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Grateful Wednesdays

Kalyan Chakravarthy Half what? (CC BY 2.0)I’ve decided that hump day deserves a regular gratitude list. It’s the best way to slide into Thursday with my head screwed on straight, to pause in the middle of the week for a little putting-in of perspective. And I think there’s added value in listing nuggets of thankfulness  in order to share them — for me, that is. It feels like a subtle way of taking action on what I’ve been given, paying good things forward by making them known to you, dear reader, or by drawing attention to the less tangible things. And for me, making a personal gratitude list public helps me to
cement and augment a more general posture of thankfulness and abundance. I hope it reads less as, “good for me, now let me pat myself on the back” and more broadly as “the world is loaded with wonder.” So, thank you, and without further adieu, ten things, small and not so:

  1. Wait for it…chocolate chip and roasted pear scones, courtesy of Smitten Kitchen. What a slightly unexpected, fruity, chocolatey, tart-sweet combo. While I’m at it, the entire Smitten Kitchen site — a self-contained gold mine of recipes, simple and scrumptious — and also, the mini scone pan I was gifted for Christmas. I never got around to making scones before I had this pan. It’s the little things.
  2. The people in this world who choose a hard path, knowing it’s hard, and knowing that there is no way around it. I’m thinking of Dr. Martin Luther King. I marvel at the clarity of his life’s mission, vision, and moral conscience.
  3. Winter headbands that keep things insulated on, say, an early morning/early evening commute involving lots of walking and waiting in the cold. If you’re reading, go ahead and grab yourself one! Just do it.
  4. The unique beauty of urban landscapes: the warm, orange glow of streetlights against a dark early morning sky, the steep rise of buildings, winding around the lake, the contrast between a bright train car and the sleeping wooden balconies outside. I could go on (I’ll spare you) but suffice it to say that Chicago is a looker, even in the thick of late January.
  5. A new vegetable soup recipe: Provençal Vegetable Soup, from Ina Garten’s Barefoot in Paris. There are a couple of things about this soup that I find noteworthy: the addition of broken spaghetti noodles and halved green beans, the liberal use of chopped leeks, and last, but not least, the swirling-in-for-serving of pistou, a paste made of raw garlic, tomato paste, fresh basil, olive oil, and Parmesan cheese.
  6. The practice of blogging. I think of it as a practice,  not unlike a yoga practice. It’s something I routinely turn to to clear my head, to challenge myself, to slow myself down and develop a deeper presence of mind and level of self-awareness. I’m thankful that blogging is something I can always return to when I have the time, that there’s now a foundation of entries on this here site to blossom into more entries. And more. It’s a good thing we bloggers collectively have going here, on WordPress. To think that the world of blogging didn’t exist a few years ago…
  7. New horizons/things to look forward to. For me, that includes a very hypothetical, much discussed and absolutely unprepared for trip to Ireland in the not so distant future. The longer it goes unplanned, the longer the gestation phase of my fervent anticipation — a blurry assortment of misty, rolling hills, warm pubs, and long, stretched out days of doing whatever the heck we please. One day we’ll get there.
  8. The space and time to be enjoyed by two adults who don’t have kids…yet. In other words, the absence of a heavy (yes, and beautiful) responsibility. This translates into gym time, leisurely cooking, the satisfaction of getting-stuff-done after work, whimsical and aimless conversations with my husband that have nothing to do with getting stuff done.
  9. The difference between writing for an editor and writing for myself. I say difference because I am grateful for both modes, so to speak. I find both challenging and rewarding in different ways. With writing for myself comes the joy/challenge of figuring out what I truly want to say, and also the spontaneity and lightness of having an idea strike my fancy and setting words to page. With writing for an editor comes more scrutiny, more research, a satisfying degree of clarity regarding form and style, and the meaty challenge of organizing ideas accordingly. With both comes the joy and freedom of returning, writing as much or as little as time dictates, but always knowing that writing is there.
  10. Befitting this rather nerdy post I will end with an entirely nerdy “nugget”: I am proud to say, I am very, very thankful for step aerobics. Yep, that’s right. Doing “mambo cha-cha-chas” and “corner knees” and “helicopter turns” astride a big plastic bench. At about 7:30 on a Tuesday evening when I’ve been alternately sitting and standing but not doing a whole lot of moving, it’s bliss, a way to get the blood flowing if you have an affinity for basic jazz dance moves and/or leanings toward the 1980s decade. Somehow, over the last three or four years I’ve morphed into what some would call “a stepper” — I just wish I had the wristband and the pastel-hued leg warmers to do myself justice. Oh well. When a girl’s gotta step, a girl’s gotta step. Er…woman, that is… (I have a pet peeve for grown ass women referring to themselves as girls. Oops.)

So that’s it. My list of small, and not so small points of gratitude to get me over the hump. I hope they serve you as well. As my dust-gathering Book of Common Prayer reads, “It is a good and a joyful thing, always and everywhere, to be thankful to God.” Amen.

On Growing My Cake and Eating It, Too

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It’s been ridiculously long since my last post! Here are a few of my thoughts on the joys and excesses of eating local, originally published on Food Riot… Is it just me, or is this topic rich with contradictions?

Terroir is the French term — the notion that foods possess an innate sense of place, down to the soil, the air, the shape of the landscape. For example, that a pinot noir grape grown on a farm in Sonoma, California has a slightly different bite than a pinot noir grape grown along the Rio Negro river in Argentina. It’s like the notion, “you are what you eat,” except that before you consume this essence of self, the food is busy becoming what it is — and if you buy into the terroir concept, the essence of food could not be more Scarlett O’Hara-esque — rooted in terra, terroir, the land.

This terroir term makes me think of rap lyrics, a whole range of upwardly mobile artists touting loyalty to their roots. In the world of food, “going local” may strike a hopeful, less defensive tone, but it’s still the same sentiment — “I’m still Jenny from the block” translates into sticking to your roots — quite literally, your root vegetables — putting the brakes on the rather privileged, entitled, modern assumption that “the world is your oyster” in favor of an old-fashioned reverence for your own backyard, and the brand of leafy greens where you were born and raised.

Much like those leafy greens, I suppose that my “taste” is shaped by my environment. On the one hand, I was born and raised in Saint Louis — and in my case, an appreciation for certain Midwestern foodstuffs is somehow built in — cheese (even the much-maligned, processed, Imos-Pizza-topping Provel), red meat and hearty casseroles. On the other hand, as a Chicago resident, I have an abiding taste for Mexican — not the kind you find in Missouri, where the waiter might not be familiar with horchatas. I tend to crave sour, spongy Ethiopian bread dipped in spicy vegetable medleys or Korean barbecue, with its thin, seared meats. My love of onions can take me around the world and back — from Indian curries to Chinese stir fries to Jewish latkes. Actually, scallions alone could do the trick. If I’m starting to sound less reverent and increasingly presumptuous when it comes to this simple, local food thing, what can I say; I came of age during the rise of The Food Network. I’m another earnest member of Generation Y trying to be slow and local, but really, I want to have my cake and eat it too, and I don’t necessarily want to grow my cake in my backyard. Plus, I don’t have a yard. I have a very persistent, slightly manic squirrel running along the rail of my balcony.

Truly, I respect and admire and value this notion of clean, fresh, local food. I’m inspired by Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food International, who says that “food is what ought to remind us every day that we are part of nature, that we belong to nature, that we are inside nature — the greatest living system.” Proving Carlo’s point, I had the privilege to enjoy a bullfight “à la mort” (to the death) on the oversized steps of a Roman amphitheatre in Arles, France. This was my second visit — the first time, I opted to watch the bullfighters sort of dance around the bull, no death happening, because I thought it might upset me. But the fight à la mort was not a gruesome experience, it was more of a grounding experience, oddly like clean, wholesome manual labor. I watched the bull reach his fate underneath a pounding sun, alongside little kids chomping on ham and cheese sandwiches. I took a wrong turn on the way out and ended up passing the tremendous, half-suspended carcass on its way into the beef truck. The next day my husband ordered “toureau” for dinner, and there it was, or its relative, on his plate. Yes — that particular day, food was a profound reminder that we live inside nature, much closer to the cycle of life and death than I typically acknowledge.

It was through living in Provence for a short, sweet six weeks that I first experienced a deep appreciation for the relationship between food and terrain. Actually, the impact of terrain in Provence extends far beyond food. For example, I realized that Vincent Van Gogh’s famous paintings from the region didn’t so much exercise artistic license but skillfully capture the special quality of light that exists there, day after day. I didn’t realize until returning to the U.S. that Provence was a destination of sorts, that the richness of the landscape was truly la crème de la crème, as evidenced by certain brands of rose wine or cosmetics companies like l’Occitane. But like many things that hail from Italy or France, the romance and purity of “terroir” doesn’t always mesh with the full-speed-ahead, patchwork-quilt American way. When I come across a green t-shirt that reads YALE KALE or the scrunched up nose of a three year old working his way through a macrobiotic plate, I am impressed by certain Americans’ willful, dogged commitment to eating naturally. We invented fast food, and doggone it, we will just as industriously re-adopt slow flood. With similar intentions, I attempted my first herb garden last summer. I basked in the versatility of kale, the joy of snipping chives onto pasta, the fact that I didn’t need to buy scallions. But there were also times when I felt like the hungry caterpillar in reverse. All I wanted was one, small square of Imo’s Pizza, processed in a factory, delivered in a box. To borrow from another 90s child, Pete Nice, of 3rd Bass, I guess I’m just a product of my environment.

A Lazy Blogger’s Shoulda Woulda Coulda

Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 3.38.45 PMFellow cooking/reading enthusiasts, what cookie recipes are you eager to try this holiday season? One of my favorite things to do periodically on this little young thang blog is to share a list of recipes (other people’s, oh yeah) that I am eager to make. Especially when I’m too lazy/busy to actually make them — like here, here, and er, here. Who do I think I am to you, Oprah? Do you really care about my “favorite things”? But I can’t help myself. I love lists. With every bullet point, a possibility on the horizon. I may be sitting here cranking out an article about meat wrapped in lettuce — yeah, that just happened — but making a list of FUTURE projects has the effect of giving the mouse a cookie. You know, it’s a carrot, a motivator, helping me play hardball with this business of putting words to paper in an efficient manner.

My other ulterior motive is to get some inspiration from you, fellow bloggers, and your smorgasbord of baking successes. I’ll have some time next week to get my hands dirty, and I’m feeling the urge to shake things up, having been lately more immersed in the world of food blogging. Will you give me a cookie? Many thanks 🙂 In the meantime, here is a short list of my own suggestions:

Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 2.09.15 PMBalsamic vinegar fudge cookies from the award-winning blog, Baking Bites are humble drop cookie, nothing decorative going on. But the intensity of fudgy chocolate and cherries enhanced by balsamic vinegar sounds superb to me, giving these cookies special occasion status in my book. I came across them while writing an article on How to Use Balsamic in Baking.

Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 2.22.59 PMJoy Wilson’s Red Velvet Black and White Cookies are a cute and whimsical nod to the holidays, I think, an understated standout among the sprinkles, crushed peppermint, and over-the-top deliciousness… She decorates hers in black tie, taking a cue from the classic New York black and white cookie.

Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 2.58.24 PMAs long as we’re baking in an imaginary world, these pistachio French macaroons are on my shortlist. Pistachios + egg whites + bright green food coloring, whipped and piped into something sugary, chewy, bite-sized and oh so precious. If that description is over the top, then so be it. Long live the French and their delicate macaroons. Or perhaps you’d like some with your Earl Gray.

Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 3.05.50 PMA twist on the classic lemon bar — I love it! Here I go, ripping off (I’ll call it promoting) the Smitten Kitchen site with Deb Perelman’s recipe for pink lemonade bars. Raspberries, citrus, powdered sugar — let’s call it a Christmas cookie.

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Another nostalgic choice — if I were an Italian grandma — seven-layer cookies. The layering, the colors, the marzipan, these look as festive as Deb Perelman’s recipe looks delicioso.

Links to Recipes

Balsamic Vinegar Fudge Cookies
Red Velvet Black and White Cookies
Pistachio Macaroons
Pink Lemonade Bars
Seven-Layer Cookies

[Photos: “Footprint in Flour,” recoverling’s photostream, “Saucepan Fudge Drop Cookies,” Food Librarian’s photostream, “Red Velvet Cookies,” Herr Hans Gruber’s photostream, “pistachio_macaroons,” Greencolander’s photostream, Deb Perelman’s http://smittenkitchen.com/blog/2012/08/pink-lemonade-bars/, per photo guidelines]

Paris To The Moon

Screen Shot 2013-06-24 at 7.50.51 PMI recently finished this book by New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik. It is a collection of essays reflecting on the idiosyncracies of French culture, written during the author’s expat stint with his wife and pre-school age son. Described in Le Monde as a “witty and Voltairean commentator on French life,” Gopnik has a knack for extracting the essence of French sensibility from everyday encounters…

Screen Shot 2013-11-02 at 12.31.52 PMIn a way, Gopnik’s writing is like an “amuse-bouche,” a French culinary term that could be liberally translated as “mouth tease,” a carefully selected hors d’oeuvre that primes the diner’s palate. His anecdotes touch on essential truths of French culture, but it’s a controlled sampling, inviting the reader to savor the details and imagine the rest.

In part, Gopnik’s Paris is so charming because it proves to be so stereotypically French. For example, Gopnik’s pursuit of a gym membership yields a comically French result. It is called Régiment Rouge, where elegantly coiffed women in red tracksuits arrange several one-on-one meetings to ensure the thorough completion of his dossier (file), throw a crèpe party to celebrate the installation of “high intensity” machines, and then grant him the right to use his membership as frequently as once a week, advertising le régiment as “‘très New Yorkais.’”

(In my experience, Non-Parisians live up to their stereotypes with equal flair –accordion players on cobblestone street corners, men in berets, baguettes in hand…  They don’t disappoint.)

Perhaps the singularity of French culture is best articulated in the last chapter of the book, preceding Gopnik’s move back to New York, with his wife, son, and now Parisian born daughter. He is standing on the Concorde Bridge with his son, Luke, watching Christmas lights on the Eiffel Tower. Luke says that the tower “‘looks like champagne,’” which gets the author thinking philosophically about the century-old, recycled symbols of France, such as champagne and the Eiffel Tower. Should he be depressed that these worn out emblems of French-ness are being incorporated into his young son’s consciousness? Is that what France is reduced to?

Then he recalls another writer’s argument that the Eiffel Tower is in fact a greater invention than Isaac Newton’s Principia, because

“‘the principles of physics have a permanent general existence outside ourselves… while the tower, in all its particulars, could have been built only in Paris at Eiffel’s moment by Eiffel…’”

Screen Shot 2013-11-02 at 12.45.01 PMWhether you love or hate the French, chances are that your feelings are partly directed toward this possession of a singular, idiosyncratic sensibility that is as stubbornly French as the Eiffel Tower is Eiffel’s.

From an airplane window, the Eiffel Tower looks oddly large, as if it were randomly plopped onto Paris like a mismatched toy. This sounds like France’s relationship with much of the world: surrounded by many other sprawling cultures, the French uphold their French-ness in glittering, upright, iconic glory. It’s hard to hate them too much for it — after all, we Americans understand this notion of being true to one’s character.

Besides French-ness, there is another culturally rich set of ideas running through Paris To The Moon, that is, the reality versus the fantasy of displacing yourself, of choosing to be a foreigner, of watching your young child construct his own five-year-old Parisian existence before his parents transplant him back to New York to continue growing up.

The liberation and joy that come from being a willful outsider is in a way, less interesting than the ennui that sets in at the end of the five years, prompting a move back home, the growing desire to be an American in…America. Do the same forces propelling someone to travel propel him to return home? This gets at the meaning of home, the role of the traveler in defining his destination. Gopnik quotes his wife at the beginning of their stay:

“She felt, she said, as if she had died and gone to heaven — but with the strange feeling that that dying and going to heaven mean parting, leaving, and missing the people you left behind on earth” adding that “the loneliness of the expatriate is of an odd and complicated kind, for it is inseparable from the feeling of being free, of having escaped…”

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Like the arc of many stories, the falling action of Paris To The Moon leads its characters from whence they came, across the Atlantic and back to New York, decidedly not to the moon, whatever the title suggests. Perhaps there is inherent wisdom in that.

[Photos: “Eiffel Tower On A Moonlit Night,” RejiK’s photo stream, “1st Course: Amuse Bouche,” ulterior epicure’s flickr photostream, Robyn Lee’s flickr photostream]

Happy Father’s Day + Eating My Words

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I have recently been obsessed with bar cookie versions of more elaborate celebration cakes, e.g., red velvet cake bars or better yet, dulce de leche cheesecake bars. They have the cuteness factor of cupcakes, but more conveniently, they are made in one big pan.

For example, these dulce de leche cheesecake bars would have been perfect for my mentee’s birthday. What did I end up giving her? A card/hershey bar from CVS… I guess I’m holding out for her half-birthday?

Then I attended a going away party for my department head. Old habits die hard, along with my fantasy of casually elegant cheese cake bars. This time I stalked the net for something with a key lime twist. Predictably, Smitten Kitchen yielded cute eye candy, this time individual key lime cheesecakes made in cupcake tins. Eye candy it remained.

So I recycled these pecan shortbread cookies I hadn’t already eaten. (Less cute, but definitely worth making.)

Tomorrow is Father’s Day and I have now moved on to the idea of german chocolate cake bars, in honor of my dad’s favorite dessert. Oh, and the internet provides! In good faith, I even looked up how to properly package and mail homemade baked goods. Yet here I sit, typing words onto a screen, having typed grades and unit plans and e-mails onto a screen the entire day, because I’ve learned that food feels most like love when it is happily prepared, and dad, I think I hatched this idea a little too late. (My mixer has lately been erratic and I think I might end up crabby and covered in flour.)

There is a better writer than me, Adam Gopnik, author of Paris to the Moon, who describes this habit of spending inordinate mental energy imagining and planning meals, to the point that eating them is secondary. In a word, he characterizes it as French:

of all the leçons de choses I have absorbed in Paris, the most important has come from learning to cook. I cooked a bit in New York, Thanksgiving dinner and a filet mignon or two, and summers by the grill, like every American guy. But here I cook compulsively, obsessively, waking up with a plat in mind, balancing it with wine and side dishes throughout the working day (‘Do I dare pack a Brussels sprout?’) shopping, anticipating six o’ clock, waiting for the perfectly happy moment when I can begin, as one almost always does, no matter what one is cooking, by chopping onions.”

He goes on… and on… and one more time on…

Screen Shot 2013-11-02 at 2.17.12 PM“The beautiful part of cooking lies in the repetition, living the same principles, day after day: planning, shopping, chopping, roasting, eating, and then vowing, always, never again to start on something so ambitious again… until the dawn rises, with another dream of something else….

Screen Shot 2013-03-25 at 8.31.31 PM“Cooking, for middle-class, end-of-the-century people, is our only direct, not entirely debased line with the hermetic life, with Zen sitting, with just doing things without a thought. No wonder monks make good cheese…

alphabet soup kids pasta“Writing isn’t the transformation of stuff into things. It is just the transformation of symbols into other symbols, as if one read recipes out loud for dinner, changing the proportions… Writing is a business of saying things about stuff and saying things about things and then pretending that you have cooked one into the other…”

And yet, at the risk of sounding apologetic, and notwithstanding the fact that really delicious german chocolate bars trump esoteric thoughts about cooking, the words do count, I think.

Gopnik also writes about how French people have a  gift for abstraction, extrapolating on the minutiae of life and making it fodder for philosophical debate. In my mind, German chocolate cake symbolizes much more about my dad than his sweet tooth.

Favorite dessert? German chocolate cake. Career/calling? Architect. Hobby? Piano/organ. Bedtime ritual? Set out the cereal bowls for breakfast. My dad is predictable in great, very specific ways — he makes reliably tasty pancakes; he does not fancy breakfast for dinner…

But also in more abstract ways, including his stalwart qualities of being kind, insightful, upbeat, and taking a broad-minded and balanced view of all people and situations. Some people say that I am my father’s daughter. I wish my sweet tooth were more equally focused, along with a few other things, but I’ll take it 🙂

Here’s to a sweet Father’s day, in gratitude for all the world’s deserving dads.

[Photo Credits: “Cake, German Chocolate,” sea turtle’s photo stream and “Rows of Buddha,” shack’s photo stream]

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