December 30, 2010

50 Things I've Learned in 50 Years

Winter Spiced Molten Chocolate Cakes

A few days ago I turned 50 years old, a good point in life for a little self-reflection. It occurs to me that getting on in my life has been aided by far more stuff than this, but these are the narrowed-down essentials that make me smile, that I work on, believe in, or that have somehow aided in my betterment so far. This is by no means an exhaustive list, is in no particular order, and if the next 50 years are anything like the first, this list will certainly evolve.

  1. Remember the person you were when you were five years old. That is the essential, true person you were before you became convinced that you should be someone else. Go back, find her and be her.
  2. Bad times do not last forever, and human resilience is amazing. Trust your resilience.
  3. Give yourself feast days. Eat nutrient-dense, low calorie foods in moderation six days a week, and live a little on day seven. It makes life worth living and you can still face yourself in the mirror.
  4. Feel good and good looks will follow. Place your effort on being healthy in mind and spirit first, and you’ll always be a knockout. When you feel your "Pow-ey Wow-ey" factor sinking, it's time to take a look at your spiritual, mental, physical and social health.
  5. Never be afraid to make a midstream adjustment. Sometimes one is simply called for.
  6. It is better be alone and lonely than to be with someone and lonely.
  7. Listen to your Wise Self. Her quiet, clear voice will tell you everything you need to know. Sometimes life can't be worked out with a pro/con list, and that Wise Self voice comes in pretty handy.
  8. Natural fibers. Cotton, bamboo, alpaca, wool, cashmere, silk and linen. Spend the money.
  9. Get outdoors. Fresh air does you good, even in inclement weather.
  10. Moisturize the eye and neck areas daily beginning no later than the age of 25. You won’t be sorry.
  11. Most rules are generally only flexible guidelines. Rely more on your common sense than the rules.
  12. Wear your good jewelry. Every day. With jeans, or your bathrobe. There simply are not enough dress-up occasions to get your full enjoyment from the special treasures lying in your jewelry box.
  13. Do things that are a little scary once in a while. Facing them shows you what you’re made of and grows you bigger than you thought you’d become.
  14. Martyrdom is so completely unattractive.
  15. The best weight maintenance / weight loss / healthy eating program is to eat, for the most part, food you cook yourself. Studies show this is true across every culture and demographic.
  16. Bring only things into your home that you find useful and or beautiful. That one bit of self-editing is all you need to have an attractive, uncluttered and functional space.
  17. Promise yourself good things and then seek them. Imagine the life you want, then go ahead and live it.
  18. Have one simple show-stopping chocolate dessert in your recipe repertoire that you can count on. See below for mine.
  19. Each person is born with wondrous qualities that would be missing without his/her presence in the world. Approach everyone (including yourself) that way, and you’re likely to get along.
  20. Expect some turbulence every now and then. Hang on loosely and smile. With enough practice you may even be able to throw your arms up in the air and say, “Whee!”
  21. If you think your kids are cool when they’re young, just wait until they are adults. Wow.
  22. Don’t give yourself all away. Make time to read, walk, meditate, knit, swim, hike or whatever it is that feeds your soul. You’ll have more and better stuff for everyone else in the end.
  23. Offering direct and clear communication is one kind thing you can do for others around you. They cannot know what you are thinking unless you tell them.
  24. A relationship reflects the sum of its parts. The work you continue to do on yourself can only make your relationship(s) better.
  25. Giving compliments costs you nothing but contributes well to the world. You never know the positive effects your sweet words may have, so dish them out sincerely and generously.
  26. Fall in love with a person’s essence, then when his or her ideas, thoughts and behavior change you can easily accept those changes as growth rather than an upset to your paradigm.
  27. Don’t sequester yourself from opposing ideas. Open-mindedly listen to “the other” news station once in a while; read “that guy’s” book. You may find your views shifting, but if not, it’s so wonderful to say, “While I may not agree, I've considered your point of view,” and mean it.
  28. Tell people that you love them. Whichever one of you outlives the other will never regret having said/heard the words.
  29. Contrary to what we were told in the ‘70’s, love means occasionally having to say you’re sorry. When you mess up, say so and apologize. It’s the fastest way, if one exists, to reconciliation.
  30. Buy yourself flowers on payday. Don’t wait for someone to do it for you.
  31. Pay off your credit card monthly.
  32. Enjoy the process at least as much as the outcome.
  33. Invest in a good pillow.
  34. Set the table nicely, even if it’s dinner for one.
  35. Get yourself your own toolkit and be handy with it.
  36. The Golden Rule still works and always has.
  37. Start a new project only when you’ve completed the old one.
  38. When doing a task, ask yourself if you can take it any further before ending it. Don’t leave the last bits undone, for yourself, or the next guy.
  39. Hold doors for people. Every little kind gesture makes the world better.
  40. Servicing your car routinely pays off.
  41. Flossing regularly and having a dental checkup every six months pays off.
  42. A very good friend is worth two psychiatrists.
  43. A very good friend listens, but is not afraid to be honest with you when you’re off-base.
  44. Yoga is an exercise that can be done until your last day on earth, no matter your condition. It’s never too late to start.
  45. Limit your daily beverage consumption to water, tea and the like, and your health will improve without making any other changes. Ask yourself how many healthy, fit people you know who drink diet sodas or lattes every day.
  46. Singing off-tune is better than not sing at all. Dancing clumsily is better than not dancing at all.
  47. Most talent is a passionate interest dressed up in lots of hard work and practice.
  48. Mental illness is as real as heart disease or asthma. The stigma will be eliminated when we can agree on this fact.
  49. Exploit every minute of your life as though they are numbered. They are.
  50. I’ll always have a lot to learn.
Fourteen Ounces of Chopped 72% Dark Belgian Chocolate

This is my adaptation of a recipe from Epicurious that I first made for a dinner party in January of 2004, and have made many times since. It is easy to put together, can be made even days ahead for convenience, can be both rustic and elegant, and is versatile in your choice of how to spice or flavor it and with the accompanying ice cream. It can be served inverted onto a serving plate, as shown here, but perhaps looks a little less rustic when served in their ramekins. One last note: I regularly get 10 servings in my ramekins, and have often stretched it to serve 12. I've held these in the fridge for up to two weeks, baking them off as needed.

Winter Spiced Molten Chocolate Cakes
14 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1 1/4 cups (2 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 heaping teaspoon ground coriander
1 heaping teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
6 large eggs
6 large egg yolks
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 cups powdered sugar
1 cup AP flour

Additional powdered sugar and cocoa powder for garnish

Generously butter ten 3/4 cup souffle dishes or ramekins. Stir chocolate, butter and all spices in a heavy medium saucepan over low heat until melted and smooth, stirring frequently. Cool slightly.

Whisk eggs, egg yolks and vanilla in a large mixing bowl to blend. Whisk in 3 cups powdered sugar, then chocolate mixture, then flour. Dividing the batter equally, fill the buttered dishes to to the top. (Can be made several days ahead. Cover and refrigerate.)

Preheat oven to 425˚. Bake cakes until batter has risen above dish, top edges are dark brown, and centers are still soft and runny, about 15 minutes, or 18 minutes for refrigerated batter. Run small knife around cakes to loosen. Allow cakes to rest in dished 5 minutes. Using hot pad and holding dish very firmly, place serving plate gently atop one cake at a time and invert onto plate. Dust with powdered sugar and cocoa powder. Serve with ice cream of your choice.

    December 17, 2010

    Keeping the Elves Happy

    Moroccan Quinoa and Chickpea Stew in Baked Squash Bowls

    Just as accountants are buried under mounds of paper in April and road workers are up to their eyeballs in hot tar in July, the hectic time of year for Santa's elves is the last weekend before Christmas. Perhaps you know one or two who are a little stressed.

    Here in our neck of the woods, one of two elves is busy in the woodshop and the other is fiendish on the knitting needles and wrapping gifts, with imminent shipping deadlines looming.

    In order to keep productivity high and the elves from getting cranky, Santa prescribes a nice break for a healthy, nourishing meal highly spiced with warm Indian flavors. The proper care and feeding of the elves makes for the gay and bright Christmas season Norman Rockwell would like to capture, and the one we all want to live.

    How lucky we are to still be using homegrown produce from our summer garden for such a meal. The little sweet red peppers that ripened in abundance in October are wintering over well, and a good handful went into this stew.

    A plump buttercup squash brought up from the root cellar (garage) and mint that is still surviving our morning frosts made their way into this meal too.

    We popped the cork on one of our wedding gifts (thank you again, Paul and Terry!), a bottle of Trinity Vineyards 2006 Oregon Syrah. Its smoky, peppery and cocoa notes worked well with the exotic spiciness of the dish, and its inky depth of fruit gave it nice structure.

    Moroccan Quinoa and Chickpea Stew in Baked Squash Bowls

    1 large buttercup or acorn squash

    One small onion, finely diced
    One small red bell pepper, diced
    3 tablespoons olive oil
    6 cloves garlic, pressed
    2 teaspoons sweet Hungarian paprika
    1 cup quinoa, rinsed
    One 14 oz. can ready-diced tomatoes with onion and green pepper
    One 14 oz. can garbanzo beans, drained
    3 large handfuls of spinach, chopped
    About 3 tablespoons mint leaves, chopped
    Salt and pepper to taste

    Preheat oven to 375˚. If using buttercup squash, slice in half horizontally so that both sides will rest in a baking dish. If using acorn squash, slice in half vertically. Scoop seeds out. Place cut sides down in baking dish and bake for 45 minutes or until tender.

    In the meantime, heat olive oil in a 4 quart pot. Saute onions and red bell pepper until onions are soft and turning translucent, about 6 minutes stirring occasionally. Add garlic and stir for another minute. Add paprika, garam masala salt and pepper and stir for another minute to open up the spices.

    Drain the can of tomatoes into a 2 cup measure, fill the remained with water to measure 2 cups. Add the quinoa, the tomato juice/water mixture and garbanzos to the pot. Bring to a rapid boil, cover, and return pot to low heat. Cook for 15-20 minutes until quinoa is tender, stirring and adding additional water to keep moisture loose. In the last 3 minutes stir in spinach and mint. Adjust seasonings to taste.

    Ladle stew into baked squash bowls. Sprinkle with additional mint to garnish.

    Merry Christmas!!

    December 11, 2010

    Chanterelles and Chardonnay

    Chanterelle; such a pretty word to describe one of Oregon's amazing culinary treasures.

    I've never hunted for mushrooms on my own, but understand from friends that finding chanterelles (Oregon's official state mushroom) can be be habit-forming. I imagine, if I am ever so lucky as to go mushroom hunting with a seasoned guide, a rousing day in the damp, cold, brisk air. The misty fog rolling in and around the Oregon coastal forest floor would add a quality of mystery to the experience, and I'd feel like an Indian tracker to come across the first golden bunch, buried beneath yellowed Alder leaves. Chanterelles live in symbiosis with Douglas Fir trees, so it is said to look amidst fir forests to find the bounty. Alder trees also like living with Douglas Fir, so the bright yellow fallen Alder leaves provide a tell-tale path to the mushrooms, even as they camouflage the fungi.

    I also imagine a booted-and-bundled-up mushroom hunting day through the fecund forest to stimulate a great appetite. The dish that would keep me focused on the reward of the day would be a nice gooey, warm mushroom risotto.
    My Baby "hunted" for local chanterelles at the local market yesterday, and scored a bounty. At the market he found not only the famous Golden Chanterelles in abundance, but also the smaller, more delicately flavored Yellow Footed Chanterelles. With the mushrooms as a centerpiece, he created a rich, homey risotto which was really welcome, comforting and satisfying after a long, ward week.

    In his wine-pairing genius, My Baby served the 2007 Amalie Robert Dijon Clones Chardonnay. Amalie Robert is also one of Oregon's treasures, enologically speaking, and every bit as worth seeking out as are chanterelles.

    Amalie Robert Chardonnay continues to be one of my absolute favorites. I've written before about it here (2007 vintage) and here (2006 vintage), and will continue to do so as long as it charms me like it does. Writing about this wine yet a third time in less than a year reminds me of the importance of living in the moment. Ever time we drink a wine, just like every time we hold a baby or make love or laugh out loud is a new time to be appreciated.

    Here is a recipe for Wild Mushroom Risotto that we followed, more or less. Ours was colored golden-orange, as we used boxed vegetable stock rather than chicken stock, for no other reason than that's what our larder possessed. I opt for the stand-there-and-stir method of risotto-making rather than the oven methods touted of late. Tradition, maybe, or that it is a good time to dream. About a mushroom hunt.

    December 6, 2010

    Go Ducks!

    Our local University of Oregon Ducks (if you’ve ever been chased by a duck, this is a more fearful mascot than meets the eye) is not only Numero Uno in the PAC-10, but in the country. Saturday’s civil war game against Oregon had the whole state abuzz.

    Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
    He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
    He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword;
    His truth is marching on.
    That old civil war hymn might be taking things a bit far when we’re talking about a state rivalry, but college football has been known to make people experience godlike rapture and certainly arouses violent passions.

    Please, though, linebackers. Don’t stomp on the grapes...

    It is only appropriate to serve a local wine while cheering on the home team. Sarver Winery, which produces my favorite line-up of Pinot Gris, fills that bill terrifically. For this meal, we chose the Sarver 2009 Barrel Aged Pinot Gris. Made in the Chardonnay style in oak barrels, Sarver's Barrel Aged Pinot Gris has appley and vanilla notes, and is round and lush. I love the way the popping acidity of the Pinot Gris grape gives a little sass to the velvety barrel richness. I occasionally describe wines by giving them names of famous women. This one, I'd call Bridget Bardot, equal to the famous lady in robust sexiness mixed with a little controversial edge. How often have you found barrel-aged Pinot Gris, after all?

    The meal is a redux of the former Butternut Squash and Hazelnut Pizza I'd previously posted, but with some refinements. I had noted the the previous post that the crust recipe was a bit tough and dry for my taste. I fixed that by adding a little more water as I was mixer-kneading the dough. I also drizzled hazelnut oil over the entire pizza before baking for an added subtle flavor note, which was perfect. I also went back to my tried and true oven temperature of 450˚convection. It works well for me.

    Served with a persimmon salad, this was a fantastic way to cheer the Duck's on to a National Championship bowl!!

    Go Ducks!

    December 3, 2010

    Persimmon Salad

    Fruit from our orchard. Lucky me.

    The glum of early winter doesn't lower one's spirits so badly when there are persimmons around.

    I'd never had a persimmon before becoming involved with our land three years ago. I had no idea that that under the waxy smooth skin of the orange beauties lies a succulent, spicy flesh. I've learned that the meat of the fruit is equally good when it is yellowish-orange and still a little firm and crispy or when its full reddish-orange ripeness quivers as it's spooned from the skin. Persimmons, in their full-on ripeness, have a honey-like flavor and texture. In their lesser ripe mode, they are more acidic, but still a lovely thing in every way.

    Persimmons cut into slices or wedges, wrapped in proscuitto, drizzled with excellent olive oil and sprinkled with cracked black pepper is a phenomenal appetizer. Do try it if you can find a persimmon or two.

    But try this salad first. It is perfect in the winter, and will lift your spirits just by looking at it.

    Winter Persimmon Salad
    Mixed greens
    Two or three small persimmons, peeled, halved lengthwise, and sliced 1/4" thick
    Crumbly white cheese (I used queso anejo here for its brininess, but really any white crumbly cheese would do)
    Hazelnut dressing
    *Handful of chopped toasted hazelnuts

    Hazelnut Dressing
    1/4 cup Sherry vinegar
    1/2 cup l'huile do noisette (hazelnut oil)
    2 teaspoons dark, flavorful honey
    Salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste

    Put all dressing ingredients in a recycled jar. Screw the lid on tight, and shake until the salt is dissolved.

    Place salad ingredients in a bowl. Drizzle with hazelnut dressing. Toss, and serve.

    *I didn't use the hazelnuts in this salad pictured, as hazelnuts showed up in another menu item. Stay tuned for my next post to see what great dish accompanied this salad.

    Quick Linker