Garnet Pilaf

garnet pilaf-2In the spirit of the New Year and the reflection that goes along with it, I was going to tell you about everything I learned last year. I composed the entire post, read it, reread it, read it again, and deleted it. It was contrived, not real. And if I learned one thing last year, it’s the importance of telling a raw honesty, of opening your heart, of letting yourself be vulnerable. This year, my goal – resolution if you will – is to implement what was learned last year. To express without a filter. To share without fear. To walk through each day with a love so powerful that the brick wall of vulnerability has carved in to it a gate. Lofty, indeed, but lofty goal and big dreams are what let the mad world spin on so to speak.

Enough about New Year’s and on to this dish, which I made way back in June. Yes, I know that was over half a year ago. I’ll spare you the reason behind its delay and instead just reassure you that the lag in posting is in no way a reflection of its deliciousness. No, no. When my family sat down to a beautiful early summer meal on our back porch, we all agreed that this dish was a winner. Whole foods – sweet potatoes, brown rice, quinoa – make it an appealing dish to the health nut (mom cough cough). The variety of flavor though – sweetness from the potatoes, spice from the paprika, tartness from the vinegar – lend itself to the palette of a health averse, taste aficionado (dad cough cough). Just try it. Trust me.

Garnet Pilaf

adapted (barely) from the Sprouted Kitchen

1/2 cup brown rice

2 sweet potatoes (about 1.5 lbs)

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided

1 tablespoon smoked paprika, divided

Sea salt and pepper, to taste

1/2 cup onion (yellow or red), diced

1/2 cup red quinoa, rinsed

1 cup water or broth of choice

2 tablespoons red wine or sherry vinegar

Red chili flakes (optional)

1/3 cup fresh chives, chopped

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Rinse and cook the brown rice according to instructions. This takes the longest, so start the rice first.

Wash and dice the sweet potatoes into 1 inch cubes. Pile them on a large, rimmed baking sheet, drizzle with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and sprinkle with 1/2 tablespoon of the smoked paprika, sea salt, and pepper. Toss everything together with your hands to coat and spread them out in a single layer. Roast on the middle rack for 20-25 minutes until the edges are browned and crisp .

In a pot, add a drizzle of olive oil and saute the diced onion until just starting to brown, about 5 minutes. Add the quinoa, a pinch of sea salt, water or broth of choice and bring it to a boil. Turn it down to a simmer, cover and cook for about 15-17 minutes until the liquid is absorbed. Turn off the heat, fluff with a fork and cover it for another few minutes to finish.

When both the rice and quinoa are cooked, put them both in a large mixing bowl. Drizzle with the remaining tablespoon olive oil, remaining 1/2 tablespoon smoked paprika, red wine vinegar, and chili flakes. Toss everything together to mix. Taste for salt and pepper adding more if necessary. Top with the cubes of sweet potatoes and  fresh chives. Serve. (If everything is not piping hot at this point that’s ok. The dish is delicious slightly warmer than room temperature and equally good cold the next day.)


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“To Check Out” List 3


My mind has been doing a lot of wandering as of late. Here are some of the places its meandered through:

Beef heart

– W. Kamau Bell here on race and here just being generally hilarious

– Six Grammy nomination for Frank Ocean and five for the Black Keys

– Danny Bowien is the man I want to marry. Here’s why.

– Where to drink Chicagoans!

25 Handy Words that Simply Don’t Exist in English 

The Underground Library (for book lovers and the generally nosy)

National Geographic Photo Contest winners (Even though it didn’t win, I liked this one.)

– Of course, I’m listening to this. But also digging this.

Edzo’s migrates into the Chi!

The Food at Our Feet

Free Cabin Porn

Alejandro Cartagena 

Lead Photo: The flowers I bought myself. My apartment, Chicago, IL.

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Houska and/or Vanocka


I had a short phase in my awkward middle school days when I proclaimed a deep hatred for the holidays. They were, in my sophisticated 12 year old mind, much ado about nothing. Sometime mid-high school I saw the folly of my ways and converted back into a holiday lover. Minus the last minute gift shopping and the month long, stress induced head ache, what’s not to love?

Several weeks ago I read a short vignette by Anna Quindlen. In the vignette, she describes how she found one of her best teachers on the boardwalk of Coney Island. When she asks him why he doesn’t find a shelter or check into a hospital for detox, he responds, “Look at the view, young lady. Look at the view.” I’ve been trying to stop and look at the view more often. When I do, what I see is heartening. Just this past weekend, in the middle of dinner with friends, I stopped shoving fish tacos down my mouth for a minute, sat back, and really opened my eyes. I saw me – blessed with good fortune and a pinch of innate drive – in a warm room, in my favorite city, surrounded by smiling, laughing friends. It’s hard to describe the beauty of life in a few short words, but perhaps that’s where its greatness lies. When you see life’s beauty, you don’t need to explain it. Your heart knows.


While we should soak up this beauty every time of the year, for some reason the holidays are one of the few moments most people actually stop to appreciate it. I think its the tradition. It grounds us, comforts us, brings us together. In my family, Christmas traditions are plentiful, but, of course, my favorites involve food. Christmas food in my family means a lot of things, among them, houska. Every year my grandma and uncle venture to Berwyn to pick up our supply of houska, a yeasted Czech bread filled with raisins and topped with almonds. This year, I was determined to make it. Yes, I would brave my fear of yeast and make houska. Watch me. Just watch.

My mom always tells me, when I put my mind to something, I do it. So, I put my mind to making houska. Knowing I might need some moral and kneading support, I recruited Kent to help me. Kent, who I met freshman year of high school and who hasn’t been able to shake me yet, and his family are, like mine, Czech. They eat liver dumpling soup, kolacky, and fruit dumplings. Most importantly, they eat houska, although they know it as vanocka. (I’ve done some research and it seems like vanocka is the preferred term, while houska is a regional term for the same thing. Although, there’s quite a bit of internet debate about the terminology.)

Regardless, houska, vanucka, or just really good bread, was made and eaten yesterday in keeping with the Czech traditions our families hold near and dear. Kneading, braiding, then baking. It was one of those “take a look at the view” moments. You know what I mean.

houska.4Houska and/or Vanucka

from Midwest Living, December 1988 (aka my Grandma)

This houska was more dense than the kind my family gets from the bakery. Kent said his family’s is normally dense like this version though. Who knows? Be sure your yeast is nice and bubbly before using it and don’t skimp out on the rising time. (We missed some of the rising time, which might be cause for the density too. A repeat will be attempted as soon as this loaf disappears for texture experimenting purposes.) I like serving my houska toasted with apple butter or raspberry jam. Just saying.

Makes 1 braid

1 package active dry yeast

1/4 cup warm water (105 to 115 degrees)

1/2 cup sugar

1/4 cup butter

2 teaspoons salt

2 eggs

5 1/2 to 6 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup warm milk (105 to 115 degrees)

1 teaspoon finely shredded lemon peel

1/4 teaspoon ground mace

1 cup light raisins

1/2 cup chopped nuts

1 beaten egg yolk

Add yeast to warm water and stir until yeast has dissolved. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside for 10 minutes. Yeast should be bubbly.

Meanwhile, in a mixer bowl, beat together sugar, butter, and salt. Add eggs and beat well. Beat in 1 cup of the flour. In a separate bowl, combine milk, peel, mace, and yeast mixture. Beat into flour mixture. Stir in as much remaining flour as you can with a spoon. Stir in raisins and nuts.

Turn out onto floured surface. If all the flour has not been used, knead in the remaining amount to make a moderately soft dough that’s smooth and elastic (3 to 5 minutes total). Place in a lightly greased bowl; turn once to grease surface. Cover; let rise in warm place till double, about 1 1/2 hours.

Punch the dough down; divide in half. Divide 1 portion of dough into fourths for the bottom braid; cover and let rest for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, divide the remaining bread dough into 5 portions for the other 2 layers of the dough. Cover those portions and set aside.

On a lightly floured surface, form each of the first 4 portions into 16-inch-long ropes. On a greased baking sheet, arrange the 4 ropes, 1 inch apart. Overlap the center 2 ropes to form an X. Take the outside left rope and cross over the closest middle rope. Then, take the outside right rope and cross under the closest middle rope. Form an X with the 2 new center ropes. Repeat braiding until you reach the end. Pinch ends together; tuck under. Turn baking sheet and braid on opposite end. Gently pull width of braid out slightly.

Form remaining 5 portions into 16 inch long ropes. Braid 3 of the ropes together. Brush the 4 strand braid with water and center the second braid on top; gently pull width of top braid out.

Twist the remaining 2 strands of dough together. Brush the top braid with water; place the twist on top of the second braid. Cover the shaped dough and let rise till nearly double.

Brush surface of the shaped dough with egg yolk. Bake in 350 degree oven for 35 to 40 minutes. Cover the loaf with foil during the last 10 minutes of baking. Remove from the baking sheet and cool on a wire rack.


Filed under Breads, Breakfast and Brunch

Ginger Scones


I know what you’re thinking: “Jess, you’ve been missing from the blogosphere for almost 3months and now you’re back with another scone recipe. Another. This is like scone recipe number 3. Give us something new.” This isn’t like scone recipe number 3, it is scone recipe number 3. Clearly, I like scones. Love may actually be a more appropriate verb. Love. Yes, love.

While you’re getting a recipe here, I’m not quite sure how to give you the rest of a post. It has been too long, but at the same time, not quite long enough. A summary would be insufficient. A novella would be boring. So I’ll spare you feelings of incompleteness and utter disinterest. Instead, since I’m already talking about love, I’ll share with you my new one(s).

Since mid October I have felt in control. I have even had rare flashes of that power trippy, take on the world feeling. Then this week came and with it, I hit a wall. Not just any wall. No, no. A giant, brick, I-am-guarding-a-fortress wall a la that in the Battle for Helms Deep.  Thursday morning I lay in bed hitting snooze one time, two times, three times…asking myself just as many times if I had to get up. This was, of course, not the first time this question had run through my head since August, but it was the first time I couldn’t shake it. Even as I went through the motions of getting ready for the day, the feel stayed.


Like a curtain call, I played on repeat the names and images of my students. That feeling, the one that made me want to curl up in my blankets and never leave, began to disappear. Love, as cheesy as it sounds (because let’s be real, it sounds cheesy) won out.

I have 18 new loves. They drive me up a wall sometimes, but they also drive me to be a better version of myself. And at the end of the day, the people you love should push you, challenge you, force you one step closer to being that person you aspire to become. So to my students, thank you. I love you.

Ginger Scones

adapted from A Taste of Heaven

If you’re not a huge ginger fan, I think you’re crazy, but you’re in luck. Just omit the ground ginger and substitute a cup of your favorite dried, frozen, or fresh fruit or chocolate chips for the crystalized ginger. If you use frozen fruit, the dough will become stiff. You’ll have to knead the fruit into the dough for several minutes.

Egg whites will give the scones a pretty, shiny outer layer. In terms of flavor though, they don’t have an effect, which is why I said they were optional below. If you’re making these for guests, use them to make the scones more elegant. If you’re making them for yourself, I wouldn’t bother.

Makes about 14 scones

3 cups flour (use Gold Medal Unbleached)

1/2 cup sugar

4 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon salt

10 tablespoons unsalted butter, very cold, cut into pieces (I usually put mine in the freezer 15 minutes before I use it)

2 teaspoons vanilla

1 1/4 cup buttermilk

2 egg whites, lightly beaten (optional)

1 cup crystalized ginger, coarsely chopped

In a large bowl, whisk all the dry ingredients together. Cut the butter into the dry ingredients using your finger tips until the mixture resembles corn meal. You should still see some tiny chunks of butter though. (This can also be done in the bowl of a food processor instead. That means more dishes though…).

Stir the vanilla and buttermilk together in a measuring cup.  Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients. Pour the vanilla buttermilk combination into the center of the dry ingredients. Using your hands or a spatula, fold the dry ingredients into the wet, just until the dough forms a ball. The dough will be sticky. Stir in the crystalized ginger using a spatula or wooden spoon.

Grease a baking sheet with butter. Using a small ice-cream scoop or a tablespoon, scoop the dough into 2-inch balls and place them on the greased baking sheet about 3 inches apart. Don’t worry about them being perfectly round. Place the baking sheet in the freezer, until the dough is at least firm to the touch, about 1 hour.

If you want to bake the scones at that time, pre-heat oven to 350 degrees for 10 minutes. Brush the frozen scones with the egg whites, if using, then place the scones on a middle rack. Bake for about 25-30 minutes, or until just beginning to brown. If you do not want to bake the scones yet, place the dough balls in a plastic ziplock bag and keep frozen until you’re ready to use them. Bake using the instructions as above.


Filed under Appetizers and Snacks, Breakfast and Brunch, Grains

Homemade Ricotta Cheese

Sometimes I fall into a funk of complaining. My job is so hard. I have no clue what I’m doing with my life. Etc, etc, etc. It is at these moments that I need a subtle reminder of just how beautiful the people who surround me really are. Just how lucky I am. Tonight was one of those reminders. Nothing spectacular. A friend’s concert. Catching up. Drinks. That’s just it though, beauty lies in the commonplace, but in the commonplace it also all too often hides. Thank you to my friends and family whose encouraging words, whose endless supports, whose comforting hugs have become so commonplace I forget they are a luxury not everyone is privy to. Thank you. Times one million. Thank you.

This has little to do with my cheese here, unless you count me owing a huge thank you to Nancy Silverton, author of this recipe, for opening my eyes to the world of homemade ricotta. Clearly my jumping from one idea to the next in this post proves my thoughts are a muddled mess, with one notable exception…my thoughts about this cheese. Let me tell you what I thought: Making cheese would be hard. Now let me tell you what I found out: It’s not. In fact, it’s so easy and so full of flavor, I have no intention of ever buying ricotta at the store again. It’s a waste of my money. Really. A gigantic waste. So, here’s to friends, family, and homemade cheese. Forever.

Homemade Ricotta Cheese

from the Mozza Cookbook

Combine 4 cups whole milk, 1 cup cream, 1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt, and 2 tablespoons lemon juice in a saucepan and bring just to a boil without stirring. Immediately remove pan from heat.

Let mixture stand for 15 minutes at room temperature. As time passes, the curds will begin to separate from the whey. If only a few curds form, your lemon may not be acidic enough; add another 1 Tbsp. lemon juice, gently stir so you don’t break up the curds too much, and let stand for 5 minutes more.

Using a large spoon (not slotted) or measuring cup, spoon curds into a cheesecloth-lined sieve set over a large bowl. At this point, transfer cheese to an airtight container or continue draining in the refrigerator. (I tied my cheesecloth to a chopstick and set it over a cup to continue draining. While this is not necessary, I found that the cheese that I continued to drain in the refrigerator was much more flavorful and dense than the cheese I immediately transfered to an airtight container. Take your pick.)

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Whole Wheat Banana Walnut Pancakes

It has been exactly one month since my last post. That’s bad. Really bad. It means, clearly, that life (aka teaching) has taken over. But it also means that I, as usual, have let myself become ensnared in it. Let me catch you up on the trap I’ve fallen into. In the past month I have: signed a lease for an apartment, bought a new car, started working at a CPS turnaround school. Done. Trapped. But are we ever not?

Given that teaching has filled every cell of my body every minute of my day, I have done a lot of thinking around the theme. Teach for America is often condemned for sending unprepared recent college graduates into beyond challenging classrooms. Legitimate. I feel unprepared. That being said, so do some of my co-workers who have been teaching for years. Perhaps that’s because my school, being a turnaround, has an entirely new staff. Even those teachers with a couple years under their belts are new to this school. Or perhaps that’s because you’re never really one hundred percent prepared for that group of kids sitting in front of you, letting you shape their lives. I don’t know. I just don’t.

I don’t know that it’s possible to train young people for five weeks, throw them into a classroom, and expect incredible growth among their students year one. I don’t know that Teach for America expects that. I don’t know if there’s a better way to help our self-destructing education system either.

What I do know is this, no ever told me about that sinking feeling in your stomach when you realize just how far behind your students are. When you realize that you have to teach a nine year old the sound the letter “u” makes. When you realize what that means about their past education and their future dreams. No ever told me. Or they did and I just didn’t listen. Because lets be real, that reality doesn’t sink in until   your classroom is filled with these kids, your students, who you are tasked with educating. It’s then that you can’t help but wonder if it’s possible to achieve what really needs to be done, not to get ahead, but to catch up. It’s then that things get real. Way too real.

All that I just sputtered out is what has kept me away from the kitchen. But no more. Tomorrow is my mom’s birthday. I’m making Busy Day Cake. I have figs waiting to be broiled (and topped with ricotta and honey…). I have broccoli waiting to be sauteed. Goodbye granola bars. Hello real food.

I’d ramble on about these pancakes, just like I did about teaching, but it’s not necessary. I already know what I think about these pancakes. They’re my new favorites. Hands down. Winner.

Whole Wheat Banana Walnut Pancakes

from Joy the Baker

1 1/4 cup whole wheat flour

1/3 cup cornmeal

1 tablespoon sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

2 large eggs, separated

1/4 cup vegetable oil, plus additional for brushing the skillet

1 1/2 cup whole milk, plus additional if needed

1 ripe banana, diced or mashed

1/4 cup walnuts, chopped

Maple syrup, for serving

Whisk together flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large bowl  Whisk together yolks, oil and 1 1/2 cups milk in another bowl and add to the flour mixture, whisking until smooth.  Let batter stand for 5 minutes to allow flour to absorb liquid (batter will thicken).

If batter is too thick to fall easily from a spoon, stir in 1 to 2 tablespoons additional milk.

Fold in banana and walnuts.

Beat egg whites in a large bowl with an electric mixer at moderately high speed until they just hold stiff peaks.  With a whisk, gently but thoroughly fold into batter.

Brush a griddle or 12-inch nonstick skillet with oil and heat over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking.  Reduce heat to moderate.  Working in batches of 4, spoon 2 tablespoons batter per pancake into a hot skillet, spreading it if necessary to form 3- 3 1/2 inch rounds.  Cook pancakes until bubbles appear on surface, edges are set and undersides are golden, 45 seconds to 1 minute.  Flip pancakes with a metal spatula and cook until undersides are golden and pancakes are cooked through.  Lower heat if pancakes brown too quickly and insides aren’t set.  Transfer pancakes to plate and serve with maple syrup.  Brush griddle with more oil between batches.

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Zucchini Bread

Good, old fashioned, traditional banana bread holds a place near and dear to my heart. Despite my (delicious) attempts to put a “new spin” on it, I hold zero qualms with baking up a batch of the sugar loaded quick bread. And, when left with overripe bananas, that is typically precisely what I do. On those rare occasions that I veer from my standby recipe, I am left with a feeling of guilt, like I’ve stood up an old friend to go hang out with the new, cool kid. Lets be real though, tomorrow I’ll be eating lunch with my said friend again.

Perhaps it is because I never ate it as a child, but zucchini bread does not require the same devotion to tradition that its banana counterpart does. So, when I put zucchini bread on my “to cook this summer” list (3 down, 18 to go…), I did not even ponder a “normal” recipe. Instead I began scouring the internet. My search quickly resulted in several potential options, but noneseemed quite right. But then, I found it. Folks, I had a winner. You can thank Heidi at 101 cookbooks. Then you can thank me for finding it, baking it, and sharing it. I’ll say you’re welcome in advance.

Heidi’s zucchini bread, appropriately titled “My Special Zucchini Bread”, is just that. The bread, while still perhaps truly a cake, is not saturated with the butter and sugar that, all too often, are added in astounding quantities to cover up a lack of true flavor. That means the remaining ingredients—which include not only a whole three cups (!) of shredded zucchini, but also walnuts, poppy seeds, and crystallized sugar—can shine. Texture, in addition to flavor, goes above and beyond here. Who, after all, doesn’t love the light snap of poppy seeds? What about the substantial crunch of walnuts? Or the subtle chew of crystallized ginger? You get the point.

Zucchini Bread

from 101 cookbooks

My Dad and I both agreed, this bread was better the next day. Hot out of the oven, it was delightful, but the ginger flavor was a little too overpowering. By the next morning though the flavors had melded perfectly making the bread at once nutty, spiced, and sweet. If you absolutely cannot wait, consider adding a little less ginger.

Makes 2 loaves

1 1/2 cups chopped walnuts

1/3 cup poppy seeds (optional)

Zest of two lemons (optional)

1/2 cup crystallized ginger, finely chopped (optional)

1/2 cup unsalted butter

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup brown sugar, lightly packed

3 large eggs

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

3 cups grated zucchini (about 3 medium), skins on, squeeze some of the moisture out and then fluff it up again before using

3 cups whole wheat pastry or all-purpose flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cinnamon

Preheat your oven to 350°F. Butter the two loaf pans, dust them with a bit of flour and set aside. Alternately, you can line the pans with a sheet of parchment. If you leave a couple inches hanging over the pan, it makes for easy removal after baking. Just grab the parchment “handles” and lift the zucchini bread right out.

In a small bowl combine the walnuts, poppy seeds, lemon zest, and ginger. Set aside.

In a mixer, beat the butter until fluffy. Add the sugars and beat again until mixture comes together and is no longer crumbly. Add the eggs one at a time mixing well and scraping down the sides of the bowl between each addition. Stir in the vanilla and then the zucchini (low speed if you are using a mixer).

In a separate bowl, combine the whole wheat pastry flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon. Add these dry ingredients to the wet ingredients in two batches, stirring between each addition.

By hand, fold in the walnut, poppy seed, lemon zest, and crystalized ginger mixture.  Avoid over mixing the batter, it should be thick and moist.

Divide the batter equally between the two loaf pans. Make sure it is level in the pans by running a spatula over the top of each loaf. Bake for about 40-45 minutes on a middle oven rack. Keep in mind it will continue to cook even after it is removed from the oven as it is cooling. (This means you might want to under cook it just ever so slightly!) Remove from the oven and cool the zucchini bread in pans for about 10 minutes. Turn out onto wire racks to finish cooling. If you leave them in their pans, they will get sweaty and moist (not in a good way) as they cool.

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