Saturday, January 29, 2011

Winter in Nashville

winter tree, Nashville TN

Every week or so we get an inch of snow, not even enough to cover the scraggly blades of grass in our backyard. And every week the sun breaks through with deep blue skies that stretch from horizon to horizon, and the snow is gone in a day, in hours, in minutes. I apologize to my Northern friends; while nothing is growing here we still get those whiffs of soft dirt and warmed air that sing spring. I'm sorry our January feels like February, and our February skips to late March and flowers and rainstorms. It's not fair.

Growing up in New England, I always recognized the first robin of spring as a harbinger of budding trees and thin jackets. In Pittsburgh giant swarms of robins filled the parks after the last snow, pulling worms from the dirt and leaving the tunnels open to the sky. But now the robin is a winter bird; flocks fifty to one hundred deep line the telephone wires and fill trees with rustles and chirps. Snowy mornings are pandemonium: birds careen from yard to yard, looking for exposed dirt and fighting over the last of the fall's forgotten fruits. The robins are not alone; they are joined by mockingbirds and clumps of greasy-looking starlings, and occasional strikes by ravens or small hawks. One snowy morning I looked up in surprise to see three seagulls winging westward, their long thin wings and throaty call unmistakable, even 700 miles inland.

It's true that you never want what you have. This mild winter makes me long for the feet of snow burying my mother's house and envious of the my friends' slow, slushy bus rides to work. I miss the kind of winter where you feel like you are surviving. Where a walk to the state store for a bottle of wine becomes an exercise in character-building. Where you hole up at your buddy's house, under blankets and wool hats, bullshitting all night because it's too cold to walk home. Those kind of winters thicken your backbone and make the spring that much more of a miracle.

Friends, do not lament your cold and adverse winters. Do not envy me. For six months from now, when you are wearing light shirts and walking by a river, I will be driven indoors by endless blazing sun, soaked with sweat, and wracked with migraines from humidity so thick you can cut it with a knife.

lion, Nashville TN

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Barszcz Czerwony (Red Beet Soup)

Barszcz Czerwony (Red Beet Soup)

For the past five years or so I have had a borscht problem. Basically, everything in borscht sounds delicious: sweet chopped beets, lots of onions and garlic, so-good-for-you cabbage, and a rich hearty broth perfect for a dollop of sour cream. With the best of intentions I have made borscht about a dozen times over the years, and each time I have been utterly underwhelmed with the result. As I geared up for my latest attempt, I thought long and hard about why my borscht has failed where so many other soups have succeeded. After much reflection, I think I have fingered my culprit: the 28oz can of chopped tomatoes.

Now I am not totally anti-canned tomato. There is a time and place for it - when making chili or a wintertime marinara, or anything where you know you are going to spice the heck out of it. However, in a dish as simple and guileless as borscht, there is nothing to cut that overwhelming canned tomato taste. Also, I feel like tomatoes and beets are a rough combination; the acid in the tomatoes negates the sweetness of the beets and leaves you with a big bowl of pink, bland mush.

I built this borscht recipe from the ground up, doing a little research into regional variations and taking out everything I don't like while adding in a little extra of what do. The end result is a little closer to an extra-chunky Polish Barszcz, and will really sing if made with homemade vegetable broth.

029Barszcz Czerwony (Red Beet Soup)

Barszcz Czerwony (Red Beet Soup)

1 Tbs olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 stem of celery, chopped
1-2 carrots, chopped into coins
4 small beets with greens (peel and chop beets, rinse and chop greens including stems)
1 potato, peeled and chopped
2 cups red cabbage, chopped into thin ribbons
1/3 cup red wine
4 cups of vegetable broth, homemade or high quality
2 bay leaves
fresh ground pepper
the juice of 1/2 a lemon

Sauté the onion in a the olive oil over medium heat until the onion is transparent. Add in the garlic, celery and carrot and sauté for one minute more. Add the chopped beet greens and cabbage, as well as the red wine. Pop a cover on the pot and allow the steam from the red wine to wilt the beet greens. When they are softened add the chopped beets, potatoes, vegetable broth and bay leaves. Bring to a boil and then turn the heat down to a simmer. Simmer maybe 15 - 20 minutes until the beets are soft. Add salt and fresh ground pepper (light on the salt, heavy on the pepper) and lemon juice. Take a bite and close your eyes, because you live in flavor country now and it is Kraków.

Tonight's the Night

Sometimes songs have a way of immediately snatching you by the neck. Within a few bars you are hooked, strangled and left at the mercy of a few guitars and a rough voice. These songs come on like a strong infatuation; you spin them endlessly for hours and days and then suddenly drop them, feeling like a gigolo or a foolish mistress.

Then there are the albums that take ages to sink in. You toy with them, play coy, place them on the turntable on and off for months waiting for a message, a secret, a code. Sometimes it never comes. But sometimes the moon eclipses and the tide roars in and suddenly it all makes sense.

This past week the second scenario hit me hard, like a dagger in the gut. The album in question is Neil Young's Tonight's the Night. Written in the wake of the death of two friends, the album is melancholy and introverted, filled with sideways allusions to desolation. The music loosely thumps and jangles, but the vocals maintain a pointed aggression that belies its seemingly laid-back nature. Here, every beautiful country road dead-ends into hopelessness, disaster and suicide. In "Tired Eyes" Neil mutters:
I mean was he a heavy doper
or was he just a loser?
He was a friend of yours.
What do you mean,
he had bullet holes
in his mirrors?
He tried to do his best
but he could not.

There was a distinct moment when this album finally grabbed me by the collar. I was riding the bus out of downtown on a gloomy, rain-spitting morning when "Albuquerque" came on my headphones. I listened to the lyrics unspool while I stared at the grey world through those filmy, mud-flecked windows, and my heart leaped when I came to the line ... and I've been starvin' to be alone.

I have never spent more time alone then I have in Nashville. A week's worth of hours staring out a bus window, long afternoons washing dishes in the sink or watching flocks of birds congregate and disappear. And yet the more I am alone the more I crave it. I fall deeply into my mind, into a poisonous preoccupation with ideas I can't explain, and have little occasion to. At that moment, on a morning where I had yet to say a word aloud, there was nothing I would have liked better then to drive myself even further away from civilization and sever the cord.

Neil Young's voice, thin and hungry and wolfish, is the voice in my head most days these days.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The night I turned 29

Matt and I had a quick pint before dinner.


Featured is UFO Raspberry Hefeweizen (mine) and Kona Pipeline Porter (his).

Then Matt took me to a special birthday dinner at The Melting Pot (aka Melted Chocolate and Cheese, Inc). This was an act of extreme kindness, especially since it was little-black-dress-eat-fondue-and-bitch-with-your-girlfriends promotional night, and he was the only man there not waiting tables.

Also, check out that outfit. What a saint!

Melting pot - matt

Obligatory Melting Pot money shot.

melting pot - cheese

For dessert we dripped a variety of tidbits (including baby rice krispy treats) into a mixture of dark chocolate and chambord. Shown here is the aftermath. Note that I am drinking a glass of port, because over the course of the meal I was transformed into a moneyed patriarch.

Melting pot - dessert

I am definitely feeling my age because this was exactly how I wanted to spend my birthday.

Of course, there will be some revelry this weekend, and some pictures, perhaps, to illustrate to proper way to give a rebel yell.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Southern Tofu Pot Pie

Today I wanted to make a casserole, but I also wanted to avoid a trip to the supermarket at all costs. The result is this charming and tasty pot pie, full of hominy and smoky marinated tofu, topped with that beacon of Southern hospitality: buttermilk biscuits.

This recipe is vegan and so so delicious that Matt and I kept calling to each other across the house. "ARE YOU TASTING THIS? IT IS SO GOOD." "YES, THIS IS REALLY REALLY GOOD."

Jan 15 2010 014

Southern Tofu Pot Pie

There are three parts to this recipe - the marinated tofu, the stew and the biscuits. If you have a stand-by biscuit recipe feel free to sub it in.

for the tofu
1 package of firm or extra-firm tofu
1/4 cup veggie broth
1.5 Tbs soy sauce
1 Tbs olive oil
1 Tbs nutritional yeast
fresh ground pepper
a few droplets of liquid smoke

for the stew
1 Tbs olive oil
1 small onion, diced
1 cup diced carrots
1 can hominy, drained and rinsed
1 cup frozen peas
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups of veggie broth
2 Tbs cornstarch
1 Tbs soy sauce
1/2 tsp dried thyme
1/2 tsp rubbed sage
1/4 tsp dried marjoram
fresh ground pepper

for the biscuits
2/3 cup soymilk
1 Tbs apple cider vinegar
1/4 tsp baking soda
2 cups self-raising flour
1/3 cup vegetable shortening

Marinating the Tofu
Rinse and press the tofu, and cut it into 1/2 inch cubes. Mix the remaining ingredients in a tupperware and throw in the tofu. Let it sit for at least an hour, shaking occasionally to make sure everybody is getting soaked equally.

Making the Stew
Get out your trusty cast iron pan and heat a tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and carrot and sauté until they are softened and just turning brown. Add the garlic, hominy and peas and sauté one minute more. Add the tofu and any leftover marinade. At this point take a moment to dissolve 2 tablespoons of cornstarch into 2 cups of cold or room-temperature vegetable broth. When the cornstarch is dissolved completely, begin adding the broth to the vegetables in the cast iron pan. You want to add just enough broth to cover the veggies. I ended up using about 1.5 cups; you might need more or less. Add the soy sauce and spices and taste to correct. Continue to cook over medium heat until the mixture comes to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer the mixture for 7 minutes or so, stirring occasionally as the stew thickens. Cut the heat and get ready to make some biscuits!

Making the Biscuits
Measure out the soymilk and add the apple cider vinegar and baking soda to measuring cup. Mix well and set aside for five minutes so the milk can curdle. In a large bowl measure out the self-raising flour (Must be self-raising! No substitutions!) Cut the vegetable shortening into the flour with two butter knives or a pastry cutter. Pour in the soymilk and stir until everything is just mixed. Pull out the dough and knead it 4-5 times. With your lil' paws roll the dough into golfball-sized balls, flatten slightly, and place on top of the stew about 1" apart from one another.

Bake the assembled pot pie at 425º for 15 minutes. It's ready to go when the biscuits sound hollow when tapped. Serve with gigantic glasses of soymilk and eat while making omnomnomnomnom noises.

Jan 15 2010 025

Monday, January 10, 2011

Southern Snowstorm

I woke at 4am to a reddish light filling the room. In the sodium vapor streetlight, snowflakes swung and fell.

A few hours later I walked to the bus stop, in purpled light, on virgin snow.

snow, Nashville

snow, Nashville

Some of us know how to stay warm; the cat sleeps fox-wise, dreams of milk.

Jules Verne - little fox

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Kitchen Day / Spinach Lentil Crockpot Soup

After a long sabbatical I finally had another proper kitchen day. Kitchen days are a wonderful and spontaneous occurrences that spark to life from an unplanned Sunday. I'll wake up, eat a little breakfast and then by 10am start to feel a little tickle in the cooking part of my brain. I'll flip through recipes, scour blogs and stare at the cans and bottles in the pantry to formulate a plan of attack. By 11am I am usually in full-force.

Kitchen days almost always involve some kind of baking. This week it was bagels (recipe here) topped with sesame, caraway and dill seeds. This was my most successful batch of bagels yet - golden and rounded and actually bagel-sized. Oh, and they tasted good too.

Then I moved onto soup. The news has been full of predictions for a pretty dire snowstorm to hit tonight. Jut reading about about inches of snow and chilly winds made me think "SOUP!" Not only soup, but crockpot soup: the dinner that also functions as a space heater.

This soup was based on the memory of a low-fat soup my mom used to make. I tweaked it a bit to make it more complex and a tad french and sassy, with the addition of wine, thyme and caramelized onions. It's a warm and hearty soup/stew hybrid.

Spinach Lentil Crockpot Soup

Spinach Lentil Crockpot Soup

1 medium onion, chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
3 carrots, chopped into coins
1 10oz package of frozen chopped spinach
1 cup brown lentils
4 cups vegetable broth
splash of white wine
2 tbs tomato paste
1 bay leaf
1 tsp thyme
1/8 tsp celery seed
fresh pepper

Over medium heat (and I mean medium, not medium high because you are impatient) sauté the onions in a tablespoon of olive oil until they are caramelized. This may take 5+ minutes. When the onions are browned and sweet add the garlic and carrots and sauté two minutes more. Plug in ye olde crockpot and combine these sautéed veggies with the remaining ingredients. Heat all day at low heat or 4-5 hours on high heat. Salt just before serving - I like to use a combo of sea salt and soy sauce to add a little umami. Serve with... I dunno... garlic bread sound good?

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Pittsburgh, cold and gray

I spent an accumulation of 8 days in Pittsburgh over the holidays and nearly every day was gray and spitting snow or drizzle. I couldn't have been happier; it meant I was really home.

Birmingham Bridge, Pittsburgh PA

South Side, Pittsburgh PA

South Side, Pittsburgh PA

The nights brought a sweet intimacy, a warm mystery.

Emerald Glass - Pittsburgh PA

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Himalayan Salt Crystal Lamp

If you have ever set foot in a natural foods co-op or that store at the mall that sells hermit crabs, then you are familiar with the Himalayan Salt Crystal Lamp. For those of you who haven't had the pleasure, it's a lamp that consists of a 25 watt light bulb screwed into the bottom of a chunk of solid rock salt. According to devotees it "ionizes" the air, eliminating harmful pollutants and radiation from our technologically advanced lives. It also looks rill purdy. Most people with any scientific background will tell you that slightly warmed salt does not function as a HEPA quality air filter, nor will it confer upon you ancient blessings. However, no one can argue that it looks like a totally boss glowing wizard stone.

My husband received one of these things as a Christmas gift this year. He hadn't even finished the sentence "What am I going to do with this?" before I blurted out "GIVE IT TO ME PLEASE GIVE IT TO ME I'LL PUT IT ON MY DESK AT WORK AND LOOK AT IT ALL DAY EVERY DAY". Guess who won this one?

So after lugging an 8lb salt crystal on a two bus, 45 minute journey to my office, I set this lamp up and my whole working life became about 54% better.

You see, for the first time in my working life I have an office. I have windows! And walls! And a desk I can put things on and not have to keep spotlessly clear! After years of temping and teaching and working in reception, I can finally decorate my workspace. This giant hippy crystal was not only something goofy to look at during my 8-5, but also my first trembling step into actually personalizing my office. An exciting prospect! So I set this puppy up and now spend many minutes each day silently contemplating the beauty of its ageless orange glow and the wisdom contained within.

I also spend another large chunk of my day visualizing grinding the crystal up and sprinkling it on top of a bagel.

Monday, January 3, 2011

homecoming black bean soup


After so many lovely days in Pittsburgh we have returned to our current home-sweet-home in Tennessee. Unexpectedly the trip home was a sigh of relief - a chance to return to our 'real' lives, to pick up our scattered projects and enjoy the privacy of our Nashville life.

This week I will post some pictures from our Pittsburgh adventures. But for now we are both beyond exhausted with the holiday season and overfilled with heavy meals and sugar. After unpacking the car I turned to my favorite panacea: vegetable soup. And this time with pictures!

Black Bean Soup

Black Bean Soup

1 small onion, chopped
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 sweet potato, peeled and cubed
2 carrots, peeled and sliced into coins
1 cup frozen corn
1 can black beans, undrained*
4 cups of veggie broth
1 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp smoked paprika
1/4 tsp oregano
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
fresh ground pepper
hot sauce to taste (I use Tabasco chipotle sauce)

In a soup pot over medium heat sauté the chopped onions with a little olive oil. After they become soft add the garlic and sauté a minute more. Add the broth as well as the sweet potato, carrots, corn and undrained black beans. Bring the whole thing to a boil and then lower the heat to keep it at a simmer. Add the spices and taste for seasoning (Tabasco chipotle sauce, in addition to being my personal kitchen secret weapon, is very mild and forgiving in a sauce - I really pour it in). Simmer the soup 15-20 minutes until everything is soft and delicious. Best served in a chilly house, and goes perfectly with croutons and sweaters.

* I know this may be an unpopular or shocking opinion, but I am a fan of cooking with the liquid from canned beans. It lends a silky thickness to soups and sauces while eliminating the need for additional salting. It's not for every recipe, but it works beautifully in this one.

Sunday, January 2, 2011


Mailing Letters

January has come: a clean break, an empty frame, an expanse of fresh air.

For anyone looking for a project to expend a little of this positive energy on, I would like to humbly recommend Fun-A-Day. The goal of Fun-A-Day is simple: choose a project and complete one small step towards it every day during the month of January. By the end of the month you will have a body of work to share or use as a jumping off point for your next project. The whole point behind it is to stay motivated and productive during a month known for bitter weather and too much time spent inside.

A few years ago I drew a self-portrait every day in January. Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the project was creating a visual diary - in the style and substance of the drawings you can read the events of the day and the ideas I had been turning over. I am working on a project in the same vein for this month; I will be writing a very short poem each day, concerned specifically with capturing the tone and texture of the day. This project comes from a two-fold need to a) write more poetry and b) resume keeping a personal journal. I have already written three small dashes of poems and I an excited to share selections as the month goes on.

Friends, are you participating in Fun-A-Day?