Knife Safety and Essential Meatloaf

I’m jokingly known as the most cautious person in my family, and my practice of knife safety is perhaps the most cited example. If I pick up a knife while in the kitchen with another person, I will simply announce, “Knife!”  If I take a step in any direction while still holding it, I will repeat myself.

“How was work today?”

“It was great, started a new project, went for a — Knife! — walk at lunch, got paid. How about you?”

The practice is a holdover from my days at a professional bakery, where said announcement was a job requirement. But at home, the declaration draws laughs. I guess it’s too formal to pair with my sweatpants and Taylor Swift singalong while chopping vegetables?

Now, every Christmas, it’s inevitable that someone will prod me when cutting the prime rib, “Hey Jess, Knife!” The joke even made it into my dad’s toast at our wedding.

My sister recently asked if I could give her some cooking lessons. This has allowed me to impart some of my knife skills wisdom onto her. Yesterday we took a little tour around her knife block, making special highlight of the chef’s knife, and we discussed the counterintuitive forward motion of proper chopping.

Am I a good teacher? I don’t know. It’s possible I say, “Careful.  Careful. CAREFUL!” too much, and I’ll probably be bringing one of those wire mesh cutting gloves to our next class. I own three, despite my suspicions about their effectiveness, but you can never be too careful (see above re: most cautious person in my family).

The outcome of our knife discussion and the subsequent what if kitchen catastrophe scenarios that my mind inevitably wandered to was a dish that I believe to be essential in any home cook’s repertoire. It’s not sexy, but it’s comforting, easy, filling, versatile, and perhaps underappreciated. It’s meatloaf! This is a version I’ve been regularly making for the past few years, and it has saved many a weeknight dinner. I love it so much that I’m bummed I left 80% of the leftovers with her. Could really go for a meatloaf sandwich for lunch today.

TURKEY MEATLOAF WITH FETA AND TOMATOES, inspired by Giada de Laurentiis

You’ll need:
2 eggs
1/2 cup panko bread crumbs
2 tbsp milk (any fat percentage is fine)
1/3 cup chopped parsley
1 can of plain diced tomatoes, drained as much as possible
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
1-1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
1 lb lean ground turkey

Preheat oven to 375. Prepare a 9x5 loaf pan with cooking spray.

In a large bowl lightly beat the eggs. Add the bread crumbs and milk and let sit for about 5 minutes. Add the remainder of the ingredients and use your hands to mix together well. Move the mixture to the prepared loaf pan and evenly flatten the top. Bake until an internal temperature reads 165 degrees, approximately 45 minutes. Let sit for about 5 minutes until cutting and serving.

Secret Single Thai Food Takeout

One of my favorite episodes of Sex and the City is the one where Carrie writes about secret single behavior, the quirky habits and pleasures that only come out only when one is home alone, without the observation or feedback of anyone else. I binge-watched this show in 2011, at a time when I was permanently single, when my secret single behavior was simply known as my behavior. Carrie eats crackers and grape jelly in her kitchen while reading fashion magazines, and I had chips and salsa for dinner and then danced around my apartment wearing a green clay face mask.

Now when I am by myself for a night I order Thai food. Specifically, a bowl of hot and sour tom yum soup, a Thai salad (like a green apple salad), and shrimp spring rolls. It always feels special since it’s not a flavor profile I frequently work with at home.

I’d been eyeing a recipe for ginger meatballs braised in coconut broth that Smitten Kitchen had posted months ago, and last week’s cooler weather was the perfect time to try them. Despite adding ginger, coconut, lime juice, fish sauce, garlic, and turmeric to both the meatballs and the broth, it didn’t occur to me until my first bite that I was cooking a Thai-inspired dish.

This meal was incredibly comforting, delicious, and versatile, and I already want to make it again. In the spirit of Tuesday, I used ground chicken instead of the pork Deb calls for, and I altered her ratio of meatballs to broth to rice to suit how I like to cook. The first night I served the meatballs on a bed of rice and spooned the broth over the entire dish, but the meatballs were also excellent themselves, as was a leftover bowl of just rice and broth.

Also, we cannot talk about this recipe without talking about perfect jasmine rice. The recipe on the bag was an identical formula to how I cook quinoa: bring 2 cups of water, 1 cup of rice, and 1/2 tsp of salt to a boil, cover and reduce to a simmer for 15 minutes. But when the timer buzzed I removed the lid to discover a pile of mush that was sticking to the bottom of the pot. “Why does this always happen to me?!” I whined, as I angrily Googled answers while debating if I wanted to try a second batch. But then I learned that in the case of jasmine rice this is supposed to happen! Just remove from the heat and keep covered for 5 more minutes, and the grains will soak up the excess moisture and release from the bottom of the pot. It really worked!

PERFECT JASMINE RICE

You’ll need:
1 cup jasmine rice
2 cups water
1/2 tsp salt

Bring everything to a boil in a medium saucepan, then cover and reduce to a simmer for 15 minutes. Then, remove from heat and keep covered for an additional 5 minutes. Remove lid and fluff with a fork.

Note: I think the best saucepan for making all grains is the Le Creuset Saucepan with Skillet Lid. I use mine multiple times a week, which makes it one of the best Christmas gifts I ever received.

GINGER MEATBALLS BRAISED IN COCONUT BROTH, inspired by Smitten Kitchen

For the meatballs, you’ll need:
1 lb ground chicken
1 large egg
1-1/2 tbsp panko breadcrumbs
1 tbsp peeled and grated ginger
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tsp fish sauce
1 tsp salt

For the broth, you’ll need:
1 can unsweetened coconut milk
2 cups vegetable stock
1/4 cup peeled and grated ginger
2 garlic cloves, minced
Freshly grated zest and juice of 1/2 lime
1/2 tbsp fish sauce
1 tsp ground turmeric
1/2 tsp sugar
A few handfuls of chopped greens, such as kale or chard or spinach

To serve, you’ll need:
Cooked jasmine rice
Chopped cilantro (optional)
Additional lime wedges (optional)

To make the meatballs, combine all ingredients in a large bowl and use your hands or a fork to mix together well. At this point I like to put them in the refrigerator for a little while (so go get your workout in), but they can also be cooked immediately. Preheat oven to 425. Scoop mixture into 1-1/2 inch meatballs and space them on a baking sheet about 1 inch apart. Bake until they are just golden brown and the internal temperature is 165, about 12 to 14 minutes.

Meanwhile, to make the broth, combine the coconut milk, vegetable stock, ginger, garlic, lime zest and juice, fish sauce, turmeric, and sugar in a large, wide saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer for 10 minutes. Skim the top for a smoother broth. Add cooked meatballs to the broth and simmer, covered, for another 10 to 15 minutes, midway through adding the chopped greens to wilt.

Serve the meatballs and broth over jasmine rice, with chopped cilantro and additional lime juice.

My Blueberry Muffins

Tallying in at over 35.5 million hits, there’s no shortage of “blueberry muffin” content on the internet. Adjusting my search parameter to “best blueberry muffins” brings it down to 23.7 million. Rather than weed through this bounty I’ve been repeating and tweaking a version of Tara O’Brady’s barley pecan muffins for years, and I now consider the transformation to be “my blueberry muffins.”

What first drew me in was the hope for an evenly distributed muffin. Before added to the batter, frozen blueberries are pulsed with sugar in a food processor until confetti-like. Toasted ground pecans are used instead of whole, or even chopped. When everything is mixed and baked together it results in a remarkably consistent texture. Neither the fruit nor the nuts dominate any bite, yet each bite is fruity and nutty. I was also intrigued by Tara’s call for barley flour, though I’ve since switched to oat flour or ground oats in an effort to use what I always have on hand.

I love these muffins, and my friends and family do too, though I’m already thinking about my next tweak. Stella Parks adds coriander and nutmeg to her classic blueberry muffins, and I think I should try that too.

UPDATE: The day after I posted this I made a batch with coriander and nutmeg, and it was stellar! Recipe below is revised to include their addition. I also came across this well-researched blueberry muffin article that I will consult for my next tweaks.

MY BLUEBERRY MUFFINS

2 cups frozen blueberries
1 cup granulated sugar, divided
2 cups all purpose flour
3/4 cup oat flour (or ground oats)
1/4 cup pecans, toasted and ground
1 tbsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground coriander
1/8 tsp ground or grated nutmeg
1/2 cup melted butter (or vegetable oil)
2 large eggs
1 cup milk
1 tsp vanilla 
Scant 1/4 tsp almond extract (optional)
Demerara (or other raw) sugar for the tops (optional)

Preheat oven to 400.  Prepare 12-cup standard muffin tin with paper muffin cups or baking spray. If you need to grind oats, or toast and grind nuts, do so now.

Pour the blueberries into a food processor and pulse until chopped like confetti. Add 2 tbsp of the sugar over the berries and pulse once. Remove and set aside.

In large bowl, whisk together the flours, remaining sugar, pecans, baking powder, baking soda, salt, coriander, and nutmeg. In separate bowl whisk together the melted butter (or oil), eggs, milk, vanilla, and almond extract. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and stir until just combined. Gently stir in the blueberry-sugar mixture. Divide the batter evenly across the pan. The cups will be very full. Sprinkle the tops with demerara sugar.

Bake until the muffins are puffy and golden, about 20-25 minutes. Let cool on cooling rack.

Bowling Pin Zucchini Muffins

I don’t know enough about weather patterns and farming to understand the economics of crop output, but I know this year we had a cold and rainy spring, and I’ve read about that effect on agriculture statewide. So this year’s weekly CSA pickup has been less bountiful than last. Instead of 6 pounds of tomatoes and 3-4 zucchini per week, we have recently been receiving about 2 pounds of tomatoes and 1 zucchini. I suppose that is the fun (and the education) of it. Pray for continued hot weather, says the farm’s director when asked about more tomatoes.

That being said, when the single zucchini I go home with is roughly the size of a bowling pin, it doesn’t feel like a small yield. This should make at least 3 batches of my favorite zucchini muffins.

These were my go-to muffins last summer, the summer of 3-4 zucchini per week, the summer when Shalene Flanagan reigned as New York Marathon champion, and her cookbook Run Fast Eat Slow was at the top of my pile. Shalene’s recipe calls for “optional chocolate chips,” and the first time I made them I opted out. Jeff and my good friend Kristen, who have similar opinions on sweets, both questioned their absence. Since then I’ve never left out chocolate chips.

ZUCCHINI POWER MUFFINS, inspired by Shalene Flanagan

You’ll need:
2 cups almond meal
1 cup rolled oats
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 cup chopped dates
1/2 cup chocolate chips
3 eggs, beaten
1 cup grated zucchini
1 cup grated carrot
6 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup maple syrup
1 tsp vanilla

Preheat oven to 350.  Prepare 12-cup standard muffin tin with paper muffin cups or baking spray. In large bowl mix together dry ingredients (almond meal, oats, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda, salt, walnuts, dates, and chocolate chips). In separate bowl mix together wet ingredients (eggs, zucchini, carrot, butter, maple syrup, vanilla). Pour wet ingredients into dry ingredients and stir until just combined. Bake for 25-35 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center of a muffin come out clean.

Chicken Tuesday

A few years ago I worked at a bakery that gave a free loaf of bread to employees at the end of their shift. The bakery was connected to a cheese shop that offered large discounts to bakery employees on Mondays. I rarely worked on Monday, but it was convenient enough for me to stop on my way home from yoga and pick up a cheese selected at random. When I returned to work on Tuesday I would go home with a baguette, and have bread and cheese for dinner. Thus, the tradition of Cheese Tuesday was born. I no longer remember the cheeses I ate or what I learned, just that it was an enjoyable experience.

Recently I had the idea to reinstate this tradition, but in a different way. Instead of cheese, it would be chicken. You see, at home we mostly cook vegetarian or seafood dishes, but I actually really love chicken. I just find it more challenging. There seems to be a magical sweet spot between dry and raw that I regularly have a hard time finding, and Chicken Tuesday serves to motivate me to build a repertoire.

I haven’t yet instituted this weekly event (we’ve been busy), but I’ve been cooking and baking nonstop. If we consider our average-sized house to be a palace, then we’re cooking on the highest end Viking appliances. At least that’s what it feels like compared to our old apartment oven. I recently made Diana Henry’s baked chicken with herbs and mustard (the one chicken dish I’ve felt consistently confident about). Jeff said, “this is different than you’ve made it before, right?” It wasn’t! It’s just that our “high end” oven baked the pieces more evenly and better toasted the tops than our previous rental clunker. This gives me high hopes for future Chicken Tuesdays.

BAKED CHICKEN WITH HERBS AND MUSTARD, inspired by Diana Henry

You’ll need:
4-6 chicken thighs (I just buy one package that equals about a pound)
1-1/2 tbsp unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup dijon mustard
1 tbsp chopped fresh herbs (tarragon or parsley are my favorite)
3 tbsp panko bread crumbs

Preheat the oven to 425. Use a fork to mash together the butter, mustard, and herbs until roughly combined. (If your butter is not already softened, like mine never is, just put it in a small bowl and microwave it for 15 or so seconds.) Lay the chicken in a lightly oiled baking dish. Use your fingers to spread the butter-mustard mixture over the chicken (it does not need to be perfect; an uneven spread is good). Season the bread crumbs with a little bit of salt and pepper, then pour over and slightly press into the chicken. Bake in the oven for about 30 minutes, until the chicken reaches an internal temperature of 165. The time completely depends on the size of the chicken thighs; I usually first check at 25 minutes.

The Riskiest List

For Christmas one year I converted all of our family’s old VHS tapes to digital files. I also watched every video and designated chapters for each scene. The following year I started the massive project of scanning all of our photos and saving them to shared albums organized by month, beginning with October of 1983. I look forward to snowy winter weekends at our kitchen table continuing to work on this; maybe I’ll make it to 1995 this year. For these reasons, I’m known as the family historian. I suppose I would make a good librarian.

When it comes to the management of my recipes, the approach is decidedly different. There are saved documents and folders on my computer, an outdated spreadsheet of favorites, notes on my phone, tabbed cookbooks on shelves in the kitchen and office and in unopened boxes from our move. Currently there is a handwritten note on my desk at work (on it: “GPaltrow sweet potato chipotle soup, but w/butternut”). It’s a trip when I come across an old list, with forgotten favorites, things I never made, dishes still in regular rotation. Sometimes I think I should transfer everything to a master list, but then I think… well, that would just be one more list. I suppose that’s why I have this blog.

Then there’s the tally that is stored in my head. Often compiled from blogs and Instagram posts, and most likely without my full attention, this is the riskiest list of all, because I’ll likely forget it. It’s out of focus and undiscoverable, but I think that also makes it spontaneous and fun. I made a stellar meal last week with ideas pulled from this list: zucchini quesadillas (from Smitten Kitchen a few weeks ago), with grapefruit rosé granita (from Ina Garten’s recent Instagram post) for dessert. I also served a version of my everyday quinoa salad, though instead of peppers and cucumber I added chickpeas and extra herbs. If your friend brings over Cookie and Kate’s salsa, it’s pretty perfect.

ZUCCHINI QUESADILLAS, inspired by Deb Perelman from Smitten Kitchen

You’ll need:
3 tbsp olive oil
2 large zucchini (mine were extra large, so maybe 3-4 medium, or 4-5 small), quartered and thinly sliced
1 tsp salt
1 lime
6 oz grated monterey jack cheese
8 8-inch tortillas (I like whole wheat)
Cilantro, avocado, additional limes (optional)

This recipe intrigued me because Deb’s instructions are to cook the zucchini extra long, to caramelize it as you would an onion. What a great idea!

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add zucchini and 1 tsp of kosher salt and cook for about 5 minutes, until it starts to soften. Then lower heat just slightly and cook for another 7-10 minutes, until zucchini is “jammy and very tender,” in the words of Deb. Set aside, squeeze the juice of the lime over the zucchini, and mix together. Add the cheese and mix together. Let cool just slightly before assembling the quesadillas.

Heat a nonstick griddle pan over medium heat. Take one of the tortillas, cover it with a healthy layer of the filling mixture, then top with another tortilla. I find it doesn’t take much oil to achieve a toasty quesadilla (and too much will just make it greasy) so I use olive oil spray to spritz on the griddle pan. When hot, add the uncooked quesadilla and toast on one side for about 3-4 minutes, then carefully flip and repeat on the second side for another 2-3 minutes. It is done when both sides are golden and toasty, and the cheese melted. Repeat with the remainder of the tortillas and filling mixture.

Let cool slightly, then cut each into quarters and top with salsa, sliced avocado, cilantro and additional lime juice as desired.

GRAPEFRUIT ROSÉ GRANITA, inspired by Ina Garten

You’ll need:
1 cup of sugar
2 cups freshly squeezed pink grapefruit juice (this was 5 grapefruits for me)
2 cups dry rosé champagne (I used L. Mawby Sex… sounds more scandalous than it is)
1/8 tsp maldon sea salt (Ina called for fleur de sel, which I don’t have)

The process for this is very simple, but the dish needs to sit in the freezer for a long time, so start it early. Ina said up to 3 hours, and we ate it at 3 hours, but I’m inclined to give it 4 next time. Plus, you might need additional time to squeeze the grapefruits by hand if your juicing device is sized for just lemons and limes, and then to realize you don’t have the recommended dish size, so you’ll have to do some extra math as you split it in two.

Make a simple syrup by combining the sugar and one cup of water in small saucepan. Bring to a boil and simmer for 2 minutes until the sugar dissolves. Let cool just slightly (only so you don’t burn yourself) and ideally pour into a 9 x 13 x 2-inch non-metal baking dish (or, divide between two smaller dishes if necessary). Stir in the grapefruit juice, rosé, and salt. Carefully place in the freezer. After one hour, rake the mixture with a fork, then repeat every 30 minutes until the mixture is firm and granular. Serve in bowls.

So It's Gonna Be Forever

Note to reader: Writing this was as easy as knowing all the words to your old favorite song, and therein lies the issue that it might not make sense if you haven’t studied Taylor Swift’s art like I have. I swear to be overdramatic and true… Are you ready for it?

I’m setting my alarm to wake up at 5am tomorrow so I can devote an uninterrupted hour to my first listen of Taylor’s new album, Lover. I’ve celebrated her album releases for years, and I don’t know how it gets better than this. These days (I haven’t been sleeping) come just once every couple years, so whenever one drops it makes me so happy I turn back to sad. I lose myself in a daydream when I think about where I was in life for each previous new album… 

It’s a typical Tuesday night during my first year in Chicago. I was at trivia at a dive bar on the east side with the same group of people I hung out with senior year when I correctly answered a question, “name the singer of the lyrics, ‘he’s the reason for the teardrops on my guitar.’” At the time I read more celebrity “news” than the front pages, and though I had never listened to Taylor Swift I knew that she was a sensational new country star, and I remember thinking it was an educated guess to potentially free beer. I don’t know if our group won that night, but one thing’s for sure: there ain’t no “I” in team, but you know there is a “ME!” 

Flash forward (and we’re taking on the world together) to my office two years later and I hear Love Story every hour on my coworker’s FM radio. I said, “Oh my, what a marvelous tune.” I’m soon humming along, turning up the volume, uploading the single to my iPod, and asking my sister to burn me a copy of both of Taylor’s albums. Emily and I hit the second round of the Fearless tour, and though tired from a long hard week, I never miss a beat, bopping along to every song, can’t stop won’t stop moving, raising my hands into the shape of a heart when Taylor does, it’s like I got this music in my mind saying it’s gonna be alright. 

Soon I’m so over walking fast through the traffic lights, busy streets and busy lives, and I realized some bigger dreams of mine involved open space, so I briefly moved to rural Michigan. Taylor’s third album, Speak Now, was released that October, the colors in autumn so bright on the long drive to Target. Happy, free, confused, and lonely in the best way, I spent those days in between jobs writing and cooking. I was reminiscing just the other day about the spaghetti squash gratin I taught myself to make and the cinnamon rolls my brother complained about, and I laugh ‘cause it’s just so funny

Next chapter. When the fourth album was released I was well into my career at a bakery famous for its approach to service and business, where everybody here was someone else before. I took the day off to listen to Red on repeat and make granola, outside autumn leaves falling down like pieces into place. That was my life then; I went to work, then my evenings were me at the movies, me on a walk, or me in my kitchen baking things that smell like winter. I was perfectly fine, l live on my own, I made up my mind, I’m better off being alone

It wasn’t until the release of 1989 when I hosted my first listening party. My friend Cortney came over and we did crafts until we decided to move the furniture so we could dance. We were thirty and still growin’ up, but feelin’ 22. Then a few months later I met my… my… my… my… lover. I started thinkin’ he’s the one pretty early on, change my priorities to us at the movies, us on a walk, us dancing ‘round the kitchen in the refrigerator light. It was the end of a decade but the start of an age.

Then Taylor’s big reputation needed a break. I was waiting for something to come along for three whole years. The drought was the very worst, but this is how the world works. When Reputation finally dropped I had Emily over for another listening party, where I made Tara O’Brady’s delicious take on mushroom toast. It’s more of a casserole really, with layers of sautéed mushrooms and spinach, toasted bread slices, and melty cheese (ok, extra cheese, it was a moment of weakness). Emily, not a leafy greens lover in the way I, I, I like it, looked on in horror at the amount of spinach I added. “Don’t worry, it will cook down,” I assured her, as if I did something bad, then why’s it feel so good.

A few months ago, I watched it begin again. Taylor started dropping clues about her new album, then came singles and music videos and lyrics and more clues, and I drop everything now to investigate. So go and tell your friends that I’m obsessive and crazy, but this is the golden age of something good and right and real. I think Lover will be her best album yet! I could go on and on, on and on. To celebrate Emily is coming over for a listening session and in-depth discussion, and I’m again making the same mushroom and spinach toast, now known as Taylor Swift Toast.

MUSHROOMS AND SPINACH WITH TOAST, inspired by Tara O’Brady

You’ll need:
3 tbsp butter, divided
1 tbsp olive oil
1-1/2 lb mix of button and cremini mushrooms
2 thick slices of crusty sourdough
1 clove of garlic
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
6 oz chopped fresh spinach
8 oz of good melting cheese (I’ve used fontina and smoked mozzarella, and would love to try cheddar)
Salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes to taste


On medium-high heat, melt 2 tbsp of butter and the olive oil together in a large, heavy skillet with a lid. Add mushrooms and cook stirring regularly for about 7-10 minutes.

Meanwhile, toast your bread. I like to do so on a griddle pan on the stove. I drizzle a teeny bit of olive oil on each side of the bread, then toast each side over medium heat for about 3-4 minutes per side (but keep an eye on it until it reaches your desired done-ness).

When the mushrooms have released their water and are golden brown, add the garlic and cook stirring constantly for about 1 minute. Drizzle the vinegar and sprinkle a pinch each of salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes. Add the spinach and cook until wilted, about 2 minutes.

Tear your toasted bread into croutons and gently stir them into the vegetable sauté. Spread pieces of cheese across the top. Turn the heat down to low, cover the skillet, and let everything melt together for 5 to 10 minutes (the total length depends on the type of cheese).

Eat while blasting the new soundtrack of Taylor Swift’s latest album.

Note to Self

Last Monday I skipped a workout to spend an evening in the kitchen. (This is my favorite excuse.) In addition to making the world’s best lunch salad, I roasted salmon for dinner, blended smoothies for a side (breakfast smoothies are too hard to coordinate), invented a corn salad, and made a version of Julia Turshen’s incredible cornbread. I was armed with eight ears of corn from our CSA, so it seemed the right thing to do.

Let this be a note to self: make these corn dishes again next August.

CORN SALAD WITH LIME, FETA, AND BASIL

I invented this salad in my head about one minute before making it; the idea is to improvise and to really let the corn be the star. When I made this I parboiled the corn then sautéed the kernels in a dry cast iron pan. Next time I would not parboil the corn, and instead sauté it in a very small amount of olive oil. I’m guessing that will allow the kernels to blacken slightly. I would also like to try this with cotija cheese and cilantro, but I used what I had in the refrigerator. See again: the idea is to improvise.

Cut the kernels off of as many corn cobs as you have (I used 6). Add to a hot pan with a little bit of olive oil (perhaps 1 tbsp) and a pinch of salt, and cook for about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and mix with 1/4 cup of feta, 2-3 tbsp of chopped basil, and the juice of one lime. Taste and add more salt and lime juice to your liking.

CORNBREAD WITH CHEDDAR AND SCALLIONS, inspired by Julia Turshen

You’ll need:
2 ears of corn
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup yellow cornmeal
3 tbsp sugar
2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp kosher salt
2 eggs
1-1/4 cups buttermilk
7 tbsp melted butter
3/4 cup grated cheddar cheese
6 scallions, thinly sliced

I first made Julia Turshen’s excellent cornbread last year when her cookbook Now & Again was published, and I don’t think I’ll ever need another cornbread recipe. I love the addition of cheddar and scallions, but what makes this dish extra special is her instructions to bake it in a cast iron skillet and to first heat said skillet in the oven. This leads to the most wonderfully toasty crust. Her recipe is perfect as written, but since I had a bounty of corn I added fresh kernels as well. It was delicious!

Julia states this cornbread is best eaten day-of. I agree (that toasty crust will not be the same the next day) so be prepared to have, like, 4 slices.

Preheat oven to 425, and place an 8-inch cast iron skillet in the oven to warm at the same time.

Meanwhile, parboil the corn. Add the ears of corn to a boiling pot of water and let sit for about 2 minutes, then remove and dunk in an ice bath to cool. Cut the kernels from the cob and set aside.

In a large bowl, mix together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, and salt. In a separate bowl, mix together the eggs, buttermilk, and 6 tbsp of the melted butter. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir until just combined. Gently stir in the cheese, scallions, and corn kernels.

Carefully take the hot skillet out of the oven. Add the remaining 1 tbsp of butter to the dish (it will sizzle!) and spread it around. Pour the batter into the skillet and smooth with a spatula. Reduce the temperature to 400 and place the skillet back in the oven. Bake for about 25-30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. I find this can get dry fast, so definitely check it at 25 minutes.

Fresh Rolls: Basically Handheld Salads

A couple of years ago, when I worked at a well-regarded artisan bakery, my coworker and BFF came into the office one morning and said to me, “I made fresh rolls last night!” To which I responded, “Why… in the world… would you ever make fresh rolls at home?!” If she wanted rolls with dinner, why did she not pick some up at the very shop in which she worked?

After some back and forth I understood that she meant Asian-style fresh rolls, also known as spring rolls or summer rolls, the delicious, healthy, and wonderfully versatile rice paper wraps often filled with an assortment of fresh vegetables. These are frequent appetizer orders of mine, so I added the idea to my mental list of things to try at home one day. Three years later I made them for dinner. Then I made them for work lunches, then as an appetizer for my mom’s birthday meal, then for work lunches again, and last weekend as an appetizer for ladies night.

I’ve always filled mine traditionally with a variety of raw vegetables such as bell pepper, cucumber, and carrot, sometimes adding shrimp, and basil or cilantro. They’re basically handheld salads; what can be mixed in a bowl can be rolled into rice paper. I’d love to try a grilled tofu option next. The possibilities are endless!

FRESH ROLLS WITH HONEY SESAME DIPPING SAUCE

For the dipping sauce, you’ll need:
1/2 cup honey
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp rice vinegar
1/2 tsp grated fresh ginger

For the fresh rolls, you’ll need:
12 rice paper wrappers (plus a few extras if you’re out of practice)
1 red bell pepper, cut into thin strips
1 green bell pepper, cut into thin strips
1 English cucumber, cut into thin strips
1 large carrot, cut into thin strips
1 large avocado, sliced thin
3 lg leaves of kale, sliced thin
1 bunch of green onion (about 6 green onions), sliced
1/2 cup cilantro or basil, chopped

To make the dipping sauce, whisk all ingredients together until combined. Set aside.

To make the rolls, first prepare your work station. You will need a shallow dish filled with warm water (I use a 9x9 baking dish) to soak the rice paper, and next to it a cutting board to use as a rolling station. Have your filling ingredients prepared on another cutting board nearby.

The first step in assembly is to soak a single rice paper wrapper in the warm water. I like to gently push on it to make sure all parts are covered. Take it out after about 5 seconds and place it on the cutting board for assembly. It should still be slightly firm in some areas, but that’s ok. It will continue to absorb the water as you work, and the alternative is a completely soaked wrapper that is impossible to manage.

Arrange your filling ingredients in the center of the wrapper. I add about 2-3 pieces each of the peppers, cucumber, carrot, and avocado, then sprinkle some kale, onion, and basil over the top of the pile. Roll the bottom of the wrapper up to cover the filling, then fold in the sides, then roll the whole thing forward in your hands to enfold into the top of the wrapper. Done! (The art of the rice paper wrap is much like rolling a burrito, but stickier, wetter, and flimsier. It takes a few practice rounds to get the hang of, but then it’s an easy assembly line. I recommend watching a YouTube video.)

Repeat with the remainder of the rice paper wrappers and serve with the dipping sauce. These are best eaten the day of preparation. However, I often make them for lunch the following day. They are a little drier, but still delicious. When wrapping any leftovers, separate the rolls with parchment paper to prevent them from sticking to each other.

A Manageable Dish of Sautéed Greens

One of my favorite restaurants, Zingerman’s Roadhouse, is ostensibly a BBQ place, though with a worldly, farm-to-table viewpoint. In addition to an array of smoked meats, there’s rotating oysters and cheese menus, creative macaronis, wonderfully vibrant salads with local vegetables, really fresh and flavorful seafood, local beer, wine, and spirits turned into creative cocktails, and incredible specials — from themed dinners hosted by guest chefs, to seasonal vegetable dishes supplied by Zingerman’s Cornman Farms, to Nashville hot fried chicken on Tuesdays. My only criticism, which actually applies to all BBQ joints, is that I must always launder my clothes the day after a meal here.

When I lived in Ann Arbor I would often treat myself to a hamburger to-go from their drive-through Roadshow. The flavor of the meat, which is seasoned only with salt and pepper, is unbelievably delicious — skip the cheese! Jeff, not usually a red meat eater, now orders this burger nearly every time we go. If I don’t order the burger I often order the ancho beef chili, which is perfectly spiced to bring the ideal tingle to my nose. Or my other favorite, broiled whitefish with coffee spice rub served with mashed potatoes and a small mountain of sautéed spinach. It’s simple and tasty and a really pleasurable way to consume the daily recommended iron and folate.

Lately I’ve had the problem of too much leafy greens. Our CSA has been delivering bunches of kale and chard so big these past few weeks that despite my love I cannot finish them. And it’s a shame to not finish them when they’re local and at peak freshness — oh the flavor! I’ve been chopping the kale into my favorite salads (exhibits A and B), and sautéeing the chard to add to cheesy scrambled eggs, my favorite Saturday lunch.

Earlier this week, when faced with two new bunches of kale and chard, and much of the bounty from the previous week still in the crisper drawer, I thought of that whitefish dish with the side of spinach. Within minutes I had the salad spinner in action, chopped greens overflowed my cutting board, and our largest pan was heating on the stove. I turned the enormous pile of raw leaves into a manageable dish of sautéed greens that was remarkably delicious and versatile. The first night I had a portion topped with simply prepared shrimp, and the next night I added a can of chickpeas, squeeze of lemon, and some crumbly, hard cheese to the leftovers. I can imagine this as a warm salad with farro and mushrooms, and I’m also dreaming of a decadent creamed version. This is my new favorite food.

SAUTÉED KALE AND CHARD

This can be made with any variety of dark, leafy greens you have on hand. Use your best judgment with the quantities of ingredients; it really depends on the quantity of the greens. Clean and chop (removing the stems) as much leafy greens as you have on hand. Heat 2-3 tbsp of olive oil over medium heat. Add 1-2 cloves of imperfectly minced garlic (I like variety in my chopped pieces) and cook stirring constantly until soft — this will only take about 30 seconds before starting to burn in my experience, so be prepared for what’s coming next! Carefully add chopped greens, 1-2 cups of water, and a sprinkle of salt to the pan and turn heat to medium-high. Stir, then cover and cook for about 5 minutes, until the greens are soft but still bright in color. Remove the lid and cook, stirring occasionally, until all the liquid has evaporated, about 1-2 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper, then toss with 2-3 tbsp of red wine vinegar to finish.

Sushi for Breakfast, Pancakes for Lunch

Do you want to make blueberry pancakes on Sunday? came the serendipitous text message from Jeff while I was at the grocery store buying blueberry pancake ingredients. The weekend marked one full week in our new house, and we both were in the mood for celebrating.

We have a lot of renovation and decoration ideas for our home. We want to move the laundry room from the basement to the first floor, rip off the deck and eventually rebuild it, re-carpet the basement and turn the back portion into a home gym, customize the master closet, paint everything. For now we’re riding a wave of motivation likely fueled by our status as first-time homebuyers, and so we planned to paint the garage floor our first full weekend in.

All it took was three 8-hour shifts of cleaning and prep work in the evenings after work and on Saturday afternoon for Jeff, a selection of what will become my go-to painting outfit (answer: my least used yoga pants and a comfortable t-shirt), and on Sunday morning — “go time” — a bonus trip to Home Depot because the packaged materials we bought were damaged. And a delay on our blueberry pancakes plan. We satisfied our morning hunger with periodic bites of leftover sushi.

It was the perfect first project, technical but not challenging, and had we made a mistake, well, it was just a garage. In the end the only damage was my sore legs from scooting cross-legged over every square inch of space as I brush-painted all the edges. Now we have a smooth gray epoxied surface with blue and white speckles, like a showroom floor for our cars and bikes (and garbage cans).

Finally, at 2pm on Sunday, with the Tour de France finale on in the background, it was “go time” for pancakes and an afternoon on the couch. Work hard and play hard.

These are, without a doubt, perfect pancakes. The batter is mostly oat flour, yogurt, and lemon, lightly sweetened with maple syrup and cinnamon, mixed together with butter, eggs, and of course blueberries. Every ingredient shines — the tangy yogurt, bright lemon, warm cinnamon, sweet blueberries, hearty oats. These pancakes blew my mind, and are on my fantasy breakfast cafe menu.  

BLUEBERRY LEMON PANCAKES WITH OATS AND YOGURT, inspired by Cookie and Kate, via Jeff (who made these way before I came around)

The first time I made these pancakes I omitted the lemon; the second time I learned that I do not recommend that. Also, Kate’s recipe, which I doubled here, would call for 4 eggs. We were short, so I made up the difference with “flax eggs” and quite enjoyed it; the recipe as follows calls for half regular, half flax eggs. You could certainly switch back.

You’ll need:
1-1/3 cups plain yogurt (see notes)
4 tbsp butter, melted
1 tsp lemon zest
2 tbsp lemon juice
2 tsp maple syrup
2 eggs
2 “flax eggs” (see notes)
2 cups oat flour (see notes)
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cinnamon
2 cups blueberries

In a medium bowl, mix together the yogurt, butter, lemon zest, lemon juice, maple syrup, eggs, and flax eggs. In a large bowl, mix together the oat flour, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir until just combined. Gently fold in the blueberries and let stand for about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat a griddle pan over medium-low. The pan is ready when a drop of water sizzles on the surface. Grease the pan with a little bit of butter and scoop about 1/4 cup of batter onto the pan per pancake (sidenote: just realized why these are called pan-cakes). Since this is a thicker batter, I like to flatten each a bit with a spoon. Cook for about 3-4 minutes, then flip and cook for another 90 seconds or so. Use your best judgement; each side should be golden and the pancake cooked entirely through.

Repeat with the rest of the batter and enjoy topped with maple syrup.

Notes: The recipe works best with regular, plain yogurt. We usually have Greek yogurt on hand, and in that case I add to the yogurt about 1 tbsp of water at a time and whisk together until the consistency resembles regular, plain yogurt. To make a flax egg, mix together 1 tbsp of flaxseed meal and 2-1/2 tbsp of water (note this recipe calls for twice this), and let sit for 5 minutes to thicken. Regarding the oat flour, I like to make my own by grinding oats in the food processor. It’s nice to not have to buy special ingredients!

What a World We Live In

What a world we live in, when the frozen potato aisle now includes kale tots, carrot tots, cauliflower tots, sweet potato tots, broccoli-carrot-white bean tots, and more. Thank you to the food engineers who developed these special products, and to the Kroger buyers who stocked them locally; you’ve saved our dinners during this busy summer. I’d like to try homemade versions one day, but for now I’m here to share the first meal at our new house that was not entirely based on tots.

Recently I spent a week sick on the couch, and after watching as much Fleabag, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Big Little Lies as I could possibly stand, I started a marathon of The Pioneer Woman’s Food Network show. I love to glimpse into Ree Drummond’s empire: rancher, mother, wife, cook, recipe developer, writer, business owner, product designer, photographer.

Ree’s recipes are hit or miss for me personally. Often the dishes are more meat-and-potatoes traditional than what I cook — though to be clear her repertoire is vast and varied. Or the yield is too high (I infamously made her cinnamon rolls for Christmas morning 2010. I spent three hours in the kitchen listening to my grown brother whine, When are we opening presents? In the end we had 60 cinnamon rolls for the five of us).

I also like to observe Jessica Seinfeld’s life via her Instagram: celebrity, mother, cook, recipe developer, writer, philanthropist, Manhattanite, wife of Jerry Seinfeld. Her recipes are always what I’m searching for most, creative and uncomplicated.

In one episode I watched during my couch week, Ree made a kung pao cauliflower stir fry for a friend. That same day, while scrolling through Ms. Seinfeld’s feed, I came across a recipe for kung pao cauliflower lettuce wraps. The idea stuck with me, and so earlier this week, with the kitchen unpacked and free time for a trip to the grocery store, I set out to try myself.

The recipes are actually quite different. Ree’s calls for a larger variety of vegetables, with everything cooked in a skillet, and the sauce poured over at the end.  In Jessica’s version, the cauliflower is first roasted in the oven, then the sauce is warmed in a skillet, the cauliflower stirred in after roasting. Hers are served in lettuce cups. Though Jessica’s uses both the oven and stove, it requires less chopping and fewer ingredients. Plus, I much prefer roasted cauliflower to sauteed. I followed her recipe almost exactly as written, and used head lettuce from our CSA as the wraps. You know it’s a winner when you crave it 24 hours later. This will become a repeat for sure.

KUNG PAO CAULIFLOWER LETTUCE WRAPS, inspired by Jessica Seinfeld

You’ll need:
1 head of cauliflower
1 tbsp olive oil
1/4 tsp salt
3 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp rice vinegar
1 tsp toasted sesame oil
1 tbsp grated fresh ginger
1 tsp dark brown sugar
3 tbsp water
2 tsp cornstarch
A few drops of sriracha (optional)
1/2 cucumber, very thinly sliced
3 scallions, very thinly sliced
1/2 cup roasted cashews, chopped
6-8 lettuce cups, from a head of lettuce

Preheat oven to 400F.  

Cut cauliflower into small florets (I like to cut the head into about 8 pieces and from there break apart the florets with my hands; it keeps their shape better). Add to medium bowl, drizzle with olive oil and salt, stir, then spread into a single layer on a sheet tray. Roast for about 25 minutes, until golden brown and tender.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl whisk together the soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame oil, ginger, brown sugar, water, cornstarch, and sriracha.

When the cauliflower is done roasting, heat the dressing in a skillet over medium-high. Add the cauliflower and stir to coat.

To assemble, fill each lettuce cup with an assortment of the cauliflower mixture, cucumbers, scallions, and cashews.

One New House, Two Trips, One Illness, Two Weddings, and Unlimited Fig Bites

On Saturday, May 18th, Jeff and I got word that the offer on our future home, the one that we had spent eleven months searching for, had been accepted.

This meant that we weren’t depressed when he dropped me off at the airport the following morning for a solo trip to Santa Fe, where I participated in a workshop on The Craft of Food Memoir Writing taught by the incomparable Molly Wizenberg. It was a week of inspiration, sunshine, hard work, new friendships, and a long walk outside my comfort zone. In the end I read an original essay at a podium where Robert Frost once stood. I’m still processing the experience; I haven’t had time.

Upon my return I went straight to our home inspection, where we received more good news. Aside from a minor mold issue that would be remediated before we moved in, the house was in excellent shape.  

The following day I jumped back into a wedding planner side-gig that had fallen into my hands. I spent three weeks in a thought cycle like this: Who is steaming the bride’s dress? Did I tell the photographer what time to arrive? How is the makeup artist getting around town with her containers of makeup? Wait, Bob is now bringing a guest?

Meanwhile, Jeff monitored the interest rate, told me exactly where I needed to sign and when, and made sure the funds were in the right spots. He researched washers, dryers, refrigerators, and lawn tools. He took a daily walk to our house and filled me in on the neighborhood dog situation. On one such walk he got caught in torrential rain and met a neighbor while standing under a tree.

Did I tell the second photographer what time to arrive? Did we pay the dogsitter? And can the dogsitter bring the pup to family photos at the church? Will there be enough chairs at the rehearsal dinner? Who is doing the groom’s daughter’s hair?

The wedding weekend came and went, and since I was in charge I’m calling it flawlessly executed. Nobody knew about valet’s twenty-four hour tardiness or the emergency plumber at the rehearsal dinner, and guests were in good spirits about my invitation stating that brunch started a full thirty minutes before the restaurant opened. Flawlessly. Executed.

On Monday I returned to my regular job and put in eight solid hours of neglected work. We also heard from our bank that our loan was clear to close. I went home, ran into the coffee table, bruised my knee, cried, took a nap, skipped tennis, and woke up with a 101 degree fever that kept me home for the rest of the week and had me wondering, is this the kind of fever where I end up in the emergency room? If I were rich and famous, is this when I would check into a spa and have my publicist release a statement relaying exhaustion? 

That Friday, still feverish, we rushed from the doctor’s office to the real estate closing, where I signed papers in a warm room, sweaty and weepy. It wasn’t how I’d envisioned my entrance to homeownership, but later that evening I felt well enough to eat takeout dinner on our new living room floor.

The next few weeks were a blur of phone calls and the scheduling of multiple cleaning specialists and movers. My participation in facilitating the contractors was low compared to Jeff’s. I was in a fog. After the fever, the mystery virus bestowed upon me a ten-day crushing headache, and so most days I took a four-hour nap. Then came the worst sore throat of my life and a third worried trip to the doctor, when a retest finally confirmed I had mono.

The benefit of a late diagnosis in this situation is that I had already progressed three weeks through this typically month-long illness, so I was on the upswing when we then headed north to Traverse City for a family wedding. Plus, Lake Michigan air is truly my best medicine, and when added to ten hours of nightly sleep in a fluffy, king-size bed, recovery comes fast.

I needed it, because upon our return we were forced to confront about seven hours of sorting, packing and moving small car loads to our new house every day after our full-time jobs. On Saturday, July 20th, during a heat advisory, the moving team took everything else, and now we live in a palace.

That’s what an average-sized home feels like in comparison to a one-bedroom apartment with three bikes in the dining room and a pile of wedding gifts against the wall: palatial. The living room has four (!) windows and our kitchen is no longer a cave where we just bump into each other. The Christmas tree is stored in the basement, not in a closet next to our golf clubs, the extra golf clubs, every plastic container we own spilling off of a shelf, toilet paper backstock, and our winter car mats. We say things like, I’ll be upstairs, text me if you need me, and shout, Hey, what room are you in?! just for kicks.

With a small group of friends and some pizza — because we now also have space for company — we popped a bottle of champagne that’s been on deck in our refrigerator for weeks. I think we deserved it.

This summer has been representative of the entire year, far busier than I would like, with little time to reflect and celebrate the good. But our fall is wide open for enjoyment. I’m going to write and bake apple cakes and sit in a nook and read with the windows open. Jeff and I will ride bikes to breweries and golf up north. I’m going to sip a maple latte while walking downtown. We will cook in our palatial kitchen, and not bump into each other, and I’ll come back here and write about it. We will watch the leaves change from all four windows in our living room.

Last night, Tuesday, at midnight, I finished organizing the remainder of our pantry items (because we have a pantry now!), having used our best-quality moving boxes to hack cabinet dividers until we have the time and funds to properly outfit the space. Jeff called me out to the garage to help remove the heaviest of the shelves hung arbitrarily by the previous owner. We were exhausted, but thrilled. I think homeownership suits us.

I’d like to say that these fig bites solved my energy crisis over the past couple of months, but that’s not true. They’re just delicious. Try one daily at 4:00pm!

CHOCOLATE FIG BITES

These are inspired by Giada de Laurentiis and are a treat Jeff and I have made together many times. In her version, chopped figs are rolled with almond butter into a ball, then coated in melted chocolate thinned with coconut oil. The finished product looks like a chocolate truffle. I flipped it a little, adding a lesser amount of chocolate chips to the fig mixture, and rolling the balls in fine coconut flakes. They’re slightly less decadent, so I feel ok calling them power bites.


You’ll need:
2 8-oz packages of dried figs, stemmed and roughly chopped
1/2 cup semisweet mini chocolate chips
2 tbsp of unsalted creamy almond butter
2 tbsp water
1 cup shredded unsweetened coconut flakes or chips


Shred the coconut flakes or chips until they are very fine, nearly powder-like, with a food processor. Remove and set aside in a shallow bowl.

Add the chopped figs, chocolate chips, almond butter, and water to the food processor, and process until combined. Scoop about 1-2 tbsp of the fig mixture into your hands and roll into a ball. Add the ball to the bowl of shredded coconut and roll around to coat. Repeat with the rest of the fig mixture.

1/4 Cup Choose Your Own Flour

Last Tuesday I encountered one of those frustrating work situations where an anticipated four-minute project took an actual four hours to complete, and so to turn the day around I picked up a pack of my favorite cookies to go with my late lunch. The leftovers led to oatmeal raisin breakfasts for the rest of the week and reminded me of the legitimacy of cookies in the morning.

I first made a version of these breakfast cookies, from a book called Whole Grain Mornings, in 2013. At the time I was discovering that the culinary world offered thousands more ingredients than what my local supermarket stocked. I started shopping at a bulk food store called By the Pound, became a follower of Heidi Swanson, and discussed the subject of ancient grains nonstop with my baker friends.  

These cookies taught me that my favorite ingredient to add to baked goods is raw, crunchy millet. It really is a new texture, if you haven’t tried it before. I made these cookies on a Saturday, with the intent that they would last through the following work week. I ran out on Tuesday at 7:30am. Therefore, you should make these cookies immediately. 

BREAKFAST COOKIES WITH MILLET AND DRIED CHERRIES, inspired by Megan Gordon

You’ll need:
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1/4 cup choose your own flour (I used a mix of almond flour and hazelnut meal leftover from my cookie cake)
3/4 cup rolled oats
1/4 cup millet
1/4 cup wheat bran (I didn’t have any, so I ground Ezekiel cereal in my food processor and it worked like a charm)
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup coconut oil, melted
1/2 cup maple syrup
1 large egg, beaten
1 tsp vanilla
1/3 cup dried cherries (or any other dried fruit you have on hand)
1/2 cup pecans, toasted and chopped (or any other nut you have on hand)


I can’t stress enough that this recipe is extremely flexible, as evidenced by the number of parenthetical notes in my ingredient list. Megan used barley flour in her recipe, but 1/4 cup is such a small quantity that it’s an opportunity to experiment with whatever leftover flours you find yourself with. Megan also used raisins, but I happen to love dried cherries, especially those grown in Michigan. No matter what you choose, in the end you get to have a cookie for breakfast, so you can’t go wrong. The only thing I wouldn’t leave out is the millet, because I love it.  

To make the cookies, preheat oven to 350. In a large bowl whisk together the flours, oats, millet, bran, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and salt. In a separate bowl mix together the coconut oil, maple syrup, egg, and vanilla. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir until just combined. Fold in the cherries and pecans. Let sit for about 10 minutes. Scoop about 2 tbsp of the dough into your hand and roll it into a ball. Repeat with the remainder of the dough, spacing about 1-1/2 inches apart on a baking sheet. Use the palm of your hand to flatten the balls to about 1/4-1/2 inch thick. Bake for 12-14 minutes, until the edges are slightly brown and centers are still slightly soft.

Quick and Fresh Rhubarb Jam

Call me crazy, but I didn’t know what rhubarb was until 2010. This despite having lived in the Midwest -- also known as The Land of Rhubarb -- for my entire life.

I was a child of the 80s and 90s, when farmers markets and seasonal eating had yet to become en vogue. My family didn’t own any land, so to speak -- our house was perched on an average-sized lot in the suburbs -- so I never discovered rhubarb exploring our property. And when I did encounter it, it was always disguised with strawberries. I was clueless.

In March of the year that rhubarb entered my life I took a job at a retail bakery. I worked behind the counter -- front of house, as they say -- selling croissants and coffee, boxing birthday cakes, and slicing sourdough.  Everything was new to me, from the way we tied our aprons to the schedule of baking bread to the location of the employee timeclock. Not to mention the specifics of each baked good I sold: the ingredients, how it was made, and any relevance to the time of year. My manager explained a sourdough starter to me for the first time: I’m sorry, can you please repeat that? So when I heard whispered excitement among my coworkers that rhubarb pies are coming soon, the idea was no more or less special to me than the concepts of pâte à choux and lamination and poolish.

But then, they arrived. And they were pink! I walked through the kitchen and the bakers were chopping huge stalks of neon pink celery. That’s the rhubarb?! We tasted the pie as a group. It was tart and bright and delicious, a fit celebration for the sunshine we were starting to experience.

“People are going to ask why we don’t mix in strawberries or another fruit, and that’s because we like the special flavor of rhubarb on its own. Give them a sample to try for themselves,” my manager suggested. It worked on me.

At the grocery store a week ago I spotted rhubarb out of the corner of my eye. Suddenly, magnetically, I was bagging a few stalks to take home.

“What are you going to do with these?” asked Jeff.

“I don’t know.  Something. Spring is here.”

I thought about baking the rhubarb in large pieces à la Amy Thielen in one of my favorite ever Food Network shows, Heartland Table. But nearly every morning at my desk I eat a breakfast of plain greek yogurt topped with sprouted whole grain cereal. It’s bland and filling and healthy, completely fine on its own, though certainly improved with a spoonful of jam. Then I watched Ina Garten make a fresh rhubarb jam and within minutes I was copying her technique in my own kitchen.

Rhubarb, to me, represents the hope of spring, and this jam has brought optimism to my desk every morning this week. At least, it reminds me of the curious twenty-six-year-old who tasted rhubarb for the first time, and sends me into my current work projects with a smile.

RHUBARB JAM

This is a fresh jam, meaning nothing will be sterilized or stored, and therefore you can eyeball the ingredients as you’d like. In general, when making a fresh jam, I follow the formula of fruit + sugar + citrus + apple. I add the apple because, well, Ina said to, but also because I’ve read enough about making jam to know that you need pectin for it to set, and apples have pectin.  

To make this version of rhubarb jam, add about 1-1/2 cups of chopped rhubarb, scant 1 cup of sugar, the juice of 1 citrus (I used a lime, but lemon or orange would be great too), and 1/2 of an apple, peeled and chopped, to a medium pot. Stir it all together on a stovetop burner set to high. When it starts to bubble and boil, reduce heat to low. Let simmer for about 30 minutes, until the fruit has softened and broken down, and the sauce has thickened. Let cool completely, then store in the refrigerator for about a week.

Form Must Follow Function

I often hear cooks talk about the impact of color in the foods that they make, the way the fruits or vegetables complement each other based on appearance. The beauty of a carrot dish is amplified when using a mix of orange, purple, and yellow carrots, and especially when finished with a sprinkle of chopped parsley. Dark leafy greens mix well with cherry tomatoes, sliced avocado, corn kernels and an orange bell pepper for a vibrant summer salad. And shredded cabbage topped with orange supremes and dried cranberries presents a bright option in winter.

Monochromatic food can be dull, especially when it is in the beige-brown category. Though in my kitchen the color of the final product is something I almost never think about. I’m more interested in how a dish tastes and comes together. Form must follow function, and therefore presentation must follow flavor.

Then last week I made a supermodel salad. On a bed of farro and cannellini beans sat sunset orange sweet potato cubes, fire engine red pepper slices, amethyst purple onion wedges, and finely chopped midnight forest kale. And the vinaigrette had just three ingredients and I went back for seconds.

We used to have a neighbor we called triple good guy. I think we could have been friends, but we never got past the hallway conversation.

Us: Hi! How are you?

Him: I’m good! You?

Us: We’re good!

Him: Good!

There was always a third good in response to everyone doing well.  

This salad was triple good, hitting high marks of flavor, ease, and style.

This recipe is inspired by a cookbook on a topic near and dear to my heart, Modern Lunch by Allison Day. Every weekday I eat lunch at my desk. I have a comfortable office, but it’s not, you know, a picnic in London’s Hyde Park. I want a lunch to look forward to as I clean up my inbox each morning, and something to fuel me through afternoon projects. This salad does both. It’s also excellent served over extra spinach or topped with flaked salmon -- and bonus, both add even more vibrant color!

FARRO, BEAN, AND ROASTED VEGETABLE SALAD, inspired by Allison Day

You’ll need:
1 sweet potato, peeled and chopped into 1/2-inch cubes
1 red pepper, chopped into 1-inch pieces
1 red onion, cut into wedges
1 tsp mustard seeds
2-3 tbsp olive oil, divided
1 cup farro
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 can cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
3 large kale leaves, stems removed, finely chopped
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 400. In a large bowl add the vegetables, mustard seeds, 1-2 tbsp of olive oil, and a pinch of salt and pepper, and stir until everything is evenly coated. Pour onto sheet tray and roast in the oven for about 40 minutes, stirring midway through, until everything is fully cooked and starting to caramelize at the edges.

Meanwhile, cook farro according to package instructions or your preferred method. I bring 1 cup of farro, 2 cups of water, and a pinch of salt to a boil, then cover and reduce heat to simmer for about 25 minutes, until all water is absorbed by the grain. Let cool for about 5 minutes.

To make the dressing, whisk together the balsamic vinegar, soy sauce, and remaining 1 tbsp of olive oil. Add the farro and stir. Add the beans and stir. Add the roasted vegetables and stir. Finally, add the kale and stir. If necessary, season with additional salt and pepper to taste.

Gems of Ideas

I was recently given an Amazon gift card and so I ordered myself a new cookbook, naturally. Actually I bought five, but that was an accident. I only meant to buy four, but when five arrived I realized I never edited my cart before checkout. Oops, nothing I can do about it now! says the girl with 40+ cookbooks and a Prime membership that includes free returns.

I buy a lot of cookbooks not only because I love to cook, but because I love to learn about people. The best cookbooks give a strong sense of place and self and I read them cover to cover like a memoir, because the best ones are memoirs, whether that’s the author’s intent or not. You can tell a lot about one’s values, schedule, and habitat, and therefore one’s life, by learning about what he or she eats.

A few years ago I read a cookbook that introduced me to the concepts of cookie salad and tater tot hotdish and spun creative takes on things I know well, such as spinach and feta rugelach and pimento cheese babka. There was also a meticulously researched homemade funfetti cake, and a recipe that included “fresh clean snow” as an actual ingredient. Even a dish called hot dog cheese, which the author wrote as a child and is as charmingly youthful as it sounds: slice a hot dog, top with cheese, and melt in a microwave. Molly Yeh’s Molly on the Range packs a punch of personality, and I finished wondering if she really is as lively, creative, and intelligent as her book suggests. I followed her writing to her blog and learned the answer is a resounding YES. So when I heard that the Food Network was giving her a show I was not at all surprised and also very excited.

Now I skip my chores every Monday to watch the newest episode of Girl Meets Farm immediately when I return home. The Pizza Friday episode was filled with gems of ideas such as eat pizza every Friday, and serve both a deep dish and a thin crust option. Keep homemade ranch seasoning in your spice cabinet, and use it not only to make dressing, but also to roast crispy ranch chickpeas to add to a side salad. Season both the salad and a crudité platter with salt and pepper (revelatory!). And end the meal with a pizza-shaped dessert, a triangular slice of chocolate chip cookie cake.

Thankfully my husband recently had a birthday and requested a cookie cake! This dessert takes a nutty chocolate chip cookie to a new level by substituting the white flour for a combination of almond and hazelnut flours. The recipe includes no butter and only one egg, yet somehow it all comes together and bakes perfectly. It’s chewy and dense, soft in the center and crispier at the edge, gluten free if that’s your thing, and really special. I had to hold myself back from baking two. This one I decorated with frosting for Jeff’s birthday, but next time I plan to serve it warm with vanilla ice cream.

NUTTY CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIE CAKE adapted slightly from Molly Yeh

You’ll need:
1 cup almond flour
1 cup of finely ground hazelnuts (If you can find hazelnut flour, great!  I could not, so I ground whole nuts in the food processor.)
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp baking soda
1 large egg
1 tbsp vanilla extract
Scant 1/2 tsp almond extract
1/2 cup chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350. Grease and line with parchment an 8” round cake pan. In a large bowl whisk together the flours, sugars, salt, and baking soda. In a smaller bowl, whisk together the egg and extracts. Add the wet ingredients and the chocolate chips to the dry ingredients and stir together. It will seem too dry at first, but it will come together. Pat the dough out evenly in the pan. Bake until golden and toasty on top, about 22-24 minutes. Serve it warm with ice cream, or let it cool and decorate, or eat it as is.

Everyday Quinoa Salad (The World's Best)

I usually get home from work about an hour earlier than Jeff, and in that time I check our mail, empty the dishwasher, pack my lunch for the next day, and start dinner. Sometimes I even, basically, finish dinner. It’s no surprise for him to walk in the door and say, “mmm, smells good!” “Yeah, I made a carrot ginger soup, and chopped the broccoli and cauliflower, and the salmon is on a sheet tray in the refrigerator ready to go when we are. I’m off to yoga now.” Which is to say, I’m efficient.

I’ve known this about myself. When I entered the workforce, I learned that I could do my work about 9x faster than my coworkers. This was particularly conflicting at the entry level, then became simply a fact, until it finally started to work to my advantage. At my last job, we took personality tests as a group, and one of my strengths was identified as maximizer. How can I get the maximum output from any situation of inputs? This is how my brain works, and therefore I check mail, put away dishes, pack a lunch, and cook dinner all in the 4:00 hour on a regular weekday afternoon.

But you know how they say that your strengths become your weaknesses? I’ve learned that I am efficient to a fault. Frequently I move too fast, which not only causes me to sometimes miss the small, joyous, spontaneous moments in life, but also results in actual physical damage. I bump into a lot of walls. I slam my fingers in doors, in drawers. I stub my toes, all of them. Jeff hears a thud, followed by oww and shouts from the other room, “Babe, you gotta slow down!”

Our honeymoon to Hawaii brought a welcome change of pace. Every morning I opened the curtains to catch the final moments of the sunrise that had woken us. Then I brewed Kona coffee and took it to the patio to commence our morning leisure. We noted the weather, how hazy or breezy it was, and the effect that had on our view of the neighboring island Molokai. We stared out at the Pacific looking for sprays of water indicating a whale was just below the surface, then we marveled at the whales and their jumps and their fins and oh, he jumped again! The first rounds of golfers streamed through hole three to our left and we took notes on their approach shots for our later round. We played cards and/or tennis, did yoga by the water, and sometimes all of this relaxing required a morning nap.

Eventually we’d get hungry and head to the burger shack by the water for mahi mahi sandwiches and mai tais, and I made a daily observation that I should really drink more rum. After lunch we’d cross over the sand dune to D.K. Fleming Beach and position our lounge chairs in a spot advantageous for people watching. There was the middle aged man who gave an enthusiastic wave and thumbs up to his wife ashore after every successful boogie board ride (tourist). The surfers who swam out to sea faster than I could swim a lap in my high school pool (locals). The twenty-something sunbathing in a bikini, blissfully unaware of the rising tide until it came over her. And a few dogs chasing sticks into the ocean. We rounded out our evenings with more incredible seafood, another round of gin rummy, and wine (red and white when I couldn’t decide) at the condo.

We did occasionally break routine, once to have dinner with Jeff’s uncle, who lives on the island and is known for wearing a t-shirt that says Relax! This ain’t the mainland. We made plans to meet at a food truck park, but that’s only if you consider this message to be plans: “ok see you at 5:00, but don’t rush, it can be 5:15 or 5:30 or 6:00 or whenever, remember this ain’t the mainland [gnarly emoji], and you’ll pass a great whale-watching lookout point on your drive.” He was waiting for us at the parking lot entrance when we pulled up and he told us to “park wherever, it’s random.”

We never wanted to come home, but we did, along with a few packs of macadamia nuts, chocolate covered macadamia nuts, red clay sea salt, a new putter cover for me, three Kapalua golf shirts for Jeff, some gifts for family, and the recipe for the world’s most perfect quinoa salad. If you think that’s hyperbole, it’s not. I’ve made a lot of quinoa salads in my life, and most of them have been mediocre at best. Why? Because I rushed them. Here on the mainland I’m known to just throw together a salad. That means I cook the quinoa for fifteen minutes exactly, because that’s what the package says. I haphazardly chop vegetables, not caring about the end size of each piece. I eyeball a vinaigrette, then don’t even taste it before mixing it all together.

This has led to a lot of bad salads in my life. I’ve had soggy lumps of quinoa that look more like mashed potatoes than grains. I’ve made dressings with five ingredients that taste like nothing but bad olive oil. This is no way to treat oneself! But the quinoa salad from the Honolua grocery store, flawless and fluffy and mixed with perfectly diced peppers and onions and a balanced, red wine vinaigrette, topped with feta and sun-dried tomatoes and parsley, the quinoa salad that became my daily snack, it made me want to try harder.

Back home I simmered quinoa on the stovetop for fifteen minutes, then I checked and set a timer for another three. Meanwhile I cut onion and peppers into a quarter-inch dice and sautéed them for just five minutes, enough time to soften but also maintain a crunch. I removed the skin from a cucumber and spooned out the seeds, then matched the quarter-inch dice. Into a red wine dressing I stirred all of the vegetables, then added the quinoa as well after a brief resting period. A gentle stir brought everything together, then I finished the salad with feta and chopped parsley. The process was intentional and calming and meditative. There might as well have been palm trees and colorful birds chirping just outside my window.

Towards the end of our trip, Jeff and I realized how frequently we use the terms real quick and be right back. “I’m almost ready to go to the gym, just gotta fill up my water bottle real quick.” “Dinner is just about ready, but I’m going to throw together a smoothie, be right back.” Just typing that makes me anxious and I’ve vowed to stop. The third time I made this salad at home I thought to myself, Wow, look at how much faster I’m making it this time. Then I caught myself and tried to brush aside the nonexistent urgency and my self-congratulatory efficiency. I may need to return to Hawaii for some more lessons.

EVERYDAY QUINOA SALAD (THE WORLD’S BEST)

You’ll need:
1/2 tsp honey
1/2 tsp dijon mustard
3 tbsp red wine vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil
1 garlic clove minced
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 tsp dried oregano (optional)
1 cup quinoa
1/2 red onion, in quarter-inch dice
1/2 red pepper, in quarter-inch dice
1/2 green pepper, in quarter-inch dice
1/2 cucumber, peeled and seeded, in quarter-inch dice
3 tbsp parsley, chopped
1/4 cup feta cheese
A few sun-dried tomatoes pieces (optional)

Make the dressing. In a large bowl, whisk together the honey, mustard, vinegar, olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper, and oregano (if using).

Add the quinoa to a medium pot with two cups of water and a pinch of salt and bring to a boil. Then reduce the heat to a simmer and cover for 15 minutes. Check on the quinoa; It should be light and easily fluffed with a fork. If it is soggy or there is still visible water, cover and add more time. I usually let it go for 17-18 minutes total. When it is finally done, remove the pot from the heat, fluff the quinoa with a fork, and let it sit to slightly cool for at least 15 minutes. This allows the quinoa to keep its ideal texture in the final dish. I think immediately adding it to the dressing while warm just encourages the quinoa to become mushy, and it is harder to stir.

Meanwhile, sauté the onion and peppers in a little bit of olive oil for about 5 minutes. You want them to be softened, but still have a crunch to them. Add them to the bowl with the dressing, along with the cucumber. When the quinoa is sufficiently cooled, add it as well and gently stir to combine. Finally, add parsley, feta, and sun-dried tomatoes (if using), and give a final gentle stir.

This is a great salad for work lunches, and is excellent with a sliced avocado on top.

Bread: Not an Afterthought

When I worked at a wholesale bakery we would frequently get calls from new chefs in the area.

Hey, we’re opening next weekend and we’ve got 140 seats and we’re doing bread baskets plus some sandwiches so I’m thinking we’ll need about 75 of some type of rustic country loaf and a few dozen brioche hamburger buns every day, what time can you deliver? And we want to do like a parmesan cracker too, what have you got?  

And each time, though the sale was welcome, we had to laugh a little. What we’ve got, collectively, is a problem. From the chef’s perspective, you call the bakery and you get the bread. Done. But for the baker, when what you make is artisanal and special, as ours was, it takes a bit of planning on the back end. It could involve rearranging baking times or a delivery route. It could involve writing and testing an entire new recipe for, say, parmesan crackers.  

My boss would wonder, why is bread always the afterthought? Presumably the new chef was opening the restaurant because he or she had a vision of cuisine to share, and presumably that involved testing recipes and plating sample dishes for months or years. Why was the bread pairing so frequently a last-minute decision? Despite what today’s carb-fearing, gluten free culture suggests, people love bread, and a bread basket is likely the customer’s first gastronomic impression. Put some thought into it, chefs!

Maybe because of those experiences, I always take note of a well-done bread presentation. At Dessous in Ann Arbor, a new restaurant whose cuisine I would describe as New American with French and Indian influences, the meal started with housemade naan, crispy and charred to perfection, served with a salt and Indian spices mixture sprinkled over farm butter. It was incredible, and is reason to return. In Hawaii, at an Italian restaurant at our resort, we were served a small rustic loaf with olive oil and Hawaiian red clay sea salt on the side. I wondered, why do I never do this at home?

On my second day back to work, I picked up lunch from the local upscale grocery store that happens to carry the artisanal bread of my former employer. I bought one loaf of Paesano. That evening, next to our post-vacation dinner of salad and a smoothie, on a wooden serving tray not usually used on a weekday, I set out slices of the bread with a light pour of our nice olive oil and a scoop of the red clay sea salt that we had brought home. It made a jet-lagged Tuesday feel really special.

BREAD WITH OLIVE OIL AND SALT

This not a recipe. This is just an idea, a jumping off point, a formula. Artisan bread + fat + salt and/or spices. Italian bread + olive oil + red clay sea salt. Naan + butter + Indian spices. How about a rustic loaf + olive oil + parmesan and black pepper. Or a rustic loaf + olive oil + pecorino and oregano. Or sourdough + butter + black truffle salt. The possibilities are endless!

Set Aside an Hour

I was sitting at my desk one recent afternoon, snacking on some pineapple, when I had to stop. I don’t mean to be dramatic, but it felt like my throat was closing up. Was I suddenly allergic to pineapple, just like the kiwi allergy that popped up out of nowhere a few years back? If so, it would be a disappointing reality, one that would really mess with my plan to eat my way through the tropical fruits of Hawaii.

Two weeks later we were having a casual dinner on the island and I ordered a ham and pineapple pizza. I was halfway through my meal when my husband said, are you going to be ok? Yes, I responded, thinking I was answering an inquiry as to whether I ordered enough food. No, I mean, with the pineapple? Ohhhh, I forgot!

But I was fine. Thankfully it was a false alarm, because I plan on making pineapple salsa for the rest of my life.

If the simplicity of this pineapple salsa is any indication of how easy it is to make all salsas, then I am prematurely declaring this summer the Summer of Salsa. The only real requirement is that you set aside an hour. That’s how long it will take to cut a whole pineapple into roughly a quarter inch dice. It’s worth it! Serve with tortilla chips at ladies night following the return from your tropical honeymoon.  

PINEAPPLE SALSA

Mix together 1 whole pineapple (diced), 1 medium white onion (diced), 1 jalapeno (diced), the juice of 2 limes, and salt to taste.