Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A New Way to Pesto

The diminishing quality of pine nuts on the market over the last couple of years has brought disappointment to many-a-pesto-lover in the kitchen, given the high cost of these special nuts.

Many reviews and comments about pine nuts referenced a lingering bitter taste in the mouth that became known as "pine mouth," which was especially troublesome since it was impossible to know by look or smell if the nut you had on hand was good or bad. Even the FDA got involved, read here.

Making pesto can be costly enough, if you have to purchase all the ingredients from the store -- olive oil, fresh basil, Parmesan cheese, and nuts. Thus, I for one, wasn't thrilled about dropping cash on nuts that may ruin a whole batch, let alone leave me clawing at my tongue for weeks to get rid of that awful taste.

Thus, I searched for an alternative, and low and behold, I found one. Garbanzo beans.

However, if you want to avoid making glorified humus, preparation of the pesto requires a couple tricks.

First, you have to bake the beans in the oven at 225 degrees for about 40 minutes. Second, you MUST be sure to add lemon juice. This ingredient is essential, and I will warn you that many recipes floating out there on the web for this garbanzo bean alternative to pesto have omitted it. Unfortunately, those who don't know any better will be highly disappointed, and likely voicing my own son's remarks after tasting the first trial batch, which were, "That's not good." (Note: remarks have been modified to protect reputations of all parties involved.)

Fortunately, I didn't throw out the batch, and after a fair amount of reflection over what I'd done, I realized what was missing, and the pesto was easily saved. (Note: it always helps to refer back to your own original recipes.)

Pesto can be prepared for a variety of uses. I tend to use mine for cracker and sandwich spreads, so it has a thicker consistency than what may be drizzled over pasta.  Whatever your fancy, you can modify the recipe to suit your needs. Pesto is highly forgiving that way. Want a pasta dressing? Then add more oil, and back off a bit on the beans.

Enjoy your own experiments, and have fun welcoming pesto back into your kitchen (with a better budget, too!)

Pesto with Garbanzo Beans

1 can garbanzos
2 cups fresh basil, packed
1 cup Parmesan cheese
4 cloves garlic
1/4 tsp black pepper
1 tsp salt
1 cup olive oil
1/4 cup lemon juice

(optional: add 2 medium, seeded, roma tomatoes)

Mix all together in a food processor.

Serve what you need, and Freeze the rest in smaller tuperwares for up to 6 months.

I've posted a lot about pesto before. For the original tomato pesto recipe, go here.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Hello, Winter Sunday Sunshine and Music

Winter has settled in our valley with an unlikely companion this season - sunshine.

Usually our valley air gets hammered by inversions, where the cold air becomes trapped near the valley floor under a thick layer of impenetrable clouds, leading us to go through day after day without a sign of sun. Usually our valley gets highlighted in the news during these episodes as one of the worst places in the US for air quality.  Usually I spend my free time figuring out how and when I can leave this valley for brighter days. But not this year. So far, I've awoke on the weekends to glorious blue skies, leading me to make plans that actually take me outside -- here in the valley, of all places -- rather than elsewhere. I can only hope our good weather lasts, and take advantage of it while I can.

Here is a somewhat relevant photo that I found to share my experience with winter, thus far. (Since dropping my camera in orange juice a while back, it's been hard to get decent pictures, because the "new" camera I got, which was supposed to be identical to the first, basically stinks big-time. The quality of Canon's internal parts has obviously taken a nose-dive, unbeknownst to me when I thought replacing my camera would be simple, so long as I got the same model. And as far as the camera-in-orange-juice story goes, don't ask. It's complicated - but true to the luck I tend to run with.)

It's been a while since I posted Sunday music recommendations. This morning the view of the sun glinting off the snow-covered mountain peaks inspired me to search out some winter piano. Martin Herzberg's composition fit the bill.  Enjoy! I know I shall. It's filling my writing space and inspiring my muse quite nicely.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Goodbye, Summer. Hello, Fall

Spring and Summer rose with the sun each day, and like them, I grabbed hold of the line to which they were attached and was brought along on their fast-forward and unrelenting ride. Now I find myself in the midst of autumn with the sun dipping from the sky sooner than I'd like each evening, veiling my activities under ever-darkening and cooling night tide.

In a few words? Life has been crazy and busy and full of changes to which I've been slow to adjust. Yet, the world has moved along, and a few more pages have been torn from the calendar; and now I am staring at the last few eves of October, while wondering where the refreshing breezes of September went. Or August's for that matter. I have always loved August and its restful morning light that shimmies in through my window, feeling warm and welcoming like an old friend.

As fall wraps itself up into winter, I hope to wrap myself into finding more time to relax and reflect and share a bit more with friends. Like the new recipes I've come up with and books I've discovered.

One book which brought me back to my New Hampshire roots was written by Melissa Coleman: This Life is In Your Hands. Although tragic, I found it riveting and thought-provoking and well worth the read.

Another was John Green's Looking for Alaska, which was okay. Well, more than okay. It was great. Okay? If you're wondering what I mean, then you'll have to read the book to find out.

Until next time, enjoy the place where you find yourself at, and remain hopeful and anticipatory of the moments that surely will follow.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Better Days with a Recipe for Better Strawberry Pie

After feeling like I've been falling into a deep freeze the past few days, it looks like Spring is finally emerging victorious over Old Man Winter who wanted to rear back up its ugly head. I see a peak of blue sky on the horizon, which I am hoping will yield to a bit of sunshine later this afternoon.

This calls for a celebration. Not only because I'll finally warm up, but also because my face surgery went better than expected a couple weeks ago. The carcinoma was not as widespread as the doctors had prepared me for, and the scar is already hardly noticeable since it fits right along the edge of my nose. Plus, my stylish hat collection is growing, so I feel like a woman born-again -- at least when it comes to sizing up my status in fashion.

My renewed sense of energy has lured me back into the kitchen. With strawberries coming back in season in my neck of the woods, I'm going to share one of my son's all-time favorites: Strawberry Pie.

But today you not only get a better recipe than you'll find on the web, you get two. Plus, both are healthier and just as tasty. I don't think it can get any better than that, can it?

Well, I suppose it always can, but we're sticking to the pie.

First, with the healthier side. Many of you probably have heard the reports coming out about how bad sugar is for our bodies. Among its many dark deeds, it is directly linked to Type 2 diabetes. For years, I've always cut back on sugar in my pies, simply because with the natural sugars present in fruit, I decided that most recipes call for an overkill. Let me assure you that cutting back on sugar is not for lack of a sweet-tooth on my part. I LOVE sweets, and will never turn down cake or cookies for breakfast if such items are lingering in my kitchen from the day before.

However, after much thought on the matter and baking in the kitchen, I realized that most recipes were designed historically around a time-intensive transportation/delivery system that no longer is in place today. Historically, in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, fruits and vegetables that found their way into the kitchen weren't recently harvested, but had endured a week- to month's worth-or-more-of-time in transportation and storage. During that time, sugars would naturally break down, and thus fruits weren't as sweet as what they would be if they were fresh-picked and ripe at harvest.

These days, with improved refrigeration during delivery and shorter time from harvest to table, I've bet on the side that most recipes continue to call for more sugar than you typically need. Especially if you're using fresh regional produce. Even more so, if you're using your own.

I've found this too-much-sugar concept to be particularly true when making jam, and you can read more about that in my post here. Nevertheless, if using less sugar applies to jam, it's going to apply to pies as well, as I've been practicing all along. So here goes. Let's dive right in!

Better Strawberry Pie, Recipe #1

1 9-inch pie crust, lined in pie pan, pricked with fork and baked 10 min at 400 degrees
1 quart organic* strawberries, plus extra for fresh garnish
1/2 cup sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
3/4 cup orange juice
whipped cream for topping

Hull and slice the strawberries and place them into a heavy-bottomed, medium sauce pan. Don't mash them. You'll lose what makes eating fruit good for you. (Do research if you want to know more.) Pour the sugar over the berries and then add the orange juice. Let the berries sit in this concoction for about 30 minutes. The juice and sugar will begin to draw out those natural sugars and water inside the berries. While you're waiting, pass the time by preparing the pie crust.

You can also pass the time by hulling and slicing those extra berries you bought and set aside. You'll be tossing these on top of the pie when serving it, so you might as well get them ready.

*Speaking of berries, use organic if you can. Strawberries are in the Dirty Dozen for pesticide residue, because they are grown with tons of pesticides. So go organic, if you can. Especially if you're cooking for kids.

After about 30 minutes, add the cornstarch to the berries and cook them over medium heat, while continually stirring them. The juice should thicken up as it starts to slowly bubble after about 5 minutes. I usually let it continue to slowly bubble for about 1 minute more with stirring. Once it is reasonably thick, remove the pan from the heat and allow the sauce to cool for about 15 minutes. Then pour the cooked berries and sauce into the prepared pie crust. Set the pie in the fridge after it has cooled for 10 minutes more. The pie should be ready to serve after about 2 hours when it has completely chilled and set.

Top each slice with fresh berries and whipped cream.

Better Strawberry Pie, Recipe #2

So, I happen to love cheesecake, so that is where this recipe comes from. Combining two of my favorite pies. My son prefers the first recipe. Me? I'll go for either one, but if push comes to shove, I'll grab the second.

1 8-inch graham cracker crust, prepared

1/2 of the strawberry pie recipe above (for filling) (prepared separately)
1 package Pillsbury cream cheese (8 oz), softened to room temperature
1/4 cup sugar
1 Tablespoon flour
1 egg
1/2 cup sour cream (4 oz)
2 teaspoons orange juice or 1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Mix all the ingredients for the cheesecake portion of the pie together until smooth. Pour into the graham cracker crust and bake at 325 degrees for about 30 minutes (until firm). Remove from oven and let cool.

While the cheesecake layer is baking, make your strawberry filling for the top layer of the pie, as directed in recipe #1. When the strawberry filling is cooled to a warm temperature, pour it over the top of the cheesecake layer, and set in the fridge to chill and set. The pie should be ready to serve after about 2 hours. Top each slice with fresh berries and whipped cream.


Feel free to share any of your favorite ideas and tips.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

A Face of Cancer

Brown Women's Rhinestone Floppy Sun Hat

This spring has held a few firsts for me. The first mother-daughter trip in a long while. The first stressful year-end evaluation with my principal in a new public school (I think I survived and will be hired back for another year). The makings of the first set of plans for sending my daughter to college. These events had all been anticipated. I'd been able to prepare.

What I hadn't planned on was becoming a statistic, on joining a couple million other Americans this year in being diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma. I was given the news as "good news" over the phone. Basal cell carcinoma is slow growing, I'd been told, and usually just requires an outpatient cosmetic surgery. This description left me feeling fine, unconcerned. Then I went in for a follow-up to make sure there weren't other spots of concern on my skin. It was during this visit that I was dealt the bad news -- and the reality of being diagnosed with a cancer, an actual cancer, set in.

Because the first thing I realized was that my "basal cell carcinoma" was pictured on a handy poster of skin cancers on the examining room door. Basal cell carcinoma sat right next to melanoma, the more concerning type. But these "slow-growing" basal cell photos also showed rouge cancerous cells breaking off from the group, identical to those breaking off from melanoma group, apparently in order to move freely about my body and set up shop wherever they wished.

Still, I felt unconcerned, or wanted to anyway. After all, when the doctor had removed the concerning patch of skin from my cheek where it rested alongside my nose for biopsy a couple weeks before, all that remained was a light pink spot. I'd figured it'd been removed in its entirety.

"That's the bad news about this type of cancer," the doctor said. "What we removed is like a tip of an iceberg. It grows like an iceberg, or an upside mushroom; so even though we removed the tip and even though it's slow growing, there's no telling how far it has spread under the top layers of skin until we start cutting and removing in the surgery.  And we won't stop until it's all gone."

And of course that where the stories began -- the personal experiences people want to share. The doctor told me of her sister, who had been through the same sort of thing. What started out as a tiny inconspicuous patch like mine, ended up being the size of a silver dollar by the time they had removed all the tissue. Her point wasn't to scare me, she said, but to tell me that the scar was hardly noticeable now. The cosmetic surgeons are very good she said. "That is why we send you to them."

Another person told me of his father. "He was gone a year later," he said, shaking his head. "Don't wait on getting it taken care of." Then he half-smiled. "Just wait until after our big track meet coming up. We'll need you," he joked. (I'm an assistant track coach).

Another person told me of a friend who has had numerous basal cell spots removed, leaving me with images of holes all over my face. "She's fine," she assured me. "She gets them removed all the time. She's a lot older than you, though. You're young for this." 

And the stories continue to come.

Please don't tell me stories. I know they need to be told. I just don't want to hear them. Not yet. Anyone who knows me knows that I am the epitome of a "living in the moment" type of person. Anyone who knows me knows that I am the epitome of what it means to be "empathetic." I will feel every cut, every bruise, every hurtful experience that is relayed to me. I am overly sensitive that way. When my daughter tore her ACL in soccer and couldn't walk, suddenly, I was in pain in the same knee and had trouble walking myself. This continued for the duration of her injury. She thought I was nuts. So did I -- although I had been injured in a similar way when I was about her age, so it almost made sense to think that I knew what she was feeling. Almost.

But mostly, I am not a good planner. I don't relish the idea of contemplating alternative realities that may not ever occur, particularly those that may bring hardship. And right now, I'm enjoying a homemade cup coffee -- vanilla latte, actually. And despite how un-vanilla latte it appears, because I lack most of the equipment required in making such a concoction -- I am still telling myself I'm enjoying it.  So that is how it is, in my life, right now, at the moment.

Thankfully, my kids don't have stories to tell. They don't have concerns either. They call my basal cell carcinoma "a condition," jokingly, to help lighten our nerves, I suppose. The reality is that we won't know how it will all be until after it's all done. And I suppose they have always known me to be strong, resilient, and able to come up with a reason to laugh or at least smile, even after the darkest of moments, even when I don't want to. I suppose that's why I am going to bring a few photos along with me to surgery, just in case the surgeon finds himself needing to use more cosmetic skills than he was bargaining for, or even if he just finds himself feeling an immediate urge to practice. Maybe he'll view me as a good specimen. A free nose-job thrown in the deal might be nice. After all, I'd been thinking that the concerning side of my face with the "condition" was getting puffy and needed to be fixed anyhow. Plus, it'll be my birthday. So it could be a gift. Right on time.

... What do you think about Jennifer Anniston ... or Gweneth Paltrow ... or Natalie Portman ... just to name a few? They'll be loaded on my phone, for easy access in high definition.

The point of this post isn't to scare. It's to help remind you to prepare to avoid getting skin cancer--even the non-concerning types. Wear your sunscreen. Wear your hats. Get your yearly skin checks, even if you think you're young. I did all these things, but probably not as well as I could. I've always considered myself to be a normal-looking person, with normal routines. But I suppose I could have done better.

When you're done preparing, enjoy the best life has to offer.

I know I'll keep being a mom; I'll keep being a teacher; I'll keep being a writer. Only I'll keep being these things with a bigger set of hats and sunbrellas, and hopefully not feeling like I have to hide the face with this cancer.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Signs of Spring

The gray hues of winter finally released their grip last week, and I found myself lured out into the yard to begin spring clean up.  Once again I was pleasantly rewarded to see bursts of color poking up from last year's dead growth, which I had left behind. Our new kitten named Sky chased after her first buzzing insect, and thankfully didn't do too much damage to the new flowers she was pouncing on in the process. Sandhill cranes also kept me company as they sang their calls far overhead. They had returned from their winter feeding grounds.

These signs of spring fueled my hope that my yard may also serve as an analogy to my writing projects.  When I return to the manuscripts I've been scribbling away at all winter and carefully hone them with an editorial eye, I might be able to bright out something bright and beautiful as well.

Happy spring!


Sunday, February 23, 2014

Kindle Highlights - a useful tool and much more

I'm a bit slow when it comes to technology. I've had my Kindle for nearly 2 years I believe, and only recently did I become aware of how to actually use the highlighting tool. Of course, it should come as no surprise that I DID KNOW this tool existed. And what's even more silly is how I first became aware of it. I'd come across a quote that readers had highlighted from The Ghost in Me, and it brought me pause because I didn't really remember writing those words. BUT obviously I had, because there they were, noted clear-as-day by other readers.

And here it is, as I saw it on Amazon.

Popular Highlights (What's this?)                
  1. “We all have our beginnings, Myri. We are born with them, and we die with them, too. We carry them with us wherever we go. They keep our future open and unwritten… like blank pages waiting to be filled at the beginning of a journal, or those that lie waiting at the end of a book.”
    15 Highlighters    
    After the initial confusion passed, the realization of my reality was followed by another equally silly idea, as I went on to think, Well that's pretty cool. I actually wrote that.

    Uh, yeah.

    As I said, I can be a bit slow, or daft, or absent-minded at times. But I'll also give myself some benefit of the doubt by saying that my life is full. I'm busy with my own kids--not to mention 180 other high school biology students, so it tends to be full of distractions. Plus, it seems perfectly reasonable that words I've strung together in the past have been shuffled to the side in order to make way for the new books that are working their way into the creative space occupying my mind.

    But back to the point of this post: Kindle Highlighter as a Tool. For those that have to read and write analytical papers on novels, this is a handy way to keep track of text that moves you or relates to your paper topic. Other blog posts and web articles are available on how these highlighted texts can be downloaded by Kindle readers for use in such papers.

    Kindle Highlighter also serves as another communication tool that readers can use, because readers can share text (just be kind and avoid sharing spoilers). For example, I was able to tweet a short passage that I liked recently as I was reading The Dress by Sophie Nicholls. Here is the tweet I sent, courtesy of Amazon as I was highlighting the prose on my kindle>

    TWEET: Passages like these are just simply beautiful to read. And the author does this again and again:     
    Ella watched her disappear then, watched her gaze travel far away, out into the air somewhere above her head, where she imagined that she could almost feel the shape of the past shimmering and pulsing for a moment. -- The Dress by Sophie Nicholls

    I also noticed that my kindle offers subtle highlights on popular passages that have been selected by other readers. I can see these in the background of the prose as I'm reading. It was neat to pause and reflect on how this lovely novel was connecting with others, and if we were have similar or different experiences with the book.

    All in all, if you are a student who has to write an analytical paper, or a reader who simply likes to share books you like, the Kindle Highlighter offers another interested way to connect with other readers.

    I look forward to seeing how I use kindle highlighter in more of the ebooks I read, both as a reader and a highlighter.