Monday, September 26, 2011

My Splendid Table Notebook

For those of us who cook, Lynn Rossetto Kasper is our fairy godmother, and The Splendid Table is her magic wand.  I adore Lynn’s food and cooking radio program, complete with phoned-in questions from listeners.  In fact, I get so many ideas from listening to The Splendid Table that I decided I really needed a way to keep track of those ideas.  And that, my friends, is what blog posts are for.  This page is my notebook of ideas I’d like to try/remember/share from Splendid Table episodes.  It’s going to look like a notebook too—more casual and work-in-progress than most of my blog posts.

I’m going to update this page frequently, adding ideas and links as I find them.  If I really love something, I’ll try to write a separate recipe post, and I’ll provide the link to the new post as well.

Oh, and if you aren’t listening to the downloadable podcasts of The Splendid Table, you should be.  They’re just terrific.

Happy listening, and happy cooking! 

* This sounds really cool: a mail-order knife-sharpening company that even sends you a before-and-after picture of your knife!  From the December 29, 2007 episode.

* Lynn’s off-the-cuff recipe for German-roasted nuts, which you make on the stovetop.  These sound perfect for steamy Texas days, when only a fool like me turns on the oven.  But more importantly, they sound really, really delicious.  I’m thinking about making a batch to take on the road to San Antonio next weekend.  From the December 29, 2007 episode.

* Roasted pears with fried sage leaves.  I am currently looking (listening) high and low to find the episode where Lynn describes how she would make these…

* Lynn’s red lentil soup with (lots of) cilantro and fresh orange, or more officially: Coriander-Orange-Scented Red Lentil Soup.  Mentioned on a 2008 episode, I think?

* Just for fun: Talking about Faygo pop, a local treat for us Michiganders.  I grew up drinking Faygo!  My favorite flavors were Rock ‘n’ Rye and Peach.  I love how they describe it as “the beloved quirky beverage from Motown” (January 26, 2008).

* The Indian Grocery Store Demystified by Linda Bladholm and Neela Paniz.  This book sounds fun, and we have a really cute little Indian grocery store in town (January 19, 2008).  I wouldn’t mind a little hand-holding when it comes to Indian ingredients!

* All of Diana Henry’s ideas for what to do with a bag of potatoes (November 13, 2010).

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Life, Love, and Food in Michigan

I often feel conflicted about my opposing dreams.  Sometimes I want to lead a full, adventurous, exciting life, and other times I want a simple, earthy, wholesome existence.  For example: world traveler versus pumpkin farmer.  Or bestselling author versus chocolate-and-cheese shop owner.  I wouldn’t say that these dreams are mutually exclusive, but I do feel them tugging me in different directions.  I suppose it’s another version of trying to find some balance in my life, of trying to design a life that’s got enough work to feel worthwhile and enough play to feel fun.

During the twelve years that I’ve been wandering from school to school, most of my immediate family has lived in the Detroit area.  For twelve years, Detroit has been where I spend my Christmases.  It’s where I go to recharge and reconnect, to relax and reconsider.  Since the birth of my niece Lydia five years ago, it’s also become my September escape.  Especially now that I live in Texas, where September does not resemble the prelude to autumn that is September in the Midwest, Lydia’s birthday has provided a good excuse to fly north and remember what Michigan looks like right before it bursts into the flame-colored leaves of October.

Michigan is a stunningly beautiful state.  You don’t hear much these days about how pretty it is, except for those “Pure Michigan” ads, which sometimes make me teary-eyed.  But it really is a nice place to visit, with its tall trees, fluffy clouds, melancholy rainstorms, and crisp, clean air.  Of course I’m biased because I grew up there, and it feels like home in a way that no place ever will.  Despite all that, however, when I go home in September, I’m almost astonished at how gorgeous Michigan is, with its end-of-summer green-and-gold palette and the way the air feels almost magical with fall’s impending arrival.  I really love it up there.

Wildflower Bouquet

Michigan Skyline

Inside and outside, Michigan will charm you with its natural beauty.

Now that we have two little ones in the family, I feel a special obligation to make my presence felt in Michigan.  I may be ambivalent about having children of my own, but I am crazy about my niece and nephew.  I love them deeply and fiercely, and I want them to grow up knowing me not as some aunt who lives far away, but as an auntie who visited them regularly to play games, read stories, take walks, and spend time together.

The simple part is what we do together.  The complicated part is how I get to Michigan: one van ride, two plane rides, one car ride, and eleven hours of transit.  I’d prefer to make it one car ride, 30 minutes or less.  But for now, I’m in Texas, they’re in Michigan, and transportation remains complicated.  Thank goodness I have a PhD.

But it’s worth it—all the planes and cars and hours, the whole damn trip is totally worth it.

Chocolate-Covered Strawberries

We made chocolate-covered strawberries with Lydia for her birthday party.  My sister-in-law Amanda commented that the berries she bought weren’t the tiny, flavorful strawberries you find in Midwestern farmers’ markets in the spring, but still, a homemade chocolate-dipped strawberry will amaze you, rich and sweet and a little bit tart, all in one juicy bite.  The chocolate-covered strawberries were part of a wonderful birthday dinner, the theme of which was breakfast for dinner, or brinner!  Our feast included waffles (with a choice of strawberry or maple syrup—or both for us greedy folks!), a creamy hash brown casserole, frittata, sausage, fruit, and coffee cake.  Much contented chewing could be heard inside and out.  To wash it all down, we had hot apple cider mulled with the spicy flavors of fall.  The cider is an enduring tradition for Lydia’s birthday, and I have to admit, it’s my favorite part.

The week was sprinkled with small adventures too: a trip to a fantastic thrift store, where I found three shirts and relied heavily on my sister’s spot-on fashion advice.  A visit to Whole Foods for birthday dinner provisions and a trip to their “cafe” for lunch.  Whole Foods is one of those places that I miss so much whenever I shop there.  If I’m home in College Station, I can live without Whole Foods, but when I’m in Whole Foods, I think, I need you!  I am looking forward to one day living in a town with a Whole Foods because Whole Foods, I need you!

There was also an impromptu hike with my brother and Lydia.  It was a gorgeous Sunday, and Lydia was surprisingly enthusiastic about going for a hike, so we made a quick drive over to a little nature preserve-like area and crunched through the leaves and gravel on an old farmstead.  There are lovely parks and nature preserves throughout the metro Detroit area, which is one of the city’s charms that I absolutely adore.

There was a rainy day, and a girls’ day out with my mom, and a grilled dinner eaten on the deck the night before I left.  There were slow mornings with coffee and sleepyheads.  There was the little jailbird (who is not even a year old yet but is ready to conquer the world, or at least sneak into all the places he’s not allowed) who would stand at the baby gate, hands on the bars, looking at us with the saddest face.  He broke my heart!  You can see how excited he was when we had the back door open while I tried to take a photo or two of the rain.

Blurry but so Cute!

Devin with Shoe

Devin, the little jailbird, was distracted by the shoes and later by my purple slipper.  For Christmas, I think he’s getting his very own shoe.  That way he doesn’t have to share his toys with Daddy when Daddy needs to wear his shoes to work.

Yes, I had a wonderful time in Michigan.  It was so good, in fact, that one day I’d like to go back and stay.  Stay where my family is, where so many of my friends are.  I’m ready to return, I think, though I’ll remain in Texas for now because I have work to do here.  But one day I am going to put down some new roots in Michigan, right alongside the roots that have been there all along.  I’m not ready to do it yet, for all kinds of reasons, but one day I will be.

Until then, there’s Christmas to think about.  Stay beautiful, Michigan.  I miss you more than you know.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Overwhelmed, but Happily So

Happy B Day

5 with Brownies

Silliness with Red Peppers

As you may know, it’s a big deal to turn 5 years old.  It’s such a big deal, in fact, that one may be inspired to hide behind a pair of red peppers, which were found tucked into a birthday present from Gamma.  Birthday Number Five!  It’s overwhelming.

I was overwhelmed too.  I generally shy away from big group events because they are very intense for me, given my hermit-like tendencies.  But seeing my niece surrounded by so much love and generosity at her family birthday party was wonderful.  All that love and happiness left me feeling so lucky to be a part of this family, this imperfect family of mine.

I’ve returned from Michigan, after a long day of travel.  It was a great vacation, just the right balance of excitement and relaxation, having fun around town and hanging out at home.  My vacations often fill me up with so much emotion that it’s hard for me to find my footing afterward, both here on the blog and in real life.  It’s hard to know where to hit the “Play” button to resume my regular life.  It’s easier at work, I suppose, because I work hard to keep myself organized and ready to jump back into the fray when I return from vacation.  But at home, there are piles of laundry to be done, and suitcases yet to be unpacked, and a general sense that I ought to be there, setting up shop again.  But in my heart, I’m still in Michigan, still with my family, still soaking up that crisp, almost-fall air.  I’m still sipping coffee in the morning, or spicy mulled apple cider in the afternoon.  I’m still listening to my baby nephew as he “Brrr-brrr-brrr!”s around the living room, like a little motor boat, pausing occasionally to pull himself up on two feet using whatever’s convenient: the couch, a window ledge, your legs.

Yes, I’m here in Texas, physically, but really, I’m somewhere else altogether.  And that’s not a bad thing, at least for a day or two until I get settled back into my routines here.  I hope I’ll have more to say about Michigan and family and love soon, but for now, I’m just saying hi.

Hi.  Thanks for being here with me, wherever you are.  I’m glad you’re here.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Departure Lists

In the Library Looking Down

Travel Reading Materials

I feel like I’m bursting with writing ideas for this blog, but at the same time, I’m trying to stay focused on my upcoming trip and all the prep work I need to do in order to leave town with a peaceful mind.  I’m finally done with all my trip-related errands (bank, Target, library), and I’ve even stashed a post-trip meal of brown rice and okra in spicy tomato sauce in the freezer.  It’s good that my errands are all done and all that remains is packing because I’ve been exhausted this weekend.  So exhausted that I felt only a twinge of guilt about watching six episodes of Friday Night Lights in two days (but in my defense, that show is so good!).  I started packing today, and though I’m far from finished, I’m feeling pretty pulled-together this week.

In the interest of staying focused on my trip preparations, I thought I’d share a few travel-related lists with you.  I like lists, and I hope you do too!

* Packing to wear: lots of clothing that can be easily layered in different ways.  After a summer of Texas heat, I think Michigan’s 60-70-degree temperatures are going to feel blissfully cool, but I’m sort of afraid of being cold!  So I’m packing smart layers, including my favorite green Five Bamboo dress (as seen here), tights, jeans, some light cardigans, and a few tops.

* Planning transit day meals: I’m going to try to get away with not buying any food on my way up to Michigan.  I think we can all agree that airport food sucks, so I’m going to pack minestrone (to be eaten at Houston Hobby Airport before going through security), a big salad, some chopped vegetables, a sandwich, some fruit (dried or fresh—whatever I’ve got), a peanut butter bar (yum!), and some nuts.  It sounds like a lot of food, but that will be lunch and dinner, I hope.  I’ll probably buy tea and water at the airport—the tea because I like tea and water because it’s absolutely essential.  Also, drinking my tea gives me something to do to fend off airport boredom!

* Hoping to read: my new library books!  I’m really excited about this set of novels, which you can see above.  I love Edith Wharton’s style, and I’ve heard great things about Michael Chabon’s writing.  I don’t know as much about Joanne Harris, but Chocolat is on my reading list for this year.  In fact, all three authors are on my reading list, but most of these titles are not.  What can I say?  In my defense, the library didn’t have the Michael Chabon title I wanted (all copies are checked out right now), and The House of Mirth was recommended to me by Matt.  Sadly, I’m missing him a lot right now, and it’s going to be a while before we see each other again.

* Ready: for a few days off.  It’s been a long, hard summer.  I miss my family, especially my niece, and I’m hoping to bond a little more with my baby nephew.

I may be MIA around the blog world for the next week or two, so please don’t be offended by my absence.  I’ll be back before you know it, yammering on about how much I love fall and how happy I am about the autumn harvest.  Until then, be well, sweet readers.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

I’ll See You Soon


Garden Happiness

Baking Together

I think it’s hard to write about family without sounding cliché.  As Matt once said to me about grammar, “Nothing is more clichéd than grammar, which repeats the same structures over and over again.”  Writing about family is a lot like that: I traveled many miles, visited the family, we had a good time, the end!  Oh yeah, and isn’t my niece the cutest thing in the entire WORLD?!?

No, seriously.  Isn’t she?

But family is far more complicated than that because with family comes family dysfunction.  Take, for instance, Christmas Day last year.  It was actually not quite the cozy, snow-covered portrait I painted months ago.  The day turned out okay in the end, but before that, it featured such heartwarming moments as my brother John storming out of my parents’ house, me saying the f-bomb in front of my parents (not my finest moment, I assure you), and this very funny conversation my sister had with my brother Charlie:

Theresa: “How do you make mashed potatoes?”

Charlie: “One part mash, one part potato.”

At this point, Theresa’s phone died and she burst into tears.  I don’t remember why she was so upset that morning, but the whole “one part mash, one part potato” thing pushed her over the edge.  Maybe I’m a jerk, but it was one of the funniest stories of that day and it still makes me laugh now, just thinking about it.  One part mash, one part potato!  That’s my brother, in six words.  He makes me laugh.

All of this Christmas Day family dysfunction occurred before the official family celebration began, and I’ll admit, I was pretty grumpy.  My family can be stubborn and grouchy, and I’m no different.  But it was Christmas Day.  Christmas Day!  And I was about to spend it with people I love, at least in theory.  Even more important to me, it was a Christmas with Lydia and Devin, and I’d like to avoid giving them memories that later they will recall to therapists as they try to undo the psychic damage we inflicted on them on Christmas Day.

So I rallied. We rallied.  I apologized to my parents for that little f-bomb that fell from my lips—I was pretty embarrassed by that.  They shrugged it off, and I felt a tiny bit better.  My sister never quite recovered from that “one part mash, one part potato” thing, but sometimes you just have to let people be grumpy for a while.  And John seemed to cheer up once the festivities started—I think he also got a kick out of the whole mashed potato “disaster.”

My point now in recalling our not-so-merry Christmas is that sometimes families have bad days.  But we stick together, and we tough it out, and sometimes we escape into bedrooms and call our boyfriends, whose cell phones have no reception out in the boonies, but we leave a message anyway because it’s nice to say Merry Christmas to the people we love.

Families are bigger and stronger than the bad days and the bad times.  Or at least my family is, and I consider myself very fortunate that I come from such sturdy, if stubborn, stock.  Tolstoy may have written that “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” but I disagree.  Even happy families are complex and multidimensional.  A happy family may contain some unhappy members.  But I am happy to be a part of my family.

* * *

My sister-in-law Amanda is a great cook, and we do eat quite well at her house.  That’s her up there in the third photo, baking with Lydia.  It’s funny to remember that at the time of that photo, about a year ago, she was pregnant with Devin, my nephew.  Now I hear that Devin has started to pull himself up onto his feet!  It’s crazy how fast babies grow.

Last winter, while I was in Michigan for Christmas, Amanda made these amazing peanut butter bars, and it was love at first bite for me.  The recipe is pretty similar to these flourless peanut butter brownies, but the addition of chocolate, some tweaks on the salt and baking soda, and a change in baking technique make these bars quite different and very delicious.

While the old brownie recipe produces an almost fudgelike confection, this new recipe makes a chewier treat.  It’s a little crumbly in the best way, and the chocolate plays really well against the toasty flavor of peanut butter.  These bars get a little darker at the edges, so you have layers of flavor, a savory toasted note and a hint of caramel.  They’re so good—I can’t quite capture in words how good they are.  But I think the photo below does them justice.  I got a little fluffy with my food photos on Sunday, posing this pan of peanut butter bars next to the window in the good light.  But I do like how the photo makes me want to dive right into that pan.

Peanut Butter Bars

Amanda’s Amazing Peanut Butter Bars

Adapted from this recipe for Almond Butter Blondies at elana’s pantry

Makes 24 bars in a 9x13-inch pan

For the peanut butter, I used an organic, “natural” peanut butter, and it worked well.  Because the peanut butter gets beaten until creamy, I imagine that any brand would work, including those that require you to stir the separated oil back into the solids.

Oh, and one more note: I bet this recipe would be fantastic with 1 tsp. cinnamon added to the batter.  Peanut butter and cinnamon is a favorite combination of mine, so maybe I’ll try that the next time I make these bars.

Cooking spray or butter to grease the pan

18 ounces (2 cups) creamy peanut butter

8 ounces (about 3/4 cup, by eyeball analysis) honey

2 eggs

1/2 tsp. salt

1 tsp. baking soda

1 cup chocolate chips (I used semisweet here), divided

1)  Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.  Spray a 9x13-inch pan with cooking spray or use your preferred method of greasing the pan (butter, etc.).

2)  In a large mixing bowl, use a hand mixer to beat the peanut butter until very smooth and creamy.

3)  Beat the honey and eggs into the peanut butter.

4)  Sprinkle the salt and baking soda over the peanut butter mixture, then beat everything together.

5)  Sprinkle 1/2 cup chocolate chips over the batter, then mix them into the batter by hand.  The batter will be very thick!

6)  Scrape the batter into the prepared pan.  Then use your hands to pat it into a layer that’s more or less even.  (I find it easiest to use my hands here.  For some reason, the batter sticks like crazy to mixing spoons, but it doesn’t stick too badly to my fingers.)  Sprinkle the remaining 1/2 cup chocolate chips on top of the batter.

7)  Bake for 20-30 minutes at 325 degrees F.  The edges will darken, which is okay, but keep an eye on your bars so they don’t burn.

8)  Allow bars to cool in their pan on a wire rack.  Slice and serve.

* * *

I’ll see you soon, Michigan.  You know I can’t wait.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

September’s Not to Do List

Michigan Leaves

On the topic of kitchen resolutions, I’d say I’m 1 for 2: my drying rack has been very busy, trying to keep up with me as I keep my kitchen mess to a minimum.  My sink is totally, gloriously empty right now, the perfect prelude to some Saturday night cooking.  My freezer, however, has seen few of its tenants move out and welcomed half a chocolate cake this week, my attempt to preserve the remainder of the chocolate raspberry pudding cake.  I’m having sort of a hard time figuring out how to deal with the freezer this month because I’m going out of town soon (11 days, to be precise!).  I don’t know what to use now and what to keep.  I suppose what I’m really lacking is a battle plan: I need a freezer inventory and a list of the recipes with which I’m going to tackle the freezer.  Make freezer inventory.  There!  That’s my next kitchen resolution.

But this month, I thought it important to make some notes on the resolutions I will not be making.  Writing a not-to-do list is a bit rebellious, but it’s also very reassuring.  And I feel it can be useful for harnessing your resolution energy to make sure it’s aimed squarely in the direction you want to move.  I find that I am sometimes vulnerable to the suggestions from other people’s to-do lists and resolutions, such that when someone talks about, for example, quitting alcohol, suddenly the idea that I should quit drinking takes root in my brain.  But the thing is, I don’t drink much in the first place!  And I like the occasional glass of wine!  Writing my not-to-do list is a way of ferreting out all those unwanted ideas and saying to them, firmly but kindly, “NO.”  Go ahead, try it: “No!”  See?  Like I said, it’s very reassuring.

For the month of September, I promise not to:

* Drink less coffee.

* Drink less wine.

* Ride my bike less often.

* Get up earlier.

* Worry about my job and my future.

* Spend less time feeling grateful for my wonderful friends, great colleagues, and good life.

* Feel less loved by the sweetest man I know.

* Spend more time being serious.

* Hurry up.

What are you planning not to do this month?