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Ms. MLIS and the 114 Dozen Treats

6 Jan

Happy New Year from Neen’s Notes!

I took a hiatus from blogging in December for a multitude of reasons. The first was to focus on completing my final projects for graduate school. You may recall such posts where I defeated the Great Perl Dragon and other beasts along the way, but this was (to put it in super-nerd terms) the true Boss Battle. And yes, I won the game of graduate school. I’m now a bonafide library and information scientist.

And then came the baking and candy making. Once the final papers were off to my instructors, I suddenly had…time. It’s not as though I never had free time while I was in school, but I always had a lingering, “I really should be working on (blank)” feeling whenever I tried to take some down time. Last December, when I was only a little more than half-way through school I made 65 dozen cookies for friends and family. I did not anticipate ever coming close to breaking that record. After all, I only have two cookie sheets and two 9×13 in. pans.

Armed with my favorite recipes from last year and a brand new confectionery book, I warned my family not to bake and that I’d bring more than enough home for Christmas. I’m not sure they anticipated quite how excited I was to be back in the kitchen.

Here’s the final tally:

7 dozen peanut butter cups
3 dozen Nutella cups
6 dozen orange chocolate truffles
6 dozen gingersnaps
4 dozen thumbprints
6 dozen peanut butter blossoms
3 dozen chocolate almond coconut biscotti
4 dozen chocolate cherry walnut biscotti
4 dozen cranberry orange pecan biscotti
8 dozen Russian tea cakes
10 dozen coconut joys
17 dozen walnut caramels
7 dozen torrone
10 dozen chocolate marshmallows (for Folger party)
12 dozen vanilla-almond spritz cookies
3 dozen walnut-coconut patties
4 cups sweet and spicy pecans
4 cups sweet and spicy peanuts

Total? Not counting the candied nuts, 114 dozen. I should go into business! If you have a request for any of the recipes above, let me know. There may be photo-tutorials for some of them in the coming weeks. Candy is so temperamental that it can be hard to get pictures of the process, but I’m getting better at setting the timer/one-handed photography.

My final reason for a blogging hiatus? Pittsburgh, of course! I can’t believe that I somehow didn’t write about the fact that (back in October) Joe got us tickets to the Steelers’ last home game of the season as an anniversary gift. The game was 2 days before Christmas and so we decided to spend the first week of our holiday up in PA.

Joe has taken me to a few Steelers games when they’ve played down here at Fedex Field, but I had never been to a home game at Heinz Field. In fact, the only home game I had ever gone to was a game at Three Rivers Stadium when I was…12ish? Needless to say, my anticipation was building for a very long time.

Thursday, December 23, 2010 I watched the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Carolina Panthers 27-3 from Section 223, Row K, and it was incredible. My favorite part of the stadium was the Great Hall, where memorabilia (including all of the Lombardi trophies!) from Steelers and Pitt Panther stand-outs are on display for all fans to see. A live band, members dressed in black and gold and donning Polamalu wigs, blasted rock music to get the crowd milling around excited and ready to go. Fans wore jerseys from every era emblazoned with names like Lambert, Greene, Harris, Bettis, Stallworth, Bleier, and Swann. Of course, current players were heavily represented as well, and even some…interesting throwbacks like Kordell Stewart. I did not, however, witness any Neil O’Donnell jerseys and do not believe I ever will. 

And everyone, I mean everyone carried a Terrible Towel. Even before the announcer could start naming the players who ran onto the field, the crowd looked like a sea of Vegas-gold waves. The experience of being in a place where 60,000 people are excited and proud of the same thing was unbelievable. The players on the sidelines too, waved their Terrible Towels to liven up the crowd during crucial moments. (The glorious noise forced 2 Carolina time outs and contributed to 3 false starts. Hope we helped, boys!)

I don’t think I stopped smiling the entire evening. Thank you again, Joe, for making yet another one of my dreams come true!

Yet, that was only the very beginning of our vacation. You’d think it couldn’t get any better but it did. We spent the next 4 days celebrating with family we don’t see nearly enough. There are few things that make me happier than just having time to spend with my parents, brother and sister-in-law, and Joe. We had some wonderful meals together, wandered the Strip District, and just caught up on life over wine and board games. Cigars, too. Oh, and cookies…days and days of cookies. I feel like we should install a fire-extinguisher type case in each family member’s house that contains a tray of cookies: “Break glass in case of celebration.”

I hope your holiday held wonderful memories as well. My hope for this year is that I may continue learning how to have more compassion for both others and myself, to remove the ego and respect what my body and mind can do on each day that I am alive, and to live with a sense of respect for all that this amazing planet provides each day.

Happy 2011—Ciao for now!

-Neen

Mystery Food Week 12 and the County Fair

19 Aug

Remember how I mentioned being inundated with peaches last week? (I know, woe is me…) Here is one of the county fair entries that came out of the bounty. All-fruit peach preserves. Nothing but peaches, lemon juice, white grape juice, and some pectin. I love the color so much.

The other entry was a peach apple cider butter. It came out with just enough spice, and the hard cider I used added a tang on the finish. Yum. Right now they’re in the gym of the Thomas Jefferson Community Center waiting for the Arlington County Fair judges to taste them.

As I said to one of my colleagues, “I am fully prepared to be schooled by somebody’s grandma.” By the time I got to the gym yesterday, there were lines of jars filled with preserves, jellies, fruits, vegetables, and honey of every color in the rainbow. It was a pretty impressive display–I won’t lie, I felt a little bit intimidated. But hey, if you don’t try, you’ll never know if you can succeed. And so I left my jars among the others and tucked the claim checks away in my wallet. Regardless of what happens, I’m really proud of the food I made and hope that the tasters enjoy it.

There weren’t many people at the fair due to a gray, drizzly sky, but I wandered around for a little bit. The food stands alone showed what a diverse place Arlington is. How many county fairs do you know of that have pad thai and stir-fry next to the deep-fried oreos and funnel cake? I hope to go back during the weekend if we get some nice weather.

Not too much else is going on here at the moment. I have a short breather and then the fall semester starts up next week. Right now I’m just enjoying having some time to bake cookies and play with the goodies from Mystery Food Week 12:

I received summer squash, peppers, an apple, a tomato, sweet corn, peaches, a cucumber, green beans, and a dill plant. A fun variety this week. I might try to poach some of the peaches in wine…

As for my own garden, I discovered a hidden treasure. The massive amounts of leaves and vines on the watermelon plant were concealing a melon that was growing in the corner! It’s about the size of a medicine ball and I never even saw it under all of the foliage. What a delicious surprise. The peppers are also still coming in full force. I see pickling in my future…

Hope you are all enjoying the waning days of summer. Be blissful.

Ciao for now,
Neen

Mystery Food Week 8: Summer Ragout edition

22 Jul

Before we get down to the joy of Mystery Food, I want to express my joy and thanks to all of the family and friends-that-are-like-family in Pittsburgh who made the July Birthday Extravaganza so wonderful. I enjoyed it this much:

(Special thanks to Rendezvous for letting me make a guest appearance!)

Onto the tasty things…Mystery Food week 8 was summer in a box. It was perfect: 

I received yellow peaches, doughnut peaches, apples, summer squash, zucchini, apricots, sweet corn, and a basil plant.

Between all of the squash, fresh herbs popping up in my garden, and a can of amazing San Marzano tomatoes (thanks dad!) I started thinking, “Ragout, ragout, ragouuuuuut.”

Let’s talk about stew/ragout/ragu. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Stew? Neen, really? It’s been in the 90s in Arlington for the last few weeks and you’re thinking about warm, fuzzy-sweater-cozy stew?” And while I’ll confess that what I’m about to present is a hot meal, I’ll argue to the end of the world that there is no better time to have it than in summer. The squash is perfectly sweet and tender, complemented by warm notes from bacon and cayenne pepper, all brought together in a sea of tomato-basil goodness. All it requires is some chopping and one pot. So without further ado, here’s…

Neen’s Summer Ragout

Characters:
-One summer squash, diced.
-One zucchini, diced.
-6 or 7 Roma tomatoes, chopped or one can of San Marzano tomatoes.
-2 ears worth of sweet corn kernels.
-2 spring onions (or one medium white/yellow onion).
-3 small cloves garlic, minced.
-1 slice thick-cut bacon.
-1-2tbsp. grape seed or olive oil.
-A few splashes of white wine (optional).
-A few strips of dried cayenne pepper, diced (or cayenne powder to taste).
-Handful of basil leaves, torn.
-5 or 6 sprigs of lemon thyme leaves.
-Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper to taste.
-Grated parmesan cheese, to garnish.

Method:
-Place the slice of bacon in the pot over medium heat until it is cooked through and the fat has rendered out.
-Remove the bacon and dice it.
-Add the onions and garlic to the pot, add a little bit of oil, and reduce the heat to medium-low.
-Cook until the aromatics are golden-brown. Add the diced bacon.
-Move the pot off of the heat and add a few splashes of wine, then return the pan to the heat and turn it up to medium.
-Add the zucchini and summer squash and sauté gently for about 7-8 minutes.
-Add the tomatoes, corn, cayenne, herbs, a few pinches of salt, and a few grinds of pepper.
-Put the lid on the pot, reduce the heat so that the ragout is simmering gently. Cook for 1 hour, giving it a stir every 15 minutes or so, and cook until the squash is soft, but not mushy. Remember to taste and adjust your  seasonings along the way!
-Garnish with a bit more basil and some parmesan cheese if you like. Voila!

I ate mine as it was, but ragout certainly goes well over pasta, brown rice, or quinoa. Ground turkey breast, browned and put into the pot when the tomatoes are added is another nice way to make a heartier meal. It also freezes/reheats nicely—always a bonus.

Finally, remember that watermelon plant that I mentioned was taking over my garden like a kudzu vine? It’s been covered in little yellow flowers with no signs of fruit. This morning, I found this:

Cutest. Watermelon. Ever.

There are four of them, each about the size of a kidney bean at the moment. Hopefully we’ll get one or two that ripen fully.

Ciao for now!

-Neen

Mystery Food Week 6: Post-vacation edition

8 Jul

I have discovered that the school semester becomes marathon-like when reduced from 15 weeks to only 10 for the summer. You would think that after last summer’s adventures with the Great Perl Dragon (and its subsequent defeat) that I would have learned to select only one course.

Not so. Not stubborn, “determined-to-do-the-weird-difficult-or-strange” Neen. I’ve never really understood this obsession. It’s like my brain goes, “Hey, I wonder if I can do____” and I have to try it. Can and preserve jam/relish in a one-bedroom Boston apartment kitchen with absolutely no counter space? (Yes) Take three classes during my first semester of graduate school? (You betcha) Ferment yogurt using only a large pot, cooler, and a heating pad? (Done) Bake 65 dozen cookies as Christmas presents for co-workers and family in the midst of working and school-ing full time? (Just call me Santa) Dry beef jerky using a box fan and several layers of furnace filters? (Okay, I stole that idea from Alton Brown)

So when Joe asked last week if I’d like to go down to Chincoteague Island over the 4th of July weekend, I spent the next two days on schoolwork overload so I could turn off and read science fiction on the beach and back porch all weekend. It. was. blissful. And for once, instead of the return from vacation being a difficult let-down, I felt more motivated than ever to push through these last 6 months of brain-stuffing. I mean, it’s pretty impossible to NOT feel good after spending a weekend like this:

 
Top L: View from the back porch of the house
Top R: Annual VFD carnival which culminates with the famous Pony Swim at the end of July.
Bottom L: Fresh caught shrimp and homemade garlic bread, grilled up and ready to devour.
Bottom R: Cigar and Kindle on the screened-in porch. The sweet life.

And then, THEN I came home to this:

The first of the cayenne peppers from my garden decided to grace me with their ripeness. So pretty and bright…yet, painful in large doses. I think I will put them in the dehydrator and then run them through the food processor to make homemade cayenne powder. A pinch of it in a batch of marinara sauce is so good. It adds just enough heat to balance those nice, sweet summer tomatoes that are coming our way.

A mere day later, the produce gods smiled on me once again, with a very fruity CSA box!

Beets, spring onions, red chard, apricots, peaches, and plums. I’m never too sure about beets. They are good roasted, pickled, or fresh on top of a salad, but I always long to do something a little more interesting with them. Of course, the farmers market is always inspirational (for the devoted/obsessive cook) and I tasted some really amazing beet relish that I’m going to try to replicate. I just kept thinking how good it would taste on a smoked turkey or rare roast beef sandwich.

I hope you all had a wonderful 4th and that you too got ‘back to the grind’ without too much trouble.

Ciao for now!
-Neen

Back-(b)log!

6 Nov

Okay, so I admit it. I’ve been avoiding the blog…a little. Around mid-September life got back to being crazy with school and work. Unfortunately, I ran out of hours in the day and so blogging took a backseat for awhile.

I would be lying and doing my readers a disservice however, if I did not admit that my absence was partly due to feeling a little “off the wagon” so to speak. I struggled throughout October particularly and found myself making easy, bad food choices more than I’d like to admit. I’d been dwelling on those choices and generally lazing in a “guilt-funk” that made me feel pretty grumpy.

Finally, finally I feel like I’m out of that place of negativity and getting back to feeling like Neen. It is amazing how rejuvenating it can be to stumble, recognize your own weaknesses, accept that you have them, and then resolve to strengthen them as best you can. Because honestly, while there were some food struggles, it has ultimately been a wonderful autumn thus far…Let me share some of it with you…

In mid-September, I finally joined the Energy Club gym in Shirlington so that I could keep up running during the cold months to come. What I’ve found there so far is a great community of gym-goers and instructors. Everyone is incredibly friendly and I’m enjoying the classes (particularly Flow Yoga and Body Jam) more than I ever thought I would. My goal for next year? Run the Army 10-miler.

Yoga has been particularly good for working through negative or intrusive feelings. It’s soothing and empowering all at once—a very unique blend of emotions.

October 3, 2009

I run AIDS Walk Washington (5k) and finish in around 26.5 minutes. An exhilarating experience that raised over $800,000 for the Whitman-Walker Clinic of Washington, DC. I was nervous with it being my first race, but I kept thinking of all of the people that sponsored me. That was what ultimately gave me the boost I needed during the last stretch up Pennsylvania Ave. Hearing the announcer say my name as I crossed the finish line was pretty cool too.





October 9, 2009

Joe and I take a trip to Smith Meadows Bed and Breakfast to celebrate our five-year anniversary (awww). While staying at their lovely Summer Kitchen Cottage on a 400-acre sustainable farm, we cooked a great meal, walked the grounds, enjoyed cigars and champagne by sunset, and were treated to an amazing breakfast prepared by the B&B proprietor. It was honestly the most peaceful place I have ever been in my life.



mid-October, 2009

Mystery Food 2009 comes to an end with a final basket loaded with squash, peppers, tomatoes, apples, salad greens and fresh HONEY! I was thrilled. Thank you to Leigh at Bull Run Mountain Farm for a wonderful CSA season.

October 31, 2009

I put the final touches on our fabulous Halloween costumes. Joe and I hit the town Saturday night as Batman villains The Riddler and Poison Ivy. I took most of my Ivy inspiration from how she appeared in “The Long Halloween.” It ended up looking better with less leaf-applique than I originally did. Joe’s Riddler costume was centered mostly around the amazing lime-green polyester suit that we found for a rather inexpensive price on Amazon. (Seriously, what can’t you find on that website?) He took inspiration from several comics and I did my best to bring his vision to life with limited time. I wish I’d had more time to sew more question marks on the suit, but he says he liked it simple.

A busy month and a half, huh? Somewhere in there I juggled work and a full course load and managed to get the flu (ugh). No one can say I’m (to use an Alton Brown expression) a unitasker! I’ve been doing some cooking as well and getting back into using the crockpot more now that the autumn chill seems more permanent. I’ll post some new recipes soon—stracciatella is on its way as well as a slow cooked tomato-cubanelle sauce that I guarantee will impress even your grandmother.

Until then friends, stay healthy and get out there and VOTE tomorrow.

-Neen

Marriage, Mystery Food (lucky 13!) and More…

3 Sep

What an absolutely amazing and fabulous vacation. I could not have asked for more happiness to somehow have crammed its way into this past week. It still boggles my mind a little that my brother is a married man now. He and Jessica both looked amazing at the wedding and truly happy to be with one another. Both of them were so alive with joy the whole time that you really couldn’t help but have it rub off on you.

Joe and I had a really fun time in Pittsburgh and I’ve been missing everyone terribly since we got back. It’s always hard to come down from something that you looked forward to for so long. Ah, we’ll just have to find another reason to celebrate soon and get together again! Fall is almost here, and that means holidays so I’m sure it won’t be too long.

Anyway, I’m back in action here in Arlington and went to pick up some goodies from Leigh last night:Sweet corn, tomatoes, tomatillos, hot peppers, Thai basil, Italian basil, chives, sorrel, sweet potatoes, peaches, apples, and garlic. Yum! Everything looks so vibrant. This is likely the last week we’ll get big tomatoes though, so I’m rationing those.

I haven’t done much cooking yet this week aside from a little bit of flatbread with various vegetable/meat toppings last night. I did, however have a nectarine and a few apples left over from last week and a craving for sweets. It led to this:

Spiced Nectarine-Applesauce

The great thing about fruit sauces is that it takes very little effort to make them delicious. In-season fruit is a candy all its own and combining it with a few spices makes a great treat. You can even spread it out on some puff pastry and bake for a fast tart.

This particular sauce was made from some Ozark gold apples and nectarines. The method is fairly simple. Cut the fruit and treat it to prevent browning, then put it in a small saucepan with just enough water to cover the bottom of the pot. Add some spices if you like. This batch had a few cinnamon sticks (remove before pureeing) and a few sprinkles of pumpkin pie spice (a blend of cloves, nutmeg, lemon peel, cinnamon..). Set the heat to medium-low and cover. Let it cook until all of the fruit is nice and soft and then use a potato masher, immersion blender, or food mill to process to your desired consistency. Sweeten only if you think it needs it. The nectarine I had was really ripe and almost tooth-achingly sweet. Some types of apples benefit from a teaspoon or so of honey added to the mix.

Over the holiday, I had the great fortune to receive some wonderful plates, platters and bowls from the folks at Riverside Design Group in Pittsburgh, PA. The sauce in the above picture was photographed in a 7” bowl in amethyst over a 10” bowl in gold from their Sea Glass collection.

From their website:

“Since 1996, RIVERSIDE has been passionate about creating a more sustainable global community. We remain committed to both responsive and responsible design. We use post-industrial/preconsumer recycled glass and other sustainable materials, our packaging and promotional items are environmentally friendly, and our offices are located in a LEED certified building (Leadership in Energy and Environmental
Design).”

Look for more of their unique, earth-friendly designs to pop up in future posts…

We have a long weekend for the Labor Day holiday, and I’m really hoping to make some homemade pasta this weekend to enjoy with those magnificent orange tomatoes from Leigh.

And before I disappear for the holiday, here’s a really important plug for Slow Food regarding the Child Nutrition Act and their “Time for Lunch” campaign.

So far, over 16,800 people have signed the Time For Lunch petition to get real, quality food back into America’s schools. Every 4 to 5 years, the Child Nutrition Act (which governs the National School Lunch program) comes up for renewal in Congress. This program sets the standard for what over 30 million children eat at lunch every day. In the past decade, school budgets have been slashed over and over again, leaving our nation’s schools struggling to provide nutritious, wholesome food to the next generation.

The deadline for renewing the Child Nutrition Act is coming up at the end of September. Congress and the Obama administration must renew this act in a way that benefits children and provides them with healthy, sustainable food. Here is the official platform from the Slow Food website:

1. Invest in children’s health.
Give schools just one dollar more per day for each child’s lunch. Under the National School Lunch Program, the USDA reimburses schools for every meal served: $2.57 for a free lunch, $2.17 for a reduced-price lunch and 24 cents for a paid lunch. Since these reimbursements must also pay for labor, equipment and overhead costs, schools are left with only $1.00 to spend on food. How can schools be expected to feed our children and protect their health with only a dollar a day? It’s time to build a strong foundation for our children’s health by raising the reimbursement rate to $3.57.
2. Protect against food that puts children at risk.
Establish strong standards for all food sold at school, including food from vending machines and school fast food. At most schools, children can buy junk food in vending machines, at on-campus stores and in the cafeteria as “a la carte” items. These overly processed, high-calorie “fast” foods sneak under the radar of federal nutrition standards. They undermine the National School Lunch Program’s investment in children’s health and allow food companies to profit from selling obesity. It’s time to take the first step towards making real food the standard by approving Rep. Woolsey’s and Sen. Harkin’s Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act of 2009.
3. Teach children healthy habits that will last through life.
Fund grants for innovative Farm to School programs and school gardens. This spring, 30 fifth-graders joined Michelle Obama in planting a vegetable garden on the White House lawn. “What I found with my kids [is that] if they were involved in planting and picking it, they were much more curious to give it a try,” Mrs. Obama says. Every child deserves the opportunity to learn healthy eating habits at school. In 2004, a section was added to the Child Nutrition Act to provide schools with grants to cover one-time grants that enable them to purchase local foods and to teach lessons on healthy eating in kitchen and garden classrooms – but Congress never appropriated funds for it. This year, it’s time for Congress to guarantee $50 million of mandatory funding for Farm to School programs.

We also ask that Congress and the Obama Administration:

1. Give schools the incentive to buy local.
Establish financial incentives that encourage schools to buy food from local farms for all child nutrition programs. Buying fruits and vegetables from local farms is an economic engine for creating jobs in our communities, rebuilding rural economies, and supporting family farmers. By shortening the distance food travels – from farm to table – it also saves oil and ensures school foods are as fresh and healthy as possible.
2. Create green jobs with a School Lunch Corps.
Train underemployed Americans to be the teachers, farmers, cooks, and administrators our school cafeterias need. We can’t serve real food in schools without investing in school kitchens and the people who prepare and serve lunch. This spring, President Obama signed the Serve America Act, which expanded Americorps and reinforced his call for Americans to serve their country. Right now, our nation has an opportunity to train young and unemployed Americans to be the teachers, farmers, cooks and administrators we need to ensure the National School Lunch Program is protecting children’s health. President Obama has called for an end to childhood hunger by 2015; let’s answer that call by putting Americans to work building and working in school kitchens nationwide.

Please go to www.slowfoodusa.org to sign the petition or sign up to host or attend a Labor Day Eat-In. An “Eat-In” is simply a potluck held in a public place like a park. Let people know that you’re showing your support for real food in schools by gathering community members, family, and friends together for a shared meal. If you can’t make it to an Eat-In on Labor Day, there are many other ways to help out, like a telephone call or letter to your state representative. A PDF version of Slow Food’s platform is available on their website and is great to use as a starting point if you aren’t sure what to say.

Enjoy a local Labor Day weekend everyone!

-Neen