Monday, April 30, 2007

The Problem as I See It...

Secret, undoctored footage of the hypocrisy lurking in my pantry.

I went to the pantry for something the other day. I forget what, whether a can of organic garbanzos or some Lucky Charms. And I looked up and saw this: clearance-sale Peeps (purple no less) sharing a shelf with organic wheatberries and millet. I keep writing in here about all we're doing to better our food life -- "We don't buy store-bought bread." "I'm cooking with quinoa." "I'm only buying local or organic meat." But there remains a dark underbelly that stays shadowed from the online world.

When the cashier at Kroger, where I swear I just ducked in to get some cat litter, said, "Would you like to add some Peeps? They're only 12 cents," I had a choice to make. I could have thought, "Ewww. Peeps. Sugar, gelatin, and more sugar. In lots of packaging. That will do nothing to help the environment, my health, or local producers." Or I could have thought, "Peeps! At 12 cents! Why, that's a bargain at twice the price. And I *do* love Peeps." I think it's clear that I took the road most traveled.

And the epic battle rages on.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

A Big Midwestern Breakfast

Saturday morning I got up, relieved to have made it through a treacherous workweek, and decided to skip the raisin bran and putter around making the kind of breakfast that would have made our hearty, farming Indiana forebears proud.

First came the bacon, purchased from local Royer Farm. I'd been warned when I first bought four pounds of this thick-cut bacon that it cooks much quicker than the store-bought, shrink-wrapped variety. Which it does. Apparently the added preservatives, fillers, and unmentionables in pork from major chains slows down the cooking. This was on the table in time for M to eat his usual five pieces.
Next I tried a pecan coffee cake recipe from a great out-of-print book called Sourdough Baking. Because I couldn't see us eating a whole coffee cake before the it all went green, I baked these in three mini-loaf pans so that I could freeze one or two. I also played around with the recipe a bit, adding whole grains and using a natural sweetener. The recipe made a nutty, sweet, dense (but not overbearing) loaf that was incredibly moist. (Could the moistness be due to the stick and a half of butter? You be the judge...)

I made a mistake in reading the recipe and put allof the sweet pecan mixture inside the loafs, and it was pretty good that way. If you want, though, you can layer batter-pecans-batter-pecans.
Note to self: When using mini-loaf pans, the tiny pans have a tendency to tip over and spill batter and pecans all over the bottom of the oven. Check.

Pecan Sourdough Mini Loaves

2/3 cup sucanat (or brown sugar)
1 tsp. cinnamon
3/4 to 1 cup chopped pecans
3/4 cup butter
1 cup sucanat (or brown sugar, white sugar, or a mixture)
2 eggs
1 cup sourdough starter
1/4 cup milk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup white flour
1 cup whole-wheat flour

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Mix together the 2/3 cup sucanat, pecans, and cinnamon. Set aside.

Cream together the butter and remaining cup sucanat. Add the eggs, then the sourdough starter, then the milk, and then the vanilla. Now add the baking soda, then the baking powder, then the salt, and finally the flour. (This step mixes everything up well without requiring you to dirty a third bowl to mix together the dry ingredients.) Mix this for about three minutes until

In three greased or nonstick mini-loaf pans, use about half the batter and distribute it between the three pans, spreading it out evenly. Now sprinkle the sucanat/pecan/cinnamon mixture over the batter in all three pans. Then top with the rest of the batter.

Bake for about 35 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out clean.

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Best Banana Bread Ever, Naturally

This weekend I gave Phil 36 hours alone in the house and took the boys to Columbus, Ohio, to rough it up with my brother's two boys. With a suburban house hosting a 10-, 6-, 5-, and 2-year-old male, there was a lot of pee-wee testosterone this weekend, believe you me.

My parents were also there for the weekend, having driven in from Michigan to grandkid-sit while my my brother and his wife escaped to a bed and breakfast to celebrate their 15th anniversary. With a baby on the way in about three months, this is likely their last weekend away until August of 2023.

The kids pretty much entertained themselves, so at some point my mom and I took a jaunt to a natural foods store (called the Raisin Rack, isn't that cute?) to stock up on bulk millet and fair-trade tea. When we got home, I set to work on a pile of browning bananas with plans to save them from the compost heap. Not having expected to make banana bread over the weekend, and not having my favorite banana bread recipe (from the out-of-print Cook Something) with me, I headed online. At I found a recipe I liked and then doctored it up a bit. It was delicious, if I do say so myself, and is now going to be my go-to recipe for banana bread. The natural cane sugar, which isn't stripped of molasses like white sugar is, added a little complexity, and the whole-wheat flour added some heft and a little nuttiness. If you don't have a line on sucanat, just use regular brown sugar.

Raisin Rack Banana Bread

1 cup white flour
1 cup whole-wheat flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1-1/4 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1 cup sucanat (non-refined cane sugar)
1 egg
5 tablespoons milk
1-1/2 cups mashed banana (about 3-1/2 to 4 or so)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a medium-sized bowl, mix together the two flours, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. In another bowl (like, say, the bowl of a stand mixer), cream the butter and sugar. Add the egg and milk and mix together. Mix the dry ingredients into the butter/sugar concoction just until mixed; don't overdo it. Now throw in the bananas and mix until they're incorporated, but don't stir so hard and so long that you totally anihilate them; some big chunks remaining is nice.

Pour into a lightly greased 9 X 5-inch loaf pan. Bake for about an hour -- until a knife or skewer inserted into it comes out clean. Smile demurely when your nephews ask for a second piece.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Government-Subsidized Pop-Tart

When I was pregnant with M and starting to get the queasies, my doctor told me to just eat. The important thing, he said, was to get in calories to feed the growing baby; we could work on nutritional needs after I was feeling less green. My ob/gyn was, in essence, doing for me what the farm bill does for all Americans -- finds a way to pack in the most calories, regardless of nutritional value or the dangerously expanding waistlines of many U.S. citizens.

Michael Pollan, one of my favorite food journalists, wrote a fabulous piece in last Sunday's New York Times, which you can find here, that breaks down the farm bill into language laypeople like me can understand. I'll give you the highlights as I understand them.

The farm bill, which is about to come back around as it does every five years or so, subsidizes farmers by paying them for the number of bushels of five main crops they produce; those crops are corn, soy, wheat, cotton, and rice.

The inevitable result is that farmers overproduce the fab five crops, and this subsidized product is then sold to consumers not only as the actual crops and recognizable derivatives. The surplus is also creatively processed into products like high-fructose corn syrup, McNugget breading, and added fats.

In its most basic terms, the bill encourages the processing and ultimate overprocessing of these key crops into "foods" (Twinkies, Pepsi, Pop-Tarts) that pack the most caloric punch per farm acre, making cheap, calorie- and fat-ridden product accessible even to those with limited incomes. This method was possibly admirable when the poor couldn't afford to purchase enough calories to sustain themselves; today, this method isn't so admirable. Carrots and lettuce, as you might expect, remain unsubsidized for farmers and for many consumers with very limited means, out of reach.

An interesting fact Pollan cited in his article is that between 1985 and 2000, the price of produce increased nearly 40 percent, but soda (made mostly from high-fructose corn syrup) decreased 23 percent. I know from Pollan's painstakingly well-researched book The Omnivore's Dilemma that there are about 45,000 products in the average supermarket, and more than 25% contain some form of corn. Corn is also the number-one ingredient at McDonald's, although you'd be hard-pressed to find an actual recognizable kernel save for a sprinkling on one or two of the company's premium salads.

The sad thing is that this bill isn't just making Americans pudgy. The cheap product is being sold to other countries, undermining local farmers' ability to earn a living wage. Mexican farmers, for example, are finding themselves hard-pressed to compete with the government-subsidized price of cheap corn from the U.S.

Phil and I have been making an effort to be conscientious of what products contain high-fructose corn syrup because it's so unhealthy physically. But it's unhealthy in a million other ways, including environmentally, ethically, and socially. And the system is now wired to produce oceans of high-fructose corn syrup as well as a plethora of unrecognizable key-crop derivatives.

All this talk is depressing me, so in my next post I'll include the accidental best banana bread recipe I sort of made up this weekend. Added bonus: it's corn-free!


Friday, April 20, 2007

With God, and Anyone Reading This, as My Witness...

I was thinking about Earth Day coming up this weekend. It's such a good focal time to reflect on what we all can do to live more sustainable, lighter-impact lives. And I realized it's time. I've been toying with the idea for a while, but couldn't quite bring myself to fully commit. But now I am. I gave up Fat-Free Pringles by posting my desire to do so, the thought of public humiliation outweighing my need to crunch.
So from here on out, I'm no longer buying coffee or chocolate that isn't fair trade. Period. If I'm at a restaurant with you, I promise not to embarrass you by harassing the waitstaff about the origins of the coffee. But as far as products I bring into my home -- or mindlessly purchase from the vending machine at work when I'm restless around 3:00 -- I'm no longer buying products that were produced by hurting the land or the producers. Even if Costco-brand coffee tastes pretty good and is only $3.50 a pound.
Wish me luck.
I'm fortunate in that Indianapolis is the home of Endangered Species chocolate, which not only provides fair wages and conditions for its producers, but donates a portion of its profits to protecting endangered species. My sister-in-law told me about the company, and I've consumed numerous chocolate bars in the name of research. In fact, over the course of the last couple months I was forced to consume about six espresso bean bars just to be *sure* I could taste the fair-trade goodness. Which I could. So at least I can get the good stuff close to home.


Please Don't Let This be a New Trend

The other day Phil, the boys, and I walked to a local sandwich place for dinner. The restaurant is a lot like the chain Panera Bread, only locally owned and just a few blocks from our house.

So we'll forget that it was inappropriately costly to feed the four of us. or that we sat on the couches and waited and waited and waited for our food and were later told later by the woman who took our order that the kitchen had "just lost" our ticket, and she needed us to tell her what we'd ordered so that she could go put in a new ticket. Those didn't add to a mellow vibe, but we could deal.

The real issue was when my sandwich came. I got this great chicken/brie/spinach/vinaigrette concoction on a crusty baguette. The issue was that the crusty baguette was loaded with everything, and then the vinaigrette was artfully drizzled over the whole sandwich, sort of like dessert is finished with a chocolate sauce drizzle. It would have looked lovely photographed, but what it meant to actually chomp off a chunk of chewy, crusty baguette sandwich that's covered in brown sauce means you go through about 10 napkins trying to eat an otherwise delicious sandwich that you've already waited 30 minutes for. I was just thanking my lucky stars I hadn't ordered it on a first date.

Is this some kind of trend I'm unaware of -- slathering condiments on the outside of a sandwich? Doesn't that go against the whole idea of a sandwich? And when will restaurateurs learn that experimentation is great, but form always has to follow function?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

And Now for a Break from Our Regularly Scheduled Programming...

Generally I don’t talk about my work in this blog, but I’m so excited about a book that is releasing this week, publishing out of my group, that I had to share.

This book was a lot of fun to put together. We were fortunate to have a great author, some top-notch and industry-recognized contributing knitting designers, cover and interior designers who really got the whole Harry Potter mystique, and editors who went the extra 10 miles to make a book that evokes the Hogwarts vibe.

To celebrate the book’s release, we worked with the author on a charity knit-along, which you can find here. All of the Potter hats created for the knit-along will be donated to Warm Woolies, a great organization that provides cozy outerwear for underprivileged kids who otherwise would suffer through very cold winters.

Because this book was such a huge deal for us, we spared no expense in securing modeling talent. While it wouldn’t be prudent or ethical to reveal the months of negotiation and legal back-and-forth behind the scenes, it was quite a coup for us to secure the following supermodel, who took some time from the catwalk to squeeze in a couple minutes in front of the camera for us. As you can see, he’s too sexy for his wand cozy... too sexy for his wand cozy...


Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Faster than a Speeding Delivery Man

Tonight while the boys were winding down for bed, I took a few minutes and prepped what has become for us an at-home fast food option: pre-baked sourdough pizza shells. This isn't anything new; these are basically homemade Boboli crusts sans the preservatives, packaging, and price. When I get home from work, I grab one or two from the freezer, top them with pizza sauce and grated cheese for the boys and anything Phil and I are in the mood for -- goat cheese, spinach, prosciutto, whatever -- and pop them in the oven for about 15 minutes.

One of my friends freezes unbaked pizza dough that she just rolls out when she's ready to use it, but I love that these are pre-baked. The pre-baking eliminates both rolling out the dough and a bit of baking time. For those of you without kids underfoot, this relatively little timesaving might seem insignificant, but it's not. When making dinner with two hungry boys just in from daycare, every extra kitchen task is an opportunity for distraction when kissing boo-boos, righting sibling wrongs, or explaining why you can't go find the red Power Ranger right now. These pizzas are in the oven, literally, in about 90 seconds, and unless a head is split open or an arm broken in four places, a kid can wait 90 seconds for my attention.

Here's how to do it.

Sourdough Pizza Shells

2 tsp. yeast
1 tsp. sugar
1/4 cup warm water -- 110 degrees, or just slightly warmer than a warm bath
3 Tbsp. olive oil
1 cup sourdough starter
1 tsp. sea salt -- or regular salt
1 cup whole-wheat flour
2 cups, plus maybe a little more, white flour

Stir together the yeast, sugar, and water, and then let this sit for 10 minutes to get the yeast proofed and bubbly. Add in the olive oil, sourdough starter, sea salt, whole-wheat flour, and 1/2 cup white flour. Combine this well; now add the other cup of white flour, 1/2 cup at a time. If the dough is still sticky, add a bit more flour until it feels elastic and like Play-Doh.

Put a tiny bit of olive oil in a clean bowl, rub it around the bowl, and plop the wad of dough in. Flip the dough over so that it's covered on both sides with the oil. Cover the bowl with a damp towel and set in a warm place for about an hour, until the dough has doubled.

Punch down the dough, and then cut it into four basically equal pieces. Roll each piece into a circle. Don't worry whether you're making perfect circles; lopsided pizzas look rustic and pretty.

Bake these pizza shells for about 10 minutes at 400 degrees. They should be solid but not browned. Cool the shells and wrap in plastic wrap; if you won't be using them in the next day or two, store them in the freezer.

When you're ready to use them, pull what you need directly from the freezer, top as you'd like, and back at 425 degrees for about 15 to 17 minutes, or until the cheese is nicely browned.

If you're not into whole-wheat flour, just substitute in all white flour for the mixture of whole-wheat and white. Once the pizzas are in the oven, be horrified to hear your mom's voice from 35 years ago coming from your mouth, stating, "I don't know where the red Power Ranger is; it's wherever you left it." Then go comb the house for the red Power Ranger.

This morning before work I finished Ruth Reichl's Garlic and Sapphires, which is about her adventures as the restaurant critic for the New York Times -- including the costumes and personas she would assume to experience restaurants as they truly are, not as they are when the NY Times food critic is in attendence. All three of her memoirs (the other two being Tender at the Bone and Comfort Me with Apples) are so delightful. Despite poisoning T with one of the recipes in the book, I absolutely loved this book. Few people can write about food like Ruth Reichl. The second I finished it, I subscribed online to Gourmet, the magazine she edits -- a magazine I later wondered if perhaps it might be a bit beyond my abilities. Stay tuned...

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Saturday, April 14, 2007

"Key Who?" or Cooking with Grains You Can't Pronounce

I've been seeing "quinoa" popping up a lot lately -- apparently this is some SUPERGRAIN that makes a perfect protein all by itself (no pesky pairing of grain + legume), is easy to prepare, and can take on the character and taste of whatever it's paired with. I've seen recipes for very savory, very sweet, and very neutral quinoa dishes. So a few days ago I dragged T to Wild Oats with the promise of a Sunrise smoothie to pick up some bulk quinoa.

As it turns out, this isn't pronounced "Kwi-NO-ah" as I had been referring to it, but "KEEN-wah." Go figure. Not unlike when I first asked for a book by "a-NAY" Nin and was condescendingly told (by the woman working the mall bookstore), "you mean 'anna-EES?'" But I digress.

What I know about quinoa could fill a thimble, but my reading on this grain told me that it has a bitter outer layer, which apparently is a naturally occurring pesticide. Consequently, you need to rinse quinoa well before using it, or the resulting dish will retain some of that bitter flavor. To rinse mine, I just put it in a fine seive and ran water over it for a minute or so.

I started with a basic recipe for Quinoa Pilaf from How to Cook Everything, and then gussied it up a little, adding the garbonzo beans I'd been craving, sprinkling in some spices, and finishing it with the Nigella seeds I'd picked up at Dean and Deluca last fall and never quite known how to use.

The result was amazing. I'd like to think I'll be taking it in my lunch next week, but I'm not positive it'll make it through the night. Phil's off at an Eisenhower Field Day gig, I rented Borat for the evening, and I can completely see that the evening could end up with me bloated and moaning on the TV room couch, the deep skillet that held enough quinoa for four lying abandoned and empty next to me. It's that good.

If you haven't tried quinoa and want to give it a whirl, why not try this easy recipe? I used this as a main dish, but it would be great without the garbonzo beans (or with, if you're on a protein bender), eaten as a side dish with meat.

Quinoa with Garbonzo Beans and Nigella

2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 small onion, chopped small
1 cup quinoa, rinsed thoroughly
1 3/4 to 2 cups broth (I used chicken)
1/2 tsp. or so sea salt
a few grinds of pepper
1/4 tsp. or so ancho powder, garam marsala, or any other spice you like
1 15-oz. can garbonzo beans, drained and rinsed
a few sprinklings Nigella

Heat the oil in a deep skillet over medium heat. When it's hot, add the onion and stir around for about 5 minutes, until the onion softens. Add the rinsed quinoa and stir around for another 5 minutes. Add 1 3/4 cups broth, as well as the sea salt, pepper, and ancho powder; stir; and cover. Let this cook for about 15 minutes -- until the liquid is absorbed and the quinoa is no longer crunchy. If the quinoa isn't yet soft but the liquid is gone, add another 1/4 cup broth and give it another couple minutes to cook, covered. Once the quinoa is soft, if there's still liquid left, uncover it and stir until the liquid is largely absorbed.

Stir in the garbonzo beans. Sprinkle with the nigella seeds. Devour.

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

Last night I took M to the library, and was thrilled to pick up a brochure about a free lecture being given by Kurt Vonnegut at the end of the month. In fact, the city had just announced Tuesday that the One City, One Book read is Vonnegut's classic Slaughterhouse Five, and that this is being proclaimed The Year of Vonnegut for the Circle City.

I heard this morning on the radio that the 84-year-old author had died last night.

I haven't read any Vonnegut in several years, and was looking forward to re-exploring Slaughterhouse Five with my fellow Hoosiers. Vonnegut's absurd, irreverent style isn't the type book I normally gravitate toward, but I adore his brilliance and economy with language and his sometimes startling revelations on humanity in the middle of writing that is comedic and can fool you into feeling it's trite.

This passage about trains carrying POWs across Europe has stuck with me, almost verbatim, since I read it in Slaughterhouse Five more than 15 years ago:

During the night, some of the locomotives began to tootle at one another, and then to move. The locomotive and the last car of each train were marked with a striped banner of orange and black, indicating that the train was not fair game for airplanes -- that it was carrying prisoners of war.

I still remember how jolted I was when I read this brief history lesson in the ridiculousness of war games and the rules of engagement. That's what Vonnegut did -- made us look at humanity in the context of his imagined worlds, giving us glimpses of the real world that were no less absurd, no less fantastical, and no less horrifying. He did it like no one else.

May he rest in peace.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Thrill of Victory...

After the crushing blow of Maya's Day of the Dead Cookies, I feared I'd lost all my kitchen confidence and mojo. Sunday was Easter, and I contemplated a quick family trip to Papa Murphy's for a take-and-bake pizza, but with a leg of lamb in the freezer calling our name, I rolled up my sleeves and tried to forget the humiliation I'd suffered less than 24 hours previously.

The lamb was super easy. I just stuck it in an oven-proof Dutch oven and lasciviously rubbed lamb spices, salt, pepper, and a separated and peeled head of garlic all over the meat. Then I poured on some olive oil, gave the lamb another rubbing for good measure, and stuck the pot in a 425 degree oven for about an hour -- until a meat thermometer read 140 degrees.

The real conifidence builder was a Pommes Anna, which is just a potato cake that is baked in a round pan and inverted to unmold it, much like a pineapple upside-down cake. My first introduction to Pommes Anna was on an old Martha Stewart Entertaining video. The video showed shots of her husband, who she's been divorced from for a decade or so -- it was that old. The menu on this classic had nothing to do with ease on the hostess. It included spinning sugar to make a nest for the dessert ("be sure your cats aren't in the kitchen when you do this as the hot liquid sugar can burn their paws," Martha warned), individual spinach timbales, and Pommes Anna. In fact, every time I've read about Pommes Anna, it's in the context of how it will be the centerpiece of your table, causing your guests to gasp in delight. Here's what I've learned about Pommes Anna: It is quite beautiful when it's unmolded, with a pattern of golden-brown potatoes on top and softer potatoes inside, all coated in lovely butter and salt. But it's also incredibly easy to make. And our cat was able to walk freely in the kitchen while I was making it without fear of burned paws.

When the Pommes Anna unmolded correctly before dinner, I wanted to do the Touchdown dance. When M said, "boy, this is just delicious!," I wanted to cry. If you're needing to build back your kitchen confidence, here's an easy recipe to try that will cause your guests -- or at least your five-year-old -- to gasp in delight. I think it actually looks more peasant-like than champagne dinner, so I might make it sometime for brunch, as it's a pretty close but dolled-up relative of the hash brown.

Pommes Anna

1-1/2 to 2 pounds baking potatoes (depending on the size of your pan)
4 Tbsp. (maybe a bit more) butter
Sea salt
Freshly ground pepper

Peel the potatoes and cut them into 1/16-inch slices. Immediately immerse the slices in a bowl of cool water. After you're finished slicing, remove the slices and dry them slightly.

Generously brush melted butter on the bottom and sides of a heavy, ovenproof, nonstick, round pan with sloped sides, about 10 inches in diameter -- a high-quality omelet pan would work well. (I used a smaller, 8.5-inch all-purpose round pan.) Arrange a layer of potato slices on the bottom of the pan. If you want, you can put a slice in the middle of the pan and fan out overlapping layers from there to make the unmolding extra-pretty. Now generously brush butter over this layer of potatoes, salt and pepper the potatoes, and then add another layer. Keep layering the potatoes, buttering between each layer and salting and peppering every other layer or so. When you get to the top of the pan or run out of potatoes, generously butter a piece of foil that is the size of the pan, place this butter-side down over the potatoes, and press down fairly hard to compact the potatoes.

Bake the Pommes Anna, covered in the foil, about 25 minutes. Now remove the foil and bake another 25 to 30 minutes, until the potatoes are starting to turn a golden brown. Remove from the oven and invert onto a serving plate. Cut into slices like a pie.

One more observation about the Pommes Anna: I've never actually eaten it before this weekend; I'd only read intimidating descriptions of it. Consequently, I don't know what it's supposed to taste like. While I thought that what we had was delightful, I didn't find it remarkably different from the weeknight fried potatoes my mom often made while we were growing up. I never realized what fancy, centerpiece-worthy food we were eating on a Tuesday night!


Saturday, April 07, 2007

The Agony of Defeat

Today the whole family was supposed to go to an Easter egg hunt in Wabash, Indiana, at the home of some of our friends. It's a big deal, with three age groups of hunters and prizes for gold and silver eggs and about 30 kids tromping around our friends' property.

Sadly, T -- who is starting to read in this blog like Tiny Tim with all his documented health woes -- was sent home from daycare yesterday with a high fever. He had a rough, Victorian-era night, with lots of crying out in his sleep and tossing and turning as the demons visited his fever-plagued toddler dreams. So we decided Phil would take M on the egg hunt and I would take T to the doctor.

During his 45-minute nap when I had some rare alone time, I decided to tackle a recipe that has intrigued but somewhat intimidated me: Maya's Day of the Dead Cookies. To appreciate them, you need to see the photo I saw on 101 Cookbooks: funky, eerie skulls perfectly formed in two flavors of cookie dough. This is the picture; makes you want to make these cookies, doesn't it?

The reality is -- and I know this -- I have the patience of a gnat when it comes to fiddly kitchen work. If you want radish roses adorning the veggie tray, you'll want to talk with someone else. But I thought maybe I could get over my annoyance at futzing if the result was this cool. So I rolled out the two kinds of dough, plunged a wooden spoon, bamboo skewer, and skinny kitchen knife all the way through the white dough roll to get the skull detail, and put the chocolate and white rolls of dough in the fridge to chill.

When Phil and T got home, I sliced the dough rolls, not quite sure how thick 1/8 inch is, but taking a game guess. I could already tell that something had gone horribly wrong and my skulls looked like maimed aliens. But I carried on.

After baking, here's the best of what I got; the *best*:

Here's most of what I got:

I have a laundry list of things I did wrong: Not making the skull shapes tall and skinny enough, not keeping the skewer or wooden spoon steady as I shoved it into the dough, not making the eyes big enough, cutting the white dough too thin. The cookies actually are delicious, so maybe I'll try them again some day.

Or maybe not. I'm feeling a little defeated right now.


Friday, April 06, 2007

The Taxman Cometh, with Recipe

Last night I found myself again staring at TurboTax, watching it rack up how much money we owe. Which is ludicrous as we live modestly, make a relatively modest income, claim no deductions, and have two kids. I was tempted to put off the task for yet another night, but Phil had taken the boys to dinner specifically to give me time to finish them, so I felt it would be in bad form to be reading a novel, eating risotto, and drinking a martini when he got home. I buckled down, tried to ignore the mounting debt in the upper left corner of the screen, and got through another April. I only learned later that night that the due date this year isn't Saturday, April 14, as I'd thought, but was moved to the next Tuesday. Had I known there was extra cushion, Phil likely would have come home to me with a martini.

For comfort, I made a super-simple, low-calorie, low-fat, low-fuss cauliflower recipe my friend Kim made up. Cooking cauliflower down to the consistency of mashed potatoes got trendy, I believe, with the emergence of The South Beach Diet. The cool thing is that cauliflower really does taste like mashed potatoes, on some level, when cooked down. So this recipe is comforting, lets you get in one of the purported superfoods, and can get you through tax time without alcohol. We both make it (of course) in a pressure cooker, but I'm sure you could also just boil the cauliflower on the stove for about 30 minutes or so.

Faux Mashed Potatoes Cauliflower

1 head cauliflower, preferably organic
2 cups water or vegetable, chicken, or beef broth
A couple sprinklings of paprika
A little butter or buttery spray (like Earth's Balance spray), if you're so inclined

Break the cauliflower, by hand, into big chunks and place those in the pressure cooker. Pour in the water or broth. Sprinkle with a couple shakes of paprika. Cook on high pressure for 5 minutes. When the timer goes off, use a slotted spoon to get out the cauliflower, and, if you want, add a bit of butter or spray on some buttery spray. Enjoy while deciding if you have a receipt for the sweaters you gave to Goodwill last summer.

In meatier news, Phil is heading to a local parking lot tonight to pick up our meat order from Nicki Royer at Royer Farm; I imagine there will be Sopranos-like looking around and talking on pay phones. Nicki and her husband are local farmers who are regular fixtures are our local farmer's market in the summer. During the off-farmer's market months, they make monthly or so appearances around town to sell meat from a vehicle. I called her around dinner time to reserve some stew beef and thick-cut bacon, and asked her if it was a bad time to call; they have twin boys around two years old who I figured might be eating or needing some attention. She said it was a great time to call -- the boys were out feeding the animals with their daddy. That almost made me misty; farms have become such huge, industrial organizations viewing animals as simply commodity, it's nice to think of some ruddy-cheeked toddlers helping their dad feed the pigs their corn.


Thursday, April 05, 2007

A New Kind of Superhero: Garden Man and Seedling

Sunday (if I need to point out the irony: April Fool's Day) the weather here in Indiana was just amazing. We were all wearing shorts, drinking iced tea, and talking of picnics. Ignoring both the calendar and the fact that I live in Indiana where New Year's was too warm to keep champagne cold on the porch but July can require wool, I interrupted the boys' saving the world to herd them to my favorite garden shop and get a jump on the season.

I haven't grown anything but a little basil and a lot of weeds since T arrived a couple years ago, but I'd been promising that *this* year we were going to have tomatoes out our ears, carve a Jack-o-lantern from our own bounty, and try a rhubarb-strawberry crisp from garden rhubarb. The woman at the garden shop clucked disapprovingly while I selected our Better Boys and Early Girls, but we ignored her and confidently gathered up our purchases, headed home, and got to work resurrecting the neglected Earth Boxes.

(As a note, for those of you who haven't gardened with Earth Boxes, you need to try them. A very experienced gardener at my office got me onto them, and I've never looked back. And while you're at it, check out the mind-boggling number of heirloom tomato options at Totally Tomatoes.)

Once the plants were in, I chopped down an old rosebush I've always hated, weeded in the front beds, and started dreaming of the Caprese salad I'd shortly be enjoying.

Yesterday we had spitting snow showers and freezing temperatures. I had neglected to cover the weak little plants the night before, as I was more interested in socializing with the friends who came to visit, so the Caprese dreams have died along with the shriveled tomato twigs. Even Garden Man and Seedling could do nothing to turn back the clock and get the unseasonably warm weather back.

Oh, Mother Nature, you fickle wench.


Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Food Allergies? Eggs-actly

Last night Phil and I both got home late. With two hungry boys in the house and about seven minutes before a low-blood sugar meltdown, I decided to try the lightning-fast Spaghetti Carbonara recipe in Ruth Reichl's Garlic and Sapphires, a book I'm currently reading and enjoying immensely.

The recipe's a snap, largely involving cooking noodles in one pot and frying up some bacon in another, then draining the cooked noodles and adding them to a couple of uncooked eggs. The hot noodles, stirred around in the eggs, cook the eggs safely, and then you add a couple other decadent ingredients like the bacon and some Parmesan, and dinner's ready. Voila. Ruth even says she hasn't met a kid who doesn't like Spaghetti Carbonara. Sold. We'll ignore for a moment the fact that Ruth Reichl is one of the country's leading food gurus and her son regularly enjoys dishes like sushi, a meal my kids would see as a punishment.

I've been very careful introducing foods to eczema-ridden, ear-tubed, asthma-suffering T. M just got over his own toddler milk and egg allergy fairly recently, so after four years of soy milk and egg substitutes, I'm probably more sensitized to the issue than many parents. And when I was young, I was the weird kid at the birthday party who could only have Jell-o because I couldn't eat the wheat or milk in the cake and ice cream. In short, I am intimately familiar with food allergies. But at T's second birthday I cautiously started introducing baked goods with egg, and he had no issues, so thought I had the All-Clear. What is it they say about pride and the fall?

Ruth was half right: While M wouldn't touch my offering, T -- who often subsists in 24-hour periods on little more than three pretzels and a sippy cup of milk -- couldn't get enough of the Spaghetti Carbonara. It was a little culinary miracle. I was still marveling about it when M and I headed out after dinner to get him a pair of flip-flops for the coming warm months.

When we got home, I learned of the drama that had ensued during the hour we'd been gone: a couple rounds of vomiting, a 30-minute hysterical fit in the bathtub, and coughing episodes requiring two breathing treatments. Drat. The only culprit seems to be the eggs, nature's perfect food. And they were even organic. So this puts a tremendous damper on the Savory Asparagus Bread Pudding I was planning to bring to an Easter egg hunt Saturday.

To rub a little salt in the wound, I've been ogling a book for six months, deciding whether I really needed it. Friday I took the plunge and ordered it. Last night, after T was finally cleared out of the poison and settled down to a fitful sleep, I opened an e-mail notice that the book's been shipped and should be here tomorrow. The book?