Saturday, November 20, 2010

Holiday Meals

Most people must be thinking about Thanksgiving (and maybe even Christmas) dinners by now. Those of us who have the (mis)fortune to be food-lovers (I don't like the snob connotations of "foodie" but you can call me one if you want) with multiple food allergies have already been thinking about it for some time. I swing back and forth between enthusiasm for all the new things I could try and despair about the effort and risk involved.

We're going to have Christmas with my family this year, which provokes mostly enthusiasm regarding food. Several of my younger sisters have recently turned up with gluten/dairy/egg/etc allergies, too. When Christmas comes around, we'll be all in it together, coming up with new traditions. Fortunately, my family is full of good and adventurous cooks, and I think we can concoct some lovely things.

Two Christmases ago Brooks and I stayed home and his parents and brother came to visit. I planned and cooked the whole meal gluten-free (My mother in law washed all the dishes as I went along :) ) and, if I may say so myself, it was amazing. We had avocado-grapefruit salad with hazelnut oil, red pepper and fennel soup, prime rib, roasted red potatoes, kale and green beans braised in white wine, and rosemary dinner rolls. It was one of those meals where hardly anyone talks for the first few minutes of each course because the deliciousness takes up all one's attention.

Thanksgiving is another scenario entirely. My in-laws regularly host 30 to 50 people on the big day. The logistics are complex and the dishes are highly traditional. They cook two turkeys and a ham at the house, one aunt makes huge vats of cheesy mashed potatoes, another aunt makes huge vats of sweet potatoes with marshmallows, etc. The dessert bringers try to outdo themselves with decadence every year. As you can imagine, this system doesn't bend well to accomodate one lone individual with multiple allergies.

Sometimes I try to find individual cooks and ask for slight modifications: Can you make the gravy with cornstarch instead of flour? Can you cook one batch of the raisin rice with oil instead of butter? And then I hope they remember because it's usually too hectic (as well as annoying for them) for me to hover and remind them. I could have hugged my sister in law last year when she decided, of her own accord, that instead of traditional green bean casserole, she was going to roast the beans with olive oil and almonds.

I usually end up cooking my own little meal on the side. This is fine and probably the simplest for everyone, but I end up feeling a little bit disconnected because I'm not really sharing the meal even though I'm eating at the same table. As much as I like to cook, I get tired of having to do it myself all the time if I want to eat anything good. And even more to the point, I don't really like cooking just for myself. I like to share. I like to feed people. I like coming up with allergy-friendly things that even omnivores can enjoy. So every year I look for something I can contribute to the main buffet without competing with the established dishes.

I haven't been totally happy yet with any of my vegetable or dessert attempts (except for some superb chocolate cupcakes from a Bob's Red Mill mix with applesauce). I still haven't decided what to try this year. There are lots of things I could try baking but they would require transporting half my pantry out of state, (or buying six or so kinds of flour when there) for an uncertain result, since I don't have time to experiment in advance.

I have made myself a place at the buffet table, though. Last year I remembered my family's traditional cranberry sauce, which needs no alteration and made a great hit. I think it comes from a Cuisenart magazine back in the early 90s, if not earlier.

Cranberry Pear Conserve

2 lbs. pears
2/3 peel of orange
2 cups sugar
4 Tblsp lemon juice
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 cup golden raisins
24 oz cranberries

Peel, quarter, and core pears. Use metal blade to finely chop orange peel with sugar, about 45 seconds. Add pears, lemon juice, and spices and pulse-chop to a medium chop about 4 times. Add raisins and cranberries and pulse twice just to combine. (Without a food processor, pulse the orange peel and sugar in a spice grinder, chop the pears with a knife and add the remaining ingredients directly to the pot.)

Transfer mixture to a large saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until thickened, 30 to 40 minutes. Transfer to a serving bowl and cool. Refrigerate at least one day to blend flavors, or up to 10 days.

So, dear readers, however few you are, I hope these cranberries will make you as happy as they do me, and I hope for a thankful and low-stress holiday for us all.

(See Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef for inspiration.)

(Do I overuse parentheses?)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Blog analysis

I just looked at my blog for the first time in months and realized that I have written incredibly seldom over the last couple of years. These very long hiatuses (hiati?) have happened because I tend not to blog when I am either in the depths of the academic year or too depressed to say anything for public consumption without feeling like a hypocrite (and one or the other seems to be the case much of the time). But since I'm taking my PhD comprehensive exams this week and getting back on my thyroid meds, I see a blogging light at the end of the tunnel.

So pray for me, and stay tuned for next week when I come back to reflect upon "What is my blog about, anyway?" or "How can I be less boring?"

Saturday, August 7, 2010

A few pictures from France

I've been trying to get a lot of academic work done before I leave again next week, so I haven't done any comprehensive photo-uploading, but I wanted to put up just a few of my favorite pictures. Which is to say, the few that are actually sort of presentable.

I am a bad photographer -- this is why I need Brooks along on trips! - and I mostly take pictures out of a sense of obligation: I need to document this! Other people will expect to see this! So I didn't take very many to begin with, and a lot of them didn't turn out well. I was just looking at someone else's blog, someone who is a real photographer, and she had posted a picture that had "so much wrong with it." Alas, I couldn't see what was wrong with it at all, which I'm sure is proof of how much is wrong with ME as a photographer and viewer. I'm mainly happy if my pictures aren't blurry or weirdly lit. And I was there, which is the main thing. So here you are.

Notre Dame: I thought I wasn't going to even bother trying to take pictures of it, but just as I came around the front, the sun was right between the towers and I couldn't resist.

In Strasbourg, working on papyri in a crowded room with no air conditioning, but with big screenless windows that opened on a stone alleyway. Collaborative scholarship at its most immediate.

In Paris again, shopping for picnic food in the market on rue Mouffetard -- street produce stands and cheese, wine, and meat shops.

Eating the picnic, with Notre Dame on one side and a bridge perfect for wedding photography on the other.

More to come later...

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Je suis desolee...

mais je suis allergique au gluten et oeufs.

I am practicing for my Paris restaurant debut. It's my first time travelling internationally post-allergy diagnosis, and it makes me a little sad that it has to be in Paris, the home of baguettes and marvelous pastries of all sorts. But I'm sure there are plenty of other delicious things to be discovered.

I found restaurant cards online, in French, for people with celiac to give to their waiter/chef. Brooks just helped me modify them for my own situation -- I provided the (elementary) changes to the French wording, and he did the graphic design rearrangement, which would have made me tear my hair out to attempt alone. Yay teamwork!

I fly out this afternoon and arrive tomorrow in Strasbourg, where I will be busy all week in lectures and workshops on Coptic papyrology. But they apparently have 2-hour lunch breaks and no evening sessions, so there should still be at least some time for leisure. I'm not sure how much "homework" there will be, but there are student presentations at the end of the week, so at least some, I'm sure.

I have no great plans for the Paris end of the trip yet. I'm more of the relaxed type of sight-seer -- I'd rather sleep in, drink coffee and watch people, and see a few things leisurely than rush around from dawn to dark. However I still have an underlying anxiety that this is the wrong way to do it. I definitely want to rent a bike and ride around for a day. Brooks found me an iPod app guide to the flea markets, which looks terrific as well. I'm sure I will regret my lack of money and space for transport home.

I'm running out of time, so must post with no edits or clever conclusions. At least I have a new pixie haircut and a new lipstick! Au revoir!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Summer, for real

It is way too hot (says the Pacific Northwest girl). 90+ degree weather with high humidity is in the forecast as far as we can see. I have been running regularly in the evenings even though it was frequently still 85 degrees at 7 pm, but this is finally too much. (In the winter I go out as long as the temp + windchill is above 20, and there is no ice on the sidewalks. I think this is very devoted and athletic of me.)

Brooks runs with me most of the time now, and he can almost keep up. Last week we went out only moments before a truly torrential downpour, which struck when we were too far to go back home. Within minutes, we were so completely drenched that I couldn't even see for all the water running into my eyes. Brooks didn't have a cover for his iPhone, so we sloshed three blocks over to the health food store and I went in, dripping profusely, to ask for a plastic bag. They charge for grocery bags in the District now and I had no money on me, but the situation was apparent and they took pity. Not too much later, the rain let up enough to finish the circuit with no ill effects.

My garden is growing splendidly. The zucchini plants are positively enormous -- I swear they were doubling in size every day for a while. In the middle of the day, everything wilts and sags onto the ground, but in the evening they stand right back up again. (I do look at them several times a day, but as promised I spare you pictures. Also it's the middle of the night.) I've harvested all of 5 freakishly early yellow cherry tomatoes; they were like beads of sunshine but I don't expect more for several weeks. But to tide me over, the farmers' market has opened, so I make sure to go every Tuesday afternoon. Last week they had Queen Anne cherries; this week there were apricots. I've decided that I must have an apricot tree someday.

Today I also got carried away and brought home a 20-pound flat of tomatoes. They sell the ones with bad spots for $0.69 a pound, but you have to buy a whole flat. In retrospect, that does seem like a lot of tomatoes for two people. If it weren't SO HOT and if I knew how to can, I would can them, because you can't even get grocery store tomatoes that cheap, fresh or canned. But alas, canning is one of the few domestic skills I never learned. Mom canned fruit (applesauce, peaches, jam) when I was too young to help, and by the time I was old enough she'd given up and switched to freezer jams. I tried once with strawberry jam but I don't think it really sealed all the way. Anyway, we will at least have vats of gazpacho to help us through the heat wave. I have a fantastic recipe (the secret is sherry vinegar). And salsa. And hummus and tomato sandwiches. And did I mention that it's hot?

Saturday, May 29, 2010

update on nothing much

The plants are growing nicely.

The carrot-feta salad from Smitten Kitchen is fab. I've made it twice this week because the first time I ate half of it while standing in the kitchen waiting for the kebabs to grill. And now I see that she has posted a shaved asparagus pizza. I just used up my gf pizza dough on a pesto-goat cheese flatbread! This must stop!

I have gone running 4 times this week. Yay new running shoes.

My dress from a 1939 pattern is almost finished. I hope to wear it to a party tomorrow in the Bumper Car pavilion at Glen Echo (part of a 1920s amusement park; alas, it no longer contains bumper cars).

My last few days off are here. I start teaching intensive Latin on Wednesday (3 hours a day, M-F, six weeks).

I bought my plane ticket to Strasbourg for the Summer School in Coptic Papyrology, in late July. I am staying 5 extra days and taking the train to Paris. I thought I would be there for my birthday, but I had the dates mixed up. So I'll actually be coming home the day before. Close enough though, and nothing to complain about!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Cookbook Felicity

I found my favorite cookbook, The Taste of Summer, in a small-town used book store, right before I started working as a cook/housekeeper for the rectory at St. Francis de Sales in 2004. The recipes are, as the title suggests, summer-oriented and entertaining-friendly: Lots of grilled meat and vegetables, salads, cold and hot soups, appetizers and desserts. The extra tips are also extremely useful: picnic-packing recommendations, wine pairings, and instructions for optional advance preparation of each dish. The extensive menu suggestions with each recipe served me well for a long series of semi-formal 4-course dinner parties, 12-20 people each, throughout the first year of my culinary career. But just one or two dishes make a perfectly lovely dinner at home, no special occasion required.

It is the source of my most popular party food of the Royal Street years (Goat Cheese and Pesto Torta), my go-to picnic-potluck salad (Green Bean Salad with yellow pepper, jicama, and tomato), the chicken chili of which I made way way too much for the Blue Room college graduation party (I told people not to eat before they came!), my standard rosemary-lemon roasted chicken, pesto chicken, the best grilled lamb with mustard-sage crust, the best pasta with Italian sausage and peppers, summer squash gratin with leeks and rice, plum-hazelnut tart, almond cookies with lemon and port, wine-poached peaches with raspberry sauce... seriously, I've probably made 1/3 of the recipes in the book. Only one was a total flop (possibly user error), and only 3 or 4 weren't good enough to my taste to make again (mostly in the soup chapter). The pages are splotched and sticky and the binding has separated from the innards.

After my allergy diagnosis, I didn't use it for a long time, since I was trying to learn how to cook gluten- egg- dairy- and frequently meat- free. The specialized diet blogs and vegan cookbooks helped me tremendously, to the point that I am now revisiting "normal" cookbooks with the confidence to alter the recipes as needed. So I've come back to it, and my current favorite is a recipe I somehow never made in the St. Francis days: Pizza with leeks, pancetta, and fresh tomatoes. It's a little bit labor intensive, like any homemade pizza, but so so worth it. In fact, the first time I made this, I also made a Manly sausage and mushroom pizza in case Brooks didn't care for the Girly/California pizza, but he actually liked it better, and he's no wimp in the manly pizza-eating department. So here is the recipe, to tempt you to keep an eye out for this book. I have simplified the preparation steps and changed the cooking method, since I haven't been brave enough to try grilling pizza as instructed.

Pizza with Leeks, Pancetta, Mozzarella, and Tomatoes
Modified from The Taste of Summer

1/2 pound tomatoes
3 leeks, white and light green parts, thinly sliced
1/2 pound pancetta (I usually use bacon, either regular or turkey)
1 1/2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese (on mine I use whatever mild goat cheese I can find)
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
Pizza dough for 2 9-inch rounds
cornmeal and oil for the pans

Oil two baking sheets and sprinkle with cornmeal. Cook the bacon in a frying pan and drain on paper towels. Pour off the grease but keep a tablespoon in the pan. Add the sliced leeks and saute over medium-low heat until tender. Remove from heat. Slice the tomatoes thinly and blot on paper towels to remove excess moisture. Roll out the pizza dough and transfer to prepared baking sheets. Top each with half the leeks, half the mozzarella, and half the bacon (crumbled). Arrange the tomato slices evenly and sprinkle with fresh basil. Bake at 450 degrees for 20 minutes or until done.

Eat and marvel at the utter deliciousness!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Urban gardening

Since my academic life is suddenly less hectic than it has been in years, I have put my mind to developing new hobbies, or rather, to putting more time and effort into old ones that fell by the wayside long ago. So in the last few weeks I have been spending a great deal more time in the yard and garden. My lack of maintenance last summer meant that the azalea bushes in the front all died. So about a month ago I dug them all out and planted gladiolus bulbs instead. No picture because they haven't bloomed yet. The rose bush on the side of the porch, however, is beautiful as always:

In the back yard, the baby lettuce is tempting me to thin it out and eat some:

After several years of trying to grow vegetables in pots, with mixed success, I have finally taken the more committed step of digging up part of the yard for an in-ground garden. A concrete slab running parallel to the fence provided a convenient division for a little row of vegetables.

From seed, French round zucchini, ruby Swiss chard, and two kinds of cucumbers.

I just planted these yesterday so the picture shows you the bird netting tent and the urban garden scene, complete with chain fence and alley, rather than any actual plants.

I am almost too impatient to be a gardener; I look at the bare ground every day and chafe at the impossibly long number of days until harvest.

Three kinds of tomatoes: Early Girl (medium-sized red ones), Sun Gold (yellow cherry) and Cherokee Purple (yes, heirloom purple tomatoes).

And most delightfully of all, a brave little raspberry bush:

At this stage, a gardening hobby turns into an even less glamorous weeding and watering hobby, so I will inflict no more pictures upon you until the harvest begins.

But I can certainly find other non-academic things to keep me busy:

Friday, May 7, 2010

School update

For those who wonder if I will ever be out of school, I say that the End is in Sight: only two more academic years. (I will also remind them that I have not been in school since I was 18, so it hasn't been as long as they think.) I am done with all my classes, including language requirements. I will take comprehensive exams in October and then start writing the dissertation, which will ideally be finished in the spring of 2012.

Ph.D. exams in my department consist of 5 3-hour exams. One is a translation exam, and out of my control. For the other four, I have to compile the lists of books (ancient and modern) on which the essay questions will be based. Two are specialized to my alleged dissertation topic (which is still split between two possibilities), one covers the broader late antique context, and one is focused on aspects of the history of scholarship in the field. It's a strange sort of project to have to figure out for oneself what one ought to know at this level. I've just sent off a preliminary and partial draft (a 6-page list, the result of several months' work) to my advisor, who I am sure will add many more items. I want the list-making to be over so I can start seriously reading the stuff! (See the sidebar for some of the things I'm reading already.)

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Blogs and Spices, or, In Which I Tentatively and Humbly Restart this Bloggy Thing

I am a chronic blog lurker, because it is a good distraction that doesn't require me to produce coherent and publishable thoughts. But in recent months, my usual suspects have either quit blogging (bad when they are the beautiful and inspiring sort like Pleasant View Schoolhouse) or become boring (good when they are the hyper-fundamentalist sort that I use to provoke myself to a pretense of "righteous indignation"). So I return here with the esoteric subject of my spice cabinet.

Yesterday I bought smoked paprika for the first time for a recipe from my new favorite cooking blog. Today it elevated popcorn to a new height of sublimity. I don't understand people who have only half a dozen spices in their pantries. But I do envy their tidiness. I try to buy mine at the bulk section of the health food store because it's easily a quarter of the price, but the result is two shoeboxes full of different sizes of jars and little unlabeled plastic bags which I have to identify by color and smell every time I cook. (Is that garlic powder or fenugreek?) No mistakes yet, but it's bound to happen sometime. I have no wall space for those handy mounted racks. What's the answer?