Monday, October 27, 2008

A Life Rich in Recipes

I have concluded that things are out of control around here. I realized, sadly, that saying, “Hey, I’m putting that recipe on my list of things to make!” means absolutely nothing. What it really means is this: “Hey, little recipe, get in line. It’s going to be a long, long time before you get your moment in the cooking spotlight.”

My list of things I want to cook is so long that I cannot even give you a number. I don’t even have a single list; instead, I have lists everywhere: a spreadsheet for the recipes found on my favorite blogs, little post-it notes stuck in my cookbooks, a handwritten list for things I’d like to cook out of Passionate Vegetarian. Recipe ideas swirl around in my brain like a cloud of dust, shimmering ephemerally in the sunlight, so many tiny particles that one couldn’t possibly hope to count them all. Then there’s the issue of my own cookbook ambition: how will I ever find the time and focus to work on my own recipes when I am so eager to cook a thousand recipes from other people?

One answer would be to cook, cook, cook and bring the leftovers to work, where a flock of starving scientists would inhale them so fast that you’d think they hadn’t eaten in days. Another solution would be to host a dinner party every night of the week and foist every last drop of soup and crust of bread on my guests. But both of these suggestions assume I have all the time in the world to cook (I don’t, unfortunately) and I have a bank account devoted solely to my belly (no again, but wouldn’t that be nice?). I’m just an ordinary cook, with ambitious kitchen plans, a day job, and a fridge that threatens to overflow on any given day of the week. The best answer is much more Zen. The recipe list will never be conquered, like a massive to-do list or the kitchen version of a military operation, where the distinction between victory and defeat is defined by the last man standing. I have decided that the recipe list is my ally. The best thing to do is to accept its presence in my life from here on out. Acceptance, much like grief in our culture, is undervalued. The ability to grant it is so freeing, so wonderfully wholesome and yet so very difficult most of the time.

I’ve been struggling with acceptance lately. I really believe in its power, but part of the reason it is so powerful is because of its challenging nature. Acceptance and faith go hand in hand. Once you have accepted yourself, your loved ones, your career, and just about everything else in life as imperfect and vulnerable to mistakes, misfortunes, and horrible, unrelenting loss, it’s tempting to give up hope. Perhaps scientists are especially vulnerable to losing hope because we assume that science will produce all the answers we need. But it doesn’t, and it can’t: science is about prediction and probability. Nothing is guaranteed. And so it is that even scientists need hope and faith.

Acceptance allows us to stop banging our heads against the wall, demanding answers: “Why? Why? Why?” When we accept, we can take a deep breath and say, “I don’t know why, but it is.” Life is full of mysteries. In the past few weeks, I found myself saying and hearing others say to me, “Have faith that things will work out.” Those are powerful words, especially when you believe them. They are soothing, like a couple of big fluffy pillows in word form, offered to the troubled soul who needs to sit down, drink a glass of water, have his back rubbed. With faith comes peace, and the strength to face whatever comes next.

I find that a few hours in the kitchen can be very good for the soul. With my impressively long recipe list, it’s easy to find a reason to hunker down in front of the stove. Every recipe holds between its lines a promise: Listen to me, follow my directions, and you will be rewarded with delicious food. When we try new recipes, we are following someone into the mystery. Some of us are swashbucklers in the kitchen, bravely cooking new recipes every night of the week. Others are a little more timid, preferring to stick to the well-lit trail of favorite dishes. And then there are those of us who work at the edge of a recipe: vegetarians, people with food allergies or intolerances, or even those of us whose local grocery resources are limited. After several years of tweaking recipes to suit my vegetarian tastes, I’m tempted to conclude that good, sturdy recipes can handle some tweaking without disintegrating. Or perhaps part of the process of becoming a good cook is learning the anatomy of a good recipe.

A cook can learn a lot about her palate by playing with recipes. My friend Daphna, for example, often cuts back on the sugar in sweet things by as much as one-fourth—one cup of sugar becomes three-fourths of a cup of sugar. I like this strategy, not just because it makes desserts a little bit lighter, but because it has taught me to pay attention to how sweet things are: can I taste the sugar? Does it bring out the other flavors, or is it overwhelming? Am I tasting every bite, or does the appeal start to fade quickly? What’s the ideal portion size for my palate?

The recipe I bring you today is a stellar example of how variable palates can be. I have a weakness for any recipe with peanut butter and chocolate in the ingredient list, so when I saw a recipe for vegan Peanut Butter-Oatmeal Cookies in the September 2008 issue of Vegetarian Times, I immediately scanned down the list of ingredients to see how this recipe compared to my Vegan Peanut Butter Cookies, which is adapted from another Vegetarian Times recipe. But the new recipe—at least as it was written—didn’t make the cut, as it calls for vegetable shortening and egg replacer, two ingredients I’m not eager to use in my cooking, especially if I’m not cooking for a vegan. But I was still intrigued by the recipe, especially after I read Lindy Loo’s complaint about how these cookies weren’t sweet enough. Perhaps it’s Daphna’s influence, but I’ve grown to like desserts that aren’t overly sweet, so I sensed that this new recipe, with a little bit of tweaking, had real potential.

I kid you not: I was floored by how good these cookies are. When they’re fresh out of the oven, they have a wonderful crispy outside and a softer, chewy inside. The peanut butter is very subtle; it tastes toasty and a little bit nutty once the dough is baked. One cup of chocolate chips—and make sure you use good ones, like Ghirardelli or something similar—is the perfect volume: each cookie is studded with chips, but there’s plenty of flavor room to enjoy the rest of the cookie.

An interesting thing happens when these cookies age a bit: their outsides go from crunchy to chewy, which I just loved. This effect seemed to vary based on how long the cookies cooled on their racks and what storage containers I used for them, but crunchy, chewy, or somewhere in between, I have loved every bite of these morsels. I think you will, too.

Toasty Oatmeal Cookies
Adapted from this recipe published by Vegetarian Times, September 2008 issue
Makes ~20-24 small cookies

These cookies are perfectly sweet and perfectly delicious. They are among the best in their class.

You might think that using oat flour AND rolled oats is fussy, but I really like the texture that I get when I replace half the oats with finely ground oats, or oat flour. It makes for a smoother batter, with just a few toothsome oats mixed into it. I’m sure you can use all oats (that’s what the original recipe calls for) or try my version and see which one you like better. Oat flour is really easy to make: just whirl a cup or so of oats in a blender until they are chopped into a fine powder. One cup of oats will yield about one cup of flour.

1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 cup rolled oats
1/4 cup oat flour (see headnote above)
1/2 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup butter (half a stick), at least a little bit warmer than fridge temperature
1/4 cup canola oil
1/4 cup creamy peanut butter
1 egg
1 tsp. real vanilla extract
1 cup good-quality semisweet chocolate chips, such as Ghirardelli’s

1) Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Combine the flour, oats, oat flour, salt, and baking soda in a small mixing bowl.
2) In a medium mixing bowl, place the sugar, butter, and canola oil. Beat these ingredients with an electric mixer until smooth and fluffy. Add the peanut butter and beat until well-combined. Beat the egg and vanilla into the butter mixture until smooth.
3) Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and beat briefy until a batter forms. Stir the chocolate chips into the batter until they are well-distributed.
4) Get out either an ungreased cookie sheet or a cookie sheet lined with a Silpat*. Measure out rounded tablespoonfuls of dough into your palm**. Use your palms to smoosh the dough into a round ~half an inch thick. Place unbaked cookies on the cookie sheet about 3 inches apart from one another.
5) Bake the cookies for ~12 minutes or until dry on top. My cookies didn’t really brown that much, so I feel most comfortable just timing them because they were consistently perfect after 12 minutes in the oven.
6) Cool the cookies on their baking sheet for ~5 minutes and then transfer them to a wire rack to cool.

*I tested these cookies using both an ungreased cookie sheet and a cookie sheet lined with a Silpat. Both techniques worked fine for me; I prefer the Silpat because without it, the cookies did stick just a tiny bit, but it was nothing to be worried about if you have a good pancake-flipper for nudging underneath those cookie bottoms.

**I was worried that the dough might be too soft here, given that it’s made with canola oil and peanut butter. But handling the dough at room temperature was fine for me. If you prefer, you can chill the dough in the fridge for a while to let it stiffen up a bit. The unbaked dough keeps for at least a week in the fridge if tightly covered.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Magic of Oatmeal

I think fall is the snuggliest season. One might argue that winter is the snuggliest season, and it’s true that the snuggling is awfully good in the winter, but if half your body parts are numb from the cold, snuggling loses a certain amount of charm. It’s no longer a luxury but rather a necessity. The fall, however, offers the first really good snuggling weather after summer’s heat has faded. It’s warm enough that you might even have the windows open to catch a breeze, which feels so good on bare skin, but it’s cool enough to enjoy the heat of skin on skin. In fact, I would argue that an open window makes snuggling even nicer—the sigh of a cool breeze provides a delicious foil to a cozy tangled-up snuggle. And if it gets a little too cold, you can always grab a nice fleecy blanket to make things cozy again.

A lot of noise is made about how great sex is, but honestly, I’ll take a little hand-holding or a chaste cuddle any day. Physical intimacy comes in many forms, and sometimes all I want is to feel warm, safe, and loved. I’m very low-key that way. In fact, low-key romance is my favorite kind. I love little stories about how couples take care of each other. My friend Nicole picks up her husband from his night class at Boston College so that he doesn’t have to endure a two-hour commute home on public transportation. JD visited the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum with his wife, a history buff, just to make her happy. And this one might qualify as a heroic act, and therefore not low-key, but my friend Aaron waded through filthy flood waters, carrying his pregnant wife, so that she would stay safe, dry, and clean after their condo building flooded.

Daphna makes oatmeal for Ian. In fact, I wonder if Ian didn’t propose to Daphna because of the oatmeal.

Few foods are humbler than oats, but in the right hands, oatmeal is a lovely food. Daphna is an oatmeal expert, a person for whom oatmeal is a treat and a breakfast staple. She has perfected her oatmeal over the course of many mornings. Recently, Ian lamented how Daphna used to make baked oatmeal back when they were dating, but she doesn’t make it much any more. He loves her oatmeal. But Daphna’s way with oats is magical and unknown. How does she make them so delicious? Magic or not, sometimes a man just needs a bowl of oats. If his oatmeal-maker isn’t around, he has to take matters into his own hands. Ian got the basics right: oats, water, microwave. He put 1 cup of oats into a bowl, added some water, and microwaved for 2 minutes at max power. He took the oats out, stirred them around, ate a spoonful. Hmm, he thought. These do NOT taste like Daphna’s. They’re kinda bland—oaty but bland. But he ate them anyway and concluded that he doesn’t have the magic touch. (I’m sure his colon thanked him for all the fiber.)

For Ian’s sake, and the sake of their future children, I convinced Daphna to share her oatmeal recipe with us. I must confess, I don’t eat much oatmeal in porridge form. I’m more likely to make a batch of granola, or mix it into my cookie dough, than I am to have a bowl of hot oatmeal for breakfast. But I know that Ian is not much of a cook, and if Daphna’s oatmeal can lure him into the kitchen, then it’s time for me to start taking notes. Daphna’s version uses a microwave, but stone-age cooks like me who live without microwaves at home can use the stovetop. Daphna has three tricks for her oats: a little salt, half a frozen banana, and slow, gentle cooking in the microwave. A deep bowl is essential for this, she explains, because otherwise the oats will overflow while they are cooking. She uses a large ceramic soup bowl for her breakfasts at home.

Oats-in-a-bowl are good for a quickie morning breakfast. On slower mornings, when one can putter around the house a bit, baked oatmeal is the equivalent of a lazy morning snuggle. Before making it, I found the idea of baked oatmeal intriguing. I even mentioned it here a few months ago, and my only regret now is that it took me so long to try this recipe! I tweaked Kath’s recipe to include cardamom and a little more sugar in the oat mixture; 2 tablespoons of sugar worked perfectly for me. I love the texture of baked oatmeal. More solid than oatmeal porridge, enriched with egg, it’s like a wedge of creamy pudding with chunks of banana strewn throughout. I love it so much that I made it twice last week, and I ate both batches all by myself. It makes a perfect late-afternoon snack, something to eat while I watch the sun begin to fade for the day, a sure sign that winter is just around the corner. Time to stock up on oatmeal.

Daphna’s Banana Oatmeal
Serves 1 (multiply as needed to serve more people)

Daphna adapted her recipe from Kath’s advice, and this recipe makes a mighty fine bowl of oats. I can only speak for the stovetop method because that’s what I use at home, but Daphna’s advice has never let me down, so I wholeheartedly believe the microwave directions will work well for you, too. The banana melts into the oatmeal such that the final bowl is a creamy porridge laced with the sweetness of banana. When Daphna told me she usually doesn’t add additional sugar to the oats because the banana is sweet enough, I was skeptical. But she’s right: half a banana makes a perfectly delicious porridge. It’s an awfully nice comfort food in the morning, not to mention that if you are watching your pennies (as I always am), it’s a fabulously cheap breakfast.

30 grams or 1/3 cup of rolled oats
1/4 cup milk
1/4 cup water
Two pinches of salt (“Two twists of a salt-grinder,” says Daphna.)
1/4 tsp. real vanilla extract
1/2 of a frozen banana, coarsely chopped into 4-5 pieces

Optional toppings such as:
-peanut butter or almond butter
-sugar (Taste before adding; you might not want additional sugar here.)

Microwave directions:
1) In a deep, microwave-safe bowl, combine the oats, milk, water, salt, vanilla, and banana pieces. Microwave for 5 minutes at 50% power.
2) Remove your oats from the microwave and give them a good stir. Top the oatmeal with any or all of the optional toppings, or whatever sounds tasty to you. Eat.

Stovetop directions:
1) In a smallish saucepan (I use one that can hold about four cups), combine the oats, milk, water, salt, vanilla, and banana pieces. Plop the saucepan on the stove, turn on the heat to medium-high, and bring the contents to a very gentle boil—just over a simmer.
2) Turn down the heat as low as it will go, give everything a good stir, and cover the saucepan. Cook over very low heat for ~3-4 minutes, uncovering and stirring every 1-2 minutes. When the oats have become creamy and the banana has cooked into the porridge, remove the saucepan from the heat. Spoon everything into a heatproof bowl. Top the oatmeal with additional toppings (see above) if you like and serve immediately.

Baked Oatmeal Brulee with Banana, Cardamom, and Cinnamon
Adapted from this recipe from Kath Eats Real Food
Serves 2-3 for breakfast or a substantial snack

This is baked banana oatmeal for those of us who love chai. The cinnamon and cardamom are subtle so they don’t overwhelm the other flavors, and they add a wonderful spicy warmth to the oats. A slice of this oatmeal is like slipping on your favorite sweater: cozy and delicious. Even the oatmeal itself has a few layers: in addition to the oatmeal base with its spices and bananas, there is a thin layer of sugar that gets melted and caramelized under the broiler for a little bit of a brulee effect, and then each serving gets topped with a peanut butter-yogurt mixture. I really think that the topping is what takes this dish from “Yum!” to “Wow!” Peanut butter and bananas go together like hugs and kisses, or like fall and snuggling.

For the baked oatmeal:
Cooking spray
1 cup oats
1 cup milk (I used 1% organic cow’s milk, the standard dairy milk in my kitchen)
1/2 cup vanilla soymilk (plain soymilk is tasty too)
1 tsp. real vanilla extract
Two shakes of salt from the salt-shaker
1/8 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp. ground cardamom
1 egg
2 tbsp. brown sugar
1 banana, sliced

For the brulee:
1 tbsp. + 1 tsp. demerara sugar or brown sugar

For the topping:
3 tbsp. creamy peanut butter
3 tbsp. plain yogurt

1) Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Spray an 8x4-inch loaf pan with cooking spray and set aside for now.
2) In a medium mixing bowl, mix together all the ingredients for the baked oatmeal except the banana. Make sure the egg is thoroughly mixed into everything else. Add the banana slices and stir gently to combine.
3) Pour the oatmeal mixture into the prepared loaf pan and bake for 30 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through the baking time.
4) Remove the baked oatmeal from the oven and turn on the broiler. Sprinkle the brulee topping (1 tbsp. + 1 tsp. demerara sugar) evenly over the top of the oatmeal, smoothing it with a spoon to spread it evenly. Place the oatmeal under the broiler for 1-2 minutes to caramelize the sugar, watching it very carefully to make sure nothing burns.
5) Remove the oatmeal from the broiler and turn the oven off. Let the oatmeal cool for a few minutes while you mix together the peanut butter and the yogurt for the topping. Use a pancake flipper to slice the baked oatmeal in half or into thirds and serve, hot or warm. Top each portion with a generous spoonful or two of the topping. This dish also reheats well in the microwave, which is what I use at work to eat it as an afternoon snack.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Flavor of Love

I try really hard not to write about Matt all the time. As my excitement about us has settled into a warm-fuzzy love, his presence in my life has become an everyday treasure. Rather than writing about him, I write to him. Ours is a relationship that is nurtured by e-mail. Matt and I don’t talk on the phone very much, and we see each other in person about once every two or three months. But e-mail? E-mail is essential. We go through phases with e-mail. Sometimes we write every day. At other times, it tapers to a few times a week or maybe a cluster of shorter, funnier e-mails. I’m terribly romantic about e-mail. It’s a little like leaving a flower for Matt, a sweet little gift that he can open when he’s ready. Once, when we were talking on the phone about relationships, he described ours as a tree that we planted together. When we’re apart, we take turns watering it, sitting by it, gazing up into its leaves, and admiring its strong trunk and slender branches. Neither of us owns the tree. Its roots are a tangled web of our hearts; it is grace and hope and faith. It is love.

Besides love, there are all sorts of interesting things that somebody needs to write about, and I figure I’m a somebody who likes to write, so I’ll give it a shot. There are things I adore in addition to Matt, things like Breakfast Crostini and falafel, zucchini and farmer’s market-fresh basil. But my kitchen…as much as she loves those things, I think she loves Matt more. I don’t really blame her: he could charm anyone with the way he wields a knife. Her problem, though, is that she’s not nearly as portable as I am. And she knows I spend time with Matt in other kitchens in far-away places. She’s accepted that sometimes he and I go away without her, but she begged and pleaded with me to let her write Matt another letter, one where she could tell him how she feels about him. I couldn’t say no, mostly because she controls things like the stove and my radio’s power supply. But I’m a big softie, and love letters make me melt into a puddle of warm-fuzzies, so really, I couldn’t say no because it would go against everything in which I believe.

I don’t believe in censorship, so I had no choice but to let my kitchen write her letter her way. Note that I haven’t even deleted the embarrassing things about me that she feels compelled to tell the world. Now that I’m blushing, it’s time for me to hide under the table.

* * *

Dear Matt,

You are my favorite visiting cook. Rose-Anne’s been awfully social lately; there have been sister visits and cooking parties, but it’s only when you step up to the counter that I get shivers of anticipation. There’s something about the way that you handle the food, gently but confidently. The act of cooking is a holy mixture of earth and magic, the material elevated to the sacred by the love and respect demonstrated during the act. In this way, cooking is not that much different than sex—so much power hidden within these earthly pursuits.

Few foods are earthlier than potatoes, but even the potato is a thing of beauty in your hands. I love to watch you chop—it’s so much more practiced and graceful than Rose-Anne’s chopping. You should give her more chopping lessons; I think she’d appreciate it. But she does have some mad skills when it comes to menu planning, don’t you think? I love how you totally called her bluff about dinner. She stammered, “Well, I’ve got a lot of food on hand…if you think something sounds good…” You looked her right in the eyes and said, “I assume you have a menu planned.” Aha! Right on, my friend.

But you know, I think you’re wrapped around her finger when you come to visit. In case you didn’t notice, you did an awful lot of the cooking that weekend. There was your lemony, garlicky kale and your off-the-cuff roasted potatoes to go along with a Southwestern Tofu Scramble. Rose-Anne loves the way you love cooking with her. She was secretly pleased when you took it upon yourself to search the spice collection for something exciting to rub on the potatoes. It was a gesture that spoke of comfort and pleasure, like you know you are always welcome to poke through the spice collection. (Of course you are!) It was also a chance for you to show off that fabulous palate of yours, the one honed by years of cooking and tasting. By the way, while your back was turned, Rose-Anne kept stealing sips of your rum. She says it tastes better when she drinks it out of your glass; that’s why she doesn’t pour her own.

The best way to show affection for someone is to share something with them: a story, a cookie, a laugh. Those who cook share their pots with each other. You may recall that Rose-Anne has been plotting to buy a new soup pot for several months. It’s no coincidence that a Le Creuset soup pot finally showed up a week before your visit. Those Sur la Table employees—they crack me up! They were beside themselves with excitement about her purchase. “You are going to love cooking in it!” “We’re so happy for you!” And I have to say, after seeing Le Creuset cookware in action, their excitement seems entirely appropriate.

As if buying Le Creuset for the first time wasn’t enough, Rose-Anne didn’t even cook in it until you came to visit, although she did kiss and cuddle with it a few times. (I hope you’re not jealous.) What a memorable Saturday evening you two created: Le Creuset, Autumn Cream of Onion Soup with Brandy and Cider from Soup and Bread, your caprese salad made with gorgeous heirloom tomatoes, and an outrageously delicious wine from Duckhorn Wine Company. Yes, I agree: “Paraduxx” is a ridiculously stupid pun for a wine name, but with wine that good, who cares what they call it? They could call it Bogwater and you’d still drink it. Although maybe they wouldn’t sell very many bottles of Bogwater. And the ladies might question your taste in wine.

I think you have excellent taste in all the important things, like onions. I loved how excited you got about slow-cooking the onions for the soup, the way you coaxed them into sweetness with butter and time. You even heard them squeak and showed it to Rose-Anne, a little mousy squeak of buttery, softened onions against the immaculate cream-colored enamel of brand-new Le Creuset. These are the pleasures that cooking brings. Happy are those who have found pleasure in food and cooking, for they have found a way to turn an everyday chore into a most sublime experience. And happy is the woman who gets to cook with you, for she is tasting the flavor of your love.

Rose-Anne’s Kitchen

Monday, October 6, 2008

Spinach and a Sister's Brilliance

I am prone to forgetting that I live in a world-class city. I live right outside Chicago, and Millenium Park and the Magnificent Mile are literally just a train ride away. Around these parts, entertaining visitors is awfully easy, assuming big-city excitement appeals to them.

I don’t wish to speak badly about Chicago, because it is such a beautiful city, but I feel a little homespun entertainment is necessary to balance all the glitz and glamour of Chicago. I like my glamour in small doses, preferably no larger than a martini glass, sipped while sitting inside the spectacular lobby of the Palmer House Hilton, a hotel that I still feel a little bit funny entering, as though I’m spying on the high-rollers as they slink around in their heels and dresses, expensive suits and gold watches, doing their best to look as though they belong there. I certainly don’t feel like I belong there, until I look around the lobby and spot the tourists who must be in Chicago on a school trip, all wearing matching t-shirts and the older women wearing fanny packs.

I first saw the inside of the Palmer House Hilton about ten months ago. It was late December, and a blizzard of huge wet snowflakes was swirling around outside. I was meeting Matt inside the lobby; we had plans to go out for dinner at a hip downtown restaurant, another place where I feel as though I don’t belong. I was dressed up for dinner and bundled up for the weather: grey winter peacoat, pink scarf, pink hat, fat purple mittens. After exiting the train station, I circled the block like a shark, looking for the Palmer House entrance, which seemed to be missing, despite the signs: “Parking for Palmer House Hilton this way!” Finally, cold, wet, exhausted, I slipped into the hotel through a little side entrance and followed a long hallway into the lobby. I looked up, felt my jaw drop open, and stood there, stunned.

Walking into the lobby of the Palmer House Hilton is a little like stepping into a palace. At first, all I could see was gold and light and people everywhere. The surfaces sparkled and glowed; the crowd seemed radiantly happy, sipping drinks inside this palace. I thawed out for a moment, the snowflakes still melting on my hat and dripping down my face. While a puddle formed around me, I tipped my head back and squinted to examine the paintings on the ceiling, images of human figures who seemed quite content not to be wearing much clothing at all. How very appropriate, I thought to myself, to be meeting Matt in a place like this. It was just like him: lush and grand, indulgently beautiful and welcoming to all of us who were retreating from the blizzard.

It was, I decided later, the perfect place to take my sister for a little big-city glitz when she came to visit me over Labor Day. I figured it was the least I could for Theresa after she hopped on a plane, flew over Lake Michigan, and greeted me with a smile and a hug at the airport. So on a warm Sunday afternoon, we boarded the Metra commuter train and zipped downtown for a little shopping and sight-seeing. After some difficult decision-making at Macy’s, I was ready for a drink. Entering the Palmer House lobby, we were surrounded by fancy people drinking fancy things. But we managed to snag two girlie cocktails, a plate of bruschetta, and a comfy little couch with a table in front of it. I got tanked off of half a martini and warned her that she might have to carry me out of that place. We nibbled our appetizer and plotted our next move, which ended up being over to Millenium Park, where dozens of kids splashed in the face fountain, and Theresa insisted we wait until the digital face display shot water out of its mouth. We wrapped up our big-city adventure with a trip to Trader Joe’s and deliciously salty chimichangas at a little hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant, where their table salsa will set your hair on fire with its heat. Woo-wee! Good stuff! That was a fun night.

Big-city entertainment is always so much more fun with a person you love. So is cooking at home. Even better is when your guest comes up with a calzone recipe that can rival Matt’s. I had e-mailed Theresa with the links to my Spinach and Zucchini Calzones and Matt’s Calzones. She countered with another idea: take Matt’s basic recipe with those delicious artichokes and add seasoned spinach to them. It sounded like a great idea in words and turned out to be an even better idea in our mouths. In order to fit a layer of spinach into the calzones, I used a light hand with the cheese and the other vegetables that go into Matt’s recipe, which meant that we had little bits of this and that left over after we made dinner.

In a flash of brilliance, Theresa suggested we make a morning-after egg scramble with our leftover onions, artichokes, and spinach. My goodness, was that a breakfast to remember. I made the scramble with a couple spoonfuls of cottage cheese, a trick my mom uses to make her scrambled eggs especially fluffy and flavorful. Theresa and I love scrambled eggs with cottage cheese. Our scramble was one of these best I’ve ever eaten--each bite was a little different, sometimes creamy, sometimes sweet with onion, sometimes herbal and green with spinach. We ate our eggs with these blueberry ricotta pancakes and a tart, lemony blueberry sauce that Theresa couldn’t get enough of.

I love it when people come out to visit me. My sister’s visit was especially meaningful. It was, to me, a gesture of friendship and love; we hadn't seen each other in nine months, since my last trip to Michigan. Adult siblings don’t have to be friends, but I want to be friends with my sister. I haven’t always been kind to her. Since college, I’ve been striving to build our relationship, one baby step after the other. More than a few times I’ve tripped and said something mean or done something thoughtless, but I want to keep trying. I think she does too.

Theresa’s Spinach Artichoke Calzones
Serves 4 as an entrée

Like I said a little earlier, this recipe is an adaptation of Matt’s Calzones. He might be offended by the addition of spinach, but if so, he’ll have to duke it out with Theresa (and me), because these calzones are delicious. I kept the caramelized onions, which I think are outstanding, so maybe he’ll be happy with that.

Keep any leftover bits that don’t get stuffed into your calzones and make Theresa’s Egg Scramble with Vegetables and Cottage Cheese (see below for recipe). You’ll be happy you had leftovers!

1 recipe Pizza Dough for Calzones and Other Good Things or ~1 lb of storebought pizza dough
1 perfect yellow onion
Olive oil (roughly 1-5 tbsp.)
2-4 cloves of garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 10-oz. package of frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed to remove the excess liquid
1/2 tsp. dried basil
1/2 tsp. dried oregano
1 14.5-oz. can artichoke hearts
Handful of shredded monterey jack or other similar cheese
Cooking spray
Spicy Italian seasoning
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 1/4-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, you can get the spinach going. Heat 1 tbsp. of olive oil over medium heat in a large skillet. Add the garlic and saute for a minute or two until it smells fragrant and is lightly golden. Add the spinach, basil, and oregano (crumble the herbs into the spinach by rubbing them between your fingers; this trick helps to release their flavors), and toss everything together to mix it very well. Cook the spinach over medium heat for a few minutes to infuse it with the flavor of the oil, garlic, and herbs. Turn off the heat and set aside until you are ready to assemble the calzones.
4) Drain the artichoke hearts. Chop them in half, removing any rough, unappetizing layers. Place them in a bowl. Place the cheese in another bowl to make assembling the calzones easy. Feel free to sample any and all of your ingredients as a quality-control measure.
5) 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 cheese, caramelized onions, a few pieces of artichoke, and a small scoop of spinach. If you like, you can top the spinach with more cheese. 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. 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.
6) 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.
7) 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.

Theresa’s Egg Scramble with Vegetables and Cottage Cheese
Serves 2 generously, especially when accompanied by a few pancakes!

This recipe sounds vague, but precise instructions would be overkill here. Throw in whatever you have lounging in your refrigerator that goes well with eggs, and then dig in.

4 large fresh eggs
A few spoonfuls of any leftover vegetables from Theresa’s Spinach Artichoke Calzones, such as seasoned spinach, artichokes, or caramelized onions (yum!)
A few spoonfuls of cottage cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
Cooking spray

1) Crack the eggs into a medium mixing bowl. Give them a few brisk stirs to scramble the yolks into the whites and add the vegetables and cheese. Stir again a few times to combine. Add a little salt and pepper.
2) Lightly spray a nonstick skillet with cooking spray. Place the skillet over medium-low heat. Pour in the egg mixture, and cook for several minutes, stirring frequently. The eggs are done when they have cooked to the firmness that you like. I like my eggs well-cooked but still soft and a tiny bit wet. Taste, season with more salt and/or pepper as you like. Divide the eggs between two plates and eat with gusto.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Enough to Go Around

Dear reader, I’m so glad we’ve agreed to disagree about vegetarianism. Otherwise you probably wouldn’t spend much time here with me. Chances are good that you are not a vegetarian, or if you are, you may be following a more restricted diet than mine. Perhaps you are a vegan, lamenting about how few vegan recipes I give you. Today I will add one more to your collection. It’s one of my favorites.

October 1 is World Vegetarian Day, which is something we can all celebrate. To my mind, it isn’t necessary to be a vegetarian to appreciate what vegetarianism has to offer. Really, it’s all about the food. I may be more than a little biased, but doesn’t everybody love chickpeas and tofu, salads and soups, grainy cornbread and hearty roasted potatoes? Even Matt, who has some sort of steak quota he must satisfy each week, let me feed him tofu (twice! in two days!) and found it more than edible. I think he even went back for seconds.

We vegetarians know our way around the kitchen, and we cook some damn fine food. Collectively, we benefit from the recipes and ideas that vegetarians have contributed to our cooking repertoires. For anyone who is looking to eat more nutritiously, meatless meals are a great place to start. It’s not because meat is bad for you. Instead, it’s because it’s so easy to eat healthfully when you focus on plant-based foods like whole grains and vegetables. But now that I’ve been a dedicated vegetarian for seven years, the thing that impresses me most about this way of eating is how well it promotes abundance and good stewardship of the land. Raising animals for meat will always be a resource-intensive activity. Land animals, for example, require lots of land for grazing and roaming around, lots of water for drinking, and they produce tons of waste. There are great examples of farmers and ranchers who produce meat in humane, environmentally responsible ways, but their ways still require one very important resource: land. This devotion of resources is relevant to anyone who eats animal products, including me. I love dairy and eggs, much to the chagrin of my vegan readers!

If we all eat a little less meat (and dairy and eggs), it means there’s a little more food for everyone, particularly those who need it the most. The math gets a little wobbly here. Years ago I read that it takes 16 pounds of grain to make one pound of beef. Then I start hopping around on the internet and I come across this site which states that it only takes 2.6 pounds of grain. Hmm. In the end, it comes down to a question of how your cows are fed. Grass-fed beef (all grass, from start to finish) require no grain, just lots and lots of grass, which means lots of land for grazing. Conventionally-raised cattle that are raised in feedlots eat at least some grain; Michael Pollan tells us that these cattle eat a lot of corn, a diet that is detrimental to their health and ours.

But when we sit down to eat, nobody thinks that steak is equivalent to corn, even if we put a pound of steak side by side with 2.6 or even 16 pounds of corn. Steak is a big hunk of protein and fat. Corn is little kernels of sweet starchiness. The more I thought about how one might compare the economics of eating meat to the economics of vegetarianism, the more I realized that vegetarianism is not a cure-all for the problems facing our food production these days. Food transportation and processing are perhaps the most pressing issues of our time. How much fuel can we afford to use so that I can have bananas all year round? How much fertilizer can we pour onto conventional corn crops so that we can make high-fructose corn syrup for our Cokes? I love bananas and the occasional rum and Coke.

Vegetarianism does not answer the questions about food and energy consumption, but eating locally does. We are, hopefully, in the beginning stages of a nationwide effort to promote local food. I’m not ready to give up my bananas or my avocadoes—I’m hoping I won’t have to give them up—but I am happy to support local eating opportunities, whether they are found at the Evanston farmer’s market during the Midwestern growing season or at local restaurants, such as Uncommon Ground, a groovy little café near Loyala University. Uncommon Ground has a big welcoming menu featuring dishes packed with locally grown produce. Awesome. (FYI: Uncommon Ground serves the best granola pancakes, made with sour cream and little chunks of dried fruit. Daphna and I have a top-secret plan to develop a homemade version of their granola pancakes.)

I remain a vegetarian, even as I contemplate the possibility of eating meat again. For me, vegetarianism marked a shift in the way I think about food and the ethics of eating. Vegetarianism was a way of saying I care. I care about what goes into the growing and processing of my food, for my sake and the sake of other people and the environment. What’s more is that vegetarianism has been a wonderful experience for me, a safe haven as I learned about cooking and cuisine. I didn’t have to deal with bloody hunks of meat or bacteria-coated raw chicken. I don’t miss eating meat, but I realize now that vegetarianism is just the beginning of my path toward a sustainable way of cooking and eating.

In the spirit of abundance, may you always have enough food to go around your table. Happy World Vegetarian Day.

Ful Edamame
Adapted from EatingWell magazine
Serves 4-5 as an entrée

This dish is just brimming with good flavors. It’s a substantial vegetable stew studded with sweet soybeans and accented with herbs and citrus. I served it once at a dinner party to rave reviews. Mostly I make it for myself and love its fresh, vibrant taste. This stew is vegan, so it’s one of the first dinners that pops into my head if I’ll be feeding any vegans. I think of it as a late-summer/early-fall dish, but you are certainly welcome to make it anytime you’d like.

In the past, I’ve served it over bulgur. Tonight, I’ll be ladling it over brown rice. I can’t really see how it would be bad with rice, but in the interest of full disclosure, expect a follow-up report from me in the comments section tomorrow.

1 16-oz. package of frozen shelled edamame (about 3 cups of beans)
1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 large zucchini, diced
2 tbsp. minced garlic
2 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. ground coriander
1/4 tsp. red crushed chile peppers, or to taste
1 28-oz. can diced tomatoes
A handful of fresh mint leaves, chopped
2-3 tbsp fresh lemon juice, or to taste
Salt and pepper to taste

For serving:
Several cups of a grain of your choice, such as bulgur or rice
Lemon wedges

1) Bring a large pot of water to boil. Pour in the edamame and cook according to package directions. Drain and set aside.
2) While the water is going, heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, covered, stirring occasionally, for about 3 minutes. Add the zucchini and cook, covered, for another 3 minutes or until the onions start to brown. Add the garlic, cumin, coriander, and red crushed chile peppers. Cook for about 30 seconds, stirring constantly.
3) Stir in the tomatoes and their juices. Bring the whole thing to a boil. Reduce the heat and cook until the liquid amount is slightly reduced, about 5 minutes.
4) Stir in the cooked edamame and heat thoroughly. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the mint and lemon juice. Taste and add more lemon juice, salt, and/or pepper to taste.
5) Serve in deep bowls over a grain of your choice with lemon wedges on the side.