Miz Chef

Cooking Up a Healthy Life


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Hoppin’ John

Hello, everyone! As we approach the end of another year, many cultures around the world begin their preparations for carrying out traditions that will ensure good luck, good health, and prosperity in the new year (at the very least, they can’t hurt). Food always—pretty much without exception—plays a part in these rituals.

Soba Noodles

In Japan, for example, it is customary to eat soba noodles during the New Year’s celebration to ensure a long life, symbolized by the long noodles. In Spain, 12 grapes are eaten at midnight on New Year’s Eve—one for each month of the year—and it is hoped that the grapes are sweet, which is considered a harbinger of a sweet year ahead. In Austria and Germany, they eat little marzipan pigs, which are considered good luck. In the Philippines, they make a lot of noise on New Year’s Eve, banging pots and pans, to ward off evil spirits. In Greece, they smash a pomegranate at the front door to spill the seeds, symbolically spreading wealth.

In many countries, legumes are popular for New Year’s because they swell when cooked, symbolizing increased financial prosperity. Lentils are used in Italy and Brazil because they are round like coins. In the United States, black-eyed peas are popular (the musical group and the legume) and Hoppin’ John, which features that particular legume, is a staple New Year’s dish in the South.

Recipes for Hoppin’ John first began appearing in cookbooks in the 1840s, but the origins are a little murky, and possibly a little unfortunate. Black-eyed peas are native to West Africa, and it’s believed that they were brought over by slave traders as part of their cargo. Naturally, the crops were planted in the South, and became an important commodity. Some believe that eating black-eyed peas for New Year’s is actually a carryover of a 1500-year-old tradition of consuming them by Sephardic Jews on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

The beans themselves represent coins, and there’s one version of this tradition that calls for hiding an actual coin in the Hoppin’ John—bringing the finder good luck—as well as filling a bowl with beans and coins and leaving it on the table for some benevolent spirit in exchange for granting good fortune.

But why is it called Hoppin’ John? There are several stories. One says that there was an old man who hobbled around and sold peas on the streets of Charleston, and the dish was named after him. Another says that children would hop around the dinner table, eagerly anticipating the serving of this dish. A more likely story is that it comes from a French term, pois pigeons, meaning pigeon peas, which are a big part of Caribbean culture.

Hoppin’ John is traditionally made with pork and served with rice. In many countries, pork, for some reason, is considered lucky to eat on New Year’s (marzipan is not the only kind of pig that Austrians and Germans eat for New Year’s). Rice flourished in the hot, steamy South (it was dubbed at one point Carolina Gold). Bring all three of these elements together, you’ve got one lucky dish. Also, Hoppin’ John is often served together with collard greens, because it represents money. Cornbread, too, is considered lucky because of its “golden” color (you get the idea).

I’ve made different versions of Hoppin’ John, with and without greens, with and without meat, with rice and with other grains… This is probably the simplest version I’ve cooked. The nice thing about it is that you can make it ahead of time and freeze it, then defrost it in time for New Year’s Day. By the way, unlike other dried beans, black-eyed peas do not need to be pre-soaked. You can, if you want to cut down cooking time, do a quick-soak method by bringing the peas to a boil in a pot of water, letting them boil for 2 minutes, then letting them sit in the water for an hour off heat. But, frankly, if you’re going to do all of that, you’re not really saving any time, unless you want to do this the day before. In my opinion, not worth it. Just let the Hoppin’ John cook for an hour, and it’s a done deal.  

Whatever traditions you have for New Year’s—or whether you have any at all—I’m wishing you all a healthy, happy, prosperous New Year. I wish for peace and tranquility, honor and compassion, and above all, respect for all living beings.

Hoppin’ John

Makes 6 servings.

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium red onion, chopped
1 tablespoon kosher salt
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon tomato paste

6 cups vegetable broth
1 small green bell pepper, chopped
1 cup coarsely chopped carrot
2 large celery ribs, chopped
1 cup chopped tomatoes, liquid reserved
3 cups dried black-eyed peas
1 or 2 dried bay leaves
Freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup minced fresh parsley
2 teaspoons fresh minced thyme or rosemary (or both), optional

Heat the oil in a Dutch oven or large saucepan. Add the onion and ¼ teaspoon of the salt, and sauté over medium-high heat until soft and translucent.Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Drop in the tomato paste and stir it in until it’s well blended, then let it cook for a minute or two, until the bottom of the pot starts to brown.Pour in a little bit of the broth to deglaze the pot and scrape up the brown bits with a wooden spoon. Let this cook until the liquid has evaporated.Add the bell pepper, carrot, celery, and ½ teaspoon of the salt and sauté until all the vegetables have softened but are still firm.Pour the liquid from the tomatoes into a measuring cup and add enough water to make 1 cup. Add this to the pot. Pour in the broth, and add the beans, bay leaves, remaining salt, and black pepper. Mix well.Bring this to a boil; lower the heat to medium-low and simmer, partially covered, about 1 hour, or until the beans are tender but not mushy. If the pot dries out before the beans are cooked, add more water or broth and stir it in. Stir in the parsley and other herbs and taste for seasoning. Add more salt and/or pepper, if you like.

Remove the bay leaves and serve with rice or cornbread, or on its own.

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Brussels Sprouts-and-Red Onion Frittata

Every season brings with it its own special delicious crops. One of my favorite autumn vegetables is Brussels sprouts. Earthy, cabbage-y, and slightly bitter, Brussels sprouts have traditionally been underrated, and even reviled. Even the words “Brussels sprouts” can bring a look of revulsion to some people’s faces.

O ye, of little faith. You poor honeys just haven’t had them cooked right.

I have used Brussels sprouts in many dishes, but I had never made them in a frittata. Until now. I loved it.

Frittatas, in general, are very forgiving. You can add just about anything and it will taste good. Brussels sprouts are no exception. Paired with red onions, they make this frittata hearty, flavorful, and elegant enough to serve others.

Enjoy!

Brussels Sprouts-and-Red Onion Frittata

Makes 4 servings.

½ lb. Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 cup finely chopped red onion

3 large eggs
1 tablespoon grated parmesan cheese
Freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven the 350 degrees F/176 degrees C.Place the Brussels sprouts in a medium bowl. Add 1 tablespoon of the oil and ½ teaspoon of the salt. Toss until all the sprouts are coated. Spread them out on a baking sheet and roast until nicely browned and tender when pierced with the tip of a knife.Beat the eggs in a medium bowl with the remaining salt, parmesan, and black pepper.

Heat the remaining oil in a small skillet. Add the onion and sauté until they’ve softened and just start to brown, about 2 minutes. Add the Brussels sprouts and spread them out evenly (try to face them cut side down for a nice presentation). Pour the eggs evenly over the onion and sprouts. Lower the heat to low and cover the pan. Cook until the underside of the frittata is browned, about 5 to 7 minutes. (You can check by lifting the frittata on one side with a spatula and peeking underneath.)

Place a plate that is wider than the skillet over the top and a carefully (using a dry kitchen towel or potholder!), flip the frittata over onto the plate. Then slide the frittata back into the skillet.Continue cooking a few more minutes, uncovered, until the frittata is cooked through and the underside has browned.

Remove it from the pan and cut into 4 wedges. Serve hot, warm, or cold.


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Roasted Squash and Purple Potatoes with Baby Bok Choy

Roasting is my favorite way to cook almost any vegetable, but it’s definitely the way to go with root vegetables and squashes. Because it’s so easy, this is the perfect dish to serve at any weeknight meal. But because it’s easily doubled or tripled, it’s ideal for the Thanksgiving table, or for any special autumn or winter meal. Enjoy.

Roasted Squash and Purple Potatoes with Baby Bok Choy

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

6-7 large garlic cloves, peeled
2 cups cubed butternut or other winter squash
2 cups cubed purple potatoes (about 1½ pounds)
1 small onion, sliced
3 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon olive oil
3 teaspoons kosher salt
½ pound baby bok choy
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Slice 1 garlic clove and set aside. Smash the rest with the flat side of a knife blade (hit your palm CAREFULLY down on the blade).Combine the squash, potatoes, onions, and smashed garlic in a medium bowl. Add 3 tablespoons of the oil and 2 teaspoons of the salt and mix well. Transfer to a baking sheet and roast until the vegetables are tender and golden brown, about 40 to 45 minutes. Stir halfway through.Meanwhile, make the bok choy. Slice off the root end and separate the leaves. Soak the leaves in a bowl of cool water for about 10 minutes. Remove the bok choy and rinse them.Heat the remaining oil in a medium skillet. Add the sliced garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 1 to 2 minutes. Add the bok choy and remaining salt and cook, covered, for 5 minutes. Uncover the pan and continue cooking over medium heat until tender. Taste for seasoning and adjust if needed.Place the bok choy neatly on a platter. Spoon the squash and potatoes over the bok choy. Serve hot.


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Fresh Tomato Soup

All of my life, I never liked tomato soup. It always tasted like watered-down ketchup to me. Granted, my experience with tomato soup had been the canned variety, but I also had once or twice tried it in a restaurant or catered affair situation (I can’t remember which) and thought it was equally distasteful.

Then, I found a recipe for tomato soup using fresh tomatoes…and it changed my world. Now I knew what tomato soup was supposed to taste like. And I never looked back.

This is my recipe for fresh tomato soup. The  ingredients are extremely simple and the focus is on the tomatoes. It’s best to make this in summer, when tomatoes are at their peak. It doesn’t much matter which variety you choose, as long as they’re ripe and fresh. Enjoy! Continue reading


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Apple Cocktail

Listen, it’s just been too damn hot to cook. The dog days of summer are upon us. Temperatures are making the mercury in (old school) thermometers cry, and you could fry your entire breakfast on the streets. Understandably, you don’t want to be in the kitchen for any longer than it takes to pour a glass of lemonade.

But most people don’t seem to have a problem spending a few minutes pressing a button on a blender for a nice, frothy, alcoholic beverage With the promise of a delicious fruit-based libation, spending that time at the kitchen counter will be worth it, especially with a recipe as easy as this one.

For this recipe, I used a premade fruit puree by Perfect Puree, but there are other brands of purees out there. There are many different flavors and they’re nice to have around for summertime beverages, as well as desserts and savory dishes. You can keep them in your refrigerator for short-term use, or the freezer for long-term storage. However, if you can’t get your hands on these purees, you can make your own. For this recipe, simply peel and seed a green apple.

Apple Cocktail

Makes 2 cocktails.

2 oz. green apple puree
4 oz. apple rum
ice
Garnish: Sliced apples (optional)

Combing the puree and rum in a blender. Add a few ice cubes and puree. Pour into 2 martini glasses. Garnish the edge of the glasses with apple slices.

Enjoy!


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Whole Wheat Pasta Salad with Kale & Creamy Avocado Dressing

Summer is finally here, and with the coming of sunshine and warm breezes comes the need for pasta salad. After all, you need something easy to bring to all those picnics, barbecues, and beach parties, right?

Pasta salad, however, need not be fattening or unhealthy. In fact, it can be quite the opposite. This pasta salad calls for whole wheat pasta, which already is healthier than regular pasta salad, but you can use gluten-free pasta as well. Rather than mayo or other fat-laden dressing, this one uses avocado. It makes the pasta creamy, rich, and loaded with nutrients (plus some good fat). Add raw kale to the mix and you’ve got a healthy, but delicious, alternative.

Kale can be tough, but squeezing kale with avocado softens the leaves. The salt in the dressing further breaks down the cell walls of the kale, helping it along its journey to tenderness.

This is an excellent start to the summer. Enjoy!

Whole Wheat Pasta Salad with Kale & Creamy Avocado Dressing

Makes 4 servings.

8 oz. cherry tomatoes, halved
2 teaspoons olive oil
2 cups whole wheat pasta
2 teaspoons table salt
2 Haas avocados
2 tablespoons lime juice
½ teaspoons sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 packed kale leaves, shredded*
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
¼ cup grated parmesan

Toss the tomatoes with the olive oil in a small bowl. Spread the tomatoes out on a small baking sheet lined with foil and roast until soft and charred, about 20 minutes.Bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Add the pasta and table salt and bring to a boil. Boil over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until the pasta is al dente, about 8 to 12 minutes (depending on what pasta you choose). Drain and set it aside while you prepare the sauce.

In a food processor, combine the meat from the avocados, lime juice, 1 tablespoon of the extra virgin olive oil, sea salt, and black pepper. Process until smooth.Place the kale in a medium bowl. Pour the avocado sauce over it and squeeze the kale with your hand until everything is well blended. Mix in the balsamic and red pepper flakes, if you’re using it.Add the cooked pasta and parmesan and mix well. Taste for seasoning and adjust it to your liking.Transfer the pasta to a serving bowl. Serve warm, at room temperature, or cold.

*To shred kale, first strip the leaves off the stems by lightly pinching the stem and running your fingers down the stem to the tip, pulling the leaves off along the way. Stack a few leaves and roll them up into a tight log. With a sharp knife, slice the kale thinly.


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Watermelon Lovely

It would seem I’m on a watermelon kick (last time, I did a recipe for watermelon pickles). But that’s what happens when you buy a big watermelon and are the only one eating it. You find different ways to use it.

This week, I offer you a refreshing drink with a kick to it. I call it Watermelon Lovely because it truly is lovely to look at. It’s very easy to throw together, and it makes the perfect summer libation.

Enjoy!

Watermelon Lovely

3 cups chopped, seeded watermelon, preferably cold
2 tablespoons dark or light rum (more if you want it stronger)
2 tablespoons Amaretto di Saronno (more if you want it sweeter)

Garnishes*Puree the watermelon. You should get approximately 2 cups.

Pour the liquid into a pitcher or something large enough to mix other ingredients into it. If it’s not already cold, add ice cubes, chill it, and then strain it.

Stir in the remaining ingredients. Pour into 2 glasses and serve.

*If you like, you can decorate the rim of the glasses with colored sugar, crystallized herbs (that’s basil in the picture), or chunks of fruit.