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Monthly Archives: December 2014

A Resolution for the New Year

Kevin Dooley Christmas from the present's perspective CC BY 2.0I just started reading Daniel G. Amen’s book, Unleash the Power of the Female Brain. In it Amen argues that women’s brains are hardwired for the following strengths: empathy, intuition, self-control, collaboration, and a little worry. In turn, each of these strengths corresponds to a vulnerability of sorts: respectively, a tendency to feel responsible for everything and everyone, knee-jerk feelings of anxiety without having amassed the full facts, futile and frustrating attempts to control others, excessive approval seeking, and unhealthy doses of worry that lead to chronic stress. I especially identify with the positive and negative attributes of the intuition and worry piece — self-control, not so much, to which anyone who has spent any time with me and a jar of nutella can attest.

I remember, when I was probably grumbling about some aspect of my perceived incompetence, a friend saying to me that I had to stop assessing my self-worth on such a day-to-day basis. Similarly, a former boyfriend used to call me out on my incessant tendency to “analyze.” I don’t know what worry is if not a nagging impulse to analyze, scrutinize, to tease apart events and issues in one’ life that are really quite small, making up a fraction of the whole, that, like threads in a loosely woven tapestry, need room to breathe. A healthy new year’s resolution for me this year might be to hit pause on all of the assessing and reassessing that I am so stubbornly prone to and measure my own failures and successes within the context, the arch, of my life as a whole. Along with that comes a clearer, more impactful and present vision of what I want my life to look like, otherwise known as perspective. Anyone care to join me, come December 31st, when the clock strikes midnight, in toasting the revelation that life is marathon, not a sprint, that taking things slow and steady with a lot of deep breaths is in fact the wisest way to win the race?

In the meantime, there’s dinner to worry about. But I’ve got a resolution for that, too: earlier this week I suggested the merits of cooking one’s way through an entire cookbook, and for me, that would be Quick and Easy Chinese, loosely inspired by author Nancy McDermott’s stint in the Peace Corps. Talk about perspective — what I love most about homemade Chinese food is that mise en place is an imperative. Mise en place is the chopping and measuring of all ingredients prior to cooking so that the cooking process is essentially reduced to combining everything over a flame. Literally, “putting in place” all the ingredients gives the cook a clear sense of where the recipe is going and certainly appeals to the control freak lurking in your female (or male) brain. For example:

Chicken Stir-Fry
Adapted from Almond Chicken, 
Quick and Easy Chinese

Ingredients

12 oz boneless, skinless chicken breast
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1/4 cup chicken stock
1 tablespoon dry sherry
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon Asian sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons chopped fresh ginger
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped green bell pepper
1/4 cup chopped green onion

Tools

Mixing bowls
Measuring spoons/cups
Cutting board
Chef’s knife
Spatula
Whisk or fork
Large skillet

  •  Cube the raw chicken breast. Place it in a large mixing bowl with the soy sauce. Stir to evenly coat the chicken.
  • In a small bowl, combine the chicken stock, sherry, cornstarch, sesame oil, and sugar. Stir well.
  • Mince the ginger and chop the onion, green onions, and bell pepper. Have these ingredients ready to go in mixing bowls.
  • Heat the skillet over high heat. Add the vegetable oil and ginger. Add the chicken and spread it out into a single layer. Cook undisturbed until the edges turn white, about 1 minute, and then toss well.
  • Add the onion and green pepper. Cook, tossing now and then, until all the chicken is cooked through and the onions and peppers are fragrant and beginning to wilt.
  • Add the chicken stock mixture. Toss well to mix everything together. As soon as the sauce thickens, remove the pan from the heat and add the green onions. Serve with white or brown rice.

Cookbooks Are For Collecting

recoverling footprint in flour CC BY 2.0When Padraic and I were in Santa Fe this summer, we visited the Georgia 0’Keeffe museum, featuring an exhibit of paintings by O’Keeffe and photographs by Ansel Adams, both inspired by the artists’ visits to Hawaii. One 3D image on display, however, captured my interest as much as O’Keeffe’s bold, canvas-consuming flowers and Adams’s black-and-white depictions of industry steeped in island fauna: it was Georgia O’Keeffe’s cookbook collection, arranged neatly on a wooden shelf. O’Keeffe, like George Balanchine, and scores of other celebrities, I’m sure, famous for sophisticated works of art that extend beyond the culinary realm, loved to cook. There’s something about a cookbook collection that is a remarkably intimate way to remember and pay homage to great minds — providing the viewer with a living record of meals prepared with an artist’s own two hands, a record of what they willfully crafted, off-duty, when they were taking a break from peering through a camera lens, holding a brush, or rehearsing choreography. This is what they made for themselves; this is what they made as a form of escape from the art that defined them.

As someone who owns highly impractical cookbooks — whole volumes dedicated to variations on French fries, grilled cheese, even “mini pies” — I can argue from firsthand experience and ever-dwindling shelf space that I believe cookbooks are meant to be collected, that they possess a value and a presence that goes far beyond the utilitarian. I buy cookbooks for pure reading material as much as for how-tos and display them prominently in my kitchen/living room space as an invitation to imagine future meals to be made, to spark food memories, to establish my household as unequivocally food-centric. Ina Garten likes to dress her tables with things edible — like lemons, oranges, or fig leaves — likewise, I would argue the chicness of adorning your home with pictures of food and recipes, allowing the cookbooks to stand alone as works of art in their own right, just as Ina lets the food serve as decor. I’m generally a pretty frugal and no-fuss person; too much of one thing makes me feel scattered and weighed down, so I live pretty light. I take exception with cookbooks, however — I believe that a true food-lover, even if she’s a mediocre and/or minimalist cook, even if she relies heavily on the Internet when she’s actually doing the cooking, cannot have enough of them. With that said, here are nine things to do with your cookbooks besides the obvious:

1. Tag recipes with (tiny) Post-its once you’ve made them for the first time. This way your cookbooks form an ongoing document of your kitchen, and invite you to take on the impossible, long term project of cooking your way through every volume.

2. Place a stack of cookbooks by your bed and try reading them cover to cover, for each recipe marking the ingredients that you don’t have on hand on a Post-it. This way you can more easily recall recipes that match the contents of your fridge, more quickly write up a grocery list, and even group meals together on a weekly basis that share similar ingredients.

3. Rearrange them on the shelf. Feature and/or juxtapose different covers with appealing photographs, stack them according to food category, or pepper the books creatively throughout the room. Give them a stylish display, a place of honor, let’s say, in your dining/cooking/gathering space.

4. Pick a dish and cook it from as many cookbooks as you own, recipe testing until you find your favorite. If you’re like me, you’ll also end up writing in great detail about the best lasagna or blueberry pie you discovered.

5. Once you find your favorite version of something after expending the effort to compare and contrast, stick with it. Make that dish over and over again. You will become known for your fudgy brownies or creamy, garlicky mashed potatoes and this is an honor to be coveted.

6. Resist the temptation to surf the food blogosphere and instead, select one cookbook to cook from for the week. Chances are you can reuse any ingredients that you’ll need to purchase and you won’t get overwhelmed with the prospect of planning a variety of creative meals.

7. Pick a cookbook to cook your entire way through and blog about it! Ahem, Baking Through Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook.

8. Start the daunting process of crafting your own recipes by cross-referencing cookbooks and combining recipes and techniques. Write your own, personal cookbook of hybrid recipes.

9. If you don’t already own it, purchase The America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook and read it at your leisure, cover to cover. It will make you a more knowledgeable, efficient, and confident cook and give you a few tricks to store in your sleeve. Things like soaking eggs in hot tap water to quickly bring them up to the suggested room temp for baking, and the difference between French and American omelettes…

Oh, and one more thing — keeping adding to the collection 🙂

Nora Webster

Screen Shot 2014-12-26 at 11.47.49 AMChristmas came a little early to my house this year. Padraic bought me the novel, Nora Webster by Colm Toibin, touting the fact that Toibin has been compared to Henry James — the author of my favorite novel, Portrait of a Lady — in his rendering of female characters. It took me about two days of intensive reading to make my way from front cover to back, and here are my reflections:

I get the Henry James comparison. While Toibin writes in a very simple, declarative style that couldn’t be less similar to James’s sprawling, intricate prose, there’s a subtlety to the narrator’s relationship to his protagonist. In Toibin’s straightforward, unapologetic observations of his central character’s thoughts and actions, we readers experience a sensation of hovering, hugging close to Nora Webster’s every move in an attentive but non-judgmental way. USA Today writes that Toibin “sneak[s] up on readers” which, in retrospect, seems true; suddenly you feel yourself rooting and looking out for Nora Webster without knowing exactly how the author manipulated your sympathies. Looking back, there’s only sentence after sentence of concise, resolute declarations to draw you into Nora’s world. I recall a similar feeling in reading James — it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the narration turns Isabel Archer into a sympathetic figure.

But I’m getting ahead of myself — Nora Webster is the story of a recently widowed middle-aged woman of Wexford, Ireland, charting her attempt to put back the pieces of her life and maintain normalcy for the sake of her four children. Nora is strikingly honest, independent, and nonconformist, and Toibin makes us privy to her consciousness as she confronts the challenges of her newfound solitude.

Nora’s relationship to her children in the aftermath of her husband’s death is decidedly unsentimental. For example, she confesses to moments of awkwardness with her young sons and struggles to know what to say to her daughter, Fiona. We, the reader, follow her far into her own thoughts while in the presence of her children, which highlights the very individual, internal process of grief that shrouds the interactions of the family.

As Nora settles into her new independence, she accesses a rebellious streak, expressing itself in her decision to join the union at work, regardless of her friendship with the boss, or her open disdain for certain proprieties while visiting her sister — it’s amusing to witness her character flirt with the possibilities for nonconformity, to see her grow into her new role as solitary mistress of her house. But there’s also a weariness about Nora — we sense the struggle it takes to make it through the days and nights, and the sense of resignation that she carries with her, reluctantly giving into the visits of neighbors or the exhortations of “Sister Thomas.”

Perhaps the most memorable, distinct aspect of the novel is that it invites us to watch Nora Webster move through her loss and come out the other side. She takes up singing lessons, finding refuge in music; she takes on house projects, knocking down the fireplace and repainting her living room, finding refuge in the rythms of housework. She purchases new clothes and loses herself in TV movies with her young sons. She returns to the same office where she worked as a young, single woman, and she vacations with her children on the strand. We witness Nora putting one foot in front of the other, and learn to appreciate her resilience. There’s an understated, muted quality to Toibin’s writing, and it’s in the precise, small, mundane steps forward that we witness Nora’s transformation from overwhelmed, grief-stricken widow to a self-possessed mother and worker.

Finding the Spirit This Christmas

matee, but who cares? Christmas Tree CC BY-NC-ND 2.0I haven’t exactly been a model of good cheer this holiday season. Christmas tree? Meh. I hung a wreath on the door, pieced together an advent wreath with a few candles, and called it a day. Fresh batches of Christmas cookies? More like pragmatic pots of potato soup. Christmas carols? Instead, my ears have been ringing with Cuban jazz and NPR. Last weekend, I saw a group of decked-out carolers cavorting through the streets of Chicago and felt myself marveling at their energy from a comfortable distance.

So I was grateful when at church last week the priest mentioned a different way to prepare for Christ’s coming: repentance, seeking forgiveness. It’s so easy to get caught up in traditions that might best be described as decorative, that punctuate the holiday season much like the garlands on a Christmas tree, but never quite penetrate its central meaning. In the midst of preparing our homes for Christmas, it’s a refreshing prospect to do the more sobering work of preparing our hearts for the Lord.

What does this mean exactly? When I take good, long, honest look at myself with Jesus’s coming in mind I feel like one of those handmade, cobbled looking ornaments, my faith clumsily pieced together, a shadow of the smoothly crafted, well-integrated Christian life that I aspire to. But perhaps this is what the priest’s suggested examining is meant to yield — a reminder of how much we need the God who is coming for us on Christmas day, a humbling awareness of our own mediocrity and our unceasing need for him.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the book Quiet, including the author’s reflections on evangelical Christianity, how the evangelical movement is a bastion for the extrovert ideal, rewarding and revering those who live their faith out loud. I happen to be both an introvert and one who quickly became disillusioned with the non-denominational, evangelical church partially on the grounds of its bias toward extroversion, but for a short while I found the evangelical community very alluring, I’m sure partially owing to the charisma, aka extroversion, of its leading members. One of the phrases I remember being tossed around was called “active dependence,” the notion that we are called to proactively cultivate our dependence on God, to live fully in the reality of our need for him. Perhaps the most authentic preparation we can make this advent is to deepen our dependent relationship to the Lord.

In the meantime, there’s soup. Along with prayer, a good bowl of soup goes a long way toward refreshing the soul, I think. The pot is a repository for disparate elements, slowly transforming them into something new and life-giving, not unlike a prayer. You might consider this potato soup a token of my resistance against all the pretty, powdered, finely shaped edibles of the Christmas season, an invitation to pare down what is tangible about Christmas and leave space for the invisible turnings of the heart. Here’s the recipe:

Potato Soup
Adapted from the Pioneer Woman

Ingredients 

6 slices bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces
Medium onion, diced
3 whole carrots, diced
3 stalks celery, diced
6 small Russet potatoes, peeled and diced
8 cups chicken stock
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Paprika
Cumin
Red pepper flakes
Chili powder
Freshly grated cheddar cheese

Tools

2 Cutting boards
Chef’s knife
Potato peeler
Mixing bowls
Measuring cups
Measuring spoons
Frying pan
Plate
Paper towels
Wooden spoon
Whisk or fork
Immersion blender or blender

  • Chop the vegetables and the potatoes. Measure out the stock, milk, and heavy cream.
  • Cut the raw bacon into pieces using a separate cutting board and cook in a frying pan over medium heat until crisp.
  • Remove the bacon to a plate and pour out most of the grease.
  • Cook the onions, carrots, and celery in the same frying pan over medium-high heat.
  • After about 2 minutes, add the diced potatoes. Cook for about 5 minutes, adding the salt and dashes of paprika, cumin, red pepper flakes, and chili powder.
  • Add the chicken stock and bring the mixture to a boil. Cook for 10 minutes, or until the potatoes become tender.
  • Whisk the flour with the milk and add to the pot, cooking for another 5 minutes.
  • Using a blender or an immersion blender, process the soup until completely smooth.
  • Stir in the cream. Serve with cheddar cheese and bacon bits.

When Things Fall Apart

Justus Hayes La Chartreuse - Not Thorough Enough CC BY 2.0Yesterday morning I awoke to a crisis, of sorts — my closet had literally imploded in the middle of the night. Shelves smashed into the door, shoes shoved up against the wall, a heaving mass of clothes and bags and drawers to remove, gingerly, from the slightly cracked door. Today ended with a trip to Home Depot and a living room stacked with boxes and drawers, clothes hanging from my keyboard stand. This had to happen for a reason, I tell myself. Couldn’t find time to purge, now I’m forced to reckon with piles of things I forgot I owned.

Daphne Rose Kingma, of The Ten Things To Do When Your Life Falls Apart, would say that I’ve “integrated my loss,” number seven on the list of ten. Please forgive the implication that my closet is my life — although it has taken on a life of its own unfurled this way in the middle of my living room, so the metaphor seems apt. In all seriousness, Kingma writes that “crisis of any kind calls us into integration,” which means facing the troubles, losses that we experience, telling ourselves the truth about our struggles, and granting them a meaningful place in the narrative that we construct about our lives.

There’s a saying that I sometimes hear intoned in yoga classes: “I am exactly as I should be today.” It reorients the mind from a constant state of comparison — what is versus what should be — to simply, what is. With this mantra, the mind is freed up to observe and claim ownership of what naturally exists, and to proclaim the rightness of it, because it is. I imagine that this way of thinking has something do with the concept of integration, in its way of honing powers of observation versus powers of control, even the darker, unwelcome aspects of our surroundings, circumstances, and identities are acknowledged and incorporated.

Kingma writes that our “human nature prefers distinction, separation, and confusion, [but] our spiritual nature seeks wholeness, inclusion, and union. Since we are ultimately spiritual in nature, life keeps pointing us in the direction of this growth.” As much as we might resist embracing what is painful about life, casting our experience in a line, with steps “forward” and “back,” the reality is that we don’t selectively determine our path, instead, our path happens to us, and in it’s in our best interest to include the unplanned, unwanted directions in constructing a more three-dimensional image of ourselves.

It seems that I’ve veered a long way from my caved-in closet. As I pick up the pieces, I’ll try to embrace the chaos for what it is. After all, it is.

Getting Creative with Salmon

roaming-the-planet CC BY-NC-ND 2.0I don’t know about you, but salmon is a staple of weeknight suppers at my house. It becomes a matter of finding unique ways to prepare it — ways to  diverge from what is in my mind the most ubiquitous and fundamental of salmon flavorings, lemon and dill. This mild, herby pairing allows the moist, slightly sweet taste of the fish to reign supreme, and for this reason, us home cooks flock to it, or should I say swim. But there comes a time when I want my salmon to pack a zingier, zestier punch — metaphorically speaking, that is, but yes, citrus and citrus zest do figure in. Sometimes that’s accomplished with a thick crust of fresh herbs, or a bed of caramel iced onions. Today, though, I’m taking my inspiration from a glazed carrot recipe of Ina Garten’s, melding fresh ginger, orange juice and zest, butter, and maple syrup to form a sweet, peppery, and mildly acidic sauce for the salmon as it bakes in the oven. The result is light and invigorating:

Salmon with Orange and Ginger

Ingredients

1 pound salmon
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons honey
Kosher salt
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
1 teaspoon grated orange zest
1/2 cup freshly squeezed orange juice

Tools

Baking dish
Paper towels
Measuring spoons
Measuring cups
Rasp grater
Juicer or fork
Saucepan
Wooden spoon

  • Lightly grease a square baking dish and preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Pat the salmon dry with paper towels and place it in the dish.
  • Combine 1/2 cup water, the butter, honey, 2 teaspoons salt, and fresh ginger in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil and reduce the heat to a simmer.
  • Simmer the mixture for 15-20 minutes. Stir in the orange juice and orange zest.
  • Pour the mixture over the salmon, turning the salmon to make sure all sides are generously coated.
  • Bake in the oven skin side down for 25 minutes, or until flaky when prodded with a fork.

These green beans make a light, crisp compliment to the fish:

Ingredients 

1 pound string beans
Kosher salt
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
1 small clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 small onions
Freshly ground pepper

Tools

Large pot
Colander
Large bowl
Cutting board
Chef’s knife
Sauté pan
Wooden spoon

  • Blanch the green beans for 1 1/2 minutes in a large pot of boiling, salted water.
  • Drain the beans and immediately place them in a bowl of ice water.
  • Zest the lemon and mince the garlic, then mash these ingredients with 2 tablespoons butter.
  • Chop the onions. Then place the olive oil and the butter in a large sauté pan over medium heat and swirl to coat 🙂
  • Sauté the onions for 5-10 minutes, until translucent and just starting to brown.
  • Add the green beans with 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper and sauté the beans until they’re warm. Voilà.

A Sandwich for a Rainy Day

Mike Mozart  Hellmann's Mayonnaise CC BY 2.0Everyone loves a good sandwich, right? Usually the idea of a scrumptious sandwich involves fresh cuts of deli meat with salty, sharp slices of cheese, mayo and mustard, and all the trimmings — red onion slices, fresh lettuce, tomato — okay, I’ll leave it at that, apparently I love a good sandwich. But sometimes, when the fridge is running bare or your just plain hungry and don’t have the patience to layer your two slices of bread with six or seven fresh ingredients, a quirkier, more processed version of sandwich eating beckons:

It’s called lathering one slice of bread with creamy peanut butter and the other slice with a generous smear of mayo, inserting a crisp leaf of, say, romaine lettuce in between, and digging in. I admit, it sounds mildly disgusting, much like most dishes that include mayo, such as the French custom of dipping French fries in mayo or coating cubes of chicken in mayo in chicken salad, or in coleslaw, shreds of carrot and cabbage. But there’s something about the combination of mayo’s eggy, oily tang and peanut butter’s salty, nutty bite that pairs surprisingly well, especially with a crisp piece of lettuce to freshen things up.

Mike Mozart  Skippy Peanut Butter CC BY 2.0I also love this sandwich because I associate it with my grandmother, “Gigi,” and her airy, open, sunlit kitchen where I grew up rifing my way through her pantry cabinets. My grandmother is a healthy eater, a disciplined lady, and a former athlete; she is not the person who comes to mind when you think processed, jarred foods like mayo and peanut butter. Nevertheless, she is the one who introduced me to this indulgent-bordering-on-disgusting combination, laughing off its disgusting vibes as she gets out the jar of mayo, adding, “Just every once in a while.” I don’t know if the sandwich is a vestige of the depression era in which she grew up, or, like casseroles overflowing with processed cheese, a culinary custom native to the Midwest, but regardless, I encourage you to try it. See if this sandwich out of a jar doesn’t knock your socks off, at least once.

Mayo and Peanut Butter Sandwich

Ingredients

Mayonnaise
Peanut Butter
2 slices of bread (any kind will do)
Leaf of crisp lettuce

Tools

Cutting board
Butter knife

  • Spread one slice of bread with a generous layer of mayo.
  • Spread the other with a generous layer of peanut butter.
  • Place a crisp, freshly washed and dried leaf of lettuce on top of the layer of peanut butter.
  • Place the other slice of bread on top and firmly press together. Voilà.
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