tapas for one

Contrary to the do-it-yourself ethos I usually embrace on on this blog, over the next few weeks I’m going to feature some products that have won my urban 9 to 5 heart—one that is often too busy to sweat away over multiple-step bread, edible heirloom cookies, or even my favorite summer salad.

As much as I’ve cherished how resourceful it feels making certain breakfast staples yourself, over the past six months I’ve realize how thankful I am for the commercial luxuries of modern life. Processed foods might be evil, but I’ve come to appreciate the less-processed (but still packaged) ones among them for the respite they bring. Besides, after a long day, tough run, and hours spent applying for jobs, who has the time to slaughter a chicken?

First up: this Al Fresco Sweet Apple Chicken Sausage I picked up on a whim the other day, my nostrils full of the scents of summer barbecues. At only 160 calories and 7 grams of fat per link, these babies deliver 14 whole grams of lean protein—just what I needed after a tough 35-mile cycle this morning with my local riding group.

After postponing tonight’s dinner date to tomorrow, I faced a solo supper. And as another near-perfect weekend slipped away, filtered like evening light through the tree branches, I began to ponder the plate: Burritos with that frozen tempeh I needed to use? Salad with the lettuce I didn’t want to spoil? A new twist on the tomato-asparagus omelette I’d had for a post-bike brunch?

The answer was sausage.

My neighbors had been grilling all afternoon, and I wasn’t going to let them have the best of my cravings. I ripped open the package, doubtful as usual of this type of stuff, and popped a link under the broiler. Then I pulled out the brown lentil-and-white bean mix I’d cooked up last week, part of which were made into the hummus that exploded all over my bag after my unfortunate altercation with a taxicab. Inspired by a recent tapas brunch with Mark at the Bethesda Jaleo, I poured olive oil into a pan and sauteed a small onion and a clove of garlic with some sage. Then I dumped in a few spoonfuls of the legume mix, and stirred away, as if making hash browns. But it needed something green … the kale I’d just bought at Glut would do! In it went to wilt among the beans.

I took the black-tinged sausage out of the oven, piled some of the bean and kale mix on the side, and topped it with fresh lemon and some chili flakes. As soon as my meal’s potential started to waft towards me, I ran upstairs to grab my “lesser” camera. Just in case it was as good as it looked, I wanted a record. Luckily for fresh cracked pepper, it was.

The sausage was surprisingly healthy-tasting (I have friends who question me on whether something can taste health!), its maple-syrup sweetness not overbearing. As the sausage casing gave way with a yielding snap, I was reminded of why my vegetarianism will only ever be of the pseudo- variety. And since this article on vegan ultra-runner Scott Jurek came out, my athleticism no longer justifies my consumption of animal protein.

Regardless of why I gave in to the sausage (craving, taste, or whim), hopefully the shot of protein will help offset last week’s fatigue. What causes tiredness anyway? An unexpected bout of excitement that eventually must give way to everyday life? Sleep patterns? Boredom? Lack of iron or protein? All I know is that I can’t figure out why some weeks I feel like a slug in Savasana, and others like a caffeinated cheetah.

What a perfect weekend. Swimming, followed by yoga with a thunderstorm soundtrack. Running, yard parties, and a new bra. An impromptu Turkish picnic. A long ride, “chewy” coffee, and a conversation with a much-loved cousin. A slow afternoon eating Spanish tapas for one, and later sipping wine with wonderful housemates.

Whatever tomorrow brings, my arms are open.

(Stay tuned for the next “product placement” post, coming to a cracked-up blog near you.)

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Product: Al Fresco Sweet Apple Chicken Sausage

Ingredients: Skinless chicken meat, pure maple syrup, evaporated can syrup, evaporated cane juice, dried apples, salt, lemon juice, water, spices, natural pork casing.

Nutrition Facts
Serving Size 1 Link(85g)
Serving Per Container 4 LINKS
Amount Per Serving
Calories 160    Calories from Fat 60
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 7g 11%
Saturated Fat 2g 10%
Trans Fat 0g
Cholestrol 60mg 20%
Sodium 480mg 20%
Total Carbohydrate 10g 1%
Dietary Fiber 0g 0%
Sugars 9g
Protein 14g
Vitamin A 0%     Vitamin C 0%
Calcium 0%        Iron 6%
*Percent daily values are based on a 2000 calorie diet. Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs:
Calories 2000 2500
Total Fat less than 65g 80g
Saturated Fat less than 20g 25g
Cholestrol less than 300mg 300mg
Sodium less than 2400mg 2400mg
Total Carbohydrate 300g 375g
Dietery Fiber 25g 30g

asparagus naan pizza

A weeknight dinner with a friend last week was colored in shades of green: Armed with key lime cupcakes I managed to lure her out to the Maryland boonies. She followed in a healthier suit, offering fresh, local asparagus.

I began to plan out the sustenance for our evening, but I didn’t have to think very hard. As soon as she mentioned her seasonal stalks, a recent Runner’s World recipe for naan bread pizza sprung to mind. Its unique fusion of an Indian staple, pesto, ricotta, and asparagus caught my eye. The fact that I already had half the ingredients on hand sealed the deal.

She arrived on a May evening almost warm enough to want to keep dinner an no-oven affair. But I wasn’t about to change the plan just because of a little sweat. We opened the windows, and as we snapped the stalks at the point of tenderness and chopped basil, began our many-weeks-in-waiting catch up session.

The frozen naan came from a darling Indian grocery store on University Boulevard—the very same one that ended a recent quest for small eggplants. I had turkey bacon in the freezer as well, and had picked up ricotta on my bike ride home. The recipe called for pesto, but my local grocery store isn’t quite so posh, so I bought fresh basil instead. I wasn’t sure what the block of cheese left in my fridge was exactly (Pecorino? Provolone?) but it was whitish and tangy and I was sure it would do.

The three mini, triangle-shaped pizzas came out light, crisp, and with a creamy pizza bianca base minus all the fat. I devoured my turkey-bacon topped variety, whereas my companion chose an asparagus-heavy vegetarian version. The pizzas were surprisingly filling, but left just a corner for tea and cupcakes on the front porch.

Satiated, we bid the day’s light farewell from the refuge of my blossoming front yard. We talked about our futures in journalism, immigration, family, and of course, relationships.

Yesterday another, less ambrosial occasion for the pizza arose. On my daily, 9-mile commute to work, I had another run-in with a car. Yes, another. It had happened just a few weeks before when a woman made a right turn into my bike lane without signaling. Yesterday’s event was practically a carbon copy, only this time it was a taxi driver (who had apparently signaled), and there was a large container of hummus involved.

There’s nothing like starting your day off with tears, embarrassment, and exploded hummus you got up early to make. Not to mention the family of new bruises and scrapes etched in the shape of tire tread across your shin. I was shaken up all day, and despite ice, my ankle and lower leg ached until sleep arrived to take pain’s place.

After work I took my bike for some minor break tweaks at a downtown bike shop, and, still car-spooked, hopped the metro home. Dinner that didn’t require too many new ingredients or a recipe was definitely in order. I stopped for asparagus, and had dinner ready as fast as you can say “I hate cars.” (OK, I might have said a little more than that, come to think of it.)

I laughed when I found out that asparagus it’s rich in rich in bone-building vitamin K, said to protect the body against fractures. I guess that casual dinner last week was more than just a delivery method for fresh spring flavor.

I smiled again when I sat down to eat and opened up the book I’m reading (subtitled “Confessions of Cooking for One and Dining Alone”) to find that the next piece was about a woman who decided to eat asparagus every day for two months one spring. I leave you with her words:

How to be an asparagus superhero

Begin at the first hint of asparagus in your area.

Pick asparagus in the early morning while it is still dewy, or find people who wake up on dewy mornings and pick it for you. Have some coffee.

Eat the first piece raw. Test your biceps.

Week One: Cook the asparagus unadulturated for as long as possible. Keep some eggs and starches—rice, pasta, bread—around, and just enough meat to use as a condiment, like some bacon or a jar of anchovies.

See how fast you can run, how high you can jump. Alone or in company, use your fingers. Have plenty of fluids. Pee regularly. Tell everyone you never skip a day. Eat to impress.

Week Six: Just when you think you cannot be a superhero any longer, break asparagus into bits and hide it inside things.

Week Seven (The End): Roast one last time. Squeeze lemon to finish. Finish.

-Phobe Nobles, from Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant. Riverhead Books, 2007.

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someone’s in this kitchen

Web journalism comes with equal doses of surprise, commotion, and amusement. There are ups and downs. We may shepherd stories along for months on end, but they’re still lovingly tended. They may not be earth-shattering, but they still contribute good things to the world.

On the flip side, there’s that screen, glowing in my face day after day and making this fresh-air loving soul feel a little empty now and again.

When the hum of machines gives me a headache and the incessant chatter on the internet overwhelms me, where do I turn for solace? The internet of course. From the Economist’s technology blog (via Andrew Sullivan) this bit of pro-technology is brilliant. Especially for this recovering Luddite.

All German terms for radio are derived from a single verb: funken, to spark. I’ve been trying to understand the continued appeal of radio when there are so many different and more convenient ways to get news and music, and I think it has to do with the idea that we know, when we listen to the radio, that someone, somewhere is alive. Es funkt. There is a spark at the other end, a fire on the hilltop.

A blog, done right, provides this proof the same way radio does. You hear a voice, which means that someone is actually sitting in a booth somewhere talking down the signal to you. And if they take your calls, or read your emails, then they’re listening, too. I think blogs and radio are more than the sum of the information or entertainment they provide; they’re a source of human comfort.

This week I got an email reminding me that people do read this blog, and even trust the voice behind it. It was titled “Help! Dolmas tanking!” A woman in California had tried my dolmas recipe, and, having substituting brown rice, found herself with uncooked, unappetizing rolls. She emailed me in a panic, and we had an amusing back-and-forth over the course of the day about cooking, expectations, and rice. I suggested she turn her failed dolmas into a success by dumping them in a pot with some sauteed onion and broth to make dolma soup. She took my advice and deemed her creation Ruined Dolma Soup. The point of the story is only to say that the above quote rings true. The internet doesn’t always alienate.

Last night’s dinner was one of those spontaneous successes, born of exhaustion from a brick workout (bike + run) and dictated by the contents of my fridge.  Cooking this way is freeing, as I’ve said before, and always faster than I imagine it will be. I head home night after night (hoping I’ll be motivated to get the ingredients together for some recipe I’ve had bookmarked for months) only to stumble lazily into a version of a loner’s feast: toast with sardines, cheese and crackers, yogurt and granola, kimchi and a fried egg, a simple salad, a square of dark chocolate.

I love those rare night when I get home early enough to create something actually resembling an entree. While I boiled up some linguine (left by a dear housemate who just left for Texas), I sauteed two minced cloves of garlic in olive oil. I threw in some thawed broccoli florets and let them cook a bit. Then I realized I needed protein, so opened up the cupboard and grabbed what I thought was a can of chickpeas. When I opened it, cannelini beans stared back at me. No matter. I dug my fingers right into the can and plopped them in the pan with the broccoli, adding two huge handfuls of raw spinach and a bit of chicken broth to the mix. I let the greens wilt, sprinkled on some chili flakes and salt and pepper, and then poured the whole sloppy mixture over the linguine and finished it with Parmesan. I’m lucky I had these random pictures on hand, because my camera was nowhere in sight.

This recipe is nothing special … not even worth typing out in regular recipe form. But it sort of restored my confidence in a kitchen that’s become a stranger to me in this 7 am to 8 pm life. I am so glad I remembered the fire in my kitchen (and in my stomach) for good, honest food.

Here’s the leftovers I ate today in the sun, camera in tow.

oatmeal bars

Things are pretty dismal in the freshcrackedpepper kitchen these days. I’m down to kimchi, eggs, and staples—each of them honorable in their own right, but difficult things to build a meal on. I’ve been content to scavenge and snack, though, using up frozen soups and reverting to the bought pasta sauce in the back of my cupboard.

Breakfast, on the other hand, is one meal that’s never complicated. It’s always simple and comforting, day in and day out. But I have noticed a change. I used to be the kind of person who chose something different from morning to morning: A bagel one day. Muesli the next. Eggs on the weekend. But since becoming a nine-to-fiver, breakfast is one of the many areas my food habits have shifted.

One word: oatmeal. Yup, oatmeal, plain and simple. Maybe it’s peer pressure—there’s a little “oatmeal club” developing at my office, where us health-savvy young female journalists line up by the hot water tap with our bowls of instant cereal. (Are women more susceptible to marketing? McDonald’s Oatmeal and Fruit, Starbucks Perfect Oatmeal, those cutesy Quaker Oatmeal ads that are everywhere?)

Whatever the case may be, it’s fun to stir our oats and chat before the work day starts. But last week a terrible thing happened: My supply of instant multigrain oats that I get smuggled to me from Canada ran out. I had it down to a science: Skim milk + microwave (none of this hot water tap business for me!) + stir + more microwaving + tiny pat of peanut butter + more stirring = the best bowl of creamy, unsweetened oats you could ever ask for.

Well, just buy more, you say. But I don’t know what brands I like down here (whine) and plus, I welcome the DIY challenge. I used to simmer my own steel cut oats all the time when I had just that: time. So, inspired by a co-worker’s frozen pucks of Trader Joe’s steel cut oats, I whipped up a batch, sprinkled in some pumpkin seeds and craisins, spread it into a baking pan, chilled it, and then cut it into bars I could freeze for future mornings.

My own convenience oatmeal. Take that TJ’s. (Plus, I just had a lot of fun playing with depth-of-focus on such bland, beige subject matter.)

So for now, breakfast is helping assuage the guilt of my almost Miranda Hobbes-esque urban existence. (Chinese take-out is still a long way off.) Beyond oatmeal club, however, new tastes abound: a five-course dinner prepared by a friend’s darling husband (“Chef Trev”), blueberry soup at the Swedish embassy after Sunday morning’s 65 mile bike ride (followed by delicious four-dollar falafal), and celebratory amuse-bouche at an event held at the home of the Spanish ambassador.

Things haven’t been too bad, now that I think of it. (Said as awesome housemate delivers me a bowl of stove-top popcorn). But the time has come to hit the grocery store once again. And as this blog will stand witness to, it shouldn’t be that bad after all.

potato-kale quesadillas for a wintery weekend

My dad says all this snow in D.C. is because of me. Perhaps the weather gods are trying to appease this transplanted Canadian, but I hereby give them permission to cease operations.

After three feet fell between Friday and Saturday, the city shut down. There was no public transit available in our neighborhood from late Friday night through Monday. This morning, Tuesday, I managed to trudge to work on brown-sugared streets and stalled trains, my commute finally clocking in at two hours. By the time I got home tonight more flakes were falling, and an email saying we’re closed again tomorrow was waiting in my inbox.

Thanks to my housemates, I’m managing to stay sane (and thanks to the sun, still cheerful). Austin brought on a craving I didn’t even know I had with homemade chicken pot pie, and Becki made me nostalgic for childhood Sunday mornings with her croissants—delicious when warmed to a crisp in the oven.

Unfortunately I didn’t get a lot of cooking or baking done myself. (I’ve re-discovered that this is what happens when you’re cooking for one, and can’t keep up with your domestically-inclined housemates.) While they measured and sauteéd away, I was busy trying to make a dent in a batch of beet borscht and vat of homemade hummus—supplemented of course with regular doses of popcorn.

Eating hand-to-mouth like this, all snuggled up in the living room watching the dogs play in the snow, brought its own hermitic serenity.

I did manage to try a new recipe a colleague printed out for me before we left early on Friday. Kale, potatoes, and goat cheese are creative quesadilla fillings, and even though I probably modified the recipe too much for it to properly reflect the original, it yielded tangy and meaty Saturday-night satisfaction.

The best themes to emerge from our white weekend, however, were yoga and Mr. Yogato.  Their linguistic semblance is completely unrelated, but not their ability to turn my unexpected long weekend into a health and wellness retreat. Becki’s four-wheel drive made it possible for Scott and me to get to Studio Serenity in the funky Adams Morgan district.

After four classes, I could see why the place was their second home. Each session starts with dabs of essential oil and friendly introductions. So far, the instructors have all delivered the ideal mix of rigor and relaxation, and each class finishes with aromatherapy spray, spiced tea, and animal crackers. (Perhaps to remind us of all our wonderful downward dogs, cat stretches and fish poses!)

The cookies and tea weren’t enough to replenish our sweaty, stretched-out bodies though, and so with lavender still on our noses, Scott carted me off to Mr. Yogato. Unlike most frozen yogurt places, their yogurt is pure and unsweetened. I was happy to discover that per ounce, their yogurt has one whole gram of protein, 0 grams of fat, and only 30 calories. (That meant that even my generously sized “middle” brought me 8 grams of protein, no fat, and only 240 post-yoga calories.) Topped with blueberries and raspberries, there was plenty of room for anti-oxidants, too.

At the time of this posting, I am stuffed with my second quesadilla of this extended weekend, pouring a glass of wine, and setting up for another day at home. The federal government has declared another snow day, and I will be happy: as long as I have my yoga, my yogurt, and new things to try in the kitchen.

And I’m proud to welcome the quesadilla back into my repertoire, with startling new flavors peeking out from beneath its folds.

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