Category Archives: Vegetarian/Vegan

A Meal for Sharing: Turkish Inspired Baked Eggs

Turkish Inspired Baked Eggs reminds me of the homey cooking I was treated to while working in Turkey.  It is a bright tomato and chick pea saucy stew in which you bake/poach eggs until they are just set.  The perfect bite should be scooped up from the pan with flat bread, catching a bit of the veg with a glorious bite of baked egg with golden, soft yolk.  You can make it a bit more fancy by baking the eggs in individual pans of sauce for a dinner party, but it is best eaten from the main skillet family style.  That is one of the best parts of eating with friends in Turkey, the shared feast placed around a central mat, everyone passing portions and plates, dipping into platters with your flat bread, and sharing the meal in a way that is more than just sitting around the table together.

This is also a recipe that was requested by some dear friends, Jill and Sean from Blue Gate Farm in Iowa.  Jill and Sean got Dave and I hooked on farm fresh eggs. In fact, they’ve ruined us forever from store bought.  We stumbled onto their farm (almost literally) from an amazing event that they organize each year called the Farm Crawl where a number of small farms highlight their wares and put together a ton of fun for anyone who wants to come by and visit.  Dave and I belonged to the Blue Gate Farm CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) while in Iowa and “upgraded” our order to include their truly free range eggs and honey.  At the end of that first season with the CSA Dave and I bemoaned the end of the lovely weekly boxes of vegetable treasures and the eggs, and we grumbled as we had to start buying the veg from the grocery store again, but we didn’t throw a hissy fit until that first Saturday breakfast of pancakes and eggs.  Oh those despicable eggs…

One of my Eating Culture classes visiting Blue Gate Farm.  Sean and Jill are at the far left and the amazing chickens are in the background on the far right.

One of my Eating Culture classes visiting Blue Gate Farm. Sean and Jill are at the far left and the amazing chickens are in the background on the far right.

I’ve always enjoyed eggs and honestly I didn’t notice a great difference when I first switched to the farm raised eggs.  They certainly were prettier with the nice, tall standing golden yolks, and they were delicious, but they tasted like eggs to me.  My poor taste buds simply didn’t recognize the shift until I tried to go back to the grocery store version.  Dave and I took a bite and looked at each other with horror on our faces.  What was this thing we were trying to eat?  I quickly fired off an email to Jill imploring her that if there was any kindness in their souls they would still allow us to buy eggs from them over the winter.  This started a lovely tradition where every other week Jill or Sean would show up to our favorite brewery (Peacetree Brewing in Knoxville, IA) with a cooler of eggs.  We would come, buy a couple dozen eggs, eat a take out dinner from the local Chinese restaurant, and enjoy a lovely pint of our favorite frosty offerings from Peacetree.  We still miss that ritual!

Little Man playing at Blue Gate Farm. It’s nice when the place where you get your food is also a fun place to run around.

The Turkish Style Baked Eggs recipe is one that I put together to highlight those glorious eggs from Blue Gate Farm and the sense of community it inspires.  It is a dish meant to be shared with friends and loved ones, served with tons of flat bread and preferably with a couple of pints of your favorite frosty beverage (a nice sparkling cider works well here too).

Note: Small children, pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems are generally discouraged from eating eggs that are not hard cooked.  For our own little one, we scramble up an egg or two on the side and then serve his scrambled egg with a liberal dousing of the stew.

Turkish Style Baked EggsTurkish Inspired Baked Eggs
Ingredients:
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 medium onion, finely chipped
1 15 oz. can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
2 tsp. smoked paprika
1 tsp. cumin, ground
1 tsp. coriander, ground
1 tsp. dried thyme
1 28 oz. can of diced tomatoes
1 tbsp. tomato paste
½ cup water
4 eggs
Flat bread (see Using Frozen Pizza Dough recipe)
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

Directions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 425º.
  2. Heat a large non-stick skillet over medium high heat and add 1 tbsp. olive oil. When the oil is hot, tip the onions and garlic into the pan and sauté until soft but not browned.
    Onions and Garlic
  3. Add the chick peas to the pan along with the smoked paprika, cumin, coriander and thyme. Stir to combine and sauté for a couple of minutes, or until the spices start to give off a slightly toasty aroma.
    Chickpeas and spices added to the pan.

    Chickpeas and spices added to the pan.

    Everything starts to look toasty and brown.

    Everything starts to look toasty and brown.

  4. Add the diced tomatoes with their juices, tomato paste and water to the pan and stir to combine. Bring the sauce to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer and partially cover the pan. Simmer for 15 minutes. The sauce will reduce a bit and concentrate its flavors, but you still want plenty of liquid.
    Adding the diced tomatoes and tomato paste for depth.

    Adding the diced tomatoes and tomato paste for depth.

    The stew thickens, so add just a little water to loosen it up and provide the delicious sauce to bake the eggs in.

    The stew thickens, so add just a little water to loosen it up and provide the delicious sauce to bake the eggs in.

  5. While the vegetables are simmering, prepare the flat bread. See Using Frozen Pizza Dough for directions, or simply warm up store bought flat bread in the oven.
    The stew is ready for the eggs.
  6. Taste the chickpea and tomato stew for seasoning and make any adjustments that you would like, adding a little more water if the sauce has reduced too much. Then make four shallow indentations in the stew to hold the eggs. This won’t be perfect, but it helps to keep the egg together and to mark where you want to drop them. Carefully break the eggs individually into a ramekin or small bowl, and tip them into the four indentations. Season the eggs with a dusting of salt, pepper and paprika.
  7. Place the skillet into the preheated oven and bake until the whites are just set but the yolks are still soft, about 5-8 minutes.
    Turkish Style Baked Eggs
  8. Serve this directly from the pan at the table, alongside a fresh green salad and with copious amounts of flat bread. Enjoy!

Click here for a printable version of the Turkish Inspired Baked Eggs recipe.

Farm fresh eggs

Using Frozen Pizza Dough

It came to my attention that while I have briefly talked about how to use frozen pizza dough for flat bread, I’ve never actually given the process it’s own center stage.  Frozen pizza dough is like gold in your freezer, and it is incredibly easy to thaw quickly in the microwave.  There is no need to wait for a solid hour or more for it to thaw out on the counter top.  So I wanted to share that information here in it’s own post and it’s own recipe.  Hopefully this will help make it more accessible and also take a bit of the fear factor out of using the dough from frozen.

This all started with a blog post about stocking your pantry with easy to make foods, that can be made cheaply, made in bulk, and frozen for storage and easy retrieval later on.  For me, the most versatile thing that I make in my kitchen is Whole Wheat Pizza Dough, and unless something terrible happens (like our freezer being such a mess that we can’t possibly see a frozen ball of delicious dough… which has happened…) I always have it in my freezer.

What I do not always have is the hour or more that it can take to allow the dough to leisurely thaw out and come up to room temperature while lounging (the dough, not me) on the kitchen counter.  This is especially true in the cold weather months.  Instead, we have been graced with the microwave.  If, like some of my dear friends, you have no use for the microwave then please by all means use this same recipe to make and freeze the dough.  You need to be more organized than I am in order to remember when to pull the dough out to thaw, but judging on the organizational skills of my friends who choose to not use the microwave that isn’t a problem.

But back to our task at hand…  Using frozen pizza dough.  This is going to be important, since the next post I do will have an amazing Turkish inspired baked tomato and egg dish.  You are going to want to make that dish, and you are going to want this easy flat bread to go with it.  Trust me.  🙂

Pizza Dough Flat Bread Using Frozen From Scratch Pizza Dough

Ingredients:
One portion of premade frozen Whole Wheat Pizza Dough (white dough works well for this too!)

Directions:
If you have lots of time…

  • Remove the frozen portion of pizza dough from your freezer and place it on the counter or someplace warm to sit for about an hour to thaw. Once the dough feels slightly chilled, but no longer frozen, use it as described below.
    Frozen pizza dough lounging on the counter

    Frozen pizza dough lounging on the counter

    If you don’t have an hour to thaw your dough…

  • Remove the frozen portion of pizza dough from your freezer and remove any plastic or other coverings you had it protected in.

    Frozen dough ready to be defrosted.

    Frozen dough ready to be defrosted.

  • Place the frozen dough on a small, microwave safe plate and “heat” the dough on regular power for 30 seconds.

    Pizza dough that has been defrosted in the microwave and rested.

    Pizza dough that has been defrosted in the microwave and rested.

  • Let the dough rest in the microwave undisturbed for about 5 minutes. After the dough has rested give it a gentle poke with your finger in the center to see if it has thawed all the way through. If it still has a large frozen portion in the middle, then heat it again for 30 seconds and let it rest for 5 minutes. Continue doing this until the dough is completely thawed. Be careful since if you heat the dough too much in the microwave the edges will start to cook all the way through. You can still use your dough if this happens, but just know that those edges may get extra firm when you bake the dough.

To Bake Your Dough:

  • Roll or stretch your dough to the desired shape and thinness for whatever purpose you desire.
    Ready to roll...

    Ready to roll…

    Hand stretched dough seasoned with a little olive oil, salt, and dried thyme.

    Hand stretched dough seasoned with a little olive oil, salt, and dried thyme.

  • If you want to be sure that you don’t get too many bubbles forming in the middle of your dough, dock it at this point with a rolling docker or simply poke it all over with the tines of a fork.
  • If you want the dough to be used as a flat bread or similar preparation, season the dough with a little olive oil, salt and your favorite dried herb blend and then bake it in a preheated 425 degree oven, checking it after about 10 minutes to ensure that it isn’t browning too quickly. To give it a nice burnishing on the top, switch your oven to broil for the last minute, but watch it like a hawk so that it doesn’t char.
  • If you want to use the dough for pizza, simply follow the pizza recipe you have at hand, or check out some of the options here at thesheepareout.com.
  • Enjoy!

Click here for a printable version of the Whole Wheat Pizza Dough recipe.

Click here for a printable version of the Using Frozen Pizza Dough recipe.

Pizza Dough Flat Bread

 

 

More Thoughts on Hummus

Like I mentioned in my last post, hummus is one of those versatile recipes that can be used a dozen different ways.  When I made the batch for the Request for Hummus post, I wanted to use the hummus for more than just a meze (a Turkish or Greek… why does it make me nervous to type both of those names back to back… dip or snack food), but as a part of a larger meal.  What came to mind was a sandwich that I’d fiddled with before, but hadn’t yet perfected.  What it needed was a silky layer of hummus to really pull all the flavors together, and voila, the Mediterranean Tuna and Hummus Sandwich was created.  You’re really going to like this one.

Mediterranean Style Tuna and Hummus Open Face SandwichThe sandwich has three main components, the flat bread, the hummus and a Mediterranean-style Tuna Salad.  The flat bread could be bought from your local store, or substituted out for a nice crusty roll, OR you could use some of the fantastic Whole Wheat Pizza Dough that I wrote about for stocking your pantry.  As I’ll describe below (or click here for a “how to” recipe for Using Frozen Pizza Dough), you simply roll out the dough, season it with whatever dried herb mixture you prefer, and bake it until crispy.  It’s delicious!  The hummus, while you could buy it from the store, is so easy to make at home that once you get this recipe (Marie’s Hummus) down you’ll never look at the pasty stuff from the grocery store in the same way again.  The last part, the Mediterranean-style Tuna Salad, is included here.  If you’re not a big fan of the traditional mayonnaise-based tuna salad, this one is for you.

While I actually am a fan of a good, rich, mayonnaise-based tuna salad sandwich (in fact I think that’s what we’re having for dinner tonight) there are times when I want something a bit different, and that’s when I use this Mediterranean-style Tuna Salad recipe.  It has a nice, briney bite from kalamata olives, a little feta cheese gives it a creamy-richness, and there’s plenty of crunch from vegetables like onion and celery.  In fact, you’ll be surprised by how much salad one little can of tuna can create since it is well supported by a crunchy cast of characters.  The salad is a cinch to toss together, the flavors get better if they have a chance to hang out for a bit, and it’s great to serve over lettuce for a large salad, or you can serve it with crackers for a snack or appetizer, OR even better you can serve it as a part of a great, layered open face sandwich like the one shown here.

Mediterranean-Style Tuna Salad

Ingredients:
3 eggs, hard boiled and separated
1 can tuna in water, drained
2 sticks of celery, finely diced
¼ cup feta, crumbled
¼ cup kalamata olives, pitted and diced
1 cup English or hot house cucumber, diced
½ small onion, diced
¼ cup olive oil
1 tbsp. lemon juice
1 tsp. herbs de Provence, or other dry herb blend
Salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

  1. Separate the egg whites from the yolk, and discard two yolks. That is where most of the fat and cholesterol reside. Use them if you want, the salad will be even more delicious. I discard them here to lighten the salad. Finely dice the remaining yolk and whites. Add them to a large bowl.
  2. Add the tuna, celery, feta, olives, cucumber and onions to the bowl and toss to combine.
    The salad ingredients

    The salad ingredients.

    Tossed to combine

    Tossed to combine

  3. Whisk the olive oil, lemon juice, herbs, salt and pepper in a small bowl to combine.
  4. Toss the salad with the dressing and enjoy!

Click here for a printable Mediterranean Tuna Salad recipe.

Mediterranean-Style Tuna and Hummus Sandwich

Ingredients:

One portion Whole Wheat Pizza Dough
1 cup Marie’s Hummus
1 batch Mediterranean Tuna Salad
1 tsp. Herbs de Provence blend
1 cup salad greens or arugula
Olive oil to taste

Directions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350º.
  2. Roll out the dough into a wide oval, about ¼ inch thick. With a fork (or docking tool) poke holes all over the surface of the dough. This will keep it from bubbling up and distorting. Brush the dough lightly with about 1 tsp. of olive oil. Sprinkle a pinch of salt and the Herbs de Provence over the dough. Either slide the dough directly onto a pizza stone in your hot oven, or place it on a parchment paper lined baking sheet and then into the hot oven. Bake for 10-15 minutes, or until just browned in spots. Remove the crust to your work area.
    The prepared dough for flat bread.

    The prepared dough for flat bread.

    Note that the shape of the dough changed significantly.  :)  This is what makes it "rustic"... When things don't go as planned just call them "rustic" and they'll still taste as good.

    Note that the shape of the dough changed significantly. 🙂 This is what makes it “rustic”… When things don’t go as planned just call them “rustic” and they’ll still taste as good.

  3. Spread the hummus in a thin layer over most of your crust, leaving a 1 inch border around the edges.

    Leave a thin border around the edges for a good place to hold onto your open faced sandwich.

    Leave a thin border around the edges for a good place to hold onto your open faced sandwich.

  4. Mound the Mediterranean Tuna Salad on top of the hummus, leaving a narrow border around the edges so that the hummus is visible.

    Each added "layer" should leave a little of the previous layer visible so you can see a bit of everything.

    Each added “layer” should leave a little of the previous layer visible so you can see a bit of everything.

  5. Mound your salad greens or arugula on top of the tuna salad and drizzle it lightly with olive oil.

    I used hearts of romaine here for the last layer, but my favorite is arugula.  Water cress would be great too!

    I used hearts of romaine here for the last layer, but my favorite is arugula. Water cress would be great too!

  6. Cut into “slices” and serve. Enjoy!

Click here for a printable Mediterranean Style Tuna and Hummus Sandwich recipe.

If you want to find an easy “recipe” for using your frozen from scratch pizza dough, click here: Using Frozen Pizza Dough.

 

One delicious open face sandwich.  You can make smaller sized ones for individual portions if you want to be fancy, or make one large one like this and cut it into quarters or long slices to serve family style.

One delicious open face sandwich. You can make smaller sized ones for individual portions if you want to be fancy, or make one large one like this and cut it into quarters or long slices to serve family style.

A Request for Hummus

One of the best parts of this blog has been reading and replying to comments from readers; and most recently receiving requests for recipes from friends.  Cooking is a way that I connect with people.  It’s something that I can do as a gift, or as a way to build a friendship, or to show love to friends and family.  Often when I am cooking for someone, I am also thinking about that person while I’m chopping the onions and garlic, stirring the veg in the pan, or tasting for final seasoning.  It makes cooking more than just putting ingredients together for a meal, but it gives me time to also think about the person or people that I’m cooking for.  Its’ an act of love, not just of eating.  So when friends request recipes from me I take it as the highest compliment.

It is therefore a great joy that in a couple of upcoming posts I will be sharing a couple of recipes requested from friends who are distant in geography but close in my thoughts.  The first recipe I’ll be sharing is for hummus.  Hummus is one of those foods that is super simple to make, irks me to buy premade, and is incredibly personal in how you prepare it.  The two greatest influences for me in my hummus was the first time I was taught to make it in Beirut, as well as from my experiences in Turkey.  In Beirut, the friend who taught me to make it created an amazingly herbaceous version, speckled throughout with finely chopped parsley.  In Turkey I was most influenced by our amazing excavation chef, Necmi, who guarded his culinary secrets dearly, but whose hummus was incredibly silky and redolent with garlic and tahini.

Then there was Iowa… Not a statement that normally follows a genealogy of hummus.  But it was in Iowa that I was able to expand my initial anthropology of food course into a series of courses, spanning food production and politics; to the cultural expressions of food and identity.  It didn’t make sense to me to teach a course on food and not get to taste or prepare food to share in class.  So for those classes, especially, I tried to make sure that I brought food to share with my students, and in a couple of cases (some more successful than others) to make food with the class on campus.

One of the most successful cases of this was with my Food Politics class when we spent one class meeting in the college kitchens making ricotta cheese and pizza dough for our own white pizzas. This isn’t just a “fluff” exercise, but it takes the intellectual side of talking about a subject and makes it real by actually touching, preparing, sharing and eating food together.

For this particular class it happened that I had a couple of students who were lactose intolerant and I didn’t want to leave them out.  So I started thinking of the bare pizza dough, fired in the oven, what would go well with it?  Hummus…  Make the pizza dough into a spiced flat bread, serve it with the freshly prepared hummus and you’ve got a rock star food to share.  So that’s what we did; made pizza bianca with the homemade dough and ricotta, as well as a meze of hummus and flat bread.  I was greatly impacted by many of the students from that class, and it’s been great to keep in touch with them as they graduated (or will soon!) from college and we’ve moved up north.  This recipe was requested by one of those students, but she and her friend were inseparable and therefore I can’t bring myself to dedicate this hummus to one without the “other” (anthro humor there… sorry…).  Chelsea and Becca, this is for you ladies.

As you will see with this recipe, basic hummus is a great blank canvas for a myriad of flavors.  I’ve added smoked paprika for a little Spanish flare, spinach for some extra greenery in a form that my son will eat (sometimes), or roasted red bell pepper for a different savory taste.  The sky (and your imagination) are the limit here, so feel free to whip up a batch and personalize it to your tastes.

I like to serve hummus in a shallow bowl, with a depression at the top to hold a little golden olive oil, and a sprinkling of paprika over top.

I like to serve hummus in a shallow bowl, with a depression at the top to hold a little golden olive oil, and a sprinkling of paprika over top.

Hummus

Ingredients:

2 garlic clove (or more to taste)
2 (15 oz) cans of chickpeas, rinsed and drained
3-4 Tbsp. tahini (sesame seed) paste
3-4 tsp. lemon juice
2 tsp. ground cumin
2 tsp. ground coriander
2 tsp. salt
Approximately ½ cup olive oil

Directions:

  1. Drop the garlic one clove at a time into a running food processor through the feed tube.  Scrape down the sides of the bowl as necessary.
    Dropping garlic into the feed tube.

    Dropping garlic into the feed tube.

    Scrape down the sides of the bowl so you don't lose any of that garlicky goodness.

    Scrape down the sides of the bowl so you don’t lose any of that garlicky goodness.

  2. Add the rest of the ingredients except for the olive oil and pulse until the ingredients are mixed but still a bit rough.

    A rough mix of ingredients.

    A rough mix of ingredients.

  3. Then turn the processor on and through the tube slowly pour in the olive oil in a thin, steady stream until you get the desired creamy consistency.

    A smooth, creamy hummus.

    A smooth, creamy hummus.

  4. Taste and adjust for seasoning.  Blend the hummus again.  Taste.  Blend.  Enjoy!

Click here for a printable version of Marie’s Hummus recipe.

A perfect dish for sliced flatbread, fresh veges, or even as a "sauce" for sandwiches.

A perfect dish for sliced flatbread, fresh veges, or even as a “sauce” for sandwiches.

I woke up to the snow…

I woke up to the snow, but didn’t really give it much attention (other than groaning at the delay of Spring) until I tried to step outside for a quick jaunt to visit “the ladies” to gather some eggs.  I say that I “tried” to step outside since at first I couldn’t tell where the steps up from our basement were.  The three squat steps from our basement door to the driveway had been reduced to a fluffy hill of snow, with no indication of where each individual step might be.  I stood there for a moment, confused, as if trying to remember what the landscape was supposed to look like.   In my defense I hadn’t had any coffee yet, and my only goal was to get the eggs quickly so that I could make breakfast in time for the gold medal men’s hockey game between Canada and Sweden.

So I girded myself, clutched my egg basket tightly, and plunged outside into what I hoped was the path to the hen house.  I more or less found the stairs and with my sorely abused pink Uggs, plowed my way up the low rise.  With each step my boots disappeared into the 2+ feet deep drifts, and with each step some snow made its way into my boots.  Who needs coffee, a little snow inside your sockless boots will get you going in the morning.  Snow hat flopping.  Egg basket dangling.  Balance swerving with each step into where I hoped the path to the chicken house lay.  I was a picture of beauty and grace, and hopefully I was the only witness to my progress.

My poor, abused boots disappearing into the snow they were not designed to handle.

My poor, abused boots disappearing into the snow they were not designed to handle.

Once I retrieved the eggs, I realized that I hadn’t considered the difficulties of returning to the house through the deep snow with a basket full of eggs.  Luckily both the eggs and I returned to the house unscathed, if a bit frozen around the edges. With the eggs secured for breakfast I put together a “fancy” version of Eggs-in-a-Hole.  In the spirit of the gold medal game I used a maple leaf cookie cutter to cut the Canadian symbol into our toast.  Little Man got the more traditional torn out hole for his toast to accommodate his Scrambled-Eggs-in-a-Hole.

A fancy version of Eggs-in-a-Hole in honor of the Canadian men's gold medal hockey game against Sweden.

A fancy version of Eggs-in-a-Hole in honor of the Canadian men’s gold medal hockey game against Sweden.

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Alas my yolk broke for this picture, but in my defense my fingers were still frozen and I really wanted to get the food served so I could watch the game.  Little Man’s toast was torn to accommodate the volume of his Scrambled-Eggs-in-a-Hole.

My well-intentioned ode to Canadian hockey.

My well-intentioned ode to Canadian hockey.

After breakfast and with two gold medals in hockey for Canada we donned whatever snow-sort-of gear that we had (we are still woefully under equipped for weather) and ventured outside.  The snow came up to Little Man’s hips, and he was not impressed until we got him out onto the “sort of plowed” road where he could run and move more easily.

The snow came up to Little Man's waist, yet his dad doesn't seem to mind.

The snow came up to Little Man’s waist, yet his dad doesn’t seem to mind.

Trucking down the "sort of plowed" road.

Trucking down the “sort of plowed” road.

Hoops, anyone?

Hoops, anyone?

When we couldn’t take the cold anymore, we retreated back to the house.  Little Man had a well deserved warm bath, and then we all were treated to steaming mugs of Auntie Erin’s Hot Cocoa.  The past present to ourselves on our Big Snow Day was an afternoon nap.  Bodies tired out from playing in the snow.  Bellies warm and filled with cocoa.  Toddler snoozing in the other room, and us sprawled gracelessly across the bed.  It was heaven.

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A fairytale wilderness

A fairytale wilderness

Birthday Party Food for Kiddos… and Their Very Patient Parents

We are still relative newbies to the world of children’s birthday parties, and the terror that can be instilled in the heart of a parent when s/he sees a precious child return from a friend’s party with a goodie bag so chock full of candy that it rivals Halloween.  I cannot speak to how other people’s children act (well… actually I could, but that isn’t polite) when hopped up on that level of sugar and pizza-party junk food, but I can attest to how my lovely, precocious little boy turns into a whirlwind of high pitched cackles and rule breaking that I can only describe as temporary insanity for all involved.  As fellow parents, shouldn’t we want to set our own children, as well as their friends and parents, up for success?

I’m not suggesting that all birthday party food must be reduced to carrots and hummus (although that would be tasty!), but we can create amazing birthdays while still feeding people well… and inexpensively.  The food that I include here isn’t necessarily healthy.  This is celebration food, not something that you would include in your diet or eat on a daily basis.  Nor is it filled with preservatives or the nearly obscene amounts of sugar found in processed foods.  These are all dishes that can be made a couple days (or more) in advance so that the day of the party can be spent enjoying the birthday boy or girl, not panicking over the stove (I’ve been there too).  So let’s have a party, and not feel sick to our stomachs by the end of the feast.

The foods and drink that I am posting here are actually the same recipes that we’ve used for all of Little Man’s birthday parties so far and many of the recipes are not my own.  For those dishes I’ve included the links to the original sites, so all you have to do is click on the dish’s highlighted name and a window will open with that recipe from its original site.  It’s unlike me to recycle exact menus like this for recurring celebrations, but we’re still finding our way in how to throw great kid parties.  I wanted recipes that I knew would turn out great, that could be done in advance, and that wouldn’t break our bank account or my spirit to prepare.  I might break out and try something different next year, but then again if it isn’t broken…

So here’s the menu:

  • Rainbow Fruit Platter
  • Jungle Juice Punch
  • Amazing Mac n Cheese
  • Zebra Cake
  • Snacks and Goodie Bags

Rainbow Fruit Platter

Rainbow Fruit Platter served on a rectangular bamboo cutting board.

Rainbow Fruit Platter served on a rectangular bamboo cutting board.

One of the most commonly re-pinned items from my Pintrest boards is this Rainbow Fruit Platter.  The original site I pinned it from does not exist any more, but similar images have popped up across the internet.  I don’t know what it is about this simple dish (maybe the avoidance of the tasteless cantaloupe and honeydew melon that so often “graces” fruit plates), but every time I serve this at a child’s party it gets eaten up faster than anything else.  For best results, use fresh fruit.  It seems silly to state this for a fruit platter, but having lived in places where during the winter months you sit back and watch the price of fresh produce skyrocket it can be tempting to go for frozen.  To put it mildly, the texture would be a bummer.  It doesn’t matter what shape platter you use for this, I’ve used both rectangular (above) and circular (below).  Just be sure to give enough room for each color arc to be well represented.

Rainbow Fruit Platter (and Pooh Bear) at the party in 2012.

Rainbow Fruit Platter (and Pooh Bear) served on a circular metal platter.

You can use any combination of your favorite fruits, but here are the ones that I keep coming back to both for their great colors and taste.

Rainbow Fruit Platter

Ingredients

Red: Sliced Strawberries and fresh Raspberries

Orange: Mandarin Oranges, peeled and divided into segments

Yellow: Pineapple, peeled and cut into bite-size pieces

Green: Green Grapes, halved

Blue/Indigo: Blueberries and/or Blackberries

Directions:

  1. Find a large serving platter and set it near your work station.  Depending on the platter’s material, you may want to cover it with plastic wrap before putting the fruit down.
  2. Prepare the different fruits and set them aside in individual bowls.
  3. Begin with the red (and largest) arc of your rainbow, and arrange the strawberries on the platter.
  4. Then fill in each succeeding arc with your chosen fruit.  You may need to adjust the size of your arcs as you go.
  5. Add the most delicate fruits, like the raspberries and blackberries (if using) last.
  6. Once the platter is complete, roll up a small paper towel and place it in the void between the blueberries or blackberries to preserve the arc’s shape.
  7. Cover the platter loosely with plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator until the party.  You can do this the night before, but I don’t suggest doing this too early since the texture of the cut fruit can get mushy.

Click here for a printable version of the Rainbow Fruit Platter recipe.

Jungle Juice Punch

Finding a drink that is both suitable for kids and enjoyed by adults can be tricky at parties.  For my part, I don’t allow Little Man to drink pop (or soda for those south of the border) or any of those popular punches made out of flavor packets that are little more than sugar and food coloring.  Instead I use one of the iced tea and fruit juice-based punches published by Giada De Laurentis on the Food Network website.  For kid-based parties my favorite is Giada’s Apple Mint Punch, which I call “Jungle Juice” for the parties because of its golden green color.  I make a double or triple batch and serve it in a large bee-hive shaped glass beverage carafe.  In Giada’s recipe she makes simple syrup with fresh mint as the sweetener.  It pains me to pay for fresh mint in the store (especially in winter), so I often use dried mint.  If you use dried herbs, just use half the quantity that the recipe specifies.  Dried herbs are much stronger than the fresh, so you don’t need quite as much.  If you are making this when your garden or local farmers market is full of fresh herbs, use whatever mixture of herbs you like best.  My favorite version of this was actually from last summer when my mint had been severely hacked back in a fit of mojito making, so instead I used fresh basil and tarragon.  The punch was delicious!

Amazing Mac n Cheese

Since Little Man still takes naps, I like to have his parties in the morning so that things are breaking up right around the time for him (and his friends) to settle down for nap time.  That means that I want the kiddos and their parents to have something good for lunch, so that they have energy to play, none of us are feeling sick from too much junk food, and the kids can leave feeling happy not completely pooped and grouchy from sugar crash.  My favorite dish for this is an amazing Mac n Cheese from the Pioneer Woman (aka Ree Drummond) also on Food Network.  I make a double batch of this in the morning, pile it into my largest lasagna pan and set it aside until I’m just about ready to serve lunch.  Then I top it liberally with grated, sharp cheddar cheese and broil the top until its melted and golden brown.  I’ve also made this the night before and reheated it for a party the next day.  Just be sure to give yourself ample time to rewarm the casserole in the oven, and hold off on adding the cheesy topping until you are just about ready to serve.  Every time I serve this I have parents’ asking me for the recipe.  Now you have it!

Zebra Cake

065Of course I forgot to take a picture of the inside of the cake, but if you want to see the cool, zebra-print pattern check out the link that follows with the cake’s name.  The first time I can across Zebra Cake was from the DIY Queen website.  The original post consists just of cool pictures of the process, but I found a number of other sites where the process is described in greater detail.  Check out Fae’s Twist & Tango for a great example with detailed explanation of the steps and sample cake recipes.  It’s astoundingly simple, and gravity does much of the work for you.  Simply choose your favorite white cake and chocolate cake recipes (or box mixes) and prepare the batters.  The batters need to be of pourable consistency, so if they are too thick you might need to thin them out a little.  Then you start by pouring a small scoop (about 1/3 of a cup) of the white batter in the middle of your prepared (butter and parchment paper) cake pan.  Then add a similarly sized scoop of the chocolate batter, and repeat.  Try to save the last scoop for the chocolate batter.  With each scoop, gravity will slowly push the other rings out towards the edges of the pan.  Then bake, cool and decorate as you would like.  Little Man’s party was animal-themed (hence the cake I chose), so we used a delicious chocolate frosting, simple candles, and a ring of non-toxic plastic animals for decoration.  Once the candles were blown out each child (birthday boy first) got to choose an animal to add to their goodie bag.

068Snacks and Goodie Bags

Beyond the Rainbow Fruit Platter and the Mac n Cheese, I like to keep the rest of the offerings simple.  For this birthday, Little Man’s sole request for food at his party was for Cheezies, a Canadian cheese-puff that is similar to the American Cheetos.  One word of advice, don’t start a discussion with a Canadian about which brand is better.  They are very passionate about their Cheezies…  So to honor Little Man’s one birthday request, and to celebrate our new Canadian home, a good sized bowl of Cheezies appeared next to the Mac n Cheese casserole at his party.

Little Man's sole request for food at his party was Cheezies.

Little Man’s sole request for food at his party was Cheezies.

The Goodie Bags for Little Man’s party were relatively simple in that there wasn’t a ton of stuff, and we tried to keep sugar to a minimum.  Each child got a small bag (gotta love the dollar stores) with their name in puffy paint.  Inside each bag was an animal foam magnate kit to do at home another time.  Then we’d also gotten animal-themed stickers and handed those out after the kids did a great dance party.  Each child also got a handmade animal mask (see next week’s post for more information on those), and two stacks of miniature homemade cookies (Chocolate Chip and Oatmeal Raisin).  We wanted the bags to be fun and special, but not filled with candy or expensive to make/buy.  They were also fun for me to work on over the week prior to Little Man’s Party.

A tray filled with the Goodie Bags and things to go in them.

A tray filled with the Goodie Bags and things to go in them.

On the whole, I think the party was a success.  For the next week Little Man kept asking to have his friends over for another dance party.  The streamers finally came down, and now we’re settling in to these new adventures with a little boy who is one more year older.  It’s fun to day dream about the new adventures we’ll have together over this next year… and what he’ll want for his next birthday party.

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Stocking the Pantry

I am always drawn to the food television shows or magazine articles about stocking your pantry with things that you have made yourself, or how to make fast and delicious meals on the fly from whatever is in your pantry.  Yet it seems that no matter how many of these shows I watch or magazines I read, the pantry staples focused on are never the same ones that I always have stashed away.  I’ve come to the conclusion that our pantries are often as individual to us as our fingerprints are; shaped by our own backgrounds, be this cultural, economic, geographic, etc.  So I am not going to make the assumption that any of you have the same pantry staples as me.  But if I might make one suggestion… you really should have some pizza dough in your freezer at all times.  This is free advice, and therefore worth as much as you pay for it.  Do with it as you will.  In my opinion, good quality pizza dough is worth its weight in gold in terms of quick meal preparation.

You can use the pizza dough, of course, to make your own pizza, but that is just the beginning of the world of things that you can make with your own dough stashed away in the freezer.  I use it to make flat breads to serve with homemade hummus and other meze (small plate dishes from Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines), a knock-off version of naan (a delicious Indian flatbread), bread sticks, garlic knots, calzone, flatbreads topped with oven roasted vegetables, and the possibilities continue.  In fact, if you have any suggestions for how to use pizza dough to create other dishes, please share!  I would love to hear your ideas and to expand my own possibilities.

If you do want to use the dough for its namesake and make your own pizza you won’t be disappointed.  It is infinitely cheaper to make your own pizza than to order out, and you would be surprised by how a little bit of food goes a long way to top your creation.  Let me warn you, however, that once you realize how few toppings your local pizza place is actually giving you compared to what they charge, you might be a bit perturbed.

The best part of all of this (except for eating your creation, of course) is that if you make a large batch of pizza dough you can freeze it in individual portions for up to a couple of months.  I like to make a large batch of dough that creates roughly six portions.  I freeze these individually in plastic bags, defrost them as needed, and when my supply gets low I whip up another batch when I can.  Then when I find that I am in need of a dinner idea but don’t have much on hand, one of my first thoughts always goes to pizza with either a white or red sauce (and yes, I have used jarred marinara here in a pinch… no haters, please), and any number of combinations of the few food items I might have on hand.  You will see some of my pizza creations appearing here over the next few months.  After all, I did just stock my freezer with some dough…  To get your feet wet, try the Harvest Moon Pizza posted recently (Pebble Beaches and Pizza).  I hope you love it as much as my family does.

Harvest Moon Pizza on my Whole Wheat Pizza Dough.

Harvest Moon Pizza on my Whole Wheat Pizza Dough.

Whole Wheat Pizza Dough

Ingredients

3 c. water

1 tbsp. honey

2 packets active dry yeast (or 4 ½ tsp.)

4 c. whole wheat flour

2 c. bread flour (preferably whole wheat)

2 c. all purpose flour

3 tsp. salt

Olive oil, for oiling the proofing bowl

Directions

Pour the water into a microwave safe measuring cup and microwave for 1 minute or until hot to the touch.  Don’t burn yourself, but the water should be very warm (around 100 degrees F or just over).  Add the honey and the yeast to the water and stir to combine.  Set the measuring cup aside for 10 minutes to let the yeast proof… aka get foamy.  If you yeast doesn’t foam up, then try reheating the whole thing for a few seconds in the microwave.  If it still doesn’t foam, then you may have had a bad batch of yeast and you’ll need to start again.

Getting the yeast ready to proof... aka get foamy.

Getting the yeast ready to proof… aka get foamy.

Nicely proofed yeast.  A little bit of honey or sugar goes a long way to give the yeast cells a nice snack.

Nicely proofed yeast. A little bit of honey or sugar goes a long way to give the yeast cells a nice snack.

Method 1: Electric Stand Mixer

Combine the flours and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook.  Once the yeast has proofed, pour it into the bowl with the flours and the salt.  Starting at the lowest speed, combine the ingredients and then let the machine “knead” the dough at the speed recommended by the manufacturer (mine suggests not going beyond speed 2 for doughs) for 6 minutes.

The dry ingredients in the mixer bowl.  Be sure to mix the salt into the flour before adding the yeast.  Salt can slow yeast down, so I don't want the yeast to get a big mouthful of salt all on its own.

The dry ingredients in the mixer bowl. Be sure to mix the salt into the flour before adding the yeast. Salt can slow yeast down, so I don’t want the yeast to get a big mouthful of salt all on its own.

Getting everything mixed together.

Getting everything mixed together.

The dough starts to incorporate into a ball.

The dough starts to incorporate into a ball.

Oh, how I love my stand mixer...  6 minutes later and you have the perfect dough ready to rise.

Oh, how I love my stand mixer… 6 minutes later and you have the perfect dough ready to rise.

Method 2: By Hand

I have done this by hand many times, and there is something immensely satisfying about hand kneading your dough.  However, it does take a bit more time and counter space than the stand mixer method.  To do this by hand, simply combine the flours and salt in a large mixing bowl.  Once the yeast has proofed, stir it into the flours until relatively well combined.  Then turn it out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead by hand, adding as little flour as possible, for about 15 minutes.  The dough should be elastic and only a little tacky to the touch.

Both methods come together here…

Once the dough is kneaded, whether by hand or machine, get a large bowl to allow the dough to proof or rise.  Drizzle a little olive oil around the bowl’s walls.  Form the dough into a large ball, place it in the oiled bowl and then flip it over so that the dough is oiled on all sides.  This will keep it moist during the rising process.  Cover the bowl loosely with plastic wrap and then cover that with a clean dish towel.  Set the bowl aside in a warm place to rise for about one hour or until doubled in size.

Getting the dough ready to proof.

Getting the dough ready to proof.

Tucking it in...  For this batch I brought the dough downstairs where our wood burning stove was cranking out some heat.  It was toasty warm down there, rather than the cool kitchen upstairs.

Tucking it in… For this batch I brought the dough downstairs where our wood burning stove was cranking out some heat. It was toasty warm down there, rather than the cool kitchen upstairs.

The plastic wrap helped keep my massive bowl of dough from completely overflowing.

The plastic wrap helped keep my massive bowl of dough from completely overflowing.

Once the dough has proofed, gently press it down to deflate or degas the dough.  Let it rest for about 5 minutes and then form it into individual portions.  This batch should make 6 regular-sized pizzas, or you can use different portion sizes to create larger or smaller pizzas.  Divide the dough up evenly, form each portion into a ball, and unless you are using the dough immediately place them into individual freezer bags.

At this point the dough can be frozen for 1-2 months and used as needed.  From frozen, simply remove one of the portions the night before you want to use it and let it thaw in the refrigerator overnight.  If like me you forget to do this step, do not fear.  Simply remove the frozen dough from its plastic bag and place it on a microwave safe plate.  Then microwave the dough for 1 minute, and let it sit in the microwave oven for 5 minutes.  Then check to see how it is doing.  If the center is still frozen, give it another 30 seconds in the microwave followed by another couple of minutes to rest.  Then use the dough as desired.

Once the dough is thawed, or if you use it right after proofing, simply place your portion on a lightly floured work surface and roll it out or hand stretch it to your desired shape and size.  Then proceed with any pizza or flat bread recipe of your choice.  Enjoy!

Click here for a printable version of the Whole Wheat Pizza Dough recipe.

The pizza as it is just slid into the oven on my pizza stone.

Thanksgiving in a Foreign Land

This is Thanksgiving week… American Thanksgiving, I should say.  This is, however, not just any Thanksgiving, but my first Thanksgiving out of the country and the 150th anniversary of when President Lincoln established it as the third national holiday (along with Independence Day and Washington’s Birthday).  The holiday takes on a different feeling when you think of the timing; the end of the Civil War, the government trying to hold the increasingly fragmented nation together.  How do you forge a lasting union for a nation of people with loyalties, cultures and traditions that span the globe?  Part of the answer, apparently, was to give them a common tradition tying together families across the country in thanksgiving.

Two cousins in a crib.  The "pricelessness" of family at Thanksgiving.

Two cousins in a crib. The “pricelessness” of family at Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving has long been my favorite holiday of the year.  The focus on food and family has become increasingly important to me, first when I moved across the States for graduate school, then trying to create new homes with Dave as we progressed through our impromptu academic tour of the Midwest, and now with Little Man in Canada.  So here we are, looking for ways to create our own new identities, to create new family traditions, and to create a dual nationality identity for our son.

play time

Thanksgiving, however, is anything but a simple holiday.  The children’s stories of pilgrims and Indians sitting down to a nice turkey dinner are just that… stories.  But the creation of Thanksgiving, the annual retelling of this fictitious meal uniting disparate peoples, is still a powerful tool today.  For a fascinating study of the history (and fiction) of Thanksgiving, please check out Janet Siskind’s The Invention of Thanksgiving (click on the link to download a pdf of the article).  You’ll never think of American Thanksgiving in the same way again… but in a good way.  It’s powerful, and so is the resulting holiday.

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For my personal purposes, not so differently from Lincoln’s, Thanksgiving has long been about creating a sense of home when “home” is not necessarily apparent.  A sense of family when family is far away.  A sense of belonging in a place that is still a bit foreign.

kingdom

When living in upstate New York, this meant celebrating Canadian Thanksgiving with Dave.  Until we met I had no idea that Canada had a Thanksgiving; assuming that it was a uniquely American holiday.  It is and it isn’t.

cousin love 2

Thanksgiving in Canada is celebrated on the 2nd Monday of October, not the 4th Thursday of November.  It is a harvest celebration, without any stories of Pilgrims and Indians.  The meal is mostly the same with turkey, stuffing and the sides.  However, Canadians tend to avoid the dodgy green bean casseroles, with most Canadians I know being horrified by the dish.  In Canada, Thanksgiving is a relatively minor holiday and is quickly eclipsed by Halloween.  I didn’t quite understand this until moving to Canada this year.  For all of my adult life, even when moving often, the idea of a Thanksgiving alone or uncelebrated was tragic.

lake

One Thanksgiving when we were first dating, Dave was not going to be able to join anyone’s family dinner since he needed to stay in town to finish writing his Master’s Thesis.  This seemed an abomination to me that someone would be home, alone, on Thanksgiving, with only the hope of an at best mediocre TV dinner to look forward to.  So even though I was definitely going out of town to be with my adopted New York family for Thanksgiving, I devised a nice, stay at home version for Dave.  All he would have to do was put things in the preheated oven at a certain time, take them out, reheat a couple of things, and he’d have his own pint-sized Thanksgiving meal.  I think I even wrote out the instructions for him, down to the unwrapping of the carton of crescent rolls and how to form/bake them.  After all, this Canadian obviously did not understand the importance of the holiday since he was willing to sacrifice it.  Who knew how far his ignorance of the proper foods went?  In theory, this should have been fantastic, or at least sweet.  In reality, it has lived in our combined memory as well intentioned, but horrific.  I mean absolutely disgusting and barely edible.  He’s lucky that it was partially edible, since even the local pizza places weren’t delivering that evening.

Dave’s Thanksgiving meal was to be an oven-roasted Cornish game hen, mashed potatoes (oy!), gravy, sweet potato praline, balsamic vinegared brussel sprouts (double oy!), canned crescent rolls (hence the instructions) and I think a mini-pumpkin pie for dessert… but that might also have been burned in the oven.  Of all this, the Cornish game hen was good, the crescent rolls were passable, and the sweet potato praline saved the day.  The mashed potatoes, on the other hand, were raw.  The brussel sprouts were disgusting.  The pie, if it ever existed, has not survived in memory.  It would take me a good 8 years to make passable mashed potatoes.  After this (and other experiences) I was forbidden by friends and family alike to attempt mashed potatoes.  In fact, just a week ago I made pork chops with mashed potatoes and gravy, and both Dave and I commented on the fact that I just might have learned how to actually cook them properly.  I have no idea how a person who even then was a pretty good cook could not make mashed potatoes.

And while the brussel sprouts (yes, I can cook these well now too) were so bad that they don’t even deserve discussion here, I will share with you the one glowing beacon of the day; Praline Sweet Potatoes.  These are now the one thing, no matter whose Thanksgiving I am going to, that I always bring with me.  They are almost sweet enough to be a dessert, but have just a hint of a savory edge that pairs excellently with turkey, dressing, cranberry sauce and the rest.

Dave's Mom's gorgeous table setting with fresh persimmon candle holders.

Dave’s Mom’s gorgeous table setting with fresh persimmon candle holders.

The pictures in this post are from my first Canadian Thanksgiving.  They look the part and embody that sense of Thanksgiving that I think will likely be missing from our American Thanksgiving this year.  We’re still fiddling with tradition, and straddling the line between nations.  Say “Happy Thanksgiving” to a Canadian this time of year, and you get some very confused looks since for them Thanksgiving was over a month ago.  There will be new photos of new traditions coming soon.  In the meantime, no matter what we are doing I plan on keeping family close and tradition a bit loose.

I don't have step-by-step pictures here, but the recipe is easy and the results are worth trying for even without a safety net of photo documentation.

I don’t have step-by-step pictures here, but the recipe is easy and the results are worth trying for even without a safety net of photo documentation.

Praline Sweet Potato

2 lbs. whole sweet potatoes (not from a can)

¼ cup milk

1 egg, slightly beaten

1 tsp. salt

Pepper to taste

½ cup brown sugar, packed

¼ cup butter, melted

¼ cup dark corn syrup

1 heaping cup of pecans, chopped

1.  Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.  Pierce the raw sweet potatoes all over with a sharp knife and place them on an aluminum foil lined baking sheet.  Roast the sweet potatoes in the oven until soft and easily pierced with a fork, about 45 minutes to an hour.  In the meantime, butter a 2-3 quart shallow casserole dish and set it aside.  Once the sweet potatoes are cooked through, allow them to cool until they are easy to handle with your hands.  Lower the oven temperature to 350 degrees.

2.  Tear the skins from the sweet potatoes and put the orange flesh into a large mixing bowl.  Mash the sweet potatoes until they are creamy.  Add the milk, egg, salt and pepper and stir to combine.  Spoon the sweet potato mixture into the buttered casserole dish.

3.  In a small bowl combine the brown sugar, butter and corn syrup.  Pour this over the sweet potato casserole and spread it around so that all of the sweet potato is covered.  Sprinkle the pecans evenly over top.

4.  Bake the casserole uncovered for 45 minutes, or until it is set.  The topping will still be slightly soft at this point, but it will harden as the dish cools.  Watch the pecans towards the end of the cooking time.  If they start to brown too much or burn, drape a piece of aluminum foil over top to slow the browning.

Click here for a printable version the Praline Sweet Potatoes recipe.

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Splitting Wood

Let me begin with a brief thanks to whoever it was that created the electric wood splitter.  This is a brilliant, if improbably heavy, machine.  I love it!

Dave splitting wood at the farm.

Dave splitting wood at the farm.

"Coco Smash!"

“Coco Smash!”

With the first trip for wood, Dave started doing some log splitting to transform the log sections into actual fire wood.  Using a maul (doesn’t sound promising…), he started muscling through the pile.  I watched his technique and figured that it would take me only moments to lose a toe (we all know the luck I have with foot injuries… see “Family Dinner” post) and/or tweak my back beyond redemption.  So when Farmer-Landlord said (only partially joking) that the Men get the wood and the Women do the splitting (more hunter-gatherer references here), I knew I was in trouble.  Then Farmer-Landlord introduced me to Betsy… the name that I’ve given to his beloved electric wood splitter.

Me and Betsy posing.

Me and Betsy posing.

Betsy is worth her considerable weight in gold.  To help us out the first time, Farmer-Landlord backed his pickup to the wood pile, plunked Betsy down on to the open tail gate, and showed me how to use her.  The splitter looks more or less like a narrow chute with an ax bit at one end.  You plop the log onto the track, make sure one end of it is snuggly abutted to ax bit (aka the sharp end), and then in Betsy’s case you hold a button down while simultaneously pulling a lever (safety first) and a moving panel forces the log down onto the bit, splitting the wood.  For larger logs you can do multiple splits.  Easy Peasy.

Dendrochronology pop quiz...

Dendrochronology pop quiz…

In no time I had split my way, pink gloves and all, through about half of the pile of dumped wood.  There was still the large trailer full and the person-sized logs that still needed portioning, but all in all not a bad start.  At around the same time that my hands and arms started to complain loudly, Little Man woke from his nap complaining loudly too.  His poor little face was swollen from the yellow jacket sting from earlier that day, and the copious calamine lotion didn’t help the look.

The next day I went out again to the pile to split wood; good little wood chuck that I am.  The pickup was still parked next to it, the tailgate down at the perfect height for Betsy.  I just needed to go get her from the work shed.  Dave was off playing soccer, Little man was sleeping, and I was going to play Lumberjane.

wood 3

I knew where Betsy was in the shed, gave her a quick spritz of oil along the track, tipped her up and started to wheel her out to the pile.  Or I should say, uphill to the pile.  I wheeled her over to the low rise that we had to clime together and dragged her like a dead body up the hill, finally getting to the pickup.  I could hear the steady plunk, plunk, plunk of Farmer-Landlord “harvesting” rocks from the sheep pasture.  Apparently they were messing with the idyllic scene, so one by one, plunk, plunk, plunk, then went into the maw of the tractor.  Luckily the “rock garden” was around the corner from where I was attempting to work, so no one (I hope!) witnessed that pathetic struggle between myself, Betsy and gravity.

Now that I had gotten Betsy to the pickup, I needed to get her up onto the tail gate.  Oy.  I knelt down, grasped Betsy at both ends and made to lift her properly with knees bent, etc.  Nothing moved.  Betsy is a sturdy piece of work.  So I tried again, and she just wiggled a bit.  Now I was getting nervous that I would have to ask Farmer-Landlord for help, but I didn’t want to interrupt his chore to help with mine.  So one last harrumph and I got Betsy most of the way to the tailgate.  A lovely double-bruise on my upper thigh marked where I gave her a little extra boost up.  I would forget about that bruise until I took Little Man to the pool a couple of days later.  In my swim suit I looked battered, and got quickly into the water that miraculously hides a number of evils.  Once I had Betsy on the tail gate, we were off to the races.

A winter's worth of wood to be split.

A winter’s worth of wood to be split.

Again I made pretty quick work of almost all of the loose pile of wood, making quite an impressive (if not properly stacked) wood pile.  But I have to come back to that “almost all” from the previous sentence.  About five or six of the larger, more recently harvested logs were a bit wetter than the others.  A few of the dry logs sounded like a gun shot when the log finally split under the pressure.  The more recently cut logs sometimes fought a bit and would split, but not completely.  They hold themselves together in remembrance of what it was to be complete with fibrous fingers.  I “split” these larger logs four or five times and for my troubles ended up with my own wooden rose sculptures.  Do you know those pictures in Thai restaurants of the fancily carved fruit?  The watermelons carved into intricate flower baskets, the mango carved into a swan, etc.?  This is my own, much less appealing, version.  These wooden roses have been set aside in a pile for the stubborn, to be resplit by Dave.

My wood pile.

My wood pile.

In the meantime, Little Man managed to sleep through the wood splitting for a second day in a row, and was just waking up when I was finishing the pile and Dave was just getting home from soccer.  All three of us were a bit dazed afterwards, and while Betsy had done all the hard work for the splitting, I started to feel the exhaustion of lifting and hurling all the wood.  Now it was time to make dinner.  We wanted something hearty befitting our efforts, but not enough to induce a food coma.  And it needed to be quick.  As luck would have it, I had recently stumbled across (literally, one was on the floor of the grocery store aisle) prepared polenta in a local store.  Angels were singing when I found this tube and quickly plunked a couple down in my cart.  Little Man used one as a microphone for a bit.  This would be the basis for a super quick oven roasted polenta with marinara and oozy cheese.

This recipe is about as no-fuss as it gets.  The polenta is already prepared and in handy tubular form for slicing.  You slice, bake and crisp.  Then top with a heated from-the-jar good quality marinara sauce, top with some freshly grated cheese, broil, and done.  At least it is normally easy…  I didn’t fully realize how tired my upper body was until I was putting a full tray of food into the oven and my hands simply gave out.  The tray tipped forward and as I tried to compensate so as to not lose our dinner to the floor, I tagged my hand on the preheated oven rack.  Then I tagged the same hand again on the other side while I tried to compensate again.  So now I had two spectacular burns on my hands to compliment my lower body bruising.  Let’s just say that I was a vision of loveliness at the pool a few days later, bandages and bruises, and runny mascara (I’d forgotten to leave that off that morning on the way to the pool).  The glamour continues…

plating (2)

Oven Baked Polenta

Serves two with leftovers.  Easily up the quantity by just doubling (or more) the ingredients.  The method stays the same.

Ingredients

1 tube of prepared polenta

1 jar of good quality marinara sauce

1 cup grated mozzarella

½ cup grated parmesan cheese

Olive oil, to drizzle

Salt and Pepper

Directions:

1.  Preheat the oven to 425º Fahrenheit.  Prepare a baking sheet by drizzling about one table spoon olive oil over its base.  Too much oil and the polenta will be greasy, too little and it sticks.

2.  Slice the polenta into ½ inch thick coins.  Sprinkle salt and pepper over both sides.  Place the polenta coins on the baking sheet, and drizzle the tops with a little olive oil.

Sliced polenta coins.

Sliced polenta coins.

3.  Bake the polenta coins for about 25 minutes, or until crispy and golden on both sides.  Meanwhile heat the sauce, either in a pan on the stove or a bowl in the microwave.

4.  Once the polenta is golden, pull the pan out of the oven and sprinkle the grated mozzarella and parmesan evenly over the polenta coins.  Crank the oven up to broil, put the pan back into the oven, and watch it like a hawk.  Don’t answer the phone, don’t refill any juice cups, just monitor the melting cheese.  You want golden, not volcanic ash.

Golden brown polenta coins topped with chesse and ready for the broiler.

Golden brown polenta coins topped with chesse and ready for the broiler.

5.  Resist the temptation to simply top the polenta with the sauce in a nice large casserole.  You went to a lot of trouble to crisp up that polenta.  If you top the crisp food with the wet sauce, you will get soggy polenta.  Instead, be a little bit fussy (you can afford to be fussy here since the dinner took next to no prep) and pour a bit of sauce onto each plate.  Top the sauce with a couple cheesy polenta coins, and enjoy!  We served this with a great, simple fresh lettuce salad from the garden.

plating 3

Click here for a printable version of theOven Roasted Polenta recipe.

Pink gloves and all.

Pink gloves and all.

Taking One For The Team

In a previous post (sometimes it feels like a previous life), I mentioned that I am an archaeologist and that I have worked in Turkey.  It is amazing work; literally digging up the past and holding it in your hands.  I love it, but it is always hard to be away from my friends, family, boyfriend (at the time, husband of course now) and cats.  I can’t even imagine what it would be like if I had to be away from Little Man for that period of time.  Some day… but not today…  For my first couple of field seasons in Turkey as a graduate student we only had access to internet once a week when we went into town for our day off.  The connections were slow, power often shut off randomly and we had to deal with the extra vowels of the Turkish keyboard.  In order to feel connected to my distant loved ones I would jot down stories in my notebook of things that were happening over the course of the week.  Then on our day off we would all head to an internet café and from there I would email my latest story en masse to friends and family.  In a strange way this let me feel connected through the shared experience of reading and writing about events, even when the events weren’t being experienced together.  It feels remarkably similar to what I am doing now with this blog.

 In the move to Canada I came across a folder of printed out emails that I call my Turkey Tales.  I boxed them up (they are around here somewhere…) with the thought that they would be fun to read later on (like years from now).  When I started this blog Dave suggested that I should see if any of the Turkey Tales would work as posts.  It was a good idea, but I’d have to find that blasted box first.  Then on a recent visit from Dave’s Mom she mentioned a particular story that I had emailed during the field season just before Dave and I married.  It turned out that Ruth kept this particular story in one of her email folders and opens it up from time to time when she wants/needs a good laugh.  I asked if she could forward it to me and she did.  As I re-read this “post” I started smiling and chuckling as remembered it through the written version. 

Me and fellow archaeologist/soccer star "Cat."

Me and fellow archaeologist/soccer star “Cat.”

The story itself deals with a soccer match between we archaeologists and our Kurdish workers from a local village near the excavation site.  The match took place during the summer field season directly before my wedding to Dave.  I had forgotten some of the details, but especially now as Dave and I celebrate our eighth wedding anniversary it seems apropos (that’s for you Dave) to share the story here.

 The summer before our wedding Dave and I were apart for about three months.  I was in Turkey excavating for nine weeks and got home one day after he had left for a six week field season in the Republic of Georgia.  He would come back from that field season with a mere two weeks left until the wedding.  When he left for his fieldwork he’d left me two letters; one was the perfect love letter (a note on the outside instructed that I was to read this one first) and the second was a list of things for the wedding that he was supposed to take care of… but didn’t.  Doh!  Around the time he was writing his second letter, I was preparing for this soccer match.

 The Saga of the Soccer Match

Here is the saga of the soccer match…  Last year the dig team played a soccer game against their excavation hands from a local village.  Everyone had such a blast they decided to make it an annual event; the yubangi (foreigners) against the locals.  This year the excavation season has been difficult.  We had all the problems with the workers’ strike, and the village that we had to cut off relations with was the one from the soccer saga last year.  Even though we could not work together at the excavation anymore the team still wanted to have a game, and it was decided that the archaeologists would make up one team, and any of our workers regardless of which village they hailed from could make up the other team.  This decision was extremely naïve on our part, as the different villages and lineages did not necessarily get along and there was a definite internal pecking order that we were oblivious to.

 I was asked to play but was afraid of making a fool of myself so decided to embrace my chicken-ness and play spectator instead.  Another female excavator felt the same way and we plotted to be cheerleaders and not allow ourselves to get dragged into the actual event.

 Game day.  After a full day of excavation we left for the match.  We piled into the van, all of us in various forms of excavation clothes including worn and dusty khakis, torn runners and t-shirts, the women with our Kurdish headscarves firmly in place.  In short, we were unimpressive.  We got to the soccer pitch a little early so our team would have time to warm up, play around with a ball and hopefully not embarrass ourselves too much.  As we pulled into the parking area we saw that the other team was already there, and our jaws dropped.  Not only was the other “team” there but they were all wearing professional uniforms; matching jerseys with numbers and names, striped socks, boots, the entire kit.  Apparently the team of Kurdish villagers we thought we were going to play were actually a regional semi-pro team.  To make it worse they also were only from the one village and had told all of our other workers from the remaining four villages that they couldn’t play.  For a moment our team considered calling the match off, but the strike had left all of us a bit nervy and the chance to run around playing soccer, not doing anything academic, was too good to pass up.  The game would go on.

 Not only was the opposing team different from what we expected, but so was the pitch.  It was carpeted and smaller than a normal soccer field, which was great since if we’d had to run on a normal sized field I think we would have expired.  The sun was going down, as was the temperature, but it was still well over 100 degrees F in the shade.  While we had been doing hard physical labor for weeks, excavation is not largely cardiovascular and every one of the archaeologists was winded within minutes.  The Turkish game was also played differently.  You could play the ball off of the chain link fences surrounding the pitch and the goals were very shallow.

 The fan base was unique as well.  In rural Turkey it is unseemly for women sit with men whom they are not related to, so there were no female fans on their side.  There certainly were no female players; and therefore no Kurdish women making spectacles of themselves.  The same cannot be said for the American side.  The bleachers were filled with the other team’s kinsmen and a handful of excavation workers that had not been “called up” to the team.  And then there was Jenny and myself; hooting and hollering, jumping up and down, and all around acting remarkably unladylike in the Turkish/Kurdish sense.  We apparently scandalized the neighborhood as we would learn the next day.  Good Kurdish women do not cheer or raise their voices like we did.  Nor did they heckle the opposing team with comparisons to various parts of a sheep’s anatomy.  We were obviously not good Kurdish women.

Me in Urfa looking over the Balikligol (Fish Pond) and wearing the same headscarf from soccer fame.

Me in Urfa looking over the Balikligol (Fish Pond) and wearing the same headscarf from soccer fame.

Needless to say, we started playing and pretty quickly the slaughter began.  Our Kurdish cook and driver had agreed to play for us and they were both surprisingly good; much better than any of us.  I’m not sure why we were surprised by this, but we were obviously pretty slow at that point.  They are the only two who kept the “match” from being a wholesale blowout.

 In the last ten minutes of the game our cook was in goal and called for me to come and take his place.  He wanted to go forward in order to try to score a couple goals so we won’t lose so pathetically.  We had stopped counting at this point, but I think the score was something along the lines of 2 to 10.  The ringers had been taking it easy on us at the end.

 Not wanting to disappoint our cook who had miraculously made coming home from the excavation to his meals something to look forward to… I agreed to go in.  You learn early on that to keep an excavation team functioning, you’ve got to keep them happy.  The best way to do that is to keep them well fed.  We don’t have many bells and whistles in the field, but good food goes a long way.  In a future post I’ll share the story of the “hairy red sauce” of the previous field season and you’ll see how important this can be.  Ugh!

 So the cook wanted me to take his place.  We were already short handed on the field, and in order to save my supper (literally) I was going into goal.  There was no way this could end well.

 My “uniform” consisted of a clean (relatively) white t-shirt, loose green palazzo pants, an embroidered headscarf and sandals.  I was hardly something to strike fear into the hearts of those wanting to slam the ball into the net as hard as they could.  May I also add that I have never been in the goal?  Ever.  And that the Turkish ball was different from standard soccer balls, being a little larger and really heavy.  All I could think about was that this ball would leave a mark.

 The sun had gone down and the field’s lights weren’t good.  I was sure that I would be the biggest embarrassment of a goalie ever, but at least my ego would have taken one for the team.  Small enough encouragement.

 I got in the goal and quickly took off my flimsy sandals before I twisted an ankle.  I did not want to repeat an injury to my feet like I shared in the Family Dinner post (posted on 9-12-13.  The soccer match took place one year after the salmon dinner).  A ball was quickly, but softly, kicked at the goal and I ran after it like I was chasing my cat, bent at the waste, bum in the air, arms outstretched.  I had just as much success blocking the ball as I’ve had catching Zadi when she zooms through the room.  I was undeterred, however.

 When the next shot came, I pushed a player from other team out of the way and somehow ended up sprawled across the goal with the ball outside of the net.  Not my most graceful maneuver, but an effective one.  All I could think of was Dave saying “that’s my girl.”  Then a third shot came and I was able to block it pretty easily. I promise you I was not getting cocky, just lucky.  I was sure that any second a ball was going to come with my name on it and I would be nursing a broken nose for the wedding.

Me in Istanbul posing before Dave and I went out for a dinner to celebrate the end of a successful field season.  All 10 toes accountd for.

Me in Istanbul posing before Dave and I went out for a dinner to celebrate the end of a successful field season. All 10 toes accountd for.

 And then it came.  I still don’t remember it coming; never saw who took the shot.  All I remember is a stinging fire in my middle thigh region across both legs.  Everyone gasped as the resounding slap echoed off the concrete walls.  Players froze not sure what I would do.  My girl friends on the team said that if they hadn’t loved me before, that sacrifice would have bought their hearts.

 And the ball was just sitting there right in front of the goal…

 And my brain finally realized that I should probably pick it up…

 So I did and then dramatically collapsed in a heap on the floor hamming it up.  Everyone started laughing again and I was a hero, though we still lost 5 to 10.  At least I only let in one.

 And now each thigh has a nicely yellowing half moon bruise that when I stand with my legs together share a remarkable resemblance to a Turkish soccer ball.  I never thought that taking one for the team would smart quite so much.  After the match the winning team served us hot tea, and we eventually went home to nurse our wounds.  I needed an ice pack.

 I’ve since tried to figure out which of the workers took that shot.  My current workmen seem to have developed a convenient case of amnesia and no one is willing to fess up.  One did bring me a nicely woven head scarf beaded by his mother.  I wonder which one of his cousins is the guilty party…

 —

Today –

It’s been just over eight years since that story took place.  What a remarkable ride.  Happy anniversary, Dave!

Dave and I after our first field season together as a married couple having cocktails at the Pera Palace, one of the grand hotels in Istanbul designed in the Orient Express era.

Dave and I after our first field season together as a married couple having cocktails at the Pera Palace, one of the grand hotels in Istanbul designed in the Orient Express era.

These are the buttons you see above Dave's head in the previous picture.  High tech at the time, you could push to call a waiter for food, your barman or your groom for your "ride home."

These are the buttons you see above Dave’s head in the previous picture. High tech at the time, you could push to call a waiter for food, your barman or your groom for your “ride home.”

The biggest smiles and relaxed poses always show the end of a field season.

The biggest smiles and relaxed poses always show the end of a field season.

 Cacık (Chilled Yogurt and Cucumber Soup)

Thinking about Turkey made me nostalgic and when that happens I often have to make a Turkish dinner.  Cacık (pronounced zhazhik) is a chilled yogurt and cucumber soup that is fantastic on a hot summer or fall day.  In Turkey this is what I always want at the opening of my meal.  It is refreshing, cooling, and also stimulates the appetite for whatever delicious offering is coming next.  I recently made cacık as part of the meal to welcome Dave’s Mom back to our place after a ferry from the mainland.  Another plus for this soup is that it takes minutes to prepare and can be held in the refrigerator for hours before being served.  If that isn’t enough incentive to try cacık, it’s also a great way to use up any late summer cucumbers that your gardener friends “gift” you with.

 Ingredients

1 tsp. salt

Pinch of sugar

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 tsp. dried mint (or 1 tbsp. fresh)

1 ¾ c. plain yogurt (fat free is fine, just use a good quality yogurt)

1 large cucumber

2 tbsp. cold water

 In a medium-sized nonreactive bowl mix the first five ingredients well.  Set aside.

 Peel the cucumber and slice it in half lengthwise.  With a small spoon remove and discard the seeds.  Then finely dice the cucumber and add it to the yogurt mixture.

 Add the cold water to the yogurt-cucumber mixture and stir.  The consistency should be thin, but not watery.  Depending on the type of yogurt you used you might need to add a little more water to thin it out.  Cover the soup and place it in the refrigerator for 20 minutes or up to a couple of hours to keep it chilled until ready to serve.

 Note: On an exceptionally hot day add less water to the soup and instead float a couple of ice cubes in each bowl.  As the ice melts it will dilute the soup and keep everything refreshingly cold.  Afiyet olsun (bon appetite in Turkish)!

 Click here for a printable recipe card for Cacik.

marie4