Post 42 – There’s More to Life Than Food

Happy Friday. I hope you get to relax this Labor Day weekend. I’m hoping to bake up some nice peach cobbler, maybe see friends, and go blueberry picking with Sam. The cats are hoping to take it easy.

Lewis the cat

Lewis the cat

Magellan wants to relax in the sink.

Magellan in the sink.

Have I told you that I have GERD, also known as acid reflux?

It’s kind of embarrassing and I just developed it in the past year so I don’t talk about it much, but I mention it now because it has literally caused me a lot of pain this past week. Everything, everything has been setting off my symptoms and my “Erin Eating Everything” philosophy has turned into Erin eating a very limited diet in small portions and not too late at night.

Sigh.

As much as I love to eat, I am starting to develop a new motto –

There’s more to life than food.

When you work with food, it’s hard not to spend all your time thinking about it and planning for it, but I need to keep reminding myself there are other ways to entertain oneself other than eating or spending time in the kitchen. The problem is the kitchen is the place where I am at home, where I am my best self. My mind is focused, my hands are working, and the rhythm is right.

More than that, being in the kitchen stimulates all the senses. My eyes absorb the natural beauty of colorful foods and dishes.

Purple potatoes

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Orange carrots

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Red onions (in this case pickled)

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A colorful medley of vegetables

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My nose knows by the aromas that waft from the pans when to turn the heat down and when to turn it up. My ears listen for the bubble of the boiling pot, the sizzle of melting cheese or onions hitting the hot oil. My hands are touching all the time, squeezing for freshness or firmness or doneness. My taste buds, of course, get the final say.

Yet I keep trying to tell myself –

There’s more to life than food.

One of my favorite quotes on this topic comes from food writer M.F.K. Fisher:

“People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking? Why don’t you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way others do? […] The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry. But there is more than that. It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it… and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied…and it is all one.”

When I write about food, I write about more than just food. I write about gratitude, triumph, sadness, and the amazing people that make up this world, but somehow it always comes back to food.
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Post 41 – Transitions

The sun rises and sets earlier now I’ve begun to notice. Now when I wake up at 6:00 am the sky hangs dark and seemingly cloudy, instead of the summer sun telling me I’ve slept too long. Then in the evening when Sam and I sit down for dinner too late, we have to turn the light on instead of relying on the lingering sunlight to illuminate our table. I know, it’s all part of the transition from summer to fall and onward, but I hate transitions. They’re rough.

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Transformation, on the other hand, is beautiful. Taking flour and flavor and frying it into little puffs that are soft and fragrant makes me grateful that things can change. Ingredients can change if nothing

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I had to go back to work today after a whole week off last week (I know, wah wah wah) and suddenly the transition from summer mode to work mode is making me itch. I did “work” this summer, but the job definitely felt more seasonal because it was a short stint and the weather and constant guests stopping in kept me happy. It’ll be fine. I’ll be fine. After getting past the transition and into the new routine nothing is ever really that bad, but it’s the in between that gets uncomfortable.

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When it comes to making transitions easier, familiar foods can help. Or you can just buck up and accept that things are changing and try a new recipe for goodness sake! That’s the approach we’re taking here – do one thing every day that scares you! Remember that?

So a few weeks back I teased you with some pictures of a sausage stuffed zucchini without sharing the recipe. So here’s the scoop: kitchensurfing is doing a special Boston restaurant week menu where people pay a fixed price for a three-course meal that a chef offers, and I am offering this beautiful sausage, onion, and red pepper stuffed zucchini with goat cheese as my main event. Assuming none of you are going to go giving away my secrets, I’ll share the recipe with you here. But please don’t tell! Trust is the word.

I also FINALLY used the chickpea flour (after enjoying experimenting on gluten free chocolate chip cookies and gluten free cornbread – both highly successful) for a panisse­-like recipe: chickpea fritters. These babies are gluten-free, tasty little nuggets flavored with cumin and coriander and pumped up with fresh scallions. They are kind of falafel-like except smoother and softer. Serve them as an appetizer just as they are, with a homemade yogurt dip, or tzatziki sauce.

Sausage-Stuffed Zucchini

4 medium zucchini, the fatter the better

1 lb. Italian sausage or ground beef*

½ of a medium yellow onion, diced

½ of a red bell pepper, diced

4 oz. plain or herbed goat cheese**

In a large saute pan, heat a tablespoon of canola oil over medium-high heat. Add onions and pepper and saute for about 5 minutes or until they begin to soften and brown slightly. Add sausage or beef, breaking it into bite-sized pieces as you brown the meat.

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Meanwhile prepare the zucchini. Wash the zucchini and remove any blemishes with a vegetable peeler. Cut the zucchini in half length-wise and using a spoon or vegetable peeler, gently scrape out the inside seeds and pulp so that you have a little zucchini boat. Lightly spray a casserole pan or deep baking sheet and arrange zucchini in the pan, skin side down.

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When the meat and vegetable mixture is done cooking, distribute the filling evenly between the zucchini halves by spooning it. Cover the pan with foil and bake at 400 degrees for about 30-40 or until zucchini are soft. Remove the pan and the foil and crumble the goat cheese over the zucchini, allowing it to melt. Serve hot.

Using ground beef

Using ground beef

Using Italian sausage

Using Italian sausage

*If you use ground beef instead use 85% lean and be sure to salt each layer, adding about 1/2 tsp in total to start (and then season according to your taste). I also added 1 T. fennel seeds to give it that sausage flavor. I found the sausage was salty enough without adding any extra salt. Don’t drain the fat from the beef as I feel there wasn’t much of it and it added some flavor and moisture.

**I added fresh chopped rosemary and basil to spruce up my plain goat cheese the second round.

For the chickpea fritter recipe, I followed Joanne’s at Fifteen Spatulas, leaving out the onion, curry, and garlic powders and adding about 3 chopped scallions. I used canola oil and just a little bit in non-stick pan to fry them.

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Post 40 – The Bacon Exception

I have a friend who doesn’t eat pork, well except bacon. In fact if I recall when my sister was temporarily vegetarian she ate bacon one time either because she “forgot” or because somehow bacon was an exception to the no meat rule. What is it about bacon that puts it in its own category?

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I don’t have the answer. Let’s think on that one for next time.

By the way, no I’m not having apple juice with my bacon. That’s BACON FAT!

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Anyway, bacon.

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Bacon has become a big deal lately, showing up in all sorts of places and starring in its own festivals. In fact my sister and her husband attended Bacon Fest in Dayton, Ohio this last weekend and waited in line with hoards of other people for unusual treats like chocolate-covered bacon, bacon and watermelon skewers, bacon-wrapped hot dogs, and bacon cheesecake. As she told me about said festival, I couldn’t resist the urge to whip up a bacon cheesecake of my own. However, I have to say the bacon cheesecake my sister ate sounded pretty weak as far as bacon things go. There was no actual bacon in the cheesecake, according to her description, just bacon and chocolate draped on top. I mean to me if you’re going to call it bacon cheesecake, you better be putting bacon in that thing. So that’s what I did.

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This is what happens when I have a week off.

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So here’s the recipe that I made up, loosely based on my favorite cheesecake recipe. The best part is using the bacon fat to add extra bacon oomph. I’m sure they would be delicious with melted chocolate on top or mini chocolate chips sprinkled (or melted and swirled) throughout. In fact I meant to put some maple syrup in them and then totally didn’t so I drizzled some on top to make up for it. Anyway, go to town. Bacon town.

Mini Bacon Cheesecakes

Makes 1 dozen

Crust

½ cup graham cracker crumbs (from about 3 full crackers)

2 tsp. brown sugar

2 T. bacon drippings

Filling

1 8-oz package cream cheese, room temperature

2 T. sour cream or full fat plain yogurt, room temperature

1/3 cup granulated sugar

1 T. bacon drippings, cooled

1 egg, room temperature

¼ tsp. lemon zest (optional)

½ cup cooked bacon, crumbled into bite-sized pieces (from about 4 oz. raw bacon)

2 tsp. all purpose flour

Cook the bacon in a skillet over medium high heat, draining and reserving the fat for later. Let cool on a paper-towel lined plate.

For the crust, crush the graham crackers or pulse in a food processor. Stir in brown sugar and bacon drippings, adding more if needed to reach the proper consistency. Line a regular muffin tins with muffin cups and spray lightly with oil. Divide crust between muffin liners, a little less than 1 tablespoon each, and press down gently with fingers. Put tin in the freezer or fridge while you prep the filling.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

For the filling beat the cream cheese, yogurt and sugar on medium speed until smooth. Add egg and bacon fat and mix in, scraping the bowl when necessary. Stir in the lemon zest. In a separate small bowl toss the crumbled bacon with the flour to lightly coat and then stir the bacon into the cream cheese mixture.

Remove the muffin tin and divide the cream cheese mixture between the cups, using less than ¼ cup per mini cheesecake. The tins will only be about 2/3 full. Bake for 13-15 minutes or until slightly jiggly and lightly golden. Remove and cool fully before refrigerating. Serve cold to your vegetarian or Jewish friends, drizzled with maple syrup (the cheesecake, not your friends).

Just tell them to bacon exception 🙂

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drizzled with a litle maple syrup

drizzled with a little maple syrup

Post 39 – The Great Cookie Experiment

Chocolate chip cookies.

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The classic version delivers gooey, melty yumness.

So why mess with a good thing? I’ll tell you why.

I am getting married in less than a year (less than a year!) and my future mother-in-law cannot tolerate gluten. To be honest, I don’t see her very often and therefore don’t need a grand repertoire of gluten-free foods to cook (plus she has plenty of her own recipes that work just fine for her), but it’s good to have at least done a few test runs myself. Plus, I love a good recipe experiment!

I remember the first time I met Sam’s parents. Six years ago (wow!), right before Sam and I both left to study abroad on different continents (our first test at long distance), I flew out to Seattle to meet his parents and see the wonderful place where Sam grew up. I arrived late one night and his parents were already asleep, but the two of us, still awake and hungry, got into the fridge for a midnight snack: Jenny’s famous blueberry muffins. My family had never refrigerated muffins growing up, but these muffins were wonderful cold – their tops shiny and golden, their insides dense and soft without being too sweet and studded with dark purple berries. Sam had always raved about his mom’s delicious muffins and cookies, recipes she had perfected through the years, though she didn’t eat the flour-filled versions herself.

The next morning when I woke up, I met his parents and Jenny made us French toast before our day of Seattle-venturing. Sam and I offered to make his parents a gluten-free dinner that night, as a gesture of appreciation for my stay at their home. Though I don’t remember what we made for the main dish, I do remember the flourless chocolate torte that I made with Jenny in mind. Due to my confusion between bittersweet and semisweet chocolate the torte ended up a much darker chocolate than intended, but Jenny still loved it and appreciated the thought.

Williams-Sonoma recipe

Williams-Sonoma recipe

Despite Jenny’s gluten intolerance, I haven’t experimented with many gluten free recipes. I’m happy to use corn tortillas instead of flour tortillas or rice instead of pasta for a side dish, but I’ve rarely messed around with flour substitutes in baked goods. It always seemed like you had to have too many extra ingredients.

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Nonetheless inspired by the delicious panisse cubes on Sam’s salad this past weekend I bought a bag of Bob’s Red Mill Garbanzo Bean Flour and decided to try my hand at panisse (well, eventually I will try it). Since I was in the mood to bake and I have a whole bag of the stuff I figured I might as well experiment with other recipes, so I looked up a recipe for gluten free chocolate chip cookies. Since my gluten free baking experience is limited, I didn’t trust myself to come up with my own recipe. I looked around and found a few different cookie recipes, but when I found one that sounded like the classic recipe with pretty much a one to one flour substitution I went for it.

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You would think a substitution that direct would cause concern or hesitation on my part. Surely garbanzo bean flour would not interact with the other ingredients in the same way as wheat flour, but the recipe didn’t have any weird ingredients (e.g. xanthan gum) and the pictures looked normal so I figured, hey, worst case scenario – I would toss the whole batch.

Just in case I made a half batch of the gluten free cookies and a half batch of regular (flour) chocolate chip cookies to compare (or serve as a chaser to the disgusting taste). Of course I used Jenny’s recipe for the regular cookies since Sam is such a fan.

Gluten free dough - notice the color.

Gluten free dough – notice the color.

Though I don’t recommend the taste of the cookie dough itself, the cookies turned out great! (Sam even approves though he calls them “fake” cookies.) They are chewier and crispier than the traditional ones and they spread out quite a bit more, (refrigerate the dough longer next time? Use half butter, half shortening?) but they surprisingly did not taste like chickpeas (despite the dough itself tasting pretty bean-y). Hip hip hooray – the great cookie experiment was a success! Next time I’ll have to tweak the recipe just a little bit. Follow this recipe to make your own gluten free cookies.

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Can you tell which one is which? (Yeah, yeah you probably can. Well aren’t you smart.)

Post 38 – Dining out and Hanky Cake

I know, I know, I’m sorry. I have no excuses! This week I did not attend any glamorous guest chef events or prepare any more salads for a 94 year old’s birthday party (grand success by the way!). I just went to work, made my camp lunches (the most lucrative week by far), and went out to dinner a few times. So why is it that I barely posted a word this past week?

There’s something about being busy that actually makes me more productive. There’s this exciting energy when all of your metaphorical pots are bubbling away on the stove and you decide hey, why don’t I make a cake while I’m at it. This past week I had hardly any metaphorical pots going and yet I didn’t write a blog post.

Eh, sometimes it’s good to take a break.

Some eating highlights from this week:

Tuesday: antijitos Mexicanos prepared by the lovely Gloria. (Sadly no pictures)

  • shrimp and avocado salad on top of tostones
  • chicken taquitos with sour cream and queso blanco and
  • black beans and Mexican rice (cooked with tomato, garlic, and onion to give it that slight boost of flavor and color)
  • dessert: sweet Mexican candies called Glorias made with dulce de leche

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Wednesday: an end of the summer celebration and thank you dinner at The Fireplace in Brookline with the Director, Assistant Director, and Camp Nurse.

Pre-dinner activities: laughing/crying with the nurse (I rarely cry from laughing) over a “Thank You” cake at a staff meeting that turned into “hank you” and eventually “hank y.” (Henceforth named: Hanky cake)

Fireplace Dinner:

  • crab cakes with lemon-caper yogurt sauce
  • pan-seared scallops with lobster hash
  • shared desserts: blueberry tart with lemon curd and
  • chocolate fudge cake with espresso ice cream and hazelnut sauce

Scrumptious though again no pictures.

Saturday night: a nice dinner out with Sam at Lineage – a family owned restaurant that focuses on seafood and local food. I opted for the Chef’s whim tasting menu with wine pairings and was pleasantly surprised (I was expecting some crazy out there dishes, but didn’t get anything too challenging).

  • seared tuna with heirloom tomatoes and basil pesto
  • homemade tomato sauce with ricotta cavatelli and herbed breadcrumbs
  • crispy salmon with bacon, corn, and onions
  • dessert (my choice) – an amazing butterscotch pudding

Sam had

  • Little gem lettuces with grilled peaches and panisse (so delicious he only gave me one bite of because he loved it so much. I’ll be trying to make something like it soon hopefully)
  • Scallops with wheat berries, squash, and sofrito vinaigrette
  • Chocolate mousse with espresso whipped cream

The best part of all this was paying for most of it with a gift certificate!

This morning I started my day with some gluten-free buckwheat banana pancakes using a recipe I adapted from my aunt Angie. Quite delicious with mixed berry jam and maple syrup.

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I ate extremely well this week! What did you cook or eat?

Post 36 – Cookies & Quiche at Williams-Sonoma

On Friday afternoon, just after packing the salads in the car for the 94th birthday party, just when I thought the week was over, I get a call from a guy at kitchensurfing. They’re having an event on Saturday at the Williams-Sonoma store for the tax-free weekend and the chef they had lined up backed out. Could I do the event last minute? I would be there to promote myself and kitchensurfing, while passing out some tasty, homemade bites of my own choosing.

Guest chef at Williams-Sonoma?! How could I pass up something like this?

So I said yes, forgetting plans of a relaxing Friday night of doing nothing and I began planning what to make for my big day. I pictured crowds of people huddled around different chefs tables, competing for food and the stack of my business cards flying off the shelves. They told me there could be hundreds of people coming in, but I just needed to provide a little taste for each sample. I rushed out to the store Friday night and returned with my goods, hoping it would be enough.

7 am Saturday morning I woke up, no alarm, my wheels already turning. I practically sleepwalked to the kitchen, getting out butter and eggs out to come to room temperature. Back to bed for an hour. When 8 am struck, I was up and moving – making cookie dough, caramelizing onions, chopping spinach and rolling out pie dough.

60 small cookies frosted and ready

60 small cookies frosted and ready to be cut into quarters for bite-size tastes

After a couple hours of work (and only a brief scare around 10:30 when the City of Brookline decided to shut off our water without warning – no hand washing! No dish washing! I just couldn’t use hand sanitizer while cooking!) I had a beautiful display of my work (transformation!) and a clean kitchen to boot. I even had informative signs to display with my food (thanks to my assistant for making them).

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I grabbed my apron and my clogs and headed out, my arms full of food.

The event went well, but the throngs of people I had envisioned swarming the mall and my stack of business cards disappearing quickly did not happen. I gave out food to hungry people, had some great conversations about catering with a few people, and gave out plenty of business cards. The best part was the many people who came back for seconds, thirds, and fourths of my tasty little bites because that says more than words can.

Some of my favorite lines after trying a bite:

“It’s good, but it’s too healthy for me.”

(Said very matter-of-fact-ly) “This is good and I would know because I’m a cook.” Great, thanks, because being a lover of food or a human being probably doesn’t qualify you to enjoy good food.

(As he walks away) – “Mmmmm, honey you should try this ginger cookie!” (comes back for more). “Can I take some for my wife?”

Sure! (Big grin from me).

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Notice the Williams-Sonoma seal, which the intern was nice enough to get in the picture.

Notice the Williams-Sonoma seal, which the intern was nice enough to get in the picture.

I had a great time overall and had some lovely interactions with the Williams-Sonoma staff, who also loved the food, especially their intern who invited me to join one of their future events. She liked the quiche so much, she begged me for a piece to take home with her (“it’s so rare that I find a vegetarian quiche!”) and I happily obliged.

I came home with a ton of cookies and a whole pan of quiche (dinner tonight!) and ended my lovely evening with a nice dinner out with Sam and a good friend of ours. It was wonderful to see her and we caught up on each others’ lives.

“So when can you call yourself a chef?” she asked me at one point in the evening.

“Whenever you want,” I said, but today I definitely earned it.