Sunday, April 27, 2008

Like Trying to Herd Cats

Being a houseguest is pretty awesome. There’s really nothing better than being offered a spot on someone’s couch for a few days: it’s so much more fun and casual and relaxing than hotel accomodations. As I say all of this, I am, of course, biased because hotel rooms are generally out of my price range, and I’d much rather spend my money on a thank-you gift for my hosts than a cash tip for the bellboy.

The best place to be a houseguest in late April is North Carolina. My goodness, is that place gorgeous! While Chicago struggles to shake off the last flakes of winter, North Carolina is all green and lush and warm. This place just begs you to kick off your shoes and stay awhile. And so that’s what I did.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that my original vacation plans were cancelled by the crappiness of American Airlines. This time I hopped on a United Airlines plane and a few hours later, I found myself zipping away from the airport with Matt in his snazzy new car. No cancelled flights this time; the plane even arrived early! It was almost like I was being repaid some sort of karmic debt incurred by the universe. I was happy to collect.

If you are someone’s houseguest, I think that you are more likely to be invited back if you are flexible, polite, undemanding, and helpful. These are my golden rules. What is a vacation but an opportunity not to plan everything down to the wire? Planning while on vacation is like trying to herd cats: it’s just crazy! As a fairly obsessive planner, I am happy to hand over the planning to someone else. In the case of this particular trip, because I wasn’t even supposed to be in NC at this time, spontaneity ruled the day, which was a very cool thing indeed.

My intrepid hosts were Matt, my long-distance paramour, and his lovely partner, whom I shall call Owl for her wisdom and vaguely owl-like appearance. I had told Matt, teasingly, that this visit was really about Owl. I was right.

Owl and I go back a few years, back to when she and Matt were living in Chicago. Upon meeting, Owl and I hit it off right away. We bonded over our wacky families and job anxieties, our general curiosity about the world and our desire to be understood by a kindred soul. She and I really are kindred souls, even though in some ways we are very different. Owl is outspoken and opinionated. She is smart and cool and artsy. She is the model of relaxation at home, stretching out with great pleasure on the couch or the floor, wherever it’s most convenient. She’s unbothered by tidiness of the lack thereof. She likes people, but she also really likes being alone and doing her own thing.

It had been almost two years since I last saw Owl in person. I was delighted to find that despite our spotty correspondence, we were able to pick up our friendship as though time stood still. A lot has changed for Owl, chiefly her career and residence. She seemed happier than I remembered, and for that I was grateful: it was during a rough patch in her life that we met. And the luxury of lots of unstructured time with her is something I had never really experienced before. We both like to linger, to drink tea and munch on snacks while spiraling deep into conversation. Since I was sleeping on her couch, there were many opportunities to nothing at all—together. It was time well spent.

Strangely enough, Matt and I didn’t have as much time together, just the two of us. There wasn’t much in the way of hand-holding and such, which was sad, since I only see him every few months if I’m lucky and he’s very good at holding my hand. What we lacked in physical affection we made up for in kitchen affection, which is almost as nice. I should be perfectly honest here: Matt is a much better cook than I am. He is AMAZING in the kitchen. It’s fun for me to cook with him because I learn stuff. As a teacher, he is patient and kind. We make a good team, one leading the other with plenty of ingredient sampling along the way. And wine. Lots of wine.

I should be humbled to cook with Matt since he’s so good at it, but the man loves an audience. It’s hard to be humble and an adoring fan at the same time, so I choose the latter and we’re both happy. Together in the kitchen, we toured the globe via food: tacos with spicy pico de gallo. Mind-blowing cheese fondue eaten with perfectly steamed broccoli and asparagus and toasted chunks of baguette. I had never eaten fondue before, a communal meal during which a pot of steaming, boozy cheese creates coziness and good cheer. It made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Matt likes to joke that I can’t handle really complex food, that I have to lie down after eating it. He’s right. If I hadn’t been so cheerfully tipsy off the wine and the fondue, I probably would have stolen away for a few minutes of shut-eye on the couch.

Finally, we had one meal which defied any sense of national borders or regional cuisine. This meal was a little more down-home than the fancy fondue, but it was truly a fusion of cultures and cooking styles—that is to say, it was memorable, delicious. We pretended that it was summer instead of spring, which is really easy to do in North Carolina; you should try it! Matt fired up the grill for corn on the cob, grilled onions, and—for his favorite vegetarian houseguest—grilled chickpea patties, topped with a cool cucumber raita. It was sort of like American South meets India, with total disregard for any sense of authenticity. To authenticity, I say meh—this meal was too tasty to worry about rules. Rules are for cat-herders.

Chickpea Patties
Adapted from this Eating Well recipe

I’m giving you two versions of this recipe. The first is the version I made for dinner with Matt and Owl; it’s a “big batch” version intended for the grill. You can make six palm-sized patties from the batter, which is perfect for three diners. The second version is a smaller batch intended for the stovetop; I make this version all the time at home for myself. Here, the patties are fried in a skillet with a spoonful of olive oil; the frying gives them a deliciously crisp, flavorful outside. In both versions, the inside of the patty is wonderfully rich and savory, almost a bit creamy in texture.

A word about the batter: this batter is rather wet and sticky. Don’t be alarmed! Shape your patties as best you can with your hands, and make sure the surfaces on which the patties are cooked are very well-greased; otherwise, you’ll lose that luscious, crispy outside of the patty when you attempt to flip it. The patties will firm up as they cook, making them much easier to handle. Also, consider having two pancake-flippers at the ready. I find it easier to flip them in the skillet if I use two flippers, one to slide underneath the patty and the other to hold the patty in place while I flip it over, still sandwiched between the flippers, before placing the patty back into the skillet.

However you choose to make these chickpea patties, they are a worthwhile entrée to have in one’s cooking repertoire. Definitely a keeper.

Big-Batch Grill Version
Serves 3 generously

2 16-oz. cans of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
8 scallions, trimmed and sliced

2 eggs
¼ c. all-purpose flour
2 tsp. dried oregeno
1 tsp. ground cumin
½ tsp. salt
Cooking spray
Salt and pepper to taste (for sprinkling on the patties)

1) Place the chickpeas, scallions, and eggs into a food processor. Pulse to combine them. Add the flour, oregeno (crumble it between your fingers into the batter to release more flavor), cumin, and salt, and pulse to combine.
2) Spray a large (I would suggest a 12-inch square or larger, depending on the size of your grill) piece of foil with cooking spray. Spray it very generously. With clean hands, shape the batter into thick patties about the size of your palm. Place each patty on the foil, separated by a few inches from the other patties. Sprinkle some salt and pepper on top of each patty and spray the tops with cooking spray.
3) Fire up the grill to about 250-300 degrees F, or a medium-ish flame. Cooking these patties is not an exact science. Place the whole sheet of foil, patties and all, on the grill and cook for several minutes on each side. Before flipping the patties, the side closest to the grill should be fairly firm and not wet like the batter; the texture of this side is the best indicator of done-ness. You can nudge your flipper under the patty; if it sticks a lot, the patty probably isn't ready to be flipped.
4) Eat chickpea patties, preferably with your favorite raita, tahini sauce, or even A1 Steak Sauce, which is, surprisingly enough, vegetarian(!).

Small-Batch Stovetop Version
Makes 4 patties; Serves 2-4 depending on what accompanies the patties

1 16-oz. can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
4 scallions, trimmed and sliced

1 egg
2 tbsp. all-purpose flour

1 tsp. dried oregeno
½ tsp. ground cumin
¼ tsp. salt
2 tbsp. olive oil or other oil for frying
Salt and pepper to taste (for sprinkling on the patties)

1) Place the chickpeas, scallions, and eggs into a food processor. Pulse to combine them. Add the flour, oregeno (crumble it between your fingers into the batter to release more flavor), cumin, and salt, and pulse to combine.
2) Heat 1 tbsp. of olive oil in a medium-sized skillet over medium-high heat. Divide the patty batter into 4 equal parts. Shape two of the parts into patties and carefully place them in the skillet. Sprinkle patties with salt and pepper. Fry the patties for 4-5 minutes on the first side. Flip them over, perhaps by using two pancake-flippers as I describe above, and cook the other side for 2-4 minutes. The cooked sides should be golden-brown and crisp. When the patties are done, remove them from the skillet and place on a piece of paper towel. Repeat this step for the remaining batter.

3) Serve patties and eat, either in a pita pocket with tahini sauce as Eating Well suggests, or with a knife and fork accompanied by the sauce of your choice.


daphna said...

Oooh, looks yum! And I actually have all of those ingredients. :)

Glad you had a fun visit!

Rosiecat said...

Hello, Daphna! That part you mentioned about having all the ingredients? That's another reason I love this recipe; it's one of my go-to recipes on busy workdays.

Hurray for chickpeas and vacations!