Sunday, February 19, 2012

Red Wine Farro Risotto and Earned Moments

It came out without thinking.

"No, I don't!" I'd said, a snarl tangled into my voice.

I hadn't meant it to sound so rude, but his intrusion came during one of the most sacred moments of my day. Post-work, post-Bar Method, post-dinner... me time. Which directly translates to mean "couch time." The reward for all the frantic emailing, huffing, puffing, and quinoa-ing. The time when I get to be lazy and anti-social and the opposite of everything I am when I'm not shellacked to the couch.

In other words, one of my favorite times of day.

"Excuse me, excuse me," He'd shouted through the crack of my front window.

I'd ignored the mysterious shouter at first, not thinking he could possibly be talking to me. I continued to sip my rooibos tea, brewed to the perfect hot, but not scorching temperature. I continued licking my chocolate covered chocolate ice cream bon bon like I was trying to see how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop. I continued focusing my attention on willing Kat and Nick to just get together already on "The New Girl."

You know, engaging in very important activities that required all of my energy.

"Excuse me," He'd said again, clearly not content to be ignored in favor of two fictional television characters.

"What?" I'd finally snapped, startling even myself with the violent tone ribboning through my response.

"Do you have a bottle opener?" He'd asked.

"No." I'd declared without hesitation. "I don't."

As soon as the words had tumbled out of my chocolate-stained lips, I'd felt guilty. Of course, I had a bottle opener. I had at least 5 or 6 bottle openers acquired from various events and swag bags and well-meaning friends over the years. At any other time of day I would have gladly assisted the poor openerless bloke in his mission of consuming wine -- even if it was likely something of the Two Buck Chuck nature. I would have ignored such egregiousness and smiled and told him to keep the opener. I would have told him to have a nice day or night or life.

And would have sincerely meant it.

Instead, I transformed from a mostly sweet, generous and socially engaged person, to the younger, female version of Mr. Wilson on Dennis the Menace. I was moments away from screaming obscenities at the nonexistent children playing in front of my apartment for disturbing my nonexistent azalias.

"How dare he intrude on my chocolate/tea/TV time?" I'd thought. "How dare he taint the single moment of my day that is purposeless and entirely for my selfish consumption?"

Those moments of relief, like the release of a breath I don't even realize I'm holding, are the little lights at the end of a tunnel. Earned from all the hard work and focus and intensive people-pleasing of the day, they are inherently valuable. Priceless. The more I accomplish in the office, the more I push myself during Bar Method, the more time I spend chopping and dicing my dinner, the more I value that half hour or hour of chocolate-eating, tea-drinking nothingness.

This recipe for red wine farro risotto is like that - a sweet and fleeting reward that is all the more valuable because of the work that goes into it. The roasting of butternut squash, the methodically stirring, the constant attention to ensure the liquid to grain ratio is always just so. It's a process; a tunnel. And the end product -- sultry, comforting, luxurious, yet still possessed by humbleness -- briefly pauses time with that first bite.

It's reason enough to invest in a bottle opener -- and a bottle of wine of the non-Two Buck Chuck nature.

Red Wine Farro Risotto with Butternut Squash and Seared Scallops
Serves 4

Notes: This recipe in inspired by my older brother who prepared a traditional red wine risotto with arborio rice and shallots when we were all in town at my parents' house for Thanksgiving last year. I had initially turned up my nose at the risotto in favor of some kale and quinoa nonsense (typical), but when I snuck a bite of my mom's serving, I was instantly smitten. My version is made with farro instead of arborio rice, and includes butternut squash and scallops to make it more of a substantial meal, but the flavor profile still reminds me of that first exquisite bite of my brother's impromptu dinner. Feel free to change it up as you see fit, but I like the contrast of the delicate scallops to the hearty grain of farro, and find the sweetness of the butternut squash is a lovely companion for the red wine.

1 1/4-lb butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
4-5 shallots, minced (approximately 1 cup)
1 heaping cup of farro, rinsed
12 large fresh scallops
4-5 cups chicken broth
1 cup + 2 tablespoons red wine
1 teaspoon fresh thyme
Sea salt, freshly ground pepper
Olive oil
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Toss butternut squash with 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Season with salt and pepper then roast, stirring once, for 25-30 minutes or until tender. Remove and set aside.

In a large sauce pan, bring chicken broth and 1 cup red wine to a slow boil. Reduce heat and keep warm.

Meanwhile, heat large pan over medium-high heat. Once hot, add a tablespoon olive oil, swirling to coat the base of the pan. Add the shallots and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until translucent and just starting to caramelize, approximately 5-7 minutes. Add the farro and cook for another 5 minutes or so until lightly browned on all sides. Reduce the heat, add the last two tablespoons of red wine to "deglaze" the pan. Once the liquid has cooked off, start by adding 3/4 cup of broth/wine to the pan and bring to a slow boil. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring frequently. Season with thyme, freshly ground pepper. Continue adding broth/wine as needed.

When the farro is tender, but still somewhat toothsome, add the butternut squash and heat through. Add additional broth/wine as needed. Stir in the parmesan cheese and serve immediately, topped with seared scallops.

For Scallops:

While risotto is cooking rinse scallops and pat dry. Line a plate with paper towels and place the scallops on the towels. Season with salt and pepper. Let sit for a good 20-30 minutes like this.

Heat large nonstick or cast iron pan over medium-high heat. Once hot, add a tablespoon of olive oil, swirling to coat the base of the pan. Place half the scallops into the pan, being careful not to crowd them. Let cook undisturbed for a good 2-3 minutes without touching them to get a good sear. Turn and cook for another 2 minutes.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Happiness and Yellow Split Peas & Greens

I almost got a personalized license plate.

I always thought it was kind of silly -- a bit self-involved and unnecessarily gratuitous. Why would someone want a license plate with a non-sensical message that usually only they can understand? Or, alternatively, a cheesy on-the-nose proclamation that is better left misunderstood?

I cringed when I would see plates that read things like "LuvDave" or "Partyo5" or "PckyEtr" (true story).

Yet when I got my new car a month and a half ago part of me thought it would be amazing if I had its tail branded with "DTakesaB." I might have done it if I had been able to figure out a way to make it 7 characters without losing the integrity of the message. "DTkesaB" just didn't seem like the statement I wanted to make to the thousands of drivers who would pass behind me.

But beyond that, it seemed sort of of odd to put such a definitive label on myself -- to reduce my vehicle and my being to the name of my blog like that's all I am and all I'm going to be for the next 10+ years. It's easy to do, of course. To think of myself in concrete terms like "Diana Takes a Bite," "Quinoa Queen," "hospitality publicist," or even the much-loathed noun, "foodie." Especially since these are the things that other people usually use to define me, to quickly categorize me into something that makes sense in their world.

"Oh you know that Diana, she's a big foodie... loves her restaurants."

And just like that, they've assigned me an identity. Just like when I was in college and was identified with my sport -- "Diana cross-country" rather than simply "Diana," a person.

It was hard for me to find my place after I stopped running competitively. I didn't know how to label myself until I found a new category post-graduation, joining the legions of entertainment assistants who were trying to "make it" in Los Angeles.

"Oh you know that Diana, she's in... 'The Industry.'"

That all came to an end too, of course. I haven't been in "The Industry" for over four years now. The people I met in that world are distant memories from a place and time that doesn't even seem to exist anymore. At least not to the "Diana Takes a Bite" me. The "Quinoa Queen" me. The "hospitality publicist" me.

It's weird to think how quickly things change. How one moment I'm one thing and the next, I'm something completely different. It's no wonder it's so hard to find concrete happiness. It's no wonder that I freak out and start gorging on kale juice and supplements and affix weird seaweed masks to my face the second my skin starts being temperamental. In my head, it's changing how others perceive me. In my head, they aren't thinking of me as a quirky, pretty girl anymore (if they even were to begin with). They are seeing my imperfect complexion first.

The neuroses second.

Today, my church service at Bel Air Presbyterian reminded me that all of these things -- my skin, my career, my blog, even my obsession with quinoa -- are all transitory. They don't define me because they are constantly changing. My skin is constantly rejuvenating (hopefully sooner rather than later).

To rely on these things for happiness is futile. To base my state of contentment on how many blemishes are currently residing on my right cheek, on whether the boy texted me that day, or on whether I ordered the right thing at dinner is as ridiculous as it would be to plaster "DTkesaB" on the butt of my car.

When all of that is taken away, the core of who I am, the person I've always been and always plan to be, is defined by my faith.

It scares me to say that out loud. Part of me wants to go back and delete "faith" and say "heart" or something less divisive and charged. Because even that word comes loaded with associations and categories.

The dreaded label, "Jesus freak."

As much as I want to avoid that association, I know that my faith is what will bring me the concrete happiness that all those other transitory things inherently can't.

This weekend I obsessed over money, whether the gazillion products I'm using on my face are even making a difference, and this yellow split pea salad with cilantro pesto from Heidi Swanson's Super Natural Every Day. I gorged on it both yesterday and today and am fully prepared to gorge on it this entire month because it's that good.

Will I still be gorging on it a year from now?

Probably not. A year from now, I'll be spending this weekend obsessing about other things and a different recipe that I can't stop eating. Just like I was obsessing over different things a year ago - an interview with my current employer, how fat I felt from eating out three nights in a row, and Molly Wizenberg's Chana masala.

The only thing that will remain the same a year from now, and has remained the same between last year and this year, is my faith. Therein lies the secret to my forever happiness.

But for today, for this weekend, transitory happiness was found in these yellow split peas.

Yellow Split Peas & Greens
Adapted from Heidi Swanson's Super Natural Every Day
Serves 2

Notes: I, predictably, reduced the amount of olive oil in the cilantro pesto, and played around a bit with the proportions of the ingredients so I wouldn't be stuck with a vat of yellow split peas (incidentally, not a terrible thing to happen at all). I used proportionally more cilantro and lemon juice, and reduced the quantity of serrano chile because I wasn't quite sure how spicy it would be. I also added fresh pumpernickel croutons for a bit of a crunch -- an addition I think is well-received by these here split peas. Some other variations to think about - hard boiled egg, avocado, perhaps even shelled edamame. Whatever route you go, you'll want to drink the cilantro pesto. And put it on everything.

2/3 cups dried yellow split peas, rinsed and picked over
1 slice of pumpernickel (or other flavorful, hearty bread) torn into pieces
1/3 cup pepitas, toasted
1 cup lightly packed cilantro leaves and stems, rinsed well
2 heaping tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 clove garlic, peeled
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/4 small serrano chile, seeded and deveined
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/3 cup water
Sea salt
2 heaping cups of arugula

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Spread pumpernickel bread pieces out on a cookie sheet. Bake, stirring once, for 10 minutes or until toasted on all edges.

Meanwhile, bring 3 cups of water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add the yellow split peas and simmer, uncovered, for 25-35 minutes, or until tender but not mushy. You want there to be a bit of give when you bite into them. Drain the peas and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking process. Chill or bring to a room temperature.

While the split peas are cooking, make the pesto. Combine the cilantro, half the toasted pepitas, parmesan, garlic, lemon juice, serrano chile, olive oil, and water. Season with salt to taste. Puree using an immersion blender or regular blender or whatever form of blending machine you possess. Continue blending the pesto until comes together into a vibrant green sauce (not unlike this here kale juice).

In a large bowl, combine the split peas, arugula, remaining pepitas, and pumpernickel croutons. Toss with cilantro pesto to taste. Serve and eat immediately.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Fresh Kale Juice: Coming clean

I spent $450 on my face last week.

I feel sick about it., as any normal person who prefers to spend her money on food would. $450! On a patch of skin that measures less than a square foot.

I always felt sorry for those people with skin problems. Not that I didn't have my fair share of pimples and visible pores both as a teenager and an adult, but it wasn't ever a serious issue. Nothing a little makeup and strategically placed bronzer couldn't fix. While I knew I would never be one of those girls with a "dewy glow," I told myself that at least I didn't have... acne.

The word horrified me. I felt uncomfortable even hearing Proactiv commercials, as though I could somehow catch it from the TV screen. In comparison, my few pimples and lightly cratered patches of skin didn't seem all that bad. I could live with it. I could even live with the shininess that would inevitably plague my face by the end of each day.

"At least I won't get wrinkles!" I told myself in praise of my oily skin.

A few months ago, all that changed. I started to get more pimples, and they didn't go away immediately like they had in the past. My skin went from tolerable to intolerable in a matter of weeks, and I desperately slathered on foundation and a myriad of products that ran the gamut from aloe vera to tea tree oil. Every morning I raced to the bathroom mirror, hoping my skin had miraculously transformed back to its former self overnight. And every morning I was met with the same blemished complexion.

I was angry. Confused. Disgusted that I had become so obsessed about something so vain and of no relation to quinoa or Bar Method or Nancy Silverton.

That word that shall not be mentioned didn't happen to me. That sort of tomfoolery was for teenagers. People who gorged on potato chips and rubbed their greasy fingers all over their pores.

Clearly there had been some sort of mistake.

Last weekend, I finally hit my breaking point. Mortified to even go to the gym without makeup, I frantically contacted a facialist who Ashley had found on Yelp. As I nervously explained my situation during my appointment last Wednesday, the facialist, Karina, began asking me about my skin care regimen. About makeup remover and the lot of egregious products that I had lugged with me that day. I sheepishly admitted that I didn't use makeup remover - that I usually just bought whatever Neutrogena or Clean & Clear cleanser was on sale and used that to clean my face.

"Is your face always this shiny?" Karina asked, carefully surveying me.

I nodded, suddenly wondering if I'd been doing it wrong all along. If my skin didn't need to be shiny. If maybe I should have been paying attention to my face long before it staged its current rebellion.

"You have acne," Karina announced, the word reverberating through the room like the shrieking note of a violin. It hung in the air, pointing an accusatory finger at me as she continued her assessment.

"And rosacea on your nose and chin."

Her words continued to shriek in my head throughout the rest of my appointment.



"My name is Diana and I have acne." I thought as though it was an addiction I needed to acknowledge and embark on a 12-steps program for -- which, in a way, I did.

Karina kept telling me how glad she was that I came, but that I needed to be committed if I wanted my complexion to improve.

I nodded emphatically, desperately wanting her to think I was a good pupil -- that despite my offensive past with aloe vera and generic cleansers, I was serious about using makeup remover and seaweed masks and things that I'd formerly thought were superfluous and girly.

I was going to be the best patient ever - a epidermis devotee the likes of which she'd never before extracted.

A trip to my dermatologist and three prescriptions later, I'm now fully (and financially) committed to squashing the rebellion on my face.

I'm using the mint and oatmeal cleansers.

I'm taking the supplements.

And I'm drinking kale juice.

I can practically taste the impending dewy glow.

Fresh Kale, Cucumber and Apple Juice
Serves 2

Notes: During one of my post-facial emails to Karina, I asked if there were any foods I should eat to promote good skin health. In addition to the zinc and primrose oil supplements she recommended that I begin taking, she encouraged me to eat healthy - a lot of greens, not processed food. This fresh pressed juice is reflective of that recommendation. It takes a bit of effort, but is a great (and surprisingly tasty!) way to add some extra greens to your diet. Consider it a fountain of dewy skin.

1 small bunch of kale, rinsed well and finely chopped
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 small honeycrisp or other juicy apple, peeled and chopped into chunks
1 cucumber (about 5 inches long), peeled, seeded and chopped into chunks
1 cup water

Toss finely chopped kale with 2 tablespoons of lemon juice. Refrigerate overnight or for four or so hours to soften.

Combine apple, cucumber, kale, and water in a blender or deep container to blend with an immersion blender. Blend until thoroughly combine and the drink has the texture of a smoothie.

Gradually pour the mixture through a fine mesh sieve or strainer to remove the solids. Press to extract as much juice from the mixture as possible. Add additional water, pressing through the solids, as needed.

Pour the juice into two glasses. Serve at room temperature.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Simple Cabbage Slaw: Underthink it

It all started with POW's, or, as my fourth grade teacher Mrs. Cox called them, "Problems of the Week."

We would receive the "problem" every Monday and would, as the name suggests, have the week to solve it. Creative presentations of the solved problem were rewarded with bonus points in the form of a plus sign, the "A++" being the holy grail of the POW.

Overachiever that I was, it became my 9-year-old self's mission in life to acquire that A++ every single week. I'd sprawl out on the family room floor with markers, colored construction paper and glue, and spend hours coming up with over-the-top, embellished productions for a simple question that really just required a simple answer.

Even then, in the days of peanut butter sandwiches without the crust and jump ropes, "simple" didn't exist in my vocabulary. I'd overthink every nuance of the assignment, scrutinizing every word, every page, every single detail as though it had the power to be the difference between an A+ and an A++.

The end of the world.

It should hardly be a surprise that I grew up to be this. A hot mess of overthinking. Wondering what he means by "my focus is on you," and why he won't just ask me out already if his focus is indeed "on" me and not on whatever else it is he is focusing on when he's not focusing...

...on me.

And then I wonder why I even care because clearly I don't want to be with a guy who won't ask me out anyway, especially when I'm busy with all the Bar Methoding and quinoa-eating and flash mob-planning. I have a life. I have friends. I have a job. I have a Molly.

And, when times get really overthought, I have a kitchen.

The kitchen is the escape from all this -- the torturous obsession, the clutter from the day, the clutter from the boy. It's where things like this salad happen. No measuring, no scrutinizing, no assessing the meaning behind a shake of salt or a splash of apple cider vinegar.

Unlike the rest of it -- the overextended analyzation about how to respond to a "hey" -- it's done by feel.

And unlike the rest of it, it's exactly what it appears to be. Simple. Delicious. Worthy of an A++ without a single embellishment.

Simple Cabbage Slaw
Serves 1 (or more as you see fit)

Notes: This recipe is built upon approximations so I'm leaving out specific quantities and listing, simply, ingredients. Combine them how you see fit -- or rather, how you feel is fit. Don't overthink it. Enjoy it.

Handful of Red Cabbage, sliced into ribbons
Handful of Green Cabbage, sliced into ribbons
1 Small Carrot, peeled and sliced into thin ribbons or shreds
Sea Salt, to taste
Freshly Ground Pepper, to taste
Splash of Good Quality Olive Oil
Splash of Apple Cider Vinegar
Squirt of Honey
Dash of Ground Mustard

Combine red and green cabbage and carrot into a bowl. Season with salt and pepper.

Whisk together olive oil, apple cider vinegar, honey, and ground mustard. Pour over cabbage. Toss until well-integrated. Let rest 10 minutes for flavors to "meld." Serve and eat immediately.