30 October 2010

Saturday Morning: Yogurt Blueberry Pancakes

The frozen blueberry makes regular appearances on the four-year-old's breakfast dish. Oatmeal and plain yogurt, both breakfast staples, are almost always topped with frozen blueberries, and if breakfast isn't quite ready yet, a bowl of frozen blueberries is requested as an appetizer. Naturally, blueberry pancakes are quite popular around here.

blueberry pancakes
(The blueberries are on the bottom, waiting to surprise you with their juicy deliciousness.)

This is a very thick batter, so the pancakes will take a bit longer to cook than you may be used to, and don't expect popping bubbles to tell you when they're ready to flip. Just keep an eye on the sides, and don't cook them too hot. By the time I get to the second round I generally have my skillet on the lowest setting. (My stove-top runs a tiny bit hot, so aim for medium-low and adjust as necessary.)

Blueberry Yogurt Pancakes
yields ~16 4” pancakes

1/3 cup butter
12 ounces (about 3 cups) white whole wheat flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
3 eggs
3 cups yogurt
1/2 cup milk

1 cup frozen blueberries (or fresh, if they're in season.)

Melt butter and set aside.

Preheat griddle or skillet on medium-low.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. It's important to combine them thoroughly since even distribution of the leavening makes for evenly fluffy pancakes.

Break eggs in a medium bowl and whisk until slightly lightened in color. Stir in yogurt and milk. Slowly pour in the butter while stirring the yogurt and egg mixture.

Add the liquid ingredients to the flour and stir until just combined.

Give the griddle a very light coating of butter. Pour batter by the serving spoon full (a scant ¼ cup, I think.) Sprinkle 1 heaping teaspoon full of blueberries on top of each pancake. Cook until golden brown on the bottom and the sides are beginning to cook. Flip gently and cook another minute. Like waffles, these will emit steam as they cook. When the steam starts to slow, the pancake is ready.

Serve with maple syrup or honey.

29 October 2010

The Giants of Lilliput, or, Why my kid ate broccoli.

I don't have many hard and fast rules for feeding my children. Kids are all different and they keep changing and you just don't know what's going to happen from one meal to the next. One rule I do keep is this: if your four year old, who has been rejecting broccoli out of hand for three years, suddenly agrees to eat the trees of a broccoli forest so long as you make some carrot people to go with it, then you make that child a broccoli forest with carrot people in it.

A walk through
the forest

As you can see, the carrot people are very tall, so we dubbed them carrot giants, which is fitting since the four-year-old has been talking about giants a lot recently. The four-year-old not only ate his carrot giants and broccoli trees, but announced that he would like to eat broccoli “more times than this.” Whee!

This is a slight variation on Mollie Katzen's “Enchanted Broccoli Forest” recipe from the book of the same name. You can buy it new, find it in a used bookstore, or do what I did, and filch it from someone who bought it back when it was new the first time. It's a great book if you're trying to ease into eating less meat, and it has a great section on baking. 

Because the carrots and broccoli are only cooked in medium oven for a short time they stay crisp. You could steam them slightly ahead of time to soften if you like, but then the broccoli will lose some of its inherent tree-ness, which might disappoint any tree-eating dinosaurs you bring to the table.

The stems of the broccoli are cut fairly short. You can save the leftover stems to peel and cook another time, or, if you're organized enough, chop them finely and cook them with the rice that will make up your forest floor. If you've had trouble with brown rice in the past, try Alton Brown's method. It's what I use anytime I have to cook more than my rice cooker can handle.

The Giant's Forest

1 pound fresh broccoli

2 cups brown rice
3 cups water

1 large carrot

1 Tablespoon butter
1 medium onion
½ teaspoon salt
1 clove garlic
juice of half a lemon
2 Tablespoons minced fresh dill
3 Tablespoons minced fresh mint
¼ cup minced fresh parsely
pepper and cayenne to taste

½ cup sunflower seeds
¼ pound sharp cheddar (or Swiss) cheese

¼ cup butter, melted

Wash broccoli, then cut florets 3”-4” high with flat bases. Set aside.

Cut off the ends of the broccoli stalks, and peel any tough skin. Chop stems fine and add to rice.

Cook rice, broccoli and water together using your preferred method. (If you're going to simmer it on the stovetop, it will take 40-45 minutes.)

Scrub the carrot and cut lengthwise into quarters, then into pieces about 2” long.

About 10 minutes before the rice is done, preheat oven to 325 Fahrenheit. (Unless, of course you're baking your rice, in which case you can just skip this part.)

Lightly butter a 9”x13” casserole dish.

Melt 1 Tablespoon butter over medium heat in a large skillet. Chop onion and add to the skillet with the salt. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally for five minutes, until the onions are soft and beginning to brown.

While the onions are cooking, mince the garlic, juice the lemon and mince the herbs.

Add the garlic and lemon juice to the onion and continue cooking until the garlic becomes aromatic, about two minutes.
While the garlic is cooking, grate the cheese.

Remove the skillet from the heat, stir in the rice, herbs, sunflower seeds, cheese and pepper. Taste and correct seasoning if necessary.

Melt the ¼ cup butter.

Spread the rice mixture in the prepared dish. Stand the broccoli trees and carrot giants in the forest, rooting them in the rice mixture. Pour the melted butter over the trees.

Cover the dish gently with foil and bake 20-25 minutes, until heated through.

22 October 2010

A stuffed apple for Justine

...and anyone else who needs a fast, hearty breakfast.

Breakfast on
the Go

We all have days when we don't have time to sit down and eat a bowl of oatmeal. I used to have them all the time, days when all I had time for was an apple in the car, but needed more than an apple to keep me upright until lunch. This stuffed apple was one of my grab and go breakfasts back then, or I'd wrap it up and eat it for lunch on the days when I didn't have time to pack something balanced. The peanut-butter provided a kick of protein and good fats. The dried fruit provided a bit of sweetness and chew. And the apple provided crunch, fiber, juiciness and clean hands.

It's a simple and versatile meal. Just slice the apple in half and use a pairing knife, grapefruit spoon or melon-baller to carve out the seeds, stem and flower, then fill with peanut-butter and dried cranberries as above. Or use raisins, chopped dried apricots, currants, dried blueberries, dried cherries. Swap out the peanut-butter for any other nut or seed butter, or skip the dried fruit and use a nice cheese spread as a filling. You could also use cream cheese, but cream cheese has no nutritional value, so go into that with your eyes open. Add some cinnamon and brown sugar and call it dessert.

To store, smoosh the apple back together and wrap up in plastic wrap, foil or a napkin and shove into your coat pocket.  Be careful not to overfill, or you'll be forced to lick off the extra that leaks out the side, and that would be terrible.  The apple will keep happily all day that way, or you can make it a night ahead and keep it in the fridge until morning.

21 October 2010

Three bowls of oats

What do you think of when you think of oatmeal? It is sweet powdery packets mixed with boiling water, or microwaved with milk? Is it flakes cooked to thin paste on the stovetop? (Was that leading the witness?) Is it nutty, chewy wholesome steel-cut oats, finished with butter and a bit of honey, or some dried fruit? (That was definitely leading the witness.)

If oatmeal makes you think of peaches and cream packets or those flakes, I humbly suggest you try the other kind. It's possible you're intimidated by it. It takes too long. It's more expensive than the flakes. You don't own a spurtle.

Papa Bear's

Now, I am not an oatmeal expert. I was born in Texas, not Scotland or Ireland, and the portions of my family that were from those lovely oat-filled places moved to the mid-West of the United States and assimilated long before I was born. But I do know that not only are steel-cut oats better for you than the packets (which are really no better nutritionally than cold cereal) but they're so much tastier that while they do take longer than the flakes (and certainly longer than the packets.) and it does cost a bit more than the cannister with the smiling be-wigged man on the front that they're worth it (unless it's a choice between paying the heating bill and the steel-cuts, in which case by all means by the store-brand flakes and God bless.) And don't just check out the price of a canister of McCann's and declare poverty. I buy mine in a much more sensibly priced cardboard canister, and any store with a bulk-food section will probably have steel-cut oats for a reasonable price. As for the spurtle, I'm sure it's very good at its job, but I've never had a problem using an ordinary wooden spoon or a silicone spatula.

Why do steel-cut oats taste better than their steam-cooked, rolled flat cousins? First, because the rolled oats have to be steamed to roll flat, the starch inside has already been cooked once, which means it won't seep out and create a lovely creamy sauce for your little oat friends to swim in, think risotto. Second, by the time they've been steamed and rolled and cooked again there just isn't much structural integrity left, so they don't have contrast in texture between the oats and the sauce. Steel-cut oats, in contrast, create a beautiful creamy sauce and retain some chewiness.

Mama Bear's

This is a story of threes, so I have three ways to cook steel-cut oats to share. My basic ratio is 1 part oats to 3 parts water. The canister (and most other places) say 1 oats: 4 water, but I prefer my oatmeal to be a bit less soupy, so I use less water. You can play around with the ratio to find what you like best without changing the basic cooking procedure. I also use a tiny pinch of salt per ¼ cup of raw oats. It's just a wee bit of salt, but it does make a difference, so unless you really, really cannot have salt, please put it in.

[edit: 12/4/10 Based on Justine's comment below, I've adapted my stovetop method, and you should too.  Check it out here.]

Stove-top: In a large saucepan, combine oats, water, and salt, and bring to a boil. Keep an eye on it here, as all that lovely starch will happily make big gluey bubbles and boil right out of the pot. Once the pot is boiling, stir, cover and reduce heat to lowest setting. Cook, stirring occasionally for about 40 minutes. You can reduce the cooking time by soaking the oats, water and salt in the pot over night and then cook as above. These can be done in as little as 20 minutes, so do keep an eye on them. 

Rice Cooker: I did it this way until my family's appetite for oatmeal outgrew my rice cooker's capacity. I clearly need a bigger rice cooker. Because of the gluey bubbles issue, I recommend filling your rice cooker no more than 2/3 full. My little 3 cup cooker therefore only accommodated ½ cup raw oats and 1 1/2 cups water. You can use the porridge setting if your cooker has one, but if you only have an “on” switch that will work as well. My cooker had a timer, so I could set it to be ready at 7:00 am and it would beep at me to tell it was ready as I dragged myself and my son out of bed. If you don't have a timer, you can buy one of those plug in timers and set it that way, or just set up the oats the night before and then remember to go hit the on button before you get in the shower.

Crock-pot: Easy, easy, easy: oats, water, salt, lid, turn it on low, go to bed, wake up to oatmeal.

Baby Bear's

Once it's cooked, what do you do with it? You can stir in a bit of butter if you're feeling extravagant, or not, if you're feeling austere. You can top it with honey or milk or cream or maple syrup or dried fruits or chopped nuts or fresh fruits or frozen fruits or brown sugar. Or you can decide to go savory and add soy sauce, or fried onions, or scallions or a poached egg or cheddar cheese and bacon. There's no reason it has to be sweet, or breakfast for that matter.

Err on the side of making too much, whatever you do, unless you're being very strict about calories, because ¼ cup of raw oats doesn't make a huge bowlful. And if there are leftovers, just store them in a lidded bowl in the fridge until the next morning, when they are happy to be reheated for a breakfast that's even more convenient that the little powdery packets. (You could even make a week's worth in the crockpot and then dish out what you need each morning. Voila, your timing issues are solved.)

As for the rolled oats? They are good for three things:

  1. Granola
  2. Seal up a handful in the toe of an old (washed) stocking or a bit of cheese-cloth and toss in the bath anytime you're feeling dry, itchy or insufficiently pampered. Soak both you and the oats together, squeezing the oatmeal packet occasionally until you feel better.

20 October 2010

What's for Lunch

I had to assemble enough food to hold a toddler through lunch.  It had to keep at room temperature and all fit inside one container since I am the queen of losing container parts.

Aaron's Morning

The wrap on the top is whole wheat with avocado inside, and the foil packet on the bottom is a peanut butter and jelly wrap which I kept isolated because I didn't know what the allergy situation was at the sitter's house today.

The container is a Ziploc from Target.  I like these a lot.

I present it here as part of "What's For Lunch" Wednesday."  It's pretty typical of what goes into a packed lunch for the small folks around here, though if I were going to show you a truly typical lunch there would be mini-ravioli and mixed veggies in there.  Maybe next week.  If you have to feed small kids, or if you have to feed yourself lunch on a regular basis I recommend checking out the adorable lunches over there.  Some of them are super-simple and much, much cuter than mine.

18 October 2010

The Common Wealth

Last week I attended a board meeting for a proposed public charter school in my neighborhood. It was quite an education, as was the chatter on the mailing list in the days that followed. The discussions had me thinking about the purpose of public education, and the importance of adding a good school to the system, even if the neighborhood school is already good. I have a lot to say on the subject, but I don't have my thoughts on schools in particular all sorted out.  So here's a piece from my personal archives (an old blog now locked away) that touches on many of the same issues.

originally published 14 September 2006

Last Friday, All Things Considered offered up this commentary by Bill Harley on the budget of his small town, and how voters choose to spend their money. He focuses on the library. His thesis is that if libraries didn't already exist, we wouldn't be able to get them started now. No one would agree to pay more taxes so they could share books. Book publishers and music execs would lose their minds about copyright issues.

The next day, when C. came to visit, we walked a couple of blocks from my house to the local park, which has a very nice little playground. C. mentioned that she wished she could have a swing set in her backyard, but it's just too small. I muttered something noncommittal and we moved on to other topics.

Inspired by Harley's commentary, I realized that I didn't agree with her at all. My own yard is not too small. For $1,600 I could make good use of my Costco membership, and get a play set that mimics the one at the park. My child(ren) could use it any time. I'd never have to worry about walking "all the way" to the park. I'd never have to worry about waiting in line for the swing. My backyard, at least for a little while, would be the cool backyard, where other kids wanted to be.

Assuming I could make the trade, cut $1,600 off my property taxes and never use the park. (I could even divy it up, assume that the playground would be useful to my kids for 8 years, and cut $200 a year off my taxes.) Would that be a good trade for me? I'd have to maintain my own equipment. I'd have to provide extra kids so that my kid could learn about sharing and waiting his turn.

And the city would lose out, too. Even if I didn't care if the other kids got to swing on a swing. A public playground requires a public employee to maintain the equipment. So if all my neighbors opted out of the public playground, that would put one person, possibly several people out of work. That's one more person who needs food stamps. It's also one more person who doesn't have health insurance, which means one more person in the emergency room, clogging up the system with a non-emergency, while my cat-bitten hand swells up like a catcher's glove.

I do care if other kids get to swing on swings. Never mind the touchy-feeley "happy childhood" business. A kid who has regular access to safe outdoor play is going to be leaner and healthier than a kid who has to stay inside because there is no place to play. A leaner, healthier kid will be less of a drain on resources now and later. And that's important, since that kid could easily be the child of the public employee that got laid off because my neighborhood opted out of the public playground in the first place. So then there's a fat, sickly kid with an unemployed dad and no health insurance clogging up the emergency room.

I do care about the touchy-feeley "happy childhood" business. It is important for kids to have access to safe places to play outdoors. It is important for kids to play with other kids and laugh. And even if I never have a child of my own, it is important to me that other kids be happy. Because it's the right thing to do. My little city has very good public services, from the playground to the dog catcher. And it could all come crashing down if I whine and complain and vote to lower my (very high) property taxes, thus lowering the money available for those services. Sure, sometimes it would be nice to skip the walk and just let the kid out back to play. But it wouldn't really be better.

A cheating post after an unproductive weekend.

Chocolate Pie

Not that unproductive is always a bad thing, mind you.

I was out of town for the weekend, and without phone, internet or television. I didn't even have a chance to work in a kitchen. (I would have been baking communion bread, but there was a communication breakdown and I didn't know my services were needed. We used leftover dinner rolls instead.)

I was going to bring my laptop and work on a buff and polish of an old essay from my personal archives to share with you, but I brought my sewing machine with me instead. I am more fluent with words than with thread, and my time might have been better spent at the keyboard, but I had a project that needed to be finished. (It's not finished. I keep running into problems. I'm tempted to blame the machine, but it's probably me.)

So instead of something new and thought provoking I offer this, my most viewed picture on Flickr. If you Google "chocolate pie recipe" and look at images it is on page 11. For reasons beyond my ken, every week a few people scroll past 11 pages of gorgeous photos and click on my picture.

Obviously this is a store bought crust, but the filling is straight from Heidi over at 101Cookbooks. It's easy and delicious and very chocolate.

10 October 2010

A Walk in the Woods

On Saturday we made our annual pilgrimage to the nearest set of mountains to buy apples and pumpkins from people who have real orchards and real pumpkin patches and then have a picnic and walk in the woods. It was a gorgeous day and the woods were just right. The trail we always walk is quite short, chosen years ago by my father because it had the virtues of parking spaces, picnic tables, proper toilets and some history which could be learned, along with some ecology, via the self-guided tour sheet that is found in a little box at the trailhead. Frankly, I'm not sure how a single walk in the woods could better describe my father's requirements for a family trip.

The guided tour has not changed since I was a little girl. And when the tour is relaying the history of the family who lived in those woods there isn't much in need of change. But the ecology of that little piece of woodlands has changed quite a bit in the quarter century that I've known them. The woods are part of the National Park system, so the changes have all been for the better, as nature recovers and reasserts herself.

Saturday was a beautiful day and I wanted to share pictures, but my little camera seems to be reaching the end of its useful life, and the few pictures I was able to snap came out with color so out of balance it was beyond my ability to fix. So you will have to take my word for it that there are places where the trees grow tall and moss creeps further across the rocks every year, where toadstools build fairy cities on fallen trees and slowly turn them back into the soil from which they came.

Or maybe you should go out into the woods and find out for yourself. Take a snack in case you get hungry. These little muffins are wholesome and moist and tender and just a tiny bit of sweet.

Blueberry Muffins

Buttermilk Blueberry Muffins

1 ½ cups blueberries
1 Tablespoon flax seed meal
3 Tablespoons water
1/3 cup honey
¼ cup butter
1 ½ cups whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground ginger
1/3 cup buttermilk
2 Tablespoons apple cider vinegar
Preheat oven to 350 Fahrenheit

Butter 12 standard muffin cups.

If using fresh blueberries wash them and set aside. Frozen blueberries work beautifully here, but you'll want to leave them in the freezer until the last minute to preserve their shape and keep the juice inside the berries.

In a small bowl, stir together flax seed meal and water and set aside.

In a medium glass bowl or measuring cup, melt honey and butter together and allow to cool slightly.

In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking soda, salt and ginger.

Add the flax seed meal slurry, buttermilk and cider vinegar to the melted honey and butter. Combine thoroughly.

Pour the liquid into the flour and stir just a few times to moisten the flour. Add the blueberries and stir a few times more. Do not over-mix. Do not try to make the batter smooth. It is a very thick batter, especially if you use frozen blueberries.

Distribute the batter evenly in the muffin cups. Bake for 30-35 minutes until a knife inserted in the center of a muffin comes out clean (or merely coated in blueberry juice.) Check at the 20 minute mark and rotate the muffin tin if necessary to ensure even browning.

Remove from the oven and cool in the tin for about 5 minutes, and then remove gently to a rack to finish cooling.

09 October 2010

Autumn Color

Coconut Curry Soup

When the weather starts to turn in Autumn, I like things that are warm, and warming. I love making soup. Normally, when I say I'm making soup I mean a specific vegetable soup that requires a full afternoon of puttering around the house and occasionally tending the soup. There isn't always time for that. So I make other soups. This one has the virtue of being simple and fairly quick, assuming you have average knife skills and you know vaguely where things are in your kitchen. (I just barely meet those qualifications.) And what says Fall better than pumpkin? It's also smooth and creamy and comforting. The smooth does require blending. I use an immersion blender, which you really should put on your wish list if you don't have one, but you can use whatever soup blending technology you have available.

A note on spice mixes: People Who Are Very Into Food will tell you that pre-made spice mixes are evil and you should toast and grind your own spices. And they're right. And someday I will be that organized. But right now I'm not. I make it a point to buy small quantities (no tubs from the warehouse store) in stores that have high turnover. I also make it a point to buy blends that don't have salt in them. I prefer to control the spiciness and the saltiness of food separately.

If you have broth, you can use it instead of the water, but cut the salt to ½ teaspoon to start, and adjust the seasoning later as the broth will add salt.

Pumpkin Coconut Curry Soup

2 Tablespoons olive oil (or if you have coconut oil this would be a good place to use some.)
1 large onion
2 teaspoons salt
1” piece fresh ginger
3 cloves garlic
1T salt free curry blend
2 15-ounce cans pumpkin
3 cups water
black pepper to taste.
1 14-ounce can coconut milk

Place a large soup pot over low heat and add oil.

Dice onion and add to pot, along with salt. Stir to coat onion with oil.

While onions soften, peel and mince or grate ginger. Stir ginger into onions.

Mince the garlic. Stir into onions. When you can smell the garlic, stir in the curry powder. Continue cooking over low heat until you can smell the curry powder.

Stir in canned pumpkin and water and pepper. Increase heat and bring to a boil. Cover and reduce heat to lowest setting. Simmer for 15 minutes, until onions are softened. Remove from heat and blend soup carefully so as not to spoil your beautiful face by getting hot soup all over it. Stir in coconut milk. If soup has cooled heat it gently over very low heat, being careful not to let it boil.

If you want to make this a day ahead, stop before adding the coconut milk, allow to cool and then store in the refrigerator. When ready to serve, reheat the soup, remove it from the heat and then stir in the coconut milk.

07 October 2010

It Gets Better

There's been a lot of press about bullies lately, and the children and young adults who suffer from bullying. Sometimes we don't call the perpetrators bullies. We call them bigots, especially when the people being bullied are homosexual. Those young men weren't being bullied just because they were gay, they were being bullied because they were reduced to a single word. In the case of suicides that have been getting press recently, the word was “gay” (or maybe one of the other less attractive words for the same thing.) But the word can be different. It can be “geek” or “skinny” or “ugly” or “stupid.”

When we reduce a person to a single word we dehumanize them. “Ugly” isn't a person, and “Gay” isn't a person and so it's okay to treat them as less than human. (As an aside, sometimes that word is “girl” in which a person is reduced to a word describing her gender and is therefore not interesting as anything other than the sum of her body parts as used to sell beer. Don't think for a minute that sexism isn't just bullying writ large.)

For me the word was “fat.” And because of that it was acceptable to treat me as “other.” Once I was “other” it then became ridiculous that I would have crushes on boys, or want to buy the same kind of coat that all the other girls were wearing, or read books or sing songs or do any of the things that everyone else was doing. It was fine for them. It was weird and pathetic for me. They were cool. I was not. Therefore it was okay to pass me a note listing all the reasons no one liked me. It was okay to ask me for my phone number, swearing that it was for the boy I had a crush on, because he wanted to call me that weekend. It was okay to say that my lunch looked like dog food and I was, therefore, a dog.

Once when I was teaching high school I covered a colleague's A.P. Biology class. The kids, all smart, driven Seniors, were working independently on the work their teacher had left for them, and they were chatting amongst themselves and with me. I told them about being a drama geek in high school. The young man sitting right in front of me looked up, and looked me in the eyes for the first time all year. I looked at him, with hair he couldn't manage, long limbs he hadn't learned to control, a nose he probably cursed regularly, and eyes that burned with intelligence. And he asked me:

“Does it get better?”

“Oh yes,” I said. “It definitely gets better.”

Obviously I should have copyrighted that conversation, because now Dan Savage has an entire YouTube channel about it.

I think the project is brilliant. I really, really do. And I hope every kid struggling with gender identity issues goes there and finds something that makes them hope that their lives can be better, too. But the fact is, it isn't just the gay kids who need to hear that. It's all the fat kids, and the skinny kids, and the geeky kids, and the ugly kids, and the dumb kids, and the bullies.

Yes, the bullies need it too. Because you don't spend your time trying to make someone else miserable if you're happy. You just don't. I have never once watched a new person come into church and thought “Hey, that is one fat dude. I bet I can make the fat dude cry.” I have never once stood in line at the grocery store and thought “This woman needs deodorant. I'm going to tell her she stinks and then try and get the rest of the people here in line with me to tell her it, too.” And you know why? Because I have not interest whatsoever in seeing other people unhappy.

As important as it is to catch the bullied, to make sure they know that it gets better, we need to catch the bullies, too. Because those kids, they're just as complex as the rest of us. We don't do them or ourselves any favors when we reduce them to just one word. Bully is just one word, and it ignores the cascade of events that turned a child into someone so broken they had to break others to feel better.

So here's my story. I got out of high school. I went to college. I met a lot of stupid, ignorant jerks who did stupid, ignorant things. I also met a few really fantastic people. I discovered that my body was good at things other than being fat. I met a really great guy who didn't mind that I was fat and thought my raft of other geeky traits were, get this, LOVEABLE. As in: he loves me. And I love him. And we're geeky happy with a couple of completely gorgeous children. I have a small but incredible group of friends who laugh and cry with me.

It gets better.

If you are an adult with influence over children or young adults, make sure they know, at every opportunity that they are loved, and they are worthy of love.  You, as an adult, may have forgotten how much difference an off-handed positive comment can make in the life of someone who can't always see past the next Algebra test.  Like drops of richly colored paint in a bucket of white, your love and compassion and understanding can color their whole lives.  

If you are a student being bullied, and anyone tells you that high school is supposed to be the best time of your life, ignore them completely because they have no idea what they're talking about. High School is small. The world is big. There are A LOT of people in it. And whatever your “other” is there are people who are like you, and there are people who are different from you but will love you not despite your other, but because of it. If you can keep going, keep reaching out, keep looking for the best in other people, then you will find your small but incredible group of friends, too. Because they are out there, and they are looking for you right now.

06 October 2010

The End of Summer

The point of frying slices of green tomatoes in a cornmeal crust is to make use of a foodstuff that would otherwise go to waste. At the end of the growing season, whenever that is for you, the green tomatoes that remain on your tomato plant aren't going to get ripe. You can surrender to it, and let the tomato rot in your compost, but then you wouldn't get to eat fried green tomatoes, and that would be a shame.

Fried Green

Green tomatoes are astringent little things, almost as crisp as an apple and that really makes them perfect for frying. The heat softens them, and the astringency cuts through the fat flavor of the crust. Plus, they're simple. The only trick is to pick the tomatoes when they're truly green. If they've started to ripen and soften they'll loose some of their punch. Not that they won't taste good when dipped in cornmeal and fried, just that they won't be fried green tomatoes.

Most frying recipes recommend that you remove your food from the fryer to a paper towel to drain. I think that makes the bottom of your fried item soggy. Set up a cooling rack over paper towels, several thicknesses of newspaper instead. (I set mine up directly over my cast iron griddle. When I'm done I just clean off the griddle. There's no waste and the griddle gets a bit of extra seasoning.)

Fried Green Tomatoes

2 large green tomatoes
1 egg
1 cup coarsely ground cornmeal
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
oil for frying

Set up a cooling rack.

Fill your frying pan with oil to a depth of ½”, and place over medium heat. The oil is ready when it begins to shimmer. Do not allow the oil to boil.

Remove the stem of the tomatoes, and cut into slices just less than 1/2” thick.

Beat egg in a shallow dish.

In a second shallow dish, combine cornmeal, salt and pepper.

Dip sliced tomato into beaten egg, turning once. Remove with a fork and hold it over the egg bowl just long enough to get rid of the major drips. Place on top of cornmeal mixture and flip, sprinkle the top with cornmeal and press gently to ensure a good coating.

Place coated tomato gently in the hot oil. Oil should hiss and bubble. Cook on first side until lovely golden brown, and then turn once to brown the second side. You can cook more than one at a time. I can get three into my skillet, but don't overcrowd or your oil won't be able to retain enough heat to fry properly.

When second side is golden brown, remove the tomato slice to your prepared cooling rack. I eat mine with a knife at fork at the table, but if you choose to eat a few with your fingers before bringing the batch out to the table I certainly won't tell.

05 October 2010

Birthday blessings

Vanilla with

Everyone deserves homemade birthday cake. It ought to be right there with life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness. (Although maybe they assumed that birthday cake was covered by the happiness bit.) This means that you (Yes, you! Okay, maybe me.) might need to get over a few things, like your doubt about your cake decorating ability. A homemade birthday cake does not need to look like it came from Charm City Cakes. If you made it with a good recipe and good ingredients and love for the recipient, it will be good, and maybe no one will fall to their knees and beg you to make their birthday cake, swearing that money is no object. But something better might happen. Someone might know that you put time and love into the cake, and they might feel loved. How cool would that be?

It's also possible that someone might declare your cake one of the few that is worth the calories, which given the caloric content of cake is really quite a statement.

The birthday boy wanted just vanilla, because the birthday boy is not a fan of chocolate. Last year I made a cake from Epicurious, and while everyone else loved it, I didn't. Mostly it was a texture thing, and recent reviews have confirmed what I suspected, whipping and folding in the egg whites at the end helped a lot. I'm going to try that some other time. But because I was down to the wire on this cake, I wanted to go with something someone I trusted had done, so I stole the birthday cake recipe from Justine, who knows what she's doing. I had to make a few adjustments, only because I didn't have self-rising flour. It was very good cake, with a nice flavor and texture.

I've wanted to try a cooked flour frosting for a while, and here was my chance. Cooked flour frostings were common in places where it was hot and not air-conditioned, because they stand up to the heat a bit better than a simple buttercream. There are a hundred thousand (give or take) variations on cooked flour frosting, all more or less the same. I used one from Tasty Kitchen which Ree herself had tried and approved. It was very good, easy to make and easy to use. It was indeed more stable than an uncooked buttercream, which was nice since I have this fear of my cake layers sliding apart and crashing dramatically onto the floor (or the mulch of the playground.)

As for decorating, well, I let the birthday boy put on sprinkles. He seemed pleased with the result.


Just Vanilla” Layer Cake

2 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
2 ¾ teaspoons baking powder
¾ teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups sugar
4 large eggs, room temperature
1 cup milk
1 Tablespoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 Fahrenheit.

Butter and flour two 9” cake pans.

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt.

Combine milk and vanilla in a measuring cup with spout or small pitcher.

In a large bowl, beat butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Beat in eggs, one at a time, until just combined, scraping down the bowl as needed.

Add 1/3 of the flour mixture and beat to combine. Scrape down the sides. Add one half of milk mixture and beat to combine. Repeat with half of remaining flour, all of remaining milk, and the last of the flour, beating just until combined to avoid over-mixing.

Pour the batter into the prepared pans and gently smooth the tops. Bake for 30 – 40 minutes, until a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean, rotating the pans after 20 minutes to ensure even browning.

When the cake is done, remove the pans from the oven and invert layers onto cooling racks. Allow cakes to cool completely before frosting.

You can make the cake a day ahead. Allow layers to cool completely and then wrap separately in plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator until ready to use.

Just Vanilla” Cooked Flour Frosting
(This makes just enough to frost a 9 inch layer cake with no decorations. If you want to break out your piping bag, or you really love buttercream icing, consider increasing the recipe by half.)

5 Tablespoons flour
1 cup milk
1 Tablespoon vanilla extract
1 cup butter
1 cup granulated sugar

Whisk together milk and flour in a small saucepan and place over medium heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens. Remove from heat and keep stirring for another minute. Stir in vanilla extract. Allow mixture to cool completely before proceeding.

In a large bowl, beat butter and sugar until fluffy and light. Add in cooled milk mixture and beat again until fluffy and light.

04 October 2010

Just Vanilla

This is a quickie with no pictures, but two (2!) complete recipes. I'm going to go ahead and assume that you know what vanilla ice cream looks like.

And now you're thinking about ice cream, aren't you? Maybe it's a cone from the shop in town, or something on a stick from the truck, or soft serve from the college cafeteria? Is there chocolate sauce? A cherry on top? Can you feel that dribble on your chin? Need a napkin?

I love ice cream. It is my favorite dessert. If I had to I would give up cake and pie and crumbles and all that in order to keep ice cream in my life. (Note: perfectly ripe fruit is not dessert. It is fruit, and it is a wonderful, wonderful thing. I'm not offering to give up perfect blackberries here. I will even put them on my ice cream.)

My brilliant, gorgeous sisters-in-law gave me an ice cream maker for my last birthday. That this is like giving a spoon and a lighter to a drug-addict is neither here nor there. Now I have an ice cream maker and thus have free access to garbage-free, delicious ice cream at any time (assuming the canister is frozen and I have the ingredients. The canister lives in my freezer.) My first discovery is that unless you have access to high powered industrial ice-cream machines, anything remotely low fat (by which I mean made half and half or less.) will be not quite smooth and creamy enough. Fortunately, there is a solution: frozen yogurt.

My recipe produces a lovely tangy, creamy frozen dessert that melts wonderfully on your tongue, and doesn't hide its yogurt roots the way some commercial fro-yos do. As a bonus, it's super easy to throw together.

Of course, sometimes frozen yogurt isn't what you want. What you (or the birthday boy you're treating) want is the real deal. The real deal is thick and creamy and just sweet enough and makes you wish you had just run a marathon so that you could justify a big bowlful. I don't run marathons (sadly), so I don't make real deal ice cream often. For the birthday boy, I yard-saled an ice cream ball. (It was free! And came with rock salt! How could I not?) The party was at the playground, so I let the kids, and the adults, roll, kick, slide and toss the ball around until it was done, and it worked beautifully. If it's been a while since you had the real thing, it will be a revelation.

Whichever recipe you try, buy good ingredients, because there's no place for the cheap stuff to hide.

Frozen Yogurt

3 cups full fat Greek style yogurt (or strained regular yogurt)
2/3 cup sugar
1 Tablespoon vanilla extract

Stir together and freeze according to your ice cream maker's instructions. You will end up with soft serve, which isn't such a bad thing, or you can transfer it to a container and allow it to harden in the freezer. You can use low fat yogurt, but it will not be as creamy and scoopable, especially right out of the freezer.

Real deal ice cream
(for just after the marathon, or the playground)

32 ounces heavy whipping cream
¾ cup sugar
1 Tablespoon vanilla extract

Mix thoroughly and freeze according to manufacturers instructions. This would be a good time to dig that hand-cranked machine out of your parent's basement.

03 October 2010

Forgotten Potluck

One of the obligatory foodie magazine articles (they're a on three year cycle) decries the horror of pasta salad and proceeds to spend 3 pages deconstructing the pasta salad so that they can rebuild it into a stronger, better, faster bionic pasta salad that will amaze your friends and change your mind about pasta salad forever, provided, of course, that you follow their recipe exactly. Quick, dash to the store for feta and endive!

Some times you plan your potluck contribution carefully and you have time to buy smoked truffle oil and champagne vinegar. Sometimes you forget about the potluck until that afternoon and you have to wing it.

Pantry Pasta

The key to winging it is having a pantry with things in it that you bought because you never know when you might have to wing it. For this salad it was a can of white beans, a can of black beans and a box of pretty colored pasta shells. I am forever buying dried pasta that has an interesting shape or color. It's a habit I recommend. You never know when you're going to have to wing it. (And if you are a better pantry person than I am, you might consider having some truffle oil and champagne vinegar around, too.) I used cilantro for this, but if you're one of those people who think cilantro tastes like soap, or if your spice blend is more Italian-style, you can use flat leaf parsley.

This is vegan, and if I were feeding someone with gluten intolerance I would cook up some interesting rice in lieu of the pasta.

What's in your pantry?

Pantry Pasta Salad

12 ounces small pasta shapes.
15 ounce can black beans
15 ounce can white beans
juice of two limes (or substitute apple cider vinegar)
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon dried herb blend (mine was called Adobo blend, but your favorite herb blend will be fine.)
2 bell peppers (I used yellow and red)
1 bunch cilantro (or parsley)

Cook pasta to al dente, usually the short end of the recommended cooking time.

While you're waiting for the pasta to cook, drain and rinse the beans. Rinsing canned beans removes about 40% of the sodium, and gets rid of some of the “canned” flavor. Put beans in your largest mixing bowl.

Juice the limes and add the lime juice, olive oil and herb blend to the beans. Stir gently, canned beans are soft and prone to breaking.

Drain the pasta and add to beans while still hot. Stir gently.

Core, seed and chop the bell peppers to pieces about the same size as the pasta, add to pasta.

Remove and discard cilantro stems. Finely chop the leaves and add to the bowl. Stir gently.

Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. If your spice blend is salt-free you may want to add some salt, and the whole thing may need some freshly ground black pepper.


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