A humorous, optimistic blog about Food, Family, Friends and Faith

Archive for September, 2011

Time is Irrelevant

Last night I had dinner with three friends from high school. Just this year, we’ve gotten back in touch with each other, thanks to the miracle of Facebook. Last night was the first time we’ve all been together in over 30 years, and it was a night filled with delicious food, reminiscence and discovery. The years since high school ended evaporated, making me realize that time is irrelevant and the bond we created back then has transcended the three decades since graduation.

Jeannie told us about her botched neck surgery that still causes her serious pain. She is an incredibly resilient woman. Renee shared stories about her family and her pride was SO evident. Her empathy for those who are in pain puts me to shame. Eileen has an amazing sense of humor and kept us laughing with her occasional caustic observations. What a keen observer of life she is! I contributed a few tales of naughtiness in my youth. ‘Nuff said.

I love these women. There is something so grounding about reconnecting with people from my past, realizing that, through struggle and joy, we all grew through our awkward, often painful adolescence into strong women of character. We’ve all had difficult times, and have grown wiser and more interesting for having had them. We have kept our sense of humor, and even though we view the world now through somewhat jaded eyes, we all want to continue to learn and grow. We share a sense of empathy for each other’s struggles. It’s a relief to know that I have “sistas” in this world.

We talked last night about getting together every month to shoot the breeze and enjoy a meal. I hope that happens – I know there’s a lot I can learn from these three beautiful women, and I think I have some value to share with them as well.

Thomas Jefferson said, “Friendship is precious, not only in the shade, but in the sunshine of life, and thanks to a benevolent arrangement the greater part of life is sunshine.”

Last night that sunshine lit my way home. Today I awoke and it was still there. How truly blessed I am.

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A Controversial Subject

This morning is a glorious early Fall day in New York. The temperature is hovering around 70F, the sun is shining from a cloudless sky, the crickets have established a base of sound for the world, upon which sparrows, eagles, frogs and humans have woven a delicate aural web. It’s the sort of day containing such beauty that I am grateful for every breath I draw. It is a day to be out of doors, soaking in the sun’s rays, smelling the early decay of autumn leaves and wishing the day could last forever.

Unfortunately for us, there are only 7 hours and 11 minutes until the sun sets and this beauty is gone forever, not to be recreated the same way again. It is a day that makes me think about God and whether one exists or if “He” is an elaborate construct of humanity’s need to explain the absolute beauty of a day such as this. After all, surely a being that loves us would give us a gift once in a while to sustain us through the deep winter months, right?

I have serious doubts about such a loving other-worldly being. I totally understand that there was once a need to explain the world and all the mystery therein. All ancient societies had a belief system to help their people understand the world around them. From ancient pagan religions to more recent poly- and mono-theistic religions, there was a need for belief when ignorance reigned the world. As Christopher Hitchens wrote about religion, “It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as comfort, reassurance and other infantile needs).”

As time went on, however, men and women gifted with curiosity and logic began to discover the real reasons behind the workings of the world, and even the universe. Telescopes and microscopes were invented, allowing us to discover the macrocosm of the universe and the microcosm of the inner world. These intelligent people discovered that lightning is really the discharge of electricity from the atmosphere and that disease was caused by bacteria or viruses, and that the body’s ability to produce antibodies is what “cures” illness, not some celestial being with a magic wand.

I would like to pose a few questions: Is it time for us to rethink the concept of God? Is our attachment to God and religion a crutch that enables us to allow someone else to think for us? Are we essentially a lazy species that would rather hand over control and be virtual slaves to a completely intangible being “out there” than assume responsibility for our own actions and behaviors? Why are we so willing to believe what common sense tells us is false? Is life really so terrifying that we look forward to a reward after death that makes our trials here more acceptable?

Anticipating the reaction of some people, I submit the following: Mankind is an inherently moral species. To say that we are wicked and incapable of determining right from wrong is an incredible insult. We are bound through love that comes naturally to us to care for each other, to be kind and giving to each other, to nurture and protect each other. Otherwise, the species would never have survived its first few centuries!

It is impossible for me to believe that the Hebrews wandering the desert with Moses would have self destructed had he not gone up on Mount Sanai to get the ten commandments. However, it is very likely that whoever wrote the book of Exodus had a need to control a free and diverse (and ignorant) society. It is important to remember that, according to Exodus, when Moses came down from the mountain, he got pissed that people were partying, smashed the ten commandments on the ground and ordered that the Levites (his tribe) arm themselves and go through the crowd. They killed 3,000 people that day, and THAT was how Moses instituted the Judeo-Christian ethic. The horrified people who were left would believe anything he said at that point because they had just seen their friends and relatives hacked to pieces. Unfortunately for us, fear and bloodshed are still the tools used today to keep people in the dark in many religions around the world.

Also, I submit that sometimes life IS difficult, people DO get sick, life ISN’T fair. There is no guarantee at birth that we will live a life full of health and plenty. Modern science has made it possible to improve the quality of our outer lives. Our barometer as “good” people should be, therefore, in how we care for each other, in how we love each other and nurture each other, providing for the longevity of our species. We should not discriminate against other humans who love each other, regardless of whether they love someone of the opposite sex or the same sex. Love is love and should be encouraged.

So to get back to my original question – does God exist? Is the notion of God a crutch? I have no space in my psyche for a being that is responsible for the fomenting of hate. I want no part of a being that says it will turn a large percentage of our species into crispy critters when we die, regardless of whether our intent and our hearts were set on that which was good and kind. I also cannot ignore that science has revealed that which man dreamed up the gods to explain. To that end, I say there is no god.

However, I, too, have days when I want to hand over control of my life to another person, and it would sure help if that person had a magic wand. There are also moments of life filled with breathtaking beauty, when I see the twin gifts of love and compassion in action, or hear a piece of music of such perfection that make me feel part of something greater. Perhaps that something greater is our shared humanity. After all, we are but energy in the end, connected by cosmic forces to every other bit of energy in the universe. Maybe some days we just feel that more than others.

As of today, in my mind, magic wands don’t exist. The reality of my life this moment is that man made god, god didn’t make man. I believe in the goodness of humanity, which transcends religion and faith. We are good because it is in our nature to be good.

Having said that, I look forward to your comments.

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Expectations vs. Reality part deux

A while back I blogged about expectations vs. reality. It was on a day when a trip to New York City turned out completely different than expected. A day when lessons about living life with no expectations, about being open to whatever comes, were thrown in my face over and over again. Today was a culinary day like that.

This morning, I made “egg in a hole” for breakfast. It’s a dish that 1001 Foods to Die For said was a children’s favorite. It’s a fried egg in a hole in a piece of toast. That’s it. There is nothing sublime about it. There’s nothing fancy about it. There’s nothing about it that makes you say, “Oh, God, take me NOW! There’s nothing more for me to experience now that I’ve had this…” I dipped my toast in my egg and ate it. I dipped my sausage links and ate them. I didn’t die. I am thankful for that, because had that been my final meal on Earth, I would have had some choice words for St. Peter…

After breakfast, I thought I’d make what appeared to be a simple snack bar called Flapjacks. Most of the people reading this blog think of pancakes when hearing the term flapjacks. However, in 1935 in the UK, someone devised a snack bar with lots of oats. It can be chewy or crunchy, depending on how much corn syrup you add (or honey or agave, etc.). Since it only takes half an hour, start to finish, I thought it would be a good thing to bake on a Sunday morning.

I measured, melted, stirred, pressed, baked, and cooled my bars, eagerly anticipating a sweet snack worthy of the Gods. I got a naked granola bar, an empty palette that could possibly be turned into something delicious. In and of itself, it is not. It needs something to make it extraordinary. As is, it is completely and utterly ordinary. Here’s the recipe. Try it and play with it. If you come up with something divine, send me an EMail. I’ll be over here enrobing mine in dark chocolate. Now THAT’s going to be good.

Flapjacks

  • 6 T butter
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar
  • 1 T corn syrup (or other liquid sweetener – I used agave syrup)
  • 2 cups quick cooking oats
  1. Preheat oven to 350F.
  2. Melt the butter, sugar and corn syrup in a saucepan over low/medium heat, stirring. Remove from the heat, add the quick cooking oats and stir well to combine. Press the oat mixture into a well greased 8″ baking pan. Bake for 25 minutes – the flapjack should be a rich, golden-brown color.
  3. Remove from the oven and leave in the pan while you mark it into squares with a knife. Allow to cool completely before removing from the pan. Makes 16.

NOTE: You may wish to put parchment paper in the pan. Mine stuck to the bottom of the pan, despite using a full T of butter to grease the pan.

Have a great week cooking!

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Culinary Experiments

Working my way through the book “1001 Recipes to Die For” is proving an interesting experiment. I’m finding that there are a lot fewer foods “to die for” than the editors of this book think there are. Consider my three most recent items: Penne all’Arrabiata, Hoppin’ John and a Bakewell tart. The only one that came close to being worth departing this mortal coil was the Bakewell tart, and then only when warm from the oven.

The pasta dish is something I’ve heard of and seen on restaurant menus over the years. I was excited to try it because I LOVE spicy food. Add heat to anything and I’m there. However, I was ridiculously disappointed in this sauce. It’s basically just spicy tomato sauce. No big deal. I had it for two meals (one dinner and the other breakfast) and the rest now languishes at the back of my refrigerator waiting for garbage day. Just in case you’d like to try it yourself, here’s the recipe:

Penne all’Arrabiata

  • 5 T olive oil
  • crushed red pepper flakes (I used about 1/2 tsp.)
  • 4 garlic cloves, sliced
  • 1 red onion, finely chopped
  • 3 14-oz. cans diced tomatoes (I used stewed and whole)
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 tsp. red wine vinegar
  • fresh basil leaves (optional)
  • penne pasta
  • grating cheese (Parmesan, Romano, whatever you like)
  1. Cook pasta according to package directions until desired tenderness. Drain, reserving one cup liquid. Set pasta aside.
  2. While pasta is cooking, heat olive oil over medium high heat in a large saucepan and add chopped onion and garlic and saute for a few minutes until translucent. Add pepper flakes and stir until they release their fragrance (30 seconds or so).
  3. Meanwhile, pour the tomatoes and their juices in the blender and puree. Pour into the onion mixture.
  4. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until tomato foam goes away and oil begins to separate out, about 15 minutes. Add red wine vinegar and stir, cooking an additional 5 minutes. If you would like, add a handful of freshly torn basil leaves at the end of cooking.
  5. Stir cooked pasta into sauce, adding reserved pasta water if needed to loosen the sauce. Serve in pasta bowls with generous amounts of grated cheese. You can also fry up some stale bread crumbs in olive oil with fresh thyme as a garnish.

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Hoppin’ John was something I really looked forward to. I love legume dishes with ham. Split pea and lentil soups are my favorites in the cold winter months. Since this is a traditional southern New Year’s dish, I decided to make it to celebrate the new school year. I dug out a ham bone from the freezer and bought a bag of peas. I made the dish with the only variation being the substitution of chicken bouillon cubes and water for the chicken stock. I think that was my error because the dish was delicious but very salty. Certainly not worth dying for, but the next time I make it I’ll use unsalted chicken stock and adjust the saltiness at the end. I will make this for New Years, but probably cut the recipe in half. It makes a LOT.

Hoppin’ John

  • 1 T olive oil
  • 1 ham bone
  • 1 cup onion, chopped
  • 1/2 cup each celery and green pepper, chopped
  • 1 T garlic, smashed
  • 1 lb. dry black eyed peas, soaked overnight, drained and rinsed
  • 1 qt. chicken stock (I used 4 chicken bouillon cubes and 4 cups water)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 tsp. thyme
  • 2 tsp. Cajun or Creole seasoning or cayenne pepper
  • salt and pepper
  1. Sear ham hock in oil, browning on all sides. Add onion, celery, green pepper and garlic and cook, stirring, 4 minutes until vegetables soften (If you need to remove the bone to make more room to stir, that’s fine). Add everything else, including the ham bone if you removed it. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, 40 minutes, or until peas are tender, stirring occasionally. If needed, add more liquid (I wound up adding another cup of water).
  2. Remove ham bone and let sit until cool enough to handle. Remove meat from bone and shred, adding back into the finished beans. Serve over rice or with cornbread, if desired.

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I had high hopes for the Bakewell tart. I love almond in all of its incarnations. Frangipane, toasted almonds, ground almonds, marzipan, Chinese almond cookies all make my heart glad. So the creation of a tart with almond in both the crust and the filling had me eager for a bite. I looked at several recipes and none mentioned a specific type of jam that should be used, so I went with a homemade peach jam from my friend Terri.

As I went to make this recipe, my 23-year old food processor died a horrible death so I made the crust by hand. The directions below list that method. When the tart, browned and bubbling and oozing almond goodness, was pulled from the oven, it was all I could do to not dive right in. However, I’ve been on the receiving end of hot jam and it’s not fun. I wisely waited nearly an hour before trying my first piece.

I thought I had died and gone to heaven! The crust was firm, yet flaky and sweet, the jam had cooled enough so it was no longer liquid and the top was browned and firm and unbelievably tasty. I ate one fairly small piece, then another. I shared it with my friends and neighbors, and even my husband enjoyed it (he’s currently doing Nutrisystem but “fell off the wagon” to try a piece). This has gone on my “Death Row Final Dinner” list.

Since my daughter was due home from college the weekend I made it, I decided to try to veganize the recipe so she could try it. I realized that I had made some errors in measurement on the original, AND used the wrong kind of sugar, so I corrected those problems on the vegan version and the tart was a miserable failure. I have more work to do to create a good vegan version, so for now it is presented here in all its buttery, eggy goodness. I don’t know how close this is to a real Bakewell Tart from England, but this is the upstate New York version. Enjoy!

Bakewell Tart

for the pastry

  • 1 cup flour
  • 2 T granulated sugar
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 4 oz. (1 stick) cold butter
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1/2 tsp. real almond extract
  • 1-2 T cold water
  1. Mix flour, sugar and salt in a mixing bowl. Using the large holes on a box grater, grate the butter into the flour mixture. Mix well with a fork, separating the butter shreds and coating them with flour. Don’t smush it all up – you want some shreds of butter to be visible.
  2. In a separate bowl, beat together egg yolks and butter. Add to flour mixture and stir with fork to thoroughly incorporate. Add water a tablespoon at a time and stir to make a sticky dough. Form into a ball, place in a baggie and flatten to form a disc. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

for the frangipane

  • 1 stick plus 1 T butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup plus 1 T granulated sugar
  • 3 whole eggs
  • 1/2 tsp. almond extract
  • 1/2 cup plus 1 T ground almonds
  • 2 T flour
  1. Cream butter and sugar until very fluffy. Scrape bowl and add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. The mixture may look curdled, but that’s OK – keep going. Add almond extract. Scrape down bowl. Spoon in nuts and flour and mix well.

to assemble tart

  1. Roll out chilled dough on a floured board to 1/4″ thickness. Transfer to 9 or 10″ tart pan with removable sides. Trim edges. Chill in freezer 15 minutes.
  2. Preheat oven to 400F. Remove pastry shell from freezer and spread with 1 cup of jam. Top carefully with frangipane, spreading out to completely cover jam. Sprinkle with a handful of sliced almonds. Bake 30 minutes, until browned and puffed. Remove from oven and let cool on a rack for at least 30 minutes. Cut a gigantic wedge and enjoy!

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