Saturday, August 28, 2010

Here is Your Challenge

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: a cook needs three basic tools in her kitchen: a great knife, a nice cutting board, and a decent soup pot.  The soup pot goes by another alias, the Dutch oven.  Like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, when I clicked on that link and perused the Dutch ovens available from, I came across a gorgeous, gorgeous basil-green Staub cocotte.  I am now inventing reasons why I need this beauty, such as the luxury of being able to make a soup or stew in my old Le Creuset and a batch of baked rice in my new Staub.  (I love Luisa’s/Francis’s Baked Rice recipe, though I make a half-batch and I still use a full tablespoon of oil.)  As Tania might say, I covet you, green Staub cocotte.

But this post isn’t supposed to be about my greedy kitchen dreams; it’s about how you could win a gift certificate to spiff up your own set of kitchen tools!  Enough of you said nice things about my new Santoku knife that I thought it only fair that I give you the chance to win your own knife—or whatever else you might like from or any of the CSN Stores.

Quite Versatile

For those of you who are wondering, the hand model above did NOT come with my knife.  But I do love the spice market’s worth of seasonings that Matt gathered together to make his signature okra dish, the one I ask him to make every time we buy okra at the farmers’ market.  He’s so nice that he always says yes to my okra suggestion.  I don’t even have to wink or wiggle my eyebrows suggestively, which is good because I don’t really do coy.  And you know what?  Neither does he.  Maybe we’re both just lazy, but we’re happy with it.

Here is your challenge, if you feel up the to task.  If you’re interested in winning a $60 gift certificate to CSN Stores (and I don’t know why on earth you wouldn’t be!), leave a comment on this post telling me what your all-time favorite summer recipe is.  It could be as simple as a fresh peach or caprese salad, or it might be more elaborate, like a favorite recipe you make on the grill or a homemade ice cream that you churn by hand.  Whatever it is, make me hungry and if you like, provide a link!  This giveaway is open to residents of the United States and Canada because that’s where CSN delivers.

I’ll pick a winner randomly in a week.  This contest will be open until September 4.  Good luck!

Saturday Morning…

It's a Coffee Morning

Saturday morning is such a sweet experience.  I can’t help but love it, even on days when the lab is calling my name and I’ve got plans, lots of plans, for a time of day that is best spent in pajamas.  This morning was a little easier than the last few Saturday mornings—I had no work meeting and just an hour’s worth of work to get done.  It was quick and painless, and then I hopped back on my bike for a leisurely ride over to Brazos Natural Foods for the weekly pitstop.  Man, I love that store!  I always get great deals on great food, like 99 cents for a bottle of Organic Valley’s pourable yogurt (more about that in a moment) and a big tub of organic sour cream for $1.99.  (I see muffins in my future.  Any other suggestions for what to do with a surplus of sour cream?)

I am a little tired today, but I am F*R*E*E*! until tomorrow morning.  I’ve declared the rest of the day a work-free vacation.  By declaring such a thing, I will not think about work.  Instead, I will read Walden for my Book Club get-together tonight.  I will to make a red lentil soup and drink hard cider and put my feet up for a while and maybe bake some cookies.

My day has already been pretty nice—even the work I had to do was fun in its own way.  But before work, it was a coffee morning for me.  I’ve been enjoying Columbia coffee from It’s a Grind; Columbia is described as having “full aroma, heavy body, and good acidity.”  It makes a mighty fine cup of joe.  Alongside my coffee I had my usual: overnight oatmeal topped with berries, banana, crunchy peanut butter, and a few knifetips of coconut butter.

Breakfast in Progress

Also, because it was Saturday and because I am a glutton, I drizzled some homemade fudge sauce over the berries, which were unsweetened and rescued from the freezer.  Homemade fudge sauce is my friend.

I’ve been trying different combinations of milk and yogurt in my overnight oatmeal, and my new favorite pick for yogurt is Organic Valley’s pourable berry yogurt.  It’s got a great mixed-berry flavor and it’s not too sweet.  The pourable yogurts make for a more porridge-like bowl of oatmeal, which I like very much these days.  Less chewing means less work for me!

This afternoon I’ve got two more stops to make: one to Blue Baker for some great bread—maybe a loaf of cinnamon raisin today?—and one to Albertson’s for ginger, fresh cilantro, and a jalapeno for tonight’s soup.  After that, I’m looking forward to some kitchen bonding.  Friends, I hope your Saturdays are filled with good food and good people.  “To hunger is to be alive, and to hope.”  Crescent Dragonwagon, Passionate Vegetarian.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Intensely Strawberry

Jamming at Home

I like to think of myself as the type of person who would enjoy making her own jam.  But the truth is that I’ve never made traditional jam of any kind, nor have I canned a single thing.  I love to cook, but I haven’t gotten into the old/new-fashioned habit of putting things up in jars.  My style is more cook-and-eat-as-I-go.

I think there are two things that contribute to my lack of effort in the jam department.  One is that I’m not a gardener.  I love gardens deeply, but I don’t have one to call my own, or even one that I share with others.  Right now I don’t even have a plant because I gave them all away when I moved to Texas last fall.  It was very hard to give away my plants, but I just didn’t have the means to take them with me.  I still miss those plants.

The other thing that gets in the way of a jam session is that I am incredibly greedy about fresh fruit.  When the fruit is at its peak of freshness, I see no reason, no reason at all, to apply heat of any kind to it.  I just want to eat it raw, dripping with juice and sun-kissed flavor, until the last days of summer have faded into the smoky evening nights of autumn.

But here’s the kicker: I love jams, jellies, and fruit preserves.  I like their intensity, the way they make a piece of buttered toast feel like something special.  I like their versatility too—use them as condiments at the table or use them in cooking or baking for a burst of sticky fruity flavor.  Perhaps it wasn’t surprising, then, that when my eyes landed on a recipe for “Fresh Fruit Jam” in Ani Phyo’s latest book, I could not stop thinking about it.  And once I’d made a batch, I could not stop making fresh fruit jam.

Ani’s recipe is ridiculously easy: 1 cup of your favorite fruit, 1/4 cup of pitted Medjool dates, a few minutes in the food processor, and ooh—fresh fruit jam!  The dates add that sticky sweetness that fruit usually acquires with the help of sugar, pectin, and some heat.  But Ani’s recipe is so much easier than that—no heat, two ingredients, and just a spoon and the food processor to clean.  I’ve been making strawberry jam using frozen organic strawberries, which solves the fresh fruit issue I mentioned earlier.  I measure out about a cup of frozen strawberries into a glass measuring cup, let them thaw, and then pour everything—berries and juice—into the processor along with three fresh dates, pitted and chopped.

My strawberry jam is almost addictively good.  It’s a little sweet, a little tart, and intensely strawberry.  The texture is softer and looser than a traditional jam, but it’s too thick to call it a sauce.  I’d say it’s somewhere between jam and sauce.  I like to spoon it over my bowls of overnight oatmeal or dollop it on top of Carr’s crackers spread with ricotta cheese.  It makes for a great afternoon snack or a bite to eat before a good work-out.  It’s also good straight off the spoon, which I consider to be the cook’s treat after making a new batch of jam.  It’s called taste testing, and I highly recommend it. 

Check Out That Jam!

Fresh Strawberry Jam

From Ani’s Raw Food Essentials by Ani Phyo

Makes about 1 cup

In my kitchen, this jam keeps well for at least a week.

1 cup frozen strawberries, thawed

1/4 cup chopped and pitted fresh Medjool dates

1)  Add strawberries and dates to the bowl of a food processor.  Blend them together until the consistency becomes thick and a little jammy.  You can stop when the dates are still in larger chunks or process for a longer time to get a more even consistency.

2)  Spoon the jam into a jar, seal the jar with a lid, and store it in the fridge.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Keep Cool, Stay Calm

On a Lunch Break

Wow, it feels really good to be home now.  It’s been a long week.

Work has turned into a pressure cooker, and I’m trying to keep my cool and stay focused.  I think I did okay this week, but I only did it by leaning heavily on my family and Matt, all of whom came through for me like shining stars.  It’s always tough when you feel like your performance is being examined under a microscope; little mistakes start to look like enormous errors, and you start worrying about things that normally you’d be able to brush off without breaking a sweat.  With all of this extra stress, I’m finding it more important than ever that I take good care of myself: eat nutritious food, get enough sleep, try not to worry too much.  That last part is always the hardest for me.

One thing I’ve been doing this week which has been really lovely is taking a real lunch break, away from the lab and my computer.  Usually I just sit at my desk and read blogs while I eat, but I think it’s more of a break if I actually leave my work space.  You would think that in August, it’s not a good idea to eat lunch outside if you live in Texas, but I’ve found a little shady spot that is just perfect for a noontime break.  It’s nice to sit outside in the shade, where it’s not too hot and you can feel the breeze on your bare skin.  I eat my salad and people-watch or just stare off into the middle distance, not thinking about anything.  I try to take a few deep breaths and remind myself that it’s just a job—the most important thing is that I do my best.  If I’ve done that, then there is nothing more I could have done.

The kitchen has been a comfortable refuge this week, though I admit that my cooking ambitions are low.  With the leftover dressing from last week, I made a delicious lentil salad with fresh tomatoes and yellow bell peppers and some leftover caramelized onions.  It was refreshing and filling and so easy—just some light chopping and mixing because I’d cooked the lentils earlier in the week and then tossed them in the fridge for safe keeping.  I’m also experimenting a bit from my new raw foods cookbook, Ani’s Raw Food Essentials, and finding some great stuff in there, like her raw foods “cake” which I, being very naughty, topped with hot fudge sauce.  Oh my.  I know hot fudge sauce isn’t exactly the healthiest dessert, but sometimes you just gotta go for what you are craving.  I wanted something warm, sweet, and rich to put over my cake made of cashews and dates, and fudge sauce hit the spot.  I have no regrets.

I’m looking forward to dinner tonight, which I think will be a remix of recipes that I’ve shared with you before: leftover Moroccan Carrot and Tomato Soup, freshly baked cornbread, and some sort of salad or slaw with cabbage, like Nicole’s Mexican Coleslaw.  Tomorrow, I’m thinking about picking up ingredients for another Nicole-approved recipe, this time for a vegetarian adaptation of this Steak & Potato Salad with Horseradish Dressing, substituting black beans for the steak.  So many of Nicole’s suggestions have given me wonderful meals, and I’ve been craving a potato salad for some unknown reason.  Potatoes just sound good to me right now, and with corn and green beans and a kicky, creamy dressing?  Yes, please—I’ll grab my plate!

It is so nice to sit here and write about food and recipes and delicious things to make and eat.  I hope it’s as nice for you to read as it is for me to write.  Happy Saturdays to you all—may you stay cool and calm and well-fed in these dog days of summer.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Fresh Herbs, White Beans, and a Request for Ideas

I love it when friends or readers suggest recipes to me.  It makes the recipe feel special when it comes with an endorsement like that, and special recipes are more fun to cook.  Not too long ago, my sweet friend Nicole sent me a link to a new EatingWell recipe for a white bean salad over which skewers of shrimp are served.  I had seen the same recipe in the August 2010 issue and thought it sounded interesting: canned white beans tossed with a lemony dressing brimming with fresh herbs.  The soft creaminess of the beans is highlighted by crunchy celery and quartered cherry tomatoes add some visual brightness.  I was sold.

During this hot summer month, what is better than a punchy, refreshing salad that requires no oven or stove time, just a few minutes of patient chopping and mixing, tasting and seasoning?  If you don’t have your own herb garden, the fresh herbs are a bit of an investment, but sometimes I think it’s worth it to pony up for the extra flavor.  The dressing is a sensory experience unto itself: a green slurry, intense with herbs and heavenly olive oil—I used my best stuff for this salad.  It’s hard to stop sniffing it, with all those scents mingling in one bowl.

Green Slurry with Cool Whisk

Nicole noted that the dressing is rather strong, and she and her husband ate it over couscous, which I think is an excellent idea.  I was too lazy last night to make anything else to go with it, so I ate it two ways: over toasted rye bread, which I don’t particularly recommend, or by itself, which I liked a lot.  The strong flavors really appeal to me here—they just seem so vibrant and fresh, so summery and alive.

Unglamour Shot

Now that the salad is made, I have fresh chives, oregano, and sage in the fridge.  I’m stumped about what to do with them!  It seems like a waste not to make the most of my herbal treasures.  So I’ll ask you, generous readers: what’s your favorite thing to make with one or more of those fresh herbs?

Summery White Bean Salad

Adapted from this recipe in EatingWell

Serves 4-6

The link above will take you to the version with shrimp in it.  My version here is vegetarian.  You’ll probably have a bit of dressing left over unless you want the salad’s flavors to be really strong.  I’m planning to make another salad with my leftover dressing, probably one with wheat berries, cubes of cheese, and maybe some grated carrot.  I love me some wheat berries.

My favorite part of this salad is the celery.  It adds a welcome crunch to an otherwise soft salad.  Make sure your celery is really fresh and crisp!

1 tsp. finely grated lemon zest (from about 1 lemon)

1/3 cup fresh lemon juice (from 1-2 lemons, depending on size)

3 tbsp. best-quality extra-virgin olive oil

2 tbsp. finely chopped fresh oregano

2 tbsp. finely chopped fresh sage

2 tbsp. minced fresh chives

1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

1/2 tsp. salt (I got to use my pretty pink mineral salt here!)

2 15-oz. cans of white beans, drained and rinsed

12 cherry or grape tomatoes, quartered (I used grape tomatoes, in honor of Nicole, who loves them)

1 cup finely diced celery

1)  In a medium or large mixing bowl, whisk together the lemon zest, lemon juice, olive oil, oregano, sage, chives, pepper, and salt.  Set aside 2 tablespoons of this dressing; you can add it later if you think the assembled salad needs more flavor.

2)  Add the white beans, tomatoes, and celery.  Toss gently to mix them together with the dressing.  Taste and adjust the seasonings, adding more dressing if you like.  Serve immediately or refrigerate until serving time.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

An Afternoon Greeting

Howdy, friends!  Pardon my delay today.  I had a busy morning.  In fact, I don’t think I’ll be able to stop by this space until Saturday afternoon for the next month or two.  I have a new work commitment on Saturday mornings and I’m trying to get my errands done early in the day to avoid the worst of the Texas heat.

I have lots to share with you today!  I’m pretty excited.  First of all, look at this beautiful pink mineral salt I found at Brazos Natural Foods this morning.  I think it’s gorgeous.

Pretty Pink Salt

I tried to capture its sparkle for you, but I’m afraid I got more bag glare than sparkle.  I like the darker speckles in this salt.  They give it some personality.  And for the record, when I tasted this salt off the end of my finger, it tasted salty.  Which is good to know.

On Wednesday, we got a teaser of a rainstorm.  It consisted of little more than a few spittles of rain.  I ran through it on my way to the gym, and in hindsight I wished I’d walked as slowly as possible, to savor the cooling wetness.  When it rains here, it often brings some temporary relief from the heat, which feels amazing and makes me think I might make it through my first Texas summer.  Right now I think that question is up in the air, but I’m trying.  The clouds made for a subtle, lovely sunset that I couldn’t resist photographing, just to remind myself that there is always beauty around if you just look for it.

Hidden Light

I have a big announcement to share with you.  I wasn’t sure if I was going to let other people know about this, but I decided that I could share this news with you, dear reader.  I have started writing a second blog.  It’s called Feels Like Flying, and it’s a journal of my running adventures.  I post short summaries of my work-outs: what I did, how it felt, what my goals are, and random discussion about things like Food Network and the weather (always an important topic for an outdoor-loving athlete).  I don’t take myself too seriously on this blog because exercise, for me, is a way of escaping the stress of the day and reconnecting to my physical self.  I spend so much time living in my head that it’s essential for me to do things that help me remember that I’m a whole person, not just my brain.

A few of my favorite posts from Feels Like Flying are:

* A Starting Line (my first post!) 

* Waterbound

* Even on My Off Days

In other news, did you all see Shauna and Danny’s amazing video about their new book, Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef: A Love Story?  Wow.  That’s about all I can say.  It’s beautiful and inspiring, a tribute to good food and family and love.  Please watch it—I think you’ll enjoy it.

In other food bloggery news, my friend Laurie is back in the saddle, with eight new posts this month after being on hiatus since April.  Welcome back, Laurie!  Her post about braiding garlic is so fun and funny—do check it out.

Finally, I loved this Salon piece featuring a beautiful video encouraging all of us to enjoy the time we spend alone, with just ourselves for company.  I’m a firm believer in alone time, though I realize that not everyone is as much of a hermit as I am.  Still, the video and its poetry are so sweet and inspiring that I can’t help but smile whenever I watch and listen to them.

I hope your day is going well, my dears, and you make time to laugh and dance before the day is through.  See you tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Open to Opportunities

This post is the second half of a two-part series.  Didn’t read the first part?  It’s right here!

Sometimes I try to figure out why I keep writing this blog, putting myself out there in what feels like a very public way.  It’s a food blog, yes, in the sense that I talk about food and recipes and cooking a lot.  But it’s also more than a food blog.  It’s a blog about me and the way I interact with the world.  As the title suggests, it’s about life and love.  Those topics are so enormous that it can seem like a daunting task, trying to write in such a way as to capture some whisper of truth or wisdom.  Sometimes it feels much safer to write about oatmeal or cabbage.

My friend Ammie encouraged me to go beyond the food, to put myself out there in a bigger and bolder way.  She should know something about putting one’s self out there; I maintain that she is one of the most incredible writers I’ve ever read, and her stuff just keeps getting better.  Still, even with encouragement, being vulnerable in public is scary.  It can be embarrassing too, as I’ve proven to myself with a pair of posts that I can’t even read now because they’re so…I don’t know.  Awkward and weird, like I’m trying too hard.  Perhaps because I was.  I wanted to keep following the narrative thread of how one finds comfort and peace in an imperfect relationship, with an imperfect yet wonderful and kind person.  I wanted to better understand how to take responsibility for my own happiness even as I confess that my happiness is connected to other people.

Is that not the ultimate paradox for the modern person?  We’re supposed to be happy on our own, without a romantic partner, but deep down inside, many of us long for romance and connection.  But then we fear that we’ll have to sacrifice too much for that romance, to the point where we feel like we’ve lost ourselves.  It’s no wonder that I spent the better part of my twenties feeling lost and confused: I did not know how to resolve all of these conflicting ideas.

I got really, really lucky when Matt came into my life because he’s got his act together.  That meant that I could be the messy, uncertain one in our relationship, and I like to think I’ve done justice to that role.  For his part, Matt has been very gracious about the mistakes I’ve made and the way I’ve pushed against boundaries, real or imaginary.  He has consistently been my biggest cheerleader and my best listener, and his influence in my life is easy to see.  I doubt that I would have stayed in the lab after my difficult years in graduate school.  I also doubt that I would have come to the decision to embrace the unpredicted challenges and opportunities that this blog and my writing life would bring to me.

It was Matt who pointed out to me that the material benefits to blogging are, to be quite frank, not worth that much money.  Up until now, I have been very uncomfortable with the idea of blogging to make money.  I’m not sure I even want to make money from Life, Love, and Food, though I did receive four pounds of peanut butter and a really great knife, which I’ll tell you more about in a moment.  I realized that if and when I received offers because of this blog, I could decide at that time if I was interested.  I hated the idea of being a blog whore, someone who is obviously getting paid to convince her readers to buy stuff.  Whoring goes against the spirit of this blog.  I give it up for free!

So I decided to be open to opportunities, open but picky.  The picky part was Kath’s suggestion, whom I e-mailed a long time ago.  I asked her how she navigates all the offers she gets through KERF, and her answer was spot-on: she looks for offers that fit the spirit and theme of her blog, and she makes no promises.  She remains in control of her writing and her opinions.  I like that.

A few months ago, I got the best offer a control freak could want: $60 toward any item from CSN’s on-line stores, then write a review about the item you chose.  The timing was perfect because I was already dreaming about buying a Santoku knife, and CSN’s sells a great selection of Santoku knives in a wide range of prices.  I picked out this beauty, a J.A. Henckels knife to match the rest of my set.

Shiny Beauty

This knife is awesome.  It’s big and sharp, yet lightweight enough that it doesn’t strain my hands.  I have small hands, and sometimes chef’s knives feel heavy and overwhelming.  But this Santoku knife is just right: all the power of a chef’s knife with a sleek design that makes it easier for small hands to wield.  The straight edge of this knife works well for me too, as I am an up-and-down chopper.  This knife doesn’t cut things—it glides through them as though tough vegetables were butter.  I might be exaggerating a tiny bit, but it really is a pleasure to cook with my new knife.

There’s more to the story too.  When I placed my order for the knife, I got confused, as I often do.  I didn’t fill out the on-line form correctly—I missed the spot where I was supposed to enter the code for the gift certificate.  Without fully intending to do so, I ordered the knife without using my gift certificate at all.  I panicked a little bit and contacted Caitlin, my CSN person.  The very next day, she wrote back to me and together we straightened out the whole mess.  Just a few days after that, I received my shiny new knife.

I was really impressed with the way Caitlin handled my mistake.  She was a total pro, kind and speedy, and not once did she make me feel like a moron.  There’s nothing worse than a store that makes you feel bad for not being the ideal customer.  I would buy something from a CSN store just for the great customer service.  In fact, I did buy something else from, and the whole process was flawless.  And that purchase, a gift for a loved one, is making its recipient happy in the kitchen, which is what I care about most.

Recently, Caitlin contacted me again, asking if I wanted to host a giveaway or something similar on behalf of CSN Stores.  I wrote back, saying that I felt like I ought to let more time pass, or else I risked diluting the qualities of this blog that make it unique.  But now I’ll pose the question to you, dear readers.  Would you like the chance to win a prize from CSN Stores?  After all, a giveaway is really about making YOU happy.  What do you think?

Happy cooking, friends, and thank you, as always, for reading.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Defiantly, I Bake

I’ve been trying not to complain about the heat too much, in real life and on this blog.  It seems rather pointless and obsessive to waste words on something that I really, truly cannot change.  I live in Texas.  Summer is hot in Texas.  The end.

But I did think that I could explain how August here is distinctly different from August in the Midwest.  The eighth month of the year is pretty miserable in much of the United States, but at least in Texas, every building has air conditioning and no one thinks twice about using it.  When I lived in Chicago, I didn’t have an air-conditioning unit in my apartment, and there were only about 4-5 days each summer during which the temperatures soared into the miserable zone.  And lucky me, I had a beautiful ceiling fan in my bedroom, which made even terribly hot nights much more comfortable.  During the days, I would find air-conditioning at the library or the lab, and I’d camp out until I felt chilled enough to brave the heat again.  The system worked well.

I should mention this too: I loved summers in Chicago.  Because winter lasts for six months, summer is a glorious, bare-skin, flirty-skirts, mornings-at-the-farmers’-market season.  The air is fragrant, the sun is warm, and everyone is happy.  I would spend hours walking along the lake or wandering through downtown, enjoying the way my heart felt light.  Summer was like a drug, and I could not get enough.  I’m such a thermophile.

Summer in Texas is weird.  For one thing, it feels to me like it starts in April.  I could hardly bear to be inside during April this year—I could feel the old summer addiction starting to flare up.  In the evenings, I went swimming or I’d hop on the bike and go for a long ride, soaking up the summery ambiance.  We had wildflowers and gorgeous sunsets, and I bought new shorts to celebrate the season of bare legs.  It was great.

April turned into May, which became June.  Things started heating up, but still, it was pretty fun to feel hot instead of cold.  My bike rides became sweatier, and my skin turned a little brown, despite my devotion to SPF15.  In July, the days were hot, but after dusk, things cooled off a little bit and I started running more errands in the evenings, trying to avoid the heat of the day when possible.  We had a lot of rain in July, which really cooled things off and made the air smell like grass and dirt.  The rain made me happy because it meant that I could go for evening walks even before dusk, and the cool air would feel refreshing.  If I was lucky, there would even be a breeze carrying that delicious rain scent right up my nose.

And now we have August.  I’ve never liked August—it’s always been too hot and too long for its own good.  It was both the worst of summer and the end of summer, because after August, school started and that was definitely the end of summer.

A Texas August is like a vampire: it sucks the life right out of you.  I spend most of my time indoors now because the heat is so intense, but I do have to venture outside to commute to work, to run errands, and to buy food.  I can’t write a food blog without any food, people!  I find that it’s manageable to be outside for 15-20 minutes, but it leaves me exhausted—I’m practically hallucinating with heat-induced visions.  I do a lot of my outdoorsy stuff in the morning or in the evening when the sun is fading from the sky.  The important part is to avoid the combination of mid-day heat plus sun.

It feels like summer is the indoor season down here.  I know I shouldn’t do it, but if I’m going to spend all this time inside, I must bake.  It’s wrong, right?  I should not have the oven and the air-conditioner running at the same time.  But I do.  It’s one of my worst environmental sins.  I’m a carless vegetarian, but I like to bake in August.  Oh well—nobody’s perfect, and I certainly never said that I was.

The Wooden Spoon Takes a Rest

Not too long ago, the lovely Shauna of Gluten-Free Girl posted a most delicious-sounding granola recipe.  I was powerless to resist the urge to have my own batch of it.  I was also powerless to resist the urge to tinker with the recipe in some important ways.  For one, I left out the dried fruit altogether.  I’ve learned that I prefer fresh fruit with granola, so I like to make my granola without fruit.  The other change I made was that, cheapskate that I am, I opted not to use maple syrup and instead made a brown sugar syrup.  Brown sugar is way, way cheaper than maple syrup, and I had a big bag of it on hand.  I do love maple syrup, though, and love it in granolas.

I made this granola a few weeks ago, when it was a bit cooler here in Texas, but I’ll make it again, heat be damned.  In defense of my baking, this recipe makes an enormous batch, so even though the oven will be on for close to an hour, the reward is big.  That means that I don’t need to make more granola for a few weeks, especially because granola keeps like a champ.  Two weeks after making it, this granola is still crisp and delicious.  It tastes like a crunchy oatmeal cookie, sweet and flavored with spicy cinnamon and ginger.  Somehow it tastes almost buttery to me, which is a neat trick for a recipe that contains no butter and just a little bit of oil.  Most of the fat comes from nuts and seeds, so this is a seriously wholesome granola.  I recommend you make your own batch and taste it for yourself.

Granola Is Best with Blueberries

Crunchy Brown Sugar Granola

Adapted from this terrific recipe on Gluten-Free Girl (thank you, Shauna!)

Makes a HUGE batch!

I like to eat this crunchy granola with fresh blueberries and milk.  It makes for a great afternoon snack.  It’s also good eaten plain—the better to enjoy all that crunchiness!

1/2 cup water

1 cup brown sugar, packed

5 cups rolled oats

2 cups coarsely chopped raw almonds

1 cup pumpkin seeds

1/4 cup sesame seeds

2 tsp. cinnamon

1 tsp. ginger

1/2 tsp. salt

2 tbsp. mild extra-virgin olive oil

1)  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Spray a large rimmed pan really well with cooking spray.  I use my 10x15-inch roasting pan for this.

2)  In a small saucepan, mix the water and brown sugar together.  Bring the mixture to a boil to make a thick syrup, whisking frequently, then set it aside and let it cool.

3)  In a very large mixing bowl, mix together the oats, almonds, pumpkin seeds, and sesame seeds.  Sprinkle the cinnamon, ginger, and salt over the oat mixture, then mix the spices into everything else.

4)  Whisk the oil into the brown sugar syrup that you set aside.  Mix the wet ingredients into the dry oat mixture.  Mix really well!

5)  Spread the granola mixture into the prepared pan.  Bake for about 48 minutes, stopping to stir things up every 12 minutes.  48 minutes was long enough to make my granola a toasty brown color without burning it.  Your baking time may vary from mine, so I recommend keeping a close eye on it for the last 15-20 minutes.  Trust your nose—if it smells done, check it to see that it hasn’t burned.

6)  Let the granola cool in its pan, stirring occasionally.  Store at room temperature in sealed containers.  Serve with fresh fruit and milk or yogurt.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Friday Night Flake

To preserve my reputation as a serious and upstanding citizen, I probably should be embarrassed by the evenings when I give up any sense of what is “proper” and “healthy.”  For example, a real adult does not take a nap when she gets home from work.  Instead, she does something responsible, like making dinner.  She also doesn’t ride a bike in the street without a bike helmet, or debate endlessly about whether to go to Blue Baker for dinner.  A real adult makes up her mind and gets things done.

Last night I surrendered my sense of responsibility and just did what felt good.  For most of the week, my digestive system has been a little off—don’t worry, I won’t share details—and it’s been making me feel more tired and spacey than usual.  Add the intense August heat to the mix and you’ve got a miserable combination.  When I got home from work last night, I laid down on the couch and it felt so great that I took a nap—a delicious hour of sleeping in my cool, quiet apartment while the sun blazed outside.  Afterward, I drifted in and out of sleep for a bit.  Then I peeled myself off the couch and headed out into the steamy Texas evening to pick up provisions for dinner.

I had tomatoes sitting on the kitchen table, and I wanted to use them up before it was too late.  I was craving a Tomato Bread Salad; since I already had the tomato, I just needed bread and spinach to seal the deal.  This plan gave me the perfect excuse to visit my fountain, which is one of my favorite things to do in College Station.

Splashing Waterfall

The fountain was gorgeous, as usual, and so was the Ciabatta bread I found at Blue Baker.  I’ve grown more fond of Blue Baker after realizing that the best place for me to buy bread is at the restaurant with the word “baker” in its name.  I had been buying my bakery-style bread at Albertson’s, but lately they haven’t been carrying the Pugliese bread that I like.  Blue Baker’s Ciabatta is a very good replacement and ideal for a juicy tomato bread salad.

After buying my bread, I almost—almost—stayed for dinner at Blue Baker, mostly because the idea of someone else cooking dinner for me began to feel irresistible.  But I resisted and headed over to Albertson’s, where I found organic spinach, mild peach salsa(!), tasty-looking chips for the salsa, and something to soothe my churning belly.

Good for the Belly

I was looking for my usual organic lowfat plain yogurt, but it was nowhere to be found and its shelf tag has disappeared!  Instead, I found Lifeway Lowfat Strawberry Kefir, which brags that it contains “seven to ten billion CFU’s [colony-forming units] of its 10 exclusive live and active probiotic cultures per cup.”  Probiotics are the only real solution I’ve found for my belly woes.  I would have preferred something organic, but at least this kefir smoothie is made with milk from cows that aren’t treated with hormones and they use an organic sweetener.  It’s better than nothing!  And their smoothie is delicious—I had a small glass of it for dessert and found it lip-smackingly tasty.

After my lazy evening of shopping, salad-eating, and smoothie-drinking, I retired to my writing studio, where I watched The L Word on Netflix.  I was so excited to find that The L Word is available for immediate viewing on Netflix!  Due to a broken DVD player, I stopped watching it a long time ago during season 2, I think, so finding it this week was like rediscovering a bunch of old friends.  Season 3 is starting to get a little over the top—too many characters and an awful lot of them in unhappy places in their lives—but I’m enjoying it nonetheless.  There’s nothing like fake drama to make you appreciate your relatively drama-free life.

One episode was enough drama for me last night, so I climbed into bed, read my new book until after midnight, and finally turned off the light, grateful to have a fresh new Saturday to enjoy in the morning.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Sweet, Tangy, Summery

My kitchen overfloweth with recipes for you, sweet blog readers!  I hardly know where to begin.  I thought we could go in alphabetical order, so for today, C is for Cabbage.

Prepped and Ready to Go

Discovering cabbage has been one of my great food moments in recent history.  I didn’t grow up eating cabbage, and I was always very suspicious of coleslaw with its globs of spooky mayonnaise and mysterious slivered cabbage.  Even today I don’t care much for creamy coleslaws, but a cabbage salad dressed with great olive oil and citrus?  Yes please!

I have learned that I love raw cabbage salads.  I love how crisp and fresh they taste.  Prepping cabbage is one of my favorite kitchen tasks; I just love how the cabbage falls into neat crinkled slices with a few strokes of the knife.  Now that we know what a frugal woman I am, I will admit that the price of cabbage is pretty attractive too—usually it’s about 69 cents a pound.  It’s like the stores are practically begging you: please, take our cabbage home with you!  Please!  To which I answer, “Yes, sir!  I’ll do it!”

I like to keep things pretty simple with my cabbage salads.  Because I usually think of them as supporting players for a richer meal component, I don’t think they need to be too fancy.  My newest cabbage salad does, however, call for a fancy olive oil.  A tangerine olive oil, in fact.  I’m reviewing Pasolivo’s extra-virgin olive oil as part of Project Olive Oil, and when I placed my order, I could not resist ordering one of their specialty infused oils along with a bottle of regular olive oil.  I had never tried an infused olive oil, and my interest was piqued.  Also, I figured if I’m going to pay twelve bucks in shipping, I’d better get my money’s worth, so not only did I order two bottles of oil for myself, I bought a bottle to give to Matt for his birthday.  He liked it!

The tangerine olive oil, along with a generous squirt of citrus juice, is used to dress a few cups of cabbage ribbons and half a diced green apple.  Sprinkle on some salt, toss everything together, and voila!  A sweet, tangy, summery salad of green on green.  The cabbage is crisp and earthy, the apple sweet and crunchy, the oil rich and fresh.  A final selling point on this salad is that it keeps well.  In fact, when I ate it, deskbound at work, as leftovers from the previous night’s dinner, the flavor was improved after a night in the fridge.  Now that’s impressive.  And delicious.

Green on White in Blue

Cabbage Salad with Green Apples and Citrus

Serves 2

2 cups of sliced green cabbage

1/2 green apple, cored and diced (about 1/2 cup)

1/2 tbsp. tangerine-infused olive oil, such as Pasolivo’s

1/4 of a lime or 1/8 of a regular lemon (in wedge form, please)

Sprinkle of salt

1)  Place all of the ingredients except the citrus fruit and salt in a medium-sized mixing bowl.  Toss vigorously to lightly coat the cabbage and apple with oil.  Squeeze the citrus wedge over the salad, picking out any seeds that may fall into the bowl.  Toss again.

2)  Sprinkle a tiny bit of salt over the salad and toss again.  A little bit of salt highlights the other flavors, but be careful not to add too much or the salad will taste salty, which is not the goal here.  Serve.