Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Finding Myself at Home with Zucchini Casserole

Let us put awhile away/ All the cares of work-a-day,/For a golden time forget,/ Task and worry, toil and fret,/ Let us take a day to dream/ In the meadow by the stream.
-L.M. Montgomery ("A Day Off")

I don't know if it's being home or if it's the summer, but, whatever it is, it's led to a nice feeling of a perhaps well-deserved lethargy. It's not even that I'm not working; work is always being done in some way, shape, or form. It's more that the work is being done oh so slowly and that, to a certain extent, I find myself distracted by all the little things that invite me to take a walk down memory lane: pictures from high school, old tubes of lipstick that I used to adore, books I used to read over and over again, drawers of flash cards from when I studied French and, from the college years and my summer at Middlebury, stacks of Russian ones, too.

Even when I nobly decided to take it upon myself to rearrange some of my mother's kitchen drawers, where recipe cut-outs from magazines are mixed into a folder with recipe cards that were once passed amongst friends, I found myself distracted by the recipes. I remembered the times we would make broccoli and cheese casserole--I would insist on this for dinner at least once a week in high school--, the family's discovery of a creamy shrimp soup, cookies that one of my grandmother's friends brought to my graduation party and that I was so in love with, she would send some for Christmas every year after that. Instead of cleaning, what I ultimately did was to arrange the recipes I wanted to copy for myself (see how quickly a noble goal becomes a self-serving one? Thus, the fate of politicians was enacted in my own kitchen and on a completely harmless scale!). But it was worth it: being home, I see all the things I've taken with me and am reminded of all the things that I've inadvertently--even somewhat unknowingly--left behind.

One good example of this occurred when the Greek was still here and, after all of our traveling, he, my mother and I made a huge dinner of grilled steak, salad and several vegetable sides. I was again confronted by the zucchini casserole that both my grandmother and mother used to make in my childhood. Let me confess that I never much cared for this casserole. I would occasionally eat it somewhat half-heartedly, but the only time I ever remember valiantly trying to like it was when I was going through a brief stint as a thirteen-year-old vegetarian...

Clearly, my tastes have matured because this time around I almost ate the whole pan. Revisiting this dish, I don't know what my teenage self could have had against mushrooms, onion, zucchini, green pepper covered in tomato sauce and cheese, but I'm really glad that my taste-buds have come around to reason. The combination of vegetables complement each other perfectly and what you end up with is something resembling a summer pizza, but without the crust. It's a feast of summer squash (oh, zucchini, how I love thee! Making this was like the third installment of last summer's zucchini fest and the crazy zucchini cherry cake that emerged from it) with everything else making what seems like a brief guest appearance...So, without further ado, from my family's kitchen to yours, I offer you a hearty and gloriously delicious vegetable casserole that can be made in next to no time at all!

Zucchini Casserole
Makes 6-12 servings, depending on whether it's your main course or just a side; I prefer it as a side, but it can go either way

I should add that the great thing about this recipe, like with most casseroles, is that you can make it according to your own tastes. If you prefer red pepper to green, go for it! Want to add some spicy Italian sausage? My grandma has done this countless times. There's also the option of using a different cheese, adding breadcrumbs, etc., etc. Feel free to play with this.

3 large zucchini, diced and with the seeds removed
8 large mushrooms, chopped into small chunks
1 large yellow onion, chopped
1-2 cloves of garlic, either put through the garlic or chopped finely
1 large green pepper, chopped and with the seeds removed
12 ounces tomato sauce
5-6 ounces grated brick cheese
1-2 Tbsp. olive oil
a sprinkling of Pecorino-Romano cheese
salt and pepper, to taste

-Preheat the oven to 350.
-Clean and chop and/or dice the zucchini, mushrooms, onion, garlic, green pepper.
-Lightly salt and pepper (N.B. due to the two cheeses, you don't want it to be too salty, especially if you use Pecorino-Romano like we did. This is a much saltier cheese than Parmesan.)
-In a 9x12 baking dish, mix the first five ingredients together.
-Pour the olive oil over them and mix so that they are evenly coated.
-Then add the tomato sauce and mix together.
-Sprinkle the Pecorino-Romano cheese over the vegetables.
-Bake for 30 minutes.
-At this stage, you should add the grated brick cheese to the top of the casserole.
-Bake for 15-20 minutes more, until the cheese is melted and the vegetables tender.
-Enjoy it while it's still hot!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Whirlwind Travels, Part III: The End of the Road for Yinz

"What is that feeling when you're driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? — it's the too-huge world vaulting us, and it's good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies."
-Jack Kerouac (On the Road)

It's hard to believe that this time last week, the Greek and I were still driving, driving, driving. It's almost enough to make you a little crazy how, one rest stop after another, all you can see is the road stretching out before you and, on both your left and right, the ever-expanding fields. There's something about it that is both beautiful and oppressive. You can't help but marvel at what a vast place America is, yet all you see from the road is but a fraction of it. And what I was feeling on that last day of travel was most definitely oppression. Firstly, I was tired; the hotel we stayed in in La Grange (yes, such a place really does exist; this is why Kentucky is awesome) was extremely hot and not all that conducive to a good night's sleep. Secondly, I just didn't fancy another day of gloomy skies and endless roads. Home. I wanted to be home, to stretch my legs, to sleep without knowing that yet another car ride was on the other side of dawn.

But, before we could go home, we had one important stop to make: The National Museum of the United States Air Force. This stop was for the Greek, who has a thing for planes and an impressive knowledge of them. I will say, however, that, while it wouldn't have been at the top of my list of places to stop along the road, it was kind of awesome. The layout is amazing and the restorations and replicas are very cool to see. It was a fun place to take pictures and I happily snapped away as the Greek ran around like a kid in a candy store and a veteran of the air force took us on a tour.

But about an hour and a half in I simply ran out of steam. I needed food and caffeine. Maybe even some sugar. The morning coffee was not as strong as I would have liked and, at that point in our journey, breakfast had been ages ago. That's the one thing I would say was incredibly disappointing about the museum; the food options were beyond awful. I have nothing against french fries, hamburgers and a wall of dessert options, but, honestly, the government is attempting to promote healthier eating and, despite its being a federally funded museum, I couldn't even get an apple or a banana. I'm not trying to go all Alice Waters here, but, as far as I could see, Ohio is not lacking in farms. Would some fruits and veggies really hurt anybody?

Needless to say, the apple juice and overly mayonnaise-y (even for me!) macaroni salad I opted for were nowhere near enough to give me the boost I needed. On the road again, we debated whether to stop in the Amish Country and try our luck there, but it was too far out of the way to head in that direction. Then, when we came upon some rush hour traffic outside Columbus, we decided to take a little detour. Turning into Columbus and finding ourselves near the Ohio State University campus was a breath of fresh air. Suddenly, the sky was again blue, the rain had passed and there was civilization (my first view of Columbus is this post's opening image). I kid you not, it felt nothing short of miraculous. My mood instantly improved; it might just have been one of the first smiles I managed all day. Real food was near; the simple creature in me could do nothing but rejoice! And then, through Yelp, we stumbled upon a lovely little cafe, Northstar, which more than made up for the mediocre macaroni salad that was my lunch. Suddenly, it was all about grilled artichokes and vegetable wraps with brown rice and pesto sauce....

...not to mention some pretty phenomenal coffee and amazing, amazing cookies. The whole experience really opened my eyes to the awesomeness of Columbus; it seemed to be a very cool, eclectic city. The college neighborhood was also very charming. Maybe in a few years time Ohio State will be hiring? They have a good Sologub scholar...Perhaps they'll need another? I know that I could happily eat these cookies for many years to come.

My good humor restored, we set off on the last leg of our journey and, boom, before we knew it, we were back in Pennsylvania, the dog was jumping all over us both and we could collapse, quite happily.

Naturally, however, we were soon again on the go. We took my mom to an appointment in Pittsburgh, where we combined business and pleasure by going to the Andy Warhol Musuem. Here's a picture of my favorite room there, the silver cloud room, which, yes, is as magical as it sounds.

After a lunch where I had yet another beer (three cheers for Brooklyn Brown Ale!), we took my mom to one of her favorite Pittsburgh bakeries: Bethel Bakery or, The Cake Place. This bakery is beyond delicious and has been the place where we've been buying cakes--when my grandma and I step aside, that is--for special occasions for years: my graduation, my grandparents' anniversary, my homecoming from Japan....It never disappoints and they also have lots of other goodies to tempt you. For example, chocolate and peanut butter brownies that melt in your mouth, anyone?

And then the next day we went back to the 'burgh for some more adventure. Pittsburgh is a cool city, gritty (you can see why the next Batman movie will be filmed there; Pittsburgh screams Gotham City) and full of all kinds of interesting places and things to do. We walked along the river, in the Italian neighborhood, the Strip District, all over downtown...It was definitely a little exhausting, especially since the rain continued to follow us, but was a day well spent.

We take our sports seriously, as well as our sandwiches, or, as we like to call them, "hoagies." At Jimmy Sunseri and Nino Co., I got the most amazing tuna sandwich ever: good Italian rolls, Balsamic vinegar, tomatoes, all sprinkled with a glorious amount of parmesan cheese. Personally, I would never think to sprinkle parmesan on a sandwich, but Jimmy and Nino have shown me the error of my ways.

Thanks to discoveries like these and leisurely river walks, I just can't help but love the lazy days of summer.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Whirlwind Travels, Part II: Goin' South

When in Rome, do as you done in Milledgeville.
-Flannery O'Connor

My oh my, in the past few weeks, I feel like I've run at least three marathons! It has well and truly been crazy-busy around here. So busy, in fact, that my poor old blog has been neglected...and around the time of our one year blogiversary! The good news, however, is that, while the Greek and I were driving around the Great American South, Dining with Dusty got the absolute bestest gift ever (needless to say, I was tickled pink)! Some other good news is that I've also got several exciting posts planned--some travel inspired, some home-cooking, old family recipe-inspired--because the simple truth is that you don't drive 800 miles south and then all the way back without getting buckets of inspiration.

For me, the 800 miles south was also my chance to discover my inner-beer drinker. I don't know what it was (the heat, the humidity, the fact that we were on the road and everything felt gritty?) but, to put it simply, more beer was consumed than I usually drink in a year. I should mention that this number is not at all impressive; it's still pathetically small. It is, however, a start.

The first stop on our journey to the wedding in Memphis was beautiful Louisville, KY. I may be a bit biased, considering I love antiques, stone houses and anything and everything that looks like it belongs to another era, but, as soon as I saw Louisville, I was charmed. Everything was picturesque and the humidity was bearable; after many hours in the car, we took a long walk around old Louisville, where the lovely Central Park Bed and Breakfast is located. It was the perfect place to stop and, needless to say, it lived up to my expectations of what a B&B should be: gorgeously and thoughtfully decorated, comfortable, idyllic and with a pretty impressive and often sumptuous breakfast spread. I kid you not when I say that my mouth still waters when I think of those scones. This trip has convinced me that Kentucky is the kind of place I want to return to, for both the Bourbon Trail and the Southern hospitality. The people are just plain nice in the south and, more importantly, the accent is addictive. Being there, I just wanted to cut off all of my "gs" at the ends of words and not be so in control of my vowels. The Greek was also bitten by the accent bug and himself attempted a few "southernisms"...much to my great amusement. ;)

After Louisville came a brief stop in Nashville, at the Frothy Monkey, an incredibly cute and tasty cafe. It was a lifesaver because, at that point in the trip, we were slightly fading and caffeine was key. Thank goodness for Yelp, smartphones and my attraction to bizarre names. This was the epitome of a fortuitous road-trip discovery.

And then, one crazy Southern-heat induced storm later, we were in Memphis, where at the bottom of some receipts from restaurants, you find such expressions as "As Elvis always said, 'Thank you, thank you very much!'" and the heat is so strong that it can create beads of sweat on your nose before 10:30 a.m. Memphis, to be sure, is a fun place; it's sprawling and huge and, at night, lit-up carriages seemingly straight out of Cinderella carry tourists around the downtown area. There's something truly kitschy, yet strangely appealing about it. It seems to be a city with a small and legendary downtown and that consists of little pockets of surrounding suburbia.

While I was busy with wedding stuff--there was a lovely bridal luncheon with a home-cooked meal of black-eyed peas and marinated chicken and dill gazpacho (the Slavic twist), a rehearsal dinner and then, of course, the actual wedding!--I did manage to make my way to the banks of the Mississippi River, a few very cool cafes suggested by the bride-to-be, Beale Street and, as a final Memphis treat, to Graceland!

As per usual, however, the real highlight was my Southern culinary adventure. I had myself a little Elvis-inspired treat at the Otherlands Coffee Bar and I'm proud to say that this sandwich of honey, banana and PB has finally turned the Greek into a peanut butter lover!

I also had some shrimp and grits and fried green tomatoes with jalapeño jam (adventures in jam-making are yet to come this summer)...and maybe, just maybe, the best crème brûlée of my life. A little turbinado sugar can go a long way around the edges of this dessert! It makes me long for a kitchen torch, which is right up there with the meat cleaver that I've long wanted. Yes, I do know and recognize that I'm a slightly eccentric child. I think this became apparent when, at age 13, I asked for (and received) a cappuccino maker for Christmas.

The wedding was lovely and yet another reason to eat both well and richly. It's a good thing that, between my wedding-hopping and my return to the cutest and neediest miniature dachshund ever, I've been dancing and walking a lot. A girl's gotta work off all the eggplant moussaka and wedding cake that was just too good to resist.

Interestingly enough, the night was young when the reception ended and, with a good friend from the department and her very sweet and cool boyfriend from Dayton (where we also later stopped; it's a small world, especially in a car), we headed down to Beale Street to see the nightlife scene and maybe to continue our dancing...Due to the great license debacle of 2011 in which, thanks to the fact that I never changed my address with the DMV and was unaware that I needed to renew my license before it expired on my 28th birthday--oops--we were unable to get into a bar with live music, so we simply went elsewhere for food. Stumbling upon a hole-in-the-wall, we enjoyed some spicy rice and beans, rice and a tangy and spicy dish called Bourbon Street Chicken and I also had my very first experience with oysters. I was a bit wary of the oysters, but, as a food blogger, I felt it was my duty to try them. I can't say they're something that I would order again and again, but, even if somewhat slippery and slimy, I kind of liked them. Especially if I chewed them instead of swallowed them whole and also dipped them in cocktail sauce. Give it time...I might just come around.

Our final stop, again with our Russian-speaking friends, was Graceland, home of the King. I was kind of thrilled to go even though I was also bemused by the Elvis mania, not to mention his decorating style....Oh, to be young and a "king" with a fortune, you too might fall prey to sparkly pillows and creepy-looking ceramic monkeys (what is it with Tennessee and monkeys??)....But one thing I was excited to learn about Elvis was that he always traveled with a chest of books. Another Elvis fun fact was that he loved Monty Python and Mel Brooks.

Exhausted from the heat, as well as the pace of our travels, before we again hit the road, I made one tiny request: Ice cream!! In downtown Memphis, all we could find was an Atlanta-based chain, MaggieMoo's, but, let me just say, the Red Velvet Cake Ice Cream, which turned to red velvet liquid in about 3 minutes flat, was not only de-lic-ious, but was also the perfect way to say bye [bah]-bye [bah] to the South.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Whirlwind Travels, Part I: New York

New York is nothing like Paris; it is nothing like London; and it is not Spokane multiplied by sixty, or Detroit multiplied by four. It is by all odds the loftiest of cities…Manhattan has been compelled to expand skyward because of the absence of any other direction in which to grow. This, more than any other thing, is responsible for its physical majesty. It is to the nation what the white church spire is to the village—the visible symbol of aspiration and faith, the white plume saying that the way is up.
-E.B. White ("Here is New York")

All I can say is "wow." Since I last updated you on my culinary adventures, I traveled across the country to New York City, spent four magical days there, attended one snazzy wedding on the fine island of Long Island, flew to Pittsburgh, spent one and a half days with my family and our beloved pooch and then the Greek and I drove 700 miles southwest to Memphis, stopping for one night in Louisville, KY....But, as they say, one step at a time. Although I have oodles and oodles of pictures from Louisville, today is about my love affair with New York: both its food and the people I know there.

The first day, when we stepped off the plane, it was like stepping into another world. It was hot, humid and the air was thick or, as we like to say in southwestern PA, "muggy." All this and it wasn't even 8 a.m.! We made our way to my friend A's apartment and, as we were nothing short of melting into the almost steaming pavement, we decided that our first day in the city was best spent in the air conditioned confines of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While the collection never fails to amaze me, I partly love this museum for the people watching. After a red eye flight, from my perch from above, I felt like I was looking at a scene from the movies in slow motion, but perhaps my fatigued imagination had just gotten the best of me:

Soon, however, it was necessary to refuel my failing system; what was my food of choice? Only pizza at Artichoke , which I first had back in the fall of 2008 when a good friend and I stopped in New York en route to a conference in Philadelphia to see a production of Virginia Woolf's The Waves. Clearly, it made quite an impression on me; when I say that I occasionally dream about the slightly thick and crunchy crust with the cream sauce with spinach and artichokes, I'm not even anywhere near kidding. The Greek was kind of sorry he had gone with tasty, yet not quite as tasty margherita. Learn from his mistake! ;)

We found a lovely little park near an Orthodox church to eat it and I couldn't resist taking a picture of this, since my long put off date with a short essay on icons awaits me upon my return to Berkeley...

The next day we made our way to my lovely alma mater, Columbia, in Morningside Heights, where we met one of my best friends from college and took the Greek on a walking tour of the neighborhood. We stopped by one of our old haunts (one of the few remaining in the neighborhood!), Le Monde. It was a fun and leisurely lunch. How can you go wrong with a beet salad with feta? I also had some tasty gazpacho because, frankly, in weather like that, the thought of hot food can be incredibly unappealing!

We meandered through the neighborhood, making our way through Harlem, looking at the architecture and stopping by the acclaimed Red Rooster, a restaurant/bar that a good friend (and native New Yorker) had recommended to me back in Berkeley. It did not disappoint! The cocktails were fabulous and interesting; I was torn between a Negroni made with fig bourbon and a cocktail called the "Dillio," which had both peanut-infused bourbon and dill in it. The "Dillio" won because my heart belongs to peanuts, but I'm certain that they all would have been an excellent choice.

After our adventure uptown, I made my way to Bryant Park to see a dear Slavic department friend who has left the academic nest to finish writing her dissertation in New York City, where her boyfriend lives and works. Needless to say, as I came upon her in the park, where she was writing away, I couldn't help but think that it was a very pleasant and charmed life indeed to sit by the carousel in the park and to write about Gogol and Zoshchenko. In any case, it's a far cry from my kitchen table...It was a lovely time, an hour certainly well spent.

Our rainiest, gloomiest day was Saturday, but, fortunately, the New York theater scene provided us with available seats to Tom Stoppard's Arcadia and the East Village restaurant, East Noodle, reunited me with one of my long lost loves: okonomiyaki!!! Happy days! I do love me some mayo!

Then, finally, the day of the wedding rolled around. The morning was a bit rushed, but our lovely hostess, the Greek and I nevertheless found time for brunch at a place not far from her apartment, the Dutch restaurant, Van Daag. I had some pretty spicy ginger granola, but the true crowd pleaser was the pastry basket that came with jams and spiced butters. I'm beginning to see that both Dutch and German cuisine have a lot to offer. This could be a stage of maturity.

And then the wedding: all I can say is that it was lovely and a good time was had by all. The bride was radiant and the band was awesome. There was a cocktail hour with a "Russian table" of black caviar, smoked salmon and vodka; there was also a tasty dinner of sea bass and couscous. And, though it was a (glock) kosher affair and the desserts lacked dairy, a room full of amazing cakes, cookies, ice creams and chocolate fondue and fruit from which to choose. Needless to say, I had a great time picking and choosing what desserts I wanted to sample....

...and then I went and caught the bouquet, my second in less than a year. What can I say? With that much dessert and the chance to see the majority of my college friends and all in one place, it must have been my lucky night. :) Or something like it. Or maybe luck has nothing to do with it all.


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