My Kitchen, and the Upcoming Party!

IMG_3518

One of the most important things for you to know about my kitchen is how people refer to it when they see it: it is “cute.” That means, for those who haven’t had the term applied to their kitchens, “so small that the dishwasher door hits the counter and no one can open the oven door in that cute 1950’s flounce to check the turkey, but rather has to crane over from the side in order to open it at all.” I’ve never opened my oven all the way, for fear of burning myself in an attempt to close it.

I am, by the way, not actually complaining. It’s nice to be a newlywed in a kitchen where you brush against each other inevitably because any two human frames, back to back, fill the whole space in our kitchen. There are cute countertops, a ton of wonderful tools given to me during my bridal shower, and an amazing pot rack hanging from the high ceiling that I still smile at every time I see it.

The pot rack gives me special joy because I have a quality that is usually frowned upon in adults: I don’t like to put things away. My now-husband, then-boyfriend was flummoxed by my tendency to put things in (and I quote) “exactly the place where you think about putting them down, rather than in a place where you’ll be able to find them again.” What this ends up looking like is that all of the things I own – clothes, books, pots and pans – are usually out where I can see them, in no discernible order, and differently arranged than last week.

My husband is laid back and reasonably tidy and clean, not a neat freak, so I knew going into this whole marriage-and-living-in-the-same-space thing I would be adjusting. Still, a pot rack is a thing of beauty for us: it is a designated space for the pots and pans, which he likes, and I never am tempted to put a pot down anywhere else because the kitchen is too small for even my lazy style to leave a pot somewhere.

We’ve had very few visitors so far in the house: we live far from friends and family and haven’t really had time to make new friends. However, I really enjoyed the few visitors we’ve had who roomed with me in college, because as opposed to others, who probably said “This place would be nice if they didn’t have so many empty rooms” in their heads, my college friends probably thought “this man has reformed her; she is a woman born anew.” I always like for people to judge me on my improvement, not my absolute accomplishment, at least where cleaning is concerned.

Lastly, I’ve “opened this up” – I’ve asked a variety of other friends to offer up some recipes for me to use, those they like and those that are close to their hearts. I’m trying not to make all the foods have some “deeper significance,” though if they do, that’s awesome. Mostly, it’s fun to hear the stories of the foods; how they made it, how they learned to perfect it.

For this reason, I’m holding my first dinner party tomorrow! I’m excited to see what people come up with, and how my new cleaning skills hold up in the face of many visitors. Will update on various aspects of the party next week. 🙂

 

 

Advertisements

6. M’s Sage Polenta Bowls

IMG_3534M and I started our friendship in a class full of disagreement. It was one of those discussion-based classes, but instead of no one doing the reading and leaving the 50 minutes after a lot of awkward pauses, we filled the time with questions and thoughts. M and I met up once or twice, but until we went on a road trip 8 months later to a conference together, we didn’t grow close. For a month or so, we would hang out every day – going to plays on campus, eating at the dining hall, staying up late doing craft projects and getting up early to drink coffee together.

Then she transferred to another school. Since then, our years-long friendship has been mostly digital – we visit when we can, but our conversations are a long, LONG reminder that we have so much in common. I rely on her whenever I happen to be online researching or writing, because she often has something new and interesting for me to think about.

She sent me a recipe which she later pointed out “has very little significance, it was just something that we made and enjoyed.” I tried it, though in a lazy way, but discovered that 1. I’m not a big fan of brussel sprouts and 2. sage is one of the strangest flavors ever.

IMG_3592

Shopping for this recipe was hard, and I didn’t even manage to remember mushrooms. I found sage at a local mega-mart after shopping for a lot of other odd foods (spaghetti squash!) as well as fresh brussel sprouts. I recently learned that brussel sprouts, col rabe, broccoli, cauliflower, collard greens, and kale all come from the same plant – though when I say same plant, I mean species, not literally the same bush or vine or whatever it is. The genetic variation within it is nothing less than amazing. Sage however, was a thing apart – fuzzy leaves with a thick, floral scent. The mega-mart sales associate I asked about polenta looked at me like I was crazy and Husband cracked a joke that polenta was “what comes out with the baby.” Still, I persevered, and located Polenta straight from Italy in the Italian food section, hidden between other ethnic food sections, quite a distance from the pasta and sauces.

IMG_3591

I made the recipe on a very very cold night, and I realized that all this actual cooking (very little take-out pizza lately) has me taking comfort in chopping things. A good song on the radio, a pile of fuzzy leaves, a few well-quartered brussel sprouts – all were reassurances that I was where I needed to be at that moment. M has often encouraged me to believe I am good enough at things, not somehow lagging behind everyone else in the human race because it takes me a while to learn my lessons. Cutting up brussel sprouts and sage does something similar.

IMG_3596

The brussel sprouts probably needed a little longer in my oven, and I have no idea how much better they would have been if I had cooked them with olive oil and mushrooms (I cooked them in a cream-of-mushroom soup, which was still savory and mushroomy but not nearly as light as I expect real mushrooms would have been). Still, after a minute in the microwave with the much-faster-to-cook polenta, they were tender but firm. Sage was a flavor that I felt I wanted to smell more than I wanted to eat, but at the same time the whole dish felt like something utterly different from anything else I cook.

IMG_3597

Another friend told me recently that The Simple Veganista, a food blogger, had made her “look at vegetables in a whole new way.” Trying recipes that were recommended to me but which I wouldn’t have picked out  for myself is doing the same thing for me: sending me deep into the fresh herbs aisle, having me quarter fresh brussel sprouts, making the regular shopping adventure into a new thing. M has had that effect on me: when she visits, I see my regular life in a new light, or we meet up in places that neither of us know well and we find something extraordinary about them. Perhaps one of the things I find most amazing about M is that she persistently looks for the best: not just in a very-sunny-and-positive way, but that she doesn’t delude herself that something is the best if there is some new possibility around the corner.

I tried the leftover sprouts and polenta today – I appreciate the mixing of flavors more today than I did the first day. I recommend that you save at least a serving to try post-refridgeration, if you aren’t making this for a big group. 🙂

IMG_3601

This recipe, beautifully photographed and described, is on Oh My Veggies, so check them out to start your own veggie adventure: http://ohmyveggies.com/recipe-sage-polenta-bowls-with-roasted-brussels-sprouts-wild-mushrooms/

5. B’s Spaghetti Squash and Sausage Surprise

sausage surprise

B and I are a special kind of friends. We knew each other throughout college, and had a lot of close mutual friends through various extracurricular interests. Every time I spent time with B, we got into important, interesting conversations, often exceedingly emotional and raw but never awkward. All the friends we had in common stopped keeping in touch with me after college, but B and I, and her boyfriend-turned-husband E, get along famously and whenever we’re in the same city, no matter how busy, we find some way to see each other. I knew they were going to be one of the couples who didn’t know a whole lot of folks at my wedding, but I wanted them there, and they were able to make it.

My wedding was a whirlwind (first and only time a party that big has been for me/about me), but one of the clear memories I have was that in the dance playlist there was a little interlude of bluegrass music – B and I used to contra dance, which is done to old-time tunes and sometimes to bluegrass as well. B found me, in giant white dress, and pulled me to the dance floor for a rollicking jumping-around dance that practically had my fluffy dress taking the place over. I remember it as exhilaration, and I remember it as being connected to someone I rarely get to speak to or spend time with anymore.

IMG_3594

I haven’t asked B yet why she chose this recipe, and I have to admit that I exercised a lot of artistic license with my execution of it. Instead of chicken sausage, I had pork, and it was hot and spicy (which worked to my advantage later). Instead of spaghetti squash, I baked up a big round acorn squash and some zucchini – at the grocery store, I’d looked high and low for spaghetti squash but it must have been out of stock. I figured squashes usually took on the flavors of their surroundings, so the hot and spicy sausage and the later liberal sprinklings of cajun seasoning would make it possible to disguise the incorrect squash.

Our substitute for regular cajun seasoning: paprika, coriander, black pepper, oregano, and garlic.

Our substitute for regular cajun seasoning: paprika, coriander, black pepper, oregano, and garlic.

I would love to make it again, especially given that it is essentially the favorite dish of my husband: he loves covering a large pile of vegetables with seasonings, adding either chicken or beef or sausage, and cooking it together until it is all one big delicious stir fry. This was a nice twist but also familiar for him.

IMG_3600

The food went especially well with the side dish we ended up making (Sage Polenta with Brussel Sprouts and Mushrooms – coming soon!), and mixing a little bit of this spicy dish with some of the creamy, smooth polenta was perfect. I am a recovering spice wimp, so I still appreciate something that can help me temper heat. Still, winter recipe thumbs up for the hot sausage in this recipe – it makes for a delicious mix.

I had a little daydream while Husband was wolfing down his second portion that B and E could come up and visit us; I imagined that we would play a lot of board games, discuss good wine and their interesting jobs, take them for walks in our town and B and I would talk and talk and talk. We’d, in all likelihood, cry at some point. She’d give me advice on marriage. As I ate another big forkful of sausage surprise, I felt warmed by it, and warmed by my daydream.

IMG_3603

 

Spaghetti Squash and Sausage Surprise

What you need:

  • 1 Spaghetti Squash
  • Green, red, and yellow peppers (I used orange… haha)
  • pack of chicken sausage
  • cajun seasoning (we sub pesto too!)
  • mozzerella cheese… amount, who knows? as much as you’d like.
  1. Preheat 350`F – cook squash whole for 30 minutes and 30 minutes after flipping the sqush.
  2. Slice hot-dog length and fork out seeds and goop.
  3. Then fork into “spaghetti noodles” (I missed out on this and just threw in chunks of acorn squash).
  4. Slice peppers and sausage.
  5. Skillet on medium; until brown. Add cajun seasoning, we use lots!
  6. Throw peppers, sausage to bowl of “spaghetti” and add cheese to your liking!

4. J’s Quiche Recipe

IMG_3520J and I met because we taught a class together – the students thought she was like a genie because she wore flowing skirts and things with glitter on them. J lives in my favorite beach town in the world and studies how to be a writer there, which means that when I once visited her, she and I walked for ages under the bright sunshine, and ate bowls of steaming lobster bisque with mountains of hush puppies on a beautiful boardwalk, at a restaurant where the waiter clearly was flirting with her. In the mornings while I was there, I’d wake up on her couch and work on a short story until she woke up and made us toaster pastries. She is not pretentious in any of the ways that writers can be pretentious. When I saw at the bottom of the recipe card that this quiche was what she made when she felt “fancy,” I knew I would be excited to try it, even when it turned out that, like so much of what J does, it was both simple and wonderful.
This time, I took pictures! I warn you, they are amateurish – was talking with a friend this very morning about how hard it must be to take good food photos (for me, the hardest part is finding a pretty enough backdrop for them – I have to zoom pretty far in to make my kitchen look tidy).

IMG_3581
First, I sauteed some frozen peppers and onions with the last of the week’s salad spinach. Husband may love salads but I often find myself with the halfway-to-inedible bits of greens left, and this seemed a great use for them.

IMG_3584

Husband made bacon with breakfast this morning, praise be, so I got to put it in the bottom of the pie crust to add to the “glory” of it all. (The recipe literally says: “Extra glory: add bacon!”).

IMG_3583

I used coconut milk instead of regular, because we just don’t seem to buy milk because we never drink it and it goes bad faster than regular milk… I don’t taste a difference and Husband, who doesn’t like coconut, survives all the things I cook with it. It’s rich while still letting me pretend it is healthy – as you’ve seen, one of my favorite tricks to play on myself.

IMG_3587

The proportions weren’t quite right for me, eyeballing contents expertly and given that J didn’t specify a quantity of veggies, so I added one more egg and it worked just fine. I also used sharp cheddar instead of mozerella because – surprise surprise – I didn’t have any mozzerella. So sue me.
The end product was good – a wonderful combination of light and crisp, earthy and rich. I enjoyed eating it and Husband said he would eat the whole thing if he could, though that might have been because he’d just been replacing a window all day and was really hungry.

J is a person who teaches those around her that even hardship produces some kinds of wonder – I rarely spend a day or afternoon with J when she doesn’t spend part of that time amazed by something. She isn’t naive or sheltered – her life has held more already than I could reasonably expect to see during my own – but her vision of the world is tinged with magical possibility. She’s a hopeless romantic and given that she and I met the same day I first asked Husband out, she’s been giving appreciative gasps and “that’s so cute!” through our whole story. I treasure sharing her “feelling fancy” recipe on this cold afternoon as Husband fixes the window and I try to tidy this place up a bit. I hope it warms you up too.

Easy Quiche

 

  • Pick the veggies you want (I go for onion, red pepper, or broccoli)
  • Saute veggies till they look good (like well-dressed men)
  • Beat 3 eggs and ⅔ cup of milk together
  • Put sauteed veggies in the bottom of a 9-inch pie crust and pour the egg mixture on top.
  • Finish with about 1 cup of mozzerella cheese sprinkled on top.
  • 30 minutes in the oven at 375 degrees.
  • I make this all the time. It’s basically the only thing I can cook and feel fancy.
  • Extra glory: add bacon!

 

 

3. A’s Lentil Soup Recipe

IMG_3525I expected for A’s recipe to make a ton of food when I remembered the last time we cooked together. She and I stayed friends after being college roommates and I visited her family for almost a week; we decided to make curry. We massively misjudged how much coconut cream, rice, chicken, spices, everything we needed and ended up filling a big stock pot with spicy, warm goodness – it’s a good problem to have in January though we were eating it for days. We didn’t follow a recipe, but rather the laws of push and pull – when it became apparent that we’d added too much rice, she threw on more chicken to brown; when the sauce got weak and thin, I added in more yogurt. The problem being, as always, that you cannot take anything out, scale it back to a manageable size.

A has watched me in so many stages of life, talking me through many huge decisions, and even now she knows just what to give me: while others lavished me with the cheesy, crispy, delectable dishes that meant home to them, A gave me a dish that was so nutrient filled and simple that I almost judged it too healthy. She knows that I struggle to eat enough vegetables; she knows so much that she sent a recipe that would build me, make me stronger.

A’s lentil soup starts with sautéing vegetables (a green pepper, an onion, tons of garlic, mushrooms) in butter, so it wasn’t all roughage, but then it gets filled up with spinach, tomato, water, and lentils. The whole thing has to cook for an hour but much of that time is idle; I used it to mop and to make two other recipes, because I have a busy week and wouldn’t be able to get to them otherwise, but it seemed fitting that there was time for reflection bundled into A’s soup. She is a thoughtful person, not in the “sweet and considerate” way (though she is that too) but also just a person who thinks a lot, who has never allowed adulthood to crowd contemplation out of her days.

In a book I’ve been reading as part of my food memoir stint, Blood, Bones, and Butter, the author Gabrielle Hamilton describes hunger as specific; be it hunger for cream or hunger for salt or hunger for crisp, it’s always connected to something in particular. In her list of cravings, she mentioned “watery.” I felt like I had rarely had a craving for watery – wouldn’t that just be thirst? Then I thought of the brothy soup served at Japanese restaurants, and of watermelon, and of celery, and I realized there were cravings for watery things.

When I served the soup to Husband, he liked it a lot despite finding it watery (also despite having it alongside two other dishes with much more flavor and intensity). He said that while it was bland, it satisfied a craving he’d been having – warm and strengthening, with just a twinge of pepper at the end and not complicated. It surprised me, given how flavorful he likes his food, but it also didn’t surprise me, because he is so like that soup: hearty and simple and good for you. He is not a flashy person, not excessive in almost any way. I appreciate that about him, and about the soup.

A and I did not date in college (anyone, not just each other; though at work they referred to us as a couple jokingly because we left together most days. We lived in the same house!). When we both finally found someone, we began our relationships within months of each other and have now been with those same two men for years – our relationships don’t look anything alike but we’ve weathered many of the stages at very similar times. A knows all my hopes and dreams and how I see Husband very well, so it seems fitting for her to also send me a soup recipe that would remind me of him.

The soup was good even though I had no mozzarella to finish it off, and perfect for a January evening. Having all that brightness in all that cloudy broth was exactly what a knowledgeable friend would have wanted for me. It also was exactly the right amount for one dinner and lunch leftovers, which is more than I can say for our bucket of curry a few years ago.

Lentil Soup (4-6 servings)
½ cup lentils
½ head garlic chopped
1 small onion or ½ large, chopped
8 ounces mushrooms, diced
1 cup spinach chopped
salt, pepper, oregano
2 tbsp butter
1 green pepper chopped
2 or 3 tomatoes, diced
water (8-10 cups?)

Put pepper, onion, mushroom, and garlic in bottom of large pot with butter over medium heat (don’t burn garlic!). After veggies soften, add the rest of the ingredients and bring to a boil. When it reaches a boil, lower to a simmer and cook for about 1 hour. Add more time if lentils are not cooked through (should be soft and pop from their shells a little). Spices are to taste. I usually end up adding another tbsp of butter. May use a little olive oil in addition to butter in beginning steps. Tastes delicious served with mozzarella on top.

The How-Many-Vegetables Game and the Vegetarian Conundrum

IMG_3581I have a decent self-image, but I recognize that I eat in what can only be described as a lopsided food pyramid. Cheese, fried foods, and avocado top my list whenever choosing a meal, and leafy greens, whole grains, and fruits tend to fall by the wayside. This year, I’d love for that to be a little different, so I’m bringing back a game I started playing with myself years ago.

When I first started cooking for myself after a few years of college-cafeteria food, I would wager against myself: how many vegetables and other good-for-me foods can I slip into the chosen dish (read: usually pasta) without deeming the dish gross. This was far from an exact science, and more often than not, the dishes went from delish to gross because of a mismatched proportion rather than because I had too many vegetables in them. Whatever; it was all part of the challenge (can you sense a theme in my adversarial relationship with food?). I was the person trying to substitute pureed cauliflower in her cheese sauces, which I know has worked for some people, but not for imprecise folks like me.

This year, though, I’m hoping to have a more moderate view. At some point, as a modification to the how-many-vegetables game, I started making exactly what the recipe called for but subbed out some of the meat or grain for things like eggplant, onions, or broccoli. These sturdy veggies absorb flavor like champs, make a meal feel like a lot of food but are also lower in calories. Sure, nothing beats a real chicken parm sandwich, but when eggplant parm still tastes like cheese and marinara, I consider it a success.

So that may be a part of my modifications during this year of comfort-food recipes – if it seems appropriate for the recipe, I may sub a sturdy, flavor absorbing veggie for some of whatever meat or grain is called for in my recipes. I won’t make cheese sauce out of cauliflower (that was really a losing battle; I hate cauliflower. It was just so tempting: getting to eat alfredo and call it a vegetable is basically the dream of my entire life).

All these veggie subtitutes might make you think: is this girl a vegetarian? (She sure ain’t a vegan, am I right?) The truth is: no. I’ve never been a vegetarian, never gone a substantial amount of time without eating meat… at least not on purpose.

I would call myself a vegetarian sympathizer. I appreciate all the stats about how much more energy it takes to raise meat than to raise an equal amount of plant protein. I appreciate that there are many healthy plant proteins that don’t contain the marbled striations of fat found in my favorite meat products like bacon. I have actually gone for probably a week and a half without eating meat a few times because of one other fact, which is that I generally find cooking meat icky and requiring of higher precision than I care to exert. Thus, by accident of lazyness, I have indeed started to eat meatless entrees.

The main reason I will never consider the leap from veggie sympathizer to whole-hog vegetarian (hahaha) is that Husband is a carnivore. If he needed to eat meat at every meal, I’d probably be having some words with him, but he’s great: he is willing to try my meatless experiments and is a whiz at making enough food for leftovers and actually eating them – he’s more sustainable than I am and without all the bluster. Still, in exchange for his all-around reasonable attitude toward eating, I see no reason to become the person who has to cook totally separate dishes for each meal – that cannot be saving many dishes or plastic packages. The only exception I make to the we-eat-our-meals-together plan is when he wants something “spicy:” What is reasonably flavored and mouth-tingly to me is bland to him, so I always have him cook the whole dish at my spice level, remove my portion, and go nuts with the red pepper flakes once my portion is out of harm’s way.

So there you have a few important things to know about my cooking style: I am not yet a true convert to the idea of eating mostly veggies but I know it is better for me and (someday) for my family; it just won’t do for me to one day raise a child on pretty much just cheese. I also like the challenge of making something taste like the kind of food I want to be eating, while secretly sneaking nutrients into me. Finally, I’m aiming at more meatlessness in my life, but not sweating a few meaty delicacies. I just really hate getting my hands all chickeny.

2. B’s Casserole Recipe

IMG_3521.jpgI spent New Year’s eve with B and her husband. She is Husband’s cousin, which means now she is my cousin too, and we had such a good time ringing in the new year – lots of foosball and charades and endless mounds of snack food. We all also wore fake mustaches and plastic new-years necklaces, foisted upon us by other relatives – a good time was had by all.

B teaches Kindergarten, which gives her this almost super-human level of maturity; she makes 25 tiny people productive and reasonable for hours every single day. Well, somewhat productive, and more reasonable than they would be any other way. Any casserole that B loves would have to be practical, and sure enough, she printed the casserole recipe out rather than writing it down (smart move; it’s a long recipe) and she annotated the bottom – she let me know that the recipe makes a ton of leftovers perfect for taking to work.

My husband and I both end up eating out at work at lot. Despite both having workplaces that respect our time, we find ourselves struggling to make food in the evenings, much less come up with a good plan for the next day’s lunch. Husband loves him some leftovers, and eats them faithfully when we have them, but I am not a leftover lady. It has to be the best food ever (read: saag paneer and garlic naan, if possible) for me to eat it the second day instead of making a sandwich or… well, or going out to eat.

B’s casserole, a homey and savory chicken, wild rice, and vegetable dish, is both delicious and versatile. While it truly does make a boatload of casserole, what it amounts to is a full meat-veggie-starch meal in one pan (or in our case, two, because I made too much rice…) so your serving size can be pretty generous. I estimate that ours has lasted two people two meals so far, and probably will last us both another two lunches.

I fully intended to take in-progress pictures, but I am new to this blog thing. Husband volunteered to help with the chicken while I worked on the rice, veggies, and cheese sauce, so instead of taking pictures we ended up singing along to the radio and trading spots in our narrow kitchen in order to reach pans and pots. Yes, I know, I cannot blame him for my forgetfulness. I’m blaming him for distracting me instead.

Our process went this way: first we started the rice, which required very little work but lots of time to simmer. I used black rice because I thought the wild rice at my grocery store was weirdly expensive and because black rice actually boils up purple, and come on… purple casserole! Husband began by cutting up and sautéing the chicken in olive oil, adding more spices than the recipe called for because he likes things a little spicy. I cooked broccoli and onions in olive oil with three cloves of garlic that might have already sprouted… we need to buy more garlic.

Once all of these things were well and truly on their way, I started the cheese sauce. Whenever I don’t truly and intensely mess up a roux, I’m very proud of myself, and this time was great – butter and flour to make that pasty, gravy-looking stuff, then bit by bit I added the chicken broth (actually the leftover liquid from cooking the chicken, thinned with one cup of water! mmmmm). It got away from me for a minute and I turned the heat down, but it was not ruined, and once I had the broth incorporated, I added the cheddar cheese and whisked it all smooth. The sauce pooled on top of the rice-chicken-veggie mix in our two pans, but once they were in the oven the cheese melted down into the casserole and suffused the house with a heavy creamy smell.

This casserole came out tasting like its parts, broccoli here or chicken there, but also just tasting warm – the cheese mellowed all the spices but didn’t make it flavorless, and I was satisfied after one reasonable helping and one small helping, which is pretty good for me. B offered the broccoli variation instead of carrots and celery, which would also be good – the only thing I noticed was that I made too much rice (not the recipe’s fault, since they measure in cooked rice), which meant some of it went into the fridge.

You’ll be happy to know I dug into my leftovers with gusto at work today – B may work with 5 year olds for a living, but for her to tame my lazy eating-out habit is quite a feat.

Because this recipe was originally drawn from another food blog, I will just link to them to send a little blog love their way; they have beautiful pictures and the exact recipe at the bottom! http://picky-palate.com/2010/09/13/cheesy-chicken-and-wild-rice-casserole/

IMG_3509

Eating leftover purple rice and veggies and cheese and chicken at work… the envy of my coworkers 🙂