Run Down Runaround

Walking into Philip Gelb‘s underground restaurant, you never know quite what to expect for dinner, no matter how carefully you study the menu in advance. It’s been many months now since I had the luxury of that fully immersive, in-person experience, but there are some moments indelibly imprinted in my memory.

It was a taste unlike any other I had encountered before, being shamefully uneducated on the entire Caribbean culinary canon in general. Leading with heady aromatics, simultaneously fiery hot yet creamy and soothing, it’s both familiar and entirely foreign. Tender vegetables enveloped in a voluptuous broth, almost thick enough to qualify as custard, smoldered quietly in deep earthen bowls. Dissecting the fundamental building block, the spices didn’t appear particularly exotic, nothing terribly esoteric; the combination of seemingly discordant elements, mixed with a generous pinch of technique, is where the true magic happens.

Run down stew is a staple of Jamaican cuisine, typically made with seafood, but no two cooks make it quite the same way. Coconut milk is the only constant, utterly irreplaceable component. Long simmered over low heat, the rich broth reduces to concentrate the flavor, thicken to a velvety consistency, and take on a subtly toasted, nutty aroma. Flavor like that doesn’t come out of a can; time and patience are really the most important ingredients here.

The genesis of the name is a bit murky, some attributing it to the way it’s cooked down and some of the more delicate vegetables fall apart. Personally, I’d like to believe that it comes from the ability to revive anyone who’s feeling a bit run down themselves. Forget about watery chicken soup; this stuff can truly soothe the soul.

Continue reading “Run Down Runaround”

Reveling in Rusticity

“Rustic” is one of my least favorite words. Plain and simple, it comes off as a measured euphemism for crude, unpolished, unprofessional, or downright poor quality. Applied to houses, pottery, or cooking, it just strikes the wrong chord, like a polite guest biting their tongue. They really want to tell you that they hate your decorating sense, or they’d rather eat a bale of hay than dig into your latest culinary disaster, but they’re too kind to say that.

It’s not a bad effort at all, they’ll insist. Perfectly rustic!

Nikujaga, literally “meat and potatoes,” is classic yoshoku for the soul. Westernized Japanese food at its finest, it has the unfortunate distinction of fitting that bill as “rustic” to many. Though meant as a term of endearment, I can’t help but hear it as an insult. Sure, it’s a homely stew that would never make headlines or start a viral craze, but there’s a real art to layering in rich flavors using minimal ingredients.

It doesn’t take a master chef to whip up this one-pot meal, but don’t do yourself a disservice by downplaying the deeply satisfying layers of flavors.

Between the salt and fat, protein and starch, it’s a foolproof approach to pure, unadulterated comfort food. Double it for a crowd, halve it if you’re short on ingredients, prepare it in advance, freeze in portions and thaw out as needed; this is a dish that will bend to your will without threatening to break.

It takes real finesse to craft a dish so well-balanced. The last thing I would ever call it is “rustic.”

Continue reading “Reveling in Rusticity”

Socca Punch

Is there anything that chickpeas can’t do? They’re the Swiss army knife of legumes, seamlessly working their way into dishes sweet and savory, from breakfast to midnight snacks, as the bold feature or silent base. Fresh, dried, or ground, every form of this humble bean opens up new culinary possibilities, each more innovative than the last. Of course, many of the best preparations are those tried-and-true formulas, having withstood the test of time through the hands of countless cooks. Such is the case for socca, alternately known as farinata depending on who you ask, and is the meal-sized enlargement of the crisply fried, well-salted bar snack, panisse.

Essentially a large, thick pancake made with chickpea flour and a touch of olive oil, it could be categorized as peasant fare for its humble ingredients. However, proving that the sum is greater than its parts, the taste is fit for a king (or queen.) Legend has it that the first socca was hastily whipped up in Nice, France, while under siege from invading Turkish forces, these pantry staples were the only sustenance available. Since then, it’s come a long way, especially in this lavish seasonal twist.

“Wholesome decadence” defines my sun-kissed ode to summer, featuring peak produce picks set atop this beguiling chickpea base. No longer the food of strife, but of victory and resilience, this socca still began life as the results of a pantry raid, but could ultimately grace a table set with fine linens, should the occasion arise.

Sweet corn, stripped from the cob in crisp rows, and peaches so explosively juicy they quiver at the mere sight of a knife, tangle together in a tender nest of baby kale. A bite of minced jalapeƱo warms the palate periodically, lending gentle heat without overwhelming the delicate flavors at play. Of course, there must be tomatoes, though I’d admit the assembly might be improved with fleshy heirlooms, rather than more toothsome cherry tomatoes, if you can get them.

Then again, there’s no wrong way to dress a socca, and no bad recipe for using chickpeas. Make it count while harvests are abundant. While the season will be gone in a flash, such a deeply satisfying taste memory will last forever.

Continue reading “Socca Punch”

New School

For young scholars across the globe, going back to school undoubtedly looks a bit different this year. Having a sharp new haircut, the freshest pair of shoes, or the coolest backpack on the block may not mean as much when classes take place just a few feet from where you woke up. Packed lunches aren’t going anywhere outside the home when lessons take place over Zoom, within arm’s reach of the fridge. However, that doesn’t negate the importance of meal planning! In fact, even greater emphasis should be placed on advanced prep, when easily accessible snacks beckon at all times.

Even under stay-at-home orders or quarantine conditions, the show must go on. Weekdays are still busy as ever, and the last thing you want to do is waste precious time wondering what to eat. Don’t stress yourself out by try to cobble together a passable meal out of cold leftovers while the clock is ticking. Prep ahead, divide, and conquer your day.

From this point forward, barley will be your new best friend. Unlike plain white rice, pearl barley is an excellent source of fiber and protein, to keep you full and energized longer. Plus, it’s toothsome, chewy texture holds up to reheat much better than more fragile starchy grains, which makes it the perfect base for advance prep.

Traditional risotto is finicky, demanding constant attention while cooking and immediate service the minute it’s done. Let it cool, and the whole pot of silky, al dente rice will turn into a gooey, over-cooked mess. Perish the though of saving leftovers, unless you plan to deep fry them the next day.

Barley risotto, or barlotto as I like to call it, offers an endlessly adaptable foundation to build any seasonal meal around. Mix and match based on what’s in the fridge, what’s in the market, or what’s on your mind. My default approach is to riff off classic barley soup, complete with some hearty meatless beef and bold aromatics. I would argue that mushrooms are essential for their meaty texture and umami essence, but there are no hard and fast rules here. Let’s save those for the school teachers, shall we?

Designed to stay creamy yet toothsome over the coarse of subsequent re-heating opportunities, there’s no reason to get locked into the same eating experience, meal after meal. Get younger kids (or the young at heart) on board by transforming the leftovers into finger food! Think of hearty, baked arancini, and you wouldn’t be too far off. Anything you can pick up and dip has an added fun factor, making it a painless way to explore new whole grains. Plus, you can justify a bowlful (or a more measured cup) of marinara on the side, you know it’s going to be a good day.

Let’s spoon and dip our way into the next chapter of this strange true story. Stay at home or take it to go; stay safe, and always well-fed.

Continue reading “New School”

Greeking out with Popit!

June, here so soon? Breezy, beautiful month of June, she’s here before you know it, but gone in the blink of an eye. Inviting us back outside with a radiant warmth, now is the time get that free Vitamin D and soak in the sun. Naturally, dining alfresco is my favorite opportunity to do so, with a homemade meal at the ready whenever weather permits.

Eating outside demands a bit more preparation than cobbling together a meal on the fly at home. That’s why I’m turning to Popit! once more to plan ahead. Stocking the fridge at quiet times means I can just enjoy when I get a break in the action, or perhaps a break in the clouds on a rainy day. These accommodating containers actually make food last longer because they’re 100% airtight, so you’ll never have to worry about spoilage or food waste if sudden storms derail your excursion.

What to put in these efficient boxes, you ask? This month, it’s all Greek to me.

The love of pasta transcends all cultural boundaries and knows no seasonal limitations. As the weather warms and cravings skew lighter, this infinitely adaptable noodle is flexible enough to follow suit. Pasta salad is a summertime picnic staple, gleaming in all the colors of the rainbow with any number of fresh vegetables tumbling over twists or tubes, nestled in shells or toppling out of trumpets. The best salads have a distinct theme to unite these otherwise disparate additions, and an eye for presentation certainly doesn’t hurt.

Greek salad lends itself beautifully to a pasta-based adaptation, ripe with briny olives, gem-like cherry tomatoes, tender artichoke hearts, and crisp cucumbers. Glistening with a light coat of red wine vinaigrette, the whole melange is gently kissed by the invigorating breath of fresh herbs.

Laid out in neat rows like a fancy composed salad, it takes on an air of greater prominence, turning the everyday outing into a special occasion. Of course, feel free to toss everything together for simplicity’s sake. It will taste every bit as good, even if it gets jostled around in your bag while in transit. If closed properly, Popit! guarantees there won’t be any spills whatsoever. You could even take soup or gravy anywhere wanderlust beckons. You certainly don’t have to worry about oil stains from leaky seals, so go ahead, throw caution to the wind and take it outside!

If there’s a chill in the air, don’t despair. This meal is just as delicious heated. You don’t even need to take it out of the container. Popit! can be used in the microwave; simply remove the lid to avoid a vacuum from being formed, stir well, and dig in.

Getting hungry, or just getting tired of being stuck indoors? Grab a Greek pasta box and get out there. Lunch is ready whenever you are.

Continue reading “Greeking out with Popit!”

Introducing: Meal Planning with Popit!

Perhaps you’ve seen the immaculate rows of perfectly curated lunchboxes captured for posterity on Instagram, or entire shelves dedicated to meal prep and make-ahead recipes in bookstores. Meal planning is all the rage these days, though it seems daunting to dive right in.

Meal planning is not just for busy office workers or students on the go. Even if you’re eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner at home, everyone can reap the benefits:

  • Prevent mindless snacking by setting aside perfect portions.
  • Save time by cooking in batches.
  • Stress less by knowing exactly what’s for dinner.
  • Maximize your budget by resisting the lure of takeout.
  • Reduce food waste by using up what you already have.

The best containers are durable, lightweight, leak-proof, microwave- and freezer-friendly, easy to clean, and available in multiple sizes. That’s why I’ve chosen Popit! to house my meals. They offer all that, in both glass and BPA-free plastic food storage containers, which snap closed with airtight locking lids. No leaking, no cracking, no discoloring here. Plus, they conveniently nest together for space-saving storage.

Popit! has made it possible to bring you a bold new series featuring fresh recipes every month, to help fill the gaps in your daily menu. I’m excited to kick things off with a simple, satisfying burrito bowl worth throwing a fiesta for.

Brains and beauty go hand in hand for this well-balanced bundle. Colorful, crisp vegetables sit comfortably on a bed of fluffy cilantro rice, with a hearty scoop of black beans for a complete protein complement. Rich, thick avocado crema gets packed alongside to keep everything fresh, but I wouldn’t blame you for breaking out the chips to polish off the final drops. It’s everything you could ask for in a properly loaded burrito, minus the grease, stodgy flour tortilla, and potential wrap malfunctions.

Served cold, straight out of the fridge, at room temperature on-the-go, warmed lightly in the microwave, or hot from the moment it’s made, it’s a delicious combination at any temperature. Designed for two servings, it could be one lunch for you and your partner, two lunches for you, OR double the quantities and containers to maximize your time and effort. Get twice as much delicious food out of the deal, and spend that much less time worrying about it. Get in, chow down, and get on with your life. That, my friends, is the beauty of meal planning.

Continue reading “Introducing: Meal Planning with Popit!”