In order not to mislead you, I want to make something clear. I’m not giving you diet food just because it’s the beginning of a new year. If the crowds at my gym are any indication, I am the only person in my neighborhood who has not set a weight-loss resolution. I try to eat meals that fulfill my personal definition of healthy throughout the year, and I try to get some physical activity every day (yes, walking to the bar qualifies), so I’m not really changing anything in 2011 in that regard. I mean, look, I got an ice-cream maker for my birthday, and I’m going to use it. In fact, to prove that I’m resolute about this, I recently added pasta to a cream-based dish in order to lighten it up.
But wait! I’m not just going all Italian grandmother on you. I had my reasons. When I saw Deb’s post on Thomas Keller’s creamed onions, I knew that my allium-loving love would be all over them. But, as is often the case for vegetarians, I wanted to figure out how to turn a side dish into a real main dish. I might not like “resolution food,” but I also didn’t want to lap up a dinner-sized bowl of cream. I thought about serving the onions over a grain or a green, but since I knew I’d want some acidity for balance, and I have a bit of a crush on pasta with tomato cream sauce, I went in that direction instead.
This recipe also has the honor of being the first to break in my new Le Creuset French oven—thanks, Mom!
I suppose I could say I finished all my gift-wrapping today. All the gifts I’ve bought are wrapped and stacked neatly in my fireplace, lit by a strand of white lights. There is no danger of Mike peeking into a shopping bag and ruining a surprise. But “finished” isn’t entirely true, since I still have a few last-minute gifts to buy. There will certainly be more wrapping in my future, which I welcome. I find the matching of paper with ribbon, the folding, the creasing to be meditative and relaxing, certainly more so than facing the mobs at the shopping mall.
Despite the fact that I can’t even stop at Target for toilet paper without encountering these mobs, I love the holiday season. Our next-door neighbors have hung two giant candy cane decorations on the trees in front of our house and theirs, and they will always remind me of our first Christmas in our house. We had just bought our first home and moved in December last year. Our street is long and fairly busy, with several blocks of the typical Baltimore row-homes. The sight of those candy canes let us know when to start looking for a parking spot before we knew exactly where our new house was. At least, this is the story I repeat to myself when I think how tacky the candy canes look with the extension cord reaching out to the trees from the neighbor’s bedroom window. (This is the kind of thing that makes people call us “Charm City.”)
I love the gluttonous cooking and baking, drinking and partying that go on this time of year. I love searching for the perfect gifts for my family members and receiving surprises from them in exchange. But really, I love this season because all of this merriment occurs in time for my birthday.
People often ask me if I dislike having my birthday just four days before Christmas. On the contrary: I kind of love it. You know those kids who shared a birthday, and they got to have a joint birthday party? But rather than getting bummed out because they have to share the spotlight, they got to have a birthday that was twice as big, and they realized how lucky they were. Yeah, that’s pretty much how it is for me and the baby Jesus (not to be confused with this baby Jesus).
With so much going on this month, I still haven’t gotten myself back into my cooking routine. Luckily, I’ve discovered a snack that is so much easier to make than I suspected, and I’m kicking myself for being too intimidated by hot oil and jumping kernels to have tried it sooner. I’ve been relying on it a lot lately, and if you get a gift from me this year with a butter stain on the wrapping paper, well, now you’ll know why.
You may have noticed that I lay pretty low during the Thanksgiving madness. Many food bloggers used the holiday as an opportunity to celebrate such enviable events as pie week or to helpfully compile relevant recipes for readers. I, on the other hand, have to confess that I don’t love Thanksgiving. Don’t get me wrong, I’m absolutely in favor of taking note of all that I’m grateful for (this post really rang true to me), and I do love a good excuse to make pie. But other than that, it just feels like too much effort to prepare the required traditional foods in excess of what most families could eat in an entire week.
This year was particularly tough. Mike and I did two consecutive days of Thanksgiving: one with his parents and one with mine. Add to that the CSA withdrawal I’ve been suffering from since our deliveries ended a few weeks ago, the cold my body has barely been keeping at bay, the numerous rainy days, and I just haven’t felt too enthusiastic about cooking lately. Instead, I’ve been lazily reheating leftovers and stocking up on Trader Joe’s packaged essentials.
Meal planning for the week is a lot different in the CSA off-season. Although it was a challenge to use up all the vegetables we would receive every Monday, part of the work was already done for me. I knew what I had to work with, and it was up to me to figure out what to do with it. Without that guidance, I’m feeling a little overwhelmed at having to make all the decisions for myself again. I’m sure I’ll come to embrace this freedom, but for now I’ll share one of the last dishes I made with CSA vegetables.
I’ve enjoyed slicing radishes on top of green salads all summer, but other than that, I was never sure what else to do with them. I should have consulted Bittman sooner. While eating this dish, Mike, who isn’t a fan of raw radishes, said that I “really hid the flavor of the radishes,” which made me scowl, as any cook will understand, but which I think meant that the flavor profile of the cooked radish was more appealing to him than the raw. I have to agree, and had I known that cooking radishes changed them so much, I would surely have done this sooner. In fact, I thought these were so good that while I served them over quinoa and crumbled a bit of goat cheese on top, I would enjoy them on their own the next time I make them, which probably won’t be until the spring. In the meantime, I’m on the hunt for new inspiration.
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I chatted with an old friend recently who told me he’s been reading my blog and noted how happy I seem. Man, there’s nothing like someone telling you that you seem happy to make you consider whether you actually feel that way or not. Happiness has always been a struggle for me, and I can’t recall many times in my life when I’d classify myself as such. After all, my favorite songwriter is Leonard Cohen, and I listen to Sounds of Silence when I’m in a good mood. But that’s not to say my life has been all brooding and misery. I think it’s just in my nature to struggle against wherever it is that I am, to expect more out of whatever it is that I’m doing. Anything else feels like settling.
Perhaps I also have a problem with the word happy. It feels vacant, shallow, like something only mindlessness could allow to exist in a world where this, this, and this occur. It’s a greeting card word. It’s right up there with nice. I don’t want to live a nice, happy life. I’d rather experience fleeting moments of joy, bliss, and ecstasy than a constant state of unevaluated happiness.
Then again, the older I get, the more there is comfort in contentment. With all the challenges that adult responsibilities bring, those existential ups and downs may add a little too much turmoil. My struggle now, it seems, is finding the right balance between settling down and struggling against.
Cooking definitely falls on the side of settling down. Although the kitchen can be a harried place, there is nothing more calming and satisfying to me these days than hearing the click-click-click of gas setting flame under skillet and the brittle scraping off of an onion skin. Autumn, too, is a time for comfort. Sweaters and tea. Boots and red-hued leaves. Soup and bread.
I’ve been making a lot of soups lately, and I always want fresh bread to accompany them. This recipe is easily accomplished, even on a weeknight. Unlike many doughs, there is no struggle here. This is a happy bread, one that doesn’t ask to brood under a kitchen towel or have its mettle tested against a dough hook. It’s as delightful dunked into broth as it is the next morning smeared with jam. I could learn a lot from this bread.
Anyone who knows Mike would probably be shocked to find out that he’s the one who convinced me that we should opt for the full rather than half share when we decided to join a CSA. While the vast majority of my diet is vegetable based, Mike could eat hamburgers and things ending in –wurst every day. His favorite vegetable? Onion. In response to this week’s CSA delivery of arugula, spinach, two kinds of lettuce, radishes, beets, sweet potatoes, cilantro, butternut squash, and a mystery green, Mike sighed, “This is a pretty disappointing week.”
Cooking for the two of us is actually less of a challenge than I thought it would be. Although Mike is what I would call picky, he is also a pretty hungry guy most of the time. Provided I exclude mayonnaise, ketchup, and chickpeas from the ingredients, he’ll usually eat just about whatever I make. But I like people not just to eat what I cook but to enjoy it too, and Mike isn’t fooling anyone, certainly not me, with any feigned enthusiasm. Sometimes, I go out of my way to cook things I know he’ll like. But other times, I admit, convinced that he just thinks he doesn’t like something, I leave out a few details when he asks what I’m making.
Unfortunately, I think he’s totally on to me. I couldn’t get away with calling this a “potato soup” for very long. I reluctantly revealed that it would contain sweet potatoes and the green tops of radishes. I saw the color run from his face. And when he ran to the grocery store to grab me an onion (the only vegetable I didn’t have in the house), he came back with bratwurst too. In the end, though, I think he enjoyed the soup. He ate the leftovers for lunch today, so at the very least he’s getting better at fooling me.