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GRANOLA BARS

I’m in Chicago for the weekend.  It’s cold here, but not too cold, grey and foggy instead of sunny, and I’m here because my friend Katie texted me a few months ago and said “bitch, when are you coming to visit me?”  Yes, I believe those were her exact words.

Katie and I first met as high schoolers at a school program called Close Up in Washington, D.C.  She was there from Michigan, me from Tennessee.  We started talking the first night in the lobby of the hotel where our groups were staying, and she wound up loaning me her giant CD collection and trying to explain that strange Yankee card game, Euchre.  The next day, we sat next to each other on the bus, and by the end of the five-day trip, she handed me a postcard with the Jefferson Memorial (her favorite) on the front and a note that included “I love you” on the back.

We are really such unlikely friends; I was the geekiest sixteen-year-old known to man, she was loud, sarcastic, a partier, the center of social attention.  For the longest time I was convinced that she was actually too cool to be friends with me and eventually she would figure that out and ditch our long-distance correspondence.  But the thing about Katie is that there are so many layers to her brash persona: fierce loyalty to family and friends, voracious reading habits, impatience for all things superficial, and her boundless generosity.

I like to think that I was able to see those things back then, when others couldn’t, or didn’t, and that she saw me—the, as it turns out, a little brash and mouthy and daring myself—underneath the suiting of a hopelessly self-conscious and sheltered sophomore. Katie wasted no time drawing me out of my shell.  She’s my delightfully corrupting influence. When Katie’s mom heard that I was coming to visit this weekend, she told her daughter, “Could you please not dye or tattoo or pierce anything this time around?”

This week marks our eleven-year friend-versary—in that time, we’ve probably spent less than two months in the other’s actual physical company.  But space and time don’t seem to matter for us; no matter how long it’s been, we always just pick right up where we left off.

HOMEMADE GRANOLA BARS


If historical trends are any indication, I’ll need to compensate for questionably healthy eating choices after spending a weekend with Katie.  Oh, yep, in fact, she’s banging around the kitchen right now, making pancakes.  Granola bars + serious gym time are going to be in order.

The folks at Superior Nuts were kind enough to send me some of their beautifully packaged sliced almonds and jumbo apricots, so I used them, but you could substitute any kind of nut or dried fruit.  I’m convinced that adding flavorings like cinnamon and nutmeg go a long way to putting these granola bars in a different stratosphere than the cardboard-replica-versions you so often find.
ingredients:

2 cups old-fashioned oats
1 cup sliced almonds
1 cup shredded, unsweetened coconut*
¼ cup golden flax meal
¼ cup wheat germ

*If you use sweetened, omit the brown sugar below.

oven: 350˚

Stir all ingredients together in a large bowl.  Spread out on two foil-lined baking sheets.  Toast for 10-15 minutes, stirring at least once, until the mixture has been lightly browned.

Return to the bowl and stir in:

1 cup dried fruit, chopped
½ tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. nutmeg
pinch of salt

For the wet ingredients, whisk the following together in a small saucepan over low heat:

½ cup honey
3 T butter
3 T brown sugar (optional)
1 tsp. vanilla

Pour the mixture into the bowl and stir to combine.  Be sure that all of the dry ingredients are well coated.  For thicker granola bars, use a square pan.  Thinner, a rectangle.  Line your pan of choice with parchment paper.

Drop the oven temperature down to 325˚.

Press the granola mixture into the pan, using your fingers to get an even layer and pressing down hard.  Use the back of a metal bowl or small water glass to smooth out the top.

Bake the bars for 10 minutes, just to help them harden.  Cool thoroughly (at least two hours) before lifting the parchment-lined bars out of the pan.  Cut into desired size using a sawing motion with a sharp serrated knife.  Store in an airtight container for up to a week.

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GREG’S BROWNIES

I know it’s fashionable to berate Valentine’s Day as an over commercialized trainwreck, but you know what?  I kind of like it.  Though I’m lucky enough to have someone I love to share it with (and believe me, I know that helps), what I really like about the holiday, despite it being a shallow capitalist ploy to get us all to buy crappy candy & cheesy cards, is that it puts love on the calendar.

Granted, most of what our culture has to say about love is sad, scary, dangerous crap (hello, song lyrics & “romantic” comedies)—but does that mean love has to become a bad word? I hope not, because that thing called love keeps blowing me away.  Real love, that genuine, below-the-surface, heart-full-to-bursting stuff, is the most extraordinary thing I think we, as human beings, get to experience.

Here’s what I love about love: it’s the best teacher I’ve ever had.  Just when I have stuffed world back into its custom-sized box, contained and understood, safely put away where I might observe and manipulate it…love reminds me that there are approximately 8 zillion things possible in this life of which I can barely even conceive.

Each time I get to a place where I think I know love’s dimension, understand the various ways it can work, can drive people mad, can knock us on our asses and humble us and transport and expand…then suddenly, a whole new layer unfolds and I’m stunned all over again.

Love is the one thing that will actually push me to be the person I want to be.  My love for Jill has forced me to expand, to be so, so much bigger and calmer and compassionate than I ever was before I met her.  My love for my mother has brought me to moments of unselfishness and grace that fly in the face of my barest, basest self.

These brownies are named for a man I hardly know.  Greg and his wife Sharon are friends I made via Twitter, if you can believe it, and whom I have grown to love in a way that really doesn’t make sense.  Sometimes it works that way, mysteriously.

Loving someone else takes the much-too-bright shine off of our own imperfect lives for a little while.  I’ve baked these brownies for Greg twice—once on his birthday, once following his mother’s death—and both times, the gesture usurped and created a level of intimacy beyond what we had established at that point.

So now, every time I make brownies, I think of Greg.  Whether I’m making them for their namesake, or to go into a care package for Dave’s family, or for my colleague Steve (with leftover dulce de leche swirled in), or to finish off a dinner party for Jill’s visiting friend, my circle of concern grows in the process and, for a while, it isn’t all about me.  When I throw myself into a bowl of puddled chocolate and butter, when I will myself towards care and comfort with every spatula turn, then I’m a little bit closer to mirroring love and its infinity inside myself.


GREG’S BROWNIES

The key to great brownies is great chocolate.  Personally, I have become obsessed with Callebaut, which I am lucky enough to be able to buy in bulk at a few different specialty grocers here in town.  I can’t say enough good things about springing for fancy baking chocolate, especially if you’re able to find it in large blocks like the ones pictured here.  The price-per-ounce winds up being MUCH cheaper than purchasing chocolate in chip or bar form.  And as long as you keep any leftover chocolate wrapped in plastic & tucked into a cool, dark pantry, you’ll be able to keep it on hand for months.  Please do not put it in the refrigerator!

You can also order lots of great chocolate online—given how cold it is in most parts of the world right now, you won’t have to worry about it melting.  However, if you’re in a rush or just aren’t up to my level of chocolate-obsession, buy some Ghirardelli at the very least.  Nearly all grocery stores now carry it, and I cross-my-heart swear you’ll never go back to generic chocolate again.

This recipe is my fail-safe, with the coffee & vanilla flavors nicely highlighting the chocolate-y-ness of the chocolate (yes, that’s a technical term) and the chili powder adding just a little something extra.  You can obviously switch in other flavorings, like orange or almond, and leave out the chili if it makes you nervous.

As for texture, I’ve gotta have nuts.  Walnuts are most traditional for brownies, though pecans work nicely, too.  Extra chocolate is never a bad thing in my book.  But you could also toss in toffee bits, coconut, white chocolate chunks, etc.

ingredients:

6 ½ oz. bittersweet chocolate, in chips or chopped finely
9 ½ T butter
1 T Kahlua (substitute cold coffee if you like)
1 tsp. vanilla
3 eggs
1 cup sugar, with 2 T removed
¾ cup flour
¼ tsp. ancho or regular chili powder (optional)
pinch of salt

add-ins:

½ cup chopped milk chocolate
½ cup chopped walnuts

oven: 350˚
pan: square baking pan (8 x 8 or 9 x 9)

First things first-line that baking pan with foil.  Using two sheets (one going in either direction, like a + sign,) be sure to leave plenty of overhang on either side.  Spray the inside of the foil with baking spray.

Melt the chocolate and butter together in a large bowl.  Personally, I like the convenience of the microwave—just work in thirty second increments, stirring regularly to prevent burning.  Of course, you can also use a more traditional double-boiler (a.k.a heatproof bowl set over gently simmering water).

Once the chocolate and butter are melted and mixed, stir in the Kahlua and vanilla.  Set aside to cool down a bit.

In a separate bowl, beat the eggs and sugar together vigorously.  Add to the chocolate mixture and mix thoroughly.  Sift in the flour and pinch of salt.  Toss in the chopped chocolate & walnuts, then fold all that goodness together.

Scrape the brownie batter into the foil-lined pan, then slide the pan into the oven.  You will need some toothpicks & also, some patience.  I recommend you begin toothpick-testing at minute 30, plunging a toothpick into the very middle of the brownie pan.

Since these are fudgy brownies, the toothpick doesn’t need to come back completely clean, but it shouldn’t be covered in batter, either.  Remember, be patient!   Depending on the temperament of your oven, the brownies will take 35-45 minutes.

Cool on a wire rack for at least ten minutes.  At this point, you can lift the brownies out, using the foil overhang, and cool them further.  I know it’s hard to resist, but they really are much easier to cut if you wait at least 20 minutes.  If you must dig in, however, who will blame you? Not I. And not Greg, I’d wager.

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ALMOND COCONUT BARS

[Inspired by this blog, which you ought to check out.  Rachael’s writing is addictive & she’s rather swell in person, too.]

This post is a little behind.

Normally, I post on Fridays.
But that was not to be this week.  The confluence of
end-of-the-semester business,
start-of-holiday-season events,
and the regular to-do list
did me in.

Of course, I recognize
that the problem
of not posting your blog
on the day to which you (and your readers)
are accustomed
is a first-world problem.

I think all of my problems
(if you can really call them that) fall
into that category.  I am committed
to being cognizant of that
as close to
all-of-the-time
as possible.

It’s easy to lose perspective in this mad-cap world.

My parents’ anniversary was also this week.  Or would have been.  Or something.
Verb tenses get so messed up
when someone dies.

December 8, 1967.
That was a long time ago.
My mom was twenty.
My dad was twenty-five.

They were little.  Younger than I am now
and so good-looking.

Weren’t they just?  If they don’t look
very excited to you,
there’s a good reason for that.

It was only the third time
they had ever met.
I know, right?
Arranged marriage & whatnot.

There’s actually a very fascinating
longer version
of the story
in which my mom
rejected some other dude

(and thank goodness she did, or
somebody we know
would not be sitting here right now)

but I am saving the longer version
of the story
for my book.
So you’ll just have to wait for it.

There are a lot of things
I miss about my dad.

The scariest thing about losing someone
when you least expected it
is that you live in fear
of forgetting
what they looked like
and smelled like
and the sound of their voice
saying your name.

Luckily I have that.
In a forty-second clip
from our trip to India
which we took
a month before he died.

Sometimes I just listen to it
over and over again
and cry.

And then I usually cook something—
(that’s my solution to every problem, really)
something he would like
something he would want to eat
something he would be proud of me making.

These almond-coconut bars were his favorite.
He had a knack
for waking up from his nap
(he used to take the most epic naps)
just as these suckers
were ready to come out of the oven.

He liked to eat things
PIPING
hot.  I don’t know how he did it.

I wish he were here
to sneak some now
and say, “Don’t tell your mother”
while winking conspiratorially.

I keep waiting
for him to show up
even though I know
he won’t.

ALMOND COCONUT BARS

1 ½ cup graham cracker crumbs*
1/3 cup butter, softened
2 T sugar

1 egg
¾ cup light brown sugar
½ cup shredded coconut (recipe calls for sweet, if substituting unsweetened, bump up the sugar)
½ cup chopped almonds
¼ cup flour
1 T. cream or milk
1 tsp. vanilla

pan: 9 inch square
oven: 400˚

Combine the first three ingredients to make the crust—press into the bottom of the pan and bake for 5 minutes.

While the crust is browning, beat the egg until foamy, then beat in the brown sugar.  Stir in the remaining ingredients and spread the mixture over the hot graham cracker layer.

Bake for 20-25 minutes, until the center is firm to the touch.  One caveat: check the bars at the 15 minute mark.  Because ovens vary so much, the tops of your bars may brown before baking time is up.  If that’s the case, simply cover the pan with foil for the remainder of baking.

* Yes, you can buy them pre-made but they vaguely resemble sawdust.  If you have a food processor, it couldn’t be easier to make your own crumbs.  Second easiest: sealable plastic bag, rolling pin, energetic child.

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FEELIN’ KINDA SNOW DAY: PECAN TASSIES

It snowed.  Squee!


Blame my students, who came to school restless as all get-out, with visions of snowmen dancing in their heads.   Poor kids, you’ve got to understand—those of you who live in a northerly direction and are laughing at my picture, saying “You call that snow?”—we don’t see much winter around these parts.  So, I really can’t blame them for being so hysterical today, even though I was a total meanie and made them discuss To Kill a Mockingbird anyway.  Snow or no snow, we’re still having a test next week, punks!

[I call them “punks.”  They feign offense.  It’s funny.]

Of course, once we dismissed school early and released the squirrely kiddos to their parents, I got kinda excited about the snow myself.  Quick trip to the grocery store, rescue of the last of the garden lettuce, generous scatter of birdseed, haul of wood pile hearth-side, & sweater on the very cute dog.

Now Rebecca is here now for a snow slumber-party; yes that Rebecca, my freshman college roommate whose late mother was the motivation behind my recent haircut.   There are few more valuable things in the world, I think, than the presence of a friend who knows pretty much everything about you and loves you for all of it, not in spite of it.

Rebecca has been my confidant and cheerleader through bad relationship choices, the inception of my writing career, the days I first fell in love with Jill, and other milestones I’m less than proud of.  We have shared Pop Tarts in early-morning freshman Psychology class, an unfortunate amount of cheap vodka (with cinnamon Altoid chasers) one night in San Antonio, the burden of grief, and ridiculous amounts of candy.  I can be more all-out goofy with her than I can with almost anyone else; I have never known her to judge.  She is hella-talented, fiercely loyal, and deeply invested in compassion.

Oh and the girl can eat.  I’m talking put-away-serious-quantities-of-food-eat.  I love that quality in a woman.

This is all very nice, Nishta, you say, and I’m happy to hear you’re having such a lovely evening, but where is mah RECIPE, Blue Jean Gourmet?

Don’t fret.  It’s here, I promise.  Well, not here, exactly, but close by.  The nice folks at The Superior Nut Store asked me to share a favorite nutty recipe to feature on their blog. The Pecan Tassies I chose originally hail from my family’s annual holiday cookie plate, and proved their magic once again as they disappeared within minutes when I took a batch to work.

Need other ideas for your holiday baking?  I’ll be posting more goodies in the next two weeks, but don’t forget about: lemon squares, caramel corn, Chex mix, or these molasses cookies.

Last but not least, we have a little news!  Eating Our Words, the food blog of the Houston Press, gave last week’s Mexican Rice & “Grad School” Black Beans post a very kind shout-out.  Thanks so much to them, and to you, for your readership.

Stay warm, punks!

FEELIN’ KINDA SUNDAY: VEENA’S CHEX MIX

Please forgive me for lapsing with my posts this week, but to make it up to you, I’m letting ya’ll in on a coveted family secret: the recipe for my mom’s incredibly addictive Chex Mix.

Often surfacing around the holidays, this stuff has long been a staple at holiday parties & in college care packages, one of the many things my mom makes which always forces the question, “Oh my god, did you put crack in this?”

I tried my hand at this goodness for the first time the other night and was pleased to find that I was able to replicate her magic pretty easily in my own kitchen.  In a few days, I get to see my mom, spend my twenty-seventh birthday with her and Jill, eat through Thanksgiving, even sleep late if I wish.

There are many, many things, both big and little, for which I am grateful, but today I’d like to acknowledge you, reader of this blog.  Little did I know when I launched this blog just over six months ago that I would “meet” so many kind and generous folks, that so many of you would be interested in what I have to say about food and living joyfully in the world, that many of you would be willing to share your stories, ideas, recipes, & genuine enthusiasm with me.

Thank you.  It has been, and continues to be, a privilege.

VEENA’S CHEX MIX

½ box each, corn & rice chex cereal

1 cup assorted nuts and/or pretzels

1 stick (½ cup) unsalted butter, melted

¼ cup Worcestershire sauce

1 T each: garlic powder, dried chives, & dried parsley

1 tsp. each, salt & black pepper

oven: 235°

In a large metal bowl, toss together the cereal, nuts, and/or pretzels.  In a separate and much smaller bowl, stir together the melted butter, Worcestershire, and spices.

Pour the butter mixture over the cereal, using a spatula to make sure all the pieces are evenly coated.  Bake the mixture in the bowl for an hour, stopping to stir every fifteen minutes.

After an hour, turn off the oven and let the mixture sit overnight.  Store the mixture in an airtight container—it will keep well for several weeks.

FEELIN’ KINDA SUNDAY: CARAMEL CORN

Various ways I know I got it right:

•    Jill goes back for seconds
•    My students pay attention
•    It smells the way my mom’s version does
•    Courtney says “oh yes MA’M!”
•    I have no trouble falling asleep
•    Someone asks “Did you put crack in this?”

caramel corn

I actually read a story some years ago about a restaurant in Japan; it had a cult following, lots of regulars, did fine business.  The thing was, no one could really articulate why the restaurant was so popular.  Was it their unique culinary offerings?  Homey atmosphere?  Friendly owners who knew your name & order as soon as you walked in the door?

Nah. It was liquid opium, trace amounts of which the kitchen laced into all of the food, as discovered by the Japanese health inspector.

There aren’t any illegal substances in this caramel corn but it’s so good you’d swear there were.  Make it for weekend munching, mail it to your favorite serviceman or woman, take it along to work as a sweet afternoon snack.  Be warned, though, if you should chose to share it, there won’t be any left for you.

CARAMEL CORN

What I especially like about this recipe is that the caramel isn’t fussy; no candy thermometer necessary here.  When the mixture starts to get dark, take it off the heat.  It’s really that simple!

8 cups plain popcorn*
1 cup mixed nuts (almonds, pecans, macadamias, peanuts, etc.)
1 cup sugar
2/3 cup butter
¼ cup clear Karo (corn) syrup
½ T vanilla
plan or sea salt

Combine popcorn & nuts in a large bowl (one that will clean easily).  Prepare two baking sheets by either greasing or lining with parchment.

Melt the butter, then add sugar and Karo syrup.  Stir regularly until the mixture comes to a boil.  Turn down the heat and watch the mixture, stirring occasionally until it takes on a caramel color (10-12 minutes).

Remove the caramel mixture from heat, then stir in the vanilla with a heat-proof spatula.  Pour the mixture into the bowl of popcorn & nuts, stirring vigorously until coated (much as you would when making Rice Krispie treats).

Spread the popcorn mixture onto the two baking sheets, then sprinkle generously with salt for a lovely flavor contrast.  Let  the corn harden before breaking into clumps.   Enjoy right away or store for up to a week in an airtight container.

*It’s not required to pop your own popcorn, but it’s so blazing easy, cheap, & delicious, shouldn’t you?

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FEELIN’ KINDA SUNDAY: MOLASSES COOKIES

It’s raining in Memphis, and I may have to make these cookies today.

molasses cookies stacked

Since I work in a Jewish school, today was a half-day for Rosh Hashanah (L’Shana Tovah, ya’ll!), which I decided to take all the way off so I could fly home for a few days. As many of you know, I spent most of the summer here with my mom, writing, blogging, eating her amazing food, and few weeks ago, I realized that I just couldn’t hold out until Thanksgiving to see her again. So here I am. This is a strictly “Mom-visit” weekend, which means I have kept my plans secret up until now so as to avoid the flurry-of-plan-making that inevitably occurs. There are many people I love here, many people I’d love to see, but Veena takes priority. With one exception: these boys.

boys

I’ve written previously about how my sense of family has much more to do with love, proximity, and knowing than about blood and marriage. That’s why I claim John and Henry, my dear friends Kate and Stephen’s twins, as mine even though I’m not related to them in any way, shape, or form. As John put it this summer, I’m their Nishta.

The story of how I came to be their Nishta has very much been on my mind of late. You see, Kate was my teacher in high school. She taught me World Religions as a junior, and my locker was fortuitously located across a narrow hallway from her office. I thought she was so, so cool and lovely and smart and kind and I did what some of my students do for me now, finding every possible reason to ask her a question, to linger after school, to bring her little gifts and notes and read the books that she suggested and work really hard in her class.

It’s a wonder to me, looking back on it, that I didn’t drive her totally nuts. Even more a wonder that we grew to be friends over time, via emails and letters and packages and long talks over chai. I got to know her husband Stephen, who is pretty fantastic in his own right; I got to play fairy godmother for one very magical summer, a role I reprise every time I’m in town. I cannot overestimate the space that her generosity takes up in the file cabinet of memories from that time of my life. Her attention and encouragement, which I know from experience require heaps of patience, gave me a great deal of space and comfort.

Kate can and should be credited with many things: planting the seed for me to be a Religious Studies major, dismantling my irrational fear of poetry, gifting me a first-edition Annie Dillard, and sending me off to college with the excellent advice: “Drink the beer while it’s still cold.” And so I show my gratefulness to the world by reversing the roles, sitting behind my desk while students fill my room after school, reaching out for handfuls of snacks, advice, hugs, love.

As for Kate, well, there’s really no way to adequately thank her and her family for allowing me so intimately into their lives. I mostly just show up with love, joy, and gratitude, as I will tonight when my mom and I go over for dinner. There will probably also be some molasses cookies in tow, and hopefully they will manage to say all of the things that language feels inadequate for.

molasses cookies with milk

MOLASSES COOKIES

These are taken from an NPR story my mom sent me years ago. I had been trying to perfect a recipe for molasses cookies, but quickly discarded my own efforts because this is really the only recipe you need. I’ve bumped up the spice quotient because, well, I’m brown. I like spice!

Plan ahead to make sure you’ll have adequate chilling time for the dough, which you can leave overnight if need be. Also be sure to watch the cookies carefully in the oven—they’ll still seem mushy to you when you take them out, but will firm up when cooling, leaving a perfectly chewy cookie behind. They won’t last long, I guar-an-tee.

ingredients: molasses cookies before baking

3/4 cup melted butter

1/4 cup molasses (grease your measuring cup with baking spray before pouring, it will save you clean-up trouble!)

1 egg

1 cup sugar, plus extra for dipping

2 cups flour

2 tsp. baking soda

1 ½ tsp. cinnamon

1 tsp. cloves

1 tsp. ground ginger

½ tsp. salt

Combine the melted butter, sugar, molasses and egg in a large bowl. Mix thoroughly before sifting the dry ingredients into the same bowl and mixing again. Chill dough at least two hours.

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 375°.

Shape dough into 1-inch balls, then roll them sugar. Place them on a greased cookie sheet VERY FAR APART—they will spread a lot! Flatten each one with a fork, making a cross-hatch pattern to encourage the cookies (can cookies be encouraged?) to promote even spreading.

Bake for 8-10 minutes until flat and dark brown. Cool on racks, as the cookies will be very delicate until they’ve cooled a bit. Perfect with a glass of milk or milk-substitute!

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