Blueberry Lemon Muffins

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One of the most common questions people ask me when I tell them that I love to cook is “what type of food do you like to cook the most?” I am always flummoxed by the question. There were times in the past when I would have been easily able to answer it, like the time in my life when I was obsessed with Chinese food or the period when I explored French cooking. But the truth is, I no longer have a favorite type of food or cuisine that I enjoy the most. I usually choose what to make based on a few simple guidelines. Sometimes, I try a new recipe because I am intrigued by its ingredients or because it uses a method I’ve not used before. Other times, I cook or bake something that I am craving, like passion fruit ice cream because I really want its mysterious tropical flavor, or my mom’s pastitsio because I miss the flavors of my childhood.DSC05179

But most often, I really like to cook with what’s in season. After all, there’s no better time for squash soup than the fall and no better time for peach pie braided bread than late summer. When it comes to berries, fortunately the season lasts a long time. Though it’s supposed to be over by early summer, we still have delicious blueberries and raspberries for sale. And nothing goes better with blueberries than lemon. These muffins are perfect for breakfast. They are mildly sweet and a little tart. The addition of cornmeal makes them hearty and less cake-like. And of course, there are the blueberries. You could make these muffins with frozen blueberries any time of year, but take advantage of the fresh ones out now. They make the muffins so much better.DSC05187

Blueberry Lemon Muffins

Makes 12 muffins

Ingredients:

1½ cups all purpose flour
½ cup cornmeal
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup sugar
1 lemon
1 cup milk
¼ cup vegetable oil
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons lemon juice
½ teaspoon vanilla
turbinado sugar, optional; for topping

Directions:

Preheat your oven to 425°F. Lightly grease the cups of a standard 12-cup muffin pan. Or line the cups with muffin papers.

Whisk together the flours, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. Add the blueberries and gently mix with a spoon. This will prevent the blueberries from sinking to the bottom of the muffins.

Place the sugar in a large bowl and using a microplane, zest the lemon over the sugar. Use your fingers to rub the zest into the sugar until combined. Add milk, oil, eggs, lemon juice, and vanilla and whisk together until thoroughly combined.

Dump the dry ingredients over the wet ingredients. Gently fold together with a spatula. Careful not to overmix. The batter will be lumpy with a few streaks of flour left.

Fill the cups of the muffin pan three-quarters full. Sprinkle tops with turbinado sugar, if desired.

Bake the muffins for 15 to 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the middle of one of the center muffins comes out clean. Remove them from the oven, and as soon as you can handle them turn them out of the pan onto a rack to cool.

Spaghetti with Tuna and Capers

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When I was in college, my friend Todd and I both played the guitar and sang a little (not very well, but we were young and didn’t care). So we decided to try and take our act public. We booked a night at the student-run coffeeshop in the basement of one of the dorms and started practicing. This was the early 90s so our repertoire included songs by Pearl Jam, Lenny Kravitz, and Sting, among others. About a week before our debut, I got a phone call from the coffeeshop. They were going to print flyers to advertise the night around campus and needed to know the name of our band.

We didn’t have one.

In a panic, I told them I’d call them right back. Since this was way before the age of cell phones, I couldn’t reach Todd so I realized I had to take matters into my own hands. I picked up my pocket dictionary, opened it at a random page and pointed to a random word. Then I did it again. I decided that those two words would be our band name.

We were going to be called Mystic Rain. DSC05152

A few hours later I saw Todd at the cafeteria and I told him about the phone call. When I got to the point where I announced our new band name, Todd’s face collapsed. Here was my grunge-loving, REM-worshiping, Nirvana-fanatic friend Todd being told he was now part of a band called Mystic Rain. When I saw his reaction I realized what I’d done. We ran out of there and called the coffeeshop and thankfully, they hadn’t printed the flyers yet. When they finally did, we were billed simply as Todd and Marios.

Randomness isn’t always kind. But for every Mystic Rain disaster there’s a spaghetti with tuna and capers success. I made this dish for the first time many years ago when I was living alone and had to eat something quickly. I picked the random ingredients I could find in my kitchen and came up with this dish. I’ve made it countless times since then, for many friends, all of whom have loved it. It’s simple, but the combination of mustard, tuna, capers, and onions is a real hit. Much to the horror of my Italian friend Simona, for whom I made this once, I like to grate Parmesan cheese on top before eating it. Apparently, Italians never put cheese on seafood pasta, but call me a rebel, I love it.DSC05173

Spaghetti with Tuna and Capers

Makes 2 servings

Ingredients:

1/2 lb (250g) spaghetti
1/4 cup olive oil
1 small onion or three large shallots, chopped
2 5oz (142g) cans of tuna (preferably solid white albacore), drained
2 tablespoons wholegrain dijon mustard
2 tablespoons capers in brine, drained
freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Directions:

Cook spaghetti in a large pot in well-salted water until al dente. Before draining the pasta, reserve 1/4 cup of the pasta water.

Meanwhile, in a large sauté pan, cook the onions or shallots in the 1/4 cup of olive oil over medium high heat until just starting to turn golden brown, about 10 minutes. Add the mustard and stir to combine. Add the tuna (breaking up any big pieces with a spatula), capers, and reserved pasta water and stir to combine. Bring to a low simmer and keep warm.

Drain spaghetti and return to pot. Scrape the tuna and caper mixture over the spaghetti and using kitchen tongs, toss well.

Serve with plenty of freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

Cornmeal Cake with Apricots

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We landed in Paris on the first day of the Euro 2016 soccer championship. The violent clashes between fans were still a day or two away. The water on the Seine was down from the historic flood levels of the week before, though still high enough to lap at the edge of the road. The bad weather, however, wasn’t over. Daily rain, sometimes heavy, and temperatures cool enough that we needed a jacket in late June. As we left the Rodin museum on Monday afternoon, we saw cars at a standstill for blocks and blocks, the result of a violent demonstration at the Montparnasse against the new employment law being passed by the Hollande government. Walking around the same neighborhood a few days later, we saw the results: store after store with their glass fronts shattered. And the constant sight of soldiers in full gear and police in bullet-proof vests throughout the city made it clear that the country was (and is) still in a state of emergency. We were too, always on alert (we hate to admit it), scanning the faces of the passengers in the Metro, ready to make a quick exit, or choosing seats facing the street on the cafe terraces, not wanting to have our backs to the street.DSC04196

But also, there were our dear friends and many nights eating and drinking with them, laughing uncontrollably at our inside jokes, shaking our heads in disbelief at the state of the world. When Orlando happened, they were as devastated as we were, their own wounds still fresh from last November. Despite the floods and the soldiers on the streets, the hooligans and the damp weather, the angry strikers and the swollen rivers, this was still the same old Paris, with its charming streets and fairytale-like center, its daily markets and boisterous nights, its bizarre fascinations (this year it’s all about bagels, everywhere you look) and its amazing food. We ate many amazing meals, but we still remember the simple fruit we bought from the neighborhood primeur on the day that we arrived. The mara de bois strawberries smelled like a flower-strewn valley and tasted like roses. The cherries were firm and deeply red, achingly sweet and just tangy enough to make us pronounce them the best cherries we’d ever eaten. And the apricots were honeyed and juicy, with whispers of mango and coconut.
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Cornmeal Cake with Apricots – Inspired by a recipe at David Lebovitz

Ingredients:

2 ounces (56g) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
3/4 cup vegetable oil
3/4 cup (150g) sugar, plus 1 tablespoon sugar for topping
3 large eggs
2 tablespoons brandy or cognac (use apple juice or orange juice if you are avoiding alcohol)
1/2 teaspoon pure almond extract
3/4 cup (125g) finely ground cornmeal
2 cups (215g) almond flour/almond meal
6 tablespoons (55g) all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
10-12 ripe apricots, pitted and halved

Directions:

Lightly grease a 9-inch springform cake pan and line the bottom with parchment paper. Preheat the oven to 350ºF (180ºC).

In a medium bowl, whisk together the cornmeal, almond flour, all-purpose flour, baking powder, and salt, until there are no lumps. Set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the 3/4 cup of sugar with the oil at medium-high speed for about 1 minute. Add the melted butter and beat for another 2 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating each egg into the mixture. After adding the third egg, beat the mixture for 3 minutes at high speed until it thickens and lightens in color. Mix in the brandy and almond extract.

Add the dry ingredients into the oil and sugar mixture in three installments. After each addition of the dry ingredients mix at low speed for only a few seconds, just until most of the cornmeal mixture is incorporated. You can also do this by hand with a spatula. After the third and final addition of the dry ingredients, use a spatula to make sure the mixture is well-combined. Do not overmix.

Scrape the batter into the pan, smooth the top, and add the apricot halves, skin side up, to cover the cake’s surface. Sprinkle one tablespoon of sugar on top of the cake and bake until it is light golden brown on top and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out almost clean, 55-60 minutes. Let cool on a rack for about 30 minutes, then run a knife along the outside of the cake before you remove it. Let cake cool completely before serving.

Red Curry with Fish

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It was my first year out of college and I was in the process of coming out to all of my friends. It was exciting and exhilarating but also a little terrifying, like a roller coaster ride. Every time I told someone I was gay, I felt my lungs expand, my heart beat stronger. Beyond the emotional changes I felt physical ones too. I slept better than ever and had a voracious appetite. I was ready to eat the world.DSC05134

When I came out to my college friend Linda over the phone she suggested I come to Chicago, where she lived at the time, to visit her. I booked my flight as soon as I could. The first night there, she took me to a local Thai restaurant for dinner. I hadn’t really experienced Thai food before. There weren’t any Thai restaurants in Philadelphia where I lived for four years and I didn’t know of any in New Jersey either, where I lived at the time. I ordered some kind of curry and I fell in love. The flavors were classic: coconut, peanut, chilies, and lime. But to me they were magical. The constant back and forth between sweet and spicy, salty and sour, made me feel like a kid with ADD, not knowing which to experience first. I couldn’t wait for the next bite.

The following night Linda asked me if I had any requests on where to eat. “Let’s go back to the Thai place,” I said immediately. It didn’t matter that I was in Chicago, a city with amazing food. I wanted to eat Thai food again.
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Since then, I have eaten a lot of Thai food. In New York city there are countless Thai restaurants, some right next to each other, but much like the equally countless Chinese restaurants here, most of them make terrible food. Overly sweet or watery, loaded with cheap bell peppers or drowning in cloying sauces. Some friends told us to always ask for our food “Thai style” when we order it, but it doesn’t seem to make a big difference. At least not for us.

This recipe may not have its origins from a remote region of Thailand or be the dish Thai mothers make for their children, but it’s simple and adaptable and very flavorful. It’s quick to make and does not require any special expertise or equipment. You might even like it enough to make it two nights in a row.DSC05151

Red Curry with Fish – Adapted from Bon Appétit

Ingredients:

1 large shallot
6 garlic cloves
1 2-inch piece ginger, peeled, cut into pieces
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons red curry paste
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
1½ cups whole peeled tomatoes, plus juices from one 15-ounce can
1 13.5-ounce can unsweetened coconut milk
1 tablespoon sugar
4 kaffir lime leaves (if not available, substitute with three strips of lime peel, using a vegetable peeler)
Kosher salt
1 pound carrots, cut into 1-inch pieces
3 large shallots, peeled, edges trimmed, and halved lengthwise
1 pound firm white fish (such as halibut or cod), skin removed, cut into 2-inch pieces

Directions:

Pulse shallot, garlic, and ginger in a food processor to finely chop. Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium. Add shallot mixture and cook, stirring often, until golden brown, about 4 minutes. Add curry paste and turmeric; cook, stirring, until paste is darkened in color and mixture starts to stick to pan, about 3 minutes. Add tomatoes, breaking up with your hands, then juices. Cook, stirring often and scraping up browned bits, until tomatoes start to break down and stick to pot, about 5 minutes.

Stir in coconut milk, sugar, and kaffir lime leaves (or lime peel) and taste, then season with salt. Simmer, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, until mixture is slightly thickened and flavors meld, 8–10 minutes. Add carrots and shallots and pour in enough water to cover. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are crisp-tender, 10-15 minutes.

Season fish all over with salt and nestle into curry (add a little more water if it’s very thick). Return to a simmer and cook just until fish is cooked through, about 5 minutes. Remove kaffir lime leaves (or lime peel).

Spoon curry over plain white rice and serve with a lime wedge to be squeezed over curry before eating.

Almond Flour Brownies (Gluten Free)

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Back in February, when the weather was still cold and snowy, we decided to throw a winter chili party. We figured that it would be a great way to get everyone together and shake away the winter blues with some warm chili and lots of wine. We invited our friends who live in the city and made two big batches of chili: a Moroccan beef chili with raisins (that I will share with you at some point) and Steve’s vegetable chili. As always we made too much and had chili in the freezer for weeks afterwards. But it was worth it. The party was a hit. Everyone loved the food and, more importantly, the chance to hang out with everyone and catch up (or in some cases, meet for the first time).DSC05126

When it came time for dessert, I wanted to give people a couple of options. So, I made my mom’s pasta flora and for the second option, I decided to try a recipe I had bookmarked months before and was always curious about. It’s a recipe for brownies that uses only ground almonds and no flour at all (so it’s naturally gluten free). I’ll be honest, I didn’t think they would come out that great but I was really wrong. More than one person at the party (including myself) proclaimed them some of the best brownies they’ve ever had. They have a deeply rich chocolate taste and they’re chewy with a crackly top. The almond flour gives them a pretty unique texture that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced in a brownie before. And the best part? They are made in a single bowl with just a wooden spoon (or sturdy spatula). DSC04984

Almond Flour Brownies (Gluten Free) – Adapted from King Arthur Flour

Makes 9 large or 12-16 smaller brownies

Note: This recipe is all about the cocoa you use. Choose a good brand (like Valrhona) of  cocoa.

Ingredients:

1 3/4 cups sugar
5 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup cocoa powder, Dutch-process or natural
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 cups almond flour
3 large eggs
Flaky sea salt for topping (optional)

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease an 8″ square pan or 9″ round pan; either should be at least 2″ deep. Place parchment paper in the pan, letting it overhang on both sides, to make it easier to remove brownies.

Place the sugar, butter, and salt in a large microwave-safe bowl. Heat on high for about 2 minutes, stopping it every 30 seconds and mixing it with a wooden spoon or a very sturdy spatula.

Add the vanilla and cocoa to the sugar mixture and using the wooden spoon or sturdy spatula, mix them well. Add the baking powder and almond flour and mix with the spoon/spatula until thoroughly combined. The mixture will be getting quite thick.

In a small bowl, lightly beat the eggs with a fork. Add the eggs to the sugar/cocoa/butter mixture and use the spoon/spatula to mix them until the batter becomes looser and shiny.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan, spreading it to the edges. Sprinkle a few flakes of flaky sea salt on top (optional).

Bake the brownies for 35 to 40 minutes, until the top is set and the middle still feels a little wobbly when you touch it (the edges will be more set). A cake tester or toothpick inserted in the center will come out with wet crumbs.

Remove the brownies from the oven and cool them for about 15 minutes before cutting. Once the brownies are cool, cover them tightly with plastic. Store at room temperature for several days or freeze for longer storage (they are delicious straight out of the freezer).

Korean Beef Stir Fry

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I never jumped on the Sriracha bandwagon. I know that everyone loves putting it on top of and inside everything but I’ve always found it a little too bland flavor-wise and too aggressive heat-wise. I have a bottle in the fridge but I rarely use it. So, I was happy to start seeing articles this year about the “new Sriracha,” the “hottest ingredient,” the “sauce of 2016,” all of them referring to gochujang, which I’ve used and loved for a while now.DSC04861 Gochujang comes from Korea. It’s a condiment made traditionally with fermented soybeans, red chili, glutinous rice, and salt. It’s the stuff they put on bibimbap, if you’ve ever had it. It’s medium to very spicy (depending on the brand), mildly sweet and earthy. It’s the kind of condiment you taste and taste again and every time you discover something else in its flavor profile. There are several brands in the U.S. and you can find it at most grocery stores. I really like the Mother In Law’s Kim Chi brand of of sesame gochujang (in the photo above). But I’ve used other brands and all have been good. DSC05111

While you can use gochujang with pretty much anything, it pairs really well with beef. In this recipe, I make a quick marinade for thinly sliced skirt steak and put it in the fridge up to 8 hours, or leave it for 30 minutes on the countertop. Then I stir fry it quickly in a hot pan and it’s done. You can serve it on rice or noodles (in the photo below it lies on top of rice noodles) and add whatever you might have as an accompaniment: sliced carrots or cucumbers, mint leaves, red onion slices, and pretty much anything pickled (in the photo below, I added some pickled yellow beets). It makes a quickly prepared but really satisfying meal.

And if you are one of the many Sriracha fans, I saw a gochujang-flavored Sriracha bottle at the store the other day, though I’ll be sticking to plain gochujang for us.

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Korean Beef Stir Fry

Ingredients:

1 lb skirt steak, sliced into thin strips against the grain
1 tablespoon gochujang
1 teaspoon finely grated ginger
1 garlic clove, peeled and finely grated
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 tablespoons vegetable oil

Directions:

Combine gochujang, ginger, garlic, 1 teaspoon sesame oil, maple syrup, and soy sauce in a small bowl and mix until combined. Place thinly sliced beef in a large resealable plastic bag (or a medium bowl) and pour marinade on top. Using your hands, massage meat to make sure it’s all coated with marinate. Let sit at room temperature 30 minutes, or chill up to 8 hours.

Heat 1 Tbsp. vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium-high until oil is shimmering. Remove half of meat from marinade, letting excess drip back into bag, and cook in a single layer without moving until lightly browned, about 1 minute. Toss meat and continue to cook, tossing occasionally, until cooked through, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a plate. Repeat with remaining 1 Tbsp. vegetable oil and remaining meat.

Serve over rice or noodles. Top with any combination of the following: sliced carrots (pickled or not), sliced cucumbers, slices of red onion (pickled or not), mint leaves, and other pickled vegetable.

Blueberry Coconut Cake

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One of my favorite cooking challenges is using up food that’s about to expire or go bad, in ways that are unexpected or inventive. Last week, my challenge was tricky. I had blueberries that were almost past their prime, shredded coconut that had expired a month ago but seemed fine (I keep it in the fridge, which keeps it fresh longer), and some coconut yogurt that was about to expire. DSC05079

That last one is interesting. It’s a yogurt made with coconut milk, using probiotic bacteria, just like with milk-based yogurt. I had bought it for my vegan friend Lisa who was visiting us, but she didn’t finish it. I tried eating it myself but I found it too rich for my taste, a little like eating thickened coconut cream. So I figured that I could put all three together in a cake. Since I had the coconut yogurt, I decided to adapt the yogurt cake recipe that I love and really amp up the coconut flavor with the shredded coconut. I tasted a single blueberry with a little bit of coconut and found them compatible, so I threw the berries in as well.DSC05082

The result was delicious. The cake is tender and not too sweet. It has a delicate coconut flavor that’s expanded by the toasted coconut topping. The blueberries add a little tartness and a beautiful color contrast. Not only did I not have to throw anything out, we ended up with a breakfast treat that we devoured the next morning. If you can’t find coconut yogurt, you can use regular whole-milk yogurt. It won’t have as strong of a coconut taste but it will still be delicious.DSC05098

Blueberry Coconut Cake

Ingredients:

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup (135g) blueberries
1 cup sugar
1 cup shredded coconut (unsweetened), plus 2 tablespoons for topping
3/4 cup coconut yogurt (not coconut-flavored yogurt; if unavailable, replace with whole milk Greek yogurt)
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350°. Coat 9″x5″ loaf pan with a little vegetable oil and cover with parchment paper leaving some overhang on both of the long sides.

Whisk 1 1/2 cups flour, baking powder, and kosher salt in a medium bowl. Add blueberries and stir with a spoon.

In a large bowl, whisk together sugar, shredded coconut, yogurt, oil, eggs, and vanilla extract. Fold in dry ingredients and blueberries just to blend.

Pour batter into prepared pan; smooth top. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons of shredded coconut on top. Bake until a tester inserted into center comes out clean, 60-70 minutes. If coconut topping is getting too brown, cover with tin foil.

Let cake cool in pan on a wire rack for 15 minutes. Invert onto rack and let cool completely.