THE BLUE JEAN GOURMET GUIDE TO MONEY WELL-SPENT

I did not leave the house today.

before

After a warm and relaxed combined Thanksgiving with our friends Courtney and John, the kind of meal where every dish is stellar and you leave, hugging folks on the way out who you met for the first time on the way in, waking up at the ass-crack of dawn this morning to jostle and shove people out of the way just so I can buy STUFF seems like a total slap in the face to everything I said I was thankful for yesterday.

after

At the same time, while today is Buy Nothing Day in our household, I do not want to sound like a holier-than-thou hypocrite.  I like things—gifts, presents, trinkets, baubles, tokens of affection.  I love to give and receive jewelry (ahem, anyone notice the bday bling courtesy of my sweet spouse?), mix CDs, spa gift certificates, kitchen accessories, homemade goodies, books, sweet-smelling soaps, etc.  There’s something very satisfying about presenting someone with a gift you know they will enjoy but might not have bought for themselves.

What I have a problem with is buying for buying’s sake—this idea that, at the holidays, we have to buy a gift for everyone in our life. Because we feel obligated to?  Because the economy needs stimulating?  Because it’s what we’ve always done?

Many people are starting to buck this tradition, turning instead to gift-raffles, family name-draws, charitable donations, or homemade presents.  I feel lucky that my family, friends, & co-workers aren’t caught up in the gift parade; if we see something we think someone else will like, we buy it for them.  Barring that, we bring each other specialties from our respective kitchens, write thoughtful cards, spend time in each other’s houses laughing, and don’t worry too much about the “balance sheet” of friendship.

As I look around my house today and see my two favorite women in the world, my mother and Jill, this sweet dog Dolly in my lap, and two sassy cats sleeping on the bed, I know there’s not a thing in the world that I need, but there might be a few things that I want…I just have to make sure I am mindful of the difference.

THE BLUE JEAN GOURMET GUIDE TO MONEY WELL-SPENT

Start here.  Stop here, too, if you can:

Heifer International–Heifer works to end poverty and hunger by gifting animals to families in needy communities around the globe.  Every animal, be it a water buffalo or hive of bees, can both feed its recipient family and be used as a potential source of income.  Heifer’s holistic approach includes integrating local customs, respecting the dignity of recipients, & requiring that every family “pass the gift” when their animal reproduces.

Wounded Warrior Project–The WWP seeks to honor and empower severely wounded servicemen and women, many of whom often tragically slip through society’s cracks when returning from active duty.  Given the nature of the ongoing fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, more and more young men and women are face disability and mental trauma, sorry repayment for the invaluable service they have provided.

Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres–This international organization works in over sixty countries to assist men, women, & children whose lives are threatened due to violence, neglect, or catastrophe.  Winner of the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize, MSF is full of stories that break my heart and make me think twice before I open my mouth to complain.

Water.org–Sobering facts: 3.5 million people die each year from water-related disease; An American taking a five-minute shower uses more water than the typical person living in a developing country slum uses in a whole day.  Donate to Water.org and help build wells, sewer systems, and sanitary drinking lines for the one billion people world-wide who don’t have access to safe water now.

CARE–My father gave consistently to CARE his whole life, because he particularly respected the way they work with women to fight global poverty.  CARE believes that by equipping women with the proper resources, they then have the power to help whole families and entire communities escape poverty. More and more studies and reports back this hypothesis up.

This list of more traditional gifts is far from definitive and certainly biased in light of my own preferences and the preferences of those I tend to buy gifts for.  Please do leave any suggestions of your own in the comments!

For Her:


INSPIRATION = customized stationery or thank-you notes (I’m partial to this purveyor), a bold, beautiful scarf from your local museum gift shop, a J. Crew gift certificate, a case of her favorite wine, a set of luxurious-thread-count sheets, first-edition or signed copy of a book that’s been important to her.

SPECIFICS
=

Melissa Borrell Jewelry–Distinctive and finely crafted, Melissa’s jewelry is sold in design shops and museum stores across the country.  She’s a hometown (Houston) artist, so I’m extra excited to share her work with you.

Victoria’s Secret Pajamas–Satin pajamas were a gift from Jill a few years ago and I am still in love with them. Too frivolous for me to have bought for myself, I feel so luxurious, indulgent, & movie-star-like when I wear them.

For Him:

INSPIRATION = a nice bottle of Scotch, a sturdy, waterproof watch with some gleam to it, vintage vinyl, a well-crafted pocket knife, Apple store gift certificate, first-edition or signed copy of a book that’s been important to him.

SPECIFICS =

Ray-Ban Aviator Sunglasses–Why mess with a classic?  A good pair of sunglasses can do a lot for one’s swagger.

iDesign Dock with Power Speakers–Reasonable price, sleek design, badass sound.  Works for iPhone or iPod.

For Mom:

INSPIRATION = high-end candles, an unusually shaped vase, magazine subscription befitting her interests, pre-filled photo frame, cashmere sweater, a copy of the children’s book she read to you over and over again with an inscription from you on the cover page.

SPECIFICS =

Reusable Shopping Bag–I received one of the Reisenthal Mini-Maxi Bags as a teacher gift a few years ago and have been buying them myself as gifts ever since.  Perfect stocking stuffers, they work well for groceries or gym clothes, beach bag or yoga-mat-carrier.

Quilted Jacket–My mom bought herself one of these L.L. Bean Jackets in Cranberry Red and loves it!  It’s quite easy to guess jacket size, but if you get it wrong, L.L. Bean has a very forgiving return policy & excellent customer service.

For Dad:



INSPIRATION
= a grill or grill accessories, food-or-wine-of-the-month club, magazine subscription befitting his interests, pre-loaded ipod, expensive & silky dress socks, a copy of the children’s book he read to you over and over again with an inscription from you on the cover page.

SPECIFICS
=

Jerky of the Month Club
—This one really doesn’t need an explanation.  At the very least, this gift is least likely to be duplicated by a sibling or relative.

Classic Leather Jacket–This sleek zip-up may not be your dad’s style, but bombers and motorcycle jackets are also to be found.  Remember, it’s our job to help our dads be stylish. Don’t fall down on your duty!

For the Foodie:


INSPIRATION = really nice stemware, quirky tea towels, a gift package of your favorite locally-produced goodies, a stack of cookbooks, a set of nesting mixing bowls, fancy salt, a stunning platter.

SPECIFICS =

White Truffle Oil
–D’Artagnan is the place to find gourmet goodies, but if you need a sure-to-please gift, try this truffle oil.  Packs an incredible flavor and can be used in dozens of applications, from risotto to pasta.

Beecher’s Handmade Cheese–Jess of the beautiful blog Sweet Amandine turned me onto these folks and I’m so glad she did.  You can order their Cheese of the Month or buy a la carte from such goodies as their “World’s Best” Mac and Cheese Kit or 6th Anniversary Collection.

For the Bookworm:

Of course, taste in books is highly personal, but here are some old & new BJG favorites.  Each title links to a description.

FICTION =

*Young Adult*

The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins)–I took this book home one weekend and couldn’t put it down. I then passed it along to Jill, Sonya, Courtney, John, all of whom had similar responses.  Even better?  Catching Fire, the sequel, is just as good.

Beastly (Alex Flinn)–Every one of my students who have read this modern re-telling of the classic story of Beauty and the Beast has loved it, and you can feel good about gifting it because the messaging is solid.  A movie based on the book is scheduled to be released next year, so get them to read the book first!

the dead and the gone (Susan Beth Pfeffer)–Another riveting, intense piece of young adult fiction that translates easily to adult readers.  I’d especially recommend this one for young men or reluctant readers.

Willful Creatures: Stories (Aimee Bender)–One of my all-time favorites, this collection of stories is astonishingly creative and moving.

The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot Diaz)–My favorite book club read of 2008.  Highly inventive, blooming with verve.

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlife (David Eagleman)–Devoured this in a few afternoons.  Perfect bedside-table book because you can pick it up here and there without missing a beat.

NONFICTION =

Nurtureshock: New Thinking About Children (Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman)–Jill ordered this after we read these authors’ Newsweek cover article, Is Your Baby Racist?  Urgent arguments, substantive research, approachable tone.

Losing Mum & Pup (Christopher Buckley)–A fugue of a book from a square-jawed author. Incredibly touching, especially as someone who has experienced the loss of a parent myself.

Color: A Natural History of the Palette
(Victoria Finlay)–I bought this book at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Gift shop and read it on the plane home.  It’s a stunning account of where color comes from, with travel vignettes I still recall vividly.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Michael Pollan)–This book has become somewhat ubiquitous, but for good reason.  If you haven’t read it yet, do.  A book must be powerful if it convinced Jill to buy organic dairy!

For the Pet/Pet-Owner:

INSPIRATION = goodies from Doctors Foster & Smith, handmade wool sweater from Chilly Dog Sweaters, a new collar or leash from Swanky Pet.

SPECIFICS
=

Homemade BJG Dog Treats—as featured a few months ago, these Peanut Butter Treats have never met a dog who didn’t wolf them down!

Furminator—The most incredible pet brush I have ever experienced, with both dog and cat incarnations.  It seriously changed the quality of life for this multi-pet household!  Worth every penny.

For New Babies/Expectant Parents:

INSPIRATION = restaurant gift certificate to the couple’s favorite restaurant, a “coupon book” for future babysitting, body butter & other bath goodies to pamper the pregnant , classic children’s books to build the baby’s library, a diaper bag with a sense of style.

SPECIFICS =

Urban Tots—All kinds of cuteness available here, but I’m especially fond of the Fruits & Veggies onesies, with colorful silk-screened designs and clever slogans: 100% Organic (broccoli), Ripe (banana), Squeezable (orange).  Packaged adorably in green paper berry crates.

Urban Smalls—because every baby needs a vinyl-backed bib that says “MUSH: IT’S WHAT’S FOR DINNER.”  Other fun baby hats, pants, onesies, & shirts are also available.

For the Kiddos:



INSPIRATION = a Kiva credit, allowing them to finance microloans to entrepreneurs worldwide, movie gift card, gardening gear to help mom & dad, a purse or wallet for that grownup sensation.

SPECIFICS =

Ugly Dolls—So ugly they’re cute.  Even big kids like them!

The Lightning Thief series–Conceived by author Rick Riordan, these novels draw upon ancient Greek mythology to imagine a world where the gods and goddesses of Olympus are alive and well (and living at the top of the Empire State Building).  A great choice for kids from 8-14.

One-Stop Shops:


Duross & Langel—I fell in love with this haven of thoughtfully made bath-and-body goodies on a recent trip to Philadelphia and came away with adorable shark-shaped soaps for my godsons, Moroccan Cedar shower gel for Dave, hand-repair salve for my mom, and dermabrasion face cream for Jill.

Lake Champlain Chocolates–Yeah, I’m kinda obsessed with these people.  They’re a small-batch operation with excellent customer service (Once I placed a big birthday order for a friend using the wrong address. Needless to say, it didn’t reach her, but even when I realized my mistake and offered to pay again, they sent a duplicate order to the right address free of charge).  Everything they make is delicious, but allow me to recommend Vermont Country Gift Basket, Hot Chocolate Sampler, & Organic Holiday Truffles.

BUILT NY—These are the folks responsible for the good-looking neoprene protective coverings you’ve been seeing everywhere.  From laptop sleeves to lunch boxes, you could (literally) have everyone covered with one order.

& last but not least…

Your local bookstore—If you’re not sure where to find an independent, locally-owned-and-operated bookstore in your town, consult this list.  Then plan to spend a good hour or two browsing and setting aside goodies for the ones you love, knowing that the staff will be much more likely to actually help than at a big-box store.  Though a local bookstore’s inventory will be smaller, keep in mind that they can almost always order a particular title for you at no extra charge.

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KAREN’S MEXICAN RICE & “GRAD SCHOOL” BLACK BEANS

I cut my hair short in high school, for many reasons and for no reason at all.  Convenience, defiance, sophistication, some combination thereof.  It ranged from ear-length to pixie-short until I buzzed it all off my freshman year of college.  Head-shaving was the social experiment that I undertook with my fortuitously-assigned college roommate Rebecca. Bolder and defiant than I could conceive of being at that point in my life, Rebecca was my first true friend on campus (and remains one of my favorite people on the planet, I might add).  Shaving our heads was her idea.

Bless my poor father’s heart—he always harbored visions of me with long, flowing tresses like the hip-shaking heroines of the Bollywood movies he loved to watch.  He was forever making remarks that he found funny but I found annoying, encouraging me to “grow it out!” and “not so short!”  But to my surprise and perhaps disappointment, he handled my shaved head remarkably well, voicing no critiques and even silencing my mother who clearly thought I had lost my mind.

Though I never shaved it again–

a) I’m not cut out to live a renegade lifestyle

b) my head is oddly shaped

c) lack of hair dampened my flirting potential, which truly affected my quality of life

–once my hair grew back, I continued to style it short.  I had no reason to wear it longer and plenty of reasons to keep it cropped: I lived in hot climates (Memphis, then Houston, then Tucson), I like a low-maintenance morning routine, I had been told once or twice that I looked like the Indian Halle Berry.  Why mess with a good thing?

In my first semester of graduate school, my parents proposed a trip to India for my cousin’s wedding.  She was three years my junior and had become engaged to a man that she met herself at another family wedding and secretly “dated” before coming home and suggesting to her parents that he might be a good match for her.  I rather liked this schema: it was spunky and made the prospect of braving a wedding (at which I would be the noticeably older, unmarried, American cousin) far more palatable.  Not to mention, I had not been to India, the country of my parents’ birth, in over a decade, and my father and I had only traveled there together once before, when I was an infant.

A few months before we were scheduled to leave for India, my father asked me to grow out my hair.

“Nito,” he said, after he had so cleverly taken me out to lunch in Memphis, plied me with pulled pork barbecue and worked me into quite the food coma, “What if you grew your hair for a little while?  Please don’t cut it before we go to India.  It will just look better, your relatives will like to see it, not so short.”

I knew that my relatives weren’t the only ones who would like to see my hair “not so short,” but refrained from saying so.

“But doesn’t the nose ring count for anything?” I asked him, mostly teasing since I had pierced it on a whim in college, not out of any deep-seated cultural agenda.

“Maybe a five-point bonus,” he said, keeping the joke.  “But your hair could look so nice!”

He said “could,” as in “doesn’t right now,” which I noticed but also choose to ignore.  Instead, I decided to leave my hair untouched.  After all, I had cut it for no particular reason, surely I could grow it out when it meant so much to my father?

“I’m going to cut it as soon as we get back, though, okay?”

“Okay,” he consented.  “It’s your hair.”


My father died six weeks after we returned from India.  Except for the occasional trim, I haven’t cut my hair since.  I grow my hair for a dead man who carried his hair on his arms and his legs and his chest and his back, but not his head, curling and dark. He would be so pleased if he could see this hair.  This hair, my hair, all the way down my back, long and flowing the way he always wanted.

Tomorrow, I’m having my first hair cut in nearly four years.  Not an arbitrary cut, but one that will help mark my twenty-seventh birthday and which will result in an envelope full of my hair being mailed here.  You see, my friend Rebecca and I have many things in common: we’re giant nerds, know more Disney song lyrics than we really ought to admit, have serious sweet tooths, and love to craft things with our hands.  But the most powerful thing we share is the one we never counted on; losing a parent within nine months of each other.

Rebecca’s mom Karen fought an exhausting battle against cancer for two-and-a-half years, one of those terrifying up-and-down rides full of uncertainty and pain, loss and hope.  My friend put her life on hold to tend her mother’s every need, exhibiting the kind of courage and relentlessness that humbles one who witnesses it.  By the time Karen was diagnosed, right in the middle of our senior year of college, Rebecca had become my family and I, part of hers.  My own father’s death very surprisingly interrupted the trajectory of things; who could have guessed that I would be the one to lose a parent first?

To this day it stuns me, how in the midst of their own sadness and grief, Rebecca and her parents tended to me so unselfishly.  I remember spending part of an afternoon at the hospital with them, not long after my father had died and during a time along the cancer roller-coaster when chemo had stripped Karen’s head completely clean of hair.  She had wigs, but they didn’t come close to recreating her.  The most realistic ones are, of course, the most expensive.

“Your hair is so beautiful, Nishta,” she told me, in a voice I’ll always be able to hear.  “I wish I could wear it.”

“I’ll grow it out for you,” I told her.  “I promise.”

Tomorrow I’ll be making good on my promise at the same time I let go of the hair that feels so connected to my father.  I’m nervous, excited, and proud, and I promise to post some before-and-after pictures on Friday, provided that I don’t become totally incapacitated by all of the food I’m planning to eat between now and then (with a birthday today & Thanksgiving tomorrow, let’s hope I can even fit into my pants on Friday!)

I’m wishing all of you very festive and delicious Thanksgivings, full of people you love and lots of linger-worthy moments.

KAREN’S MEXICAN RICE & “GRAD SCHOOL” BLACK BEANS

Rebecca’s mama made the world’s best home-cooked Mexican rice, and she generously passed on her secret to me through her daughter: 1 ¾ cups liquid for every 1 cup of rice. Her ratio yields flavorful rice with the ideal texture and every time I make it (which is often), I picture her in my kitchen, proud that I’m working her recipe.

This rice makes an excellent accompaniment to so many things, but my favorite pairing is with a big pot of simple, vegetable-laced black beans.  “Grad school food,” I call it, given how cheap it is to make, while at the same time being comforting and tasty.  Feel free to swap in or out other vegetables such as chayote, fresh spinach, mushrooms, etc.

KAREN’S MEXICAN RICE

1 cup long-grain rice
1 ¾ cups vegetable or chicken broth
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
3 medium ripe tomatoes, diced or 1 can diced tomatoes, drained
1 T cumin
½ T chili powder
salt
vegetable oil

optional: sliced onion

In a large skillet with a fitted lid, sauté the garlic (plus onion, if you’re using it) in a few tablespoons of vegetable oil over medium heat.  After two minutes, up the heat to medium-high and add the rice, toasting in the oil until the rice begins to brown and become fragrant, about 5 minutes.

Pour in the chicken or vegetable broth, then stir in the spices.  Cover the mixture with the lid and allow it to come to a boil.  Once the mixture boils, dial back he heat to medium-low, stirring periodically until the liquid is nearly gone and the rice is fully cooked.

Toss in the tomatoes and check the rice for salt, seasoning to your liking before serving hot.

“GRAD SCHOOL” BLACK BEANS

2 cans black beans, fully or partially drained*
1 can corn (or 2 ears’ worth of fresh corn, off the cob)
2 carrots, peeled & sliced ½-inch thick
1 red bell pepper, seeded & diced
1 ½ T cumin
1 T garlic powder
1 tsp. salt
vegetable oil

optional: ½ or a whole jalapeño, minced
potential garnishes: grated cheese, sour cream, cilantro, salsa, raw onion, shredded cabbage

In a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat, sauté the bell peppers (jalapeño, if you’re using it) and carrots in a bit of vegetable oil until soft.  Add the black beans, corn, & spices, then mix well.

Cover and turn down the heat to low.  After 10-12 minutes, the beans should be heated through.  Check for salt, then serve over rice.

*If you want drier beans, drain all the way.  For a soupier effect, drain only one of the two cans.

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VEENA’S CHEX MIX

Please forgive me for lapsing with my posts this week, but to make it up to you, I’m letting ya’ll in on a coveted family secret: the recipe for my mom’s incredibly addictive Chex Mix.

Often surfacing around the holidays, this stuff has long been a staple at holiday parties & in college care packages, one of the many things my mom makes which always forces the question, “Oh my god, did you put crack in this?”

I tried my hand at this goodness for the first time the other night and was pleased to find that I was able to replicate her magic pretty easily in my own kitchen.  In a few days, I get to see my mom, spend my twenty-seventh birthday with her and Jill, eat through Thanksgiving, even sleep late if I wish.

There are many, many things, both big and little, for which I am grateful, but today I’d like to acknowledge you, reader of this blog.  Little did I know when I launched this blog just over six months ago that I would “meet” so many kind and generous folks, that so many of you would be interested in what I have to say about food and living joyfully in the world, that many of you would be willing to share your stories, ideas, recipes, & genuine enthusiasm with me.

Thank you.  It has been, and continues to be, a privilege.

VEENA’S CHEX MIX

½ box each, corn & rice chex cereal

1 cup assorted nuts and/or pretzels

1 stick (½ cup) unsalted butter, melted

¼ cup Worcestershire sauce

1 T each: garlic powder, dried chives, & dried parsley

1 tsp. each, salt & black pepper

oven: 235°

In a large metal bowl, toss together the cereal, nuts, and/or pretzels.  In a separate and much smaller bowl, stir together the melted butter, Worcestershire, and spices.

Pour the butter mixture over the cereal, using a spatula to make sure all the pieces are evenly coated.  Bake the mixture in the bowl for an hour, stopping to stir every fifteen minutes.

After an hour, turn off the oven and let the mixture sit overnight.  Store the mixture in an airtight container—it will keep well for several weeks.

MARINATED CHEESE

This blog post is very late, but there are two good reasons why: the opera & Dolly.

marinated cheese ready

Jill and I just came home from witnessing a marathon performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin which was, unlike many things my students use the descriptor “epic” for, actually EPIC.  Mysterious heroes, accusations of murder, true love, witchcraft, war, revenge, heartbreak, you name it, it’s in there.

I went to the opera for the first time as a high school senior—why, I actually can’t remember (the two competing stories are: won tickets in a raffle or went to fulfill a performance-viewing requirement for my Humanities class), but seeing La Traviata is something I will never forget.  From that night on, I was hooked.

Opera’s appeal is lost on many.  Especially in a culture that places an inordinate emphasis on art needing to reflect “reality” and blurring the boundaries between those two things, the suspension of disbelief that opera requires can feel like too big of a gap to bridge.

But here’s the thing: it turns out human beings still need a grand gesture every once in a while.  We need to get lost in something, to virtually drown in a darkened theatre, cozied up to by the swell of strings, the shatter of voices, the collective gasp of the audience when we realize that the lovers before us are doomed.  We like being made to feel big, ridiculous emotions even though it’s passé to articulate those things anymore.

cheese marinade

Our most intimate concerns on the grandest of stages.  Performances that transcend what most of our bodies can and can’t do.  Myth over reality.  Sometimes I think we need a dose of that, and I’m very grateful I was able to get it tonight.

And to come home to this:

dolly

Say hello to Dolly, our new girl.  She is an old rat terrier whom we adopted via Ratbone Rescues (THE NICEST people) and flew down from Portland just yesterday.  Can I just tell you, this dog was meant to live with us?  I’ve never met a sweetier lap dog who is, at the same time, obsessed with her squeaky toy and impossible to beat in tug-of-war.  Last night she slept under the covers in our bed and cuddled up to me this morning, making it nearly impossible to get up and go to work.  I’m in love.

Needless to say, we’ve been a bit all over the place the last few days, but rest assured I have a wonderful recipe for you today, elegant enough for the opera and also Dolly-friendly (she’s a terrible beggar for cheese).

MARINATED CHEESE

This appetizer looks much more labor-intensive than it actually is, making it ideal for dinner parties or the holidays.  Of course, you can make as much or as little as you like, so don’t rule it out as an “at home” dish, either.

If you celebrate Christmas, you can make this dish especially festive by adding chopped red pimentos to complement the green onions.

served up marinated cheese
marinade ingredients:

½ cup olive oil
½ cup white wine vinegar*
¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped
¼ cup chopped green onions (scallions)
2 cloves garlic, minced
salt & pepper

optional: 1 tsp. lemon zest

cheese:

Any mild-flavored cheese will work, but I like the combinations of white & yellow cheddars or yellow cheddar with cream cheese.  If you’re using cream cheese, it becomes much easier to cut if you throw it in the freezer for a few minutes.

Cut the cheeses into slices (taking into account the size of the cracker you’ll be serving it with).  Arrange the cheese in a shallow dish, alternating the colors or arranging them into a design of your choice.

Place all marinade ingredients in a jar, tighten the lid, & shake vigorously.  Pour the marinade over the cheese, cover the dish with plastic wrap & refrigerate for at least an hour, up to 6.  Serve with crackers—we’re really loving this brand right now.

*If you can splurge on a higher-end bottle, do.

eaten cheese

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APPLE-SOUR CREAM MUFFINS

Sharing is good.  Despite what people always claim about only children, my mother contends that I was always eager to share.  Perhaps because I was so accustomed to playing alone, except when I conscripted one of my parents to take part in my favorite game—restaurant.  Prescient, no?

apple muffins on plate
In any case, I fancy myself a sharer.  I like to share books and music and hugs (but not half-hugs) and food and information, of which I sometimes share too much.  I’m going to grow up to become one of those old women who sidle up to you with a Southern accent and over-share treacherous details about their medical problems, aren’t I?  And then proceeds to the buffet, where she shoves rolls into her giant handbag for later?

In the meantime, allow me to share with you two new websites I’m mildly obsessed with slash grateful for the existence of:

1001 Rules for my Unborn Son

Spot-on, modern gentlemanly voice offering advice that my fourteen-year-old male students (who are a tough crowd to please) respect.  Author Walker Lamond has recently published a book of all one thousand and one rules, but the website counts up from #1 and is currently at #406.

unborn son
Some of my favorite rules include:

402. If you aren’t hungry enough to eat an apple, you’re not hungry.
383. Framing a poster does not make it valuable.
318. Don’t gloat. A good friend will do it for you.
241. Keep a well-stocked bar. (This last one works for daughters, too!)

The unborn son to whom the title refers is actually no longer unborn, as he came into the world shortly after the completion of the book.  Go spend your lunch break perusing this site; you’ll be touched and amused, I think.

And the Pursuit of Happiness

Artist and journalist Maira Kalman is proving that the internet can, in fact, be used tell beautiful stories.  Using mixed media for each entry, she narrates her personal exploration of an issue that, by the end, becomes magically relevant to us all.

Kalman manages to strike just the right tone, making herself into an Everyman, even though her talent clearly says otherwise.  Each time I experience her work, I learn something and I come away more hopeful than I arrived.

kalman blog

Of course, I’d like to share a recipe with you, too.  I tweeted about these muffins a few weeks ago and one of my followers (angeltread) requested that I post the recipe.  Since I was winging it the first time, I did a second run, got Sonya to take some pictures, and actually wrote down what went in them.  It helps, I know.

Given the deliciousness of apples at this time, I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t want to make these.  They give your kitchen that warm, fuzzy, happy autumn smell, too.  And have a streusel topping—did I mention that?

I know ya’ll have good stuff to share, too.  Other great website recommendations?  Exciting news?  Book suggestions?  Celebrity gossip?  Dancing baby videos?

APPLE-SOUR CREAM MUFFINS
makes 12-16 muffins

I know, you’re thinking, sour cream, whaaaat?  Trust me, though.  Keeps things nice and moist but also prevents the muffins from being too sweet.  It’s a muffin, not a cupcake.  There should be a difference!

For the version pictured here, I used Empire apples, which I love and had on hand, but I think this recipe would work equally well with Jonagold, Cortlandt, or Golden Delicious apples.

ingredients: apples in bowl

1 ¾ cup all-purpose flour
1 ½ tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. ground allspice
½ tsp. nutmeg (freshly grated, if possible)
½ tsp. baking soda
¼ tsp. salt

2 eggs
1 ½ cups packed light brown sugar
1 cup sour cream
½ stick unsalted butter, melted

2 small apples, peeled & diced
1 cup pecans or walnuts, toasted & chopped

streusel topping:

2 T brown sugar
1 ½ T unsalted butter, softened a bit
1 T flour
¼ tsp. each cinnamon, allspice, & nutmeg

pan: lined or well-greased muffin tin
oven: 400°

Preheat oven.  Stir together dry ingredients and set aside.

Whisk the eggs and brown sugar together before adding the butter.  Stir in the sour cream.  Fold in the dry ingredients, then stir in apple pieces & nuts.  Be careful not to over-mix!

Spoon the batter into the muffin cups so that each cup is three-quarters full.  Combine the streusel ingredients in a small bowl, mixing with your fingers to break up the butter into small bits.

Sprinkle a generous amount of streusel on top of each muffin before baking, 18-20 minutes.  Cool on a rack before removing the muffins.  Enjoy warm or store in an airtight container (though I’d recommend refrigerating these after a day).

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CARAMEL CORN

Various ways I know I got it right:

•    Jill goes back for seconds
•    My students pay attention
•    It smells the way my mom’s version does
•    Courtney says “oh yes MA’M!”
•    I have no trouble falling asleep
•    Someone asks “Did you put crack in this?”

caramel corn

I actually read a story some years ago about a restaurant in Japan; it had a cult following, lots of regulars, did fine business.  The thing was, no one could really articulate why the restaurant was so popular.  Was it their unique culinary offerings?  Homey atmosphere?  Friendly owners who knew your name & order as soon as you walked in the door?

Nah. It was liquid opium, trace amounts of which the kitchen laced into all of the food, as discovered by the Japanese health inspector.

There aren’t any illegal substances in this caramel corn but it’s so good you’d swear there were.  Make it for weekend munching, mail it to your favorite serviceman or woman, take it along to work as a sweet afternoon snack.  Be warned, though, if you should chose to share it, there won’t be any left for you.

CARAMEL CORN

What I especially like about this recipe is that the caramel isn’t fussy; no candy thermometer necessary here.  When the mixture starts to get dark, take it off the heat.  It’s really that simple!

8 cups plain popcorn*
1 cup mixed nuts (almonds, pecans, macadamias, peanuts, etc.)
1 cup sugar
2/3 cup butter
¼ cup clear Karo (corn) syrup
½ T vanilla
plan or sea salt

Combine popcorn & nuts in a large bowl (one that will clean easily).  Prepare two baking sheets by either greasing or lining with parchment.

Melt the butter, then add sugar and Karo syrup.  Stir regularly until the mixture comes to a boil.  Turn down the heat and watch the mixture, stirring occasionally until it takes on a caramel color (10-12 minutes).

Remove the caramel mixture from heat, then stir in the vanilla with a heat-proof spatula.  Pour the mixture into the bowl of popcorn & nuts, stirring vigorously until coated (much as you would when making Rice Krispie treats).

Spread the popcorn mixture onto the two baking sheets, then sprinkle generously with salt for a lovely flavor contrast.  Let  the corn harden before breaking into clumps.   Enjoy right away or store for up to a week in an airtight container.

*It’s not required to pop your own popcorn, but it’s so blazing easy, cheap, & delicious, shouldn’t you?

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CRANBERRY VANILLA COFFEECAKE

I don’t buy the theory that everything happens for a reason.

crumb cake slice cut out

After watching my father go from perfectly fine to totally incapacitated in the course of three weeks, after witnessing some of the best people I know be unable to conceive and carry a healthy baby, after being privy to the pretty hellish family backgrounds of some of my students, I’m extremely resistant to the line of thinking that asserts “there’s some good reason for this totally shitty thing that’s happening.”  In my world, shitty things just sometimes happen.

I do, however, believe that if something shitty should happen, you might as well find an angle on the situation from which you can learn something, be grateful for something, grow, and/or laugh.

So.  As you might imagine, I’m not very good at standing around and not doing things.  Not good at going to Costco with my best friend and letting her put everything in my cart and load everything into my car.  Not good at letting Jill do the cooking.  Not good at standing around at a Halloween party, unable to pour drinks.

I’m going to back to the doctor today, but I have to say the experience of the last few days has made me grateful and thoughtful.  I see now how accustomed I am to assessing my value via the things I can do: baking, helping, fixing, mailing packages, cleaning, grading, writing letters, blogging (which I’m doing anyway—shhhh!)

What I’ve been forced to realize is that, even if I never contributed another action in my life, I would still be loved.  I’d be valued and of importance.  I’d be useful simply for being myself.

And that’s a pretty big thing to get.

CRANBERRY VANILLA COFFEECAKE
ever-so-slightly adapted from Gourmet, December 2008

If your hands are in even slightly better shape than mine, MAKE THIS CAKE.  The food processor & stand mixer do most of the work, and this cake tastes like fall, nostalgia, home, & butter all rolled into one.  Fresh cranberries are readily available these days, but if you must, you can substitute thawed, frozen ones.

Because I prefer my breakfast cakes a bit tart, I’ve dialed back the sugar by a quarter cup from the original recipe and added a bit of lemon zest.  Feel free to go for a sweeter version if you’d like.

cake ingredients: crumb cake slice 2

½ a vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1 ½ cups sugar
1 cup cranberries
2 cups flour
2 tsp. baking powder
¾ tsp. salt
1 stick (½ cup) unsalted butter, softened
2 large eggs
½ cup whole milk
zest of one lemon

oven: 375°
pan: 9-inch round cake pan (I used a spring form)

Butter the pan & line the bottom of it with a round of parchment paper.  Butter the parchment, too.  Trust me.  It’s easier this way.

Use your food processor to make vanilla sugar: scrape the insides of the vanilla bean* into the bowl of the food processor along with the sugar.  Pulse to combine.

Remove vanilla sugar from bowl & reserve ¼ cup for the topping.  Pulse the cranberries with another ¼ cup of vanilla sugar until finely chopped.

To make the cake batter, whisk together the flour, baking powder, & salt.  Beat together the butter & remaining vanilla sugar (1 cup) until pale and fluffy.

Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.  Scrape down the bowl, then add the flour mixture & milk alternately.  Begin & end with the flour!

Stir in the lemon zest; be careful not to over-mix.

To assemble the cake, spread half of the batter in the pan (don’t worry if it looks a little thin).  Because the cranberries tend to give off a lot of water, use a slotted spoon to remove them from the food processor & spread them in a circle over the batter, leaving a slight border.

Top the cake layers with the remaining half of the batter (again, don’t worry if it looks thin!)  Top with the crumble—see below—and bake for 45-55 minutes.  The cake will pull away from the pan & become light brown.  If using a regular cake pan, cool at least 25 minutes before turning out the cake.  With a spring form pan, wait 15-20.

*Don’t throw away that vanilla bean half!  Save it for flavoring purposes, the simplest of which is to store it in a jam jar with some extra sugar, which you can then add to your coffee, tea, baked goods, etc.

crumble topping:

¼ cup vanilla sugar (see above)
1 T flour
1 T unsalted butter, softened

Blend the ingredients with your fingers & scatter over the top of the cake.

Cake will keep, well-wrapped, in the refrigerator for a week.

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