Friday, December 31, 2010

The Very Best Parts

Michigan Winter

I was thinking about that classic “home for the holidays” thing that many of us do for Christmas or other winter holidays, and I started to feel very, very grateful that Christmas is not the only time I go to Michigan.  Christmas is a loaded holiday, and I know I’m not the only one who feels the weight of the planning, the expectations, the hopes, and the disappointments that come along for the ride at Christmastime.  Into my mix you can add the fact that some people are, at best, wishy-washy about Christmas: some years they rise to the challenge of playing Santa Claus and buying everyone gifts, but other years, it’s a miracle that they come to the family Christmas gathering at all.  I’m not sure what’s better: someone who is consistently Grinchy about the holidays, or someone who can morph into a Grinch in the wink of an eye.

I try to approach the holidays with moderate expectations.  My family has always been rather modest about Christmas.  Our modesty disappointed me as a child; I couldn’t help but love the idea of a Christmas brimming with fabulous toys, all the things I wanted but never told anyone I wanted.  (I’m still waiting for my first My Little Pony.  Anyone remember My Little Pony?)  As an adult, it’s a relief not to have been raised in a tradition of extravagant Christmasses because it feels natural to give small gifts.  Bookworm that I am, I give lots of reading material, all of it carefully chosen for the recipients.  And kitchen-lover that I am, I have started giving cookware to people who I think will enjoy a new piece of kitchen equipment—a cast-iron skillet, some nice roasting pans.  I also love to give cookbooks, even ones which I don’t own.  I like to think that I’m a good gift-giver: I set a budget, and I do my shopping within that budget.  I’m a thinker, a planner, a present-giving plotter.

It was a good Christmas this year.  I feel like I got everything I wanted, or at least all the things that matter.  At this point in my life, I can’t say that I need anything that can be bought in a store.  What I need is health, love, happiness, joy, laughter, hugs.  And for Christmas, I just want to make some memories that I can tuck away for grey days, sad days when I need some cheer to perk me up.  For safekeeping, I thought I’d share the very best parts of my Christmas with you, and together we’ll keep them clean and warm.

In a word, the best part of my Christmas was Lydia, my four-year-old niece and the love of my life.  She is one of the most delightful people I know, and my only real regret in life is that I don’t spend enough time with her.  It was late by the time I made it to her house on the night I arrived in Detroit, and she was already asleep.  But the next morning, I woke up and crept out to the living room to find her awake and watching cartoons.  The joy on her face mirrored the joy in my heart at seeing her again, and we spent a happy morning curled up together on the couch.  That morning is something I will remember for a long time.

The generosity of my family continues to amaze me.  They are generous in big, meaningful ways.  Lydia’s parents, my brother Charlie and his wife Amanda, let me stay with them every time I visit.  They feed me and serve me coffee and share their beautiful daughter with me.  They drive me around to friends’ houses and let me tag along to Whole Foods.  They let me hold their new baby, Devin, trusting me not to drop him, even though I really have very little experience with newborns, especially with baby boys.  And when I have to be at the airport before 8 AM, my brother gets up early without complaint and drops me off with a hug before sending me on my way.

Generosity takes shape in smaller ways, too.  My brother John picked me up from the airport without complaint, even when my flight was delayed (as they often are), and he humored me when I freaked out that I might even miss my connecting flight in St. Louis.  My brother Scott, who was also staying with Charlie and Amanda, made countless pots of fresh coffee and always offered me a fresh cup.  And my parents, with whom I stayed on Christmas Eve, made a surprisingly lovely Christmas morning breakfast for the three of us: big fluffy pancakes, boiled eggs, mugs of tea, and for dessert, sweet oranges.  That morning, my dad and I took a long, cold walk around the neighborhood, a new Christmas Day tradition that I hope to continue with him.  Because I am so far away from my parents, I have an acute sense of how little time we have together, so I like to spend some time with them away from the rest of the family, just two or three of us catching up.

And the food!  Oh, the food was terrific.  There were many, many good food moments.  I mentioned before that Amanda made these amazing peanut butter bars, and lucky for us, she shared the recipe with me!  If you nudge me in the comments here, I’ll get cracking on my own batch so you can have the recipe sooner rather than later.  Amanda’s mom, Barb, made quite an impression on all of us with her casserole featuring Brussels sprouts and rice, among other things.  I’m not a big fan of the B. sprouts, but this dish was a revelation: soothing, savory, a tiny bit sweet.  My description pales compared to how amazing the casserole was.  Barb grew the Brussels sprouts in her garden and picked them at the height of flavor and sweetness; there was none of the bitterness that I expect from B. sprouts.  We ate the leftovers heated up in a tiny cast-iron skillet, with an extra pat of butter thrown in there for good measure.


We had some great kitchen moments with Lydia.  I really love being in the kitchen with her because I feel like we are making memories that will follow her into her own kitchen some day.  I hope that she will remember when she was very young, and we would set a chair in front of the counter, and she could stand on that chair and help us stem green beans, or mix the chopped cauliflower with olive oil and seasonings.  I hope she’ll remember how happy we were to have her with us, how much joy we took in our cooking and the meals we ate together, how much we loved being together.  Because for me, the kitchen is a place to be and to do.  It’s the heart and engine of a home.

This year, my sister Theresa was very productive in the kitchen; Lydia and I were her assistants.  Together we made banana bread and multiple batches of almond bark, some with whole nuts, some with finely chopped nuts, and one made with white chocolate (my favorite!).  Lydia quickly realized that stirring is hard work, but almond bark is delicious, and after all that strength training in front of a bowl, she fell asleep before 7 PM, waiting for Santa Claus to come.

There were other kitchen moments, sweet little lessons passed from one generation to another.  I caught Barb teaching Theresa how to make the whipped cream for Amanda’s crustless pumpkin pie.  While we’re on the topic of butterfat, I must tell you that Barb brought us all little tubs of homemade honey butter (literally, honey and butter whipped together to make a sweet spread), and it was one of the best gifts.  Every year, I wish I could do homemade gifts, but I never do because I’m always living out of a suitcase in someone else’s house.  It’s easier for me to give books and sweaters, but I do love receiving homemade gifts.

The gifts I received this year were great, and by gifts, I mean the tangible ones that I can read, eat, wear, or otherwise enjoy at my leisure.  My lovely friend Heather gave me this fantastic top that I wore this week.  My brother and sister each bought me a cookbook off of my wishlist; I can’t wait to sniff their pages, read them, and crack them open in the kitchen.  A few people made contributions to my travel funds, which I appreciate, especially now as I’m starting to think about the trips I’ll take in 2011.  My friend Lisa gave me a copy of No Country for Old Men, which I’m looking forward to reading because I always enjoy book gifts from fellow bookworms.

But the best gifts are the ones that we made ourselves, with our time and our love.  The books and whatnot are the icing on the cake.  The cake is ice skating with Lydia and Charlie, seeing old friends and their new baby girl, celebrating Christmas Eve with my childhood best friend and her family.  The cake is realizing how durable love is.  Time and distance may separate us, but love, affection, and a shared history bring us back together, literally.  Christmas really is about the present—as in present tense.  Here, now.  Celebrate, laugh, love.  Decorate a tree, eat a cookie.  Remember to take a few photos, and tuck all your memories away, not under the tree, but in your heart, and keep them there forever.

By the Light of the Christmas Tree

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

About Love and Contradictions

Leaving Texas

Somewhere Over America

A Tangle of Branches

I really should be at work now.  Instead, I’m at home, my little home in Texas, slowly waking up after the long trip yesterday.  I have been savoring this last “vacation” morning, even though today isn’t really a vacation day—it’s Return to Work Day.  Which I will, in a few hours.  Soon, I will shower and wash my hair, get dressed (a blue cowl neck and black pants for today), pack my lunch, and ride my bike to work.  But for just a few moments more, I’m on vacation.  It feels good.

It’s very quiet here today.  I am missing the smile of a four-year-old who greeted me happily every morning and asked if I would watch her shows with her.  I am missing her so much that I’m about to make myself cry—again!  I feel myself filled to the brim with contradictions: the joy and relief of being in my home again, the sadness of leaving my family, the pleasure of a peaceful morning alone, the pain of not sharing that morning with Lydia and the rest of the bunch.  To hold these contradictions together in my heart is weird and difficult.  I wonder if the shape of my life is the result of a certain kind of greediness to have it all: the freedom and independence to carve my own path, the need to be a part of something bigger and more profound than my own selfish interests.  For some women, “having it all” means having a career and their own children.  For me, having it all seems to mean having a career in some far-flung location and belonging to a family that accepts my comings and goings without question.  It’s a family that made it possible for me to leave in the first place, and a family that welcomes me back with open arms, home, and heart when I return.

The biggest and deepest contradiction that shapes who I am is that I love being alone and I love being with family.  This feeling is also applicable to friends and Matt.  He understands my need to be alone without question.  It’s harder to reconcile this need when it comes to Lydia, even though I know that she too is finding the quiet pleasures that being alone can bring.  For me, the state of being “alone” is part of how I take care of myself, how I refill the well so that I can be calm and patient and happy with others.  Occasionally, I wonder if my need to be alone predicts that I would be a bad mother if I had children.  Sometimes I feel like a bad auntie for not being around more often.  But I know I’m not ready to return to Michigan for the long haul.  I don’t know if I will, though I do think about it.  For now, the shape of life is a home in Texas, a family in Michigan, and a heart that finds love and happiness in both places.

About today’s photos:

* The first is a shot of the Texas landscape as we drove to Houston to drop me off at the airport.

* The second is a view from the airplane window, somewhere over North America.

* The third is looking out from my brother’s backyard, into someone else’s property.  I like the wooded, wintry feel of this photo—it feels very Michigan to me.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Morning After

Christmas Beauty

Making Coffee

Hi hi hi!  Happy Day After Christmas!  We’re having a good morning over here, with some cartoons and coffee and candy canes.  I’m still in my pajamas and a very old Red Wings sweatshirt, and there’s a baby passed out on the couch across the room.  There are four of us here now, the two kiddos, my sister-in-law (who made these peanut butter bars—oh my, I’m in love), and me.

We had a good Christmas, once we got all the drama out of the way.  I think emotions and expectations were running high yesterday, and there was a mashed potato incident that pushed someone over the edge.  It’s funny how family can be the place where we feel happiest and most at ease, but family can also be the group of people that make us the craziest.  I know that’s true for me, but this morning I was thinking about my family again, and I think the reason our family still works is that we don’t give up.  We drive each other crazy, and sometimes people curse and storm out of the house, but we stick together.  And that’s not an easy thing to do.

But I’m really, really grateful that today is the day after Christmas, even though tomorrow I’ll get on a plane and fly back to Texas.  There’s a happy warmth on the day after a big holiday, a sort of collective sigh of relief that we made it through all the plans and the expectations.  The kitchen is full of food, and the house just feels relaxed in the wake of all the preparations.  I like the getting ready parts, baking and wrapping presents and hunting for candy canes that my niece can eat, but I think I like the part after the festivities best.  Or maybe today is part of the festivities, but it’s the day we get to relax and laugh and hang out in our pajamas until 11 AM.

Happy winter, dear readers!  I hope you are enjoying your day after too.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

So That I Don’t Forget

Darkness Falls Across Campus

It’s hard to believe, but it is almost time for me to make the long journey north again.  By tomorrow night, I’ll be in Michigan with my family again, perhaps nuzzling my newborn nephew, grateful to be reunited with the clan.

I have a huge to-do list today, the usual overwhelming routine of getting ready to go out of town.  Laundry, packing, grocery shopping to fill the pantry, cooking and freezing some meals for my return.  I’m anticipating that when I come back, I’ll be eager to return to work, so I want my kitchen to be well-stocked with provisions to get me through those first few days of re-entry.  Tonight I’m going to make chili, which I’ve been craving for a week.  I’ll take a serving of it with me to eat at the airport tomorrow, before I go through security, and I’ll freeze the rest tonight.  I know I will be very thankful to have good food waiting for me after I make the long trip back to Texas.

I am almost ready for Christmas.  I have just a few more gifts to buy when I get to Michigan, and I’ll have some wrapping to do, which I love.  My niece often helps me with the wrapping—I think it’s become a bit of a tradition for us!  So I hope she’ll be in the mood to help me this year too.  I love that kiddo so much, and the thought of seeing her tomorrow night makes me feel brave enough to face the airport.

Perhaps it’s easy to tell, given my choice of words here—overwhelming, brave—but travel is stressful for me.  I do love to see new places, and I love returning to Michigan to see my family, but it’s always hard for me to leave home.  I love my quiet little place here in Texas.  I love that I have made this place a home, that I have persevered to overcome the scary parts and the disappointing parts of my time in Texas thus far.  I feel a quiet sense of pride that I have staked out my territory, and I feel hopeful that the decisions that led me to move here will blossom into success and happiness.  I am happy down here, but I’m still working on the success part.  At any rate, I keep telling myself that it will be nice to be away for a while and then it will be nice to return.

Before I go, I wanted to share something inspiring with you that I found this morning.  I’m always on the hunt for new blogs and new reading material—I am insatiable, people!—and I found this post, from which I want to quote a few lines.  It’s about the winter holiday season, of course:

“embrace a little bit of the mess that these days bring, and then i bet next year, the mess will make you feel all nostalgic.
make time to tidy up the mess, so you have a little bit of peace, and quiet, and stillness, so these days don't all feel like a big jumble of stuff and noise.
it's all a balance, just like the rest of the year.”

And this one reminded me of my sister, my own personal shopper and the person to whom I turn most frequently for shopping and style advice:

“go through your clothes and put together outfits out of what you have. i'm pretty sure i've forgotten more of my wardrobe than i remember, than i use daily. go shopping in your closet.
this is especially fun if you let someone help you. i have two eager daughters. but a friend would be super fun, too. (plus you could probably add some wine to the occasion that way.)”

The whole post is fantastic, ways to embrace the Christmas spirit with your heart and soul, not your wallet.  My family has always taken a fairly modest approach to Christmas, but I admit that I love the fun and surprise of opening presents.  I also love to give presents when I’ve had the time and inspiration to find a special something that I think the recipient will enjoy.  But this year, like every other year, I know I’ll love and remember the moments of Christmas more than any single gift: the eggnogs and laughter, the mornings gathered around my brother’s kitchen table with the little ones entertaining us, the quiet walks outside in the cold air, sitting with my niece while she helps me wrap presents, visiting with old friends whom I adore.  Perhaps what is most important about Christmas is the ritual.  Even though it looks a little different every year, it’s the return to Michigan, to family and friends that matters.  That, and the eggnog.

Tomorrow I leave for the Mitten and I’m not sure if or when I’ll be posting again.  I’ve got so many things to share with you these days, but those posts will have to wait.  In the meantime, be healthy and merry, get lots of rest, hug your favorite people, sing and dance with joy, and I’ll see you soon.  Happy holidays, happy winter solstice, and thanks for reading.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Merry Whirlwind

Busy Making Cake

As Cathy used to say so eloquently, “ACK!”  This week has turned into a whirlwind of activity.  Most of it is fun stuff—a birthday party, lots of baking, some biking and running outside in this mild Texas December weather.  Last night I made thumbprint cookies, and tonight I have a birthday cake cooling its heels on my counter.  Tomorrow the cake will get a generous slathering of cream cheese frosting, and we’ll take a trip over to my friend’s place to celebrate the start of a new year in her life.  Man, I do love birthdays!

It’s already 10 PM as I sit here typing, so I think this post will have to be a shortie.  I do have a recommendation, one that I think works well in the kitchen.  I bought myself a little birthday present, or an early Christmas present—whatever you want to call it.  It’s the CD I had on my wish list, Iron & Wine’s Around the Well, and it is so good.  I’m not sure how I missed this when I was listening to the CD samples on Amazon, but this album is a two-CD set, which is even better—twice the musical joy!  I’ve been listening to it every day since it arrived, and it’s an especially good album for kitchen time.  It just puts me in the mood to cook.

I’m off to bed now.  Happy merrymaking to you!  Let me know if you want me to send you some of this Texas warmth—I’ve got extra this week.  For my part, I’m looking forward to some wintry weather in the Mitten next week.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

When India Comes to Texas

At Work on the Chopping Block

Of all the cuisines that Asia has given us, Indian food is by far my favorite.  I don’t think I’ve ever had Indian food that didn’t make me want to stuff myself silly with it.  Everything about it appeals to me: the incredible spice combinations, the variety of legumes, the vegetables, the rice and the naan, the paneer and the ghee.  Even the desserts are marvelous, though I must confess that I remain unflinchingly loyal to one dessert in particular, a cardamom-pistachio ice cream that I had several times at Hema’s Kitchen, an Indian restaurant in Chicago.

You can imagine my delight in knowing that my closest College Station friend is Indian and a fantastic cook.  I’ve been spending a lot of time with Amutha, and I’ve had the pleasure of eating with her countless times.  I’ve cooked for her, and she’s cooked for me, but until last Friday, we’d never cooked together.  It was my suggestion.  She found me in the hallway on Friday afternoon and wanted to hang out that evening, and I immediately thought of dinner, because food is always on my mind.  I wasn’t really in the mood to go out; I wanted to cook at home.  We agreed, and later that evening, Amutha made a dish that I’m starting to think of as her signature, a channa masala of sorts.  Of course, like a good Indian cook, the recipe is in her head, so this would be my approximation.

Amutha’s Channa Masala

Ingredients list:

Neutral-tasting oil, such as canola or a mild olive oil

Mustard seeds

Chili flakes

Ground cumin

Other magic Indian spices

Sea salt

Garlic, finely chopped

A small onion, finely chopped

A couple tomatoes, finely chopped

A can of chickpeas (preferably Bush’s—they have the best texture), NOT DRAINED


In a skillet, fry the mustard seeds and chili flakes in oil for a while, until the mustard seeds pop.  Add ground cumin and other magic Indian spices along with sea salt, garlic, and onion.  Fry…for a while.  Add the tomatoes and let everything cook together to make a rich, fragrant sauce of sorts.  Add the chickpeas (along with their can broth), and cook…for a while.  At the end, you’ll have a delicious dish of chickpeas in this rich, spicy sauce.

Easy, right?  I am dying for a real recipe, or at least the chance to watch Amutha make her channa masala so I can take notes.  The above is cobbled together from what I remember on Friday night.  Amutha made this beautiful mise en place with her onion, tomatoes, and garlic, and she raided my spice rack, which I highly encourage all my kitchen guests to do.  But that’s where my memory becomes more of an imagined story than a real one.  Magic Indian spices?  Cooking times?  Yeah, I don’t know.  We’re both going to have to wait for this recipe.

In the meantime, I cooked a different Indian recipe, this time from a real, in-print recipe, and it was wonderful.  It had been on my to-cook list for a while because it looked easy and delicious, and it serves two, and I am always on the look-out for recipes that won’t force me to eat the leftovers for a week.  Vegetarian Times published this recipe for Vegetables Korma, which strikes me as a twist on Amutha’s channa masala.  The chickpeas are there, along with the tomato-onion sauce.  Vegetables Korma adds a good helping of additional vegetables, and, to make it ridiculously easy on you, this recipe calls for frozen vegetables.  Frozen!  It’s brilliant.  Now, let me be clear: I like fresh vegetables as much as anyone else does, but frozen vegetables can be a lifesaver.  They’re a speedy, easy, healthy option, and unlike fresh vegetables, they are patient.  They will wait until you need them, or if you’re going out of town like I am in a week, you can stock the freezer with a bag or two of frozen vegetables and feel confident that you’ll have some ingredient options when you return.  I like frozen vegetables.  These days, you can get super high-quality organic stuff to keep on hand in the freezer, and if that’s not good news, I don’t know what is.  Except maybe an Indian recipe that serves two and comes together in about fifteen minutes.

Back to the recipe at hand.  The sauce is a quick food-processor job, and from there, it’s mostly a matter of measure-and-simmer.  I made a batch of my favorite rice to serve with the Vegetables Korma.  The final dish is good, classic Indian food: rich with heat and layers of flavor, a medley of vegetables and chickpeas, and a bed of rice to soak up the sauce (and provide something bland to balance that heat!).  This one is going in my file of “What to Cook When Time is Short and Bellies are Grumbling.”

Vegetables Korma

Vegetables Korma

Adapted slightly from Vegetarian Times (February 2010)

Serves 2 (perhaps with a tiny bit left over)

Be forewarned: if you add the pinch of chili flakes, you are in store for some heat!  This dish teeters on the edge of my tolerance for heat, but I sort of love it for that reason.  I may try a version without the extra chili flakes; for now, I’ll list them as optional.

2 medium tomatoes or 4 small ones, cut into chunks

1/2 small white onion, cut into chunks

1 tbsp. fresh ginger, peeled and chopped

1 tbsp. neutral-tasting oil (I used Mezzetta olive oil)

1/2 tsp. garam masala

1/4 + 1/8 tsp. ground cardamom

Pinch of red chili flakes, optional

2 cups frozen mixed vegetables

3/4 cup cooked chickpeas

3 tbsp. heavy cream

Salt and pepper to taste

1 tbsp. toasted sliced almonds

Cooked rice, for serving

1)  In a food processor, buzz the tomatoes, onions, and ginger together until everything is pureed.  Set aside.

2)  In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium heat.  Add the garam masala, cardamom, and chili flakes if using, and fry for about 30 seconds or until fragrant, stirring constantly.  Add the tomato puree.  Simmer for 2-3 minutes to let the sauce thicken slightly.

3)  Add the frozen vegetables, chickpeas, and heavy cream.  Season liberally with salt and pepper, then cover the skillet and simmer for 7-8 minutes, until the vegetables are tender.  Remove the lid.  Let everything simmer for another minute or two to thicken the sauce (mine was a little watery here) if you like.

4)  Serve over rice and scatter the toasted almonds on top.  If you cook this just for yourself, you’ll get to enjoy fabulous leftovers the next day!  If not, consider doubling the recipe—it’s a good one. 

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Special Edition: Sweet Potatoes

Taters in Progress

What I’m about to say is heresy, but I can’t help how I feel.  I don’t like sweet potatoes very much.  I find them confusing.  They’re potatoes, so I expect them to behave like potatoes.  I expect them to be savory and satisfying, happy to be tossed in the oven for a hot roasting or simmered into a soup.  What I don’t expect, and can’t seem to enjoy most of the time, is their sweetness.  Yes, I know—the name should tip me off, right?—but I just don’t like them in the vast majority of recipes that are out there. 

But the truth is, I want to like sweet potatoes.  I really do.  They’re a delightful vegetable, comfortingly starchy, a pretty orange on the inside, and they even come in petite sizes at my beloved Brazos Natural Foods.  Here in the States, sweet potatoes are Thanksgiving and wintertime and coziness all rolled up into a humble root vegetable.  As an American, it’s practically unpatriotic of me not to like sweets.  And don’t they just have the best nickname?  I want someone to start calling me sweets.

As luck would have it, I have found an answer to my sweet potato dilemma, in the form of an awesome salad, adapted from Deb’s recipe for Sweet Potatoes with Pecans and Goat Cheese.  It really was lucky because I don’t read Smitten Kitchen too often any more.  I suppose I poke around Deb’s blog maybe once a month or once every couple of months.  But recently, I happened to be at the right place at the right time, and I was captivated by the idea of roasting sweet potatoes in fat rounds or “steaks,” as Deb calls them, until they start to char and blister against the metallic heat of a baking sheet.  I thought that deep, dark roasting step would add something special to the sweets, something to contrast the sweetness and add depth to their flavor.  Indeed, those roasted steaks of sweet potato teeter on just this side of burnt, but they are perfect.  The rest of the recipe really steps up the savory quality of the dish: crispy celery, a fresh green herb, a handful of minced onion, and my favorite part, cubes of smoked cheddar, all tossed in a very mild vinaigrette, just enough to moisten things.  It’s a wonderful combination of contrasts, flavors and textures, sweet and smoky and crunchy and just flat-out delicious.  I really like it, and I think you might, too.

A Sweet Potato Success Story!

Celery and Sweet Potato Salad

Adapted from this Smitten Kitchen recipe

Serves 2

A quick note: do you have a pair of kitchen tongs yet?  If not, ask Santa to bring you some!  I bought myself some tongs not too long ago, and I love them.  They are perfect for flipping over the sweet potato “steaks” in this recipe.

2-3 small or medium-sized sweet potatoes

3 tbsp. olive oil, divided

2 tsp. red wine vinegar

1/2 tsp. Dijon mustard

Salt and pepper to taste

2 stalks celery, chopped

3 tbsp. minced onion

1 sprig of fresh dill, finely chopped

4 big handfuls of fresh baby spinach

2 ounces smoked cheddar cheese, diced

1/4 cup pecans, chopped, toasted, and cooled

1)  To roast the sweet potatoes, preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.  Drizzle a small baking sheet with 1 tbsp. olive oil, or drizzle the oil on a small part of a larger baking sheet.  While the oven is preheating, prep the sweet potatoes by chopping them into roughly 3/4-inch coins.  (If any of the peel is particularly gnarly, take that off first with a vegetable peeler.)  Place the sweets on the oiled part of the baking sheet—I like to rub them into the oil a little bit, just to make sure they have some oil on their bottoms.  Pop the sweets into the oven and roast them for 15-20 minutes, then flip them over (with tongs!) and roast for another 10 minutes, until both sides are almost a bit charred.  I use a fork to make sure the potatoes are tender all the way through.

2)  While the sweets are going, make the vinaigrette.  Whisk together 2 tbsp. olive oil, the vinegar, the mustard, and a good pinch of salt.

3)  In a medium-sized bowl, toss together the celery, onion, and dill.  Add a spoonful or two of the vinaigrette and toss again.  (You’ll have some leftover vinaigrette, but I just see this as an excuse to make this salad again!)

4)  Plate the spinach on two plates (two big handfuls per plate).  Divide the celery mixture between the two plates, then top it with the sweet potatoes.  Divide the cheddar cubes and the pecans between the two plates and serve.  The leftovers from this salad are fantastic the next day.  I just make the salad, minus the spinach and pecans, and tuck it in a tightly sealed bowl, one that can accompany me to work.  You can pack the spinach and pecans separately and then add them when it’s time to eat.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

A Little Unexpected

Cooking with Wine_A Success Story!

I consider it a great success when I find a new recipe that I can slip into my weeknight rotation.  Weeknights are hard!  So much to do, so little time to do it.  I rely pretty heavily on leftovers to help me get through the work week with a full belly, particularly for my lunches, but for dinners, I like to cook something new and exciting at least twice a week.  It always gives me a good feeling to cook something fresh on the days between Monday and Friday, Iike I’m being extra caring to myself and my taste buds.

I’ve been doing really well with my weeknight cooking as of late, in part because all I want to do is burrow into the kitchen and cook, bake, cook, bake.  It’s the most wonderful time of the year, right?  The kitchen is cozy and well-stocked, the nights are long, and the season’s brightness comes out of a skillet or the oven.  It feels natural to roast vegetables, make soup stock, roll pie crusts, and bake cakes.  With darkness settling over us early in the evenings, I don’t feel pulled outside by the light the way I do in the spring.  Right now, the kitchen is where I want to be.

Today’s recipe is a comforting version of beans and toast, with a delicious and Greek-inspired twist,  I really liked this recipe I made back in September, and I was curious to see if I could make a new dish by swapping some of the ingredients.  Out went the zucchini, fresh sage, and big tomatoes.  In came fresh mint, dried sage, cherry tomatoes, and feta cheese.  I altered the cooking protocol a little bit, too, adding the cherry tomatoes to the sizzling onions and letting them grow warm and juicy until they collapse and mingle their tomato-ness with the onions and garlic.  I added the mint at the end to keep its flavor fresh and sprightly, an almost unexpected hint of spring and fresh green things.  And the feta just came naturally: tomatoes + onions + mint = Greek to me, so feta seemed like it belonged on top.

When piled onto thick-cut slices of buttered toast, this quick dinner is satisfying and delicious, neither light nor heavy in the belly, a little unexpected.  It deserves a nice little side salad, maybe something with spinach and oranges like this one, or maybe a grated carrot salad spiked with lemon and parsley.  I think I’ll be making this one all winter long.

White Beans with Onions, Cherry Tomatoes, and a Greek Twist

Adapted from this recipe

Serves 2

I forgot to tell you the thing that got me so excited about this recipe in the first place: the wine!  After that terrible evening with the leeks, I felt the need to cook something with wine that I would actually want to eat.  My long-term goal is to be able to cook with wine without consulting a recipe at all, and the only way to get there is to keep the wine bottle out and to keep cooking.  So that’s what I’m doing.

In this recipe, the wine is subtle—just two tablespoons—but I think it adds an extra layer of flavor, a subtle fruity-sour depth.  Matt and I had an illuminating conversation during his last visit that made me realize wine is a really strong ingredient.  With wine, it’s not a bad idea to use a light hand and then see how the dish turns out.  For example, last winter I made a vegetarian version of kickpleat’s (and Gourmet’s) Chicken Thighs in Riesling.  My version was pretty similar to the original, except that I used from-scratch white beans instead of chicken thighs.  The “White Beans in Riesling” was pretty good, but I’d like to try again, this time using less wine (maybe 1/3 cup?).  The flavor of the Riesling was nice, but I found that it overwhelmed the other ingredients a bit.

But that is for another day!  For today, we’ve got a simpler white bean dish for weeknight cooking.  Enjoy.

1 tbsp. olive oil

1 onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1/4 tsp. dried sage

Salt and pepper to taste

2 tbsp. dry white wine, such as a Chardonnay, divided

1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes, halved

1 16-oz. can white beans, drained and rinsed

4-5 smallish leaves of fresh mint, chopped

1/4 cup feta cheese crumbles

4 slices of thick-cut bread, toasted and buttered (for serving)

1)  Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the onion and cook for 5 minutes until the onion is soft.

2)  Add the garlic, sage, and some salt and pepper.  Cook for 30 seconds or so, then add 1 tbsp. white wine.  It should sizzle and bubble a bit.  Add the tomatoes and the remaining tbsp. of wine, then immediately cover, turn the heat down to medium, and let everything cook for 3-5 minutes.

3)  By this time, the tomatoes should have started breaking down into the onion-garlic mixture.  Add the white beans, stir everything around, and let them heat up for a minute or so.  Turn off the heat, add the mint, and season to taste with salt and pepper.

4)  Place the buttered toast on two plates, then add a big scoop or two of the white bean mixture.  Divide the feta between the two plates and serve immediately, perhaps with glasses of the Chardonnay you used in this dish?  I recommend you eat this dish with a knife and fork.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Marvelous, Relaxing

I find myself inspired by this interesting New York Times article about procrastinating pleasure.  What an odd thing we humans do, putting off our pleasure until tomorrow, or next week, or next year.  Don’t we all know that life is short?  And that when pleasure lands like a butterfly on your arm, you shouldn’t shoo it away until a more convenient time?  You should stop whatever you are doing and give pleasure your undivided attention.  Because if you blink, if you wait too long, it will flutter away and you’ll be left feeling vaguely melancholic that you just missed something magical.

One More Sandal Day

I didn’t realize how starved for time I’ve been until this long weekend landed on me like a butterfly.  Even though I was recovering from being sick, I still had a marvelous, relaxing weekend.  I took every opportunity to indulge myself, and tonight I am feeling much restored.  Here were the high points of my recovery plan:

* I lavished attention on my apartment, which has suffered the brunt of my time-starved condition.  I organized and bagged the recycling, did two loads of laundry, vacuumed, and washed lots of dishes.  Perhaps housework doesn’t sound like a pleasure, but when it’s finally done, after weeks of feeling guilty for not doing enough, the relief is incredible.  Also, relaxing in a clean, organized space feels luxurious.

Bike and Bag

* My pretty new bag and I hopped on my purple bike and rode around town.  This messenger bag is a birthday gift from my little brother and sister, who very wisely consulted my wish list for ideas.  The bag is great for running errands by bike.  On Saturday, I tucked two big books in there, along with my purse and some cloth grocery bags, and I made the rounds, returning the books to the library and buying groceries on the way back.  It’s so much easier to cycle with a big messenger bag to hold all my stuff!

* I ate quiche leftovers and did not feel guilty over one single bite of butter-loaded crust.  I did eat lots of vegetables alongside my quiche, but I loved eating decadently for a few days—for Thanksgiving, for my birthday, and just because I could.

* I drank mint mochas while sitting on the couch, crunching data.  Okay, yes, I was working, but being able to work from home was great.  In my defense, I didn’t spend too much time working, but over the course of three days, I did make a good dent in my mountain of data, for which I am grateful now.

* I took long walks—one on a chilly afternoon wearing scarf and gloves and chatting with a friend, another on a warmer afternoon, by myself around the neighborhood.  Both were lovely.

* I ate rum raisin ice cream while watching Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.  The combination made for a lovely evening.

Roasted Squash

* I dusted off an old recipe and roasted a butternut squash.  I love the recipe in concept: hack a squash into big pieces, clean out the seeds and gunk, then gussy it up with butter, tamari, sweetener, paprika, and some black pepper.  The whole thing gets covered in foil and baked, then at the end, the heat is raised and everything gets browned and a little toasty.  The problem is twofold: one is that the squash tasted a little watery to me—perhaps a result of the foil trapping moisture and steaming the squash?  The other problem, which is far more tragic, is that all the goodies—the butter and whatnot, drip off the squash and burn in the pan!  So sad.  Now, I turn to you for help, dear readers: do you have a good baked or roasted squash recipe, one that you love and trust?  Is it possible to add butter and such before the oven treatment, or should they be added afterward?  I love the rustic and easy preparation of my original recipe, but I’d like the final result to be more flavorful—and full of all the good stuff I’ve drizzled on top.

* * *

I won’t lie: I was sad when the long Thanksgiving weekend ended.  I knew it couldn’t last forever, and reentry is always hard after vacation.  But I’m happy to have indulged in so much pleasure—domestic, gastronomic, athletic—and I feel hopeful that I”ll make it to Christmas break with my peace of mind intact.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

To Give Thanks

A Rare Sight in Texas

On Thanksgiving Day

A Thankful Vegetarian's Quiche

I’m having one heck of a week over here, my dears.  I’ve had food poisoning, or something approximating it, since last Saturday, but I think I’m on the mend.  There have been fevers and a lack of energy, and in the morning, after crawling out of bed, I’ve had to take frequent couch breaks to deal with the weakness and exhaustion.  It’s a strange thing that happens to me once or twice a year; there’s just something about my body that lets intestinal trouble linger.  I’m never completely incapacitated by it, but I’m definitely slowed down and feel generally lousy.

It’s hard to be ill when you live alone because there’s nobody to take care of you.  I like to be pampered when I’m sick.  If I had my choice, I’d have someone bringing me icy-cold ginger ales and new books to read while I rest in bed.  In lieu of luxurious sick-day treatment, I’ve just tried to take it easy.  Thankfully, I think Tuesday was the worst of the illness: that day, I came home early from work, stripped off my clothes, and climbed in bed.  I slept until about 9:30 that night, then I woke up and watched Law & Order: SVU for two hours.  I did manage to write a blog post after that—does that count as productive?  Then I went back to bed.

My Thanksgiving was mixed this year.  It’s a cruel twist of fate when you have flu-like symptoms on the nation’s food holiday; I was kind of upset about this.  But like I said, Tuesday was the worst day, and I managed to gather my strength and bake a quiche for the feast.  This quiche is quite tasty, if I do say so myself.  I had been invited to celebrate the day with a friend and her friends, and I wanted to bring something delicious, hearty, and vegetarian to share.  A quiche seemed perfect: it’s pretty and celebratory, rich and flavorful.  This particular specimen featured a well-seasoned combination of onions and red peppers, with touches of oregano, sage, mustard, and balsamic vinegar.  I think the mustard and vinegar are inspired touches, adding an unusual depth of flavor to the filling.  The crust is on the rich side even for pastry, using a full stick of butter, and for the cheese, I used a smoked cheddar.  The recipe originally calls for Gruyere, but due to my illness, I turned to the refrigerator and used what I had on hand.  I think it works: the smokiness adds another layer of flavor to an already-interesting dish.

Thanksgiving dinner was lovely.  The highlights included cranberries in three forms, all of which were seconds-worthy.  There was a cranberry salsa which combined sweetened cranberries with cilantro, jalapeno, and lime juice—it was like cranberry sauce, Tex-Mex style.  There was another cranberry dish, this one a sweet salad of sorts with citrus in it.  Finally, there was a cranberry-raspberry pie, which was sweet-tart heaven, though it made me long for a scoop of vanilla ice cream to eat alongside.  There were six of us who feasted together, and two turkeys, which is kind of nuts for five people if you don’t count me.  My quiche wasn’t very popular, which may have had something to do with the two turkeys.  I had a shudder-worthy moment when the first guest dug into my quiche like it was a casserole, taking a big old scoop right out of the middle.  I guess my crust wasn’t obvious enough.  But the quiche and I recovered, and our dinner table conversation was interesting and everyone seemed to have a good time.

I felt grateful to have somewhere to go this year for Thanksgiving.  Last year I spent the holiday by myself, and while it wasn’t bad, I feel like Thanksgiving is a holiday that needs to be shared with other people.  It’s not feasible for me to spend every big holiday with my family, so I’m happy when someone adopts me into their family for an evening.  My friend Amutha is fast becoming a very close friend, and this year I gave thanks for our friendship and the generosity of strangers who accepted me into their festivities.  I always feel like I have much for which to be thankful, and in the end, it always comes down to life, love, and food.  That’s all I really need.

Thanksgiving Quiche

Adapted from Sunlight Cafe by Mollie Katzen

Serves 6-8 if accompanied by side dishes

My only complaint about this quiche is that it weeps after it’s been cut.  I used lowfat milk in the custard, but I think in the future, I’ll use either 1/2 cup milk or 1/2 cup each milk and something richer, like heavy cream or half-and-half.  The texture of the custard is good, but I really don’t like the weeping.  It threatens to make the crust soggy and it looks unappetizing.

Custard issues aside, this quiche was really quite tasty and I do hope to make it again.  I ate it for lunch and dinner on Friday, and I’m going to eat more quiche tonight.  It’s my version of eating the leftover turkey from Thanksgiving.

For the crust:

1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1/4 tsp. salt

1/2 cup (one stick) cold butter, sliced

Up to 3 tbsp. cold water, milk, or buttermilk (I used 3 tbsp. buttermilk)

1)  In a food processor, mix together the flour and salt.  Add the butter, then pulse several times to cut the butter into the flour mixture until it resembles a coarse meal.

2)  Add the liquid, 1 tbsp. at a time, and pulse to combine.  The dough is ready when you can pinch it and it sticks to itself.

3)  Dump the dough onto a floured surface and gather it into a ball.  Roll it out to fit your pie pan (I used a 9-inch pie pan here), then gently lift it and place it in the pan.  Use your fingers to nudge it into place and repair any holes or tears.  Create an even edge as much as you can—the filling is generous and will fill a 9-inch pie pan up to the top.  I admit that I’m not the most talented pastry chef, but even my crust turned out well here.

4)  Tuck the crust in the fridge and start working on the filling.

For the filling:

1 tbsp. olive oil

3 medium onions (about 3 cups), sliced

1/2 tsp. salt

1/4 tsp. dried sage

1/4 tsp. dried thyme

1 tsp. Dijon mustard

1 tbsp. balsamic vinegar

1 medium red bell pepper (about one cup), sliced

1 cup packed shredded smoked cheddar cheese

3 large eggs

1 cup milk (see headnote)

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1)  Add the olive oil to a medium skillet and put it over medium heat.  Add the onions and cook for about 5 minutes.  Add the salt, herbs, and mustard.  Cover the pan, lower the heat to medium-low, and cook for 15 minutes, stirring every once in a while.  (Now is a good time to make the crust, if you haven’t done so already.)

2)  Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

3)  Add the vinegar and bell pepper to the onions and turn the heat up to medium.  Cook, uncovered, for another 5 minutes.  Remove from the heat.

4)  Place the pie pan, with crust inside, on a rimmed baking sheet.  Sprinkle the cheddar over the bottom of the crust, then scrape the vegetables over the cheese.

5)  Whisk together the eggs, milk, and black pepper.  Carefully pour this over the vegetables.

6)  Bake the quiche for 35-40 minutes, until the custard is set.  (MIne took about 40 minutes to bake.)  Cool for at least 10 minutes before slicing.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

I Am Ready

A Commotion Above

Today is my 29th birthday. 

I’m not scared to grow older.  I’m scared of lots of things: cancer, burglars, big trucks, e-mails where the subject line is a person’s first and last name.  But I’m not scared of my birthday, nor am I scared to say good-bye to my twenties.  I am ready, though I’ve got one more year before it’s time.

I no longer feel defined by my age.  I actually feel rather timeless, neither young nor old.  I’m neither innocent nor jaded, neither clueless nor wise.  I feel a child’s delight inside me when I see tiny wildflowers in bloom, or a flock of black birds perched high above me on an electrical wire.  I feel a teenager’s heart flutter inside me when I look at Matt and I remember how unlikely it was that we met at all.  I feel a lifelong student’s intellect when I read and write.  And I feel a timeless curiosity whenever I try something new, a sense that I will never be too old to learn, to try new things, and to fail.  Mostly, though, I’m just me, with 29 years of adventure under my belt, and I’m ready for what’s next.

This year has been a good one and a hard one.  Is that true for every year?  I don’t know.  This year brought two cancer diagnoses to people for whom I care and a lot of fear of the future, but I remain hopeful that these stories will have happy endings.  Maybe that’s the mark of a good year—that you still feel hopeful for what’s next, even in the face of tragic news.  For me professionally, it was a train wreck between my expectations and what I accomplished.  I have been trying to make my peace with these disappointments.  Personally, it was a year to grow into my home here in Texas.  I have had many magical moments here, tiny pauses during which I notice how beautiful and surreal it is down here.  Taking lots of pictures has helped me notice more of these moments.  I spent a lot of time outside.  Texas makes it easy to be an outdoor girl.

This year also brought many new babies into my life.  Two sets of friends became parents, and an adored colleague at work became a father.  In my own family, we’ve got a new baby on the way, a brother or sister for my niece, Lydia.  In another family, a set of twins celebrated their first birthday.  Their birth a year ago was three months earlier than it should have been, and it was terrifying, especially for their parents, my dear friends.  To see the twins turn one—well, I was so happy, knowing they’d made it and they’re doing their best to be good babies. 

When I think about what I want for this next year of my life, I think about living a bigger, more vibrant life.  I don’t need massive changes in my life; I’m pretty happy the way things are.  I could use fewer weekends in the lab, yes, but those weekend hours come as part of my larger commitment to my work.  Of course I’d love to see my work really take off, to find myself working on a project that is going to pan out into a new science story and a paper.  That goal hasn’t changed since I started my postdoc.  But beyond my work, this is what bigger and more vibrant looks like to me.

I want to wear more red clothes.

I want to eat more chocolate cake.

I want to run more miles.

I want to swing on more swings.

I want to wear a twirly blue skirt as much as possible.


I want to wear fishnets and short skirts.

I want to eat more pizza.

I want to see more sunsets.

I want to spend more time hugging.

I want to walk in parks with my favorite people.

I want to break two hours in a half-marathon.

I want to make new friends but keep the old.  (One is silver and the other gold!)

I want to work on my laugh lines, so that when I’m old, my mouth turns up, not down.

I want to watch the Harry Potter movies.  (I’m so far behind!  I’m only on Goblet of Fire now.)

I want to read more fiction and spend more time in libraries.

* * *

I think that’s enough for one year.  Happy Thanksgiving, dear readers.  I hope your little hearts soar with gratitude tomorrow as you celebrate this holiday with loved ones and fantastic food.   

Take Flight

Sunday, November 21, 2010

In Which I Butcher an Innocent Recipe

The evening started promisingly: a huge bunch of leeks, a terrific bottle of Chardonnay, a nip in the air outside, and a blue Le Creuset pot eager to get to work.  I was trying out a new recipe, Wine-Braised Leeks Over Garlic Toast, and I was looking forward to a cooking session filled with delicious smells and ending with a fantastic, French-inspired dish.

The leeks that I had purchased at HEB were absolutely enormous, and I felt compelled to document my shock at their size.  Also, I have been learning how to use the self-timer button on my camera.

Massive Leeks!

Once I recovered from my shock, I got right to work at my cooking station.  Here I began doing what I do best in the kitchen: not following instructions.  The recipe called for using the tender white parts of 8 leeks, halved, in a 9x13-inch pan.  Just that part of the recipe alone gave me problems.  First, if you look at the leeks in my hands, you’ll note that most of the leek is green stuff.  I am way, way too frugal not to use most or all of any given vegetable, and yes, while the green part of a leek tends to be a bit tougher, I figured braising would soften any tough parts into submission.  Second, wine is a major ingredient in the braising liquid, and white wine in particular tends to be acidic—at least, I think it is, based on how it tastes.  Acid is known to react with metals, and the only 9x13-inch pan I own is made of metal.  I made two executive decisions to deal with these issues.  The first is that I used six leeks, white and green parts, and I chopped them rather than halving them.  The second is that I used my Le Creuset pot for the braising, carefully removing the handle’s lid so that it wouldn’t melt in the 450-degree heat.

So far, so good.  I poured myself a glass of wine and got to work with my leek preparation.

Me with Leeks

I chopped and washed my leeks, then tipped them into the pot.  I peeled a boatload of garlic and scattered them over the leeks.  All was well until I opened my can of olives, where I expected to find big chunks of chopped black olives.  Instead, I opened the can and found what looked like large pieces of black dirt.  These olives were not chopped; they’d been almost pulverized into a puree.  Turning up my nose, I scraped them into the leeks, where they made the leeks look like they’d been chucked into a pot straight from the garden, full of dirt.

It was awful, but I kept going.  Into the pot I stirred a cup each of white wine (an Eberle Chardonnay from 2009—delicious and highly recommended!).  I scattered some dried thyme and olive oil over the whole thing, sprinkled a touch of salt and pepper, then covered the pot with its lid and tucked it in the oven for 30 minutes.  I pulled the pot out, stirred everything around, and tucked it back into the oven for 40 minutes.  When the leeks were done with their oven time, I eagerly and carefully pulled them out of the oven to find something that looked dangerously overcooked.

Oh Boy

The heat had indeed done its work, turning my leeks brown and black in some places, the dish wafting a sharp, briney, herbal aroma.  I wasn’t too worried about the deeply colored bits, because I think we all know that the caramelized bits are the tastiest.  But what did concern me was that the braising liquid had all but disappeared during that final 40-minute step, the one done without the lid to trap moisture.

Still, I screwed up my courage and continued with my recipe.  I toasted some thick-cut slices of bread, buttered them generously, and placed a slice in my favorite white bowl.  I ladled some leeks onto the bread, then set the table and sat down to eat.

Kinda Cute Right_insert question mark here

In a word, the taste was harsh.  The dish was overwhelmed by the strong, salty flavor of olives; the more delicate floral and vegetal flavors of the leeks and wine had all but disappeared.  The bread was good and chewy, the butter rich and soothing, but the leeks were insistent.  It was hard to enjoy this dish because the balance of flavors was so lopsided.  It was a failure, for sure.

I blame myself.  I think this recipe is probably delicious, especially if you follow instructions, though I do hold that my alterations could work with a shorter braise time and maybe just a few olives added at serving time.  And I most certainly wouldn’t use ugly, ground-up olives; I’d use pretty, whole olives that I carefully halved and then scattered over each serving.

I hate to end on a down note, so I’ll mention two very good things about trying this recipe.  One was the Eberle Chardonnay, which I admit I chose because Matt and I have visited this winery and I felt confident that the wine would be good for drinking and cooking.  The second was the bread that I picked up for this dish.  It was a seven-grain loaf from HEB’s bakery section, and it was delicious, especially when toasted and buttered.  A good loaf of bread is not to be taken for granted, so I’ll keep this one in mind for future reference.

Now, in the wake of this recipe failure, I must redeem myself.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

He Made Us a Pizza

I have decided that it is a very good thing to date a man who eats a lot of pizza.   And if this man also drinks a lot of wine and eats a lot of cheese—even better!

In two sentences, that’s a pretty good summary of Matt: pizza, wine, cheese.  I like all those things too, so we get along really well.  Surprisingly, though, until his last visit, we had never made pizza together.  We made calzones together a few years ago, and they were seriously outstanding, but pizza was a new one for us.  I don’t think we’ve eaten much pizza together, though I do remember having one for lunch during what one might call our first “date,” which turned out to be three days long since he was visiting me from far away.  It was a pretty awesome date.

The pizza idea came about as we were fishing around for ideas about what to make for dinner on a Saturday night.  Matt already had the wine selected, and I asked him to make this crazy delicious salad that I desperately hope to codify in recipe form.  We needed something more, though, something with some heft and calories.  Matt declined my suggestions for quiche or frittata, but I still wanted something round and friendly that would feed us well.  Pizza was my next suggestion.  I recalled a Vegetarian Times recipe that made a deep-dish pizza in a cast-iron skillet, so I suggested we do the same.  Matt said yes.

So we went shopping, and we bought all sorts of uppity vegetables like leeks and radicchio.  We hit the cheese stand and bought three(!) different cheeses.  Finally, we wandered over to the baking aisle and found something that has changed my life: pizza dough yeast.  Oh yes.

The Secret Ingredient

This stuff is seriously awesome.  It comes with a cute little recipe on the back for making the dough, and it bakes up into a chewy delicious crust, a little crispy on the edges and almost plush in the center.  But what’s really life-changing about it is that it makes a dough that requires no rising time.  NO RISING TIME!  This yeast means that a homemade pizza crust is now possible for me on weeknights when I’ve got just enough time to assemble and bake a pizza, but I certainly do not have the patience to wait for a dough to rise.

The dough is pretty forgiving too, which is wonderful.  I made a pizza earlier this week, and I forgot to add the oil to the dough until I was almost ready to knead.  I think the oil adds a lot to the flavor and texture of the dough, so I didn’t want to leave it out.  To incorporate the oil, I put the dough back in its mixing bowl, added the oil, and kneaded the oil into the dough for a minute or two, then I plopped the dough back on the counter and commenced the “actual” kneading.  Problem solved, and my crust was delicious.

I should probably explain how we built our deep-dish pizza, because it was really tasty and it might make you hungry enough to try this at home.  First, in a cast-iron skillet, we cooked a regular onion in some olive oil, letting it caramelize just a touch before added a chopped leek.  We let the leeks soften and relax, then I added three handfuls of baby spinach.  The spinach wilted into the pan, then we threw in a few chopped cloves of garlic and cooked them just a touch—maybe 30 seconds, just long enough to let things get really fragrant.  Then I scraped all the vegetables out of the pan, we made the pizza dough, Matt got flour all over my kitchen, and he worked the dough into a large circle.  We placed the circle inside the skillet, making high sides to create that deep dish effect, and then we filled our pizza.

At the store, we had picked up Fontina, fresh mozzarella, and Maytag blue cheeses.  Into the pizza crust we layered Fontina, vegetables, and fresh mozzarella, and at the end, a few nubs of Maytag blue were scattered over the top.  To gild the lily, we sprinkled paprika (which makes everything look dazzling), and on one half of the pizza, Matt scattered a few rounds of something sausage-like.  (As an aside, can someone please tell me the difference between sausage and salami?)

To make sure our deep-dish pizza cooked thoroughly, we gave it a good 20 minutes—maybe a little more—and the house smelled fantastic.  Then we sat down and complimented each other on our awesome meal, most of which was made by Matt.  The man knows his pizza, he knows how to cook, and he knows how to win a girl’s heart.  He’s a triple threat, but it’s only my waistline that’s in danger.

Hello Gorgeous

Sometimes, after I’ve made something really delicious, I just know I’m going to make it again as soon as possible.  The pizza is one of those examples—I made another one on Monday.  This time, I mixed things up.  The biggest change I made was using a tomato sauce, which is worth remembering so I’ll give you the recipe below.  I worried that the sauce might make the pizza too wet, but it was tasty without being soggy.  If we’d had something tomato-ish on hand, I think Matt and I would have added it to our pizza, but we didn’t think of it until we were home again.

For my pizza, I followed our outline as well as I could, though I had to improvise with whatever the fridge had to offer.  I made my tomato sauce and cooked leeks with garlic, again in the skillet so that the dough picks up that wonderful onion-garlic flavor when the pizza is assembled.  I used two cheeses, the Fontina and Maytag blue left over from the first pizza.  To assemble the pizza, I scattered a generous amount of shredded Fontina on the bottom, spread the tomato sauce, spooned the vegetables on top, then finished with more Fontina and some nubs of Maytag blue.  Into the oven, 20 minutes or so, and out came another gorgeous pie.

The Brown Spots are the Best

I have to say, I never would have thought to top pizza with blue cheese.  It was an inspired addition, perhaps serendipitous too, because I remember being thrilled to find Maytag blue at HEB and I added it to our basket just because.  I didn’t have any particular plans for it other than to put it in our bellies—the pizza idea was all Matt’s.  It works deliciously because it adds such distinct, powerful flavor with a tiny amount of cheese, and its savory stink plays well with the demure sweetness of the leeks.

After writing this post, I’m not sure whether to be hungry for another pizza or to think about how much I miss Matt.  I’m ready for him to come back to my kitchen and cook with—or for—me, whichever he prefers.  This time I’ll be ready to clean flour off the coffeemaker after he’s done cooking.  And instead of trying to help, I might just sit back and drink my wine, watching him work his magic with the food.  It is one of his sexiest tricks.

Quick Pizza Sauce

Adapted from Vegetarian Times

Makes enough for one deep-dish pizza (made in a 10-inch skillet)

The original recipe called for tomato paste, which I didn’t have on hand.  What I did have on hand was canned diced tomatoes, which I think worked reasonably well.  I’ll provide both versions, and when I get around to trying the tomato paste version, I’ll report back in the comments.

This recipe is a great option for an impromptu pizza sauce.  It’s good enough that I might even consider trying to keep tomato paste on hand for weeknight pizza cravings.

1 cup canned diced tomatoes or 1 6-oz. can of no-salt-added tomato paste

2 tbsp. finely minced onion, optional (I didn’t add the onion because I was out of onions, but I’ll try this in the future)

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 tsp. dried oregano

2 tsp. olive oil

1/2 tsp. red wine vinegar

Salt and pepper, to taste

1)  Mix everything together in a bowl.

2)  If using diced tomatoes, pour the sauce into a small saucepan.  Bring the sauce to a bubble and let it simmer for 5 minutes or so to thicken.

3)  Spread the sauce on your pizza crust and finish assembling your pizza.

PS  Happy almost-birthday and happy NEW BABY to my dear friend and loyal reader Nicole.  I’m so, so happy for you!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A New Plan

Neat Angles Here

I’ve been thinking about this blog, and it’s time I let you in on the news.  It’s been over three years since I started writing Life, Love, and Food, and a lot has changed during those three years.  When I started writing, I had a very simple goal: to refind my voice, the one that felt stifled under the weight of graduate school and career aspirations, the one that wanted to talk about food and cooking and recipes.  Once I started writing regularly, I learned that I really LOVE to write.  Giving my voice a chance to speak through words typed in a clean white space felt amazing, like learning to ride a bike and finally getting the hang of it.  It was a chance to stake my territory, to have something that felt like it was all mine.  It felt great.

Then I started to tell people about this blog.  I actually felt really shy about sharing it with anyone because it seemed silly and I felt vulnerable, putting my writing out there for anyone to judge.  It was one thing to have a blog when no one was aware of its existence; it was quite another to tell friends about this weird internet hobby of mine.  At first I told Matt; he was my first reader, I think, and not once did he ever make me feel silly for writing a food blog.  Of course, at the same time, he was working his way into my life in other ways, and eventually he became woven into the material of my stories.  I told some friends too, Nicole and Anne and James, and they became readers.  Every time I would tell someone about the blog, I would say, “Please, if you don’t like it, you don’t have to read it.  The last thing I want is people who read it because they feel like they have to.”  And I still feel that way today: the last thing I want is readers who feel obligated, like reading my blog is a chore they must finish.  Yuck!  Who wants that?

That’s the thing about blogs: they are supposed to be fun.  That’s what I want from my blogs, the ones I write and the ones I read.  I know this blog tends to be serious; I write about big, important things, but it’s still fun for me to write those posts.  I don’t think fun means I can’t write about serious things.  Sometimes, though, I think all those big, serious posts makes me feel unable to do easy, lighthearted posts, like fun memes I see on other blogs or posts about what I ate for lunch today.  I feel like I have to be uncovering the meaning of life or else I’m not doing my job around here.

But is it possible that I could do both?

The heaviness of this blog is weighing me down these days.  I’d like for it to be more lighthearted, more fun and spontaneous.  I’m working a lot these days, and I need a break from all that serious thought.  Plus the last thing I want to do is spend all my blogging time writing about my job.  Part of the reason my Saturday/Sunday blogging schedule fell apart is that I felt unable to write two good posts, back to back, on the weekends when I was spending 2-3 hours in the lab and trying to get all my errands and chores done.  It was just too much, and I found I had nothing of interest to say.  I felt lucky if I cooked a good meal or two, and then maybe, maybe, I’d have something interesting to say on a food blog.  Oy!  It was tough.

So this is the deal: I’m reclaiming this blog, for all of us.  I want it to feel fun and fresh again, a place where we can talk about squash and lunches, chocolate and green beans, serious stuff like love, and lighthearted stuff like how a vegetarian survives in meat-loving Texas.  (And what does said vegetarian do when her carnivorous boyfriend leaves behind a piece of pizza with salami on it?  Hmm…)

I’m hoping to revive my writing life with a new schedule too.  I’m thinking Sundays and Wednesdays—does that work for you?  I miss the continuity that comes with a regular writing schedule.  There’s something really appealing about a blog in which the stories unfold over time, and I want to capture that sense of wonder, that sense of learning and discovery.  I want to tell you more about my kitchen disasters, in part so that I don’t feel like every post has to contain some masterpiece of a recipe.  Because let’s be honest, folks: effing up is pretty funny, and my stories about effing up tell a lot about what kind of cook I am and how I live my life.  I never really know exactly what I’m doing; I’m making it up as we go.  And that’s how I write this blog too—I don’t know the end of the post until I get there.

Let’s start a new chapter together, friends.  Let’s eat pizza and drink wine and mess around in the kitchen and have a blast doing it.  I can’t wait.  See you tomorrow, with skillet and pizza dough in hand.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Greedy, Sponsored by the Numbers 2 and 9

Kitchen with Late Afternoon Light

My birthday is just around the corner, and it will involve the digits 2 and 9.  I think I’m turning into an old lady.

It’s okay, really, because I plan to be a really funny old lady.  I’ve been practicing my old lady act for a long time, so it doesn’t pain me not to be associated with youth.  I think I look pretty good, despite my advanced age, and I certainly feel I have something to show for my twenties, like my fabulous collection of recipes and my impeccable taste in peanut butter.  It’s hard to ask for much more than what I already have.  The other night, I was laying in bed, thinking about Matt’s then-upcoming visit, and I realized that I already have so much more than one person could possibly deserve.  So much love, so much fun, so much abundance.  I have a good life, even though I’m constantly stressed out.  But even that is manageable most days.  I run, I bike, I do yoga, and I take deep breaths.  I tell myself, Yes, you can do this even when my brain is shrieking, No, I can’t do this!

We never really “earn” all the gifts we receive, whether that gift is love, support, friendship, a good belly laugh, or a big bear hug when you need it most.  This is why I say that I find it hard to believe that I deserve all the good things my life has come to hold.  It’s also why I find it such a challenge to answer that question that pops up every single year around this time: “What do you want for your birthday?”  I never know what to say.  Right now, what I really want to say is, “I want the next year of my life to be just as good as the last year.  It could be neither better nor worse, and that would be fine with me.”  Because this past year, even with all its lumps and bumps, was pretty damn good, and I’d do it all over again if I could.

But knowing that one can’t gift-wrap the things that I really want from this next year, I hit the next best thing: Amazon.  My sister had suggested I set up a wish list so that shopping for me wouldn’t be so darn difficult.  At first, I found this exercise to be too challenging—I couldn’t come up with more than one item, which just would not suffice.  With a little time and thought, however, I came up with a more respectable list and thought it would be fun to share my birthday wish list with you.

Before I launch into the specifics, I must confess something terribly unflattering about myself.  Making the wish list has had a strange effect on me, which is that it induced an intense desire to buy everything on my own wish list RIGHT NOW.  This is the trouble with wish lists!  I’m usually a pretty laid-back shopper; delayed gratification doesn’t tease me too often.  I told my brother about how I feel like I cannot wait for birthday presents to arrive, and he said, “Geez, you sound so greedy!”  To which I replied, “I know!  It’s ridiculous!”  So now I know that the wish list is actually really dangerous and must be handled with care, lest I empty my piggy-bank buying cookbooks and CDs from Amazon.

I’m happy to report that so far, I have resisted purchasing any of the items on my wish list.  Starting with kitchen goodies, my list includes:

* In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite by Melissa Clark.  This cookbook sounds deliciously homey to me.  I like the kitchen, and I have a good appetite.

* So Easy: Luscious, Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Week by Ellie Krieger.  I bought a copy of this cookbook for a friend last Christmas.  I flipped through it and desperately wanted my own copy because the recipes sounded mouthwateringly delicious.  I love any cookbook that gives me more ideas for what to cook on weekdays, which are always the toughest dinners to produce.  Hunger levels are high, time is short, and it’s too easy to fall back on old standbys.  It takes some courage, and some good recipes, to break out of the weekday rut.  I’m hoping this book will give me more ideas on how to do that.

* Mesquite bean flour.  I have wanted mesquite flour for years now.  In The Cornbread Gospels, Crescent Dragonwagon has two recipes that call for mesquite flour, Sonoran Skillet Cornbread with Mesquite Meal and Sweet-Hot Aztec Two-Steps (a muffin recipe), both of which sound tasty and perfect for cooler days.  Also, in the Pantry section of her book, Crescent mentions using mesquite meal to replace some of the wheat flour in baked goods—I’m already dreaming about chocolate chip cookies made with mesquite flour.  Mmm…

* To provide musical accompaniment in the kitchen, I’m hoping someone will buy this Iron & Wine CD for me, Around the Well.  When we were cruising around town in his car, Matt had Iron & Wine in rotation on the CD player, and the songs made me feel all soft and weepy.  Dating a man who listens to Iron & Wine also makes me feel soft and weepy.

* Finally, I’m hoping to ditch the turtleshell-like backpack in which I carry around my laptop if this gorgeous messenger bag arrives in my mailbox.  I admit that I waffled about buying a bag with pink and flowers on it because it may be seen as a sign of frivolity in my science life, but then I thought, Forget it!  I like the girly bag, dammit, and I’m not going to pretend otherwise just to make myself seem less feminine than I am.  So pink and flowers it is—because it’s my birthday.

That’s the best I could do—five items, chosen carefully.  I think my sister is a little dismayed that my list isn’t longer, but the truth is that I feel like I have everything I need already.  My birthday is already full of the gifts that matter the most.