Thursday, July 28, 2011

One of my coworkers passed away a few months ago. She had cancer and developed pneumonia not long after a chemo treatment. It was a fatal combination.

She loved plants. She had several in her cubicle. One of her final wishes was that her plants be divided among any coworkers who wanted them. As I was fairly close to her, I decided to take one on. My husband joked that once I killed the plant it would be like my coworker dying all over again. I laughed, but I groaned internally. He was right. I am all thumbs when it comes to gardening, and none of them are green. I was hoping that as Sue had given this plant a head start, I could just take over and water it periodically and it would continue to thrive without much effort on my part.

The key words in the previous sentence were water it periodically.

I had not given my adopted pant much thought all week until I turned around today in my cubicle and was shocked to realize that my plant looked sad. There really is no other way to describe it. I tried to remember how long it had been since I last watered it, counting the days in my head: 1….2….3…..4…. And I realized I could not remember. It had to be sometime last week.

I hurried to the sink, filled a glass, and drenched it.

I’d like to say it looks a bit happier already, but it would be nothing more than wishful thinking.

Well, it’s not dead yet.

A Fresh Beginning

For the past several months, I’ve been completely negligent when it comes to updating my blog.

I decided this morning that one of the reasons I’ve let it go is due to its complete lack of congruity or continuity.

I’ve been working on my blog now for nearly a decade. In that time, I’ve done some rather (ok, really) stupid things, matured (in some ways), fallen in love with men all wrong for me and one man all right for me, graduated from college, gotten married, landed my first “real” job, and now I’m on to graduate school. We’ve been through many things together, this blog and I, and in turn all of (or any) readers with me. While I do not wish to delete all of those experiences from my life – I had them and they have made me who I am today – I do not feel it is necessary to dwell on them any longer by keeping them in print. They have thus been removed from this blog’s archives to be packed away to gather dust in the attic recesses of my memory.

This gives me an opportunity to begin the blog again fresh. I’ve kept the most recent posts (particularly about my baking adventures) as they are most congruent with who I am today and what I hope this blog to be. I hope to take more photographs, try new recipes, read more books, and appreciate the simple things of daily life rather than ruminate on my foibles.

Shall we begin?

Friday, March 25, 2011

Ratatouille and Treacle Tart–my culinary visit to France and England

On an extremely impulsive whim, I decided to cook the next two dishes on my world food tour early: ratatouille and treacle tart. That was my first mistake. My hubby was going out with guys from church for dinner, so I had the house to myself the majority of the evening. I was in desperate need of a break from school work and, I thought, what better way to spend an evening alone and de-stress by making myself a delicious vegetarian dinner? Following work and an errand for church, I went to the grocery store. Rather than writing out the recipe, making a grocery list based on the store’s layout, and researching the potential substitutions needed, I found a couple of recipes on the internet and saved them in the bookmarks of my phone’s browser. That was my second mistake.

The shopping trip was frustrating, to say the very least. For starters, they were out of zucchini. Second, I had to buy an eggplant. DSCN2244I don’t think I’d even handled an eggplant prior to yesterday let alone eaten one. I didn’t expect it to be so soft. I lucked out in that our grocery store has a produce guide available, so I was able to read up on picking a good eggplant at the last second. The hardest part was a problem of my own making. My failure to do my research thoroughly meant I spent a long time hanging out in more remote aisles paging through Google for substitutions, tips, etc. The ratatouille was fairly straight forward. Just lots of produce. Save for the zucchini, it was a cinch. The tart was another matter entirely. I decided not to make my own crust, but then I wasn’t sure I could use ready-made pie crust you just roll out. Did I need puff pastry? Pastry shells? The recipe called for a sweet pastry crust. Does pie crust qualify? Is pie a pastry?? I ultimately decided to save myself the trouble and go with the pie crust. I’d never eaten the tart before in my life. Would I honestly know the difference if the crust wasn’t exact? No. Then I needed a substitute for Black Treacle. The recipes said I could use molasses. That’s easy enough, I thought….until I got to the syrup aisle at the store. There are about 4 different varieties of molasses. Did I need Blackstrap? Regular? Sorghum? I opted for plain molasses of the cheapest variety and moved on.

After the first store, I stopped at another on the way home for the zucchini, some ice cream I forgot at the previous store (my third mistake), and a pan. I wasn’t sure I could use a regular pie pan for a tart and, as my pie pan is a massive 9.5” in diameter, I thought it best to find something else. The first store had nothing to offer. At the second I found some disposable cake pans that looked somewhat tart-like. Good enough.

I got home, popped the movie Ratatouille into my laptop, and had that playing on the kitchen table while I cooked. It was appropriate and completely awesome.

I started with the ratatouille, sautéing the cubed eggplant with garlic, oil, parsley and a couple tablespoons of dry, white wine (my addition to the recipe.) It was the first time in my life I genuinely wished I had registered for a mandolin slicer when we were getting married. Slicing zucchini is tedious work, and itDSCN2245 would have been so much prettier if they had all been the same width. The recipe called for two zucchini, but I probably could’ve gotten away with just one large one. It had A LOT of zucchini when all was said and done. The recipe I used didn’t have sauce or use tomato paste. It was pretty straight forward – layer of produce, sprinkle of parmesan and salt, repeat. I chose to use kosher salt in the recipe to help really bring out and together the flavors. Kosher salt does so much more than make things…well, salty. When all was said and done, I popped the ratatouille in the oven and started the tart.

The treacle tart was a bit more complicated. Essentially, treacle tart is: golden syrup (light corn syrup), black treacle (molasses, in case you missed it), lemon juice and zest, 4 eggs, and some fresh breadcrumbs. I emphasize the fresh. You need them to really help soak up the syrup. That was stressed in almost every recipe I read. You pour all of this in the crust and bake it. Easy right? That’s what I thought at first.

I prebaked my crust at first just to help it get firm. I’m now DSCN2247adding pie weights or dry beans to keep around for just this in the future. The crust puffed slightly. I also am determined to get a proper tart pan in the future. Proper tart pans have a false bottom so you can pop your tart out and you can admire your pretty crust. I tried to fashion some sort of a means of lifting my tart from the cake pan with parchment. That was my 4th mistake. When I would later try to lift it out, the crust started to crack. In any case, I poured my mixture into my prepared crust, and put it in the oven. And baked it. And baked it. The recipe said to bake at 350, but the crust said 450. I wanted to go by the tart recipe just in case. That was the 5th mistake. I ended up having to up the temp to 400 and almost double the baking time to get the tart to solidify properly. Once I got it to that point, though, it baked beautifully. I had fears of a horribly burned crust, but they were unfounded.

DSCN2248My meal was awesome. Samuel made it home just in time to have dessert with me. The ratatouille was AMAZING. Seriously. If you love your grocery store’s produce department, you will love ratatouille. I enjoyed my entre with a small spinach salad, French bread, and a glass of Riesling. The tart was also fabulous. I tried a small nibble while I was checking it in the oven. I wasn’t sure about it. It tasted a little bitter. Once I added the ice cream, though, it was fabulous. It was like custard only better because it was topped with ice cream. Despite all my mistakes and missteps, I managed to pull off an awesome European feast. I am eager to try both of these again in the future using variations on the recipes.


"If you are what you eat, then I only want to eat the good stuff." - Remmy, Ratatouille

Links to the recipes I used and abused will be posted within the next day or two.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

World Culinary Tour

I've had this idea in my head for a while now to try making various dishes from around the world. Each dish would represent its country of origin. The rules established for my world culinary tour are as follows: 1. It must be a dish associated with that country in some way either by being a staple of the diet or via popular culture. That being said, there are limitations in rule 2. It cannot be a dish also common in the US via popular culture. (In other words, pizza is not an acceptable dish representing Italy despite popular culture, however some curried dish would be acceptable for India.) Anyway, I'm still working out the kinks and making it up a bit as I go along.

I originally planned to make only desserts from the world over, but I decided to expand my horizons a bit after a few months of planning. Making only desserts was not practical. For one, there are simply some ingredients not available everywhere in the US (finding pigs blood and suet for Blood Pudding, for instance, would be a little tough...not to mention disgusting), so it's best to keep my options open. Second, some desserts are just a bit expensive or involved to make. While looking for an Irish desert, I was a little dismayed (but not shocked) to see that most contained copious amounts of alcohol. While we have whiskey around that I could cook with, I don't believe we have any Irish whiskey, and if we did, I doubt my husband would allow me to use it in baking a cake when he could bypass the oven and have it on the rocks. So, in celebration of St. Patrick's day, I opted to make Irish Soda Bread instead. (Report & recipe will be in next post.) Finally, I decided against all desserts as it would also not be practical for our waistlines. All that rich European food....I can only imagine the weight gain.

And so I'm off on my adventure. As noted, I began in Ireland with Irish Soda Bread. While I'm not entirely sure it's a staple of the Irish diet, I found it on several Irish Cooking websites. It was easy, tasty, and....well, I'm getting ahead of myself. More on that soon.

I'm thinking the next stops on my tour will be England and France. Common sense says to serve an English entree - simplistic comfort food filled using stewed meats or fish and starchy produce - and have a French dessert - rich, decadent and snobbish. I'm thinking about taking a backwards route, though. For my entree, I want to make ratatouille. Popularized by the Pixar film of the same name, ratatouille is a French provincial dish made up of zucchini, tomatoes, eggplant, onions, peppers, carrots and various herbs and spices. It also goes along well with my Lenten discipline, being a vegetarian 6 days a week. It looks to be a fairly complex recipe, but I'm pretty confident about making it. For desert, I think I will go with an English tart or pudding. Several English foods not commonly known or heard of in the US (likely thanks to Puritanism or the rejection of just about all things British back in the mid-late 18th century) are cropping up in the American vocabulary again thanks to the Harry Potter books. Many scenes take place at the dining table where Harry, Ron and Hermione feast on such things as treacle tart, spotted dick, and other various puddings, fudge, etc. These will be much easier to make than a French dessert and probably a tiny bit more forgiving health-wise.

In any case, I am excited to venture forth into the world once again, all without leaving my kitchen.

If anyone has any suggestions for countries or foods to try making, please feel free to comment with your suggestions. I'm working on a google map that will show countries I am thinking about including as well as what dish to try.

Ireland: Irish Soda Bread

My world culinary tour began in Ireland in celebration of St. Patrick's Day. I decided to make Irish Soda Bread. I decided on this dish because it was super easy and utilized ingredients I mostly had on hand. I also chose it because I intended to serve it at a work pot luck, so my dish needed to be something easily made and transportable. In reference to my food rules, I admittedly have no idea if soda bread is still a common food in Ireland or if it's often served in the US. I'd never heard of it prior to finding the recipe, although it was listed on almost every Irish Food website I could find. I decided this was good enough.

I'm not entirely sure why it's called Soda bread since it only has 1tsp of baking soda in it. I found several recipes, but chose one that was relatively simple and on a website I've gotten reliable recipes from previously. One major draw for me was the absence of yeast from the recipe. I have never cooked with yeast before and I didn't intend to start then. My agenda was quite full that day, and sitting around waiting on bread to rise would not fit into my schedule. I made two varieties, plain and with raisins. I added a few spices to the later. Both breads had a hint of sweet flavor that made them an adequate snack, side dish, or dessert. They were delicious served warm with butter and (on the plain) just a touch of honey. The hubby loved both varieties, particularly the raisin, while I was more partial to the plain. They brought a hint of Ireland to our dinner table. All we were missing was potatoes and Guinness.

Irish Soda Bread Recipe from

4 C Flour

1 tsp Baking Soda

1 tsp Cream of Tartar

3/4 tsp Salt

1/2 C Sugar

6 T melted butter, cooled

1 3/4 C Buttermilk

2 tsp Buttermilk, set aside

1 C raisins, optional

Mix dry ingredients, add butter and buttermilk. Mix well. Put dough on floured surface and knead 2 minutes until dough is firm. Shape into 2 round loaves. Rub with 2 tsp buttermilk and sprinkle with flour. Cut an x into the top of each loaf. Place on a floured/greased baking sheet. Bake @ 375 degrees for 1 hour or until golden brown.
The website contains other variations on this recipe.

Things I learned while making this recipe:

  1. Line the pan with parchment paper if possible. The buttermilk on the bread will run down and burn to the pan.

  2. Add some spices to the raisin variety for extra flavor. Add both the raisins and the spices (cinnamon and nutmeg) prior to mixing in the butter and buttermilk. The website indicates you should add them after mixing the dough, but it doesn't indicate if you should knead them in or not. I would think that, were you to simply knead the raisins in, they would not be distributed throughout the dough evenly. The mixture became very doughy almost immediately, so mixing in anything else was difficult.

  3. I only had to bake mine for about 50 min before they were done.

  4. While not too heavy, this is a rich bread (note all the buttermilk).

  5. I cut mine into wedges. This seemed to be the best serving method.

  6. Experiment with how they are served. Warm is best, but a variety of toppings could be used and be yummy. Both varieties were great instead of toast for breakfast. Jams and jellies, I'm sure, would be a great accompaniment.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Reflections on Lent

In my adulthood, I have come to understand my mother’s love of anticipation. While myself and my brother and other relatives tore through the wrapping paper and bows on Christmas presents, my mother silently held her gift, watching the others in a contented silence. As the others finished and oohed and ahhed over their gifts, my mother then began opening hers. She carefully opened the paper, sliding her finger beneath the tape until it fell away unmarred. Part of her quiet contemplation and pause came from the joy of watching the rest of the family enjoy themselves. Part of it came from the love of anticipation. She waited until the last possible moment to open her gift, allowing her excitement to build until she overflowed. From years of watching my mother at Christmases, I’ve come to appreciate anticipation as well. Sometimes the build-up to a great event can be just as good as the event itself.

Anticipation is one of the themes of Lent (and Advent, for that matter, which is why I love that season, too). Starting with Ash Wednesday, we enter a period of that quiet contemplation. It is the end of winter. Cabin fever is at a high. Spring break cannot come fast enough. The continued chill in the air has us longing for sunshine and spring blossoms. While the church is clad in green for Epiphany, there is little green outside the church walls. The Church of England and the Catholic Church refer to this as “Ordinary Time.” It is a time of transition while we contemplate the mystery of God. Ordinary Time and Epiphany come to an end on Ash Wednesday. And then the fun begins.

Most people would not categorize Lent as “fun.” It is a time of fasting, of letting go, of acknowledging our mortality. I, however, love Lent. In our letting go, fasting, or maybe adding a discipline, we remember the beauty that there is in allowing ourselves to simply dwell with God. It’s not about what you’re doing, it’s that you’re doing it with your relationship with God in mind. The action doesn’t make you holy, but it puts your mind on holy things. When we remember that “from dust we came and to dust we shall return,” we also remember that this isn’t it – that there’s more than this life of endless endings awaiting us through the promise of the Gospel.

And so the anticipation begins. The tunnel is dark and seemingly endless. We walk through Lent in the dull grays and chill of the winter season. It all comes to a head at Good Friday, when it seems all is lost. And yet a light at the end of the tunnel suddenly appears. We celebrate, clad in the bright colors of Easter; made anew by the resurrection of Christ. Just as we dust off our alleluias and return them to our joyous music, the earth will dust off the last remnants of winter. The grasses, leaves, and flowers will return. All will be in bloom.

If you feel overwhelmed (or underwhelmed) by the somberness of the season, remember – it is not what we are moving through, but what we are moving toward. And that is Christ.

Merry Lent.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Writer's Block

I'm attempting to write a paper. It's due tomorrow. I really should get it done tonight. I had to write another one like it last week, and it came so easily. It's like I just put my fingers to the keyboard and out it flowed! This week, not so much....and I even like the paper topic better. How can I remedy this situation? I've already tried studying/writing at the library, I've tried stepping away for a few minutes, I've tried a glass of wine, I've pet the cat, cleaned out my closet, I've cleaned my study space twice, read and reread the materials I'm supposed to use as references, I've listened to Samuel's basketball stories from the All Star game that he knows I don't care about. What else can I do to get the wheels turning?

I think my next steps are 1) use the restroom. 2) wash my hands (obviously - but they feel dirty right now and somehow that distracts me) 3) get a band aid for cut that is bugging me 4) stand on my head.

Seriously. I used to do this in college when I was stuck on something. Somehow the sudden reversed blood flow helps to revive the brain and help the individual to think more clearly. It really does help. I haven't done it in a while, though.

If that doesn't help, I think I will remove ALL distractions entirely and declare this a no-disruption zone for the next hour. I know - I should have done that before, but usually a little background noise and a few minutes of distraction here and there actually help me to think clearer.

Maybe I have ADD?

And maybe there are just too many things around here that are more fun than writing a paper.

Probably option B.