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Vegan feast

Once in a while we decide that it’s time to have a feast. The genesis for this idea came from my older brother. On his birthday, he makes food for people he cares about. His feasts are bigger and more elaborate than ours, from what I’ve heard. It’s an excellent idea, though, and since both Xander and I love to cook, it’s a lot of fun for us.

Our latest feast was in June. We had four adults and one other child at the table, so eight people all together. Xander took pictures of almost all the food. He made the majority of it.

Here is the menu, with pictures as available:
Hors d’oeuvres – Artichokes with Tri-Color Dip

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The dips were a pesto with pine nuts, a beet dip, and a nut-based dip. All of them were quite good.

Soupe – Bloody Mary Soup with Cashew Horseradish Sauce
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This was a nonalcoholic cold soup. The flavors were strong and unexpected; Xander described it as a cold tomato soup, which it was, but it really did taste like a Bloody Mary. The cashew horseradish sauce was quite tasty.

Entree – Portobello Mushrooms, Bell Peppers, and Asparagus with Peanut Sauce
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This was really tasty. We love having a good farmer’s market here every Saturday, and the asparagus was perfect. The peanut sauce was good enough that some of it went home with the guests!

Trou Normand – Pickled Ginger and Green Tea
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Xander made the pickled ginger. This was a very nice palate cleanser.

Salade – Assorted Hand Rolls
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This was my dish. I timed it a little bit badly; you can’t make hand rolls in advance or the nori gets soggy, but I’m not very fast at them. Luckily no one was starving to death. The fillings were avocado with cashews, cucumbers with peanuts, and fried plantains with macadamia nuts. Xander fried the plantains, since I am still not a fan of frying things.

Plat Principale – Injera with Black Eyed Peas and Greens
We didn’t get a picture of this one. Xander has been experimenting with injera for about a month and it was very, very good. We always get a lot of greens with our CSA box, so this was a nice way to share them with people. Katja isn’t big on cooked greens but everyone else seemed to enjoy them.

Fruits et Noix – A Selection of Candied Nuts and Fruits
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Xander found plums at the farmer’s market that were wonderfully juicy. The strawberries were quite good, too. There were two kind of candied nuts, one more traditional and one that had some heat to it.

Dessert et Cafe – Almond Milk Ice Cream and Black Tea
No picture for this one. Xander made the ice cream, which had ground-up bits of almond adding a very interesting texture, and the tea was strong.

The company was delightful, the food was good, we had a great time making all of it, and everyone left quite full. Definitely a good night!

Our holiday feast!

We have created our own holiday to celebrate; ours is four days long and begins two weeks after Thanksgiving. We both enjoy cooking, so one thing that was important to us was to have a feast day where we can make delicious, beautiful food and share it with people we care about. This was our first year doing this and we had a wonderful time. I wanted to share it with all of you, too.

First, the menu. We printed it on nice paper. A lot of thought went into it and there were multiple drafts before we settled on these foods, but we were both very pleased with the outcome.

menu_cards1Xander put a lot of work into making this look nice; I love it.

The amuse-bouche was an idea that came from my mom, which she had at my aunt and uncle’s house. It was an excellent idea. The beets were roasted, then sliced, and softened goat cheese was spread between the layers. The colors came out beautifully. There was a concern that the chevre would turn pink, but we decided that we rather liked that idea. Beets are one of those foods that people either love or hate, so not everyone loved them, but they came out nicely. They were topped with creme fraiche.

amusebouche

The hors d’oeuvres were fun to make. Popovers look impressive but are quite easy to put together. These were especially good because a small cube of Gruyere cheese was put into the batter for each popover right before they went into the oven. The cheese melted into the popover, then extra grated cheese was added to the top just as they came out of the oven. The wine, a Pinot Grigiot, was good; I don’t know enough about wine to comment on it much.

horsdoeuvres

We both like soups, so this seemed like a nice addition to the meal. We have some very nice smoked Hungarian paprika which balanced the sweetness of the butternut squash. It was smooth and complex. The wine, a Gewürztraminer, was sweet to start and then dry.

entree

The trou normand was Xander’s idea. Pear and hazelnut salad with blue cheese. The blue cheese was softened by the nuts and the pears, and the sharpness of the endive was really good. It was quite beautiful; I am not sure that the picture caught it well.

trounormand

The main dish was vegetarian this year because one of our guests did not eat meat. I made the raviolis. It’s the first time I’ve made pasta. It was a pain, but once I got into the rhythm of it, I ended up really enjoying it. We have square cookie cutters, so I used those to make sure the size was consistent. The filling was mushrooms, onions, oregano, thyme, and a little bit of salt and pepper. Xander made the brown butter sage sauce. A dollop of creme fraiche and toasted pine nuts rounded it out. The wine was a burgundy, strong enough to stand up to the mushrooms and sage.

platprincipal

The fruit and cheese plate was the most beautiful of the courses, I think. Xander chose a wide assortment of cheese and we had fun choosing fruits that would both taste good and be pretty. The ice wine was sweet and cold. Many people don’t know much about ice wine, so this was the first time a few of our guests had ever tasted it.

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The dessert was a rich chocolate cake. It may not look quite as impressive as some of the other courses, but the flavors were surprising – not just the chocolate, but the stout and the frosting, which was rich in its own right. A deep, dark flavor to end the main meal.

dessert

The final course did not get pictures. People picked coffee, tea, or hot chocolate (made with good chocolate and heavy cream, among other things) to drink. The biscotti was Xander’s idea and my creation: cardamom and candied ginger. Something to drink, something light and crunchy to finish off the meal, and another half an hour or so of chatting and enjoying excellent company.

We both enjoyed doing this. It will definitely happen again.

Tuesday tidbits

Last weekend I did something new, at least for me. I started with a chicken and a bunch of vegetables and I ended up with soup.

Xander usually makes soup stock in huge batches. He makes really good stock and we have a lot frozen so whenever we want to make soup, we can. This time, though, since I was starting with a whole chicken, I made my own stock.

I cooked the chicken in the cast iron Dutch Oven given to us by Xander’s mother. I love it! I didn’t do anything too fancy, just rubbed the chicken with cayenne under the skin so there would be a little bit of heat. I learned from the last time I tried to take meat of a chicken; this time I stuck it in the refrigerator for a few hours so I could skip the finger-burning part. I took all the meat off the carcass, fed the skin to the dog, and put the bones and giblets into a stockpot and covered them with water. I added a lot of bay leaves, some peppercorns, celery ends from the freezer, garlic, and various other things that looked good, and then I let it cook for a long time until it tasted right. I then added the chicken and sausage, the onions, carrots, and potatoes, and cooked them for a while. Once they were mostly done, I added the celery and mushrooms and cooked it all just a little while longer. I put in various seasonings, too, but I don’t really remember what at this point.

I like cooking from recipes. I like the rhythm, knowing what comes next, how it will all come out in the end. Cooking without a recipe feels a little bit like walking a tightrope without a net (I do know how that feels, though the tightrope wasn’t very far off the ground, at least!). I worry about screwing things up or ruining food. I’m getting more confident, I guess, or more comfortable in the kitchen, because this time I figured it was soup, and as long as I didn’t completely overdo anything, it would be fine. It is, too. It tastes good and has texture. I had fun puttering around, tasting, adjusting, and playing with it.

I made something all by myself. I feel like a little kid, saying that with such pride, but I really am happy about it.

Comfort food

Stew sounded good tonight, but we didn’t have anything that seemed perfect to go into a stew, so I decided to skip perfection and just see what came out.

We have friends who hunt, and periodically we trade fresh bread for fresh meat. Some of it ends up in the freezer because we can’t finish all of it at once. One of the packages was elk stew meat, already chopped up into small-ish chunks. That seemed like a good place to start.

We always have stock of one sort or another, so I found beef stock and added that to my idea. Potatoes and carrots, which we generally have, were next, so I peeled the carrots, washed the potatoes, and chopped them. I found a can of stewed tomatoes and chopped those up, too. Oregano, marjoram, thyme, basil, bay, and a few cloves of garlic went in, as did salt and pepper. I decided I wanted more tomato once everything was cooked, so I added in some tomato paste, both as thickener and to get more of a tomato base.

It’s good. It isn’t amazing, but it suits my needs right now. I needed comfort food, and tomato soup is something that generally helps my state of mind. This is more like stew, but it fits. I remember, when I was little, when it rained we would get to go outside and play in the rain. When we came in, we’d dry off and climb into warm clothes, and by the time we came back up there would be tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches waiting for us. I don’t know how many times it happened, but that’s a memory that is comforting on many levels. I wanted a piece of that memory tonight. I didn’t want an exact replica, since I was not in the mood for grilled cheese, but the stew helped.

Sometimes food helps ground me. It reminds me of simple pleasures. Cooking something and then eating what I have cooked makes me happy, too. It is more satisfying than buying soup in a can or at a restaurant. I can spice it exactly to my taste, make as much or as little as I want, and add random things as they strike my fancy. I am still not used to throwing food together without a recipe, but I had fun tonight, and the results were quite good. I have lunch for a few days, too.

A good weekend

I spent last weekend puttering around. I made three different kinds of bread – a basic whole wheat, French bread for garlic bread, and pizza dough – and I got the house cleaned up a bit. I spent some time at the gym, got a haircut, and helped bling up a belly dancing costume for a friend. Sunday evening we had guests for dinner, so Xander and I cooked together. The menu consisted of pizza, garlic bread, and hot wings, and Xander made his blue cheese dressing as a dip. Our guests brought a very good salad to add to the mix. Somehow, at least for me, cooking together helps solidify what we love about each other. We play together in the kitchen, an imprecise dance in which we ask for help, hand over required ingredients, and are careful to avoid poking each other with sharp objects.

We’ve been playing with various pizza crusts for years and have never found one that really works. The biggest problem is that we often don’t finish the pizza the same day we make it, so by the next morning it is soggy. Last time we made pizza I used a crust recipe from Moosewood Restaurant Celebrates. The recipe has to be cut at least in half, as it makes a lot of pizza dough. We tend to halve it and then make two pizzas with the dough, which gives a slightly thick crust. The next morning, after we’d used this recipe for the first time, I took a piece out for breakfast, expecting to have it fall apart. It held together and the crust was not soggy at all. Considering how much we had loaded onto that pizza, I was pleasantly surprised.

We have also been working on grilled pizza for about a year. The basic approach is make a pizza crust, brush one side with olive oil so it doesn’t stick, throw it on the grill, cook until that side seems done, brush the other side with olive oil and flip it over, and then add toppings and cook until it all looks done. The smoky flavor from the grill adds nicely to the flavor of the pizza. This requires a somewhat burly crust too, though, especially if we load it up too much with toppings. We have learned. This time the toppings were Portabella mushrooms sliced thinly, mozzarella, asiago, roasted pine nuts, and fresh garlic. The toppings were spread to cover most of the crust, but the pizza wasn’t loaded down. That’s one of the benefits of having a crust with some taste to it; you don’t have to load up the pizza to have it taste good.

We used the pizza crust we had tried with the last pizza as the base for the grilled pizza and it came out very well. The small amount of honey in the crust added a touch of sweetness which balanced well with the smoky flavor from the grill and the tang of the cheese. The garlic was nice and not overpowering, and the mushrooms added a mellow note to the assembly of tastes.

The wings were a new experiment. I had never made chicken wings before, but a few weeks ago I cooked a chicken in the slow cooker with a sauce made of beer and sriracha. The recipe called for chili sauce, but I think they meant something with a little less bite than sriracha has, because the sauce was very spicy. It tasted good, but it cleared out my sinuses really fast. Anyway, once I had put together the chicken and vegetables and used as much of the sauce as I wanted, I still had about two cups of sauce left. I was not sure what to do with it, but Xander looked at it, tasted it, and said “Wing sauce!” We put it in the freezer. This weekend, since we knew we were making pizza and pizza goes well with wings, we decided it was the perfect time to use it. The wings came out very well, and the blue cheese dip was, as always, excellent.

I forgot to take pictures, but the food was quite good. I am still tasting garlic a little bit this morning. Earl grey tea with a hint of garlic is odd, but not unpleasant, surprisingly enough.

Cooking for more than just the two of us is nice sometimes. Left to my own devices, I probably would have had popcorn for dinner. It’s easy, fast, and I can season it any way I want to. Knowing that we had people coming over, though, meant that we had reason to play in the kitchen. It was nice having good company, especially company that appreciated good food, and the conversation never lagged.

We are both introverts. Xander is absolutely an introvert, and I am right on the cusp; I test as introvert or extravert depending on the day. We’ve had people in our house lately for the home study for adoption and it felt like an invasion. I had begun to forget that having people over, preparing for company and then enjoying the conversation and companionship, could be a very good thing. This weekend helped me feel like our house was our home again rather than someplace that people would be judging. I like our home, I like what we’ve done with it, and it feels more comfortable again now that we have had friends over to share good food.

Molasses cookies

I’m going to start working on the food part of this blog. I love food, cooking, and eating, and we have some really neat and somewhat unexpected recipes from various places. I have no idea how to take good food pictures, but it’s worth a shot.

The first recipe comes with a story, as many of them probably will. Food and stories are very wrapped up in each other in my life. This started when Xander and I started combining our books and talking about cookbooks when he moved in many years ago. I grew up with a couple of standard cookbooks – Easy Basics for Good Cooking (I use the pie crust recipe every time I make pie), Better Homes and Gardens, and The Joy of Cooking. Xander grew up with the Settlement Cookbook. We were talking about the differences between older and newer versions of the cookbooks, especially since I keep an older version of Better Homes and Gardens specifically for a coffee cake recipe I loved growing up. I’ll get to that in another post, I’m sure. Xander said he would like an older version of the Settlement Cookbook, since the one he had was newer thant the one he grew up with.

I thought that sounded like an interesting thing to track down, so I went wandering online. I did find the version he wanted, but I also found a much older version, printed in 1901. I figured that was good, too, and when it showed up I discovered I was right.

First of all, on flipping through I found a section on invalid cookery. Invalid is one of those words, like POLISH, that you can pronouce two different ways, and most of that depends on context. It took me just a minute of reading recipes to discover that my interpretation (not-valid cookery) was wrong – it was a section on cooking for sick people, or invalids. That made much more sense. It is full of recipes for things like albumenized milk (milk mixed with egg whites), beef essence (warm a piece of beef slightly, then squeeze out the juices and give it to the invalid to drink), and wine soup (wine, sugar, egg yolks, and croutons). I’m not sure I’d eat any of it. Another amusing bit was that it has ads for various things like holeproof hosiery and  a company specializing in French dry cleaning.

The cookbook was printed before there were consistent thermostats on ovens, so it calls for cool ovens, warm ovens, and hot ovens. I’ll give you what I’ve found to work best in terms of temperature.

In looking at the recipes, I noticed that the cookies seemed different than those I was used to. The proportions were not the same, and I couldn’t tell exactly how they would come out. The recipe for molasses cookies sounded quite interesting, so I made a batch. They immediately became one of my favorite cookies ever. They are not cookies in the same sense we think of them nowadays, more like little cakes. They are tender and I really like the taste. They aren’t nearly as sweet as most cookies I’ve had in my life, since molasses is the only sweetener. I looked in the newer versions of The Settlement Cookbook (the subtitle, by the ways, is “The way to a man’s heart”. I always thought it was directly through the sternum rather than through the stomach, but I’m sure I’m being too literal about that. Heh.) and the recipe for molasses cookies was nowhere to be found. I don’t know who to ask about copyright, so if anyone has a problem with this, please tell me.

One very nice thing is that there aren’t any eggs, so there’s no issue with licking the spoon once you’re done mixing the batter.

Today I decided it was time to resurrect the recipe for a larger audience than those of us who peruse old cookbooks. With no further ado, here it is with my edits in parenthesis:

Soft molasses cookies
from the 1901 printing of The Settlement Cookbook

Ingredients:

1 cup molasses
1 3/4 teaspoons soda (this is baking soda)
1 cup sour milk (buttermilk, or a tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar plus enough milk to make a cup)
2 teaspoons ginger (dried, powdered)
1/2 cup melted butter or other fat (I used butter)
1 teaspoon salt
Flour. (I used 3 cups of flour and it worked well, but this is a somewhat adjustable part of the recipe, as you will see)

(Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit – this isn’t mentioned)

Add soda to molasses and beat thoroughly, add milk, shortening (the melted butter), ginger, salt, and flour. Use enough flour to make mixture drop easily from spoon. (I used enough to make a slightly stiff dough.) Let stand several hours (refrigerate!) to chill. Toss one-half of the mixture on a slightly floured board (the dough will be sticky), roll lightly to 1/4 inch thickness. Shape with round cutter (I used the lid to a mason jar, since I don’t have cookie cutters, and we ended up with 28 cookies), first dipped in flour. Bake on a buttered sheet. (I’ve found that 15 minutes brings them out perfectly.)

I attempted to take pictures of the cookies, but I am not a food photographer, obviously. Here is the finished product. I hope you enjoy them as much as we do!

A peaceful day

Today was mostly a quiet day. Not a lot of talking, and we mostly talked about the food we were cooking. I cleaned house because it was bugging me, and I enjoyed the work. We cooked. I made bread. Xander made pudding. Yesterday he made butternut squash soup, very simple and perfect. I read a lot, played Plants vs. Zombies, played with the dogs (we have an extra dog in the house for a couple of weeks), and relaxed.

I don’t have very many quiet days. Work is not very noisy, but there is always the sound of people doing their jobs, so there is a constant background of sound. We went to a party this weekend. The reason for the party was great – the engagement of two dear friends. I’m not very good at groups of people, though. I’m an aerobatic pilot, I used to do technical diving, I’ve worked with kids, I like playing with computers, I work in housing, we have a Great Dane, we both sing – it isn’t that I have nothing to talk about. I’m happy just existing, people watching, and I am not good at jumping into conversations. It was very loud there, too. Maybe I’m getting old. I don’t know. I never really liked loud parties or big groups of people, though, so maybe that tendency is coming out more now.

Today was very peaceful. I needed that. There are days that we are both busy with our own things and we don’t need to talk much. It’s a good kind of silence. If there’s something to say, we say it, but days like today there wasn’t much reason to talk. Just enjoying each others’ company was a very good, fulfilling thing.

We’re going to watch The Simpsons now and then I’m going to go to bed. It’s a little early, but I am happily weary, and tomorrow I will wake up to a clean kitchen, food ready to take for lunches, and a good day ahead of me. I guess I just need these quiet, useful days to recharge, to feel at home in my skin again.

What gives you peace? I’m guessing that cleaning the kitchen doesn’t do it for everyone.

Mending

I have a few pieces of clothing that I really like which have begun to fall apart. The cuffs on one shirt have worn almost through and the elbows and the last bit of the seam on the back of another have gotten very thin. I decided it was time to fix them this weekend. I turned the cuffs up and stitched them, chopped off the sleeves on the second shirt and made them half length instead of full length, and took the seam in the back, split it, and made the shirt kind of have tails. They aren’t perfect, but at least I can wear them again without worrying that they look too odd.

The thin spots are rather reflective of life right now. I look like I’m doing fine, mostly, but there are places where I’m just worn so thin that it wouldn’t take much to punch a hole and show the ragged edges. I have a day off today which is being spent sleeping in a bit, watching a movie while mending, doing dishes and laundry, baking bread, going on a hike, and going to a Zumba class this evening. It sounds like a lot for a day off, but it’s all part of mending me in some ways. Making the house nice helps me feel comfortable and relaxed. Baking bread is a very centering activity. Sleeping, of course, is always good. Hiking with Xander and Nyx gets me away from everything and unhitches my brain from the hamster wheel. Zumba, while I’m a little nervous about it, sounds like fun, and a dear friend is teaching the class.

I’m putting patches on the thin parts of myself, trying to make sure that nothing rips too badly. I’m becoming a patchwork of joy stitched over holes made by pain, peace covering grief, kindness covering old hurts. I suppose that’s not a bad thing. I always rather liked patchwork dolls and patchwork quilts, things put together from pieces that wouldn’t make anything by themselves. It still isn’t easy some days. I am very lucky to have Xander, who is so good to me on so many levels and who can make me laugh anytime, good friends who accept who I am, joyful or quiet or talkative or broken, a family who tries hard to be good to each other, and a dog and two cats who are very odd but very good to be near. With patches like those, I think my thin spots won’t rip too badly.

Insomnia

Every once in a while I have a bad night. Lately I mostly just wake up and can’t go back to sleep rather than waking up terrified or upset, but it takes its toll. This morning I woke up about 4 AM. I was planning to wake up around 6 to get some things done, so two hours before was not the best time to wake up. I don’t get all the way back to sleep. I decided to rest, in any case, so that the remainder of the day wouldn’t end up being a complete loss.

As I lay curled up, trying to sleep by counting backwards from 100 (I can tell I’m getting tired when I have to start over, and it tends to keep my brain from going on the usual hamster wheel of what I ought to be doing instead), Nyx got up, shook herself, grumbled a little, and settled down with her head on the bed next to me. I stopped counting and started petting her head, and she fell asleep. My husband was sound asleep on the other side of the bed. Between the two of them breathing peacefully and the relative quiet of the world outside, it wasn’t a particularly bad thing to be awake and not doing anything.

I drifted in and out of half asleep, I think, never quite getting all the way back, but when I finally got up this morning I didn’t feel like I had lost rest time. I don’t feel completely exhausted. Weary, yes, but not badly so. Maybe sometimes I just need to be awake when there isn’t anything going on so I can let myself just be. So much of my life is moving and thinking and organizing and trying to get things done that I forget that there is silence and quiet and a complete lack of stress if I can only let myself find it.

I’ve been pushing hard just to try to get back to normal (normal for me!) for a few months. I think I am almost there, and I think it is perhaps time to admit that I am pushing a little too hard. I would like to be able to feel like I am moving to the rhythm of my life instead of running desperately on a treadmill that is set just a bit faster than I can go. Some of the stress is easing, most days, and sometimes I can move into a space and time where there is nothing wrong with simply existing, but I have to get through this month before everything really lets up and I can relax.

I think it’s time to start making bread again. It is one of those activities that I can only do when there is extra time, and it is important to me to be able to do it well. Perhaps I will block out time this weekend to do that and end up with the house smelling like fresh bread, which always makes me happy.

Maybe, if I find more peace during my waking hours, I won’t wake up looking for it.

Fresh food

We are part of the Great Basin Food Co-op and we get baskets from the Great Basin Basket Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). We have been getting the lite vegetable basket option and the fruit basket this year, and we sometimes have enough food that we’re not sure we can finish it in a week.

I wish I were good at food photography so I could show you what we got. A huge bunch of glossy, dark grapes. Plums with deep red flesh, sweet enough that I don’t mind the bitter skin. Nectarines that dribble down my chin when I take a bite. A watermelon, possibly red, possibly yellow; I haven’t opened it yet. Cantaloupes. Green beans, basil, squash, corn, and various other foods. We can come up with ideas for each food, but if we don’t combine some of them, we’ll never finish them by next week or even the week after.

I worry when there isn’t enough food in the house. I’m not sure why, since we always had enough food growing up, but it’s a worry. With the baskets, though, I don’t worry, don’t have to think about it. The question in the morning isn’t “What can I take for lunch” so much as “How many of these wonderful foods can I fit into my lunch today?”

It’s a very good problem to have, and the fruits and vegetables, picked this morning, lie in the fridge or in their bags, beautiful and tasty. I am drawn to them. Tomorrow I will take grapes and cherry tomatoes and eat them all morning, reveling in the sweetness and tartness of each. If I feel at all stressed, I will close my eyes briefly and bite into intense flavor, enjoying the sensations. If I can’t regain my composure after a bite of good food, I’ll take a deep breath and at least pretend that everything’s all right.

It’s easier to pretend that I’m fine when there is such beauty and succulent tastes in my life.