A Bit Like This

Nearly every day after school when I was a kid, I would go over to my best friend Ashley’s house and go inside without knocking. Their kitchen was a galley-style affair, with black appliances and a side-by-side refrigerator before the days when those were even really popular. The refrigerator was closest to the entrance and so, the first thing I would do when I went inside, sometimes before even yelling ‘Hey!’ up the stairs to Ashley, was to open the refrigerator and look inside.

Because my brother was a Type 1 diabetic, and because my mom was a semi-health-nut (the kind who made granola before that became a cool, hipster thing to do), the foods we had at home were rarely ones that I was excited to eat.  For instance: Frookies.  I am trying to think of how to describe the taste of a Frookie, because (in a ‘nam-style flashback sort of way) I still do remember the taste and the smell of them, but I am at a loss for words.  They were like a soggy unsweetened graham cracker, maybe?  Or perhaps I could describe them to you as: the only cookie in the world that, when you offer them to a child, the child will say “No thanks.”

In contrast, Ashley’s house always had Keebler Soft Batch cookies (that were best warmed for 8 seconds in the microwave on a paper towel) and Oscar Meyer bologna (best eaten folded in half, with many small bites taken out of it in order to create an abstract sort of meat-snowflake or a very creepy/sad rendition of a human face).  On the bottom shelf of the far corner cupboard was a gallon-size crock of Penrose hot sausages, neon-pink and alarmingly sour, their strange combination of pucker and heat that was enticing after the first bite, but too nose-wateringly overwhelming for you to finish even half the sausage.

And then there was the chocolate frosting.  It lived on a lower shelf of the refrigerator door, and this was not frosting that was leftover after making a cake or cupcakes; this was frosting that was bought specifically for eating right out of the jar.  So my afternoons usually started like that: with a spoonful of chocolate frosting which, taken straight from the refrigerator, had a taste and texture reminiscent of Christmas fudge.  It was not against the rules to go back and have a second spoonful of frosting, but if you did, you ought to get a clean spoon.  I don’t have to tell you that it was waaay better than a Frookie.

I still have the habit of fridge and pantry-snooping. When I go over to my parents’ house, the first thing I do is open the fridge and look on all the shelves; next I move on to the pantry, then the cupboards, and lastly, the freezer.  When I stay overnight with friends or family, I take stock of their refrigerators; if I’m staying longer than a night, it’s likely I’ll find out what’s in their pantry, as well.

It’s not that I’m even hungry; I just like to see what’s there and maybe, if it is something that sounds good or intriguing, I will (mentally) talk myself into having a snack even though, if I had been sitting at a table and you had asked if I wanted anything to eat I would’ve told you, “No, thanks.”

And this is how Andy and I got ourselves on a tabbouleh kick.

While visiting Aunt Suzy and Uncle Bert in Maine last summer, and rummaging through their pantries, in the dark forgotten depths I found two half-empty packages of bulgur; a dusty can of hearts of palm; a small and nearly-expired jar of artichoke hearts; and in the crisper drawer of their refrigerator, various vegetables that were quickly losing their crisp.

With just some boiling water, lots of chopping and can-opening, within twenty minutes we were all enjoying some healthy, hearty tabbouleh alongside our sandwich lunches.

And whenever I come across something that is made with whole grains and/or vegetables that Andy actually enjoys (i.e. does not complain about) eating, I make a mental note, and then I try to make that thing as often as possible.

Which is to say: our workday lunches have been going a bit like this: tabbouleh, tabbouleh, tabbouleh, tabbouleh, tabbouleh.  I make a double batch on weekends, and we scoop it into tupperwares and eat it all week.

I’ve been making it with quinoa for added protein instead of bulgur, also because I don’t ever have bulgur on hand but I always have quinoa (thanks, costco!).  I tried making it once using millet, but the texture of the millet after it had been refrigerated was unappealing (it was like the texture of cooked rice after it’s been refrigerated, i.e. sort of hard instead of chewy).  So, we stick with the quinoa.

Quinoa ‘Tabbouleh’ Vegetable Salad Recipe
3 c. cooked quinoa (or whatever amount you get after cooking 1 c. dry quinoa in 2 c. water; or what I usually just do is cook 2 c. dry quinoa/4 c. water and have some with dinner, and whatever is leftover goes in the ‘tabbouleh’).
1 pint grape or cherry tomatoes, halved
1 orange or yellow bell pepper, diced*
1 very large (‘hothouse’ type that is shrink-wrapped in plastic) or 2 regular cucumbers, diced
2 Tablespoons red wine vinegar
2-3 Tablespoons olive oil
1 Tablespoon lemon juice
1 Tablespoon dried parsley
1-2 teaspoons other dried herbs (I usually use a combo of thyme, oregano, and Italian seasoning)
1/2 c. crumbled feta
salt and fresh-ground pepper to taste
~1/3 c. pine nuts, optional but highly recommended; for garnishing
Combine all ingredients except pine nuts and stir gently until well-mixed.  Add a few pinches of salt and pepper, and more herbs/vinegar/lemon juice/feta if needed to suit your tastes.  Serve garnished with pine nuts.
*The color of the bell pepper is just for looks, really.  When I make a double batch I’ll use one orange and one yellow, but if all you have on hand is a green or red pepper, feel free to use that instead.

Saw a dead rat in the Bojangle’s parking lot.

I mean, I still went inside and ate, what do I look like, a health inspector?

Oh, North Carolina

Turns out that in the South, summer’s arrival is not determined by a date on the calendar, but rather by the season’s first sighting of a guy driving his pickup truck with no shirt on.

It wasn’t really David Spade

Some context clues in case you’re not from Wilmington: The Triangle is a local dive bar, and Bob Townsend is a local newscaster.  (Also, it should be noted that one of the Yelp reviews for the Triangle has what is probably the most apt description of any dive bar, anywhere: “If you don’t like it, go fuck yourself.”)Did I mention that I have ringworm? I’m going to blame the dog for it.

Please enjoy having this visual image stuck in your head

Andy:  Why is there so much pollen?

Me: Um, I dunno…it’s just that time of year.

Andy: But why is there so much of it?

Me: You mean like, Why is there pollen?

Andy: Yeah.

Me: That’s how trees have sex.  You know, ’cause it’s not like a tree can just walk down to the bar and find some lady to hump.

Andy: Huh.

Me: Pollen is like tree sperm.  Just think about that every time you go outside.

Andy: Oh god, that’s disgusting.

Me: Your car is covered in tree sperm!

How to Not Fail at St. Patrick’s Day

First of all, you should buy and cook a corned beef. Just do it, and follow the package directions, because you know it’s delicious. You should not, under any circumstances, try to roast it. I made this mistake so you don’t have to, unless of course you like eating shriveled slabs of dry, tough meat. Boiling meat in water seems kind of dumb and uninspired, but it turns out that this is how a corned beef likes to be cooked. If you’re feeling fancy, you could add some apple cider and bay leaves to your boiling pot, too.

Secondly, you should make irish soda bread. Substitute whole wheat flour for up to half the flour so that you won’t feel too bad about consuming the entire loaf in two days.

Thirdly, you should buy loads of cabbage, I’m talking like ten pounds or so, since it’s only 25 cents a pound this week. With some of it, you should make this to take for lunches. With another head of it, you should make this or this to serve alongside your corned beef (unless you just want to boil it and be lazy).

Then, with the rest of your cabbage, you should shred it up and make sauerkraut so you can have reubens with your leftover corned beef (which is arguably the best thing one can do with corned beef).

How to Not Fail at Sauerkraut

Firstly, shred your cabbage. You can make it as fine or as chunky as you want, I don’t care. Then toss your shredded cabbage with lots of salt—way more salt than you think you would ever use in your lifetime. It doesn’t have to be exact, it just has to be salty. Pack it into some sort of jar or crock and tamp it down as firmly as possible (a gallon pickle jar works well for this, especially if this is your first time making sauerkraut, since it is free (with the pickles) and since it’s see-through it will help you keep an eye on things in case something starts to go horribly wrong. It should be sort of creating its own juice to ferment in, but if there isn’t enough liquid to cover all the cabbage, add some more (I usually have to). The water should be really salty, probably add 1 or 2 teaspoons per cup of water you put in. Then you should put some sort of weight on top to keep all the cabbage submerged. A cheap way to do this is to fill a ziploc bag with salt water (salted so that in case the bag leaks it won’t dilute your brine) and put it on top.

Nextly—and this is very important—you should cover the top of the jar with a cloth or strong paper towel (something to keep dust and fruit flies out) and secure the towel with rubber bands. DO NOT be lulled into a false sense of okayness-without-the-towel-ness by the fact that your fancy fermenting crock has a very nice-fitting lid because if you do, it will be a very big surprise to you when, in three weeks, your sauerkraut has turned into the world’s largest and most disgusting fruit fly farm. Oh my god, it is a terrible, terrible thing, and I am saying that as the kind of person who is not usually grossed out by those sorts of things. I had to leave it outside under a downspout for a month before I even wanted to look at it again.

Finally, let it sit for a week or two or three. Add more salt water if needed to keep it submerged, and taste it every few days to see if it’s reached your desired level of sour. Serve on reubens or with pierogies.  Keep any leftover sauerkraut in the fridge, where it should keep indefinitely.

Or you could forget all of that and just go out and do some heavy drinking for St. Patrick’s Day. That is, if you’re still in your twenties and/or have no shame about calling in hungover for work the next day.

Garden Snapshot: 3.9.15

Well! It is now March, and signs of spring are here. It looks like we might actually have more than three days in a row of temps above 60, halleluia for that.

Robins are flocking to the yard in Hitchcockian numbers.  They root around in the mulch, pockmarking the garden beds with fist-sized craters.  If I hadn’t seen them doing it, I probably would have blamed it on squirrels.  The dog sits at the front window like a statue, staring at them all.  ’Snooki TV,’ we call it. Her head is just barely the right height to see out the window–looking at her from outside all you can see are eyes and ears.

The house finches have returned and are busy rebuilding their nest in the porch eaves, though they might have already decided to abandon it after they saw me spying on them through the window blinds.

I planted peas the first of February, and last weekend I was ready to call the whole row a loss and sow more when I noticed the first few green shoots poking up, short as a thumb, not yet unfurling their leaves.  For a gardener, I can’t think of a more hopeful sight.

My daffodils* started blooming about a month ago (the first ones on the block, I’d braggingly like to add), just in time to be hammered by some brutal cold (for NC standards, that is)–temps down to the teens and twenties, and a day or two of ice.  Turns out the flowers are a type of thermometer: when it goes below freezing they droop down until they’re face-down on the ground, and gradually perk themselves up as the temperature climbs.

*Botanically-speaking, I know they are really probably narcissus or jonquils, but I don’t care because I prefer the word ‘daffodil.’

The buds on the blueberry bushes are swelling.  I’ve transplanted a dozen of them over the last couple of months, making a sort of hedgerow next to our neighbors’ driveway.  I dug them up from the backyard of the foreclosure, where they had been planted in a weird sort of circle in the very center of the yard.  I did just a few at first, in case they didn’t make it, but they didn’t seem to die (kind of hard to tell when they’re dormant, anyway) so I did a few more the next weekend, and a few more after that, then mulched them with pine straw raked up from the backyard (free mulch! woot!).  They seem to be faring well, and every time I check on them the buds seem a little bit bigger.  Edible landscaping is where it’s at, y’all.  Because when’s the last time your privet hedge gave you the ingredients to make a pie?I’ve been itching to get my hands in the dirt, but–aside from the peas–it’s not quite time yet.  I’ve been satisfying the gardening urge by sowing seeds indoors–first a flat of peppers and eggplants, then two weeks later a flat of 18 different kinds of tomatoes (this is probably a mistake) and a flat of cool-weather stuff (collards, carrots, lettuce, broccoli, etc.).  Last week I started melons and herbs, which have just started to sprout.  I’ll move them under the grow lights this week once I take the cool-weather veggies outside to harden off.

I took a tape measure outside and staked out my beds, and let me tell you, this is probably one of the most important things you should do when you start a vegetable garden. (Also drawing it out on graph paper helps).  Turns out, last year’s veggie beds and paths that I had eyeballed the widths of were waay narrower than I had assumed I made them.  Last year’s 7 veggie beds have turned out to only be 5; some of last year’s paths are turning into this years beds and vice-versa, but that’s okay; I’m convinced that they’ll all be so much better this year.  Per The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible’s advice, I’m also extending my beds to 15 feet long and keeping them covered with a light mulch of straw (which will hopefully help keep the neighbors from complaining, since all this is happening in my front yard.  Though at this point, I’m fairly certain that it will be my own husband who calls Code Enforcement on me; “What are you doing to my grass?” he forlornly asks every time he sees me outside with a shovel).

Andy’s going to be in for even more of a shock once my bare-root plant order arrives; after poring over catalog upon catalog from mail-order nurseries, I finally bit the bullet and ordered: 20 asparagus crowns, 50 strawberry plants, 2 elderberries, a plum tree, a cherry tree, and hardy kiwi vines.  So long, front yard, and hello, fruits!  If you’re thinking of adding any fruit trees or shrubs, now’s the time for ordering and planting bare-root varieties.  You can plant containerized plants at any time of the year, but the drawback to them is that there’s usually less of a selection to choose from.

I just recently found out about Big Horse Creek Farm, a small family-owned North Carolina nursery that specializes in heirloom apples. It’s too late for ordering this year, but next year my planting budget is going to go primarily to them; at any rate, it will probably take me that long to read through all their varieties of apples and whittle down my list to must-haves; even after narrowing it down to just warm-climate varieties there are still 100 to choose from.

I’m planning to go to Whole Foods sometime soon and see if I can’t scrounge up some Jerusalem artichoke tubers and a small horseradish root to plant in the ground.  Everybody warns that these things are aggressive as hell, but I’ve managed to kill them both in years past, so I’m not terribly worried.  Plus they’re edible, so if they get too out of control you just eat more, right?  Like my mint patch that turns into a summertime excuse to have mojito parties. (Here’s a list of some other things you can grow from the grocery store).

I have potatoes full of green eyes sitting on a window ledge that ought to go in the ground (or that ought to have already gone in the ground, actually, but all of February seemed too cold for it).  There are sweet potato slips that sprouted (unintentionally on my part) from tubers in the cupboard and that I ought to be rooting now; thank goodness for the extra evening hour of sunlight we’re getting now.

Shit My Guy Says: The Colonoscopy Edition

Nurse: How are you doing?  Are you feeling nervous?

Andy: Yeah, a little.

Nurse: Is this your first time?

Andy: No, I’ve felt nervous before.

Easy Chocolate Fondue for Lazy People

Well, in case it isn’t abundantly clear from every possible news media outlet, Valentine’s Day is tomorrow.

Admittedly, I’m sort-of an eye-rolling grump on the subject (for instance:cut flowers.  Most of them are cultivated under horrifying working conditions, flown thousands of miles, die after a week and are laden with pesticides.  Because nothing says “I love you” like slave labor and chemicals, and money spent on something that will soon go into the trash can!).  My significant other has been instructed that if he ever buys me a bouquet of flowers, I will punch him in the face.

I have been out to dinner exactly once, ever, for Valentine’s Day, and once was enough. The restaurant was overcrowded, the wait times were incredibly long, and the waitstaff was stressed–none of which combined well to create a romantic, intimate atmosphere (though it was clearly memorable, especially when we witnessed the restaurant owner yelling at his 80 year-old mother for not filling out a ticket correctly).

So tomorrow Andy and I will commemorate this romantic-est of holidays by opening a $3 bottle of wine and eating leftovers on the couch in our sweatpants, and exchanging no gifts.  Which is pretty much what we do every Saturday, which is to say: that’s exactly how we like it.

But in case you’re feeling the need to mark the occasion but you weren’t able to get a reservation at a swanky fondue-ery (or you don’t want to change out of your sweatpants), here’s an easy recipe for Chocolate Fondue.  I usually make a small amount, just for myself, because Andy says that peanut butter is poor people food.

Easy Chocolate Fondue for 1
1 heaping Tablespoon creamy peanut butter (not the all-natural kind)
1 small handful chocolate chips (splurge on the good kind, like Ghiradelli dark) [You're just kind of eyeballing the amounts here; probably about a 1:1.5 or 1:2 ratio of peanut butter:chocolate chips is what you want here, but it's not critical to get it exact]
Combine peanut butter and chocolate chips in a small bowl.  Microwave in 30 second intervals until melted, stirring often.
Dip whatever snacks you want to in it–pretzels are highly recommended, but also strawberries, bananas, marshmallows, graham crackers, etc.
You’re gonna want to put this on vanilla ice cream, but just a warning that it hardens pretty quickly on contact with the ice cream.

2015 Food Trends Based on What’s in my Pantry Right Now and What I Just Ordered from the Seed Catalogue

First of all, let me just say, 2015?!?  I am still getting used to the idea that it is 2000-anything, and if I think about it too much I get a little weirded out and start thinking about HAL and singing Prince songs (or, ‘the symbol formerly known as Prince’ songs).

Second of all, let me just say that I find the idea of food trends to be total bullshit.  It’s not that there aren’t actually food trends that come and go (remember aspic, anybody?) [Actually I am kind of a fan of tomato aspic, to be totally honest].  It’s just that, as mammals, we need to eat food on a fairly regular basis, and the types of food groups we consume as humans have not really changed that much over the decades (assuming, of course, that you are not eating fast food on a regular basis, and also that you are not on the Paleo Diet).

What I cook in my kitchen at home does not really vary that much from year to year.  In a given year, I will try maybe a dozen new recipes; of those, maybe half will make it into the regular rotation.

Which means that when people talk about food trends, what they are mainly talking about are restaurant food trends–not the things that people are actually going to be cooking at home on a regular basis.  Sure, there are things that are going to go briefly viral for the home cook–kale chips, cake pops, salted caramel-anythings–but mostly when people get all hyped-up about food trends, it is about what restaurants are doing–not farmers, not gardeners, not home cooks.

For instance: we have seen the rise of the pretzel bun; of cronuts; of sriracha-everything; of chicken wings; of pork belly.  But when is the last time you made chicken wings from scratch at home?  Or cooked pork belly on your kitchen stove?

For me, the answer is never.

Anyway, here is my completely unscientific prediction for 2015 food trends, based on my pantry and my recent seed catalog order.  And on whatever happens to pop into my head.

1.  Collards are the new Kale. Collards have a higher nutrient-density score than kale.  They’re easier (at least for me) to grow, and there’s a plethora of new heirloom varieties making their debut—from ‘Yellow Cabbage’ to ‘Hen-Peck’ to ‘Alabama Blue.’  Not to mention they’re a Southern specialty, and southern food has been having a moment lately, at least until Paula Deen ruined it all.

2.  Animal Fat is the new Coconut Oil.  If you were to look in my fridge right now, you would find 3 large jars of animal fat: 1 is bacon fat; 1 is chicken fat; and 1 is pork fat.  I used to have some beef fat, too, that I was going to make homemade suet out of, but I accidentally left it uncovered on the counter for several weeks and then it seemed to have gotten some bugs stuck in it and Andy got grossed out and threw it away.  Actually I used to have 2 jars of chicken fat, but I gave one away as a Christmas (Hanukah?) present to a person who wanted to make authentic latkes, fried in schmaltz (a.k.a. chicken fat).

As a completely frugal/crazy person, wasting food in my house is a huge no-no.  And a large part of that means making use of every bit.  So whenever I roast a chicken or make crock-pot pork shoulder, the drippings get poured into a bowl and put in the fridge.  The next day you’ll be able to scrape away the layer of fat off the top; underneath will be a jello-like substance (you could call this ‘bone broth’ if you were being fancy) that, mixed with some water and seasoning, makes a fantastic base/addition to soups or stocks. The fat gets stored in a jar, to be used later for sautéing vegetables, or in biscuits, or in pie crust.  You have basically just procured for yourself some free oil, and if you’ve checked prices on olive or coconut oil lately, you’ll know that you’ve just saved yourself quite a few bucks.  And not to mention, but several sources are finding out that lard (a.k.a. animal fat) is not only not bad for you, but quite possibly actually good for your health.

3. House-made Popcorn is the new Tortilla Chip. Aside from people who suffer from diverticulitis, I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like popcorn. It has a satisfying salty crunch, packs a lot of volume into a small amount of calories, and is a whole grain.  The last time I even considered buying microwave popcorn (it was on sale, and I had a coupon) I made the mistake of reading the ingredients, and it was horrifyingly long and unpronounceable, especially for something that should have basically just been: popcorn, oil, salt.  So instead I bought just a bag of kernels, which was much cheaper, ounce for ounce.  That $2 bag of kernels has lasted us over a year.  You don’t need any fancy equipment—just a pot and a stove, and oil that can withstand high-heat. 1/3 cup of kernels will pop into a vast amount of popcorn, which you can then jazz up to your choosing—parmesan, dill, curry powder, black pepper, chile powder, etc.

And you don’t have to settle for just white or yellow kernels, either: there are red, black, blue, and multi-colored heirlooms (which are GMO-free, holla!).

4. Bagels are the new pretzel bun. Maybe?  Nobody doesn’t like my homemade bagels, and my schmaltz-friend gave me the idea that we should make them into buns.  They’re so easy!  And toothsome-ly delicious.

5.  Masa is the new hot pocket. Every culture has their own type of portable meal-wrapped-up-in-pastry. China has dumplings & pork buns; England has pasties; India has samosas; Thailand has spring rolls; Mexico has tamales; El Salvador has pupusas; and America has…the hot pocket.  I think it’s time for a better hot pocket, and this year I’m planning to figure one out using masa.  Basically I’m envisioning very thick homemade tortillas pressed around some type of mostly-veggie filling, something I can make huge batches of and individually freeze for grab-and-go lunches.  But maybe I just described burritos? Whatever, mine won’t have rice in them.

6.  Foraged is the new farmer’s market. This year I foraged wild blueberries, persimmons, and wild black cherries, the spoils of which still stock my freezer.  Word on the street is that some really fancy restaurants are hiring their own foragers to procure obscure hyper-local ingredients for them which makes it seem a little pretentious and hoity-toity, when really, anyone can forage.  All it takes is a little bit of noticing.  Personally, I can say that successful foraging brings with it a very self-satisfying sense of pride, not unlike what I imagine our ancestors felt after felling a mammoth.

7.  Buckwheat is the new quinoa. Yeah, ok, it might not have the same levels of protein as quinoa, but buckwheat is a whole grain that grows easily in America and can help improve the soil. Not to mention, but the leaves are edible and contain high levels of rutin, an antioxidant, in addition to many other nutrients (Just don’t eat huge quantities of them, or you might develop photosensitivity). I’m planning to grow a cover crop of buckwheat this summer on a desolate side of the house and, if it grows as well as it should, I’ll be making use of it in the kitchen as well.

At any rate, this is what’s likely to be happening in my kitchen this year.  Unless I get lazy and decide to just buy cases of hot pockets to subsist on.  Either way.