APPLE-PEAR CROSTADA

It’s well past midnight as I’m typing this and a Brazoria County Sheriff is standing in my living room, cross-referencing witness statements from the bizarre car crash that happened outside my house tonight.  Our dear, dear friends Courtney and John came over to deliver an embarrassment of riches on behalf of our amazing community of loved ones: soup, kugel, chicken, pasta, pot roast, carrot cake, a taco “kit,” grocery gift cards, cash for hospital parking, and on and on.  Jill starts chemotherapy tomorrow; we are being very well cared for.


As we were sitting down to dessert, a giant crash—poor Courtney’s car, which had been parked in the street in front of our house—had been completely smashed and shoved into the neighbors’ driveway.  A big, red truck was weaving down the street; its driver parked in someone else’s driveway and stumbled to his house.  Turns out we have a very unsavory neighbor.

Life’s craziness is relative and I’ve never found that “My life is crappier than yours” game some people play to be very compelling or gratifying.  There’s no prize for shittiest circumstances, and there’s very little good that comes from bemoaning them.  Sometimes there’s just what is and what we need to do next, and the little moments of humor or hilarity or camaraderie that inevitably manifest even in the worst of times.

In a couple of weeks, we might be laughing, looking back at the bizarreness of the evening, not because there’s anything actually funny about my dear friend’s car being smashed by a drunk driver, but because sometimes you just have to shake your head, ask “What next?,” change your mind about asking “What next?,” put on a pot of coffee and deal with it.

APPLE-PEAR CROSTADA
barely adapted from Mollie Katzen’s Sunlight Café

If you cope by baking (like me!), this would be a fun one to do this time of year, when very good apples and very good pears are available.  Hearty enough to work as a breakfast item but elegant enough to serve as dessert (especially if served with ice cream), we all enjoyed the texture of the cornmeal crust as well as the crunch that the not-separately-cooked fruit offered.

If you’re used to/fond of a more traditional “smooshy” fruit pie (yes that’s a technical term), I’d recommend softening the apples and pears for a few minutes beforehand in a saucepan with the rest of the filling ingredients, over low heat.

for the pastry:

1 ½ cups cornmeal (fine or medium)
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
¼ cup sugar
½ tsp. salt
½ cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 egg
~1/3 cup cream or half & half

pan: 10 or 9” tart or pie pan
oven: 375°

Pulse the cornmeal, flour, sugar, & salt in a food processor (fitted with the regular blade) before adding the butter and processing until the mixture forms a coarse meal.

Add the egg, pulsing briefly, then add enough cream for the mixture to just come together.  You might have to take it out of the food processor and hand-mix it a bit before rolling it out.

Divide the dough in half and roll each piece out on a very well floured surface (it will be sticky!)  Place one dough round into the bottom of the greased pan, trimming the edges where they spill over the top.  Cut the other half of the dough into strips and reserve.

for the filling:

2 ½ pounds mixed apples and pears
3 T sugar (maybe a little more, if you like)
2 T fresh lemon juice
2 T flour
1 T vanilla
pinch salt

Peel, core, & slice the fruit.  Toss gently with the remaining ingredients.

Spread the fruit into the crust, then arrange the remaining dough strips to form a lattice on top.  Transfer the pan to a baking sheet and bake for 35-40 minutes or until golden on top.  Cool 10-15 minutes before serving warm.

(option: Before baking, brush the crust with a little extra cream & then sprinkle with some Demerara sugar.  Makes it sparkle pretty and adds extra crunch).

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ORANGE POLENTA CAKE

You know what?  I am never going to be less than a size 10.  I am never going to not want to sing along to a Disney musical if in its presence.  I am always going to feel the need to plan things, to be obsessive and make lists, to send out texts and emails, “Hey do you want to…?”

I will procrastinate by cooking.  I will cope by eating things that I find delicious.  I will never be able to skip more than two days in a row at the gym because I am addicted to endorphins.  I will start books (particularly “thinky” non-fiction books) that I feel like I “ought to” read and never finish them, opting for really addictive, well-written fiction instead.  I will feel slightly guilty about this, and about the fact that sometimes I listen to music in the mornings on the way to work instead of NPR, but not guilty enough to stop.  I will go weeks without writing and when I finally set aside time to do so, I will think “Why don’t I do this more often?”

Every once in a while, I will snap at Jill for something that totally isn’t even her fault. I won’t call my mother as often as I probably should.  I will tell people “I love you” more times than is necessary, in ways that they’re not sure how to respond to, but that won’t stop me.  Sometimes I may pretend to be asleep when the dog needs to go out in the middle of the night.

If you ask, I’m going to tell it like it is.  (I may do that even if you don’t ask).  I’m going to save bacon fat in a jar in the fridge & then fry eggs in it, I’m going to flirt with good looking waiters, I’m going to lust after unnecessary shoes, I will probably always be a little bit vain, and I am never going to not want dessert.

The end.

ORANGE POLENTA CAKE
adapted from Bon Appetit

I love the texture that polenta brings to sweets; the pairing with orange is classically Italian, though this cake is more like a pound cake than anything else.  The original recipe calls for plums & blackberries to be served alongside, but I stuck to just the latter.  I also substituted good old-fashioned whipped cream for the more high-maintenance (though delicious sounding) buttermilk ice cream suggested.

ingredients:

1 ¼ cups flour
¾ medium-grind polenta
1 ½ tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
1 cup + 2 T sugar
1 cup unsalted butter at room temperature
finely grated zest of 1 orange
4 eggs, room temperature
1 tsp. vanilla extract
½ cup plain yogurt (preferably whole milk)

oven: 350°
pan: 9x5x3-inch loaf pan, buttered & floured

Whisk the dry ingredients together and set aside.  In a separate bowl, beat the sugar, butter, & zest together until fluffy, then add the eggs one at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl and blending well after each addition.  Beat in the vanilla.

Alternately add the dry ingredients and the yogurt, starting & ending with the dry ingredients.  Mix until just combined, then pour the batter into the loaf pan and smooth the top.

Bake until the cake is golden and a cake tester or toothpick comes out clean or with dry crumbs clinging to it.  This may take anywhere from 50 minutes to 1 hour & 15 minutes, depending on your oven.  Cool the cake on a rack in the pan before running a knife around the edges and inverting the cake.

Serve with blackberries tossed with a little sugar & vanilla extract and some homemade whipped cream or ice cream.
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SHAKSHUKA

Going to see a counselor was one of the best things I’ve ever done.


The first time, it was just weeks after my father had died.  I was back in Tucson, completing my second and final year of graduate school, and at the gentle urging of several friends, I rode my bike over to Student Health Services and half eagerly, half gingerly sat through an intake appointment which led to a handful of meetings with the kind and straightforward Deborah.

Even though it made complete sense for me to see a counselor at that time and even to attend a small, student-run grief support group, which I eventually did, I was a little abashed about it at first.  Grateful as I am to have been raised in an atmosphere of “You can do anything you set your mind to!,” there are ways in which I find this messaging of independence to be programmed so deep that it actually gets in my way.  I do it to myself, of course—”I can do it!”—or, I should be able to do it alone.

With death, it was easier for me to be talked out of such insistence, to consider it an exception to my rule of stubbornness, to concede that it might make sense to consult a third-party who could help guide me through starkly unfamiliar territory.  And, as it turned out, having Deborah to suggest ways of coping, assure me that what I was going through was normal, listen to me pour out the thoughts & emotions I was sure my friends were tired of hearing all allowed me to keep my sanity and move through grief with much sturdier footing than I would have had alone.

But I never would have thought that I’d be back in a counselor’s office, as I have been in the last few months.  This time, nothing happened—nothing went wrong, no one died, no crisis was precipitated—but I found myself with some questions, some issues that were cropping up in my relationships (both with myself and with other people), some conversations that it made sense to have with a neutral third party, not to mention one who helps people comb over their lives for a living.

If I squint and tilt my head, I can remember a time when I would have been embarrassed to share this—there’s still so much stigma associated with counseling/therapy/psychiatry in this culture of ours.  But the truth is that any chagrin I might feel has been completely supplanted by how freaking wonderful it has been to see a counselor for the last few months.

At any point in our lives, we are living from the hip; we’ve never done this before, whatever this may be.  We’ve never been here, and nobody sent a road map.  Feel free to stop and ask for directions.

SHAKSHUKA
adapted from Smitten Kitchen, who adapted from Saveur

What is shakshuka?  An Israeli dish consisting of eggs poached in a spicy tomato sauce laced with feta and fresh parsley.  When you cook it, you leave your yolks runny so that when you break them open, the cheddar-y centers will spill out into the dish’s base, making an unctuous, lick-the-bowl mixture.

I have no idea how to pronounce “shakshuka” correctly, but that hasn’t stopped me from becoming obsessed with it.  What I do know is that a) it’s so freaking delicious and b) it’s a great and inexpensive way to feed a small crowd brunch or to feed your family a homey, ready-in-twenty-minutes dinner on a cold winter night.  Make it, my friends, you won’t regret it.

The original recipe calls for serving pita bread with your shakshuka, but I like toasted slices of ciabatta much better.

ingredients:

1 yellow onion, diced
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
2-3 jalapeños, minced (remove seeds if you’re nervous about the heat)
1 28 oz. can diced, fire-roasted tomatoes
2 tsp. paprika
1 tsp. cumin
½ cup feta cheese, crumbled
¼ cup flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped
eggs (I’ve fit as many as 10 in one skillet, but 6-8 also works)
salt
olive oil
bread

Heat a generous amount of olive oil in a large, deep skillet.  Saute the onion and peppers over medium heat until the onion is translucent.  Add the garlic and spices and cook a few minutes more.

Toss in the canned tomatoes, then run a little (no more than a half-cup or so) water back into the can and pour it into the skillet.  Add salt to taste.  Simmer the sauce until it thickens up, 10-12 minutes.  Once it has pulled together a bit, crack the eggs over the sauce and cover the skillet.

After 5-6 minutes, your eggs should be cooked with still-runny centers.  Sprinkle the shakshuka with the feta and parsley and serve, scooping the saucy eggs into bowls and tucking some bread in alongside, for sopping up the goodness.

BRAISED RAINBOW CARROTS

I know, I know—two braised vegetable dishes, two weeks in a row.  What can I say?  I’m on a kick of sorts.


There’s something so satisfying about cooking from the hip or on the fly.  No real recipe, no measuring, just a smattering of what you have around the house (whether it be freezer, refrigerator, pantry, liquor cabinet, spice rack, and/or garden) that might taste good together.

I find that vegetables are a great place to do this.  They’re a bit more forgiving than proteins, and if you’re trying to eat more of them, as we are, variety is key to staying on the wagon.  Not to mention, I find that it often just takes one dish, one new preparation, that can turn a palate’s veggie-tude around: broccoli roasted instead of steamed, spinach raw instead of frozen, pickled beets, caramelized Brussels sprouts, and so on.

Carrots have always been a particular favorite of mine, a proclivity attributable to my mother’s propagation of the “they’ll improve your eyesight!” exaggeration many of us were party to as kids.  I started wearing glasses when I was two-and-a-half and, as you can see here, they were of the impossibly thick plastic-frame variety.  (Kids today have no idea how good they have it when it comes to glasses frame design options.)

I would have done anything to rid myself of those glasses, including eating pounds upon pounds of carrots.  Which I did, causing my mom to back off of her urgings a bit when I seemed to be turning an alarming Oompa-Loompa-like orange.  But the thing is, much as I loved carrots, I loved them only and always raw.  Crunchy and crisp and jaw-tiringly raw.  Show me a cooked carrot and I would wrinkle my nose.

Trouble is, a plate of raw carrots isn’t the most elegant dinner side dish.  Great in salads and dandy in a plastic bag as a mid-day snack, but still a bit one-trick-pony-ish.  Until I learned to quick pickle them, a gateway of sorts.  Leading to this past weekend when I voluntarily cooked carrots for the first time.  And ate them!  And enjoyed them.  So much that I forgot to ask Sonya to take a picture of the finished dish.  Oops!

BRAISED RAINBOW CARROTS

If you can find lovely market carrots like these, I urge you to use them.  Otherwise, grab the thinnest, “youngest” carrots you can find, lopping off the greens as soon as you buy them.   Feel free to swap in dried thyme for the fresh; if you do this, you’ll need less.

ingredients:
1-2 bunch baby carrots, scrubbed but not peeled, ends cut
½ of a yellow onion, thinly sliced
4-5 springs fresh thyme
1-2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
white wine
red wine vinegar
olive oil
salt & pepper

Heat the olive oil in a wide skillet over medium-low heat.  Add the onions and garlic, sautéing over low heat until translucent.  Toss in the carrots and push them around the pan to absorb some of the onion-garlic-olive-oil-y goodness.

After a minute or two, add a generous glug of white wine, enough to form a thin layer at the bottom of the skillet.  Lay the thyme inside the skillet as well and cover with a lid, turning up the heat a bit so that the wine will just simmer.

Cook until the carrots have reached your desired state of tenderness, anywhere from 12-20 minutes, depending on the size of your carrots.  Finish with a splash of red wine vinegar and salt and pepper to taste.  Serve hot or warm.

BRAISED FENNEL

My palate can be something of a paradox.  I love grapes, but I can’t stand raisins.  I adore fennel but I will not put licorice in my mouth.

Contradiction, thy name is Nishta?  True in more ways than just the culinary.  Of course, I think we’re all like this in one way or another.  I had a vegetarian friend in graduate school who caved every few months for an Arby’s roast beef sandwich, of all things.  Jill hunts birds, bringing duck and dove home for us to eat, while at the same time obsessively filling our backyard feeders for the ducks and doves who visit.  And this week I discovered that my friend Ben, who normally eschews desserts of all kinds, does have one sweet-toothed weakness: the famous and famously-difficult-to-make  Dobos torte.  Of course.

Fennel is not universally popular, probably because it gets lumped into the “eww gross” category by those of us who profoundly dislike anything licorice-flavored. (Just the thought of those black-paper-wrapped candies from the “bad houses” on Halloween night makes me shudder.)  But I find that, when prepared deftly, fennel betrays satisfying sweetness and delivers a crunch I quite enjoy.  I mostly use fennel raw, in salads, where it pairs particularly well with citrus, but this braised version is quite elegant and hearty.

We human beings may not be logically consistent in our tastes and habits, but I like to think that’s what makes us all so fascinating.

BRAISED FENNEL WITH MEYER LEMON & PARMESAN
as printed in the New York Times Magazine

It’s the right time of year for Meyer lemons, and they are so magical.  Use them!  If you have extra, you can make these cookies, too.

ingredients:

2 fennel bulbs with fronds attached

½ cup chicken broth

Grated peel and juice of 1 Meyer lemon

Parmesan cheese

Extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper


Trim and rinse the fennel, halving each bulb through the core, then slicing lengthwise into ½-inch thick pieces.  Reserve and roughly chop 1 tablespoon of the fronds.

Place a large, wide skillet over medium-high heat, adding just enough olive oil to coat the pan.  When hot, lay half of the fennel flat in the pan and cook about three minutes, or until browned on the bottom.  Don’t stir the fennel!

Flip the fennel pieces and cook another minute or two on the second side.  Transfer to a bowl and cook the remaining fennel, adding more olive oil to the skillet if needed.  Season the cooked fennel with salt & pepper.

Return the skillet to medium high heat, adding the fennel, broth, lemon juice, and rind.  Bring the mixture to a boil, then simmer, covered, until the fennel is tender, about 10 minutes.

Remove the fennel from the liquid using a slotted spoon, then raise the heat and reduce the sauce until syrupy, 3-5 minutes.  Pour the sauce over the fennel, top with the reserved fronds, and garnish with shaved Parmesan to taste.

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HEY THERE, 2011

I really hate it when people say “Everything happens for a reason.”

This idiom is most often employed in the face of shitty life events.  Does your wife have a brain tumor?  Did your sister die in an earthquake?  Was your father diagnosed with Alzheimer’s?  Never fear!  Everything happens for a reason!

It may sound good on the surface—a reminder that the world is bigger than us, a way to put our pain and suffering in perspective—one of those things people say because they think it makes sense or comforts those who are hurting.  But the thing is, how far are we willing to take the “everything” and the “reason?”  Are we prepared to tell young parents who just buried their infant child or a son whose father died tragically at work one day that the devastating grief they feel is somehow necessary, even justified?

Myself, I’m not willing to wager on a world in which awful things happen to us “in order to.”  As far as I’m concerned and as far as I can tell, awful things just happen.  But if they should happen to us (which they inevitably will), we might as well learn something from them.

In my house, we aren’t dealing with awful; what we’ve got is simply inconvenient, and a little scary.  Several weeks ago, doctors discovered a two-inch tumor in Jill’s upper chest cavity; they’ve been investigating it ever since.  We’re pretty sure it’s not malignant; we’re pretty sure it’s going to require surgical removal.

If you know me, or you’ve been reading this blog a little while, you know that I like plans and lists and calendars and arrangements and order and routine.  There is a reason my friend Dave calls me Julie McCoy, after the Social Director on “The Loveboat.”  I do so love a good schedule!

But, you know, unexpected tumors and well-arranged plans don’t exactly mix.  The last few months I have been forced, and have actually come to embrace, a life with fewer plans in it.  Less super-social weekends and a lot more sitting on the couch with the dog and the cats.  Less elaborate-recipe dinners and a lot more standing around the kitchen island with friends, snacking on whatever’s around.  Less running around town and more reading.  Less spending money on stuff and more spending time together.

It’s all cliché but it’s all true, and we know it on paper but we forget it in our bones.  Until, of course, we are reminded.  Did a tumor grow in Jill’s chest so that I could learn to let go of my over-planning ways?  Of course not.  But if it’s going to disrupt our lives, I figure the least I can do is get something good out of the deal.

I’ll be back with a recipe later in the week, I promise.  In the meantime, I’d love to hear what’s on your mind as we start this new year!

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