Monday, July 14, 2014

The Very Best Of

   Should we take time away from our busy lives for one more treat? I think yes.


   This isn't 'just' another treat, of course. I am a big believer in finding my 'best of' in many life categories and sticking with whatever that find may be. This reduces mental clutter and the stress of constantly having to choose. Choice is a wonderful luxury in many aspects of life, but in some it can mean one too many unnecessary decisions.

   One of my favorite books of all time is The Sex Lives of Cannibals, by J. Maarten Troost. It isn't a salacious tale of tropical indulgence, as the title may lead you to believe, but rather an adventure tale of the author and the woman he loves, trying to make sense of life on a teeny island in the Pacific. At one point, he describes coming back to the US after quite some time away and being absolutely paralyzed by the huge number of choices simple purchases, like what type of laundry detergent to buy, he is suddenly faced with. On the remote island, variety was extremely limited and he marvels at the relief he had found living in such a way that the day to day infinite consumer choices had been virtually eliminated. He finds himself missing it.


   If I told you that the number of times I've read this book is in the double digits, you would easily make the leap that I find the idea of that kind of simple living hugely appealing. With that in mind, I have a lot of 'best ofs' in my life that eliminate the need to choose. The best mascara. The best material for bed sheets. The best shampoo. The best route to work and my favorite parking space. No need to ever make a decision about those things again. 

   And here I have the best chocolate cake for you: it is impossibly and darkly rich with the fragrance and flavor of chocolate. This cake is totally decadent and at the same time has the lightest possible crumb. There is little else to say about it except that once you bake it, it will go directly into your 'best of' category too, and you won't ever again be faced with the decision of which chocolate cake to bake.


   I make a double decker version of this recipe, towered with tufts of frosting and generously dusted with coconut shavings for the hubby's birthday. He has made me promise never to make him anything other than that cake for all of his birthdays to come. It seems he has his own 'best of' schemes too!

The Very Best Chocolate Cupcakes
Makes 3 dozen cupcakes or 2 10 inch round layer cakes 

For the chocolate cake:
  • 1 1/2 cups unsweetened cocoa powder, plus additional if making layer cakes
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt  
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour 
  • 1 tablespoon baking soda 
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder 
  • 3 cups sugar 
  • 2 sticks unsalted butter, melted 
  • 1 1/2 cups buttermilk 
  • 3 large eggs, lightly beaten 
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract 
  • 1 1/2 cups boiling water

   Preheat oven to 350. For cupcakes: line your cupcake baking tin with cupcake wrappers. For the layer cake: grease 2 10 inch cake pans with butter and dust with cocoa powder. If you have parchment paper handy, line the bottom with a circle of parchment, grease and powder that as well. 
 Sift cocoa, flour, sugar, salt, baking powder and baking soda together in your mixing bowl.  
Measure out your buttermilk, add in the vanilla extract, crack the eggs into it and lightly beat them together with a fork. With the mixer on low, add the buttermilk/egg/vanilla mixture to the dry ingredients. Mix just until barely incorporated.
With the mixer still on low, slowly pour in the melted butter. Mix on low until just incorporated.
With mixer on low, slowly pour in the boiling water. Once incorporated, increase mixer to medium speed and mix until evenly incorporated. Turn mixer off and use a mixing spatula to scrape the bottom of the bowl and make sure everything is mixed.
For cupcakes: fill cupcake liners a scant 2/3 full (the batter expands quite a bit) and bake for 15 - 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out with just a few moist crumbs attached. For the layer cake: divide batter evenly amongst the cake pans and bake for 45-55 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out with a few moist crumbs attached.
For layer cake: allow cakes to cool for about 20 minutes, then invert the pans and place the cakes on cooling racks until perfectly room temperature.

For the Cream Cheese Frosting:
  • 1 1/2 pounds cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 10 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 4 cups confectioners sugar, sifted

    In a large bowl using an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese and butter until perfectly smooth. Beat in the vanilla and sugar and continue beating until smooth, fluffy and silky. Taste and add more sifted sugar if you want it sweeter. Frost cupcakes with a star tip for extra fancy results.  
   For Steve's birthday cake, frost the first layer cake, sprinkle with a generous amount of sweetened coconut flakes, add the second layer and frost the entire cake. Finish it with plenty of coconut flakes dusted over the top and pressed into the sides.



  

Friday, July 4, 2014

With Tequila, Please

   Did I say cupcake? I meant cocktail... a happy fourth of July cocktail!

   Cupcakes will be coming soon, no worries. But today- this auspicious, happy day in hot, sunny July, calls for tequila and merry making. So let's.


   I've written about a pink tequila kissed beverage here before; apparently there is a trend in my favorite cocktail indulgences and I'm completely okay with that. This drink is a touch sweet, a touch sour, just a hair bitter, and deliciously thirst quenching in a 'may I have another, please' huge way. It is also dangerously quick to whip together.

   Guess who celebrated Independence Day with their first stroll in the great out of doors? Our adorable backyard chickens! Here they are saying hello to Audrey:


   We are loving our teeny suburban farm. Their gentle clucks and delicate little bodies resting in my hands remind me of the deepest possible sense of home. I've always been so thankful to have grown up on hundreds of wild acres, filled with animals of all shapes and sizes, learning every day what it means to truly care for life and nature. Having a small piece of that in my very own backyard brings me endless joy. I admit (shamelessly), the only thing that dragged me away from my second straight hour of watching the ladies peck around their yard was one of these beauties.


   For many years fourth of July for me meant cook outs around a lake in New England, surrounded by extended family on my dad's side. One of his crazy cousins (who had an even crazier twin) would whip us around the pond, barely afloat behind the motor boat, hanging on for dear life and wondering which cousin we were at the mercy of.

   Now family and independence day means a sunny afternoon with my amazing new husband and our adorable chicken and dog babies. And even though I always wish our parents and siblings were closer, I wouldn't have it any other way.

    So happy fourth, I hope when I raise a glass you are too!

Pomegranate Grapefruit Margaritas
Makes 8 cocktails

1 1/2 cups tequila of choice (I like silver tequila but if you prefer gold, go for it!)
3/4 cup triple sec
1 1/2 cups Pom brand pomegranate juice
1 1/2 cups grapefruit juice
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
Plain seltzer water, to finish

   In a pitcher combine all ingredients except for the seltzer water. Mix to combine. Fill your glasses with ice and pour in your margarita mixture, leaving about 1/2 inch at the top. Fill the remainder of the glass with the plain seltzer, garnish as you please and enjoy! 

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Project Simplify

   It started out innocently enough a few months ago. Late one night, Steve and I created what we affectionately called our Simplify List. It's nothing more than a Word document that we occasionally open and add projects or ideas to when they come to us. At first it was easy, silly things (like 'if you put on a piece of clothing and it doesn't fit just right- put it in the Goodwill bin!') but it has since grown into much more meaningful pursuits. Last week, for instance, we got rid of cable television.

   I grew up without cable; we lived so far out in the boonies that it simply wasn't an option and we never felt we were missing out on anything. The television meant family movie time and most nights we all would pick a movie and watch it together as a family. Commercial free.

   I recently read an article in which it was observed that people who watch television often have higher levels of anxiety regarding their health. Perhaps even worse than that, their overall sense of well being and happiness is decreased. I can totally understand how a constant barrage of shows and commercials could slowly corrode your sense of identity and the compass we inherently possess to determine what is worthy of our time, effort and money and what is not.


    So I asked Steve to cut to cord. That's what he did and so far it's been pretty fantastic. We still have Netflix and our collection of favorite DVDs but the release from all things commercial television related has been pretty awesome. We've been reading more, taking more evening walks after dinner and I've started crocheting a gorgeous, off white afghan- a hobby I haven't indulged in since college! Of course, the cable bill savings is nothing to sneer at either.

   Then we noticed that every time we look at our monthly budget we feel demoralized and stressed to see how much money we spend on restaurants for food and booze that cost a fraction of what we pay in the restaurant to prepare at home. So we decided to take the project even further: No Eating Out July was born!

   Even though some of my fondest memories with Steve have been at various restaurant tables, I'm really excited to abandon restaurants completely, save some money, and challenge myself in the kitchen. Example: instead of going out for Pad Thai tonight, I'm making grilled Asian marinated chicken thighs over a bed of rice noodles, fresh herbs and bean sprouts (recipe forthcoming if it's a success).

   That is the power of a project like this: you start to notice the little things that cause stress or anxiety in your life and suddenly ideas for major life improvement come out of thin air.

   What would a project simplify look like for you? I encourage you to take a moment and think of the places in your life that could use less clutter- it could be your closet, your kitchen, your entertainment purchases, or even your mental and spiritual space. Ask yourself: what is draining my time, energy and money that I may not actually need to feel happy and fulfilled? Then just write a few ideas down and get your simplify on!

   I'll be back soon with a recipe. I've been craving a major treat and I suspect it will take the form of a cupcake. 

  

Sunday, June 29, 2014

About the Tomato...

   For me, summer is all about long, lazy weekends spent mostly outdoors and similarly lazy meals, also preferably eaten outside.

   In New York this meant a lot of walks and hikes, especially in the late afternoons when the sun's fury had abated a bit. Since moving to the south summers mean slow, sun drenched days at the beach and endless evenings cocooned in the safely of our screened in porch, mosquitoes mercifully thwarted.

   And, of course, summer is tomatoes and corn on the cob. Spicy shrimp boils and icy beers.


   I've written about my favorite succotash recipe before and it graced out patio dinner table as soon as corn and tomatoes were both local and drippingly ripe. Served alongside a perfectly grilled grass fed steak and glasses of white wine chilled with frozen strawberries: heaven.

   Admittedly, I was slow to the tomato camp. With a childhood of picky eating behind me I came to adulthood with the concept of tomatoes as these slimy, oddly seed ridden, wet things- or, even worse, mealy! Like a badly ripened apple only worse.


   Then I went to Croatia to visit my brother and everything about the tomato that I thought I knew flew out the door. I ate an amazing seafood risotto, so resplendent with local seafare that at first I didn't notice the barely cooked chunks of fresh tomato amidst the rice. Once I did I could hardly ignore them- so sweet and velvety, so full of the sun.


   There is nothing in this world like a truly vine ripened, in season, local tomato. Find some and make this salad. I hope you eat it outside, in the late dregs of summer sun, over a meal so lazy the candle snuffs itself out in a pool of wax. 

Summer Tomato Salad
Serves 4
I like this best with an array of baby heirlooms, but any in season tomato will do. This salad is dynamite served along side crispy roasted baby potatoes.

1 pound tomatoes, diced (to about 1/2 inch chunks)
1/3 cup roughly chopped fresh parsley
1 avocado, diced (to about 1/4 inch chunks)
Freshly squeezed juice from one lemon
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 teaspoon coarse kosher salt

   Place the tomatoes, parsley and avocado in a mixing bowl. In a small bowl, combine the lemon juice, vinegar, olive oil and salt. Whisk until well combined. Pour the dressing over the tomato salad and gently toss everything together. Taste and season with additional salt if desired.  

Monday, June 23, 2014

Grocery Store Survival 101

   It would come as no surprise to anyone who knows me or reads this blog that I spend a significant amount of my time reading health and wellness books, articles and blogs. These subjects are fascinating to me and I enjoy finding ways to implement the things I agree with or think may have merit into my life.

   But today I learned a huge lesson while shopping for dinner and I hope you can benefit from my new found wisdom without making the (in retrospect silly) mistake I made today. I learned that it doesn't matter how many times I read something; unless I actually take a step back and use the tools I read about, it is all for naught.

   Before I get to my grocery store antics, I'd first like to say that up until last week I had never cooked or eaten a spaghetti squash (!). I love all things squash and adore trying alternatives to the wheat based noodle, so I finally corrected this major life oversight and made an insane dish of basil pesto spaghetti squash. Game changing deliciousness ensued.


   Fast forward to today: while day dreaming about ways to introduce this dish to all of you lovely people in a dynamic, enticing way that will convey to you how much you need it in your foodie life, I convinced myself of that very thing and decided I needed it for dinner. At one of my favorite organic grocery shops I snagged two of the beauties and hopped in the shortest check out lane.

   "Your total is 22.50" The clerk helpfully reported.

   "What?! 22:50?? How is it that wheat is subsidized while us innocent, whole foods lovers are so unfairly punished?! No thanks!" With that, I politely replaced the squashes on the shelf and left the store, wallet and foodie morals firmly in place.

   Except not really. I was so stunned and embarrassed about being the complete dodo bird who grabbed a few items without even looking at the price tag (in my defense, squash should never cost more than a few bucks a pound), that I handed the cashier my payment and left the store with my tail between my legs. 

   I stopped for a price check at the local chain grocer on my way home and the same (albeit non organic) squash was 1.29 a pound.


   The moral of the story is that we all read those articles on how to afford eating well and (mostly) organic and they always tell us to pick our organic battles. Use the dirty fifteen to guide you- as you can see, if I had implemented this advice even just this one time it would have saved me a lot of money. There are many foods which it is perfectly safe to chose conventional over organic- squash, with its hard shell that we discard, is a perfect example.

   It may be some time before we can convince the powers that be to subsidize organic, sustainable farming, but until then we really do have tricks up our sleeves to make good choices. We just have to remember those tricks when it counts. 


   As mentioned above, I have lots of lovely things to say about this dish, but I thought you might appreciate my story more than me waxing eloquent about earthy, sweet basil and noodles you would never know didn't come from a box. The short of it is that you should make this for dinner. Soon.


Basil Pesto Spaghetti Squash
Serves 4  to 6

We like to serve this with a roasted chicken breast sliced alongside it.

1 large spaghetti squash (a little over a pound)
olive oil
salt
3-4 cups fresh basil
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted a little in a hot skillet
2 cloves garlic
2 ounces parmesan cheese, grated, plus additional for serving

   Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Cut the squash in half lengthwise, scrape out the seeds and brush the cut surface with some olive oil (about 1 tablespoon per half). Sprinkle with a little salt (about 1/4 teaspoon per half). Place, cut side down, on a foil lined baking sheet. Bake for 1 hour, or until a fork easily pierces the flesh. Remove from the oven and let cool a bit.
   While the squash cools, add the rest of the ingredients plus 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt into your food processor. Turn the processor on and drizzle in 4 tablespoons olive oil, processing until evenly combined.
   Use two forks to 'pull' the squash flesh into spaghetti like strands into a bowl. Scrape the pesto over the squash and gently toss to combine.
   Serve garnished with a bit of additional cheese.  

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Got it in the Bag (lunch that is)

   Work lunch. Weeknight dinner.

   These four words are enough to strike fear into the heart of any person aspiring to make healthier food choices. Especially people taking care of children or with a not stay at home job. Which is, by my estimation, nearly everyone.

   I've mentioned before that getting into the habit of bringing my lunch to work was without a doubt one of the best things I've ever done for myself as a working adult (and study exhausted college and medical student, for that matter). Choosing to take control over what passes your lips at work is a sure fire way to achieve whatever health related results you are interested in whether that is weight loss, clearer skin or better sleep- you name it and home cooked, well chosen meals will get you there.


   I work in a hospital and one would think that would give me cafeteria access to foods that promote health and well being, but one would be very, very wrong. It is an unfortunate and well known fact that hospitals are eons behind the times in providing fresh, additive free, whole foods based meal options for not only the people who work there, but for the patients inhabiting their rooms.

   There are articles out there about the fabulous, health nut foodie approved fare offered by companies like Google, but not all of us are fortunate enough to work for corporations this forward thinking. My hope, of course, is that all work places (hospitals especially!) will kick out the fast food chains and the vending machines and offer real nutrition one day.

   In the meantime, we all have the power to make choices which tell our employers that the calorie dense, nutrient free food they have on board is just not acceptable. We can send that message by consistently taking our food to work and not handing our precious dollars over to companies that by no means have our best interests in mind.

   Bringing lunches and cooking after work isn't easy; I of course know this. But with a little persistence and planning, it is absolutely possible.


   Enter, the lovely and adorable lentil. Lentils are just fabulous. They are nutty, rich and complex in flavor and provide lots of minerals, vitamins, fiber and protein.  Properly soaking them makes them cook much faster (and therefore become weeknight meal friendly) and also allows them to more readily release all their nutrient goodies once they hit your gut.

   Growing up my mother and I were the only ones in our household who really loved legumes, lentils in particular. Because everyone else disliked them so much they rarely graced our stovetop, and in my pre-cooking-ability days I often got my lentil fix with salty, naughty cans of Progresso. Thankfully I can now re-create my childhood bowls of beany goodness without any of the BPA or other unpronounceable additives, but to this day my heart twinges with fondness when I pass those metal towers in the grocery store.

   I thought about putting a fancy garnish on the bowl I took photos of but ultimately decided against it. This soup is delightfully brown with just a flash of green and orange- strong and proud in all her sturdy simplicity. A garnish would just be totally beside the point!

Simplest Lentil Soup
Makes 8 - 10 servings

I like to make a huge pot of this soup on Monday night. We have it for dinner (usually fancied up with a side of creamy brie and sliced baguette) and then enjoy the leftovers for lunch the rest of the week. 

2 1/2 cups french green lentils, rinsed
1 large onion, chopped
3 tablespoons olive oil
12 cups vegetable broth (I usually do 8 cups broth and 4 cups water)
2 teaspoons dried tarragon
2 teaspoons dried parsley
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Salt, to taste
1 6 ounce can tomato paste
8 carrots, sliced
8 stalks celery, sliced
1 large bunch tuscan (dinosaur) kale, sliced into thin ribbons

   The night before making your soup, place the lentils in a medium sized mixing bowl and fill with cool water, enough to cover them by about three inches.  Cover and set on the counter overnight. In the morning, drain the lentils and rinse them well. Replace lentils in the bowl and cover with another 3 inches fresh water. Cover, place in the fridge while you go about your day.
   When you're ready to make dinner, drain and rinse the lentils again. Heat the olive oil in an 8 quart soup pot. Add the onion and sautee until translucent and beginning to brown. Add in the lentils and your broth/water. Add the spices and stir to combine. Cover your pot, bring to a simmer.
   Simmer for 15 minutes. Add the carrots, celery and tomato paste. Stir to combine the paste and simmer for an additional 15 minutes, until the carrots and celery are your desired tenderness. Add the kale, bring back to a boil, then turn the heat off and allow the kale to get nice and soft while you set the table (kale should sit for 5 minutes at least). Add additional salt if needed prior to serving.
  

  

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Your Whole Life

   Paleo. Vegan. Vegetarian. Pescetarian. What do all of these words actually mean and who is right??

   I've noticed over the last year or so that there has come a huge divide in the healthy lifestyle community. If you've been tuned into the argument, you might think this divide is between the meat eaters and the non meat eaters but I think the divide truly resides between the who is rights and the who is wrongs.

   This argument over who's lifestyle is best, who is most moral, who is most righteous and clean- it is so beside the point, my friends.


   I find it extremely interesting, and alarming, that the 5 - 10% or so of Americans who live a 'healthy lifestyle' are entering into this strange war with each other over who is right and who is wrong. Isn't the point supposed to be that we all have the power to find the right choices for ourselves? Isn't the message supposed to be that no matter your healthy choices, there is a community out there that agrees and supports your ambition and goals?

   Personally, I don't care if my best friend has found that she feels best on a completely vegan diet but I find that I need fish a few times a week to feel my best. I don't care (in fact, I rejoice!) that the thought of eggs in the morning turns my stomach but my husband eats three beside his sauteed spinach and looks, feels and has the energy of a man ten years his junior.

   The thing that fills my heart with happiness is that all of the people I have just described have eschewed modern food production and found the recipe that best suits their needs. The underlying theme in every single diet and lifestyle book, website or retreat out there is this: find real food and eat it. Don't eat the ones that make you feel crummy. Eat more of the ones that make you feel strong and clear minded.


   I would go an inch further and say find a way to bring those foods that matter to you as close to your home as possible. We pick blueberries from our front yard, harvest oyster mushrooms from our porch and coo over the laying hen chicks frolicking in our backyard. This morning I planted 30 cayenne pepper plants on my back porch and eagerly anticipate making my own cayenne pepper and some Sriracha from our homegrown chilis.


   These are only a few of a thousand examples in which you can take control of where your food comes from and what you chose to put in your body. Don't put a label on it- take the labels off of your food and bask in the benefits.