Tag Archives: friends

Little Gifts: Bourbon-Chipotle Caramel Corn

Sometimes, when it is the holiday season and you have pulled yourself out of bed in the wee hours to watch the earth shift in front of the moon on the solstice for the first time in 372 years, when you’ve stood on your stoop at 3 in the morning with the wind howling and the streets empty and otherwise quiet around you, face to face with the amber moon, when you’ve returned to bed and slept snugly only to rise for weekday brunch, a luxury in and of itself, made even better by lingering for hours around a small table with friends who were barely in your life a mere year ago, when it is the solstice and the sun seems to shine extra brightly to make up for it being the very shortest day, when all these things are part of your winter, sometimes it is nice to bring a little gifty to that weekday brunch to celebrate the season.

While your circumstances may be slightly different, I wish you many reasons for celebration this winter, opportunities that call for something small and homemade to share with others. There is a chance that you simply do not feel like making cookies, but want to whip up  a little something to give away. That’s the boat I was in last night. I had made some caramel corn a couple of weeks back, and, while it was very tasty and swiftly consumed and likened to crack in its addictiveness, a little voice in my head refused to shut up about making caramel corn again, but next time adding a little chipotle. I decided to give it a whirl. Once I got cooking, I realized I was a little short on corn syrup, and I decided that bourbon would be a great way to compensate. Don’t question my logic, people — the addition of whiskey yielded very decadent results, and you will want to eat it up.

Recipe: Bourbon-Chipotle Caramel Corn

What Goes In:

  • 1 cup unpopped popcorn
  • nuts (optional)
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 stick unsalted butter
  • 2-3 chipotle peppers in adobo
  • 1/4 cup corn syrup
  • 1/3 cup bourbon
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. vanilla

How To Do It:

  • Pre-heat oven to 250°F and line your biggest baking sheet with parchment.
  • Pop your popcorn however you like and pile it on the pan (I popped mine on the stove in two batches). Add nuts if you like — I used about a half cup of sliced almonds and half cup of peanuts.
  • Melt brown sugar, corn syrup, and bourbon together in a large sauce pan, larger than you think you need, because this stuff is both sticky and bubbly. Let it bubble away on medium heat for five minutes or so.
  • Combine butter and chipotles in a food processor until smooth. Or just blend up your chipotles. I really only combined them because my food processor is too big to fully blend up a couple of small peppers on their own.
  • Add chipotle butter and salt to your bubbly caramel mix. Stir well and cook together for another few minutes (clearly, this is a very scientific process).
  • Turn off heat. Add your baking soda. Stir rapidly. It will foam up a bunch and get lighter in color and thick. Stir in vanilla, too, and quickly pour over popcorn. Stir the sauce into popcorn as well as you can. I like to use a silicone spatula for this — it is good for the stickies.
  • Bake for about an hour, stirring every 15 to 20 minutes to ensure even distribution of caramel and to prevent popcorn from burning.
  • Remove from oven and let cool completely. I left mine out overnight.

The caramel might still be a little on the soft side when you take it out of the oven, but it will crisp up as it cools. Once cool, tumble it into cellophane bags and add adorable gift tags (mine, shown here, are courtesy of the ridiculously sweet Eat, Drink, Chic). Embellish with ribbons, tulle, love letters, whatever your heart desires, and share.

Happy Holidays, and Happy Gifting!

How to Celebrate a Sunday Birthday

Thursday: Wear a fascinator to work and tell everyone that your birthday is coming. Feel childish in your excitement. Run with it.

Friday: Reflection, Kirtan, Goose Island Bourbon County Stout.

Saturday: Clean your apartment. Bask in the open space of your bedroom where, mere days ago, summer’s window AC units had been stacked, staring you down with their large-scale clutter. Go to the market. Cook food. Have people over, make punch, laugh a lot, adore whatever family and friends are around you. Soak in the celebration even if you have a little tummy ache.

It was a mellow party, a nice party, and it ended early enough for Shawn and me to do some cleaning so we weren’t faced with a mess this morning, music still playing, early enough to slow dance in the living room in a pretty dress and sock monkey slippers and new birthday earrings in the wee hours of the real birthday day, when the guests had all left or gone to sleep. What could be better than that?

Sunday: Birthday! Wake up to your little sister and her adorable boyfriend cooking eggs in your kitchen. Feel your heart swell even as you decide to keep your eyes closed a little longer, listening to the clatter of pans and coffee mugs in the next room. Talk on the phone more than usual. Open presents. Post a recipe from your birthday party that was requested last year, made this year, too, requested again.

Squash Lasagna

What Goes In:

  • 4 pounds or so winter squash (a couple medium butternuts or comparable amount other squash)
  • 6 Tbsp. butter (yep, lots of butter)
  • small handful sage, chopped
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 4 cups milk
  • freshly grated nutmeg, salt, pepper
  • 8 oz. or so gruyère, grated
  • 1 box oven-ready lasagna noodles

How to Do It:

  • Prepare squash: Cut in half, scoop out seeds, roast until soft, then scoop flesh into a big bowl.
  • Brown 2 Tbsp. butter in a pan. When the butter turns light brown and smells nutty, remove from heat, toss in sage, and mash into squash with some salt and pepper.
  • Make bechamel: melt remaining 4 Tbsp. butter, whisk in flour, slowly add milk, stirring lots to avoid lumps. Add some salt and pepper and a little nutmeg. Stir and cook until it’s thick.
  • Assemble lasagna: Put a cup of bechamel in the bottom of a pan. Layer uncooked lasagna noodles, bechamel, cheese, and squash. I had 4 layers, ending with bechamel only, with some leftover cheese.
  • Cover with foil, bake for half an hour or so at 35o. Remove foil, sprinkle on the rest of the cheese, cook until cheese is melted and browning just a little. Probably around 15 minutes.

If you are, say, making kale chips and decide to crank the heat to 400 instead of 350, you will most likely end up with a burned, crispy layer at the bottom of the pan. Some of your friends will claim that that’s the best part. Others will push it to the side but still ask for the recipe. Having done this two years in a row, I recommend just remembering to keep the heat on the lower side.

Enjoy your lasagna, friends! I am off to enjoy a walk on a gray day, tasty dinner cooked by a professional, and yet more good cheer.

Year End Love

Last year, I posted a list of resolutions around this time: things to make, things to do, things, things, things.

Well, I still don’t have a cheese press, and I haven’t made soap from scratch with fats and lye, and I might even have to throw away a vegetable or two from the fridge today because I didn’t use them before they got funky, and I still don’t compost here in my city apartment with no outdoor space, though I did reach out to some local gardens and urban farms about taking in my scraps this year, so progress, right?

Last year, at my birthday time, the resolutions felt a little manic. It had been such a difficult year, a time of huge transition, trying changes, and all I wanted was to shed old skin, enter a new decade, be OK, and breathe. Being creative, writing down creative goals, was a way to celebrate that inner spark, to push it out to the surface a bit.

At a meeting the other day with some new ladies in my life, we talked about intention. Among many other things, we talked about what we thought intention was, how it differed from goals. I said I thought that goals were something that you work toward, and that intention was living in the work. This was a work meeting, mind you, and there is a chance this comment had more relevance in context, but I am always big on reflection around the time of my birthday, which comes just before the end of the calendar year. And it feels good to look back at that list of goals, things to do, and to realize that I’m not at all sorry about the things I planned to but did not create.

The desire to be creative, the intention set to make myself and others happy, the year of living inside my values, well these are just the best things that I could hope to have. Looking back and looking forward, I can say that the things I wanted most out of my thirtieth year have come my way: opening and settling, calming and centering. Breathing. I love the new shelves in our spare room. I love that there are shiny jars on these shelves, summer’s bounty preserved, labors of love to be given and shared this holiday season. But these things don’t compare to the comfort I feel in my own skin, newfound and gracious, as I enter this next year.

Tomorrow I will walk to the Grand Army farmer’s market in the hat a dear friend made by hand this time last year, chat with people who work the land around here, tote home bags full of vegetables, early winter harvest. Tomorrow I will cook for friends, break out some liqueur from the workshop party, celebrate the year that’s just passed and the new one coming the best way I know how.

As the air gets cold and the winds turn bitter and as 2010 ticks into 2011, I wish you, nice readers, much coziness, much love. I wish gifts for you this holiday season, woolly hats and shiny jars changing hands, but mostly I wish you a cozy home, comfort in your skin, ease of breathing, ease of love. Thank you for being a part of this last year and all its wonders. I am wishing you the best in all that comes next.

Back to the City

The fourth of July was wonderful again this year: perfect days in Vermont, green grass, loved ones, cooking on campfire, dappled sunlight by the brook, and the coldest, clearest water.

I will catch up soon on kitchen projects, CSA plans. The fruit share started this week. It wasn’t supposed to start until next week, but the weather has been in the triple digits, and even peaches were plump and ready in early July, and we received a satisfying, handled bag of them with our share last night, accompanied by some wonderful berries, balms to sooth the re-entry, the easing back from three perfect days into heatwave, city grit, the grind of non-vacation life.

I will catch up on these things soon, for sure. In the meantime, I am savoring the peace still lingering from those recent, perfect days, celebrating summer and the glow of recent memories.



Faux Holiday, Real Thanks

Last year, Shawn and I hosted our first faux Thanksgiving. We had hosted the real deal the year before, and it had felt a little like playing house in the best of ways, card tables set up in our living room (we are lacking a dining room) with my family piled around, and, as much as I loved going home to Momma’s last Thanksgiving, I missed the opportunity to cook and cook in my own kitchen, a slightly different ambition. And, while my Momma’s vegetarian Thanksgiving is inarguably the best vegetarian Thanksgiving around, cooking in our own little home provided an opportunity for some slight menu variations incorporating some of Shawn’s favorite things ever: a slightly adapted version of Bryanna’s fake turkey and stuffing.

Late last February, in the dark and dragging days of winter, some friends came over to feast. One friend who was in the same boat as me (having hosted the previous year, missing cooking) cooked a duck for the meat eaters. Another brought an amazing carrot soufflé. I cooked all our favorite Thanksgiving things, and we all drank wine, and there was much merriment. It was great to have the opportunity to cook and to give thanks with friends in a family-style setting, especially in those short days when winter had just about worn out its welcome. I promised Shawn we would do it this year, too.

Spring came early this year, then disappeared, then experienced a resurgence. The strongest effect of the earliest sunshiney days on me, personally, is that I found myself practically skipping off to the farmer’s market every week, eager to behold the springy delights that had surely sprung up into these warm days, ultimately crushed to find only last season’s overwintered apples kicking around. This weather has stirred a deep, almost crazy-making asparagus craving in me, and, while I would have preferred lemony roasted asparagus to sagey roasted carrots (I would prefer lemony roasted asparagus to pretty much anything these days), there was none, and this year’s faux Thanksgiving took on another level of meaning: celebrating overwintered (and the non-local, shipped up variety that I try to avoid) vegetables, autumnal bounty carrying us into these early days of spring.

Here is what we made:

  • Mustardy cheddar gougeres
  • Green salad with pecans, market apples, and blue cheese
  • Garlic mashed potatoes
  • Momma’s mushroom gravy (the best chunky veggie gravy ever — a recipe will appear here one of these days)
  • Fake turkey (but with more flavor, done up in the slow-cooker)
  • Roasted carrots, celery, pearl onions
  • Cornbread stuffing (recipe to follow)
  • Sweet potato pie
  • St. Louis gooey butter cake (So! Much! Butter!!)

It was one of my favorite parties in recent memory, due largely to the fact that, finding myself slightly overwhelmed with cooking tasks and suspecting that I had bitten off more than I could chew a few hours before party time, I was able to successfully remind myself that only my friends would be coming, that I love cooking with my friends, that none of the lovely people slated to arrive would take issue with having a drink and standing, chatting, at the kitchen island while I scurried around. This is surely true of all our parties, but letting that realization sink in made the day of preparation and the party that followed exponentially more joyful for me.

Friends came bearing plants that brought wonderful, springy smells into our home. They mixed drinks, scooped gougeres, chopped mushrooms (thanks, Gary), told stories, ate and ate, paid compliments, and, at the end of the night, Shawn and Gary somehow managed to clean every last dish, pot, and pan that had been used, thus marking the first time in my adult life that I have hosted a party and woken up to a spic and span apartment the next day. I cannot overstate how wonderful it was to see that stove top gleaming in the morning sun, all that clear counter space. And thus, for the second year running, faux Thanksgiving provided many small opportunities for gratitude. In these early spring days, I am grateful for fall foods, dear friends, clean dishes, and the chance to create tradition and celebration at any time of year.

I am also extremely grateful that, in the week  and a half following faux Thanksgiving, I have attended a barbecue, eaten ramps, visited flowering trees at the botanical gardens, and taken many a long and breezy stroll. Spring is springing, the CSA is starting soon, and fresh asparagus is right around the corner!

Chocolate Raspberry Sticky Buns: A Sweet and Gooey Outpouring on Valentine’s Day

Valentine from my little brother, circa age 8

I love Valentine’s Day! For those of you who’d care to point fingers at my relationship and claim that this is not a day for those not in one (you know who you are), I would like to point out that I have ALWAYS loved Valentine’s Day. Due to faulty timing and a lack of long-term relationships, I never even had a romantic Valentine before Shawn, but I never felt the scrambling pressure to get myself one, always enjoyed the opportunity to sit back and celebrate love. Emotional creature that I am, I love any opportunity for the kind of outpouring that takes place on Valentine’s Day — whether it begins in a deeply romantic or a Hallmark-forced place, efforts are made, celebration is had, love abounds, and I think it’s freakin’ awesome.

I suppose it started when I was little and my momma would make us egg in a hole for breakfast on Valentine’s Day, using a heart-shaped cookie cutter to remove the middle of the bread, frying a heart-shaped egg inside, its heart-shaped center fried in butter alongside. Momma gave us little gifts. We exchanged cards in school. There were chocolates and conversation hearts. (Incidentally, this is where I learned the word “coax” at an early age. I still think “coax me” is a weird thing for a conversation heart to say, intermingled with far more straightforward messages of cheesy affection.)  A holiday of hearts and sugar — what could be better to a girlie girl child like me?

My love for Valentine’s Day even survived high school, when surliness ran rampant and I never had a date, though I had terrific friends. One Valentine’s Day at the height of my high school orneriness, one of the best girls I know got a smidge carried away with the making of Valentines, presented me with a poster-sized collage and ode to me as well as a big old bunch of roses. When I got home, my momma asked me where the flowers came from in that “who’s the special someone” voice that mommas save for occasions such as this. Experiencing a fleeting moment of shame about not dating anyone, I mumbled, “just Lauren,” my tone conveying that there was no special someone in my life. Fortunately, I got my wits about me right away and added “I guess I shouldn’t use the word ‘just’ if I’m lucky enough to have friends who will buy me flowers.” Duh. I was flung back, headlong, into my old-timey Valentine’s Day love of love. Apparently, as surly and jaded as I was in those years with my head-to-toe blue and my bitter and biting jokes, I had friends who knew that I was, at the center, still gooey and sweet. Thanks, my dears, for helping me tap into that even in the grumpiest, bluest years. I carry that thought with me on Valentine’s Day, that we are lovable even not at our best., that this is a day for everyone.

I have loved Valentine’s dates with friends, loved making cards, sipping drinks, taking walks, smiling at those in love. And I have loved Valentine’s Day with my boyfriend, five of them now, my beloved dirty gin martinis and dinner at the same cozy restaurant every year, sometimes flowers, sometimes gifts. We’re low on funds this year, so forgoing those things, but we’ll still have our dinner, a walk in the sun, full hearts.

I hope that, honey or no honey, you are able to pamper yourself today. Keep an eye out for the starry-eyed lovers, the friends commiserating over drinks and, in so doing, celebrating love in their own (hidden and potentially embittered) way. Keep an eye out for children bearing paper hearts, for those feeling loneliness on this day, for hearts on sleeves however those hearts are looking. Put some love out, some kindness, too, if you can. If you are home on this winter day, and especially if you are broke like me, whip yourself up something special — something as simple as heart-shaped toast or something as gooey, sticky, and decadently messy as these things that I have concocted.

They are raspberry chocolate sticky buns, and I dreamed them up last night, wandering the aisles of Super Foodtown, trying to come up with something special for my special guy that would not break the bank. Here’s how to make them.

Raspberry Chocolate Sticky Buns – Ingredients:

  • Your favorite cinnamon roll dough (mine is from Cook’s Illustrated, but yours could be from a can for all I care)
  • 3/4 cups white sugar
  • 2 Tbsp. molasses (or omit the molasses and simply use brown sugar instead of white)
  • zest of one small orange
  • 1/2 tsp. vanilla
  • 1/4 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp. ground ginger
  • 1 cup raspberries (I used thawed frozen berries, which made it all pretty jammy. Fresh would be awesome)
  • 4 oz. or so dark chocolate, broken into chunks
  • icing

As always, quantities are approximate. The orange zest and little bit of vanilla and spices give the filling an almost flowery taste that is really nice with the raspberries. If you’re not a big chocolate fan, I imagine that upping the spices a bit (maybe some cardamom, too!) and swapping the chocolate out for white chocolate would also be delicious.

How To:

  1. Roll dough into a rectangle, approximately 12″ x 16″
  2. Combine sugar, molasses, orange zest, vanilla, cinnamon, ginger, and a dash of salt in a food processor. Or mash them together in a bowl with a fork.
  3. If using frozen raspberries, stir them in.
  4. Spread filling onto dough, leaving a border along the long edges of about an inch.
  5. Sprinkle chunks of chocolate over filling. If using fresh raspberries, dot them over the filling now.
  6. Carefully Roll up along the long edge. If using frozen berries, this will be rather oozy.
  7. Cut into 12 equal pieces and put them, cut-side up, in a buttered 9″ x 13″ pan. I lined mine with parchment paper.
  8. Let rise for an hour or so, then bake at 350 degrees for half an hour, noting that your house smells amazing.
  9. Make some icing. A little cream cheese would be awesome, but I didn’t have any. Mine is made of raspberry juice (drained from my thawing berries), a little yogurt, vanilla, and powdered sugar. It sounds weird, but it’s not — I promise.
  10. Ice your rolls, remove them to a pretty plate, think how nice it is to have such an impossibly sticky and decadent treat for breakfast, and have a happy, sappy Valentine’s Day.

I ♥ Squash Soup

Last Saturday was National Soup Swap Day. I intend to swap some soup myself, though scheduling did not permit that on Soup Swap Day. I will be showing up at a friend’s house next weekend with four quarts of frozen soup (a lot of people do six, but this seemed excessive given the prevalence of small kitchens here in NYC), prepared to snack and chat and bring home four quarts of soups made by friends. I haven’t swapped soup in this fashion before, but it seems like a nice way to add variety to holed up winter nights, to extend the tradition of sharing food beyond the one-night potluck.

I have been mulling over what soup to make. I’ve been eating lots of bean soups lately, hearty and full of protein and fiber. I made a big pot of tomato leek soup earlier this week that would probably freeze just fine. Lentils are great, and split peas, too, but my mind keeps coming back to squash soup. My decade(-plus)-long obsession with this soup has led some friends to think of me at the sight of butternut squash in the past, a fact that warms my heart more than the most heartfelt and deliberate compliments.

As with most obsessions, there is a story behind this soup. It is this: I took a year off between high school and college, and I spent a little bit of time in England. While there, I volunteered for a short time at a community arts center called the Great George’s Project in Liverpool, also known as the Blackie (so called because the building in which it was housed was once covered by decades of soot and city grime — it was cleaned up by the time I arrived, but the name had stuck). At that time, life at the Blackie was very communal. Staff and volunteers lived in one of two old houses up the road, chipped in for groceries and took turns shopping, and we shared dinners in the old chapel building in which we all worked. We also took turns cooking.

For someone who has always taken pride in her food, cooking duty was far more anxiety-producing than you would think. For starters, I was not accustomed to cooking for large groups of people. In addition, we received weekly produce deliveries, and we had to work with what was on hand. While this type of challenge now thrills me to no end, I found it a bit off-putting when fresh out of high school, thousands of miles from home, cooking in a drafty old building on a stove that needed to be lit in the most dangerous-seeming way I could fathom. Peering into the vegetable box toward the end of the food-delivery week and finding a handful of parsnips and two sad eggplants and knowing they had to feed twenty people or so was not at all inspiring.

In addition, and in keeping with the community-minded approach at the Blackie, meals were to be designed with everyone’s dietary requirements in mind. Again, I love this kind of challenge in this day and age, and I appreciate the goal of inclusiveness, but it was difficult for many of us at that time to create large meals that were free of all yeasted products, mushrooms, dairy, eggs, any and all animal products, etc. Surely I am forgetting some additional allergy. Wheat? Some other grain? We weren’t really supposed to use tomatoes, but that was more a strong preference of one of the founders than a strict allergy. Add in the facts that we had an extremely limited spice cabinet, that we all took turns cooking, and that some staffers had little to no interest in food, and we wound up with many uninspired and far from delicious meals.

The dinners that were truly good shone like little diamonds in the rough. One time, Kelly cobbled together a vegan, allergen-free toad in the hole that excited one and all. Occasionally, someone would roast parsnips to sweet, spicy perfection. And a couple of times, Jennifer poured coconut milk and ground black pepper into a pot with onions and tomato. A separate pot alongside for those who did not eat tomatoes contained onions and coconut and squash. It was simple, delicious despite its lack of fancy spices, and I loved pouring the two soupy stews together over rice, savoring the richness of the coconut milk, brightness of tomatoes, creamy sweetness of chunks of squash. An obsession was born.

I know now that the combination of coconut milk and winter squash is not particularly rare, but, when worked into night after night of drab and burned-around-the-edges meals, each of those nights following a morning of tea and toast with jam and cheese (one slice of toast with cheese, the other with jam, still one of my favorite breakfasts), a day of cup after cup of sweet, milky tea, the squash and tomato stew stood out as rich and decadent while still altogether nourishing, and I loved it.

Jennifer’s simple, separate stews have evolved over the years, in various kitchens that I have inhabited, into one big pot of gingery, squashy, tomato-y, coconutty goodness. Sometimes there are other spices. Sometimes it is smooth, other times chunky, most frequently somewhere in between. I have cooked this soup since I was eighteen, for college friends in my momma’s house, for a whole floor of girls in the dorm when I was back in England, for boyfriends, family, childhood friends. I think this is the soup to make this week, four quarts to freeze and some extra to savor on cold winter days, rich and wholesome all at once.

Awesome Squash Soup: Ingredients

  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1-2 Tbsp. vegetable oil (I usually use olive oil, but I suspect toasted sesame would be even better)
  • 1 large butternut squash (or equivalent quantity of your favorite winter squash), peeled, seeded, cut into cubes
  • 1 big can diced tomatoes (or crushed or whole – whatever)
  • 1-2 cans coconut milk
  • an inch or so of fresh ginger, finely grated
  • garlic (I use lots – probably 4 or 5 cloves, but you could do less or omit if desired)
  • vegetable broth
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • extra spices as desired (a simple dash of curry powder is nice and warming, a sprinkle of cayenne brings some heat)
  • fresh limes

Please note that these quantities are approximate. If you’re not typically a big experimenter, make it without the addition of other spices and then taste it, see if you feel like stirring more in.

How to Make Awesome Squash Soup:

  1. Saute onions in vegetable oil over medium-low heat until translucent. Stir them so they don’t brown.
  2. Add garlic and ginger and cook for a couple minutes more.
  3. Add squash, tomatoes, coconut milk, and enough vegetable broth to cover the cubes of squash by an inch or two, and bring to a simmer. If you know that you want to add a dash of cayenne or curry powder, now is a good time.  Simmer until squash cubes are tender. You should be able to easily smash them against the side of the pot with a spoon.
  4. Mash to desired consistency. I used to use a potato masher to crush the cubes up a bit. I have also used an immersion blender, beating half the soup to smoothness and leaving some chunks. If you want a totally smooth soup, you can just throw it in the blender, but I think it’s best to leave a little texture in this soup.
  5. Taste it, add salt and pepper and any other spices you desire, and serve with a squeeze of fresh lime juice. A sprinkle of fresh cilantro would probably be good here, too.

This soup tends to thicken up if put in the fridge. I love leftovers spooned over brown rice and reheated just as much as I love this soup on its own, preferably ladled into a nice, deep bowl. Make some, eat some, be warm this winter.