Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Back from the Beach

Spring break is over, alas. We had a lovely week in Orange Beach, Alabama. The kids played in the surf, I sat on the beach in a chair with a fruity drink reading Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck, the perfect book to read while on the road in America (although it made me miss my dogs). Then we drove home via New Orleans, and the kids got to experience Bourbon Street on a Friday afternoon. We had everyone inside by dark because there was plenty to do in our nice hotel, Le Pavilion on Canal Street.

We had lots of great food including several helpings of delicious oysters--not veg, but I hope the slimy little creatures will forgive my sincere enjoyment of their oystery essence. We also tried Royal Red shrimp, a large deep-water shrimp from the Gulf that is absolutely delicious--sweet and soft and melt-in-your-mouth.

As I walked the dogs through the woods yesterday morning, I was crunching snow beneath my feet again, but I couldn't help thinking how similar it was to walking over the white sandy beach. Subtract the spectacular spring surf and add a sweater, scarf, and gloves.

It's back to the kitchen as well. Today I'm picking up an order of wild-caught seafood from Nick Wallace of Wallace Farms, who finds the best, sustainable sources of wild-caught fish as well as locally raised organic meat and sells them out of his truck. This will help determine what I cook for the family in the coming week. In the meantime, I'm looking longingly at the strawberry leaves poking out of the soil already, and the seeds I started before we left for vacation are all sprouting vigorously. I hope for a strong and hearty growing season with lots of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Meanwhile, I'm thinking about what to eat today. I'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Winter Raw

I tend to want warm food in the winter--probably a common impulse in the frigid midwest. When I look outside and see drifts of snow taller than my head, it makes me want to shiver back inside for a warm beverage or some comfort food. So where does raw food fit into all this?

I've been thinking about this a lot lately, especially since the thermometer almost hit 50 degrees today, and I'm getting ready to head south for spring break. I've drifted away from raw. What does that mean to leave a dietary practice, then come back to it again? It's not that I've stopped eating raw food. I always have something raw on the table. But also cooked food, and is that a sign of a failure and redemption, or of a cycle? I'm thinking about that today. And craving.

I have a strange--or maybe all-too-common--relationship with the foods I eat and the seemingly random (to anyone who isn't in my head) "rules" I impose on my diet. One week I'll decide that every Monday, or Friday, or Sunday, will be "raw day." Another week, I'll alternate vegetarian and vegan. Sometimes I'll give it all up and have some fish--wild caught, but still, I know, I know. I think, at less confident periods in my life, that this is a bad thing. At other times, instead of telling myself that's all wrong, I choose to see it as a way to respond to my in-flux body and spirit needing and wanting different things at different times, in different seasons and in different stages. So what's wrong with heading back towards the raw end of the spectrum? Nothing at all, of course.

And that means, in my food-centric world, that I'm thinking about what to make tomorrow. I think tomorrow should be a day of fresh, of alive, of raw. Just wait and see. I know I'm looking forward to it with delicious anticipation. (Check back tomorrow to see what happens because in my kitchen; something is always bound to happen in my kitchen.)

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Planting the Seed

By my calculations, March 8 (today) is just about exactly 8 weeks before the week when southeastern Iowans should be thinking about planting their gardens. Danger of frost should be over and the soil should be warming nicely. Hard to imagine right now, with mounds and piles and mountains of snow all over the city taller than most adults (and some taller than a building), but that didn't stop me from placing my seed order from the Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa,, a non-profit organization of gardeners that save and share heirloom seeds. I also bought a few packets of seeds that SSE didn't have. And today, a sunny but chilly Saturday, I hauled the kids to the garden store and bought trays and dirt.

When I opened the bag of dirt with my kitchen shears, I was overwhelmed by the spring-fever-invoking fresh smell of sun-warmed dirt. The kids agreed--it was almost too much to bear on this snowy winter day! But I got out my spoon, my seed packets, my cling wrap, and planted:

-Ancho gigantea peppers
-Anaheim chili peppers
-Jalapeno peppers
-Mixed-color bell peppers (red, orange, yellow, green, and purple)
-Bull nose large bell peppers (heirloom)
-Green tomatillos (haven't tried these before but I heard of someone else in Iowa who grows them so I'm going to give it a try)
-Florida high bush eggplant

I also have, but will wait to direct-sow:

-Russian tarragon
-Lots and lots of cilantro

I wrapped the trays in plastic and we set up a card table in front of our sunniest window. When our pet sitter comes for spring break, I'll have to add seed-watering to her list of chores, but I don't think she'll mind.

Now all we have to do is hurry up and wait for spring...which technically starts in less than two weeks, despite how it looks and feels outside.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Sirsasana, No Wall Necessary Thanks!

Last week in yoga class, when I set up to do headstand against the wall in my usual way, my teacher said, "Eve, I think you are ready to move away from the wall next week."

Yikes! Really? I was feeling all tippy that day, but felt encouraged that she wanted me to move into the center of the room, where the really experienced people invert themselves. I vowed to practice all week, just to be ready.

The next day, I tried to practice at home, and found I couldn't balance for more than a second, when I've been able to do headstand in the middle of the room without a problem before. Somehow, the teacher's assertion that I was ready to do this in public made me completely unable to do it at all. I fell (feet thudding ungracefully on the couch cushions) over and over. Frustrated, I stopped practicing. Clearly I didn't have the necessary inner rod of quiet. I wasn't rooted to the earth by the crown of my head, or by anything else. I was flighty. Unbalanced, in every way.

And then, quite suddenly, a week had rolled by and it was Friday morning again. This morning. Just ten minutes into class, my teacher said, "Everybody set up for sirsasana."

I felt the butterflies rustle up into my throat, but also a surge of courage.

"In...the middle of the room. Right?" I asked.

"Yes!" she said, with no knowledge of my abysmal failure in my home practice. "Do you know how to fall?"

Do I.

Actually, I have read all about how to fall, in Mr. Iyengar's book, Light on Yoga. He explains how, if one is to fall forward, one must unlace the fingers quickly, or risk crunching them (he doesn't put it quite like that, but you get the idea). A few months ago, when I was focusing a lot on inversions at home, I practiced this over and over again, so I would know how to fall. Once, I panicked, forgetting, and did indeed crunch my fingers. Ouch.

But today, I was determined to do it. I'll err on the side of tipping back in the safe direction, I thought. I came up slowly, carefully, and calmly. Most notably, I did feel calm and quiet inside. I even felt rooted--if not too deeply--by the crown of my head. Up I came, and stayed...and stayed...and stayed! I wasn't wobbling or wavering or feeling unbalanced at all. Not one bit.

Well...not until my teacher noticed me and started encouraging me to rotate my thighs inward. This slight adjustment did throw me off just a little. I lost my inner calm and I did get tippy, but then I came down gracefully the right way, not the finger-crunching forward-falling way.

At the risk of sounding like a surfer dude, I have to say: It was awesome.

Later, we did some more advanced poses we hadn't done in class before, including padmasana. Only two of us that I could see (not that I should have been looking) attempted full padmasana. The others did ardha padmasana (half lotus) with a belt. I'm very flexible, if not very strong or balanced, so this isn't a difficult pose for me. But then she had us roll forward onto our knees, resting our pelvic plates on a bolster. We arched our backs, looked up, opened our mouths, and stuck out our tongues. I felt strong and powerful, like I was sticking out my tongue at everything in my life that isn't going the right way. Blah to you, wrong ideas! Blah to you, doubt and fear! Blah, blah, blah!

It was awesome.

Of course, I'm obviously involving my ego again when I compare myself to others in a yoga pose, but in a class where I am so frequently humbled, it was nice to see myself making progress. And whenever a fellow student comments about my flexibility, the teacher is always quick to assure everyone that flexibility isn't any good without strength, and that my strength is lacking. Which is true. My teacher is good at keeping egos in check.

But the experience got me thinking about what it means to be balanced on some days, and unbalanced on other days. Strong and rooted sometimes, and sometimes, weak and wavering. While progress happens, it is more often a circuitous progress, curving in and over and back on itself so that it can seem more like a scenic route than a road that actually goes anywhere.

Maybe that's just fine.

I enjoyed today's rigorous class, and that early-in-the-session sirsasana success helped fuel the rest of my poses to be stronger, stretchier, and straighter in all the right ways (mostly). Sometimes a little stroke to the ego can push the path in a more forward direction for a little while. It's certain to wind back around again to a place you thought you'd already passed forever, but that's all part of the process, I guess. Every victory is only a victory of a moment, but the same holds true with every failure. To fail, to fall over, to crunch the fingers or have a tippy day, is only a sidewind. Sooner or later, the path meanders forward again, despite all the chicanes and backtracks and at some point, every yoga student is bound to look back and think, "Wow. Look how far I've come. And I didn't think I was getting anywhere."

Tonight, maybe I'll work on getting into handstand by kicking up with the left leg. I still haven't been able to do that even once, but maybe tonight it will happen. I'm feeling pretty strong.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Cookie Madness

What do you do when you don't just want but need oatmeal cookies but you only have one egg and all your recipes call for at least 2? You improvise. This recipe, loosely based on the recipe for Ranger Cookies in my Better Homes and Gardens cookbook (you know, the red-and-white checked cookbook with the ring binding), will serve as our dessert tonight...if there are any left when after-school snacking has taken its toll.

Chocolate Coconut Oatmeal Cookies

1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter
1-1/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour (not regular whole wheat, be sure to use pastry flour)
1 cup organic brown sugar (or raw sugar)
1 egg (free range)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup organic rolled oats
1-1/3 cup sweetened flaked coconut
1 cup dark or bittersweet chocolate chips

1. Preheat the oven to 375. In a stand mixer, beat the butter for 30 seconds or until soft. Add 1/2 cup flour, sugar, egg, vanilla, baking powder, and soda. Beat until thoroughly combined.

2. Beat in the remaining flour until combined, then stir in oats, coconut, and chocolate chips. The mixture will be very stiff.

3. Roll pieces of dough into one-inch balls with your hands. Flatten slightly and put on ungreased cookie sheets (preferably air-bake or stone for even browning). Bake for 10 minutes, or until the cookies just begin to color.

4. Cool on the cookie sheet for one minute, then remove to a wire rack with a metal spatula. Eat, or let them cool and eat them later.

My recipe made about 36 cookies, but it would have made more if I hadn't eaten some of the dough.

In my defense, the dough was irresistible.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Beans and Bayless

Last night, I ventured into the Rick Bayless cookbook. Family Dinner Night always seems an appropriate venue for experimentation. I began the day by preparing a pot of pinto beans with onion, jalapeno (frozen from our garden last year), and shredded beef jerky. This cooked all day. Around 5, I began assembling the rest of the meal. I made the first recipe in the Bayless book: the Essential Simmered Tomato Jalapeno sauce, but because tomatoes aren't in season, I used canned (the recipe allows for this). I also used a frozen jalapeno pepper. I think, in retrospect, this sauce will be much tastier and zippier when I use fresh tomatoes and actually roast them first. I also used some frozen homemade vegetable stock I had, instead of chicken broth.

Meanwhile, I cooked a big pot of white rice (medium grain) with white onion and homemade chicken stock, and I poached three organic free range chicken breasts.
After simmering the sauce, I used it to make a casserole of layered steamed corn tortillas, ricotta cheese, sauteed mushrooms and asparagus, topped with melting cheese and green onions.

The picture, below, isn't the best because we forgot to take one before we started eating. However, you can see the basics. On the table, the pot of pinto beans, tortilla-ricotta casserole, white rice, shredded lettuce, avocadoes mashed with sea salt and lime juice, and a big bowl of fresh strawberries sprinkled with sugar, which I was so pleased to see in the grocery store this morning. Yes, they came all the way from California, but I couldn't resist them.

Before dinner, we enjoyed a lovely cocktail--one of the margaritas from Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen. Here is my adapted recipe:

Upscale 'Rita

Rub a lime around the edge of two martini glasses, and roll the edges in coarse salt.

In a cocktail shaker, combine:

Juice from 1 large lime (about 1/4 cup)
1/4 cup Milagro 100% agave tequila
1/4 cup Grand Marnier

Add 1 cup ice and shake for 15 seconds. Pour into prepared glasses.

Tomato-Jalapeno Sauce (adapted from Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen)

2/3 of a 28-ounce can diced tomatoes (I put the remaining tomatoes into the pinto beans, see below. I would use the fire-roasted canned tomatoes next time, to rev up the flavor a little more)
1 fresh (frozen) jalapeno, cored and mostly seeded (I would roast this next time), minced
1 tablespoon canola oil
1/2 medium white onion, thinly sliced
3 cups vegetable stock
1 teaspoon sea salt

1. Combine the tomatoes and jalapeno in a blender jar. Blend until the tomatoes are pureed.
2. Heat the oil over medium heat in a cast iron skillet. Saute the onion until very soft and starting to turn golden, about eight minutes.
3. Add the tomato/jalapeno mixture. Stir until the mixture bubbles and thickens, about ten minutes.
4. Add the vegetable stock and salt (only use the salt if you are using homemade vegetable stock). Heat until the mixture bubbles again, then reduce heat and simmer for about 15 minutes.

Punchy Pintos (based on the recipe from Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen)

Note: You definitely don't have to include the beef jerky in here. I had a package leftover I wanted to use up (waste not, want not) but you could use leftover tempeh bacon or smoked tofu or 1/4 teaspoon liquid smoke, or just skip it entirely. It will still be good. I didn't think the beef jerky really added anything, but the men in the family liked it

2 cups dried pinto beans
1 medium white onion, peeled and diced
1 fresh (frozen) jalapeno
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1/3 of a 28-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 tablespoon gold tequila (I used Jose Cuervo Gold)
Beef jerky (to taste--and totally optional)
1 tablespoon olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

1. Sort through the beans to remove any stones. Put the beans and onion in a soup pot or Dutch oven with 8 cups water. Bring to a rolling boil over high heat.

2. Turn off the heat and cover. Put the jalapeno, garlic, tomatoes, tequila, beef jerky (if using), and olive oil in a crockpot. Carefully add the hot beans with the water to the crockpot. Cover and cook on low for about 8 hours, stirring occasionally. Taste towards the end of cooking time and season as necessary with salt and pepper.

Serve with medium-grain white rice cooked with a diced sauteed white onion and vegetable or chicken stock.

Tortilla-Ricotta Casserole (based on the recipe in Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen)

12 corn tortillas
Tomato-Jalapeno Sauce (see above)
1 12-ounce container whole-milk ricotta cheese
1 cup mushrooms, sliced, sauteed in 1 tablespoon butter or olive oil
1/2 cup leftover steamed vegetables (I used asparagus)
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 cup shredded melting cheese
1 bunch green onions, whites and most of greens thinly sliced

1. Wrap the tortillas in a clean tea towel and steam in a vegetable steamer over boiling water for 2 minutes. Turn off the heat and let them sit for at least ten minutes.

2. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Spread a few ladles of sauce in the bottom of a 9x13 casserole (I used stoneware). Put four tortillas in the bottom of the casserole, covering as much of the bottom as possible (the tortillas will overlap). Spread half the ricotta over the tortillas. Sprinkle with half the mushrooms, half the vegetables, and half the cilantro. Ladle some sauce over this layer.

3. Repeat with another layer of tortillas, ricotta, mushrooms, vegetables, cilantro, and sauce. Top with the last four tortillas. Pour the remaining sauce over the whole thing. Sprinkle with the shredded cheese and the green onions.

4. Bake the casserole until it is hot and bubbling, about 20 to 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and let sit for about ten minutes, to firm up. Cut into squares to serve.

Serve it all up with avocado mashed with salt and lime juice, and shredded lettuce, along with fresh strawberries tossed with sugar for dessert.


Saturday, March 1, 2008

Cinnamon rolls and Cara Cara oranges

I shouldn't even mention the cinnamon rolls in this post because I didn't make them from scratch--these are the frozen ones from Rhodes, but they were still good. This morning, I slept luxuriously until 9, then got up and made coffee to enjoy with a cinnamon roll and a deep pink Cara Cara orange. As I peeled the orange, little clouds of citrusy mist bloomed around my fingers. I hadn't tried Cara Cara oranges before--surprisingly mild without a typical citrus twang, they had a gently sweet flavor. The first few bites after a bite of cinnamon roll tasted too bland because of the more intense sugar from the icing, but once my palate cleared, I could better enjoy the delicate flavor.

This breakfast puts me in mind of one of my favorite Wallace Stevens poems--one I hadn't thought about in a few years--called Sunday Morning. True, it's Saturday morning, and the bird on my shoulder while I ate my breakfast was a real white-faced cockatiel, not a green cockatoo printed on a rug (by the way, I guess Wallace Stevens didn't know that cockatoos aren't green--he was probably thinking of a macaw). But still, this is the feeling I had. I was sitting in a chair by the window, although the day is gray and cloudy.

I won't print it all because it's long--just the relevant excerpt:

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
As a calm darkens among water-lights.
The pungent oranges and bright, green wings
Seem things in some procession of the dead,
Winding across wide water, without sound.
The day is like wide water, without sound.
Stilled for the passing of her dreaming feet...

As for what I'm dreaming about: I'm dreaming that the snow-burdened world outside the window will wake up! Wake up! Warm up!

My next ambition is to work through Rick Bayless's cookbooks, recipe by recipe, so I can teach myself (or he can teach me) authentic Mexican cooking. A nearby Mexican grocery I recently discovered should be able to supply me with all the necessary ingredients. When we visit Oaxaca for Christmas this year, I want to know what I'm tasting, and have a basis on which to base any additional cooking wisdom I might learn there. So, stay tuned for some Mexican cooking!

"I am content when wakened birds,
Before they fly, test the reality
Of misty fields, by their sweet questionings..."