Out of the Jar

 
 

Cinnamon has really been on my mind lately.  I know, I know, it's such a common little spice, and most of us know precisely what to do with it.  Toss it with sugar on buttered toast or shake it onto a bowl of oatmeal.  But listen, it is not what you think.  First, I like its ubiquitous quality and I like the idea that we all think we know how to use it.  But I've been adding cinnamon to so many unusual dishes lately and with much success.  Let's think outside the jar for a minute and talk about new uses for that perfect, accessible spice you've been taking for granted.

Few folks would think of adding cinnamon to their tuna and tomato salad but not me. Cinnamon pairs well with tomatoes and you can feel free to throw a half-stick of it into a tomato sauce when you're feeling clever and strange.  (And don't forget to add a whole, peeled carrot to the sauce for added sweetness.)  Cinnamon doesn't strike the sauce as you might think but is subtle and smoky.  Think of that traditional combination of nutmeg and red meat and tomatoes in a ragu sauce.  It's not too far fetched to consider using cinnamon in the same way.  Throw a cinnamon stick into your next pot of beef stew and see if you can pick up that wonderful flavor.  What else?  Cinnamon loves lemon and you could make a smooth lemony, cinnamon sauce and toss with fresh pasta noodles.  Think of the Moroccan tagine and find the scent of cinnamon, along with many other aromatic spices, accompanying things like chicken and chickpeas.

Best of all is that cinnamon is considered one of the most healing of spices.  It can relieve diarrhea and nausea, counteract congestion and aid circulation.  It warms the body and enhances digestion, especially the metabolism of fats, among other uses. 

You can see now why I've had cinnamon on the mind.  You read a lot about unusual, exotic spices like saffron and cardamom, but we all know cinnamon and have a bit of it on the shelf.  It's important now more than ever to take a look at some of the most common foods that sit patiently in your fridge door or in the pantry and consider them in new ways.  Start with that jar of cinnamon by adding it to a tomato-based sauce or to a chicken and lemon dish.  Here's a recipe get started:

Pasta w/ Tuna and Tomatoes

Serves 4-6

MARKET/PANTRY LIST

1 small fennel bulb
1 small red onion
Extra virgin olive oil
Ground cinnamon
Fresh thyme leaves (or dried)
Red pepper flakes (optional)
Kosher or sea salt and black pepper
1 pound favorite pasta
1 X 28 oz can chopped tomatoes
2 cans oil-packed tuna
1 lemon (optional)
Refer to notes and variations

Look closely for a sustainable canned tuna at your grocer; it has a massive impact on your health and that of our oceans. Although it’s not in the recipe, I often will add a can of white beans to this dish, to give it even more texture and substance; play around and make it your own.

Flavorful Sauce

Put a large pot of water on the boil, and cover. First, chop off the long stalks from 1 small fennel bulb, and set aside. Wash the bulb itself under cool water, then halve it lengthwise on a cutting board. Slice it as thinly as you can, into half-moons, or chop it as you would an onion. Chop 1 small red onion, then put your widest and sturdiest skillet over medium heat on the stovetop. Once it’s hot, add 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, and then your fennel and onion. Add 1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon, 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves (or ½ teaspoon dried), and a pinch of red pepper flakes (optional), and a good pinch of kosher or sea salt; stir and partially cover.

Is your pasta water ready? If so, add 1 pound favorite pasta, and cook according to the package instructions. Meanwhile, once your onion mixture is tender, add 1 X 28 oz can chopped tomatoes and 2 cans of oil-packed tuna (drained); break up and stir. Add another good pinch of kosher or sea salt and a twist of black pepper. Simmer for about 10 minutes, uncovered.

Coming Together

Combine your pasta and sauce together, either in the large skillet (if it will comfortably fit) or back into the empty soup pot. Add the zest and juice of 1 lemon (optional), a good drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, and another pinch of kosher or sea salt and black pepper. Stir gently again, and check for seasoning. (If you did have fennel stalks set aside with fresh fronds on their ends, you can fold in some fronds to your dish too.)

NOTES & VARIATIONS

  • In the summer use fresh basil in this dish, rather than or alongside the thyme.
  • If you cannot source oil-packed tuna try using the best quality, firmest canned tuna you can find. It will work of course, but won’t give the sauce the richness it has otherwise.
  • This can be a tangy sauce/dish, with the amount of tomato and lemon; add as much or little lemon as you and your eaters may appreciate.
  • Rather than combining the sauce and pasta, you can serve them separately, especially if you’ve picky eaters at the table!
  • Add some shredded Parmesan cheese to each bowl of pasta before serving.

Bacon Awe

 
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This all began with the cancellation of Sunday waffles.

I bought two pounds of bacon in preparation for one of our regular rounds of Sunday Waffles. That’s a gathering we often host for friends and neighbors: we provide the skyscraper of waffles, scrambled eggs, crispy bacon, and strong coffee, not to mention a backyard trampoline (for the kids) and leafy deck to eat on, and our guests bring themselves and a bowl of fruit. But a couple weekends ago we were at the ready to host, groceries bought, linens washed, and then our friends cancelled due to a fever in their house.

Over the course of the next week I found myself working around the log of bacon. Meaning a crisped slice found its elegant way into just about everything. I am already working through our steady harvest of garden vegetables: tomatoes, zucchini, green beans, and didn’t realize how a bit of bacon could transform these vegetables and their dishes continuously.

I get it, bacon is already adored enough, but it’s a food I never really gave stature too. And now…and in summer of all seasons.

Bacon on top of homemade pizza with fresh tomato and zucchini—check. Bacon added to garden vegetable frittata—check. Bacon tucked in to tangy potato salad—check. Bacon peppered over green bean casserole—check. Bacon slipped in to a wild summer minestrone—check. Bacon to crumble over crunchy green salad with fresh corn—check. And so very many BLTs, what can I say. An ode has begun shaping itself.

This unexpected suitcase of bacon has positively surprised me by repeatedly smiling on my seasonal fare. We love these vegetables on their own (a warm handful of cherry tomatoes) and giving them center stage during their season (penne with seared zucchini). But bacon comes in like a little rouge on the lips, gently sharpening these already lovely things.

5 Questions: Jerry Rothstein

 
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Earnest, engaged, and wise slow-goer, in the kitchen and in life: meet Jerry Rothstein. Longtime news and copy editor and Gestalt therapist, Jerry shares his mindful approach to food shopping, home cooking, and to the slow savoring of the food we eat. 

What does eating well look like for you?

Eating well is a process that includes getting the ingredients, cooking them, the eating
itself, clean up and digestion. I like to be able to devote enough time to this process so
that I can experience it fully. At the heart of it, the decision on what to cook and serve,
involves me in looking for balance of flavors, textures, nutrition and aesthetics.

What is a favorite and reliable everyday dish for you?

We love salmon, having lived for many years on the West Coast of Canada. A simple
broiled fillet packs nourishment, flavor, texture and nutrients in a very easy cooking
cycle. Sides of green vegetable and, perhaps, steamed little red or yellow potatoes with
butter and rosemary complete the main course.

Can you share a defining food memory?

There are many, as our Jewish household did attend to food above all. Ironically, two of
my most pleasant food memories involve eating out and not kosher (though I did not
know it at the time). On our train trips to visit mother’s sister, the sandwich man would
come through and I would always ask for a chicken sandwich, thinly sliced white meat,
fresh white bread, mayo. Perfect. And one year when I had to be taken to an allergist for
shots, my mother would buy us lunch at a diner nearby that had the best hamburgers I
had ever tasted. Juicy! (Kosher burgers tend toward dryness.)

What topics around food are you most interested in, and why?

As a psychotherapist, I am always coming back to the deep need for chewing, both
literally and metaphorically. Food should include elements that really need to be chewed
up, a way to appropriately use our aggressive energy. Digestion, absorption of nutrients
and equally important, elimination of wastes, serves as a model applicable to a lot in our
lives.

I have to ask. What would you hope for as a last meal on this earth?

A tasting menu of the freshest, ripest fruits, and some chocolate wafer biscuits.

Tzatziki

 
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It’s time. Harvest. My arms overfill each time I walk through the vegetable garden, which is each day. It’s that time of year, when everything is voluptuous and a bit wild. A short row of bush beans is excitable and wishes me good luck with all the beans. Constellations of cherry tomatoes in and around each bed; they hide too. The zucchini, well you know. Peas, I can’t keep up and now most of you are swollen on the vine. But I love it. Beets and their greens, kale soldiers, chive fountains, basil and mint draping over it all. My favorite garden motion, tugging the hair of the carrots and twisting them up and into the lit world.

And then there are the cucumbers. Only a single plant this year, since I have learned that one happy cucumber plant can get overwhelmingly fruitful. Now that it’s mid-August our vine produces at least a single cucumber each day; that’s a lot of cucumbers, even for a family that loves them. Beyond pickling and slicing them into salads, I am always looking for ways to make most of our cucumber harvest.

Tzatziki, a cucumber and yogurt sauce, does the seasonal trick, since most of the foods (like grilled fish or meat, or fresh vegetables) it pairs well with are the foods of summer. Rooted in Greece, tzatziki is a traditional accompaniment to falafel, gyros, kabobs, baked potatoes, vegetable and pita platters, and is a refreshing partner to spicy dishes. If anything, this dish is fun and uplifting to pronounce.

I encourage you, especially this time of year, to build your meals around these seasonal aspects. Build around a seasonal sauce, such as this one. Why not?

Tzatziki

Makes about 2-3 cups

MARKET LIST

1 large English-style cucumber
Kosher or sea salt and black pepper
2 cups Greek-style yogurt (thick, and preferably whole-milk)
1-2 garlic cloves
Fresh lemon juice (1 tablespoon)
Fresh mint or dill (about 2 tablespoons)
Sugar
Extra virgin olive oil (optional)
Ground paprika (optional)

Salting Cucumber

Peel, seed (if necessary), and dice 1 large English-style cucumber. Place the cucumber into a fine-mesh strainer over a bowl and sprinkle over 1 tablespoon kosher or sea salt. Let the cucumber sit for 15-30 minutes, allowing the salt to draw the moisture (and any bitterness) out.

Meanwhile, stir together in a medium bowl: 2 cups Greek-style yogurt (thick, and preferably whole-milk), 1-2 garlic cloves (minced or finely grated), 1 tablespoon of fresh lemon juice, about 2 tablespoons of fresh mint or dill (chopped), a pinch of sugar and a twist of black pepper.

Coming Together

Once the cucumber has relaxed pat it dry with paper towels, or gently squeeze it in a paper towel, removing any excess moisture. Stir the cucumber into the yogurt mixture and taste for further kosher or sea salt, or any other flavors. To serve, drizzle over some extra virgin olive oil (optional) and dust over some ground paprika (optional). Serve immediately, or chilled from the fridge.

 

5 Questions: Liz Avery

 
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Meet Liz Avery, master knitter, teacher, and scrappy solo cook. When she’s not working, or hiking, or rollerblading, or finishing crosswords and drinking coffee, or skating for her local roller derby club, or engaged in her board-game or trivia group, Liz is impressively pulling together a delicious hodgepodge to fuel her uniquely active life.

What does eating well look like for you?

Prepared at home, in a simple manner, and with a bit of impromptu creativity thrown in. This is the way my mom cooked, and she loves to tell the story about me chiding her when I was a teenager: “Can’t you just follow what the recipe says?” But this kind of flexibility in my cooking helps me honor economy, tailor a meal to my preferences, and is a favorite kind of puzzle. My friends tease me for loving leftovers, but I love the thrift and ease of enjoying a dish for many meals. I mostly make a batch of something, then eat it all week. Usually it’s a curry with rice or quinoa, a pan of something - or a stew. Interspersed are salads, and eggs for at least one meal a day. There’s usually a plethora of fresh fruit and veggies in the fridge as well, so those are usually my snacks and are packed into dishes probably more than is enjoyable to most people.

What is a favorite and reliable everyday dish for you?

Usually eggs and veggies find their way into a wrap, onto toast, or atop leftover rice with garlic, greens and toasted sesame seeds.

What I called ‘impromptu creativity’ comes from my tenuous relationship with most recipes. I’ll start to make a dish, figure out I am missing some percentage of the ingredients, and then make it my personal challenge to make some semblance of the dish only using what’s in my fridge and cupboard.

Can you share a defining food memory?

Any time I’ve ever had freshly fried cake donuts. Just plain, no sugar or icing. The time I had apple cider donuts hot out of the fryer at the orchard in Champaign, IL - that was living.

What topics around food are you most interested in, and why?

In a past life, I sourced foods for a small business and I worked on an organic farm, so I appreciate the relationships businesses and consumers can have with small distributors and producers. For this reason, I have particular loyalty to my favorite coffee roasters, and will always seek out a farmer’s market in season. I’m also interested in thoughts around eating out vs. eating in. I am secretly someone who will always prefer to eat at home or at someone else’s table over going out to a restaurant. It turns out I consistently feel overwhelmed with choices on a restaurant menu. I prefer to indulge in providing or sharing special foods I love at home, where things are more casual. I rarely eat out as a convenience, but only on special occasions, for a meal I crave and can’t do justice to at home.

I have to ask. What would you hope for as a last meal on this earth?

Any pizza from Salvatore’s Tomato Pies (in Madison, WI) with red sauce and an antipasto with garlic confit on a perfectly-toasted baguette with a fresh greens salad and a Lake Louie’s Reserve Warped Speed Scotch Ale.

Paper Boat

 
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On this day, one year ago, I fashioned this paper boat and set it in the flow of the Mississippi River. My husband was quite ill, and we weren’t sure where the illness would go. With great difficulty I decided to let my latest project, Goosefoot, go, since I felt compelled to turn all my energy towards his health. Goosefoot felt like a guilty-pleasure, like something I needed to trade in.
***
And now. One year beyond the paper boat, beyond the trauma of that moment in time, my husband is thriving. The boat, I should mention (and please laugh), failed to do the romantic and drift off that morning. It stuck itself into grasses at the river’s edge, capsized and sank before my eyes. Life is strange. And quite beautiful and disheveled and always surprising.

Blueberries at Rush River

 
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Although we grow many berries on our condensed city lot: serviceberries, honeyberries, raspberries, alpine strawberries, I have never had the wherewithal or luck in growing blueberries. They are stubbornly particular about their living conditions, and I haven’t been the most hospitable gardener when it comes to keeping up. But even though our property blesses us with fruit, we are gluttonous, and so each mid-summer we pack a picnic and sunhats and bug spray, and drive an hour southeast of the city to the enchanted Rush River farm in Maiden Rock, Wisconsin.

Once we bend away from Hwy 10 things start rolling, green hills contouring, and all things lighten, including traffic. The car climbs steadily, up into the atmosphere of the Mississippi River Valley, where the bluffs are surprisingly majestic. Rounding a wide bend we take the familiar turnoff, and snake our way along the gravel road that eventually ends at the distinct white farmhouse. It is here where we gleefully pour out of the car, stretch our limbs, smell the air, and nod past the rows of gooseberries and currants.  We are here for the blueberries, and there are nine acres of them, soldiered endlessly down the hill.

My young daughter grabs her long and shallow cardboard box and darts into the berries. I won’t see her for a while, and when I do she’ll be flushed and a little lightheaded from eating too many berries too quickly. It’s inevitable and traditional; it is always hot when we pick and she can’t help herself. I like to pick alone too, and listen to the stories people tell one another while they pick nearby. I have heard some of the most tender things in those fields.

After the sun has overly-cooked us we have a picnic beneath an ancient tree, and sigh. Another year of blueberry picking is over, we lament. Time for heading back along the contours, where I’ll resolve what to do with our harvest. Always my first thought: clafoutis.

Blueberry Clafoutis

Serves about 6

The rustic clafoutis is a sturdy custard pudding that is studded with fruit. To me, it is delicate and refreshing, and a most elegant summertime dessert. Each year, at the height of blueberry season, after we’ve picked boxes of blueberries from our favorite U-Pick farm, this is the first dish our blueberries fold into. I bring this dessert to summertime potlucks since it is so simple to pull together, and is a bit of a nice surprise to those at the table.  Although this recipe asks for blueberries, any berry or any fruit really, can be substituted. Also, I ask you to bake this in a casserole dish, but you can always bake this into individual ramekins if you like. So much room for play! 

MARKET LIST

4 large, sustainable eggs
All-purpose flour (2/3 cup)
Fine sugar ((1/2 cup)
Vanilla extract
¾ cup cream
1 cup milk (preferably whole)
Kosher salt
Kirsch, cognac, or orange-flavored liqueur (optional)
2 cups blueberries
Powdered sugar

Making the Batter

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Liberally butter a ceramic or earthenware baking dish (about 2-quart size), or a 10-inch cast-iron pan or heavy pie pan. In a blender (or food processor, or large bowl) add 4 large, sustainable eggs (preferably room temperature), 2/3 cup all-purpose flour, ½ cup fine sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, 3/4 cup cream, 1 cup milk (preferably whole), pinch of kosher salt, and 1-2 tablespoons Kirsch, cognac, or orange-flavored  liqueur (optional), and blend until combined.

So Simple

Add about 2 cups fresh blueberries into the baking dish in an even layer, and pour the batter over. Bake for about 40 minutes, or until it has evenly puffed and is golden, and is just firm to the touch. Allow it to cool on a cooling rack for at least 15 minutes; watch for the clafoutis to deflate a bit.

Once it’s cooled down, dust over some powdered sugar.  Serve it either in wedges, or spoon servings out. Serve this dish at room temperature, but store in the refrigerator, well-covered, for up to a few days.

In the Making

In the Making

More and more, I see the act of cooking as worthy in itself. That it should be valued for the experience it gifts us, and perhaps less so for the final product—the dish—it produces. Like gardening, or other practices that entail patience, humility and labor, most of the credit is found in the act itself, before the bloom of the flower, or before the bud.

Before we plate or even eat our salad, we must gather our ingredients, wash them, slice what should be sliced, whisk away a while. Taste for salt, or lemon, add more heat, notice what’s fragrant or burning, scrub the garlic from our fingertips, and listen to our children scamper through the kitchen, pouring into the backyard. This is life. And all of it happened in that seemingly benign moment—in the making of dinner.

A kind of play, a kind of agency transpires in the kitchen. We don’t notice, only because the culture reinforces the notion that cooking is quaint, or entertainment, or intimidating and too-involved, or as something to bustle through in order to move on to the next thing. What is that next thing? Anyhow, it is understood as a means to an end, and anyway, there is always take-out or a deli salad. With all of that, we are understandably disconnected from the venue of the kitchen, and the important acts that take place there.

It is here we get a bit dirty. We knead, and learn the practice by kneading again. A kind of voting booth, we choose our ingredients and concoct our own versions of the dishes we want to eat. And so we are generous with our imaginations, adding pistachios to this or ketchup to that. Our instincts get some exercise; even with our backs turned, our noses tell us to turn the heat down on those onions. It is a place of creation, and a place where we get to nourish our bodies and the bodies of those we feed.

I wonder something unusual: before we expect people to produce beautiful, homemade meals with integrity—such is the subliminal pressure—or even integrate home cooking back into everyday life, we need to simply be in the kitchen. Dramatically, we need to step over the threshold, with fresh perspective, with our senses at the ready. To partake and explore there, regardless of the dish being made or how it turns out. But the act of cooking is in of itself a beautiful, enriching playdate.