Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Thai Basil Pork with Coconut Rice

Between the months of August and September my life usually involves a significant amount of limbo, caught between one travel cycle and the next.  There are school years and fiscal cycles, business quarters and one's standard Gregorian calendar year (or lunar calendar, if you prefer), but I measure my time in journeys and the time spent waiting in between.  But, August and September I spend wondering, with some anxiety, if another year will be measured out in global distances.  Only this year, I was nearly quite certain it would not.  For one, Bree (my travel sidekick) is having a baby!  Garrett (my backup travel sidekick) has a new job!  And, I had settled on retiring my days of travel with students.  It was looking like my Labor Day weekend in Milwaukee would be the last summer excursion for a while.  What a way to end a era.

I knew this day would come.  When travel happened, as for most, as a vacation instead of a lifestyle.  For most, travel as a lifestyle is unsustainable.

But then I sort of came to my senses, remembered my priorities, and broadened my perspective a bit.  For one, I have a little getaway to Mexico scheduled this winter for a wedding.  Two, I'm likely New York City bound for spring break to meet Bree's little person.  And, three, I pulled a Michael Jordan and came out of my briefly self-imposed student travel retirement, deciding to go for another AP Euro trip.  Our planned itinerary won't be taking me anywhere new, but at least I can get my Paris fix for a 7th year in a row (obnoxiously fortunate, as I am) and give London another fair shot.  None of it is quite the same as living out of a dirty backpack and walking the world until your feet bleed, but it's closer to the road than home.

Of course, I haven't yet written on my experience traveling solo last summer.  For now, I'll sum it up by saying that it's definitely on the table.

And, of course, Thai Basil Pork is also on the table this week.  First school year cold came earlier than usual this year, and luckily passed quicker than usual, requiring some good sinus-clearing spice.  I've also become obsessed with cooking rice in coconut milk - a great pairing for any spicy topping and a good alternative if you like coconut milk-based soups.  If you're harvesting your home gardens before the first big chill, it's a great opportunity to use up that basil (Italian would probably work just fine, as well).

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Spekkoek (Dutch-Indonesian Spice Cake)

SPEKKOEK // Dutch-Indonesian SPICE CAKE

Back home, back to work, back to blogging.

I know I've been away from the kitchen for a while, spending most of my summer reading and traveling, but I've collected an exciting list of foods to make from all over Europe.  First up this week is a Dutch spice cake I discovered in Amsterdam called spekkoek.  It's been fun trying to track down the name of the cake and how to prepare it (I couldn't understand the exact word when I initially asked the waitress).  Sure enough, a search for everything I knew about the cake - "layered spice cake, Dutch" - turned up precisely the results I needed.

Of course, I was tickled by also learning that the cake is a cultural diffusion recipe, because all historian cooks love those.  For the non-historians out there, the rich and heavy mixture of spices is historical evidence of the Dutch East India Company's seventeenth-century command of the spice trade with the East Indies, and particularly the Dutch colony of Indonesia (which they nabbed from the Portuguese).  I actually intend to use this recipe as a classroom discussion piece this week, since we dive right into the rise of Europe through control of spice routes during the "Age of Exploration."

But back to the present, and present-day Amsterdam.  Believe it or not (which is obnoxious for me to say), I had never been to Amsterdam before this summer, and spent much too little time in this friendly place.  Amsterdam is probably the most "user friendly" city I've ever been to, and by that I mean its so evident that the planners of Amsterdam (past and present) have the human - the pedestrian, the cyclist, the child - in mind at all times.  The spaces are designed to engage humans with the space, and with each other, and in this way the city births society.  I'm hard-pressed to find outdoor seating at even the most cosy cafes in Chicago that are free from the visual, auditory, and olfactory pollution from cars.

It was on one of the quiet pedestrian streets that I discovered spekkoek.  It was the first "I'm making this when I get home!" moment from my travels.  

As a warning, this recipe only appears complicated, and is actually really fun to make.  So, don't be deterred by the process of cooking each alternating layer (or that it calls for lots of butter and eggs).  It comes together more or less like cooking many crepes on top of one another.  And, again, I had a blast doing it, as if I was partaking in some cooking challenge (that you can't really mess up).  If you're ready for fall, this is a perfect recipe to try (and if you stow it away for later, that broiler will really keep the house warm once the weather cools).  

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Moroccan Braised Kale over Wheatberries

(with a poached egg)

This summer, my coworker and I decided to keep a shared daily log of everything we ate and all the exercise we've done in order to feel a sense of accountability for a healthy lifestyle.  You've probably heard of this as a method of establishing better habits, but if you haven't tried it you absolutely should!  I also highly recommend pairing up with someone who is a gluten-free vegetarian...seeing that every meal on this log he's keeping is super healthy omelettes and salads.  I may return to school in August to find a rabbit sitting across from me in the office.

One of the benefits of this experiment has been a sort of mirroring effect.  Looking at PA's progress has been really impressive, and it has rubbed off.  So now, I find myself wanting to create more meals that are vegetarian, for example.  I've also found myself eating lots of eggs for protein, because that's his main protein source.  So, while this particular post includes wheatberries, the basic recipe for this braised kale is one I've been coming back to over and over again this summer.  It's a bit of a variation of both my Kale, Spinach, and Meatball Soup and Shakshouka, but without the meat.

I've found keeping the log is motivating enough to try and continue with it while I'm abroad for almost the remainder of the summer.  I know that sounds a bit crazy - and believe me I'll still allow myself a good lemon and sugar crepe in Paris, a waffle in Belgium, etc. - but I think it will be a good way to prevent a dietary nuclear meltdown.  Hopefully it also turns out to be a good way to document some great flavors I discover across the pond, and then bring them home and back to the blog when I return.  I know this is already only the second post of the summer, but surely I'll pick it up again with more regularity in August.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Greek Yogurt Almond Crust Tart


As much as I've been enjoying this summer of sunning on the deck, reading books, practicing my French for upcoming travels, running, and even trying to work a bit every day, it's been difficult to get myself back into summer form.  Despite the fact that there regularly seems to be a family or friend event that includes great food (at which I would never say, "No thanks, I'm on a diet," simply due to willpower, or lack thereof), I'm starting to get a creeping feeling that trimming down is getting increasingly harder as I ripen on the tree of life.  Either that or my daily runs simply don't compensate for sitting on my ass with a book the rest of the day, compared to standing and moving pretty much all the time when I teach. 

Whatever the case may be, I've always been a person that needs to put myself in situations where the bad options don't exist.  Because when they do - and as they will when I spend nearly the next month in Europe - I'm going to opt for them. I am human.   So, I decided to bring this Greek Yogurt Tart to a BBQ yesterday hoping it wouldn't disappoint those looking for some gooey cherry pie or something.

I really liked the ways this tart came out, but I love mildly sweet desserts.  It is reminiscent of cheesecake in its texture and tang, but not nearly as rich.  You could even do a graham cracker crust if you truly wanted to imitate a cheesecake, but I love almonds and this crust is also gluten free.  Also, like a cheesecake you could flavor the custard filling with whatever flavor you wanted (consider what fruit you like best with your yogurt).  Either add chunks of fruit right into the custard, or swirl in a good fruit compote/curd.  In fact, if you wanted to use this as a brunch/breakfast recipe, an oatmeal crust would be perfect.  So, it's certainly adaptable to your likes and needs. 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Raw Zucchini Salad with Tzatziki


Has it really been less than a month since my last post?  I feel like I've been away for much longer than that, but maybe the transition to summer life just makes my previous life of blogging and teaching seem much further back.  

To be honest, not only have I not been blogging, but I haven't really been doing all that much cooking.  Instead, time has been made for some new hobbies (gardening), and the revival of some old, missed hobbies (French, reading).  Conducive for all of them, Garrett and I have really souped up the back porch, and the first days of summer have been spent sitting among the budding flowers and birds reading, listening to French language podcasts, and scientifically monitoring the growth of dill, basil, tomatoes, and peppers.  The scenery has even made getting work work done very non-stressful.

Speaking of the garden, thus far my research has proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that fresh-from-the garden herbs are a million times better than even the fresh stuff at the store.  The smell, flavor, and texture...all superior.  Here's a recipe you can use with fresh dill.  It's a great, refreshing salad for meals on the porch, and will only keep you in the kitchen for about 10 minutes.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Watermelon, Jicama, & Strawberry Salad with Balsamic Reduction


Hope you had a fabulous Memorial Day weekend stateside.  Mine included the standard American share of BBQed meats, eaten in excess, in good company.  I've been trying to the whole "take back the weekend!" thing, and if I've been succeeding at anything, it's been that.  Loyalists may have noted that I took last weekend off from blogging, and I'm sorry to say that made things a bit more relaxing as I slide into summer.

This afternoon, however, was one big (queue the screeching record) failure in the relaxation department.  People do household projects on long weekends, and I thought, "Hey, I'm a person," forgetting I'm not a household project person.  You see, ever since the murder of a backyard tree that was our glorious green summer canopy the back porch has been severely lacking in any ambiance.  Before the murder the back porch was once an English garden oasis that shielded us from the major interstate highway that is otherwise our porch view (plus a small sliver of the grand Chicago skyline).  After mourning the tree for years, Garrett and I finally got the gumption to head to Home Depot for some potted shrubs and blooms to spruce the place up again.  The first trip was a great success, and high on our green thumb abilities we went back a second time with more ambitious goals that included resoiling and outdoor lighting.   The third trip we trudged back, tails between our legs, to return half our rather expensive bounty and settle on the original hoard, plus lighting (that we never got to hang thanks to rain).  In short, three trip to Home Depot a relaxing day does not make.

But I did make some watermelon salad.  It's a nice little refreshing treat for any summer BBQ or dinner out on a well-groomed porch.  The watermelon and goat cheese thing isn't new, but I funned it up with some jicama and strawberries.  Those are totally optional.  I will say, if you are planning to transport this or prepare it ahead of time, take my word for it and leave off the cheese and dressing until just prior to serving.  Better yet, keep them off to the side and let your guests and co-partiers add them before eating.  Otherwise, the balsamic will just turn the whole thing a brownish color.  Part of the appeal of the salad is the bright colors that make it so fun for summer, so don't go ruining it like I did!