Still Cooking at the Cafe

Happy New Year to all. We’re still cooking here at the café, happy to leave behind a year that has been so devastating around the world.

Political turmoil, natural disasters, the struggle for justice –– and through it all, a pandemic disrupting our lives in numerous personal ways and making even simple things challenging.

We’ve all been through so much, and still the pandemic continues and surges, with many months predicted to go. We’ll still have to persevere, practice patience and resilience, and be vigilant in taking the precautions that stop the virus from spreading.

Yet arriving at this new year is still a celebration. A fresh start always brings inspiration and energy, and we can take hope in the progress we’ve made in the midst of crisis.

On today’s cafe menu: lentils, a food eaten in several countries on New Year’s Day, or the eve before, to bring good luck in the new year.

As we head into 2021, who couldn’t use a bit of luck in their efforts? Wherever you are, I imagine some lucky New Year’s food was on your table too. Our red lentils above are flavored with curry, lime juice and coconut milk, served over brown rice, and topped with a chopped fresh spinach salad. What was on your menu?

Fight on, Covid warriors. With perseverance and a little luck, we’ll get through this together. Wishing you good health, good food, and good fortune this year.

Copyright M. Vincent 2021. All photos copyright M. Vincent.

What’s Cooking at the Cafe?

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Cooking in the time of the coronavirus is about the spirit as much as the body. In the best of times, making and enjoying good food is one of the joys and comforts of life. In the worst of times, the pleasure, diversion, and comfort it brings are more important than ever.

It’s not surprising then, that people everywhere are spending more time in the kitchen since Covid-19 has transformed our world and “stay at home, save lives” measures have gone into effect.

In this post, I’ll share some of the food we’ve been making at My Eclectic Café.

A Baking Renaissance?

Let’s start with that loaf of whole wheat bread above, which I baked earlier this week.

It appears that Covid-19 may have given rise to a home-bread-baking renaissance. Flour has disappeared from market shelves in many places, per reports we’ve heard, and we’ve seen scant supplies in our own area. When we decided to bake bread a week ago, all of our local stores were out of yeast.

Fortunately, the cafe always has a stash of flour, and kind friends in Washington state mailed us yeast from their own pantry and local market to keep bread in our oven as the pandemic continues.

I made the bread above from a simple King Arthur Flour (KAF) recipe, easy to follow for even novice bakers. You can find it on the KAF website here.

While I’ve baked bread before, I was trying this recipe for the first time and would use it again. I had the KAF white whole wheat flour specified, chose the molasses option for a darker loaf, and left out the dried milk.

The bread was moist and flavorful, with a chewy, well-browned crust, made great toast, and stayed fresh for days. It was great with the vegetable soup below.

I’ve baked with several types of KAF flour for years and recommend it. Their website is a valuable source of tips, recipes, and informative articles and reviews for beginning to experienced bakers.

Fresh Fruit and Vegetables Central

Healthy eating is always a priority at My Eclectic Café, with a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables at the center of our cooking. Since the Covid-19 crisis, we’ve been amplifying that focus. It’s a good time to be vegetarian: When other foods have been swept off the shelves, we’ve found the produce section of our stores well-stocked.

Before our Southern California weather hit 90 degrees this week, we enjoyed this spicy, colorful mixed vegetable soup: cauliflower, carrots, zucchini, Napa cabbage and corn with brown rice and Penzey’s southwest seasoning (a mix of spices and herbs with the heat of ancho, cayenne and chipotle peppers).

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Such fresh, homemade soups have been a lunchtime staple — comfort food with the benefit of numerous vitamins and nutrients for staying well and keeping the immune system strong.

Salads, made with diverse vegetables or fruits, nuts, and selected proteins, have also been on our daily menu.

If you’re shopping much less often, as we are, to limit potential exposure to the virus, heads of radicchio and Napa (Chinese) cabbage are both versatile, long-lasting salad ingredients. They also go well together in a salad. Napa cabbage leaves are much more tender than those of red or green cabbage. They also have a mild, slightly sweet flavor that contrasts nicely with the bitey radicchio.

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Open the cafe refrigerator, and you’ll find it brimming with citrus fruit. We’ve eaten tons of it in the past few months, as I fought to get over a mean bout of bronchitis and the Covid-19 pandemic burgeoned.

Grapefruit, tangerines, oranges, lemons. Rich in Vitamin C and other nutrients, they’re a constant ingredient in our fruit bowls, salads and other dishes, as well as a favorite refreshing snack. I use the juice and zest to add “oomph” to my cooking and baking, especially lemon juice, which brightens any dish. The cafe is blessed to have a prolific and treasured Meyer lemon tree in the backyard.

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What’s for Dessert?

While we love dessert at the cafe, we usually keep it light and simple: fresh fruit and a piece of very dark chocolate, or that chocolate with a cup of green tea or breakfast coffee. (Yes, it’s perfectly acceptable to have dessert at breakfast — especially now, when we all need some uplifting treats to sweeten the day.)

Endangered Species’ wonderfully smooth bittersweet chocolate (low sugar, 88% percent cocoa) is a favorite, always on our menu. In addition to making excellent chocolate, the company supports conservation efforts for endangered species and habitats.

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I’ve been baking mostly breakfast muffins lately and dreaming of making other pastry, but I did try a new cookie recipe that’s definitely a keeper: cardamom-walnut crescents from The New York Times.  My co-confiné agrees.

I love nut cookies, and these are delicious: light and not too sweet, with a great texture. The recipe is adaptable and doesn’t take long to make. My adaptations: raw pecans in the absence of walnuts, olive oil in place of some of the butter, cinnamon instead of cardamom, and a light dusting of powdered sugar when completely cooled. I look forward to trying them with walnuts and cardamom too.

More baking to come at the cafe. I’m craving those anise-almond biscotti above, remembering happy pan meino and coffee breakfasts in Milan, pondering a fruit galette …

Your  Turn

It’s a good time to try new recipes, enjoy comforting old favorites, and set a cheering table. What have you been making?

Copyright M. Vincent 2020. All photos copyright M. Vincent 2020.

Licensable, high-resolution versions of some photographs in this post, and select images from other My Eclectic Café posts are available on Shutterstock.com. Click here to view my Vince360 Shutterstock photo portfolio.

National Chili Month: Guest Chef at the Cafe

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Welcome to My Eclectic Café’s U.S. National Chili Month celebration. When fall arrives, I always look forward to creating variations of this popular, versatile American dish. This year, I’m excited to have guest chef, Under Western Skies (UWS), joining me in the kitchen to present a festive celebration menu.

If you follow his blog, you know that UWS is a dedicated chili aficionado who posts a new National Chili Month recipe every year. He’s an excellent chili cook too, so I invited him to team up on a Halloween-inspired chili feast.

The chili he created for the café is a healthy, vegetarian/vegan main dish, with colorful seasonal ingredients and an appealing blend of flavors. You’ll find a link to his recipe at the end of this post.

The café tables are set for the occasion with some of my favorite retro dinnerware:

MV S2617 Chili Table Setting 680

While UWS makes final adjustments to the chili, I’m at work completing the sides. It’s been a bustling, stimulating collaboration, and we hope you enjoy the results. Have some nibbles and your favorite drink while you peruse the menu:

Final Chili Menu 680_10-28-18

Part of the fun of developing the menu was finding the right balance of flavors and textures in the sides to complement the chili, for a pleasing overall meal. Following are my notes about the sides.

Salad

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I chose refreshing iceberg lettuce and fruit for the salad to provide a cooling and sweet contrast to the chili’s spiciness and heat. Bitter (radicchio), salty, and citrus flavors round out the dish. The dressing is a simple vinaigrette made with pomegranate-quince white balsamic vinegar, which pairs well with fall salads containing fruit.

Whole Grain Corn Muffins

A traditional accompaniment to chili, and a café favorite. A dash of vanilla and a splash of maple syrup add another element of sweetness to balance against the chili. Spelt flour and medium-grind cornmeal combine to produce a light and crusty texture.

 Special Beverage

We wanted to add some fall apple flavor and sweetness to the chili, but found the apple juice used in some recipes too sweet. We decided to try a dry hard cider, which could be a good accompaniment to the meal, as well as flavoring the chili.  Ace “Joker” ultra-dry hard cider from Sebastopol, California (in Sonoma County’s wine and apple region) did not disappoint. If it isn’t sold in your area, hard cider has a long tradition across America (and abroad), and you’re likely to find a local brand with similar characteristics.

Ready for Dessert?

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Chili is a substantial meal, best concluded with a light, sweet bite we think. Hence our mini dessert choices: a refreshing frozen option with a tart and tangy side, or a bittersweet chocolate bite, perfect with coffee. I wish more restaurants would offer mini desserts, and you’ll always find them at my café.

Under Western Skies Halloween Chili Recipe

My thanks to guest chef, Under Western Skies, for a great National Chili Month collaboration – and for the delicious chili. I encourage my readers to give it a try. You can find the recipe here

Thank you for visiting my virtual café. I welcome your comments. Happy Halloween!

Copyright M. Vincent 2018

All photos in this post copyright M. Vincent 2018.