Tuesday, January 12, 2010

"good things ahead"

the food: a lot on my plate
the song: "This Year" The Mountain Goats

Monday morning at 4 a.m. I woke up and just couldn't get back to sleep. It was one of those racing mind times, laying in bed where you begin to think everything is wrong and you aren't on top of anything at all. Where you start to ponder just when everything is going to cave in and you're going to be caught. And strangely, my little blog was weighing in pretty heavily. I have been experiencing writer's block, for lack of a better word... I'm vaugely inspired by everything but have nothing to share.  I also want to show this site a little love and make it look a bit sleeker, more focused, etc. 

So in the throes of my early morning angst, I made the decision to take a brief hiatus from the blogger world. It's funny that a hobby- a completely voluntary decision to write multiple times a week about what you're eating- can seem like such a big thing at 4 a.m. But when I thought about it, I decided taking a break during this time of "meh" might be a good thing. I think it will make me a more focused and stronger writer in the long run and I guess that's what I'm going for here.

While I'm not on the computer, I have some plans for myself.  

1. Be a better partner

I'm a good wife, a decent housekeeper, a fun lady to hang around with, and a killer cook. The husband and I are happy as can be. But we have another project together, too and it's one that I maybe haven't accepted as much responsibility for as I should when I was brought on a year ago. There is work to be done for our record label and upcoming projects that need some attention. It is time I took some ownership of this part of our lives. 

2. Get my hands dirty 

I did a pretty poor job attempting to preserve my garden during this cold snap. There was no mulching, but I did manage to throw some old sheets over the plants and with the help of the husband, the roommate, and the best friend the plants mostly stayed covered during the coldest days. When I went and uncovered my plants, I wasn't expecting all that much. After all, this is the coldest its been in Austin in 15 years. (What's that about, by the way? I thought we had a deal, Texas!) But there they were...a little wilty maybe, but mostly still intact. They survived the front, not to mention my laziness, so I need to show my winter garden a little love while I've still got it. Broccoli and Brussels sprouts, anyone? 

3. Plan ahead

There are so many resources in our fair city that not only spread the word about local and healthy eating, but will also help me become a better gardener. It's almost time to start planning for the spring planting season, and I'm determined to make this one better than the ones before. I've learned so much from my garden and from the kitchen and my long term goal is to help others develop and learn something from their own. Supporting these organizations-  volunteering, attending trainings, going to the Farmer's Market- is a good place to start.

4.  Take more pictures

While not on the computer, I plan to love on my cats. But that's beside the point. We got a pretty cool camera back in November (by the way, you can see the camera in the reflection in sweet Margot's eye.) Sadly I haven't taken the time to learn how to use it. Good pictures are the bread and butter of food blogs and I need to get with the program. Up until this point, the husband has been a huge help with this and I'm sure he'll continue to take a lot of pictures for this site. But I plan to learn from him so I can take pictures on my own, too. 

5. Read & learn

The above books are spread out around my house, just waiting to be read. And man, are there some amazing food blogs out there. I could (and have) spent hours and hours exploring them. Reading about other people's experiences in the kitchen is how I get ideas, what helps develop and strengthen my beliefs about food. Where would I be right now without Michael Pollan? About a year and a half ago we were having dinner with some friends and a neighbor of theirs that I'd just met started telling us about Omnivore's Dilemma. It sounds silly, but that moment changed my life. I was already starting to think about food, trying to solidify my answer when people asked "why did you stop eating meat?" Pollan helped me realize that the questions we face when confronting America's food system go far beyond the vegetarian debate. Omnivore's Dilemma began a journey for me that has lead me to some truly amazing books, websites, organizations, and conversations. But the journey is still ongoing, and I look forward to diving into these books.

All that being said- I will be back. I'm thinking a few weeks here...a month at the most. In March, it will be six months since I first pensively clicked "Publish Post." It's time I upped my writing game, both in style and content. I want to approach six months with confidence, focus, knowledge, and a prettier blog. For the very few of you out there that read Gnocchi No Plan (thank you, thank you), please don't forget about me! If you haven't already, click subscribe at the bottom of the page so that even if you do forget I'll pop up in your email in a few weeks with new recipes and stories. 

For now, keep cooking good food, drinking good beer, and sharing good times around the table. I'll see you in a few weeks.


Saturday, January 9, 2010

"to tell the truth this could be the last time"

the food: Shared Meals
the song: "All My Friends" LCD Soundsytem

Yesterday I did something rare and took a half-day away from the little ones to sleep in, clean up from the Rose Bowl chili party on Thursday, and enjoy the warmth of my own house for a few extra hours. During my quiet morning, I spent a little time brainstorming; in particular, thinking about what food items had stood out in the past week that I could share here. I’ve been keeping things simple: roasted broccoli from the garden with sweet potato, ratatouille and polenta, spaghetti squash. Nothing especially novel or challenging.

Although I don’t have a particular recipe to share, I did realize during my contemplative morning that in the past month almost all the meals we’ve eaten have stood out as exceptional. Why? While some of the food has been new and exciting, most of the specialness comes from who the meals were shared with.

We were able to spend some great time with family and friends this holiday. The husband and I have shared some great, quiet meals since the Christmas hustle, including a simple and special last meal of 2010. We put a lot of thought into our last dinner of the year (spinach and mushroom bruschetta...recipe here), capping it off with perhaps my current favorite beer before officially ringing in the new year with friends and champagne.

For the new year, some holiday houseguests treated us to an amazing dinner at Vespio. Our Vespio meal was as close to culinary perfection as you can get. But what made the meal truly exceptional was the company, the conversation, the bond. One of said houseguests, our good friend Chris, has upgraded to roommate for the time being. Having another person in the house adds that much more to the importance of meals and offers opportunities to collaborate in the kitchen. Every meal these days, no matter how simple or how elaborate seems like something special to be enjoyed slowly and accompanied by good conversation.

It often doesn’t matter what’s being eaten, so much as the people you are eating with. Isn’t that really why we take pictures of food? Why traditions are so often linked to food? Isn’t that why when we make plans to see friends and family, the meeting is usually scheduled around a meal? When we combine good company with the sensory pleasures of food and drink, we create memories on multiple levels. Memories that really stick. These memories can be made in the home, at a nice restaurant, in a bar, at a taco stand...we just have to take the time to notice.

Yesterday, Serious Eats linked to a post on Roger Ebert’s blog about his inability to eat or drink following surgery. It is a beautifully written piece about the power of memory and the subtext of our meals. It speaks right to the importance of the shared meal, and I think is a good reminder for us all to slow down and savor times we spend around the table. After reading his story, it is hard to imagine rushing through a meal ever again. Ebert writes:
“What I miss is the society. Lunch and dinner are the two occasions when we most easily meet with friends and family. They're the first way we experience places far from home. Where we sit to regard the passing parade. How we learn indirectly of other cultures. When we feel good together. Meals are when we get a lot of our talking done -- probably most of our recreational talking. That's what I miss."
Well said. In 2010, I resolve to not take my meals for granted and to notice the power of food to bring us all together.


Tuesday, January 5, 2010

"you fixed me up something that was good for my soul"

the food: Best Brownies
the song:  "Hey Mama" Kayne West (insert obligatory "I'mma let you finish" joke here)

Part of the fun of cooking- especially when you're going to be writing about it later- is experimenting with new recipes, ingredients, and tastes. I obsessively began searching for the world's best vegetarian chili recipe last night to make on Thursday when we will (hopefully) watch UT beat Alabama (I still haven't found the one I'm going to use, by the way). Anyway, at some point you realize there are endless recipes for EVERYTHING, and you really could search and tweak ingredients forever.

But every now and then, you hit upon something that's as close to perfect as you can get. A recipe that, upon first tasting, you feel like "ok, that's it. I'll never need to search for another ____ recipe as long as I live." When my much beloved mom shared her world famous brownie recipe with me this Christmas, my heart did a little flip-flop, and I had that moment.

 Mix, mix, mix.

Now, I admit that I'm fully biased in saying all this. My mom has been making these brownies for me since I was a kid, and her mom (my beautiful Maw-Maw, who just celebrated her 86th birthday!) has been making these brownies since my mom was a kid. Both of these women are so talented in the kitchen, so it stands to reason that they wouldn't spend years of their lives making sub-par brownies. These are simple to make and delicious. They are everything a brownie should be- nothing too fancy to take away from the chocolate. All that's needed is a big glass of cold milk.

When my mom sent this to me, she spent some time adding her own notes, which makes the recipe so much more special. No chance I could say it better than her, so I won't even try.
Ok, Em, here's the family brownie recipe. It's quick, it's easy, and it never fails to get rave reviews (especially if they are just out of the oven!) 

I’ve probably made hundreds (maybe thousands!) of pans of these brownies in my life, and I never thought anything could improve on them…and that’s really true, but for the first time ever (on the advice of a friend), I added ½ tsp cinnamon to my brownie recipe. It was really very nice.  I’ve also experimented with things like pecans and chocolate chips. They’re really good that way, too.  Once I iced them with some left-over cream cheese icing that I had used on a red velvet cake.  That was pretty wonderful, too! 

Now it's your turn to start making and sharing this recipe! 

 About to go in the oven.*
1 stick butter
6 TBLS cocoa
1 cup sugar

2 eggs
¾ cup flour (I’ve never used anything but white flour)
½ tsp salt
½ tsp baking powder
1 tsp vanilla

Melt butter in a mixing bowl.  Add cocoa and sugar and stir.  Add eggs and stir some more.  Sift flour, salt, & baking powder together and add to cocoa mixture.  Stir well. (You can use a hand mixer, but I never do.) Finally, stir in the vanilla.  Pour into an 11 x 7 x 2” brownie pan that’s been sprayed with cooking spray.  Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 20 minutes. (In my oven it’s 18 minutes**, but you’ll know they are done if you stick a toothpick in the center of the pan and it’s sticky but doesn’t stick to the toothpick.)

Icing for Brownies

1 cup white powdered sugar
½ stick butter
1 TBLS (or more) canned milk (like Carnation)
2 TBLS cocoa
½ tsp  vanilla 

Melt butter in mixing bowl.  Add milk and stir.  Sift and stir powdered sugar into butter/milk mixture.  Keep stirring until smooth and creamy.  You may want to add a little more canned milk here.  Add the cocoa and stir it in.  Stir in vanilla. 

I always cool the brownies on a rack before icing—unless I want warm brownies!!!  They are a little harder to ice when they are warm, but it’s worth it.  

*Can you believe I didn't get a picture of the finished product? We were out the door for holiday adventures almost as soon as these came out of the oven. We took them to my mother-in-law for Christmas Eve dinner. Once they were sliced, there was no chance I was going to ask everyone to wait so I could get a picture. We just ate them.

**18 minutes was dead-on in my oven, too. So it's probably best to just trust my mom on this one.
Well, great. Just as the holiday sweets in my house are finally starting to dwindle, I'm considering making a batch of brownies after re-reading this recipe. I haven't even had lunch yet!

Thanks to my lovely mom for this time-honored recipe. I'm proud to carry out the chocolatey tradition.


Sunday, January 3, 2010

"you're so lucky"

the food: Collard Green Enchiladas, Refried Black Eyed Peas
the song: "Do You Want To" Franz Ferdinand
When we moved to Austin back in 2001, one of the first people we met was our friend Erik. He and the husband went through film school together. So many of the crazy college memories you're supposed to have...slip-and-slide parties, movie marathons, karaoke, 21st birthdays, punk shows at Beerland...involve this dude. He was in our wedding. He was the first person to introduce me to bloody beer. We go so far back that I'm even willing to post this embarrassing picture of myself gettin' down because it is the most recent picture I have of the 3 of us together. 

Photo by the lovely Leah Ross 
A few months ago, Erik moved to New York to meet the needs of his growing business and film Dinner with the Band. Have you heard of Dinner with the Band? It is a cooking show on IFC that combines "culinary delights, musical performances and conversations with some of today's most acclaimed indie music artists." Hmmm... music and cooking, eh? I like their style. Anyway, one of the highlights of this holiday break for us was getting to hang out with our old friend. For the past three or so years, Erik has hosted a New Year's Day meal with all the food needed to provide good luck in the upcoming year...namely black eyed peas and collard greens.  

This year, our traditional meal had a Tex-Mex twist. And it was so delicious that I really must share it here.  
Collard Green Curry Enchiladas    
2 large bunches collard greens washed and rinsed 
2 shallots - diced 
10-12 flour tortillas 
1 can tomatillos 
1/2 onion 
3 tbsp olive oil 
2 cups Monterrey jack 
1 casserole dish 9x12 
1tblsp salt 
2 tsp. curry powder 
1 tsp cayenne 
2 tsp garlic powder 
1/4 cup of water

Roll up collard green leaves like a cigar and cut the leaves into 1/2 inch slices, discarding the stems, until you've cut up the whole bunch of greens.   Then run your knife cross wise to cut the leaves again.
Heat up 1 tbsp of olive oil in a large sauce pan until shimmering and add diced shallots.  When the shallots are translucent, add in the greens, turning until evenly wilted, then add the water.  When it starts to boil add the curry, cayenne, salt and garlic powder, turning the greens to coat evenly.  Turn the heat to low and cover the pan for 10 minutes. 

Sauce: Heat the remaining olive oil in a pan and the diced onion, cook until the onion is translucent and, then add tomatillos, crushing them in the pan with a spoon.  Add a tblp. of salt and a tsp. of cayenne as well as 2 tsp of garlic powder to the sauce and cook until boiling, then reduce heat to a simmer. 

Heat the oven to 400.  Then lay 2 spoonfuls of the greens into a tortilla and roll up.  If the tortilla doesn't roll well, you can always fold them with the crease side down, or use a toothpick (but this is annoying to take out later)  Fill as many tortillas as you can with the mixture* and set them into a casserole dish.  Pour the sauce over the enchiladas and then evenly coat the tops of the enchiladas with the cheese.
Place dish into the oven for 15-20 min. Take them out and let them rest for 15 before serving.

*A special New Year's Day addition to this meal was a little soyrizo added to each enchilada. 

Mmmmm. Lucky me. Thanks to Erik for sharing the recipe, and for making our first dinner of 2010 so awesome.