Sunday, October 31, 2010

Plenty to Savor

Splash and Pink

Hello again!  Perhaps I lied to you last week when I said I’d be on a break from this blog until next Sunday, but at the time, it wasn’t a lie.  I was feeling overwhelmed and undercooked, and the idea of writing hasty posts for this blog made me sad.  So I thought that cutting myself some slack was the best thing to do.

This morning, however, I’m feeling much better about everything.  It’s amazing what a day off can do to restore one’s sense of well-being!  Yesterday my friend Amutha and I spent the afternoon together on a massive errand run, and I daresay that we were successful in our missions to catch up with each other, buy me a new bike(!), hit the dollar store for a few odds and ends, and buy amazing groceries at places I’d never shopped before.  Afterward, I made Tomato Lentil Soup and steamed fresh green beans, the latter of which is becoming a minor obsession of mine right now.  It seems so plain, I know, but there’s something nice about its simplicity.  Plus I recently discovered that I can set up a makeshift steamer with my strainer and a medium-sized pot, which is exciting because the steamer I have is too big for anything but my Dutch oven, and I don’t think putting a metal object inside enameled cast iron is a good idea.  It’s a good recipe for scratches.

And now I find myself sitting at home on a quiet Sunday morning, coffee mug next to me, belly filled with oatmeal.  Outside, the morning is cool, but the sun is shining, and I’m planning to go for a long run within the next hour or two, the first time I’ve been able to run in the morning in a long time.  The fridge is stuffed with food, including two batches of soup leftovers, so there isn’t much need to cook today, which is nice in its way.  I’m planning to do a little cleaning to get ready for next weekend’s visitor, but even that isn’t strictly necessary (thank goodness).  Of the two of us, Matt is definitely more laid-back when it comes to dust and dirt.  I keep reminding myself of this—that he’s coming to visit me, not to measure how much dust has accumulated on my coffee table.  Still, it’s hard to let go of my perfectionism, even when I know it’s for the best.

The week was filled with lovely things, some of which I thought I would share with you.  I find that during times of stress, the lovely things become even lovelier, a reminder that the world is always filled with beauty even if you zip past it without noticing it.  For me, sometimes it’s necessary to put the blinders on so that I can focus, but it’s nice to know that when I take off the blinders for a few minutes, there will be plenty to savor.

* The smell of freshly cooked rice

* The pale golden glow of an autumn sunset

* Pink flowers on campus

* Belly laughs

* Long belted sweaters

* Chocolate chip cookies from a bake sale, crunchy at the edges and chewy in the middle

* A hundred birds perched on an electrical wire.  It’s a goal of mine this fall to get a photo of this, but for now, I just admire it when I see it.

* New blog finds, such as the style blogs Caffeinerd (the lovely Elena, blogging in Milwaukee) and Between Laundry Days (the kind and funny Clare, blogging in my favorite city, Chicago).  I have fallen so hard for style blogs this year, which is a great subject for a future post.  Style bloggers, you inspire me!

* Speaking of style blogs, I picked up the pinky-rose version of this skirt for four bucks at Target yesterday!  Score!  (And thank you, Clare, for the shopping tip.)

* Old favorite soups that remind me of people I love

* Cozy autumn nights on which to eat old favorite soups

* New soups to try, such as a’s Pumpkin Black Bean Soup (and her post is such a sweet tribute to our Tandem Posting Project!)

* Snuggling with something soft in bed.  Now, I know that most people would prefer to snuggle with another person, but I’ve found that a folded-up fleece blanket is pretty nice too.  It’s much squishier than a person, and it doesn’t radiate heat like the sun (unlike some people I know, whose name rhymes with splat).  The blanket has been really comforting and makes me feel like I’m about five years old with my blankie in bed, which is even more comforting.  It helps me sleep more soundly, and that’s the best thing of all.

* * *

My blogging plans remain uncertain right now.  I’m on the schedule to give lab meeting a week from tomorrow, so that means I’ve got to pull together four months’ worth of data and polish it until it shines.  For me, it’s always important to do the best job I can during lab meeting.  I hope to resume a more regular writing schedule in November, with some emphasis on local food adventures, namely my best picks for eating out and grocery shopping in College Station and Bryan.

In the meantime, thanks for being patient with me and indulging my sporadic posts.  I’m still reading a lot of good stuff from other bloggers, which is inspiring me to think about where I want to go with this blog.  It is good to take stock every once in a while, to think about the past and the imagined future.  I can’t really imagine not writing this blog. 

Have a great week, everyone!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Sleepless in Texas

Sunday Snack

Here’s my afternoon snack from earlier today: two slices of toast, one topped with mustard, melted cheddar, and caramelized onions.  The other was topped with coconut butter on one half and peanut butter with raisins on the other.  I drank iced Sleepytime Vanilla tea to wash everything down.

What, you may ask, was I doing drinking Sleepytime Vanilla at 4 PM?  I may act like an old lady, but I’m not that bad yet.  I can offer you two reasons.  One is that Sleepytime Vanilla is delicious and shouldn’t be limited to before-bed sipping.  The other is that on Friday night, I lay in bed for two hours, thinking and fretting and worrying about work.  I’ve been trying to hedge my bets with sleep since then, and Sleepytime tea is one of my tricks.

Oh, WORK!  I have been working a lot lately.  Like I said yesterday, it’s been a long stretch of consecutive days in the lab, and I am so ready for a break.  I’m taking a bit of a break next weekend, and Matt is coming to visit the weekend after that, so I’m anticipating some good times ahead.  In the meantime, I have mountains of data to analyze.  Mountains!  I made a pretty good dent in that mountain today, but there is more to do, and I’m hoping to get it done in the next week or so.  I’m also hoping not to stay in bed worrying about all of this because that’s just silly.

Even with my hectic work schedule, I’ve tried to keep up with my commitment to this blog and to all of you, kind readers.  I like having a consistency to my writing schedule; it’s the sort of thing that Natalie Goldberg recommends in her excellent Writing Down the Bones.  When you write frequently, writing becomes easier and less scary, which is especially important when you sit down to work on something scary, like a PhD thesis.  One might think that a food blog is a fluffy hobby compared to the work I do in the lab, but I know that my PhD was easier to finish because of all the practice I’ve gotten from writing here, for all of you.

I don’t have a case of writer’s block these days, but I’m feeling crunched for time to do the kind of writing that this blog deserves.  After a lot of thought, I’ve decided to take a short break from writing Life, Love, and Food.  Don’t worry; I’m only going to be gone for two weeks.  I have so many recipes and ideas to share with you, but I have to get caught up with my work.  I also think it will be nice to have some time to work on my ideas, to play in the kitchen and read some new cookbooks and let my thoughts simmer until they are fully cooked.

New Reading

Speaking of new cookbooks, I picked up these Williams-Sonoma volumes at the library today.  I even had a chance to read a bit of the Pacific Northwest book, and ooh—I can’t wait to cook out of this one!  Things look promising, and that is always a good feeling.

I’ll be back here on November 7 or thereabouts.  Before I go, have I told you about this Sam Pacetti song, “The Christians and the Outlaws?”  It’s one of my favorites (though I hope I have not offended my more religious readers…).  In it, he sings,

Like the Christians and the outlaws

And like that summer wind

Like the singer to the chorus

I will come back again.”

That’s sort of how I feel right now.  See you soon, friends.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Certainty of Dinner

Sunset Over College Station

I am not exaggerating when I tell you that I have been in the lab every day for the past 28 days.  It’s starting to make me a little crazy, all this time with no weekends that allow me a day off, a chance to escape my experiments.  Add into the mix the uncertainty of what the experimental data will look like, and you have a very good recipe for one stressed-out postdoc.

Now, I am not a workaholic.  I love my weekends and my vacations.  I love my life outside the lab, my friends and family, my food and Matt.  I love my bike rides and running, my photography and of course, my writing.  I have a lot of reasons, when I go to work, to be efficient about getting my tasks done.  There is no doubt in my mind that my recent circumstances are largely beyond my control, which is frustrating, but sometimes that’s the way it goes, in work and in life.

Because of all my weekend hours at work, other parts of my life have been slighted.  I’m sad to say that one of those areas has been my cooking.  The thing about working more than you’d like is that it’s not just a matter of the extra hours spent working.  I’m also more tired, which means I’m less motivated to cook something exciting.  Then I have no leftovers to take for lunches, which makes me depressed, which makes me feel even less motivated to change the situation.  It’s a vicious cycle, one that I set out to break this weekend.

On Friday night, the leftover situation started to feel desperate, so drastic measures were in order.  I should have gone for a 40-minute run as part of my half-marathon training, but the run got pushed back.  Dinner was more urgent.  I needed something healthy and nourishing, something filling and delicious, a dinner that would happily become leftovers to keep me well-fed for the next few days.  I could have turned to a new recipe, but why?  What I needed was the comfort that comes from dusting off a well-loved recipe, a reliable favorite.

I had all the ingredients on hand to make this Rustic Lemony White Bean Stew.  Artichokes.  Carrots.  Onions, potatoes, lemon.  The pantry was stocked with white beans and vegetable stock cubes, and there was an opened bottle of Pinot Grigio hanging out in the fridge.  Even with all the players lined up, it was still an effort to drag myself into the kitchen, to pull out the cutting board and get to work.  But once there were onions sizzling in a pat of butter, I started to remember why I cook.  It’s not just for dinner, or so I won’t starve at work.  It’s for the aroma of butter and onions cooking together, the fresh tingly smell of a cut lemon, the way ingredients come together to make something greater than the sum of its parts.

It’s so tempting right now, when I am almost drowning in my own productivity, to let someone else do the work of feeding me.  I don’t want to do that.  I want to stay connected to my food, from the shopping to the preparation and of course, the eating.  The certainty of dinner at my own table, prepared by my hands, sustains me through these long days, and I don’t want to lose that.

So I cook, even on nights when I’d like to skip dinner and go straight to bed.  I cook as a way of holding onto something that feels real to me when my head is spinning in a cloud of what-ifs.  Last night’s stew was better than I remembered, as though the recipe itself had ripened since the last time I made it.  I was out of olive oil, so I used all butter instead, and it was amazing—rich with buttery, lemony, garlicky flavor.  I ate it with buttered whole-grain toast, and for dessert, I had another piece of whole-grain toast, this one topped with melted chocolate chips and apricot jam, a combination which was surprisingly delicious.  I think the French like to combine chocolate and apricots—yes?  Having never been to France, I’m not sure.  At any rate, I ate my chocolate-apricot toast with a mug of Sleepytime Vanilla tea and thanked my lucky stars that tomorrow was Saturday.

A Favorite Stew

*A word about the first photo.  It’s a view of Friday night’s skyline, just outside my apartment.  I thought it was stunning—all those gorgeous colors!—and wanted to share it with you.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

It Intrigued Me

Lentils in a Jar

I have mixed feelings about taking pictures of the food I eat.  On the one hand, photography is really fun and I’ve enjoyed having a camera for the last eight months.  On the other hand, taking pictures of food still feels a little weird to me.  I don’t know.  It’s not that there’s anything wrong with it; it just doesn’t come naturally to me the way that taking pictures of trees or the skyline does.  Also, I find that food invites a certain level of fussiness that turns me off.  I don’t want to spend a lot of time faffing about with the food to get a nice photo.  Mostly, when I’m cooking, I want to cook, and when I’m about to eat, I want to eat.  I’m very focused that way.

You’ll notice that I’ve never posted a photo of a restaurant meal, even the lovely meal that Matt and I ate together at Veritas, a meal that still makes me smile when I think about it.  I’m glad I wrote about it when the memory was still fresh because it was such a nice evening.  I had been going through a hard time and taking our relationship along for the ride.  That evening made me feel much better about things.

That’s the thing about words, you see.  Words capture feelings in a way that is different from how photos capture feelings.  With my words, I can describe for you the textures of the food, the way it smells and tastes and lingers in my mouth.  I can tell you how happy I feel in the kitchen, transforming those lentils into something delicious and nourishing.  I can tell you who ate the meal with me, or what I read while eating by myself.  If I ate outside, I can tell you about how the breeze tickled my face and how my hair got stuck in my mouth while I was trying to take a bite.  With my words, I can tell you a story.

Photos can tell a story too, but in my heart of hearts, I’m a word nerd.  So forgive me when I tell you that today, that photo above is all I have for you visually.  The rest is just words, telling you about a really lovely recipe for mujadara, a Middle Eastern dish of seasoned lentils, rice, and caramelized onions.  The secret, I think, is in the seasonings, which I’ll tell you about in a moment.

I first heard of mujadara while reading Molly’s beautiful post, which you really should read if you haven’t already.  I was so inspired by her tale of mujadara lost and found that I dragged out my cast-iron skillet and got some onions cooking right away.  (To be fair, it doesn’t take much to make me caramelize an onion or two.)  I chopped some onions, rinsed some lentils, and I was well on my way to making my first batch of mujadara…until I got lazy and said, “To hell with the rice!  I’ll just eat onions and lentils!”  Which I did.  Then I did it again because it was such a simple, sublime combination: the onions sweet and rich, the lentils earthy and dark.  Top it with some feta cheese, and you have a dreamy lunch, composed of just a few humble ingredients. 

But then I met a new recipe, and it intrigued me.  I had been going through my old issues of Vegetarian Times by season (a la Nicole), when I found the issue that arrived in my mailbox when I was in the thick of packing up my old apartment to move to Texas.  The issue made me smile because I had clung to it with the hopes that yes, I would again have a kitchen and my home life would return to some degree of normalcy.  I had made the Curried Red Lentil Soup with Lemon, and the leftovers sustained me through the hours and hours of packing, a thought that fills me with gratitude right now, remembering how hard those final weeks were.  The soup was part of a “1 Food 5 Ways” article about lentils, and one of the 5 recipes was for mujadara.

This recipe is quite different from Molly’s.  The basics are the same: onions, lentils, rice, but whereas Molly’s recipe uses nothing but salt and olive oil for seasoning, this Vegetarian Times recipe goes to town with the seasonings: parsley, thyme, cumin, and lemon zest.  And I have to say, the combination works.  The thyme and cumin add earthy, herbal notes while the parsley and lemon zest lighten and brighten the whole dish.  All the flavors just come together, and wow, it is delicious.

And the best part?  The leftovers make for wonderful weekday lunches, tucked away safely in the fridge until they get packed into lunch bags.  I wish I had some for tomorrow, which makes me think it’s time to make another batch of mujadara.  Have a happy week, friends.  Make some mujadara and eat well!


Adapted from Vegetarian Times

Serves 4-6

I tweaked this recipe a bit, using my favorite recipe for baked rice instead of the stovetop version they suggest.  Also, I followed the recipe’s suggestion to double the onions because there are fewer things as delicious as perfectly caramelized onions.  I swoon just thinking about them!

3 tbsp. olive oil, divided

2 large onions, finely chopped

1 cup long grain white rice, such as basmati or jasmine

1 1/2 cups water

1/2 tsp. salt, divided, plus more to taste

1 1/2 cups cooked brown lentils

1/2 cup parsley leaves, or the leaves stripped off a big handful of parsley

1 tsp. dried thyme

2 tsp. grated lemon zest

1 tsp. ground cumin

Ground black pepper to taste

1)  Over medium-high heat, heat 2 tbsp. olive oil in a large cast-iron skillet or other NOT non-stick pan.  Add the onions and a big pinch of salt.  Let them cook for a few minutes until they have softened and started turning a bit translucent.

2)  Turn down the heat under the onions to medium or medium-low and let them cook for a long time (at least 30 minutes—longer is even better) until they are deep brown, perhaps even a little bit charred.  The browner your onions, the more flavor they will have developed.  Stir the onions frequently.

3)  While the onions are going, make your rice.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and pour 1 tbsp. olive oil in an ovenproof Dutch oven.  I use my 5-quart Le Creuset here, but I’m sure you could use something smaller, like a 3-quart Dutch oven.  Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat and add the rice, stirring until it’s coated with oil.  The rice will look glassy and smell toasty.

4)  Add the water and 1/4 tsp. salt to the rice, and bring it to a boil.  Stir the rice once, then cover the pot, tuck it in the oven, and bake it for exactly 13 minutes.

5)  After 13 minutes, remove the rice from the oven and let it stand, still covered, for another 10 minutes.  Remove the lid and fluff the rice.

6)  When the onions are done, scrape them into the pot with the rice.  Add the cooked lentils, the remaining 1/4 tsp. salt, parsley, thyme (crumble the thyme into the rice), lemon zest, and cumin.  Stir everything together gently.  Taste, and add more salt or pepper if you desire.  Serve warm or at room temperature.  I imagine this would be tasty topped with some feta cheese, too!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

In Which I Attempt to Cheer Myself Up

I hate to say it, since today is Saturday and the very thought of it ought to make me happy, but I’m feeling down today.  I don’t know if I have a good reason for it.  My experiments at work aren’t giving me much in the way of interesting data, though it would be incorrect to say that things aren’t working—they are working; they just aren’t working the way I want them to work.  You’d think that after almost five years of full-time research, I’d be okay with the way that science works, but it’s getting under my skin these days.  When am I going to have a solid project?  I’d like to know, so that I know how long the wait will be.

I’m afraid to say that I’m also missing Matt a lot right now.  We usually see each other every three months, but we’re going on three and a half months right now.  Our next visit is soon—next month, in fact—but I’m feeling less than thrilled about the wait.

Perhaps that’s just it—I feel like I’m waiting for something to happen, whether it’s with my work or my personal life.  I don’t like waiting.  It’s not that I expect instant gratification, but my patience is being exhausted.  It’s always a bad combination for me when I’m feeling twitchy about work and something else.  But I’ve found that in these situations, patience is usually exactly what I need—patience and some instant gratification to take the pressure off of the big things!  So, let me tell you about some of the small but good things that have been happening as of late.  Take, for example, my lunch today.

Saturday Lunch

Oh boy, was this good!  Gussied-up black beans and corn on top of fabulous red leaf lettuce, cilantro leaves, and green onions, with the green stuff tossed in a killer dressing with too many ingredients (balsamic vinegar, rice vinegar, honey, mustard, and tangerine-infused Pasolivo olive oil).  I sprinkled feta on top and ate it with a fork.  Wow, it was fantastic.  This one’s a keeper, though I don’t really have a formal recipe for it.  I think I just gave you the recipe.

In other good news, Life, Love, and Food has its first sponsor!  Check out the sidebar and you’ll see a little ad for Dutch ovens over at, one of CSN’s many on-line stores.  After a lot of thought, I decided to seek out some financial support for this blog.  One of the things I’ve purchased with the money is a pro account over at Flickr.  With an upgraded account, all my photos are now visible and I don’t have any monthly limits on the number of photos I can upload.  I’m very happy about this because I’ve sort of fallen in love with my amateur photography, and it’s nice having a place where I can share my photos.  Speaking of which, please take a moment to look at this photo.  Do you have any idea who these men are?  If so, please let me know because I have no idea.  My curiosity may kill me if I don’t get an answer soon.

I’m continuing to nest quite nicely.  Last weekend, in an effort to relieve some of my stir-crazy feelings, I went to Pier One, where I found the cutest little bowls to use for storing sea salt on the counter and at the table.  I also found a gorgeous, deliciously scented candle that’s been keeping me company at night while I lay on the couch and read.

A New Candle for Fall 

Speaking of reading, I have a lot to say on this subject.  I make no secret of the fact that I am a total bookworm and absolutely LOVE to read.  It’s part of the reason that I fell so hard for blogs—it’s like subscribing to as many magazines as you want, for free!  No wonder I find them so addictive.  Two new-to-me blogs that I’ve been enjoying lately are Simply Bike and Effing the Ineffable.  Simply Bike is a bike-focused blog with detours into travel, fashion, food, and other good things.  S’s photos of the autumn leaves make me nostalgic for fall in the Midwest.  Effing the Ineffable is a personal blog covering many topics, some of which include training for a marathon(!), life in academia, and domesticity.  Kate O., the author of Effing the Ineffable, is hilarious—I’m not kidding when I tell you that I have laughed out loud more than once at her posts.  Her stories are inspiring too, like this post she wrote about running 15 miles.  She says,

“Every time you go out and run new miles or otherwise do something you have never ever done before, you prove to yourself that you can. You go beyond what the limit used to be and carve out new territory, drawing a new line further out (and, quite literally, farther out) than ever before. You take two more miles of road in your town and write your name on them. There is more that belongs to you, and even more still that is now within sight. You understand in new ways what ‘painful’ feels like, what ‘exhausted’ feels like, and what ‘powerful’ feels like.”

Now that is a tribute to the power of running.  I just love her.

Speaking of running, I’m off to the grocery store now to pick up the rest of the ingredients I need to make a vegetarian version of this chili.  Have a wonderful weekend, my lovely readers, and I’ll see you back here tomorrow.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Expletives Optional

Today I bring you some good news and some bad news from my kitchen.  The good news is that I have been trying some excellent recipes, which I look forward to sharing with you in the coming weeks.  The bad news is that my sink appears to be breeding Ziplock baggies, along with dirty dishes.  Gah!

But never mind my housekeeping issues.  What a glorious time of year to be in the kitchen!  Now that the fall weather has settled into place, I cook dinner with the patio door open, and the fresh air dances into the kitchen.  It makes the food taste better, too—the clean, crisp air somehow making the flavors of fall taste more alive.  On a really good night, like last night, I might even eat dinner outside, on my patio, crunching slices of carrot and green pepper in my mouth while flocks of birds soar above me and the trees glow in that beautiful, golden evening light.

Last week I roasted my first pumpkin of the season.  I was getting ready to try a new stew recipe, one that originally called for an edible cooking vessel in the form of pumpkins.  It’s a showy recipe, that one, designed to make your guests smile and laugh as you bring whole pumpkins to the table, pumpkins that are filled with a savory, spicy mixture starring tart tomatillos and chewy nuggets of hominy.  It’s a dish to make on the weekend when you’re having a dinner party.  I, however, was not having a dinner party, just a Wednesday night dinner, and I planned to adapt the recipe by mixing fresh pumpkin puree into the stew, thus making it a one-pot affair and much more accommodating to a solo Wednesday night dinner.

First Pumpkin Roasting of the Season

Things went quite well with the pumpkin-roasting, though I did split up the task.  On Tuesday night, I roasted the pumpkin halves and let them cool a bit, then I tucked the whole halves(?) into a big bowl, set a plate on top, and tucked the bowl in the fridge.  On Wednesday night, after a lovely bike ride home, I set about making the stew and finishing my pumpkin prep.  I pulled out the recipe and had a moment of panic when I read the following: “Fill pumpkin with stew, then top with pumpkin lid.  Place on parchment-covered baking sheet and bake 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until pumpkin flesh is fork-tender.”  (Bolding of text added by me for emphasis.)

Oh, shit!” I said out loud, thinking that this step meant I should let the stew cook for 1 1/2 to 2 hours.  I didn’t have that kind of time to wait for dinner.  Then my eyes scrolled upward to the earlier steps in the recipe, and my panic subsided.  Other than the pumpkin, there aren’t any hard vegetables in this stew that would require a long simmer, so I could easily get away with 30 minutes, just long enough to let the flavors mingle and for everything to soften and relax together into one dish.

So that’s what I did, and the results were awesome.  The smell of tomatillos and hominy cooking together is the essence of the Mexican restaurant of my dreams.  It is heavenly.  And the spicing in this stew is spot on: a little hot, a little herbal, all of which complements the tomatillo-hominy awesomeness that forms the base of this dish.


So, if you choose to make this dish, I recommend that you make life easy for yourself and make your pumpkin puree ahead of time.  I’ve mentioned it before, but The Pioneer Woman has a great pumpkin tutorial here.  She does such a wonderful (and thorough!) job that I’ll send you her way if you’ve never made fresh pumpkin puree before.  (Though I will mention that I make my puree the way my friend Nicole taught me, placing halved pumpkins in a roasting pan with some water in it so the pumpkin doesn’t dry out in the oven.)  Then, after your pumpkin is prepped, you can have a nice evening of stew-making—peeling your tomatillos, dicing your onion and bell pepper, sniffing your stew and watching the clock until you can curl up with a bowl of warm Mexican flavors.

However, if you’ve decided you are far less lazy than I am and you want to be a show-off and serve your stew in a pumpkin, I refer you to the original recipe over at Vegetarian Times.  In the meantime, while your pumpkin is still baking, I’ll be lounging on the couch, eating dessert.  Lazy is as lazy does—or whatever.

The Lazy Cook’s Tomatillo, Hominy, and Pumpkin Stew

Adapted from Vegetarian Times

Serves 3-4

Why go to the trouble of using fresh pumpkin puree?  Because the texture is wonderful and adds something special to this stew.  It also makes it feel more seasonal to me, which I like.  But I’m sure that this stew would still be delicious if you used canned pumpkin puree.  Just make sure it’s not sweetened or spiked with pumpkin pie spices!  This is not a sweet dish—it’s tart and savory and hot-spicy, not sweet-spicy.

2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

1 medium onion, diced

1 bell pepper, any color, diced (I used a green one here)

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1 tsp. chili powder

1 tsp. ground cumin

1/4 tsp. sage

1/4 tsp. thyme

About 8 oz. tomatillos, husks removed and quartered

1 15-oz. can hominy, rinsed and drained

3/4-1 tsp. salt, or to taste

2 cups pumpkin puree, preferably fresh and homemade

1)  Pour the olive oil into a large pot and heat over medium heat.  Add the onion and bell pepper.  Saute for several minutes or until the vegetables have softened.  Add the garlic and spices, and cook for 1-2 minutes.

2)  Add the tomatillos, hominy, 1 cup of water, 3/4 tsp. salt, and pumpkin puree.  Cover and bring the whole thing to a boil.  Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for 20-30 minutes, or until all the vegetables are very tender.  Taste and add the remaining 1/4 tsp. salt if you like.  Serve hot, perhaps with cornbread or grilled cheese sandwiches?

Saturday, October 9, 2010

My Culinary Corner

Hello, hello!  Today I thought we could talk kitchens.  It’s high time that I give you a little photo tour of my culinary corner, that room I visit every day in search of food.  I try to spend some time in the kitchen every day.  Most of my meals and snacks are prepared at home, even if they are eaten elsewhere, such as the lunches I take to work.  This dedication to homemade makes my kitchen a busy place, one that’s always in a state of flux as food and dishes move in and out.  I try to keep thing orderly, but I’ve given up on having a pristine kitchen because it’s one of those things that could make me lose my mind if I think about it too much.  So: neat and (reasonably) clean, yes.  Ready for its own page in Real Simple?  Never.

My apartment has a very clever lay-out in which the kitchen is tucked into its own corner, but it’s entirely open to the rest of the main living space.  When you round the corner to walk into the kitchen, you are greeted by my red oven mitts hanging on the closet that holds the water heater and my cooking gear.

Into the Kitchen

Look to your left, and you’ll see the stove.  The tea kettle and my blue Le Creuset pot (Little Blue, as I like to call it) are permanent residents on the stove.  I use them almost every day, so it doesn’t make sense to find a “storage” space for them.  Oh, and I used the cast-iron skillet here to make a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch.  The skillet is cooling on the stove.


Look toward your right, and you’ll see my main prep counter, the sink, the dish rack, and the dishwasher.  Also, I have some strawberries and bananas on the counter for a smoothie I’m going to make later today.  Taking a cue from my big brother Charlie, I’m going to make a double batch of smoothie and save the rest in the fridge.  He’s so smart.


The main prep counter is a very important work space.  I do most of my chopping, mixing, blending, and measuring at this counter.  The one unfortunate thing about my kitchen is that this counter is the only reasonably-sized work station, so it’s tricky for two people to cook together.  I’m not sure Matt and I have tried to really cook together in this space, and by together, I mean a meal that involves a decent amount of prep and cooking time for both of us.  Usually, our meals sort themselves into the ones where I do most of the work, and the ones where he does most of the work.  But come November, when we see each other again, I think we’re going to press our luck with the tandem cooking.  We’ll make it work!

At the Counter

If you turn around and look out of the kitchen, you’ll see my “dining room,” with its table and chairs.  I really love my kitchen furniture.  My only regret is that I haven’t had many people over to my place for meals, though when I lived in Evanston, I had lots of dinner parties and overnight guests, so my table saw many faces over the years.  Those meals are among my happiest moments in life.  I love feeding other people.

Toward the Table

This kitchen and I have gotten along well since I started cooking here.  It’s not a big space, but it’s well-designed, cozy but not claustrophobic.  It gets a little tricky when two people are trying to cook, but most of the time, it’s just me.  I love having a dishwasher; dirty dishes are my weakness, my Achilles heel.  I can’t seem to keep up with the dishes, but having a dishwasher helps.

Admittedly, this kitchen could use some more color, but honestly, when I’m in the kitchen, I’m paying attention to the food, not the color scheme of the room.  I’ve tried to brighten things up with colorful accessories, which I think works well against the neutrals of the cabinets and countertops.  I wonder if the neutrals are almost soothing to me, making the kitchen feel like a refuge after long days in the lab.  I hadn’t thought about them like that until now, but maybe that’s why I’m not bothered by the overall sparseness of my apartment.  A little bit of color goes a long way for me.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Roast It Right

I’m pleased to find that even without the leafy ambiance of fall in the Midwest, I still love this season of shorter days in Texas.  Of course, it helps that because I went home to the Mitten for a few days, I got a tiny taste of real fall, the kind with fresh apples, mulled cider, breezy days, and cool nights.  It was a short trip home, just six days and with many hours of traveling on two of those days, but I am so glad I went.  The fuzzy-lovey feeling that I get when I see my family is still fluttering around in my heart.  I really needed it.  I miss them in a way that’s hard to explain, because overall, I am pretty happy in Texas.  But I’ve learned that it is possible to be happy and still miss someone deeply.  I call it one of love’s contradictions.

On my final day in Michigan, four of us went for a walk in a nearby nature preserve.  I had gone shopping with my sister Theresa that day, loading up on Whole Foods goodies to take home with me, and on a whim, I picked up a bag of green beans and a head of cauliflower.  My brother Charlie convinced her to join us on our walk, and together, we buckled my niece Lydia into her carseat and drove over to the nature preserve, on a site that used to be a farm.

It was a gorgeous, perfect September afternoon—warm enough for comfort but cool enough for sweaters and long pants.  We strolled along a forest path, with my niece riding in a stroller that we took turns pushing.  Theresa and I both had our cameras on us, and we took advantage of the golden light, snapping photos of the forest and ourselves.  We compared jeans and athletic footwear.  It’s amazing how even though we only see each other 2-3 times a year, we tend to gravitate toward similar styles.  Take, for example, our shoes here.

On a Walk in the Woods

Now, Lydia would find both pairs of shoes unacceptable because of the lack of pink.  She really wished I had brought more pink to wear on my vacation.  I’ll have to keep that mind for December.  Nevertheless, I really like this grey sweater paired with the black lacy top that Theresa gave me last Christmas.  She has the best taste in clothes.  I want to hire her as my personal shopper.

Sisters and Aunties Together

Lydia tried to hide from the camera using a leaf she found.  Here I love her striped shorts, which the leaf couldn’t hide.  I’m always asking her if I can wear her clothes, and she always says, somewhat exasperatedly, “No, they’re too small!”


But you know, when she tries on my clothes, they seem to look just right on her.

Showing Off

While we were on our walk, my sister-in-law Amanda was back at the homestead, making dinner for all of us.  She really spoils us, I swear, because she made this amazing Indian patties called pakoras, a savory fried treat that is becoming a regular part of her dinner repertoire.  Amanda usually makes her pakoras with lots of spinach, but this time she was low on spinach and instead added extra onions and peas, and I think they were even better this time.  I’m not sure exactly how she makes them.  From peaking at her recipe, I saw that it calls for chickpea flour, and I’ve already told you about the vegetables and the frying.  She mixes the vegetables into the batter, which is a little different from other recipes, which call for coating the vegetables with batter and then deep-frying them.  Also, instead of deep-frying, Amanda pan-fries her pakoras using a generous amount of oil in a cast-iron skillet.  Standing at the stove, she sets the finished pakoras on paper towels, and then at the table, we dig in, slathering them with various chutneys that dance along the sweet-hot spectrum.  Sometimes she makes a lentil soup too, to eat alongside the pakoras, but on this particular night, the aforementioned green beans and cauliflower became our vegetable side dishes.  Amanda steamed the green beans, and Lydia ate them by the handful as though she hadn’t eaten in days.  The cauliflower—well, that’s what I’ve been meaning to share with you for two weeks.  This one’s worth the wait, I promise.

Or perhaps I held out on you unnecessarily.  It’s just simple roasted cauliflower, toasted in the oven’s heat until it softens and browns and tastes like popcorn.  There’s nothing original about roasted cauliflower, and yet, it is so delicious that it would be a shame not to declare my love for it on this site.  I first started making it last fall, my first season in Texas.  I found the recipe on Twitter, of all places.  I’m not on Twitter myself, but I absolutely love the tweets posted by Crescent Dragonwagon, my favorite cookbook author.  The recipe was a quickie, describing a thinly-sliced cauliflower, tad olive oil, coarse salt, roast at 475 for 20 min. on Silpat until brown.  (That’s more or less what Crescent tweeted.)  In my recipe notes, I wrote, “Yum!  Surprisingly delicious.”  And that still rings true to me today: this is a transformative preparation for cauliflower, one that I often look forward to after a long day at work.  It’s easy, fun to prepare, satisfying, and good for you.  Ask for more than that and you’d be accused of greed.


The key to this preparation is really letting the cauliflower brown.  Much of its flavor comes from the toasty bits that contact the cooking sheet.  Recently, I’ve done away with using the Silpat in this recipe, and instead, I use more olive oil.  Either way is very good, so it’s your call.  And I swear, it really does taste like popcorn if you roast it right.

Simple Roasted Cauliflower

From Crescent Dragonwagon via Twitter, with a minor adaptation from me

Serves 2-4

1 head of cauliflower

2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil, or to taste (see below)

Coarse sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1)  Preheat the oven to 475 degrees F.  (Yes, really!  475!  This is a hot roasting.)  Get our your pan: a large cookie sheet, with or without a rim, with or without a Silpat.  Set the pan aside for now.

2)  Quarter the cauliflower and remove the outer leaves and thick stem.  Thinly slice it and place it in a big mixing bowl, including all the little bits that fell apart while you were slicing.

3)  Add the olive oil: if you are using a Silpat, use a “tad,” like Crescent suggested.  If you are not using a Silpat or are feeling more decadent, add up to 2 tbsp. olive oil to the cauliflower and toss it together to coat.

4)  Sprinkle some salt and pepper over the cauliflower and toss again.

5)  Spread the cauliflower in a single layer on the prepared pan and roast for 20 minutes, turning things over once at the 10-minute mark.  If your cauliflower isn’t brown enough, roast for a few more minutes, but watch it carefully so that it doesn’t burn.  Serve warm or at room temperature.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

It Slips Away

Oh, goodness.  Look at the time.  It’s 5:06 PM on a Sunday evening.  Rats.

Actually, I don’t really mean that.  Today was a great day.  The highlight was the part where I discovered an old computer desk on the side of the road, then dragged it back to my apartment.  Whilst dragging, all four of its wheels broke off, and I had to resort to carrying it, in very short bursts, until I finally reached my own patio and could set the damn thing down and catch my breath.  That was an unexpected strength work-out.

This afternoon, I cleaned up the desk, which had layers and layers and layers of dirt on it.  Wow.  I suspect it sat in someone’s garage for a long time because it was DIR-TY!  But I scrubbed and scrubbed, then I got out the Caldrea spray that my dear friend a gave me for my birthday a few years back, and I sprayed and wiped it down, and ta-da!  Now it’s clean and sitting in my writing studio, where I am typing right now.  It’s got books on the bottom shelf and photos on the top shelf, and it seems like we’re going to get along well together.  It’s a tiny bit wobbly, having lost its four wheels in transit, and I believe it is not a particularly, shall we say, expensive piece of furniture, but for now, it will do.  Especially because now I have another bookshelf, and the only books that remain homeless are my extra cookbooks, the ones that don’t fit in the shelves just around the bend from the kitchen.  So now you see that I’ve spent the day nesting, like I said I would this season, and it feels wonderful.

Welcome New Computer Desk!

With some reluctance, I drew up my to-do list for this evening, which unfortunately, contains words like “work” and “data.”  Yes, I have real work to do tonight, the kind that has deadlines and for which I’m getting paid.  Rats!  I’ve started writing what I think will be a really nice blog post, one that involves a recipe, but I’m afraid I’m not going to have time to finish it tonight.  So, will you take a raincheck?  What if I pencil you in for, say, Tuesday?  Are you busy?  Tomorrow is going to be hairy for me, but Tuesday is looking like a calm and pleasant day, the best kind for writing.

In the meantime, if you’d like to see what else I’ve been doing, I have been writing a lot for my other blog, Feels Like Flying.  I’ve also been posting some photos that I really like—for example, this one.

I’m off to cook dinner, another batch of Jess’s Simplest Tomato Soup (but this time, I’m adding herbs!) and a grilled cheese sandwich with mustard, cheddar, and thin slices of Gala apple.  Then it’s back to work, for real, and if I’m lucky, a trip to the coffee shop for some fresh beans. 

See you back here on Tuesday, friends!  And thanks for being so understanding.  The time—it just slips away, you know?

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Welcome, Fall!

Welcome, fall!  It’s not to late to say that, right?  I mean, fall is less than two weeks old, so now is the perfect time to welcome the season with open arms.  Fall, it’s been a while!  Please, have a seat and stick around.  We have so much catching up to do.

I think I’m in good company when I tell you, dear reader, that I am completely, madly in love with fall, and this year is no different.  In Texas, of course, we lack the gorgeous colors of less equatorial locations, but no matter: what we have now are cool(er) mornings and evenings and gorgeous, sunny days, perfect for bike riding and eating outside.  The air-conditioner has been off for a while now, replaced instead by nature’s air-conditioner.  When I’m at home, the glass door to the patio stays open unless I’m sleeping, and fresh air drifts inside, carrying with it the smell of sunshine and the occasional whiff of woodsmoke.

In the spirit of fall, I’ve brought my favorite orange coffee mug back into rotation, along with hot bowls of oatmeal in the morning.  Now, I’m not used to eating hot oatmeal, so I find that I need a few minutes to let it cool in its bowl, and I may or may not find myself sweating after eating it, but my goodness, it’s delicious.  Welcome back, hot oatmeal!

Fall Breakfast

I find that fall is a terrific time to dream about bigger goals.  I think a lot of people feel this way, because we spent so many years returning to school in September.  Our brains were imprinted with the idea that September is a time of declaring our intentions.  For my part, I’m hoping that fall will bring me the motivation to finish the final stage of setting up home in my new apartment.  I’ve been in Texas for a year, and my nesting has been gradual.  I still have one room that contains several boxes, and I’d love to see those boxes disappear because all the things inside them were given a place to stay.  I need a bookcase or two, and I’d love to set up a wireless internet system so that I don’t have to be constrained by the location of the internet hook-up.  I also really, really need to go to the recycling center, as my recyclables are starting to accumulate in big trash bags.  I feel really strongly about recycling, but it’s difficult for me because there is no recycling in my apartment complex, so most of the recyclables need to be taken over to Bryan.  Because I don’t have a car(!—I know!), the trip has to be done when either Matt is here or I can take a cab.  Matt’s been a good sport about my using him for his four wheels, but this month, I’m going to take the plunge and cab it over to the recycling center.

My kitchen is totally ready for fall.  I am now the proud owner of three pie pumpkins, all of which I plan to transform into fresh pumpkin puree.  I can’t even tell you how thrilled I am to have pie pumpkins!  Last year, I never saw pie pumpkins in Texas.  Having just left behind the Midwest and my beloved farmers’ market, this was a huge disappointment to me.  I was devastated.  But this year is and will be different because I found pumpkins not at a farmers’ market but at my regular grocery store.  I’m actually on the verge of hoarding pie pumpkins; every time I buy groceries, I think about buying another pumpkin.  How many is too many for a single woman who LOVES pumpkins?

The Brown Bits are the Best

Clearly, the photo above was taken before my pumpkin hoarding reached a new level because now there are three pumpkins on that counter.  Also in this photo: spaghetti dressed with the best basil pesto I have ever made and roasted cauliflower, still in its roasting pan.  If I can get my act together, I’ll tell you about the cauliflower tomorrow.  The pesto, however, is a local treat.  If you were interested, I could introduce you to my favorite gardener, who is growing the most amazing basil I’ve ever tasted, with its deep notes of mint and chocolate.  It is incredible.

I guess all of this is a way of saying that I am so very happy these days.  I miss my family a lot, but my life down here is really great too, and I am grateful that I get to have this adventure of experiencing the changing seasons in a new place, where I’ve met new people who bring me basil from their garden.  Moving to Texas has forced me to adapt, to accept change, and to seek the beauty in unfamiliar places.  It has encouraged me to become even more resourceful, to rely on myself and on others, to make new friends and continue to nurture old friendships.  I think I am more confident than I was a year ago, when I was in the middle of massive upheaval from graduation, moving, and starting a new job.  I’m grateful not to be doing any of those things this fall.  I feel like I have more time to enjoy this season, my favorite season.  Welcome, fall.  I kinda missed you last year, but this year, I’m ready.  Bring on the pumpkins.