sarah’s rice pilaf

I’ve been a little slow on the blogging draw as of late. But rather than bore you with the details of why, here’s one of those dusty old drafts I never got around to posting. Maybe because the photography wasn’t as good as I’d hoped—the actual printed recipe yields a much better-looking dish than what’s pictured here, which was my “I don’t have everything” adaptation! Whatever the case may be, this is a hearty, chewy rice pilaf will make you feel like curling up at a big wooden harvest table with a bunch of good friends. Which reminds me…

How much I miss my Syracuse supper club people. We weren’t a formal club, just a group of couples who loved to eat. I think I only attended three or four of the actual events before I moved off to D.C., but being still relative newcomers to our new town, I miss eating regularly with others. This dish was one of the first, served at a cozy home in Tipperary Hill, Syracuse, but the lovely and fleet-footed Sarah. We ate buttery, garlicky mussels, and then this pilaf stuffed into individual mini pumpkins. Sarah introduced me to trail running and French wine, and to that I owe her the world.

Or at least, dinner. Hopefully in the next few months I’ll be able to return the favor.

last image courtesy of Huro Kitty/Flickr Creative Commons

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spaghetti squash nests with moroccan spices

Seasons are now things of the past. Figments of memory, slices of lives lived farther north. With brisk days and crisp leaves behind me, I must now cultivate awareness—try to notice the small changes around me that signal the onset of what has always been my favorite time of year. McIntosh apples appearing at the grocery store (finally!), slightly cooler mornings and evenings, clearer coastal skies, an indigo-colored ocean. And yes, a tree here and there that’s decided to ignore it’s southerly surroundings, shedding a brown leaf here and there on the sidewalk to wait for the crush of my sandal.

I do miss the fall I have loved so much. But sitting on the beach at “negative tide” (a new term that I’ve learned is a synonym for “wow”) isn’t all that bad. And thank the newly cloudless skies there’s still squash, that harbinger of cozy, indoor evenings to come.

We’ve been eating a lot of spaghetti squash lately. It’s easy to square away in the oven while you prepare the accompaniments, and it’s just so, well, fun. (Not that I don’t LOVE the other offerings in the squash family, as my kabocha-udon noodles, quinoa-stuffed acorn squash, and warm butternut and chickpea salad can attest to. Not to mention the many other squash recipes that have showed up around these parts.) Scraping out the stringy flesh, I always think about the peasant who first discovered this freak of nature gourd: did she giggle when she set the fruits of her family’s labor down on the table? I would have.

Spaghetti squash is as versatile as the rest of the squash family, equally as delicious baked with butter and maple syrup as it is topped with more savory ingredients. But this variety of squash lends itself especially well to the pasta treatment, somewhat obviously, and my favorite way to eat it has been with a garlicky homemade puttanesca sauce. That is until I applied one of my favorite spice combinations to the stringy mass.

When I need some inspiration, there’s nothing like the good ‘ol Internet to help marinate the creativity. I was excited to find this recipe (from the 2002 issue of Gourmet – RIP), and after perusing some of the reviews and suggestions, took to the kitchen. Chickpeas are usually the featured legume in Moroccan cuisine, but they didn’t go very well with the squash, color-wise, so I chose my favorite lentil instead. My culinary compadre had already cooked up both the squash and the lentils, so all that was left was spicing and assembling.

The results? This is one easy dinner. Bake and scrape squash. Simmer lentils. Whip up a buttery spice mixture. Toss, garnish, and dig in! I think it would be a kid-friendly meal, too (not that I would know), as you can assemble these little nests if you so desire. Alternatively, you could mix the squash, spice mixture, and lentils all together for a more “complete” meal to serve to more sophisticated diners.


That’s all there is to it. As my triathlon training ramps down to base-building and my need for calories drops, these are the kinds of veggie-heavy dinners I want on my plate. A low-glycemic index meal that contains protein (yogurt and lentils) and good fat (cashews), and is vegan/vegetarian to boot? Bring it on. The optional raisins add just a little in the way of quick carbs, and the warming spices kept me satisfied until bedtime. And now, with these darker, post-time change evenings, even life in Southern California has begun to feel a little cozier. Continue reading

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.

pakora patties

There’s no point in avoiding this blog just because I’m in a slump. Cooking slumps can be easily weathered, thanks to the spoiling of visiting in-laws, surprises in the freezer, and beer—that liquid nourishment. But life slumps? Those are far harsher on the writer’s fragile bones.

A bike accident this week left me banged up and my faithful Raleigh doomed for the dumpster. Rain and cooler temperatures marred the memory of last week’s sudden spring. Some unexpected and minor blips at work on Friday launched an unusually reflective weekend.

As the writer Thomas Moore says in his book The Care of the Soul, these are the days that reveal the most to us. They slow us down and force us to look at the weeds growing along the path: Loneliness (how did I end up here and where are all the people I love?), stagnancy (where exactly do I think I’m going with all of this?), restlessness (when will I be able to do, and be recognized for, something that makes me happy?)

When this stuff is staring you in the face there’s not much else you can do but stare back. I’m used to this, right? This is familiar. I’ve dealt with this before. But no: why does each new disappointment, each new criticism, each new failure, bear so little resemblance to the last one? Why is facing old demons so hard?

I thank God for these small and saving cheers: a co-worker reminding me of the Sex and the City episode where Samantha has to rush into the elevator to hide her emotions; good discussions about being a woman in a male dominated workplace; distractions of parties and board games and beer and friends who get me, even if they haven’t known me long; keeping up with the boys at a neighborhood bike shop ride through the wilder parts of Maryland; simple thoughts of afternoon cooking; excitement for next weekend’s Easter excursion with a friend I don’t get to see enough of.

I was holding off on posting about these Indian-spiced vegetable fritters (or pakoras if you’re trying to sound exotic) so that I could make them again and take better photos. That’s not going to happen, though, so here they are. I made them for friends awhile ago, and am finally sharing them on this sorely neglected blog.

As I type, Patty Griffin’s words become my prayer on this strangely and sedate Sunday:

Be careful how you bend me
Be careful where you send me
Be careful how you end me
Be careful with me

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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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punjabi spinach and chickpeas

This week has flown by. Reunited with my love of swimming (thank you, one-week trial gym pass!), I plunged into cool water on Tuesday night after two months of land-based workouts. I emerged an hour and fifteen minutes later with my sore muscles, a refreshed mind, and a hungry belly.

Thank goodness this was waiting for me when I arrived home.

On Monday night I’d finally gotten around to trying this recipe, collecting digital dust in my recipe bookmarks. It’s the kind of thing you just might already have everything on hand for, provided you’re a hummus, stew, and salad eater who always has garlic around.

In other words, me.

I don’t know why I bookmarked this particular recipe, and I don’t know what made me pick it out of my long list of delicious-sounding dinner candidates. It’s not that it looked that different—I make things with curry and tomatoes and chickpeas all the time. The appeal of habit? Perhaps.

Well, it turns out it lived up to its bookmark-worthy status. With a depth and complexity of flavor I can only describe as more “authentic” than my usual curry-powder based curries, this stew radiates turmeric, cumin, garlic, and ginger. I learned later that its author (the famed Indian chef Madhur Jaffrey) deems this dish characteristically Punjabi. Perhaps that’s why it seemed new to me.

And I always like a recipe that suprises: usually, you chop up the garlic and saute it along with the onions, right? Not in this stew. I had to re-read the recipe about four times until I believed that yes, putting garlic, ginger, and water in the blender would produce something I’d want to add to my dinner.

This frothy mixture, and the addition of lemon juice at the end, take this bright yellow curry to a whole new level: you just might want to back your chair up a little from your co-workers if you decide to take it for lunch.

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a Christmas well spent

It’s the 25th of December and I’m not in Winnipeg. I’m not even in Canada. I’m in Massachusetts, a state I’ve never visited and still need help spelling. Perched on the edge of the Berkshires, a small range of hills in New England, Mark and I are spending our first Christmas ever “just us.” Each of us had previously spent only one Christmas away, so we’re not exactly practiced in family-free holidays.

Risotto with mini Brussels sprouts, Vermont sausage and blue cheese

As I reflect on our time so far, I must say that it has been great. We’ve stayed up and slept late, watched movies and meandered around pretty towns. We’ve visited small-town bookstores, cafes, and gourmet food shops. We’ve sipped eggnog at 2 am while stringing popcorn for our “tree” (a fake plant in the hotel room).

P.E.I. mussels with white wine, garlic and butter; salad with pecans, blue cheese and pears; Hob Nob Pinot Noir.

This Christmas will be memorable for many reasons: the quiet, the togetherness, and of course, the food. My mom’s (and mom-in-law’s) food this has not even paralleled. But it has been ours.  We’ve dined out on fancy fare and stayed in to cobble together what we can on a tiny electric range.

This smorgasbord post is not meant to provide any inspiring holiday dishes, but to help me remember what we ate on this first Christmas—gathered around a cheap pine table, happy, but yet so far from home.

George DuBoeuf 5$ Beaujolais

Above there are pictures of our first few meals in our unit: Risotto (our favorite throw-together meal) with mini Brussels sprouts, Vermont sausages and fantastic blue cheese. We also managed to steam 2 lbs of mussels in the small saucepan that came in our kitchen—a tasty concoction with its garlic and white wine broth, pear and pecan salad, and local bread. Most of these two meals were procured at Guido’s, a helpful and welcoming gourmet grocer in nearby Pittsfield.

Our first meal out (after a chilly day spent walking and browsing) was at Fin Sushi in Lenox. Our expectations were high, as the restaurant had been featured by a prominent seafood writer in The Atlantic. Our appetizer was pleasing: three large prawns stretched out on skewers and wrapped in what seemed like thin tempura sheets. The accompanying sweet chili dipping sauce was delicious, if not particularly unique. Our Fire Dragon roll featured bbq’d eel, cucumber, and avocado, and was topped with perfectly-done torched salmon sashimi. I admired the addition of pea shoots in our Crispy Yellow Tail rolls, but overall, Fin was more “standard sushi” than life changing. Maybe the more sushi one eats, the harder one is to please.

Crispy shrimp appetizer at Fin Sushi, Lenox, M.A.

Dinner for two: Crispy Yellow Tail and Fire Dragon rolls

We saved our special meal out for Christmas Eve, and taking the advice of our mussel-monger reserved a table for two at Perigee in South Lee, M.A. The contemporary, mid-scale restaurant is only five weeks old and boasts “Berkshire cuisine.” We settled on two bowls of their French Onion Soup (made with Berkshire Brewing Co. porter beer–good, but not as good as my Mom’s!), an order of their crab cakes (delicious), and two plates of the Juniper-scented Venison Osso Buco.

I was a bit worried when the main courses arrived looking more like country beef stews than something a fine restaurant might serve. But once I dug into the first shank and the meat melted off the bone into its moat of lightly juniper-scented stew, I was changed. Once we were given our marrow spoons, I proceeded to dig into the bone, excavating every last morsel of fatty, earthy-sweet tissue. Their wine recommendation—Château Fleur Badon St. Emilion (a Bordeaux)—was juicy and bright, but a too light to keep up with the heavy texture of the venison. Service was sufficiently cordial, but a bit awkward and uneducated. (What kind of server uses a plastic rabbit-ears corkscrew anymore?)

new england crab cakes starter

venison osso bucco with root vegetables

the menu at Perigee

Never a fan of the ubiquitous dessert tray that our server proffered, we headed back to Lee to try out Chez Nous. Their offerings were much more appealing, and we settled on a Blondie sundae with sea-salted caramel, rum-soaked raisins and Tahitian vanilla ice cream. Second in line was a chocolate-hazelnut Yule Log rolled in ganache and adorned with “traditional garnishes,” including a meringue-turned-toadstool and candied orange peel.

They were the perfect hits of sweetness to keep us up through the gorgeous service at St. Stephen’s Episcopal in Pittsfield.

After this, I could forever renounce the Brownie

the Yule Log

Today, after a luxurious night’s sleep, we feasted on eggnog-spiked apple-bread French toast and those same Vermont sausages. With apologies to my brother-in-law (whose eggnog scrambled eggs I apparently rebuffed last year), we were delighted by the leftover egg-and-nog batter we scrambled up in the pan. For dinner, we sauteed turkey livers with loads of red-wine caramelized onions. Later tonight if I’m missing home too much, at least I’ll have my Ward family nuts n’ bolts to offer solace.

And while I’m sorry that I haven’t been sharing many recipes as of late, I have been enjoying tracing this shifting life of mine, and tracking the noshes and nibbles that keep bringing me such delight.

“And they all went to bed tired and happy.” – line from my favorite childhood Christmas story