Preparing the Ground

img_5159

We have talked and talked about how we’re going to make our garden bigger this year; even with all the missteps last year, we still yielded a lot of pounds of food and this year promises to be just as exciting. Yesterday was an unseasonably warm day, making it perfect for digging out some old grasses and bushes along our back fence line and preparing the ground for a new raised bed garden box.

We first had to root out as many of the persistent roots and grasses that we could find, and then we laid out large amounts of garden fabric and staked it down. The hope is that, even with this crazy warm weather we’re having, going ahead with this process will help keep the weeds down when we put the boxes in on top. It’s going to be long, perhaps 12 feet, and about 2 feet deep, so there’s going to be a ton of space for plants. It’s the most full-sun  box we have, so it’s going to get our squash plants, our tomatoes and peppers, as well as newcomer cucumbers.

I sometimes see metaphors for life in the gardening process, and one of the biggest ones is this idea of preparing the ground – our minds cannot change on a dime, and when we want better habits or stronger muscles or anything new, we have to start getting ourselves ready ahead of time. It’s not just the training for the race, but the recognition of what foods make us feel crummy when we run and which ones make us feel energized. Preparing the ground isn’t always possible; I’d say last year we pretty much leaped before we looked, but when life gives you the opportunity to really get ready for a new change, it’s wise not to bury your head and pretend the change isn’t coming. Things go so much better with prepared soil.

In Praise of a Dependable Chain

img_5102-1I spend a lot of this blog talking about how much I want to eat out less, spend more time cooking, know more about the origins of my food, etc. While all of those things are definitely true, let’s not be unclear: I love eating at restaurants!

I don’t need them to be fancy; I love eating at the counter at Waffle House and I love trying tiny, fancy tapas at a swanky Spanish restaurant with candles on the tables. I like the interaction, the fact that I have so many options but I don’t have to come up with exactly what I want; I just have to identify it among many great choices.

I love that while my food is cooked, I can talk to my friends or to Husband, and I love guzzling tall glasses of water that I tend to forget to drink when I’m making my own meals or eating on the go at work. I like the sitting-down, doing-nothing-else of it.

Husband and I went to a big sit-down chain restaurant last night, a Chili’s, and I was reminded again how nice it is to go to a restaurant. I’m not a big fan of the little computers they keep on the tables, but it does help them save on costs and keep things quick for the servers, which I can appreciate in the prices. I loved eating something totally different from my husband; I liked my food, but I also loved stealing some of his. We were too full for an included dessert, so there was cheesecake to take home.

What I’ve loved most about my favorite restaurants is that some part of our experience is colored by the chef or the server or the bartender who talks to us about the life of the restaurant; that doesn’t really happen at Chili’s, but it still occurs to me, just in the easy kindness of our server last night who was clear and got us our food very quickly. There are times when a reasonably priced, super tasty, and convenient meal is just what I want. When I’m healthy and well rested, I’m all for taking things the long way with home gardening, home cooking, and restaurants that prioritize the local and seasonal, but I sure to appreciate the systems that allow me to, on a whim, decide to take a break for a night.

The Break Days in February

Every year does not give me breaks in February, but this year, I needed them. Yesterday, rather than being buried under snow and ice, we had breezy 63 degree weather and sunshine over the river that runs through our small city. We didn’t really need the coats we compulsively put on because it’s February. I saw kids outside in shorts, playing quick pick-up games of soccer and basketball just to get their legs stretched out from the long winter slumber.

I need a break sometimes, and if I don’t take it on purpose my body tends to give it to me – sometimes in the form of a 5 hour long headache where I curl up on the couch and don’t emerge till twilight. In the years of being an adult, I’ve gotten better and worse at listening to my body, but I am starting to really appreciate any day when my body works well, lets me produce the things I need to produce each day, let’s me clean and cook and work and write. I think often of those who are confined to their homes because of long-term illness and I pray that they too have their forms of breaks, because I am often so unkind to myself for my body’s inabilities. We have a lot to learn from the patience of those who have to move slowly by no fault of their own.

When the pain goes away, though, and when the sun breaks through in February, I don’t dwell on the long to-do list that I am now far behind on – I usually revel in the joy of being better, of being warmer. For a few hours yesterday after my headache, Husband and I took a long walk and got meatballs for dinner at an outdoor food truck by the river. I didn’t move quickly because I still felt weak, but every moment that I wasn’t curled up on the couch was a miracle. These rises, these returns, are some of the most pure feelings I ever have.

65. Six Sister’s 30-min Yeast Rolls

I am very charmed by the idea of Six Sisters Stuff, the blog where I found this recipe – all the six girls keep in touch and post on the blog together, which as a sole blogger, I have to admit I envy. I love writing often but given my desire to build community, I would welcome a second or third blogger to take over some days… let me know if you are interested 🙂

The yeast rolls sounded too good to be true: yeast bread takes so long to rise! The key to these rolls is that they have tons of yeast in them. This is the recipe to pull out when you have a jar of yeast that is getting a little older and needs to get used up – two whole tablespoons. But sure enough: 10 minutes to let the yeast bloom, 10 minutes of resting once the ingredients are all combined and put into roll-shapes, and something like 10 minutes to cook. It was more like 45 minutes in my scattered world, but definitely manageable while making dinner; in my case, manageable while ill. I am so glad to feel better now; it feels like a dim memory to have been so sick and now feel much better.

Speaking of getting well, I had these rolls sitting out on the counter in a bowl on Tuesday and one of the ways I knew that I was getting better, besides just having more energy, was that instead of just looking like something neutral, the way all food had for days, I was actually intrigued and excited about the rolls – the return of appetite is a strange thing. I am glad to be regaining my strength – Husband made some barbeque pork chops and I made veggies in the GoSun, and finally we got to eat a lovely meal together, complete with the last of the yeast rolls.

64. S’s Palak Paneer

S and I always seem to pick up where we left off when we get to see each other, and I was so excited to stop and see her for the weekend on our way to Maine. S had a special plan: she’d bought all the ingredients to make palak paneer, her favorite indian food dish made of spinach, paneer cheese, spices and… well, I didn’t know. I knew that if I made things that approximate palak paneer in the past, they never taste like they do in the restaurants. I was eager to see what S could do with it.

S, her boyfriend A, and I spent a whole day hiking and then returned to their home to make this dish, which could have been done by one person but really was so work intensive that it wasn’t bad to have 3 cooks. S browned the paneer (is there ever such a beautiful thing as frying cheese?), I measured out many many kinds of spices in precise quantities and set them up, cooking-show-style. A chopped and cooked fresh spinach, tomatoes, and onions; they mentioned that they’d tried with frozen and canned and it is never as good. After the frying cheese, the next mixture to create was a chickpea flour and spices mixture, which gives the sauce its thickness – there was no cream in this recipe! The following steps involved combining all the ingredients in precise order, mixing them or pulverizing them in a blender or cooking them slowly for half an hour. I say “or” because it was all a blur to me, and I was in charge of changing records on the record player, so I often had to leave the kitchen. There are worse things, though, than chatting with some of your oldest friends (yes, even S’s boyfriend has now graduated into the ranks of “one of my oldest friends” – they’ve been together a long time, and many of my friends and I met in the last few years) dancing around to big band swing music while large cats flee from your galumphing feet… It made me feel like a young and excited person again.

Also, the final product was MAGICAL. If I get the recipe from S, I can try to recreate it, but I bet I’d need two sous chefs to pull it off. It may look like green glop, but believe me, it’s the most amazing dish. I order it at restaurants habitually, but now I’m gratified to be able to make it in house.

fryingcheesetwo

63. A’s Hearty Chili

A gave me this recipe as part of her wedding gift, which was a recipe book with pages to add all sorts of recipes to it – one of my goals, though not one I’ve been able to complete yet, is to put all the recipes I love onto the extra cards and fill up the book so I have it handy in the kitchen. A is Husband’s cousin, and she represents so much of what I love about his family: she’s a free spirit with an amazing sense of humor who is constantly going on adventures. She travels frequently and whenever I see her I get the biggest hug. Her sense of style is on point but also not like anyone else – she’s one of the most confident people I’ve ever met.

Her chili recipe was exactly what I needed the week before our trip – I needed something hearty and healthy, so I cut up a gazillion veggies for this dish as I listened to a podcast on the benefits of a plant based diet. Granted, I also threw the ground beef in there, but percentage wise, it was a very plant based dish. After two hours of cooking, it was one of the best entrees I’ve made – rich and flavorful but with most of the flavor coming from the veggies and spices and slow cooking, not from a bunch of butter and oil, which tends to be my go-to.

It took all week to finish the big pot, but unlike with most leftovers, I was happy to keep noshing on it throughout the week, happy that when I only had 20 minutes for lunch between engagements I could slip into the house, heat up a bowl, and feel warmed and fed. Good recipes seem to do that, though I’ll caution: this recipe is not for someone who wants the exact same results each time; there are almost no measurements, and while she uses bacon and steak, I used ground beef.

IMG_4375

IMG_4377

 

62. Husband’s Sausage Cheddar Balls

I have been ill for a few days. It is not such a big deal, but it is more ill than I’ve been in a long time, and I’ve been surprisingly baby-ish about it. It has made me appreciate more than usual the casual, easy-going buoyancy of my husband’s personality. Two days of my illness were our return days from Maine (terrible timing on my part) so the fact that he was willing to drive a lion’s share of the miles and still make jokes to me as I moaned and groaned about pain really make me once again stunned that I’m so well cared for and he seems to wear it so lightly.

For the meatball party, Husband had mentioned that he wanted to make sausage balls, so I bought sharp cheddar and spicy sausage, but he hadn’t mentioned any other ingredients to me so I assumed he didn’t need any. When we went to start cooking, he said, “time to find a recipe!” and I had to laugh: I just cannot fly by the seat of my pants like he can. We didn’t have Bisquick, the main starch of choice in the recipe he chose, so we ended up making an approximation of Bisquick from scratch. The sausage cheddar balls turned out wonderfully; the recipe he more-or-less used was this: http://allrecipes.com/recipe/14826/easy-sausage-cheese-balls/.

Sausage balls are also a pro breakfast food, and K, a friend who came to the party and stayed overnight, helped us eat the remaining sausage balls with breakfast toast on our back porch. While Husband didn’t win the competition against many other delicious kinds of meatballs, I am reminded every day how much his easy-going attitude both surprises and saves me from my own overthinking. It’s not a bad thing to associate with such a tasty, crispy, spicy treat.

Match Made Coffee 2: Organic French Roast

img_5131

One Sunday afternoon, Husband and I were trying to get the motivation to power through the 2pm slump and somewhat failing – blame potatoes and chicken-and-apple sausage from lunch, I suppose, or the swim we took after church. So he suggested we try the Organic French Roast from Match Made Coffee’s subscription box.

If their Guatemala Antigua was smooth, this roast was deep – with a caramelized side that was almost carbon-like, just a little tiny bit of burn that characterizes dark roast coffee. French roast is, after all, on the very darkest end of coffee roasts, and instead of tasting like the bean it originally came from, it’s going to be sugary, chocolatey, and delicious.

It’s also nice to be drinking organic coffee; while you might not taste it, the organic coffee bean contains far fewer of the pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers that conventional coffee contains, and it doesn’t contribute to climate change or deforestation nearly as much as conventional practices. Sure, these choices make the coffee a little more expensive, but when it’s included in your $29.99 a month box, you are just getting added value for no extra cost.

I appreciate the dark roast because Husband tends to pick out light and medium roasts, and French roast is a special treat that my mom and I used to share at home. Drinking it this afternoon and writing, I feel like I’ve been given the permission to remember good coffee times as snow drifts lazily outside. It’s a lovely feeling.

Match Made Coffee was recently featured on NBC San Diego here, and you can check out their product online here.

61. N’s Buffalo Cauliflower Balls

N’s post on her own blog about these buffalo cauliflower balls was the first brainchild for the meatball/”meatball” party. I am not the world’s biggest fan of veggies, and I really cannot do cauliflower; conversely, I would eat macaroni and cheese for every meal if such an option would not quickly make me a very ill woman. So when she described these cauliflower balls this way, I knew I had to try them: “They are so creamy that it’s unbelievable that these contain no cheese! In fact, the only dairy is a tablespoon of unsalted butter. That’s pure cauliflower power. I never want to stop eating these.

So basically, the party and all the prep and all the other people invited? Yeah, just an excuse for me to get N to make me cauliflower that tastes like macaroni and cheese. She delivered; while I wouldn’t ever compare them to the artery clogging goodness that is Kraft blue box, these were super delicious and far and away the best preparation of cauliflower I’ve ever had. It’s very impressive that they contain no cheese; my friend M and I once tried to make a flour-less pizza crust that was made with cauliflower, but the real base for the recipe was cheese, so it was hardly healthier unless you were just trying to go gluten-free.

I think the combination of flavors was on point as well, because cauliflower on its own is  so relentlessly bland that it needed something spicy to make you forget steamed cauliflower. N more than achieved that and created a delicious reason for a dinner party. 🙂 The original recipe was from The Almond Eater, so props go to her as well – wonderful!

Quinoa Salad – a Post-Whole30 luxury!

IMG_4521Today, I am making quinoa salad for the first time in a long time; it qualifies, in my mind, as a very healthy food, but it was forbidden based on the no-legumes-or-grains part of the Whole30 experience. My favorite part of it is the fact that, as a person who doesn’t crave meat with every meal, it’s a way to keep getting protein and keep myself full for many hours while still eating something “lighter” than a serving of meat.

Here’s my approach, which stays new to me because I vary up the different ingredients:

  • Start the quinoa: I make about a cup of quinoa at a time unless I’m entertaining other people, because it’s fast and easy to make.
  • Pick the veggies: My favorites, in no particular order are: chopped cucumber, diced tomatoes, cooked spinach, chopped bell peppers, or cooked cubes of squash or zucchini. Husband likes it with broccoli, but that kinda ruins it for me… I cannot help it! Broccoli isn’t my veggie, it seems.
  • Pick the spicing: with tomatoes, I always add basil; with most veggies, I always give a dusting of garlic, pepper, and salt. Lately, I’ve been really entranced by chipotle seasoning, so that gets thrown on anything when I’m feeling like I need a good kick from the salad.
  • Add the garnishes: To add crunch, a few toasted pecans or walnuts are wonderful. I like crumbled goat cheese or feta (don’t overdo it with the salt if you add these though; they seem to add saltiness on their own) to make the salad a little creamy, and if you have enough veggies relative to the quinoa, you can dress it with your favorite ranch or balsamic vinaigrette, though that can be weird if there’s mostly quinoa and not so much on the veggies.

Regardless, this salad is delicious warm when you first make it, and then can either be eaten hot or cold later as a lunch at work. I’m hoping to create one that I enjoy for breakfasts now that I’m trying to not make all my breakfasts pastry-centric (it’s a problem!). It’s not Whole30, but it definitely makes me feel ready to face the day.