Monday, September 27, 2010

"i'd eat every word"

the food: Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies
the song: "The Beaten Path" The Good Life

Funny thing about us Texans. We don't understand fall. At the first sign of cooler weather...and I mean the first sign... we start dressing like it is winter. It is about 65 degrees right now, sunny and gorgeous out but I promise you that somewhere in Austin someone is wearing a beanie. Possibly with a zipped up hoodie.

As much as I hate to admit it, I'm no different. I love warm weather and I'm always blue when I have to put away the sandals and sundresses. But as a cook, fall means something different. It means the beers get better and my garden provides fresh greens. Also, I get to bake. 

Browsing my Google Reader this morning, I find myself bookmarking baked goods and considering a run to the store to make cheese biscuits. The husband is gone, so that means I'd have to eat them all myself. I've got to put on some weight if I'm going to survive this bitterly cold weather.

In honor of the first cool day Austin has seen in six months, I'm going to share with you a cookie recipe. These are the husband's favorite cookie. They also happen to be my dad's favorite cookie. It's one of those "my mom passed it down to me, now I'm passing it down to you" situations. 

Just like all my favorite baked goods, these aren't very sweet. They are good for dessert or breakfast (chocolate is a totally acceptable breakfast food, and don't let anyone tell you different.) They contain coconut, which is usually not a favorite in this house. In these cookies, though, the coconut is more about texture than flavor.

Don't let the short direction list fool you, these cookies are a little tricky. The batter is not very moist, so given the chance the cookies will thin out and crumble. My mom shows me up everytime she makes these. When they finish baking, her cookies are perfectly round little bites of evenly cooked deliciousness. They look almost the same when they come out as when they go in. I don't know how she does it, because always mine flatten out in the oven and just look like normal cookies. Mom secrets, I suppose.

A few tips to keep these cookies from getting too thin and crumbly. First, keep them small. A heaping tablespoon is fine- any larger and they are going to start spreading across the pan. Second, wet your hands before you form the cookies on the pan. The added moisture helps them hold together. Third, don't worry too much about it. These cookies are fabulous, and even if they aren't all that pretty the first time you make them, chances are they will still get eaten.

Mine are still not as pretty as my mom's, but maybe with a little practice I'll get it down one day. I better go gather up my ingredients right now...

Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies

1 1/4 cup quick oats
1 cup sifted flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 cup flaked coconut
1/2 cup chocolate chips
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla
Measure dry ingredients into a bowl. Mix well. Stir in oil, egg, and vanilla. Wet your hands with water and form batter into 1 inch balls. Place on ungreased baking sheet. Bake at 325 degrees for 12-15 minutes.

Friday, September 24, 2010

"our time reduced to an honorable mention"

the song: "All The Things That Go to Make Heaven and Earth" The New Pornographers

I post a lot of pretty pictures here. But today let's look at some pictures of dirt. This isn't just any dirt, though. Oh no. This dirt is special because we made it.

 Compost pile.

As you might remember, I just finished planting my fall garden. Before I did that, though, I decided to add some sifted compost from our lovely pile that is pictured above. I sifted for about two hours and in the end had a nice wheelbarrow full of new soil. After a day or two in the sun all the little bugs had disappeared and the soil was ready to spread on the beds. Easy as pie.

Lest you think I am a gardening master, allow me to share some hard truths:

1. My compost pile is low budget. And by low budget, I mean trashy. When I read about how a compost works, I break out in a sweat. It's all so science-y. Our compost is a pile on the ground under some shady trees, very loosely circled with chicken wire. Anyone that knows us can testify...that is one ugly compost bin. 

2. I am a lazy gardener. I get excited about plants that grow food. I get less excited about weeding and fertilizing and all that stuff. More often than not, I jump the gun and run out to buy plants before taking time to check in with my dirt. This is the first time I've actually used my own compost on my garden. First, but not the last.
 My non-DIY sifter.

3. DIY (unfortunately) isn't in my vocabulary. There are great instructions out there for creating your own compost sifter. Homemade sifters look awesome, and if anyone would like to volunteer to build one for me I will cook you dinner. But I am lazy. I also am bad at planning ahead. So instead, the morning I decided to sift compost I went and bought myself a colander with handles. Some people say a colander doesn't work for this job. Granted, I don't know any different, but I think it worked fine.

Magically, our janky compost pile produced the most beautiful, sweet smelling soil I've ever seen. Crazy as it sounds, sifting through this stuff was a pleasure. Don't get me wrong, I still wore gloves. But it wasn't half as bad as I was expecting. There were very few nasty bugs. Amazingly, I didn't encounter any rotting all. It is all decomposing just like it is supposed it. There were no foul smells. The finished product looked like chocolate cake. So apparently whatever we are doing is working.  

 Sifted compost.

Here's how the sift went down. I started with 2 big containers, a colander (or homemade compost sifter, fancy pants), a good pair of gloves, a shovel, and an iPod. That's important, because there is a rhythm to compost sifting. One container will be for the soil, and one will be for your scraps.

First, put on your gloves! Ok, now remove all big pieces that are laying on top of your compost (garden plants, last night's veggie scraps, etc.) and put them in your 'scraps' bucket. Hopefully your compost is already looking sort of like dirt. Chunky dirt with bits of table scraps. Scoop up a shovelfull of compost into your sifter. Now, find yourself a good song and start shaking it over your 'soil' container.  This is a great arm workout and a good opportunity to show off your impeccable sense of rhythm.

In case you're interested, my top sifting songs were Annie's "Heartbeat" and Of Montreal's "The Party's Crashing Us."

  Scraps to go back to the pile.

Once you see mostly large pieces in your sifter, dump the remainder into your "scraps" bin. It doesn't have to be perfect...the scraps will keep working in your compost pile and be ready next time. Repeat the sifting process until you have enough to spread on your garden. Or until your arms get tired. Or until you exhaust your playlist. Dump your scaps back in the bin, and leave the "soil" container in a sunny spot for a day or two to get rid of the bugs. Then freshen up your garden by spreading your new lovely compost soil right on top.

I attribute our successful compost to several things. First, we eat a healthy and varied diet with lots of vegetables. We also drink a lot of coffee. Scraps and grounds go into the compost daily. 

Second, we are religious about composting. I have dug food trash out of my garbage can when no one is looking. Everything that can be composted is composted. Our compost pile never gets bored. 

Finally, the husband deserves a lot of credit. I'm more likely to just throw kitchen scraps on top so I can hurry up and get back to cooking and eating. He turns the compost and adds leaves every now and then. But we don't follow a formula. 

Finished product ready for the garden.

And there it is! My crumbly, sweet soil that is about 100 times more gorgeous than any bagged soil I've ever seen.

The main point of this post is to encourage everyone out there to have a compost. It takes time to get used to it, but after a while sorting out food trash becomes a habit. There is no reason food trash should go into a plastic bag and then into a landfill. It can turn back into dirt and go back to the earth. It doesn't have to be perfect. Even if it's just a pile on the ground, you can still get results. Even if you don't get results, it will decompose times faster than that plastic trash bag.

Here are a few useful links about composting:

Introduction to Composting
Benefits of Composting 
Apartment Composting


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

"change is on the cards"

the song: "Wrapped Up In Books" Belle & Sebastian

Is summer over? Yesterday was the official last day of summer. Having said that, I live in Texas and I will be wearing shorts and sundresses looooong into the 'fall.' I complain about the heat, but I secretly love it. I'm fine with 105 degrees as long as I can have bare legs in November. Can and will.

One of my favorite things is when other bloggers I adore give a glimpse into their personalities beyond the subject of their site. It gives me more reason to care about them and their opinions. For that reason, I would like to give you a glimpse of how I spent my summer vacation when I wasn't gardening, cooking, or drinking good beer. 

Thanks Barbeerians, for this picture of two of my favorite things.

I've had my ebbs and flows with reading. The summer after my freshman year of college, I worked an office job where I sat in a big room by myself and gave directions to air conditioner repairmen (you remember the days before we all had GPS in our pocket, right?). Sitting in that office during the summer I read something like 25 books in a 3 month period. Big ones. I was required to sit there for 8 hours a day, and at that point I didn't have the Internet to suck my eyeballs out distract me.

Post college, I was in a state of limbo. The husband and I were planning a wedding and I was fighting the idea of dropping out of grad school (which I eventually did). I now lovingly refer to this time as my quarter life crisis. Thankfully, I got it out of the way early and I certainly can't complain about how it all turned out. But it dampened my reading considerably. Honestly, I can't remember a single (non-school) book I read from the 2004 era.

My reading habits lately are nice and even. It might take me a few months to get through a book, or I might tear through one in a week. I've recognized I'm a slow reader and I'm fine with that. I've also decided that I will not force myself to finish a book if it doesn't hold my interest. The husband thinks this is blasphemous, like when I look up the violent parts in movies before I decide if I'll watch them. My librarian mama is the one that convinced me that it's ok to put down a book. "Life's too short to read crap!" she recently told me. Preach on, Mama, preach on.

I like lists, so I kept track of all the books I read this summer. And what's a blog for if not for sharing?

Summer 2010 Books:
On the bookshelf for fall:
What are you reading these days? Any books lined up for the fall?


Saturday, September 18, 2010

"it goes full circle like a cheerio"

the song: "A Little Bit Cooler" Cool Kids

Good gravy! I just looked up and saw that we are well into September. Well, how the heck have you been?! Life is good here in Austin. Labor Day weekend was craziness. After that we had a day of much needed rain that turned into a flood. I got a job (more on that later!). We helped a great friend celebrate his birthday. Tonight I'm going to dress up like a pirate. That's about it.

The most exciting thing, however, has been planting my fall garden. My summer garden got so scraggly. Still, it is always hard for me to pull up plants. Because I'm still a novice gardener, I get pretty attached to my plants. Even if they have stopped producing and all they do is suck up water without offering a thing in return, it still hurts me a little to see them go. It's a cycle and I know that. It doesn't stop me from whispering "I'm sorry!" when I pull them up.

But there has to be change in the garden. And boy do I love fall vegetables. Yesterday I planted broccoli, collard greens, brussels sprouts, and kale. I'm trying broccoli rabe and joi choi for the first time. For many reasons, fall is my favorite time of the year. In the fall we replace lanky tomato legs with lush leaves and pillowy cauliflower. I'm excited to see it fill out a bit.

I'm already dreaming of ribollita and homegrown roasted broccoli. I know it will be a while before fall is officially here, but getting these pretty little ones in makes me feel that much closer to the prize.


Monday, September 13, 2010

"we cling to memories of some other time"

the food: Sun Dried Tomato & Gouda Cornbread
the song: "Biology Tricks" Centro-Matic

There is a part of me that has always wanted a big southern family. I am an only child and while I am very close to my family, I don't have those sittin'-on-the-porch, rockin'-your-nephew, talkin'-to-your-second-cousin memories. Big families have always charmed me. I hear this sentiment a lot from my girlfriends, who are mostly waiting to get married or have kids (if kids or marriage are on their priority list at all.) No matter what, it seems we all want to be a part of something bigger. 

One of our dearest friends celebrated his birthday Saturday night with a potluck dinner. As usual, we stayed up too late, got too loud, and drank too much wine. It didn't help that someone showed up at midnight with Shiner. I mean to say is that I love that someone showed up at midnight with more to share. Leave it to one of our own to carry the party twelve more beers into the evening. It was a fantastic Saturday.

It is still really hot here, so most of the dishes were light and cool. The hostess made a minty quinoa salad to accompany the pork shoulder she roasted. Another guest brought honey dew melon with sparkling white wine and basil. Still another brought tortilla chips with fig and ancho peppers. There were microbrewed local beers, free flowing vino verde, and a military issue bottle of tequila. Oh, how I love our friends. We lucked out having so many good people in our lives that care so much about food.

Evenings like this happen pretty easily when we all get together. I fall for our friends...all of them, new and old, present and absent...time and again. Thanks to them, I've got the big southern family I've always wanted. No, we don't (all) come from the same blood line. But they make me feel like I'm home.

So this morning as I'm sipping my coffee and trying to hold onto those sweet weekend memories, I thought I'd share my contribution to the dinner. While everyone was making cool salads, I decided to heat up the oven and make some cornbread. I spotted the recipe on The Kitchn a few days ago and the potluck seemed like the perfect time to try it out. It might not be the most traditional recipe, but our family isn't all that traditional either. The cast iron skillet is the key to good cornbread. I made this in my dad's cast iron, which has its own story that I'll share some other time. My only wish is that I had another pan this morning that I didn't have to share with anyone. I am an only child, after all.

Thanks for being born, Luther! Hope you enjoyed the cornbread.

Sun Dried Tomato & Gouda Cornbread
adapted from The Kitchn

1 1/4 cups yellow cornmeal
3/4 cup flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/8 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
2 large eggs
1 cup buttermilk (or 1 cup milk + 1 teaspoon vinegar)
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup fresh corn kernels (from 2 ears)
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons coarsely shredded Gouda cheese
2-4 tablespoons finely chopped olive oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes
1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

In a large bowl, combine the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, sugar, salt and black pepper, and stir to mix. In a second large bowl, whisk together the eggs, buttermilk, and ¼ cup of the oil until blended. Add the corn, 1/2 cup cheese, the sun dried tomatoes, and parsley into this second bowl.

Place a 10-inch cast-iron skillet over low heat on the stove top and leave it to heat while you finish the corn bread batter.

Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients. Add the buttermilk mixture and fold together until just blended. Drizzle the heated skillet with the remaining 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil. Immediately add the batter and spread it to the edges of the skillet. Sprinkle the top with the remaining 2 tablespoons cheese.

Bake for 20-25 minutes, until the top is golden and the edges have pulled away from the sides of the skillet. Serve hot or at room temperature.