Cooking Chapbook

Notes from my kitchen in the D.C. area & beyond

Month: January, 2013

My Couscous Playground


Couscous with chicken, zucchini, fennel seeds – and whatever else was around.

Food blogs, cookbooks, recipe comments are all rich ground for a curious cook. But sometimes, I want to strike out on my own. It feels a little unsettling, a little daring, a little uncalled for – I mean, there are a zillion recipes for whatever is in my cupboard, along with tricks and tips and shortcuts and replacements. Why venture out without a guide? Do I really think I can throw things together and come up with anything new?

What if the outcome is terrible? What if it’s inedible? What if I combine tuna and mint and pear and discover it’s downright awful?

Well. Messing up is risk. But it’s low risk, high potential return. I figure (1) there’s always the pizza place around the corner (2) how else does one really learn?

And to begin? I recommend couscous as an awesome playground.

Ingredients for couscous

The question my ingredients ask: Can we play together?

Couscous is quick to make (5 minutes), and it serves as a blank canvas for any leftovers or weird flavor combinations you want to try. It’s happy with meat, veggies or simply spices. Once you find a combination you like, you can go on to more expensive and complex canvases.

golden raisins

A bag of golden raisins aching to be used.

Today, I happened to have bits of leftovers around at lunchtime: a baked chicken breast and 2 random cremini mushrooms (they must have escaped a previous recipe). In the fridge: zucchini. In the pantry: pretty golden raisins. I wondered: Could it all go together? Maybe even with Indian spices, my current obsession?

fennel seeds

I’m starting to really like a sweet hint of fennel.

Basic couscous recipe

Put 1/2 cup of water per person in a pot (a small pot, if it’s just you) and turn the burner on high. Let the water come to a boil. Pour in 1/3 cup couscous per person, remove from heat, stir once so it settles down, cover the lid, and wait 5 minutes. Voila, cooked couscous, ready for flavor additions!

Note: You can also do this by boiling water in the microwave, pouring in the couscous and then covering the container.


Couscous, cooked up with golden raisins. Fluffing comes next!

Here’s the route I took today, which turned out to be yummy. But the whole point is that you can use whatever you have around, whatever spices are whispering your name. Basil? Cumin? Or maybe Old Bay?

I do like to add a brightness of acid at the end – like vinegar or lemon – but that might not be your thing.

How do you like to make couscous? What are some of your favorite flavor combinations these days?

Couscous with Golden Raisins, Zucchini, Chicken and Fennel
Serves 1

  • water
  • 1/3 cup couscous
  • 2-4 small mushrooms, diced
  • half a zucchini, diced
  • 1 small shallot, minced
  • 1 tablespoon of golden raisins
  • 1/2 teaspoon of fennel seeds
  • sprinkle of ground coriander, cumin, red chili flakes, to taste
  • 1/2 chicken breast, chopped
  • 1 lemon slice
  • olive oil

Bring a little more than a 1/2 cup of water and the golden raisins to boil in a small pot. (The raisins will soak up some of the water.) Once it boils, add the couscous, turn off the heat, stir once, and cover. It needs to sit for at least 5 minutes.

To a skillet, add a swirl of olive oil and the shallots. Turn to medium and wait until the pan is sizzling. Add the fennel seeds, zucchini and mushrooms. Stir, and let them cook for a few minutes, to your liking. Sprinkle with ground coriander, ground cumin. Add a tiny bit of red chili flakes, or more if you want it spicy. (Skip the chili flakes if you don’t want it hot at all.) Stir, and let it cook a minute more.

Fluff the couscous with a fork, then add it to the skillet. Stir the couscous in. Add a squirt or two of lemon. If the couscous seems too dry, add a drizzle of water until it reaches the moisture you like.


Couscous, made any way you like.


Cafe Spanjola, Croatia


By Friday, I’m ready for an escape. Here’s a place I’d like to beam myself back to … sipping coffee at a fort on Hvar Island, Croatia, on a breath-taking October afternoon.

The view from Spanjola fort on Hvar Island, Croatia

The view from Spanjola fort on Hvar Island, Croatia

We spent one afternoon in October last year climbing to the fort that overlooks Hvar Island, off the coast near Split, Croatia. The view was spectacular, and as we were in Europe, espresso awaited us at the top.

The path up to the fort switch-backs past spiky plants and vendors selling local lavender sachets. The terrain felt a bit like Arizona, until I would look back down to the glimmering Adriatic Sea.

Walk up to Spanjola fort, Hvar Island Croatia

Walk up to Spanjola fort, Hvar Island Croatia

At the peak, along with cannons and a museum …

Cannon overlooking the Adriatic Sea

Who would ever fire at such a serene scene?

… you’ll find a cafe …

Spanjola fort coffee shop

Spanjola fort coffee shop

… where you might consider stretching out into a chair and ordering a coffee. I’d recommend with cream, which might be a sweet surprise.

Two coffees at Cafe Spanjola

Two coffees at Cafe Spanjola

“Cream” in Croatia often translated to whipped cream. We sat and sipped and marveled at the fort, the view, the beauty of the Dalmatian Coast, while the sun blazed down on the canopy above us. I’d love to go back …


View from Hvar Island, Croatia

Idea file: fruit crisp cake

Cherry crisp cake

Berry crisp cake. Fruity. Crunchy. Creamy. Again, please!

A little note to self. Don’t mind me. I’m filing away a dessert I devoured this week with a friend. Oh, wait – maybe you can help!

It was a slice from Hüftengold, a lovely cafe in Stuttgart that feels like a secret passage to New York City. Chandelier, funky wallpaper, enormous circular cakes, loud and happy chatter.

This cake was worth remembering – and trying to make – because it was not only a cake. It was a fruit crisp hidden under a silky layer of cream and chocolate shavings. I couldn’t believe it. I love fruit crisps! Above the crust sat baked berry (cherry, I think?) blanketed in thin nuts and crunch, slathered in richness. Instead of stopping at the fruit and crisp, this concoction kept going and going and going.

Must try this! How? Any ideas?

A repeat trip for research purposes may be required!

5 foods I loved in Venice at Christmas

A quiet Piazza San Marco during Christmas week 2012

A quiet Piazza San Marco during Christmas week 2012

We spent our Christmas this year in Venice, a beautiful, misty old city I immediately loved. I’m convinced now more than ever that off-season is the way to travel. The Venice of my guidebooks – crowded streets, lines for Saint Mark’s Basilica, packs of people pushing by you – was nothing like the Venice of Christmas time. The streets are easily passable; the main square is only scattered with tourists posing like scarecrows with the pigeons; and there are no lines at all, except for Midnight Mass. With cars forbidden, Venice felt like a city of long ago, cloaked with a quietness that is so rare today.

A little Christmas touch in Venice, 2012

A little Christmas touch in Venice, 2012

The food was also wonderful. Here are five foods I’m still thinking about.

1. Seafood risotto

Rice spotted with bits of mussels, fish, shrimp, and other swimmingly good things. In Venice, surrounded by water, seafood risotto is sublime. We had it twice. Once, the rice had a satisfying bite in the middle. Once, it was softer throughout, nearly a porridge. Both times, we lapped it up. I’m dreaming now how to make it myself, maybe with a shrimp stock. (I’ve read that simmering leftover shrimp shells in water is the easiest way to make a seafood stock. Has anyone tried that?)

Seafood risotto in Venice

Seafood risotto in Venice

2. Cuttlefish

Anything cuttlefish. I thought this seafood might be chewy and oddly shaped, like octopus, but it was cut into tender bite-sized pieces and draped in a thick jet-black sauce, savory and warm and as comforting as a crackling winter fire. (Though not as fun to look at …) We tried it a few times – once with polenta on the side (which almost made this list; we ate polenta over and over again in Venice, and I grew more curious about the corn-based dish I had thought was bland and boring) and once in a risotto. Delicious.

Cuttlefish in ink sauce with polenta, at Vino Vino in Venice

Cuttlefish in ink sauce with polenta, at Vino Vino in Venice

3. Sgroppino

We had Christmas dinner at Taverna Ciardi, a cozy traditional restaurant a winding kilometer or two from Piazza San Marco. We thought the fixed-price menu in Italian listed two choices for a starter, a first course (in Italy, pasta or rice), a second course (meat/seafood), and dessert. Oh no. We were served two plates each for each course! We had cuttlefish, octopus salad, risotto, spaghetti, fish … and just when we couldn’t imagine ever putting a fork in our mouths again, the waiter brought out glasses filled with a thick fizzy whiteness. What was it? Oh, lemon sorbet, vodka, Prosecco, the waiter said. He had me at lemon sorbet. We toasted and sipped and felt our fullness dissipate into a clear citrus happiness. Oh my. A web search with results like this and this makes me think it must have been Sgroppino. I’m very happy to have met you, Sgroppino!

4. Panettone

The first night we arrived, tired after taking a train, two planes, a bus and a waterbus, we almost didn’t have dinner. But somehow, we pulled ourselves up and walked a minute to Vino Vino. After risotto and cuttlefish and feeling like a person again, I ordered a dessert that came with muscato, a sweet wine. The waiter, a kind Italian gentleman, said they had replaced the regular option with pan-ah-TOE-nay. Which was? A Christmas dessert, a holiday cake. It’s good. Okay. Let’s do it. We would have panettone two more times before we left, once as part of our Christmas feast and once left in a complimentary little carton in our hotel room. It can be made many ways, but the kind we had in Venice was yellow, airy cake, sometimes dusted with powdered sugar. We also saw locals in the grocery store buying panettone in natty angular boxes with a cord to carry on top.

Panettone with custard and muscato wine

Panettone with custard and muscato wine

5. Sarde in Saor

I must be my father’s daughter, because I’m in love with sardines and anchovies. Fresh or fried or plucked from a jar and sauteed with olive oil and garlic and chili flakes and tossed in pasta – but let’s not too get carried away, Brianne. Sarde in saor is a Venetian specialty, sweet-sour fried sardines. I’ve since seen recipes with pine nuts, raisins, cloves, sugar, bay leaves, white wine. I have no idea what was in ours, but they were fantastic, scrumptious little fish. Dad, you would have loved them!