Monday, May 30, 2011

Eureka and the Lost Coast

Voici mon secret. Il est très simple: on ne voit bien qu'avec le cœur. L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux. (Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.)
-Antoine de Saint Exupéry (The Little Prince)

I love coming back from a trip, looking over my photos and rediscovering everything that, just a few days before, I had seen with my very own eyes. It's both exciting and strange--exciting because you remember how much you delighted in everything you saw, and strange because, back in your "natural habitat", you already feel the distance between yourself and that Other world that you only just left behind.

When the place you've just departed from happens to be the redwoods of California's lost coast, where I spent three lovely and relaxing days last week, this feeling can't help but be slightly amplified. It's such a beautiful, larger-than-life kind of place that it takes a little bit of time to readjust.

I can't tell you the last time I was in a place where the air was so fresh and crisp. It was truly like inhaling good health--a vacation for the lungs as well as for the soul. And the scenery is like a living landscape; wherever you look, there's something worth marveling at, from banana slugs
to the old Carson Mansion. As you can see in the photograph below, the Carson Mansion is one of those buildings that stands out; in fact, it practically glows in the dark, which adds to any reasonable individual's suspicion that ghosts could be lurking within...

One of the best parts about the trip, besides the redwoods and exploring Eureka, was the food. The Greek and I, through a fabulous deal on LivingSocial, got not only a discount on two nights at a lovely Victorian-style inn, but also gift certificates for Restaurant 301, the hotel restaurant. While very small, this place is truly worth a visit if you're ever in the neighborhood. The food is, quite simply, remarkable. The presentation was beautiful; who would have thought that setting muffins on a bed of dill could look so appealing? The combination of scallops and strawberries? Yes, please! Especially when they melt in your mouth. Pea soup garnished with sauteed shallots and creme fraiche? I would be happy eating this for the rest of my life. It's nice to go to a place and to be inspired to try new things in your own kitchen; besides the Proustian joy of the memories themselves, it's a way to bring the vacation experience home.

Thanks to 301, I now have my heart set on making a chocolate souffle...and also to do more pickling and experimenting with jam. And maybe to poach chicken. Or to cook rabbit and spaetzle for myself. Eggs benedict, too. After all, why not?

In addition to the food, I got to feast, figuratively that is, on the coastline, where everything, from the sand to the wood, looked a bit muted.

There was also the Venlo Chocolate Shop, where I was overjoyed (and slightly grossed out) to discover that they capitalize on the wild life of the surrounding redwoods by selling Banana Slug Chocolates, aka "the only slug you'll ever be tempted to eat." Somehow, I restrained myself (it wasn't hard) from buying one, although I did ask how popular they were and, according to the woman who worked there, they're a bestseller!

There was also the Eureka boardwalk in the Old Town....

And then Victorian Ferndale, where it's like you've stepped into an old Western town, complete with gunslingers and an old-fashioned penny candy store. The buildings don't even have public restrooms because they're too old and lack the proper plumbing! Surprisingly, in the midst of this little gem of a tourist spot, we stumbled on the Lost Coast Cafe, a haven of vegetarian cuisine and freshly baked and delicious pastries. We enjoyed the sunshine, as well as the food. I myself had a Vegetarian Muffaletta Sandwich and Coconut Curry soup; pastries were bought for the road....

All in all, it was a lovely trip--the ideal way to reward myself for having finished the first chapter. I have yet to get feedback on said chapter, but I like to think that the rainbow (double rainbow!) that auspiciously marked the beginning of our rainy drive up the coast might also apply to the things that have yet to come....

Monday, May 23, 2011

Cupcake Clouds

You'd like. You've dozed off, and in the world of dreams people communicate with a few basic words: unfortunately, if only, because, I'd like. That's how the party starts, the traffic jam in the streets. The dust. The rain. The firefly hunt.
-Amanda Michalopoulou (I'd Like)

If I remember correctly, on some form of online communication I made a bold statement that, when my chapter was finally done (if such a dream were ever to occur), it would rain cupcakes. And I'm happy to report, at long last, that my cupcake cloud has burst!! Granted, the storm was a little early--earlier than expected--and preceded the completion of the chapter, but, you know, you just can't predict the weather these days. Storms arrive early, sometimes never occur at all and, often when you least expect it, the sun shines and delivers a seemingly as if ordered-by-mail kind of day. Those days are my favorites. And when they are accompanied by cupcakes--chocolate pistachio or lemon blueberry with cream cheese frosting--it's all the better.

Best of all is that I finished the chapter on the eve of the Greek's birthday, which meant that we could well and truly enjoy the day, free of pesky obligations and nagging concerns. We had a lovely brunch at the Mixing Bowl, an old haunt of mine where I used to go to study on Sunday afternoons...I've always liked both their coffee and their food; the bread pudding french toast has made me think that I need to reinstate my old Sunday habit. You know, at least occasionally.

And then we went to the beach or, more accurately, the lake. Lake Temescal is both beautiful and peaceful, surrounded by a park, picnic area and a large swath of sand where lake-goers can camp out and pretend they're at the beach. Swimming is also a possibility if you, unlike me, aren't afraid of chilly water or the nippy breeze that would greet you upon returning to your towel. Naturally, while the Greek swam (you can't keep a Mediterranean out of the water), I took pictures and read both my book and the New York Times, which, after their recent switch to limiting you to 20 articles a month, I decided I could subscribe to--at least on Sundays.

And, after roasting on the beach (I kid you not when I say that the backs of my legs are now scarlet, while the front is still milky white; so much for proper tanning/burning know-how. Sunscreen would have been smart, but the dissertation had stolen all of my brain power), we returned to my apartment to make a pretty tasty dinner--the kind of thing that one just wants to eat after a day of lolling in the sun: yummy, yummy steak, cooked to a perfect medium, and, for both flavor and health, spiced coconut spinach, courtesy of 101 Cookbooks. Needless to say, Heidi was onto something with this recipe: I slightly modified it since I had only brown mustard seeds, no shallots and safflower, instead of sunflower, oil, but, you know what, it was still the perfect side. Popeye would have been over the moon. Definitely beats the canned stuff!

And then it was dessert time: while it's a true fact that I had originally baked these cupcakes for an end-of-semester, "I just finished writing my whole dissertation, graduated and some of my friends took exams and passed them, too" garden party, hosted by a dear friend who beautifully writes about cellos, music and literary pursuits here (they were even her pick; she has remembered them fondly ever since they made their debut back in the summer of 2007), they were also the Greek's birthday cake (don't worry! He is not being cheated in any way; his real cake will be made this weekend). What extra batter didn't fit into the cupcake pans, I put in a bread pan and then made them into mini cake bites, kind of like whoopie pies, but without the roundness of the whoopie.

But who cares about shape and size when you're talking about a light and airy lemon cake, pleasantly dotted with fresh blueberries and topped with cream cheese, powdered sugar goodness? Welcome to the taste of summer! It just so happens that it's finger-lickin' good.

Lemon Blueberry Cupcakes

Yields 24 delightful cupcakes + batter for a few more, or for cake bites
Again inspired by Chockylit

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/3 cups sugar
4 large eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup cake flour
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup milk
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
zest of one lemon (be sure to wash it before zesting!)
about 1 cup blueberries

-Preheat oven to 375.
-Beat butter on high until soft, about 30 seconds.
-Add sugar. Beat on medium-high until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes.
-Add eggs one at a time, beat for 30 seconds between each.
-Whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt in a bowl.
-Add about a third of the dry ingredients to the mixing bowl and beat to combine.
-Then, add about a half of the milk and beat to combine.
-Continue adding, alternating between dry and wet and finishing with the dry.
-Add the lemon juice and lemon zest, beat to combine.
-Add blueberries and carefully fold into the batter with a spatula.
-Scoop into cupcake papers about half full.
-Place cupcakes in the oven. Bake for 18-22 minutes until a cake tester comes out clean.

Lemony Cream Cheese Frosting

1 stick butter (1/2 cup)
2 packages cream cheese (16 oz)
about 2 cups powdered sugar, plus more for sprinkling
1 tsp. lemon extract

-Cream the butter in a large bowl.
-Add the cream cheese and beat it until incorporated.
-Add the lemon extract and about half the powdered sugar and mix.
-Mix in the remaining powdered sugar.
-Frost the cupcakes and then, according to your tastes, you can either sprinkle some more powdered sugar on top and top it all off with a blueberry or consider your work done and the fun about to begin!

Monday, May 16, 2011

A Chocolate Pistachio Birthday Dream

Raise me a dais of silk and down;
Hang it with vair and purple dyes;
Carve it in doves and pomegranates,
And peacocks with a hundred eyes;
Work it in gold and silver grapes,
In leaves and silver fleurs-de-lys;
Because the birthday of my life Is come,
my love is come to me.
-Christina Rossetti ("A Birthday")

I am now officially 28 years old. If one itsy bitsy little day can be a precursor of the things to come, then I'd say we're off to a good start. Looking at those cupcakes, how can you possibly disagree with me?


On a more serious note, it was a lovely, lovely birthday. It doesn't hurt that I have generous and thoughtful friends; both my tea collection and my list of books that must be read during the ultimately short three months of summer (Freedom! The Little Prince! Comfort Me with Apples!) have increased, tempting me away from work.....which, frankly, is just as it should be.

It started with a pre-party that a dear friend had kindly offered to host and then sloooowly (time crawls when you have yet to meet your self-imposed deadlines. Perhaps that's half the glory of a self-imposed deadline) turned into the real deal. The day passed by in a blur of hiking in the redwoods, some wine tasting at a cute bar-cafe in Sonoma and then a yummy Italian dinner at Estate. Cured meat has never tasted so good.

But really, it was all about the company, all about the food and, most definitely, all about these cupcakes. Ever since Joy the Baker wrote about pistachio pudding, I'd been thinking about it, dreaming about the perfect moment to make it. Pudding, however, is not a very travel-friendly food. And cupcakes, while themselves not always easy to transport, are both incredibly tasty and the perfect food for one (how, after all, do you make pudding for 20+ people? I simply don't have enough ramekins for such an endeavor).

The problem was that I didn't quite want pistachio cupcakes. I wanted chocolate--delicious, dark, melt-in-your-mouth chocolate--cupcakes. But I still wanted pistachio and I also wanted texture. Thus, pistachio buttercream frosting was clearly the only way to go.

Just call it an inspired choice. A girl doesn't live to be 28 and not have learned a few things along the way. As they say, with age comes great wisdom! And wisdom has never tasted so good.

Old-Fashioned Chocolate Cupcakes with Pistachio Buttercream Frosting

For the cupcakes:
Adapted slightly from Chockylit, my favorite cupcake blog
Yields 24 portions of happiness

3/4 cup (1-1/2 sticks) butter
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 eggs
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup cocoa powdered
1-1/2 cups milk (I used 1% and, despite warnings that this would bring disaster upon me, was more than ok)
2 teaspoons vanilla

-Preheat oven to 350.
-Beat butter until softened. Add sugar and beat until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes.
-Add eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition.
-Measure the flour, baking soda, salt and cocoa powder into a medium sized bowl and whisk to combine.
-Measure the milk and vanilla into a measuring cup.
-Add about a third of the dry ingredients to the butter-sugar mixture and beat to combine.
-Then, add about a half of the milk and vanilla mixture and beat to combine.
-Continue adding, alternating between dry and wet and finishing with the dry.
-Spoon batter into cupcake cups about 3/4 of the way full.
-Bake for about 25-30 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean.
-Ice them with frosting (hopefully the recipe for pistachio buttercream below) and I dare you not to eat at least 2...if not more.

For the frosting:

Yields enough frosting for 24 cupcakes

1/2 cup pistachios
1 Tbsp. sugar
a few teaspoons of water
1 1/2 sticks butter
1/4 cup milk (again 1%)
about 1 cup powdered sugar (adjust according to how sweet you like your frosting)

-In a food processor, grind the pistachios until fine.
-Add in 1 Tablespoon of sugar and pulse a few more times to blend.
-Add in a few teaspoons of water, making sure that the mixture remains thick. **It should be the consistency of a paste.
-In a small bowl, cream the butter with an electric mixer.
-Add in the pistachio paste and blend.
-Add in the milk and the powdered sugar and blend until combined.
-Spoon onto cupcakes, if slightly obsessive like me, top them with an extra pistachio for decoration and enjoy!

Pistachio on FoodistaPistachio

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

On Reform and Rice Casserole

Academic writing can become a sordid drama. Professors feel oppressed by half-done manuscripts, complain about cruel rejections from journals, scramble breathlessly to submit grant proposals the day before the deadlines, fantasize about the halycon summer days of writing, and curse the foul start of the semester for stunting their productivity...We don't need this kind of drama. All of these practices are bad. Academic writing should be more routine, boring and mundane than it is.
-Paul J. Silvia (How to Write a Lot)

The epigraph to this post should tell you everything you need to know. It should, at the very least, drive home what I've been saying in lots and lots of different ways for the past few months: writing is hard. It's not hard because it's _actually_ hard (for example, as I type these words, they're flowing with ease), but because, to shape something, to think it through and to have it achieve its goal of conveying a particular message...well, that requires serious discipline. Not to mention serious work, dedication and structure.

Only now, at this late stage in my teaching-free semester did I realize that I needed help. Yes, help. That little four letter word that I often hate to ask for because I'd prefer to be all-knowing and powerful and do everything myself. As with most difficulties I face, I turn to the written word first, certain that some expert has surely written a book on the way that I can tackle my goal. And that's how I stumbled upon this gem. Seriously, it's a golden guide on how to write. The ultimate message is a no-frills, no-coddling approach to the task. It's truly as simple as either learn to live with this occupational challenge and train yourself not to perceive it as an arduous task, but rather as a daily habit. In other words, writing and I are supposed to, with time, develop the same kind of addictive and loving relationship I have with coffee. And, you know what, I think I can live with that.

What it ultimately means is that, just like when I decide to go about the time-consuming, but oh so worth it process of baking a delicious cake (perhaps the very almond cake that I recently saw on Orangette and just had to have because it sounded like Marzipan Cake, a fantasy concoction of mine long in the most great ideas, it had naturally already been done), I've just got to put the time in. This is all despite the fact that, from sifting to cooling time, this will often be a 2-3 hour process. Maybe even longer depending on the recipe. The point is that, once the grunt work is done, I get to reap the rewards for however long the cake lasts! And, honestly (if we're to carry the cake metaphor all the way to the bitter end), 2-3 hours of honest labor a day--of precious writing/thinking time--is just as good as a cake. Both will make me feel good; one might even make me feel better than the the long run.

Or at least that's what I have to train myself to believe. Nobody said reform was an easy process. Which is why the author of this book, a psychologist, says that you must reward yourself. As that's something I've never had trouble with, as soon as I finished the Chekhov section of the chapter and found myself in possession of an Amazon gift card (yes, the world does work in mysteriously fortuitous ways sometimes), I ordered myself Heidi Swanson's (of 101 Cookbooks) new cookbook, Super Natural Every Day. In a nutshell, I love it! It's such a pretty book and full of healthy, simple and delicious recipes.

As part of the process is to learn to separate work time and free time--and not to work on the weekend!!!! That alone is the sign of having achieved the ultimate discipline...and I'm not there yet. At least in my thoughts. Perhaps in practice I am, although my self-expectations would say otherwise--I made a pretty elaborate meal when I had my friends over for dinner a few weekends ago: almond cake and a brown rice casserole with mushrooms, peas, chicken and lots and lots of Gruyere cheese. The rice casserole was creamy, practically vibrating with good health and was enough food to feed an army. Or, in my case, enough to carry me through a pleasant Saturday evening and well into a week of producing paragraphs.

Chicken, Pea and Mushroom Brown Rice Casserole
heavily adapted from Heidi Swanson's Wild Rice Casserole in Super Natural Every Day
Yields about 8 heaping servings

If you read 101 Cookbooks, you'll know that Heidi is a vegetarian and wouldn't have included a recipe calling for chicken in her latest cookbook. I, however, was improvising because one of the friends who was coming over isn't overly fond of mushrooms and the casserole was based on the simple combination of mushrooms, cheese, spices and rice. I decided chicken would add to the heartiness of the meal (when feeding men, I usually opt for protein-heavy dishes) and that, in the spring and summer and, well, any season, you just can't go wrong with peas. I think I made the right decision. And then another good one when I also opted to add in more cheese than was probably necessary; as they say, a little dairy goes a long way.

10-ounce chicken breast, chopped
1/4 pound brown mushrooms, cleaned and chopped
1 large onion, well chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 handfuls (about 4 ounces) fresh baby spinach, cleaned and chopped
12 ounces frozen green peas, steamed and/or cooked
3 cups cooked brown rice (1 cup dry rice), room temperature
2 large eggs
1 cup cottage cheese
1/2 cup sour cream
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
1/2 cup freshly grated Gruyere cheese
1 tsp. fresh tarragon, chopped
1 tsp. fresh chives, chopped

-Preheat oven to 350F degrees. Rub a medium-large baking dish with a bit of olive oil or butter and set aside.
-In a large skillet over medium-high heat saute the chicken until it is cooked on the outside but still pink on the inside (about 5 minutes). Place in a bowl off to the side.
-In the same skillet, saute the mushrooms in a glug of olive oil sprinkled with a couple pinches of salt and pepper. Stir every minute or so until the mushrooms have released their liquid and have browned a bit.
-Add the onions and cook for another 4 or 5 minutes or until they are translucent.
-Stir in the garlic, spinach and peas and cook for another 2-3 minutes and then remove from heat.
-Add the chicken to the vegetable mix.
-Then, add the rice to the skillet and stir until combined.
-In a medium bowl whisk together the eggs, cottage cheese, sour cream, Dijon mustard, salt (about 1/2 tsp. kosher salt) and pepper.
-Combine the rice mixture and cottage cheese mixture in a large bowl, stir until well combined and then turn out into your prepared baking dish.
-Sprinkle with the Gruyere cheese, some of the chives and tarragon, setting aside a little of each for serving.
-Cover with foil and place in oven for 30 minutes.
-At this stage, remove foil and bake for another 20 or 30 minutes more or until hot throughout and golden along the edges. ---Sprinkle with the remaining cheese and spices and then sit down to enjoy.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Miles from Mother's Day

If it is your nature
to be happy
you will swim away along the soft trails

for hours, your imagination
alighting everywhere.
And if your spirit
carries within it

the thorn
that is heavier than lead ---
if it's all you can do
to keep on trudging ---
-Mary Oliver ("Morning Poem")

Living thousands of miles away isn't always easy, especially on holidays. I would have liked to have made my mother pancakes today. A nice breakfast to start the day off right. That's what these holidays are all about, right? The simple act of making the day nice, of showing your appreciation. Pancakes and I have had a long relationship and one marked by many ups and downs, but in the past year I've come to the conclusion that nothing says "love" more than pancakes.

After all, nobody necessarily wants to stand over a stove or a griddle in the morning, either pre-coffee or in the act of consuming said coffee. It's much easier to pour a bowl of cereal or to pop some bread in the toaster than to measure flour, whisk eggs and milk together, to make sure the batter isn't overmixed but is just right.

But it's so worth it. Especially when they turn out slightly crispy and golden. And especially when you try a new recipe that combines cardamom, oats, dried apricots and almonds. 1 point for taste; 1 point for happy arteries. It's like eating decadently but with a healthy twist. Such things--and lots and lots of flowers--were made for Mother's Day.

I'll be seeing my mother in about a month, when these pancakes will be making a triumphant return to my table. But for now, pictures of their happy tidings--and of the beautiful flowers from the local rose garden--will have to suffice! Daughterly love, after all, comes in all shapes, sizes and flavors.

Cardamom-Scented Oatmeal Pancakes

from Mark Bittman's The Minimalist
Yields 4-6 servings, depending on the size of the pancakes

1/4 cup whole-wheat flour
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup rolled oats
1/3 cup chopped almonds
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 egg
1/2 cup milk
2 cups cooked oatmeal
1/3 cup chopped dried apricots
Vegetable oil for frying

-Combine the flours, oats, almonds, baking powder, cardamom and salt in a large bowl.
-In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg and milk; stir in the cooked oatmeal and the apricots until just incorporated.
- Add the oatmeal mixture to the dry ingredients and stir gently; don’t overmix. The consistency should be that of thick pancake batter; add a little more milk or whole-wheat flour as needed.
-Put a large skillet or griddle over medium heat. When a few drops of water dance on its surface, add a thin film of vegetable oil and let it become hot.
- Spoon out the batter, making any size pancakes you like.
-Cook until bubbles form on the top and pop, 2 to 3 minutes.
-Carefully flip the pancakes and cook until they’re browned on the other side, a couple of minutes more. You may have to rotate the cakes to cook them evenly, depending on the heat source and pan.
- Serve with honey.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Winding Down...and Up

I was startled by this, the speed with which one apocryphal watercolor was transforming our future. A minute ago, there had been an opened book, a crazy notion--we could go or we could stay--and now, not five minutes later, the book was shut. We were going. Simple as that.
-Karen Russell ("From Children's Reminiscences of the Westward Migration")

I've been a bit neglectful of the blog recently, but that's largely because suddenly it's May. I repeat, May. In some way or another, this has been the longest semester of my life; with the endless expanse of free time, of research, writing and cooking time before me, of worrying about the dissertation, of allergies and flu bugs and day trips, there were moments when it felt like there was little to no progress. Just that Groundhog Day kind of repetition. Then again, at the same time, it seems to have flown by. I can't quite put my finger on it, but we seem to have gone from January to May pretty quickly.

In any case, I'm still dissertating (*I would like to note that when editing this post, I noticed that I had originally written "I'm still dissertation. This tells you almost everything you need to know about my mental state right now. We have reached the land of barbaric speech; I have also become my work.*) . Yeah, I know, it never ends. It is the project that just keeps on giving. But I am quickly nearing the end...the end, let me clarify, of Chapter 1. A friend who reads the blog recently told me that I made it sound like I was in the process of finishing the whole thing, but let us thank the heavens that we're only at the beginning....which some, let me add, say is the hardest part.

The good news is that I'm in the process of reforming myself. More about that in the next post. For now, I offer you a recipe for Negronis. Even when in the process of scrambling, there should always be those moments when you step back, act human and have some friends over for dinner. Cocktails just make such evenings more pleasant, especially when they're red, not to mention just a little bitter, but sweet.

Come to think of it, bittersweet may just sum it all up quite nicely.

Yields one ruby red glass of joy

2 tablespoons gin
2 tablespoons Campari
2 tablespoons sweet vermouth

-Combine gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth in an ice-filled Old Fashioned glass.
-Stir gently. May garnish with an orange peel if desired.
-Sit back, enjoy and relax!


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