Monday, February 23, 2009

Sweetly Urban

To my great surprise, I find sweetness everywhere. Its presence is familiar and delightful, like a mug of hot chocolate slurped between lips half-frozen by February’s cold. Sometimes sweetness is obvious, like a shared box of chocolates on the day before Valentine’s Day. Few things demand to be shared like chocolates. While I have no qualms about spoiling myself with treats, I find that it’s even more fun to spoil other people with treats. When See’s Candies offered me an entire pound of chocolates, in exchange for a mention on this site, I knew immediately that 1) it was an offer I could not refuse and 2) free chocolates would give me an excuse to help others celebrate the holiday of love. I have long believed that Valentine’s Day is really just an excuse to eat chocolate, romance be damned.

Perhaps it sounds cliché, but gourmet chocolates are a pretty good model when it comes to pleasure. Even when life is threatening to overwhelm us with rotten news—and these days, between economic woes, lying politicians, and a winter that refuses to make room for spring, who isn’t feeling down?—it’s possible to embrace pleasure, one bite at a time. I love that chocolates encourage us to share pleasure with others. I hummed with pleasure as I made my chocolate rounds in the lab on February 13th. My colleagues hemmed and hawed over the candy, their faces glowing with the delight of an unexpected treat. With no chocolate map to guide us, the chocolates remained mysterious and unknown until the moment of truth when a selection was finally made and a hand lifted the lucky piece to a mouth. As the chocolate yielded to teeth, tongue, warmth, and wetness, so did each person yield to pleasure, transported out of time and place for a few moments as the mystery fell away and sweetness said its familiar hello. For all the support my labmates have shown me, sharing a box of chocolates with them seems like a small, even inadequate gesture, but pleasure, much like love, isn’t measurable with numbers and fancy instruments. A small gesture is that much sweeter when it’s a surprise. Bite-sized delight can infuse our whole being with pleasure.

Since that day, sweetness has been following me around like an eager suitor. This weekend I felt submerged in the sweetness of urban life, reminded by my longtime friend Shawn Marie just how much fun it is to live in a city like Chicago. Shawn Marie, having recently moved to Toledo, Ohio for a new job, bubbled with longing for Chicago, the city she called home for four years. As we sat in The Chicago Diner, our greedy eyes devouring the menu, Shawn Marie confessed that she had dreamed about returning to the Diner. She was burning with anticipation for the dinner we would be eating in moments. That evening, surrounded by friends in one of my favorite places in Chicago, I felt a sweetness born not of sugar but of happiness and contentment.

Chicago has been my home for five and a half years now, and it is thanks to people like Shawn Marie that it actually feels like home. It is because of Shawn Marie, who is the Kevin Bacon of my life, that I know people like Ammie, and it’s through Ammie that I’ve met new friends like Anna, who plays the cello. That night, Anna had invited us to attend her recital, a practice gig for an important audition. I felt very urban and grown-up, attending a cello recital performed by a professional musician. And that musician is my friend. Like, “Hey, that woman up there who’s rocking the cello? Yeah, she’s my friend. We cook together.” I still have a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that I have real-life musician friends. I feel so cultured.

The day of the recital, long before we hit the Chicago Diner for a rowdy group dinner, Shawn Marie and I spent the afternoon running errands and eating cheese. She spoiled me with her car, taking me to exciting places like the recycling center and Target. We hit up Whole Foods for some provisions, where we found ourselves face to face with a curiously delicious cheese called Parrano Uniekaas Dutch Cheese. The staff had set out a little tasting display of this cheese, along with olives and some mixed nuts. But I only had eyes for the cheese: sweetly tangy, with the nutty saltiness of Parmesan and a nice smooth texture, it made me pause and admire its flavor while it melted away on my tongue. Shawn Marie, never one to turn down free samples, announced that the cheese was the best item on the tasting tray and decided that we needed to take some home with us. The cheese guys, bless their hearts, cut us a tiny wedge weighing in at a third of a pound, and we headed home, ready for a snack.

Shawn Marie decided that beer needed to be part of her snack, so she poured a big glass of Samuel Smith’s Imperial Stout, a dark ale. She poured a few sips into a second glass for me, we set out a loaf of pumpernickel bread and the Parrano, and then we settled into the peacefulness of late afternoon, our errands done and a fun evening with friends ahead of us.

When it comes to flavors, SM knows what she’s doing, and I'm smart enough to trust her when she’s got an idea. SM’s brilliance had us eating slice after slice of pumpernickel topped with the Parrano cheese, a combination that made each component sing with scrumptious harmony. The tangy-sweet high notes of the cheese opened up into a savory cascade of flavors, slipping and sliding over themselves. The bread provided steady bass notes to underscore the cheese’s symphony of tastes. We washed it all down with swigs of bubbly sweet ale. As recital time approached, Ammie joined us, and we plied her with cheese and freshly baked Double Walnut Banana Bread, another recipe of mine in the works. Full of food and ready for an evening of music, we piled into SM’s car and drove up to Northwestern’s campus, where Anna proceeded to sweep us away, her fingers flying up and down the cello.

As I sat in the meditation chapel, listening to the notes pouring out of Anna’s cello, I marveled at the beautiful music filling this space devoted to peace and God. The recital was lovely and unlike anything I’d ever heard before. It was composed of baroque cello pieces, with two accompanying musicians playing harpsichord and cello. Anna soared through her music, confident, concentrating, absorbed in the sound and the rhythm. I thought about how lovely it was to listen to her play, how nice it was to do nothing but listen to her play as the music soothed me into a sleepy daze. I tried to sit still. Sometimes I closed my eyes. Other times I looked around at the stained glass windows and the high wooden arches of this chapel, a place I’d walked past a million times but never set foot inside until tonight. I thought to myself, We all need days like today, days devoted to pleasure and peace and beautiful things. We need afternoons of cheese and beer, of friends stopping over and teasing each other with a comfort born of years spent together in good times and bad. We need sweetness to find us, and sometimes we need to give sweetness to others. We need cello music and friends who aspire to greatness. We need to lift each other up so that we might live among the stars. But above all, we need each other. And that might be the sweetest thing of all.

* * *

The generous folks at See’s Candies asked me to mention that they still offer chocolate fundraiser opportunities for groups looking to raise some funds. Remember the school fundraisers of your youth? That’s exactly what we’re talking about here! See’s Candies is still selling their delectable products AND helping out communities by partnering with schools and other organizations that need some extra cash. If a chocolate fundraiser sounds like the perfect sweet incentive for your group, follow the link for more information. Thank you and have a great week, dear reader!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Here and Now

“Lovers, keep on the road you're on
Runners, until the race is run”
Coldplay, “Lovers in Japan”

This song has been playing on my CD player nonstop for weeks. It’s just a gorgeous, gorgeous song—full and lush, a little exotic, haunting in words and melody. But it’s those first lines that really grab my heart. Those lines describe my life in thirteen words. The road is what lies between Matt and me. We make the journey so that the distance between us can be as small as possible for a few sweet days. Then we return to our homes and resume the e-mails and phone calls that tell the other person, “Even though I am not with you now, I am always with you. In my heart, I am always with you.”

When Matt is with me, I pause the race. Otherwise, I feel like I am at the end of a marathon called graduate school. I’m practically within spitting distance of my PhD, which means the clock is ticking on decisions like where to go and what to do next. But these decisions can’t be made in haste, so I’m also facing possible unemployment come September, which sounds scary but it may be just what I need to pull myself together for my next big career move. In the meantime, I’m running until the race is run.

Lovers, keep on the road you’re on. It’s funny: sometimes the road away from an old lover leads you right into the path of a new one. I’ve been thinking about how it is that romance can sculpt our hearts into new shapes—what we call failure can be the catalyst for success and happiness beyond our wildest dreams. The nicest thing my ex-boyfriend ever did for me was to let me go. I was clinging so tightly to a fantasy of who he could be, who I wanted him to be, that I didn’t accept him for who he was. It’s been about four years since K and I said good-bye to our romance and began the slow, painful transition to friendship. He’s the only ex-boyfriend I have who gets to be called a friend, which speaks highly of him. K is a smart, funny, caring man, but his emotional landscape was not a place that was habitable to me. We tried hard to make it work, but too many times I found myself feeling utterly alone in the sea of my emotions. I offered him comfort and empathy, hoping that he’d learn to reciprocate, but each time I found myself feeling emptier and more alone than the time before. When he disappeared, only to resurface one last time to end the relationship, I was overwhelmed with feelings of disappointment and grief. To my surprise, though, I was also deeply relieved about the end of our romance. I no longer had to provide emotional support for both of us. I was free to take care of just me, which is something I’ve always done well.

I feel I owe K a thank-you. The shape he left on my heart opened it to a person who I didn’t meet until many months after our break-up. I liked Matt from the first moments of meeting him, but what really drew me to him was his warmth and empathy. He reminded me of other incredible men I had met, people who had seen enough in this lifetime to know that our empathy is the greatest gift we can offer to others. While we can’t control what hardships lie ahead of us, we can offer a listening ear, a gentle touch, a peaceful heart, in the hopes that maybe that will be enough to get us through.

I hurt for a long, long time after K and I broke up. The concept of dating sounded repulsive for about two years after we split. For much of those two years, Matt was around in person or by e-mail. We never ran out of things to discuss, and I loved being his friend. It was nice to have a sabbatical from dating. It was nice to drink wine with Matt. Our relationship was, in my mind, not a romance waiting to happen. It was just a friendship: simple, beautiful, fun. I’m not sure we even hugged during that time. I don’t know why. We just didn’t.

And then? Then came a Brazilian, and it was all downhill from there. It was a classic bait-and-switch: the Brazilian shows a passing interest in me, I’m jolted out of my wormhole for one, I start crushing hard on the Brazilian, the Brazilian never returns my feelings. Matt, poor Matt, reads a novel’s worth of e-mails from me about the luscious, elusive Brazilian, and convinces me I’m not crazy or unworthy of love. He drops hints about how he wants to love me. I resist, I decline, and then, finally, I say yes. We make soup together and live happily ever after.

Or not. Sometimes I’m still haunted by the ghosts of old relationships, ghosts who whisper to me that it can’t possibly work with Matt, that one of these times he will leave and never come back. Matt’s been around for a while now, but only I can exorcise the ghosts. At this time in my life, a time when I’m struggling with seasonal depression and a boss whose actions mystify me, a time when I’m told a routine medical test has come back abnormal and I need to return for more tests, a time when my future is a question mark, it’s hard to believe that Matt would want to return to the mess that is me. My sense of security starts to unravel; the ghosts tug at the strings and convince me that if Matt does return, it will be just one last time to say good-bye. I am tempted to break up with him myself to pre-empt the pain. At last: I will be alone, really alone, and then I’ll be safe: nobody can break up with me if I’m alone.

The problem here is that it’s just me and the ghosts. Matt has never given me a reason to doubt his affections. He’s steady and solid, reassuring in ways that make me wonder how he puts up with me and my insanity. He knows the lay of the land when it comes to love, and if he needs to put on waders to navigate my lake of tears, dammit he’ll do it!

Yes, it’s hard that our relationship is long-distance. Long are the days without him. It’s too easy to brood about how much I miss him. It’s too easy to forget that I am responsible for my own happiness; I can’t rely on him or anyone else to make me happy. I want to be happy here and now. If there is one thing that Matt does well, it’s living in the moment. He’s got plenty of things to brood about, but he is resiliently happy to be HERE NOW, wherever HERE is. It’s one of the reasons I adore cooking with him: the pleasure of cooking is being here now, whether we’re slicing onions or rolling out a pie crust. In the kitchen with this man, I am fully present, and I love him as much as I love the food we are making, the wine we’re drinking, the happiness we are creating.

On Saturday night, in between my tears born of stress and fear and loneliness, we cooked out of a cookbook given to me by K for my 23rd birthday. This is the other gift K gave me: he gave me Crescent, she of the funny name and bowl of vegetables on top of her head on the cover of Passionate Vegetarian. Crescent’s presence in my life, at least in book form, has been as steady as Matt’s. It’s really hard for me not to post dozens of recipes from Passionate Vegetarian on this site because I think it’s such a great cookbook. I restrain myself, allowing my adaptations of a cornbread or a brownie recipe to slip out here and there, but on the whole, I secretly think everyone should own this cookbook. It’s a wonderful reference book for any cook. Every time I flip through it, I find a new reason to be inspired. But it’s also a heartbreaker of a love story, a tale of love found and love lost. Few cookbooks are also love stories, and even fewer are as powerful as Crescent’s story about her life with her late husband, Ned. Crescent tells her story with grace, and her present-day story of finding love after losing Ned, of “walking into love,” speaks of the astonishing resilience of the human heart.

She amazes me.

But I digress. In the kitchen that Saturday night, Matt and I made Crescent’s Zwiebel Kuchen, or German Onion Tart. This recipe had caught my eye years ago, but alas, back then I lacked a pie pan. This weekend, with a brand-new Emile Henry pie pan in hand and an onion-loving man by my side, we made pie. This recipe has a number of interesting features. For one thing, the crust is a cross between pizza dough and pie crust. The Yeasted Pastry Crust with Poppyseeds comes together easily in a food processor, even a tiny one like mine, and then it gets plopped in a bowl and left alone to rise for an hour. Now, I don’t know why this is true, but for some reason, my yeasted doughs refuse to rise when Matt is around. It’s really annoying! Do they feel threatened by him? Am I not showing them enough love when he’s here? Matt has suggested that he should make the yeasted dough next time, as plenty of breads have risen in his presence. It’s so embarrassing! Anyway, so while the dough was “rising” (or not), Matt caramelized a mess of onions in a cast-iron skillet, coaxing them to a perfectly brown sweetness. I prebaked the crust for ten minutes, and then Matt layered the onions into the crust, poured a custard made of buttermilk, yogurt, eggs, and a touch of salt and flour over the onions, and into the oven the tart went for an hour. While it baked, I had to make a little foil collar for the crust, which was browning way too fast for comfort. While it baked, Matt made his new Brussels sprout recipe for us. I would have taken notes for you, but I was too distraught by the on-slaught of tears that overcame me. Suffice to say, the sprouts were tasty, cooked with a combination of sautéing and steaming, enhanced with garlic and shallots, made special with some fantastic Parmesan cheese, and served with affection. I don’t fantasize about eating Brussels sprouts the way some people do, but I do like Matt’s sprouts, mostly because he made them.

And so we ate. The Zwiebel Kuchen was definitely a tart onion tart: all that yogurt and buttermilk made it quite tangy. The crust was overbaked—no question about that—but Matt and I agreed it has great potential as an all-purpose crust for quiches. Pie crust doesn’t do much for me, taste-wise, with the exception of the pie crust on Daphna’s Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie, which is, hands-down, the best pie I’ve ever had. Oh Lord. D and I agreed we need to make that pie again, ASAP. I’m hoping she’ll let me post the recipe here. I think that would be just dandy.

The Zwiebel Kuchen holds great promise in my cooking future. Matt thought it was perfect, minus the overbaked crust, but he was coming down with a cold and, by his estimate, was tasting at only 70% his normal level. I thought the custard was a bit too tart for my taste. Next time, I think I’ll try substituting some heavy cream for the yogurt. Cream, while a more indulgent ingredient than low-fat yogurt, will reduce some of the tartness while adding its own sweetness, which I think will be delightful with the onions. The other option, which just occurred to me, would be to subsitute some ricotta cheese for the yogurt. The ricotta would be less indulgent than heavy cream but similar in texture to the yogurt. Hmm, perhaps I’ll have to try both options and see which one I like best! Oh, such a rough life I lead.

The next time I see Matt will be in California three months from now. For a girl who likes the pleasure of anticipation, this is just perfect. And when my plane touches down, and I find Matt, as solid and happy as ever, I will be grateful that once again, love prevails.

* * *

A few memos today. I hope you’ll forgive me for not posting the recipe for the Zwiebel Kuchen. Matt and I enjoyed it, but I just don’t feel comfortable enough with the recipe to present it here in full recipe form. But if you are interested, I encourage you to track down a copy of Passionate Vegetarian—if you’re fortunate, you’ve got a copy sitting in your kitchen right now! Try the recipe. I’d be interested in hearing your stories about this recipe.

In other news, Life, Love, and Food was mentioned on slow blogs! I’m just delighted to be part of Monna’s Valentine’s Day post. My favorite thing about slow blogs is the Slow Blog Manifesto, a brilliant set of ideas about how blogging with care, consideration, and, yes, turtle-like slowness, can lead to brilliant blogs.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Just in Time

I enjoy the hermit’s life. I need alone time to unplug and unwind. Without my hermiting time, I can get kinda grouchy. But every few months, I give up my weekend of alone time to spend some much-needed together time with one charming Southern gentleman.

There’s a Southwest plane ticket with Matt’s name on it and a Chicago destination, arriving on Friday, February 13. Although I’m not superstitious, Friday the 13th is hardly the sort of day that one wants her man-friend flying the friendly skies. On the days that Matt flies to Chicago, I check his flight status obsessively, pacing nervously and counting the minutes until he lands safely. I practically sprint to meet him, and when we hug, I feel like time stops. If we weren’t standing in the middle of the train station, I would stay just like that, in his arms, for the rest of time.

I’m not sure how it worked out such that we’ll be in the same city on Valentine’s Day. It feels ridiculously cliché to me; I am rolling my eyes at us. But the silliness of this coincidence is so sweet because this is the first Valentine’s Day I hope to spend happily and in love with my special someone. I’ve spent past Valentine’s Days unhappily in love or alone. I’d rather be alone than unhappy, but this year I get the best deal of all. What a novel idea: a happy Valentine’s Day! The whole thing makes me giggle.

The anticipation of Matt’s visit is tickling me with pleasure. I love planning what we might do and what we might eat. As my friend JD eloquently explains, it’s important not to go overboard making plans when you see your special someone after a long time apart. It’s too easy to fill every minute with plans, plans, PLANS! So instead of putting my attention on the entire weekend, I focus intensely on just a few meals…or even just a few ideas for meals, like a savory pie inspired by this recipe. I’m thinking that Matt + cheese + squash + pie crust will be a tasty equation indeed. Matt’s palate makes me weak in the knees, so I can’t wait to see what magic he works with the cheeses in that pie.

That’s roughly how it works when we cook something special together: I provide the template (“Let’s make a savory pie!”) and his mind starts weaving together flavors and textures the same way a loom weaves fibers into cloth. I love being able to watch the process—Matt is an artist with a palate of a thousand flavors. The fact that his creations are edible is almost superfluous because his creativity feeds something deep inside of me that can't be satiated with food. Perhaps this deep inner hunger is really a hunger for art—a meal as poetry, sculpture, painting, love.

Our slow, indulgent dinners are a balm for my soul, a remedy for a world that is always trying to push me to move too fast, do too much. I wish more words were written about the delights of slowing down long enough to find some comfort and pleasure in this life. Sometimes I feel like I’m a character in a movie, and some outside watcher has pushed the fast-forward button, and no matter how fast I move, think, breathe, I can never catch up to myself. The reality is that sometimes life is running on fast-forward, but even so, we can’t afford to not eat well. For me, the way to reset my internal speed to normal is to hide out in the kitchen and cook something nourishing, interesting, and energizing. When Matt has spent his day traveling hundreds of miles so that we might see each other again, I think he deserves a good dinner too.

I have a new weeknight dinner recipe that is settling nicely into my rotation. It sounds rather unassuming—Roasted Broccoli and Tofu—but it is outstanding. I saw its predecessor, Melissa Clark’s Roasted Broccoli with Shrimp, on The Wednesday Chef, my current favorite recipe blog. The Wednesday Chef, Luisa, gushed about how simple and fabulous this dish is, and I immediately longed for a bowl of it, resting on a bed of white rice. But first I’d have to do something about those shrimp since I’m a vegetarian. The kitchen gods were smiling on me that night: tofu worked beautifully and deliciously, providing balance to the bold flavors of roasted broccoli and a few potent Middle Eastern spices. As it roasts, the broccoli becomes tinged with brown and infused with a toasty warmth. It turns chewy, crispy, and salty, adorned with coriander, cumin, and black pepper. The tofu is infused with spices and a light sprinkling of lemon zest; the tofu stays soft and supple, a nice contrast to the more toothsome texture of the broccoli. The broccoli and tofu work together so flawlessly, so harmoniously, that I feel very lucky to have found this recipe.

My own experience with substitutions tells me it’s useful for others to hear about how you don’t have to use shrimp in this dish. You are certainly welcome to do so—I cast no judgments here—but if you are vegetarian or allergic to shrimp or even just watching your pennies these days, the tofu is a great option. It’s fast, cheap, and healthy. I’ll be making a big tray of Roasted Broccoli and Tofu for Matt and me the night of his arrival. The only question remaining is which wine to serve with dinner. For Matt, it isn’t really dinner without wine. While I normally leave the wine-picking to him, I’m very eager to try this wine from Razor’s Edge (a name which still scares me). Asmodeus described the shiraz-grenache blend as “a lovely, floral, caramelly bottle of tastiness,“ a description so marvelous that I almost ran down to Whole Foods that very second to buy my own bottle. Unfortunately, my neighborhood Whole Foods stores don’t have the shiraz-grenache quite yet. Last Friday night, the Whole Foods wine guy found me perusing the bottles and, after asking me what I was trying to find, told me he hoped to have his own stock of Razor’s Edge Shiraz-Grenache in by Tuesday, or Thursday at the latest. The wine guy was adorable, with a clipboard and a playful flirty smile, and the fact that he gave me such good news made me want to buy him a drink on the spot. Maybe I’ll invite him to dinner with Matt and me on Friday. Do you think Matt will mind?

In the meantime, I wish all of you a delightful Valentine’s Day. Flirt with everyone, buy a bottle of wine, share some chocolates, and snuggle into a day devoted to the celebration of love in all its forms. Treat yourself as you want to be treated by a lover, and you’ll find that you have all the love you need in your very own heart. If you’ve got too much love for your own good, find someone with whom to share it. Love grows best when we pass it along to those who need it.

Roasted Broccoli and Tofu
Adapted from this recipe via The Wednesday Chef
Makes 4 servings with rice

The spices really make this dish sparkle. I’m so jealous I didn’t come up with this combination myself! But I’m happy I get to enjoy someone else’s genius here. You have a few options for the preparation of the spices. Here, I chose to grind whole cumin seeds and black peppercorns in my little green mortar. I like the bright fresh flavors that pop out of freshly ground spices. You are, however, welcome to use preground spices as Luisa does, or use whole coriander and cumin seeds and don’t grind them, as the original recipe describes. Any way you do it, make sure the black pepper is freshly ground so it gives this dish a properly spicy kick.

Nonstick cooking spray
2 pounds of broccoli, chopped into bite-sized florets
4 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1/2 tsp. ground coriander
1 tsp. whole cumin seeds, freshly ground with a mortar and pestle
3/4 tsp. salt, divided
1 tsp. whole black peppercorns, freshly ground with a mortar and pestle
1/8 tsp. hot chili powder
1 pound of extra-firm tofu, drained and chopped into bite-sized pieces
Zest of 1 large lemon
Lemon wedges for serving
Several cups of cooked white rice, such as jasmine, for serving (optional)

1) Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Spray a large rimmed sheet (I use a 10 x 15-inch jelly roll pan) with cooking spray and set aside. In a large bowl, toss the broccoli with 2 tbsp. oil, coriander, cumin, 1/2 tsp. salt, 1/2 tsp. pepper, and the chili powder.
2) Tumble the broccoli onto the prepared baking sheet and roast for 10 minutes.
3) While the broccoli is roasting, prepare the tofu: in a large bowl, gently toss the tofu pieces with 2 tbsp. oil, remaining 1/4 tsp. salt, remaining 1/2 tsp. pepper, and lemon zest.
4) After the broccoli has roasted for 10 minutes, gently tumble the tofu into the broccoli florets, toss together gently, and roast for another 10 minutes. At this point, my broccoli has started to brown a bit but it hasn’t burned, and I take it out of the oven. If you’d like your broccoli browner and toastier, roast for a few more minutes, keeping a close eye on things so nothing burns. Serve with lemon wedges over rice. Pat yourself on the back for making such a delicious meal.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Morning, Noon, Night

I think my favorite place in the whole world right now is the couch. I shouldn’t refer to it as “the couch,” since it has a name. My couch’s name is Big Blue, and Big Blue is the best couch in the world.

I give Anne Lamott all the credit for the cozy feelings between Big Blue and me. I blatantly stole her idea. I’ve been treating myself to couch cruises, which is a wonderful name for an escape that happens right in your very own living room, on your very own couch. The idea is that you give yourself a little mini-vacation by retreating to your couch with all sorts of goodies to keep yourself fed, entertained, serene, and loved for a few hours. Whatever things make you feel that way—those items become your luggage on your couch cruise. I pack light on my cruise—these days it’s my copy of Eat, Pray, Love, a mug of tea, one of Ammie’s Orange Shortbread Chocolate Chip Cookies, and the fleece blanket that my dear friend Heather gave me. I take my cruises in the evening, after dinner, but sometimes before the dishes are washed. As soon as I climb onto Big Blue, I feel better. I can feel the day’s worries receding from me like shoreline as Big Blue and I set sail. My imaginary ocean is always peaceful; I am lulled into contentment by the stillness of the water. I nibble my cookie, I read my book, and I am happy. Sometimes I nap. I even take fake naps, the type of naps where I lay down, pull the blanket around me snugly, close my eyes, and think about nothing. Or sex. Whichever sounds more appealing at the time.

I’m actually taking a couch cruise right now. The water isn’t choppy, so I’m not worried about my laptop getting wet. I want to talk about something very important today, something which has been occupying much of my waking thought.


My story starts a few weeks ago when I was shopping at Whole Foods and I saw that my favorite cereal, Barbara’s Bakery Shredded Oats, had gone up to $3.79 a box. $3.79! &*$#! That’s just too much money for 16 ounces of cereal. I really, really love that cereal, but the price hike was just the motivation I needed to work on my breakfast repertoire. At first, I decided to get on the oatmeal porridge bandwagon. What’s not to love about oatmeal porridge? It’s creamy, warm, and cheap. You can gussy it up or eat it plain. It’s the breakfast equivalent of an ice cream sundae—oatmeal’s job is to accept any and every topping with open arms. And it is delicious, filling, and ridiculously good for you.

Too bad after a few mornings of oatmeal I just…lost interest. I like oatmeal porridge every once in a while. If I’m not eating it every day, it usually sounds good to me—it even sounds like a great idea for tomorrow’s breakfast. But I just can’t get excited about eating something soft every time I break my fast. I like crunch. I like to give the milk something to do, something to soften slowly while I munch my way down to the bottom of the bowl. Clearly, oatmeal porridge and I are better off as casual acquaintances than best friends forever.

How is it possible to love oats but not oatmeal porridge? I am baffled. But I do love oats, and I still need breakfast, something to get me excited about starting my day. For week days, it still needs to be a quick, low-effort meal, the kind I can assemble while the hamster in my brain gets on his running wheel. Geez, that fella’s gotten lazy in his old age. I have to motivate him with something really enticing, something with crunch and nuts and, most importantly, maple syrup. The hamster really needs his maple syrup.

So I turned to my favorite breakfast book and opened to the recipe for Very Crunchy Granola. Then I proceeded to not follow the recipe at all. Isn’t that just like me? I own dozens of cookbooks and I treat every last recipe as a suggestion. Some people have speculated that this loosey-goosey approach may be the way I do my experiments in the lab, and it could explain why I get wonky results, but I’m quick to correct this assumption: in the lab I am a scientist and I act like a scientist. In the kitchen, I’m a cook and I act like a cook. Cooking is as much science as it is play, curiosity, and inspiration. I don’t get too hung up on the science of cooking, except when I’m learning a new technique or trick. I find it very useful to follow my gut in the kitchen. The belly knows best.

Years ago, the first time I tried Mollie Katzen’s Very Crunchy Granola, I followed the recipe closely. Or at least I tried. I did cut the recipe in half for equipment reasons, and I couldn’t figure out what she meant by barley flakes (any guesses?), so I used some whole-grain cereal flakes instead. Sunflower seeds usually taste rancid to me, so I replaced those with some nuts. And without planning to do so, I cut the baking time by almost half because my granola was getting awfully dark at the 25-minute mark. That first batch of Mollie’s granola was marvelous, and it was gone so fast I think I may have been eating it in my sleep.

Any time I make a recipe for the first time, the lack of familiarity slows me down. This granola had so much chopping and measuring! I don’t want to spend the whole damn night hovering over a cutting board! I want to cuddle with Big Blue! So even though I liked the granola, I felt put off by the effort required to make it, and the taste became a distant memory.

But this winter poked me in the wallet and suddenly, I had reason to start tinkering with Mollie Katzen’s recipe. Every ingredient she used that I didn’t like, I replaced with something better. Oat bran? How about quick-cooking rolled oats? Soy protein powder? Um, I’ll pass. Canola oil? That’s fine, but what about trying walnut oil, since it’s just sitting in the fridge, so neglected and lonely? Maple syrup? Oh, let’s definitely keep that, especially if we use a nice dark amber syrup—one with tons of maple flavor.

Step by step, Mollie’s recipe started looking more like a new recipe—she provided the inspirational template, and I just followed my belly. The result is a granola that, if I’ve got a batch of it tucked away, must be eaten every day. It’s a great breakfast option, especially with milk and a nice piece of fruit. It’s also a tempting after-lunch, I’ll-just-have-a-bite-or-two dessert. It goes down well before or after work-outs. And if it’s fresh out of the oven, and the smell of maple syrup and toasted nuts is making me feel blissed out with joy, then I’ll have a dainty bowl for dessert…then I’ll have seconds, since the first bowl was so small. Indeed, this granola is worthy of seconds!

Incidentally, I never did the math to figure out if this granola is a better deal than my beloved Shredded Oats, but my belly says it doesn’t really matter. What matters is how delicious this stuff is. So allow me to shoo you into the kitchen so that you have an excuse to eat more maple syrup, any time and as needed. Your hamster will thank you.

Crunchy Breakfast Granola
Adapted from Mollie Katzen’s Sunlight Café
Makes ~5-6 cups

This is breakfast cereal for those who like excitement in their bowl! There is a lot going on in this granola: all those oats and nuts get bathed in maple syrup and walnut oil and then toasted with warmth in the oven. The pecans lend a buttery flavor to the whole batch, and that syrup is just impossibly rich and delicious. This granola is not too sweet—I think a quarter cup of syrup is just right, but feel free to add more or less syrup or even other sweeteners as you like.

You’ll notice I use both rolled oats and quick-cooking rolled oats, the latter being a more pulverized version of the former. I like the texture that comes from using two different oats—I feel like the more crumbly quick-cooking rolled oats absorb the wet ingredients and help distribute them throughout the granola.

Nonstick cooking spray
1 1/2 cups rolled oats
1 cup quick-cooking rolled oats
2 cups multigrain cereal flakes, such as Nature’s Path Organic Flax Plus Multibran Cereal
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1/2 cup chopped peanuts
1/4 tsp. salt*
6 tbsp. walnut or canola oil
1/4 cup dark amber maple syrup
1/2 tbsp. vanilla extract

1) Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Spray a 9x13 baking pan with nonstick cooking spray.
2) In a large bowl, combine the two kinds of oats, cereal flakes, pecans, peanuts, and salt. Mix thoroughly.
3) In a smaller bowl, like a measuring cup, combine the oil, maple syrup, and vanilla. Whisk together thoroughly.
4) Pour the liquid ingredients into the dry ingredients and stir gently to distribute the wet mixture evenly.
5) Spoon the granola into the prepared baking pan and bake for 20-25 minute or until everything smells wonderfully sweet and toasty. Stir the granola once or twice during baking to help prevent too much clumping.
6) Once the granola is done baking, stir it again and let it cool in its pan on a wire rack.
7) Eat right away or store the granola in tightly sealed containers. Serve with milk and fruit if you like.

*March 2, 2009. A post-script.
My original post of this recipe listed the salt at 1/2 tsp. That was wrong! It should be 1/4 tsp. Otherwise the granola will taste salty, which is not good. The salt is there to balance out the other flavors, not to create an overtly salty flavor. I'm so sorry about the mistake.