Send something yellow :: {new postcards}

My love of yellow began one summer when we painted our white kitchen and I set up a drafting table in the corner.  I was 17, and it was the summer before my senior year in high school.  I sat at my table, gazing at the vibrant wall in front of me, and began painting a giant orange poppy in homage to Georgia O'Keefe.  Despite the fact that my mother thought that I was painting a giant tarantula, at first, everything that came out of my fingers, at that table, in front of that yellow wall, seemed good.  This was surprising to me, and mostly to my Very Harsh Inner Critic, who usually managed to turn my best opinions to sludge.  The only thing I could think was that the yellow wall was somehow helping me.  It is, after all, the color of Creativity herself.

In honor of this color, and in celebration of nature waking to spring sunshine, I've made some postcards of my favorite yellow things: sunshine, trumpets, daffodils, birds, bees, and béarnaise sauce.  As a side note, I should mention that the recipe on the béarnaise sauce card is the one tried, tested, and perfected by yours truly and that anyone receiving such a postcard might be glad to know that it's not just a pretty's a real-live, functioning recipe.

Here are the yellow cards.  Next up will be a red postcard set, and since I have fewer favorite things that are red, I might need your help, in the comments section, about what your favorite red things are.

Life in a Patty

Some generalities can always be made: about women, men, seagulls, you name it.  And then there are always the exceptions to the rule.  My exception to one such Generality About Being a Woman is that I'm a horrible multi-tasker. When I was in my twenties, I deluded myself that I was one capable of multi-tasking, and now that I'm safely thirty I have admitted to myself that I am a one-thing-at-a-time kind of person.  Your twenties are for pretending who you want to be, and your thirties are for realizing who you actually are, I've decided.  Now I can congratulate myself on my newfound maturity, and, at once, painfully wave farewell to the times gone by when I had the option of doing one thing at a time.  Really, that time ended when I had a baby.  Then I was doubly reminded that that time was over when she started walking.  And then triply when she began climbing...and you see where I'm going.  (You may also draw the logical conclusion when you see what time I posted this and every other blog post).  I see other women juggling children at the grocery store, with their coupon binder, washed hair, and unstained clothes, and marvel at them.  If you are one of these women, I salute you.

Of course, in a household with an actor, an artist, and a toddler, there's never one thing going at a time.  And not only do I try to take the best care ever of my little girl, but I also try to do some things for myself (writing here, drawing there, bathing), then I have to earn some money (freelance graphic design work, helping out my photographer friend with some shoots), and still find time to put breakfast, lunch, and dinner on the table.  It's at that time -- when the actor shows up for his far-to-short dinner break, and I realize I have no idea what to serve up, and the toddler starts getting cranky, and I realize that the day is almost gone and I've gotten maybe one thing done -- that's the time when I want to consolidate everything in my universe into a big life-shaped patty that I can eat one. mouthful. at. a. time.

Not possible, I know.  But I can make dinner into a patty, and that's what I'm going to do:

I'm starting a project called Life Burgers.  I'm going to take all my favorite (mostly meatless) meals, put them into veggie-burger format, freeze them, and serve them up when all else fails.  I'll be sharing the recipes here, of course, and I'd like you to weigh in, via the comments section, what you'd like to see in burger form.  First up will be a Punjabi Red Kidney Bean Stew gone life burger: kidney beans spiked with ginger, garlic, coriander and cumin, with bits of bright tomato and a squeeze of lemon juice.  Serve it up with a dollop of yogurt and a sprig of cilantro (you know me).  Then after that: a Southern Black-eyed Pea Life Burger with bits of bacon and ribbons of kale mixed in.  Are you getting the idea?  Stay tuned.

Things that come to mind, and the people who come with them :: {Portugese Bread and Garlic Soup}

Christmas tree pick-up was this morning.  We dragged ours out to the curb, and looked up and down the street at the other dejected trees patiently waiting in the January drizzle.  Christmas decorations have all been stowed and the house looks a bit empty, like it's waiting for the spring sunshine to fill the empty corners. 

This is the time of year that I wish I remembered how to knit.  I've learned a bunch of times.  Once when I was very small I managed to complete a set of wrist-warmers.  These might be a Swiss phenomenon, but if you can remember that fingerless gloves still can keep your fingers warm, imagine how hand-less gloves might keep your hands warm.  The point is, they do.  Another time I learned to knit was my freshman year in college, when one of my hall-mate's dad's taught us.  It was January term, which meant we only had to take one class, and it was pass/fail.  We had lots of time on our hands.  In the evenings, we would all gather in one room, listen to Barry White, and knit.  I have absolutely no recollection of what I was even working on.  I doubt any of us do.

My great aunt, who had a story more harrowing than most, was a great knitter.  She knit me an army of pink sweaters when I was little.  I especially liked it when she chose yarn that had sparkles in it.  Throughout her difficult life she managed to maintain a child-like joyfulness, so I wouldn't be surprised if she chose the pink sparkly yarn for her benefit, as well as mine.  She was also a great maker of Schnitzel, and I fondly remember going over to her apartment to eat a huge steaming platter of it, decorated with lemon slices and served with potatoes, bread, and a salad.  After lunch, she would knit while all the grown-ups talked.  She's the only person I think I'll ever meet who actually kept her current knitting project tucked in her bosom.  This fascinated me as a young girl, and it was as good as a magic trick when she would reveal first one arm, then two, then the entirety of a full-sized sweater from her voluminous cleavage.

Tante Emmy and Onkel Paul ready for feasting.  Note the amount of Schnitzel she prepared for three people.

She left our family a great legacy -- she was the only one of her siblings who was strong enough to recount the stories from the war, the only one brave enough to face life with perpetual cheer and generosity.  Perhaps one of these Januaries I'll relearn how to knit again, perhaps when my daughter's old enough to do it, too.  Until that happens, I have a big box of pink sweaters, some with sparkles, that I hope Tante Emmy sees my little girl wearing, wherever she is.  They would have had a good time together, those two.

Portuguese Bread and Garlic Soup
This soup is many things: it is fast, frugal, a good use for stale bread, delicious, simple, comforting, and healthy.  As with most simple things, the quality of the ingredients is crucial, but these are all things that you either have on hand, or are easy to find.  You can have dinner on the table in 10 minutes.  Adapted, barely, from The Mediterranean Kitchen.
Cut thick slices of day-or-two-old crusty bread, a piece or two per person.  Heat a soup pot (or a small pot if it's just you) over medium-high heat and add a pretty generous glug of good olive oil (probably about 1-2 tablespoons per person).  When the oil is hot, fry the bread in a single layer (do as many batches as it takes), on both sides, til nice and golden.  Remove bread and rub with the cut side of one clove of garlic (per serving).  Place bread in soup bowl.  Add another glug of olive oil to the pan, roughly chop the garlic you just used, and add it to the pot.  Garlic burns quickly, so stir it around for only about 30 seconds, or until fragrant.  Add a soup-bowl-full (per serving) of chicken or veggie broth (homemade if possible) to the pan and bring to a simmer.  Lower heat to medium and crack an egg (per serving, and one at a time) into a cup or small ramekin and carefully slide into the simmering broth.  Use a spoon to nudge the whites around the yolks.  Cook for 3-5 minutes, or until the whites are completely opaque.  Repeat with as many eggs as you need, but cook no more than two eggs at a time.  Ladle an egg into each soup bowl, adjust the seasoning of the broth with salt and pepper to taste. Divide the broth evenly amongst your soup bowls.  You can enjoy this as is, or you can garnish with chopped parsley or cilantro, red pepper flakes, or Parmesan cheese.

How to draw with children, for non-majors :: {roasted tomatoes}

In our house, drawing is a team effort.  The grown-ups do the outlines, and Heidi the Toddler colors (read: scribblesveryenthusiastically) inside, outside, and on top of the lines.  It's like an on-demand coloring book.  I used to be the only Outline Draw-er, my theatre-major husband clutching his chest as he exclaimed how he wished he could draw, but alas!, Mama will have to draw the cat.  Again.  It got to the point where I was drawing about 50 cats a day.  Heidi would thrust a crayon in my hand and shout, "MEEEEEOOOOOW!!!!!!" and I would draw a cat for her to scribble upon.  I am incapable of denying her artistic desires.

As it turns out, however, that heart-clutching wish of my husband was easy enough to grant.  I devised a Very Easy way to draw a cat taught him to do it.  And now I will teach you, just in case your 2012 resolutions include drawing more with the children in your life. 

Without further ado....the Very Official Running Snail & Rainbow Way to draw a cat, dog, bunny, owl, and frog (you're more than welcome to right click to download the images, print them out, keep them handy):

Roasted Tomatoes
Adapted, barely, from The Italian Country Table, which, as I've said before, is a book you should own.  Enjoy these when it's not tomato season -- transform a can or two of lowly plum tomatoes into meaty, intense, luxurious, and supremely versatile gems.  As a bonus, these smell almost as good as bacon when they're cooking.  Almost.
Open two cans of plum tomatoes, squeeze them gently, and pry in half with your fingers.  Place close together on a lightly olive-oil-ed baking sheet.  Drizzle with some more olive oil and season with salt and pepper.  If you want to get fancy, you can sprinkle on some fresh or dried herbs, or tuck large slivers of garlic between the tomato halves.  Place in a 300° oven for 1.5-2 hours.  Check after 1.5 hours to make sure your edges are not burning.
Cover with oil and store in the fridge for up to three days, or freeze for up to three months.
Things to do with roasted tomatoes: 
  • Marinate in olive oil with fresh herbs (like rosemary or thyme), garlic, and chilies.  Serve with an antipasto spread.
  • Purée and use as a sandwich spread: think tuna melts, grilled cheeses, hummus and veggie sandwiches. 
  • Purée and use in place of sauce on your next pizza 
  • Toss with whole wheat spaghetti, walnuts and garlic toasted in olive oil, and serve with a generous glop of ricotta on top (this is my favorite).
  • Use in any recipe that calls for sun-dried tomatoes.
  • Stir purée into hummus, cream cheese, or greek yogurt for a great dip.
  • Stir purée into mayo or aioli for another fab sandwich spread.  Try it on a burger.

And may all your books come true :: {Pepparkakor}

There are a few books from childhood that linger in the back of one's consciousness as one grows.  They can inform anything and everything; sometimes both, and all at once; sometimes without you knowing it, and sometimes creeping up on you later.

One of my favorites, especially at this time of year, is "The Runaway Sleigh Ride" by Astrid Lindgren (which I'm horrified to discover is now out of print, so if you find a copy, POUNCE!).   It's about a little girl with wild curly hair who goes to town to go Christmas shopping, hops on the rails of a strange sleigh, and gets carried off into the woods on a snowy evening and has to find her way home.

Beautifully illustrated -- a requisite in our library -- by Ilon Wikland.

I owe this book lots of things, but here are three of them:

1. My love of Pepparkakor, the crackly-thin Swedish ginger cookies that perfume the house on the evening of their annual bake.  Almost as much as eating them, I love the way the dough holds smudges of white flour top as you cut them into beautiful Christmastime shapes.  There's an illustration in the book with flour-smudged Pepparkakor, and it's perfectly imperfectly beautiful.

2.  The dark winter night pressing against the windows.  This book evokes all the romance, mystery, and coziness of black evenings, and, in the midst of winter, when we all crave a bit more sunlight, the imagery helps me embrace the 4:00 twilight.

3.  This book is what makes "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" by Robert Frost my favorite poem.  I like to think of Frost's poem as the grown-up counterpoint to this story.  Almost as if the girl, now a woman, goes back to the woods where she was once lost and listens to the silence of the snow falling.  This time, she might rather stay in the woods a while longer.  There's always been something sublimely sensual about both the children's book and the Frost poem, and I can't recommend highly enough that you set out to read them back to back.  Preferably with freshly-baked Pepparkakor in hand.

This is a prized recipe to my family, coming from a dear friend and real Swede, Lisa.  We spent one magical Christmas in Sweden with her and her family, one with dark nights, meatballs, and plenty of spicy cookies.  The dough is to rest for 24 hours before baking.  It also freezes well.  The measurements are in grams, but if you have a kitchen scale, this will be no problem for you. 
100 g unsalted butter
125 g sugar, half light brown, half white
100 mL molasses
2 Tbsp dried ginger
1 tsp cloves
1 Tbsp cinnamon
1 tsp ground allspice
1 tsp baking soda
100 mL heavy cream
500 g flour

Mix butter, sugars, and molasses til creamy.  Add the spices and baking soda.  In another bowl, beat the cream til foamy.  Add to the butter mixture.  Fold in the flour.  Wrap dough in plastic wrap and let rest for 24 hours, or freeze until ready to use.  Take out the dough, roll very thinly -- about 1/8" thin (with plenty of flour, or between sheets of waxed paper).  Cut out with pretty cookie cutters and place an inch apart on a buttered baking sheet.  Bake at 175 Celsius (350 Fahrenheit) for 8-10 minutes.  Cool on a wire rack and store in tins.

The Thankful Thanksgiving Post :: {Brining your Bird}

I had another blog post in the works.  One about how I was paralyzed, and then I realized that it's actually really hard to write about that, even though I love talking about it.  But really, I'm just happy that I'm not paralyzed anymore and haven't been for twelve (twelve!) years.  I'm thankful for the doctors that made it so.

October was a dark, grim, bad month, and I've catapulted myself out if it, with sheer resolve, and a little help from my friends.  And what happens when you put your mind to something?  Lots.  Lots of ideas and creativity flowing out and about like crazy.  I've got worlds of ideas, as it were.

I want to get all the ideas out on paper, but I only know how to draw with my left hand.  Could I be twice as fast if I used both?  Right now I'm working on a poster called "I live here."  I figure, if I was the kind of kid who counted the steps of the Eiffel Tower as I climbed them, it might be of general interest to some kids to know how far away they live from the Great Barrier Reef, the Matterhorn, or the Chocolate Hills.  One of the things from my childhood for which I'm most grateful is that curiosity of other places and cultures was nurtured.  I want to give that curiosity to other kids -- in a poster!

Then suddenly tonight I thought that felt boards should no longer be relegated to the Sunday School room.  I mean, it's like velcro, but doesn't get hairs stuck in it!  It's like a puppet theatre, but you don't have to hold all the puppets in your hand!  Now I have to figure out how to make one.

Then there's the alphabet poster, which I have an idea for, of course, and toys!  Puzzles, architecture blocks, lacing animals...

I'm thankful that I have all these ideas.  I may never get to them all because my body limits me, but I wouldn't trade all the ideas in my head for a pain-free body.  I wouldn't even trade it for a pain-free body and a trip around the world. 

Most of all, as I write tonight, and as I'm about to draw some more, I'm grateful for a little group of friends that I have here in Staunton.  You might recognize them from their enthusiastic thumbs up to everything I post on the running snail & rainbow facebook page.  Thanks, ladies.  I'm lucky to know you all.

Turkey Brine
I think brining is a must for turkeys.  It makes the meat super moist, seasons it inside and out, and makes it cook faster.  If you think you don't have the equipment necessary to submerge your beast and keep it cold, look no further than your crisper drawer.  That's right.  The drawer with all the limp carrots in it.  Empty it out, give it a good clean and put your cooled brine in there.  I have learned the hard way that you ought to reinstall the drawer before pouring the brine in the drawer.  And before you pour the brine in, put your turkey in the drawer.  I learned that the hard way too, and spent the next 15 minutes mopping overflowed brine off the floor.
I've tried a bunch of brine recipes, and when push comes to shove, don't put fancy booze in your brine.  Save that for deglazing the pan and making your gravy.  Don't even bother with apple cider.  You can't taste it.  What you will taste in your brine are various aromatics and spices, so add those with wild abandon. 
The following is very loosely adapted from Martha Stewart Living, November 2001.
Fill a large pot with 8 cups (or so) of water, 4 cups kosher salt, 5 cups sugar, 3 bay leaves, 1 head garlic (cut in half cross-wise), 2 tablespoons whole peppercorns, 2 teaspoons red pepper flakes, 1 teaspoon ground cloves, 1 teaspoon allspice.  Bring all of this to a boil, stirring until all the sugar and salt are dissolved.  Remove from heat and allow to cool completely before emptying into your clean crisper drawer.  Add water to cover the bird completely.  Refrigerate from 18-24 hours, flipping your bird over halfway through.

The Frog Prince :: {Red Pasta Sauce}

I was the girl in high school who painstakingly crafted mix tapes, who got to school at 7am for string ensemble practice, and who never didn't have music playing in the background.  Favorites of mine in high school included pretty much anything from the 70's, thanks to the influence of the ganja-smoking art room crowd with whom I shared all of my time (unless I was in the music room).  We all ate lunch in the art room, too, using the batik wax-melting device to cook grilled cheese sandwiches.  Our art teacher knew we needed somewhere to be, and she didn't mind, as long as we cleaned the burnt on cheese off of the art supplies.  She let us play music, too.  We all took turns bringing our favorite albums.  As my parents' luck would have it, I was friends with the non-ganja-smoking minority group of the art room crew.  The most trouble we really got up to was rearranging people's lawn ornaments or planting cans of Campbell's Chunky Beef Soup around the town when it was below freezing, so the soup would expand and explode out of the can.  Chunky Beef was chosen because it looked the grossest, of course.  So we clean cut art-room folks listened the hazy 70's music and totally thought we had all been born in the wrong decade, man.  But we also listened to swing music and crooner stuff.  The nineties were actually a great time for that, and we wore wingtip shoes, took swing dancing lessons, and sang Frank Sinatra songs in the car as we cruised around with our cans of soup.

These great standard songs still have their appeal for me.  When I'm not sure what I'm in the mood to listen to, usually a little Frank Sinatra or Bobby Darin does the trick.  So as it happened, as I was finishing "Fill My Heart with Song", I was listening some crooner playlist or other, and "You're Nobody til Somebody Loves You" came on.  The rest is history:

"You're Nobody 'til Somebody Love You" -- especially if you're the frog prince.

Red Pasta Sauce
Also known as: I finally figured out how to make a quick pasta sauce from cheap canned tomatoes (a staple in our house)!  This comes together so quickly, and you probably have most of the ingredients in your fridge right now.
This sauce starts with bacon, so we're already on our way to success.  Glaze the bottom of your preferred pan or pot with olive oil and place over medium-high heat.  Chop about six slices of bacon (or more or less to your taste) and one yellow onion. Add these to your pan, stirring sort of frequently to keep things from sticking.  While the bacon is rendering and the onions are softening and everything is smelling heavenly, grate one large or two small carrots and throw them in the pan with the bacon and onions.  Stir it all around and head back to your chopping board.  Finely chop about four garlic cloves and a small handful of oregano leaves.  Add them to the pan and cook everything together, making sure the garlic doesn't burn, for about two minutes.  Now throw in about three big soup spoonfuls of balsamic vinegar.  Scrape the bottom of your pan with a wooden spoon as the vinegar cooks down, getting up all those delicious brown bits (they're called sucs (pronounced: soox) -- isn't that a great little word?).  Lower the heat to medium.  Open your big can of plum tomatoes, and pour some of the juice into the pan to keep things from burning while you attend to your tomatoes.  Take your immersion blender, if you have one, and wizz it around inside the can, making a chunky purée.  If you don't have an immersion blender, just break the tomatoes up with your hands.  The reason you don't buy purée outright is because they use the highest quality tomatoes from the harvest in the cans of whole tomatoes, and as you go down the line of canned-tomato-textures, the quality of tomato used gets poorer and poorer.  Pour your chunky puree in to the pan, stir everything around, season with a hefty pinch of salt, some cracked pepper or pepper flakes, and let the whole thing simmer for the amount of time it takes you to cook your pasta (around 10 minutes).  Check for seasoning, toss with pasta, and serve with lots of grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano on the side.
{Other things you could add to this sauce: capers, olives, anchovies (add the anchovies with the carrots), and adjust your salt accordingly -- you'll need less.}

Adventures in an ill-equipped kitchen :: {mashed cauliflower}

Just because we're artists doesn't mean we're starving, though the way several of our kitchens have been outfitted, you'd think that were meant to be the case.  When my husband and I were dating, he lived in actor housing.  This meant he got a room with a bed (which sometimes included another person and a bed for them, and whatever strange habits they might have had), and all the actors shared a bathroom and kitchen.  Living in actor housing meant not having a lease, so that when the acting contract ended he could pack up and move at a day's notice.  One time that even happened;  one day he was here, and the next day he was in Washington DC.  Anyway, everything fit into his tiny car: clothes, big Shakespeare books, and a computer.  I'm sure had I been living the nomadic actor lifestyle (which I promptly swore to never do as soon as I met my husband) there would have been about five kitchen appliances that I would take with me, too, even if it meant I could only take one pair of pants.  But alas and alack, his affections did not that way turn, so I had to make do with the "pots," "knives," and "cutting boards" that the various theatres provided.  I'm telling you, these things must have either come from a giant doll house or from the props department, because they were definitely not designed for cooking use.  When he lived in DC, his kitchen was even worse -- a galley wide enough for a small French woman -- maybe.  I really didn't step foot in there.  I couldn't handle it.  So I would travel the three hours on the Greyhound bus to see him every weekend with trays of lasagna on my lap.

Another horrible kitchen was in our house-share in England.  We had been married a year and moved over there with clothes, big Shakespeare books, and computers.  I would have brought my Top Five kitchen things, but we were promised that the kitchen was "well-equipped."  The only thing this kitchen was, in fact, equipped for, was burning your dinner on the thinner-than-aluminum-foil pans, opening wine bottles (which helped to wash down your burnt dinner), and making tea (those supplies did, in fairness, get put to a lot of use).  One time I was making Thanksgiving dinner for all of our non-American housemates and some American friends, and I was cutting the bread to make stuffing with an awful little bendy serrated knife, and the knife slipped (since it wasn't sharp enough to grip even soggy-crusted British bread) and almost hacked a good quarter inch off of my finger.  I bled all over the place, including the bread, jumped around the kitchen in a fit, and called my husband and made him leave class early.  He arrived at home minutes later, to find me sitting in the bloody bread cube-scattered kitchen with my arm above my head and my hand wrapped in some kind of inappropriate bandage -- like a pot holder or something -- with a very injured expression on my face.  We went out the next day and bought better knives.

So here is my list of the top five kitchen things you should have at your disposal in any kitchen, whether you're going off to grad school in a foreign land or renting a house by the sea for a week's vacation.  These are most definitely listed in order of most crucial to least:

1.  A heavy flat-bottomed, straight-sided stainless steel skillet with two metal handles (so you can put it in the oven) and a lid.  You might be surprised that a sharp knife is not at the top of this list.  I thought long and hard about this, and I really think the pan wins out.  Thin, wobbly, bad pans have the power to ruin whatever you put in them, making it burn, stick, and cook unevenly.  A bad knife, wielded with great care, will still get the job done, just not as quickly, and with not nearly the amount of pleasure.

2.  A really sharp 8-inch chef's knife.  Second only to a good pan is a good knife.  I think the 8-inch chef's knife is the most versatile.  You can hack through a chicken, chop herbs, make quick work of dicing up onions and garlic, you can use the side of it like a mallet to pound meat cutlets..  Some people are really partial to Santoku knives, which are really the Asian incarnation of the chef's knife.  I like to use my Santoku knife when I make fake Asian food, because it makes me feel ironically authentic.

3.  A good, thick, heavy cutting board made from wood or bamboo.  I don't believe in plastic cutting boards.  Things slide around on them, they slide around on the counter, and after a while little bits of plastic start getting hacked up by the chopping and they get in your food.  "But what about all the Scary Bacteria?" you ask.  It's actually been proven that wood is a cleaner cutting surface; somehow wood ejects bacteria from its surface.  Obviously I do a nice hot soapy wash after raw meats, but I've never had a problem with The Germs.

4.  An immersion blender.  It's portable, and you can make food different consistencies with it!!  Of course, the ideal is to have a food processor, blender, and Kitchen Aid mixer, but I've been making do with an immersion blender for years.  Use it to make aioli, pesto, pureed soups, smoothies, milkshakes, baby food, etc.

5.  A wooden spoon.  It's the first utensil humans ever made, and for good reason.  Also, they feel nice to hold in your hand, and they're safe for your baby to chew on.

Mashed Cauliflower
I did this as an experiment and we all declared it more delicious than mashed potatoes.  I don't know if you'll agree, but you should try it just in case!  This is a time to crack out the immersion blender; you won't get the nice smooth consistency without it.  I think this was quicker to prepare than mashed potatoes, too, because there's no peeling involved.  Bonus.
Cut up one head of cauliflower and boil it until it's very tender when you poke the stem with a knife.  (You could steam it, too, if you're so inclined.).  Drain it very well.  Return it to the pot, place over very low heat, and add 2/3 brick of cream cheese and half a stick of butter.  Puree with your handy immersion blender (or food processor, or mash by hand).  If it seems too thick, thin with a bit of milk or cream.  Season to taste with salt, pepper, and freshly grated nutmeg.

Firsts :: {lemony spinach salad}

Tonight my daughter Heidi figured out that she could chew raw leafy greens.  She's been reaching for my salad for months now, but before she would just suck the dressing off, or sometimes almost choke on a leaf that she tried to swallow whole.  Tonight she tried again.  She sucked off a few leaves (thoughtfully draping the spent leaves back in my bowl), and then she realized that it tasted even better if she chewed the leaf up.  She sat in my lap, feeding me a leaf and then herself a leaf, wiping lemon juice and olive oil all over everything and both of us, and laughing at the sourness of my hastily made, poorly balanced salad dressing.  Perhaps "first salad" is not an achievement many parents consider a milestone, but we all have different values.

I also couldn't wait to get a crayon in her little hands.  I offered them to her months prematurely, just because I didn't want her to miss a moment of drawing pleasure just because we didn't have the right materials at hand (and by "at hand," I mean quite literally placed on the play table next to whatever else she was doing).  We spent a few months practicing not eating the crayons, then we practiced gripping them and applying pressure to the paper.  (We're still practicing staying on the paper and off the furniture, books, and clothes.).  Once she knew what the crayons were for, she caught on pretty quickly.  Then on July 21, 2011, she did something amazing.  She drew a dog.

 "Do[g]" | Crayon on Mama's leftover newsprint from figure drawing class. |  7.21.11

My first titled drawing, as you might already be aware, was "running snail and rainbow" (I was a tad linguistically precocious).  When I couldn't decide what to name my Etsy store, and I was over-thinking it horribly, and trying in vain to be clever and catchy, I remembered with what authority Heidi had told me that what she had just drawn was a dog.  "Do[g]."  Period.  My mother reports that I said "running snail and rainbow" with the same sort of authority, and since I can't imagine that I've ever had that much confidence about anything since then, I thought the name was perfect.

Heidi's first "Dog" hangs framed on the wall, and several other dogs, cats, horses, balls, and "softs" are filling up the rest of my abandoned newsprint pad left over from college.  This weekend I'm opening running snail & rainbow, and it'll be another big first for me.

Lemony Spinach Salad
This is what you should eat when you crave something that tastes like a tasty nutrient bomb.  I eat it when I'm sick, when I'm well, when I'm sad, and when I can't think of what else to eat. 
Make your dressing: combine one crushed clove of garlic, a forkful of dijon mustard, a soup-spoonful of yogurt, a pinch of salt, two soup-spoonfuls of extra virgin olive oil, and a soup-spoonful of lemon juice.  Stir or whisk it together.  Adjust the flavors to your preference, adding more lemon or more oil or more salt til it tastes perfect to you.  I (obviously) like mine on the lemony side.  Toss with spinach.  Eat it and be happy and well.

Blaming your tools :: {bearnaise sauce}

Whoever said that thing about a good craftsman never blaming their tools can't have been a craftsman.  Or if he was, he had good tools.  Anyway, I've found that sometimes one does blame one's tools, and that's perfectly respectable.

My culinary Everest for years was Bearnaise sauce, that sublime invention only the French could have conceived as a vehicle to increase your butter consumption -- something designed to make steak, which really needs nothing but salt, seem incomplete without it.  Made properly it's velvety, tangy, delicately scented, at once subtle and commanding.  A failed attempt is grainy, sharp, and nothing short of disgusting.

Perfect Bearnaise, every time, at Harry's Grill Bar.  I took this picture, and then I got to lick out the bowl.
Armed with my Christmas gift that year, a sauce cookbook book of epic proportions and heft, I felt confident that I could whip out a perfect Bearnaise, worthy of the most charming bistro in the world.  I was making this Bearnaise sauce to accompany our New Year's Eve dinner of Fondue Bourguignonne.  My brother was bringing his new girlfriend (future wife, but none of us knew that)...stakes were high, but I wasn't phased.  I imagined us all gaily laughing as we swept our perfectly sizzled bits of fillet through a perfect mound of sauce, smacking our lips, and exclaiming how perfect it all was.

You can see where this is going.  The tool I'm going to blame this time was the stove.  It was a gas stove, but the low setting was really only low if you compared it to the high setting.  It was a relative low.  The sauce broke because the heat was too high and the eggs essentially scrambled.  All this happened moments after my brother's girlfriend arrived.  I was whisking the sauce like a maniac, peering into the pot expectantly, and then suddenly I saw it beginning to seize up.  I let out a sustained, high pitched yelp, whisked even more frantically, turned from pink-faced to red, and, still yelping, flung the whisk into the ruined sauce and fled from the kitchen, through the length of the house, to the front door where I collapsed in a pile (still yelping), wrapped myself in the curtain, and summoned forth a howl with the small amount of air remaining in my lungs, "It broooooooooooooke."

My mother, who had been engaging in beautifying rituals upstairs, heard my heartbroken cries and scrambled to my rescue.  "It's all ruined.  I'm not eating.  The whole dinner is ruined," I blazoned from inside the curtain.  Somehow, like only a mother can, she managed to fix the situation, the sauce, and apparently even the poor girlfriend's opinion of our crazy family.

Fast forward a decade and several dozen more failed attempts at Bearnaise sauce and I found myself waitressing at an upscale steakhouse restaurant in England.  It was there that I learned the many secrets of a perfect, unbreakable Bearnaise, even when your tools are to blame.

Bearnaise Sauce
The secrets to unbreakable Bearnaise are: a heavy pan, low heat, clarified butter, and a whisk (not a fork -- trust me).  You can do this.
First of all, gather all your ingredients.  Don't scramble around while you make this.  Approach your sauce with confidence because it will smell your fear.
Finely chop one shallot and about a tablespoon of tarragon leaves.  Place these in the smallest saucepan you have and add 1/4 cup of white wine vinegar.  Bring this mixture to the boil and boil it until it reduces to about a tablespoon of liquid.  It needs to be good and reduced or your sauce will be runny.  Strain out the shallot and tarragon, pressing them against the sieve to extract all the flavor, and set the liquid aside.  
Melt one and a half sticks of butter in the microwave in a pitcher.  Set this aside.
Separate one egg.  You'll only need the yolk, but you can save the white to make delicious Bourbon sours which your husband might make for you while you're cooking.  Set the yolk aside.
Finely chop another tablespoon of tarragon leaves.  Set aside.
Make the sauce.  Put your egg yolk and the vinegar reduction in a sauce pan and before you even think of putting it on the burner, whisk it until it turns pale gold -- a good minute or two.  Now, put your burner on low and place the pan on the burner.  Continue to whisk for another 30 seconds or so.  Dip your finger into the egg yolk mixture and touch the bottom of your pan.  As you make this sauce, you should always be able to touch the bottom of your pan for several seconds without it burning you.  If it feels too hot, take your pan off the stove and work off the heat for a minute or so before you put it back on.  Now start to drizzle your butter into the yolk mixture.  Very very slowly.  Drop by drop, whisking constantly.  Keep checking the temperature of the bottom of your pan, dripping butter in, and whisking until you begin to see the glorious sauce thickening before your eyes.  You might not need all the butter, but it's better to have it ready (you can save the extra in the fridge for another use.  When the sauce is lovely and thick (but not as thick as mayonnaise), remove it from the heat and season it with salt (it takes quite a bit of salt) and add the reserved chopped tarragon.  Serve immediately (probably with steak and french fries, but by no means limit yourself!).
So, to recap: low heat, slow dribbling of butter, constant whisking, constant checking of the temperature of the bottom of your pan, immediate consumption.

Listening to other people, and listening to yourself :: {Moroccan chicken}

Sometimes it takes forever before you hear what people have been saying to you all along.

Every year at college, we had a visiting artist.  Their classes were always a bit different from the normal studio art classes.  While the other professors really pushed and prodded you, the visiting artists took a bit more of a nurturing, supportive approach.  One of these visiting artist seminars really went back to the basics.  We didn't draw nude figures, we drew cones and spheres and cubes -- hardly poetic subject matters.  At the end of the semester, we met one on one with the artist-teacher and she evaluated our work with us.  I laid out my portfolio of cones, spheres, and cubes on the cement floor and we stood over them.  After a long time, my teacher sat down in a chair and said, "Phoebe, there's a word.  Vocare.  It's Latin, and it means calling.  I think this is your calling.  I haven't said this to anyone for a very long time."  I stared blankly at my shapes, and didn't listen.

I didn't listen lots of other times, too, when my painting professor would beg me not to audition for the theatre productions because he said it split my creative focus and that my work suffered greatly for it.  I didn't listen when my drawing professor told us to do gestural drawings of the whole space, and I zeroed in on the model's face and started drawing her features.  "Phoebe," she said, "we all know you can do the fancy stuff.  Don't flatter yourself."

I didn't listen when my husband told me I should sketch something everyday.  "I don't sketch.  I'm not a sketcher.  That's what makes me not an artist," I said.  I've done lots of not listening.

Then it all caught up with me, and I heard everything at once.  Sketch, do this, don't split your focus...  Because, in fact, people have been trying to buy stuff that I've drawn for a very long time.  So now I'm going to make that possible.  Am I scared that everyone has changed their mind and doesn't want any of this after all?  Of course I am.  But that's not for me to decide.  I'm a matter of days away from opening my Etsy shop, and of putting my work out into the world.  It's going to be a small offering at first, but I'm actually proud of every single piece there.  That's a first for me, and I guess it happened because I finally listened to what everyone said, and that meant listening to myself, too.

One such thing that people have tried to buy.  Soon to be available for purchase at Feast!

As a result of trying not to split my creative focus, I made a deal with myself that I wasn't going to  cook a single new recipe until I opened my Etsy store.  Here's something I've been cooking for a long time.  It's one of my dad's favorites.

Moroccan Tagine of Chicken with Dates, Olives & Preserved Lemon

Tagines are culinary genius.  The specially designed lid allows all the condensation to drip back into the cooking pot, which means you use less liquid and thusly have more concentrated flavors.  They also turn cheap cuts of meat into silky, fragrant morsels.  Don't have a tagine?  Don't worry, you can still make this recipe in a dutch oven (or any heavy, covered skillet or pot), just adjust your liquid -- you may need to add a little more.  The tagine I use is a European one with a cast iron bottom which allows me to cook on the stove.  If you have a proper earthenware one, feel free to adapt this recipe for oven cooking.  I also have a preserved lemon secret to pass on to you, so read on!
Start by making your preserved lemon my way: it takes 3 minutes instead of 3 days.  Okay, it doesn't taste quite the same, but really, it's close enough.  Peel one lemon with your vegetable peeler.  Get every last bit of peel off, in nice long strips if you can.  Put these in a mug.  Now juice your lemon.  Pour the juice over the peel.  Add a heaping soup spoonful of kosher salt and mix it around, trying to submerge the peel in the juice.  Place the mug in the microwave and microwave on high for two minutes.  Set aside until needed.  Give the peel a quick rinse before you use it.  This will keep in the refrigerator for at least several days.
 Toss four chicken legs in the following spice mixture: 1 tablespoon ground cumin, 2 teaspoons sweet paprika, 1 teaspoon ground ginger, 1 teaspoon turmeric, and 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon (or to taste) cayenne pepper.  (I pull the skin off first, but you don't have to).  Put the bottom of your tagine over medium heat and coat the bottom with olive oil.  When the oil is hot, add the chicken legs and brown evenly, being careful not to let the spices burn.  Set aside.  Add a tiny bit more oil to your pan and add two small (or one large) onion, chopped.  Chop four cloves of garlic, and add this when the onions are beginning to turn translucent.  Stir around for a minute or two.  Add 1/4 to 1/2 cup of water or stock and nestle your chicken on top.  As your liquid begins to come to the bubble, add your final ingredients: 10-15 giant green olives, halved; 6-8 giant dates, pitted and halved; and 2 strips of preserved lemon, chopped.  Stir everything in your pot around to distribute your ingredients evenly, turn the heat to very low, put the lid on and walk away for 30 minutes.  At this point, come back and make sure you have enough liquid in your pot.  If it seems a little dry, add a bit more water or stock.  Turn your chicken legs over and cover the pot.  Walk away again.  If your chicken legs have bones in them, I like to cook them for a good hour to hour and a half, or just until the meat starts to pull away from the bottom of the drumstick.  If your chicken is boneless, obviously it requires less cooking time -- 45 minutes is ample.
Taste your tagine a season accordingly with either more chopped preserved lemon peel, lemon juice, salt, or pepper.  Serve atop a bed of couscous and garnish with chopped fresh cilantro or flat leaf parsley.  A salad of very thinly sliced fennel, orange segments, and thinly sliced radishes dressed with equal amounts of olive oil and lemon juice, plus salt and chopped parsley, is a perfect accompaniment.

The rosy mist of memory :: {chick pea curry}

Yesterday the weather was Roman.  The sunlight seemed more golden, the air had a whisper of dust in it, and the the crushed basil leaves in my hand didn't hurt either.  I love it when the conditions are just right so that if I shut my eyes, I can go somewhere else.  Not that I didn't want to be in my garden with the basil leaves, but that I might rather be in Rome.  The layers of history, the vivid people, the fabulous food.  In Rome, poppies grow out of rocks.  It's an impossibly magnificent place.

We took Ducky with us on our trip and he posed in front of all the big attractions.  We hope that someday Heidi will be amused by these pictures we took on her behalf.

It's nice to know that I've now reached an age where I can be in a Less Than Ideal Situation and be absolutely certain that this is something I'm going to laugh about later.  To be certain about this almost allows me to laugh about the Situation in the moment.  Almost.  The particular situation I'm thinking of now is the unfortunate hotel I booked for our stay in Rome during our we-lived-in-England-for-two-years-and-haven't-yet-been-to-the-main-continent-and-will-go-even-though-we-are-expecting-a-baby-and-it's-financially-foolish trip.  All I saw, after hours of scouring the internet for hotels, was "Vittorio Emanuele," and thinking it was that big monument with the horses on top (that you seem to always end up at no matter where you go), and thinking that this was just where we wanted to be, I booked it.  Well.  It turns out that there's also a very dodgy street, several miles away from the monument, that shares the same name.  This Vittorio fellow must have been pretty influential.

We walked for those several miles until we got there.  I was pregnant and my husband was carrying all the bags (and would have been carrying me, too, if I'd had my way).  All we'd eaten was some salami and bread on the train from Switzerland.  Tired, achy, famished, hot, and (not least of all) confused, we arrived at our hotel.  To call it a hotel is an overstatement, but they were calling it a hotel, so for the sake of consistency, I'll call it one, too.  The graffiti smeared doors had been broken into several times, it seemed, as evidenced by the big chunks that were missing and the business end of several locks that were dangling down.  Somehow the door was, in fact, locked, so we selected what we thought might be our hotel from the very large list of indiscernible door bell buttons.  The door unlatched and we entered a large entry way that smelled of minerals and worse.  Ahead of us was the kind of elevator that should have someone there to help you operate it, with cages and unmarked buttons.

Somehow we ended up where we were supposed to be, even though the alarmed look on the concierge's face, followed by a lot of bellowing in a foreign language (not of a remotely Italian persuasion), might have made one think otherwise.  We waited in the "lobby" for what seemed like ages, and what was in fact almost an hour, until the flushed concierge re-emerged and showed us to our room.

Now, in Europe, you book rooms by the number of people, so, naturally, I had booked a double room.  What we ended up in was a room with a double bed in it.  I'm not sure how they managed to fit a double bed in a room which had clearly not been intended for one, because as we opened the door, we nearly fell on top of it.  On the other side of the bed was a wall with a window (through which we could see laundry that had no business hanging on a clothesline) and under the window was a Hole.  This place wasn't a hole-in-the-wall.  It had a hole in the wall.  This was a Less Than Ideal Situation.

Nonetheless, we stayed there.  There were nightly gripes concerning the quality of the place, or lack thereof, and we felt totally robbed.  We both knew that we would look back on this, one day, and have a great laugh about it, but we certainly weren't laughing then, as we gripped our passports in our sleep.

Chick Pea Curry with Potatoes and Green Beans
When it comes to spices, buy them at an ethnic grocery.  You'll get big bags of spices for a fraction of the price, and you can keep them in your freezer so they stay nice and fresh.  I like to grind my own spices in an old coffee grinder because you really do get a better flavor out of them.  If you've only got one coffee grinder, you can easily get the spice smell out of it by pulsing a piece of soft bread a few times.
You can use any curry powder of your choosing here, but here is my recipe (adapted from Mark Bittman's hot curry powder recipe in How to Cook Everything).  Combine the following in your coffee grinder and grind til you have a nice powder: 2 small dried chilies (or the equivalent amount of red pepper flakes), 1 tablespoon black peppercorns, 1 tablespoon coriander seeds, 1 teaspoon cumin seeds, 1 teaspoon fennel seeds.  Add 1 tablespoon ground turmeric and 1 tablespoon ground ginger and pulse til mixed.  Store in a jar or a ziploc bag.
Coat the bottom of your pot or large skillet with coconut oil or any mild oil and place it over medium to medium-high heat.  While the oil is heating, chop one onion, 3 cloves of garlic, a half-thumb-sized piece of ginger, and half a chile of some kind (I've been known to keep pickled jalapenos in the fridge for emergencies), and add it to the oil when it is hot.  Stir and fry this, making sure nothing burns, while you dice two or three potatoes and trim and cut into thirds three handfuls of green beans (or use frozen peas).  When the onion is translucent and the ginger and garlic are fragrant, add one heaping soup-spoonful of curry powder.  Stir this, making sure it doesn't burn, until it is very fragrant.  After a minute or so, add half a can of tomatoes with their juice, breaking up the tomatoes with your hands as you add them.  Stir this around until the tomato juice begins to cook down.  Add your potatoes, a can of chick peas (drained and rinsed), and a can of coconut milk or chick pea can-ful of water or stock.  Turn the heat to low and partially cover your pan.  When the potatoes are almost tender, add your green beans, uncover and cook til your green beans are tender and the liquid has reduced to the desired consistency.  If you didn't use coconut milk, stir in three big spoonfuls of yogurt and continue to cook down for a minute or two.  Season to taste with salt, pepper or cayenne, and lemon juice.  Serve on top of rice, or not, garnished with yogurt (optional) and chopped cilantro (not optional for me, but it might be for you).

Sometimes we over-think things :: {lentil salad}

A one-minute sketch of a fleeting moment.

Some people go to spas to have their bodies wrapped in seaweed.  I went into the backyard, put my toddler in a tub of water and propped my feet up on the side of it.  Now, the Sometimes Goal of mothering is to relax with a cup of tea and know that you won't have to spring into action, leaving your tea to get cold.  Usually, a tub of water does the trick, but to be doubly sure that Heidi was as enraptured with this activity as always, I needed to show her that there were as yet undiscovered properties of water.  What we needed to learn about water today (aside from the well-known fact that water makes an excellent cup of hot tea) was that things can float on it.  I scattered a handful of sage leaves from the nearby bush into the water.  The silver-green boats bobbed across the surface.  She plucked one from the surface with careful pudgy fingers and draped it across my foot.  One by one, the leaves made their way from the water to my legs and then back again.  I watched her play with sage in water until the slice of light that was bathing us began to shrink and it was time to fix dinner.

Sometimes we over-think things.  Watching our childrens' rapidly expanding minds make sense of the world around them is dizzying and wondrous and gives us the daunting task of guiding, nurturing, and stimulating.  We spend too much time worrying that we're stunting the growing brains in our charge, and forget that everything we need is right around us.  All we need to do remember to look at everything with fresh eyes like they do; float a leaf in water, put a dried bean in an empty salt shaker, put a tea cozy on your head, have your legs wrapped in sage leaves.

Lentil Salad, lots of ways
Turns out, a bag of dried lentils makes a LOT of lentils.  If you made too many, you can freeze them and have them ready to throw into soup later.  Not only are lentils cheap and healthy, but they're one of the most "green" foods you can eat -- it doesn't cost the environment much to grow them.  The trick for keeping blandness at bay is a delicious dressing and getting different textures into the mix.  
Boil half a bag of brown lentils according to the package directions (15-20 minutes, usually).  When they're as tender as you like, drain them, and dress them with one of the following while they're still warm.  They'll absorb the flavors best this way.  Each of the following will dress about a third of your batch of lentils.
French-style: In an empty jam jar, shake together a small spoon of Dijon mustard, a crushed garlic clove, a pinch of salt, a grind of pepper, 5 spoons of olive oil, 2 spoons of red wine vinegar, and a splash of maple syrup. Dress the lentils with this, and a diced carrot, 2 diced radishes, 2 or 3 sliced scallions, a big handful of chopped parsley, and a twig or two of thyme leaves.  You can eat this as is, or serve it on a bed of greens with some toasted walnuts and crumbled goat's cheese on top.
 North African-style: In an empty jam jar, shake together a big spoonful of yogurt, 2 small spoons of lemon juice, 2 small spoons of olive oil, a small pinch each of cinnamon and ginger, two big pinches each of coriander and cumin, a pinch of red pepper flakes, and a crushed garlic clove, salt, and pepper.  Dress the lentils with this, and any of the following: diced carrot, half a diced zucchini or cucumber, some chopped roasted red pepper (or not roasted), a dozen or so halved cherry tomatoes, finely chopped red onion, and a handful of chopped mint.   You could easily mix in some cooked grains here, too, like cous cous or quinoa. 
 Sweet and Sour: In an empty jam jar, shake together a small spoon of Dijon mustard, a splash of apple juice, a large glob of honey, 2 spoons of apple cider vinegar, 5 spoons of olive oil, a small pinch of allspice, salt, and pepper.  Dress the lentils with this, and toss with some diced apple, sauteed sweet potato chunks, toasted walnuts, crumbled goat's cheese, and crumbled bacon.  (Or use the rendered bacon drippings in place of your olive oil.).  I'd serve this warm, on a bed of spinach.

Things left undone :: {refried beans}

One of my sincerest regrets is not finishing my creative non-fiction class in college.  Regret is probably the wrong word, since withdrawing from that semester was not a bad decision, but a necessary one, as I was unfocused and, to boot, had tonsils which had become veritable anthills in my throat, complete with a civilization of hardy bacteria.  I had to get those cut out, and also had to find focus (which I eventually did, through a year away from school spent interning at a great graphic design firm and learning to tango dance).  Life went on, I went back to school, studied art, got married, lived in England, had a baby.  I never got to finish my story about Clarence, though, and I think about it all the time.  Really, quite often.

The assignment was to interview a more-or-less stranger, and then write about whatever we talked about.  As a Very Shy Person, this was a horrifying task.  I finally settled on Clarence, our neighbor across the street, who was an easy target because I had seen him around, and, more importantly, he was even shyer than I was.  I had my mother set up the interview.  Clarence was a real life Carson McCuller's character: a bit trampled by life (and wife, I daresay), with hobbies that existed out of his generation and vocation, and with a smile like a pleased little boy.  We especially saw the smile when he would offer us whole Shoo-fly pies, convinced that somewhere along the line we had told him that it was our favorite.  (It wasn't.).

Clarence and I lived on the street between Apple Tree Alley and Pear Tree Alley. (image from google maps).

We sat at his tidy kitchen table, me with a notepad, and both of us with a sugary drink.  The conversation was halting at first, me unsure of what I should ask, and he baffled at the idea that he would have anything interesting to say.  I don't remember asking him for his life story, but he gave it to me, because it was probably the first time in his life that he guessed someone might be asking.  He told tales of cooking on the back of a truck during World War II, how he started knitting, his special technique for apple pies.  He went on and on, occasionally getting up to tend to the canary in the window or to bring his wife a plate of food.  Clarence never knew that he was a great character, really his own person.  He just gently went through life, taking care of his rotund and infirm wife, and one day quietly passed away.  I wish my notes from his narrative hadn't been lost and that I could share his apple pie recipe with you.  It wasn't the best apple pie, but Clarence had spent years perfecting it, and that was Something.

 Best-ever Refried Beans

This isn't Clarence's apple pie recipe, but something equally as humble, and good whenever you need something comforting.  This is my favorite way to make refried beans.  It's probably not at all traditional, and that doesn't bother me a whit.
 {makes enough for about two bean-centric meals for two grown-ups and a toddler}

If you have time and foresight, you can put about 2/3 of a bag of black or pinto beans in your slow cooker with some water and salt and cook them til they're very tender (you will be mashing them, after all).  If you don't do this, use one big can or two small cans of beans.  I think black are the best here, but pintos are a close second.

Chop an onion, a 4 inch piece of Spanish-style chorizo, and a poblano pepper into smallish bits and add it to a medium-hot pan with a pretty generous coating of neutral oil.  You're not sweating the onions here, but properly stirring and frying them.  The chorizo fat is going to render out and the paprika in the chorizo is going to turn everything a very appetizing red color.  When you're almost happy with the tenderness of your onions (you don't want them crunchy), add a clove or two of chopped garlic.  Stir that around, being careful not to let the garlic burn.  Turn the heat down a bit and add a generous teaspoon* of cumin.  Stir it around to get it a bit toasty and then add your beans.  Add a small amount of water, bring everything to a bubble and start mashing the beans with a potato masher.  Add more water if you need to, just to get the consistency of a nice pasty bean mash.  Taste for salt, and if the flavor needs a bit of brightening, add a squirt of lime (or lemon, in a pinch).  I always end up adding lime, because I love it so.

Ways to use these beans:
  • Piled in a bowl, garnished with cilantro, jalapenos, crumbled cheese, hot sauce, sour cream, or whatever you fancy.  Eat with spoon while playing with your baby on the floor.
  • My new favorite burrito is a spin on a Mark Bittman recipe: beans, wilted kale (Try it! You don't even need to bother seasoning the kale because the beans are so awesome.), cheese, and salsa.
  • My other favorite burrito is a spin on something the Hollins University cafeteria used to serve up (inspiration can be found anywhere): beans, mashed sweet potato, cheese, salsa, sour cream.  If you happen to bake a few sweet potatoes at the beginning of the week to have on hand, this comes together so quickly.
  • As a side dish with whatever, even breakfast!
 * This I have corrected the amount of cumin because an unfortunate reader with very large hands said that a "palmful of cumin" rendered his beans inedible.  Thanks for the correction!  We're really only aiming for about a teaspoon and a half.

Yearning :: {green pesto}

A typical summer evening in 1984.
When you've lived in more than one place, you always miss the other place when you're not there.  And when you're there, you miss the first place.  I can't think of a time where I've felt such a distinct emptiness, a hole that I know can be filled by being in that first place. That picture up there is where I spent my first six years, playing amongst the lines of drying laundry in the sheep pasture, cooling off in cow fountains, eating purple clover in the meadow, going with my brother to collect the evening milk in our pale green bucket with the red wooden handle, our mother skimming the cream off the top.  The cream tasted like the wildflowers I would gather by the armful everyday. 

One summer evening, when the hills made undulating shadows fall across the meadow, I followed our cat into the apple orchard.  My back toward the house and my face toward the darkening forest, I imagined myself an orphan, miles from home, following this cat as my guide.  I trudged up the hill behind him, the breeze quickening, and a tingle of danger swirling around my insides. The cat leapt up a tree and I huddled at its base, ready to sleep there. I started wondering how cold it would get in the night, if the cat would leave without me, if....and just when my imagination started to get the best of me, I turned around to the winking lights of the farmhouse, and saw the outline of my brother against the lights, swinging the milk bucket in his hands.  "Phe," he shouted, breaking my reverie, "Mama says it's time for dinner."

I know the yearning has gotten especially poignant because I want to share this with my daughter.  I want her to see cows and sheep and wide open spaces everyday.  I want her swimming pool to be a fountain in a pasture, and I want to feed her cream that tastes like flowers.

A word about my cooking, since this is the first food post (from here on out consider yourself warned): I don't follow recipes, and therefore I'm not going to be able to tell you in tablespoons and pounds how much of anything goes into anything.  All you have to do is pay attention to what you're doing, and think about what you're doing, the flavors, the textures, etc., and you'll be fine.  Really being present when you cook is what makes it so enjoyable and rewarding, anyway.  Enjoy this part of your day.

Green Pesto with Whole Wheat Pasta and Zucchini

Think about pesto this way: you know how in the winter you use up all the odds and ends in your fridge in a big pot of soup?  What vegetable soup is to winter, pesto is to summer.  Think beyond the basil, parm, pine nut version and use (almost) whatever's in your fridge.  Throw some vegetables in the pasta pot like the Italians do.  Is there a better reason for doing anything?

{Serves at least one adult and a toddler.  Easily doubles/triples.}

Put your big pot of pasta water on to boil.  Salt it.

Now make your pesto.  I had some spinach that I needed to use up, and I have a huge shrub of neglected basil in a pot by my kitchen door. You'll need three generous handfuls of green stuff. Rinse it and toss it in your food processor/hand blender cup/mortar and pestle. Don't worry about drying it off because the water actually makes it nice and creamy. We'll add more water later, in fact. When you're selecting your greens, keep your flavors and pungency in mind. Mint, for example, is delicious in pesto, but you'll want it at about a 1:2 or 3 ratio to something else, like arugula, or even peas.  Now throw in a couple cloves of garlic.  I used two small ones.  Next come nuts.  I used a handful of pistachios.  I've also used walnuts to great effect.  I never use pine nuts because I'd rather spend that amount of money on wine.  This line of thinking stops when it comes to Parmesan, though.  Don't bother with anything but the real thing.  If you don't have/want Parmigiano Reggiano, then by all means try something else in your pesto.  Feta would be delicious with the arugula and mint version we were talking about earlier.  You'll need a big handful of cheese, whatever it is.  Add several healthy glugs of olive oil, just enough to get your blades moving through all your ingredients.  Now if your pesto seems dry, add some more olive oil.  Leave it just a bit dry, though, so that we can add some of the pasta water at the end.  The pasta water is the trick.  Taste and add salt if you need it and pepper if you want it.

Your water should be boiling right now.  Add about third of a box of your pasta of choice.  I like the corkscrews because they catch a lot of the pesto.  Some Italians also put a cut up potato or two and green beans in the water to cook with the pasta.  I didn't have either of those things, so I grated half of a medium zucchini which I added raw when I tossed everything together.  Don't overcook your pasta.

Before you drain the pot, get a ladle and add a splash of the pasta water to your pesto.  Give it another pulse to bring everything together.

Toss your pasta and veggies (now would be the time to add raw stuff, like the zucchini I did, or tomatoes would be great, too) with the pesto.  You can serve this with extra cheese on top, or not.

Big fork, little fork.