Sunday, April 29, 2007

Curry Noodle Pot

I recently got my hands on a copy of Super Natural Cooking, the latest from Heidi Swanson over at 101 Cookbooks which has become one of my top 5 favorite food blogs. Her recipes are fresh and vibrant and her photos are simply breathtaking. Mere mortals like myself can only dream of using a camera with her skill. I thoroughly enjoyed her earlier Cook 1.0 and was looking forward to this latest effort.

The first thing to catch my eye was a recipe entitled Big Curry Noodle Pot. It's a simple and deeply satisfying Southeast Asian style curry soup, spicy from red curry paste, rich with coconut milk, and fragrant with lime. I made the soup following the book closely the first time. The recipe was quick and easy and lent itself to experimentation so my second batch went off in a slightly different direction. I used a yellow curry paste from our local Vietnamese market and upped the veggie factor with asparagus tips and coarsely grated carrot. I wanted the asparagus to shine so I skipped the cilantro but retained the all important crushed peanuts.

The asparagus and yellow curry was just as tasty as the original pot of soup. I'm sure one can go off in any number of directions with a recipe like this depending on what looks good and fresh on any given day. I find the silky rich coconut broth so very delicious.

I'm looking forward to trying out other recipes in the book. The Wheat Berry Salad looks delicious and the Crema de Guacamole looks perfect for a sultry summer's day. Go find a copy of Super Natural Cooking. Whether you cook from it or not (and of course you should), I think you'll find that the photos are feast all on their own.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Worrying.....and not

What you don't want to hear (from your doctor, at an annual check up): "Have you felt this lump before? "

What you do want to hear (from the technician at the mammogram center, the very next day): "We don't see anything to worry about".

Now, it was only 24 hours between those two comments, and in that time I had imagined the worst, many times over. I imagined not seeing my kids grow up. I imagined my sweet husband, trying to mange without me. I imagined trying to tell my grandmother I had the same disease she's struggled with for years. I worried about how to pay for treatment. Nothing like a bit of good, old fashioned unfounded panic, I always say.

But also I felt the warmth and love of the people I'd told, especially as I sat, wrapped in a silly little pink gown, waiting for results. I knew that I had enough support to handle whatever might come, and that's a remarkably good feeling. Almost as good as being told there's nothing to worry about.

Posole Verde

I wonder how many of us have cookbooks that have been kicking around for years, allowed to languish with the dependable standards, all for one perfect recipe. That's the case with Martha Stewart's Healthy Quick Cook, a book which ended up in my collection for free after I bought the requisite cartons of orange juice many years ago. It's full of recipes for nice enough meals based mostly meat and shellfish. I can't remember making anything out of this book other than posole but I've made that many, many times and served it to I don't know how many appreciative eaters. For this one recipe, the book stays on my cookbook shelf.Posole is a traditional Mexican/New Mexican dish with a long history. There are numerous versions of the stew, most of which include pork. One constant ingredient is hominy which makes the dish hearty and filling and adds a lovely flavor and body. This is a delicious vegetarian version which is rich and spicy and full of flavor. The base is a cumin-scented, oniony broth and it's filled out with hominy, diced tomatilos, and finely sliced Swiss chard.

Because it's served with a variety of garnishes, diners can customize their bowls to taste. I usually put out small bowls filled with chopped cilantro, minced chiles, avocado chunks, sour cream, crumbled cotija cheese, and lime wedges. I find that my children love any sort of meal with lots of options so I make the stew itself fairly mild, let them load up on avocados and cheese, and add lots of minced serrano chiles and lime juice to my own bowl to get things where I like them. Something about the vitamin rich chard and tomatillos always makes me think of this as a restorative tonic, but it may just be the contrast of the rich warm broth and all the bright add-in flavors at the end. It's a pick-me-up for sure, perfect to bring to a sick friend, and just the thing for a rainy day.

I have a bit of a curse going on with this recipe. I always manage to forget one of the key ingredients. And yesterday was no exception though lunch was saved by the lovely Elizabeth who went traipsing about looking for tomatillos. It seems the tomatillo truck didn't make it to Portland this week. What she found after hitting two stores were some decidedly puny specimens, but I used them nonetheless as they are a key component and I was desperate. This was certainly not my best ever batch of posole but it was enjoyed by everyone and there was barely a bowl leftover for today's lunch. Give this simple dish a try. You'll be glad you did. The recipe is here.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Job Related Stress

I'd been meaning to sit down and write a post about work. This term has been very challenging both because I have a bunch of high energy students who are difficult to manage and because my colleagues have decided to revamp the curriculum and make huge, sweeping changes requiring a tremendous amount of additional work. The changes are likely for the good but the process was undertaken in a way what failed to include a number of instructors from the outset and I now find myself frantically racing to get up to speed. Put simply, my job is eating my life.

There are very good reasons why I've consciously chosen to work part time. The most important, of course, are my children whose education and well being are hard to support when I am sitting in yet another meeting away from home. I feel my teaching is also suffering this term as I am spending so much energy and attention on the new stuff and planning that the daily part is suffering. I am stressed and tired and not doing a particularly good job at mothering, teaching, or anything else.

So, while there's plenty on my plate these days, I've had something huge come up that has really shaken me. It seems that one of my college's campuses (and not, thank thank G-d, the one where I work) was closed down yesterday and today due to a note found in a college restroom referencing the recent massacre at Virginia Tech. Honestly, through all the news last week, the nearly non-stop coverage of the tragedy across the country, never once did it occur to me that something similar could happen here. Not once until I got the news about my college. Everything feels completely different today and I find myself jumping at little things like noisy students in the hallway. This is doing nothing for my stress level.

Monday, April 23, 2007


We just finished watching When The Levees Broke, Spike Lee's outstanding 3 disc documentary about Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans. It was brilliant: both eye opening and heart wrenching, but also tender, passionate, and angry. We hear from a huge range of people from working class residents of the lower 9th ward to middle class musicians and professionals to the mayor New Orleans and governor of Louisiana and everyone has a story to tell. Both local and federal governments are soundly condemned, but individual acts of courage and strength are honored and celebrated through the telling of these stories. The film is not in any way without its biases, but we got plenty of that in the mainstream reporting of Katrina and its aftermath. After all the stories turning Katrina survivors into nameless, faceless, frightening poor folks somewhere far away this film is refreshing in its depth and candor and moments of pure beauty despite the grim subject matter.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


The food section in yesterday's newspaper included an extremely long and complicated biryani recipe which caught my eye. Quite a production, this dish, but I saw that it held potential.

I started off by making a fresh batch of ghee which is the easiest thing in the world. I can't for the life of me understand why people will pay what they do for store bought ghee as it takes nothing but butter to make it. And when you make it at home, you get to scrape all the tasty bits of the bottom of the pan and eat them.

After a quick trip to the store for cashews and tiny potatoes I got started. Like I said, the recipe is long so I had to read it through a few times to get the procedure down. I started by crumbling saffron threads into warm milk and soaking the basmati rice. Starting with a base of richly browned onions I then sauteed tiny new potatoes, cauliflower, and carrots in stages. I made up a paste of ginger and garlic which was sauteed as well, its steam nearly knocking me out once I added it to the pan. Then a pile of different spices--so much flavor! All the spiced veggies are added to the rice and the whole thing is baked under cover and then served with a knockout spiced tomato gravy. Not by any stretch of the imagination a quick fix dish, but rather the sort of thing that demonstrates just how much can be brought to a meal by taking ones time and carefully adding layers of flavor. I have only two gripes--the original recipe vastly underestimates the amount of time needed to get the vegetables tender. This is not a dish where you want your vegetables salad bar crunchy and, despite longer cooking times on the potatoes, carrots, and cauliflower, I could have cooked them even longer for a better overall texture. I ended up transfering the leftovers to a covered casserole dish with a few tablespoons of water and nuking everything together to get the veggies tender enough. But you don't want them falling apart, either, so a bit of care is needed in getting the veggies just right.

And darn The Oregonian! Usually they have all their recipes available online but they only included the recipe for the tomato gravy. So I had to type out the entire biryani recipe in order to share it with you. I hope there aren't any typos. I tried to adjust the recipe into something that made more sense to me in terms of timing. Hopefully it will work for you, too. The recipe (all 4 pages of it) can be found here. And I hope that on a quiet, lazy day, you'll take the time to give this delicious dish a try.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Treasure from the Freezer

I woke up to yet another gray, rainy spring morning. The usual smoothie or yogurt/granola breakfast had no appeal whatsoever and, since it was too wet and miserable to go for a walk, I thought I could actually take the time to cook something proper. Somehow I got to thinking about the remaining bags of roasted green chiles tucked away in the back of my freezer. Every year I try to hit the farmers' markets when the chile roasting folks set up camp, mid to late September or so. I stock up, buying many pounds of the charred treasures. When I arrive home, I chop them, remove stems, and pack away in smaller size freezer bags for use the rest of the year.

Today I think I was craving protein so I decided on this simple crustless quiche. I clipped the recipe from the FOODday section of our local paper some time ago and have made it countless times since then. It's simple, hearty, easily portable, and good warm or room temperature and great for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. The ingredients are pretty basic though I really think that good roasted chiles (and not the vinegary canned types) make a huge difference, as does a good quality ricotta. I use Trader Joe's "fresh" ricotta in everything as I find it much more flavorful and less watery and insipid than most grocery store brands.

This was just what I needed this morning. Not too spicy, but definitely warming. Not too filling but definitely satisfying, getting my morning off to a good start. And, funny thing, after I ate, the slightest bit of sunlight started to peek through the gloom.

Give this recipe a try if you are interested and let me know what you think. I've noticed that, while there have been literally hundreds of dowloads of my recipes, there's been very little commentary. I'd love to hear what you think so please do post a comment now and then.

Score One for the Girly Girls

The Princess had her first ballet class yesterday. Her father found a listing in the local parks & rec catalog which we could just squeeze in with my dropping her off before work and her father picking her up afterwards.

Consequently, the last week was nothing but growing excitement for her. She studied this book nonstop, poring over details ranging from foot position to hair accessories. She packed her frog backpack with everything she could possibly need including hairbands in various colors and a string of fake pearls "for luck". Then the bag was unpacked, double checked, and re-packed more times than I could count.

We visited a distinctly non-glamorous dance store in a grotty eastside strip mall for shoes and The Princess was in little girl heaven, surrounded by tulle and spangles and glitter. I felt sort of itchy myself and longed to escape, but I tried to let her enjoy the moment.

The big moment came yesterday, we met up with her father in the rain and they went off to find the class. The Princess was nearly vibrating with excitement when I said "goodbye". I drove to work once again wondering why I have such a hard time with all this sparkly pink girly stuff. I know I don't want her obsessing over her appearance and her body image. I don't want her to get nasty and competitive, and I don't want her to feel she needs to compare herself with other girls or meet socially constructed expectations of beauty.

We kept talking to her about what hard work ballet is but in fact The Spouse tells me that the class is really a bit of a fluttery pink free-for-all with all those tiny tutu'd girls running about. The Princess, he informs me, was very serious and tried her best to take it all in. When I came home from work she was still flouncing about in her dance ensemble, eager to tell me every detail. I guess what matters most is that she is very, very happy.

Now, I wonder if I can get her to think about tae kwon do or aikido....

Sunday, April 15, 2007


One of the reasons I started a food blog was because I so enjoy reading food blogs. I frequently visit all kinds of folks on the web whose writing and photography skills I can't even touch. But it gives me something to aspire to, along with some really great recipes.

I've been spending a lot of time at Smitten Kitchen lately. The Lighter than Air Chocolate Cake was such a spectacular success at our seder that the author now has a fan for life. She recently posted about making gnocchi which I've tried a time or two, with entirely disastrous results so I was interested in her technique which, while simple, was right on and made for a lovely meal.

Past gnocchi attempts have always started with boiled potatoes, leading to unsurprisingly soggy results. This recipe uses grated baked baked potatoes which make for a lighter dough. Making the gnocchi is one of those easy but time consuming projects. The gnocchi are made up simply of the grated baked potatoes, egg, and enough flour to make up a workable mass of dough. Rolled into long "snakes" and cut into bite-sized bits, they are then decorated with the tines of a fork.

I found the fork decoration a bit challenging and my gnocchi were in no way uniform. The second batch I made came out prettier. After dumping the leftover challah glazing egg into the mixing bowl, I think the higher egg content made them easier to work.

I made up two batches: one with pesto and another with a bit of butter and Parmesan for the kids who hoovered them all down with nary a trace remaining. I am now interested in pursuing other gnocchi possibilities. I've heard of (but never tried) ricotta gnocchi which sound lovely. Or perhaps something made with winter squash and sage? I'll definitely have to look into this further now that I know I have the potential to make something edible.

My thanks to Smitten Kitchen for helping me overcome the trauma of prior gnocchi!

Friday, April 13, 2007

A Big Hole

Today is my brother's yartzeit. Five years younger than me, he was a husband and a father and a well-respected police officer when, overwhelmed by circumstances, he chose to leave us.

He was quirky, for sure, but also generous, brilliant, wickedly funny and your worst nightmare as a Scrabble opponent. He loved animals, especially ugly dogs, and worked hard to create a beautiful garden. He was always such a great problem solver--nothing seemed too difficult for him. Until everything was.

I don't know what he went through in his final days, what was so awful that he saw no way out. I'll never get over feeling that maybe I could have said something, done something, reached out in some way. There's a lot of anger, too, that I've been struggling with for four years. Anger that he would choose to give up, anger that he left us all devastated. Of course it's pointless, even counter-productive to hang on to anger as I've done but it's so very hard to let it go.

I can still get panicky and short of breath when I think about hearing the news and the days that followed. It was the most awful and surreal time but I still need to keep most details tucked away for fear of bringing back all that raw emotion , the horrifying and very real sense of being trapped in a nightmare. I can't really talk about it with my family, I stay away from the memorial walks they take each year because I still just can't go there.

Today has been sad. I can't get him out of my mind. We went to shul to say kaddish tonight and it struck me that it never gets any easier, even after all this time. The Dark Lord threw a bony arm around me when he caught me crying, giving me support in his gawky teen way and that was a needed bit of sweetness. I don't know how much he and MonkeyBoy remember their uncle but he was a larger-than-life hero when they were young.

Mostly I just miss my brother like crazy. I wish he were here to see his son, and my children grow up. I long to hear one of his long, drawn-out, ridiculous stories or hear about the latest project. Our family will never be the same. He left a giant Ben-shaped hole in all our hearts which is still ragged and painful but hopefully beginning to heal ever so slightly.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

A Passover Dinner

The seders are fun and engaging but the reality is that it doesn't take too long before matzoh gets old, along with eating Passover style. Knowing that by the weekend my family would be kvetching I made a big hunk of meat. This is very rare in our house. None of us are big meat eaters and a couple of us generally can't stand the stuff. But brisket, prepared in the style of my grandmother, is something we all love. So I spent an extraordinary amount of money on 4 pounds of kosher brisket, cooked it up and served it with new potatoes, carrot salad, and asparagus for Shabbat dinner.

I had the meal composed in my head well in advance except for dessert. Finding a good dairy-free dessert to serve with meat is challenging enough. I'm all for butter and cream whenever possible, really. But I also needed something without flour to make it kosher for Passover. I looked to The Book of Jewish Food by Claudia Roden where I came across a whole section of Passover cakes. The Almond Cake in Orange Syrup caught my eye since I'm already crazy for orange cake. I was thinking that a syrup cake would make up for the lack of butter. The cake is simple, made only of eggs, ground almonds, sugar, oranges, and cinnamon. Unfortunately because my Passover bakeware is limited, I had another notable lesson in using the proper size pan. The cake ballooned out of the pan I had, but I trimmed it up, plopped it into its syrup bath and it was quite delicious: sticky, moist, nutty, and tasting very strongly of oranges which I found a perfect combination. It's not particularly elegant but it is a simple and lovely cake. Try it and see.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

New Term, New Tensions

Despite missing the first night of class so I could be part of at least one seder this year, my term is off to a rolling start. I have nearly 30 students in my class, pretty evenly divided between Russian speakers (who are mostly ethnic Turks) and Spanish speakers (from Mexico,Guatemala, and Honduras). They're a bright and lively bunch and it should be a great term.

There's just one problem. I'm already seeing the beginnings of tension between the kids from each group. We've had fights before, so I am hyper-sensitive to any kind of bad vibes and tonight there was a bit of trouble. My students were working on an activity which required them to move around the room and speak with a variety of students. A couple of Mexican boys were chatting with a Turkish girl whose brother (also in the class) was not all happy and began to yell at them to leave her alone. Feeling (rightly) that they'd done nothing wrong, the Mexican boys wanted to continue the conversation and the girl in question seemed to be more embarrassed by her brother's outburst than by the other boys' attention. The room became charged with energy and I placed myself in between the boys to try and defuse the tension. Eventually everyone settled down but I found it very frustrating because I can't speak Russian well enough to help mediate things like this.

This isn't the first time there's been inter-ethnic tension and the fights have always involved a girl. I expect my students to regularly work with one another in mixed gender and mixed ethnicity groups. It forces them to use English and gives them experience in a multicultural environment which is new to many of them. The "don't talk to my sister" attitude drives me crazy. The girls don't need protecting.

As newcomers to the US with minimal English skills and no real power that these students have far more in common than they realize. Nothing is gained by this silly posturing and there's much to lose. Our current policy is that anyone caught fighting is expelled. Period. They're just teenagers but one of the lessons they most need to learn is to think past the next 10 seconds. They need to learn enough self-control to back down and focus on their education. Now, if only I could say that in a language they all understood.

Monday, April 02, 2007


The 48 hour frenzy of cooking and cleaning is over and I won't have to cook again for days.

The first Passover seder was tonight. We were 14 all together which is accomplished in my house by putting two 6-foot tables together to make one large (not long) table, filling up the dining room. We pull dishes from two sets of china and use every wine and drinking glass in the house. It's a tight fit around the table and once everyone's in there's not a lot of up and down.

We had the following for dinner:

blanched vegetables with yogurt-dill dip
matzah balls in roasted vegetable stock
gefilte fish
apple-walnut charoset and cherry-pear-ginger charoset
sweet potato and carrot tzimmes
potato kugel
green salad
fruit salad
steamed asparagus

lighter-than-air chocolate cake
coconut macaroons

I cooked everything but the kugel, green salad, and macaroons (all of which were made by Fran and were absolutely delicious).

For those unfamiliar with the names, charoset is a paste of fruit, nuts, and sweet wine that is served at the seder in memory of the mortar used by the Israelite slaves in Egypt. Tzimmes is a stew made of sweet potatoes, carrots, prunes, and dried apricots simmered in orange juice with cinnamon. Matazakopita has no real history. I created it last year while looking for a new variation on the classic soggy matzoh and cheese genre. I make up a filling of spinach, feta, ricotta, and eggs like I'd put between layers of filo the rest of the year but instead I layer it with damp matzoh. It sounds horrid but tastes surprisingly good. The soggy matzoh is kind of like a delicate fresh pasta if you let just yourself believe.

It was a lot of cooking and by the middle of this afternoon my refrigerator looked like this, with barely an inch of space to spare:

The most fun was making the Lighter Than Air Chocolate Cake that I found recently over at Smitten Kitchen. It's four layers of flourless chocolate cake sandwiching a sweetened cream filling. It was a little bit fussy and the tiniest bit stressful when it came to getting the layers out of the pans but it was worth every minute of work and a perfect ending to a grand family meal. I didn't get any great photos to show how gorgeous it was but I like his photo because it shows the half-eaten cake with a marvelous, magical halo underneath.

That's kind of how I feel after pulling off one of these super meals, when everything goes right and everyone is well fed and well behaved--kind of glowy and warm and deliciously tired.

Gefilte Fish

Gefilte fish, the butt of many jokes and disparaging comments, is simply a long simmered fish dumpling. It's not particularly glamorous or lovely--the individual pieces are rather lumpy and homely. Nonetheless it's a holiday classic among Jews of Eastern European origin and making it each year has become one of my Passover traditions. If you've ever seen (or worse yet, tasted) gefilte fish out of a jar you may think that's how it's supposed to taste and why bother making it. The homemade variety is altogether different and quite tasty, especially slathered in horseradish.

You need to plan ahead and talk with your fish market to make sure they'll grind fish and provide you with fish bones for the stock. This used to be no big deal but recently, as more and more fish has come from far off places, many stores are unable, apparently by law, to give you bones and trimmings. So call around. Here in the Northwest, I usually use a mixture of salmon, cod, and halibut but you can certainly experiment with your fish varieties. Have the fish market grind the fish for you --the market I use has a grinder that is only used for fish (no shellfish, pork, or other meats) so that takes care of the kashrut issue, at least for our family. Ask them to throw in some onion and carrot while they do the grinding--this will save you work and mess down the road.

Once you get home with your package of ground fish and weird bones and trimmings, the first step is making the stock as seen in the photo below. Note the fin! This is, after all, ethnic cooking.Once the stock is cooked and strained, it's time to dig your hands into all that fishiness and mix in eggs, matzoh meal, salt, and pepper. The small patties are formed and then slipped gently into the simmering stock and cooked for a good long time. Eventually you end up with this:

Your seder guests will be delighted and amazed to have real, homemade gefilte fish which they will happily slather with horseradish and gobble down. It's expensive and stinky to make, but it's a big part of my Passover tradition. If you aren't completely appalled and actually want to try it for yourself (and I hope you will), the recipe is here.

It seems so obvious that I shouldn't have to say it, but .....don't taste the raw fish.