Monday, November 26, 2007

Like A Man Possessed

The Carnivore has been running on at the mouth for a number of years about wanting a turkey fryer. It was easy to ignore him since he only brought this up at Thanksgiving and Christmas when I was too busy to even participate in my favorite argument whereby I trot out the old accounting degree to review how silly it would be to spend money on something that would not only be used a mere two times per year, but would be pointless anyway since Grandma is responsible for the turkeys in my family, and my mother-in-law handles the birds for his family.
And so it would go, year after year: The Carnivore would say, at the most inopportune time (like when I’m trying to figure out how in the heck we’re going to come up with the money for the annual property tax bill – which is always due the week before Thanksgiving), “We should buy a turkey fryer. Fried turkeys are far superior to roasted turkeys.” Or something to that effect. And I, with one eye on the adding machine and the other eye rolled far into the back of my head, would reply, “Um hmm.” And the moment would pass.
Until Christmas, when The Carnivore would say, “We should buy your grandmother a turkey fryer for Christmas,” with a most hopeful look in his eyes. “Um hmm,” I would say, “THAT is what she really wants.” And again, the moment would pass.
And I would get a reprieve from this ridiculous conversation for the next ten or eleven months.
Until this year, that is, when we all finally admitted that Grandma would not be back from Florida in time to cook the Thanksgiving turkeys. Grandma suggested to mom that maybe Preston could cook one of the four turkeys at our house. Mom mentioned that to me, and I, sighing heavily, brought it up to Preston over dinner. He was positively gleeful. “I’ll cook all four of them!” he answered enthusiastically.
Now, you would have to know The Carnivore to appreciate how seldom glee and enthusiasm enter his limited repertoire of emotions. And you would probably have to know ME to fully appreciate how seldom I use exclamation points.
The very next day, he came home with a large box containing what our slightly confused three-year-old now refers to as the ‘fry turkier.’ And I’m not sure if The Carnivore is trying to prove me wrong about how seldom I predicted it would be used, but still it sits on our living room porch, attached to what appears to me to be a very dangerous small propane tank. And after bounding out of bed at six a.m. on Thanksgiving morning to fry four, count them: four, turkeys for my family, he bought himself another small turkey which he then brined (a la Alton Brown) and fried for himself after we returned home for church on Sunday morning.
Five birds have now been sacrificed in the name of this absurd oversized appliance.
And apparently I will be living on side dishes this week since there is a large fried turkey on the top shelf of our refrigerator to provide The Carnivore with his entrées for the next few days. As a matter of fact, to reassert MY point-of-view at our dinner table and to make sure things stay balanced around here, I will be cooking straight from Vegetarian Times magazines and cookbooks all this week.
Tonight I will make some sort of hippie dish involving barley. That ought to show him.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Yoking the Dining Companions

During my middle-school and high-school years, my mother had me in church every Wednesday night, every Sunday morning and evening, and at every other possible opportunity. So I had it drilled into my head, over and over and over again, to not find myself unequally yoked to a husband. I’m not sure if this is what all kids learn in church, or if this was merely a personal crusade on my mother’s part, or if it was something my childhood pastor felt strongly about, but that particular tenet is something that I never forgot, though I'm sure I paraphrased it to within an inch of its life. Even during the, eh, let’s call them the ‘lost years,’ when I stridently chose to ignore every single other lesson learned during those formative years spent in church and under my mother's formidable wing, I was smart enough to not rebel against the whole equal yoking thing.

What is she babbling about, you ask?

In case you weren’t sent out into the world with a well-worn Bible in your hand and a mother still preaching loudly in your ear, here is the nutshell version of this sermon: 2 Corinthians 6:14 says, “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers.” Hmmm, it must be some other version that uses the “do not be unequally yoked” phrase. I’m not a Biblical scholar, so I’ll get this wrong if I go on too long about it…

Even though I dated plenty of men that made my mother shudder in horror, when it was all said and done, I married a man who, as I do, believes in God. Granted, I met The Carnivore in a bar. And our lifestyle at the time was pretty much the antithesis of everything I learned in church, and no, I won’t be going into further detail here. But even during those lost years, men who scorned the Bible or professed any sort of disdain for God, well, they didn’t make the short list.

And yet, I married a man who eats red meat.

It was SO important to me that the man I marry be an equal match when it came to spiritual matters, but here I find myself yoked as unequally as possible when it comes to food. And I’m fairly sure I’ve mentioned how important food is to me.

I mean, we didn’t exactly walk into this marriage with our eyes closed. By the time we hit the aisle together, we had known each other for about eight years, and we had been romantically involved for three of those. During that time we ate many a meal together. I had no plans to make a vegetarian out of him, and he was well aware that this aversion to eating red meat and birds was not something I was going to grow out of.

And yet, here we find ourselves, 15 years after meeting each other, sniping at each other about lasagna while at the dinner table this week.

Our differences in opinion over the lack of meat at the table is mostly a non-issue for us. I love to cook. The Carnivore loves to eat. And for the most part, he is very appreciative of the time and effort I put into each night’s dinner. He brings home the tofu and I fry it up in a pan... Obviously, we have made some concessions to each other. On the nights when I prepare what he views as nothing more than side dishes, he reaches into the fridge, pulls out the package of boneless beef chuck roast that I buy for him each week, and quickly sears a small piece of it so that he feels he has a balanced meal. He doesn’t mind that I don’t cook it for him, and I don’t mind there being a bloody piece of dead flesh on the table.

What can I say? We love each other…

But there are times, like this week, when he grumps up about one of my meatless entrees. And there are times, like this week, when I take offense. Usually we agree on whether or not a new recipe is a keeper, but this is simply not one of those times.

To be fair to The Carnivore, I was on edge to begin with. Amongst the Thanksgiving dishes that I was working to prepare on Tuesday and Wednesday, I still had to deal with making sure we had supper those nights, and Wednesday was my birthday, generally a day when I might appreciate NOT having to cook my own dinner. So after spending half the day on Tuesday first making my marinara sauce, and then putting together a giant lasagna to get us through two nights (so that I could concentrate a little more on Thanksgiving), I was sorely disappointed when The Carnivore desultorily picked at what I thought was an absolutely DELICIOUS vegetable lasagna.

And when I say I was ‘sorely disappointed,’ what I really mean is I was partly (only slightly irrationally) heartbroken that he didn’t like a dish that I unequivocally LOVED, and partly (quite rationally) royally peeved off that he said, and I quote, “Lasagna just isn’t lasagna without beef.”

So again, I’ll just take my toys…

Really, this lasagna is spectacular. I could eat it every day, and mom and Lily raved about it as well (granted, they don't eat red meat or birds either) when I turned my nose up at my husband and sent the leftovers to people who would better appreciate it. And I will cook it again.

The recipe came from the October issue of Cooking Light magazine, and I made very few changes to it. I did ignore their recipe for basic marinara sauce, instead using the recipe I blogged about recently, and I chopped up some leeks that were languishing forlornly in my crisper so as to save them from a miserable and lonely death in the mulch bed, and I made a couple of other very minor changes, but other than that, I can take almost no credit for this recipe, which is why I have no compunction about bragging about how dadgum GOOD it is.

And, even though usually I preach and bluster on about whole-wheat noodles, when it comes to lasagna, I don’t want the noodles to take up too much space. Instead, I think they need to back up and accept that their job is to be the supporting role to the filling, and to that effect, I use the Barilla no-boil, rolled flat, lasagna “sheets.” They are much thinner and more delicate than the usual burly curled-on-the-edges slabs of doughiness that are so often used in lasagna.

So here it is, free to a good home, to be shared by those will appreciate it: a great recipe for vegetarian lasagna (and please, feel free to mix-and-match vegetables to your liking - just make sure you end up with approximately 9 to 12 cups of chopped veggies before beginning the saute step):

  • 1-2 Tbs olive oil
  • 1 chopped red bell pepper
  • 1 chopped yellow bell pepper
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 4 medium zucchini, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
  • 16-oz sliced cremini mushrooms (also called Baby Bellas)
  • 1 leek, halved lenthwise and thinly sliced
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 8 oz part-skim mozzarella cheese, shredded, divided
  • 1 1/2 cups part-skim ricotta cheese
  • 2 oz grated Parmesan cheese, divided
  • 1 egg
  • 5 cups marinara sauce (a little less than double the recipe I use for marinara), divided
  • 12 no-boil lasagna sheets
  1. Heat olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat.
  2. Saute the bell peppers, onion, zucchini, mushrooms and leeks in oil for about 10 minutes, or until vegetables are crisp-tender.
  3. Add garlic to vegetables and saute for another 30 seconds.
  4. Drain vegetables in a colander to get rid of the excessive leftover mushroom liquid.
  5. Combine 1 1/2 cups mozzarella, ricotta, 3/4 cup Parmesan, and egg, stirring well.
  6. Spread 1 cup marinara sauce over bottom of a 9x13 baking dish; top with three noodles.
  7. Spoon 1 cup marinara sauce over noodles. Top evenly with 1/3 ricotta mixture, and 1/3 vegetable mixture.
  8. Add another layer: 3 noodles, 1 cup marinara, 1/3 ricotta, 1/3 vegetables.
  9. Repeat step 8 one more time.
  10. Top with last 3 noodles, then remaining 1 cup marinara.
  11. Sprinkle with remaining 1/2 cup mozzarella and remaining 3/4 cup Parmesan.
  12. Cover and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.
  13. Uncover and bake an additional 10 minutes.

NOTE: this recipe makes a LOT of lasagna. One of the great things about using the Barilla sheets is that, since they are much shorter and slighly wider than normal lasagna noodles, it is easy to halve this recipe and bake the smaller quantity in an 8-inch square baking dish to yield four servings. Just use 2 of these smaller noodles per layer instead of 3.

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Thanksgiving Surprise

(this photo was taken a LONG time ago)

I do not hail from a normal family. I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before.

I don’t mean that I come from some dysfunctional freaky family. My family members themselves are not abnormal (well, some of them are, but I'd rather not get into that); mostly it is the makeup of my family that is unlike what you might expect. On my mother’s side I have 38 adopted siblings, though I rarely refer to them as such. When my little sister Monica came with me to an OB appointment when I was pregnant with The Big Boy, my doctor, after being introduced to Monica, said something about how different we look. Monica and I answered her at the same time. I said, “We have different dads.” Monica said, “I’m adopted.” We were both telling the truth.

Of course, I do actually look like some of my siblings. On my dad’s side, I have three half-siblings. True to form, I do not refer to them as ‘half-siblings.’ I just don’t see the point in making that distinction most of the time. Instead, I try to, with a straight face, answer “forty-one” when people ask me how many brothers and sisters I have.

You see why no one is ever quite sure when to take me seriously.

Gaining the majority of one’s siblings through the process of adoption is not, shall we say, without it’s, um, difficulties. For one thing, it is hard to look at my mother’s family photo now without humming “One of these things is not like the other” when you come upon my face in the picture. And, for obvious reasons, some of my mother’s children have gone through various phases in which there is a little bit of ambivalence (boy, am I being tactful here) toward the birth child. It isn’t, I try to remind myself, that they don’t love me (though it certainly seems that way at times). Instead, it is more the concept of there being a birth child in the family that sticks in their craw. Because remember, actually being our mother’s birth child is what these children want, and it is what was ripped from them due to the circumstances of their earlier childhood.

For more information, see my mother’s blog. And my mother’s other blog.

I generally try to keep my big mouth shut in public about adoption issues because, after all, what the heck do I know? I’m neither adopted, nor do I have any adopted children. So I try to stick to cooking...

But after nearly twenty years of being a sibling in my mother’s family, I have become somewhat accustomed to the way things are. Because it is what it is, right? So when yet another birthday comes and goes with only something like three out of 41 siblings noticing, I myself hardly take notice any longer. Honestly, in a family this large, there seems to be a birthday every week, and it’s not like I’m that great about remembering everyone’s birthdays either.

So I’m sure you can imagine my shock and utter delight when Yolie walked into mom’s house on Thanksgiving, singing “Happy Birthday,” and bearing, wait for it, the carrot cake that I had just been whining about a day or so prior. And not just any carrot cake, mind you, but a beautiful three-layer carrot cake sitting proudly on Yolie’s crystal cake stand, made from the same recipe that my grandmother always uses.

Normally it is my (self-appointed) job to make fun of whoever sheds sentimental tears during a holiday celebration. This year it was me doing the sniffling.

Thank you, Yolie.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Stopped Making Sense

I feel like Alice down the rabbit hole. There are four turkeys defrosting in my bathtub, seven GALLONS of vegetable oil by the turkey fryer, and five boxes of chicken broth on the kitchen counter. This is highly unusual. And, amongst other dishes that I’m cooking today, I will also be making gravy and stuffing for the first time.

I don’t eat turkey. Nor do I eat gravy or stuffing. And it’s not that I’m just going through some vegetarian phase. I’ve never eaten these things. Ever.

To top it all off, The Carnivore and the three-year-old have decided to build a fire today. While normally this might seem sweet and cozy and traditional and all that, it is going to be seventy degrees outside today. And the bloody fireplace is in the kitchen where I am cooking all day long as I prepare for Thanksgiving WHILE wearing a 10-pound infant in a sling around my chest. I’m sweating buckets here.

This is not how I pictured my life.

I blame The Carnivore. Ten years ago, we had our first date during Thanksgiving weekend. That particular Thanksgiving morning, I straggled out of bed, after staying out too late the night before, just in time to take a quick shower, drink a pot of coffee, and drive to my mother’s house for Thanksgiving lunch. I didn’t cook anything. I was 24 years old and too oblivious to do anything but show up empty-handed, eat my fill, and mosey on back home to see if my housemate wanted to go out and see a band play.

It was either that night or the following night that I ran into The Carnivore at the now-defunct Engine Room and thus began the romance which led me here, to this day, in which I find myself roasting a couple of turkey legs in the oven so that I can use the (argh) drippings in my stuffing. Which, like I said, I won’t even be eating.

Two years after that first date, The Carnivore (then at boyfriend status) and I spent Thanksgiving weekend in Charleston for a friend’s wedding. My first inkling that Life With The Carnivore was going to be a little upside down for me should have come when I spent the reception dancing with the best man because The Carnivore was outside watching the UGA vs. GA Tech football game on a mini handheld television that he had smuggled to the wedding.

And still I married him. And I love him to this day. Even as my house fills with the smell of roasting turkey.

The mind boggles.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Oh, the Hypocrisy

As much as I like the concept of a holiday that revolves around food, and as satisfying as the days of cooking and anticipation leading up to Thanksgiving are, I always end the week feeling as if I need to go on a colon cleansing diet. Because truly, I don’t really get into the typical Thanksgiving meal.
I don’t eat turkey, gravy or stuffing, and casseroles that use cream of mushroom soup bore me. Sweet potato soufflé is enjoyable, though cloying and overly sweet. Pumpkin pie does nothing for me. And all those Jell-o and marshmallow “salads” at the buffet cause some serous eyebrow-raising on my part. Come to think of it, the actual eating of the meal is somewhat of a letdown. Give me the planning and the cooking, the time spent with family, and the knowledge that for at least one day a year, it’s all about the food. But as for sitting down and eating, I get a plateful of food for little reason other than to not feel left out.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ll gorge myself. And I’ll have fun doing it. Though I will sorely miss my grandmother’s carrot cake this year (that is what I look forward to more than anything – but alas, Grandma will not be back from Florida in time).
And after eating Thanksgiving lunch at my mom’s house, we’ll jump in the car and drive to my mother-in-law’s house to join her Thanksgiving supper. Though I may act like I don't love all this eating, you see how I'm not exactly turning down any Thanksgiving invitations.
But by the following day, all I want is a crisp, fresh salad, topped with a sharp, tangy cheese and dressed with a simple olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette. Last year, after wading through the last of the leftovers, I grabbed a giant bowl and tossed together some crunchy romaine lettuce with garbanzo beans, crumbled feta and homemade vinaigrette and sat down on the sofa to enjoy the meal I had been looking forward to for days. The carnivorous husband looked up from his football game and gazed longingly at my salad. “That looks really good,” he said, and sat with a pitiful expression until I got back up and fixed him his own bowl of raw vegetables.
This week, I’m planning our menu so as to provide the perfect foil to Thursday’s big feast. Monday night was spicy black bean quesadillas. Today is a colorful vegetable lasagna with lemon-and-basil bruschetta. Wednesday will have to be leftovers because I’ll be frantically trying to find room in the refrigerator for all of the dishes I’ve cooked for Thanksgiving. Thursday is obvious. Friday, we’ll most likely be too full to eat dinner and will crave only a salad, but just in case we are already reacquainted with our appetites by then, I’ve planned spinach and mushroom calzones. And on Saturday I plan to grill tuna steaks to top with tangy tapenade.
For someone who looks forward to Thanksgiving for an entire month and who begins planning the menu as early as September, I seem to put just as much, if not more, effort into fighting its after-effects.
But enough with the talking. I need to get back to cooking if I'm going to get all this done in time for Thanksgiving...

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Ghost of Thanksgiving Past

The year my contribution to Thanksgiving dinner made the biggest splash was the year I only brought one dish: the green bean casserole. What fabulous recipe did I use, you ask? The one on the side of the can of French Fried Onions.
That’s right.
My ingredient list was an illustrious one: cans of cream of mushroom soup, cans of green beans, and cans of fried onions. And everybody loved it. Like capital letters LOVED IT. I mean, sure, I doctored it up a little. I added some chopped sautéed onions, some minced jalapenos, a dash or two (or seven) of Tabasco, some coarse ground black pepper. But let’s face facts, I won’t be upping my foodie cred from this admission.
In the ensuing years, I have prepared dishes that were much more epicurean, with fresher ingredients and snobbishly complex recipes. I have replaced the old-guard can of cranberry sauce with a cranberry-pear chutney that only my husband and grandmother like. And I have replaced that chutney (in a vain attempt to please a larger number of family members) with a cranberry fruit conserve from The Barefoot Contessa that was pushed to the lonely side of the buffet, where it languished, untouched and forlorn.
One year, I made a very healthy and homemade-looking sweet potato casserole with a recipe from Vegetarian Times. A guest who joined our family for dinner that year made some appreciative noises about it, but I think she was the only one who ate it. And it is possible that she was just being polite. Everyone else went for the sweeter, crowd-pleasing streuseled casserole made by my grandmother. You would think I would learn something from these experiences.
Instead, I amped up the stakes even more. I figured that if everyone loved the canned green bean casserole, then SURELY they would be tickled by a version in which I used fresh green beans and made my own mushroom sauce from scratch. I spent half a day on it, trimming eight pounds of green beans and breaking (by hand) four pounds of mushrooms. I stirred, I simmered, I painstakingly followed the very detailed Cook’s Illustrated instructions. And nobody liked it.
Though it is embarrassing to admit, things are going to be done much differently this year. I will follow Christopher Kimball’s lead and make the cranberry sauce recipe printed on the doggone bag of cranberries. I will bake the uber-easy (and, by the looks of it, sweet enough to please the family) Sweet Potato Casserole recipe from Pioneer Woman. I’m going to cook the Make-Ahead Gravy recipe from The Minimalist. And yes, I will make the blasted green bean casserole using canned ingredients. I will, however, stop short of cooking from any recipe that calls for marshmallows or gelatin. That is where I draw the line.
I am going to try Fine Cooking’s Chocolate Espresso Pecan Pie recipe (which has been staring at me from the cover of the October issue for two months now, painfully teasing my sweet tooth on a daily basis). But I will be taking that dish to my in-laws house instead. Because if I’ve learned anything here, it is that my family does not want the classics to be messed with. In any way.
So I'll just take my toys...

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Kitchen Calculations (what a nerd...)

For me, most of the fun of cooking comes from trying new recipes, and for a long time, since my repertoire in the kitchen was so limited to begin with, it didn’t take much for us to be impressed. I would make a new soup recipe, we would be thrilled that we a little variety had been added to our meal plan, and the recipe would be clipped and tucked neatly in my recipe binder for future use. Then a new pasta dish would be attempted, with good success, and again, there we were, tickled to death to have expanded our choices even more. After all, anything was better than having to eat the same three things (the only things I could cook for years were spaghetti, bean and rice burritos, and mac & cheese) over and over again.

Time went on, and the binder became more full. And we gradually became more picky. Of course I can’t be sure if our standards are higher now because I’ve become a better cook, or if we only seem choosier in comparison to how easily impressed we once were.

Regardless, it is what it is. Cooking has become second nature for me and my skin has gotten thicker. The Carnivore rarely even hesitates anymore to let me know when a new recipe isn’t worth keeping. It would take more than that to hurt my feelings.

Recipe testing went by the wayside during the recent pregnancy. Most of the time I was too tired at the end of the day to feel any sort of creative urge to begin with, and naturally I was a little nervous about nausea and preferred to stick with the tried-and-true, so we tended to eat meals pulled from my nice thick recipe binder. Desserts were the obvious exception to this rule. Rarely a Saturday went by that I wasn’t happily tinkering around with various pie and brownie recipes. I am The Brownie Queen.

But now, oh, how I have the time, energy and NEED to spend time creating in the kitchen. My stack of Recipes To Try had grown absurdly tall, and with the vast majority of my time spent caring for two children under the age of four, I was beginning to become afraid that my brain might atrophy if I didn’t find something, anything, to give me a feeling of accomplishment.

Though I believe I might have overestimated the expected success rate here.

Two nights ago, after yet another snooze-fest of a new entrée recipe (kale, three bean and roasted garlic soup - it wasn't bad, just painfully boring), I started feeling a wee bit discouraged. And once I spent the time reviewing my recent menus, I went to the trouble of calculating the failure rate based on the number of new recipes that went straight into the recycling bin rather than being confidently added to the repertoire. Out of 19 new recipes (consisting of main dishes, side dishes and desserts) attempted during the past three weeks, only nine of them were deemed worthy of the binder. That is a 53% failure rate. And sure, I could try and put a positive spin on it by claiming the glass is half full and recognizing my 47% success rate, but no matter how you parse the words here, we’re clearly being disappointed more often than not.

That’s worse than I had suspected.

Which means I either need to develop an even thicker skin or I need to spend more time sticking to the 200 or so recipes that we KNOW we like. Which of course I’m genetically incapable of doing. So I’ll just beat myself up instead. Truly, I probably just need to spend less time watching these Chef-Reality-TV-shows so that I’ll feel slightly less intimidated. Anytime I start to get above my raising in the kitchen, I watch an episode or two of The Next Iron Chef, and I realize (yet again) how stinking little I really know about cooking. Which makes me want to become more adventurous with my recipes.

Lately I have gone back to the basics in a way. My own little version of Cooking 101. For too long, we have put up with a marinara recipe that was, at best, adequate. After I got over my initial distaste of cooking, and especially once I started striving to eat as little processed food as possible, I was willing to put up with less-than-the-best in order to avoid buying a jar of commercial spaghetti sauce (which, let’s admit, always has to be doctored up considerably to make it edible in the first place). I had to admit I didn’t have the knowledge to develop my own recipe without some help, so I consulted numerous cookbooks and online sources, but was always left feeling less than satisfied. Each recipe would lack in some capacity (too acidic, too sweet, not spicy enough, etc), and still I wasn’t capable of finding the trick that would fix it.

And then, finally, after much trial and error, I stumbled upon the winner in a 1987 The Top One Hundred Pasta Sauces cookbook that I can only assume was found at a yard sale by my mother. The recipe is so easy it can be put together in less than half an hour, but it has much more depth of flavor than most quick-marinara recipes than I’ve tried in the past. And now that I’ve mastered it (meaning I can actually cook it without consulting the recipe any longer), I feel confident enough to start tinkering around with it. Eureka. Success. At long last.

I served this sauce recently with an October 2007 Cooking Light recipe for Spinach and Ricotta Stuffed Shells, and we ate it for three days straight. Seriously. And we didn't MIND eating it day after day. (Actually, we kind of had to eat it for numerous meals because it made so doggone much - but, hey, we enjoyed it each time).

The pasta recipe can be easily multiplied for larger crowds, halved for smaller families, or even frozen (filled shells frozen separately from the marinara sauce) for quick dinners during the week. We're in love.


FIERY TOMATO SAUCE (makes 3 to 4 cups, adapted from The Top One Hundred Pasta Sauces)
  • 2 Tbs olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tsp dried crushed red chiles
  • 28 oz can whole tomatoes, undrained
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  1. Heat the oil over medium heat.
  2. Gently fry the onion and garlic, with the lid on to prevent browning, until softened.
  3. Add the crushed chiles and saute for another minute.
  4. Add the tomatoes with their juice, sugar, salt and pepper.
  5. Cook on high, uncovered, for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  6. Turn heat off, and crush the tomatoes with a potato masher until the texture is to your liking. Adjust seasoning, if necessary.

SPINACH AND RICOTTA STUFFED SHELLS (serves six, adapted from Cooking Light)

  • 2 1/2 cups part-skim ricotta cheese
  • 1/2 cup (2 oz) grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 tsp onion powder
  • 1/2 tsp dried oregano
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 10-oz package frozen spinach, thawed, drained, squeezed dry, and chopped
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 24 cooked jumbo pasta shells (a little less than one box)
  • 3 cups marinara sauce, divided
  1. Combine ricotta and next 8 ingredients (through garlic) in a large bowl, stirring well.
  2. Spoon about 1 1/2 Tbs filling into each pasta shell.
  3. Spread 1/2 cup marinara sauce over bottom of a 9x13 baking dish, and arrange stuffed shells (open side up) atop sauce.
  4. Top shells with remaining 2 1/2 cups marinara sauce.
  5. Cover and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Wish Turkey

Like all food-obsessed people, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. There are no resolutions, no egg hunts, no fireworks, no costumes, no trees and no gifts. There ain't nothin' but the food. And generally, it is precisely that fact for which I am most thankful on Thanksgiving. It is one of the few holidays in which there are no distractions to keep your eye from the prize.
But I also think there is no better time to take stock of your life. Sure, most people save that kind of soul-searching for New Year’s, when they waste a lot of time and energy making promises to themselves that they have no intention of keeping, but I think Thanksgiving is a much better time for that kind of thing. Well, not the whole part about the false promises exactly…
I (try to) spend most of the month of November coming up with my list of things for which I am thankful. And since so much time is spent on this subject, I’m able to quickly get past the obvious (like being thankful for my family) and move on to the much longer list of mundane things (like giving thanks for my funnel, which makes it easier to fill the peppercorn grinder, and which was missing for the past week because the Big Boy had commandeered it for some project in his toy box). The longer the list, the better my life seems, and the happier I am overall. After all, if the list is too short, then it’s time to take a long, hard look at myself so that I can figure out what needs to change in my life.
But I’m not talking about dumb year-long resolutions when I talk about making changes. I will not ever, for any reason, pick some arbitrary ideal that will need to be dealt with every single day for the next year. 365 days is too long to either NOT do something on a daily basis or to ACTUALLY DO another kind of something. I don’t want to learn a new word every day for the entire year of 2008. Nor will I go all year long without eating a Krispy Kreme doughnut. Period. That kind of nonsense is all too confining. Too serious. Too. Doggone. Boring.
I was never into making New Year’s Resolutions anyway, though there was a time in which I did come up with a List of Things I Want To Do This Year. You know, a couple of fun things, like take a vacation to a new place, or learn something new, maybe write a short story, goals in which I had a full year to find the time to get to them. But even that seemed too rigid.
My buddy DC said to heck with the whole thing and strung up a Wish Scarecrow in his yard one year for a New Year’s Eve party. He had us all write down our list of Things We Wished For in 2001 to add to the scarecrow. I remember my list distinctly because we all wrote down 2 copies, one for the scarecrow and one to keep so that we could check the list at the end of the year to see how it all shook out (my list was taped to the first page of my organizer, staring me in the face every single day). I’m sure some of us probably wished for world peace, or an end to hunger, but my list was much more ambitious.
I wished for a marriage that would satisfy us both (we were newlyweds at the time), for the perfect house to come up for sale at a price we could afford (that didn’t happen for a few more years), and for all of my friends to find happiness. I’m still waiting on that last one. A cure for cancer will be easier to find than a cure to sadness.
The whole concept was kind of fun, if a little idolatrous. At the stroke of midnight, we all put our lists in the pocket of the scarecrow’s jacket, and then DC lit the scarecrow on fire. It was whimsical, a little bonding thing amongst friends, and the fire kept us warm on that defiantly cold night out in the woods off Jefferson Road.
But when it was over, I remember cocking my head to the side and thinking,” Wait a minute. All my wishes just went up in smoke.” I walked away with little hope for my list.
So I suppose my substitute proposal is for an annual Wish Turkey. I don’t eat birds, so I have no issues with lighting the turkey on fire before the Thanksgiving feast begins.
My list of Things to be Thankful For is longer than ever this year, but I have been reminded, in much starker detail than I might prefer, that I still have friends who haven’t settled into the comfortable happiness that I would wish for them. And though I don’t have the power to make people happy, I do have the ability to reach out to those friends who are struggling and to throw them a life preserver.
And I won’t forget to give thanks. Today I’m especially thankful that Christopher Kimball has lowered the bar for all of us when it comes to preparing Thanksgiving dinner, most specifically because he is the editor of the magazine from which I spent an inordinate amount of time cooking complex recipes for last year’s feast. And, at the moment, I’m even more thankful for this Peanut Butter Bar recipe that makes a batch gi-normous enough to get us through an entire week’s worth of sweet tooth cravings. As a matter of fact, I'm gonna go practice my thankfulness by eating another piece right now...
PEANUT BUTTER BARS (adapted from the AJC Food Section)
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups rolled oats
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 sticks unsalted butter
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 2/3 cup crunchy peanut butter, plus 1/2 cup for icing
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 cups confectioners sugar
  • approximately 1/2 cup evaporated milk
  1. Combine flour, oats, baking soda and salt.
  2. With an electric mixer, beat butter and both sugars until smooth and fluffy.
  3. Add eggs to butter mixture and mix well.
  4. Add peanut butter to butter mixture.
  5. Gradually mix dry ingredients in.
  6. Mix in vanilla.
  7. Spread in a lightly greased 11x14 inch jellyroll pan.
  8. Bake at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes, until edges just begin to turn golden (mixture will still be soft). The trick is to NOT overbake these.
  9. Combine confectioners sugar, 1/2 cup peanut butter and about 1/4 cup evaporated milk. Add milk, little by little, until you get an icing of thin, spreadable consistency.
  10. Spread icing on bars right after baking.

Monday, November 12, 2007

In Memory of Ted Hafer

Ted's funeral service will be held at 2pm on Tuesday, November 13 at Bridges Funeral Home, 3035 Atlanta Hwy, Athens, GA (map is linked here). The family will be receiving friends from 1:30pm to 2pm.

In lieu of flowers, the family has requested that donations in Ted's name be made to Nuci's Space, an Athens non-profit organization that provides emotional and physical support to musicians.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Ted Hafer and The Grit

EDITED: I finally mastered this recipe now, and we eat it often, but due to the circumstances surrounding the initial writing of this entry, I just couldn't bring myself to edit the body of the post.  Please know, though, that if you follow the directions below, it will be scrumptious.

We rarely eat out anymore. Moving out to the country (um, we only moved about 12 miles from our former in-town home, but it seems like another planet) was most of the reason that we stopped hitting restaurants. And of course we now have two young children, which makes leisurely, romantic restaurant meals virtually impossible. Then there’s the fact that I love to cook…

When we do dine out though, we have a few local favorites that we tend to patronize. Agua Linda is our hands-down favorite for Mexican food, and was only a couple of blocks away from our previous residence. On special occasions, I always ask for Farm 255, the local-and-seasonal-foods restaurant associated with Full Moon Farms, the CSA that we joined this past summer. When I want tofu (which I have never quite mastered the art of in my own kitchen), I request The Grit, a crazy-popular local vegetarian restaurant whose cookbook blessed me with my favorite hummus recipe.

The Grit is one of those places that could have fallen victim to its own hip-ness, but itt’s been around for something like 25 years now and has only grown in its popularity. The menu leans toward comfort food, though like I said, it’s a vegetarian place, so its kind of like a Southern meat-and-three (only without the meat). Nearly every musician and artist in town has worked there at some point and though the wait staff is heavily tattooed and far hipper than me, it isn’t unusual to see carnivorous conservatives at the dining tables alongside members of well-known out-of-town bands.

Since we eat out so seldom now, when we do venture out of our hole and actually go to a restaurant, we’re most apt to order something that I would never make at home. I don’t deep-fry, so when we have lunch at The Big Easy, we order po-boys. If we’re at Agua Linda, I’ll get a bean-and-rice chimichanga (again the deep-frying issue). At The Grit I want The Golden Bowl, a luscious rice and tofu dish that is much more addictive and delicious than it sounds.

I have a copy of The Grit Cookbook, which is probably fairly obvious to anyone who knows me at all. I love to support local establishments, and cookbooks are near and dear to my heart to begin with. The Golden Bowl recipe is RIGHT THERE in the cookbook, so you’d think I wouldn’t have to order it at a restaurant. After all, no evil deep-frying is involved. Ingredients are readily accessible at all times of the year. The instructions are easy-to-follow.

But, oh, how I failed at this recipe. When I attempted it for dinner a year or so ago, I found it to be nearly inedible. The husband (one of the many local carnivores who LOVE The Golden Bowl) deemed it “not awful” and actually ate it, but I stared woefully at my plate and schemed to go eat at The Grit as soon as possible so I could order The Golden Bowl and commit its taste and texture to memory so that I could make another stab at the recipe in my own kitchen.

Truly, I want to think it’s my aversion to Teflon that caused my miserable failure with this recipe. Instead of using a non-stick skillet (as the recipe CLEARLY instructs), I pulled out my trusty nearly-non-stick cast iron skillet. The problem I ran into though, was the soy sauce, and then the nutritional yeast rendered my oiled cast iron skillet into the most stickable (sic) surface any scientist has ever seen. The crust never fully developed (because it was too busy sticking to my doggone skillet) and the flavor just never happened. Actually, the end result was precisely what you might have once-upon-a-time expected from any recipe that uses tofu. I ended up with a bland, oddly textured, icky seventies-style vegetarian meal.

The recipe can’t be to blame, because other people I know have mastered it effortlessly. Obviously, I should check in with some of Those People to see what kind of skillet they used, but I’m afraid they will say they used the cast iron skillets as well. And then I will most assuredly have to admit that I’m just no good at this. My technique bites.

The reason I even mention this right now is because Ted Hafer, who owned The Grit, died yesterday. The story is tragic and very depressing and I wouldn’t even link it here except that the now-displaced former Athenians who read this blog will want to know the whole story. Ted was young and well-known around here. He was a musician, an artist, a husband and father, and a local business owner who supported charitable causes.

If you’re a praying person, then pray for Ted’s family and friends. And buy the cookbook. Consider it your contribution to his children’s college fund.

Maybe you’ll have better luck with this recipe than I did.


Grit-Style Tofu (serves two, from The Grit Cookbook)
     - this recipe has been edited to include my tips for getting the tofu perfectly seared
  • One 15-oz block firm tofu
  • Vegetable oil
  • Soy sauce
  • Nutritional yeast
  1. Cut tofu into cubes slightly smaller than playing dice.
  2. Heavily oil a non-stick skillet (you want a good, thick layer of oil - not enough to deep fry, of course, but the oil should be about a 1/4-inch deep) and place over high heat.
  3. Allow oil to heat until shimmering, and add tofu.
  4. Cook, leaving the tofu in place for a few minutes to develop a nice, lightly golden brown crust on the bottom, and then carefully turn each piece over to achieve the same result on the other side.
  5. Sprinkle fairly liberally with soy sauce (about 1-2 tablespoons) and sauté briefly, lightly tossing with a spatula, to further brown tofu.
  6. Add a little more oil to keep the bottom of the pan slick, and then a little more soy sauce (another tablespoon or so), and continue to cook, keeping the tofu moving with a spatula until well-browned.
  7. Sprinkle with nutritional yeast to coat tofu cubes and, tossing vigorously, saute for another minute or two and remove from heat.
To make it a true Golden Bowl, serve over steamed brown rice drizzled with melted butter, and top with shredded cheese.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Bless That Dishwasher

I've become obsessed with the whole Dishwasher vs. Hand Washing issue. Due to the drought we’re having in North Georgia, this question is rather pressing for us right now. Regardless of the drought though, the complete environmental impact of the dishwasher is causing me stress now that I’ve been forced to look at it to begin with. I’m like a dog with a bone sometimes…

After I mentioned my new hand washing pact in my last blog entry, I got a couple of comments on whether hand washing is, in fact, a more efficient use of water. And while I got my hopes up for a couple of minutes there (because truly, my dream was that someone would show me the numbers proving that the dishwasher is better), after plodding through numerous discussions of this question online, I found that not only does no one seem to agree on the answer, but that the only studies "proving" dishwashers are more water-efficient appear to have been sponsored by the manufacturers.

So, here’s the thing. I’m not a scientist. And I can never be totally sure that anything I've read online is completely true. But I do love a challenge.

What I found so far is that the average dishwasher uses between 9 and 15 gallons of water in a cycle. Half of the things I’ve read online claim that even the most conservative hand washer will use more than that washing a load of dishes. For the most part, I initially begged to differ. When I hand wash the dishes, I turn on the faucet to rinse the dishes in the beginning, then I turn off the water entirely while I scrub everything with soap on a sponge, and I turn the faucet back on to rinse everything at the same time. Total time to do this whole process on a typical day, when I’m washing three sets of dishes along with the pots and pans and everything else used to cook an entrée and one or two side dishes takes less than 10 minutes. And obviously I’m not running the water during that entire time.

When I was still using the dishwasher (sigh), I ran it an average of once every two days, working out to about 7.5 gallons of water usage per day. So clearly, the question is whether I’m using less than 7.5 gallons of water when I hand wash the dishes each evening now, and I thought the answer was patently unclear. But how on earth was I supposed to figure this out for sure? And why was it that I couldn't find an answer to this conundrum online? Could it really be possible that I’m the first fool to try and compute this number? Say it ain’t so…

Well obviously I’m not the FIRST person to think of this. A little bit more googling yielded the following answer: a typical kitchen faucet uses 4 to 7 gallons of water per minute. Hmmm. Now the variance seems large with that answer, but even if my faucet uses the low end of that number (4 gallons of water per minute) and even if I’m only running the water for 4 minutes, then I’ve already used more than the dishwasher would have used on a full load. And I would have only been hand-washing HALF of what would fit in my dishwasher (on the basis that it took me two days to fill a dishwasher load).

Here’s the rub though: if you use the sink to pre-rinse each dish before putting it in the dishwasher, then you would still have to add that kitchen faucet usage to the dishwasher usage in order to see your total usage, and that final number would probably get ugly. However, I’ve read in countless places that pre-rinsing dishes before putting them in the dishwasher is a complete waste of time and water, and that there is no compelling reason to do so.

Of course, there’s still the caveat of not trusting everything you read online, but suffice to say, I’m shocked that the dishwasher APPEARS to be the winner here. And I’m relieved. SO VERY RELIEVED. Actually, I’m so doggone happy that I would do a jig if only I knew how. I’m definitely making dessert tonight.

Note: I’m not taking energy usage into account for now. It is obvious that dishwashers use more electricity than hand washing, and I’m nowhere near smart enough to figure out what happens when one weighs the water savings against the added energy usage to get the best environmental answer. Truly though, in a time of water crisis, I would rather err on the side of using more energy in order to use less water. So for now...

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Drought-Tolerant Kitchen

Strangely, life with a preschooler and a newborn is much easier than I had expected it to be. When my first child was born, I was shocked by how hard everything became, so naturally I was sure that life with two kids would be twice as difficult. It’s nice to be wrong.

We’ve settled comfortably into a new way of life around here. Baby Girl sleeps most of the time, and Big Boy relishes his job as Mama’s Little Helper. And since The Husband starts his work day around 6 or 7am, he is usually home by 4pm, ready for his Daddy Duty of holding the Baby Girl and reading the newspaper while I cook dinner. So while I was a wee bit nervous that adding a new child to our family would render my cooking time obsolete, I’m finding I have just as much time to prepare dinner as I always had. And like I said, Big Boy likes being the helper, so he pulls up his stepladder and joins in wholeheartedly with helping get supper ready.

Of course, Big Boy prefers to spend most of his time unclothed (hey, he’s a three-year-old, what do you do, right?) so the bigger arguments generally center around why I make him put some pants on before he helps me in the kitchen. “But I want to cook naked!” he protested yesterday afternoon, with his hands planted firmly on his hips.

Actually, since cooking is such a relaxing hobby for me, I only took a week off from the kitchen when Baby Girl was born. My Sunday School class, my friends and my family provided delicious meals, and oodles of desserts (true nectar for breastfeeding moms) while I spent that first week snuggling on the sofa with my sweet children, but after six or seven days had gone by, I felt like my muscles were beginning to atrophy, and I quickly learned that there was very little I couldn’t do while wearing the baby in a sling and just going about my business. Well, except for that whole sleep-deprivation thing, but I’m trying not to focus on that…

More interesting than anything, I think, is that the extreme drought we’re in the throes of has had much more of an effect on my cooking than the addition of an infant to our family. I mean, sure, I have less energy and time to devote to cooking than I did before Baby Girl was born. But here’s the thing about the drought: the dishwasher uses far more water than hand-washing, and I want to do my part to help the natural environment. So naturally, while we’re needing to conserve water, we’re flushing our toilets less often (disgusting, but true), I’m taking fewer showers (easy, since it’s hard enough to find time to take a shower with a new baby in the house), we’re wearing pants and shirts until they’re good and dirty before we run the washing machine, and (here’s the real kicker) I’m washing all the dishes by hand.

Now, it should be noted that up until three and a half years ago, I had never used a dishwasher before. There was a dishwasher in my first two apartments (1991 and 1992), but I neither ate much nor cooked at all in those days, so I never used them. Truthfully, I wasn’t even sure how they worked, and since I only drank coffee and ate cereal at home, it would have been a bit silly to put my three dishes in the dishwasher every day. In all the other places I lived, there weren’t dishwashers and I didn’t know what I was missing. But then we built this house, and The Husband put in a dishwasher, and I started cooking all the time. And yeah, it hasn’t escaped my notice that I didn’t take up cooking as a hobby until I had a dishwasher. And pretty much every time I cleaned up after dinner for the past three and a half years, I have voiced my love for, and gratitude to, my blessed dishwasher.

So I’m sure everyone can understand my consternation surrounding the decision to not USE the dishwasher until this water situation has improved (which the media predicts could take another year). As if a new baby in the house hasn’t provided enough extra work to my day, now I’m choosing to wash all the dishes by hand. I am a foolish, foolish girl.

And I totally regretted this decision when I cooked ALL DAY on Saturday and had to hand wash something like six loads of dishes. Most of the time, this hand washing pact isn’t really that big of a deal. But on Saturday, when I decided to bake a Santa Fe Dip recipe (which turned out to be relatively pedestrian) for Sunday afternoon snacking, and Peanut Butter – Dark/White Chocolate Brownies (truly delicious) for a Sunday potluck lunch, Peanut Butter Truffle Cookies (with which I didn’t manage to achieve the proper texture due to my long-standing inability to bake a decent cookie) for my sweet tooth, along with Spinach Lasagna (yum!) for Saturday’s dinner, I got REALLY grumpy about the dishes by the time it was all said and done. And I’m afraid something is gonna have to give here. Like maybe I’ll have to run the dishwasher one day a week after the marathon Saturday cooking sessions, or I’ll have to give up the marathon cooking days themselves. Which do you think is more likely?

  • Cooking spray

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour

  • 3.5-oz bar of dark chocolate (60% cacao is a good choice), chopped into chunks

  • 1/2 cup white chocolate chips

  • 1/2 tsp baking soda

  • 1/4 tsp salt

  • 1-1/2 cups granulated sugar

  • 1/2 cup packed light brown sugar

  • 1/2 cup crunchy peanut butter

  • 2 Tbs vegetable oil

  • 2 tsp vanilla extract

  • 2 eggs

  • 2 egg whites
  1. Combine flour, chocolate chunks, chocolate chips, baking soda and salt in a bowl.

  2. Combine granulated sugar, brown sugar, peanut butter, oil, vanilla, eggs and egg whites in a large bowl; stir until well-blended.

  3. Add flour mixture to sugar mixture; stir just until blended.

  4. Spread batter in a 9x13 baking pan that has been coated with cooking spray.

  5. Bake at 350 degrees for 20-30 minutes, or until a knife inserted into the center comes out almost clean. (Note: convection ovens do a great job with brownies, cooking the outside nice and crispy while keeping the center moist).

UPDATE: To see where I later realized the error of my ways (and ate my words) regarding the use of the water-efficiency of dishwashers, see the next post.