Appetizer::Welcoming spring with ricotta and asparagus

Vernal Equinox signals the beginning of spring. A time when flowers start blooming and trees are blossoming. A time in the kitchen when we leave behind the hearty soups and stews of winter and welcome the seasonal fruits and vegetables that spring has to offer.

As I was waiting for the spaghetti to cook for dinner this evening, I wanted to make a quick bite of ingredients that symbolized spring. I grabbed a few of the spears of asparagus I'd roasted - the ones that were sitting on the stove waiting to be united with the pasta - and chopped off the top tree-like portions . I mixed ricotta with lemon zest and toasted almond slices while waiting for the beep of the toaster. A clove of garlic was peeled and halved to be rubbed onto the freshly toasted bread.

A rustic French baguette would have been perfect for this simple appetizer. Since we had none on hand, the French seeded Boule was the next best option - poppy seeds providing a crunch that nicely complimented the toasted almond slices.

Asparagus spears are so incredibly tasty that I can hardly believe I've avoided them for most of my life. They're nature's candy - of the savory kind. I roasted the spears at 425F with olive oil, sea salt, and freshly ground pepper for a total of 9 minutes since the spears were pencil thin.

The ingredients are few and the instructions simple: toast bread, rub garlic on one side, spread the ricotta mixture, place toasted almonds and roasted asparagus spears on top.

Simple, tasty, and quick enough to make while waiting for the first spring dinner to come together.



A Simple Breakfast::Creamy Polenta with Maple Syrup

"Why is it called creamy polenta, mama?", asks my 5-year old daughter. "Is it because it has cream in it?"

Cinnamon was most likely wondering why this morning's polenta was more creamy than usual. Most of the time I add more cornmeal to the milk and a splash of cream and/or butter at the end of the cooking time. This morning it was simply whole milk, a pinch of sea salt, and coarsely ground yellow cornmeal. A simple and delicious alternative for a nutritious breakfast that my kids love and often request. Of course they don't let me forget the pure maple syrup that always accompanies this cereal.

The recipe, although not as simple as toast with almond butter and honey, is not as complicated and time consuming as making pancakes - which is almost always a weekend ordeal, unless breakfast becomes dinner. It's also not one requiring you to stand by the stove, whisk in hand, during every second of the 25-30 minute cooking time. An occasional stir with the whisk is all that's required. In fact, you can prepare the kids' school lunches in the meantime and still have time to set the table and make coffee.


Creamy polenta with maple syrup

makes enough to feed 4 for breakfast although my children always seem to want more – increase as desired, using 40 grams of cornmeal per 250 ml of milk



1 liter whole milk

¼ teaspoon sea salt

160 grams coarse yellow cornmeal



In a 3 or 4-quart pot set over medium heat, warm the milk with salt until almost boiling. Keep an eye on this step so you avoid the milk spilling over.

As the milk starts to bubble, slowly whisk in the cornmeal. Reduce heat to a medium low and, leaving the pot uncovered, whisk every 5 minutes or so for a total of 25-30 minutes. Although constant whisking is not necessary, do not wander too far from the stove. I’m usually making Turkish coffee at this time which requires my being by the stove.

Spoon polenta into bowls and top with pure maple syrup.




WEEKEND IN THE KITCHEN::Glimmer of Spring 

When you think of farmers' markets, you imagine fruit and vegetable stands bristling with seasonal produce. Right? At least that's what I'd expect. So I ventured out alone on Saturday morning, while the kids were still asleep, deciding to give the nearby farmers' market one more try. I arrived and left within 20 minutes, having walked up and down the stands twice in hopes of seeing more farm fresh produce. Instead I saw a greater percentage of prepared foods, soaps, and food trucks compared to fresh produce.

Perhaps I was spoiled by the plentiful produce stands in Berlin last summer where the market emphasized more on the "farmers'" instead of "market". Where we purchased dozens of quail eggs every Wednesday and Saturday, knowing that back home we have no such option. Or maybe I just expected to have a greater variety from which to choose. Despite that, I left with two dozen farm fresh eggs from two different farms, a tiny head of cabbage, and one bunch of rainbow Swiss chard. For a moment, I thought of driving downtown to the other farmers' market but decided it was getting late and the kids might be awake and waiting for breakfast.

Cinnamon was awake when I got home. She's the early bird like me. Everyone else was still asleep. Breakfast ended up being our typical weekday fare...eaten around noontime. Grocery shopping was next - a chore I prefer getting done during the week but one that was somehow neglected this Spring Break week. I ended up taking both Cinnamon and Sage with me while Saffron went to Home Depot with Papa. Saffron had this idea of a wooden food box she wanted built. One with different food compartments for birds, frog, people...I'm curious to see what she ends up doing with it.

Plan and tools in hand, my husband was busy with Saffi's project this weekend.

My fun project of the weekend was starting the patio "garden". It wasn't my intention at first, but when we arrived at the downtown Whole Foods (because the small store "close" to our house offers little compared to the headquarters store and the one at The Domain has been delayed for 6 years now), the first thing I noticed was the plants. Determined to start my container garden earlier this year than last, I selected a few plants to get me started this weekend. I also wanted to try growing something new that I didn't last bell peppers and chard. The basil, thyme, chives, oregano, mint, and rosemary I planted last year proved a dream in the kitchen. However, only the chives survived.

One evening last summer, when the first tomatoes were ripening, I remember thinking how I'd have that first cherry tomato for breakfast. Sadness set in the following morning as I spied the tomato lying pierced on the patio next to the tomato plant - an obvious victim of a bird's flyby. From then on, I ended up picking tomatoes that were not yet fully ripe just so the birds wouldn't get to them first. This year I need to come up with a strategy to not lose too many cherry tomatoes to the birds. A barbed wire scarecrow?

Sunday breakfast hinted towards spring. Ricotta pancakes (from Rose Bakery's cookbook "Breakfast Lunch Tea") topped with lemon sugar and strawberries with mint and additional lemon sugar. I was happy to have discovered that Central Market finally had the Calabro brand of ricotta in stock. I bought four one-pound containers which should last me until the next shopping trip.

The original recipe did not list sugar as one of the ingredients. I added 50 grams of castor sugar and the zest of one lemon.

Maple sugar was out of the question for topping these delicious pancakes. Instead, I combined strawberries with fresh mint leaves and additional lemon sugar.

Warm weather this past weekend meant that Sunday dinner took place outside - the first time since the bitter Texas cold set in last winter. By the time the filet and onions were finished on the grill, it was already dark when we finally sat down to eat at the patio table.

Herb butters are a great way to highlight the flavors of meat oftentimes masked by a barbeque sauce. In this instance, I quickly mixed together softened butter, fresh thyme leaves, sea salt, crushed green peppercorns, and lemon zest to accompany the filet.

If you're wondering about the Sunday cake...I didn't make one. The intention was to make a lemon ricotta cake. Warm weather beckoned me outside instead. 





Sunday Reverie


Red Lentil Soup with Honeyed Onions

Soup season is drawing to a close with the Vernal Equinox signaling the official arrival of spring next Wednesday. I wanted to close out the winter season with one more soup that was simple, yet full of flavor.

It starts with these beautiful red lentils which are combined with turmeric, cinnamon, a bay leaf, and fresh thyme to create a unique flavor. The soup is then topped with onions which have been sauteed in harissa and regular olive oils together with cumin seeds, crushed coriander and inner cardamom seeds, honey, and lemon juice for a sweet and earthy contrast. A dollop of yogurt adds a cooling element to complete the dish.


Red Lentil Soup with Honeyed Onions

makes enough for 4 main meals, although you might want to double the amount of the onions if you like more than a tablespoonful on top of the soup


250 grams red lentils, picked over and rinsed

1 ¼ liters cold water

1 tablespoon olive oil

½ yellow onion, diced finely

2-3 garlic cloves, diced finely

2 carrots, diced

¼ teaspoon turmeric

¼ teaspoon cinnamon

1 bay leaf (Californian)

2 fresh thyme sprigs

sea salt, to taste

freshly ground pepper, to taste



2 teaspoons olive oil

1 teaspoon harissa olive oil

½ yellow onion, sliced thinly

1 teaspoon cumin seeds (I used Kala Jeera – black cumin)

½ teaspoon coriander seeds

¼ teaspoon inner cardamom seeds

1 tablespoon honey

a squeeze of lemon juice


::yogurt (I use Brown Cow's full fat plain yogurt), for use as topping on soup



For the soup...

Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a 4-quart soup pot over medium heat. Add diced onions and cook until onions soften slightly, 2-3 minutes. Add the garlic, carrots, turmeric, cinnamon, salt, and pepper and cook further, 3-4 minutes.

Add the lentils, water, bay leaf, and thyme sprigs and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, for 35-45 minutes. Taste soup as it cooks, adjusting the salt and pepper along the way.

Meanwhile, prepare the onions…

Using a mortar and pestle, crush together the coriander seeds and inner cardamom seeds. In a large frying pan over medium heat, warm the oils and add the sliced onions, cumin seeds, and the crushed coriander and cardamom seeds. Continue to cook over medium heat until onions soften and turn brown, 15-20 minutes. As onions start to brown, drizzle the tablespoon of honey and continue sauteeing until onions further soften and turn brown, another 15-20 minutes. Deglaze the pan with lemon juice during the last 5 minutes of cooking.

Spoon the soup into a bowl (I chose not to puree it), top with a tablespoonful of the honeyed onions, and spoon some yogurt alongside the onions.