Friday, May 30, 2008

First Things First

Geez, don’t you just hate how I spend so much time talking about my love life and not enough time talking about the food? I know: your belly is way more important than my romantic encounters. In fact, my friend Matt, whose attentions to my belly often lead to our romantic enounters, said it best:

“I wouldn't say it's a huge ego trip to read about myself on your blog. You say beautiful things about me and lots of other people, it's true, so I like it. But look at it from the lover's perspective: nowhere is it so clear that we are all second to the food than on your blog!”

So there. The food comes first around here.

But is it really so bad if my foodly motivations come from a place other than hunger? Take The Peanut Butter Boy for example. My friendly affection for him has motivated me to go to a place I seldom visit: uncharted breakfast territory. When it comes to the first meal of the day, I’m a creature of habit. I know what works for me, and what works is usually a big bowl of Barbara’s Bakery Shredded Oats cereal, slathered in a few spoonfuls of peanut butter, dusted with some cinnamon, and then gently submerged in lowfat milk. The only real question most days is this: Chai Latte or Mexican Coffee? (Both are delicious—this decision is a tough one for me.)

It’s hard for me to forgo this breakfast because I’m so smitten with my cereal. To my mind, it has just the right amount of crunch and sweetness, along with all the good things that whole-grain cereal should provide, like fiber and satisfaction. But for The Peanut Butter Boy, I shall deprive myself for the sake of experimentation. It turns out, though, that in the case of this particular experiment, one that involves peanut butter, peaches, and yogurt, “deprive” is an awfully strong word. In fact, it’s not even appropriate. There’s nothing remotely depriving about having a Peanut Butter-Peach Breakfast Parfait first thing in the morning. In fact, I’d say it’s downright decadent. Layers of yogurt are topped with gently stewed peaches and a few tablespoons of Peanut Butter-Glazed Granola. While the individual ingredients are awfully tasty on their own, the synergy that happens when they come together is magic. The other nice thing about breakfast parfaits is that they can be made ahead of time—layer everything in pretty glasses the night before, cover the tops with a bit of cling wrap, and pop them in the fridge. The next morning, get your coffee or tea brewing, reach into the fridge for a glass, pop a spoon in it, and boom! Breakfast is served.

I’m presenting today’s recipe with order of operations in mind. You’ll need to whip up a batch of Peanut Butter-Glazed Granola first, and then you can assemble two breakfast parfaits. Once you’ve made the granola, you’ll have plenty for parfaits and general snacking. A kitchen should always have some fresh granola stashed away in a cupboard—yes, it’s really that essential for happiness. Trust me on this one.

Peanut Butter-Glazed Granola
Adapted from this recipe
Makes ~5 cups

Have you ever smelled peanut butter and cinnamon baking together? Oh, so wonderful! The nutty, spicy fragrance of this granola is reason enough to bake a batch of it right now.

Cooking spray
3 cups rolled oats
½ cup sweetened shredded coconut
½ cup unsalted, dry-roasted peanuts, coarsely chopped
½ tsp. cinnamon
6 tbsp. mild honey
¼ cup well-stirred, natural creamy peanut butter
1 tsp. real vanilla extract

1) Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F. Spray a large rimmed baking sheet, such as a jelly roll pan, with cooking spray.
2) In a large bowl, mix together the oats, coconut, chopped peanuts, and cinnamon.
3) In a small saucepan, gently heat the honey, peanut butter, and vanilla over low heat. Stir frequently to melt the peanut butter into the honey, making a nice smooth glaze.
4) Pour the peanut butter glaze over the oat mixture, stirring it into the oats to coat everything evenly.
5) Spread the granola evenly on the prepped baking sheet. Bake for 20 minutes, stirring everything around halfway through the baking.
6) When the granola is done baking, stir it all around again. Cool granola in its pan on a rack. Try not to gobble it down all at once. Store in an airtight container. This granola makes a mighty fine cereal or snack, with or without milk.

Peanut Butter-Peach Breakfast Parfait
Makes 2 parfaits (2 servings)

This parfait has a lot going for it. Not only is it beautiful (aren’t all fruit parfaits just gorgeous?), but it’s filling and packed with protein and fiber. But most importantly, it’s a sublimely tasty way to greet the day. I like to pair it with half of an onion bagel topped with some Neufchatel cheese and something caffeinated to drink.

Oh, and the Peanut Butter-Peach Breakfast Parfait is an official contestant in The Great Peanut Butter Exhibition #2: Breakfast! Three cheers for breakfast!

1 generous cup of frozen peaches
2 tbsp. brown sugar
1 1/3 cups plain yogurt (I like Brown Cow lowfat plain yogurt)
~12 tbsp. (~3/4 cup) Peanut Butter-Glazed Granola (recipe above)

1) Chop the frozen peaches into bite-sized pieces. (Even though the fruit is frozen, it should be soft enough to cut with a sharp knife.) Place the peaches and brown sugar in a small saucepan. Heat over medium-low heat, stirring frequently (almost constantly) until the peaches are thawed, warmed, and a little juicy. Allow the peaches to cool for a minute or two.
2) Assemble the parfaits! (I love this part.) Find two pretty, wide glasses. Place two tablespoons of granola in the bottom of each. In each glass, spoon 1/3 cup of yogurt over the granola, followed by ¼ cup of peaches (including their syrup). Repeat the granola-yogurt-peach layering and finally top with two tablespoons of granola.
3) Eat immediately or wrap the tops of the glasses with some cling wrap and store in the fridge to eat later.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

For the Love of Words

I have always loved words.

I’ve been enamored by them, and this process of stringing them together into sentences, stories, and books, for as long as I can remember. If it sounds like I’m exaggerating, consider this: when I was about four years old, I was really irritated that I couldn’t spell. I wanted to write stories about dogs and peaches and toys (you know, things that interest four-year-olds), but I had no idea how to spell peach. I could say it just fine, but how was I supposed to write about peaches if I couldn’t spell p-e-a-c-h-e-s? Then I had a stroke of genius: I would just sound it out! Peach became peech (or something like that) until my mother intervened and told me I couldn’t get away with spelling things improperly. That’s one of the first times I ever remember being disciplined by her, and despite my four-year-old anger, that lesson has stuck with me. I follow the rules when it comes to spelling.

Luckily, my mother was more supportive than not when it came to my writing. Her love, and the love of a wondeful teacher, Mrs. Cheryl Patterson, gently guided me as I dreamed of being an author of fabulous literature. I loved inventing characters: picking out their names, imagining their appearance, trying to hear their voices. Unfortunately, I was far less interested in the actual plot of my novel, and as college loomed near, I started thinking seriously about science. I kept thinking seriously about science, all the way into my present-day graduate student career at Northwestern University. Today I’m a Ph.D. candidate, studying biological clocks in fruit flies. Science is a fickle mistress, continually testing the resolve of all who try to unlock her mysteries. She’s been good to me, but it hasn’t been an easy road. My pursuit of science has shaped my life in countless ways, but a year ago, I found myself longing to write again. But this time, I wouldn’t be inventing characters for plotless stories. This time, I’d be writing about food.

And hence, Life, Love, and Food was born.

I was so timid that first day that I sat down to say something here, in this cyberspace kitchen of mine. I had no idea what I wanted to say, but I had a kernel of faith that there were things I wanted to say, even if no one else was listening. So I started writing for me, and I didn’t worry about the audience. I assumed that there wouldn’t be one. But now I know that you, dear reader, are out there. I may or may not know who you are, or why you read my words, or if you take my recipes with you into the kitchen. That’s okay. Life, Love, and Food is as much about the words as it is about the food, and whether you enjoy one, the other, or both, I am happy that you choose to spend a moment with me. Your comments make my day! So whether you are a devoted reader or you just stop by occasionally to see what’s cooking, thank you. This blog, wordy and pictureless as it may be, means a lot to me and to have an audience, however small, makes the writing that much sweeter.

Mocha Ricotta Muffins
Adapted from the recipe for “Chocolate Ricotta Muffins” in Mollie Katzen’s Sunlight Café
Makes 12 large muffins

I wanted to bring you a really special recipe to celebrate Life, Love, and Food’s birthday. This muffin recipe has been floating around in my repertoire for a long time now, but I was stumped about what to say! Perhaps I’ll let the muffins speak for themselves: these babies are Delicious with a capital D. I’m enamored in general by the ricotta muffins that Mollie Katzen invented for her book, Sunlight Café, but these muffins, a tweaked version of the Chocolate Ricotta Muffins, are my absolute favorite. Rich, chocolatey, soft, and a little dense, these muffins are heavenly when they are still warm with the oven’s sweet breath. More often than not, though, I eat them for an afternoon snack at work, paired with a piece of fresh fruit and maybe a cup of tea. They freeze really well, so I can bake a dozen on a lazy Sunday and have a stash of snacks for the next week.

As though the taste alone weren’t reason enough to make these muffins, they actually have something to offer nutritionally! Whole-wheat pastry flour, ricotta cheese, and eggs provide hits of fiber and protein, and two forms of chocolate (cocoa powder and chocolate chips) lace antioxidants into the batter (which, by the way, is pretty darn tasty—and possibly addictive. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!). Delicious and functional—these muffins know how to multi-task!

Cooking spray
1 c. whole-wheat pastry flour
1 1/3 c. all-purpose flour*
¾ tsp. salt
2 tsp. baking powder
½ c. unsweetened cocoa powder
1 c. brown sugar
½ tsp. cinnamon
½ c. semi-sweet miniature chocolate morsels
1 c. ricotta cheese (I use lowfat ricotta, but Mollie recommends the full-fat whole-milk ricotta. It’s up to you and your tastebuds.)
2 large eggs
½ c. cold strongly brewed coffee
½ + 1/3 c. milk
1 tsp. real vanilla extract
4 tbsp. (half a stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly

1) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly spray a standard 12-muffin-cup tin with cooking spray. My muffins overflow a little bit (in a good way), so I also spray the outer rim of each muffin cup for easier muffin removal after they are baked.
2) In a large mixing bowl, combine the flours, salt, baking powder, cocoa powder, brown sugar, cinnamon, and mini chocolate morsels.
3) In a medium mixing bowl, place the ricotta cheese. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the coffee, milk, and vanilla, mixing to combine thoroughly.
4) Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients. Pour the ricotta mixture and the melted butter into the well. Mix until the dry ingredients are moistened, making sure to stir from the bottom of the bowl. As with all muffins, try not to overmix; a few lumps are okay.
5) Scoop about ½ cup of batter into each prepared muffin cup. If you have any leftover batter, just distribute it equally among the dozen muffin cups. When I make these muffins, I end up filling each cup to the top.
6) Bake at 350 degrees F for 20-25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of a muffin comes out clean. Remove the pan from the oven and allow the muffins to cool on a rack, still in their tin, for a few minutes.
7) Remove the muffins from the tin and cool on a rack. Mollie recommends that you wait at least 30 minutes before serving, but if you sample a muffin a few minutes early, your secret is safe with me.
About freezing: The muffins freeze beautifully. I usually thaw them for a few hours at room temperature and then eat.

*A word about the flours: I’ve made these muffins with straight all-purpose flour, straight whole-wheat flour, and a blend of whole-wheat pastry flour and refined all-purpose flour. The whole-wheat variety is a little heavier than its whiter counterpart. The combination of whole-wheat pastry and all-purpose flours is my favorite, but feel free to play with the whole-grain content of these muffins to suit your taste.

Monday, May 26, 2008


The other day, I was getting myself all gussied up for a date with Joe, my local boy du jour, and in an effort to compensate for my lack of height and too-long jeans, I donned an old pair of heels. They looked great: black and close-toed with just the right amount of heel for my jeans, and they made that wonderful click-clack click-clack rhythm as I walked around. So off I went to the grocery store for some rations, feeling like quite the fox. I mean, who goes grocery shopping in heels? Certainly not me—on any other day, that is.

My grocery stores (yes, plural—and I shop at both: Whole Foods and Jewel-Osco) are only about six city blocks away from my apartment, so it’s not a bad walk, even in heels. But by the time I was home again, my shoes were falling apart. The front part that covers the toes was peeling back its black cover, revealing the greyish fabric underneath. I really wanted to wear those heels on my date, and they are my only pair, so I pressed on, reasoning that my jeans, for the most part, covered the damage. It’s shabby chic, I told myself. You’re a writer and a graduate student. It’s hip to wear your clothes to shreds. It’s practically part of your identity.

Maybe. Or maybe it’s a sign of time poverty and lack of interest in shopping. I’ve never been particularly trendy; honestly, I’m kind of a square. I just don’t care enough to keep up on trends. Even so, the idea of owning and wearing shredded clothing does not appeal to me, but now that I’ve been in graduate school for five years and counting, it seems much of my wardrobe has fallen into disrepair. I lack the time, desire, and cash to replace it all at once. I guess that makes me unintentionally trendy—that is, of course, assuming that shredded jeans and heels are stylish at all. I’m so clueless that I have no idea!

Stylish or not, I wonder if shredded heels might have an allure of their own, a certain dirty glamour that speaks of late nights and city life and boys du jour. These shoes have character; they whisper desire and sex and sneaking home in the wee hours of the morning, reeking of sweat and stale perfume. Though I may be the owner, these shoes speak of a life that I rarely lead, which makes me want to hold onto them in case they, like a raggedy pair of Cinderella’s glass slippers, might turn me into a woman I can only fantasize about being.

So I’m no sex goddess. But I might be a kitchen goddess. As you probably know, the quality of being shredded is highly appreciated in the kitchen. Shredded cheese? Put it on this here pizza. Shredded zucchini? Throw it in this zucchini bread batter. But the most brilliant innovation in shredding that I’ve seen in a long time is shredding carrots before adding them to soup. Carrots are one of my all-time favorite vegetables and a key component in most of my vegetable soups. But carrots, since they are so hard, need a long cooking time to tenderize in soup. That’s fine if you’ve got plenty of time, but wouldn’t it be nice to be able to cook soup carrots faster? That’s where shredding helps. Since shredded carrots are so small and thin, they cook quickly, making it possible to pull together a batch of soup in thirty minutes or less, depending on what other goodies you add. Though I might eventually replace my shredded jeans and my shredded shoes, I’ll be shredding stuff in the kitchen from here on out. Trendy indeed.

Saturday Lunch Soup with Orzo Pasta
Inspired by the Vegetable Soup Variation for “Simple Garlic Broth” in Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home
Makes ~4-5 big bowls of soup

Homey and delicious, this soup is Saturday Lunch Soup to me because I like to make it for lunch after simmering a fresh batch of vegetable stock from my saved vegetable scraps. Saturday morning is just perfect for stock-making, the sort of activity that reconnects me to my cooking self after a long week in the lab. Brothy and satisfying, this soup is like a chicken noodle soup for vegetarians—minus the chicken part. But a handful of orzo pasta, tidbits of vegetables, and the delicious flavors of garlic and sage make this soup utterly slurp-able.

Good stock is essential for this soup: its flavor is front and center here. Because I’m passionate about soup, and because I don’t always have homemade stock on hand, I like the cubes of Vegetable Bouillon from The Organic Gourmet for this and other soup recipes. These bouillon cubes make a delicious stock. Keeping them on hand means that I’ve got the means to make soup whenever the mood strikes. Which is pretty much every Saturday.

8 cups mild, tasty vegetable stock
1 tbsp. olive oil
½ onion, diced
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed with the handle of your chopping knife
1-2 fresh sage leaves, finely chopped
1-2 large carrots, peeled and coarsely shredded
1 generous cup of frozen green beans
½ cup uncooked orzo pasta
A splash or two of red wine vinegar (to taste)*
Salt to taste
Pepper to taste

1) In a large soup pot, begin heating the stock to simmering. Move onto the next steps while the stock is heating up.
2) Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the chopped onion and saute for several minutes. Add the crushed garlic cloves and saute for another minute.
3) Add the onion mixture to the soup pot. Take a ladleful of hot stock, add it to the (now-empty) skillet, swish it around a bit, and then add it back to the soup pot. This process is known as deglazing. It helps get all the oil and tasty bits into the soup!
4) Add the sage, grated carrots, and green beans to the simmering stock. Bring the whole thing to a boil, then turn the heat down to low and cook for about ten minutes.
5) Add the orzo, stir, cover, and simmer for about nine minutes or until the orzo is tender. Test for doneness by tasting some orzo from the pot.
6) Taste the broth. If desired, add a glug or two of red wine vinegar as well as some salt and pepper. Adjust the seasonings until the broth tastes just right to you. Serve in nice deep soup bowls.

*I do highly recommend adding a splash or two of red wine vinegar, even if you aren’t big on sour stuff. The vinegar adds a wonderful depth of flavor to the broth; here, it doesn’t end up tasting sour, just full of flavor.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

A Brush with Fame!

When vacationing in a place as beautiful as North Carolina, it’s hard to tell the story in one fell swoop. And maybe that’s the way it should be: the stories should unfold over time, much like how the layers in a really delicious glass of wine reveal themselves gradually, gently. I like letting the stories tell themselves without my wrestling them into a “How I Spent My Summer Vacation”-type essay. How unlike actual vacation those essays are, all crammed and detailed and action-packed! An actual vacation, to my mind, is slow and sensual, a bit lazy and totally delicious. And, hopefully, a little surprising as well. The one thing I was truly craving, besides time with Matt and Owl, was a change of scenery, which is really the essence of surprise. Take me out of my element, and put me in a place with different people and different things to see and do. And please, please make it a place warmer than Chicago in April!

North Carolina did all those things for me, and more. There were the turtles that Matt and I saw while walking in the woods. A giant SPLASH and minutes later, the biggest turtle I’d ever seen crawled up onto a log in the river, accompanied by a second, smaller turtle. Were they friends? Lovers? With turtles, as with people, these things are hard to tell. These two turtles joined two other turtles on the same log, and for as long as we stood there watching them, these four turtles sat perfectly still, sunning themselves in the middle of the river on the most beautiful day.

I was pretty turtle-like myself. It’s such a blessing when the most taxing thing you do all day is shower and get dressed. Everyday life ceases to grind away at you, and you feel free, light, full of happiness. And then something amazing happens, something that just does not happen every day. You meet someone famous.

Now, I’m not normally starstruck. I care little for Hollywood stars; my celebrities are cookbook authors and other food bloggers, people who are well outside the range of Hollywood fame. I’m deliberately unplugged from television these days, and my attention span is too short for me to be a regular at the movie theater. But through a friend, I got to meet the star of my Corner of Shameless Promotion, the heart-stealing, lullaby-murmuring Dan Cohen. And it was awesome.

Perhaps a disclaimer is appropriate here: Dan is famous to me. I listen to his CD over and over again, singing along with him while I chop onions and wash kale. I swear, he really does sound better when I sing back-up! He croons, I swoon. We’re very happy together. But—silly me—I was a little too starstruck to be clever and witty when fate presented me with a chance to meet Dan by phone. I actually nagged him for not having performed in Chicago yet! I told him I love his single, how it’s one of my very favorite songs on the album. And we chatted a little bit about my work, life in a research lab, and the joys of being on vacation. That was that.

What I wanted to tell Dan, if I’d had my wits about me, is that I would totally cook for him if he actually made it to Chicago. And if he happened to have his guitar with him, and he happened to play it for me while I made something yummy for dinner, well, who knows what mischief might unfold? I might be tempted to do something wild like, oh, I don’t know, make him dessert. Yes, dessert—that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

My secret source of all Dan-related knowledge tells me Dan’s a big fan of that lovely yellow fruit, the lemon. Dan likes his food to pack a nice sour wallop. I’m a little more timid about the sour stuff, but I do make a delicious white bean stew laced with a hefty dose of lemon. And for a guy like Dan, I’d buy a few extra lemons and serve it with lemon wedges on the side, along with homemade breadsticks and maybe a green salad. It’s a perfect early spring meal, a time that calls for hot food that manages to awaken the palate and refresh the spirit. Those lemons, and Dan, really do make a girl feel good.

Rustic Lemony White Bean Stew
Adapted from “Artichoke and Lima Bean Ragout in Lemon-Garlic Sauce” in Passionate Vegetarian by Crescent Dragonwagon
Makes ~5-7 servings

I really can’t say enough good things about this stew. The spirit of the original recipe is here in full force, but I’ve adapted it to my tastes (which, apparently, do not include lima beans). Bite-sized chunks of carrot and potato lend it a rustic, peasanty quality, while artichokes, white wine, and fresh lemon juice make it special. Soft white beans transform this stew into an entrée, the star of the meal. I served it to Matt not too long ago and he expressed such profound love for the white beans that I started to feel jealous of my own cooking! Strange indeed. But I understand his love because I share it. Consider serving this stew the next time you have a famous musician to feed or you have a lover you want to impress. Or just make it for yourself and enjoy the pleasures of solitude.

1 tbsp. olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 rib of celery, chopped
5-6 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
3 ¾ c. mild vegetable stock, preferably homemade
½ c. dry white wine
1 tbsp. tomato paste
4-5 carrots, scrubbed, peeled if desired, and chopped into 1-inch lengths
2 large, not-too-starchy potatoes (such as red potatoes), scrubbed, peeled, and chopped into ¾-inch dice
1 lemon, zested and juiced
1 tbsp. butter, olive oil, or Better
1 tbsp. all-purpose flour
1 16-oz. can white beans, such as Great Northern beans, drained and rinsed
2 14.5-oz. cans artichoke hearts, drained, each heart cut in half
Salt and pepper to taste
Handful of minced fresh parsley leaves, optional

1) Heat 1 tbsp. olive oil in a nonstick soup pot over medium heat. Add the chopped onion and saute until it starts to soften, about 4 minutes. Lower the heat slightly and add the celery and about 2 tsp. of the chopped garlic. Continue sauteing for another 2 minutes or so.
2) Add 2 cups of the vegetable stock, the wine, and the tomato paste. Stir until the tomato paste blends into the stock. Raise the heat to a boil, and then add the carrots and potatoes. Lowe the heat to a simmer. Partially cover the pot and simmer for about 20-25 minutes or until the potatoes are almost (but not quite) tender.
3) About 20 minutes into simmering the potato mixture, heat the butter (or olive oil or Better—your choice here) in a nonstick skillet with high sides over medium heat. Whisk in the flour, stirring constantly, for about 2 minutes and then slowly and gradually, whisk in the remaining 1 ¾ cups of stock, the remainder of the garlic, the lemon zest, and the lemon juice. Cook, stirring constantly, for about 1 minute. While you are stirring here, everything should eventually come together into a smooth, brothy sauce. Once that happens, scrape the sauce into the simmering potato mixture and stir well to blend.
4) Add the white beans and the artichoke hearts to the stew. Stir, taste for seasonings, and add salt and/or pepper as desired. Eat a potato to check its tenderness; if it’s tender, then the stew is done cooking. Heat gently if the stew isn’t hot enough for your taste, and when it’s good and hot, serve in deep bowls, sprinkled with some fresh parsley if you like.

A Little Spring Cleaning

Things look a little different around here these days! I just love when a bit of cleaning and reorganizing makes a space feel fresh and new again; I am dying to treat my pantry to some spring cleaning. It occurred to me while perusing some new-to-me blogs that my blog roll was lacking a certain personality. I felt that it failed to reflect how I actually read and use those blogs. My cooking philosophy is about three-quarters health and a quarter hedonism—the perfect balance, in my mind. I wanted my blog roll to include some blogs that present fresh, interesting ideas for eating well and living healthfully. The blog roll is intentionally short; I want to present you with some leads to other food bloggers, who, in turn, have their own blog rolls. We’re just one big blogging, eating community. And I’m blessed to be a part of it.

A few of the highlights in my new and improved blog roll. Tina and Kath both keep (more-or-less) daily diaries of what they’re cooking and eating, so their blogs get down and dirty with the details of healthful eating. Tina seems to have a knack for unusual and delicious-sounding cookies that go beyond the usual butter-eggs-flour-sugar; I can’t wait to try her Peanut Butter Date Cookies and her Coconut Date Cookies. Kath’s blog gets me itching to eat a bowl of oatmeal and then go for a run. Her Oatmeal Brulee sounds like a wonderful way to start the day. I’ll report back if it’s a keeper for me.

Finally, on the decadent side of things, I keep returning to Molly’s Orangette for her lush descriptions of good food and good living. Her blog contains some of the best food writing that I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. Smitten Kitchen is an all-around useful source of recipes, including the delightful Stewed Lentils and Tomatoes over which I swooned not too long ago. And while the food comes first around here, a truly spectacular meal includes a glass of wine that enhances the meal and the mood. Asmodeus of The Caveat Emptyer Wine List puts his formidable palate to work for all of us, tasting and describing a wide variety of wines from all over the world. Asmodeus is the anti-wine snob; he’s all about teaching us wine newbies how to enjoy his favorite beverage. Thankfully, he tries wines that even us poor graduate students can afford. It’s wine-writing for the masses! Asmodeus also happens to be a friend of mine, so if you stop by his blog, tell him I said hi.

Happy Spring, everyone! May this season rejuvenate and energize your mind, body, spirit, and kitchen.

Monday, May 12, 2008

On the Virtues of Being Single-Minded

Have you noticed how crazy we Americans are about multi-tasking? It’s all the rage: the more things you can do at one time, the more god-like you are. Read a book while listening to your Ipod while doing laps on the track at the gym? Piece of cake. But not for me.

I am a terrible, terrible multi-tasker. I can barely watch over two things happening at one time, which I suppose makes me a dual-tasker at best. At work, I am expected to multi-task, especially since molecular biology has a lot of “set it up and wait”-type protocols. I do my best to be efficient, but believe me, I deserve no gold stars for multi-tasking. I wonder, though, if multi-tasking is really over-rated. I mean, how many times have you had a conversation with someone who is clearly thinking about something else? How many mistakes have been made by people whose attention was divided just a little too much? How many car accidents have been caused by drivers talking on cell phones? Is multi-tasking efficient or is it deadly?

I’m not the only one to question the value of multi-tasking, nor am I the first person to struggle with it. Eknath Easwaran wrote a whole book about not multi-tasking and paying attention to the task at hand. Although I never met Dr. Easwaran, I think I would have liked him. He was probably the kind of guy who paid such close, loving attention to people that you couldn’t help but feel all warm and fuzzy around him. I love feeling warm and fuzzy. My friend Owl, who, like me, has spent years working in a reseach lab, is making peace with her inability to multi-task. Her solution? She slows down, takes her time, and looks at the benefits of being meticulous and clear-headed in her work. She’s very wise. And she makes me feel better about my own turtle-like pace in life.

So maybe it’s a lot of hot air about how great multi-tasking is. I remain adamantly convinced that my single-mindedness has its own virtues, especially at the dinner table. In a world swamped with fake foods, diet fads, and too many forgotten-by-tomorrow trends, a little single-mindedness can go a long way. Each and every day, my goal remains the same: eat more vegetables.

Of all the food goals one might have, why vegetables? I think the answer is best summed up in single words. Tasty. Antioxidants. Texture. Health. Crunch. Fiber. I believe of all the changes we might make to our diets, eating more vegetables is one of the best. As for the single-mindedness? Pardon me while I brag a moment, but I believe most of my eating habits now are pretty solidly good for me (and tasty, too)—it’s the vegetables I have to keep working on. It’s not because I don’t like them. Instead, I think it’s because dinner usually arrives after I’ve worked a long day. On an empty stomach, my resolve has been known to weaken. But I figure as long as I keep vegetables front and center, I’m good to go. Even if said vegetables find themselves cozying up with a plate of macaroni and cheese. From a box. Hey, it happens even to the best of us.

Maple-Mustard Vinaigrette
From the February/March 2006 issue of Eating Well
Makes ~1 ¼ cups

If vegetables are a priority, then so are ways to spiff them up. It’s nice to have a delicious array of salad dressings in your cooking repertoire; this vinaigrette cozies right into that spot between sweet and tangy. Its sweet maple flavor is front and center, with mustard and apple cider vinegar providing soft notes of savory sourness. And through some magic of ingredient synergy, it tastes downright buttery to me when spooned over steamed kale. This dressing is stellar. Try it with salad or steamed vegetables or whatever floats your boat.

½ c. canola oil
¼ c. real maple syrup
¼ c. cider vinegar
2 tbsp. Dijon or coarse-grained mustard
2 tbsp. soy sauce
Salt and pepper to taste

Into a large jar for which you have a lid (I use a clean 16-oz. jar, such as an old salsa jar), add all the ingredients except for the salt and pepper. Cap the jar tightly with its lid and shake like mad to blend the ingredients. Uncap and taste; decide if you want to add some salt and pepper. If you do, add your seasonings, cap and shake again, and repeat until it's perfectly seasoned to your taste. Serve over some very lucky vegetables.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Sweet Redemption

My kitchen and I had a rather terse exchange on Saturday morning. It went something like this:

Rose-Anne: [yawning] Good morning.
Kitchen: Oh. It’s you again.
Rose-Anne: Wow. You’re cranky. Rough night?
Kitchen: Yeah, someone left a whole pile of dirty dishes on my counter and then went to bed.
Rose-Anne: Oh, sorry about that. I was tired. I just wanted to read my book a little bit and then fall asleep. I’m planning to wash those dishes after breakfast.
Kitchen: All you seem to do around here is wash your dirty dishes! What happened to your cooking? You used to love cooking.
Rose-Anne: I still do love cooking!
Kitchen: It doesn’t seem like it. We haven’t had dinner together in three days!
Rose-Anne: I know. This week was really chaotic. Thursday got out of hand; I wasn’t planning on being in the lab at 9 PM to finish things up. I ended up going to Panera for dinner.
Kitchen: And what about Friday?
Rose-Anne: My department had a fancy Spring Party that night, so I had dinner at the party.
Kitchen: Hmmph!
Rose-Anne: I’ve missed you, Kitchen, I really have. But we cooked some tasty things earlier this week, like Avocado Corn Salad and Matt’s chickpea and artichoke heart stew.
Kitchen: I like that stew better when he makes it.
Rose-Anne: Yeah, me too.
Kitchen: When’s he coming back? I like the way he cooks.
Rose-Anne: I don’t know. Maybe later this summer.
Kitchen: He’s hot.
Rose-Anne: Yeah, he is. Kitchen, do you have a crush on Matt?
Kitchen: Maybe. But it’s none of your business!
Rose-Anne: Okay, okay. You’re right.
Kitchen: So, um, since it’s Saturday, I was thinking we could have lunch and dinner together like we used to do.
Rose-Anne: Lunch sounds great, but um, for dinner—
Kitchen: You’re not having dinner at home tonight?
Rose-Anne: Well, no. I have a date—
Kitchen: With that Naperville Dude?
Rose-Anne: Well, yeah.
Kitchen: But you just had lunch with him last weekend!
Rose-Anne: We’re kinda seeing each other these days.
Kitchen: I don’t like him.
Rose-Anne: But you’ve never met him!
Kitchen: But you told me he doesn’t like cooking. You shouldn’t be dating a man who doesn’t like to cook.
Rose-Anne: I know. It makes me sad that he doesn’t like to cook, but I think he might be willing to try cooking with me. We’ll see.
Kitchen: Whatever.
Rose-Anne: So, Kitchen, I was thinking about picking up some groceries—your favorite—this afternoon and then we could have tea and coffeecake together. I think my Blueberry Cheesecake Sauce would be really tasty on top of that crazy yeasted coffeecake I made on Tuesday.
Kitchen: That sounds nice.
Rose-Anne: And then tomorrow we can make the Broccoli Tofu Divan I found in Saving Dinner the Vegetarian Way.
Kitchen: Does that recipe involve a lot of work?
Rose-Anne: There are several steps: cooking the broccoli, making the sauce, assembling the casserole. That sort of thing.
Kitchen: And then it gets baked?
Rose-Anne: Yes.
Kitchen: So you’ll be using my stovetop AND my oven?
Rose-Anne: Yes. Is that okay?
Kitchen: Well, it’s a start, but you’re going to have to cook more than a casserole to make up for neglecting me this week.
Rose-Anne: Okay. I’d like to make a lentil soup later this week. I’ll even make vegetable stock for it ahead of time. You love it when I make stock.
Kitchen: [giggles] Yeah, I do.
Rose-Anne: Me, too. Don’t worry, Kitchen. You’re still my favorite place to cook and eat.

Blueberry Cheesecake Sauce
Makes about 2/3 of a cup

I really want to give you the recipe for the yeasted coffeecake I mention above, but I can’t! I can’t because it’s made with a yeasty starter that I don’t know how to make. I’m so sorry, dear reader! Instead, I bring you this ridiculously simple and very tasty sauce containing just three ingredients: blueberries, sugar, and ricotta cheese. If cheesecake were pourable, this sauce would be it. It’s humble but terrific, and it’s a lovely shade of purple. Try it as a topping for a simple coffeecake or pancakes. I also like it on thick slices of French toast, all warm and crispy, fresh off the griddle.

½ c. frozen blueberries
2 tbsp. brown sugar
¼ c. ricotta cheese, lowfat or not, as you prefer (I like “part-skim” ricotta, which is lower in fat than regular ricotta, but it’s not fat-free.)

1) In a small saucepan, place the blueberries and brown sugar. Heat them over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until the blueberries start to give off some liquid and break down a little bit. Keep stirring to make a nice smooth mixture of whole blueberries in a syrup of blueberry juice and sugar.
2) Turn off the heat. Let the sauce cool for a minute or two. Stir the ricotta into the blueberries and serve, perhaps in a pretty bowl or pitcher.