One Last Hoorah

Before you start reading today, think for a second. How many true friends do you have? Not how many friends you have on Facebook, or how many follow you on Twitter, but real, honest-to-goodness friends. Because that’s what we’re gonna talk about today. That, and zucchini fries, of course. But I’ll get to those.

I used to think I was loaded with friends. I suppose I am, really. I mean, I know a lot of people, and I like them; I figure they like me too. We talk here and there (or text or g-chat, is more like it), we eat and drink together, and sometimes we’re in each other’s weddings or taking trips together. That’s friendship, right?

The trouble, is that my own vision of friendship is so warped lately. Things happen, people drift apart, and as I’ve realized over this last year or so, people change and sometimes there’s just nothing you can do about it. It sucks, quite frankly. It sucks bad.

But in having those experiences, I’ve realized a thing or two. As a result, this is my advice to you: cherish the time you have with the ones you love, be a good friend to those who reciprocate your friendship, and don’t let something as silly as distance tear you apart. There is nothing more sad, more depressing, than looking back at a friendship that used to be rock solid, and realizing that in the blink of an eye it was ripped from one end to the other, and tossed out like a dirty rag. Don’t let that happen.

The difficulty in having friendships, is keeping them. Life happens – we grow up, we get married, we have children, we have busy jobs, we text instead of call, and sometimes we have to take opportunities that are offered to us. Leaving our friends in NC was so hard when we moved to Chicago 6 years (6 years!) ago, and now that we’re settled in here, we’re realizing that now, people will leave us. Being on that side of the coin feels so different, and not in a good way.

Our friends, Hope & James, are moving tomorrow. Apparently Hope (yes, the reigning Iron Chef) is interested in getting the letters M and D behind her name, and James is looking into a career in whittling (sorry James, I had to do it) unless he decides to work the valet at the VA once they’re settled into their larger-than-life apartment house in the “Deep South” state of Mississippi. I will miss them both, but I’ve learned over these last few years that distance doesn’t have to change a friendship and real friendships will make it, even if you can’t go to Irazu together every month or sit lakefront, drinking wine and watching the fireworks. All it takes is a little bit of effort, a long road trip here and there, and a flight when Southwest posts their specials (hmmm… does SW fly there? probably not.). Plus, I’ve never been to Mississippi, so there’s that, too.

Interestingly enough (or not so), this is where zucchini fries enter the story. With their move right around the corner, we were in need of one last hoorah. We had H+J over for dinner a couple of weeks ago, and if you can believe it, I repeated a dish. Gasp! Truth is, I’ve never met a fry I didn’t like, and having some zucchini lying around reminded me of this snack-type recipe I’d made almost 2 years ago (before my kitchen resembled a photo studio) – resulting in baked zucchini ‘fries’ with one of the best sauces since Ranch dressing – spicy, smoky, Spanish romesco.

If you’ve never made or eaten romesco sauce, you should certainly check this out. Smoky paprika, sweet roasted tomatoes and peppers, and nuttiness from, well, nuts (almonds, to be exact) make this an extra special mixture that will last well beyond these crunchy, cheesy fries; it plays nicely with seafood, but I like it best aside a big ol’ pork chop.

The rest of the night’s dinner, you ask? A simple salad with poppyseed dressing, mushroom-tomato lasagna (with smoked mozzarella), and a peach-almond galette. One tasty dinner, and a perfect excuse to hang out with two lovely people. You certainly don’t need good food to have good friends, but sometimes they just go hand in hand.

Zucchini Fries w/ Smoky Romesco Sauce
Adapted from Cooking Light, July 2008; serves 8

printable version

ingredients
romesco sauce
3  medium red bell peppers
2  plum tomatoes, halved lengthwise
1/2″ thick slice of bread from a baguette, coarsely chopped
1 1/2 T almonds
1  T evoo
1  T  red wine vinegar
1/2  t Spanish smoked paprika
1/4  t  kosher salt
1/4  t  ground red pepper
1  large garlic clove

zucchini
3  large zucchini (about 1 1/2 pounds)
1  c  dry breadcrumbs
1/2  c coursely ground almonds
1/4  c  grated fresh Parmesan cheese
1/2  t  salt
1/2  t  freshly ground black pepper
2 eggs
cooking spray

instructions
Preheat broiler.

To prepare sauce, cut bell peppers in half lengthwise; discard seeds and membranes. Place bell pepper halves and tomatoes, skin sides up, on a foil-lined baking sheet; flatten bell peppers with hand. Broil 10 minutes or until blackened. Place in a zip-top plastic bag; seal. Let stand 15 minutes. Peel and coarsely chop, reserving any liquid.

Combine bell peppers, reserved liquid, tomatoes, and next 8 ingredients (through garlic) in a blender or food processor; process until smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper, if needed. Refrigerate until ready to use (can be made a couple of days in advance, if needed).

Preheat oven to 400 F.

To prepare zucchini, cut 1 zucchini in half crosswise; cut each half lengthwise into 8 wedges. Repeat procedure with remaining zucchini. Combine breadcrumbs, almond meal, cheese, salt, black pepper in a shallow dish. In another dish, whisk eggs until combined. Dip zucchini in eggs; dredge in breadcrumb mixture. Place zucchini on sheet pan coated with cooking spray. Lightly coat zucchini with cooking spray. Bake at 400 for 25 minutes or until golden brown. Serve immediately with sauce.

3 Decades, & Cake

I have a secret. Don’t tell anyone, but 30 years ago today at exactly 8:02 AM, I was thrust into the world, eyes wide open, crying incessantly; I was loud and proud from the start. At that moment, a look of horror spread across my dad’s face. Apparently, he was a bit unprepared for the site of baby delivery, or so my gramma once told me. It could have been all that black hair on my head, which agreeably would have been a bit unexpected, indeed a surprise to a light-haired guy married to a light-haired girl. Luckily, he came around and decided I was cute after all, and that I was definitely his :). Shew!

Thirty years later, it’s hard to tell what color my hair will be from one week to the next, but that’s a discussion for another day. This week, it’s red, baby.

With the cat out of the bag, I have to admit I have mixed emotions about today. I’m not sure if I’m ready to begin another decade; my 20’s started off somewhat crappily but improved consistently. I like the upward trend, minus the early trough, but I plan to instead start this 4th decade off at a high point, despite my reluctance to enter my 30’s. I enjoyed being a “twenty something”, but I think I’ll start to adhere to the “age is just a number” belief and move forward. So with that, Happy Birthday to me!

I was informed that I didn’t need to make myself a cake this year (and who knows what else Hubs has up his sleeve), so instead, I made one for somebody else. Our pals Jennifer & Jon moved (again! but we moved a lot too before we broke the bank and bought this place) this past weekend. Over their past 5 years of living in Chicago, they’ve slowly moved closer and closer to us and this time – they are 4 blocks away! Woot! Of course, I’m sure that wasn’t their intention, but nevertheless, I likey. So I thought I’d spend an evening making them a special housewarming treat since I had a hankerin’ for baking and I can’t, or rather, don’t need to, bake my own self a cake :).

The beauty of making cake for other people is that you still enjoy the aroma, and in this case, the smell of tangerines dancing into each and every nook and cranny of your place. Tangerines smell like springtime to me, even though you eat them more in winter; they smell sweet and fruity and smelling them makes me want to eat marmalade on toast while sitting in a big field of dandelions, underneath a gingham blanket with sweet wine and my my friend’s puppy running about.

In absence of those fields (and the puppy), let’s eat cake instead. Whether you’re celebrating gracefully leaving your 3rd decade behind, or perhaps a move or an anniversary, or maybe just because you want to and you do what you want when you want, eat cake. Eat tangerine cake, at that.

Happy Weekend!

Tangerine Almond Cake w/ Blueberry-Basil Sauce
Adapted from Seven Spoons who adapted from Nigella Lawson

You’ll question this recipe at first, I know you will, and you should. First, there’s no flour – eek! Second, whole tangerines go into it – double eek! But hold it together, and give this inherently gluten-free novelty a try. It’s an adaptation from Nigella Lawson, mind you. If clementines are available, start there, but probably any thin-skinned citrus will do. This cake is amazingly easy and so moist and soft you’ll question the doneness of it – I certainly did. The texture – different, but in a good way. But trust me; rather, trust Nigella and all the hundreds who’ve made this cake, including Tara at Seven Spoons.

printable version

ingredients
cake
1 lb tangerines (or clementines, nothing with too many seeds…)
9 oz whole, unshelled almonds
6 eggs
8 oz sugar
1/2 of a vanilla bean pod
1 1/2 t baking powder
pinch of salt

sauce (optional)
1 1/2 c frozen blueberries (or fresh, if in season, but with less water added)
3-4 T powdered sugar
3 basil leaves

instructions
put tangerines in large pot and cover with water (they will float like crazy, but use enough water to theoretically cover them). toss in vanilla bean (do not slice open). bring to boil, reduce heat to medium and cook whole tangerines for about 2 hours until they’re extra tender (i.e., soft when you squeeze gently with tongs). remove from pot and let cool. scrape vanilla bean and set seeds aside.

preheat oven to 375 F. over a large bowl, cut tangerines and remove any seeds and sit aside; squeeze to release any excess water (which will help on the “moistness factor”). spray an 8-inch springform pan, then line with parchment paper on the bottom and sides and spray again.

in a food processor, grind almonds until a coarse, powdery substance develops. add tangerines (skin too) and grind until a smooth, thick paste forms. it will still have some pieces of almond/tangerine visible.

in a large bowl, beat eggs until blended. add sugar and vanilla bean seeds, then baking powder and salt. whisk in tangerine/almond mixture. at this point it will actually look like cake batter, but more coarse.

pour batter into parchment-lined pan and place atop baking sheet. bake for ~60-70 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean, rotating once halfway through baking. cool completely on a wire rack.

meanwhile, make blueberry-basil sauce. mix blueberries with powdered sugar and basil leaves in a small saucepan over medium heat. add about 2 T water and cook until juices form. sweeten with more sugar to taste. puree or keep clumpy but remove basil leaves. serve over cooled cake.