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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,


Strawberry-Lemon Macarons

22 Jan

Oh hi, I didn’t see you there…Happy New Year!

I was a busy holiday season. Lots of candy, cookies, and granola were made and many smiles were shared with family and friends.

Neen’s Notes is finally back after a whirlwind few months, and I’ve brought you something truly delightful and delicate: The Macaron! And what an awesome little cookie it is. Finely ground almonds and powdered sugar mixed into well-beaten egg whites to form an incredibly delicious meringue. When baked correctly, they come out with crisp outsides and chewy middles. The best part is figuring out what to sandwich between them. Yum.

There are many methods for making macarons floating around. I found this to be the one that worked best given the time frame I had and the equipment and relatively small space of my kitchen at home.

Shall we get our French cookie-baking on? I think we shall…

Strawberry-Lemon Macarons

Ingredients for the cookies:

  • 5 oz. sliced almonds (blanched will give you a more polished look)
  • 8 oz. powdered sugar
  • 5 oz. egg whites
  • 2.5 oz. granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • Pinch of salt
  • Zest of one lemon
  • Red food coloring (optional)

Ingredients for the strawberry-lemon filling:

  • 4 oz. butter, softened
  • 3 cups powdered sugar
  • 4-5 strawberries
  • 1-2 tbsp. cream
  • Zest of one lemon
  • Pinch of salt

First, get your workspace ready. Fit a piping bag with a plain ½ inch tip (or just cut the corner off of a plastic bag) and line 4 baking sheets with parchment paper.

In the bowl of a food processor, grind the almonds until fine and then grind with the powdered sugar and lemon zest until a sandy texture is reached.

Mix the food coloring into the granulated sugar and set aside (the color doesn’t need to be perfectly distributed). I went very easy on the food coloring, so my cookies looked almost salmon-colored when piped, but gel food colorings brighten as they set so I always err on the light side. You’ll see that the finished product is very pink.

Put the egg whites and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer and whip them on medium speed until foamy. Increase the speed and slowly add the granulated sugar. Beat until stiff peaks form.

Add the almond mixture and vanilla extract to the meringue and start folding and mixing it in. I do this by hand because it is much easier to feel when it smooths out. You don’t want to overbeat it, but you want a nice texture that ribbons when you lift the spatula out of the bowl.

Transfer the batter to the piping bag and pipe small 1.5 in. circles about 1 inch apart on the baking sheets. Tap the baking sheets on the counter to get rid of any air bubbles in the batter. Leave the baking sheets of cookies at room temperature for about a half hour or until the tops appear somewhat dry.

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F. Bake the cookies for 16-20 minutes, or until they are puffed up, feel dry, and peel away from the parchment paper easily. Rotate the pans once in the middle of cooking. Cool on a wire rack.

While the cookies are cooling, prepare the strawberry-lemon filling.

In the bowl of a food processor, puree the strawberries and then add the butter and 2 cups of powdered sugar and process until well combined. Add a pinch of salt, the cream, and powdered sugar until a creamy texture is reached. Again, cut the corner off of a plastic bag and transfer the icing to it.

Pipe small circles onto the flat side of one meringue and sandwich another cookie on top, pressing lightly to spread the filling to the edge. Be gentle, as you’ll see from my final photos, the cookies are delicate and crack easily.

I brushed these ones with a little bit of luster dust to make them shiny.

Store the cookies covered in the refrigerator for up to a week. These were sent off to Joe’s office as a Friday treat for him and his colleagues.

Looking forward to sharing all sorts of recipes with you in the new year. Let’s make 2012 the most delicious one yet!

Ciao for now,


Mystery Food Week 20: Grand Finale edition

14 Oct

Well here it is, the final week of Mystery Food 2010. The season seems to have come and gone in the blink of an eye this year. Here’s week 20:

Butternut squash, sweet potatoes, green beans, apples, and beets. How wonderfully autumn!

I still have last week’s pumpkin and an array of squash, so there will undoubtedly be a lot of canning this weekend. I got around to taking care of some of the apples over the weekend after finishing the first round of Project Boerewors. (First round because the boss gave me some ideas for improvement and delicious culinary projects take time and refinement.)

But yes, about those apples. I had planned to can pie filling because Rome apples stand up incredibly well in baking applications, but alas I forgot to order some Clear-Jel before the weekend. I’ve never found a store that sells it and usually buy a bag online just as fall starts specifically for the purpose of making pie filling. Clear-Jel is cornstarch that has been modified to withstand the high temperatures that it is exposed to during the canning process without becoming cloudy or losing its thickening ability. So, no pie filling…yet.

So I did what any resourceful food preservation lover might and turned to my trusty Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving and looked in the index under “apples.” An overwhelming number of recipes poured off of the page, but I was looking for something a bit simple. (I’ll tell you why later.) One recipe caught my eye and with only 4 essential ingredients it was a perfect project for the day:

Brandied Apple Rings

5 lbs. apples, cored and cut into ¼ inch rings, treated with lemon juice or citric acid to prevent browning.
3 cups water
4 cups sugar
1 cup brandy
Red food coloring (optional, but makes this look oh-so-pretty.)

-Bring sugar and water to a boil in a saucepan large enough to fit all of the apples. Boil sugar and water for 5 minutes.
-Remove from the heat and add the apples and food coloring. A few drops of food coloring is all you need. Let the mixture boil gently for 15 minutes or until the apples are tender.
-Again remove the pan from the heat and remove the apples from the syrup using a slotted spoon.
-Pack the apples loosely into clean, warm jars, leaving ½ inch headspace.
-Put the saucepan back on the heat and return the syrup to a boil for one minute. Remove from the heat and stir in the brandy.
-Pour hot syrup over apples, leaving ¼ inch headspace. Tap the sides of the jars to remove air bubbles and then adjust the headspace if necessary.
-Wipe the rims of the jars clean and then place on the lids and screw on rings.
-Process jars in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes.

The apples are tasty warm, but I bet they are even better after sitting in that brandy-syrup for awhile. They are a lovely accompaniment to fall pork dishes and would also make a slightly more elegant strudel.

By the way, if you have syrup left over after filling the jars, put it back on the stove over medium heat and let it reduce to a thicker consistency. Add a few shakes of cinnamon and you’ll have a delicious topping for ice cream, waffles, cheesecake, or a spoon!

So, why did I go for a simple apple recipe over a more ingredient-heavy chutney, salsa, or multi-fruit jelly? I guess you’ll have to wait until I post about Project Ice Cream Layer Cake later this week… 😉

Ciao for now,


Mystery Food Week 16: Purple Hands edition

16 Sep

Oh okay, they aren’t purple anymore. But they were decidedly still a tinge purply on Tuesday when I received this week’s Mystery Food. I finally got around to making grape jelly from the 3 bunches of concord grapes received in recent CSA boxes. The process was fairly easy too. Try it out sometime!

Concord Grape Jelly

5 cups of grape juice
3 1/2 cups of sugar
1 box of powdered pectin

To make the grape juice, remove the grapes from the stems and wash them. Place the grapes in a pot and mash them up. Over medium-high heat, bring the grapes to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes, smashing them every so often.

Line a sieve with cheesecloth and place it over a large pot. Pour the hot grape mash into the sieve and strain for several hours or overnight.

Once juice has collected, rinse the cheesecloth and run the juice through the sieve into a pot one more time to remove any sediment.

To make the jam, mix the package of pectin with 1/4 cup of the sugar and sprinkle it into the grape juice. Bring this mixture to a rolling boil over medium-high heat, stirring frequently.

Once boiling, add the rest of the sugar and return to a rolling boil while mixing constantly. Let the jelly boil for 1 minute and then remove it from the heat.

Ladle into clean, warm jars and then secure the lids and rings. Process jars in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.

Share if you must. I made half of this recipe and it yielded three half-pint jars.

Onto this week’s Mystery Food:

Zucchini, squash, tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, beets, green beans, peppers, apples and Asian pears.

The apples have been hit or miss. Some are a little bit grainy, but they’ll be good for fruit butter. I have a lot of apples and pears hanging around, so I will probably throw most of it into the crockpot this weekend with some spices and a little bit of juice. If you just let it cook on low all day, giving it a stir or a mash every few hours, it becomes a warm and tasty sauce. To reduce it for fruit butter, vent the crockpot lid with a chopstick or skewer.

As for the veggies, zucchini and tomato season is one of my favorite parts of the early fall. I love coming home and making a quick braised vegetable dish with chopped zucchini, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and then seasoning it with a little bit of cayenne pepper and saffron. It’s a fast, easy dinner and you can add whatever protein you have hanging around to make it more substantial. Light fish, like tilapia or haddock is really pleasant, as is ground turkey or bison.

I hope everyone’s fall has gotten off to a great start. It has been absolutely lovely in DC this past week.

Ciao for now,

Mystery Food Week 7, Vacation, and the Fresh-Food-Panic

15 Jul

We’ve all been there.

A fridge full of beautiful, fresh food. And you’ve tried, (oh you’ve tried) to eat and use as much of it as possible. Alas, here it is the day before your vacation and well…there’s still food.

It makes me really sad to waste food. There are a lot of hungry people in the world and I am grateful to have a job that allows me to put healthy meals on the table. I became really interested in canning when I was still living in Boston. After a trip to pick apples at a farm not too far from the city, I realized rather sheepishly that in my excitement seeing all of the delicious varieties of apple trees, I’d bought far too many. Lots of people got spiced apple pie filling for Christmas that year, but nothing went to waste. I don’t even peel thin-skinned fruits like apples, tomatoes, or peaches.

In this instance, it was the drupe-fest that came last week, and in Mystery Box Week 7:

I got a lovely napa cabbage, yellow and white peaches, spring onions, purple frilly basil, summer squash, cucumbers and apricots.
Last week’s mystery box was also full of peaches, apricots and some red plums. Swimming in stone fruit, (I know, woe is me right?) I needed to take care of it all before leaving for a trip to Pittsburgh-yay!-to see my family and party with them.
In light of that, I thought I’d share some of my favorite last-minute techniques for preserving things when you just don’t have time to can.
Drupe Project 1: Fruit Sauce
Applesauce is awesome, but stone fruits make some excellent fruit sauce. My “drupe-sauce” was simply peaches, plums, and apricots cooked on the stove until nice and soft and then mashed up. If you like smoother sauces, go ahead and run it through a blender. Add a little bit of lemon juice so it doesn’t lose the pretty color. Stored in a well-sealed container, you can keep it for a good week or so.
Drupe Project 2: Fruit Leather
I have a dehydrator, but you can also do this in your oven on a parchment lined baking sheet. Set the oven to its lowest temperature–don’t worry if it doesn’t go as low as the dehydrator temperature I mention. Using a food dehydrator, about 135-140 degrees is fine. Blend pitted, diced fruit together with a tablespoon of honey (this keeps fruit leather pliable) and then spread the mixture out on a cookie sheet or dehydrator tray. It is ready to remove from the oven when it is dry all the way through and feels pliable, but not mushy. Store in a cool, dark place in a jar between slices of wax paper.
Drupe Project 3: Brown Sugar-Spiced Peaches
Another dehydrator/lowest-oven-setting project. Dice up some peaches, toss them with lemon juice to keep them from browning, and then toss with a tablespoon of brown sugar and a few shakes of cinnamon. Lay the fruit on a dehydrator tray or parchment-lined cookie sheet and bake until dry, but still pliable. A fantastic addition to cookies, muffins, or quick breads. You can also rehydrate them later for fruit compote.
This dehydration technique (minus the sugar/cinnamon/lemon juice) can be used with tomatoes and peppers as well. Great for making homemade cayenne powder. Mmm.

Drupe Project 4: Dreams of Future Baked Goods
Just freeze them! Pit and dice your fruit, lay them on a baking sheet and freeze. When the pieces have frozen, put them in a labeled/dated freezer bag and store in the freezer for…a long time. Doing this keeps the individual pieces of fruit from sticking together in a frozen lump. Oh, it’s the middle of the winter and you want peach crisp? No problem, just grab that bag out of the freezer and you get a little piece of summer back.

Mystery Food Week 2

9 Jun

Here’s this week’s delivery of red chard, mixed salad greens, potted chives, spring onions, and strawberries:

My goodness, look at that chard! It’s beautiful. How beautiful do I think it is? It was beautiful enough that it got me out of bed 20 minutes early this morning so that I could think of something to make with it for lunch. Now that is some serious motivational power.

I still had a small bunch of (oddly not wilted) kale from last week’s delivery, so I chopped that up with several handfuls of the chard and sautéed them in olive oil with garlic, spring onions, and about 1 and a half cups of cooked garbanzo beans. Seasoned it all with a few heavy pinches of salt and some red pepper flakes and then took it off the heat and added about 2 tbsp. of grated parmesan cheese. The whole process took about 10 minutes, and if you can believe it, the chard got even more vibrant as it cooked. Normally, I’d just eat that as is, but I like to have a little bit more protein at lunch for a mid-day boost. I boiled a few eggs this morning and will likely chop one up and put it over the greens and beans.

The strawberries were exceedingly ripe and therefore needed to be eaten immediately (oh darn!). I baked a version of yesterday’s Goodbye Gluten Peach-Berry Crumble, changing out the blueberries for strawberries. It was every bit as incredible as I dreamed.

My own little garden is looking pretty fantastic this year. I attribute this mostly to good spring rainfalls and a few doses of bone meal and blood meal at the base of the plants. Here are some of the lovely cayenne peppers and zucchini that are growing:

I was surprised how much larger the peppers have grown this year. Those two are already the length of my hand!

The garden also has two watermelon plants (that seem to grow longer by the hour) and several Romanian sweet pepper plants that are starting to bear vegetables. The spinach plants have been harvesting big, beautiful leaves for the past month, but are about finished now. Finally, there’s the tomato plant. I’ve never had much luck with tomato plants in the past, but I bought a smaller variety this year and already have three little green tomatoes.

All of this makes me very excited to be receiving Well-Preserved: Recipes and Techniques for Putting Up Small Batches of Seasonal Foods by Eugenia Bone in the mail today.  I want to christen the new pressure canner with something fabulous.

Ciao for now!