Monday, November 1, 2010

Mais oui! Blogging the Family Cookbook

The summer before my senior year in high school, I had the privilege of living with a French family for three weeks. It was a wonderful experience, and I learned so much that I was dreaming en Francais by time we said our goodbyes. Their home was in Saint Andre des Eaux, a quaint rural town outside Saint Nazaire, a west coast city with a harbor that opened up to the Atlantic Ocean.

The town was straight from my French book, complete with une boulangerie, un boucherie, and other assorted speciality shops. Every night after dinner, I would take advantage of the late sunset and walk a mile along cow pasture-lined country roads with Indigo Girls "Closer to Fine" blasting through the headphones of my Sony walkman (RIP, Sony walkman!) to La Briere, a giant marsh with interconnecting narrow waterways that people would paddle around by boat to look at the native flora and fauna.

I hit it off with my French sister, and my French parents couldn't have been nicer. Dad often wanted to practice his English while Mom didn't speak a word of it. But I considered myself incredibly lucky because every night she would ask me what I wanted for dinner in contrast to some of my American friends, who regaled me with horror stories of the meals that they were forced to eat.

I ate chicken. Every. Single. Night. Of course now I kick myself for blowing such a unique opportunity to try authentic French cooking and learn more about local food. But I was still a very picky eater at the time and clearly did not try to break out of my comfort zone.

There was one recipe that she made that I couldn't get enough of--potage. This thick vegetable soup included pureed potatoes, carrots, onions, leeks, and some other flavorful ingredients that for the life of me, I was never able to replicate. Although I left France with her handwritten recipe tucked in my bag, and my (real) mom and I tried to make it many times, potage never, ever tasted the same again. As the years passed, the ink on that paper literally faded away, and no record exists any more of that recipe.

My mom reminded me of potage the other night when I asked her why she included "Mom's Potato, Fennel, and Leek Soup" in the family recipe book that my sister compiled as a gift for my wedding. Mom had a string of reasons ... that it was getting on to winter and she wanted to include a soup ... that she decided to submit a recipe for every course ... that she had just clipped this recipe from the newspaper ... and then as an afterthought, that it reminded her of potage.


While I hadn't thought about potage in years and our disappointing failure in trying to recreate the recipe, I do love to make soup now. In fact our most used wedding gift so far is a 12-quart soup pot, which is great to use (but a giant PITA to clean).

So it works that I had unwittingly chosen this as the first recipe to make from the family cookbook when I decided to blog my way through it. While this recipe is no potage, it's easy to make and turns out a nice hearty soup on a cold winter's night.

Mom's Potato, Fennel and Leek Soup

2 leeks, light green and white parts only, thinly sliced
2 T unsalted butter
1 T olive oil
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
1/2 bulb fresh fennel, trimmed and chopped (about 3/4 cup)
3 baking potatoes, about 1 1/2 pounds, peeled and cut into chunks
1/2 t dried thyme
2 T chopped parsley
1 bay leaf
4 1/2 cups chicken broth
salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

In a soup kettle, cook the leeks slowly in the butter and oil for 5 minutes. Add the carrot and fennel; cook 5 more minutes. Stir in the potato chunks, thyme, parsley and bay leaf. Add the broth, bring to a boil, then cover and simmer for 25-30 minutes, or until the potatoes are completely tender. Discard the bay leaf. Crush about a third of the veggies with a potato masher (we skipped this step and opted for chunky veggies). Season with salt and pepper. Serve piping hot.

Serves 5

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Special Gifts

It's a funny thing, but Ryan and I struggled to put together a gift registry for our wedding. We felt torn between "we're older and we already have everything we need" to "well, we could replace a few things" to "let's go a little non-traditional and get some fun stuff."

We also had different ideas of what we wanted, and there was some discomfort with registering at one of those places, you know the ones, that have simplified the gift giving process to credit card information and a single click.

Where is the humanity in that?

We ended up for the most part with a list that reflected both of our tastes and desires -- a somewhat eclectic but meaningful set of items that ranged from essential and quirky kitchenwares to our favorite Illinois wine to a respected charity to the most random thing Ryan has ever found online (and that's saying a lot) -- but we still didn't quite provide enough items for our guests to buy for us. We also listed some gifts on a site that is not one-click-and-you're-done, but may require a little more legwork depending on what it is.

This led to some phone calls, "There isn't much left on your registry, what should I tell so-and-so to get you" and "Maybe you should put more on there."

Cue even more angst and guilt about planning this wedding.

The push-pull of planning a wedding that doesn't entirely conform to the traditional American wedding (or the Wedding Industrial Complex (WIC) as one of the few sane wedding bloggers out there calls it) was one of the biggest challenges for me.

There is, on one hand, a strong desire for the wedding to reflect us. After all, "it's all about you" and "it's your day" is drummed into every bride's head from the second she gets engaged if not earlier. But if you don't do things "the way it's supposed to be done", then you've got some 'splaining to do!

I understand the idea that wedding gifts are supposed to help a bride and groom create a home, that our invited guests love us and want to give us gifts that we want, and that we risk getting the dreaded "off list" items that we don't want. I also realize how ungrateful I probably sound right now. I mean, who complains about getting presents? Especially when people want to give them to you. But I wanted to feel authentic about our gifts, about every aspect of our wedding, and the act of registering ran somewhat counter to that.

But when the months of preparations finally culminated into the wedding weekend, I got the gifts I was looking for -- to have our family and friends with us to witness our marriage and, in many cases, to meet each other, making the world around us become that much more tightly woven and interconnected.

Our wedding was full of so many special gifts, some intangible, others creative, personal, and surprising. These were some of my favorites.

-- Serving chilled instead of hot apple cider before our outdoor ceremony because of the 80 degree weather. In early October, it was warm enough for our guests to be comfortable in the outdoor spaces at our venue, which positively gleamed with autumn colors.

-- The gentle breeze that lifted up the top of our huppah. This had stymied us the night before, when we were up until 1:30am figuring out how to attach the tulle covering to our handmade wooden kayak paddles without the material dipping low in the middle.

-- If we could get frequent flier miles for the distance that many friends and family flew to witness us exchange vows in person, we could have flown anywhere for free.

-- Watching the seating chart come to life. My sister and I joked about how I wanted to sit in the corner, as far away from the center of attention as possible. But I really wanted to watch the room during dinner, to see our guests get to know each other over a delicious meal inspired by the fall harvest (and damn, it was good!).

-- Seeing the line for pie snake around the entire room with hardly any leftovers at the end of the night.

-- Leaving with empty centerpieces, which had been filled with hundreds of apples picked by me, my mom, my sister, and my mother-in-law earlier in the week. We had provided bags for each guest to take some home.

-- Receiving a trove of recipes from family and friends, bound into a hardcover book with photos that sparked memories of hilarious moments, family outings, and long-gone-but-not-forgotten loved ones (thanks to my crafty and persistent sister). This book is the perfect way to illustrate two families joining together, now connected through Ryan and me.

Since this is a blog that focuses on food and home cooking, we are going to blog our way through that book. What better way to get to know each other's worlds than through recipes and the stories behind them.

That is priceless.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Saturday, September 25, 2010

New Challenge

Hello, friends.

My imminent wedding has derailed the 1-2 Challenge in a big way. The new challenge is to make it through the next two weeks with my sanity intact.

See you in a few weeks!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

1-2 Challenge: Watermelon (sort of)

I have a confession.

I bought this watermelon more than two weeks ago at the Andersonville Farmer's Market with every intention of turning it into last week's 1-2 Challenge.

It sat on my kitchen table as I diligently researched recipes. Nights passed until finally Ryan asked if we could just eat it already. I flinched with failure, but agreed.

He sliced it down the middle, revealing juicy red flesh that squirted and dripped all over as we devoured it. Eating watermelon was such a refreshing way to cap off a humid evening.

The next time I went to the grocery store, I bought two more watermelons, intending to use them in the challenge, which I had shamefully failed to meet after more than two weeks passed without a single blog post. That's why it's called a challenge, right?

But as I thought about it, I realized that I had found a way to eat watermelon -- in its simplest form. Too often, I struggle with what to do with fruits and vegetables when they often taste best just as they are. Especially now as farmer's markets overflow with bounteous produce.

A few nights ago, I finally used watermelon in a gazpacho recipe that I posted about last summer. The watermelon adds a creamy texture to the blend of tomatoes, red pepper, cucumber, and red onion. You can see the recipe here.

As I chopped vegetables, Ryan sliced the melon. He reserved a quarter of it for the food processor and ate the rest.

In my mind, that is a perfectly legitimate "recipe". We should enjoy the natural flavors and textures of the harvest -- at least while we can.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

1-2 Challenge: Corn

When I saw the giant barrel full of corn at the Northcenter Farmer's Market on Saturday, I knew this was my ingredient for this week's 1-2 Challenge - my weekly effort to make one item two ways.

I typically eat corn on the cob with just a swipe of butter. So sweet and easy. Just shuck, boil, eat, and floss.

I scooped up six ears, wondering what else I could make while staying true to my mantra: keep it simple, especially in the summer when fresh picked produce tastes so good.

At home more than dozen tomatoes dangled off the Topsy Turvy, ready for picking. Whatever recipe I would make had to include those. That's why this simple fresh corn salad recipe was simple and perfect.

I had all the ingredients on hand. Corn, boiled and cut off the cob, mixed with halved tomatoes, fresh basil, chopped red onion, and a blend of red wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar, and evoo.

For the second recipe, I wanted to put a twist on the traditional corn on the cob with butter. Lucky for me, another Chicagoan over at The Kitchen Sink Recipes blog had the same idea. I followed her directions for smoked paprika butter, a simple recipe that calls for paprika, minced garlic, and salt mixed into a stick of butter.

The scent of smoky garlicky butter filled my kitchen. But before I tried this new concoction, I took a moment to admire the colors. I love the rainbow of summer fruits and vegetables almost as much as I love the flavors.

The corn looked like gold.

Then the butter, a pale coral with flecks of red.

All in all, an easy way to spice up an old favorite, even though I still had to floss afterwards!

Fresh Corn Salad (adapted from Cora's recipe at The Tasty Kitchen)

2 ears of corn
12 grape tomatoes, halved
1/3 of a red onion, chopped
7 leaves of fresh basil
1 T red wine vinegar
1 T strawberry vinegar (all we had)
5 T evoo
salt and pepper to taste

Boil corn for 5-7 minutes, then soak in cold water. Cut corn off the cob and mix tomatoes, onion, basil. Mix vinegars and evoo separately, then add to mixture. Add salt and pepper to taste.

+ When I make this again, and I will make this again, I will cut the vinegars and olive oil in half. The salad only needed a light coating. +

Smoked Paprika Butter (adapted from The Kitchen Sink Recipes)

1/2 stick of unsalted butter, softened
1 t papricka
2 cloves garlic, minced
salt, to taste

Just mix! Then, I scooped the mixture back into the wax paper from the butter, rolled it up, and put back in the refrigerator.

Monday, August 9, 2010

1-2 Challenge: Golden Zucchini

My friend Rachel, a Seattlite with the most gorgeous backyard garden, once joked that you can't drive around with your windows open during the summer or someone will throw a zucchini through it.

There's no doubt that zucchini gets a bad rap, both for its prolific nature and lack of flavor. But I have a soft spot for the squash.

When I was breaking out of the carrots-and-apples-only era of my childhood, zucchini was among the first veggies that I embraced--typically sauteed in olive oil and garlic with red peppers and a splash of balsamic vinegar over pasta. The blandness attracted me, and I have since come to appreciate zucchini's versatility whether on the grill, in a saute pan, or in the oven.

As an homage to this longtime staple of my diet and because I thought these yellow beauties popped at the farmer's market on Saturday, I selected golden zucchini for my first test in the 1-2 Challenge (which, you may recall, is a personal challenge that I created for myself to pick one item from a farmer's market each week and prepare it two ways).

The other reason is that I have been craving zucchini bread since Ryan bought a loaf of fresh banana bread during a recent long weekend trip. Since we had a slight break in the weather over the weekend, I ventured to bake in the oven, which has gone untouched during this hot and sticky summer.

Zucchini bread calls for a counter full of ingredients and makes a bit of a mess (although it was totally worth it - moist with a little crunch from the walnuts). So for my second recipe, I was looking for something more low-maintenance. I found this easy side dish from Good Housekeeping. Zucchini ribbons with mint works well as a side to pasta, chicken, or fish.

In all my years of making zucchini, I have never peeled lengthwise with a vegetable peeler. I have always either grated or sliced into thin discs or half moons. But I found this method showcases the color, and the mint brought out a nice, subtle flavor.

I feel like I rediscovered zucchini this week, but in the interest of bringing more vegetables back into my diet, I am keeping my windows closed.

Zucchini Bread (adapted from

3 eggs
1/4 cup vegetable oil
3/4 cup applesauce
+the original recipe called for 1 cup of oil, but I subbed most for applesauce+
2 cups white sugar
2 grated zucchinis
2 t vanilla extract
3 cups flour
3 t ground cinnamon
1 t baking soda
1/4 t baking powder
1 t salt
1/2 cup chopped almonds

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease two 8X4 inch loaf pans. In a large bowl, beat eggs, mix in oil and sugar, stir in zucchini and vanilla extract. Combine flour, cinnamon, baking soda, baking powder, salt and nuts, and stir into egg mixture. Divide batter into loaf pans and bake 60-70 minutes or until done
+my first loaf took 60 minutes; the second loaf, which had about 1/4 less batter, took only 53 minutes and it was perfect+

Zucchini Ribbons with Mint (adapted from Good Housekeeping)

2 medium zucchini
2 T olive oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 t salt
2 T chopped fresh mint

Trim ends of zucchini and peel lengthwise into ribbons. In a skillet, heat olive oil and add garlic. Cook until golden and then discard from the pan. Add zucchini and salt and cook for about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in mint.
+If I make this recipe again, I will either mince the garlic and cook with the zucchini or use garlic-infused olive oil. The flavor of the garlic didn't come through.+

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Announcing the 1-2 Challenge

Last week, I mentioned that I would tell you about a new blog project. I'm happy to report that it is now underway!

It's called the 1-2 Challenge, and here's why:

What is the 1-2 Challenge?

It's simple: 1 ingredient, 2 ways.

This is a personal challenge that I have created to get myself to the farmer's market on a regular basis and back in my kitchen making food with locally grown produce. I will feature one item from the farmer's market each week and make two recipes out of it.

That doesn't sound very hard. Why are you doing this?

After two years of subscribing to a CSA, I decided not to sign up for one this summer expecting to buy most of my produce at local farmer's markets. But without the bi-weekly ritual of picking up my box of produce and deciding what to make or risk food rotting before my eyes, my plan hasn't gone as well as hoped. My excuses are just that: the heat, wedding planning, some late nights at work, and a little laziness to boot. Like many of you out there probably experience too, life gets in the way of cooking sometimes.

Plus, there is only so much I can say about my Topsy Turvy tomato plant, which I have posted about half a dozen times this summer.

It's doing well. The end.

Are you only going to buy one thing at the farmer's market each week?

No way, and I might incorporate other farmer's market items in the recipes too. But for now, I am only going to commit to blogging about one ingredient a week.

If I find that I am more than up to the challenge, I might adjust the formula to 1-3, 2-2, or 2-3. Really, the possibilities are endless.

How will I know if you follow through?

Check my progress right here or follow me on Twitter @woodentableblog!

Are the white peaches pictured above your first ingredient?


I bought these peaches at the farmer's market yesterday, and they are sweet and mild. I loved their fuzzy texture, and the small donut shape makes eating a cinch. I can actually bite into them without peach juice dribbling down my chin. I wanted to give a shout out with a photo, but I selected a different item to feature this week, and my kitchen is a lovely mess from cooking today!

So check back Wednesday to find out what it is and what I made.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


I realize that I have obsessively posted about my tomato plant all summer long.

It has done better than I expected, but really, we've probably popped less than 10 of these in our mouths. And they've ripened just one or two at a time. Tonight, we finally had the harvest we've been waiting for (pictured here, before they went into the blender and became gazpacho).

In honor of our tomato bounty, I am going to lay this obsession to rest and start anew. Be sure to check back in a few days for an announcement about my next project!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Hello, Herbs!

The tomatoes have certainly gotten a lot of attention on the blog lately, so I want to give a shout out to the other plants that are thriving out back.

When I used to receive herbs in my CSA boxes, dried or otherwise, I often put them in the pantry only to forget they were there. They were like the black sheep of each delivery, as I focused more on eating the veggies first and rarely planned meals that used the herbs in tandem.

All that changed when I decided to pick up some fresh herbs for the grand grow-food-on-the-back-deck experiment this summer. With visions of pesto dancing in my head, I purchased a basil plant.

Admittedly, I haven't made pesto yet. But I did make this: vegan tahini basil pasta salad. If you like simple pasta salads, you should make it too. Colorful and light, it's the perfect dish to bring to a picnic.

Sage came next. One of my favorite recipes to make is pasta with butternut squash and sage. Since this is more of a fall dish, I was interested to see what summer recipes I could pull off with it.

I found it a little trickier to find summer recipes with sage that I wanted to make, but I settled on this simple side dish, beans, tomatoes, and herbs, to go along with a sauteed chicken breast. Since I used canned instead of dried beans, it was quick and easy, and works any time of year, I think.

Now, with these herbs growing out back, needing my care, I no longer ignore them. I often incorporate these flavors into meal planning. Sometimes I even glance out the window as I think about how one or both might taste in this recipe or that.

What I find so interesting is how the grand grow-food-on-the-back-deck experiment has not only proven that I can grow food back there, but it has impacted what I decide to make. Flipping the "out of sight, out of mind" expression on its head makes me wonder what else I would eat more of if only it was growing on my back deck.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Great Expectations

Not to sound like an ad for Topsy Turvy, but the growth of our tomato plant has exceeded my expectations. We actually harvested one a few nights ago. The skin was starting to split so I plucked it off. Ryan and I shared it, and it was delicious.

Some of the others are almost ripe with two tomato clusters growing as I type. We've noticed a lot of blossoms too, which means more fruit is on the way.

The yields are quite small, and maybe we won't get enough for more than a salad, but I love the fact that I can grow food on my little deck. It's not as hopeless as I thought.

Saturday, June 5, 2010


Food is a big inspiration for my photography, but probably the biggest of all is Karl. He likes to hang out in the living room, which gets southern exposure and the best light.

I often keep my camera on the coffee table for easy access when he looks especially cute.

For some reason, his left ear does not always make it into the photo.

Or his right one, in this case. Guess I will need to work on that.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Five Little 'Toes

Okay, I admit it. The photos that I posted yesterday of our Topsy Turvy tomato plant--I took them about a week ago.

Four new tomatoes have sprouted since then.


This is getting exciting.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Down and Out

My back deck has always been, shall we say, a little inhospitable to growing vegetables.

Anything that needs full sun will not find it there. Partial sun, yes. Shade, there's plenty. But sunbeams that cast a warm glow all day long, not happening.

Lately this has made me sad. Joining the CSA made me realize how good fresh-harvested veggies taste, and I have begun to wish that I had some green space to grow my own. Container gardening is popular in the city, but without much sunlight, I have always thought it would be a futile effort.

Well a few weeks ago, Ryan came home with Topsy Turvy (As Seen On TV!), a long hanging container that grows tomato plants upside down. Dubbed a new gardening trend by the New York Times, there are several purported benefits of growing tomatoes this way: less pests, fewer weeds, easier watering system, to name a few.

I admit, I was skeptical. First of all, he bought it at a 7-Eleven. Now I don't know a whole lot about gardening, but I know enough that 7-Eleven isn't typically the place to go to buy such supplies.

The thing looked pretty tacky, too, with it's shiny, plastic-like material, leafy pattern, and green plastic scalloped-edged lid with a hole in the middle for watering.

But after reading the Times article and taking my annual early-summer visit to the local plant and garden center--where I gamely select marigolds and the like for container boxes that hang over the side into enough sunlight to keep them perky for most of the summer--I decided to throw caution to the wind. I tucked in a sun gold tomato plant with my flowers and feeling uber impetuous, grabbed basil and sage plants too.

Aided by the sunnier space between the railing and roof of my deck and the nutrient rich worm compost that Ryan has managed throughout the winter, I think the tomatoes might have a fighting chance.

We put the plant through the hole at the bottom and used a circle of styrofoam with a slit cut to the center to secure it in place. Then we carefully scooped a few inches of potting soil around the plant, added a few inches of compost, and topped off with more soil.

I am supposed to water daily. Within a few weeks, I think I'll be able to tell whether I can add cherry tomatoes into my salads. Stay tuned.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Sleeper Hit

Every so often, a recipe comes along that causes us to pause and say damn, that was so good and easy. Why haven't we made this before?

And then it effortlessly slides into the recipe rotation like it has been there all along.

Ryan recently discovered one such recipe, Spicy Orange Salad, Moroccan Style, that was featured in the New York Times Magazine a few weeks ago.

Seriously people. This is so easy to make, it's ridiculous. The flavors are so surprisingly different. Who knew oranges and olives went together so well?

The most time-consuming part is peeling off the pulp. But once that's done, just combine with a mixture of olive oil, vinegar, spices, olives, and it's ready to go. No oven needed, no refrigerator necessary (but fine, if you want to serve chilled).

Ryan has made it on two separate occasions and garnered at least three requests for the recipe. So in case you wanted to ask, here it is.

Spicy Orange Salad, Moroccan Style (from the New York Times)

3 large seedless oranges (clementines work well)
1/8 t cayenne
1 t paprika
1/2 t garlic
3 T olive oil
1 T red-wine or sherry vinegar
Freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup chopped parsley
12 pitted black olives

Peel the oranges and the pulp. Cut each orange into 8 wedges. Cut each wedge into 1-inch pieces. Set aside. Mix cayenne, paprika, olive oil, garlic, and vinegar into a bowl. Add salt and pepper to taste and whisk. Add oranges, parsley, and olives. Toss. Serve cold or at room temperature.

Serves 4.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Adventures at the Chicago French Market

On day 3 of my new job, I finally ventured into Chicago French Market - the new French-style indoor market located just steps from all of the Metra trains in Ogilvie Transportation Center.

Despite the florescent lighting and windowless, boxy space, it is nothing like a traditional food shopping experience.

Booths of fresh produce, ethnic delicacies, handmade pasta and breads, and a variety of artisan cheese, meat, and pastries stand ready for harried commuters to dash in and out moments later with enough ingredients to make whatever meal is envisioned for the evening.

Or so I thought.

I got there in plenty of time to wander around and look for items for this recipe - Feisty Green Beans from 101 Cookbooks. I was immediately drawn to this dish for its central use of green beans, one of my favorite veggies, and combination of spices.

I set out to find all of the ingredients that I needed to buy. Onions, garlic, green beans, and sour cream were easy. We had virtually everything else in the pantry except tofu, which was no where to be found.

I asked the cashier at the produce stand and she shook her head. I browsed the shelves of another small grocer. Nada. I did an entire loop around the market, and saw nothing that resembled tofu. I was starting to think that I would substitute chicken, when the guy behind the counter at Chicago Organics caught my eye.

"Can I help you?" he asked, eager to please.

"I'm looking for tofu. You don't have any by chance," I said, with hope.

He paused in thought, shook his head, and then said the words I dreaded to hear.

"No. I don't think anyone sells tofu here."

But then, then...

He reconsidered.

"But you might try asking at the Asian sandwich shop over there," he said, nodding to Saigon Sisters across the aisle. "Just ask, they might have some to sell to you. You never know."

I had nothing to lose.

I approached.

"Do you happen to have any uncooked tofu," I asked the smiling woman. "I need it for a recipe and can't find any."

She disappeared in the storage room, emerging a few minutes later with a vacuum-sealed package of fried tofu. Not uncooked, but good enough for me.

"I'll sell it to you for $2.50," she said. "And do you want some bread?" she gestured to a bowl of mini-baguettes. "You can have it for free."

I paid, took a loaf, and went off in search of cheese.

I barely made my train.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Change Is Good

Have you ever had the experience of just sailing along, living your life, going through your daily routines, when all of a sudden a bunch of changes hit you like the proverbial ton of bricks? That's a little what life has been like for me recently.

All of a sudden, I am planning a wedding to the man who makes me happier than a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top of a warm brownie.

I am starting a new job that will give me back an hour of my life each day thanks to a better commute.

And after two summers and two winters of CSA deliveries, I have decided not to sign up again.

Shocking, I know. When I first started, I didn't know a turnip from a rutabega, a leaf of kale from a mustard green, or an acorn from a butternut squash. My CSA experience changed that. Now I not only know what they look like, but what they taste like and most importantly, what I like.

Joining a CSA forces you to cook and eat what is given to you. I credit this for making me more comfortable in the kitchen and expanding my palate. But after two cycles I feel that I have graduated, in a way.

This summer, I plan to shop more at farmer's markets. Plus my new job will give me greater flexibility to get ingredients each day for whatever I want to make for dinner that night. I've learned that I prefer buying food on an as-needed basis rather than going to the store once a week, loading up the shopping cart, and trying to use up all the produce before it spoils.

I have noticed an evolution in the blog anyway - away from posts about my kitchen foibles as I learn how to make something or my surprise at discovering a new fruit or vegetable and toward more confident prose about cooking and a desire to share stories about my encounters with food.

So that's the plan. Of course, change is a little scary. But necessary to grow, I think. Here I go.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Outside the Box

I usually have a Passover seder with my family (with the exception of two years ago when we had a rather unusual seder in Mexico). But this year, due to a variety of reasons, we were on our own.

I can't say that we had an actual seder (although we briefly considered downloading this). We ate many of the traditional foods, however the meal didn't quite come together without a hitch.

A lot of the food, I must admit, came from a box, including matzos, macaroons, and matzo ball soup. While this isn't the worst thing in the world, we had some minor mishaps too. As the eggs hard boiled, several cracked in the roiling water causing poofy whiteness to burst out of the shell. No big deal. The chicken burned too, just a little.

But the one item that I feel like I truly made from scratch and turned out to be the best part of the meal, I thought, was charoset. This is a sweet mix of apples, honey, cinnamon, nuts, and wine. Despite how good it tastes, scooped on a piece of matzo, charoset has a somewhat darker meaning. It symbolizes the mortar that the Jews used while they were slaves in Egypt.

I followed my mom's recipe, only she had no measurements, just ingredients. Keep mixing them together until it tastes right, she said. So that's what I did.

Mom's Charoset Recipe

Chop apples and walnuts* in the food processor.
Add cinnamon, honey, sweet red wine**, and golden raisins to taste.

*We used almonds
**We used white riesling

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

How to Get Over Jet Lag

Our flight landed at Heathrow Airport at about 8 a.m. Anyone who has ever flown overnight from the U.S. to Europe knows how brutal that can be. Breakfast is served about an hour before landing, which is really the middle of the night. But outside, the sun is coming up. And so begins a seemingly endless day of avoiding sleep and staying up as late as possible.

The secret, as I learned, was to stay active and eat a lot.

We arrived at Ali and Dan's place about mid-morning. Ali already had the entire day planned for us. We'd walk about 40 minutes from their place in Islington to experience one of her favorite pastimes since moving to London almost two years earlier - the Borough Market.

By the time we arrived, it was packed with people who were inching their way from stall to stall, snacking on the wide array of foodstuffs, and trying to avoid the crush of people.

This did not deter us.

We grazed on a bulgur salad.

I discovered my latest addiction here - salty and smoked almonds.

We browsed through fresh produce (we'd go on to eat a lot of potato and leek soup later on in Wales).

We wondered what ostrich tasted like.

And gawked back at this guy.

We watched this guy scrape cheese to make the Swiss/French/German dish raclette (a toasted cheese sandwich)

Then we ate raclette.

And drank some of this.

The next morning, we were good as new.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Soup of the Day

When I was little and hated all vegetables except for carrots and green beans, I still had to eat the occasional spoonful of peas. The stakes were high, but the thought of biting into those little balls of green mush filled me with dread. So I did what any child would do when dessert was on the line.

I swallowed them whole.

That's pretty much the last thing I remember about eating peas until adulthood, when I discovered the error of my ways. Now I freely eat snow peas, snap peas, even those once detested green peas. I actually chew them too.

In fact my love of peas grew even more during our recent trip to the UK. It was late afternoon, and we had just arrived in the coastal town of Fishguard in Wales after about five days in London with our friends Ali and Dan. We were strolling down a narrow sidewalk when we happened upon a little cafe. Feeling hungry from our long day's journey, we popped in for a bite.

The soup of the day was written on a chalkboard behind the counter. Pea and mint. That's all it said. Pea and mint. For some reason, that combination enticed me. The earthy, almost nutty, taste of the peas mixed with the fresh blast of mint. Two foods with intense flavors came together in the most subtle way. I was hooked.

Surprising to us, this delicious bowl of soup typified how we found the food in Wales. We had not expected much more than fish and chips, but every menu advertised the use of local and organic ingredients, often with vegetarian and vegan options. Sure I had my fill of chips, but we ate much better than I thought, which served us well as we walked for miles up and down the windswept Pembrokeshire Coast.

Pea and Mint Soup (adapted from

Knob of butter
1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion
4 cups water
2 cups split peas (next time, I'm going to try fresh or frozen)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
A bunch of mint, leaves only, roughly chopped
4 tbsp low-fat yogurt, to serve

Melt the butter with the oil in a large saucepan over a medium heat. Add the onion, season with salt and pepper, cover and sweat very gently for 15 minutes or until completely soft.

Add the stock and bring to a gentle simmer, then add the peas and simmer for 10 minutes until the peas are soft. (*Since we used dry split peas, we let them simmer for about 25 minutes until soft.) Remove from the heat, add the chopped mint, and purée. Push through a sieve if you want a very smooth finish. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve in small bowls, hot or chilled, garnished with a swirl of cream or yogurt, a sprig of mint and lots of black pepper. Serve with pumpernickel bread.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Ups and Downs

This was the photo I planned to post weeks ago, shortly after Christmas when Ryan made stock from the turkey carcass.

My kitchen did not look this clean and orderly, I assure you.

In fact, I was going to show more of the meat tearing, bean soaking, and carrot peeling - more of the mess, really - because I had the rare luxury of photographing food during daylight and documented the entire process from soup to nuts. Or bones to soup, in this case.

But somewhere in between taking these pictures and writing a blog post, Ryan asked me to marry him, and my focus vanished. We celebrated with dinners in restaurants and a trip out of town, and suddenly I found myself on the outs with my kitchen.

And then, as we coasted on the outpouring of love and plans and happiness, it became painfully clear that I needed to see my grandfather, whose fragile health had just become more so.

The family gathered by his bedside, and we kissed him and held his hand, but nothing that we did could save him.

A few days before he passed, I wandered into the orange grove next to his house to contemplate. It was a familiar place to me, where I had spent many school vacations throughout my childhood.

The oranges dangled patiently off the branches, waiting to be picked and eaten, as they had for years and years. There, the oranges reminded me that life goes on and even during dark days, that life is still sweet.


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