TOMATO-CORN PIE

I’m from the South.  I’m a Southern girl.

I love this song like I love a biscuit crust.  It’s the soundtrack for today’s post.

Check my Southern-fried style
And my Southern flow

(Southern girl)

I share my life with another Southern girl—and if you missed her beautiful okra post from last week, I dare you not to fall in love with her fried & pickled versions.  Jill and I both have a sense of what it means to be a badass Southern woman, banging around in kitchen, with a cast-iron skillet and a will to match.  We model our vision on our mothers, her father’s sisters, women I knew in my Memphis childhood.

They are brash and busy and hilarious.  They do not coddle, or mince words.  Their praise does not come easily, making it even more valuable. They look as good in hunting cammo as they do in cocktail dresses.  They can be as frightening as they can be gracious.  Their respect, once lost, is difficult to earn back.  They are loyal and they don’t take any shit.  They cook everything well.

Southern Girl, and I’ll rock your world
Fly as a bumble bee
Can’t nobody f*** with me

Man, I sure hope I’m worthy of a lyric like that someday.

TOMATO – CORN PIE
adapted from Gourmet

This recipe made the internet rounds last summer, but you might have missed it.  AND THAT WOULD BE A SHAME.  Because this pie is crazy-delicious.  A wee bit time consuming but not all that difficult to put together.  And totally worth it.

While you’re going through the trouble, I highly recommend making two pies, so you can eat one and gift the other to some lucky soul.  Know any new parents?  Grieving friends?  Vegetarians?  Coworkers who can’t cook to save their life?  They’ll love you forever if you give them one of these.

for the filling:

1 ½ cups sharp cheddar cheese, grated

½ cup mayonnaise, with the juice of 1 lemon stirred in

4 large summer tomatoes, diced & squeezed gently to release seeds and juices

2 ears corn, kernels cut off the cob

handful of basil, chopped

palm-full of chives, chopped

salt & pepper

Combine the tomatoes, corn, herbs, salt, & pepper in a bowl.  Toss gently and set aside.

for the crust:

2 cups flour

¾ cup buttermilk (regular milk will work, too)

6 T unsalted butter, cut into small cubes

1 T baking powder

¾ tsp. salt

Whisk together the dry ingredients, then cut in the butter with your fingers, pressing and crumbling until the mixture looks like a cross between gravel & sand.  Pour in the milk or buttermilk and knead the dough lightly with your hands until it just comes together into a ball.

pan: 9 or 10-inch pie plate

oven: 400˚

Divide the biscuit dough in half.  On a floured surface, gently roll or press out one of the halves until it will cover the bottom & sides of your pie plate.  Drape it in the pie pan, snugging it in and adjusting where need be.  If there’s overhang, leave it there for now.

Time to fill your pie!—and be warned, this baby’s gonna be FULL when all is said & done, but fret not—all will end well.

Cover the crust with half of the tomato/corn mixture.  Sprinkle half the cheese on top.  Layer the rest of the tomato/corn mixture atop the cheese, then pour the lemon mayonnaise on top of everything.  Sprinkle with remaining cheese.

Now, roll out the other half of the biscuit dough until it’s big enough to cover the behemoth of a pie you just constructed.  Gently drape it over everything, pinching it together with the bottom layer around the rim of the pie plate.  Don’t worry if you have to patch & cobble the top crust—I’ve done this before and the pie still tastes delicious.

Use a sharp knife to cut four vents in the top of the pie, as if you were drawing a cross or a compass-N, S, E, W.  Melt a little butter on the stove or in the microwave, then brush it all over that biscuit crust.  Awww yeah.

Bake the pie for 30-35 minutes, or until the crust is nice and golden.  Cool for at least 10-15 minutes on a rack before serving.  Serve hot or warm.

You can also cool the pie completely, refrigerate it, and then reheat it the next day, in a 350˚ oven for 20-25 minutes.

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GUEST POST: THE WEDDING REGISTRY

so, we’re on vacation.  and it’s pretty freaking awesome.  I am very brown & very relaxed & very pleased to offer you today’s guest post from my friend Lauren, who is beautiful and talented and funny and with whom I went to school for twelve years (she was a fellow Christmas pageant Mary).

I know that you’ll appreciate her sense of aesthetics and clever voice as much as I do.  you can find her regularly on her blog, Gathering Moss.

Given that many of my cohorts are getting engaged and planning weddings, I asked Lauren to offer her advice on the kitchen-related part of The Infamous Wedding Registry—an arena in which I have zero expertise!

hi hello, Lauren here. thanks for having me, Blue Jean Gourmet! it’s fairly hilarious that Nishta asked me to guest post, because I’m not that much of a cook. the cooking at chez stone is generally relegated to my husband, affectionately known in blogland as “captain fantastic.” because he is. except not at cleaning up after cooking. but that’s a-whole-nother blog post. I do make a mean vegetarian lasagna (thanks to my dad, who is also one of those fantastic cooking husbands) and a pretty sweet baked gouda (thanks to my mom, queen of the hors d’ oeuvres), so I suppose I qualify as a Blue Jean Gourmet. maybe more like a Tattered Overall Gourmet, but whatev.


something that I am better at than cooking is shopping. that’s really why I’m here. c-fan and I were married last June, so without (much) further ado, my wedding registry suggestions for foodies, wanna-be foodies and all to-be-weds who want a well-stocked kitchen:
I would be remiss to not mention that ubiquitous wedding registry staple, the Kitchen Aid mixer. it comes in a gajillion delicious colors to match any decor, makes many types of food prep gloriously easy, and, if you have generous wedding guests, can be yours for free (well, ok minus the cost of the wedding…). even the non-cooking-inclined may find themselves regularly making brownies from scratch in the middle of the night with this beauty. I speak from experience. highly recommended.

another helpful appliance is the food processor. but beware – all I wanted in life (after my kitchenaid mixer, of course) was a shiny new food processor. which I may or may not have mentioned several dozen times. and I ended up being gifted four. 3 cup, 4 cup, 7 cup, 12 cup…one in every size. The size you’ll actually want depends on how you’ll be using it; for a couple or small family, 4 cups is probably good. If you regularly host large dinner parties or plan on joining the Quiverfull movement, 12 cups may be the way to go.

dishes. you’ll need those. here in the south, we register for both “everyday” dishes and fine china; sometimes even Christmas china, y’all. the patterns you register for are a personal choice – we decided to go with a neutral everyday set, which we can accent with festive linens and accessories. for fine china, we chose a pattern that’s the modern incarnation of my mother’s pattern, because we’ll be inheriting her silver and love sappy stuff with meaning like that (isn’t it sweet how I said “we,” like captain fantastic gave a hoot about dishes?)

the number of dishes you request is also a matter of your lifestyle – if you live in an apartment in the city and rarely eat at home, you may only want 6 or 8 place settings, whereas big entertainers and family types will want 12. if you get extra plates (which can happen if you register for the same item at multiple stores), go ahead and keep them; things break.

other registry staples that you’ll be sure to use often:

a nice set of knives (Blue Jean Gourmet would like to suggest Wusthof as a go-to brand)

a pattern of stainless place settings for everyday use; a pattern of silver if you’re feeling fancy (we registered for a few extra place settings of the family silver that will be passed down to us)

upgrade your pot and pan collection (hard to go wrong with Calphalon)

fill out your assortment of cooking and serving utensils by registering for that slotted spoon/silicone spatula/tongs/pizza cutter/other implement you’re always wishing you had but never remembering to procure.

get some fancy wine glasses. Riedel are a perennial favorite. it’s a good idea to get both red and white wine glasses. if you’re always swilling martinis or sipping champagne, you may want to register for a set of specialty glasses. again, the number you request will depend on the number of people you anticipate needing to serve.

some general registry advice and etiquette:

your registry information does not belong on your wedding invitation; it can spread by word of mouth (traditionally through your mom), on shower invitations and/or on a wedding website if you have one.

it’s advisable to register with at least one national big box store with an online component, like Macy’s, Williams Sonoma or Target; this way, out of town guests can easily choose a gift and have it shipped straight to you.

remember to choose a variety of gifts in a wide price range so that all of your guests will be able to give a gift that’s comfortable for them.

any veteran married folk out there who’d like to share a particular registry item that’s gotten lots of use? anyone in the registry process right now and have a specific question? comment away!


Lauren Stone is an undercover decorator with a day job in communications (much like Clark     Kent, but with a more stylish wardrobe). She never met a topiary she didn’t like. or a piece of chocolate. lauren got into blogging while planning her june 2009 wedding, when she realized that there was a whole community of people out there who would rather be DIYing. Born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, she currently resides there with new hubby, Captain Fantastic, and their giant mutthounds, Marley and Sterling. team stone is on a tireless crusade to turn their little house into a home, one ridiculous project at a time.

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GREG’S BROWNIES

I know it’s fashionable to berate Valentine’s Day as an over commercialized trainwreck, but you know what?  I kind of like it.  Though I’m lucky enough to have someone I love to share it with (and believe me, I know that helps), what I really like about the holiday, despite it being a shallow capitalist ploy to get us all to buy crappy candy & cheesy cards, is that it puts love on the calendar.

Granted, most of what our culture has to say about love is sad, scary, dangerous crap (hello, song lyrics & “romantic” comedies)—but does that mean love has to become a bad word? I hope not, because that thing called love keeps blowing me away.  Real love, that genuine, below-the-surface, heart-full-to-bursting stuff, is the most extraordinary thing I think we, as human beings, get to experience.

Here’s what I love about love: it’s the best teacher I’ve ever had.  Just when I have stuffed the world back into its custom-sized box, contained and understood, safely put away where I might observe and manipulate it…love reminds me that there are approximately 8 zillion things possible in this life of which I can barely even conceive.

Each time I get to a place where I think I know love’s dimension, understand the various ways it can work, can drive people mad, can knock us on our asses and humble us and transport and expand…then suddenly, a whole new layer unfolds and I’m stunned all over again.

Love is the one thing that will actually push me to be the person I want to be.  My love for Jill has forced me to expand, to be so, so much bigger and calmer and compassionate than I ever was before I met her.  My love for my mother has brought me to moments of unselfishness and grace that fly in the face of my barest, basest self.

These brownies are named for a man I hardly know.  Greg and his wife Sharon are friends I made via Twitter, if you can believe it, and whom I have grown to love in a way that really doesn’t make sense.  Sometimes it works that way, mysteriously.

Loving someone else takes the much-too-bright shine off of our own imperfect lives for a little while.  I’ve baked these brownies for Greg twice—once on his birthday, once following his mother’s death—and both times, the gesture usurped and created a level of intimacy beyond what we had established at that point.

So now, every time I make brownies, I think of Greg.  Whether I’m making them for their namesake, or to go into a care package for Dave’s family, or for my colleague Steve (with leftover dulce de leche swirled in), or to finish off a dinner party for Jill’s visiting friend, my circle of concern grows in the process and, for a while, it isn’t all about me.  When I throw myself into a bowl of puddled chocolate and butter, when I will myself towards care and comfort with every spatula turn, then I’m a little bit closer to mirroring love and its infinity inside myself.


GREG’S BROWNIES

The key to great brownies is great chocolate.  Personally, I have become obsessed with Callebaut, which I am lucky enough to be able to buy in bulk at a few different specialty grocers here in town.  I can’t say enough good things about springing for fancy baking chocolate, especially if you’re able to find it in large blocks like the ones pictured here.  The price-per-ounce winds up being MUCH cheaper than purchasing chocolate in chip or bar form.  And as long as you keep any leftover chocolate wrapped in plastic & tucked into a cool, dark pantry, you’ll be able to keep it on hand for months.  Please do not put it in the refrigerator!

You can also order lots of great chocolate online—given how cold it is in most parts of the world right now, you won’t have to worry about it melting.  However, if you’re in a rush or just aren’t up to my level of chocolate-obsession, buy some Ghirardelli at the very least.  Nearly all grocery stores now carry it, and I cross-my-heart swear you’ll never go back to generic chocolate again.

This recipe is my fail-safe, with the coffee & vanilla flavors nicely highlighting the chocolate-y-ness of the chocolate (yes, that’s a technical term) and the chili powder adding just a little something extra.  You can obviously switch in other flavorings, like orange or almond, and leave out the chili if it makes you nervous.

As for texture, I’ve gotta have nuts.  Walnuts are most traditional for brownies, though pecans work nicely, too.  Extra chocolate is never a bad thing in my book.  But you could also toss in toffee bits, coconut, white chocolate chunks, etc.

ingredients:

6 ½ oz. bittersweet chocolate, in chips or chopped finely
9 ½ T butter
1 T Kahlua (substitute cold coffee if you like)
1 tsp. vanilla
3 eggs
1 cup sugar, with 2 T removed
¾ cup flour
¼ tsp. ancho or regular chili powder (optional)
pinch of salt

add-ins:

½ cup chopped milk chocolate
½ cup chopped walnuts

oven: 350˚
pan: square baking pan (8 x 8 or 9 x 9)

First things first-line that baking pan with foil.  Using two sheets (one going in either direction, like a + sign,) be sure to leave plenty of overhang on either side.  Spray the inside of the foil with baking spray.

Melt the chocolate and butter together in a large bowl.  Personally, I like the convenience of the microwave—just work in thirty second increments, stirring regularly to prevent burning.  Of course, you can also use a more traditional double-boiler (a.k.a heatproof bowl set over gently simmering water).

Once the chocolate and butter are melted and mixed, stir in the Kahlua and vanilla.  Set aside to cool down a bit.

In a separate bowl, beat the eggs and sugar together vigorously.  Add to the chocolate mixture and mix thoroughly.  Sift in the flour and pinch of salt.  Toss in the chopped chocolate & walnuts, then fold all that goodness together.

Scrape the brownie batter into the foil-lined pan, then slide the pan into the oven.  You will need some toothpicks & also, some patience.  I recommend you begin toothpick-testing at minute 30, plunging a toothpick into the very middle of the brownie pan.

Since these are fudgy brownies, the toothpick doesn’t need to come back completely clean, but it shouldn’t be covered in batter, either.  Remember, be patient!   Depending on the temperament of your oven, the brownies will take 35-45 minutes.

Cool on a wire rack for at least ten minutes.  At this point, you can lift the brownies out, using the foil overhang, and cool them further.  I know it’s hard to resist, but they really are much easier to cut if you wait at least 20 minutes.  If you must dig in, however, who will blame you? Not I. And not Greg, I’d wager.

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ALMOND COCONUT BARS

[Inspired by this blog, which you ought to check out.  Rachael’s writing is addictive & she’s rather swell in person, too.]

This post is a little behind.

Normally, I post on Fridays.
But that was not to be this week.  The confluence of
end-of-the-semester business,
start-of-holiday-season events,
and the regular to-do list
did me in.

Of course, I recognize
that the problem
of not posting your blog
on the day to which you (and your readers)
are accustomed
is a first-world problem.

I think all of my problems
(if you can really call them that) fall
into that category.  I am committed
to being cognizant of that
as close to
all-of-the-time
as possible.

It’s easy to lose perspective in this mad-cap world.

My parents’ anniversary was also this week.  Or would have been.  Or something.
Verb tenses get so messed up
when someone dies.

December 8, 1967.
That was a long time ago.
My mom was twenty.
My dad was twenty-five.

They were little.  Younger than I am now
and so good-looking.

Weren’t they just?  If they don’t look
very excited to you,
there’s a good reason for that.

It was only the third time
they had ever met.
I know, right?
Arranged marriage & whatnot.

There’s actually a very fascinating
longer version
of the story
in which my mom
rejected some other dude

(and thank goodness she did, or
somebody we know
would not be sitting here right now)

but I am saving the longer version
of the story
for my book.
So you’ll just have to wait for it.

There are a lot of things
I miss about my dad.

The scariest thing about losing someone
when you least expected it
is that you live in fear
of forgetting
what they looked like
and smelled like
and the sound of their voice
saying your name.

Luckily I have that.
In a forty-second clip
from our trip to India
which we took
a month before he died.

Sometimes I just listen to it
over and over again
and cry.

And then I usually cook something—
(that’s my solution to every problem, really)
something he would like
something he would want to eat
something he would be proud of me making.

These almond-coconut bars were his favorite.
He had a knack
for waking up from his nap
(he used to take the most epic naps)
just as these suckers
were ready to come out of the oven.

He liked to eat things
PIPING
hot.  I don’t know how he did it.

I wish he were here
to sneak some now
and say, “Don’t tell your mother”
while winking conspiratorially.

I keep waiting
for him to show up
even though I know
he won’t.

ALMOND COCONUT BARS

1 ½ cup graham cracker crumbs*
1/3 cup butter, softened
2 T sugar

1 egg
¾ cup light brown sugar
½ cup shredded coconut (recipe calls for sweet, if substituting unsweetened, bump up the sugar)
½ cup chopped almonds
¼ cup flour
1 T. cream or milk
1 tsp. vanilla

pan: 9 inch square
oven: 400˚

Combine the first three ingredients to make the crust—press into the bottom of the pan and bake for 5 minutes.

While the crust is browning, beat the egg until foamy, then beat in the brown sugar.  Stir in the remaining ingredients and spread the mixture over the hot graham cracker layer.

Bake for 20-25 minutes, until the center is firm to the touch.  One caveat: check the bars at the 15 minute mark.  Because ovens vary so much, the tops of your bars may brown before baking time is up.  If that’s the case, simply cover the pan with foil for the remainder of baking.

* Yes, you can buy them pre-made but they vaguely resemble sawdust.  If you have a food processor, it couldn’t be easier to make your own crumbs.  Second easiest: sealable plastic bag, rolling pin, energetic child.

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FEELIN’ KINDA SNOW DAY: PECAN TASSIES

It snowed.  Squee!


Blame my students, who came to school restless as all get-out, with visions of snowmen dancing in their heads.   Poor kids, you’ve got to understand—those of you who live in a northerly direction and are laughing at my picture, saying “You call that snow?”—we don’t see much winter around these parts.  So, I really can’t blame them for being so hysterical today, even though I was a total meanie and made them discuss To Kill a Mockingbird anyway.  Snow or no snow, we’re still having a test next week, punks!

[I call them “punks.”  They feign offense.  It’s funny.]

Of course, once we dismissed school early and released the squirrely kiddos to their parents, I got kinda excited about the snow myself.  Quick trip to the grocery store, rescue of the last of the garden lettuce, generous scatter of birdseed, haul of wood pile hearth-side, & sweater on the very cute dog.

Now Rebecca is here now for a snow slumber-party; yes that Rebecca, my freshman college roommate whose late mother was the motivation behind my recent haircut.   There are few more valuable things in the world, I think, than the presence of a friend who knows pretty much everything about you and loves you for all of it, not in spite of it.

Rebecca has been my confidant and cheerleader through bad relationship choices, the inception of my writing career, the days I first fell in love with Jill, and other milestones I’m less than proud of.  We have shared Pop Tarts in early-morning freshman Psychology class, an unfortunate amount of cheap vodka (with cinnamon Altoid chasers) one night in San Antonio, the burden of grief, and ridiculous amounts of candy.  I can be more all-out goofy with her than I can with almost anyone else; I have never known her to judge.  She is hella-talented, fiercely loyal, and deeply invested in compassion.

Oh and the girl can eat.  I’m talking put-away-serious-quantities-of-food-eat.  I love that quality in a woman.

This is all very nice, Nishta, you say, and I’m happy to hear you’re having such a lovely evening, but where is mah RECIPE, Blue Jean Gourmet?

Don’t fret.  It’s here, I promise.  Well, not here, exactly, but close by.  The nice folks at The Superior Nut Store asked me to share a favorite nutty recipe to feature on their blog. The Pecan Tassies I chose originally hail from my family’s annual holiday cookie plate, and proved their magic once again as they disappeared within minutes when I took a batch to work.

Need other ideas for your holiday baking?  I’ll be posting more goodies in the next two weeks, but don’t forget about: lemon squares, caramel corn, Chex mix, or these molasses cookies.

Last but not least, we have a little news!  Eating Our Words, the food blog of the Houston Press, gave last week’s Mexican Rice & “Grad School” Black Beans post a very kind shout-out.  Thanks so much to them, and to you, for your readership.

Stay warm, punks!

THE BLUE JEAN GOURMET GUIDE TO MONEY WELL-SPENT

I did not leave the house today.

before

After a warm and relaxed combined Thanksgiving with our friends Courtney and John, the kind of meal where every dish is stellar and you leave, hugging folks on the way out who you met for the first time on the way in, waking up at the ass-crack of dawn this morning to jostle and shove people out of the way just so I can buy STUFF seems like a total slap in the face to everything I said I was thankful for yesterday.

after

At the same time, while today is Buy Nothing Day in our household, I do not want to sound like a holier-than-thou hypocrite.  I like things—gifts, presents, trinkets, baubles, tokens of affection.  I love to give and receive jewelry (ahem, anyone notice the bday bling courtesy of my sweet spouse?), mix CDs, spa gift certificates, kitchen accessories, homemade goodies, books, sweet-smelling soaps, etc.  There’s something very satisfying about presenting someone with a gift you know they will enjoy but might not have bought for themselves.

What I have a problem with is buying for buying’s sake—this idea that, at the holidays, we have to buy a gift for everyone in our life. Because we feel obligated to?  Because the economy needs stimulating?  Because it’s what we’ve always done?

Many people are starting to buck this tradition, turning instead to gift-raffles, family name-draws, charitable donations, or homemade presents.  I feel lucky that my family, friends, & co-workers aren’t caught up in the gift parade; if we see something we think someone else will like, we buy it for them.  Barring that, we bring each other specialties from our respective kitchens, write thoughtful cards, spend time in each other’s houses laughing, and don’t worry too much about the “balance sheet” of friendship.

As I look around my house today and see my two favorite women in the world, my mother and Jill, this sweet dog Dolly in my lap, and two sassy cats sleeping on the bed, I know there’s not a thing in the world that I need, but there might be a few things that I want…I just have to make sure I am mindful of the difference.

THE BLUE JEAN GOURMET GUIDE TO MONEY WELL-SPENT

Start here.  Stop here, too, if you can:

Heifer International–Heifer works to end poverty and hunger by gifting animals to families in needy communities around the globe.  Every animal, be it a water buffalo or hive of bees, can both feed its recipient family and be used as a potential source of income.  Heifer’s holistic approach includes integrating local customs, respecting the dignity of recipients, & requiring that every family “pass the gift” when their animal reproduces.

Wounded Warrior Project–The WWP seeks to honor and empower severely wounded servicemen and women, many of whom often tragically slip through society’s cracks when returning from active duty.  Given the nature of the ongoing fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, more and more young men and women are face disability and mental trauma, sorry repayment for the invaluable service they have provided.

Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres–This international organization works in over sixty countries to assist men, women, & children whose lives are threatened due to violence, neglect, or catastrophe.  Winner of the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize, MSF is full of stories that break my heart and make me think twice before I open my mouth to complain.

Water.org–Sobering facts: 3.5 million people die each year from water-related disease; An American taking a five-minute shower uses more water than the typical person living in a developing country slum uses in a whole day.  Donate to Water.org and help build wells, sewer systems, and sanitary drinking lines for the one billion people world-wide who don’t have access to safe water now.

CARE–My father gave consistently to CARE his whole life, because he particularly respected the way they work with women to fight global poverty.  CARE believes that by equipping women with the proper resources, they then have the power to help whole families and entire communities escape poverty. More and more studies and reports back this hypothesis up.

This list of more traditional gifts is far from definitive and certainly biased in light of my own preferences and the preferences of those I tend to buy gifts for.  Please do leave any suggestions of your own in the comments!

For Her:


INSPIRATION = customized stationery or thank-you notes (I’m partial to this purveyor), a bold, beautiful scarf from your local museum gift shop, a J. Crew gift certificate, a case of her favorite wine, a set of luxurious-thread-count sheets, first-edition or signed copy of a book that’s been important to her.

SPECIFICS
=

Melissa Borrell Jewelry–Distinctive and finely crafted, Melissa’s jewelry is sold in design shops and museum stores across the country.  She’s a hometown (Houston) artist, so I’m extra excited to share her work with you.

Victoria’s Secret Pajamas–Satin pajamas were a gift from Jill a few years ago and I am still in love with them. Too frivolous for me to have bought for myself, I feel so luxurious, indulgent, & movie-star-like when I wear them.

For Him:

INSPIRATION = a nice bottle of Scotch, a sturdy, waterproof watch with some gleam to it, vintage vinyl, a well-crafted pocket knife, Apple store gift certificate, first-edition or signed copy of a book that’s been important to him.

SPECIFICS =

Ray-Ban Aviator Sunglasses–Why mess with a classic?  A good pair of sunglasses can do a lot for one’s swagger.

iDesign Dock with Power Speakers–Reasonable price, sleek design, badass sound.  Works for iPhone or iPod.

For Mom:

INSPIRATION = high-end candles, an unusually shaped vase, magazine subscription befitting her interests, pre-filled photo frame, cashmere sweater, a copy of the children’s book she read to you over and over again with an inscription from you on the cover page.

SPECIFICS =

Reusable Shopping Bag–I received one of the Reisenthal Mini-Maxi Bags as a teacher gift a few years ago and have been buying them myself as gifts ever since.  Perfect stocking stuffers, they work well for groceries or gym clothes, beach bag or yoga-mat-carrier.

Quilted Jacket–My mom bought herself one of these L.L. Bean Jackets in Cranberry Red and loves it!  It’s quite easy to guess jacket size, but if you get it wrong, L.L. Bean has a very forgiving return policy & excellent customer service.

For Dad:



INSPIRATION
= a grill or grill accessories, food-or-wine-of-the-month club, magazine subscription befitting his interests, pre-loaded ipod, expensive & silky dress socks, a copy of the children’s book he read to you over and over again with an inscription from you on the cover page.

SPECIFICS
=

Jerky of the Month Club
—This one really doesn’t need an explanation.  At the very least, this gift is least likely to be duplicated by a sibling or relative.

Classic Leather Jacket–This sleek zip-up may not be your dad’s style, but bombers and motorcycle jackets are also to be found.  Remember, it’s our job to help our dads be stylish. Don’t fall down on your duty!

For the Foodie:


INSPIRATION = really nice stemware, quirky tea towels, a gift package of your favorite locally-produced goodies, a stack of cookbooks, a set of nesting mixing bowls, fancy salt, a stunning platter.

SPECIFICS =

White Truffle Oil
–D’Artagnan is the place to find gourmet goodies, but if you need a sure-to-please gift, try this truffle oil.  Packs an incredible flavor and can be used in dozens of applications, from risotto to pasta.

Beecher’s Handmade Cheese–Jess of the beautiful blog Sweet Amandine turned me onto these folks and I’m so glad she did.  You can order their Cheese of the Month or buy a la carte from such goodies as their “World’s Best” Mac and Cheese Kit or 6th Anniversary Collection.

For the Bookworm:

Of course, taste in books is highly personal, but here are some old & new BJG favorites.  Each title links to a description.

FICTION =

*Young Adult*

The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins)–I took this book home one weekend and couldn’t put it down. I then passed it along to Jill, Sonya, Courtney, John, all of whom had similar responses.  Even better?  Catching Fire, the sequel, is just as good.

Beastly (Alex Flinn)–Every one of my students who have read this modern re-telling of the classic story of Beauty and the Beast has loved it, and you can feel good about gifting it because the messaging is solid.  A movie based on the book is scheduled to be released next year, so get them to read the book first!

the dead and the gone (Susan Beth Pfeffer)–Another riveting, intense piece of young adult fiction that translates easily to adult readers.  I’d especially recommend this one for young men or reluctant readers.

Willful Creatures: Stories (Aimee Bender)–One of my all-time favorites, this collection of stories is astonishingly creative and moving.

The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot Diaz)–My favorite book club read of 2008.  Highly inventive, blooming with verve.

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlife (David Eagleman)–Devoured this in a few afternoons.  Perfect bedside-table book because you can pick it up here and there without missing a beat.

NONFICTION =

Nurtureshock: New Thinking About Children (Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman)–Jill ordered this after we read these authors’ Newsweek cover article, Is Your Baby Racist?  Urgent arguments, substantive research, approachable tone.

Losing Mum & Pup (Christopher Buckley)–A fugue of a book from a square-jawed author. Incredibly touching, especially as someone who has experienced the loss of a parent myself.

Color: A Natural History of the Palette
(Victoria Finlay)–I bought this book at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Gift shop and read it on the plane home.  It’s a stunning account of where color comes from, with travel vignettes I still recall vividly.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Michael Pollan)–This book has become somewhat ubiquitous, but for good reason.  If you haven’t read it yet, do.  A book must be powerful if it convinced Jill to buy organic dairy!

For the Pet/Pet-Owner:

INSPIRATION = goodies from Doctors Foster & Smith, handmade wool sweater from Chilly Dog Sweaters, a new collar or leash from Swanky Pet.

SPECIFICS
=

Homemade BJG Dog Treats—as featured a few months ago, these Peanut Butter Treats have never met a dog who didn’t wolf them down!

Furminator—The most incredible pet brush I have ever experienced, with both dog and cat incarnations.  It seriously changed the quality of life for this multi-pet household!  Worth every penny.

For New Babies/Expectant Parents:

INSPIRATION = restaurant gift certificate to the couple’s favorite restaurant, a “coupon book” for future babysitting, body butter & other bath goodies to pamper the pregnant , classic children’s books to build the baby’s library, a diaper bag with a sense of style.

SPECIFICS =

Urban Tots—All kinds of cuteness available here, but I’m especially fond of the Fruits & Veggies onesies, with colorful silk-screened designs and clever slogans: 100% Organic (broccoli), Ripe (banana), Squeezable (orange).  Packaged adorably in green paper berry crates.

Urban Smalls—because every baby needs a vinyl-backed bib that says “MUSH: IT’S WHAT’S FOR DINNER.”  Other fun baby hats, pants, onesies, & shirts are also available.

For the Kiddos:



INSPIRATION = a Kiva credit, allowing them to finance microloans to entrepreneurs worldwide, movie gift card, gardening gear to help mom & dad, a purse or wallet for that grownup sensation.

SPECIFICS =

Ugly Dolls—So ugly they’re cute.  Even big kids like them!

The Lightning Thief series–Conceived by author Rick Riordan, these novels draw upon ancient Greek mythology to imagine a world where the gods and goddesses of Olympus are alive and well (and living at the top of the Empire State Building).  A great choice for kids from 8-14.

One-Stop Shops:


Duross & Langel—I fell in love with this haven of thoughtfully made bath-and-body goodies on a recent trip to Philadelphia and came away with adorable shark-shaped soaps for my godsons, Moroccan Cedar shower gel for Dave, hand-repair salve for my mom, and dermabrasion face cream for Jill.

Lake Champlain Chocolates–Yeah, I’m kinda obsessed with these people.  They’re a small-batch operation with excellent customer service (Once I placed a big birthday order for a friend using the wrong address. Needless to say, it didn’t reach her, but even when I realized my mistake and offered to pay again, they sent a duplicate order to the right address free of charge).  Everything they make is delicious, but allow me to recommend Vermont Country Gift Basket, Hot Chocolate Sampler, & Organic Holiday Truffles.

BUILT NY—These are the folks responsible for the good-looking neoprene protective coverings you’ve been seeing everywhere.  From laptop sleeves to lunch boxes, you could (literally) have everyone covered with one order.

& last but not least…

Your local bookstore—If you’re not sure where to find an independent, locally-owned-and-operated bookstore in your town, consult this list.  Then plan to spend a good hour or two browsing and setting aside goodies for the ones you love, knowing that the staff will be much more likely to actually help than at a big-box store.  Though a local bookstore’s inventory will be smaller, keep in mind that they can almost always order a particular title for you at no extra charge.

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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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FEELIN’ KINDA SUNDAY: MOLASSES COOKIES

It’s raining in Memphis, and I may have to make these cookies today.

molasses cookies stacked

Since I work in a Jewish school, today was a half-day for Rosh Hashanah (L’Shana Tovah, ya’ll!), which I decided to take all the way off so I could fly home for a few days. As many of you know, I spent most of the summer here with my mom, writing, blogging, eating her amazing food, and few weeks ago, I realized that I just couldn’t hold out until Thanksgiving to see her again. So here I am. This is a strictly “Mom-visit” weekend, which means I have kept my plans secret up until now so as to avoid the flurry-of-plan-making that inevitably occurs. There are many people I love here, many people I’d love to see, but Veena takes priority. With one exception: these boys.

boys

I’ve written previously about how my sense of family has much more to do with love, proximity, and knowing than about blood and marriage. That’s why I claim John and Henry, my dear friends Kate and Stephen’s twins, as mine even though I’m not related to them in any way, shape, or form. As John put it this summer, I’m their Nishta.

The story of how I came to be their Nishta has very much been on my mind of late. You see, Kate was my teacher in high school. She taught me World Religions as a junior, and my locker was fortuitously located across a narrow hallway from her office. I thought she was so, so cool and lovely and smart and kind and I did what some of my students do for me now, finding every possible reason to ask her a question, to linger after school, to bring her little gifts and notes and read the books that she suggested and work really hard in her class.

It’s a wonder to me, looking back on it, that I didn’t drive her totally nuts. Even more a wonder that we grew to be friends over time, via emails and letters and packages and long talks over chai. I got to know her husband Stephen, who is pretty fantastic in his own right; I got to play fairy godmother for one very magical summer, a role I reprise every time I’m in town. I cannot overestimate the space that her generosity takes up in the file cabinet of memories from that time of my life. Her attention and encouragement, which I know from experience require heaps of patience, gave me a great deal of space and comfort.

Kate can and should be credited with many things: planting the seed for me to be a Religious Studies major, dismantling my irrational fear of poetry, gifting me a first-edition Annie Dillard, and sending me off to college with the excellent advice: “Drink the beer while it’s still cold.” And so I show my gratefulness to the world by reversing the roles, sitting behind my desk while students fill my room after school, reaching out for handfuls of snacks, advice, hugs, love.

As for Kate, well, there’s really no way to adequately thank her and her family for allowing me so intimately into their lives. I mostly just show up with love, joy, and gratitude, as I will tonight when my mom and I go over for dinner. There will probably also be some molasses cookies in tow, and hopefully they will manage to say all of the things that language feels inadequate for.

molasses cookies with milk

MOLASSES COOKIES

These are taken from an NPR story my mom sent me years ago. I had been trying to perfect a recipe for molasses cookies, but quickly discarded my own efforts because this is really the only recipe you need. I’ve bumped up the spice quotient because, well, I’m brown. I like spice!

Plan ahead to make sure you’ll have adequate chilling time for the dough, which you can leave overnight if need be. Also be sure to watch the cookies carefully in the oven—they’ll still seem mushy to you when you take them out, but will firm up when cooling, leaving a perfectly chewy cookie behind. They won’t last long, I guar-an-tee.

ingredients: molasses cookies before baking

3/4 cup melted butter

1/4 cup molasses (grease your measuring cup with baking spray before pouring, it will save you clean-up trouble!)

1 egg

1 cup sugar, plus extra for dipping

2 cups flour

2 tsp. baking soda

1 ½ tsp. cinnamon

1 tsp. cloves

1 tsp. ground ginger

½ tsp. salt

Combine the melted butter, sugar, molasses and egg in a large bowl. Mix thoroughly before sifting the dry ingredients into the same bowl and mixing again. Chill dough at least two hours.

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 375°.

Shape dough into 1-inch balls, then roll them sugar. Place them on a greased cookie sheet VERY FAR APART—they will spread a lot! Flatten each one with a fork, making a cross-hatch pattern to encourage the cookies (can cookies be encouraged?) to promote even spreading.

Bake for 8-10 minutes until flat and dark brown. Cool on racks, as the cookies will be very delicate until they’ve cooled a bit. Perfect with a glass of milk or milk-substitute!

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HOMEMADE GRANOLA

The summer of 2006 was a big one for me.  It’s the pivot point in my life that I would point to, if asked, and say “That’s the summer that changed everything.”

granola spices

It was the summer between the two years I spent in Arizona for graduate school.  It was the summer I traveled to India for the first time in over a decade.  It was the summer I spent more time with my parents than I had since I lived in their house.  It was the summer my twin godsons were born, the summer I spent living with them & their parents, an extra pair of hands in the diaper-changing rotation, offering bottles and lullabies to tiny six-week-olds.  It was a magical, luminous summer that haunts and carries me because it suddenly, at the end, became the summer that my father died.

Before everything changed, I began the quest to make exceptional granola because I was spending my days with two regular granola-eaters: my mama, and Stephen, the twins’ dad.  Both of them purchased boxed versions which seemed bland and sad.  I was convinced that I could do better.  Turns out, I can.  And you can too.

Granola is infinitely adaptable in terms of the fruits, nuts, spices, and flavorings involved; since that summer, I’ve made a dozen varieties, customizing one blend for a friend who loves dried cherries with cashews, packing others full of dried pineapple and toasted coconut.

What I’ve learned is that there are a few principles or guidelines that, when applied, insure that your homemade granola will kick store bought granola’s ass:

a)    Always pre-toast any nuts you are using.  They’ll add much more flavor and hold up better in milk, yogurt, etc.

b)    If you’re using dried fruit, add it at the very end of baking or it will dry out.  If the fruit you’re using seems extra-dry, pre-soak it in a few tablespoons of fruit juice or even water to re-constitute.

c)    Spice the granola beyond what seems like a reasonable amount.  Whenever someone asks to watch me make my granola, I illicit a “Wow, that’s a lot!” when tossing in heaps of cinnamon, ground ginger, cloves, nutmeg, and cardamom.  Of course, I get a second “Wow, this is good!” that proves my point—spice so that you can see the color of the oats change.

d)    When combining the dry ingredients with the liquid, make certain every bit of granola becomes wet before you bake it.  If you need to extend your liquid, try a fruit juice, such as apple, which adds flavor but not fat.

I suppose granola has become, for me, a relic from a wild, lightning-strike kind of summer, a connection to that strange bridge of time where two lives were starting and one was ending, a creation that feels almost like an act of faith.  One of my last memories of my dad is as he came downstairs from his traditional, epic, Saturday-afternoon baths, which always followed his traditional, epic, Saturday-afternoon naps.

Once she heard the water drain upstairs, my father singing along to old Indian music, my mother would put the teakettle on for afternoon tea.  I had just taken my first batch of granola out of the oven.  My father, who loved all things related to food (hi, genetics) but never falsely praised anything I did, especially anything I cooked, walked into the kitchen, grabbed a hot handful, chomped around and said, “Hey Nito, this is pretty good.”

granola, ready to be eaten

Indeed it is.

BASIC GRANOLA FORMULA

I’m calling it a “formula” and not a “recipe” for a reason; use what you like or what you have around.  Play with flavor combinations!  Whatever you do, I guarantee it will taste better than anything that comes in a box.  If you’d like more hard-and-fast measurements, please see my two flavor combinations below*

dry ingredients:

4 cups old-fashioned oats (do NOT use quick-cooking)

¾ cup steel-cut oats (you could easily leave these out and simply increase the amount of old-fashioned oats to 4 ½ cups)

¾ to 1 cup toasted, unsalted nuts (if you only have salted on-hand, don’t add additional salt to the granola)

¼ cup each wheat germ & flaxseed meal (you can find these in the bulk aisles of health food stores & conventional groceries have also started carrying the Bob’s Red Mill versions of these products, but again, they’re not deal breakers)

generous amounts of good-quality spices in any combination you like

1 tsp. salt

liquid ingredients:

5-6 T unsalted butter

½ cup canola or similarly mild-flavored oil (I’ve used safflower in the past)

½ cup brown sugar OR maple syrup

vanilla or other flavoring such as orange, almond, etc. (quantity will vary from 1 tsp- 2 T depending on the potency of flavoring)

oven: 325° to start

pan: two foil-lined, sprayed baking sheets (this will make your life so much easier when cleanup rolls around)

method:

Combine dry ingredients in a very large bowl.  Melt the butter in a small saucepan; remove from heat, then add the rest of the liquid ingredients and whisk together.

Using a spatula, pour the liquid mixture into the dry ingredients and fold it all together, taking the time to ensure that each piece has been coated.

Spread the granola out in thin layers on the baking sheets.  Depending on the size of your baking sheets, you may need to bake in two batches.  Do not pile granola on the baking sheets or it won’t cook evenly!

Bake for 20 minutes at 325°, then turn the oven down to 300° and remove the baking sheets from the oven to stir the granola with a wooden spoon or spatula, just to bring the browner edge pieces into the middle and the center stuff out to the edge.

Add dried fruit at this point, if using, and place the baking sheets back in the oven on opposite racks from the first round of baking (moving the previous top sheet to the bottom and the bottom sheet to top).  Bake for an additional 5-10 minutes, until granola is light golden brown and incredibly fragrant.

Cool on racks before storing in an airtight container for up to several weeks.  It’s delicious with fresh fruit, milk or soymilk, on top of yogurt or ice cream!

*These are the variations I made most recently; I actually measured what I did so I could share with you here!  Both versions turned out lovely, though the first is definitely more traditional, the latter more exotic.

CRANBERRY-ALMOND-VANILLA GRANOLA

1 cup toasted, chopped almonds
1 cup dried cranberries
½ cup brown sugar
2 T vanilla extract (doubling the amount make the flavor more pronounced)
2 T cinnamon
1 ½ tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp. cloves

CHERRY-PECAN-COCONUT GRANOLA

1 cup toasted, chopped pecans
1 cup dried cherries, chopped
1 cup dried coconut, dry-toasted in a skillet (if you use sweetened, cut the maple syrup in half)
½ cup maple syrup
1 T orange flower water, also called orange blossom water*
2 tsp. cinnamon
1 ½ tsp. ground ginger
1 tsp. ground cardamom
1 tsp. nutmeg

*This is a potentially tricky ingredient; I had it in my pantry from a recent trip to a Middle Eastern grocery.  If you don’t want to go out and get it, but still want the orange flavor, you could use 1 tsp of orange extract or a squeeze half an orange into the liquid ingredients.

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