Sunday, November 29, 2009

Very Soothing: Nigella and Squash

After the collective feasting around the nation on Thursday, I don’t feel quite right showing up here today to talk about food.  If your belt buckle is still straining against your belly, you might want to read a fitness blog or, better yet, step away from the computer and run.  I don’t care where you run, just run!

If you’ve given up on wearing a belt altogether for the next month, you can stick around because you are obviously in the mood to indulge this holiday season.  I can’t blame you.  I hear up in the northern parts of the country, the weather is actually starting to feel like late fall—perfect for cozying up to Christmas cookies and wrapping paper.  Here in Texas, it’s 70-something degrees today.  Balmy!  I feel like I should be trying on bikinis, not buying Christmas presents on-line.  I have a feeling it’s going to be a very pleasant winter this year!

I actually didn’t cook much on Thanksgiving Day.  I didn’t feel like it, and with no one to entertain but myself that day, it was fine.  I had the lamest dinner ever: a casserole composed of leftovers, tossed with jarred spaghetti sauce and heated in the oven.  It didn’t sound too bad in theory—pasta, steamed kale, roasted cauliflower, tofu, topped with some Parmesan—but it was terrible.  The pasta had gone chewy in the fridge and it didn’t soften in the oven, and I didn’t heat up my casserole enough, so the whole dish was disappointingly lukewarm.  Don’t feel bad for me, though, because the whole thing is my own fault.  In fact, that I spent Thanksgiving alone is also my fault because there were offers galore on craigslist for people looking for others to split the gas bill for a trip to Austin.  I didn’t see these offers until it was too late, and I’m not sure how I feel about getting into a stranger’s car and driving for several hours, but still.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and my will was for some serious time alone, nesting and listening to the hum of the refrigerator.

After Thanksgiving, I recovered from my cooking lethargy quite nicely and cooked a heap of food in the following days.  I want to tell you about at least three things that I made, but I like to take things one step at a time, so we’ll start with the entree.

I’ve been on a Nigella Lawson kick lately.  She exudes such a warm, homey vibe that I feel better just thinking about cooking something from one of her books.  I love her style so much that I’m able to skip lightly past all those meat dishes and find the soups, the salads, the appetizers, and (heaven help me!) the desserts.  Oh, I do love me a good dessert, but I’m very disciplined and I always eat my supper before dessert.  Well, unless the dessert is left over from lunch, in which case I’ll call it an evening appetizer.  In any case, I feel better when I eat good meals, and I felt great eating Nigella’s Butternut Squash and Pasta Soup, a quick, small-pot slurper of a soup which, when combined with a nice salad, makes a perfect dinner for two.  It’s heavy on the squash and rich with flavor from olive oil, wine, onions, and good vegetable broth.  I can see this soup becoming part of my regular weeknight rotation because it’s satisfying to make and easy to eat.  Also, it’s the kind of soup that would comfort during times of distress, and we all need food like that sometimes.  Maybe this soup should be required eating in December, when we’re all plunged into the collective madness of holiday shopping/cooking/cleaning/traveling/merry-making.  Soup may not be as effective as pharmacology at soothing, but it’s a mighty fine place to start.  Besides, I’ve taken Xanax before and all it did was make me sleep for several hours.  I’m going to stick to cooking as my relaxant.  You are welcome to join me.

Butternut Squash and Pasta Soup

Adapted from How to Eat by Nigella Lawson

Serves 2, perhaps with a little left over

The original recipe gives its ingredients in ounces, which I ballparked into cup-based volumes here.  I figured I could get away with that sort of imprecision with a soup, and indeed, my pot of soup was delicious.  But I have a feeling I may get scolded later by one of my readers for my inability to follow recipes…he can be very hard on me sometimes!

You’ll notice that I’ve suggested the juice from half a lemon as an optional ingredient.  I haven’t made up my mind about the lemon.  I like it, but I think a little can go a long way.  You might try adding a little lemon and tasting before adding more.  Much will depend on your choices for wine and vegetable stock, as you have a lot of options there and the flavors vary enormously.  Keep all of this in mind while you are tasting and adjusting the flavors.

One more thing: I think Sarah’s suggestion to eat this soup with some chile oil drizzled over it sounds fantastic!  I want to try that with my next batch.  Yum!

1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 small onion, diced

2 heaping cups of diced butternut squash (diced into 1/2-inch pieces)

1/4 cup dry white wine

2 1/2 cups vegetable stock

1 bay leaf

1/4 cup orzo or other small pasta


Juice from half a lemon, or to taste (optional)

Cheese, if desired, such as Parmesan or feta (optional)

1)  Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a medium-sized soup pot.  Add the onion and cook for 5-10 minutes or until the onion is softened, fragrant, and maybe even a little brown.

2)  Add the squash to the onion and cook for about 2 minutes, stirring frequently.  Pour in the wine and let it bubble.

3)  Add the stock and bay leaf.  Bring everything to a boil, cover the pot, and let the soup simmer for 10 minutes.

4)  Add the pasta, bring the soup to a boil again, and then turn the heat down to an active simmer.  Cover and cook for 10-12 minutes or until the pasta is cooked to your liking.

5)  Taste the soup and add salt if needed.  Add some lemon juice if you’d like.  Keep adjusting the seasonings until it tastes good to you.  Note that if you’re going to eat some salty cheese on top of your soup, you might want to use a light hand with the salt.

6)  Serve in deep soup bowls, along with some crusty bread and a great salad.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Comfort and Connection

Happy Thanksgiving, dear lovely readers!  It’s a good day to be alive.

I am spending Thanksgiving by myself for the first time ever.  It sounds sad, and I was feeling rather sad about it until last night.  My niece called me and we had one of our best phone conversations yet.  Lydia is three and a smidge years old, so talking on the phone with her is a pretty big deal.  I find almost everything she says or does to be unbearably adorable, such as when she asked me when I’m going to be there (December 18th!) or her response to my telling her that I’ve already bought her Christmas present (“What is it?”).  I told her I was wearing a pink sweater, and she replied, “Ooh, I really really really like pink.”  I love that she loves pink.  And I swear I had nothing to do with her pink obsession!

Talking to Lydia cheered me up and today I’m not sad about being alone.  I feel fine.  I suppose I consider myself lucky that I enjoy my own company so much.  I’ve always been a bit of a solitary creature, one who needs to retreat from the hubbub of busy, noisy life.  I like to joke about my hermiting, the hours I spend alone, reading, daydreaming, walking, cooking, writing.  In theory I should be miserable right now, alone on Thanksgiving, but I sit here on my blue couch, sunlight streaming through the blinds, the refrigerator humming, a faint trickle of water through pipes, my belly gently gurgling in anticipation of the afternoon snack, and I feel anything but miserable.  I feel calm, happy, and a little bit hungry.  For all of that, I am grateful.

While the oven preheats, let me tell you about a few other things that have made me happy lately.  Feel free to borrow any or all of them if you aren’t feeling the Thanksgiving spirit as vigorously as you would like.

* Big birthday wishes this week.  Tuesday was my 28th birthday, and in the past couple of days I’ve received a steady stream of phone calls, e-mails, birthday cards, and presents, bringing me happy thoughts.  I love birthdays—and not just my own.  To all my friends and family, thank you.  You guys are the best!

* Fingerling potatoes, roasted with Aleppo pepper and a few stiff needles of dried rosemary.  Rosemary, with its almost overwhelming piney scent, is an herb with which I take a light hand, but when combined with kicky Aleppo pepper and roasted on olive oil-slicked potatoes, it is marvelously good.  I thank my big brother Charlie for the cooking inspiration last night.  He’s Lydia’s da-da.

* Pugliese Artisan Bread, found—of all places!—at the grocery store just blocks from my apartment.  Have you tried pugliese?  My loaf was delicious, the crumb soft and chewy, the crust a little crisp with the same chewiness as the crumb.  The whole loaf had the flavor of good French bread with the delicacy of a softer, rounder texture.  I really liked it and I’m crossing my fingers they’ve got another loaf for me this weekend.

* Nigella Express reruns, watched on youtube.  I find Nigella Lawson’s books to be very comforting; her prose have the same calming effect on me as a mug of hot chocolate.  She’s just as comforting when she’s cooking on TV—almost addictively comforting!  In the spirit of actually making something from this newfound internet pleasure…

* Nigella’s Red Pepper Hummus, from the Storecupboard SOS chapter of Nigella ExpressThis recipe makes a vat of hummus, so I’ve got to find a lot of ways to use it!  Luckily, it’s delicious, light and permeated throughout with that unique, smoky, bright flavor of jarred roasted red peppers.  My favorite way to eat this hummus is on top of thin slices of pugliese bread that have been toasted and slathered with cream cheese.  The warm chewy bread, the rich tangy cheese, and the hummus come together to make one heck of a piece of toast.  Yum.

* A kitchen ritual, remembered.  I’m not a religious person, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate the comforts of ritual.  Three or four years ago, my friend Shawn Marie and I went down to the shores of Lake Michigan, where I found a small stone for my kitchen.  The stone was a gently tapered oval, a dull red with black speckles and a tiny bit of glitteriness.  I went back home, scrubbed it off, and dabbed vanilla extract and cinnamon powder on it.  At the time, I was deeply immersed in the prose of Witch in the Kitchen: Magical Cooking for All Seasons by Cait Johnson.  I loved all the ideas for infusing your cooking space with magic and power; the whole thing resonated with my deep-seated need to nest.  My Lake Michigan stone, properly blessed after its vanilla-and-spice anointing, made me feel happy and connected to my new home, inside and out.  Yesterday, I walked to a park in my neighborhood and found my Texas stone.  It’s smooth and oval-shaped, with speckles of purple and beige throughout.  If you catch the right side in the sunlight, it sparkles.  It feels heavy in my hand.  Since last night it’s been hanging out on my stove, absorbing all the good Thanksgiving cooking vibes, and tonight I’ll give it a ritual of its own and place it next to the Lake Michigan stone.

The stone ritual isn’t really about magic in its supernatural form; it’s about emotional nesting and a sense of place.  I make my place in the kitchen because that’s where I like to be.  For now, I make my place in Texas because that’s where I’ve pinned my future hopes.  The kitchen stones connect me to my past along the shore of Lake Michigan and my present in Texas.  Without my knowing it, they may even connect me to my future.  The Lake Michigan stone actually matches the countertops of my Texas kitchen!

* Cornbread, even tastier the second time around.  Did y’all make your batches of White River Cornbread?  Please do, because you are in for a treat.  Those cornbread leftovers are perfect for Daphna’s Baked Apple French Toast.  Their corny, toothsome crunch melds seamlessly with the sweet custard base and meltingly soft apples.  I used one and a half cornbread wedges from a six-wedge batch for the French toast, replacing the wheat bread with cornbread.  Really, I think many cornbreads would be great in this recipe, but I’m especially partial to the White River Cornbread because its texture is so lovely.  This weekend, when you are staring at an army of leftovers from Thanksgiving dinner, remember this post and bake some French toast for brunch or an afternoon snack!

* The evening routine, revamped.  I’m about to confess something really embarrassing: I am addicted to the internet.  I feel comfortable saying it here because I suspect a lot of you struggle with the same habit.  I find the internet to be very soothing—it fulfills a lot of needs for me in one fell swoop, which explains its power over me.  I can’t exactly quit the internet cold turkey because my job relies on it, but I can attempt to reclaim my evenings from endless hours of clicking and staring.  My new routine: computer curfew at 9 PM, followed by something calming, like yoga.  All clean and ready for bed by 10:30, lights out at 11 PM.  Now, my new routine hasn’t exactly become routine yet—I broke my curfew last night—but it is making me quite aware of my absorption in electronic media.  More importantly, I’m noticing a striking difference in the quality of my sleep when I do obey the curfew: I feel much more rested and energetic when I wake up the next day.  I’m going to keep working on making my new routine a set of habits.  I feel better just thinking about it!

Dear reader, I wish for you peace, comfort, and joy this holiday season.  May you always have enough of everything you need—vanilla, cinnamon, love, whatever.  Take good care of yourself.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Perfection is October in Evanston

Nobody loves a city like the people who live in it.  I haven’t yet fallen in love with College Station, but my affection for my former city runs deep.  I try not to think about Evanston too much these days because it makes me too sad, and it distracts me from the task of settling into my new place.  It’s not that different from starting a new romantic relationship after ending another: if you spend too much time thinking about your ex, you’ll never give a new person the chance to love you.  And I say this as someone who takes a long, long time to get over a break-up.

Luckily, Evanston and I didn’t break up, so I’m welcome to visit any time I want.  I was rather charmed by a city-themed meme that I first saw on Monna McD, Twelve Hours in Dot Dot Dot, in which the blogger’s task is to fantasize about the most perfect way to spend a final twelve hours in their beloved city.  For me, it’s like writing a to-do list for the trip to Evanston that I’ll be taking in the spring of 2010 to visit Daphna and Ian (and their two little bundles of joy!), Ammie, Daine, and anyone else I can sweet-talk into spending time with me.  It’s going to be a busy trip.

But until then, this is how I would spend my twelve hours in Evanston.  Because this is a fantasy, I’m going to take the liberty of assuming that I can add people to these adventures as I see fit.

My perfect Evanston day would take place in October.  It would be a sunny day with the crispness of fall and the smell of leaf tannins permeating the air.  I would wear my favorite pink turtleneck sweater, and my hair would look fabulous.  The day would start at the Evanston farmers’ market, where the tables would be loaded with freshly picked apples and pumpkins.  Daphna would meet me at the market at 11 AM, like we did so many times before, and we would cruise around in circles, tasting this slice of pear and that paper cup of cider.  We would stuff our bags full of the harvest’s best offerings and then head to lunch at Dixie Kitchen, a wonderful Cajun restaurant on Church Street.

At Dixie Kitchen, I would order the green goddess salad and a cup of the jambalaya.  The salad comes with cornbread croutons and fried green tomatoes—those two items alone are reason enough to try the salad.  The jambalaya is thick and spicy and so good that I make an exception for it in my otherwise vegetarian diet.  To me, this is a perfect restaurant lunch—full of flavor, a reasonable amount of food, and it even includes a salad!

By this time, I’m ready for a walk, so I miraculously stash all my farmers’ market goodies somewhere, say good-bye to Daphna, and then meet up with Ammie at one of the train stations.  From there, we walk down to the parks that line the edge of Lake Michigan and we stroll north to Northwestern University’s campus.  We talk the whole time, except for those comfortable silences that are the signature of two people who know each other well.  When we reach campus, we pause to admire the view of Chicago, which looks like this, only it’s even prettier in person.  We turn around and head back south to downtown Evanston.  After a visit to Argo Tea for some hot tea, we stroll down to the fountain and stop to rest.  From her bag, Ammie pulls out a little container of her famous Orange Shortbread Chocolate Chip Cookies.  We drink our tea, munch on her cookies, and tell each other how glad we have found our platonic cooking soulmate in the other.  Then we both giggle and gag over the word “soulmate” and reminisce about our past and present lovers.

By this point we’ve finished our tea and we’re brushing cookie crumbs off our sweaters.  We have a bit of time before dinner, so we walk over to Whole Foods to fondle the produce and discuss baking supplies.  We find ourselves practically parked in front of the bulk spice section, discussing the relative merits of marjoram and tarragon.  We fill a few baggies with spices because it would be a waste to not buy a few new spices while we are here.  I drag Ammie with me to buy my favorite Whole Foods items—their organic peanut butter and tiny oatmeal cookies and a few bars of Chocolove chocolate.  I sigh wistfully as we leave the store because I miss Whole Foods very much.  We head across the street to Dave’s Italian Kitchen, where Matt, Daine and his wife, and Daphna and Ian join us.  The seven of us head downstairs into the cheerful buzz of Dave’s.

We’re seated immediately and Matt shows off his palate by ordering a bottle of red wine that tastes like driving up the California coast in a convertible.  Ian orders garlic bread for the table, and I urge everyone to order a calzone because Dave’s makes the best calzones I’ve ever eaten.  We feast on bread and salad, calzones and pasta, and we sip red wine until it’s time to order another bottle.  After the dinner dishes are cleared away, Daphna, who always gets her way, persuades us that we still have room in our bellies for chocolate mousse, so we order one for the table and take turns spooning up the rich, silky chocolate confection.

And because one can never have enough chocolate or laughter in this life, we head over to Kaffein for a little sweet something.  As always, I’m torn about ordering a full-on dessert or the Mexican hot chocolate, the latter being my favorite item on the whole menu.  A friendly compromise is struck: a few people order ice cream and a few of us order drinks.  We pass spoons and glasses so that everyone can taste everything, and somehow, despite the chocolate mousse at Dave’s, we eat everything.  I’m practically beaming with pride at our vigorous appetites.  It must be all that autumn air and the smiling and laughing that made us so hungry.

Night has fallen by now.  We stagger out of Kaffein and look at the stars, twinkling above us in the clear dark sky.  It’s peaceful outside, despite the cars zipping past us on Chicago Avenue.  My magical day in Evanston is almost over.  As we all head our separate ways, I look up just in time to see a shooting star, and I wish for one more perfect day with all my favorite people.  My vision is getting blurry with sleep, but I could almost swear that the night sky winks at me and I know that everything is going to be all right.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Two Dollars a Bunch

Imagine, for a moment, that you are me.  Your favorite green vegetable is kale.  Back when you lived in Evanston, before all this Texas hoopla began, you used to find the most beautiful bunches of kale at your neighborhood Whole Foods or, even better, the Evanston farmers’ market.  But everything changed when you left Evanston to head south, very far south, all the way to College Station, Texas.  You find that the kale in College Station is usually wilted and limp, its dusky green faded to yellow at the outer edges of the leaves.  This kale is too sad to be brought home.  Without your kale connection, you feel distraught and useless.

One Friday night, after bravely walking under electrical wires upon which hundreds of blackbirds are perched, you enter HEB and find gorgeous, gorgeous curly kale for just two dollars a bunch.  You gleefully pluck two bunches from the pile and saunter smugly to the cash register, ready to be reunited with your lost love.

Two bunches is a lot of kale, so you stuff them into the refrigerator and realize you have no idea what you want to make with your vegetal treasure.  You steam a few leaves for dinner and chew each bite thoughtfully.  You let the rest of the kale hang out in the fridge until late Sunday morning, when you finally know exactly what to do with that kale.  Nothing says weekend lunch at home like a composed salad crowned with a tumble of hot, crispy oven-roasted potatoes.  You get to work.

First the potatoes—a mixture of fingerlings and little red ones—get sliced into half-moons and tossed with a fragrant mixture of olive oil, Aleppo pepper, salt, and black pepper.  Into the oven they go.

Then you turn your attention to the kale.  Steaming is such a nice, easy way to relax kale into tender yet chewy mouthfuls, so you steam some more kale.  The now-soft kale is plated. 

You wander off to check your e-mail and glare at the boxes that are still not unpacked in your study—ahem, writing studio (that room has been renamed!).  To punish the boxes for not unpacking themselves, you give them the silent treatment.

You wander back into the kitchen, breathing in the rich scent of roasted potatoes, now crispy and bronzed.  Out of the oven they come.  You slip them into place on their bed of kale.

Finally, to top this glorious plate of vegetables, you spoon some pinto beans and fling a handful of shredded cheese around the plate.  You pour a glass of water, tuck a napkin into your lap, and taste the first bite.

The kale tastes like the color green: earthy, a tiny bit grassy, mellow.  The potatoes are perfect: spicy, salty, crunchy-creamy.  The pinto beans are little neutral morsels, more texture than flavor.  And the cheese—a mild cheddar today—is lovely as usual.

A really great Sunday lunch is not complete without dessert, so you brew yourself a mug of herbal tea—mint or mandarin orange spice, your choice—and make a mixed dessert plate with a ramekin of still-warm homemade applesauce, topped with a few spoonfuls of cold, creamy yogurt, and an orange shortbread chocolate chip cookie.  The applesauce has been coarsely mashed, so it still has chunks of tender apple amid a velvety puree, and the tart yogurt is the perfect foil for the sweet fruit.  The cookie is soft and buttery, with big bittersweet chocolate chips studded within it.  It’s a cookie that can hold its own against a dreamy composed kale salad and a ramekin of applesauce that contains all the sweetness of home within it.

A Sunday lunch like that, alone, would be enough to call it a perfect day.  But in a state of food-induced joy, you catch the #12 bus to campus, find a library copy of Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, and are instantly transported to writers’ paradise.  The whole thing makes you so happy that after you get home and settle into the couch to read, you fall asleep for an hour, the fat raindrops from a sudden storm tapping a lullaby as you dream about fields of kale.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

I Have an Answer

While we’re on the subject of frugality this month, let me tell you about my daily dinner dilemma.  Every day, I come home from work and I must decide whether to cook something new and exciting, using fresh and spunky ingredients, or if I should cobble something together out of the leftovers that are getting lonely in the refrigerator.

This past week has been especially rough because I learned the hard way that two pounds of red cabbage is A LOT OF CABBAGE.  I made a braised red cabbage dish last weekend, and let’s just say that I won’t be making it again.  It wasn’t bad.  But it wasn’t very good, either, and I’ve been trying to be a grown-up about the whole thing and just eat a little bit of cabbage every day with lunch or dinner.  Cabbage is good for me, right?  Full of vitamins and fiber?  Yes, it is, so I keep plugging away at these leftovers, wondering if I’m going to cave and just throw the rest of them away.  So far, I’m still holding out for a strong finish.

Then I made my first valiant attempt at cooking okra—fresh from a local farm, no less!—and got a little too slap-happy with the curry powder.  There are few things worse than overseasoning a dish.  Instead of tasting the lush, exotic flavors of India, I tasted the gritty powder of excess spice with nowhere to go.

Hmm.  No wonder I decided to play it safe this weekend and make Ammie’s Orange Shortbread Chocolate Chip Cookies.  I needed something buttery and melty to soothe my battered cook’s ego.

Back to the question at hand: the leftover issue.  I have an answer, and it goes by the name cornbread.  A toasty, buttery hot skillet of cornbread is midweek’s answer to a dinner composed mostly of leftovers.  Fresh bread is, to me, one of the best homemade foods to make dinner feel like a special occasion.  There’s just nothing quite like a wedge of cornbread, still sighing with the oven’s sweet breath, to accompany a bowl of leftover soup, a main-dish salad made up of bits and bobs from the crisper, or a tangle of cooked vegetables, perhaps with a side of beans and a few slices of cheese.  Cornbread makes everything taste fresh again, which is exactly what I’m looking for on a Thursday night, especially one where the curry powder got the best of me.

Today’s recipe makes a very different type of cornbread from any I’ve ever made before.  For one thing, it’s an almost-pure cornmeal cornbread—just two tablespoons of flour are added to an entire cup of cornmeal.  Its texture is a little chewy and quite nubbly.  It tastes surprisingly buttery, given that it’s made with just two tablespoons of butter (or oil, if you insist), and a little eggy.  It’s also quite a bit thinner than my standard cornbread.  Altogether, what it reminds me of most is a thick cornmeal pancake.  Fresh out of the oven, a wedge of it will make a dinner plate very happy.  But I think its ultimate destiny is that of pancake stand-in.  Tonight I made a quick blueberry sauce on the stovetop, poured it over a wedge of White River Cornbread, and topped it with a generous scoop of maple ice cream.  The hot blueberry sauce soaked into the bread just a little, while the ice cream melted into little purple pools of creamy sweetness.  The bread was a tad on the thick side for this dessert—next time I’ll slice my wedge in half horizontally so I can eat more blueberry sauce and ice cream with each bite of bread.  But that might not be before I try it with sauted apples and an extra drizzle of maple syrup.  I’m not sure what I like more: this cornbread’s flavor or its versatility.  Maybe I need to bake another skillet’s worth to decide.  Maybe you should bake one too.

Happy cornbread-baking, friends!

White River Cornbread

Adapted slightly from The Cornbread Gospels by Crescent Dragonwagon

Makes 6-8 wedges

Few things strike fear into my heart like the following words: “Heat the oil (or any kind of fat) until smoking.”  I am petrified of burning things, to the point that I tend to undercook rather than risk burning dinner.  So when I saw that Crescent’s instructions for this recipe call for heating the butter until smoking, I just couldn’t go through with it.  Burnt butter is a bad, bad thing.

Instead, I tried to stay loyal to the spirit of the recipe while sidestepping the smoking butter issue: I prep the skillet with its lump of butter and mix together the dry and wet ingredients.  Then the skillet goes into the oven, the butter melts, and everything gets nice and hot.  The skillet is probably not as hot as the original recipe would make it, but at least the butter isn’t burnt!  Then I finish assembling the batter, scrape it into the skillet, and everything gets baked.

There’s one more endearing quality about this cornbread: its baking time is quite short—twenty minutes, max.  That’s nice if you’re trying to pull together dinner in a hurry, or you’ve got an episode of Grey’s Anatomy you’d rather watch with cornbread in hand, not still in the oven, baking.

2 tbsp. butter or oil (I used butter)

1 cup cornmeal

2 tbsp. all-purpose flour

1/4 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. salt

2 eggs

3/4 cup yogurt mixed with 1/4 cup water OR 1 cup buttermilk (use yogurt or buttermilk that’s got some fat in it—this cornbread is quite lean otherwise)

1)  Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.  Place the 2 tbsp. of butter or oil in a ten-inch cast-iron skillet.

2)  In a medium-sized mixing bowl, mix together the cornmeal, flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.  Set aside.

3)  In a small mixing bowl, beat together the eggs and diluted yogurt or buttermilk.  Set aside.

4)  Place the skillet inside the oven.  Let the oven heat melt the butter inside the skillet and get the skillet nice and hot.  When the butter has melted, carefully swirl it around inside the pan, take it out of the oven, and proceed quickly to the next step.

5)  Working quickly, pour about a tablespoon of the melted butter into the wet ingredients.  Fold the wet ingredients into the dry, mixing just until everything is moistened.  Do not overmix.

6)  Pour or scrape the batter into the hot skillet.  Pop the skillet into the oven and bake for 10-15 minutes or until the top is firm to the touch.

7)  Place the cornbread under the broiler for a few minutes to brown the top.  If your bread freckles with brown spots, rather than browning evenly, don’t worry—it’ll still taste great.

8)  Remove cornbread from the oven.  Serve wedges hot from the skillet.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

In Gratitude We Find Peace

“When I have a toothache, I discover that not having a toothache is a wonderful thing.  That is peace.  I have to have a toothache in order to be enlightened, to know that not having one is wonderful.  My nontoothache is peace, is joy.  But when I do not have a toothache, I do not seem to be happy.  Therefore, I look deeply in that present moment and see that I have a nontoothache, that can make me very happy already.”  From The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk.  Reprinted in Money & Happiness: A Guide to Living the Good Life by Laura Rowley.

I learned a rather unsettling thing last week: postdocs don’t make that much money.  Now, among older and wiser postdocs, this revelation is no surprise.  But I’m young and ignorant, and I thought a $10,000+ raise sounded like a LOT of money.  It is, and it would be a great raise, if it didn’t have to cover things like Social Security, Medicare, and a mandatory retirement plan, all of which are removed from my paycheck before I ever set my eyes on it.  The thing is, when I was a graduate student, our paychecks were boosted by certain exemptions.  I didn’t pay for Social Security or Medicare, and if I wanted to save for retirement, that was my business, not my employer’s.  By graduate student standards, I think I did pretty well.  I saved a good chunk of every paycheck.  I lived in an apartment I loved, shopped for organic vegetables at Whole Foods, and ate awesome meals I cooked myself.  I wasn’t making a lot of money, but it felt like enough.  I worried about money sometimes, but I soothed my feelings by promising myself that I wouldn’t be in graduate school forever and someday I would make more money.  It was all an investment in my future.

The future has arrived, and it’s not as pretty as I thought it would be.  Yes, I am making more money.  But I’m also living in a place where my boss thinks I am absolutely nuts not to have a car.  (He’s probably right.)  It now costs more than five hundred dollars for me to go home for Christmas, and I have to spend the better part of two days traveling in order to do it.  What’s irritating me most of all, though, is the feeling that my new apartment needs some serious help in order to really exude that homey quality I crave.  Suddenly, my belongings, the same ones that felt totally adequate during my grad student days, seem worn and tired.  Some of them are more beat-up than others.  I want new, shiny, beautiful things, possessions that will make me feel like I’ve moved up in the world.  I’m a PhD now!  Don’t I deserve nicer things?

The trouble is, getting out of graduate school was expensive.  I’m a diligent saver and a careful budgeter, but my last year of grad school was a doozy.  A year ago, I didn’t think I would be done with graduate school before the end of 2009, so I wasn’t really planning on bankrolling all the items that fell into my lap this year.  But between moving, an expensive medical scare (but I’m fine now—whew!), fancy job interview clothes, new contact lenses for my poor nearsighted eyes, paying for the publication of my thesis, and a few other items, I racked up more than three thousand dollars in unexpected bills.  Three thousand dollars.  That is a lot of money.

I spent most of October freaking out about the final tally on my Get-Out-of-Grad-School tab.  I felt like I’d been ambushed.  I just had no idea how expensive it would be for me to get to the next phase in my career.  I’m so glad I’m here now because I’m totally jazzed about all the possibilities, but my $3000 bill was very upsetting.  I was able to pay for everything upfront with my savings, but I felt completely overwhelmed with how I would “budget” for this bill in hindsight.

So I gave up.

No, that’s not true.  I thought long and hard about what to do, and I decided to forgive myself for the debt and move forward by living simply and well within my means so that I could replenish those savings.  I now call it The Cost of Getting Out of Grad School.  Somehow, giving my debt a name makes me feel better.  The debt fulfilled multiple needs, but ultimately it all funneled down to the cash I needed to get from grad student to postdoc.  If I had to do it, I would spend all that money again in a heartbeat.

In light of my debt forgiveness, I feel that it wouldn’t be quite appropriate for me to go out and spend several hundred or thousand dollars on goodies for my new place.  In time, I probably will do that.  What I need now, though, is a new perspective on things.  A renewed sense of appreciation for what I do have.  A wise man once said, “This too shall pass.”  I believe that with time, my money worries will dissipate, and I am very grateful that I did have savings so I could pay for everything, regardless of my budget plan.  I realize that not everyone has that luxury.  But what I really want to do is get away from obsessing about money altogether because it just depresses me and makes me want to go shopping.

I want to think about my nontoothache and how happy it makes me.  Everyday life is so beautiful, but it can be so hard to see through the cloudy myopia of stress and anxiety.  In this season of thanksgiving, I want to open my heart to beauty and goodness.  I want to summon love to sit by my side while we drink hot tea and eat cookies and feel very blessed indeed.

For the next four weeks, each Thursday I’m going to wax poetic about all the wonderful things for which I am grateful.  A gratitude list is one of my favorite things to share because it has such a profound effect on others.  I love that moment before the Thanksgiving meal, the one where everybody at the table has to name something for which they are grateful.  This month, let’s have a few of those moments here on this site.  If you feel like sharing your own gratitude list, know that I am listening.  I am grateful to share this site with you, my lovely and quiet readers.

Peace be with you, friends.  I’ll see you back here on Sunday.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Lucini Premium Select Extra-Virgin Olive Oil

Oh, poo.

I mean, oh P-O-O.

It may appear that I have abandoned Project Olive Oil, the olive oil tasting and reviewing project that I so happily dreamed up and announced on Life, Love, and Food months ago.  The first olive oil had been tasted and pronounced a winner, and I was ready to dive into the rest of the tasting project before telling you about it.

But then graduation happened.  I really had no idea how utterly consumed I would feel by the series of tasks that graduation entailed.  It was like riding a rollercoaster, except that there’s no seat belt and the bar they lower onto your lap to keep you safely inside the car feels wobbly and rusty, like the safety inspectors have deliberately ignored it for forty years.  Finishing a PhD is a wonderful, landmark event in a graduate student’s life, but it leaves little time for more important things, like olive oil tastings.

I’m ready for Project Olive Oil now.  Shall we begin?

Today’s extra-virgin olive oil is a keeper.  I first found Lucini Premium Select Extra-Virgin Olive Oil at my Whole Foods store in Evanston, Illinois.  This Italian-made olive oil is delicate, with a deliciously floral-grassy aroma that smells like a summer’s day.  Its flavor is light and fresh, the perfect olive oil with which to dress your green salads.  My friend Shawn Marie and I found it to be a lovely oil for an afternoon snack of fresh bread dipped in oil and vinegar.  If you buy a good balsamic vinegar, this oil will make the vinegar taste even better—ingredient synergy!

I’m on the last drips from my second bottle of Lucini.  I loved the first bottle so much that when I saw it on sale at Whole Foods, I bought a second bottle just in case I couldn’t find it in Texas.  Lucky for me, they sell Lucini at Village Foods, which is as close as I’ve been able to get to a neighborhood Whole Foods store in College Station.  (It’s really not Whole Foods, but it’ll have to do.)  I put Lucini through the battery of olive oil tests that I first described in Introducing Project Olive Oil and it got an A on every test.  What a show-off!

Lucini is an excellent oil for any dish in which one would like the olive oil to contribute richness and delicate flavor without overwhelming the other ingredients.  It’s the sort of oil that gets you excited about eating very simply and close to the earth.  Bread with oil and vinegar, fresh salads, caprese salad: Lucini loves these dishes.  I also tried Lucini in a baked good, Amanda Hesser’s Peach Tart from Cooking for Mr. Latte.  This recipe contains an interesting variation on pastry in which you stir together flour, salt, and sugar inside an 8 x 8 pan.  In a different bowl, you beat together a generous pour of olive oil, milk, and almond extract and then add it to the flour mixture.  Once the flour mixture is moistened, you press it into a crust layer inside the pan, line the crust with sliced peaches and a sugary topping, and bake.  In her recipe, Amanda suggests olive oil or vegetable oil for the crust, but I’d say go for the olive oil and use Lucini!  It was delicious.  The crust was nutty and crumbly, a lovely textural contrast to the sweet fruity peach filling.  I’d love to make the crust again, but be warned about the filling: I found it to be quite sweet, almost too sweet.  However, I gave a couple of slices of peach tart to my friend Daphna, and she said it was great when eaten with fresh blueberries.  Daphna loves those tiny, tart, wild blueberries.

Now I just have to make one very hard decision: is it time to move onto the next oily specimen for Project Olive Oil, or can I buy my third bottle of Lucini?  This decision may keep me awake at night.  Maybe I should buy both to be on the safe side!

Friday, November 6, 2009

A Day’s Journey

It’s been almost a week since my Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD) experiment ended.  In that time, I’ve returned to my normal eating habits, and the difference between the two regimes is striking.  What is more striking, though, is the difference in perspectives when one is following a very unusual set of eating habits.  It’s worth taking a moment to ponder that less tangible part of the experience.

The best way I can describe my experience of the SCD is that it feels like one of those visual paradigms, like the image of the young woman that suddenly shifts into an old woman or the image of the faces that’s really a vase…or is it two faces?  When I was following the SCD, it was hard to imagine not following it.  And now that I’m not following it, I can’t believe that I didn’t eat grains, or most sugars, or even fresh milk, for an entire week!  (Minus a few documented exceptions…)  After a day or two of SCD, I felt wholly absorbed by the rules I’d chosen to follow, and though I missed chocolate and bananas and my morning cereal, I didn’t miss them as much as I thought I would.  The diet became easier to follow the longer I did it.  It was bittersweet to see the experiment end, at which point I knew I would return to my grain-eating habits.

The SCD was an excuse to dive back into my cooking.  I really loved that.  My life has been pretty topsy-turvy for the last three months.  Normally my cooking is my haven, an activity that nourishes me.  I like the simple, quiet routines of cooking and baking, the smells and the tastes and the textures.  I love my kitchen, whether it’s a great big room in Evanston, Illinois or a cute little nook in College Station, Texas.  Even though I’ve been in Texas for over a month now, I still feel the chaos of my move, and it’s been hard to settle into a cooking rhythm.  The SCD forced me to cook almost every morning and every night, and most days I appreciated the steady rhythm of meal preparation.  There were days when I was utterly delighted by something new and delicious, like the onion rings whose almond flour crumb coating makes an outstanding topping for baked eggs or the mango-buttermilk smoothies that were so sweet they tasted like candy.  These are the kinds of things that one learns by cooking every day, and by being brave in the kitchen.

I felt good while I was following the SCD.  My energy levels were perhaps a little bit more even than they are normally.  Without the glycemic rush of carbohydrates, maybe my body was burning its fuel more slowly and evenly.  The food I ate was incredibly nutritious, rich in both energy and the non-calorie nutrients we all need to be vibrantly healthy—vitamins, minerals, and the like.  I feel confident now that you can cut out grains and still eat very well, as long as you are conscientious about meal-planning and eating a nice variety of different foods.

Speaking of variety, at the beginning of my experiment, I was very excited about trying all sorts of baked goodies made with almond flour.  I’m not sure what happened, but after about five days of SCD, the idea of more almond flour made me feel slightly queasy.  I still ate what I’d already made, like Amanda’s Spice Cookies, and I felt fine, but the idea of making more things with almond flour was more than I could bear.  Perhaps it was my body’s way of telling me it was a little overwhelmed by all the almonds, or maybe I had a touch of the flu.  Whatever it was, in hindsight I am glad I listened to my body and tried to moderate my almond intake.  It never hurts to listen to your body and honor its needs.

It occurs to me that I embarked upon this SCD experiment as a way to raise awareness of the SCD for people like my niece, who does not have good digestion.  Yet once I started the experiment, especially because I was blogging about it every day, it was all me me me, I-ate-this, I-ate-that!  It wasn’t my intention to become a self-absorbed narcissist during my experiment, but perhaps it was necessary in order to really embrace a different diet.  Alicia Silverstone, who has a new vegan cookbook that just came out, did an interview with Vegetarian Times in which she said that the word diet means “a day’s journey.”  “I think that’s so beautiful,” she said.  I do, too.  Because at the end of the day, your diet is your journey.  It reflects what’s important, or not, to you, and everyone has to find the path that’s right for them.

At the very beginning of my SCD experiment, my dear friend Nicole asked me whether I’d be eating meat, given that I would not be eating so many foods that are everyday staples in my diet.  At the time, I was confident that I could follow the SCD for a week without eating meat.  My feelings about vegetarianism are complex, especially when my family is involved, but suffice to say that when I have complete control over what I am eating, I choose vegetarian meals.  It just feels right for me.  But if I were to follow the SCD for a year, or longer, I would strongly consider trying to eat meat every once in a while.  The truth is that meat, when raised well and cooked thoughtfully, is delicious.  There are no vegetarian equivalents for meat that really pass my standards for taste, texture, and wholesomeness.  Some fake meats are quite tasty, and I eat them once in a while, but they are all totally off-limits for an SCD follower.  The SCD has given me a new appreciation for meat, even though I didn’t choose to eat any.  More importantly, I have a new respect for the place that it has in other people’s diets, particularly people like my niece and her mother, who simply do not thrive on a grain-heavy diet the way that I do.

Where do we go from here?  I’m still a vegetarian, and I still have two pounds of almond flour sitting in my freezer.  I like the idea of continuing to push my culinary boundaries by eating one grain-free meal each day.  It’s a goal for me, not a rigid rule that I’ve carved in stone and placed in front of my pantry.  There is a lot to be learned—and cooked and eaten!—in a paradigm in which grains must be replaced with something else.  And there are still lots of recipes in my SCD cookbook that I’d like to try—Rustic Pears, baked with blueberries and walnuts, anyone?  My day’s journey can include a little jog around the grain-free playground.

It seems fitting to me to end on a note of gratitude.  Matt reminded me of this in an e-mail exchange we had as my week of grain-free eating was ending.  In it he wrote,

“Demonize College Station if you will, but there aren't a whole lot of places in the world you can live grain-free every day.  That's worth contemplating: it's a luxury, though it may not seem like it.

As usual, he’s right.