Sunday, December 16, 2007

Nor'easter inspiration

I love snowstorms.

Perhaps it is the fact that for the first time, I own one of those wonderful, knee-length, quilted coats that makes one feel invincible in the cold.

Perhaps it is the fact that I am a hot yoga enthusiast, and the intense cold is the best possible foil for the fabulous heat I feel inside the studio.

Perhaps it is the fact that I now have a dog, and he loves fresh-fallen snow; he loves to jump in it and dig in it, kicking up big skiffs and making lumpen snow-angels as he staggers drunkenly through the drifts.

Perhaps it is the fact that I have not driven a car for over a year, and have forgotten what it's like to spend the morning warming up the engine, clearing off the wipers, digging out the driveway. (I simply put on my coat, walk out the door, and there is the train station, just down the stairs.)

Perhaps I am finally getting used to Boston winters.

Whatever it is -- I find snowstorms inspiring.

I love the cold rush of air after a languid morning spent inside in the heat. I drink it in; it is like cold icy water on a summer day. I love the moist sweaty mist that rises up out of my coat and gathers around my neck as I stomp through the snow, working up a sweat despite the cold flakes falling around me. I love the condensed moisture dripping from the tips of my bangs. I love the rosy cheeks on my reflection as I pass fogged-up windows. I love snuggling down into the scruff of scarf around my neck, peering out over the top at a world in white.

I love being inside during a storm as well. I love the sound of distant snowplows, early in the morning, charging past on the streets below us, flashing their lights. I love waking to the dim light of the morning on the dawn of a snowstorm, the sense that the sky is hanging low, the new frank coldness in the air inside our apartment. I love the patter of hard icy flakes on the windows as I stand inside, humming to the music I'm playing as I stand in stocking feet, frying up hash browns. I love curling up inside a blanket on my boyfriend's lap, snuggling like a child in the crook of his elbow, listening to the sound of the wind whining and the television humming, the earnest voices of the news programs speaking slowly, cheerfully. I love having an excuse to go back to bed, to pull the covers up under my chin, to bid the dog to come lay in my lap, and to read the last of a suspenseful book, one I might have saved for later if the snow had not come.

I always like an excuse to drop the usual routines of our shared adult life for something more innocent, languid and natural.

It was during a very serious snowstorm that my boyfriend and I decided to live together for the first time. I was living with a few friends from my freshman year, and it was not working out very well. I often spent nights at his tiny apartment in Beacon Hill, washing up with his rough men's soap, leaving bare-faced and wet-haired, changing into my own clothes once I returned to the dorm. I liked his place; his bed was soft and big, not narrow and hard like the ones in the dorm, and I never felt as though I might come face-to-face with a nasty note if I left a dish in the sink or a pair of shoes in the hallway. On this night, I had once again decided to stay, although I planned to come "home" in the morning.

During this snowstorm, we were literally trapped inside the apartment; in Beacon Hill, the plows come through rarely, and the streets are so narrow that when they do, the cast-aside snow piles up in enormous drifts. It is difficult to walk up or down the steep hills, and most businesses that serve the hill, being mom-and-pop establishments, simply close in the face of harsh weather. We had no where to go, and no reason to leave. So instead of going back to the dorm, I stayed with my boyfriend. I don't remember how we passed the time; perhaps we watched movies and made breakfast, perhaps we just lay in bed for most of the morning. I do know that in a moment of boredom and pent-up energy, we decided to re-arrange the furniture, and the result was inspiring: suddenly, there was twice as much room in the small space. Enough, we realized, for two.

In this way, snowstorms can have the potential to bring about major changes, important decisions, and spurts of resourcefulness. It is this resourcefulness that I like the best -- the sense that you must rely on yourself and what you have on hand to make things work. To me, it's as fun as using a house full of blankets to make a fort out of pillows. There's a childish, comfortable joy that comes from battening down the hatches, hiding out, making do. I will post soon about a project that came about today because of our most recent snowstorm. I am so happy that we had one today; in fact, I am almost always delighted when extreme weather forces us to seal ourselves off from the outside world and to be still. I don't think that we as civilized humans are forced to do this enough.

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Blizzard bean burgers

This morning, we awoke to the sounds of the second Nor'easter to hit Boston this winter. I had checked the forecast, and I knew it was coming, so last night we went to the grocery store and picked up the essentials needed to weather a major storm -- wine, soy ice cream, Valrhona chocolate... (what other essentials are there?)

Luckily, I also absent-mindedly threw a can of black beans in the cart. They became the basis for tonight's lovely meal.

Because my boyfriend is a carnivore, I often end up making a meal for one - but one that can be cooked alongside his. He was feeling like eating a hamburger, and while this sounded good, I had no frozen veggie burgers in the fridge. So, I thought I'd try my hand at making a homemade black bean burger, inspired by a few decent versions I've tried at Washington Square Tavern and The Publick House in Brookline, and the Centre Street Cafe in Jamaica Plain.

Again, I began with what I had in the fridge and pantry. This is what I used:

1 can black beans, well drained
1/4 cup oats
1/4 wheat flour
1 egg's equivalent of culinary egg replacer
1 stick celery
1 half white onion
1 clove garlic
1 cup broccoli, lightly cooked/steamed
1 cup peas, lightly cooked/steamed
1 tbs olive oil

--Note: from here, spice servings are approximate: I added to taste. Not all ingredients are required (although cumin forms the flavor foundation for this burger, so I added it generously). I like to add balsamic vinegar, soy sauce and red wine or red wine vinegar to add nuance to marinades and savory recipes; I often add Worcestershire sauce to store-bought veggie burgers to add a more "meaty" flavor.

1 tbs cumin (I love cumin)
1 tbs fresh-ground black pepper
1 tbs brown sugar
1 tsp lemon pepper
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
1 tsp red wine vinegar
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp soy sauce

First, I put a small saucepan on with a bit of oil on medium heat.
I drained the black beans and placed them in a bowl, smashing them a bit with a potato masher.
I washed and coarsely chopped the celery, garlic, and onion, then placed the mix in a food processor.
Once the mix was finely ground, I put it in the saucepan to saute for approx. 5 min.
While this mix was cooking, I placed the broccoli in the food processor, and added this to the black beans.
I then added the oats, spices, and peas to the black beans. (In the future I'll mix all dry ingredients together before adding them to the moist ingredients).
I then added the sauteed mix to the black bean mix.
I added a little olive oil, then added the vinegar and Worcestershire sauce, and began to mix it all together with a rubber spatula.
I realized the mix was a bit moist, so then I added the wheat flour and the egg replacer, which served to bind the mix (you can also add a real egg if you're so inclined, but as I don't often eat eggs I wanted to test the recipe using all-vegan ingredients).
Then, I mixed it all together by hand; this will form 4 small, McDonald's 1/4 pounder size patties or 3 hefty patties. I fired up my cast-iron grill pan on my stove (GREAT product from Crate & Barrel - creates a BBQ-like texture in the winter) and grilled them lightly for about 4 min. on both sides.
I garnished my burger with some tomato and dijon mayonaise; I also think this would go wonderfully with some salsa and sour cream on top.

As a first attempt at homemade black bean burgers, this came off wonderfully. I only wish I had some carrots to add for a little color and sweetness; otherwise, this adding-whatever-I-have-on-hand approach seems to work well. I'd like to share this recipe with my baby bro, who just moved into his first apartment; a can of black beans, even the organic kind, is about $0.99; the rest can be made up of leftovers and on-hand spices, and the result is a healthy, protein- and nutrient-rich "burger" that makes a wonderfully hearty meal for cold days.

Now, if I only I could put all that energy from my super-burger toward putting up my Christmas tree...

But perhaps I'll just eat my soy ice cream with a little melted Valrhona chocolate on top instead.

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Monday, December 10, 2007

Tofu soup for the soul

Today I am home sick, and while I am somewhat chained to the computer and my trusty roll of toilet paper (aaahh-choo!), I am also happy to have another day to spend in my comfortable apartment, in the company of my dog and my boyfriend (who is also home sick, because of me).

I am also grateful for the excuse to stay home, because it is much easier to take care of my body when I have access to my own kitchen. I feel that I can usually avoid OTC meds and make myself feel much better with hot tea, honey, fruits, nuts, and a good soup. Today I made some Rooibos tea with honey, and began to put together my first experimental version of one of my favorite soups: tofu vegetable soup.

This soup is very simple; that's why I love it so much. I usually order it from Rod Dee, a wonderful Thai takeout joint with locations in Brookline and Fenway (the tofu soup is #S4 on their menu, if you're interested). As I'm now vegetarian, it's my substitute for the childhood chicken soup remedy.

Unfortunately, I could not find a good recipe for the kind of soup I had in mind, so I had to strike out on my own. I'm posting this recipe now in case someone else is looking for a tofu veg recipe to use as well (and so you can learn from my mistakes, haha).

Fortunately, I had most of the ingredients in my refrigerator, so this is what I started with:

1 half package of firm tofu, drained well and cut into small cubes
1 onion
1 clove garlic, minced
1 nub of ginger, cut into matchsticks
2 stalks of celery
1 cup of broccoli, frozen
1 cup of green beans, frozen
1 cup of peas, frozen
1 cube frozen cilantro (from Trader Joe's - their frozen ingreds are a great time-saver, FYI)
1 tbs vegetable oil (I used TJ's brand, but I highly recommend Earth Balance's combo oil with flaxseed, as it has mad Omega-3s)
4 cups of water

You can (and should) also add carrot, leftover lettuce, kale and/or spinach to this soup if you have some. Add some seaweed and miso and you have a hearty miso stew.

Because this soup always tastes as though the ingredients are incredibly fresh and crispy, I didn't want to make a soup that would last for days, so I kept the portions small. My immediate goal was to create a quick, easy, flavorful and healthy meal, with lots of strong-smelling ingredients to permeate even my stuffed-up nasal passages (garlic, ginger, cilantro). This is how I went about it -

I first heated a medium-size pot, with a little bit of vegetable oil.
I diced up my garlic and ginger first, and tossed them in, sauteeing them slightly.
I then added the onion and the celery.
When all of the ingredients were softened (but not browned), I added 1 cup of water, covered the pot, and let it simmer.
After 5 minutes, I added another cup of water and the frozen tsp. of cilantro.
After another 5 minutes, I added another cup of water and the frozen peas, green beans and broccoli and brought the mix to a boil.
After another 5 minutes, I lowered the heat, added the final cup of water, and added the tofu.

I was actually quite pleased with the result of this first attempt. The broth was flavorful enough, but not overwhelming; the vegetables were all tasty (albeit soft), and this recipe actually did leave me with some leftovers, which will make my sick day easier as I won't have to worry about dinner.

I would say, however, that once I am well I will make this soup differently so that the flavors are more concentrated and the vegetables are more snap-in-half fresh. The easiest way would be to use fresh veggies and cilantro and to use less water. Also, I will plan to simmer the ginger/garlic/celery/onion broth longer, uncover the soup sooner to let some of the water boil off, and add the vegetables only at the end, about 2 min. max vs. the 5-10 this time.

Of course, I can't ever be sure that my version will match the authentic Thai soup of Rod Dee -- this has ever been the case for my amateur American re-makes of the Asian dishes I love so much -- but the point is that it doesn't have to be either/or. The experiences I have with Boston restaurants like Rod Dee are what inspire me to learn to cook better for myself -- better in every sense of the word.

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Thursday, December 06, 2007

It's a Girl!

The best retail operations overall seem to be those where the line between home and business is blurred. Today we saw that in a beautiful way at one of my favorite restaurants, the Channel Café.

Ana Crowley, the cafes owner, had been manning the counter up until last week despite her ponderous baby bump, taking calls and waiting tables in her chic art gallery/foodie café near my office in Fort Point. When I checked the specials this morning, above a dish called “Eggplant Napoleon Dynamite,” it read: “ANA HAD HER BABY!”

I called in an order of grilled salmon with citrus beurre blanc, and when I went inside to pick it up, descending the stairs into the below-ground café, I encountered handmade signs announcing Giselle’s birth weight (7 pounds, 9 ounces) taped to the stairs. At the counter, another pregnant woman stood chatting to the friendly cashier in a soft British accent about her own baby, due sometime next week, gender still unknown. The cashier smiled and laughed, adjusting an array of small pink bags printed with “It’s a Girl!”, placed across the counter, on top of the biscotti jar, nestled in with the Coke in bottled glasses. As she talked and moved, she slipped an extra cookie into the woman’s to-go box … then wrapped another in cellophane and placed it in the woman’s hand.

“Take it,” she said. “You deserve it!”

(Packing my meal next, she said, “Now, you like butter, right?” She slipped an extra packet into my bag.)

A birth is of course remarkable and worth celebrating on its own, but what inspired me was the way the gallery and menu, both showcases for creative works of art, now became places to display Ana’s latest incredible accomplishment. I don’t know many male-owned businesses or restaurants that would celebrate a birth in this way.

I’m consistently impressed with Ana Crowley, who has built an incredible, inspiring concept unlike anything else in Boston. Her gallery is constantly changing, constantly full of high-quality art, and is always open and free to the public, a feat that even the large galleries on Newbury and Harrison can’t always manage. Her only peer in the food business would seem to be Joanne Chang of Flour, another female entrepreneur whose menu communicates clearly a love for comfortable, healthy, sustainable, interesting food, who opened her second bakery just blocks away earlier this year.

It can be uncomfortable at first to think about what distinguishes a female-owned business from a male-owned one, as there are wonderful male-owned businesses (like my boyfriend’s, of course, although I'm biased on this), and certainly mediocre, hostile, woman-owned businesses (I recall my first job at a caterer’s company…so as not to spoil the mood, I won’t describe it). There is no shortage of competency or authenticity among Boston businesses, whether a man or a woman is at the helm. But there are women’s apartments and men’s apartments and obvious differences between them, and for many business owners, a business is simply a second home (or even a primary home). And the thing that distinguishes these two businesses is that they seem to have, for lack of a better word, an unmistakably feminine quality to them.

It’s in the details: the handwritten signs, the homemade desserts, the well-curated art on the walls, the comfortable, intimate tables, the friendly staff trusted with the authority to dispense a free cookie or two on the house to those customers who deserve it. These are places that can actually confer a sense of worth on a customer, beyond what they are able to purchase; a sense that the customer is a member of the family, someone you will see again and again, someone whose successes you will celebrate, and someone whom you will invite to share your most meaningful moments.

I can't speak for other women, but for me, part of being a woman is sensing that giving and sharing, not taking and transacting, is true power. To be able to own one’s own business is an incredible opportunity for a woman to express this on a grand scale. Ana does this with incredible grace. I am sure that the world she is making for her daughter will be an inspiring one. We are lucky to be a part of it.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Toy trains at South Station

I wish I had a photo to accompany this post, but my camera is broken, so I'll try to paint a picture.

Today is a very cold day, the kind where you organize your schedule for the smallest expenditure of energy and minimal exposure of skin to wind. I went to South Station downtown to pick up a salad at Cosi for lunch. On my way out, I noticed an enormous toy train exhibit in the center of the station. About twenty feet long and twenty feet wide, it featured a large, round mountain, with tiny toy trains chugging around its circumference. The snow glittered with holographic sparkles; the waterfalls were made from silver streamers. Lights shone from the windows of the houses, each story the size of a shoebox. It was as charming as any other train display I've seen, and perhaps the largest.

The display reminded me of a Russian doll, a train system inside the station of a larger train system, one of the few in America. Just feet away, outside the sliding doors, the big-boy trains leaned against the platforms, waiting for their grownup passengers. These trains of the new century are not quite as chic as the toy trains: no black top-hat smokestacks, no mink stole of smoke, no stylish red cabooses. They are long steel colored tubes, all muscle, all utility. But I love riding in these trains, any trains; it is one of the best ways to travel, hands free of a wheel, mind free from maps, departures free of searching and stripping, eyes free to wander strange countrysides.

What charmed me the most, however, was the sight of several grown men, standing around the display, some wrapped up in scarves, others leaning weary on their suitcases, some with heads cocked nonchalantly to one side, holding a cellphone and looking very busy and important. However, all eyes were on the tiny trains, snaking their way through the tunnels, making their endless circles.

Soon, these men would depart for their various destinations: to a meeting in New York, perhaps, or home to their houses in the suburbs of Boston. Tonight, adult concerns will overwhelm them: impending in-law visits for Christmas, stuffy office parties, errands at Best Buy, children with the sniffles. But during this grey noontime, in the kind of flat light that makes turning inward easier than looking outward, many seemed to be remembering, perhaps listening to the murmuring of their own personal Ghosts of Christmas past: the plastic set Santa left under the tree, the wooden choo-choo whistle tucked into a stocking, the tiny train set Grandma and Grandpa brought down every year from the attic. It became possible to see the children these men once were.

I don't have many theories on art, but if I had to articulate one, I would say: the evocation of memory is one of the highest purposes of art. Monet's best paintings have it; the very best children's books possess it always; the recent work of Jan Van Holleben (see his amazing "Dreams of Flying" photoessay) astounded me with its perfect depiction of childlike imagination, and this train exhibit, while not the best of its kind, served this worthy purpose today. Brightening the days and illuminating the best memories of Boston's weary commuters: a winning argument for more public art if there ever was one.