So long, 2015!

It’s been quite a year. More travel than I ever imagined, growing and cooking delicious food, taking (and teaching!) my first paella class, starting a new group of like-minded foodies…As December 31 comes to an end, here are a few of my favorite moments from the past year.

One of my favorite pictures of the trip
First crawfish boil in New Orleans in January.

Feathers fly

Beachy keen

The only acceptable icy slushy white stuff I want to see
The only acceptable cold slushy white stuff I want to see on a beach in Aruba in March.
Mashed and infused
Garden chive flower vinegar.
Sarma
My favorite meal this year–Sarma in Boston in April with some of my favorite people.
Paella, ready for eating
Barcelona paella class in May.

Sant Pau Hospital

Yes, the bottom rack is a little overdone
Slow-smoked ribs to kick off summer.
London calling
London calling.
Tower Bridge
London’s Tower Bridge in July.
Talking
Teaching a sold-out class in August.
Digging in
Sharing what I learned about paella in Barcelona with my class in Chicago.
Tomato season
Glut of garden tomatoes.

Start to finish Eiffel

Paris by night
Paris by night in August.
Good people and good stories
First meeting of Cooking the Books in November. Can’t wait for the next one in January!

And no reflection on the year would be complete without mentioning the passing of my grandpa. I think about him often and wonder who I’ll send my paczki to this year…

My grandparents

Cheers to an incredible year past and a promising new year to come!

Holiday Giving Guide

Happy belated Thanksgiving everyone! Hopefully your weekend was full of food and friends and family, lots of pie, and plenty of good leftovers.

After Thanksgiving, though, the holiday season seems to come down like an avalanche of Can’t! Miss! Deals! that I’m still trying to dig my inbox out from under. Black Friday keeps creeping closer and closer to Thanksgiving dinner and I was getting emails about Cyber Monday deals last Tuesday. It’s barely December 1 and I’m already tired of every retailer on Earth yelling at me for not spending money.

Don’t get me wrong, I love buying gifts for people and I’m certainly not so self-righteous as to say I don’t like getting them (or that I didn’t snag a deal or two online over the weekend). But I’ve never posted a holiday gift guide here mostly because the Internet doesn’t need another list of too-expensive candles that smell like campfire and gin or a $200 scale to measure coffee beans, and no one wants to hear what’s on my actual Christmas wishlist (seriously, why are the caps for the air valves on my tires so easy to lose?!).

So instead of a gift guide for the holiday, how about a giving guide in honor of Giving Tuesday? Here are a few non-profits that I’m especially fond of that would be happy recipients of some holiday giving.

Foodlink
An amazing anti-hunger organization based in my hometown, Rochester, NY. They’re primarily a food bank, but they also organize year-round free and reduced-price lunch (and other meals) for kids, urban gardens and farm stands, a mobile market to neighborhoods where fresh produce isn’t easily accessible, healthful food education, and more. (I’m also a fan as the organization is currently run by one of my high school classmates.)

Girls Who Code
Working in IT at a major university, I see the gender gap in technology on a pretty regular basis, both in my job and in higher education. Girls Who Code encourages and teaches young women to pursue technology interests (they get to build robots!) and helps them build networks in the field.

Green City Market/Evanston Farmer’s Market
My two favorite farmers markets in Chicago. In addition to fantastic local fruits and vegetables and support for local farmers and food producers, both offer community outreach and education programs. Plus, you know, all the tomatoes.

Farmers market

Off the Street Club
Chicago’s oldest boys and girls club, founded in 1900, gives kids a safe place–physically and mentally–to be kids. In a neighborhood that’s more often associated with crime and gangs, Off the Street runs afterschool programs in the arts and sports, organizes fun outings around the city, provides resources for homework help, and sets up mentorship opportunities. They even run a full-on summer camp.

Open Books
Just like everyone deserves a full belly and a place to feel safe, everyone deserves to have good books in their life. Open Books provides high-quality used books to kids and adults through grants to schools, educators, and other non-profits, in addition to mentoring and creative writing and publishing workshops. Even better? Indulge your own book habit online or in their stores and the funds go to support their literacy programs.

Open Books

Peterson Garden Project
This one should be pretty obvious, coming from me. PGP teaches people to grow and cook their own food through their community gardens and cooking school, along with lots of other educational programs to support that mission. I loved teaching my first class there this summer and am looking forward to another year of gardening with them in spring (only five months to go!).

Talking
P6280088

Planned Parenthood
They’ve been victim to a lot of attacks in both word and deed this year, but the health services (yes, all of them) and education they provide to women (and men) are so important. They’ve been a life-saver for me and more than a few people I know.

Slow Food
I knew about slow food as a movement, but Slow Food as an international organization was new to me this year. In Chicago, they offer amazing food events, classes, and an urban garden all to support better access to food that is good, clean, and fair for everyone.

Slow Food

Station North Tool Library
One of my sisters just moved to Baltimore to build her jewelry business and she told me about this community organization in her neighborhood. They have a lending library for all kinds of tools, a woodshop, metalshop, and classes on how to build all kinds of things. I wish there was something like this in Chicago! I mean, come on, they have a class where I could make my own chef’s knife.

Co-Op Sauce
Technically this isn’t a non-profit, but Co-Op Sauce started off as one, and half of their profits still go to youth arts education in Chicago. Needless to say, their hot sauce (and everything else they sell) is really, really good and I will be sad if their cafe ever moves out of my neighborhood.

Co-Op Sauce

There are so many more I could list, but do you have a favorite organization I missed? Share it in the comments!

Mid-July Busy-ness

It’s an unfortunate coincidence that the months I have the most to talk about–farmers markets and grilling and all the cooking, really, and gardens and, lately, traveling every which way–also happen to be the same months that I have the least amount of time to write about any of said things because I’m…well, farmers market-ing and grilling and cooking and gardening and traveling (though that last one is the worst excuse as I keep telling myself Internet-free plane time is the best time for writing. Too bad it’s also great time for watching movies, reading a book, or staring out the window).

Which is to say, a lot’s been going on since I last posted, eek, nearly a month ago: infusing booze with flowers, making my first slow-smoked ribs, keeping my garden alive and (mostly) thriving, spending a week in England. You know, little stuff like that. Plus I still want to share my trip to Barcelona and a supremely foodie trip to Boston (including the best restaurant I’ve eaten at in recent memory and the inspiration for this summer’s quest to perfect pizza on the grill).

It’s all coming though! It may be with fewer, less pretty pictures, maybe slightly less cohesive words, but perfection is the enemy of the good, or, at least for me lately, the enemy of posting anything at all.

In the meantime, have a picture of my new obsession that might actually be better than my long-time favorite.

The BEST ribs

What’s Cooking Wednesday: Memorial Day Meals

Chicago can’t quite seem to commit to warm weather–we had four days of 80s and sun (perfect for working outside all last weekend at the plant sale and getting a little done in my garden), then, as soon as I get my tomatoes in the ground, down to 40s. Thankfully this weekend is supposed to be solidly beautiful, perfect for grilling, gardening, and generally being outside and eating all the almost-summer foods.

With that in mind, here’s what I’m thinking about making during the long weekend.

IcyWith rhubarb season in full swing and strawberries close behind, it was a good opportunity tonight to clean out my freezer of some of both that I haven’t gotten around to using. Easiest thing? Rhubarb-strawberry syrup. A bag each of frozen rhubarb and strawberries, enough water to cover, a few cups of sugar, zest of a lemon, simmer about 20 minutes or until it tastes good. Take off the heat and add the juice of a lemon, refrigerate. I love it with seltzer (and maybe a splash of triple sec).

Don't forget to grill a few lemons I loved this grilled chicken I made last summer, and it would go perfectly with grilled asparagus tossed with green garlic and thinly sliced French radishes, a beautiful salad, a glass of wine, and some friends on my porch. Yum.

Arugula walnut pesto on grilled pizzaAs for any leftover chicken? A batch of this pesto on a warm flatbread or spread on a toasty pita with some of the lemony grilled chicken tucked inside sounds like a perfect lunch after I finish planting my garden with tomatoes and basil and some new herbs.

Rhubarb pie And because this is the start of pie season for me, rhubarb pie is a must. I made this to celebrate my first “blogiversary” because it represented so clearly what I wanted from this blog–a new skill learned or perfected (pie crust), a new favorite ingredient discovered (rhubarb) and a recipe to bring them together. And hey, May 21 also marks happy 3 years blogging to me!

Bella Barcelona

The past six months have felt a bit like a real-life “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” minus the red hat and the international intrigue.  Which is to say, last week I spent four incredible days in (and just outside of) Barcelona.

Sant Pau Hospital View from La Sagrada Familia Paella Barceloneta Focaccia

It was a trip of firsts–first time in Spain, first time baking bread in a wood-burning oven, first time taking a cooking class in someone’s home, first time using AirBnB, first time using the tiny bit of Spanish I remembered from high school (which, as I learned, was only marginally helpful as all the signs are in, and many people speak, Catalan). Most significantly for me, though, it was the first trip I’ve done completely by myself, with no agenda or priorities other than my own. It was a transformative experience, one I’m still processing, but that I could not be more grateful to have had.

I’m still organizing my thoughts (and nearly 2,000 photos), but more, so much more–all the amazing people I met, the beautiful sights, the food (oh, the food!)–to come soon. Bon dia!

Sagrada Familia Barcelona museumMuseum fountain Bread LunchBarcelona Cathedral Sagrada Familia

What’s Cooking Wednesday: On the Grill

On the spectrum of grills and grilling, this is how I view things:

Charcoal grill > Any grill > No grill

Whisps

A few years ago, I moved into my first apartment with a porch and my first must-do was learn how to grill. Happily, I got a little cast iron Lodge hibachi grill as a housewarming gift (you know what’s really smart? giving a person who likes to cook stuff to cook with because they will often use it to cook for you).

Salad on the grill Grilling

For four years, I used the hell out of that thing. It’s just the right size to cook for one or two people, but I easily had enough space to grill a whole pizza or a few burgers when I needed to. It was fast to heat up, holds just enough charcoal for one meal (with enough left over to melt a few marshmallows), and took briquette (the kind most grocery stores sell in summer) and lump (the kind that looks like chunks of burnt wood) charcoal. I can guarantee there were weeks in summer I did not touch my stove in favor of cooking on my porch (yes, breakfast too–do you know how good grilled bacon is?).

As much as I love that grill, it has a few drawbacks. The lack of a lid is the biggest one, making it a challenge to cook larger pieces of meat for longer periods of time. Foil or a pot lid worked to melt cheese on a burger, but not so well for cooking, say, a whole chicken, or smoking anything. A little Weber or tabletop/tailgating grill would have solved this, but I really like how the cast iron maintained heat. That’s why my housewarming gift to myself with my new place (after I made sure there were no rules about grilling, and yes, being able to grill was one of my “must-haves” when I was looking to buy) was a small ceramic grill, a Kamado Joe Jr.

My baby

I love my new baby for a lot of reasons but it came with a bit of a learning curve. The biggest selling point for me: it’s easy to get temperatures really low (180º F), really high (900º F), and everything in between and hold that temperature steady for a very long time–the whole thing is essentially a brick oven with grill grates. The lid and the steady temperatures also mean I can cook larger things like chicken; smoke salmon, or even bake (some people get excited about a pulled pork on the grill, I’m excited about baking cobbler. Ok, and the pork too.).

Perfect way to end a warm spring day, strawberry rhubarb cobbler from #americastestkitchen cooked on my #kamadojoe. #atkgrams #grilling #bringonspring

Compared to my cast iron grill, the ceramic needs a little more attention and takes a little longer to get the hang of. It’s slower to heat up than my cast iron, and only uses lump charcoal. Also, with the cast iron I could see my food as it cooked and so was quicker to figure out how much charcoal to use, how to set my hot and cool spots, when to turn or otherwise fuss with the food. With the ceramic, the cooking is mostly hidden under the lid, so I’ve had to learn a bit more by trial and error (and a few overdone burgers). But as I figure it out, I realize how much I will be able do–baking pizzas at near-professional pizza-oven temperatures and smoking my own bacon, for instance.

Still smoking "Sasquatched" Don't forget to grill a few lemons

The difference between my two grills is essentially the difference between having a stovetop and having a full stove with an oven. I can cook nearly everything with just the first, but having the flexibility of the second gives me so many more options that it’s worth dealing with the learning curve.

If I had a porch big enough to have both grills out at the same time, I would, but for now I’m defaulting to my ceramic. My next place though…both grills.

What’s Cooking Wednesday: Spring has Sprung!

It shouldn’t come as any surprise considering how much I talk about them, but the Peterson Garden Project is hands-down one of my favorite organizations. I love their mission to teach people to grow their own food and, now that they have the Fearless Food Kitchen, to cook and eat the food they grow; I love their community involvement; I love how they align with so many of my own values. And now I’m officially part of their team!

It’s a gig that I couldn’t be more thrilled about. I’ll be helping them with communications, especially getting the word out about their new classes. There’s some great stuff coming up–I can guarantee I’ll be at this class on making your own bacon–and I can’t wait to share!

In other news, while I don’t have a recipe for you this week, last weekend was the most inspired I’ve been in the kitchen in what feels like months. It was wonderful. I will have a recipe (hopefully two) to share next week (a hint–one of the recipes is pictured below).

Last weekend's projects

Happy spring, everyone!

Brownies for my Grandpa

Almost two weeks ago, my grandpa died. I’ve been debating writing about this for a lot of reasons, but if this blog is about anything other than food, it’s about family, and he was an important part of mine. It would be selfish of me not to share what I can of him with the world.

My grandparents

There are many, many things that made my grandpa a great man, but they can all be distilled down to one undeniable truth–he loved people, especially his family, and people loved him. Sometimes–well, let’s be honest, often–that love, and his sense of humor, was kind of goofy, a little teasing or sarcastic, possibly, occasionally crude (though never crass or dirty; he (almost) never swore), but always unique to him–even if the joke itself wasn’t unique. I wouldn’t be surprised if my grandma’s (lovingly) rolled her eyes at the same joke for the entire 63 years they were married.

Three weeks before he passed away was Paczki Day, Fat Tuesday. I hadn’t planned on making any, or shipping them overnight to Cleveland where there’s no shortage of good paczki to be had. Still I found myself frying up two dozen golden little donuts filled with my homemade jam that Sunday night, tucking them safely into boxes for their journey. My grandma brought one to my grandpa in the hospital, leaving instructions with his nurses to microwave it a little; paczki are better warm. She told me later that he called her that night to tell her to thank me and that it was delicious.

60th wedding anniversary

I was lucky enough to see him the next weekend and despite how simply not like my grandfather he looked–there’s something that twists your heart and makes you feel so old when you realize the people you always, always knew to be big and tall are not so much anymore–the eye-roll-inducing humor and good spirit remained, for which I could not be more grateful. We chatted for a bit and I asked again if he liked the paczki and he said he did, joking he gained four pounds just from one. I reminded him I could make and ship him anything he wanted, cookies, or maybe brownies. “Ooh, brownies…” My grandpa, as my mom later reminded me, loved chocolate.

Two weeks later, as I prepared for another trip to Cleveland, this time to be with my family and celebrate my grandfather’s life, his “Ooh, brownies” kept ringing in my ears. And so, again, I found myself in the kitchen mixing and baking when I should have been packing and sleeping. Somehow the brownies were more important than anything else at that moment. There’s comfort in sharing food with loved ones, especially during a hard time, but making and bringing those brownies with me was purely selfish–it was the last thing my grandpa asked me for and what kind of granddaughter with a food blog and a penchant for cooking for an army would I be if I didn’t deliver?

Nothing says love like fattening up your family

There isn’t enough time or space or simply the words to share my memories of him, but it’s the little things I keep thinking about and telling anyone who will listen. How he made me his specialty of bacon scrambled into eggs when I had chicken pox as a kid. How we’d always go out for Italian food when he and my grandma were in town and he’d always joke with the waiter about how he was on a fixed income before placing his usual order of veal parmesan and a glass of “white zin.” His voice in the back of my mind as my car crapped out the week he died: “You should’ve bought a GM. When’s the last time you got the oil changed? And maybe take it to the car wash once in a while.” The pride in his voice echoing through the hall as I walked across the stage to get my Master’s degree: “You go, girl!!”

My graduation

My sisters and I are so lucky, not only to have had him as an incredible grandfather and for the limitless love he gave us, but for how we’ve benefited from how he and my grandma raised their first born, my mom. My aunt said in her eulogy that my grandpa raised his daughters to be independent (and, among other essential life skills, to know the power of duct tape; how to use a lawnmower and a snow blower; and to appreciate a good power tool). Through my mom, how she’s lived her life, made her own way, my grandpa’s lesson came to me. I know he was so proud of her just as he was proud of me. And I could not be prouder to be his granddaughter.

Mom and Grandpa, dancing
Mom and Grandpa, dancing. He loved to dance.

Thanks, Grandpa. I made you some brownies.

Brownies with Walnuts
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What’s Cooking Wednesday: The Beach

Sorry for the silence lately, the weather has gotten me a bit down and, with it, any kitchen inspiration other than egg sandwiches, take out, and freezer leftovers. But this weekend starts Daylight Savings and an extra glorious hour of light when I get home, the temperatures are slowly creeping above freezing, and I got to spend last weekend enjoying this view. I can’t complain.

Savoring the last few hours of warm sun and water. And slushy rum-y ice cream drinks.

I actually said yesterday "I love summer!" I forgot it was February. #heaven

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