Just Tea.

As I told you in an earlier post, I lived at a Zen Center for a good while. During that time, I drank a lot of tea. A lot of it. And, since I worked in the kitchen, I made a lot of tea. Usually a total of one to two gallons a day: more during meditation retreats.

Just tea. Simple, unadorned, unsweetened, unflavored tea. And I hope it doesn’t sound wishy-washy when I say that I learned a lot about how to approach life from tea.

Tea is attention. It is not through the ingredients– water and tea leaves– that tea is made, but by the careful attention to details and awareness of responding at the right moment of the tea-maker. The tea will reflect the mind of the maker: if the tea-maker is worried and agitated, it will be weak; if they are distracted and absent, it will be bitter; if they are present, it will be refreshing and light.

Okakura Kakuzo wrote in The Book of Tea that “The Philosophy of Tea is not mere aestheticism in the ordinary acceptance of the term, for it expresses conjointly with ethics and religion our whole point of view about man and nature. It is hygiene, for it enforces cleanliness; it is economics, for it shows comfort in simplicity rather than in the complex and costly; it is moral geometry, inasmuch as it defines our sense of proportion to the universe.”

Many of my friends and family members how much I love tea, and how much I value the process of tea-making. There is no condition of the bodymind that can’t be brought into greater equilibrium with a good cup of tea. I honestly believe that.

And so it was with great delight that I unwrapped an early birthday present for my upcoming 30th birthday: a beautiful teapot, with two cups reminiscent of the cups the Zen Center uses during meditation retreats. I cried a few tears of loving gratitude when I opened it, and I’m not too proud to say so.

As a result, I have been making a lot of tea today. A lot. And it occurred to me that a post on “Just Tea” would be well-advised.

One of the most important variables in the making of the perfect cup of tea is the temperature of the water. In The Book of Tea, Kakuzo describes the three stages of boiling: “the first boil is when the little bubbles, like the eyes of fishes, swim on the surface; the second boil is when the bubbles are like crystal beads rolling in a fountain; the third boil is when the billows surge wildly in the kettle.”

As poetic and accurate as those descriptions are, I decided it might not be a bad idea to post images of each of the three boils: keep in mind that is is impossible to actually capture the movement of water in a still photograph, but with close attention to the water as it reaches a simmer will help you catch it at just the right moment. Trust yourself, and learn from the results you get: if your tea is weak, you stopped the water too soon, but if it is bitter, you let the water get too hot.

First boil: see how the bubbles look kinda like fish eyes around the edges?
Second boil
Third boil: see how the steam billows wildly in the kettle?

For green and oolong teas, only bring the water to first boil; for black and herbal teas, bring the water to second boil. Third boil is too hot for the tender tea leaves.

For the best tea, do not let the water come to a full boil, and then cool down until it is at the right boil level. This will deplete the water, and the tea will not feel as smooth and soft on the tongue.

It also is important to use loose-leaf tea, rather than bagged. Allow the leaves room to unfurl, just loose in the pot, then strain the tea into cups.

It is preferable to use well-filtered water. Do what you can on this, without going so far as to buy disposable containers full of water. I strongly suggest getting a good filter on your kitchen faucet, but if the cost is prohibitive, just do what you can with a less-expensive water filtration pitcher.

For 4-6 cups of water, use one heaping tablespoon of loose tea leaves; for 8-12 cups, use two heaping tablespoons.

Green teas should steep 3 1/2 minutes for optimal flavor. Oolong teas should steep around 4 minutes, black teas for 4 1/2, and herbal teas for      4 1/2-5 minutes. Matcha teas only need 30 seconds to 1 1/2 minutes. Understeeping will result in a flavorless tea, while oversteeping will lead to a bitter tea that leaves the tongue and mouth feeling dry, instead of refreshed.

As you can now see, so much comes down to full attention to each moment, and an intimate understanding of the tea you are using.

I encourage you all to take up tea-making. Developing the skill of brewing the perfect cup of tea will not only benefit you with the delicious, invigorating refreshment of a steaming cup of peace, but it will also (potentially) develop a greater sense of attentiveness and sensitivity in how you see the world.

Think it’s hyperbole? Try it out. Make some tea every day for a week or two, then try to tell me you don’t feel a bit better.

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Chicken Divan (with bonus recipe for Honey-Mustard Vinaigrette)

This was one of those weekends that just didn’t feel like a weekend. I have had one commitment after another, which continued until I got to a point where my bodymind pretty much just shut down. We’ve had leftovers for dinner the last two nights, just out of necessity.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I don’t mind leftovers, especially when the food that is leftover is delicious and homemade. But you can only have leftovers for so long until– well, until there’s no food that’s leftover. And, of course, Lee returned to Buffalo today for hir next week of law school, and I like to make sure ze has some good food to take along with hir. These factors meant that, tired or not, I had to cook dinner yesterday night.

I decided the best bet was to take it a little easy on myself and make a casserole. Casseroles can be a beautiful, simple and delicious way to get a balanced meal. I made this casserole yesterday, and served it alongside a salad made with baby greens, dried cranberries, home-grown cherry tomatoes and a honey-mustard vinaigrette (recipe also in this post) and some warmed  whole-grain bread with garlic butter.

This recipe is also posted with my good friend and dharma sister Reaunna in mind. You see, Reaunna recently posted a request on Transgustatory’s Facebook page that I put up a recipe for “a casserole that doesn’t involve green beans or cream of mushroom soup.” How can I resist such an amusingly specific request? (Especially since I had more than enough green bean casserole growing up. It was kind of a staple in some family members’ homes. Don’t judge: I lived in the Midwest.)

Now, many recipes for chicken divan that you will find nowadays DO call for canned cream of mushroom soup. A disheartening number of them, in fact: I looked up a good two dozen different recipes for it when Lee requested that I make Chicken Divan for us, and the vast majority called for cream of mushroom soup. What follows is my amalgamation of the best parts of all of them, with a laudatory absence of condensed soup products.

One of the ingredients in this recipe is leeks. Leeks are wonderful. According to my prized cookbook On Cooking by Sarah Labensky, Alan Hause and Priscilla Martel (thanks, Dad, for supporting my love of cooking with this indulgent cookbook that I never could have afforded!), “their flavor is sweeter and stronger than scallions, but milder than common bulb onions.” This makes them optimal for adding some richness and flavor to dishes made with a white sauce.

Their peak season is from fall to early spring, but they can be grown in many regions year-round. One thing to keep in mind when preparing them is to cut them in half lengthwise and rinse out the gritty dirt between the layers. A bite full of grit will ruin an otherwise perfect dish.

Also, you can use some of the green part of the leek, but the tough, dark-green top should be cut off. The dark-green parts can be used to make stocks (as they are in this recipe), but shouldn’t be chopped up and used in the dish itself. They are too tough. Who wants hard-to-chew, grassy onion gum? That’s right: no one.

Another hint in the best interest of the dish: if the broccoli stalks are stringy or tough, go ahead and peel off the tough outer layer.

And, speaking of broccoli, it is VERY, VERY IMPORTANT THAT YOU DO NOT OVER COOK THE BROCCOLI. Was I too subtle? I really hope not. Unless you actually enjoyed eating the brownish, texture-less glop of overcooked, cloyingly-odorous substance that once may have been broccoli that was served in your elementary school cafeteria, you need to trust me on this. The desired point at which to drain the broccoli is when it is bright green and “crisp-tender,” as my Dad calls it: that is, easy to bite through without a crispy-crunchy sound, but still quite firm in the center.

On the same subject: it is actually important to have the broccoli and the chicken in two separate layers. You may be tempted to just mix it all together: what’s the difference, right? Well, the difference is that the flavor of the chicken is enhanced by being on the top and getting slightly browned, while being on the bottom layer helps insulate the broccoli from being cooked too much during the baking process. Plus, it looks cool and yummyyummy with the layer of sharp cheddar cheese between the green of the broccoli layer and the golden brown of the chicken layer. Pretty foods taste better: I don’t know why, but it’s true. It may seem tedious, but it is well worth the extra three minutes it takes in prep time for the end result.

Traditionally, Chicken Divan is made with sherry. Here’s the thing: I don’t like sherry, and I don’t want to spend my money on it: all it would do would be grow dusty in a corner of my cabinet, which for some reason seems wasteful to me. However, I didn’t want to completely lose the flavor and texture benefits of a dry alcohol in the sauce. So, I substituted an extremely dry, rich white wine, and thought the result was delicious. So, use the traditional sherry, or substitute white wine if you’re more likely to finish a bottle of that than of sherry, or omit it all together if you don’t cook with alcohol. Whichever way you decide to go on that, the recipe itself is so solid and flavorful that you won’t go wrong.

Chicken Divan

  • 1 stick butter, divided
  • 1T olive oil
  • 1 large leek or two small leeks, cut in half lengthwise and then sliced into crescent-moons (as pictured above) 
  • The dark-green tops of the leeks, washed, rinsed and left whole
  • 1 1/2 lbs. chicken breasts, cut into quarters
  • 1 large head broccoli or three broccoli crowns: washed, rinsed and cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 1/3 cup flour
  • 1 c slivered almonds
  • 1 c light cream
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • 1/3 lb. shredded parmesan cheese
  • 1/4 c sherry or dry white wine
  • 1 c shredded sharp cheddar cheese
  • 1 c bread crumbs
  1. Melt 1 T of the butter in the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed saute pan. Add the leeks and saute over medium heat until they are soft and translucent. Set aside.
  2. Bring 8 cups water to a boil. Add the chicken and the green tops of the leek. Boil until the chicken is fully cooked, approximately 10-15 minutes. Remove the chicken and leek tops with a slotted spoon: DO NOT DRAIN. Discard the leek tops; set the chicken aside to cool some.
  3. Add the broccoli to the water in which the chicken was cooked. Cook only until bright green, 3-5 minutes. Drain, but reserve 1 1/2 cups of the broth for the sauce. Mix the leeks and the broccoli.
  4. Melt 4 T of the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add the flour, and stir until smooth and fragrant. Slowly and gradually stir in the reserved broth. Stir in the almonds and cook, stirring constantly, until thick and bubbly. Lower the heat to medium-low. Gradually stir in the cream, sour cream and lemon juice: cook for 2 minutes, still stirring constantly. Add salt and pepper to taste, then stir in half the parmesan and the sherry or dry white wine. Remove from heat. 
  5. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. 
  6. Shred the chicken into small pieces with your fingers.
  7. Add half the sauce to the chicken, and half to the broccoli. Stir gently but thoroughly. 
  8. Melt the remaining butter, and stir into the breadcrumbs. 
  9. Put the broccoli into a lightly buttered casserole dish. Top with the cheddar cheese, then cover with the chicken mixture. Top the chicken with the remaining parmesan cheese, then distribute the breadcrumbs over the cheese. 
  10. Bake for 30 minutes, until the sauce is bubbly. Increase heat to 450 and cook approximately 10 more minutes until the top is browned. Allow to sit 15 minutes before serving.

 Honey-Mustard Vinaigrette

  • 2 T apple cider vinegar
  • 1/4 c lemon juice
  • 2 T honey
  • 2 T spicy mustard
  • 1 1/2 t tarragon
  • 1/2 c olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste
  1.  Place the first five ingredients in a blender. Blend over first low, then high speed.
  2. Gradually, in a slow, thin stream, pour the oil through the hole in the lid with the blender still going. Doing this slowly and on high speed will help prevent separation of the ingredients.
  3. Season with salt and pepper to taste: fell free to adjust the amounts of the lemon juice, honey, mustard, tarragon and oil to suit your taste preferences.

Veggie-ful Rotini-and-Cheese

So, I don’t really know anything about the demographics of the writers of other food blogs, but I’m guessing I fall somewhat outside of the norm. This probably true even if we do ignore, for the moment, the obvious traits that distinguish me from the average person in nearly any environment– you know, the 2nd-generation-Caucasian-American-Buddhist thing and the whole pesky queer-person-with-a-gender-outside-the-binary thing.

You see, being a foodie typically requires a budget that allows for extravagances and the time to dedicate to preparing beautiful recipes that are more “created” than they are “cooked.”

Yeah, right. I wish I could do that, and nothing else. However, it is good for you, kind reader, that I can’t, because it means that the recipes that I am posting on this blog are, more often than not, simple enough to make amidst the cold, cruel realities of modern life. Yaaaaaay.

I work two jobs: one full time, one part time. I don’t do this solely for the joy of being of service to the world: I actually really need the money from both jobs. My boo and I have to do grown-up things like budgeting our money and simplifying expenditures. I’d love to dine on truffle mushrooms and crème fraiche, but the reality is that the pragmatics of the Working Trannies’ life make that pretty much impossible.

Sometimes, I get sleepy, and achy, and grumpy, and whiny, and don’t feel like making dinner at all. But when you combine the pressure of Lee’s first year of law school with the fact that I enjoy cooking, well, you get a situation that involves me cooking a lot.

Sure, we could just go out to eat. However, there are two major downsides to eating out on a regular basis: the first is that it gets really expensive really fast.

Furthermore, when you eat out, the truth is that you don’t really know what you’re eating. Chances are you didn’t research the restaurant’s suppliers, and you are probably eating produce from another continent that been sprayed in chemicals and trucked across the nation, deprived of sunlight, and lacking about half of the flavor and nutrients that it once had. Add to that the fact that you have no proof whether or not one of the kitchen employees decided to save a little time by cutting out that pesky “wash-and-rinse-the-produce” step, and who knows anymore whether the benefits of eating that meal really outweigh the costs.

So I do what I can to feed us well. Every once in a while, on a weekend when I don’t have to work, I’ll gild the lily and really go all-out on a meal. The rest of the time, I just want to make something that’s affordable, nutritious, and home-made in whatever time I have available.Of course, the fact that I love to cook does make me willing to spend more time at it than some people would, but the fact remains that I have limited time to work with when it comes to cooking, especially if I want to have dinner ready before midnight (which I usually do).

One important disclaimer: when I think about how healthy a food is or is not, there are some criteria that I consider more personally important than other criteria. I am not terribly worried about low-fat, low-calorie considerations. In fact, I think that the cultural obsession with low-fat and low-calorie diets has resulted in so many people eating pre-prepared, chemically altered, packaged “foods” that have been designed not by nature, but by a lab. Nitrates, nitrites and sulfates abound. Partially hydrogenated substances that are the biological equivalent of pouring sand into a watch are guzzled down gullets with enthusiasm. People no longer know how their food was grown, whether it is in season, where it came from, or what’s in it.

If you do choose to substitute one of the ingredients in my recipe for a more low-fat or vegan alternative, well, do what you have to do. But I would suggest making sure that you educate yourself as to the exact ingredients of what you’re adding, and consider where the ingredients were produced.

I am going to reiterate something I wrote in an earlier post: “The energy we take into our body has a direct, undeniable connection to the energy we have to use in the world, and it is my hope that the forward-thinking revolutionary queers will all be filled with the best possible fuel for changing the world.” It would be very sad if our culture and our community lost their connection to our sources of life-sustaining energy. Don’t let that happen to you. 

What I do consider when making meals that will nourish is whether or not the food is in season, whether or not it is growing locally, and whether or not the foods that I am going to prepare create a well-balanced meal.

Some tips for this recipe: don’t overcook the pasta. Given the baking time that happens after you cook the noodles, make sure they are al-dente, or even a little shy of al-dente. Unless you want to eat cheesy mush. Which just isn’t as good as cheesy pasta.

Change the vegetables that you put in it based upon what is fresh where you live. Right now, Lee and I still have tomatoes growing in our backyard, which is nice. Once tomatoes go out of season, they go out of the recipe. It’s just that simple. Winter tomatoes are gross, while imported tomatoes are grown in an unappetizing pesticide marinade. Blech. There are many things I enjoy putting in my mouth: crunchy tomatoes and pesticides are not among them.

Use whatever shape and size of pasta you want, other than lasagne noodles and manicotti shells, which just wouldn’t work for this recipe (but will be used in future recipes, I promise!). Just make sure you don’t overcook them.

If you want to add some fresh herbs, I suggest tarragon, basil, or dill, approximately 2 T (chopped coarsely) per batch. But don’t feel obligated. Sometimes just a simple mac-and-cheese is all that is called for, without pretension or adornment.

With that said, what follows is a delicious, economical dish that is simple and quick to make. It is not low-fat. And yet, it is still nourishing. Enjoy.

Adapted from my grandmother’s recipe.

 Veggie-ful Rotini-and-Cheese

  • 1 pound rainbow rotini (or other pasta), cooked just short of al-dente
  • 1 pound sharp cheese, shredded (the tried-and-true standard is sharp cheddar, but feel free to experiment with other cheeses, or to substitute 6 oz. goat cheese for some of the shredded cheese)
  • 2 1/2 cups light cream or whole milk
  • 3-4 T unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 8 oz. baby ‘bella mushrooms, chopped coarsely and sauteed
  • 6 oz. baby spinach, chopped coarsely and sauteed just until it is soft and dark green
  • 2 plum tomatoes or 1 heritage tomato, sliced very thinly
  • salt and pepper to taste
  1.  Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
  2. Put the cheese, cream or milk, and flour in a large, heavy-bottomed saute pan. Melt over low heat, stirring constantly, until the cheese is melted and the mixture is hot. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper. Stir in the mushrooms, spinach and tomatoes.
  3. Mix the sauce into the pasta until it is evenly distributed. 
  4. Pour the pasta into a large baking dish or two medium baking dishes. 
  5. Bake in the preheated oven 25-30 minutes, until the top is lightly browned and slightly crunchy and the sauce is bubbling happily. 
  6. Let sit for 10 minutes before serving. 

Shiitake and Avocado Bison Burgers

When Lee and I do eat red meat, it is almost always bison.  This is for both nutritional and ecological reasons.

The nutritional comparison between beef and bison is actually quite startling. According to an article onSuite101.com by James Clausen titled “Bison Meat vs. Beef—Burger and Steaks,” the nutritional facts break down like this:

“Bison, ground, grass-fed, cooked 3 oz.
•    Calories 152, Total Fat 7 grams (3 grams saturated fat)
•    Excellent protein with 40 grams, which is 84% of the daily value (DV) in a 2,000-calorie diet.
•    The biggest negative is that bison is high in cholesterol with 82 milligrams or 27% of the daily value.
•    Ground bison is high in vitamin B6 (17% DV), B12 (35% DV) and niacin (25% DV)

Beef, ground, cooked 3 oz. 85% lean, 15% fat
•    Calories 210, Total Fat 12 grams (6 grams saturated fat)
•    Good protein with 21 grams, which is 43% of the daily value (DV) in a 2,000-calorie diet.
•    The two biggest negatives are that beef is high in cholesterol with 75 milligrams or 24% of the daily value. Beef is also high in saturated fats with 6 grams, which is double the amount found in grass fed bison.
•    Ground beef is high in vitamin B6 (15% DV), B12 (36% DV) and niacin (24% DV).”

Even more important than that, though, is that bison is not raised in a factory farm setting. Ever. They are too wild: put them in a barn, no matter how roomy, and they’ll probably just bust down the door. Furthermore, the standards for raising bison are higher than they are for raising chickens or cattle. Every time you purchase bison, you can be sure that you are purchasing a free-range product. As if that isn’t enough, the National Bison Association prohibits the use of growth hormones and animal by-products on bison. Yaaaaay!

(Interesting fact: the largest bison farm in the world belongs to Ted Turner, and is the home of over 50,000 bison. Even this herd, which could be expected to be the most factory-farmy given its size, has approximately 2 million acres on which to roam, and are almost exclusively grass fed.)

So when, earlier tonight, Lee said that she was craving protein, I took a quick trip to the Wegmans to get the ingredients for a comfort-food meal of bison burgers and homemade french fries (recipe to follow in a later post). 

One thing that you will probably learn about me: I tend to believe that there are very few savory dishes that aren’t improved with the addition of either mushrooms and/or avocado. Think about it: it’s pretty much true. I also believe that almost all sandwiches require mayonnaise, homegrown tomatoes, and homegrown lettuce to be as good as they can be. So, yeah, I just piled some of all of that onto these delicious, meaty sammiches.

Now, here’s the thing: so many people mess up their burgers by adding stuff that they mistakenly believe will improve their flavor. When you have good, fresh bison meat, all you’re going to do by adding things to the burgers is detract from their hearty, earthy flavor while risking compromises to their texture. Trust me. All you need is a big hunk of meat. That’s all.

Shiitake and Avocado Bison Burgers

  • 2 T olive oil
  • 6 oz. sliced shiitake mushrooms
  • 1 avocado, sliced
  • 1 homegrown (or locally grown) tomato, sliced
  • 4 leaves freshly grown lettuce, washed and dried
  • 4 sourdough hard rolls
  • 1 pound ground bison
  • 1 T butter
  • 4 slices muenster cheese
  • salt and freshly-ground pepper
  • mayonnaise
  1. Heat the oil in a medium-sized saute pan over medium heat. Add the sliced mushrooms. Stirring frequently, saute them until their juices release and then fully evaporate. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Keep warm over low heat.
  2. Slice the rolls in half if they aren’t already cut. Wrap them individually in pieces of aluminum foil. If you are environmentally-minded, use heavy duty foil, being careful not to rip it: you can rinse it off and save it for the next time you need to warm up rolls. Place the wrapped rolls in a 200 degree F oven and allow them to get warm while you cook the burgers.
  3. Shape the burgers into four evenly-sized patties in the shape of the buns, but a little bit larger: they will shrink some while they cook.
  4. Heat a pan over medium heat; add the butter, stir to coat, and gently place the burgers in the pan. Cook without turning until the juices start to seep out over the top surface of the patties. Flip them over and top then each with a slice of cheese. Cook about 3-5 minutes more, depending on how done you like the burger.
  5. Remove the buns from the oven: spread on the desired amount of mayonnaise, sprinkle the mayo with any additional salt or pepper that you desire, and top with one of the burgers before adding as much of the available toppings as you want.

re: Introduction, Credentials, and Why This Blog is Important…

So, perhaps it is about time that I introduce myself and establish my cred to my fine readers. After all, how do you even know whether to try my recipes and read my words if you don’t know whether or not I know the difference between shallots and onions, than and then, or gender and sex? You just can’t. I understand this. Here you go, a few words about me…

My name is Laur. I have my B.S.  in creative writing, which is a fairly amusing statement when you think about it. I am working on my first book of poetry, but then again, I’ve been working on it for about three years now, so don’t hold your breath. I also write regularly for The Empty Closet, a monthly newspaper of the Gay Alliance of the Genesee Valley and one of the oldest continuously-published LGBT publications in the United States. I like to diagram sentences, make up words, and talk about Wolfgang Iser’s reader-response theory, particularly as it relates to Faulkner’s character Quentin Compson. Everyone needs a hobby.
Even when I’m wrong, I’m articulate. I’m pretty sure there are worse things you could be reading right now, but don’t ask me: I’m biased. 
As for why you should trust what I say about food and its preparation: my formative years were largely spent in my maternal grandma’s kitchen, watching her cook. As soon as I was old enough to help, I helped. Couple this with the fact that I was lucky enough to have parents who exposed me to wonderful cuisines, diverse approaches to nutrition and the ethics of food, and knowledge of how food is grown and when different foods are seasonal. 
I lived in rural north-central Indiana while I was in middle school. For those who don’t know, this is a very unfortunate place for a radical, young, queer transperson to live. The one shining point in every week was Sunday night dinner. Almost every Friday I would plan a meal,  with different courses that I put together based on diversity of flavors and textures, nutritional balance, and peak-seasonal produce. Dad and I would go to the nearest nice grocery store, about a half-hour’s drive away, and get all the ingredients that I needed. Then, the fun. 
Through Saturday and Sunday, I would prepare the entire meal, from appetizer to dessert. Finally, Sunday night came, and I shared my creations with my family. We would talk and laugh, savoring the food over what was, more often than not, a meal that lasted several hours. To this day, these meals are among my most treasured memories. 
 
Since then, I have worked for catering companies and restaurants, which definitely taught me a lot about cooking for large groups and preparing ingredients efficiently and correctly.  However, the setting in which I learned the most about the true potential of food was the Rochester Zen Center. 
I was a residential staff member for a total of 1 ½ years. I lived there, worked there, breathed there, and ate there. It was what I did. And, as you may be able to guess, my job there was in the kitchen. 
The workday at the Zen Center was a mostly silent period of time: although we were allowed to say things that enabled us to complete our jobs, all other communication and small-talk was strongly discouraged. So, day after day, month after month, I spent my days engaged in almost nothing except for silent meditation and mindful preparation of food. Many of the helpful hints and suggestions that I have worked into the recipes on this blog are the result of all that the ingredients taught me about themselves as I prepared meals with focused, compassionate attention. 
After I had been there a while, I was given more responsibilities in regards to meal planning and food shopping. As much as possible, we got the produce from the local public market: this enabled us to get locally-grown, seasonally-fresh ingredients and talk to the farmers who nourished the food (so that the food could, in turn, nourish us). 
Although I am not a vegetarian, the Zen Center was a completely meat-free environment, and I still only eat meat rarely. In addition to the strict prohibition of all flesh foods, there were always several members of the Zen Center’s staff who had various food allergies and sensitivities. This required that I develop greater flexibility and adaptability when faced with specific dietary restrictions, and resulted in an even-greater understanding of exactly what it is that different ingredients do so that I could always find  delicious substitutions for the elements of a recipe.
Although I do sometimes contemplate going to culinary school as some point in my life, part of me wonders how it could possibly provide me with a more intimate relationship with food than the one I developed during my time at the Zen Center. 
My connection to food is further deepened by the influence of my partner and fiancée/ fiancé, who does the publicity and public outreach for the South Wedge Farmers’ Market, an exclusively locavore market: all of the food there was grown within 100 miles. Ze is always finding out new information about how foods are grown, produced, shipped and preserved that continue to impress upon me the importance of eschewing factory-farm produced items and pre-prepared, boxed and canned “food”  in favor of fresh foods that were grown with love and attention.
And no, not all of my jobs have been food-related. I have worked as a manager at a bookstore, a writing consultant at a liberal arts college, a facilitator of creative writing workshops, a hospice home health aide, and (my current job) a professional queer. And yes, I have funny anecdotes and experiences about all of these jobs: I’m sure you’ll learn more about the shenanigans of bookstore hooligans, among other things, in future posts. 
Currently, I am an Office Administrator for an LGBT equality organization, and I love it. Although most of my job involves invoices, files, and finances, I also get to do fun things like facilitate community discussions on topics such as transgender-inclusive language, radical activism, and myths about BDSM. And, as I already mentioned, I write for The Empty Closet. It makes sense if you’re jealous of my insanely cool job. 
So, the idea for this blog came to me one day when I was thinking about how not many young, energetic, radical people today have much of a sense of intimacy with their food, or much of a clue of how to prepare it. This is sad. The energy we take into our body has a direct, undeniable connection to the energy we have to use in the world, and it is my hope that the forward-thinking revolutionary queers will all be filled with the best possible fuel for changing the world. 
This blog is my answer to that hope. Use it well.

Beet, Wild Mushroom and Potato Casserole: A Delicious Fall Dish

I think most families have few recipes that are so tried-and-true, so delicious and hearty and satisfying, that they become worked into the meal rotation with great regularity. This can almost get to the point where some dishes are so liked and so familiar that they almost become default meals. 
(“What do you want for dinner?” “I dunno, what do want?” “I dunno.” “How ’bout we have __(fill in the blank)__?” “Good idea. Let’s have that.”)
In our home, this dish is the answer to the question of what to have for dinner more often than almost any other, especially this time of year. It is literally a dish you cannot mess up. Every time I make it, I make it a little bit differently than I did the time before, and it is always delicious.
With that said, I do have a few suggestions. When you cut the beets and onions, leave them in nice, big chunks: this dish is more satisfying when it’s full of big, flavorful beety hunks of mmmmmmmmm. 
Feel free to experiment with what herbs you use, but don’t leave out the dill, horseradish, or caraway seeds. They really bring all the flavors together.
Finally, don’t rush the onions. Never be in a rush when you are sauteeing onions: allow them to cook until they are soft and see-through, and until their flavor is a little sweet, lowering the heat if you have to to prevent them from burning. When something (or someone) is as pungent as a freshly-chopped onion, it can take a little bit of time to get it (or him, her or hir) to mellow out. The end result of your dish will be much improved by being willing to allow a little extra time to this step.

Beet, Wild Mushroom and Potato Casserole 

  • 2 T vegetable oil   
  • 1 large onion, chopped  
  • 1 t caraway seeds  
  • 2 T all-purpose flour  
  • 1/3 cup water  
  • 1/3 cup dry white wine  (OR: omit water and wine, substitute vegetable stock)  
  • 1 1/2 pounds cooked beets, peeled and cut into large bite-sized pieces  
  • 5 T light cream  
  • 2 T creamed horseradish (or to taste: I sometimes prefer a little more)  
  • 1 t hot mustard  
  • 1 T wine vinegar  
  • 2 T butter  
  • 1 shallot, chopped  
  • 8 oz. assorted wild mushrooms (or, to simplify, baby ‘bellas work well: though it’s best if there are some oyster mushrooms in it!)  
  • 3 T fresh parsely, chopped  
  • 2 t each: fresh basil, marjoram, dill and oregano, chopped  
  • Salt and pepper, to taste     

For the potato border: 

  • 2 lbs. potatoes, preferably Yukon Gold or red potatoes, chopped into largish bite-sized chunks (leave peels on)  
  • 1/2 c milk  
  • 1/4  c butter  
  • 1 T fresh dill, chopped  salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste     

OVEN TEMP: 375 degrees F

1. Lightly oil a 9 inch round baking dish, or similarly-sized casserole dish. Heat the oil in a large saucepan: add the onion and cook until soft. Add caraway seeds and saute a few more minutes, until fragrant. Stir in the flour, remove from heat, and gradually add the water and wine (or stock), stirring until well-blended. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

2. Return to the heat: stir and simmer to thicken, then add the beets, cream, creamed horseradish, mustard and vinegar. Stir to mix.

3. Bring the potatoes to a boil in salted water and cook for 20 minutes. Drain well and mash wth the milk and butter. Add the dill and season with salt and pepper.

4. Spoon the potatoes into the prepared dish and make a well in the center. Spoon the beet mixture into the well and set aside.

5.Melt the 2 T butter in a large nonstick frying pan and cook the shallot until soft, without browning. Add the mushrooms and cook over medium heat until their juices begin to run. Increase the heat and boil off the moisture. When quite dry, season with the herbs and salt and pepper to taste.

6. Spread the mushrooms over the beet mixture, cover the dish with a lid or a piece of aluminum foil, and bake for about 30 minutes. Serve immediately, garnished with parsley if you desire.

This entire dish can be prepared in advance and baked when needed. Allow more baking time (approx. 15-20 minutes more) when baking from room temperature.

Yumminess Chip Cookies

Cookies have such simple ingredients: flour, sugar, butter, eggs, salt. It’s pretty much impossible to get them completely wrong: unless you seriously fucked up, the end result is going to be yummy.

But like so many deceptively simple things in life, attention to little details makes all the difference between good cookies and oh-my-god-give-me-another, melt-in-your-mouth yumminess cookies.

Here are some important things to keep in mind:

  • Do not  substitute anything for the butter. I cannot emphasize this enough: if your cookies are going to be worth the trouble of making in the first place, just do it right and use whole-fat, salted butter.
  • Get the extra-nice chocolate (or butterscotch) chips. Ghirardelli is great. Scharffen Berger is better. The cost difference is more than made up for when you bite into the cookie and, without meaning to, roll your eyes back a little because the delicious melted-y sensation is just too good to handle.
  • Use pure vanilla extract, not that imitation crap. And go ahead: if the spirit moves you, pour in an extra splash.
  • Most recipes for chocolate chip cookies call for light brown sugar. Do not listen to them. They are in line with The Man, and they are lying to you, to ensure that the Common Man (or Woman, or Tranny, or Whatever) is denied the best possible cookies. Dark brown sugar gives the cookies a more satisfying, caramel-y flavor.
  • Make sure that the ingredients are all at room temperature while making the cookie dough, but then chill it for a while before shaping and baking the cookies. Do not skip this step. It makes sure the butter doesn’t melt too soon in the baking process, so the cookies stay soft and chewy. 
  • Use parchment paper. Just trust me on this. I don’t care how nice your cookie sheets are: your cookies will turn out better in the end if you bake them on parchment paper.
  • Make them as big as I tell you to. You know you want to. Fuck that 1-tablespoon-sized cookie that the cookbook tells you to make, in some neo-Victorian plot to make cookies decently small instead of pleasantly palm-sized. Just keep a close eye on them while they bake, because it will affect their cooking time and you don’t want them to burn. That would be sad.

With those things in mind:

When I made them yesterday, I divided the dough in half, and mixed 1 cup of butterscotch chips into half the dough, 1 cup of milk chocolate chips into the other half. I did this because my sweetie wanted chocolate chip cookies and butterscotch chip cookies. And I like baking things that make my Boo happy. Feel free to to the same, or to substitute any of the crazy-flavored chips they have available now. Or to make the whole batch with one kind of chip. Whatever, as long as you use a total of 2 cups. Have fun.

(Adapted from the classic cookbook that belongs in every kitchen, The Joy of Cooking)

Yumminess Chip Cookies

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.
Whisk together:

  • 2 1/4 c unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 t baking soda

 Beat in a large bowl until well blended and creamy:

  • 1 c (2 sticks) salted butter, softened
  • 1 c white sugar
  • 1 c dark brown sugar

Add to the sugar and butter mixture and beat until well combined:

  • 2 large eggs (at room temperature)
  • 3/4 t salt
  • 4 t vanilla

Stir in the flour mixture until well-blended and smooth.
Stir in:

  • 2 c chocolate chips (or butterscotch chips, or cinnamon chips, or peanut butter chips…)
  • 1 1/2 c chopped pecans (optional)

Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and chill for 30-45 minutes.

Using a 1/3 cup measure (or the palm of your hand, if you don’t mind getting cookie dough on your hands), drop the dough about 3 inches apart onto the cookie sheets. You will only be able to fit about 6 cookies to a sheet, but remember: big cookies are the best cookies. Bake, 1 sheet at a time, until golden brown, which can take from 10-15 minutes.

Let the cookies stand briefly, then remove to a rack to cool.