Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Musical Interlude: An Interview with Dan Cohen

I am a lucky, lucky woman. Not only did I just celebrate my birthday, but tomorrow, I will feast with my best cooking friend and all of her Thanksgiving guests. Daphna gave me a sneak peak at the menu, and all I can say is, “Oh, MAN! There’s gonna be some good eatin’ tomorrow.” Rumor even has it that she’s going to make my wedding cake in the form of tiny cupcakes, which makes me think I might just pass out in sheer bliss at the end of the meal. Hubba hubba!

I am also totally and completely spoiled. Daphna’s got her eye on Thanksgiving bragging rights, so she politely declined my offer to help her cook. This is fine and dandy because I’ll be busy putting together her hostess gift on Thursday. Have you ever given another foodie a gift bag? It’s really, really fun! It’s a little like having permission to buy all sorts of cute things or exotic ingredients, and then you get heaps of praise in return. I rather like the whole exchange.

Even though I won’t be cooking Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday, I’ll still be in the kitchen, making holiday meals for breakfast and lunch. While I’m puttering around, I’ll have the CD player spinning my favorite albums. I love to listen to music while I cook. It energizes and soothes me, and it keeps me company when I’m cooking by myself. One of my favorite kitchen albums is Dan Cohen’s self-titled solo debut album. I’ve written about Dan’s album once before because I think it’s really wonderful. It’s the “soundtrack of life,” if I may quote myself, an eclectic mix of country, rock, and jazz. It is sassy and sublime.

Today, I am thrilled and honored to share with you an interview with Dan Cohen. Dan agreed to discuss his thoughts about the album, songwriting, performing, and even his own encounters with fame. I love getting to peak inside the creative process through Dan’s words; he is funny and humble and inspiring. I’m just tickled to have him here at Life, Love, and Food.

Dan, thanks so much for agreeing to interview with me, a starstruck fan. Let’s begin by discussing Dan Cohen, the album. What was your favorite part of recording Dan Cohen? What were some of the more challenging aspects of the album?

I liked doing the guitar parts. What I really liked was seeing how songs changed when we all got together and played them. Some things I heard differently in my head before we went in to track them, and when I heard how they came out, I was amazed and delighted. Matt King had a lot to do with this. We kind of arranged stuff on the fly for some songs.

"When You Don't Come Home" was particularly fun to record, because we did it all live in a big room. Matt wanted a front porch kind of feel. The "kick drum" is actually Derek stomping on the floor. Matt is playing the triangle. We did overdub the vocal and I got to play the vibes, which was a life-long dream of mine, of course.

“Lullaby" was also fun to record. Or not so much fun as gruelling and horrible because that one really was live—the guitar and vocal at the same time. Ordinarily you would record the guitar part and then overdub the vocal so you could go back and make fixes and comp and tune and stuff. But Matt said I sang it better while playing the guitar, so we did that. And there are a couple of pitchy spots that made me wince for a while, but they don't anymore and now I'm quite proud of that performance.

What are a few of your favorite songs on the album?

I just love "Even Us." It’s the one track I still get goose bumps listening to. I like "Jackknife" for the horn parts, and I love "Hope You Don't Change Your Mind" because sonically, it's just so full and warm and well-balanced. That's the best-mixed song on the record, despite that there's like 20 people playing on that track. It's insane! And I like "Pete and Elizabeth" because it's got this great mood.

My sources tell me you are a very prolific song-writer. What is the song-writing process like for you?

I am more prolific than I used to be, I suppose. My brother says I am. He runs the business end of the label and the publishing company, and he says that I'm not nearly as lazy as I think. Good. We just signed three new writers to the publishing company, Jace Everett, Doug Powell, and Denitia Odigie. I write with all those guys for their projects so I will no doubt be even more prolific in the next year or so.

I often start with a little guitar music and maybe a melody I hum with no words or nonsense words. Sometimes the nonsense words end up making sense and become the basis for an idea, which is certainly weird, to be sure. I don't really like writing words because I don't really have much to say. And what little I do have to say always gets twisted around ‘til I can't recognize it anymore once a lyric is done. Or rather I'll have a cool idea in my head, but when it comes out on the page and I sing it, I say, “That is very, very, VERY dumb. I'm glad no one was around to hear that. I will now destroy it forever." That's when I'm writing alone. But when you co-write you have to throw everything you're thinking out there, to keep the process flowing along. So you end up saying some dumb shit. But so do they, so hey!

Basically the music is pure and the words never quite measure up to a great melody. Unless the words are fantastic, but how often does that happen? But that's just me, maybe. That's why I like to team up with clever lyricists like Matt King and Jace and Doug.

Is there a time of day when you find yourself most inspired to write songs?

Not really. I get inspired with music late at night mostly. But I can write hackneyed, crappy words all day long.

How do you decide that a song you have written or co-written is one you would like to perform yourself?

Usually I know from the start if I'm writing for me or someone else. But sometimes a song I'm thinking of for The Levees (my other project) will end up working for me.

You write some of your songs from a woman's perspective, with the intention that they will be performed by a woman. What do you do to put yourself, creatively, in a woman's shoes? Are those songs harder or easier to write than songs written from a man's perspective?

I do the same thing I do when writing for anybody. I think, "If I were on stage singing this song, what would I say here that would make me seem really cool and smart and sexy?" And that usually does it.

Speaking of women, with which female singer would you most like to perform a duet?

Oooh. That's a tough one. Gillian Welch, maybe. Or Alison Krauss. I met her and Robert Plant in Nashville at a recording studio. I wrote a song for them but I forgot to tell them about it because I couldn't speak or make brain work right forget words speak not goodly.

Or Suzanne Vega.

A big part of your career is performing live. From what I can tell, you alternate between more local performances in the Nashville area, where you reside, and farther-flung touring performances. What do you love about performing in Nashville? And what is life like for you when you are on tour? Is there a city where you dream of performing?

I need to book more shows. It's difficult doing everything on your own. We're a small label, and the booking agents these days don't pay any attention until you're already drawing really good crowds, and at that point...what do you need a booking agent for?

As far as Nashville goes, there's not much I like about performing here. Everybody has music flung at them from all directions all day. So it's hard to get people excited about something. It's hard to get people OUT at all. Maybe it's like trying to get attention paid to one's cooking when you live in...Paris. There's a saturation issue. I like to get out of town because I make money there and people appreciate music, particularly live music.

I want to get over to Europe and play my music.

And speaking of cities, any chance you'll be performing in the Chicago area any time soon?

I will if I can. Gas is getting cheaper. I just need a place to stay. Hmmm...

Since this is a cooking blog, let's talk about food. Do you cook at all, Dan? If so, what's your best dish? What do you cook if you are trying to impress?

I don't cook. I used to...a bit. I made this Asian orange ginger chicken that was okay. And once I made a tiramisu for a girlfriend and I'd never made it before and screwed up the mascarpone mixture and had no more. So I went out scouring the streets of Philadelphia at midnight for something I could use to substitute. I went into this 24-hour market place near my apartment—the kind of place that says it sells "groceries" but this turns out to mean two bananas, [a] frozen burrito, and a bottle of margarita mix. Anyway, they did have one container of Philadelphia Cream Cheese! So I used that and it was awesome. Cream cheese tiramisu.

* * *

So I’m a little heartbroken that Dan doesn’t cook, but I suppose I’m willing to forgive him for this lapse in good judgment. More exciting, though, is his thought about performing in Chicago! Dan, I have just the place where you can stay, a humble little treehouse of an apartment. The food there is fantastic, and for a few strums of the guitar, you might even get dessert. Now that the price of gas is going down, you have no excuses for not heading north. I’ll be waiting for you.

*All photos courtesy of Dan Cohen. Isn't he great?

Monday, November 24, 2008

Waving Hello

Saturday, November 22, 2008

As I write, it is a classic November day. From inside my cozy kitchen, I see that the sky is a solid sheet of grey. A playful breeze is tickling the trees, making them laugh and sway ever so gently. It is Saturday morning, the start of a gloriously open and uncluttered weekend, the kind my soul needs every so often. A soul needs to breathe.

The moments I spend writing are the calmest moments of my week. I feel open to inspiration, like I am a large bowl, waiting to catch raindrops of meaning falling from the clouds of the universe. I’m feeling particularly inspired today because Monday, the day that this piece will make its public debut, is my birthday. I did the math: it turns out I will be 27 years old on Monday.

In this decade of my life, the days, weeks, months go by so fast that every time my birthday shows up again on the calendar, it feels surreal, like I’m in some sort of odd, dream-like state. Really? I’m 23, 24, 25, 26 years old now? I feel almost ageless, like my age is irrelevant to my path and my future of unseen possibilities. When I first pondered the idea of turning 27, I felt a little sad. 27 is dangerously close to 30, and 30 is the end of the carefree, 20-something life. Then I realized my 20-something life has been anything but carefree. I’ve been plagued by doubt, uncertainty, loneliness, and exhaustion. In other words, I’ve been in graduate school almost the entire time. But now, I’m so close to finishing my degree. I’m still plagued by loneliness and exhaustion, as well as another downer, boredom, but I feel like the doubt and uncertainty are starting to dissipate. It’s a great relief.

I knew before I graduated from college that I would be heading to graduate school with barely a hiccup between the two. The journey was like pushing off of the shore of my childhood in a boat, waving good-bye to my family and friends, safety and security. At first, my boat felt rock-solid: I had a great education, a good head on my shoulders, a little money in the bank. The waters were a little rough sometimes, but nothing my boat and I couldn’t handle. I was joined by a boyfriend for a time, but after a while he jumped out of my boat and swam back to his own. Afterwards, my boat felt cold and empty, but it was my boat again. In his absence, I was free to stop trying to impress him, an impossible task at best. I was also free to stop worrying about the future of our relationship, a future in which I saw myself never happy but always trying to make him happy, another impossible task. But I promised myself that I wouldn’t give up on love, that in time, I would be ready for love and romance and sex. I was able to keep that promise.

I kept rowing along, resting when necessary, occasionally visiting with other 20-somethings as we bobbed in the sea. Everyone had a similar story: with flags of independence flapping in the breeze above their boats, my 20-something friends told tales of new jobs and new marriages, of facing down uncertainties with courage and grace. Their stories of fear and failure, and of rising above failure to try again, filled me with hope. I thanked my lucky stars that I don’t really have to make this journey alone, even though it feels that way.

But still, my boat keeps springing leaks. Sometimes they are minor, and I do my best to plug the leak and I keep rowing along. Sometimes they are monstrous gaping wounds, and the water starts rushing into my fragile little boat. I start crying and cursing, hating every minute of this damn 20-something voyage I’m on. I want someone to save me, to take me back to shore. I want to forget I ever left shore in the first place. Sometimes there are emergency rescue missions: my brother and sister-in-law will come by in their yacht and invite me on board. They fish my boat out of the water and repair the holes while soothing me with homecooked meals and deploying my niece to entertain me for hours. Other times, Matt zips by in his speed boat, notices I’m on the verge of sinking, and offers to pull me on board for a little while. We share a glass of wine, a meal, a cuddle, and then I hop back into my boat and he speeds off again.

The saving grace of this 20-something journey is that it’s a one-time trip. Once I reach the shores of age 30 and beyond, there will be no need to repeat the battles for autonomy and self-sufficiency that characterize my 20-something life. To my mind, the chances for financial and emotional security only get better with age. There are, of course, no guarantees, but the pain of 20-something failure will light the pathway toward 30-something happiness. I feel like I’m more than halfway there.

Rather than mourn the end of my 20s, I am ready to celebrate it. From inside my boat, I can see the shoreline of 30-something land, and everyone there is cheering me on, telling me to row faster and get back on solid ground. As they cheer, I am waving hello to a new decade and a new chance to live life on my terms, and for a moment, I forget that I’m still miles from land.

* * *

A brief housekeeping note: I have no recipe for you today. I figure you are very busy putting the final touches on your Thanksgiving menu, so you are preoccupied with plenty of recipes already. I do, however, have a very special treat planned for Wednesday. I can’t wait to share it with you, but for now, it’s a surprise. This is your only clue.

Have a lovely week, dear reader.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Love, Friendship, and Utterly Delicious Salad

There are times when I am convinced this world is a very bad place in which to live.

A dark and stormy mood descended upon my entire town this past weekend. From Friday to Sunday, everybody seemed to be crabby. My boss peppered me with unhappy e-mails on Friday, causing my thoughts to spiral down the “What will I do if he fires me?” ladder. At the bottom of the ladder, I always conclude that leaving grad school, and academia in general, might be a blessing in disguise, but goodness, who wants to be unemployed during these shaky times? Certainly not I.

On Saturday, I went out to get provisions for dinner. Ammie was coming over to cook dinner with me, and I was looking forward to some quality time in the kitchen with her. At the front door of every store, I was practically run over by people trying to leave. The way it worked was this: I would approach the front door and see that one or two people were trying to leave. I would step aside as they moseyed out the front door, so slowly that I wasn’t sure they actually wanted to leave. Then as soon as I thought I’d walk inside, four more people would run outside, determined to knock me over if necessary, if I stood in the way of their freedom. After a few rounds of this, I started to long for the tranquility of my own home. But the worst was yet to come.

Whole Foods now has carts in three different sizes. They have the gigantic “family size” carts, which I never use because they’re too big. They have the teeny-tiny carts into which you can place two shopping baskets. I like the teeny-tiny carts, but sometimes they are just a bit too small. The medium-sized carts are my favorite. They are green, with two layers of cart space. The bottom layer sticks out farther than the top layer, and I am constantly underestimating how far it sticks out. I like these carts when I have a lot of produce to pick up. On Saturday, my neighborhood Whole Foods was packed. It was crazy: food demos everywhere, people wandering in all sorts of unpredictable patterns. It was chaos. As I exited the produce section on my way to the cheese displays, it was single-file only. Inside my head, the fear of crowds was starting to get the better of me, but I tried to stay calm and breathe. Then, all of a sudden, I bumped into this older woman with my cart, and she turned around and snarled at me. For a moment, I forgot where I was and thought maybe I’d run over her cat. I stammered an apology, blushed profusely, and waited for her to finish hissing at me. I don’t deal well with confrontations, so I just stood there mutely until she had her say and then I scooted over to the cheddars and pretended to be mulling over my choices while inside I was flaming with embarrassment and not just a little anger.

I’m a firm believer in not yelling at people—ever. Patience, gentleness, and allowing imperfections are part of my value system. I’m also a big believer in apologizing if I’ve done wrong. I was the one who had injured this woman with my cart—however minor her pain was, I was the culprit. It wasn’t intentional, though, and I never assume that if someone has hurt me, it was intentional. Okay, every now and again I wonder if it was, but I act like it was an accident. So it’s always jarring and upsetting if someone acts as though I have tried to hurt them, like this woman in Whole Foods. I’m very sensitive this way. It’s really hard to apologize when someone is yelling at me; my throat mysteriously swells up and I can barely squeak out, “I’m sorry.” So Snarling Woman in Whole Foods, I really am sorry about that cart incident. I hope you’ll be able to forgive me.

The best thing about bad moods, though, is that eventually they go away. In the meantime, I’ve got my friends to soothe my spirits. Ammie and I had a dinner that induced sighs of delight and contentedness. Have I mentioned how awesome Ammie is? Because she is really awesome. I like her a lot. I especially like cooking with her. We made luscious little pan-fried falafel patties and ate them on pitas with tahini sauce, tomatoes, and Romaine lettuce. The tahini sauce was made with whole-milk yogurt, and it was so, so good. Usually I buy lowfat yogurt, but my goodness, that rich tahini sauce really made dinner feel festive to me. Alongside our falafel, we ate a stunning little salad which had my name written all over it from the time I first laid eyes on the recipe. It’s a toss-together mixture of celery, apples, excellent cheddar, and toasted pecans which is then plated on top of some pretty lettuce. It sounds rather humble, mostly composed of pantry ingredients, but it is a company-worthy salad. Maybe even Thanksgiving-table-worthy! For dessert, Ammie made us rice pudding, a fruity version featuring apples, currants, and lots of orange zest. It was a sweet healthy casserole of sorts, made with brown rice. It’s one of those desserts that can go undercover as a snack, maybe with a dollop of lightly sweetened yogurt on top.

Ammie’s company was a good antidote for all the short tempers around town. But when she wasn’t around, my thoughts kept returning to Nicole. She is my role model when it comes to treating people, including myself, kindly. Tomorrow is her birthday—happy birthday, Nicole!—and I adore her. Although I dropped her gift in the mail on Friday, I am positive that I could never give her as many gifts as she has given me. Her friendship is the very best gift, one that can’t be stuffed into a box with styrofoam peanuts. But there are other gifts she’s given me that are more tangible, like the cute snowball candles that smelled like mint. That was last year’s birthday gift. My favorite gift, given to me by example more than anything else, is Eating Well magazine. Nicole had a subscription to it when we were in college, and I took to reading her copies like a moth to a flame. I loved its balance between tasty cooking and healthy eating; it’s a magazine for foodies who don’t want to join Weight Watchers. Now every time I read it, it sparks my interest in the science of nutrition and has me reaching for my stack of post-it notes to mark the Must-Make-This recipes. Eating Well and I have a good track record in the kitchen; lately, everything I’ve made from its pages has been tasty. I’ve had the occasional dud, but hey, that happens with all of my recipe sources. I don’t hold any grudges here.

Nicole is such a loyal friend. She always makes me feel like I’m her favorite person in the entire world. If her husband is reading this, he’s probably thinking, Hey, I’m her favorite person! But I think Nicole’s got enough love for both of us, and the rest of her family and friends, so I’m not worried that she’s going to run out. Nicole, my dear, happy birthday. You are wonderful. Your present is on its way—pardon the delay! And thanks for Eating Well and everything else we share. I’m basking in the warmth of our friendship right now, despite the cold and the darkness and the distance between us.

Crunchy Celery, Apple, and Cheddar Salad
Adapted from this recipe in Eating Well magazine
Serves 4-6

Every time I eat this salad, I’m amazed by the combination of flavors and textures. It is utterly delicious. I like to use a really good cheddar for this salad, like a sharp cheddar from Tillamook. The cheese goes so well with the sweetness of the apples and the honey dressing, and it brings out the rich toasty flavor of the pecans.

I never do much in the way of fussy presentations when I’m cooking, but I do like to plate this salad when I serve it. I’ve used the delicate cup-shaped leaves from butterhead lettuce, but when all the butterhead is wilty, I’ll pick out some crisp Romaine lettuce and make a bed of Romaine shreds onto which this salad can be laid. Either way, it’s terrific.

4 stalks of celery, trimmed and cut in half crosswise
2 tbsp. fruit vinegar, such as apple cider vinegar
2 tbsp. honey
1/4 tsp. salt
2 apples, core removed and diced (no need to peel them unless you want to)
1 cup diced cheddar cheese
1/2 cup pecans, chopped and toasted
Lettuce for serving, such as butterhead or Romaine

1) Set up a large bowl of ice water. Soak the celery stalks in the ice water for 15 minutes to make them nice and crisp for the salad. After 15 minutes, pat them dry and chop them into 1/2-inch pieces.
2) Whisk the vinegar, honey, and salt together in a small bowl.
3) Place the celery, diced apples, cheese, and pecans in a large bowl. Pour the dressing over them and stir gently to mix. Serve on a bed of lettuce as a starter course or a side salad.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Only Slightly Nuts

I used to think I was completely nuts when I decided that graduate school was a good idea. Have you ever known any sane graduate students? Yeah, I don’t either. And it concerns me deeply that the longer one stays in academia, the crazier one gets. It’s either that or they’re spiking the coffee with crazy pills around here.

The thing is, a Ph.D. program is a marathon. It’s not a sprint. The reason they call it “training” is that grad students fall on their faces every now and then. It can happen for lots of reasons: your research starts to tank, you get scooped by someone else, your boss takes a job in Europe without consulting you first, your paper spends a year in review purgatory. Not that I would know anything about that last one personally…or maybe I do! When my paper was in review purgatory, I sank deep into the mud of depression. It was ugly. I realize now, with the benefit of hindsight, that I did the best thing I could possibly do: I waited. I didn’t quit grad school, even though I was very tempted. I avoided any truly self-destructive behavior, opting for kitchen therapy instead. I wrote a lot on this blog. And I tried to keep up my energy by eating a lot of almonds.

Almonds are the most sophisticated nut. Even the name is a little chic, with that “l” silently forming your mouth into a half-yawn. Almonds are delicate in flavor, big on crunch, and utterly delicious in my book. I owe them a debt of gratitude; they feed me so well and so happily. Yasmin tagged me to talk about seven random things today. Instead, I’m going to bend the rules here and share seven random things about almonds. It’s only slightly nuts to love almonds as much as I do.

1) Like Nick, the friendly Peanut Butter Boy, I love almonds but don’t care for almond butter. I have not, however, tried the almond butter from Barney Butter, which practically has food bloggers shouting from the rooftops about how good it is. Nick, good guy that he is, has promised to share his thoughts with me about Barney Butter after he tries it, even if it sucks. This is one of the perks of being part of a foodie community.

A post-script about Barney Butter, added on January 9, 2009: Barney Butter has a free shipping code, ship4free, which worked for me in December 2008 when I was ordering Christmas presents. I'm grateful to Kath of Kath Eats Real Food for providing the code to her readers; many other bloggers are also giving out the code and now, so am I! Hurray for almond butter!

2) I want to play around more with almond parfaits. I remember a tasty one I made during my first year of grad school in which layers of plain yogurt, honey, bananas, and almonds are spooned into a glass. I stole the recipe from Self magazine. It is time to dust off the parfait glasses again!

3) My friend Shawn Marie cannot STAND almonds. She swears they taste like cyanide. Did you know that we can’t eat wild almonds because they really do contain cyanide? How lucky are we that a mutant almond tree happened to lose its ability to synthesize cyanide? I’d say we are very lucky.

4) My favorite almond granola is Molly’s French Chocolate Granola, which might be the very best recipe I’ve found on the internet. I pour milk over my granola and gobble it down in greedy spoonfuls. Daphna would want me to add that she likes this granola without the chocolate.

5) In order to make French Chocolate Granola whenever the mood strikes, I now keep a big bag of almonds and a two-pound jug of honey in the kitchen. I like to be prepared.

6) Matt does not like nuts in things. This is one of the few things about him that I do not love. It makes my baking life difficult if he is around. But I love him so much that I left the almonds out of half a batch of Sweet Maple-Glazed Almond Drop Scones, the recipe for which I found in The Cornbread Gospels. That was such a lovely morning: I baked scones and trashed the kitchen while Matt worked, then we had this stew and fresh-baked scones for lunch. We learned that the huge, shiny, rimmed roasting pan he gave me for Christmas works beautifully for baking scones. I love that pan.

7) My bag of almond flour is so underused that it makes me sad. I’ve made three different things with it. My suggestion box is open for new recipes that call for almond flour.

Want to play along at home? In order to not lose any friends, I’m not going to tag anyone directly, but I will provide the official meme rules. And if you are inspired to play, leave me a message and I'll stop by to say hi!

1) Link to the person who tagged you and post the rules on your blog. (Check!)
2) Share seven random or weird things about yourself. (Check!)
3) Tag seven random people at the end of your post and include links. (Forgive me, Yasmin!)
4) Let each person know she’s been tagged by leaving a comment on her blog. (Does it count that I left Yasmin a comment?)

Monday, November 10, 2008

Like a Chameleon

Sunday, November 9, 2008

“You’re back!” my kitchen said happily as I slipped off my shoes, closing the door behind me.

“Yes, I’m back. Finally! What a weekend!” I said, shrugging out of my coat.

“It’s not like you to spend the weekend running in and out of here like a crazy person,” said Kitchen.

“I know. Usually I like to hunker down in here with something simmering on the stovetop. But this weekend was a special one. Shawn Marie was in town, Ammie organized an Indian-themed feast, and I went downtown twice to meet Kath and a bunch of KERF-readers.” I pulled my cast-iron skillet off the top of the refrigerator and set it gently on the stove.

“That’s odd. For a while, you weren’t even reading Kath Eats Real Food, and this weekend you wanted to meet her?” Kitchen frowned at me, disapprovingly.

“Well, I phase in and out of reading KERF. I can’t really keep up with the volume of writing and comments on her blog, and my main interest is always the recipes. A good recipe is like a gift. I LOVE the Baked Oatmeal Brulee that I adapted from her recipe, and I like the hummus I made the other day, inspired by this recipe. I like reading blogs where most of the recipes are very nutritious—it’s a nice change of pace from the heavy, rich foods of my other cyber-hangouts, like Orangette.”

“So how were the food blogger events?”

“They ended up being really, really fun. I was a little nervous about going to them alone. I can be kinda antisocial, especially when I’m tired or stressed. But on Friday night, we went to Bin 36, which is a very cool wine bar in downtown Chicago. I drank a delicious glass of chardonnay and managed to have lots of interesting conversations with new people. Julia and I talked about long-distance relationships. Julia’s boyfriend, whose name I have, regrettably, forgotten, talked about his cool job with Teach for America. Jenna and I commiserated over how hard it is to have a job where you are on your feet all day. She was also kind enough not to hold it against me that I’ve only looked at her blog once—so many blogs, so little time to read them all! Alice and I talked about food allergies, which seemed apropos considering the Candida Dinner that Ammie had planned for the following night. And Kath and I talked about good blog etiquette. She assured me that I’m not stealing her readers if people visit Life, Love, and Food after I leave a comment on her blog. She called it ‘networking!’”

“What was Kath like?”

“I thought she was very nice and gracious. I’m sure I read her blog less frequently than other readers. I pop in and out, depending on if I’m in the mood to peruse a recipe or if I’m just looking for a little inspiration for a work-out. Her words always remind me how good I feel after I go for a run, even if the couch sounds more appealing. So I probably know less about her than other readers, given my fickle nature. I wanted to talk to her like a normal person, not like a rabid fan.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, it’s a reasonable assumption on her part to think that when she meets readers, they know a lot about her life. I know some things about her, but not nearly as much as she might think. So our conversations were a little awkward because I didn’t know how to have a ‘normal’ conversation with someone who is, essentially, a celebrity among food bloggers. I didn’t want to bore her or ask her questions that she’s already answered a thousand times.”

I paused here to consider my lunch options. I wanted something warm and soothing, something to go alongside leftover Indian-Spiced Kale and Chickpeas. I wanted cheese, and bread, and lots of flavor. I wanted a grilled cheese sandwich.

“Why do you think people read her blog in the first place?” asked Kitchen, her voice filled with curiosity.

“I think people read KERF for a lot of reasons. I think she has a big following among people who are trying to lose weight or maintain a weight loss. Some people read to get ideas about how to eat healthfully, regardless of weight. I bet some people just enjoy the panache with which she presents her life. She has a very sweet voice, the way she shares her joys with us, her triumphs and her challenges. And there’s a big community out there among her readers, people who find each other through her blog. It’s fun to read her blog; I just don’t have time to do it every day.” I began slicing some carrots. Their cheery orange color and sweet flavor would go well with the leftover kale. “It’s good for me to read a lot of different things: blogs, poetry, Anne Lamott. And lately, I think I’ve saturated myself on food blogs. I need to broaden my reading list.”

Kitchen and I fell silent as I set more pans on the stovetop: a small one in which to heat up the kale and a large saucepan in which to steam the carrots. Once the carrots were cooking, I began making my grilled cheese sandwich. I fell in love with a new combination a few weeks ago, and I’ve been making it ever since: a little pile of sharp cheddar, a few spinach leaves, and a nice smear of Dijon mustard. I lightly buttered one side each of two slices of oatmeal bread. The cast-iron skillet was warming up over medium heat on the stove, and the first piece of bread sizzled as it made contact with the iron. Working quickly, I smeared some mustard on the sizzling piece of bread, sprinkled my cheese on top, laid the spinach leaves on top of that, and topped the whole thing with the last piece of bread. The whole sandwich began yielding to the heat, the cheese melting gently, the bread crisping against the skillet. I nudged a flipper underneath the sandwich, and, using a second flipper to hold the sandwich together, the top became the bottom and sizzled with excitement. Dammit, I love grilled cheese! I thought.

My mind wandered back over the events of the weekend. I am, it turns out, a woman without a niche. Or I’m a woman with multiple niches: I had just as much fun with the food bloggers, a group of people I’d never met before in person, as I had with Shawn Marie and Ammie, fierce, strong, beautiful women I’ve known for years now. The KERF events felt a little surreal: meeting your cyber “friends” opens up the possibility that they may become real friends, people with whom you have a relationship off-line. And I will confess that it was fun to talk about my blog, so very different in style from KERF and yet, I feel more of a kinship with the health-minded bloggers than I do with recipe bloggers for whom there is no such thing as too much butter. Food is sustenance, nutrition, and pleasure, in that order.

Perhaps I am a chameleon. Maybe this is how we reconcile the different parts of ourselves with the demands of real life. I am at once a student and a teacher, enthusiastic and critical, striving and content, productive and lazy, a health nut and a hedonist. I eat to live, and I live to eat. I love to cook, and I cook for love. A chameleon blends in with her surroundings; a human chameleon strives to find common ground with other people, to love without judging, to empathize with compassion. Meeting new people provides the perfect opportunity in which to exercise your inner heart, the one that feels love, because the more different a person is from you, the greater the opportunity to find new love in your heart.

Maybe I’ll just carve out a new niche for myself, and if you want to join me, there will be room for you. We can eat grilled cheese sandwiches together.

Grilled Cheese Sandwich with Spinach and Dijon Mustard
Serves 1 (multiply to serve more)

I have no shame: I love grilled cheese sandwiches. They are all my favorite things piled together into one convenient little package: melted cheese, crispy bread, satisfying chew. This particular specimen is a little upscale, what with its spinach and mustard. I like to make it in a down-home cast-iron skillet, mostly because I like using the new one I bought recently, but you can make it in a nonstick skillet just as well.

My favorite bread to use here is pumpernickel, but I’ve also made it with an oatmeal bread, and that was tasty too. The flavors are really wonderful in this sandwich: the mustard and the cheese become creamy and tangy-sweet as they cook together. Crispy bread is the perfect foil for this filling. If you’re anything like me, you might feel compelled to lick the crumbs off your fingers after you finish.

Is it insulting to give a recipe for a grilled cheese sandwich? I hope not, because I think this one deserves to be shared. And if you need a tomato soup recipe to go with it, my favorite starts with a can of tomatoes and ends with a bowl of softly sweet vegetables, carrots and onion and celery taming the tomato’s wild acid ways. I highly recommend it.

2 slices of good sandwich bread, such as pumpernickel
1-2 tsp. Better (you could also use softened butter or even a drizzle of oil, if you prefer)
1 tsp. Dijon mustard, or to taste
~1/4 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese, or to taste (use the good stuff here—it really makes the sandwich!)
4-5 fresh spinach leaves, enough to form a nice layer of spinach

1) If using a cast-iron skillet, begin preheating it right away on medium heat and give it a few minutes to warm up. If you are using a skillet made of a thinner metal, you don’t need as much warm-up time. Either way, preheat over medium heat.
2) Spread one side of each slice of bread with Better, butter, or oil. Lay one slice of bread, Better-side down, in the now-hot skillet. Spoon the mustard onto the face-up side and spread it evenly.
3) Working quickly, sprinkle the cheese over the mustard side and lay the spinach over the cheese. Top with the second piece of bread. When the bottom piece of bread is toasty and golden, flip the sandwich and grill the second side until it’s golden brown and crispy. You can peak while you’re making grilled cheese sandwiches if you aren’t sure if you should flip it. Sometimes my sandwiches get a little charred…er, EXTRA-crispy, and are still very tasty. Serve immediately, preferably with a cup of tomato soup on the side.

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Time is Now

Finally, finally, finally: Election Day is upon us.

What a relief! (I think.)

For me, this election began four years ago when two important events happened, almost simultaneously. The first was that then-presidential candidate John Kerry lost the election to the incumbent President George W. Bush. The second, and the happier event of the two, was that after months of seeing his name on lawn posters and in the windows of my neighbors’ homes, a man with an odd name and a blinding smile became a United States Senator, proudly representing the folks back home in Illinois.

Like many people with liberal leanings, I was disappointed when Kerry lost to Bush. We’d already seen that Bush seemed to lead the country with little foresight and a lot of aggression. He epitomized an attitude that I despise: the United States is King of the World. World, you’d better damn well do what we say or we’re going to come over and kick your ass. I am not an America-hater. I love the principles upon which this nation was founded. I value education, knowledge, independence coupled with cooperation. I value our free speech and big dreams. Like so many Americans, I’m a mutt of European descent, a product of America. As a biologist, I value the genetic diversity that America has produced through the mixing and mingling of people from all over the world. And I love that we have one of the best university systems in the world. America is still a place where others dream of coming, whether for an education, a job, a new place to call home. I call this place home, too.

Goodness, I’m getting a little teary-eyed just thinking about it.

There was a part of me that was not surprised when Kerry lost. Kerry, for the life of him, could NOT give a straight answer during the debates. It made me cringe. He struck me as kinda slippery and untrustworthy, not much of an improvement over Bush. I think a lot of people who voted for Kerry were choosing him because he was not Bush, not because Kerry himself was a spectacular choice. Personally, I liked Howard Dean, but that’s a story for another time.

So Kerry lost, but the man with the funny name won in Illinois. To be honest, Barack Obama didn’t have much of a fight in 2004. The Republican Party had the worst time finding a candidate for that Senate spot; every person they chose was struck down by some sort of scandal, as though there was a scandal flu going around Republican headquarters. Obama’s grassroots support was so strong that, at least around my town, it was clear that he was the favorite candidate. Most of the time, he seemed like the only candidate.

I was intrigued by a politician who had clearly won Evanston’s heart. Who was this guy? So I started paying attention, and I started dreaming that in 2008, this Obama man would join Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton as her running mate to form the Democratic Dream Team. Surely they would win the White House after eight years of Bush! And it would be awesome.

What I didn’t count on was Obama making that bold decision to announce his own candidacy for the White House. Apparently he’s less conservative about his leadership experience than I am. I’m sympathetic to the concern that others have voiced: Barack Obama is a rookie. But I am struck by his intelligence, his thoughtfulness, his use of words like “evidence.” For a non-scientist, and especially for a politician, he is a scientist’s dream. Add into the mix his concern about climate change, his support for clean, sustainable energy like wind and solar…

I have known for four years that I would be voting for Obama in the 2008 presidential election. I just didn’t know which spot he would be occupying on the ticket. Tomorrow, with excitement and nerves and more than a little hope, I will cast my ballot and cross my fingers that the voting machines aren’t cyberjacked by thieves trying to steal the election.


After I vote, I’ll trot off to work, play with my little flies and tiny tubes, come home, and park myself in front of a bowl of Smoky Pumpkin Soup, maybe accompanied by some flatbread and Matt’s Spinach and Orange Salad. After all this election excitement, a girl needs some serious nourishment. The soup is particularly well-suited for nourishing tired, hungry souls. Rich in orange vegetables like carrots and sweet potato, it’s pumpkin soup sexed up with shreds of smoky gouda cheese and a generous pour of half-and-half. It’s a little decadent, but reasonably so, because it makes a big batch. One of these days I’ll make this soup for a party to show off my good taste, but for now, it’s just me and my soup spoon, slurping away while we wait for election season to draw to a close.

Happy Election Day, everyone. May our next president live up to his promises to fix all that is broken in our country.

Smoky Pumpkin Soup
Adapted from Witch in the Kitchen: Magical Cooking for All Seasons by Cait Johnson
Makes 4-6 big bowls of soup

First things first: the pumpkin. Ever since my friend Nicole taught me how to make fresh pumpkin puree, I’ve tried to make it a fall ritual to steam-roast a pumpkin into tenderness and then turn that bright orange flesh into a silky puree. It’s a little messy, a little bit of work, and a lot of fun. Daphna and I prepped her pumpkins together a few weeks ago and I was rather proud of our efforts. Beforehand, D had sent me this link in which The Pioneer Woman gives a great lesson on how to make fresh pumpkin puree. Her instructions are very clear and very similar to what I do at home, and she has lots of pictures, so hop on over to her site if you are interested. (Thanks for the link, D!)

Once you have your pumpkin puree, make this soup! It’s a thin brothy soup, one that can be sipped from a spoon or slurped straight out of the bowl—or cup, if you prefer. Rich with herbs and cheese, it’s a nice centerpiece of a meal; surround it with bread and a nice salad (maybe topped with a scoop of beans or another protein-rich food) and dinner is served.

1 tbsp. olive oil
1 medium to large onion, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 large carrot, peeled and diced
1/2 cup peeled, diced sweet potato
6 cups vegetable broth
1 cup pumpkin puree
1 tbsp. rolled oats
1 tsp. dried thyme
1 tsp. dried sage
1/2 cup half-and-half
1/2 cup smoked gouda cheese, shredded (yum!)

Salt and pepper to taste

1) Over medium heat, heat the olive oil in either a nonstick soup pot or a nonstick skillet. Add the onions, garlic, carrot, and sweet potato to the skillet. Cook for ~5-10 minutes, enough to let the onion become fragrant, translucent, and start to brown a bit.
2) If you used a skillet in step 1, transfer the contents to a soup pot. To the soup pot, add the vegetable broth, pumpkin, and oats. Bring the contents to a boil, then turn the heat down to a simmer. Crumble the thyme into the soup pot by rubbing it between your fingers over the pot, sprinkling it over the soup. Add the sage. Give the whole thing a good stir, cover the pot, and simmer for ~30 minutes, or until the sweet potato is tender.
3) Add the half-and-half and the gouda cheese. Stir gently and frequently to melt the cheese into the soup. Keep the heat low; a simmer is good here, a boil is bad.
4) When everything is all nice and melted, puree the soup in batches in a blender or food processor. Be careful: it’s hot soup! Taste and adjust the seasonings with salt and/or pepper. You may not need to add any additional seasonings, especially if your vegetable broth is very flavorful.
5) Serve in deep bowls to people you love.