CHEDDAR COINS OF CHEESY GOODNESS

My friend Coco is amazing.  She’s going to blush when she reads this, one of her many endearing quirks.  She will say, “I am not amazing, I’m just me!”  But that’s how it is with the people we love; they amaze us simply by being themselves.

Courtney is many things: the English department chair at my school, a passionate, gifted teacher, a non-cutesy crafter, a baker and a cook, the mother of the cutest dachshund in the world, a voraciously intelligent nerd.  She is married to a very tall cycling enthusiast named John, for whom I will be making this blackberry-upside-down-cake many times this summer, because it’s his favorite.

She has an unabashed laugh, a mama who makes a mean gumbo, and some beautiful, literary tattoos: Whitman on her wrists—Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes—and when she finished her rather brilliant Master’s thesis on Joyce’s Ulysses (who voluntarily writes a thesis on Ulysses? Coco does.), she had the book’s final line, “Yes I said yes I will yes” inked on her pale inner arm in a curling, celebratory script.

If you are like me, you look back through the catalogue of your friendships and relationships and see each one banded with a distinct hue, like library bindings or an email inbox.  The timing and the circumstances lend a particular flavor to each.   We can’t help but associate others with the ways we ourselves have changed in their sight, the life events they watched us navigate, time passed with each other.

And then, because we cannot separate out what course our life might have taken without the particular influence of say, a Courtney, the edges and the colors start to bleed and the narrative shifts.  We become new through them.

I realized today that my impulse to act like I always, totally have my shit together has waned, that I am more willing to ask for help than ever before, and that’s probably due to the fact that my friend Coco is willing to march past any protest and call BS on my “I’ve got it” act and just start washing dishes in my kitchen.  She picks up the heavy things that I’m not supposed to, takes it upon herself to buy beautiful plates, platters, & bowls for this blog, buys me iced coffee, and talks me back to myself time and time again.

It has taken some time, and a friend with untiring generosity, for me to realize that what’s happening over there is exactly what’s happening over here.  Courtney has managed to convince me that what she loves about me is me—because she is, quite frankly, exactly what I love about her.

CHEDDAR COINS OF CHEESY GOODNESS

This is a recipe Coco discovered and adapted from Epicurious about a year ago, and it has become one of her signature—and winning—baked goods.  The name, of course, is our addition, but one taste and you will agree, “cheddar coins of cheesy goodness” is exactly what they should be called.

Don’t feel limited by their nickname, though; while sharp, aged cheddar works extremely well here, so do Dubliner and double Gloucester.  Any hard, distinctly flavored cheese would fit the bill.

Paired with sliced apples and salami, plus the beer or wine of your choice, these babies will disappear fast.

ingredients:

½ cup unsalted butter, softened
8 oz. extra-sharp cheddar or cheese of your choice, finely grated
1 cup flour
½ tsp. salt
generous grinds of black pepper
(optional) pinch of cayenne pepper

oven: 350˚
pan: two baking sheets lined with parchment

In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat together the butter & seasonings before adding the cheddar and flour.  Mix on low until just combined—do not overmix!

Courtney’s tip: turn the mixture into the middle of a large piece of plastic wrap.  Fold the wrap in half over the dough and twist the ends like a Tootsie Roll to form a manageable log of dough.  Chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

Slice the chilled dough into ¼-inch rounds (thinner if you’d like them to be more crisp).  Arrange on baking sheets and bake until they just brown at the edges, 10-15 minutes.  Cool on racks before serving warm, or cool completely and store in an airtight container.

GRILLED HALLOUMI

What do great cooks, teachers, & writers all have in common?  They’re thieves.


Intellectual borrowers, if you will.  We can’t help it, right?  If your senses are trained within a particular context—to notice flavors, say, or word choice—you are bound to absorb, like a sponge, the methods and ideas all around you.

This is a good thing.  It cracks your life wide open to a world of possible muses; you never know where or when or by whom you’ll be inspired.  As with, for instance, today’s dish.

In graduate school, I didn’t do a lot of eating out.  I was watching my pennies, as most graduate students are, and given that I had lots of time at home for writing, I found myself in the kitchen a great deal, stirring away at a pot of something while simultaneously working out an essay in my head.  However, often it was essential to leave one’s apartment or house for the communal sanctuary of a coffee house or a café with cheap enough fare and an inclination NOT to kick lingering students out.

At one such café on Fourth Avenue, the main drag of Tucson’s university area, I discovered an intriguing sandwich made with grilled halloumi cheese.  For one thing, I had never heard of halloumi before and I sure did like the way it sounded:

Hallooooooumi!
Hallooooooumi!

It’s like a friendly greeting, only it’s actually a type of cheese, made from sheep’s milk in places like Greece & Cyprus (they got a lot of sheep there, far as I can tell).

But here’s the kicker: YOU CAN GRILL IT.  YOU CAN GRILL THE CHEESE.

See?  Yeah, it’s pretty tasty stuff—develops a lovely crust on the outside which gives way to chewy, tangy goodness on the inside.  You can understand how this inspired me, right?

This is what I came up with: naan or pita bread smeared with sweet mango chutney (yes, the jarred kind—let’s keep this simple, folks!), topped with a warm piece of grilled halloumi, garnished with slow-cooked red onions and fresh cilantro.

Sounds fancy, don’t it?  I’ve been serving my newbestfriendforever halloumi at the last few Diwali parties we’ve thrown and it has proven to be a real crowd pleaser, people rushing to their spouses, “You’ve gotta try this!”  It’s festive, unusual, and no one will guess that it wasn’t actually that hard to make.

GRILLED HALLOUMI

Halloumi’s becoming more and more popular, however it still isn’t carried by most “mainstream” grocers.  Check Whole Foods or another specialty store, the safest bet being a Middle Eastern purveyor.

The flavors of this appetizer will also work for a light dinner or lunch—just sandwich bigger pieces of cheese inside a pita or wrap them up with fresh naan.  Be sure to throw in the onions, cilantro, & chutney, too!

ingredients:

naan or pita bread
1 package halloumi, drained & patted dry
1 red onion
1 jar sweet mango chutney
cilantro
olive oil
butter

do ahead:

Caramelize the onions.  First, peel the onion & slice it thinly.  In a very heavy pot fitted with a lid, heat 1 T butter & 2 T olive oil over medium heat.  Sauté the onions gently until they become translucent, then turn the heat down to low.

Cook for about forty minutes with the lid on, stirring regularly until the onions are brown, almost disintegrated, like an onion marmalade.

assemble:

If you’d like to go the super-fancy route, make rounds from your bread using a biscuit or cookie cutter.  If there’s no need to be super-fancy, just cut the bread into about 2-inch wedges.  Slather a generous amount of chutney on each piece of bread.

Heat a grill pan over medium-high, coat with olive oil.  If you don’t have a grill pan, don’t worry, the halloumi will taste just as good, but it won’t have fancy grill-marks, and those are kind of fun.

Slice the halloumi a half-inch thick.  When your pan is quite hot (but not smoking!), grill the cheese in batches, cooking until golden brown on both sides, between 8-10 minutes total.

The halloumi is best when it’s at least warm, if not hot, so cut the pieces carefully to fit on your bread.  If you’re doing this process in anticipation of a slew of guests, you can keep the grilled halloumi warm in a low oven.  Don’t leave it too long, though!  It tastes much better freshly cooked.

Place a piece of halloumi on top of each bread round or wedge.  Top with a teaspoon-sized heap of caramelized onion, then garnish with fresh cilantro.

MARINATED CHEESE

This blog post is very late, but there are two good reasons why: the opera & Dolly.

marinated cheese ready

Jill and I just came home from witnessing a marathon performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin which was, unlike many things my students use the descriptor “epic” for, actually EPIC.  Mysterious heroes, accusations of murder, true love, witchcraft, war, revenge, heartbreak, you name it, it’s in there.

I went to the opera for the first time as a high school senior—why, I actually can’t remember (the two competing stories are: won tickets in a raffle or went to fulfill a performance-viewing requirement for my Humanities class), but seeing La Traviata is something I will never forget.  From that night on, I was hooked.

Opera’s appeal is lost on many.  Especially in a culture that places an inordinate emphasis on art needing to reflect “reality” and blurring the boundaries between those two things, the suspension of disbelief that opera requires can feel like too big of a gap to bridge.

But here’s the thing: it turns out human beings still need a grand gesture every once in a while.  We need to get lost in something, to virtually drown in a darkened theatre, cozied up to by the swell of strings, the shatter of voices, the collective gasp of the audience when we realize that the lovers before us are doomed.  We like being made to feel big, ridiculous emotions even though it’s passé to articulate those things anymore.

cheese marinade

Our most intimate concerns on the grandest of stages.  Performances that transcend what most of our bodies can and can’t do.  Myth over reality.  Sometimes I think we need a dose of that, and I’m very grateful I was able to get it tonight.

And to come home to this:

dolly

Say hello to Dolly, our new girl.  She is an old rat terrier whom we adopted via Ratbone Rescues (THE NICEST people) and flew down from Portland just yesterday.  Can I just tell you, this dog was meant to live with us?  I’ve never met a sweetier lap dog who is, at the same time, obsessed with her squeaky toy and impossible to beat in tug-of-war.  Last night she slept under the covers in our bed and cuddled up to me this morning, making it nearly impossible to get up and go to work.  I’m in love.

Needless to say, we’ve been a bit all over the place the last few days, but rest assured I have a wonderful recipe for you today, elegant enough for the opera and also Dolly-friendly (she’s a terrible beggar for cheese).

MARINATED CHEESE

This appetizer looks much more labor-intensive than it actually is, making it ideal for dinner parties or the holidays.  Of course, you can make as much or as little as you like, so don’t rule it out as an “at home” dish, either.

If you celebrate Christmas, you can make this dish especially festive by adding chopped red pimentos to complement the green onions.

served up marinated cheese
marinade ingredients:

½ cup olive oil
½ cup white wine vinegar*
¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped
¼ cup chopped green onions (scallions)
2 cloves garlic, minced
salt & pepper

optional: 1 tsp. lemon zest

cheese:

Any mild-flavored cheese will work, but I like the combinations of white & yellow cheddars or yellow cheddar with cream cheese.  If you’re using cream cheese, it becomes much easier to cut if you throw it in the freezer for a few minutes.

Cut the cheeses into slices (taking into account the size of the cracker you’ll be serving it with).  Arrange the cheese in a shallow dish, alternating the colors or arranging them into a design of your choice.

Place all marinade ingredients in a jar, tighten the lid, & shake vigorously.  Pour the marinade over the cheese, cover the dish with plastic wrap & refrigerate for at least an hour, up to 6.  Serve with crackers—we’re really loving this brand right now.

*If you can splurge on a higher-end bottle, do.

eaten cheese

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ROASTED BEET SALAD

[A quick note: Anders, our fine sommelier, had hoped to bring us Part II of his Wine Tasting Basics today, but due to travel & time constraints, I’m afraid we’ll have to anticipate his return for one more week.  In the meantime, roast some beets!]

beet tops 2

The people we love come with us.  They show up in the form of a borrowed word or phrase, an acquired habit, or an inside joke.

File respectively under:
-my photographer Sonya and the adjective “junky,”
-my new bff Coco who’s given me her oh-so-satisfying “Okay then!,”
-my Hindu mother who went to parochial schools in India and the fact that I cross myself when an ambulance drives by,
-my college roommate Rebecca’s many nicknames for me, including “Furlybum”  and “Mighty Mighty OJ.”  (Don’t ask because I’m not really sure I can explain.)

Even beyond the silly, surface ways, our relationships change us, hopefully for the better.  I like to think that the measure of a healthy partnership of any kind is knowing that you are an improved, fuller version of yourself in the context of that related space, and that the other person enjoys the same benefit as well.

I can identify dozens of things that are different about me since I first met Jill seven-and-a-half years ago.  Some are direct descendants of her habits & quirks, others have come more obliquely as I’ve grown in relationship with her, but I am grateful for all of them.

Witnessing her deep patience has allowed me to slow down a bit in my own life; I’m able to sit out in the backyard for a while and be still, be quiet.  My appreciation of animals, the two cats and dog in our house, the birds we feed in the back, even the little lizards who greet me on the gutter drain in the mornings, have all swelled by observing her.

When I look in the mirror now, I see through a lens tainted by her bias, which is a much more flattering light than I used to put myself in.  I really like the person I am, and I wouldn’t be that person without Jill.   She has converted me to the cult of football, transferred over her cinematic obsessions with Greta Garbo & Meryl Streep, and all-in-all brought out the very best parts of myself by cheering, supporting, & loving me fiercely.  And what have I done for her?

I got her to love beets, of course.

beets, pecans, & feta 2

Jill was a total beet skeptic before I made this salad, but it had such an impression on her that she planted beets in our garden soon afterwards.  Even if you don’t grow them on your own, consider adding fresh beets to your fall staples.  They’re usually not so expensive, keep in the fridge forever, and roast up so easily, I’m going to call them foolproof.

Serve this salad over lettuce or on its own, and feel free to tinker with the ingredients—adding dried cherries or cranberries, switching out the nuts, etc.  Come to think of it, this mixture would go nicely over a bed of couscous or quinoa, too!

ROASTED BEET SALAD

ingredients: finished beet salad

beets
feta cheese
pecans, toasted & chopped
thyme, fresh or dried (optional)
olive oil
salt  & pepper

oven: preheat to 425

Cut the tops & bottoms off of the beets.  [If you like, save the beet greens to wilt down in a pan with a little olive oil & garlic—yum!]  Dice into pieces that are roughly the same size and easy to eat.

Transfer the beets to a roasting pan or baking dish.  Drizzle generously with olive oil, then season with salt, pepper, & a few sprinklings of thyme.  Toss to coat, then roast in the oven for 15-20 minutes, until the beets give when nudged with a fork (if you like yours softer, roast longer).

Let the beets cool a bit but not too long before combining with crumbled feta and pecans.  Serve on its own or over lettuce, spinach, greens.  If the latter, I recommend making your own quick vinaigrette with balsamic vinegar & some olive oil.  (I’m especially partial to a fig-infused balsamic, which complements the flavor of the beets perfectly).

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BRIE-STUFFED APRICOTS

School started this week, and I’m afraid I can’t really hold a coherent thought in my head at this moment.  Therefore, this has become the post of miscellany.

apricots on green platter

Observe:

a)    Each year, I create a “Word Tree” with my students on the back wall of my room.  Students are asked to choose words in any language that appeal to them because of what they mean or how they sound.  In past years, I have had words in Hebrew, Hindi, Spanish, Polish, Latin, German, & Portuguese—and English words ranging from “indignant” to “giggly” to “ineluctable” to “satiate.”  My students always manage to impress me and get themselves excited about words, which is pretty cool, no?

Since I always ask my colleagues, friends, and family to contribute words to the word tree, I’d like, this year, to ask you, lovely blog readers, to throw out some of your favorite words.  Remember, any word, any language, because you love what it means or how it sounds.  Share away!  I’ll add you to the tree next week.

b)     Speaking of words, I’m obsessed with the Online Etymology Dictionary.  It’s been fun for my students and me to discover where words come from, like “miscellany,” which comes from the Latin miscere, meaning “to mix,” and “lollapalooza,” descending from lallapalootza in an unspecified American Indian language, meaning “remarkable person or thing.” (One of my students totally brought this word in; have I mentioned I love my students?)

c)    There’s a very cool jewelry artist here in Houston named Melissa Borrell who makes really lovely, unusual pendants, earrings, and other decorative works.  The thing is, she’s not going to be in Houston long and her moving means there are a bunch of fantastic pieces on sale.

d)    Next week, our super-cute-and-knowledgeable sommelier returns with a post on Wine Tasting Basics!

e)    I have three, long, hand-written letters from three fantastic friends to respond to this weekend.  Damn, I’m a lucky girl.

f)    You never thought I’d get to the food, did you?  Well, it’s a little bit miscellaneous, too.  The inspiration came from one of the many receptions/dinners/galas that we have been to in the last handful of years on account of Jill’s work.  Some are really fun, some are really boring, but since I always enjoy getting dressed up and eating free food, I’m a pretty easy spouse to drag to said events.

At some point, I filed this idea away in my brain; the original was stuffed with cream cheese, but I thought surely we could get a little bit more exciting?  I tested brie-stuffed and mascarpone-stuffed versions on a crowd a few weekends ago, and the brie was the clear favorite, though there was a minority of guests who are not stinky-cheese fans and therefore found the mascarpone more palatable.  You should know, though, that all of the little apricots disappeared in a flash; I had to pry them away so they could be photographed!

I think these would be lovely as part of an hors d’oeuvres spread, or with a cheese course or dessert assortment or just simply paired with a bottle of crisp white to start a meal.  Probably you fine people out there have further ideas for cheeses that would work, so feel free to leave suggestions along with your Word Tree Words—ooh!  We could have a whole “cheese” section of the tree!  Havarti and Jarlsberg and Chevre all hanging together in perfect harmony.

See how my brain is wired for miscellany these days?  I’m off to teach some renegade eighth graders, and in the meantime I leave you with a very elegant but simple-to-assemble canapé which I hope will serve you well.

BRIE-STUFFED APRICOTS

jumbo dried apricots (test these for springy-ness before buying; overly dry fruit will not stuff well)

small wedge Brie cheese, softened at room temp apricots up close

good-quality honey

toasted almonds, thinly sliced

Using a small, sharp paring knife, slit the apricot around its curve, working the knife into the meat of the fruit to form a pocket.  Be careful not to cut all the way around, just about a half-moon shape is enough.  Repeat with desired number of apricots—I think I did twenty-four.

Use a small spoon (my grapefruit spoon worked well) to stuff about a ½ tsp of Brie into each apricot.  Don’t worry if a little bit is showing, I think it’s nice to give diners an idea of what they’re eating and the two colors look lovely in contrast.

Drizzle the platter of apricots with a gentle rain of honey, either squeezing from the bottle or warming a bit in the microwave and then zig-zagging a spoonful over the fruit.

Dot the top of each apricot with an almond slice.  And I’ve gotta quote Julia here, ubiquitous as she may be it’s for a reason, Bon Appétit!

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LEAH’S STRAWBERRY SALAD

strawberry salad

I was so nervous to meet Leah. She was the “best friend who came before” of my closest graduate school friend, Arianne. You’ve been there, right? There’s a new awesome person in your life and now, someone from their “old life” is coming into town to visit? They’ve got more history with your new awesome person than you do—a decade’s worth or more of memories, incriminating stories, photographs of old haircuts, mix tapes, the works. Not to mention, I had heard a million stories about Leah—she was confident, fearless, a foodie, a talented seamstress, and a firefighter to boot. Like, the kind that flies around in helicopters fighting forest fires.

You could say I was a little intimidated.

Of course, I shouldn’t have been worried. Although Leah’s list of dazzling attributes only grew after meeting her in person, among those attributes is “totally approachable.” The three of us had a blast together laughing, cooking, dancing, talking–plenty of friendship & good feeling to go around. And I learned another important thing about Leah: if she were a character in a Homeric epic, “maker of beautiful salads” would be her epithet:

(I'm afraid it's not a fancy Sonya picture; I took this one myself!)

(I'm afraid it's not a fancy Sonya picture; I took this one myself!)

While I’m good at making things yummy, I’m not always good at making them look pretty. Leah is one of those people who seems to do both effortlessly, and I strive to be like her someday. That’s why this salad is dedicated to her, to Arianne, and to those lovely occasions where your new friends and old friends get along swell.

LEAH’S STRAWBERRY SALAD strawberry salad 2
adapted from Food to Live By: The Earthbound Farm Organic Cookbook
serves 4

This salad is elegant and lovely, even if you can’t make it into a work of art! A great choice for summer, as it pairs perfectly with grilled meat. In the winter, I swap cranberries & Bosc pairs for the strawberries and use a store-bought, fig-flavored balsamic for the dressing.

In the summer, the “trick” is that you infuse your own balsamic using a few strawberries to impart flavor. Do this step as far ahead of time as you can and throw the rest of the salad together just before serving.

Now, blue cheese may make some of you nervous; I know it’s not for everyone. If you absolutely can’t stomach it, substitute crumbled feta or small cubes of a really sharp cheddar. You really want a strong cheese to stand up to the sweetness of the berries & the tartness of the balsamic.

for the salad:

1 bunch spinach or lettuce, washed, dried, & torn into small pieces
1 pint strawberries (approx. 12-15), sliced
½ cup blue cheese, crumbled (less or more if you like)
½ cup candied pecans, chopped (substitute plain or toasted pecans)

Prepare the vinaigrette before assembling salad:

4 T balsamic vinegar (good quality)
2-3 strawberries
¼- ½ cup olive oil, depending on how oily you like your dressing
salt & pepper
macerating strawberries
Remove green tops from the strawberries and chop them roughly. Place into a small bowl along with the balsamic. Press down with a fork or the back of the spoon to help release the strawberry flavor. Let the mixture sit, on room temperature, for at least an hour.

Assemble the salad. When ready to serve, carefully discard strawberries from balsamic mixture (if you’re willing to invest in a bit more effort, you can blend the berries and balsamic together). Drizzle olive oil in slowly while whisking (or blending) constantly. Add salt & pepper to taste; whisk to combine. Dress the salad and enjoy!

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