Despite my best efforts, some blog posts just end up becoming lists. This is one of them.
1. Summer vacation is 21 days away BUT WHO’S COUNTING? In all seriousness, I am more than a little sad at the thought of leaving behind this group of kids. They will always have a special place in my heart, as they were the ones who have absorbed and witnessed my sometimes-very-fraught adjustment to motherhood. I was very touched and honored when they voted me to give the faculty speech at their Eighth Grade Promotion. Fingers crossed I manage to avoid being overly cheesy and actually say something meaningful.
2. I can’t recommend this Psychology Today article about the modern phenomenon of a “wholly sanitized childhood” highly enough.
3. There’s been a baby boom of late in my group of friends: 3 new little lives since the start of May, and more to come in June, July, & August! So tremendous how those who are so small can change so much, and such a joy to support and cheer friends at the start of such adventures.
4. I made this ice cream last week and seriously, if I hadn’t known that it was dairy-free, I never would have guessed. Incredibly creamy and simple to make; I’m planning another batch, but with blackberries next time.
5. Being thirty is starting to feel as awesome as I had hoped it would. I am comfortable in my own skin, both physically and metaphorically, and have a much easier time deciding what matters to me and what doesn’t; though I still lead myself into temptation sometimes, I have much better access to that still, small voice that affirms “Yes, this way,” or detracts, “Girl, you know better than that!” I am not as afraid to own up to my mistakes, and I am acutely aware of my own shortcomings. I’m not busy trying (in vain) to plan out every detail of my life. I am able to say Take me or leave me, but without the anger. I’m not so damn defensive all the time. I don’t feel like I have so much to prove.
6. I made these muffins for Mother’s Day, or as is the case in our house, Mothers’ Day, and they were a big hit. The day was very special for many reasons, but it was especially fun to be able to surprise Jill with this video.
very slightly adapted from Smitten Kitchen
This is a moist, dense, not-very-sweet muffin that is a snap to make. If you want something sweeter/more akin to cake, you can bump the sugar up a bit or make an easy frosting of powdered sugar & milk to drizzle on top.
½ cup coconut oil
¾ cup all-purpose flour
½ cup whole wheat spelt or whole wheat flour
1 ½ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
1 cup full fat, plain yogurt—at room temperature
1 large egg—at room temperature
½ cup sugar (if using unsweetened coconut, you can cut this to 1/3 cup)
1 tsp. vanilla
1 cup unsweetened coconut, flaked or shredded
1 ½ cup fresh mango cubes
Grease or line muffin cups-for me, this recipe yielded 1 dozen.
Heat the coconut oil in the microwave or a saucepan until it just melts. If it gets too hot, wait for it to cool down before whisking in the room-temperature yogurt and egg, plus sugar and vanilla.
Whisk together dry ingredients. Make a well in the center, pour in wet mixture, and stir gently to combine—don’t overmix! Fold in half of the coconut and all of the mango. Batter will be thick; if it seems too dry, add a splash of milk or coconut milk.
Scoop the batter into the prepared muffin tins and top each muffin with a five-fingered pinch of coconut. Bake 15-20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of a muffin comes out clean.
Cool muffin tins on racks until the tins are cool enough to handle, then remove the muffins from tins and place back on racks to cool completely. Enjoy, or store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to three days.
It’s May and summer’s knocking at the door. Let’s welcome her in and offer her a drink, shall we?
This one is simple and strong—a little on the sweet side, and perfect for sipping on a warm night. Make a Hound Dog (the awesome name is a bonus) this weekend; I think it would work equally well as a Derby Day or Cinco de Mayo accompaniment.
Me, I’ll be celebrating the four-year (!) anniversary of this blog. Hard to believe it’s been so long, and hard to imagine my life without this little piece of the internet—and all of you—in it.
It’s fascinating and so entertaining to look back over past blog entries, kind of in the same way that it’s fascinating and so entertaining to read back over old journals. I decided to pull some favorite posts and list them here, a kind of “Greatest Hits,” if you will, of things I’ve said and foods I’ve made:
MOJITO POPSICLES—Apparently what the people want is boozy popsicles, because this is my most popular post of all time.
DUTCH BABY—Because what’s not to love about a giant pancake?
MY LIFE IN OKRA—A fantastic guest post from Jill in which she shares her killer family recipes for fried & pickled okra.
CHEESE GRITS—They’re just so damn good, and will heal what ails you.
SHAKSHUKA—Fun to say, delicious and dead-simple to make, this has become a house favorite breakfast/brunch/lazy dinner.
STEAMED MUSSELS IN TOMATO BROTH—A dish that represents the kitchen risks I’ve learned to take and ways I’ve grown since starting this blog.
TOMATO-CORN PIE—Still one of the best things I have ever put in my mouth.
FIVE-INGREDIENT STRAWBERRY ICE CREAM—Keep it simple, stupid.
SAAG PANEER—Everyone’s favorite Indian dish, and a post that’s about more than just food.
Thank you all for four years of encouragement, readership, and support; I look forward to many more adventures to come! xx—Nishta
recipe courtesy Grub Street
A few weeks ago, I clicked through the fantastic slideshow “Cocktail Country: Outstanding Drinks from All 50 States,” which featured beautifully styled drinks and many, many enticing recipes.
Naturally, I was pleased to see that the featured Tennessee cocktail was from Memphis restaurant Alchemy! I knew I had to try it, and the Hound Dog did not disappoint.
1 ½ oz. bourbon
1 oz. peach puree*
¾ oz. ginger syrup**
¼ oz. lemon juice
4 springs of mint
Combine the bourbon, peach puree, ginger syrup, lemon juice, and 3 springs of mint in a shaker filled with ice. Shake and strain into a rocks glass filled with fresh ice, and garnish with the remaining sprig of mint.
*I can’t wait to make this when peaches are ripe and glorious, but for now, I just used frozen peaches instead. I thawed a few slices and pureed them with a little bit of water; leftover puree was blended with a few strawberries and plain yogurt and became a baby smoothie for Shiv.
**The original recipe’s instructions are to sleep slices of fresh ginger in warm simple syrup to create the ginger syrup. I already had a jar of ginger syrup on hand, leftover from the process of crystallizing ginger a few months ago, so I just used that.
I’ve had several friends and blog readers ask about how we approached solid food with Shiv. I am no expert, just a mama who loves to cook, but I am more than happy to share what we did when introducing our little boy to the wonderful world of eating!
First, we waited until six months to introduce any solids. You can start as early as four months, but our instinct (and our pediatrician’s advice) was to wait. By the time we fed him his first solids, he was definitely ready to go; he had already shown interest in food that we were eating, and would move his mouth in imitation when he saw us chew.
Second, we didn’t start with rice cereal; I just couldn’t get excited about my son’s first taste of solid food being something so bland. Our pediatrician confirmed that it was totally fine to start with something else—in fact, most non-American parents do—and so we chose sweet potatoes, grown by our dear friends Sharon and Greg, for the little man’s first meal. I roasted them in the oven, removed the skins, and pureed the pulp with a little bit of breast milk. He loved ‘em.
From there, we created a kind of hybrid approach that combined traditional spoon-feeding with baby led weaning. I had read about and was intrigued by baby-led weaning (BLW) and totally respected and resonated with their end goal: baby feeds him/her self, and eats what you eat. But I didn’t feel comfortable starting with BLW whole-hog, especially because Shiv’s hand-eye coordination and pincer grasp were still developing. So, we got to that same end goal we just went about it in a slightly different way! I’ve tried to outline as clearly as possible what we did.
Our pediatrician had assured us that, at this stage of a baby’s life, they were still getting their primary nutrition from breast milk/formula, so eating solids, for them, was about exploring flavors and texture. For this reason, we integrated solids into Shiv’s routine gradually; at first, offering solids at just one or two feedings a day (out of four). Sometimes, he wanted to eat a lot, sometimes he wasn’t as interested, but we didn’t stress about it. We wanted the experience of him eating to be fun for him and for us, so we let him self-regulate and trusted that his interest would grow naturally, which it did.
We stuck to vegetables for two weeks before introducing fruit; I wanted Shiv to develop a taste and appreciation for veggies before his palate encountered lots of sweet! Every two or three days, we would introduce something new: peas, cauliflower, avocado, carrots, broccoli, butternut squash, and beets. Once it was clear he was having no adverse reactions, a vegetable stayed in the rotation, and so we started mixing them together. For example, we knew that broccoli made him gassy (it was the only food I avoided while breast-feeding), so we introduced it after the other veggies, so we could mix it with, say, butternut squash or sweet potato. At this point, we did feed Shiv rice cereal (which I made from scratch, but was kind of a pain in the ass to do), but only mixed in with vegetables, never on its own.
Though we were still spoon-feeding at this point, I began to play with the texture of Shiv’s baby food pretty early on: thickening the purees by adding less breast milk or some rice cereal, stopping the pureeing process before foods were completely smooth, and even feeding him things like roasted beets chopped very finely.
Eating solids quickly became a social activity for Shiv, as it is for most of us. He made it clear that he wanted to eat when we were eating; rather, he didn’t want to be around people who were eating if HE didn’t get to eat, which makes total sense. This worked really well for us because his feeding times had already been established at 7:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m., 3:00 p.m., and 7:00 p.m., times pretty similar to when we eat breakfast, lunch, snack, and dinner. At breakfast, he usually took his bottle first, but at other times of the day, he would eat solids beforehand.
After two weeks of vegetables and rice cereal, Shiv had his first fruit. It wasn’t a puree, though; it was a small piece of Jill’s morning banana. One of the things we have learned, both through reading and personal experience, is how far baby saliva + teeth-less gums can go toward breaking down small pieces of food! Though we didn’t remove purees right away we did start phasing them out in favor of Shiv-appropriate versions of our food: steamed broccoli & rice cooked in chicken broth, chunky homemade applesauce, small pieces of bread or crackers that he would suck on, then gum, then swallow.
Really, we proceeded by observing him and following his lead. When he showed interest in the apple I was eating, I just bit off tiny pieces for him to have. Sometimes, I would just let him gum on the apple after I had eaten into it. He also enjoyed eating wedges of juicy pear placed inside these little mesh bags; melon and other juicy fruits would have worked well, too, but it was wintertime here!
OPENING THE FLOODGATES:
At this point in the process (3 weeks after his very first solid food), we saw our pediatrician for a check-up, and these were the only restrictions she set:
Wait until 9 months—eggs
Wait until 12 months—cow’s milk, honey, peanuts, & shellfish
Other than that, it was “game on” for things like meat/fish, beans/legumes, yogurt made with whole milk, etc. Essentially, Shiv began to eat what we ate, and we basically stopped making special food for him. I would—and still do—separate out a small portion of food for him before adding something like red pepper flakes, but I did not hold back on non-heat and spices or herbs; I cooked as I normally would. Shiv’s first protein was sockeye salmon that we poached gently & flaked off; he began devouring my mom’s homemade Indian food, from daal to tiny homemade dosas dipped in coconut chutney. He ate LOTS of yogurt, sometimes plain and sometimes with a little homemade fruit puree (usually blueberry) mixed in.
We’ve given him goat’s milk cheese but tried to avoid large quantities of cow’s milk cheese; we’ve avoided peanuts but not hyper-manically (and he’s had all kinds of other nuts); he’s eaten things cooked with butter and he had plenty of things made with eggs before the nine-month mark when we gave him his first plain egg—poached and served on buttered toast–which you see him eating here .
Note: the medical background information we have for Shiv’s birth mother doesn’t indicate any history of food allergies; if it had, we probably would have been advised to proceed differently by our pediatrician. At the same time, we know nothing about his birth father’s medical history, so we could have run into issues, but luckily we haven’t yet.
Our little boy loves to eat. He hasn’t rejected a single thing we’ve given him, though he does show preferences. Apparently, he IS related to Jill, because he’s a tiny carnivore who loves all kinds of meat, though he’ll happily down piece after piece of sautéed zucchini or Swiss chard. He seems to favor savory over sweet, though he does have a definite thing for strawberries. Bone marrow, medium-rare ribeye, Thai food, guacamole, polenta, pancakes, bacon—this kid’ll eat it.
Only in the last month or so has Shiv really developed the facility and desire to feed himself; before that, we were feeding him off our plates with our fingers or his baby spoon. Now, we make him his own little plate and set a couple of “finger food” sized pieces in front of him, which he grabs and gets into his mouth. Two pieces of equipment have proven invaluable during this stage of the process: the baby Bjorn bib and our Stokke Trip Trapp highchair. I’m not being paid to endorse either product, we just really love them both. The bib has a pocket that “catches” food that doesn’t quite make it to his mouth, and the Trip Trapp slides straight up to kitchen table, so he is right there with us when we eat. (The chair is expensive, I know; what’s cool about it is that it stays with baby as baby grows, converting into a booster seat and even eventually an adult chair, so that he can someday take it to college or have it in his first apartment.)
There’s no way of knowing whether Shiv would have been naturally adventurous on his own—I have no idea how much credit we can take for developing his palate, but I am really thrilled with the results, however we got here. We’ve spent $0 on commercial baby food, and we don’t have to worry or wonder what to cook for or feed him—we just plan our meals the way we normally would. This also makes traveling with him, whether to someone else’s house or on a vacation, much simpler; I know we will be able to find food for him no matter where we go.
There are a few things I like to keep in his diaper bag, just for emergencies/convenience’s sake: banana-flavored Baby Mum-Mums (I think they’re so weird, but he loves holding and eating them), Cheerios/their organic equivalent, and dried prunes (these are great if you are traveling and baby gets constipated).
When it comes to liquids, we’ve been pretty strict. Other than his bottle, he drinks water. We tried a sippy cup when he initially began eating solids, but he ended up preferring small sips of water from a regular cup, and now sucks from a straw as well. Next project: eating with a spoon!
This, of course, is what worked for us and our baby; by no means is our way the only or best way to do things. Still, it has been—and continues to be—so much fun to cook for and eat with this little guy, and I look forward to the day when he helps cook his own meals (and not just chew on the spatula) .
NOTES ON MAKING BABY FOOD:
I already had a food processor, and loved using it for baby-food making, but you could also use a blender or immersion blender. As someone who hates gadgets that only serve one purpose, let me emphatically say, you do not need some special “baby food maker.” That’s ridiculous. Save your money.
The only special piece of “equipment” I bought were these ice cube trays that come with lids (bonus: they are made in America & are perfect for freezing other things once you’re done with baby food!). They were really handy for making large batches of baby food ahead of time and freezing half, so that we could rotate fruits/veggies. The lid prevents freezer burn and flavor transfer; once the cubes are frozen solid, store in a Ziploc bag. That way, you can thaw just a few at a time.
There are TONS of resources online about making your own baby food/ideas for introducing texture, etc.. Here are some of my favorites:
Getting Started with Solids, Purees, & Baby-Led Weaning (really comprehensive guide by HelloBee)
Wholesome Baby Food (recipes by stages)
Designed to Nourish (recipes by stages)
Cooking for Clara (ongoing series on Food52)
What a damn week it’s been.
As a middle school teacher, I hear a lot of bullshit about “kids these days.” You know: they’re so lazy, they’re so entitled, they’re addicted to their phones, they’re ignorant, they lack the most basic kinds of skills, they always want the easy answer.
These things may be true, at least to some extent, in regards to some kids—but when I look at the way the Boston Marathon bombing played out this week, it wasn’t kids who were guilty of those things. It was grownups.
I want so many things for my students, and in this world in which they are coming up, I most especially want them to be able to think for themselves. I want them to be thoughtful consumers of media. I want them to question; I want them to know what it means to have a reliable source. I want them to understand the dangers of jumping to conclusions, of lumping people into categories, of not bothering to do the research so you mistake one country for another.
There is always danger, but there is also, always, beauty. Alongside the speculation and false reports came symbols of defiance and stories of courage; though there were many who reported or tweeted or posted things before checking to see that they were true, there were also many who spoke as voices of reason, who reminded us of how we do things around here, of what gives us the right to sing our national anthem so proudly.
It’s a question, you know, that last line—“O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave / O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?” It’s not a statement.
I discussed this with my kids on Friday. When people talk about this line, they usually refer back to the fact that Francis Scott Key was literally looking to see if the American flag was still flying over Ft. McHenry during the War of 1812. And ever since then, we still look for the physical presence of our flag for reassurance, whether it be that famous photograph taken on Mt. Suribachi at the end of the Battle of Iwo Jima or the raising of the flag post-9/11 by firefighters standing amidst rubble.
It means something to us when our flag flies, or when it flies at half-mast. It is a reflection of us, of our spirit, or zeitgeist. And when we ask if that star-spangled banner yet waves, we are not simply asking about a piece of fabric; we are asking if we will remain committed to being who we have said that we will be. We are reminding ourselves and each other to stay true to who we are: the land of the free and the home of the brave.
OSSO BUCO MILANESE WITH SAFFRON ORZO
recipe slightly adapted from Mario Batali via Food & Wine
Osso buco is traditionally made with veal, but we used pork shanks the local meat share we receive once a month from Jolie Vue Farms. We love our Jolie Vue share for many reasons, but one that I didn’t anticipate when signing up was the way it’s made me a better cook. Instead of starting with a recipe and going out to buy what I need, I receive different cuts of pork, beef, & chicken each month, and learn to make meals around them. I’ve learned to cook and enjoy things that I never would have otherwise, including osso buco.
This is an involved dish (more time-consuming than anything else), but the results are pretty stunning. Braised dishes are great for company, because once you put it in the oven, you’re pretty much done. Just plan to budget at least 3 hours from the start of your prep to actual serving time (a bit longer if you plan to make your own tomato sauce).
If you plan to make saffron orzo to go alongside, wait until your meat is completely cooked, then remove it from the oven and leave it covered while you cook the orzo. That way, everything will be nice and hot—but not too hot—and ready to serve at once. Top the osso buco with the gremolata just before serving, and don’t skip it! The texture from the pine nuts and flavor of both the lemon zest and parsley add so much to the overall taste. As you can see, even the smallest member of our household was a fan.
for the tomato sauce:
This recipe makes more than the two cups called for in the osso buco recipe, but there are many, many things you can do with the leftovers: make pasta or pizza with it, poach eggs in it for breakfast, gift it in a mason jar to your neighbor, etc.
¼ cup olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
¼ cup finely shredded carrot
1 T finely chopped thyme
Two 28-oz. cans whole peeled tomatoes with their juices
Heat oil in a large saucepan until shimmering. Add onion and garlic and cook over medium heat until softened and just starting to brown, stirring occasionally. Add carrot and thyme and cook, stirring, for another five minutes.
Pour in the tomatoes, along with their juices, and break them up with back of your spoon. Bring the mixture to a boil, then turn the heat down to medium-low and simmer until thickened and reduced in volume, about thirty minutes. Season with salt.
for the meat:
2 ½-3 lb meaty pork shanks cut into 3”-thick pieces
salt & pepper
¼ cup olive oil
Preheat the oven to 375°.
Prep the shanks by drying them thoroughly with paper towels, seasoning both sides generously with salt and pepper, and dusting all over with a light coating of flour. Heat the olive oil in a large enameled cast-iron casserole until shimmering. Add the shanks and cook over medium-high heat, turning to brown on all sides. You want them to get a nice, dark sear, so this step should take 10-15 minutes.
Once browned, transfer the shanks to a plate.
for the braise:
1 yellow onion, chopped
1 medium carrot, sliced ¼ inch thick
1 celery rib, sliced ¼ inch thick
2 T chopped, fresh thyme
2 cups dry white wine
2 cups tomato sauce (use jarred or see below)
2 cups chicken stock
salt & pepper
My shanks didn’t yield an overly large amount of fat, but you can spoon some out of your casserole if you’ve got more than a few tablespoons. Cook the onion, carrot, celery, and thyme over medium heat, stirring, until softened. Add the wine and bring the mixture up to a boil, scraping the bottom of the casserole to remove any fond (a.k.a tasty brown bits).
Simmer until the wine has reduced by half, then add the tomato sauce and chicken stock and once again bring to a boil. Place the shanks back in the casserole, plonk on the lid, and slide the whole thing into the oven.
Braise for between 2-2/12 hours, until the meat is very tender and easily falls away from the bone when pressed with a fork. Once it’s ready, remove it from the oven but keep it covered while you make the orzo (see below) and gremolata.
for the gremolata:
¼ cup pine nuts, toasted
¼ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley, minced
finely grated zest of 1 lemon
Toss the above and sprinkle over the osso buco just before serving.
for the saffron orzo:
2 cups chicken stock
1 ½ cups orzo
generous pinch of saffron threads
1 T olive oil
Heat the stock in a heavy-bottomed pot until it’s too hot for your finger. Remove from heat and add the saffron, letting the mixture steep for about five minutes. Return the pot to the heat and bring up to a boil again, then add the orzo.
Stir occasionally until all of the liquid has been absorbed, about 7-8 minutes. Remove from the heat, drizzle with olive oil, and serve.
We went to Oregon, to take the little boy on his first plane ride, and to see our dear, dear friends Courtney and John. Traveling between Portland, Eugene, and Pacific City and reveling in the northwest’s spring and the company of folks we love so much did my soul much good. I wish I had taken more pictures, of crocuses, daffodils, cherry blossoms, of all the good meals and the glorious shelves at Powell’s, of every texture, from the charming, windswept ocean-side to the snow-capped peak of Mt. Hood, but I was too busy soaking it all in to stop.
There was cooking and much good talk, and there was the ocean, and a baby who learned how to crawl (!). There were long hours reading in a sunny chair, and there was lots of coffee and an overly-ambitious puzzle, and absolutely no schoolwork of any kind. There were sunset walks and big breakfasts and naps and dyed eggs for Easter. And then there was a very exciting email informing us that we had secured a court appointment with a San Antonio judge who was gay-and-lesbian friendly and willing to finalize our adoption.
So, just a few days after flying home, we drove to the Bexar County Courthouse and stood in the judge’s chambers on a Friday morning and became Shiv’s legal parents for ever and ever, raising our right hands and promising to love and care for our son for the rest of our lives. It was the very first time our relationship has ever been acknowledged in any legal way.
Without getting into the nitty-gritty details, I will say that up to that point, we had encountered some resistance and difficulty in securing legal status for our family. While we are lucky that our state does not ban same-sex adoption outright (as some do), it does not necessarily make it easy, either. Ultimately, thankfully, with the help of our wonderful lawyer and the assistance of our adoption agency, it is all said and done.
I grew up with a set of fairly gentle circumstances when it came to the impact of my sexuality on my daily life. Yes, I’ve been called a “dyke.” No, I could not bring my girlfriend to my senior prom. Yes, my parents and I fought for many years, and I struggled with my identity and my sense of comfort in my own skin. But compared to what most before me—and some after me—have lived (or not lived) through, I know how tremendously lucky I am.
This adoption was really the first time I have felt the limits of what is available to me as an American in a same-sex relationship. Sure, I knew the laundry list of inequalities on paper: no federal protection against job discrimination, no legal status for partners as next-of-kin, inability to file taxes as a couple, inability to collect a partner’s Social Security, inability to take FMLA for a partner, and on and on. But that was abstract, on paper—annoying, but distant—things we had to work around.
But now that I have stood in a room with my love, with our son, and have tasted a sample of what many people take for granted every day—the ability to stand in front of a legal authority and show all of your cards, to not have to hide your personhood, your commitment, your love, or your family—it is no longer abstract. It’s my life, and the reality my son will grow up into. Jill and I are now legally related to Shiv, and it is my deep hope and intention that, before too long, he will be able to witness the moment when she and I stand in another courtroom and become legally related to each other as well.
Oh friends, I am sorry. It’s been over three weeks since my last post.
Life is full and busy and fast-moving for all of us, to be sure. We find ourselves at the end of another month, wondering “How can it be almost April already?” or “When did this baby get so BIG?”
Still, when I scan back over the days since I last wrote, there are points of distinct aliveness that stand out from the blur, occasions when time seemed to slow down a little and I let myself slip into it. For me, these moments often involve food—both preparing it and eating it—and there is a magic to this, I think, a kind of blessing.
We are trying to teach our son about daily pleasures, trying to teach him that enjoyment in the every day is a key component to a happy life. In turn, he is teaching us, showing us how to see things through his new eyes—tonight, as he relished a crunchy piece of bok choy, grown by friends and charred on the grill, I thought about how often I take it for granted when food tastes good, feels good, is good. It’s no small thing, really, as Shiv reminds me when he joyfully chirps, chews, raises an eyebrow, urgently grunts, leans forward, and opens his mouth for more.
I have heard from a lot of you who found meaning and resonance in my last post. Thank you, as always, for reading, and for generously allowing me the room to share what’s really true and present for me. I am humbled to know that what I said made a difference for some of you.
Last thing: my essay, “Sonata,” was published this month in Trop Magazine. This is one of the pieces included in my forthcoming collection, and it was also previously published on this site. For those of you who may have missed it or would like to read it again, here’s the link.
RED BEANS & RICE
adapted from Gloria Glenney
I know we’ve all got our eye on spring, but should you be experiencing a little last-gasp-of-winter cold snap around your parts, I highly recommend these here red beans and rice.
1 lb. kidney beans, soaked overnight
1 ham bone OR 2 smoked ham hocks OR ¼ lb smoked ham, diced
2-3 slices bacon, sliced
½ lb. sausage of your choice, sliced
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 bell pepper, diced
2 ribs celery, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 bay leaves
1 T Worcestershire sauce
1 T salt
1 tsp. oregano
1 tsp. thyme
½ tsp. ground black pepper
¼ – ½ tsp. cayenne (depending on your taste)
few dashes Tabasco
2 quarts chicken stock, preferably homemade (I used the last of my post-Thanksgiving turkey stock, because I needed to do something with it, and it worked just fine)
In the bottom of a heavy pot, cook the bacon first to render out the fat. If using diced ham, add it to the bacon and allow it to brown a bit. Add the onions and garlic and cook for just a minute or two before tossing in the sliced sausage, celery, and bell pepper. (If using ham bone or ham hocks, brown them in the pot briefly before the next step).
Once the vegetables have softened, pour in the stock, beans, and all seasonings. (At this point, if you’d like to transfer everything to a slow cooker, you can.) Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook until beans are soft and creamy. On the stovetop, budget around 2-2 ½ hours. In the slow cooker, my beans were perfect after 4 hours on “high.” Remove bay leaves before serving.
Serve with white rice and garnish with green onion.
This fall, I had kind of a breakdown.
That sounds melodramatic, I know, but I’m pretty sure it’s the correct word for what I experienced: breakdown as in things no longer working, as in a sudden onset of intense, uncontrollable, and never-before-experienced anxiety and sadness. Mid-October to mid-January was a very tough period of time for me, scary and exhausting and surreal. With the help of Jill, my friends, my counselor, and a psychiatrist, I am relieved and grateful to say that I made it to the other side.
Surviving a breakdown is like getting the world’s loudest existential wake-up call. The absence of pain is a tremendous feeling, and I came out of it knowing one thing for certain; I never want to do this ever, ever again. So then came the task of figuring out how to keep that promise to myself.
The more I looked, the more it became clear to me that my old identity was no longer working; thirty years of goal-oriented living and it was time to reevaluate who I was, what I cared about, and how I approached my daily life. Everything was up for grabs, which totally terrified me. What if I was something other than a constant parade of comparisons and achievements? Who was I underneath all of that?
Figuring out these things doesn’t happen all at once. I’ve learned that I don’t have to have to make all of my decisions right this minute; I am planning less and less these days, in fact. At the most, I think a few days ahead, finding meaning, worth, and value in each day instead of anticipating some future point where everything will magically come together and I’ll have my life figured out and lined up neat and pretty.
As I spend more and more time on this side of my breakdown, I find there is, in fact, something quite freeing about doing things very, very differently than I did before. Freeing to let go of old models and expectations, freeing to give myself permission to relate to myself and my life in a new way.
It turns out that the pieces I thought made me who I am, the things I was holding onto so tightly, the pieces I was so attached to and so convinced I would fall apart without—none of those are really me. And they aren’t the things that everyone else in my life saw as being me all along. Turns out what they love is something else altogether, an essential part that can’t be screwed up, even when I am kind of a mess.
It turns out that I can take a container of hummus that I did not make myself to book club and it won’t upset the balance of the universe. It turns out that who I really am is enough.
It’s a brave new world, my friends, and I’m glad to be in it.
FRIED RICE WITH BANH-MI STYLE MEATBALLS
Fried rice is one of my favorite weeknight dishes; like a frittata, it’s a great way to use up leftovers without feeling like you’re, well, eating leftovers. A few months ago, I tried this method for making good fried rice great, and I’ve been following its instructions ever since. The directions may seem extensive, but it’s really just a matter of being prepared ahead of time—having everything chopped and ready to go so that you don’t have to pause once you get your pan (or wok) hot.
This time, instead of cooking meat as part of the rice, I made banh-mi style pork meatballs separately and then incorporated them into the rice. You could also use these meatballs to make homemade banh mi (mmm!) or serve them over noodles instead of rice. They are very flavorful and freeze well, too!
for the meatballs:
1 lb. ground pork
½ of a small or ¼ of a large onion, diced
¼ cup cilantro, finely chopped
½ jalapeno, minced
1 ½ T minced ginger
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 T corn or potato starch
1 T fish sauce
1 tsp. soy sauce
a few squirts of sriracha (optional)
Combine the above ingredients, preferably with your hands. Form meatballs of whatever size you choose (I went for 1 ½ inches in diameter). You can complete this step in advance and refrigerate the meatballs, covered, until ready to cook.
When you’re ready to cook the meatballs, heat your oven to 350°. Cover a deep, heavy-bottomed pan with a layer of oil—I use canola, with a small amount of sesame oil for flavor—and heat the oil until shimmering. Pan-fry the meatballs in batches, turning them to brown on all sides. Place the browned meatballs on foil-lined baking sheets and cook in the oven for an addition 10-12 minutes, until cooked through.
for the fried rice:
I used what we had on hand around the house—feel free to substitute any vegetables hanging out in your fridge.
3 cups cold, leftover rice
2 leeks, washed and cut into thin half-moons
~1 cup sugar snap peas, trimmed and diced
1 red bell pepper. diced
handful of crimini mushrooms, diced
2 eggs, beaten
3 cloves garlic, minced
1-2 inches ginger, minced
1-2 tsp. rice wine vinegar
1 tsp. soy sauce
fish sauce (to taste)
handful fresh basil leaves, chopped
Cook the egg first. Heat about a tablespoon of oil over medium-high heat until hot. When it’s ready, pour in the beaten egg and stir it constantly until fluffy and cooked. Turn out into a large bowl and wipe out your pan.
Add another tablespoon of oil and let it get shimmery before adding the raw, non-aromatic vegetables (bell pepper, peas, mushrooms). Toss them around until they are tender but still crisp—I like to err on the side of undercooked, because they’ll ultimately be added back to the pan at the end and receive a bit more heat. Turn the cooked veggies out into the bowl with the egg.
Add another splash of oil to the pan and get it hot again. If using meatballs or another fully-cooked meat, just toss it around in the pan to get it nice and hot (and to render some of the flavor out into the pan). If you are using raw meat, fully cook it before adding it to bowl with the already-cooked egg.
Pour in a few more tablespoons of oil to the pan and wait until it shimmers. Add the leeks and sauté until they begin to soften; then toss in the ginger and garlic and cook, stirring regularly, until very aromatic and just beginning to brown.
Next, add the rice all at once, breaking up any large clumps and tossing it around in the hot oil. Stir fry until the rice starts to look dry and the individual grains separate. Season with a pinch or two of salt.
Now, turn the contents of the egg-vegetable-meat bowl into the hot pan. Stir gently to combine, then make a well in the center of the pan and add the liquid seasonings—rice wine vinegar, soy, and a few shakes of fish sauce. Incorporate the bubbling liquid into the rice, stirring and tossing everything until the rice looks dry again.
Remove your pan from the hot burner and top with chopped basil. Serve hot.
On this Valentine’s Day, I’m so excited to share a guest post from my friend Tami. She and I attended the same high school in Memphis, and I’ve always admired her sense of humor, willingness to speak her mind, and entrepreneurial spirit. Plus, her strawberry cupcake recipe is a winner; I tested it this weekend and, for someone who doesn’t normally even like strawberry cake, managed to eat two cupcakes by myself. When I took the leftovers to work (to prevent myself from eating them ALL), they promptly disappeared and my colleagues raved. Thanks, Tami! –Nishta
Having spent the majority of my life in the South, I understand the importance of a good strawberry cake recipe. This caused much stress as I worked on perfecting my recipes for TamiCakes. In my mind, every strawberry cupcake or cake should taste as good as the slices of strawberry cake that I would devour at Bogie’s Deli on Mendenhall as an after school snack in high school. If I couldn’t get the same joy from eating my own strawberry cake as I did whenever I visited home, then the recipe was no good.
For months, I could not find a good recipe. I tried frozen strawberries, strawberry jello, strawberry yogurt, strawberry jam, and nothing worked. Whenever someone would order the Mia X (named for the first lady of No-Limit Records, a Southern music powerhouse during my teenage years), I would cringe, because I did not look forward to the outcome. Eventually, I unofficially removed the Mia X from my menu while I worked out the recipe.
One day while browsing through recipes online, I came across this recipe. The recipe called for frozen strawberries, but I switched it up to fresh strawberries. Fresh is always better in my mind. I also cook the strawberries on the stove and then puree the in the food processor, versus just pureeing them in the food processor without cooking them. The flavor, to me, is much better with these alterations. I top the cupcakes with my cream cheese icing instead of strawberry icing. I love strawberry on strawberry, but using cream cheese allows you to savor the flavor of the cake.
For me, this is a perfect strawberry cupcake recipe. A lot of strawberry cake recipes don’t translate well to cupcakes, but this makes the most delicious little bites. They’re even good enough to sit on top of the Bogie’s lunch counter.
STRAWBERRY CUPCAKES WITH CREAM CHEESE FROSTING
Yields 18-24 cupcakes
Note: This recipe yielded only 16 cupcakes for me, but I used large muffin tins and filled them quite full. Since I didn’t have any red food coloring on hand, the cupcakes you see here are more of a pale pink. And finally, my piping skills are not what Tami’s are; despite my inability to make these cupcakes look fancy, they still tasted fabulous!
for the cake:
2 ¼ cups cake flour
1 ½ cups granulated white sugar
2 ¾ tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
1 ½ sticks unsalted butter, softened
¾ cup pureed strawberries (from approximately 1 lb. strawberries)
4 large egg whites
1/3 cup milk
4 -5 drops of red food coloring (optional)
for the frosting:
1 package cream cheese, softened
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
1 tsp. vanilla
2-3 cups confectioner’s sugar (I prefer two cups, since I’m not a fan of super-sweet icing)
1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Line two cupcake pans with paper liners.
2. Dice strawberries and place in skillet, covered with water.
3. Place over medium heat and bring to boil.
4. Reduce heat and allow mixture to simmer for about 3 – 4 minutes.
5. Remove from heat and strain. Reserve juice for another use.
6. Puree cooked strawberries in food processor, set aside.
7. In a medium bowl, sift together flour, sugar, baking powder and salt; set aside.
8. In an electric mixer, blend butter with strawberry puree.
9. Add flour mixture and blend until light and fluffy.
10. In another bowl, whisk together egg whites, milk and food coloring.
11. Add egg mixture to flour mixture and blend until completely mixed.
12. Fill cupcake liners with 1-inch ice cream scoop.
13. Bake 18 to 22 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
14. Let cupcakes cool completely before frosting.
To make the frosting, beat cream cheese and butter together until combined. Add the vanilla, then beat in the powdered sugar gradually, pausing to taste as you go until your desired level of sweetness has been reached.
Tami Sawyer is 30, single & loves to bake. TamiCakes is an entrepreneurial foray into her love of baking, which was passed on to her by her Mom & Granny. She resides in the District of Columbia where she maintains an active social & professional life and still finds time for cupcakes!
I’d like to tell you a story about New Orleans, if you don’t mind. But I have a few newsy things to share first:
Recipe Index—I’m so pleased to announce a new feature on the site—a recipe index, where every recipe ever posted is listed, linked to, and divided by category. My hope is that this will make finding specific recipes or just browsing for something that sounds good to eat much easier! You can jump to the index from any page on this site by clicking the link in the site’s header (Many, many thanks to my friend and computer geek Greg—he of sriracha recipe fame—for his help in making this happen.)
Contest—Reader and fellow blogger Jennifer generously nominated Blue Jean Gourmet in the category Best Recipe Blog for The Kitchn’s Homie awards. I’m honored to be included on such a fine list of blogs, and I would be honored to have your vote! Click here and scroll down to find Blue Jean Gourmet.
Now, back to the story. It’s longer than the ones I usually tell here; I’m hoping you won’t mind.
It was a mild, late-December day and Jill and I were sitting on tall stools in a perfectly unmemorable French Quarter bar, behind a rough-hewn, open-air wood counter that faced out into the street. We were drinking beer at 10 a.m., because that’s what you do when you’re in New Orleans (see also: swamp boat and cemetery tours, the best oysters of my life, good music everywhere, and practically unrivaled people watching opportunities).
That was the day Jill told me about Bruno.
When Jill and I met, we both very quickly became certain that we wanted to be in each other’s lives forever. Though people often assume that our other differences—age, race, religion, etc.—must have been difficult to work through, they weren’t. The sticking point for us was children.
Jill is nineteen years older than me, and by the time I came along, she had already made the decision for herself not to have children. Kids were not part of her life plan, but they were a non-negotiable part of mine.
At the same time, I was young (so young) and in no rush to start a family. So we proceeded to build our relationship and let the issue be. “All I can promise you,” Jill told me, “is that I can open myself to having my feelings changed on this. I promise to stay open.” She didn’t know exactly what that meant, and neither did I, but I trusted her, and we had time.
There were moments when I worried—despaired, really—that I would have to leave Jill in order to be a parent. I respected her feelings and the fact that she didn’t want to walk into parenting with anything less than a full commitment; nor did I want to parent with someone who was less than fully committed. But I didn’t want to parent with anyone else but her. And I didn’t know how (or if) we would work this difference out.
One morning, just a few weeks before our trip to New Orleans, Jill had opened up the paper at the kitchen table and read a story about AIDS orphans in Africa. This was around the time that Oprah was doing a lot of work opening schools around the subcontinent and drawing attention to the plight of millions of children who had lost their parents, even all of their adult relatives, to AIDS.
Along with the newspaper story was a picture of a young boy—an orphan—maybe two or three years old, clinging to the white legs of an aid worker whose torso & face were not visible in the shot. All of the boy’s relatives had died. He had no one.
In that moment, and in her re-telling of it in a bar in New Orleans, Jill began to cry—to sob. Were this a story about me, such a detail would not be worth noting, but Jill is not a crier. But this photograph got to her, touched her deeply.
If I, a privileged white woman living in the richest, freest nation in the history of the earth, she thought, can’t stand up and be a parent to this child, who can?
Her heart was cracked wide open.
For several days, without telling anyone, Jill worked to track down the photographer who had taken the picture, in order to track down Bruno. She was fully prepared to fly to Uganda and adopt him.
I listened to this story, twirling my half-full pint glass, not wanting to interrupt, the street before us still quiet for the time being. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was hearing, but I did not want to interrupt, the moment already growing significant, taking on weight.
In doing her research, Jill had discovered that inter-country adoption from Uganda to the U.S. was (at the time) incredibly difficult to pull off; only sixteen total were finalized that year. The process involved long-term residence in Uganda and was barely even feasible for straight, married couples, let alone us. Still moved to act, Jill had instead found and pledged financial support to an African orphanage. And she pledged something else, to me, that day in the French Quarter.
“Let’s adopt,” she said. “We can’t be Bruno’s parents, but we can provide a good home for another child who needs one.”
After that day, we began a very different conversation about having children—no longer dancing delicately around the topic, but moving ever-closer to one vision as we planned, asked questions, and anticipated. To this day, I remain grateful for Jill’s willingness to be open, and humbled by the power that lives have to twist shape.
Now we are proud parents to this beautiful one. He may have been born in Texas, but as far as I’m concerned, he was conceived in New Orleans.
slightly adapted from Simply Recipes, where you will also find instructions for making your own shrimp stock
I’ve had shrimp stock burning a culinary hole in my freezer for a few months now (the result of many a painstakingly saved shell) and this was one very fine use for it. This etouffee disappeared quickly; next time, I’m making a double batch so I can throw some in the freezer.
1 ½-2 lb shrimp, peeled & deveined (reserve shells to make stock)
¼ cup vegetable oil
¼ + 1 T flour
2 medium onions, medium dice
2 small green bell peppers, medium dice
3-4 stalks celery, medium dice
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 ½ pints shrimp stock
½ T sweet paprika
½ T garlic powder
1 tsp. celery seed
1 tsp. dried oregano
1 tsp. ground black pepper
½ tsp. dried thyme
½ tsp. cayenne pepper
salt & hot sauce (such as Tabasco), to taste
garnish with: chopped green onions
serve over: white rice
First, make sure that your shrimp stock is hot and at the ready—I like to keep mine warm in a saucepan on the stove. You’ll need to add it in a few steps.
Hear this: don’t be intimidated by the roux-making process. I was, and after some patient coaching from Jill, realized that there was no need. All a roux requires is patience and persistence. You can do it!
What’s more, an etouffee doesn’t require the chocolate-dark roux that a gumbo does; you only need to get to caramel-brown for this recipe. To start, heat vegetable oil in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium for a few minutes. Add the flour all at once (it will sputter), whisking thoroughly to get rid of any lumps.
Cook the roux, whisking in a figure eight, until it turns medium-brown. This should take approximately ten minutes. It should look about like a salted caramel sauce.
Add the trinity (onion, bell pepper, & celery) and jalapeno to the roux, tossing to coat all the vegetables. Continue to cook over medium heat for another 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another 1-2 minutes.
Pour the hot stock in slowly, stirring constantly to encourage it to incorporate. Don’t worry if things look terrible at first—the roux should loosen up after a few minutes. The idea is to add enough stock to make a thick sauce, which should be between a pint and a pint-and-a-half. Add the seasonings and salt to taste, then stir in the shrimp. Cover the pot and turn the heat down to low.
Cook until shrimp are just done (approximately 10 minutes), then remove from heat. Sprinkle with green onions and serve over white rice, with hot sauce to taste.
I’ve been thinking a lot about happiness.
For the last few years, I’ve read Fahrenheit 451 with my eighth graders; though written in 1953—making it a tough sell at first—the novel’s themes continue to be resonant on a personal and political level. Every year, the kids get into it.
From the political angle, there’s plenty to cover regarding censorship and totalitarian regimes, China and North Korea and the Arab Spring, revolution and the power (and danger) of knowledge.
From the person angle, take the question that one character (Clarisse) asks another (Guy Montag) very early on in the book: are you happy? The question serves as the inciting incident of the plot, and forces Montag to view his life with a new set of eyes.
In order to answer the question “Are you happy?,” we must first, of course, define what we mean by “happy.” We may even have to decide whether or not happiness is what we’re after.
In this recent article from The Atlantic, author Emily Esfahani Smith explores the writings of Viktor Frankl, well-known Jewish psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor who wrote extensively about his experience in Nazi death camps. (He was the only member of his family to survive.) Frankl is famous for arguing that man’s attitude need not be dictated by circumstance, and that making meaning, rather than pursuing happiness, is life’s ultimate goal. Happiness, Frankl argues, “can not be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.’”
Which brings me to the question of where we derive meaning. In our culture, I would argue, meaning and self-worth are equated with achievements, with successfully reaching our goals, with what we do. There is, of course, nothing wrong with accomplishments and goals—believe me, I’ve worked on my fair share—but the trouble comes when our entire identities, our sense of self-worth, our meaning, our measure of happiness, becomes solely dependent on them.
At least this is proving true for me. There is a limit, I’m finding, to my project-based identity. In a recent interview from the podcast “On Being,” John Kabat-Zinn said that he thinks about the experience of having children as equivalent to having tiny Zen masters parachuted into our lives; they show us things we never knew were there. This has proven true for me.
My “achievement girl, I-will-do-all-of-the-things!” identity is totally threatened by the idea that “Nishta” might actually be something other than, beyond, or regardless of what I do or don’t cross off of life’s “to-do” list. That there is an essential self underneath the kinds of things we list in bios or on resumes or holiday newsletters: the kinds of things that will someday be written in our obituaries when we die.
I’m with Frankl on the idea that we have the power to create our own meanings, regardless of circumstance. But I’ve realized that I have been living as if the things I do are equivalent to the person I am. But if I look back to Fahrenheit 451, Clarisse changes Montag’s life not by virtue of any grand thing she does, but simply out of being who she is. And when Montag begins to create his own meaning for his life, instead of simply accepting what’s been given to him, an electric aliveness–dare I say happiness?–emerges for him, despite some truly harrowing circumstances.
At their most powerful, books (or art in general) can force us to access and question the way we live. Which is why, of course, totalitarian regimes like the one in Fahrenheit 451 tend to want to burn them.
FRENCH ONION SOUP RECIPE
adapted very slightly from the Tartine Bread cookbook
As I always do when I want to invoke good cooking “juju,” I used Jill’s grandmother’s cast iron Dutch oven to make my soup. A coated enamel pot would also work well; just make sure you’ve got at least a 3-quart capacity to work with. The onions will cook down, of course, but you’ll have a hard time stirring in the beginning if your pan is too small.
4 large yellow onions, peeled & sliced ¼ inch thick
1 ½ quarts (6 cups) chicken stock, preferably homemade
1 ½ cups dry white wine
1 cup heavy cream
2 T unsalted butter
1 tsp. salt
half a loaf of day-old, crusty bread, sliced ½ inch or thicker
5 oz. Gruyere, thinly sliced
Combine the onions, cream, butter, and salt in the pan of your choice and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft and growing translucent, about 10 minutes.
Adjust your heat so that the onions and cream come to a slow boil. Spread the onions as best you can along the bottom of the pan and turn up the heat just a bit; leave the pot alone until the bottom layer of onions begins to brown, about 5 minutes. Add ½ cup of the wine to deglaze the bottom of the pan, stirring with a wooden spoon to scrape up the browned bits. Repeat this process twice more, cooking the onions without stirring for about 5 minutes so that they brown, then deglazing with another ½ cup wine. In the end, the onions should all be deep caramel in color.
Pour in the stock and bring the soup to a simmer over medium heat. Cook for at least 15-20 minutes to infuse the broth with onion flavor; I let mine simmer longer, to reduce the liquid a bit.
In the meantime, preheat your oven to 400°. Lay the bread in a single layer on a baking sheet and toast until dry, about 15 minutes.
When ready to serve, ladle the soup into heatproof bowls or ramekins, filling almost to the rim. Top with a piece of toasted bread and layer generous slices of cheese on top of the bread. Transfer the bowls to a baking sheet and bake until the cheese is bubbly and brown, 20-30 minutes. Serve hot.