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Politics, Holidays, and Artichoke Dip

9 Nov

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Holy cow.

What a whirlwind.  We’ve been in November for 9 days.  And it’s been nuts.

Let’s just look at this empirically, shall we?  With the start of November, first there was the take down of Halloween.  Halloween has just gotten too spooky.  Seriously people, enough already with the blood and goo and violent paraphernalia.  We are not the real life Walking Dead and I do imagine if a live zombie came lumbering and grumbling your way, you might poop yourself and run (it’s always a good time for an oxymoron or two).  So what’s with the increasingly growing gore of Halloween?

Growing up, my mom and I would visit local craft shops set up in parking lots and fields and ogle at all the cute pumpkin, scarecrow, turkey, and charming broomsticky things representing the start of the autumn season.  Somehow, that innocence seems to have been forgotten.  Nowadays, we’ve gone straight from this growing grossness of a spooky, dead-loving holiday to – wait for it – Christmas?

It was August 30th when I saw my first sign of Christmas.  Rob and I were in Costco and they had just displayed their wrapping ribbon.  We stopped, looked at the ribbon, looked at each other, and with a slight head shake (and most possible eye roll), kept walking.  The day before Halloween, we saw our first Christmas commercial.  However after discussing it (yes, we discuss these things), we decided it didn’t officially count because the real commercial showing Christmas is upon us is the one with the Hershey Kisses bells ringing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” Yes, I am coining that as the official sign of Christmas – Hershey’s Chocolate, you’re welcome.  Anywho, despite my love, adoration, borderline slight obsession with Christmas (our house blows up into a reindeer, elk, and moose bedazzled wonderland), it’s frankly not yet time.

While the commercial world tries to build up this monstrosity of constant technology, and gimme, gimme, gimme attitudes, and desensitizes children from the innocence of these holidays – clearly, the teacher in me has a bone to pick – I am determined to not let November fly by in a disingenuous prelude to Christmas.

Also, in between good riddance-ing Halloween, avoiding a premature Christmas celebration, and fitting in the best historical foodie celebration our nation celebrates, there was probably one of the most stressful, surprising, amazing, horrible, and memorable elections our nation has probably ever seen.

Over the last few years, our national hard drive has been doused with water, sparking shards of entitlement and division and teaching blame-to-everyone-else-rather-than-accountability across our land.  So this morning, after turning off the tv around 1:45am and then still staying up way too late with anxiety and anticipation, I roused myself to full awareness around 4am to a historical headline.

And despite anyone’s political affiliation, I think most can agree that this election pushed the giant reset button on that national hard drive (and finally those horrible commercials can stop).

So, taking slow steps through this significant day, I mindfully look at my little home adorned with the peaceful signs of the season: pumpkins made from old draperies found in a southern mountain store in NC, red maple leaf placemats, and my personal favorite, antique 14-carat gold rimmed, hand-painted dessert plates adorned with turkeys, pheasants, and mallards.  They are all now in their showcased place, ready for their 43,830 minutes of fame (that’s total minutes in November, and math is cool).

By golly, all of this calls for a damn good dish.

While we are just starting to wake up to a morning chill here in North Florida, I feel the need to plunge head first into everything autumnal, even if it means I need to turn my air conditioning down to a sweater-wearing degree.  It’s also the season for entertaining, and my mind is racing with great ideas for great food with great people – no matter what the celebration.

Like this Artichoke White Bean Dip.  It’s simple, it’s easy and it is oh-so-good.  Hardly an indulgence, it’s not as dairy-filled as many artichoke dips tend to be.  Being dip-worthy, spread-worthy, put-on-a-sandwich-or-mix-with-tuna-fish-worthy, this has become a new standard for easy, crowd-pleasing recipes.

So in between tonight’s news reports claiming disbelief at what just politically happened, and the constant Pier 1 Christmas commercials, make this dip and serve it to a friend or two (with a cocktail, of course).  Its warmth and depth will comfort you with Autumn, helping bring the season back to the heart of what it is meant to be.

Enjoy it.

Warm Artichoke White Bean Dip
makes about 28 oz, enough for a whole crowd (or one hungry night)

  • 9 oz (usually 1 box) thawed, cooked artichoke hearts
  • 1 can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
  • 4 oz cream cheese
  • 1 clove garlic
  • ½ tsp fresh thyme leaves
  • ¼ c apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tbsp half and half
  • 1/2 tsp ground cumin
  • s&p
  • olive oil, for drizzling
  • shredded cheddar cheese to top *optional

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

In a food processor, mix all above ingredients except for the olive oil.  Make sure everything is well incorporated and taste for seasoning.  When mixed, pour into an oven-proof baking dish (a ceramic pie dish works well).  Drizzle with a bit of olive oil (and cheese, if using), and put in oven until the top is browned and the mixture is hot throughout. 

Serve with crudités, bread, pitas, crackers, or simply a spoon (save the spoon for home-alone times, not so much entertaining). 

Enjoy!

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My Textbooks

2 Nov

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I have cookbooks. There. I said it. It might be an obsession. My eyes simply roll imagining the scene:

Setting: an almost sterile room, with 8-9 brown, cold, metal folding chairs set in a too-close circle. Men and women from all walks of life, heads hung low, wallets empty, slowly make their way to the chairs. The linoleum floor clinks and rattles as people chose their chairs.

Enter Perky Person stage right:

“Hello everyone and welcome! We are all so glad everyone could make it, even if it did take some coaxing for some.” All eyes turn to me, as I’m suddenly aware at how fast my leg is bouncing. Ok, here it goes. It’s now, or never.

“Hi, I’m Jill. And I, I…. I collect cookbooks.”

“Hi, Jill.”

Too dramatic? Well how about this real-life scenario:

Setting: our lovely little house in Oregon, all packed up and ready to be emptied by burley movers. Rob and I are upstairs cleaning the baseboards when we hear our packer talking to the driver of our moving truck.

“It took two full days to pack up this house? There’s only two of them. How many boxes?”

“333.”

“Three-hundred and thirty three boxes?!”

“Yeah, man. She has a lot of books.”

It’s actually become a mantra in our house. Our super wonderful packer (really – he was so good), in his tired, tired, tired voice revealing my secret: she has a lot of books.

The cookbooks are everywhere – in bookshelves, on nightstands, in decorative stacks around the house holding candles, even hidden under the bed. Yet, I can’t stop.

Though it’s interesting, because I hardly ever use cookbooks as books for specific recipes. Instead, I pick very particular cookbooks – authors that I learn from, and receive inspiration while reading their recipes. Reading these books like collegiate textbooks (yes, I was a Literature major, and no it’s not a fluff major), I gain knowledge on flavor combinations, learn techniques, and experience different cultures with a page turn. I can honestly say that at one point I was teaching a friend – who had just graduated from culinary school – a thing or two in the kitchen.

Rob even finds it amusing that when looking for an idea for a very specific ingredient (for example, wild poultry), I’ll know in exactly which books to look (A Year in My Kitchen, Faviken, or Nature). Or if I’m looking for inspiration for entertaining, opening go-to classics always serve me well (anything from Ina Garten, Julia Child, Yotam Ottolenghi, or Lulu Powers). As I try to cook as clean and natural as possible, many fellow food writers’ books help with those ideas (Heidi Swanson, Anna Jones, and Amy Chaplain). Of course, I also constantly fall back on the basics (Moosewood books, Ruth Reichl, Alice Waters, and Jacques Pepin).

It is so freeing to read a cookbook with the intent to learn as opposed to the pressure and need to find tonight’s dinner.

Here in Jacksonville, this 2nd day of November, it was 91 degrees outside. Thus, for all you who know me well, I’m itching/craving/praying for/hoping/and down right begging for some fall weather. And despite as hard as I wish, controlling the weather is not one of my special powers, so the best I can do is create autumn on the inside. That means, lowering the thermostat, putting on a cardigan, turning on the oven, and creating a seasonal meal. The other day, after opening a series of cookbooks for inspiration, I read about sweet potatoes, pork roasts, bruchy hashes, and other mouthwatering comforting goodness. Thus was born the inspiration for a Sweet Potato and Bacon Gratin.

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Using only one large sweet potato, two servings of standard gratins can be squeezed out. With only a little bit of prep, a tasty, savory, autumnal dish is born.

For the Sweet Potato and Bacon Gratin, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Then, dice 4 strips of thick-cut bacon (I find applewood has the best flavor), and sauté in a large pan over med-high heat until the fat has rendered, and the pieces are crispy. Remove the bacon from the pan and set aside on a paper towel-lined plate. Then, sauté 1 diced, medium onion (your color choice, I used white because that’s what the farm had this week) in the bacon fat until the onions are translucent and start to soften. Taking a peeled, and ¼-in diced sweet potato, add it to the pan, seasoning with a bit of s&p, ¼ a tsp of ground cardamom, a pinch of cayenne pepper, and the leaves from 3 large stems of fresh thyme. Lower the heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally until the potatoes are soft. If the potatoes get a bit browned on the edges, this is ok – the caramelization adds a great, pan-roasted flavor. Using ¼ c apple cider vinegar, deglaze the pan by pouring it in and scraping the brown bits off the bottom. Cook until the liquid has cooked off. Turn off the heat and transfer the mixture to a large, heatproof bowl. Add 2 c of chopped baby spinach (it will wilt with the warmth of the mixture), and the reserved bacon. Using a heavy spoon, roughly smash the sweet potatoes, and add a ½ c of half and half. Stir to mix, taste for seasoning, and scoop the mixture into two separate buttered gratin dishes. Once scooped in and spread out evenly, dollop a few chunks of blue cheese over the top, and bake for 15 minutes, or until the blue cheese bubbles and the potatoes are heated through. Remove from the oven, and serve in the gratin dishes with a simple baby green salad and a fabulous, earthy Pinot Noir (for me, that means Pacific Northwest, or Burgundy, France). 

This dish is kind of peasant-y, yet just perfect for inviting a friend over for a comforting meal to discuss the day.

So, yeah, I have a lot of books. But, they are more than worth it. My stomach is full, my soul is satisfied, and my mind is constantly filled with inspiration. That being said, my apologies to our next house packer, don’t hurt your back – I have a lot of books. A lot. And if you let me cook for you, you’ll understand why!

Enjoy!

Ten Apples Up On Top

25 Sep

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While the weather is just starting to cool down out here on the Florida/Georgia border (meaning, it’s 85 degrees with a breeze and a drizzle), it is strangely starting to feel like autumn. Every once in a while the trees rustle, and the abundance of overzealous salespeople pushing the newest crop of Halloween and Thanksgiving goods is enough to make one forget that is it is, still, technically September.

However, I must admit, I’m one of those people. Our house already has decorative pumpkins perched on the dining room table, cinnamon-scented candles burning with delight, and a giant trifle dish full of apples on the counter. My autumn inspiration started when Rob and I took a trip to Asheville, North Carolina. It’s a small town in the mountains, with farm stands, roads that wind up pine-lined cliffs, and a fabulous food-filled downtown. Really, we ate our way through the city, and still barely made a dent. One thing we did learn when our mouths weren’t stuffed with trout, or barely, or tomato bisque (but they were maybe half-full with wine from tasting at the St. Paul’s winery – we are civilized after all), was that Asheville is the 7th largest producer of apples in our nation.

What a way to welcome fall – go to a place that is inundated with the first, and one of the most prominent, symbols of the season!

Of course, I shopped. We got apples, we ate apples, I got an apple yard flag, we tasted and bought apple cider; we were, for lack of a better word, tourists.

So back to reality (aka: Kindergarten), we are starting to learn about apples this week. The kids are so excited. Apples! Is there anything more delightful? Christmas? Nah. Valentines Day? Hardly. And don’t even get me started on birthdays. The day that we “experiment” and taste and graph different colored apples is more exciting than Ronald McDonald himself delivering free chicken nuggets. When we read Dr. Seuss’ Ten Apples Up on Top, they are simply engrossed – open mouths, wide-eyed, engrossed. To Kindergarteners, apples are the crème de la crème of the new season.

To be honest, they are to me as well. All over the internet apples are springing up with cider recipes, butter recipes, pies, cakes, and roasted with pork tenderloin. So I decided to add one of my own with a simple, fresh, early autumn salad featuring, you guessed it – celery. WHAT? Ok, ok, apples are in there too, but in a different way: as the dressing.

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Similar to the cauliflower dressing I made a while ago, using a fruit or a veg to amp of the faux-creaminess of a dressing is a super simple, and none-the-wiser, trick. In this case, I used a Jonathan apple (I left the skin on because I like the little specks of red throughout the dressing), cored it, and whirred it in a blender with ¼ c apple cider vinegar, 2 heaping tsp honey, juice of ½ a lemon, 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, and s&p. The outcome: a non-cream, creamy dressing sweet and tangy and perfect for your favorite fall foods. Here, I was a bit mundane, trying to jazz up the humble (yet deliciousCelery, Bacon, Cheddar, and Parsley Salad (use those ingredients, add as much or as little as you want).  But this dressing would be good over chicken, pork, even as a nice addition to cranberry and walnut-laced coleslaw. Really, the possibilities are endless.

Just like my students’ excitement.

Please try the dressing and let me know how you used it! Can’t wait to hear!

Enjoy!

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