about bliss

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

pie fest preview

15 November 2006

Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday, beckons. I feel I must make an academic disclaimer that I’m not celebrating the whole mythical feast between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans (or First Nations People, to be au courant), but rather the deeper meaning of a harvest festival, dedicated to sharing food with others, to celebrate the abundance of the season, and to begin to hunker down for the cold winter to come. What other holiday is so food-centric?

My Mom recently read an article where the writer’s family dubbed to holiday Pie Day, because of the profusion of pastry. Our family is no different. We usually have a ratio of 1 dessert for every 2 people. Chocolate pie for my brother (usually Grandma makes two), low-fat/low cholesterol pumpkin pie for Grandpa, classic Apple for all of us, and pecan, for those of us with serious nut-love and super-sweet teeth. The past 2 years my Aunt S and I both baked pecan pies, using different recipes. Sadly, she and her family will be spending the holiday with other family, and so we’ll only have one pecan pie. This year I plan on experimenting with Maple Bourbon Pecan. Yumm.

In preparation for the pecan pie, as well as to stock our proverbial larders/pantires/freezers (or in my case, borrowing space in my parents’ freezer), we have placed our annual order for pecans from Lamar Pecan and Peanut in Auburn, AL. 37 pounds! Are we obsessed or what? I anticipate the caramelly, buttery goodness of these jumbo pecans.

I’m also contemplating making green bean casserole, the mid-Western tradition, from scratch a la Martha Stewart. Then again, today’s NYTimes food section featured a simple recipe for crunchy green beans with ginger and garlic that might be an even nicer break from all the creamy softness of the other side dishes (which was exactly the writer’s point). So many decisions!

Also in The NYTimes today: an article on the growing popularity of buying food from small, local, and sustainably-run farms and families. I hope that these businesses continue to thrive and not be swayed by the allure of larger markets and more lavish profits, which has happened to many such farms as they’ve exploded on the food scene, only to be bought out by larger corporations. On the one hand, this can be seen as positive, as the organic mindset spreads, BUT, as the article carefully denotes, organic no longer means small, local, and sustainable. Monoculture organic agri-business is only marginally better than conventional agri-business...I could start a full-fledged impassioned argument here, but I'd rather dream of all the pies yet to come in one short week:)

Saturday, October 28, 2006

not ready to say goodbye

I said farewell to the farmer’s market this morning, and prepare to say farewell to Daylight Savings Time tonight. Coupled with the cruel gusts of wind that strip the last colorful leaves off the trees, these goodbyes are almost too much for my heart to handle. This fall has been a season of goodbyes, and it’s taking a toll.

So tonight I settle in with John Mayer’s new CD and a mug of hot cocoa (1 TBS Valrhona cocoa to 2 tsp sugar, a splash of vanilla, and milk) as a snack while I browse through my *Gourmet* cookbook for dinner inspiration. I have some buttermilk to use, and I weigh the benefits of biscuits versus cornbread. Though I made cornbread the other night, I can’t resist choosing it again. In my family, cornbread is a first rate comfort food, and some of us have been known to eat half of a small skillet in one sitting. I won’t name anyone in particular:) I decide to roast red pepper and cauliflower with garlic, shallot, and thyme, sauté broccoli and spinach with olive oil, and heat up some vegetarian baked beans (I make a note to try making a batch homemade one of these days, all rich and bubbling with a brown sugar tomato sauce). This meal would be wonderful with a glass on Pinot Noir, but alas, I’m without. I’ll have to imagine the heady rush of red wine opening up with and to the flavors of the food.

I wish my Aunt and Uncle luck tomorrow, as they run their first marathon. I’m so proud of them, and full of admiration. I wish I had the fortitude to go that distance, but my successful half marathon run at the beginning of this month taught me that I can go that distance, but don’t much care to run farther.

Job concerns have been weighing heavy on my mind, as it’s the season to apply to endless jobs with a flurry of energy and, at best, realistic optimism. For me, this is the year that will decide my future path, which is both liberating and very sad at the same time. I’m not ready to leave this place, but am ready to leave this job. I’m not ready to say goodbye to the rarified world of academia, but am ready for new challenges. I’m not ready for winter, but am ready for the promise of spring.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

apple weekend

Eating warm slices of fresh banana bread, one after the next, and sipping a mug of honey-scented assam black tea, I make my peace with the cool temps and rainy skies at the close of this autumnal day. I officially bid summer adieu on a breezy Sunday afternoon at Lake Michigan, where the warm temps were tempered with a stiff wind, blowing the water into rolling waves...

I watch the green beans begin to take on rust spots, the zucchini finally beginning to fade, and the corn on the cob giving up the last of its sweetness. I start introducing fall foods like apples and cauliflower, though there must be another peach pie and jar of sun-lit raspberry jam before the month is out...

Last weekend I ventured west to enjoy a lazy-busy weekend with my parents and my best friends. Saturday morning S and I joined a small crowd in running the Mt. Baldhead Challenge, a race known for the brutal 15K, featuring climbing rickety stairs up a sand dune. We opted for the tamer 5K, and both ran well. S achieved a PR, and I actually placed 3rd in my age group, only 4 seconds slower than my PR.

L and H joined us, and we filled the car with laughter as we drove to Fennville for apple splendor. Before we hit the orchards, we dined at the Journeyman Cafe. This lovely spot embodies all that is best about the slow food movement--emphasis on sustainable, seasonal foods. I enjoyed an omelet of herbs, pickled red onions, and chevré, as well as cups of Intelligentsia coffee with cream and raw sugar. The space is simple, with an urban rustic appeal of iron benches, white paper covered tables, and water glasses that resemble the classic terra cotta pot shape. The walls are lined with artwork from local artists, including oil paintings of Lake Michigan scenes, as well as drawings of cakes (my favorites!).

We then ventured into the madness that is Crane’s Orchards on Honey Crisp weekend. These new hybrids are sweeping the nation, and we received a mini-lecture about not tossing out perfectly good though slightly cosmetically blemished fruit, from one of the farmers. We strutted down the well-manicured rows and gathered the weighty fruit.

Next we headed deeper into the country to find Ever Green Lane farms, a small organic orchard that’s everything Crane’s isn’t: unmanicured, wild, experiential, and as close to non-commercial as a farm could get. I forgot to double check the address and so we drove up and down roads until we asked for directions and pointed ourselves in the right direction. The farmers remembered us from last year! We strolled past the free range chickens and headed to the small, unruly orchard. The farmer urged us to taste fruit, to drop any apples that didn’t meet our expectations, and to take our time gathering the best fruit. He told us to watch for poison ivy, and left us to traverse the orchard on our own. Battling our fears of poison ivy, we gathered sacks of apples and headed back up to the barn to buy cider and end our apple picking portion of the weekend.

Our day concluded where it began, in the quaint town of Saugatuck, where we enjoyed tasty treats and salty snacks at Uncommon Grounds, and pizza perfection at Marro’s. I splurged on a glass of Pinot Noir with my pizza, which necessitated giving up the keys to my car to S, who ferried us safely to my parents’ home. My friends all took off, and I spent a quiet evening with Mom and Dad.

Sunday was a day of rest, despite a long walk in the woods at a park near my parents’ home. I enjoyed the sunshine and 80 degree temps, certain that this was the last such day for awhile. I savored the summery breezes and tried to keep my tears at bay. Summer will come again, though never this particular summer...next summer will bring new challenges as my career plans may shift dramatically...H and P will be the proud parents of baby S...and who knows what changes we’ll all witness before the next season of halcyon, seemingly endless days, and star-filled warm nights.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

bake me a cake!

Friday night, I slide into bed an hour earlier than I normally would. I lay in bed and will sleep to come--the week has been long, my sleep patterns disrupted--but excitement for the next day drive ssleep an hour or so away. I would’ve been better off staying up and finishing *My Life in France,* the delightful Julia Child and Paul Prud’homme memoir.

My alarm beeps me awake at 5:45 and for once I don’t linger beneath the soft sheets. I take a quick shower, eat a simple but hearty breakfast of old-fashioned oats and fruit, grab my hair scarf and water bottle, and drive out of my parking lot at 6:30 am.

The sky remains immutably dark as I begin my drive. I think how early mornings are de rigeuer for bakers...and how 6:30 isn’t really early to the dedicated souls who begin baking morning pastries at 4:00 am. Slowly, the sun begins to rise, filling the sky with bursts of orange and pink. By the time I angle my car down I-94 towards Ann Arbor, a magnificent burning orange sun fills a sky streaked with clouds. At 7:50am, I slide my car into the parking lot and head indoors.

I wash up in the bathroom, tie my scarf securely over my head, covering my bangs and the top of my long braid. I walk into the brightly lit teaching bakery, where I’m greeted by my three teachers and helpers: Frank, Amy, and Alejandro. My fellow classmates slowly trickle in, while the instructors sip their coffee. We tie on aprons, stick on nametags, and begin class:

Bake Me a Cake, a four hour session on cake techniques at Bake, Zingerman’s latest venture.

The class begins with an overview of objectives and goals, quick introductions to one another and the all-important kitchen etiquette, and then we begin our journey of learning and baking three delicious cakes: chocolate truffle cake, pineapple upside-down butter cake, and vanilla angel food cake.

The class aims to teach students how to make three simple, basic cakes at home in lieu of relying on cake mixes (something I simply wouldn’t do). We learn a brief history of cake--from its dense beginnings to high-tech formulations in the age of industrialization and food technology. We’ll be reclaiming simple, quality ingredients and time honored techniques.

Alejandro demonstrates each of the three cakes in turn, and after each demonstration, we create the cakes in pairs, following the recipe and his example.

I experiment with egg cracking and separating: cracking eggs with one hand (I still have a tendency to crush the shell this way) and separating them in my hand (on my first attempt, the yolk slides out of my tipped palm onto the table, followed by the pool of whites; my second attempt is a successful separation of yolk and white into their respective containers).

While much of what we do in class I have done many times before, the small tricks and the attention to detail at every stage of the cake baking teach me the importance of patience and dedication. Sifting the dry ingredients together makes for an even mixture, sans lumps. Adding eggs one at a time when creaming together a cake makes a smoother, richer emulsion. Banging cake pans noisely on countertops helps settle the excess flour, and, later, evens out the top of the batter.

I take notes, ever the student, to remember bits of trivia and cooking science--the double action of the baking soda coming from the mixture of ingredients and, later, the heat.

As the morning progresses, the cakes bake, and we begin to wind down towards the tasting portion of class. We compare box and homemade versions of angel food and pineapple upside down cakes. Of course, the box mixes provide a variety of fake, industrial sensations, especially pronounced when held up to their all-natural slow baked counterparts, redolent with double portions of vanilla and fresh pineapple.

The chocolate truffle cake, a flourless concoction, needs no industrial version to highlight its wonderfulness. This cake tastes like Christmas fudge, only purer. Smooth, dense, rich. The first bite brings tears to my eyes at the visceral pull on all my senses. Mostly, I’m satieted with a pleasure of happiness, of connection, of tasting the embodiment of my food ideology.

The class draws to a close as our cakes cool from the oven and are packed into signature Zingerman’s boxes. I reluctantly leave the gleaming professional teaching bakery and arrange my cakes safely in the back seat of my car. I visit the bakehouse and creamery for other culinary delights of coffee, bread, and cheese, remove my head scarf, and begin the drive away from Ann Arbor with a smile on my face and renewed passion in my heart.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

brownie bliss

My Mom recently gave me a recipe for Zingerman's Magic Brownies that she found in a *Midwest Living* magazine. Those of you who've been reading my blog all along know my penchant for all things Zingy, so it was only a matter of time before I passed over my trusty "Best Brownies" recipe from the Hershey's cookbook and gave these a try.

Now, one of the best aspects of the Best Brownies recipe is the ease and speed of preparation. I can mix and bake those babies faster than you can drive to the store and buy a mix. And they're ooey, gooey, scrumptious.

The Zingy's brownies, in contrast, are a bit more high maintenance. But I'm a bit high maintenance myself, and so the brownies aren't that much of a stretch. The recipe involves melting unsweetened baking chocolate and copious amounts of butter, whilst creaming eggs and sugar into a foamy whirl. These steps take a bit of time, but once I've done the recipe a few times I don't think it will take that much longer. And the brownies bake beautifully, with a texture that's both cakey and fudgy and phenomenally rich. I'm smitten.

I splurged on Scharrfen Berger chocolate, a grand decision.

I've eaten two and my tummy feels a little sad, but my head and soul are all glad:)

And, having run 8 miles this morning (hoorah!) and a total of 21.5 this week (my record thus far), I felt the need for a little chocolate celebration. I was talking to some fellow runners after today's outing and they were off in search of their rewards...panera bagels, I believe. I knew I had a better treat coming if I could just wait until later in the day to bake and indulge!

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

running solo

This week I return to work, as fall semester thrums to life with eager eyed first year students and anxious profs setting out grand ambitions in 8 page long syllabi...how I love this comfortable world of learning!

I celebrated the first day of class by dinning at the local foodie mecca with my friend K. I enjoyed a delightful, whimsical skillet of handcut “chips,” dusted with herbs and sea salt, a la my favorite and highly addictive terra red bliss chips. I followed that with a salad of bibb lettuce, spicy candied pecans, and winsantigo parm (a great deal if you can find it--a wisconsin parm style cheese that truly sings), dressed with basil vinaigrette. Perhaps a tad too much dressing, as the lettuce became a bit oily, but the flavors were lovely. A glass of rosé, a french press decaf coffee, and half of a lemon curd tart (w/graham crust, vanilla whipped cream, and strawberry coulis) rounded out the meal. A decadent start to the year!

My running had reached a point of duty and I was not feeling confident in my upcoming challenges. I would frequently ask myself WHY I decided to run a half marathon and couldn’t conjure up anything that sounded like an answer. Then yesterday I was scheduled to run 10 miles with my friend J, who’s also been struggling with motivation and some physical problems. I geared up throughout the day, treating myself to the refined sugary bliss of Great Harvest Bread Company’s Cinnamon Swirl Bread and much positive inner talk. The weather was spot on for a long run, neither cool nor warm, and overcast. We stopped at 1.2 miles to stretch, and again at 2.2 where my friend decided she couldn’t do this anymore...no more training, no half marathon. She turned around and I was faced with the reality that my last month of training would be how I began--primarily alone. And my inner confidence and trust in myself rose to the forefront and I set out down the rest of the route alone, with my iPod providing random tunes to guide my feet down the sidewalk.

I had one of my better runs ever, despite feeling muscle soreness at 6.5 miles (due to a strenuous dune/stair run on Sunday) and sore, tired feet at 8 miles. I called forth memories of long hikes, and a vision of being with friends M and J, pushing through extra miles to meet our reward of hot gooey pizza, comfy beds, and warm showers at the end of the trail. I focused on the promise of homemade chocolate chip cookies, a long shower, and slipping into my favorite, soft, pink Patagonia pullover.

Subtracting the 15 minutes for various stops (twice to buy water/use bathroom, once to say farewell to J), my actualy run time was 1.37! Even a great time! So now I feel confident and excited about October 1. And I’m looking forward to seeing B and M, to running with B and L, to be in Chi-Town with good friends, to finally complete this goal I’ve been training for...

B, I hope your long runs are going well. I’ve taped my training schedule to my kitchen cupboard so I’m reminded of my running commitments. Next week will be my biggest week, as I attempt a 12 mile run on Sunday the 10th, incidentally the day before I take a cake making class, and the morning before I share those 3 yummy cakes with friends at a cake tasting party!

Sunday, August 06, 2006

farewell, general

Congrats to B on her race last weekend--way to make your goal time! This heat is certainly making running that much harder. Thank goodness our big race is in October when the weather should be more ideal for running. I'm glad to hear your short training runs have improved. I know just what you mean about what I call the running continuum...some days I run with such ease and confidence, and other days I wonder why I'm voluntarily putting myself through misery.

I finally ran another 8 mile long run yesterday, and I felt mostly okay. My problem has to do with fueling up for the race. Too much food, and I have indigestion. Not enough food, and I have a different form of indigestion. Any ideas? Our running group is having a food and fitness program this week and hopefully I’ll learn some new approaches to eating for endurance! I'm scheduled to do another 8 miler Tuesday night with my new running friends, since I'll be out of town next weekend. I hope it goes even better than yesterday's run.

This past week has been eventful. First, the sad news. Our family dog, General, had to be put to sleep. His health was in serious decline--two days before my Dad took him to the vet, we saw General limping around the yard. He would take a few steps and then stop, and then resume his trek to his favorite spots around the yard. We were all sad, but knew this was the kindest action. General was 13 and a half years old, and especially for an all-outdoor “farm dog,” that’s not too shabby.

This week included a trek to Zingy’s with S. We dined there twice, complete with gelato on the second round. I bought bread, sweet wheat and rustic Italian, and cheese, fresh mozzarella and san joaquin gold. S and I shopped at my favorite store, Vintage to Vogue, where I found a magenta shirt of cotton lawn that I’ll pair with a pair of white cotton/linen pants for my back-to-school outfit. I also snagged a pair of David Kahn jeans on super discount.

Tonight I’m enjoying dinner with friends K and J, who are now neighbors. I’ve baked a peach-blueberry cobbler for dessert, and the warm smell of fruit and cake baked together fills my home with the scent of comfort and summer at its best.

The farmer’s market these days is filled with the bounty of the season, and I’m eating corn on a regular basis. Yumm! I’ve taken to making a kind of succotash, with whatever combination of corn and beans and other veggies cut into small pieces, and sauteed in olive oil with a bit of garlic. I hit the just cooked veggies with a touch of milk and some parm-reg. Yumm again.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

it's all about the pancakes

Welcome to my good friend B! We’ve decided to use this delicious life blog to check in on our respective running programs. Hopefully, L., who’s also running the Chicago Half with us, will join in too.

This morning I ran another 5K, this time in Grand Haven, as part of the kickoff for the annual Coast Guard Festival. My Uncle D. ran too, his first race in over 20 years. I can say with utmost confidence that this was the worst race yet! The race was not well managed, as no one really knew where the start was. And though we had champion chips to record our times, they only had the timing platform at the finish, which means the timing wasn’t entirely accurate. While the course was well marked with signage, there were no signs to mark off miles, and no one yelling out times along the way. My iPod battery gave out about halfway through the race, and the heat and high humidity, combined with about 5 decent sized hills (Grand Haven is, after all, a coastal town, filled with dunes and valleys), all conspired to make the racing experience so miserable.

I can’t write here what thoughts were going through my head, but you can use your imagination and ponder the kind of obscenities even a nice girl would be wont to utter under this set of dire circumstances.

Two small bonuses: water station midway through the race (a necessity even with a 5K on a day like today) and kind folks along the route who brought sprinklers to the edge of their lawns and directed them into our path--ahhh, heavenly!
My time according to the chip: 28.48. My official time? Who knows. I’m just glad I managed to run the whole thing and avoid medical intervention at the end! I’ve been pushing liquids feverishly all day, and am not as exhausted as I first thought I’d be.

My post-race treat of pancakes at my favorite breakfast spot, Morningstar Cafe, was a definite perk. I had one large oatmeal cranberry pancake, with cinnamon honey butter and genuine maple syrup; roasted redskin potatoes; and a dark roast coffee.

Good luck to B. on her race tomorrow...I’m sure M. will be proud of you regardless of your time. I don’t think he can give us much grief since he’s in retirement, right?!? Or is part of the support staff duty to harrass the runners? Hee hee!

Sunday, July 23, 2006

pavlovian conundrum

Ahhhhh...a perfect Sunday!

My morning began with my first 5K race since late March. The temp was right around 70 degrees, the skies blue and sun-filled. I found my friends from running group and we joked around until the race began. I found myself setting out ahead of them, and pushed myself like never before to earn a time of 26.42! I wanted to shout my time to the world...of course, I was nowhere near the top of my age group (21 of 73), but I’m still making wonderful progress for myself.

Then I came home, lazed around, ate and drank throughout the day, and then decided on a dinner plan: potato leek soup a la Julia Child (I have a book out of the library), a salad with homemade raspberry vinaigrette (using my schnazzy new Raspberry Champagne Vinegar from Zingy’s), an ear of corn on the cob (doesn’t quite match, but I was craving another sweet, salty, crunchy experience since I had a piece yesterday), and the coup de grace: a chocolate raspberry pavlova a la Nigella.

I headed out to World Market because I needed a chocolate bar for the pavlova, and wanted a bottle of wine. I bought a half bottle of 2003 Conundrum, a wine I had enjoyed as part of a wine flight tasting at a local restaurant. When I was paying for these items, the checkout girl carded me (hoorah!) and then said, “I love that word, conundrum.” I smiled with the recognition of a fellow wordie, and told her the wine was as good as the word and together, and thought to myself that it’s about as much fun as saying and drinking Pinot Noir (how can you not say that in a sexy way?).

So far, the wine and dinner was excellent. I’m waiting for the last of the meringue disks to finish baking so I can go for a post-prandial stroll to mitigate the intoxicating effects of one small-ish glass of Conundrum after a day of fast running and slow lazing.

Friday, July 21, 2006

ode to summer fruits and veggies

I missed strawberry season. Writing about it, that is. Now I can write with the fondness and longing of nostalgia, and portion out a handful of frozen berries--and words--here and there. Before being frozen, they were wonderful, tasting of sunshine and sweetness and the warmth of early June days in the great lakes state. I ate bowls full, dusted with sugar. Layered with shortcake and whipped cream.

Now, cherries, blueberries, and peaches stake a claim for summertime, as the days shorten incrementally while the temperature ratchets up, up, and slides back down with a capriciousness synonymous with summer.

And the vegetables, not so glamorous or clamorous as the fruits, but ever more abundant...the summer squashes, tomatoes, prolific herbs, lettuces, new potatoes, cukes, and the beginning of the variously colored sweet peppers. I’m awaiting fresh corn, dreaming of succotash and corn chowder, and simply boiled ears of corn dripping with butter and salt. Ecstasy.

Eating is never quite so fresh and good as the mid-to late summer here. Occasionally my mind flits ahead to fall, when heartier fare will fill the farmer’s market stalls and the rigors of teaching will shape my days, but like a zen master, I bring my brain back to this present moment, to these foods wanting to be eaten and appreciated now. To the glory of greens, the simplicity of washing, minimally cooking, and eating with a clear and joyous mind.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

pralus and pinot noir

I have many culinary capers to report...

Let’s begin with a week ago last Monday. I was meeting my bro L- for dinner at Zingerman’s Roadhouse to celebrate his birthday. Now, I needed coffee, so a trip to the Zingy’s deli was inescapable. I ordered a side of fruit (yummy combo of melons, pineapple, strawberries) and a large coffee...and I sat there in the sun-filled, bakery area reading *Intuition,* an intriguing realistic novel about science, surrounded by many of my favorite foods, including a wall o’ chocolate.

I noticed a sign for Pralus chocolates, a French specialty brand that, according to a few well-respected chocolate connessieurs, is the ne plus ultra of chocolate. After finishing my snack and the chapter I was reading, I headed over to the display and surveyed the three varieties of Pralus. A cute Zingy’s boy offered me samples of whatever I wanted, so I asked to taste the two more reasonable (loosely defined) priced varieties. According to the packaging, these chocolates had overtones of wild mushrooms and leather, respectively. I was curious...Zingy’s boy slipped me a sample of one, and I let the chocolate melt in my mouth, coating the inside with a burst of smoothness (so silky) and there it was: an earthiness that was indeed redolent of mushrooms! And the next sample didn’t disappoint either, as I could taste the leather before the chocolate slid down my throat. I couldn’t help but wonder if I would taste these overtones without the package prompting...though I do feel more confident tasting chocolate than say, wine. Maybe because the scope is a bit smaller?!? Although I was intrigued by these unexpected flavors, I couldn’t say I was ready to really appreciate these chocolates...that’s another year or so down my culinary road, I think.

So I asked to taste the Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, an unconched dark chocolate with cinnamon from Italy. I’d never tasted unconched chocolate before, and the texture is amazing: granular, crystalline (from all the added sugar--this chocolate is seriously sweeter than I’m used to), and wonderful. Different, tasty, lovely. I went home with one of these bars, and have been nibbling a bite each day.

Then I met L- at the Roadhouse, where we shared sweet potato fries with spicy mayonaise. I had a salad with delicious balsamic vinaigrette (they use a bright, peppery olive oil), assorted veggies, and shaved fennel, which I’d never had before; cheese grits (yummmm), and a glass of Oregon Pinot Gris. L- had the barbecued beef brisket with collard greens and mashed potatoes. I had more good, strong, zingy’s roasted coffee and a slice of key lime pie, while L-took his complimentary bday cupcake home. We were stuffed but satiated and happy.

Of course, with all of that high quality caffeine surging through my system, I couldn’t sleep and was assailed with typical 3 a.m. thoughts of “where is my life going?” It seems all of my culinary capers at tasty foodie restaurants lead me into paths of excess in one way or another...definitely something to consider the next time I venture out for a night of fine dining...

On Thursday, I ventured to Simply Wine in Birmingham, a lovely wine shop that prides itself on carrying many bottles under $15. I love this shop, and will gladly drive there to search out a special bottle. I was looking for a “big red” for my dad; he’s fallen in love with Rombauer Zinfindel, and I knew the carried that wine at the shop, so I could ask for a recommendation in the taste of the Rombauer. And, of course, the proprieter didn’t disappoint. He also gave me a taste of a stunning Pinot Noir. Then I witnessed true wine genius: another customer/friend dropped in and tasted two wines in a row and was able to pinpoint not only the varietal but also the region...with the specificity of Sonoma over Napa or Russian River. Impressive! I left wishing I had those tasting skills...something to practice, I suppose! The talented taster teased that I was too young to be in the shop buying wine...and he also said that Pinot Noir is what oenophiles graduate to...I thought of how I first became entranced by Pinot Noir, not by the taste--which I know love for it’s bright, light, delicate, nuance--but rather the musical, sensual sounds of the name itself, the way the French syllables roll around in the mouth, nearly as delicious as the wine itself.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

cool cabot, cinnamon cream, and cougar conundrums

Tonight I saw Meg Cabot at the local independent bookstore, and I haven’t laughed so hard in, oh, like 7 weeks. She talked about her “journey as a writer,” but in this very hilarious, grown-up valley-girl-esque way that was at once self-mocking and adoring. I love, love, loved the talk, and now I’m fired up to work on my novel, currently without a title...

My novel suffers from a bit of an identity crisis, in that it wants to be a smart chick lit book, but so far I think I’m the only one who would see the “smartness.” Gotta work on that. Also, the real question is how, um, smutty, or explicit to make the story. I’m currently at a crucial point in the action and have to decide how to proceed, the 19th century fade-out, the coy tell-but-don’t show, or the no-holds barred laying it bare (so to speak).

K. and I chatted at length yesterday about our respective novels and the great fun of dressing the characters. I find that I have my characters wear clothes that I’ve seen/tried on and have no place for or not enough money for in my own life. Case in point: this amazing emerald silk halter gown, super low back and plunge front, with a soft train in the back, simply stunning. I’ve never felt quite so pisces-esque as when I had this gown on. So now Sarah’s wearing the gown (although she’s about not to...see the previous paragraph).

In culinary creation news, I made a cinnamon honey ice cream today, though ice milk might be more apt, as I used 2% milk and heavy cream instead of whole milk and twice as much cream. The texture’s different, but I love the lightness. The ice cream will be the accompaniment of the peach pie I intend to bake tomorrow...I made the crust today (I use about 3/4 butter and 1/4 shortening for the best of both worlds). Yumm. S and I will enjoy this tasty treat after our inaugural tennis match of the summer (which promises to be hilarious as neither of us are v. good). We played often last summer, in part to try and meet some nice (read smart, funny, fit, single) men, but were caught in the “cougar” conundrum (see recent reporst on mass media outlets for the definition of this term)...that is, either being cougars ourselves (much younger men) or the cougar prey (much older men). Where’s Andy Roddick when you need him?

As you can tell, this blog seems to be taking a turn to the chatty...blame it on the summer breezes, which make me feel fine and help me not to take myself so gosh darned seriously:)

Thursday, June 01, 2006

sweet georgia peaches

My car is--briefly--in the shop again for a follow-up fix-up from an accident in April. So, last night I had no choice but to walk to the grocery store, heading out on a gust of wind, and heralded along by the fluff and fuzz that are circulating through the air, the last of the spring-time pollen and seed explosion. What a pleasant journey! I’m planning on walking to this particular store more often, as I’ll save gas and pollution, and I’ll also be supporting a family owned store, not to mention working in a bit of extra exercise.

The store always features an array of fruits and vegetables in the foyer and last night this included genuine Georgia peaches! Joy! I selected four small peaches to test before buying enough for--yumm--a peach pie.

I waited until this morning to test the peach, cutting it up on my bowl of daily oatmeal. And it was juicy, ripe, and tasty. A reminder of the South that I left and still love. Look for a pie report this weekend!

barcelona bliss

Oh, for the glorious ying and yang of a Vosges Barcelona bar...dark milk chocolate, smoked almonds, and grey sea salt blended into bliss...

On Monday, I treated myself to a small pizza-to-go from one of my favorite, seasonal restaurants in Saugatuck. Avoiding the crowds, I took my pizza to a small park overlooking the river, and delved in. A slightly tepid 20 oz. bottle of Coke replaced my usual grapey vintagey accompaniment. This was my first pizza of the season, and I wasn’t disappointed. The crust was cracker thin and crispy, the green peppers crunchy and, along with the black olives, anchored in with a thick layer of mozzarella. I sprinkled a few red pepper flakes and enjoyed the crackle of crust and the heat of the peppers shattering the smooth edge of the cheese.

How does the Barcelona figure into this scenario? I found this gem in a small eclectic shop of hippie shirts, upscale fashions, kitschy faux retro accoutrements...and a small display of Vosges! And the Barcelona, rare to be found outside of Chicago, there on the shelf just for me...

I have two squares left, which I’ll eat sooner than soon as this warm weather is wreaking havoc on my chocolate stash...and now I know where to go for my next Vosges fix...

Saturday, May 27, 2006

hallelujah milkshakes

I knew I was in an emergency situation when I segued from Coldplay to Jeff Buckley last night. Whenever I slip *Grace* into the CD player and forward to “Hallelujah,” incidentally, track no. 6 (seemingly a poignant and important track position, as many of my fave songs are, oddly enough, located in that self-same spot), I know that I will need some kind of mood intervention or the evening will be lost in brooding and I may start pulling Victorian novels off of my bookshelves and losing myself out on some misty moor. Tonight’s antidote: Plum Sykes’ frothy novel, *The Debutante Divorcees,* and a liqueur laced milkshake concoction. Sykes’ novel reads quickly, and abounds with names and over-the-top excess (I was pleased to see my new fave jeans, paper denim and cloth, mentioned in the book as “rock star-ish”), and the milkshake made me positively giggly with less than one shot total of bailey’s, starbucks coffee liqueur, and kahlua kicking up the splash of organic milk and two scoops of Haagen-Dazs light coffee ice cream (the commercial ice cream with the least “stuff” in it). Yumm, delish. No moors any more, rather sunny beaches and endless holiday weekends...

Monday, May 22, 2006

my daily bread

On a whim, I signed up for a bread class yesterday afternoon, and headed out to Zingy’s bakehouse to learn the secrets of their artisan breads. I stepped into the bakery, and was engulfed with the heat and the yeasty fragrance of a huge room dedicated to bread. A small group of us tied on aprons, stuck on name tags, and poured giant glasses of water before lining up at a wood-topped work table to begin our first lesson on shaping the bread.

I have made bread at home a handful of times, and do make pizza dough regularly, but I’ve never seen bread dough so alive, so gassy, so pliable as the dough we worked with. We learned how to move the bread, how to feel its springiness, how to keep from tearing the bread or not sealing the bottoms.

In between our hands-on dough work, we learned about the history of the bakery and saw the various tools they use to aid in the bread making process, most of which is done by hand, which helps give the breads their artisan qualities.

After a second shaping and proofing, we placed the rounded loaves on the “conveyer,” slashed the tops, and slid them into the giant French ovens. As our loaves rose and baked into golden-crusted goodness, we tasted other varieties of breads, from Potato Dill to Sesame Semolina.

And finally, the piece de resistance: we were invited to select a variety of loaves to take home. Since our class was so small, each of us went home with two huge brown-paper bags filled with bread...around 20 loaves in all! I was giddy with Christmas morning excitement. The beautiful baguettes and free-form loaves were mine to enjoy! I loaded them into my car, and drove off with the scent of fresh baked bread saturating the air I breathed.

I decided to stop at Zingy’s deli to buy some cheese to enjoy with my breads--a chunk of 5 year aged Vermont cheddar, and a round of fresh mozzarella. I bought a Vanilla Latte (with authentic Mexican vanilla!) and a dangerously hedonistic sugar crisp muffin, aka “donut muffin” to enjoy on my drive home...

Once home, I selected the French baguette as my bread du jour, as it doesn’t keep as well as the other multifarious loaves. I sliced the baguette, toasted the rounds, rubbed them with garlic. I sauteed farmer’s market spinach with balsamic vinegar, roasted red peppers, whirled together a white bean pate, sliced my mozarella, and cooked a quick tomato, garlic, basil topping. I poured a generous glass of Pinot Noir, and enjoyed a plate of small bites, placing them together in endless combinations. Delicious!

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

post-prandial ponderings

I’m quite fond of the post-prandial stroll, both as a phrase--doesn’t it have an exquisite sound?--and as an activity. I recently read that walking after dinner can aid digestion, which is an added bonus. I find it a nice respite from cleaning up the kitchen immediately, and as a lovely way to enjoy the day as it slips softly into night. Last night the sidewalk was filled with a skateboarder; a teenaged girl alternately reading a book and chatting on her cellphone, all while walking in a straight, if slow path; and a woman pushing a bay in a doublewide pram, the baby’s white-blond hair floating up in the breeze, his face displaying a smile of pure joy.

I’m re-reading Edith Wharton’s novel *The Glimpses of the Moon* in preparation for writing an article about this often overlooked and undervalued book. Some critics (mostly those writing several decades ago) only mention the novel as a poor imitation of *The House of Mirth,* as evidence to Wharton’s slipping literary gift. However, the novel strikes me as an attempt by Wharton to write a love story--one in which the lovers are actually together at the end of the book, something she denies most couples in other novels. So I’m mulling ideas in my head, and enjoying the second reading of the novel, which is filled with curious, and what I like to call flirtatious punctuation (lots of suggestive ellipses, for example). Today’s primary task is to finish the re-read and make some more notes, to decide if I’m going to pair the novel with something else...Fitzgerald, perhaps? So many questions and possibilities at this moment!

Tried to post this repeatedly throughout the day, but alas, the blogger system was super slow.

Tonight I took a post-vino stroll. I met my friend K. at a local foodie joint for a glass of wine and an appetizer, and I ordered two taste sizes of wine...except that the kind bartender emptied the bottle and basically gave me a full glass on my second taste. And, as those of you who know me well know, I can't hold more than one glass of wine without becoming silly or sentimental or some other adjective that begins with the letter "s." When K. left I decided to walk to the grocery store to purchase eggs to make banana muffins (my bananas can't wait another day) and delicate cupcakes for mother's day. It's a lovely evening, warm-ish and a bit overcast, and I loved the idea of being able to walk to the store...

I've been thinking a lot about sustainable food choices since I read Michael Pollan's blog in the NYT yesterday, and feeling strongly about "voting with our forks," as it were. That is, making our food decisions count politically. And somehow, in my current red-wine laced state of mind (very much different than a red-state state of mind:), walking to the grocery store fits into this as well...moreso as I just read an article in Sierra magazing about how much fossil fuel is hidden in our meals--not in the food itself, but in the growth and transportation involved to move the food from farm to table. So walking to the store seems a small step in changing my consumption patterns, at least.

I'm afraid I may get a bit self-righteous about this issue if I'm not careful...

On a lighter note, while K. was using the restroom at the restaurant, I was thumbing through a magazine on the bar, which showcases various local food stars, including the pioneer of a local preserve company, who has created quite a little empire out of some delicious and simple treats. I met this man's son last year and literally fell into some kind of foodie infatuation that still lurks in the back of my mind today. We had a lovely chat about chocolate. Ahhh.....maybe we'll meet again at another fancy food event...

Monday, May 08, 2006

literary leisure

I’m adjusting to the changing pace of “summer mode,” one of the glories of being an educator...Many outside of academe tease us of our leisurely days, especially our summers, and I suppose there’s some truth to that luxury of leisure. I like to think of this leisure as an exchange for the higher salaries of those in the 9-5 (or, in the case of corporate aspirants, much longer) workaday world. Given the choice, I think I would remain here, with less material wealth but more time to live the lifestyle that best suits me.

My ideal mornings involve a healthy breakfast of oatmeal, with cinnamon, pecans, and brown sugar to refuel my body, paired with perhaps a slice of buttered whole wheat toast and orange juice (Tropicana pure premium). Then it’s time to transition into writing, accompanied by a mug of strong coffee laced with a hint of sugar and cream.

My goal is to write in the mornings--to write in my journal as always, but also to keep this blog updated regularly. And then to work on my novel and/or my scholarly article, followed by a run, yoga program, or a trip to the gym. Slowly, my mind will work its way towards lunch, and the afternoon, ready to fill with more quiet literary work...and the day unfolds as such.

Yesterday was my first real “summer mode” day and I was quiet pleased with my quiet accomplishments. I also ate a few delicious meals, using my farmer’s market bounty as well as some bold new ideas. I made a roasted garlic parm risotto for dinner, accompanied with roasted asparagus, sauteed spinach, and a simple salad of baby lettuces, balsamic vinaigrette, and croutons made from Zingy’s paesano bread. A glass of Sancerre rounded out the meal. For dessert, I finished off the vanilla ice milk I made for L’s graduation celebration last week. I “roasted” some fresh pineapple, coated with brown sugar that just began to caramelize, and toasted coconut flakes. I placed both on the ice milk and then sprinkled the dish with a bit of Maker’s Mark bourbon. Definitely something to share with friends at some meal in the future. A bit tropical /exotic, a lot tasty, somewhat healthful, and simply delicious.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

spring, moths, and zen

I stare outside the window of my study to witness a world dressed in my favorite colors: pink and green. An errant breeze sends up clouds of pine pollen and causes pink petals to dance through the air, landing at the foot of the crab apple tree from whence they came. Spring has arrived!

Yesterday was the first farmer’s market day of the 2006 season, and what a joy to see everyone familiar, back in their places, with gorgeous greens and plants and asparagus (it’s still early for anything more ambitious to be locally grown). I bought a bag of spinach, a bag of mixed lettuces, a bundle of asparagus, and a small bag of edible violets to grace birthday cupcakes. I may try my hand at sugaring the rest--a time consuming task made possible by the end of the spring semester and a temporary reprieve from reading student essays, hoorah! For tonight, I plan a feast of parm regg risotto, roasted asparagus, sauteed spinach, and a simple green salad. A glass of Sancerre...but back to the market...

My eyes filled with tears as I drove home, so happy to begin the season of fresh produce and letting my culinary forays be driven by what I find at the market. I feel on the verge of the best of Michigan--the gorgeous and temperate spring and summer months.

I then met best friends S and H at Zingy’s for breakfast, where I also stocked up on coffee (their house blend this time), parm regg, and the treat of fresh mozzarella (which I just enjoyed on a homemade rustic pizza). Then S and I journeyed on to Birmingham, where I whiled away the afternoon reading and writing while S was at a party. We hit Trader Joe’s on the way home and I picked up a dark chocolate Toblerone (yummmmmm), a bottle of $6 Bordeaux (eat your heart out, Robert Parker!), San Pellegrino, and some French Sea Salt for the bargain price of $3.99 for 15 oz.!

Today I went running at the park, and was transfixed by the transformation. The last time I ran there was at least a month ago, and though the swamps were alive with frog song, the park was still garbed in late winter. Today, the forest was awash with green plants and small wild violets, and the path was alive with all manner of moths and gnats, which danced in front of me. I was transported back in time by the profusion of periwinkle moths--dainty little things that sat on the path, swirling up as I ran by...

And suddenly I was back at 12 Mile Creek, sitting on a boulder in the middle of a stream, for one of the few times in my life alive to the particular moment: the gurgle of water as it passed over rocks, the quiet presence of my friends reading and writing whilst perched on their rocks up and downstream from me. That day we hiked around a quiet forest on the edge of the Smoky Mountains, and everywhere, huge clouds of these same moths would fly up and flit around us as we wound our way down trails and across streams...

And today I called back that moment and felt that sense of bittersweetness for a moment so preserved in memory and yet lost in time, and I was also wondering why, try as I might, it’s difficult to remain in the moment as it evolves, to not see a periwinkle moth and be back somewhere in the North Carolina woods. I though of Proust (who I’ve never actually read) and his famous madelaines, about the power of sensation to evoke memory. Perhaps there’s something to being a writer that makes it difficult to stay in the now, I thought, when suddenly one of these moths flew into my mouth!

And suddenly, I was in the moment, coughing and swallowing that poor moth...

Zen...for a moment....

Until I started thinking about how I’m a vegetarian (albeit one who flirts with pork) and moths are definitely not vegetable...And suddenly the Jains, with their masks in front of their mouths and noses make even more sense...

Sunday, March 26, 2006

eating zen

Last night I challenged myself to eat mindfully--that is, without music AND, most significantly, without reading. I sat, alone, with my bowl of food and concentrated on eating. Lucky me, I created a tofu-broccoli-carrot-ginger-garlic-stirfry (a reprise of dinner a few nights ago), and ate every last morsel using my polished bamboo chopsticks, which aided in my zen-like venture. Eating with new utensils entails learning to eat in another way, finding the rhythm of the meal change with the awkward slick and slip of the chopsticks. I’m improving!

I was inspired to use my lovely chopsticks (purchased at a boutique in Auburn that I dearly miss) last fall when I went to eat with M and S, who are both adept at using them (M having lived in Japan for a year, and S a devoted Buddhist). Now whenever I create a stirfry, out come my chopsticks, and each time I’m that much better at trapping vegetables and bits of rice and transporting them to my mouth. The rice remains a challenge, but it’s one that increases the pleasure of the meal, slows down the pace, and allows me to truly taste each bite.

As friends would tell you, I’m a silverware freak, using utensils to eat pizza (which seems almost prissy, I know). My rationale has to do with the heat of the pizza, and not wanting all the hot cheese and toppings to slide into my mouth at once. I like to prolong the pleasure of cheese in each bite. Now, when I’m home alone, I’ve been known to eat a bowl of steamed broccoli with my fingers, popping the delicious stalks into my mouth like sweet treats. So my silverware use depends on the food and the moment
Last week I shared dinner with an Irish bloke, and noted his distinct silverware usage, the fork held completely differently in the left hand, rather than in the right. How much we learn of cultures as we sup with one another!

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

good food day

You know how some days are good hair days, which makes the whole day simply pleasant? Today was a good food day...

Breakfast: Pancakes “from the pantry,” a recipe from my Aunt B for a dry mix, which includes oats, whole wheat flour, and cinnamon. I added some applesauce and pecans, and topped the finished pancakes with maple syrup. Add my usual half a ruby red grapefruit, a glass of orange juice, and a cup of coffee with milk and sugar, and the breakfast was perfect.

Lunch: My favorite winter salad of red leaf lettuce, oranges, shaved parm-regg, shallots, balsamic vinaigrette, ground black pepper, and sea salt; home-made oven fries; and a red pepper and red onion frittata. Two squares of Michel Cluizel Concepcion chocolate.

Between class snack: Whole wheat banana pecan muffin.

Dinner: Crispy Tofu stir-fry with carrots, broccoli, scallions, ginger, garlic, and a tamari/wine/red pepper/brown sugar/orange juice glaze. Served over brown rice. Eaten with chopsticks.

Post-prandial snack: Hot chocolate with Bailey’s and a cream biscuit.

Ahhh....amidst a busy week and a messy mind, I locate a spot of bliss and carve out a bit of calm in a few simple, delicious treats.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

comfort food

One of the major tensions I see between foodie culture and the culture at large seems to be the role of food and emotion. Foodies openly profess a genuine affection for food as emotional sustenance, pleasure, and spiritual transcendence. In much health, fitness, and self-help writing, food and emotion has a negative connotation of “emotional eating.” And certainly, like any substance, food can become an unhealthy obsession in a variety of ways. Nearly everyone I know has a complex relationship to food, and these relationships are all valid and need to be honored.

I’ve been thinking of this lately, because several of my dear friends are facing challenging times, and I wish I could sweep away their suffering. And in some situations, there are real limits to what one can do, and so I find myself speaking the language of comfort through words, which seem to fail me at these times, and through food, a language of care and sustenance. A homecooked meal shared with friends creates a space to share the suffering and sustain the soul. A basket of homemade biscuits and jam communicates a moment of assuagement. Or so I hope.

This is the real meaning of comfort food, more so than the ubiquitous Ben and Jerry’s in the face of heartbreak, or my personal favorite, homemade mac and cheese on a day when the world seems an amalgam of the blues and what Holly Golightly calls “the mean reds.” I hope that when I speak food, others can sense my compassion, my desire to share their suffering and offer even a moment of comfort.

Friday, March 17, 2006

hot and spicy in hotlanta

Last weekend I journeyed to the blooming landscape of the South to escape into the woods with J and M, and to revisit some of my old haunts. While the culinary adventures while hiking are somewhat limited by one’s inclination to avoid unnecessary weight, I did manage to sneak a few of my favorite goodies into my food bag: a hunk of parm-regg to grate over pasta and dehydrated veggies; another chunk of cheese, a dry jack, to add to our black bean salsa couscous burritos; and my personal stash of chocolate, including a Vosges Barcelona bar, Vosges Black Cat bar, and my default fave, the Michel Cluizel Concepcion bar.

The backcountry adventures were bookended by culinary delights in the city. On Friday, we ventured to an old standby from grad school days: Mellow Mushroom. I delighted in warm, soft pretzels fashioned out of pizza dough and brushed to a glistening sheen with butter and then sprinkled with grated parm. I drank two huge glasses of Southern sweet tea, and enjoyed my pizza with green peppers, spinach, and feta. I wish I could’ve taken my leftovers home with me!

And Monday, due to a complexity of factors of changed plans and mysterious trails (“what happens in North Carolina stays in North Carolina...”), I was back in Atlanta by noon, and by 12:30 I was drinking in the fragrance of thai spices at Tamarind, my favorite Thai restaurant. I ordered my usual: iced tea (unsweetened), spring rolls, and mixed vegetable curry. My body was shivering--a combination of air conditioner shock and the lingering chill of the woods--while my mouth was shimmering to life with the gentle heat of the spring rolls and accompanying sauce, and then sweating with the more pointed warmth of the red curry sauce. Yummmmmmmmmmm.

I glanced at my watch, and with 3 hours left before I needed to be at the airport, I decided to drive around Midtown in search of Jakes, an incredible ice cream place I had been two years before. After 15 minutes of navigating the one way streets, I found my spot, pleased with my memory recall. Though there have been some slight changes in the ownership, the dessert itself was as delicious as I remembered. Shivering once again, I settled in with a dish of half ginger (a nice lingering finish to my Thai meal) and half cinnamon coffee, replete with flecks of espresso and spice...

A quick trip up to the shopping mecca known as Lenox Square mall completed my tour de Atlanta, and I hit the trifecta of favorite shops: Sephora, Bloomingdales, and Anthropologie, before steering the rental car through late afternoon traffic and back to the airport. I soaked up the last bits of sunny Southern warmth, before slipping on a jacket over my tank top and changing my flip-flops to running shoes. I stepped into the airport, and awaited my return to the great lakes, where winter still reigns, though Spring tenatively throws out an occasional invitation, like the tease she is.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

just a cheese sandwich?

The other day I read a short article in one of my cooking magazines that was bemoaning the “cheese sandwich” blog in which the writer merely chronicles each meal. So I’ve been a bit concerned that my own blog veers awfully near this abyss of boredom...then again, as I’m always telling my students, what matters is having your APPM clear, and then the rest falls into place. (A:udience; P:urpose; P:ersona; M:essage). So at the risk of being a cheese sandwich blog in the eyes of the sophisticated gourmands in the magazine world, I’ll carry on, as I think my approach reaches my desired APPM:).

Last night I made cookies--I was craving little bits of sweetness. I tried a new recipe for oatmeal raisin cookies, with a few inevitable subsitutions; I swapped dried cranberries for the raisins and added chopped toasted pecans. The cookies are wee, crispy, crunchy gems of caramelly yumminess. I think I’ll freeze some to take backpacking with me...

My other food project is to concoct a parm-reg pasta dish that can be prepared with minimal fuss in the backcountry. I’m excited to try something new, rather than the standard Kraft or Lipton packaged dishes. I hope my hiking companions don’t think I’m too terribly high-maintenance (though who am I kidding? I do tend to be rather HM about some things. I used to be “the worst kind,” according to Harry Burns, of *When Harry Met Sally,* by insisting on believing myself low maintenance when really I’m high maintenance. I take my open admission of “I just want it the way I want it” to be a sign of maturity). Anyway, my HM tendencies seem to revolve around food. I already have a lovely stockpile of chocolates (Vosges Barcelona bars, and the lust-worthy Michel Cluizel single origin Concepcion bar that I keep sneaking a square from...) ready to fill my pack.

And I have my iPod loaded with some new favorites for the plane ride. Recently, I’ve discovered the indie band Death Cab for Cutie, which features reflective lyrics and mellow melodies that are very popular with college-aged hipsters. And I’ve been listening to James Blunt, who I love, and feel compelled to admit listening to before he exploded on the pop music landscape. “Tears and Rain” is an achingly gorgeous song. And there’s other fun “bippy” stuff like KT Tunstall, whose “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” amazes me because every rich, distinct musical sound is created by one woman (I heard a story about her on NPR a few weeks ago). And, a lovely gulf coast relief song by Michael Stipe (REM) and Chris Martin (Coldplay), called “Into the Sun.” A good reminder that the tragedy continues and kindness must continue to flourish. And Ben Folds, who I have such a crush on, and who I’m going to see in concert in a few months (hoorah!). I like him in both his mellow, sweet, sad moods “Late,” “The Luckiest” (a song I would have at my wedding if I were to marry now), or the infectious, fun, messed up songs like “Zak and Sara” (best line: “visions of pills that put you in a loving trance/that make it possible for all white boys to dance.”)

Saturday, February 18, 2006

cold, cocktails, and conversation

After a string of teasing, temperate days, winter has returned with biting wind and low, low temps--this morning the thermometer read -1, and the wind chill assuredly hovers somewhere around -10 or so...

Last night, my friend S- and I decided to brave the cold and head out to a supposedly hip new restaurant in the downtown area. I’ve read reviews that claim that once inside, diners will forget the relatively provincial locale and be tricked into thinking they’re in Chicago...we were in search of innovative cocktails and small plates, as well as an urban social scene.

Unfortunately, the restaurant was empty--due to the influx of diners on Valentine’s day, our bartender B- told us. But, the restaurant is gorgeous--a warm, sensual setting, with long linen drapes, cherry-colored furniture, sleek wood floors, and behind the bar, a wall of one inch tile, all in warm red and orange tones. The lighting was dim yet cozy, and we settled into the high chairs at the bar and listened to B- list the diversely delicious cocktails he could create. We both decided on a Champagne sorbet “martini,” composed of a variety of orange flavored liqueurs, grenadine, and a scoop of the eponymous champagne sorbet. Yumm! As B- promised, the flavor of the drink would change as the sorbet melted.

As the liqueur traveled straight to my head, I suggested we order a small plate of the warm goat cheese, served with marinara and crostini. Usually, I find goat cheese too pungent and earthy for my palate, but I’ve been trying to accustom myself to its flavor profile. Plus, the menu, while innovative and reasonably priced for upscale dining, has nary a vegetarian option, so goat cheese was THE choice.

The cheese, mixed with an array of herbs, was floated in a pool of marinara, and served in a small cast iron skillet. The crostini were still warm, and just the right crispiness, with a slick of satisfying olive oil. And when our crostini were gone, the wait staff brought more (most generous since S- and I both inadvertently flung a toast or two on the highly polished floor).

And then the night became interesting. The 60+ year old barfly sitting next to us took the advantage of S- going to the bathroom to strike up a conversation with me. His son is ostensibly the chef (his other stories seemed rather fabricated, so I remain skeptical). By turns an interesting talker and by turns belligerent, J- continued to chat with us the rest of the night. And, since the bar was nearly deserted, so too did B-, the cute bartender, who was most attentive and flirtatious as the best bartenders are. A high point of the evening involved B-removed his vest after my confession of watching *Smallville* for the obligatory Tom Welling sans shirt moments.

Despite the quiet of the restaurant, I did feel I was in a city for those brief hours we enjoyed our cocktails and conversations, and I hope to see a crowd worthy of Chicago the next time I venture back downtown...Ahh, Chicago, the city where though the wind whips a biting chill through the streets, I’m warmed with thoughts of Rick Bayless’ Mexican cuisine and Katrina Markoff’s creative chocolate bars at Vosges, and, of course, the endless shopping at Bloomingdales....

Sunday, February 12, 2006

go for the gold

Last night I hosted an Olympic Party--each guest/couple declared a “country” identity and brought food and beverage representing their chosen nation. As the hostess (I can hardly write that word without adding “with the mostest,” a little in-joke from my college sorority days), I presented the culinary delights of Italia...

Due to a busy work week, I decided to spend more money and less time creating a memorable dish or two, and I made an Antipasti platter and Tiramisu. After work each day, I ventured to a different food store in search of the perfect ingredients...and at week’s end, I discovered that I bought ingredients at 6 different locations...I will spare you the details of my hours wandering through grocery stores, but I must say that when planning a party or a special meal, I love the thrill of gathering the most delicious, freshest, best ingredients I can find.

For my Antipasti, I made Balsamic Roasted Red Peppers, riveting in their simplicity of salt, pepper, chiffonade of basil, 10 year aged Balsamic, and the peppers;

Marinated Kalamata Olives, blended with lemon zest, basil, crushed red pepper flakes, and olive oil;

Chunks of Zingerman’s Paesano bread;

Small fresh whole milk mozzarella balls, chunks of fontina, and shards of asiago;

And a spicy Sopressata. Yumm!

My Tiramisu is an adaptation of a *Cooking Light* recipe, to which I add Starbucks coffee liqueur along with the Kahlua and coffee for ladyfinger “dunking.” I also add a thin layer of vanilla and coffee liqueur scented whipped cream. I’ve found that using the crispy imported Italian ladyfingers makes the dish a bit more interesting.

For beverages, I provided a Moscato d’ Asti, one of my new favorites, along with a Barbera d’ Asti, both wines from the Piedmont region, along with one of my favorites, San Pellagrino.

My guests’ dishes were equally thrilling:

A Spanish tortilla and white wine sangria;

Corn chowder and Southern cornbread and a California unoaked Chardonnay (*very* nice--I detest overly oaked wines);

Guacamole and blue corn chips and Corona Light;

Irish Soda Bread and Killian’s;

Cannellini bean soup, garlicky hummus and pita, and misc. olives, and even more Moscato d’ Asti....

We critiqued the figure skating pairs’ costumes, spotted the Olympic hot, hot, hotties (how do those speed skaters fit into those skin-tight suits? And have you ever seen men with such amazing quads?), and shared our own Olympic aspirations (in 1984 I was determined to be the next Mary Lou Retton, a dream fueled by reading *A Very Young Gymnast*, to be updated in 1988, when I dreamed of being an ice skater and even checked out a “learn to ice skate” book from my local public library)...ahhh. I’ll now content myself with the creation of satisfying, pleasurably meals, appropriately descriptive prose, memorable moments with my dear loved ones, as well as the more inner-directed “sports” or disciplines of running and yoga...

Cin Cin ‘til we meet again!

Saturday, January 14, 2006

fragrant and floral

The scent of garlic and rosemary wafts through my home, and the wind stirs the bare trees outside. I hear the scrape and crunch of ice as neighbors uncover their cars and motor down the road, covered with the thinnest skiff of snow. I leisurely read my students’ thoughts on science and technology while simultaneously watching a series of cooking shows, which are about the segue into travel shows. I love PBS! It’s a chilly January Saturday morning and I’m content to stay in today, cooking slow foods (like my dried cannellini beans that are currently undergoing their transformation on the stove-top), reading about Einstein, and writing tidbits here and on my novel. At some point, I’ll pull my warm layers on for my daily run...this week I’m breaking the 15 mile mark (weekly total) for the first time. I think my thing with running is about to become serious. Hmmm. Last night I was researching the Nike Women’s half-marathon. Could I run 13.1 miles?!? For a special Tiffany and Co. necklace in addition to my sense of accomplishment AND the opportunity to run through the beautiful landscape of San Fran?

So, a few culinary moments to share. This is the season of citrus abundance, though most all of our stock is California this year, rather than Florida, in large part because of the hits of heavy hurricanes these past few years. But oh, the grapefruits! The oranges! And, the little wonder of the citrus world, the Meyer Lemon!

I first discovered these little gems last winter at my favorite natural foods store. Their appearance is capricious, so when I saw them earlier this week I bought a half dozen. I have tons of foodie recipes featuring this fragrant fruit, but I like to keep my use of the lemon simple. Combined with olive oil, a smidgen of vinegar, chopped shallots, and a drop of honey, the lemon makes a wonderful vinaigrette. Last night I made a simple pasta with thick, amish-style egg noodles, spinach, shallots, ricotta, parm regg, and the zest and juice of one lemon. And, I used the last of the lemons to make lemon bars to take to my friends’ H- and P’s house tomorrow.

The glory of the Meyer Lemon rests with its flavor profile--it’s not as tart as a traditional lemon, but it’s not exactly sweet either. Really, the best description I can offer is that it is fragrant and floral, with overtones of lemon and tangerine (the fruits from which it was developed). The lemon bars are not nearly as sweet or as tart as traditional bars, but something else entirely. Transcendent. Different. Special because of their rarity. A nice alternative to all of my chocolatey desserts.

Monday, January 02, 2006

war damn eagle

In keeping with my Southern heritage, yesterday I fixed simple, country fare for dinner: beans, greens, and cornbread. Yumm! Of course, I dressed up the dishes a bit: cannellini beans with roasted garlic and fresh sage; sauteed fresh spinach with caramelized shallots, lemon zest and juice, Maldon sea salt. I also drank a California white table wine, and ate a slice of the famous chocolate cake. A lovely way to greet the new year with nourishing, hearty fare.

Today while I watched my Auburn Tigers lose to Wisconsin--unfortunately, the only Auburn game I had a chance to watch this season--I indulged in pimento cheese and crackers and a sweet tea the size of my head from the McAllister’s just around the corner from my house.

And the culinary high point of this year thus far: sweet potato gnocchi in brown butter sage sauce, which I made tonight. Ahhhh...how perfectly tasty. I’ve had a few dishes in restaurants along similary lines, but often the butter sauce is simply too much. But the beauty of cooking at home is that I could make my butter sauce just the lightest of coatings. I made sauteed spinach again, as well as a salad of boston lettuce, navel orange, with a lemon-honey-poppyseed vinaigrette. Delish.

Tomorrow I’m making black beans--they’re soaking right now. And I’m choosing a bread recipe to perfect over the next several weeks...