Poetry in a Bowl of Grains

Quinoa Salad with Homemade Harissa | Eat This Poem

I've been wondering, lately, how it is that we each manage to get through the day, cooking for ourselves and often our partners and children.

How do we manage? How do we plan (or not), and what do we eat?

Maybe it's a strange series of questions to ask, but I find that most of us are so involved (rightly so) in our own routines and habits, we rarely discuss what occurs in each other's kitchens. And I'm not talking about a pre-scheduled dinner party, either.

I'm interested in Monday morning and Thursday night. What you come up with when you realize you're missing an ingredient, or you didn't plan what to make for breakfast on Saturday, or you've been inundated with zucchini from the garden and are trying to make it interesting again and again. Or you're just flat out hungry but don't feel like making anything. (My answer for this always tends to be an omelette with Parmesan cheese, any greens I can find, and crushed red pepper flakes.)

So that's what I want to talk about today.

As for my own routine, I meal plan most weeks, a habit I took to years ago, right around  the time when I started working full-time. It just makes life easier knowing I've already thought ahead and designated a meal for dinner. It keeps me calm. It gives me something to look forward to. Sometimes meals are switched around, of course, or an impromptu dinner out ensues, but generally you can find me at home Monday through Friday standing at the stove soon after getting home from work.

The weekends are a bit more leisurely. While I do tend to plan those as well (except for days I just want to roam the market and see what happens, which happens a lot this time of year), I like leaving room for a dessert I've bookmarked or something more involved that I don't have time for mid-week. (homemade croissants, anyone?) Also, there is almost always some version of pancake or waffle at the breakfast table. It's borderline obsessive. 

Recently, I made stew. I don't typically associate June with stew, but it turned out to be the perfect accompaniment to an unusual bout of gloomy Los Angeles weather. It rained, actually. Really rained. Our state is always in desperate need of water, we just don't tend to receive much of it during the spring. So here I am in the middle of the year, making stew. And harissa, I should note.

Quinoa Salad with Homemade Harissa | Eat This Poem
Quinoa Salad with Homemade Harissa | Eat This Poem

Have I told you about Amy Chaplin's new cookbook yet? It just won a James Beard award (!!), and has reignited my interest in grain soaking. I dare you to close her book without feeling inspired. Somehow, Amy makes the basic act of soaking rice and quinoa a meditative moment, and you can't help but feel enormously healthy and on top of things when you remember to pull out your bowl and pour water over the lentils before you go to sleep at night.

There's something deeply poetic about the whole thing, especially when you consider rhythms of poetry. We find similar rhythms in our kitchens, too. We move from the sink to the refrigerator seamlessly, opening the door like a line break, taking out the pitcher of water. Next line. And so on.

I've been making my way through this cookbook slowly. First I read it cover to cover and kept track of the recipes I wanted to cook (along with their page numbers) on post-it notes. The inside front cover is now a pale shade of yellow, almost like homemade mayonnaise when you make it with yolks. 

Lately I've started prepping a few things on Sunday to help make cooking faster during the week. Amy's harissa is the perfect example of make-ahead condiments, destined for a robust quinoa salad. 

Quinoa salads have had their run, haven't they? First, no one really knew what quinoa was. Then no one knew how to cook it properly. There have been debates about how to make it fluffy, and whether or not our healthy grain habit it making matters worse for the people of Peru.

There were lots of bland recipes, too, but quinoa doesn't have to be bland. This is one of those wow! yum! pow! salads that hits you over the head thanks to a few spices like cayenne and coriander. It's probably the simplest homemade harissa you can make, but it makes an entrance. Roast some summer vegetables, saute rainbow chard in garlic oil, and toss it all together with a sprinkle of cheese. I can't say enough good things. 

And as for your own kitchen routines, I'd love to hear about them. They're deeply personal yet wildly relatable, aren't they? 

Homemade Harissa from Amy Chaplin | Eat This Poem


Adapted slightly from At Home in the Whole Foods Kitchen

1 tablespoon cumin seeds (I used ground)
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 tablespoon caraway seeds
2 teaspoons ground paprika
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 small garlic clove, grated
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Warm a small skillet over medium heat and add the whole spices. Toast seeds, stirring occasionally, until fragrant (about two minutes). Transfer to an electric spice or coffee grinder and grind until fine; pour into a bowl. Add the paprika, cayenne, garlic, salt, oil, and lemon juice. Stir until smooth. Store in a sealed glass container for up to two months in the refrigerator. 

I didn't follow her quinoa salad recipe very closely since I had a variety of other ingredients on hand. But the general method goes something like this.

Soak 1 cup of quinoa overnight. Bring 1 cup of water to a boil and add the drained and rinsed quinoa. Cover, lower the heat a bit, and simmer for about 12 minutes. (You'll find with Amy's method that for soaked quinoa, you only need a 1:1 ratio instead of 2:1 for un-soaked grains.)

I roasted zucchini and cherry tomatoes, and while those were in the oven, sautéed half a bunch of rainbow chard with plenty of garlic. (Amy's recipe also calls for red peppers, which would be fantastic.) Then I dumped in the fresh herbs (parsley and basil), crumbled in feta, and spooned harissa over everything. 

Alone in the Kitchen with Quinoa Pancakes

Recently, I took a day of quiet.

Not particularly intentionally, it just turned out that way. I had already scheduled time away from work to hit the reset button after a consuming four-month project, but so far my first two days away were filled with errands. Some of them good (pedicure!), and some not as fantastic (dentist!), and I was craving a day at home with absolutely no obligations. None. I didn't even want to plan out what I was going to cook.

When I'm home alone, I usually like to have some music on in the background (or Downton Abbey reruns playing) to keep me company. Of course, there's also the dog who follows me from room to room, but as the morning unfolded and I sipped chamomile tea I found I quite enjoyed the silence. So this day turned into a day of utter quiet. 

Zoe Nathan's Quinoa Pancakes / Eat This Poem

Instead of writing, I filled my morning with other activities: yoga, checking Instagram, ironing, getting dressed, taking said dog outside to sit in the sun, blending smoothies, making tart crust, and finishing the chicken stock I started the night before. Also, pancakes. (We'll get to those in a minute.)

It was just me and my thoughts as I vacuumed, put magazines in their bin, and cookbooks back on the shelf. But there was always a gentle, persistent nagging that I should really be writing something I didn't want to write. Or that I did want to write, but didn't feel motivated to write because no one cared. Or I assumed no one would care. Either way, no one caring is not actually a good reason to not write, but alas.

In conclusion: Sometimes we simply need a day. 

On a productive note, though, I finished reading Laurie Colwin's book of essays about home cooking, and she said something I rather like.

"No one who cooks cooks alone. Even at her most solitary, a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice and menus of cooks present, the wisdom of cookbook writers." -Laurie Colwin

It's comforting that even in our most isolated moments, when we stand in front of the stove or the cutting board making something out of nothing, we are perhaps the least alone we could ever be.

Zoe Nathan's Quinoa Pancakes

Shopping at Costco in the great city of Los Angeles is not for the faint of heart. From our old neighborhood, it was a 2 hour roundtrip adventure that you needed to be mentally prepared for, and if you didn't arrive a few minutes before the store opened at 9 am on Sunday morning, the parking lot would be so full it would give you a headache trying to navigate. So our visits became less and less frequent, and eventually, we stopped going all together.

After we moved in May, we realized our neighborhood Costco was in closer proximity, and since we needed swiffers, decided to venture in once more. I came out with a giant bag of ancient grains (a mix of quinoa, millet, and amaranth) and have since been making a version of Zoe Nathan's quinoa pancakes almost every weekend since.

Zoe Nathan is the baker behind Huckleberry, one of the best bakeries in Los Angeles. Seriously. The long lines speak for themselves. And don't even start with the pastries. Thankfully, a Huckleberry cookbook just came out, and I can't wait to dig in. 

Recipe adapted from the version published on The Chalkboard.

3/4 cup whole wheat flour
1/4 cup oat flour
1/4 cup cornmeal
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon wheat germ
2 teaspoons chia seeds
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 3/4 cups milk or buttermilk
2 eggs
4 tablespoons melted butter, plus more for cooking and serving
1 cup cooked quinoa (or a mix of quinoa, millet and amaranth)

Stir the whole wheat flour, oat flour, cornmeal, sugar, wheat germ, chia seeds, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl. Pour the buttermilk into a large glass measuring cup, then crack in the eggs and whisk; slowly add to the dry ingredients. Whisk in the melted butter and cooked quinoa. 

Melt a pat of butter or coconut oil on a skillet over medium heat. Drop 1/4 cup batter into the pan. Flip pancakes once bubbles appear on the surface and the bottom is golden; flip and cook for 1 minute more.

Serve immediately with additional butter and maple syrup.

Quinoa-Flour Roasted Cauliflower Steaks from The Homemade Flour Cookbook

Quinoa-Flour Roasted Cauliflower Steaks with Tomato Sauce

It's extraordinary to think that a blender can change your life, but it can. Sometimes the big investments are a struggle though, aren't they? You spend days, weeks, maybe even months justifying the cost, comparing brands, really thinking about it. Then when you finally take the plunge, you can't remember your life without a high-speed blender.

I speak from experience. My Vitamix is one of the best things to happen to my kitchen. I use it at least once a day, sometimes twice. (Sometimes three times!) I make smoothies every morning, blend the silkiest soup, swirl pesto, and grind grains to powder. 

Quinoa-Flour Roasted Cauliflower Steaks with Tomato Sauce
Cauliflower-Quinoa Steaks #vegetarian

Once you start grinding your own flour (with everything from rolled oats to dried beans), you'll have an even more impressive repertoire of recipes at your disposal. To make the journey easier, my friend Erin has written a beautiful cookbook all about cooking with whole grain flours, along with instructions for how to mill them in your own kitchen. (I tested a handful of recipes for Erin, and have been excited to share this book with you for months!)

The Homemade Flour Cookbook is full of approachable, vegetarian recipes using everything from black bean flour to rye flour. In between packing for a big move, I was craving something substantial and filling. A crusty exterior (thanks to ground quinoa), and tender cauliflower smothered in sweet tomato sauce was exactly the fuel I needed to finish packing the rest of my cookbooks. 

Quinoa-Flour Roasted Cauliflower Steaks with Tomato Sauce

Quinoa-Flour Roasted Cauliflower Steaks with Tomato Sauce

Summer tomatoes are just barely making their presence known at my local farmers' market, so I made the sauce with boxed San Marzano tomatoes instead. My cauliflower was quite large, so I managed to get a few more "steaks" out of it. 

Serves 2 generously

Recipe slightly adapted from The Homemade Flour Cookbook by Erin Alderson

For the sauce:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small shallot, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup basil leaves, julienned, plus more for garnish

For the steaks:
1 large head cauliflower
2 large eggs
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup quinoa flour
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

To make the sauce: Warm the oil over medium low heat. Add the shallot and garlic; stir until fragrant, about 1 minute. Gently pour in the tomatoes, season with salt and bring to a boil. Simmer and cook for 10 minutes, or until the sauce has thickened. Stir in the basil leaves.

To make the steaks: Strip away excess leaves on the cauliflower. With the stem side down on the cutting board, cut two 1/2-inch thick steaks from the center of the cauliflower, reserving florets as they fall off.

In a shallow dish, whisk together the eggs and cream. In a separate shallow dish, combine the quinoa flour, salt, and pepper. Coat the cauliflower steaks in the egg mixture, then carefully transfer to the quinoa flour and coat. Repeat the process, creating a double crust.

Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil over medium-low heat in a cast iron skillet. Fry for 3 to 4 minutes on each side, until browned and crispy. Transfer the teak to a baking sheet. Heat the remaining tablespoon of oil and repeat with the second steak. Bake for 15 minutes, until tender.

Serve the steaks with the tomato sauce, topped with a sprinkle of basil.