Thursday, November 28, 2013

Turkey Day Gratitude

In a repeat of the last two years, I give to you my annual gratitude post, in no particular order...

1.  Two Thanksgiving Dinners this year.

Thanksgiving is complicated--living now on the West Coast, I don't see my family for Thanksgiving anymore.  The husband's family celebrates the eating of a turkey in a big way, and once I started dating the husband, I made the decision to spend Thanksgiving with them.  I love the early start time, the walk through the garden with a glass of wine, the extra long table (made by putting a giant piece of plywood on the table and then covering it up with a beautiful tablecloth), the lounging on the couch, the new surprises of guests (sometimes friends from New York or Utah, this time a friend from Seattle).  There is no television, no talk of Black Friday deals.

This year, I went back to Illinois last week.  My sister threw a pre-Thanksgiving dinner, complete with two roasted chickens, the requisite mashed potatoes, brussels sprouts, fluffy rolls, and cherry pie (my mom's favorite).  Of course, at some point, talk turned to politics, and for a moment I was worried--worried that somehow this really lovely feeling was going to end.  But it didn't, because I realized that, indeed, I could be fully myself around my family and they could be fully themselves.  While we disagree--boy, do we--they know exactly where I stand and I know where they stand.  And we were all just talking, being who we truly are.  It was a wonderful thing to learn the late autumn before you turn forty.

2.  The Beaches

I love them.  I still cannot get enough of them.  However, I should probably call it the ocean rather than the beach.  I don't need to be in the water, I just love to be near it. 

3. Seeing my BFF

It doesn't matter--Las Vegas; Lake Geneva, Wisconsin; and Montgomery, Illinois--I have seen my best friend (whom I have known since I was four!) three times.  Not all of the visits were due to happy occasions, in fact one was due to grief and just the need to lay eyes on her, but all of them were out of love.  Sure, I lost money in Vegas, pissed and moaned about the heat in Wisconsin, and barely got to spend enough time with her in Illinois, but in each place, we got to stay up a little too late, take gratuitous selfies (be they by the Bellagio, on a lake dock, or in the Yorkville Subway (sandwich shop, not train)), shop, and just be together.  We are different people, she and I--I like to sit around and read; she likes to get out and see what needs to be seen--and we have loved each other for a very long time. 

4.  Eating Right

This year, I did a cleanse.  It seems weird to perhaps be thankful for a cleanse, but after a summer of over-indulgence, I decided to return to some of the ideas behind that cleanse.  So now every morning, I have a smoothie.  Every lunch I have a salad.  While I haven't been cooking as much as I would like for dinners (the sweet siren song of pho or sushi is often too loud), my daily breakfasts and lunches are filled with fruits and vegetables, and people, I do feel much lighter, healthier, and better. 

5.  A Little Retreat

This year, the husband's parents have purchased their soon-to-be-but-not-quite-yet retirement home up in Fort Bragg, California.  Actually, it's up in the redwoods just north of town, and you cannot see a neighbor at all (but there are plenty of banana slugs).  I have gone up twice now, where the husband and I have begun to nest in the room that the in-laws have so wonderfully dubbed ours.  At night, you can just hear the ocean (see #2), and the fog settles in.  It's cold--the only heat is a big wood-burning oven that eventually makes the whole house toasty--and dark.  And it is a little retreat from the world. 

6.  Running

Coupled with the eating right, I have been running again.  Currently my knee is bothering me something fierce, but I have been out there--in fog and sun, on pavement and gravel, near water and in the neighborhood--running as much as I can.  And I relove it.  Again and again.

7.  My Running Partner

This may seem an odd photo to associate with her, but this little surprise awaited us after we finished shuffling through a fundraiser run for her.  But let's rewind.  Last year, she was diagnosed with cancer.  This year she beat it.  I don't have the words to describe any of it.  I wish I did.  And just as she received the news that she was cancer free and had run (slowly, yes, she and I) to raise money for her treatment, my car was broken into, her purse and keys stolen, and her house robbed.  It all felt too much.  But it turned out that it wasn't.  In fact, this, too, could be bore.  Now we run together--she much faster and for much farther distances than I.  Now we're planning another half marathon.  Now she's back in Illinois visiting her family and friends and I have just returned from there.  I guess it's not true when I say that I have no words... in fact, I have many ways to describe 2013 for her--most of which involve heavy profanity--but the end of this year has turned out just the way I like it.

8. Seeing my dad

It's true.  He showed up almost two hours early for this game, but he has been to only four professional baseball games in his life.  Three of them with me.  I cannot blame him for a little excitement.  We hunkered into our seats, ordered the requisite beers and dogs, and settled in for a game.  He, too, has had his health scares--and continues to have them--but that July afternoon in the East Bay sun, we cheered on the A's, snapped some pictures, and got to spend some time together.


9.  My little family

Here they are in all their weird, scrawny, cuddly glory.  The Beag (see scrawny cat above) is still here--blind and smelly--but here.  Our backyard remains an impressive mess.  The new cats remain skittish.  The husband busts out the original dance moves from time to time (only to be matched by my own).  I love them all.

10.  Home(s):  Both in Illinois and California

This last visit back to Midwest, one of the nephews wondered why I would live in California if all of my family is back in Illinois, there with him.  Indeed, he asks a good question, for I miss my mom and my dad and my siblings and my nieces and nephews, and my heart almost broke.  But my family is here, too.  Perhaps more flights back to Illinois: now that I own a winter coat again (thanks to my BFF for taking me shopping in the 28-degree weather last week), I have no more excuses. But there is no denying when the plane begins its final descent over those East Bay hills just as the November sun is setting, I am just as much home here as there.  It's good to have two homes.

It's time now to end this post, go for a run, and head over to the in-laws.  What a pleasure it is to think about ten things I am truly grateful for. 

Happy Thanksgiving to you all.  

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Butternut Squash Soup with Coconut Milk, Miso, and Lime

 Squash soup.  Sure, everyone trots out their favorite recipe for the humble gourd this time of year, and I am no exception.  One of my favorites (detailed here) includes white beans and kale, while another (which I really do need to write into a post) requires a boiled cashew base with a chipotle cream.  However, after a time, these old favorites can feel a little tired, and I am a firm believer in varying up your squash soups.  Have one that is just plain comforting (see above link) or have one that has a little Mexican flair (as in the chipotle cream drizzled one--I know, I know, I really do need to make a post here).  This one, which comes straight from my new birthday cookbook, Vegetable Literacy from the marvelous Deborah Madison, is clearly Asian inspired, what, with the coconut milk, ginger, miso, and sesame oil.  Now a newly christened favorite, this version of squash soup will now be part of my fall rotation.

My father sent this cookbook my way in order to celebrate my turning 39 in September, and since then, I have been enjoying it tremendously.  The book opens with  pretty little end papers (carrot blossoms, perhaps, as a nod to the two-year carrot gone to seed and then bloom in the introduction?  mustard blossoms?), inviting you in for a feast of both images and recipes.  From the pleasingly photographed food (courtesy of Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton) to the simply explained recipes, this book is presented in such a way as to make you want to and believe that you can cook.  Madison breaks the book into 12 families of edible plants and then she has a hey day. 

The cucurbit family--that of squashes, melons, and gourds--has been my focus lately, given the season and all.  Madison explains that many of the family are inedible but are highly functional, taking on the role of water carrier, pipe, birdhouse, storage vessel, instrument, and penis sheath (?!).  Her focus, of course, is the edible ones, which are high in carotenoids (a key antioxidant), Vitamins A and C, potassium, manganese, folate, some omega-3 fatty acids, and various B vitamins.  She also cautions that these vegetables are very effective in the remediation of chemically contaminated soils, soaking up from the ground all of the unwanted contaminants.  Yay for squashes doing a great job in cleaning up the ground.  However, you're best bet is to buy organic rather than conventionally farmed squashes, as the organic farm is less likely to have soil contaminated by the sprays routinely used to grow conventional vegetables.


The truth is, I am not a huge fan of cooking winter squash, mostly because I am a lazy, impatient cook.  I grow frustrated with peeling butternut squash (see, I said I was lazy) and I hate waiting for the squash to roast when I want to make my soup now.  As in right now.  This recipe requires one to both peel and to steam different parts of the squash, but I found it much more manageable: the peeling kept me busy while the rest of the squash was steaming, so I found my impatience dwindling.

On a side note, when I went grocery shopping for this recipe, I chose the smallest butternut squash I could find.  It was a full six  pounds.  The recipe calls for two pounds only.  So I cubed the neck, as the recipe calls for, and then I froze most of it, hopefully curbing my impatience and laziness next time I want to make squash soup.  To freeze squash, do spread out the chunks on a baking sheet first so as to avoid one giant clump of squash cubes.  Then toss the frozen squash cubes into a freezer-safe container.  Go to it.

The final verdict on the cookbook:  If you have a garden or you spend a lot of time at the farmer's market (or if you have a garden that turned into a farm), then this is a cookbook for you.  However, if you're also just looking for more ways to cook vegetables--as in really cook vegetables where you can coax the best flavors out of them--then this is also the cookbook for you.  Go get it now.

And on the squash soup:  whoo boy, this is quite tasty.  It is spicy and sweet and salty and satisfying.  Brew up a batch for yourself.

One Year Ago: Split Green Pea Soup
Two Years Ago: Chicken Lasagna with Greens
Three Years Ago: Vegetables in Oaxacan Pumpkin Seed Sauce

Butternut Squash Soup with Coconut Milk, Miso, and Lime
Adapted from  Deborah Madison's Vegetable Literacy

4-6 Servings

1 butternut squash (about 2 pounds)
2 tablespoons light sesame oil
1 large onion, finely diced
1 heaping tablespoon chopped fresh ginger
2 teaspoon crushed Aleppo Pepper*
1 teaspoon turmeric
½c cilantro stems or leaves, chopped fine
1 can (15 ounces) light coconut milk
juice of one lime
½c white or brown rice**
1-2 teaspoons coconut butter**
2 tablespoons white miso
Toasted Sesame Oil
Cilantro sprigs for garnish

*The Aleppo Pepper is a Turkish chile pepper with moderate heat and cumin undertones.  I substituted 1 teaspoon ancho chile pepper, 1/2 teaspoon cumin, 1/4 teaspoon sweet paprika and 1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika.  I have no idea if it tasted anything like the aleppo pepper, but it was damn tasty.

1.  Cut the squash in half crosswise, just where the neck of the squash joins with the round (seeded) end. Bring a half inch or so of water to a boil, lower to a simmer and place the seeded end in (unpeeled and uncored). Put a lid on and steam until soft, about 15 minutes, while you continue with the recipe.

2.  Peel the neck and cut into ½-inch pieces.

3.  Heat the oil in a deep soup pot, and then saute the squash cubes together with the onion and ginger. After a few minutes, add the aleppo pepper, turmeric, cilantro stems, and about 1½ teaspoons salt.  Cook for about 3 more minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the coconut milk and three cups of water and bring to a boil. Lower to a simmer and cook, covered, for about 20 minutes.

4.  Meanwhile, check on your round end of the squash. When tender, remove the squash and when it’s cool enough to handle, cut it in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds and discard. Then scrape the soft flesh from the skin. Puree the flesh together with a cup of the soup liquid until smooth. Pour the puree back into the soup, and add the lime juice.  Taste for salt and lime juice

5.  While the soup cooks, also cook the rice. Boil 1 cup of water, then add the rice, 1/4 teaspoon of salt, and bring back to a boil.  Then turn to the lowest heat and cook covered for about 15-20 minutes. When finished, stir in the coconut butter.

6.  When the soup is done, dilute the miso in 1 cup of the soup liquid, mashing it until smooth. Return this cup to the soup and heat through if necessary.

7.  To serve, add a few drops of toasted sesame oil to each bowl and coat the sides.  Then ladle the soup into bowls and add a little rice to the center. Finish with cilantro sprigs.**

**I did no such thing with the rice.  I like my squash soup to be solely squash soup; however, I can see what she's going for here.  If you need to make a hearty meal, make it with the rice.  Ignore the rice otherwise.