Sunday, November 28, 2010

Muffin of the Week - Experimental

I hadn't realized how much I enjoy creating these weekly postings until I got off schedule, but this morning the muffins are back, this time as an experiment based on "Name That Muffin" from Morning Food by Margaret S. Fox and John Bear. Margaret is the former owner of the renowned Café Beaujolais in Mendocino, California, and I bought the book when we were vacationing there a couple of years ago.

The recipe she gives is a sort of basic muffin recipe (though not too basic, since it includes poppy seeds and chopped nuts) with suggestions for several variations using diverse fruits and vegetables. I had one orange and one lemon in the fridge, but they didn't quite give me enough prepared fruit, so I added some of the leftover mashed sweet potatoes from Thanksgiving. No one in my family likes that concoction of sweet potatoes, sugar and marshmallows so many people eat at the holidays - these were pretty basic and, in my opinion, all the tastier for it. Like the equally popular green bean casserole (that I tasted once, just one bite, and swore I'd never touch again), candied yams seems to me to be a vegetable dish for people who don't like vegetables. However, we all have our biases and I'm sure I like things that other people find just as appalling. But I don't think anyone will be put off or appalled by these lovely muffins!

Citrus-Poppyseed-Sweet Potato Muffins - makes 14, more if you don't fill the muffin cups quite so full

2 cups unbleached flour
3/4 tsp. salt
3/4 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. baking powder
1 1/2 tsp. powdered ginger
1 1/2 tsp. ground cardamom
2 large eggs
3/4 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup canola oil
3/4 tsp. vanilla extract
1 large orange, chopped in 1" chunks and seeded
1 lemon, chopped in 1" chunks and seeded
1/3 cup mashed sweet potato (you want 1 1/3 cups smooshed up fruit/vegetables total)
1/3 cup poppy seeds

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Spray muffin tins with cooking spray or use paper liners (I use the spray).
Put the orange and lemon in the food processor and pulse till the rind is finely chopped and the rest is a mushy mess. Add the sweet potato, eggs, brown sugar, canola oil, vanilla extract, and pulse again till everything is well mixed.
In a mixing bowl, combine the dry ingredients: flour, salt, soda, baking powder, ginger, cardamom, and poppy seeds. Stir in the liquid mixture very gently. To quote Margaret Fox, "Urgent message: Do not overmix or Margaret [and Vicki] will have a nervous breakdown." Of course, if you like tough muffins with pointy heads (hmmm, kinda makes me think of some kids I went to school with), just beat away. I like to use my rubber scraper for this mixing; it's gentler somehow, makes it easier to slow down and be mindful of how I'm treating the batter, which I think requires a folding rather than a beating motion.
Spoon batter into muffin cups, almost to the top (not quite so full if you want smaller muffins) and bake 25-30 minutes. If you're not using all the muffin cups, fill the empty ones half full of water, and then be careful not to get the baked muffins wet when you take them out. My oven temperature's pretty accurate and 25 minutes was just right. Have a delicious day!

Monday, November 22, 2010

When the Year Grows Old

I cannot but remember
   When the year grows old—
   How she disliked the cold!

Those lines by Edna St. Vincent Millay remind me of growing up in Idaho and of my grandmother, who in her later years seemed to get much colder than the rest of us (today my mother says the same thing, and that it's just part of aging).  Yesterday a friend posted pictures of her house in Ontario, Oregon, just a few miles on the other side of the Snake River from where we grew up.  The snow on the roof and blanketing the yard was so clean and fresh and beautiful. 

Oh, beautiful at nightfall
   The soft spitting snow!
And beautiful the bare boughs
   Rubbing to and fro!

But the roaring of the fire,
   And the warmth of fur,
And the boiling of the kettle
   Were beautiful to her!

     Both of those stanzas express my own feelings - it's not either/or, inside or outside. I love it all, and I miss winter, real winter, though even here in Tucson we don't have to go too far to find snow to play in, just up Mt. Lemmon on the northeast edge of town, or for a weekend, Flagstaff is only 4 hours away.
Things change as the year grows old, and I love watching those changes.  There is a beauty in decrepitude, in fading, in the graceful death we see in nature.  The fallen pomegranates in the picture at the top shrivel and dry but first they nourish the ants and the other little things that live in the soil, and the soil itself.  This picture shows three stages in the life of a morning glory: the shrunken, dried blossom, its earlier bright blue beauty unimaginable unless you've watched the plant and know its processes; a plump green seedpod that will soon mature into a crisp fawn-colored case for the precious product the plant has lived and died for - the hard black seeds that will grow into next year's flowers.
     Our milder desert winters aren't all about death or, as in the story of Persephone and her pomegranate, about putting the world to sleep for half the year.  The cooler temperatures revitalize some things and fall is the best time for planting others, like native plants - cacti, mesquite and palo verde trees.  It's also the best time to start a vegetable garden, and I love being able to grow my own salad and cooking greens, snow peas, turnips, and other things.  We're much more limited in summer, which can feel more like a survival marathon, especially when the monsoons don't come, as they didn't this last summer, when the only crop that really did well was okra.
     Roses thrive here - that came as a surprise to me - and this bud was just beginning to open yesterday.  It's on the climber my friend Charlene gave me when she moved from Tucson, and it's been very happy up against the old gray fence that separates the area where we hang out the laundry and store unused plant pots from the rest of the yard.  Unfortunately, the red climber she gave me at the same time didn't do so well and I finally gave up and took it out a few weeks ago when I gave the roses their September pruning, though the white JFK is doing very well.  This climber produced flowers all summer but they faded quickly, going from bud to falling blossoms in two or three days.  But now they last over a week and some are pushing two weeks, and as this next picture shows, there is still great beauty in their decrepitude.
Isn't it wonderful how they change colors?  I wouldn't have imagined this would happen, and yet right now there are half a dozen like this.  It's like having three or four different rose bushes all in one!  The only constant is change, they say, and we must embrace change or die.  The only way to keep this rose from changing would be to deadhead it before it comes into full bloom, and that would certainly be a shame.
      When I lived in Idaho we were very conscious of the seasons and the harvests, much more than most people are now, I believe.  And when I took my mother on vacation up there I was sad to see that almost all the orchards that filled the Emmett valley are gone, as are the fruit packing sheds where my grandmother worked during the Great Depression, and off and on for years afterwards.  Here's what's left of one of the only two of those sheds still standing, that was once filled with the sound of conveyor belts and women's talk and laughter as they sorted and packed the fruit for which the valley was famous.
At first it made me sad to see it like this, but when I stopped and got out of the car, walked around and went inside, it was also peaceful.  I remember going there with my grandmother, and one of her friends picking out a red Delicious apple and polishing it on his sleeve for me. I remember the simple pleasure of honest labor, and of hands moving quickly and gently over the fruits of the earth, and it makes me smile.
      Apples and some other trees aren't the best choice for our particular micro-climate (though there are wonderful orchards over in Wilcox, less than two hours away) but citrus trees love it.  I noticed last night (after the opera - a delightful student production of Britten's Albert Herring that had the audience laughing out loud in appreciation of its broad humor) that the kumquats are nearly ripe around one of the parking lots, and I'm having fantasies of "liberating" some.
Our little Meyer lemon tree has two big, beautiful fruits nearly ripe.  We expected more given the explosion of blossoms it produced, but we're grateful for these and will, when the time comes, put them to good use.  That's what I hope for all of us as autumn turns to winter, that we will put our time and ourselves to good use.  Stay warm.  Appreciate the season.  Be well.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Muffin of the Week - Bananas!

It's been a very busy but fulfilling weekend.  Joe and I drove up to Phoenix to see Deirdre and the boys Friday evening and stayed over for Eli's football game on Saturday morning at 8 a.m.  I can't believe how much more focused those kids are than they were a month ago when we watched his first scrimmage. I have mixed feelings about 5-year-olds being involved in high pressure sports leagues, but I sure was proud to watch my grandson run for 2 touchdowns and a number of other great plays, even if only one of the touchdowns counted (the other one should have).
     We took some bananas with us and they didn't all get eaten, so this morning was banana muffin time.
This recipe is much more decadent than any I've posted so far, with no redeeming whole grains for extra fiber, or other social value, but oh wow, do they taste great! I thought I was going to have to improvise with applesauce or something because I just had two bananas, but then I found a third one in the freezer, so I microwaved it at 60 percent power to thaw it and it was fine.  Here's the recipe:

Banana Muffins – makes 10
1 ½ cups unbleached flour           
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
3/4 tsp. cinnamon
3 bananas, mashed
¾ cup sugar
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/3 cup butter, melted or canola oil
Streusel Topping:
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
2 Tbsp. unbleached flour
1/8 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 Tbsp. butter

First, preheat oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C). Lightly grease 10 muffin cups, or line with muffin papers.
Second, make the streusel topping. In a small bowl, mix together brown sugar, 2 tablespoons flour and cinnamon. Cut in 1 tablespoon butter until mixture resembles coarse cornmeal.
Then, in a large bowl, mix together 1 1/2 cups flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, nutmeg, and cinnamon. In another bowl, beat together bananas, sugar, egg and melted butter. Stir the banana mixture into the flour mixture just until moistened. Spoon batter into prepared muffin cups.
Sprinkle topping over muffins.  Bake in preheated oven for 18 to 20 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into center of a muffin comes out clean.

Now the caveats: I made 10 muffins, but you could probably make 11 and they would still be quite generous, even without the dramatic muffin tops that would have made Elaine happy on Seinfeld, if you remember that episode.  On some of the muffins the streusel topping sank a tiny bit in the middle, like a little navel, but that doesn't really bother me, which is a good thing, since I don't really know how to prevent it.
And another couple of things that you may already know about muffins. 1) It's important not to overmix muffins; if you do, they wind up with pointy heads and the texture isn't as good as it should be.  Just mix them gently to incorporate the wet with the dry ingredients and then stop.  I like the rubber spatulas with a bit of a spoon-like shape; they're also just right for scooping the batter into the muffin cups. 2) Most muffin pans have 12 cups, but if you don't use them all, fill the empty ones about half full with water so they don't warp in the heat of the oven.  If you've properly greased or sprayed the cups, you'll be able to lift the muffins out with a skewer or something similar and the water won't be a problem.
So, Joe and I had our muffins for breakfast, but then the best part was taking some to the hospital when we went to visit friends who just had their first baby yesterday morning, and what a beautiful, beautiful little girl she is!  It was rather an ordeal, and the new mom was still pretty exhausted, and lunch was late, so that first muffin disappeared very quickly.  It's so wonderful to see a new little person arrive to enrich the lives of two people who you just know are going to be wonderful parents.
The years pass so quickly and children grow up so fast.  In five years who knows what this beautiful little girl will be doing?  When we look at our grandchildren, it seems like only yesterday that they were infants and then toddlers, snuggled up in our arms.  But they do grow up, and that's wonderful too.  Just look at that little quarterback!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

These are a few of my favorite things....

It was so nice to wake up this morning and not have to go to work because of Veterans' Day, and since Joe and I don't work on Fridays, that means a 4-day weekend.  On mornings like these we often stay in bed for a while, drinking tea, writing in our journals, reading, spending some quality time with the cats.  But when I got up to get more tea I was surprised and saddened to find this crack going almost all the way around my favorite teapot.  I'd made tea in it yesterday (no, I hadn't done all the dishes yet, though in my defense I had loaded the dishwasher with most of them) and it had seeped all the way through - though I didn't see it yesterday so it must have been a slow process.  I don't know how it happened.  Maybe it got bumped just right - or wrong - in the overcrowded china cabinet.  We've been talking about taking everything out and getting it more organized.  Anyway, I'm sorry that I won't be able to use it any more, not even as a vase since it won't hold liquid. I don't want to break it up for mosaics or anything like that, though I've seen people do clever things along those lines.  But it's too pretty to throw away.  Guess I'll think about that tomorrow.
This little fellow is another of my favorite things.  His name is Tsai Shen Yeh and he is a Chinese god of wealth and good luck; he lives on the kitchen window sill where, since he's activated by a tiny solar cell, he nods and smiles all day long.  One of Joe's Chinese students brought him back from home as a gift and I like him very much, maybe more than Joe does since the regular ticking sound the little god makes used to annoy him so much he'd put things over him to keep the sun off and inactivate him.  But the sound's not loud, more like a clock ticking, and I think Joe's gotten used to it.  Either that or he realized it was hopeless. I always uncovered him - why would you want to block good fortune?  And covering up a god with an inverted can, even if you wash it first, doesn't seem very respectful.  He hasn't brought us great wealth, but I agree with the Spanish proverb: "Enough is as good as a feast."  So I'd have to say that Tsai Shen Yeh is doing his job. Besides, every time I look at him, he makes me smile.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Pasta of the Week 11/8

When I served this pasta last night to Joe and our friend Caren, I jokingly referred to it as spaghetti with Idaho clam sauce, because fresh clams in the shell were not available when I was growing up in a little farm town on the Snake River.  But I did grow up loving clam chowder the way my mother and grandmother made it, from canned clams, along with the oysters in a jar that we looked forward to during the holidays, smelt in season, and all kinds of frozen fish. (And of course, the trout and channel catfish we caught ourselves in nearby creeks and rivers.)

When I moved to San Francisco all sorts of culinary horizons opened up to me, but when I returned to Idaho for a few years, some of them closed back down. (Some didn’t, however.  In the interim, for example, squid/calamari had become available in local markets—but still no fresh clams.)  I'd developed a taste for clam sauce so I learned to make it with the same canned clams we’d always used for chowder, and that’s how I still make it today.

Last night I cooked 12 ounces of whole wheat spaghetti (for 6 moderate but satisfactory servings).  While that was going on, I heated about ¼ cup olive oil in my trusty nonstick wok with the glass lid and then added 4 or 5 large cloves of garlic, crushed, let them sizzle a bit, then added a good handful of chopped parsley and 2 (6 1/2 ounce) cans of chopped clams with their juice, plus part of a ladleful of the pasta cooking water, and let it boil away to reduce a bit while the pasta finished cooking.  When the pasta was almost al dente, I drained it and poured it into the wok with the sauce and tossed it well, then let it sit for a minute or two to finish cooking and absorb the sauce.  Traditionally one doesn’t put cheese on clam sauce (though Joe and Caren both did).

As you can see, it was a plateful of rather pale food, since I served the pasta with yellow summer squash sautéed in olive oil with minced garlic and some chopped sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil – a very nice combination of flavors though not too visually exciting, since neither the bread nor the white wine expanded the range of hues.  I’ll try for something more colorful next week,  but this is definitely a quick, tasty, and economical meal.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Muffin of the Week 11/7

I almost didn't make these muffins this morning. They sounded, quite frankly, a little weird and a little too healthy for today's self-indulgent foodie mood, but then I thought, "Well, I have all the ingredients on hand, and I do love a good bran muffin, and Mollie hasn't let me down yet, so why not?" Like the last two muffins I've posted, these are from Mollie Katzen's Sunlight Café, a lovely cookbook devoted to breakfast - and I do love breakfast.
Buttermilk Bran Muffins from Mollie Katzen's Sunlight Café (p. 69)

This recipe makes 12-14 muffins, according to the book, but since I added some of the options (3 cups of bran flakes cereal, 1 cup of minced almonds, and 1 cup of dried apricots, cut into raisin-sized bits--actually about 2/3 cup dried apricots with raisins added to make 1 cup) I got 17 muffins. If you go to the book you'll notice it calls for unprocessed wheat bran rather than the oat bran so many recipes use. There is a difference and since Joe and I are both delighted with the texture of these, it's worth seeking out the wheat bran (usually available in the bulk bins at natural food stores). I used Trader Joe's Bran Flakes (not raisin bran as the recipe specifies), which are particularly good bran flakes without the icky stuff that so many cereals, even the allegedly healthy ones, contain. I also want to put in a plug for the organic brown sugar from Trader Joe's; it's moister and has a richer molasses flavor than what you'll get from C&H or other bigger or store brands.

Mollie writes, "After years of searching for a bran muffin I could truly adore and not just eat dutifully, I'm pleased to report that my quest has come to a happy conclusion in this recipe." I totally agree, and so does my live-in taste tester. Actually, Joe said "These may be as good as atomics, maybe even better."

Atomic Bran Muffins have been my go-to bran muffin recipe for years, since I first tasted them at the Northcoast Co-op in Arcata, California. The Co-op published the recipe, but I had encountered it before, and I really don't know where it originated. My friend Linda back in Idaho contributed it to a church cookbook under the name "6-week Bran Muffins" (not sure about 6 weeks!) and I've seen it elsewhere under other names, so I guess I'm not violating any copyright regulations by publishing it here.

1 c. boiling water
1/2 c. vegetable oil
2 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 c. buttermilk
1 c. firmly packed brown sugar
2 eggs (at room temperature)
3/4 c. whole wheat flour
3/4 c. unbleached white flour
1 c. oat bran (or use part oat and part wheat bran)
1 c. All-Bran cereal
1 c. wheat germ
1/2 tsp. salt
1 c. raisins
1 c. chopped walnuts

In a large bowl, combine the boiling water, oil, and baking soda and let the mixture stand until it becomes lukewarm. Beat in the buttermilk, brown sugar, and eggs. In a separate, smaller bowl, mix the flours, oat bran, All-Bran, wheat germ, and salt. Add them to the liquid ingredients, stirring only until the dry ingredients are moistened. Gently add the raisins and walnuts. Before baking, let the batter stand in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours. You may also keep this batter, well covered, in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. Spoon the batter into well-buttered [or sprayed] or paper-lined muffin cups and bake at 375 F. for 20-25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of a muffin comes out clean.

When I make these, if I want them for breakfast, I mix up the batter the night before. Unfortunately, Mollie Katzen doesn't post the recipe for her Buttermilk Bran Muffins on her website ( and copyright considerations prevent me from posting it here, but the book should be easy to find, and the recipe is well worth trying. Her website is very nice, and she has posted many of her other recipes there.

Finally, as Richard Brautigan wrote, "the earth [is] beginning to cool off in the correct manner of eternity"; still in the 80s today and tomorrow but by Tuesday we'll be in the low 70s and, I hope, staying there or even getting cooler. So I've been pulling out sweaters and sweatshirts to wear on our morning walks. I got this sweatshirt more than 20 years ago at the Hallmark store in Arcata (it's a morning for Humboldt County nostalgia, I guess) and I've almost given it away several times but I just can't. Opposed as I am in general to bumper-sticker style rhetoric, this one does seem to say it all. Such a simple message. How come so many of us still don't get it? How have we let so many things get so out of hand? So here's my advice for today, directed as much toward myself as to anyone else.

Stay home sometimes. Make muffins and then enjoy one with a nice cup of tea. Look out the window and watch the seasons change. Read some poetry, or any book, for that matter. Be like Candide and just cultivate your garden, literal or metaphorical. Slow down. Use less. Save the world. We may need it later.