Monday, December 28, 2009

Pardon My Delay

Dear sweet blog readers, I have not forgotten about you this week!  In fact, I’ve missed you very much.  I am, unfortunately, feeling ill from a suspected case of food poisoning.  Maybe it was the chickpeas at the Indian food buffet—it’s hard to say with certainty.  At any rate, I’m not in good shape to be writing about food until my intestines stop folding themselves into knots.  I have a lot to share with you—fudgy chocolate puddings, new olive oil, a festive granola recipe, maybe even some pecan pancakes if I can recreate them in my Texas kitchen—so I hope you’ll check in on me in a few days.  Until then, I’ll be sipping mint tea and rubbing my achy back.  Or I’ll be asleep, dreaming of wooden spoons and a happy belly.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


It is so, so good to be home.

I caught an early flight out of Texas on Friday morning, just in time to see my first Texas sunrise, the dawn illuminated by a bright orange disc of sun just before takeoff.  From College Station it was a hopscotch flight over to Houston followed by the long but swift flight north to Detroit.  It’s still amazing to me that I can be in Texas at 7 AM and Detroit by 2 PM.  I love that.

It was a little weird to leave Texas for ten days, having just moved there in early October.  I was starting to feel at home in that huge Lone Star of a state, with its cowboy boots and fast-talking Texas twang.  Texas has been pretty darn good to me so far, between the warmth and the okra and the kindness of its citizens, but it isn’t really home yet.  When I think home, I think Evanston and my old apartment with its tree-lined streets and the soft rumble of the el train rolling in and out of the South Boulevard station.  But home is also metropolitan Detroit in wintertime, bare tree branches against a cold blue sky and a fluffy white blanket of snow making everything look so crisp and pretty just in time for Christmas.  Home is my niece’s voice calling, “Auntie Wo-Anne?” and my brothers keeping the coffee pot filled with fresh, strong, black coffee.  It’s my sister-in-law knitting on the couch after her little one has gone to bed and my little sister getting ready for her marathon Christmas shopping excursion during which she buys all her presents in one daylong sweep of the stores.  Home is my mom sighing with relief that she gets a few days away from her difficult teaching job and my dad talking everyone’s ears off at Christmas, a far cry from his normally taciturn mood.

I’m on vacation here in the Mitten State, but I’ve been very busy since I arrived.  I’m busy reading stories and playing pretend games, drinking egg nog lattes and eating pizza.  I’ve spent a few evenings with my niece snuggled between me and her mom for bedtime stories, Amanda’s soft, soothing voice telling us tales about the winter solstice and Babushka, who gives away all her gifts to needy people on her way to meet the new baby who was born in a manger, no crib for a bed.

The snow this year makes me happy and so does my family.  I was feeling terribly anxious about this trip home, in part because the last time I left Michigan I had to prepare for an 1100-mile move that tested every last fiber of my resolve to set up shop in Texas.  I made it, but it was rough going.  But this time, the Mitten State feels different to me.  It feels peaceful, like the strings of blue lights under which I sleep this week, or the sound of Silent Night sung by a single voice—mine—whenever the spirit moves me.  It also feels rich and celebratory and altogether just right for Christmas.  The house is permeated with the scent of cinnamon and everyone is in a good mood, even when we’re exhausted at 9 PM.

I haven’t been cooking much this week, just a dish of baked eggs here and a pot of oatmeal there.  My sister-in-law and brother have been feeding me and everyone else in their house very well.  I’m content to let other people feed me for a few days, especially when that feeding involves things like pecan pancakes and banana-pineapple shakes.  It’s nice to take a little break from things to enjoy other people’s cooking and hospitality.  Plus one of my favorite places in the world is standing next to Amanda at the kitchen counter with Lydia perched next to us, supervising our cooking.  I hope we get more counter time this week!

I hope your holidays are as steeped in family and food as mine are and that you are catching a few winter sunbeams on these short days.  I’ll be back next week, totally relaxed and ready to share a new recipe with you.  Until then, peace and joy be with you.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Hello, Moon

I love the night sky in all its twinkling, glittering beauty, all those heavenly pinpricks of starry light against the silky darkness.  Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that I love December, despite the madcap holiday season that it hosts ever year.  Christmas and I have declared a truce—I no longer think much about its Christian roots, and I celebrate it with my family because they are my family, and a girl needs to have some family traditions to embrace every year.  Christmas is the one time of year that I always spend with my family, and I intend to keep it that way.  But honestly, I feel more holy thinking about this time of year as the season of light rather than Christmas.  Consider this: we are approaching the darkest day of the year.  The Winter Solstice this year is December 21.  On that day in Michigan, my winter holiday destination, we can expect to see about 9 hours of daylight and 15 hours of darkness(!).  We can expect that it will be quite chilly and possibly snowing.  My Seasonal Affective Disorder and I aren’t thrilled about those weather conditions.  But the Winter Solstice is a day that marks the turning point of all this darkness, the day after which the nights begin to get shorter and the days longer.  It is a day of seeking the light, whatever little there may be for us.

My high school German teacher was the first to point out to me to this universal theme of light during the darkest days of the year.  Mr. Parrish was a funny, brilliant man, charming and lovely, with impeccable grammar and a thousand stories.  I loved learning German from him, and even to this day I miss his classes.  Mr. Parrish directed several of our high school’s plays, and one year he directed The Diary of Anne Frank.  It was performed in December, and in the play’s program, he wrote about the beauty of this season of light, the dark nights glowing with Christmas lights and the flames of candle-lit menorahs.  Against the sadness of Anne Frank’s story, I thought about how much we have in common, we Christians and Jews and pagans and light-seekers.  I thought about how there is room for all of us, believers and nonbelievers, and how much more time we could spend seeking the divine if we spent less time fighting those who do not believe as we do.  I cannot embrace the idea of a vengeful God, one who endorses violence, hatred, or misogyny.  No matter how agnostic I am, I just refuse to believe that destruction brings people closer to the divine.

So in December, in addition to plane tickets and Christmas presents, I think about love and hope.  Even though it’s been a long time since I believed in Santa, I still feel a sense of magic during this holiday season.  I wish I could give the gift of tolerance to whoever I felt needed a batch of it.  I wish tolerance were as easy to make as Christmas cookies: a cup of compassion, a cup of understanding, a cup of respect, a half-cup of listening, a quarter-cup of humility, and two teaspoons of love.  Mix together until a dough forms, drop by heartfuls onto a greased baking sheet, and bake until firm and easily digested.

In lieu of baking batches of tolerance, I make Pistachio Crescents, dainty moon-shaped tea cookies dusted with a snowfall of powdered sugar.  They feel delightfully seasonal to me: edible moons in a nutty Christmas green, blanketed with the sweetest, softest snow.  They feel a little exotic, too, which I love, especially when sparked with a dash of cardamom for a spice bazaar kind of taste.  These cookies may be too delicate to travel in all those Christmas cookie tins that are headed across the country, but they’re just right for eating at home on a lazy Sunday afternoon or at the end of the day, when the real moon is high in the sky and the stars have come out to dazzle us with their quiet, ever-present beauty.

Happy holidays, dear reader, no matter which holidays you call your own.

Pistachio Crescents

Adapted from How to Eat by Nigella Lawson

Makes about a dozen cookies (give or take a few, depending on the size of your crescents)

These crescent-shaped cookies have a wonderfully sandy texture that practically melts in your mouth into a nubbly pool of butter, sugar, and pistachios.  Without their coat of powdered sugar, they are barely, barely sweet; it’s really that post-baking sugar snowfall that makes these treats taste like a dessert.  I love shaping these moons between my hands, and eating them afterward is even better.

I have listed the cardamom as optional.  They’re delicious without it, as written in Nigella’s original recipe, but I like the extra note of spicy flavor.  In addition, I tried adding some orange-flower water to my most recent batch, 1/4 teaspoon to be exact, but I couldn’t taste it at all.  If I get my orange-flower amount right and it works, then I’ll mention it in the comments on this post.  (Or, dear reader, if you go the orange-flower route, let me know how it turns out!)

3/4 cup shelled pistachios (3 ounces, says Nigella.  I converted her weight to an American volume measurement.)

4 tablespoons (1/4 cup or half a stick) butter, at room temperature and very soft

2 tbsp. powdered sugar plus more for snowfalling over the baked cookies

1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

1/4 tsp. ground cardamom, optional

A pinch of salt

1)  Heat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Toast the pistachios on a cookie sheet until fragrant.  Six minutes of toasting was sufficient for me.  After toasting, turn the oven temperature down to 325 degrees F.

2)  In a food processor, blitz the pistachios until they are powdery and finely ground.  A few larger pieces are okay; they’ll just make your cookies a little more nubbly.  These are rustic, homemade-looking cookies, so don’t worry.

3)  Beat the butter in a medium-sized mixing bowl until very soft.  Cream the powdered sugar into the butter.  Sprinkle the flour, cardamom, and salt over the butter mixture and stir together.  This step may take a little elbow grease, but just keep stirring and mixing until things come together.

4)  Add the pistachios and mix until a gritty dough forms.  Line a cookie sheet with a Silpat or other silicone baking pad.  Using a tablespoon, scoop out spoonfuls of dough and use your hands to shape them into a small log.  Place the log on the cookie sheet and then curve it into a crescent or moon shape.  Repeat until all the dough is shaped into cookies.

5)  Bake for 15-25 minutes, watching them closely after the 15-minute mark.  The cookies will be firm and lightly browned when they are baked.  Remove them from the oven, allow them to cool on their sheet for about 3 minutes, then carefully use a flipper to remove them from the sheet to cool on a cookie rack.

6)  When it’s time to serve them, place them on a plate and generously dust powdered sugar over the tops.  Serve with mint or orange-flavored tea.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Nice and Easy

If there’s ever a season in which one should embrace creamy, steamy bowls of oatmeal, I’d say winter is the season.

I’m not really sure what to expect from winter this year.  I was surprised to start wearing my winter peacoat down here in Texas, and I was even more surprised to find myself wrapping a scarf around my neck, stepping outside, and then wishing I’d worn my matching hat as well.  It gets cold down here, people!  Cold and windy, just like the city I left behind.  The wind is the killer, though, because it just cuts through me like an icy knife, slicing the warmth right out of my body.  I’m tough enough to deal with the cold, but the wind makes me whimper like a baby.  Waah!  I hate winter.

Oh, that’s not true.  I don’t hate winter.  I love the sweaters and the cookie-baking, the mugs of hot chocolate that taste heavenly as your skin turns pink and toasty after a nice romp in the snow.  I love how winter gives us permission to relax and rest after working hard all year long.  Winter is the season of dreaming, of planning for the new year, of gazing out windows at delicate snowflakes falling softly to the frozen ground.  I can’t see snow now without thinking of Matt and those first few sweet visits we had together, the ones where his flight touched down in Chicago in the middle of blizzards.  I remember trudging through ankle-deep blankets of snow, so excited to see him again and yet still slightly irritated that something was dragging me out of my cozy apartment into a damn snowstorm.  But his smile, his hug, his joy—those are the things that reminded me why I feel so lucky that we met and why I don’t care if we have to find each other in snowstorms.  Then there was my favorite part, after we trudged through the snow to my apartment, teased each other about the snow (“Why did you bring me a snowstorm?”), stripped off the wet clothes, and settled down on the couch together.  We lay on Big Blue (the couch) and watched the snow fall, thickly and steadily, and I listened to the sound of his breath and his heart beating.

I will miss the romance of winter this year because Matt and I won’t be finding each other in the middle of blizzards in January.  There may be a few specks of snow, and it may be chilly, but I have a feeling those cozy snowbound weekends are a thing of our past.  They were beautiful and sweet, and they were sad too, because there’s no place colder than an apartment in winter after your lover has left.  It’s so much easier for me if, after Matt has hit the road, I can lace up my sneakers and go for a run.  In the bitter winter cold, all I want to do after he leaves is curl up on the couch where he slept and cry into his pillow.

I’m relieved not to have to face another long awful winter, even if it means I miss cuddling with my favorite Southerner.  I think a mild Texas winter might be just right for me: I’ll get to show off my sweater collection, drink my favorite hot teas, roast potatoes for dinner, and by the time I’m starting to get a little tired of winter, it will gently fade away as spring’s warmth infuses the air.  I’ll also have just enough time to get my hot oatmeal fix, which is good because I’ve fallen pretty hard for a new spin on oatmeal: creamy and porridge-like, with a generous tablespoon of pure maple syrup stirred into the oats while they cook.  It’s nothing fancy, but I think it’s delicious.  Sometimes, I think that when I stick with a particular recipe for a long time, like my go-to oatmeal recipe, Daphna’s Banana Oatmeal, I forget that there are other ways to enjoy the same food.  I still love D’s recipe for its thick texture and sweet fruity flavor, but in the wake of all those banana oatmeal mornings, a new oatmeal recipe feels utterly refreshing.  This Maple Oatmeal Porridge has a simple, rich flavor and it goes down nice and easy on cold, dark winter mornings.  I’m so happy to share it with you.

Maple Oatmeal Porridge

Serves 1

Meticulous readers of this site may wonder if this oatmeal is derived from other oatmeal recipes.  The answer is yes, of course.  Many, many of my recipes are tweaked versions of other recipes that inspired me in text or in taste.  Nigella Lawson once wrote that originality in cooking is highly overrated, and I’m tempted to believe her.  I often think that the real purpose of food writing and sharing recipes is just to remind the reader that she should make this really tasty thing that she already knows about but maybe hasn’t thought about making recently.

Nevertheless, I’m always curious about the details behind someone’s cooking, so that’s why I like to write detail-oriented recipes.  It’s not because I believe you must make my recipes my way, OR ELSE!, but rather that I love the little things about cooking.  Once you understand the basic framework of a recipe, there’s so much room to play!  Cooking should be fun.

Back to the recipe at hand.  I’ve gotten in the habit of soaking my oats overnight, mostly because it means less work in the morning.  Some say that overnight soaking makes them more digestible—I don’t know if that’s true, but I figure it doesn’t hurt to do it.  With an overnight soak, the oats don’t need much cooking time.  I just bring them to a bubble and cook for maybe a minute longer, which means less stirring (perfect for a lazy cook like me).  If you don’t soak overnight, your cooking time will be longer.

1/2 cup old-fashioned oats

1/2 cup water

1/2 cup milk (I’ve been using 2% milk here and it makes for a really nice, creamy oatmeal)

2 pinches of salt

1/4 tsp. of vanilla

1 tbsp. pure maple syrup

Toppings, such as peanut butter or this fruit-and-nut (and grain-free) granola (I like both here)

1)  Pour the oats, water, and milk into a glass measuring cup.  Stir, cover, and leave out overnight for the oats to soak.  (Don’t worry—the milk here won’t spoil if left out overnight.)

2)  Pour the soaked oats and all the liquid into a small pot.  Add the salt, vanilla, and maple syrup.  Heat over medium-high heat and bring to a bubble.  Turn the heat down, stir, and cook for another 30 seconds to 1 minute until the oatmeal is hot, smooth, and creamy.

3)  Scrape the oatmeal into a heat-proof bowl and top with peanut butter, granola, or anything else you’d like.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Don’t Miss It

Sometimes I am overwhelmed by a recipe’s mediocrity.  I never set out to cook mediocre food, so I’m genuinely perplexed when I end up with a vat of something that wasn’t bad enough to throw away but isn’t good enough to make me excited about the leftovers.  Trying new recipes is a lot like dating: most of the dishes (men) are not truly awful, but there’s an awful lot of them that don’t make it onto your repeat list.  This is the sad, sad truth about cooking and dating.

Fortunately, a recipe won’t put your phone number into its speed-dial and harass you until you agree to go out with it again.  You can just…throw it away!  It’s so easy!  That’s exactly what I did with the remaining cup or so of that horribly mediocre red cabbage dish I made a few weeks ago.  It felt good to get rid of that stuff!  I threw it out because I needed the container in which it was stored, but I feel so free without that icky sour-sweet and caraway-heavy cabbage hogging my fridge space and my dinner plate.  Be gone forever, mediocre recipe!

In the wake of a cooking disappointment, it can be tempting to retreat behind a wall of trusted recipes.  I gave into temptation, making a batch of my Seasoned Black Beans and baking a few sheets of my Toasty Oatmeal Cookies.  I love the recipe archives of this blog because they serve as a sort of “off-shore memory,” as my wine-blogging friend Asmodeus once said.  Perhaps it sounds hopelessly narcissistic, but I love reading my old posts.  It’s like reading my diary, except the contents are more polished and entertaining.  My feeling is that if I can enjoy what I have written, then that’s good enough for me and I’ll keep writing.

The comments on old posts can also be great reading.  For example, on this post, my friend Nicole pointed me in the direction of an EatingWell recipe for Mexican Coleslaw, a simple slaw to be stuffed into tacos or accompany enchiladas.  It called for a few cups of cabbage, finely sliced, some coarsely grated carrots, a handful of cilantro leaves, a modest pour of olive oil and rice vinegar, and a pinch or two of salt.  Mix everything together in a big bowl and add this garden party to your fiesta.  The recipe sounded delicious, so simple and fresh, and I just had that feeling that it was going to be great.

And it was.  I bought the smallest green cabbage I could find at Albertson’s and made Nicole’s Mexican Coleslaw the very same day.  After the incident with that red cabbage recipe, I was skeptical about making an enormous batch of anything with cabbage, so I made a two-serving batch of coleslaw, playing it a little loose with the proportions and leaving out the cilantro.  Like many salads, this one is pretty forgiving about that sort of thing.  Its most endearing quality, however, is its wonderful balance of flavors: the cabbage dances crisply, bittersweetly across the tongue, while the carrot is its usual bright, fresh, sunshine-sweet self.  The dressing is rich without overwhelming: the rice vinegar is tangy-sweet and mild, the extra-virgin olive oil grassy and full.  When all the components are tossed together, the combination is sprightly, fresh, surprising.  Don’t miss it.

Nicole’s Mexican Coleslaw

Adapted from this recipe by EatingWell

Serves 2

Mexican food (or anything remotely related to Mexican food) is one of my favorite cuisines.  It never fails to put me in a festive mood, and it’s great cooking party food because there are all those little bits to prep—the seasoned meat or beans, the shredded cheeses, the chopped tomatoes, the little bowls of sour cream and salsa.  The list goes on.  This recipe should be added to your list of side dishes for your next fiesta.  And if you’re shopping for a new taco filling, I tried and loved this chickpea taco filling from the famous Happy Herbivore.  I made my chickpeas a little differently, using water instead of tamari, and next time I’ll use a little less of the taco seasoning, but the oven-roasting method she suggests is genius.  The chickpeas become soft and utterly infused with all that spicy flavor and, unlike my roasted chickpeas, they make for good leftovers too.  Three cheers for chickpea tacos!

There’s one more thing I want to tell you about the coleslaw.  The dressing here is a little heavier than I usually make—I usually use what seems like just a whisper of dressing on my vegetables.  Here, because the slaw is intended to go into a larger dish, like a taco, I use more dressing because I want to be able to taste the sweet, grassy flavors over the spiciness of the taco filling.  Feel free to use more or less slaw dressing here as you like.

1 heaping cup of finely sliced green cabbage

1 coarsely grated carrot (about 1/2 to 1 cup)

1/2 tbsp. best-quality extra-virgin olive oil

1 tbsp. rice vinegar

A shake or two of salt

1)  Place the cabbage and carrots in a mixing bowl.  Add the oil and rice vinegar and use your hands or a spoon to toss them all together.

2)  Season to taste with salt and serve.

Thanks, Nicole!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Start Something

Hi again.

It’s already past my 9 PM computer curfew, but I’m nothing if not diligent about keeping my word.  I promised four Thursday posts about gratitude and such, and this post is #3.  (Not that I’m counting or anything…)

I’m completely exhausted tonight because I’ve been running up and down stairs all day.  The situation at work right now is complicated, and I’m not going to bore you with the details, but suffice to say that it takes a lot of energy for me to get anything done.  It’s harder for me to work out when I’m doing molecular biology experiments because I’m on my feet and moving almost the entire work day.  It’s a little like working out, all day long.  I came home from work tonight with the intention of going for a short run, but the couch called my name and I went from reading the new Vegetarian Times to napping before dinner.  I ended up skipping my run.  But tomorrow!  Tomorrow I shall run.  Tomorrow there will be less stair-climbing, I hope.

But I’m grateful for the exhaustion because it means I’m starting to get stuff done.  It can be so hard to start something new because you have no momentum for the task.  I think I deserve oodles of praise anytime I manage to start something, whether it’s dinner, a conversation, a job search.  It takes guts to start something, and while I’m not the boldest person, I’d like to think I’m getting better at figuring out what I want and going after it.

Along that theme of energy and momentum, I’m feeling happy about many things tonight, not the least of which is you, here, with me.  I keep finding blogs that appear to have been abandoned or “retired,” and they make me sad.  I realize that for some people, it’s probably a relief to cease blogging because it can be a lot of time and work, but I really like my little blog.  I can’t help but feel a sense of loss for others who stop writing theirs.  For me, because my blog is already in full swing, it’s easy to keep writing it because there’s a certain momentum.  It’s a project in motion, and I just keep it going.

Other things that make me smile:

* The weather forecast!  We have a SNOW PREDICTION for tomorrow!  In Texas!  How funny is that?  I had more than one person tell me that it does not snow in Texas, but my very first December here may prove them wrong…

* In the face of a snow forecast, it’s important to have a well-stocked pantry.  Fortunately, I’ve got plenty of oatmeal to see me through this avalanche of snow.  (Accumulation of less than one inch!  I may be snowbound in my apartment!  Everything’s going to be closed!)  This week I’ve tried two fabulous new oatmeal recipes, and I’ll just give you a sneak preview in the form of ingredients.  Maple syrup.  White chocolate chips.  Bananas.  Cream cheese.  Pecans.  Brown sugar.  Now that is my kind of pantry.

* Getting things done.  I sent off an electronic application for a new writing gig, and all I can think is, Ooh, pick me!  Pick me!  But the thing I tell myself after I send off anything I’ve written is that it’s the experience that matters and that I did the best job I could.  And now it’s out of my hands.

* Pecans.  I know I mentioned them just a few lines up, but pecans are so, so good—rich and buttery and festive.  They’re a holiday nut, but they’re good year-round as well.  Texas grows pecans, and I’d love to buy some truly local nuts, so I’ll be keeping my eyes and ears open for that.

* My Christmas mugs.  I don’t do much in the way of holiday decorating (though I’d like to change that trend—maybe this weekend I’ll work a little holiday magic around my home), but I do have a pair of Christmas mugs, one of which is a snowman mug, complete with a spoon topped with a fat ceramic snowman.  Around the rim it reads, “Bless us one and all.”  Amen to that.

* Texas skylines.  I love how wide open the sky feels here—it feels bigger than anywhere else I’ve ever lived.  We have the most beautiful sunsets down here, all streaky pink and blue, strewn with clouds.  The sun burns fiercely golden in the dusky skies.  The views are phenomenal.

* Tacos.  Who doesn’t love tacos?  Crunchy, creamy, chewy, all in one bite—tacos are a textural work of art.  My New Year’s resolution should be to eat more tacos.

* On-line shopping.  I cannot even imagine trying to do my Christmas shopping now without the help of  Great prices, free shipping, clicky ordering—Amazon makes my December spirits bright.

Have a merry weekend, dear reader!  If you get some snow, go outside and play in it, then come back inside and bake cookies.  That’s my perfect winter day in a single sentence.