Monthly Archives: November 2012

Stovetop mac and cheese

Well. That was interesting.

Thanskgiving, I mean. And the days surrounding it. Over the past week and a half, I:

  • found out my grandmother passed away, after several years of painful decline
  • masterminded and cooked an entire Thanksgiving meal for the first time
  • served said meal to family and friends
  • came down with about a two-minute cold
  • drove down to San Diego with my family for my grandmother’s funeral
  • drove back from San Diego
  • found out my bike was stolen while I was gone
  • strained my back somehow in the car, and am just now recovering

In this season of blessing-counting, it feels strange to be so scattered. I’ve spent the past few days marinating in a bath of gratitude and grief and low-level physical pain. None of it is particularly heavy or dark, but it’s all there, and occasionally some part of it bubbles up to the surface and bursts.

I feel so lucky for what I have. And so fortunate to have the luxury of nursing myself back to normal on my own time. I’ve been dosing myself liberally with homemade macaroni and cheese, made on the stovetop in about 20 minutes. I love this stuff, as simple and almost-healthy as it is: no butter, no cream, no breadcrumbs, no oven. No parboiling the noodles, even. Just whole-wheat pasta cooked slowly in milk until its own starch thickens the liquid into a sauce, and then a pile of cheese stirred in at the end. The familiar squish, sqush, squidge of the cheese and noodles against the spoon is almost therapy in itself.

I wish I could write more. But I’m still marinating. In the meantime, I have a bowl of comfort food and a lot to be thankful for.

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Pumpkin stuffed with coconut rice

Creativity in the kitchen is an oddly stodgy thing. There are twists and meanderings and the occasional hairpin turn, but for the most part, my creative process follows a predictable path.

Case in point: my dear friend Isabel hosted an Iron Chef party last weekend. The secret ingredient was pumpkin pie spice–cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, and/or cloves. I was told to bring a vegetarian entree. Something in a pumpkin. Maybe with rice.

When a challenge like this comes along, I attack it in stages. They are, approximately:

  1. Panic. I don’t know what to do. I have no ideas. Anything can be stuffed in a pumpkin. Mushrooms. Nuts. Bread. Pasta. Quinoa. Soup. Potatoes. Tofu. No, not tofu. TOO MANY OPTIONS.
  2. Fixation. Wait, she said ginger. What if it was candied ginger? CANDIED GINGER. I love candied ginger. Candied ginger is sweet. Candied ginger is spicy. Nobody expects candied ginger in an entree. People will think I am a great kitchen god if I use candied ginger. This is brilliant. Candied ginger will be my ticket to Iron Chef glory. I can think of nothing but candied ginger for two days.
  3. Free Association. Hmm. Candied ginger. Ginger fried rice. Rice. Coconut rice. Coconut. Coconut and cardamom. Cardamom. Cardamom pistachio cake. Pistachio. I bet pistachios would be good in coconut rice. What if I stuffed the pumpkin with coconut rice? I’m going to stuff the pumpkin with coconut rice.
  4. Research. Google “coconut rice.” Google “coconut milk.” Google “white rice.” Google “brown rice.” Google “stuffed pumpkin.” Google “stuffed pumpkin recipe.” Google “toasting nuts.” Google “toasting spices.” Google “is candied ginger vegan.”
  5. Testing. Write out a recipe, in excruciating detail. Test the recipe. Be mildly disappointed that the real thing doesn’t measure up to the orgy of flavor perfection I’d concocted in my head (see steps 1-5).

I will say, though, this time I came awfully close to my perfectionist vision. The rice turned out fragrant and light, with bursts of toasty crunch from the nuts and pockets of sweetness from the ginger. The pumpkin slumped and browned obligingly in the oven, creating a gorgeous caramel-edged spectacle when it came out. The filling held together in pert wedges when the pumpkin was sliced, and then collapsed into a pile of fluffy grains at the touch of a fork.

It’s the kind of thing I just might make again–and that’s high praise.

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Olla gitana

I feel like I’m running out of words.

Normally when I get home, when I have some flavorful kitchen experiment in my recent past, it’s all I can do to keep my fingers from dancing over the keys to tell the blog world about it. But over the past couple of weeks, I’ve noticed myself using more and more of my words during the workday, on projects and in messages, and I seem to be running out of extras to lay down here. It’s as if I have a finite well of language, and most days I’ve pumped it dry by the time I shut my apartment door behind me.

I don’t like it. It makes me feel older, somehow, more subdued and sedate, knowing that I don’t have words upon words bubbling behind my forehead. And it does a disservice to this blog, my one consistent place to spill creative thoughts. I’ve been wanting to write for the better part of two weeks about the Spanish squash-and-vegetable soup I made, to soothe myself after another stressful workday, but instead it’s sat in my brain and its weight has made me feel guilty. So here it is, creativity be damned.

Olla gitana is one of those things I would never have known about, had it not been for the internet rambling I’ve been doing to distract myself from my empty well. Near as I can tell, this recipe comes from the Murcia region of Spain, where it’s said to have arisen among the Iberian offshoots of the Romani people. In reality, I think it’s a spun fantasy of what those people might eat, with extravagant Spanish inflections–saffron, mint, almonds, garlic. It tastes like a familiar, homey vegetable soup, but with a shiver of unfamiliarity from the saffron and the rich browned garlic and a chopped-up pear, which turns musky and darkly sweet in the broth. I quite liked it; it gave me comfort and a little bit of satisfaction, making something just this side of ordinary on a weeknight at home.

I’m still not sure I have all the words to do it justice right now. But at least it’s a start.

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Sweet potato and black bean salad

It seems so strange to be talking about anything other than the hurricane right now. Especially when all I can think to start this post with is a gentle complaint about the weather here–namely, that it can’t make up its mind. Somehow it feels insulting, even malicious, that summer is still flirting with us here in Northern California. Granted, she seems to be losing interest, with shorter bursts of sunshine and clouds that linger longer and drop more water. But there is still an unsettled quality to the weather–not nearly as unsettled as on the other side of the country, certainly, but just enough to make me uneasy.

I’m not writing this to try and chase away the sunshine. I’ll happily take it, as long as it lasts. But as someone trying her feeble best to cook seasonally, it’s a surprising challenge to have such ping-ponging weather. I’ve had a hard time figuring out what to feed myself lately. It’s too cool for a green salad, but too warm for a big pot of stew. I’ve been craving mulled cider for weeks, but it seems plain silly to be sipping a wintry drink when the mercury is inching back towards 80 degrees. The creative challenge–one I haven’t quite been up to lately–is finding a way to straddle the divide between summer and fall.

This salad was one of my attempts. I made it for a black-and-orange potluck last weekend, where it was a respectable guest but by no means the star. I guess that’s the curse of potato salads: to be solid and dependable, a cheerful second fiddle to the sexier, meatier main courses. This particular salad made a pretty strong case for itself, though. I roasted chunks of sweet potato–skin on, for texture and ease–with olive oil and a sprinkle of smoked paprika. Then I made a tangy-spicy slip of a dressing, with lime and mustard as the standout players, and mixed in a can of black beans and a big handful of chopped parsley. The resulting combination was nice, if a little subdued: sugary sweet potato, smoky spice, guttural black beans, the faintest whisper of dressing, grassy flecks sprinkled here-and-there. It seemed very appropriate for the odd not-quite-season we’re in.

Of course, as soon as I hit “publish” on this post, the sky will cloud over and we’ll be doused. Then it’ll be on to soup and stew and rib-sticking casseroles. Honestly, when compared to what’s been going on three time zones away, I’m grateful for all the coy stages of weather we’ve had. Here’s hoping life gets back to normal soon, for all of us.

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