Sunday, January 31, 2010

Split Pea Soup for a Texas Winter

Without a doubt, I would call myself a planner.  But hidden between the lines of all my planning is a rather mercurial spirit, one that likes to twiddle the plans as she sees fit.  I often make cooking plans that turn out to be too ambitious to execute during the work week.  The cake I wanted to bake on a Monday night a few weeks ago?  I baked it the following Saturday.  And the split pea soup I was going to cook on a Wednesday?  It turned into a red lentil soup on Thursday, and the split peas sat, soaked and plump, until Saturday, at which point they turned into the most delightful pea soup I’ve had in recent memory.

The wonderful thing about my fickle cooking plans is that occasionally they lead to surprising recipe finds.  Although green split peas are cheap as dirt, I didn’t want to waste them.  Once I’d starting soaking them, I knew I would have to cook them one way or another, so I started searching for recipes on Epicurious, a site that makes me deliriously happy every time I hop on it.  I could spend hours on it, searching for recipes, reading reviews, bookmarking delicious things to make.  It’s almost as addictive to me as Amazon or, my newest favorite site, The Happiness Project.  Nothing thrills me more than learning, and my computer makes it a little too easy to pursue endless hours of new stuff.

But about those split peas: I think they have a reputation for being stodgy, heavy, stick-to-your-ribs fare, like the classic, thick-as-sludge split pea soup flavored with a salty, fatty hunk of pork.  Split peas are a wintertime ingredient, their heartiness providing a solid defense against shivering and snowy landscapes.  But I live in Texas, where wintertime is laughably mild, where a few weeks ago I sunbathed out by the pool while reading a paper.  I do love it here, but I also love my wintertime cooking and the coziness of a busy stove.  When I came across a split pea soup made with green peas and fresh dill, I thought, Ah-ha!  A cozy soup made light and fresh with a few key selections from the garden—now this is a soup for a Texas winter.

Here I must admit that I’m not the biggest fan of dill, so I decided to swap the dill for fresh mint.  I blame Nigel Slater, who is always throwing mint around the kitchen in his book the kitchen diaries.  I wanted some mint of my own.  But the combination of green peas and mint is a pretty classic one, a pairing that showed up in another soup on this blog, Kiki’s Mint Pea Soup, a recipe shared by my friend Anne.  Matt and I loved that soup.  We made it one night while vacationing in Tucson, Arizona.  I remember making the soup in the open, airy kitchen of his family’s ranch house, using a retro, 1950s-ish blender.  There was a fantastic lightning storm that night, with rain and a sky illuminated by streaks of lightning.  The power kept going off, cutting off the stereo.  We ate by candlelight, and after the storm receded, the frogs sang us a lullaby.  It was such a good night—one of my favorites of that whole summer.

Kiki’s Mint Pea Soup left me so full I thought I might burst—rich with butter and creme fraiche, it is greens peas and mint dressed up in silk and pearls.  The split pea soup I want to share with you today is an earthier, dressed-down version of Kiki’s.  It gets its creaminess from the split peas and a whirl in the blender, but it isn’t blended to utter smoothness.  Instead, only a few ladles of the soup are blended with the mint and green peas, producing a creamy-bodied soup with some soft texture from a leek and the split peas.  Its flavor is light and fresh with mint, but the split peas lend a deep, earthy-nutty flavor that makes this soup a good main course.  Tonight I ate it hot with a platter of spicy, oven-baked French fries and found it to be a perfect Sunday night meal.  It also makes a great deskbound lunch at room temperature, especially when accompanied by some cheese and crackers and a piece of fruit.  It’s so good that I may have to make it again before this Texas winter dissipates into a string of 70-degree days.

Split Pea Soup with Green Peas and Fresh Mint

Adapted from this Bon Appetit recipe found on Epicurious

Makes 3-4 main-dish servings

I like to soak my split green peas ahead of time to speed things up on soup-making day, but according to the original recipe, it’s not necessary.  Just check the cooking progress of your split peas by tasting them before taking the soup off the heat—they should have a nice creamy texture, not dry or chalky in any way.  If they aren’t creamy, give them a few more minutes’ cooking time and check again.

A word about the vegetable stock: if you use stock cubes, as I often do, you might want to use half as much stock cube so that this soup doesn’t become too salty or too heavily flavored.  For example, normally I would use two stock cubes for four cups of water, but in this recipe I like to use just one stock cube for four cups of water.  Then I add a few pinches of sea salt to get just the right amount of salt to make the flavors sing.

1 cup split green peas, rinsed, sorted, and soaked in a few inches of cold water overnight

3 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

1 leek, ends trimmed, the rest chopped and rinsed to remove dirt and silt

1 bay leaf

4 cups vegetable stock

1 cup frozen petite green peas, thawed (or partially thawed—I don’t think it matters much)

1/4 cup fresh mint leaves, plus a few pretty leaves for garnish

Sea salt, to taste

Black pepper to taste, optional

1)  Prep the green split peas for overnight soaking.

2)  Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a soup pot.  Add the leek and bay leaf and cook for about 5 minutes, until the leek softens and grows fragrant.  Drain the split peas and add them to the soup pot, stirring to coat them with oil.

3)  Add the vegetable stock (or water plus stock cube) and bring to a boil.  Clamp a lid on the pot, turn the heat down, and simmer for 25-35 minutes or until the split peas are tender and creamy.  Remove the bay leaf.

4)  Pour 2-3 ladles of the split pea mixture into a blender.  Add the petite green peas and mint.  Blend to smoothness.  Add the smooth mixture to the soup pot and stir it all together.  Taste and add a pinch or two of sea salt if you like.  Also, if you’d like to season with black pepper, be my guest.  I don’t think this soup needs black pepper, but you might.

5)  Serve hot, in deep bowls, garnished with a leaf or two of fresh mint.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Weekend, with Cleaning, Roasting, and Baking

My balmy Texas January is on vacation this weekend.  The temperatures plummeted yesterday and the wind blustered with frigid swirls of air.  In the evening, before running out for a loaf of bread and some frozen peas (more about those tomorrow!), I had to fetch my pink scarf and hat from the closet.  It was comforting to wear my old winter clothes, cozy warm things I would not have dreamed of leaving the house without when I was living in Chicago.

Last night, as I walked home with my groceries, I thought about homesickness.  I’m surprised I haven’t been more homesick since I moved to Texas.  I do miss Chicago and Michigan, and I have moments when I long to be in my old apartment, with its familiar kitchen and smooth wooden floors, big windows and trees waving to me outside.  But most of all I miss the people in those places and the moments of our daily lives that we used to share.  I will be the first to admit that I have not been doing a good job keeping in touch with people, and I’m working to remedy that problem now.  It’s hard trying to hold together all the strings of my life—work, friends, family, health, money, home.  I comfort myself by telling myself that a balanced life is an ongoing project and balance is a long-term goal.  With some effort, a few months of topsy-turvy imbalance can be nudged into place gently with phone calls, lunch dates, and, when the spring comes, a trip to Chicago.

This weekend I’m looking forward to some peaceful domestic work.  Feeling inspired, I’m going to clean out the fridge.  I don’t really enjoy cleaning out the fridge, but I’m feeling motivated by Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, for which I signed up earlier this week.  Self-improvement reading is a guilty pleasure of mine; usually I just read it and continue on with my life without missing a beat.  I like letting other people do the hard work of improving themselves; I’m just a voyeur.  But The Happiness Project caught my eye because it seems focused on taking a good thing (my life) and making it even better.  I feel warm and fuzzy inside just thinking about it.

Every week, Gretchen is posting a video on her website with a small goal for the week.  This week’s goal is to tackle a nagging task.  The fridge is my nagging task.  I love the way I feel after completing a long-standing cleaning chore.  While I work on the fridge, I’m going to put the oven to work roasting carrots and fennel for Jess’s Roasted Carrot and Fennel SoupShannon first told me about Sweet Amandine, the lovely blog that Jess writes, and I’m totally smitten with it.  Jess’s artsy photos and mouthwatering prose have sent me into the kitchen more than once, and I urge you not to read her site if you are the least bit hungry.  You may regret it, especially if you have a sweet tooth.

Speaking of a sweet tooth, I’m toying with the idea of making these crazy hippie Smart Cookies from everybody likes sandwiches.  They sound like such a delightful hodgepodge of ingredients, just the thing for my afternoon snacks.  What’s your favorite afternoon snack?

My cheeks are flushed with embarrassment at my reaction to this trailer of Jamie Oliver’s new show on ABC.  I got a little teary-eyed, just like Jamie did!  But it’s hard to imagine something more important to our health and happiness than food that nourishes and energizes our bodies.  I’ll be curious to watch the show when it airs in March.

Have a cozy delicious weekend, friends!

Friday, January 29, 2010

On Your Behalf

I like to think of this blog as a mellow little space where we can gather to chat about food and cooking, cheese and vegetables, tofu and chocolate.  It’s the closest I can get to having you all gathered round my kitchen table, with mugs of coffee and a platter of cookies in front of you.  I really like this space we share, and because it is like a part of my home, there isn’t much in the way of advertisements or commercials.  If I had you over for tea, I certainly wouldn’t be trying to sell you things.  It’s just not my style.  But tonight, I had an opportunity that I just could not pass up, and it involves one teeny tiny little ad.  So here we go:


There!  That wasn’t so bad, right?  And if you click on the link, you’ll see that “stool” does not refer to the kind of stool that you make, unless you are a carpenter.  It’s a furniture ad!  And the furniture on is really quite nice, the kind of thing that would look right at home underneath my kitchen bar.  But tonight, I’d like to focus on your kitchens because I’ve got something really amazing to offer one lucky reader: your choice of merchandise from, one item, up to $70 in value.  The generous folks at CSN stores (the family of stores to which belongs and the sponsor of that little ad up there) contacted me about hosting a contest for them, and on your behalf, I accepted.  One peek at told me I couldn’t turn down a chance for one of you to win something fun, useful, pretty, or groovy from that site.  Take a look and you’ll see what I mean.  I love these pretty loaf pans from Le Creuset or these adorable soup bowls.  (Oh, how I love soup.  One can never have too much soup or too many bowls.)  Or how about this intriguing skillet from EarthPan whose nonstick coating is made from sand?  (Anyone know how the SandFlow coating compares to ceramic nonstick coatings?)  I like this lovely bowl from Culinary Herbs or, because many salads appear on my dinner table, this nice salad bowl set, with its big mama bowl and four baby bowls.  I’m actually a little bummed now that I can’t enter my own contest!  (I have only myself to blame, because I’m making up the rules for this contest.)

Here’s the deal: leave me a comment on this post and tell me something lovely about your weekend.  What will you eat?  Where will you go?  Which book or magazine will you read?  Who will be with you?  One entry per person, please.  The contest will be open until midnight on Friday, February 6, a week from today.  I’ll announce the randomly chosen winner on Saturday, February 7 and ask that the winner send me an e-mail address so that the prize can be chosen and delivered.

I can’t wait to read your entries.  Good luck!  I’ll see you back here in the morning.

PS  The contest is open to US and Canadian residents.  My apologies to anyone who is excluded.  I’m still glad you are here with me!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Dinner, a Chance for Civility

It’s been an unfortunate week and I am very glad that it’s almost over.

Every week has the chance to be great, but this one missed the boat.  Time and success slipped away from me, so I focused on reducing the collateral damage.  Damage control is hard work.  It left me feeling breathless and anxious, running hard with no destination in site.  Today was bad enough that I wrote the following haiku in an e-mail to Matt.  (I love haiku.)

I want some good news
To announce itself loudly
If not, tears may flow.

I wasn’t reduced to tears, but there was a moment when I thought I might be.  I powered through the rest of the day, eyes dry and head held high, and when I arrived home, I ran off my frustration in a springy new pair of running shoes with a storm brewing overhead.  The sky’s angry energy mirrored my own, but I made it back to my front door dampened by just a drop or two of rain.

Buoyed by my apparent good luck (and so grateful I didn’t have to spend a single minute in a gym tonight!), I decided that dinner ought to be a calming affair tonight, a chance to reclaim my sense of civility and decency.  Admittedly, the dinner menu was a little odd, but it comforted and nourished me as a good dinner should.  I started with a flour tortilla, slicked on one side with olive oil.  The other side was piled with a spicy tofu scramble and juicy roasted tomato halves.  I grilled the tortilla over high heat in the new skillet that Matt gave me.  While the heat was on, I tossed together a big salad of baby lettuce and ever-so-thinly sliced fennel, dressing them with olive oil and fresh lemon juice.

I dolled up the dinner table with a burning candle and one of my fancy water glasses.  The salad bowl was placed off to my right, a tub of sour cream to my left.  I brought my tostada to the table, poured cold water into my glass, and sat down.  I even took a moment to say a little blessing in my head, knowing that gratitude is the best seasoning of all.

Then I ate.  I dabbed a spoonful of sour cream on the tostada.  Every mouthful was surprisingly delicious—the crispy flour tortilla, the spicy, slightly chewy tofu, the toothsome richness of the tomatoes.  Though it was a “make do with what’s in the kitchen” supper, it certainly made for a pleasant meal.  The salad was refreshing, even though I thought that I’d added too much oil to the salad bowl.  It tasted just right to me, and the fennel was a delight with its faintly exotic licorice notes.  Fennel is such a wonderful palate cleanser that it’s becoming a regular in my vegetable crisper.

For dessert, I turned to what is for me the ultimate comfort food: cold cereal.  I’d already had two desserts today (a square of shortbread and a slice of Daine’s yogurt cake, both of which were excellent), and though I wanted something sweet, I wasn’t in the mood for a proper dessert.  Instead, I dug into the pantry and pulled out a box of Nature’s Path Optimum Blueberry Cinnamon cereal and a half-empty bag of Arrowhead Mills Puffed Corn cereal.  Into a too-small mug I poured equal parts blueberry cinnamon and puffed corn cereal and gave the whole thing a good pour of milk.  Then, because I was so greedy, I proceeded to get cereal all over my table and myself trying to dig my spoon into the bottom of the mug.  The whole thing, including the mess I made, pushed all the right buttons and I ended dinner feeling like something had at last been made right in my world.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

California Olive Ranch Fresh California Extra-Virgin Olive Oil

This gorgeous olive oil is the kind of ingredient I want to have on hand just so I can tell people, “Smell this!”  The nose on this oil is amazing.  A whiff out of the bottle is intensely grassy with a little edge to it.  Pour out a spoonful and a trail of lemony floral fragrance follows the grass.  When I hover over my big soup pot after adding this olive oil, I can even smell hints of something spicy, like peppercorns, but more delicate.  It’s hard to stop sniffing when I’m cooking with it.

I’m pleased to see that I made a very good dent in this bottle before writing to you about it.  This oil showed up in my grocery basket back in November, an unplanned purchase but a totally worthy one.  I remember I had just talked with my friend Nicole about how weird I was feeling about money, and when I found this oil at HEB, a sense of carpe diem swept over me and I decided to splurge.  The truth is, though, this oil is a fantastic deal because it’s absolutely delicious and performed beautifully in my taste testings.  It also wasn’t very expensive: I found my 16.9-ounce bottle for under six bucks.  It may have been on sale, though my receipt doesn’t indicate a sale price.

For me, the real test of an olive oil is the one I perform first and most often: the salad dressing test.  All I ask of my olive oil is that it help my salad taste like its best possible self.  Admittedly, I struggle a bit with vegetables here in College Station, but I do my best with what we’ve got.  This oil makes the most of what we’ve got.  The grassiness complements salad greens nicely, and the lemon juice I sprinkle on salads pairs well with the lemon-floral nose.  Lately I’ve been really into adding thin slices of fennel to my salads, and I think California Olive Ranch’s oil tastes great with fennel—neither ingredient overpowers the other, and they bring out similar flavors in each other.

In the bread and olive oil test, I admit to mixed results.  I tasted the olive oil with Pugliese bread and a fancy balsamic vinegar that Matt bought during his last visit.  The balsamic vinegar brings out the floral qualities of the oil, which I like.  What’s odd, though, is that the oil’s grassiness is missing here, like the bread may have overpowered it.  This oil is not a sledgehammer of flavor; it’s more subtle than that.  While it’s not bad to pair the oil with bread and vinegar, I bet that another olive oil would be a better choice—maybe a more pungent oil with a strong olive flavor?

November to January is not a good time of year for tomatoes, even down here in Texas.  I almost skipped the tomato part of my olive oil tasting because the fresh tomatoes are so uninspiring (and not at all in season, though I do wonder about my concept of seasonality now that I live so close to Mexico).  Nevertheless, I forged ahead and bought a pound of Roma tomatoes from the grocery store today and made a batch of slow-roasted tomatoes.  I can think of a worse way to spend a Sunday afternoon than roasting tomatoes while the rain drip-drops outside.  They smelled so good that I wanted to climb inside the oven to breathe in that sweet rich aroma.  The taste was startling and intense, all sugar and acid and juicy explosion in my mouth.  I couldn’t taste the olive oil at all, but I didn’t really mind.

Tonight’s dessert was an experimental one, and I think it worked brilliantly.  I cycled through a number of baking options to try with this olive oil, but none of them stuck around in my head long enough to materialize in the oven.  Instead, I decided to try my hand at a shortbread made with olive oil.  I absolutely love the Orange Shortbread Cookies with Chocolate Chips that my friend Ammie makes.  Though she may be appalled at how I have bastardized one of her favorite recipes, I used her recipe as a template for making a shortbread with olive oil.  I stayed true to the spirit of the recipe, a rich shortbread cookie studded with melty bittersweet chocolate chips.  The resulting recipe, which I will share with you below, was outstanding: a lemon peel-laced shortbread bar with a lightly crisped topcoat and a cakey interior.  They remind me a lot of the lemon cupcakes my mom used to bake when I was a kid.  And somehow, lemon and chocolate are a perfect match in these bars—the lemon’s brightness is the perfect foil for the chocolate’s heavy richness.  I like to think I can taste the olive oil in these bars, but mostly I just taste success.  These bars are good.

Lemon Shortbread Bars with Chocolate Chips

Adapted from Ammie’s Clove-Minded: A Valentine Cookbook 

Makes 16 bars

After my first sample of these bars, I wanted to go back for seconds, but I restrained myself.  We’ll see how long my self-restraint lasts.  It may turn out to be a dangerous thing that these bars are very easy to make and even easier to eat.

A word about the sugar: I’ve been using vanilla sugar a lot lately.  Vanilla sugar is dry granulated sugar that has been infused with a vanilla bean.  It’s really easy to make: just throw a vanilla bean into a bag of sugar, bury it a little bit, seal it up, and throw it back into the pantry.  Over time, the vanilla bean’s wonderful aroma and flavor melds with the sugar to make a vanilla-scented sugar that’s perfect for baking or your morning coffee.  I highly recommend it.  But in this recipe, you can certainly use regular granulated sugar and if you like, add perhaps 1/4 tsp. vanilla extract along with the orange extract.

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. salt

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, at room temperature

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, such as that from California Olive Ranch

1/2 cup vanilla or regular sugar (see headnote)

Zest from one medium lemon (a heaping 1 tsp.)

1/2 tsp. orange extract

1 egg

2 tbsp. heavy cream

1/2 cup bittersweet chocolate chips

1)  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Using cooking spray or butter, grease an 8x8 pan and then flour it, dumping out any excess flour.

2)  Stir together the flour, baking powder, and salt.  Set aside.

3)  Using a mixer, cream together the butter, olive oil, sugar, lemon zest, and orange extract until fluffy.  Beat in the egg, then the cream.

4)  Mix the flour mixture into the butter mixture just until combined.  Stir the chocolate chips into the dough.

5)  Spoon the dough into the prepared baking pan.  Smooth it into a more-or-less even layer.  Bake for 20-25 min.  I took my bars out at 22 minutes and thought they were perfect.

6)  Let bars cool in their pan for a while.  You can cut them while they are still warm, but I’d let them cool enough so that they aren’t piping hot when you cut them.  Slice into 2-inch squares and serve.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

On the Docket

Good morning, friends!  I have a few gold stars to give out today.

* A gold star to my friends AMPD and JD for making fabulous homegrown and homemade raspberry jam and then sharing jars of it with friends for Christmas.  Intensely flavorful, their jam is the perfect balance of sweet and tart.  I love it on buttered toast or squares of chocolate, both of which have that rich melting quality that seems to highlight the fruitiness of the jam.

* A gold star to the main library at Texas A & M University, for being awesome.  They have a cookbook section!  I’m so excited—I feel like my life got a thousand times better upon discovering the cookbook cache.

* A gold star to my friend Daine, for sharing with me TWO recipes by e-mail.  I miss our recipe conversations very much—Daine is such a great cook.  What I would love to see is a cook-off between Daine and Matt.  I think the food would blow my mind.  Plus I think the two of them would hit it off.

* A gold star to you, dear readers, for not flinching at my confession of loneliness earlier this week.  I feel better now that I’ve admitted it.  Interestingly though, I am nowhere near the feelings of loneliness I experienced in graduate school, which helps to put things in perspective.

* A gold star to sweet Saturday, the best day of the week!  Say it with me now: “Aaaaaaaaaaaah!”

I love Saturday mornings at home.  This one today is hazy but warm, so I pushed open the sliding door to let in the fresh air.  Outside I hear the chirping of birds and the whooshing of cars driving past me.  But the day feels calm and relaxed, like this sleepy little college town is still yawning after the first week of classes.

I put my lazy Saturday morning to good use with a slightly decadent bowl of oatmeal, orange juice, and coffee.  The oatmeal formula was this one, minus the maple syrup.  I made a raspberry-chocolate topping with a big blob of homemade raspberry jam (from the family farm of AMPD and JD) and a big handful of bittersweet chocolate chips.  I also couldn’t resist a spoonful of peanut butter (for the protein, of course!), so it turned into a sort of peanut butter and jelly cereal, with pools of melting chocolate.  It was so good that I took a few bites, then looked down to see that the bowl was half-empty.  Wow.  If only I could wash the dishes as fast as I eat!

I’m tired but happy today.  There are so many great things on the docket for this weekend!  I want to become a Saturday regular at the natural foods store, so I’m going to make a grocery list and stroll down to the land of hippies and organic food.  The one disappointing thing about the walk to the hippie store is that I’ve already had two encounters with men who amuse themselves by yelling vulgar things at me.  I can see that pedestrians are rarer in College Station than they were in Evanston, but whatever happened to Southern gentlemen?  I was even harassed once when Matt was with me, while we were waiting for the traffic light to change so we could cross the street!  What is wrong with these people?

I’m glad that most men have learned their manners.  Some of them are really la creme de la creme, like my friend Daine.  I’m excited to make his Middle Eastern-inspired yogurt cake today.  Out of sheer laziness, my baking plans for earlier this week never materialized, but today is the day!  A Saturday with cake is a very good day indeed.

Have I mentioned how much I love a man who cooks?  I’ve had a crush on British food writer Nigel Slater ever since I read his book Appetite, a find in the cookbook section of Evanston Public Library.  There’s something so incredibly appealing about a book that embraces this idea of cravings, whatever they may be: toast, soup, roast chicken, M & Ms, whatever.  This week I scored a copy of Nigel’s the kitchen diaries, a book I’ve wanted to read for a long time.  the kitchen diaries is a year in the kitchen and garden with Nigel, an ode to seasonal cooking and cravings.  His prose are simple, heartfelt, and funny; the recipes make me long for a digital scale and graduated cylinder to master the British cooking units of grams and milliliters.  But mostly I just want a seat at his table, and this book is the closest I can get to that from Texas.

What are you cooking today, kind readers?  What are you reading?  What’s making you happy these days? 

I hope your day is lovely.  I’ll be back here tomorrow with a new addition to Project Olive Oil.  I hope you’ll join me!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

I’m Coming Soon

This life—always a mixture of happy and melancholy, sweet and bitter.  It’s not that different from my morning coffee, strong and spiked with cream, milk, and a teaspoon of vanilla sugar.  I love coffee mornings.  I like to drink coffee every other day.  This habit of mine first started as a way of keeping my morning caffeine and sugar intake within some sort of arbitrary, reasonable limit.  Now it’s really just habit because I trust my body to tell me when it has had too much caffeine or sugar.  But I like the ritual, something to look forward to on alternating days.  I drink coffee for the flavor and for the caffeine.  It tastes good to me.  My friend James thinks this flavor explanation is just rationalizing my addiction, but I’m sticking to my story.  Also, I have no comment about addiction.

Last night, I finally admitted a piece of truth to myself: I’m lonely here in Texas.  It feels good to acknowledge this fact, like I’m exhaling a breath that I didn’t know I was holding.  My loneliness shouldn’t come as a surprise.  I gave up all my local friends when I left Chicago in October and of course I haven’t replaced them.  I can’t replace them, not exactly.  I can make new friends, yes, but my old friendships were molded and baked into something solid by years spent together, talking, dreaming, cooking, eating, laughing, crying.  It takes time to make new friends, and for me, it seems to take an extraordinary amount of time.  I can’t dive into new friendship like a swimming pool.  I walk around the edge first, peer into the water, maybe dip a toe into it to test the temperature.  I open up to new people slowly and carefully.

In some regards, the fact that I am a lab scientist is not helping things.  On one hand, I’ve had a brand-new set of colleagues given to me by my circumstances.  My labmates are all very nice.  But I’m also the only woman in my lab, and I feel starved for female companionship.  My lab, like many biology labs, is a mixture of Americans and non-Americans.  In our case, we’re split directly in half, American and Asian.  Though we seem to get along, I am sometimes exhausted by the extra efforts that it takes to accommodate this fusion of cultures.  It’s interesting to me that in science, we take it for granted that everyone will do what it takes to deal with the cultural diversity.  Yet little is ever said about how to understand, let alone work with, people who come from cultures or backgrounds that have little in common with yours.

Even from far away, though, my friendships have been filled with celebration and delight.  My friends Daphna and Daine, both of whom have inspired recipes on this site, were accepted by medical schools.  Oh, and Daphna was busy having twin baby boys at the same time (a team effort with her husband, Ian).  My friend Ammie and her new music group were accepted to attend a cool music festival in Germany this summer, so she’ll be flying across the pond to play her viola.  And then this morning I received an e-mail from my friend Elizabeth, who relocated to Germany for her postdoctoral research, and it was so good to hear from her.

It’s such a big world in which we live, but I thank my lucky stars for e-mails and telephone calls.  And coffee.  Because drinking a cup of coffee, face to face, is the best way to reconnect, whether we’ve been separated by a mile or thousands of miles.  I’ve got to start saving my pennies for a plane ticket to Germany.  But first I’ll be helping Ammie get to Germany because that’s what friends do.  And even before that, I hope I get to drink coffee with Ammie, Daine, Daphna, and Ian in the city that first nurtured our friendships.  Chicago, I miss you and your people.  Save me a seat on the el because I’m coming soon. 

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Sunday, with Wheat Berries and Recipes

Good morning, kind readers!

I’m enjoying my morning writing, so I thought I’d do it again today.  My trip to the natural foods store yesterday was a success!  Now I have wheat berries eagerly looking for a recipe home.  A batch was cooked last night and part of it was used in this morning’s porridge, a riff on this terrific combination of oatmeal and wheat berries.  I love the chewiness of wheat berries against the creaminess of oats.  Next time I think I’ll pour some milk over the porridge at the end, as it was very thick and a bit sticky.

I’m looking forward to making something savory with the rest of the cooked wheat berries, like this soup, which sounds amazing to me.  The soup calls for a batch of greens to be stirred into it.  Good greens can be hard to come by in my town.  Every time I go to HEB I peruse the vegetables, hoping to find a bunch or two to take home with me.  It’s moments like these that I miss Whole Foods the most.  (Don’t even get me started about the farmers’ market…)

I made out like a bandit yesterday, finding a big tub of Chobani 2% Greek yogurt for two dollars.  Two dollars!  It was a steal.  The catch is that it expires tomorrow.  Do you have any baking suggestions for how to make the most of my good fortune?  Shannon tells me she uses it in place of sour cream with good results.  (Thanks, friend!  So kind of you to share your findings with me.)

The big item on my agenda today is a long run.  I’ve signed up for a half-marathon in March.  It’s called The Armadillo Dash.  I’m hoping that the race will keep me motivated to get out there and run.  The hardest part of a long run is always the last ten or fifteen minutes—the part where endurance is being built, step by step.  I’m happy to see that the weather outside looks good for a run—sunny and clear, with a touch of winter chill.

This weekend has been quiet.  I’m looking forward to doing some science reading on my blue couch to prepare for a fresh new week in the lab.  But if a nap overtakes me, I won’t fight it.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


I’m feeling inspired for a new writing project, one that’s low-key but fun and different.  I think a lot about writing, my own and other people’s.  Mostly I think about what I like and don’t like in written pieces.  In my own writing, I want more of the former and less of the latter, but sometimes they come as a package deal.  There is, I think, a certain grace that comes along with accepting your writing as it comes to you, the same way that a toddler will stumble and wobble while she’s learning to walk.  I feel like I’m still learning how to write, and I love that.

The other day I was clicking around my favorite sites, as I like to do when I’ve got some downtime, and I came across the art of seeing things.  This blog is a photo journal written by Shari, and I think it’s wonderful.  Her photos are stunning, and her prose are thoughtful and deep with their simplicity.  It’s an inspired combination, and I’ve been enjoying her archives, filled with art and food.

As a New Year’s project, I’m dreaming of capturing some of those small, lovely moments in my own life.  I don’t have a camera (yet!), but I want to try my hand at writing from a different angle, a different temporality.  My posts here tend to be written in the past tense—I did this, we did that—but rarely in the present or future tense.  Tense can have a big impact on the mood of a piece.  So can time of day.  I love the energy of pieces that other writers construct in the mornings, before they’ve headed out to start their adventures for the day.  I like the notes about drinking coffee, making pancakes, observing the morning light streaming through the windows, wishing for success and happiness that very day.  Morning is so ripe with anticipation.  I want to tap into that feeling.

For a few weeks, I’m going to challenge myself to write some posts in the morning, between breakfast and greeting the day’s challenges.  “Challenge” is the right word for it, as I’m slow and sleepy in the morning, and most days I’ve got a full docket of tasks waiting for me at work.  But I’m excited for it because I love a good experiment.  Let’s get started now.

* * *

It’s grey and splattery with rain in Texas today, but I don’t plan on staying inside.  I’m going to walk down to the natural foods store to check it out, something I’ve wanted to do since I arrived here in October.  I hope they sell wheat berries, as I’m craving their chewy heartiness.  I’ve got some wheat berry recipes tucked away in my EatingWell recipe binder—maybe I’ll look at them today to plan this week’s cooking.  For dinner tonight, I want to make my Baked Falafel Patties with Italian Herbs and Molly’s Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter.  I think the combination is going to be delightful.

My weekend is wide open.  I’m grateful for it.  I worked hard this week, so I’m looking forward to some relaxing.  Last night I made Ammie’s Chicago Diner Scones, making a few substitutions, and they were amazing.  I can’t wait to curl up on the couch with a book, a scone, and a hot mug of tea.  For my birthday, Matt gave me a copy of his book, which just came out.  I love seeing the landscape of his academic life, and I love how very different it is from mine.

I’m going to spruce up the old homestead here with some clean sheets, laundry, and taming the recycling.  Cardboard boxes are threatening to take over my dining room!  But I can’t bear to throw them out.  Into the recycling stash they’ll go.

Happy Saturday, friends.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Just for Fun

Blogging is a funny thing.  My motivation for it is like a wave, cresting and speeding toward land until it crashes into the shore in a spectacular foamy finale.  Then the wave retreats, silently, humbly.  These days I’m like the retreating wave after the splash.  I’ve been fighting a minor case of writer’s block, unsure of what I wanted to say here and which recipes I wanted to share.  I worry sometimes that I will run out of things to say.  Or I worry that I’m repeating myself without even knowing it.  For example, being in love is really, really great.  But how many times can you honk that horn before people grow tired of it?

It also occurs to me that sometimes it’s just fun to share something light-hearted.  Not every post needs to be serious and intense!  I saw this variation on the “seven things” meme in the archives at everybody likes sandwiches.  I like lists and I like the number seven, so here I go, just for fun, seven lists of seven things!

* Seven Things I’d Like to Do Before I Die

1)  Visit Europe.

2)  Publish a paper in Cell.

3)  Make a deep-dish skillet pizza.

4)  Own a house.

5)  Write a book.

6)  Teach molecular biology.

7)  Dip my toes in the Mediterranean Sea.

* Seven Things I Cannot Do

1)  Cook beef

2)  Make decent Chinese food at home

3)  Enjoy portobello mushrooms

4)  Go to a bookstore without looking in the cookbook section

5)  Decide if I want a subscription to Bon Appetit magazine

6)  Pretend to be happy when I’m not

7)  Leave dirty clothes on the floor.    

* Seven Things That Attract Me to Blogging

1)  The thrill of self-publishing

2)  The attention to detail that writing nurtures in me

3)  Developing my own cooking style

4)  My love of words

5)  Fabulous recipes and people all over the world, brought right into my home through my computer

6)  The recipes that my readers share with me in the comments section

7)  A writing practice that has made me a bolder, more adventurous writer

* Seven Things I Say Most Often

1)  Sh*t!

2)  Beautiful

3)  [typed]  “Dear Matt…”

4)  Good morning!

5)  Hmm…

6)  Ha!

7)  Oh my goodness!

*Seven Books I Have Loved

1)  The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger 

2)  Passionate Vegetarian by Crescent Dragonwagon

3)  The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

4)  The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

5)  The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness by Antonio Damasio

6)  Deep Economy by Bill McKibben

7)  How to Eat: The Pleasures and Principles of Good Food by Nigella Lawson

* Seven Movies I Watch Over and Over Again

Truth be told, I don’t usually watch movies more than once.  I’m going to have to pass on this one!  Otherwise, I’ll just tell you about my work-out DVDs and videos, which I do watch over and over again…because I’m exercising!

* Seven Bands/Singers That I Love

1)  Armin van Buuren (technically, he’s a DJ, but he’s awesome!)

2)  Jace Everett

3)  Dan Cohen (his new CD, Shhhh, is just lovely)

4)  George Strait (How ‘bout them cowgirls?)

5)  Our Lady Peace (I loved them when I was sixteen and I love them now as a twenty-eight-year-old)

6)  Coldplay

7)  Matt Nathanson

Now I feel like I ought to start working on that “Seven Things I’d Like To Do Before I Die” list up there at the top!  Maybe I’ll start with the deep-dish skillet pizza and consider it a warm-up for my future trip to Italy.  Molto bene!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Eat More Yogurt

In my family, we’re quite smitten with cultured and fermented foods.  My brother Charlie makes his own pickles now, including pickled garlic which is quite potent, let me tell you.  Delicious, yes, but oh my, that stuff is STRONG

I’m not exactly sure when fermentation took up residence in our culinary conversations, but I’m glad it’s there now.  For one thing, it leads to things like grilled cheese sandwiches with a puckery tangle of sauerkraut tucked in between bread and cheese.  It lends the sandwich a similar tart quality as a smear of Dijon mustard does—a nice counterpoint to the rich crunchiness of buttered, skillet-seared bread and melted cheese.  Charlie made me that sandwich not too long after I stepped off the plane in December, and I ate it alongside a medley of his homemade pickles.  Afterward, I patted my belly, filled up with probiotic goodness.

Probiotics, I’ve come to learn, are a wonderful thing.  I find the word “probiotics” a little odd because it sounds like a vitamin.  But probiotics are really biotics, that is, living creatures.  Bacteria and fungi.  Does that sound gross to you?  I’m a biologist, so it’s hard to gross me out with microorganisms (though I have a terrible fear of blood, which is why I could never go to medical school).  My friend Ammie tells a hilarious story about making homemade creme fraiche for the first time.  She was a nervous wreck about it, convinced that she would give her dinner guests deadly food poisoning with her poisonous creme fraiche.  I thought the whole thing was hilarious because I didn’t even think twice about the safety of my homemade creme fraiche.  It seemed utterly natural to me to add yogurt to heavy cream in a jar, shake vigorously, and leave it in the oven overnight.  The next day: TA-DA!  Beautiful, thick, heavenly creme fraiche, ready for anything and everything we might do with it.

As much as I love a good jar of homemade creme fraiche, yogurt and its probiotic cousins are my heroes for a very different reason.  I don’t want to be too graphic here, but the food poisoning that I mentioned a few weeks ago lingered for about a week, leaving me vaguely miserable, with cramps and bloating, among other things.  Something had to be done.  I thought back to the last time I had gastrointestinal issues, and I remembered how I had solved the problem: with yogurt.  It sounds so simple, right?  I had noticed that if I had milk with a meal, I didn’t feel well afterward.  If I had yogurt, I felt fine.  So I started eating more yogurt, eager to heal my gut before a much-anticipated trip to California, and I was able to step on a plane bound for Los Angeles, feeling much perkier and ready for some mountains and sun.

With California in mind, I decided it couldn’t hurt to eat more yogurt to coax my body back to health.  My favorite way to eat yogurt is to buy the plain stuff and then add goodies to it—fruit, granola, cocoa powder, or whatever else the pantry offers.  Sometimes I’ll add a little sweetener, especially if I take the cocoa powder route.  Last month, I made a fantastic granola that went beautifully with plain yogurt, a creamy sweet-tart confection for the 4 PM munchies.  It felt just right for December, made with buttery pecans and sweet white chocolate and studded with bright little dried cranberries.  I actually made two batches but neglected to tell you about it until now.  But I don’t see any reason why we can’t have a festive granola with white chocolate and cranberries in January, especially one that tastes so good with yogurt.  So here’s to intestinal health, yours and mine!

White Chocolate and Dried Cranberry Granola

Adapted from my favorite granola recipe template

Makes a little less than 5 cups

3 cups rolled oats

1/2 cup pecans, coarsely chopped

1/4 cup unsweetened shredded coconut

1/8 tsp. salt

6 tbsp. pure maple syrup

2 tbsp. canola oil

1/3 cup chopped white chocolate (real white chocolate, please!)

1/3 cup sweetened dried cranberries

1)  Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F.  Spray a large rimmed cookie sheet with cooking spray.  I use my well-loved 10 x 15-inch pan for this.

2)  In a large bowl, mix together the oats, pecans, coconut, and salt.  In a small bowl or mixing cup, mix together the maple syrup and canola oil with a fork.  Pour the syrup mixture over the oat mixture and mix with a spoon until everything is moistened and sticky.

3)  Scrape the oat mixture onto the prepared cookie sheet and bake for 20 minutes, stirring with a spoon halfway through the baking.  Stir again after the granola is done baking.  Cool completely.

4)  Pour the baked granola into a large bowl.  Mix the white chocolate and cranberries into the oat mixture.  Serve with plain yogurt.  Store granola in a tightly sealed container.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Bring Me Time

I find time to be a slippery little creature, one who loves endless rounds of hide and seek.  Right now time must be hiding because I feel like he got away from me again!  When he’s not hiding, he’s running too fast for me to catch him, and every day I feel breathless and exhausted trying to chase him.  I’ve been ever-so-slightly in denial about how fast time is moving for me these days.  I’m enjoying my job very much, and that makes the passage of time smooth and swift, but it also makes me feel a little dizzy.  So I try not to think about it too much so that it won’t bother me.

It doesn’t help that I have a tiny problem with procrastination.  It’s nothing major, really, but I usually don’t finish my to-do lists each day, so every tomorrow is like a dustpan for today’s undone chores that get swept up into the next list.  I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in my sweeping—does anyone actually finish their to-do lists each day?—but it does lead to situations like the one on Friday when Matt showed up early at my door and I had to greet him in my bathrobe because I’d been counting on every last second to finish my chore list before he arrived.  It sounds a little sexy until you consider that my bathrobe is neon green terrycloth and covered in flaming pink flamingos.  The flamingos are kissing, so at least that’s romantic.  I was terribly embarrassed, but Matt was too nice to mock me openly.  Instead he said, “I brought you thyme!”  In my flustered and undressed state, I wished that he really would bring me time, but instead he produced a dainty little herb bouquet and instructed me to put it in water.  It occurs to me right now that this is the closest I’ve ever come to receiving flowers from a man, but I like the thyme even more.  A man who has good taste in herbs is a man I want to keep around.

We spent a happy weekend together, filled with fresh herbs, music, poetry, and a tortilla factory down the road from me.  Then he got in his car and drove away.  He left me that little bouquet of thyme, and while I was still swooning from the pleasure of his company, Monday snuck up on me and smacked me over the head.  I hate when that happens.  I also hate when I start the week with nothing exciting for lunches, not even a bag of salad greens because I ate the last of the spring green mix for Sunday dinner.  So tonight, feeling desperate for both more time and lunch-worthy leftovers, I armed myself with my chef’s knife and a hefty soup pot, determined to put Monday back in his place.

During the work week, I find recipes with a lot of prep work to be intimidating.  I worry that I’ll find them overwhelming or that I’ll get so hungry while chopping vegetables that I’ll decide to forgo cooking in favor of eating the raw ingredients while standing at the counter, knife still poised for chopping.  I guess I’m a bit of a wuss, but at least I’m a healthy wuss who likes raw vegetables and salad.  Maybe I’m just a rabbit.  At any rate, tonight I embraced my prep cook duties and made a tasty French-inspired stew from my trusty Moosewood cookbook.  The stew is a sprightly combination of green beans, fennel, and potatoes simmered in a citrus-spiked tomato broth.  It’s a summer-meets-winter stew, refreshing and warming at the same time.  Tomorrow, when I go back to chasing time or looking under the couch for him, I’ll have a big pot of leftover vegetable stew, and that makes me feel much, much better about everything.

Green Bean and Fennel Ragout

From Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home

Makes a lot!  At least 6 big servings, I’d reckon.

This list of ingredients looks like a lot of prep work, but everything comes together easily and you’ll be rewarded with a fragrant pot of vegetable stew.  In these post-holiday weeks filled with Mondays, a good vegetable stew is a very good thing to have tucked away in the fridge.  Add some cheese and, if you like, some bread, and you’ve got dinner.  I’ll confess, though, that tonight I had no bread and instead, fished the potatoes out of my bowl of stew and ate them with some very strong blue cheese, the kind that alarmed me with its blueness.  But I have no complaints—it was delicious.

3 tbsp. olive oil

2 medium onions, chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced or pressed

3 medium potatoes, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1 28-oz. can of diced tomatoes

1 tsp. fresh or dried thyme (I used fresh; dried thyme should give the stew a stronger flavor.)

1 cup water

1 pound of fresh green beans

1 medium fennel bulb, sliced as thinly as you can manage

1 1/2 tsp. freshly grated orange peel

Juice from half a lemon

Plenty of salt and pepper (to taste)

1)  In a large soup pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat.  Saute the onions for several minutes until glossy and fragrant, then add the garlic and saute for several more minutes until the onions become a bit translucent.

2)  Add the potatoes, tomatoes, thyme, and water.  Cover the pot and bring everything to a boil then reduce the heat to a simmer.  While the pot is heating up, stem the green beans and snap them into roughly 1-inch pieces.  After the pot is simmering nicely, add the green beans, fennel, orange peel, and lemon juice.  Season with a bit of salt and pepper, then cover the pot and let it simmer for 25-30 minutes, or until the green beans and potatoes are tender.  Test a green bean and a potato for doneness before turning off the heat.  When everything is cooked to your liking, adjust the seasonings and serve.