Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Big Fish, Little Fish

When it's over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
-Mary Oliver ("When Death Comes")

Despite not being a poetry person, when I heard these words after Monday evening's intense front- and back-bend-themed yoga class (yes, *ouch*), they stuck with me. Probably partly due to the fact that I had a happy, pleasant weekend--one that in and of itself wasn't lacking in amazement, even if of a simple variety. And also because the instructor, as a way of pushing us to find this sense of amazement and also of being present in the moment, asked us to find small ways of varying our routines: to stand differently during the simplest of yoga poses (tree pose), to take a new path to work or just to "shake things up a little." Why the quotation marks? Because it's the second time in a week that I've heard this phrase and, even if basically a cliche, I don't disagree with it. And clearly encountering it in forms of guidance that I actively seek must mean that it's a cosmic message that I need to hear. Yes, I did just say that. I believe I adequately warned you long ago that I'm a bit "new agey" at heart. :)

But it's a simple truth: novelty is key in the quest for amazement.

So maybe, instead of boring cereal for breakfast, you should splurge and make some buttermilk pancakes courtesy of our favorite celebrity chef/former convict. Mind you, I say that with love; I "heart" Martha. Her magazine is fantastic and full of good ideas. And let's not forget about her beautiful cupcake cookbook. These pancakes are surprisingly easy, require dirtying only one bowl and are perfect--in terms of both taste and consistency. I had some rapidly aging strawberries and, as per usual, they make things only better. Also, if you, like me, were breakfasting alone, it's an easy recipe to halve.

Or, instead of working on a rainy and oh so dreary Saturday, you decide to (*gasp*) take the day off. That alone is a beautiful thought, but it becomes an even better one when you invite a friend over for dinner (the red lentil soup has again made an appearance; so good!) and have a lovely evening talking, watching several episodes of the brilliant second season of "Dollhouse" and then roasting apples. :)

Sometimes, Sundays, the long-forgotten day of rest, need to be honored. Especially since work, for better or for worse, will always be waiting in the wings. So, why not see "The Social Network" with some friends and bask in both the snark of Aaron Sorkin's dialogue and the Facebook creation myth? And then have a Dark and Stormy (your nod to Mother Nature) and a yummy dinner of Buttermilk Fried Chicken with Sweet Potato Mash at Angeline's Kitchen with a lovely Greek family? Definitely not the makings of the typical work-filled Sunday.

Best of all, maybe you decide to finally get over yourself and your fears of what your students might think about you and your class and, by giving them the mid-semester course evaluations, actually find out what they think about both. You might realize that your fears have been misplaced and have (again) been subject to your own outrageous and impossible standards of excellence, while, in good old reality, your students are generally pleased. Some may actually say it's their favorite class this semester and that they like the various "perverted" texts you've given them. =P And you know what? Because it's anonymous and they have nothing to gain, you'll believe them and be both humbled and gratified. It's a nice feeling.

Finally, to pay proper tribute to all things food, here is my promised attempt at providing you with the secret to Greek-style fish:

3 Tilapia filets (or, if the grocery store is out of this fine fish, swai--Vietnamese catfish-- is also an option)
2 cloves of garlic, cut into fairly large chunks
Several cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
3-4 Tbsp. tomato paste
Olive oil
Red wine
1/3 cup fresh chopped parsley
2 tsp. fresh thyme

-Preheat the oven to 350.
-Cover the base of the baking dish with an ample amount of olive oil.
-Place the filets in a baking dish and then add the chunks of garlic.
-Next, place the sliced cherry tomatoes on top of the filets. Apply the tomato paste around the tomatoes, being sure to cover the "exposed" areas of the filets.
-Sprinkle the filets with parsley and thyme.
-Add a liberal amount of red wine to the olive oil base.
-Bake for about 35-40 minutes or until the fish flakes.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Magic of Pumpkins

To sing this small but remarkable thing, one had absolutely--yes, absolutely--to have a full, genuine inspiration, a genuine passion or its full poetic assimilation. Otherwise the romance would not only fail altogether, but might even appear outrageous and all but something shameless: it would be impossible to show such intensity of passionate feeling without provoking disgust, yet truth and simple-heartedness saved everything.
-Fyodor Dostoevsky (The Eternal Husband)

Shock of the century: on Wednesday, I baked a cake. :) Not just any cake, mind you, but a special cake, one that is oh so perfect and seasonal that it encapsulates fall in every bite. In short, it's a Pumpkin Spice Cake!!

What brought on this bout of midweek baking? Well, sometimes you're just having a crummy week, few things seem to be going well (that is, pedagogically) and you simply have no choice but to decide to call a time out and step back from the madness. It truly does happen to the best of us. Plus, I'm more than certain that, as a Myers-Brigss INFJ personality type, I often need to take a breather from the world in order to regroup. I'll also confess that, when you have a stack of papers waiting for you, it does help to know that you have some kind of sweet (I'm certain that I inherited my sweet-tooth from my grandpap) to see you through all the misplaced modifiers, logical fallacies and poorly integrated textual quotes. On the other side of that equation and to be completely fair to my students, it is similarly pleasant to discover a solid essay with good textual analysis while taking a bite of a moist and light cake. Really, cake + grading = Win/Win. :)

One trip to Whole Foods later and the cake was underway...not to mention Operation Cheer-Up.

I'm pleased to report that it was a complete and utter success! Baking can be an excellent distraction, as well as a way of producing something and seeing instant results (and is our current age not one completely focused on the concept of "Instant Gratification?"). Fortunately, the cake finished baking right as I was about to head off to tutoring in the city, which is always a fun and gratifying experience. Especially when you take into account that you get to read completely random things like "The Hand of Death" (a Mexican ghost story) and inject all the campy horror that it deserves into your voice. Children appreciate these things; college students, sadly, do not. Oh well, I guess this is proof 1,000,002 that I've got a bit of a Peter Pan complex :), but I think it's always a good idea to preserve one's childish enthusiasm.

I should also confess that my motives behind the cake were not entirely selfish. As I had dinner plans with the Greek (by the way, I persist in calling him the Greek on this blog simply because the Golden Rule is that names and faces are not to be revealed) and said plans consisted of him making the main course--Greek-style fish (recipe to be revealed in the following post, although, as he, unlike me, measures nothing, :) it will be pure guesswork on my part) -- and of me making both dessert and one of my signature salads (also to be revealed at some later date), it served a higher, more communal purpose. More importantly, since his parents were arriving on Thursday, it only made sense to send them some leftover cake as a "welcome." Yes, here's a glimpse into my logic....as well as the secret of how I bake often and yet seem to gain no extra pounds! Just kidding.

But, seriously, to eat a whole cake by oneself would be the height of gluttony, would it not? Even if it looks like this and tastes 100 times better than it looks? The real point is that, as cliched as it might be, small gestures and small slices can both go a long, long way.

Pumpkin Spice Cake with Sour Cream Frosting

Adapted from Romney Steele's My Nepenthe: Bohemian Tales of Food, Family and Big Sur
Yields 10-12 slices, or even less depending on your willpower

For the cake:
1 cup whole-wheat flour (not pastry flour)
1 cup unbleached white flour
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
Pinch of salt
3/4 cup Almond Oil
1/4 cup Canola Oil (you could, however, just use a cup of vegetable oil, which is what the original recipe calls for)
1 1/2 cups brown sugar, firmly packed
2 eggs
2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1 can pumpkin puree
1/4 cup molasses
1 small box of raisins (1.5 ounces)
1/2 cup walnuts (chopped or broken into pieces)

-Preheat the oven to 350.
-Lightly butter and flour a 9-inch round cake pan, shaking out any excess flour.
-Combine the whole-wheat flour, white flour, baking soda, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and salt in a medium-sized bowl.
-In a large bowl, stir together the oil and brown sugar, mixing well.
-Beat in the eggs (by hand), one at a time.
-Stir in the vanilla.
-Add first the pumpkin puree and then the molasses, stirring each ingredient in.
-Mix in the dry ingredients, mixing until thoroughly incorporated.
-Last but not least, stir in the raisins and walnuts.
-Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake about 1 hour, until a toothpick or cake-tester comes out clean.
-Cool on a rack for 15 minutes and then invert and cool the cake completely.

for the frosting
1/2 cup (4 ounces) cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 cup sour cream
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1-2 cups of powdered sugar (depending on how sweet you like your frosting)

-Mix the cream cheese, sour cream and vanilla in a medium bowl until smooth.
-Sift the powdered sugar and mix it into the wet ingredients.
NB: It should be thinner than a typical cream cheese frosting.

-Place the cooled cake on a cake plate. Spread a thin layer of frosting on top and all over the side. You may end up with some leftover frosting, but set it aside--or freeze it--for a rainy day or for the banana bread that you've had stored in your freezer since June.... :)

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Spice of Life

Once upon a time there was a boy who lived in a house across the field from a girl who no longer exists. They made up a thousand games. She was Queen and he was King. In the autumn light, her hair shone like a crown. They collected the world in small handfuls. When the sky grew dark they parted with leaves in their hair.
-Nicole Krauss (The History of Love)

I love everything about the fall: the changing leaves, the crisp air, the appearance of McIntosh apples in the produce section and, most especially, the grey mornings that justify turning on the heater for a few minutes while I linger over my morning coffee. Sadly, however, due to how ridiculously busy life has recently become, there hasn't been enough of this beloved lingering. But even if a large portion of my time is spent on campus or devoted to trying to figure out how to respond to some emails from students, there are always reasons to smile.

Here are some of mine:

1) Despite the fact that this past weekend was basically spent on campus (due to the film screening of Hamlet on Friday and the Memorial Conference we had on Saturday, both of which were, ultimately, interesting events. In fact, I would say that this conference is one of the best I've ever attended and truly displayed how amazing and influential a life devoted to scholarship and teaching can be), on Sunday, in between attempting to plan for my class and responding to my students' various worries about the paper that was due on Tuesday (yep, it's grading time again, kids!), I managed to escape to the Spice of Life festival in North Berkeley for a late lunch. As most food-related things in Berkeley are, it was both well-attended and full of yummy goodness. The two things that stuck out for me were 1) Inna Jam because who doesn't love a good piece of toast with jam? and 2) Paul's Paella; on a cold and foggy day, you sometimes just want spicy rice, sausage and seafood.

2) Occasionally, rather than poring over your many cookbooks to try to figure out what to do with the red lentils you decided to buy on a whim, the food blog gods will deliver a recipe that makes life easier for you. And, because you're feeling stressed, you decide to take the path of least resistance for a change. In the case of this fantastic red lentil soup that Molly at Orangette recently blogged about, there can be no regrets. The combination of the red lentils with lemon juice and tomato paste is infinitely soothing; I'm also happy to report that, especially if combined with some good bread and cheese, this soup can last for days. The most amazing thing is that you won't even get sick of it; like a fine wine, it seems to improve with age.

3) I'm the kind of person who thrives on snacks: almonds with chocolate chips, an apple with some peanut butter (the latter being one of my two main life sources--the other, of course, being coffee), cottage cheese (yep, gross though it may seem, I've always loved the stuff) with cinnamon, some Fage Greek yogurt with some fresh fruit or drizzled with honey...The list can go on and on; snacks are an integral part of my day. Recently, however, I've taken to having a little pre-bed snack as part of my new "let's put the events of the day behind us" plan. This is the time when I'll watch a show (yay for Season 4 of Friday Night Lights now being available on Netflix streaming) or read something for pleasure, while eating something that will surely put a positive touch on any day...

4) When it starts getting cooler, there are always numerous and pleasant drink options available to us. For somebody like me--somebody who is often left by the buses that fail to honor their commitment at transfer stations--this is doubly fortunate since, by the time I finally arrive home, I often feel like a human popsicle. Maybe it's only a northern California chill, but, what can I say, I shiver easily. :) In such situations, only hot chocolate--preferably with a cinnamon stick and other spices or maybe even with a dash of brandy (depending on my mood)--or something like mulled wine can really hit the spot.

5) Last but not least, I have recently found myself experimenting with Indian cooking. This is partly due to the fact that, in recent years, I've developed a long overdue appreciation for spicy--but not too spicy--things (small steps); the other half of my newfound love is that, through the cookbook a friend let me borrow (many thanks, C!), I've discovered how easy it really is to make! Honestly, all it requires is a well-stocked spice cabinet, which I've slowly but surely been building. Much like with soup, I love the moment when all the ingredients are assembled and simmering in the pot and the smell of spices fills the apartment...That's the moment when the painstaking chopping of an onion, the careful measurement of 4-5 spices and the occasional last-minute dash to the local supermarket for a forgotten ingredient all pay off. If you have doubts about this, I suggest you try Jaffrey's Chana Masala recipe. Due to the usual time crunch affecting my life these days, I'm simply sending you a link to "Smitten Kitchen"'s take on this recipe; I promise, however, that I'll soon be back (the weekend is looking quiet and filled with grading, which really means "procrastination") and with two new recipes to boot!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Muffins on My Mind

"You don't get tired of muffins, but you don't find inspiration in them."
-George Bernard Shaw

Let me begin by saying that George Bernard Shaw had no idea what he was talking about. Recently, I've been thinking--and a lot-- about muffins. I guess you could say it all started about three weeks ago when a friend mentioned the fabulous smell that woke her up one foggy morning and, upon investigation, discovered that it was coming from the Cinnamon and White Chocolate Muffins that one of her roommates had decided to bake. Her immediate suggestion was that we bake these muffins together and, naturally, I agreed. Cinnamon. Chocolate (even if white). Muffins. What's not to like about that combination? Despite the temptation that the muffins presented, the only thing we didn't foresee in our great muffin-baking plan was the fact that around Week 7/8 of the semester, a grad student's life suddenly goes up in flames...Ok, yes, that's kind of a gross exaggeration, but the point is that, between writing and grading, we've all been quite busy.

But suddenly, at least for me, a tiny window opened! In the past week I not only completed the Herculean task of writing a prospectus (go me!), but I also had a meeting with my advisor about said dissertation plan (revisions are necessary, but there's plenty of time for that), officially began tutoring with Reading Partners (there's something immensely pleasurable about spending my Wednesday afternoons reading children's books with students who want to improve their skills) and wrapped up the discussion of Sologub with my class. Needless to say, celebrations were in order!

As I'm ultimately a simple girl, said celebrations included a lovely dinner with friends on Friday at Pizzaiolo and then baking muffins and seeing the new Woody Allen movie on Saturday. What kind of muffins did I bake? Sadly, not the above-mentioned ones I had long been fantasizing about (my friend and I have plans to bake them as soon as the mid-semester storm passes), but ones no less tasty and no less inspired. You see, when you're me and you see a cookbook and decide to buy it both because a) you just can't help but like cookbooks--from their photography to their ingenuity-- and b) you know that one day you'll pull it from the shelf, peruse it and set about making something from it, you always have lots of options. And, two years after a Mother's Day brunch at Rick and Ann's when I decided to treat myself to an "early birthday/you just passed your MA exam" gift, I again put the one solely devoted to muffins to work. My recipe of choice was the Cream Cheese Muffin: simple, classic, melt-in-your-mouth tasty. In fact, with the combination of orange and cinnamon, as well as the cream cheese and streusel topping, they're perfect for fall.

See? I told you that I'd be more chipper when I came back and the prospectus was relatively behind me. Always happy to deliver. ;)

Cream Cheese Muffins
slightly adapted from Muffins: Sweet and Savory Comfort Food
Yields 12 muffins

For the muffins:

2 cups flour
3/4 cup plus 3 Tbsp. sugar (divided)
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
6 Tbsp. butter, cut up
1 cup buttermilk
3 Tbsp. orange juice
1 Tbsp. zested orange peel
1 egg
4 ounces cream cheese, cut into 12 cubes
a sprinkling of cinnamon (in both the flour mixture and the additional 3 Tbsp. of sugar)

For the streusel topping:

1/3 cup flour
3 Tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 Tbsp. orange juice
2 Tbsp. butter, softened

-Preheat oven to 400 degrees and place muffin cups in muffin tins
-In a medium bowl, combine flour, 3/4 cup sugar, baking powder and baking soda. Cut in butter with either a pastry blender or fork until the mixture is crumbly.
-In a small bowl, whisk the buttermilk, orange juice, orange zest and egg together.
-Stir wet mixture into dry ingredients until just moistened (NB: it's ok if the mixture is clumpy; don't overwork the flour!)
-Fill the muffin cups until 3/4 of the way full.
-Dip each cube of cream cheese into the sugar/cinnamon mixture and press into batter.
-In another small bowl, mix the streusel ingredients until crumbly.
-Spread topping evenly among muffin cups.
-Bake for 15-20 minutes (I would err on the side of caution and check them at 15 minutes, at which point mine were already turning slightly golden)


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