I began my cooking career at a vegetarian restaurant in Ithaca, New York. Although you’ve probably heard of the other vegetarian restaurant in town, I worked up the hill at the Cabbagetown Café. While we weren’t as famous, the food was quite good. (I say we were better, but I’m somewhat biased). I guess the public agreed since by the time we opened the door each day for lunch and dinner, there was already a line down the sidewalk of hungry locals and regulars waiting to get in.
We cooked everything from scratch from produce brought to us by farmers in the area, directly, before it was trendy or cool to pat ourselves on that back and write an article about it.
We just did it.
Farmers would come in lugging crates of dirty root vegetables, crispy radishes, and slender green pea pods, and we’d make what we could with them. The food wasn’t especially fancy, but we did do some creative things and almost everything was pretty delicious that we whipped up.
There was a creamy garlic dressing that was based on French aïoli, bowls of chili made with cashews (don’t laugh…it was good), and it was the first time in my life I ever tasted really good, freshly-ground, brewed coffee, at a time when most people were content scooping instant crystals into cups of boiling water and chugging that.
Sure there were some hippy-dippy things, like tempeh burgers, tofu-based sauces—and the cook who put everything from raisins in her enchiladas and spoonfuls of cinnamon in tomato sauce. But the soups were excellent, the spinach lasagne packed full of whole-milk ricotta and just-picked greens—if I was making it, I’d skip the cinnamon—and we couldn’t fry the corn chips fast enough to go with the best refried beans I’ve ever tasted in my life.
We didn’t have any machines, except for a blender, and used our hands to stir and chop. There was no white flour or sugar in the kitchen either…(!) We made our own bread each day from scratch, and had fantastic cornbread, which we’d serve very hot, slathered with lots of butter from the nearby Cornell University Dairy Store. Many of the recipes were published in Cabbagetown Café Cookbook, a compendium whose recipes hold up surprisingly well today.
One of our most popular popular lunch dishes was the Cabbagetown hummus; a slightly-chunky chick pea spread made with sesame paste and lemon juice. And lots of garlic. When I moved to Paris, I didn’t realize how popular hummus was here, but Parisians love it and it’s sold in small tubs in every supermarket and by Arab merchants at outdoor markets.
But it isn’t always very good and it’s so easy to make yourself, especially if you use canned or jarred chickpeas. Since the water is heavily calcified in Paris, dried beans can be stubborn to soften during cooking, so I don’t have any problems opening a jar. And since I no longer live in Ithaca or California, I don’t have to worry about things like preservatives or care about the planet anymore. And let me tell you, that’s quite a load off.
Oddly, when I was living in upstate New York, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident happened nearby and one of my co-worker’s mother was a nuclear physicist at nearby Cornell University. Right afterward, she said, “Everyone should leave here—now!” I didn’t go (which may explain a few things), but she and her family did, until the danger (allegedly) had passed. When I saw these homely lemons at the market, they reminded me of when we used to call oddities like this “Three Mile Island Lemons.”
I bought them because they were so homely that I feared no one else would give them a good home. So I guess I still have a bit of that hippie-dippy spirit in me.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
Adapted from the Cabbagetown Café Cookbook (Crossing Press) by Julie Jordan
Although I’ve never seen it on offer in cafés here, hummus makes a great tartine: an open-faced sandwich, which I would top with sprouts. If cooking your own dried chick peas: it takes about 1 cup (140g) of dried chickpeas to make 2 cups (350g) of cooked ones. Incongruously, at the vegetarian restaurant, we used a meat grinder to make hummus. Nowadays I use a blender (or food processor) to whip this together.
- 3 large cloves of garlic, coarsely chopped
- 1 teaspoon coarse salt
- 3/4 cup (180g) tahini (sesame paste)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/3 cup (80ml) freshly-squeezed lemon juice
- 2 cups (350g) drained canned chickpeas, (reserve the liquid)
- 1 cup (15g) gently-packed parsley leaves, preferably flat-leaf
- 1/8 teaspoon chile powder
- 6 tablespoons (or more) of chickpea liquid
1. In a blender, whiz together the garlic, salt, tahini, olive oil, and lemon juice until the garlic is finely-chopped.
2. Add the chick peas, parsley leaves, chile powder, and 6 tablespoons of chick pea liquid, and pulse until smooth. Stop the machine a couple of times during blending to scrape down the sides to make sure everything gets well-incorporated.
3. Taste, and add more lemon juice or salt if desired, and more of the chick pea liquid until it reaches a thick, but spreadable consistency. You can make it as smooth, or as coarse, as you want. I like mine mid-way between the two.
Serving: I make a well in the center and drip in some good olive oil and cracker pepper in the crater. Serve with toasted pita chips, baguette slices, or whole wheat crackers. Sometimes I’ll add a generous sprinkle of chopped chives or scallions along with the parsley to my hummus as well. It’s also good with raw vegetables, as a dip.
Storage: Hummus will keep in the refrigerator for up to four days. You can also freeze hummus, well-wrapped, for up to two months.