On 'Happy' and Heidi's Simple Fire Roasted Tomato Soup (which makes me happy)

Most our boxes have been unpacked and we are settling into our new home. I'm getting back to doing what I like to do once my boys are asleep for the night; namely, watching documentary films. My friend Kelly put me on to a film called, simply enough, Happy. And since I'm always interested in happiness, I decided to check it out. 
Happy is not one of those documentaries that moves you to tears (like The Cove or Waiting for Superman-- both of which had me writing lots of letters to important people well into the wee hours of the night), but it made some interesting points and I found moments of the film to be quite inspirational (special appearance by the Dalai Lama included).
The film-makers interviewed people from 14 different countries and looked at their lifestyles and their overall happiness. (The United States ranks 23rd in overall happiness when compared to all other countries.Ugh.)
About 50% of a person's happiness is pre-determined by genetics, also called the "genetic set-point". A shockingly low 10% comes from circumstances which include income, occupation, gender, age, personal experiences-- things like that. Which leaves a whopping 40% of a person's happiness in their own hands, meaning that they can decided to do things that make them feel fulfilled and happy. 
The film opens with a man from Kolkata who makes his living as a rickshaw driver. His hands are calloused, his feet don't look too great, and he has to muck around town during monsoon season. But the man doesn't mind; he is content and seems to be genuinely happy. A large part his happiness is derived from the love he receives from his family and his community. He feels like he has everything he needs in his life to be fulfilled.
Then there's a woman from Denmark who moves into a co-housing community following the dissolution of her marriage. Chores are shared, as is child rearing. The community gives her strength and assistance. 
The film-makers interviewed people from all walks of life but the common thread throughout all of their stories was the same: family, compassion, giving and community have a tremendous impact on happiness.  
I couldn't help think about some of the people I met with when I was at Big Law doing contract work. Here were these associates, at the top of their profession, with excellent credential and financial success. Yet most of them seemed stressed out and pretty unhappy, dare I say depressed (at least that was my perception). How could the rickshaw driver who lived with his family in a worn-down hut appear to be so much happier than the lawyers I worked with on Wall Street? The film-makers suggest that the hedonic treadmill might have something to do with it. 
Happy looks at an alarming trend among young Japanese men in Tokyo who are literally working themselves to death (karoshi), never taking a break until they collapsed from stress and exhaustion (usually in the form of a deadly heart attack). But in Osaka, where people enjoy a much more relaxed lifestyle, there are more centenarians on the island than anywhere else on Earth. The elderly engage with one another on a regular basis and there's an extremely tight-knit community-- both of which seem to cultivate long, healthy and happy lives. 
Another interesting point that was made in the film is that excessive amounts of money can't buy happiness. Money does increase happiness when it raises an individual out of poverty (or homelessness). But people who can afford their basic necessities (housing, running water, education, health care, transportation etc.)with a bit leftover, are (reportedly) just as happy as people who earned 20 times more. At least that's the conclusion this film makes.  
I've been thinking a lot about happiness recently, so I enjoyed some of the points made in Happy. It was a good way to spend an hour or so and it gave me some 'food for thought.' 
Speaking of food, here's a really simple soup I made last week. You can add coconut milk or brown rice, though I went with whole wheat couscous and a poached egg. Just add what will make you...um, happy.
::For more on happiness, here's a link to PBS This Emotional Life. 
Simple Fire Roasted Tomato Soup 
Adapted ever-so-slightly from Heidi Swanson's 101 Cookbooks, Adapted from Melissa Clark's Cook This Now.
{Try to use cans that use BPA-free liners.} 
Prep time: 5 min - Cook time: 25 min
Serves 4
2-3 tablespoons unsalted butter, olive oil, or coconut oil
1 medium yellow onions, thinly sliced
1/2 teaspoon fine grain sea salt, plus more to taste
1 1/2 teaspoons curry powder
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon chile flakes
1 (28-ounce) cans fire roasted tomatoes (pref. fire-roasted)
Optional: 1/2 of a 14-ounce can coconut milk

Optional: cup of whole wheat couscous or brown rice
Optional: toasted slivered almonds
Optional: poached egg (I fill up a pot with water, add a capful of vinegar, let it boil, put the egg in, give the water a swirl after a minute or two-- to get the egg up from the bottom-- and then I use a slotted spoon to remove it from the water.)
Optional: torn parsley, fresh oregano, pan-fried paneer.

In a large pot over medium heat melt the butter. Add the onions and salt, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions really soften up - 10 minutes or so. Not so much that they brown, just until they're completely tender and unstructured.

Stir in the curry powder, coriander, cumin, and chile flakes, and cook just until the spices are fragrant and toasty - stirring constantly at this point. Just 30 seconds or so. Stir in the tomatoes, the juices from the cans, and 3 cups of water. Simmer for fifteen minutes or so, then puree with an immersion blender until smooth. At this point you can decide if you'd like your soup even a bit thinner - if so, you can thin it with more water, or if you like a creamy version, with some coconut milk. Taste and adjust with more salt to taste.
Add your toppings, couscous or rice, egg and/or herbs. 

Cooking from the Pantry, Part I: Heidi Swanson's White Bean Dip with Almonds and Rosemary

{This is a little back story...}
A few weeks ago I decided to take Otis and Theodore to the zoo. We identified all of the animals and learned about their critical habitat. And we talked to some of the zoo volunteers about the conservation efforts that are underway to protect the orangutan (this would be a good place to tell you that before law school I toyed with the idea of being a primatolgist). We ate soft serve ice cream too. Then Otis turned to me and said, "this was a great day, Mommy." I smiled and agreed. 
When we came back to the house (the one we've been renting for the past year), there was a very large, red "FOR SALE" sign on the plot. I gulped. D'oh! That was not what I wanted to see. An expletive-fest ensued.
A few days later our rental, along with the house next door, was sold to a developer. Lickety-split. In record time. I knew what was coming next...
The demolition is slated for next month and a luxury duplex will replace our cute little 1920's home in the Highlands. Well, it's not really ours, but I do feel attached. 
I'll spare you the details, but let's just say we are on the move (again). We need to box up our things and be out in 2 weeks. Thankfully, we found another place to rent for 6 months. (Relief! Joy!) And yes, I know what you're thinking, our family moves around a lot. Indeed we do.
Using the move as inspiration, I decided to do a little series called "Cooking from the Pantry." I'm going to select recipes that use ingredients I already have stocked in the cupboard. This is my best effort to use up some of the things that have been sitting around, collecting dust.
This white bean spread, from Heidi Swanson's Super Natural Every Day, is the first installation in my little series. I have a few cans of white beans, a big bag of sliced almonds, rosemary from our garden, garlic from the market and a few extra lemons. There is nothing I need to buy. Perfect.
I really like this spread and it's simple to make. The toasted almonds add a bit of crunch and there's some nice citrus flavor from the lemon and zest. You can serve the dip with pita chips or some sliced bread. Just be sure to add lemon and salt to taste. This is a nice recipe if you want a bean dip but aren't in the mood for hummus. 
Stay tuned. My next installation of "Cooking from the Pantry" will be Polenta with Green Chilies and Cheese! (Of course I hope to do a seasonal post on tomatoes as well. They are ripe, ripe, ripe!)
Have a great day. I'm off to start packing... 
White Bean Spread with Almonds and Rosemary (Courtesy of Heidi Swanson, Super Natural Every Day)
Makes about 2 cups

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 15 oz can white beans, rinsed and drained (I used Cannellini)

3/4 cup sliced almonds, toasted
Fine-grain sea salt
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, plus more if needed (I used about 1 teaspoon more)

1/4 to 3/4 cup hot water
Grated zest of 1/2 lemon
In a small saucepan, combine the olive oil, rosemary and garlic. Over medium-low heat, slowly warm the mixture until the oil just barely starts to sizzle, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside for 10 minutes. Pour the oil through a strainer and discard the garlic and rosemary bits.
In a food processor, combine the beans, two-thirds of the almonds, a scant ½ teaspoon salt, the lemon juice, and two-thirds of the rosemary oil. Pulse a couple of times to bring the ingredients together. Add the water 1/4 cup at a time, pulsing all the while, until the mixture is the consistency of thick frosting. You might not need all the water; it really depends on how starchy your beans are and how thick you’d like the spread to be. Taste and adjust with more lemon juice or salt, if needed.
Scoop the spread into a serving dish and make a few indentations in the top. Sprinkle with the lemon zest and the remaining almonds and drizzle with the remaining rosemary oil. Serve with pita chips.

{To toast the almonds: Place the nuts in a single layer in a large, heavy skillet over medium heat. Toss them around every couple of minutes, until fragrant and toasty. Don't walk away; if you do, set a timer so you don't forget. You can burn a batch of nuts very quickly!}

Japanophilic: Kizuna and Black Sesame Otsu

Some people use the word obsessed pretty casually. Not me. I reserve the word for things that I am absolutely nuts about-- things that really preoccupy my mind. Examples of such things include the Momofuku/Milk Bar Birthday Cake Truffles, Pinterest and Japanese design. I'm also (mildly) obsessed with bamboo. A fast growing, incredibly strong grass, bamboo has become popular in green design and building. And bamboo forests are just the coolest. 
I was really excited when I heard that Kizuna (which means the "bond between people" in Japanese) was going to be on display at the Denver Botanic Gardens. I mean, c'mon. Japanese installation art with bamboo? It's just too good to be true!  
Kizuna: West Meets East is a series of pieces that were created by Tetsunori Kawana and Stephen Talasnik. The bamboo was plied and manipulated to form bold, striking pieces on land and more intricate, delicate water-based sculptures. The ephemeral forms play off the landscape beautifully...it's really something you should check out if you live in the city.   
In addition to the installation art, pretty much every inch of the botanic gardens is in bloom right now. There are peonies, irises, and poppies. We saw butterflies fluttering and colorful beds that were buzzing with bees. And the wildflower patches? They are pretty much what I hope my own garden will look like...one day!
As if the spring  blooms and Kizuna were not enough, the annual plant sale is also taking place. Otis really wanted a 'blue plant' and I found one that was just the right size. He named the plant Walter, which I think is a pretty good name for a potted lobelia. When I found out that it was buy one-get one free, we went back to the tables and picked out another plant. Otis named the second plant Alice-- which I think is in honor of "Imo" Alice who gifted Otis and Theo their very first Radio Flyer wagon..and boy do they love it! 
After we returned from the gardens it was nap time. The boys shluffed and I read up on Bonsai trees and maintenance. I regret to inform you that I think I'm getting a little bit obsessed...

Inspired by Kizuna, I made this Japanese-style soba (buckwheat) dish for lunch. I used a whole bunch of scallions (light and dark parts) that were fresh from the farmers market. Though scallions are available year round, this is their season and their flavor is delicious.
The recipe comes from my un-official bible, Heidi Swanson's Super Natural Every Day
Black Sesame Otsu (Courtesy of Heidi Swanson, Super Natural Every Day)
Serves 4.
1 teaspoon pine nuts
1 teaspoon sunflower seeds
1/2 cup black sesame seeds
1 1/2 tablespoons natural cane sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons shoyu, tamari, or soy sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons mirin
Scant 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
2 tablespoons brown rice vinegar
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Fine-grain sea salt
12 ounces / 340 g soba noodles
12 ounces / 340 g extra-firm tofu
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 bunch green onions, white and light green parts, thinly sliced
  • Toast the pine nuts and sunflower seeds in a large skillet over medium heat until golden, shaking the pan regularly. Add the sesame seeds to the pan and toast for a minute or so. It's hard to tell when they are toasted; look closely and use your nose. Remove from the heat as soon as you smell a hint of toasted sesame; if you let them go much beyond that, you'll start smelling burned sesame - not good. Transfer to a mortar and pestle and crush the mixture; the texture should be like black sand. Alternatively, you can use a food processor. Stir in the sugar, shoyu, mirin, sesame oil, brown rice vinegar, and cayenne pepper. Taste and adjust if needed.
  • Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Salt generously, add the soba, and cook according to the package instructions until tender. Drain, reserving some of the noodle cooking water, and rinse under cold running water.
  • While the noodles are cooking, drain the tofu, pat it dry, and cut into matchstick shapes. Season the tofu with a pinch of salt, toss with a small amount of oil, and cook in a large skillet over medium-high heat for a few minutes, tossing every couple minutes, until the pieces are browned on all sides.
  • Reserve a heaping tablespoon of the sesame paste, then thin the rest with 1/3 cup / 80 ml of the hot noodle water. In a large mixing bowl, combine the soba, half of the green onions, and the black sesame paste. Toss until well combined. Add the tofu and toss again gently. Serve topped with a tiny dollop of the reserved sesame paste and the remaining green onions.

For another Heidi Swanson soba dish click Cold Soba Noodle Salad with Ginger-Sesame Dressing. It comes from Super Natural Cooking

Heidi Swanson's Quinoa Patties

Wanting to make something seasonal to celebrate the arrival of spring, I thumbed through my Heidi Swanson cookbooks (this one and this one) to see what I could find. Initially I settled on a spring minestrone soup, but then the thought of shopping for ingredients I didn't have on hand stopped me in my tracks. That will be for tomorrow, I thought to myself. So I settled on an oldy-but-goody, Heidi's recipe for Little Quinoa Patties. 
I took a quick peek in the pantry and sure enough I had about 1 1/2 cups of dried quinoa sitting in a bag. This plan was starting to come together...
I used leftover chives that I bought for a Fresh Pea Soup and some extra Gruyere in the fridge also came in handy. I cooked two cups of (dry) quinoa, but ended up with much more than the 2 1/2 cups required for this recipe. Not a worry, I'll make some other quinoa salad this week. 
I ate the patties plain on the first night and topped them with fresh avocado and some Panola hot sauce the next night.  Both ways were great, but boy do I like hot sauce with these patties.  
Notes on subsequent takes of this recipe {updated 3/2013}
  • I used 1 cup of dried well-washed quinoa and 1 1/2 cups of water. I put those in a medium sauce pan and brought them to a boil. Then I turned the heat down to medium-low. I added another 1/4 cup of water about 15 minutes into the cooking time. The quinoa was ready after 25 minutes or so.
  • I used 3/4 of a yellow onion, instead of a whole onion.
  • I used about 3-4 ounces of goat cheese instead of Gruyere since I had some in the fridge. I didn't add any hot sauce or avocado this time.
Everything else remained the same (see below). Otis ate about 3 patties and wanted "more, more, more..." so I'm going to consider this a big success since he's become a very, um, particular eater (I think that's the nice way to say it). 
Well time is short and the boys will be waking up soon. 
Enjoy the spring and happy cooking! 

Quinoa Patties (Courtesy of Super Natural Everyday by Heidi Swanson)
2 1/2 cups cooked quinoa, at room temperature
4 large eggs, beaten

1/2 teaspoon fine-grain sea salt
1/3 cup finely chopped fresh chives
1 yellow or white onion, finely chopped
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan or Gruyère cheese
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 cup/3.5 oz /100 g whole grain bread crumbs, plus more if needed
Water, if needed
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil or clarified butter (I needed about a tablespoon per batch of 6.)
Combine the quinoa, eggs, and salt in a medium bowl. Stir in the chives, onion, cheese, and garlic. Add the bread crumbs, stir, and let sit for a few minutes so the crumbs can absorb some of the moisture. At this point, you should have a mixture you can easily form into twelve 1-inch/2.5cm thick patties. I err on the very moist side because it makes for a not-overly-dry patty, but you can add more bread crumbs, a bit at a time, to firm up the mixture, if need be. Conversely, a bit more beaten egg or water can be used to moisten the mixture.
Heat the oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium-low heat, add 6 patties, if they'll fit with some room between each, cover, and cook for 7 to 10 minutes, until the bottoms are deeply browned. Turn up the heat if there is no browning after 10 minutes and continue to cook until the patties are browned. Carefully flip the patties with a spatula and cook the second sides for 7 minutes, or until golden. Remove from the skillet and cool on a wire rack while you cook the remaining patties. Alternatively, the quinoa mixture keeps nicely in the refrigerator for a few days; you can cook patties to order, if you prefer.
To cook quinoa:
Combine 2 cups of well-rinsed uncooked quinoa with 3 cups water and 1/2 teaspoon fine-grain sea salt in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, cover, decrease the heat, and simmer for 25 to 30 minutes, until the quinoa is tender and you can see the little quinoa curlicues.

Big Pot Udon Curry and a little tour of South Broadway and Historic Baker

This is a great dish from Heidi Swanson's first book, Super Natural Cooking. It's the second recipe from that book that I've posted on this blog. And I love this dish. 
For this creamy curry bowl, I used a flat Udon noodle, a green Thai curry paste (the original recipe uses red curry paste), lite coconut milk (because I'm trying to cram myself into a teeny-tiny dress for my friend's upcoming nuptials in about 4 weeks) and a good quality extra-firm tofu. You could probably play around with the ingredients too-- maybe substituting chick peas for tofu and adding some wilted greens? There are endless possibilities. 
So go ahead, ladle out a big ol' bowl of curry noodles and enjoy! 

Big Pot Udon Curry (Adapted from Heidi Swanson)
8 ounces dried whole-grain Asian-style wide noodles (like Udon)
2 tablespoons oil
2 garlic cloves , finely chopped
1 onion , chopped
1 1/2-2 teaspoons green curry paste (original uses red)
12 ounces extra firm tofu , cut into thumb-sliced slices
1 (14 ounce) can coconut milk
2 cups vegetable stock
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
2 tablespoons shoyu sauce
1 tablespoon natural cane sugar
1 lime, juice of
2/3 cup peanuts
1/3 cup slivered shallot
1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro

  • Cook noodles in plenty of boiling salted water until just tender. Drain and set aside.
  • Heat oil in large saucepan over medium-high heat, then stir in garlic, onion, and curry paste and mash the paste around the bottom of the pan a bit to distribute it evenly. Cook until nice and fragrant - just a minute or two.
  • Add the tofu and gently stir until coated with the curry paste.
  • Stir in the coconut milk, stock, turmeric, shoyu and sugar. Bring to a simmer and simmer gently for 5 minutes.
  • Remove from the heat, stir in the lime juice, and add the noodles, jostling them a bit if they're sticking.
  • To serve, heap big piles of noodles into individual bowls and top with a generous ladle or two of the curry.
  • Top with peanuts and finish each bowl with a sprinkling of shallots and cilantro.

In addition to eating a big pot of udon curry, we also explored  the "SoBo" (South Broadway) neighborhood in Denver-- specifically, Historic Baker District. The houses are so quaint in this part of town, and there's a huge inventory of Queen-Anne style homes in the district, most of which were built between the 1880s and early 1890s. Broadway, the main thoroughfare, is home to the Mayan Theater, which has a gorgeous design and some great Native-American images on the façade. The theater was built in 1930 and was saved from demolition in the 1980s. There's also St. Augustine Orthodox Chrisitan Church, which was built in 1912. And my favorite modern-merchantile, Hazel & Dewey, on S. Broadway too. 
This is a great neighborhood to walk around and there are some fantastic places to eat in case you get hungry!