Monthly Archives: May 2010

WILT #4, in which I go to Powell’s

*Note: I thought I had this scheduled to post yesterday (Tuesday), but apparently I told WordPress to post it on May 25th of 2011. Iiinteresting. Well, here we go! WILT on Wednesday!*

Driving from Minnesota to Oregon, Jesse and I took our separate cars and communicated via walkie-talkies. We listened to podcasts on our iPod FM transmitters and ate corn nuts. And during the quieter times, when I turned off the radio and our walkie-talkies were clipped silent to our visors, I thought about the liminal state in which I was driving. Between homes. I think a lot of resolutions are made on long drives.

We hit Montana and I was thinking about the creative writing I so fervently did back in high school. The bad poetry in middle school, the stories in fifth grade… and it hit me that though I’d done books-worth of academic writing in college, my time in Minnesota had largely been a big 7 year long period of writer’s block. I decided, somewhere in southwestern Montana, that I needed to reconnect with that former passion. We arrived in Portland on a Sunday (Easter, actually), and on Monday I was seeking out writing workshops. I found one with a miraculous opening thanks to a recent cancellation. I signed up to head to Powell’s Books every Tuesday night for a workshop called (prompt) facilitated by the wonderful people at Write Around Portland.

Getting to the big bookstore on W Burnside from our home in the boonies can be accomplished by car, or by car and MAX light rail. Last week, I was looking for a new experience so I chose the latter. I drove up to the MAX stop at Clackamas Town Center and hopped on the green line to downtown.

I stuck my headphones in my ears and caught up on “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!”

Purple seats!

After a quarter-mile walk, I made it to Powell’s. I like to get there early so I can spend my entire disposable income inside.

This is my favorite section these days. History of food! Food writing! I found this gem on the shelf:

Which contained this incredible recipe (click to embiggen):

Jesse and I did not enjoy this particular dish on our trek out to Oregon.

Walking among the tall shelves, time literally stops. Or at least you’d like it to.

I shuffled around with this book in my hands for a while, but set it down in favor of a used paperback Golden’s Birds of North America guide. I thought Jesse might find it more palatable.

And now you’ve learned something!

After browsing and page-turning (and spending), I headed up to the 4th floor to the back conference room. 12 of us and our facilitator write and share and give feedback there for two hours. We have to pick up “backstage passes” at the desk at the top of the stairs, as we head behind the scenes to get to our conference room. Big empty shelves, old desks with new computers, and rolling carts as far as the eye can see.

After the workshop, I stopped at the cafe on the first floor to get some licorice root tea before heading back to the MAX. I was tickled to notice that the romance section is planted right next to the very public, very window-ed cafe seating area.

Tea in hand and messenger bag slung over my shoulder, I headed back to the MAX, looking very much like a stereotypical Powell’s-goer. It doesn’t take too long to get comfortable here.

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hippie crack

Wow. 2010 is a year of changes in my world, and last week I reached a new milestone: my first day in my first job as an RN. The days leading up to that initial evening shift on Friday were full of nervous excitement, trepidation, and appetite funkiness.

All I wanted to eat this week was corn. Kix. (Processed in a facility that also handles wheat, but I’m lucky in that I don’t have to worry *too* much about cross-contamination.) Corn Chex. Polenta with parmigiano reggiano. Sweet corn in my black bean chili. Corn and sweet potato chips with sharp cheddar cheese. Something about the bright starchiness and high glycemic index must have been comforting.

When I was a sophomore in college, I lived in the campus’s vegetarian co-op. 19 (or so) of us shared a kitchen, grocery funds, and cooking duties. I learned to cook at the co-op. For 20+ people. Beans and rice and veggie pies and salads and Annie’s Goddess Dressing (alas, no more! It contains soy sauce with wheat!). Diving for bruised peaches and baguette before Whole Foods started locking down their dumpsters. Dancing to The Current in the kitchen while mixing up peanut sauce. I lost my freshman 15 (er, 30) while living at the co-op. I’m staying decidedly nostalgic and sticking to the positive memories because, on the flip side, I was 19 and going through the existential and developmental crises expected at that age. While writing this post, I decided to check my alma mater’s website to see if it boasted any info on the Co-op; not only does the co-op have a page, one of the images for the co-op is OF MY $%#@ING ROOM!!!! THAT’s trippy. There’s my pink teddy bear that my great grandmother gave me.

And sometimes the co-op kind of sucked.

But! I learned to make this popcorn. A few of my co-op-mates were familiar with the recipe independently of each other; some from Washington state and one from southeastern Minnesota were unfazed by the addition of soy sauce and nutritional yeast to the freshly popped kernels. But I, having come from the world of 97% fat-free butter flavor microwave popcorn, was happily amazed. So was my almost-pa-in-law when I made a batch a couple weeks ago. It’s a good memory,  something positive, that I’ve brought with me as I approach this crazy transition year. Along with that teddy bear.

Hippie Crack

I’m calling it that with a major smirk. I’m not sure if anyone I lived with back in the co-op would seriously call him/herself a hippy–not without a hefty trail of descriptors and qualifications. But that’s how we thought the outside saw us, I think. And if any of my former co-op-mates are reading this, they’re likely to disagree on principle. Wink.

Ingredients

Fresh oil-popped popcorn, 2 big batches from a six-quart pot

1/2 c soy sauce (wheat-free for me!)

1/2 c nutritional yeast (Bob’s Red Mill sells a nutritional yeast that was cultivated on sugar beets, so it’s gluten-free; many other brands that you’ll find in the natural foods/bulk section are cultivated on barley)

1 tablespoon natural cane sugar

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Method

While popcorn is popping, mix the dry ingredients together. Pour popped popcorn into a paper grocery bag. Now, get ready to move quickly so the soy sauce gets distributed among, rather than soaks a few, of the kernels: add dry ingredients to popcorn in the bag, a third at a time, alternating with a splash of soy sauce. Fold over the top of the bag to close it off and shake the living daylights out of it to mix the kernels with the seasoning. Continue until all ingredients have been incorporated into the popcorn, or to taste. You might find that you like yours a little sweeter, or a little hotter, or a little cheesier. Makes enough for a crowd… or for almost-pa-in-law and me for a couple days.

WILT #3, in which I introduce our slugs

My dad brought me out to Oregon for a week when I was 12. He showed me around the stomping grounds of his adolescence: Portland, Vancouver, Mount Saint Helens (granted, he knew her before she went topless–30 years ago today!), Multnomah Falls, Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood, the Oregon Coast from Astoria to Cannon Beach. We stopped at every kite shop along the way and hit Powell’s twice. And we hiked! He bribed me with a promise of $50 to spend at the Mall of America upon our return to the Midwest if I hiked all the way around the barely-established Harmony Falls Trail with him so he could see once again his beloved Spirit Lake. I was terrified. The sheer drop off the edge of the trail, maybe 2 feet wide in some places, was menacing. And in those tight spots, there was only a rope anchored to the side of the rock face as a railing to hold on to. We took pictures to prove we had done it, but somehow the film got exposed.

We did other less terrifying hikes, too. And I remember, vividly, pointing out every slug along the way.

I’m so glad to be back here for good. I absolutely love the slugs.

I went for a run this morning. We’re having a rainy week here, and the slugs which generally hide out during the sunny day in order to not a) dry up or b) get eaten by birds are out in full force. It’s a veritable slug party out there.

my leetle friend

Sandra and I went for a hike in Tryon Creek a couple weeks ago. She told me about how she and Dylan had been debating about whether the hole you see on the side of so many slug heads was a wound or a feature of the anatomy. Turns out Dylan was right to suspect that the hole was, in fact, not a battle scar but an organ. Wikipedia explains that the hole, or pneumostome, is used for breathing and can be closed by a slug at will in order to prevent water loss.

We stopped and took slug pictures. One passerby ran up to us, concerned: “Oh, I thought you fell!” Nope. Just a slug photo shoot.

Did you know that these things lay eggs? When fully mature, slugs have both “male” and “female” parts. And that’s all I will tell you about slug reproduction. Because it gets really, really gross. Jesse thinks I could find delicate enough language to explain it here on the blog, but I’m not so sure.

These banana slugs can stretch up to 20 times their normal length and move up to 6.5 inches every minute. Which doesn’t sound like much, but that’s just fast enough for the damn thing to disappear by the time I come back from the house with my camera.

This puppy’ll probably end up getting as long as the bill when she grows up. They’re basically garbage disposals on foot. If we didn’t have slugs, we’d probably be knee-deep in rotting vegetable matter right now.

Aww, he’s eating!

And now the next time you open your wallet, you’ll think about pulling out this European red slug instead of that quarter.

I’m just here to help.

Victory Pie

When I lived in the old house on Lincoln Avenue, I used to bake cakes or scones after a really good date. I don’t know exactly what possessed me the first time, or what ultimately turned it into a tradition of sorts. But certainly, a good date is a legitimate reason to bring sweet baked goodness into the house.

Have you ever heard the song, “If I Knew You Were Comin’ I’d’ve Baked a Cake?” My mom and I used to sing it all the time.

Baking is a newer adventure for me. Like, I only recently came to understand the importance of mixing dry ingredients and wet ones separately. And going gluten-free about three years ago meant that any minor baking competence I had developed up until that point was rendered almost entirely moot. But all of a sudden, I wanted to make things myself that I had never bothered to attempt when gluten was an option: pizza crust (I’d buy frozen), pie crust (pre-made graham cracker shells), bread (artisan bakery down the street). I wanted to prove (to myself?) that it was possible to continue to enjoy foods that were so conveniently available in my former life, and that they could be even better and cheaper if I made them myself.

And then I realized that you have to use a bunch of different flours I never even knew existed in order to approximate the behavior of wheat flour. Sweet rice flour? Which is different than white rice flour? Potato starch? Tapioca flour? WTF? I turned to Bob’s Red Mill’s Gluten-Free All Purpose Baking Flour. That worked for a while–and I think it’s essential to those just embarking on the gluten-free adventure–until I got tired of the garbanzo beany aftertaste and gathered up enough courage to throw $40 worth of flours in my shopping cart (!!).  Those all sat in my freezer until I actually decided to turn my brain on before preheating the oven: with a little knowledge of the properties of wheat flour, and a meager understanding of the composition of these other gluten-free flours, I might actually understand why I’m using brown rice and potato starch and tapioca flours rather than, say, cornstarch and soy flour. Geez. The driving force behind flour selection for a particular baked good? Protein, protein bonding, conformational changes.

Biochemists know it. Students in cell biology classes know it. My carnivorous fiance knows it. It’s all about the protein.

See, that’s what gluten is–two nefarious insoluble proteins, gliadin and glutenin. And the way you treat gluten in dough form provides different results–flaky but cohesive pie crust, airy crumb of a french loaf, chewy substance of a cookie. For gluten-free baking, we’ve gotta improvise in the protein department. Have you ever made a regular pie crust with anything more than all-purpose flour, ice water, and butter? No. You don’t need to. Because when the flour and water are mixed, the gluten proteins in the flour change conformation to trap water molecules and result in a dense but elastic lattice structure and, hence, a cohesive crust. Overkneading this crust will result in a harder, less elastic texture because the more you knead, the more bonding you have between the gluten proteins. Try, then, a combination of rice flour, ice water, and butter. And watch the crust completely fall apart when you do little more than blow on it. Why? Practically no proteins to create that elastic lattice.

I made a pie last night for the first time. The crust recipe called for, along with dry ingredients and butter, an egg and a tablespoon of vinegar. What’s that about? I had to understand before I embarked on the recipe. I’m not a visual/kinetic/auditory learner–I need to understand why the hell I’m doing something or I’ll never learn how (or obey). I turned to my new favorite book, On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee. I snapped up a copy of the 1984 edition at Powell’s for $26 and now I think I might understand.

The egg provides the protein missing from our gluten-free flours (in this case, white rice flour, tapioca starch, and corn starch). Egg white proteins coagulate into filaments when heated and provide that lattice structure that normal flours inherently contain. The proteins in the egg whites also are notorious for foaming–or as Harold explains, forming a “relatively stable mass of bubbles”–when exposed to air by whipping. The fatty yolk, on the other hand, interferes with this process. So we’re using a whole egg to prevent rampant foaming (we’re going for pie crust, not souffle). When heated, the egg proteins coagulate (hello rubbery scrambled eggs); adding vinegar reduces the pH of the egg and therefore lowers the reactivity (or bond-happiness) of the egg proteins, allowing them to disperse evenly enough throughout the dry ingredients and shortening and provide the protein structure of the crust.

Holy crap. I am so sorry I just did that to you.

Here. Look at some pie.

aaaand it's time for photography classes

I really wished organic chemistry and biochemistry could have been taught in the context of the kitchen.

Anyway, I made this crust. I’ve tried a few gluten-free pie crusts and have been disappointed each time–the crusts were too crumbly, too dense and chewy, funny-flavored. Not this puppy!! It became a strawberry rhubarb pie, made with fruit from last weekend’s farmers market run. Just in time to celebrate the job offer I received yesterday. Now, I live, bake, and WORK in Portland! Hooray!

Victory Pie Crust, adapted from The Gluten-Free Gourmet by Bette Hagman

Ingredients

1 cup white rice flour

3/4 cup tapioca flour

3/4 cup cornstarch

1-1/2 tsp xanthan gum

3/4 tsp salt

1 Tbsp sugar

3/4 cup butter* (I’m in LOVE with Tillamook Creamery’s sweet cream unsalted butter, if you’re in the Pacific Northwest or lucky enough to find it)

1 egg, beaten

1 Tbsp white vinegar

2-3 Tbsp ice water

Method

Whisk together the dry ingredients. Grate the butter into the dry ingredients and incorporate it with a spatula or whisk. Mix the beaten egg, vinegar, and 2 Tbsp ice water together in a bowl or mug. Mix these wet ingredients into the flour-butter mixture little by little–a third at a time or so. If the pastry is not yet holding together as a dough, add more ice water incrementally (I think I ended up using about 3-1/2 Tbsp total).

Form the dough into two balls and place in a bowl, covered, in the fridge. Let the dough cool for about 30 minutes (15 min in my case, because I can’t follow the rules). Roll the dough out between two pieces of parchment paper and use as indicated by your pie recipe of choice. You could also stick the dough disks in the fridge or freezer for later, but make sure to let them temper on the counter for a while (30 min if coming out of the fridge, longer if coming out of the freezer) before handling them as they will be a bit fragile when cold. You should get 2 9″ crusts. Note that they won’t brown the same way that our old wheat crusts would.

*Note: Put sticks of butter in the freezer. Many recipes tell you to “cut in the shortening,” asking you to use a ridiculous pastry cutter or fork and knife to chunk up the butter into pea-sized bits, a task that has made many a 50’s housewife turn to amphetamines. Well, since you’re really smart, all you have to do is take the butter out of the freezer and grate it on the biggest holes of a box grater. And cry tears of sweet sweet joy.

WILT #2, in which I introduce the cats

I could only hold off so long with the cat pictures.

Atticus and Scout will be 2 in August. We picked them out as kitties at the Golden Valley Animal Humane Society. They were the last two (or only two?) of their litter, having been fostered until they were old enough to be fixed and returned to the Society for adoption. Scout picked Jesse, actually; he stood by their little cage and she stumbled her little kitty way through the shredded newspaper to his outstretched pointer finger. A bond was forged.

I had never had a cat–in fact, I considered myself a “dog person” at the time, having grown up with an amazing miniature schnauzer who was actually a person. I didn’t understand cat logic or cat humor. By now, I think I have a pretty good handle on the latter. The former will always elude me, I think. (Also, whenever I read sentences with the whole “former vs. latter” structure, I have to think about it for a relatively long time before I figure it out. And here I am using it! Sorry.)

These babies drove across the country for three days with us as we made our way from Minneapolis to Portland. They had a special cat-place in the back of Jesse’s Subaru, blocked off by a pet grate he installed. They had cozy places with wadded up sweatshirts, food, and a litter box at their disposal. This is what Atticus thought about it:

It’s a good thing I was driving in a separate car, because they complained about it for the first hour or so of the drive every day. And that would’ve killed me. They’re pretty pathetic, and it tugs–no, yanks–on my heartstrings. They’re my babies!

Now, they have a home in the big vaulted room above the garage. The Room of Requirement, we’re calling it now. Big picture windows look directly out onto the back pasture and the green tree canopy near the house. Jesse installed a bird feeder on the house next to the window and managed to hang a seed bell on a tree branch mere inches away from the glass.

The cats have been exhausted ever since.

Their little jaws flap constantly as they chatter at the birds. I’m pretty sure some of these black-capped chickadees have started mocking the kitties, picking at the seed bell and then hopping over to perch on the window ledge before flying away. Atticus has forgotten himself and launched his little cat body into the window a few times already. Don’t worry–those screens are strong!

PS: Atticus likes clothes.

Speeding Up to Slow Down

On Saturday night, Jesse turned to me at dinner and said, “When we have such full busy weekends like this, it seems like they stretch on forever.” At the time, I disagreed: “No–being so busy makes them go by more quickly!” And then yesterday, as I rolled up to Home Depot for the second time in as many hours, I totally understood what he meant.

We somehow managed to fit all of the following in our weekend: a Saturday Market trip, a graduation dinner celebration, two runs, a trip to the farmer’s market, coffee with friends, the complete start-to-finish construction of a fire pit and herb garden with retaining wall, and a successful Mother’s Day grill-out at said fire pit. We squeezed, like, four days into two.

Aside from the excitement of reconnecting with old friends (which tops just about everything, in my book), the highlight here was the fire pit. I will attempt humility as I take credit for the idea; my future dad-in-law was telling me about the ill-fated koi pond our neighbors began to dig a few weeks ago without first checking on the locations of the gas lines and I thought, “We can dig, too!” Seriously. A koi pond? And the idea for a fire pit in the back pasture was born.

After a fair amount of research and thought, Jesse decided that Mother’s Day was the day. With a little planning and the help of his sister, we knew we could get the fire pit finished in an afternoon while Cheryl was off at a dog show. And then we decided to go for broke and plant an herb garden AND plan to make dinner on the fire pit that night. With no contingency plan in place, I might add.

We followed the guidelines put forth here and here on how to create a relatively permanent and safe structure. First, chose the flattest spot we could find and marked out our 5′ diameter circle (with wheat flour–because I’m not going to be using it for anything else!).

Then we dug about 12″ down and spread river rocks along the bottom for drainage. And then Jesse with his beefy shoulders moved ALL 30 CINDER BLOCKS HIMSELF.

While Jesse moved literally 3,000 pounds of stone, Sandra and I set to planting the anti-mosquito lavender, sweet basil, Greek oregano, culantro, and German thyme. In digging the fire pit, we had created a giant pile of dirt and sod that threatened to slide down upon our new botanical babies… and Sandra had a solution.

Fire pit, herb garden, and citronella oil tiki torches in place, we headed up to the house to prepare dinner. Cheryl had arrived and helped hold gates open for the Subaru as the car climbed back up the hill out of the pasture. We washed the dirt off our hands and before I knew it, we were back down in front of an excellent wood fire with

-skewered onions

-baby new potatoes with chipotle powder, dried apricots, and walnuts

-salmon fillets with coriander, cumin, turmeric, mayo (seriously!) and lemon

and wine and beer. And the future in-laws (“Until the wedding, I’m your ‘Mom Outlaw!”). And Jesse. And Sandra.

And then, after a day of full sun, it began to rain. Being the undaunted Portlanders we are (and are becoming), we moved to the protection of the trees a few yards away and toasted our mothers as our food cooked over the wood fire.

As we sat under the trees, eating our salmon and listening to the rain, our full weekend began to slow down. Sandra got excited: “And now that you’re here, we can do THIS and THIS and THIS and we’ll have so much FUN!!!” And it hit me. We are doing THIS and THIS and THIS and having so much fun. We’ve made it.

Stupid Easy Shredded Chicken

Last night, we celebrated Cinco de Mayo. Are we Mexican? Well, my mom’s dad’s mom was from Hermosillo, and Sandra’s beau is half. And any reason to thumb our noses at the politics of Arizona and eat tacos is a good reason.

please

I went nuts at New Seasons Market. We had fresh cotija cheese, cubed avocado, shredded cabbage with lime juice and cilantro, the pico de gallo my grandfather taught me to make (so, technically Costa Rican), neon pink cebollas encurtidas (aaaand Ecuadorian), and my homemade corn tortillas. Which I argue also fall into the category of “stupid easy,” but I digress. I made two fillings: a sweet-hot ancho chili- and cumin-spiced sweet potato and red kidney bean vegetarian option and killer shredded chicken for the omnivores.

I first made this chicken last fall in a fit of frugality. I bought a whole chicken and planned to use the resulting shredded meat for a number of meals throughout the week–soup, salad, casserole (or a “bake” as my Midwestern stepmom and I call it, thinking ourselves above the stereotypical “hot dish” of our region). I wasn’t prepared for the succulent results and between Jesse, Rachel, and me (yes, me not I) the chicken was gone within two days, filling impromptu tacos or eaten surreptitiously and cold out of the fridge.

Minneapolitans–the chickens they sell at the Whole Foods in St. Louis Park are fabulous. I, of course, used my Costco chicken.

Stupid Easy Shredded Chicken

Equipment

Slow cooker big enough to fit your chicken, but not much bigger

Tongs (makes the bone removal easier)

Ingredients

1 4 lb.-ish organic chicken

1 yellow onion*

1 (big!) head of garlic

Half a lemon, any variety

2-3 T good-tasting olive oil

1 T paprika

2 T kosher salt

Fresh cracked black pepper, at least 1 tsp and more to taste

1 T lard or rendered bacon fat** (optional… sort of)

Method

1. Prep your veggies: peel and cut the onion into slender crescents. Peel the entire head of garlic. Plop all of the onion and half of the garlic cloves into your slow cooker.

2. Prep your chicken rub: combine salt, pepper, paprika, and olive oil to make a paste.

3. Remove giblets and skin your chicken. Or have the butcher do it for you. Or buy skinless BONE-IN chicken thighs, legs, and a few breasts. If those Costco chickerms weren’t in our freezer, I’d probably have gone this route in order to bypass the skinning. As it happens, I went a little Hannibal Lecter and decided to skin the thing in one piece, the way some people peel an orange. It took 20 minutes, but I did it. I’m afraid to think too hard about what this might say about me.

4. Slather the chicken in the paprika-salt-pepper-oil rub. Use it all. Have too much? No you don’t. Dump it into the slow cooker, too.

5. Put the chicken in the slow cooker. Put the half lemon and the rest of the garlic cloves into the chicken cavity.

6. Cover the slow cooker, turn that sucker to low, and walk away. Go do other stuff for 6 or so hours. I went for a hike with Sandra in Tryon Creek. The exact timing will depend upon your slow cooker, really–I used one that by Velveteen Rabbit standards is Real at this point, and since I wasn’t sure if I could trust it to do what I wanted, I started out with the thing on high for a couple hours and then had my future father-in-law switch it to low before he headed out for his daily walk a couple hours later. Seriously. Walk away. Don’t mess with the chicken at all–it’ll make it much harder to get the bones out later if you do. Don’t worry that there’s no cooking liquid, or much fat; there’s enough fat, and the onions and lemon and garlic and bones will produce enough liquid. Trust.

7. As you’re prepping all your other taco accoutrements, pause to de-lid your slow cooker and, tongs in hand, gingerly begin removing the bones. If you haven’t messed with the chicken, an observant eye and a very basic understanding of chicken anatomy (“there are the legs! there are the wings! there are the ribs and the backbone!”) will help you hone in on each bone. You might still want to warn your fellow diners to keep their eyes peeled, however. Once you’ve gotten all the bones you can find, go nuts with those tongs. Shred that chicken. You could probably just look at it hard and it would shred itself.

8. About 10 minutes before serving, mix in that tablespoon of lard or rendered bacon fat. This turns the shredded chicken from something amazing into something aMAZing–as you stir it in, you’ll see the chicken turn a richer shade of brown. It adds and element of silkiness and sabor you simply can’t get from anything else.

9. Serve! And be amazed that such a simple combo created such deliciousness.

*My grandfather taught me that the flatter onions are the sweeter onions. I don’t know if it’s true, but he was pretty adamant and it’s guided my onion selection for my entire culinary life.

**Are you not saving your rendered bacon fat yet? Pour it off into a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid (mine’s a PB jar) and let it cool for a while before you pop it in the fridge. You can also buy lard, aka manteca, at some Latino groceries that also prepare food. It’s worth it.