Tuesday, April 27, 2010

"i will try to find a little comfort in it"

the food: the power of grilled cheese
the song: "Get Lonely" The Mountain Goats

Did you know that April is Grilled Cheese Month? If you haven't already, you have 3 more days to celebrate the grilled cheese in all it's glory. Thanks to the husband's amazing cheese-detective work, we've enjoyed multiple grilled cheeses during this celebratory month. I sat down to post an accompanying  recipe...a really delicious roasted tomato soup. But when I started writing I was flooded with a memory of one particular grilled cheese. So in honor of April, I'll share my story of how grilled cheese saved my life.

In July of 2007, my step father suffered a heart attack. One month later, almost to the day, my mom had an accident while riding her horse and broke her pelvis. It was a very difficult few months dealing with the day to day realities of injury and hospital stays. I spent a lot of time helping them that summer, and because of their amazing attitudes and outlook on life, they thankfully came out healthier and better than before. Nevertheless, that summer was a difficult time for my family.

One night after leaving the hospital, sad, exhausted and scattered, I went to spend the night with my dad. On my way, I told him I hadn't eaten and was going to grab some fast food. He told me "Nah, that'll just make you feel worse. I'll cook something for you." When I got there around 10 o'clock, he presented me with a delicious, simple grilled cheese. He made it just the way he always has with white bread, butter, and American cheese. That meal sticks out as one of the better things I've ever eaten. It calmed me just like good comfort food should. That grilled cheese gave me what I needed to get up and go back to the hospital the next day.

One of the reasons I'm thinking about all this is because my 91 year old grandfather is in the hospital right now. He's been there for almost a month, and he's not doing very well. I'm heading up this weekend to visit him and be with my mom and grandmother, and I know it is going to be a tough trip to make. Today, while I have the time, I'm making my favorite cookies and simmering broth on the stove. I'm cleaning house and washing clothes...doing things that always make me feel better. And I made myself a grilled cheese for lunch. 

They say it's bad to medicate yourself with food, but is it ok to medicate yourself with cooking?  This time spent in my kitchen is giving me time to reflect and giving me something to focus on so my emotions don't taking over. I'm taking time to myself so I can be there for my family. The biggest comfort is knowing they'll be there for me, too.

Friday, April 16, 2010

"red is my favorite color"

the food: Roasted Beet & Mandarin Orange Salad
the song: "Red" Okkervil River

Happy Friday! Aren't weekends the best? Tonight I'm excited to attend the Dogfish Head tasting which kicks off the first night of the Off Centered Film Fest at Alamo Lakecreek. We've been every year since it started and it is always a delicious and fun evening sampling some of the craziest, boldest beers out there. This year, there are food pairings to accompany the beer, and although I won't be able to eat most of it, the meaty menu looks pretty amazing. Saturday my step dad is coming down for a visit. We'll be going to the second evening of the DFH event, but in the meantime we're going to be working around the house and puttering around Austin.

I'm going to be pretty silent the next few days but before I sign off for the weekend, I want to share this recipe with you from last weekend, when we got to do one of my favorite things ever. We were invited over to a friend's house for a delicious home cooked meal that stretched over three and a half hours. The weather was pleasant, so we sat outside the entire evening, sipping wine and catching up. The food was absolutely perfect. Nothing too fancy or elaborate, just good solid ingredients and time spent preparing them. Our gracious hosts served an out-of-this-world peppery pasta with mushrooms and goat cheese. We were asked to bring a salad.

I was very excited to be tasked with salad. That might be the only time you'll ever hear me say that...salad doesn't usually rev me up too much. But spring is such a nice time when all the vegetables are cheap and at their best. I mentioned this recipe before on Valentine's Day, and am only now making it again. This time, I had my camera at my side each step of the way.

This salad isn't difficult to make, but it is a labor of love. It takes quite a bit of time to prepare, but that's what makes it taste so good. Roasting the beets gives them a wonderful, rich flavor and brings out that gorgeous color. I roasted the beets the day before the dinner, chopped them the morning of, put the salad together about an hour before we went over, and tossed in the dressing right before serving. I used all homegrown greens in this salad (yay spring!), mostly spinach with a little swiss chard for color. The salad went perfectly with the goat cheese pasta. It was a truly lovely evening with good friends and good food.

I'm excited to cook with beets again. I used leftovers to make a bright pink pasta with greens, beets, and goat cheese. A picture wouldn't even do it justice...as I watched it turn more and more pink, the color looked almost artificial. I'm interested in making something sweet with beets. Perhaps this chocolate beet cake? It might be in my future. But for now, this salad is my favorite way to enjoy them. I've made a few changes to the original recipe, which calls for golden and red beets and blood oranges. This would be excellent with some goat cheese thrown in, or served alongside it like we had it the other evening.  

Roasted Beet & Mandarin Orange Salad
adapted from 101cookbooks

about 1 pound red beets (save those greens!)
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt & pepper
2 small oranges (clementines, mandarins, blood...anything you like.) 
about 3 cups greens (lettuce, spinach, swiss chard, arugala...again, use your favorite here)
1/4 cup nuts (I used pecan, but walnuts would also be good)
For the vinagiarette:
1/4 cup good olive oil
2 tablespoons basalmic vinegar (I used orange infused white basalmic vinegar)
juice from 1 small orange
salt & pepper to taste

First thing's first: roast those beets! Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.Trim the tops and roots from the beets and wash well. Place the beets on a piece of foil large enough to fold over and seal. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Seal the foil, place on a baking sheet, and roast for about an hour until the beets are tender when pierced with a knife. Allow the beets to cool, then peel and cut each beet into bitesize pieces*. You can do this step up a day or two ahead of time, just cover and refrigerate until ready to use.
To make the vinegarette, simply combine all listed ingredients and whisk well. Again, you can do this a day or two ahead of time.
Peel one orange, separate, and slice into bite size pieces. (Watch out for seeds, or use a seedless fruit.) Gently toss oranges with beets, and season with a little salt and pepper. When you are ready to assemble the salad, pile the beets and oranges and chopped nuts on top of washed and dried greens. Immediately before serving, drizzle with vinaigrette to moisten the greens and toss well; season with salt and pepper to taste.

*I've read recommendations to wear gloves to peel beets. Meh... I don't really worry about discolored fingers all that much. Just make sure you peel them over the sink, maybe under running water.  And be careful with your dish towels, clothes, counter tops, etc.. One of my towels now has a permanent reminder of this meal.

Have a great weekend!


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

"we shall achieve in time this thing they call divine"

the food: Homegrown Artichoke with Roasted Garlic Olive Oil
the song: "In the Meantime" Space Hog (ha- remember Space Hog?)

Guess what I did last week? Remember how I told you about my wild winter garden a few weeks back? Well, I neglected to tell you about my artichoke jungle. This artichoke plant is taking up a huge amount of space in my little raised beds, but I just love the look of it. Kind of prehistoric, don't you think?

I cleared out my garden for summer planting on Easter Sunday, mercilessly pulling bolted broccoli and non-producing brussels to make way for eggplant and jalapeno babies. The artichoke plant continued to stand tall, taking up more than its allotted square foot of space. I'm much less into the neat and tidy gardening style I started with. A plant's gotta do what a plant's gotta do. Still, this artichoke is a space hog. I knew about the one big artichoke right in the center, but when I looked I counted 4 more baby chokes surrounding it. The dinosaur plant was still producing, so she got to stay. And a few days later, I harvested our first artichoke.

I was totally mystified by this artichoke, especially as I began to research how to cook it. What an interesting and intimidating vegetable. I mean, it's technically a thistle. For a girl who considers herself an adventurous cook, this may sound like an amateur thing to say. But that choke part is scary! Just look at what it does if you let it flower. But we risk it, because it protects the most awesome heart of the vegetable. I can't help but wonder what brave human decided to eat an artichoke for the first time.


I cooked this artichoke in the easiest way I could find by cleaning it and steaming it. We ate it with Texas Olive Ranch roasted garlic olive oil and sipped a delicious pint of Collaboration Not Litigation. A glass of wine would have been nice, too. With the time and effort you've put into cooking it and the slow process of eating it, the artichoke begs for good conversation and a glass of something delicious. The husband and I sipped and talked and ate, and eventually we got to the to the silky heart. It was really a great (home) happy hour food. My pictures didn't turn out that great, because the light had changed by the time we were eating. But you can get an idea from this...


My big ol' artichoke plant has had a dramatic few days following the harvest. After harvesting the choke, I noticed several tiny aphids. (Short side note... I've always been especially freaked out by clusters of insects. I won't flinch at a spider or roach, but if I see a cluster of them I get nauseous. So I particularly dislike the aphid picture from the above link.) When I looked at the leaves, they were completely covered. Since then I've been battling to keep my space hog alive, trimming excess leaves, spraying with a safe homemade solution. Lucky me, I also have a lot of ladybugs on my side, so I think she'll be ok. Plus I caught it early and as I learned last summer in my squash bug battle, early detection is the key. 

Wish me luck with the aphids and if you have any good artichoke recipes send them my way!


Sunday, April 11, 2010

"when the sun is out I've got something I can laugh about"

the food: Springtime Couscous Salad
the song: "Good Day Sunshine" The Beatles

I realize Easter weekend is just a distant memory, but I have a good recipe to share with you, so I'm going to write about it anyway. We don't celebrate Easter, but spring is a different story. Give me the chance, and I'll throw spring a party. The weather is beautiful, the days are long and just hot enough, everything is green and pretty. Easter weekend is really just a long weekend to celebrate the spring. We drove down to Fredericksburg on Good Friday to meet my dad and step mom for dinner. At Fredericksburg Brewery, where we sipped and ate bottle caps (fried jalapeno slices) I overheard the guy behind me saying "Good Friday? More like Super Awesome Friday!" I have to agree.

Super Awesome Friday. Better than work.

Sunday a good friend of ours that attended our Thanksgiving feast (he made the turkey!) invited us over for Easter dinner with his folks. I don't like showing up anywhere empty handed, so I looked in the fridge and discovered the makings for this beautiful couscous salad. The dinner was perfect for a warm spring evening...crackers and cheese, roasted root vegetables, green salad with a light vinaigrette, bread, and this couscous. I didn't eat the lamb, but I hear the salad complimented it pretty nicely.

This was just my kind of salad. It came together very quickly and was made completely with things I already had. I made it in about 15 minutes, covered it, and had several hours to work in the garden until the dinner. There isn't really a recipe for this, but I'll write out the way I made it, because the flavors were really wonderful. Feel free to experiment with leftover vegetables you might have in your fridge or garden bounty that needs to be used up. Either way, springtime is the best time and this salad is a nice way to celebrate it.

Springtime Couscous Salad
serves about 6 as a side dish

1 cup couscous
1/2 pound asparagus spears
1/2 cup oil-packed sun dried tomatoes,* roughly chopped
1 cup spinach, torn into bite size pieces (or use baby spinach)
large handful fresh herbs, chopped (the key word is fresh- I used oregano, but there are many possibilities)
1/2 cup feta cheese
drizzle good olive oil

First, remove the tough part of the asparagus stem at the bottom. I like to prepare my asparagus by finding the natural break with my hands. Slice the remaining spears into bite-sized pieces at a bias. Steam for about 5 minutes, until asparagus is just tender. Set aside.
Bring 2 cups of water, broth, or juice to a boil. Stir in 1 cup couscous, throw the raw spinach on top, and cover. Remove from heat and set aside for 5 minutes. After 5 minutes, remove lid and fluff with fork.
In a large bowl, combine couscous and spinach with marinated tomatoes, asparagus, feta cheese, and chopped herbs. Finish with a generous drizzle of olive oil**. Season with salt and pepper, cover and allow to cool. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

*I used marinated tomatoes from Central Market. If you have easy access to sun dried tomatoes in oil or marinated tomatoes, I recommend using them, along with a little bit of the oil. Fresh would be good, too.
**I used Texas Olive Ranch roasted garlic olive oil. Yummmmm. Not only do they have amazing labels, but the olive oil is darn good, too.


Saturday, April 10, 2010

"it may be years until the day my dreams will match up with my pay"

the song: "Mushaboom" Feist

It was a big week for me. Last week, I turned in my resignation to my principal. And this week, I told the parents at my daycare that I wouldn't be returning for the next school year.

I know I've talked about my job before, so forgive me for repeating myself. For the last 5 1/2 years, I've been working full time with infants and toddlers. I've been the director at my current school for the last 2 years. In that time, I've witnessed first words, first steps, first roll-overs. I have been entirely tickled and riveted by the wisdom and humor of young children. Most importantly, I've become a part of a larger family. Taking care of other people's children is an intimate thing, and it is near impossible to not begin to feel like a part of their family.

I have reassured fabulous new moms having to drop off their babies at daycare for the first time. I have encouraged parents to follow their dreams, which more than once has included pulling their child out of daycare and staying home with them. I have listened to gripes about unhelpful spouses, demanding jobs, nosey mother-in-laws, and the darling little ones themselves. I may not have a baby, but I've helped raise a lot of them. I take pride in that.

It's natural that my emotions were mixed. I'm ready to move on in my life and find a career that I'm newly passionate about. As much as I love my daycare kids, the physical and emotional stress of the job is starting to take its toll. Neither my motivation nor my patience is what it used to be.This is the time to make a change, when the only people I have to take care of are the husband and myself. If not now, when? I made the decision to quit and had gotten right with it in my head months ago. Still, I was nervous about parent response.

But just like a good (surrogate) family should, the parents at my school showed me unconditional support and love. They wished me luck and told me they knew I would be successful. They told me they were proud of me for following my heart. They listened to my goals for the future and helped me refine my plans. It has been an interesting experience to be forced to put my goals into words, but each parent that greeted me with a smile and an open heart helped my answers become more confident. After this week, I'm happier and more assured than ever about my decision. But I also realize the risk I'm taking of leaving my daycare family to pursue the unknown.

In this case, though, the risk is the whole point. The thing that guides my life right now is growing, seeking out, cooking, and eating real food. While I'm not sure exactly how that will manifest itself, I want to be open to whatever is out there. The support from people in my life (the husband, my family and friends, coworkers, the daycare parents) helps keep my fears at bay. I am truly lucky to know such wonderful people.

So to those amazing people in my life who have offered encouragement...those that read this and those that don't...thank you.


Saturday, April 3, 2010

"you don't need speed"

the food: Three Bean Beer Chili
the song: "Slow Lovin'" Chubby Checker

I've been delving into dangerous territory lately. Last week I started volunteering on Tuesday nights meaning I don't get home until 8, which is just enough time to pour myself a beer (right now, lots of this) and get on the couch for Lost.* The husband has offered to cook, but instead I've taken this as a good opportunity to get to know my Crock Pot. It works quite well, actually. I turn on the Crock Pot before I leave and when I get back, viola! Dinner is served.

Ok, back up. If you've been reading GNP for any time, you know my whole schtick by now: take your time, savor the cooking like you savor the food, there's beauty in the process. Well this post is about to blow all that out of the water. Because in this one, I'm opening lots of cans, throwing them into a big pot, and walking away. Also I got this recipe from Ms. 30 Minute Meal herself, Rachel Ray

Having said that, this chili is totally rockin'. I've made some veggie chilis in the past that were just so-so. In all honesty, my favorite has always come from a box. But I've made this beer chili twice now, once on the stove and once in the slow cooker, and it is quickly becoming my first place chili. Sometimes if I'm inspired I'll make cornbread to go with it. But this is my truth post, so I can tell you I like Frito pie just as much.  

I'm enjoying trying out slow cooker recipes. I'm doubt the Crock Pot will work it's way into the weekly rotation, but I'm finally learning it is good for much more than just queso. The traditional and crock pot chili recipes are below. In the slow cooker version you'll notice the amount of beer is reduced and there's no need for olive oil.

Three-Bean Beer Chili
adapted from Food Network 

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 large jalapeno pepper, seeded and chopped 
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup stout beer (I used our buddy's garlic beer for the first batch)
1 can diced tomatoes
1 can black beans
1 can red kidney beans
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon cayenne hot pepper sauce, several drops
1 cup vegetarian refried beans 

Over moderate heat, add oil to a deep pot and combine onion, peppers, and garlic. Saute for 3 to 5 minutes to soften vegetables. Deglaze pan with beer, add tomatoes, black beans, red kidney beans, and stir to combine.
Season chili with cumin, chili powder, hot sauce, and salt. Thicken chili by stirring in refried beans. Simmer over low heat about 5 to 10 minutes longer, then serve topped with shredded cheese, cilantro, sour cream, more hot pepper sauce, or all of the above. 

Slow Cooker Method: Layer all chopped vegetables at the bottom of slow cooker. Pour 3/4 cup beer over vegetables and add 1/2 spices. Layer tomatoes on top of vegetables, then beans and remaining spices at the very top. Cover and cook on high for 4 hours. Before you are ready to serve, stir the chili, then thicken the chili by adding refried beans. Because of the extra liquid from the slow cooking, you might need more than 1 cup of refried beans. Finish with hot pepper sauce. 


*Note: I'm just gonna come out and say it...I don't think Lost is very good anymore. But this is the last season and I've devoted 6 years of my life to this nonsense. So by golly, I'll be there for the last episode when they all wake up to discover it was nothing but a bad dream.