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Author Archives: Ginger O'Donnell

Cook Happy Project Week 15

Happy Thursday. I’m back. Life got busy for a bit there, but the blog beckons 🙂

For a little over a year now, as I’ve had to navigate the dissolution of my marriage and much of life as I once knew it, I’ve had a heightened appreciation for the power of memory, and more specifically, the power of music to evoke memory,  transporting me to times and places that are rich in positive psychological states perhaps lacking in the present moment, like joy or possibility or a sense of expansiveness.

There is a beautiful piece of choral music called “Wanting Memories” that perhaps best encapsulates this sentiment. It opens: “I am sitting here wanting memories to teach me to see the beauty in the world through my own eyes,” and goes on, addressing a God figure, “You used to rock me in the cradle of your arms. You said you’d hold me till the pains of life were gone. You said you’d comfort me in times of need, and now I need you, and now I need you, and you are God …” 

I am fortunate to have had two powerful and extraordinary (relatively speaking, in the context of my own life) formative experiences prior to my decade-long marriage, which I associate with feelings of great joy and wonder. These are my experiences performing and interning at the St. Louis Muny Opera, and my experience studying abroad in Arles, France.

My memories from The Muny are perhaps easier to access. All I have to do is turn on one of thousands of songs associated with that time in my life, and I can immediately access a brighter, lighter place in my soul.

And musical theatre, with its penchant for bravado and drama, is quite a vehicle for stories of “rising,” the word I picked for 2022. I find myself returning to songs like “Beautiful City,” from the 2011 revival of Godspell, and “The Circle of Life,” from the Broadway Revival of The Lion King, and “I Believe,” from Spring Awakening, among a million other show tunes. How about Audra McDonald’s rendition of “Climb Every Mountain” from The Sound of Music?

I don’t care if it sounds corny. Somehow all these musical declarations of triumph and redemption seem to be speaking directly to me, to my situation, fortifying me to keep on keepin’ on.

So. Cook Happy. But also—Sing Happy. Listen for the cues that remind you of where you came from, the part of you that transcends difficult circumstances. I am so, so grateful that music provides a portal into that essential, joyful part of myself, making me more resilient.

And now, turning to what’s cooking. I’ve got four recipes to share, a bit of a hodge podge, but all variations on the theme of comfort food.

To start, the richness of roasted mushrooms served over cheesy polenta (minus the attentive stove-top stirring—the polenta cooks in the oven along with the mushrooms).

Second, browned butter banana bread, topped with an entire caramelized banana. Salty, sweet, decadent. See these helpful tips for browning the butter with finesse.

Third, gnocchi with fresh mozzarella and grape tomatoes. It didn’t matter that I rushed the process, skipping the step where you broil the cheese—the natural flavors of the core ingredients do the heavy lifting.

And finally, a first attempt at caponata, which also qualifies as rich and decadent in my book, with its meaty chunks of eggplant and sugary, vinegar-laced sauce.

Enjoy. Be strong. Sing out loud.

Ginger

Oven Polenta with Roasted Mushrooms and Thyme
Adapted from Bon Appetit

Ingredients
1 ½ lb mixed mushrooms (cremini, shiitake, oyster, and/or maitake), torn into 1-inch pieces
4 sprigs thyme, plus leaves for serving
6 garlic cloves, smashed
Kosher salt and ground pepper
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup polenta
4 oz. Parmesan, finely grated, plus more for serving
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
Flaky sea salt (optional)

Directions

  • Place racks in upper and lower thirds of oven; preheat to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Combine mushrooms, thyme sprigs, and garlic on a large rimmed baking sheet. Season generously with kosher salt and pepper; drizzle with oil. Toss to coat mushrooms, then spread out in an even layer. (Make sure not to crowd the mushrooms on the baking sheet; otherwise, they’ll steam instead of getting crispy.) Transfer to upper rack in oven and let mushrooms roast while you prepare the polenta. 
  • Bring 4 ½ cups water to simmer in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the butter and a generous pinch of kosher salt and whisk to melt butter. Gradually add polenta, whisking constantly. (Gradually incorporating the polenta into the water is key to preventing clumps.) Return the mixture to a boil. Transfer the hot mixture to an oven-proof baking dish, cover, and place on the lower rack in the oven. Bake the polenta until it’s tender, 25-30 minutes, then remove from the oven, along with the roasted mushrooms.
  • Carefully uncover the polenta and whisk vigorously, scraping bottom of pan, until it is smooth and thick. Gradually add 4 oz. Parmesan, whisking constantly until melted and incorporated; taste and season with more kosher salt and pepper.
  • Drizzle the mushrooms with vinegar. Toss to coat; let cool slightly. 
  • Divide polenta among bowls and top with mushrooms, thyme leaves, sea salt, and more Parmesan. 

Brown-Butter Banana Bread
Adapted from TastingTable

Ingredients
Nonstick cooking spray, for greasing
10 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
3 large ripe bananas, mashed, plus 1 halved lengthwise for decoration
3 large eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup dark brown sugar, plus more for coating
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg

Directions

  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan with cooking spray.
  • In a light-colored saute pan, brown the butter and set aside.
  • In a small bowl, reserve 2 tablespoons of the browned butter for basting; let cool slightly.
  • In a medium bowl, mix the mashed bananas with the eggs until fully incorporated.
  • In a separate medium bowl, whisk together the flour, brown sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, salt, and nutmeg. Using your hands, break apart any large clumps of sugar that remain.
  • Pour the banana mixture into the dry ingredients and mix together until just combined. 
  • Pour in the 8 tablespoons of melted brown butter and stir until fully incorporated. 
  • Transfer the batter to the prepared loaf pan. 
  • Dip the 2 banana halves in some brown sugar cut-sides down; dust off any excess sugar. 
  • Place the sugared bananas in the batter cut-sides up and bake until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the loaf comes out clean, 55 to 60 minutes. 
  • Optional: Once the banana bread has finished cooking, brush the top with the 2 tablespoons of reserved brown butter. Allow the banana bread to cool: serve slightly warm or completely cooled. 

Gnocchi with Tomatoes and Mozzarella
Adapted from New York Times Cooking

Ingredients
2 (12- to 18-ounce) packages shelf-stable or refrigerated potato gnocchi 
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed 
¼ cup unsalted butter
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes, plus more for serving (if desired)
Kosher salt and black pepper
2 pints small tomatoes (such as cherry or grape)
¼ cup sliced or torn basil leaves (or any dried herbs of your choosing that you have on hand)
8 ounces fresh mozzarella, cut or torn into ½-inch pieces 

Directions

  • Cook the gnocchi in a pot of generously salted water according to package directions, or until they rise to the top of the water. Drain them right away in a colander. 
  • Place some olive oil in a large skillet, and swirl to coat the pan. Heat the oil over a medium-high flame. Add half of the cooked gnocchi to the skillet, breaking up any that are stuck together. Cook for several minutes, stirring every once in a while. Transfer to a large mixing bowl. Add more olive oil to the skillet and repeat with the other batch of gnocchi. 
  • Add the butter to the skillet and cook over medium-high, stirring often, until it is golden brown and toasty, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the garlic slices, red pepper flakes, 1 ½ teaspoons salt, and a few sprinkles (or grinds) of pepper, reducing the heat if needed to avoid scorching. 
  • Add the tomatoes and 3 tablespoons of water and cook, shaking the pan occasionally, until the tomatoes have softened and the liquid has thickened slightly, 4 to 6 minutes. 
  • Add the seared gnocchi and ¼ cup basil (if using), stir to coat, then shake into an even layer. Top with the mozzarella and drizzle lightly with more olive oil, if desired. 
  • Optional: Stick the mixture in the oven (in an oven-proof skillet or other baking dish) and broil the cheese until it’s melted and browned in sports, 2 to 4 minutes. Depending on your tastes, top with more basil, red-pepper flakes, and black pepper. 

Simple Caponata 
Adapted from Everyday Italian

Ingredients
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 celery stalk, chopped
1 medium eggplant, cut into ½-inch cubes
1 medium onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and cut into ½-inch pieces
1 14 ½-ounce can diced tomatoes with juices
3 tablespoons raisins
¼ teaspoons dried oregano leaves
¼ cup apple cider vinegar
4 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon drained capers
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
½ teaspoon ground black pepper

Directions

  • In a large, heavy skillet, heat the olive oil over a medium flame, and swirl to coat the pan.
  • Add the celery and saute until crisp-tender, about 2 minutes. Add the eggplant and saute until it begins to soften slightly, about 2 minutes. Add the onion and saute until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the red pepper and cook until it is crisp-tender, approximately 5 minutes. 
  • Add the diced tomatoes with their juices, raisins, and oregano. Simmer over medium-low heat until the flavors blend and the mixture thickens, stirring often, roughly 20 minutes. 
  • Stir in the vinegar, sugar, capers, and ½ teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Taste, and adjust the salt and pepper as needed. Garnish with any fresh herbs you have on hand, such as basil or parsley. 

Cook Happy Project Week 14

Happy Sunday.

A short and sweet post today featuring an extremely delicious and super easy pasta recipe. Prep your ingredients, cook your pasta, and mix together in a large bowl.

Enough said. I hope to be back next week with a bit more in the way of musings and reflections. Have a wonderful week, and I hope you give this simple meal a try!

Orecchiette with Mixed Greens and Goat Cheese 
Adapted from Everyday Pasta: A Cookbook

Ingredients
1 pound orecchiette
8 ounces mixed salad greens
1 10-ounce jar of sun-dried tomatoes, chopped, oil preserved
1 4-ounce log of goat cheese
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
¾ teaspoon Kosher salt
¾ teaspoon ground pepper 

Directions

  • Prep your ingredients: Wash and dry the mixed greens (if needed), pour the sun-dried tomato oil into a liquid measuring cup, chop the sun-dried tomatoes (if needed), and place the cheeses, salt, pepper, and the chopped sun-dried tomatoes (leaving the oil in the liquid measuring cup) in a large mixing bowl. 
  • Bring a large pot of salted water to boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook until tender but still firm to the bite, approximately 9 minutes. Drain the pasta, reserving about 1 cup of the pasta water. 
  • Add the cooked pasta to the large mixing bowl. Pour several generous glugs of the sun-dried tomato oil over it and add the mixed greens (the heat of the noodles will wilt them). Stir everything together, adding the reserved pasta water if needed to dilute the sauce. Enjoy 🙂

Cook Happy Project Week 13

Happy Sunday to you! 

This morning I am pondering the concept of “decolonizing my time,” an idea I have been exposed to via healers and teachers such as Justin Michael Williams and Tricia Hersey of The Nap Ministry.  

Capitalism, and racial capitalism more specifically, which valorizes productivity and output, would have us toil and grind to the point of exhaustion. This approach to living is rooted in white supremacy, a connection that Hersey eloquently clarifies in her writings.   

Williams, too, distinguishes between “colonized creativity,” whereby we engage in creative projects with a focus on production and deadlines and profit and perfection, versus “decolonized creativity,” which allows us to immerse ourselves in the process and focus on finding joy through our creative pursuits. 

I have experienced this distinction in my writing life as I have wavered back and forth about whether or not to complete a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. I genuinely wanted to improve my craft, but I also found myself focused on the degree title and the thesis as a product and “getting ahead” with my writing career. I view this blogging effort as progress when it comes to focusing on process, joy, and straightforward self-expression. 

Cooking is another avenue for “decolonized creativity,” I have found. This week I found contentment in preparing a buttery sauteed kale mixture, including cranberries, shallot, leek, and mushrooms, apricot oat bars that would likely appeal to toddlers and children, but also served me well for breakfast, as well as a sundried tomato and goat cheese angel hair pasta that made for a satisfying supper. 

In the coming week, I hope you give yourself some space and time to tap into your inner creativity, whether that means weeding your driveway, making your bed, or preparing a simple meal. Go ahead and disregard the outcome. In the meantime, give one of these recipes a try. 

Peace.
Ginger

Sauteed Kale, Mushrooms, and Cranberries
Adapted from Weeknights with Giada: Quick and Simple Recipes to Revamp Dinner

Ingredients
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large shallot, thinly sliced
1 medium leek, white and pale green parts only, thinly sliced and rinsed  
8 ounces button mushrooms, cleaned and sliced (4 cups)
Kosher salt and black pepper
12 ounces kale, stemmed and torn into large leaves
¼ cup chicken or vegetable broth
⅓ cup dried cranberries

Directions

  • Prep all your ingredients. 
  • Warm a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the butter and olive oil, allowing the butter to melt. Add the sliced shallot, leek, and mushrooms, as well as 1 ½ teaspoons salt and ½ teaspoon pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables soften, approximately 8 minutes. 
  • Add the kale and cook until wilted, about 6 minutes. 
  • Add the broth and the cranberries. Bring to a boil and scrape away any brown bits at the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Voila! 

Apricot Oat Bars
Adapted from Weeknights with Giada: Quick and Simple Recipes to Revamp Dinner

Ingredients
Butter or baking spray
1 ¼ cups apricot jam or preserves
8 dried apricots, chopped into small pieces (about ⅓ cup)
1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
1 packed cup light brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¾ teaspoon Kosher salt
¾ teaspoon baking soda
1 ¾ cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1 cup (4 ounces) coarsely chopped walnuts
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted
1 large egg, beaten, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract 

Directions 

  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. 
  • Grease a 9x13x2 baking dish.
  • In a small bowl, mix the jam and the apricots.
  • In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, cinnamon, salt, and baking soda. Fold in the oats and the walnuts. Add the butter, egg, and vanilla, and stir until incorporated. 
  • Lightly press half of the crust mixture onto the bottom of the prepared baking dish. Using a spatula, spread the filling over the crust, leaving a 1/2 -inch border around the edge of the pan. 
  • Cover the filling with the remaining crust mixture and gently press to flatten. 
  • Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until light golden. Cool for 30 minutes to 1 hour. Store in an airtight container for up to 3 days. 

Angel Hair Pasta With Sun-Dried Tomatoes and Goat Cheese
Adapted from Everyday Pasta: A Cookbook

Ingredients
1 10 oz jar sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil, chopped (oil reserved)
1 small onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
¼ cup tomato paste
1 cup chicken or vegetable broth
1 pound angel hair pasta
3 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
½ teaspoon pepper
4 oz log, goat cheese, coarsely crumbled

Directions

  • Heat 3 tablespoons of the oil from the sun-dried tomatoes in a large skillet over medium heat.
  • Add the onion and saute until tender, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. 
  • Add the tomato paste and cook for 2 minutes, stirring constantly. 
  • Add the broth and chopped sun-dried tomatoes and simmer until the liquid reduces by half, about 2 minutes. 
  • Add the chopped parsley and the goat cheese, breaking the cheese up to distribute evenly. 
  • Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente, about 4 minutes. Drain. 
  • Dump the drained pasta back into the pot and add the sauce, mixing together. 
  • Consider adding a few more sun-dried tomatoes, if you have another jar 🙂

Cook Happy Project Week Twelve

Good Morning. 

Hope you are well. 

I have developed the practice of picking a word for the year every January. This year’s word is “rise,” drawing on the idea of starting anew, rebuilding, looking forward. For me, the word “rise” conjures an image of a bustling and vividly colorful market, maybe in India somewhere, rich with smells, sights, and activity. I can often be negative and pessimistic, so this word, with its upward momentum and invigorating energy, helps set me on a more positive course mentally and emotionally. I try to remember to return to this concept of “rising” when I feel discouraged, reciting the word as if it were a mantra. 

In the past few weeks I have also been contemplating the word “shed.” Shedding myself of habits, relationships, even mindsets that no longer serve me. Loss is OK when I think of it as a process of shedding, of dusting myself off to reveal the alert, bright, budding life within. Maybe loss is even a positive thing when viewed this way. 

In my kitchen, I am shedding any expectation of complex and grandiose projects (although there is a place for that, perhaps, under different circumstances. I recently learned that a co-worker and her partner attempt new and intricate dishes every weekend, with the help of spreadsheets.) For me, right now, I am keeping it simple.

The fruits of that mindset are moist and enjoyably tart lemon raspberry muffins, recipe below, requiring two large bowls and a spatula–no electric mixer. And for a lip-smacking snack, a half pound of spiced pecans. Again, keeping it simple … I invite you to try this recipe, shedding any detailed and meticulous instructions, let your hair down, smell the fresh spring air, and enjoy breakfast for dinner. 

We can find abundance in simplicity. The beauty of fresh fruit peeking through a thick batter. The zinging scent of lemon rind on a rasp grater. Watching nuts brown to a candy-like consistency in the oven. 

There’s beauty to be had in this life, even though this life is hard. I shed what no longer serves me. I invite you to do the same. Peace to you this week, and always. 

Ginger

Raspberry Lemon Muffins
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Essentials of Breakfast & Brunch

Ingredients
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1 cup whole milk
⅔ cup canola oil
1 ⅓ cups firmly packed light brown sugar
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon almond extract
1 cup raspberries (or really any berries, fresh or frozen)

Directions

  • Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Line a 12-cup muffin tin with paper liners (or generously grease the cups if you don’t have liners).
  • Using a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt.
  • In a separate large bowl, whisk together the eggs and the milk. Add the oil, brown sugar, lemon zest, lemon juice, vanilla, and almond extract, whisking to combine.
  • Add the dry ingredients to the wet; mix, using a spatula, until just blended. (Be careful not to overmix.) Fold in the berries.
  • Spoon the batter into the prepared muffin tins.
  • Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of a muffin comes out clean, approximately 25 minutes. (You may need to bake a few extra minutes if using frozen berries.)
  • Transfer tin to a wire rack and cool for 15 minutes or so.
  • Turn the muffins out and serve warm or at room temperature with a generous smear of butter.
  • Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days.

Spiced Pecans
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Food Made Fast: Small Plates

Ingredients
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/2 teaspoons curry powder
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons brown sugar
8 oz chopped pecans

Directions

  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Line a small rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil.
  • Using a medium saucepan, combine butter, curry powder, salt, cinnamon, cumin, cayenne, and brown sugar over medium heat. Cook for approximately 2-3 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the butter is melted and the spices are fragrant.
  • Add the nuts to the saucepan and stir with a spatula until they are evenly coated.
  • Spread them on the prepared baking sheet in an even layer.
  • Bake for approximately 15 minutes, until they are a deep golden brown.
  • Slide the foil onto a wire rack and let cool completely before serving.

Cook Happy Project Week Eleven

Good Evening!

I have done absolutely no cooking this week. In fact, I count it as one of life’s simple pleasures that I can waltz into the grocery store, sans list, and simply select items off the shelf that catch my eye, because I have no one else in my household to report to.

Ah, simple, single-gal meals: A bowl of cottage cheese with fresh blueberries. A large Honeycrisp apple, slathered with peanut butter. A wedge of cheese to accompany baby carrots with store-bought dill dip and a handful of dried apricots. You get the idea. Light fare.

And yet, I find myself drawn back to this project and the accountability it gives me to keep my commitment to a regular home cooking practice, so I don’t fall too far down the well of carry out and microwave meals and snacking through dinner.

That being said, this week I have two recipes to share as a follow-up to my hurried post from two weeks ago: the aforementioned chicken salad and orange streusel cake.

Oh, and one more tool in my joy and contentment toolkit: the podcast (and blog), The Amateur Traveler. From Berlin to Israel to Joshua Tree National Park, there’s surely an episode to suit your personal travel fantasies. 

I wish you healing and happiness in your kitchen this week, mixed with a healthy dose of wanderlust.

Peace.
Ginger

Homemade Chicken Salad
Adapted from Cristina Ferrare’s Big Bowl of Love

Ingredients
2 cups diced chicken breasts 
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons finely chopped scallions
2 teaspoons finely chopped parsley
1-2 teaspoons finely chopped basil 
2 tablespoons finely chopped celery 
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Directions 
Cook two boneless, skinless chicken breasts using the “Whole 30 Perfect Chicken” method:

  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Generously season both sides of the breasts with salt and pepper.
  • In a large, oven-safe skillet, melt a generous scoop of Ghee over medium-high heat, swirling to coat the pan. Wait a few moments for the fat to heat up, then place the chicken in the pan, rounded-side down, and sear for approximately four minutes.
  • Use kitchen tongs to flip the chicken to the other side, then immediately place the pan in the oven to finish cooking for another 13 minutes. (If you’re using a meat thermometer, the internal temperature of the fully cooked chicken should be 160 degrees Fahrenheit.)
  • Let the meat rest for at least 5 minutes before dicing into bite-sized chunks. Meanwhile, chop and measure out the other ingredients and place in a large mixing bowl. Add the diced chicken and mix everything together. If you have extra chicken, double the other ingredients.
  • This serves beautifully on a piece of whole-grain toast with a slice of tomato and avocado. Enjoy.

Orange Streusel Cake
Adapted from The Joys of Baking

Streusel Ingredients
1/2 cup all-purpose flour 
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup sliced almonds

Cake Ingredients
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, ideally at room temp, plus more for the pan
1 entire seedless navel orange, scrubbed and cut into large chunks
1/4 cup sour cream, ideally at room temp
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour 
1 teaspoon baking powder 
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 cup granulated sugar 
2 large eggs, ideally at room temp

Directions

  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Prepare the streusel: Combine the flour, brown sugar, and salt in a medium mixing bowl. Pour in the melted butter so the mixture clumps together. Add the sliced almonds.
  • Prepare the cake: Generously butter an 8-inch square baking dish. 
  • Place the orange chunks in a food processor and run the blade until they have the consistency of applesauce. You should have approximately 1 cup of orange purée. Mix with the sour cream.
  • In another medium mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, and baking soda.
  • Using an electric mixer, beat the butter and granulated sugar together until light and fluffy, approximately 3 to 5 minutes.
  • Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing after each addition.
  • Add half of the flour mixture and beat on low speed until just combined. Beat in the orange mixture, then incorporate the remaining half of the flour mixture.
  • Transfer the batter to the prepared dish and smooth the top. Sprinkle the streusel mixture over the cake batter. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out with moist crumbs attached, 40 to 45 minutes.

Cook Happy Project Week Ten

Happy Sunday to you.

This week my musings will be short and sweet, as I am juggling some other work projects.

Even so, I made time to unwind in the kitchen yesterday, preparing a slightly tangy, herb-rich batch of chicken salad, following Cristina Ferrare’s recipe in Big Bowl of Love (and cooking the chicken using the Whole 30 “perfect chicken” method) as well as an easy orange streusel cake that uses an entire navel orange, rind and all.

I have also been enjoying a new nonfiction book called Tastemakers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America, by Mayukh Sen. Each chapter focuses on a different pioneering woman cookbook writer, charting how she exhibited resilience and strength through her love of food and the culinary arts.

I can relate to these women. I find that cooking fortifies and strengthens me, especially when the going gets tough–partly why I chose to commit to this little blog project every week.

And so I will close with these lines, from Kristene DiMarco’s sung version of “I Am No Victim”:

I am no victim.
I live with a vision.
I’m covered by the force of love, covered in my savior’s blood.
I am no orphan.
I’m not a poor man.
The Kingdom’s now become my own, and with the King I’ve found my home.
He’s not just reviving,
Not simply restoring,
Greater things have yet to come.
Greater things have yet to come.

See links below for cookbooks where you can find the recipes.

Cheers to a passion for home cooking, the cultivation of resilience and faith, and greater things yet to come.

Cook Happy Project Week Nine

Good Morning!

  • I easily find and joyously create abundance.
  • I’m all I need to get by.
  • I reach up, I feel love, I bring it to my heart.
  • I love my life.
  • Change arrives; I can flow.

These are some of my favorite mantras from an album called Mantras in Love by the group Beautiful Chorus—a succession of sung phrases that ground and energize. 

I’ve been a fan of the group and their album, Hymns of Spirit, for a while, but this disc was new to me. 

Cooking, for me, is an activity that manifests a sense of abundance arising from the everyday. This past week, for example, I spontaneously got into a festive spirit for the Super Bowl (though I am the farthest cry from a football fan) by mashing some avocados into a lime-rich guacamole and composing mini taco bites with filo shells, ground beef, shredded cheddar cheese, and homemade tomato salsa. I have to eat—so why not delight in the preparation, creating something beautiful and flavorful? This, I believe, is “easily finding and joyously creating abundance.”

Cooking with care for myself also reinforces a feeling of independence, of personal responsibility, of the notion that I am “all I need to get by.” I especially feel this when I pack a healthy homemade lunch to take to the office. 

This week, I commit to filling my head and heart with affirming, positive mantras–I have yet to figure out the week’s culinary adventures, so stay tuned until next Sunday. In the meantime, I share these bite-size recipes to accompany the nuggets of wisdom above. 

Peace.

Guacamole
Adapted from Cristina Ferrare’s Big Bowl of Love

Ingredients
4 ripe avocados
½ medium white onion, finely chopped
¼ to ½ cup cilantro, finely chopped
6 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 ½ teaspoon kosher salt

Instructions
1. Halve the avocados and scoop out the flesh into a medium-sized mixing bowl. Mash with a potato masher until you achieve your desired consistency (I like to have a few chunks).
2. Add the onion, cilantro, lime juice, and salt and continue to mash until all mixed. 
3. Place an avocado pit in the center so the dip doesn’t turn brown. Enjoy!

Tomato Salsa
Adapted from Cristina Ferrare’s Big Bowl of Love

Ingredients
8 Roma tomatoes 
½ cup red onion, finely chopped
¼ cup cilantro, loosely packed, then finely chopped
2 scallions, finely chopped
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon olive oil

Instructions
1. Bring 8 cups of water to a boil. Place tomatoes in boiling water for 30 seconds; remove them with a slotted spoon. Immediately run them under cold water; then peel off the skins. (This should happen easily; if not, place back in the hot water for 15 to 20 seconds). 
2. Cut the tomatoes in half lengthwise, remove the core with a spoon or a mellon baller, and dice them into small pieces. 
3. Prep other ingredients and mix together in a bowl. Place in a covered, airtight container and ideally place in the refrigerator several hours before serving. This salsa will last 3 to 4 days in an airtight container in the fridge.

Taco Bites
Adapted from Cristina Ferrare’s Big Bowl of Love

Ingredients
Homemade tomato salsa (see above)
Guacamole (see above)
1 tablespoon canola oil
½ pound ground chuck
2 tablespoons taco seasoning
¼ cup water 
Mini filo shells (frozen section of the grocery store)
½ cup sharp cheddar cheese, shredded small

Instructions

  1. Make salsa and guacamole.
  2. Heat a heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add the canola oil and swirl to coat the pan. Add the ground chuck, breaking the meat into fine bits with a spatula. Brown until the beef starts to form a crust and most of the juices have evaporated. 
  3. Sprinkle taco seasoning over beef. Add water and cook until all the water has evaporated and the meat starts to sizzle. Continue to break into small pieces with the spatula. 
  4. Place a bowl under a mesh strainer and pour the beef into the strainer to remove excess oil. Discard the oil. 
  5. Heat the filo cups according to package directions. Cool. 
  6. Assemble filo cups, filling with ground beef, then guacamole, salsa, and some cheddar cheese. Enjoy!

Cook Happy Project Week Eight

Good Morning and Happy Sunday! 

This week I veered from my typical M.O. and created a custom culinary concoction without using a recipe. I discovered there’s something uniquely satisfying about making something tailored to my own personal tastes. It’s a very practical mode of cooking with the end-goal of consumption top of mind, a form of authentic self-care, ensuring that I had a healthy, hearty homemade lunch to take to the office every day … and one that I knew would be a pleasure to eat.

Let’s be honest—my “concoction” was really a matter of assembling as opposed to cooking. I sought to create my own Mediterranean rice bowl based on the one I like from Panera, and the process involved little more than chopping some vegetables, cubing some feta cheese, making a pot of brown rice, and combining it all in some Tupperware with a dollop of sour cream and store-bought hummus, plus Kalamata olives and roasted red peppers out of the jar.

I also made a bowl of polenta topped with a scoop of mascarpone cheese, maple syrup, and toasted pecans, a dish I found in Williams-Sonoma Essentials of Breakfast & Brunch. Like the Mediterranean bowl, the cooking instructions for this meal are satisfyingly simple, and the result can be savored for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks in-between. 

This improv process in the kitchen gets me thinking about what it would mean to toss out the rule book in other areas of my life. I am quite the planner and seem to thrive on structure, but I often catch myself getting angsty over the precise way I am to spend the next window of time. Perhaps it would behoove me to see where the day takes me and let inspiration strike, both in the kitchen and beyond. 

Then there are other areas of my life that seem to beg for more definition, for a recipe of sorts. Case in point is my discovery of a specific seven-step prayer process, outlined by the Catholic writer Matthew Kelly. I will go ahead and share it here, related in a tangential way to the notion of cooking happy–it is its own path of meaning-making in a noisy, clamoring world. So here you go. This week, a recipe for prayer, and a not-so-specific guide for two nourishing meals. Take care and talk soon. 

Love,
Ginger

Seven Step Prayer Process 
From I Heard God Laugh: A Practical Guide to Life’s Essential Daily Habit

  1. Gratitude: Begin by thanking God in a personal dialogue for whatever you are most grateful for today.
  2. Awareness: Revisit the times in the past 24 hours when you were and were not the-best-version-of yourself. Talk to God about these situations and what you learned from them. 
  3. Significant Moments: Identify something you experienced today and explore what God might be trying to say to you through that event or person. 
  4. Peace: Ask God to forgive you for any wrong you have committed against yourself, another person, or Him, and to fill you with a deep and abiding peace. 
  5. Freedom: Speak with God about how he is inviting you to change your life, so that you can experience the freedom to be the-best-version-of-yourself. 
  6. Others: Lift up to God anyone you feel called to pray for today, asking God to bless and guide them.
  7. Finish by praying the Lord’s Prayer.

Homemade Mediterranean Rice Bowl 

Ingredients
1 cup brown rice
1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
1 red onion, sliced
Any other veggies that appeal to you (e.g., cucumber, peppers)
Parsley, chopped 
Feta cheese, cubed 
Roasted red peppers from the jar
Kalamata olives, pitted
Hummus
Sour cream

Instructions

  1. Cook the rice: Bring 2 cups of water to a boil with ¼ teaspoon salt. Add 1 cup rice and bring back to a boil. Cover with a lid. Reduce heat to simmer. Cook for 45 to 50 minutes or until water is absorbed and rice is tender. Remove from heat and allow rice to sit (covered) for 5 to 10 minutes. Fluff with a fork. 
  2. While rice is cooking, prepare your veggies: halve the cherry tomatoes, slice the onion, chop peppers, cucumber, and parsley, if using, cube the feta, slice the roasted red peppers, and pit the olives, if necessary (easier to buy pitted olives). 
  3. Combine all ingredients in a bowl, using the portions you prefer!

Breakfast Polenta Bowl
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Essentials of Breakfast & Brunch

Ingredients
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1 cup polenta
1 cup whole milk
Mascarpone cheese
Maple syrup
Pecans, chopped and toasted

Instructions

  1. Toast some pecans by first chopping them and then warming a non-stick frying pan over medium-low heat. Add the nuts, stirring them and shaking the pan at regular intervals for a few minutes, until they are fragrant. Transfer to a bowl. 
  2. Prepare the polenta: Bring 3 cups of water and salt to a boil in a large pot. In a small bowl, stir together the polenta and the milk. Gradually stir this mixture into the boiling water. Stirring constantly, bring mixture to a boil for about 2 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring frequently, until polenta is thick and creamy, approximately 25 minutes. 
  3. Assemble the bowl: top creamy cooked polenta with a dollop of mascarpone, some warmed maple syrup, and chopped pecans. 

Cook Happy Project Week Seven

Hello!

How was your week? What are you doing to cultivate joy, contentment, peace of mind?

I confess that in addition to actual cooking, reading cookbooks feels like an indulgence to me, an activity that reliably brightens and lightens my mood.

Certain cookbooks evoke strong memories for me, as if to mark the passage of time: Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook immediately takes me back to my sunny, sparkly clean Evanston, Ill. studio apartment during my senior year of college, when I tried to bake my way out of completing my honors thesis. Williams-Sonoma Essentials of Breakfast & Brunch stirs bittersweet memories of hosting regular Sunday brunches for family and friends when my ex-husband and I were first married. (Today I am making the tome’s lemon-ricotta pancakes, a recipe I previously posted to this blog. So delicious!)

I could go on … Like photo albums, cookbooks encapsulate so much beyond recipes. They contain reminders, sometimes via physical stains, of people, places, entire phases of life.

What is possibly even more enjoyable and rewarding to read than a cookbook is a cooking-related magazine or catalogue—for half, or even a third of the price, or possibly even for free, you get similar content.

This week I found myself perusing the February 2022 catalogue for the King Arthur Baking Company as I drifted to sleep, setting me up for sweet dreams of sanding sugar and vanilla extract and all manner of extraneous bakeware, like “cookie dough freezer trays” and “Irish lace shortbread pan.”

The recipe that follows is adapted from its pages. (My other culinary projects this week were more of the same … consuming last week’s peanut sauce with week four’s roasted broccoli, and lots of brown rice.) The instructions are quite simple to follow, and the result is rich with caramel flavor, a welcome variation on banana bread.

Here’s to good eating, and good reading, in the coming week.

Caramel Banana Walnut Muffins
Adapted from King Arthur Baking Company

Ingredients
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
⅔ cup light brown sugar
1 cup mashed banana, about 2 medium or 1 ½ large bananas 
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
⅓ cup milk or half-and-half
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
2 cups all-purpose flour 
¾ to 1 cup butterscotch chips
1 cup chopped toasted walnuts

Instructions

  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a 12-cup muffin pan with paper liners. 
  • Whip the butter and brown sugar together until smooth, using an electric mixer. Meanwhile, mash the bananas. Add the mashed banana, mix. Then the egg, mix; vanilla, mix; and milk or half-and-half; mix.
  • Add the dry ingredients: baking powder, baking soda, salt, and flour. Mix until just combined. 
  • Chop the walnuts until you have 1 cup. To toast: Heat a skillet over medium heat and add the chopped walnuts; heat several minutes, until fragrant, giving the skillet a good shake every 30 seconds so they don’t burn. 
  • Fold the walnuts and butterscotch chips into the batter with a large spatula. Scoop the batter into the prepared pan. 
  • Bake for 20-25 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center of one of the middle muffins comes out clean. 
  • Let cool in the pan for a few minutes, then remove from the pan, using a butter knife around the edges if needed. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Cook Happy Project Week Six

Hello!

We’ve made it through another week. And sometimes that is a legitimate accomplishment, is it not? 

I join the rest of the globe in mourning the death of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk, author, and mindfulness master. A friend shared this article with me about how he continues to be a powerful teacher in modeling how to die, to let go, to relinquish the illusion of control. He continued to savor life even after he suffered a massive stroke and his health significantly declined. There is power in that. I think about how the God of my understanding intended him to live each and every one of those days with limited cognitive functioning, and how he demonstrated great humility in enduring that.

I find it takes much courage and discipline just to be present in the here and now. I catch myself exiting the present moment in a million, fidgety ways, from chewing gum to pacing to popping in earbuds … But cooking and baking in the comfort of my own kitchen centers and grounds me in a way that many other activities can’t.

This week I found my zen sweet spot grating sweet potatoes for a sweet potato pone, and pressing water out of, then cubing, a slab of tofu for “Baked Tofu With Green Beans, Shiitakes, and Peanut Sauce,” a recipe from the book School Night: Dinner Solutions for Every Day of the Week. Slicing, pressing, peeling my way to peace of mind …

Unlike last week, when I savored all things familiar, experimenting with these two dishes allows me to expand my culinary horizons. I am interested in building a bigger repertoire of healthy, high-protein vegetarian meals, as I find myself, in my newfound singledom, veering away from cooking with meat. (In the past, I have enjoyed scrambling tofu like eggs and serving it with this easy stir-fry recipe. Highly recommend!)

As for the pone, I have always been attracted to Southern cooking and would love to learn more where that came from. Despite the fact that I live in Missouri, the South seems far removed, even foreign to me, which makes whipping together a pone as novel to me as baking something markedly French, such as croissants or a quiche Lorraine. (Note: Pones are much easier!) 

I hope you find a bit of inspiration from these two easy, nutrient-dense meals. That might include the revelation that dousing roasted vegetables in a simple peanut sauce can make even shiitake mushrooms and tofu palatable to younger eaters. Or that swapping your morning bowl of cereal with a slab of sweet potato pone, topped with a dollop of homemade whipped cream, is the kind of simple pleasure that kickstarts a cold winter’s day, counteracting the daily doldrums. And of course, I hope you can find a path to stillness throughout the coming week, pausing within the busyness to ground yourself in the here and now. 

Cheers to eating mindfully and living wakefully.

Love,
Ginger 

Baked Tofu With Green Beans, Shiitakes & Peanut Sauce 
Adapted from School Night: Dinner Solutions for Every Day of the Week 

Main Ingredients
1 lb extra-firm tofu, drained
⅓ cup low-sodium soy sauce
3 tablespoons sesame oil
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 heaping teaspoons freshly grated ginger
2 cloves garlic, minced
¾ lb (12 oz) green beans, trimmed and washed
½ lb (8 oz) shiitake mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

Peanut Sauce Ingredients
6 tablespoons peanut butter
2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
4 teaspoons sesame oil
4 teaspoons rice vinegar
¼ cup hot water

Instructions 

  1. Drain the tofu: Place 3 paper towels on a plate; top with the tofu. Place 3 additional paper towels on top of the tofu and top with something heavy, like a cast iron skillet. Let it stand for 5 minutes. Change the paper towels and repeat for 5 more minutes. (It’s important to remove extra moisture so the tofu will caramelize in the oven! And it’s definitely worth it to buy the extra-firm kind.) Cube the tofu into uniform bite-size squares. 
  2. Grate the ginger, mince the garlic, and place in a large mixing bowl. Add the soy sauce, sesame oil, and rice vinegar, and whisk to combine. Wipe clean and slice your shiitake mushrooms. Carefully fold in the tofu pieces, green beans, and mushrooms into the bowl with the sauce. Gently toss to cover everything in the marinade. Let marinate at room temperature for 30 minutes. 
  3. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit and line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Spread the tofu, beans, and mushrooms in a single layer andd roast for approximately 30 minutes, until the tofu is caramelized and the vegetables are fork-tender. 
  4. Make the peanut sauce while the tofu and vegetables are roasting. Simply combine all ingredients in a medium bowl.
  5. Drizzle sauce over tofu-vegetable mixture to serve, and enjoy 🙂

Sweet Potato Pone
Adapted from the Food Network

Ingredients
Baking spray or butter for greasing the pan
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted 
⅓ cup lightly packed light brown sugar
¼ cup molasses
3 large eggs, beaten
½ cup half-and-half
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
½ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon grated orange zest, plus 3 tablespoons juice (from about ½ orange)
6 cups peeled and grated sweet potatoes (approximately 3 medium potatoes)

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease a 9-inch square baking dish. 
  2. In a large mixing bowl, combine the melted butter, brown sugar, and molasses with a spatula, or better yet, a spurtle
  3. Add the eggs, half-and-half, and vanilla extract, and stir to combine once more.
  4. Add the cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg; stir everything once again. 
  5. Add the orange zest and juice, then fold in the grated sweet potatoes. 
  6. Pour the mixture into the greased baking dish, cover with foil, and bake for approximately 40 minutes. 
  7. Remove the foil and bake for another 10-15 minutes, until the top is caramelized and set. 
  8. Serve topped with homemade whipped cream 🙂

Homemade Whipped Cream
Adapted from the Food Network 

Ingredients 
1 cup half-and-half
3 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar

Instructions

  1. Place a super clean mixing bowl in the freezer to chill for 5-10 minutes.
  2. Beat the half-and-half and confectioners’ sugar together in the bowl for approximately 2 minutes, until stiff peaks form.
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