Saturday, November 27, 2010

To Give Thanks

A Rare Sight in Texas

On Thanksgiving Day

A Thankful Vegetarian's Quiche

I’m having one heck of a week over here, my dears.  I’ve had food poisoning, or something approximating it, since last Saturday, but I think I’m on the mend.  There have been fevers and a lack of energy, and in the morning, after crawling out of bed, I’ve had to take frequent couch breaks to deal with the weakness and exhaustion.  It’s a strange thing that happens to me once or twice a year; there’s just something about my body that lets intestinal trouble linger.  I’m never completely incapacitated by it, but I’m definitely slowed down and feel generally lousy.

It’s hard to be ill when you live alone because there’s nobody to take care of you.  I like to be pampered when I’m sick.  If I had my choice, I’d have someone bringing me icy-cold ginger ales and new books to read while I rest in bed.  In lieu of luxurious sick-day treatment, I’ve just tried to take it easy.  Thankfully, I think Tuesday was the worst of the illness: that day, I came home early from work, stripped off my clothes, and climbed in bed.  I slept until about 9:30 that night, then I woke up and watched Law & Order: SVU for two hours.  I did manage to write a blog post after that—does that count as productive?  Then I went back to bed.

My Thanksgiving was mixed this year.  It’s a cruel twist of fate when you have flu-like symptoms on the nation’s food holiday; I was kind of upset about this.  But like I said, Tuesday was the worst day, and I managed to gather my strength and bake a quiche for the feast.  This quiche is quite tasty, if I do say so myself.  I had been invited to celebrate the day with a friend and her friends, and I wanted to bring something delicious, hearty, and vegetarian to share.  A quiche seemed perfect: it’s pretty and celebratory, rich and flavorful.  This particular specimen featured a well-seasoned combination of onions and red peppers, with touches of oregano, sage, mustard, and balsamic vinegar.  I think the mustard and vinegar are inspired touches, adding an unusual depth of flavor to the filling.  The crust is on the rich side even for pastry, using a full stick of butter, and for the cheese, I used a smoked cheddar.  The recipe originally calls for Gruyere, but due to my illness, I turned to the refrigerator and used what I had on hand.  I think it works: the smokiness adds another layer of flavor to an already-interesting dish.

Thanksgiving dinner was lovely.  The highlights included cranberries in three forms, all of which were seconds-worthy.  There was a cranberry salsa which combined sweetened cranberries with cilantro, jalapeno, and lime juice—it was like cranberry sauce, Tex-Mex style.  There was another cranberry dish, this one a sweet salad of sorts with citrus in it.  Finally, there was a cranberry-raspberry pie, which was sweet-tart heaven, though it made me long for a scoop of vanilla ice cream to eat alongside.  There were six of us who feasted together, and two turkeys, which is kind of nuts for five people if you don’t count me.  My quiche wasn’t very popular, which may have had something to do with the two turkeys.  I had a shudder-worthy moment when the first guest dug into my quiche like it was a casserole, taking a big old scoop right out of the middle.  I guess my crust wasn’t obvious enough.  But the quiche and I recovered, and our dinner table conversation was interesting and everyone seemed to have a good time.

I felt grateful to have somewhere to go this year for Thanksgiving.  Last year I spent the holiday by myself, and while it wasn’t bad, I feel like Thanksgiving is a holiday that needs to be shared with other people.  It’s not feasible for me to spend every big holiday with my family, so I’m happy when someone adopts me into their family for an evening.  My friend Amutha is fast becoming a very close friend, and this year I gave thanks for our friendship and the generosity of strangers who accepted me into their festivities.  I always feel like I have much for which to be thankful, and in the end, it always comes down to life, love, and food.  That’s all I really need.

Thanksgiving Quiche

Adapted from Sunlight Cafe by Mollie Katzen

Serves 6-8 if accompanied by side dishes

My only complaint about this quiche is that it weeps after it’s been cut.  I used lowfat milk in the custard, but I think in the future, I’ll use either 1/2 cup milk or 1/2 cup each milk and something richer, like heavy cream or half-and-half.  The texture of the custard is good, but I really don’t like the weeping.  It threatens to make the crust soggy and it looks unappetizing.

Custard issues aside, this quiche was really quite tasty and I do hope to make it again.  I ate it for lunch and dinner on Friday, and I’m going to eat more quiche tonight.  It’s my version of eating the leftover turkey from Thanksgiving.

For the crust:

1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1/4 tsp. salt

1/2 cup (one stick) cold butter, sliced

Up to 3 tbsp. cold water, milk, or buttermilk (I used 3 tbsp. buttermilk)

1)  In a food processor, mix together the flour and salt.  Add the butter, then pulse several times to cut the butter into the flour mixture until it resembles a coarse meal.

2)  Add the liquid, 1 tbsp. at a time, and pulse to combine.  The dough is ready when you can pinch it and it sticks to itself.

3)  Dump the dough onto a floured surface and gather it into a ball.  Roll it out to fit your pie pan (I used a 9-inch pie pan here), then gently lift it and place it in the pan.  Use your fingers to nudge it into place and repair any holes or tears.  Create an even edge as much as you can—the filling is generous and will fill a 9-inch pie pan up to the top.  I admit that I’m not the most talented pastry chef, but even my crust turned out well here.

4)  Tuck the crust in the fridge and start working on the filling.

For the filling:

1 tbsp. olive oil

3 medium onions (about 3 cups), sliced

1/2 tsp. salt

1/4 tsp. dried sage

1/4 tsp. dried thyme

1 tsp. Dijon mustard

1 tbsp. balsamic vinegar

1 medium red bell pepper (about one cup), sliced

1 cup packed shredded smoked cheddar cheese

3 large eggs

1 cup milk (see headnote)

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1)  Add the olive oil to a medium skillet and put it over medium heat.  Add the onions and cook for about 5 minutes.  Add the salt, herbs, and mustard.  Cover the pan, lower the heat to medium-low, and cook for 15 minutes, stirring every once in a while.  (Now is a good time to make the crust, if you haven’t done so already.)

2)  Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

3)  Add the vinegar and bell pepper to the onions and turn the heat up to medium.  Cook, uncovered, for another 5 minutes.  Remove from the heat.

4)  Place the pie pan, with crust inside, on a rimmed baking sheet.  Sprinkle the cheddar over the bottom of the crust, then scrape the vegetables over the cheese.

5)  Whisk together the eggs, milk, and black pepper.  Carefully pour this over the vegetables.

6)  Bake the quiche for 35-40 minutes, until the custard is set.  (MIne took about 40 minutes to bake.)  Cool for at least 10 minutes before slicing.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

I Am Ready

A Commotion Above

Today is my 29th birthday. 

I’m not scared to grow older.  I’m scared of lots of things: cancer, burglars, big trucks, e-mails where the subject line is a person’s first and last name.  But I’m not scared of my birthday, nor am I scared to say good-bye to my twenties.  I am ready, though I’ve got one more year before it’s time.

I no longer feel defined by my age.  I actually feel rather timeless, neither young nor old.  I’m neither innocent nor jaded, neither clueless nor wise.  I feel a child’s delight inside me when I see tiny wildflowers in bloom, or a flock of black birds perched high above me on an electrical wire.  I feel a teenager’s heart flutter inside me when I look at Matt and I remember how unlikely it was that we met at all.  I feel a lifelong student’s intellect when I read and write.  And I feel a timeless curiosity whenever I try something new, a sense that I will never be too old to learn, to try new things, and to fail.  Mostly, though, I’m just me, with 29 years of adventure under my belt, and I’m ready for what’s next.

This year has been a good one and a hard one.  Is that true for every year?  I don’t know.  This year brought two cancer diagnoses to people for whom I care and a lot of fear of the future, but I remain hopeful that these stories will have happy endings.  Maybe that’s the mark of a good year—that you still feel hopeful for what’s next, even in the face of tragic news.  For me professionally, it was a train wreck between my expectations and what I accomplished.  I have been trying to make my peace with these disappointments.  Personally, it was a year to grow into my home here in Texas.  I have had many magical moments here, tiny pauses during which I notice how beautiful and surreal it is down here.  Taking lots of pictures has helped me notice more of these moments.  I spent a lot of time outside.  Texas makes it easy to be an outdoor girl.

This year also brought many new babies into my life.  Two sets of friends became parents, and an adored colleague at work became a father.  In my own family, we’ve got a new baby on the way, a brother or sister for my niece, Lydia.  In another family, a set of twins celebrated their first birthday.  Their birth a year ago was three months earlier than it should have been, and it was terrifying, especially for their parents, my dear friends.  To see the twins turn one—well, I was so happy, knowing they’d made it and they’re doing their best to be good babies. 

When I think about what I want for this next year of my life, I think about living a bigger, more vibrant life.  I don’t need massive changes in my life; I’m pretty happy the way things are.  I could use fewer weekends in the lab, yes, but those weekend hours come as part of my larger commitment to my work.  Of course I’d love to see my work really take off, to find myself working on a project that is going to pan out into a new science story and a paper.  That goal hasn’t changed since I started my postdoc.  But beyond my work, this is what bigger and more vibrant looks like to me.

I want to wear more red clothes.

I want to eat more chocolate cake.

I want to run more miles.

I want to swing on more swings.

I want to wear a twirly blue skirt as much as possible.


I want to wear fishnets and short skirts.

I want to eat more pizza.

I want to see more sunsets.

I want to spend more time hugging.

I want to walk in parks with my favorite people.

I want to break two hours in a half-marathon.

I want to make new friends but keep the old.  (One is silver and the other gold!)

I want to work on my laugh lines, so that when I’m old, my mouth turns up, not down.

I want to watch the Harry Potter movies.  (I’m so far behind!  I’m only on Goblet of Fire now.)

I want to read more fiction and spend more time in libraries.

* * *

I think that’s enough for one year.  Happy Thanksgiving, dear readers.  I hope your little hearts soar with gratitude tomorrow as you celebrate this holiday with loved ones and fantastic food.   

Take Flight

Sunday, November 21, 2010

In Which I Butcher an Innocent Recipe

The evening started promisingly: a huge bunch of leeks, a terrific bottle of Chardonnay, a nip in the air outside, and a blue Le Creuset pot eager to get to work.  I was trying out a new recipe, Wine-Braised Leeks Over Garlic Toast, and I was looking forward to a cooking session filled with delicious smells and ending with a fantastic, French-inspired dish.

The leeks that I had purchased at HEB were absolutely enormous, and I felt compelled to document my shock at their size.  Also, I have been learning how to use the self-timer button on my camera.

Massive Leeks!

Once I recovered from my shock, I got right to work at my cooking station.  Here I began doing what I do best in the kitchen: not following instructions.  The recipe called for using the tender white parts of 8 leeks, halved, in a 9x13-inch pan.  Just that part of the recipe alone gave me problems.  First, if you look at the leeks in my hands, you’ll note that most of the leek is green stuff.  I am way, way too frugal not to use most or all of any given vegetable, and yes, while the green part of a leek tends to be a bit tougher, I figured braising would soften any tough parts into submission.  Second, wine is a major ingredient in the braising liquid, and white wine in particular tends to be acidic—at least, I think it is, based on how it tastes.  Acid is known to react with metals, and the only 9x13-inch pan I own is made of metal.  I made two executive decisions to deal with these issues.  The first is that I used six leeks, white and green parts, and I chopped them rather than halving them.  The second is that I used my Le Creuset pot for the braising, carefully removing the handle’s lid so that it wouldn’t melt in the 450-degree heat.

So far, so good.  I poured myself a glass of wine and got to work with my leek preparation.

Me with Leeks

I chopped and washed my leeks, then tipped them into the pot.  I peeled a boatload of garlic and scattered them over the leeks.  All was well until I opened my can of olives, where I expected to find big chunks of chopped black olives.  Instead, I opened the can and found what looked like large pieces of black dirt.  These olives were not chopped; they’d been almost pulverized into a puree.  Turning up my nose, I scraped them into the leeks, where they made the leeks look like they’d been chucked into a pot straight from the garden, full of dirt.

It was awful, but I kept going.  Into the pot I stirred a cup each of white wine (an Eberle Chardonnay from 2009—delicious and highly recommended!).  I scattered some dried thyme and olive oil over the whole thing, sprinkled a touch of salt and pepper, then covered the pot with its lid and tucked it in the oven for 30 minutes.  I pulled the pot out, stirred everything around, and tucked it back into the oven for 40 minutes.  When the leeks were done with their oven time, I eagerly and carefully pulled them out of the oven to find something that looked dangerously overcooked.

Oh Boy

The heat had indeed done its work, turning my leeks brown and black in some places, the dish wafting a sharp, briney, herbal aroma.  I wasn’t too worried about the deeply colored bits, because I think we all know that the caramelized bits are the tastiest.  But what did concern me was that the braising liquid had all but disappeared during that final 40-minute step, the one done without the lid to trap moisture.

Still, I screwed up my courage and continued with my recipe.  I toasted some thick-cut slices of bread, buttered them generously, and placed a slice in my favorite white bowl.  I ladled some leeks onto the bread, then set the table and sat down to eat.

Kinda Cute Right_insert question mark here

In a word, the taste was harsh.  The dish was overwhelmed by the strong, salty flavor of olives; the more delicate floral and vegetal flavors of the leeks and wine had all but disappeared.  The bread was good and chewy, the butter rich and soothing, but the leeks were insistent.  It was hard to enjoy this dish because the balance of flavors was so lopsided.  It was a failure, for sure.

I blame myself.  I think this recipe is probably delicious, especially if you follow instructions, though I do hold that my alterations could work with a shorter braise time and maybe just a few olives added at serving time.  And I most certainly wouldn’t use ugly, ground-up olives; I’d use pretty, whole olives that I carefully halved and then scattered over each serving.

I hate to end on a down note, so I’ll mention two very good things about trying this recipe.  One was the Eberle Chardonnay, which I admit I chose because Matt and I have visited this winery and I felt confident that the wine would be good for drinking and cooking.  The second was the bread that I picked up for this dish.  It was a seven-grain loaf from HEB’s bakery section, and it was delicious, especially when toasted and buttered.  A good loaf of bread is not to be taken for granted, so I’ll keep this one in mind for future reference.

Now, in the wake of this recipe failure, I must redeem myself.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

He Made Us a Pizza

I have decided that it is a very good thing to date a man who eats a lot of pizza.   And if this man also drinks a lot of wine and eats a lot of cheese—even better!

In two sentences, that’s a pretty good summary of Matt: pizza, wine, cheese.  I like all those things too, so we get along really well.  Surprisingly, though, until his last visit, we had never made pizza together.  We made calzones together a few years ago, and they were seriously outstanding, but pizza was a new one for us.  I don’t think we’ve eaten much pizza together, though I do remember having one for lunch during what one might call our first “date,” which turned out to be three days long since he was visiting me from far away.  It was a pretty awesome date.

The pizza idea came about as we were fishing around for ideas about what to make for dinner on a Saturday night.  Matt already had the wine selected, and I asked him to make this crazy delicious salad that I desperately hope to codify in recipe form.  We needed something more, though, something with some heft and calories.  Matt declined my suggestions for quiche or frittata, but I still wanted something round and friendly that would feed us well.  Pizza was my next suggestion.  I recalled a Vegetarian Times recipe that made a deep-dish pizza in a cast-iron skillet, so I suggested we do the same.  Matt said yes.

So we went shopping, and we bought all sorts of uppity vegetables like leeks and radicchio.  We hit the cheese stand and bought three(!) different cheeses.  Finally, we wandered over to the baking aisle and found something that has changed my life: pizza dough yeast.  Oh yes.

The Secret Ingredient

This stuff is seriously awesome.  It comes with a cute little recipe on the back for making the dough, and it bakes up into a chewy delicious crust, a little crispy on the edges and almost plush in the center.  But what’s really life-changing about it is that it makes a dough that requires no rising time.  NO RISING TIME!  This yeast means that a homemade pizza crust is now possible for me on weeknights when I’ve got just enough time to assemble and bake a pizza, but I certainly do not have the patience to wait for a dough to rise.

The dough is pretty forgiving too, which is wonderful.  I made a pizza earlier this week, and I forgot to add the oil to the dough until I was almost ready to knead.  I think the oil adds a lot to the flavor and texture of the dough, so I didn’t want to leave it out.  To incorporate the oil, I put the dough back in its mixing bowl, added the oil, and kneaded the oil into the dough for a minute or two, then I plopped the dough back on the counter and commenced the “actual” kneading.  Problem solved, and my crust was delicious.

I should probably explain how we built our deep-dish pizza, because it was really tasty and it might make you hungry enough to try this at home.  First, in a cast-iron skillet, we cooked a regular onion in some olive oil, letting it caramelize just a touch before added a chopped leek.  We let the leeks soften and relax, then I added three handfuls of baby spinach.  The spinach wilted into the pan, then we threw in a few chopped cloves of garlic and cooked them just a touch—maybe 30 seconds, just long enough to let things get really fragrant.  Then I scraped all the vegetables out of the pan, we made the pizza dough, Matt got flour all over my kitchen, and he worked the dough into a large circle.  We placed the circle inside the skillet, making high sides to create that deep dish effect, and then we filled our pizza.

At the store, we had picked up Fontina, fresh mozzarella, and Maytag blue cheeses.  Into the pizza crust we layered Fontina, vegetables, and fresh mozzarella, and at the end, a few nubs of Maytag blue were scattered over the top.  To gild the lily, we sprinkled paprika (which makes everything look dazzling), and on one half of the pizza, Matt scattered a few rounds of something sausage-like.  (As an aside, can someone please tell me the difference between sausage and salami?)

To make sure our deep-dish pizza cooked thoroughly, we gave it a good 20 minutes—maybe a little more—and the house smelled fantastic.  Then we sat down and complimented each other on our awesome meal, most of which was made by Matt.  The man knows his pizza, he knows how to cook, and he knows how to win a girl’s heart.  He’s a triple threat, but it’s only my waistline that’s in danger.

Hello Gorgeous

Sometimes, after I’ve made something really delicious, I just know I’m going to make it again as soon as possible.  The pizza is one of those examples—I made another one on Monday.  This time, I mixed things up.  The biggest change I made was using a tomato sauce, which is worth remembering so I’ll give you the recipe below.  I worried that the sauce might make the pizza too wet, but it was tasty without being soggy.  If we’d had something tomato-ish on hand, I think Matt and I would have added it to our pizza, but we didn’t think of it until we were home again.

For my pizza, I followed our outline as well as I could, though I had to improvise with whatever the fridge had to offer.  I made my tomato sauce and cooked leeks with garlic, again in the skillet so that the dough picks up that wonderful onion-garlic flavor when the pizza is assembled.  I used two cheeses, the Fontina and Maytag blue left over from the first pizza.  To assemble the pizza, I scattered a generous amount of shredded Fontina on the bottom, spread the tomato sauce, spooned the vegetables on top, then finished with more Fontina and some nubs of Maytag blue.  Into the oven, 20 minutes or so, and out came another gorgeous pie.

The Brown Spots are the Best

I have to say, I never would have thought to top pizza with blue cheese.  It was an inspired addition, perhaps serendipitous too, because I remember being thrilled to find Maytag blue at HEB and I added it to our basket just because.  I didn’t have any particular plans for it other than to put it in our bellies—the pizza idea was all Matt’s.  It works deliciously because it adds such distinct, powerful flavor with a tiny amount of cheese, and its savory stink plays well with the demure sweetness of the leeks.

After writing this post, I’m not sure whether to be hungry for another pizza or to think about how much I miss Matt.  I’m ready for him to come back to my kitchen and cook with—or for—me, whichever he prefers.  This time I’ll be ready to clean flour off the coffeemaker after he’s done cooking.  And instead of trying to help, I might just sit back and drink my wine, watching him work his magic with the food.  It is one of his sexiest tricks.

Quick Pizza Sauce

Adapted from Vegetarian Times

Makes enough for one deep-dish pizza (made in a 10-inch skillet)

The original recipe called for tomato paste, which I didn’t have on hand.  What I did have on hand was canned diced tomatoes, which I think worked reasonably well.  I’ll provide both versions, and when I get around to trying the tomato paste version, I’ll report back in the comments.

This recipe is a great option for an impromptu pizza sauce.  It’s good enough that I might even consider trying to keep tomato paste on hand for weeknight pizza cravings.

1 cup canned diced tomatoes or 1 6-oz. can of no-salt-added tomato paste

2 tbsp. finely minced onion, optional (I didn’t add the onion because I was out of onions, but I’ll try this in the future)

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 tsp. dried oregano

2 tsp. olive oil

1/2 tsp. red wine vinegar

Salt and pepper, to taste

1)  Mix everything together in a bowl.

2)  If using diced tomatoes, pour the sauce into a small saucepan.  Bring the sauce to a bubble and let it simmer for 5 minutes or so to thicken.

3)  Spread the sauce on your pizza crust and finish assembling your pizza.

PS  Happy almost-birthday and happy NEW BABY to my dear friend and loyal reader Nicole.  I’m so, so happy for you!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A New Plan

Neat Angles Here

I’ve been thinking about this blog, and it’s time I let you in on the news.  It’s been over three years since I started writing Life, Love, and Food, and a lot has changed during those three years.  When I started writing, I had a very simple goal: to refind my voice, the one that felt stifled under the weight of graduate school and career aspirations, the one that wanted to talk about food and cooking and recipes.  Once I started writing regularly, I learned that I really LOVE to write.  Giving my voice a chance to speak through words typed in a clean white space felt amazing, like learning to ride a bike and finally getting the hang of it.  It was a chance to stake my territory, to have something that felt like it was all mine.  It felt great.

Then I started to tell people about this blog.  I actually felt really shy about sharing it with anyone because it seemed silly and I felt vulnerable, putting my writing out there for anyone to judge.  It was one thing to have a blog when no one was aware of its existence; it was quite another to tell friends about this weird internet hobby of mine.  At first I told Matt; he was my first reader, I think, and not once did he ever make me feel silly for writing a food blog.  Of course, at the same time, he was working his way into my life in other ways, and eventually he became woven into the material of my stories.  I told some friends too, Nicole and Anne and James, and they became readers.  Every time I would tell someone about the blog, I would say, “Please, if you don’t like it, you don’t have to read it.  The last thing I want is people who read it because they feel like they have to.”  And I still feel that way today: the last thing I want is readers who feel obligated, like reading my blog is a chore they must finish.  Yuck!  Who wants that?

That’s the thing about blogs: they are supposed to be fun.  That’s what I want from my blogs, the ones I write and the ones I read.  I know this blog tends to be serious; I write about big, important things, but it’s still fun for me to write those posts.  I don’t think fun means I can’t write about serious things.  Sometimes, though, I think all those big, serious posts makes me feel unable to do easy, lighthearted posts, like fun memes I see on other blogs or posts about what I ate for lunch today.  I feel like I have to be uncovering the meaning of life or else I’m not doing my job around here.

But is it possible that I could do both?

The heaviness of this blog is weighing me down these days.  I’d like for it to be more lighthearted, more fun and spontaneous.  I’m working a lot these days, and I need a break from all that serious thought.  Plus the last thing I want to do is spend all my blogging time writing about my job.  Part of the reason my Saturday/Sunday blogging schedule fell apart is that I felt unable to write two good posts, back to back, on the weekends when I was spending 2-3 hours in the lab and trying to get all my errands and chores done.  It was just too much, and I found I had nothing of interest to say.  I felt lucky if I cooked a good meal or two, and then maybe, maybe, I’d have something interesting to say on a food blog.  Oy!  It was tough.

So this is the deal: I’m reclaiming this blog, for all of us.  I want it to feel fun and fresh again, a place where we can talk about squash and lunches, chocolate and green beans, serious stuff like love, and lighthearted stuff like how a vegetarian survives in meat-loving Texas.  (And what does said vegetarian do when her carnivorous boyfriend leaves behind a piece of pizza with salami on it?  Hmm…)

I’m hoping to revive my writing life with a new schedule too.  I’m thinking Sundays and Wednesdays—does that work for you?  I miss the continuity that comes with a regular writing schedule.  There’s something really appealing about a blog in which the stories unfold over time, and I want to capture that sense of wonder, that sense of learning and discovery.  I want to tell you more about my kitchen disasters, in part so that I don’t feel like every post has to contain some masterpiece of a recipe.  Because let’s be honest, folks: effing up is pretty funny, and my stories about effing up tell a lot about what kind of cook I am and how I live my life.  I never really know exactly what I’m doing; I’m making it up as we go.  And that’s how I write this blog too—I don’t know the end of the post until I get there.

Let’s start a new chapter together, friends.  Let’s eat pizza and drink wine and mess around in the kitchen and have a blast doing it.  I can’t wait.  See you tomorrow, with skillet and pizza dough in hand.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Greedy, Sponsored by the Numbers 2 and 9

Kitchen with Late Afternoon Light

My birthday is just around the corner, and it will involve the digits 2 and 9.  I think I’m turning into an old lady.

It’s okay, really, because I plan to be a really funny old lady.  I’ve been practicing my old lady act for a long time, so it doesn’t pain me not to be associated with youth.  I think I look pretty good, despite my advanced age, and I certainly feel I have something to show for my twenties, like my fabulous collection of recipes and my impeccable taste in peanut butter.  It’s hard to ask for much more than what I already have.  The other night, I was laying in bed, thinking about Matt’s then-upcoming visit, and I realized that I already have so much more than one person could possibly deserve.  So much love, so much fun, so much abundance.  I have a good life, even though I’m constantly stressed out.  But even that is manageable most days.  I run, I bike, I do yoga, and I take deep breaths.  I tell myself, Yes, you can do this even when my brain is shrieking, No, I can’t do this!

We never really “earn” all the gifts we receive, whether that gift is love, support, friendship, a good belly laugh, or a big bear hug when you need it most.  This is why I say that I find it hard to believe that I deserve all the good things my life has come to hold.  It’s also why I find it such a challenge to answer that question that pops up every single year around this time: “What do you want for your birthday?”  I never know what to say.  Right now, what I really want to say is, “I want the next year of my life to be just as good as the last year.  It could be neither better nor worse, and that would be fine with me.”  Because this past year, even with all its lumps and bumps, was pretty damn good, and I’d do it all over again if I could.

But knowing that one can’t gift-wrap the things that I really want from this next year, I hit the next best thing: Amazon.  My sister had suggested I set up a wish list so that shopping for me wouldn’t be so darn difficult.  At first, I found this exercise to be too challenging—I couldn’t come up with more than one item, which just would not suffice.  With a little time and thought, however, I came up with a more respectable list and thought it would be fun to share my birthday wish list with you.

Before I launch into the specifics, I must confess something terribly unflattering about myself.  Making the wish list has had a strange effect on me, which is that it induced an intense desire to buy everything on my own wish list RIGHT NOW.  This is the trouble with wish lists!  I’m usually a pretty laid-back shopper; delayed gratification doesn’t tease me too often.  I told my brother about how I feel like I cannot wait for birthday presents to arrive, and he said, “Geez, you sound so greedy!”  To which I replied, “I know!  It’s ridiculous!”  So now I know that the wish list is actually really dangerous and must be handled with care, lest I empty my piggy-bank buying cookbooks and CDs from Amazon.

I’m happy to report that so far, I have resisted purchasing any of the items on my wish list.  Starting with kitchen goodies, my list includes:

* In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite by Melissa Clark.  This cookbook sounds deliciously homey to me.  I like the kitchen, and I have a good appetite.

* So Easy: Luscious, Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Week by Ellie Krieger.  I bought a copy of this cookbook for a friend last Christmas.  I flipped through it and desperately wanted my own copy because the recipes sounded mouthwateringly delicious.  I love any cookbook that gives me more ideas for what to cook on weekdays, which are always the toughest dinners to produce.  Hunger levels are high, time is short, and it’s too easy to fall back on old standbys.  It takes some courage, and some good recipes, to break out of the weekday rut.  I’m hoping this book will give me more ideas on how to do that.

* Mesquite bean flour.  I have wanted mesquite flour for years now.  In The Cornbread Gospels, Crescent Dragonwagon has two recipes that call for mesquite flour, Sonoran Skillet Cornbread with Mesquite Meal and Sweet-Hot Aztec Two-Steps (a muffin recipe), both of which sound tasty and perfect for cooler days.  Also, in the Pantry section of her book, Crescent mentions using mesquite meal to replace some of the wheat flour in baked goods—I’m already dreaming about chocolate chip cookies made with mesquite flour.  Mmm…

* To provide musical accompaniment in the kitchen, I’m hoping someone will buy this Iron & Wine CD for me, Around the Well.  When we were cruising around town in his car, Matt had Iron & Wine in rotation on the CD player, and the songs made me feel all soft and weepy.  Dating a man who listens to Iron & Wine also makes me feel soft and weepy.

* Finally, I’m hoping to ditch the turtleshell-like backpack in which I carry around my laptop if this gorgeous messenger bag arrives in my mailbox.  I admit that I waffled about buying a bag with pink and flowers on it because it may be seen as a sign of frivolity in my science life, but then I thought, Forget it!  I like the girly bag, dammit, and I’m not going to pretend otherwise just to make myself seem less feminine than I am.  So pink and flowers it is—because it’s my birthday.

That’s the best I could do—five items, chosen carefully.  I think my sister is a little dismayed that my list isn’t longer, but the truth is that I feel like I have everything I need already.  My birthday is already full of the gifts that matter the most.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Refrigerator Raider

Impromptu Stew

Despite what the recipe index may indicate, one of my favorite ways to relax in the kitchen is to ditch the recipes and cook by the seat of my pants.  I find it very freeing to assess the pantry and crisper drawer, to snatch leftovers from the fridge, and to flex my creative muscles to put dinner on the table.  That sense of spontaneity is a contrast to most of my life, especially my work life, where so much must be planned days and weeks in advance, where a sense of completion is hard to find because, like a good scientist should, I always have more experiments in the pipeline.  But in the kitchen, I can play, and at the end, I get to eat.  It’s a pretty sweet deal.

Wednesday night was a good one in the kitchen.  I was primed with a lot of goodies on hand, in the cupboards and in the fridge.  A few of the key players included:

* two perfect yellow onions

* a cooked pumpkin

* a can of black beans

* a can of diced tomatoes

* leftover cooked white rice 

Everything starts with onions, and my impromptu stew was no exception.  In my cast-iron skillet, I caramelized those two yellow onions to a gorgeous chestnut brown.  While the onions were going, I snatched a few celery stalks from the fridge and sautéed them in some olive oil.  Matt used up all my garlic during his cooking frenzy on Saturday, so there was no garlic in this stew, but I did add cumin and thyme, a spice combination that delights me.  From there, I scraped about a cup’s worth of soft pumpkin chunks and added two cups each water and tomatoes, along with a vegetable stock cube.

The whole mess was brought to a boil, and while that was happening, I rooted around for some side dish items.  I emerged triumphant with baby spinach, some leftover salad dressing, and two pieces of fresh mozzarella.  Feeling very motivated, I made these Smokehouse Almonds, then buzzed them in the food processor to make a nubbly topping for the mozzarella.  While the almonds were roasting, I added the black beans, rice, and caramelized onions to the stew and let everything simmer for a few more minutes.  The final addition was a handful of chopped parsley, just to add a nice green note to the dish.

I ladled my stew into a bowl, set the table, and poured the last of my hard cider into a short glass.  The stew was thick and flavorful, with a wonderful stick-to-your-ribs quality that is the hallmark of a good stew.  The mozzarella was dense and a little chewy; the nutty topping added savory and sweet notes.  It needed salt, so I sprinkled a few pinches of flaky salt over everything.  The spinach salad was the same as it ever is, which is to say it was fine.  It was no showstopper, but it was green and healthy and that’s good enough for me.  For dessert, I dug the last piece of this banana bread out of the freezer and nibbled on it while watching Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, a television show that ought to give me nightmares but for some reason, it doesn’t.  I love all the crazy plot twists!  All in all, it was a good night.  And the best part?  My impromptu stew made enough leftovers to cover lunches for the next few days.  Which is good, because I’ll need them!

Dinner at Last

Monday, November 8, 2010

In the Meantime

Hi, friends.  Is it dark where you are right now?

I’m not going to complain about how I rode the bus home in darkness this evening, about how creepy it is when the clock says 6 PM and it looks like midnight outside.  I won’t complain because yesterday, the clocks fell back and we had a 25-hour day and I got to spend it with Matt.  He really undid me when he hugged me so tight that it felt like he was trying to leave his imprint on my body, and I started to cry, just a little, knowing it was time to say good-bye.  Then, in the evening, after he was safe and sound back home, he wrote me an e-mail, saying, “I miss you all the time.”  It was so sad and romantic that I hope he doesn’t mind I just shared it with you.  Because the truth is, I miss him all the time too.  I just don’t want to be the one to say it!

We had a lovely weekend together, slow and gentle, with lots of wine and walks and conversation that flowed like water.  I do believe I love him more and more as time softens us and the years round off the edges of our relationship.  It’s funny how I don’t feel that I have lost any measure of my independence, in part because we live such physically separate lives—different homes, different cities, different schedules—but his influence has changed me…for the better, I’d like to think.  I’m grateful for that, but I’m even more grateful to feel like I can be in this romantic relationship without losing my sense of self.  The place where we meet is a place where I can be myself, and the longer we are together, the more true this feels to me.

There is more to say about this weekend, and it even involves food, but I’m going to save it for another day.  I’ve got a little work to do in the kitchen first.  In the meantime, let’s talk afternoon snacks, shall we?  The afternoon snack is a requirement in my day, and I take it quite seriously.  It has to be nutritious and a treat, perfectly balanced between those two worlds.  Often I like a good cupful of granola, eaten with either milk or yogurt.  Other times, especially if I’m at home, I’ll make a smoothie or do a cheese-and-fruit plate with some crackers on the side.  In my more desperate moments, I’ll do a trail mix of sorts with some nuts and dried fruit, though I find that snack to be a little too plain to be exciting.  With Matt here this weekend, I didn’t do any baking, so instead of granola, I turned to one of my other favorite snacks, chocolate yogurt gussied up with some add-ins: crumbled graham cracker, dried cherries, and sliced almonds.  Ooh la la—this is really yummy.

A Yogurt in Hand

I first started making chocolate yogurt after finding a recipe in Passionate Vegetarian.  Lovely Crescent, the author, tucks her recipe in the dessert section, and she calls it “Cherried Yogurt, Black Forest-Style,” which I think is such a great name.  The idea is that you mix full-fat yogurt with some cocoa, sugar, and vanilla, then mix fresh cherries, dried cherries, and a few chopped nuts into the chocolate yogurt you just made.  During fresh cherry season, it’s totally delicious and one of my favorite things to do with fresh cherries, besides eat them plain, right off the stem.

But once fresh cherry season has passed, chocolate yogurt still lingers in my mind.  To me, it’s more delicious than any flavored yogurt you can buy at the store, and it’s better for you too because it contains way less sugar than most sweetened yogurts.  Best of all, I almost always have the ingredients on hand for it—there’s only three!—so it’s always an option, even during busy, non-baking times.

I Love Glass Jars

Chocolate Yogurt

Adapted from Passionate Vegetarian

Serves 1

What I find most amazing about this little homemade concoction is that it never seems like the cocoa powder will blend into the yogurt, but if you give it a few good stirs and a little time, it will.  The chalky, dry quality of the powder will disappear, leaving you with a smooth, rich, creamy snack.  I find that this recipe, if I can call it that, works well with full-fat and low-fat yogurt, so you can make it more or less decadent, depending on your mood.

Feel free to tweak the sugar amount to make it more or less sweet.  Two teaspoons works for me, especially if I’m adding something sweet as a mix-in.

1 cup plain yogurt, full- or low-fat

2 tsp. cocoa powder

2 tsp. granulated sugar, preferably vanilla bean-infused (or just add a drop of vanilla to the yogurt)

1)  Mix together all the ingredients in a bowl.  If the mixture seems a little grainy, keep mixing or wait a few minutes for everything to blend into the yogurt.

2)  Eat immediately or spoon it into a jar and pack it in your lunch bag to be eaten later.  Don’t forget to pack a little baggie of mix-ins, like peanuts, almonds, perhaps some coconut, maybe a fresh banana to slice into it!  The possibilities are endlessly delicious here.

Monday, November 1, 2010

I Vote for Kale

Kale Time

Happy Election Eve to my American readers!  In a burst of unprecedented organization, I voted early on Friday, but I still feel all pumped up with Election Day excitement.  Which is odd, because I generally loathe politics.  So much of it is a game of he said-she said and silly arguments about things like whether creationism should be taught in schools.  (Sure!  Just teach it in social studies class, not science class, please.)  I’m generally unconvinced that politicians know what they’re doing because politicians are like scientists, conducting enormous social experiments.  But unlike scientists, they’re not encouraged to admit when they are wrong or when they’ve made a mistake.  And the scientist in me just wants to scream in frustration.

I suppose the truth is that there are no easy answers to the big problems that are plaguing our country.  Unlike most people, I do not hold the President personally responsible for the state of the economy, nor do I have any illusions that there is a quick fix lurking out there somewhere.  Most days, I just try to be grateful that I have a job I like, in a place that I find reasonably appealing.  On the days when that isn’t enough, I can always retreat to the kitchen.

Tonight I offer you a four-point plan for a cozy, comforting Election Night dinner.  Hopefully, wherever you are, it’s colder than where I am because I always think cozy goes better with chilly temperatures.  Right now, as I type, it’s a balmy 84 degrees F.  I’m not complaining, but it hardly feels like November to me.  At any rate, the first point is to get home from work and put on a really soft flannel shirt, preferably one that’s roomy and unattractive, which gives you all the more reason to curl up at home for the evening.  The second point is to put on Dan Cohen’s wonderful album Shhhh.  It’s a great one to play while cooking; the music is a combination of upbeat, mellow, and pretty songs.  I like it a lot.  The third song on the album, “Echoey Thing,” is one of my favorite songs ever.  You can listen to a little snippet of it on Amazon here.

The third point is to eat a bowl of this old Garlic, Chickpea, and Kale Soup.  Now, some of you may protest that it’s too high in fat—there’s no such thing as fat-free heavy cream, people!—but I’d argue that we all need to keep our strength up during weeks like this one.  I will, however, offer you one concession: this soup is very good made with half-and-half instead of cream, if you want to lighten it up a touch.

The fourth point, and one that I must explain in some detail, is to make yourself a nice little kale side salad, one that’s topped with toasted almonds, caramelized onions, and crumbled feta cheese.  This salad is outstanding.  The kale is steamed lightly, so it’s got a soft, gentle yet chewy texture.  And the toppings are a perfect trio, each bringing something unique and delightful to the dish.  The almonds add a toasty, nutty crunch; the onions a silky sweetness; the feta a tangy creaminess.  When combined with the green earthy flavor of the kale, it’s an astonishing combination, maybe even addictive.  I made it last night and again tonight for a side dish, and each time I scraped my plate clean.  I liked it so much that I just had to stop by tonight to tell all of you about it, in the hopes that you’ll pick up a bunch of kale before tomorrow night.  While I can’t tell you anything about the votes I cast on Friday, I can tell you that when given a choice, I’ll always vote for kale on my dinner table.  I hope you will too.

My Newest Salad Obsession

Steamed Kale Salad with Almonds, Onions, and Feta

Serves 1

Scientific precision compels me to offer you exact measurements on the toppings here, but the truth is that I just eyeball the almonds, onions, and cheese.  Feel free to do the same.  This isn’t science—it’s just a salad.  Simpler and much tastier, in my opinion.

2 large leaves of curly kale

2 tbsp. sliced almonds

2 tbsp. caramelized onions (I’ve posted recipes for caramelized onions here and here, so click your way to instructions if you’d like some!)

2 tbsp. feta cheese crumbles

1)  Wash the kale and strip the leafy parts away from the tough middle stems.  Place them in a steamer and steam them for 3-4 minutes, enough to soften them without losing too much texture.  I like my steamed kale chewy-soft, if that makes sense.

2)  While the kale is going, toast the sliced almonds at 350 degrees F for 5 minutes.  Remove from the oven and set aside when done.

3)  When the kale is done, remove it from the steamer and shake off any extra liquid.  If you want to make your kale really dry, you could probably give it a whirl in a salad spinner, but I don’t mind a little moisture in this salad.  Also, I am lazy.

4)  Place the steamed kale on a plate and top with the almonds, onions, and feta cheese.  Serve immediately.