Sunday, October 28, 2007

Going and staying

I found myself back home today. And that's no simple statement because it means I have made yet another home for myself. It means I have laid down roots somewhere new, and it will take time to re-root when I leave. I know all about re-rooting, though, and often look forward to the new adventure it implies.

On those thoughts, "place" has been a frequent subject in my English class this semester, and I have come to understand that my experience with geographical place helps organize my life:

1. There is my birthplace: Hawaii.

2. There is my first-snow place, Wisconsin, which I will only ever remember through pictures of a toddler bundled in baby pink and perched on a sled with her two big brothers.

3. There is my new-sister place of Seattle where I gained a constant roommate for the next sixteen years.

4. My first-day-of-school place, Auckland, New Zealand, is shrouded in mystery and cannot be summed up in any brief phrase related to my educational journey. The mystery comes from the heap of fading memories coupled with the deep impression those years of my childhood made on my life.

5. My it's-scary-to-be-in-a-spot-this-long place still did not lack shifts in scenery. I spent ten years in Bellingham, Washington, and attended five different schools. I was ready to leave with high school graduation but blew many kisses to my beloved Pacific Northwest from my airplane window.

6. My plane touched down in Texas, and this became my I'm-learning-what-I-don't-like place. With a large amount of grace I was able to make it through my freshman year of college and look back with appreciation.

7. Summers since then have been new-adventure places each defined by their own unique settings and life lessons.

8. Oxford was my let's-slow-time place. Somehow I managed to be dragged onto my return flight after four months of study, travel, and Digestives galore.

9. Without a set plan for following my artistic dreams, I returned to Bellingham, which became my semester-from-hell place. Okay, it wasn't that bad, but my job during this period bordered on daily torture.

10. Next I settled in my pinch-myself-to-make-sure-it's-real place -- Westmont College. Set in beautiful Santa Barbara with an exceptional academic reputation, I had toyed with the idea of attending this place since high school. Though far from an idyllic year, it was essential to who I am as a budding artist and ever-hungry soul.

11. Finally having reached the present...I am clicking away at my laptop in my life-is-full-of-surprises place. It is the same campus on which I found myself a foreigner three years ago. Who knew?

I certainly could not have predicted I would be in Abilene again and calling this place home. Granted, I use the term "home" loosely, but when life involves such brief intervals of familiarity, it is required that one embrace the familiar for as long as it lasts.

I loved the familiar sights I encountered as I entered my apartment tonight. Two roommates moving about the kitchen and dropping everything to say hi and welcome back. A bed covered with an antique sari design and fluffy cream colored pillow. Maple leaves filling my window's view.

And what makes a house a home? -- Good food. (That's an important part of my answer, anyway.) Us girls who live here -- May, June, and me (I'm April. Have you caught on yet?) -- love to share in the enjoyment of food, as anyone could have witnessed tonight as I dumped shopping bags on the counter, and my roomies gathered around to ooh and aah at my treasures with me. Then it was May's turn to show off what she got on her own Dallas trip. We plotted our next meal together.

June most graciously offered to make me dinner as I settled back in, and I could not turn down such a proposition. So about ten minutes later I sat down to a delicious meal of cold udon noodles with cucumber, tomato, tuna, carrot, mushroom, and seaweed. Delightful food accompanied by even more delightful company.

I did not exactly plan out this blog post. Or, at least what I did plan was a bit different from the result. I imagined myself writing about the struggle of being satisfied where one is at, especially when one does not desire to stay there long.

However, I am now reminded that planting roots is worth the risks and pains involved. Even if the uprooting comes quickly, having simply opened up allows one to generously contribute to the present setting as well as humbly gain from it.

Alright, I'll stop preaching to myself...

For my own peace of mind, I promise to post a recipe in the coming week. I'm not sure what, but after my exciting trip to Dallas, and all the hard-to-find ingredients I acquired, I am sure it will be a good one!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

A soup story

I keep hoping that the more soup I make the more quickly autumn will come. This particular week I've been progressively working on one batch of soup.

I combined most the ingredients last Friday.
Ignored it through the weekend.
Ate a small bowl with my roomie for lunch Tuesday.
Dumped it in the blender with some squash and garlic on Wednesday night.
Sat down to enjoy a truly satisfying soup (topped with Gouda and toast) at 12 o'clock today.

Now allow me to back up and share the origins if this creation...

Once upon a time there was a large amount of great northern beans in the back of a resourceful college girl's fridge. They had been quite patient in awaiting their contribution to her menu but squirmed each time she opened the fridge in search of lunch or dinner. The girl noticed this, and it made her nervous as well because no matter how many beans she tossed into pasta or salad they remained an intimidating bunch.

Finally, one Friday evening she pushed past the feta, roasted red peppers, and yellow squash and grasped the smooth rounded surface of their tupperware. With no recipe before her, an otherwise by-the-books sort of girl sauteed some onions with olive oil in the bottom of a saucepan as she set to work chopping the remainder of her carrots and zucchini. Once the onions were soft, in went vegetable broth, carrots, zucchini, and the delighted beans. To avoid a novel, let us just say that the whole thing got a little overcooked and the cumin seeds that were sprinkled in became a little too potent.

Excitement died; outside the leaves appeared greener than ever; soup was forgotten.

Tuesday morning held the promise of fall. Fog descended upon the girl's town and with it all the sentiments that go along with most October days, including a desire for soup. So out came the humble combination of beans, veggies, broth, and cumin; it was heated in two bowls for two girls with hungry bellies. Both bellies and girls agreed the little soup was not a lost cause.

With half of a soft, warm acorn squash in one hand and garlic press in the other, Wednesday night a determined young woman set about rescuing her soup. She dumped the already soft zucchini and carrots along with beans, broth, and onion--oh, and cumin--into a blender and spooned in squash. A small amount of garlic added needed flavor. In no time at all the mixture was a beautiful yellow, like a fall sweater from anthropologie, and silky smooth.

As Texas typically behaves, the next day would not have been considered a "soup day" for it was once again sunny and warm. However, the woman found herself in a soup mood out of sheer curiosity. Would the simple medley of flavors and textures work? Just to make sure, she added two ingredients that never ever do harm: cheese and bread. And this is what she got...

It was quite a lovely ending to a long story!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

What to eat when lightning strikes

My run today was shorter than usual. It involved a three minute dash across campus as I raced the elements. I am now safe and (mostly) dry as I curl up on the corner of my couch and face the coming storm through our large window. Lightning is beginning to flash in jagged bolts, and the thunder has been building up for half an hour. I love these moments.

Storms and friends, these are the reasons I came back to Texas. Mostly the friends, actually, and this week has been a wonderful, exhausting, rewarding, stressful juggling act of those I love, school work, and health (e.g. the semi-essentials like sleep, good food, etc.).

Thank goodness it’s Thursday. Especially as I sit here in the semi-darkness and catch my breath with each spidery flash of light. I don’t want this place of rest and wonder to disappear.

I’m going to have to set this blog aside for a little while, though, and get some things done. A research paper and collage await. And lunch.

Speaking of which, I am still working on a delicious pasta dish I cooked up a couple nights ago, and since the pictures of it are idly sitting on my desktop, I think it’s time to share.

Tuesday evening I was envisioning my glorious bed as I crawled walked home. But knowing I couldn’t afford to sleep yet nor neglect my empty stomach, I set about making something a little more elaborate than my standard spinach salad. Actually, my spinach seemed to be taunting me each time I pulled it out of the drawer in the past few days saying, “My days are numbered!” So I decided to do something with those persistent leaves.

On I found the perfect inspiration, only making a few modifications and substitutions.

Pasta with White Beans, Spinach, and Olives
Serves 4 to 6

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, diced small
3 garlic cloves, minced
20 oz. spinach
¾ c. vegetable broth
1 can (14.5 oz.) diced tomatoes, drained
1 can (15 oz.) cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
¾ c. pitted kalamata olives, roughly chopped
13 ¼ oz. pasta (original recipe recommends spaghetti — I had angel hair)
2 oz. (1 cup) parmesan cheese, finely grated
Ground black pepper

1. Heat oil in pan on medium-high heat until fragrant. Add onion to pan and cook until starting to brown, about 5 minutes. Add minced garlic. Cook, stirring constantly, until garlic is fragrant, about 30 seconds.

2. Add half of spinach to pan; toss until it starts to wilt, and then remaining spinach, broth, tomatoes, and 3/4 teaspoon salt. Cover. Increase heat to high and bring to strong simmer. Reduce heat to medium and cook, covered, tossing occasionally, until spinach is completely wilted. Stir in beans and olives.

3. Meanwhile, bring 4 quarts water to boil. Add pasta and 1 tablespoon salt; cook until pasta is almost al dente. Drain pasta and return to pot. Add greens mixture to pasta, set over medium-high heat, and toss to combine. Cook until pasta absorbs most of liquid, about 2 minutes. Stir in 1 cup of Parmesan and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.

I feel kind of silly messing with a Cook's Illustrated recipe in an area outside my "expertise," such as pasta that follows a recipe. So I will humbly say that in this case my version is probably not the best. And yet the beauty of this dish was that it felt both fancy and homey. The ingredients weren't exotic but they blended wonderfully and filled the kitchen with a garlicky fragrance.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Granola that never grows old

One delightful thing this semester is that I have my own kitchen. I endured cafeteria food for two years and enough was far more than enough! (There was a year between those two that involved studying abroad and working at home.) So I find myself in a dangerous place because I would much prefer to bake scones or cook curry than study for tests. There is also the matter of my budget, and the looks I get from friends as I drag them through the grocery store in search of currants and instant espresso. (I know, I know. These ingredients shouldn't be that scarce, but somehow here they are!) Thankfully, college students are hungry people, and it's not hard to pawn off my creations, even if they're not typical Texan fare.

This weekend I made granola, which is in my opinion the ultimate comfort food. My mom has been toasting oats and dried fruit and nuts of all varieties in every oven we have possessed--from Hawaii to New Zealand to Washington. In the early years she included bran flakes and a simple mixture of oil and honey. Today the family favorite has cut back on mix-ins but elaborated on syrup.

My mother has kept me faithfully stocked up with this variety, which she dubbed "Blessings Granola" in the family cookbook she put together two years ago. Now that I'm in my very own apartment, I'm saving her some postage and filling my own place with the sweet smell of home.

Blessings Granola
Makes 4 cups

¼ c. honey
¼ c. oil
2 T. frozen orange juice concentrate
2 T. brown sugar (I consider this optional-it increases the sweetness and chewiness only slightly)
¼ t. vanilla

Separately mix:
½ c. pecans
1 ½ c. rolled oats
¼ c. slivered almonds
¼ c. pumpkin seeds

Mix both together. Thinly spread onto rimmed baking sheet. Bake until toasted in 325° oven.

Remove from oven. Stir in:
¼ c. coconut flakes
¼ c. golden raisins
7 dried apricots, chopped
¼ c. dried cranberries

Let cool before transferring to storage jar or container.
*Notes: This is an incredibly loose recipe. I do not even know how much my mom adheres to it, but as I was starting to get the hang of granola-making it was a very helpful guide. The orange juice can be substituted with pretty much anything else (I only had white grape juice concentrate on hand this time) and I rarely ever measure out my fruit and nuts because I always want to put more in anyway. If you want a particularly chewy granola than stick with the ratios given, but I purposefully increase the dry ingredients for economical reasons.

If you've never made granola before then I will warn you that you need to be very attentive! After about five minutes give the mixture its first stir. From there it's up to you how toasted you want it. I tend to let it get pretty brown because I like it that way (this batch is a lighter one).

I would love to hear what variations you have made or are inspired to do. As for me, I'm thinking of throwing in some pumpkin pie spice next time around and plenty of pumpkin seeds (and hazelnuts?!). Quite appropriate for autumn, I think.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Thoughts and food

Today it is thoughts first. Then food. After all, this is my first blog entry, and I think you deserve a little introduction.

I discovered my first delightful food blog about a month ago when I stumbled upon Molly's Orangette
through a series of links. I was instantly hooked. Not only is she a talented writer and cook, but she transports me home to the Pacific Northwest. You see, I'm a roaming college student who is currently in the state of Texas this particular school year. I knew I could easily subtitle my blog something like "the culinary adventures of a college student," but when it all came together that idea was set aside. Regardless, I would like to emphasize the adventure it truly is trying to find good ingredients in this barren land of West Texas!

(I also felt like sticking the "college student" line in my header would earn me some grace regarding my haphazard collection of kitchen tools, tight budget, etc.)

The most important thing to me in stepping into this endeavor is to address more than just the relationship of baking soda with lemon juice but the relationship between people and food. It is undeniable.

I'm not going to lie: food gives me sooo much pleasure. The way balsamic vinegar tickles my tongue as it rolls off the leaves of spinach salad. The way the smell of granola fills the whole house as it toasts in the oven. The way a simple apple crisp with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream can taunt me as its warm and cold contents marble and inevitably disappear from the bowl.

I have been so spoiled by the good food I have enjoyed in my life.

And that's where I pause with this blog and ask, "why me?" Why do I have the privilege of going on about fresh bread, homemade pesto, and chocolate cake? The answer to the why isn't so important as not forgetting the abundance in which I live and being humbly grateful for it all (especially when I'm in the grocery store longingly staring at the most expensive bottle of olive oil).

As much as I want this to be a light, enjoyable blog with tantalizing recipes and beautiful pictures, I do strive to take seriously the gift of food. I hate to eat on a full stomach, even when it's the last crumbs of my mom's banana rum bread because something about that cheapens the act of gratitude. It also perpetuates a natural attitude of immediacy, which, though widely embraced in the West, I would prefer to avoid.

I am sure I'm not alone in this search for balance as a food blogger (and consumer), but it will likely continue to come up in my writing as I process life through challenging risotto recipes, daring salad combinations, and every possible variation on the scone. And hopefully I'll know when to stop and pick up my journal or a book when the flour runs low, or I'll know when my stomach's only pretending to grumble because it wants to distract me from the mountain of homework I have to do.

Bear with me, dear reader. This is a lifetime work in progress. I do not practice what I preach all the time, but I do believe what I say here with all my soul.