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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.

Cook Happy Project Week Two

In my pursuit of peace and healing this past year, I’ve taken steps toward financial freedom that include using this free budgeting app. Planning and tracking my spending has offered me a greater sense of abundance, actually, reducing my guilt over small indulgences like Starbucks or lunch delivery, as long as I stay within the limits of my financial plan.

All this to say, I found myself scrounging to meet my grocery budget during the last week of December. The recipes that follow represent my attempt to enjoy good home cooking without draining my wallet. 

First, I made a big pot of lentils pulling from the recipe for “Roast Salmon with Warm Lentils” in the cookbook, Williams-Sonoma French. I had recently made them with baked salmon and decided the lentils were good enough to stand on their own. The process is simple enough—some cathartic vegetable chopping, a douse of olive oil, a few squeezes of lemon, several teaspoons of Better Than Bouillon … And voilà. You’re good to go.

The second recipe I’d like to share is another from The Joys of Baking. I prefer to eat bananas when they’re underripe and I can never eat my way through the bunch before they turn brown, so I’m always on the lookout for banana-filled baked goods. I’m a bit burned out on my go-to banana bread recipe, so I was pleased to discover “Banana Date Bread with Lime.” (Geez. How many times can I say banana?) This quick bread has a gentle and mild sweetness to it that I find quite refreshing. The dates are delicious, but in the spirit of frugality, I chose to replace them with dried cranberries I already had on hand. I suppose any dried fruit would do the trick.

Here’s to simple, satisfying, no-fuss cooking in the new year. See you next week.

Ginger

French Lentils 
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma French

Ingredients 
3/4 cup French green lentils, rinsed and drained 
4 cups water + 4 teaspoons Better Than Bouillon
4 tablespoons olive oil 
1 red onion, finely chopped
1 celery stalk, finely diced
1 carrot, peeled and finely diced
1 red bell pepper, finely diced
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons finely chopped Italian (flat-leaf) parsley 
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil 

Instructions
Whisk together the water and Better Than Bouillon in a large liquid measuring cup (or mixing bowl). Chop all your veggies and herbs and juice your lemons (microwaving them for 10 seconds beforehand to get the most bang for your buck). 

Combine 3 1/4 cups of broth and lentils in a large pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cover, simmering until lentils are tender but not mushy, about 30 minutes.

Heat a large skillet over a medium flame, adding 3 tablespoons of olive oil and then diced red onion. Sauté until softened, a good 7 minutes or so. Add the celery and carrot and cook until slightly softened, approximately 2 minutes. Add bell pepper and sauté for another 2-3 minutes.

Add the cooked lentils to the skillet and sauté over medium heat, stirring often to combine the flavors, about 2 minutes. Pour in the lemon juice, remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil, chopped herbs, and a sprinkle of salt and pepper.

It’s that simple. Enjoy! Or serve with the baked salmon if you’re looking to prepare something a little more dressed up.

Tangy Banana Bread 
Adapted from The Joys of Baking 

Ingredients
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing the pan, softened to room temperature
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour 
1 teaspoon baking powder 
1 teaspoon kosher salt 
1/2 teaspoon baking soda 
2/3 cup granulated sugar 
4 teaspoons finely grated lime zest (approximately 4 small limes)
2 large eggs, room temperature 
11/4 cup mashed bananas (2-3 large bananas)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract 
6 oz dried fruit, such as chopped dates, cranberries, or raisins

Directions 
Preheat oven to 350 Fahrenheit. Generously butter a standard loaf pan.

Whisk together flour, baking powder, salt, and baking soda in a medium to large mixing bowl.

Beat butter, sugar, and lime zest with an electric mixer until light and fluffy, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed, 3 to 5 minutes.

Best in the eggs one at a time, then banana, then vanilla. (I recommend measuring the mashed banana to ensure proper proportions of the main ingredient.) 

Fold in the dried fruit, then manually fold in dry ingredients with a large spatula. 

Transfer batter to a loaf pan and bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 55 to 65 minutes (I believe mine was good to go at the 55-minute mark).

Transfer pan to a wire rack to cool for 15 minutes, then flip out and cool completely. Or follow my lead, and eat directly out of the pan for the next week 🙂

Introducing the Cook Happy Project

Well hello there, reader.

Welcome to the Cook Happy Project, housed on my original personal blog and website, swirltocoat, which first helped me build my writer’s chops and eventually saw me through a career transition into full-time writing. All that to say, this site is equal parts cringe-inducing and affection-stirring for me, but I return to it because the philosophy behind “swirl to coat”—the idea of seizing the day, finding gratitude, and coating the pan of life with something added, whether that be writing or bee-keeping or cooking or stamp collecting, is a mindset that has truly, in the most literal sense, carried me through this past year.

To be clear, I am not talking about hobbies. What I a mean is more along the lines of what I’ve heard called a “proof of life exercise”—when faced with our mortality, such as in a pandemic, or a mental health crisis, or a divorce, or an addiction, and with the daily iteration of that, which we might call drudgery, or as the French like to say, “l’ennui,” we choose to follow the scent of what is life-affirming and humane and beautiful in our world … and … we do it, and then we document the process. In this way, we claim some degree of power over our own life story, despite the zillions of things over which we are powerless.

So my goal with this project of trying a few new recipes per week and then taking some time to reflect on the process each Sunday is to counteract the grief and melancholy I feel about my life’s personal challenges and to hold fast to the simple, life-sustaining pleasure of preparing a beautiful meal from fresh, raw ingredients. Or snack. Or dessert.

I’ve dubbed this the “Cook Happy Project” not because my end goal is happiness, per se, and certainly not because I aspire to pull myself up by my bootstraps—a quite unenlightened approach to healing, in my view—but rather, because I have found that cooking consistently sparks feelings of joy in me, spontaneously and effortlessly. Cooking (and baking) spur joy because they allow me to wholly immerse myself in the present moment, achieving a state of “flow,” and giving me the opportunity to serve others in a creative way.

If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to embark on my new year’s blogging journey one week early, beginning with two festive dessert recipes that I enjoyed during the week leading up to Christmas. The first is stuffed, poached pears, which is truly comfort food putting on airs as something fancier. I quickly ditched the bed of arugula and enjoyed my pear solo for breakfast and dessert. I also did away with the recipe’s instructions to baste them, savoring the ever-so-slightly caramelized flesh, and played up the sweetness factor with honey goat cheese instead of bleu.

The second is a winning gingerbread-with-mascarpone-swirl recipe, from a lovely cookbook called The Joys of Baking. The recipes are organized around different emotions, accompanied by narratives from the author’s life. These are a fun alternative to more vanilla, buttery Christmas cookie mainstays like Russian tea cakes, thumbprint jelly cookies, and cutout sugar cookies—and I was told by a co-worker who doesn’t like gingerbread that they struck the right balance between spicy and sweet. I love the fact that no electric mixer is required—just two large bowls and a spatula—but beware, the “mascarpone swirl” will quickly dissolve into a sloppy mascarpone mess if the cheese isn’t thawed to room temperature. Not a problem for me—they tasted just as well—but they weren’t pretty.

The through-line here, in terms of “cook happy,” is … Eat whatever the hell you want for breakfast! That’s how most of this was consumed. That, and go ahead and be the person who drops off homemade treats to friends and leaves random baked goods in the break room. It’s fun to be that person. Oh—and cheese. Cheese, may I count the ways I love thee …

Without further ado, the recipes. Have a good week.

Ginger

Poached Pears
Adapted from Back to the Basics

Ingredients
Three firm, slightly under-ripe pears
2 lemons
4 oz goat cheese
1/4 cup walnut halves, chopped
1/4 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup apple cider, plus 3 tablespoons
1/3 cup brown sugar, lightly packed

Instructions
Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

Halve the pears and remove the seeds with a knife or spoon, or better yet, a melon baller. Place in a large baking dish. Microwave lemons for 10 seconds, juice them, and immediately pour liquid over the pears.

In a medium-sized bowl, crumble the goat cheese by scoring it with a sharp knife. Chop and add the walnuts, then the cranberries. Use your hands to bring the mixture together. Divide the mixture evenly among the pears.

In the same bowl, mix the apple cider with the brown sugar. Pour the mixture over the fruit.

Bake until tender, about 30 minutes.

Mascarpone Gingerbread Bars
Adapted from The Joys of Baking

Ingredients for gingerbread
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1 1/2 stick unsalted butter, melted, plus more for pan
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup unsulfured molasses
2 large eggs

Ingredients for mascarpone swirl
1 large egg, room temperature
8 oz mascarpone cheese, room temperature
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Instructions

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Generously butter a 9-inch square baking dish.
  • In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, ginger, cinnamon, baking soda, salt, nutmeg, and cloves.
  • In a medium bowl, stir together the butter, brown sugar, granulated sugar, and molasses, then whisk in the eggs.
  • Fold the wet buttery mixture into the flour mixture.
  • In another medium bowl, whisk the other egg, adding the mascarpone, sugar, and vanilla.
  • Alternately scoop the two batters into a checkerboard pattern; then use a butter knife to swirl them together. Bank until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean; 30 to 40 minutes.


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