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Monthly Archives: June 2016

Goat Cheese and Onions Part 2

I recently read an article (in Epicurous, I think) about the oft-neglected merits of something certain foodies consider super uncool: boneless, skinless chicken breasts. Unexciting, perhaps, but I’m a firm believer that boneless, skinless chicken breasts are indispensable. See this recipe for chicken and veggie quesadillas by Ree Drummond that has sustained the two of us for at least a week’s worth of dinners… a sprinkle of taco seasoning lends the diced chicken a bit of kick, and you can prepare it ahead, along with the sautéed onions and bell peppers, and throw together a quesadilla whenever you’re feeling hungry. Then, mix the extra diced chicken with romaine lettuce, shredded Mexican cheese, tomato slices, and this rich, basil and scallion-loaded green goddess dressing, and you’ve got lunch. Or (I digress) the dressing is so rich you may just want a plateful of lettuce and tomato, like so:

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But anyway. Boneless skinless chicken breasts. Yes.

That being said, I’m also aboard the bone-in, skin-on chicken thigh trend. Which brings me to goat cheese and onions. Here’s how I adapted Ina Garten’s Chicken with Goat Cheese and Sun Dried Tomato a few weeks ago:

  • Chicken thighs instead of chicken breasts. In my experience, thigh meat tends to be fattier and more succulent than breast meat, and I feel I can justify the treat because thighs are smaller than breasts.
  • Her recipe calls for herbed goat cheese – I had plain in my fridge, from my aforementioned experiment with goat cheese caramelized onion bruschetta, so I added a fresh basil leaf under the skin instead. (If you have an herb garden, you could always mash in your own fresh herbs and an improvise your own herbed goat cheese. Right now my chives are out of control, so maybe I should have done that. Aw shucks, I suppose I’ll have to buy another log of goat cheese and start all over again… 🙂 )
  • I also did not have sun-dried tomatoes on hand, so I put a roasted red pepper (that came in a jar) under the skin. (Another reason to buy these jarred, roasted red peppers is that they layer sweetly on your standard, homemade grilled cheese sandwich and add nice, vinegary notes to salads. If you happen to have fresh bell peppers lying around, plus olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper, and a little fresh garlic (optional), you can make your own. See another, goat-cheese centric Ina Garten recipe (this one I haven’t made) for more specific instructions on how to pickle peppers.

Onions, you say?

I’ve made this Ina Garten recipe for herb roasted onions a few times, say, if I’m cooking meat and I have no vegetables or salad ingredients on hand to go with. It’s something of a revelation to me that onions are a vegetable that can be roasted like anything else, and stand on their own. Quarter and separate a few onions – mix them with olive oil, mustard, fresh herbs, and salt and pepper – roast them on a sheet pan, and voila: a cheap and surprisingly delicious side dish. (This time I made the recipe with yellow onions only, because that’s what I had – but I think adding a red onion to the mix is really worth it. Adds extra sweetness).

I rounded out the roasted chicken and roasted onions with some roasted carrots – really simple — olive oil, salt and pepper, and in my case, copious amounts of fresh dill.

Here’s how dinner ended up (I forgot to mention that crisp (cheap) white wine is always an important factor in the goat cheese and onion equation, but perhaps that just goes unsaid…)

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To goat cheese, to onions, to alfresco dining, to life, to life, l’chaim….

A Different Kind of Recipe

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Ah, teaching…and summer’s off. If you’ve been reading recently, I hope I’ve conveyed my gratitude for the time to spend with family, read, cook, travel, and write. Summer’s off are such a beautiful thing. But I think many teachers would agree that summer’s off are also, in many ways, summer’s “off.” The teaching must go on, come August or September, and so there is curriculum to be written, errands and doctor’s appointments to be scratched off the personal to-do list, and resources to be gathered.

The resources to be gathered part…

I’m trying crowd funding for the first time. I spend plenty of my own money on resources for my classroom — last school year, having shared classrooms for four years, I had to start from scratch when it came to decorating my own room. Also, my projector didn’t work, something I use everyday, so I was left with no choice but to buy my own, justifying it as an investment in my teaching career. When I tried to get creative, scissors and glue sticks and graph paper and construction paper were all on me, which added up. I had to scrounge for my own pencil sharpener, replace my own dying markers, provide lotion, and sometimes buy my own kleenex. Then I purchased graduation gifts for a some of my seniors. This is the norm in teaching.

And another norm in teaching: asking people you know — family, friends, readers of your blog — to fund resources that your school cannot provide. In some ways it’s a beautiful movement, and in some ways, it’s a very sad reflection on the lack of funding in schools, especially when schools have such high expectations for their students and their teachers. But I’m asking all the same.

Here is my site, Chromebooks for Writing Classes with a video of me talking about how chromebooks — even a few — would help my students and help me do more as a teacher. Things like project-based learning, in-class research, increased student engagement. In the video I focus on how these chromebooks would benefit my classroom, specifically, but I would share them with my colleagues, and so, in reality, they would benefit an entire English department. If you can give, thank you. If you can share on social media, thank you. If you can click on the link and give it some of your attention, thank you.

As I share in the video, here’s “a different kind of recipe,” written by my student Kumari, a sweet reflection on what it takes to write a good essay:

The Perfect Essay

Ingredients

4 cups of sole-purposed brain power
4 teaspoons of creativity
4 cups of dedicated research
2 cups of MLA format sourcing
5 tablespoons of brainstorming
4 cups of editing

Directions

  • Place brainstorming in bowl. Let it sit for a few hours. Then, when it feels right to YOU, add in the dedicated research and stir.
  • When the mixture is smooth, begin adding in the sole-purposed brain power and the creativity alternately, while stirring.
  • When both are in the bowl, grab a blender and blend until the mixture is fluffy and smooth.
  • Then add in the editing and MLA format sourcing, alternately until both are in. Stir.
  • Next, put the mixture in the fridge and take it out everyday and mix it for one to two hours until the mixture is absolutely perfect.
  • Then give the mixture to your teacher, get her opinion on it, and with her advice, polish and add ingredients as you see fit. Put the mixture into the oven and wait until it is golden brown.
  • Take it out and enjoy it, a steaming sweet taste of success 🙂

I’d argue that as technology is increasingly a part of the workplace and our personal life, the only thing missing from this recipe is technology. It has a prominent place in our world, and it deserves a prominent place in our classrooms. So consider this “ask” a recipe in the works for better learning, better writing, better teaching. Thanks for considering.

 

Zero to Thirty

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Today is a very special day! My nephew, Owen, was born, and he shares a birthday with one of my best friends – today, she turns thirty! I know that male and female friendships are different, and my friendship with the extraordinary Benazir Ali feels like it pretty squarely fits the female mold, but one of the best things that Owen has to look forward to is friendships of this kind. By “this kind,” I mean close, dear friendships that stand the test of distance and time.

In the female universe, at least, this kind of friendship involves a lot of talking — you can speak your mind and more importantly, your heart, without reserve. You can fight and even occasionally say horrible things and genuinely forgive each other a few minutes later. You can be happy for the other person’s joys and at the same time, share your sorrows.

Benazir is Muslim, and I am Christian, but we are constantly asking each other to pray for the other one because…. LIFE IS SO STRESSFUL! Or, to put it more optimistically, we all need our God.

On the day of my nephew’s birth, it seems fitting to share this quote that Benazir sent me earlier this year (I don’t know the source):

In a mother’s womb were two babies. One asked the other: ‘Do you believe in life after delivery?’ The other replied, ‘Why, of course. There has to be something after the delivery. Maybe we are here to prepare ourselves for what will be later.’

‘Nonsense’ said the first. ‘There is no life after delivery. What kind of life would that be?’

The second said, ‘I don’t know, but there will be more light than here. Maybe we will walk with our legs and eat from our mouths. Maybe we will have other senses that we can’t understand now.’

The first replied, ‘That is absurd. Walking is impossible. And eating with our mouths? Ridiculous! The umbilical cord supplies nutrition and everything we need. But the umbilical cord is so short. Life after delivery is to be logically excluded.’

The second insisted, ‘Well I think there is something and maybe it’s different than it is here. Maybe we won’t need this physical cord anymore.’

The first replied, ‘Nonsense. And moreover if there is life, then why has no one ever come back from there? Delivery is the end of life, and in the after-delivery there is nothing but darkness and silence and oblivion. It takes us nowhere.’

‘Well, I don’t know,’ said the second, ‘but certainly we will meet Mother and she will take care of us.’

The first replied, ‘Mother? You actually believe in Mother? That’s laughable. If Mother exists then where is She now?’

The second said, ‘She is all around us. We are surrounded by her. We are of Her. It is in Her that we live. Without Her this world would not and could not exist.’

Said the first: ‘Well I don’t see Her, so it is only logical that She doesn’t exist.’

To which the second replied, ‘Sometimes, when you’re in silence and you focus and listen, you can perceive Her presence, and you can hear Her loving voice, calling down from above.’

This is perhaps one of the best explanations of ‘GOD’ I have come across.

Judging by Owen’s swaddled bliss today in the hospital, life immediately after the delivery seems pretty cosy. Here he is with my brother (his uncle, not his father):

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But as Benazir and I both know, the further you climb into this God-filled and suffering-filled life, it can get harder to discern God’s presence. And so God gives you supportive friends, among other things

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And on your birthday, God gives you permission to eat cake.

Someday I’ll know what Owen prefers, cake-wise, but when I asked Benazir, she just said “anything chocolate.”

So Benazir, happy thirtieth! You deserve all of the love and all of the chocolate you can get. You are one of the most intelligent, kind, and strong women I know. Keep climbing 🙂 Whenever you make it to Saint Louis, I’ll make Joy the Baker’s Chocolate Beet Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting for you, which I tested with Britta and Nuala, two of my wonderful nieces. It’s delicious.

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Chocolate Beet Cake with Beet Cream Cheese Frosting
Makes one layer cake

Materials

Aluminum foil
Sheet pan, preferably rimmed
Paring knife
Box grater
Cutting board
Measuring cups
Measuring spoons
Two 8 or 9-inch round baking pans
Electric mixer, paddle attachment
Mixing bowls
Whisk
Spatula
Skewer
Cooling racks
Cake stand

Cake Ingredients

2 medium beets, unpeeled
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
6 oz unsalted butter, softened, plus more for greasing the pan
1 cup packed brown sugar
¾ cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting the pans
2/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 ¼ cups buttermilk

Frosting Ingredients

2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
8 oz (1 brick) cream cheese, softened
4 to 5 cups powdered sugar, sifted
2 tablespoons finely grated beets, mashed with a fork
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract or scrapings of one vanilla bean pod
1-2 teaspoons milk, depending on desired consistency
1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
pinch of salt

Instructions for Cakes

  • Place a rack in the center and upper third of the oven.  Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
  • Thoroughly wash beets under running water, and trim their leaves, leaving about 1/2 inch of stem.  Place clean beets in a piece of foil.  Drizzle with just a bit of vegetable oil.  Seal up foil.  Place on a baking sheet in the oven.  Roast until beets are tender when pierced with a knife, about 1 hour.
  • Remove the beets from the oven.  Open the foil and allow beets to cool completely.  Beets will be easy to peel (just using a paring knife) once completely cooled.
  • Using a box grater, grate the peeled beets on the finest grating plane.  Measure 3/4 cup of grated beets for the cake and 2 tablespoons for the frosting.  Set aside.
  • Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees F.  Use butter to grease two 8 or 9-inch round baking pans. Add a dusting of flour to coat the pan. Set pans aside while you prepare the cake.
  • In the bowl of an electric stand mixer, fitted with a paddle attachment, cream together butter and sugars.  Beat on medium speed until pale and fluffy, about 3 to 5 minutes.  Beat in eggs, one at a time, for one minute after each addition.   Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl as necessary.  Once eggs are incorporated, beat in beets and vanilla extract until thoroughly combined.
  • In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.
  • Add half of the dry ingredients to the butter and egg mixture.  Beating on low speed , slowly add the buttermilk.  Once just incorporated, add the other half of the dry ingredients. Beat on medium speed until milk and dry ingredients are just incorporated. Try not to overmix the batter.  Bowl can be removed from the mixer and mixture folded with a spatula to finish incorporating ingredients.  Cake batter will be on the thick side… not pourable.
  • Divide the batter between the two prepared cake pans.  Bake for 23 to 25 minutes (for a 9-inch pan) or 30-32 minutes (for an 8-inch pan).  Cake is done when a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean.  Remove cakes from the oven and allow to rest for 10 minutes.  Invert cakes onto a cooling rack to cool completely before frosting and assembling the cake.

Instructions for Frosting

  • In the bowl of an electric stand mixer, fitted with a paddle attachment, beat cream cheese for 30 seconds, until pliable and smooth.  Add the butter and beat for another 30 seconds, until well combined.  Stop the mixer and scrape down the bowl as necessary.  Beat in the beets.  Add the powdered sugar, vanilla extract, milk, lemon juice, and salt.  Beat on medium speed until smooth and silky.  Refrigerate the frosting for 30 minutes before frosting the cooled cakes.
  • To assemble the cake, place one layer of cake on a cake stand or cake plate.  Top with a generous amount of pink frosting.  Spread evenly.  Place the other cake on top of the frosting.  Top with frosting.  Work frosting onto the sides of the cake.  You will have extra frosting left over.  Refrigerate for an hour before serving (it will make the cake easier to slice).  Cake will last, well wrapped in the refrigerator, for up to 4 days.

 

 

 

 

Goat Cheese and Onions Part 1

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My favorite thing to cook, hands down, is caramelized onions. There’s the therapeutic knife work: slicing this surprisingly juicy root vegetable until tears trickle down your cheeks. Then the melting of butter and olive oil… I don’t know about you, but I can taste decadence at the sight of crackling butter… Then, very slowly, the alchemy of cooking is at work – with a little heat, a crackling of pepper and salt, a sprinkling of sugar, and that key ingredient, time — a heap of raw, half moon shapes becomes a puddle of onion candy.

I would just as spoon caramelized onions out of a bowl, but on a recent summer evening I decided to add toasted bread, a sprinkling of fresh thyme, and a smear of goat cheese to the mix. It was a little too delicious. A baguette of goat cheese caramelized onion bruschetta has its merits as a dinner for two – it’s both inexpensive and easy – but you’ll curse yourself if you consume half a loaf of bread as part of your “light” summer dinner, as did I. Or maybe you won’t! Maybe this is the perfect dinner for you. In that case, you need:

Materials

Chef’s knife
Cutting board
Large bowl
Large skillet or pot
Spatula or wooden spoon
Serrated knife
One sheet pan, preferably rimmed
Small glass bowl (preferred, not required)
Silicone brush (preferred, not required)
Tongs
Serving platter or large plate
Butter knife
Microwave

Ingredients

Three large onions
Half a stick of butter
A glug of olive oil
Kosher salt
Freshly cracked pepper
Granulated sugar
Baguette
Goat cheese
Fresh thyme

Instructions

  • Take the goat cheese out of the fridge and bring it to room temp.
  • Peel your three large onions and cut them in half. Then cut each of the six halves into medium slices. Separate the slices into a large bowl.
  • Get your skillet or pot out, and turn the heat on low. Melt your butter and olive oil in the skillet or pot. I melted the whole half stick, but it’s probably better to slice the butter into tablespoons before putting it in the pan so it melts more evenly and quickly.
  • Pile the onions in, and use a spatula or a wooden spoon to coat the onion slices evenly in the fat. Sprinkle the onions with salt, pepper, and a couple pinches of granulated sugar.
  • Let the onions sit for a good long 45 minutes to an hour, until they are a rich golden brown. Turn them every once a while and keep your eye on the skillet. Meanwhile,
  • Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
  • Take your serrated knife and slice the baguette as thinly or thickly as you want. I made thick slices, but I think when I make this again, I’ll slice the bread thinner, so it toasts into crackers. (These are cleaner to eat and make for a lighter appetizer, if you don’t eat a million of them. If you make your slices thinner, you’ll probably need two sheet pans).
  • Spread your baguette slices onto a dry sheet pan. Fill a small container with olive oil. Brush each slice, on each side, with a generous coating of olive oil. (You can also pour the olive oil directly on the pan and rub the slices around in it). Sprinkle the entire pan of bread with a few pinches of kosher salt.
  • Toast the bread slices in the oven until they are crisp and golden brown, say 5-10 minutes. Flip the slices with tongs and toast the other side for just a bit.
  • Transfer the toasts to a serving platter or plate.
  • Put your room temp goat cheese in the microwave for 10 seconds (if necessary. If the oven has made your kitchen warm, you might not need to microwave it).
  • Spread the goat cheese generously on each slice and sprinkle with fresh thyme. (To remove thyme leaves from their stems, point the stem upside down and pull the leaves up the stem between your fingers). If you want to mince the thyme, great, but a sprinkling of full leaves works fine, too.
  • Spoon the caramelized onions onto the warm goat cheese and enjoy 🙂

Chekhov: A Biography and The Signature of All Things

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I have a tendency to pick up thick, dry (well, actually sort of musty) biographies and stubbornly plow my way through them. Admittedly, I called it quits on page 600 of Chekhov: A Biography by Ernest J. Simmons in favor of the above mentioned Elizabeth Gilbert novel, which is about the same length and which I tore through in the matter of about a week, but more on that later.

The back cover of Simmons’s bio reads: “This work reads like a massive Russian novel, but one in which a real hero dominates a tapestry of real life.” Let me assure you, this is false advertising – it reads like a halting, over-wrought research report in which the minutiae of Chekhov’s day-to-day existence is loyally recorded in painstaking detail. As with biopics, I think there is an art to writing biographies in which the story of a person’s life can be both well-researched and selectively rendered so as to leave the reader with a more memorable, vibrant impression of the essence of who that person was, and I’m fascinated by that art. Simmons’s approach is less than inspiring. But it was certainly informative, and inspires me to delve deeper into Chekhov’s body of work, of which, when I say deeper, I confess I am treading in very shallow waters. My exposure to Chekhov, embarrassingly, is limited to some of his short stories, adapted to the stage for a show I worked on called “Chekhov’s Life in the Country.”

Chekhov was a physician, first, then ever-increasingly, a writer. He called medicine his wife and literature his mistress (quite literally – he married very late in life). He constantly gave away his medical services for free and started writing humorous stories for cheap magazines as a way to make money for his large family. He wrote under a pseudonym, and he wrote hastily. This business of writing was a mercantile one in which he churned out stories for small sums. Simmons never goes into much detail about Chekhov’s early life as a reader; rather, he gives the impression that Chekhov was full of stories and gifted with powers of observation and imagination — that the stories just poured out of him.

It took time for Chekhov to see and embrace that he had a special genius, and he slowly graduated from the popular magazines to publications of literature. His relationship to the theatre and playwriting was a bit rocky; his plays were often ill-received at first, as they didn’t adhere to the conventions of Russian drama. Tolstoy criticized him for writing “the world as he saw it,” rather than infusing his work with a moral perspective, but Chekhov and Tolstoy eventually developed a mutually admiring relationship. Chekhov had tons of friends, and when he wasn’t writing, he was usually entertaining a group of visitors – he also loved to garden and became something of a real estate enthusiast near the end of his life. He was extremely close to his sister, and held out on marriage until late in life when his tuberculosis was in full swing, when he married a Moscow actress named Olga. Interestingly, he launched on a journey to Siberia in the middle of his life and wrote a report on the treatment of prisoners there. And… I’ll leave you there. I’m a bit Chekhov-ed out. But suffice it to say that the book only builds up your admiration and even, affection for this literary giant – it does humanize him and portray him as a likeable, relatable figure.

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In contrast, The Signature of All Things was a quick read. It starts with the story of Henry Whittacre, a scrappy, poor boy who grew up the son of an orchard farmer and longed for a bigger, better life. He starts stealing flowers from a famous botanist for chunks of money from aspiring botanists, and ends up going to work for the famous botanist. After sailing the world, he marries a Dutch woman, takes her to America, and builds a formidable estate in 19th century Philadelphia.

From then on, it’s his daughter Alma’s story. Her relationship to her adopted sister, Prudence, her sexual awakening starting in her father’s library, her unrequited love for the printmaker George Hawkes, her silly friendship with a young woman who later becomes George’s wife and later still, goes insane, her mother’s death, her obsession with mosses to counteract the loneliness of spinsterhood, her fleeting marriage to an orchid painter named Ambrose Pike, her father’s death, and upon learning some surprising information from her mother’s nursemaid, the decision to leave the estate to Prudence and sail to Tahiti…

The book gets its title from the Ambrose Pike character, who confesses to Alma that he went insane when he thought he could discern God’s imprint on every trace of the natural world. Alma’s own life story is infused with a deep devotion to and lifelong study of nature, and so, in her own, more grounded way, she sees God’s signature in nature, too.

Following her travels to Tahiti and around the world, when Alma seeks to resolve her conception of the mysterious Ambrose Pike, she settles in Holland with her mother’s relatives. As an old woman, her study of mosses leads her toward her own theory of natural selection, but she resists publishing her theory because she can’t bridge the gap between the self-sacrificing nature of people like her once-despised sister Prudence with the idea that struggle and conquest define human nature. So at the core of this novel is the tension between the natural world, in all its beauty, and the unique beauty of humans.

In many ways The Signature of All Things reminds me of the novels I enjoyed as a girl – and one of my favorite novels to this day, Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, which Padraic is finally reading this summer, to my delight. You have a precocious, curious, slightly unconventional female heroine free to study or explore in a world buoyed by inherited wealth, a historical setting around the 1800s, and an epic, birth-to-death scope. I couldn’t help but notice that the character Prudence’s story, heavily intertwined with the abolitionist movement during the Civil War, is sidelined, in favor of privileged Alma’s love interests and reverence for mosses. Perhaps it would be more edifying to write, or read, a book about Prudence. The only other book I’ve read by Elizabeth Gilbert – Eat, Pray, Love – is also steeped in the world of privileged white women.

So it’s in many ways an old-fashioned tale, if such a thing exists, but a delectable, escapist one, perfect for car rides back to Chicago, which still feels like my second home, or outdoor evenings in Saint Louis spent rocking (as in, a chair) and reading.

My parting advice – skip the Chekhov biography for a collection of his short stories, starting with The Lady with The Little Dog (I love this story), or a cold read of The Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya, or The Seagull, and in the meantime, if you’re looking for a virtual garden in which to explore, curl up with The Signature of All Things. Enjoy 🙂

A Chance of Meatballs

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So I hadn’t cooked for a few months — dinners at the Ginger and Padraic O’Donnell house consisted of me working at my computer and snacking on Skinny Pop and Padraic, gracious and accepting of my flaws whilst being settled into more healthy routines — whipping up some scrambled eggs or roasted salmon or low key tomato sauce and pasta. But — my mother and father in law were coming for their second stay at our newish house, and gosh darn it, I was DETERMINED to make spaghetti and meatballs.

There’s a backstory here…

I like white noise when I work, so I often grade to the tune of Barefoot Contessa on YouTube, and I was smitten with the episode where she surprises her boss by making him something down-home and casual, and of course the best version of down-home and casual — a rocking plate of the best meatballs and homemade tomato sauce you’ve ever tasted, plus homemade garlic bread. (Actually, let me correct myself — I’ve probably never had a strong craving for spaghetti and meatballs, but from a cook’s perspective, I feel like meatballs combine the best of baking and cooking — instead of balls of dough, you’re crafting cute balls of, eh, ground meat, and laying them out neatly on a cookie sheet, plus the idea of spaghetti and meatballs, such a classic, stoked my enthusiasm… And, garlic bread, that I can eat for days…) I was also enamored with the idea of simply replicating an entire Barefoot Contessa episode, just following, which is a fun and delightfully brainless way of cooking that I often fail to consider.

So what started as a simple family dinner — my parents, my brothers, and my mother and father in law — quickly amassed into four pounds of ground meat and two loaves of ciabatta fit for a feast:

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I make sense of my impulse toward massive quantities of meat this way: First, and perhaps most importantly, there’s the passionate cook in me who has been lying dormant in lieu of what Padraic just today, on summer break, referred to as the “grog” — is that a word? I knew exactly what he meant — a sleepwalking state of grading, planning, waking up at 5:30 am, and then repeating that process for weeks on end. By god, I shall awake myself with copious amounts of Italian food! seemed to be the work of my unconscious. Then there’s the factor of in-laws-visiting-our-newish-home, and the internal pressure I felt to redeem myself after treating them to sloppy, mediocre Mexican delivery around a folding table when they visited in October — then, our very new house was a very slow work in progress, and my head was half in my work. Then there’s the factor of my parents coming over, as well as my brother, and this sudden feeling, “We live near my family now! By god, we should make memories! And entertain!” And finally, there’s the f— it mentality I have when called upon to make rough mathematical calculations — more is more, we have a freezer, and it’s easier to double a recipe than it is to one-and-a-half it.

The meatball event started with a trip to Bolyard’s Meat and Provisions, which I can’t help but tout since I am now a proud resident of the Maplewood corner of Saint Louis, formerly known as Maplehood and now dubbed Mapleweird. It was my first time visiting my local butcher, and look, I found this:

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And this! I envision my future nephew to be a hip little dude, if his older sister is any indication. So I figured he needs a fresh start in this world with a touch of the Mapleweird:

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Now commences the meatballing:

Ina Garten’s “Real Meatballs and Spaghetti”

Adapted & Doubled by Yours Truly

Serves a small army*

Materials

Big mix bowl
Measuring cups
Measuring spoons
Cutting board
Chef’s knife
Liquid measuring cup
Small bowl and fork for beaten eggs
Two clean hands
Large pot or dutch oven
Kitchen tongs
Several sheet pans (preferably rimmed)
Parchment paper
Paper towels
Can opener
Mixing bowls of various sizes
Two large skillets

Meatball Ingredients

3 pounds of ground beef
1 pound of ground pork
2 cups fresh white bread crumbs (I used Pepperidge Farm sandwich bread)
1/2 cup seasoned, dry bread crumbs
4 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 cup store bought fresh Parmesan cheese
4 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 extra-large eggs, beaten
Vegetable oil
Olive oil

Sauce Ingredients

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups chopped yellow onion
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 cup red wine
2 28 oz can crushed tomatoes
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Pasta Ingredients

3 pounds spaghetti, cooked according to package directions
Parmesan cheese

  • Dump the meat, bread crumbs (dry and fresh), parsley, Parm, salt, pepper, nutmeg, egg, and 1 1/2 cups warm water in a bowl. Mix lightly with your hands.
  • Line several sheet pans with parchment paper.
  • Using your hands, lightly form 2-inch meatballs and place them on the parchment. (Don’t be afraid to form solid, cohesive, meatballs than won’t break apart in the cooking oil. I took the injunction to “lightly form” a little too seriously and some of my first meatballs fell apart in the dutch oven. A deft but firm touch when forming meatballs…)
  • Pour 1/2 cup olive oil and 1/2 cup olive oil into a liquid measuring cup. Pour the mixed oils into a large pot or dutch oven and heat the oil over medium to medium-high heat. As the oil heats, cover a dinner plate in paper towels and place it next to the dutch oven on the stove.
  • To test whether the oil is hot enough, see if the oil sizzles when you add a meatball. If it sizzles, you’re good to go. Reduce the heat to medium-low and fill the pot with as many meatballs as you can, assuring that they have room to float around a bit. Let each batch of meatballs cook for 10 minutes in the oil, turning them regularly with your tongs. Drain the balls on yet another sheet pan lined with paper towels.
  • Once you have your small army of meatballs cooked, set them aside. Chop and measure out your ingredients for the sauce — chop your onions, garlic, measure out your red wine, open your cans of tomatoes, chop your parsley, and measure out your salt and pepper. Pour out the oil in your dutch oven or pot while pouring scalding hot water from the faucet down the drain at the same time. Then let the dutch oven or pot sit in the sink and soak with dish soap as you continue with the sauce.
  • Place two large skillets on two burners, side-by-side. Pour a tablespoon of olive oil into each, and heat it over a medium flame. Add half the onions in one skillet, half in the other. Sauté the onions until translucent, about 10 minutes. Divide the garlic and cook in each skillet for 1 more minute. Turn up the heat to high and split the wine between the two skillets, until almost all the liquid evaporates. Stir in the tomatoes (one can per skillet), as well as the parsley, salt, and pepper (divided into two skillets).
  • Divide the meatballs into the two skillets and let them simmer in the sauce on low heat for 25-30 minutes (or less, if you’re getting hungry).
  • Meanwhile, make 3 pounds of spaghetti according to package directions.
  • Serve, and grate a little extra Parmesan on top.

*Make this in two batches. You will not have pots and pans large enough to make it in one big batch.

While I’m at it, here’s Ina’s recipe for the garlic bread. I’m sure her recipe writing skills are better than mine. If you want to “adapt” it my way, just double it:

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This tale ends with packets of frozen meatballs doled out for days to grateful grandmothers, hungry neighbors, and one overstuffed husband. Meanwhile, I learned, a couple times, how easily frozen garlic bread thaws in the microwave, which translates to, send the garlic bread home with the fam next time. 

Despite the tight fridge space, the freezer bags, the monotony of one plate of leftovers after another, and probably a few other inconveniences, I learned that if food is love, and love and family go together, I have plenty of love to go around. Here’s to this guy, arriving soon!

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Body Respect

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Disclaimer — one author of this book is named Linda Bacon, PH.D. Chuckle chuckle…

To all my friends who are wearers of white coats — in and out of med school, residency, you name it, I encourage you to give Body Respect a gander. It will expand and challenge your thinking on the much-ingrained “obesity epidemic” and the most authentic, productive definitions of health, whether or not you ultimately choose to accept some of its rather radical suggestions. For the average citizen, it puts forth a lot of radical information about what it means to have a healthy relationship to food. I found much of the information comforting and affirming, some it a little scary, but always grounded in solid research. Here are a few tidbits of what surprised me:

According to this source, BMI — Body Mass Index — is not the end-all, be all health indicator that it’s cracked up to be. Currently anything above 25 is categorized as overweight, when health risks don’t really kick in until much higher than that. The U.S. set its standards for overweight and obese according to international standards, which were heavily influenced by pharmaceutical companies selling prescription weight loss pills.

This article recently published in The New York Times about the Biggest Loser corroborates a lot of what Body Respect says about weight management. Essentially, there are a lot of unconscious forces at work in your body — for example, gut bacteria — that keep your body working to maintain a certain weight, a weight that may not match your desire for your high school figure or what you see in airbrushed magazines. So, treating your body like a machine — calories in, calories out — works in the short term, but then your body will react and try to recalibrate to its desired weight by increasing your appetite, slowing your metabolism, etc. This isn’t to say don’t cut calories to try to lose weight, but it does help explain why our weight loss efforts are often so short-lived. And it’s good to keep in mind when pursuing that ever-elusive weight loss goal in a healthy way.

Perhaps the most radical suggestion put forth by the authors of Body Respect is that health is achievable at a variety of weights and a variety of sizes. The authors view fatness as a form of diversity that deserves the same respect as race or ethnicity. They also delve into some interesting explanations of why “fatness” is their preferred term for describing large people with respect. My mind immediately hearkens to a picture of a very fat teenager dressed to the nines to celebrate her prom, which recently made the rounds on social media. I happened to have just finished Body Respect when I overheard several of my students throwing in their two cents about the photo — “At some point if you’re that fat you deserve to get heat; you need to do something about it” “Well, sometimes it’s a thyroid issue…” and I found myself struck by the overhaul of cultural beliefs that would need to take place if I tried to articulate the more accepting perspective of these authors…

The authors also have some pretty radical research findings to combat the view that America is suffering from an unprecedented “obesity epidemic.” Like I said, radical — all kinds of public platforms teach us that a lower body weight = good health. And fat bodies being an accepted form of body diversity? That can be a hard pill to swallow. I encourage you to read the book for yourself to make your own sense of these claims, but for now, I think it’s a healthy step forward to develop respect for our bodies, as they are, and to distinguish between being healthy and a size [insert your preference].

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