Monday, December 29, 2008

Happiest Chaos

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Life continues to surprise and delight me.

Today I write to you from aboard the Amtrak train. We are heading west, straight across Michigan, on our way to the Windy City. I’m feeling a bit teary again—apparently I cry a lot when traveling—but today they are tears of joy and sadness. I’m trying to breathe and be thankful for what I have rather than sink into the melancholy of missing my family with the kind of heartache that makes my chest hurt and my throat feel tight. They are, along with my tribe of friends, my world. This life would be pretty shabby without them.

I never thought I would say this, but it’s much harder to be a long-distance aunt than a long-distance lover. My niece, Lydia, doesn’t have the whole long-distance relationship thing down the way Matt does. I mean, she never calls or e-mails me. The only time she has visited me thus far, she was in the womb. That means it’s up to me to keep up our relationship, and the best way to do that is to spend a good week with her in Michigan. The time that we have together is so precious and so much fun that it’s worth every mile, every minute, every penny that it takes to see her. I even told her mom, Amanda, that I’d give Lydia a kidney if she ever needed it. Thankfully for us, Lydia is exquisitely healthy and vibrant, but just in case, I’m going to take good care of my spare kidney. Pass the green tea, please!

Lydia trusts me, and her trust makes me feel warm and sparkly. Each time we see each other, she lets me know that I am welcome in her world. During this visit, we spent a lot of time playing together. It was fabulous. Before this visit, I’d been feeling bad about missing her birthday party in September. I was even delinquent in the gift department! I’m torn between buying her fun toys that she can play with now versus investing money in her future. Like her parents, I want the best for her. Lucky for me, Amanda and Charlie (Lydia’s daddy and my brother) are too easy-going to be upset about birthday delinquency. Amanda and I decided to have a shopping date with Lydia. We thought it might be a memorable occasion for all of us, and Lydia could pick out a special gift with me that would remind her of how much I love her and love to play with her.

On a slick, snowy Tuesday afternoon, we hit the road with Lydia buckled snugly into her carseat. Our destination: The Doll Hospital & Toy Soldier Shop in Berkley, Michigan. The drive was inchworm-slow; the roads were covered in slushy ice, and snow was falling like powdered sugar from a grey sky. As we crawled toward Berkley, Lydia spotted a playset outside and asked if we could go play on the slide.

“No, honey, that playset belongs to someone else, “ her mother answered. “I know it doesn’t seem right, but we can’t go play with someone else’s toys.”

“Huh,” said Lydia, satisfied with Amanda’s explanation. She settled back into her seat, tucked her thumb into her mouth, and watched quietly until we pulled into a parking lot. We tumbled out of the car, snuggled Lydia against one hip to carry her into the store, and marched inside.

I’m not a regular visitor to toy stores, so with nothing else in mind but entertaining Lydia and finding an excellent addition to her toy collection, we wandered up and down the aisles. Amanda had a short mental list of things to find, like dustless chalk for Lydia’s bedroom chalkboard, so while she shopped, I tagged along with Lydia to see what kind of fun we could find. At the back of the store, a beautiful, ready-for-climbing playset beckoned to us. It was two stories tall and the perfect size for Lydia. Not one, not two, but three different slides stood waiting for someone to put them to good use. A sign posted on the playset asked us not to climb up the slides, so as long as we could get Lydia up to the top of the slides, it looked like her earlier request could be fulfilled.

I offered to climb up the ladder with my niece, but to my surprise, she said, “No, myself.”

“Are you sure you don’t want me to help you?” I asked.

“No, me do it. You stay,” she said firmly as she took her first big step up the ladder.

“You can climb all the way up?”

She grunted at me and made her way up the ladder, one big step after another. I watched, delighted by her excellent climbing skills and offered to catch her at the bottom of the slide. She grunted again, so I walked around and waited eagerly for her big descent.

“Whoa, Lydi, are you ready?” I called to her. She pushed off and slid gracefully down into my arms. I caught her awkwardly, bonked her head against the slide, and she looked at me, stunned by my ineptness. We both stared at each other for one panicked moment before I cried, “Oh, Lydi, I’m so sorry! Are you okay?” She looked at me with wide eyes, both of us wondering if she was going to start crying. I picked her up, rubbed her little head with my hand, and she immediately demanded that I put her down.

“Okay, baby, here you go.” I set her down gently. She trotted toward the ladder and said to me, “You stay. No catch me.”

“Okay, Lyd. I’ll just stay here and watch you.”

“No catch me!”

“Okay, I won’t catch you. I’m just going to watch you here.”

Like a pro, she scrambled up the ladder again, zoomed down the slide, landed on her feet, fell forward, and caught herself on the floor with her hands.

“Oh my goodness, Lydia! You did it all by yourself!” I could hardly believe how fast and nimble she had become. Last year, she’d just begun walking by herself and this year, she was zipping up ladders and down slides like a little blonde monkey.

I cheered her on as she went up the ladder and down the slide a thousand more times. Inside the playset, on the second story, there was a little house. If you entered the house by opening a little wooden door, you could go down another slide. I wanted to show Lydia how to get to the other slide. Like a clumsy giant in a leprechaun-sized house, I climbed up the ladder. Lydia followed behind me. I showed her how to open up the door, and half-walked, half-crawled into the house. We looked at the slide, and Lydia pointed at me and cried, “Down!” So on my giant-sized bottom, I slid down the slide, landed on my feet with a thud, and Lydia laughed and slid gracefully down the new slide. We both laughed, and she ran back around to the ladder to do it all again, this time by herself. Which she did, again and again and again. Lydia is a fast learner; after a few times down the slides, she was landing on her feet with nary a stumble. She didn’t really need me at all to entertain her on the slide, but I stuck around just to watch and cheer for her like a good auntie.

Eventually, Amanda and I coaxed her into looking at toys with us. Back in September, I had looked at the toy puppets sold on-line by this store, but every time I clicked on an item, it was listed as sold out. I was disappointed because these toy puppets were very cool: beautiful stuffed animals with a big slit for a hand. With a little bit of imagination, these were animals that could really come alive! I perused the puppets, found a nice big bobcat, and while Lydia played with a toy train set, I introduced her to Bob.

Bob and Lydia hit it off right away. Lydia nuzzled and kissed Bob. He purred when she scratched behind his ears; Lydia leaned in close to hear his purring. Bob tried to kiss Lydia, but she pushed him away, insisting that instead, she would kiss his back or the side of his face. Later, she said, “He’s got pokies,” and gestured to her nose. Bob’s whiskers were a little pokey, so we made sure Bob’s pokies didn’t scratch Lydia. As we got ready to leave the store, Lydia cried, “No, kitty-cat come too!” With that, Bob became the newest member of our family. As long as he keeps his pokies to himself, I think he’ll be welcome to tag along with Lydia wherever she goes.

* * *

It’s funny: I’ve never thought of myself as being particularly maternal, but somehow, Lydia and I get along very well. I’m happy being her aunt, and I know I'm not her mother. Her parents are awesome. But it's true that loving Lydia is, for me, a tiny taste of the love a mother feels for her child. I am utterly smitten with her, and I am delighted that she is thriving. It never occurred to me that I could love Lydia even more as she grows older. Lydia’s babyhood is fading. I used to be upset by the idea of her growing up; perhaps what really upsets me is the idea of missing so much of her childhood. But she is teaching me that our bond is special and strong, and even as time whisks us into the future, she’s still my L Ro, and I’m her Aunt Ro. I just hope that my heart is big enough to hold all of this love. If it breaks a little bit, then maybe she’ll give me a big hug and let me hold her in my arms until we both feel better.

Monday, December 22, 2008

On Assignment in the Mitten State

Dear reader, I had hoped to write you a sunny message en route to Michigan today. Instead, I just had one of the worst mornings of my life, but thankfully, I’ve stopped crying and it looks like I just might make it home before Christmas.

I was supposed to be on an 8:30 AM Amtrak train today. I arrived at Union Station at 7:15 AM, ready to roll. Instead, at 7:45 AM, my train was CANCELED with some vague promise of a bus to get me to Dearborn. Then I waited. And waited. And waited. Then I started crying, great big chest-heaving sobs of exhaustion, frustration, anger. Because this month, I just cannot deal with any more stress. My nerves are completely frayed, and the only thing that got me through these last few weeks was the promise of a week-long vacation with my family. They would soothe me, feed me, comfort me, and generally help me forget about graduate school and this frantic urban life of mine. I need a week without public transportation, packed lunches, timers, and fruit flies.

So here I am, sitting on a coach bus, waiting to leave Union Station, my packed lunch sitting next to me like a cat. Luckily, I do have a tasty meal with me, and I even packed enough for an afternoon snack, the thought of which is making me very happy right now, even though my fingers are kinda numb as I type. My fellow passengers are making me laugh: our bus driver does not know how to get to the Dearborn Amtrak station, but all the passengers are assuring him that they know how to get there, so I feel like I’m in good hands.

Yes, Amtrak sucks, but my family does not. My dear sister-in-law, Amanda, braved my sobbing and tried to find me a one-way plane ticket to Detroit, but my wallet is feeling pinched these days. I didn’t really want to shell out $100+ for yet another ticket, and just as she was on the phone with Southwest, they called for Dearborn passengers to board, so I decided to take my chances on the bus. I’ve said it before, but this time I really mean it: no more Amtrak. Seriously. My peace of mind has a price, and I’m willing to pay that price.

I believe, though, that this trip will be worth every last penny. For one thing, I haven’t seen my niece, Lydia, in a year. She’s two now, and she talks. Best of all, she remembers me. My greatest fear as a long-distance aunt is that Lydia won’t remember me. She’s so young, and I spend such precious little time with her. But she remembers me! I was talking to Amanda about my fear and she told me about this little conversation:

Amanda: Do you remember Uncle Scott, Lydia?
Lydia: He fixes trucks!
Amanda: That’s right! And do you remember Aunt Rose-Anne?
Lydia: She plays with me!

Yes! I can hardly think of a better way to be remembered by my pint-sized pumpkin. This week, there will be lots of playing, I hope, and lots of eating and sleeping and drinking cocoa. There will be presents and music, maybe even a little dancing if Lydia is in the mood. Last year, she liked to dance for us by stamping her feet and twisting her torso back and forth. She’s the cutest little dancer I’ve ever seen.

There will be tea with friends tomorrow morning followed by food shopping at Whole Foods with Amanda and Lydia. I’m cooking a family dinner for Amanda, my brother, and Lydia, which is another thing that makes me happy. When I asked Amanda if I could cook dinner for her family, she laughed and said, “Well, if you can make something without wheat, dairy, or corn, then be my guest.” I smiled and told her I was up to the challenge. I’ve got at least two awesome contenders for entrĂ©e position. One option is a big pot of Stewed Lentils and Tomatoes, perhaps served with rice or oat groats and a nice salad. The other option is a stew to which Matt introduced me, and it’s my top choice right now.

Matt has excellent taste, and this stew is no exception. It is, in fact, one of my very favorite things to make and eat. I know I say that a lot, but I think it’s okay to have lots of favorite things to eat. One of the fun things about cooking with Matt is the pleasure of surprise. I never know what he’ll want to do with the food in front of him, or, in the case of this stew, which recipe will capture his attention when he has a cookbook full of choices.

I remember that stewy evening with fuzzy clarity because it involved lots of delicious red wine. It was about a year ago, and Matt was visiting me in Evanston. He’d caught a wicked cold a few days earlier, so we spent a lot of time in our pajamas, laying on the couch. We did get dressed to go shopping for the groceries together, our teeth chattering in the bitter cold as we walked back to my apartment. After changing back into his pajamas, Matt put his palate to work. I happily played the role of sous-chef, chopping vegetables, finding various pots and pans, tossing together the salad according to Matt’s instructions. Matt chopped and tasted, insisting on a sample of the butternut squash puree that I pulled from the freezer (I love being the kind of woman who can pull squash puree from the freezer at a moment’s notice). We oohed and aaahed over the simmering vegetable stock, the intensely aromatic onion-and-spice saute, the incredible wine that Matt picked out. All of these sensory pleasures were a prelude to the outstanding stew that was being conjured out of simple ingredients. Rich with herbs and spices, Matt’s Chickpea and Artichoke Heart Stew is like a peasant stew gone glamourous. There’s a remarkable synergy between the fresh sage, paprika, and tumeric, three flavors I never would have thought to put together. But they work, magically and beautifully here. The stew’s broth, thickened with that squash puree, tastes almost creamy, or at least it did that night with red wine lingering on our tongues.

We ate our stew with Matt’s Spinach and Orange Salad, the recipe for which I promptly filed into my own collection because I liked it so much. It’s one thing to cook for someone whom you are trying to impress; it’s another thing to cook with someone who has already impressed you. I don’t know when Matt and I crossed that threshold between cooking to impress and cooking to love, but I must confess that I love that we cook together out of love. And because we’re hungry.

My bus is now on the road—I think we’re somewhere in Indiana—and I’m feeling much better. Writing is so very relaxing, and you are sweet to put up with me even when I’m feeling bad. Today, a year after promising you the recipe, I present Matt’s Chickpea and Artichoke Heart Stew, complete with Matt’s adaptations as best I can describe. I’ll be making a big batch of stew while I’m on assignment in the Mitten State. Your assignment, should you choose to accept it: have too much fun this week, sleep in, eat cookies, play in the snow, laugh until your belly hurts, and if you feel motivated, make a batch of stew. It will warm you deeply, belly and soul.

Happy holidays, dear reader.

Matt’s Chickpea and Artichoke Heart Stew
Adapted from Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home
Serves 4-6

Technically, this recipe is about 95% Moosewood and 5% Matt. But that 5% is significant to me! Matt uses a strategy he calls layering to deepen the flavors. Basically, layering is the addition of the same ingredient at different times during the cooking. For example, in this stew, Matt adds most of the sage at the beginning of the cooking to infuse its perfume into the body of the stew. Then at the end, a little more fresh sage is added after the stew is taken off the heat so that there’s a bit of uber-fresh, sprightly sage sitting right on top of the flavor profile. Genius, that Matt is.

4 cups excellent vegetable stock (good-quality bouillon cubes plus water work well here)
3 tbsp. olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped, divided
1 tsp. tumeric
1 tsp. paprika
4 medium waxy red or white potatoes, such as Yukon Golds, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
6 leaves fresh sage, finely chopped, divided
Generous pinch of dried rosemary
1/2 cup pureed winter squash, such as butternut squash
2 15-oz. cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 14-oz. can artichoke hearts, halved and rough spots removed
Salt and pepper to taste
Grated Parmesan cheese (optional but tasty)
Lemon wedges for serving (also optional but tasty)

1) In a large saucepan, bring the vegetable stock to a simmer.
2) Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large pot. Add the onions and saute until soft. Add about 2/3 of the garlic and cook briefly with the onions. Stir the tumeric and paprika into the onions and saute for about a minute.
3) Add the potatoes, minced sage from about 5 leaves, and simmering vegetable stock. Crumble the dried rosemary into the stew by breaking its needles with your fingers. Cook this stewy mixture for about 10 minutes, until the potatoes are just shy of tender. Stir in the pureed squash, then add the chickpeas and artichoke hearts. Simmer for a few more minutes until both the potatoes and the chickpeas are tender. Add the remaining garlic and sage. Taste; add salt and/or pepper to taste.
4) Serve in deep bowls, topped with Parmesan cheese if desired, with lemon wedges on the side for squeezing over the stew.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

When Left Alone in a Grocery Store

My Fridays have turned into a crazy science marathon. It seems no matter how early I get into the lab, I can never quite get everything done. I spend hours as a fly matchmaker, hoping my randy little male flies will charm their female companions into an intimate encounter. It’s true: I’m a fly madam. And I’m so crass about it. All I care about is that these little creatures make lots of baby flies for me so I can do it all over again.

Fly matchmaking is just one part of Crazy Fridays. I spend another couple of hours putting fruit flies, one at a time, into tiny glass test tubes. The tubes are then inserted into computer boards that will monitor the flies’ locomotor behavior by shining an infrared beam through the center of the tube. Every time the fly walks through the middle of the tube, he breaks the beam and the computer board reads that beam break as an activity count. You’d be surprised at how willing flies are to pass the time by just pacing up and down their tubes. Using this locomotor behavior assay, we’re able to generate data that can be analyzed for circadian, or daily, activity rhythms as well as sleep behavior. Yes, flies sleep! Isn’t that cool?

Then there are all the random tasks, the ones that have to be squeezed around everything else: giving my flies fresh food, returning e-mails, collecting data, coordinating with other people about details large and small. This science gig is a pretty good job—it’s paying the bills for now—but it is EXHAUSTING. And it makes me hungry.

On a recent Friday, I tried so hard to leave the lab by 6 PM. The plan was to take the train home, toting my laptop on my back. Once home, I would drop off the computer, do a quick 20-minute work-out of some type, have a little snack to soothe my belly (already getting fussy), and then walk or take the train to downtown Evanston, where I’d be having dinner with some friends at 8 PM.

6 PM approached, and I still wasn’t ready to leave. The clock kept ticking. I kept finding more things that HAD to be done. My belly started grumbling a little louder. The clock approached 7. My nerves were shot. I declared my work day done, grabbed my things, and with no time to go home before dinner, I walked over to Whole Foods to find a snack.

I thought deep and hard about what kind of pre-dinner snack would be appropriate. I wanted something light and healthy, maybe a little bit sweet but not too much sugar because I wanted to have a glass of wine with dinner. Cottage cheese and a banana sounded tasty, but I wasn’t sure Whole Foods sold single-serving containers of cottage cheese. On my way to the dairy case, I picked up a bunch of perfectly ripe bananas (sweet!) and a big bag of dried black beans for Saturday night dinner—a variation of this black bean soup, with oat groats instead of rice. With snack-ready bananas waiting patiently in my basket, I strolled over to the dairy case, thinking about how lovely and rare it is to have a few unhurried minutes in a grocery store, especially after a week of dashing here-there-and-everywhere. It was the perfect opportunity for perusing the dairy shelves for new arrivals, a little something treaty.

I have a deep and meaningful relationship with dairy. I’m madly in love with it and think there are few eating circumstances that aren’t improved by a dairy accessory. It’s a serious wallet commitment for me, especially as I am inching my way over to the organic dairy way of life. It’s expensive, but I make it a weekly habit to buy organic milk and with increasing frequency, I buy organic yogurts and cheeses. But I’ll confess that I hardly ever buy organic cottage or ricotta cheeses, and, during my desperate moments, a block or two of [non-organic] cheddar has been tossed haphazardly into my basket at Jewel. These are the moments that come to mind when I tell myself and everyone around me that we do the best we can with what we have. Sometimes we are starving for time and dinner.

But on that particular Friday night, I wasn’t starving for time or dinner and I was in Whole Foods, where you really have no excuses for not buying organic food unless you are flat broke (in which case, might I suggest you hit the bulk section? You can buy a LOT of black beans with just a handful of quarters!). In front of me sat a plethora of new items and brands, eager to come home with me. Ever the bargain-hunter, even in Whole Foods, a new cottage cheese grabbed my attention with its 2-for-$4 sale price tag and simple ingredient list. The tubs were 16 ounces—much too large for an evening snack—so I added them to my basket and continued looking for a daintier snack.

With my mind on something small and satisfying, I turned to the yogurts, all standing at attention, labels boldly announcing their deliciousness. I wanted to try something new and preferably not too sweet. A new offering from Kalona Organics caught my eye: Cultural Revolution. I think it was the sweetly simple picture of vanilla beans on the container that really got my attention: I love vanilla and am on a sort of vanilla-snob kick these days. Cultural Revolution’s Vanilla Organic Yogurt is more than just a pretty face, though. It’s minimally sweetened (9 grams of carbohydrates and 7 grams of sugar in 6 ounces, which is very, very little sugar for a flavored yogurt) and the vanilla flavor just wafts right into your brain when you peel back the foil lid. On that frigid Friday night, I used my lunch spoon to slice banana chunks into the yogurt. I sat in Whole Foods, eating my snack and enjoying the scene on Chicago Avenue as passers-by scurried along.

I was so intrigued by this yogurt, and so eager to tell you about it, that I decided it was necessary to do a second tasting. This yogurt is pricey--$1.25 for a 6-ounce container—but you, dear reader, are worth it! During the first tasting, I found myself wishing the yogurt was just a smidge sweeter with say, a teaspoon of extra sugar in it. But after a second tasting a week later, I feel it’s just perfect as it is. Either way, what really sells me on it is its texture and rich flavors. It’s wonderfully creamy but a little runny too; Kalona describes it as having a “marbled body.” I agree. Perfumed with vanilla, it rides the line between sweet and tart—it will tickle your tastebuds with its refusal to pick a side! It’s tasty enough to eat by itself, but I really like it with a ripe banana. The banana’s sweetness helps to balance everything on the palate. I’m feeling apprehensive about how much I like this yogurt since its price gives me pause, but apparently, the vanilla flavor also comes in 24-ounce containers, which, one presumes, will be a little easier on the wallet compared to the 6-ounce containers.

I didn’t realize until several days later that the cottage cheese I bought is also from Kalona Organics! The cottage cheese is every bit as good as the yogurt. I’ve eaten it plain and tossed into scrambled eggs (a staple weeknight dinner for me) and find it as tasty as the cottage cheese from Dean’s. Lest you think that’s an insult, since Dean’s is a ubiquitous grocery store brand, let me assure you that I love the products from Dean’s. I just wish they were organic, too. Kalona’s cottage cheese is sold under the label Farmers’ All-Natural Creamery. Its flavor is lovely and pure; it tastes of cream and a little bit of salt, with that familiar squeaky, curdy cottage cheese texture. What’s especially nice about this cottage cheese, though, is that it contains no funky stabilizers or texturizers. It’s just cottage cheese, nothing more, nothing less.

The best part about Kalona Organics, though, is that in addition to making fabulous dairy products, they are a local company for me. Headquartered in Iowa, they are an answer to my wish to purchase more than just my farmer’s market produce from local suppliers. With Wisconsin to the north and Iowa to the west, a Chicago-area denizen like me shouldn’t have to look too far for dairy, and voila! Here is local dairy, on sale at Whole Foods and just perfect for Friday night snacks and scrambled egg embellishment. It’s wonderful enough to make me think I should spend every Friday night in the grocery store. Between the food, the free samples, and the window seats, it’s got everything I need.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Wintry Miracles

I’m feeling ready for winter.

For one thing, I finally got my boots fixed. They needed new insoles, so I took them to the local cobbler so he could fix them. I love that I live in a town that has an actual cobbler, a guy who works in his shop all day, giving new life to old shoes. The shop smells like leather and chemicals, and the cobbler himself barely speaks English, but oh my, he does some mighty fine work. He made my chunky black boots wearable again, which is wonderful because I love wearing boots. They give me height and swagger. I feel like I can do anything when I wear boots, like face a Chicago snowstorm head on, putting one boot in front of the other. I got my boots back from the cobbler just in time for the beginning of Chicago’s snow season. I think it’s going to be a long, long winter.

Another sign of the season is that I’ve finally accepted that the Evanston farmer’s market is gone for the year. It’s been gone for over a month now, and while it was hard to say good-bye, I feel I got my fill of local pumpkins, potatoes, onions, and basket after basket of gorgeous fruit. Knowing that the farmer’s market itself has a season makes the shopping that much sweeter because I know I need to savor it while it’s here. I’m so proud of myself, and Daphna, my food shopping buddy, for buying so much of our produce from local growers. It’s a commitment that I was too shy and lazy to make until this year, but like any worthwhile commitment, the rewards are immeasurable.

Winter is a season of contrasts, and nowhere else is this more apparent than in the kitchen. It’s the season of baking, but it’s also the season of citrus. Sweet and sour sit side by side in the kitchen, sometimes folding themselves into the same cookie. I love citrus desserts, and I don’t eat them nearly enough. (Damn you, addictive chocolate!) I’m planning a small birthday party for myself in January (two months late, but I’ll take any excuse to cook!), and I’ve got my eye on this amazing recipe for Orange Pudding Cake from Gourmet. I’ve never made a pudding cake before, but I’m feeling ready for the challenge.

I always worry that I’ll put on weight in the winter, what with all the cookies and egg nog and merrymaking, but it turns out that despite the cold, I secretly like being outside in the winter. Everything sparkles and crunches, and the crisp air wakes me up and tingles my senses with its sharp edges. The beauty of winter is stark: bare branches against bright blue sky, a steamy cloud of breath in front of your face, a piercing winter sun making brief appearances to remind you of what natural light looks like. Even though it takes some effort and some extra layers to spend time outside in the winter, I find it rejuvenating, if not exactly comfortable. In winter, I bundle up and take long walks. I stroll down to the lakefront and look out over freezing Lake Michigan. I listen to the waves crashing against the beach, enjoying the solitude that winter brings. I even run outside in the winter, taking care to avoid the days when the sidewalks are especially slippery. Winter running is not for the weak, but I’m always so pleased with myself when I get out there and do it. One of the first things I’ll be doing after ringing in the new year is buying a new pair of running shoes. I can hardly think of a better resolution than taking good care of one’s feet.

The best part of going outside in the winter, though, is the part where you go back inside and drink hot tea and eat homemade cookies. One can never have too many cookie recipes in the ol’ recipe collection. I’ve been baking cookies nearly every weekend for the past few weeks, nothing fancy, just sweet little somethings to nibble after dinner. If winter is the season of baking, then December is Month of the Cookie. Think about how many dozens of cookies are crisscrossing the country right now, baked with love and packed into boxes by cookie-loving merrymakers. I think it’s safe to say that no matter how many diet trends Americans try, nothing gets between us and our Christmas cookies. It’s tradition!

One of my newest favorite cookies is the lovely, glossy thumbprint cookie. Those little wells of jam, surrounded by sweet pale cookie, remind me of bootprints in the snow—that is, if those bootprints were then filled with jam by little dessert fairies following behind us. Thumbprints are so humble and lowkey—no rolling out dough or piping on frosting. But today’s recipe is not the least bit humble, at least when it comes to flavor. I gave Daphna and Ian a handful of these cookies because I like to share, and when Ian first tried one, his “Mmmm-MMMMM-mmmm!” was so exaggerated that I mocked him for being completely over the top. The thing is, now I don’t think he was exaggerating. He really loves these cookies, and so does Daphna. I love ‘em too. And the good news is that even if your holiday baking is all done, these little thumbprints will be tasty all year long, even if you have to drink them with iced tea six months from now. I would not, however, wait that long to give them a go.

Ian’s Thumbprint Cookies
Makes about 2 dozen cookies
Adapted from Vegetarian Times, September 2008

I call these Ian’s Thumbprint Cookies because he loves them so much. They’re simple enough to make that I can see him tackling the recipe with his future little ones. Everyone would wear aprons, and they’d take turns rolling out balls of dough and squishing a well in the center with their thumbs. When Ian’s back was turned, the kids would steal nibbles of dough, sweet and buttery on the tongue. I can’t wait to meet his little ones.

In the meantime, I’ll tell you more about these cookies. Besides the obvious butter and sugar, they get a lot of their flavor from two different extracts, almond and vanilla. The almond extract is really an inspired touch here: it’s subtle but it adds a depth of flavor that lends sophistication. The vanilla is very important, as its flavor is front and center. This recipe is a nice opportunity to use an exotic vanilla (as if “regular” vanilla weren’t exotic enough, considering that it’s grown in tropical places). My current favorite vanilla is a Papua New Guinea specimen from Frontier Natural Products Co-op. They describe it as “fruity and floral” on the bottle; all I know is that it makes my cookies taste amazing.

Finally, I have a tiny confession for you. I don’t actually use my thumbs to make the wells in thumbprint cookies. I use my pinkie finger. It just works better for me, but I’ve kept the name thumbprint because pinkieprint doesn’t have quite the same effect. I hope you’ll forgive me.

2 cups white whole wheat flour, such as that from King Arthur Flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened to room temperature
1/3 cup milk or soymilk
1 1/2 tsp. best-quality vanilla extract (see headnote above)
1/4 tsp. almond extract
About 2-4 tbsp. or more seedless strawberry jam (you might not use all the jam, depending on how big the cookie wells are)

1) Whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt in a small bowl. Set aside.
2) In a large mixing bowl, cream together the sugar and softened butter using an electric mixer. In a small bowl or 1-cup-volume measuring cup, stir together the milk and extracts. Gradually beat the milk and extacts into the butter mixture. I find that not all of the liquid combines into the butter here, but that’s okay. Finally, add the flour mixture. Using a spoon, fold the flour into the butter mixture until a soft dough forms with no big floury patches. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap or put it in a tightly sealed container and let it rest in the fridge for 30 minutes or longer.
3) Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Spray a cookie sheet or two with cooking spray. Using a tablespoon, scoop out hunks of dough and shape them into balls with your hands. Place the balls on the cookie sheet, and when the cookie sheet is full, use your thumb (or pinkie finger) to poke deep wells in the cookies. Be careful not to poke all the way through the cookie; you just want to make a nice well for the jam. Fill the wells with jam. I find that my wells have about a quarter-teaspoon capacity, so I use my quarter teaspoon to measure and fill the wells with jam.
4) Bake cookies for 12-15 minutes, rotating the cookie sheet halfway through the baking time. My cookies don’t seem to brown very much on top, so don’t be alarmed if yours don’t either. When the cookies are done baking, let the rest on their sheet on a wire cooling rack for 5-10 minutes and then remove the cookies from the sheet and let them cool directly on wire racks. If you refuse to let your cookies cool before trying one, I am not responsible for any burned tongues.

Monday, December 8, 2008

With My Bare Hands

Simplify, simplify.

Henry David Thoreau said this about life in general, but I think this lesson can be applied quite usefully to food.

I’ve been working on a new food project. It does involve cooking and playing in the kitchen, but it’s not really about the cooking. It’s about the tasting. I don’t have a very good palate, and it makes me sad. Luckily, I’m blessed with friends who do have good palates—Shawn Marie and Matt are great examples. In addition to being two of my favorite people in the whole world, SM and Matt are both avid tasters. They sip, they chew, they think. They analyze. They try to capture gustation in words, which is far harder to do than one might think. It really takes practice! And that is exactly what I am doing: practicing.

Taste, taste. If Thoreau had been a foodie, perhaps this would have been his advice to us.

Quite a while ago, SM and I had an awesome, informal coffee tasting at Casteel Coffee, her favorite coffee place in the Chicago area. She’s enamored by how freshly roasted the beans are and the unpretentious, rough-hewn feel of the Casteel Coffee shop on Central Street in Evanston. One Saturday morning, we bellied up to the counter and ordered two tall cups of coffee, one a dark-roasted Mexican brew, the other a medium-roasted Central American brew. Armed with our caffeine juice, we set about tasting them, side by side, over and over. Black, with cream, with sugar, with cream and sugar, it was a marvelous experience. For the first time, I tasted what she meant when she described the Central American coffees as “bright” and “acidic.” In contrast, the dark Mexican drink was earthy and mellow, the perfect recipient of a dairy accessory to give it a little lift. Both coffees were delicious, but they really were quite different, and I loved being able to taste the difference. Tasting is believing.

Alone in the kitchen, I’ve been focusing huge amounts of concentration on finding all the flavors in my food. Because my palate is mediocre at best, I’ve been taking Thoreau’s words to heart and using the simplest of combinations on my plate. A tome of inspiration, Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat, accompanied me home from the library one Sunday afternoon. Longtime readers of this space may recall that one of the most important blogs that inspired me to start writing my own was Sarah Discovers How to Eat. Sarah’s blog, a record of her adventures as she cooked every single recipe(!) from How to Eat, felt like a celebration of cooking. I liked that. I wasn’t quite as wild about the recipes—they were very heavy with meat and dairy. Even the vegetarian recipes gave me pause. Nigella’s cooking is indulgent; next to her recipes, my cooking looks positively anemic!
It took three long years for me to come back to the beginning and look at the primary text that inspired Sarah’s blog. Within the pages of that dense, terrific book, I found inspiration in a most unlikely place: salad. In hindsight, I feel rather silly for not finding the book sooner. But I know things now that I didn’t know then, such as the importance of developing your palate. A good palate is a good palate, no matter what you put on it. I think Nigella has a good palate and thus has something to teach me.

Matt has one of the best palates I’ve ever met. Even though he eats ludicrous amounts of meat, he makes amazing vegetarian food too. The best part is that he actually likes cooking with me; he likes being encouraged to think beyond the steak, to understand what makes for a good vegetarian meal. There’s a lovely synergy that takes form when Matt and I cook together. What we do in the kitchen is something that is unique to us, together. Separately, we are good cooks, but together, it’s like all the love and affection and romance and attraction between us is infused into the food and it becomes the best food I’ve ever tasted. When he is not around, I miss cooking with him as much as I miss holding his hand. I miss it deeply and viscerally. I miss him and his food.

When I’m alone and concentrating intensely on my food, I can feel Matt’s gentle spirit in the kitchen with me. In an e-mail to him, I mentioned my amazing salad experience, gleaned from the pages of How to Eat. Into a big bowl of coarsely torn Romaine lettuce, I poured a smidgen of olive oil and with my bare hands, tossed it over and over, until the grassy aromas of leaf and oil drifted into my nose. Then I squeezed just a few drops of fresh lemon juice into the leaves and tossed again. From there, with fresh leaves gussied up and eagerly awaiting the plate, I tossed a handful of cheddar cubes into the bowl and tipped the whole thing onto a plate. Good Lord, it was a lot of salad—about half a plate’s worth, in fact! Toasted walnuts, still warm from their sojourn into the oven, topped the whole thing and I polished off the entire salad, every last leaf and nut.

Even before I told Matt about the salad, I knew he would be pleased with my new approach to cooking, an approach where the focus gently shifts from a heavy reliance on other people’s recipes to a quiet confidence in my own palate. Eating becomes a deeply authentic experience when your personal taste is infused into the food. Cookbooks become teachers and coaches, but in the end, the meal is in your hands. I like that. I still love my cookbook collection (cookbooks are the best bedtime reading material), but I feel like I’m starting to come into my own style as a cook. With that in mind, I have nothing but gratitude for those who teach me how to taste and how to cook.

A Nigella-Inspired Salad: Romaine Lettuce with Toasted Walnuts and Vintage Cheddar or Green Apples
Inspired by How to Eat by Nigella Lawson
Serves 1-2

This salad is all about technique. You can top the Romaine with anything you like; I’ve suggested toasted walnuts with either a vintage white cheddar cheese or cubes of green apple. The idea here is to use simple but intensely flavored ingredients. If you try different combinations on your fork—for example, a bite of walnut followed by a bite of walnut with Romaine—you’ll start to discover the singular flavors of each ingredient and the synergystic flavors that emerge in the combinations. I feel like there’s a sort of alchemy that happens during tasting; it is one of my favorite things about food. Like I said before, tasting is believing.

I think this salad is a good one for any eaters who shy away from vinegar, like my friend Ian. The lemon is very, very subtle; it makes the Romaine taste even fresher and brighter without tasting sour. It’s wonderful.

2 tbsp. chopped walnuts
2-3 large and very fresh leaves of Romaine lettuce
Drizzle of olive oil (to taste)
Several drops of fresh lemon juice (to taste)
1/2 -1 oz. vintage white cheddar cheese, such as Tillamook Vintage White Extra Sharp Cheddar Cheese or 1/4 of a green apple, such as Granny Smith, cored and chopped into irregular cubes

1) Toast the walnuts: preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Place the walnuts on a small cookie sheet and bake them for several minutes until they are fragrant and browned.
2) While the walnuts are toasting, wash and dry the lettuce thoroughly. Tear it into bite-sized pieces and place in a large bowl. Pour in a scant drizzle of olive oil and use your bare hands to toss the leaves with the oil. As Nigella says, “Toss it far longer than you’d believe possible.” If you think the leaves need more oil, add a smidgen more and toss again. The goal is to give each leaf just the barest sheen of oil. Squeeze a few drops of lemon juice over the leaves and toss again. Taste a leaf and decide if it needs more oil or lemon juice; adjust as needed.
3) Once the leaves are prepped and perky, toss them with the cheddar or the green apple. Tip the salad onto a plate (or plates, if you are willing to share your salad with someone else) and top with the toasted walnuts. Serve immediately, but eat slowly so you can taste everything fully.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Gratitude, in Motion and in Stillness

As far as I know, there is no Gypsy blood running through these veins of mine. I’m quite certain, though, that there’s an ounce or two of Gypsy spirit in these bones. How else can I explain the sudden case of wanderlust that gripped me the day before Thanksgiving? All I could think about was leaving town: hop on a plane, go somewhere else. I didn’t even have a particular destination in mind. I just wanted to leave. I wanted an excuse not to work for four days, an excuse to loaf around and be lazy with no responsibilities weighing me down.

But alas, a vacation wasn’t in the cards. I do have a vacation planned for later this month—three weeks from today, in fact, woo!—but until then, I remain planted firmly in Evanston. It’s not like me to feel so twitchy about things. I’m a homebody in the best sense of the word, so I was puzzled by these Gypsy urges, this lack of grace on the eve of Thanksgiving. I walked around all day feeling resentful about my job and all the anxiety I’m feeling these days about the future and the fact that I don’t know what I’m doing after I graduate. I’m sure I’ll find something, but for the first time in my life, I have no plan. It’s really scary, and yet, at the same time, my advisor and I are driving each other nuts, so part of me cannot WAIT to graduate and hit the road. Too bad I don’t know which road that is.

It is very odd to feel unhappy about my work when this year alone has been my most tangibly successful. My paper was finally accepted and published (woo again!), and my grant application was funded, so now I’m even paying my own salary, which makes my head spin when I think about it. After a long chat, my advisor agreed to let me supervise an undergraduate who will work with me on some of my research projects, which is an amazing teaching opportunity for me. I’m very excited about all this, but I’m still prone to whining and pouting about what I don’t have: a plane ticket out of town, my PhD, a boyfriend to cook me dinner on my birthday. I should be grateful for what I do have: a lovely town, a paid position in grad school, a boyfriend who loves me even when we’re almost a thousand miles apart.

Gratitude doesn’t pay attention to “shoulds,” and I don’t like trying to force myself to feel differently than I do. Instead, when grumpiness strikes, I indulge in a little bit of therapy. The only question is this: kitchen or pavement? I reach for either a knife or my running sneakers, and I get moving to work out those grumpy kinks.

On the eve of Thanksgiving, I found myself bounding over sidewalk, feeling a tiny bit of joy at the feel of cool air on my face and pavement under my feet. It was dark out already; the sun had set before 5 that evening. But I didn’t mind the darkness; the sky was like inky black velvet, blotting out my worries. I ran easily that night, almost effortlessly. The motion was rhythmic, steady and sure, and its sweetness tugged at my soul, making a little more room for thankfulness.

The next morning, I woke up feeling snug and happy in my warm bed. On the very top of my pile of blankets lay one that mirrors the sky itself. On one side, it is a velvety navy blue, dark as the predawn horizon; on the other, a daytime sky blue, a blue that matched the morning sky winking at me through the shades.

I shuffled out to the kitchen to make breakfast. I don’t understand people who don’t eat breakfast. I don’t even understand people who can wait to eat breakfast. As soon as I’m conscious, my belly starts whimpering and pointing toward the kitchen, so I waste no time between waking up and eating. Inside the refrigerator, two pieces of ciabatta bread were soaking in a vanilla-scented bath of egg and milk. That very lucky bread would have the honor of becoming my favorite French toast, and today, because of Thanksgiving and pumpkins and the harvest season, it would be topped with a warm sticky coat of fresh pumpkin and maple syrup. I can hardly think of a better reason to wake up.

I melted some Better in a pan over medium-low heat. Into the pan went the custard-soaked bread. Then I stood still. The secret to this French toast is a long, slow cook—3 or 4 minutes per side, in my kitchen—and I think it’s best to leave things alone during the cooking. For a few moments, I savored the silence, feeling at last the sort of contentment that I lacked the day before. An entire day to give thanks stretched before me, a day to take a long walk, wear my new birthday sweater, bake granola for Daphna and Ian, and breathe full, deep, cinnamon-scented breaths. A day for celebration, peace of mind, simple pleasures.

My kitchen timer beeped, indicating it was time to flip the bread. I slipped my flipper underneath and, with a quick turn of the wrist, revealed the crisp, caramelly brown surface, one that just begged for a maple-syrup jacket to keep it warm. While the second side cooked, I put the finishing touches on breakfast. Alongside my marvelous French toast I planned to eat some savory baked eggs (recipe coming soon!) and a mug of green tea. Sweet, salty, savory, bitter—except for acid, all the tastes found their way onto my intrepid palate. I chewed and swallowed slowly, every bite a delicious one, and wondered why all mornings couldn’t be this nice. With a full belly and a light heart, I pushed my chair back from the table, stood up, and began the task of putting my kitchen back in order, just as I’ve done a thousand times before in this little apartment of mine. At least for the day, my Gypsy wanderlust was no longer tugging at my heart, and for that I was grateful.

Rose-Anne’s Favorite French Toast with a Pumpkin-Maple Syrup Topping
Adapted from Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home and Nicole’s fabulous pumpkin pancake recipe
Serves 1 (easily multiplied to serve more)

Oh, my, are there even words to describe how good this French toast is? I don’t know, but I’m going to try. This dish is marvelously flavorful and utterly simple to make. The outside of the toast is chewy-crispy and, when combined with the pumpkin-maple syrup topping, has notes of caramel(!). Inside, there’s a pillow of bread, tender-chewy and meltingly soft, almost creamy. Every bite is warm with vanilla custard and a little spicy with cinnamon.

The key to making this French toast is time. Give the bread plenty of time to soak; I like to let it soak overnight, but I think a good 15-20 minutes of soaking the day you make it is fine, too. When it’s time to fry the soaked bread, give it plenty of time, about 6-8 minutes for two slices. If you want to make more than one serving, you can keep the cooked slices warm by placing them on a cookies sheet in an oven on the warm setting.

For the French toast:
2 slices of ciabatta or other good plain bread, sliced 1 inch thick
1 large egg
1/4 cup milk (I use my standard 1% milk)
1/2 tsp. real vanilla extract
A few shakes of ground cinnamon (or, if that’s not precise enough for you, 1/8 tsp.)
2 tsp. Better or 1 tsp. each butter and canola oil

For the Pumpkin-Maple Syrup topping:
1/4 cup fresh pumpkin (I recommend fresh here, but use canned pumpkin if you don’t have fresh pumpkin)
2 tbsp. real maple syrup (the darker, the better!)

1) Place the bread in a shallow dish, one with a lid if you plan to soak the bread overnight.
2) In a small bowl or a 2-cup measuring cup, beat together the egg, milk, and vanilla. Stir in the cinnamon. Pour the whole thing over the bread slices.
3) Allow the bread to soak for 5 minutes or so and then flip it over to let the other side soak. Give the bread at least 15 minutes to soak, flipping it over occasionally. If you want to soak it overnight, after you’ve flipped it once, put the lid on the bread dish and pop it in the fridge until morning. It’s okay if the bread doesn’t absorb all the liquid—absorption will vary with different types of bread and the dryness of the bread.
4) Once the bread has had a nice long soak, melt the Better or butter+oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-low heat. Place the bread in the skillet and let it cook for 3-4 minutes per side, flipping it when the first side is done.
5) While the French toast is cooking, get the topping ready. In a small saucepan, heat the pumpkin and maple syrup together over low heat, stirring to combine.
6) Once both sides of the French toast are crispy and brown, and the topping is hot, transfer the French toast to a plate, spoon the topping over the toast, and sit yourself down right away to eat. You’ll need a knife and fork for this one—it’s got a lot of chew!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Musical Interlude: An Interview with Dan Cohen

I am a lucky, lucky woman. Not only did I just celebrate my birthday, but tomorrow, I will feast with my best cooking friend and all of her Thanksgiving guests. Daphna gave me a sneak peak at the menu, and all I can say is, “Oh, MAN! There’s gonna be some good eatin’ tomorrow.” Rumor even has it that she’s going to make my wedding cake in the form of tiny cupcakes, which makes me think I might just pass out in sheer bliss at the end of the meal. Hubba hubba!

I am also totally and completely spoiled. Daphna’s got her eye on Thanksgiving bragging rights, so she politely declined my offer to help her cook. This is fine and dandy because I’ll be busy putting together her hostess gift on Thursday. Have you ever given another foodie a gift bag? It’s really, really fun! It’s a little like having permission to buy all sorts of cute things or exotic ingredients, and then you get heaps of praise in return. I rather like the whole exchange.

Even though I won’t be cooking Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday, I’ll still be in the kitchen, making holiday meals for breakfast and lunch. While I’m puttering around, I’ll have the CD player spinning my favorite albums. I love to listen to music while I cook. It energizes and soothes me, and it keeps me company when I’m cooking by myself. One of my favorite kitchen albums is Dan Cohen’s self-titled solo debut album. I’ve written about Dan’s album once before because I think it’s really wonderful. It’s the “soundtrack of life,” if I may quote myself, an eclectic mix of country, rock, and jazz. It is sassy and sublime.

Today, I am thrilled and honored to share with you an interview with Dan Cohen. Dan agreed to discuss his thoughts about the album, songwriting, performing, and even his own encounters with fame. I love getting to peak inside the creative process through Dan’s words; he is funny and humble and inspiring. I’m just tickled to have him here at Life, Love, and Food.

Dan, thanks so much for agreeing to interview with me, a starstruck fan. Let’s begin by discussing Dan Cohen, the album. What was your favorite part of recording Dan Cohen? What were some of the more challenging aspects of the album?

I liked doing the guitar parts. What I really liked was seeing how songs changed when we all got together and played them. Some things I heard differently in my head before we went in to track them, and when I heard how they came out, I was amazed and delighted. Matt King had a lot to do with this. We kind of arranged stuff on the fly for some songs.

"When You Don't Come Home" was particularly fun to record, because we did it all live in a big room. Matt wanted a front porch kind of feel. The "kick drum" is actually Derek stomping on the floor. Matt is playing the triangle. We did overdub the vocal and I got to play the vibes, which was a life-long dream of mine, of course.

“Lullaby" was also fun to record. Or not so much fun as gruelling and horrible because that one really was live—the guitar and vocal at the same time. Ordinarily you would record the guitar part and then overdub the vocal so you could go back and make fixes and comp and tune and stuff. But Matt said I sang it better while playing the guitar, so we did that. And there are a couple of pitchy spots that made me wince for a while, but they don't anymore and now I'm quite proud of that performance.

What are a few of your favorite songs on the album?

I just love "Even Us." It’s the one track I still get goose bumps listening to. I like "Jackknife" for the horn parts, and I love "Hope You Don't Change Your Mind" because sonically, it's just so full and warm and well-balanced. That's the best-mixed song on the record, despite that there's like 20 people playing on that track. It's insane! And I like "Pete and Elizabeth" because it's got this great mood.

My sources tell me you are a very prolific song-writer. What is the song-writing process like for you?

I am more prolific than I used to be, I suppose. My brother says I am. He runs the business end of the label and the publishing company, and he says that I'm not nearly as lazy as I think. Good. We just signed three new writers to the publishing company, Jace Everett, Doug Powell, and Denitia Odigie. I write with all those guys for their projects so I will no doubt be even more prolific in the next year or so.

I often start with a little guitar music and maybe a melody I hum with no words or nonsense words. Sometimes the nonsense words end up making sense and become the basis for an idea, which is certainly weird, to be sure. I don't really like writing words because I don't really have much to say. And what little I do have to say always gets twisted around ‘til I can't recognize it anymore once a lyric is done. Or rather I'll have a cool idea in my head, but when it comes out on the page and I sing it, I say, “That is very, very, VERY dumb. I'm glad no one was around to hear that. I will now destroy it forever." That's when I'm writing alone. But when you co-write you have to throw everything you're thinking out there, to keep the process flowing along. So you end up saying some dumb shit. But so do they, so hey!

Basically the music is pure and the words never quite measure up to a great melody. Unless the words are fantastic, but how often does that happen? But that's just me, maybe. That's why I like to team up with clever lyricists like Matt King and Jace and Doug.

Is there a time of day when you find yourself most inspired to write songs?

Not really. I get inspired with music late at night mostly. But I can write hackneyed, crappy words all day long.

How do you decide that a song you have written or co-written is one you would like to perform yourself?

Usually I know from the start if I'm writing for me or someone else. But sometimes a song I'm thinking of for The Levees (my other project) will end up working for me.

You write some of your songs from a woman's perspective, with the intention that they will be performed by a woman. What do you do to put yourself, creatively, in a woman's shoes? Are those songs harder or easier to write than songs written from a man's perspective?

I do the same thing I do when writing for anybody. I think, "If I were on stage singing this song, what would I say here that would make me seem really cool and smart and sexy?" And that usually does it.

Speaking of women, with which female singer would you most like to perform a duet?

Oooh. That's a tough one. Gillian Welch, maybe. Or Alison Krauss. I met her and Robert Plant in Nashville at a recording studio. I wrote a song for them but I forgot to tell them about it because I couldn't speak or make brain work right forget words speak not goodly.

Or Suzanne Vega.

A big part of your career is performing live. From what I can tell, you alternate between more local performances in the Nashville area, where you reside, and farther-flung touring performances. What do you love about performing in Nashville? And what is life like for you when you are on tour? Is there a city where you dream of performing?

I need to book more shows. It's difficult doing everything on your own. We're a small label, and the booking agents these days don't pay any attention until you're already drawing really good crowds, and at that point...what do you need a booking agent for?

As far as Nashville goes, there's not much I like about performing here. Everybody has music flung at them from all directions all day. So it's hard to get people excited about something. It's hard to get people OUT at all. Maybe it's like trying to get attention paid to one's cooking when you live in...Paris. There's a saturation issue. I like to get out of town because I make money there and people appreciate music, particularly live music.

I want to get over to Europe and play my music.

And speaking of cities, any chance you'll be performing in the Chicago area any time soon?

I will if I can. Gas is getting cheaper. I just need a place to stay. Hmmm...

Since this is a cooking blog, let's talk about food. Do you cook at all, Dan? If so, what's your best dish? What do you cook if you are trying to impress?

I don't cook. I used to...a bit. I made this Asian orange ginger chicken that was okay. And once I made a tiramisu for a girlfriend and I'd never made it before and screwed up the mascarpone mixture and had no more. So I went out scouring the streets of Philadelphia at midnight for something I could use to substitute. I went into this 24-hour market place near my apartment—the kind of place that says it sells "groceries" but this turns out to mean two bananas, [a] frozen burrito, and a bottle of margarita mix. Anyway, they did have one container of Philadelphia Cream Cheese! So I used that and it was awesome. Cream cheese tiramisu.

* * *

So I’m a little heartbroken that Dan doesn’t cook, but I suppose I’m willing to forgive him for this lapse in good judgment. More exciting, though, is his thought about performing in Chicago! Dan, I have just the place where you can stay, a humble little treehouse of an apartment. The food there is fantastic, and for a few strums of the guitar, you might even get dessert. Now that the price of gas is going down, you have no excuses for not heading north. I’ll be waiting for you.

*All photos courtesy of Dan Cohen. Isn't he great?

Monday, November 24, 2008

Waving Hello

Saturday, November 22, 2008

As I write, it is a classic November day. From inside my cozy kitchen, I see that the sky is a solid sheet of grey. A playful breeze is tickling the trees, making them laugh and sway ever so gently. It is Saturday morning, the start of a gloriously open and uncluttered weekend, the kind my soul needs every so often. A soul needs to breathe.

The moments I spend writing are the calmest moments of my week. I feel open to inspiration, like I am a large bowl, waiting to catch raindrops of meaning falling from the clouds of the universe. I’m feeling particularly inspired today because Monday, the day that this piece will make its public debut, is my birthday. I did the math: it turns out I will be 27 years old on Monday.

In this decade of my life, the days, weeks, months go by so fast that every time my birthday shows up again on the calendar, it feels surreal, like I’m in some sort of odd, dream-like state. Really? I’m 23, 24, 25, 26 years old now? I feel almost ageless, like my age is irrelevant to my path and my future of unseen possibilities. When I first pondered the idea of turning 27, I felt a little sad. 27 is dangerously close to 30, and 30 is the end of the carefree, 20-something life. Then I realized my 20-something life has been anything but carefree. I’ve been plagued by doubt, uncertainty, loneliness, and exhaustion. In other words, I’ve been in graduate school almost the entire time. But now, I’m so close to finishing my degree. I’m still plagued by loneliness and exhaustion, as well as another downer, boredom, but I feel like the doubt and uncertainty are starting to dissipate. It’s a great relief.

I knew before I graduated from college that I would be heading to graduate school with barely a hiccup between the two. The journey was like pushing off of the shore of my childhood in a boat, waving good-bye to my family and friends, safety and security. At first, my boat felt rock-solid: I had a great education, a good head on my shoulders, a little money in the bank. The waters were a little rough sometimes, but nothing my boat and I couldn’t handle. I was joined by a boyfriend for a time, but after a while he jumped out of my boat and swam back to his own. Afterwards, my boat felt cold and empty, but it was my boat again. In his absence, I was free to stop trying to impress him, an impossible task at best. I was also free to stop worrying about the future of our relationship, a future in which I saw myself never happy but always trying to make him happy, another impossible task. But I promised myself that I wouldn’t give up on love, that in time, I would be ready for love and romance and sex. I was able to keep that promise.

I kept rowing along, resting when necessary, occasionally visiting with other 20-somethings as we bobbed in the sea. Everyone had a similar story: with flags of independence flapping in the breeze above their boats, my 20-something friends told tales of new jobs and new marriages, of facing down uncertainties with courage and grace. Their stories of fear and failure, and of rising above failure to try again, filled me with hope. I thanked my lucky stars that I don’t really have to make this journey alone, even though it feels that way.

But still, my boat keeps springing leaks. Sometimes they are minor, and I do my best to plug the leak and I keep rowing along. Sometimes they are monstrous gaping wounds, and the water starts rushing into my fragile little boat. I start crying and cursing, hating every minute of this damn 20-something voyage I’m on. I want someone to save me, to take me back to shore. I want to forget I ever left shore in the first place. Sometimes there are emergency rescue missions: my brother and sister-in-law will come by in their yacht and invite me on board. They fish my boat out of the water and repair the holes while soothing me with homecooked meals and deploying my niece to entertain me for hours. Other times, Matt zips by in his speed boat, notices I’m on the verge of sinking, and offers to pull me on board for a little while. We share a glass of wine, a meal, a cuddle, and then I hop back into my boat and he speeds off again.

The saving grace of this 20-something journey is that it’s a one-time trip. Once I reach the shores of age 30 and beyond, there will be no need to repeat the battles for autonomy and self-sufficiency that characterize my 20-something life. To my mind, the chances for financial and emotional security only get better with age. There are, of course, no guarantees, but the pain of 20-something failure will light the pathway toward 30-something happiness. I feel like I’m more than halfway there.

Rather than mourn the end of my 20s, I am ready to celebrate it. From inside my boat, I can see the shoreline of 30-something land, and everyone there is cheering me on, telling me to row faster and get back on solid ground. As they cheer, I am waving hello to a new decade and a new chance to live life on my terms, and for a moment, I forget that I’m still miles from land.

* * *

A brief housekeeping note: I have no recipe for you today. I figure you are very busy putting the final touches on your Thanksgiving menu, so you are preoccupied with plenty of recipes already. I do, however, have a very special treat planned for Wednesday. I can’t wait to share it with you, but for now, it’s a surprise. This is your only clue.

Have a lovely week, dear reader.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Love, Friendship, and Utterly Delicious Salad

There are times when I am convinced this world is a very bad place in which to live.

A dark and stormy mood descended upon my entire town this past weekend. From Friday to Sunday, everybody seemed to be crabby. My boss peppered me with unhappy e-mails on Friday, causing my thoughts to spiral down the “What will I do if he fires me?” ladder. At the bottom of the ladder, I always conclude that leaving grad school, and academia in general, might be a blessing in disguise, but goodness, who wants to be unemployed during these shaky times? Certainly not I.

On Saturday, I went out to get provisions for dinner. Ammie was coming over to cook dinner with me, and I was looking forward to some quality time in the kitchen with her. At the front door of every store, I was practically run over by people trying to leave. The way it worked was this: I would approach the front door and see that one or two people were trying to leave. I would step aside as they moseyed out the front door, so slowly that I wasn’t sure they actually wanted to leave. Then as soon as I thought I’d walk inside, four more people would run outside, determined to knock me over if necessary, if I stood in the way of their freedom. After a few rounds of this, I started to long for the tranquility of my own home. But the worst was yet to come.

Whole Foods now has carts in three different sizes. They have the gigantic “family size” carts, which I never use because they’re too big. They have the teeny-tiny carts into which you can place two shopping baskets. I like the teeny-tiny carts, but sometimes they are just a bit too small. The medium-sized carts are my favorite. They are green, with two layers of cart space. The bottom layer sticks out farther than the top layer, and I am constantly underestimating how far it sticks out. I like these carts when I have a lot of produce to pick up. On Saturday, my neighborhood Whole Foods was packed. It was crazy: food demos everywhere, people wandering in all sorts of unpredictable patterns. It was chaos. As I exited the produce section on my way to the cheese displays, it was single-file only. Inside my head, the fear of crowds was starting to get the better of me, but I tried to stay calm and breathe. Then, all of a sudden, I bumped into this older woman with my cart, and she turned around and snarled at me. For a moment, I forgot where I was and thought maybe I’d run over her cat. I stammered an apology, blushed profusely, and waited for her to finish hissing at me. I don’t deal well with confrontations, so I just stood there mutely until she had her say and then I scooted over to the cheddars and pretended to be mulling over my choices while inside I was flaming with embarrassment and not just a little anger.

I’m a firm believer in not yelling at people—ever. Patience, gentleness, and allowing imperfections are part of my value system. I’m also a big believer in apologizing if I’ve done wrong. I was the one who had injured this woman with my cart—however minor her pain was, I was the culprit. It wasn’t intentional, though, and I never assume that if someone has hurt me, it was intentional. Okay, every now and again I wonder if it was, but I act like it was an accident. So it’s always jarring and upsetting if someone acts as though I have tried to hurt them, like this woman in Whole Foods. I’m very sensitive this way. It’s really hard to apologize when someone is yelling at me; my throat mysteriously swells up and I can barely squeak out, “I’m sorry.” So Snarling Woman in Whole Foods, I really am sorry about that cart incident. I hope you’ll be able to forgive me.

The best thing about bad moods, though, is that eventually they go away. In the meantime, I’ve got my friends to soothe my spirits. Ammie and I had a dinner that induced sighs of delight and contentedness. Have I mentioned how awesome Ammie is? Because she is really awesome. I like her a lot. I especially like cooking with her. We made luscious little pan-fried falafel patties and ate them on pitas with tahini sauce, tomatoes, and Romaine lettuce. The tahini sauce was made with whole-milk yogurt, and it was so, so good. Usually I buy lowfat yogurt, but my goodness, that rich tahini sauce really made dinner feel festive to me. Alongside our falafel, we ate a stunning little salad which had my name written all over it from the time I first laid eyes on the recipe. It’s a toss-together mixture of celery, apples, excellent cheddar, and toasted pecans which is then plated on top of some pretty lettuce. It sounds rather humble, mostly composed of pantry ingredients, but it is a company-worthy salad. Maybe even Thanksgiving-table-worthy! For dessert, Ammie made us rice pudding, a fruity version featuring apples, currants, and lots of orange zest. It was a sweet healthy casserole of sorts, made with brown rice. It’s one of those desserts that can go undercover as a snack, maybe with a dollop of lightly sweetened yogurt on top.

Ammie’s company was a good antidote for all the short tempers around town. But when she wasn’t around, my thoughts kept returning to Nicole. She is my role model when it comes to treating people, including myself, kindly. Tomorrow is her birthday—happy birthday, Nicole!—and I adore her. Although I dropped her gift in the mail on Friday, I am positive that I could never give her as many gifts as she has given me. Her friendship is the very best gift, one that can’t be stuffed into a box with styrofoam peanuts. But there are other gifts she’s given me that are more tangible, like the cute snowball candles that smelled like mint. That was last year’s birthday gift. My favorite gift, given to me by example more than anything else, is Eating Well magazine. Nicole had a subscription to it when we were in college, and I took to reading her copies like a moth to a flame. I loved its balance between tasty cooking and healthy eating; it’s a magazine for foodies who don’t want to join Weight Watchers. Now every time I read it, it sparks my interest in the science of nutrition and has me reaching for my stack of post-it notes to mark the Must-Make-This recipes. Eating Well and I have a good track record in the kitchen; lately, everything I’ve made from its pages has been tasty. I’ve had the occasional dud, but hey, that happens with all of my recipe sources. I don’t hold any grudges here.

Nicole is such a loyal friend. She always makes me feel like I’m her favorite person in the entire world. If her husband is reading this, he’s probably thinking, Hey, I’m her favorite person! But I think Nicole’s got enough love for both of us, and the rest of her family and friends, so I’m not worried that she’s going to run out. Nicole, my dear, happy birthday. You are wonderful. Your present is on its way—pardon the delay! And thanks for Eating Well and everything else we share. I’m basking in the warmth of our friendship right now, despite the cold and the darkness and the distance between us.

Crunchy Celery, Apple, and Cheddar Salad
Adapted from this recipe in Eating Well magazine
Serves 4-6

Every time I eat this salad, I’m amazed by the combination of flavors and textures. It is utterly delicious. I like to use a really good cheddar for this salad, like a sharp cheddar from Tillamook. The cheese goes so well with the sweetness of the apples and the honey dressing, and it brings out the rich toasty flavor of the pecans.

I never do much in the way of fussy presentations when I’m cooking, but I do like to plate this salad when I serve it. I’ve used the delicate cup-shaped leaves from butterhead lettuce, but when all the butterhead is wilty, I’ll pick out some crisp Romaine lettuce and make a bed of Romaine shreds onto which this salad can be laid. Either way, it’s terrific.

4 stalks of celery, trimmed and cut in half crosswise
2 tbsp. fruit vinegar, such as apple cider vinegar
2 tbsp. honey
1/4 tsp. salt
2 apples, core removed and diced (no need to peel them unless you want to)
1 cup diced cheddar cheese
1/2 cup pecans, chopped and toasted
Lettuce for serving, such as butterhead or Romaine

1) Set up a large bowl of ice water. Soak the celery stalks in the ice water for 15 minutes to make them nice and crisp for the salad. After 15 minutes, pat them dry and chop them into 1/2-inch pieces.
2) Whisk the vinegar, honey, and salt together in a small bowl.
3) Place the celery, diced apples, cheese, and pecans in a large bowl. Pour the dressing over them and stir gently to mix. Serve on a bed of lettuce as a starter course or a side salad.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Only Slightly Nuts

I used to think I was completely nuts when I decided that graduate school was a good idea. Have you ever known any sane graduate students? Yeah, I don’t either. And it concerns me deeply that the longer one stays in academia, the crazier one gets. It’s either that or they’re spiking the coffee with crazy pills around here.

The thing is, a Ph.D. program is a marathon. It’s not a sprint. The reason they call it “training” is that grad students fall on their faces every now and then. It can happen for lots of reasons: your research starts to tank, you get scooped by someone else, your boss takes a job in Europe without consulting you first, your paper spends a year in review purgatory. Not that I would know anything about that last one personally…or maybe I do! When my paper was in review purgatory, I sank deep into the mud of depression. It was ugly. I realize now, with the benefit of hindsight, that I did the best thing I could possibly do: I waited. I didn’t quit grad school, even though I was very tempted. I avoided any truly self-destructive behavior, opting for kitchen therapy instead. I wrote a lot on this blog. And I tried to keep up my energy by eating a lot of almonds.

Almonds are the most sophisticated nut. Even the name is a little chic, with that “l” silently forming your mouth into a half-yawn. Almonds are delicate in flavor, big on crunch, and utterly delicious in my book. I owe them a debt of gratitude; they feed me so well and so happily. Yasmin tagged me to talk about seven random things today. Instead, I’m going to bend the rules here and share seven random things about almonds. It’s only slightly nuts to love almonds as much as I do.

1) Like Nick, the friendly Peanut Butter Boy, I love almonds but don’t care for almond butter. I have not, however, tried the almond butter from Barney Butter, which practically has food bloggers shouting from the rooftops about how good it is. Nick, good guy that he is, has promised to share his thoughts with me about Barney Butter after he tries it, even if it sucks. This is one of the perks of being part of a foodie community.

A post-script about Barney Butter, added on January 9, 2009: Barney Butter has a free shipping code, ship4free, which worked for me in December 2008 when I was ordering Christmas presents. I'm grateful to Kath of Kath Eats Real Food for providing the code to her readers; many other bloggers are also giving out the code and now, so am I! Hurray for almond butter!

2) I want to play around more with almond parfaits. I remember a tasty one I made during my first year of grad school in which layers of plain yogurt, honey, bananas, and almonds are spooned into a glass. I stole the recipe from Self magazine. It is time to dust off the parfait glasses again!

3) My friend Shawn Marie cannot STAND almonds. She swears they taste like cyanide. Did you know that we can’t eat wild almonds because they really do contain cyanide? How lucky are we that a mutant almond tree happened to lose its ability to synthesize cyanide? I’d say we are very lucky.

4) My favorite almond granola is Molly’s French Chocolate Granola, which might be the very best recipe I’ve found on the internet. I pour milk over my granola and gobble it down in greedy spoonfuls. Daphna would want me to add that she likes this granola without the chocolate.

5) In order to make French Chocolate Granola whenever the mood strikes, I now keep a big bag of almonds and a two-pound jug of honey in the kitchen. I like to be prepared.

6) Matt does not like nuts in things. This is one of the few things about him that I do not love. It makes my baking life difficult if he is around. But I love him so much that I left the almonds out of half a batch of Sweet Maple-Glazed Almond Drop Scones, the recipe for which I found in The Cornbread Gospels. That was such a lovely morning: I baked scones and trashed the kitchen while Matt worked, then we had this stew and fresh-baked scones for lunch. We learned that the huge, shiny, rimmed roasting pan he gave me for Christmas works beautifully for baking scones. I love that pan.

7) My bag of almond flour is so underused that it makes me sad. I’ve made three different things with it. My suggestion box is open for new recipes that call for almond flour.

Want to play along at home? In order to not lose any friends, I’m not going to tag anyone directly, but I will provide the official meme rules. And if you are inspired to play, leave me a message and I'll stop by to say hi!

1) Link to the person who tagged you and post the rules on your blog. (Check!)
2) Share seven random or weird things about yourself. (Check!)
3) Tag seven random people at the end of your post and include links. (Forgive me, Yasmin!)
4) Let each person know she’s been tagged by leaving a comment on her blog. (Does it count that I left Yasmin a comment?)

Monday, November 10, 2008

Like a Chameleon

Sunday, November 9, 2008

“You’re back!” my kitchen said happily as I slipped off my shoes, closing the door behind me.

“Yes, I’m back. Finally! What a weekend!” I said, shrugging out of my coat.

“It’s not like you to spend the weekend running in and out of here like a crazy person,” said Kitchen.

“I know. Usually I like to hunker down in here with something simmering on the stovetop. But this weekend was a special one. Shawn Marie was in town, Ammie organized an Indian-themed feast, and I went downtown twice to meet Kath and a bunch of KERF-readers.” I pulled my cast-iron skillet off the top of the refrigerator and set it gently on the stove.

“That’s odd. For a while, you weren’t even reading Kath Eats Real Food, and this weekend you wanted to meet her?” Kitchen frowned at me, disapprovingly.

“Well, I phase in and out of reading KERF. I can’t really keep up with the volume of writing and comments on her blog, and my main interest is always the recipes. A good recipe is like a gift. I LOVE the Baked Oatmeal Brulee that I adapted from her recipe, and I like the hummus I made the other day, inspired by this recipe. I like reading blogs where most of the recipes are very nutritious—it’s a nice change of pace from the heavy, rich foods of my other cyber-hangouts, like Orangette.”

“So how were the food blogger events?”

“They ended up being really, really fun. I was a little nervous about going to them alone. I can be kinda antisocial, especially when I’m tired or stressed. But on Friday night, we went to Bin 36, which is a very cool wine bar in downtown Chicago. I drank a delicious glass of chardonnay and managed to have lots of interesting conversations with new people. Julia and I talked about long-distance relationships. Julia’s boyfriend, whose name I have, regrettably, forgotten, talked about his cool job with Teach for America. Jenna and I commiserated over how hard it is to have a job where you are on your feet all day. She was also kind enough not to hold it against me that I’ve only looked at her blog once—so many blogs, so little time to read them all! Alice and I talked about food allergies, which seemed apropos considering the Candida Dinner that Ammie had planned for the following night. And Kath and I talked about good blog etiquette. She assured me that I’m not stealing her readers if people visit Life, Love, and Food after I leave a comment on her blog. She called it ‘networking!’”

“What was Kath like?”

“I thought she was very nice and gracious. I’m sure I read her blog less frequently than other readers. I pop in and out, depending on if I’m in the mood to peruse a recipe or if I’m just looking for a little inspiration for a work-out. Her words always remind me how good I feel after I go for a run, even if the couch sounds more appealing. So I probably know less about her than other readers, given my fickle nature. I wanted to talk to her like a normal person, not like a rabid fan.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, it’s a reasonable assumption on her part to think that when she meets readers, they know a lot about her life. I know some things about her, but not nearly as much as she might think. So our conversations were a little awkward because I didn’t know how to have a ‘normal’ conversation with someone who is, essentially, a celebrity among food bloggers. I didn’t want to bore her or ask her questions that she’s already answered a thousand times.”

I paused here to consider my lunch options. I wanted something warm and soothing, something to go alongside leftover Indian-Spiced Kale and Chickpeas. I wanted cheese, and bread, and lots of flavor. I wanted a grilled cheese sandwich.

“Why do you think people read her blog in the first place?” asked Kitchen, her voice filled with curiosity.

“I think people read KERF for a lot of reasons. I think she has a big following among people who are trying to lose weight or maintain a weight loss. Some people read to get ideas about how to eat healthfully, regardless of weight. I bet some people just enjoy the panache with which she presents her life. She has a very sweet voice, the way she shares her joys with us, her triumphs and her challenges. And there’s a big community out there among her readers, people who find each other through her blog. It’s fun to read her blog; I just don’t have time to do it every day.” I began slicing some carrots. Their cheery orange color and sweet flavor would go well with the leftover kale. “It’s good for me to read a lot of different things: blogs, poetry, Anne Lamott. And lately, I think I’ve saturated myself on food blogs. I need to broaden my reading list.”

Kitchen and I fell silent as I set more pans on the stovetop: a small one in which to heat up the kale and a large saucepan in which to steam the carrots. Once the carrots were cooking, I began making my grilled cheese sandwich. I fell in love with a new combination a few weeks ago, and I’ve been making it ever since: a little pile of sharp cheddar, a few spinach leaves, and a nice smear of Dijon mustard. I lightly buttered one side each of two slices of oatmeal bread. The cast-iron skillet was warming up over medium heat on the stove, and the first piece of bread sizzled as it made contact with the iron. Working quickly, I smeared some mustard on the sizzling piece of bread, sprinkled my cheese on top, laid the spinach leaves on top of that, and topped the whole thing with the last piece of bread. The whole sandwich began yielding to the heat, the cheese melting gently, the bread crisping against the skillet. I nudged a flipper underneath the sandwich, and, using a second flipper to hold the sandwich together, the top became the bottom and sizzled with excitement. Dammit, I love grilled cheese! I thought.

My mind wandered back over the events of the weekend. I am, it turns out, a woman without a niche. Or I’m a woman with multiple niches: I had just as much fun with the food bloggers, a group of people I’d never met before in person, as I had with Shawn Marie and Ammie, fierce, strong, beautiful women I’ve known for years now. The KERF events felt a little surreal: meeting your cyber “friends” opens up the possibility that they may become real friends, people with whom you have a relationship off-line. And I will confess that it was fun to talk about my blog, so very different in style from KERF and yet, I feel more of a kinship with the health-minded bloggers than I do with recipe bloggers for whom there is no such thing as too much butter. Food is sustenance, nutrition, and pleasure, in that order.

Perhaps I am a chameleon. Maybe this is how we reconcile the different parts of ourselves with the demands of real life. I am at once a student and a teacher, enthusiastic and critical, striving and content, productive and lazy, a health nut and a hedonist. I eat to live, and I live to eat. I love to cook, and I cook for love. A chameleon blends in with her surroundings; a human chameleon strives to find common ground with other people, to love without judging, to empathize with compassion. Meeting new people provides the perfect opportunity in which to exercise your inner heart, the one that feels love, because the more different a person is from you, the greater the opportunity to find new love in your heart.

Maybe I’ll just carve out a new niche for myself, and if you want to join me, there will be room for you. We can eat grilled cheese sandwiches together.

Grilled Cheese Sandwich with Spinach and Dijon Mustard
Serves 1 (multiply to serve more)

I have no shame: I love grilled cheese sandwiches. They are all my favorite things piled together into one convenient little package: melted cheese, crispy bread, satisfying chew. This particular specimen is a little upscale, what with its spinach and mustard. I like to make it in a down-home cast-iron skillet, mostly because I like using the new one I bought recently, but you can make it in a nonstick skillet just as well.

My favorite bread to use here is pumpernickel, but I’ve also made it with an oatmeal bread, and that was tasty too. The flavors are really wonderful in this sandwich: the mustard and the cheese become creamy and tangy-sweet as they cook together. Crispy bread is the perfect foil for this filling. If you’re anything like me, you might feel compelled to lick the crumbs off your fingers after you finish.

Is it insulting to give a recipe for a grilled cheese sandwich? I hope not, because I think this one deserves to be shared. And if you need a tomato soup recipe to go with it, my favorite starts with a can of tomatoes and ends with a bowl of softly sweet vegetables, carrots and onion and celery taming the tomato’s wild acid ways. I highly recommend it.

2 slices of good sandwich bread, such as pumpernickel
1-2 tsp. Better (you could also use softened butter or even a drizzle of oil, if you prefer)
1 tsp. Dijon mustard, or to taste
~1/4 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese, or to taste (use the good stuff here—it really makes the sandwich!)
4-5 fresh spinach leaves, enough to form a nice layer of spinach

1) If using a cast-iron skillet, begin preheating it right away on medium heat and give it a few minutes to warm up. If you are using a skillet made of a thinner metal, you don’t need as much warm-up time. Either way, preheat over medium heat.
2) Spread one side of each slice of bread with Better, butter, or oil. Lay one slice of bread, Better-side down, in the now-hot skillet. Spoon the mustard onto the face-up side and spread it evenly.
3) Working quickly, sprinkle the cheese over the mustard side and lay the spinach over the cheese. Top with the second piece of bread. When the bottom piece of bread is toasty and golden, flip the sandwich and grill the second side until it’s golden brown and crispy. You can peak while you’re making grilled cheese sandwiches if you aren’t sure if you should flip it. Sometimes my sandwiches get a little charred…er, EXTRA-crispy, and are still very tasty. Serve immediately, preferably with a cup of tomato soup on the side.

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Time is Now

Finally, finally, finally: Election Day is upon us.

What a relief! (I think.)

For me, this election began four years ago when two important events happened, almost simultaneously. The first was that then-presidential candidate John Kerry lost the election to the incumbent President George W. Bush. The second, and the happier event of the two, was that after months of seeing his name on lawn posters and in the windows of my neighbors’ homes, a man with an odd name and a blinding smile became a United States Senator, proudly representing the folks back home in Illinois.

Like many people with liberal leanings, I was disappointed when Kerry lost to Bush. We’d already seen that Bush seemed to lead the country with little foresight and a lot of aggression. He epitomized an attitude that I despise: the United States is King of the World. World, you’d better damn well do what we say or we’re going to come over and kick your ass. I am not an America-hater. I love the principles upon which this nation was founded. I value education, knowledge, independence coupled with cooperation. I value our free speech and big dreams. Like so many Americans, I’m a mutt of European descent, a product of America. As a biologist, I value the genetic diversity that America has produced through the mixing and mingling of people from all over the world. And I love that we have one of the best university systems in the world. America is still a place where others dream of coming, whether for an education, a job, a new place to call home. I call this place home, too.

Goodness, I’m getting a little teary-eyed just thinking about it.

There was a part of me that was not surprised when Kerry lost. Kerry, for the life of him, could NOT give a straight answer during the debates. It made me cringe. He struck me as kinda slippery and untrustworthy, not much of an improvement over Bush. I think a lot of people who voted for Kerry were choosing him because he was not Bush, not because Kerry himself was a spectacular choice. Personally, I liked Howard Dean, but that’s a story for another time.

So Kerry lost, but the man with the funny name won in Illinois. To be honest, Barack Obama didn’t have much of a fight in 2004. The Republican Party had the worst time finding a candidate for that Senate spot; every person they chose was struck down by some sort of scandal, as though there was a scandal flu going around Republican headquarters. Obama’s grassroots support was so strong that, at least around my town, it was clear that he was the favorite candidate. Most of the time, he seemed like the only candidate.

I was intrigued by a politician who had clearly won Evanston’s heart. Who was this guy? So I started paying attention, and I started dreaming that in 2008, this Obama man would join Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton as her running mate to form the Democratic Dream Team. Surely they would win the White House after eight years of Bush! And it would be awesome.

What I didn’t count on was Obama making that bold decision to announce his own candidacy for the White House. Apparently he’s less conservative about his leadership experience than I am. I’m sympathetic to the concern that others have voiced: Barack Obama is a rookie. But I am struck by his intelligence, his thoughtfulness, his use of words like “evidence.” For a non-scientist, and especially for a politician, he is a scientist’s dream. Add into the mix his concern about climate change, his support for clean, sustainable energy like wind and solar…

I have known for four years that I would be voting for Obama in the 2008 presidential election. I just didn’t know which spot he would be occupying on the ticket. Tomorrow, with excitement and nerves and more than a little hope, I will cast my ballot and cross my fingers that the voting machines aren’t cyberjacked by thieves trying to steal the election.


After I vote, I’ll trot off to work, play with my little flies and tiny tubes, come home, and park myself in front of a bowl of Smoky Pumpkin Soup, maybe accompanied by some flatbread and Matt’s Spinach and Orange Salad. After all this election excitement, a girl needs some serious nourishment. The soup is particularly well-suited for nourishing tired, hungry souls. Rich in orange vegetables like carrots and sweet potato, it’s pumpkin soup sexed up with shreds of smoky gouda cheese and a generous pour of half-and-half. It’s a little decadent, but reasonably so, because it makes a big batch. One of these days I’ll make this soup for a party to show off my good taste, but for now, it’s just me and my soup spoon, slurping away while we wait for election season to draw to a close.

Happy Election Day, everyone. May our next president live up to his promises to fix all that is broken in our country.

Smoky Pumpkin Soup
Adapted from Witch in the Kitchen: Magical Cooking for All Seasons by Cait Johnson
Makes 4-6 big bowls of soup

First things first: the pumpkin. Ever since my friend Nicole taught me how to make fresh pumpkin puree, I’ve tried to make it a fall ritual to steam-roast a pumpkin into tenderness and then turn that bright orange flesh into a silky puree. It’s a little messy, a little bit of work, and a lot of fun. Daphna and I prepped her pumpkins together a few weeks ago and I was rather proud of our efforts. Beforehand, D had sent me this link in which The Pioneer Woman gives a great lesson on how to make fresh pumpkin puree. Her instructions are very clear and very similar to what I do at home, and she has lots of pictures, so hop on over to her site if you are interested. (Thanks for the link, D!)

Once you have your pumpkin puree, make this soup! It’s a thin brothy soup, one that can be sipped from a spoon or slurped straight out of the bowl—or cup, if you prefer. Rich with herbs and cheese, it’s a nice centerpiece of a meal; surround it with bread and a nice salad (maybe topped with a scoop of beans or another protein-rich food) and dinner is served.

1 tbsp. olive oil
1 medium to large onion, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 large carrot, peeled and diced
1/2 cup peeled, diced sweet potato
6 cups vegetable broth
1 cup pumpkin puree
1 tbsp. rolled oats
1 tsp. dried thyme
1 tsp. dried sage
1/2 cup half-and-half
1/2 cup smoked gouda cheese, shredded (yum!)

Salt and pepper to taste

1) Over medium heat, heat the olive oil in either a nonstick soup pot or a nonstick skillet. Add the onions, garlic, carrot, and sweet potato to the skillet. Cook for ~5-10 minutes, enough to let the onion become fragrant, translucent, and start to brown a bit.
2) If you used a skillet in step 1, transfer the contents to a soup pot. To the soup pot, add the vegetable broth, pumpkin, and oats. Bring the contents to a boil, then turn the heat down to a simmer. Crumble the thyme into the soup pot by rubbing it between your fingers over the pot, sprinkling it over the soup. Add the sage. Give the whole thing a good stir, cover the pot, and simmer for ~30 minutes, or until the sweet potato is tender.
3) Add the half-and-half and the gouda cheese. Stir gently and frequently to melt the cheese into the soup. Keep the heat low; a simmer is good here, a boil is bad.
4) When everything is all nice and melted, puree the soup in batches in a blender or food processor. Be careful: it’s hot soup! Taste and adjust the seasonings with salt and/or pepper. You may not need to add any additional seasonings, especially if your vegetable broth is very flavorful.
5) Serve in deep bowls to people you love.