Reminders

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Last summer I worked briefly at a farm. It was a small, local organic place, and working there was fun- for the first hour or so, if the weather was nice. After that it was tiring and dull, back achingly hard work. The whole thing was something I wanted to love- so noble! So countercultural!- but I couldn’t. Farming was so much harder than I had ever imagined it would be, and I imagined it to be a lot of hard work. I was glad when I was finished. Guilty, but glad.

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I loved vegetables long before that- it’s one of the reasons I applied to work there- but I had never known just how wide the bounty could be. Numerous types of white onions, three varieties of watermelon, several plantings of sunflowers- I loved all of that. Learning and soaking up information. I learned that squash roots are terribly fragile, but cucumber are more so. I learned how to grow tomatoes in a hoop house and that I break out in rashes when weeding peas. All valuable information, all information I’m not sure I’ll ever use again.

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My time there serves as a reminder to me. That the difficult things have there own value. Some of that value comes from that it is difficult. That wanting to love something isn’t enough. That small farms deserve whatever support I can give them. That migrant workers who pick so much of the produce sold in the U.S. deserve much better wages and a more visible position in our society.  That I need to take the time to stop and stretch and look around when things are painful.  That I’m often wrong. And that I can always eat more vegetables.

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Ecsarole and Roast Cherry Tomato Salad

This recipe makes more cherry tomatoes than you need. You could double the recipe for two meal sized portions, or you could eat them at another time. I ate them the next day, room temperature with brie and a baguette, and highly recommend it.

Makes 1 meal-sized serving

1 quart cherry tomatoes
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon olive oil
salt
Half a head of escarole, washed and torn into pieces
Parmesean cheese, for shaving
1 egg

Dressing

1 clove of garlic, peeled
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
½ teaspoon stone ground mustard
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
salt
pepper
sugar (optional)

In a mortor and pestle, or on a cutting board with a chef’s knife, pound the garlic into a paste. Whisk in the vinegar and mustard, and then whisk in the olive oil. Add the salt and pepper to taste, and add a pinch of sugar to the dressing if it tastes too harsh. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 400. Combine the tomatoes, the thyme, the olive oil, and a pinch of salt in a large bowl and toss well to combine. Turn out onto a cookie sheet and roast the cherry tomatoes until they’ve started to collapse onto themselves, about 20 minutes.

In a medium saucepan with a tight fitting lid combine the egg and several inches of cold water to cover. Bring the pot to boil, turn off the heat, cover, and let sit for 5 minutes. While the egg sits fill a bowl with ice and cold water. When the five minutes are up transfer the egg using a slotted spoon and let it sit in the water for 10 minutes. Peel and slice into quarters.

Place the escarole in a large bowl. Rewhisk the dressing, and pour over the escarole, using your hands to toss the dressing. Transfer to a plate and add the roasted cherry tomatoes. Shave Parmesean over the salad (I use a vegetable peeler), top with the egg, and eat.

If This Isn’t Nice I Don’t Know What Is

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(I wrote this post on Tuesday, but troubles with WordPress have stopped me from putting it up until now. Let’s pretend that it went up Tuesday, when I was in Chicago, rather than Thursday, when I am now unfortunately gone.)

Hello from suburban Chicago! I’m here hanging at my parent’s dining room table. My sister Abby is still home until tonight, and we’ve been hashing out all of the wedding details. There’s been too much shopping going on recently, but in return we’ve been playing games every night- Euchre and Kings in the Corner and Curses. My family loves games. There’s also been a lot of popcorn and cuddling with the most beautiful mutt in the world and failed attempts at going to bed early. It’s been good to be back. I’m here until Thursday.

 

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We moved into this house when I was three, on Abby’s first birthday. When I was in elementary school I used to curl up next to the kitchen radiator during cold mornings. I always wanted to eat breakfast there, but Mom would never let me. When they redid the kitchen I was 16. The kitchen is beautiful now and so wonderful to cook in, but I mourned the loss of that radiator. It’s a little embarrassing to admit how much I missed it.

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Yesterday Abby and my brother Mitch and I all made pretzels together. I got to use my mom’s stand mixer and ended up partially kneading them anyway. We didn’t keep careful track of the time so they ended up overproofing a bit. Some were dense. Some were fluffy. A few ended up not being pretzel shapped at all. They were all delicious. I whipped up this dip to go along with it. When I was in college my friends and I used to hang out at Toppling Goliath, our local brewery. They had seriously good and seriously affordable fresh brews there, and always served hard pretzels for free. There was usually this dip to go along with it. Sometimes that was dinner- a four-dollar pint of beer and as much free pretzels and dip as you could eat. When I asked for the recipe they told me that a customer often brought it in. Luckily, I met her and she was extremely nice and rattled the recipe off the top of her head. I’ve made it a few times since, and feel that this is a good adaptation. It’s a dip for joyous gatherings, for those times when you can stop and think “if this isn’t nice I don’t know what is”. (Thanks, Kurt Vonnegut, for that.)

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Toppling Goliath Mustard Dip

The original recipe called for a significantly larger amount of all ingredients. This is the scaled down version. It’s ideal with pretzels, but I think I’ll be using my leftovers as a sandwich spread.

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1/3 cup Dijon mustard

1/4 cup horseradish sauce

1 tablespoon vinegar

1 tablespoon sugar

 

Mix all ingredients in a small bowl until smooth.

The Best Laid Plans

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Sometimes it can be hard to figure out what, exactly, to put on this blog.

There are so many components that play into the decision to post food here. I don’t want to put too many desserts in a row, or too many pictures of brown foods. The photographs have to be at least passable. And I have to have something to say.

All of this, and that’s without making the food taste good. Sometimes I have an idea and I tinker with it a few times over, and then get it just as I like it. Other times I make something and after I’m already eating it (or worse, after it’s gone), I realize the dish needs to be shared. Sometimes I have a plan, well-laid out in my head, and then it doesn’t work the way I envisioned at all. That’s often a disaster. But this time it ended up better than I had imagined.

I have a vegan cookbook called Vedge, written by the chef-owners of the restaurant by the same name. I dog-eared about twenty recipes. One of those was a sweet potato turnover made with sweet red cabbage, which sounded intriguing. It could go well or poorly, and the only way to know was to cook it.

And so I substituted their vegan turnover dough for Dorie Greenspan’s decidedly not vegan dough. I made the sweet potato mash. I made the sweet red cabbage, which was somehow both sulfuric and caramel-y. I filled the turnover dough with sweet potatoes, and baked them. I got quite nervous about the whole enterprise. I threw out the red cabbage. I pulled the turnovers out of the oven, let them cool what I though was long enough, and bit into them. The first thought was that they were very, very hot. The second was that they were quite tasty. The third was that they did not want to be turnovers. Not at all. In fact, they wanted to be pop tarts.

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These “pop tarts” are sweet and comforting, but also quite elegant. They’re also intensely adaptable. I’m thinking of adding in crystallized ginger, swapping the brown sugar for a bit of maple syrup, using bourbon instead of vanilla extract, or adding lemon zest to the pastry dough. I know I’ll be making variations on this for a while. If you try any of these, let me know.  

Sweet Potato Pop Tarts

With half a cup of sugar in the filling these could be a lovely dessert, decrease the sweetness and they would be an excellent breakfast pastry. There are a fair bit of compartments, but they move fairly quickly. I imagine this dough would be wonderful in uses of several different types of pastry.

Makes about a dozen pop tarts

Dough

adapted from Baking: From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan

1 cup sour cream

¼ cup sugar

4 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

3 sticks (24 tablespoons) cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces

In a small bowl mix together the sour cream and the sugar and set aside. In a large bowl whisk the flour and salt together, and then add the butter to the flour. I used my fingers to work the butter in, as does Dorie Greespan (vindication!), but you could use two knives or a pastry cutter. Work quickly, and stop when the dough resembles a coarse meal. Switch to using a fork, and add in the sour cream mixture using a lifting and tossing motion. The dough will be very soft. Divide it into two, pat out each ball into a rectangle, and cover it with plastic wrap and stick in the refrigerator for at least an hour.

Take the rectangle out of the fridge and roll out between sheets of plastic wrap or waxed paper about 9 by 18 inches. Fold the dough into third like a business letter, wrap it, and refrigerate it. Repeat with the second piece of dough, and refrigerate the dough for at least two hours.

Sweet Potato Filling

adapted from Vedge: 100 Plates Large and Small That Redefine Vegetable Cooking by Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby

1 large sweet ptotato, peeled and chopped into one-inch pieces

¼-1/2 cup packed light brown sugar, depending on sweetness desired

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 ½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract

½ teaspoon salt

Bring a medium pot of water to boil and salt the water lightly. Add the sweet potatos and boil until fork-tender, about ten minutes. Drain the water, reserving ¼ a cup. Transfer the sweet potatoes to a heat safe bowl.

In the bowl use a potato masher to make a smooth puree of sweet potatoes. Using a whisk, combine the reserve water, brown sugar, butter, vanilla extract, and salt. Whisk until smoothly combined, taste for seasonings, and set aside to cool.

Glaze

1 tablespoon lemon juice

½ teaspoon lemon zest

¼ teaspoon powdered ginger

1 teaspoon honey

In a small bowl combine the lemon juice, zest, and ginger. Add in the honey, and mix well until the mixture is smooth. Taste, and adjust to your liking, but remember that you want the glaze to be bright and punchy and not too sweet.

Assembly

Preheat the oven to 375. If your oven is large enough, position your racks to divide the oven in thirds. If it’s too small, position the racks in the middle.

Roll out one of the pieces of dough to 1/8 inch thickness, and cut into 4 inch squares, either with a cutter, or freehand. (I did mine with a homemade stencil and a sharp knife.) Take the scraps, wrap them in plastic wrap, and stick back in the refrigerator. The pastry made from the scraps won’t be as pretty or flakey as the first, but they were still flakier than any pie crust I’ve ever tried to make. Place two to three tablespoons of the filling in the middle of one of the square. Use a finger dipped in water to brush the edges of the square with the filling on it. Drape the second square over the first and press around the filling to seal. Use the tines of a fork press the edges together. Repeat with the remaining squares. Roll out the second piece of dough, and repeat the whole process.

Place the pastries on a cookie sheet. Prick the top of the pastries a few times with a fork. Brush with an egg wash (an egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water) and sprinkle with sugar. Bake for 20 minutes, rotating the sheets after ten minutes. The pastries will be puffed and golden when they are finish. Brush with the glaze, and let it cool on a wire rack.

They can be stored raw in the freezer for a few months, and baked without defrosting but with a few extra minutes added onto the cooking time. I had luck freezing cooked ones and reheating in the microwave. 

Literary Feasts: “A Series of Unfortunate Events” + False Spring Rolls

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            Words and eating are two of my great loves, and this post is the first in a series of recipes inspired by words. This post is devoted to one of my favorite series of books as a kid, A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket.

The series of thirteen novels starts off as a stylistic but straightforward story. Violet (14), Klaus (12), and Sonny (infant) Baudelaire are orphaned when their parents die in a fire and they are sent to live with the villainous Count Olaf, who lusts after their fortune. Their life is consumed by survival, which means outwitting Olaf constantly. But the body count starts to pile up as the books go along, and the Baudelaire children find themselves stealing and committing arson and lying to survive. And because they are intelligent and kind and well read, they are always questioning whether their need to survive justifies their actions, or if their actions label them as villains.

The real joy is Snicket’s omniscient, verbose, and futile narration. He is a character in the story, one that features prominently off-page. And there is prose such as this:

Deciding on the right thing to do in a situation is a bit like deciding on the right thing to wear to a party. It is easy to decide on what is wrong to wear to a party, such as deep-sea diving equipment or a pair of large pillows, but deciding what is right is much trickier. It might seem right to wear a navy blue suit, for instance, but when you arrive there could be several other people wearing the same thing, and you could end up being handcuffed due to a case of mistaken identity. It might seem right to wear your favorite pair of shoes, but there could be a sudden flood at the party, and your shoes would be ruined. And it might seem right to wear a suit of armor to the party, but there could be several other people wearing the same thing, and you could end up being caught in a flood due to a case of mistaken identity, and find yourself drifting out to sea wishing that you were wearing deep–sea diving equipment after all. The truth is that you can never be sure if you have decided on the right thing until the party is over, and by then it is too late to go back and change your mind, which is why the world is filled with people doing terrible things and wearing ugly clothing, and so few volunteers who are able to stop them.

-The Slippery Slope,  Lemony Snicket

            I’ve been thinking about the right thing to do and villainy recently. Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church fame is in the news today for reportedly dying in a hospice. I have never had any personal interaction with Westboro or him, but the thought of them fills my mouth with bile. It’s difficult to know the right thing to do, as Snicket says, but I don’t think it’s to hate. He’s already been the source of so much hatred, and I don’t want to add onto it. But the tug, the desire to hate him is there. I have to struggle against it. It’s a small but important battle of emotion over decision that shapes the way I live.

In turmoil such as this we turn to our anchors. We grasp onto the things that ground us. For the Baudelaires, these were each other, books, and food. I understand that. Those are my anchors too.

“But what are you going to make for a False Spring dinner?” Violet asked.

Sunny gave her sister a smile, and walked over to the trunk of the car. Violet and Quigley heard her rummaging around among the remaining groceries, but stayed put so Olaf or any of his associates wouldn’t spot them. When Sunny returned, she had a triumphant smile on her face, and the frozen hunk of spinach, the large bag of mushrooms, the can of water chestnuts, and the enormous eggplant in her arms. “False spring rolls!” she said, which meant something like, “An assortment of vegetables wrapped in spinach leaves, prepared in honor of False Spring.”

-The Slippery Slope, Lemony Snicket

            Sunny prepared false spring rolls for the False Spring, the thaw in winter that happens before the freeze resumes. The spring rolls below are false, because they are inauthentic. And they were made in our own false spring, during the week when the thaw began. I sit in my apartment tonight with snow blowing around the building and a winter storm watch in effect. So it goes.

I wish I had the answers, but I don’t. I do know a few things help. Read good books. Avoid the red heat of hate. Eat good food with the people you love.

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False Spring Rolls

You can adapt the filling however you like. I like this combination, with the substance from the rice and the vinegary heat from the pickled carrots paired with the crunch of the cabbage and the creaminess of the avocado. However you choose to fill it, don’t overfill, and wrap it as tightly as you can manage.

Spring roll wrappers

Cold, cooked rice

Shredded red cabbage

Pickled carrots (recipe below)

Avocado

Fill a wide, shallow dish such as a cake pan or a pie tin with cold water. Soak a rice paper wrapper in the water for ten seconds. The paper will not have seemed to absorb much water at this point, but it will keep on softening. Place on a cutting board.

To the right of the center, with about an inch to the edge, add a line of rice. Add a small sprinkle of the red cabbage, a few slices of pickled carrots, and a sliver or two of avocado. Make sure to keep all of the ingredients in an orderly line, and keep the pile of filling from touching either the top or the bottom of the wrapper.

Fold the bottom of the rice paper up and the top of the rice paper down. Now fold the remaining inch of paper over the filling and tuck the filling under the paper. Roll the filling tucked under for the rest of the paper, keeping it as tight as you can manage. Repeat as many times as necessary.

Serve with tamari, or a dipping sauce of your choice.

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Pickled Carrots

adapted from The Northern Heartland Kitchen by Beth Dooley

This recipe was originally written for half a pound of carrots and I scaled it up slightly. I used some beautiful purple and yellow carrots along with the standard orange to make these pickles. The color of the purple carrots faded, but the taste is outstanding. The original recipe called for the whole quantity of vinegar to be champagne vinegar. I instead went with a combination of apple cider and red wine vinegar. I imagine it would be delicious with any number of vinegars. The amount of red pepper flakes is enough to make my mouth tingle, but not enough to distract with heat. That’s to my liking, but adjust to your preferred heat level.

1 ½ tablespoons kosher salt

¾ pounds carrots, cut into two-inch long matchsticks

¾ cup apple cider vinegar

¾ cup red wine vinegar

1/3 cup honey

½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

Combine the salt and the carrots in a large bowl and toss. Let them mingle together for an hour. Rinse and drain the carrots well, then transfer to a canning jar.

In a small saucepan combine the vinegars, honey, and red pepper flakes and bring to a boil, stirring often. Turn off the heat and pour over the carrots. Let the carrots in vinegar stay out, uncovered, until the mixture has come to room temperature, and then cover and place in the refrigerator overnight to let the flavors marry. They should keep for a month in the refrigerator.

Comforts of Home

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Home can be measured in a million different ways. Sometimes home is a complicated, nebulous thing. A hometown isn’t always a positive association. A house isn’t necessarily a home. Sometimes home can be very far from where you live, or can be multiple places at once. Sometimes home only exists in our most perfect imaginings. Where is home for you? Whenever I think of home it’s Chicago, despite having never lived in the city proper. Home for Aaron is Ann Arbor, Michigan, the town he doesn’t remember living in but loves intensely. And then to complicate things further we also have both started to make a home together in Minneapolis, and feel at home in the small town in Iowa where we met in college.

I have hundred-year-old roots in Chicago. I grew up in the suburb of Joliet, and I lived there from birth to college. My family still live in the same house we moved into when I was three. My dad grew up in Joliet, my mom in Chicago. Both of their parents grew up in Chicagoland (the official name for the suburbs of Chicago), and lived there all of their lives, save spells in Alaska, North Carolina, and Guam as members of the military. Our roots in Chicago start with my great-grandparents as immigrants, from Ireland and what is now Slovakia.

Aaron’s parents live in Chicagoland and he did when he was in high school. But he was born in Michigan, where his dad was getting his PhD, and raised in Kentucky, where he camped with his boy scout troop on the track of the Kentucky Derby and got used to open spaces and lived in the same town as Jennifer Lawrence without ever meeting her. When we first started dating he couldn’t believe that I had spent almost my whole life in one place. I couldn’t comprehend having moved states four times before turning 15.

When we first started dating we were college freshmen. I was a carb-loving semi-vegetarian and he was a self-described “meat and potatoes kind of guy”. We both lived in those comfort food ruts. Now I’m an adventurous pescatarian and he’s an adventurous carnivore. We had a lot of influence over each other. I probably never would have eaten eggs without him first making them for me. He eats a lot less meat than he did before we started dating. Together we load up on leafy greens and citrus and beans, trying to balance health with the comfort of home we crave.

I created this soup as comfort food for Aaron. Split pea is always one of his favorites, and I wanted a version that I could enjoy too. This is an ode to where we’ve been and where we’re going- a smoky, meatless split pea soup, made with Kentucky bourbon in our budding home in Minnesota.

Split Pea Soup

Bourbon and molasses bring sweetness, the peas and the molasses keep the flavor earthy, and the salt and liquid smoke keep everything balanced. Liquid smoke is liquid hickory smoke flavor, and although the name might sound like a science experiment, there’s nothing funky in it. The bourbon adds a sweet corn note to the soup, and if you want to omit the bourbon, I would replace it with something with some sweetness and some salt.

1 tablespoon of ghee, or an equal parts mixture of olive oil and butter

1 yellow onion, diced

1 tablespoon bourbon (I used Bulleit)

6 cups water

2 cups green split peas

2 teaspoons molasses

1 ½ teaspoon liquid smoke

½ teaspoon salt

 

In a soup pot melt the ghee over medium-low heat. Add the onion and stir to coat in fat. Let the onion sauté until translucent, and then add a pinch of salt. Stir every few minutes until the onions are deeply golden and browning in places.

Add the bourbon to deglaze the pot, stirring well to loosen any browning in the pot. Add the water and split peas, and bring to a boil. Once the water is boiling, turn down to a simmer, and add the molasses, liquid smoke, and salt.

Let the soup simmer until the peas have dissolved, about 45 minutes. Taste for seasonings. Serve hot with bread or biscuits.