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mayan spiced dark chocolate ice cream

You know it’s been a good 10 days when you’ve made five consecutive batches of ice cream and the freezer is empty.

It began with a friend in training for a half-marathon and a recipe for gorgonzola dolce ice cream with candied walnuts. Ready to indulge after our run we took to the kitchen with milk, cream, sugar, and a small but very expensive slice of cheese, only to have the base boil over during a moment of enthusiastic negligence. I should mention here that Lauren and I are optimists by trade, the kind who declare that burnt walnuts are “masked by the gorgonzola,” and ice cream that refuses to thicken “just needs another hour in the freezer.” After two hours it was still sweet, delicious sludge, but we slurped every last drop from the Tupperware in five minutes flat.

I’ve learned a few things about “optimistic cooking.” It frequently involves substitutions, additions and overhauls. It renders recipes suggestive rather than imperative (“this was supposed to be made yesterday and sit overnight? I can put it in the fridge for an hour…”) and it infuriates the precise cooks among us (“you mean you only have one tablespoon of cream cheese? This calls for three!”). The outcomes generally waver between mediocre and transcendent. In my own optimistic way I’ve come to see it as a metaphor: even when you follow a recipe to the Nth degree, sometimes it still turns out wrong. In food as in life we have no ultimate control, and that can be annoying, terrifying or the source of all our best discoveries.

So it was that I began making chocolate ice cream (“The Darkest Chocolate Ice Cream in the World,” if you must know) only to realize I didn’t have nearly enough cocoa. What I did have was a packet of Mayan cocoa, a blend of the original with chilies and cinnamon. With a small (mental) shrug I made the switch, and when I tasted the results I made a rather earth-shattering discovery—I am no longer a vanilla person. Chocolate ice cream this good necessitated a second batch, then a third. It was consumed alone (guiltily from the Tupperware) and with Lauren (from the Tupperware, but not as guiltily—oh the joys of friendship!). And it led to a small epiphany—ice cream can get you far (say, re-tweeted by your favorite celebrity) but optimism can get you farther.

Mayan Spiced Dark Chocolate Ice Cream

My favorite cookbook of last year? Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home (yes, this is probably the fourth time I’ve mentioned it). I adapted her recipe for “The Darkest Chocolate Ice Cream in the World” using Mayan spiced cocoa, but you can use good quality unsweetened cocoa with cinnamon and cayenne or ground Mexican chiles. And in case you’re wondering where that beautiful slab of chocolate comes from… Trufflehound’s in Ventura is my new favorite spot!

For the chocolate syrup:

1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1/4 cup Mayan cocoa powder (unsweetened cocoa plus a teaspoon of cinnamon and cayenne or chile powder to taste)

1/2 cup brewed coffee

1/2 cup brown sugar

1 1/2 ounces dark chocolate (I like 70-85%)

3 Tbsp. cream cheese. softened

For the ice cream base:

1 Tbsp. plus 1 tsp. cornstarch

2 cups milk

1 cup heavy cream

pinch of salt

1/3 cup brown sugar

To make the chocolate syrup, combine the regular cocoa powder, Mayan cocoa powder,  brewed coffee and brown sugar. Bring to a boil over medium heat and boil for 30 seconds, stirring frequently until thick. Turn off heat and break the chocolate into the sauce, letting the pieces sit for a minute or so until they melt. Whisk the sauce until smooth. Pour into a large bowl and add the cream cheese, stirring until completely combined.

To make the ice cream base, dissolve the cornstarch in 2 tablespoons of milk in a small bowl. Combine the milk, cream, salt and brown sugar in a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. When the mixture begins to bubble, set a timing for four minutes and simmer while stirring to prevent the base from boiling over. After four minutes turn off the heat and add the cornstarch, then return to a boil for one minute more. Pour the hot milk mixture into the bowl with the chocolate syrup and whisk to combine.

Chill the ice cream base until completely cold, then freeze in your ice cream maker. Store in the freezer, and beware of cracking the bottom of the Tupperware as you dig for the last few bites.

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).

coconut granola cookies with toasted nuts

I’ve always liked the phrase creature of habit. Something about it conjures an image akin to a Beatrix Potter sketch, with a pleasantly chubby rabbit or beaver (dressed in an apron, of course) boiling a kettle in some snug underground kitchen.  I experienced the same pang of fellow feeling with hobbits when I read J. R. R. Tolkien—I too enjoy “elevensies” between breakfast and lunch, I too nestle close to home and cast a beady, suspicious eye on those who spurn routine. I guard my habits with fierceness and delight; the warm and soft-furred can have sharp little teeth.

I’ve been thinking about food habits lately because I suspect they are one of my long-term sources of happiness. Boyfriends come and go, I’ve lived on 12 square feet and 24 acres, but I always have mint chip ice cream at the harbor, Bolognese at the local trattoria, artichokes on my pizza. I stick with the same breakfast cereal for months, sometimes years. I can eat a giant pot of mole for days on end. For several months I religiously ate raw purple cabbage, relishing the spicy sweetness and the fact that no one stole it from the fridge.

Of course habits can have a nasty side when–God forbid–there’s no milk in the fridge at 6:30 a.m. A particularly low point came when I found myself sobbing into my cell phone next to an uncooperative ATM, 15 minutes late for class and unable to buy the jasmine honey bubble tea I looked forward to every Tuesday night. “Can you please bring me some cash right now?” I choked between tears, eyeing the bills someone was stuffing into their wallet next to me. I have only myself to blame that the bubble tea habit outlasted that relationship.

In the end, habits are like food—they’re meant to be savored, not idealized. There’s substantial, everyday pleasure to be had in a favorite dish, a Saturday morning café au lait, a daily “elevensies,” even if it’s just almonds. I feel a reliable surge of happiness just thinking about my morning bowl of cereal. Maybe, I think, this afternoon I’ll bake something new. Or maybe I’ll just make another batch of these.

Coconut Granola Cookies with Toasted Nuts

These cookies were inspired by my all-time favorite granola, a childhood treat from the Zinc Cafe in Laguna Beach.

1/3 cup shredded coconut

1/3 cup slivered almonds

1/3 cup pecan halves

1/2 cup coconut oil

1/2 cup brown sugar

2 eggs

1 tsp. vanilla

3/4 cup flour

1/2 tsp. baking soda

1/2 tsp. salt

1 Tbsp. orange zest

1 1/2 cups oats

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the shredded coconut, slivered almonds and pecan halves on a baking tray and toast until brown, a couple of minutes for the coconut and several more for the nuts. Set aside to cool.

In the meantime, beat together the coconut oil and brown sugar, then add the egg and vanilla. Mix the flour with the baking soda and salt and stir into wet mixture. Add the oats and orange zest, then gently mix in the toasted coconut and nuts.

Place balls of mix on a cookie sheet and flatten slightly, then bake at 350 degrees until cookies are golden but still chewy, about 10 minutes. Cool and enjoy!

papaya lime smoothie with watermelon

I was married after dinner on Monday night. The veil was cotton and gauzy, my wedding dress an embroidered velvet cloak. My groom–a nervous Chinese tourist–sweated next to me as dancers pounded the stage in front of us, and when the musical number drew to a close I was paraded around the room–on piggy-back no less–by my new husband’s best man. What can I say? At least the food was good.

Getting roped into a comedic mock-wedding at an Addis Ababa restaurant was one of many adventures I had in Ethiopia, a country I found myself exploring just 10 days after starting my new job. I saw Lammergeiers and endemic wolves. I careened around a city with lovely roads but no traffic lights (they really do matter). I drank coffee so strong it challenged my high tolerance for bitterness, honed by a love of 90% dark chocolate. And I ate many, many rolls of injera.

With the texture of a spongy crepe and the taste of strong sourdough, injera functions as staple food and utensil alike. Enormous platters of the fermented bread arrive topped with meats, vegetables and rich sauces, and when your injera rolls are done you proceed directly to the saturated remains that constitute your plate. Ethiopians possess a strong cultural identity–every driver listens to his cassette of wailing songs, every conversation is carried on in streams of Amharic, every restaurant serves injera. Addis Ababa is frenetic, a maze of concrete construction and “shortcut” alleys our taxi could barely squeeze through without running over someone’s pet (or dinner, if you happen to like lamb). But out in the countryside, where rare birds alight on telephone poles and the mountains break onto vistas of the fertile valleys below, it is easy to see what Ethiopians are proud of.

Ethiopian cuisine is a worthy source of pride too: evenings I ate my injera with relish, and breakfasts were just as much an occasion to anticipate. Enormous pitchers of freshly blended “mixed fruits juice” sat on the table, and once home I was determined to recreate the blend of tropical fruit, its sweetness cut with lime. You can add or subtract to my recipe as you wish, and though I always considered myself a frozen smoothie sort of person–I enjoy a good brain freeze on a summer day–I actually like having this at room temperature. It may take me awhile to master injera (tracking down teff flour alone can be a challenge) but now I can bring at least a bit of culinary Ethiopia into my kitchen at home.

Papaya Lime Smoothie with Watermelon

1/2 ripe papaya

5 large cubes watermelon

juice of 1 small lime

1/4 cup water

Add the fruit and lime juice to a blender and blend well, then add water bit by bit to thin to your desired consistency and enjoy!

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