inspiration: the populist's cauliflower + pear soup with help from Food52

Ladies night boils down to this: great food, wonderful conversation, a few drinks and good friends. It's absolutely essential to my mental well-being and I'm quite certain that it makes me a better mother. I return home feeling refreshed and renewed and I should probably do it more often...

Back in November my friend Jo Ellen and I went to The Populist, one of Denver's best restaurants according to pretty much everyone. Now The Populist isn't cheap and ladies night isn't always this high-brow. Most of the time I opt for hole-in-the-wall type places that serve hummus platters, tacos, pho or Ethiopian food. But this get-together was special since my friend gave birth to her third child and this was our first time out together since mid-summer. We also really wanted to try the restaurant and the post-baby celebration gave us good cover. So on a chilly November night we went out on the town, got to the restaurant and sat down at our table shortly after we finished our first round at the bar (and yes, the cocktails were excellent). 

Now here's the thing about the meal: I'm still thinking about it. It was stellar. Exceptional! We ordered a bowl of cauliflower + pear soup, the butternut squash salad, curried chick peas and for my entree I chose the huitlacoche ("the Mexican truffle") agnolotti. Now I'm more of what you'd call a home cook and I thought the agnolotti was above my chef grade. But I'm really comfortable in the soup realm and so I though I'd take a stab at the cauliflower + pear. 

I scoured the internet for a recipe and found this one from the Food52 Community. It got great reviews and sounded like it would work really well. It was simple, straightforward and could be made using a cutting board and one pot (a.k.a. not much to clean). I loved the flavor of the pear and the sherry made it pop. Was it similar to The Populist's version? Not really. It was missing the dehydrated pear, which really adds a lot of texture, and it wasn't quite as smooth. But it was very good and the boys ate it by the bowlful. And in my book that's a success story. Next time I might serve it alongside some grilled cheese sandwiches. 

In case you were wondering how we finished off our ladies night...we concluded the meal with an excellent slice of lemon ice box cake that was lip-smacking good. I can't wait to go back to The Populist again and sit in their outdoor patio (that's covered with vines) once winter passes...

In the meantime, keep warm and enjoy the soup.

Cauliflower and Pear Soup (Adapted only slightly from Food52)
Serves 4 to 6
2 tablespoons of olive oil
2 tablespoons of butter (you can make this vegan by omitting the butter and adding another tablespoon of olive oil)
1 large leek, white and light green parts, chopped
1 small shallot, chopped
1 head cauliflower, green leaves and trunk removed, florets chopped
2 small yukon gold potatoes, peeled and chopped
2 medium sized pears, peeled, cored, and chopped
5 leaves fresh sage (or about 2 teaspoons chopped)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
5 cups homemade vegetable stock or good quality store-bought
kosher salt + freshly ground black pepper
2 to 3 teaspoons sherry vinegar, or to taste (champagne vinegar also works)
2 tablespoons finely chopped chives, for serving (optional)

Heat the oil and butter in a soup pot over medium heat. Add the leek and the shallot, and cook until they are soft, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes.

Add the cauliflower, potato, pear, sage, and thyme, stirring to thoroughly coat them with the oil and butter. Season with salt and pepper. Cook until lightly browned, stirring frequently, another 8 to 10 minutes. You're aiming for a little caramelization around the edges for depth of flavor.

Add 5 cups of vegetable stock. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer, lower the heat to just maintain the simmer, and cook until all of the ingredients are very tender, about 30 minutes.

With an immersion blender or regular blender, puree the soup until it’s smooth. If you're using a blender, you may need to do this step in batches, then return the soup to the pot. You're looking for a smooth, velvety texture, so take your time to blend thoroughly. Thin with more chicken stock, if needed, until you reach desired consistency.

Season to taste with vinegar and salt and pepper (this is key!). Serve the soup in heated bowls, garnished with chives...or with large pieces of french baguette (I picked up mine from Babette's at The Source). 

Yvette van Boven's Baked Risotto with Cauliflower, Gruyere and Crisp Bread Crumbs

It's been almost a month since I've posted and lots of things have happened during my little hiatus: one pope resigned and a new pope was appointed (black smoke, white smoke...), Hugo Chavez departed planet Earth, we continue to live in the fastest warming period since the dawn of civilization, and then there's that pesky sequestration. On a personal note, I met Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen fame who spoke at the Tattered Cover bookstore here in Denver. And in celebration news, Omar, our beloved Rottweiler, turned 15 years old (which is about 105 in human years, though I've been reassured by Dr. Feldman our veterinarian, that Omar's got the inner workings of a 10 year old canine, so that's good news). Otis began to write words other than his name and little Theo greatly improved his vocabulary, which is now somewhere around (an impressive) 100 words. 
Then there was that horrendous stomach virus that came just in time for our closing and subsequent move. But we made it and we're settling in to our first (and likely only) home. My OCD has returned with a vengeance (my new label maker- for all those clear storage bins- is en route) and I'm trying to be hyper-organized in our new space. Oh, and we also entertained our very first house guests. Whew, I'm exhausted just typing this up.   
A few days after moving into our new home we got a little snow storm. But in typical Colorado fashion, about 48 hours later, the temperatures climbed above 70 degrees. I quickly realized that spring is fast approaching and winter is almost a distant memory, so I decided to publish this recipe post-haste. It comes from Home Made Winter, a fantastic cookbook that I wish I'd discovered a wee bit earlier in the season. The cookbook is written by Yvette van Boven, the author behind the wildly popular Home Made. In addition to fantastic recipes, Yvette also has awesome illustrations and collages. It's a very appealing cookbook. 
I've been cooking my way through Yvette's vegetarian recipes and kicked things off with this baked risotto. I had a few already-open bags of Arborio rice -- which I now feel perfectly comfortable cooking with after a long string of mushy mishaps. I wanted to use some pantry items (i.e. rice) and I'm always in the mood for cauliflower, especially when it's combined with cheese and the decision was an easy one.   
I loved the simplicity of the dish and the stick-to-your-bones feeling from the risotto. And I got to use my cast iron skillet which has been sitting in a cupboard collecting dust (until now). 
I hope you enjoy it as much as we did. Just be sure to add a few hefty pinches of salt and pepper. 
This is the perfect way to say goodbye to winter!

Baked Risotto with Cauliflower, Gruyere & Crisp Bread Crumbs
(Printed with Yvette's permission, from Home Made Winter)
Hardly any work and done in a snap. 
1 small head cauliflower, cut into florets
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 small onions, diced
1 clove garlic, sliced
7 ounces Arborio rice
1/2 cup white wine
2 1/4 cups vegetable broth
7 ounces Gruyere, grated
2 or 3 slices dry white bread (I left mine in a paper bag for two days to dry it out.)
I added a few hefty pinches of salt and pepper. Then I tasted it to see if I thought it was enough.
Boil cauliflower in water for 10 minutes, until al dente. Drain.
Heat the oven to 350F. 
Heat the oil in a cast-iron skillet. Add the onion and sauté for about 5 minutes, add the garlic and cook for 1 minute, then add the rice. Sauté all of this for another 2 minutes or so. Add the wine and then pour in the broth. Bring to a boil. Stir in the cauliflower and cheese. Put a lid on the skillet.
Put the skillet in the oven and bake the risotto for 25 minutes or until all the liquid is absorbed.
Grind the dry bread in a food processor or mince with a knife.
Uncover the skillet about 5 minutes before the risotto is done (Watch out, hot!) and sprinkle the bread crumbs on top.
Bake, uncovered, until browned, then serve.

Late-Afternoon Raspberry Picking (and a Beet-Pomegranate Salad)

My self-improvement projects are well underway. I've been cultivating thanks, not-sweating the small stuff, and managing stress fairly well. But then, last Saturday morning, all hell broke loose.
Theodore, who usually only wakes up once or twice on a typical night, had been crying on-and-off for 10 hours. By the time Otis woke up, I had slept less than 4 I'll blame exhaustion on what happened next. Theo required a diaper change and somehow, I don't know how, I took off his soaked diaper and then buttoned up his onesie. Um, yeah. I forgot to put on a clean diaper. I drifted back to sleep and left Theo and Otis playing together in the room next to mine. I'll spare you all the details, but let's just say that about 30 minutes later I smelled something pretty awful, Otis was screaming "poop!poop!" and I woke up to a royal mess. It was really bad. That's all I'll say about that...
I rushed the baby to the bathroom, stripped him down and drew him a bath. I flipped on the light switch, but it was still dark. I assumed the bulbs had just gone out in the bathroom, but I soon discovered we lost power throughout the house. The system-wide failure became apparent when I rushed the dirty clothes and linens down to the washing machine. Nothing worked. No lights, no machines. 
That didn't stop me from attempting to brew some fresh coffee. Uh-huh. I filled the grinder with a few tablespoons of whole beans, forgetting that no electric power means no grinder, and therefore, no coffee. 
I must have been on Pluto because then I proceeded to crack a few eggs and put them in the frying pan-- figuring I could at least top them with some salsa verde and have a decent breakfast. But we've got an electric stove (which I am not getting used to). No eggs for us.
So I threw a bunch of cheerios in a tupperware cup, sliced some cantaloupe and raced upstairs to get everyone dressed. Did I mention that we were heading to the park for Otis's early morning soccer class? 
As if this day couldn't get worse, Omar (our beloved elderly-incontinent Rottweiler) went to the bathroom on the main floor. It was one mess after the other. 
I was just about to loose my mind when the fire alarm starting chirping. Maybe it was trying to come back online. I don't know. I'm not an expert on these sorts of things. 
The boys were out of earshot and I cursed away. Mostly four-letter words that begin with 'f'-- and at a very loud volume. Swearing can really help your mental state in a time of crisis! 
Anyway, the minutes were ticking by. I got the kids. Loaded up the car. And left the house. 
Miraculously, we got to soccer practice on time. 
Things were looking up.
I drank some coffee. Yup, things were getting much better.
Then I ate a delicious tamale at the farmers market. 
And some pastry too. Some food for the kids.
We were sated.
Things were going to be just fine.
I put Otis and Theo down for an early nap and when everyone woke up, I decided we should take a little trip to Boulder.
We visited Hoot N Howl, a fantastic farm with a great stand and pick-your-own berries.
The day started off rocky, but it ended with me and my sons...picking fruit and being thankful that we could...and knowing that life's mishaps make for funny stories later. We survived. Here are some photos from our late-afternoon adventure.

In addition to the berries, we also picked up some gorgeous apples (for this apple muffin and butternut squash soup combination, courtesy of Cannelle et Vanille), tomatoes, basil and purple potatoes. There were pumpkins too and I saw some beautiful looking eggplants that I'll have to get next time. 
We didn't pick too many raspberries, but I knew we had enough for this coulis, which pairs well with this cheesecake. Of course, I could have pureed them into a seasonal cocktail too. But then I happened to stumble upon this Bon Appetit photo (below) for Lemon Creme Brûlée with Fresh Raspberries. My search was over. That'll do! 
Photo Credit: Tina Rupp, Bon Appetit
Earlier in the day I picked up some beets at our local farmers market. I also nabbed a whole lot of pomegranates at the supermarket. I love the combination of beets and pomegranates and found this salad (below) after doing a google search. It was the first recipe to come up, and it sounded delicious. I've made it three times and it is fast becoming one of my favorite seasonal starters. (Now this is not the best picture I've ever taken, but it's one delicious salad!)

Beet and Pomegranate Salad (Adapted slightly from the LA Times)
Servings: 6
Note: Adapted from "The Book of New Israeli Food" by Janna Gur. 
Pomegranate concentrate or molasses is available at cooking supply stores and Middle Eastern markets.
3 to 4 medium beets
2 tablespoons pomegranate concentrate or molasses
2 to 3 tablespoons lemon juice
2 to 3 small, dried red chile peppers, crushed
Coarse sea salt
1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves
1 cup pomegranate seeds (I used about 1 1/2 cups)
1/4 cup lightly flavored olive oil
1. Cook the beets in a covered medium saucepan of boiling water until tender, 45 to 50 minutes. Cool, peel and cut into very small dice. Place in a medium bowl. 
(I adapted the recipe. Instead of boiling the beets, I roasted them. First I washed and trimmed them. Then I placed them in foil, drizzled them with olive oil, and sprinkled them with some kosher salt and black pepper. I sealed the foil, cooked them for about 1 hour and 15 minutes (until you can put a knife through them) at 400 degrees, and allowed them to cool before peeling and dicing them.)
2. Add the pomegranate concentrate, lemon juice, peppers, one-eighth teaspoon sea salt, or to taste, and combine. Set aside for about 15 minutes.
3. Toss the beets with the cilantro leaves and pomegranate seeds, drizzle with olive oil and serve.

* * *
I went a little overboard with my pomegranate purchasing (I really bought a lot!), so I made this  Cumin Seed Roasted Cauliflower with Salted Yogurt (from Melissa Clark's, Cook This Now) with my leftover pomegranates seeds. You can find an adapted version by Smitten Kitchen here.
Happy cooking! xo

Celebrating with Shades of Green

Spring has sprung! There's no doubt about it. I've worn short sleeve three times in the last week, and I do mean outside. It's going to be 70 degrees...for 5 days straight! Buds are starting to form on the tree branches and perennial plants are pushing through the dirt. Little blades of green grass are popping up and we just turned the clocks ahead. I really love this time of year. The Germans have a word for it. They call it Frühlingsschnipsel, or snippets of spring.
This means that St. Patrick's Day is just around the corner. And I'm wondering how to celebrate the man who chased all the snakes out of Ireland and into the sea.
I was toying with the idea of making Cabbage and Mushroom Galette with Horseradish Sauce. But then I saw how time consuming it was and how many steps were required for the dough and filling. I decided to skip it (for now). I've learned to keep it simple in the kitchen these days, as there's a toddler and infant to watch over. One day I'll make some more-involved dishes (oh Eleven Madison Park cookbook, I've got my eyes on you) but for now I'm keeping it easy.
When I think of Ireland the first three words that come to mind are: song, drink (Irish coffee and Whiskey) and green. Sure, there are rolling hills and majestic cliffs, amazing literature (Angela's Ashes is one of the few books I managed to read cover-to-cover last year), great films, and ancient castles...but I'm going to take my cooking cues from the first words that came to mind and work a menu around things that are green and things that you drink...while listening to some classic U2 albums.
Lucky for me I spied two recipes in my most recent Martha Stewart publication that I wanted to make. One is for a Creamy Cauliflower Soup with Kale (it's green!) and the other is for Irish Coffee Blondies. Yum!
Creamy Cauliflower Soup with Greens (Adapted from Martha Stewart)
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 medium onion, chopped (about 1 cup)
4 cloves garlic, chopped
Sea salt (season the soup well)
1 medium head cauliflower (about 3 pounds), florets and stems cut into 1-inch pieces (8 to 9 cups)
2 1/2 cups water

2 cups vegetable stock
(The original recipe used 4 1/2 cups filtered water. I used a combination of water and stock.)
1/4 cup chopped fresh dill, plus more for garnish
5-6 large kale leaves, tough ends removed, and leaves roughly chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
Heat oil in a large pot over medium heat; cook onion, covered, until soft, 4 to 5 minutes. Add garlic and a pinch of salt, and cook for 3 minutes more. Add cauliflower, and pour in filtered water until it reaches just below the top of the cauliflower.
Bring to a boil over high heat. Add 2 tablespoons dill. Reduce heat to low, and simmer until cauliflower is just tender, about 10 minutes. Stir in greens, and simmer for 3 minutes.
Let sit for 5 minutes to cool slightly. Stir in remaining 2 tablespoons dill. Puree soup in batches in a blender until very smooth, adding more water (about 1/2 cup) if it's too thick. Return to pot, and reheat. Season with salt and pepper. Garnish with dill, black pepper, a drizzle of oil, and pinch of sea salt.

On to another green matter: the Mordecai Children's Garden at the Denver Botanic Gardens reopened this past week, ending their winter closure. The children's section has a wonderful rooftop alpine garden, among other things. I took the boys last week and we had a blast. Otis loved climbing the rocks near the Springmelt Stream. Theo had fun in the sandpit. Something tells me these two boys are going to be real nature-enthusiasts! (And yes, those are the Rocky Mountains in the background!)
A few hours after our trip to the Botanic Gardens all hell broke loose. I put Theo down for his nap and when he woke up a short while later he was covered in a deep red rash, his eyes were practically shut and his face was swollen. 
Now, I pride myself on being a down-to-earth mother who doesn't usually panic...but this was too much. I knew it wasn't a mite or something contagious because I was fine, as was Otis. Theo had been a bit red in the face when we went back to New York for Yana's wedding two weeks ago. He was bumpy and there was a slight rash, but then it faded completely. I wasn't sure what was going on, but it was time to go to the ER. I thought, perhaps, he was going into anaphylactic shock. I was starting to panic.
Well long story short we went to a pediatric dermatologist at the Colorado Children's Hospital (it's No. 5 in the country for a reason) the next day. After a diagnosis (eczema that became unbearable, probably due to a virus that was long gone) and some topical steroids, everything is great and back to normal. Theo is comfortable. The rash and discomfort are gone...completely. He's also sleeping really well, so that's good for him...and great for me! 
I seemingly had a ridiculous amount of energy last week because the day after our stint in the ER and Children's Hospital, we were off to Golden to visit the Colorado Railroad Museum. Otis was a really, really big fan of the trains (he's kind of obsessed). And  Theo was happy not to be itchy. 

After we got back from the train museum I made this one-pot soup. It was so easy and so delicious. Click here for the Caramelized Leek and Minted Yogurt Soup recipe from the Moro Cookbook
Next week I'm delving into Persian cooking. Until then, have a great week/end. 

101's Sesame Yogurt Pasta Salad

I was totally in the mood for pasta, but I didn't want to top it with marinara sauce or pesto.  I toyed with the idea of some sort of lemon-olive oil drizzle, but I really didn't want that either.  What to do? 
I remembered this recipe from 101 Cookbooks (Heidi Swanson) for sesame yogurt pasta.  I hadn't thought to combine tahini paste with yogurt.  The tanginess hit the spot and I got in at least two servings of vegetables in my body, not that I'm a nutritionist or anything.  Pretty, pretty good.  
I'm not sure if this combination will appeal to everyone, as it has a very specific flavor.  And if you don't like tahini, this isn't for you.  But if you do like the flavor of sesame and are looking for a new sauce to put on top of your stuffed pasta (I went with ricotta ravioli, which is what was recommended for this dish), then give this a try!
Note:  I didn't have fresh broccoli or cauliflower, so I used organic frozen veggies.  It worked well. I used the leftover grape tomatoes I had from this recipe, so nothing went to waste! Bon Appetite! 
Sesame Yogurt Pasta Salad (Courtesy of 101 Cookbooks)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium garlic clove, minced
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 cup / 120 ml warm water
1/2 cup / 120 ml tahini (sesame paste)
1/2 cup / 120 ml plain or Greek yogurt
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
fine grain sea salt
a big handful of broccoli florets
a big handful of cauliflower florets
a big handful of green beans, cut into 1 1/2-inch segments
1/2 pound / 8 oz / 225 g stuffed pasta (ravioli, etc)
a big handful/scoop of cherry tomatoes, raw or roasted
a small handful torn basil and/or cilantro

Get a big pot of water started - you are going to want to bring it to a boil.
While the water is heating, make the sauce. Heat the oil in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic, cumin, coriander, cayenne, and turmeric. Stir well, and saute for just 15-30 seconds, or until the spices are toasted and fragrant. Transfer this mixture to a medium mixing bowl and stir in the water, tahini, yogurt, lemon juice, and 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Taste and adjust to your liking - you most likely will need a bit more salt. Set aside.

Salt the pot of water generously, and boil the broccoli, cauliflower, and green beans. Boil just 30 seconds, and quickly fish out with a slotted spoon. Run the vegetables under cold water to stop cooking. Drain well and set aside in a large mixing bowl.

Return the water to a boil and add the pasta. Cook until al dente, then drain and run under cold water. Really try to shake off any extra water, then add to the vegetables. Add the tomatoes, and toss gently. You can toss with half of the sauce at this point, or serve the salad with dollops of the sauce on top - to be tossed at the table. It's prettier this way. Sprinkle with the basil/cilantro (and basil flowers if you have them) and serve. Serve the extra sauce on the side - any leftover makes a good dip later in the week.

{Adapted from the Pasta Salad with Tangy Sesame-Yogurt Sauce in Peter Berley's The Modern Vegetarian Kitchen.}