SPRING SALAD

At Easter, my friend Marynelle posted the following on her Facebook page:

A lot of people remember to give something up for the 40 days of Lent. At church yesterday, our rector reminded us that the Easter season is 50 days and charged us with finding as much joy as possible in the next 50 days. In the words of Barney Stinson, “Challenge Accepted.”

Marynelle is one of my oldest friends—oldest in that we’ve been friends for half my lifetime (15 years), and she knows more about me than is really safe for me.  She’s guest blogged around here before and is generally a pretty awesome lady; one of the things I love about her the most is that she’s always pushing herself.  Which, in turn, inspires me to do the same.

 

I didn’t get the TV reference until I Googled it, but I accepted the challenge, too.  We agreed to text each other at least once a day with our pieces of joy.

Some days—most days, in this blessed life of mine—finding the joy is easy.  Usually, it’s obvious: Jill & I celebrating our anniversary, my students working enthusiastically on a kick-ass service project of their own design, planning a big dinner for friends I love.  But then there are those days when I find myself mired in frustration, anger, loss, sadness, or just plain grumpiness.  So I text Marynelle.

She’s helped me see that joy is not conditional.  Sometimes you have to dig around for it, and sometimes the quickest way to find it is to acknowledge what is NOT joyful in any given situation.  And let’s be clear—there are things that are decidedly not joyful.  There are things that just plain suck.  There is not “joy in everything,” no matter what the Hallmark cards tell you.

But I do think there is joy for the taking on any given day.  I am training my eye to see it, and myself to go out and make it, when necessary.  At the very least, this little project means I get a text message once a day from one of my favorite people—and that is a little piece of joy in itself.  I recommend it.

SPRING SALAD
serves 4, easily halved or doubled

I almost added strawberries to this salad, but didn’t—you could.  Instead of croutons, you could substitute nuts.  A soft goat cheese would work nicely in place of the hard-boiled eggs, if you’re not a fan.

It’s a salad.  Play around with it.  Don’t take it too seriously.  Same goes for the dressing—swap in a different vinegar, trade olive oil out for walnut or avocado.

ingredients:

2 cups mixed greens
1 bunch asparagus
2 hard-boiled eggs
¼ cup mixed herbs, chopped (don’t omit!  they really make this salad work)
-I used scallions & dill; tarragon and parsley would also be nice
generous handful croutons
-to make your own, see this post

Trim the ends from the asparagus, then cut into 2-inch long pieces.  Rinse.  Bring a pot of salted water to a boil; while the water heats up, fill another bowl with ice water.  Cook the asparagus for 1-2 minutes at a rolling boil, then drain and immediately place into ice water.  Drain from ice water, drizzle with olive oil.

To assemble the salad, toss the greens, herbs, and asparagus together.  Top with the eggs and croutons.  Drizzle with dressing (see below) or serve dressing on the side.

for the dressing:

¼ cup olive oil
2 T. orange juice
2 T. champagne vinegar
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
salt & pepper

Whisk together, taste & adjust accordingly.

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UPMA

I’ve been trying to rethink breakfast.


A few months ago, Jill and I had a conversation with our friend Ruthie, who was at the time working on changing her eating habits after being diagnosed with gestational diabetes.  In checking her blood sugar several times a day, Ruthie had noticed something really suprising—a bowl of cereal, even the “good” kind (full of whole grain, flax, wheat germ, nuts, no corn syrup, etc.) made her blood sugar spike like crazy.  And just a couple of hours later, her blood sugar would crash.

This confirmed what I had noticed about my own breakfast routine.  I, of course, crave sweet and carbohydrate-laden things: biscuits, pancakes, waffles, toast, muffins, cereal, oatmeal, etc.  And while I was managing not to eat things that were blatantly unhealthy at breakfast, I would still get hungry just a couple of hours after I had eaten.  That’s no good when you’ve still got two classes to teach before lunch!

So I started working on doing breakfast differently—more protein, less sugar.  Eggs are obviously a great fit, adding a dose of protein to that piece of toast I so crave, often with avocado and/or hot sauce on top.  Even a quick egg scramble isn’t always feasible on some rushed mornings, so I took to making big frittatas on Saturday or Sunday, packed with greens (chard or kale), some crumbled sausage, and any herbs or other vegetables we had on hand.  Cooled and cut into wedges, these reheat quite easily in the morning, and are portable enough to eat safely on your way out the door; you can also portion out and bake the same ingredients into muffin tins, if you like.

If I’m just plain craving one of the starchy things I love so much, I try to improve on the basic idea by adding protein where I can: plain yogurt to go alongside fruit or in a smoothie, a Morningstar Farms veggie patty alongside a muffin or piece of toast, chopped nuts in my steel-cut oats, peanut or almond butter on a homemade whole-wheat waffle or bran muffin.

To expand my “alternate breakfast” repertoire beyond eggs, I turned to other cultures for inspiration.  Most food cultures besides our own have a broader range of what’s considered “breakfast food,” beyond sweet carbohydrates.  In Turkey, for example, where Jill learned to love breakfast, a typical breakfast consists of cheese, spicy sausage, hard-boiled eggs, olives, jam/honey, clotted cream, and some kind of bread.  I also love Vietnamese noodle pho for breakfast (though I haven’t tried making my own yet), and the Mexican/Tex-Mex classic chilaquiles (breakfast tacos with black beans & vegetables are also delicious.)

I turned to my own culture for ideas as well.  Poha, the flattened rice dish I blogged about previously, is in regular rotation at my house.  By accident, I discovered that I like it better when I substitute shredded Brussels sprouts for the peas—nutrition bonus!  And today I’m blogging about another Indian breakfast dish, upma, essentially a savory cream of wheat.  I love it because it serves a great base for yogurt and/or any roasted vegetables or nuts you may have on hand.

This may seem like a weird thing to eat for breakfast, and maybe it will be, for you, at first.  But I’ve found that the best, most filling and lasting breakfasts are the “weird” ones.  A bowl of lentils.  Reheated pizza or stir fry. Polenta with a fried egg on top.  Southwestern-style quinoa patties with salsa.  Once you start thinking beyond the usual, it’s freeing, and good for you, too.  Thanks to our friend Ruthie, whose adorable three-and-a-half-week-old son Benjy is pictured below, Jill & I haven’t bought a box of cereal in weeks!

UPMA RECIPE

This recipe is very basic and yields quite a plain finished product, as it’s meant to be topped with various things (see below) to add texture and additional flavor.  If you like, you can easily incorporate other vegetables (potatoes, green beans, peas, etc.) along with the onion, ginger, etc.

If you have the chance, please let me know if the comments about your favorite alterna-breakfasts.  I would love to try your suggestions.

ingredients:

1 cup cream of wheat (will be labeled “sooji” at the Indian grocery store)
half an onion, medium dice
¼ cup ginger, minced
2 T curry leaves, roughly chopped
1 tsp. mustard seeds
pinch or two of asafetida
salt
water
vegetable oil

optional: heat in the form of a fresh Serrano or jalapeno pepper, minced (seed the pepper if you’re wary of heat or just use half a pepper) OR one dried red chili pepper of your choice

traditional toppings: fried cashews (though you can dry-toast them to keep this a little healthier), cilantro, dollop of plain yogurt

other possible toppings: fried or poached egg, roasted or sautéed vegetables (radishes, cauliflower, eggplant, mushrooms), wilted greens

In a deep, heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat 2-3 tablespoons of vegetable oil on medium high.  Allow to heat up for a few minutes before tossing in a few mustard seeds as a “test.”  The seeds should immediately hiss, crack, and turn ashen; if they do not, wait a few more minutes before adding all of the seeds.  This is also the time to add the asafetida, if you plan to use it.

Turn the heat down to medium and then carefully add the onion, ginger, curry leaves, and fresh or dried pepper.  Cook the mixture until the vegetables just begin to soften—you do not want them to brown.

Add the sooji to the pan and spread it around the surface of the pan to roast, stirring regularly, for 5-7 minutes or until the sooji starts to smell nutty and turn light brown.  When it’s ready, add the water and a teaspoon of salt, stirring until the sooji has absorbed the liquid and your desired texture has been achieved; some people like their sooji more porridge consistency, others (like me) prefer it to be more firm.

Remove from heat, taste for salt, and serve.

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A DAY AT THE FARM

On Good Friday last week, Jill and I celebrated the start of my break by driving about an hour outside the city to visit Blue Heron Farm, home to some of the most ridiculously adorable baby goats on Earth.


I’m not going to lie—ridiculously adorable baby goats were a large portion of our motivation to visit the farm in the first place.  Those of us who follow Lisa Seger, self-proclaimed “boss lady” of the farm, on Twitter have been privy to a parade of baby goat pictures all spring as the mama goats have given birth; I must also confess to having purchased a Blue Heron Farm calendar for 2012 which proudly hangs from our refrigerator and brings much cuteness to our kitchen.

In person, baby goats are as cute, or—dare I say it?—even cuter than they are in photographs; they also make an almost painfully sweet bleating noise that could melt even the coldest heart.  But there was much more to our morning at the farm than just cooing over baby goats.

Blue Heron Farm is a small, family-run dairy farm; born in 2006, the farm has, in the last few years, become known in the Houston food scene for the fantastic chevre, feta, & cajeta (goat’s milk caramel) they sell at local Farmers Markets. For city kids like me, whose main exposure to farm life came through Charlotte’s Web, to walk around the very place and see the very goats that produced food you have consumed is a special thing (though it shouldn’t be so rare or unusual).

There’s a lot of talk these days about “honest food” and connecting with where food comes from, how it’s made, and what’s “natural.”  And as Lisa and her husband Christian toured us around their farm, it became clear that this is what that looks like.  Every decision they make goes through a three-part filter: Is it good for the long-term health of the animals?, Is it good for the long-term health of the land?, and Does it allow the farm to make enough money to keep farming?  Their commitment to their animals and their principles was apparent, and inspiring.

It’s all too easy to veer into self-righteous territory when talking about food these days; that, to me, defeats the point.  But as we toured, one of the things that was the most powerful for me was watching the kids in the group interact with the farm.  They tried their hand at milking Lucinda the goat, sampled cheese (and by sampled, I mean “devoured”), and greeted the whey-fed pigs who will, after living a pretty sweet life, become various pork products sold at Revival Market here in town.  The kids, and all of us in the group, saw food in process.  Someone has to make it, grow it, process it, harvest it, slaughter it, clean it, care for it, bring it to market, sell it to us—and I am appreciative of those folks who, like Lisa and Christian at Blue Heron Farm, do so in the most thoughtful and non-mysterious way they can.

No specific recipe for today, though I have two really great spring dishes coming up later in the week!  In the meantime, check out my “Recipes I Recommend” board on Pinterest, or click over to one of the fine food blogs on the BJG blogroll.

P.S. – For a good read, click over to Jill’s piece on foraging, published today in the Houston Chronicle.  Short version of the story?  You probably have weeds in your yard right now that pack more nutritional punch than spinach.  Who knew?

CHERRY PISTACHIO COOKIES

Let me see if I can cover the bases here in quick succession: spring (it’s here), Passover and Easter (coming soon to a calendar near you), blossoms (daffodil, azalea, tulip, & the like), asparagus (served up in accordance with the season at an event we attended last night), mosquitoes (out in full force, damn them), cold-brew iced coffee (the first batch of which I made this week), and annual viewings of The Sound of Music and The Ten Commandments (both have become tradition in this house).

There you have it, my early April in a nutshell.  And as of 4:00 pm on Thursday, you can add a long-awaited spring break to that list!

I’ve got nothing particularly fancy planned for the days ahead: oil change, dentist appointment, house cleaning & organizing, cooking, reading, writing, and meeting a friend’s new baby boy.  It doesn’t seem like much until I stop and think about what we were doing this time last year.  To get up every morning and not have to think about cancer?  That’s a downright luxury, and I intend to enjoy it.

CHERRY PISTACHIO COOKIES

For those of you in need of a Passover-friendly sweet, allow me to suggest these elegant and easy-to-make-ahead amaretti cookies.  And regardless of your observance/affiliation, EVERYONE should make matzo toffee at least once.  Just know that you’re probably going to eat it all in one sitting.

These cookies were inspired by my mama, who loves loves loves pistachios.  This dough is very simple; for a classic shortbread and more crumbly texture, omit the egg.  I like to think of this dough as a kind of “secret weapon” since a log of it freezes beautifully, rolled in wax paper and then foil.  Whenever you have company or want to make a gift of some baked goods, you can slice and bake straight from the freezer.

ingredients:

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
¾ cup unsalted butter, softened
¼ cup sugar
1 egg
½ cup shelled & unsalted pistachios, chopped
½ cup dried cherries, chopped
zest of 1 orange or lemon
¼ tsp. salt

optional: coarse sugar for finishing the cookies

In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the butter, sugar, & zest together on medium high for 2-3 minutes.  Reduce the speed and add the egg, then the flour and salt until the mixture just comes together.  Stir in the cherries and pistachios.

Divide the dough in half, rolling each section into a log about an inch in diameter.  Roll in plastic wrap, then chill at least an hour before baking, or freeze for later use.

When ready to bake, line two baking sheets with parchment and preheat your oven to 350°.  Slice your dough into pieces about ¼ inch thick, rolling the edges of each piece in a bowl of coarse sugar before placing about an inch apart on a baking sheet.

Bake for 15-20 minutes (longer if your dough has come straight from the fridge), or until the cookies are golden brown around the edges.  Transfer the parchment sheets to a cooling rack and allow to cool completely before storing in an airtight container at room temperature.

PS—These are especially delicious with a bowl of vanilla ice cream.

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