Sunday, September 26, 2010

This has nothing to do with food...

...but I needed to write about this, and am therefore subjecting you to it. If you are clinging to the hope that a recipe may yet appear, abandon that hope, pour yourself a cup of tea, and seek food knowledge elsewhere.

A brief background is in order here. Many years ago I was diagnosed with a condition that is both cardiac and neurally mediated, and intermittently rears its head and ruins my life for months on end. It comes with a large assortment of physical limitations, and several resulting stress issues. Since it's primary manifestation is passing out, I was yanked from rock climbing a few years ago (something about high potential of making my partner go "splat"). So I took up cycling. At first, recreationally, and then increasingly seriously. Last spring, I forked over a good chunk of change for a pretty decent road bike, with visions of miles unfolding in front of me on countless country roads. I got about 200 miles into that season, passed out on the bike, crashed, and thus ended the season for me. The remainder of the year was a rough one, physically and emotionally. My body didn't/couldn't do what I wanted and needed it to, and many other things unravelled at the same time. I was in a full on flare up, and with nothing to be done medically, I just had to "ride it out". Which meant a lot of time sitting on the couch, sinking deeper and deeper into a pretty dark place. My driving is, shall we say, "strongly discouraged", so, like my geraniums, I became a little pot bound.

By January, the symptoms had started to subside, and I could function more normally. Back to the gym I went, to lose the accumulated fat of apathy and illness. And then on a cool, early March day, I got back on the bike. Gripped in fear of another crash, I went out anyway, shaking and uncertain. And I rode pretty well. And I kept riding. There were some gaps. My dog needed cancer treatment that was quite intense and lost me 6 weeks of riding time. I do not regret that for one minute, because as I write this, she lies beside me, snoring, her paws twitching in a fast dream, and she and her sister are all my love, placed on four black paws a piece.

In May I was able to tackle the bike in a systematic manner again, and the miles kept plugging away. I very, very tentatively set a goal for myself of 1000 miles for this season. It seemed to be an act of hubris to say it out though the gods of syncope would hear, and fell me on my bike. But they didn't. Some days in the saddle were the worst times I've ever spent...every part of my body hurt, I was such an emotional disaster that flying down a hill at 40 mph I would realize that the blur in my vision came from tears I couldn't shed any other time. I puked. I swore...a lot. I sometimes charged up hills with legs like pistons, and I sometimes wobbled up them, sore, tired beyond belief, and barely drawing air. Descents were joyful...a tight tuck, a big gear and a speedometer creeping up to 40 mph...that always makes me feel alive and I never want to be anywhere in that moment but right THERE.

Though I routinely ride through some lovely farm land, and past orchards and lovely homes, I hardly ever noticed the scenery. These rides were not about admiring what was around me. The understanding came slowly this summer, but these rides were proving something that even now I'm not sure I can articulate. It's got something to do with my will being stronger than this incredibly sporadic, often utterly fucking useless body I inhabit. It's been an effort to conquer a lot of different fears. That, I will say, remains a work in progress. Every time I clip in, I'm afraid. I'm afraid my body will betray me, and I'll crash, and never ride again. Afraid that this one thing that makes me feel strong and fast and bold will end, and I won't get it back. These rides were about numbers...speeds and miles. About getting enormous legs and little chicken arms. Improving form and pedaling cadence. And always, always, choking back some fear.

When I set out today, I had only 17.41 miles to go to hit the 1000 mile mark. As I rode along, surrounded by our gorgeous fall foliage, I shook with worry that something, anything, would happen, and I wouldn't get it done. And then...I did. I'd thought a lot about that moment for some time, and at the time, all I felt was tired, with a little edge of relief. I rode the last 8 miles actually enjoying the scenery and smells, and came home. I made a nice dinner for myself, and tried to let my muscles soften.

As I write this, I am overcome with emotions I don't know how to describe. Relief is a big one. There's joy in here, too...and that's one I'm a little tentative about feeling. It's hard to tell you why hitting 1000 miles in a season is so meaningful to me...certainly many cyclists ride many more every year with far less anxiety and fanfare.

This summer, the bike became a lot of things to me...a powerful piece of equipment to go great speeds on, and an outlet for anger and sadness I tend to keep buried elsewhere. This summer...I won. For me. I won. I got to tell my body what to do, and it did it. I am strong, fast, and can endure far more pain than I ever thought possible. But mostly, I believe that I turned into a cyclist this year. Whatever else happens in my life, whatever titles I hold or roles I play (and I know full well that I will be a patient again someday), I am now a cyclist.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Spicy Shrimp & Cheesy Grits

There is not one iota of my being that is Southern...I was born and raised in Manitoba, Canada (north of the Dakotas, for those of you who had crappily taught Geography), which is distinctly north. Of just about everything. This is the land of road hockey, long and dark winters, and endless fields of canola. Beautiful in its own right, but very, very north.

So, when I first entered the South, I was in for, shall we say, a bit of cultural adjustment. While the full details of the story will be shared another time, when I was 18 I joined the US Navy. And after boot camp, I was sent to exotic Millington, TN (close to Graceland...score!) for "A" school. This being the military, I was sent on a bus full of other fresh scrubbed boot camp grads, who, for the first time in 9 weeks, could smoke, drink, and consort with the opposite gender. It was a rather...debauched bus trip. Anyway, when we finally stopped for dinner, it was in the middle of nowhere northern Tennessee at a Shoney's. Which is like IHOP, but with more red eye gravy and a higher incidence of being called "hon" by the waitresses. Nothing exotic about that per se. However, and I swear on my dogs AND the pound of bacon in the freezer that this is true, what was immediately next to Shoney's was.....Earl's Fur, Leather and Gun Shop. I shit you not. And yes, there WAS a high ratio of pick up trucks with rebel flags in the back window in their parking lot. I picked my jaw up off the ground, reassured myself that I had not done any known hallucinogens on the bus, and decided that I was a loooong way from home.

That, however, marked the beginning of my mysterious love of all things Southern (with the minor exception of the over riding political atmosphere). I want my iced tea sweet with lemon, a man with a Southern accent has more than once been my undoing, and while I have not ever tried to see if a Honda Civic could be outfitted with a gun rack, there is a part of me that longs for the slower pace and lush greenery of the American South. It could just be that it's about as opposite from where I was raised as is possible, or just romantic ideals from one too many Anne Rivers Siddons novels, but this Manitoba girl has long since caved to saying y'all far more frequently than "eh".

While there are a thousand foods that are distinctly Southern, and delicious, my current favorite is shrimp and grits. For those of you who are not fans of grits, or just think you don't like them, let me tell you that if you like polenta (and really, who doesn't?), then you like grits, you just don't know it yet. For all intents and purposes, they're the same thing. Ground corn, cooked for a long time in milk and water, seasoned as you please. And while they can be made sweet, plain or savory to suit the time of day or mood, I'm extremely partial to cheese grits. And when you serve them underneath a pile of hot and spicy shrimp with onions and tomatoes...heaven. And it's not just me that loves them...every time I make them, I am besieged by people who attack the stuff like my secret ingredient is black tar heroin. (It's not...I can hardly afford the shrimp, for crying out loud.)

I don't care where you're from...this is a recipe you need to try. It won't turn you into a Republican against your will, or imbue you with the knowledge of the words to "Carolina On My Mind". It will fill your belly, make you happy, and, if made properly, induce your friends to wash your car for you.

Spicy Shrimp & Cheesy Grits
(adapted from Cooking Light)


3 cups milk
1 cup water
1 tbsp butter
1/2 tsp salt, divided
1/4 tsp black pepper, divided
1 cup uncooked quick-cooking grits (They'll be in the cereal aisle by the oatmeal. Use polenta or corn meal if you can't find grits. And if you can't find quick-cooking, still use the same ingredients listed here, you're just going to have to cook them for about 30-40 minutes.)
1/2 cup fresh grated Parmesan cheese
4-6 slices thick cut bacon
1 lb peeled, deveined large shrimp
1 cup thinly sliced onion (I use red and white)
2 cups grape tomatoes, halved
1 tbsp Sriracha (hot chile garlic sauce) or hot sauce of your choice, as much as you deem fit
1/8 tsp red pepper flakes
1/4 cup green onion strips (optional)

  • Combine milk, water, butter, 1/4 tsp salt and 1/8 tsp pepper in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a simmer; gradually add grits, stirring constantly with a whisk. Reduce heat to medium-low; cook 4 minutes or until thick, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat; stir in Parmesan.
  • While the grits are doing their thing, cook bacon in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat until crisp. Remove from pan, saving drippings. Crumble bacon. Eat at least one slice.
  • Add shrimp to hot pan with reserved bacon drippings; cook two minutes on each side, or until pink. (I love a food that's color coded for doneness, don't you?) Remove shrimp from pan. Smack certain hands away from the cooked shrimp while threatening that there will be NO SHRIMP FOR YOU if you don't stop sneaking the damn things.
  • Add onions to pan, adding a little olive oil if the bacon drippings have been soaked up by the shrimp. Saute 1-2 minutes, or until just becoming soft.
  • Stir in bacon, tomatoes, remaining 1/4 tsp salt, 1/8 tsp pepper; sautee 2 minutes, stirring occasionally. The goal here is to get the tomatoes to just start breaking down a little.
  • Add shrimp, Sriracha, and pepper flakes; cook 1 minute or until shrimp are heated through.
  • Serve over a large splat of cheese grits, and sprinkle the whole mess with green onions.

Yields: Ostensibly 4 servings. I say bullshit...2, tops.

Oh, and a warning about grits and polenta...that shit turns into Quikrete if you don't get it out of the pan pronto. To reheat leftovers, I usually fry them up in a little butter in a pan.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Plum Tatin & Fair Food Confessions

Let me preface this blog with an admission...I know I tend to rhapsodize on and on about local, fresh food, wine pairings, and all other manners of total snobbery. And yes, I do like all those things. However, when it comes to late summer in Columbia County, there comes a time when that all falls by the wayside. That time is County Fair time. It is ostensibly possible to eat real "food" at the Fair...there are Greek gyros, and BBQ and so on. But for the love of god, that is NOT what a fair is about. For my money, a fair is a chance to people watch that surpasses even Wal Mart on a Saturday morning, hoot and holler at racing pigs and rodeo, and eat anything and everything that can be dumped in a deep fryer.
This year, I went with the firm intentions to do just that, and boy, did I ever. My lust for corn dogs makes no sense even to me, but it does dictate that they be the first thing I eat every year, and that at minimum, it's going to be two. With mustard. And a burned roof of the mouth, because they're thermonuclear, and I can't wait a minute for them to cool. I am not going to quantify everything that was consumed that day, mostly because I don't want to give you future blackmail material, but believe me when I tell you it was too much. Of everything. And that I lay prostrate on the couch that night, desperately wishing that there had been a deep fried Pepto Bismol booth.

That is all a long winded way of saying that this week, my body wanted nothing but fruit and veggies. The mere whiff of fry grease made my stomach clench and had me looking around for a chance to win an enormous plush frog. It was with tremendous relief that I went to the market this Saturday to load up on produce. And while I know that before long, the abundance will taper off as the snap in the air turns into actual cold, that day is not here yet. We're still awash in greens, zucchini, winter squash, root veggies, apples and plums. My body has been happily re-establishing equilibrium with kale, sausage and potato soup this week, and lots of apples and cheddar. And I've been hitting the gym with religious fervor, hoping to work off those deep fried Oreos.

This was the first time I'd bought this particular kind of plum...I believe they're known as Italian plums, and they're longer and more oblong than the average supermarket ones, and while they have a very dusky blue exterior, they have a yellow interior and an almost smoky flavor.

While I'm not usually an enormous fan of making French food myself (who the hell's going to make veal stock? Or confit anything at home?), I'd just been to a particularly inspiring Alsatian wine dinner for work, and was feeling in the mood for something French and plum-y. I was also in the mood for the 1997 Riesling we'd had, but at $80/bottle, I think perhaps that's going to be put off for a bit. (Seriously, though? Best, most complex white wine I've ever had. It was insane. Spinach, blue cheese and walnut all in the a very, very good way.) Anyhoo...after some futzing about in cookbooks, I found that I had everything it took to make a plum tatin, which is sort of a plum upside down cake sort of thing. The traditional recipe involves apples, which I will likely end up doing because I have a metric shit ton of them, and this is terribly easy to do. So without further ado....
Plum Tatin
(bastardized from Ina Garten)
6 tbsp unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for greasing the dish
8-10 Italian prune plums, halved and pitted
1 3/4 cups sugar, divided
2 extra large eggs, at room temperature
1/3 cup sour cream
1/2 tsp grated lemon zest
1/2 tsp vanilla extract (or cognac, if you have it. I was feeling a bit French, and for reasons we won't go into here, always have a lot of Hennessy around.)
1 cup plus 2 tbsp all purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp kosher salt
  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Generously butter a 9-inch pie (or Pi!) dish and arrange the plums in the dish, cut side down.

  • Combine 1 cup of the sugar and 1/3 cup of water in a small saucepan and cook over high heat until it turns a warm amber color. This will be easier to determine if you use a light colored saucepan, but if not, keep a close eye. And if you're really anal, it'll be about 360 degrees on a candy thermometer . This takes a while, but once it's almost ready, the difference between heaven and burnt to shit sugar is seconds, so don't leave it unattended. And for some reason, don't STIR this mixture...just swirl it about. I don't know why, it just says so in every recipe, and I am a rule follower.
  • Pour amber-y, molten liquid over plums.
  • Meanwhile, cream the 6 tbsp of butter and the remaining 3/4 cup of sugar in your ever-ready stand mixer (or whatever) until light and fluffy.
  • Lower the speed and add the eggs one at a time.
  • Add sour cream, zest and vanilla or cognac and mix until combined.
  • In a s small bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder and salt, and with the mixer on low, add it to the butter mixture. Mix until just combined.
  • Pour the cake batter evenly over the plums and bake for 30-40 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted into the cake part comes out clean.
  • Cool for 15 minutes, then invert the cake onto a flat plate. This always terrifies me, and isn't always successful, but this time, it worked out fine.
  • Serve warm or at room temperature.
  • Gild the damn lily with vanilla ice cream or whipping cream.

Yield: 6-8 servings

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Saturday Morning Idyll

Around here, Saturday morning is invariably Farmer's Market day...I have to go pick up my CSA share of veggies, and do as much of my weekly shopping as possible. This being late summer in the Hudson Valley, there's not much that one CAN'T get at the market, and it's hard not to walk away with one of everything. (I repeat frequently to myself..."I am just one woman...what the HELL would I do with all that eggplant?".) While I fully intend to do a make-my-northern-family-envious market post shortly, this is not it. It's not even going to include a recipe. Because while I believe in a hearty breakfast as much as the next person, I can't always face the dishes such a meal produces, and sometimes, simple and unadulterated is best.
So, every Saturday, I stock up on whatever fruit is irresistible that day (today I was lured in by white peaches), and a chocolate croissant from the bakery stand. Once I've gotten home with far more kale than any human ever truly needs (apparently, it's a vegetable that flourishes like kudzu up here...), I make a cup of the best coffee in the world, take my treats, and head out into the yard. And there I try and let my brain shut off for at least a half hour. It's the most peaceful part of my week, usually, and I think it's due in part to the ritual of it, and in part because it takes so little effort to be delicious. I've done nothing more arduous than boil water for the French pressed coffee, and it's heaven. A book at hand is nice, though not necessary. Two big black Labs dozing nearby and sporadically eyeing the peach are really all the entertainment and company I need.
I hope we have a long autumn this year...I'm sure as hell not going to sit out there with my parka in the winter, and this is a damn sight cheaper than Canyon Ranch.
Have a wonderful long weekend, y'all...whatever that looks like for you!