Saturday, January 29, 2011

Summertime and the Living is Easy

Outdoor Shot

Wait, did I really just say that?  SUMMERtime?  Yes.  Yes, I did.  Because that’s what today felt like to me.  This winter day in Texas felt like a lovely Midwestern summer day that’s cool enough to wear pants if you like but warm enough that short sleeves are in order.  It was a very good day.

It wasn’t just the weather that was nice, though I’ll admit that my mood is a total slave to whatever is happening outside.  Today I finally, FINALLY got my hairs cut and deposited two checks at the bank that had been burning a hole in my wallet.  I present to you photographic evidence of my hair loss and general happiness:

Easy Breezy

I just love how my eyes disappear when I smile, don’t you?  I blame my cheeks for this.  But how exciting is my new haircut!  It’s been about ten months since I had the fur trimmed, and man, it feels so good to have a short, breezy hairdo.  Seriously, look how short it is!

Look How Short

I love it.

Forgive my vanity, please.  What I really wanted to tell you about today is that lovely smoothie up at the top, the one made with a most refreshing combination of espresso, cocoa powder, and banana.  It’s true that we’ve talked about smoothies with this ingredient list in the past, but this one is worth making on a nice Saturday after lunch, when you’re in the mood for a dessert, something sippable and sweet and altogether delicious.  Actually, now that I look at the ingredient list for Nigella’s Go Get ‘Em Smoothie, I see that today’s recipe is looking awfully copy-cattish, but without the malt powder and slightly more milk, you get a drink that’s different enough to call them separate recipes.  Make either, or make both—you can’t lose.

Today’s recipe comes from a guru of healthy cooking, Ellie Krieger.  I first came across Ellie Krieger in my Jewel grocery store back when I was living in Evanston.  They used to have these televisions by the cash registers, and Ellie would be on them, making one delicious-looking thing after another.  I’m sure that if I’d had the option to watch her show at home, I could have easily soaked up hours of Ellie TV before heading into the kitchen to make whatever it was that Ellie told me I should make.

When I read her book so easy: Luscious, Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Week, I can practically hear her voice reading it to me.  She’s very convincing when it comes to the food, and healthwise, I totally think she knows her stuff.  She is actually much stricter about fat than I am; I don’t believe butter and saturated fat are bad for you, but I also try really hard to buy the best quality food, especially when it comes to dairy.  She also does this thing in her egg recipes where she uses a mix of whole eggs and egg whites—I would never do that just to cut fat and cholesterol.  It’s fine if the recipe is relying on the chemical properties of the egg white or yolk, but as Ellie admits, the yolk contains lots of nutrients (besides being tasty), so to me, it seems like a waste to toss them.

Nevertheless, I like this book a lot, and I see myself cooking from it quite happily.  I’ve got two dinner ideas bookmarked, but this smoothie was my first sample of the book.  I had just finished lunch today and was in the mood for a little dessert, preferably something with coffee in it because there are few things better than an after-lunch coffee.  Ellie calls this a “Mocha Java Smoothie.”  I call it…actually, I don’t call it anything.  I just drink it.


Technique-wise, this one is a little different from Nigella’s smoothie.  Sugar, instant espresso, and cocoa powder are mixed together with a splash of boiling water, then blended with milk and a frozen banana.  Ellie also calls for ice here, but I skipped that part, as I don’t like ice in my drinks.  The result is a sweet coffee drink with a hint of banana.  It’s reminiscent of the decadent coffee shakes that they make at It’s a Grind, but with much less sugar and fat.  And because the Mocha Java Smoothie uses more liquid than Nigella’s smoothie, it’s more like a cold drink and less like a milkshake, which can be desirable, depending on your mood.  It went perfectly with the warm weather today, and it was a great pick-me-up before I headed out for an afternoon of bike-riding, library-browsing, and grocery-shopping.

Mocha Java Smoothie

Adapted from so easy by Ellie Krieger

Serves 1 generously

1/2 tbsp. sugar

1 rounded tsp. instant espresso

1 tsp. unsweetened cocoa powder

2 tbsp. boiling water

1 cup milk (I used 1/2 cup almond milk and 1/2 cup 2% cow’s milk)

1 ripe frozen banana, cut into chunks

1)  In a small, heatproof glass, stir together the sugar, espresso, cocoa powder, and water.  Stir until the sugar dissolves.

2)  In a blender, combine the coffee mixture with the milk and frozen banana.  Blend on high until well blended and frothy.  Pour into a glass and serve immediately.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

I Remain Steadfast

Thank you all for your encouraging comments on “Stretching the Crumbs.”  Too often I have the feeling that I’m talking to myself around here, so it’s nice to hear that some of you find new ideas and inspiration in the recipes I share here.  Along those lines, I thought I’d complete my train of thought and tell you how the rest of the week panned out, foodwise.

Wednesday Night Dinner

I think I left off at Tuesday night with a somewhat bland cauliflower pasta dish.  On Wednesday night, I didn’t have the heart to face the pasta dish again, so I reached for a different leftover: mujadara, with which I ate some cabbage which had been seared in a wok and seasoned with a little hot sauce and lots of soy sauce.  The cabbage dish, which I’ve made before, is totally delicious and one of my favorite things to make when I don’t know what to eat.  The recipe has many charms: it’s fast, healthy, and almost surprisingly rich with flavor.  I sort of like making the cabbage and then assembling a meal around the odds and ends that are hanging out in my fridge (hence the mujadara).  Dessert was probably a slice of that terrific peanut butter pie.  All around, this was a great meal.

On Thursday night, I decided I was feeling brave enough to face the pasta dish again.  This time, I took my own advice and added two entire cloves of garlic, chopped, to the pasta before scooping it into a glass baking dish and sliding the whole thing into the oven.  At the table, I added some more caramelized onions for flavor and ate my pasta alongside some leftover cabbage slaw.  The pasta was much improved over Tuesday’s version, and I woke up with scary garlic breath on Friday morning.

On Friday, I was lucky enough to have someone else paying for my lunch and dinner, as my lab hosted a postdoc candidate with whom I ate my meals.  Lunch was a tuna fish sandwich, which I ate only because there was no vegetarian option, unless you count “no lunch” as a good option, which I do not.  I find work lunches to be rather dicey when it comes to my vegetarian preferences.  It’s not unusual for me to bring a lunch even when I’ve been told lunch will be provided, but on Friday I was feeling tired and lazy, so tuna fish it was.  I do like tuna fish; I just don’t eat it because it’s an animal.  (And my faux-tuna sandwiches are terrific.  Sometimes I crave them and have to run out for the ingredients post-haste.)

For dinner, we went to Los Cucos, which I have decided is my favorite Mexican restaurant in town.  I’ve written about this place before; the food was good back then and it was good last week too.  There were four of us at dinner, and our tiny table was covered in plates of enchiladas and tall glasses of beer.  Me, I had a mojito, and it totally hit the spot.  It was so good that I’m thinking 2011 should be my Year of the Mojito.  Care to join me?  We can sit on my patio and watch the Texas sunset while sipping our cocktails.

Finally, Saturday morning rolled around, and I hadn’t been to a grocery store since the previous Sunday.  I was running out of my basics—only one egg left, just a little butter still sitting in its glass bowl—but I made the most of what I had.  I tossed that one egg into a ramekin with some cubed bread and caramelized onions, and the whole thing went into the oven for a bit.  I pulled this savory French toast out of the oven to sprinkle some cheese over it, then gave it one last burst of oven heat, and pulled out the perfect Saturday lunch.  I ate it alongside the last of the cabbage slaw, over which I had diced a green apple.

Saturday Lunch

The combination was quite lovely: rich layers of eggy, cheesy bread, the sweetness of bronzed onions, and the bright crunch of cabbage and apples.  It was a good meal on its own, and it tasted even better knowing I’d made such good use of my resources.  Of course, after that, I went to two grocery stores and spent too much money as usual.  But I remain steadfast in my belief that spending money on good food is as sound of an investment as I can make with my dollars.  There is nothing more valuable than my health (or your health!).  Everything in life—success, happiness, pleasure—starts with good health.  Yes, I will spend almost four dollars on eight ounces of butter (organic, made from the milk of grass-fed cows), but for that I do not apologize.  I just say, “Would you like a piece of toast?”

Monday, January 24, 2011

Pumpkin Soup, with a Side of Melancholy

The intrepid Ms. a and I are at it again!  This week we’re writing tandem posts; the theme for today is food or recipes that remind us of someone.  a’s post, the past, via split peas, can be found on her blog, still life.

* * *

Pumpkin Up Front

I admit it: I thought I took the easy way out with this tandem post topic.  I’ve had a’s Pumpkin Black Bean Soup on my list of things to make for ages, or at least since October when she shared her recipe.  It sounded delicious: pumpkin soup made a little exotic with coconut milk and the warm earthy spiciness of cumin; pumpkin soup made substantial by the addition of black beans.  For once, here was a pumpkin soup that wasn’t curried, as most of them are, which I find distressing.  The seasonings are simple and sublime: the cumin, plus thyme, salt, pepper, and some lime juice, if you’re feeling fancy.  One could argue that aromatics like onions and chili peppers are also seasonings, and I wouldn’t disagree.  But still: no curry, and for that I’m grateful. 

Perhaps more importantly, this soup did not look like it would be sweet.  I’m generally not a fan of sweet soups because I find myself wanting more savory and less sweet if we aren’t eating dessert yet.  It’s not that soups can’t have something sweet in them—carrots, caramelized onions, a good pour of white wine—but I just find savory soups to be so much more satisfying in the entree position.  As much as I have a sweet tooth that I feed every day, I also have a savory tooth that demands some attention, particularly at lunch and dinner.

I started the weekend thinking that I was in the mood for chili, but the more I thought about actually making and eating chili, the more I realized it wasn’t chili I wanted, but maybe something related to chili.  A first cousin to chili, perhaps.  This soup, with its spices and black beans, is definitely somewhere in chili’s family tree.  It lacks that thick stewiness that chili has.  It also has a relatively short ingredients list, so it comes together pretty fast—a definite plus in my book.  What this soup lacks in thickness, it makes up for in flavorful broth, which means you need some chewy bread to sop up all that cumin-scented, coconut milk-enriched broth.

As I stood in my kitchen, chopping onions and garlic, I thought that the only personal connection I had to this recipe was through a, my kitchen buddy and dear friend.  It’s her recipe, so of course I think about her while I’m cooking, which got me thinking about all those cookies we’ve made together, and how our plans to cook together turned ordinary winter nights into memories that we both treasure.  Then I turned my attention to the coconut milk.  For a long time, I’ve had two cans of coconut milk sitting in my cupboard, both brought to me by Daine, he who gives me green bean recipes and countless other food ideas, some of which I hope to share with you this year.  Daine and I worked in the same lab for a while, but then I moved to Texas and our daily conversations disappeared.  I miss them, and Daine too.

Coconut Milk

One of the reasons that I love recipes, even though I don’t follow them strictly, is that they serve as a tangible memory that I can pull into present tense if I buy the right ingredients and follow instructions.  Inevitably, when I make a’s Orange Shortbread Chocolate Chip Cookies or Daine’s Mom’s Slow-Cooked Green Beans, I think of that person who shared something special with me: a recipe, a conversation, a love of good food and the way it brings people together.  Food is like that: welcoming, inclusive.  Food is happiness, despite all the cultural baggage that surrounds the issue.  Food makes me happy.

These days, I am facing an enormous amount of change, even though I’m not going anywhere.  One of my favorite labmates will be leaving for a new job very soon, another labmate will be following a spouse halfway around the world, back to their country of origin.  It’s hard for me to imagine the lab without these two people, whose faces have become a comforting part of my everyday life.  Smaller changes are jarring to me too, like the fact that my favorite neighborhood mural was covered up in white paint, as though that’s some sort of improvement, getting rid of the vandalism.  Even happy changes are hard for me, like having a new baby in my family.  Change makes me nervous.  When I saw that Asmodeus had turned off the comments on his wine blog, it just about pushed me over the edge.  Why must everything change?

Because.  There’s no real answer for all this change, all at once.  It’s just because.  I thought about all of this as I chopped vegetables and strained soup stock and measured spices on Saturday night.  I suppose things often change for the same reason I don’t follow recipes: because we believe the change will make things better.  A better life, a tastier soup.  It makes me sad, all this change, and I almost started crying because I felt so overwhelmed by this sense of not-the-same that the future guarantees.  In my happiest moments, I sometimes wish I could make time stand still so that I could stay in this snapshot of joy.  I often wish I could hide from change.  But the good thing about melancholy is that it, like everything else in life, is subject to the rule of change.  I went to bed early on Saturday, feeling sad and anxious.  By the time I woke up on Sunday, those hard feelings had vanished, leaving a sense of peace and possibility in their wake.  This change of heart is something I want to remember the next time I’m feeling down.  The other thing I want to remember is the soup that I stirred while working all of this out in my head.  And so, a recipe.

Soup for Lunch

Pumpkin Black Bean Soup

Adapted from still life

Serves 4-6

Despite my penchant for tinkering with recipes, I did make this one more or less as instructed.  My changes are more like embellishments.  First, I recommend sprinkling a chopped scallion on each bowl.  I love the crisp, fresh pungency of fresh scallions, and they add a nice textural element that the soup otherwise lacks.  Second, bread!  This soup demands bread, so don’t forget it.  Though I think it might be nice ladled over some hot rice, too (and topped with a chopped scallion!).

1 tbsp. canola or olive oil

1-2 large onions, chopped (if you like onions, use 2 here)

1 poblano pepper, chopped (a uses 1-2 jalapenos; I saw good-looking poblanos at the market and got excited)

4 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped

1 tsp. cumin

1 tsp. thyme

1 sweet potato, peeled and cubed

7 cups water or vegetable stock (you can use less—say, 5 cups—if you prefer a thicker soup)

1 can or ~2 cups pumpkin puree (I used canned, as you can tell from my photo above)

2 15-oz. cans black beans, drained and rinsed

1 can (13-15 oz.) coconut milk

Salt and pepper to taste

Fresh lime juice to taste (I juiced one lime and I thought it added the loveliest flavor)

1 bunch of chopped scallions

1)  In a large soup pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat.  Add the onions and a pinch of salt.  Cook until they start to soften and become translucent.  Add the poblano or jalapenos, garlic, cumin, and thyme, then cook for another minute or so, stirring frequently.

2)  Add the sweet potato and vegetable stock/water.  Turn up the heat to high and bring the whole thing to a boil.  Turn the heat down to a simmer and cook for 10-15 minutes, until the sweet potato becomes very soft.

3)  Mash some or all of the contents of the soup pot, either in the pot with a potato masher or ladle some into a separate bowl and mash it there.  Pour everything back into the soup pot, then add the pumpkin and black beans.  Simmer for another 10-20 minutes. 

4)  Add the coconut milk, some salt and pepper, and the lime juice.  Taste and adjust the seasonings.  Serve hot, in deep bowls, with the chopped scallions sprinkled on top.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Weekend Stretches Out Before Me


A glorious winter weekend is sitting right in front of me, waiting to be filled with good stuff, and I’m almost paralyzed by the lack of plans.  Does this ever happen to you?

It doesn’t help that I’m feeling a little flattened by the workweek that just ended.  It wasn’t a bad week, not at all, but it was still exhausting.  I suppose that’s true for every week, but I wasn’t feeling my best this week and I don’t think I got enough sleep.  By Friday, I was ready for a deep rest.  But then, at about 3 AM this morning, I woke up feeling the strangest pressure in my chest, a circular-shaped pressure, like a heavy tire was sitting on me.  In my sleep-induced delirium, I wondered if I was having a heart attack.  I also felt really hot, so I threw off the covers and laid down on the cool couch, waiting for the painful pressure to subside.  Eventually, the hot feeling passed and I started feeling a little cold, so I went back to bed.  I don’t remember if the pressure dissipated before I fell asleep, but when I woke up again this morning, it was gone.  How very strange.  I hope it wasn’t a heart attack.  I’m a little young for that sort of thing.

Perhaps it was last night’s mojito doing strange and mysterious things to my brain.  At any rate, I feel fine now, other than some mild weekend lethargy, which I’m hoping to shake off once I get moving on today’s plan.  The most important question each weekend is this: what to cook?  Because whatever I make this weekend will form the backbone of my lunches and dinners for most of the week.  After some hemming and hawing, I have finally figured out a game plan, two-thirds of which involves In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite.  Behold, a three-part plan:

* My friend a’s Pumpkin Black Bean Soup.  Three cheers for pumpkin soups!  Especially ones that pair deeply savory ingredients and a delicious combination of spices with pumpkin’s earthy sweetness.

* From In the Kitchen: Sausages with Sweet Peppers and Onion Stew and Fried Croutons.  I’m going to substitute my new favorite veggie sausages and possibly make my croutons Daphna-style, but otherwise, this recipe will be my template for a hearty, winter dish filled with vegetables.  I’m tempted to add a can of beans, but we’ll see…

* Also from In the Kitchen: Crispy Tofu with Garlicky Peanut Sauce.  I wanted to make this dish last weekend, but I just couldn’t make myself go back out into the rain to buy the ingredients I didn’t have on hand.  Melissa Clark describes this one as “lightly sweet, very spicy, and utterly divine” (my emphasis).  I’m sold.

It’s sunny but cold here today, so I’d like to bundle up and go for a walk, preferably with camera in hand.  I’m pretty sure that my favorite neighborhood mural was painted over, which is totally disappointing, but I’ve got to go check it out myself.  Do we hate art in this town?  Or did the suspected political nature of this piece offend someone?  I still have no idea who those men are, but I liked the mural.

In other news, my writing studio remains cluttered with boxes and other treasures that I can’t seem to organize, but this weekend, I think I have a new plan for taming the box collection.  It’s funny how I spend so much time in this room of my apartment, and yet it’s the one that is least organized.  I have, however, been hanging things on the walls, which will please Matt, who feels like this place is some sort of mental asylum with its lack of art or other things of interest on the walls.  I can’t help it: bare walls don’t distress me.  I find them sort of soothing.

I mentioned before that I’m insanely far behind on recipe posts, and that’s still true.  I suspect a recipe for Christmas cookies is going to show up here in February (you don’t mind, right?), but that’s the way it goes sometimes.  I’m still excited about these posts; I just can’t keep up with all my ideas for the blog.  This weekend, I am going to work on my reading list for 2011.  I’m feeling particularly inspired by some of the reviews on a’s goodreads bookshelf, which I think I could spend hours perusing.  Is there anything better than book recommendations from a friend?  Maybe recipe recommendations, but frankly, if I don’t have to choose, I’ll take both.

Happy weekend, everyone!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Stretching the Crumbs

Close Reading

December was a nice month.  It was busy and bustling, filled with good food.  I took December at face value: an indulgent month of egg nog, birthday cake, almond bark, banana bread, peanut butter bars, a chocolate truffle, and lots of coffee.  I didn’t subsist on desserts alone, but boy, did I make sure dessert was not forgotten.  Like I said, it was a good month.

It was also an expensive month, starting with a $450 plane ticket to get from Houston to Detroit and back again.  And that was with layovers and plane changes and every trick I could pull to keep the price down!  I’m still not entirely comfortable with the $300-500 price tag that now accompanies my trips home to Michigan; it just seems wrong, somehow, to pay so much for a trip that is not the least bit exotic.  Michigan is home in a way that no other place will be, even the places that have become home in their own way.  Going to Michigan is comfort and familiarity, but exotic it is not.  So perhaps you’ll excuse me for my sticker shock.

Nevertheless, it’s worth it because I’ve got to keep an eye on the little ones before they become big people.  I have to hug my family and assure them that I am alive and well.  Going to Michigan is like getting recalibrated, emotionally.  It’s good to visit the tribe and drink egg nog while I’m there.

January is my month to recalibrate in the wake of December’s madness.  It’s the opportunity to resume my running, to dial back my sweet tooth a notch, and to zip my wallet closed while I rebalance my budget.  I’m pretty responsible with my dollars, but after all that spending in December, I decided to take it easy in January, to buy only the necessities for a month to regain control of my credit cards.  Of course, as soon as I made this decision, I discovered I was out of almost every toiletry and soap item I use: face lotion, face wash, dishwasher soap, laundry soap.  It was nuts.  I have replaced almost all these things, but my budget gave me the evil eye while I did it.  I answered by sticking out my tongue.

This week, after my weekend grocery shopping, I challenged myself not to buy any groceries until Friday.  Perhaps this doesn’t sound like much of a challenge, but I’m used to doing a mid-week pit stop.  I’m also used to cooking somewhat whimsically, meaning I don’t make a weekly meal plan and cook from that.  Instead, I make a few things over the weekend, and then the week’s plan becomes catch as catch can.  In other words, I more or less make and eat whatever sounds good.  This strategy works fairly well, but I still (embarrassingly) end up throwing out leftovers that were perfectly good until I ignored them for three weeks.  I hate that, but it’s true.  I’m not the Leftover Queen that my friend Anne is.

I’m stretching the crumbs this week, cooking and eating out of the fridge, freezer, and pantry.  I am NOT thinking about grocery shopping or feelings of deprivation.  In fact, I feel downright inspired, excited to flex my cooking chops and give my wallet a breather for a few days.  Last night, I improvised a taco salad of sorts that was pretty tasty.  First, I got to work with a skillet, caramelizing two onions.  Then I defrosted some corn bread, cut it into bite-sized chunks, tossed them with a little melted butter, and toasted it in the oven until it was hot and crunchy.  I plated it on some baby spinach, then topped it with the caramelized onions, a refried bean/salsa mixture, and some shredded cheese.  I ate it alongside a slaw of cabbage and orange slices.  Healthy and delicious, it was extra satisfying because it was so inexpensive.

Board with Knife and Lemon

Tonight I made spaghetti and topped it with a creamy, cheesy sauce into which I mixed some steamed, mashed cauliflower.  I topped it with lots of salt and pepper, a squeeze of lemon juice, and some caramelized onions left over from Monday night.  To be honest, this dish was kind of bland, even with copious amounts of black pepper.  I should have added some minced garlic to the hot pasta—that would have added a nice kick.  Still, it feels good to make do with what I have on hand.

Along the way, there’s also been homemade apple sauce, which I practically inhale because I love it so much, and a peanut butter pie.  My copy of Melissa Clark’s In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite finally arrived last week, and hot damn does that book make me want to drop everything and cook.  Ms. Clark’s writing is probably the best food writing I’ve read in a long, long time—I’d put her up there with my very favorite food bloggers, all of whom are talented wordsmiths and incredible cooks (at least if one can judge these things based on recipes).  The peanut butter pie recipe came from this new book, and holy moly is it ever good.  If you are a peanut butter lover, you are not going to want to miss this one, and if you are a food writing lover like me, you do not want to miss this book.  Get thee to a bookstore—you’ll probably find yourself as smitten with In the Kitchen as I am.

Peanut Butter Pie Close-up

Sweet readers, I am ridiculously far behind on recipe posts right now.  I’m trying to dig myself out.  Forgive me if I save my variation on Melissa Clark’s peanut butter pie for another time?  And forgive me if I say that you really, seriously want to own her book, not just for the pie recipe, but for her delicious prose, thoughtful and practical cooking advice, and inspiring kitchen stories?  One more thing: forgive me if all my photos look a little beige tonight?  That’s what I get for taking photos inside at night.

PS  As an aside, do any of you actually cook from the recipes I post?  Should I keep posting them for you, or am I recording these things for my own future reference?  Either way, I’ll keep writing, but I’m just not sure that anyone else pays any attention to the recipes, which can be quite time-consuming to write.  No complaints here, but I am curious…

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Stolen Inspiration

View from the Kitchen

There’s nothing wrong with stealing a little inspiration from someone else, right?  Inspiration only becomes inspiration because of the exchange from one person to another.  On that note, I’ve been enjoying the archives of the minecreations blog, a crafting and cooking blog written by Julia, a fan of all things homemade and heartfelt.  I’m really excited to make her apple granola and her banana bread.  Julia’s kitchen posts have a soft, quietly joyful quality to them that I really like.  She makes me want to learn how to make jam and quilts and live in a snowy, wintry place.  On her blog, I bumped into this meme, which I immediately decided I would borrow.  It’s like a writing prompt for bloggers, right?  Right!  Let’s do this.  (And please, do visit the minecreations blog!  It’s an inspiring read for anyone who loves home and homemade things.)

What were you doing ten years ago?

I was a nineteen-year-old college sophomore, slogging through organic chemistry and trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grow up.  I made it through the chemistry class, but I’m still working on that second part.

What were you doing one year ago?

I was doing more or less what I do now: scientist by day, hungry cook by night, bookworm all the time.

Five snacks you enjoy:

Pretzels, especially whole-grain ones.

Almond milk and strawberry kefir stirred together in a 1:1 ratio


Green apples dipped in peanut butter

Cheese and crackers

(Wait, does wine count as a snack?  Because I like wine too.)

Five things you’d do if you were a millionaire:

Donate more money to my alma mater (go, Brits, go!)

Buy a house for me

Set up two trust funds, one for my niece and one for my nephew

Take my mother on that trip to Hawaii that she’s always wanted (and deserved!)

Set up an endowment to fund research for cancer or bipolar disorder

Five bad habits:

Not washing all the dirty dishes each day

Being grumpy

Bean counting (i.e., keeping a running “tab” on relationships) and not being generous

Letting my recyclables pile up

Procrastinating on certain tasks, like scheduling doctor’s appointments (but I’m getting better at this one!)

Five things you like doing:

Sleeping late


Shopping for birthday cards and presents

Reading blogs

Visiting libraries

Five things you’d never wear again:

Stirrup pants (and they’re back!  Oh Lordy.)

Jelly shoes

Tank tops with arm holes that are too big

Too-tight anything (shirts, pants, whatever)

White tennis shoes

Five favorite toys:


Laptop computer

Le Creuset Dutch oven

Running shoes

Leaf-shaped cookie cutters (thanks, a!)

* * *
Happy weekend, everyone!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

My Three Resolutions

Trees and Evening Light

I’m not one to make New Year’s resolutions very often.  With my aversion to cold weather, I find that winter is not a time to make resolutions.  It’s a time to get cozy with life as it is, a time to bake sweet things and drink hot things and make friends with the couch.  It’s a time to read and to nap.  It’s a time to take walks on chilly winter days, enjoying the silence that winter so often brings with it.  To my mind, winter is a time to rest and recharge.  It’s not a time to embark on ambitious plans.

But this year feels a little different to me.  2010 was a big year for me with respect to personal growth.  I feel like I’m on an upward trajectory, still feeling the growing pains, but moving up regardless.  I’m feeling inspired to reflect on what I think I did well in 2010 and what I’d like to do in 2011.  The list I wrote on my birthday turned out to be a list of the ways in which I’d like to have more fun in my 30th year.  My New Year’s list is a little quieter, a little more centered.  I like them both.

Before I tell you what I’d like to do with 2011, I’d like to say that I think I did pretty well with 2010.  It wasn’t a perfect year, of course, and I made my share of mistakes.  But I picked myself up and dusted me off, and I kept going.  I kept trying.  I think that counts for a lot.

Here’s what I did well in 2010 (and would like to do again in 2011):

*  Took lots of photos and fell head-over-heels in love with my new camera.  Color me smitten with photography.

*  Kept my chin up even during hard times at work.  It’s important to take care of yourself and keep your eyes on the prize, even when things are not going well.

*  Learned to reach out more to my family, my friends, and Matt.  I’m trying to be less of a loner, even though it feels like my natural state.  Give me a stack of books, a pot of tea, and some cookies, and I will see you tomorrow.

*  Bought some beautiful furniture to make my new apartment a home.  This was a very good idea, and I’d like to do it again in 2011.

Here are my three resolutions for 2011 and beyond: 

*  I’d like to cook from new and inspirational sources.  I have nothing but love for my cookbook collection and subscriptions to Vegetarian Times and EatingWell.  These days I do most of my cooking from these printed sources, with supplements from the food blogging world.  This year I’d like to expand my horizons: cook from my two new cookbooks, cook from the lesser-used books on my shelves, and most of all, cook and write about more recipes from friends.  I have some terrific dishes that friends and readers have shared with me, and I’d like to put more effort into sharing those recipes in this space.  

* I am going to cultivate a more intellectual reading practice.  I seem to have fallen into a rut where most of the reading I do is on-line.  Blog love is wonderful, and there is so much inspiration to be found on the internets, but I’d like to expand my reading horizons beyond my computer.  Right now I’m working on a reading list for 2011, which I hope to share with you once I’ve compiled my choices.  (I am currently soliciting suggestions, so feel free to leave a comment here or send me an e-mail!)  As an aside, I should mention that I have no plans to quit reading blogs and such; rather, this resolution is about upping the ante on my reading choices.  I really miss being in college and taking courses in history and philosophy.  Since I am no longer a student, I need to be more proactive about being a lifelong learner.

* Finally, the resolution that will be most important and most difficult.  I want to begin letting go of my chronic anxiety.  It’s only in the last few years that I finally had a word to describe how I feel most of the time with regard to money and career.  I feel anxious.  I think I’ve always felt this way, but in the past, the anxiety was directed outward in a way that allowed me to live in denial of a problem that really lives inside of me.  For someone who lives with chronic anxiety, I have picked a terrible profession.  Experimental biology is filled with uncertainty: experiments fail, projects don’t to live up to expectations, reagents go bad and trash your results while you carry on, unknowing but perhaps always suspecting, always anxious, that something is going to go wrong.  My anxiety is so dreadful that I have been seriously considering a change in career paths.  For now, I am sticking to the plan, and the change that I’m considering is an internal one.

I think that being able to verbalize my feelings and being able to write about them here is a very good first step toward a life with less anxiety.  I already do a lot of things to manage my anxiety, such as exercise, but I need to do more.  I’m not sure what I can do, though, when I know that my anxiety is triggered by my work, which is anything but certain and guaranteed.  Postdocs dwell in a kind of no-man’s land in academia, a land of great pressure and no job security.  My postdoc position is, on the whole, very good in many ways, yet I am as anxious as ever.  Since I am a researcher and a bookworm, I am going to tap into what other people have to say about managing anxiety.  I’m going to visit the library and the bookstore and begin culling the shelves for advice.  That, and perhaps I’ll try to do more yoga.  (The yoga can’t hurt.)

PS  I can’t discuss anxiety without at least mentioning anti-anxiety medication.  My feelings on this topic are mixed.  I have a lot of friends and family who have taken medication for anxiety or depression, and I think medication can work wonders.  It’s an option that I’d be willing to consider for myself if I felt like my anxiety was inhibiting me from living a life that I consider satisfying.  What’s funny about anxiety is that it does not preclude being happy.  I often feel very happy with my life, and I’m grateful for that.  Because my anxiety is so specific, I think medication is not the first solution that I will seek.  But I won’t rule it out, either.  I’ll start with the library first.  And libraries make me happy, so that’s a sweet bonus.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Fire Up Those Ovens

Speaking of lasagna, I made a pan of it on Saturday night!  Dammit, I love lasagna.  Do you remember Garfield and his lasagna-gobbling habits?  That’s how I feel about lasagna too.  The question is this: why do I not make this lovely stuff more often?  Also this: was I perhaps an overweight orange tabby cat in a previous life?  Maybe.  I do have orange hair.

It's Ready!

This lasagna recipe was one of several gifts that arrived recently by snail mail.  One of the great joys of my life is getting good stuff in my mailbox, especially the snail mailbox.  When I returned from Michigan last month, my box was stuffed with goodies, including a new issue of EatingWell and a fun mix CD from my blog friend Kate O.  A few days later the new issue of Vegetarian Times showed up, and I was in new magazine heaven.  There’s always something so fresh and inspiring about the January issues, filled with healthy ideas for a new year and cozy ways to eat your vegetables.  Citrus is a favorite feature this time of year, and if there’s a better way to get your vitamin C than eating those sweet little clementine oranges, let me know because clementines are the best.

On Saturday, I finally got my first crack at one of the new recipes, the Kale Lasagna Diavolo, this month’s cover recipe for Vegetarian Times.  It was such a good evening in the kitchen: I put Kate’s “Winter 2010 it’s like a mixtape” CD on the player, where I may or may not have proceeded to shake my booty to “Dynamite” by Taio Cruz six times in a row.  The lasagna came together easily: cook the kale briefly, make the sauce (just oil, garlic, pure tomato sauce, and red pepper flakes), mix the cheeses together, and then get to work assembling all the layers.  It sounds like a lot of steps, and there are multiple cooking vessels at work here.  But for me, who never makes lasagna or casseroles or anything similar, it was fun.  Lasagna is the ultimate family food.  It’s a cooking-for-a-crowd dish, except that this time, it wasn’t.  The recipe makes an 8x8-pan of lasagna, and it makes about six Rose-Anne-sized servings, which is to say, I’d guess it serves 4-6 (not 8 like VT says!  Their serving sizes are always so dinky.  I hate that.  I am not on a diet.)

After assemblage, you sprinkle some grated Parmesan on top, tuck it into a hot oven for about 40 minutes, and out emerges this gorgeous, browned, cheese-crusted thing of delicious beauty.  I let it sit for about ten minutes or so because it was piping hot.  It tastes as good as it looks: rich with tomato and cheese flavors, spicy-hot from the red pepper flakes, and soul-warmingly good to eat.  I ate it with some roasted carrots to piggy-back on some of that oven heat, though I would have really loved it with a crisp green salad, maybe something with pears and pecans.  The leftovers are pretty nice too, though they’ve lost that nice crusty topping—the Parmesan cheese softens once the lasagna has time to cool.  But the flavors are still there, and pasta makes a perfect lunchbox companion.

Happy cooking, friends!  It’s cold out there, even here in Texas, so fire up those ovens and keep yourselves warm.

Dinner with Candlelight

Hey, there’s the lasagna cover again on the left!

Kale Lasagna Diavolo

Adapted slightly from Vegetarian Times

Serves 4-6 hearty eaters as an entree accompanied by a salad or other vegetable side dish

This recipe calls for goat cheese, which I did not have.  I made do with an ounce or two of cream cheese, but I do think goat cheese would be terrific in this dish.  Next time, next time…

Cooking spray

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

8 ounces of kale, tough stems removed

1 15-oz. carton of ricotta cheese (I used lowfat, which is my usual choice for ricotta.)

2-4 ounces cream cheese or soft goat cheese, at room temperature

1 tsp. olive oil

2 large cloves garlic, chopped

2 cups pure tomato sauce (the canned stuff)

1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes (use less if you want a milder lasagna.  1/2 tsp. gives you a nice spicy kick.)

6 lasagna noodles, cooked and drained, or 6 no-cook lasagna noodles

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1)  Spray an 8x8 pan with cooking spray.

2)  Bring a large pot of salted water to boil.  Cook the kale for 2 minutes.  Here the recipe says, “Drain and rinse under cold water until cool enough to handle.”  I forgot to do this.  Oh well.  Press the extra moisture out of the kale (I used a wooden spoon to do this, with the kale sitting inside a strainer).  Chop the kale, then place in a bowl and season generously with salt and pepper.

3)  Mash the ricotta with the cream cheese or goat cheese.  Set aside.

4)  Heat 1 tsp. olive oil in a saucepan or skillet.  Add the garlic and cook for about 30 seconds until it’s nice and fragrant.  Add the tomato sauce and red pepper flakes.  Bring to a bubble, then simmer for about 5 minutes to thicken it slightly.

5)  Lasagna assembly time!  In your prepared 8x8 pan, spread 1/4 cup of the tomato sauce.  Place 2 lasagna noodles on top, then dollop half the ricotta mixture over the noodles, and top with half the kale and 1/3 cup of sauce.  Repeat layers: 2 noodles, the rest of the ricotta mixture, and the rest of the kale.  Top with last 2 noodles and the remaining sauce.  Sprinkle with the Parmesan and bake for 40 minutes until the cheese is browned and the noodles are cooked through (if you are using no-cook noodles).  A note here: my lasagna was quite browned at 40 minutes, so you might want to keep an eye on things toward the end to make sure it doesn’t burn.  I think deeply browned is okay, but I’d prefer not to burn my dinner.

6)  Remove lasagna from oven.  Let it rest for about 10 minutes, then serve hot.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

In Which I Declare Blog Love and Share Good Quotes

Mystery Plant

When I was in graduate school, there was a lovely professor with whom I used to have great conversations.  Our labs were on the same hall, and we used to bump into each other in the bathroom, of all places.  I loved talking to her—she’s smart, caring, thoughtful, and a terrific scientist, and one of my regrets about graduate school is that I didn’t have more conversations with her.  One time, we were talking about academia and family life, and she told me about a friend of hers from her younger days who now has what one might call a “traditional” family life, meaning children.  My professor friend, who is married but does not have children, said to me, “It’s like even though we went our separate ways for years, now we can all come back together and say, ‘Hey, what have you been up to?’  And I find that I’m fascinated by these stories from people whose life paths have been different from mine.  It’s so much fun to see these friends again and to hear how their lives have unfolded.”

To me, she is describing Robert Frost’s poem about the path not taken (“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood/And sorry I could not travel both/And be one traveler…”).  Even at age twenty-nine, I can see this sentiment unfolding in my life, with my focus on career and selfish interests rather than family and children.  But I taste no bitterness about this; I just observe the differences between my road and the roads not taken.  One of the wonderful things about this day and age for women is that it is becoming more and more acceptable for women not to marry and not to have children, and I feel grateful that neither of those aspects of family life is a requirement.  We get to choose, and that is an amazing thing.

However, I can be quite fascinated with other women’s lives and the happy chaos of life with small children.  I love visiting my own family, and my young niece is very special to me.  I’m sure her brother will be too, with some time, but I feel like he and I need to spend some more time together.  I think we are still acquaintances at this point, though he did demonstrate to me on Christmas Day that sitting on a couch with a baby sleeping on your chest is just about the most wonderful thing ever.  It’s probably the best cure around for any sadness or anxiety you may be feeling.

Recently I found a blog written by a person who is living a life that doesn’t look very much like mine at all.  She’s a bit older than me, and I’m quite certain she is much wiser than me.  She’s married and lives in a blended family with six kids—and all of them are girls!  Her name is Tara Thayer, and she writes this fabulous diary of a blog called public::bookstoreI am completely smitten with it.

What I love about Tara and public::bookstore is that she writes in such a way that I feel like I understand her life, even though when it comes to the basics, we have little in common.  She writes with such heart and an amazing ability to see the significance in small things.  She weaves the tiny details into this grand quilt of a life full of love, hope, hard stuff, and above all, dedication.  How could one be a parent to six kids without the utmost of dedication to them?  And even in the midst of all that laundry and cooking and shepherding those kids through their days, Tara still finds love and romance in her marriage.

This woman has a good life.  But that doesn’t mean it’s an easy life.  And it seems clear to me that her happiness is not just happenstance.  Her blog is a diary of the ways in which she looks for happiness, joy, contentment, and quiet moments while living a very full life.  I am in awe.

I wanted to share a few of my favorite tidbits from public::bookstore.  I’ve been working my way through the archives—fortunately for me and you, there are more than two years of them!—and gathering little gems to share with you.  What Tara and I have in common is a love for the everyday moments, a striving to make each day count.  We both love home and cooking, good books and the delightful challenges of photography.  I think she’d agree with me when I say that we don’t believe happiness can be bought, but money can help, sometimes.  The trick is knowing how and when to spend it.  I believe we share a feeling that good days can be hard, and hard days can be good.  The important thing is to keep your heart open and to keep trying.

And now, a few gems:

* On living with intent, from November 2008:

“And the other thing I'm aiming for now is to live with intent. What I mean by this is that I've thought about and really want to do what I do, have what I buy, eat what I put in my body and my kids bodies. Say what I mean to say. Spend time like it counts.”

* On dealing with crappy stuff and finding comfort in the kitchen, from September 2010:

”now, i'm old enough to know that you can't blame anyone but yourself for how you deal with stuff. stuff will happen that you can't control, true. but it's up to you, and no one else, how you deal with stuff. “

* A quote about happiness from W. Somerset Maugham, from March 2009

“It's a funny thing about life; if you refuse to accept anything but the best, you very often get it.”

(Ain’t that the truth!)

* Another quote about happiness, this time from Abraham Lincoln, also from March 2009:

”Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”

(Also, please do click on the link for the beautiful photo paired with this quote!) 

* About doing the best you can with what you have, from September 2010:

“and so it goes. we do as much as we can to adjust things here and there, to make our days go smoothly, to build some simple pleasures into the routine. but things will still break down now and then. we just need to patch it all together, keep moving forward. remember to say i love you as often as possible.”

(I really, really love this passage.  I think that describes my life, too, in five sentences.)

* And finally, a wish for the new year, from December 2008:

“My wish to all of you is that you find some inspiration this year, too, in whatever it is that you love.”

(I think it’s safe to say this wish is a good one for 2011 too.)

Happy reading, friends!  I’m trying to tear myself away from the computer to start making a lasagna tonight, but I’m so absorbed by public::bookstore’s November 2008 archives that I haven’t left my seat yet…just ten more minutes, please!  And that’s the sign of really good reading material.  I hope you take a few minutes to check it out.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

A List, in Lieu of a Recipe

Kitchen Reading Material

Currently I am loving…

* nachos.

* the January issues of my favorite food magazines.

* winter oranges.

* the last few pieces of birthday cake.  Uh-oh…I ate the very last piece tonight!  Damn, it was tasty.  I want more.

* mild Texas weather in January.  Dear readers, please move to my little Texas town so we can have a dinner party.  I’ll cook!

* love.  It really does get better with time.

* public::bookstore (more on this one soon!).

Patient readers, I’ll be back soon with a pithier post, one that may even contain a recipe(!).  Please excuse my flakiness for now.  I feel like I’m still getting back into the swing of things, but all is well here.  Except that I ate the last piece of cake tonight.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Into the Pink

Into the Pink

A new year deserves some new color, don’t you think?  Or at least some fresh linens, none of which are new, but nevertheless they feel pretty and vibrant to me.  That’s exactly how I want to feel this year, so I thought I’d start by dressing my table in pink.  The tablecloth came out of my mom’s linen closet when I first moved out of the house and into my grad school apartment.  The pink napkin is part of a big set of cloth napkins that my sister-in-law and her little family gave me as part of my graduation/housewarming/birthday present when I moved to Texas.  I’m always tickled to see how impressed people are by cloth napkins; it’s like by owning and using cloth napkins you’ve achieved a certain superstar domestic status.  For my part, I just love the colors of cloth napkins, and the way they make me feel classy, chic, and cozy at the same time.  My sister-in-law has fantastic taste in everything, so any gift I receive from her is a real treat.  Especially the kitchen-themed gifts, which always make me feel closer to her, even though we live ridiculously far apart.

My New Year’s Day was quiet and restful and a tad bit lazy.  I freshened up my bed with clean linens, cooked a big batch of pinto beans, had some good phone conversations, and watched two episodes of Law & Order: SVU.  What I did not do was any cleaning: no vacuuming or cleaning of bathrooms.  Matt may think I have “a rage for order,” as he puts it, but I am no clean freak.  I am far too lazy for that compulsion!

It was a good day, and it started with a very good breakfast.  It’s taken me years to get here, but I am firmly on the oatmeal bandwagon now, oatmeal as breakfast porridge on any given day.  (As a side note, can I just tell you how much I love the word “porridge?”  It’s a rather antiquated word, but I find it so homey and charming.)  I’ve told you a little about my favorite ways to eat oatmeal, such as Daphna’s Banana Oatmeal or my Overnight Oatmeal.  What I’m finding with oatmeal and a few other things that I make frequently is that the recipes are really more like biological organisms that, over time, are slowly evolving into something a little different, something that fits my personal taste the way a foot fits snugly into a well-worn shoe.

The most important change in my overnight oatmeal methods is that I’ve started using kefir instead of yogurt.  It’s a subtle switch, but I’ve fallen hard for the strawberry kefir from Lifeway, with its tangy-sweet flavor and pourable thickness.  When mixed into oats that have been soaked overnight in almond milk, the combination is the breakfast stuff of my dreams: a light sweetness, an easy chewableness, and a boatload of nutrients in every bite.

And because it’s now winter, I’ve invited a new friend to join my oatmeal: those adorable little clementine oranges, the ones that come in giant boxes that you can buy for five bucks this time of year.  I really like fresh fruit on top of my overnight oatmeal, and while I usually go for bananas, they weren’t an option this time because the bunch on my table was still quite green.  The oranges, however, were looking perky and inviting, so I peeled one and arranged it in a circle of wedges on top of my oats.  I’m usually not so artsy with my food, but for whatever reason, I’m finding that a pretty bowl of oatmeal is a good way to start the day.

Breakfast Close-Up

Of course, overnight oatmeal is not complete without a few more toppings.  Here, I wasn’t planning on a tropical theme, but I can’t think of a better word to describe a combination of oranges, coconut butter, and dried mango.  A spoonful of ground flax seed and a big blob of peanut butter complete the bowl.  Armed with a soup spoon, this bowl was gone in minutes, but I liked it so much that I made it again today.  This is Overnight Oatmeal, Winter Edition.

Happy 2011, dear readers.  2010 was a great year, but I’m ready for a vibrant 2011.  I hope you are too.

Overnight Oatmeal, Winter Edition

Adapted from my original version (also delicious and perfect for summer!)

Serves 1

The combination of sweet, juicy oranges, soft oats, and strawberry kefir is so good.  The mango adds a little bit of chewiness, and the flax and peanut butter add savory notes and great texture.  For me, the morning bowl of oatmeal is really about the combinations of flavors and textures, and this one here pushes all the right buttons.

The oatmeal base:

1/2 cup rolled oats, preferably a thick-cut variety

1/2 cup almond milk or your favorite everyday milk

1/3 cup Lifeway strawberry kefir

The toppings:

1 tbsp. ground flax seeds

1 clementine orange, peeled and separated into wedges

1 slice sweetened dried mango, chopped (I like the dried mango from Trader Joe’s)

Coconut butter, to taste

1-2 tbsp. crunchy natural peanut butter

1)  The night before, mix together the oats and milk in a bowl.  Cover and leave at room temperature.  This step might freak some of you oat, but I swear, I have never gotten sick from leaving oats at room temperature to soak overnight.  And I say that as someone who is prone to tummy troubles!  However, if you are more comfortable refrigerating your oats, then by all means do so.

2)  The next morning, mix the kefir into the oats.  Top with the flax (I sprinkle it around the edges), the orange slices, the chopped mango, the coconut butter, and the peanut butter.  Find your favorite soup spoon and dig in, preferably with a mug of coffee on the side.