Tuesday, March 30, 2010

One Piece of the Puzzle

This week Ammie and I are tandem-posting about gender.  Oh my.  Read all about her take on this theme here.

We Start with Girls

At first, I was convinced I didn’t know what gender was.  It’s the sort of thing that we think we understand, but if you scratch just below the surface, it disappears into a fuzzy cloud of insubstantial ideas.  Gender, I thought, might be what we in science call “a bunch of hand-waving.”

But then I decided to approach the topic a little more scientifically.  While I did not go to the library and check out a dozen books about gender, I did decide to restructure my thought process so I might get a handle on what, exactly, gender might be.  In the end, I came back to something I’ve always believed, whether or not there is any hand-waving or finger-wagging involved.

Let’s start with a characterization.  Very loosely, gender can be thought of as all the signals that we use to determine whether a person is a man or a woman.  Body shape, hairstyle, voice, clothing, smell, even something as inconsequential as a person’s drink of choice—all of these things can be clues about a person’s sex.  We watch how someone walks, looking for whether their hips sway or their shoulders swagger.  Unlike other animals, our sex and sexuality are hidden under layers of sometimes confusing cues.  Fruit flies, for example, can just touch each other and discern with striking accuracy whether another fly is male or female.  I think humans have it much harder than flies.

Of course, things get a little more complicated when we look beyond straight heterosexuals.  I know I’m not the only woman to sigh with disappointment upon finding out that a charming, nice-smelling man would prefer to date another charming, nice-smelling man than me.  When we’re busy interpreting all those gender cues, we’re also digging for clues about sexuality.  What’s interesting to me is how desperate we feel to know a person’s gender and sexuality, even if we have no interest in getting it on with that person.  We might not even want to make small talk with someone, but we NEED TO KNOW: man or woman?  Gay or straight?  Bi, transgendered, transexual?  All of the above?  None of the above?

Clearly gender is important for helping us to organize ourselves into messy and overlapping categories.  But so what?  What if I’m not looking for a date?  Maybe I’d love a world of androgyny where we all wear potato sacks with holes cut out for our heads and arms.  What does gender mean in a world like that?  Gender plays a deeper, more critical role in our lives than what we wear and how we cut our hair.  Gender shapes our expectations of ourselves and others, and this, I think, is where I’ve been fighting the good fight as long as I can remember.

When I was a little girl, I never dreamed of a big white wedding where some dude and I would get hitched and we’d forever be thought of as a pair.  Instead, I dreamed of traveling around the world, a la my Travel Barbie given to me by my grandmother.  There was no guy involved in these fantasies, it was just me, Barbie, and her pink striped traveling suit.  I dreamed of a life of opportunity and choices—a life where I made the decisions that took me places and showed me the world.

Now, in my late twenties, I’ve landed somewhere between those two extremes.  I’m pretty grounded by my job right now, but over the years my career ambitions have taken me to New Orleans, San Diego, Florida, New York, and most importantly thus far, Chicago.  I am a domestic creature who likes to cook a homemade dinner every night and enjoys vacuuming.  And there is a guy around, but only a select few understand the complicated structure of our relationship.  For all others, it’s enough for them to know that we love each other and he’s been around for a while.  Actually, most days that’s enough for me too.

I tell you this little digression to illustrate that I have little or no expectations of myself or others based on gender.  I do not think a woman’s place is in the home, but if she wants to be there, then more power to her!  I don’t think a woman has to have children to live a full and happy life, nor do I think a man does.  I think a man who takes care of others is a beautiful, sexy creature, whether he cooks dinner for his family or pushes furniture around a living room for his friends.

I feel very fortunate that I have been able to pick and choose my gender battles.  I’ve never felt compelled to dress in a masculine or androgynous manner, but I’ve also never felt compelled to act dumber than I am to make a boy feel better.  I like my female body; I don’t mind being identified as a woman.  But I also want to be seen as strong and capable of taking care of myself.  To me, that’s not “being a man.”  That’s being an adult.  I take issue with women being called “the weaker sex” or “more emotional.”  I have seen what happens when men bottle up their emotions.  They explode, punch walls, drink themselves into a coma.  It takes a strong person to own his feelings, to acknowledge them as part of himself, to deal with them.  We are not doing our boys and young men any favors by denying them the freedom and grace to accept themselves as they are: happy, sad, angry, disappointed, hopeful.  In short, as human beings.

What I really want for every little girl and boy is the opportunity for them to carve their own path as independently of gender as possible.  Gender is not going away any time soon—it’s deeply entrenched in our culture—but with some effort, I think we can blunt its effects on the next generation of children.  We can teach our kids that girls and boys can do lots of the same things—raise babies, cook meals, lead companies, teach schools, fly airplanes, grow tomatoes.  They can love each other in an infinite number of ways.  Our gender and sexuality are but one piece of the puzzle that is us, and I think we should treat it like that.  It is part of our lives, but it shouldn’t run our lives.  We run our lives.

This Much I Know

Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Salad Interlude

Forgive me, loyal readers, as I’m about to slip something quite virtuous into your mouths.  The treat I promised you yesterday will have to wait until next week.  But the good news is twofold: today I will give you two recipes and they are both so quick and so easy that you’ll have time to play outside before and after dinner.  That is my kind of cooking!

I’m on a green vegetable kick these days, mostly in the form of baby spinach and crisp leaves of Romaine lettuce.  I love a good salad for dinner, one that’s piled high and deep with vegetables and goodies like freshly made croutons, cheese, roasted potatoes, or even some well-chosen fruit.  A main-dish salad is cooking in its most primal form—simple, pure, satisfying, delicious.  I imagine if I had a garden, I’d feel even more strongly about dinner salad nights because then I could start them with a stroll through the rows, checking on this lettuce plant and that set of herbs.  But for now, my salad leaves come from a supermarket, and I’m willing to pedal across town for a good bunch of Romaine.  It is my favorite lettuce and when it’s added to the ingredients of another favorite salad, the results are worthy of your dinner fork.

Stick a Fork in It

Hidden inside that jumble of Romaine lettuce are thin slices of fennel and green apple.  Everything is moistened with a splash of olive oil and a good spritz of fresh lemon juice.  And then—THEN!—the whole thing is topped with paper-thin peels of Parmesan cheese.  It’s a salad where savory meets sweet meets sour, and everything is fresh fresh fresh for maximum crunch and juiciness.  In a dish like this, all the pressure is on the ingredients, which means that as long as the grocery store pickings are good, then I’m off the hook.  And that’s exactly where I want to be on a Friday night after a long week.

Wait, I’m not done yet.  Before you make your salad, I must tell you about cheese on cheese bread.  My neighborhood Albertson’s sells a very tasty loaf of Asiago cheese bread, which I often tuck into my bag before heading home.  The cheese flavor is infused into the whole loaf, which is otherwise a white bread with a velvety soft but sturdy crumb.  By itself this Asiago cheese bread is pretty good—I like a few slices alongside a big bowl of soup for lunch—but when topped with some cheddar and slices of Granny Smith apple and baked until the cheese is melted and a little bubbly, this bread becomes an irresistible toast.  It goes perfectly with the salad above—the salad all cool and crunchy, the toast warm and gooey with oven-crisped edges.  I always want another slice of this cheese bread toast, no matter how big a salad I’m eating alongside it.  Cheese and bread goes down a little too easily, but I’m not going to let stop me from keeping a loaf of cheese bread on hand for the next dinner salad night.

Cheese on Cheese Bread: Asiago Cheese Toasts with Melted Cheddar and Green Apple Slices

As though cheese plus cheese were not incentive enough to make these toasts, I have one more thing to add.  While these are baking, the apples will get a little soft and the fragrance of baked apples will waft out of the oven, reminding you of apple pie but with a tiny fraction of the work needed.  And if you are a fan of apple pies with cheddar (and oh my, you should be!), then you will love these toasts.

Serves 1

2 slices of Asiago cheese bread bought from a bakery or a grocery store’s bakery

A generous handful of shredded cheddar cheese (I use a mild cheddar here so as not to overwhelm the other flavors)

6 thin slices of Granny Smith apple

1)  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

2)  Place the slices of bread on a cookie sheet.  Top with the shredded cheddar.  Place 3 slices of Granny Smith apple on each piece of bread.

3)  Bake the toasts for 5-10 minutes, or until the cheese has melted and the apples have softened and become fragrant.  Serve immediately, preferably alongside the salad below.  

Main Dish Salad with Romaine Lettuce, Fennel, and Green Apple

Serves 1

2-3 large, perfect leaves of Romaine lettuce

A handful of very thin slices of fresh fennel

A quarter of a large Granny Smith apple, thinly sliced (but not peeled)

Extra-virgin olive oil, to taste

Fresh lemon juice, to taste

Salt, to taste

A wedge of Parmesan cheese

1)  Wash and dry the Romaine lettuce leaves, then tear them into bite-sized pieces.  Place them in a small mixing bowl along with the fennel and apple slices.

2)  Pour some olive oil over the Romaine mixture and toss to distribute it thoroughly.  Spritz some lemon juice over the salad and a tiny bit of salt.  Taste and adjust the seasonings.  Finally, use a vegetable peeler to slice 3-4 pieces of Parmesan cheese over the salad.  Serve.  I like to eat this salad straight out of my mixing bowl, so I use this pretty yellow mixing bowl to make it.  I love this bowl, a gift from my sister-in-law and her family.

Hey There Sunshine

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Late Morning Edition

My Favorite Seat

Pictured above is my favorite seat in the house.  It’s my window to the outside world, my prime blogging location, my lifeline.  It is my home internet connection.

I find so much inspiration out there on the interwebs.  Though I joke about how much time I waste on the computer, it’s hard for me to embrace the notion that it really is wasted time.  It’s kind of perfect for a learning sponge like me, always eager to soak up new ideas.  And I would be terribly lonely down here were it not for the social connections that my computer enables.  It is a vital part of my communication with the outside world.

This week I’ve been thinking about some advice that Gretchen Rubin offered her Happiness Project people: Aim higher.  Gretchen offered this tip in relation to work, but I’ve been thinking about how I can use it to improve the non-work parts of my life.  Or rather, how I can use it to inspire the non-work parts of my life.

Despite dismantling my life in order to move to Texas six months ago, I’d like to think I have a good life outside of work.  I cook my own meals, I write this blog, I read voraciously, I get lots of exercise on my own two feet, and I am very slowly making new friends here.  Most nights I get enough sleep and my energy levels are good.  But I often feel like I do all of these things because I have been doing them, and I should just keep doing them.  My excitement about doing them is no longer tangible to me, and I miss it.  I’m reaping the benefits of doing these things without feeling as much joy as I would like.  But I don’t think it has to be that way.

Aim higher.  The truth is, I think I already aim pretty high in many areas of my life, so the idea of aiming higher is scary.  It means I might fail.  When I consider my fear against all that I already do, I realize that what I really want is a nudge to do a leeeetle bit more.  My life does not need an overhaul; I just need a few sparks of excitement.  The best way I can think to accomplish this goal is to try new things and push myself a few steps outside of my comfort zone.

Right now there is a chocolate cake baking in the oven.  Normally I’d think that I’m too tired to bake on Saturday morning, or that I have chores or errands to do, but not today.  Today the cake will be accompanying me to a pool party that my boss and his wife are hosting for their two labs.  I’ve never made this cake before, so I’ve got my fingers and toes crossed that it turns out nicely.  If the batter is any indication of taste, then this cake is going to be hard to resist.  It’s the Black Mocha Cake from the Moosewood Restaurant Book of Desserts, and it just came out of the oven.

Freshly Baked Black Mocha Cake

It’s really hard to beat the fragrance of a freshly baked chocolate cake.  The smell alone is enough to make me happy.  It’s better living through chocolate cake!

The other area of my life where I’ve been embracing the aim higher philosophy is yoga.  I’ve been doing yoga for a long time now.  I really fell in love with it from the beginning, and it’s become routine for me.  My back tends to be sore and tight; all my walking and running doesn’t help matters.  Yoga works out the tightness all over my body but especially in my back.  Lately I’ve been trying to add variety to my yoga routine by sampling the different classes offered by yogadownload.com: Baptiste power yoga, hatha yoga, yoga for weight-loss, yoga for runners.  The free twenty-minute classes are perfect: long enough to be engaging but short enough to do at night before I go to bed.  The two selections that I keep coming back to are Dave Farmar’s Baptiste power yoga and hatha yoga.  Dave Farmar is hilarious and he teaches such a good class.  The pace is perfect and I’ve been able to try new poses like inversions and plow pose just following his instructions and easing into the unfamiliar positions.

Hatha yoga has surprised me.  I was initially drawn by the word “gentle” in the class name: “Gentle Hatha Yoga #1” or “Gentle Hatha Yoga #2.”  These classes are indeed gentle, but they are more than just gentle.  They stretch me and calm me, then I go to bed and wake up feeling incredibly refreshed and ready for my day.  There is something about these hatha yoga classes that gives me something I need—peace of mind and body, perhaps?  They’re so deceptively slow and maybe that’s their real trick.  You don’t push in hatha yoga. You relax into it.  It’s wonderful.

Tomorrow I’ll tell you a little more about aiming higher in an edible way.  For now, I wish you a beautiful Saturday with plenty of fresh air, relaxation, and, if you like, homemade chocolate cake.  Make your day a great one!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

We Can Give It Away

This post is part of a series of tandem posts that my friend Ammie and I are writing together.  The theme for this installment is long-distance friendship.  Ammie’s post can be found here.  Enjoy!

Few things can change a friendship as dramatically as distance.  For me, it feels a little like pulling the petals off of a flower and flinging them into the wind, then watching as they float away from each other, once part of a whole and now forced to fend for themselves.  It is heartbreaking when a short-distance friendship becomes a long-distance one.

I’ve survived that transition at least three major times and countless minor times.  But I can’t say all my friendships have survived.  I suppose a certain amount of drift in friendship is not unusual, as interests and obligations pull us all in different directions.  Drift is the easy way out, the no-effort answer to a friendship that has suddenly become much more difficult to maintain.  But drift is lonely and sad and a little scary, too.  How am I to know the difference between giving someone their space and freedom versus letting them drift away without even so much as a good-bye?

I try to gauge my long-distance efforts by reciprocity.  I am willing to work for friendship because I know how precious those connections are.  I am not willing, however, to be a force of nature that carries the burden of friendship on my back.  I need my friends to call me back, write to me, tell me they want to see me whenever we can arrange a visit.  I need to know they are thinking about me and missing me.  I need to know they care.

All this neediness can make a person feel rather vulnerable, but I believe something that I came across a while ago: without vulnerability, there is no intimacy.  I cannot tell you how deeply this idea resonated with me when I first read it.  Without vulnerability, there is no intimacy.  In my world, friendship is an emotional intimacy with another person.  In the moments when I’ve been able to really embrace the scary process of opening up to someone, I could almost see our friendship blossoming.  It was such a powerful, exhilarating feeling—few feelings come even close to the magic of those moments.

But distance, while very challenging, is not as bad as it seems at first.  Distance is like a puzzle or an enigmatic poem whose meaning must be decoded.  Though I am, right now, in a phase of missing Matt more than I would like, the distance between us heightens the romance in our relationship.  It makes me more aware of his absence and his presence, and as a result, I am more grateful for both.

I’m also very grateful for all the efforts that Ammie has put into our long-distance friendship.  This is a woman who, in the recent past, has declared that she has too many friends.  Her social life is almost a full-time job to the point where she has to schedule time for herself to just chill, alone, at home.  So I know that when she makes time for me, it really is making time.  Our friendship resembles a little tiny bank where we both make deposits of love and time, hope and good cheer, knowing that the other will see these deposits and feel like she just opened a treasure chest.

I suppose that’s what it’s all about: treasuring what you have.  It’s the great irony of love that the only thing we can do with it is give it away.  Love cannot be saved, it can’t be bought or sold—it won’t even get you a free lunch.  But we can give it away, hearts eager and cell phones at the ready, arms open and plane tickets reserved.  Just like flower petals, I throw my heart into the wind and know that somewhere, a friend will catch it and we’ll be reminded all over again why we choose to stay in each other’s lives.  At any given moment, long distance is a temporary condition, and it’s only the love that we can try to make permanent.

Cloudy with a Chance of Sun

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Hard to Argue

Strawberries on a Sunday Morning

Here’s a question: why am I so intrigued with making sauces these days?  What happened to the soups, the granolas, the salads, the cookies?

The answer is this: I love fresh produce.  So much so that it is becoming slightly painful for me to cook it.  That’s where the sauces enter the kitchen.

I have often lamented my inability to cook fresh fruit.  I love gorgeous photos of strawberry pie, baked pears, blueberry cobblers, but once those pints of berries are sitting in front of me, all I can do is move berries to mouth, hypnotized by the splendor of plump fragrant fruit.  This is my way of appreciating food, even as it shuts down my cooking and baking efforts.

But there’s no need to be sad about all this because even though no strawberries shall see the inside of an oven in my kitchen, they shall see the glory that is a pot of peanut butter fudge sauce.

Ready to Eat

I have wanted a peanut butter sauce recipe for a long time now.  What I really wanted was a sauce that not only tasted great but could also be stored in the fridge for a few days and still maintain a nice saucy texture without separating into weird clumps or oozing oil.  I think I’ve found my recipe.  By “my recipe,” I really mean a recipe that’s been adapted from Nigella Lawson and made friendlier to the health nuts among us (AHEM).  I love Nigella’s cookbooks and her gorgeous prose, but her recipes are harder for me to embrace.  I like my waistline and the way my pants fit, so all those Nigella recipes calling for sticks of butter and cups of heavy cream force me to ask myself this: is today an everyday cooking day or is today an indulgent cooking day?  Most of the time it’s the former, so I put away the Nigella cookbook and the heavy cream.  And it’s okay.

Last week, though, a photo of drippingly beautiful sundaes over at KERF had me reaching for Nigella Express, thumbing through the index for a recipe for peanut butter fudge sauce.  The time had come to get myself a recipe, followed by a pot of fudge sauce.  Oh yes.  There’s an old saying that when the student is ready, the teacher appears.  Likewise, I’d argue that when the cook is ready, the recipe appears.  I was ready.

The first thing you should know about this recipe is that it has a very nice peanut buttery flavor.  It is most definitely a PEANUT BUTTER fudge sauce.  The peanut butter comes first.  But I think the chocolate could easily be amped up if you’d like more of a CHOCOLATE peanut butter fudge sauce.  The second thing you should know is that the recipe I present to you today is a much more reasonable version than Nigella’s.  I use milk (2%, to be specific) instead of heavy cream, which means that although my sauce may be slightly less delicious, it also contains about a zillion fewer calories and fat grams.  And if you, like me, enjoy standing by the stove and eating fudge sauce straight out of the pot, a reasonable recipe is a very good thing.  The final thing I want to mention is that this sauce stores well in the fridge.  The texture will look a little nubbly, but in the mouth it stays rather smooth, so you can whip up a batch one night and spoon it over your oatmeal the next day while rubbing the sleep out of your eyes.  It’s hard to argue with a fudge sauce that wants to join you for breakfast.

Peanut Butter Fudge Sauce

Adapted from Nigella Express by Nigella Lawson

Makes a little pot of sauce—enough for a few people to share

A confession: I ran out of chocolate chips when I was making this, so I only used about a third of a cup.  I wanted to use half a cup, so I’ll do that next time and report back to you in the comments.  With a smaller amount of chocolate, the peanut butter flavor is front and center.  But don’t be misled: the chocolate is still there; it’s just more subtle.  I feel like this is just perfect for topping oatmeal or as a dip for strawberries or bananas.  Or for eating by the spoonful when the mood strikes.

3/4 cup milk (I used 2% cow’s milk)

1/3 to 1/2 cup chocolate chips, bittersweet and/or semisweet

1/2 cup smooth peanut butter

2 tbsp. maple syrup, or to taste

1)  Put all the ingredients in small pot and heat over medium heat.  Stir frequently until the peanut butter and chocolate have melted into a smooth dark sauce.  Taste and adjust the sweetness level if you like.  I like mine a little sweet but not tooth-achingly so.  Remove from the heat and eat immediately or store the leftovers in the fridge.  This sauce will keep for at least five days if refrigerated in a sealed container.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

All Shall be Well

Purple Wildflowers

All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.  Juliana of Norwich

It’s raining in great sloppy gushes of water, streaming off my roof and splashing on my patio.  This is how it usually rains here in College Station, Texas: hard, desperate, unrelenting.  It’s the kind of rain that makes me reconsider my plans for the morning, mentally reconfiguring my day to avoid stepping out into such a downpour.  There’s thunder too, which sounds almost gentle compared to the rivers of rain.  There’s something about morning rain that makes the kitchen seem like the right place to be for the rest of the day, though I haven’t the faintest idea of what I want to cook.  Breakfast, however, was just right.

Saturday Morning Oatmeal

They say that it’s not a good idea to try to shop your way out of a bad mood, but on Thursday, that’s just what I did.  I sauntered over to the store to pick up dinner ingredients, and I found organic strawberries.  Fresh, beautiful organic strawberries!  I thought for sure that they’d be something like six bucks a pint, but at only three dollars a pint, they were a steal.  I’m heading back today and hoping they’ll have more for me.

With fresh strawberries on hand, it’s hard not to include them in every meal.  This morning, I made oatmeal (using my standard formula, minus the maple syrup) and topped it with sliced strawberries, a scattering of Optimum Blueberry Cinnamon cereal for crunch, and two spoonfuls of homemade peanut butter fudge sauce.  It was the kind of breakfast that says, “Hello, Saturday!  How wonderful to see you again.  Care for some peanut butter fudge sauce?”

It’s been a strange week or two for me.  Workwise, I’ve been in a lull of sorts, a trough of activity in between two peaks of busy-ness.  To keep myself feeling productive and happy, I’ve been focusing on the homefront and all my hobbies.  I made a half-batch of this Spanish-style dish of chickpeas and spinach and a whole batch of Jess’s Tomato Lentil Soup, both of which were fabulous.  I highly recommend the parsley in Jess’s soup; it adds a nice green herbal note to the dish.  I’m working on biscuit-making, which I hope to tell you about sooner rather than later.  Then, of course, there was the peanut butter fudge sauce, which I really think I have to tell you about right away.  My kitchen has been a bustling little corner of my home, and I couldn’t be happier about it.

In between all the new recipes, I finished reading Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert, in whose pages the prayer above was found.  I wasn’t sure what to think about this book before I started reading it.  I was intrigued that Gilbert actually wrote an entire manuscript and then, unhappy with her draft, she trashed it to start over again.  Talk about dedication to the craft!  I was impressed.  And the book she ended up publishing—I am impressed with that as well.  A thoughtful and moving account of marriage, this book made me laugh and it made me mad.  Gilbert is a wonderfully engaging writer, and I think that she did a beautiful job trying to explain how marriage has been, historically, a shelter and a prison for women, and how, even now, the intimacy of marriage can free us while it binds us to our spouses.  Some reviewers have complained that the format of Committed doesn’t work for the reader: Gilbert starts each chapter with an update on her current whereabouts and the latest news about her relationship before delving into some aspect of marriage, such as expectations, history, or autonomy.  I liked the format a lot.  I thought it was a good story-telling technique to use with a book like this, and it keeps the book from being too centered on the idiosyncracies of Gilbert’s own story.  It’s a good balance between marriage as an entity and Gilbert’s own relationship with marriage.

In other reading news, this article in Salon was fascinating to me: hipsters on food stamps!  Whoa.  If you feel strongly about either taxes or food, this article may rile you up a bit.  Then, after you’ve read that, check out the response from one of the hipsters featured in that article.  I don’t have any hard and fast answers to our current economic climate, though I am left feeling more grateful than ever that I can afford to buy organic strawberries if that’s what I want to eat.

All shall be well, sweet readers.  Happy weekend and happy spring!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Like Butterflies

I rarely have brilliant insights when I’m put on the spot.  I’m more of a meditative thinker, the kind who stirs her thoughts slowly, like a soup simmering on the stove.  It’s no wonder that I didn’t enjoy being forced to write impromptu essays in grade school.  I actually hated it, even though I have always loved to write.  My bad memories of impromptu writing have left a strong dislike for any sort of prompted writing.  I suppose I’m a bit of a free spirit that way.  I want to write about what I want to write about.  Wah!  May I have some cheese with my whine, please?

I surprised myself, then, when my friend Ammie and I decided to start writing tandem posts on our blogs.  The idea was this: we would either write posts inspired by the same prompt (like tonight’s posts) or we would trade topics: I would write about something that she normally writes about, and vice versa.  It sounded so fun!  Ammie is a terrific writer, and I knew I’d be even more excited to read her blog if we were inspiring each other to write, hopefully in some fresh, new ways.

Tonight’s topic is this: the things we cook without recipes.  I invite you to click on over to Ammie’s post here, which I will be reading after I’m done with my own (I don’t want to be tempted by her delicious writing just yet!).  And if you have a blog or something similar, and you’d like to join us in these tandem posts, please jump right in!  Let us know by leaving a comment on either of our blogs.  I’d love to hear what you think or read what you’ve written.

* * *

I have a serious conundrum to discuss with you, and that is this: more than half of my cooking these days is happening without the gentle oversight of a recipe.  And what’s more is that I’m loving it—the freedom, the joy, the excitement of flying by the seat of my pants in the kitchen.  It’s all so invigorating!  It’s also a serious problem.

It wouldn’t be much of a problem if I weren’t trying to keep up a weekly stream of recipes on Life, Love, and Food.  In my experience, it’s the cooks who don’t use recipes who make the best food.  The two people who come to mind immediately are Matt and Daine.  For example, the last time Matt and I were together, it was New Year’s weekend and we made good use of my kitchen.  He arrived just in time for lunch, and just in time to stop me from following my recipes exactly as written.  I had made a batch of Jess’s amazing tomato soup, but it wasn’t quite finished.  Matt, who is always willing to help but does not always do as he is told, was put in charge of adding half a cup of milk to the soup and then blending it smooth lushness.  He took the milk container from me and then—with no measuring cup!—just poured in some milk.  Like, “What’s with the measuring cup?”

I’d be lying if I said that this sort of behavior doesn’t faze me.  It is, one could argue, a result of Matt’s confidence, something that makes him nearly irresistible.  He is the most confident person I know, except for maybe my friend Daine.  The two of them have a lot in common, and I wonder now which came first: the cooking mastery or the utter confidence?  Having not known either of them for more than a handful of years, I cannot answer that question.  But it does seem to me that there is something really powerful about being able to feed yourself and others with only the instructions in your memory, mind and muscle combined.

I have neither Matt’s confidence level nor Daine’s intuition level in the kitchen.  What I do have, though, is a desire to feel free of the burden of following directions.  I want to feel that I always have the ability to cook something decent for myself and and a friend.  I want food to be enjoyed during the making and the eating.

But I also want to make recipes that I can share with you, dear reader.  Like my fried rice dish topped with a tasty drizzle of peanut sauce, or the creamy cauliflower pasta I made on Sunday night.  The dishes I cook without recipes are like butterflies, floating on the wind, just out of reach of words and measurements.  I fear that when I try to catch them, they won’t taste as good or that something will be lost in translation from my hands to your mouth.  I even worry that by just trying to catch them, these dishes will lose their appeal.  Certainly some of my affection for them comes from their spontaneity and the heightened anticipation of not even knowing what they should taste like.

I hope you’ll bear with me, friends, while I try to figure out where this cooking-without-recipes business is heading.  In the meantime, I’ve been seeking solace in my cookbook shelves, hoping that some recipe will gracefully volunteer to be the next feature on this blog.  I think I’ve got a few, but only if I can restrain myself enough to give you an accurate report of what I did in the kitchen.  As an index card on my desk says, “We may drift far from shore.”  But I’ll keep a map on hand so that we always know how to get home again.

The Purple Binder

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Where We Should All Be

At the Fountain

These days, I am being pulled outside like a magnet is drawn to a refrigerator.  I can’t control it.  I want to be outside more than anything else—more than food, more than sleep.  When Matt comes to visit me in a few weeks, the only way he will see me is if he follows me out the door, so I’m planning poolside chats and a walk in the park for us.  I just want to feel the sunshine and the warm breeze of a Texas spring on my skin.  I’d also like to feel his hand in mine, palms together and fingers entwined.

As you might imagine, this insatiable need to be outside is starting to get in the way of other important things.  My kitchen time is taking a real hit, along with my desire to cook.  My desire to eat remains pretty much intact.  Last week, I wrote an e-mail to Matt, telling him, “I fear I may be a little plumper the next time you see me, as I feel I could be content making meals out of cheese, peanut butter, and apples.”  That’s still true, but I’d like to add carrots and tahini sauce to the list.

Dipping Their Toes in Tahini Sauce

This tahini sauce comes to us from Nigel Slater and his kitchen diaries, a book that I’ve had on loan from the library for several months.  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I love this book.  Inspiring, beautiful, and funny, it is a book that could make itself very much at home on my cookbook shelves.  As fortune would have it, I have the book on loan for a whole year—crazy!—so I don’t have to decide to buy my own copy for a while.  But the decision is looming because there is much cooking to be done from its pages.

I’ve made the tahini sauce at least half a dozen times now.  It is delicious—rich and a little tangy, with thyme flecked throughout and the deep flavor of tahini to intrigue the palate.  It’s perfect for dipping carrots into it, or for slathering a wrap filled with spiced chickpeas, cabbage, and shredded carrots.  All this flavor comes together with just five ingredients and one bowl, making it one of the easiest ways of dealing with the dinner question.  I imagine it would be fabulous as a topping for chickpea burgers—I can’t wait to try out that combination.  It is, of course, more work to make an honest-to-goodness meal with an entree and everything, so I’ll have to wait to eat my chickpea burgers until this spring fever settles down into a low-grade indoor apathy.  Or maybe, just maybe, Matt will convince me to stay inside so we can cook dinner together and then I’ll drag him outside with me to look at the stars.  When the weather is as beautiful as this, outside is where we should all be.

That's My Fountain

Tahini Sauce

Adapted from the kitchen diaries by Nigel Slater

Makes about 1/4 cup

Nigel calls for fresh thyme in his tahini sauce, but I hardly ever have fresh thyme on hand, so I use dried instead.  He serves it with roasted eggplant, but really, this is a great all-purpose sauce in a size that’s just right when you are cooking for one or two people.  If your crowd is larger, I don’t see any reason why this recipe couldn’t be doubled or even tripled.  So have at it!

2 tbsp. plain yogurt, preferably whole-milk yogurt

1 tbsp. tahini

1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 tsp. dried thyme leaves

1/8 tsp. salt, or to taste

1)  In a small bowl, whisk together the yogurt, tahini, and olive oil until smooth.  Crumble the thyme leaves between your fingers as you sprinkle them into the bowl.  Add the salt.  Mix everything together.  Taste and add more salt if you like.  Serve or store in the refrigerator until serving time.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

My Kind of Weekend

 Just Hanging Out

Ah, this is the life, isn’t it?  Two sweet potatoes, just hangin’ out in the sunshine like old friends.  I took this photo on Friday afternoon, just me and the sweet potatoes.  And a gorgeous bunch of kale.

Hey There

Can you see me in this photo?  I’m the shadow at the bottom left.  Those knobby-looking things are my knuckles, perched above my camera.  I think I am having way too much fun with the new camera.  There have been photo sessions almost every day this week, and what’s really amazing is that it is during those impromptu photo shoots that I feel happiest and most relaxed.  I love the way the camera is helping me to see the world through fresh eyes, and I love the challenge to capture an image the way I can see it in my mind.  Photography is my new muse.

With a pang of regret, I turned those adorable sweet potatoes into a pan of Kristin’s Sweet Potato Fries.  I’ve always found sweet potatoes to be a difficult vegetable.  For one thing, they are sweet—usually too sweet for me.  In recent history, I have made two different soups calling for sweet potatoes, and both of them smacked me on the head with sugar.  It’s weird: I love dessert, but when it comes to soup, I need savory flavors.  Even soups with a bit of sweetness, like my favorite carrot soup, need something savory to add depth to their bowls.  These sweet potato soups—which shall remain anonymous—just didn’t do it for me.

But oh!  Kristin’s fries—oh yes, they did it for me.  Cloaked in a spicy mix of cumin, coriander, sea salt, and a pinch of cayenne, these fries are savory and sweet.  While they are baking, the scent of cumin drifts through the house, a gentle reminder that dinner is on its way.  I tweaked the recipe ever so slightly, using lemon juice instead of lime, and I peeled my sweet potatoes because their skin was a bit rough.  My fries didn’t crisp up, probably because they were crowded on their baking sheet, but surprisingly, I liked the softer texture.  Next time, I might bake them on a larger sheet so I can give them more room to roast, but regardless, this recipe is a keeper.

In other news, I make no apologies for being an insatiable reader.  As such, I’m always on the look-out for new blogs to read.  I learned this week that Life, Love, and Food has a cousin: life.love.paper!  This lovely photography blog and diary is my newest favorite site.  Whenever I find a site that I enjoy, right off the bat I start working my way backward in the archives, finding the old gems and beauties.  I loved this post about an impromptu trip to Seattle.  Tina’s photos of the city are stunning.  I love the fountain rainbow shot.  Then there’s this post about a spontaneous pot of risotto.  I’m kind of a romantic when it comes to the idea of unplanned fun because my life is so dominated by planning.  Tina seems like a master of unplanned fun, and I get to indulge in that by reading her blog.  Nice.

I’m ready to start my weekend.  On the docket is a haircut, some olive oil shopping, lentil soup, and a book club gathering to talk about Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert.  Off the docket I’m secretly hoping (but not planning!) that there will be some spontaneous fun of my own.  That’s my kind of weekend.

Friends, I hope your weekend is everything you want!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Neither Magic Wand nor Fairy Dust

Blossoms at Dusk

I must tell you that it feels great to be able to walk like a normal person again.  After running 13.1 miles in and out of town, past real Texas longhorns and a gorgeous brown horse, my legs weren’t quite themselves for a few days.  The day after the half-marathon, I contemplated hiring a nice, strong-looking male undergraduate to carry me, piggy-back, to the bus so I would no longer have to endure the pain of putting one foot in front of the other.  It was so, so tempting, but I’m cheap, so I squinched my face up in pain and walked over to the bus, setting myself down ever so gently in a seat.  Sitting had never felt so good.

As if finishing a half-marathon weren’t good enough for one week, I learned yesterday that three out of the five DNA constructs I’m trying to make for my big project at work are finished.  That means that 60% of this project has been moved to the next stage.  This is very good news for me.  Very, very good news.  What would also feel very good is if I were not feeling a vague sense of letdown, of deflation after all this success.  Why is it that success can be such a mixed bag of emotions?

The problem, I think, is that I have no template for letting success wash over me like a warm rain.  This problem has plagued me for as long as I can remember.  I can recall bringing home report cards lined with A+ after A+, and my mother would tease me, “Only six A plusses?  Aren’t there any more?”  She meant well, I know, but I always longed for a more serious response.  Right now, I can’t even remember what my father used to say, which probably means he rarely said anything, at least to me.  My parents had a lot on their hands—five kids, one marriage, often two jobs, a house, a cat—so it’s understandable that their attention was drawn to the things that really needed attention, like sick children, broken cars, or a hungry cat.  But their parenting style has imprinted itself on me in some unpleasant ways, such as my tendencies toward anxiety and depression.  Less grave than mental illness is my need to constantly demonstrate my worth through achievement.  I am a middle child, an attention hog, and I don’t know how to relax when the hard work is finished.

Despite all the wonderful news this week, I’ve been restless and irritable.  I don’t like it at all.  I suspect hormones may also be in on this, as they are wont to do, but there is little I can do about that problem.  So I did what I could to pass the time.  Yesterday, I snuck out for a 4 PM coffee, just in time to catch the summerlike warmth of the afternoon.  Earlier in the week, I took a 5 PM phone call from Matt, who was out riding his bike, and we discussed the history of marriage.  Today, with 20 minutes to kill before my flies would be finished with their feeding assay, I went outside again, this time to stroll around campus, checking out the cacti and the clouds, so majestic and mountain-like in that big Texas sky.  And in the meantime, I’ve been reading blogs and Salon.com like a word-starved fiend.  These days, I am insatiable.

Matt has told me many times that I have a “rage for order.”  It sounds awful when he puts it that way!  But he has a point: I love order.  I love the feeling of an organized home, an orderly method, a systematic approach.  It just makes life seem so much less chaotic and more manageable.  It is a top-ten reason why I became a scientist.  Tonight, I decided to embrace my rage for order.  I emptied the dishwasher and cleaned the black gunk out of the sink.  I made a delicious and minimal-mess dinner of nachos, using flour tortillas made at the tortilla factory down the street from me.  I even plated my nachos so they’d look cute and festive.  And later tonight, I’ll sit down with a needle and thread to repair the buttons on my favorite white sweater, the one that lost two buttons on the day of my thesis defense.  (That, my friends, was disorder.  And embarrassment.  But kind of hilarious too.)

Sneaking up from the Side 

I wish there were a magical way that we could make ourselves feel the way we think we should feel.  It would save me a lot of grief.  But with neither magic wand nor fairy dust, I realize that my only hope is knowing that tomorrow is a new day and maybe, just maybe, after days of restlessness and grumpiness, tomorrow will bring some peace and contentment.  I hope, I hope, I hope.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

13.1 Miles Later

I am so glad to be sitting down right now.

This morning, I rose before dawn.  The green lights on my alarm clock read 5:10, but I obeyed its beeping and pulled on my grey running tights, pink sports bra, orange tank top, and a long-sleeved t-shirt that says Albion College Dancers on the front.  I washed my face, ponytailed my hair, and bobby-pinned a bandana headband in place to keep my hair under control, no matter what the wind might try to do this morning.

I ate breakfast, the sun still nowhere to be seen.  At 6:30, with the sky just beginning to lighten to a rich velvety blue, I took a cab over to Veterans Park.  Or rather, I tried to take a cab over to Veterans Park.  The road we tried to take to the park had already been blocked off, and there was easily a mile of traffic backed up, cars and trucks probably filled with half-marathon participants who, like me, had been thwarted from getting into the park via Harvey Road.

So I hoofed it.  After paying and abandoning my cab-driver to the traffic jam, I walked and, later, with some amount of panic, jogged to the starting line of the 4th Annual Armadillo Dash, relieved to see that no one had left the starting line.  I made it.

Bib Number 489

The air was cool but calm as we all stood together, mentally preparing to run 13.1 miles.  For me, running with other people is always a strange experience because I hardly ever do it.  Usually I’m a solitary runner, racing against myself and the desire to quit.  With other runners, I’m a stew of excitement and anxiety, with a pinch of competitiveness.  With others, I want to demonstrate that I belong there, among that pack of runners of all ages and sizes, all speeds and desires.  I’m willing to bet, though, that every single one of us shares one goal: finishing.

The race started off very slowly, a logjam of runners trotting together as we squeezed through the tight opening miles.  I think my first two miles averaged out to be fifteen-minute miles, which felt frightfully slow compared to my normal nine- or ten-minute miles.  My body felt tired and sluggish, unaccustomed to running at such an early morning hour.

But I slogged on, because the only thing worse than running a slow half-marathon is quitting for no good reason.  The pace magically righted itself as the mile markers appeared in an orderly procession, 5, 6, 7, 8.  I was running almost perfect ten-minute miles, which felt like a minor miracle.  Though I had started this race thinking that a half-marathon run in two and a half hours would be fine with me, I realized that if I finished strong, I could easily shave fifteen minutes off that time.  Maybe more!

Since I had no running buddy to chat with me, my thoughts wandered like toddlers in a grocery store.  I thought about writing this post and how nice it is to have a blog.  I thought about the funny things I had overheard that morning (“I dreamed last night that we were at the starting line and you had to go to the bathroom and I couldn’t tie my shoes!”) and how important it is to run your own race.  Other runners around me must have thought I was nuts because I would pass them running, then they would pass me while I walked.  But that was all part of my running plan: run for 25 minutes, then walk 5.  Repeat as needed.  For whatever reasons, it’s easier for me to run a faster pace and take walking breaks rather than to run a slower pace with no walking.

I thought about God.  There was a prayer before we left the starting line, though I could hear only mumbling through the loud speakers.  A man wore a t-shirt whose backside read, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.  We passed a handful of churches, the final one of which had a dozen volunteers.  One of them wore a shirt that read, My quads are in awe of your quads.  I liked that one.

Like a true agnostic, I decided that it couldn’t hurt to have God on my side that morning, so I thought about whether Jesus could help me lift my legs so I might continue to run.  I couldn’t tell for sure if it worked, but I did finish strong, so maybe!  But what really made my scalp prickle with astonishment was the very idea of faith.  Even though my knees were hurting and my legs were growing heavy with exertion, I had absolute faith that I would finish.  What more could I accomplish if I always had such faith in myself and my abilities?  What mountains could I move, what rivers could I swim if I wore faith on my heart like the bib pinned to my shirt?  We usually think of faith in its religious garments, but even agnostics need faith because every adventure is started without knowing whether we will succeed.  I try to think of this whenever I’m scared of what the future holds because while there are no guarantees, we’ll never know what happiness could have been ours if we take no chances.

Two hours, seven minutes, and forty-one seconds later, I crossed the finish line.  And just like that, it was over.

Except that it wasn’t.  There were bathrooms to be found and post-race snacks to be eaten.  Last night, I had baked a batch of Mollie Katzen’s Breakfast Biscotti, tweaking the recipe to taste.  And before heading into the predawn morning, I had packed a little baggie of them to accompany me to the race.

Biscotti Glamour Shot

Foolishly, I thought they would make a good mid-race snack.  Certainly they were tasty enough, flecked with bits of lemon zest and bittersweet chocolate chips, but biscotti pose one major problem for a runner: they are dry.  Dry and crunchy, which makes them about the worst mid-run food ever.  When I’m running, I want liquids—water, orange juice, maybe a yogurt smoothie made with banana.  During the race, around mile nine, I think, I had just one bite of biscotti.  The chocolate (for energy, of course) was wonderful, but the texture?  No, thank you.  I’d rather have Gatorade, whose taste I dislike but whose wetness I love.

But I didn’t toss my remaining cookies along the roadside.  They remained in their little baggie until later, when I sat in front of a Remax on University Drive, waiting for a cab to take me home.  By this time, I was rehydrated and still a little hungry, so I munched on my homemade treat.  Sitting there, on that cloudy morning with tired legs and a salt-crusted face, these biscotti tasted perfect.  Lemony, not too sweet, with a faint almond flavor and the crunch of cornmeal, they were delicious.  They provided some much-needed fat and protein in a homemade, perfectly portable package.  While I won’t think of them as mid-run food again, I will keep them in mind for the post-run afterglow, along with a bottle of water and a nice resting spot somewhere outside.

Half-Marathon Biscotti

Adapted from Mollie Katzen’s Sunlight Cafe

Makes 20-30 biscotti, depending on how thickly you slice them

May I confess something here?  I discovered that I love making biscotti more than I love eating them.  Yes, it’s bizarre, but it’s the truth.  There’s something about forming the dough into logs, and then slicing that baked log into neat little cookies that I find incredibly appealing.  It must be my need for orderliness.  Despite my love for the double-baking process, I think I prefer my biscotti on the softer side.  I am generally not a huge fan of super-crunchy cookies; I like soft, chewy ones much better.

To make these biscotti a little softer, I cut the baking time a little shorter.  In the future, I might even go shorter to make a softer, cakier cookie.  Below, I’ve listed a range of baking times so that you can test and tweak with pleasure.

Nonstick cooking spray

3 large eggs

1/3 cup packed brown sugar

1/4 cup granulated sugar (I used vanilla bean-infused sugar here—a nice touch but not strictly necessary)

1/3 cup canola oil

Grated zest from one lemon

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1/8 tsp. almond extract

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup almond flour

3/4 cup old-fashioned oats

1/4 cup cornmeal

1/2 tsp. salt

3/4 cup bittersweet chocolate chips

1)  Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.  Spray a large cookie sheet with nonstick spray.

2)  In a large bowl, beat the eggs lightly.  Add the sugars, oil, lemon zest, and extracts.  Beat together until combined.

3)  In another bowl, this time medium-sized, combine the flours, oats, cornmeal, and salt.

3)  Add the dry ingredients to the wet ones.  Stir until combined.  The batter will be thick but not as stiff as other cookie doughs.  Stir the chocolate chips into the batter.

4)  Divide the dough in half and spoon the two halves into large mounds on either side the cookie sheet.  Shape the mounds into logs about 2 to 3 inches in diameter.  The logs should be a few inches apart.

5)  Bake for 20 minutes and then remove the tray from the oven.  Use a pancake flipper to move the logs to cooling racks.  To save your hands, let them cool for a few minutes.  (The chocolate gets really hot during baking.)  Then, working with one log at a time, place a log on a cutting board.  Use a serrated knife to slice the log into individual biscotti about 1/2- to 1-inch in width.  I tend to slice mine bigger, partly out of laziness and partly because I find it easier to slice biscotti when they are thicker.  Mollie recommends that you use a sawing motion to slice to prevent crumbling.  Repeat with the other log.

6)  Place the biscotti on their sides on the baking tray (same one as before) and put them back in the oven.  Bake for 8 minutes, then turn them over.  Bake for 4 minutes, then turn the oven off and bake for another 4 minutes.  Alternatively, you could remove the biscotti after turning them over and baking for 4 minutes.  A longer baking time will give a harder, crunchier cookie; a shorter baking time will give a softer, cakier cookie.

7)  Remove the tray from the oven, transfer the biscotti to a cooling rack, and allow them to cool until they are cool to the touch.  Eat or pack away for future snacking. 

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Eager, Focused, Ready

Saturday Sunshine

Do things look a little different here today?  I thought so.  I also thought you might enjoy some Texas sunshine this morning.  It’s awfully pretty.  I wanted to share breakfast with you today.  I made a pot of oatmeal Charlie-style, cooked with lots of raisins and unsweetened coconut.  Then I topped my bowl of oatmeal Rose-Anne-style, with wheat berries, Naturally More peanut butter, and chocolate chips.  The chocolate is for energy, of course.

Aerial Table Shot

On Thursday, a brand-new camera entered my life.  It was a big day for me.  I’m thrilled and scared to begin integrating photos into Life, Love, and Food.  The truth is, it’s a challenge to weave different media together without losing the narrative.  A good story requires a bit of focus, and too many photos can distract from the written word, which, to me, is where the real action is.  But I love a good photo or two as much as the next blogger, so I’m going to try it.  It might be a little bumpy at first, or blurry and strange, but it will be an adventure.  And that, my friends, may be the most important part.

It’s a big weekend for me, and not just because I’ll have a camera glued to my hands for most of it.  Tomorrow is the 4th Annual Armadillo Dash, and I’m running in the half-marathon event.  Like most running events, this one will require me to peel myself out of bed before dawn so that I can trot 13.1 miles alongside perfect strangers.  Personally, I think the whole idea is slightly insane, but I can’t wait.  The feeling of accomplishment at the end is huge—bigger than words, even.  When I ran the Chicago half-marathon three years ago, I remember feeling buoyed up by the energy of the crowd, all those other runners and the spectators lining the streets.  The city stretched out before us, a ribbon of pavement winding through downtown Chicago and alongside Lake Michigan.  I felt strong and confident, each footstep bringing me closer to the finish line of what had become a five-month journey.  That same year, not too long after I started training for the half-marathon, I started this blog.  With running and with writing, I still feel that same sense of wonder, of being swept up in the momentum of the occasion.

I have to get my preparations for tomorrow underway soon.  My race packet awaits me at a nearby hotel.  This week I replenished my stash of eggs, so I can bake a batch of Breakfast Biscotti, several of which I’ll tuck into a baggie to take with me to the starting line.  In anticipation of how I’ll feel after the race, I want to make a big pot or two of soup today, something nourishing that will make for tasty leftovers.  I’ve got my eye on this Green Lentil Soup with Coconut Milk and Warm Spices from Orangette.  The recipe comes with a strong recommendation from my friend Daphna.  But I might double up on the lentil soups this weekend because I’m tempted by another soup—this time from Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home—which is quite different from the green lentil soup.  It’s a red lentil soup, spunky with tomatoes and bell peppers, spicy and tart with cumin, coriander, and lemon juice.  There’s no coconut milk involved, but the red lentils should cook down into something creamy and soothing, a nice backdrop for all those vegetables and spices.  I’m eager to stock up on soups this week because I want to spend more time outside after work, soaking up the last rays of sunshine before the sun sinks down into the western sky.  It feels like spring around here, and I don’t want to waste a minute of that feeling.

Have a happy weekend, adorable readers.  I can’t wait to see what the days bring.