Wednesday, June 30, 2010

To Catch a Cloud

Fluffy Ones

Last night we had more mountains in the sky.  This time, I saw them when I was leaving work and they hung around long enough for me to catch them with my camera.  I don’t think any of my photos really do the clouds justice; I can’t capture the way the sky seems so limitless here or the way the clouds rise up from the horizon with such majesty.  It’s really something special.

The clouds this week are a gift from Hurricane Alex, the first one of the season.  I have mixed feelings about hurricanes.  On the one hand, the storm has brought cooler temperatures to College Station, which is such sweet relief from the heat.  So far, it’s also bringing wind and clouds and grey days, none of which I mind.  I’d even go so far as to say it reminds me of Chicago, land of endless gray days and cool weather.  How funny that bad weather reminds me of home!

The downside of the hurricane?  IT’S A HURRICANE!  I’m just a little freaked out by the idea of it.  We don’t have hurricanes in the North.  I wasn’t raised to deal with hurricanes, so I’m concerned about them.  I am told that we’re so far inland here that it’s unlikely to do much damage—supposedly we’ll just get wind and rain.  Okay, fine.  That I can handle.  But I wouldn’t mind having a basement right now, just in case. 

Hurricane or no, I am having a good week.  I learned that frozen peas work just fine in this recipe instead of spinach.  This is good news—I’m kinda tired of spinach.  Last night I made my peas into a pasta dish by tossing the finished peas with cooked curly pasta and topping it with toasted almonds and a good handful of grated cheese.  My dinner and I curled up on the couch to watch the beginning of Season 2 of True Blood—now on DVD!—and it was like having a Friday night on a Tuesday.  I think I needed that.

Today was a particularly good work day.  I’d been waiting almost a week for an enzyme to arrive, and this morning it did!  With all of my supplies on hand, I was able to set up the next-to-last step in a really important experiment.  Now I’m basking in the sense of accomplishment.  It’s good to get things done, don’t you think?

In a moment, I’ll start making dinner.  Tonight I’m having eggs in a basket—eggs baked in ramekins lined with foccacia bread and topped with cheese.  Eggs, bread, cheese: it’s a trinity I often invite onto my dinner plate.  I love simple kitchen suppers.  I am tempted to bake cookies tonight, but I might instead finish up the leftover banana bread pudding that surprised me with its almond-laced yumminess.  I can’t wait to tell you more about the recipe because it’s a total keeper.

See you on the other side of the hurricane, friends.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Summer Decided to Stay

A Sign of Summer

I haven’t yet lived through a Texas summer, but I know better than to complain that it’s hot down here.  Like, duh, of course it’s hot!  Instead, I’ll say that it feels like summer arrived in April and we have plans to complete the comparative series of hot, hotter, hottest before summer is over.  Oh well.  At least I’ve got tomatoes to eat.

When it comes to the seasons, Texas has completely inverted my feelings.  May I admit to you that I’m about a heartbeat away from drawing up a wintertime cooking list?  Having rediscovered my copy of How to Eat—don’t worry, I didn’t lose it; it was just hanging out on the cookbook shelf—I’m lusting after big bowls of Nigella’s minestrone and her chickpea soup with pasta.  But I just don’t know about making these sorts of things right now, not because I’m opposed to soup in the summer, but because they call for hours of cooking.  Thirty minutes of simmer time I can handle, but two, three, four hours?  That crosses a line between being passionate about soup to being just flat-out crazy.  And my mother would kill me if she found out.  She’s the one who, if I even looked longingly at the oven on a hot summer’s day, would let me know, on no uncertain terms, how I was not to even THINK about heating up her already hot kitchen.  Don’t even think about it!

But now, with my own kitchen (and my own electric bill—oh boy, I can’t wait to see that thing for the month of June!), these decisions fall into my hands.  And sometimes the oven gets turned on, along with the air-conditioner.  In the past few weeks, I’ve made banana bread and roasted potatoes.  Homemade tortilla chips have graced my table more than once, and on Wednesday I made my best frittata yet, with onions, kale, and a generous scattering of crumbled feta cheese.  But on the nights when the oven remains off, I’ve got a delicious little pasta dish to remind me that sometimes, the stovetop is all you need.

Pasta and Cheese and Onions Oh My

This pasta dish is a jumble of fresh tomatoes, well-seasoned caramelized onions, curly pasta, and fresh mozzarella, drizzled with excellent balsamic vinegar and sprinkled with salt and pepper.  It is, to me, what pasta salad wishes it could be, fresh and bright and flavorful.  I took a slightly unconventional route with the seasonings, using smoked paprika and Aleppo pepper to add smoke and spice.  These darker flavors add an intriguing layer to balance the bright sweetness of tomatoes and onions.

I should tell you that I’ve been a tiny bit obsessed with fresh mozzarella lately, and it goes beautifully with Aleppo pepper.  I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say this, but I think I like it better than fresh basil.  I mean, I still like fresh basil and I especially like it when Matt’s making his caprese salad, but Aleppo pepper is really nice too.  I like its very subtle heat and rich taste.  The Spice House describes it as having some “fruitiness and mild, cumin-like undertones.”  Sprinkled on fresh mozzarella that’s been dribbled with olive oil and some salt, it is so delicious.  There’s something about cream and spice together that just works, like when a handful of cheddar gets sprinkled on top of a spicy chili.

A Pasta Dinner

It is possible, however, to overdo the fresh mozzarella.  This pasta dish benefits from a tiny bit of restraint.  I learned this the hard way.  It may look fine, but I used way too much mozzarella in the photo you see above.  I think I ate half of what I put on my pasta.  Too much cheese and you can’t taste the other flavors as well.  The mozzarella just takes over.  If you are feeling indulgent and must have several generous mouthfuls of fresh mozzarella, slice up a few rounds and dress them as you see fit—with Aleppo pepper or fresh basil or maybe even just some salt and garlic-infused olive oil.  Then serve your pasta accompanied by something green, like a spinach salad or some lightly cooked kale.  For dessert, a glass of wine or perhaps a square or two of dark chocolate.  That’s my kind of summer cooking, especially that last part.

Pasta with Fresh Tomatoes, Spicy Caramelized Onions, and Fresh Mozzarella

Inspired by this recipe

Serves 3-4 as a main course

2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

2 medium white onions, thinly sliced

1 tsp. smoked paprika

1 tsp. Aleppo pepper

2 cups uncooked dried rotini pasta, such as Barilla PLUS Rotini

3-4 medium tomatoes, chopped (I’d go with 4 tomatoes here if I had them on hand)

Salt and pepper to taste

4 oz. fresh mozzarella

Balsamic vinegar, for drizzling

1)  In a big skillet (preferably one that is not non-stick), heat the olive oil over medium-high heat.  I use my ten-inch cast-iron skillet here.  Add the sliced onions, season with a good sprinkle of salt, stir everything around, and cook them for several minutes until they are starting to soften and turn translucent.  Then turn the heat down to medium-low and let the onions cook until the pasta is done, stirring them every once in a while.

2)  Cook the pasta according to the package’s directions.

3)  While the pasta and the onions are going, chop the tomatoes (if they aren’t already chopped) and place them in a medium-sized mixing bowl.

4)  When the pasta is done, drain it and add it to the tomatoes.  Toss together.

5)  By now, the onions should be growing brown and sweet.  Add the Aleppo pepper and smoked paprika to them and stir everything around.  Allow the spices to cook with the onions for a minute, then turn off the heat and add them to the tomato-pasta mixture.  Toss everything together, have a taste, and season with salt and pepper.

6)  Plate the pasta and add about 1 ounce of diced fresh mozzarella to each serving.  Drizzle with balsamic vinegar and serve.  I’d put the vinegar on the table, along with salt and pepper, to let people drizzle more on top of the pasta if they’d like.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

For a Night, Simplicity and Certainty

When Clouds Gather

Yesterday we had the most beautiful clouds here.  There’s something about the sky in Texas that makes the clouds look like mountains.  It’s really spectacular, especially when, like yesterday, we get fluffy clouds.  They were sitting on a bed of dark grey clouds, making the mountain effect particularly believeable.  I had planned on taking some photos of those wonderful clouds.  But dinner was calling my name, so I made soup.  When I went outside later, the fluffy clouds were gone.  To make myself feel better about missing the clouds, today I’m sharing a photo from April, from another glorious cloud-gathering.

I should tell you more about last night because it was a really nice night.  I spent it alone, but I didn’t feel the least bit lonely.  For one thing, I had this soup to keep me company.  I must have mentioned Jess’s Simplest Tomato Soup before because as soon as I made it the first time, it became one of my favorites.  (And her post about that soup is marvelous and so spot-on.  Oh, graduate school!)  I’d been craving a big bowl of it, but hot soup was not the way to go.  This is the season of cold soups, refreshing and full of flavor.  So before I started making the soup, I tucked an empty soup bowl in the freezer, and after the soup was done, I retrieved it, filled it with hot soup, and tucked it back in the freezer for about five minutes.  I learned this hot-to-cold trick from a Bon Appetit recipe, and it’s so handy that I’ve filed it away for summertime soup cookery.  It really works!  Just five minutes in the freezer made my bowl of tomato soup easily spoonable, the temperature mildly warm rather than steaming hot.  Eaten alongside homemade tortilla chips, baby spinach, and two nubs of cheese, it was a deeply calming dinner.  Later in the evening, after a glass of wine and a few episodes of Arrested Development, I went aqua-jogging in the pool underneath the stars.  A warm breeze swirled around me, the palm trees swayed, and I went round and round the pool.  Then I came home, showered, and tucked myself into bed with Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat.  I do love that book.

I think the reason that last night felt so right to me was its simplicity, its certainty: food, wine, fun.  It was easy and comforting.  Recently, a friend e-mailed me and asked about my life and research.  As an aside, she wrote, “Hopefully they are separable!”  The truth is, it’s been really hard for me to dial back my anxiety about work.  My main project is not going well, and my summer plans for work are on hold until I get a positive result.  I’m beyond freaked out.  I am now at the point where I’m learning to accept this turn of events because, whether I like it or not, it’s my reality.

Graduate school was really hard on me, and I thought that by finishing my PhD, I was now immune to the up-and-down uncertainties of research life.  I was wrong.  I totally panicked when I saw what was coming.  I know that research is my work, not my life, but it is a huge part of what I do now.  It is more than a job, and it’s almost impossible for me not to be emotionally invested in the outcome.  But I am so very, very lucky to have so many people in my life who love me, who accept me as I am, who want to help me when I’m struggling.  I saw that love in action over the past few weeks, at a time when I’m not sure I thought I deserved that sort of kindness.  I think these people get it—that my job is more than a job.  Their support means so much to me.  With all my heart, I say to them thank you.  You have no idea.

And so onward we go, into summer, accompanied by both hope and uncertainty.  With enough tomato soup, we’ll get through this one.  Happy summer, friends.  I hope it’s treating you well. 

Sunday, June 20, 2010

One Whole Tomato

One Whole Tomato

Tomatoes and I have come a long way.  When I was a child, I did not like raw tomatoes at all.  I loved tomato in its cooked forms—spaghetti sauce or in the rich beefy stews that my mother made—but raw tomatoes were always disappointing.  For one thing, they had way too many seeds, and I was deeply suspicious of anything seedlike.  There were textural issues too—raw tomatoes had so much peel and they were wet and mushy inside, like a fruit gone terribly wrong.  The flavor tasted nothing like the rich tomato essence found in cooked tomatoes.  For a long time, I stayed away from raw tomatoes.  We just didn’t get along.

It was a shame, really, because an ability to grow tomatoes runs in my family.  My dad had his tomato patch behind the garage, and I can remember him canning the fruits of his harvest in big glass jars that showed off his edible treasure.  I can remember stories about my grandfather, my dad’s dad, growing tomatoes alongside his garage.  And now, my brother grows tomatoes in his garden, a place where his daughter will happily snack on tomatoes fresh off the vine, declaring, “I like the juicy parts.”  I always knew that she was a smart kid.  Unlike me at her age.

But now, now I get it.  I get what all the tomato fuss is about.  And I’m spending all my play money on locally grown tomatoes from S & L Farms, a Texas farm that sells its produce to Brazos Natural Foods.  Raw tomatoes are all about freshness and fragrance, juice and pulp spilling out and onto everything around them.  A raw tomato is the essence of summer, something to be devoured with abandon until one’s belly swells and protests.  Good raw tomatoes can make a meal into something memorable, something to look forward to all day until the moment when it’s just you, a knife, a cutting board, and your bowl of tomatoes.  In that moment, magic happens.

Perhaps tomato season is still in the future for you, depending on where you live, but down here, the tomatoes have been tumbling into the markets for several weeks.  It is hot hot HOT down here, but the tomatoes don’t seem to mind.  They are perky and fragrant, juicy and fresh, and they make a mighty fine tomato bread salad.

A Feast of a Salad

I think of this salad as a deconstructed sandwich.  Chunks of fresh tomato are tossed with baby spinach and homemade Daphna-style croutons, and the whole thing is topped with shavings of Parmesan cheese.  It’s savory and chewy, delicious and filling, leaving you with just enough room for dessert.  I’ve eaten it at least half a dozen times in the last week or two, and I would not be surprised if it ends up in regular rotation until the end of tomato season.  It’s a dish that I look forward to at the end of the day, when it’s just me and my kitchen, and I can sit down to eat it five minutes after I’ve made it.  That, to me, is summer cooking at its best.  Though I will not miss the intense heat of June in December, I will miss the fresh tomatoes and the delight they brought to my kitchen.

Tomato Bread Salad

Serves 1 as a main course, 2 as a side dish

If you are a regular reader, you know that I spend most of my cooking time feeding just one person: me.  I eat this salad as a summer main course, but I think it would make a lovely component in a multi-course meal, perhaps alongside grilled vegetables or meats (a nod to my more carnivorous friends) or even vegetarian burgers, like my favorite chickpea patties.  Also, a nice variation here is to swap out the Parmesan for some cubes of fresh mozzarella.  If you were so inclined, you could even add shreds of fresh basil to complete the caprese theme.  Maybe I’ll do that the next time I make this.

For the croutons:

1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 tsp. dried basil

1/4 tsp. smoked paprika

1/4 tsp. garlic powder

A pinch of McCormick Grill Mates Spicy Montreal Steak seasoning

3 slices of chewy bakery bread, such as Pugliese or Ciabatta, sliced into big cubes

For the rest of the salad:

1 medium tomato or 2 smallish tomatoes, chopped

2 handfuls of baby spinach

Parmesan cheese, to taste (from a block)

1)  To make the croutons, heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the spices and stir them around to distribute them in the oil.

2)  Add the bread cubes and stir them around to coat them in the spicy oil.  Let them cook in the pan for a minute or two, then push them around a bit and let them cook for another minute or two.  The goal is to season them with the oil and spices and give them a chance to get toasty.  A little bit of charring can be good here too because it provides another layer of flavor.

3)  While the croutons are going, chop the tomatoes if they aren’t already prepped and put them in a medium-sized bowl.  Add the spinach.  When the croutons are done, add them to the salad and toss everything together with a spoon or two.

4)  Pour the salad onto a plate and top with fresh shavings of Parmesan cheese (or cubes of fresh mozzarella if you are taking that route).  Serve immediately.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Messy, Imperfect Life

Always a Mess

Sometimes I think it’s good to grab inspiration by the ankles and drag it inside.  I should be washing dishes right now, or buying groceries, or ironing clothes, but instead I’m writing another blog post.  I can’t help it—I like it here!  It’s fun talking to all y’all. 

Things have been so serious around here that when I saw this post on lifelovepaper, I knew it was inspiration, knocking on the door.  I invited it into my kitchen and saw all sorts of fun tidbits to share with you about my quirky cooking life.  So just for today, a short and sweet post about cooking and eating in a messy, imperfect life.

* My sink almost always has dirty dishes or containers waiting to be cleaned out and recycled.

* I have two sets of measuring spoons.  My favorite new kitchen toy is a spoon from Crate and Barrel that contains four spoons in one neat little utensil.  The tablespoon flips to become a half-tablespoon, and the teaspoon flips to become a half-teaspoon.  I love this thing.

My Little Green Toy

* When I read a new cookbook, the first thing I look at is the desserts chapter.

* Even though it’s 90+ degrees F here most days, I roasted potatoes in the oven this week.  And they were delicious.

* I don’t think of chocolate as junk food.

* I love living in a place where okra grows easily and abundantly.

* I wish I lived in a place where rhubarb grows.

* I really miss having people over to eat and can’t wait to have more cooking-and-eating friends.

* All of my tablecloths came from my mom’s linen closet.  My cloth napkins were a gift from my sister-in-law and her family.

* Sometimes I feel like a grandmother trapped in a twenty-something-year-old’s body.

* I miss having a gas stove, but I think I’ve finally gotten used to having an electric stove in my new apartment.

* The other day I craved a piece of steak.  The craving passed, but it was noteworthy.

* Sometimes I wonder if my love for cooking and eating will make me fat.  So far, so good…

What’s your funny kitchen quirk?  Got a bad habit you aren’t too shy to share?  You’re in good company around here! 

Off to clean up the kitchen…at least a little bit.

Just Another Saturday in the Kitchen

I’ve Finally Arrived

Oh my, what a week.  I think one word describes it best: intense.

I don’t want to pretend that there’s no elephant in the room because we both know it’s there, swishing its skinny little tail and knocking drinks out of people’s hands.  About the elephant, for today I’m going to remain uncharacteristically quiet.  Important discoveries are being made, and I don’t want to scare them off by trying to explain their meanings before I understand them.  For now, I’ll say this: people are complex.  I am complex.  I am, perhaps, even more chameleon-like than I thought.  This realization is hard for me to swallow because I consider myself to be a very honest, straightforward person.  But life is strange and wonderful and sometimes hard to explain.  I’m just feeling my way and hoping I don’t hurt too many people as I fumble around in the darkness.

If that explanation is too vague to be satisfying, I offer my apologies.  I’m sorry.  I can’t offer anything more than that, and it’s not because someone has put a gag order on me.  But I will come back to the elephant after the fog clears.  For now, we all have to sit tight and wait.

* * *

I know that true happiness doesn’t come from possessions, but after waiting seven years to buy living room furniture, it’s hard for me to believe it.

Dreams of Glass and Wood

I like to keep my word, so when I promised my friend Nicole that I would buy some sort of furniture before the end of June, I knew that I would keep that promise.  Purchasing furniture has been a surprisingly difficult task for me.  Part of the problem is that I feel like I have no interior decorating skills.  I don’t have a “vision,” and I’m not a very visual person.  By that, I mean that I tend to experience the world more through my emotions and other senses.  That’s part of the reason I was able to write this blog for over two years with almost no photos.  The words were enough for me.  I also have a bad habit of not living in the present.  My mind is always off recreating some past adventure or dreaming of what we’ll do next year.  The result is that it’s easy for me to look past appearances right now because I’m not really living in the now.  I’m somewhere else, doing something else.

When I bought furniture for my old apartment, my Evanston home, I learned the power of making a home by investing in it.  My new kitchen table and chairs made my kitchen feel like a place that I wanted to linger, a place to invite friends for tea and cookies.  In the years after that set of purchases, I had many friends over for cookies, for dinners, for anything at all.  I hosted overnight guests, and we would gather round the table in the morning for tea or pancakes or scrambled eggs.  (My heart still sings when I think about this lovely visit with my sister, and the way we keep finding each other again in kitchens—mine, our sister-in-law’s, or, soon enough, her kitchen in her very first apartment.)  Furniture matters because furniture turns a living space into a home.  In this way, it transcends the label of “possession” to become something that builds families and friendships, one meal at a time.

In the end, I decided to trust my own taste and buy something that appealed to me.  One of the things that really intimidates me about setting up a new home is this sense that you must have an idea of what you want things to look like at the end of the process.  Because of my lack of vision, I just don’t have that.  My vision is more of a vague sense of what I like and don’t like.  I wanted my home to feel cozy and comfortable, where guests can relax and enjoy themselves.  I want my home to welcome me back at the end of a workday.

These are the things that I like: natural materials, like wood, glass, and stone.  Bright colors, like blues, reds, and yellows.  A balance between cozy and spacious.  Geometric lines—rectangles rather than ovals.  Things that have been lovingly given to me by my family, like Big Blue, my couch, which used to belong to my brother’s boyfriend or the rug that my sister bought for me when I moved into my first apartment.  I am a sentimental person, living far away from my loved ones, and I like how my home is filled with things that connect me to my family.

From the Patio Side of Things 

That’s Big Blue up there, right behind my new coffee table.  On the far end of Big Blue, you can see one of the matching end tables.  I found these three pieces as a set here; they were even on sale!  I was also considering this set, so I got a second opinion on the two options.  My sister Theresa voted on the first option, and I just knew that she was right.  So I ordered living room furniture, and on Wednesday, it arrived.

Into the Living Room

This is what my living room looks like a few steps beyond the main entrance.  (In the other photo above, you get a view from the patio side of things.)  I love how inviting it feels to me with all that sitting space and surface space for drinks or snacks or a few books.  Also, the coffee table is conveniently hiding the part of my rug that is in tatters and keeps threatening to trip people when they walk over it.  I still like that rug and haven’t decided if it’s something I want to replace.  For now, I’ll keep it.

The best way that I can describe my home improvements is that now it feels like a grown-up lives here.  I have spent so many years as a student that it was hard to believe that I’d ever get to a point in my life when I didn’t feel like I was waiting to be done with school.  Now, I am done.  I’m even a little annoyed when people ask me, “So how is school going?”  Because they don’t know how much it means to me to be DONE with school.  I loved being a college student, but by the time I’d been in grad school for three years, I wanted to finish school and shed my student status.  Having a grown-up’s home makes me feel like I’ve finally arrived at a point where I can stop saying, “When I’m done with school, I’ll…”  I am here.  I am home.

Happy Saturday, friends.  I’ll see you back here tomorrow with tomatoes in hand.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Summer Hiatus

Hi, friends.  I have some bad news for you.  a and I are feeling a bit overwhelmed by life right now, so I think we’re going to take some time off from our tandem posting project.  She may chime in here, informing me that she’s ready and waiting to post our next set of essays, but I think she will breathe a tiny sigh of relief.  As for me, I’m preoccupied with other things right now—I hope you’ll understand.  (I am also hoping Matt will forgive me for writing that post before talking to him.  A person with a smaller heart might hold a grudge, but I know his heart is generous.  Also, an apology is probably in order here.)

I’m not sure when the tandem posting project will resume.  a has a big summer of music and travel ahead of her, so I’m going to leave it in her hands.  I think I’ll be back in good writing form by this weekend.  In light of my recent struggles, I’ve been working hard to get at the root of my pain.  I have been writing long-winded e-mails and consulting my wisest, most trusted friends.  Answers are being revealed, and I am finding myself in a peaceful place.  It’s nice.  I never knew I was such a mystery to myself—it’s sort of alarming at my advanced age—but I think that with enough time, long walks, and good talks, I’ll get to where I want to be.

I don’t want to leave you completely empty-handed, or empty-eyed, as it were, so I’ll share a few favorites before I go.  First, one of my favorite random photos from my trip to Chicago last month.  I was waiting for the Clark Street bus when I took this picture.

Clark Bus Stop

And second, two quotes that inspire me.

Some things…arrive on their own mysterious hour, on their own terms and not yours, to be seized or relinquished forever.”  Gail Godwin

The delights of self-discovery are always available.”  Gail Sheehy

Until next time, gentle readers.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Hot Coffee, Cold Oatmeal

Good-Looking Oats

Please take a close look above at the gorgeous thick rolled oats they sell at Brazos Natural Foods.  Look how symmetrical they are!

Now, compare them to the rolled oats I buy at Albertson’s, my neighborhood supermarket.  Notice how ragged and irregular they are.  They also aren’t as thick as the first set of oats, though it’s harder to see thickness these photos.

Not Quite as Pretty

I never gave my oats much thought before I discovered thick-cut oats at Brazos Natural Foods.  It’s funny: I love oats, but I was happy buying whatever was in stock or on sale.  To be fair, I’ve never bought a batch of oats that didn’t do the job in my granolas or my morning oatmeal bowls.  Oats were oats, and as long as I had oats in the pantry, I was happy.

But things have changed now that I’ve become acquainted with thick-cut oats.  I’m finding it hard to live without them, to the point where if I find myself oatless, I will run, RUN!, to Brazos Natural Foods to beat their 6 PM closing time so that I can have oats for breakfast the next morning.  I hustled over there after work last week with all of 17 minutes to get from the bus stop to the store, and I made it with 5 minutes to spare.  It was a triumphant evening.

The oats at BNF are sold in bulk out of what looks like a garbage can.  They’re easy to miss because of their deceptive packaging.  It took me a while to realize that these thick-cut oats weren’t like my old oatmeal.  Their symmetry gives them a really wonderful mouthfeel: creamy, thick, textured.  And I’d argue that when the weather gently nudges us toward cold breakfasts, thick oats are the perfect specimen for making hearty bowls of overnight oatmeal.

Summertime Oats

I used to make overnight oatmeal in college, though at the time it just seemed like some weird health-foodie thing that I kept to myself.  I would spoon yogurt into a tupperware container along with a generous handful of oats, chunks of ripe nectarine, and walnuts.  I’d tuck the whole thing in the fridge and in the morning, the oats would have merged themselves with the yogurt, creating this lovely cold porridge, made bright with fresh fruit.  The walnuts added a nice chewy crunch and tied the whole thing together. This was about the time that nuts were starting to gain a reputation as nutritional superstars, and I was quite happy to have breakfast with a superstar, even eaten out of plastic tupperware.

Since then, overnight oatmeal has become the thing among health food bloggers.  I’m rather grateful to jump on the bandwagon here.  Overnight oatmeal is awesome.  I knew that already.  But I think the new versions of this method are even better than my old one.  The main idea remains the same: soak rolled oats in milk, yogurt, water, or something else wet, then doctor them up in the morning as you see fit.  No cooking, no dirty pot—do everything in the bowl from which you’ll eat your oats.  It’s so easy!

Let me tell you a little about my recipe.  I’ve tinkered with it a bit, and here’s what I’ve learned.  I like to use almond milk for the soaking because I like its subtle, sweet flavor.  I add yogurt to my oats in the morning to make them creamier.  Texture is very important in overnight oatmeal.  My favorite way to add texture is with fruit and nuts.  Since it’s June and all, I’m eating blueberries like they’re going out of season, and sweet bananas complement spunky blueberries.  Finally, on top of all that deliciousness, I add a spoonful or two of crunchy peanut butter.  I’ve also been known to sprinkle some sliced almonds in addition to the peanut butter (remember, nuts are good for you!).  All together, it’s an incredibly satisfying breakfast, packed with good stuff.  I love it so much that it’s been my breakfast every day for the past three weeks.  Since it’s only going to get hotter here in Texas, I don’t see cooked oats returning to my breakfast table until October.

Overnight Oatmeal

Serves 1

My version of this recipe started with a version from Eat, Live, Run.  Unfortunately, I seem to have lost the link, but I wanted to give a nod to my inspiration—my apologies!  Onto the oatmeal, friends!

1/2 cup thick rolled oats

1/2 cup almond milk

1/3 cup whole-milk yogurt

Pinch salt

Splash of vanilla extract

1 banana

Handful of fresh blueberries

1-2 tbsp. crunchy peanut butter

Small handful of sliced almonds, optional

1)  The night before you plan to eat this for breakfast, add the oats and almond milk to a bowl.  Stir them together and cover.  I just leave this out on the counter overnight, but if you must, put them in the refrigerator for the night.

2)  The next morning, stir the yogurt, salt, and vanilla extract into the now-soaked oats.  Slice the banana onto the oat mixture, then scatter the blueberries on top of that.  Spoon the peanut butter in the center and top with a few sliced almonds if you like.  Stick a spoon in it and breakfast is served.

Happy Morning

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Like the Rain

Hard and Fast

This week, it rained and rained and rained.  The rain came down hard, in great gusty sheets of water.  The sidewalks flooded and formed rivers running toward the drainage ditches.  I got used to having squishy shoes and wet clothing, and my umbrella tagged along with me every day, tucked into the bag with my lunch and water bottles.

With it, the rain brought cooler weather and walks outside in the evening, after the rain let up for the day.  It was nice.  I had forgotten how much I love being able to walk outside comfortably.  The heat down here is just thisside of unbearable, and I know that it’s only going to get hotter until perhaps September.  I’ve become an indoor cat for the season, moving from air-conditioned home to work to treadmill and back home again.  I still try to get outside for more than a few minutes each day, but the appeal of doing that shrinks every day.  Except when it rains.

Sopping Wet

I have yet to figure out how much of my emotional life I can share in this space.  I feel like it’s important to be as genuine as possible.  There are, of course, things that I cannot discuss too openly—family secrets, work conflicts, intimate details that are not mine alone to disclose.  I wish that all of these things were on the table for sharing because it’s very comforting to know that you are not alone in your struggles.  But somehow, even in this age of tell-all, look-at-me, attention-grabbing behavior, I feel that discretion is an important tool in our kit.  So without going into too much gory detail, I will say this: I feel like the rain this week.  The one steady thing that I have in my life right now is my work, and my research appears to be imploding.  It was never my intention to build a life that looks so one-dimensional; this is the curse of the postdoc years for scientists.  No job security, few local friends, no real personal community on which to lean.  Down here I have my research, my lab colleagues, and my apartment.  Today I’m afraid that’s just not good enough.

Then there’s Matt, who somehow manages to be both here and not here.  He’s not physically here right now—he’s in Philadelphia this weekend—and yet technology makes him just a button push away.  It’s times like this when I really want him here, right now.  And it’s times like this that I’m not sure I can continue with an arrangement like ours, deliberately separated by many miles.  I love that man deeply and dearly, but I fear that I am giving up too much in our relationship.  There is a very obvious pattern to my happiness: when things are going well at work, I don’t mind the distance.  When things are not going well, I feel so alone that it breaks my heart not to have the support I think I deserve.

Have I told you too much here?  I don’t know.  Maybe.  I feel drained, so tired of crying and fighting with myself.  Let’s not talk about this any more.  Let’s look at some crazy pink flowers instead. 

Crazy Pink Flowers

Aren’t these great?  I found them growing on a tree in my neighborhood.  They look like muppet hair!  I just love how crazy and exotic they look.  And the leaves are gorgeous too.  They are fern-like to me, long leaves with many rows of leaflets extending out from the main branch.

This weekend, I shall practice the fine art of self-soothing.  You’d think that by now, with all the time I spend alone, I would be an expert at it.  But I’m so hard on myself, so critical and primed to see the bad things.  I’m more likely to beat myself up than try to soothe myself.  Over the years, I think I’ve gotten better at stopping the negative feedback loop that runs inside my brain, but it’s still hard.  I’m trying to be my own cheerleader and my own caretaker because if I don’t do it, nobody will.  I believe it’s important to treat yourself well.

The art of self-soothing starts with taking deep breaths.  I like to lay down on my back and do deep-belly breathing, where you put your hands on your belly and breathe so that your hands rise and fall with the air coming in and out of your abdomen.  Yoga is a more involved form of self-soothing; I highly recommend it as well.  Movement helps too; last night I went for a bike ride around the neighborhood.  Then I came home and cried some more, so I don’t know if that counts as self-soothing.

Today I feel rather dehydrated, so I hope I’m done crying for a while.  The plan now is to move the self-soothing practice into the kitchen.  I’m going to make a batch of my favorite old tomato soup recipe and then eat it chilled with a side salad and slices of Pugliese bread piled with shreds of Parmesan cheese and broiled until the cheese melts.  I’m going to bake the famous Banana Bread with Chocolate and Crystallized Ginger from this book.  After several rounds of trial and error, I’ve figured out that my favorite way to bake that bread is not in a bread pan but rather in a 9-inch round cake pan for about 45-50 minutes.  Not only is my bread not burnt, but it also looks more like cake, which is what this “bread” really is.  It’s dessert, and I love it for that.

Finally, this week I was so happy to find a poem that I loved upon first reading and then could never find again.  It’s a Walt Whitman poem from Leaves of Grass, and I want to share it with you today.  This one hits close to home for me.

What Think You I Take My Pen in Hand?

What think you I take my pen in hand to record?

The battle-ship, perfect-model’d, majestic, that I saw pass the offing to-day under full sail?

The splendors of the past day? or the splendor of the night that envelops me?

Or the vaunted glory and growth of the great city spread around me?—no;

But merely of two simple men I saw to-day on the pier in the midst of the crowd, parting the parting of dear friends,

The one to remain hung on the other’s neck, and passionately kiss’d him,

While the one to depart tightly prest the one to remain in his arms.

* * *

Happy weekend, friends.  Thanks for reading, and for caring.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

A Match Made in Heaven

It happens without fail: as soon as a long-anticipated trip draws near, I become obsessed with my own kitchen and home-cooked meals.  I start flipping through my food magazines, reading recipes and planning all the delicious things I will cook upon my return.  I look forward to my regular airport treat, an issue of Bon Appetit, and I savor each picture, each idea, each meal, imagining myself at a cook-out in Northern California or a hippie restaurant in Portland.  I tag along to farmers’ markets, ethnic grocery stores, pick-your-own berry farms.  It is food fantasizing at its best, performed without dirtying a single dish.

The actual cooking I do before a big trip is usually far less exciting.  For one thing, the refrigerator demands that I empty it so that those last bits and bobs don’t disintegrate into oblivion while I’m gone.  The refrigerator also protests if I bring home something new, even though the bare shelves make me sad.  I’m like Goldilocks when it comes to refrigerators: This one is too full!  That one is too empty!  But this one, stashed but not stuffed with goodies, is just right.  I love a well-stocked fridge.

In addition to the cooking dilemmas before I leave town, there is a looming question that must be addressed before I can close up shop: what will I eat while I’m in transit?  Frugality and personal taste compel me to bring as much of my own food with me as I can.  All my experience eating airport food has confirmed that yes, my home-packed meals really do taste better.  And can you blame me for grasping at the comforts of home before I surrender my food fate to the whims of the road?

So on a Thursday night before leaving town, armed with a head of broccoli, an onion, some eggs, and a palmful of Parmesan cheese, I made my new favorite egg dish, a frittata for two, studded with roasted broccoli and laced with strands of caramelized onion.  It was a hot Texas evening, and I could feel beads of sweat forming on my temples, but I had to have frittata.  I found my inspiration on Eat, Live, Run (a nomenclature cousin to Life, Love, and Food, perhaps?) in an adorable, step-by-step frittata tutorial.  I also fell in love with Jenna’s gorgeous red skillet—what a beauty!

This frittata recipe has a lot going for it.  It’s delicious, of course, and it’s more involved than making scrambled eggs, which is nice for those nights when you want to be a little fancier in the kitchen.  Eggs and broccoli are a match made in heaven, in my opinion—the green crunch of the broccoli is sprightly and vibrant against the soft creaminess of the eggs.  Before I tried this recipe, I didn’t think it was possible to make frittata for such a small crowd.  At my table set for one, I didn’t think frittata would ever make an appearance, but I’m so happy to be wrong on this matter.  Who knew you could make frittata in a ten-inch skillet and not be forced to eat the leftovers for three days straight?  Happy news indeed! 

Hi Beautiful

The way it works is this: four beaten eggs that bake into a thin-but-not-too-thin frittata strewn with vegetables and topped with salty Parmesan.  As you can see above, I used my cast-iron skillet and I worried about getting the frittata out of it.  But with a knife, a pancake flipper, and a little effort, they come out fairly easily, though probably not as easily as an enamel-clad skillet like Jenna’s.  I’m of the use-what-you-got school of thought, so straight-up cast-iron it is in my kitchen.  I’m old-fashioned that way!

I ate half of this frittata Thursday night, less than twelve hours before beginning my big trip north.  The leftovers accompanied me to Houston, and I ate them somewhere over middle America at cruising altitude.  Warm from the oven or heated briefly in a microwave, this dish is everything eggs should be: savory and comforting, with a nice helping of green vegetables to make you feel good and healthy all around.  At room temperature, I’m afraid I don’t like it quite as much—the flavors are muted and the texture isn’t as soft and lovely.  But none of that is the recipe’s fault, so let’s not cast blame where it doesn’t belong.  Instead, let’s keep a head of broccoli, an onion, some eggs, and a palmful of Parmesan cheese at the ready for the next frittata craving.

Dinner in Shades of Green and Gold

Frittata for Two with Roasted Broccoli and Caramelized Onions

Adapted from this recipe

Serves 2 (or 4 as an appetizer or component of a larger meal)

1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

1 medium onion, sliced thinly

1 head of broccoli florets, chopped into bite-sized pieces

Cooking spray

4 eggs

Pinch of salt

Several grinds of black pepper

Pinch of paprika

1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1)  Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. 

2)  While the oven is preheating, begin caramelizing the onion.  In a large skillet (I used my ten-inch Lodge cast-iron skillet), heat the olive oil over medium-high heat.  Add the onion slices and let them cook for a minute or two to soften.  Then turn the head down to medium and let the onions continue cooking while you get the broccoli roasting.  Stir the onions frequently to keep any hot spots from burning.

3)  Spray a rimmed cookie sheet with cooking spray.  Spread the broccoli on this sheet in a single layer.  Roast in the oven for 15-16 minutes, stirring once about halfway through the roasting time.  The broccoli should be browned a little bit, but it will retain most of its texture.

4)  While the broccoli is going, whisk together the four eggs in a large measuring cup or a bowl.  Season the eggs with salt and pepper.  Set them aside until the broccoli is done.

5)  When the broccoli is done, turn the oven head down to 350 degrees F.  Add the broccoli to the pan with the onions, which will by this time have turned brown and sweet.  Spread everything into one layer in the skillet.  Pour the beaten eggs into the skillet, moving things around as necessary to let the eggs spread into all the open spaces.  Sprinkle the eggs with the paprika and the cheese.

6)  Let the eggs cook over medium heat on the stovetop for 3-4 minutes.  At this point, the edges should be set but the center will still be gooey.

7)  Transfer the skillet from stovetop to the preheated oven.  Bake the frittata for four minutes.  Remove from the oven and let it cool for a few minutes, then use a butter knife and a pancake flipper to serve slices of frittata.  I find it easiest to serve this in quarters.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

First Friday, as Recalled on a Saturday

I Love Art 

A night on the town, a good friend, a few plates of Mexican food, a pair of margaritas, and lots of art: that is my recipe for a great time.

It was a rather demoralizing week in the lab, so I was relieved to have excellent distractions last night in the form of my friend Amutha and plans to go to First Friday in Bryan.  First Friday is a monthly festival in downtown Bryan.  On the first Friday of every month, the town invites people of all ages to come out for a night on the town to enjoy food, art, music, shopping, fresh air, and a sense of community.  On this particular First Friday, artBAC, a new art studio of sorts, was opening its doors for a sneak peek at what they’re doing, which is creating a space for local artists to show their work to the public.  My new friend from Brazos Natural Foods is a big part of artBAC, and his excitement about the sneak peek event was contagious.  I don’t blame him—what they are doing is amazing.  Together, the artBAC artists have gutted the interior space of a building in downtown Bryan and they are turning it into a gallery for local artists.  Last night, they welcomed First Friday visitors with wine and food and all sorts of interesting art.  My grocery store friend, Jeremy, does these abstract paintings with wonderful textural qualities.  I like his work—it’s beautiful and calming.  And Jeremy is a sweet, friendly man—exactly the sort of person you’d want to meet when you’re new in town and eager to make friends.

My date for the night was my friend Amutha, who is also a sweet and friendly person.  Amutha and I met back in September 2009 when I visited College Station for the first time to find a place to live.  We’ve been meeting for lunch every few weeks since then.  Last night was the first time we went out for an evening together, and I think we both needed it.  We caught up over plates of enchiladas and tacos at Casa Rodriguez, a casual and much-loved Mexican restaurant in Bryan.  Margaritas were only $3.50, and I’d had the kind of week where I could really use a drink.  Our drinks arrived, frosty and refreshing, and as I filled my belly and sipped that margarita, I slipped into a kind of happy relaxation and the week’s frustrations faded into nothingness for a few sweet hours.

After dinner we made our way over to artBAC, where we perused the paintings and mingled a bit with the artists.  It was so uplifting to hear the enthusiasm in their voices as they talked about how this new adventure of theirs came together.  I’m so excited for their future, including the grand opening that awaits.

We continued walking around, meeting up with a few of Amutha’s friends, and found ourselves in front of several stalls that would not have been at all out of place at a farmers’ market.  In fact, they were exactly the sort of thing you’d expect to see at the farmers’ market!  I’m slightly embarrassed about this next part, but I actually bought eggs while out on the town.  A dozen eggs!  Who buys eggs on a night out?  But we’d discovered a stall selling grass-fed beef, and oh yeah, they’ve got eggs too, from grass-fed free-roaming hens.  Without skipping a beat, I was pulling out my wallet while my egg-seller found a carton containing a dozen eggs and opened it up for me to inspect: beautiful.

It's Hard to Say No to These

I thanked Amutha multiple times for her patience while I bought groceries (!!!) at First Friday.  She revealed her own fondness for eggs, and now I’ve got an idea about what to make for her when she comes over for dinner.  I can’t wait.

With Amutha’s two friends, we ended the evening over glasses of cold water in my living room, all of us grateful for the chance to sit down and relax after an evening of wandering and eating.  My connection to this place grew just a little bit stronger, and for an evening I didn’t feel the least bit lonely.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

A Matter of Opinion

The grand plan is, there is no grand plan.”  Dave Matthews

Dear readers, they have found me.  The people who sell stuff—they have found me.  By “me,” I mean this blog.  These people who sell stuff are offering me goodies of all sorts—pomegranate juice and peanut butter and free kitchen treats, in exchange for a few kind words and perhaps a link or two in this big white space.  And I said yes.

I like to think that over the years, I’ve stayed true to the spirit of this blog’s name.  I write about life, especially my life.  I talk about love—love of family, friends, nature, beauty, romance, and definitely food.  If my blog were a solar system, food would be the sun, the object around which everything else orbits.  There is nothing that connects us to the earth and each other more than food.  Without food, there is no life.  And to me, good food is essential for the good life.

Dinner with a Pinch of Dirt

When I started writing a food blog, I was blissfully unaware of the commercial potential of such an endeavor.  What I dreamed about, when I dared to dream, was a book deal.  Getting paid to write—it was my fantasy, something that would save me from the pain and agony of graduate training in research science.  I was not a happy graduate student, and I think in some ways that fantasy of doing something else gave me something pleasant to consider when my hope had faded to darkness.  Dreaming about being a food writer was a way of keeping the lights on.

Three years later, I have a PhD but no book deal.  I am fine with that.  Really, I am.  I am not a person who second-guesses herself very much after a decision has been put into action.  And in a way, because of this blog, I am a food writer.  I have recommended many, many recipes, books, and ingredients to you.  My life, just like this blog, revolves around food.

Perhaps it was just a matter of time before merchants started approaching me with offers.  I don’t know.  I definitely did not start this blog so I could get free stuff.  That thought never even crossed my mind.  The idea that people might actually read my blog also didn’t really cross my mind, but I hoped they would.  What I am certain about is that I wanted to be open to opportunities as they presented themselves to me.  I’m a curious person, and my curiosity is often enough to motivate me to say yes.  And truth be told, for a long time I’ve been conflicted about product reviews and advertising on blogs.  On the one hand, it is a classic example of selling out.  And nobody likes a sell-out…except other sell-outs!  On the other hand, I spend an enormous amount of time and money on food and cooking, and those efforts are distilled into what you find on this site.  The idea of getting tangible rewards for all that work is very appealing.

I can’t seem to bring myself to put ads on this site.  I’ve looked into it more than once, but it just feels like clutter to me.  I hate clutter.  And I love how I’ve been able to put images into the sidebar, over there on the right.  Those photos feel like they belong there, keeping things organized and beautiful.  I suppose my feelings about ads are really reflective of a need for control.  My blog is one of the few things in my life over which I maintain almost complete control.  And that’s why product reviews are much more enticing to me.  If I agree to try something, I get to decide when and how I review it.  I have complete control over what I say or don’t say about a product.  I even think it’s fair game not to mention a really awful product here because no press is better than bad press.  Plus I don’t have the heart to write about things I don’t like—it’s too depressing.

I have no grand plan to turn this blog into a product review website.  I will continue to write about what inspires me, challenges me, motivates me.  I’ll still be baking cakes and making salads, inventing recipes and discovering new pleasures in the kitchen.  This blog will still be a place we can both love.  But occasionally, I’ll tell you about something that came my way because I write a blog.  I won’t waste your time telling you about products that I absolutely would not purchase myself.  Consider my reviews as footnotes for the future.  That’s how I will be thinking about them.

I hope you’ll continue reading, friends, and not call me a sell-out or worse.  I prefer to think of myself as opportunistic, and it’s my hope that you and I will both benefit from new opportunities.  After all, remember this giveaway that I hosted months ago?  That was an opportunity that I directed your way out of appreciation for your support.  My friend Daine won that contest, and he picked out one sleek knife.  It’s an intriguing choice, like nothing I’ve ever seen before.  I think Daine even wrote the one review for this knife, which was generous of him.  I love reading reviews on Amazon and other sites, but I am terrible about writing them.  At any rate, I’m inclined to agree with him: the way a knife feels in your hand is a huge part of its appeal.  For this reason, I’ve got a tiny crush on Santoku knives and I’m flirting with the idea of buying one.  If this food blog makes it just a little easier for me to buy nice knives through the generosity of the kind folks at CSN stores and, then that’s a perk I’m willing to accept.