about bliss

Sunday, June 29, 2008

the best cake i've ever made...and no, it's not chocolate!

Yesterday I headed to a local farm to purchase peas and strawberries, and came home contemplating where I should take these foods...

The peas: I stir-fried them with green garlic, spring onions, yellow pepper, and tofu, and served over coconut bulgur. I bit into the fat shiny pea pod and realized these peas were meant to be out of the pod, as the pod was too fibrous to eat. I slipped the peas out of their jackets and enjoyed my dinner.

The coconut bulgur was an experiment--I was planning on making coconut brown rice but was too hungry to wait the obligatory 50 minutes for rice. The bulgur made a lovely substitution, and the leftovers made a delicious breakfast. I added walnuts, cinnamon, flax oil, maple syrup, and shredded coconut for a tasty alternative to my daily oatmeal.

But I digress. I promised cake...

The strawberries: so glossy and red, they are delicious eaten plain, but I was besotted with visions of a towering strawberry cream cake, all red and white and luscious. I pored over all my cookbooks and, as usual, settled on a recipe from the illustrious Dorie Greenspan, an aptly titled Party Cake. I read the recipe, called my friend B to see if she and her fam wanted to join me for cake on Sunday afternoon, and then strategized. I cut out parchment circles for my cake pans, read over the recipe, and went to bed with visions of berry goodness dancing in my head...

After enjoying the aforementioned bulgur for breakfast, I walked to the closest thing to a market, a Kwik Trip gas station to buy a tiny bottle of whole milk (for the cake) and a Sunday Chicago Trib. I brewed a mug of strong coffee and tied on my summer apron, and I was ready.

The cake is fairly simply to make, and in no time the layers were baking, and I was slicing berries into a sauce pan to make a quick jam. This was good practice for my upcoming BerryJam 08, in which I will can 8-12 jars of strawberry jam to carry me through a year without fresh, local berries. The cake was golden, the jam bubbling, as I made not one but two types of frosting, following Dorie's suggestions for playing around. I made a simple vanilla buttercream (the kind without eggs) and a mock creme fraiche (whipped cream + greek yogurt).

As the layers and jam cooled I pressed my new vintage hostess apron, which features a red sash and a charming strawberry print. I carefully assembled the cake, slicing the layers horizontal to make a four layer cake, and spreading jam and buttercream between each layer (they ended up blending all into one). I enrobed the cake with the mock creme fraiche and then carefully arranged strawberry halves in concentric circles on top of the cake like so many sparkling rubies. A final berry in the middle of the cake was framed with mint leaves. Ahhh. I traded my "work" apron for my berry apron and relaxed.

I took about 5 pictures of my masterpiece, but since my camera is antiquated (i.e. 1999), you will have to wait for pics. The cake had just enough time to set before my guests arrived. What joy to share a cool, overcast summer Sunday with good friends and delicious cake! Perhaps a new tradition is in order? I think back to my great grandma, Cookie Grandma, who entertained the family every Sunday after church. I don't know if I could make such a treat every week, but maybe once a month we could gather for our own version of food, fellowship, and faith.

Monday, June 23, 2008

uncovering the process

photo of tank car full of corn syrup courtesy of wikipedia

Yesterday I watched the documentary King Corn, an interesting peek into the world of corn growing and corn ubiquity. Did you know that the typical American's carbon profile is largely corn based? As the movie illustrates, a great portion of the SAD (Standard American Diet) is corn based, from added starch, flour, meal, to the primarily corn fed meat in our food supply, and, most significantly, the heretofore cheap sweetener, HFCS (high fructose corn syrup). The problem is that in its processed forms, corn is not very nutritious, and so much of the food in the SAD is composed of poor to empty calories.

I've been on a "eat as few processed foods as possible" kick for the past several years, and I'm mostly pleased with my dietary choices, but I'm thinking about doing a little experiment and cutting out as much processed food as I can. Last night I started listing foods I eat on a daily basis, and trying to determine the degree of processing so I can figure out what I need to eat instead. The problem is deciding what level of processing is acceptable for the purposes of my experiment, since most of the foods I eat are at least minimally processed...for example...

No Processing
fresh fruits and veggies, in their whole, natural state
fresh herbs
dry beans
dry whole grains in their natural state

Minimal Processing
orange juice, 100% pure, not from concentrate
grains that have been processed, like rolled or steel cut oats, flours
raw sugar
maple syrup
canned beans

More Processing
Boxed cereals
corn chips
pasta, couscous

And these are most of the foods that I eat on a daily basis. What I'm thinking of doing is making all items (except for chocolate) in the "More Processing" category from scratch. And, I'm thinking of switching to steel cut oats or another less processed grain than rolled oats for my breakfast, making my own yogurt, and cooking my own beans from the dried state to make a difference in the "Minimally Processing" category.

Any suggestions for me? Am I missing something here? Am I categorizing a certain food the wrong way? How long do you think I should run my experiement?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

berry update

I bought a quart of berries today at a seasonal market next to a liquor store that is also, inexplicably, selling fireworks.

I washed and sliced and sugared the berries and set them to rest while I baked shortcake and whipped heavy cream with a sprinkle of sugar and a hint of vanilla. Warm cake, juicy berries, luscious cream...

delicious, but a little disappointing. Yesterday's berries from B. were better, and I'm glad I only bought one quart today. Saturday I'll stock up on the farmer's market berries that B. brought, and make my fave berry dessert, a French tart via the incomparable Dorie Greenspan, whose baking books are indispensable.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

berry bliss

1890 watercolor painting from wikipedia, from the National Agricultural Library of the United States Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service.

I've waxed poetic about strawberries before...and I've been waiting a very long time, about 11 months, to experience berry bliss yet again. I was worried that the torrential rainfall and flooding would drown the berries or turn them into a watery mess, but behold, the season's first fruit...

My friend B brought me a handful of berries from the farmer's market (which I missed because I was teaching Upward Bound students how to read a poem), and I waited until after dinner to taste the first one. The color--plush red. The fragrance--warm and floral. The texture--melting and soft. The flavor--delicate, nuanced, and sweet. Ahhh!

And so I tucked the remaining berries back in the fridge, and when I returned home from class (teaching college students the satiric pleasures of Candide), I spooned some plain cream top brown cow yogurt in a bowl, topped it with sliced berries, and a sprinkle of turbinado sugar. Oh holy bliss.

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a colleague about why I only eat local strawberries. She was confused and I don't think my tentative explanations--of something I'm so passionate about--made a dent in her consciousness. How do I have food politics discussions without seeming pretentious or elitist? How can I communicate my passion for eating locally, seasonally, ecologically, and deliciously, without alienating people I care about in some capacity, and don't want to offend?

And I'm saddened that the berries don't speak for themselves. How many people have REALLY tasted a strawberry as it's meant to taste? Not bred for travel and color only, not communicated via "natural" or artificial flavors, but the berry itself, in its most berry-ness state of being.

I want, to quote Alice Waters, a delicious revolution for everyone. And berry bliss galore:)

Saturday, June 14, 2008

soy delicious: smart dogs

So, today when I was in Mil-town with B. we went to Outpost Natural Foods to stock up on some hippie-groceries. While I threw a little fit that the only edamame were from China (c'mon, don't we grow enough soybeans here in the USA?) and refused to buy them, I scooped up a package of Smart Dogs. Now, I usually steer clear of soy-meat-fakery, but there's something about a warm summer day that begs for retro picnic fare.

Since I don't have a grill, I broiled the 'dog, toasted a Natural Ovens 100% Whole Grain bun, added sliced dill pickles and vidalia onions, with a side of Krunchers and vegetarian baked beans, and a glass of Crios Torrontes, and tasted SUMMER. I am constantly amazed at the power of foods to speak of season or place or memory.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

the deluge continues...

Tornado warnings. Tornado shelters. Not being a comforting, responsible adult in front of my students (but, hey, they're adults too, right?). Discussing Candide as the skies rage.

I worry about the strawberries, that they'll be water logged and wasted and it will be another year before I experience berry bliss.

I worry about the people whose homes and businesses and livelihoods are damaged or destroyed.

I worry about the connection between extreme weather and climate change.

Thunder rumbling throughout my body. Lightening illuminating the sky. Rain pouring down.

I love curling up under a soft fleecy blanket or a crocheted throw, made by my grandmothers.

I love losing myself in an intricate novel.

I love the soothing comfort of a hot cup of tea and nowhere to go.

x-rated: pink passion

Here's a little summer fun:

1 shot of X-Rated (a lovely pink "fusion" of vodka, blood orange, mango, and passion fruit, colored with carmine--still not sure how I feel about that)
a nice pour of Simply Limeade
a splash of tonic water

Tart, refreshing, pink, and tasty. And with the name, a little naughty too.

Monday, June 09, 2008

soup primavera

from dharmagirl's kitchen:

Today I finally cooked a small package of flageolets that my mom purchased for me at Dean and Deluca. Flageolets, according to Mark Bittman, are very young kidney beans. Uncooked, they're pale green, narrow, with only a hint at a kidney shape. They have a light, delicate flavor. I followed Bittman's directions for soaked, quick-cooked beans which worked beautifully. I covered the beans with 2 inches of cold water; boiled for 2 minutes; let stand, covered, off the heat for two hours; then brought to a boil again; and finally, simmered until tender-ish, and only then added salt and pepper. I've recently learned that adding salt to beans too early in the cooking process makes for a tough bean.

Then, I had a giant pot of beans and I wasn't sure what to do. I decided to make a farmer's market soup. I heated olive oil in the bottom of my soup pot, added thin slices of garlic, chopped spring onion, and small rounds of asparagus, which I sauteed briefly. I then added water and brought the mixture to a boil. I threw in a handful of amish egg noodles and set the timer for 8 minutes. When the timer binged, I added a generous ladleful of flageolets, a splash of whole milk, salt, and copious amounts of black pepper. Just before I served the soup I added spinach and a dusting of parmesan. The soup was surprisingly good, and would've only been better with some herbal infusion or a splash of lemon juice, which I easily could've done, but didn't.

I toasted up my last cheddar scallion biscuit, made a simple green salad, and enjoyed my very GREEN, my very Spring soup, and my delicious, slow food meal.

Incidentally, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, a flageolet is also "small wind instrument, having a mouthpiece at one end, six principal holes, and sometimes keys."

fish stories

painting of Walleye, by Timothy Knepp, in the public domain

On my evening walk, I came upon a group of adolescent boys fishing from a small bridge over a sort of pond area. The water was rushing, roiling, running high after a weekend of seemingly endless rain. The boys' red flyer wagon was piled high with fish as long as the wagon bed, stacked on top of one another, their mouths forming perfect O's and--gasp--still moving. Right after I walked past, I heard a solid thud and turned around to see that one of the top fish had flopped out of the wagon--out of sheer will to live? desperation to return to the water? an involuntary convulsion?-- and landed on the sidewalk, much to the boys' consternation.

I think back to the series of goldfish I had as pets when I was in elementary school, and remember vividly the time I had two fish in a small glass bowl on top of my dresser. One morning I woke and started to feed the fish before school; quelle horror! only one active fish flipping around the bowl. I looked around the dresser for the missing fish, only to find a small crimson body on the floor near my feet.

More reasons I'm a vegetarian?

Sunday, June 08, 2008

wet wisconsin weekend: polka mass and breakfast on the farm

This weekend has overflowed with rain, but more importantly, with Wisconsin Culture. My new state of residence has many rich traditions that I've been fortunate enough to witness.

Yesterday I attended Polka Mass with my friends A and The Beard. A explained afterwards that many parts of the mass are usually quieter, encouraging more serious reflection, but with the oompa-loompa of the polka band, the entire mass seemed a jolly affair. The church was packed--kids wearing Packers jerseys, cute old couples wielding umbrellas, and nuns wearing an abbreviated, modern habit.

Check out this YouTube video clip for a taste of polka mass:

After dancing at a colleague's retirement party and staying up entirely too late skimming an improbable and highly transparently plotted romance novel, I fell into a half-sleep, awaking early this morning ruing the two glasses of inexpensive wine I indulged in at the aforementioned soiree. I brewed a mug of strong, thick coffee, and pulled out my raincoat, stuffing my trusty 35 mm camera and tracfone in the pockets. I met A and The Beard, as well as A's parents, for our next Wisconsin adventure: Breakfast on the Farm.
courtesy of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board

This annual event usually draws upwards of 5,000 participants, who line up for shuttles on yellow and black school buses comandeered by jokesters with Yooper accents, pay six dollars to receive a cow handstamp and a dairy-centric breakfast, and dine on the farm.

We dodged raindrops as we scurried into the Feeding Barn, where men stirred huge skillets of eggs to a gooey scramble, studded with diced ham and cemented with copious amounts of cheese. Women doled out generous portions of eggs, and servers also offered handfuls of cheese cubes, segments, and curds; cinnamon bread with fresh butter pats; cherry flavored donut holes; and egg-cellent accoutrements. Another tent featured dishes of vanilla ice cream topped with strawberries or the farm's own maple syrup.

We trekked through rivulets of mud and thickening crowds to a sturdy tent filled with picnic tables, and sat down to enjoy the mostly bovine-produced repast. A cheerful band stopped playing old standards just long enough to introduce the family of the farm, as well as crown the dairy princesses and Alice-in-Dairyland.

I watched as families sat down together to share food, boy scouts wandered the aisles in search of empty plates to throw away, and young people proudly wearing FFA, 4H, and/or John Deere gear congregated on the sidelines. I felt thankful that these young people will carry on the largely invisible, under-appreciated, grossly underpaid, and altogether vital work of feeding us for the next generation

We wandered to a beautiful tall red barn where local vendors displayed pamphlets and disseminated information about dairy and other agriculture issues, and barn swallows tweeted and twittered from one rafter to the next. Here I learned that my adopted county has 6,000 more cows than humans.

As I rode the bus back to the parking lot, I felt homesick--struck by the beauty and deep, rich culture of this place that still doesn't feel like home. I still feel like an outsider, a cultural anthropologist of sorts, with my heart and soul still somewhat unattached from this place and its very kind people.

Last night one of my colleagues stated that my new home and Holland, where I grew up, are very similar. He then revised his statement to use Muskegon as his Western Michigan point of reference, and in some ways I can see the connection: the manufacturing history, the flight from manufacturing, the prevalence of Christianity, agricultural links, and strong ties to European heritage. But somehow, it seems much more different to me--the prevalence of sports culture (Green Bay Packers), the different version of Christian faith (Catholicism versus Christian Reformed), the more progressive politics (though no less confounding than the conservatism of Western Michigan). And where am I in this comparison? At times firmly aligned with one place or the other, and at times aligned with someplace far away. The process of acculturation is long, slow, and filled with tumultuous emotions and surprising discoveries, and I hope this summer offers me more moments of cultural richness in which I can connect more fully to the spirit of this place.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

saturday mornings

I love sunny summer saturday mornings, mornings that shimmer with the promise of a new day. I love rolling out of bed and throwing on my yoga togs, strapping on my chaco sandals, and hitting the sidewalks. I love strolling the farmers market and talking to my favorite farmers, colleagues, artists, and new friends. I love stopping at my favorite local sandwich shop for a cup of strong alterra brew. I love walking back home, my tote bag filled with veggies--asparagus, spring onions, baby lettuces, spinach, and fresh mini-mozzarella balls. I love gathering up my yoga mat and driving to my gym, where I can stretch out, explore my boundaries, consider my edge, before heading back home to cook up a saturday lunch of roasted yukon golds with rosemary, a salad with baby greens, roasted chickpeas, fresh mozz, and a tangy lemon honey vinaigrette, and finally, a scrambled egg with spinach, asparagus, and green onions. I brave the damp fog that blows in off the lake and sit on my deck, planning my next step, or not planning at all. Laundry and garden need tending to, but so does the stack of enticing books--amy bloom, kate christensen, anita shreve, russ parsons, and carly phillips. Could every day be as wonderful?

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

"these are the days that must happen to you"

There comes a moment every Spring, well, since I've been professor-ing, when I shift from teaching full-time and reading student work (the good, the bad, the surprising, the dreadful...) to teaching part-time or no-time and having my time fluid and free yet again. As glorious as this freedom is--freedom from alarm clocks and packing lunches and snacks and grading, good lord, the grading)--it's an adjustment.

Last week, after the Florida mini-break, I went to "faculty camp," a several days long series of workshops and fellowship with fellow teaching faculty. I learned some nifty ideas to apply in the fall, and some good ideas to think about over the summer for the sustainability project I'm coordinating in the fall.

So this week has been my week of transitioning, and it's going fairly well. I'm staying up later than usual reading. I just finished Kate Christensen's The Great Man, which won (and is most deserving of) the PEN/Faulkner award. Now I'm debating reading for class--my International Literature class starts next week--reading for sustainability--the theme that I need to develop ASAP--or to read for sheer pleasure. The scales are tipped in favor of the latter.

On this rainy Tuesday, I walked downtown in the drizzle for a cup of Alterra coffee made strong, at the local breakfast/lunch joint that serves my favorite brew. I meandered home, sent a few emails (my many inboxes are exploding with unanswered messages), made lunch (homemade spinach and parm pizza--the trick to a great crust is leaving the dough in the fridge several days), and then headed to She-town for some supply gathering. Grassfields milk, both skim and whole (I have thoughts of a vanilla bean ice "milk"), Alterra beans for home, and various other goodies. I walked up and down the aisles of TJMaxx looking for surprises (Vera Wang notecards and Scharrfen-Berger tasting squares of chocolate), reveling in the fact that I didn't really need to be doing anything else.

I lingered over dinner preparation--a faux salad nicoise, with petite yukon golds (not local, not organic, but still tasty), local asparagus, garbanzos, and local spring onion, tossed with my good olive oil and a squeeze of lemon; an omelet with yuppie hill eggs, local organic spinach, and saxony cheese from Saxon creamery. Add a slice of toast made with whole wheat amish bread and a glass of Chilean Cabernet Rose, and it was a stunning meal of simplicity. What a lovely turn away from heavy soups and roasted things.

The lilacs are blooming, the garden is planted, and winter is over. My eyes are open for everyday miracles and subtle surprises, and my heart is slowly opening to a new season with endless possibilities. My mind is cracked open for new projects, new perspectives, and establishing new neural pathways for positivity.

And before I veer off into new-agey nonsense, I bid you a lovely evening, my dear readers.