Research: Pho & Geneology – Can You Help Find Thu Thi Vo?

24 01 2014

As I was preparing for my Vietnamese Pho Cooking Class tomorrow, I have read a lot of recipes, blog posts, historical accountings, and other articles.  It was certainly a reminder that not all of the recipes you find on the internet are tested or tasty; I’ve been cooking long enough that I can look at some of them and just know it isn’t going to work.  After consuming a well-cited article on Wikipedia for the historical background, I settled in for an educated comparison of recipes.  The fat rose to the top of the stock pot pretty quick when I read Andrea Nguyen’s recipe.  I will follow her method, as I have found that in simple dishes such as this the method and ingredients make all the difference.

I have, of course, heard of this accomplished cook and author before.  I decided to explore her blog while I was there, and among the recent posts I found this one.  It’s the story of Thu Thi Vo, or rather the story of her brother, Minh Hung Vo, who has been looking for her with extremely limited resources for over 2 decades.  You can read the post for yourself, and I hope you will, to garner more details.  Long story short, Thu Thi married an American GI and immigrated to the States.  Brother and sister corresponded for some time, then Minh moved and never heard from his sister again.  The Vietnamese postal system not being quiet as modern and efficient as ours, his sister may have continued writing but nothing more was received by Minh.

Thu Thi Vo

Thu Thi Vo

There is a lot we don’t know for certain – birth dates, married names, children’s names, etc.  But there is certainly enough to narrow this search with all of the electronic records now at our disposal.  Being an armchair geneology researcher for my own family, I feel certain there are at least Census records that would point toward other family members.  I think of this as an old man’s final wish; Minh just wants to know what happened to his beloved sister.

Andrea is a genuinely kind person for taking time to listen to this man’s story and to try to help him.  Some of her readers have already started digging and uncovered possible leads from the comfort of their living rooms.  Perhaps you, too, can join this effort; a simple re-posting of this information with reference back to Andrea’s article would be a big help.  Word of mouth is still the best way to find anything, or anyone.

Meanwhile, I am off to pick up my grass fed beef shanks and get busy following Andrea’s method for my Pho broth.  I will follow up with the results.  Thank you for reading, and for helping a global neighbor.

What the Pho? A Reality Check for the Good Stuff

29 12 2013

Whether we are actively participating in it or merely watching from the sidelines, life does indeed march on.  There were at least fifteen years that I felt like life was marching on without me, that I was missing everything, that others were having wonderful experiences and that I was excluded.  I had thoughts that I was destined to misery because I didn’t deserve anything better, that somehow I just wasn’t worthy of the good stuff.  It seemed like everyone else had happy relationships, good jobs, lots of friends, fun hobbies at which they excelled; you name it, they had it and I didn’t and that’s because they were better than me.  I got what I got because I didn’t deserve the good stuff.  That kind of a funk goes by a lot of names – depression, grief, and addiction, just to name a few – but I have come to think of it as the darkness before the light.  That’s how it played out in my life.

A set of designer circumstances made just for me led me out of that period of my life.   I encountered other people who helped me understand that I was battling a phenomenon based on selfishness and fear; I wanted things to be the way I wanted them, and I was unwilling to accept any other outcome.  I didn’t know what would happen if things didn’t go my way, but I was convinced it wouldn’t be good.  This kept me on a proverbial merry-go-round of self-pity, anger, and frustration for a very long time.  I was so caught up in having things my way that I could not appreciate things as they actually were.  Reality didn’t stand a chance with me; I was totally focused on how things “should” be.  I missed a lot of opportunities wishing for things to be different, wanting circumstances to be as I envisioned them.

As it turns out, my mother was in a similar place for almost the exact same period.  I didn’t realize the parallels in our situations until she recently found her way out of her own funk.  I can’t help but wonder if our circumstances were related, and there is certainly some history that would indicate they were linked despite our relative estrangement during that time. For now I will live that question and not worry about the answer.  What matters is that we both found our way out.

I now possess faith in a power that influences the circumstances around me.  Without getting into it too deep, I think of it as a universal life force.  For many, a belief in a well-defined Deity and the practice of a religion provides this same structure upon which I have come to rely.  It’s all good; whatever gets you past thinking that you are the center of the universe is all that matters.  Being plugged in, connected, a part of something bigger than myself was and is the key to leaving that funk behind.  Awareness of others and their struggles is essential to me; I receive through giving.  Believing I have a purpose and can contribute to the lives of others in a myriad of ways is what saved me from myself-destructive path. I now serve as a mentor to others, and the gratitude and humility that comes with that process is its own reward; indeed, it is the key to my continued happiness and peace.

I barely remember what it was like to pine after all the stuff that supposedly marks success in our modern world.  The nice house, the fancy car, the private schools for the kids, the latest electronic gadgets, the wildest vacations to the most exotic places; this list could go on indefinitely.  I had most of it at some point, and I was miserable.  Insert your own desires into that list and then ask yourself these questions:

What if success is not really about any of that?

What if all your possessions fit into the back of a pick-up truck?

What if that fulfillment you are seeking doesn’t come when you get all the stuff and achieve all the goals?

What if all that really matters is this moment right now?

Who is with you right this moment and what are you doing?  Pay attention to the moment at hand.  Be with who you are with right now, not who you think you want to be with.  What is happening around you at this moment? Maybe all the fulfillment and blessings you seek are right here, right now.

I have come to think of every moment as THE moment to which I should pay attention, and when it’s done, I should pay attention to the next one.  Right now, I’m thinking about how satisfied I am with my life.  I don’t have much of anything on that success list from above anymore, but I feel more successful than ever before.  I feel valued, worthy, good enough, deserving of the peace and satisfaction I am experiencing in my life.  Everything is just fine the way it is, despite it not being how I imagined.

I know how to listen to people and really hear them, and often how to respond in a helpful way.  I know how to read and really comprehend, to learn.  I know how to be productive at work and stay focused on the immediate tasks, not concerning myself with tomorrow’s tasks.  My mother, who was waiting to die alone in her apartment for 15+ years, is now healthy and happy with new friends in a safe, cozy living environment.  My daughter just moved 1,000 miles closer to me this month, so the odds of seeing her and my grandson more often are greatly increased.  I love my job, even though the business I work for struggles and my pay is below average.  I learned the basics of pottery making recently, something I’ve wanted to do for 7 years or so.  My bills are paid.  I have a cozy apartment, and two small dogs that I adore. I have a reliable automobile.  I have a handful of friends and family with whom I have close relationships that I deeply value, and a variety of acquaintances with whom I have casual relationships for which I am grateful.  I am rich in spirit.  I am fulfilled. Reality does not suck.  I have the good stuff.

Lest you think its all sunshine and sprinkles over here, I still have health issues and other unpleasantness to deal with – who doesn’t?  That’s real living.  A few months ago I got sick and had increasingly more severe abdominal pain, nausea, and diarrhea over the course of several weeks.  I’ve had a CT Scan at the emergency room, though I have not had the opportunity to follow up with a GI doctor because my primary care doc thinks I just had a virus and won’t give me a referral.  I am a disabled veteran and patient at the Veteran’s Administration and do not have private health insurance, so I had to take matters into my own hands and find solutions for myself that didn’t require a so-called professional.

So I don’t have a diagnosis, though I do know a few things that it isn’t.  I have come to think of it as a sensitive gut.  OK, let’s say wildly sensitive. When desperation led me to eliminating nearly everything from my diet and trying to find something, anything that I could eat without agony, my current journey began.  I started introducing one new food item at a time (starting with potatoes), waiting a day for the outcome, and making a list of do’s and don’ts.  I was off the sofa and back to work within a couple days of starting this minimalist approach.  I am no longer able to eat dairy products, legumes, or grains of any kind.  Most veggies are fine, though I have to be careful with raw greens and cruciferous veggies as they cause very painful ‘inflation’ if I eat more than a small amount at once.  Packaged anything is probably not OK because dairy and wheat are used in most all packaged foods.  To say that I am now a meat and potatoes girl isn’t really a stretch.  Fruits, nuts, and most seafood seem to work for me also, though apples and shrimp have caused some mild problems recently.  It’s sort of a Paleolithic diet, but not strictly that either.  It’s whatever my gut says.  That’s how I make my dietary decisions now.

Now when I say ‘unable to eat’ these things, I don’t mean like a classic allergy – swelling throat, rash, imminent death.  I mean if I eat them, I will find myself writhing on the sofa in pain within 12-24 hours between my runs to the bathroom for, well, the runs.  Is it life threatening?  I guess not.  But when you can’t leave the house because you can’t take the toilet with you, and you can’t stand up straight because of the pain, it’s pretty hard to live normally.  The worst of it is the pain, which 800mgs of ibuprofen three times a day doesn’t even touch.  The ER doctor offered me narcotics, but really?  I need a solution, not a chemical Band Aid (which, I might add, has the unfortunate side effect of causing constipation.  What was he thinking? But let’s not go there.)

As I write this now, I am experiencing some minor pain and wondering what I ate yesterday that might be the culprit.  Such is my new life.  For a foodie like me, this whole scenario is a nightmare that has me saying ‘What the Pho?’  I am now making food for others that I cannot eat; teaching people to cook things that I can no longer enjoy; and soon to be once again judging the culinary creations of others at a local cooking competition during which I may not be able to taste more than a small bite of each dish lest I suffer the consequences.  I don’t know at this moment if this is my new ‘normal’, or if some looming gastrointestinal crisis will force me to go back to the doctor that thought I merely had ‘viral gastroenteritis’ three months ago and beg him to help me (when what I really want to do is tell him to go screw himself).  The whole thing is a bit unnerving, to be honest.  I mean, how does one go from eating anything without issue to looking at all food as a potential source of agony in just a few months? Can diet alone solve my problems, or is there something else going on that will eventually have to be identified and addressed?

I don’t have all the answers.  For the moment, I have found some working solutions down the clean eating, Paleo, real food road.  They may or may not turn out to be lasting.  Whether you have GI issues like me or not, this flavorful spin on a Vietnamese classic that I like to call “Faux Pho” is a real-food flavorful dish with a variety of textures (by the way, Pho is pronounced ‘fuh’).  It helps me not feel deprived as I think of the bread-and-cheese-laden diet of my past with fondness.  Use any ground meat you like, but the organic grass-fed bison was really delish.  That this dish happens to be gluten, grain, and dairy-free is just a bonus.

Until next time, keep it real, people.

Quick Faux PhoIMG_2423

For the Meatballs:

½ pound Ground Bison or Beef, preferably grass fed organic

2 teaspoons Grey Salt (minerals are good for you!)

1 teaspoon freshly cracked Black Pepper

1 clove Garlic, minced or pressed

1 teaspoon Smoked Spanish Paprika


2 tablespoons Olive Oil

3 cloves Garlic, minced or pressed (or a teaspoon of Garlic Powder)

½ teaspoon ground Ginger

½ teaspoon Ground Cardamom

Grey Salt & Pepper, to taste

2 cups Organic Beef Stock (preferably homemade)


Cellophane Noodles (Rice Vermicelli) , soaked in hot water per package directions then drained

¼ cup Fresh Scallions sliced fine

½ cup Mung Bean Sprouts

Assorted fresh veggies, julienned (bell peppers, hot peppers, greens, etc – whatever you have)

Mix the meatball ingredients all together in a small bowl and shape into meatballs, or cook crumbled like you would for sloppy joes – whichever you prefer (it’s hard to eat crumbled meat with chopsticks, I’m just sayin’).  Preheat a deep skillet with 2 tablespoons of olive oil and cook the meatballs or crumbled meat until cooked through.

Add the garlic, ginger, and cardamom and cook for a minute or two until the garlic is fragrant.  Add the beef stock, stir well, and bring to a simmer.  Cook for 5 minutes to infuse flavor.

Place your prepared rice noodles in a bowl (or two bowls if you are sharing).  Add the scallions, sprouts, and other veggies to the bowl.  Pluck a few meatballs from the pan and add them to the bowl, then ladle in as much broth as you desire.

Using your weapon of choice (spoon or chopsticks), enjoy.  I like to drink the remaining broth right from the bowl.

Phun Phactiod:  Pho is usually enjoyed for breakfast in Vietnam!

15 Minute Pasta Primavera

15 04 2013

Apologies in advance. Laptop is at work and I’m not. First attempt at writing blog post from so-called smart phone. How smart? We shall see. Taking liberty of writing in bullets since doing this on phone. Already thinking the photo thing will be a problem. Oh well.

Really good eats, this. Use any pasta you like. Delicious part is the fffffast sauce. Serves 2 or one hungry girl who took the leftovers for lunch today.

1/2 pound Cooked Pasta drained, 1/4 cup cooking water reserved.
2 cloves Garlic, chopped fine
1 large Heirloom Tomato, chopped
2 tablespoons Good Olive Oil
1 cup Fresh Spinach
1/4 cup Parmiggiano Reggiano, grated
Zest and juice from 1/2 Lemon
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat sauté pan with oil over medium heat. Add garlic and tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes are soft. Add spinach, lemon juice, and lemon zest and cook, stirring often, until spinach is wilted. Toss in pasta and cooking water and cook while stirring to coat pasta. Turn off heat, stir in Parmesan, and dig in.







Porking Around Wilmington & Chicago…and Ponzu

8 03 2013

Hello My Dear Readers!

Sorry for yet another long pause in the white noise that is my so-called foodie blog.  You probably slept just fine without me.  But here I am, back to annoy you.  While I was away, I wasn’t merely chained to the stove at work like usual; they actually IMG_1677extended my leash and let me go to Chicago for a trade show.  When I returned from freezing my tail off up north, there was a bracing cold 30 mile per hour wind blowing here in coastal North Carolina that seemed to have followed me back from the Windy City.  My apologies to my neighbors.

It seems that March is shaping up to be all about pigs in my corner of the universe.  I’m thinking about bacon, belly, barbeque (which to those of us in this part of NC means pulled pork shoulder or butt with a vinegar sauce), chicharones, lardo, all manner of charcuterie – pretty much anything that comes from our cleft-hooved friends.  So let me share with you some of the porky highlights going on ‘round here.

‘Prince of Pork’ Packs his Pouch:  We got word that Chef Kyle Lee McKnight – most recently manning the stoves at manna in downtown Wilmington – is departing our fair city to run the kitchens of a new venture in Hickory, NC.  Kyle has been dubbed the “Prince of Pork” by locals because of his work with Bev Eggleston to create “outrageously fine swine” including delicious artisan charcuterie crafted by Kyle and made from Iberico hogs (the delicious breed made famous in Spain).  So what happened is that local star chef Keith Rhodes and local food blogger Kyle McKnightextraordinaire Liz Biro planned an event to bid Kyle farewell and this coming Sunday, March 10th, some of us will be enjoying a 10-course tasting menu in his honor featuring – you guessed it – pork!  (If you want to join us, click here to see if tickets are still available.)  We are starting with chicharones and ending with bacon and waffle ice cream – are you jealous yet?  Serious respect amongst industry folks in our town for Kyle…can’t wait to see where his future takes him.

Chocolate Wins (on anything):  On March 4th, the Fire on the Dock battle between Chef Brent Poteat of 22 North on Wrightsville Beach and Chef Pat Greene of Elijah’s downtown featured Heritage Farms Premium Pork.  Though the evening’s victory went to Brent, the diners seemed to really dig Pat’s Seasoned Collard Green Pork Soup with Candied Bacon.  I think the idea of featuring pork in a soup is genius;porksoup it’s certainly not on my Top 10 list of things to make with pork, but the scores were pretty high.  Way to go, Pat!  At the end of the evening, it seems that you get more points with chocolate crème fraiche cake than with pork roulade (didn’t anybody tell Pat that, while not required, dessert has won these battles for many a chef?)  It looked like a tasty battle and I am sorry I missed it.  Perhaps I will see Brent in the final four coming up at the end of the month.

Mangiale il Maiale (Eat the Pig):  I couldn’t help myself, I had to work pork into a cooking class.  So I came up with an ode to Florence, Italy and surrounding countryside for a cooking class I am conducting on March 26th.  I’m calling it Flavors of Florence and I’m serving an anitpasto of Calamari Salad with Basil, Mint, Grape Tomatoes, and Shallots; Spaghetti tossed with a spicy Roasted Red Pepper Sauce; tender Marinated Pork Chops with Red Wine Mushroom Sauce; and simple but stunning individual Puff Pastry Fruit Tarts with Chantilly Cream.

Happy as a Pig in…Wine?:  While in Chicago for a trade show scouting the latest, greatest kitchen tools for our store, I had the opportunity to dine at The Purple Pig, a happening little place on North Michigan Avenue in the heart of the Windy City.  I arrived early, which is to say that there was no line yet, though nearly every seat was full on this Sunday evening.  Since I was alone, they squeezed me into a bar stool at what they call “The Chef’s Counter,” behind which most of the cooking takes place in this pork-centric culinary haven.  Next to me, the Expediter on my side of the counter was in constant eye contact with the Chef de Cuisine who called out near-constant orders to the cooks on the line and tasted nearly everything before sending it out to the diners.  Here, Chef Jimmy Bannos Jr. and crew craft some of their own charcuterie and transform all parts of the pig into delicious creations that are carefully prepared and beautifully presented.  It was a friendly place with more than reasonable prices for the quality; my tab for the evening came in under $50 for four courses.  The wine list is extensive and well chosen, hence the color purple in the name on the door.  I was so excited about the cheese and charcuterie course that I failed to snap a photo for you, and the same thing happened with the beets – sorry.  I did, however, sneak one of my neighbor’s marrow bones; I have a tiny twinge of regret for not ordering them myself.  But everything I had was fabulous:  Lingua Agrodolce with Quadrelo (both house made); Salt-Roasted Beets with Whipped Goat Cheese and Pistachio Vinaigrette; “JLT,” an open faced sandwich with Pork Jowl, Tomato, dressed Frisée, and a fried Duck Egg; and I stole off into the frigid night with Grandma D’s Chocolate Cake with Almond & Orange Marmaletta.  You must visit this approachable and delicious place when next in Chicago – you will not regret it!

IMG_1689 IMG_1688 IMG_1686 IMG_1685 IMG_1681 I am sure there are more porkified events going on, but that’s what I have to report for now.  So get in the spirit and start porking around – the possibilities are endless!  Here’s a little recipe to get you started.

P.S. The Ponzu keeps in the fridge for a month or so and makes boring Chinese take-out on those busy evenings a whole lot better!

Ponzu-Orange Marinated Pork Tenderloin

2 cups Ponzu Sauce (recipe follows; or use store-bought)

Juice and Zest of 1 large Orange

½ cup Canola or Vegetable Oil

1 Pork Tenderloin, trimmed, silver skin removed

Combine ponzu, oil, juice, and zest in a Ziploc bag.  Add the tenderloin to the marinade, squeeze the air out of the bag, close and refrigerate for 2 hours.

Preheat your grill or grill pan over medium-high heat.  Sear the tenderloin for about 2 minutes per side.  Reduce heat to medium and grill an additional 5 minutes per side.

Remove from heat and tent with foil.  Rest for 5 minutes.  Slice into 1” thick rounds and serve.

Serves 4.


Ponzu Sauce

2/3 cup Lemon Juice, more to taste

1/3 cup Lime Juice, more to taste

¼ cup Rice Vinegar

1 cup Soy Sauce

¼ cup Mirin (or 1/4 cup sake and 1 tablespoon sugar)

1 3-inch piece Kelp (konbu)

½ cup (about ¼ ounce) dried Bonito Flakes

Pinch Ground Cayenne Pepper

In a bowl, combine all ingredients. Let sit for at least 2 hours or overnight. Strain. Just before using, you might add a small squeeze of fresh lemon or lime juice.

Cover and refrigerate.

Makes about 2 ½ cups.


Cookin’ with Gas

27 01 2013

Whew!  What a week!  I have been at the stove a lot this week, which is a good thing if you’ve come here in search of new recipes.  Below, I offer a few.  But you know how I am – I like to take these opportunities to regale you with my unsolicited opinion on all sorts of things.  If you just want the recipes, you know what to do – scroll away!

Some ingredients for our Mexi-Cali Winter Feast

Some ingredients for our Mexi-Cali Winter Feast

I had three cooking events at the store this week, with three completely different menus.  Tuesday, we did a little Mexi-Cali Winter Feast, which featured a hearty, low-fat Winter Icebox Salad for a first course.  Yesterday, I took some inspiration from Spain and France to create a menu I called “The New South,” using common Southern ingredients in some new and interesting ways.  Finally, last night we served as the first stop of a Progressive Dinner hosted by Liz Biro, who is a freelance writer, tour guide, and all around woman-to-know on the culinary scene here in Wilmington.  If you visit Wilmington, check out her Culinary Adventures and grab a tour – it’s a great way to get familiar with the who’s who of the food world in the Port City while eating (and drinking) your way around town.

So while I was doing all of this cooking, I was thinking about the merits of cooking on a gas stove.  I am often asked about the performance of the two cooktops in our store – one gas, one magnetic induction – and how they compare with electric, which is what seems to be in most of the homes in Wilmington, especially the newer ones.  Those of you who are suffering through cooking with an electric stove know that there is really no comparison – it’s like apples and oranges.  I can say this only because I, too, suffered with an electric cooktop for most of my adult life.  Once you know your stove’s response time, you can cook anything you want on an electric stove, but it ain’t always easy.  The responsiveness of a gas stove is what most cooks with an electric stove long for the most.  You turn down the flame, and the heat diminishes pretty quickly.  You turn it up, it gets hot quickly.  With an electric stove, there is time to take a potty break while you await the temperature changes.  Preheating the pan for your morning eggs takes 5 minutes.  “I’m sorry I’m late, Boss; I was waiting on my stove.”  Really, who has that kind of time?

My crappy little tree house apartment has a gas stove.  It is half the size of the electric stove in my beloved and much-missed home that I sold last year, but it performs twice as well.  Aside from the abundance of windows, it may be the best feature of this dump.  The windows, as it turns out, are as much curse as they are blessing.  It is light, bright, and just a bit too airy in here.  Airy, as in breezy, as in much like not having windows at all.  I have had to shrink wrap my windows to keep the wind from blowing through, which reduced my electric bill from $129 to $29 per month (no kidding).  I wish I could say that this was the price you pay for living in a charming historic home like my friend Roberta’s house, but I cannot.  This place is a little rickety building behind another house; there is nothing charming or historic about it.  The lack of landscaping combined with a canopy of trees means that not much is growing around here but weeds; this means that the building (I can’t bring myself to call it a house) is sitting on the equivalent of a sand dune that is eroding like crazy.  I am certain that there are termites hard at work eating the guts of this place and fear that any day it may fall down; I am hoping that Buddy and I are not home when it happens.  Every time I step into the much-too-heavy-for-this-house-of-cards claw foot tub to take a shower, I hear the floor creak and wonder if I will land, naked, in the middle of my downstairs neighbor’s kitchen.  If the fall didn’t kill me, the embarrassment would.  The good news is that it’s just him and I back here, so no one else would hear us screaming – me from humiliation, him from sheer horror at the sight of me.  I could probably wrap myself in the shower curtain before anyone else showed up.  But I digress.

So we can all agree that gas is preferred over electric as a cooking medium.  But have you tried magnetic induction?  It has been popular in Europe for quite some time, or so I am told by the appliance gurus at Atlantic Appliance. It has only become all the rage in my corner of the universe in the last few years.  I really like cooking on induction.  If it is possible for you to imagine, I find it even more responsive than gas to temperature changes.  It also does everything faster, rather like convection ovens do when baking.  The concept is that the magnets react to the pan that is placed on the “burner” and, through some sort of technology that is beyond my understanding, heats only the pan where it is in contact with the reactive surface of the cooktop.  This means that aluminum does not work on this cooktop, though cast iron, stainless steel, copper, and any other cookware that attracts magnets works just fine.  My experience has been that pans that have reactive metal layers all the way up the sides of the pan work best; those with magnetically reactive disc bottoms and aluminum sides just don’t perform as well on this cooktop; the heat doesn’t transfer up the sides of the pan.  Copper, or pans with a copper layer in them, really do the best job on induction.  I don’t understand the science of it all, but that’s what I have seen through my own cooking experience.  You can’t flambé on induction without the aid of a match, but otherwise it is a highly functional and responsive cooking medium.  So as long as you have access to matches when making Cherries Jubilee, I think induction is a really great choice.  If you don’t have natural gas where you live, it is a lot more economical to put an induction stove in your kitchen then to install a propane tank for a gas stove.  There are more attributes of cooking with gas and induction that I could discuss here, but I’ve had enough, haven’t you?  Anymore of it would be white noise.  Stop in for a demo and I’ll chat you up about it then.

Back to the food.  Among the other dishes I made this week, there seemed to be a fruit tart theme going on.  I made two different fruit tarts:  a rustic tart with fresh pineapple and mangoes, and another using a tart pan and jarred peaches and pears.  In both cases, I glazed the tarts with apricot preserves.  Almost every recipe I have found for this sort of tart calls for apricot preserves as a glaze.  Why apricot, I wonder?  I have some peach preserves in the store – I’m sure that would be equally good.  I understand why you would maybe not want to use blackberry preserves on a pineapple-mango tart, but it would be great with any kind of berry tart.  The preserves serve as a simple glaze to keep the tart moist and to aid in browning to a golden color.  Armed with that knowledge, use any preserves you would like to glaze your tart.

I think I’ve said all I have to say at the moment.  It’s my day off and I am going to spend it being a slug, watching a week’s worth of shows from my DVR.  Right now, “Must Love Dogs” is on…almost makes me want to sign onto one of those dating websites and roll the dice.  Or maybe not.

Until next time, try out these recipes.  The icebox salad will hold up for a week in the fridge, making it a great salad to tote along to work for lunches along with a bowl of the White Bean & Ham Stew.  You might want to chop the cabbage a little finer than I did so you don’t need a knife to eat it.  I’m just sayin’.

I am glad to be back at the stoves cookin’ with gas…it’s been a while!

IMG_1581Crunchy Winter Icebox Salad

3 cups fat-free Plain Greek Yogurt

½ cup Skim Milk

1 small clove Garlic, minced or pressed

1 teaspoon Cayenne Pepper

½ cup Chives, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons Cilantro, chopped

1 tablespoon Mint, chopped

4 tablespoons fresh Lime Juice

1 tablespoon Sea Salt

½ teaspoon Freshly Ground Black Pepper

1 Hass avocado, thinly sliced

8 cups Green Cabbage, finely shredded (about a two-pound head)

8 Radishes, halved then thinly sliced

2 cups peeled Jicama, julienned

3 Scallions, thinly sliced

1 cup Celery, thinly sliced

4 ounces Cotija Cheese, crumbled

¼ cup Pepitas (pumpkin seeds, roasted and salted)

13” x 9” Glass or Ceramic Baking Dish

In a medium bowl, whisk the yogurt, milk, garlic, cayenne pepper, chives, cilantro, mint, and 3 tablespoons of lime juice.  Add the salt and pepper; set aside.

In a small bowl or dish, toss the avocado with the lime juice

In the baking dish, spread the cabbage in an even layer.  Top with layers of radishes, jicama, scallions, celery, and avocado, then sprinkle with the cheese.  Spread the dressing over the top evenly, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight.  Just before serving, sprinkle with pepitas, if desired.

Serves 8-10

IMG_1598White Bean & Ham Stew

This gorgeous winter stew, called “Garbure” in southwestern France, is inspired by a recipe from the French master Chef Jacques Pépin, who says that it is traditional to add some red wine to the last few spoonfuls of broth and sip it right from the bowl.

4 meaty Ham Hocks, about 3.5 lbs

½ lb dried Cannellini Beans, picked over and rinsed

3 quarts Water

2 medium Red Skinned Potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 inch cubes

1 large Leek, white and pale green parts only, cut into 1 inch pieces

1 large Celery Rib, cut into ½ inch pieces

1 large Parsnip, cut into ½ inch pieces

½ pound Savoy Cabbage, cut into 2 inch pieces

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Eight ¼ inch thick slices of Peasant Bread, lightly toasted

2 cups shredded Gruyere or Comte Cheese

In a large pot, combine the ham hocks, cannellini beans, and water and bring to a boil.  Cover and simmer over low heat for 1 hour.  Add the potatoes, leek, celery, parsnip, cabbage, and ½ teaspoon of salt.  Cover the stew and simmer over low heat for 1 hour more, stirring occasionally.

Transfer the ham hocks to a plate.  Simmer the stew uncovered over moderate heat until thickened and the beasn and vegetables are very tender, about 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, remove the skin and bones from the ham hocks and discard them.  Chop the meat into bite-size pieces and add to the stew.  Season the stew with pepper.

Preheat the broiler.  Ladle the stew into oven-proof crocks or ramekins and place the ramekins on a baking sheet.  Top eachIMG_1603 ramekin with the bread and spread the cheese on top.  Broil on the top rack, 4 inches from the heat, until the cheese is lightly browned, about 3 minutes.  Serve right away.

Serves 8.

Note:  If, like Chef Jacques, you would like to enjoy the last of the broth in your bowl with some red wine, try a few tablespoons of Beaujolais or pinot noir.

Easy Peachy Pear Tart

This is the perfect dessert for the winter – made from luscious jarred fruit, you can toss it together in 30 minutes whenever company calls.

1 sheet of Prepared Pie Dough

½ quart Pear Halves, sliced

½ quart Peach Halves, sliced

¼ cup Apricot Preserves, heated in the microwave, for brushing the tartIMG_1602

For the Streusel Topping:

½ cup Brown Sugar, packed, plus 2 tablespoons

½ cup salted Pecans or Walnuts, chopped

4 tablespoons Unsalted Butter, melted

Arrange the prepared pie dough in a tart pan or spring form pan with a removable bottom.  “Dock” or pierce the dough all over with the tines of a fork.  If desired, weight the pie crust down with pie weights or dried beans to prevent bubbles.  Place in preheated 400oF oven and bake until lightly browned, about 8-10 minutes.  Remove from oven and cool for 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, drain and slice the fruit about ¼” thick.  Toss the streusel ingredients together in a bowl until well combined; set aside.

Arrange the sliced fruit decoratively in a single layer, overlapping, in the baked tart shell.  Brush the fruit and exposed crust with the apricot preserve.  Top with streusel topping and return to oven to bake for 12-15 minutes or until golden brown and bubbly.

Remove from oven, cool, and unmold from pan.  Serve warm or at room temperature.

Top with a dollop of fresh whipped cream or vanilla ice cream, if desired.

Serves 8

7 is the new 6, Writing with Abandon, and Baked French Toast

4 11 2012

Hello My Dear Readers!  I can’t believe it’s been nearly a month since I wrote a blog post.  I guess I feel obligated to toss you a recipe when I write to you, since this whole mess started as a cooking & dining review blog, and there has not been a lot of cooking going on up in the wee tree house apartment of late.  I have had other fish to fry (pun intended), hence my long silence.  Maybe you’ve enjoyed my relative silence.  Well, too bad – it’s over!

Squirrel Alert!

Squirrel Alert!

Last night I discovered there was a time change afoot for the hour of midnight.  I had been waiting for it all through October because I swear that’s when we usually do it.  Who gets to make decisions like when we switch from Daylight Savings Time back to Standard Time?  I want that job.  Think of the fun I could have!  Anyhow, I guess that means that 7:00am is the new 6:00am effective immediately.  The dog did not get the email and got me up at the old 6:00am.  Ugh.

While I was away not doing much cooking, I was indeed writing, just not for my blog.  I was developing background, places, characters, and other such input needed to craft my novel.  I have joined a crazy little writing phenomenon called the National Novel Writers Month, or NaNoWriMo for short.  Having already been fairly well indoctrinated into this long-standing group of nutty writing fanatics, I can tell you that we lovingly call this exercise ‘NaNo’ and those who participate ‘WriMos.’  I know, right?

What NaNoWriMo is all about is networking and providing support and encouragement to fellow writers while you all try to crank out a stunning 50,000 unedited words toward your latest novel project in the month of November.  It is totally an honor-based program in which you write and everyone else takes your word for it.  There is a feature on their website in which you can scramble a copy of your novel and upload it for official word-count verification at the end of the month, but that’s not required (and some paranoid types don’t want to send their manuscript anywhere for fear some great conspiracy exists to steal their idea – whatever).  If you get to 50K, you are considered a ‘winner.’  The point is to provide motivation to just get on with it and write, write, write thereby putting a substantial dent in your project in a short period of time.  Writers suffer from procrastination like the rest of us, and this undertaking is designed to get you over the hump and well on your way to completion of your project.  It’s like a 30 day crash diet for the overly verbose – shed those words in 30 days.  Hah – that’s pretty good.  I might have to use that again.  In case you are wondering, yes, some of the participants are actually published authors, including Sara Gruen (“Water for Elephants” et al) and many talented others.  So it’s not just for wannabes like me.

We have a somewhat active local group of WriMos here in the Wilmington area who get together to support one another in this endeavor at preparatory sessions, ‘write-ins’ and other such caffeine-laden events.  I have attended a preparatory event and the kick-off meeting.  I will attend at least one of the write-ins, though I really do my best writing in my pajamas in the living room in a noise-controlled, interruption-free environment.  But being accountable to a group of people to get this thing done is my motivation for joining them, so I will hold my own feet to the fire by showing up and networking.  I have picked up a few tips already, so it’s all good.

As I was sitting in the kick-off session a couple days ago during which questions were being asked by us newbies and answered by the more experienced, a young lady asked a question that brought out the worst of my snobby ego.  She proceeded to give some background about her story structure (there did not seem to be a firm plot yet, and this was the day to start writing) and was asking about how to decide whether she should write in first-person or third-person.  She said one of her dilemmas about first-person was that she wanted the protagonist, who moves to a new town, to initially keep some secrets from her new friends that she didn’t want to keep from the readers (she didn’t put it quite so eloquently, but that was the core question).  She didn’t know how to do that if her story was told in first person.  My bitchy ego was saying, “What? Let me replay that to make sure I heard her correctly…say what?”  I listened a bit more, and it became clear to me that she was indeed confusing the first-person narrative with dialogue.  My snobby ego was having a field day with this question in my head, saying things like, “What is she, like, 12 years old?”  After I listened to a couple people struggle to answer her and fail, I couldn’t resist speaking up.  Either they were just being nice, or they didn’t understand what she was asking because it was such an elementary writing question.  So I said, “I assume you will share your character’s thoughts in the novel and not just her spoken words.  If so, then I think you can tell your audience the secrets she is keeping through writing her thoughts.”  Lawd, I am such a bitch sometimes.  But really, isn’t this story-telling 101?  I mean, maybe she is tee-totally wasting her time here and should go play beer pong with the rest of her college buddies.  There is another college girl in the group who has been writing like this since she was a teenager and she totally gets it, so it’s not a question of youth.  At least I know her book, should she complete one, will not be competing with mine for readership.  Hah.

So if you don’t hear from me, that’s what I’m doing.  Writing my novel and trying not to be bitchy.  And working.  ‘Tis the season in retail, so I am a gift-basket-making, present-wrapping, bow-making, product-reordering, merry-(bleeping)-christmas-to-you-too-saying shopkeeper.  I really do love the pretty-making part of this time of year (I love wrapping and making gift baskets and bows), it’s all the paperwork and sense of urgency that piss me off.

But, anyhow, today I awoke an hour early (thanks to Buddy), though not really, with a desire for a sweet breakfast treat.  I am rarely about the sweet in the morning; that usually hits me in the evening.  But I need protein for fuel, so I decided to make some really eggy, custardy French toast with real maple syrup and butter to address both issues.  This is really easy and really good if you care to give it a whirl.  Nothing super special about it, it’s just a different method of preparing French toast that will remind you a bit of bread pudding.  As I am suffering from a touch of lactose intolerance these days, I am using coconut milk but you can use regular old milk of whatever variety you have in the fridge.  Oh, and you bake this in the oven, so it’s also a great time saver for a maniac writer like me who doesn’t want to waste precious writing time at the stove.

Pick a good loaf of crusty bread, slice it thick, and let the soak time and the oven work their magic.  You experienced cooks will recognize how easily this can be doubled, tripled, or quadrupled to feed any crowd.  Just get a bigger pan out of the pantry.

Get a fork!

Baked French Toast for Two (or one seriously distracted would-be author who will reheat it tomorrow)

4 thick-cut slices of Crusty Bread (I used toasted sunflower honey bread that I get at Harris Teeter)

3 large Eggs

¼ cup Milk (cow, goat, soy, coconut, whatever)

1 teaspoon Vanilla Extract (or any flavor you like, perhaps almond?)

Sprinkle of Sea Salt

Parchment Paper, if you hate messy cleanups like me and want this to look good on the plate (as opposed to prying it out of the pan all helter skelter)

Line a baking dish with the parchment paper.  I used a loaf pan for the quantity as written.  If you quadruple the batch it should fit nicely in a 13” x 9” baking dish or pan.  You could even arrange it in a non-stick oven-proof skillet if desired…but I digress.

Arrange the bread slices laying artfully in the pan, overlapping by half.  Trim the bread to fit the pan if desired, shoving the end bits into the nooks and crannies.  In a small mixing bowl, whisk the eggs and milk together until well combined and frothy.  Whisk in the vanilla. Pour egg mixture over the bread slices and let soak for a good while until all the egg mixture is absorbed into the bread (it will happen, just be patient – unless you’ve tried to substitute soft sandwich bread, then it ain’t never gonna happen).  Sprinkle with coarse sea salt (this really makes the sweetness of your topping pop out and say “good morning.”)

(Crazed Cook’s Note:  If you are a perfectionist like me, you can dirty just one more dish by placing the bread in a single layer in the shallow dish and soaking in the custard to ensure even distribution.  Then carefully transfer the bread to the baking dish and pour any remaining custard over, continuing the soak until it is all absorbed.  If you have used plain old white or wheat sandwich bread you have reached the point where you regret it as the bread will fall apart into mush when you try to transfer it.  I’m just sayin’ – go for the thick, crusty bread for this recipe.  If you are not that worried about it or are in a hurry, just arrange in the baking dish and pour the custard over, letting the tops of the bread slices go without the big soak – it will still be good.  Multi-textural.  Is that like multi-cultural? I’m not sure.)

Preheat the oven to 375oF and bake the French toast until nicely browned on top, about 30 minutes in my mini tree house apartment gas stove that is old as dirt.  In a spiffy new convection oven, I would bet on about 18-20 minutes.  In my electric oven in my previous house I would have done 400 degrees.  So follow your gut – you want crusty golden top and soft center but no runny egg stuff.

Remove from oven and rest for 5 minutes.  Two serving options:  Slide your spatula in between the bread shingles and serve them intact in sets of two; or cut as you would a coffee cake and serve in squares.

I like mine with ample butter and real maple syrup, but a nice warm fruit compote or heated raspberry preserves would be excellent as well.


“Real World” Pasta – My First Video

7 10 2012

I have been trying to get all the pieces and parts of posting a video in place for a while and have finally succeeded.  I hope you don’t get nauseated from the camera jumping around a bit, but kneading pasta with one hand while holding the camera with the other is, well, challenging.  Overall, I think it’s a solid first effort.

My video camera is my iPhone.  My editing software is Windows Live Movie Maker.  My studio is my tiny kitchen in my tiny “tree house” apartment, where there isn’t really counter space sufficient for rolling out pasta.  Somehow, with these crudest of tools, I managed to get it done.

I love me some Big & Rich – they are a riot.  They are also very generous with their time and put their money where their mouth is when it comes to what they believe.  I can respect that.  So I had to use their song “Real World” for this video because they talk about how things sometimes don’t work out how you want (which could have happened with the pasta, but luckily didn’t), and they mention being “a little bit messed up and broke,” and that is such a good description of me I thought it apropos of everything.  And so it is.

Now, if I can successfully upload a video that you, my dear readers, can actually watch – well, that will spell success.   Let me know what you think.  Remember that encouragement can lead to more of the same, so do what you must.

Lawd, I hope this works out.

Passata My Ass – and a great Pomodoro Sauce

27 09 2012

Have I mentioned before what a pain it is to be a food snob?  Working around the food business, owning and now managing a gourmet shop, and eating some seriously good food from New York City to Las Vegas and right here at home has turned me into a snob with a low tolerance for crappy food.  I have an even lower tolerance for people putting their mugs in front of TV cameras and acting as if they know something when they don’t.  I found a fellow blogger who has a seriously hard time with this food TV explosion we are experiencing and I love to read his rants.  Saves me from having to say things myself – I can just agree with him.

As tired as I am of most of the offerings on Food Network and Cooking Channel, I at least respect the fact that they run a tight ship and check their facts before letting their stars say things that aren’t true on camera.  I was watching Rachel Ray’s talk show on CBS the other morning – not on purpose, it was just on.  So she’s dumping this stuff that looks like chunky tomato juice into a pot on her stove and she calls the stuff Passata.  She proceeded to bumble and babble and fall flat on her face trying to explain what the hell passata is – and she failed.  She said it was like fresh tomatoes, but not really, and sold in a jar, not a can, and, well, just get some it’s real good.  Right.  She is clueless.  I don’t know what that stuff was she poured into the pot but it was way too chunky to be true passata.  Apparently she has fallen victim to some clever marketing on the part of someone who put some crushed tomatoes in a jar instead of a can and called it passata.  Americans are so gullible; our love affair with all things European has made a lot of folks very rich and perpetuated some serious BS.  I’m just sayin’.

Passata is, really, a pure tomato juice from which most of the pulp and all of the seeds has been removed through repeated pressing/juicing.  If you make it, it is indeed a very fresh taste that is a fabulous burst of flavor in the winter when fresh tomatoes are not growing in your backyard.  But if, like me, you don’t own a passapomodoro – the machine used to squish all the liquid out of the tomatoes – then you probably buy tomato juice or tomato puree in a can.  Just like me.  If you get the no-salt-added variety it is a delicious addition to many dishes.

Having gotten my knickers in a snit over Rach’s very public fumble that CBS didn’t bother to clean up before it aired on national television, I felt like cooking.  But I was still too sick so I didn’t.  Today, I think I may have turned the corner.  So I ventured out and picked up a few things I didn’t have so I can make lasagna because I need some stick-to-my-ribs comfort food.  Step one:  make the sauce.  I am making extra sauce to put a little in the freezer for later when I don’t want to cook.  If you have a family of four this is probably only enough sauce for one hearty meal.  Since I am but one person (and the dog is on a no-human-food diet), I will have extra.

There are two things I normally like to have for my tomato sauce that I didn’t have today: bay leaves and celery (you know I like my bay leaves because I ran out; most people have them forever, like, that same jar).  Hey, I’m not Italian, so there are no rules in my kitchen other than don’t burn anything if you can help it.  I know some Italians that would object to the bay leaves saying it was a Greek thing or a Turkish thing.  What.  Ever.  Anyhow, today I didn’t have bay leaves or celery, so I used the other usual suspects:  half a large onion; several small carrots; 4 large cloves of garlic that I chopped up fine with a teaspoon of salt; and a small summer squash (seeded) in lieu of the celery I didn’t have.  My seasonings were 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, 1 teaspoon cracked black pepper, 1 teaspoon dried oregano leaves (sort of in lieu of the bay leaves; the Italians would say it’s more of a pizzaiola sauce with the addition of the oregano – whatever), 1 teaspoon dried basil leaves, and another tablespoon of salt.  My tomato products were a large can (28 oz) of no-salt-added crushed tomatoes and a small can (6 oz) of no-salt-added tomato paste which I reconstituted in 3 cans of water (that’s 18 ounces of water for my math challenged friends).  I sautéed the diced vegetables in a couple tablespoons of olive oil until the onions were clear, then added the seasonings and tomato products.  Once the simmering starts in earnest, turn down to a bare simmer and just keep cooking, stirring every 15 minutes or so, until all the flavors develop and the sauce is thickened, about an hour.  I leave a lid on the pot tilted a bit so some steam can escape.  Now taste and adjust your seasonings.  I added a heaping tablespoon of sugar because the sauce was very acidic – a common problem with canned tomato products.  This does not make the sauce sweet at all; it neutralizes the acidity and makes the tomato flavor really rich.

The can makes a handy spoon rest too!

Now you can do anything you want with this sauce – dip bread in it, use it for your lasagna, toss it on pasta, dress your meatballs with it, use it as a pizza sauce – just any little thing you’d like to do!  You can easily double or triple this recipe for a big family gathering.  You can add some elegance with a ½ cup or so of dry red wine added to the veggies and cooked off for about 5 minutes before adding the tomato products.  You can use an immersion blender to completely puree the veggies to make this sauce smooth as silk.  Whatever floats your boat.  This is so much better than any sauce you can buy prepared, and it took me only 10 minutes to prepare and an hour to cook with very little effort on my part.  Low sodium, big flavor, easy peasy.

OK, time for me to eat.  Did I mention that my friend Roberta and her husband Jim have a bakery?  (Roberta is one of those Italians that would probably not approve of my bay leaf addition to the tomato sauce.)  If you are on Facebook check them out here.  She brought me bread and cookies yesterday.  That must be why I feel better today!  Yum.

Falafel: A Ball of Positive Energy

19 08 2012

“There are two kinds of people on the planet; people that bring you energy, and people who take energy away from you.”

“Take responsibility for the energy you bring.”

-Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, Harvard-Trained Neuroanatomist whose life was forever altered when she survived an AVM stroke

Some of you may think that the discussion I am undertaking here is bunk.  That’s OK, we are just in different places.  I’m not recruiting anyone to my way of thinking, I’m just sharing my thoughts in the event they may resonate with someone else.  Rest assured that I am not crazy or dangerous; I am merely on a quest to live more authentically, love more deeply, be more connected to the world outside of me, and live life to the fullest.  If that’s not your thing, this is your exit cue.

My journey toward self-improvement and enlightenment is taking me a lot of places I never would have thought I’d go – places in my mind, my consciousness, that are so drastically different from the self-centered, self-obsessed life I have lived until this last year.  That’s not to say that I was an egomaniac, just that I really didn’t know how to connect with others on a truly meaningful level and had a very different perspective on things as a result.  So think of me as a grown up kid in the candy store that is a meaningful life.  Every day I am having ‘aha!’ moments on scales both large and small and it’s a blast.

To some people, saying something like, “I can’t take all this negative energy” is the equivalent of kids speaking in Pig Latin; to them, its goofy gibberish made up by some kooky woman having a mid-life crisis.  But some of you know exactly what I’m talking about.  To me, negative energy is:  a negative attitude; hostility; self-centeredness; greed; ulterior motives – attempts to manipulate or control others; being in a ‘bad mood’; ignoring other people.  I could go on, but I think you get the idea.  I sometimes emit negative energy; I am human and it is part of the experience.  But instead of just acting out of that negative place like I used to, I am now trying to maintain an awareness of my tendency toward negativity and use it as a thermometer of sorts to check my own state of being and correct it.  (Dude, quit rolling your eyes.  I warned you that you might want to go read another blog – this is going to get deep.)

For me, hunger, anger, loneliness, exhaustion, a sense of being overwhelmed, frustration, pain, illness – these are some of the things that can lead to negative energy and actions.  So when I identify that I am being negative (cranky, self-centered, short tempered), I now try to identify what the cause might be and address it so I can once again emit positive energy.  Ignoring it will not make it better; it will only get worse until the need I am experiencing gets met.  Hunger is a huge trigger for me, followed closely by being tired.  If I am hungry or tired I can be like a beast just ripping everything and everyone in my path to shreds.  My path to a more meaningful life demands that I learn to avoid being too hungry or tired by making it a priority to eat well and get enough rest.  I suck at this, and have consequently been a little cranky lately.  As soon as I eat I am better, and getting a good night’s sleep is like having a personality transplant.  Despite knowing this, I still struggle to make eating and sleeping a priority.  Why, I’m not sure.

Perhaps my dilemma is a simple matter of overcoming long-held habits.  For now, that’s how I’m approaching it.  I just have to practice taking better care of myself and slowly I will get better at it.  Also, this concept of putting myself first in healthy ways is new to me.  I am not speaking of selfishness; I am talking about how if I want to be useful and helpful to others, I have to have a full tank of energy – positive energy.  I am not talking about wanting people to do things my way or getting something from them; I am talking about taking responsibility for myself, meeting my own needs, and then offering up my extra energy to help someone else.

In the past, it was my habit to neglect myself to do things for other people, and then be ticked off when other people didn’t take care of me in return.  That circular logic was the problem; I was martyring myself hoping it would result in others embracing, loving, and caring for me.  When you peel back the layers of that thinking, it’s pretty selfish.  My thought process was something like, “Look at me; I do all this for other people and no one does anything for me!  I haven’t even had breakfast and it is 3pm.  Look at the sacrifices I make for them!”  This, sadly, was how I thought.  This may be a rather simplified example, but it’s all in there.  I may have come by it honestly, having grown up seeing this behavior modeled for me.  But it’s high time I learn to put myself first in a healthy way and stop being a cranky martyr.

The fact is that no one is going to take care of me; I have to do it for myself.  Likewise, I am not obligated to take care of anyone else.  When children are young, we have an obligation to do for them what they cannot do for themselves and teach them how to take care of themselves and contribute to the family in an appropriate way.  At some point as they grow it becomes their job to feed, clothe, and bathe themselves; get out of bed on time for school or work; and do their fair share around the house to help out.  As an adult, it is my job to establish boundaries that dictate that I do these things for myself and put others on hold, if need be, to get them done.  Not until my basic needs are met do I have the positive energy needed to help others.  Trying to do things for others when my basic needs haven’t been met is a recipe for negative energy and bad outcomes.

For me, the magic in this process has been in the spaces between these behavior changes.  (Dude, are you still here?  Well, then, pay attention now.)  Some of you know the space I am talking about.  It’s the space-time between the thought about what to do next and the doing of it.  It is also in the space-time right after having done the right thing and the peace that comes in that moment.  In that moment, nothing more needs to be said, there is no frustration, and I realize that everything is just exactly as it is supposed to be.  I don’t have to fight my way through situations; I can just let them be.  You know that warm, cozy, comfortable feeling you get after a satisfying meal?  In that moment, all of my needs are met and I’m a great big ball of happy love.  It doesn’t last very long – maybe a couple of hours at most.  But now that I have experienced it, it makes me want to do it again and again.  Taking care of myself and being a nicer person for it is addictive.  I like positive energy; I want to have more of it and give more of it.

Speaking of satisfying food, who among us doesn’t like some fried things every now and then?  Oh, come on, you know you do.  You may be avoiding them, but you know you love them.  I recently did some research into Egyptian cuisine for a cooking class I gave.  I was familiar with some of the common foods of Egypt but have a new appreciation for them after my research, and after making them myself.  The emphasis is on affordable, satisfying foods.  The one dish that I made that I am still thinking about almost daily is the Falafel.

For the uninitiated, Falafel is a fried ball of dough that is packed with protein and flavor.  It’s the Middle Eastern equivalent of French fries, seen and sold everywhere, only better for you.  If you like spicy food, you can add more chili flakes or a few dashes of tabasco.  If the amount and variety of herbs I use here seems a bit too busy for your palate, just use parsley and skip the coriander (cilantro) and dill.  Containing mostly garbanzo or fava beans with a little bulgur wheat, these delectable nuggets are very high in protein and could be the main course if you were so inclined.  They will certainly satisfy your hunger and replenish your energy.

That’s the other thing I am having a blast with on this journey toward a more meaningful life:  freedom.  While certain choices come with more consequences or responsibilities than others, I am free to do any darn thing I choose – including eating falafel for dinner.  I’m just sayin’.

2 cups canned Chickpeas or Fava Beans, drained well (or 1 cup dried, soaked in water overnight, then drained)

½ large Onion, roughly chopped (about 1 cup)

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh Parsley

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh Cilantro

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh Dill

1 teaspoon salt

1/2-1 teaspoon dried red chili flakes or cayenne powder

4 cloves of Garlic

1 teaspoon Cumin

1 teaspoon Baking Powder

4-6 tablespoons Whole Wheat or Bulgar Wheat Flour

Soybean or Vegetable Oil, for frying

Place the drained chickpeas and the onions in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Add the parsley, cilantro, salt, hot pepper, garlic, and cumin.  Process until blended but not pureed.

Sprinkle in the baking powder and 4 tablespoons of the flour, and pulse. You want to add enough bulgur or flour so that the dough forms a small ball and no longer sticks to your hands. Turn into a bowl and refrigerate, covered, for several hours.

Form the bean mixture into balls about the size of walnuts.

Heat 3 inches of oil to 375oF in a deep pot or wok and fry 1 ball to test.  If it falls apart, add a little flour.  Then fry about 6 balls at once for a few minutes until deep golden brown.  Drain on paper towels.

Makes about 20.

On Having Faith: Trust the Cheese Straw Recipe

29 07 2012

Busted.  That’s what I was yesterday during a cooking class when my cheese straws came out like cheddar fricos because I didn’t use all the flour.  The dough seemed stiff enough, and I know from making bread that sometimes you don’t need all the flour depending on the humidity and heat in your kitchen.  Well, I needed all the flour.  Fortunately I had half the dough left, so I worked in some more flour and cut some more cheese straws.  They came out great.  My foible no doubt made it clear to the students that their instructor had not tested the recipe recently.  At least we know the recipe is reliable; the instructor, perhaps not so much.

This was a simple case of me doubting the recipe because I hadn’t made it in a while and I didn’t have a feel for the texture. I panicked and tried to cover for my insecurity by using less flour, hoping to control the outcome.  I hear you saying, “How’d that work out for you?” I should have trusted my recipe – it is, after all, the only wise thing to do in such circumstances, and it had worked before.

These cheese straws are a metaphor for my life.  I have all this evidence that I am being guided through my life at this stage by a loving, caring life source that wants the best for me.  Everything is working out just the way it is supposed to be.  It doesn’t look like I thought it would, but all is well.  When I focus on the task at hand and trust the process, everything turns out fine.  So often I get caught up in trying to effect a certain outcome that it becomes a sort of self-fulfilled prophesy:  Being focused on the outcome causes me to miss critical details in the process and leads to failure.  Staying in the moment, focusing on the task at hand, and doing the right thing along the way almost always yields a favorable outcome.  When I try to control the outcome, that’s when things go awry.

Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary defines faith as:  2b (1): firm belief in something for which there is no proof (2): complete trust.  Lack of faith is de rigeuer among the young; they haven’t accumulated enough experiences yet to conceive of the possibility that there is a power greater than themselves at work in the universe.  How and when we begin to acquire right-sized egos and realize we are not the center of the universe varies greatly; some of us never get it.

I spent most of my life operating from the flawed premise that I was responsible for everything and anything that went wrong was all my fault.  This belief sprung from a chaotic childhood, nurtured by normal teenage angst and self-importance, and reinforced by a life in the military where I was held accountable not only for my actions but those of my subordinates.  I now see that I am not responsible for everything; only for my own thoughts and actions.  You are responsible for yourself and I don’t have to be concerned about your actions or choices.  Everything will be OK if I just take care of myself and strive to be the best person I can be.

Now in my late fourties, I think I am only beginning to really understand about faith and how I fit into the big scheme of things.  I am just beginning to get over myself and trust that everything will be fine even if I don’t do a thing to try to control it.  It turns out I am not all that.  Hah.

I can, however, guarantee that this cheese straw recipe will come out perfectly if you follow it exactly.  I am not giving you a picture because, well, I didn’t take one.  Have faith.

Someone else’s homemade cheese straws, for reference

For those who are not acquainted, here’s a picture of someone else’s homemade cheese straws.  They are the southern answer to potato chips, and there are as many variations as there are families in the south.  Add some garlic powder, more cayenne, or a tablespoon of tomato paste with the butter and some dried Italian seasoning to make tomato-basil cheese straws.  Let your imagination run wild!

Cheddar Cheese Straws

1 pound Sharp Cheddar Cheese, grated

1 ¼ cups All-Purpose Flour

¼ pound Butter, softened to room temperature

½ teaspoon Salt

¼ teaspoon ground Cayenne Pepper

Cream the butter with the cheese, salt, and cayenne pepper.  Add the flour and mix well.

Roll out to 1/2” thickness and cut into strips, or pack into a cookie press and press into 4” strips.

Bake in a 350oF oven for 25 minutes or until light brown.

Makes about 100 4” x ½” straws.



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