Friday, December 31, 2010

Midnight Mass and Candy Cane Cupcakes

On Christmas Eve, I went to midnight mass.  I abandoned Catholicism long ago, for a variety of reasons, but there's something about the solemnity (or potential solemnity, anyway) of Christmas midnight mass that strikes a chord in me, and reminds me of my old-world Catholic father, who died eight years ago this February from stomach cancer.  Though "midnight mass" when I was growing up happened at 9:00 p.m., I can still remember him singing Christmas carols in French and Latin in his booming baritone, burying his head in his hands as he knelt in prayer.  

There is a Catholic church just a block from where we live, so since I was awake anyway, I walked up the street, listening to the silence, looking at the stars, tasting the crisp wintry air, and feeling the quiet in my soul.  When I got to the church, I sat in the back, watching the parishoners filter in, looking for friends and family, admiring each others' Christmas finery (and four inch spike heels).  I was wearing my ratty green maternity sweater and clogs, looking very pregnant.  No one greeted me, and few people looked my way.  But I had to laugh as I thought to myself, sitting there, that in a strange way, I was physically the closest person in that church to Mary at that moment.  I smiled, thinking about the difference between this church and the UU fellowship that we attend, where everyone greeted everyone with hugs and kisses at our Christmas celebration, and no one was looking at what anyone was wearing.  A 20th century Mary and Joseph would have been welcome in our midst, and would have been offered a cup of coffee.  Still, though I didn't make it all the way through the midnight mass --I lost steam about halfway through, I was glad to be reminded of my father, for all of his faults, and the way he embraced the spirit of renewal and possibility that was Christmas.

In that same spirit, I finally got around to a baking project I'd intended to try for weeks, inspired by a blogger friend who'd had a dream, while she was still pregnant, that she was eating candy cane cupcakes.  Melissa was originally due to give birth to her third child just after I was, but had her baby girl at just shy of 30 weeks, 3 lbs. 11 oz.  Kiari has been doing remarkably well in the NICU; she's been a fighter since before she was born.  I've been wanting to send them something; I'm in charge of what's fondly referred to as the "casserole brigade" in our fellowship (though I refuse to call what I make "casseroles"): when there are new babies or illnesses or other crises in life, I organize the group of people who bring food and comfort to the doors of our friends.  Candy cane cupcakes sounded like they might offer some promise of traveling well, if I sent the frosting separately, and I knew that a part-buttercream would keep with no trouble in transit, given the weather out this way lately.

So I made my standard vanilla cupcake using half peppermint extract in place of the vanilla (if you're going to try this, don't just settle for something called "mint extract," which is half spearmint, and really won't work at all) and tinting half of the batter with red food coloring, layering the two colors of batter, and swirling them around just slightly with a toothpick before baking.  I packed a standard vanilla buttercream, made with crushed candy cane bits, and included some extra small candy canes in the package for decoration.  (Here, in the picture, I put some crushed candy cane bits on top.)  Before we sent them off, we tested one to make sure that it was fit for human consumption.  While it was good, it wasn't exactly as good as I was hoping; I think next time I'd be less sparing with the peppermint extract (which I was afraid would be too overbearing), and possibly alternate two kinds of batter, red velvet and white chocolate pappermint instead of vanilla with peppermint.  Still, the end result was pretty, and the stripes inside were even more or less what I'd envisioned.


The best part of this story, though, is that the cupcakes arrived on Melissa's daughter Kelsi's birthday.  Kelsi was one of the three smallest living babies born at the hospital where she entered the world six years ago, and sadly, she didn't survive.  But every year Melissa and her family remember Kelsi's short life, and celebrate the effect she has had on so many people.

So happy birthday, Kelsi ... may 2011 bring us all hope and the human connections that make us better people.  Thank you, Melissa, for letting me be part of such an important day in your family's year.  The bloggers and friends I've met on this journey have inspired me, humbled me, and helped me to keep putting one foot in front of another.  And as much as I wish I was holding a live child in my arms right now, instead of worrying about these last few weeks and all of the things I know could still potentially go wrong, I will take comfort in the fact that I have a community of amazing people rallying around me, cheering me on to my own small miracle.
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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Calm After (and Before) the Storm: Minestrone Soup

The presents have all been opened and put away, the Christmas goodies eaten (and eaten, and eaten ... not that they're all eaten yet, of course, but we're getting there).  My father-in-law and his wife were here since Christmas Eve, and left yesterday morning for their next stop, in upstate New York.  I am sitting, Moby Dick-like (yes, a white whale), on my couch, in my new fleece robe, thanks to my brother, listening to the wind outside, following up on the "blizzard" from earlier this week, which, strangely, brought our county only about four inches ... the storm just missed us, and socked the rest of the state. 

It was quiet on the roads yesterday, given that our state was still under a state of emergency.  There was still too much ice and snow to go running, and I ventured to my yoga studio, hoping that I would find that my teacher had come in--she does, after all, live only two blocks away, and the streets were clear; she was there, and two other students joined me for a very private, intimate class.  It was good to be there, to be in that space of calm after the mad rush and entertaining of the holiday.  I needed a mental and spiritual detox.  (Case in point: I got two items of clothing for Christmas, and broke out into tears because I couldn't try them on to decide whether or not they were even the right size.  Yep, love those hormones.)  At our request, we did lots of hip openers and spent an extra long time in savasana while she came around and gave us each a quick massage.  Have I mentioned how much I love my yoga teacher?  Oh, right, I guess I have.

The big accomplishment this week was finding a postpartum doula.  The one I had last time, kind as she was, just talked entirely too much ... about her kids, about band camp, about anything under the sun.  This one seems very no-nonsense, practical, thoughtful, but caring.  The down side: this one also requires a commitment of a minimum of 20 hours a week, so it will be a pretty significant expense, one we weren't really planning on.  Still, I think it will be good to have someone not related to me help us at the beginning, since we won't have any family coming to stay and help (I will bite my tongue here and not make comments about my mother), so we are going to bite the bullet and sign the contract.  I've started to pack for the hospital, too, which is strange ... I think I'm beginning to realize that that this child could arrive at any moment.  My "due date" is just over a month away.  Some relatives gave us pink clothing for Christmas (not that we need another shred of clothing; this little one will be well-outfitted for the first six months of life, I think).  I feel so not-ready for this ... then again, will I ever feel any more ready?

We've also started to make and freeze some meals, for those nights we don't feel like cooking because we're trying to figure out how to deal with a new infant: a chicken soup, a lasagna.  This week is a good week for that kind of preparation, since we're home on vacation, with some extra time on our hands. As much as I like to read recipes (and look at pictures of food) online, I'm considering getting a copy of World Vegetarian just to have, and maybe making some healthful meals from there.

While this isn't one of the things we're freezing, it is a good "detox from the holiday excess" kind of soup.  It's hearty, and filling, but has lots of vegetables in it, and you can always put in less pasta (or pick around it like I do and leave that part to your pasta-loving husband and son, like I do).

I think the first time I made this soup I was living in Los Angeles.  In fact, I think that the recipe was passed on to me from an ex-boyfriend (which would be strange, given the fact that he is probably the biggest carnivore I know).  I can't be sure.  It reminds me, though, of the time I was first learning to cook, first learning that soup didn't have to come from a can, first learning the versatility of vegetables.  Everyone should have a good minestrone soup recipe in his/her back pocket.

Tell me, what are your favorite things to make ahead and freeze, for when you know the storm is coming?

Minestrone Soup

1/2 c. dried red beans, soaked and drained (or one 15 oz. can)
5 c. water
2 c. shredded green cabbage (or kale, or spinach, or other winter greens)
1 1/2 c. chopped tomatoes (canned are OK if the fresh ones are awful)
1 small onion, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
1 carrot, diced
1 zucchini, diced
1 medium potato, peeled and left whole
1 small potato, peeled/diced
3 T. extra virgin olive oil
1 t. salt
1 1/2 T. finely chopped garlic
1/4 c. basil
1/2 c. small shell-shaped pasta (or whatever you like)

Place all ingredients except basil and pasta in a large soup pot or Dutch oven, bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover, and simmer until beans are tender, stirring occasionally.  This takes about an hour.

Transfer 2 c. soup to a blender (or use your handy-dandy immersion blender) to puree part of it, and return the puree to the pot.  Add the basil and pasta, and simmer until the pasta is cooked through, about 25 more minutes, stirring occasionally.

Season to taste with more salt and pepper, and serve, if you like, with grated Parmesan or Manchego cheese.
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Friday, December 24, 2010

Simple Gifts: Gingered Cauliflower Soup

Just over a day from now, members of my family will get together and open what are, really, extravagant gifts.  This is something I've lobbied against openly for a few years, now; while I like giving gifts that I know will make the recipient happy, I hate having to fulfill "lists" just because it's Christmas, and I don't feel like I should have to get an expensive gift to show someone I love them.  In the past few years, I've actually gotten a "wish list" from my 30+ year old brother, and he asks us to send him a list, too.  The whole thing feels contrived.  I don't like getting extravagant gifts, either; they make me feel uncomfortable, especially when they're not exactly a good fit.

The best kinds of gifts are the ones that take us by surprise; they're not often even the largest or most expensive ones (in fact, most often, quite the opposite), but the ones that come from the heart.

Today we went to New York to travel to the top of the Empire State Building, and to show I. the tree, the department store windows, the Rockefeller Center ice skaters.  He loved it all (except for the fact that he had to walk a long way in the icy wind).  As we were standing there in Rockefeller Center, marveling at the height of the tree, I remembered a gift that I'd gotten here over 15 years ago.  It was a day or two before Christmas, and I was with my then-boyfriend.  It had just started to snow, and it was late enough so that the pedestrian traffic had started to dwindle.   Looking up at the start high up in the tree, the snow falling gently all around me in the city lights, it felt almost magical, hopeful somehow; I remember wishing I could capture that feeling and keep it for the days when I felt sad and alone.  The tree-guard, who was watching us, saw me looking up at the star and the tree through the gentle flurries, and approached us, slowly reaching into his pocket.  "I have something for you," he told us.  Smiling at me, he pulled out of his pocket a single blue bulb from the string of lights on that giant tree, one that he told us he'd found no longer worked.  For more than fifteen years I'd saved that bulb.  Today, after we got back home, I gave it to my little boy.  It was a reminder of his trip, of looking wide-eyed for the first time at a tree taller than any houses and most buildings that he knows, a reminder of the way the world can feel magical sometimes.  He held it to his heart, and put it in his "treasure box," for safe keeping.  I hope that he keeps it for another fifteen years.

In our mailbox, there was a package waiting for me.  In it was this: an ornament made by an amazing fellow blogger who knows all too intimately about repeated loss, to remember our lost loved ones.  I don't know if you can see the silver snowflakes in this picture, but they're there.  The gift brought tears to my eyes; it's the kind of gift whose simple thoughtfulness and generosity take my breath away. I put it in a place on our tree where it stands out among the other ornaments; and I noticed, hanging it, that it was the same color as the bulb I'd just given to my little monkey ... as if a reminder, again, of the people and the places and the feelings that are always there, even though we miss them.

The other gift I got this week was a box of cookies from the cookie exchange with another blogger:  I'd sent her some Chocolate Toffee, Sugar Cookie Cutouts, and Jam Pinwheels. she sent me her Triple Chocolate Chunk, Ginger Cookies, and Peppermint Bark.  They were so beautifully packaged, I couldn't help but feel bad about the poor Tupperware I'd sent off (in an attempt to ensure that my cookies arrived in one piece).  And they tasted wonderful.

These were simple gifts, but in so many ways, they've touched me and made me happier than I suspect the pile of gifts from my non-immediate family will on Christmas morning.  This is the Santa Claus that lives in all of us, the one that the editor of the Sun wrote to Virginia about those many years ago..

In celebration of simplicity, I thought I'd share a simple recipe for soup.  I love Madhur Jaffrey.  I know I've talked about her here and here, but I needed to say it again.  If I had to purchase one cookbook these days, it would be Jaffrey's World Vegetarian.  This happens not to come from that book, but from her Quick and Easy Indian Cooking.  In my house we have been eating one-bowl meals for what seems (to my husband at least) like weeks, and I see many more in our future, especially with this child expected in just about a month.  Because sometimes the simplest of things just seem to fit better.

Here's wishing you a holiday--and a new year--filled with the simple things and the kinds of gifts that give you glimpses --however brief -- of joy.

Gingered Cauliflower Soup

3 T . vegetable oil
1 med. onion peeled and chopped
1 1" piece fresh ginger peeled, slivered
4 cloves garlic -- peeled and chopped
1 t. ground cumin
2 t. ground coriander
1/4 t. ground turmeric
1/4 t. cayenne pepper
2 med. potatoes, peeled, 1/3″ cubes
1/2 lb (2 c.) cauliflower florets
5 c. chicken stock
salt to taste
1/3 to 2/3 c. heavy cream

Set the oil over medium-high heat in a good-sized saucepan. When hot put in onion, ginger and garlic. Stir-fry for about 4 minutes or onion is somewhat browned. Put in cumin, coriander, turmeric, and cayenne. Stir once, put in potato, cauliflower and chicken stock. Stir and bring to boil. Cover and turn heat to low; simmer gently for 10 minutes or until potatoes are tender. Put soup into a blender and blend or use a hand blender to purée. Add cream and reheat gently.
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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

First Annual (?) ICLW Cookie Exchange: Apricot Oatmeal Bars

 (Welcome ICLW visitors!  If you want a brief back story, click here: the short version is that I am chronicling a journey through life and pregnancy after RPL and a diagnosis of secondary IF; I'm just about to round the corner into week 34.  I make, talk about and take pictures of food, because doing so makes me happy and keeps me mostly out of trouble.)

Since many of us are careening full tilt into the holidays, even though it might be more attractive to hide under a table or in a dark room, I thought I'd do something a little different for this ICLW.  About two weeks ago, I joined an online blogger cookie exchange.  The way it was going to work was this: each of us would bake 1-2 dozen cookies, and send them off to a partner (blogger we've never met) that the organizer would assign to us.  It sounded like a neat idea, and I sent my cookies off to my partner Emily from Life On Food last week, with some trepidation, afraid that she would not like my cookies, or think them too plain, or that they'd be stale or crushed upon arrival (I packed them tightly together, thinking maybe that would help).  But she said that they enjoyed them, and that my box is on its way!

I love cookie exchanges, for the same reason I like ICLW: you get introduced to a bunch of new cookies (blogs), get to talk with the bakers (comment), and make new friends over shared recipes (stories).  So here's my invitation to you: sort of like Mel's Virtual Lushary, I'd like to host a virtual cookie exchange.  Post your favorite cookie below, and if you like, include a link to the recipe (or post the whole recipe, or just send it to me).  If it's a special recipe (handed down through the generations, or if there's a good story behind it), include that, too.

Here's what's on the cookie menu at my house (click for links to previous posts and recipes):

Chocolate Toffee Cookies : these were the first cookies I tried from a blog.
Jam (or Whatever You Like) Filled Pinwheels :  
Sugar Cookies : my sister-in-law's recipe
Cranberry Oatmeal White Chocolate Chip : my husband's favorite cookie 
Gingerbread People (Vegan and Regular) : one chey, one crispy 
Chocolate (Mint) Crinkles : from a co-worker, and adapted to make them my own
... and these Apricot Bars (from my neighbor across the street)

And if anyone wants to do a real cookie exchange, just drop me a line ... I'm all for sending baked goods where they're needed.

Apricot Filled Oatmeal Bars

1 c. flour (regular)
1 c. quick-cooking oats (regular oats work OK)
2/3 c. packed brown sugar
1/4 t. baking soda
1/2 c. (1 stick) butter, very soft
1 c. apricot preserves (I use Polaner All Fruit, no sugar added)


Stir together flour, oats, brown sugar and baking soda.  Cut in butter until mixture is crumbly.  (I've also melted the butter once before and that worked OK, too, if you don't have a pastry blender.  You might need just a little bit more flour in that case.)  Pat 2/3 of the crumbs into the bottom of a 13 x 9" baking pan; spread with preserves.  Bake for 25-30 minutes.  Cool and cut into bars, as big or as small as you like them!
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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Hitting the Wall: Chocolate Crinkle Cookies

I need a nap.

On Thursday, I-bug got a stomach virus at school.  Apparently every child and teacher in the school has had it, and it was his turn.  I got the phone call about 15 minutes before a meeting I'd scheduled at work, and the other person was already in transit, coming from an hour away, so I felt I needed to stay for the meeting.  His teacher assured me that she'd be able to keep him until regular dismissal time.  When I got there, he was lying on the floor, covered in his little blue fuzzy blanket, and I found out he'd been sick every half hour.  My mom-guilt kicked in, big time.  How could I be such a horrible parent, to not rush to pick up my sick child immediately?  Stupid hour commute.  I spent the rest of the day trying to make him feel better; poor little monkey was writhing in pain, begging me to do something, and all I could do was feed him sips of water from a teaspoon and rub his belly.  We both spent the night on couches in the living room. sleeping fitfully and waking every few hours.  He didn't get sick again, until today, when he tossed his cookies at lunch.  Suffice to say that he has not been a happy camper.

Of course, my body is now too misshapen to be conducive to sleeping in my own bed, so I'm spending most of the night on the couch, anyway, heading to our room for the last hour because I feel guilty for abandoning my husband.  Not that sleeping on the couch allows for much actual sleeping, of course.  I think I'm running on about eight hours over the past two nights.

We interviewed a postpartum doula today, who said something about always asking clients if they've gotten to sleep.  Half-jokingly, I said, "the answer to that question is already 'no'."  At least she would ask.  Not that my mother has volunteered to come cook and do light housekeeping and help with baby care in those first few weeks (the other day when she was here she told me she didn't put laundry in the dryer because she didn't know what went into the dryer and what didn't), but if she did, I can't imagine her asking me if I need a nap.

How can I be hitting the wall already, when I haven't even given birth yet?

I've been trying to mitigate the effects of sleeplessness (mostly unsuccessfully, of course) with sugar and chocolate, in various forms.  (Doubtless, I will have gained at least 5 pounds this week at my next weigh-in.)  The leftover cookies that didn't make it to the neighbors or get eaten by my undergrads beckon loudly from the kitchen, and I hasten there when I'm called.  These little morsels are particularly tasty, and barely survived a day after the open house for my students.  Eaten within a day or two after baking, they're like soft pillows of chocolate (you won't want to keep them too much longer than that anyway).  Eaten warm, they're simply amazing.

Perhaps they'll get you through the holiday, too.


Chocolate Crinkles

4 T unsalted butter
8 oz. bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
1/2 c. sugar
2 large eggs
2 t. vanilla
1 1/2 c. flour
1/4 t. salt
1/2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. peppermint extract (optional, if you like peppermint-flavored crinkles, or other flavoring if you like)

Topping:
1 c. confectioners (powdered or icing) sugar, sifted

In a stainless steel bowl placed over a saucepan of simmering water, or a double boiler, melt the chocolate and butter together. Stir well, remove from heat and set aside.

In the bowl of your electric mixer (or with a hand mixer), beat the eggs and sugar until thick, pale, and fluffy. (When you slowly raise the beaters the batter will fall back into the bowl in slow ribbons.) At this point beat in the vanilla extract and then stir in the melted chocolate mixture.

In a separate bowl whisk together the flour, salt, and baking powder. Add dry ingredients to the chocolate mixture, stirring just until incorporated. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm enough to shape into balls (3-4 hours or overnight).

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F and place rack in center of oven. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Place the confectioners sugar in a shallow bowl. With lightly greased hands (this is really important; I sprayed oil on my hands periodically and it worked quite well), roll a small amount of chilled dough to form a 1 inch ball. Place the ball of dough into the confectioners sugar and roll the ball in the sugar until it is completely coated and no chocolate shows through. Gently lift the sugar-covered ball, tapping off excess sugar, and place on prepared baking sheet. Continue forming cookies, spacing about 2 inches apart on baking sheets. (If you find the dough getting too soft for rolling into balls, return to the refrigerator and let chill until firm.)

Bake cookies for 8 to 10 minutes or just until the edges are slightly firm but the centers are still soft. (For moist chewy cookies do not over bake. Over baking these cookies will cause them to be dry.) Remove from oven and place on a wire rack to cool.

These cookies are best eaten the day they are baked.

Makes about 3 dozen cookies.
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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Comfort (and Joy?): New Mexican Stew

The other day, my yoga teacher began class by asking us all to get comfortable.  She begins class this way every time, of course, but this week she stressed the importance of finding that comfortable space, and settling into it: to really feel what that comfort felt like.  Maybe it's sitting in lotus position, but maybe it's kneeling, with our hinds on a block for support.  The practice of yoga is not about whether we can all do exactly what the person in front of the room is doing, but whether we can find our own ways to achieve mindfulness, using our bodies as a tool,or a pathway.  Patanjali, in the Yoga Sutras, writes that only when experience comfort can we experience true awareness (or joy).  This makes sense to me, as most things in yoga do: if I'm not comfortable, all I can think about is getting comfortable.  But rarely does anyone invite us to revel in comfort, to find it and to explore it, to be mindful of how we feel in that state.  My yoga teacher said, too, that it's important to remember that our experience of comfort may change from pose to pose, day to day, even minute to minute.  So the way I flop on the couch one day may not work for me the next day.  This, too, makes lots of sense, but I'm particularly biased right now, because it takes a while for me to get comfortable; I'm just in my own way all the time.

This lesson about the body is just as applicable, I think, to our environments and our dinner plates.  If you're like most people I know, the holidays can be stressful.  Even if you're the sort of person that cheerfully hauls out the holly in October, there are worries that come with gift-giving and socializing during this time of the year; if you didn't have to do so at Thanksgiving, chances are you'll be invited to a gathering that you'd really rather not attend, feel strangely obligated to give a gift that doesn't come from the heart.  This season, given all of the craziness at work, and the impending arrival of this child, I've been thinking a lot about what makes me comfortable.  While I wouldn't consider myself a grinch, for example, I did skip our division's holiday party this year at work, because I just felt like I didn't want to socialize with that group right now.  And though we don't always have the luxury of opting out, the least we can do is to figure out how to be comfortable where we are, and to allow ourselves to be comfortable, even if what we discover we're feeling isn't exactly joy.


I invite you to soak in the comfort of this winter stew, too.  You can alter it to your tastes (and your diet) pretty easily.  And when you're done licking the bowl and sopping up the broth, you're invited over for cookies (though I didn't win the chocolate recipe exchange contest; it seems I was beat out by, among other things, creme de menthe and spicy sugar in a chocolate cupcake.  Still, fifth place out of 26 entries isn't all bad, right?  And oddly enough, this week's competition, which opens tomorrow, is focused on comfort foods ... maybe this means something?).

New Mexican Stew
1 lb. fresh ground turkey, chicken or pork (I used a 15-oz can black beans for vegetarian/vegan)
1 onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon chili powder- hot or mild, to taste
1 1/2 cups peeled butternut squash, diced
2 large yellow or white gold potatoes, peeled, diced (I used sweet potatoes, or you could toss in some zucchini if you prefer to have some green in here)
3 medium carrots, chopped
1 cup roasted chopped green chiles- mild or hot, to taste (I use the canned kind)
1 quart chicken or vegan broth
Sea salt and ground pepper, to taste

Before serving:

Juice from 1 large juicy lime
2-3 tablespoons fresh chopped cilantro (as you can see, I forgot to get cilantro at the store)
1-2 teaspoons raw sugar or raw agave nectar, as needed

If using turkey, brown the ground turkey in a skillet and pour off the fat, if any. Add the turkey to the slow cooker/Crock Pot and add the remaining ingredients- through sea salt and ground pepper. Stir to combine. Cover and cook on low for about 7-9 hours.

About 20 minutes before serving, stir in the lime juice and cilantro; taste test. Add a dab of sweetener, if needed, to balance the spice. If you prefer it to be more like soup, add more broth. Heat through.
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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Local Flavor: Four Squash Soup

Over the past year or two, I seem to have become more and more of a locavore.  Fall is turning into winter here in the northeast U.S., and I'm already missing our local farmer's market, so I do love me an excuse to go to the Stockton Indoor Market.  It's not really a farmer's market (OK, it's not a farmer's market at all), but an indoor market of local vendors selling everything from cheesecakes to locally made soaps (love the goat's milk oatmeal soap!) to organic free range chickens to fresh scallops to artisan chocolates to organic locally sourced ice cream to hand-made tamales.  I wish I could take you there with me, because you'd love it, too: they let you sample everything.  There is one vendor that sells absolutely beautiful produce now, too, though, and they always have interesting varieties of things I haven't tried before.  As I was perusing cookbooks last week looking for hearty soups that would feed us for a few nights, I happened across one that called for kabocha squash.

You're thinking to yourself, "she already made squash soup."  Yes, true.  But that didn't have kabocha squash in it.  And it didn't have heavy cream in it.  I don't generally make soup with heavy cream; to me, the point of vegetable soups is that they're good for you.  But this, my dear readers, is worth the cheat; it's not too much cream, and it makes the soup taste like the kind you'll find in high-end restaurants at this time of year.

I've made kabocha squash once before; it has knobbly-looking deep green or orange skin with white stripes, has deep yellow-orange colored flesh on the inside, and is shaped like a squatty pumpkin.  It's exceptionally sweet and almost nutty in flavor, especially when roasted.  It's also not widely available at all times of the year; you may find it in the supermarket during Thanksgiving, but once that week passes, you may have to look at bit harder for it.  I knew, once I struck out at the supermarket, that I'd find what I was looking for at the Stockton Market.

My favorite thing about striving to be a locavore is that I get to talk with the people who grow and produce my food.  Though my experience with the CSA this summer taught me a few things about really living locally, and convinced me that I like the modern day convenience of a supermarket and the luxury of choice (there are no mango trees where I live, nor are there cacao beans), there's something great about being able to ask the guy selling the squash to describe to you the difference between the green and orange varieties, and knowing that he knows, because he grew it.  Local flavors just taste better.

And unrelated: I've entered a Scharffen Berger recipe contest ... please vote here if you like my Chocolate Toffee Cookie recipe!  (Just scroll down to the thumbnail pictures and click "vote" next to #17 Chocolate Toffee Cookies.)  I promise to bake for everyone if I win, even if you're not local.  ;)

Four Squash Soup

3 1/2 lbs. kabocha squash, halved, seeded (one orange and one green if you can)
2 lbs. butternut squash, halved, seeded
1 1/2 lbs. acorn squash, halved, seeded
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 c. water
3 T. unsalted butter
1 white onion, thinly sliced
1/4 t.ground cardamom
1/4 t. freshly grated nutmeg
1/8 t. ground ginger
1/8 t. ground cloves
4 1/2 c. chicken stock or low-sodium broth
1/2 c. heavy cream (half and half would probably also work here)

Preheat the oven to 350°. Season the kabocha, butternut and acorn squashes with salt and pepper and lay them cut side down on 2 large rimmed baking sheets. Pour 1 cup of water onto each baking sheet, cover the squash with foil and bake for about 1 hour, or until tender. Let cool slightly, then scoop the flesh into a bowl.

In a large saucepan or casserole, melt 3 T. of butter. Add the onion and cook over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 8 minutes. Add 1/4 teaspoon each of the cardamom and nutmeg and 1/8 teaspoon each of the ginger and cloves and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil over moderately high heat. Add the squash flesh and heavy cream and simmer over moderate heat for 5 minutes. Working in batches, puree the soup in a food processor and return to the pan. Season with salt and pepper and keep warm over very low heat.

Serve with toasted croutons, lightly toasted almonds/pine nuts/pumpkin seeds, or other topping of your choice.
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Friday, December 10, 2010

Little Indulgences: Cranberry Bliss Bars

(Welcome Macaroni Kid subscribers!  Feel free to poke around, and please consider following me if you like what you read!)

So according to my midwife, I lost a pound and change over the past two weeks.  She wrinkled her brow and looked at me, asking, "are you sure you're eating well?"  Mostly well, I thought.  Except for the fact that I'm eating cookies from the freezer and peanut butter off a chopstick at night ... but that should make me gain weight, not lose it, right?  (An aside: I wish that less emphasis would be placed on "proper" weight gain, and more emphasis placed on healthy eating for pregnant women.  Most of us already obsess over our bodies even when we're not pregnant; we don't need yet another reason to feel like we're doing it wrong.)  In any case, I told her not to worry, and that I'd likely gain back that much and more by my next visit.

I made good headway on this promise yesterday: there was a technology showcase (run by my favorite office/division of the IT empire), and the division head bakes over 6,000 cookies for public consumption (it takes her a few months to do this, so don't go feeling all inadequate about your holiday cookie preparations!).  And tonight I'm hosting a cookie swap and holiday prep/wrapping party for the working moms group I founded for women in my county who have young children and work part or full time.  Doubtless, I have too much food: cheese and crackers, hummus and carrots, salsa and chips, shumai, spanikopita, lemongrass chicken spring rolls, and ... of course ... cookies.  I have one more batch to do for the event at school next week, and I didn't want to make any of the "usual" cookies, so I decided on these. They don't take as much time as drop cookies, and the payoff is pretty significant.

If you've ever gazed longingly into the Sta.rbucks dessert case, or broken down and actually purchased one of these for yourself, you'll recognize these: a buttery blondie base with tart cranberry, spicy ginger, sweet white chocolate, and cream cheese. They really do feel like holiday treats, and they're an impressive dessert to bring to a holiday get-together or to include on the cookie plate you're making for your friends and neighbors.  Unfortunately, they don't mail well ... but that means there are more for you to eat.  After all, you need to make sure they taste good, right?

Go ahead.  Indulge a little bit.  It only happens once a year.


Cake Base
2 sticks butter, softened (or use 1 1/2 ... they'll still come out OK)
1 1/4 c. brown sugar, packed
3 large eggs
1 t. ground ginger
1 t. vanilla
1/4 t. salt
1 1/2 c. flour
1/2 c. dried cranberries, minced
1/4 c. high quality white chocolate (chopped or chips)
3 T. minced candied ginger

Frosting
4 oz. cream cheese, softened
2 1/4 c. powdered sugar
1 T. butter, softened
1 t. vanilla
2 t. lemon juice
1 T. orange zest

Topping
1/4 c. dried cranberries, minced
1/3 c. white chocolate, melted

Preheat oven to 350 and lightly grease a 9x13 pan.

Beat butter and sugar together for the cake base, and add eggs/vanilla beating until fluffy. Sift together flour, ground ginger, and salt and then add to the butter/sugar mixture beating well. Fold in the cranberries, chocolate and candied ginger. Spread thick batter in pan and bake for about 20 to 25 minutes or until light golden.

When cake is cooled, mix all frosting ingredients together and spread a thin layer over the cake. Immediately sprinkle with the minced cranberries. Then use a pastry bag of melted white chocolate with a tiny decorating tip (like the size used for writing on cakes) and drizzle the chocolate over the cake.  You can also dip a fork or small whisk into the melted chocolate and use that to drizzle if you don't have a pastry bag.

Cut into bars immediately because the white chocolate hardens quickly and makes cutting messy.  Store these in the refrigerator ... that is, if they last that long.  I like to cut these into squares first and then triangles, because they're pretty that way ... you can cut them however you like, and make them as big (or as small) as you need to, depending on just how much bliss you need.
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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Good for the Heart: Moroccan Bean Soup

Well, it's flurrying here again ... as it did yesterday, and on Saturday.  Those of you who were patiently waiting for an update on snow: the flurries seemed to happen around my birthday this year rather than on it.  I'm not sure if that counts for the record books or not, but it's immaterial to me ... I still enjoyed the little taste of winter, which changed the way that the world looks for a little while.

Despite the chill in the air, I got a warm hug from msfitzita in the form of the Cherry On Top award!  Thank so much, msfitzita, for including me on your list of "five wonderful women who always manage to say something that makes me smile, cry, nod or laugh - sometimes all in the same post"!  This was sweet of you.

We all know how these work: I have to link back to the person who awarded me (do go read her blog), and then pick five blogs to pass the award along to. Make sure to comment on the awarded blogs so they know they’ve been picked.

Just a handful of amazing women I know, whose stories have moved me, and who inspire me to be a better human being (and please don't take offense if you're not on the list ... when I get an award I try to share the wealth so that all of the wonderful bloggers I read feel the love ... see the Versatile Blogger award post for some other blogs worthy of your reading time):

So all in all, it was a good birthday: the 4-year old party in the morning was as sane as those kinds of parties at indoor play-places get, I got to go to the indoor market and visit my friend the artisan chocolate truffle maker (who, to my surprise, took my advice for adding more spices to his pumpkin caramel truffles seriously enough to change his recipe!), took a nap in the afternoon while I. was napping, went to dinner at a new restaurant where the food was both delicious and reasonably priced, and then bundled up to watch our town's holiday parade, full of floats and fire trucks and Girl Scouts dressed like presents and penguins.  My father-in-law sent me desperately needed new socks, my mother-in-law sent me note cards, my husband gave me gorgeous new pottery (I am such a sucker for pottery) and an extension tube for my food photo hobby, my brother gave me new running shoes, and my amazing creative sister in law made me a tote bag with fabric she bought in Paris.  I didn't have to eat any chard or clean up any pee on the floor.

It's funny, though ... I was looking in the mirror yesterday, thinking to myself that I really am older.  Not that I've turned all that much older overnight, of course, but 37 feels different than my early 30s.  I'm a little wizened, a little more tired, a little more jaded, perhaps.  But my world is much more expansive, too.  Even the bloggers I've met through this community have changed my perspective; I've had few female role models in my life, and honestly, so many of the women whose blogs I read inspire me to be a better person.

I don't typically make birthday or new years' resolutions, because I feel like they're artificial, and I have a hard time keeping them.  But last year when I "didn't-resolve" to blog and to "join a community of people who would help me finish the baking," I found this space and all of you.  I wrote a while ago about wanting a new gig ... that still applies, and perhaps this is the year that I will find clarity about my next calling.

You all know, of course, the rhyme about beans.  "Beans, beans, good for the heart, the more you eat, the more you ..." well, I promised not to be obscene here, and there is the other version about "the musical fruit" and "the more you toot."  But I thought I'd post this recipe today, because I'm hoping for a new year in my life that is good for the heart: a new child to learn about who will teach me to parent and to love all over again, purpose and direction in my life's work, more writing and creating, friendships on and offline that continue to grow and develop, wishes and hopes and dreams of all of my friends and loved ones fulfilled.  Here's to 37; I'm raising my bowl of beans to you--may you be good for the heart.

Moroccan Bean Soup

1 T. olive oil.
2 chopped onions
2 garlic cloves minced
1 t. peeled and grated ginger
6 c. water
1 c. lentils
1 (15oz) can garbanzos, rinsed/drained
1 (19oz) can cannellini beans
1 (14.5 oz ) can diced tomatoes (I used fire roasted)
1/2 c. diced carrots
1/2 c. celery
1 t. garam masala
1/2 t. ground cardamon
1/2 t. ground cayenne pepper
1/2 t. ground cumin

Saute onions, garlic and ginger in 1 tbs olive oil for about 5 min or until translucent.  To the sauteed onion add lentils, carrots, celery, tomatoes, garbanzos, cannellini beans.  Cover with 6 cups of water, and add the spices.  Bring to boil for a few minutes, lower the heat and simmer until the lentils are soft.  Puree half the soup in the food processor (or whole soup if you want it smooth), return to the pot, stir and enjoy.
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Friday, December 3, 2010

The Importance of Believing (and Sweet Potato Shepherd's Pie)

Today, a fellow blogger (You Found What In There), who has experienced both complications and loss in pregnancy, delivered her daughter at 30 weeks, weighing 3 pounds 7 oz., and measuring 16" long.  The ALI blogging community has been sending all kinds of positive energy her way through this difficult pregnancy, which has included everything from blood transfusions in utero to preterm labor, and I know that she has been grateful for that continued support.  Thankfully, Mom and baby are doing well, all things considered, but she could use your continued good thoughts.  (Please go visit her!)

This post, and the story I promised to tell in my last post, is strangely related to her news today.

Every year, sometime near Christmas, Santa drives up our street in a fire truck, sirens blazing.  I'm not sure why, but it used to happen in the town where I grew up, too, so I sort of take it for granted.  Tonight was the night of choice for 2010, and my son was out front, waving his little hand, eyes shining.  Every year, it makes me think about the things we believe in, and the power of believing.

As a first year student in college, I lived with some pretty interesting and creative people; one of them claimed he was a wizard.  He also, we suspected, had a little crush on me, and as my birthday approached in early December, he asked me what I'd like.  I, being the obnoxious little college first year student, told him that since he was a wizard, he should make it snow.

"Hm," said he, pulling thoughtfully at his nonexistent Gandalf-beard, "snow is hard, but I'll see what I can do."

I thought little more of the conversation until the morning of my birthday dawned: it was a beautiful blue-sky day, not a cloud in sight.  I caught said wizard on his way out the door for our second period class, and said, perhaps a little insensitively, "nice snow, G."  He scowled.  "Just you wait," he said, shaking his finger at me.  "Just you wait."

And I'll be a monkey's uncle if by the time I came home that afternoon from class, there wasn't two inches of snow on the ground.  Moreover, every year since then, it has snowed on my birthday ... from a token few flurries to a full blown blizzard.  When I lived in California while I was going to graduate school, it was too warm for snow ... but it rained.  (If you want proof of this strange phenomenon, here's someone who has actually kept track.)  My birthday is coming up on Sunday, and I'm watching the forecast.

The moral of the story, for me, is that you never know when you might run into a real wizard.  Or, perhaps a little less bizarrely put, it's important to allow yourself to believe, even in the things that seem impossible.  The birth of little Kiari today, and the fact that her little body fought so hard to come into this world, even as early as she did, and that she is alive, is proof positive to me that we have to believe.  I'm not saying that we can change reality: infertility and loss still suck, and there is no magic wand to make it any easier; difficult work situations still exist; people are out of jobs; families fall apart; and we are in many ways a broken, searching world.  But really believing that something good is possible--as tiring as it can be to believe in the face of persistent loss and disappointment--can change us, even if it doesn't change the facts.  And that, my friends, is perhaps even more powerful.

This recipe really has nothing to do with believing, but it's good vegan or non-vegan hearty (and healthy) winter food, and just the sort of thing you might take to a family who has just welcomed a tiny new addition to their home.  I think that parents of newborns need meal delivery, and if I lived near Melissa, I might bring one of these over.  Happy birthday to her little girl; Kiari, I believe in you.

Sweet Potato Shepherd's Pie

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

For the topping:

3 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and diced
Sea salt and ground pepper, to taste
A dash of nutmeg
A drizzle of fruity olive oil, to taste
milk (of whatever sort you like), as needed

For the filling:

1.5 pounds ground beef (or another can of black beans, see below)
1 onion, diced
4 cloves of garlic, chopped
2 small to medium zucchini, trimmed, cut into pieces
1 cup artichoke hearts, cut up
1 15 oz. can black beans
1 14 oz. can Muir Glen fire roasted tomatoes
some frozen corn, if you like
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried parsley or cilantro
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Sea salt and ground pepper, to taste

Place the sweet potatoes in a pot of fresh salted water and bring to a boil. Cook until under fork tender and mashable.

If using beef, saute it in a large hot skillet till lightly browned; pour off the fat; return the skillet to the stove. If not, just start by sauteeing the onions and garlic; stir and cook for five minutes or until the onions are soft (just add these to the beef if you're not going veg.)

Add in the zucchini; stir and cook for a couple of minutes. Add in the artichokes, tomatoes, and black beans. Stir in the balsamic vinegar, agave, dried herbs and cinnamon. Season to taste with sea salt and pepper. Cover and bring to a simmer. Cook until the liquid is reduced a bit. Remove from heat.

Back to the sweet potatoes:

Drain the cooked sweet potatoes and mash them lightly. Season with sea salt, ground pepper and nutmeg. Drizzle with a little fruity olive oil. Add a couple of tablespoons of milk (soy or regular) and stir until smooth and fluffy.

Layer the filling in a casserole or baking dish, and top with the mashed sweet potatoes.

Bake in the center of a preheated oven until bubbling and hot, about 25 minutes.
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Thursday, December 2, 2010

Shiny Happy Gingerbread People

This Sunday, I will be spending my birthday at a 4 year old birthday party for three of I's friends at an indoor playground, and then with my mother and brother for dinner (huzzah).  Perhaps understandably, I'm just not feeling all that celebratory this year.  (But I will tell you an amusing birthday story in my next post, which will explain why it always snows in this area on the 5th of December.  Stay tuned.)  The good news is that there's a window between bounce castle birthday party and birthday dinner during which I may be able to escape to the indoor market to get some truffles from my favorite local artisan chocolatier for a good friend and her partner who are getting married next Friday!  They've had a house together for a while, and seem to have everything they need, so I figured artisan chocolates might be a good gift, at least until they figure out what they need/want.  (And yes, in case you're asking yourself, you should absolutely order yourself some truffles from Tom at the Painted Truffle.  He's a good human being, in addition to being an artist.  Tell him the pregnant lady with the discriminating palate sent you.  He'll know exactly who you mean, and you will not be disappointed.)

In other happy news, I'm almost done, I think, with the baking for my students ... just one more kind after this, which can't be frozen, so I have to wait to make them until closer to the date of the event.  I'm hoping I've baked enough ... one can never tell, and college students are notoriously ravenous.  If I can just prevent them from absconding with entire plates full of cookies for "take out," I may be in good shape.

Gingerbread is a staple for most of us cookie-bakers in December, and I thought I'd post two recipes here, one vegan and one non-vegan.  The non-vegan one turns out crispy gingerbread people ("not just men," my son corrected me, "they could be girls, too"), and the vegan one--though the dough is a bit more temperamental--tends to turn out more chewy people.  I like both, for different reasons.  You decide.  Of course you can ice these; I tend to do so right before I serve them, and since these were destined for cryogenic preservation, I was going to wait.  They're actually quite tasty without the frosting, too, and you don't feel quite so bad when you bite the heads off.

Is it any wonder we like these so much?  Look at the shiny happy gingerbread people holding hands.  Almost makes you forget about things like a crappy month at work.

Gingerbread People, Standard Version

3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 stick salted butter, softened
2 large eggs
1/4 cup molasses
3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting work surface
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt

Using a mixer on low speed, cream the brown sugar and butter in a large bowl until thoroughly combined. Mix in the eggs and molasses.

Sift together the flour, ginger, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt in another bowl. Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture and mix with a spoon. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap; place in the refrigerator until firm, about 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 350. Let the dough sit at room temperature for about 15 minutes, until pliable. Line 1 or more cookie sheets with parchment paper. Take about 1/2 cup dough at a time and roll on a floured surface until - to 1/4-inch thick. Cut out shapes, and using a spatula, transfer the cookies to the prepared cookie sheets, leaving space between them. Refrigerate the cookies for 20 minutes, then bake until they just begin to brown at the edges, 18 to 20 minutes. Cool slightly, then remove to a wire rack to cool completely.

Gingerbread People, Vegan Version
1/3 c. canola oil
3/4 c. regular or brown sugar
1/4 c. molasses
1/4 c. plain soymilk
2 to 3 c. whole wheat pastry flour or all-purpose flour (or a mix of both)
1/2 t. baking soda
1/2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
1/2 t. each ground nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon
1 1/2 t. ground ginger

In a large bowl whisk together oil and sugar for about 3 minutes. Add molasses and soymilk. The molasses and soymilk won’t really blend with the oil but that’s ok.

Sift in all of the other dry ingredients, mixing about half way through. When all of the dry ingredients are added, mix until a stiff dough is formed.  If it's too sticky, continue to add flour until you get something you can turn into a ball of dough. Flatten the dough into a disk, wrap in plastic wrap and chill for an hour or up to 3 days in advance. If you chill longer than an hour you may want to let it sit for 10 minutes to warm up a bit before proceeding.

Preheat oven to 350 F. Lightly grease your cookie sheets.

On a lightly floured surface roll the dough out to a little less than 1/4 inch thick. Cut out your shapes with your cookie cutters and use a thin spatula to gently place on cookie sheets. Bake for 8 minutes.

Remove from oven and let them cool for 2 minutes on the baking sheet then move to a cooling rack. Wait until they are completely cool before icing.
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