free-form barley salad

A few months ago I stumbled across this quote from Andrew Sullivan, senior editor at The Atlantic. It perfectly captures what I like about blogging, and by extension, cooking. He says

“Blogging is to writing what extreme sports are to athletics.

More free-form, more accident-prone, less formal, more alive.

Blogging is writing out lout.”

Though I love to follow an elegantly-written recipe, free-form cooking offers thrills I just can’t resist from time to time. Just like extreme sports, it’s more accident prone (What if I over spice? What if the flavors don’t mix?), less formal (a pinch of this a handful of that), more alive.  It’s not the product of another’s experimentation, but a process—a story—of your very own.

Spontanous cooking is sexy. Watching anyone at home in their trade shows this ease of skill, this compelling deftness. A lemon is juiced over a salad glistening with oil. The heel of hands push into soft dough. A spoon meets a pink mouth for the first taste.

To cook this way is to be attuned to the senses.

I’ve just returned to Syracuse from almost a month at home in Winnipeg. Spending winter break there is always wonderful, but requires it’s share of adjustments. Life, and eating, is so different there than it is ’round here on our own: There is more accountability. There is more time spent in cars. There is a whole lot more food.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved every minute of it. Every eggnog-soaked, shortbreak-cookie stacked second. Waking up to my mom’s pillowy poppyseed buns swirled with sticky black decadence. Eating proper lunches every day (usually I just healthy-snack all day). Drinking wine almost every evening. Multiple-dish dinners followed by trays of sugar and butter, dressed up ten or more different ways. Around every corner, someone else wanting to please. Love shown in material provision, food preparation, with joy laced through like silver threads.

A journey back into that world always makes me thankful to return to my own kitchen, in control of what and how I eat.  Sure, it’s more work. Sure, it’s not as scrumptiously lazy. But my heart did jump last night when Mark accepted a dinner invite and offered to bring a salad. I was on it. I couldn’t wait to get my hands back on my food.

I put that urge together with some barley, a roasted acorn squash, an apple, some chickpeas, toasted walnuts, cilantro, currants, and other random cupboard samplings. The salad morphed and changed at my fingertips as I pinched and dashed, sprinkled and salted.

Then I stepped back. My welcome-back to your health, probably-not-perfect barley salad stared back at me from the bowl. But in a way, around a small table in very snowy Syracuse, it was perfect.

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dolmas done right

I first tasted dolmas, or stuffed grape leaves, in Greece. I was 19 and still more or less uneducated in the cuisines of the near East. They were delicately Mediterranean, bursting with new combinations of taste and texture.

My friend and I were sharing a white stucco flat on the island of Naxos, overlooking the Aegean Sea. We had met an Australian woman named Grace, who introduced us to the cigar-shaped delicacies packed in olive oil. I was a sucker for anything offered to me in that accent — or any accent, for that matter. To this day I still adore two of her recommendations: dolmas and halwa, a sweet spun from sesame-seeds.

In those lazy days we lived on dolmas and baklava. These days all I can find are the canned ones packed in excessive amounts of oil, unless I want to pay a dollar apiece just up the street. With the way the weather has turned, that seems like a steep price to pay to have a cool Greek snack at hand. If you love the nutty, lemony squish of a chilled dolma on a dog-day afternoon, a dolma’s all that will do ya.

And then — thank Zeus! — along came my friend Susan. Being schooled herself in these mysterious dolmatic ways, she passed on her expertise to me. Though I observed more than I participated, I learned that making them yourself cuts the oil and the need to fly back to Naxos. I also found out that dolma is from the Turkish word for “stuffed thing.” Turns out I have more in common with this finger food than I thought.

Grape leaves should be easy to find in a well-stocked international grocery store. I used a California-Style brand called Castella, but the choice was rather arbitrary in front of a shelf full of them. Grape leaves must be one of those foods, like the “single use appliance,” that doesn’t seem to have many other uses. I declare these, however, to be wise stewardship of the leaves that nurture our wine-producing grapes the world over. If they’re good enough for grapes, they’re good enough for me.

These are an easy substitute for the endless chopping, precision rolling, and meticulous fish- handling of sushi. They are deliciously cool and light, the perfect compliment to a serene back porch gathering around a pitcher of Sangria, or to a rollicking twilight tapas bash. Easy to make and easy to eat, these dolmas are so good you might just want to break a plate or two. Just make sure they’re your own, and not someone else’s Royal Daulton.

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contra-buns for a springtime feast

Yesterday I started a tradition: making hot cross buns on Good Friday. Obviously this is not an original idea, but I don’t have many annual traditions of my own. Customs, however, are so tied to kinship that in family’s absence seem even more important. The impetus for this one came from my partner in crime who, in a fit of temptation at the grocery store last week, gathered up a plastic box of hot cross buns and looked at me with an indulgent smile. A guilty glance over the ingredients was all it took to get me food blog searching for a hot cross buns recipe to call my very own.

But first, a history lesson. These innocent buns have known their share of prejudice. Back in the day, protestant English monarchs thought that since they were baked from the dough used to make communion wafers, they were a “dangerous” hold-over of Catholic belief . I call myself Anglican, but this is one of those historical tidbits that make me scoff at religiosity. Plus, can you imagine a more unlikely association: these delicate spice bundles of studded with fruit, and … cardboard communion wafers? Thankfully, in this case popular opinion won, and despite attempts to have the buns banned, Elizabeth I passed a law that allowed bakeries to sell the popular treat at Easter and Christmas only.

The buns are believe to have pre-dated Christianity, eaten by the Saxons in honour of Eostre, the goddess of Spring (the modern term Easter is derived from this word). The cross symbolized the four quarters of the moon, or the balance of light and darkness during the Equinox.

For the recipe, I had to look no further than the comments section of this very blog. In a confluence of time that only the internet has made possible, while Susan from Wild Yeast was leaving a comment about my latest soup, I was reading through her post on hot crossed buns. Looking soft, whole-wheat hued, and just complicated enough to make me feel smug, I was almost ready to baptize this new recipe into my humble congregation of baked things.

Only a few obscure ingredient to gather up and I was ready to bake: A friend relieved my currant-less state, and I managed to find candied peel (after a look of confusion from a store clerk) on the clearance rack of my grocery store. The three hours (with good company, mind you) of mixing, rising, and waiting, crossing, baking and glazing were utterly worth it. The finished buns married tender chewiness with light spice and a sweet tang.

Today is Holy Saturday, a day lodged between the two most elevated days of Holy Week, and possible of the entire Christian year. It’s a day when the sorrow of loss covered a small group of devoted followers. It is, as the Dutch call it, a Silent Saturday. As I sit in the sunshine of my living room enjoying one of these buns toasted with a fine spread of peanut butter, I keep thinking about Easter as a turning point. It is a season where the natural world slowly begins to angle itself towards the celebration of growth and the triumph of life.

Whether you celebrate this religious holiday or simply awaken your senses to the Earth cracking open its shell, I hope you find your own ways to recognize it. For me, rolling and shaping these friendly buns reminded me of the ways all of us—regardless of creed—search for rhythm and significance. I leave you the words of singer-songwriter Dar Williams who addresses this in the following song:

So the Christians and the Pagans sat together at the table,
Finding faith and common ground the best that they were able,
And just before the meal was served, hands were held and prayers were said,
Sending hope for peace on earth to all their gods and goddesses.

Rather than re-typing the recipe in its entirety, I’ll simply pass along the link. Warning: all measurements are in hard-core-baker form. (ie: weights, so you’ll need a scale) The only things I might change: trying King Arthur Flour’s white whole wheat flour for even more softness, and adding a bit of orange and lemon zest.