The breakfast of champions

[Can I say that? Will I be sued by Wheaties? I guess Kurt Vonnegut got away with it, and I mean, c’mon. We’re practically the same, Kurt and I.

To ward off that swarm of attorneys: I have no evidence to substantiate the inferred claim that the subject of today’s post has been eaten by any sort of official Champion (with a capital “C”). All I really mean is that, since it’s the only breakfast I can eat and make it clear through the morning without hunger pangs, low-blood-sugar shakes, or stomach growls, it’s the breakfast that helps me champion my morning (little “c”).]

I have never been the type of person who skipped breakfast. From childhood straight through until college, I woke up hungry every single day. Until I nursed a solid addiction to coffee in my early 20’s, I usually ate breakfast before I even showered or started putting hot rollers in my hair (hey — it was the 80’s).

I also never developed a taste for rich or sweet foods in the morning. In middle-school years, this was just one of many things that made me the undesired center-of-attention at say, slumber parties. The parents inevitably went out on Saturday morning and bought the biggest box of doughnuts they could carry home, and I would nibble for a moment at one, then attempt to inconspicuously ask for a bowl of cereal. Unsweetened, if possible.

Keep in mind, please, that this had absolutely nothing to do with gastronomic maturity, or with obedience to some health-crazed parent. Sweet, overly-processed foods just made me feel funny. Bisquick pancakes gave me a headache, and doughnuts made me nauseous and shaky. It was embarrassing; I was often asked something to the equivalent of, “You’re twelve years old. What the hell’s wrong with you?” (the profanity, of course, only being implied at that point to my untainted ears).

One time in grad school I was staying at a friend’s mom’s house. For breakfast one morning, we filled our bowls with what I think was my very first taste of homemade granola. It was not candy-sweet, was filled with huge chunks of almonds, and stuck to your ribs. After finishing breakfast, I felt satisfied and energized, without a shred of guilt. It was a great way to start the day, so I procured the recipe.

In the years since, I’ve tried many more granola recipes. And most of them are good, for a change, but by the end of the batch I’m sick of them (especially ones with heavy flavors, such as zested oranges or pumpkin pie spices). I always go back to this one. It’s wonderfully versatile, and leaves much room for improvisation. You can use more/less sweetener, or substitute fun things like maple syrup (I went through a short-lived molasses phase at one point). You can also add a variety of seeds, nuts, and other grains (the batch in the photo has millet and sesame seeds); the only rule is to keep the dry ingredients somewhat consistent with the original volume, or your granola will be too dry. This makes a big batch — you need two half-sheet pans to bake it; but it halves well, albeit with some odd measurements.

The recipe is named for my friend Taff’s mom, who shared with me her recipe. Make it, experiment with it, and get out there to save the world. Or maybe just get the laundry done.

Ms. Hellmann’s Granola

*You can find most of these ingredients in a supermarket, but will have better luck and spend less money if you can get them at a whole food grocery.

Preheat oven to 350º, and lightly coat two rimmed half-sheet pans with cooking spray.

Mix together in a very large bowl:

  • 8 cups old-fashioned (not quick-cooking) rolled oats
  • 1 cup raw wheat germ
  • 1 cup oat bran
  • 1/2 – 1 cup whole wheat flour (more flour makes chunkier granola)
  • 1 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
  • 1 cup nuts, roughly chopped (I typically use almonds or pecans, and usually double that amount, since I like nutty granola)

In a microwaveable medium-sized bowl, combine

  • 3/4 cup water
  • 3/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar
  • 1 tsp salt

Microwave for about 1-2 minutes, or until the sugar dissolves. Stir well, then add to the liquid mixture

  • 1 tsp vanilla extract

Pour the liquid mixture over the oat mixture, and stir very well, so that all the dry ingredients are coated. Press gently into the pans, trying to keep an even thickness to prevent over-browning. Bake for 15 minutes. Remove pans from the oven, and using a spatula, flip and stir chunks of the granola, then return pans to the oven. Bake another 10-15 minutes, or until your desired toasty-golden-color is reached. Remove the pans to cooling racks and let cool completely (granola will dry out and turn crunchy as it cools). Feel free at this point to stir in your favorite dried fruit; store in an airtight container (avoid plastic bags if possible, they give it an off-flavor) for up to a week or more.


And it doesn’t even garnish an “R” rating

I’m not really sure why, but I love to watch someone make a pie.

Friday night, we watched Waitress — the down-home romantic comedy starring Keri Russell. The movie is, well, very very cute, with a certain likeable-yet-sometimes-annoying country charm. The best part of the film, by far, is watching the main character make pies (thanks, Gretchen, for recommending it to me for this very reason). Not only in the way I usually like to watch pie-making (the crust being the best part) — but because she makes these crazy pies with quirky names. And I just kept wondering if they’d actually be good to eat (while also internally criticizing her process, at times… [audible sigh]… just SUSPEND DISBELIEF already!).

There was also the very different and fantastic film that we queued up a few months ago, called Sweetland. Beautifully filmed and scored, quiet, well-written, and overall a joy to watch. There is a rewind-worthy scene of two women sealing a friendship over the making and consuming of a pie. The sounds of this film are as important as the cinematography — I still remember the sound of forks scraping a tin pie plate (the movie is set during one of the World Wars) as the characters eat the entire pie by themselves. It was transcendent, and left me aching for a piece for myself.

Beyond the world of film, two people in my life have been inspirational pie-makers: my mother-in-law, Ruth, and my dear friend Cassia. Ruth makes a killer cherry pie (though not the limit of her pastry repertoire), and I will never forget one Christmas, watching her roll out two pie crusts with ease, and in about 2 minutes flat, all while talking on the phone. This was still at a time when I couldn’t roll out a crust without it tearing, and I watched in awe. Cassia has the distinction of making The Best Apple Pie I’ve Ever Tasted, and was also the first to introduce me to the incomparable Tomato Pie. She makes a pie with joy, and without stress, and loves to share it with friends.

About six years ago, we were living in Asheville, NC. I was teaching multimedia design at UNCA, and was trying to reconcile my new life as a wife with my existing life defined primarily by my creative work. I was working on some short videos of things domestic, and decided to include some footage of pie-making. Cassia and I went to our friend Sonja’s place, and spent a whole afternoon making pies. We each made one — Cass made apple, Sonja made blackberry, and I made Coconut Cream. We reconvened later that night, with our husbands, and consumed our creations. All three pies were delicious, but that apple pie… that was the one that sealed Cassia’s distinction.

Here are some video clips of that pie. There’s no sound, so don’t bother turning up the volume. It might not be the cinematic genius of Sweetland, but hopefully it’ll convey a tiny bit of the warmth and joy we shared that afternoon.


Finished Pie

Pick of the Month, January ’08

So, the holidays are over, and with their departure left a way of eating. I’m not referring to any personal battles with avoiding extra holiday weight — it’s more about the flavors and types of foods that carry us from Halloween straight through until New Year’s Eve (and yes, those happen to be foods that can reputedly add a pant size to many an overzealous soul). There’s lots of sugar, baked goods, and fragrant spices; much thought of roasted poultry and rich sauces. And in my case, for some reason, a lot of time spent consuming dark chocolate. (Still not sure what that was all about, but it was a personal highlight of The Holidays, ’07.)

Then comes January. The party’s over, people start regretting their resolutions, and tax season looms. The clothing stores are already stocked with bathing suits (is that some sort of sick retail joke? payback for a less-than-stellar Black Friday?), and winter viruses start spreading like Santa-Ana-fueled wildfires. All of the flavor excitement of the past 3 months is history, and we’re left wondering what meal can comfort and keep our interest until the weather warms and the trees return to green.

Well, it won’t help you with your 1040s, but this month’s Pick can both warm your soul and boost your immunity. This winter I encourage you to utilize one of my favorite of the green veggies: kale.

For many years, I thought kale was an inedible. My first experience with it was using it as a garnish in the displays at Chic-fil-A (my first food service job, in high school), and I really thought that it was purely decorative greenery, like a pine-needle centerpiece. The first time I ever ate it was as a side-dish in the infamous Lula, where I worked as a server. It took one bite for me to like it, and I immediately started cooking it at home, trying to mimic the Lula preparation. A few years after that, I started to understand how good for you kale really is.

It is one of the most nutritious vegetables you can eat. A few ounces can pack in a majority of an adult’s daily needs of Vitamins A & C, and beta-carotene. Not to mention respectable doses of calcium and iron. It has trace amounts of a host of other good things, and plenty of anti-oxidants to boot. The wiki page even mentions its use in WWII, where it was grown and consumed by troops to help supplement the nutrients missing from their meager frontline diets. If it can help keep men killing each other, seems to me it could do a lot to help kill the common cold.


No buts.

It’s a green.

I know.

I don’t eat greens. They’re slimy, and bitter. I’ll just take a multi-vitamin and hope for the best.

Oh, but read on: kale is delightful. It is unlike any other green in texture and flavor. It is — get this — mild. And not the least bit slimy, even when cooked. All it takes is a few minutes, a hot skillet, and a few drops of balsamic vinegar, and you have a side dish that complements almost any entrée. It makes a hearty and comforting addition to soups such as the Portuguese caldo verde, and could replace spinach or collards in many other recipes. My favorite variety is plain ol’ green kale (other varieties in the grocery store include lacinato and red). You can keep it unwashed in a plastic bin in the refrigerator for about a week. One bunch, sautéed, can feed about 4 people. Here’s my method for sautéed kale:

  • one bunch kale, washed well and patted dry with paper towels, leaves torn from the tough center stems and rough-chopped into palm-sized pieces
  • a tablespoon or two of olive oil
  • balsamic vinegar
  • salt and pepper to taste

Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add the oil and swirl to coat the pan. Add as much kale as will fit in the pan (it will pile high, but cook down), and cook, stirring and tossing the leaves frequently. Cook for about 5 minutes, until the leaves reduce, turn bright green, and soften. Add a few drops of the vinegar, and a touch of salt and pepper. Taste for texture and seasoning (I usually let mine brown a little in spots, it gets a slightly crunchy texture that way), remove from heat, and serve immediately.


The Best Tomato Soup

It really is. And alarmingly simple, too. I’ve tried several other tomato soup recipes, all more complicated and time-consuming, and not one has compared, even remotely.

Every time I serve this soup to guests, they comment on how fresh it tastes, and usually ask if I used fresh tomatoes (I think to myself that I’d rather eat a can of Campbell’s than use a storebought tomato at this time of year). But I wouldn’t use fresh tomatoes even if I had an endless supply of a perfectly-ripe heirloom variety; this isn’t a gazpacho, it’s a cold-weather soup, and the texture and flavor of canned tomatoes are necessary. The original recipe was scrawled on a scrap of paper at my friend Megan’s house, where I first had the pleasure of eating it. I now have it memorized, because we eat it 2-3 times a month in the fall and winter, and it’s only four ingredients — and my meager brain can actually remember a list of four things, but only after months of repetition.

If you make it and don’t agree it’s the best, please send me Your Version Of A Better Tomato Soup recipe. Because I’m just curious.

(The Best) Tomato Soup

  • one yellow onion, chopped
  • 3 large cloves of garlic, minced
  • 2 (28-oz) cans of tomatoes (I use one can of diced and one can of crushed)
  • one quart vegetable or chicken broth (homemade makes a big difference here!)

In a large saucepan or dutch oven, sauté the onion and garlic in a couple tablespoons of olive oil, until soft and translucent. Add the tomatoes and broth, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for about 45 minutes. Puree the soup using a hand blender, or in batches in a blender or food processor. Salt and pepper the soup to taste (this will depend a good bit on the salt content of your broth). If desired, stir in a couple tablespoons butter (this will round out the acidity) or 1/4 cup heavy cream.

Tastes best with a grilled cheese sandwich on the side.


Penelope Scones

It’s Sunday morning, and Tim wants scones. Something about how the weekend has already unfolded tells him that I’m probably not going to be hopping out of bed on this day, eager to bake (and yes, some days I’m actually like that). So he asks me how hard scones are to make. I’m still in the bed.

“Not that hard. You just have to cut the butter into the dry ingredients until the largest pieces are about the size of peas. Oh, and make sure that you don’t stir it too much. Just until it comes together — the more you stir, the tougher the scones will be.”

“Hmm. What if I mix together all the dry and wet ingredients, and you just do the rest?”

And so a scone-baking deal is struck. I want them, too, after all. Anyway, Tim gets started on the recipe I suggest — the classic currant scones from The Joy of Cooking. Problem is, I forget that recipe calls for heavy cream, of which we have none. He has already put together the dry ingredients when we make this discovery (at this point, I have managed to drag myself to the kitchen for the purpose of consuming the requisite amount of coffee needed to adequately perform my end of this breakfast deal).

A quick inventory of the frig shows that we have buttermilk, so we substitute equal parts. Since recipes using buttermilk usually call for a combination of baking powder and soda (I’ve read the science behind this, several times, but still can’t remember enough to pass it on now), we add a half-teaspoon baking soda to the mix. We then decide that, since we have some dried cherries on hand, we might as well use some of them. We opt out of using the optional egg (it makes them more cakey), brush the tops with half-n-half, put them in the oven, and hope for the best.

And they are quite delicious — delicate, with a nice orange kick that is balanced by the cherries. Tim is so happy with our creation, he decides we should write the recipe down, and name them. When he asks Ada what we should name our scones, she says, with conviction, “Penelope.” So I now present to you the recipe:

Penelope Scones

Preheat oven to 425º.

Whisk together in a large bowl:

  • 1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2/3 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1/3 cup sugar (we used raw cane sugar, or turbinado)
  • 2 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt

Using a pastry blender, cut in, until the mixture looks like bread crumbs and no pieces are larger than peas:

  • 6 Tbsp cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

Stir in:

  • 1/4 cup raisins, chopped
  • 1/4 cup dried cherries, chopped

Whisk together in a separate bowl:

  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1 tsp grated zest of one orange

Add the wet to the dry ingredients, and stir very gently with a rubber spatula just until the mixture comes together. Gather the mixture into a rough ball, and turn out onto a floured surface. Press gently into an 8-inch round disk, about 3/4″ thick. Cut into 8 wedges. Brush the tops with milk or cream, and sprinkle lightly with more sugar, if desired (we didn’t add more sugar, and they were plenty sweet). Place about an inch apart on an ungreased baking sheet or stone. Bake 14-18 minutes, or until nicely golden. Let cool about 5 minutes before digging in.


Coddling the cold

About ten years ago, I was just starting grad school and had moved to Knoxville, Tennessee. I packed with my belongings a book that was all about altering your diet based on your blood type. I had just begun my foray into healthy eating (new life, new state, new food, etc.), and the book was recommended by a respected (and somewhat eccentric) friend. The general idea was intriguing; and while it’s been ten years since reading it, I recall the premise being that your blood type was indicative of your genealogical origins, and your body therefore responds to food the way your ancestors used it. I am an O+, and I remember something about Europeans of yore, and eating lots of meat, but avoiding dairy and wheat (unless it had been sprouted). I was hard-core for a while, but soon lost steam, though several of the ideas stuck with me (I still believe I’m much better off when avoiding cow’s milk).

I think of that book when the weather turns cold. I may have grown up and still reside in the deep south, but something in my genes absolutely loves the cold. I’m fully convinced that my ancestors wore lots of wool, spent much time in front of fires, drank their weight in tea and ate gallons of soup. And even being a very cold-natured person — so much so that even when we’re sitting in front of the fire at night, and I’ve got my cup of hot tea cradled in both hands, I still sometimes bring out my electric blanket to put over my legs and feet on the couch — I somehow relish it. It’s been cold this week; most mornings I bundled myself and the kids up and walked outside into an 18º chill. And I’m thinking, FINALLY. It’s winter.

I wrote a post a while back about how much I love my crock pot. One of the first things I made when I got it a few Christmases ago was from a book called The Gourmet Slow Cooker. The recipe is for Dublin Coddle, a simple but wonderfully comforting dish calling for layers of sausage, bacon, potatoes, carrots, and onions. I inadvertently began making this dish yearly in the month of January. I seems almost like New Year’s Day food, though I can’t put my finger on why (no greens, no cabbage, no ham… what gives?). It might be simply that it just doesn’t really get cold in the south until January. And coddle is for the cold. Tim loves this dish — I suppose his Dutch ancestors weren’t exactly basking in the sun while sipping rum drinks, either.

I don’t know about where you are, but here in Athens it’s about 60º today. Too warm for coddle. But when the next cold spell hits, be ready with coddle, a good loaf of dinner bread, and your beer of choice. The recipe, adapted from The Gourmet Slow Cooker, by Lynn Alley (this version is for a dutch oven rather than slow-cooker; I found it to be surprisingly easier, and the textures better that way):

Dublin Coddle

  • 6 slices bacon
  • 1 1/2 pounds fresh pork sausage (6-8 links)
  • 2 medium-sized yellow onions, sliced
  • 2 large potatoes, peeled and sliced
  • 2 carrots, peeled and sliced
  • 1 cup hard cider, beer, or chicken stock (beer or cider tastes best!)
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • salt and pepper

Heat a dutch oven or stockpot over medium-high heat. Add the bacon and fry until crisp. Transfer to paper towels to drain.

Add sausages and cook, turning, until nicely browned on all sides. Transfer to a plate.

Pour off all but about 2 Tbsp of the fat in the pan. Add the onions and sauté until lightly browned.

Remove half the onions from the pan, and spread the remaining half over the bottom. Sprinkle the onions in the pan with salt and pepper. Place half of the potato slices in a layer on top of the onions, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Lay the strips of bacon over the potatoes. Lay the sausages over the bacon. Spread the carrots over the sausages. Spread the remaining onions over the carrots, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Top with the remaining potatoes, and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Add the beer, cider, or stock. Cover and cook over low heat for about half an hour, or until the potatoes and carrots are very tender. Sprinkle with parsley, and serve.