Friday, January 28, 2011

A Warm Spot for Spicy Black Bean Chili

Is there a dish more aptly named than chili? I mean on a morning when the snow banks along the walkway to the front door are up to your hips and you can practically see your breath inside the house, and more than anything you want something that explodes with heat the second you taste it, you know it's a chili day. Even better, it was a Seacoast Growers' Winter Market day. That meant I could buy some black beans that Jean Jennings of Meadow's Mirth Farm had grown and dried last season and make my favorite chili recipe, the Black Bean Chili from Cafe Beaujolais.

I'd first sampled this dish in the late '80's at Margaret J. Fox's restaurant of the same name in Mendocino, California, after a breathtaking, but harrowing drive up the coast from San Francisco. Mendocino bills itself as a perfect replica of a quaint little New England town, though I might point out that the ocean is on the wrong side. But it was a beautiful place to relax for a couple of days, (I stayed at the inn that was the setting for the movie, Same Time, Next Year), and I was very pleased to take a number of meals at the sunny yellow cottage that was home to this illustrious cafe. (In the 70's and 80's, Margaret J. Fox was almost as famous in the Northern California culinary scene as Alice Waters!)
To me, what makes this recipe so special is the seasonings, which include cayenne pepper and paprika, as well as a blend of cumin seed and dried oregano, basil, rosemary, and thyme that have been heated in the oven for 10 minutes or so. To add a little smokey zip, I chopped up a couple of chipotle chiles en adobo and added them, with a little of their sauce, to the pot.

You may think dried beans are dried beans, but the truth is that the fresher the beans, the more flavorful they are -- and the faster they cook. I was looking forward to sampling Jean's beans, and can happily report I was not disappointed.

Don't try to substitute canned beans here -- I think the texture would be all wrong. Plus the dried turtle beans don't need to be soaked for this recipe and since they're really quite small in size, they were ready to go after just an hour and three-quarters of cooking -- it's also a nice way to heat up the kitchen on a col, cold day.

To serve, put some cheese in a bowl and scoop in the chili and top with chopped scallions, more cheese, and a little cilantro -- the latter is optional. One note of warning: this is a spicy chili -- if you don't like the heat, well maybe, you should stay out of the kitchen. 

Black Bean Chili
from Cafe Beaujolais by Margaret Fox
(Recipe originated at Greens in San Francisco)

4 cups dry black beans
3 cups  crushed whole tomatoes
2 large finely chopped yellow onions
1 1/2 cups finely chopped green bell peppers (I used red because I like the color contrast)
1/2 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons cumin seeds
2 tablespoons dried oregano (You can also try to approximate the famous Beaujolais Blend by substituting a mixture of dried basil, rosemary, and thyme for one of the tablespoons of oregano.)
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons paprika
1/2 cup finely chopped jalapeño chiles (2 large jalapeños) (Canned are okay -- I also added a couple of chopped chipotle chiles en adobo.)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 pound Monterey Jack or cheddar cheese, grated
2/3 cup sour cream
1/2 cup finely chopped green onions
8 sprigs or 1/4 cup chopped cilantro

1. Sort through the beans; discard the funky ones and any small pebbles. Rinse well. Place the beans in a large pot and cover with water by several inches. Cover and bring to a boil.

2. Reduce the heat and cook for about 1 3/4 hours, or until tender. You'll need to add more water if you start to see the beans. Water should always cover the beans, so add more if the beans start to peek through.

3.When the beans are cooked, strain, reserving 1 cup of the cooking water and adding it back to the beans.

3. Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Toast the cumin seeds and oregano in a small pan until the fragrance is toasty, about 10 minutes.

4. Sauté the onions, bell peppers, and garlic in the oil over medium-high heat with the toasted cumin seeds and herbs, cayenne pepper, paprika and salt until the onions are soft, about 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes and chiles. Add this mixture to the beans and stir well. Add additional seasoning to taste.

5. To serve, place about one-quarter cup grated cheese in a warmed bowl, add a generous cup of beans, and dollop with a spoonful of sour cream. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon green onions, a little more cheese, and the cilantro.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Delicata Balance: Persian-Inspired Squash

Now that winter is in full swing, our Heron Pond Farm CSA usually includes some form of winter squash. As someone who is not particularly fond of overly sweet dishes -- except of course, when they're desserts -- I'm always looking for interesting ways to serve this vegetable that don't involve brown sugar or maple syrup.

That's what was made this dish I found in Deborah Madison's Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America's Farmer's Market's  so intriguing. Borrowing on the Middle Eastern tradition of including dried fruit, nuts, and exotic spices in savory dishes, this recipe, which Madison calls "Persian-inspired", gets its sweetness from chopped dates. But these are softened by the addition of shallots, garlic, and lemon juice.

 The original recipe calls for butternut squash, but Madison says that Delicatas work just as well. Though we had both on hand, the latter are much easier to peel and slice -- and I thought their bright yellow hue would provide a colorful contrast to the other ingredients in the dish.

The smells from the oven as this dish bakes are heavenly. And it made me want to try adding other Middle Eastern, Asian, even Mexican-inspired spices and seasonings to squash as the winter season continues.

Delicata Squash Rounds with Dates and Pistachios
based on a recipe by Deborah Madison from

2 -3 Delicata squash, or 1 butternut squash, about 3 pounds)
3 tablespoons olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 shallots, finely diced, about 1/3 cup
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/ 3 cup slivered almonds
1/3 cup peeled pistachios, preferably unsalted, slivered or chopped
1 tablespoon grated zest from 1 Meyer lemon or orange
6 Medjool or Deglet Noor dates, pitted and chopped
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
1 tablespoon chopped mint
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Juice of 1 Meyer lemon or 1 Persian lemon

1. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Lightly butter a large baking dish. Peel and slice the Delicatas sideways into 1/3 inch rounds, cutting the slices in half if the squash is particularly fat.  (If using a butternut, peel the neck of the squash and slice into rounds about 1/3 inch thick.)
2. Heat the olive oil in a wide nonstick skillet. Add the squash in a single layer and cook over medium heat until golden, then turn and brown the other side, 8 to 10 minutes per side. When the pan becomes dry add 1/3 cup water. Cover the pan and steam the squash until tender when pierced with a knife, about 10 minutes. Check while it’s cooking and add more water as needed. Season with salt and pepper.
3. Melt the butter in a medium skillet over medium-low heat. Add the shallots (or onion) and garlic and cook without browning, stirring occasionally, for 5 to 7 minutes. Ad the nuts, zest, dates, herbs, and cinnamon and raise the heat. Season with 1/2 teaspoon salt and some pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, for 2 minutes, then add lemon juice, cook for 1 minute more, and turn off heat.
4. Arrange squash rounds in the baking dish and scatter the dates and nuts over them. Add 1/4 cup water and bake until heated through and the topping is barely crisped, about 15 minutes.