Thursday, April 30, 2009

snapshot of my afternoon

  • no lunch until after 2 due to non-stop conference calls and futile attempt to keep up with flood of emails
  • survived by eating stash of one granola bar and one orange
  • wasn't able to wash the orange flaky stuff off my hands for about an hour
  • forced to cancel lunch field trip to new Dutch-Indonesian restaurant I've been wanting to try with a friend.
  • We were hoping our inaugral visit would be today since today is apparently Queen's Day in the Netherlands.
  • Learned about all of this via this article.
  • Which is also where I learned about stroopwafels. Please go take a look and tell me you don't want one right this instant. Just open it up in a separate window and take a peak, I'll wait.
  • so enticing, right?
  • pushed stroopwafel investigatory trip to the afternoon
  • learned on the elevator (via the little news monitor there) that the queen's name is Beatrix and there was some sort of riot at her processional today
  • inhaled lunch between more emails and phone calls
  • decided to sneak out of my office to pick something up from the printer during the last scheduled call of the afternoon
  • was startled by a G I A N T tropical sized cockroach scampering across my floor
  • F R E A K E D O U T ! ! ! ! !
  • was grateful my phone was on mute
  • ran into the hallway
  • called for help and started sweating profusely as I watched the cockroach run back into a corner behind my desk
  • tried not to panic
  • watched my secretary (who is fearless when it comes to cockroaches) and a male co-worker bravely dive in to confront the roach
  • said male co-worker somehow coaxed it out from under the dark corner of my desk and scooped the cockroach up in a napking and squished it!!!!
  • yeah, he is sort of my hero
  • what should I get him as a thank you gift?
  • stood around in the hall as people continued to drown on and on from my speakerphone while I stripped off my sweater and tried to regain my composure
  • also tried to banish all stray thoughts of cockroaches swarming around in the walls trying to make their way out onto my desk
  • resisted the urge to throw away the apple on my desk - you don't think the cockroach crawled around on it last night do you?
  • complained with congregation of co-workers in the hallway about the cockroach problem - this may be the first in my office but it is far from the first one discovered in our office
  • so much for the glamorous 5th avenue address
  • finally rejoined the conference call grateful I wasn't really meant to speak on this call
  • emailed the co-worker who was craving stroopwafels with me and told her about the cockroaches
  • tried to pay attention to the call without touching anything in my office
  • emailed and texted a couple more people about the roach - sort of as purging therapy I guess
  • finished conference call
  • tried not to think about stroopwafels
  • worked for a bit more
  • decided it was time for stroopwafels and went to collect my co-worker and picked another up on the way
  • his response when I asked if he wanted to get stroopwafels: "I don't know what that is but I'm coming."
  • fled the building
  • held my breath walking past the Abercrombie store because it has a non-stop pumping of junior high levels of mens cologne wafting from its velvet-roped lined doors guarded by half-naked male models
  • paused when we realized someone famous was going into the Playboy building
  • may or may not have blurted out loudly "It's Carrie Bradshaw!" because yes, it was Sarah Jessica Parker
  • I recognized her before I could see her face
  • Matthew Broderick was also there but I missed him somehow
  • continued the journey for stroopwafels
  • arrived at uber-euro danku and wanted to spend the rest of the afternoon there
  • discovered stroopwaffels are 2 for $2 today!
  • also discovered they are much smaller than anticipated
  • but even tastier than I had imagined
  • strolled back to my office happier than I had left
  • now planning sunny lunch trips to try various flavored krokets and spicy indonesian kale and chicken & arugula rice wrap and so much more deliciousness . . . .

The End.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

More Brunch: Maple Oatmeal Scones

For the brunch I hosted a couple of weeks ago, I decided to try something new. You see, when I get to play hostess I like to make one or two things that are predictable - like the quiche or a pretty fruit platter like above - but I also like to work in something new to the mix. After reviewing all my starred recipe items in Reader and leafing through my recipe books, I decided to make maple oatmeal scones.
You see, lately, I have been a little obsessed with oatmeal. Irish steel-cut oatmeal to be precise. I think it is amazing stuff. I eat Irish steel-cut oatmeal nearly every morning. And very recently I have been making it in the crock-pot over night and so I don't have to rush in the morning or default to buying it on my way in to work. But somehow oatmeal for breakfast isn't quite enough, so I've been playing with adding it to cookies and toying with the idea of where else I can toss them into my baking. A word about baking with steel-cut oats. I have used McCann's steel-cut in cookies, but I don't use very much because I don't want the cookies to turn into lead. But this isn't about cookies. This is about scones. And for these scones, I used McCann's quick-cooking Irish oatmeal which is closer to the look and texture of regular Quaker's rolled oats. Use whatever you have on hand but just be sure they are quick-cooking.

So, the morning of the brunch I thought I had everything well under control. The brunch was scheduled to start at 11 am, my groceries were delivered around 830 am and by 930 or so my quiche was in the oven so I jumped in the shower. Well, somehow whatever else it was I was doing kept me engaged until about 1020 when I realized I needed to start making these scones! But then, as I was pulling ingredients out of the cupboard, disaster struck:
My bottle of expensive fancy vanilla leapt off the shelf and crashed to the floor. I stared at it for a few minutes trying to decide how on earth to proceed with cleaning it up. Pungent vanilla took over my kitchen and teeny, tiny bits of glass were everywhere along with sticky, staining vanilla! Of COURSE the bottle was practically new!

Anyway, after I managed to clean it up, I decided - for who knows what reason - that 20 minutes was plenty of time to make a new recipe . . . and still take photos along the way. So with that excessively long intro, here it is:

First step, heat your oven to 400 degrees.

Next up, in a medium bowl, combine the 3 1/2 cups of flour, 1 cup whole-wheat flour, 1 cup quick-cooking oats, 2 tablespoons baking powder, 2 tablespoons sugar and 2 teaspoons of salt. Toss them all together until combined.
Next step, you need a pound of butter. That is 4 sticks. Yes, two whole cups of butter. I always use unsalted real butter when baking because Martha told me and I have no better reason other than to say you may want to adjust your salt if you use salted butter. Cut the butter into little cubes. You want to make sure the butter is cold when you do this or it will melt instantly in your hands. Toss the butter into the flour-oat mixture.
Using a hand mixer (or if you have a stand mixer that probably works even better), blend the cold butter in at the lowest speed until the butter is in very small pieces.
Next up you need some buttermilk. For whatever reason I deleted buttermilk from my grocery list so I had to resort to my old trick of milk and vinegar as a substitute. You only need 1/2 cup but I was clearly frazzled and measured out 1 cup (use 1 TB of vinegar for each cup of milk).
In a smaller mixing bowl, lightly beat 4 extra-large eggs. Then add the buttermilk - but only 1/2 cup!
then add 1/2 pure maple syrup. Please, please, PLEASE do not try and substitute Mrs Butterworths or some other fake imposter maple syrup. Go for the good stuff from Vermont. Mix that all together.
Then add it to the flour-and-butter-and-oats mix. The recipe says to do so quickly, so I'll throw that in. I'm guessing they want you to not look at the semi-gross color of the egg-maple-syrup mix for too long. Mix this together until just blended. The dough will be pretty tacky.
Therefore, it is essential that you have a nice clean and heavily floured surface at the ready with plenty of extra flour near-by.
Dump the dough (or a portion of the dough) onto your floured surface and make sure you flour your hands and rolling pin as well.
Then roll it all out to about 3/4 to an inch thickness. Don't worry about the lumps of butter in the dough, they are supposed to be there.
Cut into rounds using a biscuit cutter or a round cup.
Place them on a baking sheet lined with foil. I spaced the first batch out pretty wide since I wasn't sure how much these would grow. I learned they don't grow much at all so you can squeeze in a dozen on a tray.
In a small bowl beat one more egg with 1 tablespoon of milk for an egg wash. Brush the tops of the unbaked scones with the egg wash and then bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until the tops are crisp and the insides are done.
In case you were wondering, it was pretty much 11 am by this time and I was just praying the guests were fashionably late enough to give me a chance to get rid of the flour that was coating everything!

Luckily, they were just late enough that I managed to clean everything up and bake two batches. The rest of the dough refridgerated well until I baked them the following Saturday.

Before they come out of the oven though, you might want to make the glaze which is comprised of 1 1/4 cups powdered sugar, 1/2 cup maple syrup and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Well, I didn't follow those proportions at all because it seemed like far too much for my purposes. Plus, I no longer had vanilla. So I just mixed powdered sugar and maple syrup until I had the right consistency. I dribbled the glaze onto the scones while they were still on the wire racks and immediately topped them with a few more oats. Delicious!

maple-oatmeal scones
from Ina Garten's The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook
3 1/2 cups flour
1 cup whole-wheat flour
1 cup quick-cooking oats, plus additional for sprinkling
2 tablespoons baking powder
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1 pound cold unsalted butter, diced
1/2 cup cold buttermilk
1/2 cup pure maple syrup
4 extra-large eggs, lightly beaten
1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon milk or water, for egg wash

1 1/4 cups powdered sugar
1/2 cup pure maple syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla

Bake at 400 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes
Allow to cool on a wire rack for 5 minutes or so before adding the glaze.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Ode to the Earth

Happy Earth Day everyone! Since I have always been a nature girl at heart, I'm stealing this idea and celebrating Earth Day by telling you what I love about this planet we live on. Only, I'm not going to just pick one thing. There are far too many wonderous, enchanting, beautiful, mysterious, stunning, amazing, eery, incredible places in this world to choose just one. So I grabbed a slew of photos I had easy access to (um, at work) uploaded them in absolutely no coherent order so I can list just a few of the beauties I have seen and experienced in my lifetime. Or actually, these are more representative of just the last couple of years. Sadly, I don't have photos of the Alps and Yellowstone and the view from the top of the Snowbird tram or Angel's Landing or Bryce Canyon or the Great Barrier Reef or . . . okay, I'll focus on the places of which I have photos:

Things I Love about our Planet:
Desert Sunsets
Spring blossoms

Fresh Powder
the Hudson River Park
my dog Malcolm
and my parent's backyard in the summer

rocky beaches
desert hikes and meditation
Central Park in the fall
sunsets from my rooftop
hot red desert sand
cliff-side views of black sand beaches
strong and sturdy Ponderosa Pine Trees
small mountain villages with stunning views
icebergs, though I prefer they stop melting
New York Harbor sunsets
powerful waterfalls
Central Park in the summer
hidden mountain creeks and streams and rivers
Carribean sunsets
Rainforest Trees
night walks searching for frogs
muddy Amazon rivers
Machu Piccu
the Red Hill as viewed from my house
whale watching; and
natural hot pools
I could go on and on about what an incredible gift God has given us to be able to inhabit such immense and diverse beauty from broad vistas and sweeping landscapes to the minute details of flowers and grass and leaves. I am incredibly grateful for all of the beauty in this world and I for one want to do what I can to protect what has been left in my hands.

My green tip for this Earth Day? Try drinking tap water. I wrote about this once before but it was a while back and we can always use reminders. Bottled water uses valuable resources and costs money to buy. So why not get in the habit of carting your own reusable water bottle around and save your bottled water usage for those times when you can't drink the tap water?
Happy Earth Day!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

learning to run

For most of my life when I wanted to learn something new, I picked up a book. This probably stems from my chronic inability to admit there is someting I do not know. My mom likes to tease me with stories about how I would wave her away and claim "I know, I know Mom!" when she tried to help me with one thing or the other. I found books to be the easiest and least humiliating way to learn because I never had to admit to something I did not know to the book. The book could just teach me and then I would know!

A couple of weeks into this couch to 5k program I have found myself in, I decided I need to know more about running. I felt I knew so very little I did not even know what questions to ask. And believe me, this is an area in which I am not afraid to admit that I know nothing and ask for help. So I did what I always do, I bought a book. This book to be precise. I have not yet finished the entire book but I have to say that so far I am impressed with the conversational voice and the easy flow. Among other things, the book sparked me to buy actual running shoes. Not only that, it helped me understand what I was looking for in a running shoe and urged me to go to an actual running store rather than just resort to my default of online shopping. I also received some advice from a running friend that I should go to a running store to get fitted.

So last week I stopped at a running store on my way home from work. I felt a bit silly walking into the store, still afraid to attach the word running to my body. I was convinced everyone else was some sort of marathoner and there I was hauling around my extra pounds with those miniature runners zipping about, every one of them knowing exactly what they need and want. I pretended to look at the sports bras near the front until a sales person asked if I needed help. I then asked if they carried shoes. Ummm, of course they do, it is a running store. He pointed me toward the back and I made my way there to find a relatively small wall of shoes. I knew I needed help but wasn't sure how to ask. I looked at the wall for a minute as the lone salesperson helped someone else. Then I noticed a woman sitting on one of the benches waiting and decided that would work best, just wait my turn. When she was asked if she needed help, she responded that she needed new running shoes but had no idea what she needed and I piped in "me too!" and continued to wait.

Soon I was greeted by my sales clerk who had me remove my shoes, roll up my pant legs and walk back and forth for him. His assessment? No pronation, I walked very steadily. Hoping to corroberate his opinion I offered that I had checked the soles of my gym shoes and the wear was pretty even . . . my book had suggested this. And just as the book had explained, he had me do a couple of squats and then had me run a couple more times and ultimately decided I have a slight pronation - or rolling in - and he brought me a stack of shoes to try.

I tried shoe after shoe after shoe and struggled to differentiate among them. I wear a size 7 in most shoes with 71/2 being the largest size I have ever worn but ultimately this guy convinced me to take home a size 8 pair of Saucony running shoes. I was skeptical. My book had suggested wearing a larger size because women generally wear a size too small out of vanity. Wearing shoes that are too small has never been a problem for me. If the shoes hurt, I stop wearing them and shoes that are too small hurt.

I wore the shoes running on the treadmill the next morning. But they felt big. And kind of wide too. I wore them one more time a couple of days later and got shin splints for the first time - again on the treadmill.

On Saturday I returned them and decided to exchange them not only for a half size smaller but for my second choice shoe - a pair of Asics. This second sales guy agreed that I did not need to go any bigger than a 71/2 and watched me run on the treadmill in them. I took them home and ran outside. So much better. I ran again the next day and again this morning and haven't had a sign of shin splints.

I never thought I could be a runner. I also never tried. And the beauty of trying now is I have pretty low expectations which means I am constantly surprising myself. I mean, this past weekend I went running outside twice and I didn't hate it. Actually, I hated some of it. Especially that last five minutes I had to run into the wind when I was actually barely shuffling and I had to convince myself to just run to that sign or that tree up ahead before I look at my watch again. But afterwards? The sense of accomplishment? I like that part.

Another thing I like about my own low expectations of myself running? That I have virtually nothing to compare myself to. Usually, when I have been out of shape or at least fallen out of the habit of some particular exercise I enjoy, it is frustrating to start up again. In my head I want to start where I left off but my body generally has other ideas and I hit a wall far too early. I then get frustrated at how out of practice I am or how slow I am going or how inflexible I've become and I lose motivation as my own ego defeats my drive. But with running? Well, I've never done it. Each day is new and each day I have the potential to be better than I was the day before.

Plus, I bought a fun toy to track my running. The Nike+. My sister uses it and suggested I try it. I bought it immediately along with a new compatible ipod (I'd been wanting something smaller for quite a while anyway). Toys can be a huge motivation for me and this thing is no exception. A sensor fits into a little pouch you lace onto your shoe and then you plug this other piece into your ipod (or you can get a watch if you prefer). And voila, just like that, your ipod is telling you how long you have been running, your pace and distance. A playlist can be synced in and at any time you can press a button and find out all your details. I seriously love it! Because I am nerdy like that I guess. You can then download all of your info onto Nike's running community and track your progress and share information and I'm sure a lot of other things I'm unaware of at the moment. But one thing I do know about is I was able to create a little running character and I have added her to my sidebar. She will tell you if I've run today and my distance. Even if no one ever checks her out, I feel this will help keep me accountable and motivated. And today? Today, I ran 2.49 miles. Can I really say I "ran" even though there is still a lot of walking in there? I'm going to say yes because I have now reached a point where I am running more than I am walking. It is very exciting.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Mushroom Quiche

UPDATE: How bad is my luck that on the day I post my quiche recipe, Pioneer Woman posts hers? The recipes are definitely different and mine is not as fancy since I don't have that great tart pan. But, as I explain at the end here, I absolutely agree with her that the filling ingredients can be mixed up to be whatever you like. Enjoy!

I hosted a brunch Saturday morning. On Friday I was kind of dreading it and wishing I had planned something simple. I have this tendency to get excited and I want to try a little bit of everything even if only 5 people have rsvp'd, I had fruit and yogurt and planned on baking both bran muffins and maple-oatmeal scones and herbed tomatoes and bacon and . . . it was just too much. Just when I had decided to scratch quiche off the menu for simplicity's sake and go with a simple fruit and muffins brunch, a co-worker suggested quiche as an easy but impressive brunch menu item. And I agreed and remembered that yes, quiche is quite simple and it needed to be the star of my brunch. And since I have a good go-to recipe, all the better. And since I know several of you out there are not believing me that quiche is easy, I'm going to show you just how simple it is. And impressive. Although I will warn you that it involves multiple steps and lots of dishes. I have layed this out so that the steps overlap which requires some multi-tasking (faster prep) but if you aren't comfortable with that, you can just chop the shallots and mushrooms and shred the cheese in advance to relieve the stress of chopping and cooking at the same time.

You can start by making your own pie crust from scratch if you would like. But that kind of defeats the whole simplicity idea. So I pulled this out of my freezer:

Pre-made pie crusts are just so much easier for brunch than the hassle of rolling out dough on a Saturday morning. You don't have to pre-bake the crust but if you like it more flaky, I would pop it in the oven for about 10 minutes before adding the filling. But don't forget to stab it a few times with a fork or else it will puff up (like mine did) as it bakes.
Pour a couple of tablespoons of olive oil into a skillet but don't worry about turning any heat on it yet, we have some other prep work to do. By the way, I never measure olive oil, I just swirl it around a couple of times and call it good. And for this that is just fine, you don't really need a precise measurment but don't go overboard or else you will have an oily quiche.
Next, grab a couple of shallots. What are shallots you ask? These cute little miniature onions have a sweeter and more mild taste than regular onions. So, if you are adverse to onions (Liz, I'm looking at you), give these little guys a shot. They add a nice subtle flavor without overpowering the dish. And if you chop them finely enough their texture completely disappears once the dish is cooked - which is a big deal to me because raw onions gross me out a little too much. Plus, you can add more or less to taste.
Peel off the skins and then chop them up just like an onion. Normally I throw them in my little mini-food processor but for some reason I decided to use a knife. I regretted it when my eyes decided to glue themselves shut from crying. I'm pretty sensitive to chopping onions apparently.
When you are about half-way through chopping those shallots, turn the heat on high under the olive oil to get it nice and hot for the shallots. You should also pre-heat your oven to 375 degrees right about now. When the olive oil is hot, toss in the shallots and stir it all up a bit.
While the shallots are sweating it out, wash about a pound of mushrooms (1 package is generally enough) and quarter them like so:
By now the shallots should be translucent so you can drop the mushrooms into the pan.
Add some salt and pepper and stir them around so they can mingle with the shallots. You want to cook them for 8-10 minutes or until they turn slightly brown and release their liquid. Keep stirring them occasionally.
While the mushrooms are browning, grab your Gruyere cheese. This special cave-aged Gruyere was made especially for me - see, my name is on it!
Gruyere is a heavenly cheese. It is sweet but a little bit salty which pairs well with a savory quiche. When I was on my study abroad program in Switzerland I went to Gruyere and took a tour of the cheese factory and saw the giant wheels of this cheese. Unfortunately I didn't see much else because there was some sort of bad timing problem and we arrived after the full tour was over and all the workers had quit for the day so all we did was watch a little movie about cheese making that I was pretty sure I had seen on PBS once.
Anyway, you can shred it by hand or cheat by feeding it into your food processor. Don't forget to stir the mushrooms a bit while you are doing this.
Spread about half the cheese on the bottom of your crust, comme Ça (talking about Switzerland makes me wish I could still speak more French than that and that c is capitalized because it was the only one I could find quickly with the little tail thing of which I forget the name).
Your mushrooms should be ready now so you can remove them from the heat and pour them on top of the cheese.
Sprinkle the rest of the cheese on top of the mushrooms.
Next up, grab a medium bowl and add a 1/2 cup milk and a 1/2 cup heavy cream. I use skim milk and I'm guessing you can play with the proportions a bit if you want a lighter or heavier quiche (3/4 cup skim milk + 1/2 cup heavy cream). but I haven't actually tried that before because I'm really not afraid of heavy cream once in a while. Not all the time, just once in a while.
Next add two large eggs plus one egg yolk.
Whisk it all together,
It will get nice and foamy, then add a pinch of nutmeg and some salt and pepper and whip it some more.
Then pour it all into your pie pan. I should have mentioned earlier that it is a good idea to put the pie pan on a cookie sheet lined with tin foil, just in case this process overflows a little - which it has been known to do in the past. Luckily this time, it fit perfectly.
I filled it to the brim as you can see.
Throw it in the oven for 30 to 35 minutes or until the center is set and the top is nice and browned. It is important to build in some cooling time right about now. When you pull it out of the oven it still needs some time to set up and become more solid. Transfer it to a wire rack and allow it to cool for 10 to 20 minutes. Saturday I planned ahead for once and let it stand for about an hour before serving and it made slicing a lot easier than my impatient 5 minutes out of the oven usual habit. And it was still warm too.
I should mention that I have played with this recipe quite a bit with a variety of ingredients and it always turns out tasty. One of my favorite variations is to substitute pepper jack cheese and add some chilies to the shallots and mushrooms and a little bit of hot sauce to the milk and egg mix for a spicy quiche. Meat lovers may want to add some bacon or ham.

Below is the full recipe, I think I originally got it from Martha Stewart but I'm too lazy to go check so we'll just give her the credit. Give it a try and if you would like I will later share a new-found recipe for maple oatmeal scones and tell you about my ridiculous accident prone kitchen habits of late.

Mushroom Quiche

1 cooked (but not browned) pie crust

2 TB olive oil

2 medium shallots, thinly sliced

1 pound white button mushrooms, quartered

coarse salt and ground pepper

1/2 cup milk

1/2 cup heavy cream

2 large eggs

1 large egg yolk

pinch grated nutmeg

6 ounces Gruyere cheese, grated (1 1/2 cups)

Preheat oven to 375. Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over high heat. Add shallots and cook, stirring until translucent but not brown, about 1 minute. Add mushrooms, and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, until mushrooms first release their liquid and then liquid evaporates and mushrooms are dark golden brown, 8-10 minutes.

Transfer pie pan to baking sheet lined with tin foil. Sprinkle half the cheese evenly over the bottom of the crust. Sprinkle with mushrooms, then top with remaining cheese. In a medium bowl, whisk together milk, cream, eggs and egg yolk. Season with nutmeg, salt and pepper. Pour over cheese. Transfer to oven and bake until just set in the center - 30 to 35 minutes. Cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes before slicing.

P.S. If you have Gruyere cheese left over, I melted some on my baked asparagus last night and found it delicious.

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