March 21, 2012

Chocolate Chip Banana Bread

Spring is here, friends. A string of powerful thunderstorms has contributed to spongy pine spores and chartreuse-colored pollen. Wild wisteria grows along the highways like kudzu and the Bradford pears that have really been pushing to come out since January are in full linen-white. My favorite is a delicate weeping cherry tree that has produced the most beautiful pale pink blossoms. Let's never go back to winter. Onward!
But with spring comes stress: deadlines, papers, grades, late nights, early mornings, too much coffee. We really should start having support groups for people who bear the brunt of their yearly workload during the months of March and April. So I've found that it's the little things that gently decrease the day's harsh demands: a conversation with good friends; the occasional glass of wine; a new pair of shoes (or four, let's be honest). Through the stress of spring, I have discovered that joy comes in tiny forms. Paying attention to that weeping cherry tree as it blossoms and bursts. Reading Southern Living on the porch without a blanket. Learning how to cook calamari with a certain redheaded fiance (so easy, it turns out). As cliche as it sounds, life truly is about the little things.

March 15, 2012

Meatloaf and Memories

I didn't start making meatloaf until about a year ago. To tell the truth, meatloaf can easily go wrong. It can be too much, too watery, too dry, or too bready. Worst of all, meatloaf can be so heavy that it ruins your appetite for anything but celery sticks for days afterward. So what I look for in my meatloaf is a proper balance between heavy and lean meats. I use ground turkey instead of beef, but balance that with rich, spicy sausage. My favorite meatloaf recipe is from Cook's Illustrated, which calls for that classic "meatloaf mix" that you can buy at nice groceries. But even meatloaf mix is too heavy for me. Beef AND pork? Overkill, in my opinion. I very much believe that meatloaf, as another one of those garbage can meals, can be customizable and adjusted to taste.
One of the most memorable meatloaves I made was last year right before Easter Vigil. I had given up sugars and desserts for Lent (I know, right; how irresponsible of me) and was heartily looking forward to having a cupcake at Sugarland, a nearby bakery on Franklin Street, after the midnight service. So to celebrate the last day of Lent and the beginning of Easter, I made spicy meatloaf with jalapenos, pimentos, and a side of cream cheese and chive biscuits. We put the biscuits in a basket set with a purple tea towel. It's an image I'll never forget: Southern cooking wrapped in Lenten colors, a hearty and spicy beginning to Easter, one that ended in a chocolate cupcake with Guinness frosting and a raspberry-peach melba layer cake for Easter proper celebrations.

March 12, 2012

Pan-Roasted Chicken in Beer Sauce

Tonight was one of those garbage can nights. The kind where you drag in from work, tired and aching, really not wanting the leftover meatloaf and grits in the fridge. Then you think, what kind of fine world is this in which alternate dinner prospects consist of meatloaf and grits? So you get to work. You gather up those odds and ends: that frozen chicken, leftover parsley, sour cream, red potatoes. You really want a white wine sauce but there is only a half-drunk bottle of champagne left over from a long ago engagement party. But there is Highland Gaelic Ale in the bottom drawer - always leave it to those bottom refrigerator drawers to hold something special!
I should add a caveat: this past weekend was fridge-cleaning weekend. Spotless shelves, but a concerning amount of white, bright space. No wonder leftovers and white wine are hard to come by. So tonight is chicken in beer night. A quick trip to the corner grocery for fresh mushrooms and green onions makes this dinner complete.

March 6, 2012

Oatmeal Cookies Revisited

Oatmeal cookies are trouble. Does anyone else agree? Most oatmeal cookies are too dry and flavorless; in order to make them tasty, you have to pump them full of sugar, fat, peanut butter, or even chocolate chips. Forget raisins. Who puts raisins in a dessert? (Bread pudding with whiskey sauce aside.) Still, I have always wanted to make the classic oatmeal cookie work. I have always wanted to like it because I love the nutty texture of oatmeal. So why does oatmeal prove to be such a problematic medium in the cookie world?

Let's raise the stakes. Consider the classic oatmeal cookie as you would consider normal life. You have a great life; you have precious family and friends and the sweetest redheaded nieces the world ever saw; your oatmeal cookies taste just fine. Then comes a shake-up. Things happen. You are forced to change your outlook, your ambition, your drive, your motivation, your life plans. But the constants - friends, family, redheaded nieces - only become greater in value and quality. Things are different than they were two weeks ago; but with great perseverance and patience comes an even richer life. Oatmeal will never be the same to me again after making these cookies. New dimensions have been unmasked and I will likely never go back to the recipe on the inside of the Quaker Oats lid. Life improves by moving forward; baking improves through constant re-evaluation and modification.

And oatmeal cookie/life metaphors improve by just stopping.