Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Lesson Learned

Friends, I’m afraid I have very, very bad news for you. I have learned the hard way that it is indeed possible to wear out a recipe. What was once giddy new love can become jaded disenchantment—affection gone sour, if you will. This turn of events is tragic and nausea-inducing. You think to yourself, “If I have to eat that damn Chana Masala one more time, I think I might throw up.” It’s not the recipe’s fault—it’s still a perfectly good dish. But even perfectly good dishes need to be part of a rotation. One needs time away from loved ones (recipes, that is) to appreciate how delicious they are. Today, I bring you the story of a recipe I once loved…and how we got back together in the kitchen.

I think any graduate student will agree that the first year of grad school is especially difficult. I know mine was. Just months after finishing an undergraduate degree in chemistry, I packed all my worldly possessions into a U-Haul and drove to Chicago to start my new life. I had no local friends, little money, and I was scared out of my mind half the time. That year, I cooked for sustenance and comfort—much the same as I do now, except now I have loads of friends and I’m only occasionally scared. I still don’t have much money, but I had even less back then! Anyway, so that year was my first year of living alone. I had a whole kitchen all to myself and big cooking plans. But once the school year was in full swing, I was swamped with reading and coursework. Eating well was a priority, but I had to streamline because most nights had to be spent with my textbooks, not my pots and pans.

Enter the tofu burrito. I’m going to go out on a limb here: I think burritos are among the world’s most perfect meals. They are a little bundle of all-in-one satisfaction, packing vegetables, grains, and your protein of choice into a conveniently portable wrap. You can turn up the volume on the seasonings, adding salsa, sour cream, cheese, and other goodies to your heart’s content. Or you can keep it simple by letting just a few top-quality ingredients tickle your tastebuds. Burritos exemplify the ideal of flexible, healthful, and delicious eating. It’s a good thing I’m eating lunch this very moment, or else I’d be out the door and on my way to Chipotle right now for a black bean burrito.

But one doesn’t actually need to leave the comfort of home in order to find a good burrito. The secret to an amazing homemade burrito is the protein, be it meat or beans. A richly seasoned filling anchors the rest of the burrito, providing the base on which all those other goodies can play. Although I am sure there are countless delicious ways to season your burrito filling, my favorite way was taught to me by my friends Nicole and Andy. When Nicole won Andy’s heart, she not only found a great guy but she gained access to an incredible cooking resource: Andy’s parents. And one of the gifts of Nicole and Andy’s friendship is cooking with them and stealing, er, reproducing their recipes in my own kitchen. The tofu burrito is one of these recipes.

Nicole and I discovered the tofu burrito in college. The recipe, which she has graciously allowed me to give you, started as a way to season ground beef, but it works beautifully with tofu. We loved it so much that it began making regular appearances during our shared dinners. Occasionally we offered it side-by-side with its beefy predecessor, which made any meat-eating diners happy. After Nicole and I graduated, we moved away, but I took the tofu burrito recipe with me. During that long, hard first year of grad school, it became my go-to dinner meal, the one I ate week after week after week. It was just so easy: I’d hit the grocery store on the weekend to pick up tofu and all the fixin’s for burritos. Back at home, I’d cook up a batch of tofu burrito filling, make myself a burrito for lunch, and then stash the cooked tofu in the fridge, where it would wait patiently until dinner the next night. Quick, easy, healthful, tasty: perfect grad student grub.

What I didn’t know then is this: sometimes love requires just a little bit of restraint. That anticipation heightens pleasure, and sometimes the wait is worth it. I ate one too many tofu burritos that year, and I killed our happy partnership. For years after that, I could not even think about eating another tofu burrito; I just had no appetite for it. Instead, I learned how to make other things: tasty soups, egg burritos, quickie pasta dishes, interesting salads. The tofu burrito became a fond memory of mine: Remember that first year of grad school and how I ate a tofu burrito almost every weeknight? And the fonder this memory became, the more I started thinking about actually eating another tofu burrito. Until finally, I dusted off my recipe card, cubed my tofu, and gave it a go.

And oh, my! It was quite the reunion. Elaborately spiced, warm, and soft, it was the perfect meal to cook and eat that rainy Thursday evening, the kind that is best spent in the kitchen or on the couch with cookies and a cup of tea. In the days following, I polished off the rest of that tofu filling, no problem. But I’ve learned my lesson: I’m taking things slowly, letting a few more weeks pass before making tofu burritos again. You, however, dear reader, have no reason to wait, so hop to it*!

Tofu Burrito Filling, Stewart Family Recipe
Makes enough filling for 3-5 burritos

I must extend a big hearty thank-you to the Stewart family, who has kindly allowed me to steal, er, borrow their recipe in order to share it with you. I know this is a strange thing to say, but I’m awfully grateful for Nicole’s in-laws. Not only did they invent this outstanding burrito filling, but they also discovered Eating Well’s Tabbouleh with Grilled Vegetables and introduced it to Nicole, who in turn introduced it to me AND wrote about it for Life, Love, and Food. Yay! Daphna and I made a roasted vegetable version of this tabbouleh, and when I came over the next night to watch a movie with her and Ian, Daphna was practically dancing a jig in the kitchen when she realized she could have leftover tabbouleh for dinner. Yes! That tabbouleh is jig-worthy!

But back to the recipe at hand. This spice mixture is incredibly flexible and forgiving. Feel free to tinker with the combinations, and don’t worry too much if you don’t have one of the spices—the filling will still be tasty, I promise. But try not to skip the cumin—that one is probably the most essential one on the list. In addition, you can try using other beans or meat if you like. I really want to try this recipe with black beans, and as I said earlier, the whole thing started as a way to season beef. Nicole told me that she and Andy have also had good results with ground chicken, so play around with the protein and see what you like.

Note that all the herbs here are dried herbs.

1 tbsp. olive or vegetable oil
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 lb (16-oz.) of firm or extra-firm water-packed tofu, cubed into ~1/2-inch pieces
1/2 tsp. thyme
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
2 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. coriander
1 tbsp. oregano
1/2 tsp. paprika
1/4 cup water

1) In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and saute lightly for a minute or so. Add the tofu, stir it around in the oil to coat it, and then add all the herbs. Cook for a minute or two, enjoying the fragrant aromas that are now rising out of your skillet.
2) Add the water, adjust the heat so that the water is simmering, and cover the skillet. Let the mixture simmer for several minutes, then remove the lid, stir everything around, and let the water cook off over low heat. The mixture is ready to serve when it is still moist but most of the water has boiled off. Note that if you have substituted raw meat for the tofu, you’ll want to make sure the meat is cooked to your liking. Unlike meat, tofu doesn’t actually need to be cooked, but cooking it here helps to infuse all the flavors into it.
3) Serve alongside all your favorite burrito fixin’s!

*As Molly, beloved Orangette, likes to say. And my apologies about the Chana Masala; it really is a great recipe but I made it one too many times!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Follow the Sun West

He beckoned to me. And so I went.

I followed the sun west through the dusky evening sky, denying our star its right to dip back into the horizon and settle down for the night. Tucked securely into my window seat, the plane’s engines buzzing in my ears, I watched as the sky blazed orange and pink toward the west, the sun marking our orientation when we flew south. I was wound tight with anticipation: it had been three months since I had seen Matt, and our last visit had been new and different and awkward. It had been a good visit, but my discomfort with it had left a heavy feeling in my heart and gut. So it was with a leap of faith and a kernel of hope that I allowed myself to be seduced westward by the promise of cacti, mountains, and hotter-than-hell dry desert heat.

This is the thing about love: it requires faith. It seems especially true of a relationship in which months pass without seeing his face. Every visit is different, and it takes faith to believe that the connection will still be there, even in the absence of hugs or cooking together or even a shared smile.

Knowing each visit will be different is itself a gift. Matt makes his periodic relocations, from one side of the country to another, look effortless. His rambling means that if we can scrape together the time and the money for me to join him, I get to see all sorts of beautiful and wondrous things. This gift is amazing, for what is life but a giant adventure? And I am but a traveler with a bikini and a pair of sunglasses.

For three days, I feasted on the visual splendor that is Arizona. Tucson is surrounded by mountain ranges. They rise up into the clouds, ancient reminders of the geologic turmoil that created this part of the continent. I had never seen mountains this close before—I live in pancake-flat Chicagoland, but I’ve had a long-standing love affair with the idea of foothills and mountains. These Arizona mountains were stunning. The views changed depending on the time of day and the way the light and the clouds danced on the mountains. Alone, the opportunity to see such majestic sights would have been enough for me. The desert, however, offers up its own brand of splendor.

Apparently my visit occurred during monsoon season. Matt swore that everything was ridiculously green and lush and blooming because of all the rain, that the desert was usually much more hostile than it seemed to my eyes. I think he worried that I would get the wrong impression of the desert, but I don’t really mind. I just sat back and soaked in all the beauty: saguaro cacti, rising up like giant green fire hydrants into the sky. Cholla cacti covered in ludicrous numbers of spines, clustered like “dirty old men” on his family’s property, according to Matt. Fat barrel cacti, a round and plump contrast to the stately saguaros.

Amid all this greenery, animals scurried, hopped, swooped, and skittered. We were serenaded by a chorus of birds every day as we lounged on the patio. Lizards scurried across the sandy earth, their long tails dragging behind them. While we bobbed up and down in the pool, we were joined by a couple of toads, which I thought was adorable and Matt thought was annoying, especially the huge one I found hanging out under a filter cubby. This filter cubby, he told me, is inhabited by a scorpion—not a safe place for a toad, I would guess. I’m tickled that Matt turns out to be a dedicated rescuer of stray animals, including toads stranded poolside and beetles that find their way into the house. And I thought I was the only person who routinely escorted bugs outside rather than crushing them on sight! It’s just another reason to love him.

I was so overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of the desert that I found myself oddly wordless most of the time. I felt blissfully content not to say much, to let Matt lead the way in our conversations and our adventures in the desert. He had a lot to say—about the desert, about his work, about my work, about his career plans for the next few years, about our meals—and I was happy just to listen. Sometimes I think the best thing to do is to just absorb the moment—it is fleeting and ephemerally beautiful.

I also had a difficult time thinking too hard about food, which is indeed an odd thing for me. I usually think about food ALL THE TIME. I can’t blame the heat. It was suprisingly comfortable during my visit. Nor can I blame the unfamiliar kitchen, which was cheery and spacious, a wonderful room in which to cook. I think I was just too relaxed by Matt’s presence and Arizona’s gorgeousness—I felt satiated without food. Nonetheless, cook we did. On the first full day of my visit, we treated ourselves to Kiki’s Mint Pea Soup and a delicious almost-classic caprese salad. In turn, we were treated to a spectacular lightning storm while we remained safe and dry inside. The power went on and off during the storm, so our meal became an impromptu candlelight dinner. We sipped our soup and our wine. We savored bites of ripe tomato, fragrant basil, and creamy fresh mozzarella. We nibbled on bread. And deep inside, I marveled at the wonder of this brand of romance—a perfect balance of planned and unplanned, longing and delight, goofiness and seriousness. I am overcome with awe and gratitude. It is nothing short of magic.

The next day, we moseyed over to the local farmer’s market in town. I was very excited about going to the market since I love vibrantly fresh produce and the gregarious atmosphere of open-air markets. I was skeptical about what kind of food could be grown locally in the desert, but I was pleasantly surprised by the bounty and variety of goods. This market was amazing! Our first stop was a coffee stand where the owners are busy roasting coffee on-site to provide their customers with the freshest brew possible. I had never seen a coffee-roasting stand at a farmer’s market! Coffee cups in hand, we toured the produce stands with no real plan of action, but we emerged with a bag of lettuce greens, a plump cucumber, a pint of tiny multicolored tomatoes, and a small container of righteously fresh farmer’s cheese, flavored strongly with Italian herbs. Back at the ranch, Matt whipped up two vegetable salads with our bounty and I swirled extra-virgin olive oil over them, just enough to add a little richness and a place for the salt and pepper to stick. We topped slices of bread with more farmer’s cheese and ended the meal with big whole-grainy Oatmeal Cookies with Bittersweet Chocolate Chips, my variation on this recipe from Orangette. (Hints: Use King Arthur Flour’s White Whole Wheat Flour to increase the whole-grain content of your cookies. I used 1 cup of white whole wheat flour and 1 cup of unbleached all-purpose flour and loved the results. And if you, like me, find yourself overwhelmed by the chocolate in chocolate chip cookies, try using 3/4 or 1 cup of Ghirardelli’s Bittersweet Chocolate Chips to make a cookie that gives you room to enjoy a nubbly, chewy, oaty cookie with pockets of dark chocolate. Heavenly! Even if your cookies start to taste like bananas because they’ve been sitting in the fruit basket for two days.)

Dear reader, I feel I have now written too much and yet I’ve said nothing at all. Words cannot describe the experience of mountains, cheese, cacti, kisses, and desert heat that was my visit to Arizona. I can’t wait to go back. The Great Lakes may have lost me forever.

Finally, as Matt wrote to me, “Here is photographic evidence of your having experienced mountains.” Personally, I think he just likes taking pictures of pretty girls.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Please Advise

Oh, the things for which we lust.

I’ve had a thing for carrot soup ever since I tried Crescent Dragonwagon’s Carrot-Orange Soup with a Toasted Cashew Garnish in her beautiful cookbook, Dairy Hollow House Soup and Bread. My version was a tad lighter than hers—I omitted the heavy cream, the brandy, and the cashews—but oh, how I loved that soup. It was voluptuously thick with the rich, clear flavors of carrot, onion, orange, and butter. I made it over and over again, delighting in the way it brightened every meal with its gorgeous orange color. And then I just stopped making it. Period. I don’t know why. Prior to this past weekend, I cannot remember the last time I had carrot soup. I’ve had soups with carrots in them, but a pureed carrot soup is a different creature altogether.

Every time I thought about carrot soup, I felt a pang of longing—I missed it so much! Finally, while reading Amanda Hesser’s very entertaining courtship memoir Cooking for Mr. Latte, I had had enough. After a chapter about Sunday night dinner with friends and carrot-and-fennel soup, I drew up a grocery list and knew that soon enough, I would be reunited with my long-lost love.

It might be obvious from the recipe index, but I am a devoted soup-maker. For all the reasons that Anne describes and more, I am crazy about soups. I make almost all of my soups in a hand-me-down black pot covered in white speckles. I inherited this piece of cookware from my sister-in-law, who happily passed along to me a giant box of assorted kitchen supplies. The contents of the box were culled from various kitchens as “un-needed” and had been languishing in her garage for some time. My pot, Speckled, came from this box and we’ve been together ever since.

Speckled has one tiny flaw: it is almost impossible to sautee things inside this pot. Speckled is made of a thin metal which, for whatever reason, does not conduct heat to fat very kindly. The fat, be it oil or butter, starts to smoke even at extremely low temperatures, and my vegetables burn. It’s not pretty. Long ago, I had given up on sauteeing things in Speckled. Instead, I would sautee in a skillet and transfer things to Speckled for simmering. This system works, but I miss the pleasure and efficiency of making soup in just one pot.

Back to the carrot soup. Intrigued by a carrot-orange soup that includes fennel, I let Amanda Hesser sweet-talk me into trying her soup. I decided to do something courageous: I sauteed the fennel, garlic, and carrots in Speckled, reasoning that if things looked grim, I could quickly transfer things to a skillet. Not surprisingly, the butter smoked a bit, but I managed to complete the soup, from start to finish, in Speckled and was rewarded with a gorgeous carrot and fennel soup laced with fresh orange juice and a generous dab of sour cream. It was smooth, rich, savory, and just a tiny bit sweet. It was different from my tried-and-true recipe, but a good different. A delicious different.

Despite this happy ending, I now know what I must do. When the United States government announced its Economic Stimulus Act of 2008, I knew for sure that I’d be using that economic stimulus check to stimulate my belly. I just wasn’t sure how. Now I am confident that what is needed here is a high-quality soup pot, one that is sautee-friendly, sturdy, and beautiful. It should be a soup pot in which it is fun and easy to cook. I’m not throwing out Speckled; I’m just buying a companion pot.

Please advise me: which pot should I buy? One brand that swiftly comes to mind is Le Creuset. Heaven knows their goods are gorgeous, and two trusted cooks have sung their praises to my ears. I’m very tempted…but what other brands should I be considering? What pots do you love, dear reader? What pots have served you well over the years? Remember: the health of the economy, and my belly, rests on this very important decision!

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Many Virtues of Soup

I have been lamenting to my friends and loved ones that I am not what is commonly known as a Fun Girl.

In my mind, a Fun Girl is a girl who wants to go out more than she wants to stay home. She wants to go dancing and to Navy Pier. She hits the bars frequently. She'll drink you under the table. To the Fun Girl, work is a necessary evil, a way to pay for all that Fun. Money is good because money can buy lots of Fun things and Fun experiences. Guys want to date a Fun Girl because good times are had by all when she is around.

I am not a Fun Girl. But you know what? I don’t care!

I revealed this newly discovered self-fact to my friend Anne. She immediately exclaimed, “I’m not a Fun Girl, either!”

Hurray! Anne and I can be Not-Fun Girls together.

I don’t have anything against Fun Girls. I just have to accept that I just don’t quite fit that mold. But with Anne by my side, I’m in good company.

Anne has been part of my life for—can it be?—nine plus years now. I remember our first meeting: we were at our college orientation, and I remember thinking, “Goodness, I hope everyone is as nice as Anne!” Lucky for me, Anne and I found each other again shortly after moving into our dorms: we lived on the same floor and continued to bump into each other or eat lunch together, marveling at the enormous world that was opening up to us as college freshmen.

But in all honesty, I feel like my friendship with Anne didn’t really start to bloom until our final year in college and in the years that have followed. As seniors, we lived in a beautiful new apartment complex on campus (along with Nicole and a fourth roommate), and it was during that year that I started to feel a shift, a sense that this friendship of ours might outlast our college years. Perhaps it was the shared excitement in knowing we would be bridesmaids together in Nicole’s wedding. Perhaps it was the bonding that happens when you live and play together: having a sympathetic ear to get you through the rough patches, or eating “Spont Cake” (a ridiculously easy concoction of cake mix, butter, and canned cherries that is so rich and so delicious that you simply MUST have a spontaneous party with your neighbors so that everyone can eat Spont Cake together).

Or maybe it’s that Anne is a person with whom friendship only grows better with time. She is one of the kindest and smartest people I know. Gentle in nature, fiercely organized, and generous to the core, Anne is my role model. I think of her when I want to accomplish things, like getting those darn dishes washed and dried. (They’re dirty again?!) I procrastinate, and then I use Anne’s example to get my butt into action. Anne is a person who will change the world, one day at a time. And she’s powerful enough to inspire us all to do the same thing. Lead the way, friend!

But what strikes me most about Anne after all these years is that she is simply the best of company. As our lives grow increasingly more complicated with age, I have found that Anne is a good antidote to the chaos and stress that is everyday life. We find ourselves on parallel paths of self-discovery as we learn how to survive in our grown-up worlds: managing our work loads, studying for graduate school classes, balancing household budgets, making time for ourselves, finding sanity. Because we’re so busy most of the time, when we do see each other, we don’t do anything more exciting than talk, eat a meal, or perhaps take a stroll in her backyard to tour the vegetable gardens. Visiting with Anne and her husband is wonderfully relaxing, and after every visit, I return home feeling loved and refreshed. All has been made right in my world.

Delightfully, Anne provides us with today’s food for thought plus a bowl of soup at the end. She is (and I hope you will agree) a wonderful and insightful writer as well as a great cook. Anne, my dear, thank you for sharing a friendship with me for all these years. I can hardly think of a place I like better than your presence.

* * *

Anne writes:

While strolling down the sidewalk with Husband, returning from our bi-weekly trip to the Dairy King, I discovered an unexpected side benefit to having dead front teeth: I can painlessly bite off the top of an ice-cream cone! This essay, however, isn’t about ice cream, nor is it really about dead front teeth (although they do come into the story): it’s about soup.

Soup possesses an enviable list of esteemed virtues, the first being versatility. Soup can be served hot or cold, meaty or meatless, with fruit or vegetables, accompanying any meal. This versatility also allows promotes thrift. Any number of leftovers can be stirred into a soup pot. No wonder soup, along with its cousin stew, is such a historical dish. From ancient Roman menus to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s autobiographical tales, soup shows up across the table of human history. Half my enjoyment in making soup comes from this historical heft. When I stand over the stove, stirring a fragrant pot, I am in culinary kinship with women across the ages.

Furthermore, soup is extremely portable. Soup is easily carried in a thermos, a Crock-Pot, or a small kettle. One kind woman delivered tomato-basil soup to me in a juice jar. That particular soup came to me during a period of healing following a bicycle accident. Besides killing off my front teeth, I fractured my jaw in two places, requiring it to be wired shut. This experience impressed two other qualities of soup upon me. Soup is highly nourishing—I know, because I lived solely upon it for three weeks! The healing properties of soup are imbedded in our national consciousness. What do we say to a sick friend? “Go home and eat some chicken noodle soup.” Indeed, friends play a critical role in the world of soup. Soup’s crowning glory is the sense of community it imparts.

I have fond memories of shared soup. The college cafeteria chefs brightened many a cold day by setting out a “Soup and Bread Bar” for lunch. The dining room would be packed, the lines long. We pulled our trays past a row of steaming vats, hemming and hawing over the choices, and then piled fresh loaves of bread on the edges. Back at the tables, everyone would “de-tray” in order to maximize the space; we would trade bread and sample soups and chat away an hour or two. After college, my husband’s family taught me how to fish for peppercorns in a bowl of Mom’s chicken noodle soup. The good-natured competition usually ended with Husband stealing my peppercorns (not a new habit for him, believe me!).

Soup became a vehicle for love and kindness during my post-accident recuperation. I received get-well cards, flowers, phone calls . . . and soup. My sixth-grade students pooled their money to purchase a giant case of Costco soup boxes. Ladies from church brought over homemade soups, including the aforementioned tomato-basil concoction. Neighbors sent boxes of Trader Joe bisques. Husband made valiant efforts to blend his dinner foods into broth (note: do NOT attempt to liquefy a beef taco!).

I’m fully healed now, thanks primarily to the grace of God and secondarily to an excellent dentist, and I can even chew lightly on my rootless front teeth. But I still savor my soup! Whether chunky or strained, soup remains an edible reminder of the power of human community.

Incidentally, ice cream is also a powerful community food (just look outside the Dairy King), but that’s an essay for another day . . .

Kiki’s Mint Pea Soup
Yield: About 8 cups, or 6 first-course servings

Kiki, one of the lovely ladies at my church, brought me this soup during my jaw recovery. It was absolutely the best of the many pureed soups I ate during that time. The recipe comes from “Your Good House” magazine, March 2007, p. 46.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups chopped leeks, both white and light green parts (about 2 leeks)
1 cup chopped yellow onion
4 cups chicken stock
5 cups freshly shelled peas (about 4 pounds peas in the pod) or 2 (10-oz.) packages frozen peas
2/3 cup chopped fresh mint leaves
2 teaspoons kosher salt (if using canned chicken broth, reduce to 1 teaspoon)
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup crème fraiche
1/2 cup chopped fresh chives

Croutons for garnish and crunch (optional)

1) In large saucepan, heat butter over medium-low heat. Add leeks and onion, and cook about 10 minutes or until onion is tender. Add chicken stock; increase heat to high and bring to a boil. Add peas and cook 3-5 minutes, until peas are tender. (Frozen peas will take only 3 minutes.) Remove saucepan from heat; add mint, salt, and pepper.

2) Puree soup in batches: Place 1 cup soup in blender, place lid on top, and puree on low speed. With blender still running, open vent hole in lid and slowly add more soup until blender is three-quarters full. Pour soup into large bowl; repeat until all soup is pureed. Whisk in crème fraiche and chives, and taste for seasoning. Serve soup hot topped with croutons.

Prep: About 20 minutes
Cook: About 20 minutes

Monday, July 7, 2008

The Snarky and the Smooth

I’ve done the math. I have approximately three loyal readers, which is just perfect, because my kitchen table seats four. Gather round now, friends, and let us talk about the snarky and the smooth.

You are fortunate, dear reader, for you do not have to live with me every day. When I write essays for Life, Love, and Food, I become my kindest, wisest, most gracious self. The act of writing transforms me. I am nicer on-screen than I am in real life. Just ask Daphna: she witnessed the act of snarkiness to which I am about to confess.

Several months ago, I found myself bewildered by the sheer volume of comments garnered by an essay written by a fellow food blogger. Bewildered, confused—and red-hot jealous. Like I said, I have three loyal readers (love you all!), and I should be grateful for my readers, but you know, sometimes a girl confuses quality with quantity. I want the former, but I become greedy when thinking about the latter: more more MORE! This attitude is altogether unhealthy—I may have to seek medical help if it continues—but the worst part of it is how the green-eyed monster within turns me into one downright snarky woman.

The essay in question was about, of all things, smoothies. I love smoothies. I’ve been making them for years. My mother even donated her blender (a wedding present! older than me! with a glass pitcher!) to my kitchen, knowing how much I love a good blended drink. I’ve written about a smoothie once before because it was just so delicious that I had to share my discovery with someone. But I’m not inclined to write about them often because I tend to think that if you own a blender, you can make a smoothie, no recipe required. It doesn’t take much: fruit, juice, milk, yogurt, peanut butter, whatever. Smoothies are lovably forgiving.

This other blog’s essay about smoothies garnered comments numbering in the double digits. High double digits—probably more comments than this blog has seen in its entire life. It was shocking and awe-inspiring. Except that I wasn’t impressed. I vented my jealous feelings to Daphna, who just laughed and rolled her eyes at me. And rightly so: I was being snarky and mean, getting my feathers all ruffled over the smallest, stupidest thing.

But I remain unimpressed. A simple recipe is wonderful. The catch, though, is that it has to be novel in some way. Inspiring. The subject of my smoothie post, Nigella’s Go Get ‘Em Smoothie, was new to me—banana+cocao+malt+iced latte—and the synergy between its ingredients is just lovely. Rich and smooth on the tongue, it satisfies a sleepy-eyed sweet tooth and her hunger pangs, no chewing required. That’s the real beauty of smoothies: the fun of drinking something through a straw and the satisfaction of providing your body with real, nourishing food.

Today I bring you another smoothie, but this one, I have decided, tastes rich and creamy enough to warrant the label milkshake. There’s no ice cream involved here. Instead, we will make good use of my tub of ricotta cheese, transforming a simple trio of banana, strawberry, and milk into something delicious, sweet, smooth, and utterly satisfying. I hope you’ll accept this recipe as a token of my gratitude for your loyal reading…and perhaps you’ll forgive me my snarky moments.

Strawberry-Banana Ricotta Milkshake
Serves 1 generously

Truly, I’m smitten by the presence of ricotta cheese in this shake. I know it’s an unusual choice, but I’m an unusual person, so it seems fitting. Ricotta adds a wonderful rich flavor and thick texture. Because ricotta cheese is not tart like yogurt, I don’t add any sugar or fruit juice to this drink—I feel that the sugar in the milk and the fruit makes it deliciously sweet. But feel free to eat some crunchy gingersnaps alongside your shake if you are feeling a little more decadent!

Dairy fat is a contentious subject. There are those who feel full-fat dairy is a necessity, and there are those who avoid dairy fat like the plague. I’m in the middle. For the record, I make this shake with 1% milk and low-fat ricotta cheese. It is, of course, up to you to decide how you feel about this issue, so I encourage you to use the dairy products that you like.

4 strawberries, stems trimmed
1 ripe banana, peeled and broken in half
3/4 cup milk
1/4 cup ricotta cheese

Place all ingredients in a blender. Blend for 20-30 seconds or until frothy and smooth. Pour into a tall glass and enjoy. A straw is optional.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

To Matt, From Kitchen

My poor kitchen. Usually it’s just the two of us, with an occasional lunch or dinner guest. We like guests, such as my friend Shawn Marie, with whom we had a sleepover on her last night in Chicago before moving back to Michigan. But in the last year or so, my kitchen has grown very fond of Matt, who brings considerable culinary skills to the counter. My kitchen and I really like Matt, but it’s only fair that sometimes when I visit him, it’s on his turf, wherever his turf happens to be at the time. He’s a wanderer—a gypsy, if you will.

So my poor kitchen. She hasn’t seen Matt since late March, and she doesn’t know when she will see him again. It’s a shame, really, because they get along so well. Matt has this habit, when he comes to visit me, of immediately claiming some portion of the kitchen table. We make tea, and he unloads his phone, glasses, and other random items, thus making his presence visibly known. Almost in spite of myself, I like this habit of his—it suggests a level of comfort, a gesture that says, “Hey, I’m going to stay for a while.” I think it’s significant that he chooses the kitchen table for his territory—or maybe it’s just because that’s where we spend the most time. Which is significant in its own right.

In her extreme longing for him, my kitchen wrote Matt a letter. You could call it a love letter—she and I share that affection for him—but she’s such a gossip! Hmmph! Hopefully Matt doesn’t mind sharing his personal correspondence with all of you, dear readers. Here he has no choice!

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Dear Matt,

It’s been so long since we’ve seen each other. Rose-Anne tells me that you are doing well, alternating between working too hard and swimming in a pool somewhere out West. She also tells me you have a lovely kitchen of your own, filled with lots of counter space, beautiful pots, and a giant food processor. You know, of course, that I’m a bit deficient in counter space, but I like to think that I make up for it in the sheer beauty of my honey-colored wooden floor and a wall of windows that lets you gaze out at the skyline, big stately trees, and a corner of the neighborhood park.

I hear that you are very tan these days! Rose-Anne and I have mixed feelings about this. While we feel that you are probably even more attractive with a tan (as though you need to be more attractive, you heart-stealer!), this tanning habit of yours is not good for your skin. I have instructed Rose-Anne to check you for moles from head to toe when she sees you again. She feels confident that she can do this task thoroughly.

You should know, though, that Rose-Anne remains virtually winter-white. Despite ample amounts of walking and running outside these days, her daily application of sunscreen keeps her looking rather pasty. It’s not terribly attractive to some people, but she insists that a history of sunburns puts her at risk for ugly things like skin cancer. If you don’t mind, maybe you can check her for moles too.

Interesting things have been happening inside my four walls. Did you know that I got to meet Joe, Rose-Anne’s local boy? It’s true: she made him dinner not too long ago. It was a lovely summer meal, Lunar Gazpacho and Warm Chickpea Salad with Shallots and Red Wine Vinaigrette, accompanied by some storebought French bread. Delicious! At least I thought so. Joe was not a fan of the chickpeas—something that did not bode well for his relationship with Rose-Anne.

Now, you might recall that I was not a fan of this Joe guy from the beginning. I really think Rose-Anne ought to be with a guy who not only knows his way around the kitchen but who also has things to teach her. Joe is not a cooking man. And as it turns out, Matt, he’s not a big fan of you, either. Rose-Anne explained it to me, “My boyfriend doesn’t like my other boyfriend.” So Joe dumped her. Hmmph! Jealous boys are so very unpleasant. I’m glad you aren’t like that. And you have a lovely way with onions.

Speaking of onions, Rose-Anne continues to consume large quantities of them, mostly cooked but occasionally raw. She is surprised and happy that you find this onion-love of hers attractive rather than weird and stinky the way most people do. A handful of sliced raw onions found their way into a delicious summery salad of lentils, bell peppers, avocado(!), fresh herbs, and a lemony-garlicky dressing. It’s really a great salad, the perfect thing to mix up on a Sunday afternoon in July. It keeps well, thanks to the lemon juice, and plays well with others, such as scrambled eggs or homemade flatbread. We aren’t sure if you would like it—your tastes are particular and hard for us to predict—but Rose-Anne likes it a lot. I think she’s planning to make another batch soon.

I really miss you, Matt. I hope that we will see each other again. Perhaps in the fall? Fall, as you know, is the most beautiful season in the Midwest. And Rose-Anne has the most amazing recipe for Pumpkin Pancakes, courtesy of her friend Nicole. We have a hunch that you might like them. And if you don’t, well, we can always make scones.

Rose-Anne’s Kitchen

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Green Lentil Salad with Lemon-Garlic Dressing
Adapted from "Green Lentil Salad with Lemon Dressing" in Ladle, Leaf, and Loaf by Lisa Cowden
Makes 4 entrée-sized portions

For the salad:
¼ cup green lentils, sorted and rinsed
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
½ cup thinly sliced white or yellow onion
1 perfectly ripe avocado, diced into ½-inch chunks (need avocado dicing instructions? Click here for help!)
~2 tbsp. fresh cilantro leaves
~2 tbsp. chopped fresh chives
Salt to taste

For the dressing:
¼ tsp. freshly grated lemon peel
¼ cup of fresh lemon juice (about one lemon’s worth of juice)
¼ cup canola oil or other mild vegetable oil
1 clove of garlic, pressed through a garlic press
¼ tsp. salt, or to taste
¼ tsp. freshly ground pepper, or to taste

1) After rinsing the lentils, place them in a medium-sized pot and cover them with about an inch of cold water. Bring the lentils to a boil, and then lower the heat to a simmer and cover. Cook for about 40 minutes or until the lentils are soft but still hold their shape. You’ll want to check the lentils periodically to make sure they have enough water; if they look like they’ve become dry but they aren’t tender yet, add a few tablespoons of water and bring it back to a simmer.
2) Drain the lentils and set them aside to cool. Whisk together the dressing ingredients with a fork in a high-sided bowl or a large measuring cup, such as a measuring cup with a volume of two cups.
3) In a large mixing bowl, toss together the bell peppers, onion, avocado chunks, and fresh herbs. Add the lentils and the dressing and toss again. Set aside to marinate for an hour at room temperature, or, if it will be more than an hour before you eat, put the salad in the refrigerator and chill until you are ready to serve it. When you are ready to serve it, either taste and add more salt or allow each diner to add salt to his or her taste. Although there is salt in the dressing, it will probably need a little bit more added right before you eat.