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Hearty Blueberry-Oat Muffins

How we treat breakfast often changes based on our environment or situation. Travelling, it might mean the small yogurt cups on ice and a banana from a fruit basket in the hotel lobby. Perhaps it’s the box of granola bars you packed to tide you over in case your flight was delayed. Breakfast could possibly be a giant bowl of salty ramen because morning happens to arrive at 3 pm in another time zone.
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Travelling or living internationally, I’m inclined to consume what I observe the natives eating, or at least what the travel book tells me they eat. Ten years old in Scandinavia I remember a scene where my family is sitting at the table inside a red vacation cottage hours away from Stockholm. I am happily pouring filmjölk, a bracingly soured yogurt similar to Kefir, over muesli not because I enjoy it’s tanginess but because that’s what my friends at school eat.
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Twenty years later I am still motivated by the actions of my peers. Sure, I’ll go see some band at a weird venue far away requiring two bus transfers and a long walk to get to because everyone else is going. Witnessing lots of people in my neighborhood carrying mats and wearing Lululemon no doubt encouraged my recent foray into yoga. I certainly don’t want to feel left out. And yes, I will wait over an hour to eat at a place because social media posts and pictures have extolled the tastiness of something swaddled in bacon and bathed in truffle juice.

However, my weekend breakfast ritual remains sacred— untainted by fad, trend and criticism. The two of us waking when we want the cat wants and eating what we like is in the fridge.

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Today, weekend breakfast means eggs, vegetables and meat all wrapped in tortillas or piled on toast. The eggy piles are then doused in sriracha, the garlicky burn waking us up. Sometimes we’ll make fancy waffles, ‘fancy’ indicating that we spruce up the bisquick batter. Occasionally we have fruit juice. There must always be coffee.

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For a night owl, the morning, as pretty and bright as it may be, doesn’t incite me to jump out of bed and seize the day. Every weekday the alarm goes off (intentionally chosen is the most offensive sound option available on my phone setting). I punch the snooze button HARD (even though it’s a touch screen) and sink deep into my sheets and mattress. A quick dream about turning into Rapunzel locked in a quiet tower where sleep can be entered on a whim, until my conscious or my morning-adoring partner compels me to stagger to the shower. Once there, with hot water pounding my skin, coming to my senses is natural enough. But damn, that half hour between the alarm sounding and my muscles fighting to actually leave the bed feels like a year…a very, very difficult year.

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Breakfast during the week is a quick first meal of the day, but should also be a pleasurable one. The hope being, if I fill my mornings with luxuries like sweet whole milk, tart blood oranges, oatmeal with flaxseed and walnuts, a pot of coffee spiked with cinnamon; then I might begin to enjoy them. Homemade blueberry muffins, slightly sweetened and generously enriched with some wholesome things are my latest effort towards cutting the tether between myself and my bed.

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These muffins might not turn me into a lover of the morning but they do make yanking myself up a little less dramatic. Getting to the point of mornings being cheerful probably involves some behavior modification, an adjusted mind-set and/or some small children. When I’m lying in bed, feeling like road-kill because it’s 6:30AM in the morning, I’ll remember that I have these muffins to eat once I do join the world.

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Blueberry-Oat Muffins

 

Ingredients

 
1 ½ cup rolled oats
1 cup milk
½ cup brown sugar
2 tbsp honey or agave
½ cup yogurt (vanilla or plain) or sour cream
1 egg (slightly beaten)
1 tbsp oil
1 tsp vanilla extract
Squeeze of lemon juice
½ cup whole wheat flour
½ tsp salt
¾ cup walnuts (coarsely chopped)
¼ cup flaxseed
1 tsp baking powder
½ tbsp. baking soda
1 cup fresh blueberries

 

Other:

cooking spray
muffin or cupcake liners

 

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Fill a muffin pan with liners and lightly spray each liner with the cooking spray.

Measure oats into a food processor or spice grinder and pulse a couple times, breaking the oats into smaller pieces. Doesn’t have to be a fine flour, unless you prefer for the texture of the muffins.

Add oats to a small bowl and pour milk in to soften the oats. Set aside.

In a large bowl combine the brown sugar, honey, yogurt, vanilla, egg, oil, lemon juice and mix well.

In a food processor or spice grinder add flaxseed and grind until a powder.

In a medium bowl add the flour, salt, walnuts, flaxseed, baking powder, baking soda. Stir until fully combined.

Pour the oats and milk mixture into the brown sugar, yogurt, egg mixture. Mix well to combine. Slowly add the dry ingredients, about ¾ cup at a time, to the wet mixture, stirring just until flour is incorporated into the wet mixture. Fold the blueberries in*.

Spoon the batter into the prepared muffin liners. Should be enough to make approximately 12-16 muffins.

Bake for about 22-25 minutes. I usually rely on the toothpick test.

*If using frozen blueberries, make sure to toss them with a little bit of flour before adding. This prevents berry juice from ‘bleeding’ into the batter.

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Wherever You Go

I am writing this from sunny Orlando. Come 3pm on-the-dot, this will turn into stormy Orlando, with dark horror movie skies and rain streaming down windows, claps of thunder followed by long bursts of lightening slicing the sky. So far, the monsoons haven’t made sight-seeing too difficult. Last night we drove slowly through the tropical storm weather with our flashers on, cautiously following the car ahead all the way to Cocoa beach. The rain stopped just as we got there and picked an outdoor patio for dinner.

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We sat drinking beer and sweet tea and played with the ancient ‘Trivial Pursuit’ cards that rested on each table. Some questions now irrelevant, most ahead of our time. Donning plastic bibs, we cracked lobsters and snow crabs until our stomachs ached then walked off dinner on the wet sand, its surface dimpled from the heavy rain drops. You won’t see a brilliant sunset over the water on the Atlantic side, but you do get to witness the moon shine brighter and brighter over the ocean as the sky darkens and the treetops along the beach look dusted with pink and orange while the sun settles down. The sandpipers scurry to the water’s edge as the waves go out and peck for food then quickly scurry away just as the water rushes back up shore.

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Not your usual Orlando vacation, mine is devoid of Disney. The night before we bought cigars and nestled in wooden chairs for a couple of hours, smoking and talking. I spend my early day in the sun or reading or thinking of what to eat later on for dinner. That’s always at the forefront of my thoughts – next meal. Both sides of me come from families where food is very central. I still remember being 7 years old and everyone at my mother’s parent’s house gathered around the round kitchen table to make ravioli from scratch. Some were placed on pasta duty, while others prepped the filling. I was on the assembly line. I wish I could say, “and that was the moment I realized I love food” but I was a kid, with all of my cousins in the middle of summer and I wanted to be playing outside underneath the giant willow tree in my grandparent’s yard. We’d pull on that poor tree’s hanging limbs, pretending to be ringing church bells.

There have been some good food finds here in Orlando. We ventured up to the Mills 50 district one night for Asian street fare from Hawker’s. Comforted and full from handmade roti, spicy prawn mee, duck curry noodles and 5 spice green beans with sweet chrysanthemum tea. BBQ was dinner for the next night at this place called 4 Rivers Smokehouse. I loved the casual counter-service style. In line there is a large refrigerator case full of old-style sodas – apple beer, ginger ales and creamy root beers arranged neatly in tall, thin glass bottles. You shout your order out to a guy cutting off the burnt ends of a brisket and a sheet of butcher paper is slapped onto a tray to hold your meat of choice. I was taken with the ribs, a half rack so big it nearly took up the entire tray. My sides were baked cheese grits and corn so good I gobbled it up first thing. The key to an automatically amazing corn salad? Grill the corn.

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Ashamedly (because it is kind of embarrassing) I am not a BBQ sauce lover. I tolerate it. Give me gravies, give me spicy rubs, but slather my 16 hour slow-cooked meat in sweet, tangy BBQ sauce and I make one of those twisted toddler faces of disgust. Perhaps I care so much because I love a man who could slather BBQ on hardtack and be happy or maybe I dislike feeling left out, especially if it is from a popular culinary item. BBQ sauce, I fear, is not a craze but a fixture. Deepening its roots further and further into traditional American cuisine and I kind of want in. My first stop was Lillie’s in Chicago, where I sort of dipped my toe into trying anything, instead enjoying my pulled pork pile sans sauce. Down south though, where BBQ is king, I had to abandon hesitation. I tried brisket covered in the house-made sauce and my tender St Louis style ribs which thankfully were not drenched, but sweetly glazed. Thank you Orlando, I see more of this American obsession in my future.

There have been more to fill up my days than just food though. This trip was encouraged because I felt restless yet unproductive and wanted to leave my house full of chores and my city with all of its dirt and traffic. Even sitting at the airport terminal early in the morning to fly to Orlando was a relief, as if I had put on noise-cancelling earphones and was awakening all the other senses I’ve lost touch with. Gathering up thoughts and taking them to another place can sometimes lead to small revelations, like when you are stuck and decide to approach a puzzle from a different angle. By merely changing seats at the table you gain a fresh perspective. Meeting new people and seeing new things can be re-charging. Even taking part in activities I do at home, but with palm trees outside of my window today might lead to catharsis. I don’t believe there is a geographic cure for anything. You are where you are at any given moment and that is to be respected and reveled in. It is nice however to pluck yourself out of your usual routine and exist someplace else for awhile.

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Travel keeps me sane.

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Content.

If you had told me a year ago that I would be where I am right now I’d look at you, wide-eyed, in a daze of disbelief and then hug you really hard once it had all nestled in. I’d thank you for sharing the good news then nearly collapse, pleasantly surging with relief. My boss reminds me to “enjoy every moment of every day,” a very simple piece of advice that often takes a tragedy or streak of sadness to jar us into implementing. My little jolt came from the latter.

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For me, days would go by in a very fast blur. Like sitting on an express train, passing by stops and towns that could possibly mean something to me, I was hurrying through chunks of time without considering where I’d like to head, who I’d like to become. But from what I gather, time and getting older is much about unraveling who you are.

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My life is not perfect, that’s not what I am getting at. My room is a mess, I procrastinate, remain a little out of touch with my passions, don’t travel as much as I’d like, treat working out as a sometimes thing, and tidiness is lost on me. Those are teeny tiny worries that I possess now instead of a dreaded sense of aimlessness. I am in a good place and am grateful for so many things. Following this past birthday, which turned out to be a rather grown-up affair, I began focusing on how things have changed since my early twenties. How the people I surround myself with mean more to me. How I have little patience for superficial ties or, on the other end of the spectrum, toxicity. How wonderful simplicity is.

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This hot morning I came home, dry and tired, to a quarter of a ripe watermelon sitting on the table. Glistening. A knife resting beside it.  I wanted to pick up the entire piece and bite right into the center, let the fruit dissolve and the sugar perk me up.  I decided against hacking away at the fruit with my teeth. I daintily cut up little chunks, threw some stuff together in a bowl and called it a salad. A spontaneous, refreshing little salad inspired by restraint and my own contentment.

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Watermelon salad

Fresh ripe watermelon

A couple glugs of really good olive oil

Fresh mint, finely julienned

Salt

Cut watermelon into good-sized chunks and place in a bowl. Toss with olive oil and mint. Finish with salt of your choice.

 

 

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Say Goodbye.


I have been sad for awhile now.

There are usually signs leading up to a relationship’s end. Distance, frequent fighting, loss of appetite, and then when it finally happens….when the inevitable culminates to ‘the talk’ and the break is finalized in words, an emotional breakdown begins taking place. Loss of appetite may ensue, intake of alcohol increases. Outlets are examined. I seem to have mastered the art of distraction – doing things, anything, to avoid addressing my feelings.

Hurting hurts too much.

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I run or walk to lose my mind in the city and its activity, its views. I play music loudly and let the melody envelope me to discourage sadness. I bury anguish deep into the woodwork of pub tables and the shrill notes of a laugh. The digestion of pain is nauseating and so I do not let myself be still enough to let it happen. But it does. Memories seep out unexpectedly and jolt me into feeling something despite best efforts. Love’s residue lingers inside like a nasty hangover. Except this hangover isn’t abated with pills or more poison, just time.

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And then there’s the worst. There comes galloping behind in a cruel frenzy at vulnerable moments – regret and doubt, the mistrusting of initial gut instincts that led to this point. I am asphyxiated by insecurity and a hazy future. This is, after all, the disintegration of a life I had been living for quite some time. I am so uncomfortable, because what lies next is new and different and, possibly, wrong. Life cannot be clear-cut, how effortless and dull that would be. Things thrown at you are sometimes the most perfect. This was not something that fell on my lap though. It was chosen. Possibly one of the most difficult things about growing up is becoming accustomed to making decisions for yourself. I am losing an entire person, a good person, and I decided to lose them. Unhappiness and discontent on my part led me to inflict harm, to say goodbye. It is a disgusting feeling.

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Time and expression help to heal, but it sure does hurt right now. I guess I’ve been suppressing things for awhile and these words needed to come out today to mitigate all the pressure. It helps to write things down, to look at how I feel and what is happening right now.

I would be afraid of myself if I did not feel this way. If I was not so sad.

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Restaurant Junkie

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Just so you know, when you eat out or order in for a full month your wallet shrinks and your waist-line bulges. It may be fun and relaxed during that time. The feel of a menu in hand may become second nature. Different places you “always meant to try” are given a chance. You call a friend up for a quick bite out more often. If your poison is dining out, you may stroll around the neighborhoods, taking walks after meals more readily than if dining at home.

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“Try this,” prompts the bartender and suddenly you are tasting an amazing wine you’d be ignorant of had you been home sitting in your pajamas drinking PBR eating PBJ. Ordering in allows you the luxury of trading in that humble PBJ for a swankier calzone while still donning  pajamas. Eventually however, you do not come to feel very well. Your body becomes accustomed to, addicted to even, greasy take-out. Your cells yearn for fresh produce. Lack of dish-washing, it seems, also equates to lack of energy. The doorman might receive you with looks of either pity or judgment each time you go to pick up your super spicy hot pepper beef with extra veggies and a side of egg rolls. Your neighbors may single you out as the one whose recycling burgeons out with plastic take-out trays and menus.

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And even if you have mastered the art of ordering the healthiest dishes offered, it is unlikely your income can keep up forever. $40 worth of food ordered from a restaurant is not equivalent to $40 worth of groceries. No amount of justifying leftovers or Groupons will make up for that. Also, dining out often leads to drinking out which ups the tab considerably, 1- because drinks are expensive and 2 – drinks make you forget the price of drinks which leads to ordering more rounds of drinks.

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It wasn’t an experiment or a  conscious decision. I have not been travelling (unfortunately) or trying to woo anyone incessantly. It just somehow happened that I ate out for an entire month. Whether ordering, picking up food on the way home or eating out I avoided home-cooked meals. My bank account and body suffered tremendously as a result. To break myself of this terrible streak I made a shopping list the length of a Russian novel and headed with my boyfriend- the incredibly patient Ryan – to the grocery store to fill the pantry and fridge with mostly healthy things.

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Following my absence from the kitchen (aside from re-heating delivery pizza) I decided to ease back into cooking with a fond, nourishing dish easily thrown together with sausage, swiss chard and some type of grain. Luckily I had picked up farro, one of those versatile, filling grains with a deliciously nutty quality that I somehow always, and unforgivably, overlook.

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I am not sure if it is every Trader Joe’s or just the one we go to down State Street, but it has about two dozen different varieties of chicken sausage.  Curiosity led me to grab the Maple syrup and apple package that works in this dish  if you love sweet and savory flavors together, but I see how it could be more successfully highlighted at breakfast.

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So here is a recipe after a month-long hiatus of cooking. Something simple, clean and refreshing after all of the deliciously heavy meals I have had this month. Something to warm you up if you are as cold as I am here in Chicago and something to fill you up if you are lucky enough to be warm right now and just simply hungry. Enjoy.

Farro and Chicken Sausage with Rainbow Swiss Chard

For the farro:
½ c quick-cook farro*
1 c broth (chicken or vegetable)
olive oil
2-3 chicken sausages, cut into rounds
1 Tbsp butter
½ c diced onion
1 clove garlic, chopped
salt and pepper, to taste

For the swiss chard:
1 bunch rainbow swiss chard, cleaned and dried
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp red pepper flakes
1 tsp olive oil
¼ cup broth (chicken or vegetable)
salt and pepper, to taste

Add farro to 1 cup broth in a saucepan. Set on high and cover until boiling. Watch as it has a tendency to boil over at this point. Reduce heat to low, cover again and let it simmer very gently for about 10 minutes. Remove from heat  when it’s al dente and let farro stand for another 5 minutes, still leaving pot covered. Drain any excess liquid. Season with some salt and pepper and set aside.

Next, prepare the swiss chard. I chose rainbow to add some color to the meal, but it really doesn’t matter. You can even substitute kale. Take the swiss chard stalks and chop them into small pieces. Set a medium sauté pan over medium heat and add the oil. Add the garlic and sauté until it becomes lightly golden in color. Add the swiss chard and the broth and stir to coat the leaves. Cover pan and cook for about 5 minutes. Stir leaves again and check for tenderness. They should be just wilted but not too crunchy in the center. Add the red pepper and salt and pepper to taste.

In a medium skillet over medium-high heat add a dash of olive oil. Add the chicken sausage pieces to the pan and brown them. Once done, remove these to a plate.

Add the butter, onion and garlic to the skillet and sauté these until tender, adding a little pat of more butter if you need to. This should take about 5 minutes. Add the farro, chicken sausage and stir everything together until warmed through. Serve on top of or stir together with the swiss chard.

* I found quick-cook farro at Trader Joe’s, however this can be done with regular farro just be sure to pre-soak the grain for 30 minutes, drain and then gently simmer for about 30-45 minutes.

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But Perfect is so Boring

A couple Sundays ago something was awry. The day I awoke to was calm and gorgeous. Sometimes Chicago winds are ruthless. They can be musical against the ornamental curves of these old buildings, but in the winter, they usually just outright bite, not even bothering to nip first.  I noticed how the sun slipped through the linen curtains and the el trains seemed quieter than usual. I woke up early and nestled into my perfect den of pillows to read some Augusten Burroughs for a bit. The sun glided off of the Sears (habit) tower, through my basil plants and into the apartment. I moved to the kitchen and excited the fish, Stella. Thought it was  time to pull eggs out of the fridge and whip them into a pan. I had fresh vegetables on hand too, which was actually an amazing thing. I am, and it has been quite a struggle as it will continue to be, an inconsistent domestic goddess. Either the house will sparkle while a pot of chicken soup bubbles away on the stove and my herb garden perks up OR laundry will embarrassingly be spilling out of hampers, dust rabbits lurk by the baseboards and my fridge contains some mustard and a can of beer – still working on finding that happy medium.

With that said, this particular Sunday I did have a nicely stocked fridge and pantry to play around with. I added some goat cheese, mushrooms, parsley, and tomatoes to the eggs to be scrambled. They were on low heat, I had all the time in the world, these eggs should have been perfect. In a matter of minutes I severely burned the toast and the eggs came out sloppy. An edible, albeit, disappointing meal to start the day. With more time to spare and a desire to overcome my previous culinary flop I decided to take on a simpler task and boil some steel-cut oats to store in the fridge for the upcoming week. Who knew that a pot, ½ cup of boiling water and a small amount of ground-up grain could create concrete? Despite my ‘care’, the water boiled over like lava shortly after I added the oats and the molten mess quickly hardened on the stove-top, relentlessly adhering to it as I scrubbed with the force of a mad-woman.  Left with hardtack for oats and a pot in need of detailing with some steel-wool I should have just given up.  I persisted. I rarely have Sundays free, and I suppose that may be a good thing because more mishaps like these might occur with all that spare time. I forgot to mention that while the oats were wreaking havoc on my stove, my oven was in the process of burning some neglected cherry tomatoes.  When my cherry tomatoes seem like they’re no longer good for salads, I like to slice them in half, toss them with some olive oil, salt, pepper and seasonings then dry them out in the oven for a batch of sunblushed tomatoes. Upon discovering that the majority of them were charring and none of them blushing, I threw the towel in on cooking for the day. Some days, it’s ok to just admit self-defeat in the kitchen and order Chinese take-out for dinner.

I made up for my off-day shortly after….

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Poached egg with a few of the salvaged ‘sunblushed’ tomatoes. I think perfectly poached eggs with a runny center and buttered toast is an amazing, anytime food.

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Rolled oats with walnuts, agave nectar and strawberries all washed down with a latte. Creamy, frothed milk is no longer a luxury with my little hand-held milk frother, courtesy of my friend Ashley.

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A Very Brand New Year.

“Year’s end is neither an end nor a beginning but a going on, with all the wisdom that experience can instill in us.”  Hal Borland

I sort of lost sense of myself at the end of the last one. Not writing makes me sad. It wasn’t just that I failed to update this space for months, I neglected to write anything other than a text message or a trivial e-mail during that time as well. I uploaded some snippets to twitter, so…that counts, no? No. I need to be truer to myself this year. How long can someone go around casting off their laziness as sheer writer’s block? Whether it has been laziness or me simply avoiding the time to sit, think and type, a healthy dose of self-discipline should do the trick. I like taking photos. I like cooking and writing and meditating with a milky cup of coffee in the morning. I derive pleasure in reading and learning new things. Walks outside provide sanctuary. While strict resolutions don’t quite work for me, reflection does. Like most, my goals are emphatically set and stuck to for some time and then the enthusiasm wears. I prefer to take January to evaluate and realign.

With that, I will recount my own New Year’s celebration…which was world’s different than last year’s.

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My sister and niece stayed with us over the holidays. Freezing outside and caring for a toddler, we thought it best to stay indoors, have a mini dance party and watch Disney movies to celebrate.

We also ate. A lot.

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Dates stuffed with goat cheese and then wrapped in thick slices of applewood smoked bacon.

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Mussels cooked in white wine and garlic butter with parsley. With these, we regretted not picking up fresh bread for dipping.

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We got Reiley involved, helping us dress the heirloom tomato caprese salad with basil and a sweet balsamic glaze.

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Then, there was a thick steak and some delicious ( but really odd so I’ve forgotten the name) variety of mushroom tossed with a fresh angel-hair pasta.

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No drunken photos or hangovers the next day.  Rather, we picked up some poppers and shiny beads at the store and at the stroke of midnight showed Reiley how to pull the strings on the poppers and make them go ‘BOOM!’. It was perfect.

Here is to a wonderful year.

 

 

 

 

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