Sunday, February 20, 2011

Let's Marinade in Fun - by Amy

I threw a party recently for my best friend Lara before she and her husband moved to Montenegro. Giving the couple a chance to say goodbye to their friends and the friends a chance to wish them well was, of course, the goal. But could this, or any gathering, be accomplished without the help of snacks and drinks? It would have been a shorter, less festive gathering, thats for sure! So, let's talk about food...

My perspective? I could spout the usual: food is sensual, food is communal, food is about tradition, family, ritual. Eh - I don't know that we need to wade in those waters too much.
I eat because it is entertaining, while sitting down to a fresh plate of arugala with apples and gorgonzola with Lara at our party, we talk about what they will eat in Montenegro, what our favorite foods are here in San Diego (fresh avocados are our favorite!!) Because talking about food is almost as fun as the consuming and cooking of it. Well, definately more fun than cooking it, even though I like cooking. I like it more for the final product, you feel me here, don't ya?

With festivities in mind, I want to share ideas for entertaining:
1. Let your guests bring something if they offer - this lets them feel like they are really part of the part-y, get it?

2. A few really great savory dishes and two sweet ones are better than an over abundance of choices, this way you can stick to a theme and people will have an idea of what to bring .

3. Present your food purposefully, use platters, either matching or artfully mismatched. Paper plates, or tubberware don't make guests feel like the food is all that special. Also, you do double duty - you've decorated for the soiree at the same time. A well dressed table with a vase of flowers is all you need.

4. Enjoy yourself - this is basically my rule all the time, anytime.

Here's a coloful drink for any occasion:

Hibiscus Flower Mocktail

1 - hibiscus flower in syrup (check out your local gormet shop or to order)
5 oz - sparkling clear soda ( I like diet sprite)
1 oz - cranberry juice

Hibiscus Flower Cocktail
Substitute your favorite sparkling wine for the soda.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Power of Food/Writing

I just applied to teach a food writing class, and so have spent the last days or so thinking about what I needed to put in the application. I already teach a freshman-level writing class at Brigham Young University, and this application was to teach an "experimental" section of that freshman class. It is experimental because we suggest a deviation from the normal course of study and do something different than the standardized program provided by the University. So, I applied to teach a class that focuses on food writing, and in the course we will explore writing about food, but also the importance of food and food traditions in our culture and personal lives. The application was naturally bland and clinical (I hate that aspect of proposals; they always take fun, creative ideas and reduce them to useful standards). I had to include how my assignments and proposed course of study would help the students become better writers. While I understand that that is the ultimate goal of the class, still, I wanted to put in there why I love food so much.

Grilled Cheese and Orange, made from ciabatta bread made by Little Brother

Food is an inseparable part of my life. I am always making the joke that I am addicted to food, that "I couldn't live without it." But, more than that, I am fascinated by the power that food has. Our meetings do not feel complete without it. Even if all that are provided are chain-store donuts, we still feel like a gathering has been more effective and captivating if we have something to chew on. When someone is sad, we make them food. When we are sad we indulge in junk food or comfort foods. When we are celebrating, we eat. We eat when we are nervous, bored, irritated. Even when we have just eaten a large dinner, it is hard to pass up the veggie platter at the party we're attending. Despite knowing that the birthday cake in the office break room has more in common with plastic than pastry, we're still tempted by the festive frosting. Food has a magical sway over us. Food solves problems, is the impetus for family fights. When we eat family favorites we connect ourselves with a deep-rooted tradition that sometimes stretches to great-great-grandparents we don't know, and when we try something new we feel that we are exploring a rich wilderness that may, or may not, lead to El Dorado. This is what I wanted to express in my application.

Little Brother's ciabatta bread, sliced

Also, partly because the application didn't call for it and partly because I finished the application less than five minutes before it was due, I wanted to say how eating and reading have always been closely related, if not in reality, then at least metaphorically. We consume books, we eat up words, we are fed lines. And if eating and reading are synonymous, then it isn't a stretch to assume that cooking and writing are about the same process, too. There are is always a form to follow, a genre to fit in, and an audience to please. In the end, the situation and the audience determine what you write in the same way that where and to whom the dish will be served influences what you cook.

Grilled cheese and oil and vinegar

I suppose what I am trying to get at with all of this is that I love food and I love writing. And, while I know that I have my biases on both issues, I think that learning to write well and learning to eat well are both important life skills. There are times when a carefully written letter can move a nation, and there are times when only a thoughtfully prepared dinner will really express what you need to say.

Ciabatta bread, uncut, and in a golden light

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Cream of Asparagus Soup and Couscous-Stuffed Squash

One of my favorite, favorite things ever is having friends over for dinner. One of the reasons that I love this is because I have super great friends, and so it is fun to get together for food, games, and just catching up. So, a little while I ago I invited some friends over for dinner. And, I love cooking, so the other great thing about having people over is that I get to cook.

And, when I cook, I tend to be adventurous. So, when my friends came over, I made one dish that is quickly becoming a staple and one that was a first time, though I will make something like it again.

Cream of Asparagus Soup
I am happy, maybe a bit pridefully, that this Asparagus Soup recipe is one that I came up with, through trial and tests, entirely on my own. It is also delicious and ridiculously easy to make. So, here's the how to:

(forgive the lack of measurements, but I don't really cook that way, and really, you can't mess up the proportions on this one)

Fresh Asparagus, chopped
Turkey Gravy (or use broth of any sort with a flour thickener)
Fresh grated Parmesan for garnish

1. First, chop the asparagus and then sautee it in the butter (sometimes I add a bit of garlic, here, too, but optional). Add a bit of salt and pepper at this point, for flavor, if you want. Cook the asparagus until it is soft. Then, add water to the pot.

2. Once the water is boiling, add the turkey gravy. I always make as much gravy as I can at Thanksgiving time and then freeze some of it, so that I have some for soup bases. If you don't have any homemade poultry gravy, use less above, and then use either a chicken or vegetable soup stock, and thicken the soup using flour (mix about 1/4 C flour with 1/2 C cold water, and then add to the soup)

3. Puree the soup, either using a hand blender or by transferring it to a blender. I highly recommend the hand blender method, so much easier.

4. Let the soup boil again, add some salt and pepper to taste, if you wish. Once the soup has boiled and thickened a bit, let it simmer until you are ready to serve. Serve with a garnish of Parmesan.

This soup could easily be made vegan by substituting olive oil for butter, and using vegetable stock to make the gravy, and then omitting the garnish. I am sure that it would be just as delicious.

Also, I have made this soup with a variety of vegetables: It is fantastic with cauliflower, broccoli, or spinach. I am sure that it would taste great with carrots or any other substantial vegetable.

Couscous-Stuffed Squash
This was a meal that we found on, and then added our own flare. Luckily, recipes aren't copyrightable, because I am not sure that I changed it the requisite 40%, but anyhow, here's what we did:

4 acorn squashes, halved and seeded
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon butter, melted
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
1 cup garbanzo beans, drained
1/2 cup raisins
1 1/2 tablespoons ground cumin (or to taste, I added more)
red pepper to taste
1 (14 ounce) can vegetable broth
1 cup uncooked couscous
2 large chicken breasts, cubed
2 large red bell peppers, cut in strips

1. Bake the acorn squash halves face down at 350, or until soft all the way through and lightly browned in the flesh. When they are done, brush them with melted butter and brown sugar. Then stuff them with the mixture, as follows:

2. Meanwhile: sautee the garlic, celery, and carrots in the olive oil. Really, we could have used any vegetable: zucchini, especially, would have been great. Once the vegetables are soft, add the raisins and garbanzo beans. Season with the cumin, salt, and red pepper.

3. Once the vegetables are sauteed, add the cubed chicken. (If you are serving this as a main course, it really does need the chicken, or maybe mushrooms, or anything substantial. If it is just a side, then the chicken could easily be omitted.)

4. When the chicken is cooked through, add the broth and the couscous. Wait until the couscous has absorbed the liquid (about 5 min) and then add the cut up bell peppers, saving a few for garnish.

5. Put the mix in the squash, garnish with some chopped peppers. I also roasted the squash seeds and used those as part of the garnish. The roasted seeds were also excellent to put out after dinner, as something to munch of while we were playing games.

This makes a TON of the couscous mix. The originally recipe calls for two squashes, but we used four and still had left over couscous.

You could also skip the squash altogether and serve this as a great side salad.

Skip the chicken to make it vegan!