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moroccan chicken with preserved lemons and olives

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This weekend, for the first time since I was in third grade (or, if I’m being brutally honest, high school), I was in a talent show.

The performances—there were two—were held at our local theater, and as I walked round the side of the building in search of the green room (a small tent atop a patch of Astro Turf) I wasn’t sure quite what to expect. Since we moved years ago I’ve spent hours each week at the coffee shop, the brewery, and our branch of the public library. But our home has always been in the hills, and apart from the close friend whose band I was playing in I don’t socialize much in town.

When I entered the tent the show was on-screen and under way. There was a 90-year-old high school teacher playing the harmonica. There was a Hawaiian Slack-key guitarist. There was a group of 8-year-old hip-hop dancers who sustained their opening crouch for 90 seconds while the right music was found, and a man with a pony tail, his mother, and Penny the Talking Dog, who spent most of the act wandering across the stage eating pieces of salami.

It took me a few days to figure out just why I loved the talent show so much, why I took the memento picture of all the performers and knew that I would keep it. The thing is, all those people—the angsty songwriter, the tall, flustered ballroom dancers, the percussionist who flailed determinedly at his bongos in a losing battle with the beat—weren’t there because people had asked them to be, or because it was their full-time job, or even because they were particularly good at what they did. They were there because something in them—possibly the deepest, truest part—told them they had to be, that their drive to do this thing in which they felt most themselves was sacred, strong, and uncompromising. Days got long, work got hard, people moved in and out of their lives. But this thing, this thing which probably didn’t bring them money, or fame, or even anything other than a few rolled eyes and polite applause, was there, and it wouldn’t go away.

What does this have to do with Moroccan chicken with preserved lemons and olives? Probably nothing. But it has a lot to do with why I’ll keep writing this blog, in one form or another, for as long as that true something tells me to.

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Moroccan Chicken with Preserved Lemons and Olives

The following recipe was inspired by a lovely meal at my grandparents’ and is loosely adapted from Paula Wolfert’s Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco. (According to my parents the picture doesn’t do the meal justice – I seem not to have the knack for photographing stews!)

6 cloves garlic, crushed

1-inch piece of ginger, grated

1 tsp sweet paprika

1 tsp powdered cumin

ground black pepper, to taste

olive oil

4 large chicken breasts or 4-6 chicken thighs

2 large onions, chopped

2 preserved lemons, cut in quarters

4 Tbs fresh herbs like cilantro or parsley, chopped

¾ cup kalamata olives

Israeli or regular couscous, for serving

The night before you plan to serve your meal (or the morning of if, like me, you are forgetful), combine the first five ingredients with the olive oil to make a marinade. Massage onto your chicken pieces (you can cut into smaller bits, if desired) and place in a small dish. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

The next day, place the marinated chicken in a large pot and add the chopped onion and a cup of water. Bring to a boil, adding a bit more water if the sauce looks too thick, then cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Separate the pulp from the skin of the preserved lemons, roughly chop, and add both parts to the pot together with the herbs and olives. Cook until meat is tender, and serve with Israeli couscous.

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Making Preserved Lemons

Making preserved lemons takes time, but the result is truly worth the wait. My method of choice is outlined here, by Melissa Clark of the New York Times.

If you don’t have preserved lemons on hand and can’t wait to try the recipe above, never fear – Mourad Lahlou of San Francisco’s Aziza has a shortcut method in his fabulous book Mourad: New Moroccan. (Note for the Californians among us – this method is particularly rewarding with Meyer lemons). Simply slice your lemons very thinly, salt the slices, stack to re-form, wrap in cling-wrap and place in the freezer overnight. Thaw the lemons the next morning, shake off the salt, and pack the slices in a jar with olive oil to store and use.

bobotie with apricots and almonds

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January 2013 felt new. There were long days at work, but I ran a race and got my car serviced, went line dancing and knitted a scarf that only just makes it round my neck (but which, of course, I love). I played violin in a bar with a songstress friend, and cooked dinner parties out of Jerusalem and Sunday Suppers at Lucques. I got bangs. I joined instagram. I did not, however, write a blog post.

The work-play balance is a subject beyond the scope of a few paragraphs, but it’s hard to power down at the end of the week – and harder still to sink into that free time without thoughts of the books you should be reading, the current events in which you should be well-versed. I heard somewhere recently that in your twenties you aren’t particularly humble, and seen from that vantage point I don’t suppose I am – I want to work eight hours, master Keynote, pay off my loans, go for a run, cook a meal with strange ingredients, and knit my funny little scarf. That and, well, write about it.

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Unfortunately, I also want to lie in my deckchair all Saturday and do nothing. The list is there – email subjects bold and accusing, bangs swept in a headband and desperate to be trimmed – but the deckchair, the bathtub, the towel on the beach just won’t be resisted. I used to feel guilty about this urge towards nothing. Then I realized it takes a certain humility to lie in the sun without so much as a magazine in sight.

So perhaps I’m more humble – or maybe I’m just a bit more lazy. Either way, I do know that on the totem pole of To-Do’s my blog should probably come before the scarf. Just maybe not before a nice long bath.

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Bobotie with Apricots and Almonds

Yes, this is not the first bobotie recipe I’ve posted on my blog. But I present this updated, improved version for two reasons: firstly, because bobotie is my go-to comfort food in wintry moments (if relatively unknown outside of South Africa), and more importantly, because it goes wonderfully with a wine I like very much. I had lots of fun doing a wine pairing recipe for Cimarone Estate Wines last spring, so when they reached out to me about their 3CV Syrah I jumped at the chance – especially since it meant pairing an old favorite with a new one.

2 lbs ground beef

2 slices whole grain bread

1 1/3 cups milk

2 1/2 Tbs curry powder (mild curry powder is traditional, but a hot version works nicely too)

1 large onion, chopped finely

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 1-inch piece ginger, grated

1/2 tsp ground coriander

1/2 cup dried apricots, roughly chopped

1/3 cup raisins

1/2 cup slivered almonds

3 eggs

salt and pepper

rice cooked with turmeric

chutney (for serving)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. In a small bowl soak the bread in the milk until soft, then gently wring out the bread (reserving leftover milk) and crumble into a large bowl. Mix the bread with the ground meat and 2 Tbs of the curry powder.

In a large skillet or pot, saute the onions, garlic, ginger, and coriander in olive oil until translucent. Add the meat mixture and stir until the meat is nicely browned, then add the apricots, raisins, almonds, half of the reserved milk and one egg. Season with salt and pepper.

Transfer the mixture to a baking dish, then beat the remaining 2 eggs with the other half of the reserved milk and the 1/2 Tbs curry powder and pour over the top of the meat. Bake in the oven until the egg mixture on top is browned, about 30 minutes. Serve with turmeric rice and liberal amounts of chutney.

spicy chicken curry with potatoes, carrots and tomatoes

I’ve been traveling again lately, for work. I know that doesn’t begin to cover my almost two-month hiatus from posting (in all honesty, it covered 10 days), but the weeks leading up to the trip were so consumed with preparations that at the day’s end all I wanted to do was sink into the bathtub with a magazine (I’d like to say the New Yorker, but usually it was an Anthropologie catalog).

When I traveled to Ethiopia earlier this year it was with high culinary expectations: I’d read chef Marcus Samuelsson’s recommendations in Food + Wine, and researched well-known eating spots in Addis Ababa. The food was incredible—fragrant, diverse, a departure from anything I’d tasted—and I came home inspired to track down berbere and ferment my own injera. Going to Tanzania for the African Green Revolution Forum, however, my expectations were somewhat modified. Free convention buffets rarely offer fare worth paying for, and vats of food lack transcendence by definition. I was expecting good coffee (the plantations are lush and widespread) and maybe a trip to Arusha one evening for an adventurous meal.

What I wasn’t expecting, however, was to have my beliefs about food provoked in a new and challenging way. Growing up in coastal region that exalts produce, in a family for whom celebration (even of the daily sort) revolves entirely around eating, I developed strong opinions about “good” and “bad” food at a young age. “Good food” was fresh, healthy, flavorful, and home-cooked or served in restaurants that cost more than your average trip to the grocery store (notable exceptions included “hole-in-the-wall” spots or anything trendy and ethnic).  Conversely, “bad food” was processed, generic, served in restaurants with more than one branch or delivered through a window. The definitions varied slightly (my friends and I went through a mercifully short phase when all “fat” and “sugar” were bad) but the dividing lines seemed fairly straightforward.

The problem is, “good food” and “bad food” only exist in places—or for people—fortunate enough to make the distinction. On a soil-testing field trip to a small Tanzanian farm, I opened my lunchbox and my appetite fell—and then my lunch fell, pried from my hands by a band of children who snatched the warm yogurt and cold fried chicken and left me sitting in the dirt. I suppose I could have felt annoyed, or unfazed since they clearly needed lunch far more than I did, but I was surprised by a stronger, somewhat more sinister response. You didn’t really want that, a voice whispered, it wasn’t “good food” anyway. There it was, exposed in a new light: an entire life philosophy—something I thought of simplistically as “eating well”—that felt silly and selfish in a place where eating itself isn’t guaranteed.

I suppose I could have rejected everything I believe about “good food” then and there, but that didn’t seem like the answer either. And then, on the last two nights of my trip, I witnessed an appreciation of food—both its growing and its preparation—that gave me more to think about. At Gibb’s Farm—an old coffee plantation perched on the Ngorongoro Crater—they grow everything from cucumbers to cauliflower to carrots, and the food they serve is both deliciously simple and far more nuanced than anything I’ve attempted. Sunday supper was a spread of traditional curries surrounded by homemade chutneys, salads, and pickled vegetables, and the aroma of freshly baked breads and rolls filled the modest dining room. Most importantly, everything was served with genuine warmth and pride.

Leaving Tanzania, I hadn’t reached a neat conclusion about what it means to eat well in a world that defies easy answers about anything. Still, there’s one thing I’ll try not to forget: whatever or however you eat, food is a necessity, a privilege, and a joy.

Spicy Chicken Curry with Potatoes, Carrots and Tomatoes

My South African family has been making weekly curries for as long as I can remember, and I recently graduated from the Nice N’ Spicy Masala packets to seasoning mine from scratch. Feel free to experiment with different meats and vegetables, and though roasting the chicken is an extra step I find it makes the meat much tastier and easier to shred.

2 large chicken breasts, or 3-4 thighs

2 tablespoons curry powder (hot or mild)

1 tablespoon Garam Masala

1 teaspoon coriander seeds

small pinch chili flakes

2 large onions, chopped

5 cloves garlic, crushed

1-inch chunk of fresh ginger, grated

2 large carrots, sliced into rounds

5-7 small potatoes, cut into small chunks

1 small zucchini, sliced into rounds

2-3 cups cherry tomatoes, or 1 14-oz can of crushed tomatoes

fresh cilantro

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Rub the chicken with olive oil, salt and pepper and roast for 20-30 minutes, until cooked through. Cool completely, then shred meat and set aside.

Combine spices and toast until fragrant over medium heat in a large pot. Add several tablespoons olive oil, then add chopped onions, crushed garlic and ginger. Saute over medium-high heat until onions are translucent, then add carrots, potatoes and zucchini. Cook vegetables until softened, 5-10 minutes, then add shredded chicken. Add tomatoes and enough water to barely cover the vegetables with liquid, then reduce heat, cover and simmer until vegetables are cooked through (you can simmer for as long as you need – I like to keep it on the stove until the liquid has reduced and the chicken really falls apart).

Serve with chopped fresh cilantro, chutney, and rice, pita, or toast.

sautéed zucchini with cinnamon and currants

Eating seasonally is a fraught issue. Even as someone who lives within spitting distance of California’s fields and worked on a farm in one of the biggest agricultural communities in the US, I still find myself standing in a supermarket aisle realizing seasonal eating can easily fall in the “it-sounds-so-nice-but-what-does-it-mean” category.

But the last two weeks brought fresh insights, most of them born from the sweat of my mother and grandparents’ brows and my own tendency towards frugality. It’s not that I don’t love grocery shopping—one of life’s true joys–but with the rest of my family out of town (and an accidental purchase of a $17 bag of cherries from Whole Foods) I decided I was going to embark on several weeks of eating close to home.

I admit—I held off on this post for a while because the things I was eating just seemed so simple. I should get more creative, I thought, come up with something special tonight. My resolve held firm through the morning, but come 11:30 a.m. I’d be standing at the stove sautéing the same slices of zucchini, and by dinnertime I’d be wandering beer-in-hand through the garden snapping off leaves of kale to make my favorite kale slaw with our ripe avocados.

My conclusion? Eating seasonally, healthfully and startlingly cheaply really just requires three things: a bulk supply of a bountiful fruit or vegetable from your garden or nearby market, a great simple recipe (think six ingredients or less), and the willingness to enjoy (many) variations on the same meal. It may sound silly, but the prospect of dozens of zucchinis per week for the duration of the summer actually excites me to no end—I love crispy slices of spiced sautéed zucchini hot from the pan, and I’ll eat them daily much in the same way that I ate roasted cauliflower with lemon and tahini in the spring, or will eat grilled cherry tomatoes tossed with grains and salads next month. And yes, when I desperately crave cherries I won’t berate myself for indulging in a bag from the store. I’ll just check the per pound price first.

Sautéed Zucchini with Cinnamon and Currants

This recipe is endlessly adaptable – once you’ve sauteed the zucchini with the cinnamon and currants, feel free to get creative with your favorite grain. If you have good cheese like ricotta salata on hand add that in as well for a tasty lunch or summery side.

2 medium zucchinis

olive oil

cinnamon

handful currants

1 cup cooked Israeli couscous

Heat your pan over medium heat and add a good glug of olive oil. Slice the zucchini into thin ribbons and add to the hot pan, doing your best to arrange the strips so they don’t overlap. Sprinkle with salt and cinnamon.

When the first side is browned flip the zucchini piece by piece (or, if you’re lazy, just give the pan a big shake) and sprinkle with a bit more cinnamon. Cook until the other side is done, then add the currants and cooked Israeli couscous and stir fry with the zucchini for a few more minutes. Enjoy hot from the pan or cooled to room temperature.

farro, eggplant and roasted cherry tomato salad with almond pesto

It’s been a mighty month of adventuring. Eating crunchy chopped salads and crispy samosas with friends new and old in DC, gorging on cupcakes (from an ATM!) and thin crust pizza in LA… in all the whirl of work and travel the one year anniversary of Girl Farm Kitchen gently floated by.

I’m all for making the most of a moment (just ask the girl whose eye I nearly knocked out dancing to Mayer Hawthorne last night) so I felt I had to somehow mark the passing. But rather than subjecting you to a reflection of my year’s path from farm to home to inspiring new job (bonus: still living at home!), I’d like to offer something more substantial: a yearly list of favorite recipes. I’ve made all the meals below too many times to count, and for what it’s worth they have my official seal of approval. To ring in the new year, they’re followed by a summery recipe I made with fresh basil and on-hand veggies this past week.

Here’s to writing, food and favorites—old and new.

Grilled eggplant slices rolled around spicy herbed feta (warning: there are never enough).

A velvety cauliflower soup that’s healthy and simple—if you don’t count the olive oil and spices it’s just two ingredients.

A creamy, crunchy kale salad that’s on the table for every dinner party.

A hearty Tuscan stew with tomato, kale, olives and—surprise!—day-old bread.

Fresh, crusty, steaming bread with practically no effort at all. I make a loaf every two days.

I confess: humble bread pudding is my favorite dessert (substitute nectarines in this one and you have a real winner).

Farro, Eggplant and Roasted Cherry Tomato Salad with Almond Pesto

2 large handfuls basil

1 handful slivered almonds

3 cloves garlic

a generous glug of olive oil

1 1/2 cups farro

2 cups cherry tomatoes

3 japanese eggplants

2 handfuls green beans

To make the pesto, put the basil, almonds, garlic and olive oil in a blender and whir until combined but not quite pureed. The mixture should be a little bit chunky and looser than traditional pesto.

Boil a pot of salted water and cook the farro until al dente. Drain and set aside.

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees and toss the cherry tomatoes with olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast until soft, oozy and browned, about 15-20 minutes.

Slice the eggplant into rounds and saute in a heated skillet until browned. Set aside. Chop the green beans into 1-inch pieces, add more olive oil to the pan, and saute until browned as well.

Toss the cooked farro with the roasted tomatoes and the sauteed eggplant and beans. Scoop the pesto on top and toss to combine, adding a bit more olive oil if necessary. Serve warm or at room temperature (or, for round two, straight from the refrigerated tupperware).

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