The art of being Californian, it seems, is to cultivate a loose-limbed insouciance while secretly working away like a frantic ant.

--Richard Fortey The Earth: An Intimate History

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Yes!

Yes! I have in my hot little hands the hot off the presses new edition of Vegetarian Times. And this baby is loaded with awesome recipes. I can't wait.

And I didn't.

Tonight I cooked the curried penne because I need to get Christmas cards out and finish grading, so I need a quick meal.

Christmas cards have to be one of my least favorite social obligations out there (actually any card giving for that matter--I hate it). For a long time I didn't even do them; then I had a baby and suddenly it's required that you update everyone you've ever met in your entire life on the state of your child. I don't mind catching up with friends and family I haven't seen or spoken to for a while. With a military life, sometimes this card is the only contact I'll have with people I do love, but because of geographic hardships and my own inability to keep up a long-distance relationship, we just don't speak that often. However, when I print out 100 letters and pictures of my son and then have to print more, there is some sort of problem here. I don't have over 100 people who need a yearly update. I don't know how this whole card giving thing spiralled so completely out of control.

Curried Penne

penne pasta (I bought this fresh at Assenti's)
3 Tbs slivered almonds (didn't have, didn't use)
1 Tbs canola oil (I used olive oil)
1/2 onion, finely chopped
1/2 tsp whole cumin seeds (didn't have because I didn't have my spices here at this house, so I had to use powdered)
1 small tomato, diced
1 1/2 tsp mild curry powder
cayenne
1 cup frozen peas, rinsed under hot water
1 cup low-fat buttermilk
2 Tbs chopped cilantro

Cook pasta. Meanwhile, heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add almonds and toast 2 to 3 minutes, or until lightly browned, stirring frequently. Transfer to a small bowl.

Heat oil in the skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion, and cook 2 minutes, or until softened. Stir in cumin and cook 1 minute more or until fragrant.

Add tomato, curry powder and cayenne. Cook 1 minute or until liquid has evaporated. Add peas and cook 1 minute more. Remove from heat and stir in buttermilk.

Drain pasta and transfer to a large serving bowl. Toss with the sauce and top with the almonds and cilantro.

Okay, rampant use of commas in their instructions aside, there are some things to note about VT's recipe. First: don't use powdered cumin. The sauce with be too gritty. Second: make damn sure you are away from heat when adding the buttermilk because it will become lumpy. Third: the use of some pasta water during the addition of the curry powder might be helpful for dissolving the powders and thickening the sauce.

That said, this pasta was unusual and good. Not amazing but a nice weeknight dinner.

Anyway, after dinner, my husband graciously addressed the cards for me while I finished grading two of my classes. Of which I did until one in the morning. But now I am done with my comp classes! Yes! And with Christmas cards. Yes!


Only one class and 20 ten-page research papers to go. Ye--oh.

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Unknown

Today was supposed to be the day we found out about the state of the house and the timeline of repair.

We didn't.

We are now supposed to know by Friday. I know you can't hear it, but I am sighing in frustration. It's not that we aren't comfortable in our Christmas-decorated new home; it's not that my friend isn't being completely awesome and welcoming even though his place has been invaded by the queen of clutter and her loud two-year-old (my husband is amazingly neat and clean, so he is compensating for my and my son's messes); it's just that I want to know what is going on. And I want. to. know. now.

But I can't, so I am going to cook and forget the annoyance of limbo. When I cook, I can somehow release all of my stress and frustrations. The rhythmic chopping, savory smells, mix of textures and temperatures, and the orchestration of dinner always calm my soul. When I am upset I do one of two things: cook or sleep. Cooking is the more productive of the two.

Tonight, I decided to just make a sauce of my own using the fennel.

Pasta

olive oil
fennel bulb
garlic
1/2 onion

beet greens

white wine
basic tomato sauce

Chop everything up very finely. Saute the fennel, garlic, onion in olive oil until onions turn golden. Add beet greens and saute a bit more. Add white wine. Simmer a bit. Add the tomato sauce. Simmer more. Salt to taste.

Serve over spinach fettucini.

Serve with a salad: lettuce, mushroom, red bell pepper, celery, radish, avocado, tomato.

The problem with strictly CSA cooking is that I miss some of my most beloved vegetables. So I cheated on my CSA and bought broccoli and artichokes to serve with dinner (I steamed the broccoli and boiled the artichokes in water with lemon and olive oil for about 45 minutes). Luckily I did. The pasta sauce lacked something; a little je ne sais quoi. It was edible and tasted okay but way way bland. So sad. At least the cooking was theraputic. I won't stress about the house again until tomorrow.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

The Christmas Spirit

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas . . . in our new home. We spent the day decorating the house. My husband and friend strung lights all over the outside while I found places inside the house for the myriad of ceramic Christmas decorations my nana has made over the years: choir boys and girls, Santa punch bowl, reindeer and sleigh candy dish, and two (count them!) nativity sets.

I love pulling out the Christmas stuff every year. It's gotten even more fun since I became the holder of the family Christmas paraphernalia when my parents moved into their motorhome and no longer have room to keep it all. So in addition to the flotsam I've collected in my travels and years as an adult, I get to pull out construction paper stars that are covered in glitter my little brother made in 1984. Or I get to pull out the three ornaments that document my first Christmas and then hang them next to the one that documents my son's. Most of the ornaments and decorations have a history, and in that, they are infinitely precious.

Further, my son is the absolutely perfect age to enjoy Christmas. He finally gets that presents and lights and ornaments and stockings and baby Jesus are all way exciting, but he has none of the annoying sense of entitlement that so many kids have. He is way stoked to get a present but doesn't' think he deserves it. He is amazed at the tiniest light as well as the most extravagant nativity we have.

After the last stocking (also made by my nana) was hung by the chimney with care, I decided that we needed some protein in our diet. So I made lamb. And because my nana figures so prominently in the house as the maker of most of the decorations, I made lamb according to her recipe. Even if you don't like lamb, this recipe will change your mind.

Nana's Really Good Lamb

Lamb, chops or a rack
olive oil
garlic, minced
rosemary, chopped
Italian style bread crumbs (or make your own with bread crumbs, ground oregano, paprika, ground sage, ground thyme, salt, pepper and anything else that you think might make the bread crumbs taste good)
sea salt

Take a rack of lamb or some lamb chops and lightly coat them in oil. Then rub the garlic and rosemary all over them. Then lightly (and I mean lightly) dust them with bread crumbs and put a little sea salt on them. Bake at 425F for about 25 minutes if a rack and you want it medium rare. For the chops, go a bit longer. Just check after 30 minutes to see if it's to your taste.

I usually pair the lamb with sweet potatoes (butter and salt) and a veggie. Since I need to kill off CSA stuff (got a shipment yesterday), I did carrots and made a salad of lettuce, celery, avocado, radish, tomato, cucumber.

And because you are dying to know, here's the latest shipment:

10 carrots
7 radishes
3 beets
5 apples
10 small oranges
butternut squash
8 tomatoes
2 lettuce
celery
fennel


Time enough

I should be grading. I should be preparing syllabi. I should be doing something to put my house in order. Instead, I took the day for me.

We aren’t going to find out about the state of our house and the extent of the repairs needed until Monday, so there’s really nothing I can do about that (or so I tell myself). So, I went downtown San Diego to one of my favorite Mexican restaurants: Pokez. It’s primarily vegan or vegetarian, but it also serves items filled with meaty goodness. I love that even if I’m not in the mood to eat a lot, I can just order a Negro Modelo and chips and salsa without any fuss.

The other wonderful thing about Pokez is that it is just a few blocks from an excellent bookstore on Broadway.
Wahrenbrock's is the perfect mix of used pulp fiction, out of print rarities, and hot-off-the-press bestsellers--all set in an old, multistoried building that blends light and shadows in a way that just demands you explore and read. And I do . . . usually for hours.

I went to Wahrenbrock's for the first time two years ago. This bookstore was a discovery by my friend, and he graciously shared it with me since we both possess an avid love for books. We went with my infant son who, at that time, didn’t have much of an appreciation for anything besides a good poop and breastmilk, and he got to experience both there. That’s the other good thing about Wahrenbrock's: it has lots of secluded corners for either quiet reading or discreet breastfeeding.

So after the Reader, beer, and chips and salsa. I went to Wahrenbrock's and spent the golden afternoon hours in their upstairs front rooms, under the full wall of windows, leaning against the book stacks and reading books about Dutch and Italian painters.

In a good bookstore, time slows down. Suddenly, you have, as Rilke puts it, "world enough and time" to browse, read, think, utterly lose yourself and then find it again in the printed words of stranger. It's magical and defies explanation though, once you experience it, you will try to share it with others and will fail miserably unless they've lived a similar moment.

After the light began to fade, I recalled myself to the world of responsibility, of grading, child, and errands. However, I didn’t have to do so for very long because this was a Friday night of babysitting and pizza (for my son and his aunties) and the beautiful music of Handel's Messiah and no cooking (for me).

If you live in or visit San Diego, drop in on the folks at Bronx Pizza. As a bonus to the fun, thickly accented characters baking perfect, heavenly New York style pies, you’ll never have to leave the city to visit the East Coast. If you go in evening, you can stand outside (ok, you’ll have to, as it can get crowded) as you wait with the congenial regulars and watch the fading light illuminate the perfect evening on its way West.

Son fed and in bliss with his doting and beautiful aunties (honestly, my son is going to be so screwed up when he is old enough to date because he’s going to expect beautiful women to fawn over him), my husband and I headed downtown to hear Handel’s Messiah. Yet another experience too difficult to explain unless you managed to catch one of the performances . . .

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Last Day

Today was my last day of dealing with students for this semester . . . or so I thought. Really, for professors, final's week is an absolute joke. We get all of the crazy endorphins of thinking it is the end of the semester, when really the semester is in no way over for us. I don't know how it is for those who teach other subjects, but for English teachers, we have a serious stack of papers to grade after the final. Whoever decided that the test of a student's competency in writing needed to be demonstrated in a final essay needs to be drawn, quartered and dragged through the streets while we spit on him (or her). Honestly, a simple shooting is too good for this person.

Never mind that I am the one who assigned that essay.

Oh, so back to my students--I thought that after this final, I would never hear from them again, leaving me free to grade their papers as I see fit and prepare for next semester's classes. I could not be more wrong.

The first hang up was with the student who missed the final. Yes, I just said, "missed." He didn't bother to show up. And this was a student who usually shows up to classes. Nonplussed, I administered the final to those students who decided that it was worth their time to take my final. Shortly after collecting the last final (and this was at 1pm--I had the 1030-1230 final), this absent student showed up at my office. His excuse for missing my final--he overslept. He overslept my 1030-1230 final. Granted, I am slightly skewed in my perception of oversleeping since I haven't slept past 7am in over two. freaking. years. but 1030 does seem a little excessive. He went on and on about how he'd worked until 1am (usually when I am doing laundry or grading papers) the night before and had stayed up working on another final (in my case staying up all night working means a coughing and sick toddler) the night before that so he just couldn't possibly force his tired little eyes open to get up for my little puny final.

My friend is noting right now that he can't believe I let this student make up the final. I can't either--but I did. Call me a sucker. This student once brought me a pocket periodic table and ever since then, I've been pushover.

However, this student wasn't my only post-final encounter: yet another student decided that she wasn't happy with the grade she recieved on a paper and asked to speak to me. As we went over her paper in my office, she completely melted down before my eyes. I'm talking shaking, crying melting down. I was at a loss. I have a hard time relating to people I don't know well, and this student was no exception. To my ineffectual patting on her shoulder, she explained her tragic (and I am not being sarcastic here; it truly was tragic) family situation. I honestly didn't know what to do. How does her family drama affect the grade I give her on a paper? Don't I have to hold her to the same standard as the other students?

I do. And I did.

Somewhere between the running mascara and hugs, we discussed plans for her to rewrite her paper. By this time, I was more than burnt out. I was charred out.

Because I just don't have the gumption to face some accusing, organically and locally grown vegetables, I made crock pot chicken soup.


vegetable stock

chicken breast with bones
onion
garlic
fresh thyme
bay leaf
chile pequin

zucchini, sliced
yellow squash, sliced
some light green squash, sliced
carrots, scrubbed (not peeled) and sliced
yukon gold potatoes, scrubbed (not peeled) and sliced in rounds
salt
lime

Make a vegetable stock. This can be pretty much any vegetables you have lying around in your fridge and their scraps. Mine was of leek ends, wilted celery, carrots, carrot tops, garlic, onions, thyme, bay leaves, and parsley. There are many ways you can prepare your stock. You can roast the veggies first then boil the heck out of them; you can brown them in olive oil and then boil the heck out of them. Or you can just do what I did and boil the heck out of them with little to no pre-cooking. If you intend to use this stock as a base for a further meat stock, then my way works fine. If you intend to use this stock as the main stock, then you should do one of the other two methods first. It really brings out the flavor of the veggies. I made this stock the night before as I was cooking another dinner. It is pretty simple. Boil and then strain out the veggies. You can then freeze or refrigerate the stock as you wish.

To this vegetable stock (and in my case, in a crock pot), add the chicken, onions, garlic, thyme, bay leaf, and chiles. Cook this for however many hours you are at work. When you get home from work, strain this new stock. You so don't want all of the fatty mush that develops.

Put this beautiful new broth in a regular pot. Then add the potatoes and carrots. Bring to a boil while you shred the chicken. Then add chicken and squash. Simmer until the carrots are tender. Season with salt and lime (better with lemon but I didn't have it) juice.

Because I am so sick of students and lettuce, I served the soup with steamed beets and sliced avocado, topped with lime juice and salt. I also had tomatoes, basil, fresh mozzarella, salt, and olive oil (aka caprese salad) as another side.

Oh and if you are wondering what happens to the apples in my order, my son eats an apple a day. He's figured out that while I'll ignore his whines for goldfish crackers or candy, I'll always give him an apple.

Not even remotely inspiring, I know; but never fear (in a no way annoying high-pitched squeal), tomorrow is only a day away.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A Plethora of Avocados

So my landlords, as a consolation for being out of hearth and home, have given us a mass of avocados. And when I say mass, I mean enough for a vat of guacamole or enough to do 55 cobb salads with leftovers for those starving children in India. There is a freaking lot of avocados, and if I knew what a plethora was, I might say I have a plethora of avocados.

All of these avocados are going ripe at the exact same time.

I seriously don't know what my landlords were thinking. If I dont' have a home, what the heck am I to do with a crumb load of avocados? The fact that I do have a home during this time of displacement is irrelevant, they don't know that.

So as I wait to hear about the state of my flooded home and as I occupy my new home, I'll include avocados in my recipes as if they came from my CSA. Lord knows, I am as strapped to deal with them as I am with all the other vegetable crap.

To celebrate my inordinate amount of avocados, I've decided to cook a dish that does not contain one single avocado in it:

Butternut Squash Stew

2 large leeks, white parts only
roasted peanut oil
garlic cloves, minced
1 jalapeno, deseeded and deveined and minced
fresh ginger, minced
kale, finely chopped [my own thing]
1 Tbs curry powder
1 tsp light brown sugar
3 Tbs soy sauce
3 cups chicken stock
1 can (15-0z) coconut milk (unsweetened)
1 medium/small butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
salt
firm tofu, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
lime juice
raw peanuts
fresh cilantro, chopped

Halve leeks and place them with the kale in some cold water to shake out the dirt.

Fry tofu in a little bit of peanut oil.

Heat oil in a wide soup pot. Add leeks and cook over fairly high heat, stirring frequently, until partially softened (about 3 minutes). Add the garlic, chile, ginger, and kale. Cook about 1 minute more, then add the curry, sugar, and soy sauce. Reduce heat to medium, scrape the pan, and cook for a few minute more. Add the chicken stock, coconut milk, squash, and 1 tsp salt. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer, covered (about 15 minutes). Add the tofu to the stew once the squash is almost tender and then simmer until squash is done. Taste for salt and add lime juice.

Fry peanuts in some peanut oil over medium heat until browned, then coarsely chop. Serve the stew over rice and top with peanuts and cilantro.

This is from Deborah Madison's book and way kicks ass. I totally burned the peanuts, but it tastes good even without them.

Viva la avocados!

Monday, December 11, 2006

Embedded Cooking

I am now coming to you live from someone else's house. Someone else's kitchen. Granted, this kitchen belongs to my dearest friend and this kitchen is everything I would like my kitchen to be: large, gas stove, dishwasher, plenty of cabinet space, a spice drawer, a knife drawer, and a (oh. my. gosh.) double oven. However, I am cooking and living in one place and sleeping in another. I am displaced and because of this displacement, I am full of unrest.

I know that others have larger problems than mine. My downstairs neighbor's place is completely flooded--completely unliveable. His furniture was ruined as was most of his other stuff. He asked his son if he could stay at his son's house for the month it will take to remodel the apartment, and his son said no. So my neighbor is living in a hotel. At least I have friends and family to be here for me.

Being displaced is nothing new. I'm not experiencing something nobody's ever experienced before. Take, for example, the ultimate displaced people: the Jews. They've been enslaved in a foreign land, wandered through wilderness, were enslaved again, enslaved, enslaved, dispersed, murdered, and woke up one day, after all this, back in the desert. Somehow, this group of people manages to perserve their cultural identity while being scattered throughout the world. At times with absolutely nothing, they've held strong to their identity.

How can I do less when I still have family, dear friends, and a place to stay that feels like my home?

Because I am cooking in a fabulous kitchen, I've decided to make the most of it. Tonight I made a vegetarian ragout and oatmeal cookies (taking full advantage of that (oh. my. gosh.) double oven).

Mushroom Ragout (adapted from Deborah Madison's book):

olive oil
a bit of butter
onions and shallots, chopped into medium/small chunks
sugar
1 large parsnip, finely diced
5 medium carrots, finely diced
fresh parsley, chopped
dried sage (better with fresh, but I didn't have any)
dried thyme

various mushrooms, sliced
garlic, minced

red wine
about 1/3 6 oz can tomato paste (dillute this in the wine)
2 Tbs soy sauce

Heat butter and olive oil over med/high heat. Add onions. Stir to coat with oil then sprinkle sugar on them and let them sit, stirring occationally for about 10 minutes. Add the parsnips, carrots, and herbs and cook until onions are nicely carmelized (about another ten minutes). Take the vegetables out of the pan. Add olive oil, mushrooms, and garlic. Saute until mushrooms change colors (about 5 minutes). Add the vegetables, wine/tomato paste, and soy sauce. Simmer until mushrooms are soft. Don't let it get too dry add water or stock if necessary.

Serve this over a baked spaghetti squash, couscous, or pasta. We did pasta and squash mixed because it was a small squash. Top it all with more chopped parsley.

Follow this with the world's best cookies. Ever.

Oatmeal Cookies.

1 1/4 c butter
3/4 c firmly packed brown sugar
1/2 c granulated sugar

1 egg
1 tsp vanilla

1 1/2 c flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg
3 cups slow cook oatmeal

Heat oven to 375 F. Beat together butter and sugars until light and fluffy. Beat in egg and vanilla. Combine dry goods and mix well. Stir in oats.

On an ungreased cookie sheet (I use baking spray though), bake 8-9 minutes for chewy cookies.

If you use an (oh. my. gosh.) double oven, you can do double batches of cookies.

As I bit into the first warm and chewy cookie, I felt a beginning of a celebration. Not a celebration of displacement, but a celebration of love, friends, and whole grain sweet things.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

....And Then The Other Shoe Dropped



It seems that you aren't allowed to laud a perfect day without something happened to straighten out the yin and yang of our lives. There is no good without some drama, and my life is indeed a case in point.

My dearest friend is taking care of my family cat. And when I say family cat, I mean the cat that my parents and I picked out 17 1/2 years ago and is truly a member of my family (my son adores her. He keeps coming back for more even after she's bitten him more than a few times). A few years ago, my parents sold their house and moved into a motorhome (It's their life, okay). Because this motorhome is by its very nature very small, they couldn't care for both the family cat and their dog. And because I already have my Southern, white trash souvenir cat who hates any other animal (though she loves my son and tolerates almost inhuman punishment from him), I couldn't take Bad Cat. So my friend offered. He kindly agreed to abide by my mother's rules of gourmet canned catfood and expensive dry food. He agreed to give her special medicine for her arthritis every day. He agreed to coddle her in her very old age. And he did. Bad Cat lived a life of luxury at my friend's house.

However, she is old. And old things die. So she did.

I got this news as my son, my husband, and I were leaving the white trash Christmas party. I had no other plans than to fall into my bed and sleep off what would undoubtedly prove to be a very potent hangover from Boon's Strawberry Hill. (Cue the dramatic music) Fate had other plans . . .

When I talked to my friend on the phone I heard, "My cat just died." Thinking he was talking about his cat, Pancho, who has stopped eating and drinking a week ago because of a fierce liver infection, I instantly (and incorrectly, I might add) summed up his mood: distraught, bereft, inconsolable.

"I'm coming right over," I declared, thinking I would be able to comfort him in his time of loss.

"What about your son?" My friend asked.

"He'll be fine. I'll put him to bed," I replied, thinking "why is he so concerned about my son? My son doesn't care about Pancho."

We arrived at the house, and I leapt from my car, grabbed my son, and rushed to my friend's aid. Only to walk in on my cat dead in the middle of the floor.

"Oh. It was Bad Cat."

"I said, 'your cat was dead.'"

"I didn't hear you."

This is a typical response of mine. I have a horrible propensity to just not hear people when they talk to me. Oh, don't get me wrong, I hear something. It's just not what they are saying. Somehow my mind manages to write its own script, and everyone else refuses to follow it. I am perfectly sure that my friend did indeed tell me that it was Bad Cat on the phone. I am also perfectly sure I heard "Pancho."

So the rest is boring and usual: death inevitably happens and you clean up after it. I quickly rushed my son upstairs to his pack n play (Him: "I want to play with Bad Cat." Me: "No, baby, she's sleeping. We have to let her go night night."). Then my husband, my friend, and I sat around with glasses of wine and discussed how best to get rid of the body. Are there laws about this?

After spending some time in NorCal, my first inclination is to dig a hole in the back yard. However, that really doesn't fly in San Diego when you rent your home and own only a snow shovel (for those freak blizzards...). So my friend took her to the vet, and for a paltry $30, they disposed of the body and even sent a consolation card the next day.

Finally, I was able to get to bed and sleep the sleep of the . . . hmmm, well you can fill that in. Until, that is, I was awaken at 130am by my ringing doorbell.

As a mom, I am highly trained to leap instantly refreshed and ready for action at the slightest noise no matter how little sleep I have gotten. I rushed to the front door, thinking in my dream state that it must be my friend again and his other cat has now died. To the sound of torrential rushing water, I envisioned his standing on the front porch, soaked and saddened by the night's events. That is until I ran into chilled, ankle deep water in my living room and answered the door to my downstairs neighbor.

We confusedly discussed the rain (which in my mind was pouring) and leaks. I tried to figure out where in the world this leak could have come from, when I noticed that it. wasn't. raining. By this time, my husband had gotten up and ran into the guest bathroom and turned the torrential pour of water off.

My next thought was that I had left the faucet running in that bathroom (though I haven't been in there in about two days) and that somehow this flood was all my fault. Then my husband announced that a pipe had burst. I have to tell you, readers, the immense relief I felt when I learned that the mess wasn't my fault was almost worth the immeasurable guilt for that relief which followed.

After talking to our landlord, I began to assess the situation. My husband (and again I'll be honest) is pretty much worthless if you wake him up before he's had his prescribed sleep. Couple that to his innate desire to have everything clean and neat, and you have a man in extreme sleep shock and horror at the swampy mess that once was our house. He aimlessly walked around the house, wiping water up here and there until I developed a plan of action.

[Side Note: At this point in my tale, both my friend and my husband are protesting their portrayals. For clarity, they are both pilots, sexy, smart, and amazingly competent. In no way are they nerdy math or geology people.]

We then approached the house room by room, moving furniture and cleaning water as we went. However, these actions did not save our bathroom nor our kitchen. Nor did it save the apartments below us; they are completely unliveable.

We are lucky. We have a friend to live with (since he lost a cat, he now has room for displaced people) while our kitchen and whatever (the verdict is still out on the complete scope of the damage) is repaired and most of our stuff is perfectly fine.

Also, despite the death of cats and the flooding of homes, there are still good food and good wine and good company in the world. And to acknowledge that fact (and possibly to alleviate the wicked hangover I have), I made the best tortilla soup ever.

This is from
Sunset's ("the magazine for Western living" or so I've heard) "Best Of" cookbook (of course, I don't measure anything and have added a few things).

Arizona Tortilla Soup

Notes: This soup comes from Donna Nordin, chef-owner of Café Terra Cotta in Tucson and Scottsdale, Arizona. Make the salsa while the soup boils.

4 corn tortillas (6 to 7 in.)
3 tablespoons salad oil [I used olive oil]


1 onion (4 to 5 oz.), peeled and finely chopped
1 teaspoon minced or pressed garlic
1 dried bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon hot chili flakes
8 cups fat-skimmed chicken broth

[add about 5 chile pequins]

Salsa fresca [see below]

1 ripe or firm-ripe avocado (about 8 oz.)
1 lime (about 3 oz.)
3/4 cup shredded jack cheese
Salt and pepper

1. Stack tortillas and cut into 1-inch-wide strips. Pour oil into a 5- to 6-quart pan over high heat. When oil is hot, add tortilla strips and stir often until crisp and lightly browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat and, with a slotted spoon, transfer tortilla strips to towels to drain.


2. Add onion and garlic to pan. Stir often over medium-high heat until onion is limp, 3 to 4 minutes. Add bay leaf, oregano, peppercorns, chili flakes, [chile pequins,] and broth. Bring to a boil over high heat and boil until reduced to about 6 cups, 20 to 25 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, whirl half the salsa fresca in a blender until coarsely puréed. Pit, peel, and thinly slice the avocado. Rinse lime and cut crosswise into thin slices; discard ends.

4. In wide soup bowls (at least 1 1/2-cup size), arrange equal portions of tortilla strips, remaining salsa, avocado slices, lime slices, and jack cheese.

5. Pour puréed salsa into hot soup, season to taste with salt and pepper, and ladle equally around tortilla strips and garnishes in bowls.

Yield: Makes 6 servings
CALORIES 274 (53% from fat); FAT 16g (sat 4.1g); PROTEIN 17g; CHOLESTEROL 15mg; SODIUM 215mg; FIBER 2.8g; CARBOHYDRATE 18g
Sunset, JULY 2001

Salsa Fresca
This recipe goes with Arizona Tortilla Soup

1 pound ripe or firm-ripe tomatoes
1 fresh jalapeño or Fresno chili
1/4 cup finely chopped onion
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
About 3 tablespoons lime juice
Salt and pepper

Rinse and core tomatoes and cut into about 1/4-inch dice; put the tomatoes with their juices into a bowl. Rinse and stem the jalapeño; shake out seeds and cut out the veins. Finely chop the chili. Add it to the bowl, along with the onion, cilantro, and 3 tablespoons lime juice. Stir gently to mix, and add more lime juice and salt and pepper to taste.

Nutritional analysis per tablespoon.
Yield: Makes about 2 1/4 cups
CALORIES 3.3 (0.0% from fat); FAT 0.0g (sat 0.0g); PROTEIN 0.1g; CHOLESTEROL 0.0mg; SODIUM 1.3mg; FIBER 0.2g; CARBOHYDRATE 0.7g
Sunset, JULY 2001

This soup is good many days after the fact. It just gets better. It will remind you that all is indeed right with the world when there are cilantro and chiles and avocado to be had.

Saturday, December 9, 2006

I Didn't Even Have to Use My A.K.

My dearest friend and I have a theory that certain parts of the world have a special quality of light that can affect all aspects of life in these places: Capri (or, really, anywhere in Southern Italy), Amsterdam, and San Diego all possess this quality. The unique, filtered northern light in Amsterdam is so famous that this light has been credited with inspiring the flourishing and brilliant Dutch painting in its 17th Century heyday [instead of re-renting Girl With a Pearl Earring again since you fell asleep the first time and aren’t sure what I am talking about, see the brilliant documentary Dutch Light on the subject or just go to an art museum and gaze at any De Hooch or Vermeer].

The ancient Egyptians envisioned light as an affect of the whims of Ra. When Ra is awake, his eyes are open and there is day--light. Then Ra closes his eyes, and existence rests in darkness. Conversly, the Hebrews envisioned light as that which was created from darkness, from the other-than-light. Something rather than nothing. Light is the anti-darkness and is always present even when we can't "see" it. Light is the real.

Donald Miller in Through Painted Deserts examines light's tangibility and ever-present quality: "Consider the complexity of light in light of the Hebrew metaphor: we don’t' see light; we see what it touches. [...] The perfection of the Hebrew metaphor is eerie, especially considering Eratosthenes wouldn't play with sticks and shadows for several thousand years, discovering Ra was, in fact, never closing his eyes." Eratosthenes, years after the Hebrews considered it old knowledge, used light and its movement across his earth (or at least that portion in the immediate vicinity of Alexandria) to measure the distance of an ever-present sun and to enlighten the second century BC world as to the size of the earth itself. Light serves, then, to bound and illuminate space and time. Ra never sleeps.

As Miller implies, we don’t really see the world, we see light. Rebecca Solnit writes in A Field Guide to Getting Lost that "the world is blue at its edges and in its depths. This blue is the light that got lost [...] melancholy blue, the blue at the farthest reaches of the places where you see for miles, the blue of distance. This light that does not touch us, does not travel the whole distance, the light that gets lost, gives us the beauty of the world..." In San Diego, the light doesn't seem to get lost; instead, it dissolves into the air and gives this city an ethereal beauty.

This is true all day and all year and not just at sunset or sunrise, or on crisp winter mornings, as with many places. In San Diego, this quality of light manifests itself in a sort of silver-yellow-rose glow that seems to permeate the air. It's as if you could be coated in a light sheen after walking through this air. So the light is everywhere, in everything; and in San Diego, you can tangibly feel this effect and in turn be affected by it.

My love affair with San Diego began about eight years ago. As with any great love, I remember the moment I was struck and fell perfectly into deep smit. I was driving from somewhere to somewhere else, cresting Talbot Street right off of Catalina Boulevard. At the very moment of summiting the spine of Point Loma, the music on the classical station I was listening to reached a crescendo. To this climactic music, the bay and downtown appeared and stretched below before me. In the San Diego light, the bay was a completely blue-enough blue; it lay like lightly rustling silk. The buildings of downtown burned silver. I was affected. I was changed. I fell in love.

I still have moments like this: where the soundtrack of my life inextricably and inexplicably matches the situation, and I am filled with utter, breathless joy at being alive at that very moment in a city of magical light.

Today was a day filled with those moments. I shared coffee (and chocolate milk) with my son in Little Italy as the morning light was just starting to silver. We then watched as the light dissipated into the crisp morning.

When we returned home, we sat in the driveway, enjoying the light's now cleansing gold cast. He rolled his little cars down the slope of the driveway as I watched from my square of warm cement. We were joined by my friend and my husband who also brought burritos from Adalberto's in Point Loma. What more could I ask for? Surrounded by those I love best in the world, I bit into the first bite of hot salsa and carne asada covered in a warm and soft flour tortilla. Perfect, indeed.

As we chatted over our burritos, each keeping an eye on my flitting son who would land just long enough to take a quick bite of his bean and cheese burrito, I was struck--as I so often am--by how full my life is of blessings. I have so much love. And amazing burritos. And to top that off, I am daily bathed in inspiring light.

Fiat Lux.

Friday, December 8, 2006

Casual Friday

So today is Friday. Though my work has no official nor specific dress code (of which I've checked and stretched in many ways from wearing short, pleated skirts with knee socks--my hot for teacher look--to cashmere wife-beaters to tight-fitting button down shirts with just a few extra buttons undone. . .), I still use Friday as an excuse to dress in cordouroys and thermals and whatever happens to be almost-dirty-but-not-enough-to-put-in-the-laundry-basket lying on my bedroom floor. This Friday is no exception.

My lackadaisical dressing habits have even rubbed off on my fellow professor friend. Currently, she works two jobs: at the university and at a consulting firm. The consulting firm has a very official and specific dress code of business formal; however, she has now taken to wearing what loosely might be considered "business casual" if you work at a business that allows you to wear sequined jeans and strappy heels. I must humbly admit: we are probably the most sassy dressers at our little private Christian university.

This Friday, I went to see
The Bacchae at a little theater in San Diego called 6th@Penn (yes, they have the little sign instead of the word in their name. Go ahead and check the website if you don't believe me). The venue is very cool: small and intimate, near fun bars and restaurants, tickets won't break you.

According to the email I received from the theater, this play "continues its Greek tradition. Dionysus, god of wine ecstatic god of orgies, is the leader of this dance. Come spy on the frolicking Bacchantes and see the mysteries of the god - and the shock in store for you. Your life may be changed forever- witness this great masterpiece by Euripides."

Hmmm, shock and life-changing might be right.

Because this was a Greek play, the actors wore little loin skirts which revealed much more than I ever wanted to see of any stranger, and this revealing was done in positions that were not flattering to say the least. The actor playing Dionysus was stiff and either overdone or not quite done enough (I can't really tell). He wore some horrible little horns on his head and "walked," as my husband pointed out, "like he had two trick knees, while holding a broom stick up his butt." And of course the other details of a low-budget theater: bad lighting, sound, costumes, etc . . .

However, there were some very redeeming factors that will entice me to come back. The actor who played Pentheus was both surprising and perfect for that role. When a skinny little kid came on stage and threw his first fit, I didn't think this Pentheus would fly. He certainly wasn't what I thought Pentheus would look or act like. This guy was young, scrawny, and petulant; my imagined Pentheus is in his 30's, buff, and (though dense) masterful. However, this actor played the part perfectly: he reinvented an old and cliched role and did a very good job doing so. Also, the theater itself is actually very nice. It has potential to be a venue that produces very powerful plays.

To fortify ourselves for this night of theater, I made a spicy tomato soup. Serve this with grilled cheese and pickles, and you have the perfect casual Friday menu:

Spicy Tomato Soup adapted from epicurious.com:

7 tomatoes, coarsely chopped with an attempt to get out the seeds
1 28-oz can of chopped tomatoes
1 large onion, coarsely chopped (2 1/4 cups)
finely chopped garlic
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh jalapeño chile including seeds
2 teaspoons finely chopped peeled fresh ginger
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
2 1/4 cups chicken broth
2 teaspoons salt, or to taste

Partially drain the can of tomatoes. Puree it and the fresh tomatoes.

Cook onion, garlic, chile, and ginger in oil in a 4- to 5-quart heavy nonreactive pot over moderate heat, stirring frequently, until onion is softened, about 8 minutes. Add cumin and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Stir in puréed tomatoes, broth, 1 tablespoon sugar, and 2 teaspoons salt and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, 20 minutes. Use your new and amazing immersion blender to puree the stuff.

Stir in salt to taste.

Makes 4 servings.
Gourmet
Quick Kitchen
December 2004

Oh, and in the excitement of my theater-going evening, I forgot to mention my latest CSA shipment:

6 Apples
3 beets
butternut squash
2 leeks
7 carrots
4 limes
2 heads lettuce
parsley
5 radishes

The weekend stretches before me. Time to get cooking.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

The Loaded Gun


Some mornings just start out like this for everyone:

Nothing goes right, including the simple act of going potty in the toilet.

My son got a double dose of stubbornness from both me and my husband. Sometimes it manifests itself in surprisingly cute ways like his constant need to bounce on beds no matter how many times we tell him not to. When we arrived in our hotel room in San Francisco, he immediately took off his shoes, pulled the armchair over to the bed to use as a step (no small feat for a two-year-old), and began jumping on the bed. My husband, the safety conscious one, quickly told him to get off that bed right this instant. Without missing a bounce, my son rapped back, "Hey you, get off my cloud, you don't know me and you don't know my style."

What can you do when your son channels Method Man at you (and yes, I do know the original line is from a Rolling Stones' song, but my son doesn't)? We had to laugh, and he continued jumping.

However, sometimes this willfull nature manifests itself in my son's wedging himself between the toilet and the wall because he is so frustrated he can't pee in the toilet (he'd already soaked his diaper) and won't just call it quits. When the morning starts like that, I know I am in for a long day.

Fortunately, I had to work. So his daycare provider was the real one in for a long day. It's the last week of classes, and I am so incredibly ready to be finished. It is a joke, however, because I really won't be finished: I'll have papers to grade and syllabi to write over break. But at least I won't have students to deal with.

Or so I thought . . .

Today my husband picks up our son, so I get a few hours of me time. I always intend to use these free Thursday afternoons to be productive. I plan to hide in some little bar or coffeeshop and grade or write. However, though I manage to usually make it to the bar, I also usually end up pleasure reading. Today was no different, except I didn't have any grading to do (as of right now I am caught up . . . until I get 39 ten-page essays tomorrow), so I could read with impunity. And I did.

Eventually, I decided to run an errand that I can't do with my son: I needed to buy a naughty Santa gift for my Bunco night (yes, I do play Bunco--don't judge). I really didn't think it appropriate to bring my son into an adult store, so I figured I should do this errand now. My first idea for a gift was to get some penis-shaped pasta and package that up with a cream sauce along with adult fortune cookies I had bought in San Francisco. I remembered that Urban Outfitters sold said pasta at one time, so this seemed like a good place to start. However, I haven't been to Urban Outfitters in at least six years. It seems their inventory has changed in that time.

The helpful register girl did direct me to the naughty book section where I began thumbing through a board book that had a strategically placed hole in its center. I was giggling to myself and reaching for the "Postition of the Day Playbook" when I heard, "Professor?" Lo and behold, there stood a former student of mine from the private Christian university at which I work.

We both were a delightful shade of pink at being caught in the naughty book section.

"I'm taking your class literature class next semester," he offered, "Pretend you never saw me here."

"Deal. This never happened." And I scooped up my books (yes, both the board book and the play of the day one) and quickly exited.

This city is way too small.

Anton Chekov claimed that if you have a loaded gun in act one of a play, it had better go off by the end. Well, I am far from the end of this little play, but I did introduce a loaded gun of sorts--or maybe I should call it loaded ravioli. Yes, dear readers, I am indeed back to making ravioli. Beet ravioli this time.

I am obsessed. Partly because my first experience was so trying that I want to see if I can do it again without all the angst. Partly because a friend of mine who not only has the kitchen of my dreams but is a wonderful cook told me that he couldn't compete with homemade ravioli. Partly because I have one opened stack of pasta in the fridge that will go bad shortly. Partly because I am not really sure if I like beets and how to cook them. And partly because I have to maintain literary correctness: I need to fire that gun.

Okay, so I'm just obsessed.

From epicurious: Beet Ravioli with Poppy Seed Butter

2 large red or golden beets (about 14 ounces)
1/2 cup fresh whole-milk ricotta cheese
2 tablespoons dried breadcrumbs
[I also chopped the beet greens to bits and added them to this mix]

1 1/4 pounds
Fresh Egg Pasta

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter

1 tablespoon poppy seeds
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 400°F. Wrap beets individually in foil; place on baking sheet [I forgot the foil step and just roasted them uncovered. It was fine. I also did this the night before and let them cool in the fridge. Worked like a charm]. Roast until tender when pierced with knife, about 1 hour. Open foil carefully (steam will escape).

Cool. Peel beets; finely grate into medium bowl. Add ricotta cheese and season to taste with salt and pepper. Stir in breadcrumbs.

Roll Fresh Egg Pasta dough into sheets according to recipe. Place 1 dough sheet on work surface. Using 3-inch round biscuit cutter, cut sheet into 7 rounds. Transfer rounds to lightly floured baking sheet; cover with plastic wrap. Repeat with remaining dough for total of 56 rounds.
Sprinkle 2 smooth kitchen towels with flour. Place 8 pasta rounds on work surface, keeping remaining dough covered with plastic. Place small bowl of water next to work surface. Spoon 1 teaspoon beet filling onto half of each round. Dip fingertip into water and dampen edge of 1 round. Fold dough over filling, pushing out as much air as possible and pressing edges firmly to seal. Transfer to prepared towels. Repeat with remaining rounds. (Can be prepared 1 week ahead. Transfer to rimmed baking sheet and place in freezer until frozen solid, about 6 hours. Transfer ravioli to resealable plastic bags.)
[I didn't do any of this. I used the sheets of pasta I had left over (two packages of three down, one to go) from the squash ravioli and the wine glass/knife trick to cut]

Melt butter in large skillet over medium heat and stir in poppy seeds; keep warm. Working in batches, cook ravioli in large pot of boiling salted water until cooked through, stirring often, about 2 minutes. Using slotted spoon, transfer to skillet with melted butter; toss to coat. Divide ravioli among 8 plates; sprinkle with Parmesan.

Makes 8 first-course servings.
Bon Appétit May 2005

Making ravioli the second time is surprisingly easier and quicker. Possibly because I already have the pasta sheets in my fridge and a working idea of how the whole stuffing process should go. But as I smoothly shaped my little half moons of pasta, I mused on the etymology of ravioli and pasta names in general.

According to Bill Buford, "ravioli" is actually the term for just the stuffing. Italians used to toss ravioli into big pocket of dough called tortas. Eventually, they started making these tortas bite-sized and called them "tortelli" which is the diminuative of torta. I then was making tortelli stuffed with ravioli. Incidentally, "tortellini" is the diminuative of tortelli and means even tinier stuffed pasta.

The beet ravioli was okay. I found I do indeed like beets. I thought the pasta was a bit bland. Some reviewers suggested goat cheese instead of ricotta, which might add the needed zing. I might do some carmelized onions in the ravioli if I make this again.

Of course this meal came with the dreaded salad: lettuce, cucumbers, mushrooms, yellow bell pepper. No tomatoes this time because I am making tomato soup tomorrow. I did manage to use all of my lettuce this week. No waste. And luckily, no need for lettuce soup . . . yet.

Of note: my son did not like this ravioi dish but loved the squash one.

Oh well, as Scarlett O'Hara claims, tomorrow is another pickup day.

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Comfort Food

It never fails: I always end the semester with a sinus infection. Somehow, my body copes with stress by making me feel miserable.

When I feel this sick, all I want to do is curl up in front of a fireplace (with a fire in it) with my blanket, a book, and water and spend the day in and out of sleep when I am not reading. However, I do not own a fireplace that actually works, and I do have students, offspring (well one, anyway), a husband, and what feels like a million other things that call incessantly for my attention.

I knew I was getting old when I started envying my students, imagining their carefree lives where they just have to eat, sleep, and study without a single person needing them. Then I wake up and remember my time in college: full class load, full-time waiting tables to pay for full class load, studying until the wee hours in desperate attempts to bring my grades up, family and friends needing me for various reasons (though not for the learning to poop on the toilet kind). I realize that at that time in my life, I had all the stress I could handle. Just like I have all that I can handle now. It's not that my life is harder than those of my students; it's that I'm at a different point in my life. Sure it would be easier if I didn't relentlessly have to see to a two-year-old's needs every. single. freaking. second. But if I didn't have my son (or any of the other stuff that comprises my life), there would be another thing to take its place. There is a never-ending list of these things.

So I sucked it up--just like we all do--and I graded. Luckily for me, my soon to be lawyer girlfriend also had to be productive and focused today. She is studying for her last final in law school. So we did the whole misery-loves-company thing and buckled down together. And the day was actually pleasant. We interspersed hours of intense work with gossipy chats about life, love, and everything else. We shared a cookie. We drank adult beverages. We accomplished a lot.

Then I came home to a brand new immersion blender that my husband bought me to make me feel better. And I did feel better . . . well at least loved. And that loved feeling is the most comforting one in the world.

Since I'm still sick with a raw nose from all the blowing and since I still have papers to grade and my fireplace still is fake and since I have an immersion blender begging to be used, I did the next best thing for a sick day: I made soup.

I took inspiration for this soup from epicurious's carrot, potato and turnip soup.

1/8 stick butter
a good amount of olive oil
2 large onions, halved and sliced
5 carrots, chopped 1/2 inch pieces
1/2 large butternut squash, cubed 1/2 inch pieces
x amount of fennel
1/4 fresh parsley, chopped
1 tsp fresh thyme, chopped
5 leaves kale, deribbed and chopped
1 large sweet potato, cubed 1/2 inch pieces
mix of small purple, red, and gold potatoes, cubed 1/2 inch pieces
6ish cups of chicken stock

1/4 cup dry sherry

Melt butter with olive oil in pot. Add onions and saute until gold about 15 minutes. Add carrots and squash and saute about another ten minutes. Add parsley, kale and thyme. Briefly saute. Add potatoes and stock. Bring to a boil and then simmer until everything is tender (about 30 minutes). Remove pot from heat, stick your brand new immersion blender in the pot, and whir that slosh to death. Then add the sherry. Simmer a bit.


Eat and be comforted.

Monday, December 4, 2006

The Dead Pass Casually By

Andrei Codrescu notes, "There are certain cities and certain areas of cities where the official langauge is dreams. Venice is one. And Paris. North Beach in San Francisco. Wenceslaus Square in Prague. And New Orleans, the city that dreams stories."

He's talking about cities that affect you--that leave their mark on you long after you've left. And he is right. There are certain cities that can touch your soul within minutes of being there and leave you changed forever. This change may not be something others can recognize. It may not be something you even recognize, but it's there: indelibly printed on your spirit--the stamp of that city.

Why can these cities do this? Codrescu claims that in cities like this "space and time are subjective, no matter what the merciless clock of late twentieth-century [or early twenty-first-century] America tells us." So often, we are governed by schedules and time (or lack thereof) and tasks that when we encounter a city that allows a sense of separateness from the tyrany of right now, we feel it deep within ourselves. Like a sigh of relief.

I haven't traveled extensively, but I have felt what Codrescu talks about in a few cities--and not in others. Rome is the former; New York, the latter. I thought there could be some rhyme or reason for this phenomenon but haven't found any yet. New Orleans, as Codrescu so lyrically writes about in New Orleans, Mon Amour, is definitely the former kind of city. I've been to it twice before Katrina and did leave it changed. I thought it was my first experience with this kind of city. My first encounter with a city that has a soul.

I used to claim that New Orleans was the only city of this kind in the United States. We are too young as a nation, too brash, too excited by the new to have many cities that have the weight of time on them. Rome has been around for over 2000 years. Not one city here can boast of such an impressive lifespan. We haven't been around long enough for most of our cities to see "little difference between life and death except for poetry and song." And frankly, that isn't where our priorities are as a nation. Our nation wants strips malls and parking lots and bigger freeways. Our time is spent running errands and being quantitatively productive, not sitting in corner cafes as we enjoy the simple pleasure of being in a moment.

I used to think New Orleans was the only city like this here until I went to San Francisco this weekend. I had been to San Francisco about fifteen years ago and stayed with some friends for a time. We lived in Chinatown. I followed them around in their day-to-day lives, eating a handfuls of sticky rice while waiting for buses, and left the city feeling it was different than any other city I'd ever been. However, at that time, I didn't have the language to understand what exactly San Francisco had done to me. I'd left affected but didn't know it. Fifteen years later, I got to discover this city anew.

It's amazing to go back somewhere you knew fairly well as a child--forgotten about--and then rediscover it with adult eyes. What was important to you has completely changed. You notice different things. You've surely forgotten things. You make different connections. My San Francisco now is distinctly European in look and feel. It has the tiny, winding, pedestrian-ruled streets; the fountains; the squares; the surprising patches of green park of many European cites. It also has the grand buildings that look (since a lot are not actually) many hundreds of years old. This city has the weight of time on it. Amazingly so because San Francisco has burned down and/or fallen down many times in fairly recent history. It is impressive that the people of San Francisco have managed to recreate themselves over and over again while still maintaining that subjectivity of time and space. This city hasn't forgotten it's history. Life and lives, both past and present, permeate it.

Where New Orleans has the "slow-flowing mud of soul," San Francisco has the gusty, rushing wind of spirit. Codrescu would dislike my comparision of San Francisco and New Orleans. He wrote an essay that highlighted the marked contrasts betweent the cities. His San Fran "slapped [him] vigorously awake by a chilly breeze off the ocean . . . amid the din of booming money, growing sky scrapers, swinging briefcases, and two-dollar cups of coffee." In Codrescu's San Francisco, "people propelled by wind [make] loud deals . . . consume[] ruddy portions of exotic Persian and Thai food--which they [eat] directly out of cartons, using their gold American Express cards instead of silverware--slap[] each other on the back with tennis paddles, and wipe[] energetic sweat from jogging foreheads." And while I laugh and do see some truth to this version of San Francisco, I also know the version of this city where you can have a quiet cup of coffee in shade-dappled sunlight at Cafe Centro in South Market. I know where you can take a step and move from impeccably groomed park to tangled redwood forest. I know where you can stand on a street corner in Chinatown and feel life with all five senses. It's this San Francisco that affects you. It's this San Francisco that lets time shift and become fluid.

I left San Francisco changed. From this moment on, my life will be different in an unquatifiable, intangible way. We came back to learn our friends had had their baby. Their lives are now changed in a definitely quatifiable and tangible way. To celebrate life changes of all kinds (and because I always make this for people who have just given birth), I made baked ziti (yes, I know, again).

I love this dish because you can tweak the sauce and get a completely different flavor everytime with the same comforting taste of cheese and pasta.

Since I've already given you my
basic ziti procedure, I'm just going to explain my new sauce for this one.

olive oil
garlic
1 onion, chopped to bits
fresh parsley, kale, and thyme, chopped to bits
1 28-ounce cans diced tomatoes, pureed
1 28-ounce can tomato sauce
white wine
sugar to taste

Saute garlic and onions in olive oil until translucent. Add the chopped green stuff and saute a bit more. Add wine and simmer a tiny bit until reduced by 1/4-ish (honestly, I don't really know aobut reduced part but it sounds good). Add tomatoes and sugar to taste and simmer until flavors blend. Then do your ziti thing.

Of course I served this with a salad of tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, radishes, mushrooms, yellow bell pepper, nuts and craisins. Gotta kill that lettuce somehow.

Oh and I got to find out my new CSA shipment:
10 tomatoes
2 cucumbers
3 beets
6 radishes
red kale
2 heads of lettuce
1 spaghetti squash
5 apples
AND NO CHARD!!!!!

Travelling plans

It's difficult to be in the homemaking state of mind the evening before you travel. We are leaving for San Francisco tomorrow, and I am unwilling to do anything but eat take-out and pack.

However, I still have produce lurking in the fridge, just waiting to be ignored and go bad. As the children's book of that very title so aptly illustrates, when vegetables go bad, nothing good can come of it. Further, my delivery is scheduled for Friday, and because I will have five (count them!) days of absolutely no cooking in San Fran, I need to stay on top of things now.

So I pulled myself together, pushed the take-out menus to the back of the junk drawer in the kitchen, and put together a meal that killed off some of these darned vegetables.

From epicurious:

BUTTERNUT SQUASH AND NOODLES WITH COCONUT, LIME AND CILANTRO SAUCE

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 1/2 cups chopped onions
2 pounds butternut squash, peeled, seeded, cut into 1/2- to 3/4-inch pieces
1 cup chicken broth
1 1/2 tablespoons minced seeded jalapeño chili
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 cup canned light unsweetened coconut milk
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon Thai green curry paste
a package of dried spinach spaghetti
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley (recipe called for cilantro, but I didn't have it)

Heat oil in large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions; sauté until golden, about 5 minutes. Add squash; sauté 4 minutes. Add broth, jalapeño and garlic; bring to boil. Cover; cook until squash is almost tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in coconut milk, lime juice and curry paste. Simmer uncovered until squash is tender and liquid is slightly reduced, about 4 minutes. Season to taste with salt.

Meanwhile, cook noodles in large pot of boiling salted water until just tender but still firm to bite. Drain noodles. Return to pot. Add squash mixture and cilantro to noodles; toss to blend. Serve.

Per Serving: calories, 337; total fat, 7 g; saturated fat, 3 g; cholesterol, 2 mg.
Serves 6.Bon AppétitMay 1998
Epicurious.com © CondéNet, Inc. All rights reserved.


This wasn't the greatest. The reviews on epicurious warned me, but my love for thai curry and squash blinded me to their cries of danger. It was pretty bland and the squash was kind of weird here. Not horrible, but not great either.

I served it with a side salad of lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers that mocked me as I made it. No matter how hard I try, I can't keep up with my lettuce. It goes bad so freaking fast, and the CSA gives me two freaking heads of it every single week. As I pulled the wilted and useless top leaves off, I tried to console myself with the fact that I do compost the stuff we don't eat, but I really do feel sort of like a failure for not getting to the lettuce before it goes bad.


But honestly, who eats that much salad?

You, in the back, shut up.

No one. That's who And you're lying if you say any differently.


We are a family that eats an decent amount of salad a week. Hell, I grew up thinking that if a salad didn't accompany the meal, the meal was incomplete. Now, my husband and I just can't seem to eat enough salad to keep up with lettuce. It's giving me a serious salad complex. I know alternative ways of serving cucumbers and tomatoes, but the lettuce stumps me. What else can you possibly do with head lettuce other than serve is as a sandwich topper or in a salad? I have no clue.

So I continue to waste lettuce each week. I continue to feel like a bad CSA member for this waste.

I so need a vacation.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Epic Pasta

Ernest Hemingway writes in The Sun Also Rises that the road to hell is paved with stuffed dogs. I disagree. The road to hell is paved with stuffed pasta: ravioli to be exact.

Somehow, I've managed to spend this Tuesday, my day "off," attempting (in every sense of the word) to make homemade ravioli.

Sure I had a million other things to do today like grade, prep for class, run errands. But when the morning is still new and the whole day stretches before you like a freshly paved road, you feel like you have all the time in the world. And besides, how long could it take to make pasta?

I started at 9am with a twinkle in my eye, a spring in my step, and infinite patience for my two-year-old who would "help" me cook today (in my fantasies, he's often a world famous chef and gives me all the credit for initiating him in the culinary delights). To the operatic sounds of the Match Point soundtrack, we made what Deborah Madison calls simple pasta dough. The dough-making part was simple enough; my son and I mixed flour, salt, eggs, and olive oil until a lumpy substance formed. "Knead until smooth and pliant," Madison instructs. So we kneaded. And kneaded. And kneaded (or is it "kned"). The resulting mass was neither smooth nor pliant. But encouraged by her advice to "let [it] rest" because "if your dough is dry and difficult to knead, this resting period will help soften it," we kept our spirits up. Resting. Okay. Good.

While our dough rested, we made the filling, which--if you don't mind my saying so--kicked major ass. I had baked the other half of that pumpkin-like squash last night, so I mushed it in with the following:

olive oil
3 shallots, chopped
fresh sage, chopped
fresh thyme, chopped (considerally less than the sage)
fresh parsley, chopped (equal amount to the sage)
two red chard leaves, chopped to bits
1/2 c. panko bread crumbs
1/2 c. freshly grated parmesan

Saute shallots in olive oil. Add herbs and chard. Add squash. Mush all up. Remove from heat. Add bread crumbs and parmesan.

This is your filling.

Filling done, my son and I returned to the dough which had not become any more smooth and pliant during the resting period. Still glowing from our filling success, we decided to roll the dough out anyway. Here was a hitch: Madison assumes her readers have a pasta machine that rolls the dough out for you with a simple turn of a crank. I do not own such a device (yet). Undaunted, I determined that I would be able to roll the dough out by hand with a rolling pin, losing only a few more minutes of time in the process. And with the measureless patience I still had, I gave my son a rolling pin too and a small piece of dough.

I'll wait for those of you in the know to stop laughing.

From now on, whenever I hear the phrase, "he/she rolled a sheet of pasta out by hand" I will be overcome with awe and wonder at not only the amazing upper body strength but by the remarkable patience this act takes. I saw in my mind those matronly Italian women with their thin little broomsticks, rolling out wide sheets of dough, and I asked myself, "How hard could that be?"

After three hours of "rolling" out dough, I decided impossibly, from the pit of hell, hard.

With only seven pitiful raviolis to show for my efforts and my son in his third time out, I decided to approach ravioli making from another angle: I began making phone calls to various kitchen supply stores around San Diego, searching for a pasta roller. Finally, after four unsuccessful calls, I located my silver grail.
Assenti's Pasta, in Little Italy, had a pasta roller.

Liam and I quickly journeyed to Little Italy. And discovered a little kink in our pasta roller acquisition plans:

Gas to Little Italy: $5
Pasta roller: $50
Store that only takes cash and you only have two $20's: priceless

So, I initiated plan b which was to purchase sheets of pasta dough from Assenti's. The sheets of pasta come in little pre-package stacks. To an inexperienced eye, the pasta dough stack looks very large. So I asked man behind the counter at Assenti's how many raviolis one pasta dough stack would make. He looked me straight in the eye and answered, "Fifteen."

I glanced again at the stack of dough and, completely demorallized from the homemade pasta dough fiasco, figured I really didn't know anything about pasta, so why qestion his pasta stack judgment. I didn't and ordered three packs because I figured I would make about 45 raviolis.

Back at home, I promptly put my son down for a nap and poured myself a glass of wine. I then began laying out the sheets and cutting little circles out of them using a wine glass and a knife. The rest of my time went swimmingly. I ended up with an amazing amount of raviolis, each one attesting to my growth as a pasta maker. There were my Frankenstein first seven with their dark wheat skin and deep tine scars from my poor use of a fork in sealing the edges. There were some middle ones who were squares and triangles from my experimentation with shapes other than a circle. An then there were the thirty or so perfect half moons, complete with tine indentations around their edges. I resolved to place these thirty in a prominent position when serving the pasta.

I then set about making a light sauce for the pasta. "It's about the pasta, not the sauce" -- so claims Babbo chef Mario Batali in
Heat by Bill Buford. I now firmly believe this maxim to be true. While there is something to be said about a good sauce over dried spaghetti, if you spend your entire day making pasta, they really should be the feature of the dinner. I loosely based my sauce on Deborah Madison's "Butternut Squash Ravioli with Toasted Pecans and Sage." The following are my tweaks:

8 Tbs butter (one stick)
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 shallots, thinly sliced
2 Tbs fresh sage, chopped
2 Tbs fresh parsley, chopped
2 tsp fresh thyme, chopped

Melt butter. Add everything else. Cook over med heat until butter has a "nutty aroma" (according to Madison).

Meanwhile boil the pasta in batches (about 15 per batch) for five to six minutes. Toss the cooked ravioli in the pan with the sauce. GENTLY toss. I've heard that chefs can do this tossing with just flicking the pan, but I had to use a spoon.

I served these with steamed green beans and a salad of lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers.

As my family and friends wolfed down their pasta, singing my accolades, I felt a curious mix of extreme pride and slight resentment. The former because, after all, I had just spent the day making home made ravioli that everyone loved. The latter because I had just spent the entire day making home made ravioli that everyone loved and were eating at an alarming rate. I guess a part of me wanted a few pieces to last forever as a testament to my effort.

As the evening progressed, the praises continued, and the good wine flowed, I got over it. Really, to have an evening with the people you love most is worth many days of effort.

However, I used only one stack of pasta and now have two unopened packages left. I guess I'll save those for beet ravioli. Laugh away, Assenti's Pasta Man, laugh away.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Case of the Mondays

How many of you have days that end up way longer than you anticipated? Wait, wait, I see that timid hand in the back row. Well, sister, you are not alone. Even someone as amazingly scattered as I can have days that don't conform to my (gulp) schedule.

Today was one of those days. Between one thing and another, I found myself at 5pm in the grocery store, picking up that onion which was indispensable (at least in my mind) to tonight's dinner. Now for some of you, 5pm doesn't sound all that late. At one time for me, 5pm was the perfect time to grocery shop in order to prepare a nice leisurely dinner by 8pm. However, times have changed. I now have a toddler who eats between 530 and 6pm every night. If he doesn't, he calls down the fury.

With such a dictator in my life, making dinner can take on stress levels that were unthought of before. As we barrelled through the grocery aisles I a) mentally cursed my CSA for not supplying onions, b) mentally cursed my husband for not reminding me to steal some Vidalia onions from my Nana at Thanksgiving, and c) mentally cursed myself for being such a slave to onions in my recipes. Finally, with onion (and a few other essentials) in hand, my son and I exited the grocery store. He was an angel. He even obligingly put the change in the Salvation Army's red can. The fury didn't come until after we got home . . .

Anyway, made baked ziti, a modification of a friend's recipe. She's Irish Catholic and married a half-Italian. Since their wedding day, she's made tomato sauce from scratch because he doesn't eat jarred. This friend was the source of my epiphany that you can make homemade pasta sauce in less time and hassle than expected. My version:

I make a basic tomato sauce pulled from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.

a certain amount of tomatoes
a certain amount of basil
olive oil
salt

Quarter the tomatoes and toss them in a heavy bottomed skillet/pan/whatever. Add the chopped basil. Cook, covered, on medium high heat for about ten minutes (until tomatoes really start to give up their juices). Don't forget to check the pan periodically to make sure the tomatoes aren't sticking to the bottom of the pan.

Put the whole mess through a food mill. You now have a basic sauce to which you can a) add the olive oil and salt and serve as is over pasta, b) use as a base for soup or other sauces, or c) freeze and then do b.

I chose b and used it as a base for the ziti sauce.

1 medium onion, chopped to bits in the Cuisinart
4 cloves garlic, chopped to bits in the Cuisinart
2 leaves of red chard, chopped to bits in the Cuisinart
x amount of fresh parsley, chopped to bits in the Cuisinart
olive oil
white wine
sugar
x amount of fresh Parmesan, grated
x amount of ricotta
x amount of mozzarella, grated
penne (okay, okay, so it's technically "baked penne," but who wants to argue semantics?)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Put olive oil in the same heavy bottomed pan as was used for tomato sauce. When it is hot, add the onions and garlic. Cook until soft (now be careful because since the pieces are so small, they are way easy to burn). Add the parsley and red chard. Saute for a bit. Then add the tomato sauce, white wine, and sugar to taste (sometimes I add none, sometimes a whole tablespoon). Simmer for a while (and I am assuming that this whole time you've been cooking the penne in a separate pot of boiling water). Add the Parmesan. Let it melt.

Take half the sauce and mix it with 3/4 the ricotta. Pour that over the al dente penne in a casserole dish. Mix in some mozzarella. Cut in the rest of the ricotta. Top with the rest of the sauce, Parmesan, and mozzarella.

Bake 350 for about 25ish minutes.

If I were really serious about using up some more of my CSA stuff, I would have served this with a salad. But I just got the newsletter from the CSA today that said, along with the fact we owe them more money, the first frost has already come and killed off the cucumbers. I am also assuming the lettuce too, so I marked these deaths by refraining from consuming any fragile greens.

That's just me. Always sensitive to sudden tragedies.

Unidentified Squash




I need help.

A few weeks ago, my CSA delivered the pictured squash. I know I can cook it pretty much like you'd cook any other winter squash, but I'd like to know what it is. I thought it was an acorn squash, but it doesn't look exactly like the acorn squash I see at Henry's. Can anyone identify this mystery squash?

I will send you a rare copy of A Confederacy of Dunces signed by the author if you are the first to name this squash.