Category Archives: Pantry Cooking

Cooking from things you have in your pantry.

Cajun Spiced Potato Empanadas

empanada 5I created this empanada in hopes of Max liking them.  He loves cajun spiced fries.  He loved fried potatoes.  He needs to eat less fried foods (as in: frozen tater tots and fries).  So I thought some cajun spiced empanadas would be just the ticket.  Flavors he likes all neatly packaged up in dough.

He didn’t like the filling because it was too mushy.  However – we loved the filling!  I made twice as much filling as I needed to fill the empanadas but I’m going to present the recipe here just as I made it because the leftovers make a fantastic breakfast.  If you don’t like leftovers (WHAT?!) then halve this recipe.

Cajun Spiced Potato Empanadas

Serving Size: 24 empanadas plus amazing leftovers for breakfast

Cajun Spiced Potato Empanadas


  • 1 batch of empanada dough
  • 4 russet potatoes, peeled and diced small
  • 3 Tbs olive oil
  • 1 onion, finely diced
  • 2 tsp cajun seasoning, plus extra for dusting dough
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1 egg whisked with a little water for brushing the dough


  1. Bring a pot of water fitted with a steaming basket to a boil and steam the diced potatoes until tender and just falling apart.
  2. Preheat the oven to 375°.
  3. While potatoes are steaming, heat the olive oil in a skillet and add the onions. Saute onions until they are translucent and soft.
  4. In a large bowl mix the potatoes, onion (scraping any extra oil into the bowl from the pan), and the seasonings really well.
  5. Roll out the empanada dough according to the instructions in the recipe. Fill each round with a couple of teaspoons of potatoes (adjust according to the size of your empanadas - you want them filled as full as you can while still being able to close the dough shut without leaking the filling out).
  6. Place empanadas on a baking sheet fitted with parchment paper.
  7. Brush them with the egg and water and then sprinkle a little cajun spice on each one.
  8. Bake for 25 minutes


The way I've made these isn't that spicy. My cajun spices are mild and I only added a little cayenne. You can ramp up the spiciness as much as you like.

I used an actual teaspoon to fill mine. If you use a real teaspoon instead of a measuring teaspoon then you just want a scant teaspoon. That is - if you are making small empanadas. I have no idea how much you will need in each empanada if yours are a different size than I made mine. Just wing it. You can do it.

How to Make Great Vegetarian Chili Without a Recipe

There are as many opinions about what authentic chili has in it as there are people making it.  Some purists think “real” chili should never have beans in it but other sources suggest that beef, being expensive, was not always the main ingredient and that beans were probably traditionally used by many poor people either with or without meat.  The main thing about chili is that if it doesn’t have chili peppers in it in some form – it isn’t chili.

As a life-long vegetarian I have never associated chili with meat.  For vegetarians it’s nearly always a bean and chili pepper based stew that may have a bunch of other vegetables in it – or not.  I’ve been making chili for as long as I’ve been cooking and I have never once used a recipe.  I made the best batch of chili I’ve ever made just the other night (according to Philip) and so I planned to make it a couple more times paying close attention to measurements so I can write out the recipe to share.  Maybe I’ll still do that, but today I am going to share my guidelines for making great vegetarian chili without using precise measurements or ingredients.  What will make it great is that you’ll make it to your tastes, not mine.  If you already make chili all the time yourself then you don’t need this set of guidelines.  This will be similar to my post Soup Philosophy which is a guideline for making soup without recipes for people who aren’t confident or experienced enough yet to trust themselves to wing it.  Being able to cook great food from scratch without recipes is a cook’s greatest tool in the kitchen.

I need to mention that I always cook my beans in a crock pot now so I can put them in and then not worry about them until I need them.  This works really well for me.  If you don’t have a crock pot then you’ll either used canned beans or you’ll have to cook them on the stove top: soak the beans over night, then cook them for a couple of hours before preparing the rest of your ingredients.

Chili essentials:

The foundation ingredients for vegetarian chili:

  • beans, chili powder, diced tomatoes, onion, and salt.  Everything else is just building on those ingredients.  So when you’re making chili from scratch without a recipe, consider that your foundation.

The rest of the ingredients:

  • I am giving you a list of ingredients to work with.  Consider it a list of possibilities – things that go well with the foundation ingredients.  I have made great batches of chili using every possible variation of the ingredients I’ve listed.  It’s YOUR chili so you get to leave out anything you don’t like and add everything that sounds good to you.

Why you don’t need precise measurements:

  • As long as all the ingredients you’re working with are complimentary to each other – you can’t ruin a dish by playing around with them.  If you’re tasting your work as you add things to it you have control over the flavor.  You don’t need exact amounts of beans.  If you add two cans of beans to the pot and it doesn’t seem like enough, you can add another one.  How will you know if it’s the “right” amount?
  • There is NO such thing as “right” or “wrong” amounts.  There’s only a question of what you like.
  • If you follow my general guidelines you’ll have an idea of the general proportions of ingredients that I like to use.  But that’s highly personal to ME.  If I’m using rice I like to use a ratio of beans to rice that’s close to 4 to 1.  But that’s just how I like it myself.  My ratio of beans to veg is much closer.  In the summer when there is fresh corn and summer squash my bean to veg ratio is around equal parts.  In the winter when I don’t have so much fresh veg available the ratio is more like 3 to 1.

Adjusting the water or stock:

  • A lot of the flexibility of soups and stews of all kinds is that you can adjust the consistency very easily with the addition of water or stock.  You don’t measure how much of everything you added to the pot so how do you know how much water you need?  You don’t.  You start with what I list in the guidelines I give.
  • You will absolutely, no matter what, need at least a quart of water.
  • If you aren’t using diced tomatoes you will need to use at least two.  This you can count on.  If you decide you want to make a much smaller batch than I always do – then start with a little less.  If you’re making a much bigger batch than I list here (like making two pots at one time, for example) you will use more.
  • You can tell when you need more water because your chili will be getting too thick before it’s done cooking.  You add more.  The more dried rice you use the more water you’ll need to add too.
  • If you add too much water, you simply cook it down.  It takes a little longer but if you’re checking on it periodically and stirring it, it’s no big deal.

Batch size:

  • If you were to make a batch of chili using all my suggested ingredients in one batch at the largest amounts suggested you would probably be able to feed about 10-12  people with generous portions.
  • If you use the lower amounts of every ingredient listed you would probably be able to feed 6-8 people with generous portions.
  • If you use only half the suggested vegetables and omit the rice you will probably still be able to feed about 6 people.
  • If you omit all but the very basic veg (onion and tomatoes) and omit the rice to make a very basic chili, you will probably have enough to feed 4 people.
  • My point is this: the amount you end up with really depends on how many ingredients you use.  Every ingredient that isn’t a spice adds volume.  If you like your chili ingredients proportioned like I have them but you only want enough to feed 2-4 people (I have never done this in my life, by the way.  Even when living alone I always made enough for at least 6 servings and would freeze some and eat leftovers several times too) then you only use half an onion, 1/2 to 1 stalk celery, use 1/2 to 1 carrot, etc.  Just go down the line of ingredients and halve the smallest portion I suggest.

Experimentation and repetition make perfect:

  • “Perfect” in this case meaning a chili that you love and want to make again and again.  The more you make chili without a recipe the more you’ll end up having a basic “recipe” of your own based on tried and true preferences.  But it won’t really be a recipe because you won’t ever have to measure anything.  You’ll just KNOW.  You’ll develop a feel for making it just how you like it.  If you make a batch that is crazy good – like everyone who tries it is asking for more – and you want to remember how to make it like that again?  Make it again within a day and write down what you used and approximate measurements.

What can go wrong with a batch of chili?

  • Burning it.  You forget it’s on the stove and it sticks and burns.  OR you had the heat on too high and it cooks down faster than you can keep track of and the liquid all cooks down and it burns.  Burnt chili is not nice.  Although I once burnt a batch and my mom and Philip said it was really good and had a “smoky” flavor.  Huh.  I think maybe they were just so hungry that day that they were light-headed and easily pleased.
  • Too much of a particular spice.  This is why you add spices in increments and taste as you go.  That prevents major problems like half a jar of cumin resulting in chili that smells like a gym.
  • Undercooked beans.  Now that I cook my beans in the crock pot I haven’t had this issue.  Cooking them on the stove top – I get impatient.  Once or twice over the years I’ve considered the chili done only to find that the beans weren’t quite done.  Total fail.  Not good for the digestive system either.  You avoid undercooked beans by taking a few out and trying them.  You’ll know.  They’re tender when done.  Not crunchy or chewy or chalky.

That’s it.  So if you aren’t already skilled at making chili from scratch I hope these guidelines will give you the confidence to start making it without a recipe.  Let me know if you have any questions not answered in this tutorial.

How to Make Great Vegetarian Chili Without a Recipe

How to Make Great Vegetarian Chili Without a Recipe


  • 3 Tbsp oil
  • I usually use olive oil but you can use vegetable oil instead if you like. If you're only going to sautee onions and celery from this list of ingredients - reduce the oil amount to 1 Tbsp. If you're using tons of the vegetable options listed - use 3 Tbsp cause that means you're making a fat pot of chili and you need more oil to get a good browning on the vegetables.
  • Vegetables you can include in your chili:
  • 1 onion, diced
  • If you're making a huge batch of chili you may want to use 2 onions.
  • 1 - 2 stalks celery chopped
  • I frequently leave out the celery but it really adds a nice base flavor along with the onion. If you like it use it. For smaller batches or lighter celery flavor, use 1 stalk.
  • 1 - 2 carrots, chopped
  • I personally love carrots in my chili. I love having lots of vegetables in it but carrots only make it into my chili about 50% of the time.
  • 2 - 4 summer squash of any kind, chopped chunky
  • Use what you have on hand or leave it out entirely. I love summer squash in my chili and my favorite to use is zucchini or Mexican summer squashes but you can use patty pan or crookneck too. You chop them chunky so they don't completely disintegrate into the stew as they cook.
  • 2- 4 ears of corn, kernels sliced off the cob
  • I doubt corn has ever been considered a traditional ingredient in chili by anyone - I'm not a purist and when there is fresh corn available this is an amazing ingredient to include.
  • 1 quart of diced tomatoes with all the liquid OR 6 - 10 tomatoes (depending on size) diced
  • My chili is always tomato based. Always. But you don't have to use them if you don't like them or don't have them. If you don't use tomatoes then you may want to increase the amount of chili powder you use to add richness and color. Another option is to use 1 quart of diced tomatoes in their juice and an additional quart of tomato sauce . This will result in a much more tomato-y and rich chili but tomato sauce is thicker than water and so if you do this you are almost certainly going to have to add a little bit of water too - even for smaller batches. I've done this from time to time depending on what tomatoes I have left in my pantry. Most commonly I just use the quart. Home canned quart = 28 oz commercially canned. They're equivalent enough for our purposes here.
  • 3 - 6 small fresh chilis of any kind, minced OR 3 - 6 pickled jalapenos, minced
  • I make my own pickled jalapenos and I started using these in my winter chilis because I don't buy fresh peppers out of season. It turns out that I prefer using the pickled to fresh now because it adds a slight tang with the heat. You don't have to use any fresh or pickled chili peppers at all if you don't tend to like them. I usually use a mild chili powder so I like to add heat with small fresh ones. It's up to you. Experiment.
  • 1-3 cloves garlic, minced
  • Sometimes I use garlic, sometimes I don't. Think of garlic not as a main flavoring agent but as a subtle one here. You want your chili flavor to shine.
  • Beans:
  • 2- 3 cups dried beans OR 4 - 6 cups cooked beans
  • Pinto, black, kidney, or any heirloom dried bean that is similar in character to these are great choices. (I DON'T recommend using navy beans, chickpeas, cannellini beans, lentils, mung, or black eyed peas). How much beans to use? If you're making a med sized batch (to serve around 6) I would use 2 cups dried or 4 cups cooked but for a larger batch use more. If you're only wanting to serve around 4 people, use even less.
  • Rice:
  • 1/2 to 1 cup dried OR 1 - 2 cups cooked
  • Rice is not a traditional ingredient in chili, however, rice with beans makes a complete protein so for vegetarians this is a good addition nutritionally. Use a little or a lot. I don't want my chili with tons of rice so I add a modest amount of 1/2 cup dried rice per pot of chili. The more rice you add the more water or stock you'll need to add too. Just bear that in mind.
  • Seasonings/spices:
  • 1 - 40 Tbsp chili powder
  • The all important chili powder! As I mentioned - I go light on the chili powder but this is where you must taste as you go to find out how much you like. There are a million different chili powder blends out there - I have yet to find a favorite - that's a different quest. I use mild but many people like their chili to be HOT. What do you like? Try different blends to find what works for you. I tend to use between 1 and 2 Tbsp of chili powder per batch - very little. I think this is a good place to start but the average person is probably going to want to use a lot more. Start with 1 Tbsp and taste, add another, taste. Let it cook for a few minutes and then add more. And so on. Keep tasting. That's how you'll get an idea of how much you like in your own chili. It's very personal. Once you've made chili a few times just winging it - you'll have a sense for how much to add and without even measuring you'll end up using approximately the same amount every time.
  • 1 - 2 tsp cumin
  • Cumin smells like armpits. It's true. I like it, but in moderation. I rarely add more than a teaspoon. I like to use it to add depth of flavor. But sometimes I want a cleaner brighter flavor so I'll leave it out. Cumin is earthy and heavy so add in small increments to find out how much you like, if at all. If you already know you hate cumin - just skip it.
  • 1- 2 tsp salt
  • I don't like to over-salt my food. For a medium sized batch start with 1 tsp. This is often enough for my tastes. You can always add salt at the table.
  • 1- 2 tsp Mexian oregano or regular oregano
  • This addition will not make or break your chili but it's a pleasant subtle addition that I really like. Try it out.
  • 1 bunch cilantro, minced
  • For the best batch of chili I ever made I didn't use any cilantro. I don't think leaving it out is what made it the best batch, but it just goes to show you that you don't need this. Some people think cilantro tastes like soap. Soap soup is no one's idea of delicious. If you hate cilantro - leave it out because this is definitely not a traditional addition to chili either. I love it though. LOVE IT! I use an entire bunch per batch. Especially in the winter when I want more green and fresh tastes.
  • juice of a lime
  • Secret ingredient. Not traditional but it adds a brightness the same way a little vinegar would, or more salt. I often add the juice of a lime at the end of cooking at the same time I add the cilantro. Give it a try - but know that great chili doesn't require lime juice.


    Cook your beans:
  1. Put them in a crock pot several hours before you need them and cook them on the high setting. Or cook them overnight on the low setting. I usually put about 4 cups of dried beans in my crock pot and then fill it almost to the top with water.
  2. If cooking on stove-top you want to soak your beans over night. In the morning you pour off the soaking water and rinse the beans. Put in a big pot and fill the pot with water covering the beans by several inches. Bring water to a boil and then turn it down to medium. Cook them until you forget about them and they stick to the bottom of the - whoops - sorry! Cook them for 2-3 hours until they are tender. Check frequently to stir and add water as needed. (You need to add water if the beans aren't tender yet but you don't see much liquid.)
  3. Your third option is to use canned beans. This is the expensive but convenient and super quick option. There's no shame in using canned beans. To use canned beans - haha - if you don't know how to open a can of beans - email me. We need to chat.
  4. To make the chili:
  5. In a large soup pot heat the oil on high. Add all your vegetables with the exception of the pickled jalapenos (if using them) and the garlic. Sautee your vegetables on high until they start to brown at the edges. Browning them adds depth of flavor. Stir frequently so they don't burn.
  6. Once you've got some good browned edges going on - add your diced tomatoes and a quart of water (or stock) and stir. Bring to a boil and then turn the heat down to medium.
  7. Now add any of the following that you're going to use: garlic, chili powder, salt, cumin, oregano, pickled jalapeno.
  8. If you're using rice, add it now. Cook for about a half an hour and then check to see if you need to add more water (You need to add more water if the chili is already thick without the beans in it). Depending on how much rice you used you may need to add more water. Chili is meant to be thick but you don't want it to stick. Add water in pint increments. If you add too much water - you can cook it longer to cook it down.
  9. Add the cooked beans, however much you're using. If you cooked your own beans - include the congealed cooking liquid. If you're using canned - rinse them off before adding because that canned liquid is creepy. Turn the heat down to med/low and cook for a half an hour, checking on it periodically to stir. if it gets really thick and starts sticking to the bottom of the pot - add more water.
  10. Turn the heat off and if you're using cilantro and lime - stir it in now.

I made a garnish of fresh tomatoes, finely diced red onion, some minced cilantro, and a squeeze of lime.  It was an excellent topping for this batch of chili!

Sautéed King Trumpet Mushrooms Over Polenta Recipe

I found these local king trumpet mushrooms at a little market near Sebastopol.  I tried to walk away from them but I kept going back because they were so fresh and pristine and beautiful.  A worthy splurge.  I wanted to prepare them very simply so that the mushrooms could really shine.  I didn’t salt or pepper the sauté and I made the polenta plain.  Because of this I think it’s really important to finish the dish with a drizzle of olive oil – it adds just the right amount of richness without taking anything away from the mushrooms.

Here is a dish that doesn’t want cheese on it.  As I ate it I had no desire to add any Parmesan curls* or feta.  It was perfect as it was.  For my vegan friends – if you don’t already prepare mushrooms this way – please try it!

Sautéed King Trumpet Mushrooms over Polenta Recipe

4 servings

Sautéed King Trumpet Mushrooms over Polenta Recipe


    For the polenta:
  • 1 cup fine polenta
  • 4 cups water
  • 1 tsp salt
  • For the saute:
  • 1 lb King Trumpet mushrooms
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tsp parsley, minced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced fine or pressed
  • olive oil for finishing


    Prepare the Polenta:
  1. Bring the water to a boil in a medium sauce pan and add the salt to the water.
  2. Once boiling turn the heat to low.
  3. Whisk the polenta into the water.
  4. Cover with a lid and cook for 20 minutes.
  5. Prepare the Mushroom Saute:
  6. Clean the mushrooms.
  7. Trim off the ends of the stems and slice mushrooms lengthwise. (Small ones in half and large ones in three slices.)
  8. Heat olive oil in a sauté pan on med/high. When hot toss the mushrooms in the oil and sauté until they are cooked all the way through and are golden at the edges.
  9. Turn the heat down to med/low and add the parsley and garlic and cook for a couple more minutes stirring frequently so the garlic doesn't burn.
  10. To serve:
  11. Ladel the polenta into bowls.
  12. Top each bowl of polenta with the mushrooms.
  13. Drizzle olive oil over each serving.


If you use a medium or coarse grind of polenta you'll need to give it more time to cook. I prefer the finely ground polenta both for its smoother texture and speed of cooking.

You can substitute the king trumpets with any other mushroom but I hope you can find these because they're really wonderful.

This dish is vegan and gluten free (provided your polenta was not processed in a plant that also processes gluten products).

*Like I ever actually make Parmesan curls?  Right.  I’m the girl who dumps piles of grated Parmesan on everything.

Vegetarian Baked Beans Recipe

When I was a kid I spent a lot of time with our next door neighbor Mrs. Stemple who was the most wonderful old lady that all the neighborhood kids flocked to.  She would feed me cookies and tea with milk and sugar (something we never did at my house – all herbal tea for us) and we would chatter or watch some tv or just sit around together.  She always had time for me and never told me to stop talking so much.  Every once in a while she would feed me something other than cookies.  One afternoon she fed me a bowl of baked beans from a can.  My mom didn’t buy much canned food so it was pretty novel for me.  Those beans were amazing!  I happily ate that magical dish until I got something in my mouth that was not food.  It was kind of slick and meaty and I reflexively spat it out and asked what else was in the beans.

Pork.  Of course.  This was in the early 1980’s and being a vegetarian wasn’t as mainstream or common as it is today.  Mrs. Stemple knew I didn’t eat meat but like most people back then she didn’t count pieces of pork as “meat”.  The dish was mostly beans so who cares if there’s some funky globules of lard and a bit of flesh or cartilage in it?  It’s not like she gave me a hunk of steak.  I loved the flavor and texture of those little navy beans and the tomato-y sweet and sour sauce they were cooked in.  I wished very much I could have those beans without the pork.

Many years later, I saw canned vegetarian baked beans at Trader Joe’s and bought some.  They were so much like pork and beans but without the meat they became a favorite of mine, so when I opened a can up one day and discovered they tasted different (and not in a pleasant way) I hoped it was just a fluke.  It wasn’t.  Every once in a while I’ve tried another can of them and been disappointed.  I realized that they must have changed something in the recipe.  At last I decided I was going to have to learn to make my own baked beans.  So I’ve been working at making a recipe for baked beans for a couple of years now.

I started with Deborah Madison‘s recipe in “The American Vegetarian Table” because she’s one of my favorite cookbook authors but she used soy beans and chipotle peppers and it was too dark and smokey.  It just wasn’t what I was looking for.  I have looked at many many recipes and most of them depend on some cut of pig for the flavor and the other vegetarian ones generally have too many exotic or weird ingredients that baked beans shouldn’t need.  So I decided to use the ingredient list on the Trader Joe’s can as a starting point.

This version I’m sharing today is really good – but it’s not quite where I want it to be yet.  I decided to put it up here because I lost all my notes on my previous versions – which I wish I could reference.  I won’t lose it here and I can tell you that my mom thinks these beans are perfect as they are.  I want something more from them.  I will post my next good version here too so I can keep track of the development.  If you try this version, please please let me know what you thought of it and what you would change.  This is a food quest and takes time to reach excellence.

Incidentally, David Leite is writing a new cookbook and said he’d consider working on the ultimate vegetarian baked bean recipe but I think I just might beat him to it.  (I am a David Leite fan – he’s really kind and funny and responds to his commenters on his blog which I find charming)

Vegetarian Baked Beans Recipe

8 servings

Vegetarian Baked Beans Recipe


  • 6 cups cooked navy beans
  • 4 carrots, sliced
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 28 oz tomato sauce
  • 2/3 cups white wine
  • 2 Tbsp brown sugar
  • 2 tsp blackstrap molasses
  • 2 tsp mustard powder
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 30 to 40 grinds of pepper (or about 1/2 tsp)


  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. In a deep baking dish mix all the ingredients together.
  3. Bake for 3 hours.
  4. Seriously, that's it. Done.


2 cups of dry beans = 5 to 6 cups cooked beans. I cook my navy beans in the slow cooker on high for about 2-3 hours. I usually salt the water I cook them in.

Couscous T’Faya Recipe: saffron couscous with caramelized onions

This is a traditional North African wedding banquet dish.  I know this because it says so in the book from which I adapted it called “The North African Vegetarian Table” by Kitty Morse.  I made this dish many years ago without the saffron because I don’t generally buy saffron.  Not because it isn’t grown locally (though theoretically, if I was more of a madwoman than I am, I could grow it myself) but because it’s expensive.  In a funny circular way I came to know this dish more personally through my friend Sharon who gave me an enormous package of envelopes of powdered saffron.  I thought she had gotten it from her own travels.  I didn’t use any of it until now because I’m not used to having 50 envelopes of powdered saffron at my disposal.  It seems so precious a gift and I have enjoyed seeing that exotic treasure every time I open my spice cabinet for the last year and every single time I see it I say to myself “I need to make a saffron dish soon because I have so much of it!”  And then I would manage, somehow, not to make any saffron dishes.

It finally occurred to me that while spices are known to last for quite some time it is also known that they lose their integrity with each year in storage and while it is certainly lovely to open my spice cabinet and see my exotic precious gift of saffron sitting there, it would be embarrassing to never use it and have wasted it all.  So I finally returned to this dish that I made years ago without saffron and this time I got to experience it how it’s supposed to be.  It was so good I knew I would immediately write my version of it here, to share with all of you.  But therein lay a problem: there are all kinds of powdered saffron grades and often they are mixed with things like turmeric and if I’m to give you a recipe then I need to help you find what I used or come up with equivalents.  This turned into two hours of fruitless and increasingly frustrating research.  I translated every word on the packaging into English and nowhere was there a word for saffron or even turmeric listed.  The only ingredient listed was corn starch and a mysterious secret formula which makes up 14% of the ingredients.  Formula E-102.  I found out only one thing which is that this product I used is made in Novelda, Espana which really is a saffron producing region.  The company that made mine is nowhere to be found online.  So I put in a desperate call to my friend Sharon to get more information on where she got this strangely unlisted gold.

She told me that her ex-sister-in-law (a Moroccan woman) had made her some fantastic food using this saffron and so Sharon asked her if she could bring her back some of the same stuff she uses the  next time she traveled back home.  Sharon imagined that B would bring her a few small envelopes but as it turned out she brought her three big packages of it, each containing about 50 envelopes of saffron.  This is the stuff she uses in her own cooking.  Sharon shared the gift with me knowing I would appreciate it.  However, she doesn’t know any more about this particular brand of saffron than I could find out.

The funny thing is that when I told Sharon about the dish I was writing the recipe for she said she had had that same dish at her brother’s wedding in Morocco and that she’s wanted to know how to make it for a long time.  It’s funny how the first recipe I use this saffron for is one she’s had in its country of origin and that it was her gift that made it possible for me to make it.  The version Sharon had was different from the one in the book that I followed (and then changed for personal taste).  The thing that seems key is the saffron, cinnamon, caramelized onion, and raisins.  The version in my book includes almonds and hard boiled eggs.  The version Sharon had at her brother’s wedding banquet sounds more like my adaptation without those ingredients.  Try it and see what you think.  I include the amount of saffron in threads as it appears in the original recipe and then if you have powdered you can do as I did and use an envelop of it.  I’m not generally a fan of sweet in my savory and cinnamon is for me, as it is for many Americans, a spice for sweet food.  It is used in a lot of savory dishes in North African food and in this context I find I actually enjoy it.


Couscous T’Faya: saffron couscous with caramelized onions

serves 6

Couscous T’Faya: saffron couscous with caramelized onions


  • 4 Tbsp olive oil
  • 4 onions, quartered then sliced very thinly
  • 1 1/2 cups couscous
  • 3 cups of hot water (with the saffron dissolved in it)
  • 6 Spanish saffron threads, crushed and added to the water*
  • 1/2 cup raisins
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • freshly ground pepper


  1. In a large saute pan heat 3 Tbsp of the olive oil on med/high heat, then add the onions. Saute until they begin to brown, turn down the heat to med/low and keep cooking until they caramelize, stirring frequently to prevent burning.
  2. Add the remaining Tbsp of oil to another large saute pan on med/high heat and stir in the dry couscous until coated. Stir frequently until the couscous is very slightly toasted, then add the water, cinnamon, salt, and pepper. As soon as the water is simmering, turn off the heat completely, cover with a lid and let sit for ten minutes.
  3. Fluff the couscous with a fork and add the onions and raisins. Serve.


* or 1 envelope of powdered saffron.

I served this with zucchini sauteed with vinegar, honey, and oil which was really nice. I will put that recipe up soon. What I wanted to serve it with was carrots sauteed with honey, oil, and mustard and garnished with either parsley or cilantro but I didn’t have any carrots that day. This is a great accompaniment to hearty stews and spicy stir-fries or tagines.


Tomato Bread Soup

bread soup 2.jpgThis is an uncomplicated comforting soup to eat on a cold early spring day.  It’s warm and filling without being heavy.  My mother said the pieces of bread in the soup were like eating clouds.  Seriously, I’m not kidding you, she really said that.  Best thing?  It gets even better by the second day.

If you have a lot of home canned tomatoes this is an excellent recipe to make with them.

Tomato Bread Soup
serves 8


1/2 cup olive oil
1onion, diced
2 quarts diced or stewed tomatoes (use the juice too)
1 quart vegetable broth
1/4 cup red wine
8 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
2 tsp salt
1 tsp dried oregano
30 grinds of pepper
1 day old baguette, torn into small pieces


Heat the olive oil in a soup pot on med/high heat, then add the onion and saute until it slightly browns.  Add the tomatoes, broth, red wine, salt, oregano, and pepper.  Turn the heat down to med/low.

Cook for twenty minutes.

Remove from the heat and puree the soup with an immersion blender OR let it cool down and then blend it in a blender and then return it to the pot.

Put the soup back on the stove, bring to a brief boil, then turn the heat to low and add the bread to it.  Stir it in well and let it cook for ten more minutes.  The bread should be completely saturated and soft but not disintegrated.  If you used particularly hard stale bread you may need to let it cook a little longer.

It is very good just like this but I like to serve it with grated Parmesan.

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Recipe notes: You can substitute commercially canned diced or stewed tomatoes – use 2 28 oz cans in place of the quarts.  It’s not precisely  the same number of ounces but it won’t hurt the recipe at all.  If you use fresh oregano then use a tablespoon of minced in place of the tsp of dried.  If you make this in the summer time you can use 4 1/2 pounds of fresh tomatoes with the seeds squeezed out.

If you object to cooking with wine (or don’t have any on hand) you can substitute red wine vinegar for it – don’t leave it out if you’re using home canned.  If you use commercially canned tomatoes you can leave out the wine or vinegar all together, though I don’t think you should.

Don’t cut down on the olive oil amount.  This is such a simple soup and the olive oil adds a very important richness to it.  It’s not so very much per person when divided into 8 portions.

This recipe isn’t gluten free but I’d love it if one of my gluten free friends would try making it with gluten free bread and tell me if it’s good!

This is a vegan recipe.

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Mexican Style Rice

close bright mex rice 2.jpgLast year I learned to make Mexican style rice from a cookbook called “The Vegtetarian Table; Mexico” by Victoria Wise.  Since then I have adapted it and this summer I managed to freeze a few batches of the tomato puree that goes into to make it easier to make on a whim.  It’s easy to adapt this to your own tastes by omitting the cilantro, for example, or making it spicier. 

One of the main things I changed with this recipe is the method for cooking the rice.  I tried it Wise’s way a few times but I dislike the results when rinsing the rice first so I simply make my rice the way I’ve been making rice for twenty years now except for the one step of adding the puree to the rice before the water.

This Mexican style rice is very clean tasting, unmuddled by too much oil, salt, or any lard, yet it has full flavor and is satisfying to eat with just a little chimichurri sauce.

mex rice plain 2.jpgThis picture was taken before adding the cilantro- it’s very good this way too but I can’t get enough cilantro so I prefer adding it in.  Plus-green is pretty!

Mexican Style Rice


2 med sized tomatoes
1/2 yellow onion
1 jalapeno pepper (can use a whole pickled one if you don’t have fresh)
1 garlic clove
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup long grain Basmati rice
1 Tbsp olive oil
2 cups water or broth
1 bunch cilantro, minced


In a food processor puree the tomatoes, onion, pepper, garlic, and salt until completely smooth.

In a medium sauce pan heat up the olive oil on medium high heat and add the rice to it.  Stir the rice continually for a few minutes until you see the grains turning a little white (don’t let them brown!), then add the puree and keep stirring so it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan.  When most of the liquid is absorbed into the rice, add the water. 

Turn the heat up to high until the water reaches a boil then turn it down to a simmer (low heat), cover, and let it cook for 20 minutes. 

Remove the lid and if all the liquid has been absorbed* remove from the heat.  Add the minced cilantro and fluff the rice with a fork.

mex rice first view 2.jpg

More recipe notes:  I always make rice with plain water but if you like you can use vegetable, chicken, or beef broth.  This is an all season recipe if you use canned tomatoes in the winter and spring.  If you preserve your own whole tomatoes and have medium sized ones then simply substitute those for the fresh.  Most tomatoes that are canned whole are roma tomatoes which are smallish, so if you’re using commercially canned tomatoes use four of them instead of just two.  I don’t buy fresh hot peppers in the winter or spring so I usually use pickled jalapenos in place of them which I really enjoy for their slight tang. 

This recipe is gluten free
This recipe is vegan

*When I cook rice with plain water the cooking time is always exactly 20 minutes but because of the slightly variable nature of the size of tomatoes and onions I have found that occasionally this recipe needs a little extra time to cook off all the liquid.  Mexican rice is supposed to be moist but there shouldn’t be any water in the bottom of the pan.
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Hors d’Oeuvre: Ciabatta, Caramelized Shallots, and Brie with Sour Cherry Sauce

the macro shiny brie 2.jpgI don’t often make hors d’oeuvres but I’ve noticed that when I don’t provide something to snack on while making Thanksgiving dinner everyone starts getting edgy and unthankful. 

I’m not a person who gets up at the crack of dawn to brine a turkey, partly because the thought of shoving my hand up a dead turkey’s “cavity” to remove its innards isn’t something I can handle before 5pm (when the experience can be fortified with strong drinks), but mostly I don’t make turkey because I’m a vegetarian.  In fact, I don’t labor in planning Thanksgiving dinner much at all.  A day or two before my family gathers (we’re a very small group) my mom and I discuss options.

This is the exception.  I have been planning to make this again since I made it twice last fall.  I took notes last year on the improvements I wanted to make and have been looking forward to making it again ever since. 

the cherry factor 2.jpgPeeling shallots takes a lot of time.  The ones from the store are
slightly easier than the ones I grow myself which have a thin dry skin
that doesn’t like to come off.  I made my sister do the peeling last
year so this year I performed an experiment in an attempt to improve the
tedium of peeling.  Garlic roasts well in its papery skin and squeezes
out afterwords very easily, so why not roast the shallots in their skins
the same way? 

I peeled all of the bigger cloves and left the rest.

shallot experiment 2.jpgUnfortunately, the experiment didn’t prove successful.  Yes, shallots can roast well in their skins but they are just as difficult to remove when they’re sticky as when they’re dry.  Most importantly, the bulbs that were skinned first got browned nicely whereas the ones left in their skin were browned on the skins only.  So the lesson is: peel your shallots.  Even though it’s a pain in the butt.  Better yet, assign a minion to do the peeling.

This appetizer takes time and effort to make.  It’s worth it.

godlike food 2.jpgCiabatta, Caramelized Shallots, and Brie with Sour Cherry Sauce


2 lbs of shallots, trimmed and peeled by your minion
1/2 cup olive oil

Sour Cherry sauce:
1 quart sour cherries, pits removed and chopped in half
4 cups sugar
(Alternatively: 1/2 jar sour cherry jam loosened up with water)

1 loaf of Ciabatta bread (or other good quality rustic bread)
2 wedges of Brie cheese, room temperature (Camembert is a good substitute)

the setup 2.jpgMethod:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Spread the shallots out on a baking sheet, drizzle all of the olive oil over them, then sprinkle with salt and grind some pepper on them.  Put on a rack in the middle and bake for up to an hour and a half, making sure to turn them with a spatula every ten to fifteen minutes.

Sour Cherry Sauce:

Add the sour cherries and the sugar to a medium sized sauce pan.  If the cherries are frozen, let them thaw enough to start liquefying the sugar before turning the heat on.  Once the cherry juice starts mixing and dissolving the sugar turn the stove on to high heat.  Bring the cherries and sugar to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium and cook for 20 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent scorching.  Remove from heat and let cool until everything else is ready.  As it cools it will thicken.

When the shallots are done (they should be browned but not scorched, see picture above) remove them from the oven and put them in a bowl with a couple of forks for serving.

Pour the cherry sauce into a bowl and provide a spoon for serving.

Slice the Ciabatta bread in appetizer sized pieces (each slice cut in four pieces worked well for me but you can cut them bigger if you like) and arrange them on a plate. 

Place the brie on a plate with knives.

If your guests are unfamiliar with or worried about the presence of fruit near their cheese and bread, go ahead and serve them up a piece before they have time to think about it. 

Each piece of bread gets a generous bit of cheese, a shallot or two, and a small spoonful of sour cherry sauce. 

sans cherry blood 2.jpgRecipe Notes:  If you can’t get your hands on sour cherries, cranberries would make an excellent substitute.  The important thing is to make a sauce that is both tart and sweet.  The shallots are sweet by themselves so using a fruit that is just sweet will result in a somewhat vapid experience.  A red currant sauce might be good here too.  Please don’t use sweet cherries.  They don’t work. 

About the rind of the cheese:  I don’t eat cheese rind.  I will dig into a wedge of brie completely gutting it, leaving just the velvety moldy exterior like a cheese-hungry termite which has caused some gasps of shock from others.  Some people view it as a crime to eschew the rind.  Some simply view it as the act of a philistine.  I’ve been told by many people that the French ALWAYS eat the cheese rind, however, I was finally gratified to find out from an actual French person that this isn’t true.  He said many French people don’t care for the rind either and it is a question of personal taste, not a point worthy of hysteria or snobbery.  I included the rind in these pictures and then fed them to my rind-eating relatives.  I think the rind is picturesque and since most people I know eat it, it seemed natural to include it for the shoot. 

The heat and cooking time: You can cook the shallots in less time at a hotter oven temperature but the results will not be quite as good.  Less heat keeps the shallots form scorching and consequently takes longer.  A good caramelization time.  Give it the time. 

best food ever 2.jpg

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How to Make a Roux

roux base 2.jpg
What is a roux?

A roux is a cooked mixture of equal parts flour to fat which is used to thicken sauces, gravies, and soups.  Making a roux is very basic and is such a versatile cooking component that every cook should know how to make it.

The flour used is wheat and it works equally well with whole wheat as it does with refined wheat.  The whole wheat will give the roux an earthier fuller flavor while the refined wheat will be more flavor neutral. 

The traditional fat to use is clarified butter but you can use regular butter, rendered fat, or oil.  I nearly always use butter when I make a roux but I recently tried using olive oil because I’ve heard it works well and my friend Angela uses oil frequently and suggested I give it a try.  I did and it worked just as well as the butter so I can happily recommend that vegans learn to make roux in their kitchens using oil instead of butter.

A traditional roux is simply this:
Equal parts fat to flour, cooked.

That’s very simple.  But before I give you the method to making the roux I want to mention that I always season my flour before I make the roux.  I like to mix in a ramekin the following:

3 tbsp flour
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground pepper
2 shakes of cayenne pepper

This is the flour mixture I use when I make cheese sauce and I love the kick of cayenne gives to the cheese.  Even when I don’t use the cayenne, I always add salt and pepper to my flour.  (If you will be adding hot peppers a dish in which you will be adding the roux, omit the cayenne and only add later if your dish still needs more heat)  

roux 2.jpgHow to make a roux:

Heat up the fat in a skillet (or soup pot) at med/high heat, if it’s butter don’t let it brown*.  Whisk in the flour (or flour mixture).  When it’s all mixed together it should form a thick paste as you see in the picture above. Whisk the paste for two to three minutes. 

It is important to cook it for at least two minutes because this removes the raw taste of flour from the dish you will add your roux to.  I always make a light roux and so never cook it for more than five minutes before adding liquid.  The longer you cook it the deeper the color and flavor.

After a few minutes you either take it off the heat and transfer to another container for use later, or add liquid to create a sauce, gravy, or soup base.

making roux 2.jpg

What to do with the roux:

You can add any liquid to a roux that suits your purpose: water, stock, or milk are the most common liquids to add depending on what you’re making.

How much roux you need for a recipe will sometimes vary.  I have found that usually 3 tbsp of flour to 3 tbsp of butter is sufficient to thicken 3 cups of milk for making a cheese sauce for one casserole dish of macaroni and cheese.  I also find that this is adequate for thickening a medium batch of soup that serves 4 -6 people.

When you add your liquid to the roux you need to whisk constantly (and briskly) as you pour it into the pot to prevent lumps from forming.  I generally pour half my liquid in and make sure to get all the roux mixed well.  As soon as I see that the roux is mixed well with no lumps I add the rest of my liquid.  This will take longer to thicken.  It may take up to 20 minutes to fully thicken.

If you use milk (or cream) you want to make sure that you don’t let it boil hard.  Watch it carefully and as soon as you see it begin to bubble, turn the heat down to med/low and whisk it frequently to prevent burning. 

Once the roux has thickened your liquid, it’s ready for whatever application you intend it for. 

Here are a couple of examples of what you might do next:

If you’re making a cheese sauce you turn the bechamel (roux + milk = bechamel sauce) off the heat and add two cups (or more) of grated cheese, stir, then add to pasta.

If you’re making a soup you would add your veloute (roux + stock = veloute) to some sauteed vegetables or you would start adding your vegetables to the pot with your veloute. 

Every cook should know how to make a roux and I hope my instructions give a nudge to anyone who hasn’t learned to make one yet. 

*Unless you are following a recipe for a brown butter sauce or

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How To Make Couscous

fluffy couscous 2.jpg

Couscous is a granular pasta usually made of semolina.  I have never steamed couscous which is the traditional method of making it.  I first learned to cook it from Deborah Madison’s book “Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone” (which I highly recommend every cook have a copy of) but in rereading her instructions today I see I’ve gone completely off-book over the years with my own preparation.  My way works very well for me so I’m going to share it with you.

How To Make Couscous


1 tbsp olive oil
1 cup couscous
2 cups water or broth


Pour the olive oil into a large saute pan and put the stove on high.  Add the couscous and stir to coat with the oil.  Stir the couscous for 1 to 2 minutes until it slightly colors. 

Add the water or broth and shake the pan gently to evenly distribute it.  Keep the burner on high until the water starts to bubble.  Turn the burner off and put a lid on the pan.

Let it sit for 7 minutes.

Remove the lid and fluff the couscous with a fork.

Recipe Notes:  Sometimes it clumps a little and if it does you just have to use the fork to break them up.  I don’t mind some clumps because they are never gummy or sticky for me.  I never eat couscous plain so by the time I mix vegetables into it the clumps usually break up completely anyway.  I don’t salt my couscous.  If I’m going to use salt I add it at the same time that I add other things to it. 

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