Sandwiches for Breakfast and Crepes for Dinner

June 10, 2015 § Leave a comment

It was in Budapest, Hungary where I ate my first sandwich for breakfast. It was not a breakfast sandwich, which is an important distinction. It consisted of ham, cheese and these deliciously sweet white peppers on a fresh bun. At the time I remember it being a paradigm shift. A sandwich for breakfast?! Brilliant! And yet when I returned stateside I carried on with my bowl-of-cereal-ways.

Culture is a beautiful thing. It’s especially beautiful when you can look at and experience many – holding them up side-by-side with that of your own examining the differences and similarities.  How better to see your own culture than to look at it within the family of cultures on this earth?

How better to learn the questions you need to ask. Why am I not eating sandwiches for breakfast? Why am I doing all of the things “successful people” do and still feel miserable?

See the thing is that cultures have signposts. Some are innocent. Some wreak havoc. If not checked against personal well-being they have the power to hinder. At twelve years old eating my first sandwich for breakfast in Hungary I didn’t realize I was learning an extremely important lesson – I live in a constructed reality that can be challenged. I can question everything. And from those questions I can build a life that is wholly mine.

I’ve never heard anyone describe it as eloquently as Maria Popova did in her interview with Krista Tippett:

“We orient ourselves in the darkness of the unknown by grasping kind of blindly for familiar points of reference. And we seek to construct out of them a kind of compass, out of similarities and contrasts relative to our familiar world and our existing knowledge. And I think it’s especially true about such nebulous subjects as art or philosophy or really how to think where there is no true north. So we seek tangibles like the market to orient ourselves in this maze of merit and meaning. And it takes something, but I really believe most people, all people have that capacity in them to do what he says, basically — to not orient ourselves to what’s been done, what’s been thought, to the market, to the familiar, and try ever so gently to expand our private locus of the possible.”

Expand the private locus of the possible. I love that. In my own life I’ve found this to be true – whether it’s questioning the space I want to live in and how I want to decorate it, to the clothes I want to wear, to the things I want to read or talk about. I’ve also found that the locus of the possible is an elixir. Each taste of what is possible – a way of life or a choice I make that brings me joy but goes against habit or rule book – keeps me going back for more. To keep seeing what else is possible beyond the familiar sign posts. It’s almost like finding new worlds.

I’m currently reading “The Third Plate” by Dan Barber. In it he says: “In the rush to industrialize farming, we’ve lost the understanding, implicit since the beginning of agriculture, that food is a process, a web of relationships, not an individual ingredient or commodity.” I’ve written about this before. Nutrition is pandora’s box. Throughout time, over and over again we’ve been told to eat and not eat the same exact thing – i.e. eggs. In our uncomfortability with uncertainty and complexity we’ve taken marketed panaceas to our health problems as gospel like certain vitamins or foods. We’ve looked at food (and nature in general) as commodities. Left unquestioned, we miss the world between the signposts. We miss the intricate web, the connections, the causes and effects.

We miss the mystery. And even though we are all wired to love certainty I can’t help but think we would feel lost in a world without mystery.

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In the spirit of sandwiches for breakfast, how about some crepes for dinner? These spinach crepes are delicious and filling, not to mention beautiful. They’re a great way to mix up a week of vegetarian meals that all start to look the same.

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Spinach Crepes with Herbed Ricotta Filling, adapted from Vegetarian Suppers by Deborah Madison

For the crepes:

1 bunch of spinach well washed

1 1/2 cups of milk

3 eggs

3 tablespoons of melted butter

1 tablespoon of tarragon

1 cup all-purpose flour

For the ricotta filling:

2 cups whole-milk ricotta cheese

1 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese

sea salt

For the tomato sauce:

1 whole onion, sliced thinly

2 tablespoon of tomato paste

1/2 cup of water

1 teaspoon of cumin

1 teaspoon of coriander

splash of fish sauce

red pepper flakes

sea salt

pepper

  1. Sautee the spinach for a couple of minutes. Add cooked spinach to blender along with the milk, eggs, and butter and pulse a few times. Add the flour and 1 teaspoon of salt and puree until smooth. Set aside while you make the ricotta mixture and tomato sauce.
  2. Mix all of the ingredients for the ricotta filling together and season to taste with salt.
  3. Sautee onions in butter for two minutes and add the balance of the sauce ingredients. Sautee for another 8-10 minutes. Salt to taste.
  4. Heat a little butter in an 8-inch skillet pan. Give the batter a stir and then pour 1/4 to 1/3 cup and swirl it around the pan Cook over medium heat until set and golden on the bottom, 2-3 minutes. Pry up the edges, turn the crepe over with your fingers, and briefly cook the other side until it becomes dry enough to slide in the pan, about 30 seconds.
  5. Fill crepes with ricotta filling and top with tomato sauce and enjoy.
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Silly girl

March 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

Words don’t come so easily these days. It seems when I put my focus on something else besides writing that part of my brain shuts down. Alas, I am not as capable a multi-tasker as I thought. Or maybe it’s just a reading season. A season where I take in words instead of spew them out. That is surely fine with me. I will surrender to this season gladly, albeit somewhat deluged because of the sheer amount of things I want to read. But I must quiet the cacophony of choices and focus on that page in front me. Just pick. And read. Turn the page and read some more.  It’s the only way to get through a book, an endless list of books, the minutes of these racing days. Ya know, the thought just occurred to me that I’m writing about non-writing. How silly is that? Probably about as silly as being stressed out by the length of the list of books I want to read. If you’re looking for some extra reading these days:

  • A favorite New Yorker piece on Extreme Caving
  • This ridiculously good longform piece about a friendship that began with a mutual love for birding between two boys who lived on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain, and has turned into a mutual effort to turn the former Iron Curtain into a greenbelt. That the boys began a friendship through the birds that flew freely between their two drastically different worlds just gets me right in the gut. Poetry at its finest.
  • Emplumada by Lorna Dee Cervantes because poems like this:

I pick myself up    ignoring

whoever I was    slowly

noticing for the first time my body’s stench

I made a list in my head

of all the names who could help me

and then   meticulously   I scratched each one

they won’t hear me burning

inside of myself

my used skin glistened

my first diamond

  • The other Sunday during an especially indecisive cooking mood I read this recipe for white chicken chili and all indecisiveness skirted away. I bought two boneless chicken breasts for the soup and slathered them in butter with a decent showering of salt and pepper and baked them in a 400 degree over for 30 minutes. Once the chicken cooled a bit I shredded it into the soup. I also purchased lots of flavorful toppings – jalapenos, green onions, cheese, sour cream, tortilla chips, cilantro. This was a definite favorite recipe this winter and is being filed away in my soup recipe arsenal for all time.

Wait Just a Bit Longer

February 4, 2015 § Leave a comment

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“I bought a loaf of bread because I didn’t think your bread would be done in time,” Mike said last Tuesday night. It was the first time we’d had this conversation.

It’s not that we never talked about bread. We probably talk about bread more than the average bear couple. This convo has never happened because I’ve never attempted to make bread on a weeknight.

Bread, it turns out, can be made on a Tuesday night, or any weeknight for that matter, but it wasn’t until I starter baking with my sourdough starter did this click.

Sourdough bread is not necessarily more work. Once you get your starter up and bubbling it’s similar to conventional bread except it has a much longer rise time. For my sourdough loaves I start mixing the dough the night before I want to bake. It can involve careful planning and rejiggering of the social life on weekends. For a month straight I made sourdough every weekend. I got into a rhythm and expected to wait a whole day to eat the bread I was mixing up. So when the hankering for sandwiches presented itself on a Tuesday I realized how possible it was to make a loaf of bread in time for a late dinner: Home by five, mix by 5:15, rise by 6:15, second rise by 7:00, cooked by 7:40, ready to eat by 8. This realization would have, hopefully, come to me even if I hadn’t made a month of sourdough loaves (I mean the name of this loaf is Everyday Oatmeal Bread). But it was the ease in which I realized it was possible. It was if I had been blowing up twelve balloons each weekend and now I only had to blow up one.

It’s so easy to say just change your expectations – I’ll spare you in preaching that. But I can’t help but think that changing expectations happens in the doing. In the hours where you wait just a bit longer, or you work just a bit harder, or you share just a little bit more.

Five years ago the word bread conjured up a wish to someday make my own bread – combined with ambient feelings of incompetency – and hunger. Three months ago it conjured up feelings of competency and hunger. Now it conjures up a normal weeknight activity and hunger. Each loaf of bread has stretched and imbued the word bread with meaning and nuance – altering my relationship with it and the expectations I assign to it. I oftentimes wonder what other words or phrases can I stretch and examine?

It’s really crazy to think about, isn’t it? That we are all walking around with different clouds of meaning around words and that those meanings morph and change with new experiences. It’s also really beautiful. We are all just one experience away from understanding ourselves and each other just a little bit more.

Everyday Oatmeal Bread, from Simply in Season (an absolute favorite cookbook)

1 1/2 cup boiling water

1 cup rolled oats

3/4 cup molasses

3 Tbs butter

2 tsp salt

2 cups water, lukewarm

1 Tbs active dry yeast

6 cups bread flour

2 cups whole wheat bread flour

  1. Combine the boiling water and oats, and let stand for 30 minutes.
  2. Stir the molasses, butter, and salt into oatmeal.
  3. Mix the water and yeast in a large bowl until the yeast is dissolved, then add the oatmeal mixture.
  4. Work the flours in to make a medium-soft dough. Add more flour as needed. Turn onto floured surface and knead 8-10 minutes until smooth. Place in greased bowl and turn to grease both sides. Cover with damp cloth and let rise until doubled, about 1 hour. Punch down. Divide into 2 loaves. Place in greased 9×5 loaf pans. Cover and let rise in warm place until double, about 45 minutes. Bake in preheated oven at 400F for 5 minutes, then lower heat to 350F and bake until loaves sound hollow when tapped, 35-40 minutes.

Yield: 2 loaves

*Speaking of expectations, have you guys listened to Invisibilia’s episode on expectations? It’s so worth the time.

Wonder

January 3, 2015 § Leave a comment

The light is fading quickly. The living room is suffused with a muted glow that happens once the sun falls behind the buildings across the street from our house. We just finished a documentary about K-2. I’ve watched about three different documentaries on K-2 in the last five years and it never gets old: The shock of seeing specks of people move towards a point in the sky, surrounded by the most inhospitable landscape imaginable. The ability to only comprehend the scale of the mountain by seeing a tiny human speck on it, and still not be able to comprehend the scale or the beauty or the reality of it all. The human voices that come from the people who are willing, even excited, about being a speck, an ant in a sea of ancient monsters. And always, always the question deep inside somewhere that wonders: can I do that? Am I actually capable of climbing a mountain?

And now it’s January 2nd, the day after K-2 day, and molasses grapefruit cookies are cooling on the counter. Besides waning, residual feelings of inadequacy from the documentary, I’m feeling calm. I’m feeling capable. Not of following through with resolutions because I didn’t make any, but just of being ok.

Do resolutions help or hinder? Does saying something out loud, or writing it down on a piece of paper make it more real, more urgent, more? Or is it a false reboot to make us think that a new world has begun on our new terms?

The climbers in the documentary spoke as if they were under a spell by high-altitude climbing. They dreamed about climbing night after night, year after year. Once they had summited one mountain they could not exist in the world without wanting to climb another. The high, the meditation, the risk, it all was imprinted on them after that first climb.

Upon listening to a Radiolab podcast the other day about how to value nature, I was struck by the ending. After spending the last part of the podcast debating whether assigning an economic value to nature helps people value it, or lessens its role, a scientist offered an alternative perspective: we should think of the natural world in terms of a limitless bastion of ideas and creativity to be inspired by and draw from.

What a change in conversation. To speak of unbounded, unknown potential instead of stagnant or relative worth is, simply put, practicing humility. It is standing in wonder and choosing to be a tiny speck, continually.

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Trying to come up with this recipe has been on my mind for about a year after M came home one day from Bavette with a giant molasses cookie. We have been fans of a certain molasses cookie that I’ve baked for years but this grapefruit molasses cookie was familiar yet slightly exotic- like it was our cookies’ fun, eccentric uncle. The bitter from the grapefruit was subtle but added a pop of punctuation to the heavy, almost burnt- like ambiance of the molasses. Light and heavy, bright and earthy, sweet and bitter. Too many wonderful things to count.

Molasses Grapefruit Cookies

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a small bowl combine:

3 1/4 cups of all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons of baking soda

1 1/2 teaspoons of ground ginger

1 1/2 teaspoons of cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon of allspice

1/2 teaspoon of salt (I used finely ground sea salt)

In a large bowl beat together:

2 sticks of butter, softened

1 egg

1 1/2 cups brown sugar

1/3 cup of molasses

slightly less than 1/4 cup of grapefruit juice (preferably from a freshly cut grapefruit)

In a small bowl set aside:

4 tablespoon of sugar

1 tablespoon of grated grapefruit peel

Combine the flour mixture with the butter mixture. Roll into balls and then roll each ball in the sugar mixture. Bake for 9-11 minutes. Careful, these are naturally dark cookies so don’t leave them in for longer than 11 minutes. Trust me, they’re done.

Yield: about 32 cookies

The Joy of Cooking

November 19, 2014 § Leave a comment

I am, by many accounts, a relativist. There is little stable ground in my world. Much is up for grabs, worth considering and second guessing because some morsel of information usually comes along and shifts my perspective.

I would be a terrible activist. Much of how I see the world are visions of a messy ball; a connected system that is mostly ignorant of its connectedness. I see misguided motives and good intentions. I see unintended consequences and externalities. YES, there are certain things I believe in and I wholeheartedly stand by as certain moral truths. I am a big, big fan of timely aphorisms. A favorite, practiced regularly by my husband, is “it is what it is”.  It offers me much relief when I just need to stop relativizing.

The other day, my garlic chopping for a carrot pesto was coincidentally accompanied by a garlic nutrition tip from Jo Robinson, the author of Eating on the Wild Side. She was discussing with Lynn on the Splendid Table how garlic’s healthy compounds are released once they are chopped. She suggested letting garlic sit ten minutes before putting it on heat so its health benefits could be maximized.

For a moderate relativist like me nutrition is cracking open Pandora’s Box – i.e. does a cold tomato that I eat on an empty stomach after a workout have a different effect on my body than a room temperature tomato after just waking up and drinking a cup of coffee? And where were these tomatoes grown – more specifically, in what kind of soil? Were any pesticides used? When were they picked? Now expand this line of thinking to everyone so you also have to take into account that each one of our bodies is physically different. Variables as far as the eye can see. How is anything ever concluded in the nutrition world?

So, actually, I would be a terrible activist and a terrible nutritionist because I would probably vociferously quote Julie Child, “everything in moderation, including moderation,” until they fired me for not doing my job.

There is a reason there’s a book called “The Joy of Cooking” and there is not a book called “The Joy of Nutrition”. Cooking is not nutrition. The distinction there is monumental for me. Cooking is a series of movements that result in, usually, something edible. There is nothing relative about putting chopped potatoes with garlic and onions in a 400 degree oven for 45 minutes. There is just delicious, roasted potatoes. It simply is what it is.

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Carrot Pesto

-The carrot pesto was an impulsive affair. I was making lettuce wraps filled with a greek-inspired quinoa salad and wanted to add a punch to it. I added two carrots to an immersion blender with some olive oil, a garlic clove and a few sprigs of mint, salt and pepper and I pulsed away until it had the consistency of pesto. I’m sure if I had a lemon on hand I would have added a few drips from it. Some pine nuts would have been a nice addition as well. Next time.

Links

– Food Politics, one of the regular blogs I read, published a great write-up on the newly published nutrition guidelines for Brazil. Her title says it all “Brazilian dietary guidelines are based on foods, food patterns, and meals, not nutrients”. I especially love number 10 on the list.

– A TED Talk on Unintended Consequences.

Choosing lentils

November 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

Recently, my cold salads have been replaced by hot lentils. I’m sure the reason why needs no explanation. All you need to know is that I live in Milwaukee, WI.

A few days ago one of Mike’s co-workers asked if we were broke because Mike brought lentils to work. We’re not broke but, yes, my student loans appreciate lentil meals.

Besides driving by the Marquette campus daily for my commute I have spent little time actually foot –to –grass on the campus I once called home and where I incurred said student loans. This past Monday, though, Marquette hosted a talk from one of the leading urban economists of our age, Edward Glaeser, and my feet touched down on the familiar ground to attend.

I was coming from work and arrived a bit late. The auditorium was full and I was immediately drunk on the energy. It’s that special energy you only find on universities and college campuses; effervescent and charged with swift optimism.

Glaeser made his case, quite theatrically, for the triumph of the city. I don’t remember ever having an economics professor so dynamic – walking back and forth across the stage with vibrato and gusto. “Cities are smart people, small businesses, and connectivity,” he said as he pointedly found audience members to maintain eye contact with. “Knowledge is more important than space,” he exclaimed. Behind him were maps, large graphs, supply and demand charts explaining his statements.

A decade ago on that same campus I was looking at my first supply and demand charts. I had moved through a few majors – physical therapy to international affairs to advertising to economics. But economics stuck. It seemed the one major that I could take anywhere. It didn’t need to be confined to four walls in a clinic or agency. It was there that a foundation was laid to understand and analyze the world around me. Why are gas prices rising or falling? Why do some nations that are rich in natural resources have so much poverty? What is the purpose of unions? What caused the Great Depression? Why does scarcity cause prices to go up? What are externalities? What is opportunity cost? The beauty of economics is that at its heart it really is just the study of how humans behave, and the consequences of those behaviors, with the scarce resources we have.

Opportunity cost is the paradigm I’ve adopted and used the most. It is, essentially, a tool to make a choice. It breaks everything down to an exchange. By choosing to read for an hour I am foregoing any number of things I could do with that hour. In other words, what am I willing to give up for that hour?  What appears mechanically transactional is really quite existential. When I choose to do something it also means I am choosing not to do something/s.

I received an email not that long ago from a friend who asked me how I decided to stop doing family photography. She was at a point where she needed to decide whether to continue or to stop her family photography business. The advice I gave her was that the opportunity cost of the time I was spending on the shoots, editing, blogging had reached a tipping point. I was exchanging precious time I wanted to be spending on things I deemed to be of utmost importance.

Which brings me back to the lentils. I made this Ethiopian lentil bowl for Mike and I on Sunday. It was lunch for both of us Monday – Thursday, and then it was also dinner on Monday (post Glaeser talk when I came home full of energy that I wanted to expend on looking up items from the notes I had jotted down during the talk and did not want to expend on cooking), and Wednesday night. We mixed it up by eating it with rice the first few days and then we switched to soaking it up with toast and hard boiled eggs. Sometimes we dressed it with some cilantro and Frank’s Red Hot sauce and sometimes we added feta. It’s a deliciously economical meal; a fantastic choice if you want to spend your week doing other things besides cooking in the kitchen and want to spend your lunch/dinner eating something tasty and healthy.

This recipe comes from Simply in Season. Have I mentioned this is one of my favorite cookbooks?

I used fresh ginger and added a touch of cinnamon to the recipe, an exotic twist. I also added a touch of fish sauce for a nice, round umami flavor. There really are so many ways you can dress up and riff on this recipe. Choices galore!

Ethiopian Lentil Bowl, from Simply in Season by Mary Beth Lind and Cathleen Hockman-Wert

Ingredients

2 cups dried red lentils

2 large onions

2-5 garlic cloves, depending on your penchant for garlic

3 tbsp of tomato paste

½ teaspoon of paprika

1 teaspoon of salt

½ teaspoon of ground ginger

¼ teaspoon of pepper

3 cups of water

¼ cup lemon juice

Directions

Cover lentils with water and soak for 30 minutes. Drain. Saute onion and garlic in oil until golden. Mix in tomato paste and paprika. Add remaining seasonings and half the water. Stir well and add the rest of the water. Stir again, cover, and bring to a boil. When the water boils, add the lentils, lower the heat and cook until the lentils are soft, about 20-30 minutes. Add the lemon juice and serve hot.

 

Cinnamon Rolls

September 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

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I forgot how much the smell of cinnamon recalls cold weather fantasies of reading books fireside and fall hikes in damp, decomposing forests. I was reminded last night when I put these in the preheated oven and let my mind go there – to fall and, dare I say it, winter. If you ever find yourself in a situation where you can’t agree on anything with the person you’re talking to talk about the weather changing from summer to fall – common ground for days. Or, hand one of these cinnamon rolls to that person and watch all animosity melt away.

I used this recipe for my first ever cinnamon rolls (!). I wasn’t feeling sassy enough for the cayenne pepper, but I’ll most likely incorporate in the future. The frosting recipe makes way too much so I’m going to cut it in half next time. These are of the gooey variety so if that’s the type of cinnamon roll you like, make these. They also have a creamy, caramel frosting that melts into the cinnamon and is so decadent.

P.S. I don’t have a stand mixer or a rolling pin. I used my hands to knead the dough after I mixed the ingredients with a wooden spoon, and jerry-rigged a large glass to use as a rolling pin.

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