cup of quartered strawberries, about 6-8 berries
1/8 cup smoked almonds

For the Honey Vinaigrette:
2 teaspoons brown rice vinegar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon honey
2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil

1. In a medium-sized bowl, toss together the celery leaves, baby spinach, strawberries and smoked almonds.

2. In a separate small bowl, combine the brown rice vinegar, salt and honey and whisk with a fork.  Then drizzle in the olive oil while whisking with the fork.  The honey will act as an emulsifier to keep the vinaigrette together.

3. Pour the dressing over the salad and toss to combine.

Living a Life Organic, A Discussion at the Chicago History Museum

As a young, starry-eyed chef, I spend a lot of time thinking about the social and environmental implications of the decisions that I make at the market and in my kitchen, particularly when it comes to negotiating my gourmand ambitions with my peasant wallet.  So I was eager to attend a panel discussion at the Chicago History Museum last night on the organic movement and its developments in Chicago that brought together panelists from the fields of journalism, retail and farming.  All the panelists were advocates of organic food, which means food that is produced without the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, growth hormones and antibiotics, and is not genetically modified or irradiated.   The panelists agreed on major reasons to choose organic, reasoning that reducing the amount of chemicals in our personal environments is good for our own personal health, good for the environment as a whole and its long-term ability to provide for us, and good for the farmers and factory workers who produce and distribute our food.

Paula Walker Miller, an education coordinator at Whole Foods Market, defined the three levels of organic according to the USDA: products can be labeled “100% organic,” “organic” (which means that 95% of the ingredients or more are organic) or “made with organic ingredients” (which means that 70% of the ingredients need to be organic).  Unlike almost meaningless terms like “natural” and “free-range”, the word “organic” is regulated by the government, so it’s a term you can trust in the grocery store or at a farm stand.

Urban Farmer Tim Murakami gave a tip about shopping at local farmer’s markets: take advantage of the opportunity to interact with the farmer directly and ask a whether they use synthetic pesticides on their crops.  Small producers are sometimes unable to undergo USDA certification due to the cost, but their farming practices may parallel or be close to organic.  Products from small, local producers also require less shipping and packaging, making them a good environmental choice.

One of the discussion’s most interesting moments was in response to a question regarding the preceived elitism of organic consumers.  Journalist Alison Neumer Lara, who writes for Earth911 and Crain’s Chicago Business, admitted to not always being able to afford to eat everything organic.  However, after the birth of her daughter, she became more conscious about reducing chemicals in her home and food, rationalizing that a 7-pound baby could not process the same amount of toxins as an adult, and that choosing conventional over organic produce was perhaps only a short-term savings.

The most convincing argument against the elitism of organics, however, came from Murakami, who pointed to Growing Home, the Chicago non-profit where he works that runs a year-round urban farm and provides job training and transitional employment for individuals facing significant barriers to employment.   In addition to selling produce at the Green City Market, the organization also sells to neighboorhood residents at a reduced cost right at the farm in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood.  An organization like this shows how organics can both engage and serve diverse communities.

Chicago Public Radio recorded the discussion and will have a podcast available in about a week.  I’ll post a link to it on Urban Chickpea’s Facebook page when it’s up.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic: Do you choose to eat organic, and if so, why?  Are there any compelling arguments for pesticide use?  I’d be happy to answer any questions you might have about organics!

Images: (top) Courtesy of Chicago History Museum; (middle) Growing Home’s Wood Street Urban Farm, photo by Andrew Collings; (bottom) Growing Home’s Wood Street Urban Farm, photo by Andrew Collings

Warm Spring Green Salad Over Polenta

If trying to eat seasonal food throughout the winter has left you with a mad case of Seasonal Affective Disorder and your eye twitches every time you hear the word “apple,” this Springtime salad might be just the antidote that you and your facial tic have been looking for.  This vibrant entree combines three harbingers of Spring–fresh fava beans, asparagus and baby artichokes–into a balanced and satisfying meal.  Each of the three green ingredients is cooked in a different way, so the warm salad has a variety of textures and flavors; it’s garlicky, minty, crunchy, bright, sweet, and creamy, all at the same time.  It might seem like a lot of work to prep each of the ingredients, but it goes quite quickly.  When you are done, you have an entire meal put together and you’ve mastered some seemingly daunting vegetables.  Good for you.

While I love eating artichokes in restaurants, I’d actually never prepared them at home because I wasn’t entirely sure, even after culinary school, which parts were the edible parts.  But it turns out they are pretty easy to work with, and baby artichokes are actually less work than their parents  to trim because there is no ominous “choke” to remove.  You just peel off the outer leaves in a he-loves-me, he-loves-me-not fashion and cut off the top and the woody stem.  You can find photos showing each step of the process online here.

Cooking fresh fava beans is also ridiculously simple, but requires two steps.  First open the pods using any means necessary and pop out the beans, much like you would for edamame. Then after boiling the beans for a couple of minutes, the thin skin around them will be loosened, and you’ll be able to slip it off with your fingers.  Think chickpeas.  In addition to the protein and fiber that all legumes have, favas are rich in folate, copper, manganese, potassium and other trace minerals. Changing up your diet and incorporating new plants into it is the best way to make sure you are getting all the nutrients your body needs.

If you notice a significant upgrade in the quality of photos today, you can thank my friend and professional photographer Tom Blakely.  He stopped by for lunch the other day and we made a little trade: food for photos.  Not a bad deal, eh?

Warm Spring Green Salad over Polenta
Serves 2

For the Salad:
1 pound fresh fava beans, in their pods
8 baby artichokes
1 bunch of asparagus, woody ends trimmed off
2 garlic cloves, minced
pinch of red pepper flakes
3/4 teaspoon of salt
juice from 1/2 a lemon
2 scallions, thinly sliced with white parts separated from green parts
6 mint leaves, chopped or torn

For the Polenta:
2 cups of water
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1/2 cup of coarse-grind cornmeal, sometimes labeled “polenta” or “grits”
1 pat of butter

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

2. Bring a medium sized pot of salted water up to a boil.  In the meantime, take the fava bean pods and remove the beans inside, using your fingers. Discard the pods.  Add the beans to the boiling water.  Remove after 3 minutes, leaving the water boiling on the stove.  Run the beans under cold water to cool down and then remove their skins by squeezing on one end of the bean. Set the beans aside.

3. Place the trimmed asparagus in an even layer on a sheet tray.  Drizzle it with olive oil and salt and place in the oven for 20 minutes.  The asparagus should still be green with some brown crust and it will be tender, not hard or mushy.  Let the asparagus cool for a minute, then slice it into roughly 2-inch pieces.

4. While the asparagus is roasting, you can trim and steam the artichokes.  Remove enough water from the boiling pot of water to set a steamer basket inside. (If you don’t have a steamer basket, you can use a strainer or pour out the water until only a half-inch remains and set the artichokes directly in that.)  Peel off the green leaves of the baby artichokes until a more tender yellow leaf emerges.  Then trim off the stem and cut off the top 1/3 of the artichokes. Cut these pieces in half, vertically.  Place the artichokes in the steamer basket, generously salt them and cover for 15 minutes. You’ll know the artichoke hearts are done when they are fork-tender.

5. Once the asparagus, favas and artichokes are all ready, start the polenta.  Bring 2 cups of water up to a boil in a medium pot and slowly whisk in the cornmeal and salt. Whisk constantly for about 30 seconds and then every minute or so for about 5 minutes.  The polenta will have a thick oatmeal consistency.  Add the pat of butter and stir it in.  The polenta can sit with the heat turned off while you finish the warm vegetables.

6. Finally, in a large skillet, heat up the olive oil and saute the garlic, white parts of the scallions and red pepper flake for 30 seconds.  Then add the cooked artichokes, favas and asparagus, salt and saute for about a minute to let the flavors combine.  Immediately before removing from the heat, add the lemon juice, sliced green parts of the scallion, and the mint.

7. To plate, ladle the polenta into a bowl or plate, then top with the green sauteed vegetables.  Garnish with more mint or scallions if desired.

Sauteed Broccoli with Cumin and Mustard Seeds


This recipe was born out of revenge.  When I visit my parents’ house, I become the de-facto short order breakfast cook for my father.  As he’s walking out the door to grab the newspaper, he’ll call out a breakfast order which usually includes how he wants his eggs to be cooked and a non-negotiable number of pieces of toast.  One morning, I tried to mix it up by making him basic oatmeal, sweetened with sliced bananas.  This was a mistake.  Like many men of a certain age, he’ll refuse to try anything that screams “health food,” but I thought I could win him over with my charm as the youngest daughter in our family.  This was my second mistake.  After one bite, he ran to the trash, spit out the oatmeal, then looked to the heavens and exclaimed, “THIS IS FOOD FOR ANIMALS!”

Little bit of a drama queen, that one.  However, let the record state: I make damn good oatmeal.  This was war.

Now, I always sneak a veggie or two into his breakfast, whether its spinach in a frittata or sliced tomato on the side.  But fuming over this tantrum, I decided to go extreme: that man was getting a plate full of steamed broccoli for breakfast.  I quickly pan-steamed broccoli florets and, feeling benevolent, gave them a quick saute in oil with mustard seeds, cumin seeds and plenty of salt.  I still wanted to win him over to the green side.  The result was perfectly tender broccoli with Indian flavors crusted on top and none of that cabbagey flavor that broccoli-haters crinkle their noses at.  Not only did he gobble it up, but he requested more.

I prefer to keep whole spices on hand since they last longer and have more flavor.  But if you only have ground cumin, you can definitely substitute that for the cumin seeds.  Just add it to the oil and then immediately add the broccoli.  Unlike whole spices that take a minute bloom and give flavor to hot oil, ground spices will generally just burn if left in a pan alone to sizzle with oil.

This dish takes 3 minutes to make, and it’s still my favorite way to eat broccoli.  Love  you, Dad!

Sauteed Broccoli with Cumin and Mustard Seeds
Serves 2

1 head of broccoli, cut into florets
2 tablespoons of olive oil
1 teaspoon of black mustard seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flake (optional)
1/2 teaspoon salt

1. Take a large saute pan with a lid and fill it with a half-inch of water.  Generously salt like water and then bring to a boil. Add the broccoli florets in an even layer and then cover.  Let steam for about 30 seconds or until bright green.  Remove the florets from the water and let drain in a colander or on a kitchen towel.  Drain the water and wipe out the saute pan.  If you have a steamer basket, you can use that to steam the broccoli, if you prefer.

2. In the same saute pan over medium-high heat, add the olive oil and let it heat up.  You’ll see a slight shimmer across the surface of the oil.  Then add the mustard seeds and the cumin seeds.  Once they heat up, the mustard seeds will start to sizzle and pop.  As soon as they start to do this, add the red pepper flake and the drained broccoli florets.  Sprinkle the salt evenly over the whole pan, adding more to taste if necessary.  Saute for 1 minute, stirring occasionally.  Remove from heat and serve immediately.

Coconut Date Granola Bars


Born out of the days of free love and food coops, granola bars are, in a way, a quintessential health food for the modern era.  The concept is simple: mix some whole grain goodness with nuts and dried fruit and smoosh it all together in a portable little package.  However, commercial granola bars are often loaded with sugar and additives, making them a far cry from the guitar-playing, unshaven, sticky oat squares we expect.  And when all you have to do it combine a few pantry ingredients and toss them in the oven, why not make your own?

For these coconut date granola bars, I use a combination of two natural sweeteners: honey and barley malt.  Barley malt is an ultra-sticky syrup made from (duh) barley that’s predominantly maltose, giving it a distinct malty/Whopper flavor. While there is debate about how different sugars affect health and particularly blood sugar, I think the main reason for using them over refined sugars is that they get your body accustomed to a “less sweet” sweet, and, in these bars, the gentle sweetness allows you taste the almonds, coconut and spices.  Don’t worry if you don’t have barley malt; just use the equivalent amount of honey.  Packed with protein from the nuts, fiber from the oats and dates, and good-for-you Omega 3 fats from the flax seeds and wheat germ, this is an elegant update that will boost your energy while satisfying your sweet tooth.

These granola bars make great gifts, particularly for friends who like to work out.  You’ll soon be just as popular as your baker friends.

Coconut Date Granola Bars
yield: 16 bars

1 cup blanched almonds, chopped (or any other nut)
2 cups rolled oats
1 cup shredded, unsweetened coconut
1/4 cup wheat germ
1/4 cup flax seeds
1/2 cup honey
2 tablespoons barley malt (or same amount extra honey if you don’t have barley malt)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons butter
pinch of salt
1 cup Medjool dates, pitted and chopped

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter the bottom and edges of a 9×12 baking dish.

2. On a large sheet pan toss together the chopped almonds, oats, dried coconut and wheat germ. Toast in oven, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes.  The mixture should be slightly golden and fragrant. Remove from the oven and place in a large  bowl and add the flax seeds.

3. In a small pot, heat the honey, barley malt, cinnamon, cardamom, vanilla extract, butter and salt. Let the mixture come to a boil, turn off the heat, and pour it into the bowl with the oat mixture.  Add the chopped dates, breaking apart any clumps, and stir to combine.

4. Pour the mixture into the prepared baking dish and form a smooth, even layer, using a moistened spatula or your fingers. Make sure the mixture is packed down, then bake in the oven for 25 minutes. Remove and let cool for several hours before slicing into bars or squares.  Wrap individually in plastic wrap to keep your homemade granola bars fresh all week.