Sunday, August 28, 2011

Quinoa Cereal: A new context

I think I might go to my ten year high school reunion.

I wasn't planning on going. For the past year I've been telling anyone who asked me that I was completely uninterested in attending.

"I'd rather eat chalk than talk to those people again," I'd say whilst seriously contemplating the palateability of the substance. I imagined grinding it up and stirring it into vanilla ice cream -- a delicious summertime treat. And clearly far less egregious than having to make small talk with my former classmates.

I had no interest in reliving that time of my life. The awkward years of braces, too-short-for-me jeans and an extra-large backpack filled with my color-coded notebooks for each class. I was perfectly content to pretend that I made a gracious transition from childhood to adulthood -- with none of that social pariah nonsense. I didn't need a reunion to remind me of the girl that I used to be. And I didn't want to see the people who made me feel like that girl.

Or so I thought.

Last Sunday I ran into one of my high school cross-country teammates at the farmers' market that's located a half-mile from my apartment.

"Diana!" She called out in the midst of my concentrated inspection of yellow peaches.

I whirled around, confused by the familiarity of the voice. It didn't belong in my farmers' market. It didn't even belong in Los Angeles for that matter. It was supposed to be in New York cohabitating with the husband she'd married at a wedding I'd attended in April.

"I live here now," She explained, telling me that her husband was offered a job in Beverly Hills a little over a month ago. That they'd moved into an apartment in the neighborhood -- my neighborhood. We exchanged mischievous grins as we realized how close we were located to each other. Visions of Comme Ca happy hours, impromptu weekend lunches at Joan's on Third and lazy afternoons and evenings spent gossiping at her and her husband's new air conditioned place filled my head.

I had a new partner in crime -- one of my original partners in crime.

This past Friday night we took full advantage of our newly discovered proximity -- and that happy hour at Comme Ca. Four glasses of $5 P. Cottat Sauvignon Blanc later, we stumbled back to her apartment where we debated the attractiveness of Avril Lavigne in comparison to Blake Lively with her husband, and reminisced about the days when I singlehandedly kept Premium saltine crackers in business.

"We should go to our reunion," She said at one point during our three hour conversation.

"Really?" I said with hesitation, the two glasses of wine no longer blurring my judgment about what is and isn't a good idea.

But she seemed excited about it. Told me that it was the sort of iconic experience that everyone should have at some point in their life so they know what it's like to go to a high school reunion.

"And if it sucks we can just leave and go drink somewhere else." She finished.

It made sense.

And having her in Los Angeles suddenly made sense too.

Walking home to my apartment on Friday, I was overwhelmed with how right it all felt -- having a friend who knew me back when saltine crackers were an essential part of my diet living so close to me again. Someone who knew and liked me even when I wore long Guess overalls over red t-shirts and memorized every single detail in my AP Biology text book. The girl who followed me in a red truck during my driver's license test. The girl who I sat next to in Algebra II with Mr. Sizer. The girl who I sprinted away from my dad with when he caught us drinking Dr. Peppers and Doritos in my garage when we were supposed to be at track practice.

Completely out of context, but completely comforting.

Just like having a big bowl of quinoa with fresh fruit and milk for breakfast.

Seemingly awkward, seemingly out of place, but some how perfectly sensible.

Quinoa Cereal
Serves 1

1/4 cup quinoa, rinsed well
1/2 cup water
Pinch of nutmeg
1/3 cup milk (I use 2%)
Strawberries, blueberries, peaches or nectarines
Toasted walnuts

Bring 1/2 cup of water to a boil. Add the quinoa, a pinch of salt and nutmeg, and a few good shakes of cinnamon. Lower heat and simmer, covered, until the quinoa absorbs the water -- approximately 15 minutes. Remove the lid, fluff with a fork and let rest for 5 minutes uncovered. Spoon quinoa into a bowl and cool slightly in the refrigerator (approximately 10 minutes).

Remove quinoa from fridge, add milk and top with fresh fruit and walnuts.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Flirting with Bacon

His name was Nathan.

I know this because I forced myself to commit his name to memory rather than just letting it drift in and out of my mind like I usually do when we are "meeting" and "greeting" at church.

"Nathan, Nathan, Nathan," I repeated over and over again.

I'd been waiting for the moment ever since I'd purposely sat down in the pew in front of him. When I'd purposely flipped my hair and purposely sat just slightly askew so he could see the side of my face when I laughed at Pastor Brewer's lame jokes and would know that I'm the good-natured sort. The sort that laughs at lame jokes. Perhaps his lame jokes. Over bowls of tagliatelle verde at the Mozzarella Bar at Osteria Mozza.

I hadn't even much minded when two not-so wholesome looking ladies whose names I did not commit to memory sat down in the pew next to me, forcing me to scoot down further and almost out of his direct line of vision. I told myself that he -- Nathan -- would immediately recognize their short dresses and artfully made-up faces as the physical manifestations of high maintenancey and below average IQs. In contrast, my trim floral knee-length skirt and severely under made-up face would seem like a breath of fresh air.

"They are just making me look more attractive," I thought as I simultaneously cursed myself for not applying mascara or plucking the two visibly straw hairs I'd noticed peaking out from underneath my left eyebrow before I'd left my apartment.

"He'll appreciate my au natural state," I decided while slicking my lips with the gummy nude lip gloss I'd found lurking at the bottom of my bag.

Satisfied that at least my lips were momentarily out of disrepair, I cast my eyes up to the alter, focusing on Pastor Brewer's sermon like a good Christian -- a Christian who isn't fantasizing about intimate pasta dinners with the boy sitting in the pew behind her.

"Nathan, Nathan, Nathan."

Because this was church -- a place of worship -- clearly not the locale for picking up next Saturday night's date or Mozza meal ticket.

"Nathan, Nathan, Nathan."

I mean it would be totally inappropriate to turn around when the Pastor remarked on all the crazy single people there are in LA and say, "Yeah, how about those crazy single people. You should totally date a non-crazy person like me." Because that would obviously make me seem completely sane. The physical manifestation of normal.

"Nathan, Nathan, Nathan."

So I didn't say anything at all. I kept my legs crossed underneath my trim, floral knee-length skirt; the eyes underneath my untrimmed eyebrows cast to the front so I could laugh at Pastor Brewer's lame jokes on cue, and I left the service without asking him -- Nathan -- if he came there often or wanted to come often with me. Come often to church, of course. (I do go every Sunday.)

I cursed my inability to say anything other than the obscenely appropriate, "Hi, my name is Diana," all the way home. Once there, I ripped off my stupidly conservative skirt, plucked my eyebrows with the be-all-end all Tweezerman tweezers and put on my short short gray sweat shorts. Then I went and corrupted my other place of worship in the worst way I could imagine.

I put bacon in my quinoa.

And I devoured every inappropriate bite.

"Q-BLT" Bacon, Kale and Tomato Quinoa with a Fried Egg
Serves 1 Crazy Single Person

1/4 cup quinoa, rinsed well
1 thick-cut slice of bacon, chopped into 1/2 inch pieces
1/3 yellow onion, finely chopped (approximately 1/2 cup)
2 heaping cups chopped kale
*Slow-roasted tomatoes (can be prepared ahead of time)
1 egg (brought to room temperature -- it fries better when not too chilled)
1 teaspoon lemon juice.
Salt, pepper
Olive oil

Bring slightly less than 1/2 a cup of water to a boil in small saucepan. Add the thoroughly rinsed quinoa, reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for approximately 15 minutes. Turn off the heat, take the lid off, fluff with a fork and set aside to "air dry."

Heat large frying pan (fitted with a lid) over medium-high heat. Add the bacon pieces and sauté until bacon has released a good amount of its fat and come to a satisfying crispy texture. Remove bacon pieces with a slotted spoon or fork and set on a paper towel-lined plate. Add the onion to the hot pan, and sauté for 3-5 minutes or until translucent. Add the kale, a pinch of salt, reduce the temperature to low, and cover with the lid. Braise for 25-30 minutes or until kale is silky in texture. Squirt with lemon juice just prior to serving.

Heat nonstick frying pan over medium-high heat. Add a splash of olive oil to the center, spreading out with a spatula to coat the inside surface of the hot pan. Crack the egg in the center, being careful not to break the yolk. Salt and pepper to taste (my taste involves generous salting and peppering). Let sit undisturbed until edges of white are fully cooked through and only a puddle of white remains uncooked around the yolk. Carefully flip the egg over and let cook for 1 more minute over medium heat to ensure the white is fully cooked, while the yolk remains gorgeously runny. Turn off the heat.

Toss quinoa, kale, a handful of slow-roasted tomatoes and bacon together. Plate immediately and top with fried egg.

*Slow-roasted tomatoes: Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Slice cherry, baby heirloom, grape or other small tomato of your choice in half. Spread halves out, seed-side up, in a glass baking dish. Sprinkle with salt and roast until shriveled in appearance -- approximately 45-60 minutes. Tomatoes freeze beautifully so don't be afraid to make a big batch. I store mine in the freezer in airtight containers, placing the tomatoes in single layers on sheets of wax paper.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Chopped Miso Salad: When not to compromise

I tried to go to a pool party today. It seemed like a great idea at the time -- "Screw writing!" I thought as I began slathering my face with sunscreen and bronzer. I tossed my gray sweat shorts on the floor and replaced them with the blue and white striped bikini that I've worn approximately three times since I purchased it three years ago, and hopped into my car.

"See, I can be spontaneous," I told myself as I accelerated down Melrose Avenue with visions of floatation devices and sparkling Rosé drifting through my head. I was going to have fun -- relax, laugh like one of those people who has nothing better to do on a Sunday afternoon than drink wine by the pool.

I didn't anticipate that by the time I arrived at the party my planned street for parking would be bumper to bumper cars. And I didn't anticipate having to traverse the hilly, one-lane streets of the neighborhood with my groaning, sputtering 1999 Corolla that has seen far far better days. Twenty minutes of unsuccessful sputtering later, I gave up. I chucked spontaneity in the toilet and drove home to sit on my couch, in my bikini with sunscreen in my eyes.

This has been the story of my weekend. Failed, frustrating missions.

I bought the wrong kind of rice vinegar at the grocery store yesterday. The drug store was out of the rubber gloves I use for cooking and cleaning (don't ask). The movie theater only had front row seats left for the 7:30 showing of The Help last night. And when I found this out, I told my poor friend who bought the tickets for us that I didn't want to sit that close -- and we didn't end up going at all.

Because I'm not a go-with-the-flow person. I'm rigid. Inflexible. And anxious about anything that isn't in my neat little zone of comfort. I'm scared of getting neck and eyestrain from sitting too close to the screen; paranoid that if I drive or park on a hill, my car will roll back into another car; and opposed to using a different kind of rice vinegar that is not the one that I always buy and always use for my rice vinegar-inclusive recipes.

"What if it's not the same?" I think, as if it's the worst possible thing that could happen.

Because with this chopped miso salad -- an addicting combination of cabbage, noodles, sugar snap peas, sauteed tofu, crispy shallots, crunchy almonds, and the perfect miso dressing -- it actually would be the worst thing that could happen. I wouldn't dare compromise the collusion of all those deliciously snappy textures slung together with that be-all-end-all miso dressing by using a (gasp) different rice vinegar.

Just like I wouldn't dare compromise my overextended vehicle by parking on a hill; instead electing to drive all the way back home to sit on my couch, in my bikini, with sunscreen in my eyes and no glass of pink, bubbly wine in my hand.

You know it's a bad weekend when the highlight is a tofu salad. Even if it is a really really good one that, incidentally, is the perfect way to go about actually fitting into that bikini that only gets worn around the house.

Chopped Miso Salad

Adapted from 101 Cookbooks
Serves 4

1 1/2 cups of dry whole wheat spaghetti, snapped into 1-inch pieces
10 ounces extra firm tofu, sliced into julienne-like pieces
1 1/2 cups shallots, skinned and thinly sliced
4 cups shredded cabbage
2 cups sugar snap peas, sliced on the diagonal
1/2 cup slivered almonds, toasted
2 teaspoons olive oil

Miso Dressing
2 tablespoons white miso
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/4 cup rice vinegar (unseasoned)
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

Combine miso, Dijon and brown sugar in a small bowl. Whisk in the rice vinegar, then the sesame oil. Dressing should be smooth.

Cook whole wheat spaghetti according to package instructions. Drain, rinse with cold water to stop the cooking process, and set aside.

While spaghetti is cooking, heat large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the olive oil, swirling to coat the pan. Stir in the shallots, tofu and pinch of salt and reduce the heat to medium. Continue stirring every few minutes so the shallots and tofu get browned on all sides. Keep a close eye so they don't burn and reduce the temperature if they seem to be cooking too quickly. Once well-browned (approximately 15 minutes), turn off the heat and let sit while you are preparing the other ingredients.

In a large bowl, toss cabbage, noodles, snap peas with the miso dressing. Divide among four plates, then top each with the crispy tofu, shallots and almonds. Eat immediately for optimal crunch factor.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Do Not Pass the Pig Ears, Please

Pig knuckles and chicken feathers. These were my mother’s favorite scary stories when my brothers and I were growing up.

“When I was a little girl I had to pluck the chickens,” she told us of her days spent visiting her grandmother Mamie on her farm in Arlington, South Dakota. She went on to provide vivid details about their butcher and how even after the chickens’ heads had been chopped off they’d still run around the yard.

“And the smell,” she continued, pausing for emphasis as she described how Mamie would soak the chickens’ lifeless bodies in the sink so it was easier to remove the feathers. “It filled the entire kitchen. But it was nothing compared to the time I had to eat…(dun, Dun, DUN!)…pig knuckles!”

(Click to continue....)

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Quinoa with Currants, Dill, Zucchini: As luck would have it

When I was in the second grade, my best friend Andrea invited me to join her family for a visit to Disneyland. I still remember every detail of our trip -- her asking me to say "Mississippi" on the car ride over (I had an unfortunate lisp at the time), nervously standing in line for my first Splash Mountain experience (terrifying), and later chickening out of going on Space Mountain because I was scared of all the flashing red and blue lights.

It was a great day, I tell you -- the besssst.

It was also during this equally parts delightful and emotionally-scarring visit that I paid 25 cents to have my palm read by "Esmeralda" the fortune teller. I placed my hand on a germ-infested receptor and the machine spit out a survey that told me various facts about myself. Among other startling revelations that I can no longer recall, Ms. Esmeralda informed me that my lucky color is green.

While I had no reason to believe the mechanical doll with the large turban (I was a pink-loving girl through and through), I couldn't get it out of my head that green was and is my lucky color. I wasn't sure how a color could be lucky -- it's not tangible like a rabbit's foot or lucky pair of underwear -- but after that fateful day I was constantly on the look out for opportunities when green would bring me good fortune.

Perhaps it meant I was going to have a fruitful life tending to a large garden filled with shrubbery and those large ivy sculptures in the shapes of various animals. Or maybe I would meet an Irishman and lead a blissful existence in the Emerald Isle. Maybe every time I wore the color green something wonderful and stupendous would happen. I wasn't sure how or when, but Esmeralda had me convinced that my life was destined to be impacted by the color green in some momentous way.

So even today, twenty irrational years later, every time I put on my sole pair of bright green underwear I think, "These'll bring me luck!" And even though I've never noticed the color of my underwear having a positive impact on my fortune, I proceed to go through life with this tiny little sliver of consciousness that it might. Some day.

Unless, of course, Esmeralda was referring to having luck with green foods rather than green under things or plants. Suddenly it would make sense why my produce bin looks like a shamrock exploded inside of it at the beginning of every week. Why I would rather eat a giant mound of braised kale for breakfast than a donut. Why I drink an obscene amount of green tea every morning. And why the rate of my pulse increases in direct relation to the amount of green things I get to consume.

This massive heap of quinoa loaded with shredded zucchini, dill, arugula, and green onions is exactly the type of salad that makes me believe that maybe green really is my lucky color. Or at the very least, my stomach's lucky color. It would be far more convenient than having to move to Ireland to marry an Irishman.

Quinoa with Currants, Dill, Zucchini, and Tofu
Adapted from recipe on 101 Cookbooks
Serves 4

3/4 cup quinoa, well rinsed and drained
1 1/4 cups water
1/3 cup dried currants
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 10-ounce package extra firm tofu, cubed
3 small-medium zucchini, grated on a box grater
4 green onions, chopped
Zest and juice of one lemon
1/4 cup chopped fresh dill
1/3 cup slivered almonds, toasted
2 cups arugula, roughly chopped
Salt and pepper

Rinse quinoa thoroughly in a fine mesh strainer. Bring 1 1/4 cups water to a boil in a medium sized pot. Add the quinoa, reduce the heat, and simmer, covered for 15 minutes or until kernels have separated from their shells and all the water has been absorbed. Add the currants, fluff with a fork, remove the lid and let sit for another 10 minutes for any additional moisture to evaporate.

Heat large frying pan over medium high heat. Add the olive oil, swirling to coat the pan, then add the cubed tofu. Stir fry over medium heat until browned on all sides.

Toss quinoa with zucchini, green onions, dill, lemon zest, lemon juice, arugula, tofu and almonds. Salt and pepper generously to taste. Salad may be eaten immediately or chilled for later use.