SALTED PEANUT BUTTER CHOCOLATE CHIP GRANOLA BARS

EMILY: “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it…every, every minute?”

STAGE MANAGER: “No. Saints and poets maybe…they do some.”

Thornton Wilder, Our Town

Kid fell asleep tonight as soon as we got home from the gym, too tired even for dinner, asking “Hold you, Mama?” and after less than five minutes on the couch, his little snores began.

Blue Jean Gourmet | Salted Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Granola Bars

The air feels different tonight.  One of the most important people in my life is in a hospital room right now, sitting by her mom’s bedside, the unfolding of today’s story but just one page in a whirlwind of a book that didn’t even exist a few weeks ago.  Life can do that, you know.  I know.  I know the way the texture of the air changes: with a diagnosis, with the appearance of paperwork, with the utterance of just a few words by someone wearing a white coat.

We forget, though, don’t we?  Too easily.  We are pushed, and we push ourselves, to heal, to “feel better,” to move on.  But being cracked open by grief, fear, and uncertainty creates a certain kind of sight—it’s not a gift, mind you, but perhaps an opportunity—to see what we otherwise miss.

Burdens are plenty in this world and they can pull us down in lamentation.  But the good Lord knows we need to see at least the hem of the robe of glory, and we do.  Ponder a sunset or the dogwoods all ablossom.  Every time you see such it’s the hem of the robe of glory.  Brothers and sisters, how do you expect to see what you don’t seek?  Some claim heaven has streets of gold and all such things, but I hold a different notion  When we’re there, we’ll say to the angels, why, a lot of heaven’s glory was in the place we come from.  And you know what them angels will say?  They’ll say yes, pilgrim, and how often did you notice?  What did you seek?

Ron Rash, Above the Waterfall

As I carried my sleepy boy from the car to the house, we stopped to look up, the sky dark but still bluer than black, the night clearer than usual, the stars charting their constellations.  “Look, bub,” I said, “the stars are so far away, but still they send us their light.”

“They sharing it,” he said, nuzzling his cheek against my shoulder.  “They share the light with us so we can have some, too.”

And by that light, tonight, I glimpsed a few stitches in the hem of the robe.


Blue Jean Gourmet | Salted Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Granola Bars

SALTED PEANUT BUTTER CHOCOLATE CHIP GRANOLA BARS

recipe slightly adapted from Standard Baking Co. Pastries, via Remedial Eating

I got to this recipe via Instagram, when Shauna Ahern commented on Molly Hays’ photo of granola bars, asking for the recipe.  Molly obliged with a link, which I promptly followed.  Following the recipe yielded a very large quantity of the sturdiest homemade granola bars I’ve ever encountered; I mailed some to the aforementioned friend, took some on a road trip, fed many of them to my not-so-small child, used them as my contribution to book club brunch (where I was asked for the recipe by several), and consumed a good handful of them myself, as mid-morning and pre-/post-gym snacks.

Note: these are not “health food” granola bars in the sense that they are unapologetically sweetened and filled with naturally caloric & fatty things, like nuts and nut butters.  I am okay with this, but you might not be.  Think about them as wandering in the territory just shy of dessert, but a good distance from the town of overly virtuous.  And if it helps, know that we really only eat half of one of the rectangles pictured here at a time, with even a nibble or two serving as a nice foil for a cup of tea or a sweet-thing-after-dinner that successfully allows me to avoid hitting up the ice cream in the freezer.

As Molly notes in her original post, these are swell to have around if you have a child experiencing a growth spurt.  Bonus points for how well they hold up in lunch bags!

ingredients:

I found this rule of thumb from Molly’s post helpful: “I’ve fiddled with these bars endlessly, and have found most any substitutions work, so long as the following ratio is adhered to: 3 cups sugars (liquid + solid) : 9 cups grains (oats + germ/seeds) : 4 cups “chunks” (walnuts + chocolate chips) is a good balance, for a sturdy final bar.”  I will add that you could easily use dried fruit instead of chocolate chips, to make these more “breakfasty.”

1 cup salted butter (I only had unsalted, so bumped up the salt in the dry ingredients)
2 cups packed dark brown sugar
1 1/2 cups crunchy, salted peanut butter (I used a mix of regular peanut butter & almond butter)
1 cup light corn syrup or brown rice syrup (I used a mix of corn syrup & honey)
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
8 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
2 1/2 cups toasted, chopped walnuts
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1/2 cup wheat germ (I used flax seeds)
1/2 cup sesame seeds (I used hulled sunflower seeds)
one 12-ounce package mini chocolate chips (I only had regular sized chocolate chips, used about 1/2 cups)

oven: 375°

Melt butter in a medium-sized bowl; stir in brown sugar, nut butter(s), liquid sweetener(s) of your choice, and vanilla.  Mix well and set aside to cool.  Butter concoction needs to feel cool before you mix it with the chocolate chips, so that it doesn’t melt them! 

Line a rimmed baking sheet (13 x 18” or as close as you have to it) with parchment paper, then butter the paper (also helps to dot the sheet with butter before laying the paper on top, so it will stick). 

In a very large bowl, stir together all of your dry ingredients: oats, nuts, salt, seeds/germ, and chocolate chips.  Pour in the cooled butter mixture and stir very well to combine thoroughly.  I used a spatula, then finished off with clean hands – you want the oat mixture to be very well coated, because any dry bits will keep your granola bars from sticking together. 

Spread the mixture out on the parchment-lined baking sheet, and distribute evenly.  Cover the top of the mixture with a second sheet of parchment, and use a rolling pin or the bottom of a measuring cup/water glass to level out the mixture and press it firmly into the pan.  You want the mixture to be tightly compacted.

Bake for 25-30 minutes, until the edges are golden brown.  Allow the mixture to cool fully—I left my sheet pan in the oven overnight—before cutting into bars.  According to Molly, these keep in an airtight container at room temperature for 3+ weeks, but I made them a week ago and we only have 5 left, so you’ll have to take her word for it!

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SPICED NUTS

I’m learning.

I’m learning that being a perfectionist does not serve me well as a mother.  My child is a human being, not a machine, and I do him and myself a disservice when I forget that.  As it turns out, I am not a machine, either, and if I go along long enough pretending that I’m one, I might get the wind knocked out of me one Tuesday morning.

I’m learning that I can’t do everything, and it is exhausting to try.  Turns out I don’t actually want to have it all; I want to have a few things, fully.  I’m learning not to be so hard on myself, because I’m doing this mother job for the first time, and it’s okay that I haven’t figured out exactly how it works yet.

I’m learning that anxiety is not rational and that emotions can hit you like a truck.  And sometimes you just have to say “I am having a hard time today,” and let that be what it is.  Then maybe call the counselor you saw a while back and make an appointment, because taking care of yourself means giving up the silly notion that you shouldn’t need any help.

I’m learning, newly, how blessed I am to have an incredibly patient partner, a wonderful mother (who just bought a house that’s less than two miles from ours!), and rock-solid friends who stand at the ready with wisdom and love on the days I don’t quite measure up.

I’m learning just how much gratitude I can feel when the next day is better than the last.  I’m learning that there’s some merit to being completely disoriented, because it means I can’t get up to my usual tricks.  And I’m learning that there is nothing quite so good as coming home to this sweet face.

SPICED NUTS RECIPE

from Bon Appetit 

We’re getting close to that parade-of-holidays time of year, where visitors come and go and there are lots of festive occasions that warrant snacks.  Here’s one that will work nicely from Halloween through New Year’s, I think.

The original recipe calls for a full pound of pistachios, but since they can be kind of expensive to buy already shelled, I opted to go half-and-half with cashews.  I also think this treatment would work well with almonds!  The egg whites allow you to get a very crunchy finish on the nuts, as well as distribute the spice mix evenly.

Jill & I have found that the flavor of these nuts goes quite well with the round, deep, malty, pumpkin-y beers of fall; perfect for Sunday football watching, in fact.  They’ve kept extremely well in a sealed Mason jar for over two weeks.

ingredients:

1 lb. unsalted mixed nuts (I used a combination of shelled pistachios & cashews)

5 egg whites*

½ cup sugar

½ tsp. dried thyme

½ tsp. ground allspice

½ tsp. ground ginger

¼ tsp. cayenne

4 dashes Angostura bitters

salt

vegetable oil

 

oven: 350°

In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg whites, sugar, spices, & bitters.  Fold in the nuts and stir to coat.

Brush a rimmed baking sheet with a thin layer of vegetable oil, then spread out the nuts on top; sprinkle with salt.  Bake, stirring to break up clumps every 10 minutes or so, until golden brown and beginning to crisp, about 30-35 minutes.

Cool the baking sheet on a wire rack before eating/transferring to an airtight container.  (The nuts will crisp up further as they cool.)

*If you’re wondering what to do with the resultant 5 egg yolks, you can use 4 of them to make these alfajores or 2 of them to make this almond pudding.   I also like adding yolks to a batch of scrambled eggs to make them extra rich!

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VADOUVAN SPICED CASHEWS

Is it just me or is the cashew underutilized?  Underrated?  Downright neglected, I say, which is a shame, given how delicious they can be.

I had never heard of Vadouvan spice before encountering this recipe and I’m still not sure how to pronounce it, though I am now aware that it’s a delicious fusion of French and Indian flavors, always involving garlic and shallots, a position I wholeheartedly support and that goes excellently well with the aforementioned nut.

You may need to head to the Indian grocery store or a gourmet grocery to get some of the spices listed here, but getting your hands on the ingredients is really the hardest part of the recipe.  If you keep the ingredients on hand, as I plan to, and grind a double-batch of the spice mix, you’ll be minutes away from a rather addictive and happy-hour-suited snack.

Here in Houston, we’re lucky to be smack in the middle of a season that lends itself perfectly to patio sitting and al fresco dining, which frankly we feel we have earned since we suffered through a long, hot, and humid summer. So I’m betting I’ll bust out these cashews as sophisticated patio-sitting fare many times over.

SPICED CASHEWS

source: David Grossman, chef at Branchwater Tavern here in Houston

My friend Ben, who receives the majority of my kitchen leftovers, would like you to know that these cashews will give you wicked garlic breath.  But he also says that they are worth it.

ingredients:

1 cup raw cashews

1 shallot, peeled & very thinly sliced*

4 garlic cloves, peeled & very thinly sliced*

2-3 T Vadouvan spice (see below)

½ tsp. salt

Fry the garlic & shallots in a bit of vegetable oil over medium-high heat until brown & crisp.  Remove & let them drain on a paper towel.

In the same pan, over medium heat, cook the cashews, stirring constantly, until golden brown.  Drain these as well, then toss with the Vadouvan spice & top with fried garlic & shallots.

*Use a mandoline if you have one.

for the Vadouvan spice:

1 T cumin seeds

1 T fresh curry leaves or 1 tsp. dried

1 tsp. fenugreek seed

1 tsp. mustard seeds

1 tsp. ground cardamom

¾ tsp. turmeric

½ tsp. grated nutmeg

½ tsp. Kashmiri chili powder*

½ tsp. ground cloves

In a dry pan, toast the fenugreek, cumin and mustard seeds. Let cool & then combine with all other spices in a spice grinder and grind.

* If you can’t find this one, substitute ½ paprika & ½ cayenne

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ROASTED CHICKPEAS

We celebrated Blue Jean Gourmet’s first birthday last night with a backyard happy hour: beer, margaritas, two kinds of sangria, & lots of snacks.  It was a beautiful, overcast-but-not grey day and we were blessed with the presence of friends, fans, & even a few strangers (i.e. Twitter friends we’d never met in person!) to help us commemorate the day.

Party pictures and a more detailed menu still to come, but in the meantime I bring you chickpeas, because we served them yesterday, because they are delicious, and because they also serve as a nice Mother’s Day crossover.  You see, when you have a mother like mine, who is an incredible, instinctive cook and from whom you learned everything you know about making food—it feels like a real victory to introduce her to a dish or a method or an ingredient that she ends up loving.  There’s nothing more fun than your culinary badass mama calling or emailing to say “I love that!”  And roasted chickpeas are one such victory.

In one hilariously ironic twist, my mother now fusses at me on the phone, “Don’t work too hard, don’t do too much,” when all I ever saw her do as a kid was work hard, both inside and outside of our house, and cook beautiful meals for eager guests, never letting anyone help, insisting on doing every bit of the prepping, cooking, & cleaning herself, all the while making it look easy and being incredibly gracious.

So when I find myself sending guests out the door with leftovers or insisting “I’ve got it,” when someone tries to help, or when I notice how much like Veena I’m starting to look in pictures as I get older, I’m thrilled.  And sometime soon, I hope to notice myself worrying and fussing over a child of my own, raising him or her with as much freedom, love, and unconditional support as I have been blessed to receive over the last twenty-seven years.

To all mamas—biological, adoptive, step-moms, aunts, big sisters, grandmothers, and the women who take on mothering roles in our lives—Happy Mother’s Day.

ROASTED CHICKPEAS

If you have not discovered how delicious chickpeas (also known as garbanzo beans or ceci beans) are when roasted in the oven, please remedy as soon as possible.  This is a dead-easy snack; you can make a big, inexpensive batch for a crowd by soaking & cooking a bag of dried beans before roasting, or drain a can at a moment’s notice when unexpected company comes calling.

These spicy chickpeas are a fantastic partner to beer, margaritas, even champagne—you can season them a dozen different ways—and the best part?  Healthier than potato or tortilla chips.  But no less addictive!

ingredients:

cooked chickpeas
a few tablespoons of olive oil
sea salt
seasoning of your choice*

oven: 425˚
pan: baking sheets (optional: line with parchment for easy clean-up)
Drain the chickpeas well, then get them as dry as possible.  I like to line my salad spinner with a few paper towels & send the chickpeas flying.  Not only does it make a cool noise, it helps the olive oil stick.

Toss the dried chickpeas with a few drizzles of olive oil—you want them to be lightly coated, not drowning.  Roast in the oven for 20-30 minutes, checking after the 15 minute mark to shake the baking sheet to ensure that the chickpeas don’t burn.

Once the chickpeas have browned nicely, remove from the oven and let cool a few minutes before sprinkling with salt & seasoning of your choice.  Serve warm or allow to the chickpeas to cool to room temperature before storing in an airtight container for up to a week.

*For each can of chickpeas, I recommend between 1-2 tsp. of seasoning.  My favorite flavorings include: za’atar, smoked paprika, cumin & cayenne, thyme & lemon zest, or chili powder and a squeeze of fresh lime juice.

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SEV PURI

Perhaps it is a generational symptom, or hazard, to experience times in one’s life that are later identified as having felt “like a movie.”  If serendipity, luck, or chance has played a large part, making one’s day unusually perfect or delightfully surprising, then “it was like a movie.”  If terrible things have taken place, things no one could have foreseen, things one feels one might not make it through, then “it was like a movie,” also.

Nearly everything about the summer of 2006 occurs, for me, like a movie.  This may well be the case because all of it is showcased, projected up on the screen of my mind, as if it happened to someone else.  As if it had been written, the frighteningly complete alignment of feeling and form, sure to please even the most exacting director.  Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful for whatever hand laid out the minutiae of our lives that summer.  But living life like a movie will throw you off balance after a while.  “So let it be written, so let it be done.”

From one morning in Mumbai, a particularly cinematic recollection.  My father and I went out for a walk, just the two of us, traveling down the rickety elevator of his sister’s flat and out into the street.  We worked across a few busy streets to the Five Gardens, where paths are reserved for pedestrians.  The gardens are really more like well-shaded parks gated off from traffic.  Of course, everywhere you turn in Mumbai is a veritable garden; given the hothouse climate, all manner of flowers and greenery grow.

Each of the five gardens contains a different buzz of activity—a rousing game of cricket underway on one dusty circle, some quiet games of chess between old men under the shade of palm trees. At that point in my life, I aspired to be one of those people who can eat street food.  I had read Bourdain, I bought into the romance of late nights, authenticity, and machismo.  I believed him when he says that you don’t really know a place until you eat what everyone who lives there is lining up to eat on some random street corner.  And I was willing to sacrifice some nights of peaceful sleep for a stomach of iron and some really good noodle bowls—I just hadn’t had much of a chance.

In between trips to India, I only made one trip outside of the States—a college jaunt to Amsterdam, where the bragging rights for eating street food are not nearly as high as, say, Thailand or Japan.  I did, however, take the liberty of consuming several cones of warm European frites with spicy mayonnaise in the wee hours of the morning, which I still crave when I am up very late and have been drinking.

I also remember, very distinctly, watching my father stand in the middle of an open market in Mexico and risk his life (and my mother’s wrath) to eat fish tacos.  I was dying to take a bite myself, but I was only ten and, at that point in my life, unable to defy her.  More than a decade later, on that morning walk, I jumped at the chance to eat recklessly with my dad, to eat away from my mother’s watchful eye, to join my father in a little subversive act,  just one moment of defiance to make up for all of those years I placed myself unabashedly on my mother’s “side.”

With the paper rupees in my father’s wallet, we feasted on watermelon, mango, coconut milk straight from the fruit, and shared a crunchy helping of sev puri.  The Indian food smorgasborg, sev puri is a classic street food, a weird, delicious concoction of spicy cooked potatoes, raw onions, the option of boiled moong beans (they taste like mild peas but are a little more toothsome), and drizzles of dhania (cilantro) and imli (tamarind, my favorite) chutnies atop a bed of salty, crunchy chips and twigs made from chickpea flour.  Served in a big, Styrofoam cup with a plastic spoon, our snack was well worth the risk of intestinal distress, as well as my mother’s dismay, though we managed to keep the secret together, and I am spilling it now.

Sev Puri falls under the large umbrella of Chat, or snacks, along with its cousins bhel puri and pani puri.  As with most iconic food, there is much variety in the method and lively debate about just what constitutes true sev puri and what does not.  This version has been honed to my tastes, of course, but also to the ease and convenience of a lazy but satisfying pantry meal or an answer to the question “what should I feed all of these people who have suddenly appeared at my house?”  Stored properly, the dry ingredients will keep in your pantry for months, the chutneys freeze well, onions & cilantro are cheap, and if you’re like me, you always have a random handful of potatoes hanging out somewhere, waiting to be cooked.  Am I right?


SEV PURI

You can (and should feel free to) add tomatoes, a drizzle of yogurt, roasted chickpeas, sprouted mung beans, chopped Serrano or other peppers, even diced mango to your sev puri.

For the bottom/crunchy layer of this snack, you’ll need to acquire a bag of packaged sev (fried bits of chickpea flour) and one of flat puris (small flatbreads, also fried).  Your local Indian grocery may have a bagged “sev puri mix” with these two pre-combined—just ask.  If you don’t use these up the first time, they’ll keep in the pantry if well-sealed in plastic bags.

for the potatoes:

2 lb. red new potatoes
1 T ground cumin
1 T ground coriander
2 tsp. salt
¼ tsp. Indian red pepper (lal mirch)
squeeze of lemon

Boil the potatoes whole until soft and easily pierced with a fork.  Cool, then peel and chop into half-inch chunks.  Toss with the spices and mix well.  Check for salt & taste but keep in mind that you’ll be adding many layers of flavor so you don’t want the potatoes to be overbearing.  Set aside until ready to serve.

for the dhania (cilantro) chutney:

2 bunches cilantro
2-inch knob fresh ginger, peeled
1/3 cup of peanuts, pumpkin seeds, or sunflower seeds (if salted, decrease the amount of salt you add to the chutney)
1 jalapeño, seeded if you like
¼ cup fresh lemon or lime juice
1 T ground cumin
1 tsp. salt
water

To prep the cilantro, wash it thoroughly and chop off the bottom portion of the stems.  If you like, you can pick off the leaves and discard all stem pieces, but I honestly don’t find this is necessary—just cut off the tough ends.

Process all ingredients in the blender, adding water until you reach your desired texture; I like mine just shy of smooth.

for the imli (tamarind) chutney:

Many people make imli chutney with dates or jaggery (palm sugar), but I learned from my mom to use apple butter instead and I think it’s way delicious-er.

1 cup apple butter*
½ cup tamarind paste
1 T ground cumin
1 T ground coriander
2 tsp. salt
½ tsp. Indian red pepper (lal mirch)
water

Combine all ingredients except water in a small saucepan.  Heat on low, adding water to thin the chutney.  Cook until the ingredients are incorporated, checking to be sure the flavors are balance.  The chutney should be sweet, with a hint of fire and strong “pucker” from the tamarind.  If you want more of any one flavor, add the corresponding ingredient.

Cool before storing in the fridge and freezer.  Be mindful that the chutney will thicken, so you may need to thin it again before serving.

* If you can get your hands on homemade apple butter, do.  Otherwise, it’s easy to find in the “peanut butter & jelly” aisle of your supermarket.

for the assembly:

I like to arrange the components along a counter or table so each person can assemble his/her own.  In the bottom of a bowl, add a heap of sev and a few puris, breaking up the latter with a spoon or fork.  Throw on some potatoes, then onions if you like, then cilantro if you like, and generous drizzles of one or both chutneys.

GRANOLA BARS

I’m in Chicago for the weekend.  It’s cold here, but not too cold, grey and foggy instead of sunny, and I’m here because my friend Katie texted me a few months ago and said “bitch, when are you coming to visit me?”  Yes, I believe those were her exact words.

Katie and I first met as high schoolers at a school program called Close Up in Washington, D.C.  She was there from Michigan, me from Tennessee.  We started talking the first night in the lobby of the hotel where our groups were staying, and she wound up loaning me her giant CD collection and trying to explain that strange Yankee card game, Euchre.  The next day, we sat next to each other on the bus, and by the end of the five-day trip, she handed me a postcard with the Jefferson Memorial (her favorite) on the front and a note that included “I love you” on the back.

We are really such unlikely friends; I was the geekiest sixteen-year-old known to man, she was loud, sarcastic, a partier, the center of social attention.  For the longest time I was convinced that she was actually too cool to be friends with me and eventually she would figure that out and ditch our long-distance correspondence.  But the thing about Katie is that there are so many layers to her brash persona: fierce loyalty to family and friends, voracious reading habits, impatience for all things superficial, and her boundless generosity.

I like to think that I was able to see those things back then, when others couldn’t, or didn’t, and that she saw me—the, as it turns out, a little brash and mouthy and daring myself—underneath the suiting of a hopelessly self-conscious and sheltered sophomore. Katie wasted no time drawing me out of my shell.  She’s my delightfully corrupting influence. When Katie’s mom heard that I was coming to visit this weekend, she told her daughter, “Could you please not dye or tattoo or pierce anything this time around?”

This week marks our eleven-year friend-versary—in that time, we’ve probably spent less than two months in the other’s actual physical company.  But space and time don’t seem to matter for us; no matter how long it’s been, we always just pick right up where we left off.

HOMEMADE GRANOLA BARS


If historical trends are any indication, I’ll need to compensate for questionably healthy eating choices after spending a weekend with Katie.  Oh, yep, in fact, she’s banging around the kitchen right now, making pancakes.  Granola bars + serious gym time are going to be in order.

The folks at Superior Nuts were kind enough to send me some of their beautifully packaged sliced almonds and jumbo apricots, so I used them, but you could substitute any kind of nut or dried fruit.  I’m convinced that adding flavorings like cinnamon and nutmeg go a long way to putting these granola bars in a different stratosphere than the cardboard-replica-versions you so often find.
ingredients:

2 cups old-fashioned oats
1 cup sliced almonds
1 cup shredded, unsweetened coconut*
¼ cup golden flax meal
¼ cup wheat germ

*If you use sweetened, omit the brown sugar below.

oven: 350˚

Stir all ingredients together in a large bowl.  Spread out on two foil-lined baking sheets.  Toast for 10-15 minutes, stirring at least once, until the mixture has been lightly browned.

Return to the bowl and stir in:

1 cup dried fruit, chopped
½ tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. nutmeg
pinch of salt

For the wet ingredients, whisk the following together in a small saucepan over low heat:

½ cup honey
3 T butter
3 T brown sugar (optional)
1 tsp. vanilla

Pour the mixture into the bowl and stir to combine.  Be sure that all of the dry ingredients are well coated.  For thicker granola bars, use a square pan.  Thinner, a rectangle.  Line your pan of choice with parchment paper.

Drop the oven temperature down to 325˚.

Press the granola mixture into the pan, using your fingers to get an even layer and pressing down hard.  Use the back of a metal bowl or small water glass to smooth out the top.

Bake the bars for 10 minutes, just to help them harden.  Cool thoroughly (at least two hours) before lifting the parchment-lined bars out of the pan.  Cut into desired size using a sawing motion with a sharp serrated knife.  Store in an airtight container for up to a week.

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KALE CHIPS

With the deadly back-to-back combo of Valentine’s Day, Chinese New Year, Presidents’ Day, & Mardi Gras, you might have overdone it the last few days.  Fear not—I have vegetables for you.  Vegetables you’ll actually WANT to eat.

The season of Lent begins in earnest at the exact moment Mardi Gras (known to the church-going as Shrove Tuesday) ends.  While an abstemious season might not sound so appealing, the Episcopalian schoolgirl in me appreciates the opportunity to reflect and scale back.  Blame it on the way I was raised, but I actually look forward to giving something up for Lent.

In the past, I’ve done without chocolate, meat, desserts, Diet Coke, and gossip.  This year, I’m saying goodbye to alcohol for forty days—so long, margaritas, au revoir glasses of red wine, bye-bye beer.

What I appreciate about this discipline is that it forces some thoughtfulness into my daily life.  During Lent, I have to work around the commitment I’ve made; I have to remind myself why I made the commitment in the first place.

For the past few months, Jill and I have been consciously working to integrate many more servings of vegetables into our regular diet.  Seriously, when you look at the recommended amount of green (or purple) things one is supposed to eat in any given day, it’s kind of shocking.  Shocking how rarely I meet those guidelines, that is.


Until kale chips came into my life.  You’ve probably read about or at least seen these guys dancing around lots of blogs in the last few months, and I had, too, but somehow it took my stubborn self entirely too long to try them.  I pray you won’t make the same mistake.

These damn things are so good they even passed the muster of my “fry everything!” Louisiana-in-laws.  In the words of my friend John, “You just can’t understand how KALE could taste this good.”  It’s true.  These chips are now a regular in my kitchen, and whether I’m serving them to company or just for me and Jill, they disappear quickly.  I know you won’t believe me until you try it yourself, but you can get the crunch & salt factor of potato chips without having to fry anything and with the satisfaction of, well, eating a vegetable.

Whether you’re giving up an indulgence for Lent, or are just tired of salad, I urge you to give these pretty kale chips a whirl.  Just don’t blame me if they leave you dumbfounded.

KALE CHIPS

This basic recipe calls only for salt, but you’re certainly welcome to add other seasonings—garlic powder, Creole seasoning, pepper—but they lack nothing as-is.

Prepping the kale takes a little work, but once you’ve done that, the chips are incredibly simple to make.  If your grocery store sells pre-washed & bagged kale, feel free to cheat!  I usually prep two bunches at once, storing the washed and dried leaves from one bunch in a Ziploc bag for future use.

ingredients:

1-2 bunches kale*
olive oil
salt

oven: 400˚
pan: baking sheets

Cut or tear the kale leaf off of the middle rib, then cut or tear the leaves into bite-sized pieces.  Rinse the kale thoroughly in a sink full of cold water, then transfer into a colander to drain.

If you have a salad spinner, employ it here.  If not, proceed straight to towel-stacking, which goes something like this:

On a clean kitchen counter, spread out a very absorbent kitchen towel.  Line it with some paper towels.  Top the paper towels with a few handfuls of kale leaves, distributed evenly into one layer.  Place more paper towels on top of the kale, then another kitchen towel on top of all that.  Repeat.  Stack until the kale’s all hidden away, then press down lightly on the towel stack.  Let the kale sit for 5-10 minutes.

[My method may seem extreme, and yes, it’s a little time-consuming, but having very dry kale leaves makes a big difference when it comes to getting your chips crunchy.  Patience, grasshopper.]

Unwrap the kale and shake it into a big bowl (unless you’re reserving some of it for future use).  Drizzle a few tablespoons of oil over the kale, then toss to coat.  You don’t want to drown it, just barely cover each piece.

Spread the kale out onto two baking sheets—if you’re cooking two bunches at once, you’ll need to work in batches.  Salt the kale just before you slide it into the oven.

Bake for10-12 minutes, or until the edges of the kale pieces have become crinkly and any remaining moisture has left the leaves.  Serve warm.

Due to the inconsistency of ovens, please watch your kale closely!  You might want to try the chips first on lower heat, to prevent burning.

*I’ve used both flat (Tuscan) and curly kale, but prefer the latter.

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SUPERBOWL PARTY ROUND-UP

So the Superbowl’s not until NEXT Sunday, but in case you are as much of a crazy planner as I am , I’ve put together some BJG favorites that would work well as fuel to watch the Saints win by.  WHO DAT?

everything's possible via Etsy

Okay, okay, I understand some people are actually cheering for the Colts, but down here you’d be hard pressed to find one.  Houston took in a quarter-million Hurricane Katrina evacuees; 150,000 of them stayed and now call Texas their home. So we’re all pretty damn jazzed that our sister city finally has something to celebrate.

Of course, Superbowl party food tastes good no matter which team you’re rooting for (heck, it tastes good even if you’re just there to watch the commercials.)

Community tradition in the extended family group went like this: Thanksgiving at the Mehra (our) house, Christmas at the Karkeras’, Ganesh Pooja at Priya Aunty’s house, Diwali Party at Chanchala Aunty’s house, & Superbowl Party at Ashok Uncle & Bina Aunty’s.  This final party was a raucous, ornately ritualed affair: touch football games in the morning, afternoon naps for our Dads during which we kids quietly worked on our team posters, face paint and team colors layered on, giant graphs of squares marked off with a ruler, quarters collected as we all placed bets, televisions stationed in every possible room of the party house, including the bathroom.

A room for AFC fans, a room for NFC fans.  Opposite cheers arising like warring choruses as the game wore on—the room shushing instantly as each new commercial aired—Ashok Uncle & Bina Aunty’s dog Sergeant growing fatter by the minute as he vacuumed up dropped or neglected snacks.  Because, did I fail to mention?  There was always A LOT of food.  And you can, too.

margaritas & guacamole

Chex mix

spicy Buffalo shrimp

hummus

Mexican-style pork tenderloin sandwich

stuffed mushrooms

tortilla rolls

molasses cookies

lemon squares

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VEENA’S CHEX MIX

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

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

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

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

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

VEENA’S CHEX MIX

½ box each, corn & rice chex cereal

1 cup assorted nuts and/or pretzels

1 stick (½ cup) unsalted butter, melted

¼ cup Worcestershire sauce

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

1 tsp. each, salt & black pepper

oven: 235°

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

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

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

CARAMEL CORN

Various ways I know I got it right:

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

caramel corn

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

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

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

CARAMEL CORN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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