Reading Snacks – Warm Olives With Lemon And Rosemary

Warm olives = heaven.

Until this recent political debacle, I didn’t realize how much I missed reading.

Growing up, I was a voracious reader of all types of printed materials – comics, cereal boxes, advertisements, poetry, novels – whatever was available. I read myself sick in the car and nearly blind in the dim light of the evening when I should have been sleeping (true story. I have been wearing glasses since second grade, with seriously and rapidly deteriorating eyesight in the years that followed. As I enter my dotage – mid-40s – insult has been unceremoniously added to injury in the form of readers, a new necessity for reading. But I digress).

One of my favorite ways to spend an afternoon was in the stacks of Wonder Books, a small used bookstore in Frederick, Maryland. My brother, father, and I would spend Sunday afternoons reading in our separate corners among the dusty comics and paperbacks. Sometimes we’d buy one; sometimes we would just read there and go home empty-handed. I imagine this was a break for my mom, but I can vividly recall the warmth and comfort of those days spent hunched in the aisle, reading. When it came time to apply for my first job, that’s where I went (only it was Wonder Book and Video by then).

I like the smell and feel of a book, new or used, in my hands. Recognizing that it’s difficult to travel light with a  library of well over 2,000 books, I attempted to use a digital book for a time but quickly abandoned that. There is no sensory beauty for me in a digital book.

When Dane died in 2013, a switch flipped, and I found no comfort in books. I quickly realized that fiction was dead to me in many ways (with notable exceptions made for my favorite author, TC Boyle, and a new favorite, Jhumpa Lahiri); there was nothing that seemed to hold my attention. Magazines were okay, but they were quickly read and then just became dust-catchers.

The Facebook stepped in to fill the void.

For several years now, I have been ritually (compulsively?) reading Facebook, many times a day. What started as an interesting place to catch up with people and see pictures of family or look at cat videos quickly became fraught with arguments. I whittled my friends and family down, blocking or unfriending those who were racist, xenophobic, or homophobic. I saw Facebook as the digital equivalent of going out for coffee with a friend, and who wants to spend that time deflecting racial slurs and arguing about immigration? Not me.

But I have noticed something in the past few years. Facebook and Twitter and Instagram have become more of an addiction than a minor passing interesting that I can dip in and out of. When I felt lonely or needed a connection, I spent more time online, which seems to be the story of most everyone’s life these days.

In addition, the pace of news delivered through these sites has become so frenetic that a person can hear about events nearly the instant they happen (or instantly, as with live-streaming Facebook video that has captured everything from birth to beatings to suicide, all in front of unsuspecting viewers who maybe just logged on to see a cat in a shark costume on a Roomba.).

The past 18 months in politics have been particularly brutal. The depth of ignorance and hate being spewed and the constant hammering of executive orders that seemed aimed at delivering us back to Nazi Germany has been overwhelming to me. My anxiety, already challenging during this particular time of year, has been through the roof.

Even the dog is having anxiety attacks, and he is medicated (and to be honest, which I always try to be, as am I at times. It has not helped).

So two days ago I did the logical thing: I pulled the plug on Facebook.

I didn’t give up my Charm City Edibles page (go join! It’s awesome!), and I am still on Instagram, which seems much more innocuous and for me features only food and the occasional travel picture, but I have completely checked out of Facebook for the near future.

I have also stopped listening to NPR and watching news. In essence, I have imposed upon myself a near-total media blackout.

Yes, news still trickles in, but it’s a trickle instead of drinking from a firehose.

This media blackout has left me with considerable free time, time I have begun to fill with books. In January I read seven books, and three days into February I am finishing up my first book, with one on the way in the mail and two more on hold at the library.

I have spent long, leisurely afternoons on the couch, listening to the wind howl outside my window and the dogs snoring on the floor beside me as I read.

I have stuck mainly to non-fiction trending towards cookbooks and food writing, but at the library a copy of The Tin Drum and The Yearling are waiting for me.

Maybe it’s the slower pace of reading and allowing myself to settle in for a few hours instead of reading in 140 characters or skimming the first sentence of a TL:DR article on The Facebook. Maybe it’s the fact that I am not constantly reminded of how badly we are fucking up this country right now and how powerless it seems we are to stop it.

Whatever it is, it’s lovely. It’s lovely to come back to the sensual pleasures of language and reading and cozy blankets and sleeping dogs and maybe a nap that happens later in the afternoon.

Or quite possibly it’s the snacks.

Reading requires a beverage and a snack; it’s very easy to get hungry and dehydrated doing nothing. #GiveItATry #YoullLoveIt

I could eat my weight in salt and vinegar potato chips and chocolate candy, but those snacks when combined with lounging are not conducive to overall good health. So moderation is required, and this means something nibbly but not too much of any one thing – nothing too sweet, too fatty, too salty, etc.

These olives are perfect for that. They don’t directly fulfill a sweet-tooth craving, but the lingering lemon and rosemary somehow seem to attend to it enough so that more snacks aren’t necessary.

You also need a snack that doesn’t require utensils. This fits that bill neatly as well.

I use the rosemary that continues to cling to life in a pot on my back porch (so luxurious!) and organic lemon.

Warm Olives With Rosemary And Lemon

Ingredients

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 six- to eight-ounce jar of mixed olives in brine, drained

1 teaspoon minced garlic

zest from one lemon

1 or 3 sprigs of rosemary

Freshly cracked black pepper to taste

Optional: red pepper flakes

Method

Heat olive oil gently over medium-low heat. Add garlic and cook for a couple minutes until it releases its fragrance. Add the lemon and rosemary and cook for about 30 seconds, keeping the heat medium-low and stirring as you cook.

Add the olives and cook until warmed through (not hot). Remove from heat and add freshly ground black pepper to taste. For a little heat, add some red pepper flakes.

Recipe notes:

  • Pitted olives are easiest, but feel free to use whichever olives you prefer.
  • I love rosemary and like to cook it a little bit longer to release its flavor, but this is a personal preference.
  • You could also use orange zest to add a touch more sweetness.

What are your favorite reading snacks?

 

Making Dinner Work: Harissa Spiced Pork Shoulder

Get up. Pee. Brush teeth. Drink water, take supplements.

Go downstairs. Start coffee. Let dogs out. Let cat in. Sip coffee. Let dogs in. Feed dogs. Sit down to the computer.

Sip coffee. Check email. Sip coffee. Check work email. Sip coffee. Visit The Facebook. Make more coffee. Get down to writing/recipe research/yoga class design/etc.

It takes a lot to get us out of our routines. From dogs to children to adults, we are all of us creatures of habit. When I was a horse owner, even the horses knew what to do and when; it got so that I didn’t have to put halters on to move them from pasture to pasture, and they stood in the same spot every day for dinner.

The dog knows when it is 5 p.m. just as if he had a watch strapped to his wrist. And could tell time. And had any understanding of the concept of “time.”

But I digress.

Routines provide a sense of structure that can be comforting and predictable. “Predictable” is often used as an epithet, but predictability is what our lives are based on. This keeps the trains running and makes sure that the grocery store has enough toilet paper on any given day (or your own personal bathroom at home, which is why most people in the U.S. go shopping every week).

Sometimes, though, routines call to be busted up. Routine-busting can be because you are compelled to do something differently because whatever is going on forces you to make a change.

And you know it’s bad if an introvert comes off the couch. #HearMeRoar

If something is gone awry, it might be because whatever routine we have fallen into no longer works, or our routine is suddenly disrupted. We might call it something else, but it’s that transition period between the old and the new – not the the old or the new itself – that causes us such turmoil. Once that period of transition is over, we fall into a new routine until the next thing happens.

This transition is both full of promise and scary as hell, simultaneously. Parents know that the first night with a new baby is joyful and nerve-wracking. Travelers know that coming into a new country for the first time is anxiety-producing and thrilling, often in equal measure.

On a daily, more microcosmic level, this idea of routine versus no routine (or a shook-up routine) is the difference between cooking and making dinner.

Making dinner is that thing that happens between 5 and 7 p.m. every night where you have the gaping maws of your family staring at you, opening and closing like baby birds who have forgotten that they possess opposable thumbs and can get their own damn snack before dinner.

Making dinner is why there is food in boxes that you add milk and butter to in order to get something resembling macaroni and cheese. It’s why there are rotisserie chicken soldiers, hot and ready, when you walk into the store at 5 pm, desperate because it’s Monday and you know everybody at home is hangry and you just need to shove something in their face so there is no arguing.

Cooking is something altogether different.

Cooking is wandering through the farmer’s market and seeing what looks good.

Cooking shops for each meal separately, not all at once, once a week.

Cooking has a sip of wine and is often alone with music playing and maybe a snoring dog (because it’s not necessarily 5 pm yet so the dog isn’t drooling and staring at you).

This recipe is in between making dinner and cooking. There is some leisure to it, but it doesn’t actually require much hands-on attention. There is only one ingredient in this that might require a leisurely trip to a store, but everything else can be thrown into the cart with all of the other groceries.

Leftovers are just as good as the day before and so make excellent brown-bag lunches that will make all of your co-workers drool. I imagine you could also make a ridiculous sandwich with this on some crusty bread with arugula.

Harissa And Orange Spiced Pork Shoulder

Just the delicious beginning.

Full disclosure: as much as I would like to say it’s mine, this idea is taken from another recipe and adapted with amounts added. The other recipe is a video and doesn’t really specify anything but cooking times, so I made some adjustments to that and also the ingredients based on what was available.

Ingredients

4-5 pounds pork shoulder

1/2 cup Mina harissa sauce (or 2 tablespoons harissa paste)

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

1 tablespoon agave, maple syrup, or honey

2 teaspoons minced garlic

2 cups orange juice

6-8 sprigs fresh thyme

1 can of cannellini beans, drained and rinsed

Optional: lime wedges and fresh flat-leaf parsley, rough chopped

Method

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Combine harissa, tomato paste, vinegar, agave, and garlic in a small bowl. Season pork shoulder with salt and pepper, then rub the harissa mixture all over the pork shoulder (hands work best here). At this point, you could let the pork shoulder sit for a few hours (or overnight), or you can proceed.

Place pork shoulder fat-side-up in a Dutch oven or similar oven-safe, heavy cooking pan with a lid. Pour orange juice around the pork shoulder and throw in the thyme.

Cover pork shoulder and let it roast, covered, for 2 1/2 hours (or so).

Increase heat to 400 degrees and add cannellini beans to the pot. Cover and return to the oven for another 45 minutes to an hour.

When ready to serve, remove pork shoulder and slice. Return pork shoulder to the pot, or arrange on a platter and serve with sauce poured over.

If desired, squeeze fresh lime over the pork shoulder and garnish with fresh chopped flat-leaf parsley.

 

Impossible Pie, Among Other Things

Less impossible than you might think – easy as pie!

This morning I had grand plans to get all sorts of things done. Normally I teach yoga mid-day on this day, but that was cancelled, freeing up a huge chunk of time between now and when I need to go teach small children to be the best version of themselves (kids’ yoga at an after-school program).

I even thought I’d get dressed instead of working in my jammies all day.

Instead, I spent two hours on the phone with the Maryland Health Exchange, trying to get them to understand that there is no way I would have scheduled a $1,200 physical for my healthy child when I could have gone to a clinic and had it done for less than $200 (or free, thanks to Planned Parenthood).

Full disclosure: I am a HUGE supporter of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). My insurance costs less, has a lower deductible, and covers more than the insurance I have had since 1998 (when I was a teacher in the Seattle Public School system and my entire pregnancy and delivery cost $10). I know it has issues, but let’s take a look at those, shall we?

The physical for my healthy child cost ONE THOUSAND TWO HUNDRED DOLLARS. That’s what the insurance company charged for a doctor to take temperature, feel pulse, ask some questions, and test reflexes. There was some blood drawn, and she had one shot (all of this was to study abroad).

Let me reiterate: the insurance company charged $1,200 for a routine physical that lasted less than 45 minutes.

Not to get all political, but the problem with ACA is NOT the bill or the color of the president’s skin. The problem is with the idea that a routine physical should cost as much as a scooter. Or a junky but functional used car. Or a mortgage payment.

The insurance company blamed the Maryland Health Exchange. The Maryland Health Exchange blamed the insurance company. I tried to get the guy on the phone to understand that as a single parent freelance writer and cook, there is no way in hell I would have taken my kid to a fancy-pants doctor without active insurance when I could walk down the street to a clinic and get the same end result (“Your kid is healthy.”) for a tenth of the cost.

There are some things that seem impossible:

  1. Convincing the insurance company that they made a mistake.
  2. Convincing MD Health Exchange that they made a mistake.
  3. Getting the two parties to work together without placing blame – just fix it.
  4. This pie.

Weird segue, I know, but guess what? Some days, most days these days, pie is necessary but a total PITA. Yes, I know some people feel that rolling crust is very therapeutic, but for me crust has never been easy or fun. I have a few excellent crust recipes, but some days (most days these days) easy and fast are key.

I found this pie online and thought that there was no way in hell it would work. Basically you stir everything together in one big bowl and then it all magically separates as it bakes into crust, custard, and topping. It makes no sense, and it sounds like it would turn out to be like a gross sweet egg mess.

But guess what? The Impossible Pie worked, and it was delicious.

Impossible Pie With Lime And Coconut

Mad props to the original recipe, but I made a few changes. I had no lemons, so I subbed lime and upped the zest. I also cut the sugar and used my gluten-free all-purpose flour. I can’t hardly believe it worked.

Ingredients

4 large eggs

1/2 cup sugar

1 stick unsalted butter, melted and cooled

2 cups whole milk (NOT skim)

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

zest of 2 limes

juice of one lime

1/2 cup gluten-free all-purpose flour

1 cup coconut flakes

Method

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Butter and flour a deep-dish 9-inch pie pan. I used cooking spray because I am lazy AF. Just make sure you butter/spray and flour well or the pie will stick.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment or with a hand mixer, beat the eggs and sugar together until they become pale yellow. This may take five or so minutes. The mixture should flow off the beater in a pale ribbony stream.

Add melted butter and milk and mix, then add vanilla, lime juice, and lime zest. Mix to combine, then add flour and mix until combined (no lumps).

Add coconut and gently mix into batter.

Pour mixture into prepared pie pan and bake for 45 minutes or until the center is set but still wobbly.

Cool on the counter, then chill in the ‘fridge for at least two hours (better to cool overnight) before serving.

Recipe notes

  • You can use sweetened or unsweetened coconut flakes. I used sweetened because I cut the sugar and it’s what I had, but you could use unsweetened with very little difference.
  • Regular flour works here, too.
  • The original recipe talks about eliminating the coconut, but I can’t get behind that. If you don’t like coconut, make another pie, ya feel me?

Anxiety, The Beast That Roars

Anxiety is a stealthy, creeping beast.

I have lived with its low hum in the back of my skull for my whole life but only in the past decade have I actually named it and looked it in the eye. When it starts to affect your ability to leave the house, it’s time to square up.

My anxiety is not always like everyone else’s, although it does share some very similar characteristics.

I have trouble with large crowds, and although I do some of my best work under pressure, tight deadlines and too much to do can trigger an anxiety attack (sometimes days later). Loud noises and lots of activity (e.g. sporting events and live music) can also cause anxiety.

Anniversaries like the death of my husband (February 16, 2013) tend to have long anxiety attack lead times, but they are like a train that is right on schedule, every year.

I am also unfortunately very sensitive to the suffering of others, whether they are right next to me or across the globe, and too much pain and sadness can bring on anxiety for me. Since the election cycle began my brain has been on high alert, and shootings and bombings and racist violence all around the world has not helped.

The drill is always the same: it starts with not feeling quite right.  Off, a little, sometimes mentally, sometimes physically. Sometimes the world looks a little sharper, but sometimes it is blurry. I start to worry in my head about whatever it is I have to get done that day.

Then I will notice tinnitus in time with my heartbeat. It’s that ringing in the ears, only in time with my heartbeat, so it’s allinmyface about how fast my heart is beating. My breath gets short, sharp, and shallow, high up in my chest, right below my collarbones.

At this point, or very shortly after, if I can identify what is causing the anxiety and move away from it to a quiet place, or some big patch of nature like a forest, I can usually breathe my way out of it. This is after years of practice (and lots of failure).

If I cannot identify why I am anxious, I can’t move away from it, or if it is something that has been building for awhile, then the shit is about to hit the proverbial fan.

From here, I will get sweaty clammy hot cold. This is my body trying desperately to regulate itself as the pressure in my brain builds.

I get nauseous. I urgently need a bathroom. In short, evacuations are occurring at both ends of the airplane (TMI). For a long time, multiple times, until nothing is left.

Add to this party the fact that I faint before I puke. I recently found out that this occurs when the vagus nerve in your stomach gets overly excited and cuts blood flow off to the brain. Excessive emotions, nausea, or sudden upset can overstimulate this nerve, causing fainting. It is usually only a brief loss of consciousness, and it has been happening to me ever since I can remember. Since I am aware of it I am usually able to get on the floor so that all 5’10” of me doesn’t come crashing down  from standing (this has happened. In a public restroom. No good.). Sometimes I don’t make it and end up with my face on the floor and a bruise on my cheek.

At this point I have no choice but to chew up an anti-anxiety med (no swallowing in case I throw up) and wait. Generally in the dark, under covers, with lots of clothes on. I alternate shivering under the covers with running to the bathroom and trying desperately to get enough long, slow breaths in my body so I don’t hyperventilate. Every sense is hyper-aware so that I can smell whatever was cooking in the kitchen from hours before, and I can hear the wind blowing the metal flap of the fan from the kitchen, outside of the house and two floors down. The sheet feels like sandpaper on my exposed skin, and I can feel the layer of air between my skin and my clothes.

Each attack lasts about four hours if I manage to medicate myself (sometimes it takes two pills), and the next day I am exhausted and wrung out. I suffer from anxiety most at night, after I have held myself together all day long. I guess that’s good in that I can do what I need to do before I fall apart in the safety of my own home.

In spite of anxiety, I have done things. Not everything I have wanted to, but I have tried like hell to do what’s most important. I have started a school, built a house, raised a kid, survived the death of a spouse, moved us a thousand miles, and gone on multiple road trips when we needed. Most times I need to talk myself into things I know I will enjoy having done.

This Saturday, January 21st is the Women’s March on Washington, an historic event that is going to bring hundreds of thousands of people from all over the country to raise their voices together in support of everything that is right and good in this country. It is a direct response to the evil that is the president-elect and his suppression and ignorance.

My cousin and her friend are coming up from Miami to march with me. Khristian and his friend, two men who know where it’s at, are also coming. I have purchased Metro passes for the whole day, and we have a transportation plan of attack.

I am worried I won’t make it.

I am worried that I will not be able to control my anxiety, even with meds and supportive people who understand, enough to be crammed into a crowded Metro and then among groups of thousands of people.

I am worried that I am too vulnerable in my fear to block out the negatives that will surely arise from the day – the vitriol of Cheeto Jesus’s supporters is deadly and personal.

This worry, as you might imagine, isn’t helping.

As a food blog, this is a terrible post. But it’s real, which I always try to be.

If you can, on the 21st, show up and march. March for everyone who can’t, for whatever reason.

If I can, I will.

Si, se puede.

 

World’s Best Brownies

I can eat, and have eaten, my weight in these.

The past six months have felt like one of those days, haven’t they?

It seems like the world has gone utterly mad, leaving many of us standing around, clutching at our chests in shock and wondering what exactly the hell just happened.

Every day, things seem to get more intense. It’s a looming sense of dread, an unidentifiable malaise so that even if things are going okay in most ways, you still feel anxious and crazy and on edge.

If you are a follower of astrology, you might blame Mercury, which seems to always be in retrograde these days.

If you are a follower of psychotherapy, you might blame your parents.

Or maybe it’s the jerk in front of who Doesn’t. Know how. To drive.

Maybe you have turned the fucker off and then back on and it still doesn’t work.

Maybe your kids are assholes, or your spouse.

Or maybe it’s just you.

No matter.

Some days, for the love of all things (un)holy, you just want something to work, every day, all the time, without thinking about it.

For you, JUST FOR YOU, I present you with the world’s best brownies.

Don’t get me wrong: there are other plenty delicious brownies out there. But these brownies are utterly impossible to ruin. You can’t cook them too long. You can’t undercook them. You can add pretty much anything you want, and they will still be delicious. And they are done in 30 minutes, start to finish.

Two summers ago we had family in town, and I would make a pan of these every night. We are lucky enough to have a soft-serve ice cream man in the neighborhood; we would buy ice cream and eat it with these brownies every. Single. Night. Some nights the ice cream man was late and the brownies cooked longer; others he came a bit earlier and we were forced to eat them still warm and slightly oozy. All agreed that there was no one good way to make that magic happen – all ways were equally delightful.

Chances are good that you have everything you need in your pantry to make them RIGHT NOW.

If your day sucked, if you just need ONE THING TO GO RIGHT, here you go.

You’re welcome, and I love you.

World’s Best Brownies

Note: See recipe notes for adaptations.

Ingredients

½ cup gluten-free all-purpose flour
1/3 cup cocoa powder
½ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp salt
½ cup vegetable oil
¾ cup sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 eggs

Method
Preheat the oven to 350⁰. Grease an 8”x8” glass baking dish.

In a small bowl, mix together the dry ingredients.

In a medium bowl, mix together the wet ingredients, whisking until the egg and oil are both completely incorporated.

SIDE NOTE: There are those who would argue that the eggs should be beaten separately until they become pale yellow and drizzle off the whisk in a smooth yellow ribbon before adding the dry ingredients. If you have the patience for this, this beating results in a lighter brownie. If not, simply whisk until egg and oil are smoothly incorporated and proceed.

Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and mix completely until there are no lumps. Stir in any additions you choose, then pour into prepared baking dish. Bake at 350⁰ for 22-25 minutes. The center will still be fairly wet, but the edges may begin to pull away from the sides of the pan. Let cool completely before serving.

Recipe notes

  • You can also use regular AP flour. If you are GF and use other GF flour, I cannot guarantee the same results. For best results, please click the link for all-purpose gluten-free flour and check out my very easy recipe. Alternately, if you are in Baltimore city, you can order food from me and add on five pounds of my gluten-free flour, which I will then come deliver to you. I’m just saying.
  • Vegan? Sub 1/2 cup pumpkin or one mashed banana or 1/2 cup applesauce for the egg. Or get rid of the oil altogether and sub a similar amount of pumpkin, banana, or applesauce. Seriously. It’s really that easy.
  • Optional add-ins: ½ cup chopped nuts or ½ cup semi-sweet chocolate chips or ½ cup peanut butter or butterscotch or mint chips (or any combination). Dried fruit is also delicious, like ½ cup dried cherries or blueberries.
  • Cutting back on sugar? Use 1/2 cup of sugar instead of 3/4 cup. Seriously.
  • I haven’t tried this yet because it seems a bit like gilding the lily, but the next time I make these I am going to throw in some toasted coconut and then frost the cooled brownies with vegan coconut frosting. That frosting, too, is easier than it ought to be: Chill a can of full-fat coconut milk overnight, then remove the solids (save the water for smoothies, or freeze it in cubes and use it to chill juice). Add a wee bit of powdered sugar and whip the hell out of the it with a hand mixer. Frost. #Boom