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Ferdinand’s Flowers

25 Sep

“Once upon a time in Spain there was a little bull and his name was Ferdinand.”

So begins Munro Leaf’s tale of the bull who would not fight. Rather than play and butt horns with the other little bulls who dream of one day fighting at the bullfights in Madrid, Ferdinand enjoys the simple pleasure of smelling the flowers. One fateful day he goes to sit under his favorite tree and accidentally sits on a bee. The bee of course exacts revenge by stinging him, Ferdinand jumps, and then runs around crazily trying to soothe the pain. Seeing this, the men from the bullfights think he must be wild and fierce. He is taken off to Madrid to fight, but upon arriving he sees all of the ladies with pretty flowers throwing their roses into the ring. When it is his turn to fight, he simply sits down in the middle of the ring and breathes happily…just smelling the flowers. No matter how they poke, prod or provoke him, Ferdinand will not fight and he is sent home.

“And for all I know he is sitting there still, under his favorite cork tree, smelling the flowers just quietly. He is very happy.”

If I had to wager a guess, the first place I read The Story of Ferdinand was probably at the Squirrel Hill branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. Other than The Giving Tree, it is one of the few stories I remember reading as a child that seemed to stick with me and speak to me at every age.

Maintaining self confidence is something that has always been a struggle for me. I was a kid who was mostly content to go along with what my friends had planned. As long as the people I was with were in good spirits, I probably was too. I was very self-conscious about the things I liked. The first time I met someone with the same musical interests as me, my head almost exploded with joy. I saw a lot of really terrible movies throughout high school purely because I didn’t really want to speak up and say, “No, I’d rather not see that.” In my head it was better to go along with things than be a bother or be difficult.

And I would think of Ferdinand…

Ferdinand didn’t feel guilty about not wanting to fight. He ignored everyone yelling at him and simply enjoyed the smell of the flowers. Ferdinand was in control of his own destiny, even if that was just to sit under his favorite tree.

That’s what I always wanted out of life: to be content with myself just as I am, to enjoy the things in life that make me happy, and to let the rest roll off of me like water on a duck’s back. In the face of others telling me what I should do, like, or think, I wanted to be able to make my own decisions and stand by them confidently.

I would think of Ferdinand every time I stepped up to sing at karaoke, stood in front of my mirror before a job interview, or decided all on my own to stay in one night and learn how to make croissants instead of going out to a noisy bar.  And his story reminded me to just be myself and BE HAPPY.

And so I decided to have him join me permanently…

While he is still healing, I thought it would be nice to make some little “flowers” that smell so wonderful I think almost anyone would stop to enjoy the scent.

Cinnamon Rosettes (aka Flowers for Ferdinand)

These aren’t your typical ooey-gooey cinnamon rolls, but they are soft, sweet, and have lots of bits of caramelized cinnamon-and-brown-sugar for you to enjoy since each one is baked in its own little tin.


  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 3 tbsp. unsalted butter
  • 2 tsp. dry active yeast
  • 1/2 tsp. salt


  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 2 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
  • 2 tsp. cinnamon

Warm the milk and a pinch of sugar to between 110 to 115 degrees F. Sprinkle yeast over milk and let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes. In a small bowl, whisk together egg and remaining 1/4 cup sugar, then slowly whisk in yeast mixture. In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine flour and salt.

Turn the mixer on a low speed and add the egg mixture, stirring until combined. Add butter and mix until incorporated. Fit the mixer with a dough hook and let it knead the dough for a minute or two, then knead by hand until smooth and elastic.

Roll the dough into a ball and put it in a greased bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a tea towel and let the dough rise in a warm draft-free place for one hour or until it doubles in volume.
Prepare filling by whisking together the brown sugar and cinnamon.

Butter a muffin tin and set it aside.
Once dough is doubled, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface, deflate gently, and then roll into a large rectangle (about 10 x 14 inches). Brush the dough with the melted butter. Sprinkle the filling evenly over the dough’s surface.

Tightly roll the dough over the filling, forming a 12 to 13-inch log. With a sharp knife, gently slice the log of dough into 12 equal pieces.

Place one piece in each muffin cup and then loosely cover the pan with plastic wrap or a tea towel and allow the buns to rest for another 30 minutes. The dough will not rise a lot, but they will puff slightly.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F.
Bake rosettes for 15 to 20 minutes, until puffed and brown. The final internal temperature should be between 190-200 degrees F. Gently remove them from the muffin tin and cool on a rack.

Makes 12 buns.

I’m pretty sure that Ferdinand thought these were the sweetest smelling flowers hed ever smelled, and I bet you’ll enjoy them too. Plus, there is no better way to start a crisp, autumn weekend than with a warm cinnamon bun, a cup of coffee, and a reminder to just be yourself.

Ciao for now,


Waffle Makeover!

15 Jun

The Carbo-Queen, as my family used to call me, is serious about waffles.

I’m pretty sure that I’ve tried every waffle mix there is, and have made them completely from scratch about a thousand times. There’s just something about achieving that perfect mix of sweet and savory that makes my mouth really, really happy.

But (there’s always a ‘but,’ isn’t there?) I’m supposed to focus on eating protein first at meals. Sure, a side of wheat toast with some eggs and turkey sausage is fine, but a meal of waffles? Probably not the best option for me, although I do treat myself to the occasional plate of French toast or slice of banana bread.

When I want to slay my waffle cravings without trashing my diet and going into a carb-coma, I turn to this recipe. It turns out crisp, light, and super-flavorful protein-filled waffles. You won’t miss the cups of flour, believe me. The secret to making these really delicious? Use full-fat ricotta to keep the insides rich and moist. Fresh-made would be the very best, but hey, there’s not always time for that.

Because I am usually only cooking these for me, this recipe yields a small amount (4 square waffles), so feel free to double or triple it if you’re feeding a crowd.

Pecan Ricotta Waffles

  • 1/2 cup whole milk ricotta cheese
  • 2 tbsp. whole wheat pastry flour (or brown rice flour, almond meal, rolled oats, buckwheat flour…etc.)
  • 1 tbsp. ground pecans
  • 1 tbsp. sugar, honey, or light brown sugar (or less, if you prefer more savory waffles)
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 2 egg whites and 1 egg yolk
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract

In a large bowl, combine the ricotta cheese, egg yolk, and vanilla extract. Set aside.

In a separate bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder, sugar, ground pecans, and a pinch of salt.

Whip the egg whites with a pinch of salt and beat until soft peaks form.

Fold the ricotta mixture into the dry ingredients. The batter will seem very stiff at this point.

Gently fold the beaten egg whites into the batter.

Cook in a preheated waffle iron according to the manufacturer’s directions. In my waffle iron, they take about 2-3 minutes to get nice and golden brown. If they seem slightly soft when you remove them from the waffle iron, just put them in a warm oven or toaster for a minute or two to crisp up the outside. Leftovers freeze pretty well and take about 3-4 minutes in the toaster oven to reheat.

Bust out the maple syrup and enjoy. These are already on the lightly sweet side, so go light on the syrup. I barely used a teaspoon on these and it probably didn’t even need it. They’re also good with peanut butter, bananas, berries, jam, and probably whatever other toppings you can dream up. I personally like something crunchy like more chopped nuts or some chopped, crisp bacon on top.

Seriously, writing this post has already made me hungry for more of them! And at under 100 cal. per waffle, why not? Go to it, friends.

P.S. In case some time goes by and you wonder why you’re not getting your fix of food porn, just FYI Neen’s Notes is going on vacation for a little while.

“Why Neen? WHY would you do such a thing?”

Oh, I’ll be busy marrying my best friend, that’s all.

But don’t worry, I’ll write again in a few weeks…maybe about something tasty inspired by our honeymoon abroad. Until then, “mangia bene!”

Ciao for now,


How to not be grumpy on Valentine’s Day

14 Feb

I’ll say it: I like Valentine’s Day.

It’s an easy holiday to loathe. Super-saturated with frilly pink hearts, unreasonable expectations, gender imbalance, and overpriced candy (the horror!), I can understand why it might lead to feelings of grumpiness. But like many things in life, it’s about changing perspective. Eight years ago, my now-fiancé was the first person to ever take me out on what some consider the world’s most frustrating holiday. I didn’t really date much before I met Joe, and so my view of Valentine’s Day developed outside of the narrow frame that greeting card companies would prefer you to acknowledge.

As with Christmas, I feel like you have to strip away the over-commercialization and remember that holidays are just extra reminders to acknowledge and thank the people in your life who make it brighter. Whether it be co-workers that help the workday go a little faster, friends and family that bring you joy, or that special someone who makes you feel like the coolest person in the world, just say “thank you.” Remind someone that he or she makes a difference. Heck, go to CVS and buy some Batman valentines if you want to be silly. It’ll make someone smile.

And isn’t that really one of the best things in life, making people smile?

This time last year, I wrote about being grateful for the people who have impacted my life in a positive way over the last decade. How they made it possible to heal, grow, and accept that while life is never perfect, it is always hopeful. As Mary Oliver writes in my favorite poem, “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination…”

So if you’re feeling down today and you really need a boost, just say “thank you” and share a smile with someone.

Oh, and make banana bread! (Come on, it wouldn’t be Neen’s Notes without a good recipe). Here’s what I made for some of the great people in my life today. When life hands you overripe bananas and ricotta leftover from making lasagna—but not enough to make another lasagna—make banana bread.

Truly Lovable Banana Bread


  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 3/4 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp freshly ground nutmeg
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 4 tbsp. butter
  • 3 bananas, mashed
  • 1/3 cup part-skim ricotta cheese
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1/4 tsp. almond extract
  • 2 eggs


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Combine the flour, salt, baking soda, and spices in a medium sized bowl and set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the butter and sugars together until smooth and then add the eggs one at a time, beating well between each addition. Add the ricotta, bananas, and extracts and mix just until combined.

Add the flour mixture and beat on low speed or by hand just until a batter forms and there are no remaining dry spots.

Spoon the batter into a greased 9×5 or 8×4 1/2 loaf pans and bake for 1 hour, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Enjoy, my friends, and a happy Valentine’s Day to you all.

Ciao for now,


Lost Bread: Found!

19 Aug

I don’t like pre-sliced bread. There, I said it. Back in the days of dieting, I used to buy this super low-calorie sliced wheat bread product that I thought could act as a base for sandwiches. It was very sad bread, mostly made of chemicals and air (as Alton Brown shows at 6:00 in this clip:

But real bread, you might say, goes stale so fast.

And you’re right. It does. Most real bread goes stale quickly because it isn’t full of flour conditioners and preservatives. But stale doesn’t mean bad or unusable. Fresh bread is pretty awesome, but stale bread is better for a variety of things: Panzanella (in salad or soup form), bread crumbs (seasoned or plain), croutons, bread pudding, egg stratas, toast, and pain perdu, or “lost bread.”

Pain perdu/French toast, one of the most delicious Sunday brunch foods, is best made with stale bread. Since bread that has gone stale loses a lot of moisture, it soaks up more of the custard and makes a much richer and more satisfying end product.

So grab your lost bread and get to reviving it!

Pain Perdu

  • Eight ½ in. slices of day-old or stale bread. Country, French, challah and brioche loaves are all good options.
  • ½ cup milk
  • ½ cup cream
  • 2 tbsp. maple syrup
  • 3 eggs
  • 1tsp. vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste
  • Dash of cinnamon
  • Pinch of salt
  • 4 tbsp. butter

Whisk the eggs, milk, cream, maple syrup, vanilla, and cinnamon together until thoroughly blended. You may do this a day ahead and store it in the refrigerator. When ready to dip the slices, pour the custard into a pie pan.

Preheat an oven to 375 degrees F.

Place a wire cooling rack over a baking sheet. Dip the slices of bread, two at a time, into the custard and allow them to soak for 30 seconds on each side. Move the dipped slices to the wire rack and allow them to sit while you prepare the others.

Melt 1 tbsp. of butter in a pan over medium-low heat. Place two slices of bread in the pan and allow them to cook until golden brown (about 2 minutes on each side).

Remove from the pan and place directly on a rack in the oven for 5 minutes. Repeat this process with the remaining butter and slices of bread. Serve immediately with maple syrup and fruit, whipped cream and berries, or powdered sugar and cinnamon.

The best thing about this dish is the texture contrast. You get the wonderful crisp outside from pan-frying and a custardy, but not mushy inside from a short bake in the oven. We had ours with the classic maple syrup, but also some of my prize-winning (!) blueberry-peach syrup with lemon basil and orange zest:

It’s been busy in the Neen’s Notes kitchen. After I made that wheel of gouda a few weeks ago, I realized that aging cheese in my refrigerator was getting pretty impractical. Since I’d already turned the downstairs closet into a curing cabinet for meat, it seemed only logical to take over the rest of the little room. Allow me to introduce my little kitchen extension:

On one side of the table, I have the meat grinder and on the other is a homemade cheese press (thanks again, Dad!). To the left of the table is a small refrigerator that I’ve made into a cheese cave. Kept on its lowest setting, the temperature hovers at around 50 degrees. With a bowl of water inside and the occasional spray of water along the walls, the humidity is around 75%. Ideally, I’d like to get it up to 80%. Right now inside you’ll find the aforementioned wheel of gouda and a wheel of montasio quietly aging. The curing closet is directly across from the refrigerator, out of view in this picture. To the right of the table is a small reference shelf. A second bookcase is at the other end of the room and it holds mason jars and other canning materials. The shelf above the table holds supplies (cheese mats, wax, curing salts…etc.), and the calendar is being used to mark dates and weights for cheeses and curing meats. It wasn’t an expensive project; mostly just a reorganization to use space more efficiently. The only new purchases I made were the refrigerator and a few hooks for the curing closet. It could use a few decorations, but all in all, it’s just a great little room that I’m looking forward to use for creating all sorts of fun, tasty things.

Ciao for now,


Where did Neen and her notes go? (And Mystery Food Week 6!)

16 Jul

Yes, it’s true, I disappeared there for a week. But life happens, right? In short, I had a very important presentation for school, compounded by a Perl assignment I couldn’t seem to get a handle on and then wound up with the stomach flu. It was a rough week. I picked up my CSA share (a delicious basket of potatoes, squash, basil, cabbage, purslane, kohlrabi, and a few other items), but froze most of it because I wasn’t up for eating much or taking a picture. But this week’s is beautiful and is further down in this post…yum!

Fortunately, as of Saturday afternoon things started getting a lot better.

My birthday was Saturday, and it started off with a trip to the farmer’s market and then a group presentation on Elluminate. It was the first time I’d done an online presentation and it went really well. I must attribute some of the success to having a wonderful group to work with and a class that seemed genuinely interested in the topic (biographical reference sources). Want to see our presentation? Go to: to view it in its entirety.

After that was done, it was off for a quick run, which was VERY refreshing after being sick all week. (I tried to run on Friday and barely made it down the block).

And then…the culmination of four months of waiting: Billy Joel and Elton John Face to Face!


At Nationals Park:

Yes, it was amazing (as always), but even more special that it was the first concert at Nationals Park AND on my birthday. Sometimes the stars really do align. The sustain pedal on Elton’s piano got stuck during the opening set, but it didn’t cause a major problem. Billy’s band came on and he did his set while they took Elton’s piano off for fixing. (It didn’t seem to phase him much—Elton opened his set with Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding and it brought down the house).

Billy Joel was walking on top of pianos, running around throwing microphones, and even dived under Elton’s piano during the technical problem to try and fix it. Very spry and excitable for a man that just turned 60 and is going through divorce #3.

I was really impressed that they went on for 3 and a half hours in the 90 degree heat and very sticky humidity, considering both men were wearing full, dark colored suits. Their bands sounded incredible too. Mark Rivera was dynamite on sax and Crystal Talifiero was her usual “jack-of-all-trades” self, playing everything from bongos to horns.

So, THANK YOU JOE for a wonderful birthday concert experience.

This week has been kinder so far. I finished the impossible Perl assignment and feel like I’m finally starting to get the hang of the language and its syntax. Looking at the CGI book really helped considering I’m a lot more familiar with programming for the web than I am with command-line programming. Oh, but you didn’t come here to listen to me go on about Perl, you came for Mystery Food!

That is a delicious bunch of goodies including zucchini, cucumber, tomatillos, potatoes, garlic, basil, Lodi apples, and (my favorite) peaches. The peaches are like candy. (For breakfast this morning, I had something really delicious: Dice one peach and mix it with 5 oz. of plain greek yogurt, a teaspoon of raw honey, sprinkle of cinnamon, and a 1/2 oz. of chopped mixed nuts. Happy in a bowl. It’s also perfect post-workout recovery food. Vanilla or almond extract might be a nice touch, too.)

Tonight for dinner, we’re having lots of local treats…

Last night, I seasoned, herb rubbed, and seared a bison chuck roast and sautéed onions, garlic, tomatillos, and some heirloom tomatoes. I put everything in the crock pot in the fridge overnight. This morning I added some chopped potatoes, kohlrabi, a cheese rind, and about a 1/2 cup total of broth/red wine to the pot. The crock pot is now making me dinner while I’m at work. Total time/effort? About 10 minutes of chopping and sautéing. (You could do everything the night before, but potatoes can get kind of gray and mealy on you if you cut them too far ahead of cooking.)

I hope that everyone out there is having a great week. I’m really looking forward to getting this summer semester finished so that I can focus on other things (like blogging, my brother’s wedding, Slow Food stuff…etc.) for a little while. It’ll be nice to have a month where I have no required reading. I’ll be getting very friendly with the Kindle!

Oh, and no, I did not indulge in a birthday cake this year, but there was a birthday frittata instead!

Weird, yes. Delicious, definitely.

Ciao for now—stay local, folks!

Mystery Food Week 3 and the Glory of “Brinner”

25 Jun

Hello all! Here’s this week’s batch of produce

Included in this week’s bag were mixed greens (mostly purslane), a head of pak choi, garlic scapes, baby onions, lots of sage, lavender, a potted flower, and basil. Leigh also had some eggs for sale, so I grabbed a half-dozen.

All in all, another good week. Some of the salad greens were the base for today’s very clean, very tasty, and mostly local lunch:

Lots of greens and scapes from Bull Run, a boiled egg from Smith Meadows (the yolk was divine in color and texture. Picture does not do it justice), peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, and carrots from the farm market, and a few pieces of grilled chicken from a little place near my office. Finished off with a touch of salt and pepper. I guess one fortunate thing about my clean eating journey is that I’ve never really preferred dressing on salad all that much. I like a little bit of oil and vinegar on occasion, but dressing was never really my thing.

After I got home last night I was pondering what to do for dinner and feeling a little lazy. I had an assignment due for class that really needed to be finished, another assignment to work on…etc. Joe’s parents recently gave me their waffle iron, and so I decided that it was definitely a night for Brinner (the glorious combination of breakfast @ dinner, but you Scrubs fans knew that).
Whole Grain High-Protein Waffles
1/4 cup plus 2 tbsp. whole wheat pastry flour
1/4 cup graham flour
1/4 cup soy flour
2 tbsp. wheat or oat bran
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1.5 tsp. baking powder
1/4 cup unsweetened applesauce
1 tsp. raw honey
1/2 cup non fat greek style yogurt
2 tbsp. low fat milk
2 egg whites
1 tsp. vanilla extract
Pinch cream of tartar


Combine the egg whites, a pinch of salt, and cream of tartar in a blender and process until doubled in volume (about a minute).

Add the applesauce, vanilla, milk, yogurt, and honey and process until smooth.

In a separate bowl sift the flours and bran together with the baking powder and 1/2 tsp. of salt. Then add the dry ingredients to the blender and process until well combined.

Cook in a waffle iron according to the manufacturer’s directions.
Makes 5 tasty waffles at 103 calories, less than 1g fat, 16g carbs, 7.5g protein, and 3g fiber each.

I had mine with a little bit of raw honey, cinnamon, and a half ounce of chopped mixed nuts. Fruit would have been even better, but I was out.

Now, I obviously wasn’t going to eat 5 of these by myself. They’re really filling. I put one of the extras in the fridge and 2 in the freezer. The one in the fridge took maybe 2 minutes to crisp up in the toaster at work this morning. I imagine that right out of the freezer they’d take about 5-6 minutes on a medium setting.

Other flours that are good in this recipe: spelt, buckwheat, potato, brown rice, garbanzo/fava bean, or finely ground nuts.

For even crispier waffles, add about a tablespoon of sucanat or evaporated palm sugar to the batter. The sugar will caramelize and make nice, toasty edges.
It’s been very busy around here. My boss is retiring at the end of the month, school is back in full swing, and couch to 5k is getting more and more challenging! Joe and I are really looking forward to a nice weekend though. We’re going to a pig roast with the folks at Slow Food DC. I’ll be sure to post a trip report if I don’t enter a pork coma. Mmm.
Stay local, folks!