Jelly Doughnut Muffins

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You may not believe me when I say this, but I have never been much of a doughnut person. It’s not that I don’t like doughnuts– who doesn’t, really?– it’s just that I can take or leave them. While I am totally incapable of turning down, say, a slice of cake with buttercream, I can walk past a box of doughnuts and not think twice about it. Or, at least, this was all true until I discovered jelly-filled doughnuts.

I should stress that the jelly-filled doughnut in question was not your standard, mass-produced Dunkin’ variety. (Say what you will, but I still don’t get what the big deal is about Dunks.) Rather, it came from Flour Bakery, and it was about a month ago. I was at an event with a bunch of colleagues, and someone brought a variety of pastries for us to share; I tried to take a small chunk of the jelly doughnut and leave the rest for the others, but I ended up sneaking back to the food table every ten minutes or so, and before I knew it, I’d eaten the whole thing.

Fast-forward a few weeks to my birthday, when Alex gave me the Ovenly cookbook. I’d been hanging on to the library’s copy for weeks; I renewed it as many times as they’d let me before I begrudgingly returned it, so I was thrilled to have a copy of my very own. The next time I made brunch, the memory of Flour’s doughnuts was still fresh in my mind, but I was reluctant to spend the hours required to make a batch from scratch. Fortunately, Ovenly offers a solution: a quick muffin stuffed with jam and coated in sugar, which tastes unbelievably like a doughnut. And just like that, Alex doesn’t want me to bake anything else, ever.

It turns out there are a few secrets to making a muffin taste like a doughnut, and the first is grated nutmeg. I can’t put my finger on the reason why, but the toasty spiciness is completely reminiscent of fried dough. Second, when the doughnuts are cool enough to handle, a brushing of melted butter and a roll in sugar amps up the doughnut factor. (Sidenote: the original recipe calls for a cinnamon-sugar mix for the topping, but I used vanilla bean sugar instead. I took a bean whose seeds I’d used for another recipe, put it in a jar, and filled the jar with granulated sugar. A week later, voilà! Vanilla bean sugar.) And, of course, the jelly filling is crucial. I’m particularly fond of Bonne Maman jams; I’ve used both four fruits preserves (cherry, strawberry, red currant, and raspberry) and mixed berries preserves (stawberry, blueberry, blackberry, and raspberry) and found them both delightful.

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I’ve made these muffins three times in the last month. That adds up to thirty-six muffins over the course of less than thirty days. Fortunately, Alex and I have a number of hungry friends and colleagues who have eaten the bulk of the muffins for us. It’s bittersweet, because I appreciate the savings in calories, but at the same time, I want ALL the muffins for myself. Life is full of conundrums, I suppose.

Jelly Doughnut Muffins
adapted from Ovenly

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup canola oil
1 large egg
3/4 cup whole milk
jam of your choice, about 1/2 cup
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/3 cup vanilla bean sugar, or 1/3 cup sugar plus 1 Tablespoon cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350°F. Line a 12-cup muffin tin with paper liners.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, spices, and salt. Set aside. In a large bowl, whisk together the sugar, canola oil, and egg. Add the whole milk to the sugar mixture, and whisk until smooth.

Add the flour mixture to the egg mixture and stir gently with a spatula until just combined.

Fill each muffin liner with roughly 2 Tablespoons of batter. Spoon 1/2 Tablespoon of jam into each liner, being careful to keep the jam in the very center of the cup; try not to let the jam touch the sides of the liners. Top each cup with another 2 Tablespoons of batter.

Bake for 22-24 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle of a few muffins comes out clean.

Meanwhile, melt 2 Tablespoons butter in a small microwave-safe bowl on medium power; set aside and let cool slightly. Place vanilla sugar (or cinnamon-sugar mixture) in another small bowl.

Remove muffins from the oven and let cool slightly. Using a basting brush, coat the top of each muffin with melted butter, then roll in sugar, taking care to coat each muffin evenly.

Let cool, and try not to wolf them all down immediately.

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Banana Nutella Ice Cream

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For a long, long time, fall has been my favorite season. The reasons for this are both obvious and well-documented: crunchy leaves, vibrant colors, chilly nights… I’m sure I’ve listed all the reasons publicly, at least twice. But this year, after the winter we just had, I am completely ecstatic to welcome summer. I don’t even care that it’s a little too hot to sleep comfortably through the night, and I don’t care that Moose still wants to drape her warm, furry little body across my lap at every possible opportunity. I’m just glad that it isn’t snowing, and that I don’t have to wear anything made of down or wool for at least a couple more months. (But apparently the snow piles still haven’t entirely disappeared…?!? It seems winter never really lets us out of its grip.)

I am also glad that it’s the perfect weather for ice cream making. Mind you, I still made ice cream right on through the winter, but those batches seemed to last for quite a while. On a night when the temperature hovers in the single digits, I’d much rather have a little glass of Port and a hunk of cheese than a frozen dessert. But in the summer, when sunlight still creeps through the windows at 8pm, the apartment is filled with the sound of humming fans, and Alex is more likely to be home for dinner than at rehearsal, pints of ice cream just disappear like magic. Quick consumption gives me more opportunities to try new flavors and new recipes; summer is a good season, indeed.

This batch of ice cream comes from the Ample Hills cookbook, which I snagged from the sale rack at Anthropologie. I recently passed the book along (one can only have so many ice cream books in one’s personal collection), but not before jotting down a couple of particularly enticing recipes. The banana Nutella combination is, of course, an homage to everyone’s favorite crêpe filling (except those weirdos who prefer ham and cheese), and banana ice cream is  a longtime favorite of mine, hearkening back to church ice cream socials. The flavor is rich, yet also bright, and the texture is super-creamy, thanks in part to the addition of skim milk powder, which gives the ice cream batter plenty of fat while cutting down on water, which tends to crystallize.

While the banana ice cream is excellent on its own (I know, because the recipe made more than I could fit in a single container, so I packed some of the ice cream separately, sans-chocolate), the Nutella swirl takes it over the line from treat to indulgence. I should confess, though, that I used knock-off Nutella: specifically, this one from Barefoot and Chocolate (a brand name that kind of weirds me out; I assume it’s supposed to make me think of “barefoot and pregnant”?). I brought it home from work, because it was technically expired. Eh, still delicious.

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I’ve fed this ice cream to a handful of people besides my husband, and they all react in pretty much the same way: with wide eyes and unitelligible grunting noises. I’d say that’s a pretty hearty gesture of approval.

Cheers to summer, to sundresses, shorts, grilling, late nights, iced tea, and everything that is decidedly un-wintery.

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Banana Nutella Ice Cream
adapted slightly from Ample Hills

for the ice cream
1 1/2 cups whole milk
3/4 cup skim milk powder
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 pound ripe peeled fresh bananas
2 cups heavy cream

for the Nutella swirl
1 13-ounce jar Nutella, or other chocolate-hazelnut spread
½ cup heavy cream

Make the banana ice cream: in a blender, combine the milk, skim milk powder, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, and bananas and blend until smooth.  Add the cream, and stir until combined. Transfer the base to an ice cream maker and churn.

While the ice cream is churning, stir the Nutella and 1/2 cup heavy cream together until smooth and pourable.

When ice cream has finished churning, transfer to a storage container, gently swirling in spoonfuls of the Nutella mixture as you go. Cover the surface of the ice cream with parchment or plastic wrap, and freeze until firm.

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Summer Update

Back in April, I biked home along the same route I walked so many times during the winter, when the T was out of commission (or, more often, too messed up to be of any real service). During the dark days of winter, Beacon Street was one big mass of white; snowbanks stood shoulder-high in some places, and some spots were so minimally shoveled that I practically had to climb to cross the street. In the spring, the Back Bay streets still glowed white, but this time, it was because of the pale, fluffy blossoms covering all the trees, as far as the eye could see. It was almost as if Boston was sending me hundreds of bouquets to say, “Hey, friend. Sorry I was such a jerk to you a few months ago.” And even though that week still contained a few mornings so chilly that I had to slip on a pair of gloves for my commute, I accepted the city’s apology– and now it’s summer, and winter weather is just a distant memory.

While the weather has calmed down in Boston, life certainly has not. It’s shaping up to be a year of big changes, including a new job and an upcoming change in living situation, and plenty of other, smaller things. If life is like a game of Monopoly, then I basically just gathered all the tokens off to the side and flipped the board. (For what it’s worth, when it’s my turn to choose a Monopoly token, I usually like to be the wheelbarrow or the thimble: sticking with a domestic theme, surprise, surprise.)

Change is a good thing, even if it’s a little scary. It keeps you on your toes and broadens your horizons. It does not, however, leave a lot of time for blogging. While I’ve been baking and cooking as much as usual (perhaps even more so), the pictures have largely gone un-snapped, and the anecdotes have gone unwritten. But I can only stop writing for so long before I feel a definite sense of something missing. So with that in mind, here’s a quick recap of a few of the things I’ve made, read, and enjoyed during the last however-many months.

I hate to start out with this one, because it was actually kind of a disappointment. It was basically cacio e pepe, a fantastically simple dish that is one of my go-to dinners when I’m by myself, but this version included springy fava beans and fresh mint. After spending about half an hour shelling the fava beans, a surprisingly difficult task I didn’t particularly enjoy, I made the crucial mistake of not trusting my own instincts when the recipe called for an inordinate amount of olive oil. Note to self: this isn’t your first rodeo. Listen to that little voice in your head saying, “Are you sure about that?”

The dish did look pretty, though, once I strained it out of its olive oil bath.

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In other spring vegetable news, my refrigerator has been lucky enough to contain a steady supply of ramps for the last few weeks. Although I think I love garlic scapes a little more than ramps, I have to admit that ramps are easier to use; the leaves make good substitute for spinach, basil, chives, or other leafy herbs, and the white stalks can be used in place of garlic, onion, or scallion stalks. I used one bunch of ramps to make a batch of pesto so garlicky that Alex was reluctant to come near it (the patience of a saint, that one), and I used some of the leftover stalks in place of garlic in this vinaigrette. I am excited for summer, but I’ll be sad to say goodbye to ramps for another year.

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I’ve also been on quite a cake-baking kick lately. I’ve been especially interested in simple, homey pound cakes and bundts, so when I ran across this recipe, all the lights in my brain started flashing. I kept the tab open on my phone for weeks until I finally had time to make it.

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It was worth the wait. The base recipe was a simple vanilla butter cake, but it was dressed up with lemon, lavender, and an out-of-control lavender-vanilla bean infused sugar sprinkled over the glaze. The lavender definitely gives the cake a floral, tea-time feel, but it never veers into that weird territory where lavender desserts start to taste like soap and old lady perfume (my favorite kind of perfume, incidentally). The only problem? I made this cake while watching a documentary about childhood obesity, which ends with a challenge to eliminate all added sugar from your diet for 10 days.  Needless to say, I’m going to take a pass on that challenge.

While simple cakes have ruled my spring, I did make one decidedly not simple cake a little bit after the lavender number. Alex and I hosted a dinner for some of his colleagues, and it just happened to be the birthday of one of our guests… so naturally a good, decadent layer cake was in order. I picked a recipe from the Ovenly cookbook entitled “Chocolate Stout Cake with Salted Caramel Cream Cheese Buttercream.” Um, yeah. How do you not make that? Even though I undercooked the caramel for the frosting, which robbed the completed cake of a little toasty depth, it was still a hit, and I’ve decided to own it.

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One recent evening, Alex and I were settled in on the couch, wine glasses in hand, not planning to leave the house again, when Alex announced that he had a doughnut craving. While I’ve jumped up off my cozy couch at 10pm for far lesser temptations than a doughnut, we decided it would be even better to wake up early the next morning and pay a pre-work visit to Twin Donuts, an Allston establishment I will miss dearly when we move. (I don’t think our heads have ever popped up off the pillows so quickly.) Despite all the fancy doughnut shops popping up around the city, I love these homier versions that are cakey and practically crispy. Also, eating two doughnuts before going in to work? That’ll put a little bounce (or three) in your step.

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Miraculously, Alex and I have also managed to have a few days off work at the same time: a rare treat indeed. One rare treat calls for another, so we spent one of them having lunch at Sweet Cheeks, which serves up delicious barbecue, sure, but also the most amazing buttermilk biscuits this side of the Mason-Dixon. IMG_2313

I’ve also had time to do a little bit of reading lately. I found The Supper of the Lamb, byRobert Farrar Capon, at the library just before Easter; I read the back cover, and discovered that Robert Farrar Capon was “a passionate and talented chef who also happens to be an Episcopal priest.” Annnnnnd into my bag the book went. It was written in the 60s, but it took me several chapters to figure that out; it’s so beautifully written, and it resonates with me so strongly, it feels like it could have been published yesterday. I especially like this passage:

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I also discovered Oxford American this spring– and by “discovered,” I mean that it came highly recommended by two good friends and I went out to buy it as soon as they told me to. It’s easily one of the best magazines I’ve ever gotten my mitts on, and it didn’t hurt that this issue had a big ol’ section on Southern food. Sunday morning coffee and Oxford American on a café porch: heaven.

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We’ve also been grilling A LOT. We have a teeny-tiny grill that’s barely larger than a dinner plate, but we’ve pulled a lot of excellent meals out of it. Perhaps most importantly, we learned how to make banh mi!! We use Shutterbean’s recipe for the pork, and this recipe for the pickled carrot and daikon. It’s surprisingly easy and so, so delicious. I just have to figure out where to find a baguette as crusty and light as I want. (Let’s be honest, I’ll probably have to go to Chinatown, and I’m just too lazy to do it.)

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We have also learned that salads are even more amazing than usual when the majority of the vegetables are grilled. And they are out of control when accompanied by bruschetta, prosciutto, and cold wine, preferably with the lights turned off, the last bit of evening light coming through the window, and two candles on the table.

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Alex has even gone so far as to grill in the rain. What a guy.

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I had a birthday last week, which meant lots of cake (yay!), lots of friends (YAY!!!), and a trip to the RMV because my driver’s license expired (boooooo). On the upside: the RMV is right across the road from the North End, and after sitting in the waiting room for an hour and half in order to complete a process that took maybe five minutes, gelato was a no-brainer.

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And that’s the summer so far. I hope to be back soon with something more substantive. But in any case, happy summer from Alex, Moose, and me!

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Sourdough Waffles

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I should probably tell you right off the bat that I have absolutely no business preaching to you about sourdough.  I love a good, tangy baguette as much as the next person, and while I do enjoy baking bread every once in a while, making sourdough at home has always seemed way beyond my skill level, something only to be attempted by people with far more talent and confidence than I have.  Truth is, I wouldn’t be talking about this at all if it weren’t for my lovely friend Sam, who recently gave me a portion of his own sourdough starter, which he nurtures as if it were a beloved pet.  And, in a small way, it is a beloved pet– it’s alive, and it has to be fed and changed on a fairly regular schedule.

You’ll notice that I have my jar of starter labeled as “The Precious.”  That’s the name Sam gave his starter– an indication of how much time and love he has invested in the stuff– and I didn’t think I’d earned the right to rename my batch.  At least not yet.

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I haven’t yet worked up the courage to make bread with my starter.  However, at each feeding, any starter beyond four ounces must either be used or tossed, and the King Arthur Flour sourdough guide (which seems like a good resource if you want to try all this yourself) recommends using the discard to make waffles.  And you don’t have to tell me twice to make waffles.

The beautiful thing about this recipe is that it asks you to do almost all the work the night before you actually make the waffles.  So while it’s not exactly something you can whip up at a moment’s notice, it’s a breeze to pull together if you planned ahead; you simply roll out of bed, crack a couple of eggs into the overnight batter, add a couple more ingredients, and throw it in the waffle iron.  Done and done.

The other beautiful thing about these waffles is that they work equally well with sweet or savory toppings.  While my natural inclination is to douse pretty much every breakfast with maple syrup, for this, my first use of sourdough, I decided to take a page from Sam’s book.  Sam never spares any effort in his cooking, so I decided to dress these waffles up right with some coarsely grated smoked cheddar, over-easy eggs, a drizzle of spicy salsa, and some snipped chives.  (If only I’d had a bit of crème fraîche as well!)  This meal also makes a stellar dinner, in case you were wondering.

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Here’s hoping this easy-breezy first run with sourdough starter inspires me to keep on pushing until I’m back here with some pristine baguettes!  Until then– there’s nothing wrong with breakfast.

Sourdough Waffles
from King Arthur Flour

for the overnight sponge:
2 cups King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
2 tablespoons sugar
2 cups buttermilk
1 cup sourdough starter, unfed

for the waffle batter:
all of the overnight sponge
2 large eggs
1/4 cup vegetable oil or melted butter
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda

To make the overnight sponge, stir down your refrigerated starter, and remove 1 cup.  In a large mixing bowl, stir together the 1 cup starter, flour, sugar, and buttermilk.  Cover and let rest at room temperature overnight.

In a small bowl or mixing cup, beat together the eggs, and oil or butter. Add to the overnight sponge.  Add the salt and baking soda, stirring to combine. The batter will bubble.

Pour batter onto your preheated, greased waffle iron, and bake according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Serve waffles immediately, to ensure crispness. Or hold in a warm oven till ready to serve.

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Chocolate Chip Pistachio Cookies with Smoked Salt

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Greetings from the frozen wasteland that is the city of Boston!  We are currently digging out from under our fourth blizzard in as many weeks.  My positive-thinking initiative is still going, but this winter is really trying my patience.  I’d complain about the terrible (i.e. non-existent) public transit conditions and the subzero temperatures, but frankly, I’m just tired of it.  It’s all anyone’s talking about, and I’d just rather talk about cookies.

I made these on a Sunday afternoon, the day before Alex left town for a week.  I was stuck inside, I felt like baking, and I figured that a big batch of cookies would be ideal for sending off with Alex on his trip.  And it’s a good thing I was able to pawn them off so quickly, because these are possibly the most addictive cookies I’ve ever made.  I don’t even know how many I must have eaten fresh out of the oven, much less in the few days following.  These cookies take the fail-proof sweet and salty combination and amp it up– there’s even a little smoky flavor in there for good measure.  That comes primarily from a sprinkling of smoked salt on each cookie, but I also threw in a chopped up bar of Mast Brothers vanilla and smoke dark chocolate, which is super delicious, but allllmost too dark for me to eat on its own.

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The only labor-intensive part of the cookie making process is shelling pistachios.  Yes, you can buy them pre-shelled, but I find that there are always a few bad ones that sneak in; if you buy them in the shell, then you have greater control over quality.  An 8oz bag will do the trick nicely.

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The icing on the cake, as it were, is the smoked salt that tops each cookie.  I used smoked Maldon, which is delightfully flaky and crunchy– it makes me wonder why every cookie doesn’t have a sprinkle on top.

Only one thing can possibly make these cookies any better than they already are: bottomless hot coffee.  Ok, maybe two things: bottomless hot coffee, and a dog whose new favorite thing is burrowing only halfway under the blanket on the couch:

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With these cookies in my baking arsenal, I am confident I will survive the rest of the winter– and maybe, just maybe, do it in style.

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Chocolate Chip Pistachios Cookies with Smoked Salt
from Homemade Decadence

1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups dark chocolate chips (the darker the better)
1 cup shelled pistachios, coarsely chopped
smoked salt for garnish

Preheat oven to 350°F.  Line a baking sheet with parchment.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine butter and sugars and beat until pale and fluffy.  Add the egg and beat for about 1 minute.  Add vanilla and beat until incorporated.

In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking soda, and salt; whisk until combined.  Add the flour mixture all at once to the butter mixture.  Beat on low speed until just incorporated.  Beat in the chocolate chips and pistachios.

Spoon cookie dough onto parchment-lined baking sheet (about 2 Tablespoons per cookie, about 2 inches apart) and sprinkle with the smoked salt.  Bake 10 to 12 minutes, until cookies are just beginning to turn golden.

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Garlic and Pine Nut Hummus

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Confession time: I do not like beans.  I feel that, as someone who loves food, nutrition, and frugality, this is one of the worst, most shocking things I could possibly say, but it’s true.  I have never cared for beans (except for beans that are green, and beans that turn into coffee).  This has closed off to me a world of foods that other people seem to find delicious: chili, bean dip, certain burritos, countless soups.  Being a food person who doesn’t like beans is like being a Christian who doesn’t like contemporary Christian music: you’re entitled to your opinion, of course, but some people will give you weird looks because of it.

Incidentally, I am also a Christian who does not like contemporary Christian music.  In high school, my two closest church friends (who are still two of my best friends today) tried valiantly to fix this for me; they gave me CD after CD of every possible style of worship music, but I never made it past track two before going, “Well, that’s enough of that.”  (The only album I was ever able to listen to in its entirety, I found out later, loosely mimicked the structure of Anglican liturgy, which was a fun little bit of real-life foreshadowing).  I worried about this for a while– what did it say about me if I bought into the message of the music in general, but just couldn’t stomach the stuff?  Eventually, I came to the conclusion that preferences are preferences– we’re all free to like and dislike whatever music we choose– and the same goes for food.

But it’s harder for me to stop challenging my aversion to beans.  Nutritionally speaking, you’d be hard pressed to get more bang for your buck with any other pantry staple.  Aesthetically, there are some really attractive beans out there which look good enough to eat.  And furthermore, the idea of a batch of beautiful, heirloom beans simmering away in a pot on the stove just sounds so comforting and quaint that I feel like I’m missing out on one of life’s great pleasures, just because I’m pretty sure that those beautiful, heirloom beans, once cooked, would taste just like every other bean: i.e., like dirt.

So, given this lifelong aversion to beans, you might think it strange that I’m devoting an entire post to hummus, a dip that is made almost entirely of beans (call ‘em chickpeas if you like, but they’re still beans to me).  Well, friend, that is entirely due to the power of good food writing.  In the days leading up to the Super Bowl, bloggers everywhere were posting their best game-day food recipes, and this recipe popped up on Foodspin– the food-centric offshoot of the sports blog Deadspin.  I’ve never mentioned Foodspin on this blog, because– well, I like to keep things pretty straight-laced around here, and straight-laced Foodspin is not.  But the guy who writes most of the content, one Albert Burneko, has wit and intelligence to spare, and amid all the colorful language and playful name-calling, there’s always something that makes me laugh so hard I nearly spit out my coffee.  An example:

“On the other hand, if you are worried about additives and preservatives and the like, maybe lighten up a little bit, there, but also, you can use dried chickpeas, ya big fraidycat.  Dump, oh, a pound of dried chickpeas into a big bowl, cover them with water so they’re a couple of inches below the surface (so they’ve got room to expand as they soak), then leave ‘em overnight.  In the morning, or whenever you feel like you’re about two hours away from being ready for some hummus, move the chickpeas to a big pot, cover them with fresh water (again so they’re well submerged), and simmer them for 90 minutes.  There.  Now they are ready to be made into hummus, which everybody else had yesterday because they used canned chickpeas, but at least now you can be sure that when you eventually grow an arm out of the back of your neck, it won’t be because of canned-chickpea preservatives.”

So, if you feel so inclined, check the link at the bottom of the post, and if you’d rather stick with my family-friendly content, well, that’s why I’m here.

But, as I was saying, the way this blog described the homemade hummus, with whole cloves of garlic and roasted pine nuts and sprinklings of aromatic spices, made my ears perk up.  I’ve eaten a good bit of store-bought hummus and found it tolerable, so I thought that if I made my own, it might be the ticket to finally enjoying beans.  So I gave it a go.

The first thing I learned was that my mini food chopper is just too mini to handle an entire can of chickpeas, so I had to work in batches.

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And I also forgot to reserve some of the liquid from the can, which was supposed to go in later to loosen up the hummus, so I used olive oil instead.  (So much for a low-fat snack, I suppose.)

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I also bought a jar of tahini specifically for this purpose, and I think it’s the best thing I got out of this whole experience.  I’m looking forward to experimenting with it in other kitchen projects. (I also have a giant bag of za’atar that I bought when I only needed a teensy bit, so I think things are about to take a Middle Eastern turn around here.)

It turns out that making hummus is a breeze.  The only thing you need to cook is the pine nuts: just a handful in a dry skillet over medium-high heat.  If you’re like me, though, you should probably devote your full attention to that task; every time I leave toasting pine nuts unattended, I burn them.  It’s worth the five minutes to get it right the first time.

Once your hummus is perfectly smooth and creamy, pour those lovely pine nuts in the middle, and cover the whole thing with a light dusting of cumin and paprika (smoked paprika is particularly nice here, if you have it).  And then all you have to do is put out some pita, naan, or– if you want to go low-brow like me– plain Sun Chips, and dig in.  An easy, filling, and healthy snack, which will probably last you for several days, took you only about five minutes to prepare.

Of course, I have to tell you that I still thought this hummus tasted like beans, so I can’t exactly say that I loved it.  But, the garlic flavor was especially pronounced, fresh lemon juice added a pleasant zing, and the spices on top were a lovely touch, so overall, I’d say it was the best hummus I’ve had.  And if you’re a person who likes beans, then I think you will love it.  So there you have it.

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Garlic and Pine Nut Hummus
adapted from Foodspin

1 can chickpeas, drained
juice from 1 lemon
2 fat garlic cloves, roughly chopped
1/4 cup tahini
1/4 cup pine nuts
olive oil
salt
cumin
paprika (preferably smoked, but regular is fine)

In a food processor or chopper, combine drained chickpeas, lemon juice, garlic cloves, and tahini.  (You may need to work in batches if your chopper is small.)  Blend until solids are broken down and mixture is mostly smooth.

Add olive oil, a drizzle at a time, and blend until the hummus reaches your desired consistency, tasting often to check and adjust flavors, if necessary.  Add salt to taste, and scoop hummus into a bowl.  Using a spoon, make a small well in the center of the hummus.

In a skillet over medium-high heat, toast the pine nuts, shaking the pan often, until they are fragrant and golden brown.  Drizzle a bit of olive oil on the pine nuts, and pour them into the well in the hummus.  Sprinkle the hummus with pinches of cumin and paprika.

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Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Coffee Cake

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Sometime around September of last year, I realized that winter was coming– just like last year, and the year before that, and pretty much every year, come to think of it.  Knowing that there was no way to stop it, and knowing that we had no plans to migrate South (at least not long-term), I turned to the only thing I thought might help me cope: positive thinking.  Or, as I like to call it, lying to myself.  Every time I felt a chill in the air or thought about snow piles and wool socks, I forced myself to say, either silently or aloud, “It’s gonna be great!  I’m so excited!  I love winter!”  I figured that if I told this to myself often enough, I could trick myself into believing it.

I’m happy to report that this trickery totally worked!  Of course, it probably also helps that I finally, finally bought a down coat (I refused for a long time because I didn’t want to look puffy, but this year I decided I didn’t care), traded in my clunky five-year-old snowboots with zero tread and a broken zipper for a sleek pair of L.L. Bean laceups, and stocked up on fleece leggings.  It definitely helps that my mom crocheted me three warm hats and one chunky scarf.  But beyond all that, I find that I just feel more at peace with the season this time around.  It is what it is, come blizzard or ice patches on the sidewalk.

And it’s a good thing, too, because last week we got about 30 inches of snow dumped on us in one day.  Blizzards are tricky when you work in a grocery store; the day before the big show, you spend hours slinging cartons of eggs and jugs of milk to all the shoppers who are so certain the apocalypse is at hand.  And, unless the whole city shuts down as a result of the snow, you’re going to have to trudge through it the next day, because grocery stores need to be open, and you work at a grocery store.  But this past Tuesday?  Helloooo, citywide travel ban, and helloooo, official snow day!  And what better way to spend such a day than making cake?

I found this recipe in Baked Explorations, possibly my favorite baking cookbook.  I hope I someday find the time to make pretty much every recipe in this book, but this time I had to choose based on the ingredients I had on hand (because, travel ban!! no stores open!).  The original recipe also calls for cream cheese frosting; you better believe I would have included it if I’d had any cream cheese in my fridge.  Since I did not, a scoop of ice cream made an admirable substitute.

One of the best things about this cake is that you don’t even have to break out your mixer; it all comes together with a couple of bowls and a spatula.  The bowls contain all the usual suspects: flour, baking powder, cinnamon, sugar, etc.  What makes the cake sing is chewy oats and (be still my heart) Bourbon-coated chocolate chips.

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The purpose of the Bourbon, I must admit, is more functional than anything.  Coating the chocolate chips with flour prevents them from sinking through the batter and landing at the bottom of the cake pan, and the Bourbon helps the flour stick to the chocolate chips.  But still, doesn’t it just warm your heart to know that there’s a nip of Bourbon in there?

20150127_160118 This cake has helped me conclude that there is absolutely nothing better on a snow day than the warm smell of chocolate, cinnamon, and Bourbon emanating from your oven (with the possible exception of the classic warm blanket-soft pup-sweet husband-couch combo– that one is hard to beat).  And the finished product is no joke, either; with a texture somewhere between a blondie and a cookie cake, it hits all the right chewy/sticky/cakey notes.  It’s like all your favorite desserts rolled into one, with ice cream on top.

And it’s a good thing I still have some of this cake left over, because today, Boston is a snow globe once again.  I love it.  It’s gonna be great.

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Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Coffee Cake
adapted from Baked Explorations

8 ounces chocolate chips
1/2 teaspoon Bourbon
1 1/2 cups plus 2 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup oats (I used Irish Oatmeal– I think it’s safe to use whatever you have in your pantry)
1/2 cup unsalted butter, cut into small cubes, at room temperature
2 eggs, lightly beaten
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon

Preheat oven to 375°F; position a rack in the center of the oven.  Butter the sides and bottom of a 9×13″ baking pan.  Heat 1 1/4 cups of water to boiling.

Place the chocolate chips in a small bowl and toss with the Bourbon.  Add 2 Tablespoons of flour and toss again to coat.  Set aside.

Place oats and cubed butter in a large bowl.  Pour the boiling water over the mixture, wait 30 seconds, and stir to moisten the oats and melt the butter.  Set mixture aside for about half an hour.

In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs, sugars, salt, baking soda, baking powder, and cinnamon until combined.  Gently fold in the remaining flour and then add the chocolate chips.  Pour the batter into prepared pan, and bake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean.

Cool cake in the pan on a wire rack for at least 30 minutes.  Serve with a scoop of your favorite ice cream.

 

 

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Buttercup Squash and Sage Biscuits

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I don’t think I can tell you how difficult it’s been to sit in this apartment all day long with these biscuits.  Combine their enticing scent, their visual appeal, and my unstoppable appetite for carbs, and it’s a wonder I’ve managed to eat anything else in the last seven hours.

One of my coworkers first mentioned this recipe to me the week before Thanksgiving, and it’s been dancing around in my brain ever since.  Squash and sage are two of my favorite ingredients, and biscuits are always satisfying and fun to make; it seemed like an ideal project for me, but I could never seem to find the time to get it done.  However, this Christmas my mom gave me a beautiful hand-carved wooden biscuit cutter, which was all the motivation I needed.  Earlier this week, on my first “normal” day off of the year, I got to work on these biscuits first thing in the morning.

The first step in the process is to roast the squash.  The original recipe called for delicata squash, which is a good choice; delicatas tend to be on the smaller side, and the recipe only calls for a half-cup of mashed squash, so with a delicata, you’ll use just about all of the flesh.  However, I forgot to pick one up at work, and the grocery in my neighborhood didn’t have any, so I opted for buttercup squash. (If you’re wondering what a buttercup squash looks like, you’re not alone; the cashier picked it up, examined it, and looked at me like I was trying to buy an alien life form.)  You could also use butternut or acorn squash, or even sweet potatoes if you prefer.

The flavor of the squash in these biscuits is perfectly accented by the fresh sage.  A few chopped leaves go in the dough, and each biscuit is topped with a whole leaf, which gets deliciously crunchy in the oven.

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The dough for these biscuits is really easy to put together.  I tried a new trick for this batch: instead of rubbing cubes of cold butter into the flour mixture, I used a coarse grater to shred the butter.  That way it takes practically no effort, and makes considerably less mess, to incorporate the butter into the flour.  And, as my friend Sam explained to me, it keeps the butter from warming up, as it can do if you’re breaking down bigger chunks with your hands.  Once the flour and butter mixture looks coarse and relatively uniform, add a mixture of cream and the cooked squash, and stir gently until just barely combined.  Turn the dough out onto a floured surface.  It doesn’t even need to be rolled– you can just gently pat it into a 3/4 inch thickness with your hands.

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I love that biscuit cutter!  But if you don’t have one, you can always use a round cookie cutter or a glass.  Or if even that seems like too much trouble, you can gently cut the dough into rough squares.

Brush the tops of the biscuits with a mixture of egg and milk– just enough to add an attractive sheen and help the sage leaves stick to the dough. Then into the oven they go!

The biscuits will fill your house with a warm, sweet, herbal fragrance that will linger for the rest of the afternoon.  They taste just as good as they smell, and they have a beautifully soft, cakey texture.  Soften some good butter, pour a cup of hot coffee, and dig in.  Try to save some for when your husband gets home (good luck).

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Buttercup Squash and Sage Biscuits
adapted from PBS via Kitchen Vignettes

1 small butternut squash (1/2 cup squash purée)
2 cups white flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoons baking soda
2 Tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
6 Tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled
1 small bunch of fresh sage (1 1/2 tsp. chopped and 10 whole leaves for garnish)
3/4 cup heavy cream
1 egg
1 Tablespoon milk

Preheat oven to 400°F.  Cut the squash in half lengthwise; scoop out seeds and pulp and discard.  Place squash, cut side down, on a foil lined baking sheet and roast in the preheated oven for about 30 minutes, until flesh is soft and scoopable.  Scoop out the flesh and mash in a bowl with a fork.  Cover the bowl with plastic and chill in the refrigerator for at least half an hour.

In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, and baking soda. Using a box grater, grate the cold butter into the flour mixture. Place this mixture in the freezer while you prepare the wet ingredients.

In another bowl, mix the chilled cream, 1/2 cup of the squash purée (reserve remaining squash purée for another use– pumpkin ice cream, anyone?), and finely chopped sage. Whisk together until smooth. In another smaller bowl, make the egg wash by beating the egg and 1 Tablespoon of milk together.

Remove the dry ingredients from the freezer. Using a spatula (or your hands), make sure the grated butter is fully incorporated into the flour (it should look like coarse meal). Gently add the squash and cream mixture to the dry ingredients, stirring with the spatula just until the dough starts to come together. Using your hands, lightly knead the dough in the bowl, being careful not to overhandle it.

Lightly dust a clean work surface with flour and gently press the dough out to 3/4 inch thickness. Using a 2 1/2 inch round biscuit cutter, cut out the biscuits. Brush the tops with egg wash and gently press a whole sage leaf on top of each biscuit. Place on a lightly buttered baking sheet. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes in a 400F oven, until golden on top. Transfer the biscuits to a cooling rack and serve warm.

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Provencal Tuna Salad

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First off: I know.  It’s a fairly weird move to start off a brand new year of blogging with a recipe for tuna salad, a dish with as many detractors as it has fans.  But you know what?  I love tuna salad.  It almost feels like an insult to my parents’ wonderful cooking to say this, but one of my favorite childhood dinner memories is sitting around a communal bowl of tuna salad with Ritz crackers on summer nights– usually church nights, or evenings when my Dad had to make it to the racquetball courts in just an hour after getting home from work.  Tuna salad is a super-fast meal to put together, and it’s satisfying and healthy (depending, of course, on the ingredients you use to dress it).  I’m sad to say that I haven’t yet convinced my husband that tuna salad is worth eating, but it’s been a lunch staple for me for years.

This particular recipe comes from The Splendid Table’s How to Eat Supper, a cookbook inspired by the popular podcast.  My copy was a wedding present from my dear friend Heather and her parents, and the sweet notes they wrote to me and Alex on the inside cover are even more precious to me than the recipes in the book.  That said, my new year’s resolution (the kitchen portion of my resolution, that is) is to cook my way through this book by year’s end.  I’ve already made decent headway through the segment on salad dressing (so many great ideas in this book– if you’re a salad lover, it’s definitely worth checking out), and I cannot wait to see what other treasures are lurking in the other pages.  But for today, it only seems natural to whip up a batch of tuna salad.

At first glance, the ingredients in this recipe might seem a little odd.  With so many bold flavors in play– briny Niçoise olives and capers, potent red onions, tangy fresh dill, sweet tomatoes, sour lemon juice– it seems like all the components might fight each other.  But once they’re combined and given time to marry, they all blend together harmoniously, adding up to a dish that is well-balanced, delicious, and utterly more-ish. I had a very hard time resisting the urge to scarf down the entire salad while it was supposed to be marinating.

Assembly is a snap for this dish.  First, break up about 17 ounces of drained, water-packed albacore tuna in a large bowl (the original recipe calls for three 6-oz cans, but I had a hard time finding that measurement, so I used one 12-ounce can and one 5-ounce).  Add all the dry ingredients: halved cherry tomatoes, pitted Niçoise olives (or halved kalamatas, if you prefer), capers (normally not an ingredient I love, but delicious in this salad), minced red onion, and finely chopped dill leaves.  Add olive oil and fresh squeezed lemon juice, and fold everything together with a rubber spatula, taking care to incorporate all the bits and pieces that tend to cling to the sides of the bowl.

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Next: taste, taste, taste several forkfuls of the mixture.  You’ll likely need to add a bit of salt and pepper, but with so many bold and salty ingredients in the mix already, you’ll need to know what your baseline flavors are before you pick up a shaker. Once the salad tastes like you want it to, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it sit for at least an hour.  If you’re stuck for what to do during that hour, I suggest back episodes of Top Chef– I’m currently on season 10, the excitement of which is slightly tempered by the fact that I already know Kristen wins (Go Boston!).

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After the salad has had time to let all its components meld, pile it up on hearty bread or whole wheat crackers– olive oil and dill Triscuits are my favorite– and revel in the fact that you extracted such a good meal from so little effort.

Cheers to a new year, and many new food adventures!

Provencal Tuna Salad
from The Splendid Table’s How to Eat Supper

17-18 ounces water-packed albacore tuna, drained
1 cup halved grape tomatoes
1/2 cup whole Niçoise or halved Kalamata olives
3 Tablespoons drained capers
1/4 cup finely chopped red onion
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh dill leaves
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice
salt and fresh-ground black pepper

Place the drained tuna in a large bowl, and break it into chunks with a fork.  Fold in the tomatoes, olives, capers, red onion, and fresh dill.  Pour in the olive oil and lemon juice; taste, and add salt and fresh ground pepper to taste.

Let stand at room temperature for about an hour.  Serve  with slices of hearty bread or whole wheat crackers.

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Let’s Talk About Food

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Well, hello there.  As I mentioned last week, my good camera is out of commission.  For the last little while, I’ve been relying on the camera I’ve had since college, a pocket-sized Sony Cybershot that has definitely seen better days, thanks in part to the fact that it lived in my purse for the better part of five years.  As I was clearing out space on the tiny camera’s memory card to make room for an onslaught of new blog photos, I ran across the shot above.  I don’t remember when or where it was taken, but I’m glad I saw fit to save it.  It could easily have been taken in the last few days in Boston, when the sky has been steely gray, but there are still small bits of color on the trees here and there.

This is a busy season for everyone, but especially for those who work in retail.  Whether you’re selling clothes or groceries or something else entirely, you are absolutely going to be up to your elbows in customers for the entire month of December.  It’s a fact of life, and in many ways, it’s a good thing; more customers = more opportunities to show your stuff, more opportunities to hone your craft.  The only bad thing is that all that busy-ness at work reduces the energy I have to devote to non-work pursuits, including blogging, unfortunately.

So today, instead of showing you a new recipe, I’m playing along with a project started by The Shortbread, whose aim is to host food conversations among people who are not food writers.  Mind you, The Shortbread has not asked me to respond to its questionnaire, but when someone publicly starts a culinary discussion, I can’t help but respond.  Let’s go!

Name: Jesi Dunaway Nishibun

Date / Time / Your location: December 9, 2014; 9:22pm; the right side of a red couch in my apartment in Allston, MA

What is the last thing you ate? A heaping bowl of spaghetti and meatballs, which Alex made for me. 

What is the most interesting item in your fridge or freezer right now? Probably the most interesting thing is the vast quantity of condiment jars, but if I had to pick a single item, I’d probably choose a jar of everything bagel mustard, aptly titled Deli Dirt, from Green Mountain Mustard.

Tell me about a food that evokes nostalgia for a certain time or place for you. Thick-sliced, garden-fresh summer tomatoes sprinkled with salt and pepper will always and forever remind me of my Grandmother’s kitchen table.

Talk about your favorite restaurant in your home town. Eating out is practically a sport in Dothan, Alabama, but the majority of our restaurants are chains.  My family and I used to joke (in a “just kidding… but seriously” kind of way) that it was a waste of time to eat out, since we ate so well at home.  However, my favorite restaurant for a long time was River Nile, a very cutesy sandwich shop/bakery/coffee house that started out in an adorably rustic space in our tiny downtown.  I loved River Nile so much that I worked for them between my sophomore and junior years of college (at that time, they were housed in a building right next door to my dad’s workplace, so I got to see him fairly often); since my turf, the hostess stand, was right beside the bakery case, I got to eat all the raspberry-white chocolate scones that “accidentally” broke.  I’m having a hard time figuring out whether they’re still in business.

What is the best meal you’ve had while traveling? A few years ago, Alex spent a summer in Portland, Maine, singing with a young artist program.  When I went to visit, he took me to Emilitsa, an upscale Greek restaurant, where I had a meal I still dream about. It started with a plate of housemade hummus (usually I can take or leave hummus, but this was incredible), which was followed by the best lamb I’ve ever tasted.  But the coup de grâce was a cheesecake made from sheep’s milk yogurt, topped with cherry compote and a sheet of doily-like crystallized sugar.  Actually, can we go there right now?

What is your favorite item in your kitchen – this could be a cooking tool or something entirely non-food related. Probably my stack of mismatched salad plates.

What is your favorite image of food from a movie or book? Without question: the scene from Hook in which Peter finally plays make-believe with the lost boys.  While they scarf down an invisible feast, Peter scoops up a wad of imaginary food and flicks it at Rufio, and suddenly the table is filled with beautiful, delicious food.  I remember being simultaneously disgusted and intrigued by all the bowls of rainbow colored goop.

Describe your ideal sandwich. The Farmer’s Lunch from City Feed in Jamaica Plain: a baguette stuffed with mayo, whole-grain mustard, pickled green tomato, Granny Smith apple slices, sharp cheddar, and red romaine.

What makes for great barbecue?  It’s probably blasphemous to ignore the meat entirely, but for me, it’s all about perfect baked beans– with ample quantities of brown sugar and molasses.

What do you like to eat when the weather is hottest? Joe’s carnitas and sangria.

What do you like to eat when it is freezing cold outside? A big bowl of tomato soup and a simple salad with Dijon vinaigrette, both topped with homemade croutons.

What can you cook really well? How did you learn this dish? Describe the process. I can make a delicious, velvety butternut squash, sweet potato, and/or carrot soup with my eyes closed.  I learned it because I was trying to replicate a restaurant favorite, and I made it over and over and over in my first apartment in Jamaica Plain, often making use of whatever ingredients I happened to have on hand.

What would you like to be able to cook well? Meat.  My current title is “queen of the sides,” which suits me fine, but I’d love to be able to turn out a great steak, too.

What is the best meal you’ve eaten for under five dollars? A pork bahn mi with sliced jalapeños from New Saigon Sandwich in Boston’s Chinatown.

What has been your most satisfying food splurge? Room service breakfast on the first morning of my honeymoon with Alex.  It wasn’t so much the price of the food that made it a splurge, but the sheer decadence of having food delivered right to our door, which we then ate in our bathrobes.

Tell me about an experience or person that has changed or inspired the way you eat. He’d probably be surprised to hear this, since I don’t think he considers himself much of a food person, but I’d have to name Alex.  He introduced me to Korean, Vietnamese, and German fare; he instilled in me a love for burritos that continues to this day; and he taught me not to be afraid of cooking meat until it’s super browned (before he came along, I was so afraid of burning food– and setting off the smoke alarm–that everything came out of my pan looking pale and flabby).

A food ethic is a set of values and principles that guide the choices you make about what to eat. Describe your personal food ethic. I’ll offer two thoughts: 1) When guests show up at your house, feed them, whether you expected them or not. 2) To paraphrase from the legendary Cajun chef, Justin Wilson: “What wine should you drink with this?  Whichever one you like.”

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