Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Crawlspace, and Pumpkin Black Bean Soup

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about what we do with the remnants of our past lives, and about some things my mother had saved from my childhood and deposited at my house just recently, which are now living on the top shelf of my bedroom closet.  It was interesting timing, because just a few weeks later, I found myself faced with the same question, this time from a much different perspective.

Generally, I'm pretty good at purging.  I hate all kinds of clutter.  (Originally I saved clothes from our son to prepare for another child, and more than once, teetering on the edge of madness during those years of pregnancy loss, I almost threw them all in the clothing donation bin, thinking that all hope was lost, that we'd never be able to use them after all.)  Now that I know we're done having children, for the most part, I give away the kids' clothes to other families who have younger children.  I've held on to one or two hand-made sweaters, for nostalgia, but the rest are gone.  The same thing with the baby gear.  Boppies, pillows, baby monitors, store-bought blankets (I can't bring myself to give away the ones that were handmade), even the crib: all of those things have been Freecycled or given to friends.

As N. has gotten older, the toys have started to go away, too ... some of them to other children, some of them to garage sales, some of them in the trash. 

We have a few toys from my husband's childhood: a plastic phone (the kind with the red handle and the dial ... you know, the kind that children will never recognize these days anyway as a phone), and a small music box radio that plays "My Name Is Michael" when you turn the knob.  When I asked him about these things, since N. no longer really wants to play with them, he mentioned that he wanted to save them.  I was surprised, since he's not a hoarder, either, but I figured I'd find storage for them.  And suddenly there were some things I wanted to save, too.  Because I love well-made wooden toys.  And besides, durable toys that won't rot in the basement are good to have around if someone with a smaller child comes to visit.

But that's not why I was saving them, really.  I think I was saving them for my grandchildren.

Of course, it's not that simple, is it.

When I found myself in the basement crawlspace the other day, putting toys in big Rubbermaid tub -- for the future, of course -- it seemed, on the one hand, like the most natural thing to do.  But on the other hand, it was completely awkward and unnerving.  I was pretending not to know that I could not take that future for granted.  I was pretending that my daughter and son would have children of their own, that they would grow up, get married, start families.  My heart knew differently.  My heart knew that it is entirely possible that my daughter, or my son, might have to go through what we went through, or worse.  My heart knew that lives take unpredictable paths.  That terrible things happen, and that, at the other extreme, people also make not-at-all-terrible-but-entirely-sensible decisions.

As I closed the lid on the tub, knowing I would reopen it again to squirrel more things away for this fairy tale future, I decided that it was OK to live "as if."  Because even despite what Buddhists teach about not being attached in this world, I think that it's only human to project ourselves into the future.  It's like the crawlspace of our minds.  We squirrel things away there, just in case.  As long as that projection doesn't consume us or hinder our ability to live mindfully in the present; as long as we have the stability of spirit to adapt when things don't turn out as we had imagined they might, knowing that ultimately nothing belongs to us; as long as cultivating compassion is our most important work -- imagining the future isn't inherently a bad thing.  In fact, it gives us hope.  Which I think is probably one of the best things the human race has going for it.

In the meantime, my daughter continues to consume great quantities of black beans.  Which, if you believe in practitioners of Chinese medicine, is probably as good an omen as any.

Pumpkin Black Bean Soup
adapted from Sunday Morning Banana Pancakes

Practitioners of Eastern medicine, among others, have long associated black beans with fertility.  Pumpkin seeds are also supposed to increase fertility.  And even if you're not trying to have children, they're still just plain good for you.
1 T. olive oil
2 medium red bell peppers, seeded and roughly chopped
1 small onion, diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 t. cumin
1 t. salt 
15 oz. can black beans, drained and rinsed
1 1/4 c. pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling)
olive oil
5 c. water
2 T. tomato paste
1 t. garam masala
2 T. raw honey or agave
pepitas for serving

In a medium pot, heat olive oil over medium heat.  Add peppers and onions, and saute until the onions are just beginning to become translucent, about 5 minutes.  Add garlic and saute for an additional 8 minutes or until the onions are beginning to caramelize.

Add cumin and salt, and stir for one minute.  Add black beans, pumpkin, tomato paste and water; bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes.
Stir in garam masala and honey, remove from heat.  Blend in batches until smooth (or use your fabulous immersion blender).  Garnish with pepitas for an added crunch.
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Monday, January 28, 2013

Perfect Moment Monday: A Porch Swing, and Mulligatawny

On the last Monday of each month, my lovely friend Lavender Luz at Write Mind Open Heart sponsors Perfect Moment Monday, a blog hop/writing prompt that offers an opportunity to notice and reflect on the "perfect moments" in our lives, rather than create them.  These moments can be ordinary, momentous, or somewhere in between.  Everyone is welcome to join.  


Though the days have been colder lately, sometimes bitterly so, I still try to get outside in the afternoons with N.  We haven't been to the park much lately, though, and I suspect that she misses the swing, which she tells me, jubilantly, is "like flying."

On a particularly raw day, we'd just gotten back from the grocery store, and I was going to head inside for the few minutes before I's bus made its appearance down the street, when to my surprise, N. stopped on the porch, demanding, "swing, mama": which meant, "come, sit on the porch swing."

"Really?" I said.  "Now?  N., you haven't wanted to sit on that swing in months."  I had some mulligatawny cooking inside, and I wanted to go check on it, really, to inhale the fragrant smell of curry and apple and leeks and coconut and feel warm again.

"Yes, yes ... SWING."

It was too cold to swing, really.  The thought of more cold air on my face made my body temperature drop another five degrees.  But she was adamant.  So I perched her on one end and sat down next to her gingerly, waiting for the creak and snap of the cold teak, bracing myself for the chill that would begin to seep through my seat.

We started slowly, and as she giggled, the swinging got a little more raucous.  My nose felt frosty.  I giggled, and she laughed, and I pushed the swing a little higher.  She laughed, and I laughed more.  Eventually, we were laughing at the laughing.  Has this ever happened to you?  The laughter spirals out of control, and soon you don't even know what's funny and what's not.  Because it's all funny.

And you know what?  The mulligatawny waited until we were done.

Mulligatawny with Chicken (or Chickpeas) and Apples
adapted from Arctic Garden Studio and The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook
Perfect for frosty February days.  You can veganize it if you like by simply substituting chick peas for the chicken.  I love the addition of the banana, which gives this version a different flavor dimension, unlike the version I've made before.

1 lb. boneless chicken, cut into bite-sized chunks (or 1-2 cans chick peas)
2 T. olive oil
2 carrots, diced small
2 celery stalks, diced small
1 medium onion, diced small
2 leeks, sliced thin, white and light green parts only
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 1/2 inch piece of fresh ginger, minced
1 T. curry powder
1  t. cumin
1/2 t. cinnamon
6 cloves
1 t. salt
freshly ground pepper to taste
8 c. chicken (or vegetable) stock
1 1/2 medium banana, very ripe and mashed well
1 c. long grain white or brown rice
1/4 c. unsweetened coconut
2 granny smith or other tart apple, diced medium
2 T. lemon juice
1 can coconut milk (I used light)

Toppings (optional)
chopped cilantro or parsley
1 cup yogurt
slivered almonds, toasted

Heat 1 T. oil over medium-high heat in a saute pan.  Add chicken and saute quickly until browned on the outside but not necessarily cooked on the inside. (If using chick peas, skip this step.)

Heat oil over medium heat in a large stock pot or dutch oven (at least 5 1/2 quart).  Add carrots, celery, onion, and leek. Saute, stirring often until onions are soft and translucent.  Add garlic and ginger and stir for a minute or two until fragrant.  Add spices and stir for one minute. Add stock, add banana, chicken (or chick peas) and rice.

Bring to a simmer, then turn down heat to medium low and simmer for about 30 minutes.  Add apples and coconut; simmer another 15 minutes. Turn heat down to low. Gradually stir in lemon juice and coconut milk; do not boil! Top with cilantro, yogurt, and almonds.
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Saturday, January 26, 2013

Overthinking Happiness: Mashed Parsnips

The other day, a very kind person gave me a happiness jar.  Maybe you've seen these on Pinterest, or on some crafty friend's blog, or on Facebook; the idea is that you use the jar to store scraps of paper with notes or pictures of happy memories, moments that make you laugh out loud, surprise gifts, successes, acts of kindness, etc.  At the end of the year, on December 31 (or on whatever arbitrary date you decide, I guess), you empty the jar, and marvel at all of the happiness in your life.  The idea seems to be Elizabeth Gilbert's, originally: back in October, she posted her own happiness jar -- which is several years old -- to her Facebook page, and invited followers to participate in the project with her, and like many things do in social media, the idea took on a life of its own.

I follow Liz Gilbert's page, partly because I think that she's a pretty fabulous, thoughtful, intelligent human being, and partly because she's a local celebrity where I live, even showing up occasionally to take a yoga class at the studio where I practice.  So I saw the happiness jar when it made its first appearance and thought "wow, that's cool.  I should make one of those."  Except I never did.

And when I ask myself why, I don't know the answer: is it because I was afraid I wouldn't fill it?  Because I wasn't feeling crafty enough?  I don't know.

In any case, this lovely little specimen found its way to my house and took up residence on my dining room table.

Where, as I do over pretty much everything, I agonized over it.

I wondered how I would judge if something was important enough to be included in the happiness jar.  What were the jar-worthy criteria?  What if I didn't do enough happy things?  Or what if I didn't fill it?  Or what if I didn't choose well, and put in things that weren't really the happiest after all, and ran out of room?  It was too much pressure.

S. watched the happiness jar stay empty for several days and then commented one day at dinner that he had some money that said the jar would stay empty all year.  Indignantly, I denied this.  After all, I'd already had two things happen that I was going to put into the happiness jar.

So why hadn't I put them in the happiness jar?

Performance anxiety.  The drive to perfection.  These things prevent me from experiencing happiness, or perhaps from acknowledging happiness when I do experience it.  When really, all I need to do is breathe it in, pure and simple.  It's not as if you'll run out of happy if you celebrate it as often as it happens.  Happiness doesn't come in limited supply per customer.

So I took a deep breath, and I started.  I dropped the first two pieces into the jar yesterday.  Because happiness is something you really shouldn't overthink.

Do you have a "happiness jar," real or virtual?

(Updated to add: Do yourself a favor and go read Mel's response to the Happiness Jar phenomenon ... because it will make you laugh out loud.  I totally need both of her jars, too.)

Mashed Parsnips
This is a decidedly un-fancy side.  But really lovely in their simplicity.  Because there are some things you just don't need to overthink.

1 1/2 lbs. parsnips, cut in 1/2" cubes
water to cover
2 to 3 T. butter from happy cows, or margarine, or oil of your choice (flaxseed oil might be a nice nutty option here)
A dash of nutmeg
Salt and pepper to taste

Place parsnips in a large pot and just cover with water.  Bring to a boil and lower heat to medium; continue cooking until almost all of the water has evaporated, about 20 minutes.  (You should test the parsnips after about 20 minutes anyway; if they begin to fall apart on your fork, you have my permission to drain them.)  Transfer the parsnips to a large bowl and mash to your hearts' content.  Add the butter and mash some more.

Add nutmeg, salt and pepper, and continue to mash and stir until smooth.  Serve immediately.
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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Thoughts on Diversity, Understanding, and Justice: Kale and Fennel Salad with Apples and Cinnamon

When I went to graduate school for the first time back in 1995 for a PhD in English, my plan was to study "comparative ethnic literatures of the U.S." -- which meant, to me, studying the creative writing of non-white America, the experiences expressed in fiction and poetry by writers whose voices were less prevalent in the literary canon.  I'd written a thesis on Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker, because the language of their characters was like subversive music to me.

My own identity was conflicted: I was more or less a white girl with a father from Spain who immigrated to the U.S. via France (as a Jesuit charity boarding school student) and then Cuba, a place he lived for many years and left in order to avoid being executed.  I often checked the box marked "Hispanic" because that was what I'd been advised to do, because my cultural experience at home wasn't like other white families I knew, and because there wasn't really any box I felt could describe me.  I won a fellowship for underrepresented students, and felt guilty because I came from a middle-class family, even if my parents had worked hard to achieve that status.

I can't count the number of graduate school classes in which we engaged in impassioned debate about race, about whether people who could not self-identify as [African American, Black, Latina, Chicano, Korean-American, Asian, etc.] could write with any authority about the literature written by people who could.  We talked about whether people who were white literary critics were co-opting and colonializing literary studies.  And I wondered a lot about where I fit in, and whether I was deluding myself, thinking I could speak not necessarily for these writers and these literatures, but about them.  I wondered, too, whether there were any core elements common in human experience.  If we could ever sit down together and feel like the most important thing was our shared humanity.  I hated those discussions; they always made me feel bad about being, for all intents and purposes, white.

Though I ended up leaving that graduate program, the difficulty of advocacy stuck with me.  That difficulty had dimensions, too: it wasn't just about race, but about sexuality, about anything we couldn't change about ourselves.  How could we ever create a world in which people worked together for peace and justice if we could never fundamentally understand each other?

About ten years ago, I took a trip to South Africa with a group of educators and future teachers.  We were there to visit South African schools, to see the effects of apartheid on the educational system, and to make a contribution to South African education.  And to be honest, the more our hosts talked about difference,  described the ways in which apartheid had fundamentally shaped an unjust and well-entrenched system, and complimented our ability to overcome racism in the U.S., the more I felt like we were the ones who needed to learn something from them.  Because, of course, our racism is a lot more insidious.  A lot less obvious, perhaps, but in that way even more dangerous.

My friend KeAnne wrote a powerful post on Monday in honor of Martin Luther King Day, about how we continue to struggle to deal with difference in this country, in ways that are both transparent and invisible.  (Go read it; I'll wait.)  It got me thinking about my very racist father (his ideas always shocked me, given that he was also, technically, the minority), and about my own actions and beliefs.  About what I would have done in her shoes.  I think I probably would have done the same thing, and maybe I'm naive, but I don't think that it was racist.  Because I'm not sure whether she could have helped bring about change in that neighborhood from within it.  It's a tricky, and delicate, question.

My son and I did our annual viewing of the "I Have a Dream" speech on Monday.  He doesn't understand it all yet, because he's six, and the language is pretty complex, but I try to paraphrase for him as best I can.  I love this part best:

"I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.'
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. [...]
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
Sitting down together at the table of brotherhood.  That's really what it's about, isn't it?  Not necessarily being able to live another person's experience, but to know that our destinies are bound up together.  The "salad bowl" metaphor for diversity in the U.S. has given way to other metaphors, and then lack of common metaphors at all.  We are a complicated place, and we don't all mix together easily.  I try to teach my son, and hopefully, one day, my daughter, that there's a lot that is the same about all of us and that the sameness doesn't make the differences any less important.

But here's what I think now, more than a decade after my graduate program days: you don't need to understand someone, exactly, or to have lived their experience, to be willing to listen, to be willing to work for justice, and to talk openly about what justice really means.  You need open eyes and an open heart, and you need to be willing to cultivate trust.  Maybe that's naive, too, but I need to start somewhere.

Kale and Fennel Salad with Apples and Cinnamon
adapted from Cooking Close to Home
I love this salad because it's both mixed and separate, because the flavors both blend and are unique.  It's a good salad to serve beside a warm winter soup.

2 T. olive oil
2 T. honey
2 T. cider vinegar
1 t. garlic, minced
1/4 t. cinnamon

1/2 c. fennel, julienne
1/2 c. apple, julienne
1/2 c. carrots, julienne
1/4 c. red onion, julienne
1 1/2 c. kale, very finely chopped
a handful of toasted pumpkin seeds

Blend dressing ingredients together using an immersion blender (great for emulsifying) or a whisk.  Set aside.

Combined julienned ingredients in a large bowl and toss with dressing.

Evenly divide the kale among the serving plates, and top with mixed vegetables and fruit (this is also a fun job for the almost two-year-old).  Sprinkle with toasted pumpkin seeds.
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Sunday, January 20, 2013

Enjoy You: Coconut Curry Soup

I wrote a whole post about sattvic eating and meditation and spring (or winter) cleaning.  In fact, I've written about ten posts over the past week, but I deleted them all because none of them said what I really wanted to say.

So I began again.

The other day my daughter and I had lunch with a former colleague.  It was both good and difficult to see him; good because I always enjoy conversation with him, and he is so full of joi d'vivre when we meet, and difficult because he reminded me yet again of everything I'd left behind when I left my job, reminded me of the things that were said to me that I still have difficulty forgiving.  But N. is good for distraction, and since I'd carefully selected a Mexican restaurant that had black beans and rice on the menu (separate, of course; N. doesn't do miscegenated foods), she enthusiastically finished almost everything on her plate.

We parted ways, I to walk in the cold and wind for a bit longer before putting N. in the car for her nap, he back to work for the afternoon.

There is a bakery in this town that I used to visit occasionally for cookies.  They have fabulous, fabulous cookies.  And since N. had done such a bang-up job of eating lunch, I thought that we'd make that our short walk destination.

Inside the shop, it was cozy, and it smelled of sugar and ginger and nutmeg, as it always does.  We spent a few minutes gazing through the old-fashioned glass at the cookies on the counter, and N. finally decided on a star, with sprinkles.  I settled on a triple ginger (grated fresh, candied, and powdered), telling myself that at least ginger improves digestion.

The young woman behind the counter smiled approvingly at our selections, and made small talk with N. as she packaged the cookies in a small white bag.  Handing the bag over to N., who insisted on carrying it, she told us to enjoy them.

"Enjoy you," replied N.

The young woman grinned.  "Enjoy me," she said, turning the phrase over on her tongue.  "That's the nicest thing anyone has said to me in a long time.  Enjoy me."  She paused.  "I will.  Thank you."

N. waved, and I carried her and the bag of cookies back to the car, where she enthusiastically dumped them onto her lap as I tried to buckle her car seat.

She fell asleep on the way home with a half-eaten cookie in her hand, forgetting everything, but the phrase stuck with me: "Enjoy you."

Last week I went to my endocrinologist, where I was weighed for the first time in over two years.  Fifteen pounds heavier than I used to be.  I spent days listening to the negative, self-deprecating monologue in my head, which had already been swirling for other reasons.  But as my yoga teacher says, sometimes a little gentleness is what is needed.  Scrubbing something with an abrasive cleanser makes it look shiny, but actually weakens it in the long run.

Enjoy you.

Enjoying you means being gentle.  Taking care of yourself.  Feeding yourself nourishing foods and thoughts.  Getting enough rest so that you can appreciate the marvelous manifestation of being that you are.

So that's what I'm trying to do these days.  It's good advice.

What do you do to enjoy you?

Coconut Curry Soup

2 T. oil (preferably coconut)
2 t. minced garlic
1/4 c. red curry paste
1 t. agave nectar or coconut palm sugar
2 (13.5 oz) cans light coconut milk
2 c. vegetable broth
1/4 c. fresh lime juice
3 T. thinly sliced peeled fresh ginger
1 T. soy sauce
1 t. thai fish sauce 
2 c. thinly sliced carrot or cauliflower
1 1/2 c. green bean, 1" pieces
14 oz. firm tofu, drained and cut into 1" cubes
2/3 c. fresh cilantro, chopped
1/4 c. thai basil, chopped 

In a large pot, heat the oil over medium heat (melt if using coconut oil, and be careful because coconut milk has a lower smoke point than other oils) . Add the garlic and sauté 30 seconds or until fragrant.

Add curry paste; sauté 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add agave nectar or coconut palm sugar; cook 1 minute, stirring well.

Add 1 can of the coconut milk, broth, juice, ginger, fish sauce, and soy sauce. Reduce heat to low; cover and simmer gently for 1 hour.   Be careful not to boil hard, because the coconut milk will separate (it will separate some anyway). Add the other can of coconut milk and bring to a simmer.  Add carrot; cook for 6 minutes. Add beans; cook 4 minutes or until vegetables are just tender. Add tofu and basil to pot, and cook 2 minutes. Garnish with cilantro.
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Monday, January 14, 2013

Root Beer Cake

In my family, cake matters.

Birthday cake, that is.

Some birthdays, believe it or not, warrant cake from a box.  I know that you will all be horrified to read that we actually purchase box cake mix here, but it's along the lines of macaroni and cheese from a box: sometimes that's really what you want, and it makes for a slightly smaller disaster when you leave the slightly distracted six year old in charge of cake preparation.  Most times, though, if I'm baking, the birthday celebrant gets to choose the cake to commemorate the occasion. 

I don't know how this tradition evolved; not, I think, from my childhood.  In fact, this year I wracked my brains for some recollection of the cakes I ate when I was growing up, but all I could remember were the dimly lit Chinese Sunday buffet and pu pu platter at the Jade Palace, the flourescent lit stainless steel steam trays at the Cuban restaurant better known as the Union City Cafeteria, and the year that I had my birthday party at McDonalds and wore my Strawberry Shortcake dress, complete with apron.  Part of me considered calling my mother to demand if this were true, if I'd really never been baked a cake of my own choosing.  The sane part of me won out, and no phone call was made.

My son is a pretty easy-to-please client: most years he elects for vanilla cake with vanilla frosting.  My daughter has yet to understand that cake flavor and shape can be requested; I live in fear of that discovery.  My husband, though, likes to live on the edge, to look for something interesting just to see if it can be done.  One year, he wanted a meat cake (which you can view, to my vegetarian-sympathizer shame, in all of its meaty glory at the Meat Cake Gallery).  This year, he wanted either a less adventurous key lime cake or a root beer cake.  I elected to make the root beer cake, which was easier to throw together on a weekday with a toddler underfoot or in the ingredients.

It was OK, but not as fabulous as I'd hoped.  Then again, I don't much like root beer.  But maybe you do.  Either way, I've altered it below with some suggestions to make it better.

What cake would you want made for you to celebrate your birthday?
 Root Beer Float Cake

Adapted from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking

The original recipe calls only for root beer, but I found that the soda alone didn't supply enough distinctive flavor.  Root beer extract (also called root beer concentrate) is actually fairly easy to find in the spice section of your grocery store, and if you prefer more "natural" extracts, those are readily available online.  I also found the frosting too thick and powdery for the cake; though I've included the slightly altered original frosting recipe, I think that a thin ganache would work just as well, letting the flavor of the cake shine through.

2 c. high quality regular root beer
1 c. unsweetened (not Dutch process) cocoa powder
1/2 c. unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1 1/4 c. sugar
3/4 c. light brown sugar
2 t. root beer concentrate/extract
2 c. flour
1 1/4 t. baking soda
1 t. salt
2 large eggs

Preheat even to 325.  Spray the inside of a 10-inch Bundt pan with nonstick cooking spray, or butter generously and dust with flour, knocking out the excess.

In a small saucepan, heat the root beer, cocoa powder and butter over medium heat until butter is melted.  Add sugars and root beer concentrate/extract and whisk until dissolved.  Remove from heat and let cool.

Lightly beat the eggs in a small bowl, and add them to the cocoa mixture, whisking until combined.  Sift (really, it makes a difference) the flour, baking soda and salt together into the cocoa mixture, folding it in gently as you go.  Some lumps will remain, but make sure that you're not breaking apart lumps that turn into flour bits.

Pour batter into prepared pan and bake for 35-45 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through baking, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.  Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely then loosen edges with a butter knife and turn out onto a cake plate.  Frost with root beer frosting or chocolate root beer ganache.

Chocolate Root Beer Ganache
1/3 cup heavy cream
3 oz. bittersweet (60% or higher) chocolate
1/2 tablespoon corn syrup or golden syrup
1 t. root beer extract/concentrate
1/2 tablespoon unsalted butter

In a small saucepan, bring the cream to a boil. In a heatproof bowl, combine the remaining 3 ounces of chopped chocolate with the corn syrup (or golden syrup), root beer extract, and butter. Pour the hot cream over the chocolate and let stand until melted, about 5 minutes. Whisk until smooth. Let the ganache glaze cool until thick but still pourable, about 5 minutes.

Pour the ganache over the cooled cake. Let the cake stand until the glaze is set, at least 30 minutes, before serving.

Chocolate Root Beer Frosting
2 oz. bittersweet (60% or more) chocolate, melted and slightly cooled
1/2 c. unsalted butter, softened
3/4  t. salt
1/2 c. root beer
1 t. root beer extract/concentrate
2/3 c. unsweetened (not Dutch process) cocoa powder
2 3/4  c. powdered sugar

Using an electric mixer, beat softened butter and cocoa powder.  Add the melted chocolate, salt, powdered sugar, root beer, and root beer extract.  Beat together until smooth.  Spread on top of cooled cake.
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Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Change, and Slow Cooker Chicken Tikka Masala

Each month, my good friend and fabulous blogger Kathy Benson, who writes (among other places!) at Bereaved and Blessed hosts a blog hop and writing exercise called Time Warp Tuesday.   The Time Warp invites us to revisit an old post from our blog, and think about where we are now, how our thoughts about the post may have changed from its original writing.  This month, during the season of resolutions and goal-setting, Kathy directs us to find an old blog entry about change:
The new year is often a time for new beginnings and changes in our lives. Choose a post from your archives in which you wrote about change. Maybe you wrote about a change that you chose to make or one that happened without warning or intention. Then write a new post on your blog about why you chose the post that you did and what has happened in your life since.
From the very beginning this blog has been all about and my attempts to cope with change (half-baked is, by nature, something in process), but the one that its feeling most important for me these days is a post I'd written back in 2011, in which I submit my letter of resignation.

I had struggled for months, composing that letter in my head, as conditions became untenable for me at work.  I worried about what it would mean to give up a 12 year career, in which I had won accolades from my supervisors and earned the respect of literally hundreds of people.  I worried whether I'd ever be employed again.  Leaving my job was both a change I initiated and something that happened without much warning.

I chose this post because I've needed to remind myself, especially lately, about how proud I felt, taking that step into the unknown, risking my career to maintain my sanity and integrity.  As busy stay-at-home-parent life took over, and as the economy continued to lag, the job opportunities evaporated.  Now, nearly two years since my daughter was born, and over a year and a half since I left my job, I'm still not employed outside the home.  I've questioned my decision to resign more times than I can count.  I've questioned my credentials, my intelligence, the fabulousness of my resume, my network.  It's hard going some days.

But sometimes even when we initiate change, life takes us in directions that we didn't anticipate.  We create the catalyst, we set things in motion, but there's a world out there to contend with, much of which is beyond our control.  Our choice is to find acceptance, to be more like water, flowing with change, rather than trying to work against it.

And, like cooking sometimes, change is slow.  I need to keep reminding myself that worthwhile changes can take time. 

The first time I read through this recipe I was a little reluctant to try it.  After all, isn't the whole point of the slow cooker to minimize your cooking time, rather than requiring that you essentially cook something twice?

But for someone who doesn't eat all that much meat, I have to say: cooking the chicken this way made it practically melt in your mouth.  Slow and steady for the win.

Slow Cooker Chicken Tikka Masala
based on the original at tasty kitchen

9 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1 T. coriander
1 T. cumin
1 t. kosher salt
1 c. yogurt
4 T. butter
 for the sauce
4 T. butter
1 large onion, peeled/diced
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 T. kosher salt
3 T. garam masala
2-3" piece fresh ginger, peeled/grated
4 c. crushed tomatoes
2 t. agave nectar
2 t. cornstarch
1-½ c. evaporated milk (or cream)
cilantro (optional for garnish)

Cut the chicken into 1" pieces, place them into a bowl, and sprinkle with with spices. Stir in the yogurt to coat the chicken thoroughly. Cover lightly and let sit for 10 minutes to allow flavors to blend.

Melt 1 T. butter in a large saute pan over medium heat. Brown the chicken in four batches, using one tablespoon of butter with each batch, and transfer the browned chicken to the slow cooker.

For the sauce, melt 4 T. butter over medium high heat. Add the onions, garlic, and salt, and stir. Saute until the onions just begin to brown around the edges.

Stir in the garam masala and ginger and cook about 1 minute before raising the heat to high and adding the crushed tomatoes and agave. Scrape the caramelized bits from the bottom of the pan, and bring to a boil. Pour the sauce into the slow-cooker.

Cover and cook on low for 5 hours, or until the chicken is so tender that it falls apart on your fork.

Use a fork or whisk to stir the cornstarch into the evaporated milk until smooth. Pour into the slow-cooker and stir gently until the color is even.  Cook for 10 minutes or until bubbly around the edges; the original recipe suggested that you re-cover the slow cooker, but I found it worked better without re-covering (perhaps because I used evaporated milk).

Serve with rice (tasty kitchen suggested rice with peas), and whatever else you like!
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Allergy-Friendly Guest Post at Natural and Free today!

I've always been lucky, I guess, in that I can eat pretty much anything I choose to eat.  I knew about food allergies from an early age, because my aunt can have a potentially deadly reaction to shellfish and strawberries.  But back then, I didn't think much about food choices.  I met my first vegetarian in elementary school, when it was still sort of a "hippie" way of life.  In college, I met people who kept kosher, and found a host of people who were not only vegetarian, but vegan.  And after grad school, I started to encounter friends who had a wide variety of allergies and sensitivities to all kinds of foods: dairy, fish, nuts, soy.  Recently, the number of people I know with sensitivities to wheat and gluten has grown significantly.  Because I love to feed other people, and feeding people means being sensitive to restricted diets, I've become increasingly interested in recipes that accommodate both diet choices and allergies.

I jumped at the chance to guest post about an allergy-friendly treat at Natural and Free today!  Julie's blog is an amazing resource for people who need to accommodate for allergies in their diets; many of the recipes she posts are nut-, soy-, fish-, dairy-, and gluten-free; ALL of them are allergy-friendly in some way, and all of them use unprocessed, natural, real foods.

Please go visit Julie's blog for the story behind my allergy-friendly chocolate cupcakes (updated from my previous recipe for people who are also allergic to soy), and for a wealth of healthy, allergy-friendly recipes and advice!
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Sunday, January 6, 2013

On the Boycott of Playdates, and Raw Broccoli Salad

When I was little, we lived in a neighborhood in which there were always kids within walking distance.  Two sisters my age lived across the street.  A family with three girls lived up the block.  Two little boys my brother's age lived around the block.  And while I wasn't around much after school because my parents were both teachers and we spent a good chunk of the afternoon commuting, it was still nice to know that if I was bored, all I had to do was go ring their doorbell.

As I got older, and was entrusted to go a little farther on my own, I had a friend who lived two streets away, and I'd ride my bike to her house, where we would spend long afternoons pretending in her attic.  And finally, when I got to high school, I'd head by bike to a friend's house two towns and several miles away.

I know that this is a different time and age than the one in which I grew up.  But there are some things that I don't know if we need to give up just yet.  Like the impromptu doorbell-ring.

There are some neighborhoods where this is not possible, for a host of reasons.  The houses are too far apart.  There aren't enough similarly-aged children in the neighborhood.  You folks get a pass.

And there are some neighborhoods where the impromptu doorbell-ring (or simply entering with a passel of friends without the extra step of ringing) is alive and well.  You folks aren't the people I'm talking about here, either.

We live on a street with no fewer than five boys and girls who are I's age.  There are also three children N's age.  And yet, hardly ever does anyone ring the doorbell.  Instead, we organize elaborate playdates, mostly with children who don't even live on our block.

My son and I were talking about this one night, after I'd put him to bed.  About how I dislike the word "playdate," because it feels so contrived.  Like our toddlers need iPhones from birth, scheduling their play and organizing their relationships.  And how the arrangement feels exclusive to me; once you've committed to a "playdate" with one friend, you can't add a third random friend to the mix, who happens to ring the doorbell.

Partially as a follow-up to the conversation, the next morning, on a Saturday, I sent I. up the block to his friend's house to ring the doorbell, with instructions that upon the door opening, he was to invite said friend over to our house to play.  "But what if they're not home?" he worried.

"Then come home," I answered.

"What if he doesn't want to come over here, and what if he asks me to go there?" he asked.

"Then ask to use the phone, and call us to tell us that you're going to stay," I said.  "That's fine with me, as long as I know where you are.  And I'll tell you when we'll come pick you up."

"What if he doesn't want to play?"

"Then tell him thanks anyway, and tell him that you'll see him later, and come home."

He seemed satisfied with this, and skipped up the street.  It turned out that his friend's mom wasn't able to open the door, but she called later to bring the friend over to play for a while.  My son was thrilled.

Even as adults, we seem to tiptoe around each others' lives.  We don't call up friends without a reason any more, because Facebook takes care of our quick check-ins.  We don't drop by randomly for a cup of coffee, at least, most of us I know don't.  Or I don't.  And I feel like it's a dying art, the art of the unexpected visit, the art of intrusive friendship.  I feel like it's an art my children need to learn, if they're going to learn to notice people, and care about them, even when those people don't tell them that they need to be cared about.

So I've decided that for now, I'm going to boycott playdates.  I'm going to randomly call up my friends and ask if they want to come play [*edited later to add: with as much acknowledgement of work schedules as possible, and understanding when people have prior commitments!].  I'm going to send my children to ring doorbells, and interrupt our over-scheduled lives.  I'm going to welcome people to my house if they come calling, and always have something I can throw together and offer up as a light lunch.  Because sometimes the most fulfilling moments are the ones we never put on the calendar in the first place.

Do you -- or your children, if you have them -- ring doorbells?  Or do you tend to make plans to see friends?

Broccoli and Kohlrabi Salad
I've been thinking about this salad as an antidote to all of the unhealthy eating from the holidays, and with a crusty loaf of bread, it's a perfect throw-together kind of meal that's fancy enough to offer a guest.  Kohrabi is cool-weather vegetable, and one of the first and last things that we get in our CSA shares.  If you're looking through seed catalogues yet, as we often do here in the midwinter, it might be something to add to your order.

1 head broccoli, stems removed and cut into florets
1 c. kohlrabi, finely chopped
1/2 c. golden raisins
1/2 c. sunflower seeds
1 avocado, peeled and pitted
3 T. lemon juice
3 T. orange juice
2 T. lime juice
2 T. apple cider vinegar
1 T. agave
3 T. oil of your choice
6-7 chive blossoms (you may not have these right now, so you can always use a scallion or two, but the chive blossoms are really lovely and light)

Toss together broccoli, kohlrabi, raisins, and seeds.  In a blender, blend remaining ingredients.  Pour over vegetables.

Break apart chive blossoms into small bits and scatter over the salad.
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Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Perfect Moment ... Wednesday?

On the last Monday of each month, my lovely friend Lavender Luz at Write Mind Open Heart sponsors Perfect Moment Monday, a blog hop/writing prompt that offers an opportunity to notice and reflect on the "perfect moments" in our lives, rather than create them.  These moments can be ordinary, momentous, or somewhere in between.  Everyone is welcome to join.  

So it's not Monday.  But I already posted a picture of my perfect moment in December (go click over, I assure you it's worth the thirty seconds of your time) and Lori assures me that I can still submit my post for this month, because she's a good human being.  Maybe this will guarantee me two perfect moments in January.


Of all of the things I am called to do these days, I hate supervising teeth-brushing the most.  More than laundry, even: at least my laundry doesn't fight back, or claim that it's dying or that I'm mortally wounding it by giving it an extra thorough scrubbing.

And thanks to my husband, there are always dental hygiene products in our Christmas stockings.  His grandfather was a doctor, and so soap and toothpaste and toothbrushes made regular appearances in his family stockings since he was a child; we've married that tradition with the "school supply" tradition that comes from my family, but somehow, the pencils never seem to elicit tears.

But I have to hand it to him: this year, he picked a winner.

When my son opened his stocking, and found a toothbrush that played "I Gotta Feeling" by the Black Eyed Peas, I rolled my eyes.  A lot.  It's true: I was a doubting Thomas.

Last night, I walked into the bathroom to find my six-year-old swaying his hips to "tonight's gonna be ... a good night ... yeah, tonight's gonna be ... a good, good night" and ... well, it wasn't long before I was dancing, too.

There we both were, he grinning open-mouthed into the mirror and then at me, swaying his hips, toothpaste-laced saliva dripping from his mouth, and me, pumping the air and dancing and singing.  It was, in a word, perfect.  And when the music finally stopped, he looked at me wisely, eyebrow arched, and said, "you know, mom, they made these toothbrushes so that parents could feel happier while kids brushed their teeth."

Moral of the story: dance more.  It makes dental hygiene a little more fun.
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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Going Back, Moving Forward: Spanish Hot Chocolate

It was strange to land in LA and find the landscape so familiar; I found myself re-mapping the city in my head, block by block, freeway by freeway, backseat driving before the second day was through.

On the first morning, since the kids were up way before anything was open, we drove to Venice Beach, and walked along the deserted boardwalk.  I couldn't help thinking about my first landing in LA almost 20 years ago, and the drive to the beach through the darkness, so I could put my feet in the Pacific Ocean, feeling like I'd just discovered another continent.  Pulling our sweatshirts against the wind, my son and I watched the early skateboarders and talked about homelessness in warmer climates.

Later we drove across town, past my old grocery store, past the alley where I was mugged at gunpoint, past my old apartment building where I lived next to a rockabilly couple on one side and a drag queen on the other and upstairs from a large Russian Orthodox Jewish family, past (and later, into) the bakery where I drowned my graduate school sorrows and celebrated triumphs with the best white chocolate raspberry cake on the planet.  We wandered around the Fairfax farmer's market, which had gotten a facelift thanks to the new upscale shopping center that colonized it.  We parked at the LaBrea Tar Pits--where I'd never been, despite the fact that I'd lived just blocks away--and marveled at bubbling asphalt.

We spent a day at the zoo with an old friend--the one I credit with responsibility for my return to the East Coast--and had a drink with an old boyfriend, who drove across town through rush hour traffic and walked to the end of the Santa Monica Pier in the wintry wind for the meager reward of a margarita and a quick conversation.  We drove to Long Beach to hang out at the aquarium with our old neighbor, who was thrilled to see the kids again and to be hug-bombed by familiar arms and faces.  And on the last day we drove through the rain up the PCH, stood on the beach in a break of sunlight and collected Pacific Ocean water at Leo Carillo beach, wandered back along the canyons on Mullholland Highway, and ate a huge brunch at Canter's deli.

We're back in the land of snow and hot cocoa now.  But I haven't entirely left LA, like I had last time. For everything people say about not being able to go back, it was easier to be there than I thought; actually, it felt oddly like I was tying up a loose end in my past, or bringing closure by returning as a different version of myself.  Maybe I'd let enough time pass so that the city didn't have such emotional power over me any more: I'd gotten a different doctoral degree, had a family, put down roots.

The more I thought about it, the more I think I've decided it's possible to go back somewhere (or even to look backwards) while also moving forward ... in fact, sometimes I think it's almost necessary to keep those pieces of our past intact, to remind us of where we've been so we can remember where we want to go, or at least appreciate where we are.

Happy New Year to you all.  Look forward to the year ahead.  Make plans.  Aspire.  But don't forget to touch base, once in a while, with the former yous.  Because they're no less you than you are now.

Spanish Hot Chocolate
I saw an advertisement in LA for "rich hot chocolate" and was a little disappointed with what I got because I think I was imagining this drink instead.  Another remnant from my past; this hot chocolate is the sort you dip churros into on brisk mornings in the cafes of Madrid.  Anything else that claims it's "drinking chocolate"?  Isn't.

1.25 oz. dark chocolate (60% or more)
1 c. milk
2 t. corn starch (less for thinner, more for thicker chocolate)
2 t. sugar (or to taste)

Pour half of the milk into a small saucepan and add the chocolate.  Melt over medium-low heat.

In the meantime, dissolve corn starch into the rest of the milk.  (Make sure it's fully dissolved, or you'll get lumps.)

Slowly add the milk and corn starch to the melted chocolate mixture.  Whisk in sugar.  Continue to whisk for about 5 minutes, or until the hot chocolate thickens.  Strain into a mug and drink ... or dip ... or eat in small mouthfuls with a spoon.
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