You were right about the peanut butter, Court. Now that I’ve made my own, I’m never going back.
Now we can add “homemade peanut butter” to a list of ways you’ve made my life better for the fifteen-plus years since we became friends as the two least-naturally-mathematically-gifted students in Mrs. Stemmler’s AP Calculus class. Though we’d gone to school together since middle school, it wasn’t until senior year that we saw the inside of each other’s houses for the first time, conducting epic study sessions fueled by plenty of Diet Coke. We worked our asses off that year and got to know each other better in the process; then we made 4s on the AP, and you’ve been one of the most important people in my life ever since.
I wish everyone could see you the way that I do, which is I guess why I’m writing this. What everyone surely sees, because it is impossible to miss, is how stunningly beautiful you are, a beauty enhanced by your humility and deep inner goodness. But what I have been privileged to see and come to know about you is how rigorously you carry yourself, the richness of your inner life, your faith, your desire to learn continually and grow your heart. Your passion for teaching and desire for justice, your willingness to be uncomfortable and listen to views that contradict yours—you cultivate these traits with such deliberateness and carry them with such grace.
Would that everyone be as lucky as I am to have someone like you, who listens to me without judgment and so consistently offers me your love, compassion, honesty, and respect. You have cheered me through every victory of the past fifteen years of my life, prayed with me through every worry, soothed my panic with on-the-fly parenting advice, and inspired me regularly by your example. You also once made me go to two spin classes in the same day and can run a faster mile when you’re five months pregnant than I can on my best day. That all might be annoying except that you manage to stay super down-to-earth, the kind of woman who brings a six-pack to dinner and plops onto the grass in ripped jeans.
We don’t have a lot of occasions, culturally, to celebrate our friendships the way we do our other relationships, and that’s a shame, because if we’re lucky, our friends serve as our witnesses and our teachers, collectors of past memories and cheerleaders for what’s to come. Having known us for so long, they can appreciate who we’ve become in a way that we sometimes ourselves miss. And it’s worth honoring, I think, the work that we do to maintain these friendships – letters and emails and text messages and plane flights and the rare opportunity to get drinks together, sans children, scheduled-ridiculously-far-in-advance.
Court, there’s a reason that The Eagles’ song “The Long Run” always makes me think of you. Because all the debutantes in Houston—or anywhere else, for that matter—really couldn’t hold a candle to you. I love you & I’m so grateful for your presence in my life. And also for peanut butter.
HOMEMADE PEANUT BUTTER
If you haven’t tried it yet, it’s so stupid-easy that I almost couldn’t believe it. This post from Green Kitchen Stories breaks it all down for you, but the shorthand of it is that I used my food processor, roasted peanuts from the bulk bin, and a little bit of salt. It took me about ten minutes, and the resultant PB has stayed creamy for over a week in the fridge—no separation, no hard-as-a-rock texture. Basically a revelation. I recommend it.
While I’m making recommendations, allow me to point your attention to this strawberry ginger punch from a few years back; made it recently with gin, and it was very well received. Perfect for your Memorial Day Weekend, perhaps? And while you’re buying basil for the punch, go ahead and make some of these lemon-lime basil shortbread cookies, too. You’re welcome.
I want to share this carrot top pesto idea (more of an idea than a recipe) with the world, because it’s been kind of revelatory in my house these last weeks, and I don’t want to let the fact that I don’t have anything revelatory to say keep me from doing so.
Today, we maintained the tradition we started after Shiv was born, of going to see our friends on their beautiful farm to celebrate the day, hiding cascarones and eating ham. I came home two nights ago from a five-day school trip, during which I got to hang out with wonderful colleagues and students, enjoy some gorgeous California weather and meaningful programming, and also, along with most of my colleagues and many students, got sick as a dog. The week before my trip was Spring Break, shared by me and Shiv, which meant lots of adventures and play dates and also the home project of moving Shiv into a new room, complete with new floors (done by Jill), walls painted the color of his choice (done by me), and big-boy bunk beds (because the toddler bed was no longer cutting it!).
And, somehow, it’s almost April.
I read Toni Morrison’s Beloved a few weeks ago, a book I can hardly believe I managed not to read until now, although a part of me knows I wouldn’t have gotten nearly as much out of it had it made its way into my life sooner. That novel is astonishing.
Right now, I’m enjoying Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire, which is my book club’s selection for this month, suggested by Jill, who read and loved it a few months ago; I was handed down a friend’s copy of The Girl on the Train, which everyone says I shouldn’t start until I’m in a position to be sucked in for a few days…I think I shall reserve it for this coming weekend, as a reward to myself for weathering the return back to school and the grading/planning/emailing/meeting that will accompany it.
The last person I spoke to on the phone is caring for a dying parent; the last person I received an email from is nearly 39 weeks pregnant, waiting for her first child to be born. Those are some appropriate bookends, seeing how it’s Easter and all.
CARROT TOP PESTO
Sometimes Jill comes home from class on Mondays with a big box filled with beautiful, homegrown veggies from her student Will, who just happens to be a very generous master gardener. Last time he sent some lovely carrots, and in my desire not to waste a single thing that he had grown and given, I decided it was the time to try carrot top pesto, which I’d heard of as an idea but never eaten. The result was so successful that I’ve made it twice since; neither time was it a precise, scientific endeavor, so what I’ll offer here is more method than recipe—but pesto is forgiving, and fiddle-able, so I hope you’ll still give it a go.
The first time I made this, I used a handful of basil leaves as the “accent” herb; tonight, I used flat-leaf parsley from the garden, because our basil is in sad-awful shape. Both ways were tasty, though I think I prefer the flavor the basil adds, if you have or can get some.
One last note about this method—the almond butter seems really weird, I know, but it TOTALLY WORKS. I saw the idea on The Faux Martha and decided to give it a whirl with the first batch of carrot top pesto I made a few weeks ago since, honestly, I wasn’t expecting it to be very good. Shows what I know, right? The almond butter adds body, creaminess, and, duh, nuttiness, and it’s genius because I always have a container of almond butter in the fridge, whereas pine nuts are so dang expensive that I never buy them. So—almond butter in your pesto, my new favorite kitchen hack.
greens from one bunch of carrots, blanched* (remove the leaves from the stems if you can, but don’t be too finicky about it)
a handful of basil, flat-leaf parsley, or another fresh herb of your choice
1-2 T almond butter (start with 1 T and judge as you go)
1-2 cloves garlic, depending on your preference
Parmesan, if you have it
Whir it all up in a food processor, tasting and adjusting for flavor/texture as you go. Some people like their pesto more runny, which means more olive oil. Some people prefer theirs more chunky, which means less olive oil. If you’re adding Parmesan, hold back on the salt.
Once prepared, the pesto will keep for about a week in the fridge, much longer in the freezer. We like to use it on pizzas, in lieu of sauce, or, our latest thing is dicing Yukon Golds, roasting them in the oven with olive oil & a little salt, then tossing them with the pesto when they come out of the oven. Pesto is also a friend of pasta, of course, either hot or cold!
*To blanch the carrot tops, wash them thoroughly first, removing any brown or yellow parts. Set a colander in the sink and a bowl half-full of ice water to the side of the sink. Bring salted water to boil in the pot of your choice (making sure you’ve got enough clearance that the water won’t spill over when you add the carrot tops). Once it’s boiling, use tongs to add the carrot tops, pushing the greens below the surface and allowing them to hang out in the water for a minute or two until they are bright green. When they’re ready, dump the greens out into the colander, then immediately plunge them into the ice water to keep them from cooking any further. At this point, you can dry and refrigerate the carrot tops to use later, or you can go ahead and make your pesto.
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.
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.
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!
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)
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!
“Attention is the purest form of generosity.” –Simone Weil
One of the things I feel like I know for sure about teaching is that what students want, almost more than they want anything else, is to be seen. Not as another teenage body in a chair, not as a type or known variable, not as a set of stories from teachers who’ve taught them before, not even as a set of strengths & weaknesses. They want to be seen, truly seen, for the more-than-the-sum-of-their-parts that they are, even they are simultaneously terrified of being seen this way, fully, all the way down to the bottom.
They, like all of us, long to be known. And attention is the beginning of knowing.
Sometimes I forget that attention can look a lot of different ways. As is often my tendency, I fall into the trap of thinking that I need to do attention the “right” way, or that if I can’t “fix” something, I shouldn’t even offer to help. But then I think about how attention gets paid to me: a colleague who heard I was at the doctor quietly checking in to see if everything was alright, Jill leaving a brand-new Carmex on my bedside when I had run out, Shiv noticing a Band-Aid on my toe and asking, “You hurt, Mama? You got a boo-boo? I kiss it.”
We think that attention is no big deal, but in a time when our attention is pulled daily, in a dozen different directions, when we struggle to pay attention to anything for more than twenty seconds at a time, real attention, true attentiveness, can be magic.
Magic like these counter-protesters, who showed up at Houston’s new Arabic Immersion School with signs and smiles to welcome children, the day after a dozen bigoted assholes had crashed the first day of school with their hatred and ignorance. What a powerful thing, to offer a different kind of attention. To say “We see you differently.” To say, “We see you for real.”
Of course, what we choose to pay attention to (or not to pay attention to) impacts us just as much. I have been trying to offer my attention to a more focused and limited number of people, projects, and concerns, to trim away those things that pulled my attention but didn’t offer me much in return. My hair no longer requires much attention from me, which is frankly so freeing that I wish I had shaved it all off sooner. My closet is filled only with clothes that fit me and that I enjoy wearing, which means a) fewer things in there and b) much less time spent managing wardrobe choices each morning. Our kitchen floor is never clean, but it’s clean enough. Our foyer still isn’t painted, still has the swatch of sample paint that I brushed into a square on one wall over a year ago, but you know what? It doesn’t need to be painted for me to welcome friends into my home, to light incense at the altar, or to play monsters/pirates/dinosaurs with my son. We cancelled our cable subscription. We say “no” to a lot of things, without feeling the need to offer some kind of reason. I leave much of the empty space on my calendar empty, which means that I have been able to do things like reach out and spend time with the friends whose attention does my heart good, to show up when a mom with an out-of-town spouse could use a couple hours of babysitting, or give a colleague in a tough situation a few hours of my listening. It means that when I come home from work, I can give my son my full attention, instead of my halfway. I can be present for and with my wife.
Of course, in order to give attention elsewhere, I have to give myself enough as well. There are three things that I know help me operate as smoothly as possible as a human being: meditation, exercise, and reading/writing. It may seem silly, but I’ve been using the Good Habits app for several months now, to track how often I’m doing each, and to hold myself accountable to the kind of “self-care” everyone seems to be buzzing about these days. In doing so, it’s become abundantly clear to me that my hardest, least-fun days are a direct result of me neglecting my own needs, and that it is really about making the time to meet those needs, not having the time. It all depends on what where we choose to give our attention.
This recipe was inspired by my friend, colleague, & kick-ass middle school History teacher, Lea. She, knowing that I adore cardamom and consider it the most majestic of all spices, mentioned that she had, this summer while in Boston, discovered a magical almond butter that contained both coconut & cardamom as well. Since said magical concoction is nowhere to be found down here in Houston and is not available for purchase online, when I saw a recipe for coconut-almond butter on Food52, I knew I had to try and see if I could replicate the good stuff that Lea spent the summer eating with a spoon.
Well, I think I did it, and I think I’ll be doing it again, because I’m somehow almost already through the first batch? You guys, if you are a fan of these flavors, you gotta make this stuff. IT IS MAGICALLY DELICIOUS. I love it on toast (with apple butter or sliced pear, as seen here) & swirled into oatmeal…I think it would also make some kick-ass cookies. And, provided you have a food processor, it’s really a snap to make.
2 cups raw almonds
1 cup unsweetened, shredded coconut
2-3 T coconut oil
2 ½ tsp. honey
1 tsp. ground cardamom (preferably freshly-ground)
A few pinches of sea salt
Toast the almonds first, in a 400° oven, on a baking sheet lined with parchment. Give them 8-10 minutes, until you can just smell them getting toasty and nutty. Pour them into a bowl immediately so they don’t get too dark.
On the same baking sheet, spread the coconut out and toast it for 2-3 minutes. It will get golden very quickly, so keep an eye on it. Pour the coconut into the same bowl as the almonds and let it all cool down before processing.
Add the sea salt to the almonds & coconut and process for 5-7 minutes, pausing to scrape down the sides every few minutes. You may find, like me, that your mixture is quite crumbly—if so, mix in softened coconut oil, one tablespoon at a time, until the desired consistency is reached. At the end of the mixing process, add in the honey and pulse just a few times to fully incorporate it.
Store in a sealed jar—mine has kept for a week with no problem, but if you’re going to keep the butter more long-term, stash it in the fridge—just know that it will get stiffer when it’s cold, and you may want to warm it up a bit before trying to spread it!
Last night I lay in bed trying to fall asleep but thinking instead about rockets falling in Gaza and the great luxury that it is to not live in fear the way that so many human beings on this planet do.
I keep thinking also about the bus loads of children and women showing up at our border and the people whose impulse is to stand there with signs and protest their presence, instead of offering them shelter and sympathy.
I thought about these things on Sunday, as Shiv fought off a little fever and wanted only to be in one of our arms, alternating naps on each of our chests while we snoozed with him or read, one-handed, the way we used to a long time ago, when he weighed a third of what he does now. As I often do, I think about the strange lottery of birth, the hand of circumstances that each of us are dealt and which determines so much about what is and isn’t available to us down the line.
I don’t really know what to say, except that I am really freaking tired of people who try to imply that those of us with the privilege of having first-world problems have done something to deserve or earn them, and that those who struggle with more have done—or worse, not done—something to deserve their fate. This mythology is so pervasive and so damaging that I’ve lost what little patience I might have once had for those who subscribe to it. It takes decency and courage to own up to the fact that we have no earthly idea how hard it is to walk around in someone else’s skin, but I think it is the absolute least we can do.
Sometimes the wisest thing a writer can say is that she has no idea what to say: no conclusions, no answers, no sense. That’s where I am today. But I do have a few things that might offer some meaning, the words and work of others:
Sister Norma, director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, was quoted a few weeks ago in TIME magazine as saying: “Jesus did not say, ‘I was hungry and you asked for my papers.’” You can make an online donation here to assist their refugee relief efforts.
(Non)Secular Girl took a blog break for the past year, to focus on book-writing and baby-making. Joyfully, both are in healthy stages of development and she is back with her smart, poignant weekly sermons that will slay you in the best possible way.
Alec Wilkinson has a piece in the August 4 issue of The New Yorker about poet Edward Hirsch’s forthcoming book-length poem, “Gabriel,” which is an elegy for his son, who died at age twenty-two. I am anticipating a September afternoon, after the book comes out, in which I read it all in one sitting, with tea or coffee to start, and bourbon to finish. (My friend Julie originally posted this, and I am grateful she did.)
This long read, Before You Know It, Something’s Over, captures, in perfect and sometimes painful detail, what it’s like to lose a parent young. Should you share that experience, or know someone who does, I recommend it. (Thanks to Jill for passing this along to me.)
Last but not least, the indomitable Anne Lamott, who somehow always knows what to say, even when the rest of us don’t, posted this status update yesterday. I’ve read it through about three times in twenty-four hours. (My dear friend Marynelle is responsible for sharing this one, because she is the best.)
And now, some food for the body.
THE DEFINITIVE GRANOLA RECIPE
I have abandoned my previous efforts at homemade granola in deference to this recipe–it is simple, it is perfect, it requires one bowl, and it is freaking good. I’ve made and gifted it to several folks and they’ve all, to a person, asked for the recipe, so I figured I needed to share. This is a barely-adapted version of Molly Wizenberg’s most recent granola recipe, so I can’t take any credit for it except for that I may now be disseminating it to folks who may not already know its glory.
In the original, Wizenberg measures her dry ingredients by weight, which allows for a wonderful flexibility and consistency, but in case you don’t have a kitchen scale, I’ve listed rough volume measurement equivalents.
I have halved her original recipe because the original just makes so damn much; I prefer this scaled-down version because cook it all on one baking sheet and still have enough granola to last us a good week with enough extra to pass along a few small jars to friends & neighbors. Of course, you can easily double the amounts I’ve listed here and end up with a very generous amount of granola, either to hoard in your pantry or share with all of your friends. Who will not mind, believe me.
300 g oats – approximately 3 ¼ cups
50 to 75 g unsweetened coconut flakes – approximately 1 to 1 ½ cups
200 g raw nuts or seeds of your choice (I like sliced almonds & pecan halves, but you can use whatever you prefer) – approximately 2 cups
1 tsp. Kosher salt (if substituting table salt, cut to ¾ tsp.)
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/3 cup olive oil
½ cup good-quality maple syrup (I love the organic maple syrup from Costco—affordable & very flavorful)
*pro-tip: if using a glass measuring cup, measure your olive oil in first, then the maple syrup—the sticky stuff will slide right out and make the measuring cup a lot easier to clean.
Preheat oven to 300°F & line a baking sheet with parchment.
Stir the dry ingredients together in a large bowl. Pour in wet ingredients and stir very, very thoroughly with a spatula, being sure to scrape the bottom and sides; you want to make sure all of the dry ingredients are coated with the wet, and that the liquid ingredients are distributed evenly throughout.
Turn the mixture out onto the parchment-lined baking sheet and spread it out evenly, pressing down to form a tight layer. Bake for approximately 30-40 minutes, checking on it a few times but leaving it alone. Remove from the oven when the coconut flakes have toasted and the whole mixture is a nice, light golden brown.
Cool on a rack completely before breaking the granola into clumps and storing in airtight containers. You’ll get crisper, tighter clusters if you wait until it’s truly cooled down before messing with it, but you can always snag an initial snack bowl for yourself (or for your two-year-old son, say).
I love this granola the most when it’s atop a bowl of plain yogurt & sliced summer fruit—peaches and blueberries in particular, as pictured here—but plenty of my friends prefer it plain, or swimming in a bowl of milk.
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.
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.
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.
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 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
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.
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.
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
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.
Is it just me, or is there a lot of competitive holiday-ing going on out there?
Don’t get me wrong, I love Pinterest and food/style blogs and Instagram and gift guides as much as the next girl, but sometimes I think that all of this display can mess with our heads. Maybe it’s not meant to be competitive, but when everyone else’s life appears to be perfectly packaged, in cute recycled cardboard boxes festooned with washi tape and organic baker’s twice, then photographed using the perfect vintage filter, it’s easy to feel like your life doesn’t measure up.
This is not what the holidays are about.
The holidays are not a competitive sport. They are not meant for comparing your life (or holiday card or wrapping job or homemade toffee) to everyone else’s. They are not about feeling obligated to whip up magazine-page-worthy meals from scratch or addressing your custom typography/photo collage holiday cards in metallic pen calligraphy or making sure that your tree ornaments are all in the same color family or festooning your mantle and door with homemade decorations from pine boughs you chopped yourself.
You don’t have to host the most charming holiday party or have just the right present picked out for everyone. If you don’t do these things, the holidays will go on, and they will not lose any of their real meaning.
I’m all for making this time of year special, but when we make it so damn significant that every inch of it is up for inspection and ornamentation, we’ve defeated the point.
HOMEMADE CRYSTALLIZED GINGER
Okay, it may seem totally hypocritical that I waxed on about resisting the holiday pressure to do it all and now I’m offering you a recipe for making your own crystallized ginger. I know, I KNOW.
Please know I’m not implying that you ought to be making your own crystallized ginger, just that you can make it at home should you be planning to do some holiday baking or would like to give some away as gifts. But if you care not for the stuff or can’t be bothered to do one more damn thing right now, then ignore me.
2 cups water
2 cups sugar
2 cups fresh ginger, peeled and cut into 1/8” strips or coins
Bring the water and sugar to a boil over high heat, then add the ginger pieces. Reduce the heat to medium and continue to boil the mixture until the ginger becomes translucent, 25-30 minutes.
Using a slotted spoon or strainer, transfer the ginger pieces to a drying rack set over a cookie sheet (to keep drips off of your counter). Allow the ginger to cool and dry for half an hour before rolling the pieces in granulated sugar. In the meantime, reduce the leftover liquid down until you have yourself a nice ginger syrup (perfect in tea or cocktails!)
Return the sugared ginger to a clean rack and allow the pieces to dry out thoroughly before storing them in an airtight container. The finished crystallized should no longer feel tacky and should “ping” when you drop the pieces into a jar.
Looking for a recipe to use your ginger in? These ginger-macadamia nut cookies are a favorite.
YOU GUYS. Thanksgiving is next week. When the hell did that happen?
Seriously, I swear the holiday has snuck up on me this year (you too, perhaps?), but this is kind of a good thing. It means, much like having only sixteen days notice to get ready for a baby, that I can’t overcomplicate things too much. I can not plan my many plans. I can’t over-think and re-think the menu, making things less fun and more fussy. I can’t go overboard.
I know that “overboard” is normally what Thanksgiving is about, but this year I’m aiming for right at or above board instead. I’ve got a turkey in the freezer, and I plan to try brining him (a first) before letting Jill roast him (she’s the expert in our house). I’ve made the cranberry sauce you see here, and my mom and I are both craving pecan pie, so that’s on the docket.
Jill will probably whip up some of her famous deviled eggs, and I loved my friend Rebecca’s grandmother’s dinner rolls so much last year that I think I will have to make them again. Mom makes a killer vegetarian dressing. Throw in a couple of vegetables—butternut squash? green beans? beets? (I’m totally open to suggestions here)—and I think we will call it a day.
This year, I’m leaving the perfectly coordinated, picture-perfect, show-stopping Thanksgiving to someone else. And for that, I feel truly grateful.
HOMEMADE CRANBERRY SAUCE
This cranberry sauce has the texture of a loose jelly and a very bright, sweet-tart cranberry flavor. It’s dead simple to make and is a lovely addition to the Thanksgiving meal as well as to leftover turkey sandwiches (especially when paired with mayonnaise!).
I use port in my sauce, but you can substitute red wine, or even water. Keeps very well in the fridge, so it’s great for making ahead of time.
1 (12 oz) bag cranberries
zest of 1 navel orange
juice from half of the orange (approximately 1/8 cup)
¾ cup water
¾ cup sugar
¼ cup port*
Combine all ingredients in a deep saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook over medium heat for 15-20 minutes, stirring regularly. As the sauce cooks, the cranberries will burst and break down, so I like to keep a lid partially covering the pan, to prevent splatter.
The sauce is ready when it has reduced by almost half and is quite thick in texture, sticking a little as it pulls away from the side of the saucepan while you stir. Cool completely, then refrigerate before serving.
*If you’re feeling boozy, you can bump this amount up to ½ cup & drop the water down to ½ cup. Any proportion will work as long as you end up with 1 cup of liquid total, plus the orange juice.
Along with cranberry sauce, here are some other ideas for your Thanksgiving table:
Currently in my house: baby asleep, Jill working on her laptop on the couch next to me, and my mom rustling around in the guest bedroom.
My mom is here because my mom LIVES here. Well, not in this house (that’s temporary until the moving truck with all of her stuff comes next week), but in this town. In our neighborhood, in fact. Less than two miles from our house!
This has been the season of major life transitions for the Mehra women; I became a working mom, she became a retired grandmother. And we both said goodbye to the house I grew up in, the house where we last spent time with my father, the house with the yard my mother spent hundreds of hours in over the years, gardening like a crazy woman—the very same yard in which my friends and I played-pretend and climbed the side-yard fence, even though we weren’t supposed to.
I am thrilled, of course, that my mom is here, that I get to see her every day, that she gets to see her grandson every day, that we are no longer separated by hundreds of miles. I am eager to recreate our relationship in this new context and build a whole separate set of memories and traditions as a family. But even with all of the joy, I can’t help but feel sad at the ending of an era. I will miss that house; I will miss my regular trips to Memphis. I miss my father, always.
Nostalgia can be a trap, I know, and I don’t want to get caught in it. My memory dances around how things used to be and my imagination wonders how things will be; maybe I should work on just being here with what is happening right now: my three favorite people in the world are together under one roof. Right now, I am a very lucky so-and-so.
RAS EL HANOUT RECIPE
recipe from Cook Almost Anything
When I came across this recipe, I was excited to give it a try; I have a bit of a fascination with Morocco and Moroccan food. I had seen several recipes calling for ras el hanout (including the one below), and had assumed that the spice blend would be difficult to come by or make. As it turns out, I already had the requisite ingredients on hand but had never combined them in this particular way.
The resulting blend was incredibly aromatic without being overpowering or too heady. I think it would make a wonderful rub for grilled meat, and plan to employ it again with other roasted vegetables. As with all spice blends, feel free to tailor to suit your tastes.
Morocco is at the top of my travel bucket list, but for now I may have to settle for channeling its smells with the little jar of ras el hanout that lives in my spice cabinet!
2 teaspoons coriander seeds
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon cardamom seeds
½ teaspoon fennel seeds
½ teaspoon black peppercorns
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon cayenne
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon salt
Over medium-low heat, toast the seeds and peppercorns in a frying pan. Give them about 3-4 minutes, or until they smell deeply fragrant, jiggling the pan occasionally to prevent scorching. Cool, then combine with the rest of the ingredients in a spice grinder and process until smooth.
Yields a little less than a quarter cup; store in an airtight container in cool, dry place.
MOROCCAN CHICKPEAS & ROASTED VEGETABLES
adapted from Gourmet, May 2008
I wish I had a photograph to show you of this lovely, hearty dish, but my computer seems to have eaten the shots that Sonya took for me about a month ago. Seriously, no idea where they went. And she is currently on vacation in Belize, where I am not going to bother her. So please use your imagination on this one! It was delicious.
The original recipe called for zucchini and carrots instead of butternut squash, so feel free to change up the vegetables used here.
½ head cauliflower, cut into 1-inch florets
½ large or 1 small butternut squash, peeled, seeded, & cut into 1-inch cubes
1 fennel bulb (reserve stalks for another use), cored and cut into ½-inch wedges
1 large red onion, peeled & cut into 1-inch chunks
3 garlic cloves, very thinly sliced lengthwise
1 15-oz. can diced tomatoes
2 cups cooked chickpeas*
½ cup dried Turkish apricots, halved
1 cinnamon stick
2 tsp. ras-el-hanout
1 tsp. honey
¾ tsp. red-pepper flakes
garnish: ¼ cup chopped cilantro, sliced/chopped almonds
serve with: cooked barley or quinoa
Preheat the oven to 400°. Toss the cauliflower, fennel, butternut squash, & onion with generous amounts of olive oil and the ras-el-hanout. Transfer the vegetables to a shallow, foil-lined baking dish or casserole and sprinkle with salt. Roast until they are tender and just beginning to brown, approximately 25-35 minutes.
Once the vegetables have cooked, heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in your biggest skillet and add the garlic, cooking to infuse the oil with flavor. Add the apricots, cinnamon stick, and red-pepper flakes, cooking until fragrant. Pour in the tomatoes with their juice, then fill the empty can with water and add that along with the chickpeas and honey.
Spoon the roasted vegetables into the mixture and gently stir everything to combine. Simmer until the liquid has reduced a bit, about 5 minutes. Check for salt and add as needed. Serve.
*I soaked & cooked dried chickpeas for this dish, instead of using canned–it’s super-easy to do and produces a wonderfully creamy texture. Cheap, too!
Weekends are for projects.
You know, tackling the things you just haven’t felt up to tackling during the week, starting something you need several hours to finish, cooking something unhurriedly, collaborating, sorting, organizing, repairing. Recent and upcoming projects in our household include: dealing with papers that have been piling up on desks, putting in our fall garden, sorting through baby clothes and weeding out the ones he’s already too big for, researching replacement options for the kitchen tile we despise, making the final edits on a book manuscript (!), and taking really long, decadent naps while the baby naps (sometimes the most exciting project of all, not going to lie.)
Applesauce can be a project, too. It’s dead simple once you’ve got all of your ingredients prepped, and even the work of peeling & chopping several pounds of apples can become meditative and kind of comforting in its repetitive rhythm. Also, homemade applesauce is one of the more delicious weekend projects you can undertake; nothing better than a project that’s edible AND makes the house smell good.
What project(s) do you have on deck this weekend?
HOMEMADE APPLESAUCE RECIPE
My favorite way to eat this applesauce is warmed up, in a bowl, with a big dollop of cold, plain yogurt on top. Sounds weird, but it’s delicious. Try it!
Besides eating it, you can also use this applesauce for baking, subbing it in for cooking oil in quick breads and muffins.
approximately 4 lb. apples (I used a combination of Jonagold, McIntosh, & Granny Smith)
2 cinnamon sticks
4 whole cloves
1 star anise pod
¼ cup brown sugar
5 strips lemon peel
juice of one lemon
Peel, core, & chop the apples. Combine with the remaining ingredients in large Dutch oven or similar pot. Cook over medium low heat, stirring occasionally, until the apples begin to break down and turn soft. For me, this took about 45 minutes.
Remove the cinnamon sticks, cloves, star anise, & lemon peel; taste the applesauce. Add more lemon juice if it seems flat, more sugar if you’d like it sweeter. As for texture, I prefer my applesauce a bit chunky, so just stirring mine worked, but you may want to press yours through a sieve or put it through a food mill once it cools.
Keeps in a jar in the refrigerator for a few weeks.