When it comes to menu planning, I like to weave an ingredient through each course. In this way, I explore its nuances as well as challenge myself to use that…
While waiting with unreasonable anticipation for Fuller House to hit our streaming channels, the Urban Farmer and I have nestled into Mozart in the Jungle. It’s over-the-top in its portrayal of a free spirit, the “chemistry” feels forced, and if I hear Lola Kirke giggle impishly one more time, I might be forced to call it quits on this binge effort. Yet somehow watching Gael García Bernal with hippy hair is enough to merit the lost winter hours, and critiques aside, the show did leave me with one golden nugget.
The prodigy conductor, Rodrigo (Bernal) encourages the symphony director (Bernadette Peters) to sing publicly. After she dismisses her vocal talents as “amateur,” he admonishes, “You say that as if it was a dirty word or something, but ‘amateur’ comes from the Latin word amare, which means love- to do things for the love of it.” In a show about an orchestra, this, my friends, provided the most music to my ears!
Most of my early to mid-twenties were filled with a crippling doubt as I tried to pinpoint my passion, my purpose, my place on this massive spinning globe, etc- that typical cocktail of honor roll meets intense university collides with real world. I felt an immense pressure to find and stick to something with the devoutness of a nun. As the rocks gradually diluted that stress cocktail, I began to embrace this fact about myself- I don’t want to be an expert.
I don’t want to be an expert. I don’t have one single passion. I do not seek precision. I want to bake, but I don’t want to understand every single chemical reaction and perfect every process. I don’t want to repeat recipes. I want to be a photographer, but I don’t want to invest in lighting and elaborate setups. I want to draw and silkscreen and play with flowers, and restoring the passion within the word “amateur” frees so much pressure from these activities.
So be an amateur cook and make horrible mistakes. Buy a camera, take pictures, take ugly pictures and keep taking pictures! Be an amateur baker, and share your layers of cake with those around you. Some of the best recipes come from amateurs- the grandmothers, mothers and dads who vaguely followed instructions, heaped spoonfuls, threw ingredients together and made it work because their hearts were in it.
Fittingly, this recipe was adapted from my new favorite read, Sift Magazine, which I can’t stop raving about (no, they are not sponsoring my fanaticism- I wish!). Its beautiful pages are all about celebrating the love of baking, in other words, they celebrate the amateurs!
p.s: If juggling multiple passions and curiosities rings a bell, I recommend this TED Talk for more inspiration- “Why Some of Us Don’t Have One True Calling”
Whole Wheat Chocolate Layer Cake with Chestnut Filling & Dark Chocolate Ganache
Recipe adapted from Sift Magazine (Holiday 2015)/King Arthur Flour
About This Recipe: You’ll need a large sheet pan (18”x13”) to bake this spongey, chocolate cake, which is then simply cut into fourths and stacked with layers of delicious chestnut cream as a filler. I found chestnut cream at Whole Foods, as well as my local grocery chain, but if you can’t find it, you can substitute Nutella for the filling.
“How do you feel about chestnuts?” I asked Jill, who was coming for dinner in a few days.
“Like…I like them roasting over an open fire? I actually have no idea!”
Though we sing about chestnuts roasting every year, and the lyrics help put us in that holiday spirit, how many of us actually eat these hearty nuts?
If my friend Jill, who samples an array of precise recipes daily at America’s Test Kitchen, cooks constantly, travels extensively and meets world class chefs as part of her job…if she had never eaten a chestnut, it’s safe to say very few people are eating these nuts. This begs the question, why do we sing nostalgically about this nut but not eat it?
The short answer is blight. Once upon a time, chestnut trees blanketed the east coast of the United States, covering some 200 million acres. Frost resistant and reliable, the tree was a major source of income for many a rural community, both as a source of food for livestock and as a timber source. However, in the first half of the twentieth century, blight, imported through Asian Chestnut Trees, devastated the eastern woodlands. If this feels like a dismal tale from the annals of food history, it is, BUT there’s a glimmer of hope too!
Fortunately, there are organizations and people working to restore the chestnut’s mighty presence. These history lessons are also valuable as more and more of us seek to improve the local food economy. If we spend more time examining our food and its sources, we can better mediate our local agricultural systems. For now, chestnuts cost a pretty penny in grocery stores, and their availability is limited (I hope you can still acquire some as I am sharing this in January!), but hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, every east coast grocery store will offer a regular bin of local chestnuts. Maybe I’ll even be gathering them at Hazelwood Urban Farms!
Here’s to chestnuts roasting on lots of open fires!
Roasted Chestnut Stuffing/Dressing
Recipe adapted from Sift magazine
Yield: 10 servings
About This Recipe: Vegetarians and carnivores can unite on this classic side dish thanks to chestnuts’ meaty flavor! For a more nutrient rich approach, I used a combination of Whole Wheat Sourdough and Mt. Athos Fire Bread (a local favorite- sub any dense, grainy bread). This recipe calls for baking the bread cubes to dry them, but you can also cube and save bread as it starts to harden to avoid wasting a loaf. To simplify the recipe, you can use pre-cooked chestnuts (like these), but roasting draws a lot of flavor. If you have more than 1 1/2 cups chestnuts after roasting and shelling, add them to the stuffing. That quantity is flexible.
With the phrases “winter weather watch” and “storm advisory” hanging heavy in the air, the grocery stores teeter on the brink of milk, egg and bread depletion. Though I’d advocate for a fair fight for the last crusty loaf, I have this creamy, vegetarian, snowstorm survival idea to offer you: Chestnut Mushroom Soup!
In a world of titles and categories, I lump myself with the “conscientious omnivores,” but chestnuts could nearly sway me to the vegetarian crowd. Spoonful after warm spoonful, the roasted chestnuts could easily fool you into believing meat lurked in this creamy soup.
So hit the grocery store, fight for the last crusty loaf of bread, and while the milk and eggs create a diversion, scrounge that lingering holiday offering of chestnuts. Then, cozy into the weekend with a big batch of hearty, vegetarian soup.
Chestnut Mushroom Soup (Vegetarian)
Recipe adapted from Martha Stewart
makes 12 servings
About This Recipe: The process of roasting and shelling chestnuts can be a bit tedious, but the end result is worth the experience! Hearty and meaty, this vegetarian soup pairs well with buttery brie on dense, whole grain bread. For a vegan option, use coconut oil for the sautéing, and garnish with a whipped coconut cream.
The “Whole Body” section at Whole Foods sees a significant spike in sales about 1-2 weeks into January. Can you guess why?
This is about the time a person realizes his or her symptoms are no longer the effects of a well celebrated New Year and are, in fact, the start of a cold or flu. Since all I was hitting on New Year’s Eve was tea (admittedly lame), I was faster to recognize the softball in my throat as an ailment and not the consequence of celebration.
“Hippy” inclinations aside, I’ve long thought cough medicine was a form of syrupy, grape TORTURE. Why add suffering on top of suffering? Instead, I turn to nature for remedies I actually want to drink.
Landing somewhere between a soothing vegetable broth and Tang (in a good way!), this herbal tea’s ingredients unfold as you sip- a hit of ginger here, a faint kick of garlic there, a tart pucker of lemon and the sweetness of raw honey.
Whether not there’s a softball in your throat, this tea is a healthy way to start the morning or sip while cozily escaping the winter just beyond your window.
Sip and be well!
Herbal Cough Suppressant with Lemon & Turmeric
Recipe from Bon Appétit
Yield: Makes about 8 cups
About This Recipe: Imagine a cross between broth and the Tang from your childhood, in a good way, and you have this homemade elixir. Smooth and flavorful enough to drink even when your throat is in tip-top shape. Be careful not to boil the tea. It will give you a cleaner flavor and be more nutrient-rich.