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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chocolate mousse for the skeptic

Enter the chocolate mousse. Not something I crave on a regular basis or would order at a restaurant. Those priviledges usually go to other treats I deem more worthy of my love than a bowl of whipped chocolate.

But when dippable chocolate is placed in front of me, especially accompanied by the fresh berries of summer, I am no fool. When I tried this mousse at a party earlier this summer, I was pleasantly surprised by its fondue-esque debut on my dessert radar. Why had I strayed from the mousse for so long?

The second surprise of the evening came when the mousse-maker shared her secret. An ingredient so unlikely in such a dessert that I just refused to believe it. Surely there had to be cream in this dip? Cream cheese? Butter? Eggs? Milk?

Guess again, ingredient sleuth.

The bowl of chocolate indulgence had come to me from none other than the Goddess of the Bean. Not the black bean or the kidney bean, but the soy bean. The very thing that brings me edamame, soy milk, and, you guessed it, Tofu.

So now that I’ve turned you off completely from ever making this mousse and sending you straight to a more chic, French, and bigscreen-worthy recipe such as this one, I’ll type out the recipe for those who have tried it and know that low-fat, protein-rich silken tofu can stand in once in awhile for all those indulgence that make life worth living. It’s your dessert: you decide.

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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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Homemade Energy Bars V: Shot Blocks Redux

One of my favorite authors once wrote “how we spend our days, is of course, how we spend our lives.” It’s one of those observations so plain it pricks you. Nothing terribly complicated or profound, but as true as the sun’s heat in July.

On a bike ride the other day, I saw it printed on the Unitarian Universalists’ church lawn sign. (Am I the only one who’s noticed that the more liberal the church, the better the church sign quotes?)

This week, I got my days back. And true to Annie Dillard’s sentiment, my life. It came suddenly, with the absence of 9 am starts, ominous deadlines, and open jaws of expectation. It came, bringing hours to write and cook and clean and shop for groceries.  It came with empty hours too, heavy with shoulds and if-onlys.

And so here I find myself in that precarious place between the fullness of life and its opposite. This past year has been manic, and looking back I’m sometimes surprised I survived. But rather than rolling gently off that year, I’ve crashed abruptly into this week.

This week — with its scaled-back workout schedule, pressing humidity, and loose ends — is like an irritating old friend. You love her but sometimes you just don’t know what to do with her.

Besides being void of routine, this week has also brought the dreaded taper, that bittersweet period before a big race when triathletes attempt to do something foreign to their very existence: rest. For most, this comes about as naturally as speaking Czech.

But with the advice of my tri friends ringing loudly in my ears (“5% undertrained is better than 3% overtrained”), I’m hanging out with my food processor instead of my running shoes. I decided it was time to bring you another snack packed with energy and natural goodness. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as big a fan of Clif shot blocks and GU gel as the next endurance athlete. But I also take pride in turning the earth’s bounty into sport fuel. Minus the citric acid, “natural flavor,” sunflower oil, and carnauba wax.

So here’s a humbler kind of shot block, one that looks suspiciously like a Christmas goodie. The chocolately goodness comes from minimally processed cocoa powder, delivered a shot of not only good-for-you flavanols, but magnesium and zinc too. And we all know how great almonds are for us.

And so going back to my opening quote, I guess I spent part of my day conjuring up good and healthy things. My life, I hope, will follow suit.

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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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the chi of kimchi

If only there was something yummy and exotic that made itself. Something you could just quickly cut up, stir, and plop in a container, only to turn out 5 days later in a delicious new guise.

Wait! There is! It’s called kimchi, and for its tart and tangy goodness we can thank the Koreans.

I’m seeing Korean food turn up everywhere. On the pages of Bon Appetit, on food blogs, and even in the New York Times. It’s even gone fusion, with a Twittering taco truck that brings mobile eats to its loyal followers. Kimchi is so important that the Korea Aerospace Research Institute even developed space kimch. Why? To accompany the first Korean astronaut to the Russian space ship, Soyuz, of course.

I can’t remember when I first tasted kimchi, but it wasn’t too long ago. I then started buying some locally-made stuff, available at the Central New York Regional Farmer’s Market, in all sorts of shades and styles. Being the fermentation freak that I am, my next thought was  “OK, my turn.”  Anyone who’s been to my apartment has seen the various fermenting things lying around my house. And before you run away scared, know that each one of them is darn delicious.

Food that is fast, easy, healthy and given to leftovers is manna for me right now. Finishing up my masters leaves little time for poring over new recipes (sad face #1), therapeutic vegetable chopping (sad face #2), and Zen-like-stove-top stirring (sad face #3). To this sorry state came my new friend kimchi.

The fabulous ferment did not only arrive to a dire, time-crunched situation, but to a household with a brand-new mandolin. Picked up for a steal of a deal on Amazon with Christmas money, this Japanese slider-knife is a miracle in a drawer. With this little beauty and a far superior recipe, my second batch of kimchi turned out much better than my clunky, over-garlicked first batch.

What, you may ask, is kimchi? It’s a Korean side dish with an inimitable taste, yet a Korean proverb reads, “if you have rice and kimchi, you have a meal.” To me, it’s crunchy ribbons of daikon and carrot folding over each other between layers of ruffled Napa cabbage. It’s chilies melding with garlic and ginger, and crisp veggies fermented to perfection. Served at room temperate over fried rice or a plate of egg rolls, or just eaten out of a jar, kimchi is a great snack full of healthy probiotics.

Best of all, the do-it-yourself kind pretty much does it itself. Just make sure you don’t spill it all over your gym bag.

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spiced bangladeshi mung beans and rice

I didn’t intend to post on this, but it begs to be shared. Born from the need to make lots of healthy food to sustain us through a busy week, it materialized one afternoon between work sessions. The recipe is from a former roommate, and it’s the kind of thing you’ll almost always have the ingredients for.

Usually when I think of mung beans, bean sprouts jump to mind. But this showcases them as the meaty, chewy legume they were born to be. OK, maybe beans don’t have destinies, but we can pretend. You can find them dried in Asian grocery stores, and all they need is a couple hours’ soak.

You start off by frying some fragrant spices in oil, add your beans and rice, top it with some water and set it to simmer. It’s that easy, and it all happens in one happy wok. It’s incredibly low-maintenance, great for a busy work day.

It’s hard to get sick of this (even after day 5) because you can dress it up in so many different ways. By adding sweet caramelized onions, a sliced hard boiled egg, and a side of yogurt, it becomes like an Indian curry—a platform for all sorts of tasty additions. You could make fried rice out of it one evening, and wrap it up in some flatbread with slices of baked tofu the next.

Sometimes a bowl of beans and rice, redolent of mild chai, can remind you that it’s good to be alive. Perhaps that’s a stretch, but it makes me appreciate the simple things.

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