Category Archives: Culinary

Shakshuka-inspired breakfast skillet

I’m scheduled to go into work late this afternoon after a day and a half of snow break, so I cooked a solid one-pan brunch for myself and aimed for flavor and a good balance of fruit and vegetable, protein, and grains.

Taking inspiration from shakshuka (worth looking up if you’ve never had it), I sweated green onions and garlic with a bit of cubed low-sodium ham. I added sliced black olives and mushrooms and allowed that to simmer until all the bits were cooked then added a half can of diced tomatoes with no added salt, seasoned lightly with kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper, ground cumin, and ground coriander and stirred everything together and allowed it to simmer uncovered for a few minutes until much of the liquid had evaporated.

Finally, I hollowed out three divots and cracked a fresh egg into each divot, covered the whole thing in a layer of fresh spinach leaves, and covered. That cooked for maybe four minutes or long enough for the egg whites to set then slid the whole mess into a rimmed plate (ok, it was a Pyrex pie plate) and served with thinly sliced dry toast.

All-in-all, I had an orange-sized eighth-inch thick slice of ham, three eggs, a couple of portabella mushroom caps, three scallions, half a clove of minced garlic, a tablespoon or two of olives, the equivalent of a whole large tomato, a good double handful of spinach, roughly a quarter teaspoon each of salt, canola oil, cumin, and coriander and easily a half teaspoon of black pepper. Add two thinly sliced toasted bits of my own fresh homemade white bread. And black coffee. I’m very full but not uncomfortable, and I can’t imagine needing to eat again before dinner this evening.

Ramping up fruit and veg isn’t easy for me. It isn’t that I dislike either, but I’ve been largely a meat and dairy guy for a long time, cutting out as many carbs as possible. I am neither a nutritionist nor a dietician, but I have consulted both though neither suggested this particular recipe (especially since this was a brunch whim). This is about having a conversation around food. And it’s about being transparent about how I’m eating.

In case you don’t know, I’m forty-nine years old and counting, and I’m extremely overweight. I’ve probably tried as many diet plans as any sane person should with varying results. Weight has been an issue for me since grade school, and I refuse to subsist on rocks and tree bark. I love food. I love cooking it, and I love sharing it. I’m not a fan of preservatives or added salt or sugar. I prefer foods in relatively raw states when I begin working with them, in large part because I simply don’t trust industrialized food processors. My health is not their goal.

Nor is being a fitness model my goal. I’m interested in feeling better and living longer. Yes, I’d be happier when I look in the mirror to have a smaller belly, but that’s essentially cosmetic. What I want is to be able to go more and do more. Fifty is literally just around the corner, and I’ve never felt more impetus to make a change before a milestone birthday. I’m not in a panic, but I’m very aware of my age, my weight, and the challenges that someone with both issues faces in a world that largely ignores both unless there’s money to be made in making those people feel shifty about themselves.

Mainly, I don’t want to feel shitty. And I don’t want you to feel shitty. This is about feeling good, having fun, and connecting not only to those around us but also to the food that we must consume every day to survive and thrive. And it’s about finding what works for me. Your results may be different because your body and it’s metabolism are different. Think about what’s going onto your plate and into your mouth. Consider how various foods and meals make you feel. And perhaps most importantly, play with your food.

Recipe development: Dukkah prototype #2

Some of you know by now that I’ve been in a romantic relationship with a man from Egypt for the last few months, but serendipitously, just days before we met, I was asked in the spice shop where I work part-time for an Egyptian spice blend called Dukkah which we don’t carry and I’d never had.

After a little Google-based research, I decided that day that I wanted to develop a recipe of my own. Well, then I met Adel, and pretty much everything flew out of my head for a while. But, I did make a stab at it back in December. This recipe was developed immediately after I tasted the first batch.

This batch didn’t turn out exactly as I’d hoped, but it’s still delicious. Here’s are the quantities of what I used by weight (since some of the spices are hollow, volume seemed a poor way to balance things).

125g of pistachios (though hazelnuts are more traditional)
50g sesame seeds
25g cumin seeds
25g coriander seeds
25g fennel seeds
15g black peppercorns
and a generous 1/4 teaspoon of kosher salt

I toasted each of the ingredients separately (each cooks a little differently) in a dry skillet on medium-low heat only raising the heat when it seemed safe to do so without burning the spices. As each came off the heat, I let the skillet cool a bit and lowered the heat before putting in the next spice. To be clear, I toasted the nuts as well. 

Dry pan toasting of the sesame seeds

In a mortar and pestle, I then ground each of the spices to a lightly coarse powder but left some pinhead to lentil-sized chunks of the nuts. Refer back to the closeup of the finished blend for reference. That’s a table teaspoon (as opposed to a measuring teaspoon) resting in the bowl.

Grinding the ingredients individually with a mortar and pestle

Also, I’m grateful that I kept the numbers at mutliples of five, because I’ll be able to scale this back on the next prototype.

The finished prototype

My personal opinion, I want to increase the quantity of coriander seeds and drop the fennel and peppercorns in the next batch, and I’ve now acquired some hazelnuts, so the next batch may be all hazelnuts or a blend of the two.

Dukkah on oven roasted chicken leg-thigh quarter

Regardless, I have leftover roasted chicken that will be doused liberally with this prototype and served with some veggies for my dinner tonight.

Southern-style pinched biscuits: trial and error

All of my adult life, I’ve been a bit phobic about making the pinched biscuits my mother made at least daily when I was growing up. She showed me her process (there was no recipe) repeatedly, and every batch I made was a crushing disappointment (to me, anyway).

Fast forward thirty years, and I’ve been making my own bread—amongst other things—for the last several months. At first, I had to. I couldn’t afford to buy groceries for a while immediately following my contract ending in June. But I’ve come to genuinely enjoy the process as well as the result.

So tonight, on a whim, I made biscuits. The term we used as kids was cat heads: lumpy, unattractive biscuits. Nothing at all like Moma’s smooth perfect little morsels. But you know what? The interior was perfect, and I learned a thing or two.

And there was no fear. None. I just went into the kitchen and made biscuits like there was nothing to it.

And truly? There was nothing to it. I needed to fail. I’ve said it a hundred times a hundred times to students in knitting classes. Adults hate being beginners, but it’s good for us. We don’t know everything. We can’t know everything. But especially as adults, we really have to work against thinking that because we haven’t done a thing that we can’t do a thing. We’re probably going to screw the pooch a time or twelve, and that’s ok. We learn from our mistakes. Sometimes a little. Sometimes a lot.

So tonight, I made cat heads. They taste good, and the crusts are fucking divine. The interiors are dense but fluffy. The taste was ok. The shapes definitely need some work. And the sizes were all over the place. Now I have ideas for how to improve them. For next time. Because practice may not make perfect, but it brings us closer to where we really want to be.

Pesto Vegetable Pasta with Grated Incanestrato

I drove into Rockford to visit Valli Produce and picked up some small (roughly racquetball-sized) eggplants along with a jar of prepared pesto. I also got several cheeses including one that I’d never heard of before: incanestrato.

Today for lunch, I cooked one of the eggplants sliced with a handful of sliced mushrooms and halved cherry tomatoes, julienned sun-dried tomatoes and shallot, and a single fat scallion in a large skillet along with a large dollop of the pesto. I served that over whole wheat spaghetti topped with a generous grating of incanestrato.

I’m generally not a great fan of licorice or anise flavor, but there was a sharp but very pleasant note of licorice in what I’m assuming was the cheese (seems unlikely it came from the pesto). Incanestrato is a hard Italian cheese made from cow or cow and goat milk, salt, and herbs. It seems plausible that one of those herbs might be anise, and if so, I’m impressed. It made a believer out of me. I really enjoyed even that specific part of this dish.

Turns out it was the pesto, but the cheese is still excellent.