Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Ok, here ya go...

Confession time:

Writing this blog hasn't been as satisfying as I had hoped.

When I'm cooking - which I'm still doing a lot of, by the way - I want to focus on the food. Documenting the process disrupts it for me, and makes it feel a bit like a chore.

I very seldom make any dish the same way twice. I improvise a lot and make plenty of substitutions based upon what I like and what's on hand. So then unless I actually take notes along the way, it's almost impossible to recreate the process in a blog post. I've enjoyed several meals over the last few weeks that I considered writing about, and then I realized that I couldn't confidently write down step-by-step instructions to explain what I had done.

Furthermore, as much as I love to read about food, it's surprisingly not my favorite topic to write about. My goal of one post per week wound up taking time away from my other writing projects. With time at a premium and plans to tackle some big (giant!) goals in the coming year, I've taken these past few weeks to really weigh the value of the blog in relation to those goals. Sadly, I don't think it's stacking up.

I started this blog out of a desire to grab hold of my life, to give it direction and shape. In the months since then, I've grown to become motivated and creative and happy in ways that have been largely elusive to me during a difficult year that started on Halloween 2008 with my mom's first heart attack. I've been trying to map out a path to make the most of the opportunities that are available to me, and I have some dreams that seem both exciting and realistic.

So, maybe I'll be able to re-imagine this blog as something better suited to my goals. Or maybe I'll have to jettison it entirely - collateral damage in the quest to reclaim my own sense of purpose. Either way, don't worry about me if this space stays stagnant for a while. It doesn't mean there's anything wrong.

Actually, it means I'm doing great.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Just keep swimming.

I should probably warn you that this post is not going to have anything at all to do with food. I was going to write a post about all the refined sugar (and reptile meat) I consumed at the Minnesota State Fair, but that will have to wait.

It'll have to wait because right now I have only one thing on my mind, and that one thing is this:

Bucket List Item #27, you are going down.

See, here's the thing. I never really learned how to swim. Not only that, but I've never even been able to float properly. There's a reason: I'm not very buoyant.

And see, I can say that confidently now and know that if anyone scoffs at me then they are wrong. I've been saying that to people all my life, because the truth is that when you put me in the water my feet sink. And since my feet are attached to the rest of me, then the rest of me sinks.

Once when I was explaining this to a certain ex-boyfriend of mine, he looked at me sarcastically, pointed at my breasts, and said, "Those are mostly fat. Women should be able to float."


Well, I sort of wish that this gentleman and I were still in communication so that I could call him up tonight and gloat. Because tonight my swimming instructor informed me simply: "You sink."

The good news (aside from the fact that I get to gloat a little) is that there are ways to compensate for that. Tonight I floated--really floated--for the first time. It didn't come easily. It involved a lot of concentration and a lot of muscle control, but I did it. The same is going to be true of kicking correctly--and hard enough and quickly enough--to keep my feet up near the surface of the water.

I was hoping that these lessons might be a relatively quick fix, but it turns out that I'm going to have to work my butt off. And then keep practicing. And, um, overcome the anxiety that has developed over years of panicky situations in which I was not able to keep myself afloat.

But have I mentioned that I'm a particularly stubborn and determined individual?

Yeah. That's right, Bucket List Item #27: Learn to swim. You'd better watch out, because I've got my eye on you.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Since March

That's how long I've been looking forward to this particular CSA box.

Now, of course I've been enjoying just about every aspect of the CSA experience, and I don't mean to imply that there's been anything lacking from the previous boxes. From strawberries to braised cabbage to fennel mashed potatoes to chilled cucumber soup and even to the Ultimate Zucchini Bread Recipe Challenge of 2009, I have been eating well this summer and I've found a lot of joy in the process.

But this box, my friends, is my first once since tomatoes came into season.

So. Many. Tomatoes.

And see, I've been looking forward to this panicky "dear lord, what will I do with all the tomatoes" feeling since March because that's when I first read about Molly Wizenberg's slow-roasted tomatoes with coriander. Just do what the woman says. You won't regret it. The recipe was originally posted over at Orangette and it also appears in her book, A Homemade Life.

Just look at these gorgeous things.

And now that there's a crisp fall chill in the air, the time is right to pop a pan of these in the oven, pull on your sweatpants, curl up with a good book, and take a peek every hour or so until those tomatoes have reached glorious perfection.

Slow down. Enjoy the changing seasons.

Enjoy the tomatoes.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

An exchange of goods and services

When I was a little girl reading the Anne of Green Gables books, I fell head over heels in love with the idea of kindred spirits.

At the time, I didn't actually realize all the different types of friendships a person can form over the years.

There are the Blast from the Past Friends. They're the people you see maybe once every two or three years, and when you do see them your conversation consists entirely of catching up, gossiping about other people you both know, and reminiscing about the good old days of high school/summer camp/community theater.

There are the Venn Diagram Friends, with whom you share only one or two interests that serve as the basis for your entire ongoing friendship. Drinking buddies, running buddies, dance partners...if you only hang out with them while engaging in that one activity, they're your Venn Diagram Friends. My most specific friendship in this category is my Jack White friend.

But I still believe in those kindred spirits. They're the friends who wander into your life in some unassuming manner and then stay there, because somehow you find that no matter how many turns your lives may have taken, within minutes of seeing each other again you will be having beautiful conversations about things that actually matter to you.

So it is, I'd say, with my friend Grace.

On Sunday, in addition to the usual gift of her wonderful company, she also offered me a few photography pointers while we baked together. And fortunately she was kind enough to accept payment in the form of chocolate chip-oatmeal cookies with dried cherries.

Isn't the barter system great?

Chocolate-Chip Oatmeal Cookies with Dried Cherries
Adapted (very lightly) from Bon Appétit (September 2009)

1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup (packed) golden brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
2 cups old-fashioned oats
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups dried tart cherries (6 oz)
1 1/4 cups semisweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 375ºF. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper. In a large bowl, cream the first 4 ingredients together. Add eggs and mix together. Add next 4 ingredients and mix until just combined. Mix in cherries and chocolate chips.

Spoon batter by rounded tablespoonfuls onto prepared baking sheet, spacing 2 inches apart. Bake until tops of cookies are golden brown. In my oven that only took about 9 minutes, although the original recipe states 14. I'd recommend checking them early and adding more time as needed because the bottoms seemed to darken rather quickly.

Transfer cookies to rack; let cool. Repeat with remaining dough.

Yield: About 4 dozen.

Note: Almost the entire batch came out beautifully, but there were about five cookies that spread so much on the pan that they actually looked like they'd melted. They tasted fine, but they weren't very pretty. I'm not sure what was different about those five cookies compared to the rest of the batch.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Banana Graveyard, or, The King Has Left the Building

The idea came about because I had ten overripe bananas in my freezer. Ten. Ten is a lot of frozen bananas. Some might even say ten is an absurd number of frozen bananas.

Anyway, knowing that I wanted to bring some yummy baked goods with me to a BBQ this weekend, I went in search of recipes for banana-based treats. I thought about banana cupcakes, but cupcakes are tricky to transport. Unless maybe you let people ice their own cupcakes, but what if you run out of icing? And what consistency will the icing turn to when left sitting in the sun all afternoon?

Ok, no cupcakes.

Maybe cookies?

That's when I found it: peanut butter banana chocolate chip cookies.

I was already thinking of them as Elvis Presley cookies in my head by the time I realized that Sunday was the anniversary of his death. And then it only seemed a fitting--although irreverent--tribute to my first-ever favorite recording artist (when I was 6!) to bake them while listening to his music.

So I did.

I brought about 50 cookies with me to the BBQ and came home with an empty container, so I'll take that as a King-sized endorsement.

To be perfectly honest, I made zero adaptations to this recipe, so I'm just going to link you directly to the source: FatFree Vegan Kitchen.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Worth it.

On Saturday it was 85 degrees out. And really humid, because it was storming on and off all day. So naturally, not having air conditioning, I thought it would be wise to bake.

Specifically, I chose to bake crackers.

In my defense, the decision to bake crackers on this particular Saturday afternoon was made while I was drenched and chilled after running a 5K in the aforementioned stormy weather. And although after a shower and lunch and a nap and an episode of Pushing Daisies I was done feeling chilled, I was still determined to bake crackers.

Because I am stubborn.

And let me just say, even though using the oven raises the temperature in my entire apartment by five to ten degrees, this experiment was worth it.

Rosemary and Olive Oil Crackers
Adapted from Erin Cooks

1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for the cracker tops
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper, plus more for the cracker tops
1 egg
1/3 cup olive oil
1/4 to 1/2 cup cold water
1 teaspoon dried chopped rosemary, plus more for the cracker tops

In a large bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder, sugar, salt, and black pepper. In another bowl, lightly beat the egg and olive oil. Add the liquid to the dry ingredients and stir until the dough starts to form a coarse meal. Add the water as needed, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the dough can be formed into a ball. Add the rosemary and work it into the dough.

On a lightly floured work surface, cut the dough in half. Using your fingers, press each half into a flat square until the dough is about 1/2 inch thick. Wrap each square in plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 375ºF. Lightly grease two baking sheets.

Return one piece of dough to your lightly floured surface. Roll out the dough, trying to retain its square shape, to a thickness of 1/8 to 1/4 inch. The thinner the dough, the more delicate and crispy the cracker, so work to your taste. Lightly press the dough all over, about every half inch, with the tines of a fork. This will prevent the crackers from bubbling up into little crispy air pockets. Unless you're into little crispy air pockets. But I don't think you are. Lightly brush the top of the dough with water, and then sprinkle extra salt, pepper, and rosemary. Give the dough one or two more gentle rolls with a floured rolling pin to press the toppings into the dough.

Cut the dough into the desired shapes. I went the traditional route and cut mine into squares and rectangles, but you could use mini cookie cutters to create whatever shape you like. Or freestyle it. Y'know, get creative. Just don't hurt yourself.

Transfer the crackers to your prepared baking sheets just like you would with cookies. The crackers will need to bake for 8-20 minutes, until evenly browned. Cooking time will vary by thickness and size. After the first 8 minutes, check the crackers every 3 minute, each time removing any that are done.

Cool the crackers completely and store in an airtight container up to 1 week or more.

I've been eating them with a batch of hummus I put together while the crackers were baking. They seem pretty versatile, so go ahead and try them with your favorite dip. Or eat them plain.

Monday, August 3, 2009

I have a list.

Ok, a lot of lists. I'm sort of a List Person, if you don't already know that about me.

But the particular list I'm talking about contains food items that I currently buy in a processed, prepackaged state and that I want to start making from scratch.

I've already checked a number of items off that list.

To start with, there were the pickles. Actually, I'm not sure I've ever purchased a jar of commercially produced pickles, and I owe that to the maternal side of my extended family. If there's one thing the Charrier women know well, it's the mass-production of food. Let's just say that this summer we decided to take it easy and make only a small batch, so we cut ourselves down to a single bushel of cucumbers.

(Sadly, I'll be missing the pickle project this year because it's happening on a Tuesday. A Tuesday when I have a work function in the evening. The kind of work function where it would be inappropriate to arrive reeking of brine.)

Over the past year or so I've slowly started pulling processed foods from my daily routine and replacing them with delicious, homemade goodies.

Before work, I always start the day with a bowl of yogurt with berries and/or granola. I had been buying box after box of granola from the grocery store, but now I bake it on my own and store it in a tub in the freezer. (There's a pan of maple-coconut granola cooling on my counter right now, and my apartment smells incredible.)

Then around 10 o'clock, I've usually made my way through the Thermos of coffee that I bring from home, and I want some food to take the edge off the caffeine buzz and to push me through to lunch. My answer used to be a store bought cereal bar, but these days I always pack a slice of quick bread or a muffin that I've pulled together using surplus produce. Overripe bananas, rhubarb from my parents' garden, summer squash or zucchini from my CSA box--these things all bake into a typical and tasty midmorning snack at the office. To make these baked treats a little healthier, I usually cut the quantity of butter by half and replace it with apple sauce or canola oil--which also lets me cut down the amount of sugar. Then I replace at least half of the all-purpose flour with whole wheat flour.

And whether it's at lunch or dinner, I usually have a mixed greens salad with at least one meal a day, and now I dress them with small batches of vinaigrette that I keep in a jar on the refrigerator door.

So what else is on the list?


To name a few...

Maple-Coconut Granola
Adapted from Gourmet, via Epicurious.com

1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup real maple syrup
1 cup oat bran
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
3 1/2 cups old-fashioned oats
1 cup shredded coconut

Preheat oven to 375°F with rack in the middle.

Stir together oil, syrup, oat bran, and vanilla in a large bowl. Add oats and stir until they're thoroughly coated with the syrup mixture. Stir in coconut.

Cover a cookie sheet with parchment paper and spread the oat mixture evenly over the pan. Bake for 10 minutes and then stir. Continue to bake, checking and stirring every two or three minutes until granola is golden brown. This will probably take another 10-15 minutes.

Once cool, granola frozen in an airtight container will keep about a month.