Friday, July 13, 2012

That time of year...

I've been trying to decide what recipe to share for a few weeks now. I've had a few things ready to go but just needing to type them up, but for some reason none of them is grabbing at me today, asking to be shared. I think that's because it's that time of year. Summer. When there is such an abundance of fresh, delicious ingredients, that you don't really have to do anything.

You don't need a recipe to enjoy perfect, ripe fruit. The colors speak for themselves. It was almost too pretty to eat. Almost.

This watermelon didn't photograph well (the variety was an heirloom, I think the farmer said it was called "moon and stars" for the pattern on the rind). It's a shame, because the bright orange fruit was electric, and so sweet and juicy. I knew it would be a good one because as soon as I cut into it Lucy was there at my feet, hoping for a bite or two (lucky for her I'm a sucker for puppy eyes).

These tomatoes were a gift from a friend's garden, and as all good summer tomatoes, bursting with flavor. We'd been to a Slow Food tomato dinner at Springdale Farm a few weeks prior and copied this dish: simply tomatoes tossed with olive oil, basil and sea salt and quenelles of fresh, homemade ricotta. If there is a good cheese monger near you they should have good ricotta, or try making it yourself. There are so many good recipes out there and it is truly easy-peasy. I used a combination of whole and 2% milk with a little heavy cream added for good measure. But really, the tomatoes made the dish. You could just as easily and happily skip the cheese.

And since it's summer in Texas and it's hot, there are peppers. Lots of peppers. We've been eating a lot of this spicy Thai beef recipe, with grass-fed beef and pastured eggs from the farmer's market, Thai basil from the garden, brown basmati rice and some baby spinach thrown in for extra measure. No pictures really can do it justice, so I'm not sharing them. It just looks like a mess of hamburger and greens over rice with an egg on top, so you'll just have to trust me that it's delicious, greater than the sum of it's parts. And fast, and healthy. Perfect for a weeknight, which is probably why we've had it 3 times in 2 weeks.

And for the times you feel the need to fiddle around just a little, there is always pie. Or crumble. Or cobbler. Or stewing. It's amazing what a little sugar, heat and time can do to doll up fruit, isn't it? Even more amazing what a little vanilla ice cream can do. Sure, get fancy and add port or spices to your frozen fruit in the winter, but it's summer, and simple is better.

I hope your summer has been filled with tomatoes and corn, watermelon and cherries, and of course barbecues and vacations with loved ones. What are your favorite foods of summer?

Sunday, June 24, 2012

You Need To Try This

I do not love cleaning my house, but I love having a clean house. I love relaxing, and am actually able to fully unwind, with a sparkling clean house devoid of clutter. My Sunday morning thanks my Saturday morning for that. Because today, I sat in my sun room with a cup of coffee and my iPad newspaper, and there wasn’t anything that distracted me and got me up to straighten and putter. It was lovely.

When we ran to the store on Saturday for a few odds and ends for dinner, Peter had the foresight to grab a small loaf of brioche to make French toast for breakfast. I was in no hurry, and we lazily sat and sipped our coffee.

But eventually, we got hungry, and were looking forward to the French toast. In my refreshed and caffeinated state, I had a stroke of brilliance. Brown sugar cinnamon butter.

I cannot take credit for this delicious creation. That goes to Austin Java, a local coffee chain that also has a solid breakfast and lunch menu. Though honestly, I’m mostly just familiar with the French toast. Theirs is two thick slices of bread, served with an compound butter. At first, I didn’t realize what I had in store. In a small, white paper cup was a bit of brownish butter. Not one to be shy about slathering my breakfast in butter, I smeared some on. I’m not a big fan of syrup, so I left it at that and took a bite. The toast was good, but OH-MY-GOODNESS, that butter!

After several trips back for French toast, Peter and I took to calling it “crack butter” for its addictive nature. It seems utterly impossible to not use every last bit that is served to you. It makes you want to lick your plate. It is seriously good.

So as I started to slice the bread for French toast this morning, I was thinking that while I love cinnamon French toast, when you just put cinnamon in the custard it never really incorporates and there really isn’t a pronounced cinnamon flavor. That’s when I remembered the crack butter, and I thought, “how hard can it be?” Turns out, not that hard.

I immediately took out a stick of butter to soften. I whisked some eggs with cream and vanilla and sliced the brioche. Then I started whipping the butter with brown sugar and cinnamon. At first it didn’t pack enough of a punch, so I added more.

After soaking the bread and cooking the French toast, we spread on the butter. Peter did so with gusto, I was a little more conservative. But after two bites, I was back for more. For something so easy, it sure was delicious. I ate mine with just the butter, though Peter used just a bit of maple syrup.

The best part? We have leftover butter in the fridge, just waiting for another lazy Sunday French toast day.

Brioche French Toast with Brown Sugar Cinnamon Butter
Serves 2-3 people, depending on the size of your loaf of bread. The butter will serve 8.
Challah is an excellent substitute if you cannot find brioche, but any good quality bread will work. The French toast recipe is very flexible, so use your best judgment based on how much bread you have and how many people you are serving.

Brown Sugar Cinnamon Butter

1 stick butter, softened
2 Tablespoons packed brown sugar
2 teaspoons Cinnamon

Beat the butter with the brown sugar and cinnamon, until fully incorporated. Will keep in the refrigerator for several weeks, if you can resist eating it for that long.

Brioche French Toast

1 small loaf Brioche, sliced about ¾ inch thick
3-4 large eggs
¼ cup, or less, heavy cream, half-and-half or whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
Butter, for cooking

Heat a skillet or griddle to medium heat. Soak each piece of bread on both sides in egg custard for a few minutes, or until softened. Butter the griddle generously. It is okay if the butter browns a little bit, since this helps you get a beautiful golden crust. But do not let it burn. Cook each piece of bread for 2 minutes or so on each side, or until nicely browned and cooked through.

Serve while hot with the brown sugar cinnamon butter, and do not be shy to use it liberally. Licking your plate clean afterwards is not only acceptable, but a huge help to the cook (an extra bonus if that is YOU!).

Monday, June 18, 2012

In the Kitchen with Gran Marge

This past May I had the pleasure of going to Chicago to visit my grandparents (and aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, and siblings!) not once, but twice. Both were weekend trips, one quick and one long, and each reminded me just how wonderful it is to be around family. I felt blessed being surrounded by all the love.

Both of my parents are from Chicago, and since I grew up in Denver, we went back once or twice a year to visit family. These vacations were the highlights of my summer. I remember looking forward to them for months, asking if we were staying at Papa and Gran Marge’s, if we were going to the lake in Wisconsin, if we’d get to play with cousins, and if Gran Marge’s raspberries would be ripe. With the exception of the last one, the answer was always yes. And usually, there were some ripe raspberries for me to pick and put one on each finger, then pluck them off one by one.

I loved these trips as a child, and my love for them has only grown as I’ve become an adult. It always felt like time slowed down just a little bit at my grandparents’ house. Gran Marge was always busy making something, and I usually tried to balance visiting with Papa and all the other relatives with helping her, and learning from her. Cooking with my grandmother was a joy, and I always wished for more of it.

Gran Marge has always been a wonderful cook and an excellent baker. I do not say this lightly. When she visited us in Colorado she would make éclairs or Julia Child’s brownies from memory. If my dad, and who am I kidding, myself, were lucky, we’d get a pie.

The first time my husband came along for a trip to Chicago, there were scones for us to have as a snack when we arrived. He thought he’d found nirvana, and I couldn’t disagree. To this day, Peter still talks about Gran Marge’s scones. I’ve made countless batches of scones for him before and after, but none have quite lived up to Gran Marge’s.

So this visit I was bound and determined to make scones with her and divine her secrets. But time always got away from us, and we never got around to making them. Over Memorial Weekend we finally did. It took three days before it actually happened, but planning and talking about it did the trick.

While my Papa napped and everyone else was out and busy preparing for a big family reunion later that afternoon, Gran Marge and I were alone to do our baking. It was peaceful and quiet; two words that are used so often and yet there are no others to describe slowly and methodically getting out our supplies, measuring and mixing. I asked questions to make sure I knew the exact way to do it: is the butter mixed in enough? Should I knead this more? Gran Marge would answer and always slip in to show me just how to do it.

When the scones were finally in the oven and I stood over the sink drying the last dish, we finally had time to talk. We spoke of births and deaths and loss, and spoke of them as if they were the most natural things in the world. Which, of course, they are. It was easy to tell my grandmother my troubles. She has decades more life experience than I do and has lived through her fair share of sorrow, too. It turns out that the best advice and guidance I got that day wasn’t about how to make the perfect scone, but how to incorporate the bad into the good and still lead a full, blessed life.

I realize how lucky I am for all of my happy childhood memories, but it is the deeper, more meaningful conversations with my grandparents as an adult that make me feel truly blessed. I’m already looking forward to the next visit, and the next recipe Gran Marge can help me with. I know there will be plenty of life lessons to soak up while in the kitchen.

Gran Marge’s Scones

Though this recipe calls for currants, we used a mix of fresh strawberries and currants since that was what we had. I later made them with all strawberries, and both were equally good. You may substitute blueberries, raspberries or another dried fruit if you prefer.

6 Tablespoons sugar
3 ½ cups flour
4 ½ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup butter
2 eggs
1 cup currants
½ to ¾ cups half and half
3 tablespoons (or the rest of the stick) of butter
3 tablespoons sugar, for topping
½ teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg, for topping

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.

Mix the dry ingredients together in a large bowl (omitting the 3 tablespoons sugar and nutmeg). Cut in the butter with a pastry blender or two knives until the mixture resembles cornmeal. Stir in the currants or other fruit, then stir in the lightly beaten eggs. Add the half and half 1 tablespoon at a time until the dough leaves the side of the bowl.

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead gently until it holds together well, about 6-8 turns. Pat the ball into a 10 inch diameter circle that is 1 inch thick. Cut into 12 wedges and put on the baking sheet.

Melt the 3 tablespoons of butter. Mix the 3 tablespoons sugar and nutmeg in a small bowl. Brush the melted butter over the scones, and sprinkle with the sugar mixture.

Cook the scones for 20 minutes, or until nicely golden brown.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Things my daughter taught me

It has been six months since Caitrin came so briefly into this world. Happy Birthday, my little girl.

There are days when it feels like it's been only a few weeks, and other times I cannot remember life before this loss. It has been hard. Really hard. I'm sure I don't need to tell you that. There have been meltdowns, lots of them. There will be lots more. And that is okay.

But I have also experienced gratitude. I wish with all my being my Caitrin was a bubbling six-month-old and that all I had to complain about was sleepless nights and balancing being a working mom. I'd give anything to change history. But I can't. And given that, I wouldn't give up any of my experience of my daughter, even with all of the pain. The love I have for her, and will always have for her, makes the pain bearable. I wouldn't trade that love just to escape the pain. She is worth all of it.

There is peace in that feeling, the knowledge that no matter how much you wouldn't have chosen this life, you wouldn't change it, either. It is my experience, and Caitrin is the best gift I've ever gotten. Her time here was far too short, but she had a big impact.

On her six month birthday and two days before Mother's Day, I can't shower her with gifts and she can't give me sloppy kisses (which is all I really wanted). Instead, I recognize and honor the gifts that she has since given me. Here's to you, Caitrin, and all I've learned from you and my experience of Motherhood.

A mother's love is pure and strong and the best thing I have ever experienced.

Family is all that really matters.

I have the best partner a woman could ask for in my husband. We survived this, and we can survive anything because we are stronger and our love is stronger. I love you, Peter.

Say "I Love You" often, and mean it. It will make your heart sing. No one ever regretted saying "I Love You" too much.

Appreciate the small things in life.

Don't fuss over trivial things that won't matter tomorrow or next week or next year. And thank you, Caitrin, because it is now easy to see what these things are!

Friends and family are there for you. It's okay to ask for help. That is what friends are for, and it is freeing to let go of the pride that you can go it alone.

Don't rush through life. Linger over conversations with friends, family and strangers. Your life will be better for a moment spent connecting with someone. Later, it won't' matter if you were late to an appointment, but you will remember the time spent with another person.

Be gentle with yourself. Take care of yourself in the way you would take care of a loved one.

You are a parent even if you have never watched your child look up at you adoringly.

Some people get it, others don't. Make room in your life for the ones who do.

It's okay to be really, really angry sometimes. Let yourself feel whatever you need to feel, acknowledge it, and then work on healing.

Focus on what you truly love about your life, and say goodbye to the rest. The simplicity is refreshing.

You have a lot less control than you think you do. Best to make peace with that.

Life goes on, even when you're not ready for it to. But it's okay for it to go on without you for a little while; it'll be there waiting when you're ready.

I am not alone. There are people who have walked this path before me, with me, and behind me. I feel blessed that there is a community of women who are there for me. We are stronger together.

I love you, Caitrin, and miss you every day. You are the greatest gift I've ever received. I am eternally grateful for all you've taught me these last six months, and look forward to all you will teach me in the future.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012


Spring has been in full force around here for several weeks. We've had some really warm weather, followed now by several days of much-needed rain and cooler temperatures this week. You can find beets alongside strawberries at the farmer's market, a visual and edible marker of transition between winter and summer. I've always loved the feeling of renewal that Spring brings, the feeling that you can shed the heaviness of winter and celebrate longer days of sunshine.

Last weekend we were in Minnesota for Peter's grandmother's memorial service. Even though they had had a mild winter, the 40 and 50 degree temperatures sure felt cold to our Southern bones! It was refreshing to enjoy some cool weather. It was even better to see the whole family together, people we don't see nearly often enough.

Katharine "Tinker" Roe was 97 years old, and Boy! Did she have some stories! It was so nice to share stories of her long life on Belfield Farm, to hear about Peter's dad when he was young and stories of his summers on Sunfish Lake. Tinker's cottage was filled with pictures. They rested on every available surface, and told her family's story going back generations. You could see young saplings in older photographs, and compare them to the large pine trees standing guard outside today. I found a picture of her brother, Richard, who was killed in Pearl Harbor. Peter looks just like him. Now this picture will reside in our home, we are the keeper of its story. It is a big honor.

It was a bittersweet goodbye to Tinker's cottage and all of the memories it held for the family. It's like closing a chapter in your life, one you'll never be truly ready to be done with. Our last moments there were reflective and peaceful. We took one last family photo. It was sunny and warm outside-the warmest since we'd been in town-and we're all smiling. The trees were in bloom and irises were starting to poke through. I think that's how Tinker would have wanted us to remember it. And her. In the springtime of life.

I think a risk you run with a food blog is that people assume you eat glamorous food every day. We returned home Sunday evening with enough time to make dinner. In our fridge we had carrots, brussels sprouts and beets from the Farmer's Market the weekend prior. So, roasted root vegetables it was. It was probably the last of these vegetables from our market for the season; soon we'll be turning to tomatoes, peppers and zucchini. It was a perfect transitional meal: hearty winter vegetables, but a light and colorful dinner to welcome spring. Simple and satisfying.

We'll miss Tinker and Belfield Farm, but will carry them in our hearts. Where it is always Springtime.

Roasted Vegetables

I could write a very detailed recipe here, but I have faith that you, dear reader, can find a hundred recipes for roasted vegetables, and probably all better than this. I share this with you only as inspiration for a simple meal to celebrate the shift in the seasons. I felt obliged to share something, so here you go...

Brussels sprouts, about a pound, halved
Carrots, about a pound, quartered lengthwise, then halved
Beets, peeled, halved and cut into wedges
Olive Oil
Balsamic vinegar (optional)
Dill (optional)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Scatter the vegetables in two roasting pans. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast until the vegetables are tender but not mushy and are starting to caramelize on the edges, roughly 45 minutes, perhaps longer if you left the beets rather large.

Finish with Balsamic vinegar on all or some of the vegetables. Toss some dill with the carrots, if desired.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Keeper

I have an addiction to food magazines and buying cookbooks. On my cookbook shelf (yes, we have so many that they have their own bookcase), sits a two-inch stack of recipes torn out from magazines in the past nine months that have yet to be organized into file folders. (I swear I’m getting to this, soon.)

I love to cook and try new recipes. Yet of the hundred or so recipes we try each year, only a few are keepers. Most of the pages that are torn out are tried once, and while they turn out well they often lack something exciting, and so they either get filed away and forgotten, or more likely, tossed in the trash. With so many recipes to try, if it’s not the best, it goes.

It may seem like a waste of time to keep trying new recipes when we have a great cache of tried and true ones, but there is something adventurous in undertaking something new. Inspiration can be found in the pages of all those cookbooks through the chefs’ stories, and you can be transported to a new place without ever leaving your home.

We make roast chicken every week or two. I love that when I want a roasted chicken without any fuss I can whip one up my usual way. But it's also nice to put a new spin on an old favorite, to try someone else’s favorite recipe. There is something deeply satisfying about discovering a new technique or flavor that takes a favorite dish to a new level.

This happened recently when I decided to make Meyer Lemon Gnocchi. The recipe I’d torn out wasn’t really anything exciting, but I love fragrant, almost sweet Meyer Lemons, so I tore it out. And it sat in a binder for FOUR YEARS before I finally gave it a shot.

The only reason I even remembered it was that we were going to make a roast chicken for dinner last week, and I was feeling the stirrings of experimentation. I was in the mood for more effort than our usual whole chicken with roasted potatoes. It’s a great stand-by, but I wanted to play around a bit. While we were shopping I grabbed a bag of Meyer lemons because they were on sale, and we picked up our favorite Yukon Gold potatoes. As we strolled through the store, the long-forgotten gnocchi recipe popped into my head. We decided to go with thighs instead of the whole chicken and serve it atop the gnocchi.

Gnocchi is one of those things that seem really intimidating and hard, probably because the recipes come with as many warnings and cautions as they do instructions. “Don’t overwork the dough,” is the chief among them. I think that literally every recipe starts with this warning (this one was no exception), so I’m going to spare you. I’ll leave it at this: just be gentle with your dough. It’ll turn out just fine, I promise.

For years I left gnocchi to competent chefs, figuring it was too hard. And this little gem of a recipe for Meyer Lemon Gnocchi sat neglected in the back of the vegetarian recipes section of my binder. The gnocchi were tender and almost sweet from the lemon zest. The creamy potato and bright sauce went perfectly with the savory chicken. To think, all those years without Meyer Lemon Gnocchi! But I can assure you that this one will be in our regular rotation. In fact, just one week after making it, Peter asked me to make it again. It took four years to get around to it, but now that we have it isn’t going in the trash, or to the back of the binder. I’ll find a nice honorary spot for it, just as soon as I get all those recipes organized.

Meyer Lemon Gnocchi with Roasted Chicken Thighs

The recipe for gnocchi originally appeared in the March 2008 Food & Wine and has been adapted. For a vegetarian main course, simply sub vegetable stock. I think it would also be great with a seared white fish, like halibut. I used Whole Wheat pastry flour for some extra fiber, but all purpose would work just as well.

For the Gnocchi:

1 pound potatoes, preferably Yukon Gold, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks
3 large egg yolks
Zest of two and half Meyer Lemons
3-4 Tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil, divided
1 ½ teaspoons salt
¾ cup Whole Wheat Pastry Flour (or use all purpose)
½ cup chicken stock
4 tablespoons butter
1 cup shallots, thinly sliced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 ½ teaspoons Fresh Thyme, chopped
3 Tablespoons Chives, chopped
¼ cup white wine
Juice of two of the Meyer Lemons

In a medium saucepan, cover the potatoes with water and bring to a boil. Simmer until the potatoes are tender and a fork slips in easily without breaking them apart, about 8 minutes. Drain the potatoes, then return them to the pot and shake over medium heat until the water has evaporated, leaving a dry coat on the potatoes and the pan, about one minute.

Rice the potatoes over a large rimmed baking sheet into a single layer. If you don’t have a ricer or food mill, mash them in the pan and then use a fork to really break them down and spread them over the baking sheet. In a small bowl, whisk the egg yolks, lemon zest, 1 ½ tablespoons of olive oil and the salt, and pour over the potatoes. Sprinkle flour over the potatoes, then stir until the dough starts to come together. I think it is easiest to just use your hands for this, keeping them dusted with flour. Turn the dough onto a very lightly floured board, and knead for about a minute, just until the dough holds together.

Let the dough rest for five to ten minutes, then divide into quarters. Roll each portion into a long, half-inch thick rope. Cut into half-inch pieces with a sharp knife. Using a fork, roll each piece along the board under the fork to create ridges. Use enough pressure to create the indents without mashing the gnocchi; it is helpful to use one hand to sort of hold the gnocchi together while rolling the fork over it. If this sounds too hard or complicated, I say skip it: it’ll taste just as good if your gnocchi are flat.

Put the gnocchi on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and refrigerate for at least thirty minutes, or up to a few hours. If you’re making this a day ahead, cover the sheet in plastic wrap.

For the Chicken:

4 medium chicken thighs, bone-in and skin on
1 ½ teaspoon Herbes de Provence
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
Salt and pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees, and place a cast iron skillet in the oven to get hot for about a half an hour.

Pat chicken dry, and sprinkle with Herbes de Provence and salt and pepper, to taste. Remove skillet from oven and put on stove over medium-high heat (we always put a pot holder on the handle to remind us not touch it and burn ourselves!). Turn oven down to 350 degrees.

Pour olive oil in pan, and using a pot holder over the handle, swirl it evenly in pan. Place chicken skin side down in pan, and brown for about 4 minutes , or until skin is nice and crispy. Turn the chicken over, and then place the skillet in the oven. Cook for about 10-15 minutes, or until juices run clear.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a low boil. Working in batches, cook the gnocchi. When the rise to the top of the pot, cook for another minute, then remove using a strainer and transfer to a plate to drain while you cook the other batch.

Heat 1 tablespoon of butter in a skillet over medium high heat. Add the gnocchi (again, in batches so they’re not crowded), and allow them to brown for about 2 minutes per side. These guys are pretty tender, so don’t shake them around too much, and allow the crust to form before trying to move them. If they’re sticking, add a little olive oil. It’s okay if they fall apart a bit; again, they’ll still taste good and you’ll get the hang of it.

Repeat this with the second batch, and set aside while you make the sauce.

When the chicken is done, remove it to a plate to rest. Again, place a potholder over the handle of the cast iron skillet, and turn the heat on your stove to medium. Add 1 ½ tablespoons olive oil (unless there is a lot of fat remaining in the pan from your chicken, in which case you can start with that and add more olive oil as needed).

Sauté the shallots for a few minutes, until tender. Add the garlic, thyme and half of the chives, and cook another minute. Deglaze with the white wine, and cook for a few minutes, until reduced by half. Add the chicken stock and bring to a low boil, allowing it to reduce and thicken. If the sauce is still pretty thin, you may need more fat, so add some butter or olive oil, a half tablespoon at a time, whisking until thick. The first time we made it we needed about 1 tablespoon of extra butter; the next time we needed none, so this part you’ll just have to use your judgment and your preference. (If adding the extra fat really freaks you out, you could thicken with a slurry of corn starch and water.)

Reserve ½ cup of the sauce in small bowl, and add the gnocchi to the pan to reheat and coat in the sauce, cooking for a minute or so. Divide gnocchi into four pasta bowls and top with a piece of chicken. Top chicken with remaining sauce and garnish with the chives.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Taking care

Today was a Cioppino kind of day.

You may be wondering, "what is a kind of Cioppino day?" I wouldn't blame you; until today I didn't know either. Turns out, when it's been a not-so-good-but-not-quite-bad day and you want some comfort food, but not quite Mac 'n Cheese, then Cioppino is what you need. It has all the warmth of comfort food but isn't too rich, so you are left feeling a little light, and (dare I say?), hopeful. Because let's be honest, when you need creamy cheesy goodness, then there is no substitute. But when you're feeling just a little blue and heavy cheese will only leave you feeling guilty, then it's a Cioppino kind of day.

Before I get too much further, I must confess I had little to do with this production. Peter is a Cioppino master, and since I was having a not-so-good-but-not-quite-bad day, he was nice enough to take care of me. I think comfort food derives much of its comfort from someone else making it for you. There is something integral about having care being involved.

And so my wonderful husband once again stepped up and took care of me. I did help with some mindless tasks: deveining shrimp, debearding mussels, and scrubbing clams. I mean, I wasn't feeling so helpless, so I wanted to help him help me. But he really pulled this one off on his own. And it worked. The warm tomato sauce, slightly rich from the seafood that cooked in it and with a hint of spice, soothed. The garlic toast was just hearty enough to fill you up without weighing you down.

After dinner, I felt better. Comforted. I love that food can heal. And sharing that food with loved ones makes it that much more special. So, if it's been a not-so-good-but-not-quite-bad day, or if you're just in the mood to treat a loved one--or yourself!--then by all means, make it a Cioppino day.

Peter's original recipe calls for scallops, but we were feeling frugal this time around so we skipped them. If you feel splurgy, go for them, but if not, it's still delicious.

This recipe makes 4 hearty portions.

10 mussels
10 clams
5 scallops
1/4 pound white fish (such as cod or halibut)
15 medium shrimp
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 fennel bulb, sliced thin
5 cloves garlic
1/2 tablespoon red pepper flakes (more or less, to taste)
6 oz white wine
1/4 cup tomato paste
1-28 oz can crushed tomatoes
1-12 oz bottle clam juice
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
salt and pepper, to taste
rustic loaf of bread
3 cloves garlic
extra virgin olive oil for finishing

Saute the fennel and onion in olive oil until tender and translucent, about 5-7 minutes. Add chopped garlic and red pepper flakes and sauté another 4 minutes or so.

Deglaze pan with white wine and allow to reduce by half. Add tomato paste, crushed tomatoes and clam juice and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and allow to simmer for about an hour, until reduced by about half. Season with salt and pepper.

Add the clams to the pot, cooking for about 4-5 minutes until they open. Remove from pot into a medium bowl. Repeat with mussels, adding them to the clams.

Add the scallops, fish and shrimp and cook for 3-4 minutes, until just cooked through. Return the clams and mussels to the pot and allow them to come to temperature, about 2-3 minutes (do not boil!). Reseason with salt and pepper as needed.

Meanwhile, toast the bread. Rub with garlic cloves and drizzle with olive oil.

Serve the Cioppino in large bowls, finishing with parsley and a drizzle of Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Serve with garlic bread.

A BONUS picture of Lucy, just because she is so darn cute. And she brings me comfort (when she's not being a spaz) so I guess it fits.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

It Takes Time

I got to thinking about the influence of time when I recently made Dal Makhani (basically, lentils simmered in spiced tomato sauce). I’ve recently gained a new perspective on time. I used to always be in a hurry, rushing to get work done, wishing the weekend would come sooner, and just generally excited for the next step in life. While I was pregnant I actually did a better job of enjoying the moment, and I’m so glad that I did and that I have happy, relaxed moments to look back on. That was my time with Caitrin and I’m glad that I slowed down a little and made the most of it.

Lazy afternoon two weeks before due date

Of course, at the end I also wanted her to hurry up and get here so I could meet her! But then after we lost her, I felt like I was in Time Limbo. The days passed, not slowly and not quickly; I simply existed in them. It was like this for the first month or so, just getting through each day with no sense of time whatsoever. I was numb to the external world.

It is true what they say: time does heal. Yet it is also relative. Sometimes I feel like it happened yesterday, and I’m sucked back into the raw pain, and other times it feels like it’s been a long time, and I feel more adjusted. And the more time passes, the less often I am thrown backwards in the healing process. It’s kind of a mind-boggling concept to think in terms that time heals but that the sense of how much time has passed is not necessarily linear.

Just as time heals the soul, it also can do wonders for food. The Dal Makhani a few weeks ago was the perfect example of this. It started out very promising, with ginger and spices warming in the pan. And then, all of a sudden, it was a cacophony of smells and it was not pretty. It smelled so strongly that I was sure I had ruined the dish somehow. When I added the tomatoes it mellowed a bit, but that was short lived: as soon as the tomatoes started to gently simmer, the mish-mash of smells came back.

I had to leave for a few hours for an appointment, so I turned it down to low, figuring I’d probably be throwing the whole thing away when I got home and making Peter grab take-out. But when I got home a few hours later, I walked into a house that smelled completely different. The pungent ginger and peppers had relaxed, and the earthy and smoky cardamoms had evened out a bit.

I walked straight up to the pot to stir it and taste it. Delicious. The jalapeños had melted into the sauce, and added heat but not too much. All of the flavors had come together and my mouth was watering. It was time to start the lentils, and after another hour or so it was time to eat. In the end, the dish was lovely and comforting, perfect for a cold day, or whenever you need to devote a little extra time to taking care of yourself.

Lentils simmering in tomato sauce

All the sauce needed was time to sort it self out a bit. Just like me, I suppose.

After the cream was added

Dal Makhani

The first thing you’re thinking after reading this post is that this takes a long time, and after you see the ingredient list, you will likely think it is hard and probably not worth the hassle. The first is true, but most of the time is hands off. And despite the long list of ingredients, it’s not hard to measure out spices. Find a good spice shop (I love Savory Spice) and pick up small amounts of each spice. My friend, Jen, gave us a gift certificate to Savory for Christmas and it was so fun to browse and pick out what we needed for this.

Also, if you like this or think you will, double the sauce, then freeze half to make again in a fraction of the time.

Tomato Sauce

2 Tablespoons butter or olive oil
2 inch stick of cinnamon
2 black cardamoms (smash the pods to remove the seeds)
3-4 green cardamoms (smash the pods to remove the seeds)
1 teaspoon ground fenugreek/methi seeds
¼ cup ginger puree (from fresh, or jarred is okay)
3 Tablespoons minced garlic (about 4-5 cloves)
1 teaspoon red chili powder
1 – 28 ounce can of crushed tomatoes
½ teaspoon cinnamon
1 Tablespoon dried fenugreek leaves
2 jalapeños, coarsely chopped (seeds removed if you want it less spicy)
salt to taste

Heat the butter or oil in a heavy pan or Dutch oven over low heat, and add the cinnamon stick, cardamoms and fenugreek seeds. Once the seeds start to sizzle, add the ginger, garlic, and chili powder. Heat until everything is fragrant, about 3-4 minutes.

Add the tomatoes, jalapeño, fenugreek and cinnamon, and stir to combine. Bring to a low boil, then let simmer for 4-6 hours. You will definitely smell when all of the flavors come together; then it is ready to go, but you can leave it on low until you’re ready. Season to taste with salt.

For the Lentils

1 ½ tablespoons butter or olive oil
½ onion, chopped
2-3 green cardamom pods, seeds removed
1 Tablespoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cumin seeds
1 ¾ cups Beluga black lentils or Lentils du Puy
1 ½ cups cooked red kidney beans, or just use a whole can, drained
3-5 cups stock or water
½ cup heavy cream
cilantro, for garnish
Brown rice, couscous and naan or roti for serving

In a separate heavy, large pan (or use the same one and put the sauce in a bowl), heat the butter or oil and sauté the onion, cardamom seeds, ginger and cumin. Cook until the onion is translucent and everything is fragrant. Add the lentils and beans, and toss everything together for a minute or two.

Stir in the tomato sauce and stir until well combined. Cook at medium heat at a low boil. When the sauce starts sticking to the pan, add stock or water, a cup at a time, and stir occasionally. I needed about 4 cups of water, but you’ll just continue to add water until the lentils are cooked through and the consistency is thicker than a soup, but still somewhat loose. Think risotto while you’re doing this; you’re adding enough liquid to cook the lentils without watering down the sauce.

When the lentils are tender, mash some of them with the back of a spoon to thicken the sauce just a little bit. Re-season with salt as needed. Add the cream slowly, then cook for a few minutes to cook out the raw cream taste. You can add more or less cream to your taste.

Serve with brown rice or couscous and naan or roti (available at many upscale grocers; warm in the oven or toaster first).

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Just Breathe

It’s been a rough couple of months.

I didn’t write much during my pregnancy; I was more consumed with babies than with food. Free time was devoted to buying onesies, researching pack-n-plays and putting the finishing touches on the nursery. When I did think about food it was “what should I make and freeze for after the baby arrives?” So I made big batches of soup and Bolognese sauce. I should have taken a moment to write and reflect, but I didn’t. I wish I had. It would be so nice to have some written memories of my pregnancy, even if they centered on food.

My baby girl, Caitrin, was stillborn on November 11, 2011 due to an umbilical cord accident. She was perfect and beautiful and so, so loved. My pregnancy was easy and happy and uncomplicated, so this was a complete shock. We were planning to bring Caitrin home and instead had to plan a funeral. I still feel unanchored.

It’s been a rough couple of months.

My maternity leave turned to bereavement leave, and much of it, especially the early days, are still a blur. People cooked for me, and I ate what I could with no appetite, and no enjoyment. I am grateful for my caretakers, but food was not something I relished. A few times I worked up the energy to make dinner for Peter, but soon slipped back into eating the frozen lasagnas we’d stored up.

It’s been a rough couple of months.

Thanksgiving was especially hard. “What do I have to be grateful for?” was the bitter thought racing through my head all day. I knew deep down that I was blessed with family, friends and support that I couldn’t have imagined to help me through my loss, but my emotions took over and all I could think of what I didn’t have. I missed my baby. The food tasted bitter with this kind of outlook, despite Peter’s grueling day cooking for all of us.

It’s been a rough couple of months.

I’ve been slowly – slowly – emerging from my cocoon back into my life, and reorganizing my life around my new reality. Instead of cozying up in my rocking chair to breastfeed, I write in my journal. Instead of pushing my baby jogger, I run with Lucy, just like before only now there is someone missing. I’m back to work work, which is both stressful and comforting.

A few weeks ago I went to my first yoga class since I was pregnant. I’d practiced literally up until the day I went into labor, so it felt strange to not have the extra weight. The strangeness felt sad and empty, but moving and breathing felt good, and my focus started to make me feel like myself again, even if it was just for a moment.

My teacher, Lizzie, spoke about breath: “Breathe deeply. Breathe like it is the first breath you’ve ever taken. Breathe like it is a gift.” I’ve heard these words or similar ones many times before, but they had new meaning. Caitrin was never given the gift of breath. Something so simple and yet such an integral part of life was denied to her. I was profoundly grateful for my breath and inhaled fully and with a sense of peace. Maybe it was because my body was working hard for the first time in awhile, but I was present in that moment and realized that my daughter’s gift to me was a greater appreciation of what I have. If I have nothing else, I have the ability to breathe and appreciate the gift of my breath.

At Caitrin’s funeral, Pastor George said something along the lines of “where there has been great sorrow there can be even greater joy.” I recall realizing I would appreciate life more after facing death and that life would be that much sweeter, but I thought that it was a long way off before I truly felt that way, and in a way, it is. My grief is still too fresh and raw to yield completely to gratitude, but I glimpsed it. And I am humbled knowing that truly the simplest things in life have new and deeper meaning for me.

It’s been a rough couple of months, but I’m working through it.

Things that a month ago seemed impossible – like answering the question “how is your baby?” when I meet someone who doesn’t yet know – are less hard. I’m feeling less guilty about finding joy in my life; in fact, I’m relishing my moments of happiness because I know all-to-well that life is too damn short not to. And food is starting to actually taste good again. I’m starting to cook again and am enjoying the process and the results. I’ve made some good Boeuf Bourguignon and Chicken soup, and I can even imagine some food writing in the not-so-distant future.

It’s been a rough couple of months, but I glimpsed the light at the end of the tunnel, and all I have to do to remind myself it is there is to breathe.