Learning to Love Fruit

At the height of my disregard for healthy eating, I told my friend E, “I don’t like to bother with fruit; it’s all sugar and if I’m going to eat sugar, I want to eat caramel or chocolate!” There’s nothing wrong with loving chocolate and caramel, but E was right to be a little flabbergasted: fruit is such a beautiful food group, and I was silly to disregard it.

Fruit, when it’s really fresh, has become one of my favorite things. When eating at the breakfast here at the hotel this week, I’ve been replacing some of my old time favorites, like danishes, with larger-than-usual piles of fruit. Sure, they also are sweet, but I feel more alert and happy instead of like I’m in a butter-and-sugar coma for the rest of the day.

I’ve noticed lately that keeping fresh fruit in the house is hard because it can spoil before I get to it, but keeping fruit smoothie drinks means I’m often reaching for that instead of more pastry or bagels. I get whatever brand is on sale and sometimes there are even ones with spinach blended in – added bonus. Obviously, this is not the whole-food solution of one’s dreams, but E would probably be pretty proud of me. I’ve also been really happy with recipes like the Apple Cake and the Zucchini Bread I’ve made over the past few months, which combine my love of pastry with a mixed in serving or two of fruit. I’m coming around to the way that fruits and veggies as the bulk of my food makes me feel a lot better and be more creative with my cooking.

Eating My Way Through Denver

This conference has been decadent, y’all. I have tried to keep my portions small, but man oh man. My conference friends and I split a pile of crusty bread that was covered in the most amazing roast garlic, olive oil, and tomatoes when we arrived, and it hasn’t stopped. I had a magical panini with spinach and fresh mozzarella and pesto, and when everyone else wanted to get drinks at a trendy little place after a day of learning and presenting, I chose a cup of chocolate mousse instead – it’s just been that kind of beautiful time.

Denver is a city full of pretty areas, and even though there are some standard spots (does every city have a Cheesecake Factory?) I’m thrilled to see restaurants I’ve never seen. Everywhere, there are little touches of great conservation (good public transit, recycling bins) and touches of healthy eating (a whole restaurant devoted to salads, a fresh mediterranean food fast-food joint). I’ve loved my conference so far, but I confess: I keep trying to escape to eat and to explore! I’m drinking a weird concoction – nitro cold brew coffee – as a I blog and plot a trip to a used bookstore before booking it back to the conference.

One of the most special moments was when I was volunteering at registration and idly thumbing through the nametags that hadn’t been handed out yet. I saw a distinctive name and instantly knew it was my friend T, who I was close to 5 years ago in Spain but who I’ve seen only once since then. We haven’t really spoken in 3 years, but I instantly sent her a message to confirm. Sure enough, we were both accidentally in Denver at the same time! We went to a conference session together, got dinner, and caught up on each other’s lives while walking the pretty city. I am so grateful that the world is always smaller than I think it is, and even friends I think are gone can sometimes walk back into your life at the randomest times!

Making Spaces for Writing… and Other Life Needs

Desks come in and out of my life like recipes do – part of a long chain of other friends and their stories. Husband’s desk is a big heavy blue desk that his grandmother gave him when she moved away, and I love sitting at it and remembering the feeling of spending time every weekend at her house; I still see her every few months but I’ve been missing her more lately because it’s been a while.

My desk, till recently, was the cheapest, simplest model you could imagine, particle board from a big-box store, and given to me for free by a friend from grad school. She just recently published her first book and the desk seems a little more magical because of that; still, a friend who just moved here from China needed furniture, and we could live without the extra desk, so I gave it to her. Husband and I want to (long-term) trade in the cheapish versions of furniture that have characterized our days thus far for more sturdy pieces that fit with the old-house charm of our place, so it made a lot of sense to give the desk a good home and start a search for a more antique one.

This search took Husband, me and our friend C to a local flea market, a big sprawling yard-sale of a flea market with literal piles of furniture and appliances, all slightly dusty but with people more than willing to sell them to us. We saw a variety of desks, but the one that caught our eye was this corner desk, originally 75 but haggled down to 50, that also just managed to fit perfectly in the corner of the room where we planned to put it. The story of it is pretty cute, but it also got me thinking about how I make space for things like writing in my life.

Sure, I have to take the time out of the day to write blog posts, but I also need to take space – literal space – when I can. If every inch of every surface in my house is covered in bills or dirty dishes or even crocheting projects, I will not settle in and work on my writing. The same is true for any hobby that you might dream of making more than that; the space has to be there, even if you live in a tiny apartment and share it with a lot of people. Even if that space is your pillows propped up under a notebook on your bed, you’ve got to do it or other things will keep taking your mental space. I hope that this desk helps remind me to take physical and mental space to write, when I can.

Caprese Salad: Eating Salad without the Greens

I have had the goal of eating 4 salads a week, and yesterday, we’d run out of salad greens. What we hadn’t run out of was ripe, delicious, garden tomatoes. Mostly I wanted to use cherry tomatoes, but I caved and used the ripest of the San Marzanos too.

You see, salad is a funny thing: some people consider potatoes coated in mayonnaise to be a salad, and others see only things with lettuce as a base as the healthy form of ‘salad.’ I’ve tried to stick to my belief that anything with a veggie base is salad, and caprese salad (characterized by the combination of tomatoes, basil, mozzerella cheese, and sometimes balsamic vinegar) is a wonderful variation that is filling while still being refreshing. I knew yesterday afternoon that I was in the mood to eat something unhealthy and I wanted to head it off with something fresh and lighter. This worked perfectly.

I sliced all the tomatoes up to bite size (no exact measurements here; just use what you want based on servings you want to have) and tore the basil leaves. I cut the mozzarella down to quarter-inch cubes or crumbles, whichever happened faster, and threw in a dash of olive oil and a dash of balsamic vinegar and a few grinds of crunchy salt. The salad worked up well but I got overzealous and added a bunch of dried basil, which rehydrated into a pretty overwhelming level of basil-ness. I didn’t think I could overdo basil, given my love for it, but this was that. Basically: add basil, taste, add more if you want it.

I know a lot of people who like to do the caprese combination on toast, but I would advocate eating it out of the bowl like a regular salad. After all, it’s one less piece of toast in your life, and it’s so tasty even when it’s in a bowl by itself (and even when it has too much basil!). This combo could be stretched to a full meal if mixed with some whole-wheat pasta or quinoa, or it could be served on a pizza/flatbread for a new variation on the timeless margherita pizza. Regardless, it makes me happy my definition of salad is pretty broad. 🙂

A Sweet Reminder to Move a Little Slower

When my back was turned (probably getting more coffee), Husband turned the rest of my breakfast cinnamon roll into a little snail! We chatted fondly about a snail I kept as a pet in college – he didn’t do much but when you put spinach in his cage, he ever-so-slowly pounced on it. I am looking at a few days of slightly less work and commitments than I have had since school began, and I’m looking forward to taking a deep breath and “thinking snail” instead of being so frantic. Also, cinnamon rolls are delicious; if you have a good recipe for making them from scratch, Husband and I will be delighted. I’ve been trying to eat reasonable portions so these small, store-bought rolls were good; my homemade ones tend to mushroom and become cinnamon loaves.

Who Taught You What Good Produce Looks Like?

Like many people, I grew up shopping for vegetables with my mother. She was the one who taught me what too much give in a tomato meant, how to choose my cucumbers, and whether the lettuce was starting to wilt. I watched her do it and learned from her; from a pile of veggies, she could always select the ones that would be good long enough to eat at home that week.

It’s hard to compare my produce with that of the grocery store, though. Especially this late in the season, I pick anything that isn’t ruptured, covered in molds or scars, or full of worms. My tomatoes and squash have little imperfections, and are sometimes covered in cobwebs from where insects tried to make their homes in the vines. I wash them, trim off the spots of disease or damage, and cook them till they are all alike. The home-grown flavor is the same whether the original tomato had a big spot I had to cut away.

These days, I’ve noticed more than the beautiful produce at the grocery store – certainly, if I’m going to buy an avocado I’m going to pore over the pile before I select, but I also notice half-price lettuce that needs to be eaten, or the piles of older potatoes that have been marked down so they’ll sell fast. I’m starting to see the marginal foods as beautiful too, because the truth is that the worst spots can be cut away and we don’t waste the rest of the food connected to those spots. My mother’s knowledge still guides me to keep myself from eating things that will make me sick, and I’m sure most people reading this are also grateful to someone in their life for guiding them toward foods that will help and not harm them, but more and more, I find myself drawn to use creatively that which would be unappetizing to others.

 

Gingerbread before Autumn Truly Arrives

I have so many good memories of gingerbread. I associate it most with a college friend, S; he was so quiet and shy but I got to know him through a church group and the one thing he wasn’t shy about were sweet, spicy, snappy gingerbread men that I’d bake in the dorm kitchen and bring to events. My recipe was legendary, with the secret ingredient being butterscotch instant pudding mix. Mmmmm.

For the party last weekend, I wanted a soft, cake-y gingerbread, something simple after 7 or 8 samplings of soups. I started with this recipe from Sally’s Baking Addiction: http://sallysbakingaddiction.com/2015/12/01/my-favorite-gingerbread-men-recipe/ but I modified in a few ways: I had no molasses, so I subbed in more brown sugar and a bit of honey. I used pumpkin pie spice mix instead of the separate cloves-allspice-cinnamon, but I used the right amount of ginger! The one direction I recommend following: letting the cookie dough set in the fridge for 3 or 4 hours! I didn’t turn my cookies into gingerbread men, but they held up beautifully between fridge and oven.

I made the dough the morning of the party and baked them after running out to visit J and her rolly polly baby E; after lots of slobbering and toothless smiles, E went down for a nap and I came home and baked the cookies! They were high and puffy like I like, and though husband was disappointed because they weren’t ginger snaps (evidently I need a good recipe for those!), I thought they turned out wonderful. I’ve been eating the leftovers for days as little breakfast cookies with my coffee. They remind me of mornings in college when my church group friends would go on walks or evenings when we’d go out and watch meteors during the Perseids. A cookie companion makes cold weather more bearable, and even though Autumn hasn’t quite reared her head yet here, these cookies make me less worried about winter coming.

You cannot be a fair weather friend when you own a house.

There has been less cooking than usual in our house this weekend. The reason is that we had a lot of rain for a few days, and the city where we live has a rather old storm water/sewer system. The result was an inch of muck and water in our basement, coming up through the drains. Eek.

We found it Friday afternoon, and after a brief bit of non-elegant annoyance, I settled in to the reality of our weekend. With bleach and brooms and piles of wet cardboard being thrown into our trash bin, we cleared out the basement, disinfected it, and returned it to a state that was actually far cleaner than it had been before. Judging from the others who had water in their basements near us, we actually got lucky – for the most part, ours pooled over the drains and went back down as the storm water pipes got less overwhelmed. Still, there was damage to lots of stuff, and it made me decide never to leave clothes in laundry baskets on my basement floor… goodbye, fair clothing!

Just like I was talking about with handmade gifts and handmade food, this weekend made me realize that what I’ve committed to this house with Husband is more than I committed to apartments (all I’ve ever lived in as an adult). If you buy your apartment rather than renting it, you do this same thing. You are committed to learning as the home goes through troubles – sure, you may have insurance, but you might have to learn what you want to file claims about, and learn how you will replace what was lost. Husband and I spent much of yesterday figuring out what we want in a hot water heater (you have no idea the options if you’ve never had to do this), and feeling at a loss quite often.

What comforts me is that the house will get fixed through channels that others have gone through before and can help us deal with. We will be able to, someday, tell others about how we got water out of our basement and how we picked the hot water heater that worked for us, and how it got paid for and installed. Doing everything that is new and strange for me this year has been tough, but I have to think about the information about fixing a house the way I look at a new recipe: namely, someone has made this work before, and even though I will probably modify the steps and ingredients a little, I can make it work for me too.

What homemade blankets mean as gifts

There is an author, Tamora Pierce, who created a young adults book series all about magic. One of the ways magic worked was that a character could weave the magic into a blanket or a quilt or a shawl, giving powers to whoever had it. It made for very imaginative writing.

I tend to think that a little bit of that magic exists in the real world with handmade gifts – I don’t make fancy blankets when I crochet, but they do require me to think through colors and styles, and keep the final product looking clean and tidy. When I was working on this blanket these past few weeks, I was thinking of M, and her new daughter G who is receiving it. G is so tiny and sleepy all the time at 6 weeks old, but M has taken to motherhood like she was born to it; the perfect mix of attentive and calm. I was thinking about how G will grow up in the same town as me, and maybe I’ll babysit her, or at least see her at the free concerts downtown each summer. All those thoughts for the future, and all my memories of M from the past, were on my mind as I made stitches.

When I visited M to deliver the present, she made a big deal out of it, even though as you can see, it’s pretty small and simple. She insisted that I take a big bag of basil, oregano, and jalapenos because she had more than she could use in her garden. We chatted about school and work and just the very existence of the blanket brought us a little closer. The same thing happens when you bring over food to a pair of new parents, or when you find a way to craft something for a birthday that leads to a lovely story. It’s intangible, but there’s a little magic in it.

The Ripening of an Interesting Year

I was visiting the community garden and saw this plant, big and lush and green, but until I got down at grass level, I couldn’t tell that there was indeed a big purple eggplant growing under there.

I’m sure, if you are like me, that sometimes, you don’t feel like you have seen any fruit for all the efforts you’ve put in. Maybe you are a blogger and you feel like not a lot of people are reading your work; maybe you are a student who has yet to receive stellar feedback from faculty members; maybe you are a cook whose toddler looks at every meal with suspicion despite the many times you have fed them delicious things. It can take a long time to see results from many worthwhile endeavors.

Yesterday, I visited with a former Professor of mine, who asked me questions about my future. I hadn’t had any questions like that in a long time – where was I going, did I want to stay at the place where I worked, what did I want to do next? It seems that in the hustle and bustle of getting married, starting first jobs, getting to know a new community, I had been let off the hook for future plans for a while. Now, as the beginning of the semester seems to be finally settling into a pattern instead of non-stop new demands, it seems that the future is something to be asked about.

It makes me think about the future of my writing and my cooking, but it also makes me feel like here and there, I’ve found some “surprise eggplants,” some fruit. I have written a few articles for websites, which I hadn’t done previously. I have a rough, but complete, draft of my novel. I’m running, for better or for worse, a 10K tomorrow. There are little displays of results, if I’m willing to look.

It makes me want to know what I’m looking for in the next few years, though. I think it’s easier to identify your successes when you think about where you want to go and where you’ve been sometimes. What goals are you setting for yourself lately, cooking or writing or otherwise?