Tuesday, April 1, 2014

It's Been a While...

Hi friends! It has been a while… I’m still here, trying to find my footing, and struggling to find words to write. The past couple of weeks have been up and down. Some days I feel as if I’m on top of the world, patting my back for accomplishing big and small tasks. Some days are busy and stressful, where my days end with me curled up in a ball, crying my heart out while DFJ holds me or cooks dinner because strength is so hard to muster. Some days, I get to do everything I want to do: teach yoga, cook, bake, go on a long walk, and read.   

I have some stories to tell and we should catch up...

DFJ and I celebrated our first Valentine’s Day as a married couple (and our engagement anniversary) in true DFJ and M style… staying in, cooking shrimp, and baking an utterly delicious beet-strawberry cake. The cake was all DFJ’s making. He wanted to make me a pink cake with zero food coloring and voila, he made it happen and it was really delicious too!   

A week after Valentine's Day, we flew to Austria for 10 days and had a fantastic time exploring Salzburg and finding our way around Vienna. We ate pastries to our hearts’ content, enjoyed gelato out in the cold almost every night before walking back to our pension, and tried the local cuisine. We also drank plenty of coffee morning, noon, and night. I thought DFJ and I had a pretty good handle on making coffee at home, but I was wrong, oh so wrong. The coffee in Austria is rich and smooth, almost creamy, and not at all bitter. And drinking wine at lunch… we should really do that here! 

I fell in love with both Salzburg and Vienna. Salzburg is very charming with a downtown area surrounded by snow-capped mountains. It has everything for everyone… restaurants, shopping, museums, churches, palaces, and all sorts of outdoor activities like hiking, biking, skiing, and so on. Vienna is beautiful in an old city kind of way. It is clean and not over crowded, plus, all the touristy sights are close enough to walk to if you are in the heart of the city. We had the best time discovering the sights recommended by our guide book, admiring the magnificent churches and buildings, and people watching. Many Austrians like to smoke; they love sitting out in the sun; winter fashion mostly consists of big, chunky scarves, tight jeans, and uber stylish boots; Austrians love their coffee and when they are out at cafes or restaurants they actually talk to each other (i.e. look into each other’s eyes, lean towards each other, and their cell phones are nowhere in sight!). DFJ and I did not want our trip to end and we were both sad to have to say goodbye to Austria. By the way, I wrote nine pages worth of notes on our trip, but I will spare you the boredom of a long recap. I must say though, that by far my favorite spot  inVienna is the Naschmarkt. It's a long block of restaurants; cafes; and stands that sell olives, nuts, spices, tea, bread, fruits, oils, wine, flowers, and everything else under the sun. The choices were overwhelming that we both didn't know what we wanted to eat! 

Salzburg (top to bottom, left to right): Hellbrunn Palace; view of the suburbs from the Hohensalzburg Fortress; view of the downtown area from the Hohensalzburg Fortress; on top of Untersberg.

Vienna (top to bottom, left to right): Stephansdom altar; Anker clock at Hoher Markt; Majolikahaus; Beethoven.

Vienna (top to bottom, left to right): Neuberg; Rathaus; Maria Treu Kirsche; the back of Schonbrunn and Vienna from the Gloriette.

Vienna (top to bottom, left to right): Sigmund Freud Museum; a sunny altar; Belvedere Palace; Grinzing.

Things started getting hectic when we got back in March and I started substitute teaching and teaching 3-5 yoga classes per week. After a month of subbing, I learned that I’m not a big fan of it. At certain schools, the students are a little bit too much for me to handle and in some schools, the teachers that I get to work with treat me as if I have no clue what I’m doing. It’s a strange phenomenon, although I have four years of school teaching experience, I begin to doubt myself and forget what to do when another teacher tells me that my presence in his/her classroom is unnecessary and the only task I am asked to do is take attendance. So, I have not been taking any jobs lately… perhaps it’s pride, or cowardice to refuse new challenges, or maybe I really don’t know what I’m doing… but, if at the end of the day I come home angry, frustrated, and barely able to breathe, then maybe this isn’t for me. Yoga is my life saver. On my mat, I remember to breathe and for a few moments am able to truly let go of all the heaviness in my heart.

Amidst all the substitute teaching and no-success-with-job-hunting drama, DFJ and I have been looking for a “new” used car. We finally found a great SUV with low mileage for a decent price. It was nerve wracking and we felt so adult and responsible for buying our first car together! High fives!!! 

Although things are not really going the way I want them to right now, it is time for me to stop sulking. Today, I opened all the windows in the house to invite the sun in, hoping that all this light will bring me some cheer and help me look on the bright side. The sunshine bathed my kitchen as I made a big batch of applesauce and baked some orange-chocolate scones. You should come over and we’ll have a cup of tea.

P.S. If you're planning a trip to Austria and have any questions about places to see in Salzburg or Vienna, just let me know and I would be happy to talk!   

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Buckwheat Butter Cookies

I went for a short walk just when the snow started coming down this morning, all bundled up with a raincoat over my jacket and mittens over my gloves. One careful step after another to start and little heel-toe wiggles here and there to make sure that the sidewalk is not slippery. It wasn’t yet, so I walked on and smiled as the soft snowflakes fluttered about and tickled my face. For a brief moment, I was reminded of the very first time I got to examine snowflakes. There I was, on a sidewalk, staring at the snowflakes that stuck to my coat with intent and admiring their intricate formations before they dissolved into thin air. Snowflakes are quite mesmerizing… their presence is seemingly fleeting until they decide to gang up on you and cover everything with layers of white. The walk only lasted for a short while because my face was getting wet and the sidewalk was starting to feel slick under my boots.  

Now I’m safely back in the house, dry and cozy, watching the snow fall relentlessly, while nibbling on my third cookie and sipping lukewarm tea. I have also just decided that snowflakes are one of the most beautiful things in nature. However, I don’t like the inconvenience of mounting piles of snow and hate driving in snowy or icy road conditions. It is super scary, especially if you drive a little car with bad traction.

I must admit though, that I love snow days. On such days, DFJ gets to work from home and I can bug him anytime. Snow days also give us a good reason to slow down and take it easy. There is nowhere to go and no one is expecting you. Being forced to stay indoors is the perfect excuse to make a big pot of coffee or drink copious amounts of tea, snuggle up in a blanket and read a book, muse about silly things and then write about them, bake bread (which is currently not rising as happily as I would want it to), or make some homemade chicken broth (which is filling our house with a wonderful smell). You could also bake some cookies, but if you already have some sitting around, then just make a hot beverage of your choice to have it with.

So last Sunday, I baked some buckwheat cookies because my favorite blogger, Molly Wizenberg, convinced me to. In her 92nd Spilled Milk podcast, she talked about these amazing buckwheat cookies that have successfully piqued my interest… enough to make me invest a few dollars on buckwheat flour and cocoa nibs (I gave my stash away before our big move last July) just for this recipe. After creaming the butter and sugar, I realized that the cocoa nibs were nowhere to be found. A freak-out moment ensued and needless to say, it wasn’t pretty. Apparently, we accidentally left the cocoa nibs at the store, along with two truffles. Boo! I am down to my last bar of good, dark chocolate and didn’t want to cut it in small shards for the cookie batter. So I decided to grind up some fresh coffee beans, espresso style, and add it into the batter along with some mini morsels of semi-sweet chocolate. The original recipe does not aim for sweetness but a contrast of the bitter cocoa nibs in the sweet cookie dough. However, my improvised version with coffee grounds works just fine too. I still intend to make these cookies with cocoa nibs as soon as I get my hands on them and as soon as this big pile of cookies we have will disappear.    

Having never baked with buckwheat flour before, I honestly did not know what to expect. I tried a few cookies fresh from the oven and tasted the buckwheat. It definitely has its own distinct flavor that almost puts it in the category of slightly unpleasant. DO NOT let this turn you off. Please no! Instead, be patient and wait… because half a day later, only a faint trace of the “buckwheatish” taste is left. And if you wait for an entire day, it completely disappears. What remains is a crispy, melt-in-your mouth buttery cookie that is unlike any regular butter cookie. The buckwheat in the dough has some delightful complexity to it that an unsuspecting friend would never be able to identify what it is that makes it extra special. This cookie has an irresistible charm that will make you keep coming back for more. The touch of espresso grounds is a good contrast to the sweet dough and a few chocolate chips never hurt.

Since I did not plan on writing a post about this recipe, I did not record the process of making these cookies. I urge you to visit Molly’s page for the recipe. In lieu of cocoa nibs, I used 1/3 cup of mini semi-sweet chocolate cookies and 1 and ½ teaspoons of fresh, espresso ground, coffee beans.

Yesterday, I ate about eight cookies before our hike at the state park nearby, plus two more after dinner. It fueled me for a solid two and a half hours of trudging through mud in the beautiful, naked woods.    

Today, I just inhaled the crumbs of my fifth cookie. I’m telling you, these are highly addicting!

Stay warm my friends! And to everyone out there who has to work during snow days, please be safe, there's already four inches to contend with and more coming. To the mailman who just delivered a Christmas present for me from my brother-in-law (The Zuni Café Cookbook), thank you. I wish I knew you were coming today because I would have been so happy to share some of these delicious cookies with you.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Lima Bean and Swiss Chard Soup

One of the things I appreciate most is nourishing and delicious food. Nothing fancy, unheard of, or too complicated. Sometimes, I crave just plain goodness. When I came upon Skye Gyngell’s Chickpea and Chard Soup, it spoke to me. I followed some of her methods but added and substituted some ingredients to make my own version.    

You might notice that the ingredient list is spaced out. They are listed according to use. I encourage you to read through the entire recipe first, before making the soup to ensure that you have everything you need. I also used homemade vegetable broth, which really is not too complicated to make.

Over the course of a few weeks, collect scrap pieces of vegetables and save them in zip bags in the freezer. For instance, the big broccoli or cauliflower stalks, cabbage core, carrot tops, parsley or any herb stems, the ends of kale/collard greens/Swiss chard stalks, onion peel and the thick first layer of the bulb, and so on. When you have about two big bags full of veggie scraps, pull them out of the freezer, dump them in a big pot, and cover with water. Then add more fresh herbs if you have any that are just lying around (preferably thyme, oregano, parsley, dill, rosemary, or sage), a few mashed cloves of garlic, one or two bay leaves, a generous amount of salt, black peppercorns, and maybe some olive oil (I forgot to add this in the latest broth that I made, it turned out fine). Cover the pot, turn the heat on to medium, and bring the water to a boil. Once it boils, lower the heat to a simmer, leave the pot partially uncovered, and let it cook for 2-4 hours or until it takes on a murky green color (sometimes it’s brownish). Let it sit for another hour or two until it cools down and strain the liquid into a large container. Measure the broth into cups and store in smaller containers in the freezer. Measuring it beforehand will let you know how much is in each container so you just pull one or two out as needed. Easy peasy!    

This soup is immensely satisfying. It has a bright lemony punch that is tampered by the sharp richness of Parmesan cheese and the creamy bread pieces. After being cooked for a long time, the lima beans take on a lovely, velveteen feel. The softened Swiss chard leaves not only give the soup a boost of healthiness but also add a pleasant touch of mild green flavors. And the stalks are there to provide that perfect crunch. The mushrooms present a hint of earthy flavors and texture variety. All these ingredients playing together in one pot make this simple soup unforgettable. A big bowl or two is what you need to give yourself some love.

Lima Bean and Swiss Chard Soup
Inspiration from My Favorite Ingredients by Skye Gyngell

1+1/8 cups (8 oz) dry lima beans
3 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1 bay leaf

juice of half a large lemon
1 tablespoon olive oil

Rinse the lima beans. Place the beans in a medium size saucepan and cover with water. Sprinkle with salt and toss in the bay leaf. Turn the heat on to medium high, cover, and bring the beans to a boil. This will take about 7 minutes. Turn the heat down to medium low and allow the beans to cook for about an hour. Partially uncover the saucepan to keep it from boiling over, a thin sliver of opening for the steam to come out is enough, otherwise the beans will dry out. Stir the beans every now and then for even cooking. You will know that the beans are done when they are tender all the way through as you bite into them. I suggest tasting 3 beans as some of them might be more done than the others. If your beans are not done in an hour, add a few more minutes of cooking time. 

When the beans are cooked, drain the leftover water and move the cooked beans into a large mixing bowl. Pour in the lemon juice and olive oil to dress the beans and mix well. Set aside, until the soup mixture is ready.

While the beans cook, begin to prepare the other ingredients:

3 tablespoons olive oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 cups (4 oz) mixed mushrooms, shiitake and baby bella, sliced thinly
½ cup loosely packed fresh parsley leaves, stems removed
1 tablespoon fresh tarragon leaves, stems removed
½ teaspoon salt

1 (14.5 oz) can diced tomatoes
¼ teaspoon salt

4 cups vegetable stock (I made my own)

1 bunch (10 oz) Swiss chard, leaves and stalks (*See note on how to prepare.)

2 oz freshly grated Parmesan cheese
3 slices day old peasant-style bread (Italian bread), cut into 1-inch squares

1 tablespoon olive oil
freshly cracked black pepper, any amount you desire

Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven (which is what I used) or a large pot over medium heat. When the oil is hot, toss in the garlic, mushrooms, parsley, and tarragon. Stir and make sure everything gets coated with the oil then sprinkle with ½ teaspoon of salt. Stir every so often and cook for about 5 minutes until the mushroom slices shrink and brown.

Add the diced tomatoes in the mix and stir in ¼ teaspoon of salt. Cover the Dutch oven and allow the tomatoes to cook for 20 minutes. Stir the mixture every now and then. 
Pour in the vegetable stock, stir, and cover. Cook the stock with the tomatoes for 10 minutes, which is just enough for the flavors to start coming together.

Add the beans and simmer, covered, on medium-low heat for 30 minutes. If it starts to boil, partially uncover the lid. After 30 minutes, remove the lid entirely and let cook for 10 more minutes.

Toss in the Swiss chard stalks and leaves into the Dutch oven. Stir and let cook for 5-6 minutes, until the leaves begin to wilt and submerge into the soup.

Stir in the grated Parmesan cheese. It will immediately form into globs so make sure to stir it evenly amidst the leaves and beans. Then, toss in the bread pieces and stir. Continue to cook on medium low heat, uncovered, for another 10 minutes. The soup will magically thicken up as the bread disintegrates and the flavors will almost immediately transform into something richer and fuller.

Turn off the burner and move the Dutch oven away from the heat. Season with olive oil and freshly cracked black pepper. The extra olive oil at the end works really well to mellow out the lemony punch. However, if you like the soup the way it is, feel free to omit the extra olive oil.

 *Note on preparing Swiss chard:
Hold a Swiss chard leaf stalk-side up. Use a sharp knife and slide it along the inner sides of the stalk to separate the leaves. Cut the stalks into ½ inch chunks and tear the Swiss chard leaves into big pieces.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Almond Biscotti

Yesterday was a beautiful day. When it is nice and sunny outside, there is a golden glow that brightens the inside of our house, masking the dust on the windowsill and the unswept floors. It gives our living space an illusion of cheeriness despite the constant clutter of mail (mostly unopened), books, notes, to-do lists, a sweatshirt or two, and the well-loved blanket crumpled on the couch... I simply love it! This is our life and we somehow manage to navigate it well-enough despite our seemingly immature ways. 

That light illuminating our house inspired me to get busy in the kitchen and formulate a yoga class sequence as I went out for a walk. When I got home, I pulled out the vegetable scraps that I save in the freezer and proceeded to make vegetable stock that was later used for Ottolenghi’s Mushroom and Herb Polenta from Plenty. It was divine!   

While the vegetable stock was cooking, I perused my cookbooks for something to bake that will be perfect for dessert, breakfast, or snacks. This almond biscotti recipe leapt out of the page from my recently acquired cookbook, Salt to Taste, a gift from my mother-in-law for my birthday. The ingredient list consisted of things that are already in our pantry and the baking process is simple.

I like biscotti because it is easy to enjoy at any time of the day without feeling too indulgent. We had it with ice cream last night, DFJ had it with his espresso this morning, and I am currently enjoying two with my latte while writing this post at 3:00 in the afternoon. I did a little research and found out that biscotti are particularly great dipped in sweet late-harvest wine with a shot of espresso. Unfortunately, we don’t normally have sweet wine on hand.    

This almond biscotti recipe is simply delicious! It is like a lighter version of a butter cookie, dry enough to definitely be a biscotti, but teeters to the side of chewy. These biscotti have an uncharacteristic tenderness and the way it yields to your teeth when you bite into it is delightful. I am a big fan of orange zest and thus added more than the original recipe required. The orange zest infused into the sugar definitely gives it lively notes of orange flavor. Initially, I was skeptical about the half pieces of almonds in the dough and thought them to be too big. However, after eating a few, I realized how lovely it is to truly taste the almonds when they are cut more generously into halves versus slivers. The amount of sugar in the dough is just enough for a trace of sweetness to linger on your tongue after your last bite.

Almond Biscotti
Slightly Adapted from Salt to Taste: The Keys to Confident, Delicious Cooking by Marco Canora

½ cup (75 g) whole, raw almonds with skin
scant ¾ cup (150 g) sugar
1 tablespoon orange zest (zest of one orange)
5 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon (75 g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1¼ cups (170 g) all-purpose flour
1 cup (125 g) white, whole wheat flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
a tad of butter, for greasing

Cut the almonds in half, crosswise, and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, use your fingertips to massage the orange zest into the sugar until the granules take on an orange tint and the zest is evenly dispersed. Mix the butter into the sugar with an electric mixer until the mixture resembles small clumps of wet sand. Add the eggs and the vanilla extract and mix on high speed until the batter is smooth and creamy.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the flours, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and freshly grated nutmeg.

Pour the flour mixture into the wet mixture and mix on low-speed until everything is well-combined and the dough comes together. Add the almonds into three portions. At this point, the dough will be harder to handle so use a plastic or wooden spatula to cut into the dough and fold the almonds in.

Move an oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Thoroughly grease a baking sheet with a tad of butter.  

Divide the dough in half. Lightly flour a clean work surface and scoop out half the dough with your hands. Gently form it into a ball, then roll it into a 12 inch or so long log on the floured surface. Transfer the log onto the greased baking sheet. The log will deform upon transfer, so ease the dough back into a nice log using your fingers, flatten the top with your fingertips, and smooth out the sides to even the length. Repeat this procedure for the other half of the dough.

Bake for 24-25 minutes, rotating the baking sheet halfway through the time. When you pull the logs out of the oven, the bottom should be golden brown and the top just a shade of golden. Place the baking sheet on a cooling rack and let cool for 10 minutes.

Lower the oven temperature to 250 degrees F.

Use a serrated knife to slice the logs into ¾ inch thick biscotti. Place the slices back into the baking sheet, cut-side down and toast in the oven for 7 minutes. Turn the biscotti the other cut-side down and toast for another 7 minutes, until they dry out.

Remove from the oven. Place the baking sheet on a cooling rack and allow the biscotti to cool completely before storing in an airtight container.