Follow me, over stepping stones, in between rows of the most intricate greens I've ever seen, where a dog is the happiest she has ever been, and a man digs in…
I worked in a European-style bread bakery for a spell, which meant I had access to one loaf per day of the breads that sent immigrants clambering to the bakery door. Through thick accents, they’d order their national loaves, and I understood their passion. There was a comfort in the familiar loaves, the way the bread would perch on a plate next to traditional recipes, ready for that last swipe of the plate and lingering sauces reminiscent of distant homes.
I came to rely heavily on my bread ration, too heavily- a warm, raisin-walnut roll for breakfast, a sandwich on honey-sesame for lunch, and a slice of baguette or levain on the side of dinner. I wasn’t suffering by any means, but I realized bread was taking up a lot of space in my diet and potentially limiting my intake variety. I decided to go on a bread fast.
What started as a week, turned into two months, and in that time, my diet changed tremendously. By cutting out such a staple, I had to be more creative, be more conscious and plan ahead. Eventually, I came to incorporate bread again, but by then, I had established more creative menu planning habits.
I’m not gluten intolerant, but I can sympathize with those who are. When I invited our new friends Dylan & Amber over for dinner, Amber mentioned she had a gluten-intolerance, but if it meant needing to bring her own bread or crackers, that’d be fine. My goal in any dinner party is for everyone to enjoy the meal together, so I saw her gluten intolerance as a challenge, and much like my bread fast, the challenge led to more creative menu planning, including these Collard Spring Rolls.
These healthy, colorful spring rolls come together as if rolling an entire garden row into one compact log! They also led me to discover purple sweet potatoes and the utility of a collard green.
The menu included the Collard Spring Rolls, a Carrot & Sweet Potato Pad Thai (of sorts) with Quinoa Noodles, a Beet & Sunchoke Purée with Edamame, and a Vegan, Gluten-Free Chocolate Dessert (more on that later).
The meal was healthy and vibrant, and it may never have come together like it did if it weren’t for a limitation.
Collard Spring Rolls with Roasted Purple Sweet Potatoes & Cashew Mustard
Adapted from Reclaiming Yesterday
About This Recipe: The main component is the roasted purple sweet potato puree. I found these at Whole Foods, but if they’re nowhere to be found, regular sweet potatoes will work too. Roasting draws a lot of flavor and sweetness, making a flavorful spread for the wraps. The best way to approach this recipe is to have a lot of vegetables, and then just ad lib while building your spring roll. Add some chopped cashews or hemp seeds if you want a little more crunch. They’re great for a packed lunch or an afternoon snack. The Cashew Honey Mustard makes a tasty dip too.
A gradual progression from developing recipes and sharing the yields is to demonstrate how to make a recipe in front of an interested audience. This idea intrigues me and intimidates me. Am I qualified to teach? Are people interested? I’d toyed with these thoughts for a while, and then I met Amber!
Amber is the Education Coordinator & Chief Blogger for The Brashear Association, a community development organization in the Allentown neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Amber spoke about teaching the kids who come to the center about growing, cooking and eating healthy foods, an endeavor I respect and support wholeheartedly. Some of these lessons come through “Cooking Together,” a series of cooking demos with local chefs and food experts. Though kids can be brutally honest, they can also be more forgiving than adults with social media accounts poised to wreck you, so this seemed like the perfect opportunity to get a cooking demo under my belt. Before I could second guess myself, I volunteered!
When it comes to making healthy choices, the convenience store options have a lot more appeal than an apple or carrots, so I wanted to share a recipe with the kids to appease a sweet tooth without consuming all the unpronounceable, artificial sweeteners. To start, I had a volunteer read the ingredients in a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. TBHQ? I have no idea what that means! As my volunteer stumbled over a few of the ingredients, I assured him most adults have no idea how to say these words either, and if we can’t say them, we probably shouldn’t put them in our bodies. Instead, let’s make our own peanut butter cups!
While the first layer of melted chocolate set in the cupcake trays, we talked about how we’d sweeten our treats. Since we live in Western Pennsylvania, honey is prevalent, and more importantly, it’s good for us! Buying local honey also supports beekeepers and honeybees. To emphasize this point, my good-hearted Urban Farmer stepped up to teach some beekeeping basics.
“So we’re really just eating bee puke?” Yes, delicious, delicious bee puke! One after the other, the kids asked really detailed and astute questions about beekeeping. Amber is clearly steering these kids in the right direction, and we were amazed with their fascination. Hopefully, we have some future beekeepers in the making!
Kid tested, and Quelcy approved! The kids loved the treats and thought they’d be able to make them at home with their parents. A big goal of these cooking classes is to educate entire families to make healthier choices, a decision made more difficult by the lack of a proper grocery store in the neighborhood. This is the same issue facing the neighborhood surrounding the Urban Farmer’s farm, and one of his longterm goals is to provide fresh food accessibility to the community.
Food access is another reason I chose Peanut Butter Cups for my demo. Organic and natural peanut butters are far more common than they used to be, so it’s a more accessible ingredient. Dark chocolate is typically healthier than a gas station candy, and honey doesn’t go bad. Rather than push “organic,” which can be economically limiting, I stressed the importance of minimal, pronounceable ingredients. What would we expect to find in peanut butter? Kids can answer that question. Why can’t peanut butter brands?
My apron’s off to Amber for her dedication to these kids. From implementing fruits & vegetables into their diets, to teaching them to feel confident in the kitchen, to exposing them to various career options and to inspiring them to dig in the dirt and grow their own food, she and her team are an inspiration! I imagine working with kids is often thankless and always tiring, so three cheers to the Brashear Kids coordinators!
Thank you to Amber & Brashear Kids for having me and supporting my first cooking demo opportunity! If you’re a Pittsburgh chef/foodie/maker, consider volunteering to lead your own demo. If you want to learn more about beekeeping from my fella, check out this blog post. If you want something sweet, salty & nutty, keep reading for the recipe! Pair a peanut butter cup with a cold-brew coffee, and you’re in for a decadent afternoon moment!
p.s: Photos by Kyle Pattison, ie: The Urban Farmer, and myself.
Homemade Peanut Butter & Honey Cups
About this Recipe: The best way to approach this recipe is to buy a large jar of all-natural, peanut butter and a large container of honey with a squirt top. Then you can freely dollop peanut butter and squirt honey into each cup, without having to rely on measurements. These treats come together so easily, you’ll be able to make them whenever you have a chocolate craving.
A bright, lobster-like redness covered my legs unevenly, an odd roadmap of a morning spent crouching low and weeding. Tan lines, humidity, open windows, grass taller than my dog…all the signs of summer were falling into place. Then came the rain.
The blank sky filled with gray. A few drops on the tattered screen quickly escalated into a downpour. The curtains fluttered dramatically as water hit the windowsills, and the view disappeared in a wall of water. I sat by the window and paused to absorb the cooling breeze and the smell of the fresh precipitation. I come from a long line of farmers whose thoughts were consumed by rain and food, food and rain. Too much rain, not enough food. Not enough rain, not enough food. Is it time to eat yet? Then I fell for the Urban Farmer, and now I too must think of rain and food, food and rain.
This was a needed rain. On the farm, the rain meant an afternoon free of wrestling foot after foot of hose. At home, the rain meant a cool breeze and an excuse for a warm oven. It meant scents of vanilla and spices hit him at the stairwell, as he came home from growing greens, fences and the most beautiful rainbows of vegetables. The rain was vital.
In addition to valuing the rain’s place in the farming system, I appreciated the break in the heat, sleeping under a feathery, down comforter, wearing a flannel, and the quiet rain brings to a neighborhood. Take advantage of these rainy days. Turn on your oven. Make this granola. Fill your cooled home with the scents of baking oats and sweet, peppery spices. Hold your mug of hot coffee near to you, and then take the last sip of milk from your granola- the best sip, the sip that tastes like chai and let’s your mind wander to truly hot locales with beautifully adorned elephants, ornate temples and Chai Wallahs.
Happy Rainy Days!
Chai Coconut Granola
About This Recipe: This recipe uses an organic chai tea concentrate to impart a hint of chai flavor to your morning bowl. My favorite is Tazo Chai. Most chai concentrates are sweetened, so I didn’t add any extra sweeteners to the recipe. If you make your own concentrate with tea bags, add maple or honey to the wet ingredients. If you want to emphasize the chai flavor even more, add the contents of a chai teabag or two to the dry ingredients.
Wanderlust can be an excuse sometimes. In dreaming of distant adventures, foreign tongues and exotic foods, it can be all too easy to overlook the finer details of what’s close to home. In lamenting a lacking budget, it can be all too easy to feel lost in day-to-day routines and to visit the same old haunts. I’ve been guilty of this. Life is full of trade-offs, and when I took some creative leaps and financial risks, my passport began to collect dust, and I began to collect excuses.
My rootedness made my head spin, questioning if I were on the right path, if there were a light at the end of this tunnel, etc (i.e.: I should probably just take a yoga class and exhale these anxieties away). But wanderlust doesn’t come with a mileage requirement. I had failed to plan. I had failed to explore. I had failed to wander within my means, so I decided to cut through my own bullshit. Luckily, I had friends right there with me.
I tried to approach my city and my region like a complete outsider, and like a clipboard-toting cruise director, I made a list, with headers, bullet points and links. I tried to recall all the “Oh! What’s that? We should go there!” moments and let Google fill in the gaps. One such place to make the list was the Sri Venkateswara Temple.
Perched atop a hill, this Hindu temple is visible from a busy Pittsburgh highway, but no matter how many times I’ve traveled that route, the temple has always shocked me. It was as if my eyes were playing tricks on me, as if an acre of India had somehow dropped onto available real estate in Western Pennsylvania. I had traveled past the temple so many times, it was high time to explore it!
With very little understanding of the visiting procedures, we made our way to the beacon of white, and much like the observation required of traveling abroad, we had to look, listen and imitate so as not to offend or overstep our boundaries. Photography isn’t permitted inside the temple, so I had to look and listen all the more.
When I stepped into the temple, the coolness of the floor hit my bare feet, the bright white of all the details radiated light, and I felt this immediate calm. Guided by the layout, we unknowingly performed the ritual circumambulation. The priests’ chants formed a relaxing background as we watched the rituals unfold. My friends and I sat close to one another, silently appreciating the sacredness all around us, and then we worked up the nerve to join an Archana in a shrine.
The priest walked with a lit flame on a silver lantern/urn of sorts, and we cupped the smoke toward our faces, followed by a turmeric-dyed water and another silver urn placed quickly and gently on our heads. We didn’t understand the significance, as the ritual all happened in what I assume was Hindi, but the process was very humbling and quieting.
Walking through the temple and joining the rituals made us appreciate the more philosophical elements of religion and the more universal messages- clear your mind, clear your heart, humble yourself, be present, be the light. I recalled a similar feeling when I sat in a Parisian Catholic church to escape the rain. I spoke French well enough to understand the priest, but if I let my mind drift, the verses were simply beautiful sounds strung together. There was something about the architecture and the ritual that combined to stir my emotions in a profound way. Some might attribute that feeling to a deity, but I prefer to linger in the agnostic and cull together the attributes that touch me the most.
With a new level of calm, we departed, found a park and enjoyed an Indian inspired picnic.
I often explore the way a journey inspires a recipe, but this day-trip and picnic were an example of a recipe inspiring a journey. I had received a packet of Rose & Chai spices in my RawSpiceBar subscription, which arrives like a souvenir, with stories, recipes and even a patterned paper from the spice’s land of origin. Receiving the package in the mail feels like a ritual unto itself, so I wanted to share the food in a special way as well. Knowing I was going to bake these Chai & Rose Nankhatai Cookies was the impetus for visiting the temple at long last.
I might never have thought to have an Indian inspired picnic if it weren’t for my little elephant chai cookies, but the menu turned out to be perfect picnic food so much so we coined the term piknir.
Nina packed several traditional Indian dishes in her authentic, stackable Indian lunch tin and paired them with a few varieties of naan. Kara provided the iced chai and fresh mango. Didi provided chutneys and the mint & fennel combination Indian restaurants serve after a meal. I added the chai cookies and a curry roasted sweet potato salad.
In a tribute to the spiritual calm we felt from the temple, we made our own picnic basket shrine to Ganesha, complete with the bananas we received after completing the Archana. Ganesha is widely revered as the remover of obstacles, so we shared our individual obstacles. These topics may never have emerged on a typical picnic, but sharing these vulnerabilities was really comforting and inspiring. We were able to hear each other, to relate, and to boost each other as well, and that may never have happened if it weren’t for a cookie recipe!
Here’s to cutting through our bullshit. Here’s to exploring. Here’s to observing. Here’s to gleaning the philosophies that make us better beings, and here’s to cookie inspired journeys!
Curry Roasted Potato Salad for an Indian Inspired Picnic
About This Recipe: Be loose with this recipe! It should come together fluidly, tasting as you go and trusting your spice instincts. The addition of greens means you take in more veggies than a traditional picnic potato salad. I suggest kale or a heartier green for texture. I added hemp hearts for a slight crunch. They’re available at Trader Joe’s, but if you can’t find them, you can substitute flax or the chopped nut of your choice. I spiced my version heavily with turmeric, which adds a mild, warm, peppery flavor but a bright color and a variety of health benefits.
There is the French bakery, and then there is the French boulangerie with reflections of the Tour Eiffel in the display cases. There are tapas, and then there are tapas amidst a mob of fútbol fans. There are empanadas, and then there are empanadas made by the madres who fought for their sons’ freedom from government corruption. There are cachacas, and then there are sweet, refreshing cachaças after taking in the views of sugar loaves and an omipotent redeemer.
There are chai lattes, and then there are chais from earnest workers in slums, where school girls gather to practice their English and request their photos. The blurred lines of the globe fill us with glimpses and tastes, teasing and toying with the wanderlust stirring inside those of us who feel its tug. These foods and their customs, the way they lead us to expand ourselves and later revel in nostalgia, these are the connections I explore through mixing bowls, whisks and spices.
Spices…the colors, the textures, the scents…transport us, to places we have been and to places we have only imagined. The sealed, glass jar of turmeric at the grocery store pales in comparison to the freshly ground, bright sunflower gold of the turmeric of the market stall. The way the spices blend and transform onions, garlic, ginger and greens becomes a vehicle, and we go on a sensory journey. Proper spices are a powerful tool.
No matter how organized a trip may be, a traveler must always leave room for the unexpected, the serendipitous discoveries- the hole-in-the-wall restaurant, the unlisted gallery, the street performer who strums better than the famed. RawSpiceBar channels surprises, journeys and flavors in one great idea: a monthly spice subscription consisting of three, global, authentic, freshly ground spice mixtures, from top chefs, along with recipes for their use.
It’s an idea I wish I had conceived myself. The monthly spice package unwraps like a friend returning from a trip abroad, regaling you with souvenirs and stories, complete with a layer of patterned paper representative of that region. My first spice package revealed glimpses of Punjabi India.
As I learned, traveling to India is a foodie’s contradiction- the most authentic recipes, and pungent plates await at the street level, but avoiding Delhi Belly requires keeping a safe distance. Most of my food associations entail an extreme consciousness of what I ate and drank, but despite the precautions, there were still plenty of immersive moments like sipping authentic chai tea and riding a beautifully adorned Indian elephant.
As a baker, I was drawn to the Chai & Rose Nankhatai Cookie recipe. I used the cookies as a way to revisit my trip to India, through intense spices and elephant shapes. India is a trip I have yet to fully process in my head or organize photographically. There are still folders and folders of images waiting to be sorted and experiences to be recalled. In more ways than one, the spice package sent me wandering.
These cookies became an afternoon shared with friends, exploring the exotic that exists close to home and finding inspiration in the distant. More on that to come!
Whole Grain Chai & Rose Nankhatai Cookies featuring RawSpiceBar
About This Recipe: RawSpiceBar updated this centuries-old Indian shortbreads cookies recipe by adding freshly ground rose buds & chai spices, yielding a peppery, sweet cookie that pairs perfectly with milky tea or coffee. Nankhatai comes from the Persian word “nan” (meaning bread) and the Afghan word “khatai” (meaning biscuit). These little shortbread cookies are said to have originated in Surat in the 16th century, when the Dutch were prominent spice trading partners with the Indians. An Iranian man ran a European style bakery here but, once the Dutch explorers left, had to adapt to low-cost sweet treats for locals. Traditional North Indian Nankhatai do not use any leavening agents but these days a small amount of baking powder and salt is added to give these cookies a lighter feel.
p.s: I received product from RawSpiceBar, but all opinions are my own!
Long after I should have been sleeping, I laid awake thinking about my dog. I thought about how much I loved this four-legged creature who couldn’t even utter words to me, but yet, I feel so connected to her. I thought about how I’ve only been away from her for about 2 weeks in her entire lifetime. I thought about how betrayed I felt the one time she growled at me. I thought about how I “joke” about her loving the Urban Farmer more than me because he takes her to the farm, where she has utmost freedom and a sense of purpose. I thought about how I miss the spending the entire day with her, but ultimately, I’m happy she loves the Urban Farmer, and I know the farm is her little sheepdog destiny. In short, I realized just how much I love my little Julep because I’m able to put her happiness above my own. This, I realized, from my sleepless, crazy-dog-lady thought stream, is only 1/100th of what it must feel like to be a mother.
I am my mother’s daughter- from her cheekbones, to her voice, to her profile, her eyes and her hands, but when it comes to her patience and her selflessness, I am still a child, a mere student trying to copy the experienced professor’s example. When it comes to sacrifice and thoughtfulness, I have yet to find an example greater than her.
As soon as I was old enough to toddle around, I was in her lap attempting to sew with her. In Middle School, she helped me start my own sewing business. In High School, she sewed the prom dresses I designed. She was my sounding board, my moral support, my constant encouragement, and she loved me more than I can imagine, but as I left our home, the very last baby bird to leave the nest, I drifted farther from her in more ways than one.
I needed to find myself, to see the world, to figure out where I stood and what I believed. During the course of that time, I distanced myself, a stance my loving mother clearly noted. In one of her many handwritten, thoughtful notes to me, she expressed sadness over the gap that had grown between us, and a piece of my heart broke. I had so selfishly hurt this woman who gave me everything and asked for so little in return- just my company. I’ve tried to mend, tried to mitigate the major differences between us, tried to defend her happiness, but when I think of how much she has given me, I realize how short my efforts have fallen.
This is motherhood, I suppose- sweet and tart, ups and downs, immense joys and immense sorrows, and as all of those extremes flash by way too quickly, the thread of love remains just as secure, despite whatever other unraveling occurs.
I’m not a mother, but I have a deep respect for those exemplary women who nurture that love, for all its burdens and rewards. I respect those women who love with such a powerful force, no other relationship can even come close to its strength. Conversely, I sympathize for those women who want that bond so badly, but for whatever reason, never have the opportunity, or for those who do, but only for a moment. Sweet and tart.
This Mother’s Day, I was unfortunately half a country away from the woman who showed me what it means to be a mother, and I owe her more than these words, more gestures to explain the immense gratitude I feel for her gentle love and tireless support. I owe her so much more.
This Mother’s Day, I was fortunate to spend the day with the women who shaped the Urban Farmer, who loved him, nurtured him and encouraged him to be the ambitious, sympathetic, sincere man who I admire and love wholeheartedly. When I was all too young to be receiving dating advice, my sisters ingrained in me the importance of a man’s relationship with his mother. “If you want to know how he’ll treat you, look at how he treats her,” they told me when the only men in my life were Prince Eric and Aladdin. As an adult, I understand the lessons my sisters were trying to impart, and the Urban Farmer’s relationship to his mother and grandmother only makes me love him more.
These Rhubarb Compotes and Rhubarb Upside Down Cake were for the Mothers on their day. The local, seasonal ingredient choice was a nod to my own mom, who resourcefully collected the stringy stalks from the puzzled neighbors’ yards and returned beautiful, delicious, seemingly effortless desserts in their stead. My Mom was and is magical in the kitchen, but more importantly, she’s just a magical woman. Happy Belated Mother’s Day to my own mother and to all you who endure the sweet times and the tart times of motherhood!
p.s: These sweet & tart compotes would make great baby shower party favors too!
About These Recipes: Rhubarb season is early spring, so take advantage with these two recipes. The upside down cake contrasts the tartness of the rhubarb with zesty lemon and almond flavors in a moist, spongey cake. Rhubarb compote is perfect on toast, on pound cake, on ice cream, in yogurt, etc, or add a spoonful to the heavy cream and make a tart and tangy whipped cream to top this cake.