Snowday cookies

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The citizens of Knoxville go absolutely haywire when snow is forecast and Threat Level Bananas when it actually starts snowing.

And even though I’m a “don’t believe the hype,” “I’ll believe it when I see it” snow curmudgeon, I still got caught up in the excitement once I saw the masses of giant wet flakes streaming through the air on Thursday afternoon. snowybackyard

By virtue of self-employment and no scheduled meetings, I was snug at home when the foretold “thunder snow” made its appearance around 2:30 p.m. We live across from a middle school, so we witness (for better or worse) the comings and goings of parents and students. And I can tell you firsthand that the thrill of being sprung from school early for an impending snow day is contagious (and kinda loud).  That boisterous glee inspired me to pretend I was snowed in and do something usually forbidden on a normal work day—bake cookies!

snowdaycookiesI’ve been craving coconut lately, so I’d already bookmarked The Lady Behind The Curtain’s recipe for Toasted Coconut Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies.

For my batch, I left out the coconut extract and doubled the vanilla. I also added about a teaspoon of kosher salt because my butter was unsalted (and I like my sweets with a touch of salt).  I added another egg (although now I’m not sure why; it did make the cookies more cakey). And I decreased the chocolate chips (my favorite Hershey’s Special Dark chips) to 1 cup and added a half-cup of dried sweetened cranberries. cookieswindow

The toasted coconut and oats add just the right amount of chewiness, and the zing of the dried cranberries together with the semi-sweet chocolate is decadent and satisfying.

Today, the sun shines for the first time in days, melting those four inches of snow we dreaded/eagerly awaited. And I’m alone in the house with two dozen cookies. That’s scarier than another snowstorm!

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In praise of casseroles (and smoked turkey)

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“What do you eat on Thanksgiving?” my meat-eating friends have asked more than once over my many veggie-pescatarian years. The answer is simple, but first:

I loved turkey, especially smoked turkey. Especially the dark meat of a smoked turkey. Silky, succulent, maybe slightly gamey (although I’d never heard that term at the time), the dark meat of a smoked turkey was an eagerly anticipated delicacy.

In my family, the 1990s were the heyday of the smoker. Each household that qualified to host Thanksgiving had one of those small, black, torpedo-shaped appliances, even if they only used it once or twice a year.

When responsibility for bringing the turkey to the family gathering fell to my parents, they spent a lot of time preparing: staying up late and/or getting up early, pre-soaking wood chips of various derivations (apple, hickory) in different liquids (water, cider), and taking the turkey’s temperature numerous times throughout the smoking process. (Did this stress subconsciously lead to my decision to go veggie? Only years of therapy will tell.)

Yes, friends, I missed eating turkey that first Thanksgiving I didn’t jockey for the dark meat with the tongs. But I didn’t miss it too much because my family’s modus operandi on Thanksgiving and every other holiday is a massive proliferation of casseroles.

We are Southern people, known to weigh down counters and tabletops with large, steaming side dishes distinguishable from each other only by their golden cracker toppings or brown nut crusts. Sometime in the ’90s, Aunt Melissa’s classic green bean casserole was replaced by Aunt Becky’s broccoli casserole. And we must have had mashed potatoes or potato salad at one point, but those days were over when my mother introduced Missy Potatoes, a creamy hashbrown casserole featuring sour cream and cream of something-or-other soup, plus crushed Ritz crackers on top (helping set it apart from the broccoli casserole, topped by crushed Cheez-its).

So my answer, in so many words, when people ask what I eat on Thanksgiving: I delight in a smorgasbord—a bounty, an embarrassment of riches—of fruit- and vegetable-based casseroles which I dollop onto my plate until it runneth over and sometimes go for seconds. And I’m so thankful for it.

We’ve got the beets (finally)

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Beets.

These blood-colored and highly staining vegetables have inspired curiosity and frustration in me for a couple of years now.

It started when our supper club hosted a root-vegetable-themed dinner last January.  I Googled tubers and investigated which to contribute. Eventually I went the direction of carrots and turnips in a soup, while my neighbor Amy made an ingenious Beet Ice Cream. A root-vegetable dessert! It was pink as any dream Valentine’s Day treat and as mildly dirt-flavored as only beets can be.

Later that season I made a beet soup that turned my microwave pink but did nothing to inspire my taste buds. Dirt flavor strikes again! I do like things earthy and, some would say, on the bland side, but these beets took the cake (mmm, cake).

However, beets have remained de rigueur in my foodie magazines, so I kept hope alive that I’d find the right recipe to throw beets inthe limelight (mmm, limes).

In Better Homes and Gardens‘ August 2012 issue, I found the one. Beet Blue Cheese and Almond Salad* included that coveted layer of flavors and textures, as well as my new true love, fresh parsley (why haven’t I grown you all my life?!)

My friend Susan had regaled me with her latest beet recipe the week before, so I decided to try this one for her birthday potluck, with beets I bought at the Market Square Farmers Market. What a winner! The beets are sweet and lose that garden soil aftertaste in a light bath of olive oil and lemon juice and salt and pepper. (I recommend you use olive oil you really like, as its flavor comes out strong around the beets.) The creamy/tangy blue cheese and crunchy toasted almonds add the perfect balance to the barely soft beets. I left out the garlic and used roughly chopped regular almonds.

I’m so pleased my diligence paid off and that I found a way to prepare beets that suits my tastes. I will continue to try more beet recipes (although they are more expensive than I expected for a root vegetable) throughout the winter. Maybe even a Borscht!

* I would’ve used the direct link to the Better Homes recipe, but the website user login was giving me fits. So there.

Penne Broccoli Salad

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When I heard a recent news report that Americans throw out about 40 percent of their food each year, I cringed with recognition. I feel so guilty when I let a cucumber or zucchini wrinkle in the bottom of the vegetable drawer, let sweet potatoes sprout long curling roots, or allow perfectly good cheddar cheese grow green with fuzz. I don’t have the money to waste on food I don’t eat, yet I still let these things happen. Shame on me.

So it was in the spirit of repentance and conservation that I improvised this pasta salad, which served to rescue a half-head of broccoli from being snubbed completely and saved a last bit of feta from the garbage can. Plus, it tasted so delicious that I cheered my culinary genius—until I ate the last serving so fast I gave myself a stomachache. Clearly I’m not a genius about everything.

Penne Broccoli Salad
Makes 4-6 side dish servings

2 cups penne pasta (I used rainbow penne)
2 cups broccoli florets, cut into bite-sized pieces
2 tablespoons crumbled feta cheese
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons plain Greek yogurt
1/2 tablespoon dried oregano
fresh basil, chopped, to taste
salt and pepper, to taste
roasted sunflower seeds, hulled (optional)

Prepare penne according to the package directions. Add broccoli florets to the boiling water & pasta in the final two minutes of the cooking time. Drain and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking process and bring the temperature down.

In a large serving or storage bowl, mix feta cheese and vinegar with a whisk until the cheese breaks down. Whisk in olive oil, yogurt, dried oregano and salt and pepper.

Add well-drained pasta and broccoli to the dressing and stir to coat. Add chopped basil and mix to distribute. Top individual servings with a tablespoon of roasted sunflower seeds for a delicious crunch!

An eyeful of taste

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Here are a few photos of dishes I’ve made over the past two months. All were as satisfying and delicious as they look.

Ripe tomatoes stuffed with a mixture of roasted zucchini, wild & brown rice, feta cheese, Parmesan and fresh basil, topped with breadcrumbs.

After seeing a McDonald’s billboard declaring their Egg McMuffin has 300 calories, I created my own delicious version on a whole-grain English muffin, with scrambled egg, spinach, Sweetwater Valley Farm buttermilk cheese and Emily’s Chipotle Strawberry Jam.

What do you do with a gift of fresh mozzarella from Jungle Jim’s? You make homemade vegetable pizza!

Return of the Chickpea-Brown Rice Burgers

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Last week I tried Handle the Heat‘s recipe for Chickpea-Brown Rice burgers. Since it was just me, I halved the recipe to make just two patties. One for dinner, one for later. But the results were so delicious that I ate both for dinner! Fortunately for me (and my husband, who will be dining according my whims tonight), I have plenty of extra chickpeas and brown rice for a new batch, which we will be eating falafel-style in whole-wheat pita pockets with a yogurt dill dressing and cucumbers.

I already eat a lot of chickpeas and brown rice, and I was interested in a new way to use these healthy, high-protein ingredients. These burgers (I’m starting to think of them as fritters) are a satisfyingly crunchy option.  I removed the garlic & onions from Tessa’s original recipe, but it still turned out perfectly. I also tried frying them in a thin layer of canola oil, but that side came out a bit more done and brown than the second side, for which I used the recommended olive oil.

I’m curious how these would turn out if they were baked, but I won’t find out tonight because I’m too hungry to wait!

Israeli Couscous & Apple Salad

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I’m pretty adventurous when preparing food only I will be eating. When my palate is the only one on the line, I’m willing to wing a dish, try some questionable ingredients, risk lack of flavor (or too much flavor–hello, chipotle!). But when it comes to taking dishes outside the home for friend and family consumption, I desire a relatively sure thing.

I found that sure thing in this Israeli Couscous & Apple Salad, originally published in Country Living magazine. It’s crunchy, sweet, herbaceous—dare I say comfort food?—easy to prepare from fresh, inexpensive ingredients. And, perhaps best of all, I can devour any leftovers for lunch or dinner with nary a pang of guilt! (I can’t say the same for the Strawberry Trifle I made for a recent cookout.)

The original recipe calls for the addition of 2 tablespoons minced shallot and 1/4 cup toasted pine nuts, which you are welcome to add. I removed the former because of my avoidance of all things oniony. And I use walnuts instead of pine nuts because they’re cheaper and always in my freezer.

The original recipe also instructs you to make the dressing in blender or food processor, but neither of my devices work that well on herbs or liquids. I’ve found that mixing the lemon juice and olive oil with the finely chopped herbs together before adding to the salad does the trick.

A note for gluten-free folks: Israeli couscous is pasta, and therefore not gluten free, but I have made a version of this recipe with leftover brown rice, and it was delicious! Seriously, it’s that much of a sure thing.

Israeli Couscous & Apple Salad

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup Israeli (or pearl) couscous (I use Bob’s Red Mill whole wheat pearl couscous)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 large Gala or Fuji apple, cored and diced
1 large Granny Smith apple, cored and diced
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
4 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
1/4 cup toasted walnuts, chopped
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh mint
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh oregano
Freshly ground pepper

In a medium skillet over medium heat, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil. Add couscous, mixing occasionally so all the pearls get covered in oil and brown evenly, about 2-3 minutes. Add 2 cups water and salt, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer and cook couscous until tender, about 6 minutes. Drain and rinse.

In a large bowl, toss together apples and 2 tablespoons lemon juice. Mix in the well-drained couscous (and shallots, if you’re using). Add crumbled feta cheese and nuts.

In a small bowl, whisk together remaining olive oil and lemon juice with finely chopped mint and oregano. Add fresh ground pepper to taste. Drizzle dressing over salad and mix well (but not vigorously) to blend the flavors, which develop even more after a few hours in the refrigerator.

Pearl barley with butternut squash

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I hoard whole grains.

Currently stocked in my cupboard are: brown rice (instant and long-cooking), white and brown Basmati rice, wild rice blend, quinoa and toasted Israeli couscous. (I also have steel-cut oats, but I don’t know if that counts).

These grains are the perfect bases for the other staples of my diet: beans and roasted vegetables. The former I hoard in cans and bags; the latter majorly consists of sweet potatoes and the key ingredient of tonight’s dinner.

Tonight I’m trying a Real Simple recipe for Baked Barley Risotto with Butternut Squash. It’s in the oven now, and my house smells like toast mixed with apple cider vinegar, which is what I used instead of dry white wine. I guess I shouldn’t be nervous; I do like toast and vinegar. Although maybe not together.

I also removed the onion from the recipe. Once I started leaving onions out of recipes, I realized that onions have a lot of liquid, so I accommodate with a little water or, in the case of tonight’s recipe, a bit more homemade vegetable broth. The real key here is getting that pearl barley fully cooked.

After 35 minutes, there was still a lot of liquid in the bottom of the pot, so I put it back in the oven for 5 more minutes. The photo with the recipe shows some liquid in the dish. As long as the barley is cooked.

Forty minutes, and resting on the stove for a few minutes, did the trick. The barley absorbed all the liquid and was fully cooked—chewy with that funny snap between the teeth. The Parmesan cheese and the tomato in my broth added a nice richness (dare I say umami?) The squash wasn’t as sweet as I’ve had it, but it worked for this savory dish.

All in all, a good dish… and husband approved, to boot!

Food status: It’s complicated

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I started this blog to pursue the answer to a question that’s plagued me for a while:

Can a seafood-eating vegetarian who avoids onions and garlic be a foodie? Can a gourmand with a major asterisk be accepted as a food lover on par with Anthony Bourdain or Ruth Reichl?

I want to say that in the 21st century, everyone in the First World has an angle on food. What we eat, what we don’t, what we can’t. Too much, too little, figuring out what’s just enough. Where to buy it, where it came from, how to cook it.

I’m interested in these details. I shop, cook and eat based on them. I haven’t felt the same about food since I read Michael Pollan’s An Omnivore’s Dilemma, though I’m not an omnivore in the least. And although I put down Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle after the first two chapters because I was intimidated by just imagining her family’s challenge to live off their garden for a season, I think I’m ready to pick it up again. Experiments can fail, and we can still learn from them.

As a food lover with some caveats, it’s difficult to see my place in the popular food world. Models of the expert foodie—Bourdain, Richman, Ray, Fieri—eat everything. (And if they don’t, it’s a trick of editing.)  Judges on Iron Chef America are never pescatarians with digestive issues. The best competitors on Top Chef don’t leave certain ingredients out of their dishes. And, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but bacon is everywhere.

Luckily I’m not in the running for head chef of any kitchen, including my own. My husband eats what I cook except when he’s eating fast food, reheating his own pre-prepared frozen meals, or supplementing mine with chicken sausage. He’d be healthier eating what I eat, but, c’est la vie, we pursue our own food lives.

I do see plenty of examples of people eating how and why they desire on the Internet. For starters: when you visit any major recipe website like Epicurious or AllRecipes, you’ll find users who have tweaked the ingredients or their amounts to suit a number of tastes and requirements. I see myself in these minor adjustments.

As I continue to pursue a lifestyle of thoughtful eating, I’ll keep one thing in mind: I’ve always loved an asterisk. It makes you take a closer look.