Thursday, November 17, 2011

I Love to Cook

I really do love to cook. The Cooking Shop, hanging on my kitchen wall, is always Open at my house. If there is a stretch when I'm traveling or eating out a lot, I am delighted to get back into my kitchen when I return home. Don’t get me wrong, I love eating food I might not otherwise fix for myself. I love having more time during the day to explore or do projects. I love to have a good conversation over a dinner I haven't had to prepare. And I love to travel. But after some excellent restaurant meals or a wonderful trip, I can't wait to get back into the kitchen. Here are some of the reasons:

Let me be honest here: I love being in control--from deciding what I want to eat that evening, to buying the ingredients and preparing the food. If I’m hungry for pasta, I can choose to fix it.

But I also love the creativity involved in cooking. I love dreaming up a menu where the colors, textures and flavors work well with each other. I love imagining what the plate will look like with the food on it. I love choosing the dinner plate that best sets off the food. I love thinking about the best wine to go with the food.

I love eating good food and cooking for myself is the least expensive way to get it. For a long time when I was much younger, I couldn’t afford to go out to dinner very often and there was no choice but to cook. I figured that as long as I had to cook, I might as well have some fun with it and make it interesting. I still value the economy of cooking at home.

I love using up leftovers in imaginative ways, looking for recipes that use the little bits and pieces of fruits and veggies we all have in our fridges.

I love trying new recipes, cuisines, techniques, and exotic ingredients. Like learning to cook with a pottery bram on the top of the stove. Early on in my cooking history, the part of me that loved learning got engaged and found in cooking a new and endlessly fascinating activity.

I love the challenge of cooking: figuring out the timing and the work flow. When do I need to start the preparation in order to get dinner on the table at 7:00? What is the most efficient and easy way to get the task accomplished? What can be made ahead? How can all the dishes come to the table at the same time?

I also like the challenge of dealing with food preferences, allergies, kids’ likes and dislikes, what’s available in my market and in season, the amount of time and money I have to spend, etc. I have to think really hard when someone can’t eat sugar, wheat, dairy products, eggs, or red meat. Coming up with a great dinner is exhilarating when faced with constraints—and there are always some constraints.

Mindful Cooking at FCCB
I love being in the kitchen, quiet and alone, slicing carrots. Cooking as meditation. It knits me up. Being in the present moment—particularly important when the task involves sharp knives.

Years ago I taught a Meditative Cooking class at First Congregational Church of Berkeley. Fourteen of us gathered in the church kitchen and cooked dinner quietly. Only whispered questions about recipes were allowed. A hush would come over the kitchen. It was really quite marvelous.

I like cooking for small dinner parties and sharing good food with friends and family. I especially love the conversations that happen around a dinner table at home. I think home-cooked food nurtures these conversations.

I loved watching my kids grow up to appreciate home-cooked meals and good food. I must say they didn’t always share my definition of “good” and when they were little would end up eating cereal. But they have grown to be both good cooks and adventurous eaters.

I love eating by myself or with Katherine. I really care about what food I put on my plate and in my mouth. I want my dinners to be interesting, beautiful, colorful, and delicious. Sometimes complicated, sometimes simple. Both just fine.

So that's about it for me. What about you?

Monday, April 4, 2011

CHAPTER 1: Appetizers and a Story of How I Started to Cook

Some folks ask me if I have always loved to cook. The answer is a resounding no. As a young girl, I once made a disastrous chocolate cake with my cousins, but other than the occasional banana salad, I was neither interested nor particularly welcome in my mother’s kitchen. I did set the table.

My mother cooked serviceable dinners, pretty much the same conventional fare every week. Well-cooked pork chops, hamburger patties, french fries and green beans from the freezer, a salad, and ice cream. She had some specialties, like Beef Stroganoff, which were reserved for company. And on Sundays after church we would occasionally have a wonderful pot roast with carrots and potatoes or chicken and dumplings, both of which I adored. But mostly it was plain and simple mid-western food. And I took no part in preparing it.

So what happened?

• A move to Berkeley, California in 1966. Newly married to a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, I moved from northwestern Ohio to the Bay area just in time for the action. Which for me included food as well as anti-war and anti-establishment. Here I am in my Albany, California kitchen, butterflying shrimp for a Japanese dish I was attempting. Not particularly successful if I remember correctly.

• The Shattuck Avenue Coop at the corner of Shattuck and Cedar, where Andronico’s currently resides, was a place of wonder for this mid-western lass. Full of exotic fruits and vegetables and people, the store offered a dazzling assortment of food products and wines from around the world. I studiously picked up all the free printed recipes and bought the Coop Lowcost Cookbook, to supplement the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook I had received as a wedding present.

• Our friends Nick and Sarah were passionate and adventurous cooks and eaters. He was a Scot and cooked up “scurlly,” an oatmeal and onion combination, which we washed down with wine or Green Death, so called because of its green can and lethal effect.

• Cookbooks started showing up under the Christmas tree and in birthday boxes. Mastering the Art of French Cooking was first and was quickly followed by Craig Claiborne’s New York Times Cookbook and New York Times Menus Cookbook.

• Gardening and food columns in the Good Times, an alternative East Bay newspaper in the 60s. Jeanie Darlington wrote about gardening in Grow Your Own. Marrakesh Lil, among others, wrote a great food column whose recipes I held onto for years. I lost them about 19 years ago but just recently my former husband found them and sent them to me.

• Occasional dinners out at places in San Francisco and Berkeley, such as The Pot Luck on San Pablo Avenue, opened my eyes to the amazing combinations of flavors and exotic ingredients you could put in your mouth. “Blew my mind” as we would say.

• A chance to grow and eat really fresh produce came about as an indirect result of the People’s Park controversy in 1969. The university turned a field at the corner of Buchanan and Jackson into garden plots and offered them to residents of Albany Village where we were living. We signed up. Oh my god, fresh green beans, basil for pesto, and tomatoes.

• I was cooking all the time. Nearly every day. Hard to imagine now, isn’t it? Learning so much. Gazpacho from Craig. Salmon cheeks and Finnan Haddie from Spengers Fish Store, chuck roasts from the Coop, and fresh crab for special occasions.

I was really lucky to have such a perfect coming together of supportive elements: cookbooks, friends and a husband who liked to cook and eat, a good grocery store, and time. I made a whole bunch of mistakes. As I said to myself about the Japanese dish above, "Oh well, I never claimed to be perfect. And there are lots more dinners ahead of me." It's still the case.

Apricot Thrones

25 pecan halves
2 ounces cream cheese at room temperature
2 ounces blue cheese
25 dried apricots

1. Preheat the oven or toaster oven to 325ºF. Place the pecans on a baking sheet and toast in the oven until golden brown. Watch carefully. Let them cool.
2. Combine the cheeses and stir until evenly mixed. If the mixture doesn’t get smooth, microwave for 10 seconds to soften slightly and stir again.
3. Scoop up small amount of the cheese mixture and place on top of each apricot. Start with a small amount. You can always add more later.
Note: You can use a pastry bag if you are doing a large number of these.
4. Top with a toasted pecan, rounded side up, if you are fussy about it. Transfer the apricots to a serving plate, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate.
Note: The recipe can be completed to this point up to 8 hours before serving.
5. Serve at room temperature.

6-10 servings
Adapted from Hugh Carpenter and Teri Sandison’s Fast Appetizers

Carrot Purée with Caraway and Feta

1¾ pound carrots, peeled
4 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon caraway seeds, roughly ground in a mortar, optional
Note: I haven’t used these because the carrots by themselves are so good. Of course, this presumes really tasty carrots.
¼-½ cup feta cheese, crumbled, for garnish
2 tablespoons chiffonade of mint, for garnish, see instructions for basil
5 rounds of pita bread or squares of lahvash

1. Slice the carrots into ¾-inch rounds, toss with half the olive oil and some salt and pepper, and place on a rimmed baking sheet. Cover with foil and roast at 400ºF for about 30 minutes or until they are completely tender. Remove the foil and cook uncovered for about 15 minutes or until they are golden.
2. Cool a little before puréeing in a food processor or mashing by hand. Transfer to a bowl, stir in the optional caraway, the remaining olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste. If the purée is too thick to spread, thin it out with a little water.
3. To serve, put the purée in a shallow bowl, crumble the feta on top, drizzle with a little olive oil, and sprinkle with the mint.
4. Serve with toasted pita bread which you make by cutting each circle into 8 pieces (or the lahvash cut in 3-inch squares), arranging them on a baking sheet and toasting under the broil for 2-3 minutes. Watch carefully. They burn in a flash, especially if guests arrive as they are toasting. For your gluten-free guests, you can have rice or lentil crackers on hand or vegetables for dipping.

6-8 servings as an appetizer
Adapted from Sam and Sam Clark’s Casa Moro

Curried Carrot Dip

1 pound carrots, peeled and cut into ½ -inch pieces
¼ cup sunflower seeds, lightly toasted
2 teaspoons olive oil
½ teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon curry powder
½ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon salt or to taste
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1. Place the carrots in a pot of salted water and bring it to a boil. Cook for 7 to 10 minutes or until soft. Drain and let cool.
2. Place the sunflower seeds in a blender or food processor and process into crumbs. Add the carrots and all the remaining ingredients and blend until smooth, scraping down the sides of the processor as needed.
3. Taste for salt and adjust the spices and lemon juice. Transfer to a covered container and refrigerate until ready to use.

Serve with crackers, toasted naan (Indian bread) or fresh veggies.

Makes 2 cups
Adapted from Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero’s Veganomicon: The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook

Cauliflower, Caper and Pumpkin Seed Spread

8 ounces cauliflower, broken or cut into florets
¼ cup shelled raw pumpkin seeds
1 clove of garlic, coarsely chopped
2 green onions
¼ cup olive oil
1 tablespoon capers in brine + a little of the brine for seasoning
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Bring two cups of water to a boil in a small saucepan. Add the cauliflower and cook until tender, about 5 minutes. Scoop out the cauliflower. Leave the water boiling. Rinse the cauliflower in cold water to stop it cooking. Drain and set aside to cool.
2. Dunk one of the green onions into the boiling water for 15 seconds. Remove, drain and coarsely chop along with the uncooked green onion.
3. In a food processor purée the pumpkin seeds until they become a fine meal. Add the garlic and whirl until it mixes well with the pumpkin seeds.
4. Add the green onions and drained cauliflower to the food processor. Process while slowly adding the olive oil, capers, brine, salt, and pepper. When the mixture is thick and well combined, it’s ready.

Serve with rice crackers, rye toast, toasted pita, herb slab, ciabatta or cucumber slices.

6 servings as a dip before dinner
Adapted from Marlena Spieler’s column in the San Francisco Chronicle

Foster’s Pimiento Cheese Spread

Katherine’s mother who lives in Roanoke, Virginia always has a deli tub of this spread awaiting us in the fridge. The one she buys at her favorite place is really good. This one is even better.

1 cup (4 ounces) grated sharp Cheddar cheese
Note: You can grate the cheeses in a food processor if you wish.
1½ cups (6 ounces) grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup (4 ounces) grated smoked or regular Gouda cheese
2 roasted red bell peppers, peeled, cored, seeded, and chopped, see instructions below
1 cup mayonnaise
1 jalapeno, red is preferable but green is OK too, seeded and minced
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 tablespoon honey
½ teaspoon smoky sweet or regular paprika
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper

1. Mix together the cheeses and the roasted peppers in a large bowl.
2. Combine the mayonnaise, jalapeno, vinegar, honey, paprika, salt and pepper in a small bowl and stir to blend well.
3. Stir the mayonnaise mixture into the cheese mixture and mix well. Taste for salt, adding more if necessary. Refrigerate in an airtight container until ready to use or up to 1 week.

There are lots of uses: on crackers, toasted bread, biscuits, English muffins, or chips; as a sandwich spread, a topping for baked potatoes, or an omelet filling. Great for breakfast, lunch, or a pre-dinner snack.

Makes about 4 cups
Adapted from Sara Foster’s The Foster’s Market Cookbook

How to roast red bell peppers and poblanos

1. Place the peppers on a shallow rimmed pan lined with aluminum foil. If you don't line it with foil, you'll have a nasty clean-up job afterwards. (See below)

2. Place the pan under the broiler on the second shelf down from the top of the oven. Keep turning the peppers until they are blackened on all sides. Remove from the oven.

3. Place them in a bowl and cover. Sometimes I skip this step and peel them while they are still hot, when the skin is still slightly puffed up away from the flesh.

4. When they are cool enough to handle, remove all the blackened skin.

5.  Pull the skinned pepper apart and remove the stem, seeds, and white membranes.  Refrain, if you can, from rinsing under water. I save the liquid the peppers release to use in any situation calling for stock.

Dates Stuffed with Almonds

24 blanched whole almonds, toasted or untoasted
24 medium dates, pitted
12 thin slices bacon, cut in halves

1. Preheat the oven to 350ºF.
2. Stuff an almond inside each date. Wrap each date with bacon and secure with a toothpick crosswise.
3. Bake in the 350ºF oven on a baking sheet for 20-30 minutes or until the bacon is crisp.
If the bacon isn’t browned enough for you, place the dates under a hot broiler for a minute or two, watching them closely.
Note: Can make the day ahead and bake for 20 minutes. Reheat at 350ºF before serving.

8 servings (about 3 per person)
Adapted from Marimar Torres’ The Catalan Country Kitchen

North African Hummus with Za'tar Spiced Pita

This is the best hummus in the world. I swear.

1 14 or 15-ounce can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1/3 cup tahini paste, well stirred
¼ cup lemon juice (about 1 lemon)
2 teaspoon North African Spice Mix, see recipe below
2 garlic cloves, peeled and coarsely chopped
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Olive oil and sumac, optional

1. Place the chickpeas, tahini, lemon juice, North African Spice Mix, garlic, and olive oil in a food processor and purée until smooth. You may need to add a bit of water to make it a good spreading consistency.
2. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Can make ahead and chill. Return to room temperature for eating.
3. Place in a low bowl. Make a shallow indentation in the middle of the hummus. Pour in a bit of olive oil and sprinkle with sumac. Serve with Za’tar Spiced Pita, see recipe below.

6-8 servings as a dip before dinner

North African Spice Mix
This spice mix is a pain to make. But once it is done you have the fixings for multiple hummus mixtures in almost no time flat.

1 tablespoon cumin seeds, toasted and ground*
1 tablespoon coriander seeds, toasted and ground*
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1½ teaspoons ground fenugreek, toast and grind if you’re using chunky fenugreek
Note: You can leave it out if you can’t find it.
1 teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon smoky sweet paprika or regular paprika
½ teaspoon smoky hot paprika or a pinch of cayenne

1. In a small bowl, combine all the ingredients and mix well.
2. Store in a glass jar (like an old spice jar), tightly covered. Label the jar with the contents or you’ll forget what it is. Or I should say, I would forget what it was.

*Note: You can use the previously ground kind as well.

Adapted from Andy Husbands’ and Joe Yonan’s The Fearless Chef

Za’tar Spiced Pita

1 tablespoon za’tar
Note: This is available at most Middle Eastern or Persian food stores. Go to Zand’s on Solano in Albany, CA if you are in the Bay Area.
1 tablespoon olive oil
OR all of the spices listed below plus the oil
1 tablespoon sumac or lemon zest
1 tablespoon white sesame seeds
2 teaspoons cumin seeds, toasted and ground
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried marjoram or oregano
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon olive oil

4 rounds of pita bread

1. Turn oven on broil with a rack set 4 to 6 inches from the top element.
2. Combine the purchased za’tar with the olive oil.
Make your own za’tar: in a small bowl, combine the sesame seeds, sumac, cumin, thyme, marjoram or oregano, and salt.
3. Measure out 1 tablespoon. Add the olive oil and blend well. Place the remaining za’tar in a glass spice jar and mark the contents for the next time.
4. Cut each round into 6-8 pieces. Arrange the pitas on a baking sheet and spread the za’tar and oil mixture evenly over each. You may not need all of your homemade za’tar mixture.
5. Broil until deep golden brown, 2 to 4 minutes, watching carefully and rotating the pan half way through to brown evenly. It can turn from toasted to burnt in an instant.
6. Serve with the hummus.

Adapted from Andy Husbands' and Joe Yonan’s The Fearless Chef

Mushroom Pâté

½ ounce dried porcini mushrooms
1 cup boiling water
¼ cup butter (½ stick)
1 pound fresh cremini mushrooms, thinly sliced, tough stems discarded
1 garlic clove, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
½ teaspoon hot sauce
½ teaspoon sugar
6 ounces cream cheese
Salt and pepper
¼ cup chopped fresh chives, parsley or cilantro or a mixture
Edible flowers, like society garlic flowers, optional
Crackers, thinly sliced French bread, or crostini

1. Place the dried mushrooms in a small bowl and cover with 1 cup boiling water. Let sit for 30 minutes. Remove the mushrooms from the soaking liquid. Pour the liquid through a coffee filter or a double layer of paper towels in a sieve (to catch the dirt from the dried mushrooms). Reserve both the mushrooms and the water.
2. Heat a 12-inch sauté pan over high heat. Add the butter and when it begins to brown, add the softened dried mushrooms, the fresh mushrooms, and garlic. Sauté until the mushrooms begin to wilt and squeak, about 5 minutes.
3. Add the reserved mushroom water, oyster sauce, hot sauce, and sugar. Cook over high heat until all the moisture disappears. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature.
4. Transfer the mixture to a food processor and process until smooth. Cut the cream cheese into bits and add it to the mushroom mixture along with 2-3 tablespoons of the herbs. Process until very smooth, adding salt and pepper to taste.
5. Line the bottom of a 6½ or 7-inch springform pan with parchment paper and butter the sides.
6. Transfer the pâté to the prepared pan, and press a layer of plastic wrap over the surface. Refrigerate.
Note: You can also put the pâté in a pretty bowl.
7. To serve, run a knife around the edge of the pan, remove the sides and bottom of the springform pan. Peel off the parchment paper by flipping the pâté on to your hand, paper side up. Then flip the pâté right side up onto a flat serving plate. Decorate with the reserved herbs and the flowers. Serve chilled or at room temperature with crackers, baguette slices, or crostini and, for the gluten free, rice or lentil crackers.

Serves 6-12
Adapted from Hugh Carpenter and Teri Sandison’s Fast Appetizers

Fig and Black Olive Tapenade

1 cup stemmed and quartered (about 6 ounces) dried Black Mission figs
1½ cups water
2 cups (1/2 pound) pitted Kalamata or Nicoise olives
Juice of 1 lemon
1½ tablespoons whole grain or smooth Dijon mustard
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tablespoon drained capers
2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary
2 tablespoons olive oil or more if necessary
Salt and pepper

1. In a heavy medium saucepan, combine the figs and water. Set over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Partially cover and cook, stirring once or twice, until the figs are very tender, about 30 minutes. Cool slightly, drain, reserving 2 tablespoons of the fig cooking liquid.
2. Look the olives over to see if any still has its pit. Remove and proceed. In a food processor, combine the figs, olives, lemon juice, mustard, garlic, capers, rosemary, and reserved 2 tablespoons of fig-cooking liquid. Pulse to create a thick paste. With the motor running, gradually add the oil. Season generously with pepper and add salt to taste, remembering the various salty ingredients.
Note: There is occasionally a pit in the pitted olives. Without having to check each olive before chucking it into the processor, pulse a couple of times at the beginning. You will hear the rattle of the pit. Stop immediately and retrieve it. Pulse another couple of times to make certain you have them all. Then full speed ahead.
3. Transfer to a storage container, cover, and refrigerate at least 24 hours to develop the flavors. But less time in the fridge is OK too.
4. Bring the tapenade to room temperature before serving. Serve with French bread, crackers, or pita chips or, for the gluten-free, rice or lentil crackers or vegetables.

Makes about 2½-3 cups; serves 8-10 as a dip before dinner
Adapted from Carrie Brown’s The Jimtown Store Cookbook

Green Olive Tapenade

2 cups pitted green olives
½ cup slivered almonds
1 garlic clove, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons cilantro
2 tablespoons parsley
1 teaspoon lemon zest, using a microplane
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/3 cup olive oil, or less
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Look the olives over to see if any still has its pit. Remove and proceed. Combine olives, almonds, garlic, cilantro, parsley, and lemon zest in a food processor.
2. Pulse to combine. Add the olive oil with motor running. Process until the mixture is smooth.
3. Add lemon juice and mix. Add some pepper. Taste for salt but probably you won’t need much.
4. Serve with bread, corn chips, crackers or sliced cucumbers. Rice or lentil crackers will make your gluten-free guests very happy.

Makes about 1½ cups; serves 4-6 as a dip before dinner
Adapted from The Cakebread Cellers Napa Valley Cookbook

Red Pepper, Walnut, and Pomegranate Dip (Muhammara)


3 large or 4 medium red bell peppers, roasted and skinned, please see instructions if you need them
¼ teaspoon smoky hot paprika, 1 red dried bird’s eye chile, deseeded and chopped, or a touch of cayenne
1 garlic clove, minced or pressed
1 teaspoon salt or to taste
1¼ cups walnuts
1/3 cup lightly toasted fresh breadcrumbs
1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
½ teaspoon sugar
Juice of ½ lemon
1 tablespoon hot water (I omitted)
¼ cup olive oil (I omitted)

1. Place the well-drained roasted peppers in a food processor with all the other ingredients, except for the water and olive oil. Process to a rough paste, scraping down the sides at least once. I find that the consistency is just fine without adding the water and oil. But if you want to add the oil, pour it in a slow steady stream and blend until the mixture is thick and creamy. If you don’t want to add the oil, blend the mixture until it is thick and creamy. Taste for salt and add more if necessary.
2. Allow the mixture to cool and then refrigerate. Before serving, check the seasoning and adjust as needed.
3. Serve with warm Arabic bread, pita, naan, crackers, or smear onto toasted slices of French bread. Small carrots and cucumbers are also delicious for dipping.

6-8 servings as part of a mezze selection
Adapted from Greg and Lucy Malouf’s Saha: A chef’s journey through Lebanon and Syria

CHAPTER 2: Soups and a Story about Sitting Comfortably

There are just a couple of things that make for a good dinner party: the conviviality of the guests, the food, of course, and a pleasant, comfortable ambiance. I am pretty attuned to the first two factors but the third one does not come naturally to me. I often unconsciously choose appearance over comfort. And this leads me to talk about dining room chairs.

I have a friend who has strong opinions about dining room chairs. To his mind, they are a conspiracy to keep chiropractors in business and to shorten dinner table conversations which he would very much like to prolong. At my house, he is able to sit through the main course and perhaps a salad course, but at his limit, he bounds to his feet saying “These are the worst dining room chairs in the world. You need some chairs like mine.” We move to the living room for dessert and at last he can find some comfort for his modestly padded behind.

So, you might ask, what are these remarkable chairs he wants everyone to buy? They are vintage Hermann Miller office chairs, a version of which you might be sitting on right now in front of your computer. They are good-sized, with arms and rolling casters, upholstered in durable fabric in a variety of colors, many of which he has. He bought them used maybe eight years ago from a discount office supply place in Emeryville. His six surround a table which could seat ten or more people.

There are a couple of disadvantages for the typical dining room. These chairs take up a lot of room. You need to have a large table and an even larger room to incorporate chairs this big. On carpet, they don’t roll particularly well. And on hardwood floor, they can leave roller indentations. In my opinion, they are not destined to show up in a House Beautiful photo spread for the latest in dining room fashion.

But he’s absolutely correct: they are the most comfortable dining room chairs you could ever want. You and your dinner guests can linger over the food and a good conversation as long as you or they desire, comfortable and padded in every regard.

I’m probably not going to trade in my chairs for his rolling variety. But I have been led to consider other possibilities better suited to comfort and perhaps stylish and pretty at the same time.

Which leads me to the topic of soups. I think that soup is a comfort food to a lot of people. So even if you aren't sitting on the most comfortable chair in the world, you'll feel pretty darn comfortable if you have a nice bowl of soup in front of you on the table, a slice of crusty bread, and a good glass of wine. The following eight soups are among my favorites.

Chilled Almond Gazpacho with Grapes (Ajo Blanco con Uvaas)

This makes a great first course soup for a dinner party. It wouldn’t quite work as a whole meal. You could serve it in small mugs or tiny bowls while your guests are standing around the kitchen, working up an appetite. I must admit that it is not to everyone’s liking. But I find it delicious, refreshing, and anything but ordinary. I think you will too.

6 ounces stale bread, crusts removed
1 cup slivered almonds
3 garlic cloves, peeled
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
5 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 teaspoons salt or to taste
2-3 cups water, but start with 2 cups
Red or green seedless grapes, cut in half
Oven-Roasted Grapes

1. Soak the bread in water to cover until it is softened, about 15 minutes. Squeeze the bread to remove some of the water.
2. Put the garlic in a small frying pan with a small amount of oil. Roast slowly over low or low-medium heat until they are soft and slightly browned, about 10 minutes. Be careful not to let them char.
Note: It is easiest to do this next step in two or three batches, depending on the size of your blender or food processor. A blender will give you a smoother consistency.
3. Measure the almonds, olive oil, water, vinegar, and salt. Take some of each, plus some garlic, and place them in a blender or food processor. Blend until very smooth. As you finish each batch, pour it into a bowl large enough to hold all your batches. Stir them together.
4. Add additional water until it is the soupy consistency you like. Check for seasonings and adjust as you see fit.
5. Chill. Right before serving, stir the soup, ladle into bowls and garnish with grapes.

6 servings
Adapted from Janet Mendel’s My Kitchen in Spain

Jane's Bacon and Lentil Soup

¾ cup small red lentils
1 bay leaf
4 cups stock or water
10-12 slices thick smoked bacon (10-12 ounces uncooked), cut crosswise into ½-inch pieces
1 small onion, finely diced
1 small carrot, peeled and finely diced
You can add some fennel and some red and yellow pepper, chopped, if you have them on hand
1 garlic clove, minced or pressed
1 can (14 ounces) diced tomatoes
1 large beefsteak tomato or comparable smaller ones, peeled, cored, seeded, saving the juice and adding it to the soup. See instructions below.
½ teaspoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon cumin
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh mint, plus more for garnish
Salt and pepper to taste
1 green onion, both white and green parts, thinly sliced
Sour cream or crème fraiche, optional

1. In a medium saucepan, stir together the lentils, bay leaf, and stock or water. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer until the lentils are soft, about 20 minutes. They will change from an orange color to a muddy yellow—do not be alarmed.
2. In a soup pot, cook the bacon pieces over low to medium heat, turn as needed to brown but not crisp. Remove from the pan, leaving the bacon fat. If there is a large amount of bacon fat, you might want to pour some of it into a container to save for another use. Leave 1-2 tablespoons in the pot.
3. Add the onions to the soup pot and sauté over medium heat until tender and starting to brown, about 8-10 minutes.
4. Add the tomatoes, the cooked lentil mixture, ¾ of the bacon (save some for a garnish), the oregano, cumin, and mint and stir until mixed. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Simmer for 10 minutes. Remove the bay leaf. Adjust seasonings to suit you.
5. Ladle into bowls. Garnish each serving with the sliced green onion, bacon and sour cream, if desired.

4-5 servings
Adapted from Sara Perry’s Everything Tastes Better with Bacon

Lemon Cornbread 
This cornbread is delicious with the soup.

How to peel and seed tomatoes

Some recipes will call for peeling alone, leaving the seeds. Some will call for seeding alone, leaving the skin in tact. Here are instructions for the whole process which you can modify as you see fit.

1. To peel the skin, drop the tomato into boiling water for 10-15 seconds depending on how ripe it is. Remove it from the water.
2. Slit the skin and peel it off. Remove the core (where the stem was growing).
3. To seed the tomato, slice in half around the equator. Place a small sieve over a bowl or pitcher.
4.With your finger, remove as many of the seeds as you can into the sieve, allowing the liquid which comes out with them to drain into the bowl. It is, to my mind, precious tomato juice.

Thai Chicken Coconut Soup

If you are new to Thai food, I suggest that you start with the soup. It makes a gorgeous simple dinner with the addition of a salad. And it takes no time at all to fix. I made it for my daughter-in-law when she was healing from surgery. I think that it hastened her recovery.

1 14-ounce can coconut milk
1 14-ounce can chicken broth
6 quarter-sized slices fresh ginger
1 stalk lemongrass, cut in 1-inch pieces
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast or thighs, sliced thinly
7 ounces tofu, sliced, optional
1-3 cups sliced mushrooms
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon Thai or Vietnamese fish sauce
1 teaspoon salt or to taste
1 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons Thai chili paste
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
2 tablespoons chopper fresh cilantro

1. In a medium saucepan, mix together the coconut milk, broth, ginger and lemongrass. Bring to a boil over high heat.
2. Add the chicken, optional tofu, mushrooms, lime juice, and fish sauce, salt, sugar and chili paste. Reduce heat and simmer until the chicken is cooked. Check for salt, adding if necessary. Remove the lemongrass pieces as best you can.
3. Pour into bowls and garnish with basil and cilantro.

You can make a vegetarian version by substituting 7-14 ounces of tofu for the chicken, vegetable broth for the chicken broth, and soy sauce for the fish sauce.

4 servings
Adapted from Jiranooch Shapiro’s version in Sunset Magazine, December 2008 

Red Pepper Soup with Olives, Lemon Zest, and Yogurt

Great comfort food. Gorgeous colors.

4 red bell peppers or 5 red gypsy peppers, roasted and skinned, please see instructions if you need them
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
1 small red onion, sliced
4 ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded (catching the liquid), and chopped, see instructions if you need them
Note: I seed the tomatoes over a sieve placed over a bowl. The seeds drop into the sieve and the liquid falls into the bowl. Periodically I swish the seeds around to release more tomato liquid.
1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes
½ cup thick yogurt
Note: If all you can find is soupy yogurt, line a sieve with two layers or paper towels, place the sieve over a bowl, and pour the yogurt into the sieve. Let it drain until the consistency is as thick as you like it. See photo and instructions.
½ teaspoon Aleppo pepper or smoked or regular paprika
1/3 cup pitted black olives, slivered in quarters
Finely grated zest of one lemon, see photos if you need them
1 tablespoon rosemary [the original recipe calls for this], very finely chopped, but I prefer finely chopped thyme.
A drizzle of olive oil

1. Heat the olive oil in a soup pot and sauté the garlic and onion for about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook until the mixture begins to bubble. Tear up the roasted peppers as you add them to the pan. Season with salt and pepper.
2. Add 3 cups water, or a combination of the tomato liquid (from seeding the tomatoes), the liquid released by the broiled peppers and enough water to make 3 cups. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, cover, and simmer gently for about 30 minutes.
3. Remove from the heat and purée in a food processor. Return the soup to the soup pot and add the Aleppo pepper. The soup should be fairly thick: if it seems too thin, simmer uncovered for a while longer; if it is too thick, add more liquid. You can let it sit at this point until you’re ready to serve it.
4. Before serving, reheat gently. Check the seasoning and serve the soup hot with a dollop of yogurt, a sprinkling of the olives, lemon zest, rosemary or thyme, and a drizzle of olive oil.

4 servings
Adapted from Tessa Kiros’s Falling Cloudberries: A World of Family Recipes

Curried Butternut Squash Soup

2 tablespoons butter
2 large carrots, peeled, sliced
1 cup chopped yellow onion
1 garlic clove, minced or pressed
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
2 teaspoons curry powder
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
Pinch of cayenne or smoky hot paprika
1 or 2 butternut squash (2 pounds in all), peeled, seeded and cut into chunks
1 teaspoon salt
5 cups apple juice, preferably organic and unfiltered
1 cup heavy cream or combination of heavy cream and milk
¼ cup chopped cilantro
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Heat the butter in a soup pot over medium-high heat until melted. Add the carrots, onion and garlic; mix well. Sauté for 5 minutes or until the vegetables are tender.
2. Stir in the fresh ginger, curry powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cayenne. Cook for 1 minute.
3. Stir in the squash, salt, and apple juice. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes or until the squash is tender.
4. Process the soup in batches in a food processor or blender until smooth. Return the soup to the pot, adding additional apple juice if needed for desired consistency.
Note: You can fix this soup ahead up to this point. When you are ready to reheat, you may have to add a bit of water to loosen it up the.
5. Stir in the heavy cream. Cook until heated through, stirring occasionally. Do not let it boil. Add more salt or seasonings if necessary. Ladle into soup bowls. Drizzle with additional cream if desired. Sprinkle with cilantro.
If you want a bit more protein, fry up some bacon or pancetta, cut in ½-inch pieces. Add some to each bowl of soup.

8 servings
Adapted from The Toledo Museum of Art Aides’ Art Fare: A Commemorative Celebration of Art and Food

Warm Cream of Tomato Soup

This may be one of the easiest soups in the world and one of the few places where spaghetti sauce in a jar works beautifully.

1 tablespoon butter or olive oil
1 large onion, minced
4 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
1 cup red wine
1 48-ounce jar good-quality, non-meat spaghetti sauce
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes, with juices
½ cup finely chopped fresh basil or 2 tablespoons dried
Note: Save out a little of the fresh, if you are using it, for garnish before serving
2 cups half and half
1 cup heavy cream
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Heat the butter in a soup pot. Add the garlic and onions and sauté until they are golden.
2. Pour in the red wine and simmer for 5 minutes.
3. Add the spaghetti sauce, tomatoes, and half of the fresh or dried basil; simmer very slowly uncovered for 1 hour.
4. Add the half and half and the heavy cream; continue to simmer over low heat for a few more minutes. Do not let the soup boil. Add the remaining fresh or dried basil, salt and pepper to taste.
5. Ladle into soup bowls, sprinkle with the fresh basil, and serve immediately.

10 servings
Adapted from Joan Nathan’s The New American Cooking

1991: A Cold Moroccan Tomato Soup

I am inclined to try any recipe that has Morocco in the title. This was no exception. The result was well worth the effort. But faulty instructions in the original made the task more arduous than necessary. (A food mill with a large disk is no help whatsoever in removing tomato seeds; they go right through. Plus my tomatoes were reluctant to join the seeds in the bowl. So I found another approach—the Cuisinart.) I have worked out the instructions, at least to my own satisfaction, and now I’m ready to pass this delicious soup along to you. It is best made with good tomatoes, if it can ever stop raining or get warmer or get cooler. Take your pick depending on where you are in the country.

5 medium clove garlic, smashed, peeled and minced
2½ teaspoons sweet paprika or sweet smoky paprika
1½ teaspoons ground cumin
Large pinch of cayenne
4 teaspoons olive oil
2¼ pounds tomatoes, skinned and cored, see instructions if you need them
¼ cup packed chopped cilantro leaves, plus more for garnish
1 tablespoons white wine vinegar
Zest of 1 lemon, see photos if you need them
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons salt and more to taste
4 stalks celery, finely diced
2 tablespoons water, if needed

1. In a small saucepan, stir together the garlic, paprika, cumin, cayenne and olive oil. Place over medium-low heat and cook, stirring constantly, for 5 minutes or until the garlic is soft. Remove from the heat and set aside.
2. Place the skinned tomatoes, pulling them apart a bit with your hands, in a food processor and whirl until smooth. Drain through a large sieve into a good-sized bowl to remove as many of the seeds as possible. Stir the liquid in the sieve with a rubber spatula until it is as dry as possible and you’ve extracted as much of the tomato goodness as you can, leaving the seeds behind. Occasionally wipe the back of the sieve with your spatula to release more of the tomato goodness.
3. Stir in the cooked spice mixture, cilantro, vinegar, lemon zest and juice, salt, celery and water, if necessary. Add more salt as desired.
4. Refrigerate until cold. Serve garnished with cilantro leaves.

4-6 servings depending on the size of the bowls
Adapted from Amanda Hesser’s article in The New York Times Sunday Magazine, July 2009; Barbara Kafka wrote the original article for The Times in 1991

A Cold Yogurt and Cucumber Soup

1 cucumber, peeled, seeded, and diced (can also use the seedless kind), see instructions below
4 cups plain whole or low-fat yogurt
¼ cup chopped scallions
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
2 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon
2 cloves garlic, pressed
1 cup water, more if your yogurt is very thick
salt and pepper to taste

¼ cup walnuts, coarsely chopped
½ cup golden raisins, chopped if necessary
3 tablespoons dried rose petals, optional but so nice
Note: You can get these from a Middle Eastern store in your area. Zand’s on Solano in Albany, CA is good for Bay Area folks.
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint
1 pita bread, cut into ½-inch squares and toasted, omit for your gluten-free guests

1. Combine the cucumber, yogurt, scallions, mint, dill, oregano, thyme, tarragon, garlic, salt and pepper in a large mixing bowl. Mix thoroughly with 1 cup water and adjust the seasonings to taste.
2. Refrigerate several hours or overnight.
3. Just before serving, add the walnuts and golden raisins. Pour into individual serving bowls and sprinkle with rose petals, fresh mint, and toasted pita squares.

6 servings as a first course
Adapted from Najmieh Batmanglij in The New York Times Food Section

How to peel and seed a cucumber

1. Cut off both ends of a cucumber and peel with a vegetable peeler.
2. Cut in half the long way.
3. With a spoon, scrape out the seeds.
4. You are now ready to proceed with slicing or chopping or whatever.

CHAPTER 3: Chicken and a Story about Traveling, Cooking, and Eating

Four years into my marriage, my husband and I moved to Taipei, Taiwan so that he could study Chinese at the Stanford Program at Taida University. Because we were so very Berkeley, we decided that we would shop and cook for ourselves rather than hire an amah. This was a pretty radical decision in 1970. So I learned to count in Chinese. I learned the names of vegetables. I shopped nearly every day at our neighborhood market. I bought a couple of pirated Chinese cookbooks. I took some cooking classes. In the course of the year I learned a huge amount about Chinese food and the shopping also brought me into the community. Neighborhood grannies would peek in my shopping basket to see what I had bought, ask how much I had paid for my cabbage and offer suggestions on how to prepare it.

When we moved to Kyoto, Japan in 1971 with our month-old baby, Franz, I did pretty much the same thing. Counting. A couple of cookbooks. Daily shopping. Asking questions of neighbors. And cooking a lot of Japanese food. I also taught Western cooking to some women in my neighborhood, as shown in the photo. They reciprocated by teaching me Japanese cooking. Just great for me.

So I’m going to jump ahead to the near present.

In 2003 I caught the travel bug. It started with the Middle East and went on to Spain and Morocco, southern France, South Africa, Brazil, Mexico, Turkey and Greece, Malawi, back to South Africa, Spain, Sweden on and on. And more recently Bali, Italy, Iran, Israel, Jordan, and Palestine. An amazing opportunity to see the world and to delve into cultures so different from my own.

Before going on trips, I educate myself about the new place by doing three things: I buy cookbooks (from my favorite used bookstore), read them, and cook some of the special dishes of the region. Good cookbooks tell me so much about the agriculture, immigration patterns and influences, the climate, and the traditions of the country. And then I get to eat the food I've fixed. Smell it. Taste it. I literally ingest the culture of the new place before I take a step outside this country. When I finally get there, I can look for the dishes I want to try and delight in seeing how closely my dishes approximate the “real” thing.

You'll see in many of the chicken recipes which follow that my cooking has been heavily influenced by my travels, in this case, Morocco, Spain, and Iran.  And India too although I haven't traveled there yet.

Barbeque Pulled Chicken

I made this as a lunch menu in April 2006 for a reunion of my Theta sisters from the University of Michigan. We gathered in Sonoma, California at a lovely retreat center and went on a wine tour, pictured here, one afternoon. It was great.

The black beans pictured on this plate aren't included in this menu.

1 8-ounce can tomato sauce or home-made if you have it
1 7-ounce can chopped green chiles, including the juice
3 tablespoons cider vinegar
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon regular or smoky sweet paprika
Note: El Rey de Vera Pimenton de la Vera (Spanish Smoked Paprika) comes in Sweet, Bittersweet, and Hot. I use Sweet in this recipe. Fancy supermarkets often have it. I get mine at The Spanish Table in Berkeley.
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 teaspoons dry mustard
1 teaspoon ground chipotle chile
Note: Chipotle ground chile is in my supermarket in the Mexican section, usually in a clear cellophane bag.
½ teaspoon salt or to taste
2½ pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, extra fat removed
Note: Scissors work great to cut off the extra fat.
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced or pressed

1. Stir tomato sauce, chiles, vinegar, honey, paprika, tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, ground chipotle and salt in a 6-quart slow cooker until smooth. Add chicken, onion, and garlic; stir to combine.
2. Put the lid on and cook on low until the chicken can be pulled apart, 2-3 hours depending on the size of your slow cooker. A smaller pot will take more time. You can also use a large sauté pan on the top of the stove or on low heat in the oven. Start checking thighs after two hours.
3. Transfer the chicken thighs to a bowl, and let cool until you can pull the meat apart with your fingers or a fork.
4. Pour the liquid into a sauté pan and boil it down until it is thick. Return the chicken to the sauce, stir well, and check for salt. Reheat if necessary, and serve on toasted buns. I usually serve open-faced with the toasted bun forming a platform for the chicken.
5. You can make it the day before and reheat to serve.

8 servings
Adapted from February/March issue of Eating Well magazine

Erasto’s Coleslaw

Silky Sautéed Red Peppers 
These always are just the right bit of color you need on an otherwise boring plate.