Pho’nomenal Soup

It’s been warm in North Carolina for several weeks, but recently the trees, flowers, and fauna have agreed to come alive and welcome Spring. The collective attitude of this area, the state, probably most of the country is lightened and optimistic, and everything seems fun and exciting. It’s almost hard to sit at home when you see the bright blue skies out of your window and know full well that the sun is warm and the breeze is light and soothing. I’m endlessly thankful that blending into life in Durham has been fluid and inspiring. It’s not without effort that I’ve made this community home, but the effort is easy to succumb when the opportunities are so prevalent. Durham shares features of Chicago that I loved, the primary being that it becomes so vibrant and positive in the warm weather. Everywhere it seems people are out, active, and socializing. Every restaurant and brewery offers the option to dine in the open air, and the myriad trails winding through this area are overflowing with people. It’s so fun to be happy and warm.

The above paragraph does not segue appropriately into the recipe at all. Rather, I’m blogging because I think I’ve exhausted my outdoor experiences for the weekend, and since the sun is setting, I find myself anxious for something new to do besides read quietly or numb to TV. So I’ll use this blog post as a way to believe I’m talking to someone since my dogs insist on napping and not engaging with me at all.

I want to call this recipe pho, because it is, I presume. However, I hesitate to comment on a culinary genre so profoundly outside of my personal experience and, in doing so, cheapen the years of creativity and influence that eventually inspired what is now appreciated as pho. It seems that in becoming a trendy- or at least well-known- food, there are of course a variety of manipulations that may stray egregiously from the original source. But I’ll attempt to throw my recipe into the forum, not to promise authenticity, but to encourage expansion of this beautiful and flavorful dish into even the most benign kitchens. This is truly one of the most straightforward meals I’ve made, with such outrageously delicious results. The ratio of effort to pay-off is trending towards infinity. So I call this soup, with a heavily obvious pun- pho’nomenal-  because it is phenomenal and it, for lack of a better descriptor, is pho!

Vegetarian Pho

Serves 2

(Inspired by this recipe)

Broth

  • 1 onion, cut in half
  • 1 large knob of ginger, cut in half
  • 2 stalks lemongrass
  • 3 cardamom pods
  • 1 tbsp whole coriander
  • 1 tbsp fennel seeds
  • 1 tbsp peppercorns
  • 1 tsp whole cloves
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 2 tsp salt

Mix-ins

  • 1/2 block tofu, diced into 0.5 inch cubes
  • 1 tbsp. canola, sunflower, safflower, or other high-heat oil
  • 2 bunches bok choy
  • 1 jalapeno, sliced
  • 3-5 oz enoki (or other interesting) mushrooms
  • 3 oz rice noodles, prepared according to package directions

Sriracha and soy sauce to serve

To prepare the broth, halve the onion and ginger and place in the broiler. Broil until a dark golden color but not quite burnt. Flip and broil the opposite side. Watch carefully- this takes 2-3 minutes per side.

In a large stock pot, add the broiled onion and ginger, lemongrass, and whole spices. (Buyer’s note: I purchased all of these spices from the bulk bin at whole foods for approximately 25 cents… some were so light they were free! So don’t be discouraged by a long list of potentially expenses cabinet-dwellers… just buy what you need!). Add 6 cups of water to the pot and bring the mixture to a boil. Once boiling, reduce the heat to low and simmer for about 90 minutes. I actually prepared the broth entirely ahead of time, cooled it, and stored prior to reheating when I was ready with the mix-ins the following night. But, alternately, prepare mix-ins while the broth is simmering. Once an appropriate amount of time has elapsed, strain the broth. It should be a deep, rich brown color. If needed, add a bit more salt.

Prepare the tofu by cubing, tossing with oil, and placing in the broiler for 5 minutes. Toss and continue to broil for 5-7 minutes longer, until lightly browned and crisped on the edges. While the tofu is cooking, prepare the rice noodles. Most packages ask for them to be added to boiling water then sit, covered, for about 10 minutes. Add the bok choy, mushrooms, and sliced jalapenos to the bowls. Once the tofu is done, add that as well. Top with the rice noodles.

To serve this in a pretty way, present the bowls with mix-ins then pour the steaming broth over the top. (My photos look a little low on broth, and that’s because I split it into 3 servings so I could get more food out of it [still living cheap], but this would be more substantial/ characteristic of massive pho bowls just split into 2 servings). Top with as much sriracha as you dare, as well as a splash of soy sauce. Serve with large spoon and chopsticks!

Red Beans, Collard Greens, and Rice

I’m anticipating sharing another recipe soon, but in true delayed blogger fashion, I’m insisting I post this older one before I can move on to other exciting topics.

I’m currently living in a tight budget state, where I am imposing upon myself unachievable standards of limited spending, in attempt to save money to buy a home in the nearish future. I accounted for all of the forms of my significant and menial expenses (and in the process, realized there are many of both), and I assigned semi-arbitrary, somewhat-educated values to each budget. Groceries were the first to whittle down, as I know I’m equally capable of living on $50 a week at Trader Joe’s… or dropping $100 at Whole Foods on two recipes I want to try. As someone who enjoys cooking, insisting on the former can be difficult. But, with coupons and really serious, actually-follow-this planning, it’s been going ok. I’m not totally succeeding, but not all is lost in trying. In any case, foods that are cheap and delicious have been inclusive of the following: anything from a bulk bin, mostly; international foods of international and off-brand origin; vegetables in season; fruits that are truly American and not at all fun; greens by the bucketload; and, for protein, yogurt and eggs. I am trying to bulk up meals with greens, as variety is the cost of life, it seems. I’ve probably out-kaled myself on this blog (not really actually in real life), so in attempt to try new things, I’ve expanded my palate into traditional Southern fare, like collard greens.

I’ve always imagined collard greens to be wiltingly acidic and laden with some sort of pseudo-umami, greasy bacon flavor. The pile of leaves at every barbecue restaurant is at best forlorn and at worst, gray and molted. To say I had low expectations is an understatement. But, as is probably true of all vegetables, it turns out that if you don’t cook collard greens to their bitter death, they’re actually very palatable and quite achievably delicious. They are subtly bitter but enjoyably verdant, not very unlike kale. (And yes, verdant is a descriptor of color, but it seems even words are on a limited budget for me currently). What the collard greens do best, I’d say, is contrast an otherwise mushy plate of carbohydrates, that, although delicious, leaves much texturally to be desired.

Red beans and rice is a classic creole recipe that I frankly had given no time to prior to this point. It seemed, as per everything above, as though it could be distinctly underwhelming. When I’m being cheap for lunch, I’ll often throw together a mix of black beans, rice, and avocado, which tastes definitely no more than the sum of its parts, and serves only as a whispy attempt at indulgent Mexican food during an otherwise lackluster workday. I ascribed the same hope to red beans and rice, and yet somehow, this dish truly transcends.

Maybe it’s that I used dried beans to start, simmering them for hours with spices and vegetables, allowing for flavors to deeply develop. Maybe it’s some magic pairing that those of creole heritage revolutionized to the disinterest of other colonies. Maybe it’s just better when you’re hungry, and you’ve decided you’re not eating meat that week. Regardless of rationale, this recipe (while not entirely following tradition) is vegetarian, easily made vegan, absurdly simple, primarily hands off, and probably a total of $3 all around. I had to freeze half after portioning out 4 servings, so as far as economy goes, this is a good choice.

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Red Beans, Collard Greens, and Rice

Serves 8

Red beans:

  • 1 lb. bag dried red beans
  • 2 tbsp. butter or olive oil
  • 1 yellow onion, diced
  • 1 green bell pepper, diced
  • 3 celery stalks, diced finely
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tsp. smoked paprika
  • 1 tsp. cayenne pepper
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 1 tbsp. barbecue sauce of choice (I used Trader Joe’s garlic sriracha)
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Collard greens:

  • 2 large bunches collard greens, sliced into strips
  • 1 tbsp. butter or olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Brown rice, cooked, as much as you want considering how many you’re serving (6-8 cups)

Starting about 8 hours prior to cooking, rinse the dried beans in a colander, and, supposedly, check for rocks (which seems absurd). Add the beans to a large bowl and cover with 8 cups of water. Leave the beans soaking overnight/ during the day prior to preparing this recipe.

After 8 hours or overnight, drain the beans. In a large Dutch oven or stock pot, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the diced vegetables and sauté until lightly browning, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and stir until fragrant. Add the spices, salt, and barbecue sauce and stir. Add the red beans to the pot and cover with 6 cups of water. Increase the heat to high and bring the mixture to a boil. Once boiling, reduce the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, for about 2 1/2 – 3 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally, mashing up some beans as you’re able. Taste and season.

In a separate fairly large pan, melt the butter for the collard greens. Add the collard greens to the butter and sauté until wilting, about 10-15 minutes, over medium-low heat. Season sparingly as the greens will wilt down to a smaller volume.

Prepare the brown rice according to preference and/ or package directions. Season to taste.

In a bowl, layer the brown rice, collard greens, and red beans. Enjoy, probably all week!

Hello, and Risotto Primavera

I seem to have entirely neglected, if not per perception left entirely, this website. And, truly, the perception was my own, as I had decided, in moderate intention, to stop posting and let my recipes slowly fade into the infinity of the Cloud. But as everyone in my life knows, I finally moved from Chicago to North Carolina. Durham, more specifically. And in leaving, I was interested again in keeping this up, bolstered as well by the encouragement of several friends. So the blog will be resurrected from its really-dusty-kitchen, dishes-haven’t-been-done-in-weeks level disregard. And it seems I’ll need to change my subtitle.

I was told from some people that possibly this should no longer be titled “Dinner for Brian,” as the motivation for the title originally- that I was posting recipes in Chicago for my brother to try at home- is now less substantiated. If I want, I can go see Brian on any weeknight, make him dinner (or go out together), and receive immediate feedback. The internet no longer is a necessary medium. But, if I’m being honest, I mostly like the idea of cooking for a tangible (if now much more available) person. Yes, I usually eat alone. And yes, these recipes are often to serve my palate more than my lovely ginger brother’s. But I do take credit for expanding significantly his culinary horizons, and it’s still with his review in mind that I write. (Not to diminish the influences of my other brothers, who are easily as important and definitely more interesting than I am).

The real reason I’m posting tonight, as opposed to a lazy Sunday (my usual date), is because romanesco broccoli was on sale at Whole Foods today, and it looks so super cool, and I wanted to use it. And then, in doing so, I was thinking that everyone I know needs to cook with romanesco broccoli- mostly for the fun shape- and I must provide a recipe. Also, this is really, very delicious, and it is also incredibly easy to put together. I had never made risotto with actual arborio rice before, always favoring risotto from barley (also, where would I find arborio rice?). But in an attempt to have really quite pretty jars full of grains to hide in my cabinets (in the ideal of someday having this beautiful kitchen with open and exposed shelving), I bought a bunch of grains from my neighborhood co-op, and at that time I found arborio rice sneaking among the quinoa. I determined it must be tried.

Well, this has been a lengthy composition… Here’s the recipe.

Risotto Primavera

Serves 2

2 cups chicken or vegetable stock

1/2 cup arborio rice

1/2 tbsp. butter

1/2 white onion, diced finely

2 carrots, sliced thinly

1 head romanesco broccoli, chopped into small florets

1/3 cup frozen peas

1/3 cup frozen corn

1/4 cup shredded or grated Parmesan

Salt & pepper

Basil, sliced, to serve

Heat the stock in a small quart pan until just boiling. Lower to low heat and keep warm.

In a larger pot, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the onions and carrots and sauté until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the arborio rice and mix. Add the broccoli. Season lightly. Add 2-3 ladle-fulls of stock to the pan (it will simmer and deglaze slightly). Stir and stir until the rice has absorbed most of the stock. (It’s not ridiculous, you can take breaks from stirring; just don’t leave it for a long period of time). Add another ladle or two of stock. Stir. Repeat this process until the rice is soft and cooked through, about 15-20 minutes. You may not use all of your stock. Once the rice is cooked and most of the stock is absorbed, add the peas, corn, and Parmesan. Stir to combine well. Taste and season again.

Serve and top with fresh basil. Admire the pretty broccoli. And eat!

Spicy Shrimp with Fried Plantains and Mango Avocado Salsa

I left August 29, and I’ve finally returned. I’ve seen Kenya- the Masai Mara, Nairobi, Mombasa, Diani Beach- hiked in New Hampshire and dined in Boston, battled sandflies in Michigan, worked in Atlanta, celebrated weddings in North Carolina, biked Orange County, waved at seals in La Jolla, and shopped in Los Angeles. Two months, and more travel than I could possibly squeeze into a (relatively) functioning work schedule, and I wait on the edge of my seat to finally settle down and relax in Chicago. It’s the right moment, see, because while the dog days of summer and picturesque, perfect days of early fall are tantalizingly beautiful along the Chicago lakefront, they are also days of activity and adventure. You can’t slow down; I won’t slow down; not until the leaves fall. So here it is, the first day I could smell the crispness to the air, the undefinable quality that forebodes the dropping temperatures and the consequently required heavy jackets. After four years in and outside this city, it feels almost comforting to notice this change. While Chicago thrives in the summer, at its heart, it is a winter city. Many may argue against that, but genuinely, those who live here endure and make magic of these (truly) 8 months of cold weather. So much so, that it only feels right, somewhat like a homecoming, to be back among the chilly air and more brusque breezes. No one will admit to liking it; far from it. I’d rather perpetual September and October for the rest of time. But it is calming, to be on this side of things. I’m ready to slow down, embrace it, and warm up by the artificial dry heat of my antiquated radiators. This is made significantly better by a pumpkin-clove candle from Anthropologie, which is the best smelling thing to ever enter my apartment. All I need now is the return of my dachshunds.

I had intended on sharing a recipe for sweet potato ramen in a curried broth, which was excellent, innovative, and aesthetic. But, somehow, I threw out the recipe. Usually I remember a recipe well enough, but I can’t be certain in this one, and it’s worth doing right. I’ll have to repeat the process (possibly not burn my hands on the soft boiled egg next time), and share in the coming months. What I’m sharing today is, quite obviously, a remnant from my weeks doing Whole 30. The biggest problem with Whole 30 is going to Kenya immediately afterward and forgetting all of it. Problem? Maybe that’s the best thing to do. Regardless, I did eat well during that challenge, from a health and flavor standpoint, and some recipes bear posting, even outside of my current dietary restraints (of which I have none). So, without further ado, a very delicious, albeit distinctly summery, dinner.

shrimp and plantains

Spicy Shrimp with Fried Plantains and Mango Avocado Salsa

Serves 4

  • 1 lb large raw shrimp, peeled and deveined, tossed in the juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 tbsp. coconut oil
  • 1/4 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1/4 tsp red pepper flake
  • 1/8 tsp cayenne
  • 2 plantains, peeled and sliced
  • 2 tbsp. ghee
  • 2 avocado, diced
  • 2 mango, diced
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 1 lemon, juiced
  • Salt & pepper

In a mixing bowl, toss together the avocado, mango, shallot, and lemon juice, and season with salt and pepper.

In a large sauté pan, heat the coconut oil over medium heat. Add the shrimp and season with the spices above. Turn after 2-3 minutes, once the bottom side is appearing lightly pink and opaque. Cook another 2-3 minutes and remove from the pan.

In the same sauté pan, add 2 tbsp ghee over medium high heat. Add the plantains and toast for 2-4 minutes, until golden brown. Flip and cooked the alternative side. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from the pan.

Plate the shrimp and plantains with a side of the mango avocado salsa. Enjoy!