Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Comforts of Citrus and Cream and a New Year

"I feel infinite."
And Sam and Patrick looked at me like I said the greatest thing they ever heard. Because the song was that great and because we all really paid attention to it. Five minutes of a lifetime were truly well spent, and we felt young in a good way.
-Stephen Chbosky (the perks of being a wallflower)

I wouldn't necessarily say that I feel "infinite" right now, but I suppose you might say that I feel pretty good--as good as one might feel on the eve of yet another new year.

You see, New Year's Eve has always made me a little sad; it's supposed to be a big celebration, a remarkable, never-to-be-forgotten evening that, at least according to most marketing schemes, holds the magical key to changing your life. Throw a few resolutions into the mix and you're supposed to be a New and Improved You--a small fraction of your ideal self--and all in a matter of minutes.

Rather than coming up with resolutions, I come up with a yearly slogan; I've been doing this for  most of my graduate school career and I find it's just easier this way. These slogans are more a yearly mission statement of hope than a hard and fast rule to live by.  As I announced last year, 2008 was the Year of Being Bold. 2009 was the Year of Being Brilliant; 2010 was the Year of Keeping it (Whimsically) Real and last year was supposed to be the Year of Being Happily Satisfied--of being content with what was, rather than obsessing over what it should have been. I'm not sure I've ever truly fulfilled any of these slogans, but I have, in my own small way, tried to live with them in mind.

What does 2012 have in store for me, you might be wondering? If these past years have been about attitudes and ways of perception, this next year is going to be the Year of Purposeful Happenings. I want to act, rather than to think about and overthink things that are of little consequence. I want to write my dissertation instead of thinking about writing my dissertation. I want to wake up with purpose and do things--go to cafes that have long been on my list of places to go, visit famous places I've always intended to see, bake scones for breakfast because the morning stretches before me and I have nowhere to be. But most of all I want to close my computer screen for the evening and get away from the online world that, even if I derive pleasure from it sometimes, ultimately takes me away from doing many of the things that I used to find satisfying and now claim that I never have time to do because I'm always staring at this white screen...and often procrastinating my life away (blogging doesn't count; this, I enjoy).

My time in Pennsylvania has been a good way of ushering my new slogan into the new year. The Greek and I have had a very full week, having leisurely breakfasts of custardy cornbread, baked oatmeal and scones with my grandparents and mother. We've gone out to eat with my father and his wife, as well as my oldest friend in the world. We drove to Morgantown to see WVU (the first two pictures of this post) and to walk around the campus and town; we also went to the lovely Fallingwater, the former home of the Kaufmann family that Frank Lloyd Wright designed in the 1930s when Mrs. Kaufmann said she wanted a small log cabin in the woods (and look at what she got! It's the third picture of this post!).

And, of course, I've been happily baking away and reading my new books and cookbooks. While I've tried to limit my "computer time" by doing "real, non-worky" things, this break has included more work than a "break" deserves to include. I've done a translation for money (all for the good cause of buying my dream camera), I've been working on my conference paper for the upcoming MLA conference in Seattle and I've spent some time thinking about and jotting things down for my chapter.

Although I have yet to fully "bake" my chapter, I made some lovely scones yesterday--hearty, yet light and not particularly sweet. Their lightness stems from both the butter and the orange zest (smelling the flour mixture was heavenly;  although I don't mean this at all in a morbid way, when I die, I want to die with the smell of oranges on my hands), while their heartiness is owed completely to the rolled oats I mixed into the dough. It's the kind of breakfast I want to have on a weekly basis--especially when they just come out of the oven. And if my slogan comes anywhere near being fulfilled in the upcoming year, it's only the beginning of my wished for breakfast baking bonanza.

Happy New Year to you all! May there be scones, slogans and much happiness!

Orange Oat Cream Scones with Toasted Walnuts

I first made a variant of this recipe back in 2009, right after I got my food processor. Back then I thought it was a good idea to use steel cut, rather than rolled, oats. I also used buttermilk instead of cream. While I enjoyed those scones (and so did my mom), they didn't fly off of the plate nearly as quickly as these did.

Yields 10 large scones, which, considering you'll immediately wish you had more, isn't enough

Heavily adapted from Romney Steele's My Nepenthe via Heidi Swanson at 101 Cookbooks

3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 cup cold butter, chopped into tiny cubes
2 cups rolled oats (I like Bob's Extra Thick Rolled Oats)
1 orange, zested
1 1/2 cup heavy cream (for me, it took this much to moisten the dough; I would start with a cup and see what the consistency of your dough is like)
1/2 cup walnuts, toasted in a skillet

-Preheat the oven to 350 F.
-If using a baking sheet, line with parchment paper. If using a baking stone as I did, there's no need to line it with anything.
-Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder and soda in a large bowl. Whisk to combine.
-Cut the butter into the flour mixture using a pastry cutter; you want the consistency to be fine--the butter should look like small, floury peas. If the chunks of butter are larger than this, keep working your pastry cutter into the dough. (N.B. While I like to make everything harder on myself by using pastry cutters and doing things the old-fashioned way, you could also use a food processor for these 2 steps).
-Stir in the oats and zest.
-Now, stir in the toasted walnuts and cream until the dough is moist. If it's overly dry and crumbly, keep adding cream in tiny increments.
-Bring the dough together with your hands, but gently--with scones, you don't want to overwork or over-knead the dough.
-After you bring the dough together, pat it into a thick 8-inch round.
-Slice the dough, forming triangles, and lay them, with space in between (they will expand!), on a baking stone or prepared baking sheet.
-Lightly sprinkle sugar on top of the scones.
-Bake from 12-18 minutes or until the tops and bottoms are light and golden.
-Let cool slightly (they're very crumbly after they just come out of the oven) and then savor their citrusy warmth with a hot cup of hopefully strong, flavorful coffee!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

All Mulled Up

Even though I hate being cold, I love the winter. I think this preference largely stems from my belief that it's much easier to warm oneself than it is to cool off: you can have a piping hot cup of hot cocoa or the always popular (even in summer, at least for me!) hot toddy; there is also an abundance of blankets, flannel sheets, cozy fleece sweatshirts, slippers and snuggly socks just waiting for the opportunity to warm any poor, beleaguered soul. And, if worst comes to worst, there ought to be some heater you can find to sit in front of, which has long been a favorite pastime of mine. Back in high school, I would fall asleep with my homework (usually US government) in front of the heating vents; in college, I would keep my room extra toasty as I translated Russian texts and wrote about the metaphysical poetry of John Donne. And, in my former apartment, my studying for both my Ph.D. and Master's Exams would often involve time in front of the heater, for either the purpose of drying my long hair or warming my perpetually ice-cold toes. I haven't quite found my new "heating" rhythm in the Greek's and my new apartment; there are no heating vents, just radiators. While it can be cozy to sit next to these, it's just not the same as hot hair blowing out of a vent at high speed.

So, I've had to make do with other arrangements. One such arrangement has been experimenting a little with mulled wine. While this particular wine was made for the few departmental friends we had over on the last official day of the semester, I can already tell that it will become a warming tradition in our new home. Even though I really like red mulled wine, I loved the flavor of the mulled white wine. Maybe it was because of the lemon zest and apple juice; the fruity flavors were strong, but not dominant, lending a slightly tart and crisp flavor. The white wine and the ginger were clearly king and queen of the cup, which was just the right combination of sugar and spice. In short, the right companion for a chilly winter evening--even (and especially) one spent in a rocking chair next to the radiator!

White Mulled Wine
Makes many cups of spiced wine--enough for about 20 "normal" servings (or, as the Greek says, 10 graduate student servings)

Since mulling is a personal thing (some people like cloves and some don't; some people like orange or lemon juice and others prefer to heat the rind for a citrusy flavor), the following recipe can be tweaked to your heart's content. These are the ingredients that worked for us and, dare I say, led to a fabulously spicy, softly sweet and soothing winter drink. We got the recipe, thanks to the Greek's language skills, from a German site; I've translated and converted them with both his help and Google Translate's.

2 bottles white wine (1500 ml)
1 quart apple juice (950 ml)
2-3 lemons, zested and juiced
2 Tbsp. grated fresh ginger
1 Tbsp. ground ginger
2/3 cup orange liqueur (150 ml)

Directions according to the Greek:

-Eyeball your measurements, throw them all in a pot and heat them up.

Directions according to me (for the OCD in all of us):

-Add the wine, apple juice, lemon zest and juice, fresh and ground ginger and orange liqueur to a large pot.
-Turn the heat to medium and, in addition to stirring occasionally, monitor the temperature with a candy thermometer. It should be at about 160 F (70 C).
-Don't let the mulled wine come to a boil; you want it to be hot--you don't want to overdo the heat and compromise the flavors.

Monday, December 26, 2011

'Twas the Day After Christmas...

Christmas eve is a special night. We go to my Grandparents'. We have dinner. We have yummy yummy cookies. We munch [sic] on all night. We open gifts. We take pictures. Then we go home.
     Good night. Sleep tight. Let's hope Santa has a safe flight.
- A six-year-old me

I was at my mom's this afternoon, going through some of my old papers from my "formative years," and I stumbled upon these papers. There was something highly amusing about (re)discovering my youthful impressions of Christmas--and even more amusing was the fact that so little has changed: the cookies are still really, really yummy, and the night still special. And, of course, there are still lots of photos capturing some of the holiday magic.

The Greek and I have been here for less than a week, but it's been a lovely time so far--quite peaceful and relaxing, which, after the move and the end of the semester rush, is just what we had been hoping for. We spent one rainy and cloudy afternoon walking around Washington, the city in which I was born. It was quite festive, with lots of wreaths and lights decorating the businesses in town. We also stumbled upon some graffiti that I found to be quite charming--I felt it captured the charm of what "old Washington" must have been like.

While I had walked the streets of Washington many times before (this is, after all, where one of my favorite local restaurants, The Union Grill, is located), it's always interesting to go someplace with somebody who's never been there before. Walking around with the Greek, I found lots of things to photograph--from pretty churches to the campus of Washington and Jefferson College. A local police officer saw me taking pictures and I couldn't help but notice the bemused smile on his face; I'm sure he was thinking we must have been crazy out-of-towners to find beauty in these run-down and mundane sights.

After our afternoon stroll, we went back to my grandma's house that night to make dinner (it seemed only fair that Grandma should have an evening out of the kitchen). The Greek made a lovely roast chicken with lemon and rosemary (again, inspired by All about Roasting), while I, in typical fashion, took care of the veggies: Roasted Brussel Sprouts and Beet Greens with Pine Nuts and Garlic, which was inspired by this recipe. All three were a big hit, especially the chicken and the beet greens (the brussel sprouts, sadly, were not what they could have been; a chef is only as good as her ingredients/the quality of her produce and her tools), which complemented each other nicely. 

And then a few mad days of last-minute Christmas shopping later and it was already time for Christmas, yummy yummy cookies, unwrapping the carefully (and, in some cases [bread pans are impossible!], not so carefully) wrapped gifts and roasting the Prime Rib that, a few short years ago, I boldly decided should become a part of our holiday repertoire after I read an article in an issue of Saveur about how delectable Prime Rib was and how it would bring only joy and happiness to the holiday table.

What can I say? I'm easily persuaded, hopelessly gullible and a sucker for pictures of beautiful, carefully prepared food, as well as the words that describe it. My Christmas loot can attest to this. Let me just say,  I was quite thrilled that my holiday cookbook fantasies largely came true: Baking: From My Home to Yours (! I hardly know where to start! I'm also inspired by the small fact that this woman got her doctorate in gerontology only to decide that she wanted to bake for the rest of her life--and has been ever since), Mastering the Art of French Cooking (! Oh, Julia!) and one of my most coveted holiday items--thanks to my little brother who for once in his life was actually listening--Purple Citrus and Sweet Perfume (! To put it mildly, basically a pistachio lover's dream cookbook!).

But back to the issue at hand, i.e. Prime Rib. While I can't say that I'm much of a meat master (this is more the Greek's specialty than mine; I'm more about vegetarian dishes, pastas or rice casseroles, as well as all things baked), I was quite pleased with how this dish turned out. The Greek and I had salted and peppered it the day before we were going to roast it (the recipe said we should have done this 2-3 days in advance, but alas; Christmas shopping waits for no meat) and then, on Christmas Day, my grandpap's sister and I rubbed it down with Dijon mustard and then liberally sprinkled rosemary all over it. My additional touch was to place 6 cloves of garlic in the food processor and then coat the meat with all of this glorious garlic. About 2 and a half hours later, the meat emerged triumphantly from the oven with a temperature of 120 F; it was tender, flavorful and the crowning achievement of our Christmas table. All in all, it was definitely a good Christmas. 

Prime Rib    

Yields enough meat to feed an army or an Italian American family with an appetite (8-10 people)
Recipe tweaked and adapted from Saveur 

1  5-bone beef standing rib roast (10–12 lbs.; make sure to ask the butcher to remove the bone and tie it back on)
About 2 Tbsp. kosher salt                              
About 2 Tbsp. Dijon Mustard (or enough to rub onto the entire surface of the prime rib) 
1 1⁄2 Tbsp. chopped fresh rosemary leaves
5-6 cloves of garlic, chopped in the food processor and rubbed onto the meat (it should cover it like a crust)     
Coarsely ground black pepper, to taste
-Season meat with salt and pepper, including the rack of bones.  
-Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let sit in the refrigerator for a day in advance. 
-Take the salted and peppered beef from the refrigerator and rub mustard all over it.  
-Then, sprinkle it with rosemary and pepper and rub the finely minced garlic all over the beef.
 -Allow the beef to come to room temperature.  
-Arrange rack in lower third of oven and heat to 450°. 
-Place the beef in the oven and roast it, rib side up, until it begins to brown and sizzle, about 20–25 minutes.  
-Reduce temperature to 325° and continue roasting until a meat thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the meat registers 120° (for medium rare), about 2 and a half hours more.
-Once the roast reaches this temperature (it could take less time or more time depending on your oven), transfer it to a carving board and reserve any pan juices. 
-Cover loosely with foil and let rest for 15–20 minutes (that's for those who are impatient; for those who can wait, let it rest for 25-30).  
-Remove and discard the bone and carve roast.  
-Serve with reserved pan juices and enjoy the fruits of your roasting labor!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

"Christmas" in California

Before leaving California this year, the Greek and I decided to have our own little Christmas dinner the night we exchanged presents. While it was but a humble feast since I largely spent the day grading papers and the Greek had to make an early evening lab run, we ate well and discovered some recipes that will become a part of our dining repertoire--namely, the very festive and appropriately colored Beets with Pistachio Butter and Baked Apples with Candied Nuts. 

Good stuff, all of it. The meal was largely inspired by the book that I got the Greek for Christmas: Molly Stevens' All About Roasting. While I had been a little worried that he wouldn't like the book, it turned out that it was his favorite gift out of the things I had gotten for him. Not only does it include a lot of good recipes (and what, dare I ask, is more manly than roasting meat in the kitchen?), but it also explains the science of roasting. I should have known that if you throw science into the mix, it's instantly going to be a winner.

We had the roasted apple and nut mix for breakfast with leftover gingerbread. If you have a crazy amount of apples and nuts (the combination of my collection of pine nuts with the Greek's was truly a sight to behold. My guess is that we'll be eating pesto until we're well into our 50s), this is a good way to use them. Whether eaten alone or with ice cream (the apples reappeared for dessert in the evening), the softly spiced and tender apple-nut mixture is a nice way to add a fruity touch to any meal. I was envisioning adding them to my morning oatmeal, or thinking about how nicely they would taste with some Greek yogurt or cottage cheese. Needless to say, the possibilities are endlessly tempting.

And for dinner, it was all about the beets we had bought on our way back from Monterey. While I had had my eye on the recipe for Beets with Pistachio Butter (really, it was all about the pistachio butter) from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian for months, I managed to forget to buy beets every time I went to the grocery store. But somehow Christmas seemed the right time. The nice thing about roasting beets is that you wrap them in foil, put them in the oven at 400 degrees F and, in an hour or so, they'll be done--soft and ready to eat. The only high maintenance thing about this recipe is the pistachio nut butter--a mixture of freshly ground pistachios, garlic and canola oil.  But it's worth it; what you'll be left with is truly worthy of a holiday feast and the best of both worlds: vegetables roasted to tender perfection and a salty, creamy nut butter.

It may be too late for me to impact your own holiday feast, but, even if you don't get around to it until after the New Year, I hope these recipes make it onto your tables sometime soon.

Merry Christmas! Happy holidays! Eat well and be safe!

Agave-Roasted Apples with Candied Nuts 
Adapted from Molly Stevens' All About Roasting
Yields about 4-6 servings

7 large crisp apples such as Pink Lady, Braeburn or Jazz
1/3 cup plus 1 1/4 tbsp maple syrup or agave
3/4 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp  ground ginger
A few pinches of kosher salt
1 1/4 cup nuts (pine, walnut and pecans)
vanilla ice cream--optional

-Preheat oven to 400 degrees. 
-Line a baking sheet and a smaller pan (we used a 9" cake pan) with aluminum foil
-Prepare the apples: peel them, cut them into quarters, remove the seeds and cores and cut the quarters into 1/2 inch cubes.
-Pile the apples onto the large baking sheet and toss with 1/3 cup agave, 3 tbsp melted butter and the nutmeg, ginger and salt.
-Toss to combine and arrange apples in a loose single layer on the sheet.
-Roast the apples on the bottom rack, tossing after 15 minutes and then after another 10 so that they roast evenly, until soft and caramelized, yet not completely collapsed, about 35-40 minutes (N.B. this stage depends on the age of your apples; if they're a bit older like ours were, the baking time might be less since the apples aren't as fresh and hydrated). 
-Prepare the nuts:  spread them out on a smaller baking sheet and drizzle with the remaining agave, 1 Tbsp. butter and a pinch of salt. 
-Toss to coat. 
-Spread the nuts out in a single layer and roast on the rack above the apples, stirring once or twice, until the nuts are toasty and brown (for about 10 minutes).
-Mix the nuts and fruit together and eat alone, with vanilla ice cream, or in the ways I suggested above. 

Beets with Pistachio Butter
From Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian
Yields 4 delectable servings of a recipe that vibrates with good health

2 large beets (about 1-1 1/2 lbs)
1/2 cup canola oil
4 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
1 cup shelled pistachios
Salt and freshly ground pepper (sea salt)

-Bake beets in foil (preheat oven to 400. Wash the beets and wrap them individually in foil and put them on a cookie sheet).
-Cook for 45-90 minutes (the cooking time depends on the size of your beets) or until a knife pierces them with little resistance
-In the meantime, put half the oil in a skillet over medium heat. When hot, add the garlic and cook for about a minute. 
-Add the pistachios and then cook for another 3 minutes, stirring often. 
-Remove from heat and let cool slightly. Then, transfer to a food processor. 
-Puree until smooth, adding more oil as necessary--you want a consistency of a thin nut butter that is easily pourable. Taste and adjust the seasoning. 
-Now that you've prepared the nut butter, you can return to the beets. Remove them from oven, let cool slightly and then peel away their outer layer of skin. 
-Cut them into large chunks and arrange in a serving dish.
-Spoon pistachio butter over the top (liberally--the pistachio butter is a keeper, even without the beets).
-Serve hot or at room temperature. Makes for great leftovers, too!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Dipping Season

I can hardly believe that, less than a week ago, I was rambling through Carmel, Monterey and Point Lobos, almost without a care in the world. To put it mildly, all of that seems like a lifetime ago. The Greek and I returned to various tasks in Berkeley last Tuesday evening and now, one Greek final and several spurts of cleaning and cooking later, I'm sitting on the floor of the SFO airport, where, as one might expect during the biggest travel season of the year, the flight the Greek and I are taking to Pittsburgh is now officially three hours late. I hope it's not too cruel of me to wish that all the airlines find huge lumps of coal in their holiday stockings.

To avoid feeling too bah-humbuggy and Scrooge-like (this is mainly because I don't see why flying has to be such an ordeal), I'm going to tell you about happy things instead--treats that practically scream happy holidays and in the best way possible. The first came to me via 101 Cookbooks--Black Sticky Gingerbread. Heidi's post reminded me of how glorious gingerbread can be; looking at her pictures, I couldn't help but long for the simple days of childhood, when all you had to worry about during the holidays was what size gingerbread house you might make (and then have the pleasure of dismantling one crunchy piece at a time) with your family. Oh, yes, I have made a few fine and tasty gingerbread houses in my day. And the second came from the cookbook I've been not so secretly coveting since I went to an event at Omnivore Books back in October: Purple Citrus and Sweet Perfume. Through a preview on my Kindle, which is a surprisingly pleasant way to look at cookbooks, although I do miss both the color and the weight of them in their e-book form, I found a deliciously simple dip recipe that I had been wanting to make. What better time than December since, if dip doesn't represent a necessary part of a holiday spread, then I don't know what does.

After the Greek final on Friday, which was much easier than I expected given all the grammar and vocabulary we've learned in the past five months, my chance to cook to my heart's content was upon me.  I had returned home to a clean apartment (if only I could say that the apartment just turned itself into the spic and span vision you'll find in the image below; sadly, life doesn't work that way, but after several nights of painstakingly placing all the books I've both shipped to and accumulated in California, we could see the floor). There was food in the fridge and time suddenly seemed, if not endlessly abundant, then much more open to be filled with relaxing hobbies. Plus, if these weren't reasons enough, the apartment's oven needed to be broken in. A girl likes to know, after all, how her tools are working.

After I took the gingerbread out of the oven and was instantly thrilled with its fragrantly spicy aroma and spongy texture (I was also eager to taste it since I had added some candied ginger to the cake batter. Candied ginger makes everything better), I turned my attention to the simple, yet decadent combination of chopped mint leaves, feta cheese, Greek yogurt and minced garlic.

Barely any work to assemble at all, I would highly recommend Silvena Rowe's Haydari-Yogurt and Feta Dip. While the original recipe calls for Süzme, a thick strained yogurt with a creamy texture from Turkey (Rowe is half-Turkish and half-Bulgarian), Rowe suggests that Greek yogurt will be an adequate substitute for those of us not making our own yogurt at home (I have yet to experiment with dairy products. Maybe in a few years I'll make my own cheese, but not quite yet. For now, the dissertation comes first). I can safely say that the Greek yogurt I used worked beautifully, which was surprising given that it was fat free (i.e. limp and flavorless). To make up for this lack of texture, I added a little extra garlic and a little extra feta, sweet paprika and olive oil. When you can't win with texture, you have nothing to do but fight (and hopefully win) the flavor war.

It was a welcome addition to the table and one that I think I'll be making again and again. It took barely any time at all and, once sprinkled with walnuts and the appropriate garnishes, was everything I could have hoped for in one bowl. If you're in a bind for the holidays and want to try something new either to expand your own palate or to pleasantly surprise your guests, try this dip. Nobody will go to bed disappointed.

Greek Yogurt and Feta Dip
Slightly adapted from Silvena Rowe's Purple Citrus and Sweet Perfume
Yields an awful lot of creamy goodness in a bowl

4-5 ounces feta, crumbled
1 cup Greek yogurt or, if you have it on hand (lucky you), Süzme
4 garlic cloves, minced
6-8 mint leaves, chopped finely
3 Tbsp. chopped walnuts
About 1/2 tsp. sweet paprika
1 - 1 1/2 Tbsp. olive oil

-Place the feta in a large serving bowl and mash it with a fork. 
-Add the minced garlic, yogurt and chopped mint and stir until well combined. 
-Season with black pepper (and, depending on the saltiness of your feta, some salt to taste). 
-Sprinkle with sweet paprika and then drizzle with olive oil. 
-Place in the refrigerator to chill. 
-Garnish with chopped walnuts and serve. 
-Enjoy with warm pita and savor the cheesy, garlicky perfection!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

"The Sea, The Sea"

It is a fabulous place when the tide is in, a wave-churned basin, creamy with foam...But when the tide goes out, the little water world becomes quiet and lovely.
-John Steinbeck (Cannery Row)

While it may not be customary for a couple, right after a move, to go on a little trip, that's exactly what the Greek and I did. Thanks to a LivingSocial deal that needed to be used before the New Year, it was just the way the chips fell. However, it turned out to be the best thing that could have happened--after a week of cleaning, packing, unpacking and more cleaning...

My former building manager, who knew we were going on the trip, recommended a few places to us. As I said before, he's a gem and his culinary suggestions are always spot on. This time, he told us to go to this hole-in-the-wall falafel place in San Jose--I can't call it a restaurant since it's more of a drive-in, literally called Falafel's Drive In--and it was truly some of the best falafel I've ever had--both crumbly and spicy.  And, although a somewhat strange touch, with an order of a large falafel, you get a Banana Milkshake. Believe me when I say that falafel and bananas are not inherently linked in my mind, but this place really pulls it off. It was also, to my pop-culture brain, a nice Arrested Development Bluthian touch.

Stuffed with falafel, we continued on our way down the coast to Carmel-by-the-Sea.  By the time we got there, it was already quite late and raining, but we made it in time for the Cobblestone Inn's nightly offering of cheese and wine to its guests. We had a table by the window, where it was nice to relax.

Of course, our trip was not without reminders of moving and what awaited us at home. As we were leaving the hotel to explore Carmel and find a place for dinner, we stumbled upon this pile of boxes. I obviously couldn't resist taking a picture.

We went to a lovely place, La Bicyclette, and, should any of you ever end up in Carmel for a few days or even just for a night, I would highly recommend stopping by this lovely little place. Since it was so cold outside--the air was damp and the rain was not letting up--I suggested soup for dinner. Their soup of the day was a Roasted Sunchoke (I had never had a sunchoke before; is vacation not for new experiences?) and, since the Greek ordered some too, I was really charmed when they brought out the soup not in bowls, but in a copper pot for us to share and serve ourselves. Maybe it's just the fact that I've always loved the look of copper pots and pans (they are, in my mind, elegantly rustic), but it really made the dining experience feel quite homey.

Our big adventure for the next day depended on the weather--to go to Point Lobos or to go to Monterey and to the Monterey Bay Aquarium ? Since it was again cloudy and rain was clearly a possibility, we set off for Monterey and Cannery Row, which was as beautiful as Steinbeck's somewhat terse prose promised.

 I was really excited to see Doris Day featured on Carmel Magazine; I'll never forget watching Pillow Talk when I was maybe 14 or so and loving her fiery exchanges with Rock Hudson. Today's romantic comedies--if you'll forgive my inner-50-year-old woman speaking--just don't "sparkle" like these older movies do. The dialogue just lacks conviction.

On a similar note, we found ourselves at the Monterey Town Hall, where they had recreated the scene of the writing of the California Constitution. It amazed me to hear how they managed to compose this document in six weeks. In my humble opinion, today's politicians should review their American history. They might be reminded that there was once a time when compromise was not such a dirty word.

These musings aside, the day in Monterey was well spent. The aquarium was truly one of the coolest places I've been to in California. We watched them feed the penguins (even though this is a food blog, I feel the need to give you a penguin fun fact; in two words: Projectile Defecation) and the sea otters, which was nothing short of adorable. There were interesting things to see in every corner of the aquarium--from gorgeous jellyfish to the miniature seahorse.

It made me feel slightly guilty to go and have a seafood dinner later that night at the Wharf in Monterey, even though both of our food choices were sustainable: wild salmon and lobster and shrimp. We ate at Kocomo's, the more casual sister restaurant of The Old Fisherman's Grotto, and it was well worth it. I will say, however, I could imagine this place being better suited to the summer months since it's essentially an open space...Definitely not the best thing for a rainy, more than crisp fall evening.

 However, the next day--our last--was gloriously sunny. We drove down to Point Lobos for a quick hike before returning to reality, stopping by the Carmel Mission on the way. There's something about California architecture (Spanish-style, really) that I just find aesthetically appealing. This building embodies my feeling perfectly and largely thanks to the flowers and old stone.

And then there was Point Lobos. I took so many pictures because it really is a remarkable place. The water is such a pure aquamarine color and, set against the ragged cliffs, literally almost sparkles. You really expect some kind of magical or mythical creature to emerge; it's the kind of place that is so inviting to the imagination, with the sound of the waves crashing and the seals crying in the distance, that it makes you understand how folklore and mythology came to exist. In fact, a few times I was snapping away and looking off into the distance and I heard the Greek yell behind me: "Whale!" or "Sea otter!" It was nice to glimpse that natural magic, even if only fleetingly. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

Out with the Old....

After a partially self-imposed and partially necessary break from blogging, I'm back! My blogging form is a little rusty--I have no quote to offer you, nor do I have a recipe--but I do have lots of pictures. Life, as of late, has given me images galore: there was Thanksgiving, then there was San Francisco at its scenic nighttime best...and, following that, there was the move. Oh, the move, essentially a week plus of packing, carrying and unpacking boxes. To put it simply, I never want to touch cardboard again. As per usual, I'm getting a little ahead of myself, however. 

First things first; Thanksgiving. It was a lovely happy day, although it was a bit more subdued this year than last. This had nothing to do with the company or the food, but more to do with my own musings. Needless to say, the thought of moving and doing everything I needed to do--cook, grade papers, pack boxes, call my family--somewhat tainted the holiday; obviously, it's much easier to live in the moment when you're not looking several days into the future. But despite this, I managed to revisit last year's scrumptious Bourbon Pumpkin Cheesecake--as requested by the Greek--and also to make something new: a Greek Greens Pie with a Cornmeal Crust. I've always liked Martha Rose Shulman's column ("Recipes for Health" is endlessly appealing--for both the palate and your arteries) and this was no exception.  

I was very pleased with the final product: the cornmeal crust was slightly crunchy and the feta-spinach filling was herbed to perfection. I added a little extra dill (as I always do) and, while it wasn't noticeable, it didn't hurt either. It was a nice substitute for a traditional stuffing; just call it my way of adding a little Greek touch to Thanksgiving. 

After the fun of Thanksgiving, the Greek and I took a friend of his who was visiting from Thessaloniki (she was on a grad school whirlwind tour) to San Francisco, where we walked around Fisherman's Wharf and also stopped by the famous Painted Ladies, too. 

For Thanksgiving, the Greek and his friend had made Melissa Clark's Apple Bourbon Bundt Cake (if you see a bourbon theme here, good work! My biggest baking discovery of the last 2-3 years is that a little liquor goes a long way when baking). This cake was really, really out of this world good. Because of the glaze, which I personally don't always think is necessary, but actually liked in this recipe, the cake was super moist and soft and spongy. Mind you, this was not a bad thing at all. The cake was full of toasted pecans, had chunks of candied ginger and grated apples, too. All in all, a keeper cake. I'm also pleased to say that the Greek broke the curse of the bundt cake pan by finally baking a successful cake in it. And there was, fortuitously enough, enough cake batter for a bread, too. Never discount the pleasure of leftover (or frozen) dessert when moving. 

And then there was the move, my life carefully placed into boxes. When I say that I loved the apartment I moved into all those years ago (August 17, 2007, to be exact), it's nothing short of the truth. It was my first "real" adult apartment. I found it, I decorated it, I paid all the bills. It was home.  

I had my mock MA oral exam sitting on that couch. It's also where I wrote my field statements for my PhD exams. Almost a whole grad school career happened within a mere 400 square feet...not to mention all the seasons of TV shows that were watched on that television. 

This apartment was also the place where I really learned to cook on my own. I baked bread puddings, cakes, cupcakes, cheesecakes. I stewed lentils. I made my first hamburger patties there, too. And who can forget the cracking of the coconut (the battle scars were carried into my new life since the kitchen table came with me)?

It's important to remember, however, that space is arbitrary--it's just a receptacle for things. It's the memories that matter, and those I won't forget. 

These pictures will certainly help. And the fact that my things and I have found ourselves a new home--one that's in progress, but that I already love--doesn't hurt either. 


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