Hoppin' John

2017 is here. There's been a lot of talk about bidding good riddance to 2016, what with its devastating election results and long list of beloved celebrity deaths. But for those of us who have had aching pits of fear and disgust in our stomachs since the orange monstrosity won on November 8th, the scary truth is that it will get worse before it gets better. (Uplifting, huh?)

When I saw Rancho Gordo's black-eyed peas at their Ferry Plaza store last month - billed as "Super Lucky 2017 Black Eyed Peas" - I couldn't resist. I'm taking all the luck I can get my hands on this new year, particularly if it's packaged in beautiful, delicious heirloom beans!

I made up this Hoppin' John-inspired recipe as I went, using what I had in my pantry. Traditional Hoppin' John includes some sort of pork - a ham hock, sliced bacon, or rendered lard. To achieve a similar smoky-salty flavor profile, I loaded mine up with smoked dried chipotle chiles. We inhaled warm bowls of this improvised Hoppin' John after walking Honey in the brisk night air earlier today, and I could not in that moment imagine something more flavorful, rich, and homey. I'm a bit gun-shy when it comes to heat (though I'm getting better!). This recipe has just enough heat to make my throat tingle deliciously but not enough to have me reaching for the kleenex. Adjust to your taste, of course.

So here's to 2017. May it be even half as comforting and Super Lucky as this bowl of beans!

Hoppin' John

Serves 6-8 as a main course.

For the beans:
1 lb dried black-eyed peas, preferably Rancho Gordo's Super Lucky 2017's
1 yellow onion, peeled and halved
5 garlic cloves, crushed and peeled
2 bay leaves
2 dried smoked chipotle chiles (I'm lucky to be able to buy incredibly fresh ones from the Everything Under The Sun at the Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market, though others will certainly work!)

For the soup:
1/4 cup olive oil, plus more to drizzle on top for serving
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and chopped
2 medium carrots, peeled and sliced
2 ribs of celery, cut in half length-wise and sliced
1 bay leaf
4 dried smoked chipotle chiles
5 medium cloves of garlic, crushed and peeled
1/2 tsp dried oregano, preferably Mexican
10 cups vegetable broth
12 oz rainbow chard, inner stems removed, torn into ribbons
Kosher salt
Ground pepper

For the rice:
1.5 cups of sushi rice
1/4 tsp kosher salt

Rinse the black-eyed peas and put them in a pot that is at least 5 quarts. Cover them in plenty of cold water and soak for 12-24 hours before cooking.

Drain the peas and cover with 3 inches of fresh water. Add the onion halves, garlic cloves, bay leaves, and 2 of the chiles and bring to just shy of a boil. Lower the heat, partially cover the pot, and let simmer for 20 minutes to 2 hours, depending on the freshness of your beans and how long you soaked them. Taste for doneness every 20 minutes until they are cooked through but not mushy - the skins should still be intact and fairly firm. Discard the onion and garlic, and drain off the liquid. Put the beans, bay leaves, and chiles in a large bowl and set aside.

Warm the olive oil over medium heat in the same pot you used to cook your beans. Add the onion, carrot, celery, remaining bay leaf, and remaining 4 chiles to the oil with a few large pinches of salt, and stir to combine. Let them cook, stirring every few minutes, for 10 minutes, while you prep the rest of your ingredients. Add the garlic, oregano, and another few large pinches of salt, and cook for another 3-5 minutes. By now, the mixture should be quite soft and fragrant, but not browned or burned. 

Add the beans to the pot, along with a few large pinches of salt, and stir to combine. Let the mixture cook for 5 minutes, stirring once or twice. Add the broth to the pot. If your broth is unsalted, add a few large pinches of salt with it. If your broth contains salt, only add additional salt if need be. Grind some fresh pepper over the top and raise the heat to bring the soup to a low simmer. Simmer together, partially covered, for 10 minutes. Add the chard to the pot, a handful at a time, each handful with a pinch of salt. Taste and adjust seasonings. Continue to simmer for 5 more minutes, then turn the heat off, cover the pot, and let stand until you're ready to serve.

While your beans are simmering and before you add the chard, put the dried rice, 1/4 tsp kosher salt, and 2 cups of water in a small pot and cook until done, about 15 minutes.

To serve, put a scoop of rice in the base of a bowl, ladle soup over top, and drizzle generously with olive oil.

Enjoy, and happy new year from my family to yours!

Weekend Tartines, September 2016: Radishes with Butter & Salt

Born to avid sports fans in Houston, Texas in the 1980's, my husband Ryan was named after Houston Astros pitcher Nolan Ryan. This was to the total dismay of his mom's side of the family, among whom there are roughly three first names shared by all the men. Juniors and nicknames abound, and a name without history may as well not exist.

My name, Rachel, is after my maternal great-grandfather, Richard. I've heard tell, though, of the many months where I was supposed to have been Alexandra Rachel. Then: my dad had a dream, a lightbulb moment, and shortly before I arrived, I became Rachel Alexandra. I have always loved that story - a peek down the path not taken. Would I have gone by Alex? Ali? Sasha? (The horror.) But a rose by another name is still a rose, and all that.

This here blog was a dream and aspiration long before it had a name. I made lists, dissected blog names I like, and typed many, MANY variations into GoDaddy.com. The name "Weekend Tartines" is a reference to the open-faced sandwiches (tartines) I make every weekend. Lunch on any Saturday we are home is reliably a pair of tartines that reflect our morning's farmers market haul. The formula is the same:

- sliced sourdough bread from Noe Valley Bakery just down the street (toasted or untoasted)

- a sliced fruit and/or vegetable and/or cheese from the morning farmers market

- something to sauce it all together:  oil / butter / jam / sauce / spread / honey / soft cheese

- finishing salt and/or pepper and/or chopped herbs

And voila! A seasonal lunch is born.

Two weeks' tartines are rarely the same. I am starting a feature here, a monthly series featuring the latest tartine in our home - a seasonal lunch you can reliably whip together in under 10 minutes. I hope you enjoy.

This weekend's tartine is inspired by the French snack of breakfast radishes with butter and salt. I melt the butter here to soak our slices thoroughly, top them with a pretty pile of crunchy pink and white radish slices, and finish it all with a flurry of Maldon sea salt. 

I hope you are enjoying this lovely Labor Day Weekend.

Weekend Tartines, September 2016: Radishes with Butter & Salt

Makes 4 tartines / serves 2

4 medium slices of good sourdough bread
6 Cherry Belle radishes, trimmed and thinly sliced
2 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
Flaky salt, such as Maldon

Brush the butter generously onto your bread - you want to use about 1/2 tablespoon per tartine - and make sure the butter reaches all the way to the crust. Arrange the radish slices in overlapping layers on the bread. Sprinkle very generous with your salt. Serve immediately.

Penne with Zucchini, Basil, Mint and Pine Nuts

Under the Christmas tree at my in-laws' last year, there was a gift-wrapped Gap box with my name on it, about the size of a woman's sweater. Inside the box, layered carefully in tissue paper, were color print-outs of the covers of two cookbooks. IOU's from Santa for Rachel Roddy's forthcoming book My Kitchen in Rome  and Molly Stevens' All About Braising. So much better than a sweater! That Santa, he knows me so well.

When it was released in the U.S. in February, I tore through Rachel's book as hungrily as I tore through her blog when I first discovered it a few years ago. Rachel's evocative, cheeky writing; her journey to making Rome her home; and the fact that I wanted to eat every single thing; are just a few of the reasons that I've given the book as a gift twice since then. Plus, I share her passion for dishes that include no less than 1/4 cup of olive oil.

I once read that the biggest difference between (good) restaurant cooking and (most) home cooking is the proper use of salt. That's true, but I'd add another: the pasta cooking-water. One lesson I've really taken to heart from Rachel is her conviction that a generous slurp of pasta cooking-water stirred in at the end, once the pasta and sauce have been combined, really is the magic ingredient. I've learned to set aside my fear of diluting the sauce and to lean in, getting comfortable adding quite a bit. I use a mug, as the handle is easy to dip onto the pot, and I find the volume is about right. I use about 2/3 of a mug of pasta cooking water for a dish of a pound of pasta. It adds the little extra something you didn't know you were missing before. It prevents the whole mess from getting dry, and it binds sauce and pasta together like nothing else can. What pasta cooking-water hath drawn together, no man can break apart.

With this new "secret weapon," I've been making a lot more pasta lately, both old stand-by's and new loves. Rachel's book has a recipe for long-cooking zucchini in olive oil that is tossed with shredded basil that she recommends serving with pasta or fresh mozzarella. It made me think of a favorite recipe by Russ Parsons via The Wednesday Chef for zucchini braised with mint and pine nuts. Ever one to gild the lily, I decided to throw all these flavors together. The results were so winning the first time that Ryan and I mourned the end, after having it for dinner one night and the leftovers for lunch the next. I made it twice more within 10 days. If that doesn't send you running to the stove, I don't know what will! Fresh and bright from the mint, herbaceous from the basil, toasty and buttery from the pine nuts, and as pleasurably savory and filling as any well-sauced pasta. It's as comfortable being eaten in your leggings on the couch on a weeknight as it is in your prettiest serving bowl for dinner with friends.

Penne with Zucchini, Basil, Mint and Pine Nuts

2 lbs zucchini (approximately 7 medium)
1/4 cup + 2 tbsp olive oil
3 cloves garlic
1 tsp kosher salt, plus more for cooking the pasta
1 lb penne, or similar pasta
1/2 cup (packed) basil leaves
1/3 cup (packed), mint leaves
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted

Prep your zucchini by trimming the ends and slicing them into coins about 1/4-inch thick. Heat 1/4 cup of the olive oil over low-medium heat in a wide pan at least 4 inches deep. Peel the garlic and split it in half, removing the green inner stem. Add to the hot oil and let it sizzle until the garlic is fragrant and golden, but not burned. Discard the garlic cloves. Add the zucchini coins to the pan with a bit less than 1 tsp kosher salt, and stir to coat the zucchini coins with the garlic-scented oil. Turn the heat up to medium. Let the zucchini cook, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes. The zucchini should be caramelized and quite soft, but still has some of its structural integrity.

While the zucchini is cooking, prepare the rest of the dish: bring a large pot of water to a boil for your pasta; toast your pine nuts; and julienne your basil and mint. Cook the pasta according to package directions, reserving a mug-full of the starchy pasta cooking-water near the end of its boil. 

When the zucchini and pasta are ready, combine them in one of the two pans, with a very big glug of the pasta cooking-water and the remaining 2 tbsp of olive oil. Stir over low head until everything has combined and the zucchini has broken down a bit more into a creamy, glistening sauce. Taste and adjust for salt. Transfer to a large serving bowl, add the pine nuts, basil, and mint, and toss to distribute evenly. Serve immediately. 

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Matzah Balls (Matzah Ball Soup, Part 2)

At our annual Passover seder a few weeks ago, eighteen friends and family members piled into our 1-bedroom apartment. Ryan and I spent the week prior borrowing tables and chairs, picking up extra bottles of wine, and playing Tetris with the contents of our bursting refrigerator. At the end of the evening, we had gone through 17 bottles of wine, 9 pounds of brisket, 20 quarts of matzah ball soup, and more, and saw that the Haggadahs were lovingly stained with wine and juice from the charoset. Success.

The surest sign that Passover is coming is when I leave Trader Joe's with 4 dozen eggs, and seriously wonder if I should have gotten 5 dozen. Between hard-boiled eggs, matzah balls, and 7 days of leavening-free breakfasts, you can never have too many.

There are many deeply-held convictions about the surest path to light, fluffy matzah balls. In my experience, one key to success is to avoid store-bought matzah meal, with its sawdust-like texture and taste. If you start by grinding up matzah crackers in your food processor, you won't get a uniform base as finely-ground, but this texture leads to a dramatically lighter, more tender dumpling that's still toothsome and chewy, but fluffy too.

Matzah Balls

Adapted from Joan Nathan's Jewish Cooking in America and SmittenKitchen.com

6 eggs, lightly beaten
6 tbsp vegetable oil, sunflower oil, or canola oil
6 tbsp vegetable broth
3 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
3 cups / 260 g / 9 oz matzah meal, from less than 1 box of matzah

Start by grinding your matzah in a large food processor. Break up the crackers, 3-4 at a time, in to the bowl, and grind on high until finely ground. There will still be pieces the size of your pinky nail, and that's fine - even encouraged. Repeat with the remainder of the box.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, oil, and broth until blended. Whisk in the salt and pepper until evenly distributed. Add the matzah meal, a cup at a time, and stir until incorporated. You may end up needing slightly more or less than the full 3 cups. You're looking for texture here: it should resemble a stiff batter, not a soupy slurry. It should pull back when you push a spoon through it, but there should be no dry bits. 

Allow the matzah ball batter to chill in the freezer for 30 minutes or up to 24 hours.

Matzah Ball Soup

Bring 3.5-4 quarts of vegetable broth to a boil, covered, over medium-high heat.

Form matzah balls by scooping the matzah ball batter in your hands and rolling it into a loose balls approximately 1 inch in diameter. Drop the balls into the boiling broth one at a time, and repeat until you've finished the bowl of batter. It should make about 16 medium matzah balls. Once they've all been added to the pot, put cover the pot, and cook for 25 minutes. Serve hot, or cooled slightly.

As with all soups, this is even better after a day or so. It lasts for about a week in the fridge, and reheats beautifully. It also freezes well for up to a year.

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Best, Simplest Veggie Broth (Matzah Ball Soup, Part 1)

Knock, knock. Anyone here?

Hi, internet! I'm Rachel. After years of home cooking adventures, informed largely by my love of cookbooks and cooking blogs, I decided it was time to join the ranks of those leaving their stamp on a small corner of the World Wide Web. Welcome.

While I'm not quite sure where to start, matzah ball soup seems like as good a place as any. I didn't eat much matzah ball soup growing up, though always I enjoyed it the twice a year it landed in my bowl on Rosh HaShanah and Passover. Making the soup was a family affair. My mom made the broth - chicken, and from scratch - its long simmer filling our house with an intoxicating homey smell for days. My mom would prepare for these chicken broth marathons all year, meticulously bagging chicken bones and parts and sending me or my brother down to the basement freezer to squirrel them away in the compartment I dubbed The Carcass Casket. Grandma made the matzah balls. I was devastated to learn years later that she used Manischewitz packets.

A few things have changed from the matzah ball soup of my youth. First, I live a few thousand miles from The Carcass Casket at my parents' house in New Jersey. I've been in San Francisco for the last three years, having moved in between from North Carolina to DC to New Hampshire and Boston. Matzah ball soup has become the taste of home in my adult life. It's the taste of my home now, with Ryan, my midwestern Methodist husband whose childhood included exactly zero matzah balls. We scarfed down hot bowls of matzah ball soup after digging out my snowed-in car out on the street outside Ryan's apartment in Cambridge, Mass, with just the window scraper and kitchen appliances, no shovel around. It warmed our frozen fingers. The first meal I made in our current apartment, our first home together, was a pot of matzah ball soup. We ate it while sitting in collapsable camping chairs from Dick's Sporting Goods, giddily admiring the view of the city and bay from our new perch.

Second, I stopped eating meat four and a half years ago, so Jewish home cooking looks slightly different. Same idea, less schmaltz. 

Third, I've become a picky - er, is "exacting" more polite? - home cook in my own right. And I have a bone to pick with store-bought vegetable broth. In my experience, it is either overpoweringly acidic, or bland as anything, or just...odd. Tinny, perhaps. Most from-scratch vegetable broth recipes out there are also way off - either deeply complicated, or, worse, take the same "odds-and-ends" approach to stock-making that meat broths can use. If you are using only the ends, the scraps, the tops and bits and bobs of your vegetables, you will end up with a mild-tasting broth that tastes vaguely of your compost heap.

I am here to tell you that the best vegetable broth is also the simplest. I have tried dozens of iterations over the last few years, and I can guarantee that nothing can beat a long, low simmer of nothing but onion, celery, and carrot, finely chopped. Wash your vegetables well, peel them, discard the peels, and discard anything you wouldn't want to eat. Your broth will be better - no, best! - for having done so. I've tried any number of add-ins - garlic cloves, leeks, bay leaves, springs of rosemary or thyme - but the purest, sweetest, most round-flavored broths I've made come from nothing but these three vegetables, treated well, and simmered long. 

Best, Simplest Vegetable Broth

1 lb carrots, peeled and tops removed
1 lb celery, leaves and root removed
1.5 lbs yellow onions (3 medium), peeled

Finely chop the the vegetables and add them to a large (8 quart+) heavy-bottomed pot. Add 20 cups (5 quarts) filtered water. Bring the pot to a boil over high heat, and quickly lower the heat to bring the pot to a simmer. Let the pot simmer, partly covered, for 5-6 hours. Cover the pot, remove from heat, and let it cool completely - either overnight or while you're at work. 

Once the broth is cooled to room temperature, set a fine-mesh strainer over another pot or deep bowl. Scoop half the veggies from your pot of broth into the strainer. Let it sit for a minute, then press the vegetables with a wooden spoon. You will continue to extrude flavorful broth from the vegetables. I typically keep pressing until the liquid is gone and left mashing against drained, floppy vegetables. Repeat with the remaining veggies in the pot.

Broth will keep for about a week in the fridge, and freezes beautifully beyond that.

Yield: 14 cups / 3.5 quarts of vegetable broth.