Monday, October 30, 2006

Truly Fine Cooking


It’s tough being a constant contradiction to myself. I don’t eat red meat or chicken, but I have found Vegetarian Times magazine to piss me off so much politically that I just get cranky when I try to read it. Not to mention that most recipes in most vegetarian publications tend to be long on beans and tofu, but short on flavor. I’ve never understood why the word “vegetarian” connotes “tasteless” to most people. I run into this same issue with cookbooks that are strictly vegetarian, with the lonely exceptions of The Moosewood Restaurant and The Grit cookbooks.

And as much as I strive to eat healthfully, Cooking Light magazine is beginning to grate on me with its tendency to use cooking spray instead of olive oil, and egg substitute instead of real eggs. I mean, I totally understand the point of saving some calories, but if you have to sacrifice REAL FOOD and rely on chemical imitations, then you’re missing the point of healthy eating, at least in my book.

Maybe I’m just middle of the road, but I think a little moderation would solve all of these problems. I don’t eat an excess of high fat foods, but I also don’t count calories either. I don’t skip dessert, but I do tend to eat 1 ounce of bittersweet dark chocolate rather than, say, a candy bar or a doughnut. Read: higher antioxidants, less saturated fat. And far more flavor. You can eat healthfully without depriving yourself.

I have nothing personally against eggs, and I steadfastly refuse to use egg substitute because I can’t figure out what the heck it is. Doubly troubling is that I have to discard any recipe that calls for egg substitute because (get this) I don’t know the proportions for substituting real eggs for egg substitute. Asinine? Yes. I have also found that with Cooking Light recipes that call for cooking spray in saut├ęs, the final product tends to be bland and pointless. Look, I can save a lot more calories by just not eating the flavorless recipe in the first place. I still read Cooking Light, cover to cover, but I do it more now for the articles about food and cooking techniques than I do for the recipes.

I’ve sat in the bookstore and thumbed through the crazily diversified selection of foodie magazines, looking for more inspiration, but I’ve been mostly disappointed and just haven’t wanted to waste my money. For the most part, I continue to get most of my recipes from yard sale cookbooks, websites and the AJC Food Section. But there are few things I enjoy more than spending 30 minutes drinking a cup of tea and reading a truly interesting article in a cooking publication. I have a lot to learn, and I’m downright hungry for the knowledge.

Bon Apetit is too snooty for me, and Gourmet focuses too much on meat. The little mini-sized Rachel Ray and Martha Stewart magazines have recipes, but no real articles to read (lots of pictures, very few words). I’ve looked longingly at Fine Cooking many times while in the checkout line, and despite how completely fascinating I find the articles, the cover price has been too much of an obstacle for me to get past. I would just hate to spend seven dollars and then not find a single recipe that I wanted to try. Nothing drives me crazier than wasting money. I am cheap. I can’t help it.

But then two of my favorite people gave me a couple of recent issues of Fine Cooking and I was downright hooked. It was during one of those weekends where Odd Toddler shadowed The Carnivore around every waking minute and I found myself with unexpected time on my hands. I cleaned the house in record time, made a French-press pot of coffee, and went out to the porch swing where I read EVERY SINGLE WORD of every single article (including the ones about meat – hey, I pass on tips and techniques to The Carnivore that are much appreciated). The product review and the reader tip sections were unsurpassed, but I also found a good five or six recipes that looked worth trying, and I picked up some great information in an article on fresh basil (I have a love affair with basil). I couldn’t wait to try a couple of recipes and see whether the recipes would live up to the beauty of the writing.

Indeed. I haven’t been disappointed yet. The beauty of the Fine Cooking recipes, I have discovered, is that they use fresh ingredients, intriguing combinations, and overall tend to be quite healthy, but they aren’t scared of using butter or olive oil. And nowhere in the three issues that I’ve read so far is any mention of bloody egg substitute. Even better, the recipes aren’t overly complicated, and a few of them have been delightfully quick and easy. My favorite recipe so far has been a linguine recipe that has been easy to fit into my repertoire (which generally revolves around Italian food anyway) and is quick enough that I can throw it together on a weeknight with a salad and fresh vinaigrette along with a side of lemon-basil bruschetta. Amazingly, this dish has been a hit with everyone from my one-year-old nephew to my mother. And yes, The Carnivore and Odd Toddler are HUGE fans as well. But yeah, I have cut down the amount of butter originally called for in the recipe. 'Cause remember, its much easier to lower the fat in a recipe than it is to add it back in again.

*****
LINGUINE WITH HOT CHILE, CARAMELIZED ONION & GREMOLATA (serves four to six, adapted from Fine Cooking)
  • 2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 large yellow onion, very thinly sliced
  • 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • kosher salt
  • 1 serrano or other fresh small, hot red or green chile, seeded and finely diced
  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
  • 3 Tbs fresh lemon juice (puh-leeze do not use bottled lemon juice here)
  • 1 lb dried whole-wheat linguine
  • 1/3 cup roughly chopped fresh flat-leaf Italian parsley
  • 1 large clove garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp finely chopped lemon zest
  • 1/2 cup grated Pecorino Romano
  • coarsely ground black pepper
  1. Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil. Cook the linguine until al dente, and drain.
  2. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a 10-inch skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and red pepper flakes, season with a big pinch of kosher salt, and cook, stirring frequently, until tender and nicely browned, about 15 minutes.
  3. Add the chile and continue to cook for 1 minute.
  4. Turn off the heat, add the butter, and swirl the pan to melt.
  5. Add the lemon juice and another pinch of kosher salt. Keep warm.
  6. Combine the parsley, garlic, and lemon zest on a cutting board and chop them together until the parsley is finely chopped and mixed well with the lemon and garlic.
  7. Return the pasta to its cooking pot. Over medium heat, add the onion mixture to the pasta and toss to combine.
  8. Add the 1/2 cup Pecorino and the entire parsley mixture, quickly toss again, and add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

If You Can't Take The Heat...


It's good to be home. After a week of pretending to be Big Mama while Mom was in the hospital, things are returning to normal. Odd Toddler and I have moved back to our house (just a few acres away from Big Mama's House), and we are getting our usual schedule back in play. But of course, now that things are slowing down and the pressure is off, I came down with a soul-crushing cold and the sleep deprivation has caught up with me. I'm feeling nearly normal again this morning, after 10 hours of sleep, but I'm craving comfort food which, oddly enough, means I need some good Mexican food. Nothing can cure cold symptoms like spicy vittles.

When I was a senior in high school, our family moved to a neighboring county and I began my period of disconnection from my family. I'm sure it happens to all teenage girls when they're finding their wings, but as with everything we do in this odd family of ours, the stakes were a little higher. After years of it just being me and my mother, and after eight years in the same house and the same school system, mom was remarried, had adopted seven children, and we moved to what I considered a backwards county. Even though money was tight, mom came up with the out-of-area tuition required to let me finish high school in my old county (the one we are all living in again now), and I commuted to my old school while mom's other children started their new life in a new school. I think we all were aware on some level that this would only add to my feelings of being an outsider in the family, but I was in journalism, advanced placement and gifted classes that simply weren't offered in the county we had moved to, and we weren't willing to lower the standards of my education in the last year before I would start college.

So the disconnection began. There were serious growing pains for me in learning to share my mother with a stepfather I wasn't altogether crazy about, along with seven very emotionally needy children who joined our family within two years. And, at sixteen years of age, I didn't know any other way to channel my resentment than to pull away from the family. I left early in the mornings to putt-putt my way to school in my '79 Chevette, and I headed straight to work from school every day. On weekends, I would go straight out with my friends after work and come home only one minute before my curfew, racing to turn off the Curfew Alarm Clock before it rang outside my mother's bedroom door. It was petulant behavior, and I'm sure I knew it even then, but I was searching for my place in the world. And I think I felt determined to prove to my mother that I didn't need her anymore.

But I distinctly remember coming down with a vicious sinus infection one afternoon and calling my mother from work to whine and to test her to see if she still cared. She, like all good mothers, listened to my complaints and told me to come straight home after work so she could tend to me. I limped pitifully into the house, subconciously daring the other children to try and take mom's attention from me, and sat at the kitchen table while mom puttered around, warming up a plate of spaghetti for me, and then dousing it with a generous flood of jalapeno juice. Yep, good old jap juice. I slurped up the food, loving it when the heat of the pepper hit my sinuses and cleared the cotton out of my head so I could breathe freely again. Mom had done it. She had proved she still loved me. Nobody else would have known how to make me feel THAT much better.

Pepper juice is a long-standing tradition in my mother's house. Its nothing more than the water from a jar of store-bought jalapenos, water that has been infused over time with the heat of the peppers until it can tickle your tongue and spice up any food that its poured upon. And to this day, if I get a cold or any sort of sinus trouble (or even feel the least bit sad), I reach for something spicy. But of course, instead of buying Old El Paso jars of jalapenos, I have now found better and (dare I say it) more gourmet ways to go about this. My new favorite Respiratory Cure is canned chipotles in adobo sauce, an incredibly complex and nearly painfully spicy condiment that can be found in the International aisle of any small-town grocery store. I buy a tiny little can every couple of months, puree it in the food processor, and then freeze it in an ice cube tray. Once the cubes are frozen, I pop them out of the tray and toss them in a freezer bag where I can pull them out one at a time when I need a tablespoon of serious spice to add to a recipe. It's easy to go overboard with these things though, so judicious use is recommended.

Tonight, for the first time in more than a week, I will cook in my own kitchen again, and I will eat at a table. No shouting will be involved, and I won't have to eat standing up (at Big Mama's house, the woman in charge doesn't bother to sit down to eat because she knows there isn't time for that). And, since I'm still a little tired and still a little stuffed up, I'll whip us up an easy batch of Black Bean Quesadillas and Cristy's Salsa to cure what ails me.

BLACK BEAN QUESADILLAS, adapted from the AJC Food Section (serves 8)
  • 1 (15-oz) can black beans, rinsed and drained
  • 1 (14.5-oz) can petite diced tomatoes (I use Rotel Hot diced tomatoes and peppers)
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped onion
  • 1/2 cup chopped bell pepper
  • 1/2 cup loosely packed, chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 Tbs pureed canned chipotles in adobo sauce
  • 2 tsps chili powder
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/8 tsp cayenne
  • 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
  • 16 tortillas (I prefer whole-wheat tortillas, but flour or even corn torillas would work)
  • 1 cup salsa
  • 2 cups shredded Monterey jack cheese
  • Cooking spray
  1. In a large bowl, combine the beans, tomatoes, onion, bell pepper, cilantro, chipotles in adobo, chili powder, oregano, coriander, cumin, salt, cayenne and black pepper.
  2. Preheat a large skillet (I prefer cast-iron) over medium heat and lightly coat with cooking spray.
  3. Place one tortilla on the skillet. Spread with one Tbs of salsa. Top with 1/2 cup of black bean mixture, and sprinkle with 1/4 cup of cheese. Cover with a second tortilla.
  4. Cook until bottom is lightly browned and crispy; flip and cook on the second side.
  5. Repeat with remaining tortillas. (Note: keep cooked quesadillas warm on a cookie sheet in a 200-degree oven until all quesadillas are ready to be served).
  6. Serve with sour cream and more salsa. A little guacamole goes nicely as well.
  7. Breathe freely and wipe your nose as needed.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Life is an Adventure

Odd Toddler and I are staying over at Mom's house for the next few days, taking care of the 20 or so children left at home while Mom is in the hospital. As such, any cooking I will be doing will be done on a much larger scale than usual, and will most certainly NOT involve any recipes that would be worth sharing here.

For more on our shenanigans, see Big Mama Hollers where I will be lurking and posting until Mom is well enough to hold her laptop again.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Blessings Just Keep on Coming


The last few days have been tough, and yesterday was one of the longest days of my life as we waited until nearly seven o'clock at night to find out the results of mom's CT scan. I had worked so hard to hold it together over the previous week, and most of all to not obsess, that I don't think I realized the stress I had been under until I got home last night and just collapsed on the sofa. I was so wiped out that The Carnivore and I ended up eating a late night dinner of nachos. Um-hum. Cooked in the microwave, no less. 'Twas a new low. But the news from mom was so good that I felt it canceled out the nachos.

So I kicked into high gear this morning, made the menu for the next week, planned a casserole that I could make for The Carnivore so that he doesn't starve while I spend the weekend at mom's, got the grocery shopping done, picked up work, went to the bank, took a deep breath. Etc.

And then I loaded up my briefcase and set up at mom's house to get some work done today. First thing: open the mail that had been wallowing in my bag for the past four days. I sorted the stack into smaller piles, opened the junk mail to shred the sensitive stuff, separated the recyclable paper from that which needed to be filed, and then looked askance at an unexpected envelope from Fine Cooking. The outside said something about a free gift, but I had my doubts.

Fine Cooking is one of the greatest publications of all time. I love it. Ms. Carr has brought me a few issues over the past year, and mom even bought one for me one day to thank me for doing something. Really, I love it. I read every word, cover to cover (even the articles on meat!), and I've gotten some of our favorite recipes from this magazine. In line at the grocery store, I will look longingly at new issues and try to read a quick article, praying that the person in front of me will write a check or do something equally slow that will cause the line to be held up.

So here I was this morning, breathing audible sighs of relief that mom had gotten such good news from the doctor, glaring at the pile of work that I've been ignoring for the past couple of days, and basically just feeling out of sorts from the tension of the last week. And then I opened the envelope from Fine Cooking, scornfully of course, expecting yet another piece of junk mail.

I was wrong.

The tiny piece of paper inside said, "A gift of a 2 year subscription to Fine Cooking is on its way to you from Paula in Minnesota."

I am humbled. Deeply humbled. I am continually surprised and grateful for the support that mom receives from her online network of adoptive families, but I am humbled to my core that a woman I have never even met, the mother of 20-something children, would bless ME in such a thoughtful and huge way.

Then again, since she is also the wonderful woman who passed on her incredible blackberry vinaigrette recipe, I should have already known how cool she is.

I'm sure this post is going to embarass the heck out of Paula, and I bet she would have preferred that I not even mention this publicly, but since many of the recipes that I will be blogging in the near future will be thanks to her, then I think it is only fitting that she get public credit.

Thank you, Paula. You rock.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Contentment

Thanks to my mother's influence, I rarely dwell on the negative aspects of life. Even now, with my extended family facing some daunting challenges, I cope by mentally listing the things I am grateful for. I do this daily. I've always thought its nice on Thanksgiving to focus on the things you are thankful for, but there is just no need to leave this for a once-a-year occurrence. Ongoing happiness, at least in my mind, comes from the daily acknowledgment of one's blessings.

This past year has been vastly different from what I envisioned back in early January. I started the year pregnant with our second child, and instead we faced a second-trimester stillbirth and a subsequent first trimester miscarriage within the first seven months of the year. I dealt with these incredible, seemingly insurmountable, setbacks by focusing on that which I could actually control. This isn't always as easy as it looks. Shortly after I lost Bailey, my Sunday School teacher, I woman I have admired since I was a child, emailed me to say that when she had suffered a similar situation, she got over it when she CHOSE to get over it. At the time, I was a little perturbed over the advice. It seemed almost heartless. But she was right. I got better and moved on when I DECIDED it was time to do so.

You can't always control what happens to you, but you CAN control your response. And your attitude. When its all said and done, happiness and contentment come down to attitude. Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to control my attitude, but a good challenge never hurt anyone. Our pastor preached a rousing sermon on contentment a couple of months ago, and that particular sermon has stuck with me better than most. He said the usual stuff you might expect: that contentment doesn't come from material things, that God must be at the source of your focus, etc. I've heard most of it before; after all, my own mother preaches that sermon daily. I didn't even think I NEEDED to hear that sermon. But apparently I did.

Material possessions have never been my driving force, but of course I enjoy having nice things. And after our long financial drought of the last few years, we were kind of looking forward to spending the money that was finally coming in. I had even seriously entertained the thought of buying a nicer car. I drive an Isuzu, for pity's sake. We did all the research, weighed all our options, compared prices, picked a reasonably-priced, two-year-old vehicle that I have liked for a while, worked out the financing in our heads to make sure we could pay it off within three years (my hard-and-fast rule of auto financing), and were poised to take the plunge.

And the very next day, the pastor preached a sermon on contentment. Ten minutes into the sermon, I leaned over to The Carnivore and whispered, "There goes my new car." Neither The Carnivore nor my mother (who I had said the same thing to when I talked to her after church) at first understood how I got that advice from the sermon. But I heard it loud and clear, like that deep voice you hope to hear from Heaven, "This is The Lord speaking..."

The thing was, I suddenly couldn't think of a good enough reason to spend the money on a new car. My current POS still runs fine, and its plenty big enough for my family. And, most importantly, it will be completely paid for in only a couple of months from now. Was I thinking of getting a nicer car just because everyone else has nice cars? Was it so people would know I could afford it? Was it to justify my own need for nice things?

Not good enough reasons. I didn't know for sure if any of those self-serving thoughts were at the core of my desire for a new car. Who really knows their own motivations all the time? Regardless, my motivation seemed suspect to myself, so I scrapped the idea immediately. And I was more than content with it (thank you, pastor).

So instead of spending money on a depreciable asset, I went back to my roots (thank you, mom) and decided to re-focus our financial goals on long-term investments. Expanding my empire, if you will. Since we acquired the land our house sits on now, I have stared with narrowed eyes over the driveway at the field across from my front porch, and have wanted it. And I mean capital letters, WANTED IT. Truth be told, I wanted it because I want my son (and our future child) to build a house on family land like I did. Obviously, I can't control whether or not they will do just that, but I hope I can show them how much it means to me to live on family land, in walking distance from my own mother.

And so the decision was made. Instead of buying that car I've had my eye on for the past year, we more than doubled our original acreage. Contentment for me comes from my faith, my love for my family, and from living in my dream house on more land than I ever thought I would own.

This can still be a daily challenge, being content. And it takes practice. But when I find myself bemoaning the loss of the last two pregnancies, I concentrate on Odd Toddler, appreciating how handsome he is and how fascinating it is to see life through his eyes. When I get cranky that we don't have the time to take a vacation, I look around myself at our house and our land, and remind myself that there is no place I would rather be than right here. And when issues come up that I cannot control, like the current ones facing my extended family, then I think of The Serenity Prayer. I used to think it was just cheesy (I'm not big on platitudes), but hey, if its good enough for millions of alcoholics to recite every day, then its certainly good enough for me.

The sheer force of my own will cannot give me an immediate healthy pregnancy, it cannot immediately emotionally heal my mother's children, and it cannot virtually erase our current concerns. But I can find contentment and even true happiness in not dwelling on these things today. I will not focus on the worries of the future, and I will not dwell on the awful things I hear on the nightly news. Today, I will hang out with my adoring husband, I will play with my quirky son, I will clean my house and set up my new (used) Potter's House bookshelf, and I will cook. You knew that was coming, right? Of course I will cook. Despite, or maybe because of, everything that is out of my realm of influence, I will try to make my own little world a more beautiful place for a couple of hours with a batch of fresh salsa, a few platters of stuffed mushrooms, and a couple of pizzas alla margherita.