Thursday, February 25, 2010

Cooking for One

I thought it might be fitting to periodically write about my cooking experiences with the specific focus of food for one. I realize that for some, this may be a hard area of life--when you only need to focus on feeding yourself, it might seem pointless to make a meal, and easier to throw something in the microwave. But you deserve to eat well everyday. So my hope is to share some tips and recipes that are perfect for the solo eater. It is my goal that each recipe I share will follow at least some of the following principles:

  • Time--save time-consuming recipes for entertaining and special occasions; you can have dinner ready in minutes. I will try to share recipes that take less time than heating up a frozen pizza.

  • Ingredients--you shouldn't have to spend time shopping when you could be cooking. When it's just me, I almost always cook only from what I already have on hand.

  • Cost--it seems silly to spend tons of money when you're just cooking for you (though sometimes it's nice to treat yourself!); I try to share recipes that won't break the bank!

  • Portion size--for me, the hardest thing about cooking for one is ending up with too many left-overs! It is my goal to share recipes that serve one, and only one, or with leftovers that can easily be reincarnated!

I'm kicking off this series with a very fun and very quick little recipe--Spicy Carrot Fritters

As I mentioned in a previous post, I've really been looking around the globe for my cooking inspiration. These fritters were inspired by the cuisine of Morocco. These are probably more of a snack than a whole dinner, but you could always supplement them with some couscous or grilled chicken.

You'll Need:
1 large carrot, grated
2 T red onion, diced
crushed red pepper, to taste
1/3 c flour
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cumin
1/4 tsp. ground pepper
1/4 tsp. baking powder
1/2 large egg
vegetable oil, for frying
lemon or lime

After preparing the vegetables, begin to heat the oil in a small pan over medium high heat so it will be hot when the fritters are mixed (you don't need much oil, just enough to completely coat the bottom of the pan).

Put the carrot, onion, and crushed red pepper in a bowl. In another bowl, add all dry ingredients and whisk to blend. Sprinkle the dry ingredients over the carrot mixture. Stir to coat. Add the egg. Begin stirring the mixture so the dry ingredients become wet from the egg. At water, one teaspoon at a time, until the mixture is bound, a kind of thick, carrot-y batter. It will look something like this:

Using your hand, make small patties with the mixture by taking a golf ball size bit and then flattening it. Drop patty into the hot oil. Cook about two minutes per side. Make sure to cook the patties enough--the batter will not cook through if you leave them in too long. Turn the heat down if the fritters are getting dark brown.

As you take the fritters out, put on a paper towel-lined plate. Squeeze lemon or lime juice over the fritters, and enjoy!

Note: I realize that calling for half an egg may seem bizarre. To get half an egg, crack egg into a cup, whisk it, then pour half into your mixture. Save the other half in your refrigerator to use another day! When making food portions sized for one, half an egg isn't so odd!

The finished product:

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Popular Question

I've found that with the slightest mention of Lent, Christians and non-Christians alike are all dying to know--what did you give up? At times it almost seems like a game or contest, with everyone wondering: who is making the biggest sacrifice? And of course, you have to give up the "right" thing to gain any street cred. Chocolate gains some brownie points, as does caffeine. Or there's the real crowd-pleaser of alcohol, or that sacrifice of all sacrifice--facebook. And don't try giving up anything that's too abstract. I have a friend giving up "men," which is always met with the response, "How exactly would you do that?" And for those that don't give up anything, excuses are made with vigor; "I'm not Catholic, so I don't do that," "I end up failing and then feeling guilty, which isn't really the point, is it?" or, for the uber-holy, "Instead of giving something up, I'm praying and reading my Bible more."

I wonder why we even ask the question in the first place. What is it in us that makes this the question of the season? I've come up with a two-part answer. The first, is that it's one of the few times we feel comfortable--or maybe even cool--talking about (or, more aptly, "around") our faith. As mentioned above, it's not just the serious Christians who ask/are interested in this question. According to one friend, the giving-up-for-Lent topic is even work-appropriate. So while we would never just blurt out the name of Jesus, we at least let the world know we're Christians by answering everyone's favorite Lenten question.

Of course, that alone doesn't fully answer the question. And I think the real heart of the matter is this--it gives us a way to gauge the "holiness" of others. It's as though our answers are some sort of spiritual litmus test, a way to casually find out where we stand in relation to those around us. But all this does is perpetuate a works-based religion. I'm sure that's how it seems to our non-Christian co-workers, who watch us struggle and agonize over dessert-free 40 days, or wonder why we can't join them for happy hour anymore.

I think the only answer to the question, "What are you giving up for Lent," (if it should even be asked at all), is that we are giving up ourselves. During Lent, we notice our sin more acutely, repent, and ask Jesus to change us. Any material things we give up are not meaningful in and of themselves, but for what they represent--the giving our hearts, our lives to God. We remember that we don't need item x, but we do need Jesus. And when we struggle with our material sacrifice, we are reminded of our sin, especially greed and idolatry. Like many of the most powerful things in life, our material sacrifice is a metaphor for what God really wants from us, which is the rending of our hearts.

"Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them." Matthew 6:1

Monday, February 15, 2010

Learn something new

Lately, I keep getting asked the same question--"what did you do with all that time?"

Of course, my friends and family are referring to the fact that there was a snowstorm, school was canceled for a week, and thus, I have not been working much. Aside from three short hours on Friday, today marks the eighth day in a row that I didn't go to work. At first, it was a little surreal. I wasn't sure what to do with all that time, especially living alone. By now, I've almost settled into these work-less days, and it will probably feel just as surreal going back to work.

In any case, I quickly realized that I needed to find things to do to keep myself occupied, and one solution was to teach myself a new skill. Of course, I knew I was probably going to pull this skill from the world of food.

I'll be the first one to admit that I'm not much of a baker. Sure, I'll whip up a batch of cookies or scones here and there, or some days are just screaming for me to bake a cake, but it's not a realm I feel fully comfortable in. But I do love baking bread. My experience with bread is somewhat lacking, however. I'm fine as long as we're talking basic white breads--pizza dough, rolls, tortillas, foccacia, you name it, I'm there. But what about something that requires a little more skill, a little more effort, a little more patience? That was uncharted territory. So I dove in.

After consulting a wonderfully beautiful and informative cookbook, called simply, Ultimate Bread (by Eric Treuille and Ursula Ferrigno), I decided on ciabatta, that lovely bread from Italy named for a slipper and full of air holes. The reason this bread would be new for me is that it uses a starter, which essentially means that part of the dough is mixed, left to rest for 12 hours or up to several days, and then used to make the rest of the dough.

Here I've documented the process and included the basic recipe if anyone else needs something to do on a snowy day(s).

Day One--Make the starter
You'll need:
1/2 tsp dry yeast
2/3 c water
3 T milk
1/4 tsp sugar
1 c flour (the book calls for unbleached, but I didn't have it, so just used regular)

Step One: Dissolve yeast in water and milk for 5 minutes, then add sugar and stir to dissolve.
Step Two: Mix in the flour to form a loose batter. It will look like this:

Cover bowl with a dish towel and let rise overnight (or at least 12 hours).

Day Two--Make the dough
You'll need:
1/2 tsp dry yeast
1 c water
1/2 T olive oil
2 1/2 c flour
1 1/2 tsp salt

Step One: Let yeast dissolve in water for 5 minutes. Add this and the olive oil to the starter and mix well. It will look like this:

Step Two: Mix the flour and salt in to the mixture. You will be forming a wet, sticky dough. Beat with a wooden spoon for about 5 minutes--dough will become springy, but you will not be able to knead it! It will look like this:

Step Three: Cover dough with a dish towel and let rise for three hours, until tripled in size. DO NOT PUNCH DOWN DOUGH. It will look like this:

Step Four: Flour two baking sheets.

Step Five: Handling the dough very carefully (and with floured hands), scoop half the dough out of the bowl and onto one of the baking sheets. Note: The recipe in the book instructs the baker to use a dough scraper to do this. I did not have one, so I used a metal spatula. I would not recommend this. I think a better option would be to leave the dough intact and simply make one larger loaf instead of two small loaves.

Step Six: Use well-floured hands to shape loaf into a rough rectangle. Flour hands again. Neaten and plump the loaf by running your fingers down each side and gently tucking under edges of the dough.

Step Seven: If making two loaves, repeat step six. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Leave the loaves, uncovered, to proof for 20 minutes.

Step Eight: Bake bread in the preheated oven for 30 minutes (longer if making one large loaf), until risen, golden, and hollow sounding when tapped underneath. Cool on wire rack. My loaves:

A slice:

Served with a simple olive tapenade:

I was pleased with how my ciabatta turned out on my first try. However, I few things I would do differently:

(1) Make one loaf. I think my air bubbles suffered a little because I handled the dough too much.
(2) Bake bread for slightly longer in hopes of achieving a darker crust.
(3) Trying the steam method while baking. According to my bread book, the introduction of steam during baking helps create a crisper crust. There are a few methods, but I will probably try the method of placing a try of ice cubes on the bottom rack of my oven (under the bread), and then removing it when all the ice has melted.


Saturday, February 13, 2010

Romantic Dinner for One

Is it possible? To romance yourself? For a lover of food, the answer is yes, yes, yes! In honor of being alone when everyone else is celebrating each other, I decided to cook a nice meal

The upside of this is that creativity runs rampant. Cooking for one means being more adventurous in the kitchen when creating your own recipes, and when trying other peoples' recipes, picking one with ingredients that appeal to you. There's no worrying if the other person will like it; only one opinion matters.

So tonight, I pulled out a favorite bottle of wine (Root 1's complex and spicy carmenere), put on a favorite movie (The Jane Austen Book Club, starring a whole slew of strong female leads), and served myself a four course gastronomic celebration.

The opening course was where I really let my creativity explode, with a crostini slathered with dried apricot and orange chutney and drizzled with balsamic reduction.

I followed this with a main course of pasta, using a recipe from Jamie Oliver's cookbook Jamie's Italy, which can be found here. The main components of the sauce include anchovies, red wine, raisins, and tomato puree. It seemed a perfect selection, because I adore anchovies and know that many other people don't--a great dish to make for myself. The anchovies literally melted down, providing their unique salty fishiness to the sauce, which I find quite sexy.

The next course was a very simple brussel sprout salad. I sliced the brussel sprouts into slivers and tossed with sliced almonds, sea salt, pepper, olive oil, lemon juice and zest. The perfect fresh flavors to cleanse my palate for a very special dessert...

In honor of Valentine's Day, my fabulous mother sent me indulgent chocolate-covered figs. A perfect end to my romantic meal for one.


For those interested, the recipe for my crostini:

Crostini with Apricot-Orange Chutney, Pecorino, and Balsamic Reduction

For the chutney:
2 T butter
3 slices of an orange, with rind, diced
5 dried apricots, diced
one small onion, diced
1/4 c sugar
2 or 3 T apple cider vinegar
1/4 t cumin (optional)
salt and pepper to taste

For the crostini:
A few slices of ciabatta
olive oil

To top:
Pecorino cheese, grated
3 T balsamic vinegar

First, make the chutney. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium low heat, then add onions and apricot. Saute about 3 minutes, until onions are slightly translucent. Add all other ingredients and saute about 5 more minutes. Take off heat and keep covered, at room temperature until ready to use.

To make crostini, brush slices of ciabatta with olive oil and toast in a skillet until golden brown on both sides. Once toasted, take a clove of garlic, cut in half lengthwise, and rub cut side on top of each slice of bread.

Simmer balsamic vinegar in a small saucepan until reduced by about half. While the balsamic is simmering, top each crostini with some chutney and grated pecorino cheese. Drizzle with balsamic reduction. Enjoy!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Exceptional Love

Here's another commentary for all you film buffs out there, though I'm hoping you don't find this one completely ridiculous, as the topic at hand is not the pithy life and love in Revolutionary Road, but the fluffy life and love of He's Just Not That Into You, which although it also explores the struggle of marriage, does it in a much more light-hearted manner, focusing primarily on the ubiquitous twenty-something (or even thirty-something) struggle--finding someone to love. Or just someone who will call after a date. But both movies, I think, are equally realistic, and equally examine truths about life, which is why I've chosen to talk about a movie that might seem "silly" here (plus, I love it, ok?).

He's Just Not That Into You structures its plot by following what I figure to be eight "love" stories (perhaps better termed "relationship" stories) between nine main characters. If that seems a little unlikely, note that one of said main characters, Conor, is involved in three of those eight stories. Each of these stories portrays people trying to follow "relationship rules" that we've all heard of--"don't call him, wait for him to call you," "if he hasn't married you after x amount of time, he never will (but will eventually marry someone younger/hotter)," and even, "don't talk to hot women other than your wife."

Some of these "rules" seem obvious, some seem ridiculous, and some of them may even seem wise. But the point is, we all follow (at least some of) them. Everyone adheres to rules that are imposed by society ("don't ask a girl out for Friday night at 3pm Friday afternoon"), your particular subset of society ("don't date--court"), or simply, yourself ("don't date a guy with small hands"--my personal rule). We may pick and choose which of these rules to follow, but we all know what they are, and hope they will help us on our path to finding "the one".

Although all the characters in the film are following and influenced by "the rules", the character of Alex (interestingly played by Justin Long, who gets to be a tough, asshole kind of character instead of his usual endearing wimp) is the one who perpetuates them, spells them out for the viewer. He meets the movie's primary heroine, Gigi (played by adorable Ginnifer Goodwin), a week after her first date with Conor. Still not hearing from Conor a week later, Gigi has decided to "casually" bump into him at a restaurant he mentioned that he frequents. He's a no-show, and when she embarrassingly spills the story to Alex, he gives her the first rule--"If a guy is acting like he doesn't give a shit, he genuinely doesn't give a shit." Seems like good advice to me, and it did to Gigi too--so she begins calling Alex anytime she's with a new guy, and he continues to add to the rules. The rules are very important to Alex, and even when Gigi tells him some story of a friend of a friend of a friend for whom things worked differently, Alex is quick to point out what it is--an exception. Gigi shares with her friends, "We have got to stop listening to all these stories because...we're not the exception, we're the rule."

Of course, in typical rom-com fashion, Gigi falls for Alex and is convinced he feels the same way because of "the signs." When she makes her feelings known, he rejects her, reminding her of the rules--she shouldn't assume anything. "If a guy wants to make it happen, he will make it happen."

Don't worry, as you probably guessed, Gigi and Alex get together in the end when he realizes how much he misses her and shows up at her apartment. Although this may seem like just a typical chick flick plot line, the message is a good one, because, as Alex says to Gigi mid-kiss--"You are my exception." And I think that's the truth. Not just for them, not just for the couples in the movie (some of whom end up single, by the way), but for all of us. We can follow the rules all we want, but our real love stories--the real loves of our lives--will be the exceptions. Everything you think you want or think you should do in a relationship won't matter when it actually comes along.

So, to all you singles out there, planning on spending (another) Valentine's Day alone, don't worry if you break a few rules, and remember that your exception is out there somewhere. And don't forget to break the biggest Valentine rule of all (the importance of being with someone), and love the one you're with--YOU.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Revolutionary Thinking

Note: This entry contains some spoilers for the movie Revolutionary Road.

I am much more a person of thought than of action; more likely to be found thinking than doing. So it comes as no surprise that when left alone in a snowed-in house for days, thoughts would swirl up around me with greater passion than usual. All this ruminating has extended to an area that I usually rest in, thought-free: film.

This may seem surprising--many movies are meant to be thought-provoking, telling powerful stories that stick in our minds. Well, those aren't the types of movies I usually choose. In fact, as embarrassing as it is to admit, I prefer mind-less movies that will merely entertain me and require no mental acrobatics. I am a great lover of the chick-click genre as it makes no demands of me. Perhaps this is because I view movies as an escape from my usual state of being (thinking); purely a chance to knit and relax.

However, I occasionally wind up watching a movie that does make demands of me, one that generates more thought. Being snowed-in, I've been watching more movies than usual, so it was bound to happen. Yesterday I watched Revolutionary Road, which inspired many thoughts, and I feel compelled to write about it here, in an effort to sort some of them out.

I chose the movie on the basis of the lead actors--Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio--who I think are two of the best actors of our generation. Of course, they first appeared together over ten years ago in Titanic; interestingly, both movies tell stories of love that must end, and in both cases, someone dies.

Revolutionary Road tells the story of Frank and April Wheeler, a young couple in the 1950s, who are faced with dilemmas that still confront people today--falling in and out of love in your marriage, the struggle of raising children, unexpected pregnancy, expectations of conformity from society-at-large, and the question of what makes a satisfying career (or life, for that matter).

Caught in the rut of suburbia and experiencing marital problems, April comes up with a fix-all solution--move to Paris. Paris, she thinks, will solve all their problems, giving Frank the chance to escape a job he hates and have the time to discover what he really wants to do while April supports him financially (remember, this is the 1950s!). And of course, their love will be reignited, because nothing's sexier than two young people breaking the mold and following their dreams.

"This is our chance, Frank," April insists. "This is our one chance." And in that, one of the themes of the movie--what you do with your chances in life. Do you take them, or let them pass you by? For Frank, the chance of Paris isn't as simple as it is for April. Because he's offered another chance--a new job with a new (much bigger) salary. And with April unexpectedly pregnant again, it seems like a good opportunity. Bart, the executive who offers Frank the position, has something to say about chance as well:
A man only gets a couple of chances in life. If he doesn't grab them by the balls, it won't be long before he's sitting around wondering hoe he got to be second rate.
It seems that one message of the movie is that chance is subjective--what's chance to one will look like foolishness to another. Bart thinks he's offering Frank an opportunity. April sees it as oppression.

And it's this tension that is the root of Frank and April's problem. She values searching, while he values stability. Frank and April have a fight when he suggests they shouldn't go to Paris:
Frank: I have the backbone not to run away from my responsibilities.
April: It takes backbone to lead the life you want, Frank.
It seems that both are right. Facing responsibility, facing dreams, both take courage. I think we can only conclude that life is always hard. There is no quick-fix-Paris solution. It is difficult to honor responsibilities and commitments, and it is equally difficult to make some shooting-star dream become a reality.

Revolutionary Road is essentially a movie about living, and in examining Frank and April's lives, it led me to examine my own. Like Frank, I have responsibilities that I don't always enjoy. Like April, I have dreams that remain just that--dreams. Her response was to see the situation as hopeless. Is there any other? How else can we judge our lives when we look at them and see desires that aren't realities? I suppose I could be like April. And maybe in her situation I would be. But for me, I see those unmet dreams not as hopeless, but hopeful. Hopeless will be the day I stop dreaming.

Frank says to April at the beginning of their relationship, "I want to feel things. Really feel them." And I think that's what's important. Feeling, not taking for granted. Remember that you are alive. And as for staying true to responsibilities, that's what connects us to other humans. It makes us part of something bigger than just ourselves.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Tools of the trade

Here's a glimpse into the most mundane corner of my life.

Though while I'm at it, let me just how much I love my wooden spoon. A wooden spoon is one of the most useful kitchen tools, and I'm constantly grabbing for it. And it's wood. So organic and raw.

From the roots, grow branches

At heart, I would consider myself to be an Italian cook. I enjoy making pizza, pasta, and polenta, dishes so ingrained in my psyche that I can get any of them ready in minutes without a recipe. Stirring a pot of risotto is one of the most comforting activities I can imagine. I'm a true Tuscan in my love of white beans, salami (real salami), and greens. And I love love love Italian wine.

Italian food philosophy appeals to me; it's all about freshness and passion. Italy is a country of lovers, amore being a way of life, and this carries over into the kitchen. Italian food isn't fancy, but it is life itself. It's about using a few ingredients perfectly, re-inventing your leftovers, and putting your own spin on classics (every Italian chef thinks his way is the only way).

But lately I've been straying a bit from the motherland, venturing into new worlds of food and flavor. As I mentioned in my feasting post, I've been looking to the Middle East (even North Africa!) for inspiration. I made a pizza the other night, but it was more of a Middle Eastern flatbread, topped with feta cheese, dried apricots, and almonds. Handmade tortillas have become a staple bread around my house, and I've been slurping up rice noodles from clean, ginger-y broth.

Asia is definitely an area I've been finding inspiration in, and last night I found myself in China, making a variation of these little dumplings, or as we sometimes call them, pot stickers. This is something I've never tried making before, and actually, I don't even know that I've ever ordered them at a restaurant. Mine were definitely a spin-off of the recipe on epicurious, as I didn't have any ground pork, so my filling was primarily chopped shrimp and cabbage. But I made use of the helpful videos of chef Anita Lo making the noodle dough and filling/folding the dumplings, to better learn this new skill. As you can see from my picture, my dumplings were not quite so beautifully pleated as hers:

Though note that my last two were significantly better, so I think I was making progress!

I think part of the problem was that I wasn't using ground meat as the base for my filling, so the filling tended to move about more instead of staying in a neat little ball. But all in all, I'm pretty pleased with myself, and the finished result, served with green jasmine tea, was delicious!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Snowy Thoughts

I don't know how many of you are having the same weather experience, but in my life, it's been pretty darn snowy around the place. So snowy, in fact, that it's safe to say snow is governing my life. I'm not working because all the schools are canceled. When I want to go into town, it takes me at least twice as long to get there. I'm not going outside much because I hate the cold, and the snow is too deep to really walk around. So I'm left alone in a huge house with nothing but my thoughts for company.

Of course, my first inclination is to cook. Mostly, I've been making all kinds of warming, comforting foods. For breakfast this morning I had biscuits with sausage gravy, something I'd never make normally. The other night, I made a red wine vegetable stew over the fire in my fireplace, which, I must say, felt pretty damn cool.

But beyond cooking, what else is there? Watching movies is nice, but I can only do that so much without feeling like a huge slob. Housework, but generally, the house is clean enough. Knitting, but my stash of yarn is dwindling, and I've always considered that more of a social activity anyway. Reading, but I can't find the right book.

I've always been somewhat of a reclusive person, but this snow is beating the hermit out of me. Movies (like He's Just Not That Into You, which I watched last night) are more fun when disected with a friend. I'm more inspired to clean when my mom's around, because I know she'll appreciate it. My knitting moves faster when I have someone to talk to. And I enjoy reading great bits aloud to whoever is around.

And of course, eating. I do like cooking for myself--I can make whatever I want and not worry if someone else is going to like it--but generally, it's more enjoyable to eat with company.

So I thought I'd just get some of my thoughts out on the blog-o-sphere before I go back to thinking alone.