Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Salem Bug Trials

It had been a challenging morning with a particularly loud and distracted group of fourth-graders, but after nearly two hours of garden work, talking and writing about decomposition, and cooking, things were looking up. It was time to eat. As the group sat down to steaming bowls of Thai curry noodle soup -- one of the most delicious dishes you can imagine -- one young upstart called out, "There's a bug in my soup!"

Oh lord.

Suddenly, what was traditionally the most calm part of class -- the eating part -- turned into a modern version of the Salem witch trials: like a wildfire, one student after another shrieked about little blobs floating in their soup until nearly the whole class was in hysterics. Most of the parents tried to calm the 9-year-olds, insisting that what they were seeing were not bugs at all but merely bits of the spices we'd used -- curry powder, cumin, turmeric -- but upon closer inspection, I did see some distinctly insect-like corpses in my own bowl. "Well," I tried to explain, "this is part of what organic gardening is about. We don't use any scary chemicals, so sometimes bugs like to eat our delicious vegetables, too. If it really bothers you, though, just pick out the bugs." Nearby, a couple of boys agreed, "Yeah, it's no big deal. It's part of nature. This is delicious!" And they asked their neighbors if they could finish their uneaten soup. I love having allies, and I slurped my soup right alongside them.

I am sad to report that the vast majority of soup this morning went uneaten, though. Tomorrow, my co-teacher and I decided, we will skip cooking the bug-laden broccoli from our garden, lest another near-riot erupt.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Bountiful broccoli

I do love broccoli. I couldn't resist picking up a few heads at the farmers' market a couple of weeks ago. It was just gorgeous, so I bought more than I should have for a person who lives alone and eats a diverse diet. Yes, I was downright brassica rich. After making a couple of batches of my favorite broccoli (with garlic, crushed red pepper, raisins, and almonds), and a couple of stirfries, I still had a few heads of the beautiful green veggie in the fridge. So I went to one of my favorite food blogs, Food52, for some inspiration. And inspiration I found.

I made a few adjustments, of course: more garlic, because the original recipe only called for 2 cloves(!), and the addition of a celery root because I had one and also because it turned out that when I measured it I did not actually have quite as much broccoli as I thought. (Must be those midnight elves who sneak in and eat my produce while I sleep... but who, alas, don't seem inclined to do the dishes while they're in my kitchen.) The result was so delicious, I made another big pot of it the following week, when a canceled class left me with a plethora of extra broccoli. It turned out perfectly again.

Since this recipe is too good not to share, I offer you:

Roasted Broccoli and Celery Root Soup
Serves 4-6


  • 2 heads broccoli, cut into florets, with stems peeled and cut into bite-sized chunks
  • 1 celeriac, peeled, cut into 1-inch chunks
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 4-5 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
  • salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 4-6 cups stock (depends on how thick you want your soup)
  • ½ cup finely grated Parmesan
  • juice from 1 lemon


Steam broccoli and celeriac til broccoli turns bright green. Drain well, set aside.

Add the olive oil and garlic to the pot, cook over medium heat for 2 mins, then add the broccoli and celeriac, seasoning with salt and pepper.

Cover the pot, turn the heat down as low as it will go, and cook for about an hour, stirring occasionally, until the broccoli is soft enough that it yields when you press it with the back of a wooden spoon (it may brown a little during this process -- this is a good thing).

Add stock and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Simmer the soup for 5 minutes.

Puree half the soup in a blender or food processor. Stir the puree back into the pot.

Stir in the Parmesan and lemon juice to taste. Enjoy!

Monday, November 10, 2014

Don't be a jerk

I've been craving black bean soup like crazy as the temperatures have started dropping to serious winterlike levels, so the other day I started soaking a couple cups of dry black beans. The next day I drained them and started simmering them with a spoonful of ground cumin and ginger (which I had heard helps to reduce the gas these delicious legumes are known to produce) in a fresh batch of water. I drained my softened beans, got out a lime and some more ground cumin, and because I could not for the life of me recall what all else I needed, I called the woman who makes some of the best black bean soup I've had in my life: my mom.

She graciously unearthed the index card, handwritten copy of the recipe that I've been enjoying since middle school, and dictated it to me over the phone. I was surprised at how simple it was: 2 cans of black beans, water, a lime, and Jamaican jerk spice. That's it. Delicious. But I was scandalized. "Jamaican jerk spice?? What about cumin? Cilantro? Chili? At least an onion, right??" Nope. All the flavor comes from the jerk seasoning. What's in that, anyway?

I did just finish a series of FoodPrints lessons teaching 3rd graders to be avid readers of ingredient labels, after all. Yep, it was as I suspected: lots of salt. I could do better than this, I decided. Plus, it was awfully cold outside and I wanted to avoid a trip to the store to purchase my single missing ingredient. I would work with what I had around the kitchen.... The result was delicious (though it will never quite replace my mom's recipe and its plethora of fond memories).

Black Bean Soup (from scratch)
Makes 4-6 servings, depending on how hungry you are


  • 2 cups dry black beans, soaked overnight, simmered until soft, then drained
    (you can use 3-4 cans of beans, but they're pricier and less nutritious -- just sayin')*
  • 6 cups vegetable stock (make your own!)
  • olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, peeled and diced
  • 2 shallots, peeled and finely diced
  • 3-4 garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced
  • 1/2 - 1 fresh jalapeno pepper, seeds removed then finely minced
  • 1-2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1/2 tsp fresh thyme leaves (or 1/4 tsp dried)
  • a sprinkle (1/4 tsp?) cayenne
  • a sprinkle of ground nutmeg
  • a sprinkle of ground cinnamon
  • a pinch or two of ground allspice
  • 1-2 tsp tamari (or soy sauce, but I swear tamari is better)
  • juice from 1 lime (2 TBSP, roughly)
  • salt and black pepper, to taste
  • plain greek yogurt (optional), for garnish
  • fresh cilantro (optional), for garnish
  • additional lime wedges, for garnish

  1. Heat a medium pot with a few glugs of olive oil, then stir in onions and cook over low heat until soft, stirring occasionally so things don't stick too much (5-10 minutes).
  2. Stir in the shallots, garlic, and jalapeno and cook for another 1-2 minutes.
  3. Turn up the heat as you stir in the cumin, thyme, cayenne, nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, and tamari,
  4. When these have sizzled for about a minute, stir in most of the beans (I set aside about 1/2 cup) and all of the broth. Simmer for 10-15 minutes.
  5. Remove from heat, puree the soup, then stir in the remaining beans and the lime juice. Taste, then season with salt and pepper if needed.
  6. Serve hot with a dollop of yogurt and a sprinkle of cilantro leaves, along with a lime wedge for folks to squeeze in just before eating. I also made some cheddar jalapeno corn muffins because, hey, what is black bean soup without cornbread?
*Check out this previous post for some tips on cooking dry bean.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Are you a worm expert?

It's funny, I've composted at home for a handful of years now, and tried my hand at worm composting at least twice, with mixed success. But to the 1st grade FoodPrints class I was assisting with at SWS this morning, I seemed to be one of the authorities in the room.

"Are you a worm expert?" young Isabelle asked me as she crumbled coconut coir into our homemade, two-level bin. I tore up some more paper bag scraps as I considered this new title.

"Well, I know that worms breathe through their skin," exclaimed her table mate, Evan, "so that makes me kind of an expert!" He had a point.

I wonder what makes someone an expert at anything, really. I mean, I am pretty darn good at changing flat tires. And improvising ways to lash an inordinate amount of stuff to my bicycle. I can prepare a meal out of seemingly incompatible ingredients -- take my chicken, chickpea, peanut, and coconut milk stew I tossed together last week for some personal chef clients: delish!

I suppose by the time I got through working with the fourth group this morning, I was a worm expert. I could talk about slimy skin and a lack of teeth and not letting the bedding get too wet with the best red wiggler authorities out there. Especially if my colleagues are 6 years old.

I can't wait to start a bin with 1st graders at Tyler Elementary in a couple of weeks. Viva la vermiculture!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Had your fill of phyllo?

I have a funny feeling that phyllo dough will play a role in my afterlife somehow: if I end up in heaven, I'll be eating it; if I end up in hell, I'll be cooking with it....

This weekend marked my dad's 80th birthday. (Before you say it, I know he doesn't look anywhere close to 80. But it's true.) The past few days have mainly been spent cooking, eating, drinking, and laughing as a result. As it was a significant milestone --one only turns 40 twice, after all -- I wanted to be sure the food I was preparing was of a significant caliber and volume. So I broke out the recipe from my friend Jenn up in Brooklyn, memories of the flaky cheesy goodness she made for us for dinner one night when I was visiting this summer still lingering in my memory. Doesn't that just look delicious? And in this shot it hadn't even been popped into the oven yet to become crispy, creamy perfection!

Now, I recall phyllo being a bit of a challenge to work with, back when I was making baklava in Mexico. No need to get into the soggy and overly sweet disaster that was that little experiment. Let us just say that I knew not to over-butter each sheet this time.

I honestly think phyllo dough is God's little joke on food lovers. It is so tantalizingly delicious, and so tempting to think that this time one knows what one is doing, and will not make the same mistakes that resulted in the last attempt's imperfections. Keep the dough cool. Keep it moist. Not too moist. Work quickly.... Anyway, despite my best efforts, the brand new, cool but not too cool, barely moistened with a kitchen towel, paper-thin sheets of heaven fractured as soon as I attempted to unroll them. Armed with a glass of wine and no shortage of muttering, I forged ahead, patching the strips together with (you guessed it) plenty of butter. And you know what, it came out just fine. Especially if you pre-slice it before baking.

Adapted from Jenn's meticulous following of the spinach pie recipe in Amy Sedaris' hilarious cookbook, "I Like You." The changes are mostly due to my failure to read the original directions closely enough, but the result was still delicious.


  • 5 eggs
  • 1 1/2 to 2 lbs cooked spinach, excess moisture pressed out by smooshing in a colander
  • 8 oz neufchatel or cream cheese
  • 6 oz feta cheese, crumbled
  • 8 oz small curd cottage cheese
  • 2 bunches scallions, chopped
  • 1 small bunch dill, chopped (comes to 2-3 TBSP)
  • 1 stick (8 TBSP) of butter, melted
  • 1/2 box (8 oz) phyllo pastry


  1. In a large bowl, beat the eggs until fluffy, then add everything else except phyllo and butter. (You can make this filling ahead of time and store for an hour or a day.)
  2. Using a pastry brush, butter a 9" x 13" baking dish.
  3. Line the bottom with one sheet of phyllo (or a bunch of individual strips of it if your day is looking like a phyllo-hell day, but don't worry, it will still work out!). Continue layering -- phyllo, then butter -- until you use about half of the phyllo dough.
  4. Add spinach filling and spread evenly.
  5. Place the remaining phyllo on top, again buttering between each layer.
  6. Pre-cut the spanikopita, cover with foil, and place in the freezer for about an hour.
  7. Preheat oven to 350F.
  8. Remove foil, baptize the top of the spanikopita with a little water, and bake until brown and crispy (45 minutes to 1 hour). If the top layer of phyllo starts to get too brown, cover with foil.
  9. Enjoy!

p.s.- Dad, in case you are inspired to try your own masterful hand at this recipe , have at it. I left some extra spinach and the other half of the box of phyllo in your freezer. I recommend at least one glass of wine to steady the nerves while working with it. Happy birthday!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

May you have a thousand flats

I said a lot less polite things under my breath the entire bike ride home from school today, my semi-detached rear fender rattling and squealing as I rode with an overloaded pannier filled with cooking supplies for tomorrow's class lashed to Ollie's front rack.

Why? you ask.

Because some... jerk... decided to take my rear bike rack for himself. And took bolt cutters to my fender in the process. In the middle of the day, on a somewhat busy street corner near the Waterfront metro station, from a bicycle -- with both wheels locked, thank god -- right in front of an elementary school. Sure, it's a $30 part, but I feel violated. I mean, who walks around with BOLT CUTTERS that isn't up to something shifty. (I guess nobody.) And I won't have a chance to get to a bike shop to buy another rack for a couple of days due to a packed teaching schedule, so I'll be hauling stuff around in a backpack for the next little while. (Riding home with loaded front panniers was dicey at best. I'm not going to try it during rush hour.)

Some people clearly were unloved as children. I mean, seriously, a rear bike rack -- who does that??

I guess I should be glad that this mouth-breather didn't try to take my front rack as well or I'd have been really up a creek trying to get stuff home. My landlady pointed out that they didn't steal my seat or cut the bike chain. That's something, I guess. I checked the brakes and they seem intact, if in need of adjustment, and they didn't steal the two spare spokes on Ollie or the pedals. That's something. And that something is a low bar.

Bike vandals, I wish the wind in your face as you ride and a thousand flat tires.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

I am a professional

But, as I tell my students, everyone messes things up sometimes, too. Life is a learning experience.

I've been canning for about four years now, but until yesterday, I'd never broken a jar. I am, as you might guess from my obsession with equipment sterilization, a bit of a stickler about technique. And yet somehow, I managed yesterday to break not one, not two, not even THREE jars while canning. Four jars. Now in pieces in the recycling bin. Embarrassing, but true. Three perfect pint jars and one beautiful quart of tomatoes exploded over the course of one solo canning session as I rushed to get things wrapped up before heading to a Nats game. I'd poked around the jars with a chopstick before sealing them to clear out any potentially explosive air bubbles. Apparently not well enough.

Some days, you just need to throw in the towel. Or rather, you mop your brow with a kitchen towel and fish out the tender, floating tomato bits in the canning pot and make tomato sauce (with lots of red the sauce, and also for the person making the sauce) and try again.

Maybe, I thought, it was the equipment. Or maybe, I reconsidered, as the equipment has not changed much since last time I canned tomatoes, my canning mojo was just off. Maybe I needed help.

And help I had. Today, Kenton came over this afternoon. After treating me to a lovely brunch, he assisted me in disposing of the 5 FLATS OF AMAZING HEIRLOOM TOMATOES I picked up from McLeaf's Orchard. A few caprese salads eaten, a few pounds given to my landlady (share the wealth, right?), 24 pint jars of tomatoes cooling, and with 6 jars of (non-explosion-induced) savory tomato sauce processing right now, we're done. The glass of wine tonight was just for good measure. After all, I am a professional.