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The Zombie Apocalypse

8 Nov

  

Have you ever had a time or experience that just seems so odd, so strange, that the first reaction of an open-mouthed crinkled confused face simply turned into uncontrollable laughter? No? Only me?Well imagine this: Autumn is in full swing, and the Thanksgiving magazines are on all the newsstands and in all the grocery store check-out lines. Glowing turkeys seem to smell off the page. Commercials of family gatherings bring comforting memories, and all the Halloween candy has fulfilled its sugar-high destiny. Pumpkin Spice candles are lit on dining room tables in houses feeding families with acorn squash gratins, kale casseroles, and Cornish game hens.   

Sounds about perfect, right?  

Then, as these wonderful people walk outside, they are hit by something horrible – it’s sticky and heavy and a vomitus wave overcomes them. Crawling into their cars, they find they are lucky if their air conditioning is still turned to full blast from the day before. The outside thermostat screams: 93 degrees. The weather channel app beep, beep, beeps from the phone: Weather alert: Feels like 95 with humidity. Then, as if called to ridiculousness, the sounds of the holidays – Bing Crosby, et al – start singing their Christmas comfort on the radio.

What?  

Cue the uncontrollable-what-is-going-on-did-I-wake-up-in-a-summer-time-machine laughter, for this is dissonance at its best. Forget El Nino, Global Warming, or any other weather mumbo jumbo. There is only one explanation for this. 

Zombie apocalypse.  

Yes, zombie apocalypse. So much for that brand new scarf I worked so hard on knitting.  

Ok, ok. I am obviously kidding about the zombie takeover, but the absurdity of it certainly parallels the fact that while White Christmas is playing in the background, it is SUMMERTIME here is Jacksonville.  

So, as the rest of the nation is going outside to enjoy the foliage, pick apples, walk through the leaves, snuggling in scarves and warmed by hot cider, we are doing exactly what we do in the hotness of summertime: staying indoors.  

While I cannot control the weather outside, I can surely control the inside temperature. Call me crazy, but if that means turning up the AC to put on a sweater, gosh golly I’m doing it. I’m also going to keep my Pumpkin Spice candle lit, and I’m going to have something delicious in my belly.  

So there.  

One of the biggest treats of the season has to be all those crazy coffee drinks that pop up. Pumpkin, peppermint, spice, even eggnog makes its eclectic appearance. But loaded with who-knows-what-kind-of-too-sugary-syrup (and is there really egg in my coffee?) mysteries, I’ve decided to come up with my own. I actually started to develop this when Rob was deployed. When he is home, my wonderful husband makes me coffee every morning. It is one of the best parts of my day. When he is gone, that little detail makes me miss him that much more.  

So, as I started to try and make my own coffee to be as delicious as his, my first big change was switching from sugar to honey. Really, the initial reason was to try and alleviate some seasonal (ha!) allergies, but as I measured my heavy teaspoon of good, local honey, I found it added such a richness, such an earthy sweetness – not cloying at all – that turned me into a Java Pooh Bear. What better to make this new-found coffee experience even better? Beat out all those expensive, PSL drinks with some homemade pizazz: Thus, the Cinnamon Honey Almond Coffee was born.    

Cinnamon Honey Almond Coffee

(makes 1 unbelievably delicious cup)

Brew your favorite caffeinated or decaf coffee (I like a French press, or an Americano-style espresso). Add 2 tbsp of unsweetened almond milk. Add a good tsp of local honey (the sweetness varies with the flower; wildflower tends to be very sweet, orange blossom has a citrusy note to it, tupelo, buckwheat, sage, and palmetto have earthy flavors). Add ¼ tsp cinnamon and a dash of cardamom. Stir to mix. Drink while hot! *If you wanted to serve this as an after-dinner drink, an added touch of bourbon makes it super special.

Drinking this coffee when it is cold outside is sure to bring some holiday warmth to the season. Drinking this coffee while it is cold inside, well, suffices.   

El Nino or not, this weather can’t last forever, right? And if it really is the zombie apocalypse, well, at least we’ll go while drinking something wonderful!  

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!

The 100th Day of School, Writers Block, and Cardamom

4 Feb

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This past Wednesday was the 100th day of school.  My students were so anxiously awaiting the day to do everything around the number 100.  Counting forwards, backwards, by 2s, 5s, and 10s to 100, making posters of 100 things, writing 100 words, hopping for 100 seconds, and making 100-Fruit Loop necklaces were all in the mix.  In one project, a student said that if he had $100, he would buy a bologna sandwich.  Then, he also said if ate 100 marshmallows, he would vom (what our class calls vomit – It sounds nicer).  A lot of kids wrote stories about being 100 years old, sitting in a chair and knitting, while one girl said she would be in the circus.  I’ve got some pretty cool kids.

But it made me realize that these 5-year olds have the almost effortless ability and sparked motivation to think of something super cool, and immediately express it with ease, fluidity, and creativity.  How fun it must be to have the mind of a kid!  Seriously!  Remember the times when you would come up with crazy fun ideas and write stories and draw pictures and put stickers all over everything?  One girl told me through infectious giggles that she put 100 stickers on her dog’s head cone.  So much fun!

Alas, those days have gone for ye ol’ adults.  And it must be showing because when I asked my students if I looked 100 years old, they said no – more like 72.  YIKES.

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Many things have happened over the last month, much of which involved traveling and having so much fun with our family.  Yet, as I always find it hard to write when I’m on the road, returning home conversely held an anvil of writers block over my head.  Have I been cooking?  Absolutely!  Made a vegan version of grits with red-eye gravy, no less!  Have I been writing?  Sure!  There are bits and starts and notes of soon-to-be blogs all over my notepad and computer.  Have I actually completed anything?  Nope!  Just like the laundry piling up in the closet, intention is there, but execution is not.

So rather than try to come up with some fun, witty, or the occasional deeply sentimental blog post, I’ll take a lesson from those who are always taking lessons from me.  Here’s the last month, through the eyes of a 5-year old:

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Rob and I were on TV!  We made it onto the Today Show for all of 2 seconds!  It was super dark, a sign was covering Rob’s face, and you had to pause, rewind, slow-motion play, and repeat, in order to see us, but we are TV stars now!

We had LOTS of great food – my Aunt and Uncle’s football Sunday food followed by filet of beef with horseradish, potatoes, and creamed spinach hit the spot on a rainy Sunday night in Long Island.  In Connecticut, Rob’s mom made our favorites including the Chicken Francese that I will never be able to perfectly recreate.  While in NYC, we ate at a small, almost hidden gem of a steakhouse called Quality Meats.  We ordered soybeans.

Rob tried beef cheek (liked it!), shrimp (liked it!), and octopus (not so much).

I learned how to knit!  According to my students, this makes me an “old lady.”

Due to the first of these many winter storms, our flights were cancelled out of the northeast, leaving us driving all the way down the I-95 corridor to get home in time for work.

I slept through Delaware.  The state also cost us $8 in tolls.  I didn’t think that was fair.

Finally, the wonderful, yet unusual cold Jacksonville weather has inspired us with cozy, warm meals like Cardamom and Citrus Roasted Chicken.

Really, anything with cardamom is going to be amazing – it is a spice often used in Scandinavian and Middle Eastern countries.  It is the warmth in Pulla (Finnish Cardamom Bread, or as my Great Grandmother called it, “Biscuit”), and the spice that sits on the back of your throat in Chai Tea.  While it tends to fall into the cold-weather-sugary-sweet-treats spice category (think nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves), I actually prefer using it in savory ways.

When cooked with protein, cardamom adds a grassiness and earthiness to the meat that pairs organically.  With the brightness of citrus and hearty herbs, a dish is complete.  Thus was born my Cardamom and Citrus Roasted Chicken.  I actually purchased an already cut-up 8-piece chicken, as it was surprisingly cheaper than the whole Roaster.  But if you can’t find the cut up whole chicken, a whole Roaster will work just as well – just stuff the cavity with the leftover citrus and rosemary.  This recipe is also very versatile if you only like white meat (buy the breasts bone in and skins attached), or dark meat (thighs would be divine).

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Using my trusty cast iron skillet, I organized my bird like a jigsaw puzzle, drizzled over the juice of 2 tangerines, 1 lemon, and 1 lime and added the citrus shells to the dish (we are at the height of citrus here in Florida – it’s awesome).  While cooking, even more flavorful juice seeps out of the citrus, naturally basting the bird.  With a liberal sprinkling of s&p, about 1 tsp dusting of ground cardamom, and 3 large rosemary sprigs tucked in open crevices, the bird was ready for its final touch: butter.  With only 3 tbsp of butter dabbed on the bird, it browns just enough, and the fat from the butter emulsifies in the cast iron with the citrus and chicken juices, creating a fabulous, no fuss gravy for the roasted chicken.  After 45 minutes in a 400 degree oven, let rest, then serve with Steamed Parmesan Broccoli, and a buttery chardonnay, and enjoy.

Occasionally, when our class is sharing our “New News” in the morning, I like to share what I made for dinner the night before.  I shared this one, and generally got responses with lots of Ooooos and Yuuummms.   Except for one, who incredulously asked, “But where’s the pasketi?”  Through the eyes of a child, a key component of my dish was clearly missing.  But, also gave great inspiration for the next night’s dinner!

Enjoy!

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