Monday, January 30, 2012

Peanut Butter Banana Smoothie

banana shake

Who wants milkshakes for breakfast?


It's the end of January, it's cold, it's dark, we're not at the beach, and we have got to do what we can to make it better.  And milkshakes for breakfast? That's just what the doctor ordered. Especially when the "milk"shakes are made from nothing but three innocent ingredients:

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Don't be scared. That's just what bananas look like after they've been in the freezer for a bit. I always have several bananas hanging out in the freezer. Mostly, I like to use them for banana bread or muffins, but I'm still working the New Year's Resolution angle, and I've made birthday cakes for two different friends in the last 10 days, so there are no muffins on the horizon for this chickie. But now frozen bananas have a more virtuous destiny.  Miraculously creamy, naturally sweet, and so satisfying.

Peanut Butter Banana Smoothie

serves 1

2 frozen bananas
1 tablespoon creamy peanut butter
about 1/2 cup almond (or soy or rice or cow) milk

Take the bananas out of the freezer and allow them to sit at room temperature for about 15 minutes, or microwave for about 20 seconds, just to thaw the outside a little so you can slip the peels off.  Peel them, and place into a blender. Add peanut butter and almond milk and blend until smooth, adding more almond milk if necessary to reach your desired thickness. Pour into a glass and sip with your eyes closed, dreaming of a place with palm trees and tropical flowers. Here, I'll even let you use my place:

costa rica

costa rica 2

costa rica 4

costa rica 5

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Wintry Pasta al Forno

potato-pasta casserole

Once in a while, if I can't get myself motivated to clean my house, I invite people over. That usually does the trick. This Sunday, I hosted a little belated birthday dinner for one of my best friends, and I tell you, it was one of the most productive weekends I've ever had. Saturday morning, our Christmas tree was still up (and fully decorated), the front porch still had colored lights on it, and all the evidence of a week in the life of a busy couple (laundry, mail, dishes) was piled everywhere. By Sunday evening, the Christmas decorations were all packed in boxes and moved to the basement, the living room furniture was rearranged, sheets, towels, clothing and dishes were clean and put away, and furniture and floors were dusted, buffed and shining. I even started working on my dastardly project of a messy second bedroom. By the time people arrived, the table was set, appetizers out, Champagne chilled, salad ready, and this delicious pasta casserole in the oven. It was a proud moment, and the beginning of a lovely evening.

Candlelit dinner


I'm usually not into things called "casseroles," because in my brain that word conjures something mushy, bland, and probably drenched in canned cream of something soup. This could not be farther from that. Layers of whole wheat pasta cooked al dente, creamy fontina and tangy Parmigiano Reggiano, mustardy cabbage, and tiny purple and white potatoes. It's comforting without being heavy, and it will warm you from the inside out. This is casserole's sophisticated older sister. I hope you enjoy it!

Wintry Pasta al Forno
adapted from 101cookbooks

Use whatever noodles you like in this recipe, and whatever creamy cheese. I can imagine endless variations; my next one will certainly involve gorgonzola and rosemary.

12 ounces whole wheat fettuccine, broken into 3-inch pieces
1 pound small potatoes (I found the purple ones at Costco!)
2 medium leeks, white parts only, rinsed well and thinly sliced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 medium head of cabbage, cored and shredded
1/2 cup water
1 1/2 tablespoons (or more to taste) whole grain mustard
1 1/2 cups grated Parmigiano Reggiano
16 fresh sage leaves, slivered
4 ounces fontina or other soft, melty cheese, cut into small cubes

Cook the pasta in boiling salted water until al dente, and set aside.  Meanwhile, cover the potatoes with water, salt generously, and simmer until tender, 30-45 minutes. Drain and slice - mine were so tiny, that some of them just got cut in half. It's all good. Season with a bit of salt and set aside.

Melt the butter in a large saucepan and add the leeks.  Saute until soft, about 3 minutes, and then add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute more. Stir in the cabbage, and then the broth. Cover and cook until cabbage is tender. Remove from heat and stir in the mustard, 1/2 cup of the Parmigiano Reggiano, one teaspoon of salt, and half of the slivered sage leaves. Taste and adjust seasonings if needed. (I would happily serve this sauteed cabbage as a side dish; it's amazing on its own.)

Butter a 9x13-inch baking dish, and layer half of the noodles, then half the cabbage, potatoes, and half of the fontina and remaining Parmigiano. Repeat with remainder of ingredients, and finish by sprinkling remaining slivered sage over the top.  Bake at 400 degrees until golden and hot, about 45 minutes. Serve immediately.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Crispy Crunchy Oatmeal Cookies

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I'd like to think that most of the time, I'm a pretty un-selfish cook. I try to accommodate the needs and preferences of the people who will share in what I'm making. If I'm having people over and one of the party is vegetarian or lactose-intolerant, I cook a meal that will satisfy everyone while staying within the high-maintenance (kidding!) person's parameters. I do this daily when I'm just cooking for two; I hide greens by chopping them up or blending them into sweet berry smoothies, I leave out the mustard, and I rarely cook seafood. I even leave the nuts out of cookies. Most of the time.

Sometimes you just need to make something for yourself! You need to put tons of roughly chopped nuts and cocoa nibs in the cookies, and bake them until they're super-crispy. Because that's how you like them. And you deserve perfect cookies.

These are my perfect cookies. Sweet, crunchy, and packed with goodies. So good that I couldn't stop eating the dough. And I even shared them.

But I made them for me.

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Crispy Crunchy Oatmeal Cookies
adapted from Joy the Baker

I encourage you to leave out or add in whatever you want to make these into your perfect cookies. Toasted coconut, white chocolate and macadamias? Yes! Dried cherries, pecans and chocolate chips? Heck yeah! This recipe just begs to be customized. Go crazy; these are for YOU.

1 cup softened butter
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup light brown sugar, lightly packed
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 cups old-fashioned oats
1 cup roughly chopped walnuts
1/2 cup cocoa nibs
1 cup chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 and line two baking sheets with parchment or spray lightly with cooking spray.

Cream the butter and sugars together in the bowl of a stand mixer until light and fluffy, about 3-5 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the eggs one at a time, beating about one minute after each addition, until fully incorporated. Beat in vanilla.

Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a bowl, and add to the butter mixture. Mix on low speed until the flour is incorporated. Remove bowl from the mixer stand, and fold in oats, walnuts, cocoa nibs, and chocolate chips using a rubber spatula.

Drop cookies by the tablespoonful onto the prepared baking sheets, and bake 12-15 minutes (for crispy cookies, a little less time for chewy), until golden. Allow to cool for 1 minute on the sheets before transferring to cooling racks.

Yield: about 6 dozen small-ish cookies.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Miso-Carrot Soup

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We're back to it. Eating our vegetables, buying less stuff, spending more time with people we love. The sparkle of New Year's has worn off, and we're left with clouds and cold, sweaters and snow. How are your resolutions faring?

I am so excited about the food I've been eating lately. So many vegetables, roasted, braised, and sauteed, dressed merrily in herbs and spices, and dancing with citrus. It may be grey and dreary outside, but there is no shortage of color in the kitchen. Carrots! Beets! Blood oranges! Grapefruit!

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beet and blood orange salad

Treat yourself to a really great lunch of miso-carrot soup and this beet salad, and then use the energy boost to power through a productive afternoon! All those fruits and veggies combine to give you superpowers that no rain/snow mix could dampen. Go forth and do great things!

p.s. Did you know that you can get ten pounds of organic carrots for just under $7 at Costco? Crazy deal.

p.p.s. If you make this salad and pack it for lunch, make double-triple sure the container it's in can't leak. The inside of my lunchbox was fuchsia for a day.

Miso-Carrot Soup
adapted from smitten kitchen

I used ginger-chicken broth in this soup, because I had it leftover, and wasn't a huge fan of it on its own, but vegetable broth is perfect as well. Make sure to choose a low-sodium version if you're not using homemade - the miso is pretty salty, and you want to be able to control the seasoning yourself.

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 pounds carrots, peeled and thinly sliced
1 large vidalia onion, thinly sliced
4 medium cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
4 cups low-sodium broth
1/4 cup red miso paste
juice of 1 lemon

toasted sesame oil and roughly chopped parsley or cilantro, to finish

Place the oil in a large Dutch oven and heat over medium flame.  Add carrots, onion, and garlic, and saute until onions are translucent, about ten minutes. Add broth and ginger, cover, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until carrots are tender, about 30 minutes. Remove from heat and puree in batches in a blender, or use an immersion blender. Ladle a small amount of soup into a small bowl, and whisk in the miso paste.  Whisk miso mixture and lemon juice into soup and taste, adding salt, pepper, or more miso if necessary. Ladle into bowls and finish with a drizzle of toasted sesame oil and a sprinkling of fresh herbs.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Classic Crab Cakes

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You know how sometimes all it takes to unleash a fully-fledged craving is just the simple mention of something you haven't thought of in a while? A few days before my birthday this year, I read this post, and I knew right then and there that nothing else but crab would do for my birthday dinner. I looked online at some restaurant menus, and then came to my senses and decided to just grab some crab and heat it up at home. Even with a bottle of champagne, a nice loaf of bread, and a salad, we spent less on the whole meal than we would have on one entree at a restaurant. It felt pretty good. Especially when I realized that crab makes for some pretty phenomenal leftovers.

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These crab cakes made a perfect birthday lunch alongside a refreshing, peppery arugula salad with a lemon-caper vinaigrette. Crispy on the outside, filled with simply-seasoned sweet hunks of crab, and a dab of homemade tartar sauce on the side. And since it was my birthday, a mimosa to wash it down. Delicious.

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Classic Crab Cakes
adapted from Cook's Illustrated
yield: 4 cakes

1 pound jumbo lump crabmeat, picked over for shell fragments
2 celery stalks, finely minced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro or parsley
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1-4 tablespoons plain dry bread crumbs
1 1/2 teaspoons Old Bay seasoning
salt and ground black pepper
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup vegetable oil

Line rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Gently mix crabmeat, celery, cilantro, mayonnaise, 2 tablespoons bread crumbs, and Old Bay in a medium bowl. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Carefully fold in egg with rubber spatula until mixture barely holds together. If the mixture doesn't bind, add more breadcrumbs, a tablespoon at a time, until they do. Don't overdo it - it just barely has to hold together.

Divide crab into four portions and shape into fat, round cakes, about 3 inches in diameter and 1 1/2 inches thick. Arrange on prepared baking sheet, cover, and refrigerate at least 30 minutes or up to 24 hours.

Place flour in shallow baking dish or pie plate. Lightly dredge cakes in flour. Heat oil in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Gently lay floured cakes in skillet and cook until both sides are crisp and golden, 4-5 minutes per side. Serve immediately with lemon wedges or tartar sauce.

Tartar Sauce

yield: about 1 cup

3/4 cup mayonnaise
1/2 shallot, mnced
2 tablespoons capers, rinsed and minced
2 tablespoons sweet pickle relish
1 1/2 teaspoons white vinegar
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon pepper

Mix together in a small bowl.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Palms for Pinyons

Hiver in the sun

This year, I traded palms for pinyons.
Instead of fleeing winter for beaches and sun,
I embraced the season, relished the chill.
In the mountains, they know how to do winter.
My choice was rewarded by sixty-degree days;
I wore nothing but a t-shirt and jeans,
walked along the country road,
breathed the crisp air at five thousand feet,
felt the sun on my arms and face.

Cloud on mountain

My grandmother lives far away;
a forty-minute train ride,
two-hour flight,
three-hour drive...
As we traveled, I felt a complaint
rise up within me,
Why does she have to live all the way out here?
my tired brain whined.


In the morning as I looked out the window
at the sunrise over the mountains, I knew.
I ran out on her porch in my slippers,
climbed up on a bench to get a better view,
my heart full, eyes brimming.
Is there anything that compares to a sunrise
in a big, clear Colorado sky,
the familiar peaks tinged with rose and gold?

Rose-tinged mountains

colorado sunrise

Dogs bark, and a coyote yelps in the distance,
their chorus bounces off the mountains,
the sound traveling far in the thin morning air.
The mayor of Chickasaw--
a black Newfoundland named Bear--
holds court in the valley.

Mr. Mayor

Most of the things in Bajee's little house
were created by her hands.
"Beloved pots," paintings, sculptures, dishes and clothes.
The smells have never changed:
pine-laden mountain air,
clay and paint,
Bajee's perfume,
sunshine, somehow.

Bajee mugs

sunlit curtains

No elaborate, fancy getaway was this,
but simpler and more refreshing;
with nothing to distract me from drinking in beauty
and reveling in relationships.
Listening to stories of a fully-lived life,
and learning a little about where I came from
to help me imagine what's yet to come.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Ginger-Lemon Tea

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(I can't be expected to choose the appropriate seasonal towel to serve as a tea cozy when I'm not feeling well.)

When you're feeling under the weather, what makes you feel better? It's that time of year, and if you haven't felt sniffly and congested and scratchy-throated yet, chances are you're going to before the winter's over. Especially if you have to ride the CTA. Don't think about that, just go wash your hands. *shudder*

feeling better

When I'm not feeling my best, I surround myself with things that will make me feel better without requiring much effort. I collect all the necessary remotes, my computer and phone, a pillow and blanket, and a soothing drink. This tea is the best thing for a cold. I discovered it at Sweetwaters, the coffee house where I worked in college. Theirs is a secret recipe which they make in big batches and deliver in a concentrated form to their locations in southeast Michigan (and if you're in the area, you should definitely pay a visit). I drank it constantly during those cold Ann Arbor winters. When I moved to Chicago, unwilling to survive the freeze without my fix, I quickly came up with my own version.

The flavor is very strong, almost medicinal, and it soothes and clears and works like magic. The lemons pack a punch of vitamin C, the honey soothes sore throats and coughs, and the spicy-sweet ginger clears congestion and warms you up. And on top of that, it will keep you hydrated, which your body will thank you for. Before you cuddle up on your couch, put a pot of this on to simmer. I promise it will help.

Ginger-Lemon Tea

2 cups fresh lemon juice
1 3- by 1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and sliced thinly
10 cups water
1 cup honey

Place lemon juice, ginger, and water in a large saucepan over medium heat, and bring to a boil.  Boil for a couple of minutes, cover and remove from heat, and steep at least 30 minutes, or as long as you like - the longer it steeps, the more gingery the tea will be, and the more gingery the better, I think! Reheat and drink as needed, to soothe wintry sniffles and sore throats.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012



Let's talk new year's resolutions for a minute. Some people don't get really into this, but I just can't pass up an opportunity to look at my life through a different lens and see what could do with changing. I don't just do it when a new year rolls around. I do it again during Lent, and then again in the fall, when the new school year signals a fresh start once again. Do you get sucked into it?

I tend to make too many resolutions, all of which are too large and too vague. Example of one such lame resolution: "Work out more often." So this year, I tried to just focus on a couple of simple things, which are doable but will make a positive impact on my life.  Here's my list:


1) Don't buy any new books. It took me a solid two weeks of pondering before this resolution made its way from idea to spoken words. I was scared to say it out loud because I so dearly love to buy books. Perusing a used bookstore is definitely one of my top three favorite ways to spend an afternoon, particularly a rainy one. And then there's Amazon, which makes book-buying much too easy. Years of this behavior have landed me with shelves overflowing with books which I am ashamed to say I've never read. So my goal is to start plowing my way through books I deemed interesting enough to pay money for, and then was never in the mood to start. I'm working on compiling a list of these books on my Library page, if you're interested.

2) Write for ten minutes a day. With a pen, in a journal, for nobody but myself. It's a small enough amount of time that I'll feel silly if I skip it, but it feels great and often turns into a bit more time.

I was all set and feeling great about my two simple resolutions, when I found this list: 20 New Year's Resolutions for 20-Somethings. I encourage you to read the whole thing - it's funny, and points a non-judgmental, self-deprecating finger at some of the pitfalls of living and relating in the digital age. These two are my favorites, and so they have been added:

3) Call someone on the phone at least once a week, and speak to him or her for at least ten minutes. Remember the phone? It's the thing that you use to look up random facts and play Angry Birds, but originally it was invented to help you have conversations with real people using your voice. I'm excited to get back to that. Friends, be on the lookout for phone calls. And I'm going to call and call until I reach someone, so please, if I call you, pick up. :)

4) Find a way to save approximately 300 dollars and spend it on a flight to see a friend or family member who lives far away. What could be a more worthwhile destiny for your money than to bring you closer to your loved ones? I'm headed to Colorado for the next few days to see my grandmother, whom I haven't seen for more than three years. I'm almost giddy with excitement. Oh, and I'm going to be completely unplugged while I'm there, so I'll see you when I get back!


I hesitate to even call this a recipe, because it's so easy and requires no cooking at all. I eat it every year for breakfast on my birthday, which was a couple of days ago.

1 grated apple (tart and crunchy is best)
1/2 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
handful of roughly chopped walnuts
1/4 cup raisins
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/3 cup milk
1 teaspoon sugar

Toss all ingredients together and enjoy. Recipe serves one, but is easily multiplied for sharing.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Pasta e Fagioli

Happy new year! How did you spend the last days of 2011? We weren't able to take the week off, so we were home, working during the days and trying to somehow make it still feel like Christmas in the evenings. We ended up being pretty successful. We went to see the Lincoln Park Zoo Lights, had friends over for soup and salad, joined same friends on a different night for pizza and Wii, and attended a fabulous New Year's Eve party complete with vodka tasting, banana split bites and fireworks on Navy Pier.

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Do you love my Christmas dress?! I WON IT! Courtesy of Oona and the ladies at Shabby Apple. Thank you thank you thank you!!!

Aside from the dress, one of the best gifts I got this Christmas was the newly released Cook's Illustrated cookbook. I urge you to buy it for yourself and anyone else you know who is even moderately interested in cooking. It is like a recipe encyclopedia, and threatens to make all my other cookbooks (and even *gasp* the Internet) obsolete. A Google search for a recipe is so risky! I mean, I do it all the time, but each time I try a recipe I got online, there's a little bit of breath-holding, especially if I got it from a mildly unreliable source. With this cookbook, I know that each recipe has been tested and tested again, and I trust it completely. Also, I've made several things from it already, and they've all turned out magnificently. At just over $20, it is also a great deal.

I hope you had a wonderful holiday season, and that your 2012 is off to a fantastic start!

pasta e fagioli

Pasta e Fagioli
adapted from Cook's Illustrated

This traditional Italian soup is even better a day or two after you make it, when the flavors really get a chance to meld. The heirloom beans I used barely hold their shape, transforming the broth into a velvety bean gravy.

Pronunciation: PASTA (duh) EH FA-JOH-LEE.

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
4 slices bacon, chopped
1 onion, chopped fine
1 celery rib, chopped fine
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
3 anchovy fillets, rinsed and minced
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 Parmesan cheese rind (or a 2-inch cube of cheese)
3 cups cooked cargamanto cranberry beans (or 2 15-ounce cans cannellini beans)
3 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 1/2 cups water
salt and pepper
1 cup orzo, or other tiny pasta
2 ounces grated Parmesan, for sprinkling

Heat oil in Dutch oven over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add bacon and cook, stirring occasionally, until browned, 3 to 5 minutes. Add celery and onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are softened, 5 to 7 minutes. Add garlic, oregano, pepper flakes, and anchovies and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in tomatoes and deglaze the pan. Add Parmesan rind and beans and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer about 10 minutes.

Add chicken broth, water, and one teaspoon salt. Increase heat to high and bring to a boil. Add pasta and cook until al dente, about 10 minutes.  Remove and discard Parmesan rind. Remove from heat, ladle into bowls, and serve with grated Parmesan for passing.