Monday, December 29, 2008

Happiest Chaos

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Life continues to surprise and delight me.

Today I write to you from aboard the Amtrak train. We are heading west, straight across Michigan, on our way to the Windy City. I’m feeling a bit teary again—apparently I cry a lot when traveling—but today they are tears of joy and sadness. I’m trying to breathe and be thankful for what I have rather than sink into the melancholy of missing my family with the kind of heartache that makes my chest hurt and my throat feel tight. They are, along with my tribe of friends, my world. This life would be pretty shabby without them.

I never thought I would say this, but it’s much harder to be a long-distance aunt than a long-distance lover. My niece, Lydia, doesn’t have the whole long-distance relationship thing down the way Matt does. I mean, she never calls or e-mails me. The only time she has visited me thus far, she was in the womb. That means it’s up to me to keep up our relationship, and the best way to do that is to spend a good week with her in Michigan. The time that we have together is so precious and so much fun that it’s worth every mile, every minute, every penny that it takes to see her. I even told her mom, Amanda, that I’d give Lydia a kidney if she ever needed it. Thankfully for us, Lydia is exquisitely healthy and vibrant, but just in case, I’m going to take good care of my spare kidney. Pass the green tea, please!

Lydia trusts me, and her trust makes me feel warm and sparkly. Each time we see each other, she lets me know that I am welcome in her world. During this visit, we spent a lot of time playing together. It was fabulous. Before this visit, I’d been feeling bad about missing her birthday party in September. I was even delinquent in the gift department! I’m torn between buying her fun toys that she can play with now versus investing money in her future. Like her parents, I want the best for her. Lucky for me, Amanda and Charlie (Lydia’s daddy and my brother) are too easy-going to be upset about birthday delinquency. Amanda and I decided to have a shopping date with Lydia. We thought it might be a memorable occasion for all of us, and Lydia could pick out a special gift with me that would remind her of how much I love her and love to play with her.

On a slick, snowy Tuesday afternoon, we hit the road with Lydia buckled snugly into her carseat. Our destination: The Doll Hospital & Toy Soldier Shop in Berkley, Michigan. The drive was inchworm-slow; the roads were covered in slushy ice, and snow was falling like powdered sugar from a grey sky. As we crawled toward Berkley, Lydia spotted a playset outside and asked if we could go play on the slide.

“No, honey, that playset belongs to someone else, “ her mother answered. “I know it doesn’t seem right, but we can’t go play with someone else’s toys.”

“Huh,” said Lydia, satisfied with Amanda’s explanation. She settled back into her seat, tucked her thumb into her mouth, and watched quietly until we pulled into a parking lot. We tumbled out of the car, snuggled Lydia against one hip to carry her into the store, and marched inside.

I’m not a regular visitor to toy stores, so with nothing else in mind but entertaining Lydia and finding an excellent addition to her toy collection, we wandered up and down the aisles. Amanda had a short mental list of things to find, like dustless chalk for Lydia’s bedroom chalkboard, so while she shopped, I tagged along with Lydia to see what kind of fun we could find. At the back of the store, a beautiful, ready-for-climbing playset beckoned to us. It was two stories tall and the perfect size for Lydia. Not one, not two, but three different slides stood waiting for someone to put them to good use. A sign posted on the playset asked us not to climb up the slides, so as long as we could get Lydia up to the top of the slides, it looked like her earlier request could be fulfilled.

I offered to climb up the ladder with my niece, but to my surprise, she said, “No, myself.”

“Are you sure you don’t want me to help you?” I asked.

“No, me do it. You stay,” she said firmly as she took her first big step up the ladder.

“You can climb all the way up?”

She grunted at me and made her way up the ladder, one big step after another. I watched, delighted by her excellent climbing skills and offered to catch her at the bottom of the slide. She grunted again, so I walked around and waited eagerly for her big descent.

“Whoa, Lydi, are you ready?” I called to her. She pushed off and slid gracefully down into my arms. I caught her awkwardly, bonked her head against the slide, and she looked at me, stunned by my ineptness. We both stared at each other for one panicked moment before I cried, “Oh, Lydi, I’m so sorry! Are you okay?” She looked at me with wide eyes, both of us wondering if she was going to start crying. I picked her up, rubbed her little head with my hand, and she immediately demanded that I put her down.

“Okay, baby, here you go.” I set her down gently. She trotted toward the ladder and said to me, “You stay. No catch me.”

“Okay, Lyd. I’ll just stay here and watch you.”

“No catch me!”

“Okay, I won’t catch you. I’m just going to watch you here.”

Like a pro, she scrambled up the ladder again, zoomed down the slide, landed on her feet, fell forward, and caught herself on the floor with her hands.

“Oh my goodness, Lydia! You did it all by yourself!” I could hardly believe how fast and nimble she had become. Last year, she’d just begun walking by herself and this year, she was zipping up ladders and down slides like a little blonde monkey.

I cheered her on as she went up the ladder and down the slide a thousand more times. Inside the playset, on the second story, there was a little house. If you entered the house by opening a little wooden door, you could go down another slide. I wanted to show Lydia how to get to the other slide. Like a clumsy giant in a leprechaun-sized house, I climbed up the ladder. Lydia followed behind me. I showed her how to open up the door, and half-walked, half-crawled into the house. We looked at the slide, and Lydia pointed at me and cried, “Down!” So on my giant-sized bottom, I slid down the slide, landed on my feet with a thud, and Lydia laughed and slid gracefully down the new slide. We both laughed, and she ran back around to the ladder to do it all again, this time by herself. Which she did, again and again and again. Lydia is a fast learner; after a few times down the slides, she was landing on her feet with nary a stumble. She didn’t really need me at all to entertain her on the slide, but I stuck around just to watch and cheer for her like a good auntie.

Eventually, Amanda and I coaxed her into looking at toys with us. Back in September, I had looked at the toy puppets sold on-line by this store, but every time I clicked on an item, it was listed as sold out. I was disappointed because these toy puppets were very cool: beautiful stuffed animals with a big slit for a hand. With a little bit of imagination, these were animals that could really come alive! I perused the puppets, found a nice big bobcat, and while Lydia played with a toy train set, I introduced her to Bob.

Bob and Lydia hit it off right away. Lydia nuzzled and kissed Bob. He purred when she scratched behind his ears; Lydia leaned in close to hear his purring. Bob tried to kiss Lydia, but she pushed him away, insisting that instead, she would kiss his back or the side of his face. Later, she said, “He’s got pokies,” and gestured to her nose. Bob’s whiskers were a little pokey, so we made sure Bob’s pokies didn’t scratch Lydia. As we got ready to leave the store, Lydia cried, “No, kitty-cat come too!” With that, Bob became the newest member of our family. As long as he keeps his pokies to himself, I think he’ll be welcome to tag along with Lydia wherever she goes.

* * *

It’s funny: I’ve never thought of myself as being particularly maternal, but somehow, Lydia and I get along very well. I’m happy being her aunt, and I know I'm not her mother. Her parents are awesome. But it's true that loving Lydia is, for me, a tiny taste of the love a mother feels for her child. I am utterly smitten with her, and I am delighted that she is thriving. It never occurred to me that I could love Lydia even more as she grows older. Lydia’s babyhood is fading. I used to be upset by the idea of her growing up; perhaps what really upsets me is the idea of missing so much of her childhood. But she is teaching me that our bond is special and strong, and even as time whisks us into the future, she’s still my L Ro, and I’m her Aunt Ro. I just hope that my heart is big enough to hold all of this love. If it breaks a little bit, then maybe she’ll give me a big hug and let me hold her in my arms until we both feel better.

Monday, December 22, 2008

On Assignment in the Mitten State

Dear reader, I had hoped to write you a sunny message en route to Michigan today. Instead, I just had one of the worst mornings of my life, but thankfully, I’ve stopped crying and it looks like I just might make it home before Christmas.

I was supposed to be on an 8:30 AM Amtrak train today. I arrived at Union Station at 7:15 AM, ready to roll. Instead, at 7:45 AM, my train was CANCELED with some vague promise of a bus to get me to Dearborn. Then I waited. And waited. And waited. Then I started crying, great big chest-heaving sobs of exhaustion, frustration, anger. Because this month, I just cannot deal with any more stress. My nerves are completely frayed, and the only thing that got me through these last few weeks was the promise of a week-long vacation with my family. They would soothe me, feed me, comfort me, and generally help me forget about graduate school and this frantic urban life of mine. I need a week without public transportation, packed lunches, timers, and fruit flies.

So here I am, sitting on a coach bus, waiting to leave Union Station, my packed lunch sitting next to me like a cat. Luckily, I do have a tasty meal with me, and I even packed enough for an afternoon snack, the thought of which is making me very happy right now, even though my fingers are kinda numb as I type. My fellow passengers are making me laugh: our bus driver does not know how to get to the Dearborn Amtrak station, but all the passengers are assuring him that they know how to get there, so I feel like I’m in good hands.

Yes, Amtrak sucks, but my family does not. My dear sister-in-law, Amanda, braved my sobbing and tried to find me a one-way plane ticket to Detroit, but my wallet is feeling pinched these days. I didn’t really want to shell out $100+ for yet another ticket, and just as she was on the phone with Southwest, they called for Dearborn passengers to board, so I decided to take my chances on the bus. I’ve said it before, but this time I really mean it: no more Amtrak. Seriously. My peace of mind has a price, and I’m willing to pay that price.

I believe, though, that this trip will be worth every last penny. For one thing, I haven’t seen my niece, Lydia, in a year. She’s two now, and she talks. Best of all, she remembers me. My greatest fear as a long-distance aunt is that Lydia won’t remember me. She’s so young, and I spend such precious little time with her. But she remembers me! I was talking to Amanda about my fear and she told me about this little conversation:

Amanda: Do you remember Uncle Scott, Lydia?
Lydia: He fixes trucks!
Amanda: That’s right! And do you remember Aunt Rose-Anne?
Lydia: She plays with me!

Yes! I can hardly think of a better way to be remembered by my pint-sized pumpkin. This week, there will be lots of playing, I hope, and lots of eating and sleeping and drinking cocoa. There will be presents and music, maybe even a little dancing if Lydia is in the mood. Last year, she liked to dance for us by stamping her feet and twisting her torso back and forth. She’s the cutest little dancer I’ve ever seen.

There will be tea with friends tomorrow morning followed by food shopping at Whole Foods with Amanda and Lydia. I’m cooking a family dinner for Amanda, my brother, and Lydia, which is another thing that makes me happy. When I asked Amanda if I could cook dinner for her family, she laughed and said, “Well, if you can make something without wheat, dairy, or corn, then be my guest.” I smiled and told her I was up to the challenge. I’ve got at least two awesome contenders for entrĂ©e position. One option is a big pot of Stewed Lentils and Tomatoes, perhaps served with rice or oat groats and a nice salad. The other option is a stew to which Matt introduced me, and it’s my top choice right now.

Matt has excellent taste, and this stew is no exception. It is, in fact, one of my very favorite things to make and eat. I know I say that a lot, but I think it’s okay to have lots of favorite things to eat. One of the fun things about cooking with Matt is the pleasure of surprise. I never know what he’ll want to do with the food in front of him, or, in the case of this stew, which recipe will capture his attention when he has a cookbook full of choices.

I remember that stewy evening with fuzzy clarity because it involved lots of delicious red wine. It was about a year ago, and Matt was visiting me in Evanston. He’d caught a wicked cold a few days earlier, so we spent a lot of time in our pajamas, laying on the couch. We did get dressed to go shopping for the groceries together, our teeth chattering in the bitter cold as we walked back to my apartment. After changing back into his pajamas, Matt put his palate to work. I happily played the role of sous-chef, chopping vegetables, finding various pots and pans, tossing together the salad according to Matt’s instructions. Matt chopped and tasted, insisting on a sample of the butternut squash puree that I pulled from the freezer (I love being the kind of woman who can pull squash puree from the freezer at a moment’s notice). We oohed and aaahed over the simmering vegetable stock, the intensely aromatic onion-and-spice saute, the incredible wine that Matt picked out. All of these sensory pleasures were a prelude to the outstanding stew that was being conjured out of simple ingredients. Rich with herbs and spices, Matt’s Chickpea and Artichoke Heart Stew is like a peasant stew gone glamourous. There’s a remarkable synergy between the fresh sage, paprika, and tumeric, three flavors I never would have thought to put together. But they work, magically and beautifully here. The stew’s broth, thickened with that squash puree, tastes almost creamy, or at least it did that night with red wine lingering on our tongues.

We ate our stew with Matt’s Spinach and Orange Salad, the recipe for which I promptly filed into my own collection because I liked it so much. It’s one thing to cook for someone whom you are trying to impress; it’s another thing to cook with someone who has already impressed you. I don’t know when Matt and I crossed that threshold between cooking to impress and cooking to love, but I must confess that I love that we cook together out of love. And because we’re hungry.

My bus is now on the road—I think we’re somewhere in Indiana—and I’m feeling much better. Writing is so very relaxing, and you are sweet to put up with me even when I’m feeling bad. Today, a year after promising you the recipe, I present Matt’s Chickpea and Artichoke Heart Stew, complete with Matt’s adaptations as best I can describe. I’ll be making a big batch of stew while I’m on assignment in the Mitten State. Your assignment, should you choose to accept it: have too much fun this week, sleep in, eat cookies, play in the snow, laugh until your belly hurts, and if you feel motivated, make a batch of stew. It will warm you deeply, belly and soul.

Happy holidays, dear reader.

Matt’s Chickpea and Artichoke Heart Stew
Adapted from Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home
Serves 4-6

Technically, this recipe is about 95% Moosewood and 5% Matt. But that 5% is significant to me! Matt uses a strategy he calls layering to deepen the flavors. Basically, layering is the addition of the same ingredient at different times during the cooking. For example, in this stew, Matt adds most of the sage at the beginning of the cooking to infuse its perfume into the body of the stew. Then at the end, a little more fresh sage is added after the stew is taken off the heat so that there’s a bit of uber-fresh, sprightly sage sitting right on top of the flavor profile. Genius, that Matt is.

4 cups excellent vegetable stock (good-quality bouillon cubes plus water work well here)
3 tbsp. olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped, divided
1 tsp. tumeric
1 tsp. paprika
4 medium waxy red or white potatoes, such as Yukon Golds, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
6 leaves fresh sage, finely chopped, divided
Generous pinch of dried rosemary
1/2 cup pureed winter squash, such as butternut squash
2 15-oz. cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 14-oz. can artichoke hearts, halved and rough spots removed
Salt and pepper to taste
Grated Parmesan cheese (optional but tasty)
Lemon wedges for serving (also optional but tasty)

1) In a large saucepan, bring the vegetable stock to a simmer.
2) Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large pot. Add the onions and saute until soft. Add about 2/3 of the garlic and cook briefly with the onions. Stir the tumeric and paprika into the onions and saute for about a minute.
3) Add the potatoes, minced sage from about 5 leaves, and simmering vegetable stock. Crumble the dried rosemary into the stew by breaking its needles with your fingers. Cook this stewy mixture for about 10 minutes, until the potatoes are just shy of tender. Stir in the pureed squash, then add the chickpeas and artichoke hearts. Simmer for a few more minutes until both the potatoes and the chickpeas are tender. Add the remaining garlic and sage. Taste; add salt and/or pepper to taste.
4) Serve in deep bowls, topped with Parmesan cheese if desired, with lemon wedges on the side for squeezing over the stew.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

When Left Alone in a Grocery Store

My Fridays have turned into a crazy science marathon. It seems no matter how early I get into the lab, I can never quite get everything done. I spend hours as a fly matchmaker, hoping my randy little male flies will charm their female companions into an intimate encounter. It’s true: I’m a fly madam. And I’m so crass about it. All I care about is that these little creatures make lots of baby flies for me so I can do it all over again.

Fly matchmaking is just one part of Crazy Fridays. I spend another couple of hours putting fruit flies, one at a time, into tiny glass test tubes. The tubes are then inserted into computer boards that will monitor the flies’ locomotor behavior by shining an infrared beam through the center of the tube. Every time the fly walks through the middle of the tube, he breaks the beam and the computer board reads that beam break as an activity count. You’d be surprised at how willing flies are to pass the time by just pacing up and down their tubes. Using this locomotor behavior assay, we’re able to generate data that can be analyzed for circadian, or daily, activity rhythms as well as sleep behavior. Yes, flies sleep! Isn’t that cool?

Then there are all the random tasks, the ones that have to be squeezed around everything else: giving my flies fresh food, returning e-mails, collecting data, coordinating with other people about details large and small. This science gig is a pretty good job—it’s paying the bills for now—but it is EXHAUSTING. And it makes me hungry.

On a recent Friday, I tried so hard to leave the lab by 6 PM. The plan was to take the train home, toting my laptop on my back. Once home, I would drop off the computer, do a quick 20-minute work-out of some type, have a little snack to soothe my belly (already getting fussy), and then walk or take the train to downtown Evanston, where I’d be having dinner with some friends at 8 PM.

6 PM approached, and I still wasn’t ready to leave. The clock kept ticking. I kept finding more things that HAD to be done. My belly started grumbling a little louder. The clock approached 7. My nerves were shot. I declared my work day done, grabbed my things, and with no time to go home before dinner, I walked over to Whole Foods to find a snack.

I thought deep and hard about what kind of pre-dinner snack would be appropriate. I wanted something light and healthy, maybe a little bit sweet but not too much sugar because I wanted to have a glass of wine with dinner. Cottage cheese and a banana sounded tasty, but I wasn’t sure Whole Foods sold single-serving containers of cottage cheese. On my way to the dairy case, I picked up a bunch of perfectly ripe bananas (sweet!) and a big bag of dried black beans for Saturday night dinner—a variation of this black bean soup, with oat groats instead of rice. With snack-ready bananas waiting patiently in my basket, I strolled over to the dairy case, thinking about how lovely and rare it is to have a few unhurried minutes in a grocery store, especially after a week of dashing here-there-and-everywhere. It was the perfect opportunity for perusing the dairy shelves for new arrivals, a little something treaty.

I have a deep and meaningful relationship with dairy. I’m madly in love with it and think there are few eating circumstances that aren’t improved by a dairy accessory. It’s a serious wallet commitment for me, especially as I am inching my way over to the organic dairy way of life. It’s expensive, but I make it a weekly habit to buy organic milk and with increasing frequency, I buy organic yogurts and cheeses. But I’ll confess that I hardly ever buy organic cottage or ricotta cheeses, and, during my desperate moments, a block or two of [non-organic] cheddar has been tossed haphazardly into my basket at Jewel. These are the moments that come to mind when I tell myself and everyone around me that we do the best we can with what we have. Sometimes we are starving for time and dinner.

But on that particular Friday night, I wasn’t starving for time or dinner and I was in Whole Foods, where you really have no excuses for not buying organic food unless you are flat broke (in which case, might I suggest you hit the bulk section? You can buy a LOT of black beans with just a handful of quarters!). In front of me sat a plethora of new items and brands, eager to come home with me. Ever the bargain-hunter, even in Whole Foods, a new cottage cheese grabbed my attention with its 2-for-$4 sale price tag and simple ingredient list. The tubs were 16 ounces—much too large for an evening snack—so I added them to my basket and continued looking for a daintier snack.

With my mind on something small and satisfying, I turned to the yogurts, all standing at attention, labels boldly announcing their deliciousness. I wanted to try something new and preferably not too sweet. A new offering from Kalona Organics caught my eye: Cultural Revolution. I think it was the sweetly simple picture of vanilla beans on the container that really got my attention: I love vanilla and am on a sort of vanilla-snob kick these days. Cultural Revolution’s Vanilla Organic Yogurt is more than just a pretty face, though. It’s minimally sweetened (9 grams of carbohydrates and 7 grams of sugar in 6 ounces, which is very, very little sugar for a flavored yogurt) and the vanilla flavor just wafts right into your brain when you peel back the foil lid. On that frigid Friday night, I used my lunch spoon to slice banana chunks into the yogurt. I sat in Whole Foods, eating my snack and enjoying the scene on Chicago Avenue as passers-by scurried along.

I was so intrigued by this yogurt, and so eager to tell you about it, that I decided it was necessary to do a second tasting. This yogurt is pricey--$1.25 for a 6-ounce container—but you, dear reader, are worth it! During the first tasting, I found myself wishing the yogurt was just a smidge sweeter with say, a teaspoon of extra sugar in it. But after a second tasting a week later, I feel it’s just perfect as it is. Either way, what really sells me on it is its texture and rich flavors. It’s wonderfully creamy but a little runny too; Kalona describes it as having a “marbled body.” I agree. Perfumed with vanilla, it rides the line between sweet and tart—it will tickle your tastebuds with its refusal to pick a side! It’s tasty enough to eat by itself, but I really like it with a ripe banana. The banana’s sweetness helps to balance everything on the palate. I’m feeling apprehensive about how much I like this yogurt since its price gives me pause, but apparently, the vanilla flavor also comes in 24-ounce containers, which, one presumes, will be a little easier on the wallet compared to the 6-ounce containers.

I didn’t realize until several days later that the cottage cheese I bought is also from Kalona Organics! The cottage cheese is every bit as good as the yogurt. I’ve eaten it plain and tossed into scrambled eggs (a staple weeknight dinner for me) and find it as tasty as the cottage cheese from Dean’s. Lest you think that’s an insult, since Dean’s is a ubiquitous grocery store brand, let me assure you that I love the products from Dean’s. I just wish they were organic, too. Kalona’s cottage cheese is sold under the label Farmers’ All-Natural Creamery. Its flavor is lovely and pure; it tastes of cream and a little bit of salt, with that familiar squeaky, curdy cottage cheese texture. What’s especially nice about this cottage cheese, though, is that it contains no funky stabilizers or texturizers. It’s just cottage cheese, nothing more, nothing less.

The best part about Kalona Organics, though, is that in addition to making fabulous dairy products, they are a local company for me. Headquartered in Iowa, they are an answer to my wish to purchase more than just my farmer’s market produce from local suppliers. With Wisconsin to the north and Iowa to the west, a Chicago-area denizen like me shouldn’t have to look too far for dairy, and voila! Here is local dairy, on sale at Whole Foods and just perfect for Friday night snacks and scrambled egg embellishment. It’s wonderful enough to make me think I should spend every Friday night in the grocery store. Between the food, the free samples, and the window seats, it’s got everything I need.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Wintry Miracles

I’m feeling ready for winter.

For one thing, I finally got my boots fixed. They needed new insoles, so I took them to the local cobbler so he could fix them. I love that I live in a town that has an actual cobbler, a guy who works in his shop all day, giving new life to old shoes. The shop smells like leather and chemicals, and the cobbler himself barely speaks English, but oh my, he does some mighty fine work. He made my chunky black boots wearable again, which is wonderful because I love wearing boots. They give me height and swagger. I feel like I can do anything when I wear boots, like face a Chicago snowstorm head on, putting one boot in front of the other. I got my boots back from the cobbler just in time for the beginning of Chicago’s snow season. I think it’s going to be a long, long winter.

Another sign of the season is that I’ve finally accepted that the Evanston farmer’s market is gone for the year. It’s been gone for over a month now, and while it was hard to say good-bye, I feel I got my fill of local pumpkins, potatoes, onions, and basket after basket of gorgeous fruit. Knowing that the farmer’s market itself has a season makes the shopping that much sweeter because I know I need to savor it while it’s here. I’m so proud of myself, and Daphna, my food shopping buddy, for buying so much of our produce from local growers. It’s a commitment that I was too shy and lazy to make until this year, but like any worthwhile commitment, the rewards are immeasurable.

Winter is a season of contrasts, and nowhere else is this more apparent than in the kitchen. It’s the season of baking, but it’s also the season of citrus. Sweet and sour sit side by side in the kitchen, sometimes folding themselves into the same cookie. I love citrus desserts, and I don’t eat them nearly enough. (Damn you, addictive chocolate!) I’m planning a small birthday party for myself in January (two months late, but I’ll take any excuse to cook!), and I’ve got my eye on this amazing recipe for Orange Pudding Cake from Gourmet. I’ve never made a pudding cake before, but I’m feeling ready for the challenge.

I always worry that I’ll put on weight in the winter, what with all the cookies and egg nog and merrymaking, but it turns out that despite the cold, I secretly like being outside in the winter. Everything sparkles and crunches, and the crisp air wakes me up and tingles my senses with its sharp edges. The beauty of winter is stark: bare branches against bright blue sky, a steamy cloud of breath in front of your face, a piercing winter sun making brief appearances to remind you of what natural light looks like. Even though it takes some effort and some extra layers to spend time outside in the winter, I find it rejuvenating, if not exactly comfortable. In winter, I bundle up and take long walks. I stroll down to the lakefront and look out over freezing Lake Michigan. I listen to the waves crashing against the beach, enjoying the solitude that winter brings. I even run outside in the winter, taking care to avoid the days when the sidewalks are especially slippery. Winter running is not for the weak, but I’m always so pleased with myself when I get out there and do it. One of the first things I’ll be doing after ringing in the new year is buying a new pair of running shoes. I can hardly think of a better resolution than taking good care of one’s feet.

The best part of going outside in the winter, though, is the part where you go back inside and drink hot tea and eat homemade cookies. One can never have too many cookie recipes in the ol’ recipe collection. I’ve been baking cookies nearly every weekend for the past few weeks, nothing fancy, just sweet little somethings to nibble after dinner. If winter is the season of baking, then December is Month of the Cookie. Think about how many dozens of cookies are crisscrossing the country right now, baked with love and packed into boxes by cookie-loving merrymakers. I think it’s safe to say that no matter how many diet trends Americans try, nothing gets between us and our Christmas cookies. It’s tradition!

One of my newest favorite cookies is the lovely, glossy thumbprint cookie. Those little wells of jam, surrounded by sweet pale cookie, remind me of bootprints in the snow—that is, if those bootprints were then filled with jam by little dessert fairies following behind us. Thumbprints are so humble and lowkey—no rolling out dough or piping on frosting. But today’s recipe is not the least bit humble, at least when it comes to flavor. I gave Daphna and Ian a handful of these cookies because I like to share, and when Ian first tried one, his “Mmmm-MMMMM-mmmm!” was so exaggerated that I mocked him for being completely over the top. The thing is, now I don’t think he was exaggerating. He really loves these cookies, and so does Daphna. I love ‘em too. And the good news is that even if your holiday baking is all done, these little thumbprints will be tasty all year long, even if you have to drink them with iced tea six months from now. I would not, however, wait that long to give them a go.

Ian’s Thumbprint Cookies
Makes about 2 dozen cookies
Adapted from Vegetarian Times, September 2008

I call these Ian’s Thumbprint Cookies because he loves them so much. They’re simple enough to make that I can see him tackling the recipe with his future little ones. Everyone would wear aprons, and they’d take turns rolling out balls of dough and squishing a well in the center with their thumbs. When Ian’s back was turned, the kids would steal nibbles of dough, sweet and buttery on the tongue. I can’t wait to meet his little ones.

In the meantime, I’ll tell you more about these cookies. Besides the obvious butter and sugar, they get a lot of their flavor from two different extracts, almond and vanilla. The almond extract is really an inspired touch here: it’s subtle but it adds a depth of flavor that lends sophistication. The vanilla is very important, as its flavor is front and center. This recipe is a nice opportunity to use an exotic vanilla (as if “regular” vanilla weren’t exotic enough, considering that it’s grown in tropical places). My current favorite vanilla is a Papua New Guinea specimen from Frontier Natural Products Co-op. They describe it as “fruity and floral” on the bottle; all I know is that it makes my cookies taste amazing.

Finally, I have a tiny confession for you. I don’t actually use my thumbs to make the wells in thumbprint cookies. I use my pinkie finger. It just works better for me, but I’ve kept the name thumbprint because pinkieprint doesn’t have quite the same effect. I hope you’ll forgive me.

2 cups white whole wheat flour, such as that from King Arthur Flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened to room temperature
1/3 cup milk or soymilk
1 1/2 tsp. best-quality vanilla extract (see headnote above)
1/4 tsp. almond extract
About 2-4 tbsp. or more seedless strawberry jam (you might not use all the jam, depending on how big the cookie wells are)

1) Whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt in a small bowl. Set aside.
2) In a large mixing bowl, cream together the sugar and softened butter using an electric mixer. In a small bowl or 1-cup-volume measuring cup, stir together the milk and extracts. Gradually beat the milk and extacts into the butter mixture. I find that not all of the liquid combines into the butter here, but that’s okay. Finally, add the flour mixture. Using a spoon, fold the flour into the butter mixture until a soft dough forms with no big floury patches. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap or put it in a tightly sealed container and let it rest in the fridge for 30 minutes or longer.
3) Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Spray a cookie sheet or two with cooking spray. Using a tablespoon, scoop out hunks of dough and shape them into balls with your hands. Place the balls on the cookie sheet, and when the cookie sheet is full, use your thumb (or pinkie finger) to poke deep wells in the cookies. Be careful not to poke all the way through the cookie; you just want to make a nice well for the jam. Fill the wells with jam. I find that my wells have about a quarter-teaspoon capacity, so I use my quarter teaspoon to measure and fill the wells with jam.
4) Bake cookies for 12-15 minutes, rotating the cookie sheet halfway through the baking time. My cookies don’t seem to brown very much on top, so don’t be alarmed if yours don’t either. When the cookies are done baking, let the rest on their sheet on a wire cooling rack for 5-10 minutes and then remove the cookies from the sheet and let them cool directly on wire racks. If you refuse to let your cookies cool before trying one, I am not responsible for any burned tongues.

Monday, December 8, 2008

With My Bare Hands

Simplify, simplify.

Henry David Thoreau said this about life in general, but I think this lesson can be applied quite usefully to food.

I’ve been working on a new food project. It does involve cooking and playing in the kitchen, but it’s not really about the cooking. It’s about the tasting. I don’t have a very good palate, and it makes me sad. Luckily, I’m blessed with friends who do have good palates—Shawn Marie and Matt are great examples. In addition to being two of my favorite people in the whole world, SM and Matt are both avid tasters. They sip, they chew, they think. They analyze. They try to capture gustation in words, which is far harder to do than one might think. It really takes practice! And that is exactly what I am doing: practicing.

Taste, taste. If Thoreau had been a foodie, perhaps this would have been his advice to us.

Quite a while ago, SM and I had an awesome, informal coffee tasting at Casteel Coffee, her favorite coffee place in the Chicago area. She’s enamored by how freshly roasted the beans are and the unpretentious, rough-hewn feel of the Casteel Coffee shop on Central Street in Evanston. One Saturday morning, we bellied up to the counter and ordered two tall cups of coffee, one a dark-roasted Mexican brew, the other a medium-roasted Central American brew. Armed with our caffeine juice, we set about tasting them, side by side, over and over. Black, with cream, with sugar, with cream and sugar, it was a marvelous experience. For the first time, I tasted what she meant when she described the Central American coffees as “bright” and “acidic.” In contrast, the dark Mexican drink was earthy and mellow, the perfect recipient of a dairy accessory to give it a little lift. Both coffees were delicious, but they really were quite different, and I loved being able to taste the difference. Tasting is believing.

Alone in the kitchen, I’ve been focusing huge amounts of concentration on finding all the flavors in my food. Because my palate is mediocre at best, I’ve been taking Thoreau’s words to heart and using the simplest of combinations on my plate. A tome of inspiration, Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat, accompanied me home from the library one Sunday afternoon. Longtime readers of this space may recall that one of the most important blogs that inspired me to start writing my own was Sarah Discovers How to Eat. Sarah’s blog, a record of her adventures as she cooked every single recipe(!) from How to Eat, felt like a celebration of cooking. I liked that. I wasn’t quite as wild about the recipes—they were very heavy with meat and dairy. Even the vegetarian recipes gave me pause. Nigella’s cooking is indulgent; next to her recipes, my cooking looks positively anemic!
It took three long years for me to come back to the beginning and look at the primary text that inspired Sarah’s blog. Within the pages of that dense, terrific book, I found inspiration in a most unlikely place: salad. In hindsight, I feel rather silly for not finding the book sooner. But I know things now that I didn’t know then, such as the importance of developing your palate. A good palate is a good palate, no matter what you put on it. I think Nigella has a good palate and thus has something to teach me.

Matt has one of the best palates I’ve ever met. Even though he eats ludicrous amounts of meat, he makes amazing vegetarian food too. The best part is that he actually likes cooking with me; he likes being encouraged to think beyond the steak, to understand what makes for a good vegetarian meal. There’s a lovely synergy that takes form when Matt and I cook together. What we do in the kitchen is something that is unique to us, together. Separately, we are good cooks, but together, it’s like all the love and affection and romance and attraction between us is infused into the food and it becomes the best food I’ve ever tasted. When he is not around, I miss cooking with him as much as I miss holding his hand. I miss it deeply and viscerally. I miss him and his food.

When I’m alone and concentrating intensely on my food, I can feel Matt’s gentle spirit in the kitchen with me. In an e-mail to him, I mentioned my amazing salad experience, gleaned from the pages of How to Eat. Into a big bowl of coarsely torn Romaine lettuce, I poured a smidgen of olive oil and with my bare hands, tossed it over and over, until the grassy aromas of leaf and oil drifted into my nose. Then I squeezed just a few drops of fresh lemon juice into the leaves and tossed again. From there, with fresh leaves gussied up and eagerly awaiting the plate, I tossed a handful of cheddar cubes into the bowl and tipped the whole thing onto a plate. Good Lord, it was a lot of salad—about half a plate’s worth, in fact! Toasted walnuts, still warm from their sojourn into the oven, topped the whole thing and I polished off the entire salad, every last leaf and nut.

Even before I told Matt about the salad, I knew he would be pleased with my new approach to cooking, an approach where the focus gently shifts from a heavy reliance on other people’s recipes to a quiet confidence in my own palate. Eating becomes a deeply authentic experience when your personal taste is infused into the food. Cookbooks become teachers and coaches, but in the end, the meal is in your hands. I like that. I still love my cookbook collection (cookbooks are the best bedtime reading material), but I feel like I’m starting to come into my own style as a cook. With that in mind, I have nothing but gratitude for those who teach me how to taste and how to cook.

A Nigella-Inspired Salad: Romaine Lettuce with Toasted Walnuts and Vintage Cheddar or Green Apples
Inspired by How to Eat by Nigella Lawson
Serves 1-2

This salad is all about technique. You can top the Romaine with anything you like; I’ve suggested toasted walnuts with either a vintage white cheddar cheese or cubes of green apple. The idea here is to use simple but intensely flavored ingredients. If you try different combinations on your fork—for example, a bite of walnut followed by a bite of walnut with Romaine—you’ll start to discover the singular flavors of each ingredient and the synergystic flavors that emerge in the combinations. I feel like there’s a sort of alchemy that happens during tasting; it is one of my favorite things about food. Like I said before, tasting is believing.

I think this salad is a good one for any eaters who shy away from vinegar, like my friend Ian. The lemon is very, very subtle; it makes the Romaine taste even fresher and brighter without tasting sour. It’s wonderful.

2 tbsp. chopped walnuts
2-3 large and very fresh leaves of Romaine lettuce
Drizzle of olive oil (to taste)
Several drops of fresh lemon juice (to taste)
1/2 -1 oz. vintage white cheddar cheese, such as Tillamook Vintage White Extra Sharp Cheddar Cheese or 1/4 of a green apple, such as Granny Smith, cored and chopped into irregular cubes

1) Toast the walnuts: preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Place the walnuts on a small cookie sheet and bake them for several minutes until they are fragrant and browned.
2) While the walnuts are toasting, wash and dry the lettuce thoroughly. Tear it into bite-sized pieces and place in a large bowl. Pour in a scant drizzle of olive oil and use your bare hands to toss the leaves with the oil. As Nigella says, “Toss it far longer than you’d believe possible.” If you think the leaves need more oil, add a smidgen more and toss again. The goal is to give each leaf just the barest sheen of oil. Squeeze a few drops of lemon juice over the leaves and toss again. Taste a leaf and decide if it needs more oil or lemon juice; adjust as needed.
3) Once the leaves are prepped and perky, toss them with the cheddar or the green apple. Tip the salad onto a plate (or plates, if you are willing to share your salad with someone else) and top with the toasted walnuts. Serve immediately, but eat slowly so you can taste everything fully.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Gratitude, in Motion and in Stillness

As far as I know, there is no Gypsy blood running through these veins of mine. I’m quite certain, though, that there’s an ounce or two of Gypsy spirit in these bones. How else can I explain the sudden case of wanderlust that gripped me the day before Thanksgiving? All I could think about was leaving town: hop on a plane, go somewhere else. I didn’t even have a particular destination in mind. I just wanted to leave. I wanted an excuse not to work for four days, an excuse to loaf around and be lazy with no responsibilities weighing me down.

But alas, a vacation wasn’t in the cards. I do have a vacation planned for later this month—three weeks from today, in fact, woo!—but until then, I remain planted firmly in Evanston. It’s not like me to feel so twitchy about things. I’m a homebody in the best sense of the word, so I was puzzled by these Gypsy urges, this lack of grace on the eve of Thanksgiving. I walked around all day feeling resentful about my job and all the anxiety I’m feeling these days about the future and the fact that I don’t know what I’m doing after I graduate. I’m sure I’ll find something, but for the first time in my life, I have no plan. It’s really scary, and yet, at the same time, my advisor and I are driving each other nuts, so part of me cannot WAIT to graduate and hit the road. Too bad I don’t know which road that is.

It is very odd to feel unhappy about my work when this year alone has been my most tangibly successful. My paper was finally accepted and published (woo again!), and my grant application was funded, so now I’m even paying my own salary, which makes my head spin when I think about it. After a long chat, my advisor agreed to let me supervise an undergraduate who will work with me on some of my research projects, which is an amazing teaching opportunity for me. I’m very excited about all this, but I’m still prone to whining and pouting about what I don’t have: a plane ticket out of town, my PhD, a boyfriend to cook me dinner on my birthday. I should be grateful for what I do have: a lovely town, a paid position in grad school, a boyfriend who loves me even when we’re almost a thousand miles apart.

Gratitude doesn’t pay attention to “shoulds,” and I don’t like trying to force myself to feel differently than I do. Instead, when grumpiness strikes, I indulge in a little bit of therapy. The only question is this: kitchen or pavement? I reach for either a knife or my running sneakers, and I get moving to work out those grumpy kinks.

On the eve of Thanksgiving, I found myself bounding over sidewalk, feeling a tiny bit of joy at the feel of cool air on my face and pavement under my feet. It was dark out already; the sun had set before 5 that evening. But I didn’t mind the darkness; the sky was like inky black velvet, blotting out my worries. I ran easily that night, almost effortlessly. The motion was rhythmic, steady and sure, and its sweetness tugged at my soul, making a little more room for thankfulness.

The next morning, I woke up feeling snug and happy in my warm bed. On the very top of my pile of blankets lay one that mirrors the sky itself. On one side, it is a velvety navy blue, dark as the predawn horizon; on the other, a daytime sky blue, a blue that matched the morning sky winking at me through the shades.

I shuffled out to the kitchen to make breakfast. I don’t understand people who don’t eat breakfast. I don’t even understand people who can wait to eat breakfast. As soon as I’m conscious, my belly starts whimpering and pointing toward the kitchen, so I waste no time between waking up and eating. Inside the refrigerator, two pieces of ciabatta bread were soaking in a vanilla-scented bath of egg and milk. That very lucky bread would have the honor of becoming my favorite French toast, and today, because of Thanksgiving and pumpkins and the harvest season, it would be topped with a warm sticky coat of fresh pumpkin and maple syrup. I can hardly think of a better reason to wake up.

I melted some Better in a pan over medium-low heat. Into the pan went the custard-soaked bread. Then I stood still. The secret to this French toast is a long, slow cook—3 or 4 minutes per side, in my kitchen—and I think it’s best to leave things alone during the cooking. For a few moments, I savored the silence, feeling at last the sort of contentment that I lacked the day before. An entire day to give thanks stretched before me, a day to take a long walk, wear my new birthday sweater, bake granola for Daphna and Ian, and breathe full, deep, cinnamon-scented breaths. A day for celebration, peace of mind, simple pleasures.

My kitchen timer beeped, indicating it was time to flip the bread. I slipped my flipper underneath and, with a quick turn of the wrist, revealed the crisp, caramelly brown surface, one that just begged for a maple-syrup jacket to keep it warm. While the second side cooked, I put the finishing touches on breakfast. Alongside my marvelous French toast I planned to eat some savory baked eggs (recipe coming soon!) and a mug of green tea. Sweet, salty, savory, bitter—except for acid, all the tastes found their way onto my intrepid palate. I chewed and swallowed slowly, every bite a delicious one, and wondered why all mornings couldn’t be this nice. With a full belly and a light heart, I pushed my chair back from the table, stood up, and began the task of putting my kitchen back in order, just as I’ve done a thousand times before in this little apartment of mine. At least for the day, my Gypsy wanderlust was no longer tugging at my heart, and for that I was grateful.

Rose-Anne’s Favorite French Toast with a Pumpkin-Maple Syrup Topping
Adapted from Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home and Nicole’s fabulous pumpkin pancake recipe
Serves 1 (easily multiplied to serve more)

Oh, my, are there even words to describe how good this French toast is? I don’t know, but I’m going to try. This dish is marvelously flavorful and utterly simple to make. The outside of the toast is chewy-crispy and, when combined with the pumpkin-maple syrup topping, has notes of caramel(!). Inside, there’s a pillow of bread, tender-chewy and meltingly soft, almost creamy. Every bite is warm with vanilla custard and a little spicy with cinnamon.

The key to making this French toast is time. Give the bread plenty of time to soak; I like to let it soak overnight, but I think a good 15-20 minutes of soaking the day you make it is fine, too. When it’s time to fry the soaked bread, give it plenty of time, about 6-8 minutes for two slices. If you want to make more than one serving, you can keep the cooked slices warm by placing them on a cookies sheet in an oven on the warm setting.

For the French toast:
2 slices of ciabatta or other good plain bread, sliced 1 inch thick
1 large egg
1/4 cup milk (I use my standard 1% milk)
1/2 tsp. real vanilla extract
A few shakes of ground cinnamon (or, if that’s not precise enough for you, 1/8 tsp.)
2 tsp. Better or 1 tsp. each butter and canola oil

For the Pumpkin-Maple Syrup topping:
1/4 cup fresh pumpkin (I recommend fresh here, but use canned pumpkin if you don’t have fresh pumpkin)
2 tbsp. real maple syrup (the darker, the better!)

1) Place the bread in a shallow dish, one with a lid if you plan to soak the bread overnight.
2) In a small bowl or a 2-cup measuring cup, beat together the egg, milk, and vanilla. Stir in the cinnamon. Pour the whole thing over the bread slices.
3) Allow the bread to soak for 5 minutes or so and then flip it over to let the other side soak. Give the bread at least 15 minutes to soak, flipping it over occasionally. If you want to soak it overnight, after you’ve flipped it once, put the lid on the bread dish and pop it in the fridge until morning. It’s okay if the bread doesn’t absorb all the liquid—absorption will vary with different types of bread and the dryness of the bread.
4) Once the bread has had a nice long soak, melt the Better or butter+oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-low heat. Place the bread in the skillet and let it cook for 3-4 minutes per side, flipping it when the first side is done.
5) While the French toast is cooking, get the topping ready. In a small saucepan, heat the pumpkin and maple syrup together over low heat, stirring to combine.
6) Once both sides of the French toast are crispy and brown, and the topping is hot, transfer the French toast to a plate, spoon the topping over the toast, and sit yourself down right away to eat. You’ll need a knife and fork for this one—it’s got a lot of chew!