Thankful for the Wisdom of Others

There's something infinitely soothing about knowing you're about to spend the whole day cooking. Well, infinitely soothing for those of us who really love to cook anyway. I know that I, for one, am looking forward to the act of preparing for the big Thanksgiving feast - even though I'm not the one who will be roasting the turkey, making the stuffing or the mashed potatoes nor many of the other wonderful, traditional dishes that grace Thanksgiving tables every year. But that's okay.

As much as I love being the one in charge (heck, I'd cook the whole thing and have all my friends over for it if I could, but I guess that wouldn't be proper, eh?), it's also liberating to not be the one calling the shots. Instead, I can focus on the few dishes I am in charge of - this year, it's the ubiquitous green bean casserole (only a homemade version this time) and a delicious-looking take on Brussels sprouts from Nicole Stich, the author of the beautiful blog (and now book!), Delicious Days. Later on, I'll make my own versions of the stuffing and cranberry sauce, turkey and other trimmings that I didn't make for this first meal. Who says you can only eat Thanksgiving foods on Thanksgiving? Why not enjoy them other times? They're still seasonal in December! Most of them would be fabulous by themselves, alongside roasted chicken or fish (miso green beans anyone?) and would even make perfect winter meals for tucking in with a bottle of wine and good friends (or even a good book).

Besides, I love stuffing and cranberry sauce - it seems a shame to only enjoy them once a year, and yet that's the only time I make or have them. For the stuffing, I want to try this recipe. And the cranberry sauce? I'm thinking of incorporating a few local ingredients - like ginger and lilikoi (passionfruit). Besides, many of the bloggers I love will be posting what they've made for Thanksgiving on or after the big day (at least if they are "slackers" like me) - why not try and enjoy them now? I'll have the freedom of playing around with cranberry sauce, stuffing and all the other classic dishes to my heart's content - and they don't even all have to go together! Plus, then I get all the leftovers I want, which everyone knows is the best part.

But something happened this year while I was out fighting the masses at the grocery store, buying all of the ingredients I needed. Something that really made me think about Thanksgiving itself. I had picked up one of those tin, disposable pie plates for LB. LB always makes his mother's apple pie for Thanksgiving - it's become one of our own traditions for the holiday, and he does a great job at it. But we only own one pie plate and there will be 12 or more people at the feast this afternoon, so he wanted to make two. The pie plates were in my small basket, along with a myriad of other things I had forgotten or couldn't find my first trip to the store (because, of course, this was my 3rd trip). As I was grabbing a plastic bag to place the collection of small, compact Brussels sprouts I had chosen in, an older woman reached out to pick one up at the same time. We both had our hands out, and she insisted that I go first - "youth before age," was how she put it. I thanked her and pulled my bag from the roll.

And then she said something that took me by surprise:

"Oh, you actually know how to make a pie! I'm so glad!"

I told her that yes, I do, and that I loved to cook. But also that the tins were actually for my husband, who was making an apple pie for the Thanksgiving table. She told me she thought too many young people didn't know how to cook anything from scratch anymore, and she was glad that some were still out there that did. That statement saddened me. Are there really so many people out there that don't know how that this elderly woman believes that young people will only go to the grocery store to buy a pie as opposed to buying the simple ingredients needed to actually make one? I guess so. I forget sometimes, in my world of food-love that not everyone avoids fast food restaurants or likes to cook from scratch...nor even believes that they have the time to do such a thing.

I didn't really learn to cook from my grandmother or my mother per se, as I've mostly taught myself over the last few years (and there have certainly been ups and downs) when I first had both the opportunity and the desire to learn. But they gave me advice along the way, shared their recipes with me, and more importantly, instilled an appreciation for simple food...crisp radishes and baby green onions in ice-water, canned pears and homemade jams and jellies, and the age-old family secrets for amazing fried okra. Even more than that, they helped me to not be afraid of the kitchen - as a child, I was enlisted to collect fresh eggs from our chickens, help snap peas from the garden, shuck corn, peel peaches and pears for canning, roll fresh egg noodles for stroganoff, and of course, prepare for the many Thanksgivings we had at both their houses over the years. They're the reason I yearn to go back to farm life in some ways - a big garden, fruit trees, fresh eggs - and they're the reason I want to learn to cook from scratch. Because that's the kind of food I grew up with and that's the kind of food I want to eat. It's also the kind of food I want my kids to eat too - when or if I have them.

Standing there in the grocery store, I suddenly wanted to ask the woman to share all of her wisdom with me - did she have any recipes that she loved? Any kitchen tips or home remedies she swore by? What did she love to make from scratch? What was she making for Thanksgiving and how many times had she made it before? Was there someone in her family who would be carrying it on for her when she could no longer? Not wishing to seem like some nosy grocery store freak, I wished her a happy Thanksgiving and hoped silently that she did. And I said a quiet thank you for the people in my life that have passed things along to me.

Many of us cannot be home with the rest of our family for this holiday, but we can carry our family with us and the traditions we have made with them to our tables no matter the far corners of the globe where we are today. Even if we're not making the same dishes that aunt Dottie or Grandpa Joe made when we were children, and we're now making our own traditions, we carry their stories and the memories with us no matter where we are today. I have been fortunate in that my grandmother gave me many of her own and her mother's recipes, and my mother now loves to cook as much as I do - but I'm also learning from the wisdom of friends and friend's families - people who are willing to impart a bit of their history, their recipes, and their experience with a novice cook such as myself. And then there are you, dear bloggers, who share so much of your thoughts, recipes and yourselves on the internet with me and with so many others. I hope this dissemination of information never ceases - may we all someday know how to make a pie from scratch and learn something from someone we love so that we can carry on for them.

I hope you all have a wonderfully delicious Thanksgiving, no matter where you are.


Heart of the Matter 21: Easy Mexican-Style Rice

Lately, I seem to be getting my entries in for Heart of the Matter (HotM) barely in time for the deadlines. I think I'm going to have to make a New Year's Resolution to get them in at the beginning of the month!! Last month, I didn't even get to participate because at the end of the month, I was in the middle of moving. This month, the house was in disarray again because my refrigerator was broken and everything was stuffed into one of those little dorm fridges - or didn't even make it that far and ended up in the trash. I held a quick funeral for all the organic veggies and condiments that didn't enjoy the warm "weather" in the fridge for the few days before the repairman could get there, but truly, there was nothing I could do but sit by and wait. It was torturous, really.

Having my fridge back as of last night (and thus, making it easier to cook because I could actually find things and have things that required refrigeration), I needed a quick grain-based dish that I could snap a few photos of to make the deadline for HotM this month over at Joanna's Food. I'd had visions of making my own, healthy version of this savory farro tart (and I still intend to do this), but alas, it didn't happen. Running to the grocery store at 5 PM last night, I realized that I didn't have the time, or the money, to grab all the necessary items. So, instead, I settled on creating something from the pantry items I already had available. As luck would have it, it ended up being one I've been whipping up for quite some time.

I've made it so many times, in fact, that I didn't even realize it would be HotM worthy, but it is! It's got very little fat, is made with brown rice (a whole grain), and can be whipped up in a short amount of time - paramount for busy people and those who are preparing for the big Thanksgiving feast that is to come tomorrow. It's also a perfect side dish for any Mexican-style meal you like to make - a perfect break from all the traditional American Thanksgiving foods that all of us in the USA will be sick of in a week or so too.

Thanks for hosting this month, Joanna! I can't wait to see the round-up in a few days and see what other people created for heart healthy grain dishes this month! If you've never participated in HotM before, go check out the HotM website and please consider joining us next month, when I'll be hosting. I'll post the announcement for the theme (as well as the basic rules) here and on the HotM site just a few days after the round-up. Sounds like it's time to start for me to start working on that New Year's Resolution...time passes quickly this time of year!

Easy Mexican-Style Rice, serves 4- 6 as a side dish

2 cups brown rice, rinsed
4.5 cups water or stock
2 tsp. olive oil
1 small onion, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 can of diced tomatoes (low sodium preferred)
1 small can of diced jalapenos or green chiles
1 1/2 teaspoons smoked paprika
1 tsp. dried oregano
salt and pepper, to taste
cilantro, roughly chopped, for garnish

Cook the rice according to how you normally would. I cook mine is a rice cooker, so I can't tell you how to cook it in a pan - it's my crutch of sorts - so just add the water and the rice and push go! While your rice is cooking, heat the olive oil in a large, non-stick pan and saute the onion until tender. The last 30 seconds, add the garlic, then remove the pan from the heat. When the rice is finished, stir in the can of diced tomatoes (the rice will actually warm it up) and your jalapenos or green chilies. Lastly, stir in your spices and salt and pepper (all of them to taste, really). Top with the chopped cilantro and serve. We like it as an accompaniment to spicy fish tacos and alongside Peter's Beer Beans.


A Few Last Thoughts on the Eat Local Challenge

All of the food you see here is locally grown or produced,
except for that pesky block of Spanish manchego
near the top.
Well, we can't all be perfect, can we?

I hate to admit it, but I dropped the ball the last week of the Eat Local Challenge. My excuse is that it coincided with moving to a new place, but really, there's no tip-toeing around the fact that I totally blew it off at the end of the month. Worse, not only did I bomb the end of the challenge, but I ate frozen fish sticks, microwavable meals and anything else I could find that was in the freezer or cupboard that entire week, just so that I didn't have to think about dinner or move it to the new place (shh...one of those microwavable meals was set to expire one week after I ate it...Lord help me!). So, since I guiltily cheated and bombarded my digestive system with all manner of preservative-laden and nearly expired processed foods, I thought I should at least weigh in on some of the things I learned during the month. Consider it a retribution of sorts for my lack of gastronomic discretion, or... the least I could do.

Since I had opted for the "produced in Hawaii" as part of my "exceptions" list, I had been planning to have a single week (preferably the last week) where I would eat only foods grown in Hawaii, but alas, in the midst of it all, that didn't happen either. I did have several meals that were made from only locally grown foods (and you'll be seeing the recipes and the stories to go with them in the coming days), but they didn’t happen consecutively. Since I'm a card-carrying member of the Alice Waters devotee club and could be happy eating a tomato fresh from the garden with only a sprinkling of finishing salt (black lava salt of course) or sauteed greens with only a little macadamia oil and a splash of shoyu (I never found garlic here either), many of the meals were simple.

Ba-Le Bakery bread (Oahu) with Surfing Goat Dairy goat cheese (Maui),
a fresh North Shore Farms heirloom tomato (Oahu) and a Blue Lotus organic egg (Oahu) -
topped off with black lava salt from the Big Island.

Most of the truly local meals consisted only of meat or fish with vegetables or vegetables only (remember, there are no grains grown here and no dairy widely available). No matter what we were eating though - locally grown or locally produced - I wanted the flavors of whatever ingredients I was using to shine through, barely unadulterated. I figured that if we were getting the freshest ingredients, grown closer to our front door than anything else we could possibly buy, then I wanted to be able to taste the difference. And you could. Since nearly everything that travels here must come from at least 2000 miles away, crispness in a head of lettuce or chicken that has no smell of ammonia is a treasure in itself. Don't get me wrong, we have our diamonds though too that are hard to find elsewhere - the sweetest mangoes and pineapples, rich Kona coffee and chocolate, and amazing grass-fed beef (even better than any I had in Oregon).

The Challenge was certainly an eye-opening experience. I began to think about things I hadn’t before, like labeling laws and which large grocery store chains had foods that I wanted to support, because they supported the farmers and producers I wanted to buy from and had the most local foods available (or had clerks that knew something about the food they were selling!). I found wonderful new farmers and producers that make and sell fabulous foods, right here in Oahu, and I even got to know some of them. I was blessed by the kind offerings of things like home-grown okra and freshly picked macadamia nuts from friends who wanted to help out. One family even cooked us a meal in their home full of locally grown vegetables, so that we could stick to our convictions when we dined with them. I found beautiful new vegetables, fruits and fungi (from "French" sorrel and dragonfruit to tree tomatoes and pepeau), ate the bounty of the land (beautiful papayas, mangoes, coconut and taro) and experienced eating a truly free-range chicken. I learned an incredible amount about the food itself and the people who grow it here, and I am still learning...honestly, this journey has really only just begun.

North Shore Farms Big Wave and Heirloom Tomatoes

I'll certainly continue to eat mostly local foods - all of my eggs, vegetables, fruits and the majority of the meat and fish we consume have always been local. I feel it's important to keep my money my local economy, especially in such trying and expensive times, so I'll continue to support the farmer's markets and the farmers and producers that grow and make beautiful products, and especially those that follow practices that I support - like organic farming. I'll also continue to boycott products whose practices I don't support - like shipping pigs in from far away...my pork will be from the mainland, and an organic farm, until I can find a more acceptable source closer to home.

It's definitely possible to eat only locally grown foods (read here, for someone that did it the entire month - and a great blog and website to boot!) and even more so to eat only locally grown and produced foods. It's not easy, but it's definitely a worthwhile experience (and way of eating). In general, locally grown vegetables were cheaper at the farmer's markets than at the grocery stores. But searching the grocery stores for local products wasn't as easy on the wallet (or the gas tank) as I had hoped. And it will continue to be that way, until we demand from the stores that the local products are the ones we want to buy. Until something changes, we can choose how and where we spend our money. The people here in Hawaii (and elsewhere) need a better awareness of our foodshed in general, and while there are some great places and organizations making big strides in this arena, there is always room for more...I hope to be a part of that movement in the future.

Local papaya, pineapple, dragonfruit, tangerines and a tiny citrus fruit from a
tree on the Island where I work - very sour, but perfect for drinks!

And LB? He made it through the month with shining colors - even suggesting we continue to have a week here and there where we only eat locally grown foods...I'm so proud. Now if I could just get him to take the reigns and do the actual shopping for it. Maybe next year?

For other posts related to the Eat Local Challenge, as well as many resources for local foods, go here: 1, 2, 3, 4. Also read the Eat Local Challenge website and the Share Your Table blog - both are full of great information!


A Cold Day in Hawaii

Despite the fact that the rest of the USA thinks of Hawaii as an always-warm paradise (and it is, most of the time), it's been surprisingly cold here these last few days...I actually donned a long-sleeve shirt this morning and my little flip-flop laden feet are freezing under my desk as I sit here and write this...not comparable, I know, to those of you who are already foot-deep in snow flurries, but it's the coldest I've been since we moved here. Believe it or not, I'm not actually complaining, so what could possibly be my point? My point is: it's finally cold enough where I can make soups and stews and slow-roasted meats and vegetables and all the other Fall-themed food that the rest of you in colder climes have been smugly enjoying for the last couple of months!

You see, the last time I tried to make a soup (in September), LB and I began sweating profusely and could barely finish our meal we were so hot (it felt sort of how I imagine the hot flashes of menopause might be, and since I am not quite ready to head into that arena, no thank you!). That's not to mention the fact that every time I turn on the oven or stove for longer than 10 minutes, the entire kitchen (and house) heats up and we have to turn all the fans on. When I entertain, I have to have all the cooking finished long before any guests arrive so that the house can begin to cool down, lest we all sweat onto the pupus. And my favorite teas have all been turned into iced tea or sit, sad and unused in the cupboard because I find I have no desire whatsoever for a hot beverage before bedtime when it's still 80 degrees in my house.

But the ultimate test for the freedom to once again warm the house up while cooking? Roasting. Roasting involves turning the stove on at a high temperature for at least 45 minutes...an unthinkable act if it's already warm inside your house (if you should desire that your significant other not be cursing you from the cooler shadows of the room furthest from the kitchen). One of my favorite simple roasting recipes comes from Ellie Krieger, and it's a one-pan, chicken and vegetable dish that pleases everyone: it's easy to throw together (good for me), it doesn't make many dishes (good for LB), and you can improvise until your heart's content (good for you) with whatever vegetables you have available.

It uses a few "summery" ingredients, like zucchini, which are available here year-round, but you could use more winter-esque vegetables too (winter squash, onions, and sweet potatoes? green beans are another nice addition too, just cut in half) and I'm sure it would still be wonderful. I tend to be a bit more lackadasical than Ellie in my preparation - like leaving the seeds in the tomatoes because it helps makes a deliciously juicy sauce by the time everything is roasted (and oh so perfect for sopping up with crusty bread), but you're welcome to follow the original instructions instead, if you'd like...the link to it is below.

This meal was completely local too, right down to the bird. But you know what? The vegetables themselves are good by themselves too. The chicken came from Blue Lotus Farms, and honestly, I think it was the first truly free-range chicken I've ever had. What I mean by that is: this bird used it's legs. A lot. That sucker had ligaments in its legs the size of my pinky finger! Gross if you're not that into meat (sorry!!), but a fact of eating it too. The dark meat was rich and chewy - evidence that those muscles had run around plenty before this chicken was captured for dinner - but also full of flavor (and slightly gamey, to be honest). Kind of makes you think about what a chicken is supposed to be like, before humans bred them to have such large breasts that they can't even move, or worse (if you haven't yet, read Michael Pollen's The Ominivore's Dilemma). It's breast was tiny - not like those gargantuan Dolly Parton chicken breasts you can buy at Costco by the bag, but it was moist and pleasantly chicken-y, and put together with several deliciously local vegetables, it made plenty for 2. Add a loaf of crusty Ba-Le bakery bread on the side to sop up the juices, and you've got warm, cozy comfort in a bowl...a cup of hot tea with local honey would even make a perfect dessert - preferably sipped while cozying up on the couch with a light blanket.

Tuscan-Style Roasted Chicken with Vegetables, serves 4
adapted from Ellie Krieger; find the original recipe here.

3 medium zucchini or crook-neck squash, cut into spears
8 Roma tomatoes, cut into 4 wedges
1 large bulb of fennel, cut into ~6 wedges through the root end
1 large onion, cut into ~6 wedges through the root end
4 bone-in chicken breasts with or without skin (or you could do a whole cut up chicken)
olive oil, salt and pepper
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tsp. dried oregano
1 lemon - zested, juiced and the rest of the rind saved
1 tbsp. fresh rosemary, chopped
optional: finishing salt (I used black lava) or chopped parsley

Preheat the oven to 375 F. Put the vegetables in a large baking dish and add a couple of glugs of olive oil and toss, adding a pinch or two of salt and pepper. Put the chicken breasts (or pieces) on top of the veggies and nestle them down in. In a small bowl, combine another glug of olive oil, a little more salt and pepper, the garlic, oregano and juice and zest from the lemon. Cut the lemon rind into four large wedges and add them to the vegetables too - why not? Rub the oil/lemon/garlic mixture on the chicken, and then pour the rest of the sauce over the top of the veggies. Roast for 30 minutes, then add the chopped rosemary and stir. Cook 20-25 minutes more until the chicken is cooked through and the vegetables are tender and starting to brown around the edges. Keep in mind that if you leave the skin on, it won't get really crispy because the veggies release so much water. I roast it with the skin on, then remove it before serving. Remove the lemon wedges before serving too - unless you like them! Sprinkle a little finishing salt or chopped parsley over the top and serve.


A Catalyst for Change

Nothing remains without change. ~ Buddha
Near the end of September, we received some unexpected news: our landlord would be putting the house we had been renting (since April) up on the market, and soon. At first I was upset; the thought of moving again so shortly after the stressful process of moving here felt unbearable. We had two large dogs, no furniture, and needed a commute that wasn't awful for two people who worked on separate sides of the island. We could have stayed until the house sold - who knows, it might have been right away or taken years - but we decided not to take a chance on having to take the first available rental, and began looking for a new place immediately. After nearly a month of searching, we finally found it: a small, but unique and brightly lit place in Kailua, HI, the next town over. And that, my friends, is where I've been these last few weeks - in the process of packing, cleaning and saying goodbye to our old place and unpacking into our new one.

When we left Eugene, it felt like we had emptied our lives of more than half of our belongings, paring it down to the things that felt necessary for feeling like we were at "home" when we made the difficult move from Oregon to Hawaii. But when we were packing up our stuff this time, it suddenly felt overwhelming how many things we actually still had. It was stressful and was not how I wanted to spend my evenings after working all day. Over 50% of our remaining things consisted of kitchen stuff - small appliances, serving dishes, pots, pans and gadgets. Suddenly, we were giving up our big, granite-topped counters and ample storage space for a much more modest kitchen where our things would barely fit and where even food storage was problem. Instead of several cupboards filled with food, we now had only one. But somehow, after frantically unpacking because we had guests arriving the first weekend we were living there, it all fit. And you know what? It already feels like home.

Contrary to what LB might tell you, I've been wanting to become more of a kitchen minimalist in many ways. I've always enjoyed cooking simple, rustic meals...those that don't make many dishes, don't have complicated ingredient lists and where the flavor of the few ingredients you're cooking with are the main flavors of the dish...you know, the kind of food that would make Alice Waters proud. Having a small kitchen seems the perfect catalyst to change to a simpler way of cooking and eating, and I can't wait to see where it takes me. While I thoroughly enjoyed the shiny appliances and beautiful mahogany cupboards of our old place, our new kitchen is the type of kitchen that somehow just "fits" us a little better. We do have to be organized (very little counter space), dry our dishes (no where else to put them away), our drawers are filled with fewer gadgets (but who needs them anyway?) and we really have to work as a team. I can already imagine a jar of fresh yogurt culturing on the back of the counter and a colander of freshly washed greens in one side of the sink. There are kabocha squash seeds drying on a cookie sheet near the window right now.

And you know what? All the windows make it perfect for taking pictures - day or night. And right outside all those windows lighting up the living room? A perfect view of the steep, mist-covered slopes of the Ko'olau range. Maybe change doesn't have to be so hard after all.

Regardless of how easy or difficult the transition of moving may be (and no matter what, it's still stressful to do the move itself), arriving after work to your new home for the first time and finding a package with your name on it - and full of food, no less - is something magical.

I hadn't participated in Blogging by Mail (BBM) in a really long time, and when my friend Deb suggested I go check out the most recent announcement at Stephanie's great blog, Dispensing Happiness, I decided I needed to get back in the game. This round of BBM had a huge number of participants, but thanks to Stephanie's hard work, it was easy to follow and everything went smoothly. Thanks Stephanie! The theme was "10 items or less" and entailed choosing 10 small but favorite things from your home and sending them off to another blogger. My box came from far away - Stockholm, to be exact - and from the wonderfully sweet blogger, Angelica from Butter & Beans.

Angelica sent me such incredible goodies in my box! There were tons of chocolate snack foods (a woman after my own heart, obviously!) - Ballerina cookies (think: chocolate and vanilla shortbread with smooth, rich chocolate sandwiched between; I've already broken into these and nearly half of them are gone...), Dumle original, Marinanne chocolate filled mint candies (what could be better - chocolate AND mint?!), a large block of Karl Fazer special edition milk chocolate (LB has been drooling in anticipation of opening this one), Center milk choclate with toffee filling (also delicious, I might add), and several smaller little chewy candies.

She also included a handwritten note explaining some of the other items, which helped me navigate the rest of the things she included. My favorite so far is the slightly salty Kalles Kaviar spread, made from fish roe and it's wonderful on the traditional spelt crispbread she sent to go with it: Spelt-Dinkel. She also sent two types of jam, Hjortronsylt (cloudberry) and a jar of beautiful raw lingonberry jam that is the most amazing shade of purple! According to Angelica, the cloudberry jam is native to the northern parts of Norway, Sweden and Finland and her favorite berry. We're having crepes this weekend and I'm going to try it on them, just as she suggests! To top it off, she also included a cookbook, "Served from the Swedish Kitchen: 50 classic recipes from Sweden." Angelica recommended the lingonberry jam with Swedish meatballs, and lo and behold, there is a recipe in the very book she sent, and many of the recipes look simple to prepare - perfect for my new kitchen. The best thing? She wrapped some of the goodies with a pink and white polka-dot ribbon, which made them seem even more special!

Thank you so much Angelica! You helped make my new home feel warm and comforting even as I was in the midst of boxes and chaos, and that means more to this blogger than you could possibly know. I'm so glad I decided to join in BBM because I now have the opportunity to get to know you through your blog!