Blast from the past

Changing is part of growing up, part of becoming who we really are, a constant process. We make mistakes along the way, some of us more than others, and those mistakes shape us just as much as our successes. I’ve had a fair helping of both, and I hope you all have too.

I don’t claim to know everything, I don’t claim to be flawless, and I know I’ve been wrong about things many times in my short 30 years (don’t tell the Hubs though, because I don’t admit this to him!). But what I hope is that at the end of every day, I can rest my head knowing I’ve been the best person I can be, most of the time.

This past year is almost over, and it’s been an interesting one. A couple of scary telephone calls is about all it takes to make you realize that your friends and family members, even your parents, are mortals. A couple of arguments, falling-outs with friends, is about all it takes to make you realize that your relationships will change, and that even your closest friends may one day seem like strangers you pass in the cereal aisle. A couple of new friends, and new traditions, is about all it takes to make you realize that it doesn’t matter when you meet, or how you meet, but that you’ve met. Change is good, for better or for worse.

And as strange as it might seem, a recipe about pimento cheese is completely and totally appropriate here, today, this year. On the surface, the reason is more apparent – I used to hate pimento cheese (pimento cheese sandwiches were more common than PB&J during my childhood), and this recipe was gobbled up as if it were bread pudding itself. Kris and I were both watching Food Network one night, and in moments we were texting about pimento cheese, and the perfection that was an appetizer at a restaurant in my hometown.


But even below the surface, this recipe is appropriate. A little less of this, a little more of that, this recipe was tweaked and adjusted along the way, based on how I remember it to be, a couple of years ago. It’s an interpretation of what used to be, but an adjustment too - spicier, warmer, and robust, but also a little bit rustic, craggy along the edges. It’s not exactly what I remember, but it’s close. Like so many things, pimento cheese may have its rough patches in our minds, but we try to forget those, if we can, and we try, as hard as we can, to move on.

Baked Pimento Cheese Spread
chiknpastry recipe, inspired by Chef & the Farmer; makes ~3 cups

time commitment: less than 1 hour

this ain’t no store-bought tub of pimento cheese spread, that’s for sure. you could make the pimento cheese without the sausage and eat it cold, like i was forced to during my childhood (although now, i’d probably like it), or you can add the sausage, which is what the folks at Chef & the Farmer do – hence the recipe.

printable version

ingredients
2 T onion, small dice
1 clove garlic, minced
8 oz hot sausage (Jimmy Dean)
1 8oz package Neufchâtel cheese
1 c extra-sharp cheddar cheese
1 c gruyere cheese
1 4 oz jar diced pimentos, rinsed & drained
2 T mayo
1/4 t kosher salt
pinch of fresh ground pepper
1/4 t cayenne pepper

for serving: thinly sliced and toasted baguette, veggie sticks, crackers, etc.

instructions
heat skillet over medium-hi heat. add garlic and onion, and cook for 1-2 minutes or until soft. add sausage and cook until browned completely. let cool, and use paper towels to remove as much fat/drippings as possible from the sausage.

meanwhile, make the pimento cheese. in a large bowl, combine Neufchâtel cheese through cayenne pepper, and using a mixer on medium speed, blend thoroughly. add salt and pepper to taste.

preheat oven to 350 F. add sausage mixture to pimento cheese and mix together. bake in an ovenproof dish for 15-20 minutes, until browned on top and bubbly.

Turnip the Volume

Does everyone go through a ‘cooking funk’ every now and then? Does everyone wanna come home from work and not stand in the kitchen – chopping veggies, sauteing, cleaning – every now and then? Does everyone who joins a CSA look at the produce they’ve been given and say, “What in the hell am I going to do with this shit?” every now and then?

If not, then I’m totally off my rocker this time. But I have a feeling I’m not standing in this barren, gritty field all alone, am I now?

Don’t get me wrong. I love to cook, 95% of the time. I love to come home and hang my bag on my kitty hook in the hallway, toss my shoes down towards the bedroom, occasionally spin some tunes in the background, and practically meditate in front of stainless steel & granite –  chopping veggies, sauteing, and even cleaning. But the 5% does occur (5% of the time, actually). Being part of a CSA is unfortunate during those times, because the produce glares at me each time I open the pantry or the crisper drawer, and each time I open the freezer to see a plethora of meats, various cuts and types, piled high amidst peas, ‘pickle sickles’, and turkey stock.

Turkey stock. I must have overlooked it dozens of times this year already, since I vaguely recall tossing it in there last Thanksgiving weekend. Seeing turkey stock was all I needed, this time, to ‘knock the funk away’. When the CSA gives you a bag of root veggies and you’ve got a tub of stock in the freezer, it only means one thing: soup. Plus, what else is one to do with three big ol’ turnips anyway?!

I’ll admit I’ve never made turnip soup, nor have I seen many recipes for it elsewhere. And I’m not sure I’d want to eat it solo, but I’ve learned that winter squash makes just about anything taste good, brussel sprouts aside. One of my favorite parts of fall is the abundance of the winter squash crops, and we seem to always have a variation of it lying around, which is perfect when a plan for soup suddenly emerges.

So even though I wasn’t necessarily excited about cooking anything these last couple of weeks, thanks be to the turkey stock, I managed to find a little inspiration to not make those veggies wither away (although truthfully, it would take a lot for the humongous turnips to wither away…). The soup is hearty and definitely has that turnip-y taste, but the squash really provides a nice accent so balance it out, I think. And for spice, I thought a nice kick of chipotle chile powder and smoked paprika might turn the volume up, just a tad. Of course, if you’re like our downstairs neighbors and you like things nice and quiet, you can reduce the spices, but that’s just plain silly, if you ask me.

Roasted Turnip & Squash Chipotle Soup
chiknpastry recipe; serves 8-10

time commitment: 1 hour, 45 minutes (most of which is inactive)
other: freezes well

it doesn’t take much to whip up a comforting soup – honest. veggies, spices, and broth is generally all you need. Here, the squash works well with turnips which to me taste sort of bitter and cabbage-y. the squash adds the sweetness and tames the turnips, i think. you’ll note the recipe here calls for diced squash, but you can certainly halve them and roast them the “lazy way”, which is what I do!

printable version

ingredients
2 delicata squash, peeled and cut into 1″ pieces
3 turnips, peeled and cut into 1″ pieces
2 T chipotle chili powder
1 T smoked paprika
salt and pepper
evoo
1 onion, large dice
2 firm apples, large dice
3 garlic cloves, minced
36 oz turkey or chicken stock or broth
18 oz water
1 T oregano, chopped
1 T agave nectar

instructions
preheat oven to 350 F.  in a large bowl, toss squash and  turnips with chipotle powder, paprika, salt and pepper and olive oil. turn onto foil-lined baking sheets. roast until tender, about 1 hour. cool slightly.

meanwhile, heat about 1 T of oil in a large heavy pot (dutch oven is perfect) over med-hi heat. add onion, apples, and garlic; saute 5 minutes. add broth, water, oregano, and squash/turnip mixture. bring to boil; reduce heat to med-low and simmer uncovered for 30 minutes.

working in batches (or using immersion blender), puree soup until smooth. return to pot. at this time, if soup is too thick, add more water to thin, being sure to heat through. stir in agave nectar. season to taste with salt and pepper and finish with a splash of half & half, if desired.

Hog Wild

Pulled pork (aka barbeque) is something Southerners can sometimes get a little peculiar about. The Texans have their brisket, but you best not show up elsewhere and expect to hear ‘beef’ and ‘barbeque’ in the same sentence. Everyone has their own special way to make pulled pork, but the general assumption is that it’s cooked ‘low and slow’, and smoked. On a grill or in the oven? Charcoal? A spice rub or sauce prior to cooking? The choices are limitless.

And although choices are aplenty, I won’t pretend to be unbiased in where I stand on the barbeque itself – I prefer the whole pig smoked outdoors on the ‘pig cooker’, practically overnight (preferably over a few beers in the wee hours of the morning), simply seasoned, and doused in vinegar and not much else. In that respect, I am Eastern NC through and through.

In fact, for Christmas dinner one year, my Aunt Faye and some other folk did just that – we had a certified pig pickin’, sans turkey and all that other mess, and ate outdoors on paper plates, with cups of sweet tea at our feet and coleslaw and hushpuppies crowding our plates. It was blissful, and while I fancy the turkey and stuffing, I’ll gleefully admit that the ‘year of the pig’ was one of my favorites, dinner-wise.

Before I go any further, let’s discuss the sauce a bit. You see, the sauce that covers said pork has various areas divided for eternity, probably moreso than any culinary tiff, definitely any tiff in the South. The battle primarily takes place in NC, where a vertical line divides the state in two halves, a tomato at the root of all evil.  Western NC sauce is sweet, with tomato, while Eastern sauce is hot and spicy, tomato-less, and if I must be truthful – the best. You’ve also got the crazies from South Carolina who use mustard as their main sauce ingredient, and I’ve seen other versions as well, but I daresay these are the main three.

With all this said, you may have noticed by now that the pictures you see before you are in fact not my ideal version of pulled pork (i.e., you see pork shoulder, rather than the whole pork, which wouldn’t be weird if we were referring to Western barbeque since they tend to only use the shoulder). You may remember that I live in a condo in Chicago, and as a result I seriously doubt we’d be able to procure a pig cooker for our balcony, let alone locate a whole hog to toss on the cooker. You may also be thinking to yourself that you’ve already seen pulled pork here before, and you’d be correct there too. But those of us who like our NC barbeque and can’t get “the real deal” regularly have to improvise, and by improvise I mean find a recipe that sounds pretty decent, and one that works with balconies and less than a backyard full of people.

This recipe was interesting to me for a couple of reasons. For one, there was no spice rub (!), but instead a generous basting of a mustard sauce, which scared me a little. Also, it utilized two techniques – a low and slow stint in the oven followed by a brief visit to the grill, with wood chips. It seemed to be a good combo, so I gave it a whirl, with a few adjustments along the way.

The end result is an incredibly juicy hunk o’ pork that could possibly feed a roomful, but in our world it fed four of us, with a little leftover. I like to think of that as a testament to how good it was, and as it turns out, the mustard gave the pork a nice flavor, but the smoke is really where it’s at. Of course, it doesn’t quite compare to the barbeque back ‘home’, but in the meantime, it will most certainly do.

Carolina Pulled Pork
Adapted loosely from Food & Wine, September 2010; serves 8

time commitment: 10 hours (1 hour active time)

printable version (pork & sauce)

ingredients
¾ c Dijon mustard
2 T dark brown sugar
2 T kosher salt
2 T pepper, freshly ground
1 T smoked paprika
1 T onion powder
8 lbs bone-in pork shoulder (Boston butt)
2 c mesquite wood chips, soaked in water for 30 minutes, drained
Eastern NC bbq sauce (below)

Special stuff: a thermometer with a cord that can go into the oven is perfect for this so that you don’t have to constantly check the temperature. For the first stage of cooking, plan for about 1 hour / pound of meat.

instructions
Preheat oven to 225 F. in a medium bowl, whisk together mustard through onion powder. Set the pork shoulder, fat side up, in a roasting pan. Brush pork with mustard mixture and roast, uncovered, for ~8 hours, or until the internal temperature registers ~170 F.

If there are any roasting juices (not fat, juices), pour them into a measuring cup and refrigerate to separate fat. Keep at room temperature after fat is poured off.

Heat grill to 400 F. line roasting pan with aluminum foil and scatter the presoaked wood chips over the bottom. Place pork back in roasting pan. Put roasting pan on grill and close; smoke until internal temperature of meat reaches 185-190 F.

Transfer pork to work surface and let rest for 30 minutes. Pull meat off the bones and discard bones and outer layer of fat that’s remaining. Using two forks, finely shred the pork and transfer it to a large bowl. Toss meat with some of the bbq sauce and roasting juices (if any). Serve with bbq sauce and coleslaw!

Vinegar-Based Eastern NC bbq Sauce
chiknpastry recipe; makes 2 cups

printable version (sauce only)

ingredients
1.5 c apple cider vinegar
1 c water
1 T tomato paste
4 T dark brown sugar
1 T crushed red pepper flakes
2 t smoked paprika
1 t chile powder

instructions
combine all ingredients in small saucepan and bring to boil. reduce heat and simmer for about 30 minutes. add more red pepper flake, if desired.

Battle Eggplant: Holy Heaviness

How persistent of a person would you say you are? Stubborn as an ox? A total pushover? Or maybe somewhere in the middle? Truth be told, I waver depending on the subject. Do I really wanna pick a fight about the best road to take to get home from the grocery store? No, because one way or another, we’ll get there anyway, and what’s five more minutes (and knowing in my head that I was right, whether or not I verbalize that thought)? Do I often times end up emptying out the dishwasher an extra time or two because it’s just easier than the annoyance of piling dishes up at the sink? Sure, but I’m willing to bet I miss a few chores myself, so that probably balances out at some point.

Other times I’m a little more obstinate. My cat will always be prettier than yours (even when she’s resting her head on our dishes), and Eastern NC barbecue sauce will always be better than the clunky stuff they make elsewhere (although I will admit that it doesn’t mean the others taste bad, per se). And when it comes to figuring out a recipe, let’s just say that if it doesn’t go the way I initially planned, I am definitely fit to be tied.

I think we all have our f-ups in the kitchen though, right? I don’t so much mind talking about them, but I certainly don’t feel the need to waste real estate here by posting the recipes, pictures, etc. I hope that’s ok with everyone, but if it’s not, I’m also pretty stubborn about how I feel on this matter, and so arguing about it won’t help you all that much…

Remember when we went to Seattle earlier this year? Remember me talking about all the good food we ate (of course, before Hub’s bout with food poisoning…)? I also briefly mentioned a dish I tried that we had at Poppy – eggplant fries – and sadly that dish was lackluster at best. It’s been lurking in the back of my mind ever since.

And although I like eggplant, it definitely isn’t a veggie I regularly find on my grocery list. Last time I made it was during crazy vegetarian month, but thanks to Hope and her choosing aubergine for the past weekend’s Iron Chef battle, it was time for redemption. Hope may not have been physically present at this Battle, given her recent move (sniff sniff), but she was certainly there in spirit since this was an ingredient truly reminiscent of vegetarian cuisine.

That said, I immediately knew that the eggplant fries would make a comeback, and that this time I’d cut them more thinly and fry them at a consistently high heat to make them somewhat crispy. Round two was much better, but if there is a round three I might even try baking them to reinforce a little crunchiness.

Usually, I spend a relatively significant amount of time searching for the perfect recipe. One may be an inspired dish, or something I’ve been wanting to try, but generally I resort to google, Epicurious, or some cookbooks for the second recipe. This time, I didn’t bother, because no matter how unoriginal it was, I couldn’t think of anything but a classic baba ganoush. As expected, two of us had that thought in mind, but I was ok with that. You may have noticed – food tends to be one thing I don’t waver on much – are you surprised? By the way, that naan from last week is the perfect match with the smoky baba ganoush. Do it.

Anyways, we had a good turnout this time, with three newcomers and 13 dishes laden with eggplant. And with the eggplant came those perfect pairings – carbs, cheese, and tomatoes – enough to weigh that belly down nearly to the point of a food coma, but not quite enough that I couldn’t stomach a few second tastes and a fair share of wine. I mean, really, a girl’s gotta make up for not having dessert this time, right?!

*

The Top Three:

  1. Becca’s Marinated Eggplant (middle)
  2. Katherine’s Eggplant Gouda Pie (top right)
  3. Jennifer’s Eggplant “Pizza” (top left)

Strangely enough, this is the first time my three favorite dishes have made it to the top three, and placed in the exact order I chose. Newbie Becca’s marinated eggplant was a spoon-sized Asia in a bowl – a perfect combo of chile sauce with lingering heat, fish sauce for the saltiness (at least I think that’s what it was), and the sweetness provided by my favorite item, brown sugar. Newbie Katherine’s pie couldn’t have made me happier – I mean, what’s better than a flaky pie crust with smoky Gouda? And Jennifer’s eggplant pizza? It’s a good thing she lives 6 blocks away instead of 3, or else I might have followed her home and snuck into her fridge that very night for more.

Sadly, this battle of eggplants may have been the last of summer up here in the good ol’ Midwest. While the days seem to be getting a little shorter, the nights a little cooler, and the produce more autumnal, I’m not sure I’m quite ready to give up on Summer. The down side? this is probably one of those battles where persistence is a lost cause, but I might stomp my feet just a little bit longer after all.

Baba Ganoush
Adapted from various sites; serves 12-15

printable version

ingredients
2 small eggplants (close to 2 lbs)
evoo
5 T sesame seeds, toasted
1 lemon, juiced
1 t cumin
2 cloves garlic, minced
smoked sea salt, to taste
cilantro, chopped, for garnish

instructions
heat grill to med-hi. slice eggplants in half and run over with oil. grill, flipping occasionally, for 15-20 minutes, until soft. remove from grill and let cool; peel skin off leaving a little of the char for flavor. chop coarsely and add to medium sized bowl.

grind toasted sesame seeds in spice grinder until a paste forms (or, grind by hand in mortar and pestle). add to bowl with eggplant; add remaining ingredients. add smoked sea salt to taste. top with chopped cilantro.

Eggplant Fries
inspired by Poppy, in Seattle

printable version

ingredients
canola oil, for frying
1 large eggplant
3/4 c ap flour, or ap gluten-free flour
1 T smoked paprika
1/2 T ground ginger
1 T oregano
salt & pepper
sea salt
mint, chopped, for garnish
honey, for drizzling

instructions
in a large pot (preferably a Dutch oven), fill canola oil to about 3 inches. bring heat up to 350 F. meanwhile, peel eggplant and slice into thin strips.

in a large bowl, toss together flour and spices, along with salt and pepper. using tongs, toss eggplant fries into flour mixture and then into the oil, once heated. fry by the handful for 3-5 minutes, until golden brown. remove and let drain on paper towel-lined plate. toss with sea salt immediate after removing from oil.

serve on platter, drizzle with honey and garnish with fresh mint.

*Dishes from picture of 9 above, L to R: eggplant pizza, chinese eggplant, eggplant gouda pie, east african eggplant stew, marinated eggplant, baba ganoush, eggplant caponata, eggplant-tomato marmalade, eggplant-crab-shrimp casserole

Dang, We’re Stuffed

Is a break from life awesome, or what? I don’t care how great of a city you live in, or how much you like your job and if you have them, your kids and/or your pets - vacay is where it’s at.

As is customary for the trips we take, we had plenty of fun and ate plenty of food. Stay tuned for a condensed recap, complete with pictures once they’re finally uploaded and edited in their entirety.

Until then, let’s just say that aside from the speeding ticket and the pretty little string of poison oak on my arm, it was a freakin’ blast. I think we ate fish & chips exactly twice (the first and last days), and between those times we consumed our fair share of Tillamook cheese, homemade granola bars, cookies, lots of cuisine a la Thomas Keller, and more. Oh, and wine too.

But now, it’s time to get back to reality (oops there goes gravity… sorry for that Eminem throw-in), and along with that, it means I have to start cooking again, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, let’s be honest. Cooking is one thing I don’t tend to complain about. But it does mean that from time to time, I have to think fast in the event that the CSA produce changes between the time I procure the remainder of my grocery list ingredients and plan recipes for the week. As such, a night that was supposed to involve some sweet corn cookin’ (the fresh corn pesto only had to wait a few days) instead turned into two big ol’ peppers staring me in the face, and a rumbling stomach.

Sure, I could have sliced ‘em up and made some sorta stir fry, but the peppers – they were so perfectly shaped and as a result all I could think about was retaining that shape as much as possible by stuffing the hell out of ‘em. Of course, all of those plans go awry when said stuffed peppers are baked and come out smelling like an Italian restaurant – but something tells me you wouldn’t fault me one bit for demolishing them in a matter of moments, would ya?

Sausage-Stuffed Peppers
Serves 4

printable version

ingredients
4 green bell peppers
1 lb Italian sausage
1/2 white onion, medium diced
2 celery stalks, medium diced
1 garlic scape or clove, minced
8 oz cherry tomatoes, halved
15 oz can tomato sauce
salt and pepper
basil, roughly (but gently) chopped
parmesan cheese (to your taste)

instructions
preheat oven to 350 F. remove tops from peppers and if necessary, remove a little from the bottom, careful not to create a hole in the pepper, but just enough so they stand straight. remove seeds and sit upright on a sprayed baking sheet.

in a large skillet over medium-hi heat, cook sausage. when cooked through, drain some of the oil, then add onion, celery, and garlic. saute about 5 more minutes.

meanwhile, heat tomato sauce and tomatoes; add in basil and season to taste.

combine about 1/2 c of the tomato sauce with the cooked sausage mixture and stuff into each of 4 peppers. sprinkle with about 1 T cheese for each pepper and bake for about 10  minutes. pour more tomato sauce into pepper, add a little more cheese, and bake another 5 minutes.

Straight from Bombay

My good friend, Cheryl, used to have a boyfriend. He was (still is) of Indian descent, and he was one pretty cool guy. He liked hip-hop music and Escalades (neither of those necessarily made him cool, and I’m not sure why I keep saying these things in the past-tense, because I’m sure he still likes hip-hop and Escalades). What was my favorite thing about him, you might ask? I’d be hard-pressed to decide between his dance skillz and his ability to make a killer masala chai.

Oh, Lordy-me-oh-my, that stuff was good enough to make you consider selling your first-born child for a lifetime supply of it. Though he’s not around anymore, I’m willing to bet he could be found through a simple Facebook search, and if I do find him, I might ask him if he’d like to have an “ultra-white” blue-eyed, blonde-haired raggamuffin. But then, if he said yes, I’d have to give up wine for 9 months, and I’m not sure if I’m ready for that, especially with a trip to the west coast in my near future (!!), and a hopeful excursion to “the boot” next year (!!!).

Now before I go on waxing poetic about this guy (actually, I was finished), let me say that Cheryl’s new (if you consider new to mean almost 3 years old) squeeze is way more awesome, and I’m not just saying that just because he reads my blog. I’m saying that because he has a motorcyle. And a boat. And, he let Hubs borrow his “De-troits” when we visited them a couple of weeks ago. Also, he has mad photo skillz (to make up for what I would assume to be lackluster dance skillz, although I can’t say I’ve ever seen him cut a rug, or try to, even – it’s just a hunch) and he can make a Mediterranean pizza that might just make me consider trading in my second-born for a constant supply of that. I get the impression that I’d have to up the ante though, cause I doubt Cheryl wants a lil’ Wetzel running around her house, and quite frankly, I’d prefer our bedroom there to be free of mobiles, onesies, and poo.

Back to this chai business. I seem to be losing focus today, don’t I? I’m gonna try to push through, because I do want to talk about this lovely concoction you see here. My breakfast rotation was starting to become a bit stale, if you will, and let me tell ya – I heart the granola bar, I do. But I was in need of a change, actually just a slight variation, you see. I wanted something a little less chewy, but not lacking in flavor or texture otherwise. I wanted to make it myself, because I do adore homemade breakfasts. I wanted there to be oats, and fruit, and nuts (oh, my!), and distinct flavors that wake me up in the morning, sans caffeine.

So quite clearly, what I wanted was granola spiced with all those Indian flavors that you find in a masala chai, those flavors that remind me of those few times the ex-boyfriend-of-my-friend-and-still-Indian-guy-with-the-dance-skillz made when he was visiting.

And since, at some point during the process of contemplating this recipe, I’ve decided that I would probably like to keep my first- (and possibly second-) born children, when and if I have them, I figured it best to make my own spice mix, and that I did. I’m guessing, no I’m quite certain, that you can buy what they call “chai spice” mix from your local spice store, but making it really is just as easy if you’ve got a few seconds. You can do like I did and use ground spices as a short-cut, or you can really keep it real by using whole spices.

Either way, when you do make it, and when you get your hands into that bowl of fresh-made chai-spiced granola, thank those folks from South Asia for their lovely spices. Or me, really – the one phrase I learned during my one German class was, ironically, “Ich komme aus Bombay“.

ps – Happy Birthday Cheryl – this one’s for you!

Vanilla-Chai Spiced Granola
makes ~20 servings (1/2 c each)

okay, this probably seems like a lot of granola – you wouldn’t be wrong in saying that. but here’s the thing: it keeps for weeks, so why not make a boat-load of it?! store in the fridge for weeks, give to friends, or eat it by the handful over a weekend. Your choice. and if you choose to not make this much, it easily halves.

by the way, this granola is awesome with plain yogurt, or with a little milk poured over it. or by the handful, as previously suggested.

printable version

ingredients
6 c rolled oats*
2 c coarsely chopped nuts (I used pecans and hazelnuts)
1/2 c unsweetened shredded coconut
5 T packed brown sugar
1/2 t kosher salt
1 T ‘chai’ spice blend (recipe below)
1/2 t vanilla extract
1/3 c agave nectar
1/3 c blackstrap molasses
4 T vegetable oil
1 c dried fruit (I used blueberries and golden raisins)

instructions
Preheat oven to 300 F. Line two standard-sized baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, mix oats through vanilla. Combine oil, agave nectar, and molasses in a small saucepan and heat until mixed thorougly and just-boiling. Remove from heat and pour over granola mixture.

Spread 1/2 of mixture on one baking sheet and the remaining half on the other. Bake for ~ 40 minutes, stirring mixture and rotating pans every 10 minutes. Remove and cool granola in the baking sheets on a wire rack. When cooled, mix in dried fruit.

*gluten-free oats if needed.

Chai Spice Mixture
makes ~3 tablespoons

there are dozens of similar recipes out there, so use this or use whatever you find. or buy it, if you don’t have all the spices on hand and don’t want to buy all of them!

printable version (spice only)

ingredients
1 T g. ginger
1/2 T g. cinnamon
1 t g. cloves
1 t g. cardamom
1 t g. nutmeg
1 t g. allspice
1/2 t g. pepper

instructions
isn’t this obvious? mix them together!

Footloose & Fancy-free

I’m typically a rather organized, methodical person. Which is not to say that I’m therefore, uptight, because that’s pretty far from the truth. But I do enjoy control, order, and the usual systematic process of time. At least, from time to time I do.

I realize that often, I contradict myself. I like calendars, but I’ve never worn a watch (except when the swatch watches were in style, and I probably wore those way past their prime). I like planning vacations, but I prefer to have a “destination” and go from there, with a limited agenda (this is making the upcoming vacation tricky, I’m finding). I have a list of restaurants to go to, but I hate having to make reservations and would prefer to just show up when I want to eat there (Rick Bayless doesn’t allow that, sadly. I still haven’t planned far enough in advance to go to Frontera.). And when it comes to food, I generally use recipes, but I never measure and I won’t pretend for a second that the recipes are followed very strictly.

So when our first CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) box came in last week, I was cautiously excited. I like to think of myself as an adventurous cook, but I also like to come home from work with an idea in mind of what I’m cooking for that night, and the rest of the week as well. We had a general idea of what was gonna be in the box, but just like a box of chocolates, you never really know what you’re gonna get.

At the same time, I was looking forward to ‘wingin’ it’ which, despite my culinary training, I seldom do. Though I certainly don’t adhere to the ‘anyone can follow a recipe’ mantra (believe me, it’s not true), I own so many cookbooks and read so many food magazines that I find myself feeling the need to use those recipes, at least as a guide.

Unpacking the CSA box reminded me of a story my pops told me the other day, one of many. He boasted proudly about his parents and the first few years of his life in the country, growing up on a farm and in absence of a phone, let alone electricity. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner consisted of what was available to them that day; bluntly – there was no grocery-shopping, no microwaving, and no Thomas Keller, Rick Bayless, or even Food Network to be inspired by. At first you think about how unfortunate they were to have never tasted a juicy Florida orange, a smooth and buttery California avocado, and for Pete’s sake, a bowl of those sweet Michigan cherries. But then, then, you realize how simple, how coveted, and how organic it all was.

I’ll tell you one thing: it makes that CSA box seem like one step in the right direction. Which, ironically, is backwards.

And while I won’t pretend to be hardcore when it comes to eating locally, I certainly appreciate those who do and with every season that passes and every dish I order, I am more conscious of it. My dad’s story the other day reminded me of how fortunate we are, but how forgetful we are as well.

The box and the meal that followed hit home in more ways than one. To top it all off, I reminded myself that not only can I cook, but I’m also not a bad chef either. So with that, here’s to CSA season, ‘the old days’, and cooking the way Rod Stewart might suggest: footloose and fancy-free.

In the Chicago area and wanna research CSAs? Start here. Summer CSAs are likely full or past joining times, but some have Fall sign-ups.

Linguini with Sausage, Kale, and ‘Shrooms
Inspired by the CSA box; serves 4

printable version

ingredients
8 oz whole wheat linguini*
8 oz spicy pork sausage, sliced into 1/2″ medallions
2 ‘strands’ garlic scape (or 2 garlic cloves), thinly sliced
1 T anchovy paste
8 oz shitake mushrooms, stemmed & sliced
1/2 bunch green kale, chopped
juice from 1/2 lemon
1/2 c semi-dry white wine (I used a Michigan Kerner, similar to Riesling)
1 T champagne vinegar
3 T butter
salt and pepper
2 T parmigiano-reggiano cheese

instructions
cook pasta in a large pot according to package directions and drain.

meanwhile, heat large saucepan to med-hi and cook sausage for about 5-7 minutes, flipping to cook evenly. set aside on paper towel-lined plate. in same saucepan, which will have a little oil from sausages, saute scapes with anchovy paste for 1-2 minutes. add mushrooms and most of the lemon juice and cook for about 5 minutes. add kale and cook until kale begins to wilt, about 2 more minutes. add sausage and cooked pasta to pan and toss until heated through and then move contents to large serving dish. add salt and pepper to taste.

add white wine, butter, and champagne vinegar to saucepan. let boil to remove cooked bits and incorporate into sauce. whisk until a smooth mixture forms; pour over dish. season with salt and pepper and any remaining lemon juice. top with cheese.

*can easily use gluten-free, if needed