Happy Anniversary, Have Some Beluga Lentils

I surely did not think I’d be discussing lentils at this juncture. But it’s official, this is the one-year anniversary of A Plum By Any Other Name … and I’m about to suggest to cook a seed. I had figured to usher in this event, I’d probably write about something truly impressive. A gorgeous three-tiered cake. Or an effortless plum crostata.

At the very least, I thought I’d have brioche for you, which I finally got up the nerve to make again after a disastrous first attempt that required transport through Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief. I’d like to say the results this time around were glorious, but—while the brioche wasn’t bad and was certainly edible—it wasn’t quite right. So it will likely get reincarnated as pain perdu, which is a step up from being whirled into gazpacho, the fate of attempt #1, but I digress.

The more important message here is that one thing I was certain I wanted for this blog was a list of go-to recipes. Recipes that would be like old friends. Recipes to keep in your back pocket, knowing even if you didn’t see them regularly, they’d be there if you needed them. So while I’ve failed at brioche (again) and have slacked in the celebratory dessert department, I’ve found a lot of great recipes that have enriched my life.

Enter: beurre maître d’hôtel and beluga lentils. Consider it a recipe for the Rolodex. It’s transformative and yet easy going enough for any occasion. It’s heavenly on fish, and carrots, and chicken, and pretty much anything that can take a little butter. Eating food graced with its presence is like getting to spend spring in Paris. In fact, it’s a celebratory dish in its own right, a feat that the French manage to pull off quite regularly.

The recipe itself is from Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking. It was originally published in 1960 with David, a British cookery writer who lived in France while studying history and literature, stressing the glory of simple French food. And so I can’t think of a better way to usher in year two than with her—who I hear was a bit of a wild woman—and a simple recipe that plays very well with others. Consider it a new old friend. (And a bit more reliable than brioche.) The brioche will come one day, I’m sure. But for today, lentils are where I am at.

And if there is one thing I’ve learned this past year, it’s that if you can take the heat, stay in the kitchen. You won’t always find the food that you've imagined, but if you keep at it what you'll find is well worth the wait. And so it’s been a wonderful first year, lentils and all. Thank you for coming along.

Beurre Maître D’Hôtel (parsley butter)
4 tbsp butter
1.5 tbsp chopped (very very finely) parsley
A few drops of lemon (the juice can also be used below)

Rinse a bowl out with hot water, add your butter and parsley (which David stresses should be very finely chopped) and work together with a fork, adding a few drops of lemon until well combined.

Lentilles Maître D’Hôtel (lentils with parsley butter)
Adapted from Elizabeth David

1.5-2 cups beluga lentils
Kosher salt
1/2 cup chicken stock (plus additional if cooking the lentils in stock instead of water*)
Juice of half a lemon
2 tbsp chopped parsley

For the lentils, spread them out on a plate or sheet pan and pick out any pebbles or grit you find. Soak the lentils in cold water for about an hour.

Drain them and put them in a pan with about 4-5 cups of water (or stock). Salt your liquid and bring the lentils to a boil and then simmer until the lentils are tender but not mushy, adding more liquid if needed. This took about 30 minutes for me, but it will depend on the freshness of your lentils. Once your lentils are cooked, drain any leftover liquid.

Return the lentils back to your pot, add 1/2 cup of stock and simmer the lentils again until the stock is absorbed. (If the lentils are in danger of getting mushy, just drain the excess liquid.) Put about 3/4 of your parsley butter (the remainder destined for something else wonderful) and lemon juice into the lentils and stir until it has just melted and forms a little sauce. Sprinkle with additional parsley. Taste the lentils and add additional salt and/or lemon, if necessary. "Serve at once in a hot dish," per David.

-While any lentils could be used here, ideally you'll want a lentil that retains its shape when cooking, like French Puy lentils. Though, if you can find beluga lentils they are stunning and hold up to their regal namesake.

-You could certainly cook the lentils in stock. *Honestly, I can't remember whether I used water or stock, though I have a sneaking suspicion I used a non-committal ratio of half water half stock.

-I admit I've previously sort of scuffed at sorting through lentils. This time, I figured I'd listen to David. And it made me wonder just how many pebbles I've swallowed in my past.

-I had to add a quote from David about the butter here. "We all know how to make parsley butter. But do we always do it really well or know its many uses?" Well, you don't say!


He Ain't Heavy, He's My Bran Muffin

Yes, the road may be long—with many a winding turn—but the emergence of this muffin is surely a sign that better times are around the bend. While some bran muffins are known for their “tough love,” being dry, often dense, and occasionally burdensome, this muffin is nothing of the sort. In fact, it sort of coddles. I might even go so far as to call it seductive.

I’ve had a muffin (okay, two) daily since they came to be. I love them, though I can’t put my finger on exactly why; I suppose the crème fraîche helps, as does the fruit soaked in framboise. Leave it to the French to lend a certain je ne sais quoi to a muffin made of bran.

And leave it to Joanne Chang to create another baked good masterpiece, without even the use of any butter whatsoever. How she managed to make a light, cake-like bran muffin is beyond me. And the texture the millet imparts is brilliant. You may be tempted to omit it because of its slight obscurity: don’t if you can help it.

Though, the perfectly round grains will bounce all over your kitchen, so don’t bother to get out your broom until the last bran muffin has been baked and put away (or eaten). You wouldn’t believe the places I’ve found those little yellow balls.

I admit I was initially concerned that all this bran was turning me into a bore, my love for a muffin with a crunchy millet topping getting deeper by the bite. But then I thought: who cares? They really are that good. Yes folks, life—when eating bran—is good.

So, on we go. My existence, at times, is still a bit cumbersome, but it’s getting better. At any rate, I now have this muffin: and he won't encumber me. In fact, he doesn’t weigh me down at all. He ain’t heavy, he’s my muffin.

Bran Muffins with Millet and Framboise-Soaked Fruit
Adapted from Joanne Chang's cookbook Flour: Spectacular Recipes from Boston's Flour Bakery + Cafe

2-1/2 cups wheat bran
1-1/4 cups whole milk
1 cup crème fraîche
3/4 cup 0 or 2% greek yogurt
2 eggs
1 cup dried cherries
1/2 cup raisins
~1/3 cup framboise
2-1/3 cup flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp kosher salt
1/2 cup packed brown sugar (light or dark)
2 tbsp molassess (light or dark)
~1/4 cup millet
~2 tbsp cup seeds, such as sesame or flax
~2 tbsp cup slivered almonds

In a medium bowl, stir together bran, milk, crème fraîche, yogurt and eggs. Meanwhile, heat dried cherries and raisins in a small saucepan with framboise for about 5 minutes, until they start to plump, adding additional framboise if needed. Let both the bran mixture and dried fruit sit for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

During this time, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a large bowl. After 30 minutes, add the brown sugar and molasses to the bran mixture, stirring thoroughly until well combined; drain the dried fruit and add to mixture. Add the bran mixture into the flour mixture and stir until just combined; do not over mix. Spoon batter into muffin tins lined with muffin liners and top with millet, seeds and almonds. Bake about 30-35 minutes.

Makes about 2 dozen muffins

-This muffin is not very sweet; it's the real deal. The bran doesn't hide in sugar, it embraces itself.
-Any combination of dried fruit, nuts and seeds would work magic here. Banana chunks would also be lovely.
-Don't omit the step of letting the bran sit; have patience, grasshopper. This allowed the bran to soak up some liquid and soften.


I'd Rather Eat Pistachio Ice Cream Than Feel Real Pain

I recently came across a sign that read: I’d rather have champagne than real pain. I must have subconsciously channeled its effervescent mentality because I went straight for plucky, unapologetic items with intention; gave myself permission to take a break from my problems; and put the less-than-fun things in my life on hold this week. Full speed, right into the thick of it.

I wore red high heels. Drank champagne cocktails. Roasted chicken in bacon fat. Finally ordered that deer antler bookshelf I'd been eyeing. That sort of thing. To sum up: I went overboard.

Naturally, this included ice cream. Pistachio. Yes, a rich, dense, gutsy green pistachio flavor was definitely in order. So I added a nearly committable amount of pistachios and did not look back. (Those that don't wholeheartedly like pistachio need not apply here.)

As a result, it's entirely possible that this frozen treat might be suffering from an identity crisis, as it can't decide whether it's gelato or ice cream. It started out innocently enough as a light gelato base, but the pistachios may have pushed its density into ice cream territory.

Don't spend too much time thinking about this. The whole point is to have a good time. This is precisely what ice cream is for. When people scream for it, they don't do it out of confusion. (Self medication, perhaps.) Mostly, they know exactly what they are getting themselves into.

So the gelato "that once was" is now in my freezer. A wonderful addition to the warmer weather we’ve been having. And a fabulous sidekick for champagne when fighting "reality." Which got me thinking. Not only would I rather have champagne than real pain, I'd rather eat ice cream than face my problems. I realize I can't keep this up forever. But for right now, pass the pistachio please.

Pistachio Pistachio Ice Cream

1 cup whole milk
2 tbsp cornstarch
1 cup half and half
1/3 cup sugar
2 cups shelled pistachios
~2/3 cup honey, corn syrup, or sweetener of your choosing
Pinch of salt
Juice one lemon
Splash of almond extract
Splash of cointreau

Combine 1/4 cup milk with cornstarch until smooth. Heat remaining milk and half and half in a saucepan with sugar. When milk is almost boiling, add cornstarch mixture and cook for about 3-5 minutes, until mixture becomes thick; remove and let chill in the refrigerator, ideally overnight.

While mixture is chilling, prepare pistachio paste by combining remaining ingredients (except cointreau) in a food processor. Taste and add additional sugar as needed. You may also need to thin the paste out slightly with a little water. Refrigerate until ready to make ice cream.

Whisk pistachio paste into chilled milk mixture and freeze in an ice cream maker (should take about 25 minutes). The last 5 minutes, add cointreau.

Makes about 3 cups

-Honestly, you could probably cut the pistachio amount in half (and reduce the sugar) and still feel quite pleased with yourself. But this week called for double the pistachio (and double the fun).


New Traditions and Cacao Nib Chocolate Biscotti

Can I make a chocolate confession? I tend not to swoon over it. It can be a bit overdone: the red rose of desserts. And yet here I am, about to add another sin to my recipe box.

I promise you, these studded chocolate biscotti will have very few enemies at the table. Or wherever you chose to eat them. At whatever time of day. With whatever beverage of your choosing. That's the thing about a chocolate biscuit: it's pretty easy going, and it pairs as well with red wine as it does with your morning coffee.

Taza's chocolate covered cacao nibs in the recipe also add a little intrigue. The small pieces of cacao bean, which Taza describes as "light" and "fruity," are roasted and covered in chocolate. Made right here in Somerville, MA. This is a chocolate I can get behind.

Nibs aside, biscotti purists (are there such people?) may scoff at the butter in this recipe, as traditional biscotti is said to forgo it. Which begs the question: what does traditional really mean? I imagine butter might have been omitted because it was hard to come by, no? Is a recipe coming from an octogenarian Italian grandmother not tradition enough? We are talking cookies here-and we are lucky enough to have butter regularly available-let's not take ourselves too seriously, shall we?

It is worth noting that this recipe is from my grandmother, not only because she is a great cook, but because my grandfather-her husband-turned ninety on Sunday. Yes, ninety. And if you are looking for someone to swoon over sweets, he is your man. When I called on Sunday, my grandmother was preparing their traditional Sunday macaroni dinner with apple pie for my grandfather for dessert. "We eat pie instead of cake on our birthdays," she said, when I asked what they were having to celebrate.

Traditionally, it is thought that women adore chocolate and red roses. Conventionally, cake is consumed on your birthday. Apparently, my ninety year old grandfather prefers apple pie. So maybe the secret to long life is butter in the biscotti and pie on your birthday.

Or perhaps it's making your own traditions. To which I say, the hell with convention: leave the red rose, bring the chocolate biscotti.

Cacao Nib Chocolate Biscotti
2 cups all purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp kosher salt
6 tbsp butter, plus extra for greasing
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 cup walnuts, chopped
3/4 cups chocolate covered cacao nibs (or chocolate morsels)
1 tbsp powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a cookie sheet with butter and then dust with flour, shaking off extra flour. In a bowl, combine flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt. In another bowl (or mixer bowl), beat butter and sugar until lightly fluffy; add eggs and continue to beat until well combined. Stir flour mixture into butter mixture until it forms a stiff dough; mix in walnuts and cacao nibs.

With floured hands, form dough into 2 logs (about 10 inches long and 2 inches wide) and place on greased cookie sheet; flatten logs slightly with your hand and sprinkle with powdered sugar. Bake about 35 minutes or until slightly firm to the touch. Cool logs on baking sheet for about 5-10 minutes. On a cutting board, cut biscotti diagonally and bake until crisp (about 10-20 minutes more). Let cool. They'll keep for at least a week.

Makes about 20

-There is nothing like the sound of crisp homemade biscotti hitting your plate.

-This weekend Taza and local ice cream hero Batch will be pairing up to make ice cream sundaes at Taza's factory store in Somerville. Go and get your nib on.