A REST FROM ONE’S LABOR

Some things you might do this weekend:

mesa mules: tequila, ginger beer, guava, jalapeno, & lime | Blue Jean Gourmet

You might read a poem: read it aloud.  Make it one by Seamus Heaney, who taught so many of us eager young writers how to love words, and to honor them.  He died today.  I rather like this one of his, “North.”

You might lie in the grass and look up and clouds.  Remember that?  It’s as fun as it was when we were kids, maybe even better.

You might eat ice cream from a waffle cone.  You might make the ice cream first, and the waffle cone, too, if you’re feeling ambitious.  You might sit in a chair or on a couch or in a bed and read: a novel, the paper, a board book that your child hands you, expectantly.

You might take a sun-streaming-in-behind-the-curtains nap in the middle of the afternoon.  You might wave at your neighbors from across the fence.  You might sit at a café with your best friend for hours.  You might drive a long way, with your arm hanging out the window.

You might turn off your phone.  You might participate in worship.  You might go to a museum or a concert or a play.  You might stay up very late, eating olives and talking about everything.

You might make art.  You might make love.  You might make these cocktails.  Personally, I plan to do all three.

drink single

MESA MULES
barely adapted from Happyolks

These lovelies are a close relative of an old cocktail favorite of this blog, Lucky Dogs, so when I saw them, I knew I had to make them.  The jalapeño adds just the right amount of heat to the back of the throat and makes this cocktail a perfect pairing for Mexican or Indian food.  In fact, I think they would be killer with these goat tacos, and I intend to find this out for certain soon.

After our first round, I decided to add a smoked salt rim for round two and loved the way the salt played with the flavor of the tequila and tartness of the guava; you could use plain old Kosher salt, too.  Additionally, I think the smoked salt would play nicely with smoky mezcal, if you wanted to sub it in for the tequila.

ingredients (yields one cocktail):

2 oz tequila reposado (2 fluid ounces = one shot)
4 oz ginger beer
4 oz guava juice
1 oz fresh lime juice
4-6 round slivers of fresh jalapeño
ice

optional: coat the rims of your glasses with smoked or Kosher salt

Fill a cocktail shaker with ice.  Add a few slices of jalapeño to the shaker, then add the liquids and shake for a good thirty seconds.  Strain into a glass filled with fresh ice, and garnish with more jalapeño slices.

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BACK-TO-SCHOOL BREAKFASTS

Hi friends!  It’s that time of year…the time when families wade through store aisles, armed with school supply lists, parents somewhat dazed, kids miffed at their parents lack of understanding about how you can’t just buy ANY folders or pens or locker decorations, because if you don’t get the right ones, your year might be over before it even begins.  For serious.

Marion Cunningham's Boston Brown Bread Muffins | Blue Jean Gourmet

I still love school supplies because I am a big giant nerd, and that’s why it’s convenient that I became a teacher.  I still get excited about organizing my desk and planner, still pick out a new outfit for the first day of school (and invariably have trouble falling asleep the night before).  I still love thinking about what I do and how I can do it better, still get excited about visiting with former students (they grow so much over the summer!) and meeting the new ones who show up in my classroom, nervous and excited and not totally sure how to be eighth graders yet.

This will be my seventh (!) year of full-time teaching, which means that the very first crop of students, whom I had when they were in sixth grade (and whom I taught again when they were in eighth), are now seniors.  It’s hard to describe how proud of and attached to them I feel, and how excited I am to watch and be with them as they start their last year of high school.

I have had a wonderful summer full of time with my little guy; I’m going to miss him big time, but I know how lucky I am to be someone who gets to go to a job I love and come home to this sweet face every day.

Shiv Carroll Mehra-August 2013

A few notes before the recipes:

1)    The photos you see here were taken by the fabulous Sonya Cuellar, friend, artist, and former lead photographer for this blog.  She agreed to do a “guest shoot” last weekend, so you can look forward to a few more upcoming posts with her gorgeous photography!  If you haven’t already, I highly recommend checking out her beautiful abstract paintings.

2)    I’ve been nominated for a 2013 Houston Culinary Award for Best Food Blog!  Fancy, I know.  Should you be up to a little voting, you can do so here.

3)    If you’re in the Houston area, I’m doing a book reading/signing this coming Monday, August 19 at the fabulous midtown bar Mongoose Versus Cobra at 7 p.m.—please come have a drink & say hi!

These recipes are two I’ve discovered over the summer that I’m planning to use to help me get a tasty, healthy breakfast in on busy mornings.  If you have other killer make-ahead breakfast recipes, please share—always on the lookout!

BOSTON BROWN BREAD MUFFINS
slightly adapted from the amazing Marion Cunningham

I know they don’t sound or look like they’re going to be that good, but trust me—they are worth making.  You get the faintest hint of sweetness and added texture from the pecans, plus that distinctive flavor of the rye flour—but not an overpowering amount!, and the crunch from the cornmeal…it winds up being fairly magical.

These keep really well on room temperature in an airtight container, though I suggest you warm them up before serving, maybe with some butter, butter + jam, peanut/almond butter, or cream cheese.

N.B.: the original recipe calls for raisins, not pecans, but raisins are one of the few things in this life that I unequivocally hate.  I did make a few batches with fresh/frozen berries, and those were excellent, if you’re looking to add fruit here, but are also a raisin-hater like me.

rye flour, barley flour, & cornmeal | Blue Jean Gourmet

ingredients:

½ cup rye flour
½ cup cornmeal (I particularly love using coarse-ground here)
½ cup barley flour (I’ve also used whole-wheat spelt here with success)
1 ½ tsp. baking soda
¾ tsp. salt
1 egg
1 cup buttermilk
1/3  cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup molasses
1/3 cup packed brown sugar (I’ve cut this down to ¼ before as well)
¾ cup chopped pecans

oven: 400°

Butter or line a standard-sized muffin pan.  Whisk the dry ingredients (flours, cornmeal, soda, & salt) together in a large bowl.  In a separate bowl, whisk the wet ingredients (egg, buttermilk, oil, molasses, & sugar) until well-combined.

Stir the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients until fully incorporated.  Fold in pecans.

Fill the muffin tins three-quarters of the way full and bake for 12-15 minutes, or until the muffins are a deep brown and a toothpick (or actual cake tester, if you are one of those people who manages to hold onto one) comes out clean.  Serve hot or warm.  Try not to eat them all.

ENERGY BARS
recipe adapted from The Kitchn

You’re skeptical, I know; I was, too.  But as virtuous as these little bars are, they don’t taste overly virtuous—even the baby likes them!  They have a nice, chewy texture (not rock-hard or gummy, like so many store-bought energy bars) and they actually have flavor!  Plus, I know exactly what’s in them, because I made them, and there’s nothing chemically weird/unpronounceable here.

Also, these bars earn serious bonus points for convenience: easy to make, have kept well in the fridge, and are great on those mornings when time gets away from me and I really need to eat something on the drive to work or I’m going to be grumpy later.  Right?  If I have time to eat at home, I add a bowl of yogurt and a cup of tea and that will get me through the first part of the morning; I’ve also been wrapping one up and tossing it into my bag for much-needed afternoon sustenance.

Last points of the sales pitch: I bought a lot of the ingredients in bulk, so the whole batch worked out to be cheaper than the same number of store-bought versions of would have been!  These are also vegan and can be easily made gluten-free, so they work for almost everyone.  Feel free to adapt the ingredients to suit your preferences.

homemade energy bars | Blue Jean Gourmet

ingredients:

3 cups rolled oats (use certified gluten-free if you’d like)
1 cup dried fruit of your choice (I used cranberries & wild blueberries)
¾ cup chopped nuts (I used pecans)
¼ cup dried, unsweetened coconut (I used flakes, but shredded would work)
¼ cup pumpkin seeds
¼ cup ground chia seeds
½ tsp. cinnamon
¼ tsp. grated nutmeg
¼ tsp. salt
1 ¼ cup applesauce
¼ cup coconut oil
3 T smooth peanut butter
3 T agave nectar, honey, or brown rice syrup
1 tsp. vanilla

oven: 325°
pan: 8” square pan lined with parchment (don’t skip the parchment!)

In a large bowl, stir together the dry ingredients (oats, fruit, nuts, coconut, seeds, & spices).

Over low heat, combine the coconut oil, peanut butter, & whichever sweetener you’re using—stir until melted.  Remove from heat, then add the applesauce & vanilla, whisking to combine.

Pour the liquid ingredients into the dry ingredients and stir with a spatula until well-combined.  Transfer the mixture to the prepared pan and press down firmly with your hands to even out the surface—you can also use the back of a smooth measuring cup or water glass.

Bake until golden brown around the edge, ~45 minutes.  Cool the bars completely in the pan (they’ll fall apart if you don’t).  Lift the bars out, using the parchment, and cut into squares with a serrated knife.

Store the energy bars in an airtight container in the refrigerator (mine have kept for over a week).  To take one with you, wrap well in wax paper or plastic wrap.

homemade energy bar - vegan, gluten free | Blue Jean Gourmet

LAMB-STUFFED EGGPLANT

Let me start by saying that I am not here to cast aspersions in wide swath or make pronouncements or tell anyone what to do.  I’m just trying to tell the truth about things—my things—to myself, but also aloud, because when I write here, it allows me to work things out from a often-jumbled start to a kinda-sorta finish.  And from time to time I hear from a reader, someone who says that my sharing has made a difference for them, so I figure I’m going to keep doing it.

lamb-stuffed eggplant | Blue Jean Gourmet

Three weeks ago, Jill and I flew to Santa Fe to spend three luxurious nights, just the two of us, in the beautiful vacation home of a friend.  We slept in, people-watched at the Saturday market, drove many miles through the stunning, quick-changing landscape, went out for nice dinners, read books, rode horses, climbed a seven-hundred-year-old pueblo, and had the most amazing spa experience of our lives.  It was magical and decadent, but what made it magical and decadent wasn’t actually any of the things listed above.

It was the quiet.

I am not so good at being quiet; it’s not my default setting.  So when Jill and I set out for an all-day’s driving adventure, heading out of Santa Fe toward the mountains, I fiddled with the dial of the rental car radio, looking for music.  (I always listen to music when I drive, unless I am listening to NPR or an audiobook/podcast.)

“Could we not listen to anything today?” my introvert and cultivator of silence requested.  “Or at least classical or something without words?”

I resisted.  It was a visceral, not intellectual response.  I could appreciate the idea in theory, even see its rightness, but it made me, quite literally, physically uncomfortable.  I honored Jill’s request and was squirmy for a while, annoyed.  Then, as we drove and drove, the absence of music metamorphosed into the presence of silence.  I started to relax; I turned off my phone.  The temperature dropped fifteen degrees as we changed elevation, so we rolled down the windows and listened to the sound of the tires on the highway we had mostly to ourselves.  It was glorious.

Allow me to make a bold statement; the way we live is kind of nuts.  Or perhaps more precisely, the way we are expected to live is nuts.  And what’s really nuts is how we’ve convinced ourselves that it’s not nuts, because so many of us are doing it that it seems normal, the way things are.  The way, even, perhaps, that they are supposed to be.

I am not one of those people who thinks technology is evil; far from it.  Technology isn’t the problem, it’s our (my) relationship to technology that’s the problem.  We joke about “being addicted” to our phones, but—aren’t we?  Facebook and Twitter have both, in distinct ways, been valuable in my life, to connect with friends, meet new ones, and be exposed to and share all kinds of interesting things, but I place too much value on them.  I check them obsessively; there is some irrational part of me that equates my self-worth with the number of responses I get (or don’t get).  While I love the immediacy of being able to send a text message or an email, I don’t love the “timer” it sets off in my head of “Why haven’t they written back?”

When did we decide that we have to respond to everything right away, as if the world would end if we didn’t?  And why do I feel like every beautiful meal or item that appears in my kitchen needs to be photographed and shared, as if to prove to everyone that I have beautiful things in my kitchen, so therefore I am worthy?  There is the sharing that springs from the genuine desire to share, and then there is sharing that comes with a sharp attachment, a desire for affirmation and validation; I do not think our “everything on display all of the time” fishbowl culture brings out the best in me, mental-health wise. (See also: “Is somebody saying something awesome about my book on the internet right now?  They aren’t?  Why aren’t they???”  And so on.)

aubergine

Lest I’m misrepresenting, it isn’t as if I have some kind of scary, bad issue that interferes with my life; I play with my kid (a lot).  I have face-to-face conversations, interact with other human beings “live,” think about other things, get work done, and am generally quite happy.  But in spending those hours in Santa Fe “unplugged” from my usual, digital routine, and in subsequently returning to that routine, I have felt the cost of it much more.

My ability to be present—to just be—is rusty.  I’m accustomed to constantly distracting myself: sliding the arrow to unlock my iPhone and see what updates it may have for me.  I’m all for goofing off sometimes, but, my God, think of what I could do with all of that time added up!  More books, more sleep (heck yeah), more writing.

I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water here, and I don’t believe in giving things up cold turkey.  But I want the experience of glorious quiet, of long hours for my thoughts to swirl and then settle, of a contentedness that comes from being plugged into things that really matter (hint: it’s not how many people liked my photograph on Instagram), and not just once a year when I’m on vacation.

So I’m going to turn off my phone more often: a lot more often.  I’m working on taking better care of myself in general, and this is one very big piece of that.  I’m pretty excited to see what happens.

Before I forget: I made a designated page for The Pomegranate King, where you can find information about purchasing the book, links to reviews/press, and details about upcoming readings & signings (Houston: August 19 & Memphis: September 26!)

STUFFED EGGPLANT WITH LAMB AND PINE NUTS
very slightly adapted from the Jerusalem cookbook

Also on the list of “things that make me better when I do them” is caring for others.  Thinking about someone other than myself, and contributing to that person in whatever way I can is one of the quickest ways I’ve found to pull my head out of my ass and get some perspective.

There’s a line from an old Indigo Girls song: “Here in the South, we fix something to eat.”  And indeed, no matter the occasion, it’s what we do.  My friend Ruthie just had a new baby boy, so after Jill, Shiv, & I enjoyed half of this eggplant, I took the other half over to her.

Notes: I had big ole’ eggplants on hand from the Farmers Market, but I think you could substitute smaller ones easily; because mine were so big, they required two roasting pans.  Jill is not a fan of cinnamon in large doses, so I cut back on the amount in the spice mix and did not place whole cinnamon sticks at the bottom of the roasting pan (the original recipe calls for 1 T cinnamon & 4 cinnamon sticks).  Finally, my eggplants cooked through in about half the suggested time than the recipe calls for, and because I wasn’t paying close attention, my sauce all but dried out.  Next time, I’ll preemptively add more water (a whole cup) to the pan at the start.

lamb-stuffed eggplant | Blue Jean Gourmet

ingredients:

3 large eggplants, ends trimmed & halved lengthwise
1 lb. ground lamb
2 small onions, finely chopped
¼ cup pine nuts
¼ cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1 ripe tomato, diced
3 tsp. superfine sugar (I ground regular sugar in my mortar & pestle)
2/3 cup water
1 T sweet paprika
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 ½ tsp. ground cumin
juice from ½ a lemon
1 tsp. tamarind paste
olive oil
salt & pepper

oven: 425°

Nestle the eggplant halves, skin side down, into a large roasting pan or pans.  Drizzle generously with olive oil and season with salt & pepper.  Roast for ~20 minutes, until the tops are golden brown.  Remove from the oven and reduce the oven temp to 375°.

While eggplants roast, make the lamb stuffing by heating 2 T olive oil in a large frying pan.  Stir together the cumin, paprika, & cinnamon and add half of this spice mixture to the pan, reserving the other half for later.  Add the onions to the spice mixture and cook over medium-high heat for about 8-10 minutes, stirring frequently.
Add the lamb, pine nuts, parsley, tomato, 1 tsp. of the sugar, 1 tsp. salt, and some black pepper to the pan.  Continue to cook and stir until the meat is cooked through, about another 8-10 minutes.

Blend the remaining spice mix with the water, lemon juice, tamarind, remaining 2 tsp, sugar, & ½ tsp. salt.  Pour this into the bottom of the eggplant roasting pan(s).  Spoon the lamb mixture generously on top of each eggplant.  Cover your pan(s) with foil, return them to the oven, and roast for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until the eggplants are completely soft.

If you are feeling up to it, you can check the eggplants a few times and baste them with the sauce at the bottom of the pan.  However, you may have a one year old to chase after/dance around the kitchen with, in which case this dish will still taste good even if you don’t baste.

Serve warm.  We cooked up a batch of bulgur to go alongside, and that worked nicely.

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