Friday, December 31, 2010

The Very Best Parts

Michigan Winter

I was thinking about that classic “home for the holidays” thing that many of us do for Christmas or other winter holidays, and I started to feel very, very grateful that Christmas is not the only time I go to Michigan.  Christmas is a loaded holiday, and I know I’m not the only one who feels the weight of the planning, the expectations, the hopes, and the disappointments that come along for the ride at Christmastime.  Into my mix you can add the fact that some people are, at best, wishy-washy about Christmas: some years they rise to the challenge of playing Santa Claus and buying everyone gifts, but other years, it’s a miracle that they come to the family Christmas gathering at all.  I’m not sure what’s better: someone who is consistently Grinchy about the holidays, or someone who can morph into a Grinch in the wink of an eye.

I try to approach the holidays with moderate expectations.  My family has always been rather modest about Christmas.  Our modesty disappointed me as a child; I couldn’t help but love the idea of a Christmas brimming with fabulous toys, all the things I wanted but never told anyone I wanted.  (I’m still waiting for my first My Little Pony.  Anyone remember My Little Pony?)  As an adult, it’s a relief not to have been raised in a tradition of extravagant Christmasses because it feels natural to give small gifts.  Bookworm that I am, I give lots of reading material, all of it carefully chosen for the recipients.  And kitchen-lover that I am, I have started giving cookware to people who I think will enjoy a new piece of kitchen equipment—a cast-iron skillet, some nice roasting pans.  I also love to give cookbooks, even ones which I don’t own.  I like to think that I’m a good gift-giver: I set a budget, and I do my shopping within that budget.  I’m a thinker, a planner, a present-giving plotter.

It was a good Christmas this year.  I feel like I got everything I wanted, or at least all the things that matter.  At this point in my life, I can’t say that I need anything that can be bought in a store.  What I need is health, love, happiness, joy, laughter, hugs.  And for Christmas, I just want to make some memories that I can tuck away for grey days, sad days when I need some cheer to perk me up.  For safekeeping, I thought I’d share the very best parts of my Christmas with you, and together we’ll keep them clean and warm.

In a word, the best part of my Christmas was Lydia, my four-year-old niece and the love of my life.  She is one of the most delightful people I know, and my only real regret in life is that I don’t spend enough time with her.  It was late by the time I made it to her house on the night I arrived in Detroit, and she was already asleep.  But the next morning, I woke up and crept out to the living room to find her awake and watching cartoons.  The joy on her face mirrored the joy in my heart at seeing her again, and we spent a happy morning curled up together on the couch.  That morning is something I will remember for a long time.

The generosity of my family continues to amaze me.  They are generous in big, meaningful ways.  Lydia’s parents, my brother Charlie and his wife Amanda, let me stay with them every time I visit.  They feed me and serve me coffee and share their beautiful daughter with me.  They drive me around to friends’ houses and let me tag along to Whole Foods.  They let me hold their new baby, Devin, trusting me not to drop him, even though I really have very little experience with newborns, especially with baby boys.  And when I have to be at the airport before 8 AM, my brother gets up early without complaint and drops me off with a hug before sending me on my way.

Generosity takes shape in smaller ways, too.  My brother John picked me up from the airport without complaint, even when my flight was delayed (as they often are), and he humored me when I freaked out that I might even miss my connecting flight in St. Louis.  My brother Scott, who was also staying with Charlie and Amanda, made countless pots of fresh coffee and always offered me a fresh cup.  And my parents, with whom I stayed on Christmas Eve, made a surprisingly lovely Christmas morning breakfast for the three of us: big fluffy pancakes, boiled eggs, mugs of tea, and for dessert, sweet oranges.  That morning, my dad and I took a long, cold walk around the neighborhood, a new Christmas Day tradition that I hope to continue with him.  Because I am so far away from my parents, I have an acute sense of how little time we have together, so I like to spend some time with them away from the rest of the family, just two or three of us catching up.

And the food!  Oh, the food was terrific.  There were many, many good food moments.  I mentioned before that Amanda made these amazing peanut butter bars, and lucky for us, she shared the recipe with me!  If you nudge me in the comments here, I’ll get cracking on my own batch so you can have the recipe sooner rather than later.  Amanda’s mom, Barb, made quite an impression on all of us with her casserole featuring Brussels sprouts and rice, among other things.  I’m not a big fan of the B. sprouts, but this dish was a revelation: soothing, savory, a tiny bit sweet.  My description pales compared to how amazing the casserole was.  Barb grew the Brussels sprouts in her garden and picked them at the height of flavor and sweetness; there was none of the bitterness that I expect from B. sprouts.  We ate the leftovers heated up in a tiny cast-iron skillet, with an extra pat of butter thrown in there for good measure.


We had some great kitchen moments with Lydia.  I really love being in the kitchen with her because I feel like we are making memories that will follow her into her own kitchen some day.  I hope that she will remember when she was very young, and we would set a chair in front of the counter, and she could stand on that chair and help us stem green beans, or mix the chopped cauliflower with olive oil and seasonings.  I hope she’ll remember how happy we were to have her with us, how much joy we took in our cooking and the meals we ate together, how much we loved being together.  Because for me, the kitchen is a place to be and to do.  It’s the heart and engine of a home.

This year, my sister Theresa was very productive in the kitchen; Lydia and I were her assistants.  Together we made banana bread and multiple batches of almond bark, some with whole nuts, some with finely chopped nuts, and one made with white chocolate (my favorite!).  Lydia quickly realized that stirring is hard work, but almond bark is delicious, and after all that strength training in front of a bowl, she fell asleep before 7 PM, waiting for Santa Claus to come.

There were other kitchen moments, sweet little lessons passed from one generation to another.  I caught Barb teaching Theresa how to make the whipped cream for Amanda’s crustless pumpkin pie.  While we’re on the topic of butterfat, I must tell you that Barb brought us all little tubs of homemade honey butter (literally, honey and butter whipped together to make a sweet spread), and it was one of the best gifts.  Every year, I wish I could do homemade gifts, but I never do because I’m always living out of a suitcase in someone else’s house.  It’s easier for me to give books and sweaters, but I do love receiving homemade gifts.

The gifts I received this year were great, and by gifts, I mean the tangible ones that I can read, eat, wear, or otherwise enjoy at my leisure.  My lovely friend Heather gave me this fantastic top that I wore this week.  My brother and sister each bought me a cookbook off of my wishlist; I can’t wait to sniff their pages, read them, and crack them open in the kitchen.  A few people made contributions to my travel funds, which I appreciate, especially now as I’m starting to think about the trips I’ll take in 2011.  My friend Lisa gave me a copy of No Country for Old Men, which I’m looking forward to reading because I always enjoy book gifts from fellow bookworms.

But the best gifts are the ones that we made ourselves, with our time and our love.  The books and whatnot are the icing on the cake.  The cake is ice skating with Lydia and Charlie, seeing old friends and their new baby girl, celebrating Christmas Eve with my childhood best friend and her family.  The cake is realizing how durable love is.  Time and distance may separate us, but love, affection, and a shared history bring us back together, literally.  Christmas really is about the present—as in present tense.  Here, now.  Celebrate, laugh, love.  Decorate a tree, eat a cookie.  Remember to take a few photos, and tuck all your memories away, not under the tree, but in your heart, and keep them there forever.

By the Light of the Christmas Tree

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

About Love and Contradictions

Leaving Texas

Somewhere Over America

A Tangle of Branches

I really should be at work now.  Instead, I’m at home, my little home in Texas, slowly waking up after the long trip yesterday.  I have been savoring this last “vacation” morning, even though today isn’t really a vacation day—it’s Return to Work Day.  Which I will, in a few hours.  Soon, I will shower and wash my hair, get dressed (a blue cowl neck and black pants for today), pack my lunch, and ride my bike to work.  But for just a few moments more, I’m on vacation.  It feels good.

It’s very quiet here today.  I am missing the smile of a four-year-old who greeted me happily every morning and asked if I would watch her shows with her.  I am missing her so much that I’m about to make myself cry—again!  I feel myself filled to the brim with contradictions: the joy and relief of being in my home again, the sadness of leaving my family, the pleasure of a peaceful morning alone, the pain of not sharing that morning with Lydia and the rest of the bunch.  To hold these contradictions together in my heart is weird and difficult.  I wonder if the shape of my life is the result of a certain kind of greediness to have it all: the freedom and independence to carve my own path, the need to be a part of something bigger and more profound than my own selfish interests.  For some women, “having it all” means having a career and their own children.  For me, having it all seems to mean having a career in some far-flung location and belonging to a family that accepts my comings and goings without question.  It’s a family that made it possible for me to leave in the first place, and a family that welcomes me back with open arms, home, and heart when I return.

The biggest and deepest contradiction that shapes who I am is that I love being alone and I love being with family.  This feeling is also applicable to friends and Matt.  He understands my need to be alone without question.  It’s harder to reconcile this need when it comes to Lydia, even though I know that she too is finding the quiet pleasures that being alone can bring.  For me, the state of being “alone” is part of how I take care of myself, how I refill the well so that I can be calm and patient and happy with others.  Occasionally, I wonder if my need to be alone predicts that I would be a bad mother if I had children.  Sometimes I feel like a bad auntie for not being around more often.  But I know I’m not ready to return to Michigan for the long haul.  I don’t know if I will, though I do think about it.  For now, the shape of life is a home in Texas, a family in Michigan, and a heart that finds love and happiness in both places.

About today’s photos:

* The first is a shot of the Texas landscape as we drove to Houston to drop me off at the airport.

* The second is a view from the airplane window, somewhere over North America.

* The third is looking out from my brother’s backyard, into someone else’s property.  I like the wooded, wintry feel of this photo—it feels very Michigan to me.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Morning After

Christmas Beauty

Making Coffee

Hi hi hi!  Happy Day After Christmas!  We’re having a good morning over here, with some cartoons and coffee and candy canes.  I’m still in my pajamas and a very old Red Wings sweatshirt, and there’s a baby passed out on the couch across the room.  There are four of us here now, the two kiddos, my sister-in-law (who made these peanut butter bars—oh my, I’m in love), and me.

We had a good Christmas, once we got all the drama out of the way.  I think emotions and expectations were running high yesterday, and there was a mashed potato incident that pushed someone over the edge.  It’s funny how family can be the place where we feel happiest and most at ease, but family can also be the group of people that make us the craziest.  I know that’s true for me, but this morning I was thinking about my family again, and I think the reason our family still works is that we don’t give up.  We drive each other crazy, and sometimes people curse and storm out of the house, but we stick together.  And that’s not an easy thing to do.

But I’m really, really grateful that today is the day after Christmas, even though tomorrow I’ll get on a plane and fly back to Texas.  There’s a happy warmth on the day after a big holiday, a sort of collective sigh of relief that we made it through all the plans and the expectations.  The kitchen is full of food, and the house just feels relaxed in the wake of all the preparations.  I like the getting ready parts, baking and wrapping presents and hunting for candy canes that my niece can eat, but I think I like the part after the festivities best.  Or maybe today is part of the festivities, but it’s the day we get to relax and laugh and hang out in our pajamas until 11 AM.

Happy winter, dear readers!  I hope you are enjoying your day after too.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

So That I Don’t Forget

Darkness Falls Across Campus

It’s hard to believe, but it is almost time for me to make the long journey north again.  By tomorrow night, I’ll be in Michigan with my family again, perhaps nuzzling my newborn nephew, grateful to be reunited with the clan.

I have a huge to-do list today, the usual overwhelming routine of getting ready to go out of town.  Laundry, packing, grocery shopping to fill the pantry, cooking and freezing some meals for my return.  I’m anticipating that when I come back, I’ll be eager to return to work, so I want my kitchen to be well-stocked with provisions to get me through those first few days of re-entry.  Tonight I’m going to make chili, which I’ve been craving for a week.  I’ll take a serving of it with me to eat at the airport tomorrow, before I go through security, and I’ll freeze the rest tonight.  I know I will be very thankful to have good food waiting for me after I make the long trip back to Texas.

I am almost ready for Christmas.  I have just a few more gifts to buy when I get to Michigan, and I’ll have some wrapping to do, which I love.  My niece often helps me with the wrapping—I think it’s become a bit of a tradition for us!  So I hope she’ll be in the mood to help me this year too.  I love that kiddo so much, and the thought of seeing her tomorrow night makes me feel brave enough to face the airport.

Perhaps it’s easy to tell, given my choice of words here—overwhelming, brave—but travel is stressful for me.  I do love to see new places, and I love returning to Michigan to see my family, but it’s always hard for me to leave home.  I love my quiet little place here in Texas.  I love that I have made this place a home, that I have persevered to overcome the scary parts and the disappointing parts of my time in Texas thus far.  I feel a quiet sense of pride that I have staked out my territory, and I feel hopeful that the decisions that led me to move here will blossom into success and happiness.  I am happy down here, but I’m still working on the success part.  At any rate, I keep telling myself that it will be nice to be away for a while and then it will be nice to return.

Before I go, I wanted to share something inspiring with you that I found this morning.  I’m always on the hunt for new blogs and new reading material—I am insatiable, people!—and I found this post, from which I want to quote a few lines.  It’s about the winter holiday season, of course:

“embrace a little bit of the mess that these days bring, and then i bet next year, the mess will make you feel all nostalgic.
make time to tidy up the mess, so you have a little bit of peace, and quiet, and stillness, so these days don't all feel like a big jumble of stuff and noise.
it's all a balance, just like the rest of the year.”

And this one reminded me of my sister, my own personal shopper and the person to whom I turn most frequently for shopping and style advice:

“go through your clothes and put together outfits out of what you have. i'm pretty sure i've forgotten more of my wardrobe than i remember, than i use daily. go shopping in your closet.
this is especially fun if you let someone help you. i have two eager daughters. but a friend would be super fun, too. (plus you could probably add some wine to the occasion that way.)”

The whole post is fantastic, ways to embrace the Christmas spirit with your heart and soul, not your wallet.  My family has always taken a fairly modest approach to Christmas, but I admit that I love the fun and surprise of opening presents.  I also love to give presents when I’ve had the time and inspiration to find a special something that I think the recipient will enjoy.  But this year, like every other year, I know I’ll love and remember the moments of Christmas more than any single gift: the eggnogs and laughter, the mornings gathered around my brother’s kitchen table with the little ones entertaining us, the quiet walks outside in the cold air, sitting with my niece while she helps me wrap presents, visiting with old friends whom I adore.  Perhaps what is most important about Christmas is the ritual.  Even though it looks a little different every year, it’s the return to Michigan, to family and friends that matters.  That, and the eggnog.

Tomorrow I leave for the Mitten and I’m not sure if or when I’ll be posting again.  I’ve got so many things to share with you these days, but those posts will have to wait.  In the meantime, be healthy and merry, get lots of rest, hug your favorite people, sing and dance with joy, and I’ll see you soon.  Happy holidays, happy winter solstice, and thanks for reading.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Merry Whirlwind

Busy Making Cake

As Cathy used to say so eloquently, “ACK!”  This week has turned into a whirlwind of activity.  Most of it is fun stuff—a birthday party, lots of baking, some biking and running outside in this mild Texas December weather.  Last night I made thumbprint cookies, and tonight I have a birthday cake cooling its heels on my counter.  Tomorrow the cake will get a generous slathering of cream cheese frosting, and we’ll take a trip over to my friend’s place to celebrate the start of a new year in her life.  Man, I do love birthdays!

It’s already 10 PM as I sit here typing, so I think this post will have to be a shortie.  I do have a recommendation, one that I think works well in the kitchen.  I bought myself a little birthday present, or an early Christmas present—whatever you want to call it.  It’s the CD I had on my wish list, Iron & Wine’s Around the Well, and it is so good.  I’m not sure how I missed this when I was listening to the CD samples on Amazon, but this album is a two-CD set, which is even better—twice the musical joy!  I’ve been listening to it every day since it arrived, and it’s an especially good album for kitchen time.  It just puts me in the mood to cook.

I’m off to bed now.  Happy merrymaking to you!  Let me know if you want me to send you some of this Texas warmth—I’ve got extra this week.  For my part, I’m looking forward to some wintry weather in the Mitten next week.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

When India Comes to Texas

At Work on the Chopping Block

Of all the cuisines that Asia has given us, Indian food is by far my favorite.  I don’t think I’ve ever had Indian food that didn’t make me want to stuff myself silly with it.  Everything about it appeals to me: the incredible spice combinations, the variety of legumes, the vegetables, the rice and the naan, the paneer and the ghee.  Even the desserts are marvelous, though I must confess that I remain unflinchingly loyal to one dessert in particular, a cardamom-pistachio ice cream that I had several times at Hema’s Kitchen, an Indian restaurant in Chicago.

You can imagine my delight in knowing that my closest College Station friend is Indian and a fantastic cook.  I’ve been spending a lot of time with Amutha, and I’ve had the pleasure of eating with her countless times.  I’ve cooked for her, and she’s cooked for me, but until last Friday, we’d never cooked together.  It was my suggestion.  She found me in the hallway on Friday afternoon and wanted to hang out that evening, and I immediately thought of dinner, because food is always on my mind.  I wasn’t really in the mood to go out; I wanted to cook at home.  We agreed, and later that evening, Amutha made a dish that I’m starting to think of as her signature, a channa masala of sorts.  Of course, like a good Indian cook, the recipe is in her head, so this would be my approximation.

Amutha’s Channa Masala

Ingredients list:

Neutral-tasting oil, such as canola or a mild olive oil

Mustard seeds

Chili flakes

Ground cumin

Other magic Indian spices

Sea salt

Garlic, finely chopped

A small onion, finely chopped

A couple tomatoes, finely chopped

A can of chickpeas (preferably Bush’s—they have the best texture), NOT DRAINED


In a skillet, fry the mustard seeds and chili flakes in oil for a while, until the mustard seeds pop.  Add ground cumin and other magic Indian spices along with sea salt, garlic, and onion.  Fry…for a while.  Add the tomatoes and let everything cook together to make a rich, fragrant sauce of sorts.  Add the chickpeas (along with their can broth), and cook…for a while.  At the end, you’ll have a delicious dish of chickpeas in this rich, spicy sauce.

Easy, right?  I am dying for a real recipe, or at least the chance to watch Amutha make her channa masala so I can take notes.  The above is cobbled together from what I remember on Friday night.  Amutha made this beautiful mise en place with her onion, tomatoes, and garlic, and she raided my spice rack, which I highly encourage all my kitchen guests to do.  But that’s where my memory becomes more of an imagined story than a real one.  Magic Indian spices?  Cooking times?  Yeah, I don’t know.  We’re both going to have to wait for this recipe.

In the meantime, I cooked a different Indian recipe, this time from a real, in-print recipe, and it was wonderful.  It had been on my to-cook list for a while because it looked easy and delicious, and it serves two, and I am always on the look-out for recipes that won’t force me to eat the leftovers for a week.  Vegetarian Times published this recipe for Vegetables Korma, which strikes me as a twist on Amutha’s channa masala.  The chickpeas are there, along with the tomato-onion sauce.  Vegetables Korma adds a good helping of additional vegetables, and, to make it ridiculously easy on you, this recipe calls for frozen vegetables.  Frozen!  It’s brilliant.  Now, let me be clear: I like fresh vegetables as much as anyone else does, but frozen vegetables can be a lifesaver.  They’re a speedy, easy, healthy option, and unlike fresh vegetables, they are patient.  They will wait until you need them, or if you’re going out of town like I am in a week, you can stock the freezer with a bag or two of frozen vegetables and feel confident that you’ll have some ingredient options when you return.  I like frozen vegetables.  These days, you can get super high-quality organic stuff to keep on hand in the freezer, and if that’s not good news, I don’t know what is.  Except maybe an Indian recipe that serves two and comes together in about fifteen minutes.

Back to the recipe at hand.  The sauce is a quick food-processor job, and from there, it’s mostly a matter of measure-and-simmer.  I made a batch of my favorite rice to serve with the Vegetables Korma.  The final dish is good, classic Indian food: rich with heat and layers of flavor, a medley of vegetables and chickpeas, and a bed of rice to soak up the sauce (and provide something bland to balance that heat!).  This one is going in my file of “What to Cook When Time is Short and Bellies are Grumbling.”

Vegetables Korma

Vegetables Korma

Adapted slightly from Vegetarian Times (February 2010)

Serves 2 (perhaps with a tiny bit left over)

Be forewarned: if you add the pinch of chili flakes, you are in store for some heat!  This dish teeters on the edge of my tolerance for heat, but I sort of love it for that reason.  I may try a version without the extra chili flakes; for now, I’ll list them as optional.

2 medium tomatoes or 4 small ones, cut into chunks

1/2 small white onion, cut into chunks

1 tbsp. fresh ginger, peeled and chopped

1 tbsp. neutral-tasting oil (I used Mezzetta olive oil)

1/2 tsp. garam masala

1/4 + 1/8 tsp. ground cardamom

Pinch of red chili flakes, optional

2 cups frozen mixed vegetables

3/4 cup cooked chickpeas

3 tbsp. heavy cream

Salt and pepper to taste

1 tbsp. toasted sliced almonds

Cooked rice, for serving

1)  In a food processor, buzz the tomatoes, onions, and ginger together until everything is pureed.  Set aside.

2)  In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium heat.  Add the garam masala, cardamom, and chili flakes if using, and fry for about 30 seconds or until fragrant, stirring constantly.  Add the tomato puree.  Simmer for 2-3 minutes to let the sauce thicken slightly.

3)  Add the frozen vegetables, chickpeas, and heavy cream.  Season liberally with salt and pepper, then cover the skillet and simmer for 7-8 minutes, until the vegetables are tender.  Remove the lid.  Let everything simmer for another minute or two to thicken the sauce (mine was a little watery here) if you like.

4)  Serve over rice and scatter the toasted almonds on top.  If you cook this just for yourself, you’ll get to enjoy fabulous leftovers the next day!  If not, consider doubling the recipe—it’s a good one. 

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Special Edition: Sweet Potatoes

Taters in Progress

What I’m about to say is heresy, but I can’t help how I feel.  I don’t like sweet potatoes very much.  I find them confusing.  They’re potatoes, so I expect them to behave like potatoes.  I expect them to be savory and satisfying, happy to be tossed in the oven for a hot roasting or simmered into a soup.  What I don’t expect, and can’t seem to enjoy most of the time, is their sweetness.  Yes, I know—the name should tip me off, right?—but I just don’t like them in the vast majority of recipes that are out there. 

But the truth is, I want to like sweet potatoes.  I really do.  They’re a delightful vegetable, comfortingly starchy, a pretty orange on the inside, and they even come in petite sizes at my beloved Brazos Natural Foods.  Here in the States, sweet potatoes are Thanksgiving and wintertime and coziness all rolled up into a humble root vegetable.  As an American, it’s practically unpatriotic of me not to like sweets.  And don’t they just have the best nickname?  I want someone to start calling me sweets.

As luck would have it, I have found an answer to my sweet potato dilemma, in the form of an awesome salad, adapted from Deb’s recipe for Sweet Potatoes with Pecans and Goat Cheese.  It really was lucky because I don’t read Smitten Kitchen too often any more.  I suppose I poke around Deb’s blog maybe once a month or once every couple of months.  But recently, I happened to be at the right place at the right time, and I was captivated by the idea of roasting sweet potatoes in fat rounds or “steaks,” as Deb calls them, until they start to char and blister against the metallic heat of a baking sheet.  I thought that deep, dark roasting step would add something special to the sweets, something to contrast the sweetness and add depth to their flavor.  Indeed, those roasted steaks of sweet potato teeter on just this side of burnt, but they are perfect.  The rest of the recipe really steps up the savory quality of the dish: crispy celery, a fresh green herb, a handful of minced onion, and my favorite part, cubes of smoked cheddar, all tossed in a very mild vinaigrette, just enough to moisten things.  It’s a wonderful combination of contrasts, flavors and textures, sweet and smoky and crunchy and just flat-out delicious.  I really like it, and I think you might, too.

A Sweet Potato Success Story!

Celery and Sweet Potato Salad

Adapted from this Smitten Kitchen recipe

Serves 2

A quick note: do you have a pair of kitchen tongs yet?  If not, ask Santa to bring you some!  I bought myself some tongs not too long ago, and I love them.  They are perfect for flipping over the sweet potato “steaks” in this recipe.

2-3 small or medium-sized sweet potatoes

3 tbsp. olive oil, divided

2 tsp. red wine vinegar

1/2 tsp. Dijon mustard

Salt and pepper to taste

2 stalks celery, chopped

3 tbsp. minced onion

1 sprig of fresh dill, finely chopped

4 big handfuls of fresh baby spinach

2 ounces smoked cheddar cheese, diced

1/4 cup pecans, chopped, toasted, and cooled

1)  To roast the sweet potatoes, preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.  Drizzle a small baking sheet with 1 tbsp. olive oil, or drizzle the oil on a small part of a larger baking sheet.  While the oven is preheating, prep the sweet potatoes by chopping them into roughly 3/4-inch coins.  (If any of the peel is particularly gnarly, take that off first with a vegetable peeler.)  Place the sweets on the oiled part of the baking sheet—I like to rub them into the oil a little bit, just to make sure they have some oil on their bottoms.  Pop the sweets into the oven and roast them for 15-20 minutes, then flip them over (with tongs!) and roast for another 10 minutes, until both sides are almost a bit charred.  I use a fork to make sure the potatoes are tender all the way through.

2)  While the sweets are going, make the vinaigrette.  Whisk together 2 tbsp. olive oil, the vinegar, the mustard, and a good pinch of salt.

3)  In a medium-sized bowl, toss together the celery, onion, and dill.  Add a spoonful or two of the vinaigrette and toss again.  (You’ll have some leftover vinaigrette, but I just see this as an excuse to make this salad again!)

4)  Plate the spinach on two plates (two big handfuls per plate).  Divide the celery mixture between the two plates, then top it with the sweet potatoes.  Divide the cheddar cubes and the pecans between the two plates and serve.  The leftovers from this salad are fantastic the next day.  I just make the salad, minus the spinach and pecans, and tuck it in a tightly sealed bowl, one that can accompany me to work.  You can pack the spinach and pecans separately and then add them when it’s time to eat.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

A Little Unexpected

Cooking with Wine_A Success Story!

I consider it a great success when I find a new recipe that I can slip into my weeknight rotation.  Weeknights are hard!  So much to do, so little time to do it.  I rely pretty heavily on leftovers to help me get through the work week with a full belly, particularly for my lunches, but for dinners, I like to cook something new and exciting at least twice a week.  It always gives me a good feeling to cook something fresh on the days between Monday and Friday, Iike I’m being extra caring to myself and my taste buds.

I’ve been doing really well with my weeknight cooking as of late, in part because all I want to do is burrow into the kitchen and cook, bake, cook, bake.  It’s the most wonderful time of the year, right?  The kitchen is cozy and well-stocked, the nights are long, and the season’s brightness comes out of a skillet or the oven.  It feels natural to roast vegetables, make soup stock, roll pie crusts, and bake cakes.  With darkness settling over us early in the evenings, I don’t feel pulled outside by the light the way I do in the spring.  Right now, the kitchen is where I want to be.

Today’s recipe is a comforting version of beans and toast, with a delicious and Greek-inspired twist,  I really liked this recipe I made back in September, and I was curious to see if I could make a new dish by swapping some of the ingredients.  Out went the zucchini, fresh sage, and big tomatoes.  In came fresh mint, dried sage, cherry tomatoes, and feta cheese.  I altered the cooking protocol a little bit, too, adding the cherry tomatoes to the sizzling onions and letting them grow warm and juicy until they collapse and mingle their tomato-ness with the onions and garlic.  I added the mint at the end to keep its flavor fresh and sprightly, an almost unexpected hint of spring and fresh green things.  And the feta just came naturally: tomatoes + onions + mint = Greek to me, so feta seemed like it belonged on top.

When piled onto thick-cut slices of buttered toast, this quick dinner is satisfying and delicious, neither light nor heavy in the belly, a little unexpected.  It deserves a nice little side salad, maybe something with spinach and oranges like this one, or maybe a grated carrot salad spiked with lemon and parsley.  I think I’ll be making this one all winter long.

White Beans with Onions, Cherry Tomatoes, and a Greek Twist

Adapted from this recipe

Serves 2

I forgot to tell you the thing that got me so excited about this recipe in the first place: the wine!  After that terrible evening with the leeks, I felt the need to cook something with wine that I would actually want to eat.  My long-term goal is to be able to cook with wine without consulting a recipe at all, and the only way to get there is to keep the wine bottle out and to keep cooking.  So that’s what I’m doing.

In this recipe, the wine is subtle—just two tablespoons—but I think it adds an extra layer of flavor, a subtle fruity-sour depth.  Matt and I had an illuminating conversation during his last visit that made me realize wine is a really strong ingredient.  With wine, it’s not a bad idea to use a light hand and then see how the dish turns out.  For example, last winter I made a vegetarian version of kickpleat’s (and Gourmet’s) Chicken Thighs in Riesling.  My version was pretty similar to the original, except that I used from-scratch white beans instead of chicken thighs.  The “White Beans in Riesling” was pretty good, but I’d like to try again, this time using less wine (maybe 1/3 cup?).  The flavor of the Riesling was nice, but I found that it overwhelmed the other ingredients a bit.

But that is for another day!  For today, we’ve got a simpler white bean dish for weeknight cooking.  Enjoy.

1 tbsp. olive oil

1 onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1/4 tsp. dried sage

Salt and pepper to taste

2 tbsp. dry white wine, such as a Chardonnay, divided

1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes, halved

1 16-oz. can white beans, drained and rinsed

4-5 smallish leaves of fresh mint, chopped

1/4 cup feta cheese crumbles

4 slices of thick-cut bread, toasted and buttered (for serving)

1)  Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the onion and cook for 5 minutes until the onion is soft.

2)  Add the garlic, sage, and some salt and pepper.  Cook for 30 seconds or so, then add 1 tbsp. white wine.  It should sizzle and bubble a bit.  Add the tomatoes and the remaining tbsp. of wine, then immediately cover, turn the heat down to medium, and let everything cook for 3-5 minutes.

3)  By this time, the tomatoes should have started breaking down into the onion-garlic mixture.  Add the white beans, stir everything around, and let them heat up for a minute or so.  Turn off the heat, add the mint, and season to taste with salt and pepper.

4)  Place the buttered toast on two plates, then add a big scoop or two of the white bean mixture.  Divide the feta between the two plates and serve immediately, perhaps with glasses of the Chardonnay you used in this dish?  I recommend you eat this dish with a knife and fork.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Marvelous, Relaxing

I find myself inspired by this interesting New York Times article about procrastinating pleasure.  What an odd thing we humans do, putting off our pleasure until tomorrow, or next week, or next year.  Don’t we all know that life is short?  And that when pleasure lands like a butterfly on your arm, you shouldn’t shoo it away until a more convenient time?  You should stop whatever you are doing and give pleasure your undivided attention.  Because if you blink, if you wait too long, it will flutter away and you’ll be left feeling vaguely melancholic that you just missed something magical.

One More Sandal Day

I didn’t realize how starved for time I’ve been until this long weekend landed on me like a butterfly.  Even though I was recovering from being sick, I still had a marvelous, relaxing weekend.  I took every opportunity to indulge myself, and tonight I am feeling much restored.  Here were the high points of my recovery plan:

* I lavished attention on my apartment, which has suffered the brunt of my time-starved condition.  I organized and bagged the recycling, did two loads of laundry, vacuumed, and washed lots of dishes.  Perhaps housework doesn’t sound like a pleasure, but when it’s finally done, after weeks of feeling guilty for not doing enough, the relief is incredible.  Also, relaxing in a clean, organized space feels luxurious.

Bike and Bag

* My pretty new bag and I hopped on my purple bike and rode around town.  This messenger bag is a birthday gift from my little brother and sister, who very wisely consulted my wish list for ideas.  The bag is great for running errands by bike.  On Saturday, I tucked two big books in there, along with my purse and some cloth grocery bags, and I made the rounds, returning the books to the library and buying groceries on the way back.  It’s so much easier to cycle with a big messenger bag to hold all my stuff!

* I ate quiche leftovers and did not feel guilty over one single bite of butter-loaded crust.  I did eat lots of vegetables alongside my quiche, but I loved eating decadently for a few days—for Thanksgiving, for my birthday, and just because I could.

* I drank mint mochas while sitting on the couch, crunching data.  Okay, yes, I was working, but being able to work from home was great.  In my defense, I didn’t spend too much time working, but over the course of three days, I did make a good dent in my mountain of data, for which I am grateful now.

* I took long walks—one on a chilly afternoon wearing scarf and gloves and chatting with a friend, another on a warmer afternoon, by myself around the neighborhood.  Both were lovely.

* I ate rum raisin ice cream while watching Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.  The combination made for a lovely evening.

Roasted Squash

* I dusted off an old recipe and roasted a butternut squash.  I love the recipe in concept: hack a squash into big pieces, clean out the seeds and gunk, then gussy it up with butter, tamari, sweetener, paprika, and some black pepper.  The whole thing gets covered in foil and baked, then at the end, the heat is raised and everything gets browned and a little toasty.  The problem is twofold: one is that the squash tasted a little watery to me—perhaps a result of the foil trapping moisture and steaming the squash?  The other problem, which is far more tragic, is that all the goodies—the butter and whatnot, drip off the squash and burn in the pan!  So sad.  Now, I turn to you for help, dear readers: do you have a good baked or roasted squash recipe, one that you love and trust?  Is it possible to add butter and such before the oven treatment, or should they be added afterward?  I love the rustic and easy preparation of my original recipe, but I’d like the final result to be more flavorful—and full of all the good stuff I’ve drizzled on top.

* * *

I won’t lie: I was sad when the long Thanksgiving weekend ended.  I knew it couldn’t last forever, and reentry is always hard after vacation.  But I’m happy to have indulged in so much pleasure—domestic, gastronomic, athletic—and I feel hopeful that I”ll make it to Christmas break with my peace of mind intact.