Friday, December 21, 2007

More Green Stuff

Quite by accident, I discovered another delicious way to keep eating those green vegetables through the winter: Spectrum Naturals Vegan Caesar Dressing. More specifically, top steamed broccoli with a dollop (or two) of this delicious, creamy dressing, and you, like me, might find yourself going back for seconds. Seconds! Of broccoli! It's a Christmas miracle.

Yes, this serving suggestion isn't much of a "recipe," but it's plenty good and keeps me motivated to keep fresh broccoli on hand. Isn't a quickie, healthful veggie recipe a wonderful thing this time of year? Between work and friends and parties and holiday preparations, I feel like I've been busier this month than I've been all year. But it's all good: vacation starts tomorrow and I'm headed home to Michigan for a few days.

The Winter Solstice is tomorrow, so Happy Solstice and happy holidays!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Eat Your Greens!

I’m not much of a seasonal eater. Any seasonality to my eating is probably more frugality than a strict adherence to eating what is local and in season. I am trying to embrace seasonal eating. If you remember, all the items that I made or ate off of the Summer Cooking Wish List were seasonal items: Rainier cherries, Lunar Gazpacho, and Dairy-Free Peach Sorbet, all bought or made and eaten at the height of summer deliciousness. That said, you won’t find me buying fresh berries in February because I’m just too cheap. Frozen berries, yes. Fresh berries, no.

It seems winter has come early to the Midwest. We’ve had snow on the ground for more than a week now, the temperature is frigid, and the days just keep getting darker. During this cold and dark month, all I want to do is hang out in my kitchen and eat chocolate chip cookies. Oh, and sleep. I could just hibernate until spring and that would be just fine with me. Unfortunately, I’m not a bear, so hibernation is not an option. And while a chocolate chip cookie at the end of the day is dessert, one shouldn’t make a meal out of them.
But my taste in food this time of year does not run to the foods that are best for me. Bring on the carbs and the cheese! Green vegetables, I have had enough of you for one year.

Or maybe there’s a happy compromise to be found at the corner of health and hedonism. At a time when salad has lost its appeal, we can find a place for our green vegetables by slipping them into hot meals that warm the kitchen, chase away the winter chill, and make you feel anything but deprived. Over the next few months, I will be posting my best ideas for winter-friendly ways to eat your greens. Once you’ve eaten your greens, you can have a cookie and turn in early. I know that’s what I’ll be doing!

Spinach Enchiladas
Adapted from
this recipe at
Serves 3-4

These Spinach Enchiladas are a lightened-up version of a delicious recipe I found at I love this recipe! The spinach filling is savory and creamy with ricotta cheese, and the corn tortillas start to disintegrate deliciously into a tomato-based enchilada sauce that complements the creaminess of the filling. This entrée is very filling, but it packs in a good serving or two of vegetables. Serve it alongside a vegetable (roasted sweet potatoes are good here) and call it dinner.

Nonstick cooking spray
1 tbsp. butter or olive oil
½ cup sliced green onions
2-3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 10-oz. package of frozen chopped spinach, thawed, drained, and squeezed dry
1 cup ricotta cheese (I like lowfat, but feel free to use any type you like)
Lots of salt and pepper or to taste
2 oz. cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese, shredded (or more to taste), optional
10 6-inch corn tortillas
2-3 cups of enchilada sauce (recipe for Cupboard Enchilada Sauce follows)

1) Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Spray a 9x13-inch baking dish with nonstick cooking spray.
2) Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a skillet. Add the green onions and garlic to the skillet and saute them for several minutes to tame those wild flavors. Add the spinach and stir everything around to mix it with the green onions and garlic. Cook for about 5 minutes.
3) Turn off the heat and stir the ricotta cheese into the spinach mixture. Add lots of salt and pepper to season the filling. Taste a bit to see if it needs more salt and pepper.
4) In a dry skillet over medium-low heat, heat a corn tortillas until it is soft and flexible (about 15-30 seconds). Spread ¼ cup of the spinach mixture in the middle and use a spoon to spread it lengthwise down the middle. Roll up the tortilla and place it seamside down in the prepared baking dish. Repeat this step until all the tortillas are filled or you run out of filling.
5) Pour enchilada sauce over the enchiladas. Cover the dish with foil and bake for about 15 minutes. If you are using the grated cheese, pull the dish out, remove the foil, sprinkle the enchiladas with cheese, and place the baking dish back in the oven. Bake for another 5 minutes or so, until the cheese is melted and lightly browned. Remove the baking dish from the oven and serve immediately. Because the tortillas start to disintegrate while they are cooking, this dish is a little difficult to serve prettily. Have the plates close at hand when lifting enchiladas out of the baking dish. And don’t worry if it’s a little messy.

Cupboard Enchilada Sauce
Adapted from Cupboard Enchilada Sauce, Passionate Vegetarian by Crescent Dragonwagon
Makes enough for 1 batch of enchiladas

Hopefully Crescent Dragonwagon and her publishers won’t come after me, a humble non-profit blogger, for posting a slightly adapted version of her recipe for this tasty, quick-as-a-wink enchilada sauce. If they do, well, I suppose this recipe will vanish mysteriously from my blog. I have used this sauce for every batch of enchiladas I’ve made for the past three years. No kidding. I think it’s great, but I’ll let you be the judge of that.

The Necessities:
1 14-oz. can of whole tomatoes (undrained)
½ onion, roughly chopped as needed to stuff it into a food processor
1 tsp. salt

To Jazz It Up (optional additions):
3 cloves of garlic (peeled)
Several spoonfuls of spicy salsa (highly recommended)

1) Place all the ingredients in your handy food processor*. Buzz to a chunky puree. Done!

*Some day I will tell you all the charming and unromantic story of how I came to acquire my food processor.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Pancake Love

I do believe that pancake-making is an act of love. Whipping up pancake batter is a cinch, but my goodness, all that ladling and watching and flipping, over and over again. Pancake-making is an eminently rewarding activity, but it’s an activity we do with and for our loved ones. For why else would we spend all that time at the stove other than to hang out in our pajamas with our favorite people and then eat the fruits—er, cakes—of our labor?

I am all in favor of acts of love. Doesn’t “act of love” bestow a sense of the extraordinary on what might be a mundane task? But to me, an act of love is an act done with great care and compassion, and it is the intention and emotion underlying the act that elevates it to greatness. The reciprocity of these acts of love bind us together and steadies us in the wake of life’s trials. Forget diamond rings, fancy vacations, expensive cars—make me some pancakes and I will love you forever.

My sister, Theresa, who hardly ever cooks (as far as I know), is one of the best pancake-makers I know. Her pancakes are always perfectly cooked, fluffy and delicious. Unfortunately, Theresa lives far away, so I can’t just call her up on a Friday night and ask her if she wants to have breakfast together the next day. What’s a girl to do? Well, I’m not that easily defeated, so I take it upon myself to make the pancakes. But given my previous statements about making pancakes for loved ones, what are we to make of the solitary pancake-maker? I say let us ALL make pancakes, alone or together. Then we will all have the necessary skills to griddle up something delicious for breakfast. I consider my solo pancake breakfasts a treat and good practice for future group breakfasts.

Call me spoiled, but my favorite pancake dishes are a little more complex than cakes, butter, and maple syrup. I am a big fan of interesting toppings for pancakes, and I think sweetened sauteed apples just won my heart. I adapted the following pancake recipe from a recipe in Crescent Dragonwagon’s beautiful new book, The Cornbread Gospels. The original recipe, Ned and Crescent’s Favorite Multigrain Pancakes, serves 2-4 people; I cut it in half to serve 1-2 people. That way I can make it for myself and practice my pancake-making in small batches. The topping recipe is adapted from the recipe for Warm Maple-Apple Saute, which Crescent recommends as the topping for these multigrain cakes. My version makes enough for 3-4 pancakes, which is the perfect amount for me to eat in one sitting. It's also a little richer than the original version. These hearty pancakes are going into my regular rotation: substantial, crisped on the outside, and lovely when served with Warm Maple-Apple Saute. A perfect breakfast for a lazy winter morning.

By the way, The Cornbread Gospels is a fantastic cookbook, and I highly recommend it, especially to any bakers. I am sure I will be cooking a lot from this book in the months to come. I received it as a birthday present from my brother John. Thank you, John! You can see I’m putting your gift to good use. And if you, dear reader, happen to be connected to me by family or friendship, don’t buy your copy until AFTER the Christmas holidays…

Multigrain Pancakes for Two
Adapted from Ned and Crescent’s Favorite Multigrain Pancakes, The Cornbread Gospels by Crescent Dragonwagon
Serves 2 (makes about 8 pancakes)

¼ cup cornmeal
¼ cup whole-wheat pastry flour
¼ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
½ tsp. salt (or a bit less—I found these cakes to be a little salty but still quite delicious)
1 tsp. baking soda
1 egg
1 cup buttermilk
1 tbsp. butter, melted
A bit of vegetable oil for the pan
Warm Maple-Apple Saute (recipe follows)

1) In a medium mixing bowl, stir together the cornmeal, flours, salt, and baking soda.
2) In another mixing bowl, beat the egg and then beat the buttermilk and butter into the egg.
3) Pour the liquid ingredients into the dry ingredients and stir to combine. Try not to overmix the ingredients; just mix until there aren’t big dry patches of flour. Lumps are okay.
4) Grease a skillet with a little vegetable oil. Heat the skillet over medium-high heat for a minute or so. Lower the heat to medium and ladle a quarter cup of batter into the center of the skillet. The batter is thick and so the pancakes will be small, about 3-4 inches in diameter. Cook the first side for about one minute. The pancake is ready to be flipped when the edges look a bit dry and you have seen several bubbles surface in the center of the cake. Flip the pancake and cook the second side for another minute or so. Serve immediately or slide the cakes onto a cookie sheet in a warm oven to keep them warm until serving time.

Warm Maple-Apple Saute
Serves 1 (double the recipe to serve two at once)

1 apple, cored, peeled, and sliced into thin slices
½ tbsp. butter
1 tbsp. brown sugar
1 tbsp. maple syrup
Cinnamon to taste

1) Prepare the apple as directed above. Melt the butter into a skillet and add the apple slices to it. Saute the apple slices over medium heat for several minutes, stirring them occasionally.
2) The apples are done when they have softened and browned a bit. Turn off the heat and add the sugar, maple syrup, and cinnamon (if using) to the apples and stir everything together. Spoon the apple mixture into a serving bowl and serve with love at the table with the pancakes.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Faith, Science, and Success

“Science as something already in existence, already completed, is the most objective, impersonal thing that we humans know. Science as something coming into being, as a goal, is just as subjectively, psychologically conditioned as are all other human endeavors.” Albert Einstein

We scientists are a tough bunch. With our emphasis on data, reproducibility, and natural causes, we pursue atheistic explanations of the universe. Even religious scientists are not allowed to invoke God as an explanation for their data—or if they do, their manuscript will never get past peer reviewers! An outside observer might not expect faith to be a part of science. Formally, of course, you won’t find faith listed as a step in the scientific method: Step 1: Form a hypothesis. Step 2: Have faith that your hypothesis is correct. No, the real trick is to form a hypothesis that can be tested empirically with experiments that will be informative, no matter what the result. This is my advisor’s mantra. Nowhere in this process are we asked to have faith.

And yet, if it weren’t for faith, I would not still be in graduate school. My faith is not supernatural. Rather, I have faith in the scientific process itself. I have faith that my graduate advisor has the wisdom and patience to guide me toward scientific success. And despite my enormous anxieties, I have faith in my own abilities. And I’m too stubborn to leave unless they kick me out! Oh, I have my days when I wish someone would tell me I can’t do science, but so far, that has not happened. To be honest, I am a little surprised it hasn’t happened yet, considering the utter lack of success I experienced for the better part of two years in the lab!

But now is a different story. As a fifth-year graduate student, I feel I am starting to close in on my Ph.D. My thesis is emerging out of the muck. My very first first-author paper was reviewed by the Journal of Neuroscience, and the paper did well enough that the editors asked us to address reviewer concerns and resubmit. I’m in the thick of reviewer-induced experiments, hanging tight to my faith that these experiments will yield something of worth. Most exciting, my in-lab “team” had a paper accepted! I am the third author on a paper that was recently accepted by the journal PLoS Genetics! After all that faith and science, success! And this acceptance happened just in time for me to tell the reviewers of my NRSA grant application that I am an author on an accepted paper. Not “in preparation,” not “submitted,” or even “submitted and currently being revised,” but ACCEPTED. As in done. It’s gratifying enough that it almost makes me forget the struggles I have survived to get here. But this Ph.D. ain’t over yet!

Luckily, success comes more easily to me in the kitchen. Many an unhappy day in the lab has been followed by a pleasant evening in the kitchen. The kitchen is sustenance, solace, and sanctuary. It’s also a good place for snacking! Several months ago, I had instant success with yet another version of my favorite granola recipe. By adding half a cup of sweetened shredded coconut, I have achieved granola nirvana. Loaded with coconut, peanut butter, and chocolate chips, this is one decadent granola, but I love it. I still think it has something to offer nutritionally: oats are high in fiber, B vitamins (it has seven of them!), minerals, and protein*. Peanut butter is high in protein and is known to promote satisfaction among its devotees**. And if you mix this granola with plain lowfat yogurt, you get calcium and a sweet and delicious snack that keeps hunger at bay until dinner time. It’s almost as satisfying as seeing your name in print.

Deluxe Granola
Makes 1 8 x 8-inch pan of granola or ~4-6 servings, depending on how much self-control you have (I don’t have much when it comes to this yummy stuff)

2 ¼ cups oats

½ cup flour

½ tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. pure vanilla extract

1/3 cup vegetable oil (or you can use a bit less than 1/3 cup; I usually do)

1/3 cup peanut butter, chunky or smooth as you prefer (I do like the texture chunky peanut butter gives the granola)

¼ cup brown sugar

½ cup mini chocolate chip morsels

½ cup sweetened shredded coconut

1) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

2) Mix together the oats, flour, and baking soda in a large mixing bowl. Stir in the vanilla extract.

3) Add the vegetable oil and peanut butter and mix. The mixture will be a bit chunky.

4) Stir in the brown sugar.

5) Stir in the chocolate chips and coconut. The mixture will be a bit moist from the oil and peanut butter, but overall it will be rather dry and chunky. Spoon the granola into a square 8-inch cake pan.

6) Bake the granola at 350 degrees for 18-20 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool for 10 minutes in the pan, and then dig in! This granola gets hard to scoop out of the pan as it cools, so I recommend stirring it around after it has cooled for ten minutes to break it up. Before storing, allow granola to cool completely in the pan and then store it at room temperature in a tightly sealed container. This granola will keep for at least a week. My batches never last longer than that!

*Information about the goodness of oats is from Passionate Vegetarian by Crescent Dragonwagon. This book really is The Joy of Cooking for vegetarians.
**Okay, maybe this is just annecdotal. Okay, maybe I just love peanut butter.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Heavenly Eggs

If you make as much soup as I do, there are bound to be leftovers. Honestly, I welcome those leftovers with open arms and empty bowl. On many a Saturday night, you can find me in my kitchen, happily chopping and stirring and salting and tasting a big pot of soup that will feed me well that night and for the rest of the week. Soup makes a delicious, filling lunch AND helps me sneak in a few servings of vegetable in slurpable form. What’s not to love about soup?

And yet, by the fourth or fifth go-around with the same pot of soup, my tastebuds start to sigh with boredom. My hands get itchy to make something new and exciting in the kitchen. What’s soup-loving gal to do? Fortunately, soup has an uncanny ability to morph into a new entrée. By varying mix-ins, toppings, and sides, soup can keep the eating exciting all the way to the last bowl. Today’s recipe (more of a strategy or a technique, really) is my happy discovery of new life in delicious leftovers.

I had been fascinated for some time with this idea of poaching eggs not in water but rather in a liquidy medium that would eaten with the eggs. Two recipes I had read use this technique. From Passionate Vegetarian by Crescent Dragonwagon, Eggs in Hell is a half-dozen eggs poached in a well-seasoned spaghetti sauce, sprinkled with cheese, and served over bread or pasta. From Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home by the Moosewood Collective, Chakchouka is four eggs poached in a spicy, vegetable-laced tomato sauce. I kept coming back to both of these recipes in my mind because they sounded so simple and so satisfying. But I had yet to try either one.

On a dark November night (aren’t all November nights dark when you live in Illinois?), I found myself craving something other than leftovers, but I didn’t have many ingredients in the house. I spread the recipes for Eggs in Hell and Chakchouka on my kitchen table and got to work making an approximation using leftover Homemade Tomato Soup for Winter Days and a bean chili. The results were heavenly: light, flavorful scrambled eggs in a puddle of beany, tomatoey sauce and sprinkled with white cheddar. I was so pleased with the dish that I promised myself I will make it again the next time I have some brothy leftover soup that needs another chance.

The following recipe is a set of guidelines that I have written out for your sake and my sake. I imagine this strategy will work well with a variety of soups and stews, so you have my permission to play with it as you like. Rather than poaching my eggs, I chose to scramble them individually before adding them to the hot soup. I have a long-enduring childhood fear of the “runniness” associated with poached eggs; thus I prefer my eggs cooked thoroughly. If you enjoy poached eggs, then by all means poach whole, unscrambled eggs.

Heavenly Eggs
Serves 1 as a hearty entrée or 2 as a side dish
Instructions adapted from those given for Eggs in Hell in Passionate Vegetarian by Crescent Dragonwagon

About 3 cups of any brothy, tomato-based soup or stew (if they have similar flavors, many soups and stews can be combined to good effect here for a total of 3 cups)
2 eggs
Grated cheese to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
Toast to eat with your heavenly eggs (optional but highly recommended)

1) Pour your 3 cups of soup and/or stew into a large skillet. Heat the soup until it is bubbly and hot. While the soup is heating, scramble your first egg in a measuring cup. Once the soup is bubbly, use a spoon to push a bit of the soup back to make an indentation and pour the egg into the indentation. Quickly scramble the second egg and nestle it into the soup like you did with the first egg.
2) Turn the heat down to medium low and cover the skillet with a lid. Cook the eggs over medium low heat for about 8 minutes.
3) Uncover the skillet. By this time, the eggs will have expanded during their cooking and are probably covering much of the surface of the soup. Use a ladle to scoop the eggs and the soup into a deep bowl. I ended up eating my eggs one at a time because it was easier to scoop one egg at a time. Sprinkle the eggs with grated cheese and/or salt and pepper as you like. Eat the heavenly eggs with toast and feel blessed.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Day-After Gratitude

Happy Day-After-Thanksgiving!

Tomorrow is my birthday. The completion of another year of life tends to make me reflective, so in the spirit of appreciating life, love, and food, let me state emphatically that I have much for which to be grateful. This year, however, has been a hard year for me. It is best summed up in one word: REJECTION. My grant application was rejected, one of my papers was rejected, and I was rejected by a man. The first two make me sad, but that last one angers me! I have had very few unequivocal successes this year, which makes me wonder how I find the motivation to get out of bed every day and try again. I know what gets me out of bed: it's that morning coffee or tea! After that, I can't go back to bed, so I figure I might as well give my graduate student life another chance. And it does pay the bills, which lets me drink more coffee and tea, thereby making me happy. It's one big, caffeine-fueled loop.

But I have things besides delicious caffeinated beverages for which to be thankful, including:

* My niece, Lydia, whose smile and spunk makes me happy to be alive.
* All of my family, both given and chosen.
* Love, enduring and newfound.
* My graduate advisor, who continues to believe in me and the work we are doing when I have all but lost hope.
* The lessons graduate school has taught me, including patience, humility, and sheer determination. I think that by the time I finish my Ph.D., I will feel like I can climb any mountain, conquer any challenge. These past four years in graduate school have been among the most difficult years of my life.
* My fellow food bloggers, who inspire me to cook and eat well and share their recipes and advice with joy and generosity.
* Life, Love, and Food, which has filled a void in my life that I didn't realize existed until I started writing more seriously. Writing this blog for the past six months has brought me great pleasure, and it has become an integral part of my life.
* Readers of Life, Love, and Food, real or imagined. There might just be two of you out there (hello and hello!), but nonetheless, I continue to write because I like to write. If you keep coming back to my humble blog, I must be spinning words that you like to read. For all of my readers who are related to me or who are friends who feel obligated to read, thank you for not laughing at me as I started writing this blog and sharing my dream of becoming a food writer and cookbook author. It's true that one does not need a Ph.D. in neuroscience to write about food, but your support of my dreams, no matter how far they may be from my reality right now, has meant everything to me.
* Finally, I am grateful for the abundance of laughter, love, and great food that sustains me through the darkest days of November and graduate school. Nothing makes me happier than sharing food with wonderful people, and I am blessed in the act of sharing and the act of remembering these wonderful times.

May your darkest days of the year be filled with happiness, joy, and peace!

Monday, November 19, 2007

A Smilin' Box, Hip-Shaking, and Crossing the Line

Those folks at Amazon really know what they’re doing! I don’t know any other box that makes me so happy. That smilin’ box, full of goodies fresh from the Amazon warehouse, makes me smile like nobody’s business. The anticipation of an Amazon delivery nearly drives me crazy; every day I rush home from school: “Is it here? Is it here?” No, not yet. Better luck tomorrow. But then one fine day, IT’S HERE! OH JOY! I think I order from Amazon just for the rush. It would be so easy to wander over to Borders, buy my books, and find immediate satisfaction. But as with so many things in life, the pleasure is heightened by the wait. My late neuroscience professor, Dr. Ned Garvin, hypothesized that anticipation triggers activation of the brain’s pleasure centers. Annecdotally, I am sure he was right.

Luckily, my Amazon order arrived just in time. Inside I found a new CD set which immediately got my hips shaking: A State of Trance Vol. 2 by Armin Van Buuren. Electronic music fans, be warned: this one is addictive. I love it. Actually, I haven’t made it through both CDs yet because I keep replaying the first few songs. But oh my, this man is a genius. I have to dance while I’m listening, which is fantastic because it lets me eat big chunks of Banana Bread with Chocolate and Cinnamon Sugar (topped with a dollop of plain yogurt) and then shake my hips to Halcyon (Track 3, CD 2), thereby offsetting any effects of said Banana Bread on my waistline. I think it takes approximately three repeats of hip-shaking to Halcyon to burn off one slice of this stuff—good deal!

Armin was just one part of this order. My smilin’ box also delivered me a brand-new copy of Gluten-Free Girl: How I Found the Food that Loves Me Back…& How You Can Too by Shauna James Ahern. Shauna is a Seattle-based food-blogger and author, and I bought her book for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is my desire to support the writing efforts of a fellow blogger. Her blog, Gluten-Free Girl, is quite lovely, but I have just skimmed the surface of it. Her style is friendly, passionate, educational, and sentimental. Her book, which I am enjoying thoroughly, is layered like a casserole: part memoir, part cookbook, part guide to celiac disease, part guide to eating gluten-free. If you are wondering, “What the heck is gluten? What the heck is celiac disease?” then you can follow the link here to Shauna’s website for more info.

I did not buy her book because I am avoiding gluten, nor did I buy it because I have celiac disease. I bought Gluten-Free Girl to expand my cooking horizons by experimenting with new and different flours. I want to tinker with my favorite homemade baked goods to come up with new creations and improve the nutritional content of old standbys. It’s part of my secret plan to write a cookbook about the methodology behind recipe improvement. Oops, I shouldn’t have typed that last part! It was supposed to be a secret! Unless you happen to be a cookbook editor looking for a new author, in which case we should chat…

But this dream of mine has led me to cross the line. Brace yourselves: I paid fifteen dollars for one pound of flour. Seriously. I’ve never paid that much for a pound of anything in my entire life! But it wasn’t just any old flour. I bought a pound of rich, nubbly almond flour from Bob’s Red Mill. I have two recipes in mind for this flour, one of which I will present here.

Remember when you were a kid, and school got out at 2 or 3 PM, and you would run home for an afternoon snack? Perhaps your snack was milk and cookies (always a favorite of mine), or juice and pretzels, or even those delicious bite-sized pizza rolls that come in the freezer case and you throw them in the oven for a few minutes until they are all nice and hot and gooey inside. Whatever your snack was, chances are your body craved it for good reason: snacking helps keep our blood sugar levels even, especially if dinner arrives six or seven hours after lunch ends. Even blood sugar levels help us concentrate more effectively and they keep our mood more consistent. After all those years of afterschool snacking, it has taken me years to realize the wisdom behind this phenomenon, but now that I have, I incorporate it into my day, even though now I don’t leave school (aka THE LAB) until 6 or 7 PM. My general strategy is to have a piece of fresh fruit and something sweet around 4 PM. Ideally, the “something sweet” has a good balance of carbs, protein, and fat, thus making it fairly substantial, nutrition-wise. One of my favorite sources of recipes for afternoon snacks is Mollie Katzen’s Sunlight Café, a breakfast-themed book that I use more often for snack-making. Inside this lovely cookbook, I have found glorious recipes for homemade granola, ricotta-infused muffins, and homemade protein bars. I liked the homemade protein bars in their original form, but I have always been a little skeptical of Ms. Katzen’s use of soy protein powder in this recipe. While this powder does add protein oomph to baked goods, is it wise to eat large amounts of soy protein isolate? How do our bodies metabolize this nutrient in isolation from all the other nutrients that we find in a whole soybean? I don’t think we know the answers to these questions, and if given the choice, I’d prefer to eat a more “whole” food than the isolated parts. My hypothesis, which I have "borrowed" from a number of other people, is that our bodies get maximal nutritional benefits from eating whole foods: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. For example, if we eat a whole apple, we get all the vitamins and minerals from the flesh and lots of fiber from the peel. If we just drink apple juice, we miss out on all the fiber and nutrients in the peel, and eating fiber is thought to satisfy our hunger longer because it takes longer for our digestive systems to process it.

To put two and two together, I wanted to continue making these delicious protein bars, but I wanted to replace the soy protein powder with something different. Behold, almond flour! Since almond flour is made by grinding blanched almonds, this flour is fairly close to being a whole food, certainly closer than soy protein isolate. It makes delicious protein bars, especially when paired with my favorite duo, peanut butter and chocolate. The recipe I give below is closely adapted from the recipe Ms. Katzen gives in Sunlight Café. It is a great basic recipe with which you can tinker to your heart’s content. I encourage you to find a copy of Sunlight Café to check out the original recipe for lots of ideas on variations.

Nutty Energy Bars
Makes one 9 x 13-inch pan’s worth of bars (yield depends on how big you cut the bars)
Adapted from Homemade Protein Bars in Mollie Katzen’s Sunlight Café

These energy bars are tasty and nutritious, perfect for afternoon snacking. Note that they are not leavened, so the dough won’t rise when baked. Don’t be alarmed! The texture of these bars is nubbly from the oats, somewhat similar to oatmeal cookies but not as sweet. Nonetheless, they are a sweet snack and will definitely tide you over until dinnertime.

Nonstick spray
1 c. almond flour, such as the almond flour made by Bob’s Red Mill
½ c. unbleached all-purpose flour
2 c. rolled oats
½ c. oat bran*
½ tsp. cinnamon
¾ tsp. salt
2/3 c. packed brown sugar
1 c. semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 ½ c. plain yogurt
½ c. peanut butter, crunchy or smooth as you prefer
2 tsp. real vanilla extract

1) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly spray a 9 x 13-inch pan and a large cookie sheet (preferably bigger than 9 x 13 inches) with nonstick spray.
2) In a big mixing bowl, mix together the almond flour, all-purpose flour, oats, oat bran, cinnamon, and salt. Add the brown sugar. Stir in the chocolate chips. Set this mixture aside.
3) In a second mixing bowl, mix together the yogurt, peanut butter, and vanilla. Blend thoroughly.
4) Pour/scrape the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients. Mix wet with dry until everything is thoroughly blended together. The mixture will resemble a cookie dough at this point.
5) Scrape the dough into the 9 x 13-inch pan and smooth the surface with your mixing spoon. Bake the bars for 18-20 minutes. The goal at this baking step is to bake the bars into a soft solid without burning the edges, so you’ll want to keep an eye on them after the 15-minute mark or so. When the center of the bars is solid (but still soft) and the edges are chestnut brown, the bars are ready for the next step. I check the center of the bars by touching with my finger, but if your fingers are more sensitive to heat than mine, you can tap it lightly with a spoon to check the consistency. Remove the bars from the oven.
6) Keep the oven on. Let the bars cool for 5-10 minutes, just long enough so you can handle them easily in the next step. Use a table knife to cut the bars into any shape you like. Use the knife and and pancake flipper to ease the bars out of the baking pan and onto the baking sheet. The bars are fairly delicate at this point, but once you have one bar out of the pan, it’s much easier to get the rest out. If the bars fall apart a little bit, you can just smoosh them back together and they will bake into one bar in the next step.
7) Once all the bars are on the baking sheet, place them back in the oven and bake for about 10-15 more minutes until golden and the edges are light to medium brown. Try not to let the edges burn.
8) Remove the bars from the oven and place the sheet on a cooling rack to let the bars cool. As the bars cool, they will firm up, but the texture will remain soft and a bit cakey.
9) Store bars either at room temperature for a few days or in the freezer for longer-term storage. I find these bars taste better the day after they are made, and they freeze beautifully.

*Yes, oat bran is not a whole food, seeing as how it has been isolated from the rest of the oat. If you prefer not to use it, you could try whirling some oats in a blender to make ½ cup whole oat flour to use in place of the oat bran. Or you could try leaving out the oat bran, but I have never left it out, so I can’t tell you what the results will be. Hurray for experiments!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A Humble Soup Amid the Hullabaloo

I have many reasons to love November. November brings with it crisp fall days, the onset of sweater season, an entire holiday devoted to good food, and my birthday. It’s also the “official” start of the winter holiday season, thus setting in motion a flurry of shopping, decorating, and cooking across America. For me, the holiday season does not start until the day I buy my ticket to fly home to Michigan. That day was yesterday. I finally worked up the courage to tell my boss that despite the approaching deadline for the resubmission of my manuscript, I will be leaving to spend Christmas with my family. Whew! I felt so much better after I did that until I booked my flight. My goodness, the flights are expensive this year. That expense, friends, is how I found myself buying a flight that leaves Chicago Midway Airport at 7 AM on December 23. Yes, I said 7 AM. Horrifying! That means I will be riding a Red Line train at 3 AM to get to the airport by 5. There is only one thing I should be doing at 3 AM, and it ain’t riding the damn el across the city!

Amid all of this holiday hullabaloo, one needs a little bit of homemade comfort. During a season defined by liberal uses of alcohol, cream, butter, and sugar, it’s best if that comfort can also be healthy and thus guilt-free. And what if that comfort also comes in a cheery holiday color? Even better!

I have loved tomato soup for a long time, but I always wondered if perhaps it could be lighter and sweeter. Canned tomato soups, while acceptable, always struck me as overly tangy and thick. I wanted a soup in which the tomato flavor sings harmoniously without breaking my eardrums. This soup is my dream tomato soup. Since it’s made with canned tomatoes, it’s a great soup for winter days. The tomato flavor is robust without being harsh or one-dimensional. I love the flavors that onion, celery, and carrots give this soup; they complement the tomatoes quite well. The color is gorgeous: a bright orange-red imparted by the tomatoes and carrots. That’s natural beauty. No artificial colors here!

So make a pot of this soup and stash it in the fridge. When the holiday hullabaloo has frazzled your nerves and emptied your wallet, you can have a big bowl of Homemade Tomato Soup for Winter Days and feel pleasantly warm and relaxed. Maybe even relaxed enough to tackle the last pile of presents that need to be wrapped!

Homemade Tomato Soup for Winter Days
Adapted from Tomato Soup, p. 162, The New Laurel’s Kitchen
Makes ~3-4 servings

1 onion
2 stalks of celery
2 carrots, scrubbed well with water
1 tbsp. canola oil or another mild vegetable oil
1 can (14.5 oz.) diced tomatoes
~2 cups of vegetable stock or water (I recommend using vegetable stock if you can because stock adds a lot of flavor to this simple soup)
Salt and pepper to taste

1) Chop onion, celery, and carrots. The carrots don’t need to be peeled unless you think the peel looks especially funky and unappetizing.
2) Heat oil over medium heat in a medium-sized pot. Add the chopped onions, celery, and carrots, stir to coat the vegetables in oil, and cover the pot to cook the vegetables for several minutes.
3) Add the tomatoes to the pot. Add the stock or water to cover the vegetables; you can add more liquid if you would like a thinner soup. Bring the soup to a boil, and then lower the heat to a simmer. Cook the soup at a simmer for 20-30 minutes or until the carrots are quite tender. Turn off the heat.
4) Puree the soup in batches in a blender. As always, be careful while you are pureeing hot liquids. If you aren’t in a hurry, you can turn off the heat and let the soup cool as it sits for a while before you puree it.
5) Add the soup back to the pot. Taste for seasonings and adjust the seasonings to your taste. Eat your soup, preferably with grilled cheese sandwiches!

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Geeked About Soup

I dwell in an interesting food world. At the corner of health and hedonism, I read my copies of Vegetarian Times and Eating Well. I eat salads. I drink green tea. And then I hop on the Internet and start drooling over decadent chocolate chip cookies laced with espresso and dried apricots. Oh my. Half a pound of butter and half a pound of chocolate can ONLY mean that we’re feeling quite naughty in the kitchen. God, I love Orangette. I must make these cookies ASAP!

Chocolate chip cookie dreams aside, my equally strong interests in eating deliciously and healthfully led me down a path that I swore I was not going to take. Remember this soup? I had promised myself that I was not going to tinker with its cream-filled potatoey perfection, that I would just eat it and enjoy it in its full-fat glory. Well, I lied. Inspiration struck when I was perusing my copy of Passionate Vegetarian and read Crescent’s words about the voluptuousness of butternut squash puree in soups. Yes, I thought. Butternut squash puree IS voluptuous. It’s slightly sweet, can thicken broth, and like most vegetables, it’s naturally low in fat. Hot damn! Butternut squash puree would make a WONDERFUL substitute for cream in Garlic, Chickpea, and Kale Soup. Rather than replace all the cream with squash puree, I decided to replace most of it, leaving just a dab of cream for good measure. The resulting soup is just as delicious as its predecessor. I don’t even miss the extra cream. Was I surprised? Not really, because squash can be seductive too! Just look at all those curves!

Garlic, Chickpea, and Kale Soup in Butternut Squash Broth
Adapted from “Garlic, Chickpea, and Spinach Soup” in The Cook’s Encyclopedia of Vegetarian Cooking by Linda Fraser
Makes ~4-5 entrée-sized portions

Don’t forget to serve this soup with bread for dipping and munching!

1 c. butternut squash puree (instructions for making butternut squash puree are below)
2 tbsp. olive oil
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
2 tsp. ground cumin
2 tsp. ground coriander
5 c. vegetable stock
4 medium-sized potatoes, chopped into bite-sized pieces (peeling the potatoes is optional—I wouldn’t unless the peel is gnarly and unappetizing)
1 15-oz. can of chickpeas, drained
1 tbsp. cornstarch
1/4 c. heavy cream
5/12 c. milk (about ½ a cup to bring total volume of cream and milk to ¾ of a cup)
2 tbsp. tahini
1 bunch of kale (or more to taste*), leaves stripped from the stems and torn into bite-sized pieces
Red crushed chile peppers to taste
Salt and pepper to taste

To make the butternut squash puree, you will need:
1 butternut squash**
~1-2 tbsp. light vegetable oil, such as canola oil
1) Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
2) Peel the butternut squash. You'll want a good, comfortable vegetable peeler for this job; I actually bought a brand-new vegetable peeler from Oxo specifically for peeling butternuts. That's how much I love this squash! Save the peelings to make soup stock if you like. Chop the ends off the squash and begin chopping the squash into pieces ~3/4-1 inch in size. While you are chopping the squash, you’ll find the seedy center. Cut out the seedy center of the squash, cutting out the squash flesh around the seedy area. As you are chopping the squash, place the pieces in a large mixing bowl.
3) Once all your squash is in the mixing bowl, pour a dab (1-2 tablespoons; I’m terribly imprecise here, but it doesn’t matter much) of oil into the bowl. Toss the squash with the oil to coat it.
4) Lightly spray a 9 x 13 inch baking pan with nonstick spray. Dump the squash into the pan and use your mixing spoon to spread the chunks evenly in the pan. It's okay if the pieces overlap.
5) Cover the pan with foil and bake for ~30 minutes. Check the tenderness of the squash by piercing it with a fork; if it pierces very easily, the squash is done. If it doesn’t pierce easily, put the squash back in the oven for a few more minutes and check it every few minutes until it is done.
6) Once the squash is tender, remove it from the oven and let it cool in its pan until it is cool enough to mash.
7) Put the cooked squash chunks back into a mixing bowl and “puree” the squash by mashing it with a potato masher. (I love my potato masher from Oxo!) Whew, you’re done making the squash puree! Set aside 1 cup of it for the soup below and refrigerate or freeze the rest. A trick my friend Nicole taught me is to measure out the squash in a measuring cup and then scoop it into little baggies to freeze for later use. That way your frozen squash puree is premeasured and easy to use in future cooking adventures. Nicole uses that trick when making her pumpkin puree. Thanks, Nicole!

**A note about yield: I started with a 2.5-lb butternut squash and ended up with almost 3 cups of squash puree, enough to make another batch of this delicious soup or to use in other recipes.

To make the soup:
1) Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a skillet or a large soup pot. Add the garlic and onion to the oil and cook for about 5 minutes or until the garlic and onions are softened and golden brown.
2) While the onions are cooking, use a blender to blend the butter squash puree into about 2 cups of the vegetable stock.
3) Back to the onions and garlic: stir in the cumin and coriander and cook for another minute.
4) If you are using a skillet to saute the onion, transfer the onion, garlic, and spices into a soup pot. Otherwise, pour all the vegetable stock (now infused with butternut squash!) into the pot with the onion and friends. Add the chopped potatoes and bring everything to a boil. Turn the heat down to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes. Add the chickpeas and simmer for another 5 minutes. Check the tenderness of the potatoes by tasting one; if the potatoes are tender, you’re ready for the next step. If the potatoes are not quite tender enough for you, simmer for a few more minutes until they are perfect.
5) Measure out the cream by pouring it into a liquid measuring cup. Add enough milk to bring the total cream/milk volume to ¾ cup. Add the cornstarch and tahini to the cream and use a spoon to mash and blend them together. This mixture might still be a bit chunky after you’ve mixed for a few minutes, and that’s okay. When you add it to the hot soup, the heat will help it blend into the soup nicely.
6) Add the cream mixture to the soup and stir. Add the kale to the soup, stir, bring it to a boil, and simmer for about 2 minutes. Season the soup to taste with crushed red chile peppers, salt, and pepper.
7) Serve in big bowls, preferably accompanied by thick slices of bread to mop up the creamy broth.

*Every time I’ve made this soup, my cooking companions and I just piled several cups of torn kale into a bowl and then dumped it into the soup. Because the kale wilts into the hot soup, you don’t need to be very precise about how much you add.

Friday, November 2, 2007

The Fulfilled Life?

From what is fulfillment made?

The big answers to this question seem obvious to me: fulfillment is love, loyalty, honesty, intimacy, trust in relationships. Fulfillment is commitment, passion, enthusiasm in work. Fulfillment is laughter, zest, irreverance in play.

But what about the little answers? I believe the little answers may be the critical difference between a happy life and a joyful life. Is it asking too much to live a joyful life? I think not, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy task to accomplish. I think it takes discipline and thoughtfulness. It requires a deep consideration of habits and the cost of those habits. A cost that is measured in units of joy, not dollars. In the United States, we are obsessed with dollars, productivity, and economic growth. It’s all about “getting stuff done.” Joy, however, is NOT about getting stuff done. I suppose it CAN be about getting stuff done; I am happy when I cross that last thing off my to-do list. But more fundamentally, joy is pleasure and fulfillment; pleasure on the small scale and fulfillment on the larger scale.

How does one measure anything in units of joy? If we examine joy on a temporal scale, for any given activity there is anticipation, duration, and aftermath. A truly wonderful activity will contribute units of joy to each of these temporal stages. For example, I love to bake and eat cookies. I look forward to baking (anticipation—1 unit of joy), I like mixing the ingredients together and watching a cookie dough form right before my eyes (duration—2 units of joy), and I like eating and sharing my cookies (duration/aftermath—2 units of joy). I’m not a big fan of the cleanup (aftermath), so we’ll say that washing, drying, and putting away the dishes and cleaning up the counters costs 1 unit of joy. So if we add up the units, cookie baking is a total of 4 units of joy (5 units – 1 unit for cleanup = 4 units). That’s a pretty good deal in my book!

My theory is that the secret to a joyful life is to discover the people and habits that make you happiest. Spend more time with those people and spend more time cultivating those habits. As for the other people and habits, remove them from your life if possible. If removal is not possible, think deeply about the ways that you can make them more enjoyable (or maybe just less irritating). Don’t let unpleasant people or habits steal your joy!

I have a habit which is sneakily stealing my joy. It’s my own fault, really; I willingly devote hours to it with little complaint. Sometimes I even build my schedule around it! It, my dear reader, is television-watching. Staring at a big box with moving pictures. It is a greedy habit, soaking up my free time and leaving me feeling vaguely empty after I stop. When I’m not rationing the amount of time I spend on it, I can spend 7 or more hours a week watching television. That’s a lot of time! That’s 7 hours, 420 minutes, during which I am not reading, writing, cooking, baking, cleaning, chatting on the phone, working, or any of a hundred other things that I could be doing, things I find more meaningful, fulfilling, or even just important. This madness has to stop! But it is SO HARD. Recently I tried rationing my TV time: I told myself I would only watch 4 hours a week. I only lasted about 2 weeks before I watched 5 hours in one week. Shoot!

Why is it so hard to not watch television? I think it’s hard because television is such an easy, effortless form of entertainment: click on tv, sit down, watch as the hours of your life slip away. The stories are absorbing: I think human culture evolved in part as a result of story-telling, and as products of human culture, we in turn are biologically programmed to like stories. But television-watching is as much a pleasure as it is an irritant. I loathe commercials. While I like the stories, the characters are often annoying, prone to making the same mistakes over and over again. Many storylines revolve around unrequited love, infidelity, and betrayal. I, on the other hand, am looking for requited love, fidelity, and trust. Finally, I’m getting better at predicting the endings, which either means that I’m getting smarter or the television plots are getting thinner. Maybe it’s both.

It’s time for me to quit watching television. Period. At least for a few weeks. To tell you the truth, I’m a little nervous about quitting cold turkey. My television habit has been with me for several years now, and my prediction is that my life will feel a little empty without the comfort of some brainless entertainment every week. During my television-less time, movies are allowed as long as they are not televised movies; in other words, I can rent videos but no network television. To document my television-less adventures, I will be posting blog entries here at Life, Love, and Food. I know I have a history here of saying I’m going to do things (Summer Cooking Wish List, anyone? Hey, there’s always next summer!), but this promise is one I will keep. Promise!

Wish me luck!

In celebration of what one might call a life wake-up call, I will leave you with a simple recipe for Mexican Coffee. Ground coffee is brewed with cocoa powder and cinnamon, and the sweetly spiced brewed coffee is combined with milk and a dash of cream and sweetener. It’s rich and delicious, a perfect pick-me-up in the morning. It’s my standard morning coffee now.

Mexican Coffee
Serves 1 (but can be scaled up to serve more)
Units of Joy: 2
Adapted from Rachael Ray’s Cooking 'Round the Clock

1 heaping tablespoon of ground coffee (use more or less depending on how strong you like your coffee
~1 tsp. unsweetened cocoa powder
Generous sprinkle of cinnamon powder
1 cup water
1/3 cup milk (or more or less as you prefer)
Tiny splash of heavy cream (optional)
~1 tsp. sugar (or more or less as you prefer) OR a drizzle of real maple syrup

1) Brew coffee by adding coffee, cocoa powder, and cinnamon powder to your coffee maker’s brewing basket. Use the back of a spoon to smooth out the contents of the brewing basket to make sure the brewed coffee can flow smoothly into your coffeepot. Add water to the coffee maker’s water tank and brew coffee according to manufacturer’s instructions.
2) Pour coffee into your favorite mug and add milk, cream if desired, and sugar or maple syrup. Enjoy!

Sunday, October 28, 2007

This Could Be Love

I wasn’t expecting this.

Oh, sure, I’ve sung the praises of spices before. I adore red crushed chile peppers. I’ve always liked cumin. Basil and I are buddies. Cinnamon adorns my cereal every day.

But coriander? We’ve barely met, and I think I’m in love.

I didn’t even own a bottle of coriander until two weeks ago when I made this soup for Matt and me. Always eager to show off my culinary prowess for this man, I splurged on coriander, a spice that I had previously deemed unnecessary in my cooking. If I tried a recipe that called for coriander, I just left it out. Hey, I’m frugal! And I’m adventurous enough in my cooking that I will change a recipe right out of the gate. None of this “try the recipe first as written without changing anything.” No, it’s my cooking and I can do anything I damn well please in my own kitchen!

But coriander, you have humbled me. One whiff and I was astonished: your scent is surprisingly floral with peppery undertones. And you took what I thought might be a quick, decent black bean soup and you made it a masterpiece of spice and savory goodness.

Coriander, I do hope we can see each other again…soon!

This black bean soup perked up a cold, drizzly end to a disappointing week. I’ll spare you the gory details of how my manuscript got skewered by a reviewer. Some tears were shed. I briefly considered quitting science to join the circus. Truth be told, I’ve always wanted to be a flying trapeze artist! Science, however, is my passion, and I want to see my name in print. So now, it’s time to kick my experiments into high gear to get this project finished. It’s time to rock and roll. In that spirit, I made this delicious black bean soup to end my week on a good note, but I wasn’t expecting it to be swoon-worthy! Oh yes. This soup is hearty and spicy, packed full of black beans, savory vegetables, sweet corn, and rice. It’s so rich and flavorful that I didn’t even top it with cheese because I didn’t want anything to interfere with the soup. You, however, can top it with cheese or anything else you like. I ate my soup with fried pita chips and slices of Organic Valley Monterey Jack cheese. It was wonderful.

Black Bean Soup with Rice
Adapted from “Smoky Black Bean and Rice Stoup,” Express Lane Meals by Rachael Ray
Serves 5-7

2 tbsp. olive oil
1 bay leaf
2 celery ribs, chopped into bite-sized pieces
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 cup frozen corn kernels
2 15-oz. cans black beans
1 tbsp. ground coriander (my love…)
½ tbsp. chili powder
1 tsp. ground cumin
Several shakes of red crushed chile peppers (optional)
1 15-oz. can diced tomatoes
1 8-oz.. can tomato sauce
Salt and pepper to taste
1 quart vegetable broth
1 cup white rice (I used white basmati rice here)

1) If you have a big soup pot in which you can saute, use it here. If your soup pot, like mine, is not very good for sauteeing, use a large skillet. In either case, pour the olive oil into your sauteeing pot or skillet and heat over medium heat. Add the bay leaf, celery, onions, and garlic. Cook for several minutes until the vegetables have softened and everything is nice and fragrant.
2) At this point, if you sauteed in a skillet, transfer the contents of the skillet to a big old soup pot. Add the corn and one can of black beans with their beany liquid. Add half of the other can of black beans, then mash the remaining beans in the can with a fork. Scrape the mashed beans into the soup pot.
3) Add the spices, tomatoes, tomato sauce, and stock. Taste the broth and adjust the seasonings as you like with salt, pepper, or more of the spicy spices.
4) Crank up the heat underneath the pot and bring the soup to a boil. Add the rice, cover the pot, and simmer the soup for 15-20 minutes until the rice is cooked to your liking. Fish out the bay leaf if you can find it. It will probably be floating on the top of the soup.
5) Serve and swoon.

LEFTOVER NEWS BULLETIN: This soup makes delicious leftovers, but the rice will slurp up the broth! It turns this “soup” into more of a “stew.” The water absorption changes the texture of the rice (for example, my basmatic rice was so greedy that it split itself open), but I’m not that picky about the rice here. If you are and plan to eat this soup later as leftovers, you might consider cooking the soup and the rice separately and then adding a scoop or two of cooked rice to each serving. This technique will make for a brothier soup because if the rice is cooked separately, it won’t absorb any of the soup’s broth. I think it will be delicious nonetheless. If you don’t like rice at all, you could just make the soup as written and leave the rice out altogether, yielding a rich, brothy, beany soup. Yum.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Fall in Love with Dan Cohen

Hello hello! For those of you who are returning visitors, you may have noticed a new addition to Life, Love, and Food: The Corner of Shameless Promotion. Most of this blog is devoted to good cookin’ and good eatin’ with occasional rants about bad behavior. But one of the great joys of cooking is the soundtrack. In addition to the hiss of sauteeing onions and the buzz of a food processor, I almost always listen to music while I cook. Cooking and music have a synergistic effect: instant relaxation! The type of music can be anything from classic to rock, acoustic to electronic, popular to obscure. Eclectic, no?

The latest addition to my cooking soundtrack is the self-titled debut album from Dan Cohen. In the interest of full disclosure, I will confess that a dear friend gave me the CD as a gift. There, I’ve said it. You can stop reading now if you think I’ve been bribed into writing this plug. But I promise, dear reader, if this CD made a better drink coaster than a music album, I would not waste your time telling you about it. Friendship will not earn anyone a spot in the Corner of Shameless Promotion! Fortunately, Dan Cohen has earned his spot. Put simply, Dan Cohen is TALENTED. And he LOVES WOMEN. Or at least he sings like he does! Dan Cohen the album is a collection of country tunes that range from the sassy to the sublime. The set is as eclectic as my taste in music: several country-rock numbers, a few beautiful instrumentals-only pieces, a dark melody about the depths of addiction, a love song or two, and finally “Even Us,” which is possibly the saddest song in the world about starting over after heartbreak.

My very favorite song on the album is a jazzy little number called “Hope You Don’t Change Your Mind.” Light-hearted and playful, this song is the one my heart will sing the next time I fall in love. Falling in love is a little like playing on a teeter-totter; it’s smoother and much more fun when each person takes a turn pushing love off the ground. And once you’ve fallen in love, there’s “Lullaby,” a tender ballad in which the narrator promises the world to his beloved only to reveal at the end that his intentions are more noble than his abilities. Fall in love with Dan Cohen and you will fall in love with an artist whose music traverses the mountains and valleys of hope and loss. Welcome to the soundtrack of life.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A Cure for the Spaced-Out Scientist

Somewhere between manuscript submissions, my ability to concentrate evaporated. I would sit in front of a new Cell paper and the words would swim around on the page. E-mails had to be read multiple times to find the gist. And forget listening to five days’ worth of talks at the Neurobiology of Drosophila meeting; I had to excuse myself from a number of talks because there was no point in sitting through a talk when all I could do was daydream about how much I love fall. I even lost my patience with Passionate Vegetarian, my very favorite book to read during times of high stress and anxiety. I simply could not retain new information. Honestly, it was scary. Could my brain be too full to learn anything new? Even if that were possible (which I doubt it is), I had to believe that my lack of focus was the direct result of the intensive writing that has been my work life for the past two months. So in short order, I needed to regain my focus so I could move on with experiments and grant revisions (sigh…).

As I’ve said before, I am a firm believer in the power of kitchen therapy. Too many days without cooking makes me cranky and sad, while a good kitchen project lifts me out of my dark mood and sends me on my happy way. The problem with kitchen therapy is that it requires supplies: groceries. And sometimes life is so hectic that a trip to the grocery store seems impossible or overwhelming because 1) I have no time or 2) I am too exhausted to shop. At this point, I have no choice but to get creative with a limited amount of time and ingredients. My solution this time? Eggs. Specifically, egg burritos.

I actually did find some time to shop for groceries last week. During this trip, I was forced to choose a tortilla other than my normal Wild Oats whole wheat tortillas, and thus I found myself purchasing a package of Cedar’s Six Grain Mountain Bread. These “Mountain Breads” (aka tortillas) are delicious! Now I’m hooked: these 10-inch multigrain tortillas are both chewy and tender AND they have 5g of fiber and 7g of protein per tortilla! Quite impressive for an edible wrapper. Best of all, the 10-inch diameter makes wrapping up a generous amount of filling a cinch. I like a lot of filling in my burritos, so I need a big wrapper. After all, isn’t the best part of a burrito the stuff you put inside the tortilla?

And so it was that I found myself puttering around the kitchen, piling scrambled eggs with salsa into my new favorite tortillas, trying to regain my focus and my peace of mind. I figured the egges would help with the task: eggs are a nutritional powerhouse*, loaded with protein, vitamins, minerals, and choline** (used to make the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, an essential component for nervous system function). And while eggs are high in cholesterol, Walter Willett’s research*** suggests egg-eating does not play a significant role in the frequency of heart attacks in the general population. So bring on the eggs! But for health and ethical reasons, I recommend purchasing organic, free-range eggs. These eggs are often of superior nutritional quality (depending on the composition of the hen’s diet), and they are made by hens that are treated much more humanely than their non-free-ranging counterparts.

Egg Burrito for One
Serves 1

I love egg burritos. They are fast, reasonably healthy, and satisfying. The key to an excellent egg burrito is to use high-quality ingredients. When I make egg burritos, I tend to keep things simple because when I make them, I am too tired to fuss with a complicated filling. But feel free to adapt the basic recipe to your own tastes. For example, the filling could be made more substantial by the addition of beans, cooked vegetables (roasted potatoes might be particularly tasty here), cooked rice, or more cheese. If you use a nice 10-inch tortilla to wrap everything up, you’ll have plenty of room for the extras.

Nonstick cooking spray
2 eggs, preferably organic eggs from free-ranging hens
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
¼ - ½ oz. Neufchatel cheese (lower fat cream cheese), cut into tiny chunks
Several tablespoons of your favorite salsa
1 “slice” of Cedar’s Six Grain Mountain Bread
Several leaves of fresh cilantro, optional

1) Preheat the oven to 300˚ F.
2) Crack the eggs into a bowl and scramble them with a fork.
3) Spray a skillet lightly with non-stick spray. Heat the skillet over medium heat for about thirty seconds. Add the eggs to the skillet and push them around with a pancake flipper to coat the skillet with uncooked eggs.
4) Add some salt and freshly ground black pepper to the eggs while they are cooking.
5) Place the mountain bread on a cookie sheet and put it in the preheated oven to warm.
6) Before the eggs are done, add the Neufchatel cheese and mix it into the eggs. Continue cooking eggs until they are done to your liking.
7) When the mountain bread is warm, remove it from the oven. Pile the eggs in a line down the center of the bread and top with salsa and cilantro if desired. Roll it up burrito-style and eat immediately.

So did the egg burrito cure me of my spaciness? Perhaps the effect was not immediate, but I am feeling more like my old self these days. It’s a relief—because I have experiments to do, manucripts and grants to revise, and of course, new recipes to be tried!

*I found this summary of the nutritional content about eggs in Mollie Katzen’s Sunlight Café.
**Neuroscience nerd bonus.
***I have paraphrased a quote from Walter Willett found in Mollie Katzen’s Sunlight Café. For more about Willett’s research written by Willett himself for a lay audience, check out Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating , an excellent summary of groundbreaking nutritional findings based on several huge epidemiological studies.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Two Tales of One Soup

I am a cookbook-lover. One of the wonderful things about being a cookbook-lover is that on occasion people will just give me cookbooks. It’s not my birthday, it’s not Christmas, but because people know I love cookbooks, they enthusiastically donate books to my kitchen library. It’s quite nice, really. In turn, I will happily cook for them, especially if they take the trouble to visit my kitchen in person.

This story unfolds over several hundred miles and two trips traveled by two different people. During my trip home to Michigan last month, my dear friend Anne gave me a copy of The Cook’s Encyclopedia of Vegetarian Cooking by Linda Fraser. This charming little green cookbook is chockful of enticing recipes such as Fresh Tomato, Lentil, and Onion Soup, Spicy Bean and Lentil Loaf, and Butternut Squash and Sage Pizza. Anne passed this book on to me because she already had a copy of it. Nevertheless, I was thrilled by the gift and couldn’t wait to cook with it.

My brother and sister-in-law were more than happy to let me cook from this book in their kitchen. After a weekend of celebrating little Lydia’s first birthday, we were all exhausted, but I hadn’t done much cooking in several days and I was missing the smell of freshly chopped onions and garlic. So on a fall evening in early September, with just a slight chill in the air, I made a batch of Garlic, Chickpea, and Kale Soup. This soup is rich rich RICH (that’s what happens when you add 2/3 of a cup of heavy cream to a soup that makes 4-5 servings!), but it is wonderful. To enjoy that beautiful fall evening, my brother suggested we have a picnic, so we packed up our soup and a leftover loaf of delicious bakery bread and headed over to the local nature preserve. It was one of those evenings that is just perfect in its simplicity: hot soup, flavorful bread, and the best of company with whom to share your food. Quietly, together, we savored our supper amid the trees and the flocks of birds soaring above our heads.

After making this soup for my family, I knew it was good, but I had no idea about its powers of seduction. Last weekend, my friend Matt came up to Evanston from North Carolina to visit. Matt is the kind of friend every woman should have: he’s funny, charming, empathetic, intelligent, and wise. And he’s Southern! Our relationship had existed in the space between friends and lovers for months. Distance allows a relationship to settle comfortably into that space. But I knew that his visit would beg the question, and I didn’t know what the answer would be. The answer, it turns out, is soup.

One of the things I love best about Matt is that he is a cook. Men who can cook are sexy. Men who can cook are comfortable hanging out in the kitchen, even when they aren’t cooking. While Matt didn’t do much more than chop some potatoes during his visit, he proved himself among the best of kitchen company. And that made me adore him just enough to provide the answer he was seeking.

Garlic, Chickpea, and Kale Soup
Adapted from “Garlic, Chickpea, and Spinach Soup” in The Cook’s Encyclopedia of Vegetarian Cooking by Linda Fraser
Makes ~4-5 entrée-sized portions

This soup is a hearty, rich, full-meal soup. Lightly spiced with cumin and coriander, it takes flavors and ingredients from Middle Eastern cooking and dolls them up with a generous pour of heavy cream. It’s a soup to make for a special evening, a soup to share with lovers and loved ones. Serve it with a great bread and you’re all set.

2 tbsp. olive oil
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
2 tsp. ground cumin
2 tsp. ground coriander
5 c. vegetable stock
4 medium-sized potatoes, chopped into bite-sized pieces (peeling the potatoes is optional—I wouldn’t peel unless the peel is gnarly and unappetizing)
1 15-oz. can of chickpeas, drained
1 tbsp. cornstarch
2/3 c. heavy cream(!)
2 tbsp. tahini
1 bunch of kale (or more to taste*), leaves washed, stripped from the stems, and torn into bite-sized pieces
Red crushed chile peppers to taste
Salt and pepper to taste

1) Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a skillet or a large soup pot. Add the garlic and onion to the oil and cook for about 5 minutes or until the garlic and onions are softened and golden brown.
2) Stir in the cumin and coriander and cook for another minute.
3) If you are using a skillet to saute the onion, transfer the onion, garlic, and spices into a soup pot. Otherwise, pour the vegetable stock into the pot with the onion and friends. Add the chopped potatoes and bring everything to a boil. Turn the heat down to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes. Add the chickpeas and simmer for another 5 minutes. Check the tenderness of the potatoes by tasting one; if the potatoes are tender, you’re ready for the next step. If the potatoes are not quite tender enough for you, simmer for a few more minutes until they are perfect.
4) Measure out the cream by pouring it into a liquid measuring cup. Add the cornstarch and tahini to the cream and use a spoon to mash and blend them together. This mixture might still be a bit chunky after you’ve mixed for a few minutes, and that’s okay. When you add it to the hot soup, the heat will help it blend into the soup nicely.
5) Add the cream mixture to the soup and stir. Add the kale to the soup, stir, bring it to a boil, and simmer for about 2 minutes. Season the soup to taste with crushed red chile peppers, salt, and pepper.
6) Serve in big bowls, preferably accompanied by thick slices of bread to mop up the creamy broth.

*Both times I’ve made this soup, my cooking companions and I just piled several cups of torn kale into a bowl and then dumped it into the soup. Because the kale wilts into the hot soup, you don’t need to be very precise about how much you add.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

A Pasta for the Protein-Deprived

Greetings, dear readers!

I just arrived home from my first visit to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, that mecca for molecular biologists. After attending the Neurobiology of Drosophila meeting, I am left with one feeling: humility. There is just so much knowledge within biology, and I have only the faintest clue about most of it. Within the confines of circadian rhythms, the field in which I am doing my thesis research, I am well-informed, but once we move outside of rhythms, it's difficult for me to keep up with all the research talks: eight or nine 20-minute talks during one session with seven talk sessions held over the course of five days. Whew! By the time I had presented my poster on the third day of the conference, I was wiped out. I bumbled my way through the rest of the conference and gratefully boarded that plane that took me back to Chicago.

The conference had its high and low points. I loved meeting other Drosophilists! I presented my work during one of the poster sessions, and my poster presentation went really well: I had many visitors who expressed a lot of interest in my thesis work, so that was exciting. My advisor is a bit of a celebrity within the fly research community, so my work was popular because it's also his work. Most of my visitors were quite nice and very supportive, and they made me feel great about my work. I had a few visitors who were openly challenging and critical, which is also good because it forces me to think more deeply about the data and the conclusions we are drawing from those data. It is uncomfortable when a poster visitor immediately begins criticizing the work. For me, I think the discomfort is a result of having no rapport with the critics; it's hard not to feel defensive when one's work is being criticized by a perfect stranger. So it takes a great deal of grace and objectiveness to accept criticism openly and kindly. In my quest for scientific success, I continue to strive for grace and patience in all my interactions, whether with people or with my experiments.

While the science was overwhelming and humbling, the food was less than thrilling. There was a serious lack of decent vegetarian options at some meals. I found myself forced to choose between sticking with my vegetarian habits and eating protein. For several meals, I chose the latter, knowing that I desperately needed some protein besides cheese. At home I tend to eat a lot of legume-based protein: beans, tofu (which are really just soybeans in a new costume), peanut butter, plain nuts. The lack of protein and the stress of being in an unfamiliar place with new people and new science bumped up the amount of junk food I ate. I tried to stick with eating healthier sweets like fresh fruit and granola bars--I tried--but I also ate my fair share of cookies, my favorite kind of baked good. While I can easily pass on cake, cookies call my name and woo me with their delightful sweetness, crunch, and adorable size. I paired a two-pack of crunchy Pepperidge Farm dark chocolate chip cookies with a strong iced latte and a great conversation with a new friend about serotonin receptors and cocaine responsiveness in flies--now THAT was wonderful!

After this whirlwind trip to New York, I found myself back at home on Sunday night. I was hungry and exhausted, so I needed to throw together a fast, easy, delicious dinner that would provide some leftovers for a satisfying Monday lunch. I decided to make a new addition to my Penne Pasta with Ricotta-Pesto Sauce: canned chickpeas. I borrowed this idea from a pasta dish in Crescent Dragonwagon's Passionate Vegetarian in which she combines pasta shells with a dollop of pesto and a can of drained chickpeas. I love her pasta, and I love it even more with my ricotta-pesto sauce. The chickpeas add their nutty-beany flavor, tender texture, and protein. So the next time you find yourself in need of a quick, protein-packed dinner, consider this pasta dish.

Penne Pasta with Chickpeas in Ricotta-Pesto Sauce
Makes ~3 generous servings to feed exhausted travelers
2 c. dried penne pasta, preferably a brand with some fiber and protein
¼ c. ricotta cheese
¼ c. best quality fresh basil pesto (I like Cibo Naturals Classic Basil Pesto)
1 14.5-oz. can chickpeas, rinsed and drained.
Salt and pepper to taste
3-4 plum tomatoes, chopped into bite-sized pieces*

1) Cook penne pasta according to package directions.
2) While pasta is cooking, combine ricotta cheese and pesto in a large mixing bowl.
3) After pasta is done cooking, drain the hot pasta and add it to the ricotta-pesto sauce. Toss vigorously to coat pasta with sauce.
4) Add the chickpeas to the pasta and toss again. Add salt and pepper to taste. I find that this dish usually needs a lot of salt and pepper.
5) Place pasta in individual serving bowls and top with chopped tomatoes. If you are feeling ambitious, eat this pasta with a side salad.

*If you don't have any tomatoes on hand, as I didn't on Sunday night, this pasta dish is still wonderful without them. If you have tomatoes, go ahead and use 'em--they'll make this dish even better!

Monday, October 1, 2007

And One More Thing...

Happy October, everyone! This is my favorite month of the year, for reasons that will be revealed in good time...

Seriously! Monday to Friday Cooking

Here’s what happens on a typical night after I finish my workday: if I don’t work out at the gym or outside, I try to walk home to get some much-needed fresh air after a day inside the lab. I walk for 2+ miles to my apartment and collapse inside the door. At this point, I’m usually starving and exhausted. I need food, good food. And I need it fast. If I actually make something more than a salad, the preparation needs to be easy and minimal. After working all day, I don’t want to spend an hour washing dishes after dinner. But I do like to cook something substantial for dinner at least a few nights a week. The rest of the week, I feast on leftovers and salads.

Now that I’m in the thick of my graduate work, it has become necessary for me to develop my own cooking strategies to ensure that I eat well throughout the week, even during my busiest times. When we have the least amount of time to prepare good, nutritious meals, eating well becomes even more critical: we need good food to stay healthy and energetic if we are to succeed in such stressful times. The meals that I eat during these times are nothing fancy, but they please and sustain me. One such dish is my Penne Pasta with Ricotta-Pesto Sauce. Yes, pasta is a classic go-to dish for busy working people, and for good reason: it’s fast, delicious, and satisfying. And now, with all the new whole-grain, multigrain, and “blended” pastas, I think pasta has more to offer nutritionally. (By the way, “blended” pasta is not pasta that has been pureed in a blender. Rather it’s pasta that is made from a combination of ingredients such as multiple grains and legumes.)

So even if you are seriously busy Monday to Friday, you might still have time for decent food. This pasta dish is so quick and easy, I’ll often pick up the ingredients on my way home from work and make it that night. And I thank my lucky stars that it makes leftovers so I don’t have to cook dinner the next night unless I want to!

Penne Pasta with Ricotta-Pesto Sauce
Makes ~3 generous servings

2 c. dried penne pasta, preferably a brand with some fiber and protein (I recently discovered delicious Barilla Plus Penne, a multigrain pasta with 4g of fiber and 10g of protein in a 56g serving…now if only I had a kitchen scale so I could figure out the volume equivalent of 56g of dried pasta…)
¼ c. ricotta cheese
¼ c. best quality fresh basil pesto (I like Cibo Naturals Classic Basil Pesto)
Salt and pepper to taste
3-4 plum tomatoes, chopped into bite-sized pieces*

1) Cook penne pasta according to package directions.
2) While pasta is cooking, combine ricotta cheese and pesto in a large mixing bowl.
3) After pasta is done cooking, drain the hot pasta and add it to the ricotta-pesto sauce. Toss vigorously to coat pasta with sauce.
4) Add salt and pepper to taste to pasta. I find that this dish usually needs a lot of salt and pepper.
5) Place pasta in individual serving bowls and top with chopped tomatoes. If you are feeling ambitious, eat this pasta with a side salad.

*If I am cooking this pasta just for myself, I chop just one tomato and top my pasta bowl with it. I save the other tomatoes for the leftover pasta so that way the tomato is always really fresh and tasty. This pasta keeps well for several days in the refrigerator.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Oh No You Didn't!

Hmm, after last night's episode of Boston Legal I am less than thrilled with James Spader's character, Alan Shore. [Warning: Spoiler alert. Do not continue reading if you don't want me to spoil any surprises. Okay, consider yourself warned!]

When we last left Alan, he had started dating the beautiful Judge Gloria and it seemed like they were establishing a serious relationship. Last night, Alan and Gloria returned, still together, but this time, Gloria tells him she wants to have a baby with him. Alan is taken aback by this announcement, but don't think for a moment that his surprise justifies what he does later in the episode! Alan finds himself as the defense attorney opposite an old flame of his, Lorraine (I'm taking some liberties with spelling here, so forgive me if I've spelled any names wrong). Alan finds himself unable to resist Lorraine's come-ons, and he ends up cheating on Gloria (twice!) in an elevator with Lorraine. By the end of the episode, Gloria has NOT found out about the cheating and I'm left with a disgusting taste in my mouth.

Now, Alan is a notorious ladies' man. He doesn't date much, and when he does, the relationship is usually short-lived. He has a lot of sex with random women who come and go. The funny thing about this character, though, is that he is deeply emotional. Although his encounters with women are brief and many, he is a deeply feeling and thinking man. Every character on the show turns to him for help because he cares very deeply about other people and he is an excellent lawyer. His cheating on Gloria bothers me! I have this desire to see Alan settle down with a good woman and form a long-lasting, fulfilling, romantic relationship. Instead, we see him continually trash his opportunities to find happiness, at least the steady romantic kind.

Why do I care so much about this tv character and his love life? Why does it upset me to see him cheat? I think it's a deep-seated wish to believe that all men are capable of settling down with one woman. I want to believe that even "bad boys" are good people deep down inside, and to me, a good person is one who is able to commit and to resist temptation. By resisting temptation, he is putting someone else's needs above his own interests. Several months ago, I went on two dates with this guy who has some serious power over me. Just the sight of him makes me nervous and panicky: my heart races, I can't think, my stomach flips over itself, and I feel awkward and uncoordinated. The dates were okay; we hit a few bumps in our conversations but I didn't mind too much. But it turns out he might just be a classic bad boy, at least when it comes to women and dating. To make a long story very short, apparently I was more interested in him than he was in me, and we didn't end up going out again. Fast forward several months and after encountering him with all sorts of women (are they just friends? are they dating? how many women IS this guy dating anyway?!?), I have concluded that this guy is a player and I am lucky that I did not get very involved with him. I keep telling myself I don't like him, he's boring, and our conversations now are strained and uncomfortable. Unfortunately, he still makes me sweat, but as long as I stay far away from him, I'm safe. Like the old saying goes, if you play with fire, you're gonna get burned. This guy might be ridiculously hot, but I'm not interested in a relationship that's based on little more than physical attraction. Stay away from me, bad boys! I'm not interested. And I don't fall for your charms. Well, maybe I fell for one bad boy's charms, but it won't happen again.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Oh, Sadness

Hello, everyone!

My week is off to a disappointing start. I have a cold right now, which at times makes me feel spacey (even more than normal), dizzy, nauseous, and exhausted. Last night I was making pizza dough for tonight's dinner. While the dough was rising, I couldn't find anything good on tv, so I just had to lay down and do nothing because I was so tired and dizzy. In other disappointing news, my graduate advisor and I received a letter from the Journal of Neuroscience that our paper has been rejected. Oh, sadness! So now it's back to the drawing board as we appeal the decision, prepare to do more experiments, and consider submitting the paper to a different journal. Science can be brutal.

On the bright side, I'm making White and Green Pizza tonight for dinner. This week I'll be posting several excellent Monday-Friday dinner options that can be made very quickly at home even when you've worked a full day and you come home STARVING! (But I do recommend a snack while you're cooking--a healthy snack, of course, but a snack nonetheless. I like half a glass of fruit juice.) In addition, Boston Legal returns tonight with a brand-new season. I love James Spader! I loathe William Shatner, or at least his character on the show...but I tolerate him for the pleasure of watching James. He's a very charismatic actor, even if he is twice my age and a little paunchy. And his character on the show is so witty! I highly recommend it.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Country Oasis

Hidden in the suburbs of Detroit is the country oasis to which I escaped for a few days of rest and relaxation. My brother, sister-in-law, and their pint-sized daughter live on several acres of land in posh Farmington Hills, a suburb of Detroit. Their lifestyle, however, is more modern-hippie than suburban-yuppie. Their home is a refreshing slice of country ambiance right in the middle of suburbia: it’s an oasis of country in the middle of a bustling metropolis. Their yard is home to an impressive collection of plant and animal life, much of it growing wild and free. A walk through the grassy footpath around the backyard is the pedestrian version of an old-fashioned hayride as you pass by trees on one side and a field of plant life on the other. For my one-year-old niece, Lydia, I am sure it is the baby equivalent of a hayride as she cruises around the yard in a baby jogging stroller, observing everything intently.

Lydia is one of my favorite people in the whole world. Two feet tall with a head of blonde curls, she is gorgeous. Even more importantly, she is HILARIOUS! One of my favorite games that Lydia and I played was one in which I would build a tower out of wooden blocks and Lydia, or “Baby Zilla” as I called her during this game, would knock it down with glee. Every time we played a round of this game, I could see her eyes light up when she saw the new block tower and she would dive to sweep it into block chaos. Sometimes I could only make a three-block tower before Baby Zilla would see it! Baby Zilla is quick on the scene.

Lydia’s parents, Charlie and Amanda, are two of the kindest, most generous people I know. Anyone who enters their home can be sure that they will be loved and well-fed during their stay. During my stay with them, they threw a huge birthday bash for Lydia’s first birthday and invited a crowd of family and friends to join them for a backyard feast. And feast we did: the food was so good that I think I ate two dinners’ worth of food! Amanda’s mom, Barb, brought the most delicious Peanut Butter Salad which I cannot wait to try for myself at home. She told me it was simply chopped apples (NOT PEELED!), raisins, and sunflower seeds tossed with a dressing made of peanut butter and honey. It is a great fall dish: sweet, crunchy, and satisfying. Perfect for a picnic or a backyard barbecue. I like that the apples are not peeled because it adds more texture to the dish and makes it more nutritious because the peel is full of fiber and nutrients. Because Peanut Butter Salad is so delicious, if my version is even half as delicious as Barb’s, I’ll post a recipe here in the future.

Although Lydia has only been with us for a year (or two, if you count Amanda’s pregnancy, which I tend to do), it feels like she has always belonged with us. Her presence brings a sense of wholeness to the family, as though we have been waiting for her arrival for a long time without being able to articulate what it is we were missing. In Lydia’s face, I see all that is good and wonderful in this world: intelligence, curiosity, playfulness, and above all, love. I feel blessed to be connected to her by the bond of family. And she is blessed to have been born into a big, diverse, loving family. It is a pleasure to watch her learn and grow. The last time I saw her, she could barely hold her head up. During this visit, she was crawling, standing, and walking with just a little help. She talks all the time in baby sign language and baby babbling. She INSISTS on feeding herself most of the time, and her love of fruit and cheese suggests that she thinks she’s French. Most of the time she prefers that her mom hold her water bottle while she takes a drink, but toward the end of my visit, she allowed me the honor of holding her water bottle—either she decided I was trustworthy or she was just REALLY thirsty and couldn’t wait for mom! She loves going for walks and didn’t hesitate or fuss at all when I took her out in her stroller the day after I arrived. I was quite flattered that she didn’t seem to regard me as some scary stranger; she was perfectly comfortable with me from the moment I arrived. Of course, I’m sure it helped that Amanda was always nearby, but I’ll take the compliment!

A loving family, a roof over our heads, and good food on the table: blessed are we who have all we need in this world.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Homeward Bound

It’s always a tough week for a tried-and-true home cook like myself when an extended out-of-town stay is looming. There’s all the chaos of packing, tying up loose ends at work, and watering the plants. Most importantly, though, is the decision about WHAT TO COOK in the days before departure! To plan properly, I have to account for the current leftovers in the fridge, the number of meals to be eaten before I abandon my kitchen, and a dinner for the night I return. Perhaps all this planning sounds tedious and droll, and perhaps it is, but in a way it is a glimpse into the essential me: thrifty (it’s my father’s influence), thoughtful, practical, and just a little bit foodie. Oh, and hungry!

So what’s on the menu for this week?

In the current leftover category, we have approximately two servings of White Bean Provencal Soup from last weekend’s cooking binge. I’m sure this soup is still safe to eat; I’ve found vegetarian soups keep pretty well in the fridge for several days.

In the new cooking category, we now have a container of Faux Tuna Sandwich Spread, a mixture of mashed chickpeas, mayonnaise, celery, onions, pickles, salt, and pepper. To those of you who are not vegetarians or are new to the ways of vegetarian cookery, it might sound odd, but I’m telling you, this stuff is GOOD! So good, in fact, that I am going to give you a recipe below in the hopes that you’ll be inspired to try it yourself.

Also in the new cooking category, we have Black Bean Soup whose recipe said it serves four but looks like it will serve six or more. This realization totally throws off my math for the week! I’m saved, though, by the presumed freeze-ability of this soup, which will make for a good lunch or dinner next week when I return to my regularly scheduled life. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m giving the recipe below. It’s a fairly basic black bean soup with the usual suspects: black beans, diced tomatoes, onions, carrots, celery, jalapeno pepper, cumin, and thyme. It’s decent, it’s filling, but it might not make it into my regular rotation. My eagerness to try new recipes actually makes it quite difficult for a new recipe, once tried, to make it into the regular rotation. Poor recipes!

Faux Tuna Sandwich Spread
Adapted from the “Too-No Fish Sandwich” in Passionate Vegetarian, p. 870
Makes enough for ~4 sandwiches

I’m actually going to give you two versions of this sandwich spread because I just tried a new riff on the old version and liked it quite a bit. I was inspired by a recent post over at a vegan blog which shall remain nameless in case my mother is reading this. But you know what to do with your mouse if you want to check it out…

The Classic:
1 14.5-oz. can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 stalk of celery, halved lengthwise and chopped into very small pieces
~1/4 white onion, minced (you can use more or less onion, depending on how you feel about raw onion)
Several spoonfuls of mayonnaise or Miracle Whip (to taste)
Salt and pepper
Several leaves of fresh tarragon, snipped into small pieces
Fresh lemon juice to taste

Place the chickpeas in a mixing bowl and mash them coarsely with a potato masher. Stir in the celery and onion, then add enough mayonnaise to make a nice spread. I usually add 3-4 spoonfuls to moisten everything nicely. Season the mixture with salt, pepper, tarragon, and fresh lemon juice. Taste the spread and adjust the seasonings to your liking. I recommend eating this sandwich spread on a good multigrain bread with juicy slices of fresh tomato. You can slip a slice of smoked provolone into that sandwich if you are feeling indulgent.

The Newbie:
Follow the recipe for The Classic, swapping out the fresh tarragon and lemon juice for 1 or more dill pickles, chopped into bite-sized pieces. Stir the pickles into the spread and proceed with the sandwich-making. Who doesn’t love pickles?

Black Bean Soup
Adapted slightly from Shape magazine, September 2004, p. 208
Makes half of a soup pot of soup (6 servings?)

1 tbsp. olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 large carrots, peeled and chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 jalapeno chili pepper, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 tsp. dried thyme
3 tsp. cumin
2 14.5-oz. cans of black beans, drained and rinsed
1 28-oz. can diced tomatoes
4 c. vegetable stock, homemade or storebought
2 bay leaves
1 tbsp. apple cider vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

1) Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a skillet and sauté the onion, carrots, celery, and jalapeno for several minutes. Add the garlic, thyme, and cumin, stirring the spices into the vegetables. Sauté for another minute or so to release the flavor of the seasonings.
2) Transfer the vegetable mixture to a large soup pot. Add the black beans, diced tomatoes (juice and all—don’t drain the tomatoes), vegetable stock, and bay leaves. Bring the contents of the pot to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer, partially covered, for 8-10 minutes.
3) Add the apple cider vinegar to the soup, taste the broth, and adjust the seasonings with salt and/or pepper. If you can find them, fish out the bay leaves and discard them.
4) Serve soup with freshly baked cornbread, baked corn tortillas, corn chips, or some other delicious grainy side dish. I think this soup would be tasty over rice as well.