FREE time

So.  Where I live, it snowed today.  A lot.  In fact, it is still snowing as I write this.  The roads were terrible, and half of our buses were forty-five minutes late.  My 20 minute commute was a cool 50.  We really shouldn’t have been in school today.  (After all, is this not why we have snow days–to date unused–BUILT INTO our schedule?)  But we did.  And I was pretty crabby about it.

But about half way through the day, when it became apparent that this was, in fact, the snow storm predicted and not some silly, little flurries to tease us in mid-March, my principal sent an email to the staff that said, effectively, “The roads are garbage.  As soon as the kids are gone, get out of here.”

I listened.  I packed up my stuff before I went out to bus duty.  I cancelled my voice lesson for tonight on my way out the door.  I drove myself home.  Fortunately, I drove home between gusting snow showers, and made it home in decent time.  I dug myself a spot to park in the building parking lot, parked and headed in.  Ready to snuggle in for the night.

It was only 4:11.

Being home by 4:11 is unheard of in my weekly grind.  I have other commitments that keep me away from home.  I stay late and get stuff done at work.  I go to the grocery store and run errands.  I go out to dinner with friends.  I don’t roll into my apartment for the night until after six.

And if I do, my time is allotted.  I have forty-five minutes between commitments and I have to get these six things done.  But tonight, I got home, and I had four and a half unaccounted hours at my disposal.  FOUR AND A HALF HOURS! That’s like half a day of work! And, because I’d come straight home, I still had energy to do more than throw myself on the sofa.

I had legitimate free time, and not “free time” in the not-at-work-sense, but FREE time–time that was not committed to any activity in my mind.  Outside of Saturday morning, this is an extremely rare occurrence in my life.  I tend to allocate time in my head, even my free time.  Things like, “I really need to clean the bathroom,” or “Oh, I can run to the bank then,” tend to crowd my existence.  But not tonight.  The roads weren’t bad, but there was no guarantee how long that would last.  I couldn’t go anywhere but home.  I had time. FREE time!

Well, what like any self-respecting Midwesterner presented with a snowstorm, naturally I had to make chili.  But unlike my usual, get-this-done-because-I’ve-only-got-an-hour weeknight speed cooking, tonight, I had FREE time.  I cranked up my Partridge Family Pandora station (it’s been my jam, lately), and started cooking.  With FREE time, cooking in my kitchen becomes a major production.   I use my stirring spoon as a microphone, and the big kitchen window is my audience.  (My neighbors always keep their blinds down.  But if they ever open them, they’re going to see a crazy girl singing with great conviction to their backyard.)  I also dance around like I can actually dance.

To be clear, I am a terrible dancer.  I am self-aware enough to know that, while I am good at a great many things, dancing is not among them…but this doesn’t stop me.  In my kitchen, I have no one who can tell me I can’t. (Willful self-delusion is a powerful thing…) Believe me, in my head, I am awesome.  I can bust a serious move.  (Reality is different, but there are no witnesses…and if a tree falls in a wood and no one hears it, does it really fall?)

As I write this, my candles are lighted, the chili is simmering on the stove and that warm, savory spiced aroma drifts past me.  I have a glass of red beside the computer.  King Harvest is rocking “Dancing in the Moonlight.”  The snow is blowing around outside while my radiators wheeze like tea kettles.  It’s a good moment to pause and savor.  This is what winter is all about.  This is what it is to have FREE time.

If you’d like to try out the rocking vegetarian chili (don’t worry–there’s no tofu here!), you can check it out here or check under the “Recipes” tab.  

It’s a chili kind of day…

Today never dawned–not really. From the time I left my house until the night set in, the world was bathed in that eerie, half-light–an unending twilight.  There was no sun, there were no impressive thunderstorms, just a vague, shiftless gray and a steady, freezing rain.

I hate days like today when I have to be a part of them.  As the day “dawned” (if you can call it that..), I peered through my car windshield and just wished to be back home, wrapped up in an old sweatshirt and my funny, homemade quilts, reading a book and drinking coffee.  Today was the sort of day designed for scuffling around in house slippers and watching Netflix.  Today was not the sort of day for fighting the good fight with students more anxious to be on vacation than I am.

Today was,  however, the sort of day to make chili.

Chili is one of those dishes that “sticks to the ribs,” as they say, it warms you up from the inside out–your own personal defense against the bitterly cold (and cruel, depending on the situation) world outside.  It is a dish designed for the northern tier, where I live.  I am amazed that anyone south of the Mason-Dixon has ever even eaten chili.  As any good Northerner will tell you–chili just doesn’t taste as good when it is 75 and sunny out.  Chili is a dish you make on days like today–when sleet is blowing in 40 mph winds because the clouds can’t make up their minds and commit to either snow or rain.  Today was definitely a chili day.  (It was also a chilly day, for the record.)

It’s probably good that I do live in the frozen north, because I LOVE chili  I love it.  I must have a million different chili recipes, and I spend all the long winter months mulching through them like locusts through the harvest.  I have white chili, chicken chili, CrockPot chili, spicy chili, mild chili, vegetarian chili, chili with stew beef, chili with ground.  Chili with black beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, no beans. Then there are the variations of dishes to be made with chili: chili pie, chili-polenta casserole, and chili chip dip.  I am basically like the Hallmark Card Company of chili recipes.  I have one for every occasion.

So, needing to clear out my fridge and fight the evil of lingering winter in one fell swoop, I naturally skipped all of these recipes and trolled up a new one on the internet.  Originally, I thought it would be a great chance to give a shout out to another blog…until I realized that I had literally changed every ingredient in either essence or quantity.  (I also added about three other things.)

It started out when the grocery story I went to was out of the kind of ground beef I wanted…so I got ground turkey.  Then they only carried pinto beans in a larger can–what am I going to do with half a can of pinto beans?  So I used it all.  Then I threw in the green pepper I had before it could go bad…doubled the garlic…added cumin…doubled the amount of beer it called for (so much easier to just use a whole bottle) and switched from a stout to a cream ale (because it’s what I had…)  Then I added a can of tomato sauce, and those chipotle peppers in adobo sauce…because they were there…and suddenly I had a completely different recipe.

Chili is a great place to experiment with flavors, I think.  It’s hard to screw it up to the point it’s beyond consumption.  It’s got a basic flavor outline to follow, and then you can sort of go nuts–add your cinnamon or cocoa or whatever you like.  Plus, if it goes really wrong, you can always add cheese…or sour cream…or chives or whatever.  (Or mix it with some Velveeta and serve it with chips and then nobody will notice.)

I like doing that.  I like going off book in a recipe.  I feel like that’s where you really learn to cook–how you figure out what steps you can skip or modify and what you can’t.  What flavors blend well together.  How long is really the time you should simmer that pot.  (With chili, of course, you know the answer is the longer the better…)  It’s empowering.  It’s creative.

Plus it’s a great way to fend of the Winter Blues.

If you’d like to try out my new Invent-a-Chili, you can check it out on the drop down menu under the “Recipes” tab.  It’s easy.  Also yummy.  And please, feel free to completely change it because of what you’ve got in the house… 🙂

And it doesn’t involve green beer…

It is St. Patrick’s Day today.  I’m sure every elementary school teacher in the world is painfully (I mean this in the literal sense) aware of this fact as they spent the majority of their time today trying to keep all the kids who were wearing green from pinching all the kids who weren’t black and blue.

am aware of this because I live in one of the popular, historic neighborhoods in my city.  Most of the time, this means quirky shops, hipsters, a few first-gen hippies still holding on, and groups of 20-somethings out to go to the fashionable bars on Saturday night.  On St. Patty’s Day, though, it is a different story.

I got home from a rehearsal at 7:45 tonight to droves of people all over the place, far too many of them far too drunk for the time, zillions of cars, and lots of police officers hanging around to make sure things don’t get rowdy.  Let’s just say I had a few choice thoughts for these people as I pushed my teacher bag up on my shoulder.

In case you haven’t picked up on this yet, the nightlife is not really “my scene.”   I am also intrinsically suspicious of anything that is an unnatural shade of green.  This applies equally to frosting, mashed potatoes, cookies, beer, and large bodies of water.  So it’s safe to say that St. Patrick’s Day (as it is celebrated in Milwaukee) is not exactly my cup of tea.

But my ancestors were Irish many moons ago, and so I feel like I ought to “put a word in” to this piece of my heritage.  (Which is difficult to do because, on a whole, the Irish are not known by and large for their food, and for good reason…)

Food it, I think, a reflection of the culture that creates it.  In Tibet, eating cubes of fat is a great honor, because the high caloric content helps build fat that keeps you warm.  India, a place where the climate basically begs every spice ever found to be grown, has a spice palate probably three times that of Northern Europe.  In America, we have taken all the food of all the cultures that come to these shores, put them into a giant bag, shake it up, and roll the dice to see what’s going to happen.  (This is how you end up with things like bulgogi tacos and quinoa curry…)

And in Ireland, a place that has been poor and marginalized for centuries, you get dishes that can turn practically nothing into something incredible.

My favorite example of this is a soup I picked up from a spice catalogue.  Like a lot of really amazing recipes, it has the most unimaginative name I can think of:  “Homemade Vegetable Soup.”

What it actually is, is genius.  It is a soup that combines four of the commonest, cheapest, longest-lasting root veggies I know–carrots, onions, potatoes, and garlic–into this rich, velvety pot of simmering deliciousness.  The first time I made it, it was because I was saving up for a vacation and trying to stretch my pennies.  You’re hard pressed to find a cheaper recipe than this.  I was skeptical (I’m not a huge fan of carrots,) but I gave it a go in the name of frugality.  It was a chance I do not regret.

I think what I love most about this dish is that it reminds me of how it doesn’t take a million steps or a thousand ingredients to make something wonderful.  Some of the best dishes around are profound in their simplicity, in the same way that what shapes us most isn’t that new car or house, but the t-ball games and vacations to Grandma’s and Saturday-nights-in.  Sometimes, the things that fill us emotionally or even spiritually are not the Major Events or Major Pricetags–just like a bowl of delicious, simple soup fills us physically better than the expensive hors d’oeuvres can.

Remembering what it’s like to laugh, re-meeting people we’ve known for ages but haven’t known in a long time, allowing ourselves a chance to reflect outside of the insanity of life–these are all things that happen around the easy dinners.  That’s why comfort foods are things like macaroni and cheese–there aren’t any linen table clothes or expensive china, there’s no pretense or putting on airs–it’s just good, honest, satisfying food that lets you sit and catch up for hours and hours.  The dish is just the vehicle to the healthy soul.  I love that.  I love that things don’t have to be fancy or difficult to be meaningful.

And it also doesn’t have to involve green beer…

Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

If you want to embrace the Irish and try “Homemade Vegetable Soup,” you can check it out for yourself on the drop-down menu under “Recipes.”

My China is showing…

When I first moved back to America, I struggled with acting like an American.  I am ethnically what I refer to as “macaroni and cheese American” (my family’s pre-U.S. heritage was lost generations ago.)  The only “ethnic” traditions we have are those that my mom read about in magazines or learned from friends and so we do them.  We do not celebrate St. Nick’s Day because we are German.  We celebrate it because the first year we lived in Wisconsin, we were the only kids who didn’t know what anyone else was talking about…

All this to say, if you looked at me, it would probably never occur to you that I was struggling to remember seemingly obvious things like, “We stop and wait for the red light to turn green,” and “We do not need to touch the person in front of us to prove that we are a part of this line.”  Or even worse, “We speak in English to people behind counters at stores.”  (True story: Newly arrived from Kunming, I walked up to a counter and asked the very blonde girl at the cash register for a knife.  In Chinese.  She looked totally lost and I realized my mistake.  I didn’t even try to explain myself.  I just walked away.)  These little–idiosyncrasies, we’ll call them–made me stick out like a the only bowl of rice in a room full of pizza, and I was wildly self-conscious.

I did my best to laugh it off; I’d say that “my China was showing” at the latest faux pas I managed to pull off.  I’m not Chinese, after all, but it was my China self–the me that was successful living in China–made me a hot mess in the United States. My China self also didn’t have the good sense to know when to keep its fat nose out of what was going on in my American life.

Yes, I have become inexplicably angry with the fact that I have to pay more than 20 cents for fresh vegetables and fought the urge to yell at the cashier like they can do anything about this.  I have cried watching Kung Fu Panda.  I have completely gone to pieces in a grocery store because there were too many different kinds of cereal to choose from.

These days, I don’t feel like I’m “faking” at being an American most of the time.  I know what I’m supposed to say, how I’m supposed to talk, and when it is appropriate pick up a bowl from the table (in case you’re wondering, the only time that’s kosher in America is when you’re going to put them into the sink…)

But there are still days I get really homesick for my China home.  I explain it to people this way: when you live in a place, you leave a part of your heart behind you.  I left my heart in the Yunnan hills, the Kunming streets, the hearts of so many very special students.  I know that being Stateside is where I’m supposed to be, but it doesn’t make me less lonely for the pieces of my heart on the other side of the world.

Kung Fu Panda still makes me teary.  I still get mad that nobody around here lights fireworks on Chun Jie (Chinese New Year.)  I still long–oh, how I long!–for some good ol’ Chinese street food.

But I’ve learned to combat the loneliness.  I fight the tide.  One of the ways I do it is by making some of the dishes I ate all the time in Kunming.  A favorite dish (that makes a super great American appetizer) is this spicy cucumber salad thing that you’d get all the time at this restaurant down the street from our apartment complex.  It’s really easy and a big hit with “foreigners” (read: people who live here in America) because it’s super good for you and also not the same potato salads and coleslaw that everyone makes.

I love this recipe.  It makes me think of my China friends and sitting around on short little stools eating family style Chinese at this little hole-in-the-wall place.  It makes me think of my China roommate, Megan, who spent probably two years experimenting to get it just right.  It makes me remember the good times, and the insane things we did to achieve our own breed of “normal.”

I love food and recipes because they’re all tied up in history and memories.  I love this recipe because of the people and places it makes me think of.  We called it “That Spicy Cucumber Thing Like the One You Get At the Chinese Restaurant on Guang Fu Lu.”  You can call it “That Cucumber Salad That One Girl From Slice of Life Talked About,” or “That One Weird Chinese Cucumber Salad.”  Or you can make your own name.  Create your own memories.  Share the food around your own table.

To try “That Spicy Cucumber Thing LIke the One You Get At The Chinese Restaurant On Guang Fu Lu,” check it out on the drop down tab under “Recipes.”   

Waffles

I am not much of a breakfast person.  I manage a piece of peanut butter toast every morning, only because I know that “it’s good for me.”  I don’t go in for eggs (I can’t get over the smell), I don’t much care about sugar, so things like French toast and pancakes don’t faze me, and being extremely finicky about how I like my bacon means I almost never make it.  (Plus, it takes a solid week for the lingering aroma of stale bacon grease to clear out of my apartment.)

For my breakfast-loving father, who would eat eggs and bacon three times a day if you’d let him, my “just coffee for me, thanks” proclivities are a source of unending disappointment.

But I do make a few exceptions.

When I was a little girl, Saturday was “waffle day” at our house.  My father found my parents’ waffle iron at a flea market in like 1978, and the thing was already ancient then.  It had one of those old-fashioned electrical cords that were covered in fabric, and it weighed about a ton.  As far as I was concerned, the waffles it produced were the best.  It made a thinner, crisper waffle with about a million tiny waffle squares, each and every one of which designed be filled to the brim with syrup.  (Every child knows that the whole point of a waffle is just to be the vehicle for as much maple syrup as possible.)  I grew up in a house where we had to have “good-for-you” cereals, which excluded the much sought-after kid varietals like Lucky Charms and Froot Loops, so waffles were as close as I ever came to candy for breakfast (another life ambition of the average five year old.)

Every Saturday in my early childhood, I remember my dad getting up and making waffles in our kitchen.  I have a lot of great memories of those Saturdays, standing on a kitchen chair in my jammies next to my father and “helping.”

I’m sure I caused way more trouble than I was worth, but to my four-year-old self, it was a great privilege to mix the batter still in the bowl.  Sometimes, my dad would even let me pour the batter onto the waffle iron.  I can still remember that distinctive, sizzling sound the batter made when it hit the hot iron, and the pretty golden color of the waffles when my dad would peel them off the dark metal and onto the serving dish.

As I got older, more babies came, life got busier, my dad’s job changed to include a lot more business trips, I was busy with school and clubs and friends and “being mature” (a hilarious illusion held by thousands of teenagers all over America), and Waffle Day went the way of the dodo.

I am a “real” adult now, with a career and place of my own, my own hobbies and friends and responsibilities.  I have lived on the other side of the world and back again.  I have developed my own rituals and personal traditions, but sometimes, I still miss those days when I was little and life was simple and Waffle Day was still a thing.

So I called my father up the other day and asked, “Dad, do you remember how you always used to make waffles when I was little on that really old waffle iron?  Do you guys still have it?”

My parents do still have that waffle iron.  It is still ancient.  It still weighs about a ton.  The old cloth cord didn’t work anymore, but my dad hunted all over the city and managed to find a replacement, so I could go over to my parents’ house and make waffles again.

We’re a little out of practice, my dad and I–the first few tries got stuck to the iron for reasons we couldn’t figure out–but that didn’t matter.

Some things are different.  I am an adult now, older than my father was when we first did this.  I don’t need to stand on a chair to see what’s going on on top of the counter.  I don’t need someone else to make sure I don’t burn myself or tell me not to put so much batter on the iron.

But some things are still the same.  It still feels like an honor to pour the batter.  The waffle iron still makes that sizzling noise when you close it.  It is still reassuring to know that if you get burned, someone’s going to be there to tell you it’ll be okay.  It still seems to take forever for the steam to stop hissing out of the sides of the closed iron.  It is still exciting to make waffles.  It is still a privilege to stand next to my daddy.

You can check out my family’s waffle recipe on the drop down menu under “Recipes.”  (It’s really not that much harder than a box mix.  I promise.)  

The Bachelor’s Lunch

I, like many dedicated teachers, avoid the teacher’s lounge like the plague.  I claim it’s because I have too much to do, but really it’s because I don’t have time to be around all the Negative Nancies who delight in complaining about ALL THE THINGS.  I hide out in my friend “Ryan’s” classroom and eat lunch with him, instead.

Ryan and I have very different approaches to our lunchbox experience.  Ryan has a system, he tells me.  He brings the same thing for lunch every day–every day–for a month.  A MONTH.  January was ham sandwiches.  February was salad. Ryan is also singlehandedly keeping the Fruit Roll-Up people in business. (No grown up should eat that many fruit snacks…)  I, on the other hand, bring in the leftovers of whatever I cooked for dinner in the last few days.  Soups, curries, a few well-selected casseroles.  Literally whatever is in the fridge comes to work in the pink paisley lunch bag.

Ryan’s always telling me how great my lunches look and how he needs to “mix it up.”  “Why don’t you just bring leftovers, too?” I ask.  I mean, I am not the first person in history to bring leftovers to work…

That’s when the truth comes out.  Ryan gets away only having to cook about three nights out of seven by scrounging up invites to other people’s houses–so he never has leftovers.  He claims he is just being social.  I maintain he’s free-loading, in part because I am jealous that he actually has that many people willing to provide him with free food on a regular basis, a pattern that I believe is in no small part due to the fact he is a bachelor.  As a bachelorette, on the other hand, I am not so lucky.

Don’t get me wrong.  I like cooking myself.  But it feels unfair. All grown-up persons past college age should be expected to cook for themselves most of the time.

Last week, I was in the mood for something comfort food-y, and tossed together a riff on a pasta bake.  I brought it to work for lunch a couple days in a row, and Ryan couldn’t stop talking about how good it looked, smelled, etc.  He does this sometimes.  He never makes anything I make.  He just asks.  So I tell him how easy it is, berate him (as usual) for being a freeloader and/or eating salad for the 39th day in a row, and then we move on.

But then last night I get a text message:  “How long do you think I should cook the chicken before I put it in my pasta bake?”

Ryan does this–brings me in halfway through a conversation he’s been having in his head like I’ve been there the whole time.  Through a series of slightly confused messages, I deduce that Ryan was so impressed by my pasta bake, he decided he needed to do it for himself.  I feel so proud.  My baby bird is spreading his wings to fly.  I tell him this.  He tells me to shut up, then thanks me for the chicken-cooking advice, and says good night.

Then, fifteen minutes later: “How long did you cook your pasta for?”

Before I can even finish that response:  “Should I use the whole jar of pasta sauce?  Will that be enough?”

Then five minutes after that: “I’m at a crisis!  I’ve only got one 7×11 pan, and I needed that for the chicken.  Should I wash it out so I can reuse it for the pasta bake, or should I use the deeper casserole dish?”

I’m flattered that Ryan actually thinks I care whether he uses the 7×11 or the casserole dish.  (I vote for the latter, incidentally, because I wouldn’t want to wait to clean it out.  He concurs with my expertise.)

I even get photos of the finished product a half hour later.  It’s so funny to me that something like pasta bake is the thing that inspires a person to get into the kitchen.  It isn’t flashy, it isn’t fancy.  But I don’t knock it.  I am a big supporter of anything that gets real life, busy, modern adults into their kitchens and experiencing the cooking process for themselves.

I heard somewhere once that cooking is one of the most fundamentally “human” things about our species.  No animals cook.  Just people.  And when we give up cooking, we give up something uniquely human about us.  It is a skill many of us have lost, and need to fight to keep.

Even Ryan.  Even with a pasta bake.

I glanced at my phone, and the photo of Ryan’s version of pasta bake.  I smiled and texted back:

“Well done, Grasshopper.  Well done.”

If you would like to try my spin on pasta bake, look under my “recipes” tab.

 

 

Desperation Depression Cake

I like baking in the philosophical sense.  I like the idea of baking–the whole Tollhouse cookie, Pillsbury Doughboy image of cookies and biscuits being pulled out of the oven, a toasty golden brown, fluffy, and identical in size and shape, usually while wildly smiling and suspiciously clean, blonde children stand watching, on the ready.  Me in an old sweatshirt, cursing under my breath when I realize I don’t have any eggs–something I only realize after I’ve creamed the butter and sugar and added three cups of flour–does not fit this image.

Please understand.  The scene of an angry me storming around my kitchen because I have to go to the store now is not a “one time only” showing.  This scenario unfolds with very little variation whenever I am possessed of the random impulse to bake.  I never have eggs.  You think I’d learn to check for them before I start, but I don’t.  I start recipes.  I don’t have eggs.  It’s a universal given on the level of death and taxes.

Then one day, desperately searching the internet for a dessert recipe that didn’t require me to go to the grocery store, I discovered the gem that revolutionized my “Last Names Beginning with A-H Bring a Dessert” life:  THE DEPRESSION CAKE.

Don’t panic!  This cake gets its name from the three holes (depressions) you make in the dry ingredients to pour various liquids into–it does not cause, worsen, or is in any way related to any medical condition (except maybea sugar coma if enough is consumed?)

I honestly don’t remember where I found it anymore, or I would totally give the webpage its due, because this cake is truly amazing.  Not only is it a good “take to a party” 9×9 size, (since nobody wants to look like a pig eating half a cake straight out of the pan when there are other people present,) it’s light, fluffy, moist, and generally delicious.  You also can mix the whole thing in the pan you bake it in, so there are aren’t a thousand bowls to wash.

IMG_0484

Behold, the cake! (And now you know why I’m a teacher, not a food photographer…)

And (even better!) no one who eats it will EVER guess that the recipe calls for no butter, no milk, and (most importantly in my case) NO EGGS.  Unless you tell them, and I do, because I think this recipe is genius–and also because then people of the vegan persuasion can’t make everyone else feel guilty for eating dessert without them.
It’s now my party go-to, because, let’s be honest, you tell people you made a cake “from scratch,” and most of them will elevate you to a culinary place somewhere between Julia Childs and Betty Crocker.  They will never know that this recipe is basically one step up in difficulty from a grilled cheese sandwich.  The way I see it, what they don’t know can’t hurt them.   Happy baking!

(If you’d like to try the Depression Cake for yourself, you can check it out under my “recipes” tab.)