Ottolenghi’s Chickpea Sauté with Greek Yogurt

The sweet bride chose this recipe from Ottolenghi’s cookbook “Plenty,” and typically of what she cooks, it’s full of surprising flavors.

Ottolenghi’s recipe (here) calls for chard, but the sweet bride, using available greens, substituted kale with good results. Home cooked chickpeas might taste chewier and better, but using canned chickpeas makes this a quick, pretty much pull-out-of-the-cupboard recipe.

Pull the leaves from stems of the greens, and blanch (stems for five minutes, leaves for two), then chop both into half-inch dice.

Next, sauté diced carrots (maybe two carrots or what’s needed to balance your chickpeas and greens) with a teaspoon of caraway seeds for five minutes. Add the chickpeas and the chard or kale.

Sauté this mixture for about six minutes, then add a crushed garlic clove, the juice of half a lemon, a tablespoon each of fresh mint and coriander, salt and pepper. Let cool a little.

As a topping, Ottolenghi mixes a tablespoon of olive oil with a cup of Greek yogurt (he recommends the higher fat kind for taste). The sweet bride added pepper to the yogurt mix, and served rice alongside.

Tasty! A feast for happy diners – coriander, mint, lemon – a Mediterranean treat on a winter night – with hints of the warm months ahead!


Black Bean Croquettes

The position of Mrs. Patmore, the cook at Downtown Abbey rotates – informally and unofficially. Nobody has the proper outfit. It would be beyond irregular at Downton Abbey to have Mr. Carson cooking in the kitchen – but he’s often in charge there at Downtown Abbey.

It’s teamwork – and a pleasure to chop vegetables, get distracted with Lady Baby, then come back to find those same vegetables sautéing or in the oven or a salad. Beans put to soak by one person, get cooked by another. And then on this last trip, get made into bean cakes!

Mark Bittman’s recipe for “Black Bean Croquettes” has been forever marked as a possibility in my copy of “How to Cook Everything,” so I was glad to hear they were on the menu at Downtown Abbey.

Wanting to make them back home, I read the recipe and Bittman’s “Basics of Bean Cakes.” Bittman says well-cooked beans are necessary and, because you can add “so many flavors,” canned beans work. (We made plain ones, but he gives recipes for bean croquettes with Southwestern or Asian flavors.)

I chopped two cups of drained, cooked black beans in the blender (don’t puree Bittman says, leave a few chunks).

The recipe calls for half a cup of chopped onions, but I used a mix of shallots and scallions (end of the old and beginning of the new CSA). Then combined the onions and the beans in a bowl with a lightly beaten egg, salt and pepper.

At this point in the recipe at Downtown Abbey, Mr. Carson used a half-cup of crumbs he had made with bakery bread in the food processor and some coarse cornmeal. Because it was handy, I used the panko I had left from the not meatloaf.

You want to add enough of one of these to help the cakes stick together but not be dry – (putting the mixture in the fridge for while before forming into patties helps). This amount makes four generous patties, looking very burger-like.

Mr. Carson heated an eighth-inch of oil in a heavy cast iron skillet and fried his, about three to five minutes a side by Bittman’s instructions. I used the other suggested method, and placed the croquettes on a lightly oiled baking sheet in a 400° oven, turning once, for a total of 20 minutes.

Mr. Carson’s tasted best. Hands down. Crunchy and flavorful. We ate them straight up.

Well, with ketchup of course. A bean croquette is a fine platform for ketchup – or salsa or some exotic chutney – enjoy!

Beans and Beer

Mark Bittman’s green-covered “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian” was a gift last Christmas. His yellow-covered “How to Cook Everything” book is so familiar that I neglected the new one until recently.

In the lead up to Thanksgiving, I made black beans for dinner one night and froze some, thinking ahead to a weekend meal after the feast night and a dinner out on Friday night. Looking for a way to use the beans, I found myself wandering the wonderland of Bittman’s “Legume” section – 100 pages of bean magic!

The section is organized according to cooking method – because, as Bittman says, legumes are “largely interchangeable.” Even if calling for white or black or pinto, he will list the other beans you might use in each recipe. These pages are full of terrific sounding recipes – I love “hearty do-ahead dishes” that are “perfect for entertaining,” but I would be a curious beginner with beans cooked in “fritters, dumplings, croquettes, and cakes.”

I was looking for black bean enchiladas or chile, but “Beer-Glazed Black Beans” caught my eye. Bittman says “it’s amazing how much flavor you get from adding a cup (or a bottle) of beer to black beans” and lists variations involving tomatoes, chiles, tamarind, Asian style, or – the one I used – Thai-Style Chile Paste.

A break in the weather on the holiday Saturday led to an afternoon of splitting firewood, rebuilding the wattle fence around a garden and dressing it with compost and straw. Then the already prepared beans meant dinner came together quickly.

The recipe calls for an onion sautéed in two tablespoons of olive oil, and a tablespoon of minced garlic added after onions are soft. A minute later add three cups of cooked (or canned) black beans, a tablespoon of chili powder, a tablespoon of honey, salt and freshly ground pepper. Oh, and a cup of beer (leaving just enough in the bottle for a start with the chips and salsa)!

Cook till the liquid is reduced and thickened, it took about 15 minutes. Our Thai friend added a “dollop” (a new word to her) of the Thai-style chili paste along with the beans. And cut up some hotter peppers for herself. With rice, cornbread, and a salad, the beans made a warming meal.

Thanks Mark Bittman!

Magic Beans

Not magic in the way of Jack and the Beanstalk but versatile, pleasing, dependable – real life magic. Magic as comfort.

Part of the complexity of a big holiday comes not just from the Big Meal event – but also from the gathering and cooking for the other nights and days. We need to eat in the lead-up days, and no matter the evening feast on Thursday, visitors arriving on Wednesday need a welcoming dinner and lunch the next day.

The weekend before, I cooked beans, white and black. With some of the white beans I made ahead a delicious Deborah recipe “Basque Pumpkin with White Bean Soup” (a festive orange color, flavored by stock from the pumpkin peelings and seeds).

Since I loved that eggplant gratin, I noticed a “White Bean and Celery Root Gratin, Tuscan Style” in Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.” That seemed to meet a lot of needs – remind us of Italy but also be seasonal and local.

Celeriac with its gnarly weirdness is a vegetable I approach with a little reluctance – not nearly so beautiful as an eggplant, but so much more likely to grow here. They’re a winter mainstay, as they must be in Italy.

The outer skin looks challenging but trims off easily (Deborah says to scrub it well and use in stock for its delicious flavor). For the gratin, cut the remaining white root into one-inch cubes.

In a pan with plenty of room, sauté the celery root in three tablespoons of olive oil until it begins to brown. (This recipe double easily and then fills a big gratin dish.) Add one chopped onion, salt and pepper. Cook until the onion and celery root are soft.

Add two garlic cloves, chopped, three cups of cooked beans. If it seems too dry, you can add some reserved bean liquid. Flavor with fresh rosemary or sage (another reason this is perfect for winter Washington – plenty of both).

Top with a half cup of breadcrumbs mixed with a little olive oil or Parmesan cheese. Pour into a gratin dish rubbed with oil and bake at 400° for about an hour – till the gratin is bubbling and topping browned.

I put it together before we drove to the ferry to pick people up – and once home, the gratin was soon fragrant and ready for dinner by the fire, bubbling and browned in its bright red dish.

Fesols, Farro, and Friends

When I brought fesols de Santa Pau home from Spain, my friend who lives on the bluff took a handful and said she’d like to try and grow them. Not on the bluff, but in Mexico where she lives part of the time and tends a food garden. She planted the beans and – in the miraculous way of seeds – harvested five pounds late this summer, and brought a vacuum-packed stash home to Washington.

My friend and her husband invited us to dinner to celebrate their recent birthday trip to Tuscany, featuring bounty brought home in suitcases. (No matter our global import culture, something warms the heart about purchases from a faraway place, hand-carried to share.) On a dark October evening we walked by flashlight down our little road. In a house glowing with light and warmth, their three dogs dozed by the fire, each in its own round bed.

After bruschetta starters, our hosts served soup made with their well-travelled fesols and also farro – that ancient grain rediscovered in Italy (and here). In this Italian meal of proper courses, we next ate pasta with sauce savory with spices from Campo di Fiore Market in Rome. Then green salad (lovely and local). We drank wine from Tuscan grapes and heard stories of countryside biking and agriturismo farms. As a finale – contucci – the Tuscan name for biscotti, and vin santo.

My friend found Washington-grown farro (from Bluebird Grain Farms in Eastern Washington). It’s an ancient grain, looking a little like spelt and said to be the original grain from which all others derive. It retains a chewy texture even after soaking and cooking – a great taste to encounter in soup or salad.

Later, with the fesols my friend brought me, I made the soup like she did, using Bittman’s recipe for “Farro Soup” from “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.” In a quarter cup of olive oil, cook one large sliced onion, two chopped celery stalks, and two chopped carrots, until the onion softens. Add a tablespoon of minced garlic, a cup of farro soaked (between four and nine hours is recommended) and a cup of dried white beans soaked (I did the quick soak with boiling water). Also add a small can of undrained chopped tomatoes, and six cups of stock.

It will take at least an hour (mine took longer) for the farro and beans to be tender. Add additional stock or water if needed.

The soup is hearty – a small bowl was perfect before the pasta at the Tuscan feast, but on an ordinary winter night, a bigger bowl makes a whole meal. A little Italy in a bowl – along with fesols – this time fesols de Baja!

Focaccia, Saint Francis, and Old Friends to Dinner

According to a note I made on my calendar, a week ago Saturday marked the festival of Saint Francis and also, perhaps not related, the International Day of Older Persons. Sounded like a night to have our oldest friends to dinner – but then I forgot to even mention these special events!

Oh well – along with black beans we had treats from the farmer’s market – fresh corn picked the day before in Eastern Washington, a new potato and leek gratin, pepperonata with yellow-green sweet peppers, a big salad with fresh tomatoes, and – celebrating Italy yet again – focaccia.

In “Everyday in Tuscany,” Frances Mayes shares a recipe for focaccia describing “simplicity of preparation, small number of ingredients.” She writes of making it often with her grandchild (that sounds like fun).

I’ve made it five times since we came home – with different results each time (is that the living nature of yeast and flour and weather?). It’s always good, even on the summer day when we went to town with guests leaving the dough to rise nicely and collapse into the bowl. Now that autumn is here, I need to pay more attention to warming cold bowls and pre-heating the oven a bit to make a warm place for rising.

Following Mayes’s recipe you put two packages of yeast into two cups of warm water in a big bowl and let it stand for 10 minutes. Add four cups of flour (Mayes doesn’t specify – I used three of white and one of wheat – and mix well. Then knead the dough for 10-15 minutes on a floured surface (each time I have added at least another cup of flour while kneading). Focaccia has texture – little air spaces – that must come from the kneading (I set the timer so I’d keep it up). The goal is smooth and elastic dough.

In an oiled bowl, put the dough to rise in a warm place for an hour, covered by a tea towel. It will double. Punch down, then on a baking sheet (covered with parchment paper) shape into a flat rectangle.

Allow the dough to rise for another 45 minutes under a tea towel. Then make dimples with fingertips all over the dough and sprinkle olive oil (I used about a tablespoon and a half and tried to get it widely dispersed). Sprinkle coarse salt and about a third-cup just-minced rosemary on top.

Baked in a 400° oven for 25 minutes, focaccia turns a beautiful golden brown – and is fragrant, chewy, and substantial. At the table we passed extra-virgin olive oil (last of the Italy stash) and balsamic vinegar for dipping.

Rain was in the forecast if not yet on the roof or on the bald pate of Saint Francis out in the garden, as we sat by the first fire of the season and enjoyed the last of our farmer’s strawberries with ice cream.

A fitting celebration of Saint Francis, and a small feast for the older persons!

Under the Tuscan Sun – for a Day

Cortona, the Tuscan hill town made famous by Frances Mayes, tilts ever upward, and its physical high point is the substantial, well-preserved Medici fortress at the top of town. The day we visited, sunshine filled the upper floors of this commanding structure – habitable looking rooms with giant stone fireplaces, and windows for spying on Cortona and the Val di Chiana beyond.

Our food high point came at Restorante la Loggetta, a gracious place on a balcony above the Piazza Republica with dusky-pink tablecloths under giant canvas umbrellas. One bowl of ribollita ordered by one person quickly became another we all shared. Known as Italian “peasant fare,” it’s a warming soup, good in Italian winters but equally good here in this drearily cold Northwest summer. I came home eager to make ribollita.

None of my usual sources offered a recipe, so I trolled the Internet and read several. They all share the basics: bread, beans and “reboiling” (ribollita in Italian).

The recipes (I mostly used one from Heidi Swanson at “”) begin by sautéing gently in olive oil, on a low heat, celery, carrots, garlic, and onion – avoiding browning.

Use whatever form of tomatoes you like – I had half a big can of crushed tomatoes and added them to the sauté, along with some red pepper flakes (another recipe suggested crushed fennel seeds also).

After simmering a bit, I added a bunch of Tuscan kale (mid-rib removed and leaves chopped), and three cups of cooked beans (two cups of dry beans cooked the day before easily made the four cups needed). Reduce the heat after boiling and simmer till the greens are tender.

Following Swanson’s advice, I pureed another cup of beans with a “splash” of water (I used bean cooking water).

Ribollita is designed to use up stale bread, so use what you have – sourdough white, wheat – the preference is for unsliced, torn into bite-sized pieces. Add the pureed beans and bread to the soup and simmer for 25 or 30 minutes. After adding one and a half teaspoons of salt (I’d cooked the beans with salt so used less), Swanson incorporates the zest of a whole lemon.

Refrigerate overnight (it’s better the second day), and then serve really hot (it’s meant to be thick – and will be). We served it at a dinner with friends, warmed it up slowly until it boiled for a minute, and ladled it into warm bowls.

The setting might not be warm like Cortona – but ribollita warms the spirits. Pass the olive oil – a couple “glugs” for each bowl – Prego!

Three Things I Learned in Alaska

A Handy Tip: One of the many treats on a recent Alaska trip was a visit with my young friend and her mother. When I arrived at their house on Saturday afternoon, I found pizza makings arranged on the kitchen counter. Three circles of dough sat on parchment paper, and little bowls held tomato sauce, artichokes, cheese, chopped red onions, tomatoes, olives, roasted garlic, and leftover cooked broccoli and beets. A pizza stone heated in the oven.

We put our own made-to-order pizza together, and transferred each to the pizza stone – along with the (here’s the tip) parchment paper. Set the timer and pull the parchment paper out after about two minutes (a 500° oven might ignite parchment paper). This handy hint eliminates cornmeal and the tricky shift from peel to stone.

A Small Miracle: I stayed with our son and his wife and their four lively non-human companions – two orange cats and two beloved dogs. The critters claim a tall kitty condo, multiple sleeping spots (mostly sunny) throughout the house, and a variety of dog beds. Each is important in its time.

So when the zipper on a comfy contraption of foam and fleece (placed in front of a low-down window for maximum neighborhood surveillance) refused to zip after a wash, we struggled with it, managing to get the two rows of teeth lined up and into the fastener – but the teeth wouldn’t unite as a zipper must do.

The sweet dog liked the bed anyway – but I woke early the next morning and began to wonder what makes a zipper zip. A few minutes with e-How and now I know that pressure on the teeth from the fastener (the part below the toggle pull) does the trick. As instructed, I squeezed the in-place fastener just a little on each side with pliers – and voila! Zipness.

A Helpful Hint: In these three days I saw old friends, enjoyed my old garden with its new owners, drove down memory lane along Turnagain Arm to Girdwood, and ate a lot of good, home-cooked food.

We got meal mileage from the big pot of black beans our son prepared before I arrived, but for Sunday evening, Bittman’s “French-Style Lentil Soup with Sorrel or Spinach” was on the menu.

A simple recipe: put lentils, a bay leaf, pinches of dried thyme or several sprigs of fresh, one each chopped carrot and celery, and six cups of stock in a soup pot and sprinkle with salt and pepper. (Bring to a boil, then cook till the lentils are tender.)

At the same time, sauté a chopped onion in olive oil, and when cooked, add a bunch of washed and chopped spinach plus a teaspoon of sugar. Add to the soup, along with a squeeze of lemon.

What’s new in that recipe? I learned from the young people to use the bean cooking water as part of the stock. Why have I never known that? It makes the soup full-bodied and uses up the nutritious bean liquid. Perfect!

The Bean Project – Hummus

So far from the royals! Return to reality and embrace the common chickpea – the lowly garbanzo bean – unassuming in appearance but full of protein. The other day reaching for a container of hummus at the Co-op, I wondered why am I always buying this. I should try to make it.

The day I tried was also the day I’d been up from two to four in the morning, wrapped in a blanket in front of my computer, streaming BBC to watch the wedding live. All the sleepy day later, I kept thinking how we never get out of bed in the middle of the night for a happy event. So it was a strange treat to join people all over the world (not watching a disaster or a revolution either), without commentators or commercials, just cameras and sound – like being a pigeon in the abbey rafters.

Wanting the hummus sooner rather than later, and having neither dried garbanzos nor the two hours needed to cook, I noticed Bittman’s recipe says: “This is a good place to use canned chickpeas.” He warned that hummus can taste too much like raw garlic but promised his was “smoother and more complex in flavor.”

Following his directions, I combined two cups of canned chickpeas, half-cup of tahini (I had roasted tahini), quarter-cup of olive oil, a small clove of garlic peeled (Bittman also recommends roasted garlic), salt and freshly ground black pepper, one tablespoon ground cumin (or to taste), and the juice of one lemon (I had a Meyer lemon) in the container of the food processor. After beginning to process, add up to half-cup of water as needed to make a smooth puree.

Mine took a while to get smooth – I used the whole half-cup of water – but maybe should have just processed longer.

At the end after tasting, Bittman says to add more garlic, salt, lemon juice or cumin if needed.

It’s good – and rich with possible variables and additions. My friend on the bluff who makes it often doesn’t use a recipe anymore – hers is tasty.

I want to try Bittman’s “Roasted Chickpeas” with the leftover beans – adding olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper before roasting at 400° for about 15 minutes. Bittman says you can sprinkle with chili powder or curry powder – crisp on the outside, smooth inside – sounds a good snack.

Next royal wedding I’ll make some ahead of time!

Black Beans and the No CSA Blues

About the third night of black beans in a row (black beans with squash galette, black beans and rice, black beans in tacos), I realized I had the No CSA Blues – inertia, listlessness in the grocery store, a failure of imagination. It’s not that the Co-op doesn’t have food, but I’m missing the guidance – and the box of prompts.

I loved our CSA in Alaska – no matter the short season and the preponderance of greens and beets – it was a thrill to have freshly harvested vegetables on the Last Frontier. But the dependence I’ve formed on the Red Dog’s produce is more extreme. I rarely write a proper list from a recipe and take it to the store. I like best to make do with what’s in the fridge. So without the CSA I come up short. In Red Dog’s CSA season (all but a couple of months of the year), there’s always something good.

With the young couple who joined us in Hawaii we talked about black beans (in addition to cats), and they asked about cooking them. So – a little black bean cooking encouragement for dried bean beginners (like I was before the blog). Martha Stewart’s recipe has become second nature (supplied a year ago by the mother of my young friend). While simple, beans need time on the stove, so they’re good to cook on a Saturday – or an evening while watching a movie.

In spite of Bittman’s advice, I do soak two cups of beans overnight. They serve as sign of intention when I wake up to plumper beans pushing through the water over top of them. I add more water to cover till I’m ready to cook.

Rinse the beans and put in a big pot. The recipe calls for eight cups of water – but seven cups with well-soaked beans is adequate. You want enough so the beans stay covered during cooking, but not so much that you end up with more bean broth than you want.

Throw in two onions, just peeled and quartered, five garlic cloves peeled and smashed with the handle of a knife. Add two tablespoons of red vinegar. I take Bittman seriously about salt during cooking. I add a teaspoon to begin with, and try to remember the other mid-way in the cooking.

Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and set the timer for 90 minutes or so. (This is where gas stove cooks have advantage. It took a while to figure out the right knob position on my fluctuating electric stove.) Batches of dried beans vary also – older beans take longer to cook.) Sometimes I cook longer than the 90 minutes – being sure water continues to cover.

A year’s worth of bean pots and bean posts have taught and rewarded me. They freeze beautifully and make easy weekday meals.

When the CSA comes back next week (hooray!) whatever is in it will go splendidly with black beans.

Cooking Beans in Paradise

On Kauai papaya, lemons, oranges, avocados, apple bananas, and pineapples join exotic fruits I don’t know so well – rambutan and mangosteen. Even in the islands it’s winter, but at farmer’s markets gorgeous vegetables and kale bunches of all kinds overlap each other. We often bought dinosaur and frilly kale, along with shallots, potatoes, carrots (not so good as Red Dog but local), and tiny eggplants. We discovered that my old friend’s kale salad – while good right away – gets even better after a day or two – unlike any other dressed salad.

Our younger son’s sweet friend, our resident Thai cook, worked her magic on several evenings, and one night presented an all-Thai menu with cooking lessons. She charmed galangal and kaffir lime leaves from the owner of the local Thai restaurant, and taught us about ingredients like lemon grass and peppers. Her soup was fragrant and hotly delicious.

Our older son and his wife prepared vegetable kabobs to grill on the night we celebrated my husband’s birthday, and made tasty oatmeal cookies with chocolate chips to go with ice cream – a festive stand-in for birthday cake.

But black beans carried the day. I made two different big batches from dried beans, and – like the basic little black dress – they appeared in many ensembles.

We served black beans and peppers stuffed with quinoa when our younger son’s college roommate and his wife came for a weekend (they’re newly moved to Honolulu from Saipan with great stories of that life). But the highlight that night – our daughter-in-law’s chocolate-covered, frozen apple bananas!

Deborah came with us – her “Vegetarian Suppers” is a portable size, and a good book to inspire a cooking-in-a-condo trip. Our first night together we ate Deborah’s “Black Beans and Yellow Rice” – the rice made partly with coconut milk and colored yellow with saffron and turmeric.

Deborah says even canned beans work fine in this meal – as long as you “doctor them up” by cooking and adding green peppers, onions, cilantro, garlic, cumin, and chipotle – or as many of those ingredients as you have.

I can make this at home now – and the rice will be properly golden yellow with the spices, and the beans extra flavorful from complete ingredients.

But I’ll be missing our amiable tablemates!

The Bean Project

On the radio I heard a snippet of an expert on procrastination. She said to be specific when you talk to yourself – name the exact job and not a generality like “eat better” or “get more organized.” I wish I’d heard more, it was parking lot of the school moment, but I’m imagining “eat carrots” and “clean out the paper, plastic, and foil drawer” (what are those grits that drift to the bottom in a drawer anyway?).

Baked beans have been in my mind since Boston – and flipping through “The Winter Vegetarian,” I got specific: “Maple Baked Beans.” Goldstein says these beans are baked slowly “in the New England style.” That sounded good for a windy winter weekend, the last one in January – have dinner cooking in the oven for many hours and take down the long-serving Christmas tree.

Soak one pound (that means usually two cups) of navy or pea beans overnight in water to cover, with a quarter teaspoon of baking soda. The next day drain, cover with four cups of water, bring to a boil, and simmer about 30 minutes (till nearly tender). Drain – but reserve the cooking liquid.

Preheat the oven to 250° and transfer the beans to a three-quart casserole. Goldstein recommends an earthenware bean pot. Having no three-quart casserole of any kind, I used two smaller ones – with lids.

Mix together these ingredients: three quarters of a cup maple syrup (I love maple syrup, but this seemed a lot, I used a scant half cup), three tablespoons dark molasses, half cup of crushed tomatoes (I opened a small can – and added the whole thing), a teaspoon and a half dry mustard (didn’t have this, so used a couple squirts of yellow mustard), half teaspoon ground ginger, one and half teaspoons salt, freshly ground black pepper, and half teaspoon dried thyme. Pour over the beans.

Stir in a small chopped onion (I used shallots because we have gorgeous ones from the CSA), and tuck in two peeled garlic cloves and a bay leaf. Add enough of the reserved bean liquid to cover the beans (more if you like). Cover the pot and bake at 250° for five or six hours.

Goldstein says to add more liquid if necessary – but I didn’t need to. The beans and sauce bubbled and filled the house with a delicious smell. They came out of the oven (one casserole after only four hours because we were hungry) tender and flavorful – tomatoey but not too much. This recipe makes lots, so I froze a container full.

That’s a lesson of the bean project – how easy it is to freeze cooked beans – then enjoy real beans after a little thawing – almost as easy as a can. And these baked beans outdo canned ones for sure.

Thinking specifically – maple baked beans!

Lentils – Happy and Amused

If you have a little free time, like I did in early January, and search for the source of a quote by the Roman naturalist Pliny, who credits lentils with the “ability to produce temperaments of mildness and moderation in those who consumed them,” you might stumble on “ la web de las legumbres.” Though the site is in English, Italian, and Spanish, it seems to be supported in this country by the Dry Bean Council. I never thought about a council for dry beans but it sounds good.

In my wandering state, I sidetracked to Catalan pinto beans and a chocolate surprise cake made with green peas and chickpeas. But I was seeking lentils. The Barcelona chef Néstor Luján writes of lentils – “a legume which has played a fundamental part in human food, especially in the West.” He describes the lentil as “the humble, nutritious and much maligned.” He names Egypt as the source of lentils, where it was said “On eating Egyptian lentils, a man becomes happy and amused.”

That seems good place to stop and retreat to an utterly simple recipe from “The Winter Vegetarian” (a cookbook I find more and more intriguing – it’s winter!). Because we’ve had terrific leeks in the CSA, I chose “Lentils and Leeks.” I rinsed and sliced the leeks half-inch thick with just a little of the green as Goldstein recommends, added them to sliced carrots in olive oil and sautéed over medium heat until the vegetables were lightly browned.

Then I added the rest of the ingredients: two and a half cups of water, one cup of green lentils, a tablespoon of tomato paste (I happened to have this open, but if I hadn’t, I think a small can of tomatoes would be fine), a teaspoon of sugar, and salt and freshly ground pepper. Cover and simmer for one hour, till lentils are tender and most liquid absorbed. Serve hot.

They really are good hot – comforting – no doubt that helps create the mildness of temperament in the diner on a cold, dark eve. Goldstein’s lentils left us happy and amused, being excellent the first night with leftover New Year black-eyed peas, and then welcome to me for several solo lunchtimes.

No matter their culinary strengths and versatility, lentils aren’t visually delightful – but my Christmas present apron is! And it also makes me happy.

Red Beans and Rice

Maybe this post is only minimally about a recipe – but in searching for a last bean dish of the year (before making black-eyed peas for New Year’s and coming full circle), I realized that in spite of all the red in the kitchen this season (pomegranates, pears, persimmons, and peppers), I hadn’t thought of cooking red beans.

Mark Bittman’s recipe for “Red Beans and Rice” calls for coconut milk and hot spices (an appropriate taste of Thailand added to our holiday). I’ll start the kidney beans – then cook onion, pepper, and celery in olive oil until softened, and add thyme, bay leaves, allspice (or chili powder to taste), and two cups chopped tomatoes. When the tomatoes break up,  add to the bean mixture, and cook until the beans are very tender.

Add a cup and a half of long-grained white rice (we bought Thai rice) and three cups canned coconut milk to the beans, turn heat to low and cook till the rice is tender and the liquid absorbed.

Ah beans: flexible, resilient, dependable, interesting, desirable.

Beans have been one of the many joys of this year’s experience with “Her spirits rose….” I’m tempted to ask my readers about going forth. I do think about that a lot – but maybe I need to go beyond thinking to a plan.

The schedule mattered to me this year – but maybe I needn’t keep so closely to that? Maybe if the blog continues, it could be once a week – day uncertain, longer or shorter. Maybe trusting myself enough to allow a little randomness – perhaps not so frequent or sometimes more frequent when called for.

I have loved the discipline and the routine, loved the exchanges around writing with the wordsmith (generous with her time and expertise) and my husband (always good-natured about his “first reader” task). Thank you both.

And I’ve loved “having” to think about illustrating each week – making new or using my archive – often working fast and always with pleasure.

It was fun to make a cast of characters from the important people in my life. From the young writer to the mother of my young friend, I have shamelessly appropriated your quirks and stories to share. Thank you.

I have appreciated hearing from readers, in comments and in extra emails – even in lovely, paper letters – about what this effort has meant in your lives. Those missives did much to support this year’s output. Thank you all.

My relationship to food and cooking has grown and sustained me also. Now it seems obvious that if one is concerned with the art of daily life – food looms large.

Back to the red beans. A reader in London told me in an email that in cultures where rice is the most important staple (like his native Japan) beans are for special occasions. He writes: “especially the red bean is for a festive occasion (white rice and red bean makes an auspicious combination).”

Sounds good!

Black Bean Chile and Cornbread

On a dark and stormy night that calls for a spicy meal, you can pull chili out of the pantry using canned beans. But “Black Bean Chile,” from the “The Winter Vegetarian” by Darra Goldstein, is only slightly more complicated and so good – in part because of the real beans. (Real black beans, once a revolution here, are now a staple.)

Goldstein has you soak two cups of beans overnight (hard to turn loose of that, in site of Bittman’s lecture). So I did, then rinsed and put them to simmer with a bay leaf. In the meantime, I sautéed onion, a red pepper (greenhouse grown, last beauty from a farmer’s stand), and garlic for about 10 minutes.

When the beans are tender, but still a little chewy, Goldstein says to add two tablespoons of tomato paste and a can of whole tomatoes with juice (I chop the tomatoes roughly against the wooden spoon). Then add the onion mix along with spices. Goldstein uses cumin, paprika, cayenne, chili powder, dried oregano, salt and pepper, and a tablespoon of dark brown sugar (never having that, I added a little molasses to a little sugar). Simmer for an hour.

For cornbread I’ve used Bittman’s most basic recipe forever – but this time I noticed he offers alternative fats to butter. Loving olive oil above all others, I poured it into an 8×8-inch glass-baking dish, or you can use a skillet (and this is where I wish I had my mother’s old cast iron skillet – the one I never wanted to see again since she mostly used it to cook bacon).

Heat the oil and turn off the burner. (Do turn it off – I misread this once and put the glass pan with butter in the oven and it broke – not recommended.) Mix the dry ingredients and fold gently into the wet. Then pour the mixture into the olive oil in the baking dish. Bake till golden. The result: velvety cornbread.

Served with a salad (we’re getting terrific winter spinach from the CSA), and maybe a little grated cheese, green onion, and avocado for topping the chili – candles, action – a winter meal!