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Thoughts and Taste

5 Nov

More often then not, whenever I daydream, or really dream, or take a break from analyzing assessment data, or find myself turning on the TV, I am thinking about (or watching) something involving food.  More generally, I think about what I will be cooking for dinner, what Rob may like, if I’ll have enough leftover for lunch the next day, or what I can eat for breakfast that will start off my day like that inspiring Nutri-Grain commercial.  Although lately, I have been thinking about the delicate balance of flavors that really make up the “taste-art” of cooking.  I remember going to a fairly renown restaurant in Portland and being deflated because of the one-note taste of the risotto I had ordered.  Yes, it was creamy, the Aborio rice grains were perfectly cooked with a chewy bite, but the whole dish tasted of basil.  That was it.  No nuttiness from the Parmesan Regiano, no acidy from the tomatoes… and I realized that most people would have been perfectly delighted by the dish, or would have at least thought it was OK.  But me, being a bit – shall we say, obsessed – with my passion for food with a palate that can taste buttered popcorn out of an aged Cabernet, I was disappointed.

Taste buds and their link to the sinuses is an anatomical gift!  The perfect example I can think of is a Honey Dijon dressing.  Most everyone has tasted it, and if made correctly from scratch, it hits your mouth all over.  It is sweet from the honey, tangy and fresh from the lemon juice, slightly peppery, coats your mouth from the creaminess of the oil, and has a spicy aftertaste that sits on the back of your tongue and quickly travels up to the inside of your nose  just long enough to remind you that you just had a cousin from the horseradish family.  See my thought process?  I think I should start a support group.

My point: I think about food a lot.  And I work with people a lot.  And I’m realizing the intricate complexity of both.

Driving home today, I started to get philosophical.  When faced with a difficulty, I have always been instinctively drawn to the emotional reaction, so I consciously put Debby Downer on the back burner with a bitter beer, and started to think logically.  Both Rob and I have had situations in our jobs this week that have led to the tarnish of the shiny buffer of the people and industries we have committed ourselves to.  I, personally, wanted to get to the root of my thoughts by determining the difference between stupidity and ignorance.  Here is my conclusion:

Stupidity, though unfortunate, can be more easily forgiven when offense is presented.  A person who doesn’t really know better, won’t know how their words, actions, or even expression of professional theory may affect someone else.  It isn’t until it is presented as a possible offense, that they may (or may not) realize their wrongdoing, and may (or may not) genuinely apologize.

Ignorance, however, is much different though guised by the same resulting emotions.  Though the feeling of offense, and the initial questioning of motives may be the same as stupidity, ignorance is ultimately a choice.  The choice to be ignorant, and the pain that is caused by that choice, is very difficult to move past.

But, like the one-note risotto, Rob and I have learned that people’s ignorance can be an isolated event.  Though easily remembered and recalled, and after one unpleasantly lingering taste, it can surely be thought about, but then learned from, and eventually avoided.

Wow – that was about as heavy as a scone made with hot butter.  Am I growing up?  Well, pushing 30, it’s about time.

So, as I choose not to be ignorant, I also choose not to be one-note in my cooking.  I believe in simple food artfully prepared, with ingredients that are hopefully close to home, and leave the taste buds that enjoyed that food feeling like they got a special treat.  Most often that special treat-feeling is an undertone taste, or a secret special ingredient that really makes the “what-IS-that” difference.

Rob has a ginormous sweet tooth, and when I first told him that I was going to make onion jam to top our grilled peppered swordfish, he made a face at me.  It looked like this:  ;o%.  But then he tasted it – the sweet white onions, wilted to submission while still containing a slight bite, with the accompaniment of seasonal D’Anjou pears, and we couldn’t get enough.  The pears added that special unique sweetness, and the reduced lemon juice provided fresh citrus as well as the natural pectin to give a thickening texture.

Our fall veg basket gave us loads of beautiful squash, and mixed with a blend of Mexican Riviera and Spanish spices, black beans, and pomegranate seeds, we were left with a salad that was delicious and warming by itself, but even better with oven-crisped chicken breast.  The touch of cinnamon raises your eyebrows, and the familiar cumin brings you back to the late night tacos (without the grease and the ensuing food coma).  The snap and burst of the pomegranate seeds completes the dish, leaving a feeling of having eaten something slightly exotic.  

And, since I mentioned it before, I must touch on the Honey Dijon.  I have a TON of versions of Honey Dijon dressing and marinades – some with herbs, some without, some with vinegar, some with Meyer lemon juice, some with lime, one with goat cheese.  But the one provided here is one of my favorites – it incorporates two of my favorite tastes: citrus and hot spice.  This is a very simple dressing.  I pour it over roasted asparagus (olive oil, s&p, roasted at 435 for 15 minutes, turning once), and top it with a poached egg.  The creaminess of the warm, runny egg yoke mixed with the tangy and slightly hot dressing makes the most mouth-bursting combination of flavors.  Although the French might turn their noses as me for saying this, I think it’s better than the hollandaise sauce traditionally used over roasted asparagus (sorry Le Cordon Bleu!).

As I’m learning to really investigate textures and flavors and secret surprises in my food, I’m learning to not be offended by one-note-ness of some people.  Though it wasn’t the most enjoyable edible experience, the basil risotto didn’t offend me, so neither should ignorance in the world.

Please enjoy these flavor treats, and let me know how you use them!

Onion Pear Jam (makes about 1 pint)

  • 4 med white onions, sliced
  • zest 1 lemon
  • 1 tbsp + 1 tsp sugar
  • 1/2 c dry white wine
  • juice 1 lemon
  • 1 D’Anjou pear, peeled and diced
  • 3 springs thyme
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • s&p

In a large saute pan over medium heat, saute onions in olive oil, sugar, and a pinch of salt until translucent (do not let brown/caramelize).  Add the lemon zest, and saute for a minute.  Deglaze the pan with the wine, and reduce by 3/4, until pan is almost dry.  Add the pears, let them warm up, and smash with the back of a wooden spoon.  Add the lemon juice and thyme, mix well, and let cook until onions turn into a jam-like consistency (you may need to adjust the heat to med-low).  Taste for seasoning (I usually need to add cracked pepper).

Try over fish, in a sandwich with greens, olives, and cream cheese, or atop an omelet.


Warm Squash and Beans (serves 4) 

  • 2 c diced fall/winter squash
  • 1 can black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1/4 + 1/8 tsp chili powder
  • 1/4 tsp paprika
  • 1/4 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/8 tsp cumin
  • juice of 1/2 a lemon
  • 1 tbsp chopped parsley
  • 1/3 c pomegranate seeds
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • s&p

Over med-high heat, let squash brown on all sides in olive oil.  Add lemon juice to deglaze pan, then add beans and spices.  Mix to combine.  Turn heat down to med-low, and let the flavors marry together.  Before serving, off the heat add parsley and pomegranate seeds, and mix.

Great warm or at room temperature with meat, fish, as a side dish, or as a healthy veg salad with greens.


Tangy Dijon Dressing (makes 1/4 c) 

  • 2 large tsp Dijon mustard
  • 3/4 tsp good quality honey
  • juice 1/2 lemon
  • 3 shakes Tabasco sauce
  • 1 1/2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • s&p

Combine mustard, lemon juice, honey and Tabasco sauce in a small bowl.  Whisk in the extra virgin olive oil, and taste for seasoning.

This is great with roasted veg, eggs, or adding pizzaz to grilled chicken.


When life takes over…

26 Oct

…try harder to write in your blog.  I must apologize, it has been almost 3 weeks since my last entry.  A lot has happened in that time – life not only caught up with me, but it took over, kicked me in the butt a few times, and then smirked and ran away.  A lot of it has been with my job, which I will not bore you with the many forgettable acronyms the education profession claims they own, and what they all mean, how they all work, and how oh-so-many teachers try to get out of those acronyms by calling 20 minutes extra recess (when they have already had 3 that day) “a social learning experience.”

Anywho, I started this blog not just to share some food and share some stories, but also to give myself an outlet of expression.  Needless to say, the last 3 weeks should have been the times when I should have written the most, rather than the least.

I’ve made some yummy dishes these last few weeks, some of which I’ll include in a future blog (1 ingredient 3 ways), but I’m sorry to say a lot of what I have eaten is I’m-stressed-and-need-some-crunchy-cheesy-comfort-food.  For me, that’s nachos.  Trader Joes Organic Blue Corn tortilla chips, pilled with a pre-shredded Mexican blend cheese (also at TJs), and LOTS of hot sauce (I found living in Southern California that there are two schools of thought for those who buy their own hot sauce rather than making it… there are the Cholula people, and the Tapatio people.  I am a Tapatio gal, could almost drink the stuff from the bottle.  Almost.).  I don’t know how many plates of nachos I have eaten over the last 3 weeks, but it if I was bored and interested enough to count, I’m sure it would be an utterly disgusting amount.  All I really know is, it was enough to make me gain back the weight I lost before my wedding.  Sigh, Zumba classes, here I come.

Off topic again…. so Rob and I have been out of town a lot (traveling to Portland and Eugene), and he has been standing a lot of duty at the air station after taking a week of leave to hike and bike and do other manly things with his guy friends.  Tonight was the first night in a while that we sat down for a nice dinner together.  We had a lot of veg from our farm basket, so I wanted to use as much as I could, making another one of my “hippie salads” as I like to call them.

We have been having some winter storms already, and it has been really damp and cold.  Once that dampness gets to your bones, it just feels like warmth will never come.  I got home before he did, put on the fire, and started cleaning a bit when I heard on the radio that the swells down at Shore Acres (a state park) were up to 30 feet because of the storm.  So when Rob got home, we jumped in the car – there just happened to be a crack of sunlight peeking through the clouds – and made our way to the sea.  That sounds more Hemingway than it should have; the sea is only a stones’ throw away.

When we got to Shore Acres, the sight was unlike anything I have ever seen!  HUGE waves crashing down on these giant jutting rocks, blowing so much white spray and water into the air it looked like a bomb had just exploded.  We were standing on a cliff 50 feet above the base of the beach and the crash of the waves extended way over our heads.  And the sound – it was nothing like those zen relaxing ocean music sounds that are nice but sort of make you have to pee – the noise these waves made was thunderous.  Huge base drums and then the pouring sound of water literally left us open-mouthed and speechless.  That is, until one rogue wave hit a rock opposite the way the tide was pulling and splashed frigid sea water all over us.  It was amazing!

Driving home, we blared the heat and I thought about a warming, yet healthy dinner (I just have to make up for all those nachos).  One of the things I love about Rob is that even though I know he is a genuine meat-and-potatoes guy, he is also open to trying new things, and this one would definitely be new for him.  I used to make this meal on a fall or winter weeknight when I didn’t want to do a lot of work, but wanted something healthy, hearty, and warming.  He was up for it, and I already had all the ingredients!

The key to this hippie salad is the balance of flavors.  The squash is sweet, the chard and spinach gives that slightly bitter tannin mouth feel, the asparagus gives that unique veggie satisfaction, the quinoa quenches the carb craving, and the warm, tangy dressing tops everything off.  The dressing on this salad is really my favorite part, but don’t be too generous with it – you don’t want to over tang or over sweeten your delicate balance of flavors.  After such a healthy salad, I was craving a healthy desert, and my Blueberry Pie Smoothie just hit the spot (Rob didn’t want one and opted for M&Ms.  But then he had a taste of my smoothie and wished he had made a different choice).

This salad may sound different, but it is really fabulous.  Even my former roommates (big meat eaters) loved this one.   The colors alone will make your eyes hungry.  It’s easy to substitute different herbs for the dressing – I have used tarragon and a splash of tangerine juice before (replacing the thyme and white balsamic), and it was equally as good.  And if you make extra quinoa, definitely make some extra dressing… pour some of that over your quinoa with some toasted pine nuts, and make everyone in your lunch room wish they had a hippie salad, too.

Harvest Hippie Salad (serves 4)

  • 1/2 c quinoa, rinsed
  • 1 c water
  • 1 bundle fresh asparagus, cleaned, ends trimmed, and cut in 2-inch pieces on the bias
  • 2 small winter squash, or 1 med butternut squash, peeled and diced into 1 in pieces
  • 2 large handfuls of swiss chard (ripped), and one large handful of baby spinach
  • olive oil
  • s&p

Warm Herb Salad

  • 1 1/2 tablespoons good honey (I found a Sage Honey that tasted fabulous – hitting home the herb flavor)
  • 5 -6 tsp white balsamic vinegar
  • 1/4 c dried cranberries
  • 2 sprigs of thyme leaves
  • 7-8 tsp extra virgin olive oil
  • pinch of salt

On a large sheet tray, combine asparagus and squash and drizzle with olive oil.  Sprinkle liberally with s&p, and mix with hands.  Spread out evenly and put in a 450 degree oven for about 17 minutes, mixing/turning veg twice.

Meanwhile, bring the rinsed quinoa to a boil in the cup of water.  Reduce to a simmer, cover, and let cook for about 10-15 minutes, or until all the liquid has been absorbed.  Season with s&p to taste, and fluff with a fork.

Once the veg has browned, take out of oven and set aside to cool a bit while you prepare the dressing.

In a small saucepan over med-low heat, mix the honey and vinegar together.  Use a whisk to mix.  The heat and the mixing will melt the honey.  Add the dried cranberries and thyme leaves, and while pouring, whisk in the olive oil.  The mixture should never boil or get bubbles, but should get warm, and a little clouded.  Taste for salt.

Mix the greens, the quinoa, and the veg in a large serving bowl, and top with the warm dressing.  Slightly toss to coat the salad.


Blueberry Pie Smoothie (serves 1)

  • 1/4 c frozen blueberries
  • 2 tsp Marscapone cheese
  • 1 tsp honey
  • 1 drop of vanilla extract (about 1/8 tsp)
  • a pinch of cinnamon
  • a tiny pinch of salt
  • 1/8 c water (just enough to make the blender run)

Mix all ingredients in a blender.  Pour into a glass, and smile.  🙂

NOTE: This would go great with some slightly crushed graham crackers or sweet granola.  Maybe a dollop of fresh whipped cream, too…. but then we are back to the whole nachos dilemma.

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