Monday, August 31, 2015

What I'm Into (August 2015)



Today I'm linking up with Leigh Kramer to share what's been going on for the past month

Earlier this summer, The Musician and I began dating each other again.  Time had tripped us up, and our relationship had derailed a bit - as marriages do - so we started making more of an effort.  Effort seems like such a silly choice of words though, with its connotation of tedium.  Our dates have been too fun to use the word 'effort' to describe them, but you know what I mean, right?  Sometimes it just takes effort to not collapse on the sofa at the end of the day.

Those dates with my good-looking husband have been fabulous though, and I put a reminder in my monthly calendar to make absolutely sure that we didn't forget to do them more often.  Serendipitously, I was out at dinner with my girlfriends right around that same time, and enjoying a goofy, laughter-filled evening when one of my friends suggested we put it on our calendar to have dinner every month so that we don't forget to do it more often.  So we did it.  We decided then and there that the third Monday of every month was going to be Ladies Night.

Which got me to thinking, if my soul can derive such satisfaction from scheduling more date nights and monthly dinners with my girlfriends, what else can I do monthly that will bring more intentional fun into my life?

Intentional fun.  What a concept.

So I began a monthly list to Things I Should Remember to Do Because I Love to Do Them: date my husband, have dinner with my friends, plan monthly family dates, and schedule a self-care activity each month.

August was the first month that I added in the family dates and the self-care activity, and I have felt almost giddy in taking the time to plan and look forward to these things.  We took the kids tubing on the Chattahoochee River one Saturday, took them kayaking down another river in lieu of schoolwork one day, and reserved a site for an epic camping trip for next month.  For self-care, I finally - at super long last - scheduled an acupuncture session this month and bought a ticket to a yoga workshop at an Atlanta festival for next month.

Intentional fun, it turns out, is what was missing from my life.

The rest of the month has been filled with the hilarious beginnings of a new homeschooling year.  The Princess Hazelnut has begun taking trapeze lessons, the kids have started their classes at the homeschooling co-op, and we're all finding our groove with the schedule changes (and challenges) of a new school year.  The languid days of summer already seem like light years ago.

What I've Been Watching

Absolutely nothing.  I have been spending my evenings either writing or reading, and it has been very restorative.  I go in phases though, so if Netflix or Hulu ever posts last season's episodes of The Good Wife, I'm going to pop up a batch of popcorn, set down my books, and binge watch to my heart's content.

What I've Been Listening To

Jason Isbell released his new album, and streaming it on NPR's First Listen finally spurred me on to purchase his last album, Southeastern.  I swear he's the best songwriter around right now.

I've also just discovered Elizabeth Gilbert's Magic Lessons podcast, and I am devouring the episodes that have been recorded so far.  To call them inspiring is to put it in the mildest terms possible.

What I've Been Reading

I just finished Stephen King's 11/22/63 last night (very late last night), and my mind is officially blown.  I could hardly put it down over the past couple of days, and it might just go down as the best book I've read this year - all 880 pages of it.  I wish it had been twice as long.


Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Kale & White Bean Risotto


I love this recipe so much that I'm willing to overlook my embarrassment over this less-than-flattering photograph of the meal.   I would totally take another picture right now, in better light, and with a better camera than my iPhone, but both children greedily slurped up second helpings and scraped the pan clean before I could take a second shot.

It's that good.

I mean, it's so good that two young children fight over the last few bites even though there are copious amounts of kale involved.

More impressive than how delicious it is though, is how utterly easy it is.  Risotto is often shunned because of its fussy preparation with the constant stirring, the slow addition of liquid, and the stickiness that occurs when one of the steps goes ever-so-slightly wrong.

This recipe is like risotto for dummies.  There is no constant stirring, no slow addition of liquid - you quite literally dump everything in at once, plunk the lid down on the pot, and walk away.

It is a one-pot, sinfully-easy, extraordinarily-healthy, comfort-food meal, AND ITS DELICIOUS enough to satisfy both children and a meat-eating husband.  I'm telling you, it's magic.  Magic risotto.  Actually, it would be more magical if it were really extraordinarily healthy (I may have stretched the truth a little bit on that claim).  Arborio rice isn't exactly chock-full of nutrients, you know, but it isn't exactly bad for you either.  Let's call it reasonably healthy and just move on.

This is one of my emergency meals, thrown together when we don't get home until 6:00 or so, and I need to start dinner cooking right away, yet still be able to walk away to put away the groceries and change clothes and answer a few emails while it cooks.  It is especially wonderful on those evenings when we're all a little frazzled and need something creamy and soothing for dinner.

The kale and the white beans are tender, but not mushy, and the arborio rice manages to effortlessly melt into that creamy alchemy that happens when the starch disperses into the flavorful broth.  The seasoning is simple - just vegetable broth, sage, and a little salt and pepper.

Sometimes the most surprising results come from the marriage of the simplest ingredients.

*****

KALE AND CANNELLINI BEAN RISOTTO, serves 4 as a main dish

  • 6 to 8 oz kale, stemmed and chopped
  • 1 cup Arborio rice
  • 3/4 tsp dried sage
  • 4 cups vegetable broth
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp black pepper
  • 2 Tbs Earth Balance or butter
  • 1 15-oz can cannellini beans (or Great Northern beans)
  1. In a large pot of boiling water, cook the kale over high heat for 3 or 4 minutes, until bright green and wilted.  Drain, and press as much water as possible out of the cooked kale.
  2. In that same pot (because there's no need to wash more dishes than absolutely necessary), combine the cooked & drained kale with the rice, sage, broth, and salt & pepper.  
  3. Bring to a boil, then cover the pan, reduce heat to low, and cook for about 20 minutes.  The rice should be tender, but al dente, when done.  If more liquid is needed to get to al dente, add a tiny bit more water.
  4. Stir the beans into the risotto, turn off the heat, and stir in the butter.  Taste and adjust for salt & pepper.  Serve hot.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Morning Pages


The Artist's Way has been on my bookshelf for the past twenty-something years, if my memory serves me correctly.  I do not recall exactly where I got it from originally.  Bookstore?  Mail-order book club?  Gift?  I dunno.  The early nineties were a long time ago, and the details are fuzzy.  I do distinctly remember that it was on the bookshelf next to my rickety sofa-on-wheels in that tiny studio apartment I lived in during my second year of college.  

And if it was on my shelf in that apartment, then that means I boxed it up and moved it into the next NINE places I lived over the years.  Clearly, it means a lot to me, that book.

Except that I never cracked the cover in all those years and all those moves.

I know.  If it weren't so absurd, it would be embarrassing.  

Over the past few years though, The Artist's Way kept coming up in conversation, on websites, and in social media posts.  Each time, I would have an aha moment, and would then immediately forget about it again.  Recently, as I sat at my desk one afternoon, filled with frustration over how blocked I felt creatively, I leaned back in my chair and glanced towards the bookshelf to the right of my desk, and there it was.  That book.  Just sitting there.  Waiting for me.

If you are unfamiliar with it, The Artist's Way is a bestselling 12-week program designed to break through your creative blocks and to help you find your voice - whether you are a writer, photographer, sculptor, painter, dancer, or whatever.  The two main, non-negotiatible activities at the center of the program are the daily morning pages and the weekly artist date.

The artist date is cool, and I have found inspiration from it, but the impact of the daily morning pages has blown my mind.  Morning pages are designed to be stream-of-consciousness writing, about literally anything that comes to mind, and are not meant to be re-read or shown to anyone else.  Not because they're top-secret or filled with your innermost thoughts, but because what you write in your morning pages is unimportant.

What I have found is that the morning pages acts as a brain dump, allowing me to empty my head of all the tedious and mundane thoughts that occupy entirely too much of my head space and which distract me from what really matters.  Every morning, I brush my teeth, drink my hot lemon water, pour a cup of coffee, and sit down at the kitchen table with my notebook.  I open to a blank page, click my pen, hold it over the page, and even though I cannot think of the first thing to write, the pen begins moving and I fill up three pages in a matter of minutes.  Every time.

Solutions to nagging, boring problems come to me during this time, revelations about emotional hang-ups come easily, and unimportant things over which I have been obsessing lessen in perceived importance once they're put down on paper.  Most surprising, though, is how the rest of the day flows so much more smoothly after I close the notebook, pour another cup of coffee, and get on with the rest of my day.  Without those tedious and mundane thoughts bouncing around in my head like a pinball (and driving me mad), I work more efficiently and find myself better able to avoid pointless distractions.  I focus more clearly on the important tasks in my day, I relax more fully in the evenings, and I sleep better at night.

Mind-blowing, I tell you.  It is as if my brain is being re-trained.  

Whether your goal is to become more creative or not, the value of morning pages cannot be overstated.  Journaling has been shown to have a positive impact on physical well-being, regular writing is known to have mental health benefits, and daily journaling can help you reach your goals.

A fancy hard-cover notebook is unnecessary.  You do not need a special pen.  Your grasp (or lack) of rudimentary spelling and fundamental grammar is utterly beside the point.  The idea is to pick a time each day, whether it is first thing in the morning, over lunch, or before bed, and just do it.  Open the notebook and pour the noise in your brain out onto the page.  Burn the pages after you're done if you would like.  The quality of the writing does not matter.  

Really.  The quality of the writing does not matter.  Just drain your brain.  And then move on.  You just might find, as I did, that you can control your thoughts.  You do not have to dwell on every little thought that pops into your head.  You do not have to obsess over those thoughts that don't deserve your time.  Write them down.  And then move on.

Write it down.  And move on.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Quick Lit: August 2015


From the moment I wake up in the morning, I find myself yearning for that luscious time at the end of the day, when the kids are in bed and The Musician is upstairs in his studio and the whole house is quiet. I wash my face, put on my eyeglasses, fluff up my giant throw pillow, and stretch out full-length on the sofa with a good book and a bowl of popcorn.

It's pure bliss, I tell you, and lately that coveted evening reading time has been filled with a spate of excellent books.  Books so good that I have had to talk myself into going out in the evenings for date nights and other events.

Today, I am linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy to share short & casual snippet-like reviews of the books I have finished over the past month.


I put In the Unlikely Event on hold at the library the day it came out, and it was well worth the month or more wait.  It was wonderful (maybe even a little comforting and nostalgic) to read a Judy Blume book for the first time since adolescence.  This novel reads like a grown-up young adult novel, if that makes any sense.  It has the coming-of-age elements that defined some of her older, beloved books, but is more sweeping in scope.  The true story that it is based on is a fascinating one (of which I was completely unaware until I heard an interview with Blume on NPR earlier this summer).  There are a lot of themes in the book and a dizzying array of characters, but it all works very well.  I not only didn't want it to end, but I may have shed a tear or two on the final page when I had to leave the main narrator behind.


I might be the last person to read The Secret Keeper, and I feel like a dunce for not picking it up a few years sooner.  Don't be fooled by the romantic cover and the silly book jacket description.  This historical novel is so well done, with rich characters, a surprisingly fast pace, excellent sense of time and place, and twists you'll never see coming.  I was so enthralled by this book that I completely forgot about an art event I meant to attend.


Rules of Civility was a stunning debut novel.  Set in New York City in 1938, with a cast of unforgettable characters and a deliciously stylish tone, this book tells the story of one year in the life of an independent and ballsy young lady with a secretarial job and a room in a boardinghouse.  A chance encounter on New Year's Eve with a well-heeled, handsome man changes the trajectory of her life, and the details of the events of the next year make for a compelling and entertaining read.  Many reviewers mention the parallels to The Great Gatsby, and I do not discount that comparison, but I found this book to be much more enthralling.  


Lessons from Madame Chic is a light and quick read with a few useful little nuggets of advice on living a fuller, more sensual life.  It was only slightly interesting though, and is a bit repetitive, as if a few blog posts were expanded in order to have enough material to fill what was already a very short book.


Simultaneously heartbreaking and hopeful, Everything I Never Told You deftly handles teenage angst, housewife boredom, marital struggles, race issues, grief, and the decade of the 1970s.  The story is told with a light hand, the dialogue spare and subtle, the reader left to decide which, if any, of the characters to relate to.  

I would love to hear what books you guys have been reading lately.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

The first day of (home)school


There are seasons in life when everything is challenging, seasons when it all flows smoothly and easily, and seasons when we are stuck in ruts.  Lately, it has seemed like a season of having the rug pulled out from under me and forging a new way of living.

The details of a few of these metaphoric rugs are either too boring or too personal to share in a public forum (or are still in flux - God help us all), but the latest rug-yanking incident was a doozy.  

The school year begins quite early in the South, and last week, on the day before our county's public school year began, I received notice that my children's beloved cottage homeschool academy was permanently shutting its doors.

There I was, blissfully going about my day, thinking that we had three weeks before the cottage school year began, and believing I had another easy year ahead of me in which lesson plans would be emailed, science experiments would be done in class, math lessons would be taught by an actual teacher (read: not me), and two days a week in which to focus on my work while the children were on campus.

A single expletive received by text from my girlfriend, also a parent at the cottage school, shattered that illusion and I sat at the breakfast table crying angry, frustrated tears while I read the email from the headmaster.  And then I felt all the feelings.  Was this a neon sign?  Should I rush down to the public school and enroll the children immediately?  Could I even pull that together in time for them to begin public school the very next day?  Could I prepare the kids for that kind of major life change with less than 24 hours notice?

The answer was no, of course. Anytime I find my hand being forced to make a major decision without enough time to think it through in true introverted/introspective fashion, I know the answer is to wait until an answer comes in its own time.  Big life decisions require time, preparation, prayer, research, and wise counsel (and occasionally a nervous breakdown, but that's for another post).  It is likely that The Boy Wonder and Princess Hazelnut will attend regular school at some point, and we discuss the possibility every Spring, but when that day comes, we intend to have plenty of time for the children to get used to the idea first.

So I did what I always do when confronted by something that rocks my well-ordered world: I had a panic attack.  Seriously.  I had trouble breathing, and thought I was going to pass out.

Then I called in my troops.  My BFF was already coming up with a list of alternatives for our children.  My husband talked me down from the ledge.  My mother prayed.  I made a cup of tea, put a little kava kava tincture under my tongue, and threw myself into my work, knowing the best course of action was to keep on keeping on until the initial panic passed.  I kept a notepad next to me, and jotted down ideas as the day went on.

By nightfall we had a brand new, less expensive, extraordinarily cool educational plan in place. 

This year will require some adjustments and some juggling, and a whole slew of new experiences for both the children and for myself.  It is exciting and scary and more than a little unsettling for the parent who likes to know what to expect each day, but if I've learned anything in this season of unsteady rugs being yanked out out from under my comfortable and predictable life, it's that our comfortable and predictable life wasn't serving us well and it was time for a new direction.  Complacency brings boredom and restlessness, not excellence and happiness.

The very next morning, in the middle of the work week, we declared a holiday in order to celebrate the first day of our family's school year.  The four of us slept late, went to Waffle House for breakfast (always an education in itself), and then gleefully kayaked six miles down the river, and it was glorious.  It was invigorating and unusual and outside of our normal routine.

It was perfect.

Here's to new beginnings, and a new way of approaching our foundational family priorities.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

A God in Ruins



Mind-blowing books make my world go round.  They also bring my world to a screeching halt.  And they devastate me.


In a perfect work of literary fiction, the outside world is a source of confusion, and I look up (blinking blankly like an awakened mole in a children's movie) from the pages only to make sure my family is coping without me.  Don’t worry.  The kids are alright.  They are readers, too, and they understand.


These aren’t real problems, of course.  A Saturday will continue just fine without my attention.  The Musician will feed the children breakfast and will even bring me a refill on my coffee.  The children will tiptoe into the bedroom, sidle up next to me on the sofa, or peek outside to find me on the porch swing, and they will ask whether I need anything.  They will also ask if they can have ice cream, knowing I will say yes just to gain myself a little more reading time. They are smart little hooligans.


The true problem begins shortly after the book ends, though it isn’t when I shut the book and sit quietly for some time, closing my eyes to savor my last thoughts on the story, weeping (as happened yesterday) at the beauty and magnificence of the story-telling, or rushing to social media to see if my reading soulmate has put this book on her list yet.  Those are normal companion activities to my reading.


The issue is what to read next when all else (no matter how exquisite) will pale in comparison, when all other characters will appear vapid and one-dimensional (no matter how well-drawn), when all plots will seem contrived and trivial (no matter how well-crafted), when all dialogue will come across as stilted and uncomfortable (no matter how well-written).  

There are, I think, some works of fiction that just cannot be followed by another work of fiction.  A break will be necessary.  Nonfiction might be in order, or possibly one of the recent glorious YA novels (eleanor & park, I’m looking at you).  Maybe nothing short of a movie or a Netflix binge will provide the gap needed to let the next book shine on its own and to give a much-needed palate cleanser to an actual mind blown.


There have been a handful of books that I have read over the past two years that have left me reeling and unable to appreciate anything else for a time.  Life After Life. The Goldfinch. Fourth of July Creek.  The Enchanted. A God in Ruins.  

I will be thinking about A God in Ruins for a long, long time to come.  

Have you read any masterful novels recently?  I would love to hear what books have moved you.  And if you have not read one of the books mentioned above, I cannot recommend them highly enough. These are novels that have stayed (or will clearly stay) in the forefront of my mind for many months, and from which I hope to never recover.


Sunday, February 15, 2015

Dark Chocolate Covered Cherries


It was Valentine's Day yesterday - a day which we largely ignored around our house - and I had chocolate covered strawberries on the brain.  There was some discussion about sending Preston to the store to buy some strawberries so I could make a treat for us, but the berries in the supermarket this time of year are relatively tasteless, and I ended up working much of the day anyway.

We picked up some Chinese take-out for dinner and called it a day. Forced romantic gestures are not our forte, and we're cool with that.

But then I woke up this morning thinking about the bag of frozen pitted cherries I had picked up earlier this week, and I began to entertain the idea of chocolate covered cherries.  I love them, you see, but the boxed version from the candy aisle are such a hodgepodge of artificial flavors, using sweetened maraschino cherries and that inexplicable sweet and gooey white filling that seems apropos of absolutely nothing either cherry or chocolate related, so a makeover seemed in order.

It turned out to be easier and quicker than I could have dreamed.  I melted a little dark chocolate, grabbed a few pitted frozen cherries, gave the cherries a quick roll in the melted chocolate, and then popped them onto some parchment paper to harden.  It took minutes.  Literally, just minutes. 

Juicy, naturally sweet cherries enrobed in a slightly bitter thin shell of hardened dark chocolate.  Two ingredients.  Simple, exquisite flavors.  I'm in love.

Best Day-After-Valentine's-Day ever.

*****

DARK CHOCOLATE COVERED CHERRIES (makes 15)
  • 5 oz of your favorite dark chocolate
  • 15 pitted frozen cherries, unsweetened (available at Trader Joe's)
  1. In a double-boiler (or in a heat-proof bowl set over a pan of simmering water), melt the chocolate, stirring occasionally.
  2. One at a time, drop the frozen cherries into the chocolate, using a plastic spatula to roll them around until they are coated.  Use two forks to lift each cherry out of the chocolate, and place them on a parchment paper covered plate or cookie sheet.
  3. Refrigerate the chocolate covered cherries for 5 or 10 minutes until firm.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Green for Life


My breakfast has been channeling Dr. Seuss for so long that my children actually ask to have a few sips of my green smoothies every day.  How can you not be entranced by drinking something this color?  It's like living in a cartoon.

A healthy, life-giving, energy-fueled cartoon.  They exist, I tell you.

Last summer, during a period of digestive not-right-ness, I started doing some research about cleanses and detox meals and the like, hoping to restore my balance without resorting to a trip to the doctor.  Green smoothies kept coming up, and though they sounded bizarre and completely unappealing at first, the science made sense, and the amount of available information was so compelling that I gave it a shot.

I fell in love, of course.  Homemade fruit smoothies have long been my go-to breakfast during the warm/hot months (that would be eight months of the year in my part of the world), and finding a way to add in a serving or two of vegetables to the deal - without sacrificing flavor - was nothing short of a miraculous discovery to me.

Just a few of the tidbits of nutritional information that persuaded me to try a green smoothie and that keep me drinking them daily:
- Raw vegetables, with very few exceptions, contain higher concentrations of vitamins and minerals than do their cooked counterparts.  Ever eaten raw mature kale or chard?  Not awesome.  How then can you work some raw greens into your diet?  You guessed it... 
- The cellular structure of raw sturdy greens is such that we do not fully break them up enough to absorb all those lovely vitamins and minerals simply by chewing in our normal fashion.  Feel like chewing up each bite 30 times until it fully dissolves in your month?  No?  I don't blame you.  That's why blenders rock. 
- Having a hard time getting six servings of vegetables into your daily diet?  What?  You eat things other than vegetables (ahem - me too)?  Throw some into your breakfast, and you'll find you have had two servings before your morning snack. 
- Did you know that if you start your day with a super-nutritious, yet fully delicious, breakfast, you will be more inclined to continue eating healthfully all day long?  Don't believe me?  Try a little experiment.  Eat two doughnuts for breakfast tomorrow and tell me what you craved for lunch and dinner (and snacks) for the rest of the day.  On the next day, drink a green smoothie for breakfast and keep another record of what you craved for the rest of that day's meals.  Two gold stars says the doughnuts will drive you to a greasy lunch whereas a green smoothie will inspire a great big salad.  Seriously.
There is far more actual science behind the green smoothie movement than I can state without tripping up on words too big for me to properly tame.  Some of it seems valid, some of it resembles snake-oil medicine, and some is simply preposterous.  Here's the thing though:  with green smoothies, the worst thing that can happen is you'll have more regular bathroom habits and you'll sneak more vegetables into your diet.  Remember the Atkins Diet?  Right.  With that, the worst thing that could happen is higher cholesterol, higher blood pressure, and a higher risk of heart failure.

Still want to do some more research on your own?  As part of the 200-hour yoga teacher training program I am participating in, we recently read and discussed Victoria Boutenko's Green for Life.  It's a quick and easy read, written not by a scientist or dietician, but by a regular Lady of Awesomeness who decided to take charge of her family's health and who did enormous amounts of research to back her theory.  The information is presented well, though the testimonials at the end of the book may need to be taken with a grain of salt.

I have enormous respect for this woman.  We should all be so inspired to take the lead and do our own legwork before going to the medical community for pharmaceutical solutions.

*****

TROPICAL GREEN SMOOTHIE (makes about 1 quart, enough for one person for breakfast and morning snack)

Beginners Note: You may want to start with spinach and work up to some of the heartier greens like kale and chard.  Also, if you find the smoothie to be too bitter, add a little more fruit and re-blend until the taste is more palatable.  You shouldn't have to eat something you don't like.

A note about blenders: I use a relatively inexpensive older model Oster glass jar blender that does a remarkable job making smoothies.  Smoothies will burn out the motor on uber-cheap blenders in a flash (trust me on this one).  Many people will swear you need a Vita-Mix, and I understand they are the bomb, but I am disinclined to spend $400 or so on a blender, so, you know, do a little research and see what would be best for your family.

  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 1 Tbs ground flaxseeds (optional)
  • 1 Tbs unrefined coconut oil
  • 2 cups tightly packed spinach (or my favorite - a mixture of baby kale and baby chard)
  • 1/2 frozen banana
  • 1/2 cup frozen pineapple, or more as necessary
  • 1/2 cup frozen mango
  1. Place all ingredients into a high-powered blender, in the order listed above.  Starting with the softest ingredients at the bottom of the blender does help the blades to not get caught on the firmer ingredients.
  2. Process on high speed until very well-blended.
  3. Drink immediately - it's best very cold.  Store leftovers in a tightly sealed glass jar in the refrigerator and drink the same day if possible.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Cocoa-nut Date Truffles


Oh, how I have missed this space.  This little corner of the interwebz where I share recipes and ideas and challenges and thoughts and changes.  The changes have been many lately (all of the good and plenty variety) and I hope to place them into words of the correct order.

Our school year has begun, our daily schedule has been tweaked, The Boy Wonder now attends a homeschool academy two days a week, Princess Hazelnut is learning to read, The Carnivore and I are dipping our toes into a new business venture, a puppy has joined our family, and I have begun yoga teacher training.

Yoga. Teacher. Training.  

I know, right?  I am three weeks into an 18-week immersion course at what is rapidly becoming my favorite place on earth, and it is everything I desired and more.  It is an exhilarating, humbling, invigorating, exhausting, empowering, and fully glorious adventure.  Friends, I am happy in a way I can hardly illustrate.  It is good, good stuff.

The past nine years have passed in a beautiful blur of house building, business launching, pregnancies, nursing babies, and the beginnings of homeschooling, but here I found myself recently, staring down the barrel of an upcoming thirty-ninth birthday and realizing there was finally time to come up for air.  'Twas a weird feeling, I tell you, that coming up for air and realizing there was time to take new chances.  There were new goals to explore.

A little bit scary.  A little bit awesome.

So now I find myself part of a small group of diverse, yet like-minded, fellow students, and we spend our time workshopping poses, watching and discussing documentaries, reading about and discussing nutrition, writing our own sequences, sharing meals, and learning so much from each other and our fearless leaders. 

As part of our training, we have committed to a vegan diet, and we are avoiding wheat and sugar as well.  This is not as difficult as it might appear at first glance.  I went vegetarian thirty-something years ago, and I have been eating a vegan breakfast and lunch for some time now, so making the switch to a vegan dinner was relatively easy (much credit needs to go to Heather's 30-day Vegan Workshop).  Though there have been a few challenges in avoiding wheat, I have only had one accidental wheat product in the past three weeks (tabbouli - you trickster, you).  

Going without sugar might have been more daunting were it not summer right now.  With the plethora of fruit available at this time of year, I tend to eat my weight in melons, thus sufficiently quieting my sweet tooth.  Interestingly though, I have found that doing without the richness of butter and eggs, along with the added sugars in many wheat products, has virtually eliminated my desire for my beloved rich chocolate desserts.  

There are times though when I find myself with the slightest taste for something sweet - when there isn't a watermelon in sight - and a dried date or two usually satisfies just fine.  But then there are other times (ahem, hormonal times) when one might be ever-so-slightly tempted to seek out a more decadent option.  A little chocolate, maybe.

Would you believe I found a solution for that?  A chocolate solution.  A sugar-free, artificial sweetener-free, wheat-free, vegan solution.  A solution that even my kids and decidedly non-health-freak husband love.

I kid you not.

I first heard rumors of date truffles a few years ago, but I failed to follow up on it until this past spring when I came across a recipe on Pinterest for German-Chocolate Fudge Bites.  The Carnivore loves German Chocolate desserts, you see, and I was nearly speechless when I clicked through to find a healthy recipe for date truffles.  I made a batch, and it was love at first bite.  I made another batch and took them to my mother and grandmother for Mother's Day, effectively blowing their minds as well.  Batch after batch was made.  A healthy dessert that comes together in mere minutes?  It's a minor miracle.

There is cocoa in the truffles for your inner chocolate lover, dates for sweetness and texture, coconut and nuts for flavor and chewiness, a wee pinch of coarse salt for awesomeness.  What isn't in them is the crowd-pleasing shocker: no sugar, no dairy, no flour, no eggs.

I maintain that one should never feel guilt over what they eat, but in this case, it is not just a platitude.  Help yourself, friends.  This is a dessert you can feel virtuous about.

*****

Cocoa-Nut Date Truffles (makes about 24 truffles), adapted from Chocolate-Covered Katie

* Note: a food processor is required to get the "dough" to come together.  I have tried this in a number of blenders, and have either burned out the motor (oops) or have ended up with a crumbly, rather than sticky, "dough" that resulted in dry truffles (ick).  
  • 1 and 1/2 cups pitted dried dates
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract (try making your own)
  • scant 1/4 tsp coarse sea salt, or 1/8 tsp fine salt
  • 4 Tbs unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 4 Tbs unsweetened shredded coconut
  • 1 cup raw nuts (almonds, walnuts, or pecans are all lovely here)
  1. Combine all ingredients in a food processor and process until it all comes together in a sticky mess, about 20-30 seconds.
  2. Transfer the sticky dough to a small bowl.
  3. Working with about 1 Tbs at a time, roll the portions of dough into a ball in your hand and set on a plate.  
  4. When all the dough has been rolled into balls, place in an airtight container at room temperature or in the fridge (my favorite).  Truffles will keep for about a week - if they last that long.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Dark Chocolate Torte


This feels so out of character, sneaking in here after a long absence with nothing short of a slice of decadence to share.  We have just been eating so gloriously healthily lately, and I have so much to share, but this is what I show up with.  Maybe I should apologize.

It has been just splendid in our kitchen again, of late.  Winter was such a busy time and creativity ran so thin, you see, that the inherent glory in our new slower schedule and in the luscious offerings of our weekly vegetable boxes has sparked a revolution.  The past few weeks have been full of new recipes, I keep renewing a new favorite cookbook from the library, and we are already in our second week of the new CSA season.

Breakfast has become a more adventurous time, replete with oat muffins, baked oatmeal with berries, new granola recipes, mixed berry Dutch babies, French toast on weekdays (even on Monday!); the kids and I are again happily snacking on cucumbers, carrots, and radishes fresh from a farm; lunchtime has featured one of my very favorite dishes: boiled beets with sauteed beet greens.  I even found a perfect recipe for turnips.

Things are good.  So good that I feel silly for letting budgetary constraints keep us from our beloved CSA membership last summer.  Granted, we have changed farms this time around, finding one in which members pay a monthly fee rather than having to cough up the entire season's payment upfront, and that has made all the difference for us as we continue to limp through this faltering economy.

But I didn't come here to talk about money.  Accounting is my day job - well, it is one of them.  This here though, this lovely little slice of internet that I call home, is about everything in my life besides boring old financial talk.

And today, I bring you chocolate.

The Carnivore and I enjoyed a rather smashing dinner at The National recently, a dinner in which even the olive oil for bread-dipping was a revelation.  There were scallops and grits and fava beans, there was chewy ciabatta, there was an exquisitely-prepared stuffed trout with ramps and even more fava beans, (there was also some sort of meat dish that The Carnivore ordered which slipped my disinterested mind), but what stood out the most was dessert.

Can you believe it?  That I would let chocolate overshadow all else?

It was a torte which took our breath away, a flourless chocolate torte, with blackberry sauce and a tiny but perfect scoop of espresso-almond semifreddo.  It was ridiculous, of course, just utterly mind-blowing, and I may or may not have used my finger to mop up the very last crumb.  When I mentioned to The Carnivore that I had a recipe for a similar torte that I had been wanting to try but just hadn't gotten around to it (for, you know, a couple of years), he looked at me like I had gone mad and encouraged me to get to it.  And soon.

Soon, as it would turn out, was only a few days later.  The Carnivore had a birthday, you see, which was why we had been at The National in the first place, but when the actual date rolled around mid-week, I unearthed that recipe and gave it a go.

Have you ever had a torte?  It is a bit like cheesecake in texture, though not quite as heavy.  Actually, the best description I can think of is to call it a fudge-like pie.  It is rich and it is dense, but surprisingly light at the same time, almost fluffy.  Oh, don't mistake me, I do not use the word "light" to imply that it is in any way low in calories or fat.  That would be entirely untrue.  This dessert could easily clog your arteries, put some weight on your bones, and even take a few years off your life, but it would be worth it.

The recipe I used did have a wee bit of flour, unlike the one from the restaurant, and I couldn't help but use dark chocolate.  A few other tweaks were also in order, of course.  Blackberries are a bit hard to come by right now, so I decided to make a sauce using some frozen raspberries that I had on hand, and I ran out of time before figuring out what to do about the semifreddo component, so I simply tossed some heavy cream into the mixer with a bit of sugar and homemade vanilla extract and dolloped a little lightly sweetened, softly whipped cream on top of the finished torte.

The torte itself was rather simple to prepare, but was a bit fussy to remove from the pan.  My only advice with this is to go with a rustic presentation and be prepared to lick the bottom of the pan to extract all the yummy goodness.  Then again, it is also possible that I undercooked it slightly and that is why removal was a sticky process, but in my experience with baking desserts, undercooking is always preferable to overcooking.  So there you go.

One last bit of advice: a little goes a long way when serving this.  It is decadent, as I said (as I also said, it is completely worth it), and a tiny sliver dished out onto a pretty plate will be, I think, more than enough.

*****

DARK CHOCOLATE TORTE (serves 12 to 16), adapted from Fine Cooking


Note: Do not be dismayed by the wordy instructions.  This is really quite simple to prepare, and does not take very much hands-on time at all.

  • 12 oz dark chocolate, coarsely chopped
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 Tbs instant espresso granules
  • 6 large eggs, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  1. In a food processor, grind the chocolate for about 30 seconds, until it resembles coarse meal.  
  2. In a small saucepan, bring the cream to a boil over medium heat.
  3. Add the cream to the food processor, and process with the chocolate until smooth, about 10 seconds.
  4. Dissolve the espresso powder in 1 Tbs hot water and add it to the warm ganache in the food processor; process until fully mixed, about 10 seconds.
  5. Transfer the ganache to a large bowl.
  6. Heat the oven to 400 degrees, and very generously butter the bottom and sides of a 10-inch springform pan.  Have ready a roasting pan just large enough to set the springform pan in, and put on a kettle of water to boil.
  7. In a stand mixer, using the whisk attachment, whip together the eggs, sugar, and flour, at just under high speed for about 6 minutes, until mixture has doubled in volume and is pale and fluffy.
  8. Using a rubber spatula, stir about 1/3 of the egg mixture into the ganache mixture until fully combined.
  9. With the rubber spatula, gently fold the remainder of the egg mixture into the ganache until just combined and all egg streaks have disappeared.
  10. Pour the batter into the greased springform pan.  If at all worried about water seeping into the springform pan, line the outside bottom and sides with heavy duty aluminum foil (I didn't bother).  Set the springform pan into the roasting pan, and add boiling water to the roasting pan until it covers the bottom one inch or so of the springform pan.
  11. Bake at 400 degrees for about 15 to 20 minutes, until a dry crust forms on the top and the edges seem set.  The center should still be a bit wobbly.
  12. Remove the torte from the water bath (and remove the foil, if you used it).  Cool to room temperature, and then refrigerate it until completely cold and fully set, at least three hours - longer if you can stand it.  
  13. To unmold, remove the springform ring.  Put a piece of plastic wrap on the top of the torte and invert it onto a baking sheet.  Remove the pan bottom, using a knife around the edges to help separate it from the torte.  Things may get a bit messy here.  Stick with it, and if a lot of the torte sticks to the bottom of the pan, simply scrape it off with a knife and gently press it back onto the bottom of the torte.  It is the bottom after all - who cares what the bottom looks like?  Invert the torte onto a serving platter (so that it is now right side up again) and remove the plastic wrap.
  14. To cut, use a knife that has been dipped in hot water, or use unwaxed dental floss.  
  15. To serve, top with freshly whipped cream, a tiny scoop of coffee ice cream, and/or berry sauce (recipe below).
*****

BERRY SAUCE (makes about 1 1/2 cups), adapted from Bon Appetit

Note: Leftover sauce is delicious on top of French toast or pancakes, or stirred into plain yogurt.
  • 16 oz frozen blackberries or raspberries
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 Tbs fresh lemon juice, divided
  • 2 tsp cornstarch
  • 1/4 tsp finely grated lemon peel
  1. In a small saucepan, bring the berries and sugar to a simmer over medium-high heat.  Simmer for one minute.  
  2. Stir 1/2 Tbs lemon juice and cornstarch together in small bowl until cornstarch dissolves.
  3. Add cornstarch mixture to berries and stir until thickened, about one minute.  Remove from heat.
  4. Stir in remaining 1/2 Tbs lemon juice, and lemon peel.
  5. Serve warm, cold, or at room temperature, as desired.