Monday, April 28, 2008

Take No Prisoners

For those of you who have been following along at home, you have probably realized by deduction or my outright confession that I am a vegetarian. I don’t talk about it much these days; it’s a fact of life that, for me, seems almost as mundane as the color of my eyes or my penchant for peanut butter. Most days, it’s just not that remarkable, especially when you consider that grocery stores are stocked full of all the essentials for a happy vegetarian: fresh produce, canned beans and vegetables, an ample supply of Ghirardelli chocolate, and high-quality oils, vinegars, and spices. I love being a vegetarian, as long as there are plenty of chickpeas.

But then there are times when I’m reminded that it’s tough to be a vegetarian. Even in as hip a food town as Chicago, I have eaten way too many mediocre vegetable sandwiches, limp vegetables and tasteless cheese piled onto soggy bread. Servers in snooty restaurants are puzzled and unhelpful when I inquire about the vegetarian options. And even though I try to stick to my principles, on more than one occasion I have found myself at a work function, choosing between the tasty chicken salad sandwich, the disappointing mushroom sandwich, and skipping lunch altogether. I am a tiny bit ashamed to admit that the chicken salad sandwich usually wins this battle. It’s for this reason, and for Cajun food, that I tell myself that I am 99% vegetarian. That 1% gives me just enough wiggle room so as not to lose my cool when frustrating situtations arise. It turns out the rest of the world is still eating meat and plenty of it!

And yet there are vegetarians among us who adopt even stricter standards than mine. There are vegans among us, people who consciously avoid all animal-derived products, including meat, dairy, eggs, gelatin, and honey. I love vegans for lots of reasons. I love their fierce, take-no-prisoners attitude toward food and eating. I love their discipline and the communities they create around vegan cooking. I love that I can eat anything that comes out of a vegan kitchen, knowing it doesn’t contain chicken stock or any other hidden source of animal. But most of all, I love their cookies. Bring on the vegan cookies!

I’ve written about vegan cookies before, and while that basic vegan sugar cookie was tasty with a subtle, sweet flavor, I think it’s got nothing on a good peanut butter cookie. Peanut butter, and nut butters in general, lends itself easily to vegan cookies because it helps to emulsify and bind everything together, functions normally served by butter and eggs in other cookie recipes. And with their nutty richness, nut butters are function with flavor.

One reason to love the vegan peanut butter cookie I bring you today is that it doesn’t require “vegan butter,” or a vegan source of fat that is intended as a butter substitute. While I have used vegan butter in the past, including in those sugar cookies, I have mixed feelings about these butters. My quibble is not one of taste but rather of quality. I try to eat whole foods as much as possible, and I worry that vegan butters are made of oils that are processed and manipulated in ways that decrease their nutritional quality. Now, I know when we’re talking about cookies, we are not talking about health foods, but still. I have my doubts, so I put vegan butter into the same category as fake meats like those addictively tasty Boca Chik’n Patties (or, as my friend Josh calls them, crack patties): occasional treats, not everyday staples. On the other hand, I refuse to let a day go by without eating peanut butter. I won’t be denied. And these cookies are just slightly more complicated that spooning peanut butter straight from jar to mouth. In fact, you can and should help yourself to some peanut butter while preheating the oven, so no excuses: it’s time to get baking!

Vegan Peanut Butter Cookies
Adapted from this recipe in Vegetarian Times, May 2005
Makes about 18-24 cookies

This recipe came to me courtesy of that old vegetarian standby, Vegetarian Times, but it needed a little work. Namely, it needed a bit more flour and oatmeal, and it needed chocolate. For what is a peanut butter cookie without chocolate? A sad, sad thing indeed. My awesome friend Josh worked out the flour/oatmeal additions (thanks, Josh!) and the chocolate chips were a no-brainer. These cookies are delightfully cakey, sweet, and nutty, with pockets of chocolate melting in your mouth. I like the flavor that whole-wheat flour gives these cookies; it adds to their slightly rustic quality.

I’m delighted to enter these cookies into The Great Peanut Butter Exhibition, hosted by Nick over at The Peanut Butter Boy. This cookie competition is my kind of contest, since the real reward is a plethora of brand-new peanut butter cookie recipes, all gathered into one convenient cyperspace location. I’m not very competitive any more (my high-school valedictorian days are over, people!), but it’s hard to resist a contest in which peanut butter and sugar are the real players.

Cooking spray
½ c. natural peanut butter, crunchy or creamy, well-stirred
½ c. apple juice concentrate, thawed and undiluted
¼ c. brown sugar or other granulated sugar
1 tsp. real vanilla extract
½ c. + 2 tbsp. whole-wheat flour plus a bit extra if batter is too wet
¼ c. oatmeal
¾ tsp. baking soda
¼ - ½ c. vegan chocolate chips (Two notes here: 1) Use more or fewer chocolate chips, depending on how chocolatey you’d like your cookies to be. 2) I like Ghirardelli semi-sweet chocolate chips, which are vegan, but currently they are made on equipment that handles milk-containing products, so they might not be good choice if you have a food allergy. Use your good judgment.)

1) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spray two baking sheets lightly with cooking spray. Set them aside.
2) In a large bowl, mix together the peanut butter, apple juice concentrate, sugar, and vanilla. In a second bowl, mix together the flour, oatmeal, and baking soda. Mix the flour mixture into the peanut butter mixture. The batter will be fairly thick and wet here. If it seems too wet to you, add a bit of flour, no more than a tablespoon at a time.
3) Fold the chocolate chips into the batter. Using two “eating” teaspoons (as opposed to measuring teaspoons), measure the dough by spoonful and use the empty spoon to drop it onto the prepared baking sheets, leaving two inches or so around each cookie.
4) Bake the cookies for about 10-12 minutes per sheet, or until the edges are light brown. Remove sheets from the oven and let cookies cool on the sheets for a few minutes. Use a pancake-flipper to transfer the cookies to wire cooling racks. These cookies are delicate, especially when they are hot, so handle them with a light touch. And remember what my mom taught me: broken cookies have no calories. So there.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Like Trying to Herd Cats

Being a houseguest is pretty awesome. There’s really nothing better than being offered a spot on someone’s couch for a few days: it’s so much more fun and casual and relaxing than hotel accomodations. As I say all of this, I am, of course, biased because hotel rooms are generally out of my price range, and I’d much rather spend my money on a thank-you gift for my hosts than a cash tip for the bellboy.

The best place to be a houseguest in late April is North Carolina. My goodness, is that place gorgeous! While Chicago struggles to shake off the last flakes of winter, North Carolina is all green and lush and warm. This place just begs you to kick off your shoes and stay awhile. And so that’s what I did.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that my original vacation plans were cancelled by the crappiness of American Airlines. This time I hopped on a United Airlines plane and a few hours later, I found myself zipping away from the airport with Matt in his snazzy new car. No cancelled flights this time; the plane even arrived early! It was almost like I was being repaid some sort of karmic debt incurred by the universe. I was happy to collect.

If you are someone’s houseguest, I think that you are more likely to be invited back if you are flexible, polite, undemanding, and helpful. These are my golden rules. What is a vacation but an opportunity not to plan everything down to the wire? Planning while on vacation is like trying to herd cats: it’s just crazy! As a fairly obsessive planner, I am happy to hand over the planning to someone else. In the case of this particular trip, because I wasn’t even supposed to be in NC at this time, spontaneity ruled the day, which was a very cool thing indeed.

My intrepid hosts were Matt, my long-distance paramour, and his lovely partner, whom I shall call Owl for her wisdom and vaguely owl-like appearance. I had told Matt, teasingly, that this visit was really about Owl. I was right.

Owl and I go back a few years, back to when she and Matt were living in Chicago. Upon meeting, Owl and I hit it off right away. We bonded over our wacky families and job anxieties, our general curiosity about the world and our desire to be understood by a kindred soul. She and I really are kindred souls, even though in some ways we are very different. Owl is outspoken and opinionated. She is smart and cool and artsy. She is the model of relaxation at home, stretching out with great pleasure on the couch or the floor, wherever it’s most convenient. She’s unbothered by tidiness of the lack thereof. She likes people, but she also really likes being alone and doing her own thing.

It had been almost two years since I last saw Owl in person. I was delighted to find that despite our spotty correspondence, we were able to pick up our friendship as though time stood still. A lot has changed for Owl, chiefly her career and residence. She seemed happier than I remembered, and for that I was grateful: it was during a rough patch in her life that we met. And the luxury of lots of unstructured time with her is something I had never really experienced before. We both like to linger, to drink tea and munch on snacks while spiraling deep into conversation. Since I was sleeping on her couch, there were many opportunities to nothing at all—together. It was time well spent.

Strangely enough, Matt and I didn’t have as much time together, just the two of us. There wasn’t much in the way of hand-holding and such, which was sad, since I only see him every few months if I’m lucky and he’s very good at holding my hand. What we lacked in physical affection we made up for in kitchen affection, which is almost as nice. I should be perfectly honest here: Matt is a much better cook than I am. He is AMAZING in the kitchen. It’s fun for me to cook with him because I learn stuff. As a teacher, he is patient and kind. We make a good team, one leading the other with plenty of ingredient sampling along the way. And wine. Lots of wine.

I should be humbled to cook with Matt since he’s so good at it, but the man loves an audience. It’s hard to be humble and an adoring fan at the same time, so I choose the latter and we’re both happy. Together in the kitchen, we toured the globe via food: tacos with spicy pico de gallo. Mind-blowing cheese fondue eaten with perfectly steamed broccoli and asparagus and toasted chunks of baguette. I had never eaten fondue before, a communal meal during which a pot of steaming, boozy cheese creates coziness and good cheer. It made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Matt likes to joke that I can’t handle really complex food, that I have to lie down after eating it. He’s right. If I hadn’t been so cheerfully tipsy off the wine and the fondue, I probably would have stolen away for a few minutes of shut-eye on the couch.

Finally, we had one meal which defied any sense of national borders or regional cuisine. This meal was a little more down-home than the fancy fondue, but it was truly a fusion of cultures and cooking styles—that is to say, it was memorable, delicious. We pretended that it was summer instead of spring, which is really easy to do in North Carolina; you should try it! Matt fired up the grill for corn on the cob, grilled onions, and—for his favorite vegetarian houseguest—grilled chickpea patties, topped with a cool cucumber raita. It was sort of like American South meets India, with total disregard for any sense of authenticity. To authenticity, I say meh—this meal was too tasty to worry about rules. Rules are for cat-herders.

Chickpea Patties
Adapted from this Eating Well recipe

I’m giving you two versions of this recipe. The first is the version I made for dinner with Matt and Owl; it’s a “big batch” version intended for the grill. You can make six palm-sized patties from the batter, which is perfect for three diners. The second version is a smaller batch intended for the stovetop; I make this version all the time at home for myself. Here, the patties are fried in a skillet with a spoonful of olive oil; the frying gives them a deliciously crisp, flavorful outside. In both versions, the inside of the patty is wonderfully rich and savory, almost a bit creamy in texture.

A word about the batter: this batter is rather wet and sticky. Don’t be alarmed! Shape your patties as best you can with your hands, and make sure the surfaces on which the patties are cooked are very well-greased; otherwise, you’ll lose that luscious, crispy outside of the patty when you attempt to flip it. The patties will firm up as they cook, making them much easier to handle. Also, consider having two pancake-flippers at the ready. I find it easier to flip them in the skillet if I use two flippers, one to slide underneath the patty and the other to hold the patty in place while I flip it over, still sandwiched between the flippers, before placing the patty back into the skillet.

However you choose to make these chickpea patties, they are a worthwhile entrĂ©e to have in one’s cooking repertoire. Definitely a keeper.

Big-Batch Grill Version
Serves 3 generously

2 16-oz. cans of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
8 scallions, trimmed and sliced

2 eggs
¼ c. all-purpose flour
2 tsp. dried oregeno
1 tsp. ground cumin
½ tsp. salt
Cooking spray
Salt and pepper to taste (for sprinkling on the patties)

1) Place the chickpeas, scallions, and eggs into a food processor. Pulse to combine them. Add the flour, oregeno (crumble it between your fingers into the batter to release more flavor), cumin, and salt, and pulse to combine.
2) Spray a large (I would suggest a 12-inch square or larger, depending on the size of your grill) piece of foil with cooking spray. Spray it very generously. With clean hands, shape the batter into thick patties about the size of your palm. Place each patty on the foil, separated by a few inches from the other patties. Sprinkle some salt and pepper on top of each patty and spray the tops with cooking spray.
3) Fire up the grill to about 250-300 degrees F, or a medium-ish flame. Cooking these patties is not an exact science. Place the whole sheet of foil, patties and all, on the grill and cook for several minutes on each side. Before flipping the patties, the side closest to the grill should be fairly firm and not wet like the batter; the texture of this side is the best indicator of done-ness. You can nudge your flipper under the patty; if it sticks a lot, the patty probably isn't ready to be flipped.
4) Eat chickpea patties, preferably with your favorite raita, tahini sauce, or even A1 Steak Sauce, which is, surprisingly enough, vegetarian(!).

Small-Batch Stovetop Version
Makes 4 patties; Serves 2-4 depending on what accompanies the patties

1 16-oz. can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
4 scallions, trimmed and sliced

1 egg
2 tbsp. all-purpose flour

1 tsp. dried oregeno
½ tsp. ground cumin
¼ tsp. salt
2 tbsp. olive oil or other oil for frying
Salt and pepper to taste (for sprinkling on the patties)

1) Place the chickpeas, scallions, and eggs into a food processor. Pulse to combine them. Add the flour, oregeno (crumble it between your fingers into the batter to release more flavor), cumin, and salt, and pulse to combine.
2) Heat 1 tbsp. of olive oil in a medium-sized skillet over medium-high heat. Divide the patty batter into 4 equal parts. Shape two of the parts into patties and carefully place them in the skillet. Sprinkle patties with salt and pepper. Fry the patties for 4-5 minutes on the first side. Flip them over, perhaps by using two pancake-flippers as I describe above, and cook the other side for 2-4 minutes. The cooked sides should be golden-brown and crisp. When the patties are done, remove them from the skillet and place on a piece of paper towel. Repeat this step for the remaining batter.

3) Serve patties and eat, either in a pita pocket with tahini sauce as Eating Well suggests, or with a knife and fork accompanied by the sauce of your choice.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Of Butter, Apples, and Hope

As much as I love to write about cooking with Matt, honestly, he’s got some stiff competition for my gastronomic affections. My real partner in kitchen crime is Daphna of “Daphna and Ian.” She recently taught me how to make a sinful garlic bread and fabulously delicious cinnamon rolls. Over the years, she has shared with me at least a dozen recipes, including tasty fruit-and-nut bars and a heavenly, ridiculously simple recipe for baked apple French toast. The first time we met was over food. Her sweetie (now husband), Ian, suggested we go out for brunch at The Original Pancake House. As an aside, he suggested I bring a favorite cookbook and told me Daphna would be doing the same.

Perhaps I should be a little embarrassed to admit this, but I was nervous about meeting Daphna! I knew Ian was smitten with her, and I had heard so much about her, but still, I didn’t know what to expect. What would she be like? Would she be nice? Would she be comfortable with me? Would she be comfortable with the friendship that Ian and I have? Perhaps it seems silly to be nervous about meeting a friend’s significant other. Deep down inside, I really, really wanted to like her, so it was with high hopes and nervous anticipation that we met that beautiful morning.

Then Daphna turns out to be one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Just like Ian. Really, should I have expected anything else? The morning we met, over juice and eggs and pancakes, she gave me a packet of recipes to try, recipes she had selected and printed out just to share her love of cooking with me. It was literally one of the sweetest things anyone has ever done for me. I was in awe, a bit speechless. But most of all, I was elated for Ian, enormously happy to see him in love with this kind, generous, and absolutely gorgeous woman. And I secretly hoped that Ian’s relationship with Daphna would let me become friends with her!

So perhaps I have a bit of a girl-crush (read: platonic) on Daphna. It’s hard not to, especially when she shows me that when it comes to garlic bread, more butter = more better and cinnamon rolls have the most wonderfully soft and silky dough. She’s encouraged me to have an open heart when it comes to dating, to look past the first few scary dates and remember that love is about hope, not hurt. She introduced me to the Chana Masala and outrageously good brownies from Orangette, confessing to me later that she boldly cut the sugar in the brownies and (shhh!) didn’t tell me. She’s endlessly curious about cooking, executing ambitious projects with ease. Her friendship makes me happy; her recipes fill my belly.

Daphna’s Baked Apple French Toast was the first recipe from her that I tried. It remains one of my favorites. It’s simple, composed of basic pantry ingredients and fills the kitchen with the heady scents of apple and spice. Much like Daphna, it is unpretentious and homey, perfect for a simple dessert in the evening or brunch for two.

Daphna’s Baked Apple French Toast
Serves 2

I tinkered with the original recipe just a bit to come up with this version. I added dashes of nutmeg and ginger to infuse more warm spiciness into the batter, and I made the topping a little bit richer by playing it loose with the Better or butter. What is Better, you ask? It’s just a make-ahead blend of butter and oil, lightly salted. Better makes butter more usuable straight from the fridge because once the oil is added, it doesn’t solidify into a hard block. Rather, it remains soft and spreadable, which is perfect for those of us who make grilled-cheese sandwiches on a regular basis. Here, the Better makes it easier to make the crumble topping because it yields so nicely to the fork.

For the French toast:
1 egg
¼ c. milk
1 tsp. vanilla
2 tsp. brown sugar
½ tsp. cinnamon
Dash of nutmeg
Dash of ginger
2 slices whole-grain bread (use your favorite), cut into cubes
1 medium apple, pared, cored, and cubed (not peeled unless you prefer it peeled)

For the crumble topping:
1 ½ tbsp. all-purpose flour
1 tbsp. brown sugar
A spoonful of Better (recipe below) or butter
A sprinkle of cinnamon

1) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spray an 8.5” by 4.5” loaf pan with cooking spray.
2) To make the bready batter, crack the egg into a medium bowl and beat it lightly. Stir in the milk, vanilla, brown sugar, and spices. Add the bread and apple cubes and stir gently to coat. Let it stand for 2-3 minutes, or until the bread has absorbed all the liquid.
3) Meanwhile, prepare the crumble topping. In a small bowl, combine the flour, brown sugar, Better or butter, and cinnamon, mashing them together with a fork until crumbly.
4) Once the bread has absorbed all the liquid, spoon it into the prepared loaf pan. Sprinkle the crumble topping evenly over the bread mixture. Bake for 35-45 minutes or until nice and golden brown. Remove from the oven and allow the French toast to cool slightly. Serve warm.

Adapted from “Better” in Passionate Vegetarian by Crescent Dragonwagon
Makes ~1 cup

I believe this butter-oil combination is an old hippie trick for using butter in more moderate amounts. I have seen a similar recipe in Laurel’s Kitchen, a vegetarian cookbook that takes a very strict stance on butter and sugar. I’m a little more loosey-goosey with both, but I find Better to be incredibly useful to have on hand, so I’m happy to have found this recipe. Like I said above, Better is great for using butter straight from the fridge because it’s much softer; I absolutely love grilled cheese sandwiches made with Better. Better works really well in cooking, but it won’t always work in baking because baked goods, especially cookies, need the “solidness” of butter to turn out right. So if you use Better in your baking, consider yourself warned!

½ c. butter at room temperature
½ c. macademia nut oil or other mild, tasty oil
¼ tsp. salt

1) Add the butter, oil, and salt to the bowl of a food processor. Buzz until smooth, pausing the scrape down the sides as needed.
2) Scrape the mixture into serving ramekins or freezer-safe containers, depending on how fast you think you’ll go through your batch. I usually split my Better into two containers, one for the fridge and immediate use, the other for the freezer for later use. Better lasts a long time, but not indefinitely, in either the fridge or the freezer.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Consolation Prize

I wasn’t supposed to be here today.

By here, I mean cold, rainy Evanston, Illinois. I was supposed to be in warm, sunny North Carolina, soaking up good weather with good friends, wine glass in hand. But I, like thousands of others this week, find myself firmly and sadly land-bound, as American Airlines cancels hundreds of flights due to “inspections” and “federal regulations.” I really have no idea what the hell is happening this week, but whatever: all I know is that my vacation, which was planned months ago, disappeared without a peep from American Airlines or Travelocity. I know the flight cancellations have been all over the news, but is it really too much to expect at least an e-mail notification when your flight is cancelled well in advance of the trip?

Call me an unsatisfied customer. I am vowing that I will never fly American Airlines ever again. Ever. Again!

It was a rough night, frantically calling American Airlines’ customer support number over and over and over again. Not once did I get through to a real person, even when I used the trick revealed on this cool website. Last night, I managed to cancel my ticket and get a refund, but it was only this morning, after I had rebooked my trip for next week, that I felt relief. Maybe that sense of relief was really due to seventy-five dollars leaving my wallet to pay for my rescheduled trip?

In the midst of all this chaos, my friends once again revealed themselves to be the best thing that ever happened to me. Anne and James commiserated with me and helped distract me for a few hours. Shawn Marie double-checked my flight status and inspired me to call Matt, who prompted me to call Travelocity. After waiting on hold for half an hour, Travelocity refunded my ticket and THAT brought me enough relief to crawl into bed at midnight.

But really, despite the weather and my desire to see my dear friends in North Carolina, it’s not so bad being here. Despite anything I might say to the contrary, I love my life. I have everything I need, and thanks to e-mail, blogs, and cell phones, my North Carolinians are close at hand, even when we are separated by 600 miles. I wonder if the fact that Matt and I have to work so hard to see each other actually makes it that much sweeter when he’s within hugging distance. I certainly don’t take our visits for granted. But how nice would it be if I could just drop by for a visit without getting on a plane!

Salad is a poor consolation prize compared to luxuriating in the soft comfort of friendship, but you know, the black bean salad I’ve been eating all week is pretty damn tasty. A bed of crisp Romaine lettuce is topped with a delicious combination of black beans, sweet-tart Granny Smith apples, scallions, and cilantro. Add a few dabs of garlicky, tart sour cream dressing, and you have a meal just begging to be eaten while lounging on the porch, barefoot and happy. I, unfortunately, have to eat it inside while bundled up against the cold these days, but hey, what is life without hope that tomorrow will be better?

Black Bean Salad
Very loosely adapted from and inspired by Nigella Lawson’s “Mexican Chicken Salad with Black Bean Salsa” in Nigella Express
Makes 4-5 large servings

Fresh, crunchy, creamy, citrus-sparked—this salad is downright dreamy. It’s your call how much dressing you want to dollop on top; I tend to dollop with a light hand. That way, the flavors can sing without being drowned in dairy.

This salad is best eaten within a day or two of making the black bean-apple mixture; the apples do start to lose their crispness over time. So if you can, make it for yourself and a friend so that the leftovers don’t wither away in the fridge.

For the dressing:
½ c. sour cream
1 tbsp. lemon or lime juice
¼ tsp. of salt, or to taste
1 clove of garlic, pressed

For the salad:
1 15-oz. can black beans, drained and rinsed
2 Granny Smith apples, cored and cut into chunky matchsticks (not peeled)
2 scallions, snipped into small pieces
A handful of fresh cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped
1 tbsp. lemon or lime juice
8-10 big leaves of Romaine (2 per serving), sliced in half lengthwise and then cut widthwise into strips

1) Stir together the dressing ingredients in a small bowl. Set aside.
2) In a large bowl, gently toss together the black beans, the apples, the scallions, and the cilantro. Add the lemon or lime juice and toss again.
3) To assemble the salad plate by plate, place a handful or two of sliced Romaine leaves on a large plate. Top with a generous scoop or two of the black bean mixture. Dollop some dressing on top and serve. Alternatively, if assembling the salad by plateful is too tedious, place the dressing, black bean mixture, and Romaine on the table in separate bowls and let each diner assemble their own salad. Store leftovers in the fridge in tightly sealed containers.

Monday, April 7, 2008

To Live This Way is not for the Meek

About a month ago, I announced my plunge into the world of dating. It’s been a busy month! True to form, there have been a series of rejections, but I also exchanged messages with a handful of men. I even met two of them in the flesh and happily enough, their on-line personas were consistent with the live versions. I’m thinking this on-line dating thing might turn out to be quite the clever move on my part.

I’ll admit it: I’m a tricky one to date. At least, it’s tricky trying to date me at the start. My friend Shawn Marie calls me a heartbreaker. Really? That seems a bit harsh. But maybe she’s right. I have all these ideas about how a guy ought to go about trying to date me. Try hard, but don’t try too hard. Be bold, but don’t be an ass. You can touch me, but don’t be too invasive about it at first. Be honest with me, but impress me. Be confident but not arrogant. Be smart but not snooty.

My goodness. I’m not sure I’d want to date me with all these instructions! Maybe I AM too picky!

The thing is, I’m not likely to change my ways any time soon. I don’t need a man. I like men, but I know I can care of myself. I also have these hermit-like tendencies that compel me to spend time by myself, away from others. I really need that time alone, and perhaps because I like being by myself, it’s too easy for me to dismiss perfectly nice men who want to date me.

But I had a wonderful first date on Saturday with Naperville Dude, who I so unceremoniously introduced weeks ago. Naperville Dude, who we shall now call Joe, is kind, smart, easy-going, and very, very funny. He had me doubled-over in laughter at one point, and it was in that moment, driving up to Evanston along Lake Shore Drive, that I realized I definitely want to see him again. Because a guy who can make me laugh that hard while driving and not crash the car is a keeper.

I didn’t mean to tell Joe about Matt so soon. I had been feeling uneasy about the situation for weeks. Before I began flirting with polyamory, it was essential for me to know that Matt is not monogamous. Joe and I hardly know each other, so I thought maybe I could get to know him first before sharing the details with him. But over hot chocolate at Starbucks, the conversation meandered in just the right direction for me to explain my dating goals. And now that he knows, I feel relieved. I have nothing to hide, and while I never tried to hide the truth, I also know that most people do not see polyamory as a desirable lifestyle choice. I know, because I was once one of those people. But I can’t pretend to be something I’m not, and the last thing I want to do is risk what could be a lovely relationship by hiding something that is, to me, a wonderful friendship that has made me extraordinarily happy in the most ordinary of ways.

To his credit, if Joe was shaken by this revelation, he concealed it well. I mean, he didn’t end the date on the spot. I feared he might not be entirely comfortable with polyamory, and my fears were confirmed, but Joe’s voice lacked the conviction that I would expect from one who is adamant about monogamy. I suspect that real-life polyamory is a foreign concept to him, that he has never enountered one like me. I have no idea what he will decide is best for himself. I only hope he is able to make that decision without too much heartache.

I am aware that in choosing Matt, I am choosing not to be with some really great men, men who believe firmly in the power of monogamy. Perhaps I am seduced by the happiness that Matt exudes, the balance of contentment and excitement that he has found in life. Heaven knows I am seduced by Matt the man, this person whose hug makes me melt with joy, whose presence I carry around with me in my heart during all the time we are apart. I don’t choose to love him. I just love him.

Do I want too much? I think not. I want the simplest of things: love and friendship. I just happen to want them from two men, one of whom has proven himself dedicated to my happiness. As for the other man…well, I’m waiting breathlessly for him to reveal himself. Perhaps we have already met.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Without a Doubt

It’s a scary and exciting thing when your ideas about love and friendship start shifting. It starts with a conversation between friends, a few questions here, some not-so-subtle answers there. The imagined boundaries between friendship and romance start to dissolve. Love deepens, intensifying the connection and making you wonder what took so long. All along, there is an on-going dialogue about what all of this means and how can a friendship bridge the 600-mile gap between lovers.

Matt comes to visit these days, it is as if he never left. There’s no pretense, no awkwardness, no uncertainty. The love I feel for him is warm and comfortable. It’s easy being with him. I don’t even mind him complaining regularly about how damn cold Chicago is because his willingness to be here is enough. Complain all you want, my heat-loving friend! I’ll bake scones and we’ll drink tea together.

It’s nice to know that even as life speeds forward, it is possible to pause and say hello, take walks, hold hands, and linger over each meal together. Whenever friends ask about Matt’s visits, I’m afraid they sound terribly boring: “Oh, you know, we talked and cooked. We sat around and went for walks. He graded papers while I washed dishes. It was quite lovely.” And that’s the truth: his visits are always lovely. We aren’t frantically rushing around, trying to do things. We just settle into our friendship and reconnect. It’s wonderful.

Our bellies think it’s wonderful, too. I have always loved cooking for Matt; he has a way of appreciating food and my efforts to feed him that brings out the best in me. It’s only recently, however, that I have come to appreciate that cooking with him is just as much fun as cooking for him. During his most recent visit this past weekend, we ate so many delicious things that I can hardly believe he was only here for a handful of days. His lemony, garlicky, crunchy sauteed kale and my lemony stew filled with carrots, potatoes, artichoke hearts, and white beans. Fluffy-crumbed scones topped with a sweet cap of glaze. Endless cups of tea. But the crowning glory of this visit was, without a doubt, Matt’s calzones.

Calzones, he informed me, are vehicles for massive cheese consumption. Highly skeptical of my idea of filling pizza dough with vegetables and calling it a calzone, Matt quickly convinced me that he should be the head chef of our calzone project and I should be his assistant. I daresay, it might be the best decision I have ever made. These calzones were top-notch. Thick, chewy, homemade pizza crust gently surrounded an eclectic, delicious combination of ingredients. Silky, sweetly caramelized onions. Salty Kalamata olives. Tender artichoke hearts. And three, count ‘em, THREE different kinds of cheese! Shredded Fontina. Sweet, fresh mozzarella. Creamy ricotta. Every bite of these calzones was unique: an olive here, a dollop of ricotta there, slivers of onion mixed with tangy Fontina and meltingly soft artichokes. Matt and I oohed and aahed over them, pleasantly smug at our off-the-cuff collaboration in the kitchen.

In a week, for the first time ever, I will be visiting him on his home turf. I’m hopeful he’ll put me to work in his kitchen so we can continue our successful collaborations. Or, at the very least, he won’t mind if I hover at his side while he chops, stirs, and eats caramelized onions straight out of the pot.

To share Matt’s recipe for calzones with you, I’ve broken it down into two parts: making the dough and prepping the calzones after you’ve got the dough going. This recipe is pretty loose on purpose; Matt cooks a lot by feel and he eats half the ingredients while cooking to make sure he really knows what he’s mixing together. My guess is that as long as you don’t go too heavy on the flavor-loaded olives and Fontina cheese while assembling these babies, then you will end up with delightful calzones. We ate them with a side salad of baby spinach and fresh strawberries, washed everything down with glasses of red wine, and patted our bellies with satisfaction.

Pizza Dough for Calzones and Other Good Things
Adapted from “Pizzettas” in Mollie Katzen’s Vegetable Heaven
Makes enough dough for four large calzones or two pizzas

1 c. lukewarm water (should feel neither warm nor cool; yeast does best in water that’s about the same temperature as your body)
2 tsp. active dry yeast
A pinch of sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 tbsp. mild vegetable oil, such as canola
½ c. whole wheat flour
3-4 c. unbleached all-purpose white flour (you may not need a full 4 cups here)
Cooking spray

1) Pour the water into a medium-sized mixing bowl. Sprinkle the yeast into the water, add the sugar, and stir to dissolve everything. Let this mixture stand for about 5 minutes.
2) Into the yeast, stir in the whole-wheat flour and ½ cup of the all-purpose flour along with the salt and oil. Beat this mixture for about 5 minutes with a spoon. If you pause for a moment here, you should see little bubbles coming up through the mixture; bubbles mean your yeast are alive! Hurray!
3) Begin adding the remaining flour, ½ cup at a time. Mix thoroughly between each addtion. You will start to feel the dough go from liquid to solid. As the dough becomes too thick to stir, scrape it out of the bowl and onto a floured surface like a countertop. Begin kneading the dough, adding flour as necessary to keep it from becoming a sticky mess in your hands. The goal is to add just enough flour to make a knead-able dough without making the dough dry or tough. It should be a bit sticky but not so sticky as to be impossible to handle with your hands. I like to knead the dough for a few minutes once I’m done adding flour, as I consider dough-kneading one of the principle pleasures of working with yeast.
4) Once the dough is kneaded, spray a clean bowl with a bit of cooking spray. Gather the dough up into a ball, place it in the bowl, and drape a clean dishtowel over the bowl and let it sit in a warm place for about an hour. The dough should rise nicely during this time, roughly doubling in size.
5) Dust your fist with a bit of flour and punch down the dough. For calzones, divide it into four equal pieces. For pizzas, divide it into two equal pieces. Knead each piece for a few minutes, loosely form the pieces into balls, and let the dough rest for about ten minutes. This rest will make it easier to stretch the dough into the right shape. Prep the dough as desired for your recipe. Instructions for calzone-assembly are given in the recipe below.

Matt’s Calzones

1 recipe Pizza Dough for Calzones and Other Good Things (above)
1 perfect yellow onion
Olive oil (roughly 1-4 tbsp.)
1 14.5-oz. can artichoke hearts
Handful of best-quality Kalamata olives, pitted and chopped into small pieces
Shredded Fontina cheese, to taste
Small slices of fresh mozzarella, to taste
Ricotta cheese, to taste
Cooking spray
Spicy Italian seasoning, such as Chicago Deep Dish Pizza Pizzaz from
The Spice House in Evanston, IL, to taste
Marinara sauce to taste (out of a can or a jar; pick your favorite flavor)

1) Get the pizza dough going first. It will need to rise for about an hour, which gives you plenty of time for the next step: caramelizing the onions!
2) Chop the onion in half, remove the ends, and then chop the remainder into ¼-inch slices. Discard the tiny pieces from the center, or core, of the onion, as these pieces will end up burning rather than caramelizing during the cooking. Into a large pot (preferably not non-stick), pour enough oil to coat the bottom and heat the pot over medium heat. Add some of the onions to this pot, tossing them in oil. Add more onions and toss, adding more oil as needed to make sure the onions are well-coated. Repeat adding onions and oil until everything is in the pot and cooking. Cook for a few minutes over medium heat, stirring frequently and checking to make sure the onions are well-coated in oil and not sticking to the bottom of the pan. Turn the heat down to medium low or low and cook the onions for 30-60 minutes, depending on how much time you have. Stir them frequently (Matt recommends every minute or so), scraping up the tasty bits on the bottom.
3) While the onions are going, drain the artichoke hearts. Chop them in half, removing any rough, unappetizing outer layers. Place them in a bowl. Place the rest of the ingredients in individual bowls to make assembling the calzones easy. Feel free to sample any and all of your ingredients as a quality-control measure.
4) Once the onions and the pizza dough are ready, you are ready to assemble the calzones. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Spray a large baking sheet lightly with cooking spray. Taking one piece of dough, place it on a clean, lightly floured surface and use a rolling pin or a drinking glass to roll it out into an oval roughly eight inches in length and 4-5 inches wide. Place the oval on the prepped baking sheet. On one half of the oval, fill the calzone by layering some caramelized onions, a few pieces of artichoke, a scattering of olives, a few sprinkles of Fontina, a few slices of mozzarella, and, finally, a dollop or two of ricotta. If your taste in calzones runs toward the cheesy, like Matt’s, use lots of cheese in the filling. Sprinkle Italian seasoning on the unfilled side of the calzone and fold it over the filled half to form a half-moon shape. Use your fingers to pinch the calzone shut. Repeat this calzone-assembly process with the remaining three pieces of dough to make four filled calzones, giving the calzones plenty of space on the baking sheet. Use a spoon to drizzle olive oil on the top of the calzones, smoothing it over the dough with the back of the spoon. Sprinkle a little more Italian seasoning on top if you like.
5) Bake the calzones at 400 degrees F for 15-20 minutes, or until the dough is nicely golden brown on the outside. I find that 15 minutes is a little underdone for my taste, but 20 minutes might be too much. So take a peak after 15 minutes; if the dough is looking fairly pale, give it another few minutes, checking frequently.
6) Serve hot from the oven, passing around the marinara sauce at the table for dipping. Since the calzones will be piping hot, it’s nice to have the marinara sauce at room temperature to make each bite of calzone just cool enough to eat.