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thinking of food rules

February 24th, 2010 | 16 Comments »

These days, the buzz words of anything food or culinary related seem to center around the latest thing Michael Pollan has talked about. I’m no MP basher- I like the guy and I even willingly watched ‘Oprah’ the day he was on it because I think he’s got his finger on the right idea. But, and forgive me, he isn’t the last word in what we put in our mouths. We are. You are. Everyone needs to take their food rules to a level that works for them.

I haven’t read this book. I probably will when the hype over it lessens and it sits on the library shelf all by itself. It’s not long and it isn’t complicated, and from what I’ve seen, it’s chock full of sound advice. “Eat food that comes from a plant, not food that’s made in a plant” or something to that extent, is pretty clear. The more natural, the better. We all know that buying products with an extensive list of unpronounceable ingredients just isn’t good eating. We know that factory farmed meats are not the best option for our bodies. Vegetables are laden with pesticides. Sugar is hidden in everything. Every single day we’re bombarded with news about our well-being, proper nutrition and health crises that are out of control. People lament “I don’t know WHAT to eat anymore!” And to this I just say ‘Stop.’

We need to make our own choices. And we need to be content with those choices, both with what we bring into our homes and that which we see around us. Some of those choices may not be practical for everyone, and we need to remember that we’re not all the same.  We’re raised to be who we are, each with our own fingerprint, our own set of values and our own means of taking in and digesting the world around us.

My food rules have changed dramatically over the past few years, and I have a lot of ideas about how I want them to be different, but given our current financial situation, I’m not doing absolutely everything that I want. Some day, perhaps. I need to pick which ones, right now, are most important to me, are within my budget and my desire to live healthier.

Simple to address; eating out. We don’t do it much at all. I’m a very good cook and as much as I love to have someone else prepare my meal, I know about raw food costs, and sometimes menu pricing makes me irate so I protect my blood pressure by staying home. It protects my budget too. When we dine out, I like to go to restaurants that prepare food I tend not to make, so we frequent ethnic restaurants. And a few tried and trues places that make a 15-year old boy and both his parents happy. That’s not an easy challenge. We don’t eat fast food, but we’ve gone to Chipotle, Baja Sol, Davannis (local chain that serves pizza and hoagies) and Mavericks (local shop that makes killer roast beef sandwiches). Those places are OK by me, on occasion. I don’t make it a habit by any means. And it’s at those places where I tend to drink the only soda I ever consume. We don’t drink soda at home. If my son wants it, he spends his own money on it. I don’t like it, but it’s his choice.

At home, I make most everything from scratch, but I don’t make my own pasta sauce. I’ve done it from scratch and it’s fine, but the overall cost of ingredients can be staggering so I buy a good quality jarred option. I avoid any products with MSG as I am highly sensitive to it, and am adamant about avoiding high fructose corn syrup and any kind of trans fat. I love Wheat Thins, but they have HFCS. I love Ritz crackers too- again, HFCS. I buy some boxed cereals but they tend to be healthier options, occasionally a sweeter version hits my pantry, but I don’t eat cold cereal much, so when I do, it’s more like a treat. I buy and eat a lot of oatmeal, and get the thick cut version, basically one step down from Steel Cut, and I like the hot cereals from Bob’s Red Mill. We don’t eat frozen meals, frozen pizza, or boxed meals; I buy the best yogurt I can without artificial sweeteners. I make pancakes and waffles from scratch, and all my baked goods are from scratch. I don’t use cake mixes, and have recently decided that I need to stop using refined white sugar so I’m researching alternatives- thanks Angela!!  I started making almost all of our bread, using the Healthy Bread in 5 minutes book, and we make pizza dough from scratch. We love the flavor of the bread, it’s better for us, and cuts back on the cost of packaged. I’m very diligent about reading labels, and buying products that contain recognizable ingredients. My son loves to snack on Nachos, and I will buy jarred salsa only with fresh ingredients. I’m sure I could make my own but I don’t. That’s my decision. Sometimes those decisions are simple. Other times, they’re not so cut and dried, and I wrestle with the best way to choose.

We eat meatless as much as possible, and that’s hard because you all know that I refer to my boy as The Carnivore. He thinks that no meal is worthy without meat. I’m happy that he loves black beans, as beans and rice is a cheap meal that is nutritionally sound. He’s pretty good about eating what I make even if it isn’t his favorite; the alternative is to make his own dinner, and he’s just a tad too lazy for that. I don’t argue about the food he wants to eat. Up until a few years ago, he never made a stink about our meals, but now that he does, I feel it’s just his way of trying to control what he can. I don’t fault him. I know the ground work has been laid, and living by example is just fine with me. We eat cheese, but don’t drink milk. I use soy milk for coffee, cereal and baking and buy a soy based sour cream and cream cheese. I use butter and sometimes Earth Balance soy based butter. We buy only whole bean coffee of good quality. I don’t use canned goods other than beans, tomatoes, coconut milk, and pumpkin. I use olive and canola oil. I do not use margarine, I’ve got a container of non-hydrogenated organic shortening on hand for those recipes where it’s a must, and I basically sub whole wheat flour for all-purpose so much now that I won’t be buying AP once the current bag runs out. I utilize whole grains like farro, wheatberries, millet and barley, we eat a lot of nuts and plenty of vegetables. I prefer to buy some of my produce as organic, but it isn’t necessary that it’s all that way. During Farmers Market season, I buy almost all our vegetables from the markets.

And like I said, there’s lots more I wish I was doing, but this works for us, for now. I’d love to hear your personal food rules- what you eat, what you avoid, what you wish you could be doing. I think we all have a lot to learn from each other, don’t you? My quick on the draw friend Barb already has hers up on her blog. Feel free to put yours in my comments.

making lentils lovely

February 22nd, 2010 | 8 Comments »

There are certain foods that are superstars of nutritional value, simple to prepare and easy on the pocketbook yet are really kind of ugly ducklings in terms of aesthetics. If we eat with our eyes first and foremost, and if we didn’t know that these foods were not only powerhouses in being good for us AND very tasty as well, we would take one look at them and likely turn away in scorn. Take lentils for example. These tiny legumes are so rich in the good things we need for our bodies. But I imagine there’s a huge population of people simply turned off by their unfortunate lot in the food world beauty contest. Cooked to perfection and placed in a bowl, they resemble more a pile of mud than something amazing you want to eat.

Now doesn’t that sound delicious?! Can’t wait to dig in!

I do get it. Really, I do. If it wasn’t for the copious amounts of fragrant dhals and mounds of aromatic Indian food that I’ve come to adore in my life, I might not exactly be in the Lentil Fan Club. But I am. And I think that everyone should. As legumes go, the lentil is one that you can take from dried form to beautifully cooked with hardly a second thought. Even the largest brown lentils will cook up nicely in about 20-30 minutes, the smaller pink and red ones turn delightfully smooth even faster, making the lentil a smart choice to keep on hand for a hearty meal. With added vegetables, it turns into a perfect soup. Served over rice, maybe with a salad and you’ve got a complete meal. Add in one of the heady fragrant spices of Indian cuisine, such as fenugreek or cumin -or in this case, both- and you’ve got a delicious creamy, slightly spicy and overall compelling meal with little more than boiling some water and a measuring spoon or two.

By far and away my favorite lentil is the French Puy, also known as the French Green lentil. It’s smaller than the brown, larger than the more colorful red and pink and will also cook up easily, all the while retaining it’s shape more without turning mushy. While the mushy lentil does have it’s place, I really prefer some texture to them. The Puy has a somewhat higher price tag than the brown, but I think it’s worth it. The flavor too, is deep and earthy, a bit more intense over the somewhat gritty taste I’ve come across in the brown.

My first exposure to lentils was as a wee lass in elementary school. Our schooling, up until I was in 5th grade, centered mostly around a loosely defined cooperative that rented space in an old Catholic school building. We had some pretty progressive education, I guess these days it ties in best with home schooling, and one year we did volunteer work at the Renaissance Festival in a soup booth, making both Beet Borscht and Lentil Soup. I did not like the lentil soup much, but I was a kid. Forgive me for thinking it was odd among my usual repertoire of fish sticks and Rice-a-Roni.

Then in college, I had a roommate for a time who was a vegetarian and loved to cook. On occasion I would tag along with her on her trips to The Wedge Co-Op, back in the long ago days when it was so tiny that barely two people could stand in any aisle. I often had no clue about the foods she would buy but I asked her endless questions and when she cooked she would share some of her meals with me. One meal was lentils, and although I didn’t fall down in love with them, I had a better idea of them than what my childhood memories had given me. Still, it took cementing my love of Indian food for me to begin actually making them at home. Once I did discover how good they could be, really there’s no stopping me now. If only I could convince The Teen to try them.

One of these days, maybe.

Dhal with Green Lentils
adapted slightly from The Curry Book by Nancy McDermott

1 c. french puy green lentils, rinsed and sorted
4-5 c. water
1 t. ground turmeric
1 t. fenugreek seeds, crushed
1/2 t. ground cayenne
2 t. cumin seeds
3 cloves finely minced garlic
2 T. finely minced fresh ginger
1 medium onion, finely minced
1 medium tomato, chopped

In a large saucepan, bring 4 cups of the water and lentils to a boil. Skim off any foam that may form. Reduce heat to medium-low and add the turmeric, fenugreek and cayenne. Allow to simmer, uncovered, until lentils are tender- approximately 25-35 minutes. You may need to add more water as the lentils cook to prevent them from sticking.

When lentils are tender, heat a small skillet over medium heat with oil of choice. Add the cumin seeds and cook until they become dark and fragrant, and begin to pop. Add in the onion, garlic and ginger and reduce the heat, sauteing gently and stirring occasionally until the vegetables are soft, about 5-7 minutes. Stir the mixture into the lentils and blend well. If the lentils are soupy, you can raise the heat and simmer the mixture to reduce the liquid. Keep an eye on it so it doesn’t burn and stir it to keep blended. When cooked to your desired consistency, stir in the tomato. It will thicken slightly as it stands. Season with salt if desired.

NOTE: It’s unlikely you can find fenugreek in anything other than seed form. To crush them, use a dedicated spice grinder if you have one, or place them in a sealed plastic bag and crush them with a rolling pin, a meat tenderizer or other hard implement. The seeds are pretty solid. Don’t be surprised if doing it by hand requires slight effort. It’s totally worth it for the flavor.

This dish definitely gets better with some time to sit in the fridge. It can be made with the smaller colored lentils but keep in mind that the cooking time will be much quicker, and it will have a different texture. One cup of red lentils will need less water, about 3-4 cups.

memories in the ashes

February 20th, 2010 | 14 Comments »

I’m Minnesota born and bred, raised on summer sunshine, hot dish and 10,000 Lakes. Although there are times that I wish I had the experience of living in other places, experiencing other cultures, I can’t deny my roots, the ones that run deep. My entire family is from this area and I’ve never considered living elsewhere.

Almost all of my upbringing occurred in South Minneapolis. As an adult, I migrated across the river and took on Saint Paul, learning to love it’s unique fingerprint, then I packed up and ditched the urban landscape for the quiet of the exurban living, out where frogs sing to the glory of a spring night, coyotes howl and possum wander lazily under the bird feeders (and pick the underside of your sunroom for their demise- ugh!!) Deer are pretty used to seeing humans, and vice versa. But my heart, my life and all my stained glass mosaic of childhood are firmly rooted in the 55419 zip code. There isn’t a time of my entire life, from my first permanent memories onward, that did not include the tiny commercial corner of 50th and Bryant, the two brick buildings that lined 50th Street, home to an ever-changing parade of tiny businesses. It was a nod to “Locally Owned and Operated” before anyone even knew what that really meant, or how important it was to a community.

And it simply shredded me inside to watch it burn.

All photos courtesy of Kate NG Sommers of The Heavy Table

The power of social media and the internet reaches beyond almost any scope of comprehension. I turned on my computer around 1:30pm on February 18th and took in one Tweet from the local Twitter populace that said ‘Corner of 50th& Bryant in SMpls is scene of large fire” and something clutched deep inside me. I could see the area in my eyes, and as the tweets, news videos and updates began pouring through the internet, I sat utterly transfixed with tears streaming down my face. The heart of my upbringing was so deep in that area. I sadly posted the news on Facebook and the lifeline reached out even more.

My high school is just up the road from there- Washburn High School, of which I entered in 1978 as the first Freshman class, and exited in 1982. Through the magic of Facebook, I have gotten back in touch with all of my old high school friends and they are scattered around the US, and even in other parts of the world, but when they started seeing my update, the shock and grief overflowed. As did the memories. It was a flood. Between that and the Twitter updates, the scenes of devastation playing out live in front of me, it was all I could do to keep from laying my head on my arms and weeping uncontrollably.

I lived barely 1/4 of a mile from there as a child, and as a very young girl walked with my sisters and the neighborhood girls, nickels clutched tight in our hands to the tiny store that was once in that building. The owner, a crotchety guy named Paul, always intimidated us a little, but the candy selection gave us reason to face him. Back when candy was a nickel, we got off easy at that place, gleaming through bags of Sugar Babies, ropes of Bub’s Daddy bubble gum and Black Cow suckers. One of the earliest and most painful memories of my life occurred at that store; it had a huge heavy door that we always struggled to push open, and one day as I attempted to dart through it, it slammed shut on my hand shattering the tip of a finger. It was a ugly bloody mess that dripped all over the worn linoleum floor of Paul’s store. And the stain never went away. I could go back time and again only to see the shadow of my blood on the floor. Paul eventually passed away from a heart attack, and the store closed.

There was an incredible deli in that building at one point, named Zorka & Ollie’s. It was a tiny, tiny space that made monstrous and delicious sandwiches, slathered in their signature Zorka sauce that was both spicy and sweet. It was the first place that dared to sell thick cut potato chips, and I distinctly remember the initial magnificent crunch that hit my mouth. Z&O’s had wonderful coleslaw and terrific potato salad. It was way ahead of it’s time with the fresh made flavor, variety and personal touch that everyone craves, and these days actively seeks out. A sandwich from Z&O’s was a feast.

In the corner of the building, long before Patina took root- an event I remember feeling quite ambivalent about- there used to be a store called Punky’s Corner Consignments, and long before that, a gorgeous Antique store. That antique store was where I honed my love of antiques, and of classic old china to be exact. As a young girl I would go in there with my Mom and marvel at the patterns, the delicacy and the array of beautiful dishware and serving pieces. To this day that love remains. And Punky’s was a fun, funky and odd place that you could find any manner of interesting and unique items. My friends and I could roam there for hours.

All of these memories came roaring through my head, as I watched video and took in photos of the flames eating up a piece of history.  The loss of the current businesses is sorrowful; the two restaurants were stellar destinations in the local dining scene, and at the forefront of a whole movement bringing fine dining into neighborhood pockets of the city. I don’t doubt the area will be rebuilt, but the historical aspect of that building, with it’s artistic brick work and façades can never be duplicated again. Driving through there, even with the new businesses so well established and a more modern feel to the block, I never failed to sense the tremors of history, the laughter of my friends and I, the wonder of the small child in me as acutely as if those moments were still occurring. With the collapse of the roof, and the imminent wrecking ball, it likely will all be pulled down, memories gone for good. Hopefully a new generation of locals will come to know and love what stands on that corner in the future.

Even with such devastation, two high points are well worth mentioning; other than minor injuries to two firefighters, no one was injured and there were no deaths from the blaze. And the venerable Malt Shop, in a building across a tiny alley was spared any damage. The Malt Shop holds a vast sea of memories for myself, my friends and more people than I even care to imagine. My friends and I almost lived there in high school, and the wait staff knew many of us by name. One underlying current that came in from many of my old classmates flung far and wide was the urgent need to know that The Malt Shop survived. Some of these old friends of mine left Minnesota after graduation and have returned only for visits, but the history, nostalgia and a piece of their heart is still there with me in Lynnhurst.

simple pleasures

February 16th, 2010 | 8 Comments »

Last year wasn’t my favorite year. Come to think of it, 2008 tossed some bombs my way and it all seemed to carry over, spreading out over time and trying to suck all the life out of me at every turn. As 2010 approached, and I looked back on the 12 months behind me, it was a bit sad to see that I’d paid far too much attention to the valleys in my life, and forgot to take in the view from the peaks.

Life is all about valleys and peaks. We’re up, we’re down and when we’re not, there’s the climbing out of the abyss and of course, slipping as we fall back into it. Sometimes our peaks are long, straight paths that resonate with light and glory, and we feel great. For a long time. Life is good and we breathe easy. But we slip, once more. The valleys can be dark. It’s hard sometimes to keep remembering that it doesn’t last forever. I’ve struggled to keep my chin up, part of me wishing fervently that this time of trial would just end already because really, I’ve had quite enough, thank you. Then I always realize that I’m climbing once again.

One aspect of 2010 that I’ve really wanted to do more of was to keep focused on the good, even when it seemed like there was nothing but darkness all around me. Fortunately, we’re only 6 weeks in, and what few dark moments that presented themselves passed rather quickly. It’s exciting to see the Earth changing around me, to notice with delight that there is still light at 5:45pm, that the tilt of the sun has changed enough to make 15° in February feel way different than it did in January. Or December. We’ve been absolutely dumped on in terms of the snowfall, and it’s given us quite a gorgeous landscape to look out over, and some stellar cross-country skiing. But beyond the natural turn that is happening, and the shorter amount of time between us and the arrival of Spring, it seems like there’s a whirlwind of good happening around me too. I hope to be able to share much more of what it entails as it pans out, but right now it’s slowly starting to twirl, like a tentative pirouette, moments of time pressing together and gradually expanding that are quietly whispering “Soon. Be Patient.”

The famous poem ‘Desiderata’ by Max Ehrmann has a line that says “… and whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.” For a long time it just never felt clear to me, it felt more like I was standing still while the world twisted and moved on around me. That’s changing, as is my perspective and I’m grateful. I’ve had this sensation inside me for a while now that I’m standing at the edge of a cliff, and everything in me knows that I just have to leap despite the voice in my head that’s saying “No- step back! You’re really scaring me!” I’m in my Indiana Jones moment, on the edge of that precipice. And this is my leap of faith. There is a bridge there that will catch me, even though I can’t see it.

There is one aspect of this extended time of trial in my life, and that is being available to just stop and enjoy those tiny moments along the way that can be so easily overlooked. Sitting down for a cup of tea one day really opened my eyes as the square cup seemed to fill my hands so perfectly. Moments of clarity that come from spending days with my almost 2-year old niece Nina,losing track of myself for awhile as I see life through her eyes. A Fall hike on a misty day that seems to leave the world around me at a standstill, smothered in the thick, wet air.

And with food too. Simple, easy and nourishing; stopping myself long enough to savor my lunch or an afternoon snack, taking the time to taste, smell and appreciate what’s in front of me.

I’ve spoken out for these garlicky white beans before, urging you to try them and fall in love with their simplicity like I have, the endless ways they can be dressed up as a quick yet nutritious meal. One bright and sunny afternoon I set out to simply stir together this favorite of mine, and as I perused the pantry, fridge and countertop, I reached for a can of tuna, half an avocado and some washed spinach, which when paired this time with lime zest and juice instead of lemon, made yet another winning combination. Great taste, good for the body and with the first few bites, apparently very good for the soul.

White Bean and Tuna Salad
by Kate

1 15-oz can great northern beans, drained and well rinsed
1 3-oz can of tuna, drained
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced or minced
1/2 a ripe avocado, diced
1 c. fresh spinach, washed and chopped
Lime zest and juice to taste

Fresh thyme (optional)

In a medium skillet, warm about 3 tablespoons of oil and add garlic, sauteing gently until lightly browned. Add in the beans and tuna and warm, stirring to combine. When hot and steaming, add about half the spinach and stir until wilted slightly. Repeat with remaining spinach. Grate in some of the lime zest and squeeze in about 2 tablespoons of the juice. Stir and taste. Season with salt and pepper, more lime zest and juice if desired. Remove from heat and scrape into a bowl. Add the avocado and gently mix it in. Sprinkle with thyme and serve warm with rye crackers if you wish, or toasted pita bread.

if i had a chance to do it all over again……

February 14th, 2010 | 3 Comments »

I would.
He makes every day like Valentine’s Day for us.
Happy Valentine’s Day to my sweetheart!

pumpcakes and compote

February 11th, 2010 | 10 Comments »

When making something like Pumpkin Pancakes, after a long day in which I awoke at 5:15am and couldn’t get back to sleep, and a rough but magical, much needed visit to the chiropractor that left me limp and relieved, trying to explain these pancakes to a teenager with a selective hearing problem might result in necessary culinary shorthand. Like saying ‘Pumpcakes’. It felt a little like baby talk, but it made The Teen smile and giggle just a little and when you’re the mother of a big boy on the verge of 16, making him giggle, regardless of how it’s extracted, is pretty heart-warming. Especially when he sort of coos “Aww. That’s kinda cute.” Shhh. You didn’t hear that from me, ok?

And also, on the tail end of a two-day snowfall that blanketed us with about 10 more inches that had to be put somewhere- like on top of and over the 4-foot plus piles around our slowly disappearing house- these Pumpcakes were awfully darn heart-warming all on their own.

Anyone want to take bets on whether this pile will still exist in July?

Pumpkin pancakes have never crossed our griddle, although I’ve seen them all over the ‘net; perfect dark rusty rounds of batter, thick and substantial. I always thought they looked pretty good. I love pumpkin bread, and muffins and scones and just about any baked good made better with the flesh of a gourd, but pancakes? It was time for me to explore. Plus, I was thoroughly out of inspiration for anything else and the little hand on the clock was rapidly approaching the 5:00 hour. I punted, did a quick Google and came up with this recipe.  Now, does it say something that this was the only recipe out of the first dozen or so that Google spit out to me that did NOT contain a base of Bisquick? Gah. I hope not. Scratch pancakes are pretty basic, requiring little else but flour, leavening, a bit of sugar and salt, liquid and egg. I had this recipe completed and sitting on the counter in about 5 minutes. It required only for me to climb on a chair to dig the container of baking soda out from where it had been pushed to the back of a top shelf.


The compote was total cowboy cooking. There was a leftover apple that I didn’t have room for after lunch and I quickly chopped it up, sauteing it in a small pat of butter before adding chopped pecans, a handful of currants and some leftover maple syrup blended with butter that we’d drizzled over roasted squash earlier in the week. It simmered while the pumpcakes cooked and in a few twists of a spatual, a hearty and aromatic dinner was on our plates. We could sit down with a sigh, the opalescent glow of fresh snow all around us and imbibe in these richly scented cakes with a sweet and crunchy topping and be warmed from both the food and the company. I do love days like that.


Now here’s my take on these Pumpcakes. They were good. No, scratch that; they were great. Really flavorful and hearty and thick. Lumberjack fare, if you know what I mean. Maybe it was the recipe but they took a rather long time to cook, and even when some of them were so robustly bronzed that I thought they’d be tough as shoe leather, they still seemed to me to be a little moist inside. Griffin even brought his to me and said “Are these done?” poking a fork suspiciously at the interior. I was expecting, like any pancake, that it would be fluffy, but given the added pumpkin, it would stand to reason that they’d be more dense. They tasted fine. Just plan on allowing them extra time on the griddle. The batter that resulted from this recipe was very thick. That should have been a clue to me. After a long day and with the added relief from my aches and pains, I can’t always sufficiently tie two strands of obvious together. On a side note, for some added nutrition I used WW flour in place of AP in the recipe, added 2 tablespoons of ground flaxseed and a 1/2 cup of cornmeal, and subbed unsweetened applesauce for the oil.

And that compote? Now that was a winner. I wish I had made more to have on hand for oatmeal, or to spread on toasted bread. It was stellar, a perfect winter treat and way open to personal experimentation.

Apple, Pecan and Currant Compote
by Kate

1 medium tart apple, washed, cored and diced fine (I used one called ‘Jazz’- it was tart, but subtly sweet too)
1 c. chopped pecans
1/3 c. currants
1 T. butter
1/2 c. pure maple syrup

In a skillet over medium heat, melt the butter and add the apple. Saute for a few minutes until the apple is soft, then stir in the pecans and cook, stirring regularly, until the nuts are slightly toasted and fragrant. Pour in the maple syrup and reduce the heat to low. Cook, stirring occasionally until the maple syrup has been absorbed. Stir in the currants and heat through. Serve warm over pancakes or waffles. Will keep refrigerated for several days. If you can resist. Reheat in the microwave if desired. This tastes amazing if sprinkled with a light dusting of sea salt prior to serving. Something about that salty sweet crunch…..

I love the idea of pears, almonds and figs for another version of this.

chocolate toll house bars

February 7th, 2010 | 12 Comments »

Mmm hmm….that’s right. Chocolate. Toll house. Bars. An unlikely sisterhood of fudgey brownie and the famous toll house recipe baked into a pan. I’m really a cookie lover at heart, but sometimes I just don’t want to scoop and bake repeatedly. Sometimes I just need to cream, stir, blend and fold myself into contentment, the end result being more easily achieved than what requires parchment, trays and repetitive movement. Take one recipe for your favorite version of a Toll House bar and stir some good cocoa powder into the dry goods. Take a bite and sigh with contentment. See? I would never steer you wrong.

I can bake. I love to bake. My lifeline to my guardian angel, my mother, lies in my mixer and flour container. With a spatula. I have no fonder memories of her than baking with her, the sunlight streaming in her kitchen window. I should recall her laugh, which was loud and shrieky, I mean, have you heard mine? She caused that, no doubt. My brother too. When he and I laugh together, people cover their ears. They wince. We get asked to be quiet in movie theaters, and we shock people. But her laugh, while amazing and warm was just a blue ribbon pinned on the strong and capable woman that she was, and that I strive to be. I may bend in the breezes, or twist against the savages of life, but no matter what happens, I am still the person she raised me to be, no more or less. With a spatula in hand. And cookies. They were her favorite. She made pies, bundt cakes (ooh, lime green ones sometimes. Eeek.) and she made bars too. But cookies were her specialty. Now I could do without the nuts that she loved, and to this day I haven’t been able to abide by the walnut, so overpowering was that in my youth and usually rancid if I am able to judge now. She put it in everything, and I picked them out of everything. If I was woe to forget to throw them away, the pile left behind would elicit one of her pretend indignant shrieks of “KATE!!!” because she just knew me that well. It was always me who carefully and diligently despised her walnuts. Or maybe my siblings were just better at remembering to dispose of the evidence.

One thing that Griffin does love to do is make cookies now and again. I like to keep everything on hand in case he gets a hankering for a homemade treat. The other day he was all set to make some Toll House bars when he discovered we didn’t have enough butter. With the saddest sigh that he could muster, he replaced all the ingredients he’d taken out and silently went upstairs. Mommy guilt overcame me. Although we had a few options available in the form of frozen commercial cookie dough, there is one thing that my teenager has inherited from me that sticks like glue: when he gets his mind on something he wants, he can’t settle for anything less. So the next day I went to the store and bought a lot of butter. Then when he was gone one night, I made a pan of bars and on a whim, added cocoa to the flour mixture.

My mom is probably smiling right about now.

Are there any alchemist secrets to baking? I’m really not one to ask, as for me baking is like looking at my right hand. It’s so much a part of me that I don’t recognize what might make it special. Or difficult. But plenty of people struggle with it. Baked goods fall flat, are dense and hard, they don’t rise enough or they balloon out of control. The fall when they come out of the oven. You know what? Mine do too. Even after a lifetime of experience, I can still often see fault in my bars. This pan, for instance, was so beautiful and fluffy when I pulled it out of the oven, and 20 minutes later, the center had collapsed like a mutual fund. It happens to me all the time but it never stops me from trying. They taste the same. And really, when I die, no one is going to be standing at my casket shaking their heads morosely and saying “Her bars always collapsed. It was so sad.”

The cocoa gives these familiar and comforting bars an added depth. While Toll House bars are nice and all, they really lack the pizazz of their more colorful and opulent baked counterparts. They’re reliable and sound but they’ve been left behind for everything sweet and dotted with sea salt, doused in browned butter, lavender essence and gold leaf. Oh Toll House, those new millenium treats smirk,  you are so 1975. Place them on a table with something exotic, and the poor plate will get skimmed over. Turn it into a delicate brownie-like, cakey and soft square, and it will stand apart. If nothing else, it will just make your mouth pretty happy. In a less expensive way. And we like that, don’t we?

Chocolate Toll House Bars
by Kate, adapted from the original recipe. My version is a little different so read it through. Some new tips are included.

2-1/4 c. AP flour (i used half whole wheat flour)
1 t. baking soda
1/2  t. sea salt (this is a personal preference; I don’t like the taste of iodized salt in my baked goods. use what is right for you)
1/4 c. cocoa powder
1 c. softened butter – NO substitutions (or at least don’t tell me about it)
1/2 c. EACH white sugar and brown sugar (firmly pack the brown)
2 eggs
1 t. pure vanilla extract
1/8 c. (or about 3 T. ) whole milk or cream (i used vanilla soymilk)
1  12-oz package Chocolate chips of choice (i use Ghiradelli semi sweets)

Preheat the oven to 350°. Spray a 9×13 pan with cooking spray. In a large measuring cup, whisk together all the dry ingredients.

In a large bowl, or a stand mixer, blend the soft butter and both sugars until fluffy and light. Be sure to really beat these well. The more air you incorporate into this, the fluffier your finished product. Beat it, scraping the bowl occasionally, for at least 5 minutes. Longer if you can.

Add the eggs, vanilla and milk. Blend well. Now remove the beaters and scrape them into the bowl.

Add all the flour at once, and with a stiff rubber spatula, begin gently folding it into the butter mixture. Remember to scrape across the bottom of the bowl and gently turn it over. Don’t stir it or you’ll deflate all that air you beat into the butter. Watch what you’re doing and when you’ve incorporated about half the flour, stop folding and add in the chocolate chips at this point. Continue to fold the remaining flour into the mixture, along with the chocolate chips. There will be a single magical moment when it all comes together in a beautiful glossy homogenized mass, and at this point, make sure there is no flour at the bottom of the bowl and then stop folding. Scrape it into the prepared pan and gently spread it to the edges. It’s fine if it doesn’t look perfect. Bake it for about 25 minutes, checking with a toothpick to determine if it’s done. Remove pan and allow to cool before cutting.

KATE’S NOTES:
I know that all recipes for these bars tell you to incorporate all the flour and then fold in the chips. Somehow this has worked for decades, but once you incorporate the flour, the more you stir and mix it, the tougher it will get and the bars will come out denser than you might expect. If you add the chips partway through the flour step, the finished product is lighter and you get more distribution of the chips. If you’re like me, you prefer your chip ratio to be even, not clumped up in some spots more than others. Even with the beating and gentle folding, these bars collapsed but they aren’t dense, just moist and fudgey.

This recipe calls for less sugar than any recipe you’ll find in print. With the addition of the milk, and of course those chocolate chips, there really isn’t the need for that much sugar. I’ve realized as I get older and experiment with baking that many, many recipes are too sweet, and cutting back sugar is always a good thing, isn’t it?

And yes, most recipes don’t call for milk to be added but if you follow this one, the additional cocoa needs to be balanced by a little more moisture, and the milk adds a nice touch, making them sweeter with a bit of richness. Experiment with what you have on hand. Flavored coffee creamers might be lovely to add a hint of something extra. And if they fall while they cool, no one will notice because they taste simply amazing. Especially for breakfast with some really dark coffee.

have i mentioned this?

February 2nd, 2010 | 11 Comments »

One aspect of 2010 that is vastly different than the past years is that I decided I was going to tackle Project 365. You take a photo a day for 365 days straight. Doesn’t sound too hard, or does it? Because for me, especially in the last few months of ’09, I started seeing a whole new world through my camera and figured ‘Well this should be simple.’

It has been, but it’s also been a huge challenge. Weird dichotomy, isn’t it? A simple challenge? I carry an iPhone so there is always a camera with me. I love it for it’s ability to take some amazing shots.

Like this one.


And this one too

The bottom line of capturing your life on camera is not that complicated; the view through the lens can be profound and moving provided you lift your head long enough to look around and see what’s happening, and it doesn’t necessarily require a complex camera with a series of bulky lenses. Those do help, especially on the bright sunny day that one comes across the stunning image alongside the road of two eagles sitting majestically in a tree. The iPhone wasn’t going to cut it on that day. And I wasn’t carrying my digital with me. Although I have that image seared onto my memory, no one else will see it. I do need to remember to pocket my little digital camera more often. Because, with that, I am able to do some magical things.

Like find peanut butter rapture.

A beautiful selection of small and simple bowls

And the sunlight on tiny dipping saucers and cups

While these themselves may not be worthy of the Guggenheim, or even the corner coffee shop, once you place them all side by side they will tell a story of one month, a perspective I would have forgotten if it weren’t for 31 clicks of a lens. I like that it spurs me to continue, to wonder how the remaining 11 months of Project 365 will pan out. The end destination is always exciting, but the scenery along the way should never be overlooked.

Want to see the whole month? Feel free to look it over. The comments are my novel of January 2010.