29 June 2011

Interpretations from a Compulsive Kitchen: Part II

“I don’t think any day is worth living without thinking about what you’re going to eat next at all times.”
~Nora Ephron on Gourmet.com

Miss Ephron must be reading my mind. She must have grown up in a family of fantastic cooks, like me. I’m constantly consumed by thoughts of food – what to eat, what to cook, what I can serve for my next dinner party, and I know this love of food has been passed down to me from my food-loving ancestors. It’s in my blood. Eating and cooking is the heart and soul of my family, and so we’ve always spent most of our time gathering in the kitchen.

The view beyond my own kitchen window still lacks that chic, cozy sectional and soothing trickling waterfall, but I have been spending most mornings enjoying my coffee under my new lantern-ornamented umbrella. (Had to have a neighbor help me put the umbrella up, but now it’s not going anywhere.) I have surpassed my pining over decorating my yard and am dying to relax with a little cooking in my kitchen once more.

I can’t begin anything in my kitchen unless it begins as a shiny, spotless thing of beauty. I never go to bed or leave the house until the dishes are clean. I disinfect my countertops and cooking surfaces at least 10 times per day. To me, a dirty kitchen probably produces dirty food. My kitchen always smells a hint like lavender. It is the one space in my house where I feel the most Zen (that is, until I get my “Zen den” in my backyard completed), and it’s appropriately, the most immaculate room in the house. I mean, it really does sparkle.

When I bought my fixer-upper home nearly 2 years ago, I spent the most time (and also the most money) on building a beautiful kitchen. Although small (not really a 2-butt kitchen as my Grandma would say), I knew it would suit me perfectly with the right design. I filled every inch of space with solid cherry cabinetry, and fit a small pantry around my refrigerator which is always overflowing with pita chips and pasta. My glass tile backsplash is a mixture of colors of the ocean, and just knowing that my countertops are made from a naturally antimicrobial surface – quartz – calms my germophobe mind. And you can’t miss my lion-head cookie jar in the corner which reminds me of Aslan from the Chronicles of Narnia and brings a smile to all who enter.

So now that I’ve set the scene, let me share with you my slightly neurotic interpretation of an average cooking experience with this OCDite.

I turn on some moving music, crank open my window to let the bay breeze in, and step into the zone of my culinary form. I take my time. It’s always a personal journey for me – an expression of me on a plate. I’m methodical about the organization of my kitchen prep. I read the recipe multiple times before I even get out the ingredients so that I can feel the flow of the tasty treat that awaits my craftsmanship. Many of my recipes are derived from old family recipes, which I’ve tweaked to fit my taste buds today. So I try to imagine my relatives going through the same processes. Food makes me feel free and connects me to my family. Revisiting these old recipes always feels like having a conversation with the generations before me.

A very unglamorous me whipping up
pasta and squash blossoms in my own kitchen

I start by prepping all of the ingredients the recipe requests as well as those items that I think will add even more deliciousness to the dish (I add garlic and herbs to almost everything). I’m like an Iron Chef – or at least I like to pretend I am – while I’m chopping veggies, herbs and proteins with my Wusthöf Santoku knife. I then, carefully line each element up in multi-colored silicon bowls in order of use according to the directions just like they do for the celebrity chefs on the Food Network, and get ready to cook! I feel prepared – ready to make my way through the recipe, because I have precisely prepped. However, due to this meticulous method of prep, a Rachael Ray 30-minute meal, does not hit the table in 30 minutes at my house. I love you, Rachael, but 30-minute meals are at least 60-minute meals for this OCDite.

Tip for conceiving successful cuisine: Organize your ingredients before you begin cooking. Why? Why not! If the components are systematically laid out and ready to go, you will have so much more room for creative seasoning, sauce adjustments and enjoying the creative cooking process itself. Precise preparation will lead to a more relaxed and fun cooking environment, and possibly room for sipping wine while you stir.

I am a firm believer that good tools are essential to more fully enjoying the art of cooking. Once you feel the difference, you’ll start putting money aside to stock your cupboards with quality tools. Here are some of my favorites:

1)      Wusthöf Santoku knife (mentioned above) You don’t need an entire knife set, all you need is one good knife, and this is it.
2)     Le Creuset’s enameled cast iron French oven Can’t seem to cook both your veggies and your meat together without burning one? This heavy-duty everything pot, makes it nearly impossible to burn anything. And all of Le Creuset’s products can go from stove-top to oven seamlessly.
3)     Zojirushi rice cooker This under-credited appliance is great for busy people. It cooks rice, steams veggies, cooks protein and even cake perfectly, and all you have to do is push a button.

So have I convinced any of you to get in the kitchen and cook tonight? I’ll make it a little easier and provide you with an impressive, healthy summer dinner dish. I submitted this recipe to the Claremont, South Dakota United Methodist Church cookbook (hands down, the best cookbook I own next to The Joy of Cooking – all of the Claremont women seem to have been born for the kitchen).

Margarita-Braised Chicken Thighs
with citrus-scented jasmine rice
½ cup flour
1 T. paprika
2 tsp. garlic powder
8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
½ tsp. salt
1 T. olive oil
1 C. thinly sliced sweet onion
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 C. dried tropical fruit
1 C. orange juice
½ C. tequila (can substitute chicken broth, but it’s just not as fun)
1 lime, thinly sliced
Fresh cilantro or parsley

Preheat oven to 400°. Combine first 3 ingredients in a small baking dish. Sprinkle chicken with salt; dredge chicken in flour mixture. Heat oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add chicken to pan; cook 4 minutes on each side or until lightly browned but not cooked through. Transfer chicken to an 11 x 7-inch baking dish coated with cooking spray. Add onion to same skillet the chicken was cooked in; cook 3 minutes. Add garlic to pan, and sauté 1 minute. Combine fruit, juice, and tequila in a microwave-safe dish, and microwave on HIGH 2 minutes. Pour fruit mixture into pan with onions; bring to a boil, scraping pan to loosen browned, yummy bits. Cook 1 minute. Pour onion & juice mixture over chicken; top with lime slices. Bake at 400° for 20-25 minutes or until chicken is cooked through. Serve chicken on a bed of citrus-scented jasmine rice, and sprinkle with fresh herbs.

*Note: 2 chicken thighs and approximately 1/3 of cup of the fruit mixture is only 350 calories!

Citrus-scented Jasmine Rice
1 C. long-grain jasmine rice
2 ½ cups chicken broth
2 limes or sweet oranges
2 T. butter
Salt, to taste
¾ C. scallions, sliced
½ C. fresh cilantro or parsley, chopped

Add chicken broth, butter, salt and zest and juice of 2 limes (or 1 orange) to a medium saucepan that has been coated with non-stick cooking spray and bring to a boil. Stir in jasmine rice. Cover, lower heat to a simmer and cook approximately 15 minutes. OR, throw all of the ingredients into your Zojirushi rice cooker, and push the rice button. It will cook itself perfectly. Remove from heat, and add the scallions and fresh herbs. Stir to combine.

Thank you, Kitchen, you served me well yet again, and remain my favorite space for combating the day’s compulsions. And thank you, Readers, for taking this culinary tour with me.

Bon a petit!

09 June 2011

Dreaming in Desire: My Quest for a Stylish Outdoor Sanctuary

Comfy cushions, ethnic patterned pillows, rustic round tables, cocktails spread about on shiny trays - all lit with an eclectic mix of cleverly hung candle lanterns from above. This is the vision that I have been mentally mulling over when I go to sleep at night. I have rethought the furniture arrangement several times and I have changed color schemes enough to have made it around variations of the color wheel twice. I want it to be the ultimate outdoor lounge space. I have also begun envisioning the great nights the girls and I will have in my new haute hippy lounge. It's like the space was made for this.

The outdoor space this OCDite desires: (www.westelm.com)

And it doesn't help that I'm constantly surrounded by my own space now. I love my space - I've made it my home, and I wouldn't want to live anywhere else. But now that I am also working out of my home, it is much harder to escape my wandering analytical eye of interior design. I want it all to be perfect, to appear precisely like the image in my head. I think I get these decorating compulsions from my Mom. Mom still rearranges her furniture so often that I don't think it has ever been the same on two occasions when I return home for a visit.

I'm sure we have all thought about the things we desire while we reach for sleep each night, but for an OCDite, these kinds of desires to organize or redesign or calculate or shop can plague our minds until we can no longer think about anything else. I know it sounds odd, and probably rather crazy, that outdoor patio furniture can have that much of an effect on my thoughts, but that's the way it works. And in addition, it seems that every website right now is torturing me with that seasonal wave of advertisements for outdoor spaces. This is also why I cannot go shopping without buying something (see Dad - there is a valid reason), because there is always something that can make my wardrobe a little closer to complete.

My urge to want to complete this project so that I can live my summer months in the outdoors has been so strong that Part II of Interpretations from a Compulsive Kitchen has been put on hold. How can I cook and look out my flower-box kitchen window through the orchids into the space which is now empty, just waiting to be filled with furniture and fun times?! I cannot.

So, I had to do something. And that is my advice to the OCDites of the world for this post.

Tip: Deal with the desires of your painstakingly powerful mind by taking action on a level that provides a reasonable amount of satisfaction - enough to "get you by." 

As a girl on a budget, I had to settle for an outdoor umbrella and a few mini lanterns to hang from its rungs. This, by the way, is a great idea which I saw a couple of years ago in a magazine. Hanging mini lanterns from an outdoor umbrella instantly makes the space warm and inviting, and it's inexpensive. So my backyard is now cozy enough for me for those nights when I'd rather be inspired by the tranquility of the outdoors, but sorry girls, you'll have to wait another year before my Zen den is open for cocktail hour.

Summer is coming, so let's move life outdoors! I would love to hear if any of you have recommendations of your favorite places to get quality, reasonably priced outdoor furniture and accessories and how you're decorating your spaces. Please share! All of this mental interior design is keeping me from dreaming about frolicking through fields of flowers and learning to fly.

And don't forget to check out my WEEKLY READER page for my latest article written for LOCALE Magazine!

**photos courtesy of westelm.com and potterybarn.com where I purchased these items