Birthday Paella – 26/67

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This recipe, the one you are about to read about and hopefully make, is the dinner I’d request on my birthday growing up. It had all the umami, a blanket of carbs, and my favorite psuedo-vegetables: artichokes hearts and olives. It was warm and comforting — perfect for late August! (I joke.) My “favorite food” as I was growing up always shifted with the day and age, but I know for a while there I said paella. 

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Daniel and I went to Barcelona together last week for an impromptu adventure. And! we did not try! any! paella! Gasp! My middle school self would be disappointed. (One reason we didn’t have paella was that as we looked at menus, many had the symbol for “contains tree nuts”. I got nervous and decided perhaps we should just avoid it. My guess is that many use romesco sauce as a base, which contains almonds? Happy that menus used that notation, not happy that it kept me away from trying this. Oh well, I am alive and didn’t need to find a hospital in Spain. Who gets travelers insurance anyway.) However! We did have fideua, which is a coastal paella variation that uses small broken toasted spaghetti instead of the traditional rice.

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It was covered with fresh seafood, served with a side of aioli, and hella good. I do not regret our paella-esque choices in Barcelona.

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I think I’ve had real paella exactly one time, at Boqueria in NYC. Which is, not coincidentally, where we got engaged, but this was a different evening. We had just eaten our weight in amazing tapas when they brought out our paella. It was… okay. They took the whole crispy-bottom thing to a next level, and it was kinda dry and almost charred. Disappointing. 

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This is a long way to say, we made my mom’s birthday-requested paella for dinner recently. I was skeptical of its short ingredient list (no saffron, just turmeric for seasoning, no hours-long cooked sofrito, no acid). And yet! A really delicious, balanced, well-seasoned dinner. The rice on the bottom gets sticky and a little charred and so flavorful. The whole thing is incredibly flexible and adaptable.  Perhaps I’ve just been on team inauthentic paella this whole time. 

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Some notes on the ingredients, namely vegan sausage: I hate it. The brand we got was just… very hard to swallow. I’d try with a different kind next time, or just add a little smoked paprika and forego the sausage all together. Growing up we used a weird kosher sausage that I would also pick around. But I do remember chicken sausage being a good thing, so maybe that’s the way to go here. Sausage as you will. Also, I didn’t see sausage in any of the paellas in Spain. Most had seafood, or maybe rabbit or another gamey meat. Some had veggies, most didn’t seem to. So, if you like cooking with mussels and venison, try it out, why not. Also, there is no need to use the chicken here. Could definitely do more sweet potatoes, carrots, peppers, and peas and make this totally vegan. 

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some recipes to revisit from the blog from autumns of years past:
garlicky eggplant and cubanelle pepper stir-fry
winter squash and quinoa stuffed poblano peppers
blueberry lemon ginger celebration cake
warm apples over ice cream
kabocha, caramelized onion, and ricotta toasts <– this is on my must make again soon list

Birthday Paella 

adapted from my mom!

olive oil
3 bone-in chicken thighs (original recipe called for 6, but we added extra veggies instead)
2 sausages, vegan or otherwise, thick slices
2ish small sweet potatoes, scrubbed and in big chunks (optional)
1 onion, chopped small
1 bell pepper (green or red), chopped small
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
¾ cup rice (we used Arborio)
½ teaspoon turmeric
2 teaspoons Bouillion powder
handful baby carrots (or regular carrots cut into batons)
2 cups hot water (or broth) (a little more if more rice)
half a bag frozen peas
small jar artichoke hearts
½ can black olives
½ can roasted piquillo peppers, sliced
small handful cherries tomatoes, halved
1 lemon, to serve

In a big skillet for which you have a lid, heat up a bit of olive oil. Brown the chicken and sausage for a few minutes, then remove to a plate and set aside. 

If using sweet potato, put chunks in a microwavable bowl with a bit of water. Microwave for two minutes, or until potatoes are starting to soften. Drain and set aside. 

Return skillet to heat and add a bit more oil if it’s looking dry. Cook onion, bell pepper, and garlic with a sprinkle of salt for 5ish minutes, or until all start to brown and soften. Add the raw rice, turmeric, and bouillon powder and cook for another minute or so, stirring frequently. 

Level the rice out. Put carrots and sweet potatoes atop rice. Then arrange chicken and sausage on top. Cover with hot water and bring to a boil. Don’t stir! Cover with a lid, turn heat to low, and simmer for twenty minutes.

Sprinkle peas evenly around the skillet. Arrange artichoke hearts, olives, roasted peppers, and tomatoes over the top. Cover with lid and simmer for another twenty minutes. Serve with lemon slices.  

 

Zucchini Bread – 22/67

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I just had a major milestone birthday, and I have to say, I’m feeling pretty darn good about it. I am finally, for the first time, in the same decade as my husband. I am finally the age that all the cool women who have their shit figured out seem to be. I realize I have been saying I’m “almost 30” for the past three years. It’s about time this happened, right?

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I wonder if this mindset is because I will always be that much younger than Daniel. I will always be the young one in our relationship, and also in our group of friends. I also remain the youngest person in my office by some years. So although I am excited about hitting this milestone, I’m also aware that I’m still relatively young, and that won’t be changing anytime soon. Phew. 

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So while the Amazon burned and people lost their minds over a fast food fried chicken sandwich, I slipped into the next decade. There were midnight nachos, the most perfect yoga class, and a dinner in which I got to accidentally-eavesdrop on the other Ilana (squee!). This weekend there was perfect cake, drinks galore, crab rolls, karaoke, and dancing. Dear friends, delicious food, and cooperative weather. If this is 30, then I am very very happy about 30. 

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I made this zucchini bread a couple weeks ago, as part of a thank you brunch I threw at my home for my camp staff. What a way to feel like a grown-up, welcoming the younger counselors who think of me as their boss. (I mean, I am their boss, but they feel more like friends than anything else!) In this decade, I’ll welcome these moments, when I get to embrace leadership, create community, and open my home to others. The 30s are going to be the beeeeest!

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And this zucchini bread is hella good too. Thanks for the recipe, Katherine! 

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no previous years, but looking to use up your end-of-summer zucchini? May I recommend, from the archives: veggie curry, zoodle latkes, or easy garlicky tomato zoodles

Feel Like an Adult Zucchini Bread

thanks to my friend Katherine for the recipe!

3 eggs
1 cup olive or vegetable oil
1 ¾ cup sugar
2 cups grated zucchini
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 cups flour (I ran out so used about 1 cup regular flour, 1 cup whole wheat, and 1 cup bread flour. It was still delicious)
1 tablespoon cinnamon
⅛ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
Optional mix ins: chocolate chips, raisins, dried cranberries, nuts (I did mini chocolate chips in the muffins but kept the loaf plain)

Preheat oven to 350F. Grease 2 loaf pans or line 24 muffin cups with liners (I did one big loaf pan and 6 muffins)

In a large bowl, beat eggs with a whisk or fork. Whisk in oil and sugar til incorporated. Add zucchini and vanilla. 

In a separate bowl, mix together flour(s), cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and any mix-ins. Add this combo to the zucchini bowl and mix until just combined. 

Divide batter into pans. Bake for at least 60 minutes (took me a little longer), or until a tester in the center comes out clean. Muffins will cook more quickly — start checking at 25 minutes. Let cool in tins. Leftovers stayed moist for daaaays. 

 

Key Lime Pie with Salty Cracker Crust

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Real life interference: I meant to post this recipe in mid-October, right after Daniel’s birthday. But then a Malta conference happened, a trip to Japan was embarked upon, a crazy man was elected president of my country, and I was eyebrows deep in a directing project until last week. So, big sigh, things will continue to keep spinning (sometimes out of control) and I’m still trying to figure out what this crazy man means for the future of my country, my loved ones, and myself. But hey, we can still eat pie. And so, a post.

Growing up, birthdays meant chocolate. In the form of cake, frosting, ice cream, or all of the above. A birthday was only successful if it had sticky fingers and smudgy cheeks. I remember when I switched to vanilla frosting atop my chocolate cake — the horror! I had betrayed my chocolate brethren. And to this day, for me, a birthday must have a modicum of chocolate to be considered successful — perhaps this is just a hot fudge drizzle or one bite of dark chocolate bar — but it’s still lurking. Birthday = chocolate. Simple math.

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Daniel, on the other hand, can’t seem to care less about chocolate. We obviously don’t interpret math the same way. I have made him an orange caramel birthday cake and a blueberry lemon cake and a berry cheesecake, which honestly were all delicious but didn’t scream birthday. I mean, no chocolate crumbles on the floor to sweep up or white shirts to get frosting stains out of?? What is this!?

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And this year he goes on to request a pie for his birthday. “Yeah, I’ve always liked pie better than cake.” …who are you?! So now not only no chocolate but also no frosting?! I need someone else to bake birthday things for.

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This request spawned a truckload of research of about key lime pie. Does it count if it isn’t actually made with key limes? (Mostly yes, except for a few diehard Floridians.) Do all recipes use sweetened condensed milk? (Yes.) Should you put merengue on top or whipped cream? (Up to you, whipped cream is a whole lot easier.) And in this research I found a deviation from the traditional graham cracker crust — a salty, buttery sub that swaps the ubiquitous grahams for Saltines! As I recently had some issues with a graham cracker crust, I figured why not give it a go?

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It reads like a recipe from my elementary school PTA cookbook that someone’s Grandma makes every year for July 4th . And yet, it’s a beaut! …although a beaut I didn’t completely conquer. The recipe said not to crush your crackers until they were sand-like, so I stopped at pea-like crumbles, which didn’t hold together so well after baking. This lead to luscious lime curd atop … well, buttery, pea-sized cracker crumbs, not exactly a coherent crust. Which, don’t get me wrong, is delicious! Just not particularly easy to serve. I recommend crushing the crumbs for longer than you think is necessary, and don’t be afraid to add more butter. When you pre-bake the crust, really bake it until it’s golden and keeping its shape. (I didn’t let it go quite long enough.) And yes, despite, a crumbly crust, Mr. Weirdo Birthday Boy was totally, totally satisfied. (and so was I!)

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one year ago: Guatemalan rellenitos de plátano (fried plantain heaven)
two years ago: buttermints and Indian-spiced cabbage heaven

Key Lime Pie with Buttery Cracker Crust

From smittenkitchen and food52

1½ sleeves of Saltine crackers (the salted variety) (or try Ritz!)
3 tablespoons sugar
1 stick butter (½ a cup), room temp (or more)

Zest of 2 limes
4 egg yolks
1 14-oz can sweetened condensed milk
A generous ½ cup fresh lime juice (for me, this was 6 puny limes)

One small carton (1 cup or so) heavy cream, chilled
1-2 tablespoons sugar, to taste
Zest of 1 lime, more or less

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Crush up your crackers using your hands (or banging them with a can) until they’re uniformly small and crumb-like. Toss in sugar. Cut butter into small pieces and mix into the cracker crumbs with your fingers until well-incorporated and dough-like. Press crust mixture into an 8- or 9-inch pie pan. Let sit for about 15 minutes.

Bake for 21 minutes, or until lightly browned. Set aside and keep oven on.

Beat together lime zest and egg yolks with an electric beater for five minutes, until thickened and slightly lighter. Add sweetened condensed milk and beat for an additional three minutes. Gently stir in fresh lime juice with a spatula. Pour into cracker crust and bake for 12 minutes, or until top is set. Let cool completely.

Pour chilled heavy cream into a bowl, add sugar and beat until it’s fluffy! (It comes together very quickly using electric beaters, but sometimes it’s fun to make Daniel do it with a whisk :).) Add more sugar if you want a slightly sweeter cream. Lovingly spoon whipped cream atop your cooled pie. Decorate with zest. At this point, it is recommended to chill the whole shebang for a while, but I think that’s mostly so you can create clean lines when you slice your pie, and who the heck has time for that? We ate it immediately and were none the worse. Keep pie in the fridge, loosely covered with plastic wrap, for a few days and try not to have a spoonful with your morning coffee.

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Blueberry Lemon Buttermilk Cake with Ginger Cream Cheese Frosting

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You know, I’ve always been averse to baking professionally because, well, I’ve already tried to turn one of my passions into a career and I’m not sure I’m the better for it (sarcastic thanks to high school theater teachers who gave me too much encouragement).  Also I like having a stress reliever which doesn’t keep me up at night, memorizing lines and reevaluating life choices. AND which tastes delicious and makes people happy. Seriously, everyone likes being made a cake. Not everyone likes sitting through experimental clowning meditations on life and Brecht.

Daniel had a birthday and so of course I made a cake (also we’re going to a knife skills class today that I couldn’t be more excited about!). Mmm. The flavor combination came from a blueberry-ginger-almond biscotti we were selling at work and that everyone raved about. But alas, as I am almond-digesting deficient, I had to translate the flavor combo to an acceptable alternative. And hence was born the blueberry (and lemon) buttermilk cake with ginger (cream cheese) frosting. The parts in parenthesis were not part of the original plan but I’m glad they finagled their way in to the final picture.

I did no innovating here, just combined recipes scourged from across the vast blogosphere. Thank you, baking blog ladies, for creating such lovely recipes! I got the layer cake recipe from Sally’s Baking Addiction (it stayed moist for DAYS!), and the fresh ginger frosting from blahnik baker.  No need for me to post their already-perfect recipes, but I urge you to check them out and then combine them! And then cover the result with crystallized ginger and invite a bunch of friends over.

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And while I’m at it, here’s the lovely cake I made myself for my birthday last August — Joy the Baker’s oreo-strawberry bonanza piled high with slightly-too-sweet oreo buttercream frosting. Everyone needs cake on their birthdays, even (especially) if you make it yourself. Even my dentist agrees, who gave me a slice of cake after my 9 am birthday dental session! I think he felt really, really bad.

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I think I’ll stay an amateur cake maker for now, but I have a pretty good photo collection going on if I change my mind someday, right??

Caramelized Fennel with Dill and Goat Cheese

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Yes I know I’m roughly four years late to the party but…OTTOLENGHI’S “PLENTY”!!!

In the past, I’ve wistfully flipped through the beautiful, vegetable-and-spice laden pages, whispering “someday, I’ll have you” and getting creepy looks from very nice bookstore people. And then last week, due to a fortunate series of events we will from here on out refer to as birthday + boyfriend’s parents, I received my very own copy. No more awkward cell phone pictures of recipes (as the lovely book people look the other way) for me! Hoorah!

Onward to oil-splotched pages, handwritten notes in margins, and vegetarian nirvana!

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To start, Daniel chose two recipes at random. They absolutely didn’t go with each other but no worries, we made a delicious meal of it AND I cooked two new vegetables! Neither fennel nor okra have ever made an appearance in my kitchen until yesterday. I have now officially found my favorite fennel preparation–Ottolenghi’s version tempers the “licorice”-ness, not by hiding it, but by adding a spicy caramel kick and and a fruity dill and lemon zest finish. And THEN you add goat cheese.

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And the okra? Drenched in a homemade fiery sambal sauce and paired with gingery coconut rice, fried shallots, and cilantro (and roasted shredded chicken for the carnivore), it totally stole the show.

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Please refer to book for exact instructions (Fennel on page 172 and Coconut Rice with sambal and okra on page 230) but here’s roughly how I made the fennel. So far, so good, Ottolengz. Two outta two.

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Caramelized Fennel with Dill and Goat Cheese
from Plenty

2 large fennel bulbs, fronds removed, cut into ½-inch thick slices
2 T butter
2 T olive oil
1 T sugar
scant 1 t whole fennel seeds
s&p
big handful of dill, stems and leaves, roughly chopped (about 1/2 cup)
zest of 1 lemon
1 garlic clove, chopped
3-4 oz creamy goat cheese

Heat butter and olive oil in a large pan over high head. When butter starts to sizzle, add a single layer of sliced fennel. Cook without moving for about 3-4 minutes, until lightly browned. Carefully flip over, using tongs, and brown on the other side (1-2 more minutes). Do this in batches, until all the fennel is cooked. Set fennel aside.

In the same pan, add sugar, fennel seeds, and s&p. Cook, stirring constantly, for about 30 seconds, or until fennel seeds smell good. Add all the fennel back into the pan and cook for just another 1-2 minutes, stirring to evenly coat with caramel mixture. Return fennel to plate to cool.

In a big bowl, mix chopped dill and garlic. Stir to combine. Add cooled fennel slices, and mix delicately to coat. To serve, put all fennel slices in a single layer on a plate. Place spoonfuls of goat cheese on top. Finish with lemon zest and a drizzle of olive oil.

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