White Beans, Potatoes, and Cabbage

My sweet BFF gave us Heidi Swanson‘s new cookbook Super Natural Every Day for a wedding gift, and I have been dying to dig into it! I love Heidi’s blog and appreciate her one-pot dishes and creative use of beans and grains, which are very close to my heart.

The first recipe I tried was actually the one pictured on the cover, but I didn’t realize it until later. It seems fitting, though, for a start!

The basic change I made to the recipe was to cook the beans and vegetables over a lower heat for a longer period of time, so that it was smooth and creamy instead of browned, as it is in the original. Either way, it makes a lovely lunch!

And of course, I got to use some new tools for the first time, including our majestic pressure cooker (a Fagor Duo) and our amazing Wüsthof knives! Thank you thank you thank you, dear family and friends!

It would be really easy to make substitutions in this recipe, say, if there is another kind of bean that you prefer–white beans just happen to be my favorite!

White Beans, Potatoes, and Cabbage
Adapted from Heidi Swanson’s Super Natural Every Day
Serves 4

2 Tbsp olive oil
4 oz. potatoes, cut into tiny cubes
1 large shallot, finely chopped
2 c cooked white beans (You can either use canned or start with dried beans.  If using dried, you can cook 1 c beans in your pressure cooker on high for about 40 minutes, or you can simply soak the beans overnight and cook them in a pan over medium-high heat, for about an hour or until tender.)
3 c shredded green cabbage
Freshly grated Asiago cheese (parmesan would also be good)
Salt to taste

-Pour the olive oil into a large skillet on medium heat.
-Add the potatoes and a pinch of salt. Cover and cook for 20 minutes or until tender, making sure to deglaze the pan with water every 5 minutes or so, to keep the potatoes from sticking.
-Add the shallot and cabbage and cook uncovered for another 5 minutes, or until the cabbage is wilted.
-Add the beans and simmer for a minutes more.
-Add salt and pepper to taste, top with freshly grated Asiago cheese and enjoy!


Roasted Eggplant with Couscous and Feta

Sometimes you’ve got to throw dinner together with what you have on hand, and in those instances, it’s very good if you happen to have an eggplant and some feta. Very good indeed. This simple dinner has lots of flavor and is very quick and easy to prepare.

Part of the secret is to toss the eggplant in oil and vinegar. Eggplants are like little sponges, and they will soak up whatever you put them in. When those flavors are baked in, it adds a great richness to the humble (yet beloved!) eggplant.

The coriander and cumin seeds give the eggplant a nice smokiness too. Yum.

Roasted Eggplant with Couscous and Feta

Serves 2-3 as a main dish, 4-5 as a side dish (the recipe could easily be doubled, and, in fact, I think I will double it next time I make it!)

1 eggplant, about 1 3/4 lb, cut into 1″ cubes
4 Tbsp olive oil
3 Tbsp red wine vinegar
1 tsp coriander
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
2 1/2 oz. crumbled feta cheese
1 Tbsp chopped fresh basil
Salt and pepper
Pine nuts (for topping)
1 c couscous

-Heat oven to 450°F.
-Cut eggplant into 1″cubes.
-Whisk together olive oil and red wine vinegar and toss eggplant cubes in it until soaked.
-Place eggplant cubes on baking sheet and sprinkle with salt and pepper, coriander and cumin seeds. (Don’t worry if there are clumps of coriander–the moisture of the couscous will soak it up.)
-Roast eggplant for 40 minutes at 450°F, stirring occasionally to prevent burning.
-While eggplant is roasting, bring 2 c water to boil. When boiling, stir in the couscous. Remove from heat, cover, and let rest for 10 minutes.
-Chop 1 Tbsp fresh basil (or more if desired) and place in large bowl. Add crumbled feta, couscous, and roasted eggplant, and stir well.
-Sprinkle pine nuts over the top for some extra crunch. Voila!



Lemon Cinnamon Cake

I have been wanting to make this cake for such a long time! The idea struck me when I made this lemon cinnamon lentil dish several months ago. My BFF, who blogs here, had mentioned that she’d made it, and I begged her to blog it so I could try the recipe. My BFF is a woman of her word, and she dutifully shared the recipe, adapted from Madhur Jaffrey’s An Invitation to Indian Cooking.  The highlight of the dish is the combination of lemon with a cinnamon stick, slow simmered. It was incredibly delicious, and the pairing so unexpectedly perfect that I was determined to try it out in a cake.

There is no tried and true recipe for a lemon cinnamon cake, at least that I could find, so I just came up with this one. It came out so wonderfully lemony, with an aromatic infusion of cinnamon. Part of the fun was that I got to use so many of our new kitchen toys: the new Bundt pan, cooling rack, and cake dome, to say nothing of the majestic Microplane grater! Thank you kindly, dear friends and family!

Lemon Cinnamon Cake

4 eggs
1 1/2 c sugar
1/2 c butter, softened
2 c flour
4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 c milk
5 Tbsp lemon juice
Zest of three small lemons
1 tsp cinnamon (I used Penzeys Extra Fancy Vietnamese cinnamon, which is very strong, so you might use a bit more if you are using regular cinnamon)

-Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter and flour the inside of a Bundt pan.
-Zest and juice the lemons.
-Combine the eggs and sugar and beat in the butter gradually until the mixture is creamy.
-Add the flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and milk, and beat to combine.
-Add the lemon juice and lemon zest and beat to combine.
-Pour into the Bundt pan and bake for approximately 50-55 minutes at 350 degrees F. (I started checking it around 40 minutes with a toothpick, but it still needed more time. When the toothpick comes out clean and the outer edges of the cake are pulling away slightly from the sides of the pan, it is ready.)
-Let cool for at least 30 minutes, and then loosen the edges with a  spatula before turning out onto a cooling rack or serving plate.
-I served the cake as it is, but you could also dust it with powdered sugar or add a simple lemon glaze (just lemon juice and powdered sugar). Enjoy!

365 Project

One of my favorite projects over the past few years has been the 365 project. The basic idea is that you take and post one picture every day for a year. It’a an incredible way to create visual memories, and I especially appreciate the fact that it makes me more aware of the beauty in the small things that make up our day-to-day life. (I’m a total sucker for the aestheticization of the quotidian, so you can see how this would be right up my alley!)

I got the idea from my awesome friend Melissa, who was inspired by this post on PhotoJojo to try the project. I loved seeing her gorgeous photographs and hearing about what caught her eye on a daily basis. Since we’ve never lived in the same place, it’s also a great way to keep in touch!

An added benefit is that the project gives you so much practice at photography and an ever-present opportunity to learn more about your camera. There is always more to learn, but I am grateful for all the things I’ve figured out along the way.

The image at the top of this post is a compilation of all of my pictures from the first year of the project. My sweet husband (then fiancé) downloaded all 365 of them, put them in one mosaic image, and printed it for me for Christmas last year. When a dear friend of mine saw the picture, she said that Eric is truly a wonder, and I have to agree!

I am now in my second year of the project, and I couldn’t really imagine my life without it. If you have any inclination to try it, I would really encourage you to give it a shot. And if you do, please send me the link! I’d love to see what your daily life looks like:)



Hot Hot Heat

It’s been so sweltering these past few days that every morning I am faced with the same challenge: what can I wear that will feel the most like nothing at all? Today I pulled on my favorite summer dress, which my sweet mom bought me for my birthday several years ago at Zara. I added this little vest for some shape and the red belt for a little pop of color. The vest was actually a sweater that I adapted–I just cut off the sleeves, added some darts, and voila!

It ended up being the perfect thing for a day spent even partly in the sun.  This afternoon Eric and I went to check out the Pasadena Museum of California Art, and he very kindly took these shots. A husband who will do this in such weather is pure gold.

I am always so inspired by people who manage to dress fashionably in the summer. It’s thrilling to be able to pull out the sundresses, for sure, but when the heat crosses the line into something that feels reminiscent of an oven, I lose all will to even wear jewelry. But at least lipstick comes to the rescue!


Leeks and Improv Dinners

I distinctly remember a time at which I did not know what a leek was. Sure, any six-year-old could boast the same thing, but I didn’t actually discover the wondrous leek until I was in high school. I must have somehow gotten it into my head to make some potato soup, given my obsession with that particular starch. To be truthful, I was addicted to all kinds of starch. Much to my parents’ chagrin, I used to take nothing but a sleeve of crackers for my lunch when I was in high school. I suppose I just had more pressing things to do with my time than to make myself something more nourishing than a sleeve of crackers: writing copiously in my journal (with rainbow-colored inks, no less), cramming for AP history, braiding my hair, attempting (not totally successfully) to shape fabric scraps into long and flowing skirts. Having recently become a vegetarian, I fully embraced what were usually my three restaurant options: veggie burgers, bean burritos, and baked potatoes.

Hoping to introduce some shadow of versatility into my life, I must have looked up a recipe for potato soup and found this mysterious ingredient: leeks. Ironically enough, I had just started a job at one of the city’s only natural food markets. I think I recall looking for leeks in the produce section, and I definitely remember shoving the long and strangely cylindrical object in the fridge. For some reason, it was in a brown paper bag.

I can’t remember making that soup at all, or how it tasted, but I thought of it this week because I am about to make potato leek soup again. It really hasn’t been so long, I will confess, that leeks have been a normal part of my life. I didn’t even understand that they were somewhere on the onion family tree until I left the remains of one in my kitchen trash overnight. Oh wow, was it pungent in the morning.

I’ve been reflecting on my cooking history these past few weeks because I’m trying out a new technique in the kitchen. It’s not the use of a fancy mandoline, or slow-rising my bread dough (though that’s not a bad idea), or even breaking in the pasta maker I have yet to acquire. It’s just a bit of an emancipation from the way I have been cooking for as long as I can remember.

In a nutshell (since we’re talking about food anyway), I have been very attached to my recipes. Not my recipes. But ones I’ve scrounged up from cookbooks and magazines and blogs. I’ve never strayed too far from them, since I’ve never really considered myself to be an expert in kitchen alchemy: how things fit together, how much water you need to cook rice, how to balance the notes of sweet and sour and bitter and salty and even umami.

It’s not that I really understand now either. But for some reason, I feel the need to give myself a bit more room for experimentation. So, what I am doing these days is going to the store and buying what looks good. Then I come home, cram it all in the fridge, and ask myself: “Now what can I make with this?”

This week I wound up with some radishes, a parsnip, potatoes, three shallots, a bunch of Italian parsley, a head of cauliflower, a few bell peppers, and a leek or two, among other things. So far I have concocted some roasted vegetable quinoa (which I topped with some leftover mustard vinaigrette) and some carrot ginger soup. As I pondered the ingredients I have on hand to determine the next dish, I realized, of course: potato leek soup. It’s been a lot of fun following my intuitions, and whims even, in place of my usual attempt to perfectly recreate something someone else has designed. I affectionately call these most recent attempts of mine my improv dinners.

I’ve also been thinking about cooking in more general terms as a result of this kitchen overhaul. I’ve always been intensely interested in the staples of other kitchens. I have a friend who always has kale on hand. He says it’s really good on pizza. Lover of all things crunchy, I’ll believe that. I have another friend who is never without her vanilla yogurt. My little brother puts Tapatio hot sauce on everything. I mean everything. He even put it on our Thanksgiving pumpkin fondue. My boyfriend (now my husband!) almost always has an eggplant on hand for a quick sauté, and a squash of some kind when they’re in season.

It’s refreshing and kind of delightful to see how the variety of the individual is displayed in the kitchen. And it also invites me to a particularly exhilarating opportunity for reinvention. What are my staples? What are the things I keep around now that I didn’t six months ago, two years ago; what are the things I always have on hand that I didn’t know existed two years ago? Our kitchens define us in such interesting ways; it’s just one of many arenas in which we carve out our identities.

As I look back on my kitchens past, I see that there is an evolution, and not only in my cooking methods and preferences. My staples map me: where I have been, what I have been reading, with whom I’ve been eating. A few years ago, spinach lasagna was the only dinner-party-worthy dish I knew how to make. In my stressful months of qualifying exam preparation, I’d consider it a red-letter evening if I had enough energy to make myself some pancakes. But thankfully in the past few years I’ve made time for exploring new flavors. I’ll admit that I’m spoiled rotten to be living in a place where such a huge variety of fresh produce is both available and affordable. It’s here that I’ve come to love kumquats and golden kiwis and shallots, and, yes, leeks. It’s here that I’ve learned how to toast bulgur and barley, how to braise fennel, how to make my own vegetable stock. It’s here that I’ve come to embrace the most delicious and stinky of cheeses: Gorgonzola, Stilton, Blue. It’s here that my kitchen has come to revolve around fresh pressed garlic and chopped sage, thyme, and oregano.

I know that I won’t always live in a place where acquiring these ingredients, which have become my staples, will be easy. But there’s a part of me that believes I’ll somehow carry them with me, wherever I may go. They’ve become a part of who I am, so I will bring my leeks with me, in their brown paper bag.

Small Symphony

It’s raining here, and it promises to keep drenching us for the rest of the week. It’s a pretty normal pattern for this part of the country, just a routine dose of precipitation that requires you to have a bit more foresight, and a bit more slick gear, as you step out the door into the rainforest: umbrella, raincoat, boots with raised heels that make them slightly more impervious to puddles.

I like it most in the morning, when I’m safely (and even sometimes warmly) wrapped in my apartment. The first thing I hear when I wake up is pinging, singing: the sound of a small symphony. The melodic beat of the rain on my ceiling, sometimes developing into a truly thunderous crescendo. The percussive plinks of hail against my windows. The occasional high-pitched notes of water hitting the glass top of my kitchen fan. The muffled sound of the palm leaves frantically rustling under the weight and fury of the driving drops.

It’s been a long time since those summers when I would run out into the backyard to dance in the rain, to take in the deliciously lush smell of freshly wetted grass, to feel the coolness of the water on my bare arms and legs and to shriek with glee at what I am sure then I didn’t quite understand was simply the joy of being alive, the sheer endless wonder of the earth.

I think, in spite of all that is irretrievable in time and space, that this rain symphony is gently inviting me, softly asking me to dance, to feel here inside my cozy apartment what I felt then, all those years ago, a rain-drenched girl spinning with delight under the wondrously melting ocean of the sky.

Breathing. Just Breathing.

I have been thinking a lot about breathing lately. Part of this is certainly because I am getting back to my yoga classes, during which I lie on the floor in the dark and take directives about exhaling and inhaling. I’m not really very good at it yet. I find that whole synthesis of thought and action and meta-thought more than a bit intimidating. And then I tend to think myself into circles, and tightly wound ones at that. I have a feeling this is not the goal of the exercise.

But I have hope that I’ll get there. Tonight our teacher read us something about breathing being the link between the mind and the body–how being conscious of this simple and constant activity can, and I quote, however irresponsibly, this monk whose name I cannot recall, “make life more vivid and enjoyable.” I’ll buy that.

The thing is that, of course, we don’t have to think about breathing.

Breathe. Just breathe.

Isn’t that what we tell people who have suffered some terrible shock or catastrophe? It’s possible that in such moments our bodies could fail us, but on the whole this constant process of breathing in and out happens entirely without our awareness.

And therein lies its mystery and its beauty. As I’ve been thinking about breathing lately, it’s not been in any kind of tantric way (though I don’t deny the benefits of such practice). Instead, I try to think consciously about what is happening in my body as I’m breathing. I think about air filling my lungs, all the way down to my miniscule alveoli. I think about the steady drumline of my heart, pumping blood to every corner and crevice of my body. I think about my bones and muscles that know instinctively how to walk, how to stretch themselves, how to hug and to hold. It’s an incredibly majestic thing, this human body. I am fully aware that even as I type this, there are more processes occurring in me than I could fit on this page. People who study and know the body far better than I do must feel these sensations all the time—they must think about their joints and tendons as they are tying their shoes, consider how their eyes were moving and their synapses firing as they wake from a vivid dream, comprehend how moisture moves through the body as tears dampen their lashes.

Even with the very little bit I know and recall about how the body works, I still catch myself staring in awe sometimes. When I’m lying in bed, I rest my finger on my pulse; when a tiny cut produces an equally tiny red drop of blood, I think about how it was blue until it hit the surface; when I breathe, I try to imagine my lungs expanding and contracting, safely hidden away behind the bars of my ribcage.

I’m not really sure that this is what the monk had in mind, but I do find that it deeply enriches my sense of myself, that it binds my mind to my body, even just a little bit, to think about things that do not require thinking.

Nightwalk and Terra Incognita

Late in the evening on New Year’s Day I was angling to go out and look at the moon. We used to be able to see the sky more clearly before huge chunks of our neighborhood were annexed by the city and summarily saddled with streetlights. But there is still one little stretch at the end of our street that has escaped this fate, at least thus far.

Mom proposed that we go out for a nightwalk. Nightwalk. All one word, and when it stands alone, it requires no article, no determination of its definite or indefinite status. I was a bit resistant at first- a quick peep was more what I had in mind, since it was so fiercely cold (by which I mean about 30 degrees. Cold for this city). Mom was undeterred and proffered some huge coats we have hiding in the closet under the stairs. I went along.

One of those coats was mine. I hadn’t worn it in years- it was my Russia coat. I pulled it off the hanger and dragged it (it’s at least as long as I am) into Mom’s room to put it on. I laid my hands on it to turn it over and just stood there, staring at my fingertips resting lightly on its silky surface, feeling the thickness of its memories, instantaneously transmitted to my body.

I remember so sharply that winter before I left for Russia. How we pored over boots and guidebooks, scarves and socks. But choosing my coat was the most important mission. We finally found it in a Land’s End catalog: a long quilted down sleeping bag of a coat, full of pockets on the outside and inside (perfect for stashing your leather gloves and your tram fare), with a hood that zipped off (for those magical days when the sky might deign to hover somewhere above +10 degrees Celsius), and, most importantly, black as midnight, so as not to announce me as some kind of naïve rainbow bright foreigner.

I remember the day it came in the mail, how I skipped back into the house to open the box. I threw the coat on over some little dress I was wearing and ran out into the January cold. Духовка. The Oven. That’s what I called that coat, it was so deliciously warm. I wore it almost every single day I was in Russia, the few exceptions being a handful of days in May when I could get away with wearing its younger cousin, a down vest I lovingly referred to as Микровальновка, The Microwave.

Touching it, running my fingers over my coat that night transformed me, even if just for a moment, into the woman that I was then, exactly seven years ago. I remembered the elation of exploring St. Petersburg in that coat, the only light for its winter darkness the tiny sugar grains of snow caught in the yellow glow of the streetlights, preserved in perfect silence. It might have been the first time I ever fell in love, and it was certainly the first and only time I have ever fallen in love with a city. It’s a different kind of love, that, one that doesn’t leave any room for insecurities or rejection- you are simply there, you love, and the city itself is tangible evidence of its love in return, always surprising you with exquisite tokens of undying affection: the bells at Alexander Nevsky Monastery, translucent curtains on the windows of the trams (lovingly installed by the ticket-collectors who make it their home), the bustle and vibrant colors of the Kuznechny Market, where you’d never know you were in the grip of a Russian winter, and where blood-stained butchers never fail to call you over to choose from among their pink and marbled wares: “Hey beautiful, don’t walk away!”

This is the woman I held in my hands when I pulled my coat out of the closet that night. I’ve wondered sometimes, as I’ve grown older and my heart has turned more toward home, where she has gone. Is it that my delusions of invincibility have slowly faded away? I’d still like to think of myself as a fairly adventurous person, but I don’t feel the same tug east (or north, or south, or west, for that matter) that I used to. I’ve not been to Russia in almost six years, have not left this country in four, and I think that’s something this earlier self of mine would have had some trouble with.

It’s not that the prospect of exploring terra incognita doesn’t still make my heart skip a beat, or that I wouldn’t love to return to the place that literally made me weep for joy for weeks after I’d arrived (every night: my journal and my tears), and then made me weep weeks in advance over the prospect of leaving it. It’s just, I suppose, that my terra incognita finds itself here now; it’s something that I explore, that I see with fresh eyes, every day, and something that fills my heart so completely.

It’s not so much the space itself, but the fact that everything is new when I see it with Eric. What makes me weep for joy now is not the memory of those first euphoric days in Russia, when I’d periodically pause to consult a map and recall with glee that I was literally on the other side of the earth, but instead the life that we have built together, the adventures we’ve crafted together, the conversations that we share, the myriad of fascinating things that we are constantly learning from and about each other, the hours we’ve spent laughing and loving one another: these are my Nevsky Prospect, my Dostoevsky Museum, my tram tickets shoved into the pockets of my coat–my terra incognita.

A Non-Ironic Zone

I suppose it is an expected thing, insofar as it is a trope inherent to the genre, to provide some kind of programmatic statement in the first official post of a blog. Some intrepid writers may place it in the “about” section, to be sure, but as you can see, I prefer to eschew this practice in favor of long literary quotes instead.

However, reader with whom I am forging a contract, I shan’t let you down.

I have been thinking that it’s time I create some kind of non-ironic personal zone. It’s not that I find myself so pervasively ridden by irony, and it’s not that my relationships, both personal and professional, are founded upon it. In fact, it’s a bit hard for me to think of someone with whom that is the case.

This has more to do with irony and writing: namely, that I need a space in which I am not afraid to be wholly non-ironic, not afraid to feel what I feel, to fear what I fear, to examine freely all of the different selves in me with complete emotional generosity. The idea, then, is to write honestly about the things and the people that I love, about the experiences and the history that make me who I am.

You can’t help but notice, attentive reader, that this blog is beginning just as the year is ending. Is this some kind of ambitious New Years’s resolution? No. In the first place, I like to think that time is more fluid than that sort of institution implies, and that you can make a new year begin whenever you’d like it to. But aside from my own temporal proclivities, the truth of the matter is that the issue at hand is quite tangibly upon me. I am at home, in the place where I did some pretty substantial growing up, with the only people who knew me when I was as I was, who knew me before I knew myself, and who know me still. This experience, combined with some spatial distance from the life I have built for myself elsewhere and the work that usually keeps me occupied, has left me feeling closer to the person I believe I am.

What exactly is that supposed to mean? It means, at least at this moment, that I can perceive some synthesis of my selves- they are circling me like translucent slips of paper in muted tones, which, when they inevitably intersect, create rich slivers of color. Look: there is the me that is a writer and a photographer, there is the me that is a girlfriend (now a wife!) and a daughter and a sister, there is the me that is writing a dissertation on something that even I will admit is at least moderately esoteric, but which is nonetheless very important to me.

I’m aware more than ever these days of the amalgamations that make up each one of us- we are all shaped by the books we’ve read, the ideas we’ve birthed, the places we’ve lived, the friends who have given us comfort and company. By my calculation, each one of us becomes more markedly unique with every moment that passes, with every breath of air that moves through our lungs. We forge and chisel our identities with every decision that we make, with every thought that we harbor. We clear a discrete and wholly individual path for ourselves with every beat of our hearts. So here are some stones I’ve gathered, some tree bark patterns I’ve traced, some leaves I’ve brushed up against as I’ve made my way.

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