Monday, March 24, 2008

Rebels and Ricotta

I’m a rebel list-maker. I have this habit of making a list and then not completing the items written on said list. Let’s take a look at the latest unfinished items on my personal to-do list, shall we?

Sat., March 8, 2008

Work reading, 1h AM, 1h PM

Sun., March 16, 2008

Sort/file 4 pieces of mail
Balance budget: checkbook
Exercise: yoga later?

What, you might be asking yourself, is the point of making a list if you’re not actually going to follow it? I ask myself this question. For me, the main point of making a list is to harness all the wild thoughts in my restless mind and loosely pin them down on paper. I struggle with priorities sometimes: how do I know what I should be doing now? What if there is something more important I should be doing? It can be very stressful! But if I have a list, I can see all the things I need/ought/want to do, and it’s ever so calming.

The point of a list is not to impose draconian discipline on myself; the point of a list is to provide gentle direction and motivation. It also keeps my mail from piling up to the ceiling in my in-box.

Spring, apparently, is also a rebel. On Friday, the second official day of spring, we got six inches of snow. Oh, my. I was pelted by hail on my journey home from work that night—lovely! I’m feeling a little like a groundhog who has decided that since spring is apparently a no-show, I’m going to hibernate for another six weeks.

What if, though, I tried to redeem my rebel ways by looking back at a long-ago list from Life, Love, and Food and conjuring up memories of summer? The Summer Cooking Wish List was neglected worse than my personal to-do list, and that means we both missed out on some excellent recipes. Pardon my delay, but could I offer you some Coffee Ricotta Mousse? There’s nothing about this dessert that says it has to be eaten in the summer except that it is sweet, cold, and creamy. It’s also quick-as-a-wink to whip up: just a few ingredients go into the food processor, you buzz them together, and then spoon into serving cups. If your weather has been anything like mine, you can eat your mousse on the couch, a blanket over your legs, while you dream of sunshine, fresh blueberries, and warm summer breezes.

Happy Spring, friends.

Coffee Ricotta Mousse
Adapted from “Coffee Ricotta Mousse” in Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home
Serves 2-3 with somewhat dainty servings

This statement is probably obvious, but I’ll say it anyways: you must like ricotta cheese to enjoy this dessert. Specifically, if you enjoy the slightly granular and creamy texture of ricotta, and you like coffee, then you will love this mousse. I know I do! I also love how fast and simple it is: this recipe is literally a five-minute dessert, making it perfect for weeknights, if you don’t mind the possibly sleep-disrupting effects of caffeine-containing espresso powder.

The original recipe made four servings; I halved it because I live in a household of one. But the math is simple if you want to make a bigger batch.

1 c. ricotta cheese (I use low-fat ricotta, but you could try full-fat or no-fat ricotta depending on your preferences)
¼ c. powdered sugar
1 tbsp. instant espresso powder
¼ tsp. real vanilla extract

1) Place all ingredients in a food processor. Buzz until smooth. Taste for sweetness and flavor. Add more sugar, espresso, or vanilla if needed. Repeat buzzing and tasting as needed.
2) Spoon mousse into dessert cups. This small batch makes for two larger portions or three smaller portions, depending on how hungry your dessert-eaters are.
3) Either eat immediately or cover dessert cups with plastic wrap and chill until serving time.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Compromise, Kale, and Some Magic Herbs

They say that in love, one must compromise. Relationships require that we meet each other in the middle, that we not demand our own way at all times. In theory, all this loving and compromising will keep the passion burning, prevent our love from growing stale.

Lentil stew, I love you but you are just way, waaaaay too giving.

It’s the basic single-girl-in-the-kitchen conundrum: in a world filled with “Serves 4” recipes, how does one keep the stove-fires a-burnin’? How many nights of leftovers can one woman eat?

I’ll tell you the answer to that question: about two. After that, my loyalty is in serious jeopardy. And I say that as someone who loves to curl up on the couch after work, nap for an hour, and then wander out to the kitchen and eat dinner ten minutes later. And we’re talking a real dinner here: homemade food, not Lean Cuisine or a frozen burrito.

Back to lentil stew. It’s a paradox: I am usually cooking for one and yet my favorite foods are stews and casseroles that can feed an army. Those foods say “home” to me. They speak of onions and garlic sauteing, tomatoes simmering, broth bubbling, and satisfied bellies. They are everyday foods, the foods we slurp at night and pack into lunch bags for the next day. They are foods that welcome an unexpected friend at the table, foods that adapt happily to whatever’s in season and abundant. For all of these reasons, I love lentil stew and its kin, but I still have to decide what to do with all those leftovers!

The first step is to start with a fantastic lentil stew, like the recipe for Stewed Lentils and Tomatoes below. After you’ve picked out your stew, start thinking starches. Think variety. If your leftover stew remains the same, you can still avoid eating the same meal five times in a row by pairing the stew with something different each time. From experience, I can tell you that Stewed Lentils and Tomatoes pair well with rice, cornbread, or roasted potatoes. To make those roasted potatoes really special, think herbs: herbes de Provence, to be exact. Uncultured Midwesterner that I am, I’m not one to gush about French cooking; I remain skeptical of a culture that calls cow’s cheek a delicacy. And I can’t stand Brie. But I love love LOVE herbes de Provence, that unlikely combo of wild herbs that grows free in the countryside of Provence. They’re magic herbs, those herbes de Provence, infusing roasted potatoes with savory, floral, and grassy herbal flavors. Best of all, if you have a decent spice rack, you can make your own herbes de Provence blend and feel like a real foodie.

Another option to make leftovers more exciting is to add something new to leftover lentil stew. Stewed Lentils and Tomatoes are quite willing to accommodate a few handfuls of lightly steamed kale; the kale in turn adds a hearty green vegetable and a little chewiness to the stew.

Finally, there’s the issue of dessert. When you think about dinner, is dessert the first thing on your mind? I conceive of dinner in the order in which it’s eaten: entrĂ©e, vegetable, dessert. I want dessert to complement the rest of the meal; I’m not one to build my meal around dessert. But I often make an effort to save room for it! If dinner is Stewed Lentils and Tomatoes and herbed roasted potatoes, might I suggest something creamy for dessert? How about Raspberry Cookie Pudding? These puddings are very little work to assemble (says the lazy couch napper), and the reward you get far outweighs the initial investment. No baking, just a little food processor action, some light stirring, and a bit of layering. It’s the lazy girl’s answer to dessert.

For the nights when it’s just you, leftover lentil stew, and a generously stocked pantry, keep the lentil love alive by mixing things up. Don’t let a good relationship grow stale!

*Suggested Menu:
-Stewed Lentils and Tomatoes (recipe below)
-Herbed Roasted Potatoes (recipe below)
-Raspberry Cookie Pudding (follow the link)

Stewed Lentils and Tomatoes
First found here on Smitten Kitchen who adapted from Barefoot Contessa at Home (many thanks to both!)
Serves 4-5 when accompanied with a starch

This stew is one of my all-time favorite lentil stews. It’s incredibly flavorful, pairing curry powder and thyme together in a broth rich with onions, carrots, tomatoes, and garlic. I would not have guessed that curry and thyme would taste good together, but somehow it works. The final dish doesn’t really taste curried in an “Indian restaurant” way, but I am certain that the curry is essential to the final result. Feel free to tinker with the recipe; my version has already strayed a little bit from the recipe I first saw at Smitten Kitchen.

1 tbsp. olive oil
2 large onions, diced
4-5 carrots, diced
3 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 28-oz. can whole tomatoes
1 c. French green lentils
2 c. flavorful vegetable stock
2 tsp. mild curry powder
½ tsp. dried thyme
2 tsp. salt, plus more to taste
Pepper to taste
1 tbsp. apple cider vinegar

1) Heat the olive oil in a large skillet. Add the onions and carrots and cook over medium-low heat for 8-10 minutes to let the onions soften and start to brown. Stir occasionally. Add the garlic and cook for another minute or so. While the onions are cooking, in a large soup pot, pour the tomatoes and their juices. Use a potato masher to crush the tomatoes into a rough puree.
2) Pour the dry lentils into a fine-meshed sieve. Check the lentils by eye and with your hands to find and remove any stones or other non-lentil materials. Rinse the lentils well to remove any dirt or debris.
3) When the vegetable saute is done, add it to the soup pot with the tomatoes along with the lentils, vegetable stock, curry powder, thyme (rub and crumble it between your fingers to help release the flavor into the stew), salt, and pepper. Bring the whole thing to a boil, and then lower the heat and simmer, covered, for ~40 min. Stir occasionally. After 40 min., taste a few lentils to check their tenderness. If they are tender, turn off the heat, cover the pot, and let it sit for another 10 min. Add the vinegar and season to taste with more salt and pepper. Serve hot with the starch of your choice.

Stewed Lentils and Tomatoes with Kale (variation)

The addition of kale is one way to jazz up leftover lentil stew. I steam the kale to soften it and take off its raw edge. Kale is an especially tasty way to eat your greens in late winter.

~2 c. kale pieces (4-6 large kale leaves)
~2 c. leftover Stewed Lentils and Tomatoes (1 serving)

1) Get a vegetable steamer going: place a vegetable steamer in a pot of the right size such that it fits snugly but comfortably. Add an inch or two of water but make sure it sits below the steamer and not in the steamer (otherwise, you’ll boil your kale rather than steam it). Place it over high heat to get the water boiling.
2) Prep the kale: wash it well. Strip the leafy parts off the stems, stack the leafy parts, and tear them into bite-sized pieces. Do this until you have about 2 cups of lightly packed kale pieces.
3) Add the kale to the steamer basket, and place the lid on the pot. Let the kale steam for a few minutes or until it’s softened and wilted a bit.
4) While the kale is steaming, heat up your leftover Stewed Lentils and Tomatoes in a small pot or in the microwave. When the kale is done, add it to a deep bowl with the stew. Eat.

Herbed Roasted Potatoes
Serves 1-2, depending on how hungry you are and how much you love potatoes

2-3 medium red potatoes
1 tbsp. garlic-infused olive oil (I like Boyajian Garlic Oil)
½ - 1 tsp. herbes de Provence (recipe follows)
Salt and pepper to taste

1) Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
2) Prep the potatoes: scrub them well, dry them, and cut or peel off any eyes or other funky, unappetizing spots. Chop them into wedges and place in a bowl.
3) Add the oil to the potatoes and toss them well to coat them. Add the herbes de Provence, salt, and pepper, and toss some more.
4) Spray a baking sheet lightly with cooking spray. Spread the potatoes in a single layer on the sheet. Place the sheet in the oven and bake for 30-40 minutes or until the potatoes are crispy and golden brown. About halfway through the baking period, use a pancake flipper to turn the potatoes over to let the other side brown. Serve hot from the oven.

Homemade Herbes de Provence

I described my homemade herbes de Provence blend in a post last summer. I’m still using that same batch! For convenience, I’ve rewritten it here with the potato recipe above.

2 tsp. fennel seed
2 tsp. marjoram
2 tsp. sage
2 tsp. basil
2 tsp. oregano
2 tsp. thyme
½ - 2 tsp. rosemary (I’m not a huge fan of rosemary, but if you are, feel free to add up to 2 tsp. of rosemary to your blend)

Place all ingredients in a bowl or a jar. Toss to combine and transfer to an air-tight storage container.

Friday, March 14, 2008

As Expected

I feel like I’m approaching one of those scary crossroads in life, a time when one decision will have such far-reaching consequences that I just want to lie down and take a nap. Assuming I finish this beast of a degree called a Ph.D., I have to decide what I want to do with my career: teach? research? write? All of those things? None of them?

More important, I think, is the question of what kind of impact do I want to make in the world. Surely, teaching/researching/writing all have great potential to impact lives, but how do I want to impact lives? As a scientist? As a food writer? Both?

As fuzzy as this process is, the more I think about it, the clearer the answer becomes in my head. I want to teach. Much as I love science, I love people more: I like the interactions between people that science not only encourages but virtually requires due to the complexity and volume of its knowledge. Life in the lab has been hard for me because it can be so mentally isolating; I don’t want to be isolated any more than I have to be to get my work done. My teaching experiences thus far have been limited. As a science student, I don’t have to teach to support myself financially, unlike my colleagues in the humanties. I think the financial support is both a blessing and a curse. Science students tend to be more closely tethered to their advisors by the leash of money; I do many things simply because my advisor asks me to do them. Humanities students may struggle to find time to do their research because they are so busy teaching and grading. I am jealous of the time they get to spend in the classroom; they are probably jealous of the time I get to spend in the lab. In the end, we all earn Ph.D.s and wonder what to do next.

What to do next. It begs the question, “What do I expect out of my degree?”

All I really want at this point is an interesting day job that leaves me time to write. I am hoping my degree will give me that much.

But writing is a funny thing. The more I write, the more I am compelled to write. Most days the words come easily, crystallizing the story in my head into a story on the page. I wonder if it’s even necessary to wonder if my future job will allow me time to write; writing Life, Love, and Food has become such an integral part of my life now that I cannot imagine not writing it for lack of time. Let the ungraded papers pile up, let the data remain unanalyzed, let the dirty dishes sit in the sink, but most of all, let the words flow and the stories be told!

Some stories practically tell themselves. Here’s a story about blondies. Frankly, I feel like I deserve a blondie after contemplating my future. I’m sure you also deserve a blondie! To me, blondies ought to be categorically similar to their darker-hued cousin, the brownie. Both are rich, fudgy, sweet, laced with an interesting flavors and perhaps tidbits like chocolate chips. Unlike cookies, they shouldn’t be too cakey or doughy; they should yield easily to your fork and melt in your mouth. I realize these expectations are a lot to ask of a dessert, but there are plenty of dessert-makers out there who are up to the challenge!

I keep saying I’m not much of a dessert-maker. The blondie recipe I bring you today practically invented itself. After buying a very expensive bag of almond flour, I realized I had the perfect brownie recipe with which to tinker to make the blondies of my dreams. The original brownie recipe is from my dear friend Shawn Marie; by substituting almond flour for cocoa powder and adding a dash of almond extract and a handful of white chocolate chunks, I now have a blondie recipe that lives up to my exacting standards. Thank goodness that unlike much of life, some things actually turn out exactly as expected.

Almond Blondies
Makes ~9 medium blondie squares

These blondies are just delicious. I should know: I polished off the pan in record time! They are buttery, sweet, and just a little bit nubbly from the almond flour. Almond extract and white chocolate chunks add flavor and texture without overwhelming your palate. I like them with a big mug of tea after dinner.

½ c. butter (1 stick)
1 c. brown sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
¼ tsp. almond extract
2 eggs
1/3 c. almond flour
½ c. all-purpose flour
3/8 tsp. baking powder
Pinch of salt
~1 oz. best-quality white chocolate, coarsely chopped

1) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
2) Melt the butter over low heat in a medium saucepan on the stovetop. Beat in the sugar, extracts, and eggs. Set aside for a moment.
3) Whisk together the flours, baking powder, and salt. Mix these dry ingredients into the butter mixture (the batter will be quite thick). Stir in the white chocolate.
4) Scrape the batter into an 8-inch square pan. Bake for about 25 minutes or until the top is lightly browned. Remove from the oven and let the blondies cool in the pan on a rack. Eat warm or at room temperature. If you want to be really decadent, top blondies with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

An Experiment of Grand Proportions

I hate dating.

There, I said it.

I hate dating.

The truth is that I’m not good at dating. Dating is all games and facades and illusions. It’s play. While I like to play as much as the next girl, I don’t like to play with people’s feelings. I think people’s feelings ought to be respected; to me, dating is inevitably a process of bruising people’s egos and breaking their hearts.

No, thank you. I’d rather pass.

The problem with not dating, however, is that you leave little room for love. I am firmly pro-love. I have the heart-shaped earrings to prove it. I’m wearing them right now.

After K and I broke up, I was deeply disappointed. I had high hopes for that relationship, and when it fizzled, I wasn’t really broken-hearted because the relationship ended per se. My expectations were crushed, and that broke my heart. I knew that it was going to take me a long time to recover from it. About two years, in fact. I needed that time to find myself again, to be comfortable being alone, to not feel like there was something missing. At times, I felt lonely. At other times, I felt exhilarated. I hated being alone, and I loved being alone. But most importantly, I started feeling whole again.

Once I felt whole again, I was ready to feel something other than numb. The Brazilian jolted me out of my numbness, and even though things with him didn’t get beyond a second date, I was suddenly and ravenously hungry for love and sex. In that order.

The irony about the Brazilian is that he was the catalyst for the romance that has developed between Matt and me. Matt and I were friends for over a year before the Brazilian came along, and in my lusty confusion, I turned to Matt for advice, reassurance, and empathy. He’s good for those things.

In the months that followed, our friendship deepened until that fateful October visit when we gave up all pretense of a platonic friendship. I haven’t looked back since.

Yet, there are caveats to this romance. We are not monogamous. This fact has not posed any problems for us yet. We also live very far apart. This fact has posed problems for us. It’s both a blessing and a curse. Our love has blossomed in letters, which is terribly romantic. Distance gives us both plenty of space to live our own lives, which, I imagine, makes our conversations that much more interesting. Somehow, Matt manages to be very much present in my life, even though he is rarely with me in person.

But missing him can be very painful. I miss him every day, but some days are worse than others. And there’s a certain sadness in living from visit to visit, which seems unavoidable despite the fullness of my life. Even his visits are a little bittersweet because they always end with him leaving.

My friends are mixed in their opinions about Matt. That’s okay. It’s difficult to understand a non-monogamous relationship if you aren’t living in it. My friends are not mixed, however, in their opinions about Internet-assisted dating. “Go for it!” they all say.

And so I am.

My friend Ian, doom-sayer that he is sometimes, says that dating will be very hard because I will always be comparing the new guys to Matt. He’s probably right; comparisons are hard to avoid. But I feel like this situation could work to my benefit. I’m happy now. I feel loved, I’m not stressed about my paper, springtime is approaching. I’m ready to try dating without the pressure of finding the love of my life.

Last night I set up a profile on OkCupid. It’s a free Internet dating site; it was recommended to me by friends and acquaintances. It attempts to find good matches for you in a three-step process:

1) You answer a slew of questions.
2) Give your ideal mate’s answer.
3) Rank how important your mate’s answer is to you.

I breezed through 100 questions last night and chatted for a while on OkCupid’s instant messenger with some guy in Naperville who found me through the site. I’ll admit it: it was pretty fun. This morning I found messages from three different men. Thus starts the screening process.

I’m really not interested in meeting every single guy who sends me a “Hey, what’s up?” (Naperville dude, I made an exception for you last night.) I want to be impressed. Entertain me! Tell me something interesting! My first attempt at screening will be to limit my replies to men who answer my question: What would you make me for dinner?

So far, no man has answered this question.

But that’s okay. I can afford to be patient and picky these days. I have already found love and sex, in that order. But I’m willing to give local love a chance.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Spreading the Gospel

Sometimes I really feel like I was born in the wrong half of the country. My sentimental attachments to Michigan, land of my birth, are minimal if my family and friends move elsewhere. The hazy glow of nostalgia will always reserve a spot for the Mitten State in my heart. Nostalgia and this two-foot tall creature who recently learned how to walk: Lydia Rose, my niece. She occupies about half of my heart.

But today I’m not here to gush about how much I love Lydia. I’ll save that for another day. I’m confused about my Northern origins because truthfully, I feel like I should have been born in the South. How else do I explain my fondness for the concept of “Southern hospitality” or Southern men or the idea of sittin’ out on the back porch, drinking mint juleps while someone twangs away on the banjo? Goodness, I even wish I had a Southern accent! In the summertime, I have even been known to pad around in a tube top, but I’m not sure if that says more about my trashiness or my inner Southern chick. Nothing says trashy like a tube top!

Tube tops, mint juleps, and banjoes: that’s the life for me.

A telling sign that I harbor secret Southern longings is the sheer audacity I displayed two months ago. For Christmas, I gave three people copies of a book about that most quintessential of Southern foods, cornbread. How does a Northerner get off giving people a book about cornbread? And to make matters even worse, one of these people is a Southerner, who, if he were loyal to his roots, should put me in my place and tell me that a Northerner ain’t got no business tellin’ anyone anything about cornbread!

But I have no shame; I even served cornbread to this Southerner without batting an eye. He ate it and later asked for the recipe. I was happy to oblige.

This thrice-gifted cookbook is The Cornbread Gospels by Crescent Dragonwagon. Her roots are East Coast: she was born in New York and currently resides in Vermont. She did, however, spend most of her adult life in Arkansas, so I think she can reasonably claim some authority when it comes to Southern cooking. I love her because she’s a health-nut hippie who combines the best food writing with great recipes and useful kitchen tips. She’s my kind of woman.

Today I want to share with you the cornbread I make over and over again. It’s an adapted version of Crescent’s Dairy Hollow House Skillet-Sizzled Buttermilk Cornbread. Since I have no shame (see above) and I will not be denied, I had to adapt this recipe right away to fit my baking equipment. Here I will confess another dirty kitchen secret: I have no cast-iron skillet. While I adore cast-iron skillets, I have yet to invest in my own. Call it laziness or frugality, but I seem to be doing just fine without one. In order to make this cornbread, I swapped out the skillet in favor of my trusty 8-inch square glass baking pan, the one I’ve had since my sophomore year of college and use virtually every week. I am very attached to this pan, as it has assisted my cooking dreams time and again. It’s lasted through two boyfriends, one friend-with-benefits, and one creepy old guy I met on the Internet [shudder]. (Hey, I was young!) It has seen me earn one degree and will likely see me earn my doctorate. I cannot even imagine life without it.

In Crescent’s recipe, butter is melted into the cast-iron skillet on the stovetop, and then the cornbread batter is scraped into the hot skillet (“skillet-sizzled”) and popped into the waiting oven. In my recipe, I melt the butter into the baking pan in the oven, then take it out, scrape the batter into the pan, and put it back into the oven to bake. I have made my version of this cornbread so many times that when I made it the proper way at Thanksgiving last year using the beautiful cast-iron skillet in Daphna and Ian’s kitchen, I felt lost, out of sorts, like I was missing something essential. In truth, that’s what repetition does to a recipe or a method: it becomes your recipe, your method.

Hopefully I don’t offend any diehard Southern cornbread fans with this last confession, but I’m thinking about making—brace yourselves here, folks—a Northern cornbread for my sweet Southern friend when he comes to visit again. I figure if he keeps braving this cold Chicago weather just to spend time in my kitchen, I must be doing something right!

A Northerner’s Butter-Crusted Cornbread
Adapted from Dairy Hollow House Skillet-Sizzled Cornbread in Passionate Vegetarian by Crescent Dragonwagon

My version of this cornbread is fairly true to the original with the skillet-to-pan adaptation I described above. I like a slightly sweet cornbread, so I use the maximum recommended amount of sugar. I use the minimum recommended amount of butter and I love the result: a buttery, crunchy, golden-brown crust. Go for the corner pieces on this one if you can because they have two sides of crunchy crust. I wouldn’t turn down a middle piece, though, especially when this bread is hot and fragrant from the oven. Serve with hot chili or soup and consider yourself blessed.

1 c. cornmeal
1 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tbsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. baking soda
¼ tsp. salt
3 tbsp. brown sugar
1 ¼ c. buttermilk
1 egg
¼ c. mild vegetable oil, such as canola oil
2 tbsp. butter

1) Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
2) In a large mixing bowl, combine the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and sugar. Stir well to combine.
3) In a smaller bowl, whisk together the buttermilk and egg. Whisk the oil into this mixture.
4) Place the butter in an 8-inch square glass baking dish. Pop it in the oven for a few minutes to melt the butter, checking frequently to swirl the butter around and prevent its burning. It should only take a few minutes at most to melt.
5) Once the butter is melted, take the pan out of the oven and quickly mix the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients using as few strokes as possible. The goal here is to moisten everything, but don’t overmix the batter. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan.

6) Bake for ~25-30 min. or until nice and golden-brown on top. Serve hot.

Monday, March 3, 2008

On Ambivalence and Rachael Ray

Sometimes I think ambivalence is the worst feeling in the world. Ambivalence suggests an inability to decide between caring and not caring, loving and hating, yes or no. Being the optimist/pessimist that I am, ambivalence strikes frequently. I wrestle with it, struggling to resolve my conflicting feelings. I have, at times, felt ambivalent about dairy, my career in science, dogs, motherhood, and sausage. On the other hand, I have never felt ambivalent about the importance of education, cats, my niece, oatmeal, pillows, independence, and correct spelling.

I am deeply ambivalent about Rachael Ray.

I suspect my encounters with Rachael Ray and her empire are rather unique. I have never watched any of her shows, not because I’m not curious, but because I don’t have cable television, so no Food Network for me at home. I also don’t watch her new daytime talk show. My Rachael experience is limited to her printed work: cookbooks, her magazine, and the magazine’s website. I find myself strangely, almost hypnotically, drawn to her books and magazines. I flip through the pages, reading recipe titles and skimming ingredient lists, while chanting in my head, “I WILL not buy this. I will NOT buy this.” Can you see that even my chanting is ambivalent? Move a few words around, change the emphasis, and you get, “I will not BUY THIS. I WILL not BUY THIS!” BUY THIS BUY THIS! The whole thing makes me hyperventilate and reach for my credit card.

Besides the fact that I own too many cookbooks already, Rachael’s offerings for me are limited. First and foremost, my vegetarianism seriously limits the number of her dishes that I can make without modification. Yes, she does offer some veggie eats, but I’ve had mixed success with them. Vegetarian cooking deserves as much love as meat-based cooking! Should a woman who confesses to knowing little about tofu be writing recipes that contain it? I was too scared to try her tofu recipes after that confession! Furthermore, her veggie recipes often feature mushrooms, which I don’t use in my cooking. But the detail that troubles me the most is very simple: too much fat. Rachael uses olive oil, butter, heavy cream, cheese, and eggs like there’s no tomorrow. I just don’t think you can eat her food, her way, every day without gaining weight, which I believe no one wants to do. And because her books, heck, even her magazine (Everyday with Rachael Ray) are marketed as everyday cooking references, I am deeply troubled by her vast influence over people’s eating.

That being said, why do I find myself drawn time and again to her books? Perhaps I’m a sucker for a beautiful book: as my friend Elizabeth says, there’s a certain panache to Rachael Ray. The books are fun to read, with delicious-looking recipes and snazzy menus laid out right in front of you. The desserts (all of which I can eat if I pretend I don’t know the fat gram count in heavy cream) look super-simple and lusciously good. Rachael’s cooking style is stylishly down to earth: she uses lots of fresh herbs and the occasional gourmet ingredient, but she admits to loving a great burger and urges us to use her speedy tricks if they help us get food on the table easily. And I LOVE how enthusiastic she is about cooking and food! If her enthusiasm has encouraged the non-cooks among us to step into a kitchen to prepare a meal, that is a movement I wholeheartedly support.

In practice, I have found a few gems in her books, recipes I adore and have presented to you here at Life, Love, and Food. Granted, I have adapted these recipes to suit my tastes, but the inspiration is all Rachael Ray. Among the hits are Mexican Coffee, Black Bean Soup with Rice, and my Spinach and Zucchini Calzones. True to form, each of these recipes comes together quickly and easily if you follow the time-saving advice. The real shocker among this trio was the Black Bean Soup with Rice, which was absolutely delicious and an instant calmer for me.

And so it is that I find myself the happy owner of Express Lane Meals and a binder full of select recipes from other books and the Everyday website. I use Rachael’s ideas as just that: ideas. I modify and tweak them to my heart’s content, leaving out the bacon here and halving the olive oil there. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I take the failures in stride and delight in the successes. Thanks to my local library, I get free peaks at all her books, which is a tremendous blessing to the curious vegetarian who wants to see if she can pick up a new idea or two from the queen of 30-minute meals.

Slightly Modified Ricotta Pasta with Tomatoes al Forno
Adapted from Ricotta Pasta with Tomatoes al Forno in 365: No Repeats by Rachael Ray
Makes ~4 servings

No matter what people say about Rachael Ray, this much is undeniable: the girl knows her pasta. I wouldn’t expect anything less of an Italian woman! And this pasta bake is really good stuff: a savory tomato sauce tossed with penne pasta and ricotta cheese, and then the whole thing is spread in a baking dish, covered with slices of fresh mozzarella, and baked. This dish is wonderfully comforting: melted cheese, soothing carbs, and tangy sauce, all hot and perfectly seasoned. This pasta is one of my all-time favorites.

Rachael’s recipes often make enough to feed an army, but my version here makes ~4 servings, which works well if you are cooking for a few others or if you are cooking for yourself and plan to eat the rest as leftovers. The leftovers reheat well in the microwave.

2 c. dried penne pasta
½ lg. onion, chopped
1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 c. canned crushed tomatoes*
A generous handful of fresh parsley leaves
1 tsp. dried basil
½ c. ricotta cheese
2 tbsp. Parmesan cheese
4 oz. fresh mozzarella**, thinly sliced
Salt and pepper to taste

1) Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Cook pasta according to package directions.
2) While the pasta is going, heat the olive oil over medium heat in a skillet. Add the onion and garlic. Saute until the onion is soft, stirring frequently.
3) Stir the crushed tomatoes, parsley, and basil into the onion/garlic saute. Simmer for 5 min. and then turn off the heat.
4) Place the ricotta and Parmesan in a large mixing bowl. Add the cooked pasta and toss to coat with cheeses. Add about 2 ½ ladles*** of the tomato sauce and toss again. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
5) Transfer pasta to an 8-in. square baking dish. Lay slices of fresh mozzarella over the pasta. Bake at 400 degrees F for ~10 min. to melt the cheese. Serve hot.

*At my grocery store, I can only find crushed tomatoes in 28-oz. cans, which is highly annoying. For this recipe, I use about half the can and then freeze the remainder.
**For this recipe, it’s easiest to buy a ball of mozzarella from which you can slice. The smallest ball I can find is 8 ounces, so I buy it, use half for this recipe, and eat the remainder in sandwiches or just with good crusty bread. It’s important not to waste fresh mozzarella, as it is one of those foods that makes life worth living.
***My apologies for the leftovers here. As with the crushed tomatoes, I freeze the leftover sauce for another day.