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Festive Summer Supper

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Check out this recipe from the Williams-Sonoma cookbook called School Night: Dinner Solutions for Every Day of the Week. “Mediterranean Shrimp with Feta, Olives, &  Oregano” has a few things going for it:

  • Healthy.
  • Good for company, good for the fam.
  • Mostly assembly and one dish, plus a sauce pan of couscous.
  • Shrimp! Olives! Feta! Yum!
  • Fresh herbs! But dried oregano works too.
  • I made it for my dad on Father’s Day. Good vibes. Make it for someone you love.

Materials

  • Colander
  • Sheet pan
  • Paper towels or cling wrap
  • Medium saucepan
  • Fork (for fluffing couscous)
  • Deep casserole dish
  • Chef’s knife
  • Cutting board
  • Measuring spoons
  • Liquid measuring cup
  • Serving bowls

Ingredients

  • Box of couscous
  • Butter and kosher salt
  • 6 Roma tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil plus extra
  • 1 1/2 lbs frozen shrimp
  • Pitted kalamata olives, 1/2 cup to 3/4 cup
  • Crumbled feta cheese, 1/2 cup to 3/4 cup
  • 1/4 cup fresh oregano leaves or 2 Tablespoons dried oregano

Instructions

  • Thaw frozen shrimp in the fridge for a few hours in a colander on a sheet pan with cling wrap or paper towels draped over the top. Bring them to room temp and get rid of any ice crystals by running the colander under warm water at intervals and patting the shrimp dry as you make the couscous.
  • Make a box of couscous, following the directions on the package. I went ahead with a pad of butter and several pinches of salt, as called for my box. (The cookbook calls for Israeli couscous rather than the instant kind. I confess I’ve never made Israeli couscous, so you’ll have to comment if I’m missing out. The instant kind was yummy too).
  • Preheat your oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Rinse, dry, and chop the tomatoes, placing them in the bottom of your casserole dish. Drizzle with the olive oil and mix well with your hands.
  • Bake for 8 minutes, until the tomatoes release their juices.
  • Check to make sure the shrimp is thawed. (The cookbook calls for raw, deveined shrimp but medium frozen ones cooked at the same temperature for the same time worked just as well).
  • Layer the cooked tomatoes with shrimp, olives, feta, and oregano. (The cookbook recipe calls for a half cup of both olives and feta, but I recommend more of each. Serve the remaining olives as an hors d’oeurve, or nibble while you’re cooking. Point is — jar should be consumed, some way or another.)
  • Bake 12 minutes. Drizzle the cooked casserole dish with olive oil and serve atop the warm couscous.

Serve with this simple, healthy Rachel Ray tomato, cucumber, red onion chopped salad if you want to round out the plate.

And finally, to end your summer meal, a berry pie. I adapted Joy the Baker’s Strawberry Rhubarb Crumb Pie by substituting a pound of blueberries for the rhubarb, since zero out of three of my local grocery stores were selling rhubarb in June. (Wha??)

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I also substituted half the lemon juice for orange juice, and added some orange zest and lemon zest to the filling.

Instead of pecans, I used store bought roasted, salted almonds for the crumb topping. But don’t make my mistake — thoroughly mix the butter with the flour, and this is key — before you add the nuts — otherwise you’ll end up with sections of raw, unbrowned flour on the top of your pie.

As for the crust, cold ingredients are key — dice the butter and then put it in the freezer for a few minutes, and keep the buttermilk refrigerated until you use it. This hand-mixed, buttermilk-congealed pie crust is one of the easiest I’ve ever made. The buttermilk really helps things come together to form a smooth dough.

I made two pies — for Clark, and for Patrick, my father and my father-in-law — and I learned these helpful hints about freezing a pie from The Kitchn. Long story short, if you tightly wrap and freeze an unbaked pie, the juices from the berries won’t make the crust soggy when you eventually bake it. So freeze pies unbaked. Enjoy 🙂

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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.

 

 

 

 

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