Sunday, May 30, 2010

To Build Something You Love

I’ve been thinking lately about how life always feels like too much or not enough.  Sometimes it’s too much work, too many people, too much mess, too much food.  Sometimes it’s even too much fun and I can’t put my overexcited mind to sleep at the end of the day.  It’s all too much.

Then there are the days of not enough.  Not enough interesting work, not enough love, not enough time in the day, not enough money or excitement.  Not enough energy or enthusiasm.  This business of too much or not enough makes me feel like Goldilocks, always whining and pouting, never content with life the way it is.  Life is a delicious mess, and we all have to find our own way through it.  If we’re lucky, we’ll even find ourselves marveling at how beautiful the chaos is.

There is a quote from Sigmund Freud that I think about from time to time.  “One day in retrospect, the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful.”  It reminds me that whatever trouble I may be working my way through in that moment, I’ve been through hard times before.  And I’ve only made my way to this very moment by working through those hard times, by trying again and again, refusing to let myself give up.  A change of plans, maybe, but give up?  No.  That’s not how I roll.

Yesterday was Life, Love, and Food’s third birthday.  That’s three years of cooking, eating, observing, and feeling that have been spun into stories and recipes for this blog.  Three years of flipping through cookbooks, sampling their offerings, and reporting back to you about the recipes worth making again.  Three years of wondering what this blog might be—an end in and of itself?  A bridge to new friends and opportunities?  A journal, a conversation, a discovery of voice and the power of finding my writing stride?  I think it’s all of these things, and more.

But what I want to tell you today is both happy and sad.  I know I’ve said many times that I’m happy down here in Texas, and that’s still true.  I love my job and the amazing opportunities it has opened up to me.  I like the wildflowers and the heat, my little hippie grocery store and my new friend who works there.  (He invited me to his art exhibit next Friday in Bryan!  I am so excited to see it!)  I love my local coffeeshop and their delicious coffee beans, milkshake-like Iced White Mocha, and the fact that Matt and I visit It’s a Grind every time he spends the weekend with me.  (If you ever visit me during the hot season, I will insist that you at least taste the Iced White Mocha.  It is outSTANDING!)

Take a Sip

And I like the people down here.  They are, I have noticed, a tiny bit defensive about this town and Texas in general, perhaps because there are many stereotypes about small towns in Texas—that the people are small-minded or racist, or that the only kind of culture that exists here is created by the cowboys, ranchers, and farmers.  The other day, I was sitting at a microscope at work, doing my thing, and the acting chair of our department came into the room, looking for a professor who shares that space with our lab.  This man is a leader in his field, a tenured professor who has been with Texas A & M for a long time.  He is established.  We chatted a little bit, and one of the things he said to me went something like this (I’m paraphrasing here): “This is an excellent place to be.  We hope you’ll be happy here.”  Is it just me, or does that sound like a recruitment pitch?  I wanted to say, “I am happy here!”  But I feared that would sound awkward, so I just smiled.

For me, the hard part about being here is not the small town, the cowboys, or the barbecue joints.  It’s not the heat (yet) or the lack of a Whole Foods.  What’s hard for me is that the people I love are not here.  My family, all my Chicago friends—I left everyone behind to move to Texas.  And the truth is that I’m lonely down here.  It is hard to make new friends and even harder to live alone in a place where the social connections are few.  Of the friends I do have, they are new and we’re still getting to know each other.  We haven’t been together for years the way my old friends and I have.  Without something or someone to hold me in place here, I feel like a tumbleweed, ready to drift away with the slightest breeze.  It’s a tough way to live.  I am not a nomad or someone who enjoys drifting.  I love connection and sharing, feeling like I belong somewhere and with someone.  I feel like I exist in a space between not belonging and belonging.  It’s too early to say that I belong here.

This blog, my little writing patch, has kept me from drifting into lonely despair.  There’s a lot of criticism these days about how we’ve all turned away from “real life” in favor of sitting in front of our computers, reading blogs and tweets and Facebook updates.  One of my labmates is especially harsh about internet usage, and I do see his point.  It’s true that there is an annoying quality to a Facebook profile that gets updated 20 times a day.  I can’t keep up with that sort of thing, not without losing my mind at least.  I fear the addictive nature of Twitter, so no tweeting for me.  And I joined Facebook recently, fearing that I’d never get any work done ever again, but somehow I can manage Facebook.  It’s fun to say hello to my friends and family in an easy, casual way, and I feel a little more connected to them, despite the distance between us.

But blogging is what I love most.  I do spend a lot of time on this blog: thinking about what to say, writing and editing my posts, taking photos, trying recipes so that I may share them with you.  To those who scorn blogs and other personal communication via the internet, I want to say, “Yes, it is entirely possible to skip out on much of ‘real life’ by sitting inside, staring at a screen.  But have you ever tried to make friends after moving to a town all by yourself?  Have you ever packed up your whole life for your career, in the hope that this new place will eventually feel like a home?  It’s hard, this business of building a new life somewhere.  It’s lonely.  And when you’re not in school any more, it’s even harder.  My blog makes me feel less lonely.  My friends read it.  My family reads it.  And a lot of other people read it too, people who may be trying their best and struggling in the same ways that I am.  So please don’t mock me or my blog.  Because it’s something that I built and love, and it makes me feel like I’m not all alone down here in this small town that I never would have chosen if my career hadn’t lured me down here.”

This blog is a labor of love for me.  I feel the same way toward it as I feel toward feeding people: yes, it’s work, but I love it deeply and unconditionally.  Even if the only person for whom I’m writing or cooking is me, it’s still worth it.  In the end, everything you do must come from you.  Even when other people urge to you do something, you have the final say about it.  To be an independent person is, to me, among life’s greatest and most rewarding achievements.  But I think a person can be both independent and a member of something bigger than themselves—a family, a team, a community.  I know that I can survive down here by myself, but to really thrive, I have to keep building my connections, one conversation, one invitation at a time.  And I have to be patient as these connections are built by reciprocity.  As I said on Facebook recently, I think patience is the answer to about half my problems.  (Peanut butter is the solution to the other half.)

I had a friend over for dinner recently.  She was the first person besides Matt to visit me at home, and it was a lovely evening.  We drank Chardonnay while we made dinner, a tofu scramble studded with vegetables and English muffins sneakily pretending they were garlic bread.  And for dessert, I pulled something I call “Texas Fudge” out of the freezer, and we ate bite after chocolatey bite, the almonds and wheat berries giving way between our teeth.

A River of Fudge

Texas Fudge is a recipe I dreamed into existence after a brief affair with classic no-bake chocolate cookies using a recipe very similar to this one.  No-bake cookies are, to my mind, candy that masquerades under the name “cookie.”  Very sweet, with a chewy texture from raw oatmeal, no-bake cookies are for me an occasional indulgence, something I tend to make after dinner when my sweet tooth suddenly demands a prize.  They are easy to make and even easier to eat, so after licking the spoon and pot, I try to limit myself to two or three so as not to fall into a sugar coma right in front of the stove.  Then I tuck the rest away in the fridge or freezer and enjoy them as lunchbox or after-dinner treats.

The only problem with no-bake cookies, as my friend Daine pointed out to me, is the texture.  I love oatmeal, but the texture in no-bake cookies is not oatmeal at its best—it’s just too chewy and fibery in the mouth.  In Texas Fudge, the oatmeal is replaced with sliced almonds and cooked wheat berries for a mix of crisp and soft-chewy.  Instead of cocoa powder, I use real chocolate to add flavor.  Finally, Texas Fudge is stored and eaten frozen.  It’s a soft confection, and the freezer keeps it fresh and shapely.  I love the way it tastes straight out of the freezer, cold chocolate melting in the mouth, yielding a rush of sweetness and the savory almonds and wheat berries.  Because this fudge is so sweet, I think it needs a good pinch of salt to balance it, so I’ve written that into the recipe below, thought tonight I forgot it and instead sprinkled a bit of table salt over the still-soft fudge.  Later on, after dinner, I sat on my patio with a small piece of fudge and a tumble of strawberries, and together we watched the sun set.  I love this place.

Chocolate and Berries

Texas Fudge

Adapted from a recipe for Quick Peanut Oat Cookies (also known as classic no-bake cookies) from my Great American Recipes card collection

Serves about 6-8

1/3 cup cooked wheat berries

1/3 cup sliced almonds

1/2 cup granulated sugar

2 tbsp. milk

2 tbsp. salted butter

1/4 cup bittersweet chocolate chips

2 tbsp. natural peanut butter (creamy or chunky—your choice)

1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

1/8 tsp. salt, or more to taste

1)  Line a large rimmed cookie sheet with parchment paper.  Set aside.

2)  Drain any excess liquid off the wheat berries by placing them in a very small strainer, such as a tea strainer, and using a spoon to push down on them.  Place the wheat berries and sliced almonds in a bowl and set aside for now.

3)  Place the sugar, milk, and butter in a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat.  Stir frequently to help them combine as the butter melts.  Bring everything to a vigorous bubble (not quite a boil, in my opinion) and keep it bubbling for a minute.  Remove from the heat and stir in the chocolate chips, peanut butter, vanilla, and salt.

4)  Pour the molten fudge onto the middle of the parchment paper-lined cookie sheet.  Use a wooden spoon to spread it out to a thickness between a quarter and a half inch (or so).  This is not a precise step.  The goal is to make a thin layer of fudge on the paper, but it needs to be thick enough so that it can be removed easily from the paper after the fudge is frozen.

5)  Pop the whole thing in the freezer and let it harden for an hour or two.  After that time, take out the fudge, peel the parchment paper away from it, and break it up into serving-sized pieces—maybe 2-inch squares or so.  Store the pieces in layers in an airtight container in the freezer.  I like to use pieces of parchment paper between layers to make the fudge pieces easy to remove.  Enjoy, especially straight from the freezer!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Always a Pleasure

A View from the El Platform

It’s really, really good to be home again.  I find it hard to believe, but over the past year, I’ve spent four weeks living out of suitcases.  For someone who claims to be a homebody, that’s a long time to be away from home!  On top of that, there were about two weeks during which my home was dismantled and packed into a moving truck.  All of this homelessness makes me so grateful for weekends like this one where there are no suitcases involved and my most ambitious goals involve cooking delicious dinners and working on my grant.

Yes, a grant!  This summer I’m applying for at least two grants to support my research.  I’ve had these grants in mind for a long time now, so I’m excited to begin moving forward with the applications.  To be honest, I’ve been bored at work lately, mostly because my work had become very repetitive and not at all interesting.  But things are picking up again and I’m optimistic that the summer will be a productive and data-rich one.  Today and tomorrow I’m planning to spend a few hours working on the specific goals of my grant application, which I’m sure will spark some ideas about what I should be doing right now to make these projects happen.

Despite my plans to do some work, it’s still great to have a whole weekend to myself.  I’m mostly recovered from my trip to Chicago—the laundry has been done, the refrigerator restocked, the bed rumpled from my sleeping in it—but there are still two empty suitcases waiting to be put away.  I also still have some Chicago photos to share with you, like the one up there at the top.  I took that photo while standing on one of the train platforms downtown in the Loop.  I love the angles of that shot and the way the tree is interlacing its branches and leaves around the lamppost.

I have a few announcements for today, so here we go:

1)  Project Olive Oil is not dead!  I know it might seem that way because I haven’t reviewed a new oil in four months, but there’s a reason for that.  I purchased an olive oil that turned out to be a real dud in the flavor department.  It wasn’t bad; it just wasn’t very interesting.  I had such high hopes for that one too—it was a Texas-produced oil and it was a bit pricey.  I thought about reviewing it here anyway, but I didn’t have the heart to write about a disappointing product.

I’m getting back in the saddle, so to speak, and I’ve got a few ideas for oils that you might like to hear about.  There’s a good one I found at my unfancy grocery store—I’ve even mentioned it once before—and I’ve also got my eyes on the oils from Pasolivo.  Pasolivo is an olive ranch in Paso Robles, California.  Paso Robles is better known, I think, as a wine-producing region, but I think we both know that grapes and olives have a long history of growing in the same places.  Pasolivo’s olive oils are expensive and presumably (fingers crossed) outstanding because they are made from hand-picked olives grown in a single place.  Because I would have to mail-order olive oil from Pasolivo, it becomes a better deal if I order more than one bottle of oil, so I’m thinking about ordering a bottle of extra-virgin olive oil and one of their flavored olive oils, like tangerine.  They recommend using tangerine olive oil in brownies—doesn’t that sound dreamy?  I can’t wait to try it!

2)  The heat has arrived in Texas.  Wow.  I feel sweaty just thinking about it.  I thought I’d be able to hold out until June to turn on the air-conditioning, but no such luck.  I don’t keep it running all the time, but I sleep better if I’m not lying in a pool of my own sweat, so I like to run it in the evenings and then turn it off before I go to bed.  Likewise, my cooking has involved minimal amounts of heat.  Two dishes that have been making me happy are this Zucchini Carpaccio with Avocado and an old favorite, my Avocado Corn Salad.  (I’m sensing a theme here…)  I had the distinct pleasure of making the carpaccio with a plump zucchini picked just a day earlier by my work friend Christopher.  I told Christopher I could be his first CSA customer, and I mean it.  I hope he takes me up on my offer.

Two notes about the zucchini carpaccio recipe: toasted sliced almonds can be used deliciously instead of pistachios, and a bit of crumbled dried thyme is a decent substitute for fresh lemon thyme.

3)  Today is Life, Love, and Food’s birthday!  It’s been three years since I first tried to find the words to describe what I planned to do with this little blog.  Now we’ve got three years worth of recipes and stories in the archives—my recipes for life in and out of the kitchen.  I’ve got a fun treat planned for tomorrow, so stay tuned and make sure you’ve got some chocolate on hand.

Happy birthday, little blog, and happy weekend, dear readers.  It’s always a pleasure to be here.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Say Hello and Wave Good-bye

Hello again!  This post is one-half of a pair of tandem posts that my word-loving friend a and I are writing.  Our theme this week is “things we take for granted.”  a’s post is here; I’m impatiently waiting until I’m done with my post to read what she has to say.  (I always wait until after my post is published to read her tandem posts.)

This post is also the third of a three-part series about my recent trip to beautiful Chicago.  You can find the first post here; the second post is right over here.

* * *

Sometimes it is good to leave home, but it is always nice to come back.

Texas is home now.  When did that happen?  Officially, I suppose it became home on October 2, 2009 when I opened the door to my new apartment.  But it didn’t feel like home, especially with no furniture and an empty kitchen in which I couldn’t even make a pot of soup.  Even after the movers brought my stuff and I had a couch again, it still didn’t feel like home.  It was too hot, and I had few friends.  There was no el rumbling along its tracks in the background or upstairs neighbor playing the bass.  There was no leafy tree outside my window to make me feel like I was living in a treehouse.  Without the familiar comforts and annoyances of my old home, I felt lost and sad, like I had given up something of great importance and it was too late to say, “Stop!  I can’t do this!  Take me home!”

On my second weekend in Texas, Matt came to visit me.  His visit went a long way toward calming my fears about moving.  I remember lying on the couch with him and closing my eyes.  With him next to me, it was easy to forget about the stacks of boxes scattered throughout the apartment.  Those boxes are gone now; everything has been unpacked.  I’m here to stay for the indefinite future.

For me, home is something that is created over time.  It isn’t really about an apartment, or a couch, or where you sleep.  It’s about a rhythm and a routine, the act of returning to a place again and again.  Before I moved to Texas, I took it for granted that home was a physical place, a shelter with your bed under it.  But now, I think that home is a more complicated idea.  It’s about familiarity and exploration, a place whose charms and quirks you come to know deeply because you spend so much time in that place.  Home is also about connections, the people with whom you spend your time and where you hang out together.  In this way, home is my lab, my colleagues, the coffee shop on University Drive where I like to buy my coffee beans and drink coffee milkshakes.

On Monday, right before our journal club meeting started, my boss smiled at me and asked me how my trip was.

It was wonderful,” I said.

Where did you go?” he asked.

Chicago,” I answered.

Home,” he said knowingly.

I smiled.  “It’s good to be back.  This is home now.”

That last line surprised me when it slipped out of my mouth.  This is home now.  Although it’s true, in some way, Evanston and Chicago will always be home to me.  Evanston was the first city I chose because I loved the city, not because of a career opportunity.  Evanston is charming and beautiful, filled with great food, a dreamy library, cozy coffee shops, and inviting sidewalks.  It nestles right up to Lake Michigan, and I spent many hours running up and down those lakefront paths.  I lived in Evanston for the better part of my tumultuous twenties.  I fell in love twice and earned one PhD, and I learned more about myself than I ever imagined I would.  My experiences while living in that town changed me, and those transformations will tie me to that place for the rest of my life.  I may have arrived in Evanston when I was 21, but in a way I feel like it’s not crazy to say that I grew up there.  That innocent 21-year-old grew into a wiser, happier, more confident 27-year-old who was smart enough to recognize a lucky break when it offered her a job, even if that job would require abandoning the town she loved dearly.

You can imagine, then, that being in Evanston last week was both wonderful and heart-breaking.  I loved seeing my beloved town again—its farmers’ market, tree-lined streets, its jewel-toned lake, its university, and its lovely residents.  I hated thinking about how I no longer had a kitchen or a bed of my own in Evanston—it only reminded me of how, in a crucial way, I don’t belong in this town any more, at least in the same way that a local does.  But knowing my time was limited and that I had a return ticket waiting for me, I soaked up all the beauty and happiness I could.  I even took some pictures, which I wanted to share with you tonight, especially because I missed my chance to share any photos in my last post.  Here, then, is a tiny photo tour of my Evanston, with a few words to orient you around town.

There were lilacs blooming everywhere.  I stopped to sniff all of them.

Lilacs in Bloom

I found these lilacs on my way down to the lake.  I loved living just blocks from Lake Michigan, especially in the summer.

Solid as a Rock

Good thing I had my walking shoes on that day!  I had places to go and things to see.

Feet are Made for Walking

It’s important to look up because the view is stunning.

A Canopy of Branches

After visiting the lake, I spent the afternoon wandering around Northwestern University and downtown Evanston.  I lost track of time, but the clock tower set me straight.

The Clocktower

 And these signs reminded me where all the good stuff is.

Pleasant Destinations

These fine folks gave me a PhD.  I still feel all shiny and happy when I think about my degree!

The Signage

It was such a beautiful day.  Even the shadows were dancing.

Shadows from the Late Afternoon Sun

After all that walking, it was important to stretch.

Stretching is Important

Then you should take a moment to just watch the world in all its crazy happy beauty.

It's Important to be Observant

Evanston and Chicago, you have the best people.  Thanks for a great week—I miss you already.  But I’ll be back sooner or later, I promise.

Tail Fins

*Special thanks to David Gray for the song that loaned its name to this post’s title.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Where the Wooden Spoon Rests

Welcome to part two of a three-part series about my recent trip to Chicago!  If you’d like to read part one, hop on over here.  Part three will be posted tomorrow as part of a tandem post with my fearless writing partner, a.

* * *

Where does a homesick kitchen rat set up camp when home is 900 miles away?  In other people’s kitchens, of course!

Last week’s trip to Chicago was challenging.  It turns out that living with twin baby boys and their frazzled parents for a week is an idea that ought to set off warning bells in one’s head.  On the surface, it sounded great to me: I’d get to spend lots of time with the twins, and then after they went to bed there’d be time to catch up with the parents and enjoy some grown-up company.  Daphna and I would cook dinner together like we did in the old days, and we’d eat and laugh together at the table, basking in the happiness of their new family life.

Perhaps I was naive, but my fantasies of our time together were way, waaaay off the mark.  I didn’t realize that I even had such expectations for my vacation until I felt ignored, like an old toy left in the corner.  I don’t expect anyone to feel sorry for me; my life is easy and carefree compared to the chronic exhaustion of life with two babies.  But the truth is, making that transition from Friend of Non-parents to Friend of Parents is not easy.  It requires a quiet grace as your friends channel 99% of their attention and care into their children.  It requires letting children become the focus of your time with your parent friends.  It may require cutting outings short because someone is hungry or tired or bored.  A Friend to Parents needs to be able to take care of herself and make herself useful if possible.

In these situations, I find that it’s a dicey proposition to assist with childcare.  I like babies a lot, but I think it can be hard for new parents to get comfortable with other adults taking care of their kids.  Parents have a sense of worry and possessiveness toward their children that I don’t share, simply because I’m not the parent.  Even between parents of the same child, there are squabbles about eating and sleeping issues, and I am not going to jump into that hornet’s nest.  I prefer to make myself useful in other ways, and the way that comes naturally to me is to head into the kitchen and make dinner happen.

It was in other people’s kitchens that I found the sense of home that eluded me during this vacation.  I still missed my old Evanston kitchen, like the way my coffee smelled while it brewed in the morning or the way the honey-colored floors felt cool and smooth under my bare feet.  In these new kitchens, knife in hand and vegetables sitting perky and fresh on the cutting board, I felt an old comfort that comes from doing something you’ve done a million times before.  I liked the simplicity of the task: chop, sauté, season, taste, serve.

I was tentative at first as I approached these foreign kitchens.  I didn’t know where anything was, or if the ingredients or supplies I wanted could be found in those kitchens at all.  So I made do with what was available—a folded up towel became a baking mitt, celery in a soup became a red bell pepper instead, vegetable stock became water with a generous pinch of salt.  I let myself focus on the task at hand, and my sadness gave way to a sense of purpose: I am here to cook.  I am here to take care of others by feeding them.

One of the great things about writing a food blog is that your recipes are only a click away.  I love writing this blog for lots of reasons, but having access to all my favorite soups and stews?  Unbelievably nice!  It’s like having your own personal menu available all the time, complete with special recipe and ingredient notes.  I feel all warm and fuzzy just thinking about it now.

My cooking adventures started in Daphna’s kitchen, where we trotted out Lydia’s Stew, served over brown rice and eaten with amazing salad of farmers’ market spinach, pecans, sliced pears, and bites of Maytag Blue cheese.  That cheese was really something else: it had the funky tang of blue cheese with a smooth creamy texture that just melted on the tongue.  It was swoon-worthy, memorable, delicious.  Together, I think Daphna and I ate half the wedge in one night.  I’m already scheming about where I might find my next wedge of Maytag Blue.

Next I joined my friend Ammie in her kitchen, where we made an outstanding dinner.  We each picked a recipe—braised fennel for me, stewed turnips with white beans for her—and we sipped ginger lemon tea while our vegetables slowly cooked their way to tenderness.  I’m not the biggest turnip fan in the world, but the bitterness of turnips, the sweet-tart flavor of tomatoes, and the soft creaminess of white beans is a lovely, lovely combination.  And the fennel!  Oh my.  Two fresh fennel bulbs, braised in a bath of olive oil, Meyer lemon juice and zest, a pinch of salt, and water.  The fennel turned soft but not mushy, and as the braising liquid cooked off, the fennel caramelized to the brink of burnt.  Burnt wasn’t the plan, but when we topped the fennel with thick shavings of Parmesan cheese, the result was fantastic—vegetal, sweet, savory, meltingly good.  That recipe is a keeper.  Then, as if that weren’t enough for one night, we had rum raisin ice cream sandwiched between sweet-salty oatmeal cookies, and my taste buds declared themselves smitten with homemade ice cream sandwiches.  Wow. 

For the third memorable meal, I met Ammie and several of our cooking friends at the snazzy new apartment of our friend Anna.  Anna set out deep bowls of homemade guacamole, and Ammie made an addictive black bean salad that she adapted from the Chicago Diner Cookbook (a neat little taste of the vegetarian food scene in Chicago—I love my copy).  We made almond crust pizzas topped with thin slices of zucchini and generous handfuls of Parmesan cheese.  For dessert, Anna had peanut butter chocolate chip cookies waiting for us—tempting us before dinner even, as they sat cooling on the counter—and we admired her beautiful new place with its green walls, hand-carved tree seat, and gorgeous view of the city as seen through the window above her desk.

On my final night in Evanston, Daphna and I found unexpected success with her pantry and an old recipe from the archives, Black Bean Soup with Rice.  This soup is an old favorite of mine, but I always found it a little annoying that as it sits around, the rice slurps up all the water and makes the soup thick and sludgy.  Sitting in D’s refrigerator, we found a solution to the sludge problem: leftover brown rice.  We’d made a huge batch of it while cooking Lydia’s Stew earlier in the week, then tucked it away in the fridge for future use.  Daphna is a fan of the well-stocked pantry, and with just a few substitutions, we were able to able to make a hearty, well-seasoned black bean soup with sweet kernels of corn and chewy-tender grains of rice.  We amped up the deliciousness factor with a giant green salad topped with Daphna’s signature homemade croutons.  The croutons are made almost entirely by feel in her well-loved cast-iron skillet.  She melts butter and olive oil together and adds big cubes of leftover bread to the hot fat.  At some point, she adds a spice market’s worth of seasonings, including onion and garlic powders, smoked paprika, and, if memory serves me, salt and pepper.  I have a sinking feeling that I’ve forgotten a few of her seasonings, which is deeply disappointing because I loved those croutons.  The bread got a little toasty but remained surprisingly soft and tender, like little pillows of savory chewiness.

Now that my kitchen is in Texas, I don’t cook for others very much, and that’s a shame.  Admittedly, I always have a selfish interest in any meal that I plan to eat.  I love to eat and I care what I put in my belly.  But last week, while I was busy chopping and stirring in other people’s kitchens, I was reminded of how much food and cooking matter.  I love to cook, and cooking food that other people will eat is a special treat for me.  There are moments when cooking a meal or even just making someone a snack is the best way to show how much that person matters to you.  Cooking, especially the home cooking that I love most, is an act of love, whether it’s self-love when cooking for one or love for every person who shows up at the dinner table.  To cook is to say to someone, you matter to me.  Your happiness is important to me, and look, I made this soup for you!  Let’s share a bowl of it and enjoy this meal and this moment together.  And if that’s not enough, well, there’s always dessert to look forward to.  Cooking and eating together is the coziest way I know of declaring that this time and this food are sacred.  Yes, we all have lots of worries—about our kids, our waistlines, our wallets—but eating well is a way of fortifying ourselves against the challenges that wait for us in the future.  Eating well is a way of claiming now as important.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Chicago, in Shades of Grey and Green

An El's Eye View of the City

Oh, Chicago.  Even though you can no longer claim me as a resident, you are still the same dreamy, exhilarating, challenging city that you were when I first arrived, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed with a shiny new college degree.  Seven years ago, you held such promise for me.  You delivered on your promises, and then some.  And even though you are cold and grey more often than not, I’m still drawn back to you like a magnet is attracted to the fridge door.  I adore you, but I am grateful to have made my home in a sunnier, warmer place where life seems a bit easier.  Our love has become a long-distance relationship.

* * *

Trees Alongside the Train

My week in rainy, springtime Chicago was bittersweet.  It was brimming with friends and new babies, and yet there were moments when I felt almost sick with loneliness.  There were train rides between Evanston and Chicago, but I missed my bike and the feeling of wheels flying over concrete and a Texas wind whipping through my hair.  Mornings usually consisted of bowls of hot oatmeal, topped with my usual peanut butter, sliced almonds, chocolate chips, and dried cherries, but I would long for a view of the Texas skyline outside of my patio door.

If I had to give my feelings a label, I’d say I had an acute case of homesickness.  I had thought that my trip to Chicago would feel like coming home, and in some ways it did, but without my home waiting for me at 534 Hinman Avenue, I was at a loss.  While I was busy setting up a new home in Texas, things changed back in Evanston.  My sweet friends Daphna and Ian finally got to bring their twin baby boys home from the hospital.  As we might expect, their lives have been changed forever by these two little bundles of joy.  Joy is the right word for these babies who were born way too early and whose arrival was filled with fear and sadness, not happiness and delight.  I got to visit them once in the hospital, just a few weeks before I moved to Texas, and my God there are no words for the sight of babies that small and fragile.  I remember being overwhelmed by the fear of what their futures might hold, the potential handicaps and developmental challenges that loomed like monsters crouched under the bed in the middle of the night.  Our grief was immense.  At some point during those first terrifying weeks after their birth, I just decided that I was going to believe that the twins would be okay.  I didn’t know what else to do.  So I believed, and then I left to start my new life in Texas.  Before I left, though, I promised Daphna and Ian that I’d be back.

Last week I made good on my promise, and I think the twins made good on my hope for them.  For one thing, they made it out of the hospital.  They came home.  Now they are five times heavier than they were at birth, and when they aren’t sleeping or eating, they’re busy being smiley, curious, playful babies.  Of course they have their moments when they’d rather howl than coo, and they keep the worst hours, determined to deprive everyone of sleep.  Daphna and Ian are exhausted, still wading through uncertainty and fear in their new role as parents, but seeing the boys last week has renewed my hope for their family.  Who knew that hope wears a dirty diaper and can’t sleep through the night?

I’m still not sure if my presence in Daphna and Ian’s home was more helpful or annoying.  I had the nagging sense that I was in the way, another adult upsetting the delicate balance in a household that has been turned upside-down by babies.  Before my arrival, I had made lots of plans with my Chicago friends and colleagues, and I worried that Daphna and Ian would see my coming and going as a sign that I was just using them as a free hotel.  That was never my intention—I was there first and foremost to visit their family—but after seeing how crowded and tense the house was with babies, parents, and grandparents all struggling to be noticed, I quickly decided that it would do all of us some good if I slipped away to do my own thing for a few hours each day.

With time on my hands and a credit card in my wallet, I made the most of my urban playground.  I visited my old haunts in downtown Evanston: Borders, Panera, the library, Whole Foods.  I browsed the cookbooks, ate soup, tried a new granola (with vanilla and dried strawberries—holy moly that stuff is good!).  I walked and walked and walked, feeling drenched in the green beauty of Evanston in May.  I sipped iced green tea at Panera, enjoying the solitude of that warm, cozy space after an afternoon of shopping and walking.

There were evenings out in Chicago.  My friend Ammie and I made dinner out of lemony braised fennel and turnips stewed with tomatoes and white beans.  For dessert, we made ice cream sandwiches with oatmeal cookies and rum raisin ice cream.  They were so good that we moaned with pleasure—loud, theatrical moans that made us giggle and slurp ice cream out the sides of our sandwiches.  Oatmeal cookies and rum raisin ice cream are an inspired combination, the soft chewiness of the cookies giving way to the boozy sweetness of cold ice cream.  I met Ammie’s two significant others, and I was surprised to find myself a little nervous to meet these two people who had only recently assumed such important roles in her life.  But they were delightful and funny, and we had such a good time together that Ammie had to kick them out so we could go to bed before midnight.  We shared her futon that night, and when we awoke, her two cats were cuddled around us.  It was like waking up in a sea of cats—soft and warm and lovely.

That morning, after Ammie headed off to work, I wandered around Andersonville, one of my favorite neighborhoods in Chicago.  Andersonville holds a special place in my heart as Matt’s old neighborhood, where we first started a friendship that would later grow into so much more.  I ate an early lunch at A Taste of Heaven, an omelet stuffed with spinach and cheese, with crisp potatoes cozied up alongside it.  In my past, I’d always felt shy about eating alone at places other than Panera or Noodles and Company, but sittting there, forking my eggs and watching the street traffic pass me by, I took deep breaths and felt myself settle into this trip to a place that was both home and not home.  The loneliness dissipated, and I felt full with the company of the city.  My displaced sense of belonging melted into a hunger to find my new home in this city laced with clouds and adventure.

* * *

Dear reader, stay tuned for part two of my Chicago trip!  Part two will be posted tomorrow, May 24, with pictures and thoughts on homes near and far.  And speaking of home, it’s good to come back to my beloved blog and kind readers.  I missed you!

At the Beach

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Into the Sky

Dusk as Seen From My Patio

Friends, I’m taking off tomorrow!  Me and my suitcases are getting on a plane and when we land, we’ll be in Chicago.

I’m equal parts excited and nervous about this trip.  There is a lot to be excited about.  For starters, did I tell you that Daphna and Ian have twin baby boys?  The twins are just shy of nine months.  D tells me they are starting to play, and I can’t wait to see them in action.  I am pretty good at playing, so I think we’re going to get along really well.  In addition to the fun that D and I are planning—a cruise around the farmers’ market, walks with the boys, coffee in downtown Evanston, some homecooked meals—my friend Ammie and I have a cookie-baking date and then a dinner party later in the week, where we’re going to make almond crust pizzas and an avocado salad and remember how much fun we have cooking together.  It’s going to be great.

I’m also hoping to spend some time alone, contemplating this place where I used to live but don’t any more.  I think it will be important for me to remember my sense of place in the town that used to be home.  Because I spent so much time alone when I lived in Evanston, I need some solitude to tap into that well of emotions inside of me.  I want to see my old apartment building, the place that held me and my life for six years.  I want to walk down to Lake Michigan and remember what it was like to live next to that cold, majestic body of water.  I want to eat Japanese Pan Noodles at Noodles and Company, like I did so many times after a long day in the lab.  I want to haunt the cookbook aisle of my old Borders, where I may even splurge on a new cookbook, though heaven knows I do not need a new cookbook.  (Even so, got any suggestions for a good one?  This bookworm loves books like a fruit fly loves wine!)  And of course, I want to shop at Whole Foods because of all the things I left behind in Evanston (not counting people), I miss Whole Foods and our farmers’ market the most.  (Japanese Pan Noodles are a close second, though.)  Plus I promised a new Texas friend that I’d bring her back a jar of Whole Foods peanut butter (the organic crunchy kind, please).

I may visit the planetarium in Chicago, something I wanted to do in September after I finished my PhD work but never got around to doing.  I also want to do a little shopping; I’m thinking about going to Crate and Barrel to find a KERF-style spoon.  You know the ones, curvy and bright-colored.  Is it strange to look forward to buying a spoon while on vacation?  I’m also hoping to drag Daphna with me to Ann Taylor Loft, a store we both love, to do a little browsing and trying on of new things.

While I’m in Chicago, I’ll be doing some couch-surfing, staying with Daphna and Ian for most of the time but spending a night at Ammie’s.  I hope it’s more fun than disconcerting—I haven’t had a sleepover with friends in a long time.  I have to make sure I get enough sleep so that I can keep up with all these plans I’ve made!

I always get nervous before I travel, and this trip is no exception.  Sometimes I think the nervous energy is good because it propels me to get everything done: the packing, the travel arrangements, the fixing of food to eat while in transit.  It takes a lot of work to get my butt out the door.  I have only myself to blame, me and my overpacking and my overly ambitious plans.  Sometimes I wonder why can’t I be more like Matt, who shows up at my door for a weekend with nothing but the tiniest of brown bags.  He is a man of the road, someone who knows how to travel lightly.  I envy him, but that’s about all I can do.  I don’t think I’m going to stop overpacking any time soon.

With that thought in mind, I’d better get back to my suitcases and my last-minute running around.  I’m not sure when you’ll hear from me again—I may pop in to say hello while I’m in my jewel of a city, but I just don’t know.  Certainly you’ll see me here again after Texas welcomes me back in ten days.

Chicago, I’ll see you soon.  I can’t wait.

The Last Rays of Sunset

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Quick as a Wink

It occurs to me today that this site is headed straight into a no-cooking zone.  I think we all know why.  It starts with a T and ends with an exas, and friends, soon it is going to be very, very hot in the place where I live.

It’s funny how, whenever I told people I was moving to the Lone Star State, I would get at least one of two reactions.  The first: “Wow, it’s really hot down there!”  The second: “Hey, I hear Austin is great.”  After a while, these reactions started to drive me a little bonkers.  To the first, I wanted to say, “Duh!  That’s why I’m moving there!”  To the second, I wanted to say, “Well, I’m not moving to Austin.  Know anything about College Station?”

To be fair, I’m almost positive that I would have said the same things in response to someone’s declaration of intent to move to Texas.  I mean, what do we Northerners know about Texas?  It’s practically a foreign country to us.  There’s even a movement afoot to make Texas a foreign country.  Maybe I should get my passport now before I become an expatriate?

But those things aside, I like it down here.  In many ways, Texas and I are a natural match.  I was raised to be feisty and independent, and those qualities are the spirit of Texas.  I love the wildflowers and the birds, the big open sky, and Blue Bell ice cream.  Politically, I’m probably best described as a cross between liberal and libertarian, and our lab manager is working hard to win me over to the libertarian side.  To me, Christopher has been a one-man Texas welcome committee, and I count my lucky stars that we ended up in the same lab.  He’s a gem.

As for that prediction that it is going to be brutally and inhumanely hot this summer, well, yes.  I believe that.  Which is why I am stealthfully loading up this blog with recipes to get me through the summer.  I am not prepared for a Texas summer—not by a long shot.  In Chicago, the summers are wonderful—warm and breezy, with sunshine and farmers’ markets and a giddy sense of freedom from long pants and sweaters.  Because the summers are so short in the North, we really know how to party when the temperatures go up.  I brought that sense of brevity with me when I moved, which probably explains why I feel compelled to be outside all the time right now.  It hasn’t quite sunk in that summer is the default weather down here, just like winter is the default weather of the North.

These days, I am finding that the weather isn’t too oppressively hot for cooking.  Last night I made a big batch of black bean chili, and a few nights before that I made a wonderful frittata, both of which I plan to tell you about soon.  But I feel a certain sense of urgency to tell you about my no-cook recipes, probably because I want to squirrel them away for later.  Also, I find recipes that take about five minutes to put together kinda charming.  Maybe it’s an effect of opposites attracting: I love to plan, but five-minute recipes don’t require much planning, just some on-hand ingredients.  So I make a plan to have those ingredients on hand, or for a quick trip to the grocery store, and hey, we’re in business!

Ready for Coffee

Today’s recipe makes me happy just thinking about it: Greek Iced Coffee.  While I cannot vouch for the authenticity of the name, I can tell you that this mixture of instant espresso, sugar, water, and milk is much tastier than the sum of its parts.  I’m not sure I expected much of it—it’s instant coffee—but it was good and it comes together quick as a wink.  Sweet and refreshing, the flavor is surprisingly rich, almost like a mocha.  It’s fun to make too: you shake the first three ingredients together in a jar to make a frothy, sweet coffee.  Then you add milk and you’re done!  You can sit back and enjoy a reward for your five minutes of work, or, like me, you can tuck it into your lunch sack and save it for a 4 PM pick-up.  Either way, it’s delightful.


And that cookie above?  No baking involved.  In fact, it came straight out of the freezer on Saturday.  Easiest recipe ever.  Except that I’m going to tinker with it because I can never leave things alone.  I’m not sure how you put up with me, but I’m glad you do.  Life, Love, and Food turns three this month, and I wish I could invite you all over for coffee and cookies.  Wouldn’t that be fun?  Something tells me that the distance between us might get in the way of a coffee klatch, so I’m going to stop talking now and just give you a recipe.  But I promise there will be cookies in the future.

Greek Iced Coffee

Adapted from EatingWell

Serves 1

1 tsp. instant espresso (I like Medaglia D’oro brand)

1 tsp. granulated sugar, preferably infused with vanilla bean (i.e., granulated sugar with a vanilla bean tucked inside the bag)

1/4 cup cold water

1/3 cup cold milk

1)  Place the espresso, sugar, and water in a small jar with a tight-fitting lid.  Screw on the lid, shake like mad for 15-30 seconds, until everything is frothy and well-blended.

2)  Add the milk.  Pour into a glass and drink immediately, or cover the jar with its lid and tuck in the fridge to save for later.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

A Friday Chronology

Finally, finally, finally: I have cracked the code to a perfect Friday night.

I started with a lizard sighting.  I love the lizards down here!  They’re so exotic to me, something I am used to seeing only in glass cases at the pet store.  But here, they hang out on my patio and run away when I try to take a picture.  They threaten me too, nodding their head up and down and swelling their throat to show me how red and scary it is.  But it’s hard to be frightened of a creature that’s so small and cute, even when he’s being aggressive.

Then I went to the grocery store and bought wine.  This step is very important and necessary until I start building some sort of wine collection.  I’m not a big drinker, but I like wine.  Wine is fun.  Wine reminds me of Matt and relaxing with friends.  Wine reminds me to slow down, to sip, not gulp.  One glass is all I need, but oh, the amazing power of one glass of wine.

Last night I was all about the Chardonnay.  I waffled between J. Lohr and Toasted Head Chardonnays, remembering the visit that Matt and I made to J. Lohr’s winery in Paso Robles, California.  I read the bottle labels and was persuaded by Toasted Head’s promises of “aromas of vanilla spiced pear and nectarine…complemented by tropical fruit and toasty oak notes.”  Yes, please!

From the grocery store, I walked home, threw the wine in the fridge, was licked by a cute dog, and did a short but sweet running work-out while storm clouds brewed in the sky above.  A few drops slipped out of the clouds, but I made it home before the rains descended.  It was hot and humid outside, and I was drenched in sweat, so I hopped in the shower to cool off.  Then I put on my favorite pajamas and went into the kitchen to make dinner.

I’ve been going through my old issues of Vegetarian Times, ripping out recipes that I want to save and putting the remaining magazines in a give-away pile.  [Dear reader, are you interested in the give-away pile?  E-mail me if you’d like back issues of VT and we’ll work something out!  All I ask is that you pay for shipping.]  A hummus recipe had caught my eye—I really want a hummus recipe to call my own, something that I love and love to share with others.  I keep trying recipes, but I have yet to come across a candidate for my recipe.  This new recipe was a little unusual: it left out the tahini to make a lower-fat hummus.  I find tahini to be very bitter, and I wondered if I’d prefer a hummus without it.  The answer is yes, I do!  The hummus was wonderful: creamy and spiced with cumin, smoked paprika, and cayenne pepper.  I streamlined the recipe by replacing the garlic plus olive oil with garlic oil, and even though I don’t usually post recipes on Saturdays, I will make an exception for this hummus because I like it a lot.

I paired the hummus with homemade tortilla chips, carrot sticks, a green salad with feta, and of course, my glass of Chardonnay.  Then dinner and I watched Private Practice together on Hulu.  Everybody needs a guilty pleasure or two, and Private Practice is one of mine.  The show has been so good lately!

A Full Plate

The wine was fabulous.  It tasted like toasted marshmallows and pineapple, with some heat and oak at the end.  I mangled the cork trying to open the bottle and ended up with a few bits of cork in my wine glass, which I like to think complemented the other flavors.  I like a little cork with my marshmallow.  Also, I found the fire-breathing bear to be a very convincing mascot for the wine.  That’s kinda how I felt after this long week: don’t mess with me.

Fire-Breathing Bear

Then it was time to clean up the kitchen, run the dishwasher, and soak some oats for breakfast.  I stayed up past my bedtime, curled up with a book, and when I finally turned off the light, I fell asleep almost instantly and slept like a hibernating bear.  It was perfect.

Tahini-Free Hummus

Adapted from Vegetarian Times

Makes about 1 1/2 cups

This creamy hummus is probably quite similar to other versions you’ve tried, but as I say above, leaving out the tahini makes for a less bitter, more mellow hummus.  The garlic oil adds a nice richness, and the lime juice adds spunk.  I think the combination of spices is very nice—a bit of smoke, a smidge of heat.  This recipe might become my signature hummus.  And every chickpea lover needs her own hummus recipe.

1 15-oz. can chickpeas, drained and rinsed

1/2 tsp. ground cumin

1/8 tsp. smoked paprika

1/16 tsp. or a pinch of cayenne pepper

1 tbsp. garlic-infused olive oil

1 tbsp. fresh lime juice

1 tbsp. yogurt

Salt and pepper to taste

1)  Place all the ingredients in a food processor.  Buzz until smooth and creamy, scraping down the sides as needed.  If the hummus seems a little dry, you can add a little more yogurt or olive oil to help it blend together smoothly.

2)  Taste the hummus and add salt and/or pepper if needed.  Serve with chips or veggies for scooping or dipping.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A Sign of the Earth

Intrepid a and I are feeling dirty tonight!  Or rather, we’re writing about dirt.  Which is not at all the same thing as feeling dirty.  a’s post is right here; go on and say hello to her!

* * *

Outside My Front Door

When I think of dirt, I think of possibility and accomplishments.  I think of running.  In college, I was a cross-country runner, and we spent many hours running on dirt.  The dusty backroads of rural Michigan were our playground, with occasional jaunts into the college’s nature center.  In the heat of those late summer days, the dirt roads answered our footsteps with clouds of dust, and the dirt would stick to our sweaty legs as we pounded out our work-outs.  As the summer eased into fall, the seasonal transition would bring with it rains.  Sometimes we would run outside in downpours, the roads and our bodies slick with rain.  During speed work-outs, we would run directly through mud puddles, our shoes turning into dirty squishy sponges that squeaked and squirted the mud water back out at us.  We ran no matter what the weather was unless there was lightning involved.  And whenever we had the chance, we ran on dirt.

During graduate school, dirt acquired a new meaning.  I was in college when I became a vegetarian, but it took me a few more years to really discover vegetables.  I don’t mean that I didn’t eat a single vegetable until I was 25.  It’s that my vegetable repertoire was limited and predictable: carrots, green peppers, tomatoes, onions, corn, lettuce, potatoes.  I ate my vegetables diligently, but I was not curious to discover more.  In graduate school, a new world opened up to me, a world with fennel and radishes and fresh green beans.  My friend Anne taught me how to cook zucchini.  It’s embarrassing to admit now that I needed to be taught how to handle a ubiquitous garden vegetable.  But I didn’t know, and Anne didn’t laugh at me, which was very nice of her.  I studied cookbooks and learned how to make an awesome vegetable soup and I started topping my pizzas with thinly sliced zucchini.  Looking back now, I feel like those years in the kitchen were very formative for me.  Though I am always learning about cooking, I feel like I really learned how to cook in that big kitchen in my old apartment.

All those vegetable-based meals gave me a new appreciation for dirt, the direct source for the stuff that showed up on my dinner plate.  Dirt was a place where the magic and miracle of life began.  I became an admirer of gardens and my gardening-friends, happy to compliment them on their basil plants or muck around in the soil, planting seeds.  When I became a regular customer at the farmers’ market, smudges of dirt thrilled me, a sign of the earth that had yielded such beautiful food for us to enjoy.

The most recent lesson that dirt has taught me is that it can make a new apartment feel like home.  Now, I’m no clean freak, although I do like an orderly home.  A little dust and dirt do not induce panic attacks in me.  But I’ve found that cleaning a space is a profound bonding experience for me.  After vacuuming and dusting, wiping and washing in my new place here in Texas, I feel much more like a resident rather than a visitor.  Sometimes with all the sunshine and the swimming, I feel like I’m on vacation.  But then I realize that the bathrooms are dirty again and I haven’t vacuumed in a week and I am reminded that yes, I do live here.  It may sound unromantic to put it that way, but I am relieved to have a home, a place to cook and clean and put my feet up at the end of the day.  In its way, dirt is homey and comforting to me.  But I do keep my running shoes right next to the front door, just in case I need to exchange the dirt on my carpet for dirt under my sneakers.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

A Matter of Time

I Love My Granola

Let me be the first to say it: I am a hypocrite.

I think it’s really hard not to be a hypocrite.  Certainly I’m not the only person to declare, “I do not like that,” only to find myself changing my ways after an enlightening experience.  Heck, think about how many romances start with animosity, intense negative passion that transforms into love.  One of my favorite moms loves to remind me that when she first met the man she would later marry, she did not like him.  At all.  Thirty-something years later, they have one of the most loving and playful relationships I’ve ever seen.  See what hypocrisy can do?  It’s magic, I say.

In my more mature moments, I try to be open-minded about new things and people, but it’s hard.  It’s really, really hard.  I am an adult version what the psychologists call a “slow to warm up” baby, referring to children who are wary of strangers and new things but can eventually grow to like and trust new people.  I rarely jump into new situations without carefully assessing the scene.  Not surprisingly, I am terrible at dating.  But I’m no longer going to apologize for these things.  I am not perfect.  I’m not going to waste my time feeling bad about my flaws.  So yes, I am a hypocrite.  I am, however, willing to admit when I am wrong.

I was wrong about green smoothies.

If you follow any of the food journal blogs, you must have seen smoothies that are blended with leafy greens like spinach or kale.  The idea struck me as ludicrous, something you’d do only if you were an extreme health nut or unable to eat leafy greens prepared in a more traditional way.  I love salads and kale prepared with minimal fuss—salads dressed with good olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice or even nothing at all if I just want the taste of green.  I like my kale steamed, and if I’m feeling fancy, I’ll spoon some Maple-Mustard Vinaigrette over it.  Leafy greens are delicious—they don’t need to be blended into oblivion to be enjoyed.

I don’t know why I decided to try a green smoothie in the first place.  Peer pressure?  All the cool bloggers were doing it?  Boredom?  Too much spinach in the vegetable drawer?  Whatever the reason, I did it.  I started with my favorite basic smoothie recipe, this frozen banana and chocolate treat (no sugar and without the espresso powder), and I added two handfuls of baby spinach.  I remember I’d just come back from a long training run outside, and the wind was fierce.  I arrived home with bits of sand and dirt stuck in my eyes and on my face, and I was exhausted from trying to run against that wind.  I needed fuel, and I needed it fast.  And I remember thinking that getting a little more green into my diet wouldn’t be an awful thing, even if it wasn’t necessary.

What surprised me the most was that this inaugural green smoothie was GOOD.  I couldn’t even taste the spinach above the flavors of banana, cocoa, and malt powder—it was just my usual smoothie with an extra hit of nutrition.  I liked it.

Since then, I’ve moved on to a more intense green smoothie, one made with baby lettuce.  This version is like an amped-up version of my first one, substituting lettuce for the spinach and adding some berries and vanilla.  In the lettuce smoothie, I can taste the greens—they have a slightly bitter taste that contrasts with the sweetness of bananas and milk.  It surprises me that I like the bitterness—the flavor is more complex, more grown-up.  The smoothie looks like swamp water, all green and brown, but the taste is fabulous.

A green smoothie can be a treat by itself, but when combined with homemade granola, it’s downright decadently healthy.  My long-time readers know that a granola recipe will appear on this site every couple of months.  I just love granola, and I love the endless varieties that one can make and still call it granola.  Recently I fell in love with dried cherries.  It was only a matter of time before they showed up in a granola recipe here.  Today’s recipe is a variation on what I think is a classic granola template—the ratios are very similar to other granolas I’ve made and loved.  We’re not reinventing the wheel here.  Flavorwise, it’s delightful: lightly sweetened with honey, it’s nutty and chewy, and the ratio of oaty granola to dried cherries is just right: not too little, not too much.  It’s delicious as a topping for a smoothie, even one that dares to include lettuce.  I’m including a recipe for my swamp monster smoothie below—I dare you to try it!  And gardeners: green smoothies are a great way to use up some of those mounds of lettuce you may be harvesting right now.  Your crisper drawer will thank you.

Cherry Almond Granola

Adapted from We Are Not Martha’s Cherry Vanilla Granola

Makes a bit more than 4 cups (estimated yield)

Almonds and honey and dried cherries—it’s like a round-up of Rose-Anne’s favorite things!  In granola form!  I should mention that the yield listed above is estimated because I didn’t measure the final yield—I just divided my granola among various containers and that was that.  I’ll double-check my estimate when I make another batch.

2 1/2 cups rolled oats

1/2 cup oat bran

1/4 cup sliced almonds

1/4 cup almond flour

1/2 cup unsweetened shredded coconut

1/8 tsp. salt

1 tbsp. salted butter

1 tbsp. mild extra-virgin olive oil

1 tbsp. packed brown sugar

1/4 cup honey

1 tsp. vanilla

1/2 cup dried cherries

1)  Preheat the oven to 275 degrees F.  Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.  I use my 10x15-inch rimmed roasting pan for making most of my granolas.

2)  In a large bowl, mix together the oats, oat bran, almonds, almond flour, coconut, and salt.  Set aside.

3)  In a small pan on the stovetop, melt the butter and olive oil together.  Remove from heat and stir in the sugar, honey, and vanilla.

4)  Stir the butter mixture into the dry ingredients, mixing as thoroughly as you can to distribute the wet ingredients into the dry ones.  The combined mixture will be clumpy and sticky; carry on with your granola-baking in the next step.

5)  Spread the sticky, clumpy mixture over the prepped baking sheet.  Bake for 30 minutes.

6)  Remove the granola from the oven.  Sprinkle the dried cherries over it, separating the cherries into individual pieces of fruit if they have clumped together.  Bake for another 15 minutes, then remove the granola from the oven and let it cool completely.  Eat immediately or pack into sealed bags or containers and store at room temperature.

Ready to Pour

Rose-Anne’s Swamp Monster Smoothie

Makes 1 very generous serving or 2 more modest servings

Green and brown never tasted so delicious together.  If you must, you can add a little sweetener to make this tastier—sugar, honey, maple syrup, or whatever you prefer.  Because I eat this with lots of granola, I don’t add any sugar to the smoothie base.

2/3 cup milk (I like 2% cow’s milk here for a richer taste)

1/3 cup water

1/4 tsp. or an unmeasured splash of vanilla

1 ripe banana, fresh or frozen

3 strawberries, fresh or frozen

1/2 tbsp. cocoa powder

1/2 tbsp. malt powder (optional but delicious)

2 big handfuls of baby lettuce, such as baby Romaine.  Spinach would probably work here too.

1)  Combine all ingredients in a blender and blend for 30 seconds to combine thoroughly.  Scrape down the sides, blend some more if needed, then pour into one or two glasses.  Top with some Cherry Almond Granola and serve.

Ready for Slurping

Saturday, May 1, 2010

A Weekend of Hope and Hominy

I’ve been very grouchy lately.  It’s been a damage-control kind of week, trying to minimize the destruction of my bad mood.  There have been some recurring problems at work and back pain, but I also think someone switched my multivitamins for misanthropy pills.  I will be the first person to admit that I am moody, but it’s unusual for a bad mood to linger this long unless hormones are involved.  My calendar says they’re not.  So misanthropy pills must be the cause!

But today is Saturday, which means a respite from work and its problems.  I’m actually feeling pretty good today.  Maybe because I had waffles for breakfast!

Hey Good-Looking!

These waffles are straight out of the freezer (Eggo Nutrigrain), topped with either a quick blueberry sauce or a yogurt-peanut butter sauce and bananas.  Waffles appeared on my breakfast table because I don’t have enough milk for cereal, but I think it was a serendipitous occasion.  This was a good breakfast.

I’m a little sad that my dinner party plans for tomorrow fell through.  I had invited a friend over for dinner, and I was going to make us this soup and a big salad with fresh croutons, all crispy-hot from the oven.  I was also thinking about making some Walnut Wafers for dessert.  There would have been wine too, and laughter, and maybe some cheese.  But now I’m on my own again, and I’m feeling a vague sense of drifting through life with no real human connections to this place where I live.  In graduate school, my non-science friends became as essential to me as breathing.  With just one non-science friend here in Texas, I’m feeling a little lonely.

Dinner party or not, I have declared this weekend Family Weekend.  I need to call my mother to assure her that I’m not lying in a ditch somewhere.  She’s really old-fashioned and will never, ever pick up a phone to call me.  I think in the ten years that I’ve lived outside of her house, she’s called me exactly once.  This may sound a little mean, but if she’s concerned about me AND she won’t call, I think she’s refusing to solve her own problems.  I’m going to call her today or tomorrow.  Other Family Weekend events will include card-shopping for Mother’s Day and gift-buying for a brother’s upcoming birthday.  I love buying cards and presents, so I’m looking forward to my plans.

I find that cleaning and organizing are effective mood-boosters, so I’m also looking forward to mundane chores such as doing the laundry, filing financial paperwork, and cleaning the bathrooms.  I love how tangible the results are from domestic tasks.  In between rounds of my domestic goddess act, I’ll be grocery-shopping and cooking.  I want to make a tomato soup similar to this one but featuring hominy, which I forgot how much I love until last weekend.  There was a can of hominy lurking in my pantry, and I finally popped it open to make The Ultimate Veggie Bowl of Red.  The spicing in this chili is really nice—it’s hot but not set-your-head-on-fire hot and the combination of herbs and spices creates a wonderful depth and layering of flavor.  I ate the entire batch of chili by myself and wasn’t the least bit tired of it by the end, which is high praise.  This weekend, instead of chili, it will be an Italian bowl of red with chewy nuggets of hominy and lots of vegetables.  I can’t wait.

Happy May Day, dear readers!  I hope your weekend is a great one.