Monthly Archives: July 2008

The big post about baking (for Monkey)

So I asked a couple of weeks ago for suggestions on food-related topics. Monkey wanted a post about Baking 101. So, with the help of the internets and the Joy of Cooking, I am here to dispel the myths and impart the wisdom I’ve gained in baking for the last, oh, 23 years.

Cookies

There are so many different kinds of cookies (drop, rolled/shaped, bar, etc.) that it’s difficult to write something about cookies in general, but I will do my best. Cookies are usually made with shortening (butter, margarine, etc.), sugar, eggs, the dry ingredients (flour, baking soda/powder, salt), and other stuff to make them taste good (chocolate, chocolate chips, vanilla, oatmeal, raisins, dried cranberries, nuts, etc.) Cookies bake differently depending on the type (on a cookie sheet as individual items vs. cooked in a pan for bar-type), but usually take somewhere between 5-10 minutes per batch. The oven is preheated and cookies are usually baked on a greased cookie sheet (though some varieties don’t require greasing, like Mexican Wedding Cookies). When the cookies are done, it’s usually a good idea to remove them from the sheet or pan (to help prevent overcooking), unless you’re baking a bar cookie recipe that requires a second step, like the addition of melted chocolate and nuts over a plain bar cookie, or adding the lemon part to a lemon bar.

If you’re making shaped/rolled cookies, it’s usually a good idea to chill the dough before rolling/shaping to make it easier to work with. If you’re making drop cookies, there’s usually no need (unless the dough is really sticky). Bar cookies tend to have thicker dough and are pressed by hand into a pan before baking.

I’ve never really tried to make lower-fat cookies, though sometimes I use more oatmeal and less white flour if I’m making a cookie recipe with oatmeal. The few experiments I’ve done with substituting whole wheat flour for white haven’t turned out tasting especially good, so I figure if I’m going to be eating cookies they might as well be yummy. Also, I tend to use a mixture of white and brown sugar or just brown regardless of the type of sugar called for in a recipe (unless it’s a recipe where the color of the final cookie needs to be really light) – I find brown sugar makes cookies more flavorful and more chewy. I almost always use unsalted butter to make cookies and have had better luck with melted baker’s chocolate than cocoa powder when making chocolate cookies. To melt baker’s chocolate, use a double boiler or melt it in a saucepan over another saucepan that has hot water in it, and add a little bit of shortening to help it melt evenly. Heat until melted but do not overheat.

Process of cookie making: Cream together sugar and shortening/butter in a large bowl. (I always do this by hand) Add eggs and flavoring (vanilla, almond extract, etc.). Add melted chocolate if you are using it. Use a pastry blender to sift dry ingredients together in a smaller bowl, then add to wet ingredients slowly until mixed in. Add mix-ins (chocolate chips, oatmeal, dried cranberries, raisins (I never use raisins in cookies, I hate the way baked raisins taste), nuts, etc.). I also tend to add spices like cinnamon or allspice, depending on the recipe.

I think if you are not used to the process of making cookies, you should follow the recipe until you get more comfortable with the process and can make substitutions or additions. I’ve been making cookies for a really long time so I usually feel comfortable doing this.

Pies/crisps

I wrote about pie crust here, but the other awesome thing to do with fruit to turn it into a dessert is to make a crisp/crumble/buckle/brown betty etc. Fruit crisp is super easy and far more healthy than baking the same fruit inside a pastry shell. For a basic crisp, you need brown sugar, some butter (a few tablespoons), some oatmeal, some spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cloves, ginger, whatever), and a little bit of flour. I always eyeball the proportions and mix the butter into the other ingredients with my hands so I know it’s well-mixed. Prepare fruit (chop into pieces, peel, etc., whatever you need to do to prep it) and add a little bit of sugar to the fruit unless it’s really sweet. If it’s super-sweet, you can add lemon juice to it. Put it in a pie pan or an 8×8 baking dish and sprinkle the crisp topping, then pop it in the oven (at 350 or so) until it smells done and the juices are running out of the fruit.

Muffins/quickbreads

According to Joy of Cooking, muffins and quickbreads are the same thing, just cooked in differently-shaped pans (so essentially, any quickbread recipe can be used to make muffins and vice versa). Quickbreads are so named because they are cooked with baking powder and soda rather than yeast, so they take far less time to bake. I don’t bake a lot of muffins from scratch but I have made quite a few quickbreads over the years (favorites include: a family recipe for cranberry orange bread which I have modified at times to be pomegranate orange bread, zucchini bread, corn bread, and pumpkin-chocolate chip bread).

The basic process for a muffin or quickbread is to combine the wet ingredients very well (eggs, butter/oil, honey/brown sugar, the main liquid (milk, yogurt, sour cream, fruit juice, etc.), and combine the dry ingredients very well with a pastry blender or whisk to get them kind of fluffed up (flour, salt, baking powder and/or soda), then gently fold the dry into the wet until just moistened and immediately pour into greased/papered muffin tins or loaf pan. As with pie crust, the more you mix, the tougher it will be. Use a butter knife or toothpick in the center of the loaf to check for doneness; muffins are usually done when they’ve risen a bit and the tops are starting to brown.

And now, for Monkey’s questions. She asked:

“Specifically-what’s the difference btween regular unsweetened cocoa powder and dutch processed? Do I need to use baking powder AND baking soda in a muffin recipe? What’s the difference between cake flour, regular all purpose and whole wheat? I cook my regular muffins with whole wheat and I’m happy enough with that but I’m curious as to the differences. “

Cocoa powder: According to wikipedia, cocoa powder comes in two varieties: regular or natural (the kind you usually see in a store) is more reddish than the traditional “chocolate” color, and relatively low in pH, which can cause a bitter/acidic taste; and Dutch processed, which has been treated to neutralize some of the acidity and so is milder in taste and more chocolate-colored. The cocoa powder I use at home is a Dutch processed special dark flavor made by Hersheys, though I like regular cocoa powder for some things as well.

Baking powder/soda (info from Joy of Cooking):

Baking soda is used when there is enough acid in a recipe to neutralize the alkaline in the soda, which causes the release of carbon dioxide (this process is called chemical leavening). The carbon dioxide pushes against the batter, which causes it to expand while it bakes. A recipe needs enough acid to cause the reaction to happen – soured milk of some sort (yogurt, sour cream, etc.), molasses, chocolate, honey, citrus juice. If there isnt enough acid, you have to use a combination of baking soda and baking powder. When using baking soda in a recipe, the carbon dioxide reaction starts almost immediately so you have to bake the batter asap or it won’t rise enough in the oven.

Baking powder is a combination of baking soda and a liquid- and heat-responsive acid salt like cream of tartar. You can make your own baking powder at home by combining 1/4 tsp baking soda, 1/2 tsp cream of tartar, and 1/4 tsp cornstarch (this makes 1 tsp single-acting baking powder). Most baking powder sold in stores is double-acting, meaning it has an acid that doesn’t react until the batter reaches a certain temperature (usually 140 F), which causes additional rise during the later stages of baking and makes a final product lighter/taller.

So the answer to your question is, it depends. Does your muffin recipe use one of the liquid acids above? If not, you probably need to use both to get a nicely-risen muffin.

Flour:

This wikipedia entry is really good, but basically, whole-wheat flour is higher in gluten and protein because it contains the whole grain, all-purpose flour is a mid-grade with a medium amount of gluten and protein, and cake flour has low gluten to produce a lighter texture. Generally, if you’re substituting whole wheat for all-purpose in a recipe it’s best not to go above a 1/3 wheat 2/3 all-purpose ratio or you usually end up with something that is much tougher and chewier, though whole wheat flour is generally healthier than all-purpose (we get the all-purpose flour that has not been bleached).

In terms of making muffins/quickbreads more healthy, I have had luck substituting part whole wheat flour for the white in a recipe (generally 1/3 wheat to 2/3 white, any more than that and you run into the texture/hockey puck issue) and sometimes have used more fruit/vegetable (applesauce, zucchini, carrot, pumpkin) in lieu of some of the oil or shortening. Monkey also writes in her comment (in reference to her healthy muffin recipe):

“I’m thinking of making my muffins, but using silken tofu in place of the eggs, and adding unsweetened cocoa powder as well. This probably means I’ll have to up the splenda-I’ll be doing a batter taste test to get a sense of whether it’s likely to be edible.”

I think the eggs in a recipe are generally used to help bind ingredients together, and I’ve never baked with tofu so I can’t tell you if it will serve the same purpose – silken tofu may make the batter more runny than you want, depending on how much you use. I’ve also never baked with splenda, so I can’t help you there. I think it will definitely require some experiementation!

Cakes

I only started baking cakes from scratch about 10 years ago (and don’t do it frequently) so I haven’t spent as much time figuring out tips/tricks. I can say that I have never used cake flour in a cake recipe and my cakes have always turned out tasty, but maybe I’m missing out. My usual MO for cake-baking is to find a likely-looking recipe or 4 on AllRecipes.com and figure out the similarities/differences between them, then decide which one I’m going to use and make substitutions if I feel like it. I’ve had good luck plugging ingredient names into their search engine and finding exactly what I’m looking for (see here, where I made a chocolate zucchini rum cake). Baking is all about chemistry and, in my opinion, it’s far easier to have something come out well if you use a recipe that you know has worked for someone.

One thing that’s different about cakes than some other baked goods is that you want all your ingredients to be as close to room temperature as possible when you mix them. That means leaving the eggs and butter out of the fridge for a little while, or nuke them for a few seconds if they are cold. Also, I have better luck using a mixer (hand or stand) to mix a cake batter than if I do it by hand (unless I’m making the cake from a mix, in which case it makes no difference). Cake recipes often call for greased and floured pans, but I usually grease/sugar or grease/sugar/cocoa powder (for chocolate cakes) them, if I’m not using parchment paper (which I need to do more of, it makes life easier!) – using the grease/sugar method works just as well, and you don’t have flour on the outside of your cake when you take it out.

Frosting cakes:

While I tend to use a cake recipe any time I’m baking one, I usually concoct my own frosting. I’ve got a basic buttercream recipe that my mom taught me as a wee youngster, and I just tend to tweak that to my own devices, depending on what kind of cake I’ve made. The difference between frosting and icing is that frosting has butter/shortening and icing does not. Icing is generally powdered sugar and a liquid, such as milk or alcohol, and if poured over a warm cake will soak in a bit, or if poured over a cool cake will harden and look cool. (You can also make chocolate icing with melted baking chocolate, powdered sugar, milk, and a bit of almond extract, but you have to heat it up). Anyway, basic buttercream frosting goes like this (all amounts are estimated, as I don’t measure anything):

1 stick unsalted butter
2 cups powdered sugar
1/4-1/2 cup milk (we only use nonfat milk at home)
2 tsp vanilla

To softened butter in a mixing bowl, add about a cup of powdered sugar and some milk and vanilla and beat with a hand mixer. Keep mixing, adding powdered sugar, and adding milk until it’s the consistency you want. Add a pinch of salt if it’s too sweet. You can add cocoa powder (maybe 1/4-1/3 cup) to make chocolate frosting. You can reduce some of the butter and substitute cream cheese or neufchatel cheese for cream cheese frosting. You can flavor with rum, bourbon, or other tasty spirit in place of the vanilla. The world is your oyster! This recipe frosts a 9×13 or layered 8 inch round cake (but won’t make enough for filling between the layers; I tend to use mashed strawberries or raspberries between cake layers or maybe some instant pudding) and leaves a little left over for decorating if you want to do that. Don’t frost a warm cake, and if you’re working in a warm room, refrigerate the frosting for a little while before you frost the cake, and cover it and refrigerate it after frosting so it won’t melt and separate. And also, a cake will look prettier if you frost it with a really light layer called a crumb coat, let that set in the fridge for a while, and then frost it again with a heavier layer – that way, the crumbs are all sealed in so it’s easier to keep the frosting looking nice and smooth.

My favorite cake I ever made was a butterfly-shaped cake for my old pal and roommate Bequi. I don’t actually remember what kind of cake it was, but it was frosted with basic buttercream and I used raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, blueberries, gooseberries (green), and a variety of edible flowers to decorate it. It was so pretty!

OK, I’ve kind of run out of steam here – and I never wrote anything about cheesecake. Perhaps next week if I have any time between running errands as my sister’s Bridal Slave (hee). If you have questions about anything I’ve written, or anything else baking-related, please leave them in the comments!

Fallback

Everybody has them, even people who love cooking. Even people who love to toil for hours in the kitchen. Even people who like variety in their diets, who won’t admit it even if you caught them in the act.

Everybody has them. Those easy meals. The ones you put together at the last minute with stuff you always have on hand, because they are quick, filling, and don’t require any thought whatsoever.

In our house, we have a few different meals like this. Stirfry. Pasta and sauce with ground turkey. Burritos. These are the worker bee meals, the ones that neither of us will ever sigh over in contentment or triumph, but they take very little time and effort and we’re both full afterward. We don’t resort to these meals especially often these days, particularly because Dan’s only taking one class (and working) so it’s not like last semester where he was out of the house from 8 am to 7 pm or 9 pm every day. Nope, so far this summer we’ve done a lot of experimenting, a lot of trying out of new ideas, a lot of exploring our culinary ranges. However, there’s something to be said for these go-to meals, the unsung heroes of those of us that can’t afford to (or don’t want to) eat out.

Here are two versions of burritos. Version one is how I make them, and version two is how Dan makes them. Both versions are good (but mine are better, haha). Each takes little time, effort, and preparation, each can be made with ingredients we pretty much always have on hand, and each will fill your belly.

MLE’s Burritos

1 can refried beans (black, with jalapenos, whatever, as long as there’s no lard in ’em), heated in a pan on the stove (add a little water to help smooth them out)
1/2 pound ground turkey, browned and seasoned with whatever sounds tasty (chili powder, garlic, etc.)
lettuce
red or green bell pepper
yellow onion
tomato (if in season)
salsa
whole wheat tortillas
sharp cheddar or pepper jack cheese

Heat beans in pan on stove. Brown ground turkey, drain liquid and season. Heat whole wheat tortilla in frying pan, turning once and sprinkling with sharp cheddar cheese. Remove tortilla from heat to plate, and add a spoonfull of beans, some turkey, lettuce, bell pepper, onion, tomato, and a generous dollop of salsa. Fold up sides and roll up. Eat.

Dan’s Burritos

1 can refried beans (see above)
1/2 pound ground turkey
1-2 yukon gold potatoes, chopped into small cubes
1/2 green or red bell pepper, chopped
1/2 yellow onion, chopped
salsa
1 can chicken green chili (optional)
Serve with mexican rice (white rice cooked and 1/2 can of tomatoes with jalapenos mixed in) (optional)

Brown turkey in small frying pan, drain. Sautee potatoes, bell pepper, and onion in medium frying pan until nearly cooked; add turkey and refried beans. Stir. Season with chili powder, cumin, garlic, and sometimes cinnamon (I know, but it’s tasty!). Add generous amount of salsa. Microwave 2 whole wheat tortillas for a few seconds to soften. When bean mixture is heated through, sprinkle with sharp cheddar cheese. Scoop generous helping into tortilla, roll up, and top burrito with some green chili (it’s a staple around these parts, usually made with pork, but we can get a chicken kind at the store too). Add torn lettuce leaf to your wife’s burrito before rolling because she is an infidel and likes lettuce in her burritoes.

Both versions will end up with leftover filling if you are serving 2 people.

Fantasy weekend

Dan and I decided to try out some of our wedding gifts this weekend, and thought what better way to combine two things we wanted to do, camping and hiking, than with a trip to Pike’s Peak.

Pike’s Peak is perhaps Colorado’s most famous 14-er (aka 14,000 foot high plus mountain). It’s where Katherine Lee Bates penned “America the Beautiful” in 1893, it overlooks Stepford Springs (home to the Airforce Academy and Focus on the Family, amongst other treasures), and there are several ways you can ascend the mountain. You can take a cog railway to the top; you can drive up Pike’s Peak highway ($10 a person, or $35/vehicle); you can start at the bottom and hike all the way up to the very top. Back before I moved here, Dan and I used a 30-year-old book about hiking 14ers in Colorado to try to hike to the top of Pike’s Peak during one of my visits with no success – I guess after 30 years, the trail the book described was no longer there. We’ve talked for years about getting back to Pike’s and conquering the beastly mountain, but had yet to make it.

On Friday, we talked about going camping, and if so, where might we go. We pulled out the updated version of the 14er book (a gift from Dan’s parents) and saw that there was a campground to which one could hike, partway up Pike’s Peak. The campground has dinner and breakfast available for purchase, and free water. And so we decided to give it a try. We’d pack lightly, only bringing our sleeping bags, pads, a tent, a little bit of food for the hikes, our camelback bladders (our backpacks are both designed to take water bladders), and a change of clothing. On Saturday morning we arose, made whole wheat pancakes for breakfast, and packed our backpacks, managing to fit everything and have both loads be manageable for hiking. The book described two different approaches to the campground on Pike’s, one shorter and less of a climb than the other, which required parking at a trailhead partway up the Pike’s Peak highway. Because of my leg, and because we’d be carrying everything on our backs for the hiking portion of the adventure, we didn’t count on being able to summit, but decided that just trying it out would be fun. Saturday would be a 4.5 mile relatively flat hike to the campground, we’d get up early on Sunday, and hike up as far as my leg would allow, then all the way back down to the car.

Sounds like a great adventure, right?

Well…

I want to write that everything went as planned, that we drove down to Stepford and up to Pike’s Peak highway and that they let us through without paying because we weren’t driving to the top and that we hiked to the campground, had dinner and met some cool people doing the same adventure, woke up early on Sunday, and summited the peak before noon, then hiked all the way back down to the car. I want to write that. But I can’t because it isn’t what really happened.

This is what happened.

I was totally exhausted because of an early (for a weekend) morning due to some jerkiness by Loki, and so after breakfast I wasn’t up for leaving yet, but ended up taking an hour-long nap. Then, we packed everything up and went to the grocery store, bought some sandwiches for the car ride down, and sweltered in the 100 degree weather. Our car doesn’t have A/C, which isn’t a big deal most of the time, but when you’re riding in it for hours it can get a bit wearing. Anyhow, we made it down to the springs and followed the directions in the book to Pike’s Peak highway, and got to where they make you pay to keep going. “Going up to the top?” the lady asked. “No, actually,” we told her, and outlined our plan for driving to the trailhead and hiking to the camp and hiking to the summit tomorrow. “Oh, you can’t do that,” the lady told us. “First, you can’t park overnight at the trailhead. Second, that campground is probably already full, because tomorrow is the Pike’s Peak Hillclimb (roadrace) and the road is closed for that all day event.”

Guh. Sometimes, it really sucks to try to do spontaneous things without doing internet research, and it just shows that we really need to get some internet at home. Ugh.

So, it turned out we wasted all that gas and all that time in the hot, hot car and all that excitement about finally camping and hiking a 14er. Because neither of us is familiar with the area, and we weren’t prepared to camp anywhere that didn’t provide food, we decided to just go home. Needless to say, when we got home, we were pretty bummed. We had a good dinner, and we played gin, and I briefly talked to Simon who was having fun at the BlogHer party, but mostly we were both just sad.

Sunday we decided we could at least go hiking, and because it’s been so freaking hot here I was hoping that getting out of town would give us a slight relief from the heat. Seriously, it hasn’t cooled down below 80 degrees at night in the past several days and we don’t have A/C in the house, either, so my quality of sleep has gotten pretty bad. We thought hiking up in Boulder behind NCAR (the National Center for Atmospheric Research) might be a good plan. There are quite a few different trails to explore of all different levels of difficulty. Alas, though the idea was a good one, we took a wrong turn somewhere and ended up doing a far less interesting hike than planned – and I must be fighting something off, because I ran out of energy really quickly, so we only got about 2 hours of hiking in. And the car was an oven when we got back. We stopped at Target on the way home where I attempted to find a cheap one-piece bathing suit for lap swimming (no luck) and we looked for a swamp cooler (no luck). But I did find what I was looking for in Cross Dress for Less in the same shopping center – a black racerback swimsuit for 8 bucks. I can’t wait to go swimming on Tuesday.

Less than a week left before I leave for California. My sister’s wedding purse is in progress, I have all kinds of lists to make, and more than anything I am looking forward to some Bay Area summer fog. Because 100 degrees during the day and 80+ at night? It’s for the birds, man.

Heartbreaker

Between when my relationship with College Boyfriend ended and when I met Dan was a span of about 18 months during which time I actually, like, went on dates with people for the first time ever. In the fall of 2000 I met a guy on BART who made me laugh, and who pestered me for my phone number. Thinking nothing of it, I gave it to him. He called me a day or two later and pestered me until I agreed to hang out with him. Thus began my brief thing (I hesitate to call it a relationship; I considered the situation quite casual) with the Chef.

I call him the Chef because he was a professional chef. He had worked in all kinds of restaurants and loved the inventive, creative side of cooking. One of the most fun things we ever did was go to the grocery store one evening. He stood in the produce area, stock still, for at least five minutes, and then began picking out items to turn into a fabulous feast. That night I learned how to peel/devein shrimp, how to make rice noodles into those fun puffy worms, and I watched him make a caesar salad dressing from scratch (he used some citrus in addition to the usual ingredients). Unfortunately, the good times were few and far between, and while I thought the arrangement was more of a casual dating thing, it turned out he was in love with me. He was also five years older, had had drug and alcohol issues in the past, and he wasn’t smart. At all. So eventually I broke it off with him (actually, it was the day before Valentine’s Day and he tried to give me the gift he’d bought anyway and I didn’t let him and I still feel bad about breaking up with him at that time but I was really over the whole situation and I was only 21 years old for eff’s sake). I maintain that the only good things to come out of the deal was that I learned how to toss things in a frying pan one-handed (I rarely use a spatula for cooking tossable food in a pan), I learned how to make salad dressing from scratch (you drizzle the oil into the vinegar/citrus/etc really slowly and whisk the whole time), and I learned how to play competitive Scrabble – all three of which have served me over the years since I broke it off with him.

During part of the time we dated and for a while afterward, the Chef worked at a Caribbean restaurant in the Piedmont area of Oakland. Sometimes I’d go there while he was working and I never had to pay for my meal – and everything he sent me from the kitchen was delicious (it’s still the best bread pudding I’ve ever had, for example). Many of the things I ate at this restaurant were foods I tried for the first time ever – jerk chicken and salmon, jalapeno corn bread, and mango salsa. One of my favorite things was a ceviche – I don’t even remember what was in it, only that it was really good. And so last night when Dan made a mango-shrimp ceviche for dinner I thought of the Chef and tipped my proverbial hat to his cooking skills. The man I married may not be a professional chef, and I may have passed on a thing or two I learned from the pro I dated briefly, but he sure can cook. This is the recipe he threw together.

Mango-Shrimp Ceviche (makes about 2.5 or 3 cups)

Approximately 20 51-60 count shrimp, thawed, peeled, and deveined
One small mango, peeled, flesh cut into very small chunks (we used the kind that is yellow and a bit smaller, not the kind that starts green and turns red/pink)
A handful of cilantro, chopped fine
1/4 medium size red onion, chopped fine
1/4 red bell pepper, chopped fine
2 cloves garlic, chopped fine
Juice of 5 limes (I think it worked out to be about 1/2 cup lime juice)
A few splashes of apple cider vinegar
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1/2 tsp chipotle chili powder
Salt and pepper to taste (don’t taste it while the shrimp is still raw though)

Chop shrimp into pieces (they don’t all have to be the same size) and mix with all other ingredients. Let refrigerate for a couple of hours until the flesh of the shrimp has become opaque and pinkish. EAT.

Dan served this with warm corn tortillas, coconut rice (rice made with leftover coconut milk from the thai curry we had the other night), refried black beans, and a simple slaw of napa cabbage and carrots. So we kind of ate it like soft tacos. SO GOOD. mmm. It could also be used as a dip for tortilla chips.

Hungry

Yesterday, I decided to exercise twice despite the two hour bike ride on Sunday. I hamstered for a while on the elliptical trainer at lunchtime, and after work I went to my normal weights class. But it wasn’t the regular instructor, and the substitue is someone known at my gym for teaching really difficult classes. Yesterday was no exception; there was some stuff I couldn’t do because of my leg (the 1-10-1 jumping jacks/pushups pyramid was done all on my left leg) and a lot of stuff that was really, really hard. I was quite knackered after the workout was over and called OF while I walked home, and didn’t realize until I’d been home about 10 minutes and hung up the phone with her exactly how spacey and out-of-it I really was. Then I kind of fell over. Then I ate a handful of walnut pieces and some turkey, flopped on the couch, and asked Dan if he could get me some juice, because hoo boy that was some low blood sugar. Last night before bed, Dan got this worried look on his face and confronted me about the incident, and I reassured him that I’d eaten enough food (I had! just should have eaten sooner after that second workout).

Today during the breathing part of my yoga class, the instrutor (as always) said something about focusing on the reasons you come to your mat, giving thanks for those intentions, and I decided to give thanks for the ability to do yoga again. I am really, really sore from all the crazy pushups and other stuff I did yesterday, but I was still able to do most of the yoga poses and flow from one to the next without too much difficulty. I have plans to go swimming for the first time in ages after work at a local pool. But I didn’t count on the hunger. Today I brought with me string cheese, an orange, some baby carrots and grape tomatoes, and some leftover black bean/corn salad. It wsn’t enough. I am really, really hungry now, and in a few minutes it’ll be time to go home. If I eat right when I get home, I’ll have a lead belly while I’m trying to swim. So I’m not sure what I’ll do. I burned a lot of calories the past few days, because my leg is finally up for extended exercise (and I’m sure swimming will be good for it, too), and I *want* to be burning calories. But I also don’t want another low-blood-sugar incident, so I’m not sure what to do.

This black bean and corn salad is the only good thing to come out of my first full-time job in Colorado (meaning, not a temp job) – I worked at the state Medicaid agency and they paid me to do things like sort/count paper clips and hanging file tabs. I’m not even kidding. It was the worst working environment I’d ever been in (even worse than the publishing company in the Bay Area with the misogynistic boss who only hired women he thought would be subservient) and morale was terribly low for the whole five months I worked there. But one time, there was a potluck, and a lady who worked there brought this black bean/corn salad. And it was SO GOOD. I made it last week to go with a meal of turkey brats and grilled zucchini/asparagus.

Black bean/corn salad (scaled down to serve 2 with some leftovers)

1 14.5 oz can black beans, rinsed and drained
1 small can (9 oz?) corn (or you could use a cup of fresh off the cob or frozen), drained
1/3 chopped red bell pepper
1/3 chopped medium size red onion
handful chopped cilantro
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp chili powder
juice of 1/2 lime
1 tsp olive oil
few dashes rice wine vinegar
optional: 1/2 finely diced jalapeno

Mix everything up in a bowl and let it sit for an hour or so in the fridge to let the flavors meld together. Eat. SO GOOD.

Underpants circa 1982

Money I spent on a bike helmet, bike lock, swim goggles, groceries, sandals, new undies and a new skirt this weekend: Far, far too much

Thing I said that made Dan laugh: “Now that I have a bike helmet, I can go swimming!”

Favorite undies I bought: look like something Lisa Frank might have designed, with rainbows, clouds, hearts and stars in early ’80s colors. I am wearing them today. $1.99 at Ross!

Bike ride we took yesterday: 2 hours, probably went about 10 miles

Last time I rode a bike anywhere except atop the old city wall in Xi’an: 1999

Panic attacks I almost had riding over train tracks because it reminded me of my bike accident back in 1999: 2

Cost to swim (or at least, play in the water) at Confluence Park: Free, though no lifeguard is on duty, and we saw about 100 people and dogs of all ages enjoying the free way to cool off

Cost to ride a “gondola” poled by a barefoot college student down part of Cherry Creek toward Confluence Park: No idea, and the views aren’t exactly what I would consider romantic, though the ride probably smells better than Venice.

Loads of laundry, washed: 5

Loads of laundry, hung dry/dried in dryer: 4/1 (I won’t hang towels dry, because scratchy towels suck)

Best meal cooked: Thai green curry stir-fried veggies over wide rice noodles

We didn’t use a recipe and just sort of threw it together quickly because we were really hungry, but here’s the gist of it.

Thai green curry with stir-fried veggies (serves 2 really big servings, or maybe 3 regular-sized ones)

Chop up any or all of the following veggies:
1 cup mushrooms
2 large carrots (bias-cut)
2 celery stalks (bias-cut)
1/3 red bell pepper
3-4 leaves napa cabbage, sliced thinly
1 baby bok choy, slice each leaf in half lengthwise

We could have added any number of other vegetables but this is what we had around.

Compose a green curry using 1/2 can coconut milk plus equivalent amount of water, some thai green curry paste, and some lime juice in a pot. Let it simmer while you cook the veggies.

Follow package directions for rice noodles. Ours said to pour hot water over noodles and let them sit for 5-8 minutes, so that’s what we did. They were a little chewy, particularly since some of them stuck together, so next time we will stir them a bit while they soak.

Mash up 1/2 block of firm tofu with a fork so it’s in little pieces, and season with whatever sounds good. I think Dan used the juice from half a lime, some soy sauce, and some singapore seasoning (from Penzeys).

Cook the mushrooms, carrots, celery, and bell pepper in a wok over high heat with a bit of oil, rice vinegar, and some more spices/seasonings. Chop up some cilantro and thai basil and add that. Add the tofu. When veggies are nearly done, add the napa cabbage and baby bok choy so they wilt but don’t get too cooked. Add some whole thai basil leaves if you feel like it.

When noodles are ready, drain and add to bowl. Pour 1/2 veggie mixture over each bowl of noodles. Add green curry. Eat with chopsticks and spoon to get all that tasty green curry goodness.

Food, society, and culture: musings, part 1

The other night, we went over to Julie and Steve’s for dinner. The meal was simple, yet delicious, with fresh, healthy ingredients. I helped Julie cook and listened to her latest life update while Dan and Steve chatted in the other room, and when it was all finished (the pasta, the sauce with fresh veggies and lean ground turkey, the garlic bread and the salad), the four of us sat down to enjoy the meal together. This is something I love, to make food with friends and to eat the food together while we enjoy one another’s company and nourish our bodies at the same time. Cooking and eating with a group of people is one of my very favorite things to do, whether it’s midnight sushi with Leah and Simon, fondue with Sara and Ron, or Julie’s latke party – the sharing of food with friends is wonderful.

I find it fascinating how different cultures view food, and the role that food plays in social gatherings around the world. The act of preparing food and/or eating with other people is so intrinsic to the way Americans relate to one another on a social level. Think about it – going out to lunch with coworkers, or attending a work-related social function. Dating. Making food for a significant other, or a child, or an ailing parent or friend. Funeral-baked meats/casseroles. Wedding cake. So many times when it’s so important – you share this food with me, therefore we have a common bond. We celebrate our holidays with food, dishes only associated with certain holidays and so become celebratory in themselves – in my family, lasagna and enchiladas are Christmas treats, just as much as Christmas cookies. Barbecue for the fourth of July. Ham for Easter. Thanksgiving is pretty much a holiday solely focused on food – the celebration IS the meal, and we have special foods to commemorate it – the turkey, the stuffing, the cranberry sauce, foods that many people only eat once a year. Food is so important to Americans on so many levels – and not just food, but abundance of food. It’s hard to view food as what it really is in our society, fuel for our bodies, when so much of our culture focuses on food as sensual pleasure, food as societal bond, food as love.

As I’ve been writing out these recipes for the first bit of this month, I’ve thought each and every time about that particular food, and who I have eaten it with. Particular foods remind me of particular events, and particular people – food associations, I guess you could say. I’ve also thought a lot about which foods I should write about – should they be the ones I like best? The ones that are easiest to make? The dishes most people would be interested in trying to make themselves? It’s a difficult thing to decide, a difficult balance to tread. If anyone out there is reading this and has suggestions, please, by all means share!

There are so many ways to think about food, especially when you’re me and you’re trying to fit into a bridesmaid dress in a couple of weeks and your leg prevents you from losing that winter layer and the heat makes you not want to eat anything but your blood sugar begs to differ and summer in Colorado means so many good things to eat that are difficult at best to get the rest of the year. So I write about salads, about simple dishes, about things that I cook because I enjoy them and things that I cook because they are good for me, and things that I cook because I have always cooked them. There are things that I would like to eat, but don’t, things that I restrict from my diet because they are not good for me (white foods, made with processed flour and white sugar, are horrible for keeping my blood sugar stable) but also because they are not good for my waistline. I attended a bridal shower for a work colleague yesterday that took place in a local restaurant. I brought my own lunch and ate it ahead of time, so while everyone else ate sandwiches, soups, and salads, I sipped water, and when everyone else exclaimed over the chocolate cake, I sipped more water. “Couldn’t you have had just a little piece of cake?” asked Dan when I mentioned it, but I told him I’d rather save the calories for a little bit of chocolate after dinner, which in the long run is better for me anyway. But I’ll tell you, I felt like more of an outsider than ever. Being the only one in the room not eating cake isn’t the easiest thing I’ve ever done, but that’s who I am – I’d rather take care of me than fit in with the rest of the group. And I’m sure as hell going to eat cake at my sister’s wedding in a few weeks. But only a small piece.