Sesame Roasted Asparagus

Pitchfork Diaries asparagus



Something to do with asparagus right now...(and what I'm having for dinner.)

olive oil
sesame oil
toasted sesame seeds (a mixture of white and black, if available)

Heat oven to 350° F.

Toss asparagus stalks in olive oil and sprinkle lightly with salt.  Roast asparagus at 350° on a baking sheet in the middle of the oven, until tender.  Depending on the thickness of the stalks they will take about 15-20 minutes.  Half way through roasting gently move the stalks around, turning them over to cook evenly.

Allow the asparagus to cool slightly.  Dress with a delicate drizzle of sesame oil.  Sprinkle with black and white sesame seeds and toss to combine.

Serve as the base of a frisee or mixed greens salad topped with a poached egg and a very lemony vinaigrette.

Lentil Soup: my last lunch.

One year and three days ago, at 3:30 in the afternoon on 11/11/11, I was eating lentil soup.  I am able to tell you exactly that, as it was the meal I finished just as my water broke for the birth of my son.  Truthfully, it was lentil soup followed by a scoop of my husband’s homemade vanilla bean ice cream, topped with a generous drizzle of David Lebovitz’s perfect hot fudge recipe, and it may or may not have been then topped with a few crushed peanut M&Ms that had been unclaimed by trick or treaters eleven days earlier.  If there was ever a time to treat myself to a tasteful hot fudge sundae in the middle of the afternoon, my due date seemed the best day of any.

Standing at the edge of the new parent cliff, really having no idea what the next many weeks would hold for us, I had been furiously putting meals away for days and days.  I don’t know what I expected, but my level of anxiety was fairly appropriate.

And when I get anxious, I cook.

When someone is struggling, I cook.

When things seem grim and I have no idea what to do, out come the cookbooks.

And so for the very expectant weeks prior, I had been cooking and cooking.  Our chest freezer in the basement was a culinary tetris, packed tightly with calories to keep us going in the 3ams of the coming weeks.  Quart container after quart container of warming stews, gumbos, and soups were obsessively stacked alongside a half dozen bags containing fifty frozen dumplings each, devotedly hauled home from Chinatown in the city.  I may have been facing a month without leaving the house or having both hands free at once, but I was not going down on an empty stomach.  I didn’t know who I’d be on the other side of all of this, but I knew I’d still demand great food.

Lentil soup has been a comfort food staple for me through most of the very varied episodes of my life.  Cheap, simple, high in protein, and even vegetarian—for that twenty-year phase I went through—its sum is definitely more than its parts.  And this will always be the last thing I cooked as a person who wasn’t someone’s mom.

As soon as it gets dark before quitting time and a tiny chill shimmies under the door, I crave this recipe.  And eating it again this year, days before I became a person who is the mom of a one year old, I am brought right back to a year ago, or my lunch break room in graduate school, or the kitchen in my first apartment in New York, and also my tiny dark brown dorm fridge.

I look at the photo we snapped just before walking out the door to drive to the hospital, and am astounded by how I feel like I don’t even know those people.  But it is indeed me, as is the girl hosting her first dinner party in a studio apartment, or the girl with the giant mug in her window seat in college, all recognizing each other by the smells and tastes of the recipes that make up my life’s cookbook.

Happy first birthday darling boy.

Lentil Soup

Makes about three and a half quarts.
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 cups diced onion, from about one large onion
1 clove of garlic, minced
1 lb lentils, rinsed and picked over
1 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
4 cups crushed tomatoes and juice, bonus points for using your own canned tomatoes
7 cups stock (chicken or vegetable) or water
2 cups diced carrots, from about 4-5 large carrots
1 bay leaf
8 ounces fresh baby spinach leaves

In a large soup pot, gently heat the olive oil.  Add the onions and saute on medium-low heat until softened.  Add the garlic and continue to saute for a few minutes, lowering the heat if the garlic starts to brown at all.  Add the cumin and cinnamon to the pot, adding a bit more oil of the mixture seems dry, and saute the dry spices in the oil for a couple of minutes to wake up the flavors, being very careful not to burn.

Add the carrots, bay leaf, lentils, tomato, stock and a half teaspoon of salt, scraping any browned onions or spices stuck to the floor of the pot.

Bring to a boil and then cover and reduce to a simmer for one and a half hours, until the lentils are tender.  Taste and add more salt if desired.

Just before serving stir in spinach leaves, until just wilted.

Serve topped with grated sharp cheddar or a swirl of plain greek yogurt, and maybe some grated lemon zest.

The soup is even better the next day, and will keep in the refrigerator for up to five days. It can also be frozen, for emergency late-night nourishment.

Chinese Dumplings

Chinese new year begins tonight at midnight.  An integral part of the celebratory feasts are meat and vegetable stuffed dumplings.  Called jiao-zi in northern China, they are typically eaten right at the start of the new year.  Their crescent shape is reminiscent of the shape of ancient Chinese currency, silver and gold ingots, and eating them at the birth of the new year is thought to bring wealth and prosperity.

When I first moved to New York City in the mid-nineties, I had my first taste of really authentic chinese dumplings.  It was love at first slightly-burned-tongue.  More of an obsession, to be honest, as I would devour as many as I could afford, as often as I could justify.

Three years ago, my husband and I celebrated our honeymoon in China.  I had the wonderful good fortune of being able to learn a tremendous amount about the cuisine, with trips to many local markets, tremendous meals, and some cooking lessons at the Cloud 9 cooking school in Yangshuo on the banks of the breathtaking Li River.

One of the dishes we cooked in class were dumplings.  Here is one of our lovely teachers explaining how to fold the rounds of dough into the crescent shape.


So below are my recipes for both pork and vegetable dumplings.  I have adapted them through the years from what I learned in that class, what I've learned from a big assortment of great cookbooks, and most definitely from what I've learned from eating this favorite of any food I can think of.  On a desert island, these are what are coming with me.

I am sure there are Chinese grandmothers who will find unauthentic hues in some part of my recipes.  But they are as authentic as I've been able to learn through every best effort, and when I burn my tongue with that first divine chewy bite, send me back to China and Chinatowns I've loved, and make me feel very fortunate.


Each recipe makes approximately 60 dumplings.

Pork Filling (for 60 dumplings)
1 lb ground pork
4 inch piece of fresh ginger, unpeeled
1/2 cup scallions, white and green parts, thinly sliced
1 egg
1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine or medium-dry sherry
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 teaspoons sesame oil
2 tablespoons soy sauce

With the blunt edge of a cleaver or chef's knife, smash and bruise the ginger. Put into a 1/2 cup of cold water and let sit for at least 10 minutes.

Combine all other ingredients with the pork. Stirring in one direction, slowly add strained ginger water to pork mixture, making sure to squeeze out ginger to get as much juice as you can. Discard ginger solids. Stir until water is incorporated. Refrigerate until ready to fill dumplings.

You may pan fry a small spoonful of the filling to sample and adjust seasoning if desired.

Vegetable Filling (for 60 dumplings)
(Below is a combination that I enjoy and is fresh, bright and balanced. But these dumplings are a wonderful blank canvas for vegetable fillings in particular, and a great way to use seasonal produce throughout the year.)
3 large carrots
3 scallions, white and some of green parts
1 1/2 cups packed baby bok choy
8 large fresh shitake mushrooms
1/2 cup packed fresh spinach leaves
1 1/2 teaspoons salt, or more to taste
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 1/2 teaspoon finely grated fresh ginger (freeze first, and grate on a microplane for great results.)
3 teaspoons sesame oil

Grate or chop all vegetables as finely as possible and combine. Alternatively, you can chop all vegetables in a food processor, until it resembles a chunky paste. Combine vegetables with salt, pepper, ginger and sesame oil. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Dough (for approximately 60 dumplings)
(You can certainly use any of the round of dumpling wrappers that are widely available at grocery stores and asian specialty food markets, but if you have a little extra time, making the dough yourself is a well-rewarded effort.)
4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups water

Comine flour and salt. Make a well in the middle and pour in the water. Slowly combine from the sides of the well, and knead until all incorporated. Knead for at least 5 minutes, until the dough is smooth and elastic. Cover with a damp cloth and let rest for 20 minutes.

Alternatively you can make the dough in a stand mixer using the dough hook.

After the dough has rested, roll out on a floured surface, into a rope about the width of your thumb. Cut pieces a little less than an inch, so when rolled into a ball they are about the size of a large cherry. Keep unused dough under a damp cloth as you work.

Flatten the balls into a disk and then roll out into a circle about 3-3.5 inches in diameter, using more flour as needed. You can also run them through a pasta roller, at number 4 thickness.

(Please see video above.)
Place one circle of dough in the palm of your hand. With your finger, lightly wet the outer edge of the dough with water, to help make the seal.  Place about a teaspoon of filling in the center of the dough. Pinch the top and bottom together at one point, so that it is folded in half. Holding that point with one hand, use your other hand to make one fold on one side of the dough towards the center like a pleat. Repeat on that same side and then seal that half well at the top. Switch hands so the other is holding the center point. Do the same two pleats on the other side towards the center and seal.

Place finished dumplings upright on a baking sheet lined with parchment or slightly floured.
Dumplings can be frozen at this point, by placing the sheet in the freezer, freezing them individually. When frozen they can be removed from the sheet and consolidated to a freezer bag.

To Boil the Dumplings:
Bring a pot of water to a boil. Add fresh or frozen (directly from the freezer, no need to thaw) dumplings. Allow water to return to a boil and add one cup of cold water to the pot. Allow to come to a boil again and add one more cup of cold water to the pot. When the water returns to a boil, the dumplings should be cooked through. The addition of the cold water also keeps the water from boiling too vigorously and breaking apart the dumplings.

Dipping Sauce:
My favorite is:
3 parts soy sauce
2 parts Chinkiang vinegar, chinese black vinegar, or balsamic vinegar
1 part sesame oil

Mix well to combine.

Another version:
3 parts soy sauce
2 parts Chinkiang vinegar, black vinegar, or balsamic vinegar
Fresh ginger, peeled and finely diced, to taste
Sugar, to taste

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Catie Baumer Schwalb is a chef, food writer and photographer, who splits her life between the city and the country. Not too long ago Catie was a New York City based actress and playwright for more than a decade. She has her Master of Fine Arts from the National Theater Conservatory, and her Grand Diplôme in classic culinary arts from the French Culinary Institute in New York City. ... Read More

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