Friday, September 26, 2008

Ya’ know, Family Stuff

Last week was a blur.  When I think back to my visit to the Midwest, all I see are smiling faces, plates of homemade food, people all talking at the same time trying to see whose joke gets heard first around the dinner table, my nephew and my sister’s Puggle dog running around the house excited for attention from new faces, voices and guffaws, and feeling the humid end-of-summer heat that we literally swam through while going for our daily run on country roads.  

Back in the country, in Indiana where I grew up, nothing has really changed. 

The heat, the laughter, the neighbors are all still there – the same ones that were there 30 years ago when my parents built our house.  Yes, thankfully there are a few exceptions. My mom and dad have finally changed the 70’s orange and brown wallpaper in the bathroom (now the walls are an appropriately eccentric lime green).  The matching pumpkin orange sink has finally (just last week) bit the dust as well.  The huge maple tree that towered behind our pond fell down in a storm last year, so my dad took our his chainsaw and went to work, as that’s the wood that heats our house in the frigid winter months.  The three blue spruce trees that my dad planted in our front yard must be 40 feet tall now.  They are the same ones that my older sister and I stood in front of, in our Sunday dresses (ages 4 and 7?), for a photo.  The trees were as tall as we were.  We stopped growing but the trees did not.  But just about everything else?   It’s how I’ve always remembered it.

My mother, in all of her stubborn pragmatism, still maintains a garden, coaxing tiny vegetables out of clay soil – the soil that she battles each spring with a tiller whose blades attempt assault on the clay but barely make a dent.  The small amount of tomatoes, peppers and corn that eke out their existence in that godforsaken stuff then live shortened lives as my mother battles the numerous deer that wander over for a noontime salad buffet.  But she still does it, year after year. 

Birthdays are still celebrated with a homemade cake and lasagna.  My youngest sister Gina turned 20 that week and we gathered to eat and make noise.  With my older sister’s family, my younger sister Terri and her fiancĂ©, my brother, and now me with Mark (who was seeing the Indiana family for the first time on home court) we barely fit around the table.  I couldn’t stop smiling because, well,  I couldn’t get a word in edgewise.  The dog was barking, there were five voices ‘please passing’ and my dad’s joking provoked all of us to come up with witty retorts in loud voices - because that’s the only way you’ll be heard in a family of 7.  But once the German Chocolate Cake was served, we quieted down a bit.  Our mouths were too busy.  A homemade three-layer cake from a recipe from the Betty Crocker Cookbook circa 1972.  I think it was the first cookbook she ever regularly used, and its the same one she uses today for everything from beef stroganoff to apple spice bread.  The chocolate cake came out dense, as my mom replaced most of the sugar in the batter with honey.  Now that I think about it I don’t believe my mother’s ever made a fluffy baked product in her life.  She’s kept the bees busy for many years.

My dad and sister Gina after blowing out the candles

When I look at my photos from Indiana, I realize that they are mostly of all of us gathered around eating and laughing.  The same big family that bugged me when I was younger, for having to share bedrooms and Halloween candy and for preventing us from going on expensive vacations, is the same family that brings unimaginable energy and laughter to me.  We get eachother’s sense of humor, like that perfect best friend who’s always in on the absurdities of your inside world. 

When Mark and I return to Seattle and open the door to our tiny place, I can’t help but notice how quiet the house is.  There is no dog, no little kids, no siblings to greet us and pepper us with questions.  We don’t have a big table to gather around for supper.  Our coffee table, with the magazines pushed aside, is all we can fit. 

Yet Seattle is my new home, even without all the trappings.

I begin to hope that someday Mark and I will have a home filled with energy and laughter, activity and people, people, people all the time.  Coming from a big family, that’s my idea of home.  Friends will drop in on a whim for coffee in our light-filled kitchen, Sunday dinners will be shared not just with Mark, but with other loved ones as well. 

That is what we both want, more of that family stuff.


German Chocolate Cake

From the Betty Crocker Cookbook

I can still picture my mother bent over her relic of a cookbook, making this cake in three layers.   As she can’t handle sugary desserts, she made a few substitutions… maybe this is where I get my manic-substituting ways.  Customize your food, why not?

For the sweet cooking chocolate, she subbed 3 tablespoons butter and ¾ cup cocoa powder.  For the 2 cups sugar in the cake, replace with 1 cup honey.  I wouldn’t bother with the 9 inch round pans unless you enjoy particularly thin layers, try the 8 inch round instead.

1/2 cup Boiling water

4 ounces Sweet cooking chocolate

2 cups Sugar

1 cup Butter; softened

4 Egg yolks

1 teaspoon Vanilla

2 1/4 cups All purpose flour; or

2 1/2 cups Cake flour

1 teaspoon Baking soda

1 teaspoon Salt

1 cup Buttermilk

4 Egg whites; stiffly beaten

Coconut pecan frosting:

3 Egg yolks

1 cup Evaporated milk

1 cup Sugar

1/2 cup Butter

1 teaspoon Vanilla

1 1/3 cups Flaked coconut

1 cup Pecans; chopped

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease 2 square pans, 8x8x2-inches or 9x9x2-inches, or 3 round pans, 8x1-1/2-inches or 9x1-1/2-inches. Line bottoms of pans with cooking parchment paper.  Pour boiling water over chocolate, stirring until chocolate is melted; cool. Mix sugar and margarine in medium bowl until light and fluffy. Beat in egg yolks, one at a time. Beat in chocolate and vanilla on low speed. Mix flour, baking soda and salt. Add alternately with buttermilk, beating after each addition until batter is smooth. Fold in egg whites. Divide batter between pans. Bake 8-inch squares 45-50 minutes, 9-inch squares 40-45 minutes, 8-inch rounds 35-40 minutes, 9-inch rounds 30-35 minutes or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool cakes 10 minutes. Invert on wire rack and cool completely. Fill layers and frost top of cake with Coconut-Pecan Frosting. Coconut-Pecan Frosting. Beat egg yolks and milk in 2-quart saucepan. Stir in sugar, margarine and vanilla. Cook over medium heat about 12 minutes, stirring occasionally, until thick. Stir in coconut and pecans. Beat until frosting is of spreading consistency.  


Sunday, September 21, 2008

Back Home Again?

Where is home? I ask myself question every once in awhile when I start to turn nostalgic for my past lives... central Indiana... Chicago... and now Seattle. Home is where the smiles are as warm as the food, the hugs are as soulful as the wine, and the memories you create always revolve around laughter that makes your belly ache. I've been away this week visiting the Midwest, and I have so many stories (involving food, of course) to share with you already! I'll be back in a few days with all the details. In the meantime, pour a glass of wine and create some memories of your own.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Lentil Stew

Everybody has them.  Those days when you’re running around doing and going and feeding everyone else but yourself (I fed 200 people today at PCC!)  You’re tired, you’re cranky, you’re sick of thinking of things you ‘gotta do’ and gosh darnit, you’re hungry. Most days after coming home from the restaurant, or from teaching a long cooking class I don’t know how I could be hungry at all, what with the long hours of making and smelling the same foods over and over again, until I finally reach a point of sensory burnout.  Nothing really sounds good.  You don’t even know what ‘good’ is because you’ve been smelling food all day and you’re almost numb to the aromas, the thought of taking a bite seems as mundane as breathing. 

But there is something that nudges the senses – remember this smell?  That comforts and gently soothes and always sounds good no matter what.  I’m sure you have those smells too.  For some people it’s mac n’ cheese, or quesadillas or mashed potatoes with salted butter, or maybe just a turkey sandwich with tomato.  Some days for me it’s falafel (my hippie mother would make it out of a box mix for me when I was a kid).  But most days, with little time to make up anything else, I turn to lentil stew.  Lentils take less than half the time to rehydrate than other legumes.  It’s a vegetarian staple, and if you ask most vegetarians who like to cook, even a little bit, they’ll doubtless have their own version.

Now for the geeky food-science portion of our post.  Ahem.  The word ‘lentil’ is actually latin for ‘lens’ which is an appropriate name given their shape – two convex lenses sealed at the edges.  In Spanish lentils are ‘lentejas’ which is closer to lens in that language which is ‘lente’.  Lentils are incredibly varied in size and shape, everything from orange to yellow and very black.  I urge you to check out the black ones, the beluga variety as they’re so beautiful… and wouldn’t they make an incredible vegetarian caviar over blini with egg and smoked salt (oooh, put that one in my back pocket for a future post!)

They are small and beautiful, full of iron and folate, antioxidants, and so much protein… and fiber!  So much fiber!  Okay, I’ll stop now as Dotty the Dietitian has just pulled out her milk crate to stand upon for an oratory on the dismal amount of fiber in the American diet.

Now, where were we… oh yes, the stew.  My own version of this varies from day to day, depending on what I happen to have in the fridge.  Always I include tons of garlic, some white wine, onions and carrots.  Mark loves it when I toss in a bit of tortellini, and when I can steal a handful of fresh herbs such as rosemary and thyme from my neighbor’s front lawn, those go in there too.  This last time I was lucky to have a stock leftover from a previous soup with sage – and the stock was heavily fragrant with that earthy, sublime smell.  Sage given to me from a friend, in bunches, went into that stock.  It made a world of difference.  I used French green lentils which are visually inspiring – each one a perfect little world unto itself, green, grey and blue swirls on each tiny bean, like a little planet in the palm of your hand.  The savory, salty broth with that gamey sage and the soft pebble-like lentils floating alongside browned onions and garlic, well, no matter the day, I’m tempted by a bowl of that. 

So this evening, Mark and I serve up two big bowls, toast a bit of leftover cornbread, pour a glass of wine and plop down onto the couch, sighing and humming.  I can start to feel the life seep back into my toes, my head, my tummy. 

The day’s craziness calms into a low buzz, and Mark looks at me and gives me a closed-mouth grin, cheeks full of soup and bread.  I get a big smile from this one, every time.


Lentil Stew

This recipe is very approximate… stews are meant for improvisation!  Sub one thing for another, a bit of this, a bit of that.  Try the grey-green lentils for a change, they cook faster, and don’t dare skimp on the herbs.  My motto in the kitchen? When in doubt, dump it in.

6-10 cups combination of any stock, water and/or white wine

2 ½ cups lentils

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 large sweet onions, chopped

6 cloves garlic, minced

2 medium carrots, chopped

Bunches of herbs such as rosemary, thyme, oregano, sage, basil

½ cup extra virgin olive oil

¼ cup shoyu, tamari or add sea salt to taste

1 cup tortellini

Freshly cracked black pepper


In a large pot, bring stock to boil.  Add lentils and cover pot to simmer.  While lentils are cooking, heat a large skillet with the 3 tablespoons olive oil and add onions, stirring to brown.  Reduce heat on onions to medium to slow browning, add a pinch of salt and continue to stir until a deep brown, but not black color is achieved.  Add garlic and cook for a few minutes more.  When the lentils are firm, but not to consistency, add the onions, carrots, herbs, and shoyu or sea salt and cover, letting cook until lentils are completely soft and carrots are cooked through.  Add the tortellini and cook until tender.  Season with fresh cracked pepper and serve.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A Weekend of Apples

These perilous days of September.  The sky too achingly blue, too clear, like blue bottle glass, the low angle of the sunlight giving warning.  This day may be the last, but tomorrow could be too.  We don’t know what will steal it away so quickly, or when or where we’ll feel it, but we know it’s coming.  The perilous days, more exciting to wake up to because we know they are so fragile.  Is this our last day of perfection?  Will it all be gone tomorrow?  It’s now or never.  We feverishly squeeze in our bike rides, our weekend trips, our plans to have friends over for dinner on the porch.  Between two jobs, the lazy days of summer I’ve worked all away– so I suppose these will be my lively days of September. 

The apples are here.  The blackberries are giving a mighty push to squeeze out the last of their fruit, and the plums have come and gone.  It seems just yesterday that Mark and I, laughing and jumping like kids, reached and climbed up into the trees to grab Rainier cherries.  But cherries are early summer, befitting for a plush bright fruit, sweet and colorful as sunshine, holding promise of the sweet and painted days to come. 

But apples, well they’re a much different story. 

I’ve been in denial about the summer being gone, protesting loudly like a frustrated toddler whenever Mark would muse on its passing.  “No, it’s NOT gone,” I’d say near tantrum.  But oh, now that the apples have come, I accept with solemnity and grace, much like the solemn apple itself. 

I pick them up from the ground, scattered around the baseball fields near our house.  I pick them up, one by one, as if they are the memories of summer days, fallen from the tree of August.  They are small, some ruddy and streaked with brown sunspots and others green on one side and rosy on the other.  They are smooth and warm from the sunshine.  They fit like worry stones in the palm of my hand.  I fill my sack, and then pluck the last of the blackberries from the bordering bushes, scratching my arms and staining my thumb and forefinger a magenta juice.  I work slowly, peacefully, with an inward-turning energy that appears only with the approach of Fall.

This will be the weekend of apples.  

Before our weekend trip, I take the apples and salvage what I can from their bruised and worm-eaten flesh.  They are sweet and tart.  I put them in a cast iron skillet skin-on along with the blackberries, add honey, butter and cook them into a rustic compote that we have for dessert over vanilla ice cream.  We then toss a few Granny Smiths, a Pink Lady and a Gala into our bag for the trip.  These will go with us, hiker-friendly food for September.

The next morning we drive north excited to camp and excited to trek for miles in nothing but wilderness.  The sun is shining.  Before long we hit the Skagit Valley, known for its abundance of just about everything – blueberries, strawberries, and yes, apples.  It was about lunchtime when I spotted the road sign ‘Tourist Activities’ which I typically ignore… but after those words was written ‘Winery.’  Sold.  Even if the wine wasn’t great, there would be a place to picnic and have sandwiches.  At the end of a long gravel drive, there was not only a winery, but another building with simple signage: Apples. 

Along with the sips of blackberry and apple wine, the pinot noir and the sangiovese, we bought apples - sour Gravensteins so tart they made my cheeks hurt.  But what we really wanted (and were so tempted to make off with when the owner’s back was turned) were these incredible Japanese dessert apples, called Akane.  They were growing on a single tree, right outside the door to the apple shed.  “That is the most photographed tree on the property” said the owner.  Well, if we couldn’t have a taste, we could have a picture, which surely is worth a thousand Mmmmm’s. 

So we will take a bite with our eyes, my friends, which we forget can be just as beautiful and rich as the taste experience itself.  

The apples disappeared from our backpacks, one by one, all weekend long.  They saw glaciers, mountain tops and waterfalls.  The trip was exhausting as we hiked for miles, all under those incredibly blue skies while suspending belief that these days would soon be gone. 

Hold fast with me, take a bite and savor a bit of September.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Cornbread for Camping

If you are like me and in the habit of doing lots of baking, you probably end up accumulating all kinds of flours and sugars over the months.  My one designated baking shelf in our tiny kitchen above the refrigerator is always bursting at the seams.  I now avoid the baking aisle like the plague, lest I fall into “Oh wow, there’s a sale on my favorite organic buckwheat flour… and oh cool, I love this garbanzo bean flour, I haven’t made socca in so long.  Chestnut flour?  Hmmm, so exotic, can you imagine the chocolate crepes I could make with that stuff?”  I end up tossing it in the cart with so many ideas, but oh, so little time. 

Besides what I buy, I also have leftover baking ingredients from teaching cooking classes.  What is this gringa gonna do with five pounds of leftover Maseca corn flour from that class on tortillas? (thank goodness I’ve discovered arepas.)  With each recipe I use up one more cup, and with each sweet recipe, I slowly work my way through the brown sugar I bought last year at a discount market before discovering the wonders of sucanat. 

Indeed, it’s still getting crowded up there.

Since I’m a good student of food science, I know that the whole grain flours I buy won’t last forever on that warm shelf as the bran and germ contain oils that go rancid, leaving a plastic-y, stale-tasting mess of your muffins.  And don’t nuthin’ mess with my muffins.

So the day to make a dent was due.  I was itching to bake something to take along on our camping trip to North Cascades Park this weekend, something that would store well unrefrigerated over two days and could be munched on over same.  I was going to make muffins, but instead I had two small bags of cornmeal that had been sitting on the shelf for months, and they were calling my name.  Cornbread.  Perfect.

Cornbread can take many forms.  Sweet and spicy, savory and herbed, with lard, without, in a cast-iron skillet or a Pyrex casserole dish.  I have some great childhood memories of the stuff, when my mother would make white bean and ham stew and a batch of cornbread that we’d slather with butter.  I loved that dinner, which we had numerous times on a rotation schedule with meatloaf, tacos, sloppy joe’s and spaghetti with meat sauce.  I think grew up on pulverized beef and spare pork products.  No wonder I later became a vegetarian (thanks, Mom!) 

This cornbread recipe would go right well with that traditional bean soup.  It’s so chock full of flax and pumpkin seeds, with whole grain flour and a bit (just one tablespoon!) of sweetener.  I don’t like my cornbread sweet and sissy, and this one is not for the faint of heart, mind you.  My mother, the misplaced hippie she is, is into healthy cooking and whole grains, despite all that meat eating.  She would be proud of this loaf.  It’s kind of like the power bar of cornbreads, if you will. 

The cornbread looking ominous

Next time I may just lighten up on the flax, as the amount seems to displace the corn flavor somewhat.  Simply reduce the amount of liquid a bit, as flax soaks up liquid like a sponge.  You can increase or decrease the flour and corn meal, depending on your preference for a lighter or denser loaf.  The original recipe only added ½ cup of the cornmeal, which I increased and then reduced the flour.  Serve this with a nice salted organic butter, or olive oil for dipping, and you may be satisfied after just one piece. 

Flax and Pumpkin Seed Cornbread

Modified from a Recipe from Whole Foods Market website c2008

Serves 8

1/2 cup flaxseed

1 1/4 cups whole wheat pastry flour or rye flour

1 cup yellow cornmeal

2 teaspoons non-aluminum baking powder

1 teaspoon sea salt

1 egg

1 cup unsweetened soy milk

1/4 cup olive oil

1 tablespoon pure maple syrup

1/3 cup roasted pumpkin seeds

Preheat oven to 350°F. Coat an 8-inch loaf pan with olive oil or butter.

In mini-food processor or coffee grinder, process flaxseed until finely ground, about 10 to 20 seconds.

In a large bowl, combine ground flaxseed, flour, cornmeal, baking powder and salt. In a small bowl, combine egg, soy milk, oil and maple syrup and whisk.  Make a well in dry ingredients and add liquid ingredients. Stir until just combined. Stir in pumpkin seeds.

Scrape batter into prepared loaf pan. Bake 45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool in pan on a rack for 5 minutes (I know it’s hard to wait… my impatience earned me a loaf with the bottom sheared off, oops) then turn it out of the pan to continue cooling on the rack.


Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Upcoming Cooking Demonstration

If you know me, then you know I'm a big fan of PCC Natural Market.  In my opinion, it's the absolute only place to get your comestibles (besides the farmer’s market, of course.)  What did I ever do without this sustainability-supporting, local produce-carrying, high fructose corn syrup-eschewing playland of yummy food?  I teach cooking classes there, do all our weekly grocery shopping there, and Mark’s life is infinitely richer now that he’s discovered the feeding trough, (ahem) bulk bin full of chocolate peanut butter malted milk balls.  So when they call and ask if I can help out by doing a cooking demonstration at their Healthy Living Fair, my reply is a happy “yes.”  I’ll be at the Issaquah PCC on Sunday, September 14th from 10am – 1pm demonstrating how to make soba noodles with broccoli and spicy Thai peanut sauce.  So drop on by and check out the fair, there will be lots of vendors giving out samples, local farmers selling produce, and many other cooking demonstrations.  If you can’t make it to the fair, I won’t make you suffer by withholding the recipe, my friends.  It’s simple and a standby for any day of the week.  Just add seared tofu or chickpeas and you have an instant dinner.

Soba Noodles with Broccoli and Thai Peanut Sauce

Modified from a recipe from Cafe Flora Cookbook 2005

Serves 4

8 ounces dried soba noodles

1 teaspoon sesame oil

2 cups broccoli florets

1 tablespoon chopped garlic (about 3 cloves)

2 teaspoons honey

2 tablespoons sesame oil

1 tablespoon peeled minced ginger

½ teaspoon red pepper flake (or more if you like it spicy)

¼ cup tamari or shoyu

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

½ cup peanut butter

¼ cup sesame tahini

2 tablespoons water

To make the Thai peanut sauce, place all but the first three ingredients in a food processor and blend until smooth.  If the sauce is thicker than you’d like, add a bit more water to liquefy.  Set sauce aside.  To make soba, bring 3 quarts of water to boil in a large pot and add noodles.  When noodles are almost to the right tenderness, add the broccoli to the boiling water and continue to cook 2 minutes more.  Drain noodles and broccoli and toss with the sesame oil while still hot.  Transfer to serving dish and toss with the peanut sauce and serve.  This dish also works well as a cold salad for summertime.