the whole enchilada

This month is almost over, and frankly, I’m glad to see it go. Sure there have been bright spots, like completing two more triathlons, going to some great live shows, and starting a half-marathon plan. Threatening the sunny surface of things, however, August has bred more than its share of saturnine moods.

August and everything after, the Counting Crows once crooned. I’ll take the everything after, thanks.

So why am I so glum then, in a time of sunshine, heat, and ripening tomato plants? Saying goodbye to many good friends, finishing an intense academic year, and feeling hurled into the job market might have something to do with it. Those are the surface explanations, anyway.

Apparently I can thank the god Saturn for times like these. I’m not a big astrology or mythology follower, but I do find those old systems of understanding intriguing. I’m not afraid to explore their wisdom every now and again.

As Thomas More writes in “Care of the Soul,” melancholy was once associated with the Roman god Saturn. We tend to shun, medicate, and fear depression in the modern world; More reminds us that we can instead “develop a positive respect for its place in the soul’s cycles.”

So rather than pining for happier days, I’ve decided to let Saturn in. Besides, he wasn’t only the god of sadness, but of reflection and wisdom as well. He was identified with the metal lead, giving weight and density to life. He was also the reaper, god of the harvest. For that I’ll jump on board his yellow rings.

When two good friends of ours left last week for Connecticut, I closed the chapter of our year-long neighborly friendship in the same way that I opened it: with a meal from Veganomicon. It seemed fitting, as the book was a gift from said friend, and we had welcomed them to Syracuse with a moussaka from its pages.

For this meal, I chose the potato and kale enchiladas, a hearty-looking baked dish with a homemade roasted chili tomato sauce. It seemed like a dish that would bring cheer to our last meal together for a long time.

Dotted with sour cream (tasty, but decidedly un-vegan), the enchiladas squished under our forks with soft potatoes and wilted bright kale. Filling the dining room with the aromas of roasted chili and garlic, they were a satisfying centerpiece to conversation.

And somehow, while reflecting on simple food, I’ve almost managed to forget about my down-ish days. Soon I’ll trade Saturn for September, and all of this being will fold into more doing. The crisp, fresh fall is not so far off. Until it arrives, I’m content to wait. As long as I have good food to stand faithfully by.

Continue reading

Advertisements

pleasant thoughts tomato soup

I posted on cold soup once before, and it was a hit. It even got me a link on Wikipedia. (Applause may now commence.) I tried another one last night from my latest Bon Appetit, titled unassumingly “Summer Tomato and Bell Pepper Soup,” and with one spoonful fell instantly in love.

Never one to order soups that prance about menus with names like gazpacho and vichyssoise, I approached this cold soup with some reluctance. The recipe began, however, with the promise that “ripe summer tomatoes are perfect just as they are…” and I was lured deeper. Summer tomatoes simply make me weak.

The day had been another scorcher. Some new friends were coming over for dinner, and I was determined to use as little heat as possible for its preparation. I still had to visit three different locations to procure the appropriate ice cream, roasted red peppers, and good bread, but managed to keep my cool. The dessert was baked early in the morning, and the main course quickly seared and delivered to plates without too much of a sweat.

All the other accoutrements were served in the cool-as-a-cucumber-style of this fresh first course.

This soup’s preparation is as simple as a sandwich. “But I’m not a cook,” you might say. Well, this here concoction involves none of that intimidating heating-of-ingredients business. Like all simple dishes, the result rests only on the quality of your ingredients, not your skill.

Finding those really special tomatoes was, I have to admit, a bit of a chore. I tasted local tomatoes at the co-op, and smelled red globes at two major grocery chains: Disapointment lurked in every overflowing bin. The mushy, bland, and boring specimens reminded me that my dear tomatoes just haven’t yet hit their peak. But I wasn’t willing to give up yet. A stop at a friend’s garden led me to lush green plants bearing their tiny, heavy treasure.

In all shades of fire the tomatoes fell into my hands and into my soup. Yes, I still had to use some less-than-perfect “over the counter” tomatoes to plump it up a bit, but I believe it was these little explosions of sweetness that truly saved the day.

Just when I thought I’d have to kiss my soup craving goodbye until November, this one snuck up and told the humidity where to go. I instantly fell under its spell of fresh-picked tomato goodness, because, as American humorist Lewis Grizzard wrote, “It’s difficult to think anything but pleasant thoughts while eating a homegrown tomato.” Mr. Gizzard, I couldn’t agree more.

Continue reading

packed like sardines

It’s been scorching in Central New York since last week, and the weather gurus are promising two more weeks of melting madness. I’m a Northerner at heart — heat like this makes me irritable at best. In our second floor, “afternoon sun-magnet” apartment, the temperature easily soars ten degrees above the outside world. If I wanted to live in dry sauna, I would’ve installed cedar wall paneling.

Surviving Syracuse heat waves has turned into a bit of a game: We’ll attend any cookout or BBQ we’re invited to, and even jump at the chance to run an errand for a friend at the mall. Mid-day showers have become a ritual, and I haven’t turned my stove on in weeks. We’ve even moved our 9 pm cocktail hour outside into our “front yard,” which, if you lack the imagination, bears an uncanny resemblance to a parking lot.

And, after completing three triathlons this season, swimming and biking will replace running for a few more days.

Just when I’d started to accept my regular afternoon evacuation to pool, cafe, or library, things took a turn for the better: A second air conditioner was bestowed upon us. The saying  “many hands make light work” turns out to be true in the appliance world as well. I guess all our bedroom unit needed was a friend.

And then, as our living space began to inch toward bearable, we inherited a charcoal grill. On the way home from the beach yesterday we picked up some corn (from a roadside stand), wood charcoal (from a big-box store), and sardines (from a boutique fish stop).

Cooking over coals isn’t as glamorous as using the cadillac back-porch grills: It’s far from instant, and you sort of have to crouch over the grill to tend the food. But it was delicious anyway. Skewers of  fresh bright vegetable and local corn complimented the little fish perfectly. At 1.5 grams of omega-3s per 3.5 ounces, sardines are near the top of the omega-3 pyramid and a cheaper alternative to salmon.* They’re also low in mercury, and a best choice in the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch initiative.

This past year I started eating canned sardines instead of buying pricey fish oil supplements. Last night, freshly roasted with their skin scarred crisp and brown from the heat, they were a whole different catch.

*Source: The Health Effects of Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids in Seafoods

Continue reading

quinoa tabbouleh

I debated calling this next series of posts “The Unemployment Project, Part I (etc).” Since I’m not sure how long this is going to last, however, I figured I’d spare you from an ever-lengthening string of Roman numerals. Until my employment prospects crystallize, I’ve decided to give this neglected website of mine some love: Get ready to eat.

As I wrote in my last post, I’ve had to adjust lately to this strange new thing called free time.  Sure, there have been weekend road trips to weddings and triathlons and concerts. There have gatherings with friends and leisurely walks. But the consuming projects and imperatives, not so much.

It’s like returning to an older verison of myself. There are going to be days where I’ll have to dig through those familiar storerooms of strength.

That said, things haven’t been so bad.

I shot photos for Edible Finger Lakes magazine on Monday (wait! I’m supposed to be a writer!), and got to meet the ringleader of Central New York’s Slow Food Chapter. Dipping into a different medium however, shooting his kitchen, meeting his bees, and marvelling at his asparagus plants was inspiring. And the invitation to pick fresh mint, marjoram and lavender whenever I need to? Priceless.

Tuesday was a frustrating day spent trying to secure certification to work in this country. But this is a food blog, not a rant, so I’ll spare you the story. Three things helped redeem that day: Wegman’s air-conditioning and rotisserie chickens, and this tabbouleh salad.

Tabbouleh (ta-boo-lee) is a Middle-Eastern dish that showcases fresh herbs. If you don’t like to be hit over the head with parsley, simply use the lesser amount.

It’s also traditionally made with coarsely-ground bulgur wheat, but since my life is basically one big steamy love affair with quinoa, I decided to try mixing it up a little. More protein and ancient grains never hurt anybody.

It’s funny how one little conversation with my mother about her parsley plant led to subsequent days of fresh, tangy leftover salad. Not a bad way to start off this new, as yet unnamed season in my life.

Continue reading

slaw salad

I’m not sure anymore whether Syracuse feels like home. In any case, it’s good to have my own jug of milk and a fruit bowl with peaches in it. Life on the road teaches the joy in simple things. Natural peanut butter. Homemade granola. Kefir smoothies. Iced lattes that don’t cost $4.

Missouri and Colorado were good to me. Stacking up the archives with their own memories. Creeks and campfires, peaks and rough roads. Glancing back through pictures, they feel like different lives.

I haven’t hit the cutting board with the kind of excitement I was expecting. Trying to create 8 decent multimedia pieces in 2 weeks is eating up more of my time than I have to, well, eat. The work is rewarding, but tedious. The final push is here, Friday’s deadline looms like with giant jaws.

On Thursday our team was exiled from our cozy lab by the new masters class. It was a beautiful day for bonding, so we dragged our office chair-imprinted bottoms to the park for some lunch and a strange sport called wiffle ball. (It’s a conspiracy: Canadians do not excel at wiffle ball.)

I was instructed to make “a delicious salad” by our faithful event planner, and so (as any disenchanted foodie who’s been wrenched from her Henckels for too long would do), I consulted my mother. She came through faithfully, and so for all those requesting the recipe, here it rests.

It’s not really salad, with its torn leaves and chunks of veggies. It’s not really ‘slaw either, at least in the southern sense. In fact, I think it was inspired by a salad at some insipid restaurant chain, but no one needs to know that, right? Besides, any cabbaged loved by your own two hands maketh a far happier bowl of ‘slaw. At least in my home, wherever that may be.

The thing I love best about this salad is that you don’t have to follow the recipe. I bought all the ingredients on Thursday, and I’ve made it twice since the initial picnic debut, with different amounts. It doesn’t matter if you use more red cabbage one day and more Napa the next. Feel free to omit and substitute as you wish, whether it be using chopped up snap peas instead of the carrots, or leaving out the bean sprouts.  Use all the the cabbage heads to make a bowl for a large crowd. Top it with BBQ’d tofu or chicken strips, or roll it up in a wrap.

Continue reading

watermelon raita

Yesterday, a friend reminded me that every once in a while, creativity pays off. In a world where ideas are cheap but increasingly void of meaning, I pounced on the opportunity to win some cash for an hour spent experimenting with a large melon. Let me explain.

It happened in the blink of an eye. While hanging out after competing in a triathlon together, my friend informed me that there was money to be made in the cheese aisle. She works at an advertising company, and one of her clients is running a contest: Buy cheese. Invent salad. Win cash. As we stood there in our sweaty post-tri glow (waiting to mount the podium for our respective age group awards, I must add),  she convinced me to try my hand at corporately-sponsored food alchemy.

When it comes to a $500 Wegman’s gift certificate, I have no shame. Président cheese, you are my master.

P1020519

That same friend had some pre-race advice too:  Never try anything new on race day. She was talking about the wet suit I’d never tested out in the water (which, incidentally, transformed me into a hyperventalating slug). It turns out I’m familiar with this advice when it applies to food: I seldom test a new invention on guests.

Conveniently, I had a birthday potluck to attend tonight. If the salad bombed, someone else would eat it. (It’s not that I don’t love people, but the general public is as good a candidate for a edible pawn-off as any.)

P1020499

As with any invention, this salad is an amalgam of things that came before: My first watermelon salad at Dish last week in Colorado being one of them. (If you’re ever in the Vail Valley, do yourself a favor and eat there.) Dotted with pumpkin seeds, watercress, and goat cheese, it endeared me a little more to my least favorite melon.

I wanted to recreate the salad, but add enough new elements to make it truly mine. I got to thinking about great salads: cool Indian raita and my ultimate favorite Middle-East-inspired one. When it came to watermelon salad, I knew I couldn’t break the rules — I didn’t know them. A quick trip to Wegmans and I was ready to paint my melon-pink canvas with mint, cucumber, dates, and yogurt.

The result? A salad I was happy to share around a table and around the Web. And here is where you come in: vote for my salad at www.presidentsaladcontest.com before August 23rd. Your click will help fuel foodie creativity the world over. Or at least in one little second-storey apartment.

P1020510

Continue reading

cool food for warm days

Through the winter months, I dream of warm food. There are afternoon lattes, tea, and hot chocolate, greedily assembled as my cheeks thaw out from the wind-whipped walk home. There are soups and stews simmering away on the stove. There are filling one-pot meals, spicy burritos, and steamy risottos.

And then suddenly, out comes the sun and up go the windows. Mac n’ cheese gives way to crispy wraps and salads of all stripes — the last thing you want to do in a hot apartment is turn on the oven.

But best of all, the outdoors once again becomes your dining room. From cookout to picnic, patio to porch, good food is more about portability than presentation. In the summer, I can say that about myself, too.

This past weekend I indulged. The last exam I quite possibly might ever write was over by 5 p.m., and half an hour later I was settled on my couch with Mark Bittman. His book at least.

I had an eggplant in the fridge and a dinner guest on his way. I needed inspiration. Seeing me paw through my cookbooks again, after an insane semester, must have been a rare sight: Mark (the other Mark, my Mark) pointed out how sexy it was to see me dreaming of cooking again.

By the end of my kitchen dalliance, I’d made a selection of tapas to share: caponata (eggplant salad), sushi-style spinach rolls, and this tangy, refreshing soba-noodle salad. A few slices of crusty sourdough bread, some spreadable feta and black olives made the little spread into a veritable feast.

We wanted to stay in all evening and let the rain patter outside the open windows as we digested. And so linger we did.

The next day, I added some julienned carrots to the leftovers to cart to a birthday barbeque in the park down the street. Beer, ultimate frisbee, and pinatas carried us into the twilight, smudged in charcoal’s magic scent.

It couldn’t have been better preparation for my 10-mile “Mountain Goat” race the next morning. Good food in the belly restores the body. This weekend, I traded in my law text book for a long Saturday morning tea on my friend’s porch, my computer screen for a cutting board, and the gym for a game of Ultimate frisbee.

Productive? Not so much. But perfect in every other way.

Continue reading