Monday, December 24, 2012

The Possibilities of Parsley

 An old Chinese proverb has it, "To eat well requires an adventurous spirit." -John Thorne (foreword to An Omelette and a Glass of Wine)

Sometimes you come across recipes that you really believe in. For me, oddly enough, this recipe for parsley juice is one of those recipes. I don't know why I'm so taken with it; I'm not really a juice person, nor do I go out of my way to order smoothies (my logic being that if I'm going to drink a calorie-stuffed beverage, it might as well be a milkshake or a cocktail). Perhaps I've simply gone a little crazy at the end of the year; if so, I blame both my dissertation and the disappointing course evaluations I received from my students. But I'm also willing to bet that that this juice just might be my it's-never-too-late-to-fix-it response to all the sugary pies, crumbly cakes and pieces of bacon that I managed to consume on a regular basis this past year. Whatever the cause, you can consider this recipe my Christmas gift to you.

 And, truly, nothing could be simpler or more satisfyingly green. Flat-leaf (Italian) parsley meets an apple, a frozen banana, a handful of strawberries, lemon juice and honey. It's a no-nonsense kind of recipe that doesn't require you to pull each and every leaf from the parsley stems. Instead, after a quick trim, the stems can be thrown into the blender with everything else. In a matter of minutes, you have a tall glass of a pulpy green juice, flecked with red bits from the skin of the apple. Although interesting is hardly the most exciting or adequately descriptive word on the planet, this juice can be described in no better way. Truth be told, the flavor may take some getting used to, especially if you aren't accustomed to drinking kale or spinach smoothies (thanks to our CSA box, the Greek and I have begun having these for breakfast on a regular basis). But what I like most about this drink is that, unlike a lot of healthy drinks, this one doesn't attempt to hide the magic ingredient that gives it both its flavor and health benefits. The parsley, part grassy, part lemony sweet, is the star of the show.

My inspiration for this recipe came from Seamus Mullen's Hero Food, which I first read about in goop back in the spring. I was immediately taken with Mullen's philosophy--what we eat plays a role in how we feel--although, in a way, given today's food and health obsessed culture, this message was nothing new. What I liked about his approach, however, was that he was both using food and identifying certain ingredients to combat rheumatoid arthritis. While I myself am not currently a sufferer of this illness, my grandmother, grandfather and mother all are and, since Mother's Day was fast approaching, I decided to send both the book and a nice bottle of Spanish olive oil their way. As these things disappointingly tend to go, the book largely remained unused until my arrival. Now that I'm here, however, I'm happily forcing parsley juice down everybody's throats, making sure that we're all getting a dose of this natural medicine. And you know what? I think it's working! My mother, after drinking a big glass of this, even said that she felt less pain the next day. 

Health benefits aside--Vitamin A, C, antioxidants, potassium, the herb's status as a natural diuretic--I also felt that this is the kind of recipe you all might want to have in your arsenal after a few solid days of cookie-consuming, stuffing-yourself-with-comfort-and-joy fun. Consider it the follow-up post to my post-Thanksgiving arugula and pea soup. On my end, I first made this after a few days of carelessly eating Grandma's fudge and rolling/sampling meatballs with my mother...I again made it after baking cookies and preparing crepes with leeks simmered in cream with ham...To put it mildly, we all need a little detox at this time of year: even those of us without joint pain could use a glass of 100% good stuff. If for nothing else, at least to balance out our eggnog consumption.

 Parsley Juice

yields about 2-3 servings, depending on the size of the glasses
inspired by Seamus Mullen's Hero Food 

The first time I made this juice, I followed the recipe to the letter, adding only an apple, lemon juice, honey, water, ice and fresh grated ginger to the parsley. Although I really liked the tartness of the juice (my main problem with most juices is that they can be sickly sweet), both the Greek and my mother were mutinous, drinking it with pained looks on their faces and calling for more honey and, in general, more sweet things. I decided to be accommodating the second time around and revamped the recipe, adding more natural sweeteners and holding the ginger (mainly because I forgot to add it). As with most recipes, this one can be endlessly played with. I've wondered what a half-parsley, half-kale smoothie would taste like, what the addition of frozen/fresh raspberries or blueberries would do to it. Even different types of apples would affect the flavor; I used a Gala, but a Pink Lady or a Granny Smith might bring back the tartness in a really pleasurable way.

1 bunch fresh Italian parsley, stems trimmed ever so slightly
1 apple, cored and cut into quarters
1 frozen banana
a handful of fresh (or frozen) strawberries
juice of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons honey
1/2 cup water + a few ice cubes (plus a few extra cubes for serving)

-Clean the parsley, rinsing it under cold water, and then shake the excess water off. Trim the stems (I would suggest cutting off only an inch or two of the stems).
-Add the parsley, apple, banana, strawberries, lemon juice, honey, water and ice to a blender.
-Process until all the ingredients are mixed well and relatively smooth (as I mentioned, the juice may be quite pulpy, having more the texture of a smoothie than juice).
-Pour into serving glasses and, if desired, add a few extra ice cubes.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Notes from the Underground, Week 12: Escape/Collision

So Ludwig's thoughts about honour were private thoughts, and he sought wisdom from an Athena who was not Gracie, and certainly not the problematic idea of his native land. Who after all was America? A freedom fighter, a slut, a demon, a Daughter of the Revolution? What now was he to her or she to him; and what was this speck of anguish which floated constantly before him? He would fix his eyes instead upon the grey-eyed one, the sure one. This henceforth must be the religion of his solitude.
-Iris Murdoch (An Accidental Man

It's been a strange week. Last week it was so nice to return home, to see my family, to know that I had escaped from the grind for a solid three weeks. And, for the most part, it really has been idyllic. After I finished grading, I settled into a quiet routine of making nice breakfasts, walking the dogs with the Greek in the sprawling backyard of my mother's new residence in the afternoons and then reading/working/relaxing in the evenings. But there have been clouds--both figurative and literal--hanging over my time here.

As much as I've been going about my daily business, I've been feeling a host of emotions--sad, numb, angry, helpless--about Connecticut. Whenever the news comes on, there's another funeral being featured, more cute pictures of dimpled children and talk of Christmas gifts that will remain unopened, accounts of teachers who did what they believed was right despite the high price they had to pay. It's hard to watch because it was all so unnecessary. These are simple words, but one doesn't need fancy language to talk about needless murders or semi-automatic weapons.

The responses to the event, too, are troubling.The President made a hopeful and long overdue speech today about potential gun legislation and, for the most part, all the reporters wanted to ask about was the fiscal cliff. Only two journalists (props to USA Today, which demonstrated fine journalistic chops today) asked hard questions about both the potential NRA response and about "where the President has been for the past four years." Perhaps the latter wasn't an entirely respectful question, but maybe the simple truth is that we all need to ask ourselves where we've been, and when will we decide that the the craziness has to stop. 

At this point, I want to stress that this isn't a political blog. It's a space of reflection--about food, life, the world around me; no space is a vacuum and this blog is no exception. Certainly, I respect different opinions and even different interpretations of the Second Amendment (given my current career path, I understand that the written word is subject to a wide range of interpretations), but that doesn't preclude my voicing my personal belief that the average civilian doesn't need to own a semi-automatic weapon.

When I was reading Iris Murdoch a few nights ago--a novel I've been nursing since New Orleans--one of the main character's thoughts about America during the Vietnam War jumped out at me. Truth be told,  I just don't know what kind of a country we live in anymore--what kind of a country we, the so-called and much-touted wonderful, exceptional and industrious American people, want to live in anymore? For me, America, at least this holiday season, has become a Murdochian "speck of anguish." The world hasn't made much sense this week. Something shifted; it makes you want to hug your loved ones a little tighter and to savor the fleeting seemingly perfect moments. In a way, events like those from the past week make you realize how carefully constructed our world is, how we live under an illusion of safety. There's no reason, however, that this illusion can't become a reality. And, personally, I'm hopeful that the ghosts of this Christmas soon-to-be-past will bring us one step closer to this reality in 2013.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Notes from the Underground (Week 11): Pickling Turnips and Ruminating on Lists

Her face is whiter than the inside of a turnip. (Lebanese saying)
For the past two weeks, I've watched as list after list after list of all of the "best of 2012" movies, cookbooks, books, gadgets, tv shows, etc. have come out. There's a part of me that loves this kind of listing; I relish the urgency that comes with it, as well as the fact that the entire practice hinges on the need to whittle down thousands of things to a bare bones list of ten (give or take a few). The very task seems impossible; in the world of cookbooks, how do you really compare a compendium on root vegetables with a collection of vintage cakes? Or books by bloggers vs. books by chefs?  In a way, it's a fool's errand, one that strives to be objective, yet clearly has all the markings of strong subjective preference. But even though I realize the shortcomings that these lists contain, I always feel that they inevitably introduce me to things I otherwise never would have heard of (and I love them for that very reason),  and also bolster my convictions about certain things; after reading these lists and finding something I've perused in bookstores, I'll mutter to myself, "I knew that was a great cookbook" and feel 100% committed to buying it. I've decided that, as humans, we like to be told what to do, but only in subtle and and unobtrusive ways. And even more, we like to be told that we were right about something.

This is how I felt when I saw Diana Henry's Salt Sugar Smoke in the New York Times' list of best cookbooks of the year. I had first flipped through this beauty one night when, while waiting for a deep-dish pizza, two friends and I (naturally) found ourselves in a bookstore. I was immediately attracted to its pictures and recipes, as well as its premise. I was even more hooked when I saw that there was a section devoted to Greek Spoon Sweets and Russian zakuski (pickled vegetables/appetizers; really, they're what you eat when drinking vodka). But, even though you rarely find spoon sweets and zakuski side by side, not to mention that both preserving and pickling have fascinated me since I attended a pickling/jam making class almost two years ago, I resisted the urge to purchase (yes, even though a rarity, I do practice restraint occasionally).

During last week's student-inflicted depression, however, I found myself again in a bookstore with this book in my hands. For the sake of rewarding myself for completing a semester full of office hours, complaints and grey hair-inducing meetings, this time I decided to go for it.  My reasoning was simple: what, if not gravlax, chutneys and pickles, can bring a girl out of her funk?

Preserving, I've decided, makes you feel not only practical, but ready for anything. There's something really virtuous about the whole process. If you take the time to chop and boil fruits and vegetables or simply to chop and layer the ingredients carefully in jars, in a matter of weeks or a month--sometimes even mere hours--you can reap the benefits of a few hours' worth of labor. It's also a way of safeguarding future meals; if something turns out bland, condiments are there to save the day. This is part of the reason I've always loved them. When faced with a bad sandwich or an unfortunate selection of sushi, a quality pickle or a nose-tingling gob of wasabi can elevate the meal. Maybe neither will end up being all that memorable, but, frankly speaking,  both could have been a lot worse.

With this philosophy in mind, I busied myself on Sunday morning, chopping turnips, cleaning celery leaves and cloves of garlic and cutting a small chunk of fresh beet into purply-magenta slivers to try my hand at Middle Eastern Pickled Turnips. Since we leave tomorrow for Pennsylvania and won't be back until after the new year, it seemed a good idea to begin to empty out the fridge, as well as to think of ways to make sure that I'm ready for any challenges the new year might bring. And, as far as I can tell, there will be challenges galore. But I really am ready to face them; I've had two positive dissertation meetings in the last week. The general consensus seems to be that I'm ready to finish and that, although I may have to be creative about the how, I can finish in the next six months. Even better, I've also been encouraged to consider (re)entering the real world, to go beyond the walls of the Ivory Tower in which I've spent the past twenty three and a half years of my life (yes, I'm counting K-12). Strangely, given everything my adviser was telling me, I had a brief moment when I wanted to ask if she had somehow found my blog and was speaking to me armed with the knowledge that she had discovered here. But since I know that this really can't be the case (or can it?), I realize the conversation must have simply been  the product of two practical minds that perhaps spend too much time thinking about the strangeness of academia. 

 You could say that I started the week off as pale as the brine in the first photo (or as a turnip), but, when I say that my mood is now as rosy as the final (and most recent) picture of my two triumphant and vibrant jars of pickled turnips (watching them transform has been like watching a dreary world become bright), believe that I speak the truth.

P.S. Once I return from break and open a jar of these pickles, I'll update this post with a description of their taste. I have the feeling that they'll be crunchy and sweet, but, thanks to the garlic and celery leaves, with an earthy kick. 

Middle Eastern Pickled Turnips (Torshi left)

Slightly adapted from Salt Sugar Smoke
Yields 1 small 10-ounce jar and 1 large (1 pint-sized) Mason jar

 The original recipe calls for 2 1/4 pounds small turnips, but I had only two large ones (1.3 pounds), which I chopped into 1 - 2-inch sized pieces. If you use really small turnips, after washing and peeling them, there's no need to cut them into halves or quarters.
     Also, even though I had less turnips than called for, since I ended up dividing my vegetables into two jars, I used more than the suggested 1 small wedge of raw beet-1 for the smaller jar and 3 for the larger one. I similarly changed the 4 suggested cloves of garlic into 3--1 for the smaller jar and 2 for the larger. 
      I also decided, based on previous pickling experience, to replace pickling salt with kosher salt. Because both are free of iodine and are similar in weight, this is a good substitution.  

About 1 1/2 pounds white turnips, washed, peeled and cut into 1 - 2-inch sized pieces
handful of celery leaves
3 garlic cloves, peeled
1 small wedge raw beet, peeled and cut into 3-4 slivers
3/4 cup white wine vinegar
3 tablespoons kosher salt
2 1/4 cups water

-Once sterilized, remove your jars from the oven and begin filling them with the chopped turnips, celery leaves, garlic and beet slivers. I arranged mine in layers (not that it matters, since the next step will erase any attempts at artistic arrangement). 
-In a small bowl, stir together the vinegar and salt until the salt has dissolved. Add the water to the vinegar mixture and pour over the turnips. 
-If you're uncertain about whether your jars have vinegar-proof lids, place plastic wrap over the top of the jar to prevent rusting. Then, seal with the lid.
-Store jars in a warm place (preferably by a window) and leave for 10 days before refrigerating. The pickles should last for six weeks. 

Friday, December 7, 2012

Channeling Cindy Lou Who with German Nusstaler

But for me, one of the constituents of a good life is the ability to find pleasure in the small things. A good jam for your toast in the morning. A chutney that is made from apples you gathered last fall...These are seemingly unimportant things, and they won't change the world, but the sum of happiness in one's life is often made up of such details. -Diana Henry (Sugar Salt Smoke)

Sometimes you just need to take a step back and remove yourself from the chaos. For the past week, I've been doing exactly this, largely working from home. In part, this has been due to a strange set of circumstances that have seemingly conspired against me: the pup's surgery (to prevent me from becoming a grandmother prematurely), relentless rain and, after one of the worst meetings I've ever had with a student in my fairly short teaching career, an overwhelming desire to disengage from the madness of finals week. As much as I appreciate the "misery loves company" camaraderie that takes over the university at this time of year, I also can't help but feel that the dissertation writing experience makes you feel somewhat divorced from it. My deadlines are less firm, my feelings toward the whole enterprise too tainted by both own my doubts about this juggling act and my students' unrelenting (and exhausting) focus on grades. It can really take the enjoyment out of things...despite the fact that this is supposed to be "the most wonderful time of the year."

For numerous years, it's seemed that academia just hasn't gotten the holiday themed memo. Or maybe it's more that it's determined to play the Grinch to my holiday loving Cindy Lou Who. Fortunately for me, as I've discovered after years of mental toil, there's no better way of repairing one's tattered and battered self than by baking. And, at this time of year, what could be more appealing than cookies? This, after all, is their season to shine. They're right up there with the lofty holiday concepts of joy, miracles and, most appealing of all, renewal.

And so, armed with finely ground hazelnuts, cocoa powder, sea salt and the latest issue of Saveur, which highlights a German Christmas celebration, I set about leaving the world of grade disputes behind and restoring my holiday spirit. When I had first received this issue in the mail, I marveled at how enchanting a Munich bathed in snow and with thousands of twinkling lights could look. I was immediately overcome by the urge to hop on a plane and find myself in the center of a snowy Christmas market surrounded by sausage vendors and mulled wine stands.  Given the price of plane tickets these days, however, I decided I could simply recreate centuries of tradition at home with the help of German Christmas cookies. Although I was initially tempted by both little shortbread stars covered in chocolate and the jammy thumbprints sprinkled with powdered sugar, my baker's heart leapt with joy at the promise of Nusstaler, i.e. Chocolate-Dipped Hazelnut Cookies.
As Elvis and Perry Como crooned out of my laptop, I rolled nearly four dozen crumbly cookies that, after being briefly baked, were ready to be dipped in melted chocolate. I'll also add that, despite all of my talk of tradition, I couldn't leave well enough alone with these cookies. They were supposed to be topped with whole hazelnuts, but, given both my lack of this garnish and love of salty sweet things, I opted for sprinkling sea salt on top of them instead. What you're left with is a toothsome Nutella-like cookie (yes, this is a cookie that I just keep returning to) with the subtlest hint of salt to contrast the sweet layers of chocolate that this cookie, from top to bottom, offers. 

With these on your table, it's definitely possible to believe that the year has achieved a much needed state of wonder...and also that such wonders don't have to be limited to a few weeks at its end. Some simple pleasures are always a few ingredients away.

Nusstaler (Chocolate-Dipped Hazelnut Cookies)

Yields about 3 1/2 - 4 dozen
Adapted from Saveur (December 2012)

The original yield of this recipe was supposed to be 2 dozen, but, because I make my cookies small, I ended up with a lot more. Even with the extra cookies, however, I didn't need to melt any additional chocolate for dipping.

8 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
4 ounces toasted hazelnuts, very finely ground
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup natural cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon sea salt, for garnish
4 ounces 60% Bittersweet Chocolate (I prefer Ghiradelli), melted

-Preheat oven to 350 F and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.
-Cream butter, sugar and vanilla either in stand mixer with the paddle attachment or a hand mixer.
-In a small bowl, whisk together ground hazelnuts, flour, cocoa powder and salt.
-Add to butter mixture and beat until just incorporated, making sure to scrape down the sides of the bowl. The dough should look crumbly, like a coarse meal.
-Roll dough into small balls (see above note about cookie yield) and place on parchment-lined cookie sheets. The cookies should be 1-2 inches apart; they won't rise or expand, so, depending on their size, you should be able to fit about 20 cookies per baking sheet.
-Lightly sprinkle sea salt on cookies.
-Bake until lightly cracked on top, about 8-10 minutes.
-As the cookies cool, melt the chocolate in either a double boiler or the microwave.
-Dip bottom of each cooled cookie in the chocolate and place back on parchment-lined cookie sheets.
-Chill until chocolate is set (N.B. I opted to keep my cookies in the refrigerator since the chocolate starts to soften at room temperature; make sure to remove shortly before serving).


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