Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Very Best Lentil Soup

I love beans.

Through my vegetarian phase and my vegan phase, through my health obsessed phase and my pop-tart phase, through having only a few dollars to scrape together for groceries each week and having a bit more flexibility, and finally through my most recent phase of working a couple of jobs and finishing a master's, beans have been the answer.

I sometimes suspect that beans have gotten...maybe not a bad rap, but perhaps a boring one, thought to be worth eating only when nothing else is available.  And I think, unfortunately, that because of this reputation folks don't put much effort into finding worthwhile ways to prepare them.

This soup is a worthwhile way to prepare them.

Notes:

  • You can use any kind of lentil you like/have on hand.  You can even use some split peas if you want a thicker texture.  Lentils differ quite a bit not only in size and color, but also how well they hold their shape when cooked.  French green lentils (Le Puy) are the most solid of the bunch, as they remain completely distinct and don't break down at all.  They act very much like a tiny bean, softening and plumping but maintaining their shape.  Brown lentils are somewhat larger and break down a little more, mostly maintaining their shape, but their external casing softens enough that some of the lentils will break down enough to naturally incorporate and thicken the broth.  Red lentils break down almost completely, much like split peas.  You want some texture and some "lentil-ness" in this soup, so don't use all red lentils, but you also want some thickness and breakdown, so don't use all French, either.  Some good combos might be: half French lentils and half brown, half French lentils and half red, a third of each or all brown.  Don't over think it.  Whatever you use will work and will be delicious.
  • You can leave out the wine and the Parmesan rind, but I strongly recommend using them.  Both add the umami flavor, or the "fifth taste."  MSG lends umami flavor to foods.  So does soy sauce, Worcestershire, sardines and several other flavor additions.  Often, when we think something needs more salt, what we're really going for is umami.  Adding a Parmesan rind and some wine to the soup give is that delicious depth of flavor, which means you'll need less salt and the soup will taste richer and more balanced.  Trader Joe's sells well priced Parmesan.  It's my favorite variety of cheese, so I always have some on hand.  The rinds freeze well, so I usually just stash them in the freezer until I need them for soup.  I appreciate that not everybody consumes cheese or wine, so if you must leave one out, go for it, just make sure you include the other.
  • Bean soups are my very very favorite work day lunch.  I've stocked up on some 12 oz glass containers and I make a bean soup nearly every weekend to divide into portions and freeze.  Making lunch to take to work thus entails grabbing a container of soup, throwing in an apple and grabbing a spoon.  Easy, healthy, cheap, delicious.
  • When making bean soups, I like to dice my vegetables to roughly the size of the legume I'm using.  You don't have to do this.  I just find it make the whole thing a bit more copacetic.
On to the recipe.

The Very Best Lentil Soup

One large onion, diced
Two medium carrots, peeled (or not) and diced
Two ribs of celery, diced

(What you're going for here is roughly 2 parts onion to one part each carrots and celery, so adjust your vegetables accordingly.  Don't stress over it, though.  Perfect proportions of your mirepoix won't make or break your soup).

Heat a large soup pot over medium heat and drizzle in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil (or butter).  Allow this to heat up for a minute or so, then toss in your vegetables and lower the heat to medium-low.  Give it a quick stir to coat everything in a bit of oil, then allow it to cook until the veg on the bottom are just beginning to brown.  Continue like this for 10 minutes or so, until the onions are beginning to look glassy.  This bit doesn't really need much attention; just make sure nothing burns.

Mince three or four cloves of garlic, throw them in the pot, stir, and allow to cook until the garlic becomes fragrant, about a minute.

Pour in about a cup of red wine (Get real wine--not the stuff intended for cooking.  It makes a difference.)  Allow it to bubble up and cook for a few seconds and you use a spoon to scrape up anything that may have stuck to the bottom of the pot.

Add:

28 oz. can of diced tomatoes
10 cups of vegetable broth (I use water and a big blob--maybe 2 T.--of Better than Bouillon)
1.5 cups dry lentils, rinsed well
2 t. dry thyme
1/8 t. ground cloves (weird, but trust me)
a few grinds of black pepper (start small.  you can always add more later)
2 bay leaves
one Parmesan rind

This is the best part--just stir it all up, bring it to a simmer, partially cover and allow it to cook until the lentils are soft.  Depending on the age and type of lentils, this might take a half hour or an hour.  Just keep checking on it, adding water if it starts to look low, and after awhile, take a lentil out and eat it.  There's no magic formula here--you'll know if it's done or not.

That's it.  Enjoy.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Pretty Parties and Celebration


I went up to my parents' house yesterday to do a practice table layout with all of the items I have collected thus far for the wedding celebration.  This is it.  I love it.

It's rough, obviously, as the wedding is six months out and there will be flowers to acquire and other details to be collected and created.  However, it gives me peace of mind that it will all work.  If I were to do nothing else, this works for me.

I think sometimes, especially in a world where there are hundreds of blogs dedicated to design, weddings and party planning, unicorn hunting can seem more approachable than getting together a pretty party because suddenly there's so much pressure to make it perfect, as if the whole celebration had been put through a Hipstamatic filter to make it hip, dreamy and somehow untouchable.  But just as I've realized that I'm not going wake up looking like the sparkly fairy love-child of Cate Blanchett, Miranda Kerr and Kerry Washington on my wedding day, the wedding celebration is not going to look like a "best of" feature from 100 Layer Cake.  And while upon hearing that statement, some might be tempted to pat me on the back and reassure me that it will be lovely and stunning and everything my dreams are made of, truthfully, I want a little dirt on my dress and red wine on the tablecloths.  I don't want to hide the traces of the living my parents have done in their home, where the party will be held.

In this process of wedding celebration planning, one thing I found myself quickly caught up in was the pressure to make everything clever and breathtakingly beautiful, as if somehow doing so would reflect those same qualities onto me and my marriage.  But that's not me and that won't be my marriage, nor would I want it to.  My life isn't filtered and I feel it would be an injustice to imply that it was.

One of my favorite people in the world texted me the other day asking for help with planning a baby shower.  She shared that sources like Pinterest can be overwhelming because everything on there is so pristine and she isn't confident that her attempts to create similar details will measure up.  How unfortunate that parties have become anything except for a reason to gather with loved ones and celebrate (and drink cocktails, obviously).

I've had a lot of time to allow myself to self-impose significant pressure to make this wedding mind-bogglingly beautiful and thankfully even more time to allow that to dissipate.  Don't get me wrong; I love focusing on creating beautiful details and there will be plenty of that at this party.  But I love doing those things for their own sake and this is just a convenient outlet for that energy that exists whether or not I have a party to plan.  If I didn't so enjoy fiddling with drink stirrers, handmade bunting and hand-dyed napkins (more on that later), we'd get a keg, put on some clean clothes and grill some burgers, and I have every faith that both versions of this party would be equally memorable and beautiful, because it isn't about how open your wallet is or how much you stress over the creation of the most photogenic place setting.  It's about how open your heart is in welcoming the handful of people you've chosen to love in this world.  That's what celebration is.  That's what a good life is.

I'm so glad I practiced a table layout because it made this whole process feel real and reminded me that there will be actual real-live people--some people I have known my whole life, some I have known only for a couple of years--sitting at these tables.  That as much as I might enjoy gold leafing votive holders and dreaming of air plants, what we will remember is the rumble of a hundred voices talking, connecting, toasting.  We will remember lounging, tired, after dark, after the music has stopped, with the last few stragglers.  Maybe talking, maybe sitting silently content.  We will remember that gentle mayhem left after a day well celebrated.  Happy as a lovely tables cape makes me with its tissue honeycomb balls and gold chevron placemats, I know that's not where my focus will be next July.  And I am eternally, deeply grateful for that.





Thursday, January 17, 2013

Out of Control


Image of Metallic Gold Stripe Paper Straws
The title refers both to my inexplicable addiction to gold wedding details (this is just the tip of the iceberg, trust me) and also to how AMAZING ARE THESE STRAWS?

Seriously, they're beautiful.  They're metallic.  I'm speechless.  And I just ordered 200 of them (don't do the math, please).

As I mentioned yesterday, I've been plugging away on wedding stuff here and there.  What I didn't mention is that finished projects are going into a closet at my parents' house and I haven't yet gotten them all out to see what they look like together.  Over the past week, I've begun to realize that I really, really need to do that, because the gold has begun to run with itself and I'm pretty sure the whole thing is going to look like a gold explosion.  Which I'm kind of happy about, actually.  It will either come together to look like a magical, beautiful, timeless fairyland, a tacky gold overload that's kind of fabulous in its ridiculousness, or a wedding that very clearly happened in 2013.  I'm equally excited about all options.  And I THRILLED about these straws, even if the gold needs to stop.  Soon.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

DIY Gold Drink Stirrers


I joke sometimes that our wedding is just an excuse for me to throw a big party.  This is, of course, glib, and more indicative of my awkwardness discussing intimate matters than it is of my true feelings about our wedding.  Nonetheless, there is a sliver of truth in this, as throwing parties makes my heart absolutely sing.  Ever since I was a little one, I've loved all of the forethought, preparation and anticipation that goes into hosting celebrations, especially that moment during the party where you know it all came together exactly as it should, even if not exactly as planned.  This time last year, when we were newly engaged and I found myself getting sucked into the craziness that wedding planning can (but does not have to) become, I read from a recently married bride that the planning should be savored just as much as the day, to try not to urge the day to arrive sooner and instead relish in the process, keeping in mind that the anticipation is as much fun as the actual event and it lasts a whole lot longer.

How grateful I am to have received this bit of wisdom.

This came up with H the other day, who brought up in conversation that he isn't necessarily eager for the projects he's working on to be complete because the learning and the tinkering are really what it's about for him.  While his projects are very different from mine, the sentiment is the same: be in the process.  I know our wedding day is going to flash by and I will be lucky to have a handful of solid memories from the day, rather than those flash in the pan, not sure if I really remember that or it's from a photograph kind of memories.  But I already have sweet memories of sitting out in the hot August sun, spray painting hundreds of hand-cut paper bunting flags, of sitting at my friend's kitchen table while designing our invites, of huddling with H in our jewelry-maker friend's workshop, picking up our rings...these are wedding memories just as much as the ones we form next July.

By the time we get married, we'll have been engaged for over 18 months.  There are various reasons we chose to do it this way, the primary being that we've been together for a long time and neither of us feels particularly rushed.  What we have now is a good thing, just as what we will have after we have the marriage ceremony will be a good thing.  I also knew I wanted lots of time to revel in the planning stage, to form an idea of what the aesthetics of the wedding would be and how the practicalities would go, to have time to sit with those ideas and later to tweak them until they felt right.  It's so easy to get caught up in the Pinterest world of planning where it can feel you are pulled in all different directions--there is an overwhelming number of creative and beautiful ideas out there and it's only natural to want to embrace them all.  It takes time to absorb all of that and then come back to yourself and what's right for you and your partner.  All weddings are beautiful.  It's sort of the fact of the thing.   The only important piece (beyond everybody who says they'll show up and get married following through on that agreement) is that the couple think the wedding was fantastic.  It doesn't matter whether it's "blog-worthy" (god, what a terrible phrase) or whether the guests would have made the same choices.  If the bride and groom think, "I loved our wedding," it was perfect.

What's important to us is that everybody who shows up feels loved and relaxed, that there's plenty of food and drink, and (for me), there are personal details that could only come from us, not a wedding planner or a bridal magazine.

I've been plugging away at little projects since last summer, biting off little pieces here and there so the creation of these details remains a joy and does not become a catalyst for resentment.  Sitting in our quiet house, listening to music and podcasts, creating beautiful small things that make me happy...it's lovely.

Lately, I've been making drink stirrers.  They're gold, which means I adore them.

Of course you could do these in any color you like, and they're a relatively easy to make way to jazz up simple glasses.  They could serve as drink markers, helping folks keep track of their glass.  If you're going that route, you'll want to make each one slightly different, or just do the washi tape option and leave a fine Sharpie out for people to write their names on the tape.  For all of these, I purchased thin wooden skewers at our local restaurant supply store.  I believe they were roughly $2/100 pieces.


 For this tinsel version, I purchased gold metallic tinsel from a craft store in the wrapping paper section; it's the gold filler you can use to fill gift bags.  The strands are long, so I began by cutting them each into 4 inch pieces (you can grab several at a time to cut so this part will go faster).  Then I wrapped a small piece of double sided tape around the top inch or so of the skewer and stuck pieces of tinsel to the tape, making sure to press it on firmly, moving along with new pieces of tinsel until the tape was covered.


For this version, I used a Fiskars craft punch to punch heart shapes out of paint chips.  You can use any type of firm paper for this, but I had a bunch of paint chips from a previous project so I used those.  I then drew a line of hot glue down the center of one of the hearts, pressed the skewer to the glue, then glued another heart on top to envelope the skewer.  Then I painted Mod Podge over both sides of the heart and sprinkled gold glitter over to cover both sides.  For the solid gold version at the very top, I followed these same instructions, but instead of using Mod Podge, I spray painted them with gold spray paint.


These ones were simplest.  I had some gold dot washi tape already, so I tore off four inch long pieces and wrapped them around the skewer, cutting the end with scissors.

I realize that this may be one of those details some people notice and many do not.  But they make me happy and I can't wait to see them sparkling in the sun on the big day!

Monday, January 14, 2013

Stuff, and Getting Rid of It

For the past couple of years, I've completed a "Get Rid of 100 Things" challenge.  I've done this twice per year (see: semi-annual, biannual), so about four times thus far, and each time, I begin with the belief that this go-around, it will be more difficult to find 100 things to remove from my home because, you know, I've already gotten rid of 100, 200, 300 things.

Well, it isn't.  In fact, in this last go around, I stopped counting at 150.

We have a tiny house.  We have two closets, each about 3'x4'.  No kitchen closets.  No coat closets.  No storage furniture aside from our two clothes dressers, and minimal cupboard space.  We have a basement but no garage.  We're not compulsive shoppers.  But still, we accumulate stuff.  And what I have learned over the past couple of years is that hundreds of those stuffs are things we do not need.  Things I can easily part with without noticing or regretting their absence.

Have you ever thought about going around your house and counting how many things you have?  I bet, for most of us, the number would easily reach into the thousands.  How many things do you use each day?  Maybe 30 on most days, if we consider clothes, shoes, cooking utensils and recreation.

Let me say here that I'm fairly unabashed about liking stuff.  I like it extra when it makes my life a little easier or a little more luxurious.  I've got no beef with stuff.

What I do have a beef with is accumulating for the sake of accumulating, without ever slowing down to evaluate what value the things we bring into our lives and our homes carry with them.  When we have just to have, we sell out our chance to revel in moment, to practice gratitude that is felt so deeply it'll knock the breath out of us.  Though we have a split personality culture that encourages consumerism while at the same time condemning materialism, I don't believe we have to choose, and further, I don't think it's healthy to bounce aimlessly between the two.  Things can have deeper meaning when we practice intentionality in  choosing which ones we maintain in our lives.

The other day, as H was making a run to drop off some of his own things at a thrift shop, he asked if I had anything I wanted to throw in.  I grabbed a pair of tennis shoes I purchased six years ago in Spain, shoes I have vacillated over getting rid of for years.  I've purchased and tossed many pairs of shoes in the interim with no regret.  I don't tend to place great sentimentality on most things.  But still, within two minutes of offering the shoes, I withdrew them.  In response, H said, "yeah, getting rid of stuff is hard."  But in truth, it isn't.  Getting rid of things just to get rid of them is the same as buying things just to buy them, just as bingeing and purging are opposite but equal.  Releasing unnecessary clutter from our lives, whether that clutter be tangible or felt, is an intentional, thoughtful process that demands examination of why we held onto this stuff in the first place.  It demands we slow down.  It demands we root back to the essence of our being.  The essence of my being wanted to hold onto those tennis shoes, because I wore then when H came to visit me in Madrid.  Because I trekked all over that country in them.  Because they're still cute (at least as cute as tennis shoes can be) and I still hold out hope that someday I will knock some sense into my head and start wearing practical tennis shoes from time to time instead of my current foot crunching choices.  I'm sure some day I will get rid of them.  But not this year.

Getting rid of 100 things doesn't just make your house more organized or easier to clean.  It provides opportunity to ask yourself the questions, 100 times over, "who am I?" and "what kind of life do I want?"  Try it.

Easy DIY Honey Oatmeal Face Mask

This is a quick share because I kind of want to tell everybody I talk to about this fantastic quickie mask, but because we're working on social skills (ahem), I have to reign myself in from driving every conversation into a one-sided discussion about rubbing oatmeal and other food products on my face.

So here we are.

This mask is amazing because it's uber cheap, non-irritating, moisturizing, exfoliating and cleansing all in one.  Honey is a humectant, which means (for this application) it draws moisture to the skin.  Supposedly, it's also antibacterial, which is great for those little spots we sometimes get.  Oats are moisturizing and anti-inflammatory.  What I find is that after using this mask, my skin is instantly more glowy and smooth, and any red spots I started with have calmed.  I love it and use it a couple of times per month.  The beauty of it is that, while lots of masks leave you red-faced and thus should only be used at night, this one has no such effects, so can be used anytime (even before a hot date).

If you google "oatmeal face mask," you'll be rewarded with a bunch of more complicated masks, but I love this one for its simplicity and reliability.  I also love that I don't have to worry about raw egg white dripping into my mouth.

Honey Oatmeal Face Mask

Place 1 T (roughly) of runny honey into a small bowl.  If you prefer, you can certainly use raw honey, though you will have to play with it a bit to make it liquid enough to take the oatmeal.  I've used processed honey and raw honey for this and don't notice one performing better than the other.

Starting small, add about 2 t. (again, roughly--I never measure) finely ground oat flour and stir this mixture together.  Texture wise, you're looking for wet cement; liquid enough to rub onto your face, firm enough that it won't drip off.  Adjust amounts of oat flour and honey accordingly.

Cover clean, damp skin (either just face or face, neck and upper chest) with this paste and allow to sit for 10-30 minutes (no harm in leaving it on longer, though).  Rinse off gently, slather on your favorite moisturizer (I love Argan Oil), and you're good to go!

The Very Best Wheat Free Bran Muffins

I realize declaring these "the best" might not be enough to get you psyched to make them.  After all, when you ask folks what their favorite kind of muffin is (though if you're in a conversation that devolves into discussing muffin varieties, you've got bigger problems than bran.  Or you've taken a page out of my conversation skills handbook.  Sorry.), I imagine you'll usually hear "blueberry," "almond poppyseed," "chocolate chocolate chip," etc.  These are all fantastic, but to me, these varieties remind me that most muffins are really just frosting-less cupcakes that have been given a fancy new name to justify the eating of cake for breakfast.  First, if you want to eat cake for breakfast, have some frosting with it, will you?  I know I do.  But too, if you want to be able to say you had something reasonably healthy for breakfast, please have something that's actually reasonably healthy for breakfast.  Then you can enjoy the treats later because you truly want to, rather than as a desperate measure to drag your trampled on blood sugar out of the gutter.  Food is more fun when we eat from choice, rather than from compulsion.

But back to it.  Most people don't get their panties all in a bunch over bran muffins.  But I promise you, these ones are good.  Really, really good.  So good that both H and I eat at least three per day when they're in the house, which whenever I think about how much bran (and prunes, but we'll get to that later) we're eating, makes me hum this little clean as a whistle jingle under my breath.

I'll let you sit with that one.  Here's the recipe.

As ever, we begin with notes.

  • Though these are wheat free, they can't properly be called gluten free because I did not use certified gluten free oat bran.  Folks with Celiac disease must avoid even the tiniest trace of wheat, and because oats are often processed on the same machinery as wheat, conventional oat products are usually contaminated with wheat.  Thus, "wheat free" rather than "gluten free."  If you're going whole-hog, you can order Bob's Red Mill Gluten Free Oat Bran.  I don't react to conventional oats, so I use Trader Joe's brand, which in our store is by the (go figure) oats.
  • The original recipe calls for raisins, but because I'm 26 going on 84, I used prunes.  A secret about prunes: they're delicious, with or without the attempt at rebranding them "dried plums."  I always take some with me when I travel because I'm pretty sure they soak up all the cake and cocktails I consume while travelling.  Anyway, feel free to substitute raisins if that's what you have.
  • I always do these in the food processor, but if you like to live on the edge and want to use your blender, go for it.  Just don't blame me when you end up with eggy prune puree all over your kitchen walls (oh, you've learned to use your blender like a functional adult?  rub it in.)
  • Yes, you can absolutely make your own oat flour in your food processor or blender.  However, through personal experience, I have to recommend purchasing the (much more expensive, unfortunately) pre-ground oat flour.  It has a much better consistency than I am able to get on my own, and since you already have the grittiness of the bran, using a commercial finely ground oat flour is key for the right texture.  I use Bob's Red Mill.
  • Pineapple is a weird addition, I know, but trust me on this one.  If you have trust issues, use whatever the heck makes your little heart happy.  Raisins, dried cherries, walnuts, chopped dates, or nothing.
  • I haven't played yet with  making these vegan.  Gluten free baking loves its eggs; when we lose the structure and binding that gluten brings, we have to make that up in some way, and eggs are a big help.  However, if I were to make them vegan, I would likely leave out the egg (obviously), mix together 1/2 c. dairy free milk and 1 t. apple cider vinegar to substitute for the yogurt, and add 2 T. ground flax with the dry ingredients for extra binding.  I have every faith they'd turn out great this way.
  • I put the brown sugar as optional, because you really can get away with removing it and you'll still have a muffin that's yummy.  However, the sugar adds a surprising amount of flavor for the amount, so if you're making these for the first time or making them for someone else who is not a health foody, I'd use it.
The Very Best Wheat Free Bran Muffins
  • Makes 12
  • Adapted from the Martha.
Preheat your oven to 350° and grease a 12 cup muffin tin (For some unexplained reason, I like my cupcakes in liners and my muffins naked, but by all means, please yourself.)

Place 1 c. dried plums into a bowl, pour hot water over to cover and allow this to sit for 10-15 minutes.  Don't let this sit for too long or the muffins will be too moist.  Just until the prunes look like they're starting to plump up.

In a large bowl, or the bowl of your stand mixer if that's your thing, place:
  • 1 c. oat bran
  • 1 3/4 c. oat flour
  • 1/4 c. ground flax meal (optional)
  • 1/2 c. shredded coconut, preferably unsweetened
  • 1 t. baking powder
  • 1 t. baking soda
  • 3/4 t. salt
Give this a quick stir to disperse the ingredients.

Drain the prunes and place them in your food processor, then turn the food processor on for 30 seconds or so until the prunes are broken up and beginning to make a paste.

Into the food processor, add:

  • 3/4 c. plain or vanilla Greek yogurt (the equivalent of one single-serving tub)
  • 1/4 c. brown sugar (optional)
  • 1/4 c. vegetable oil
  • 1/2 c. molasses (Trick: eyeball measure your vegetable oil in a half-cup before measuring your molasses in the same vessel.  The molasses should slide right out.)
  • 1 large egg
Turn the food processor back on and allow it to run until you have a mostly uniform, creamy looking mixture.  You'll know it's ready when the color and texture begin to change.  A few little bits of prune here and there are fine--you won't notice them in the final product.

Add the liquid mixture to the dry, and also add:

  • 3/4 c. frozen and completely thawed pineapple tid-bits (I buy mine at Trader Joe's) or pineapple bits from a can.  I bet you could even use very well drained crushed pineapple and they would still be fantastic.
Turn your mixer on and allow it to run for a good minute or so.  As I've said before, the beauty of gluten free baking is that there's no gluten to over-develop, so you really don't need to worry about tough muffins.  In fact, because we're using flax to help bind here, you want to give the batter a good mix to help the flax begin to congeal.

Divvy the batter up into your nicely greased tin, stick the muffins in the oven, set your timer for 22 minutes, and snarf some frozen pineapple out of the bag.  When the timer goes off, test your muffins.  If you're used to gluten baking, these should be just slightly moister than your average gluten muffin, as they will settle into themselves as they cool.  They  may need a few more minutes if they're still wet or they don't feel quite as firm as a memory foam mattress when you press one gently in a muffin's center.

Yum.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Universal Character Strengths and a Happier Life

The other day I had the pleasure of filling in at my mental health job.  In one of our groups, my coworkers had prepared a discussion about how to live a happier life, with the specific topic of identifying and living from one's strengths.  The idea makes sense: when we are working from our strengths, whether that be people skills, creativity, or analytical thinking, we feel most ourselves and can build confidence in our abilities.  When we live and work from our less-strong places, we are more apt to feel uncomfortable, insecure and exhausted (see: shmoozing with 50 strangers, sales skills).

It was an interesting discussion and a lot came out of it.  One person mentioned that going through the list of 24 universal character strengths helped her realize she had more strengths than she had previously recognized.

My takeaway from this is that to live a happy life, spend more time in your strengths instead of fighting to improve your weaker areas.  No one person will possess all 24 in abundance; we all have our handful, and when we come together to create a community, our strengths fit together like puzzle pieces to make sure things get done.  I don't know about you, but this perspective makes me feel both empowered and freed.  Powerful stuff.

Chewy Crispy Yummy Gluten Free Chocolate Chip Cookies

It is within discussion of chocolate chip cookies that we find our kindred spirits.  The crunchy versus soft debate, chewy versus cakey, chunks versus chips, white chocolate, dark, sea salt, walnuts, thin, thick, yadda yadda yadda.

I like them all.  Does that mean I'm a universal kindred spirit?  Or maybe just that one area of my life that is blissfully free from judgment is the wonderful world of cookies.

We went to an open house last night at our sweet friends' house just up the street.  It was one of those parties where more and more wonderful people I know from completely unrelated arenas of my life kept walking through the door, creating some kind of magical voodoo spell that drilled in--as if I could forget--what an incredible community we have here in Reno.

And there were chocolate chip cookies.

They were homemade and so, so good.

They reminded me that, due to crazy fall semester schedules, feeling quite under the weather, and then devoting all of December to Christmas cookies (spritz, Russian tea cakes, almond peppermint candy canes, chocolate dipped hazelnut crescents, almond roca cookie bars, and some others I seem to have filed in the "don't need to remember these until next December" brain space), it's been awhile since my kitchen has been home to this classic, universally loved variety.

Here's a secret about my baking: I'm a little over-confident in my skills and the willingness of my ingredients to turn into exactly what I want them to.  In other words, I'm a little slap dash with it all.  I know they'll tell you that "baking is a science, you know" and "you must follow the recipe exactly."  But I don't particularly care.  I think intuition and a willingness to love even the imperfect or not-quite-as-I-expected-but-lovely-all-the-same attitude will take you a long way in the kitchen.

This becomes especially true in the world of gluten free baking.

We're not 100% gluten free (see: drinking 3 Sierra Nevada Pale Ales last night), but both of us have a tinge of an intolerance which I won't go into right in the middle of waxing on about cookies.  Let's just leave it at this: we eat mostly gluten free at home and most of my baking has followed suit.

If you're interested in gluten free and you haven't heard of Gluten Free Girl and the Chef, get your booty over there.  This couple is a powerhouse in the world of good food and will make you feel so good, so optimistic about being gluten free that you will want to toss those rice cakes in the trash, run to the kitchen and spend several hours making a feast of delicious food, forgetting all the while that it has any special "restriction" attached.

Gluten Free Girl introduced me to the concept of baking by weight.  It's a game changer.  Rather than go into it here, if you're interested, read this.  It explains everything.  Since I started baking by weight, I've had about  a 99% success rate subbing gluten free flours and starches into my old tried and true recipes, and I imagine that extra 1% is attributable more to my "eh, it'll work out" mentality.  The thing with baking by weight is that it lets you use your recipes.  You know, the ones in your grandmother's handwriting?  The ones you tore out of Cooks Illustrated years ago that have never done you wrong?  Those of us who like to cook and bake generally take some pride in having tried and true recipes that almost become part of our being.  You shouldn't have to start all over with that just because you're not doing the wheat thing so much (or at all) anymore.  Just sub in 140 g of homemade gluten free flour mix per cup of flour called for in the recipe and you're good to go.

On to the cookies.  But first, a few notes.

  • Last I checked, the Aherns were recommending a gluten free flour mix of 40% whole grain flours and 60% starch.  I've been doing a 50/50 blend for quite some time and it works for me.  We were avoiding corn there for awhile, so I've gotten into the habit of using all potato starch for my starch, but I've had equal success using cornstarch or arrowroot.  Of the three, I think I prefer corn, but the difference isn't terribly noticeable.  For the whole grains, I've been using a blend of millet flour, sweet white sorghum and oat flour, but mostly because these tend to be the least expensive flours.  This shifts depending on what I have on hand.  I just dump in the whole grains flours more or less equally without much attention to specific quantities of each.  I make up a big batch of this mix and keep it on hand at all times to use wherever flour is called for.
  • I've noticed in recipes that the 140 g per cup thing doesn't quiiiiiite work for me.  I usually need a tiny bit more flour, especially when I'm baking something free form (i.e. banana bread does fine with the 140, cookies need a little more structure).  I usually start with the 140 and then add 20-50 grams more until the texture looks right.  Sometimes if I'm unsure, I'll bake off a couple of cookies to see if they spread too much and add flour as needed.
  • I use coconut flour here because it's delicious (according to some, it make everything taste like Twinkies.  Since Twinkies don't exist anymore unless you're a greedy hoarder, I suppose we can start saying "this tastes like Twinkies!" about everything and confuse the sh*t out of kiddos who will never know what the heck a Twinkie tastes like).  Coconut flour absorbs an incredible amount of liquid, so I tend to add it as my "thicken this up a bit" flour at the end, and always use less than I think the dough can take because the amount of liquid it soaks up surprises me every time.
  • I've found that gluten free cookie doughs do well to sit around for just a bit to let everything absorb.  This helps get rid of some of that grittiness and also helps the dough (and cookies) hold together.
  • I use more vanilla in gluten free doughs than I do in wheat doughs, since the gluten free is missing the flavor of wheat.  I never thought of wheat as having much flavor, but it does.
  • Please keep in mind that I live in the desert, so my ingredients (particularly my grains and starches) are extra dry.  If you live somewhere humid (aka somewhere where the winter dryness doesn't make you want to claw your face off and shove tubes of salve up your nasal cavity from December through March), you may need to add a bit more flour to get the right consistency.  Play with it.
  • I added a bit of oatmeal for extra texture.  If you're not down with the oatmeal, a bit extra coconut flour can use substituted.  I'd start with 20 grams and go from there.
  • Lately I haven't been keeping brown sugar around, hence the white sugar + molasses.  If you' have a better stocked pantry, feel free to use 1 c. brown sugar and 1/2 c. white.
  • Gluten free baked goods dry out quickly, so rather than bake off a bunch of cookies at once, I usually bake one sheet of them, then portion out the rest, flash freeze it and store the cookie dough in a doubled up freezer bag.
  • Forgive the lack of photos.  It's dark and my photography skills are lousy enough without adding overhead flourescent lighting.
Gluten Free Chocolate Chip Cookies

3/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
1.5 c. white sugar
2 T. molasses
1 T. vanilla extract
1 egg
1 egg yolk

  • In a stand mixer or with a hand beater, beat these together for a couple of minutes, or until uniform.  This won't get fluffy because of the melted butter.  Still, don't skimp on the mixing.
280 grams gluten free flour mix
45 grams coconut flour
1/2 c. old fashioned oats
1 T. cornstarch (this helps with chewiness)
1/2 t. baking soda
1/2 t. salt
1 c. chocolate chips (if you're chocolate crazy, add as much as you want.  I just like a little cookie with my chip)
  • Add the dry ingredients to the wet and beat to combine.  No worries about over-mixing, since there's no gluten that can over develop.
Allow this to sit while you go preheat the oven to 325°, or for about 15 minutes.

Divvy up your dough as you like; I prefer to drop it by tablespoons onto a parchment (or silpat, if you're fancy) lined baking sheet.

Bake cookies for 8 minutes, or until just barely beginning to brown and still very under done in the middle.  Allow to cool (or don't) and get to it.



The Best Non-Toxic Shampoo and Conditioner (Acure Review)

Acure Organics - Acure For Your Skin, Acure For The Planet
                                                  

Have you guys heard of this stuff?

I first found out about it a year or so ago from No More Dirty Looks when I was researching less toxic stuff to put on my body.  After nearly a decade of trying some random yummy-smelling but crappy-hair-producing non-toxic shampoo/conditioner, I'd hop back to super-toxic but fantastic-hair-producing (and usually bank breaking) shampoo/conditioner back and forth and over and again.  I've tried most of the stuff on the Whole Foods shelf, which mostly made my hair sticky and staw-like or greasy, dull and heavy. I've tried Pureology and Oribe and Kerastase, which all seemed to work okay on my hair while giving me major cystic breakouts on my back, chest, shoulders and hairline (folks: seriously, if you have skin issues in these areas specifically, change up what you put on your hair).

Anyway, I finally tried Acure last year.  It got a fantastic review on No More Dirty Looks and to boot, is only about $9 per bottle.  I use both the Moroccan Argan Oil + Argan Stem Cell shampoo/conditioner set (above, left) and the Pure Mint + Echinacea Stem Cell shampoo/conditioner set (above, right).  The former is moisturizing/repairing and the latter is volumizing, and while I definitely notice a little more moisture and softness when I use the Argan Oil set and more volume when I use the mint, I love them both equally.  My hair has never been better and (major, major bonus), I can easily skip washing every other day with no greasiness.  I really think this line has brought my hair to a healthier balance with less reliance on product to look great.  I do, however, use Acure's dry shampoo the night before when I know I won't wash the next day.  See why I use it the night before rather than the morning of here.  Also, perhaps because the line is silicone free, no more conditioner induced breakouts, which is amazing.

Anyway, I can't recommend this stuff enough.  If nothing else, the Argan Oil set smells just like almond extract, and what's not to love about that?

Cascarones

From what I understand, cascarones are a Mexican tradition wherein eggs are emptied out, dyed, filled with confetti and broken over other people's heads.  Apparently, they used to be used in Italy as part of a courting ritual, where love-crazy men would fill hollow eggs with perfume and launch them at the objects of their lust.  Pretty ridiculous, Italians.  Pretty ridiculous.  I wonder if it was a way to cover up the "I only bathe once a year" smell for both parties?  Kind of like saying, "Hey baby, let's get steamy and take a shower together" when really what you want to say is, "Dude, you need to clean your body before I'm letting you anywhere near me."  Isn't romance sweet?

Anyway, we're having cascarones at the wedding.

I did them a couple of years ago at my birthday party.  I hid them around the yard and then had to stumble around tipsy (to say the least), in heels, in the dark to find all of them to hand them to people because for some reason my guests were more interested in the cocktail portion of the party than the "hey!  Let's go on an egg hunt!" part.  Go figure. (Side note: my mom recently asked me if I had thought of games to play at the wedding.  I told her I'm making corn hold boards.  She suggested pin the tail on the donkey.  See: why my mom is amazing and also will not be planning the wedding.)   For my birthday, I filled a secret one with glitter with the plan that whomever was showered with glitter would get a special prize.  My  sweet friend Abby had bought a super cute new dress for the party and I'm pretty sure she still hasn't gotten the glitter out of it, so this time we're sticking with confetti.  And I'm just going to put them out in plain sight because apparently my friends are lazy a-holes (kidding!  love you guys.).

The punchline of this whole spiel is that the cascarones are not finished yet and you will not be rewarded with a tutorial.  However, I've been diligently saving up eggs shells for the past several months and I finally fished dying this first batch last week.  In case you're wondering, I break open the eggs without ruining the shells by lightly tapping the pointed end on the counter until it has a small crack, then gently picking a few pieces away until I have a hole like this:
Once I get a hole big enough, I shake the egg out.  The yolk gets scrambled, but whatev.  It's pretty simple, especially if you plan ahead and do a few each week, and it does away with the "I just emptied out ten dozen egg shells and now am getting anxious about what the heck I'm going to do with ten dozen scrambled eggs other than store them in my freezer until they get so freezer burned that I can justify throwing them away."  Anybody else do that?  Just me?  Uh-huh.

I'm still trying to figure out what to fill them with.  Tissue confetti is my top choice for aesthetics, and I love how it's light so takes awhile to float down--great for photos!  But I'm worried it will take forever to decompose and will leave my parents (who are hosting the party) with mounds of tissue paper in all their rock landscaping and along their fence.  The house will need enough clean up without adding that to the list.  There is ecofetti, which reportedly decomposes upon first contact with water, but it looks like styrofoam.  Other options are lavender buds (maybe expensive for a couple hundred cascarones; I need to do more research) or fruity pebbles for the birdies (and my parents' doggies) to eat.  I'm sure we'll figure something fun out.  But in the meanwhile, I open these up from time to time to get re-excited about the whole thing.  Aren't they pretty?

Oh, and guys, neon food coloring is where it's at.  F'real.