Lentejas con Chorizo, or: A Hearty Stew for Frigid Nights

My friend Heather studied abroad in Seville for a year when we were in college.  Her host mother, Julia (pronounced: ‘Hoo-lee-a’)(or maybe it was Julieta?), spoke only in Spanish to her and also told Heather that she was her favorite of all the host students she’d ever had, which was quite possibly true.

In contrast, my host mother when I studied abroad spoke only in English to me and made no bones about the fact that she was only hosting students so that she’d have enough money to remodel her kitchen–as in, the very day the term was over, and I asked if I might be able to stay for another week or two she replied, “Oh, sorry, the carpenters are coming tomorrow and it will be too busy.  Safe travels!”

The only other thing I remember Heather telling me about her time in Spain was that at one point she was making earrings and selling them to people at the downtown plaza, which is to say: she had some balls on her, and was fairly fluent in Spanish.  This served us all well a couple of years later on a weeklong girls’ trip to Panama, during which Heather accidentally ended up with a Panamanian boyfriend. (He pronounced her name ‘Heden,’ and apparently did not understand the workings of the answering machine, instead leaving her long messages that went: “Heden?  Heden?  Alo, Heden, puedes escucharme?” or something like that.)

I once left Heather waiting at the Barcelona train station at night for over an hour; we were supposed to meet her there and bring her back to the hostel with us, but instead of leaving in a timely manner to meet her train, my friend Laura (pronounced: La-oora) and I decided to open another bottle of wine and play our 8th straight game of Gaudi Memory. (Sorry, Heather!)  She forgave us once we gave her some wine and let her in on the Gaudi Memory game.

And she also gave us this recipe, courtesy of Julia.  And I have to tell you friends: this is the lentil stew recipe to end all lentil stews.

I usually make a double batch of it (mainly because the lentils and sausage both come in 1 lb. sizes, so it’s easier to just double the recipe than it is to try to eyeball a half bag of lentils) and freeze several quarts.  Then the next time we need a quick dinner we just defrost the lentils, serve with some rice and a salad and–Blammo! we’re kings of the kitchen again.

I’ve made it once using actual chorizo, and other times with hot sausage (the kind in the plastic ‘chub’ rolls; sorry for having to use the word chub) and it’s equally good both ways.  Don’t skimp on the red wine–it’s what makes this stew so-much-more-than-just-another-lentil-stew.

In case you’re thinking that this recipe should be relegated to humble everyday-food, I’ve cooked this for dinner guests before, and it was a big hit.

Lentejas con Chorizo (Lentils with Sausage)
1/2 lb. chorizo (or regular hot sausage), removed from casing (if it comes in a casing)
1 onion, diced
4 carrots, peeled if desired and chopped into bite-size pieces
10 cloves garlic (yes, really!)
4 c. chicken or vegetable stock
1/2 lb. lentils
1/2 c. red wine
salt and pepper to taste

Brown the chorizo or sausage in a large pot over medium heat, breaking it up into small pieces as you go (like you’re cooking ground meat).  Add the onion, garlic and carrots, and cook, stirring occasionally, until onions begin to soften. (I usually don’t drain the sausage fat off, because fat=flavor, but you could drain some of it if it seems like too much for your liking).

Add the red wine and stir.  Add the stock and lentils and bring to a boil. Stir well, then reduce heat to low.  Cover with a lid and cook 30-40 minutes, or until lentils are tender.  Add salt and pepper to taste, if needed.  Serve over rice, if desired.  Freezes well.

2-Ingredient Whipped Body Butter

In the kitchen I have a lovely, oversized wooden cutting board that my brother gave us as a wedding present.  It lives on the counter next to the stove, where it is used practically every day, and washed with some frequency.  People who know about these things say that you ought to oil your wooden cutting boards to keep them in tip-top shape (although my mother disproves this theory: she has never once oiled the wooden cutting board that she’s had for as long as I can remember (which is at least 25 years) and the cutting board still works–and looks–just fine.)

In spite of this, every now and then I do still oil my cutting board–after one too many washes, and dozens of onions chopped, it will have two telltale pale areas where we have done our chopping, and the whole board will look dull and lackluster.  Depending on my mood, I’ll either drizzle olive oil over the whole thing, or chisel out some coconut oil, and rub it into the board like a salve.  Either way, afterwards the board is restored to its original lovely luster, and my hands are soft and supple from the treatment.  In case you didn’t know, coconut and olive oils are also good for the skin.

Anyway, ’tis the season for dry skin and chapped knuckles, so here’s a recipe for an easy body butter you can make at home.  Essentially it’s this: equal parts shea butter & coconut oil, melted together, then cooled and whipped with an electric mixer until it is—well, like whipped cream.  You can get shea butter from your local co-op (at Tidal Creek it’s in a plastic bucket by the bulk foods section; you scoop out as much as you want with an ice-cream scoop).  You can add your favorite essential oil, for fragrance, if desired.

I make a big batch of it for Christmas presents, usually with lavender, and even the small amount that’s left on the whisk is enough to keep my dishpan-hands hydrated for days.

A small note of caution: much like some lotions, it’s going to take a few minutes to thoroughly absorb into your skin, so it’s probably best not to use this immediately prior to, say, competing in a knife-throwing contest, or some such.  And also, a little goes a long way (this is a good thing).

And did I mention, it’s only two ingredients, both of which you can (hopefully) pronounce (depending on whether or not english is your first language and you know how to pronounce ‘shea’).

Shea Butter & Coconut Oil Whipped Body Butter
1 cup shea butter
1 cup coconut oil
~10-15 drops essential oil, if desired

Melt together the shea butter and coconut oil.  I usually use my microwave, and since both ingredients are solid (and therefore difficult to measure) I do as follows: in a 2-cup (or larger) measuring cup, spoon in shea butter until it is nearly to the 2-cup mark (do not try to pack it tightly).  Put it in the microwave and microwave on high at 30-second intervals until melted.  When melted, it should probably measure one cup, give or take (it’s not critical to get perfect ratios here, btw).  Spoon in coconut oil until it reaches the 2-cup mark, and microwave until everything is melted together.

Pour the mixture into whatever bowl you will be mixing it in (I use my stand-mixer), and put the bowl in the refrigerator until the mixture has solidified, usually 1-2 hours.  Using the whisk attachment (or beaters), mix on medium speed several minutes until mixture has the appearance of whipped cream.  You may need to scrape the sides of your bowl to make sure everything gets incorporated.  Add essential oil, if needed, then transfer to an airtight container, and use as needed.

It’s going to have the look/consistency of whipped cream/marshmallow fluff, so try to prevent yourself from licking the spoon.

Of Habit

Whenever one of us sits at the bistro table in the kitchen, the dog stamps her feet and wags furiously and wufs at us.  She’ll look at us, and then to the the jar of dog bones on the counter.  At us, then the bones.  She’ll stamp her feet some more, and make all kinds of guttural noises.  She’ll stare at us, then look towards the bones.  We tell her to use her words, because we never get tired of this joke.  And just when it seems like she can’t take it anymore, when the groaning and foot-stomping reach a fever-pitch and we are afraid her tiny heart might explode, we open the container, and we hand her a bone.

She has us well trained.

She is a creature of habit and so, it seems, are we.

When we get home from work (or home from being out anywhere), we play the Welcome Home Bone game.  How it works is, she grabs her rawhide bone and turns in circles in front of me, waggling her whole body spasmodically and making high-pitched moans.  I bend down to pet her and tell her, in my highest-pitched voice, “Welcome home bone,” because this is what I think she is trying to say.  This goes on for a while, her whole body wiggling so fast it nearly buzzes, and me cooing, “Welcome home bone.”  If I let it go on too long, the Welcome Home Bone game usually ends with the dog widdling on the carpet, her spirits instantly dampened by shock and shame. (The Welcome Home Bone game is sometimes also just called Tonya Harding, as in, “Look, she’s Tonya Harding,” since unfortunately the bone she carries is an unwieldy 12 inches long and in her mouth it is also perfectly knee-height).

I find myself, lately, in a hurry to get home from work, as if the early-darkening skies are some sort of foreboding omen.  So I rush home, impatient with the cars in front of me, putting off the errands I thought I might run.  As soon as I am home I take off my shoes, I sit down at the kitchen table and then I…stare at the wall.  For a while, my mind is a complete blank, and I try to remember what it was I was in such a hurry to get home for.  In summer I would fill these after-work hours with time in the garden, or on the porch with a book, but in this season the squirrel-like, instinctual part of my brain is telling me I ought to hoard some food, build a fire, huddle in my burrow.

If I could, I would eat pasta every single day for the next three months.

But instead, I’ve been eating this:Yeah, it’s Ramen Noodle Salad.

But!  Maybe we could also call it Raw Cabbage with Seeds & Nuts Salad, which sounds healthier.

I’m not about to try to claim that ramen noodles are a health food, but if they help me get my daily dose of raw, cruciferous veggies, I say, why not?

I usually make a triple batch of this, and I usually shred my own cabbage & carrots in the food processor instead of buying the bagged coleslaw mix (especially since cabbage can usually be had for 39 cents/lb, holla!), which means I can make a little bit higher veg-to-ramen ratio. (I’ve also found that 24oz of shredded cabbage=about 11 cups, or the capacity of my food processor bowl.

It makes a great work lunch, mid-afternoon snack, and potluck dish.  I took it to a potluck once, and the hostess insisted on keeping all of it that was left at the end of the night, which made me kind of sad (I had brought the whole giant container of it, and was planning on leftovers for my lunch).

You can play around with the ratios of vinegar/sugar/oil, and sub out different kinds of vinegar or sweetener or oil to suit your liking–personally I use cider vinegar, plain ol’ white sugar, and either olive oil or a mixture of peanut/sesame/canola oil.  If you look around the internet at all for this recipe, you’ll find that the vinegar/sugar/oil/nut ratios vary widely (one of the versions I made had the salad practically swimming in oil) so if in doubt, start with less vinegar/sugar/oil than you think you may need–you can always add more later, to taste.

This is what works for me, based mostly off of this recipe.

Ramen Noodle Salad
8 oz. bag of coleslaw mix (or about 3 cups shredded cabbage + 1 shredded carrot)
1 package ramen noodles, broken up into small pieces
1/2 cup sunflower seeds
1/2 cup sliced or chopped almonds
1/4 cup vinegar
1/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup oil
If desired, lightly toast the ramen noodles, sunflower seeds, and/or almonds until lightly browned.
Stir together all ingredients, plus the ramen seasoning packet (when I make a triple batch I usually use 2 oriental flavor + 1 chicken flavor).  Refrigerate for several hours before serving, stirring occasionally.
You could probably serve some chicken or salmon alongside/in to make this a heartier lunch, if desired.

My Backup Plan is Chocolate Cake; And a Recipe for Andy’s Sausage Stuffing

This year for Thanksgiving, Andy suggested telling everyone we had already made plans with other people, then staying home and eating pizza in our sweatpants instead.

I can’t say I entirely disagree with this idea; in fact, nothing sounds more appealing to me right now staying home all day and doing absolutely nothing, not exerting ourselves (mentally or physically) beyond deciding on the next Netflix show or walking to the fridge and opening a beer.

Instead, we’ll be going to his cousin’s house and I will be baking an apple pie.  Having never baked an apple pie before, I’m fairly certain that a recipe disaster will befall me; in which case, my backup plan is chocolate cake.

Andy’s Thanksgiving specialty is sausage stuffing, which is something I’d never had before (that’s what she said!) he made it a couple of years ago.  You can do it with store-bought stuffing mix or with homemade stuffing bread (if I’m going this route I usually just make a free-form/focaccia-style loaf).

Andy’s Sausage Stuffing Recipe
2 packages stuffing mix, prepared according to package directions or 2 loaves of stuffing bread, sliced/crumbled/manhandled into small pieces
1lb. sausage (we usually use the ‘chub’ kind for this; if yours is in links, remove the casings and try to forget the fact that I just used the word ‘chub’)
1 onion, diced
4-5 stalks celery, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
In a pan over medium heat, cook the sausage until browned, breaking it up into small pieces as you go (like when you cook ground beef for spaghetti sauce).  Drain off most of the fat (if desired; you could leave it all in there for extra flavor) leaving at least 2 Tablespoons.  Add the onion and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened.  Add the garlic and stir.  Remove from heat.
Stir together the sausage mixture with the prepared stuffing or crumbled-up bread.  If it seems a little dry/crumbly, drizzle some chicken stock over it to moisten.  Add salt and pepper to taste, if needed.  Transfer to a rectangular baking dish.
Bake at 350F for 20-30 minutes until the top begins to brown.

Other Thanksgiving Standbys:

Spinach Dip

Squash Casserole

Sweet Potato Casserole (with brown-sugar/pecan topping, NOT marshmallows)

Cranberry Cream Salad* (*not really a salad, unless you’re a southerner and your definition of salad is very broad)

Stuffing Bread

Brown Butter Pecan Pie

Garden Snapshot 11.18.14

It was 75 degrees outside yesterday.  Tonight it will get down to 24, then swing wildly back upwards to 70 later in the week.  Which seems about right, for a North Carolina winter.

Though we had a freeze, technically, a couple of weeks ago, it wasn’t really a hard freeze: the peppers and eggplant survived, the dahlia still blossomed.  Most of the tomatoes were okay.  But I realized this past weekend, that I was so over them—tired of the tomatoes that stubbornly refused to redden; the bell peppers that failed to grow larger than the size of an olive (a large olive, but still: hardly worth it).

The cowpeas and okra have been shedding their leaves for weeks: these guys know when to give up the ghost.  And so, I’ve been actually looking forward to a killing frost: the tomatoes were less than stellar this year, so it’s time to move on, to regroup: I need better soil.

For Christmas, I’ve decided, I’ll be asking for a load of mulch.  This winter I’ll be spreading compost liberally, and in early spring amending the beds with blood and bonemeal.  I’ve cast about a cover crop of red clover seed into one sad, sandy bed, and other areas of the lawn where I don’t want grass anymore; hopefully they’ll grow this winter, enrich the soil, smother the grass, and die back in summer. That’s the plan, anyway.  I haven’t told Andy yet; last time I told him I wanted to expand the garden more, he told me, “Leave the lawn alone!” But it’s a pretty pitiful lawn, what with no irrigation, and a soil consisting mainly of sand.

This past weekend I pulled out most of the remaining summer veggies—the ones, at least, that were dead already or not going to produce anything before the first hard freeze.  It felt cleansing.  I pulled up—surprisingly—a handful of sweet potatoes, too.  Some of them were not worth eating, and some of them had been eaten already—by the damned mole that plagues my yard.

In the meantime I’m tending to the cold-hardy veggies.  I’ve seeded a bed with kale, and set out transplants in others.  I have a whole flat of onions to plant, and the volunteer arugulas are holding steady at a stout three inches tall.

I made a potato barrel of sorts: a leftover black plastic pot, filled partially with broken twigs (hugelkultur: google it), dead leaves, and soil.  So far they’ve done well, nestled in an L on the south side of the brick porch (thermal mass!).  Tonight it’s covered with a couple layers of old towels to try to keep the potato tops from frostbite.

So long, flip-flop season.  Happy fall gardening, from this corner of the earth!

What Works

Ever since I started baking bread, I had wanted to learn how to make baguettes—those lovely long loaves with crackly crusts and pillowy middles, perfect foils for soups or cheeses or satisfying as-is: a soft, steaming interior with softened butter, or without.

I had thought that baguettes were something you had to come to like a Zen-secret: years of study and intuition, a meditation on the feel of flour and the heft of dough.  I had thought they would be difficult.

Well!  I’m here to tell you that they’re not—not really—as long as you don’t mind a bit of planning ahead the night before to get your starter started.

The other thing, I think, that helped me succeed was that I had baguette pans (thanks, wedding registry!) which help support/shape the loaves (in addition to giving them nicely dimpled little bottoms). I can’t speak to how they turn out without using special pans, but I’m sure they would be mostly fine.

The original recipe calls for misting the loaves with water while baking them, but if you have ever tried this, you may have realized that when you repeatedly open your oven for lengths of time to spray water over the dough, you kind of let all the heat out of the oven, and you don’t even create enough steam (steam=crispy crust) to make it worthwhile.

Another technique calls for pouring boiling water into pans placed on the floor of the oven; I haven’t had much success in creating steam with this method, either.

The method I employ instead is to simply fill a juice glass about half full of water, and, as soon as the baguettes go into the oven I kind of just toss the glass of water sort-of onto the baguettes, but also sort-of (mostly) onto the floor of the oven.  It sizzles and steams in a very gratifying and immediate manner.

The only difficulty with this method of making steam, I’ve discovered, is making sure your husband is not in the room when you do this, otherwise he is going to say, “Oh my god, what are you doing, you’re going to burn out the element.”

Well, the jokes on him, because, while I do understand what the oven element is, I fail to grasp the nature of how, exactly, it works, beyond: It heats up.  So!  I blissfully continue to throw glassfuls of water into the oven since, not knowing the physics of how it works, I also do not know the physics of how it breaks.  This is a win-win situation, as far as ignorance and baguettes are concerned.

I have yet to burn out the element, for the record.*

*This is not meant to be taken as legal assurance that you, also, will not burn out the element.

The dough-making is a bit of a process.  The first few times I made this recipe I did it on a weekend so I could be sure I was doing the whole mixing-rising-forming-baking within the recommended time frames; nowadays, the bread is made around what works for my schedule, which means that I often make them on weeknights because I can.  It goes like this: the night before, mix up the starter.  In the morning, add the rest of the dough ingredients and stir.  As soon as you get home from work, shape the dough into loaves.  Let them rise for about an hour while you walk the dog/prep dinner/pay bills/do dishes/fix lunch for tomorrow/etc. Then bake, then eat!

Baguettes are in the rotation so often now that I leave the recipe card on the counter behind the mixer (the only other recipe card to earn this distinction is the one for pizza dough).  We usually use them to make a sort-of Jersey shore sausage/peppers/onions hoagie (or whatever they call it up there) which are sooo delicious, I can’t even tell you, wherein the onions and peppers are cooked so long that they are meltingly tender, but anyway, I’ll give you a recipe for that later, someday.

Baguette Recipe
Adapted from the King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion
For the starter:
1 ¼ cup all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon yeast
2/3 cup water
Mix together.  Cover and let sit overnight.
Then add:
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoon yeast
2 teaspoons salt
2/3 cup water

Mix together until well-blended, 2-3 minutes.  The dough should be slightly sticky and not 100% smooth, but able to sort of form itself into a ball while kneading (if using bread machine or stand mixer—it would probably be too sticky to knead by hand).  Cover and let rest several hours.

Form into 2 baguettes and let rise on floured baguette pans (or other baking pan) about 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 500°.

With a sharp knife, quickly cut several slits into the loaves.  Put the pan into the oven and throw in 1/3 to ½ cup water to make steam.

Reduce oven to 475° and bake 20 minutes.

Let cool as much as possible before slicing.

Today is

…election day.

So please join me, today, in voting for the right to not have to accept the ‘I Voted’ sticker thrust upon you by the overzealous Board of Elections worker.  I am no longer four years old, stickers are not my thing, it’s going to end up in the trash can in approximately 2 minutes and in the landfill in approximately 6.5 days.

Let’s vote ‘No Thank You!’ to ‘I Voted’ stickers.  Let’s take back our landfills from ‘I Voted’ waste, let’s demand to know how many of our taxpayer dollars were spent on ‘I Voted’-ness.

For a long time, I voted by absentee ballot.  It was easier than trying to work it into my day, I could do it at my leisure and send it off and think, “Well, I already did my part, and from the comfort of my own home, at that.” I am trying to remember, now, why it was that I stopped absentee-voting.  Was I worried that it just sort of ended up out there, somewhere, unaccounted for?  Stuck to the bottom of the mailman’s bag?  I think, actually, it may have been simple laziness. Absentee voting requires actual foresight and planning and the requesting of a ballot ahead of time, coupled with the fact that you lead an exciting life, and who knows where you might be on a Tuesday, on any Tuesday, it’s possible you may end up in Tahiti on election day! That is how the thinking goes, anyway, when you’re in your twenties and you consider basically all of your income to be ‘disposable.’

Nowadays, of course, election day is like any other Tuesday and odds are slim that I will find myself in Tahiti. Since it’s a Tuesday, I will be doing Tuesday-things, but also trying to remember where my polling place is. And I will no longer be voting while wearing pajamas and eating a bowl of rice chex.

I was just looking over a sample ballot online, and the sight of it reminded me of the feeling I get, inexplicably, when it is finally my turn in line and I am faced with the ballot-touch-screen: the first few choices are simple enough, you start to gain momentum, you think I’ve got this, I know who to choose here, and then you page over to the next screen and Hmm, there are quite a few more people here to choose from, and I haven’t really heard of some of them but I can still handle this, but then, Then! You get to the page for judges and your heart sinks just a little, How could there be so many! and your palms maybe start to sweat a bit, and it feels like you’ve just been given a test you didn’t study for and you start to wonder, Why are they even letting me vote for judges anyway, shouldn’t the law just be the law, why else would they have so many legal books and places called law libraries? And so maybe you start to panic a little bit, because there are so many people standing in line waiting, still, so you’d better hurry up and get through this, and so maybe you just start choosing people at random, it doesn’t really matter, what’s appellate mean, anyway, and then–and then! You go to the next page and there are even.more.judges.  So!Many!Judges!  And who are these people! You have never heard of a single one of them and some of them even–you hate to say it, but–their names sound made up.  And maybe this is a test then, maybe the Board of Elections has slipped some fake names in there just to see if you’ve been paying attention, which you haven’t been, clearly.

And so you decide to vote based on who has the most interesting-sounding name.

Which, incidentally, is also how you choose wine at the grocery store.

And you remember, now, the appeal of the absentee ballot: it was like an open-book test. You could research all the candidates with fake-sounding names, you could google the word ‘appellate’, and not to mention the wearing of the pajamas that was possible while you did all of this! And the lack of stickers thrust upon you!

In 2016, you can be sure I’ll be voting Yes for pajamas.

Shit My Guy Says: The Med School Edition

Me: Hey, how many bumps do you have on your head?

Andy: I dunno, I think four.  Why?

Me: I was gonna write it down on this note so you can give it to the doctor to make sure she doesn’t miss any.

Andy: Yeah, ’cause I’m sure she didn’t learn how to count in med school.

Shit My Guy Says: The Old Rocker Edition

Andy: Oh my god, they’re so old, Fleetwood Mac.  They’re older than your mom.

Me: I’m putting that on the blog.

Andy: No, don’t, it might not even be true.  We should find out how old they are first. [A few Wikipedia searches later:] Well they are older than your mom.  But you still shouldn’t say it, that’s an insult to your mom.

At least one reason to look forward to daylight savings time

It’s dark in the mornings now, so I guess that’s as good an excuse as any for why I’ve been wearing my underwear inside out all day.