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There Can’t Be Only One: Spring Asparagus


Spring asparagus. Not the dry and woody and confusingly available in the grocery store in January kind, but pencil thin and freshly picked. Who could limit themselves to just one bunch (@ $2 each!) per week? Not I, said the little cook. And so, after asparagus tart, there was asparagus…well, pesto, in a sense. Puree in another. Sauce? Condiment? Dip? Yes, yes, and yes. Pass the crackers. Hell, pass a spoon.

After my “first of spring” produce splurge this weekend, I had stretched the grocery budget too tightly to handle a whole cup of pine nuts, and so I swapped in the walnuts I already had in the pantry and saved the few pine nuts available for garnish; it was still fantastic. This is an awesome dish from Super Natural Cooking, no matter what you smear it on.

(P.S. It was Heidi Swanson who taught me to make pesto-type toppings out of many green things, including broccoli. So check her out, be brave, and get creative; it’s awesome on the green side.)

Spring Asparagus Pesto
from Super Natural Cooking

1 bunch asparagus spears trimmed (I also cut mine in half to better fit in my pot)
a few generous handfuls of baby spinach
2 garlic cloves, smashed and roughly chopped
1 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
3/4 cup toasted pine nuts (1/2 cup walnuts work as well, if that better suits your budget as it did mine)
1/4 cup olive oil
1 T lemon juice

In a pot large enough to accommodate your asparagus, bring salted water to a boil. Boil asparagus for two to three minutes, until just tender. Drain and transfer to a food processor, along with the spinach, garlic, Parmesan, and nuts of your choice (toast them first, if you can spare the time). Turn processor on and puree, drizzling in the olive oil while it runs. Add lemon juice and salt. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed.

Pesto can be tossed immediately with pasta or kept in a sealed jar in the refrigerator. Cover the exposed puree with olive oil to prevent discoloration.

Hot Topic: Harissa and Berbere Paste


I think it was the mix of vibrant sun and biting wind this past weekend that inspired me to finally do something constructive with the bag of dried hot peppers sitting in my pantry. A friend had shared her beautiful stash with me, along with a family recipe for a fantastic-sounding chili; hopefully she won’t mind the project detour I ultimately took with her ingredients.

In truth, I had been contemplating making berbere paste for years–ever since discovering a recipe for it in the pages of the World Food Cafe cookbook in 2002. It seemed so exotic! But then I’d read the long list of ingredients and find myself getting sleepy before even making it into the kitchen. So, as with overly complicated knitting projects and 1,000 piece picture puzzles, it got pushed to the back of the closet, an idea for some rainy day down the line.


A crisp, sunny day offers the perfect opportunity to visit my favorite Punjab Market in Waverly and stock up on spices.

Then a funny thing happened. I bought a small container of a spicy lentil stew from the Ethiopian stall at the Waverly Market and found my motivation: I was going to make a big pot of Yemisir Kik Wot (more on that later).

In truth, making the berbere paste is not actually difficult. It’s just a long list of spices that must be measured and toasted and ground, mixed with a paste of vinegar, onion, ginger, and garlic. After all that, you net a baby food jar’s worth of product–one that you may find yourself opening for no reason other than to breathe in its amazing aromas and dreaming of as you sleep at night.

Berbere Paste
from the World Food Cafe cookbook

2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
1/2 inch piece of ginger, minced
3 green onions, sliced
1 T cider vinegar
1/2 tsp. peppercorns
1/2 tsp. cardamom seeds
1/2 tsp. coriander seeds
1/2 tsp. fenugreek seeds
1 tsp. cumin seeds
4 cloves
8 dried red chili peppers
4 tsp. ground sweet paprika
1 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. ground allspice
1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg

Measure whole spices into a bowl. Heat a dry skillet and toast them until lightly browned and fragrant. Toss frequently and take care not to burn them. Next, grind the whole spices and dried peppers finely (I use a cheap electric coffee grinder that I reserve just for this purpose). Measure the powdered spices into the mixture as well. Set aside.

Place the garlic, ginger, onions, and vinegar in the bowl of a food processor (since there is so little to mix, after some trial and error, I had much better luck using the small processor that came with my immersion blender as opposed to my powerhouse Cuisinart). Process into a paste, then add all the ground spices and continue mixing till well combined. Pack into a small glass jar with a tight-fitting lid and refrigerate until needed.

one pot

Since I had barely dented my Ziploc bag full of dried peppers and I already had every spice I own out on the counter, I decided to just keep going and try my hand at making a batch of Harissa while I was at it (plus, there was a soup using it that I’d just read about and wanted to try…convenient!). After all that berbere paste activity, this one seemed sinfully low-effort.

also from the World Food Cafe cookbook

2 oz. dried hot red chilies
2 T cumin seeds
3 T coriander seeds
4 garlic cloves
1 tsp. salt
5 T olive oil

Remove any stems or seeds from dried chilies and soak the peppers in warm water for about an hour.

Meanwhile, measure whole spices into a bowl. Heat a dry skillet and toast them until lightly browned and fragrant. Toss frequently and take care not to burn them. Grind the whole spices finely and set aside.

Once the peppers have softened, drain and place in the bowl of a food processor. Add ground spices, garlic, and salt, and run processor until peppers break down and a paste begins to form (I had to stop and scrape down the bowl repeatedly, and even then only got half way there).

spice row

Next, with the processor running, slowly drizzle in the oil. This is where my harissa finally came together, much like a pesto. Keep processing until smooth. Pack into a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid and refrigerate until needed. Works as a condiment and in soups and stews (more on that later, as well).

hot clean

The Queen of Green: Fresh Cilantro Chutney


Even before I was addicted to that amazing spicy tomato jam, I had a thing for savory yet unconventional condiments. Many years ago when I lived in Jackson Heights, Queens, I purchased almost all of my groceries at the Indian shop on the corner. As a result, it was not unusual for me to cart home 10 lbs. bags of rice, bottles of imported shampoo, and parathas from the frozen food case. Of my many exotic discoveries, however, my favorite by far was a shockingly bright condiment: cilantro chutney. If you’re in the “cilantro tastes like soap” camp, this may not win you over, but for me it was love.

When I moved out of that apartment, I feared that this affair was doomed, but as it turns out it was a simple enough thing to make at home. Good thing, too, since once I have a jar within reach, I find myself slathering it on everything I eat. Your sandwiches will never be the same!

Fresh Cilantro Chutney
adapted from Manjula’s Kitchen

Fresh Cilantro Chutney: Process

1 large bunch cilantro, washed well (no need to remove stems unless they are particularly thick and woody)
3 green chilies, split and seeds removed unless you can stand the heat
2 tsps. minced ginger
3 T lemon juice
1 tsp. canola oil
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. whole cumin seeds
Pinch of asafetida

Place all ingredients except for the cilantro in the bowl of a food processor and blend for a minute or so, until peppers are well minced. Add the cilantro (in batches, if needed) and continue to process until all ingredients are evenly incorporated. Adjust seasoning as needed.