Sunday, September 23, 2012

Stalking the Wild Chestnut

It's Saturday afternoon, the baby won't nap, and we decide it's time to go for a walk. Berlin is in full-on fall mode, and we want to walk around as long as we still can. So we bundle the kiddo into his stroller, and head to Hasenheide.

Ah, Hasenheide. Each corner its very own dealer. I am thinking I should do an art project in which I collect the favourite recipe of each drug dealer in the park, and publish them all in a cookbook. And then I see it: a chestnut.

I had picked up a few chestnuts in Berlin in the past few days, but this time I really started to look for them, gathering them in my pockets. My husband got into the spirit of things. We realised we had no idea what chestnut leaves look like, but we followed stray nuts around the park path until we found a tree. Took a leaf to remember it by.

And it was a goldmine -- the wind was blowing hard, scattering more chestnuts down. I pulled two plastic bags from my purse, originally meant for diapers, and we gathered more and more. I managed to get stung by nettles as I reached for a few chestnuts under a fence. We started talking about maybe buying some cream, boiling the chestnuts, making a pasta sauce from the sweet meat.

On our way out of the park, we hit bonanza. Two trees, surrounded by dozens and dozens of chestnuts. They are so fresh and large and beautiful. I remark that the chestnuts I got on the streets of New York in winter were never so big and luscious. Some of them are still in the light green casing, so we have the fun of prying them free. The baby is sleeping soundly as we leave the stroller, and I pull out two thick shopping bags to carry our massive hoard. We imagine all the different recipes we can make now... roast a few, make pasta with others, perhaps a chestnut cheesecake...?

A little girl joins us for a while. But otherwise we get only funny looks. What silly people these are, we think, who don't see how much free food is available here for the scavenging. Every time we think we are ready to go, the wind blows again, and we scurry to catch the nuts that fell.

On our way out of Hasenheide, we are delighted, giggly. We kiss each other, and I smell the fresh air on my husband's face. We feel young. We are carrying enormous bags full of chestnuts, but we still stop to get some cream on the way home. On our way out of the market, my husband remarks that he should have bought some red wine too, as it goes well with chestnuts, but I proudly inform him I had some at home already. I'm just that kind of prepared wife.

So we go home, and I call a friend to invite her and her husband for dinner. We figure if they come, we'll have enough time to get a pork butt or something, and stuff it with chestnuts and herbs and roast it and make it wonderful. I tell her we picked up all these chestnuts, looking over to where my husband has started weighing our hoard on the kitchen scale.

"You found edible ones?" she asks.

"What do you mean, edible ones?"

Then she starts describing these beautiful, shiny, large chestnuts, and it turns out that they are not, in fact, edible. Actually, they are horse chestnuts, and they are poisonous. And we have about twelve kilos of them.

The second layer of ridiculousness? We had actually also picked about thirty edible ones, but they were unripe and looked so small, and their cases were so sharp, that I tossed them all out once we found the beautiful horse chestnuts. This is why dyed-in-the-wool city people should not try to forage. The supermarket is our friend.

So what do we do with twelve kilos of horse chestnuts?

Monday, July 30, 2012

Shakshuka for dinner

A friend and I were talking about food blogs lately. I said I didn't post to this one as often as I might like, because food blogs are so photo-oriented these days, and that's started to mean that they're super professionalized too. What I mean is: unless you have ten high-quality, processed photos documenting every step of the dish, taken either by natural light or with a serious lighting setup, nobody wants to see what you've been cooking. The way I see it, it kind of means the only people who can really make a food blog others would want to read are those who are working towards their cookbook deal and therefore investing serious time and money in it, or people who are already pros.

But that leaves little space for those of us who have day jobs, and who just like to cook and share what we're cooking. And to be honest, not only is that the only kind of blog I could ever hope to put together, but it's the kind of blog I prefer to read. If I want glossiness, I'll buy a food magazine. But I like the inspiration of what real people put on the table, and not necessarily after they've spent half the day "sourcing" the food in various farmer's markets, and the other half composing a plate. Who are these people cooking for? And doesn't the food get cold while it's being photographed?

The fact is, I started this blog to motivate myself to cook at home more often. It's worked. I've cooked a lot of amazing, and new, things in the past few years. But I tend to cook in the evening, and there's just no way to get that food to look good. I'm also in a rush, so I'm unlikely to take a dozen perfect photos of process. Sorry.

Anyway, my friend pointed me a post on The Yellow House on the topic, and encouraged me to keep posting. It's not about the quality of the setup, she said. So I thought, today, as an experiment, I would put up a recipe I worked up from a few inspirations online. I'd never tried shakshuka, the Israeli breakfast dish, before, so I didn't know how it's supposed to taste. But I could tell from every description that it is exactly the kind of thing I like: tomatoey, onioney, spicy, rich, and not particularly rule-bound. That's just the kind of cooking I love. And the experiment? Damn ugly photos.

That's right, I took some process snaps of the recipe, but since only my half-broken old point and shoot was to hand -- the one with the zoom that doesn't work and weird purple lines ruining half the photos -- and it was getting darker and I had to use flash, these are some hideous photos I'm offering you. (Not only were they ugly to begin with, but I processed them to make them even a bit tackier than before!) The end result was ridiculously delicious, but you won't be able to tell from these pictures. You'll just have to trust me, or better yet, cook your own version and taste it yourself.

The urge to try out shakshuka came from reading David Lebowitz's posts about his travels in Israel. Although I lived there for two years, I was so young that I remember little of the food, just the delicious falafel. And if I've had shakshuka before, I have no recollection of it. The way he describes it, it's a hearty dish you have for breakfast with some bread, digging into it with verve, sopping up every last bit.

My main inspiration was Yotam Ottolenghi's version on the Guardian website, which I liked because of the way he fries whole cumin at the beginning and slices the peppers into toothsome strips rather than chopping them fine. (The website also has a video of him making it, so you can see just how easy it is.) So for basic technique I'm indebted to him. But I also read the version on Smitten Kitchen, which I like for its liberal use of feta.

But I know what you are thinking. "Stop listing all of these footnotes, and show me those completely unappetizing pics!"

Sooo.... to make shakshuka for dinner...

I thinly slice some onions, then crush and slice a goodly amount of garlic:

I also slice three bell peppers into thin strips, and get it all ready while the cumin seeds gently fried:

 Some handfuls of fresh cilantro and parsley joined chopped tomatoes:

After the onions and peppers had fried for a while, the tomatoes and herbs joined them:

And with a medley of spices and sugar, melded together into a sloppy, yummy whole:

But the fun is not over -- chopped up hard feta and more parsley are awaiting their turn to serve:

I make little holes in the vegetable stew and break five eggs, one into each hole, letting them poach in the covered pan:

It all gets doctored up with the feta and parsley:

...and served with some leftover bread and a selection of hot sauces:

Just to keep this from being too culturally authentic, I try sprinkling on both Tapatío, brought over from the States, and some piri piri that was hanging out in the kitchen. Both were good!


  • 1 1/2 cups onion slices (about two small onions)
  • 5 garlic cloves, crushed and sliced
  • 1 tablespoon cumin seeds
  • 1 cup parsley, roughly chopped
  • 1/2 cup cilantro, roughly chopped
  • 2 cups tomatoes, fresh or canned, chopped small
  • 1 each red, yellow, and orange bell peppers, sliced into 1/4" slices
  • 1 tablespoon thyme
  • pinch Turkish saffron
  • pinch crushed red pepper
  • pinch sweet paprika
  • pinch hot paprika
  • 1 teaspoon harissa powder
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 5 eggs
  • 1 cup feta, cubed or crumbled
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
Cooking Directions
  1. Put a large frying pan on medium heat, and dry roast the cumin seeds until they are fragrant.
  2. Add the olive oil, heat, and throw in the onion and garlic slices. Gently fry them, stirring, until they are translucent.
  3. Put in the bell pepper slices and turn up the heat. Fry for about 10 minutes until they get soft.
  4. Add the chopped tomato, the cilantro, half (1/2 cup) of the chopped parsley, and the sugar. Stir well.
  5. Now comes the fun: add all the other spices, improvising the taste as you go. The list I gave is just a suggestion. You might find yourself inspired to add more or less or different spices.
  6. Cover the pan, turn the heat down to medium, and cook the whole thing for another 10 to 15 minutes, until the tomatoes break down into a sauce.
  7. Using a spoon, make some dips in the mixture, and break an egg into each of them. Cover again, and let the eggs poach to the level of hardness you like.
  8. Take the pan off the heat, throw on the crumbled feta and the rest of the chopped parsley, bring to the table and serve!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Corn Soup aux homards

Does it seem like there are a lot of soup recipes on this blog? Are you quite sick of soup yet? Alas, this will not stop soon. I've mentioned before that I don't like repeating other people's recipes too much. So I only feel comfortable writing up recipes that I've altered a great deal, that I know are unavailable to the general public, that are from my family, or that I've invented wholesale. And let's face it, one of the easiest ways to invent new recipes is to make soup. You just throw everything in a pot and cook!

This particular dish came from a bout of pantry cleaning, and indeed, it is the perfect pantry dish. It could have been made very simply, but I wanted to use some of my fancier ingredients, namely, Coconut Oil and Lobster Base. So I tarted things up a little. But the recipe itself could not be easier to do. I decided to keep the aromatics simple and subtle, so as to let the broth and corn play center stage, but to add a dash of chipotle for a layer of spice. Fry, boil, puree, and that's it!

Corn soup aux homards


  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons coconut oil (or vegetable oil, or ghee)
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 4 cans sweet corn (can use 2 lbs frozen)
  • 6 cups lobster broth (or any broth you have handy)
  • 1/2 teaspoon chipotle powder (less if you want a milder soup)
  • 1/4 cup roasted pepitas
  • 1/4 red onion, chopped
  • 1/2 cup sour cream

Cooking Directions

  1. Heat the coconut oil over gentle heat, add the chopped onion and fry until just soft and translucent, 2-3 minutes.
  2. Add the chopped garlic cloves, and fry around 1 minute, but do not brown.
  3. Throw in the canned corn, the lobster broth, and chipotle powder.
  4. Boil for about twenty minutes, then puree with a stick blender.
  5. Garnish with sour cream, chopped red onion, and pepitas, and serve!