Archive for November, 2011

For the Cilantro Lovers

November 30, 2011

How do you feel about cilantro?  If you think about it, it’s a fascinating herb.  You will find it in many culture’s food that is quite different from one another.  Indian, Mexican, and Southeast Asian cooking, for example.  Being a huge fan of Indian, Mexican, and Southeast Asian food, I can’t imagine my life without cilantro.  It is probably the herb I use most in my cooking, with the possible exception of thyme, and that is because I have thyme growing at the bottom of the stairs to my house.

I understand that some people don’t like cilantro.  And by not liking it, I mean they have a true aversion to it.  I had a doctor in one of my Thai cooking classes and she said that is indeed true that some people carry a gene that makes cilantro taste like soap.  So if you carry that gene, my apologies and seeing as this recipe has an entire bunch of cilantro in it, this dish is not for you.  Sorry.

This is a favorite dish from Jack Bishop’s A Year in a Vegetarian Kitchen.  It is one of those recipes that takes next to no time and yet produces a seriously tasty result.  You start an onion sautéing on the stove, whir together some tomatillos, jalapeños, oregano, and a lot of cilantro in a blender, mix it all together with some hominy, and let it cook for about 15 minutes.  While it cooks, you thinly slice some romaine lettuce, radishes, quarter some cherry tomatoes, and cube some avocado.  Ladle the hominy mixture in a bowl, top it with the fresh stuff, and dinner is served.  Randy and I like heat so I seeded one of the jalapeños and left the seeds and membranes in the other one.  It was perfect for us but if you are unsure – go ahead and seed both of them.

Finally, just to answer some questions about hominy.  Hominy is a type of corn but it is much starchier and larger than the corn kernels that we know and love.  Its texture and size is necessary here – regular corn would make this a rather anemic stew.  I found mine in canned vegetable aisle near the corn.  White or yellow works.

One Year Ago:  Brown Rice Bowl with Soy Sauce Marinated Tofu and a Fried Egg
Three Years Ago:  Potato Fennel Gratin

Posole Verde
Adapted from A Year in a Vegetarian Kitchen
Serves 4

My only word of warning is that the cilantro mixture, which is vibrantly green in the blender, will turn a mossy shade of green as it cooks.  Do not be alarmed, the vegetable mixture on top is nice and colorful.

1 bunch coarsely chopped cilantro stems and leaves (about 2½ cups)
¼ cup fresh oregano leaves
6 ounces tomatillos, husked, washed, and halved
2 medium jalapeños, stemmed and seeded
2½ cups water
Canola oil
1 large onion, chopped
4 medium garlic cloves, minced
2 15-ounce cans white or yellow hominy, rinsed and drained
Sea salt

1 medium head romaine lettuce, thinly sliced crosswise
Handful cherry tomatoes, quartered
4 medium radishes, thinly sliced
1 small avocado, diced
Flour or corn tortillas, warmed

Place the cilantro, oregano, tomatillos, chiles, and 1 cup of the water in a blender and purée, scraping down the sides of the jar as necessary, until smooth, about 1 minute.

Place a sauté pan over medium heat.  Drizzle in just enough canola oil to coat the bottom then add the onion along with a large pinch of salt.  Cook until golden, about 6 minutes.  Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, another minute or so.  Add the cilantro mixture, hominy, remaining 1½ cups water, and bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat and simmer to blend the flavors, about 15 minutes.  Adjust the seasoning, adding salt to taste.

Ladle the posole into bowls and serve immediately, passing the lettuce, tomatoes, radishes, avocado, and tortillas at the table.


November 29, 2011

Today, November 28th, is Graham’s birthday.  He is seven.  I have written so much about him that I have created his own category here on my blog (scroll down on the right hand side for the categories).  What I haven’t written about is his birth story.  It is a story I have told countless times and have written about in my journal, but not one I have told here.  It’s time.  Don’t worry, no blood and guts, just the story of having Graham.

(Age 3)

My pregnancy with him was easy.  I felt sort of yucky for the first few months but only at night and was never very sick.  I had some food aversions (salad) and some cravings (citrus juice) and I didn’t gain too much weight or retain water or develop hypertension.  Easy all things considered.  My due date was December 3rd and once I passed into my 38th week, I breathed a big sigh of relief – he could come any time and would be fine.

On the morning of November 27th, I woke up at 7:30am to a contraction.  I had had a few before but I knew this was different.  I lifted my head to look at the clock and note the time.  Then I waited.  If another didn’t come – it was just a teaser.  But about ten minutes later, another came, just like the first.  I woke Randy and we called my doctor.  She told me to wait until they were five minutes apart and then call her again, so I spent the morning eating breakfast, taking a shower and packing my bag with a stopwatch in my hand the entire time.  I was scared, I was excited.  I called my mom to wish her a happy birthday and also to tell her that we would not be attending her birthday dinner that night as I would most likely be delivering a baby.

When it came time to leave for the hospital, we had a She’s Having a Baby moment.  I was sitting calmly in the living room, packed bag by my side, and Randy was running all over the house trying to find his wallet and keys.  After a few minutes of male hysteria, we were on our way.  We had done a practice run to the hospital so we knew exactly how to go and this happened to be a Saturday so traffic was light.  We were there in no time.  The night before had been a full moon so there were no rooms immediately available – it turns out that more babies really are born on full moon nights.  They hooked me up to monitors in the triage area and our long day of waiting officially began.  I had some fear of being turned away at the hospital and told to labor more at home, this had happened to people I knew, but I was already 3 centimeters dilated when we arrived.  The nurse told me I would not be leaving without a baby.

(Age 4)

The next few hours went by quickly.  The pain from the contractions was intense but not terrible.  I got moved into my room.  Periodically a nurse would check me and I was still 3 centimeters dilated (you need to get to 10 before you can start pushing).  I got in the tub at one point, just for something else to do and also to help ease the pain in my back.  My brother Michael was living in New York at that time and had been home for a Thanksgiving visit.  My parents brought him by the hospital on the way back to the airport.  He took one look at me and said, “You look like shit.”  I told him, “Maybe that’s because I’m in labor.”  Oh, the sensitive male.

The afternoon progressed.  My doctor, who was fortunately on call that weekend, came in to check me and when I was still stuck at 3 centimeters dilated, she told me it was time to walk.  Randy and I took an hour long stroll in the hospital halls, the pain getting more intense as we went.  At each contraction, we stopped, I held my arms around his neck, and we swayed back and forth.  Almost as though we were dancing.  We had learned this trick in our lamaze class and somehow that swaying and the rhythm of it calmed me.  I started to worry.  If I was feeling this much pain at 3 centimeters, how was I going to make it much further?  Natural childbirth was not something I had considered.  I applaud women who go that route but my feeling is that if there is a safe way to ease the pain of what is known to be one of the most painful things in the human experience, I wanted to take advantage of it.

When we finally made it back to the room they checked me and I was 6 centimeters dilated.  No wonder it hurt so much – I had dilated 3 centimeters in an hour.  Time for the epidural.  A nurse told me that the anesthesiologist was with another patient and could I wait 5 minutes?  Yes,  I could wait 5 but I literally could not wait 6.  Fortunately, he walked in about a minute later and in another few minutes, I was feeling those contractions but without pain.  An extraordinary relief came over me.

(Age 5)

Afternoon moved into evening and I kept dilating.  Around 9pm, my doctor checked me and said that in another half hour, I would start pushing.  The hospital where I delivered has birthing suites which means that the room you start in is the room you end in.  There is no labor and delivery room – it all happens in your room.  They are set up like hotel suites and the overall effect is very pleasant.  As we counted down that last half hour, we turned the lights down to a nice soft low, put on some Miles Davis, and prepared to meet our son.  We had put very little in our birth plan – just that we wanted to avoid a c-section if possible and that we wanted as few people in the room as possible.  No friends, no family, and certainly no interns.  So when the time came, it was just me, Randy, my doctor, and one nurse.

I pushed once.  I pushed twice.  After the third time, my doctor’s eyes jumped to the machine that was monitoring Graham.  I will never forget her voice saying, “Come on little guy.  Come on.”  And then, “We’re out!”  His heart rate had plummeted and not recovered and so, in a matter of seconds, we were in the OR with a bright lights and a flurry of people.  I was crestfallen.  I had just made it through 15 hours of labor, only to have a c-section?  I was also terrified.  Was he all right?  Surgery?  I had never had surgery.  My doctor promised me that, once they got me all hooked back up, if he had recovered and kept his heart rate up, we could resume pushing.  But we had to stay in the OR just in case.

(Age 6)

He did recover and I did resume pushing and slowly, all the extraneous people melted away.  It was once again just me, Randy, my doctor, and a nurse, but now I was in the OR with its antiseptic atmosphere and bright lights.  I was not allowed even an ice chip as surgery was possibly imminent.  Thirst started to make itself known.  But truly I didn’t care.  I kept pushing.  I did not feel the pain of the contractions but I did feel them and I could also feel the toll they were taking on my body.  An hour went by and he still had not descended.  After the second hour went by, my doctor looked at me and said, “I’m sorry Dana, but I think we have to do the c-section.”  I had read or heard somewhere that doctors at this hospital will let you push for three hours before they do a c-section so I begged her for another hour.  She relented and I spent another tortured hour just trying to get him to budge at all.  My doctor said that if I got him to a certain point, she could use forceps to get him out.  But I could not even do that much.

The end of the third hour came and I was beyond exhausted.  I was also very worried.  Why was he not coming out?  Was he all right in there?  At this point, I just needed to see him and I did not argue when she said it was time for the surgery.  A drape was set up, more doctors and nurses came back in.  I begged the anesthesiologist to give me something to prevent nausea (I am more afraid of throwing up than labor contractions), and then a dreadful feeling came over me.  When I say beyond exhausted, I truly mean it.  I felt like I was lying at the bottom of the ocean with the weight of all that water resting on me.  I could barely move and I would have sold my soul for a glass of water.

The actual surgery is blurry for me.  Randy watched (which surprised me) and I just tried to hang on and stay conscious.  They pulled him out and I remember that he did not cry.  That worried me.  A nurse whisked him off to get cleaned up and when they finally did bring him over to me to see him, my little Graham who I had been waiting nine months to meet, I could hardly turn my head to look at him.  My voice just a croak, I asked how much he weighed and was surprised to hear that he was just 6 pounds, 13 ounces.  Not a big baby at all.  I couldn’t push him out?  Randy got to hold him as they stitched me back up, surely the worst part of the surgery.  Of course, I didn’t feel pain, but I could feel them tugging at me and I started to feel really sick.  I begged the anesthesiologist for more nausea medicine – after all this, the last thing I needed was to throw up.  Fortunately, it worked and I started to feel better.

I learned that Graham was born at 12:40am.  This meant that he was not going to share a birthday with my mom after all but have his very own, November 28th.  I also learned that his blood sugar was low and they gave him formula immediately and did not bring him to me that night.  I don’t remember much else except soreness, fear, and complete exhaustion.

The next morning, the pediatrician on call came in to tell me how he was doing.  I had to keep slapping myself in the face to keep from falling asleep.  He had a somewhat rocky start, including jaundice and a few days under the lights, but never had to be in the NICU.  My grandmother’s mother died in childbirth and now I understood how easily that could happen in the days before c-sections.  Graham surely would have died and I might have as well.  It was a sobering thought and one I tried to hang on to whenever I had feelings of failure about the c-section.

My recovery was rough.  I had been through full labor and pushing, followed by major abdominal surgery and it took me a while to come back from that.  But of course I did and I also made it through the first couple of weeks of breast-feeding when I thought I would cry my eyes out before we finally got the hang of it.


Seven years ago.  There have been times that I have looked back to those moments in the OR and wondered if it was my stubbornness that caused Graham to have the issues he has had.  If I had just gone ahead with the c-section right away, would he be typically developing?  I have barely dared voice this question aloud but when I have, I get a resounding “no”.  No one knows, and probably no one will ever know, why Graham is the way he is.  I had some bleeding in my second trimester and it is more likely that something happened then than at birth.  Still, even these many years later and even though I know better, I torture myself with this question.  Guilt is a complicated thing.

It is hard for me to believe but now I have a first-grader.  He is tall and lanky and has none of the baby fat that was once so much a part of his face.  He is pretty darn cute and pretty darn sweet.  We had his teacher conference last week and his lovely teacher told us that he is doing great.  She adores him.  She showed us some of the terrific work he is doing.  She mentioned that although he struggles with some things, he seems to get other things on a deeper level.  The class did a big segment on Veteran’s Day and she encouraged the children to write a note to a soldier.  She had stationary set up for them to use when they wanted.  She saved Graham’s note for us.  It read, “Dear Soldier, Please do not give up.  Love, Graham”.  That made me cry a little.

Weeknight Curry

November 27, 2011

So, how was it?  Thanksgiving, I mean.  And if you are in a country other than the U.S., how was your Thursday?  Our feast was lovely.  We had a much smaller group than in years past – just our core group and both Randy and I decided that we like smaller better.  (With no offense to those out there who have joined us in years past.)  Aside from the turkey, the food at Thanksgiving doesn’t stress me out.  The dishes are all fairly simple and when you do a lot of dinner parties, as we do, you get good at making lots of food for lots of people.  It is the all-the-food-coming-out-of-the-oven and every-sitting-down-at-once part that is stressful.  But when you only have one table full of people, as opposed to the two we had last year, it all comes together quite nicely.

If I was a turkey eater, I would most likely still be posting some kind of turkey soup or, who know, turkey lasagne during this weekend after Thanksgiving.  Can I say a word about turkey?  If I were ever to go back to eating meat, turkey is probably the last thing that I would add in to my diet.  I would eat a hamburger before I would eat turkey – I’d probably eat a geoduck before I ate turkey.  The guys in our group smoke cigars after the big meal, a tradition that goes way back, and I prefer the lingering smell of stale cigar smoke in my house to the smell of turkey.  So, suffice it to say, this is not turkey soup.  It actually has nothing to do with Thanksgiving and, if you read a lot of food blogs and have been inundated with Thanksgiving posts, you are probably glad to know that.

This is a simple weeknight curry.  I have been craving curry lately and I thought about doing an Indian feast using my Rasa books, but just a stroll through the table of contents made my eyes flutter in exhaustion.  The recipes in my books are not difficult but decisions and pairings had to be made and some days, that is too much to ask of me.  So I went a simpler route.

Weeknight curry can cure a lot of dinner ills in this world.  It is easy, it is adaptable, it is inexpensive, and it can feed many.  It is also satisfying and tasty and filling and doesn’t need much else beyond rice to make a full meal.  I have made this recipe many times and while I still buy the main ingredients (potatoes, sweet potatoes, cabbage), I now tailor it more to what I have in the house and the amount and type of spice that I am accustomed to.  I never make it the same way twice and I encourage you to add and subtract based on what you have already and what you like.

One Year Ago:  Burnt Sugar Bundt Cake
Three Years AgoBreton Apple Pie

Potato and Vegetable Curry
Adapted from Simple Vegetarian Pleasures
Serves 4

Olive oil
1 onion, diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and minced
2 tsp. curry powder
1 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. coriander
1 cinnamon stick
Pinch of cayenne
1 15-0unce can diced tomatoes, drained
4 medium red-skinned potatoes, cut into ½-inch pieces
1 large sweet potato, cut into ½-inch pieces
½ a head green cabbage, cored, cut in half lengthwise, and thinly sliced
1 15-ounce can “lite” coconut milk
1 cup frozen peas
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Cilantro leaves, for garnish (optional)

Place a large skillet over medium heat.  Drizzle in just enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan, then add the onions and a large pinch of salt.  Cook, stirring often, for 5 minutes.  Add the garlic and ginger and cook for another two minutes.  Add the spices and cook for another minute, stirring constantly.

Stir in the tomatoes, followed by the potatoes, sweet potatoes, and cabbage.  Allow to cook for several minutes, then pour in the coconut milk.  Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat so the curry simmers, then cover the pan.  Cook about 20 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender.  Stir in the peas and cook for another few minutes, or until the peas are hot throughout.  Remove the cinnamnon stick and serve with basmati rice.


November 23, 2011

I know most of you come here for the food.  I also know that I have been a little absent here and trust me when I tell you, it’s not for lack of trying.  I try to prioritize my blog and make sure that I post but for the past month or so, that has been difficult.  I should be a little more present going forward and I have lots of recipes waiting in the wings but for now, I just need to write.  (I posted a great soup earlier today if you just need a food fix.)

My blog captures the dishes I make and the stories I have that are associated with food.  It has also become my journal, since I no longer write longhand in one anymore.  This post is the type of thing I would write in my journal.

Today is Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving.  In addition to being the day before Thanksgiving, this day has become The Day We Pick Up Graham’s Birthday Cake.  Graham’s birthday is November 28th and we usually have a party for him sometime over the weekend.  This is a busy time of year in our family – my mom, Graham, one of his best friends, my best friend, and my best friend’s son all have birthdays within three days of each other.  Graham is a very go-with-the-flow kind of guy so he doesn’t care when we celebrate, but he always has very specific ideas about his birthday cake and this year it was Spiderman.

I bake.  I bake cakes.  I bake cakes that taste good and sometimes look pretty.  But I don’t do Spiderman cakes or fire truck cakes or construction vehicle cakes.  Those I leave to the professionals so for years now, we have been getting our birthday cakes at a sweet little old-fashioned bakery in a neighborhood right next to a lake.  This bakery sells parker house rolls and cookies with sprinkles on them and the boys think it is just magical.  They have old dusty fake example cakes set up around the shop and my boys oooh and aaah over them and fantasize about what they want to get next year.  The day before Thanksgiving, the bakery is crammed full of special orders.  Pies and rolls and cakes and breads are all stacked on racks with names in permanent marker.  Each one of those bundles has to be picked up today because the bakery closes for the weekend at 5pm tonight.  Which is why the Wednesday before Thanksgiving has become The Day We Pick Up Graham’s Birthday Cake.

Like most Wednesdays before Thanksgiving, it is pouring today.  We got out of our car, all of us in rain jackets and rubber boots, and held hands as we crossed the street to the bakery.  As we did so, I was hit with a giant wallop of nostalgia.  I remembered picking up Graham’s cake the year he was turning four, the fire truck cake you see above.  Spencer was just under two and had just started walking (he was a late walker).  I was frantic.  It was raining.  I had a million things to do.  It was close to naptime.  How was I going to get the cake to the car and carry Spencer at the same time?  And keep track of Graham?  And once we got home, how was I going to cook all the things on my to-do list while my boys napped?  If you ever see a mother with two young children who looks totally sweaty and harried – that was me that day.  As I was getting ready to leave the bakery, a man held the door open for me, took one look at me, and then offered to carry the cake to the car.  Bless that kind man.  I carried Spencer and held Graham’s hand and the nice man carried the cake.

Today we walked in, waited our turn in line, and then got our cake.  (There were some squeals of delight – it is an awesome cake.)  I decided that the boys could wait for me in the bakery while I brought the cake to the car because we were having a mommy lunch date afterward at one of their favorite Mexican food places right next door.  I asked that they sit at the little table crowded into a corner, and out the door I went.  Not harried.  Not sweaty.  Still overwhelmed with all that I have to cook today and tomorrow but taking comfort in the fact that the boys would probably take a little nap (yes – still!) and even if they didn’t, that they will play together more or less nicely while I sauté and bake away in my cozy kitchen.

We had our lunch date where there were no high chairs or diaper changes, just two wiggly boys and chips and bean and cheese burritos and flan for dessert.  Conversations.  Kisses and snuggles.  Reprimands of course.  I looked at the two of them across the table as they colored in their kids menus, both of them with their long eyelashes and their darkening hair, and could hardly breathe for the thankfulness of my life.  My two healthy and kind children, my husband who is so present in their lives and brings parts to them that I don’t posses, the family and dear dear friends that I will cook for tomorrow, and the fact that we get to go to an old-fashioned bakery every Wednesday before Thanksgiving to pick up a special birthday cake.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

Butternut Squash Soup with Ginger

On Saturday, I braved a suburban mall.  I had a birthday present to buy for a sweet niece who is turning six and, like many six year olds, she is obsessed with American Girl.  I have boys so I know very little about American Girl, but I have heard stories of this mythical place where there is a hair salon and even a hospital – for dolls.

I wish I could have seen my own face when I walked in to that store.  Girl overload.  If I had walked into that same space and it had been filled to the brim with boys and construction vehicles, I probably would not have batted an eye.  I have two brothers and two boys – I get boys.  It’s not as though I am, or ever was, a tomboy.  I’m pretty girly as a matter of fact and if I had a girl, chances are we would have already gotten a couple of doll manicures at American Girl.

Alas, I was overwhelmed, intimidated, and I had two boys who were initially in awe of that place but soon were like “get me out of here!”  I flagged down a salesperson and had her help me with decisions about doll pajamas and five minutes later, we were out.  We took a long walk through the mall to get back to our car and I was miffed.  Annoyed.  Disturbed.  Not by the doll experience but by the fact that there were Christmas decorations everywhere.

I’ve said it before – I love Christmas as much as the next person, but it’s not Christmas time yet.  Not in the States at any rate.  Let’s enjoy the holiday that is almost upon us.  Let’s savor autumn before winter comes.  Let’s enjoy our Butternut Squash Soup before the trifles and fruitcakes and sticky toffee puddings arrive.

I love butternut squash soup and I have tried many in my day.  I’ve even posted a very good one here.  But this is my favorite and one I have been making for a long time.  Ginger and squash were made for each other and just a bit of cinnamon stick simmered in the pot makes all the difference.   This is a very simple recipe that uses squash to its best advantage – roasted in the oven.  To the well-loved original recipe, I’ve added just a touch of cream to round out the flavors and a squeeze of lemon to wake everything up a bit.  I have a very good immersion blender and was able to get a really nice smooth texture with it but if you don’t, blend it carefully, in batches, either in a blender or a food processor.

I have four tips for you.
1.  Like most soups, this one tastes great the next day.  It will be fairly thick, so you can add a bit of water, broth, or even cream to smooth it out if you wish.
2.  The easiest way to cut the squash here is to cut off a bit of both ends and then stand the squash it up on its base end.  Using a large sharp knife, cut straight down the center.  This way, you aren’t battling with a rolling squash and you also have gravity on your side.
3.  Roast the seeds!  Rinse them well, allow them to air dry, toss them with a bit of olive oil and salt, then roast them in a 375º oven (same temp as the squash!) until they are golden.  Garnish the soup with them, they provide a lovely crunchy contrast.
4.  Don’t forget to remove the cinnamon stick before you use your immersion blender.  Ahem.

One Year Ago:  Orecchiete with Creamy Leeks and Winter Squash, Vegetarian Gravy
Two Years Ago:  Maple Roasted Delicata Squash, Yogurt Flatbread, Peanut Curry, Cider Caramelized Apple Pound Cake
Three Years Ago:  Giant Chocolate Toffee Cookies, Brussels Sprouts Hash with Caramelized ShallotsParmesan Thyme Crackers

Butternut Squash Soup with Ginger
Adapted from Bon Appétit
Serves 8

2 butternut squash (about 5 pounds total), halved lengthwise, seeded
Olive oil
1 large onion, thinly sliced
1 tbsp. golden brown sugar
2 tbsp. minced fresh ginger
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 cinnamon stick
5 cups vegetable broth
¼ cup heavy cream
Juice of 1 lemon
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 375ºF.  Drizzle the cut side of the squash with a bit of olive oil, then sprinkle with a large pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper.  Place cut side down on a large baking sheet and bake until squash is very soft, about 50 minutes.  Allow to cool enough to touch, then peel the squash using a paring knife, or just your fingers.  Roughly chop the squash.

Place a soup pot over medium heat.  Drizzle in just enough olive oil to coat the bottom, then add the onion and a large pinch of salt.  Cook for five minutes, then add the brown sugar, ginger, garlic, and cinnamon.  Cook for another five minutes, then add the squash and vegetable broth.  Bring to boil.  Reduce heat to medium-low.  Cover and simmer for 10 minutes.  Discard cinnamon stick.

Purée the soup either using a blender, food processor, or immersion blender.  Once the soup is back in the pot, turn the heat on low and pour in the cream and the lemon juice.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.

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