Thursday, November 27, 2014

on gratitude

roasted brussels sprouts
Thanksgiving is a time to pause — to gather with those most important to us, to prepare a celebratory feast, and to reflect on our lives and recognize what we are most grateful for.

Gratitude seems simple, at first — it is easy to feel grateful for family, friends, favorite foods, good books, funny films, good health, and the privileges associated with a first-world lifestyle — clean drinking water, access to nutritious food, relative physical safety, ease of transportation, important work for which we are compensated, and time and energy to pursue hobbies, interests, and passions.

However, I believe, gratitude is much more complex.  It is very, very difficult to feel grateful for stress, transition, pain, illness, and loss.  Why should one try?  Stress, transitions, pain, illness, and loss are unpleasant at best, and at first glance, seem contradictory to the spirit of gratitude.  In fact, I have noticed many over the years encourage others to “get through” periods of stress, transition, pain, illness, and loss by practicing gratitude — by focusing on all of the good things they still have in their lives.

mini nut loaves
In my opinion, this type of gratitude practice is spectacularly unfair to the person going through a challenging time.  Yes, we do always have plenty to be grateful for, but, in my opinion, ignoring, distracting from, or “gratitude washing” that pain is disrespectful to that person’s experience, and leads to incomplete healing after that period of stress, transition, pain, illness, or loss has come to its conclusion.

Why do we practice “gratitude washing?”  Because, I believe, the alternate choice — coming to a place where we are truly grateful for that stress, transition, pain, illness, or loss — seems impossible to many.  How is one supposed to feel grateful for the loss of a job at a time of economic uncertainty?  How is one supposed to feel grateful for the death of a loved one?  How is one supposed to feel grateful for a miscarriage?  How is one supposed to feel grateful for cancer?  How is one supposed to feel grateful for a divorce that you didn’t want?

It’s tricky, and in my experience, it takes time.  I’m here to tell you, however, that it is entirely possible to feel grateful for a divorce that you didn’t want.  How, you ask?

creamy corn pudding
Simply, I refuse to live my life with regrets.  I have made a million mistakes in my lifetime, some of them big, some of them small, but I choose to never play the “if I could go back in time” game.  Why?  Because all of those mistakes I have made have been mine, and have made me the person I am today.  I would never choose to go back and erase bits and pieces of my life — who knows what would happen?  If I knew three years ago what I know today, I would likely make all of the same choices I made, in regards to my marriage.  (If you had asked me that question three months ago, however, I’m certain I would have answered differently.)

So, how is it that I find myself in a place where I feel grateful for a divorce that I didn’t want?  

I am grateful because of how much I have learned about marriage, about love, about life, about others, and about myself.  I am grateful because I have landed in a season of “radical self-care.”  If I hadn’t had this experience dealing with a divorce I didn’t want, I may never have learned the importance of self-care, and exactly what I need to do to take care of myself fully and completely.

spiced sweet potato casserole
This seems like a silly thing to say at the age of 35, but I am realizing I am just beginning to learn how to take care of myself properly.  I got the basics at a younger age, obviously — I shower, go to the doctor and dentist, eat reasonably, stay active, etc.  However, in processing the loss of my marriage, I found that I really hadn’t been taking all that good of care of myself, despite knowing “the basics.”  

At first, I found myself almost feeling “lost” without my husband — without someone to take care of.  As a woman working in a helping profession, you can imagine how much time I have devoted over the years to caring for others — so much time, in fact, that it comes second nature to me.  Self-care seems to be practiced by few teachers, I believe because it is looked down upon by so many in the field — many believe the children should come first, always.  Work yourself to the bone, skip your breaks, come in early, stay late, shovel in your lunch as quickly as possible so you can get back to work, because, after all, it’s FOR THE CHILDREN.  I disagree, wholeheartedly, with this attitude.  Why?  For two reasons: first, because if the children always come first children learn to be selfish, and second, because it is physically and emotionally impossible to always put another person’s needs before your own.  Sometimes, you just need to eat a snack, take a break, go to the bathroom, or have a bad day, regardless of whether another person needs you at that particular moment in time.

caramelized onion and herb stuffing
In retrospect, I believe I entered my marriage physically and emotionally depleted from years of teaching and not practicing proper self-care.  My cup was empty, and I looked to my husband to fill it.  Others can “top off” our cups from time to time, but expecting another to fill our cup is unreasonable and a recipe for disaster.

True story: that disaster happened to me.  And here I am, on the other side, just now learning how to fill my own cup.  I spend an incredible amount of time alone, walking, reading, practicing yoga, cooking, journaling, and just thinking.  I wallow in my introversion, and do not feel guilty for a second.  I have always been a healthy eater, but I have never been so planful, so careful, so thoughtful about the meals I prepare for myself as I have lately.  I floss.  This seems like a ridiculous thing to be proud of, but hey — I’ve had dentists telling me to floss for 35 years, and I now, for the first time in my life, floss regularly.  I get monthly pedicures.  I buy myself little treats from time to time.  I make exercise a priority — I get out for walks even when the weather is lousy, even when I am tired, because I know I need to.  Even though I spend so much time alone, I say “yes” to more and more than I ever did before — more regular attendance for church choir, more meals and outings with friends, more responsibilities at work.  And surprisingly, I don’t find myself dreading this “more” any more, complaining about these joys in my life like I used to.  Why was everything so hard before?  Because I was depleted.  My cup was empty, and I didn’t have the energy or resources to fill it.

scalloped poatoes
No longer.  I am learning how to fill my own cup again.  Once I feel like I’ve got the hang of this, I will let someone else in again; this time, someone who knows how to fill his own cup, and who can help top off mine from time to time.

For now, I practice gratitude for this season I am in.  A season of radical self-care.  This is why, despite four different invitations to join others for Thanksgiving dinner, (all of which I am grateful for,) I chose to stay in and cook for myself this year.  I am choosing to remind myself that, in my world, I am the most important person.  I am grateful for myself.

the feast
And pie.  I’m always grateful for pie.  :)

crustless pumpkin pie

Monday, November 24, 2014

Crustless Quiche with Sweet Potato and Kale

Sweet potatoes and kale are just made for each other, in my opinion.  The contrast of the soft, sweet, orange spud with the toothsome, slightly bitter, dark-green kale is gorgeous, delicious, and nutritious.  I love baked sweet potatoes stuffed with sautéed kale and white beans, a couple of poached eggs with roasted sweet potatoes and sautéed kale for breakfast, and most recently, quiche loaded with cubes of sweet potato and ribbons of kale!  And what could be a more perfect contrast to the sweet and bitter notes in sweet potatoes and kale than tangy, creamy goat cheese?  I can't think of a better trio.

I decided to eighty-six the crust this go 'round, so I could enjoy a heartier portion with fewer calories. (Still a slave to MyFitnessPal.)  However, this quiche would also be delicious in your favorite homemade or store-bought pastry crust, and stands up especially well to the more robust flavors and textures found in a whole-wheat crust.  Enjoy!

Crustless Quiche with Sweet Potato and Kale
serves 4

1 small to medium sweet potato
1 cup finely chopped onion
1 bunch kale, stemmed and finely chopped
salt, pepper, ground nutmeg, and cayenne pepper
4 large eggs
3/4 cup half-and-half (whole milk works, too)
6 ounces goat cheese

1. Heat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.  Peel, cube, and dice the sweet potato.  Toss with a bit of olive oil or spray with cooking spray, season with salt and pepper, and roast the sweet potato on a parchment-lined baking sheet until tender and beginning to brown, about 20 minutes.  Cool.
2. Turn the oven temperature down to 375.  Grease and flour a pie plate.
3. Saute the onion in a bit of olive oil or cooking spray until the onion is translucent; add the kale and continue sautéing until the kale is tender and most of the water in the kale has cooked off.  Cool.
4. Whisk together the eggs, half and half, a hefty pinch of salt, a few cranks of freshly ground pepper, and dashes of nutmeg and cayenne.  Fold in the cooled sweet potato and kale-onion mixture.  Roughly crumble the goat cheese, and fold into the egg mixture.
5. Pour the quiche into the prepared pie plate and bake for about 40 minutes, or until completely set in the center and beginning to brown on top.  Let rest for 10 minutes before slicing and serving.

Quiche keeps well and reheats beautifully.

What are your favorite things to add to quiche?  I am always looking for new combinations to try!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Crustless Pumpkin Pie

I love pie.  Wait, no, let me say that again ... I.  LOVE.  PIE.  Pie has to be my most favorite dessert of all time.  At the top of that list?  Definitely cherry pie -- homemade all-butter crust and filling bursting with a mountain of tart-sweet sour cherries.  It's best served slightly warm or room-temperature, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.  Other favorites?  Double-crust apple pie (keep your streusel topping away from my pie, people!), strawberry-rhubarb, fresh strawberry, any double-crust berry, lemon-merengue, banana cream, coconut cream, peach, shoo-fly, custard, sweet potato, aaaaaaand ... pumpkin.

Pumpkin pie has got to be one of my favorite parts of Thanksgiving dinner, and growing up, pies were almost always homemade.  (My dad happens to be the pie chef -- thanks for teaching me that making pie crust is not a scary endeavor, Dad!)  Can I just say what horrors rocked our Thanksgiving table when my grandmother decided we were going to have pumpkin ice cream one year?  GAH.  No good.  I also have a fond memory of my grandfather, typically a pretty quiet guy who loves to eat, working his way through his second plate of Thanksgiving dinner several years ago.  There was a lull in the conversation, grandpa looked up from his plate, said quietly, "oh ... there's pie ...!" and promptly set down his fork, leaving the remaining turkey and sides on his plate, untouched.  Fantastic!  A man who has his priorities straight, if you ask me.  :)

This Thanksgiving, I've been trying to figure out how I can enjoy Thanksgiving dinner without making myself totally ill ... I've found that, after months of healthy eating, my body just can't handle desserts and heavy, rich foods like it used to be able to.  Kind of a good thing and kind of a bummer at the same time!  I decided to try a crustless pumpkin pie a few weeks ago, and I was thrilled with the results.

I can't wait to make another one of these next week!  I seriously love Thanksgiving, maybe even more than Christmas.  It's a holiday devoted entirely to food!  Weeeeeeeeee!  Anyone else ridiculously excited for the impending cooking extravaganza?

Crustless Pumpkin Pie
serves 6

2 eggs
one 15-ounce can solid-pack pumpkin (NOT pumpkin pie filling)
1 c full-fat coconut milk or half-and-half
1/2 c maple syrup (the real stuff)
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp pumpkin pie spice

1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.  Grease and flour a pie plate (or six 8-ounce ramekins.)
2. Whisk together the pumpkin pie filling ingredients until smooth and well-blended.  Pour into the pie plate (or divide evenly among the ramekins.)
3. Bake a whole pie for about 45 minutes, ramekins for about 25 to 30 minutes, or until a knife inserted near the center comes out clean.  Cool completely before serving.  (The pie will cut best after chilling.)

What is your favorite pie on Thanksgiving?  Or do you prefer a different dessert?  (I'll forgive you, I promise...!)

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Pasta with Kale, Squash, and Blue Cheese

Saying "I love pasta" seems like kind of a generic statement, because really, who doesn't love pasta?  It's carby, chewy, comforting, and filling, comes in a variety of sizes, shapes, and colors, and more and more lately, made from a wide variety of healthy ingredients.  I love a plate of spaghetti smothered in marinara just as much as the next person, but chunky pasta with veggies and cheese will always take first place in the great pasta battle, in my opinion.

"Pasta with veggies and cheese" is one of those meals I feel like I don't even really need a recipe for -- boil up some pasta, cook up some veggies, add some cheese, and call it dinner.  Am I right?  However, I felt like I had to share this recent "pasta with veggies and cheese" meal I made, because it was just so darn delicious, so perfectly balanced in all of its complimentary flavors, I couldn't help but want to shout from the rooftops, "I MADE PASTA!  WAHOO!"

Since I don't actually know how to access the roof of my building, you get a blog post instead.

Enjoy.  :)

Pasta with Kale, Squash, and Blue Cheese
serves 2 to 4

1 lb butternut squash
1 tsp olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
6 oz chunky pasta
1 bunch lacinato kale, stemmed and sliced thinly
1/4 cup reserved pasta water
4 oz blue cheese
2 oz walnuts, toasted and chopped
extra-virgin olive oil (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.  Peel and dice the squash into bite-sized chunks.  Toss with the olive oil and season with salt and pepper.  Spread the squash out on a parchment-lined baking sheet and roast, stirring once, about 20 to 30 minutes, or until the squash is soft and beginning to brown.  Reserve.
2. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Add the pasta and cook, stirring frequently.  Three minutes before the pasta will finish cooking, dip out 1/4 cup pasta cooking water and add the kale to the pasta pot.  Stir, and continue cooking until the kale is tender and the pasta is al dente.
3. Drain the pasta and kale, and return to the pot.  Add the blue cheese and reserved pasta water, if needed, and stir, allowing the cheese to melt and make a creamy sauce.  Fold in the squash.
4. Divide the pasta among plates or bowls, and top with the walnuts.  Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil, if you would like.  Serve immediately.  Devour enthusiastically.

This is a pasta for lovers of blue cheese.  However, in my opinion, the dish is quite balanced, with creamy, salty, pungent, sweet, and bitter flavors all present in equal amounts, and lots of contrast between soft, crunchy, toothsome, and chewy textures.  I LOVE it.  I hope you do, too!  (If you don't love blue cheese, you could likely try goat cheese, or add a big dollop of whole-milk ricotta to each plate before serving.  Both would also be delicious.)

What is your favorite "pasta with veggies and cheese" combination?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Red Lentil Soup

It snowed this week.  A LOT.  Winter has arrived aggressively and without warning this year -- it went from sneakers and puffy vest weather to boots and parka weather overnight!  Gah!  How to respond?  It is Minnesota, after all -- winter lasts for nearly half the year here.  Might as well embrace it!  Pull on the boots, don the parka and head out into the winter wonderland; later, when you get home, make soup.

Red lentil soup, to be precise.  In my opinion, red lentil soup is one of those meals that is so complex, flavorful, and warming you forget how HEALTHY it is -- warm spices, lentils, greens, veggies, and just enough coconut milk to smooth things out.  Red lentil soup is delicious after a day spent out in cold, blustery, wet weather, or after a day (or several days) of too much indulgence (ahem, Donut Crawl!)  This would be a welcome post-holiday-indulgence meal to jump-start healthier eating, or a post-snow-shoeing meal, or any time you need warmth and nourishment all in one tasty package.

Red Lentil Soup
serves 4

1 tbsp olive oil
1 c finely chopped onion
1 c finely chopped celery
1 c finely chopped carrot
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp brown mustard seeds
1 tsp anise or fennel seeds
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp salt
2 to 4 dried chilis
4 tsp grated fresh ginger
1 c red lentils, rinsed
14 oz light coconut milk
2 c water
1 bunch swiss chard, stemmed and sliced thinly

1. Heat the oil in a 3 1/2 to 4-quart soup pot over medium-high heat.  Add the onion, celery, carrot, garlic, mustard seeds, fennel seeds, turmeric, salt, dried chilis, and ginger.  Cooking, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are soft and beginning to brown.
2. Add the lentils, coconut milk, and water.  Bring to a boil.  Lower the heat, cover, and simmer the soup for 40 minutes, stirring occasionally.
3. Remove the chilis from the soup and stir in the chard.  Heat through just until the chard is wilted.  Serve with buttered naan or toast for dunking.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Salt and Vinegar Roasted Chickpeas

I have eluded to this several times lately, but I've been working hard since July at losing some weight.  There are a hundred different ways to "diet" in this world, and I choose none of the trendy ones.  I prefer to eat healthy, high-quality, minimally-processed vegetarian food, chock-full of fresh, local, in-season produce.  Lately, I have been eating just a bit less than I typically would, and focusing much harder on getting in enough exercise on a daily basis.  (Lunchtime walks?  Check.  Weekend bike rides?  Check.  21-day yoga challenges?  Check.  Running errands on foot?  Check.)

I have been using My Fitness Pal to track my meals and exercise, and people, it's working.  Not as quickly as I would like, but well ... I'm 35 years old and have a job that is primarily sedentary.  Slow metabolism?  Check.  Lack of movement in my daily life?  Double-check.  Wah.  It's frustrating sometimes, but watching the number on the scale go down, feeling stronger, feeling more physically-fit, feeling healthier, is definitely winning out most days.

(Donut Crawls aside.  Yeah.  Sometimes you gotta splurge.)

What have I learned from using My Fitness Pal?  Well, for starters, I figured out why I gained so much before -- I just ate way too much.  Sometimes, it sucks being short.  My calorie needs are much less than a tall person's, (and MUCH less than a tall man's,) and well, on a 5'1" frame, there's only so many places where those extra calories can go.  (I was having a conversation with a coworker, who happens to be pretty tall, the other day, and stated, "if you gain 5 pounds I bet you don't even notice." She replied, "I don't."  I continued, "if I gain five pounds, my pants don't fit!")  The really crappy part about this is, a scoop of ice cream, or a chocolate chip cookie, or a bowl of popcorn has the same number of calories regardless of whether you are tall, short, or in-between.

So, yeah.  I have been paying attention.  I hate that I have to, because I would prefer to just eat and enjoy my food, but given my sweet tooth, propensity towards preferring carbs, my genetics, my age, and my sedentary job, I don't have much of a choice at this point in my life.  Boo.  (Anyone else out there feel me?)

What else have I realized?  I DON'T EAT ENOUGH PROTEIN.  Oh, yes, it's that horrible question every vegetarian dreads -- "but WHERE do you get your protein?"  See, thing is, it's really dead easy to eat enough protein as a vegetarian.  It's really easy not to, too, when your body tends to crave carbs.

So, I have been paying WAY more attention to my protein intake these past few months, and you know what?  It's working.  Protein does help you feel full.  Protein gives you energy, clear skin, healthy hair and nails.  So, I eat more protein.  My Fitness Pal wants me to eat upwards of 60 grams per day, (there's research about protein helping fuel weight loss out there, which is why I think the recommendation is so high,) but I consider it a good day if I go over 50 grams.  Some days are more, some days are less.

I have a whole new relationship with string cheese I never thought I would have.  Cottage cheese and I are BFFs (sometimes I go through two cartons in a week.)  I bought an all-natural, vegan protein powder for my smoothies.  (I don't much care for it, though.  Do you have one you like?  Please share!)  I eat eggs for breakfast ... often.  Sometimes I eat eggs for dinner, too.  I have consumed more hummus in the past four months than I think I have in the past four years.  And beans?  Heck yes.  Tofu.  (Super firm tofu, even, 'cause it has more protein.)  Tempeh.  Almonds.  Peanut butter.  Bring it on.  I can do this "protein thing."

I have realized that, as I have increased my protein intake, my intake of carbs has decreased.  No longer do I scarf down two slices of toast for breakfast.  I have one slice of toast with two eggs.  And you know what?  Breakfast #2 keeps me full much longer than breakfast #1 used to.  I will never, ever be "low-carb," but I definitely think "less-carb" is working for me.

In the quest for protein-rich snacks that are relatively low in calories and NOT string cheese, I have been crunching through batch, after batch, after batch of roasted chickpeas.  Not just any, ordinary chickpeas, mind you ... SALT AND VINEGAR ROASTED CHICKPEAS.  'Cause if roasted chickpeas can taste like my all-time favorite flavor potato chip, well, they should!

I started with this recipe from Oh She Glows, with good results initially.  I did grow frustrated, however, that sometimes my chickpeas on the outside edges of my pan would burn while the chickpeas near the center would still be soft, despite frequent stirrings mid-bake.  What's a roasted chickpea-loving gal to do?  Turn down the oven, increase the time, and work low-and-slow to her advantage.


Salt and Vinegar Roasted Chickpeas

2 cups cooked chickpeas
white vinegar
2 tsp olive oil
1/4 - 1/2 tsp fine-grain sea salt

1. Pour your chickpeas into a small saucepan, and add enough white vinegar just to cover the chickpeas.  Bring to a boil, then remove the chickpeas from the heat, cover, and allow the chickpeas to sit in the white vinegar for 20 minutes (or longer, if you want a stronger vinegar flavor.)
2. Preheat your oven to 250 degrees Fahrenheit.
3. Drain the chickpeas, and toss with the oil and salt.  Arrange the chickpeas on a parchment-lined baking sheet.
4. Bake the chickpeas, stirring every 20 minutes, until they begin to brown and dry out.  Keep baking, stirring every 10 minutes or so, until the chickpeas are completely dry and crisp.  (This may take 45 minutes or over an hour, depending on your oven, your baking sheets, etc.)  Cool the chickpeas completely, then store in an airtight container.

What are your favorite flavor combinations for roasted chickpeas?  (Because I'm sure, eventually, I'll get sick of salt and vinegar.  That just hasn't happened yet.  Mmmmmm....)

And, what are your favorite protein-rich vegetarian snacks?

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Twin Cities Donut Crawl

Pub crawls?  Pshaw.  Who needs to wander around and drink beer when you can wander around and eat DONUTS?!?!

I heard about the inaugural Twin Cities Donut Crawl a few weeks ago, and quickly made plans with a friend and her daughter to attend.  A good thing, too, as tickets went FAST!  My friend picked up a regular ticket, which included three exclusive donuts from three local donut shops, t-shirt, and donation to Second Harvest Heartland, and I went for the VIP pass -- double the donuts (thankfully I had my friend's daughter there to help me eat them,) t-shirt, donation, and hoodie -- sa-weet!  (Both literally and figuratively.)

As Donut Crawl Day drew closer, the excitement was mounting -- people who had purchased tickets grew more and more fired up for the event, people who hadn't were sorely disappointed, as the crawl sold out in only a week.  That is, until ... the organizers opened up a second crawl date (tomorrow!) to meet the high demand for tickets!

The weather was was damp, cold, and grey this morning, but no amount of crummy late fall weather would stop hardy, hungry Twin Citizens on the hunt for amazing donuts!

Registration was speedy and well-organized -- we picked up our swag, punch cards, and complimentary coffee from Five Watt in a matter of minutes, and headed out to our first stop.

I've been familiar with cake donuts from A Baker's Wife for some time now, as they make frequent appearances at my place of employment on "donut Friday."  I was thrilled to learn Baker's Wife would be on the crawl, because their cinnamon-sugar cake donut is one of my top-10 all time most favorite treats EVER. Probably the best donut I've ever had!

At each shop, we were greeted by tables full of exclusive "specialty" donuts just for us "crawlers" (crullers?) and willing helpers ready to punch our passes.  At Baker's Wife, we chowed down on their fabulous cake donuts, smothered with vanilla icing and sprinkles.


Inside Baker's Wife, there's barely enough room to turn around, but that's ok -- you get in, you order, you pay, you're on your way!  They have their incredible donuts, plus breads, cookies, pies, cakes, and other pastries for pre-order or grab-n-go.  My friend picked up two loaves of their double-sourdough bread -- a few sliced of which she shared with me, and ohmigosh, this bread is worth going out of your way for!  (She also surprised me with an extra donut -- cinnamon-sugar --  "for tomorrow."  'Cause I need extra donuts after today?  :)  I can't wait for breakfast tomorrow morning!)

Our second stop, Bogart's Doughnut Co, was just as exciting as the first.  Bogart's has been receiving quite a bit of buzz and positive press since they first opened, as they employ a genius marketing technique -- they are open early in the morning until sold out! Get there and buy yer donuts, quick!

Bogarts treated us crawlers to their from-scratch yeasted brioche dough smothered in a dark chocolate glaze (an off-menu creation just for the event.) Although I'm generally not a fan of chocolate donuts, (they always seem to taste a little "fake" to me,) this was one delicious donut.  No fake-chocolate taste at all -- just rich, fluffy, slightly tangy dough, covered with a not-too-sweet chocolate glaze.  Although I tend to prefer cake donuts over raised donuts, this treat was a definite winner.

I can't wait to get back to Bogart's to try their lavender cake donut!

Our final destination, Mel-O-Glaze Bakery, has been serving up donuts to south-Minneapolitans for many, many years.  I had never heard of Mel-O-Glaze before signing up for the crawl; I am always excited to try someplace new!

Here we have a still-warm apple fritter.  Do I even need to say more?  Even though I was pretty full from the first two stops, I managed to gobble up this baby no problem.  Mmmmmm ....

Mel-O-Glaze had a variety of donuts, breads, cookies, cupcakes, and other treats available -- my friend picked up a loaf of cheddar-jalapeno bread.  I can imagine that would make a righteous grilled-cheese sandwich or stellar accompaniment to a steaming bowl of chili!

My VIP swag is so awesome!  The hoodie is soft, cozy, and comfortable, and I love the graphics on both!  (And that the tee and hoodie have different designs!)

The first annual Twin Cities Donut Crawl far surpassed my expectations -- the event was skillfully planned and totally snafu-free, the donuts were delicious, and the shirts are awesome!   (I also wasn't sure I could safely consume three donuts in one morning ... I needed a cup of peppermint tea and a walk when I got home, but I managed to tuck into all three with gusto!)  I also appreciated that Second Harvest received a hefty donation from crawl proceeds -- I'm excited to learn how much was raised by crawlers!

Can't wait until the second Twin Cities Donut Crawl in April!

(I hope they serve decaf next time ... I'm still buzzing, since I quit caffeine 10 months ago!  Wee!)

(Please note ... I don't know whether any of these three shops are actually serving vegetarian donuts.  Many bakeries do still use lard for making donuts, and I am well aware of this fact ... let's just call this a "visual vegetarian" moment, m'kay?  If you are planning on visiting one of these shops and are a more strict vegetarian or vegan, I'd recommend calling first!)

Friday, November 07, 2014

Cheddar Grits with Greens and Caramelized Onions

One of the things I love about my place of employment is all of its wonderful quirks -- we potluck once a month, have chili cook-offs, Wednesday afternoon walks, donut Fridays, "Monster Chases," Muffin Mondays, send out way too many agency-wide emails, (and occasionally hit "reply all" to those agency-wide emails,) write haikus about salad, have an agency vehicle named "Marge," (and we talk about her like she's a real person,) enjoy epic holiday parties with gourmet, homemade food and a talent show, have unusual names for our large meeting and conference rooms, and rush the front desk en masse when someone's toddler accidentally presses the "panic" button.  However, one of my most favorite quirky things about my place of employment is "Grits Club."

What is "Grits Club," you ask?  Well, Grits Club is nothing more than a bunch of folks who love grits, band together, and order cases, stone-ground to order, en masse from Hoppin' John's.  I had the opportunity to join Grits Club this year, and I'm so glad I did.  I can't think of a better supper on a cold, blustery, damp, late fall evening than a big plate of cheddar grits, covered with sautéed greens and caramelized onions, can you?

Cheddar Grits with Greens and Caramelized Onions
serves 2

1 c whole milk
1 1/2 c water
1/4 tsp salt, or to taste
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
1/2 c stone-ground grits
1/2 tbsp unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 oz shredded sharp cheddar cheese, at room temperature
sautéed greens (kale, collards, chard, spinach, whatever)
caramelized onions (at least 2 tbsp per serving)

1. Bring the water, milk, salt, and pepper to a boil in a medium saucepan.  Whisk in the grits slowly, and continue whisking constantly for about three minutes.  (You may need to turn the heat down to medium-ish at some point.)
2. Turn the heat down to low (and use a heat diffuser,) cover the grits, and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 40 minutes.
3. Whisk in the butter and cheese.  Serve big plates of grits covered in sautéed greens and caramelized onions.  Eat immediately.

I recommend making only as many servings of grits as you will consume in one sitting.  (So, if you are cooking for just yourself like I am these days, cut the grits recipe in half.)  I find leftover grits much less appetizing, although many don't mind them at all.  Greens and caramelized onions both keep beautifully, so feel free to make a big batch of each up front.  (Caramelized onions freeze well, too -- I recommend making TONS in the fall, freezing them in 1/4-cup size plops on a parchment lined baking sheet, then transferring to a zip-top baggie to be enjoyed throughout the winter.)

What are your favorite toppings for grits?  What makes your workplace quirky?

Monday, November 03, 2014

Apple Chips

I can't think of a more quintessentially "fall" snack than apple chips.  I love fresh, in-season apples eaten out of hand (or sliced with peanut butter -- best snack EVER) just as much as the next person, but sometimes, you want a crispy-crunchy snack, instead of a crispy-juicy snack, right?  And sometimes you pick WAY too many apples at the orchard, and need ideas for how to preserve your bounty, right?  Also sometimes, you forget about an apple or two in your crisper drawer, and they grow a little mealy and soft, right?  Apple chips for the win!

I have seen bags of apple chips available at the store for what appears to be a ridiculous amount of money.  How much does an apple or two cost, in comparison?  Another one of those situations where it just seems smarter to make this snack yourself -- vastly less expensive, and you get to control the ingredients!  This would definitely fall into the "Sunday afternoon projects" category -- these beauties take a couple hours in the oven, but it's absolutely worth the time, in my opinion.  (Plus, almost all of that time is inactive time -- just slice, spice, and pop 'em in the oven!)  P.S. Your house will smell incredible while these are baking.

I made my first batch of apple chips a few weekends ago, and they kept beautifully in a zip-top plastic bag for quite a while ... not that they lasted that long, though!

Pick up a couple extra apples at the store or farmer's market this week, and make your own apple chips!

Apple Chips
2 to 4 servings

2 large apples
ground spices -- cinnamon would be classic, or you could choose a pumpkin pie spice, apple pie spice, Penzey's Baking Spice or Cake Spice, or chai spice blend (recipe to follow)

1. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Fahrenheit.  Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.
2. Wash and slice the apples 1/8-inch thick.  (Use a mandoline if you have one!)  Pick out any seeds, and arrange the apples on the baking sheets.  Lightly sprinkle the apples with your spice/blend of choice.
3. Bake the apples for one hour and 15 minutes.  Flip the apples, rotate the pans, and continue baking until the apples are dry and crisp, about another hour and 15 minutes.
4. Store your apple chips in a zip-top plastic bag or airtight container.

Chai Spice Blend

2 1/2 tsp ground ginger
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground cardamom
1 tsp ground allspice
1 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/8 tsp ground black pepper

Combine all of the spices in a small bowl.  Transfer to a clean spice jar with a shaker-top.  Sprinkle on apple chips, oatmeal, yogurt, hot cocoa, a latte ... or add to fall muffin or quick bread recipes in place of or in addition to cinnamon or other warm spices (this would pair beautifully with pumpkin breads, zucchini breads, banana breads, apple muffins or cakes, etc!)

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Two-Bean Chili with Buttermilk Cornbread

We have had an absolutely lovely, stunningly beautiful autumn in Minnesota this year.  Weeks and weeks of sunshine, rich fall colors, plenty of crunchy leaves, and highs in the 50s and 60s/lows in the 40s.  We never seem to get weather like this ... our seasons tend to change so dramatically, that we locals say we really have two seasons here -- winter, and road construction.  Most weeks in the springtime, I wear snow boots and flip flops in the same month ... some years in the same week!  Sometimes we get a longer fall season, but often colder temps much earlier.  This year has been a welcome change from regularly-scheduled programming!

This past week, we did have a few colder days, and this weekend has been especially chilly; cold weather just demands chili, don't you think?  Vegetarian chili can almost seem a bit trite at times, because it seems as though most people can scrabble together at least a passable vegetarian chili.  Does vegetarian chili fall into the same category as chocolate and sex?  Even bad vegetarian chili isn't all that bad?  :)

I have tried so, so many recipes for vegetarian chili over the years, loading up the pot with all manner of nutritious add-ins, including kale, cinnamon, sweet potato, bulgur, cocoa powder, TVP, and faux meat crumbles.  After overwhelming my palate one too many times, I scaled back, showed some restraint, and settled on what has proven to be my favorite combo -- a simple chili containing nothing more than a few veggies, minced mushrooms for umami and heartiness, two types of beans, plenty of tomatoes, and straightforward seasonings.  "Keep it simple, stupid."  Yes, yes ... I'm listening this time.

There are so many carby sides one could pair with chili, including rice, tortilla chips, bread, biscuits, pasta, crackers, and even Fritos!  However, cornbread (or corn muffins) are, hands-down, my favorite side for chili.  I'm not much of a dunker when it comes to soups and stews, so I love the soft, slightly sweet, buttery richness a bite of cornbread offers in-between spoonfuls of spicy, hearty chili.  I tend to make a less traditional cornbread, using both all-purpose flour and cornmeal, melted butter, honey, and buttermilk, and I rarely use a cast-iron skillet.  (Honestly, I find the skillet tends to over-bake the edges of the cornbread, resulting in almost chokingly-dry leftovers.  Wah.)  I often make cornbread muffins, as I find they are the best keepers (and freezers!)  However non-traditional my cornbread may be, it's my favorite.

Two-Bean Chili
serves 4 to 6

1 tbsp olive oil
1 c chopped red onion
1 c chopped bell pepper (red or green)
2 to 4 cloves garlic, minced
1 jalapeño, seeded and minced (optional)
8 oz mushrooms, minced (using a food processor or blender is super fast!)
1 tbsp chili powder
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp salt
2 cups cooked black beans
2 cups cooked kidney beans
28 oz diced tomatoes (undrained)
splash of water (if needed)
1 tbsp hot sauce (such as Crystal or Cholula), optional

1. Heat the olive oil in a 4-quart soup pot.  Add the onion, bell pepper, garlic, and jalapeño (if using,) and sauté, stirring occasionally, until the veggies are soft.
2. Add the minced mushrooms, chili powder, cumin, and salt, and continue cooking until the mushrooms release their liquid and most of the liquid cooks off.
3. Add the beans, tomatoes, water (if needed -- depending on how thick you like your chili,) and hot sauce, and bring to a boil.  Cover, reduce the heat, and simmer for 30 minutes.
4. Serve with any number of toppings, including (but not limited to) green onions, cilantro, shredded cheese, or sour cream, with cornbread on the side.  Leftover chili freezes well.

Buttermilk Cornbread
makes one 8- or 9-inch pan or 12 to 14 muffins

1/2 c butter, melted and cooled
1/3 c honey
2 eggs
1 c buttermilk
1 c cornmeal
1 c all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.  Grease your pan or line your muffin tins.
2. Whisk together the melted butter, honey, eggs, and buttermilk until well blended.  Combine the cornmeal, flour, baking soda, and salt in a second bowl, then add to the wet ingredients.  Whisk together until the batter is well-blended and few lumps remain.
3. Pour the batter into your prepared pan or divide between your muffin cups.  Bake 8- or 9-inch pans for 40 minutes, or muffins for about 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean.
4. Cool pans of cornbread well before serving.  Muffins are fine served warm or at room temperature.  Muffins freeze well.

What's your favorite thing to serve with chili?

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Kettle Corn

I love popcorn just as much as the next person, (hey, it's a whole grain, after all!) but I also have a SERIOUS sweet tooth.  Sometimes I want a little popcorn for couch time in the evening, but I also want something sweet.  Yes, I could have popcorn AND dessert, but unfortunately, MyFitnessPal wouldn't approve.  :)  Kettle corn is one of those perfect snacks, if you ask me -- salty, sweet, crunchy, caramel-y, and definitely a satisfier of multiple cravings.  Mmmmm....

However, I refuse to pay an arm and a leg for pre-popped kettle corn, either from the Farmer's Market or the grocery store.  Popcorn has to be the cheapest snack on the planet, and is relatively healthy when homemade, so I figured, there HAD to be an easy way to make it at home, right?  Besides, who wants to run to the store every time a kettle corn craving rears its ugly head?  Not I.  (Mostly because kettle corn cravings usually strike me when I'm clad in either sweats or pajamas.  Who wants to get dressed AND run to the store?  Definitely not I!)

All that was required was a quick google search, and homemade kettle corn was MINE!  Thank you, internet.  (More specifically, thank you, Two Peas and Their Pod.)

Kettle Corn
1 serving

1 tbsp oil (I love using coconut oil for popcorn!  It tolerates high heat well, and lends the popcorn a rich, almost buttery flavor.  But use whatever high-temp oil you like!)
2 tbsp popcorn kernels
1 tbsp granulated sugar
fine-grained sea salt to taste

1. Add the oil and popcorn kernels to your favorite, heavy-bottomed, at least 2-quart pot.  (If you are doubling or tripling this recipe, you'll want to adjust the size of your pan accordingly!)  Heat over medium-high heat until the kernels begin to sizzle in the oil.  (You could also choose to use a popcorn popper, such as a Whirley-Pop or Stir Crazy ... I just don't have one, so I can vouch that the pan on the stove works great!)
2. Sprinkle the sugar over the popcorn and oil, then cover.  Continue cooking, shaking the pan occasionally, until the popcorn pops slow considerably.  Remove the pan from the heat and wait just a few moments, in case you have any stragglers that are about to pop and leap across your kitchen.
3. Dump the popcorn into your favorite serving bowl, salt to taste, and enjoy!  (May I recommend soaking your popcorn pot at this point, to make cleanup LOADS easier later on down the road?)

What is your favorite popcorn topping?  I lovelovelovelove the "Cheddar & Spice" popcorn seasoning from Frontier, which my co-op conveniently carries in bulk.  But now that I know how to make kettle corn, we might have a tie at my house.  :)