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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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tofu deli slices

Summer hit Syracuse last weekend with the impetuosity of a season long-forgotten. Blazing down during a Sunday bike ride, it left its pink hand print squarely between my shoulders. Yesterday it reached 30°C (87°F) and today the mercury is still up in the high 20°s (70°s). Our apartment, in good second-floor sun-drenched form, is responding as expected.

One of my favorite things about hot weather is eating cooler foods. Anything I can make without turning on my oven or standing over my stove gets my immediate approval. Coming in at a close second are things that can be cooked quickly or on low heat.

But first, a warning: I can’t promise you this will be the prettiest post. But food doesn’t always present us with the most photogenic subjects does it? In this case, tofu came out a little camera-shy, looking rather drab drenched in marinade. But once it was tucked into a toasted sourdough sandwich, it was reunited with greatness.

Tofu, which a wonderfully healthy source of natural soy protein (as opposed to all those junky bars, shakes, and factory-produced cereals), seems to have this way of sitting in my fridge too long. For some reason, I seem to have this horrible tendency to neglect it. But you know what? It deserves to be loved. And topped with avocado, sprouts, and fresh tomatoes, tofu-love comes easily. Even if you’ve been known to say a mean word or two about it.

And that’s where this tofu saver comes in. When I stopped buying deli meats, I missed the thick, juicy filler they gave my summer sandwiches. Egg salad and tuna got old fast. And so I hauled out the tofu, tapped it three times, and politely asked it to become something wonderfully sandwich-worthy. I’ve been making these slices ever since. And best of all, they last (almost) forever in the fridge.

Tofu Deli-Slices

Slice firm tofu in ¼ to ½ – inch slices.

Mix up a marinade: There’s almost no limit to what you can do here, just mix up any liquid things you think go together. In the past I’ve used brown sugar, soy sauce, worchestershire, even ketchup. You could use pesto, or a curry-coconut milk mixture, or any supermarket bottled peanut, Thai, or Indonesian sauce. I’m sure some salad dressings would do a great job, too. For a smoky taste, try a few dashes of liquid smoke, or BBQ sauce.

Marinate the slices in a plastic container or bowl for a few hours, overnight, or until it  starts calling your name.

Preheat oven to 275 degrees F. Lay the slices out on a piece of parchment or foil, and bake until they become dry and leathery at the edges, and maybe start to brown slightly, usually over an hour. You can continue to bake them until they’re completely “meaty” all the way through, or leave them soft an squishy at the centers. Up to you.

Cool, and store in the refrigerator to use in sandwiches.

raspberry kefir coffee cake

These are the kinds of things I did before I started school. I’d traipse out to a berry farm with some friends, sling an old plastic bucket ’round my waist, and walk, eager-handed, along hedges heavy with sweet crimson teardrops.

Now my cell phone and Microsoft Word compete for my companionship, and I am haunted by a no-time-to-bake sense of loss. But the memories at least are cheerful, like the piles of open-mouthed raspberries we collected on that late August afternoon…

I meant to freeze them for daily use in the kefir smoothies I posted about last, but it turned out they were too good. They resisted my futile gestures of preservation like a silver dandelion puff resists the wind. They just refused to be eaten any other way: fresh from the bucket, or doused with cream.

These little guys had all the best things of summer stored in their small caverns, and delivered it to us again and again as the days marched steadily into fall. As I learned on the berry farm, raspberry picking is best in late summer and early fall. Around here that can take you well into early October. Apparently, one or two nights of frost actually makes the berries sweeter, so get thee to a berry farm, folks.

It turned out I had one small victory over my must-eat-fresh berries. As the bucket’s bounty waned in the fridge, I knew there were more to these berries than red soggy handfuls. And there was one more to kefir, too: muffins and breads and buns, and and and . . . coffee cake.

As a child I used to think all coffee cake tasted like coffee, and thus avoided it. At some point, I learned the truth, and life has never been the same. Blueberry, lemon, poppyseed, cinnamon, my mother’s own version of heaven on a plate. It’s all fair game, and goes so well with a steaming cup of Joe.

Armed with my remaining berries, I put together a little internet search for an appropriate raspberry-lemon yogurt coffee cake. After sifting through many results and tweaking them to create my own, I came up with this Raspberry Kefir Coffee Cake. It’s a mouthful, I know, but just wait until you taste the cake.

This recipe can be modified in countless ways. As long as you follow the basic amounts, you can substitute yogurt or buttermilk for the kefir, really, if you must. The recipes I consulted called for baking powder, but one thing I might change next time is to add a little baking soda to the mix. Apparently, soda is used in recipes that have an acidic ingredient (like kefir or yogurt), and powder in recipes that don’t. Some recipes don’t seem to follow this general rule, and so next time I’m going to experiement a little further and see if I can get a wee bit more lift out of the cake.

Oh yeah, and this cake is baked in a Bundt pan. My favorite baking dish moniker ever: Bundt bundt bundt: doesn’t it just roll off the tongue? Trust me, this cake will go down easy as a sweet summer day, slipping serenely into fall.

I’m sorry, but it’s true. Now go and pick those last hangers-on while they’re at their sweetest. And if you can’t, just dream with me.

*farm pictures courtesy of the lovely and talented ms. june

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chlodnik (summer borscht)

I’ll get to it, just chill with me for a moment.

Reading over my last post, I appear to have begun mourning summer’s passing a wee bit early. Yes it’s winding down, but it’s doing so rather gently. Good, kind summer. To a girl who sat in an excessively air conditioned classroom for the better part of July, summer is leaving me cordially — with flowers and long conversations and plenty of “I’ll miss you’s.”

Take last weekend. Friday evening swirled with the currents of the day’s leftover warmth. Downtown, patios hummed with aestival gladness. Saturday morning the farmer’s market was awash with color, and my bags weighed heavy with local produce. My companion and I were each given a Crispin apple for our hike later that day, proving that you can get things free after all. I’d never tried this variety, and because my apple vocabulary pales in comparison even to the signs at Wegman’s, all I can say is that it was delicious. Not quite as good as my standby Macs, but sweet and crisp.  When I’m ready to trade berries and peaches for fall apples, this one might just be worthy of my basket.

Fresh garlic is also abundant enough to be found in braids, one of which we purchased from our “garlic guy.” Before he came into my life, I had no idea there were German and Italian varieties of garlic. I also didn’t know garlic aged, until I bought an old bulb weeks ago and the thing practically turned to sponge. But the garlic guy set us up, and our braid is promised to last us into the spring.

Let me tell you about these cloves. They are the most crisp and fragrant I’ve ever seen, so juicy they leave your fingers sticky from mincing.

We hiked all afternoon, and like Boy Scouts photographed mushrooms and delighted in the popping seeds of the Jewelweed plant. I also discovered that if I were a mushroom, I would definitely want to be the Jem-Studded Puffball. Apparently they’re edible, but we didn’t know that until later. Oh well, leave only footprints, take only pictures, right? I’ve spent far too much time in national parks…

But back to the market. Slung over my shoulder, I brought home escarole (a green in the chicory family), peaches, and farm-fresh eggs. But best of all were the beets. I know I’ve written about them before, but I wouldn’t be my grandmother’s granddaughter if I didn’t turn them into borscht now would I?

I scored the biggest, heaviest bunch on the table, and last night took it to battle. Ruby juice took over my kitchen, turning hands, knives, countertop and cutting boards into fuschia casualties. I chopped and sauteed, simmered and stirred for the better part of an hour.

I grew up eating my grandmother’s borscht. I’ve made it twice now, and though excellent, it will never, ever taste like hers. Maybe my Ukrainian blood is too diluted. We’d go over there for lunch and she’d disappear into what seemed to me a cellar, fully stocked with things in jars and tins of baking. It was just a basement, but it was full of treasures.

She always kept her soups in a hodge-podge collection of glass jars. It would slosh in her hands as she carried it upstairs to put to boil on the stove. The tang of her vinegar-spiked Old World borscht, sopped up with a puffball-soft hunk of her buttermilk buns is still unmatched in my world. It would shimmer with a little grease from the pork broth it was cooked in — something my fat abstaining generation fears too much. I am always pleased with my vegetarian version, but I sure could use one of those buns right about now.

Since converting from yogurt to making my own kefir (a fermented milk drink I will post about soon), I’ve been ravenous for ways to incorporate it into my cooking. I’ve also been craving soups lately (that darn impending Fall again), but with the persistent warmth of summer I thought I’d tackle the Chilled Soup. It never made sense to me up until now. It always seemed anticlimactic until I realized I could have it both ways.

First, over at A Cat in the Kitchen I found a chilled borscht called Chlodnik that is popular in Eastern Europe. With my interest thoroughly piqued (and so my love for how Europeans always say “beetroot”), I began to scheme about the beets and kefir sleeping away in my fridge. Then the Amateur Gourmet posted about a popular NYC hot spot where the soup is not and the people are — probably.

It didn’t take long for me to hit the stove and start bringing the bowls of cool upstate.

A few minutes of researching recipes later, I decided to just try adding kefir to some chilled grandma-borscht. And did it ever do me fine. I’ve included her recipe, lovingly transcribed by my mother, in their characteristic casual prose. It’s a wing-it kind of thing, so if you want ABC’s, try one of the above links.The great thing about this recipe is that it’s just as good hot as it is cold. I’m not sure other chilled borscht recipes would be as good as a hot soup, but this one is, as I discovered today, made for the transitioning world of summer to fall.

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