Thursday, January 31, 2008

A Surplus of Sour Cream

In my kitchen, there are staples and there are splurges. I cannot live without certain spices, like cinnamon and cumin. I’m a loyal cheddar girl—hype those fancy French and Italian cheeses all you want; I’ll keep my cheddar, thank you very much. Perhaps it’s my Midwestern roots? I don’t know, but when a recipe calls for a non-kitchen staple, I think long and hard about whether it’s worth it. How much do I really want to try this new recipe? What if I hate it? What if it costs ten bucks in fancy ingredients and it’s just not that great? Oh, the frustration! The disappointment!

But these chances we take on unknown recipes and splurgey ingredients can turn out to be kitchen miracles. Take, for example, the vegan Caesar dressing I mentioned a few weeks ago. This stuff is fabulous! Not only does it allow us vegetarians to enjoy a pseudo-Caesar salad, but it’s a great all-purpose dressing and vegetable sauce.

This post, however, is not about salad dressing. It’s about sour cream. Sour cream is a splurgey ingredient for me, but, shamefully, I’m a bit of a spendthrift when it comes to sour cream. I’ll buy it for one recipe, stuff it in the fridge, and forget about it until it’s growing something green and fuzzy. Yuck. Resolving to treat my dairy more respectfully, I took deliberate action to use up a surplus of sour cream. The results were worthy of more sour cream in the future.

Today I bring you a pair of recipes, a two-for-one deal at Life, Love, and Food! I do it because I adore you, dear reader. The first recipe is for a mighty tasty, mighty quick Black Bean Tostada. Lightly oiled corn tortillas are topped with a flavorful, mildly spicy black bean dip and a dollop of salsa. After they are baked for about 15 minutes, they go from oven to plate and get a dollop of sour cream. Have a few napkins ready; they can be a bit messy. Deliciousness has its price!

The second recipe is for Apple Muffins. This recipe is adapted from a Nigella Lawson recipe; being the health-foodie that I am, I decided to make a few changes right off the bat, and I was pleased with the results. By no means are these muffins drab “health food!" With a generous scoop of sour cream mixed into the batter, these muffins are moist, fluffy, and melt on your tongue. By substituting some whole-wheat pastry flour and a bit of almond flour (another ingredient splurge), I bumped up the nutritional profile a bit: whole-wheat flours have more fiber, protein, and vitamins compared to their processed white counterparts, and almond flour is rich in protein and fat. All of these added nutrients conspire to make for a slightly healthier Apple Muffin and therefore a slightly healthier you. Enjoy! And don’t forget to pick up a tub of sour cream at the market!

Black Bean Tostadas
Serves 1

For the Black Bean Dip (adapted from Black Bean Dip, Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home); Yield is about 2 cups:

1 tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. ground cumin
½ tsp. ground coriander
Sprinkle of red crushed chile peppers
1 16-oz. can black beans
1 clove of garlic, chopped or pressed through a garlic press
1 green onion, finely snipped (I use a pair of kitchen scissors to snip it into small pieces)
2 tsp. fresh lemon juice plus more to taste if you like
Salt to taste

1) Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-low heat. Add the cumin and coriander and fry the spices
for a minute or so until mouthwateringly fragrant. Stir them around often and be careful not to burn the spices. I think it’s best to watch them the whole time you are frying. Add the red crushed chile peppers at the end and very briefly fry them.
2) Drain the black beans and scoop them into a bowl (a big cereal bowl is fine). Mash them with a fork. Add the fried spices and oil, garlic, green onion, and lemon juice. Stir everything together, taste, and adjust the flavor by adding more lemon juice or salt.

For the Tostadas; Yield is one serving:

Two six-inch corn tortillas
A smidge of olive oil
A few tablespoons of Black Bean Dip from the recipe above
About two tablespoons of salsa
A tablespoon or two of sour cream

1) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly oil both sides of the corn tortillas. Place them on a baking sheet. Smear a generous spoonful of Black Bean Dip on each tortilla and top with a spoonful of salsa in the middle.
2) Bake the Tostadas for about 15 minutes or until the corn tortillas are pleasantly crispy. Remove from the oven, place them on a plate, and top with sour cream. To eat them, I find it easiest to fold them in half and eat them “sandwich-style.”

Apple Muffins
Adapted from “Pear and Ginger Muffins” in this New York Times article by Nigella Lawson
Yield: 9-12 muffins

1 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
½ c. whole-wheat pastry flour
¼ c. almond flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1 ¼ c. brown sugar, packed
1 tsp. ground ginger
2/3 c. sour cream
½ c. mild vegetable oil, such as canola oil
2 eggs
1 apple, peeled, cored, and diced
¼ c. dried cranberries

1) Heat the oven to 400 degrees F. Spray a 12-cup muffin tin with cooking spray and set aside.
2) In a large mixing bowl, whisk together all three flours, baking powder, sugar, and ginger.
3) In another mixing bowl or a large measuring cup, combine the sour cream, oil, and eggs. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and stir until just mixed (don’t overbeat the batter—muffins hate that). Add the apple and cranberries and fold them into the batter, again taking care not to overmix the batter.
4) Spoon the batter into the prepared muffin tin. I usually do this by scooping batter into a ½ cup measuring cup and pouring/scraping it into the tin (it’s how my mom always did it—thanks, Mom!). It’s your choice how big you want the muffins to be. If you fill the muffin cups up to the top, you will get about 9 muffins. If you want to make smaller muffins by, say, filling the cups 2/3 or ¾ full, then you’ll get a few more muffins. I made 9 muffins, and I thought they were the perfect size.
5) Bake the muffins for 15-20 minutes. When they are done, a toothpick inserted into the center of a muffin should come out clean (i.e., no batter sticking to it) and the muffins will be nicely golden brown. Be careful not to let them burn; I was a little nervous that my muffins might burn, but they didn’t (whew!).
6) Transfer the muffin tin out of the oven to a cooling rack. Let the muffins cool for a few minutes and then run a knife around each muffin and carefully take them out of the tin. While these muffins are hot, they are a bit delicate, so be gentle while you are taking them out of the tin. I had a few casualties because I didn’t realize how delicate they would be, but most of my muffins came out just fine. Let the muffins cool on a cooling rack. As they cool, they will firm up a bit.

*Note: These muffins freeze really well, so if you have any extras, bag them up and toss them in the freezer for another day. I defrost mine by just taking them out of the freezer and letting them sit at room temperature for a few hours. They do keep well for at least two days at room temperature, but I don’t know how well they keep indefinitely outside of the freezer.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Oh, Dear

When I first starting writing Life, Love, and Food, I never dreamed that anyone else would actually read my words. Never. It was beyond comprehension that people might actually want to visit, say hello, ask questions, and offer their own stories. I am pleasantly surprised every time I find a new comment. I thought I had been diligent about responding. I found, however, that there were some unnoticed comments lurking in the back pages of this blog. Today, I read and responded to all of them! Whew. If you were disappointed because I didn't write back to you, hopefully if you look again, you will get the attention that you deserve, dear reader.

I really want this blog to be an open forum for discussing all things life, love, and food (especially that last part). In the spirit of this dream, I have adjusted the comment options to allow all readers, Blogger members or not, to leave comments. I have faith that the remarks will be worthy of publishing without my screening them, so unless I find otherwise, I will leave the comments as a (kind and considerate) free-for-all. For all my friends (aka Anne!) who like to e-mail me comments instead of posting them, perhaps you might consider making your remarks public? (No pressure, Anne. I love your e-mails!) I have also adjusted the comments so that I will be notified by e-mail about new comments, so if new comments show up on old posts, I'll know and can read them easily.

Hurray for blogging! I love it. Happy reading and happy cooking, everyone! Drop by to say hello whenever you like; I'll be here waiting for you.

In Case of Emergency

Life, Love, and Food is not a decadent blog. If you, like me, troll the blogging world with any regularity, you soon see that decadence rules the day, particularly when it comes to desserts and loads of butter. I have nothing against desserts nor butter, but I eat them in carefully controlled quantities. And I like it that way!

Occasionally, however, it’s time to break out the goodies. Sometimes that time is NOW. Last week I almost quit graduate school. After four plus years (and still no degree at all—boo to these Ph.D. programs that don’t grant Master’s degrees!), I almost walked away. WALKED AWAY! It turns out that I don’t like to fail. I seem to be good at failing these days, though, because failure constitutes most of what I’ve done for the past three months. THREE MONTHS! That’s just ridiculous! But it’s true, and it’s how science works: experiment, fail, experiment, fail, experiment, fail, experiment, SUCCEED! The trick, I think, is being able to hold on long enough to get that last part. It is far easier said than done, I can now assure you from experience.

In the midst of all this failure, a girl needs some pleasure, some visceral, sigh-inducing, oxytocin-releasing, naughty pleasure. This pleasure need not involve taking off one’s clothes, although I’m a big fan of those sorts of pleasures as well. The pleasure I bring you here might be a good prelude to sex, but to me, it stands alone in its rich, lemony, basily, buttery goodness. It’s the Easy Artichoke Sauce from Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home.

This sauce is among the more decadent recipes I’ve introduced here, almost up there with my infamous
Garlic, Chickpea, and Kale Soup. But since it’s a sauce, it’s up to you, dear reader, to decide how decadent you want to be. A quick-fix recipe, it brilliantly combines garlic, basil, and fresh lemon juice in a bath of olive oil, butter, and canned artichoke hearts. This baby can be whipped up in less than fifteen minutes. That’s less time than it takes to figure out how to tell your graduate advisor you’re quitting after three years in his lab! Thank goodness for that—I’ve decided to stick it out at least until spring.

Easy Artichoke Sauce
Ever-so-slightly adapted from Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home
Makes 1.5-2 cups

Oh, the things we learn by experience. The Moosewood folks (bless them and their wonderful cookbook) recommend this sauce as a pasta sauce, but when I tried that, I was really disappointed. My pasta was practically naked(!) as all the sauce slithered into a pool at the bottom of my bowl. My recollection is that I used spaghetti; perhaps this sauce would work better with a short pasta, like shells? At any rate, my current preference is to use this sauce on really good bread, toasted. The crispy bread soaks up the sauce and holds the artichokes in place. It makes for an indulgent starch to accompany a bowl of soup or lentil stew. This sauce can also be part of an entrée by topping a sauced piece of toast or two with some scrambled eggs. Add a vegetable or two, a piece of fruit, and you have yourself one simple and satisfying dinner.

¼ cup olive oil
¼ cup (half a stick) butter
4-6 garlic cloves, chopped
1 14-oz. can of artichoke hearts, sliced in half
A handful of fresh basil leaves, sliced into thin strips
1 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste

1) Heat the olive oil and butter in a skillet. Once the butter has melted, add the garlic and saute until golden, 1-2 minutes.
2) Add the artichoke hearts, basil, and lemon juice. Cook gently over low heat for several minutes (Moosewood recommends ten minutes; I’m not sure it matters too much). Taste (careful—it’s hot!) and add salt and/or pepper if needed. Serve over a deserving starch.
3) Refrigerate any leftovers. This sauce keeps really well, which means it might come in handy during an unforseen emergency!

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Morning Blues

That blueberry must have the best PR team in town! Fruits and vegetables have been getting all kinds of positive attention these days, but Blueberry, you are the Queen. Blueberries seem to be on every nutritionist’s top-ten list for best foods you can possibly eat. They are rich in antioxidants that only food chemists can pronounce. But for us hedonists, blueberries are tops because they’re just fun to eat. I love the feeling of blueberries popping open in my mouth, juicy and sweet and just a little bit tart. Blueberries are also wonderful as accessories in muffins, on top of cereal, stirred into yogurt, or as a team player in fruit salad.

Why am I writing about blueberries in January? We’re about as far away from blueberry season in the Midwest as one can be!

In my halfhearted attempt to start eating more seasonally, I hit the frozen food aisle for a gigantic bag of frozen blueberries. Fresh blueberries aren’t in season these days, but frozen blueberries are always in season. Frozen foods, picked and flash-frozen at the height of freshness, preserve the nutrients and the flavor. Or so the nutritionists say. I’ll vouch for the flavor, though. I never get enough blueberries in the summer, so I feel absolutely entitled to eat blueberries in January, especially if they are frozen.

A few months ago, my beautiful sister-in-law, Amanda, gave me a copy of a nifty cookbook called Saving Dinner the Vegetarian Way. The author, Leanne Ely, has written a whole series of “Saving Dinner” books. Amanda tells me she’s a big fan of these books and has a whole set of fast, easy Saving Dinner recipes that she and her family love. I love the concept: dinner is worth saving! Dinner is worth the effort! A homecooked meal is not a luxury; it’s a pleasure that we all deserve. Time spent on dinner is time well spent.

I’m still testing recipes out of Saving Dinner the Vegetarian Way, so stay tuned for more about that book. In the meantime, at the library I found Saving Dinner Basics, a beginner’s cookbook from Ely. A delicious-looking recipe for Blueberry Crumble caught my eye, and it was indeed delicious. The crumble topping was a bit skimpy for my taste, so I will double the topping the next time I make it. The blueberry filling, made from frozen berries, is quite sweet, so I would recommend either cutting back on the sugar a bit or using this dish, skimpy topping and all, as a sweet accompaniment for a not-so-sweet base such as hot oatmeal cereal or Multigrain Pancakes for Two. As an oatmeal topping, it’s really outstanding, especially when topped with a dollop or two of luscious sour cream. My friend Daphna gave me the oatmeal suggestion—thanks, D!

Blueberry Crumble
Adapted ever-so-slightly from Saving Dinner Basics by Leanne Ely, the “Dinner Diva”

For the berry base:
3 c. blueberries, frozen or fresh
2/3 c. brown sugar
1 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
For the crumble topping (double if desired):
½ c. rolled oats
¼ c. whole-wheat flour
¼ c. (half a stick) of butter, cut into small pieces
¼ c. brown sugar
Sprinkling of cinnamon (I love cinnamon and I’m lazy, so I never bother measuring it. I just dump.)

1) Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Spray an 8-inch square baking dish with cooking spray.
2) In a large saucepan over medium heat, stir the berries and 2/3 c. brown sugar together. Stir constantly (or almost constantly) until the berries become juicy and the liquid has thickened. Stir in the lemon juice. Turn off the heat and scrape the berries into the prepared baking dish.
4) In a medium-sized mixing bowl, combine the crumble topping ingredients until they look, well, crumbly! Sprinkle the topping over the berries, pop the whole thing in the oven, and bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the topping is lightly browned.
5) Remove from the oven and cool for as long as you can stand to wait before diving into those berries spoon-first. As it cools, the berry mixture will start to gel similarly to jams or fruit preserves.
6) Store leftovers covered in the fridge.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Like Sex in a Bumpy Green Wrapper

These days I’m dating myself.

Oh, sure, there’s that guy from North Carolina who makes occasional appearances. He’s mighty fine, and I like him a lot, but he sweeps into town, spoils me, and then sweeps out of town. A girl has to be able to take care of herself regardless!

There are many advantages to dating yourself. For example, you don’t have to pretend to be interested in things you secretly loathe. You don’t have to stroke anyone’s ego but your own. You can cook all the things you love and none of the things you don’t—no leaving out onions or tomatoes because he doesn’t like them! And if you make a really fantastic avocado corn salad, and it only makes two servings, you get to eat both of them. That’s right: a whole avocado to yourself in all its slippery, sensual glory. An avocado is like sex in a bumpy green wrapper. The only partner required is the avocado.

There’s a bit of seduction involved with avocadoes. The timing has to be right: not too hard and not too ripe. You have to be ready for the moment when that avocado is perfectly ripe and ready for eating. One must plan ahead to be ready for that moment. Go ahead and buy an avocado before it’s ripe. If you press it, the flesh will be hard and unyielding. Take him home and let him hang out. Check him every day. As he ripens, the flesh will start to yield a little bit. Once your avocado starts to yield to your touch, he’s ready for eating. At this point, if you need a little more time, you can store him in the refrigerator, but I think it’s best if he can be eaten right away. After all, why postpone pleasure?

Avocado Corn Salad
Serves 2
Adapted from “Avocado Corn Salad” in Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home

The single person faces a very important avocado issue: how to keep it fresh and tasty once cut? This salad provides an excellent solution to this dilemma: douse it in lemon juice and tuck it in the fridge. I was pleasantly surprised to find that this salad keeps well for at least a day. Make it one night for dinner and have the leftovers for lunch the next day. It’s worth sharing, but don’t feel obliged, especially if you are dating yourself.

The smoked cheddar is optional, but I like it a lot because the smoky flavor of the cheese brings out the smoky flavor of the cumin. Note that without the cheese, this recipe is vegan.

1 c. fresh or frozen corn kernels
1 tbsp. vegetable oil
2 tbsp. water
1 tsp. ground cumin
Sprinkle of red crushed chili peppers
1 ripe avocado
2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
½ medium red bell pepper, diced
2 tbsp. minced red onion
Salt to taste
Handful of grated smoked cheddar, optional but highly recommended!

1) In a skillet, combine the corn, oil, water, cumin, and red crushed chili peppers. Cook over medium heat uncovered for several minutes until the corn is tender and most of the liquid has evaporated.
2) While the corn is cooking, slice the avocado in half lengthwise. Twist gently to separate the two halves and remove the pit. Make lengthwise and widthwise cuts about every ½ inch—you are essentially dicing the avocado while it’s still attached to the peel. Gently scrape the avocado pieces into a bowl (a big cereal bowl works well here). Stir the lemon juice into the avocado.
3) Stir the bell pepper and onion into the avocado. Add the corn, stir, and season to taste with salt.
4) Immediately before eating, top with the smoked cheddar if you like.
5) Store any leftovers in the fridge and eat them chilled later, with or without cheese.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Delicious Days

What’s the most delicious day of the week?

I wish I could say every day is the most delicious day of the week. But far too many days are consumed by too much work and not enough play, too much worry and not enough joy, too much stress and not enough peace. Too much so-so food and not enough truly phenomenal food.

But after every round of Monday to Friday, another glorious weekend arrives and brings with it the most delicious day of the week: Saturday.

To me, Saturday is the most delicious day of the week because I do my most ambitious and best-tasting cooking on Saturday. It’s usually the one day of the week that I deliberately set aside for self-care: cooking, laundry, grocery shopping, cleaning. And if I’m lucky, I’ll spend part of my Saturday with lovely people like my friends Ian and Daphna.

Ian and Daphna are married to each other. They are crazy-in-love-with-each-other and a joy to be around. They are radiantly happy together. And I, in turn, am happy they met each other! It was through Ian that I met Daphna and we discovered that we share a love for cooking, recipes, and fabulous food. After years of talking about it, this weekend we finally had a cooking party and the results were just phenomenal.

After a trip to the market to collect our ingredients, we headed back to Ian and Daphna’s place to commence cooking. The menu was a hodgepodge set of dishes, each picked out by a different person. We had a three-course meal: Spinach and Zucchini Calzones (my choice, recipe follows) and Chana Masala (Daphna’s choice) followed by these fabulous brownies (Ian’s choice with some help from Daphna in the recipe department). I would not have guessed that calzones and chana masala would pair well together in a meal, but the tomato sauce in which we dipped our bites of calzone transitioned nicely into the spicey and fragrant tomato sauce of the Chana Masala. Different continents, perhaps, but a world of flavor in both.

And those brownies! Oh my, were they good. Definitely a celebratory brownie, too rich for everyday eating, and worth every last crumb. They have a divine texture: the top is lightly crispy, and below the top the texture is slightly damp and deeply, richly chocolatey. Heavenly chocolatey. Daphna sent me home with a big chunk of brownie that will take me a good three days to finish. Thanks, Daphna! Savor these brownies; they are dynamite. Brownies always make for delicious days. Good friends make for the best of days.

Spinach and Zucchini Calzones
Serves 4
Adapted from “Tuscan Calzones with ‘The Works,’” Express Lane Meals by Rachael Ray

Yes, it’s another recipe adapted from Express Lane Meals. I adore these calzones. This recipe is one-third adapted, two-thirds true to the original. The original calls for portobello mushroom caps, but I don’t care for shrooms, eating or otherwise. I replaced them with zucchini and was quite pleased with the results. I also tinkered with the seasonings to suit my tastes; I encourage you to do the same. These calzones are packed with vegetables and cheese, making them hearty and delicious.

A few words about the dough: I have made these calzones with homemade pizza dough and with storebought pizza dough. Both options are great. Choose the one that suits your energy level and cooking time. For a good homemade pizza dough recipe, I recommend Mollie Katzen’s recipe in Vegetable Heaven. It’s my favorite.

2 medium zucchini
3 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil, divided
3 cloves of garlic, chopped
½ tsp. dried basil
Salt and pepper to taste
1 10-oz. box frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed
1 15-oz. can white beans, such as Great Northern beans, drained and rinsed.
13-16 oz. pizza dough, either homemade or storebought
A bit of flour for rolling out the dough
1-2 c. shredded mozzarella cheese
Spicy Italian seasoning blend, such as Chicago Deep Dish Pizza Pizzaz from The Spice House in Evanston, IL, to taste
1 15-oz. can pizza sauce

1) Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Lightly spray a cookie sheet with cooking spray and set aside. Alternatively, you can line a cookie sheet with parchment paper and then set it aside.
2) Chop the zucchini by quartering them lengthwise and then slicing along the lengths into ~1 cm pieces. Heat 1 tbsp. olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the zucchini and two-thirds of the garlic. Saute for several minutes until zucchini is softened and the garlic is aromatic but not browned. Add the basil, stir it around, and remove the pan from heat.
3) Place the thawed and squeezed spinach in a medium-sized bowl. Add the white beans and remaining garlic. Use a spoon or a potato masher to mash and mix the beans into the spinach. Add lots of salt and pepper and a drizzle of olive oil. Set aside.
4) Begin the calzone assembly: divide the dough into four equal parts. Lightly flour a large flat surface and roll the dough out into a thin oval about 16 cm long and 8-10 cm wide. These dimensions are not precise at all, so don’t fuss about them. Add the fillings on one half of the dough: a quarter of the zucchini mixture, a quarter of the spinach-bean mixture, and a quarter of the cheese. Sprinkle your spicy Italian seasoning blend on the empty side of the oval and use your fingers to lightly press the seasonings into the dough. Fold the empty side over the filled side to close the calzone. Use your fingers to pinch it closed, stretching the dough as needed to completely cover the fillings. Place the assembled calzone on the prepped cookie sheet. Repeat this step for the remaining three calzones. Leave a few inches between calzones; they will expand and puff a bit as they bake.
5) Using a spoon, pour a little olive oil onto the spoon and then drizzle it over each of the closed calzones, using the back of the spoon to spread it over the dough.
6) Bake the calzones at 400 degrees F for 15-20 minutes, or until the dough is fully baked and lightly browned. Remove from the oven and serve with pizza sauce at the table. Knives and forks are optional here!

Friday, January 11, 2008

Health Foodie in the Kitchen

January is a pretty quiet month in the wake of the December holidays. Many people, myself included, turn inwards, thinking of ways to improve themselves, their lives, or the world at large. One always-popular New Year’s resolution is the lose weight/get fit/eat healthier category. I applaud the spirit behind this resolution! I firmly believe a healthier life is a happier life

But I must confess something here. I don’t diet. Ever. I hope I never find myself wishing I could lose weight because I think it’s far easier said than done. I’m not trying to brag here, but my happiness with my weight might convince you that my next point is worth considering.

For several years now, I have been on a low-key but continual mission to eat healthier. It’s not at all about self-denial. Instead, this effort is my attempt to eat foods I love without compromising health. What’s the evidence that I don’t deny myself? Pizza, pasta, chocolate, cheese, cookies, peanut butter—all of these foods are essential to my diet! But it’s hardly a list of “diet” foods.

Remember Nutty Buddies? Those chocolate-peanut-butter-wafer cookie things made by Little Debbie? I used to LOVE Nutty Buddies and ate them daily. They had such a wonderful peanut buttery flavor and crispy, flaky crunch. Very satisfying. The problem with Nutty Buddies is that they don’t offer much in the way of nutrition. More problematic, in my opinion, is the fact that they are a highly processed food. I won’t saddle you now with the nutrition information about Nutty Buddies; my point is that I no longer eat these things. But that doesn’t mean I don’t miss them! In an attempt to “recreate” a healthier Nutty Buddy, I spread thick layers of peanut butter on sourdough Wasa crackers, sandwiched them together, and topped with a handful of miniature chocolate chips. I made it for an afternoon snack at work and couldn’t wait to try it…

My fake Nutty Buddy was…okay. It was certainly peanut buttery and chocolatey; the main problem is that Wasa crackers are just so darn crunchy! They are among the crunchiest crackers I have ever eaten. As a whole-grain product, they are fabulously low in calories and high in fiber, but I’m afraid all that fiber needs to be softened a tad for my fake Nutty Buddy to be truly delicious. I’m not sure how to accomplish this: a peanut butter sauce? Honey? Maple syrup? A tablespoon or two of milk? I am open to suggestions here!

I am not discouraged by this result, though. I don’t really long to eat an old-fashioned Nutty Buddy; if I did, I’d just eat one and that would be that. I actually enjoy the process of making healthier versions of the foods I love. Perhaps I will unlock the secret to a yummy health-foodie Nutty Buddy. In the meantime, I’ll share with you my first attempt at it.

Health-Foodie Nutty Buddy
Serves 1

This snack is not a low-calorie food by any means. I use it as an afternoon snack to tide me over until dinner time. Eat it with a piece of fresh fruit and feel healthy.

3 sourdough Wasa crackers (generally available at natural foods stores like Whole Foods)
~3 tbsp. peanut butter, or to taste
1-2 tbsp. miniature chocolate chips, or to taste

Spread each Wasa cracker with ~1 tbsp. peanut butter. Stack crackers with peanut butter layer between them and on the top layer. Sprinkle top layer with chocolate chips. Eat.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

New Year, Same Old Me

I have always been a fan of self-help books.

I am amused at my own attraction to this genre of writing. I’m old enough now to accept my own flaws and quirks as part of me. I’m not perfect; I have bad days; sometimes I do things that humiliate me after the fact. Sometimes I need others to point out my mistakes. Humiliation aside, I am generally grateful for the nudge toward better behavior. Most importantly, I try. Every day, I try to be a good person, to be kind and pleasant and friendly and supportive. I think the trying is crucial.

I no longer believe self-help books can inspire overnight changes. I see New Year’s resolutions in a similar light, but I kinda like making New Year’s resolutions. But this year I have no resolution in mind, so I am stumped.

In 2007, I resolved to find more joy in my life. At the time, I was going through a rough patch in my graduate work: nothing was working. Every single experiment I did failed for either technical or scientific reasons. Technical reason: the data computer crashed AGAIN. Scientific: my cloning strategy was poor. By resolving to find more joy, I found the strength to weather this disastrous period of my science life, and eventually things started working again. The computers stopped crashing. My advisor and I pieced together a successful cloning strategy. Spring arrived, and I was happy.

I kept that resolution for joy all year. I kept my chin up through life’s bumps and bruises. I began to embrace love as it arrived in my e-mail box day after day. I started writing Life, Love, and Food. I ran a half-marathon. I submitted three papers and a grant application with my advisor. 2007 was a good year for me.

But what shall I do for 2008?

I gave up watching television about two months ago. I don’t miss it at all. I can’t really take that resolution as my New Year’s resolution because it’s a done deal as far as I’m concerned.

I think for 2008, I will make a series of tiny resolutions. I can’t think of a big resolution that I am ready to tackle now, but I love the idea of a fresh start, the new year, and the gradual return of the sun. So for now:

* I’d like to eat more oranges.
* I want to give more money to street musicians.
* I would like to learn how to make two fabulous cakes, one vegan and one no-holds-barred.
* Finally, it would be lovely if my dear friend Shawn Marie and I could finally have our coffee-tasting at Casteel Coffee. We have been promising each other for months that we would do this, but alas, schedules have conflicted and we haven’t done it yet.

There, I think those four resolutions ought to do it for now. Last year I focused on joy; this year I am focusing on small pleasures. May you find both joy and pleasure in the new year.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Simple Pleasures

I think we choose not who we love but rather we choose opportunities that let love blossom.

Yesterday, my friend Matt got on a plane and flew 600 miles away from me to return to his regularly scheduled life. We spent a blissful four days together—that is to say, it was blissful because we were together, but it was emphatically NOT BLISSFUL for Matt, because he developed a raging head cold over the weekend that left him feeling less than perky. Our plans yielded to illness: we didn’t go out to The Stained Glass, a lovely wine bar in downtown Evanston. We didn’t go out on New Year’s Eve. We didn’t walk down to Lake Michigan, which I surely would have persuaded him to do, despite his dislike for Chicago winters. No, we didn’t do much of anything but eat, drink tea, lay around, and sleep. Oh, and cook. Between the two of us, we cooked A LOT. Unfortunately, a stuffy nose stole his ability to taste much of anything, which may have worked in my favor since his presence distracted me into burning several things. Yes, clearly it was his fault I burned the spices for Matter Tofuneer (think Matter Paneer but with tofu instead of paneer cheese). Then I burned—er, caramelized—the vegetables I was sauteeing for Vegetable Noodle Soup. Yes, all his fault! That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

The distance between us complicates our circumstances. How do you love someone who lives so far away? Missing him hurts. Remarkably, I think our friendship is simple; it is the rest of our lives that are complicated. Logistics: complicated. Affection: simple. Travel: complicated. Arrival: simple. Independent, fulfilling lives: complicated. Sharing our tales from said lives: simple. Matt from far away: complicated. Matt up close: simple.

Thank goodness for simple pleasures.

Matt loves to cook as much as I do. On our final night together, he mustered the energy to cook dinner for us. He made a fantastic, slightly adapted Chickpea and Artichoke Heart Stew from Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home, which I am afraid I cannot reproduce in text right now because I must consult with him to add his tricks to my copy of the recipe. But he did put me in charge of making the salads. Matt’s salad is simple and a refreshing palate cleanser after a complex stew: fresh baby spinach, orange sections, a slip of balsamic vinegar, a dash of salt and pepper, and the warmth of a few slices of raw onion. The onion is key here: if you prep the salad early, say twenty to thirty minutes before you eat, the onion has time to gently infuse the whole salad with its raw heat. It plays nicely with the spinach and orange, bringing out their fresh flavors. Much like Matt, this salad will be welcome at my table for a long time.

Matt’s Spinach and Orange Salad
Serves 1 (multiply as needed)

The instructions I give here are by the bowl; each bowl serves one person as a side. Matt uses a little less raw onion for his loved ones who are not as wild about raw onion as we are.

2 handfuls of fresh baby spinach
2 orange sections, split in half
Several small, extremely thin slices of onion (for example, take two or three very thin slices off the end of an onion that you are using for another dish), separated
Salt and pepper to taste
Balsamic vinegar to taste

Arrange spinach and orange sections in a bowl. Drape onion slices over the top decoratively. Immediately before serving, add a dash of salt and pepper and a bit of balsamic vinegar. Serve. You can serve the extra orange sections in a separate bowl at the table; if your diners are like me, they'll want to add more oranges as they go.