Easy, Satisfying Winter Dinner Recipe: Green Pea Stew

As I mentioned last week, my mom was in town this month, and I wanted to make the most of the opportunity to learn how to make some of my favorite foods from growing up. (I’ve been trying to recreate some of the Lebanese and Mediterranean dishes I remember with simple recipes for every day.)

One of my favorite meals was always this hearty green pea stew, “Bazalla.” I think when people think of Lebanese or Middle Eastern food, they are likely to think of kababs (and hummus). But in reality, for family dinners in homes you’re more likely to find stew-type dishes, even one-pot meals. You’ll often have a vegetable-and-meat dish, sometimes with beans and grains, served over Lebanese rice. And a lot of them will have a similar tomato/onion sauce base.

I had a feeling this meal was simple and quick to make, but was definitely still surprised by how easy it is. The total cook time is about an hour, but once you’ve chopped the onions, there’s no real work to do. You can multitask while doing work (in my case writing) or other things around the stove while it cooks. This makes about 6 large servings, so unless you’re a big group there should be plenty of leftover for a couple of days.

Ingredients

  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 2 large yellow sweet onions
  • 1 pound stir-fry beef of your choice
  • 3 packs of frozen green peas (12 oz each)
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 3 tbsp tomato paste
  • 2 cups water
  • Salt
  • Black pepper
  • Ground allspice
  • Ground cinnamon (or 1 cinnamon stick)

Instructions

1. In a large pot, heat the olive oil on medium high heat.

2. Add the onions and garlic to the oil. Season well with salt and pepper. Stir often, until golden brown, around 15 minutes.

3. Add the meat. Season well with salt, allspice and 1/4 tsp cinnamon. Stir frequently until the meat is browned, 3-4 minutes.

4. While the meat is cooking, combing the tomato paste with 1 cup of water. Whisk well. Add to the onions, garlic and beef, and bring to a boil. Then cover and simmer on low heat for 20 minutes.

5. Stir in the frozen peas and 1 cup water to the pot. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. The cover and simmer on low for 15 minutes. Turn off the heat and let it stand covered for five minutes.

Optional: Pour it over rice 

I like it both on its own as a veggie and meat dish, or poured over rice, “Bazalla ou Rez” (which is how most of these types of dishes are served in Lebanon).

Lebanese rice has a special, delicious twist that’s really worth it:

Ingredients

  • 2 cups white rice
  • 1/3 box vermicelli
  • 3 tbsp butter

Instructions

1. Boil 4 cups of water. Remove from heat. Soak 2 cups white rice in the hot water for around 20-30 minutes. (You could do this while the recipe above is simmering).

2. Break up the vermicelli to 1-inch pieces by hand.

3. Once the rice is soaked and vermicelli is ready, melt 3 tbsp butter on medium-low heat in a large pot. Drain the rice and discard the water.

4. Add the vermicelli to the melted butter. Stir until evenly brown, about 3 minutes. Then add the soaked rice. Stir together for less than one minute.

5. Add 3 cups of water and 2 tsp salt. Bring to a boil on high heat.

6. Cover and simmer on low for 10 minutes, or until the water drains. Just before turning off the heat, stir well.

Enjoy! So good.

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Gail Simmons & Curtis Stone on Falling in Love With Food

I really love what feels like a new trend in Los Angeles of having so many live talks and conversations happening all the time. It’s not just the usual book signings in bookstores anymore, though those are always great. There are now several groups organizing events across the city (usually related to a new book release) from ALOUD to Live Talks LA to the Los Angeles Times Ideas Exchange to Maria Shriver’s Architects of Change Live. One of my “to live deliberately” goals is to attend as many interesting in talks as possible (cost-and-schedule-permitting), and I hope to share more and more of them on this blog. (Like last week’s post about Jennifer Egan’s conversation with Marisa Silver at the Los Angeles Public Library’s main branch downtown).

I attended a talk featuring Top Chef judge Gail Simmons in conversation with LA Times columnist Patt Morrison in Beverly Hills on Sunday evening. Simmons has a new cookbook out, “Bringing It Home,” with recipes she developed based on the notes she gathered over the last few years while she travelled and tasted the world.

The theme of the night was, of course, food, but they touched on so many interesting facets that surround this basic human need.

Food and Memory

“We love food that has stories.” Morrison said early on in the discussion, and Simmions agreed.

“Food is very personal,” she said. “Food memory is a very powerful thing.” Most of her recipes are based on stories of family–especially her mother–and travel, often the two combined. She shared one story of a recipe based on Lee’s Diner on Main Street in Gloucester where she goes every year with her husband’s family.

And a few days after the talk, she shared this lovely banana and cardamom upside-down cake recipe on morning TV. The recipe was inspired by her mom, and how she always had banana bread in the house– but Simmons added her own touches (sour cream, cardamom) based on her experience with recipes and ingredients. I can’t wait to try it!

Food and Fear

After a general intro about the cookbook, one of the first things Morrison asked about was all the “pickiness” surrounding food today (of which I’ve been guilty of myself at some points, I have to admit), such as the gluten-free trend.

Simmons nodded knowingly.”Food phobia,” she said. “Food is yes very powerful, but also very scary. There are a lot of cultural issues that weigh into food…” especially related to body image. That drives a lot of the problems people have with food. At the same time, Simmons made clear that there are real cases when people do really need to be careful with what they eat. “There are also very serious autoimmune disease that are on the rise,” she said, listing celiac disease as an example, and the increase of children with severe peanut allergies as another. These, she said, are a real problems we should be concerned with.

“It’s sometimes hard to differentiate between the two,” she added, saying that in general there needs to be a balance.

“In my life, I was always taught that food is a great pleasure and a great privilege, and it’s a great luxury to be having the food we’re eating now.”

When Morrison asked her later in the evening what her “guilty pleasures” were, Simmons said,

“I try not to feel guilty about food…

Sure, there are some foods that she can’t resist the call to have (salt and vinegar chips, for example), so she may need to temper herself around them, but to her the idea of guilt shouldn’t exist.

Food and Politics

Simmons invited her friend and fellow Top Chef judge, Chef Curtis Stone, to join her on stage midway through the talk. One topic that was clearly important to both of them was food distribution, or the lack thereof.

“I think at large that the culinary world is very interested in helping,” Stone said, describing how most chefs are involved in their cities’ efforts to feed those who do not have enough to eat. But he stressed that “Food distribution is a political issue.”

Simmons agreed emphatically. “We are in a moment when access is the issue, and it’s not an issue of not having enough food in the country to feed people. It’s an issue of distribution. It’s on the political level, congress, lawmakers… I don’t think food banks are the solutions– they’re a band-aid that we definitely need.”

Food and Cooking

A topic that kept coming up through the night is how the link between food and cooking broke in our country for a while as people got busier and were no longer able to spend hours following a complicated recipe and making a perfect dish (though that’s fun sometimes, it is unsustainable on a daily basis). Morrison said that even looking at some photos in cookbooks can be intimidating to many and lead them to processed, quick foods.

“For me, it should be less about being perfect, and more about being holistic and fun,” Simmons said. “It should be something that gives you pleasure, and not something that gives you anxiety.”

There’s been a revival recently in people turning back to kitchens, with shows like Top Chef being a part of that. There’s also been an expansion in what we’re eating. “Our tastes in America swing all over the place, and that’s the beauty of living in a country with so many cultural influences and varied histories.” Simmons said, noting that diversity in taste and palates is an important feature in her cookbook.

I especially loved what she had to say about the joy of making your own meal:

“The best part is it comes together in an hour or less, and you can make something that people can enjoy. And that’s magical.”

She had specific tips to help people make it more convenient to cook. Being organizing is essential: thinking about the week ahead, planning recipes, discovering simple and interesting things, cooking in large batches, buying the right ingredients for the week, (and being conscious about not wasting food by matching meals to your own or your family’s schedule). She added that if cooking can be a family activity, that helps a lot as well. It becomes something for everyone to do together in the evenings, and brings people together, rather than being a chore for one person.

Stone chimed in, “If you fall back in love with food, that’s the important part.”

I really liked Stone’s closing thought about cookbooks themselves being a gift that keeps on giving. First you enjoy receiving them, then enjoy reading them through, and then you keep enjoying them as you try new recipes and make ones you love over and over again. That’s definitely something I’m going to keep in mind when giving gifts, especially with the holiday season ahead.