Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Cherry Almond Granola

I'd like to begin by saying that nothing so good should be this easy.  It's dangerous.  It's golden, and crispy, and chewy, and sweet, and crunchy.  Good for breakfast, snack, or dessert.  What more could you want?
For the past couple of years Greg has been the granola maker in our household (he also makes the pasta, banana bread, best ever chocolate chip cookies, and cosmos--just to name a few).  That all changed a couple days ago when I made the granola.  You see, I'm hosting a brunch this weekend, and I've decided to make way too many dishes--all by myself.  There's a reason for this...I'll explain.

Every few months I decide we should cook for a lot of people.  Many people.  Too many people.  And so many dishes.  Sometimes I am wise and declare a potluck, whereupon my culinary-inclined friends descend on our apartment with any number of gourmet and delectable dishes in tow.  Other times I am not so wise, and I decide to make everything myself.  The catch here is that Greg is inevitably roped into making the final frantic dish as I plead my need to try to pull my hair back and put on mascara at the last moment.  (I so rarely wear mascara anymore that every time, I essentially have to retrain myself in this odd feminine ceremony.  Point being, it's not speedy.)  So there's Greg, in the kitchen, cursing the day that he agreed to let me invite over virtually everyone we know.  And the doorbell rings and he's still grating cheese, or whatnot, and he's never very pleased with me about this.
Okay, so this time I promised that he could vamoose altogether.  He's making banana bread a couple days prior, helping clean the apartment, and out the door he goes.  I will do the rest.

Are you all laughing, too?  Well.  It should be exciting, anyway.

In hopes of being functional when the guests do arrive, I have mapped out an elaborate preparation schedule, which, I am happy to say, is already under way.  (Six cups of heavy cream have already been purchased.  I kid you not.)  And, granola--the wonderful store-able food that it is--could be made a week in advance.  (See below for complete recipe.)

And it was a piece of cake!  Er...not so much cake as old-fashioned oats 'n' stuff.  It's as good as cake.  In fact, my mom likes it so much that Greg made her a batch and shipped it cross country last year for her birthday.  Really people, try this granola.  Excellent in milk.  With yogurt.  You could maybe sprinkle it on vanilla ice cream, though that might be a bit decadent.  Dunno, haven't tried that myself.

I'll keep you posted on the brunch.  If I'm super cool, I'll remember to take pictures of the food.  Keep fingers crossed for good weather, as April and her showers head out of town.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Spring Breathing

This spring seems to have brought out everyone's allergies in abundance.  My kids are sneezy, red-eyed, and asthma induced.  In the past week I've had two different students experience severe asthma attacks in school--luckily they both pulled through with only momentary trauma.  Poor kidlets.

I find that we so often take breathing for granted.  It's fundamental to every moment of our existence, yet simple to overlook and under-appreciate.  I write a lot about teaching and eating, but seldom about the third of the trio: breathing.  As a person with asthma myself, I am sometimes faced with the inability to draw in a full breath, leaving me...well, breathless.  And not in the good way.  In the panic-this-is-horrible way.  Sooner or later my breath will return to me.  And I will find myself grateful.

I developed asthma right round about the 7th grade.  A discovery made on the track during the once-yearly required mile run.  Lungs.  Burning.  Hack, hack.  Cough, cough.  All through high school I swore I would never run again unless trying to catch a bus or being chased by a tiger.

Have not been chased by a tiger to date.  Have run for many a bus in my years commuting on public transit.  (Incidentally, last year I one time tripped in the process of running for a bus and somehow lost my shoe.  A kind woman brought it to me from the other side of the intersection.  I still don't understand the physics of that moment, but was glad to have my shoe returned to its foot.)

And, I am happy to say, that I reneged on my adolescent stance and have taken up running (jogging, really) in the past few years.  Slow progress, but running all the same.  During a good run, my breathing is relaxed and generous.  I like those runs--they make me feel powerful.

And of course, there is yoga.  Yoga is built on breath.  Learning to bring awareness to all parts of your body through your breath.  It sounds bizarre, but makes sense when you're in the pose, in the moment.

Sunday I went to a yoga class I don't usually attend, and near the end of class I achieved a difficult pose for the first time ever: sirsasana, a forearm headstand!  I was smiling so hard that it was difficult to stay up.  But up I did stay!  Even came home and demonstrated the pose for Greg.  No wall.  All balance, strength, confidence and breathing.  Beautiful.

This isn't me--it's a photo found here.  But this is the pose I did.  And we'll say this is approximately what I looked like.  Or maybe what I will look like soon, as I continue to practice this pose.

So, just a simple reminder: breathe.  And enjoy it.  May there be happiness in your spring breathing.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Little Moment of Happy

The sweetest thing happened at the end of the school day today.  I'm thinking we'll need a bit of backdrop for this story.

This is my fifth year teaching and advising 9th graders.  I love this age because the kids are still silly children, just on the verge of growing up.  Every year in the 9th grade we get a lot of new kids who have come from questionable middle schools.  Questionable as in: children frequently throw food and other items at each other; no homework is assigned and/or completed; students can pass from one grade to the next while learning very little and producing almost no work.  Suffice it to say that this is not the situation at my school.  My school is tough and demands a lot of its students.

So, every year I get a group of kids who are simply furious that they are expected to stay after school three days a week to do their work.  The first few months of school we fight and fight and fight.  I demand they push themselves and they sulk and yell and tell me they'd rather be anywhere else.  When they ask why I am so hard on them, I tell them that I love them.  That I know they are capable and I'm excited to see them graduate and go to college in a few years.  Wide eyes on their part.

This struggle continues through about January.  Then you start to see the turnaround.  I only know this because I've done it five times now.

And then there was today.  One such girl had emailed me her essay yesterday.  (Please note that before this year she had never written more than a couple consecutive paragraphs in her life--so turning in ANY essay is a big deal.)  I print it out and observe that it is essentially a page of disorganized gobbledygook.  So today I hand her essay to her and let her know she'll need to stay after school to revise it once more.

She's okay with this.  (It's past January.)

By 4pm she's ready to show me her revised essay on the computer.  She assures me that every sentence begins with a capital letter.  (I know, I know.)  And that every piece of evidence is followed by analysis.  And it looks good.  It really does.  I am happy.

I say, "Okay, do you see the difference between this and what you turned in yesterday?"  "Yes," she responds.  "And do you know why I made you do it over?"  Here I am expecting a response along the lines of how much better this version is, etc., etc.

And she says, "Because you love me."

And it made my day.  Maybe even my year.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Cooking Paris Part 4: Moroccan Couscous and Chicken with Forty Cloves of Garlic

Whew!  That's a hefty title, ain't it?  The meal was similarly hefty--and fabulous.
I actually cooked these two dishes a few weeks back, but haven't had a chance to write about them yet.  Let me first say that Ina's chicken recipe says it serves six (and she is never skimpy with her portions), and the couscous says it serves six to eight.  Now, it's really just Greg and me at home, so I halved both recipes.  Oh, wait.  No.  I didn't do that.  I made a huge bowl of couscous and seven pounds of chicken, with all forty cloves of garlic.  I did feed some teacher friends at school that week, though, so nothing went to waste.  Still though--seven pounds of chicken for two people?  That's just silly.

Also silly is saffron and its outrageous price.  I am not alone in this thought, I know.  A friend of mine recently had a similar experience, which you can read about here.  Nonetheless (a word my students like to add unnecessary dashes to), we bit the bullet and bought the saffron.  Four tiny--though stylishly packaged--containers and $15 the poorer.  Greg thinks it adds a specific flavor to the couscous; I'm not convinced--I think it might just make it yellow.  Anyone else have a stance on this issue?
Normally couscous isn't a grain I go wild over, but this recipe was more of a roasted veggie dish stored in a cozy bed of couscous.  That's how I thought of it, anyway.  Plus, couscous is both fun to say and to type.  I made the couscous earlier in the day because it can be served warm or at room temperature (see full recipe below).  The veggies include butternut squash, yellow onion, carrots, and zucchini--all roasted and wonderful.  Scallions are added at the end for a little green zestiness.  Like rice, pasta, or quinoa, couscous needs to be heated in a liquid.  This recipe tells you to pour the heated liquid into a bowl of dried couscous and cover (rather than adding the couscous to a pot of hot liquid).  Simple difference, but it was fun.  Sort of like bread dough rising: you doubt it will really work, but then it does, just perfectly.  The dish was quite tasty and we ate it all week long.

Later that same day I tackled the chicken.  Okay, so let's discuss this "forty cloves of garlic" issue.  That's about three heads of garlic.  Now, if you're my dad, you're already drooling.  My dad adores garlic.  And my mom rolls her eyes at him because she is left smelling my dad who smells like garlic after he eats so, so much of it.  I thought that's how this dish would be.  But: it is not!
You cook the garlic for so long that all its snappiness is coaxed out of it; you are left with deconstructed lumps of unidentified sweetness (we refer to those as DLUS in the biz).  In fact, one of the aforementioned friends from work who was coerced into helping us polish off our leftovers was surprised and shocked when I told her that garlic was a main ingredient to this dish.  She said she hadn't realized there was any garlic at all with the chicken.  See?  DLUS.
A tip for this recipe (also included below): buy pre-peeled garlic.  I hate peeling garlic.  I know you can smash it with the flat of a knife, and Ina suggests you dunk the cloves in boiling water for a minute.  But, really, it always turns out to be a time-consuming process for me.  Then my fingers get sticky and only little bits come off and it reminds me of the frustrating tedium of trying to peel off old wall paper.  It seems like it should be easy, but you can't go any faster.  So, buy the pre-peeled stuff!

Also, now that I've cooked chicken a handful of times, I finally wised up this go around.  I set out two small bowls and filled one with salt and one with pepper.  That way, as I salted and peppered both sides of all seven pounds worth of chicken, I did not have to continually wash and re-wash my hands in order to use the salt and pepper grinders.  Again, I am sure that this is a ridiculous piece of advice and most likely a practice everyone but me uses already, but it was momentarily life-changing for me.  A good trick.
The recipe is simple.  Brown the chicken, brown the garlic, cook the chicken with the garlic, make a sauce.  I made the mistake of putting the larger pieces on top of the cooking pile, so they weren't nearly done when the smaller pieces were.  Pulling out the smaller pieces, I continued to cook the larger ones, using handy-dandy digital thermometer as my guide.  (If you don't have one of those, get one!  They're great.)

Ina suggests making these dishes together, for company.  I don't disagree.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Edible California

When people recall past moments or stories, they often contextualize this information by what they were wearing, or how the weather had been, or by the outcome of a big sporting event at the time.  Me, I track my life's happenings by what I was eating at the time.  When recounting a vacation, for example, no matter the beautiful vistas or the life-altering cultural experience, I'm really just going to tell you about where and what I ate.  Turns out this is how I chart my days, even the ones that should probably remembered for much more important reasons.

Knowing this about myself, I decided to take full advantage of my obsession by documenting meals whilst on this week's trip to California.  (Unfortunately the lighting wasn't always the friendliest, but you can still get the gist.)
So, we started our trip in the big L-A.  I've never been a huge fan of LA, but one of our good friends moved there a couple years ago and was determined to show us a more appealing side of the city.  Which he did.  Mostly through food...no surprise there.

Our first meal out was at a lovely place called Home in the West Hollywood area.  I ordered the best salmon salad I've ever had, and I loooovvvveee salmon.  I was eying a beet and pear salad, but was a little dismayed at the price.  (Why is it that you can often get a huge greasy--undoubtedly delicious--sandwich and fries for under $10, but anything remotely good for you is usually considerably more?)  Anyway, the salmon salad (at a shocking value at $12.95) began calling to me, and I answered.  The field greens were fresh, lightly dressed with vinaigrette.  The salmon was hefty and wonderfully prepared--not in the least overcooked or dried out.  Also nestled in the greens were kidney beans, artichoke hearts, and capers.  It was like a lunch-time treasure find!  Ooh, and I ate every last bit.  This meal tied for first in the "best meal of the CA trip" contest.  Gold star.

In order to work off this meal before the next big eat out session we...  We sat on the couch and drank wine and took a nap.  Yep.  But the nap was great, and got me all geared up to go out to dinner at Marix, a tex mex joint.  It happened to be the restaurant's 25th (I think?) anniversary, so pitchers of margaritas were half price.  We think they also only included about half the booze, but no worries, we were happy to drink twice as much!

I was craving fish that day I guess, because I ordered the fish tostadas.  (I know this photo is a huge turn off, but you'll have to believe me that it really was lip smacking.  That's just the nasty flash you see.)  Okay, so follow me around the plate.  At 12 o'clock we have black beans, then poblano rice, tomatillo sauce, lime cole slaw, the fish itself topped with mango salsa and fresh guacamole.  It's a party on a plate.  And festive in my mouth.  Complimented the margaritas quite nicely.

So, what does any sane and normal person crave after this meal?  That's right.  Chocolate cake.  I demanded cake and we went in search of it.  We ended up at Cecconi's, a swanky Italian restaurant.  Molten chocolate cake and pistachio ice cream.  Or maybe it was gelato?  Gelato would make more sense, I suppose.  Regardless--it was fabulous and Greg had to remind me, once again, not to lick the plate in public.  He's no fun.  Okay.  He's a little fun.  And he didn't eat too much of my cake.

For those of you paying close attention (you'll do well on the end-of-post quiz), you'll note that this was merely the first day in California.  That's right--five more days at this pace.  Sheesh.  I'll speed up a bit for everyone's sake.

The next day was not quite as notable on the food front, but meal-time locations topped the chart.  We headed to Malibu for day two and had a picnic at the beach.  The picnic was modest, but pleasant.  The beach?  It was outstanding.
Any meal is more magical when this is where you're eating it.  This happens to be El Matador beach in Malibu.  Go there.  It's a little bit of heaven.
The following day found us farther north, visiting friends in Oakland.  We jumped at the opportunity to eat in, a simple sandwich for lunch, pita chips on the side for a salty crunch.  That evening we ate out at a great pizza place called Lanesplitter.  I forgot to bring the camera, but the pizza was incredible.  We ordered a huge salad for the four of us--greens, chick peas, kidney beans, bean sprouts, etc.  Yum.  Leftovers the next day for lunch.  The pizza was half "heartstopper" (bacon, gorgonzola, roasted garlic, and spinach), and half "carnivore" (pepperoni, sausage, mushroom, and onion).  Yum, right?  If you can try this place out, do.  If you can't, try making the heartstopper at home.  I'm gonna.

The next night Angie made chicken and veggie curry for us.  She rooted through her refrigerator drawers and we threw in a little of everything: red pepper, mushrooms, carrots, onion, sweet potato, kale, basil.  Homemade fabulous.
There were additional meals of note, but I must tell you about the final meal I had in California, which also tied for first place.  Bakesale Betty: a line out the door, just a handful of items on the entire menu, a well-orchestrated circus of chaos on the inside, and amazing, stop-to-say-mmm between every bite sandwiches.  People, if you are anywhere in the SF Bay area, treat yourself and give this place a try.  Gold star number two.

Okay, so here's the low-down.  Joe took us there to get fried chicken sandwiches.  Made with cole slaw on fresh baguettes.  But, we also ordered a beef brisket sandwich (not actually on the menu because they run out too fast--so you just have to ask for one and keep your fingers crossed).  I loved the fried chicken sandwich, but when I tried the beef brisket...  Oh.  Mouthwatering.  Check it: they put potato chips directly on the sandwich, wedged in amongst the tenderest of meat and sauteed onions.  I rarely eat beef these days, but this unexpected paper-wrapped delicacy momentarily realigned my convictions.  And I would do it all over again, too.
If you go, bring friends.  Not only to savor the experience with, but because these sandwiches are ginormous and should be shared.  And, I suggest you finish your meal, as we did, with some Bakesale Betty strawberry shortcake.  I assure you, there was shortcake under that mountain of strawberries and homemade whipped cream.  Yum.

So there you have it.  California meets belly.  Simply scrumptious.