Sister Act

My older sister Sylvie is a middle-and high-school librarian in inner city DC. It’s a tough area to grow up in, and she has made her library into a safe space for her students. In her first year alone, circulation was up 40%, and her students know they can always go to her for guidance on how to research a paper, use reference materials, and, most importantly, she provides just the right book. She’s made reading fun. “God’s work,” my friend Elissa once quipped in trying to explain to someone what Syl does.

It really was Syl’s destiny to be a librarian for teenagers, but this wasn’t her first career. She used to cook. I mean, she still does, but cooking was much more a profession for her than it is for me. People would pay her money for her food back when she lived in Boston nearly 20 years ago — in Allston, as a matter of fact. And she, too, rode her bike everywhere.

I think she would have continued working in professional kitchens as long as she could, but just as I’ve done a number on my back with a herniated disc that has slowed down my cooking, she did a number on her front: double hernias. Those professional-sized pots are very heavy, and that’s without them being filled with gallons of soup.

The dish I have for today is a Sylvie dish. I asked her earlier this week how she came up with it, but like I said, 20 years is a long time ago. This is actually not the first time I’ve written up this dish: I was a food writer for my college newspaper (surprise, surprise) and our editor once did a spread on the food writer’s favorite dishes. This was mine.

This is a pantry dish, and it uses a box of Near East rice pilaf. Before you get all huffy and start accusing me of pulling a Sandra Lee, if you’ve ever had the stuff, I think it’s safe to say it’s a really fantastic side dish. All supermarkets seem to have sales on Near East products every few months. When the Star Market around the corner marks it down to $0.88 a box, I usually buy five or six and store them in the pantry. And even though portobello mushrooms can be expensive, Market Basket always has a good price on them, and I’ve walked away with 3 pounds worth from Haymarket with spending just a dollar.

Although there is technically a lot of vinegar and garlic in the dish, the added sugar cuts it all down into something sweet that matches perfectly with the pilaf. This is one of Rich’s favorite dishes, and last week he learned how to make it. Like I’ve mentioned, the herniated disc has really slowed me down, but Rich has been an absolute godsend in making sure there is food on the table and clean clothes on our backs. Last week, when he was prepping and slicing the mushrooms, he came to me with a panicked look on his face because one of the mushrooms he cut had a magenta streak down its side. I asked if he possibly used the same knife he used to dice a beet the night before. He walked away a little sheepishly, but I have to admit I thought that was absolutely adorable.

I had forgotten that there had been a typo in the recipe. Well, not the actual recipe, but the byline. The paper has me down as my middle name, Miranda, which seems so much more exotic and exciting than my first name.

This dish can work as a main dish for three people with a small salad, or be a side dish for five or six, depending on how hungry your crowd is.

And one last thing: If you could ask the governor’s executive director of his PAC four questions, what would they be? How about four questions for the founder of the Boston’s first Jewish rugby team? Turns out it’s the same fellow. Here are mine.

Mushrooms and Rice Pilaf a la Sylvie

Ingredients

3 Portobello mushrooms

4 cloves garlic

1/3 cup balsamic vinegar

3 Tbs. sugar

Dash salt and pepper

Enough oil to cover a pan

Box of Near East Rice Pilaf

Directions

Prepare rice pilaf according to directions on the box.

While the rice is cooking, peel and chop the garlic and toss into heated oil in medium-sized pan (at this point it should have a very low flame because you don’t want the garlic to brown.)

While the garlic is cooking, clean and cut the mushroom caps into bigger than bite-sized pieces. Toss mushrooms into pan and watch carefully. When they begin to sweat – the meat will become pink – add balsamic vinegar. When the mushrooms, garlic and vinegar begin to sizzle, add sugar and reduce heat. Cook on reduced flame until mixture turns syrup-like (about seven minutes). Add a dash of salt and pepper to taste. Remove dish from heat and mix in the rice pilaf.

Serve and enjoy.

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Scone Cold Morning

I’ve always thought of herbs as seasonal. Basil and mint are summer herbs, while rosemary and sage are more wintery. Of course, the sage bush in front of my house, which flourishes in the summer sun, upends my theory. Many summer nights I would run from my kitchen, apron still tied around my waist, to pluck a few leaves off for dishes like sautéed cabbage and white bean dip.

Nonetheless, the sage bush was still hanging on well into January. There were still some thin, curled leaves clinging to life until last week. But with snow forecast, I knew that would be the last of my sage until late spring. I grabbed the last remaining leaves on Thursday night and stowed them away in the fridge.

I wanted those last leaves to have a fitting, wintery use, and this morning we made scones with them: walnut and sage scones with a brown butter maple glaze, to be exact. This recipe was the runner up in a Food52 contest for best use of sage and walnuts. To be honest, this recipe appealed to me more than the winner, a pumpkin rugelach with sage and walnut. (Pumpkin-flavored rugelach? If you’ve ever had Gus and Paul’s version of the cookie you’d most likely agree that squash is not necessary.)

I must confess that Rich helped me a great deal with the baking this morning: My herniated disc has been slowing my kitchen production to an almost stand-still. Rich had the wise idea to make eight scones instead of the four the recipe suggested. A mini version of the cookie proved much less of an irritant to my reflux. Although the original recipe calls for full fat Greek yogurt, we used a low-fat version, something that I now keep in the house as a mild snack for me. And we loved the grated frozen butter tip; we will definitely be utilizing that trick in other baked goods.

The scones were glorious, rich and extraordinarily delicious. A wonderful way to begin a Sunday morning.

And one last thing: If you could ask four questions of the Boston Globe‘s advice columnist, Meredith Goldstein, what would they be? Here are my four questions.

Walnut and Sage Scones with Brown Butter Maple Glaze, from Food52.com

Makes 4 normal-sized scones, or 8 mini-scones

Scone Ingredients
1 stick frozen butter, of which you will use 4 Tbs.
1/2 cup toasted walnuts
1/4 cup milk
1/4 cup Greek yogurt
1/2 cup all-purpose flour

scant 1/8 cup sugar (2 Tbs.)
1 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1 teaspoon sage, minced or more to your taste

Brown Butter Maple Glaze Ingredients
1 Tbs. butter
1/8 cup maple syrup (which I find at a deep discount at Ocean State Job Lot)
1/3 cup confectioner’s sugar
1 Tbs. milk or cream, use enough to slightly thin the glaze

Directions
1. Heat oven to 425 degrees
2. Grate 4 Tbs. of butter and place in freezer until ready to use
3. Whisk milk and yogurt together, set aside. (If your kitchen is warm, place in fridge until needed.)
4. Mix together flours, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt and sage. Add frozen grated butter and toss until butter is well-coated. Gently stir in milk mixture with a spatula just to combine.
5. Place onto floured bench and knead a few times until it comes together. Gently press into a 1/4″ thick square, then fold up long sides in thirds (like folding a letter) then fold up short sides until you have a small tall square. Place in freezer for five minutes on a floured plate.
6. Place on floured bench and gently fold or roll into 1/4″ thick square. Place enough walnuts to generously cover the surface, then press walnuts into the dough so they stick. Gently roll dough into a log. With seam facing down, press into rectangle — it will be about 6×4 and an inch thick. Using floured knife, cut in half then cut each half into triangles.
7. Place on silicone lined (or parchment paper) baking sheet. Bake 18 — 20 minutes until browned. Let cool.

8. Make the glaze: Melt butter in small saucepan and lightly brown, add maple syrup. It will bubble vigorously. Once bubbles have subsided, whisk in confectioner’s sugar, add enough milk or cream to thin glaze slight (until it looks ‘spreadable’). Drizzle or brush over scones. *Note: If you end up with a thick glaze, just spread on with a spatula and call it icing, no one will be the wiser.

Worth the Wait

Writing this blog, I sometimes feels like an air traffic controller: clearing some recipes I like for a safe landing, putting others in a holding pattern while I tinker with them, and turning away others altogether. I sift through magazines, cookbooks, food blogs and the hundreds of recipes that are emailed to me in hopes to bring you something good. Sometimes I can’t tell by reading it if it’s going to work, and the only thing to do is to give it a shot. I can report that celery root and vanilla soup tastes as peculiar as it sounds, so I’ll spare you that one.

I try to keep my recipes seasonal, meaning sometimes I’ll have to flag recipes and remember them months later. That’s what happened with this recipe for spiced kumquats, which I came across in November when I reviewed The New Complete International Jewish Cookbook for JewishBoston.com. The recipe I tested at the time, a butternut squash soup with lime and ginger, was very good, but I had to, had to, bookmark a recipe that described the unpeeled fruit as becoming “translucent and tender. The flavour is superb.”

This particular cookbook is 632 pages long, and I read every word of it. This was the only time the author described a dish as “superb.” So I bookmarked the recipe for December, when kumquats would be everywhere, and made the recipe then, and stuck the jar in the back of my fridge and let the spicing begin.

Turns out Ms. Rose was correct; the flavour is indeed superb. In this instance, I navigated and translated this British recipe. Since most American spice cabinets don’t have mace, I learned that nutmeg is grown on the same tree as mace, and have substituted a few scrapes of it instead.

Spiced Kumquats from The New Complete International Jewish Cookbook by Evelyn Rose

This recipe halves beautifully.

You need to make this at least 3 weeks before serving, and they keep in the fridge for at least 3 months.

Ingredients 

2 lb. fresh kumquats

2 1/2 cups sugar

1 stick cinnamon

6 cloves

1/8 teaspoon nutmeg

2 cardamom pods

1 cup cider vinegar
Directions

Place the kumquats in a saucepan, barely cover with water and simmer covered for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, dissolve the sugar with the spices in the vinegar. Bring to boil and cook for 5 minutes.

Drain the kumquats and reserve the cooking liquid. Place them in the spiced syrup and, if necessary, add some of the reserved liquid so that the fruit is barely covered. Simmer, covered, for 30 minutes. Remove from the heat and leave uncovered for 24 hours, turning in the syrup once or twice.

The next day bring it back to a boil, drain the fruit and pack in jars prepped for jamming. Bring the syrup back to boil and boil it hard to thicken slightly. Pour over the kumquats with the spices. Cover and refrigerate.

Bean Counter

I don’t know how and I don’t know why, but a few months ago I was invited to a liquor tasting. Although I do enjoy a nice gin and tonic — Hendrick’s with a muddled cucumber, thank you very much — I am really not much of a drinker, and especially not now with the reflux. But the sound of a night of free alcohol and free appetizers was too good to turn away, so on a random Tuesday night I found myself in a function room at the Hotel Commonwealth in Kenmore Square.

I honestly don’t remember names of any of the liquors I tried: I gave my card to a woman sampling a beet infused alcohol and talked tattoos with a man from a whiskey distillery in Brooklyn.  There were lamb sliders, and chicken wings the girl next to me described as “the best” she’d ever had, and there was a great cheese platter. If memory serves, it was from Formaggio Kitchen, and it had some really nice examples of American cheeses: Humboldt Fog goat, Maytag Blue – you get the picture, good cheese. Someone accidentally forgot to put spoons in the dishes for the local honey and candied nuts that were placed on the side of the cheese – and when I told this story later to Rich, he was a little embarrassed that I’d actually asked for them to track down the spoons. I personally think it would have been a shame if the food they’d meant to serve got tossed in a wastebasket at the end of the night, but that’s just me.

Now, there are two things common at these free events: attractive women doling out samples of the free product, and lots of fun swag given away that has been labeled with the name of their good.  The Icelandic vodka company had messenger bags; I scored a salmon pashmina (yes, pashmina!) scarf from the Italian orange-flavored liqueur. (I just want to make clear that I am not not saying the names of the alcohols because I don’t advertise products on Cheap Beets, but because I honestly don’t know what I was drinking that night.)

And then there was the vanilla-tinged scotch. I was schmoozing with the beautiful woman doling out samples when a couple of people approached the table and asked if they could help themselves to free t-shirts. “Of course!” she replied. “Help yourself.” Now, I hadn’t noticed the t-shirts on the table, but what I had noticed was the display the company had her set up. I was standing in front of a glass jar brimming, and I mean brimming, with whole vanilla beans. There must have been at least 50 standing in front of me, and so I asked her if maybe I could have a few of the beans. (Yes, Rich was even more mortified by this part of the story.) She was a bit surprised by the question – I guess she was more used to getting asked for her phone number than baking ingredients – and I explained that vanilla beans are quite expensive and her bosses might not be happy if they were to disappear. She winked and said she’d look the other away; I grabbed not one but two beans and tucked them in my purse.

I actually forgot about the beans until the next day, when I was waiting for the bus and kept thinking someone was smoking a pipe nearby. The beans rested by my phone, so I had a gorgeous sniff of vanilla every time I got a call. They were still in my purse when I had my class that night. I showed my booty to my classmate the professional baker Joyce (she of the fudge cookie fame). She examined them and gave a sniff, and announced they were actually very good quality. She told me I could wrap them in foil and freeze them until I found a use for them, but she also suggested I make my own extract by sticking them in a small glass jar of vodka and forgetting about them for six months.

But what, I implored, should I bake with them? “Oh no,” Joyce shook her head, “baking with vanilla beans is a waste.” She explained that the only time vanilla beans should be used is in cold dishes. In almost every instance that a baking recipe calls for fresh vanilla beans, a teaspoon or two of extract can be used instead. “But don’t use that chemically fake stuff they sell cheap the grocery store!” she warned. “Always look for real vanilla extract from places like Madagascar and Tahiti.” Joyce said she actually buys hers by the gallon, which fluctuates wildly in price; she’s bought it for a low of $75 to a high of $124. It all depends on the hurricanes and stormy weather. The past few years have been brutal on the baking industry due to the astronomic price of vanilla extract. Who knew?

So the recipe I have for today – creamy rice pudding – can be made with a fresh vanilla bean, but why waste it on something that’s been cooked in a crock pot for hours? This recipe takes leftover rice and makes it into a sweet and creamy dessert. Quick tip: You can freeze leftover rice (or quinoa); it defrosts and heats up in a breeze. I tossed in a few cardamom pods and a scrape of nutmeg — mild spices that won’t upset the reflux. I always have dried cherries in the house from Ocean State Job Lot, but you can replace their appearance with more golden raisins. If you do still insist on using a vanilla bean for your baking, they sell whole vanilla beans in the gourmet section of Home Goods for a few dollars less than you’d pay at the store. My friend Sara takes a note from Mark Bittman and buys hers in bulk off of Amazon. But really, just use the extract.

And one last thing before I get to the recipe: I had mentioned a few posts ago I had some exciting news about a project I was working on. Well, I am pleased to announce my new column “The Four Questions” on JewishBoston.com. Each week I’ll be asking a Jew around town doing interesting things four questions (Passover joke, get it?). In the next few weeks you’ll see interviews with the Globe’s advice columnist, a politico, an ethnomusicologist and a personal chef. Please feel free to drop me a line if you know someone I should be interviewing.

Crock Pot Rice Pudding

Ingredients

2 2/3 cups milk

2 eggs, beaten

4 whole cardamom pods

1 teaspoon vanilla

½ cinnamon stick

1/8 teaspoon fresh nutmeg

½ cup white sugar

½ cup brown sugar

1/3 cup golden raisins

1/3 cup dried cherries

2 cups cooked rice

Directions

Combine all ingredients except for the dried cherries and golden raisins in crockpot. Add rice. Stir.

Cook in crockpot on high for one hour, stirring intermittently. After one hour, add the dried fruit, turn crockpot to low and cook for one more hour, continuing to stir intermittently. Enjoy!

Three Steps Forward, Three Steps Back

Things I should not do with my injured back but have anyways: 1. Run for the bus. 2. Pick things up off the floor. 3. Use heavy pots.

But there were all good reasons why I had to:

1. Running for the bus. I was actually feeling much better by Tuesday afternoon; I credit the acupuncture. I was on my way back from the hospital, where I’d gone to pick up the film of my MRI so I could show it to the surgeon on Thursday. The trip back from the hospital involves two buses, and if my timing was right, I could smoothly make the second transfer. The bus’s timing was impeccable, but I’m a little slow-footed these days, so I had to run, screaming for them to hold the bus. They did, I got on, and then my back started screaming back at me.

At this point, you’re probably asking why didn’t I just look up when the next bus was coming on my smartphone? Well, that would be because I am one of the last 30-somethings who does not have a smartphone. I have a flip phone, and I text the old-fashioned way, which my friend Brian (another hold-out) likens to using a manual typewriter or a telegraph. On the plus side, my lack of a smartphone is the only thing standing between me and a crippling Words With Friends addiction. But I digress.

2. Picking things up off the floor — if by “things” I mean an afternoon snack that fell off my desk. Sure, I have a cloth napkin, real fork, spoon and a bowl in my desk, but none of that helps me if I’m eating popcorn. Things fall. And there is no way I should leave them for Rosa, who comes in the evening to empty the garbage and clean the bathrooms, to clean up my mess.

3. The heavy pots. Well, I had to eat! Yes, I know that Rich is a wonderful cook; his soup was excellent. But left to his own devices, his offerings differ a great deal from mine. Saturday he made a rotisserie chicken. (Yes, we have rotisserie. What, you’re telling me you don’t? Story for another time.) Sunday he made a pot roast. By Monday, I felt I needed something to balance out all the animal leftovers in the fridge. And so, in keeping with my failure to stay out of the kitchen when ill, I trudged into the kitchen and heaved my heavy pots onto the stove. Oof.

I had been eyeing a recipe in Judy Rodgers’ The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, and Monday seemed like the perfect night to boil some kale. Yes, you heard me. Boiled kale. And let me tell you, we are boiled kale converts. I want to grow old with boiled kale, and definitely with the soggy bread that comes underneath it.

Rodgers actually gives four different ways to eat the boiled kale, but I’ll just be sharing the way I did it. After the kale was boiled – I used stock instead of water for a flavor boost, and left out the chili pepper because of the reflux – I poached eggs on top. Then, I spooned out our servings onto thick crusty slices of bread I’d laid out in shallow bowls. The result was not unlike Zuni’s panade recipe, but much healthier and faster to make.

We actually then both supplemented our bowls of magic with additional protein: Rich put some thinly sliced pot roast on top of his, while I added some chickpeas I’d cooked up in the pressure cooker last week and stuck in the fridge, just in case. Thanks to my pressure cooker, I was able to boil my kale in a quick 6 minutes. If you don’t have a pressure cooker (and you really should, ahem) it’ll take about a half hour, but it’s well worth it.

Boiled Kale with Poached Eggs adapted, ever slow slightly, from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook

Ingredients

For about 4 cups:

Generous 8 ounces kale (I just used a plain old bunch of kale, and didn’t bother measuring it)

1 ½ cups diced yellow onions (6 ounces)

5 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

A pinch of red pepper flakes or a small dried chili (optional)

2 garlic cloves, slivered (optional but very delicious)

3 to 4 cups stock

Directions

Trim the kale of any discolored or damaged leaves.( I, personally, wash each leaf separately through cold running water.) Rodgers suggests washing the leaves in several baths of cold water. Once washed, place each leaf, one at a time, on a cutting board, and cut away the thick, woody stem that leads up to the leafy greens. Discard/compost. Once the ribs have been removed, stack the leaves and roll up a few leaves at a time, then slice 1/8 inch thick.

Place the onions and oil in a 4-quart saucepan and set over low to medium heat. Cook, stirring once or twice, until the onions are translucent, but still firm, about 4 minutes. Add the optional chili and garlic and the kale, and stir as it wilts into a heavy mass, about five minutes. Add stock and cover by ½ inch and bring to a simmer. Cover and simmer until the kale is tender but not mushy, about 30 minutes; add stock if necessary to keep kale just submerged.

Transfer the boiled kale and its liquid to a wide sauté pan and bring to a simmer. Crack 1 egg per person into the pan, taking care to space them an inch or so apart. (OK, I actually crack my eggs into ramekins to check for bloodspots, and then pour the eggs into the pan.) Drizzle the eggs with extra-virgin olive oil, cover, and cook at a bare simmer until done to your liking. Spoon each ragged egg, with plenty of extra kale and broth, onto a piece of toasted thick, crusty, chewy, peasant-style bread that you will have laid in a bowl (Feel free to rub your pieces of toast with a freshly cut garlic clove half.) Serve with a knife, fork and spoon.

Setback

Well, gosh. First and foremost, thank you so much for all your kind comments last week, on the blog, in person and over e-mail. You really know how to make a lady feel loved. Second, sorry for not coming back sooner to share good food. See, remember how I complained about my back? It turns out it wasn’t a pulled muscle, but a tear in the cartilage in my lower back. To answer the two questions you are now asking: Yes, it does hurt; quite a bit, and yes, they gave me some excellent pain killers. I’m also going to an acupuncturist twice a week and am being treated with Chinese herbal medicine. I’m seeing the surgeon on Thursday.

I’ve also been working on another project which I hope to share with you soon…

Anyhow, I stayed home from work for a better portion of the week with a heating pad pressed against my back. It hurts to sit for too long, so then I stand for a little bit, until that hurts… you get the picture. All this back pain has kept me out of the kitchen. This afternoon I stood by the counter and prepped some roots for roasting, and about 5 minutes in I had to call it quits and Rich kindly took over the project.

So the recipe I have for today has been vetted by me, but has been prepared by my sous chef Rich. (I know, I tell people all the time I won the husband lottery.) This morning I woke up to the scent of household cleaning supplies as he had spent the morning cleaning the kitchen, the bathrooms, and was onto his second load of laundry.

It had been very cold last week, and this recipe would have been perfect if I had made it then. Of course, we are now experiencing the “January thaw” Old-Time New England Cookbook talks about, although there’s been nary a snowflake to melt.

Now, about this recipe: It’s a mushroom barley soup from Mollie Katzen’s Moosewood Cookbook, which I feel is one of those desert-island cookbooks. The first time I used this recipe was in my early twenties, when a guy I had a crush on off-handedly mentioned he loved mushroom barley soup. I “coincidentally” showed up the next day with a gallon Ziploc bag full of it. Good stuff.

When most people think of mushroom barley soup, they think of something thick and porridge-like.  This is more of a broth with chewy bites of barley and mushrooms. I’ve altered the recipe a little bit for the reflux: removing the sherry, and changing the soy sauce to tamari to create a second layer of umami, as both the mushrooms and the tamari are chockfull of it. The result is almost meaty, even though the dish is completely vegetarian. (It could also be made vegan by substituting oil for butter.) The mushrooms used here are white button; nothing fancy. The onions are slowly sautéed in a separate pan until they are translucent and have lost their bite, as was done to the garlic. I’ve also eliminated the fresh black pepper Katzen calls for. If someone at your table finds it lacking, just make sure the grinder is nearby. But honestly, this soup doesn’t need it.

With a slice of leftover challah, this made a very nice lunch. I used a small, handmade bowl, which was about 1/3 smaller than a regular soup bowl. You have to be careful not to eat large portions with the reflux; an overstuffed stomach can cause a lot of discomfort.

Mushroom Barley Soup Adapted from Mollie Katzen’s Moosewood Cookbook

Preparation Time: 1 ¼ hours

Ingredients

½ cup uncooked barley

6 ½ cups water

1-2 Tbs. butter

1 medium onion, chopped (about 1 ½ cups)

2 medium cloves garlic, minced

1 lb. mushrooms, sliced*

½ to 1 tsp. salt

4 Tbs. tamari

Directions

Place the barley and 1 ½ cups of the water in a large saucepan, or a Dutch oven. Bring to a boil, over, and simmer until the barley is tender. (20 to 30 minutes).

Meanwhile, melt the butter in a skillet. Add the onions and sauté them until they are completely translucent but not browned. Add garlic, mushrooms, and ½ tsp. salt. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until everything is very tender. About 10 to 12 minutes. Stir in tamari.

Add the sauté with all its liquid to the cooked barley, along with the remaining 5 cups of water. Simmer, partially covered, another 20 minutes over very low heat. Taste to correct seasonings, and serve.

*I realize that the packages of button mushrooms are 10 ounces, so if you’re using one of those, reduce the water by a cup, and the tamari by 1 Tbs.

Cough, Cough

Five years ago, right around this time, I started coughing. I coughed in the morning, I coughed in the afternoon, I coughed in the evening, and when I put my head down at the end of the day, I coughed even more. Nothing seemed to help; in fact, lozenges, hot tea, and sips of water only seemed to aggravate it. Some doctors thought I had asthma and began treating me with steroids. Others suspected it was a nervous cough that would go away once I got married that June. But after our wedding day, while we were on the cruise ship for our honeymoon, the coughing seemed to be even worse.

In August of that year, after enjoying a rich meal at the French restaurant Sel De La Terre during Restaurant Week, my cough was worse than usual. “You know,” Rich began, “I don’t think you have asthma. I think eating is making you sick.” And he was right. It turned out I had severe acid reflux – Gastroesophogeal Reflux Disease or GERD, to be more precise. Basically, the coughing was me choking on stomach acid. I know, gross.

Having figured out what was wrong meant I could start treatment and get better, but we soon discovered just how sick I was. Nearly everything I ate ended with me coughing. And I started to cut back on foods that made me sick, which, as it turned out, was pretty much everything I put in my mouth. Sure, there are certain trigger foods – chocolate, citrus, mint, spicy foods, alcohol, pickled things, caffeine and fat — but most fruits, and even many vegetables, were making me cough.

I settled into a diet of plain rice, grilled fish or grilled chicken, sashimi, rice cakes with a shmear of jam, pretzels, and because they were fat-free, jelly beans and black licorice. I saw a nutritionist who recommended quinoa and amaranth, grains that would keep me healthy and wouldn’t irritate my stomach. But overall, my diminished options led to me losing a lot of weight. On June 24, 2007, my wedding gown was a size 10. By January 2008, I was a size 4. I was thin, but I was absolutely miserable.

Slowly, I began adding foods back into my diet and gained back some weight. But by February 2009, the coughing came back and was even worse than before. I went back to my horrible diet, and again lost a ton of weight. Things seemed to have found a proper balance for the next two years, but by August 2011, I was coughing again. I ignored it as best I could, but my coughing was once again being disruptive.

I finally saw my ear nose and throat doctor on Thursday afternoon who informed me my throat was as irritated as it was the first time she met me in 2007. “I know what to do,” I sighed. “But I really don’t want to. I have a food blog. What’s the point of a food blog if I can’t eat food?” My plan was to keep on cooking food and to pretend I wasn’t sick. But since this is going to impact what I’m able to eat (and cook), I’ve decided to come clean.

Hi, I’m Molly Parr, and I have acid reflux so bad, that there are times in my life I can’t eat. I don’t want to stop eating through this newest course of treatment, so you’re coming on the journey with me. I might offer a recipe with notes suggesting how a dash of Aleppo or Srichacha can kick things up a notch, but I will most likely ignore my own advice.

I told my doctor how the winter time, with all its low-acid roots, would make things less difficult this time. But then I remembered all the nice citrus that brightens cold January mornings and I started to get whiny.

It will definitely be a fine line at times. A mellow garlic in a soup will probably not irritate me as much as a garlicky dressing brightening up a raw kale salad would. There will be more grains this year, harkening back to the nutritionist’s advice of an ancient grain diet. This past weekend I made a dish of a parboiled onion, chickpeas and boiled turnips and carrots which was all tossed together with some low-fat Greek yogurt. I ended up having to pick out all the onions because they were too pungent for me. This isn’t going to be easy, I know that for certain, but it will be an adventure. I entertained while I was sick and plan on continuing to do so. I think there will be more braises and stews in my future, which is just fine for January.

This recipe from Cook This Now, the newest cookbook by Melissa Clark (she of the stuffed pumpkin fame), is the perfect example of a dish that can be altered to combat reflux. One can skip the minced raw garlic step as well as ignore the suggestion of sprinkling Aleppo when serving. We decided to throw caution to the wind tonight and added the minced garlic: the result was extraordinary. We had a slew of Parmesan rinds in the fridge which we added to our pot, but if you skip the cheese, this dish is vegan.

White Bean Stew with Rosemary, Garlic and Farro

Ingredients

1 pound dried cannellini beans

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, more for drizzling

5 garlic cloves, peeled

1 celery stalk, cut in half crosswise (reserve celery leaves for garnishing)

1 large onion halved lengthwise from root to stem so it holds together

1 whole clove (stick in the onion half)

2 rosemary sprigs

2 thyme sprigs

1 bay leaf

Piece of Parmesan rind, if you like

2 ½ teaspoons kosher or coarse sea salt, more to taste

1 cup faro, rinsed (We used wheat berries which I first soaked and then cooked for 30 minutes in the pressure cooker)

Flaky salt, such as Maldon or fleur de sel

¼ teaspoon Turkish or Syrian red pepper such as Urfa, Maras or Aleppo

Chopped celery or parsley leaves, for garnish (optional)

Lemon juice and/or Parmesan cheese, for serving (optional)

Directions

If you have the time and would like to soak your beans ahead, this will shorten your cooking time. Put the beans in a large bowl and cover with several inches of water. Let soak for as long as you can. Overnight is optimal but even a few hours will hasten the cooking.

When ready to cook, drain the beans and place them along with the oil, 3 of the garlic cloves, the celery, and the onion in a large pot over medium-heat. Bundle the rosemary, thyme, and bay leaf together, tie securely with kitchen twine, and throw it into the pot (or just throw the untied herbs into the pot, though you will have to fish them out later). Add the Parmesan rind, if using. Cover everything with water and stir in the salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium and allow to simmer, partially covered, until the beans are soft. This can take anywhere from 1 to 3 hours, depending on how long (if at all) you soaked your beans and how old your dried beans were when you go them.

A test of doneness is to place a bean in your palm and blow on it (the natural thing to do since it will be hot). If the skin breaks, it’s ready. Of course, tasting is a better way to tell. If your bean pot starts to look dry before the beans finish cooking, add more water as needed. At the end of cooking, the water should not quite cover the beans. (If it’s too liquidy, ladle the extra out and discard.)

Meanwhile, while the beans are cooking, prepare the farro. In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook the farro, pasta style, until softened. This could take anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour, depending upon what kind you use. Drain well.

Mince the remaining 2 garlic cloves

When the beans are cooked, remove and discard the onion, celery, herbs, and Parmesan ride if you used it (you can leave the garlic cloves in the pot; they are yummy). Ladle half of the beans into a food processor or blender, add the minced raw garlic, and puree. Return the bean puree to the pot. (You can skip this step and just stir in the minced garlic; the broth will be thinner but just as tasty).

Serve the beans over the farro, drizzle each portion with plenty of olive oil, then sprinkle with good flaky salt, red pepper, and celery leaves or parsley. If the stew tastes a bit flat, swirl in some lemon juice at the end to perk up the flavors. Grated Parmesan cheese on top is also nice. But make sure not to skimp on the oil, salt and red pepper when serving, unless you have reflux.

  • You can really substitute any dried bean you like for the cannellini beans. This basic bean recipe will work with any of them, though cooking times will vary.
  • Look for semi-pearled farro. It cooks more quickly than whole farro – 20 minutes instead of an hour.  If you can’t find farro, you can substitute wheat berries.
  • To add some color and turn this into more of a whole meal, add a bunch or package of spinach, or a small bunch of kale (torn into pieces). Simmer until the greens wilt before serving.