Monday, December 8, 2014

things that change lives

I seem to have blundered into a reflective phase.  (Don't worry, I'll snap out of it.) 

For whatever reason, the other day the question popped into my head: what books have I read that have had the biggest impact on my life?  Let's say, ten most influential books so far, for me personally.  I'm 32. 

If you'd asked me in college, I would have said The Story of a Soul, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, and The Imitation of Christ, while I thought about the next seven spots.  While I stand by the first one, I've spent the intervening decade or so trying to remedy the damage of the latter two.  (Not that I have anything personal against Thomas a Kempis or Joshua Harris, per se.  Just that I think the world - or at minimum a number of its people - would have been a better place had they tossed the manuscripts in the fire.) 

So I'm keeping The Story of a Soul.  I'm adding Gordon Korman's Son of Interflux, because.  If you'd read it twenty times, as I have, you'd know why. 

Keeping a wary eye on my college experience, and therefore considering that I might need some years to mull candidates over before I can fairly judge, I wonder whether I haven't read three of the top ten in just the past year.  That would be Susie Orbach's Bodies, Sherry Weddell's Forming Intentional Disciples, and Conrad Baars's Feeling and Healing Your Emotions.  Is it interesting that all three are non-fiction?  I guess that was true of my first three, too.  And I claim to read only fiction. 

So from my current vantage, that's five total.  But I'm having trouble with the next five.  I've read lots of books, but which are really the most influential?  I'm inclined toward those I reach to for a quote on a constant basis because they most perfectly capture some idea that is inextricably part of how I view the world - in short, of course, because they are the place I found some notion that has become part of how I view the world.  But in some cases I can't remember the book's title, though the idea is indelible.  The good ideas are funny that way. 

Would love to hear what books others have found to leave a stamp on their lives. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014


This is essential, necessary, life-changing reading.  Great suffering with great love - and a reminder to me of what the next decades of living a holy life as a Catholic woman are supposed to look like (while I fail miserably at the current phase). 

I know that through these pages I have met some of you who have watched your children suffer and die with faith and love, an experience I cannot even imagine.  I am humbled. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

I gave up; chocolate

I gave up, and I'm not sorry. 

In theory it would have been easy to write 31 posts about comfort food.  I have so many ideas.  In fact, it would have been easy to write three or four posts a day and have them pre-scheduled to appear - for example, during the weekend we're traveling to a friend's wedding.  (Note that that has not happened yet.) 

But these good intentions were displaced when I realized that I have ebola I apparently just don't care enough. 

There's no point making elaborate apologies for my failures to post things on this blog.  It's not like I have a giant readership that would be really sad if I stopped writing.  Heck, people who do have a significant readership go into radio silence for far longer than I have.  Granted I was supposed to write 31 of them, but I've already published, what, eight posts this month?  That's not bad!  Especially if you want to read about food.  (It's not necessary to respond to that.) 

But, I do have a (very small) consolation prize. 

Remember when I wrote that I (accidentally) discovered a way to make super-dark chocolate ice cream that didn't even require an ice cream maker for churning? 

That was really good ice cream.  If you recall, the point was basically that it was so thick it was a solid at refrigerator temperature; therefore, it could not be churned.  And that viscosity came from the extremely high fat content, so it was fairly creamy when frozen.  However, churning does add a certain je ne sais quoi to the texture of ice cream - specifically, it makes it creamier.  (OK, so, I do know quoi.) 

Since that time, I have been on a bit of a mission to figure out how to make ice cream that has the same flavor (namely, uses Baker's chocolate instead of semi-sweet or even dark chocolate), but doesn't come out so thick it can't be churned.  I was concerned that dropping the fat content too low would take me back into the low-budget ice cream territory where it's no problem to churn the stuff, but it isn't entirely worth eating anyway, because it's more like ice milk.  (No offense, but that's an inferior product.  No point making something that costs $10-12 per half gallon in ingredients if it's not totally decadent.) 

Anyway, I've done some (tasty) trial and error, and I think I have the proportions down. 

So without further ado...a super-outrageously-chocolate-y ice cream recipe you can actually get into the ice cream maker. 

Start with

2 4-ounce bars of Baker's chocolate (the zero-sugar baking chocolate stuff)

and beat them persistently with a hammer before ever removing them from the package.  Pour out of the package into a Pyrex-type bowl and add

1 cup of heavy whipping cream

and put the bowl in the microwave for two minutes on high (YMicrowaveMV).  Meanwhile, pour two cups of 2% milk into a 2-quart (or similar) saucepan and put it on low heat.  Then, separate

6 egg yolks

(reserving the whites for another recipe) and mix them with

1 1/4 cups of sugar

with a fork.  Fetch the chocolate out of the microwave and stir gently with a spatula until homogenous.  Turn off the heat under the milk before it gets to (let alone past) simmering.  Add portions of first the chocolate and then the milk to the eggs, stirring thoroughly after each addition, until entirely combined. 

Pour the entire mixture back into the saucepan and set over low heat, stirring frequently, until the mixture has a ring of tiny bubbles and begins to steam visibly (it will also noticeably thicken).  Then add

1-2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Stir, then put the whole mixture in the fridge for 8 hours or until it has become well and truly as cold as the refrigerator.  At that time, you can feed it through your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions.  Note that my ice cream maker (the KitchenAid attachment) requires freezing the "freeze bowl" for at least 15 hours before use, so if yours is similarly picky you actually want to start that part of the process first.  After churning, put the mixture in the freezer for about three hours before first serving.  Enjoy! 

Thursday, October 9, 2014

apple goodness

Before we moved to the DC area, some delightful friends (whom we miss!) gave us a lovely and thoughtful going-away present, which included this beautiful piece of pottery: 

On the bottom, it has a somewhat unusual stamp:

My fastest apple dessert recipe, and just as tasty as the fancy pies. Enjoy.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

roast beast

Almost as much as hearty soups and homemade bread, dropping temperatures put me in the mood to toss a giant hunk of meat in the oven. There are lots of delicious things to roast.

You could roast a leg of lamb (mmmm...lamb).

You could roast a chicken (though I'm lousy at that).

You could roast a duck (I've done it, but it's definitely not an everyday occurrence).

You could roast a whole fish (haven't done that - I find it easier to broil fish, but then again I've never bought a whole one).

But I want to talk about roasting that's EASY.  In my experience, there are two things that are really easy to roast.

The first is pork loin. Specifically, a half boneless pork loin. All of those attributes are important: if you want an easy task, you want a boneless cut. You want a loin, not a tenderloin; tenderloin is delicious (and I love it for the grill), but it's much smaller, and more expensive. And you want half the loin: the whole thing is nearly three feet long and a pain in the neck to work with - even if you're feeding a huge crowd, you might find it easier to work with two half loins than a whole one. (Obviously, if you want to feed lots of people and use two half loins, you could cut a whole one in half. But if you want to buy it ahead of time, you better have a ton of space in your freezer!)

I stumbled upon this easy-roasting project when I found half pork loins on great sales during my student days. In the intervening years I've learned a few things about making it easy.

First of all, you want a piece of even diameter so it cooks evenly. Secondly, you want almost no fat on it EXCEPT that you want a nice even fat cap, about 1/8" thick, completely covering one side. When you roast it, that will be the top; and as it roasts, the fat will slowly melt and baste the meat, so although it's a fairly lean cut, it will be very moist.

Now, about how to roast it. You want to roast meat with a marinade, of which there are three essential components. The first is FAT. A coating of fat will seal in the meat's moisture as the outside cooks. This could be olive oil, melted butter, duck fat - whatever. The second is ACID. The acid will help to start breaking down the meat a bit. You could use vinegar, lemon juice (or another citrus), or even a very tart yogurt. Finally, you want any seasonings you'd like to start infusing into your meat. (At this stage, salt is optional - I would say it's better to wait to add salt until the very end.) So, at the simplest level, the marinade could include just oil and vinegar - that would be effective, but it wouldn't add any extra flavor. And remember, I go for more is more. Of course, that doesn't have to mean more work. If you think about it, salad dressing has all the ingredients (fat, acid, and seasonings). I consider golden Caesar dressing a go-to marinade for all applications - it somehow pairs perfectly with beef, pork, chicken, fish, AND vegetables. I always have a bottle on hand. If you have a few extra minutes, you can make a marinade from scratch. My go-to marinade consists of balsamic vinegar, olive oil, minced garlic, and freshly-ground black pepper and rosemary. (If you don't have a mortar and pestle, you can chop up the pepper and rosemary with a chef knife.)

I also have a variation on marinade for pork loin specifically: just a rub of oil and herbes de Provence, or even dried oregano and oil. Simple, but delicious.

The traditional method of roasting meat is to start by browning all sides in a skillet in some fat. This searing locks the juices in and prevents the whole piece of meat from drying out during the roasting time, because once the outside is cooked, it won't bleed its juices any more (unless it is cut). But as is foreshadowed in my insistence on a fat-containing marinade, I take a different approach to that. I no longer remember where I read this tip, but I follow it religiously: whatever the rest of the roasting instructions, I start every roast with 15 minutes in an oven preheated to 500F. Then I drop the temperature to the regular roasting temperature (generally 325 or 350 degrees), and give it the rest of its time. About 22 minutes a pound is standard for pork loin (though those first 15 minutes are really equivalent to 22 minutes in view of the higher temperature).

Probably you should use the USDA guidelines on internal temperature to make sure the pork is done, but I'll be honest: I go exclusively by color (which requires either guessing that the meat is done until after it's rested, or cutting it to check doneness BEFORE it's rested, which is a no-no: a roast should sit ten minutes at least after coming out of the oven so that the juices can re-absorb and don't all just run out when it's cut. But I do it anyway, and then smoosh the meat back together to re-close the gash). For a pork loin roast, I want the center to be MOSTLY greige, but in the very middle, I want to see a blush color. Once the whole roast is greige, it's too dry.

So one day I got to thinking: it's too bad that there's not a cut of beef with the virtues of the pork loin. Something without a ton of tough connective tissue that requires long cooking. And without a lot of fat ribbons that need trimming - with the whole diameter of the roast just plain meat. With a nice fat cap for self-basting. Not with a lot of fine marbling to keep it tender, since that's really expensive beef - just a plain, not-super-tough cut with a moderate diameter, so it roasts fairly quickly and doesn't get tough.

Then one day in the grocery store I noticed eye of round roast on sale and realized that I am an idiot. It's beef straight through (no fat to trim out of the middle). It's not too big around. It's not all marbled like a pricey rib eye - but it's a light red color, not too tough (compared to, say, the dark red of a chuck roast, which has to be cooked for hours to be tender).  And while eye of round roasts are cut less uniformly than than pork loin roasts, you can find one of fairly even diameter and with a nice even fat cap. One caveat: if you like your beef well done, this cut may be too tough by the time it's finished. I eat my beef medium-rare, and this roast cones out perfectly. (Not as tender as a rib eye, say, but plenty tender to be delicious!)

I'm not sure this comes through, given the length of my musings on this topic, but you could make either of these with less time actually working than it takes to read this post. A few minutes to slather the roast with marinade and pop it in a roasting pan (while the oven preheats); a few seconds to change the temperature from 500F and then reset the timer. It's ridiculously easy.

And if you want the rest of the meal to be equally easy, you can skip the roasting rack by setting your roast on a pile of winter vegetables (in fact, any vegetable that can handle a long cooking time). I recommend small cubes of potato (3/4"); large cubes of onion (1.5"), NOT slices (onions burn a LOT faster than potatoes); halved Brussels sprouts; and cubes of squash, turnips, or carrots (or all of those). Add a drizzle of oil and salt and pepper. I buy bags of frozen butternut squash, turnips, and Brussels sprouts, so this is barely more complicated than pouring bags into the bottom of a large roasting pan. I'd ballpark it at a pound of veggies per pound of meat, but if you like lots of veggies you could make a separate potato dish (or another starch - or no starch) and just fill the bottom of the roasting pan with the other veggies.

Oh by the way - I know marinade is technically something you soak meat in over time, not something you just slather on meat right before it goes on the heat (the sense in which I've been using the word).  But I think you get what I'm saying, yes?

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

it's time for squash bisque

It's soup season. It's also winter squash season. Best not to fight it.

This is one of many recipes I consider easy not because it takes ten minutes to make, but because all of the steps can easily be fit in around other things - a bit done tonight and some more tomorrow; a step while you're going the dishes and another while you turn over the laundry. I recommend approaching such recipes (including most of my soup recipes, curry, sauces from scratch, etc.) this way - it makes them fairly effortless, but if you try to get them all done at one go it will take hours and you won't get maximum efficiency out of that time.

So there's a lot of little projects; assemble them as convenient for you.

One project: split a butternut squash (or perhaps two acorn squash) down the middle. Put them cut-side down on a foil-lined baking pan, and pop them in the oven at 350 for 45 minutes, or until they're the texture of mashed potatoes and you can remove the seeds from the inside and the skin from the outside with gentle pressure from a spoon. (As to the opposite of gentle pressure - I found it's easiest to split squash with serious force from a meat cleaver, but you can also make a starting incision with the point of a knife and then drop it from a decent height until it splits all the way, if you don't have a cleaver.

Another project: meat is definitely optional in squash bisque, but I recently made a batch with chicken that I really liked. You could also try bacon; beef; or maybe some canned lump crab? (I tried salmon at one point and the salmon flavor was totally lost - not at all how it tasted in my head.) So, prepare your meat. I find that if you're going to put meat in soup, it needs to be 90-95% cooked when it goes in UNLESS the cooking period for the soup is multiple hours, in which case the meat could go in raw. (For example, you could put raw chicken and raw squash in the slow cooker overnight; I think the texture would be less nice, but it would be fewer steps.) Assuming you're using my puttering-around-the-kitchen method rather than a crock pot, you might bake two chicken breasts (with a little oil or salad dressing so they don't dry out) and then cut them into cubes.

The main project: cut 1 large or 2 small onions into large dice. Saute them in butter or oil until clear. Toss in a teaspoon of minced garlic and saute briefly. Add the flesh of the baked squash. Next I added a quarter cup of white wine (optional). You need about two cups of liquid. Chicken broth or water and chicken bouillon are solid options. Most recently I used a pint of heavy cream, which was delicious. Of course, two cups of milk (or a combination of milk and chicken broth) would also work. Stir up the whole mess. You also want to add a REALLY big handful of fresh herbs. I used basil, lemon thyme, and oregano, since that's what I've been growing. Any of those by themselves would probably work, too, and dried oregano would also work. I think the flavor of rosemary would also be great - but not the texture. If you want to grind your rosemary, though, sure. And a bunch of fresh or frozen (thawed) spinach would be good too. Wait to put in your herbs until the squash and liquid have gotten hot; then, after you stir them in, take an immersion blender to the works. (That way you don't really have to cut the herbs.) Stop pureeing when it looks attractive to you. If your meat is 90-95% done, add it now. If you cooked it completely, season first.

Taste: it will probably need salt (or soy sauce) and pepper, and it will need acid. Lemon juice or balsamic vinegar both work well; if you want to keep the crazy orange color, avoid the balsamic (and the soy sauce). A whole pot of soup will really soak up seasonings, so add a decent amount, taste, then add more. Now, if you've done chicken broth and no dairy up to this point, you need dairy (IMHO). I like to add some sharp cheddar and a handful of bleu cheese - enough to really taste it. (I LOVE bleu cheese, and the squash can really handle the flavor.) I did not add any cheese to my latest batch, since it already had all that heavy cream. You can stop there, but you can also turn up the heat, in a variety of directions and degrees according to your taste. I'd say at least a moderate amount of paprika is a conservative choice. You could go for cayenne pepper instead if you want serious heat. And you could aim for curry (or garam masala), for an eastern flavor; or cumin, for something a little more Mexican; or Cajun seasoning, if that's your favorite. Feel free to put your nose in the spices and ponder which direction you'd like to go. Whichever way you go, keep tasting and adding more - you'll be surprised how much it takes to make a pronounced difference. Once you're happy with the flavor, add your meat if you cooked it fully to begin with. Then put the lid on your pot, turn the heat to low, and let it commune with itself for 20 minutes or so. By then, your ability to fend off the swarm of hungry people will be wearing thin, and you might as well eat it.

Even better with fresh homemade bread - more on that later.

And I suppose I should mention here that my sister contends I overcomplicate things, and her squash soup is easier and healthier with just a few ingredients - I believe she uses just the onions, the garlic, the chicken broth, and the squash, and salt and pepper. To which I say: if less is more, imagine how much more more must be.   

Monday, October 6, 2014

delicious beverages

I don't drink alcohol. But that does not mean I fail to appreciate the delightfulness of a special treat in liquid form. My variations just tend to involve a bit more sugar :). 

Since we've just had our first few actually cold days, and I'm about to start laying in a supply of whipped cream for the season, it seems like a good time to share some of my favorites. I take particular comfort in enjoying things special to each season. In the summer I consume my body weight in lemonade (preferrably pink), and for a special treat, I'll mix up my own strawberry lemonade (a half-gallon of Minute Maid lemonade, the yellow kind this time, plus a third of a pound of strawberries, washed and trimmed, and go after it with an immersion blender). 

But this time of year, hot beverages are definitely the ticket. 

The stores all have cider in (and on sale!), and that probably is my favorite hot beverage of all. It seems impossible to believe that all that deliciousness is pretty darn healthy, too. But then again, all food is good for you, in the proper context. 

I have a few other seasonal favorites I like to fix up as well. Starting in the morning: my version of a chai latte. First you get the water boiling for tea. Then you take your chai tea bag (my favorite is the Twinings one in the red box, but that's a grocery-store brand - if you have access to an authentic imported one, don't let me stop you). Pour just an inch of boiling water into the cup - just enough to cover the leaves in the tea bag. Then find yourself something to fill five minutes (putting away the dishes?  Fixing some cereal?) while it steeps until it's nice and dark. Then, fill the cup with milk. (I buy 2%, so I use that. Whole milk would be nice, too. I think skim would be pretty weak, especially since there's already water in it.)  Then I microwave it until it's good and hot (with the tea bag still in) - two minutes, in my microwave. 

Feel free to get distracted by another bit of puttering in the kitchen and let the tea bag steep for a few more minutes in the milk. When it's starting to get some color, get it out of the microwave, remove the tea bag, and stir in a teaspoon of brown sugar - whether scant, level, or heaping is up to you. Top with a nice head of whipped cream (the canned stuff is actually dairy, and though it's hardly all-natural, I'm not ready to whip tiny batches of heavy cream for each beverage), and a sprinkle of cinnamon. Perfection!  

Then there's the evening option (at least, in my kitchen). Fill a mug with milk and pop it in the microwave for one minute. Once it's warm, add a wee spoonful (a quarter teaspoon?  More than a small amount is difficult to dissolve unless you want to break out a saucepan) of cocoa powder, and stir vigorously. Stir in half a teaspoon of sugar, and check to see whether you need more. Then comes the secret ingredient: just 1-2 drops of Mexican vanilla (so good, and easily four times as strong as the American vanilla extract that baking recipes are based on - adjust accordingly).  Then another minute in the microwave, and then, of course, cover with whipped cream and a sprinkle of cinnamon. 

I confess, while I used to make cocoa from scratch almost daily, two winters ago I became totally spoiled by Trader Joe's mint hot cocoa. So delicious!  A little under-sweet if you ask me (I add sugar - and, of course, whipped cream), but the perfect balance of chocolate and mint. It seems exorbitant at $5 a can, but the fact that a single cup of cocoa at a coffee shop costs almost that much really puts it in perspective. 

And I can't discuss the topic of comforting hot beverages without mentioning my favorite tea on the planet: Loyd's plum and cinnamon. We get it at an imported food store that I visit anyway to get kabanos (I sound like a crazy grocery spender in this post, so I have to add that I buy almost everything on sale and refuse to pay for organic. These are a few little indulgences, true, but my grocery budget is pretty strict, I swear). I have no idea where a normal person could buy this (I have never seen it anywhere else), but if you find it, try it. You won't regret it (unless you hate tea, in which case, I really can't help you). 

Put on something snuggly, and take a minute to sip and savor something delicious!