battle 19–day 1–butternut squash

I made my very first soup last night as my official fuck you to the first day of winter.

Truthfully, I’m actually starting to recover from my winter blues, which is ironic since winter hadn’t even started when I sank into my funk. But now I’m feeling less and less inclined to end every day on the sofa, sulking in front of the fire, and more in the mood to venture out for some hot yoga or a sweaty jog with fresh, crisp air piercing my lungs (that last part looks less appealing on paper than it did when I imagined it in my mind, so maybe just hot yoga then). See? I’m not always a grouch.

Part of this transformation, definitely, was finally finding some worthwhile winter vegetables and enjoying the stick-to-my-bones goodness I can make with them, like soup. I’ve always really appreciated the concept of soup for just that reason—it’s so warm and filling and mmmm—but I’ve never been able to embrace it fully because I can’t see everything that’s in it, i.e., vegetables, i.e., onions. The only soup I’ve ever met that didn’t include something I wouldn’t eat was Campbell’s chicken noodle, and so my whole life the only soup I ever ate was…Campbell’s chicken noodle. And gross.

I was pretty excited about butternut squash week because yellow squash week had been so successful that I figured butternut squash would probably go equally well. Plus, since the one thing I know everyone makes with butternut squash is soup, I was going to get make my first soup ever. Easy vegetable plus fun meal equals easy, fun win.

But goddamn onions. Why do onions always have to spoil all my fun? And why is every soup in the history of the world (including probably Campbell’s chicken noodle) made with onions? Why?

My easy win quickly turned into a lot of grunting and bitching and moaning and reconfiguring and reimagining. The first recipe I found, which was perfect for my level of culinary know-how, read like a nursery rhyme for toddlers: gimme some butter, gimme some onion, gimme some stock, gimme some squash; put em together and what’ve you got? Soup!  Pretty easy. Except for the onion. When I rejected that and reassessed, butter, stock and squash seemed a bit paltry for a soup that was supposed to kick my winter into high gear.

Next I turned to some of my favorite cookbooks—Christa’s Simply in Season and my Clean Food—and began combining recipes and making things up, still determined to make the best soup ever without onions. I’d done it with squash casserole, I’d kind of done it with kohlrabi fritters, and by god I was going to do it with butternut squash soup.

As I poked around the kitchen looking for things to put in my soup, I asked David his opinion on the onion.

“Do you think I can use garlic instead of onion?”

“No.”

“But I mean, since garlic and onion are in the same family, wouldn’t it have kind of similar effect if just I used a bunch of garlic instead of onion?”

“No.”

“But listen, don’t you think I could just…”

“How many different ways are you going to ask me this question?”

I glared at him. Then I went to the bottom of the stairs and yelled, “Christa!” I’ve mentioned already how much I like having Christa around, haven’t I? She came out and I asked again whether I could substitute garlic for onion. She said, without really answering the question but knowing there was no way I was going to be convinced to put onion in the soup, “Garlic is always good.” Done.

During prep, I cut up my squash and chatted with David and Christa in the kitchen. When I got to the stringy, seedy part I looked around for instructions on what to do next. Christa said, “You need to get in there with a spoon and dig it out, like with a pumpkin.”

“I’ve never done that with a pumpkin.”

“You’ve never carved a pumpkin before? OK, like with a melon.”

“I don’t eat melon.”

David said, “Like with a cantaloupe, Julie.”

“I don’t eat cantaloupe, and I’ve never done this before!”

We all stood there a little shocked with each other: them with me because I’ve never eaten melon and cantaloupe, me with them for not automatically assuming this about me.

After I finally figured out how to carve my squash (a skill I promise to transfer to melon and cantaloupe should I ever make that leap), I began to build my soup, which now consisted of butter, garlic, stock, squash and… apples. Yay! I don’t know why squash and apple sounded like such a brilliant combination to me, but I was really stoked about it and added…a lot. So I combined everything in a pretty pot, turned it down to simmer, and sat around and waited for it to get soupy and delicious.

After an indeterminate length of time (a little bit, a while, not very long), I checked on the consistency of the squash and apples. They seemed to be softening up, so I started to move them to the blender. This is where good recipe instructions separate themselves from great recipe instructions. One told me to remove the chunks with a slotted spoon and put them in the blender (but then didn’t really give many clues as to what happens after that). The other said to put the whole mixture in the blender, stock and all. At first I started with the slotted spoon because that seemed pretty specific.

Chunks in blender. Blender on. Remarkable lack of blending. Weird smoke smell.

I really wanted to avoid a repeat of Brussels sprouts night, so before I cranked the blender up to high, I asked David his opinion about the blender, hoping he would take one look at it and diagnose the problem immediately.  He didn’t. He just turned it on and tried again, as if I had not just done that exact thing 30 seconds ago. More smoke smell.

Then I abandoned the specific slotted spoon recipe and switched to the whole mixture recipe and dumped everything in the blender, stock and all, and turned the blender on. Blending happened. No smoke smell. Lesson learned.

And what I got for my efforts was a beautiful, creamy butternut squash soup! It was so pretty! My first soup! I scooped myself a bowl, took some pictures and slurped my first spoonful.

Eh.

I mean, it wasn’t terrible. It was fine actually, and I ate most of it, but I wasn’t sure if what was happening in my bowl was great, if it would be my go-to soup to warm my innards and soothe my soul this winter. What was it missing? What did it need more of, what did it need less of, what did it need? When Christa came back into the kitchen I said, “Please taste this and tell me if it tastes like butternut squash soup.”

“Of course it does, it’s butternut squash soup.”

Yes, it was. Thank you, Christa. I did it. I made my first soup. And right as I was about to close the chapter on my squash soup, won, a job well-done, she said,

“So what did you learn?”

Sigh. I may have had this very brief, fleeting thought that maybe I can sort of understand the concept of onions enhancing flavor, and maybe next time I make this soup, which will be around the time hell freezes over and pigs fly, I might try it with the onion. Maybe.

Advertisements

battles 17 & 18–day 1–carrots & kale

When I saw that carrots and kale were my next two battles after Brussels sprouts I had this reaction: this is kind of a stupid project, maybe no one will notice if I just quit.

Carrots, ugh.

Actually, I think of carrots as two different vegetables: raw carrots and cooked carrots. And I don’t really hate raw carrots. I sometimes snack on them at parties and think they are a totally fine vehicle for escorting ranch dressing to my mouth, and I have even been a relatively diligent raw carrot consumer ever since my mom put the fear of god in me that I would go blind if I didn’t eat them. But like cucumbers, I kind of think of raw carrots as a completely boring, totally nonessential vegetable. Except for that blindness bit. I have a physical reaction, however, at the mere thought of cooked carrots (like just now, writing it made the gag reflex in my throat do a little somersault and I’m pretty sure I threw up in my mouth a little bit). How can I have two totally separate feelings toward the same vegetable? Raw carrots? Fine. Cooked carrots? Vomit.

When I was setting up the project I really debated whether I should include carrots because I can stomach raw carrots, and if I like them one way, shouldn’t that technically excuse them from having to participate, because cooked carrots, eh, who needs em?  This was a real struggle with myself. I really had to talk me into the fact that conquering cooked carrots would be a valuable endeavor, too. The only reason I came to terms with adding cooked carrots to the list was because I really, really love pot roast and I don’t know a soul on earth who makes pot roast without them (well, other than me). So, on the list they went.

But then carrot week got here. And I almost quit the fucking project.

I sat around for a week and did nothing. The week did happen to coincide with me being sick and David and Christa being out of town, which I thought were completely reasonable reasons for not cooking, but in the end I was just so unmoved by carrots and so much more tempted by crackers and hummus that I never so much as opened my crisper and peeked at my carrots.

Of course, when the week ended I freaked out. Carrot week was over and now kale week was here. And because I was a goddamn baby about carrot week and avoided it altogether, the only thing left to do was to do them both at once. Carrots and kale. Stupid dumbshit project.

Obviously I immediately began to avoid this whole week, too. Monday I baked cookies and decorated our Christmas tree, which I thought was totally necessary and clearly not an avoidance strategy at all. Tuesday I was exhausted from all that non-avoidance and went to bed early. By Wednesday… either I was going to buck the fuck up or I was going to quit, so I spent the afternoon telling myself in my wimpiest, most unconvincing self-help voice: I win shit, I win shit, I win shit.

I went to the Decatur farmers’ market, bought some Russian red kale and some pretty little carrots, and then I headed home to psyche myself up for my big battle. I win shit. I win shit. But it was really cold. And I was tired again. And blah. And it was really touch and go there for a minute. For several long minutes. I win shit. I win shit. I trudged upstairs and sighed loudly, hoping someone would hear me and rescue me from this awful misery. Then I put my PJs on.

Is it just me, or are PJs totally transformative? I don’t know what it is about the cold of winter and the warmth of fuzzy, comfy PJs, but in the instant I change out of work clothes and into PJs I become like a whole new person. A whole new person who can win the shit out of carrots and kale.

I went downstairs and re-familiarized myself with my kitchen. My kitchen, my friend.  Since it has been a while since I’ve really gotten into dinner and project planning I didn’t have a big menu arranged for the night, I basically just had carrots and kale. I did have one recipe for carrots that was pretty basic, so I read that and got out all the ingredients I needed—honey, butter, balsamic vinegar—and started on the carrots while I tried to figure out what to do with the kale.

I thumbed through cookbooks and quickly remembered why planning and preparing is essential. Buying kale was an important first step toward creating a dish with kale, but if I wanted to make something with anything more than kale, like sweet potato, corn and kale chowder (which I absolutely did, doesn’t that sound amazing?), I would probably also need sweet potatoes and corn. And grapeseed oil, thyme, vegetable stock, rice milk and cashews. None of which I possessed, of course. I had kale and I had carrots.

While the carrots cooked (gaaaaggggg) I washed and chopped the kale and kept searching for an easy, minimal-other-ingredient recipe. Then I took the carrots out of the water, drained them and tossed them in the butter, honey and balsamic glaze I’d been heating on the stove. When they were done, I put them aside and eyed my kale, still unsure about its fate. Then I made the best snap decision of my life. OK, of this project. OK, I made the best decision of the night. I picked up the handful of chopped kale and I dropped it in the honey-balsamic glaze. For good measure I added a few pecans. I mean, why not? If I didn’t like it I could just try it again the next day (maybe with a little more preparation, maybe with sweet potatoes and corn for chowder), and if I did like it then I won some shit…big.

I win shit. I win shit. I win shit.

The carrots were definitely a coup because I’ve hated them so much for so long. I still don’t know if I’ll be able to do them in pot roast, but I’ll eat them with that super sweet honey glaze any time. Delicious. But the kale. Wow. I’m going to go in the kitchen completely, utterly unprepared and start making up stuff more often.

I’m just sayin. I win shit.

Honey Carrots

  • 16 oz baby carrots
  • 4 tbl spoons butter (1/2 stick)
  • 2.5 tbl spoons honey
  • 1 tbl spoon lemon juice
  • 1/16 teaspoon ground ginger
  • Combine carrots and enough water to cover in a large saucepan. Cook over med-high heat until tender, about 5 minutes, drain well.
  • Combine butter and honey in a large skillet. Cook over low heat, stirring continually, until well blended.
  • Add lemon juice and ginger to butter mixture and mix well.
  • Add the carrots to the skillet and stir to glaze. Cook, stirring occasionally, until heated through. Serve immediately.
  • Variation. For a twist on this traditional side dish, substitute balsamic vinegar for the lemon juice. (I used balsamic instead of ginger and lemon juice.)

battle 15–day 4–sweet potato/thanksgiving part 3

My folks moved last year from their sleepy little golf community in east Tennessee to a sleepy little farm community in western P-A, and Thanksgiving was our first time visiting them in their new house. We were there for three days. We spent all day Thursday doing Thanksgiving. And all day Friday doing Black Friday (the thought of which would usually make me want to gouge my eyes out, but the population density of my folks’ area is sparse enough that Black Friday at the Westmoreland Mall was more like a Tuesday afternoon at Lenox: busy, but not soul destroying). By Saturday, we had pretty much exhausted everything there was to do in Greensburg, P-A.

While Mom, Dad and David sat around Saturday morning hemming and hawing over what we should do that day, I meandered about my parents’ oversized and underused kitchen, thinking about what kind of fancy cooking I could make happen in there before the weekend was over (my arrogance continues to blossom). It was still breakfast time and I was starving so I started opening drawers and cabinets looking for inspiration. Then I saw the mound of leftover sweet potato soufflé/casserole in the fridge and genius happened:  sweet potato pancakes. Gen-ius. And even though David usually has cereal and my mom usually has four cups of coffee for breakfast, I was pretty sure that as soon as I announced my grand plan everyone would come running to the kitchen to watch genius unfold, then the pure deliciousness I was dreaming up in my head would happen magically and translate seamlessly to our plates (completely trumping coffee and cereal), and then we would all live happily ever after.

“Hey you guys, I’m going to make sweet potato pancakes, want some?”

They looked at me like I had two heads. David said, “Eh, I already ate.” Mom said, “Oh, that sounds interesting, honey, thank you, baby, but I don’t think so, sweetie.” My dad didn’t even feign interest; he just walked away. “No thanks.”

But I was pretty fucking sure I was on to something. The Internet agreed. We consulted on a few different variations of the many, many sweet potato pancake recipes out there, all of which start with sweet potatoes as the main ingredient, but since I was starting with soufflé/casserole as the main ingredient, I chose several recipes to work with so I could pick and choose the rest of the bits and parts until I thought it looked right. Very scientific. Fucking genius is what it was.

Following is one of the more basic sweet potato pancake recipes with my genius modifications:

  • 1 1/4 cups mashed cooked sweet potatoes (I used about two cups of the soufflé/casserole.)
  • 1 1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
  • 3 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt (I added the flour, baking powder and salt exactly as prescribed.)
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg (I don’t really like nutmeg, so I didn’t use it.)
  • 1/4 cup butter, melted (I figured the casserole/soufflé had enough butter, so I didn’t add any more.)
  • 2 eggs, beaten (Same with the eggs.)
  • 1 1/2 cups milk (Same with the milk, but then the batter was looking kind of gloppy, so I added a little milk here and there to moisten it up a bit.)
  • Sift dry ingredients into a mixing bowl. Combine remaining ingredients; add to flour mixture, stirring just until dry ingredients are moistened. Drop by tablespoons onto hot greased griddle or skillet and fry, turning once, until browned on both sides.

The actual preparation of the batter was pretty standard and didn’t draw a lot of attention from my house full of naysayers, but once I dropped the first dollop of sweetness onto the skillet and the smell of yummy goodness began to fill the kitchen, those naysayers changed their tune. Sweet potato pancakes smell good. One by one my suddenly hungry family filed into the kitchen, “just to see.” Then my mom, who really is a trooper and quite likes trying new things, was the first to shed her hesitation and jumped right on my genius bandwagon. “Julie! Those look great! Let me get my camera!” Flash! Flash! Snap.

And they were fantastic. I’ll be the first to admit I had no idea how they would turn out. I had never in my life had a sweet potato pancake and only knew they existed because I’d seen them on a menu at a ‘frou-frou’ brunch place a few weeks before, but I would never dare order it, and I would have given my folks the same look they gave me if they said that’s what they were making for breakfast. But this is my project and I’m the judgy genius around here, so if I say it will be a masterpiece, it will be. And it was.

battle 15–day 3–sweet potato/thanksgiving part 2

One Thanksgiving down, one to go.

In normal people world, planning to cook my first major dish for family Thanksgiving might have caused some anxiety for someone who doesn’t know how to cook, since holidays are already fraught with tension and too many hens in the kitchen just adds to the angst. But I was pretty excited because A) um, my parents aren’t exactly food critics, and B) this was the first time my parents and I would be in the kitchen together—cooking together—since I started this project. I could finally make good on my threat to teach my mom how to cook.

I had decided early on, in like August, when my mom first asked me to start thinking about what I wanted to eat for Thanksgiving (yes, August, for real, and she asks me what I want for Christmas in June, so…I would say she contributes significantly to my obsessive love for the holidays) not to mess with our tried and true Thanksgiving formula, because even though we discuss the menu and possible alternatives ad nauseum as if it will make a difference, it doesn’t; we still have the same thing every year, and every year we have sweet potato soufflé. And since it was sweet potato week on the blog, this year sweet potato soufflé was all mine.

But I’m still me and I wanted to get as fancy as I could with the soufflé recipe without upsetting the apple cart too much. I could have used my mom’s recipe, but because this project is all about learning to cook new things in new and different ways, I owed it to my sweet potatoes to root out a great idea so we’d have something new and different on the table, but I also didn’t want to stray too far from our same-y same regularness, so my dad would eat it.

I thought about this all fall but didn’t really start my recipe search in earnest until the last minute. I’d had about 37 conversations with my mother about the menu and she was starting to get worried, because I hadn’t given her a grocery list (um, sweet potatoes) for my soufflé, because I hadn’t found a recipe yet. I wasn’t worried. I figured it wouldn’t be too hard to find a good sweet potato recipe the week before Thanksgiving. I was right. My friend Mark, who signed on early to be a researcher for this project (doesn’t that make it sound like we’re totally legit around here at Julie v. Veg?), offered his own personal recipe for sweet potato casserole. Here’s a thing: It didn’t occur to me until I started writing this that there might be a difference between a casserole and soufflé. It didn’t even occur to me when I was making it that what I was making was a casserole and what we usually make is a soufflé. For the record, no one else noticed either. So, that’s another thing. (I bet sweet potato soufflé really is just a casserole, but they call it soufflé because it’s alliterative. I respect that.)

Thanksgiving morning my dad was going over the schedule of what would be cooked when so that everything came together at once (he may not be a master chef, but he possesses the kitchen skill I envy most, so he’s OK in my book), and I saw my chance to get into and out of the kitchen before all the day’s madness happened. Despite this great opportunity to cook with my parents for the first time since my dad taught me how to make a grilled cheese when I was 12 (the one food item I cook well, and the one thing I could eat every day for the rest of my life and be perfectly happy, so technically, my dad did teach me everything I ever really need to know about cooking), I still prefer to be in the kitchen alone, so while everyone was waking up and getting dressed and before the real cooking started, I snuck into the kitchen and tried my damndest to make some sweet potatoes by myself.

Snap! Flash! Snap! (Well, it was really more like, Flash! “Wait a second, why isn’t this doing what I…Julie, hold still…what the?” Flash! Flash! “Dammit.”)

I had barely started mashing the potatoes (which I was doing with a mixer because my dad didn’t know what a potato masher looked like and swore they didn’t own one, a fact I believed since we always ate potatoes out of a box growing up, but later when I located a masher and showed it to him he said, ‘Well, huh, lookie there’…thanks, Dad) when my paparazzo mom came bounding around the corner with the digital camera I gave her last year for Christmas, swearing she has finally learned how to use it and if I would please just hold still….

So I paused to give her a few lessons in digital photography, which was totally by design, because then she became engrossed in exercising her newfound expertise (and was therefore less interested in asking why I was doing what I was doing every single step of the way). Most of the photos herein are hers. I think they’re quite good; don’t you?

Once I was done furtively combining all my ingredients and I had let my mom take a sufficient number of photos of the process, we examined the final product before putting it in the oven. It looked kind of…wet. Was it supposed to be this wet? It was really wet. At this point…I…asked my mom what she thought. Cringe. To be fair, I’d never made a sweet potato soufflé before and I really hadn’t ever eaten it either, so I had no idea how wet or congealed or mushy it was supposed to be, but I figured she’d been making it every Thanksgiving for 20 years, so she would obviously know way better than I would, despite my arrogance about being the best cook in the house, and sigh, what an, ugh, awesome opportunity for her to…help me. If I had known we were making a casserole and not a soufflé, I probably wouldn’t have panicked at this point and would have chalked up the wetness to the fact that this was just a totally different recipe, but I didn’t make all those connections, thus the panicking. Mom’s solution: cornstarch. She said it thickens without adding taste. I have to admit, that was kind of a cook-like thing to know.

It came out looking totally normal and it looked beautiful on the table with the rest of our regular, same-y same Thanksgiving feast, which was delicious and perfect and wonderful. And holy sweet sweet potato soufflé/casserole, it was like, dessert sweet. I liked it just fine, but more importantly, my dad loved it. Win.

Mark’s Fabulous Family Sweet Potato Casserole

  • 6 cups mashed sweet potatoes (5 or 6 potatoes)

Bake them on an aluminum foil lined pan at 375 degrees for about an hour, then peel and mash.

  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 4 eggs
  • 1/2 cup melted butter
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Combine ingredients above and put in greased baking dish (13×9 pyrex oblong works well).

Topping

  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 cup chopped pecans
  • 1/2 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup melted butter

Combine topping ingredients and pour over potato mixture.  Bake uncovered at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Serve and enjoy!

battle 16–day 1–brussels sprouts

I took a break from cooking last week to catch up on writing about the flurry of cooking I did over the holidays. But then I realized my DVR had gone out of its way to record a bunch of trash TV for me while I was away, and I figured I owed it to my DVR to watch those shows. In the meantime, I remained to committed to not cooking last week (which was easy to not do from the couch), so I haven’t amassed any more overdue dispatches from the frontlines. I owe you about three battles’ worth and since I won them all, I will definitely tell you about them.

But first let’s talk about how I caught my kitchen on fire last night.

I’ve been on a roll lately and have gotten super excited over my successes with the last few vegetables. At one point over the holidays I said to my dad, “I. Don’t. Know. How. To. Cook.” But because I delivered that line not long after we’d eaten the best sweet potato soufflé in the history of the universe, prepared by me, along with some pretty fine turkey gravy, prepared by me, my dad said, “How much longer are you going to use that excuse?” And I realized I really have grown. I am kind of starting to get the hang of cooking. I understand more about the physics of heating food, and I kind of know which utensils are better for what, and I can even begin to put together menu items in my mind….with vegetables I’ve never had before but imagine might be kind of good…and think, that might be awesome, I should try it.

So that’s where my head was last night when I caught my kitchen on fire. Cooking? Piece of cake. I’ve totally got this.

But first-first, does anybody care that last night was the first night of Brussels sprouts week? Yes, you do. What I’ve learned about Brussels sprouts is people either love them or hate them, and I’ve been catching it from both sides ever since I started this project. It is the number one single most talked about vegetable because people have such intense, visceral feelings and experiences that define their love or hatred. I have to admit, the people who express serious love for Brussels sprouts surprise me, since it’s supposed to be the vegetable that represents all other vegetables as the worst in the history of vegetablehood and the reason children feed veggies to the family dog, but they are serious about it. People love Brussels sprouts. And the minute they come up in conversation they turn all mushy faced, like they’re talking about a lover, and say sexy things like, “Mmmm, toss them with a little bit of garlic and olive oil and…” and then they casually throw out a bunch of other words and foods I’ve never heard of or cooked with but sound decent and sexy enough, like prosciutto and pancetta. However, the folks who hate Brussels sprouts, the good Americans who grew up hiding peas in milk, my kindred spirits, hate Brussels sprouts. And even though they look markedly less sexy when their faces contort into amoebic blobs and they gag and spit, I do get a little hot and bothered by this reaction. Me too, friend, me too.

For Brussels sprouts week we did what we always do: we learned a thing or two, we went shopping, we tried to figure out the best way to cook them, in that order. This is what we learned: Apparently it’s spelled and pronounced Brussels (with an –s–) sprouts. Like the city. Not brussel (lowercase, no –s–) sprouts, which is how I’ve imagined it and pronounced it all my life. I prefer my way, of course. At the grocery store, we had no trouble at all finding Brussels sprouts, which stands to reason since so many people love them. And once we got them home, we relied on our old pals Google and the Joy of Cooking to get the ball rolling. This part of cooking has become so easy and painless it’s almost boring to report on.

Thank god I caught my kitchen on fire.

While the sprouts were on the stove doing whatever it is they were doing at low heat for 20 minutes (is this just plain ole “cooking”?), Melissa and I were deliberating over what else we should eat with our sprouts. I’d located some OK-looking chicken fingers in the freezer, and we thought maybe we needed one more thing.

“Mac-n-cheese?” I asked. We love mac-n-cheese. And really, who doesn’t? The last time Melissa and I had mac-n-cheese the only other item on our plates was cake (mmmmm cake), so anything slightly nutritious would be an improvement; pairing Brussels sprouts with mac-n-cheese would be like gourmet dining. But she had brought a yummy loaf of garlic bread, so we decided to save mac-n-cheese for cake and have fancy bread with fancy sprouts. After the chicken came out of the oven, I popped some buttered slices of garlic bread on the top rack, and cranked the oven up to broil.

Last night’s dinner was not one that came together all at once (if I ever learn how to do that, that will be the best skill I learn from this project). It came out in bits and pieces, slowly. The chicken happened first. Then the sprouts. Then the bread. Sort of.

Melissa and I nibbled on a few pieces of chicken while we waited for the sprouts and bread to be ready. Then we thought maybe the chicken needed some punch, so I dug out some ranch dressing and the. world’s. best. hot. sauce. ever. on. the whole. planet. oh. my. god. In September Meat Pusher Elwood gave me some of his homemade hot sauce, which I think at the time he did because I like to put hot sauce in a certain adult beverage I consume in mass quantities, but I’ve kept it in the fridge waiting for a special occasion to break it out because homemade hot sauce just seems too awesome to waste on my frat party-esque drinking binges. While frozen chicken strips may not seem that special to the casual observer, it was Brussels sprouts night and I did catch my kitchen on fire, so I would say last night was pretty fucking special. Thanks, Elwood.

We had more or less devoured the chicken, so I guessed it was time to examine the Brussels sprouts and remove them from the stove. And then the fire alarm went off. I was like, what the what, Liz Lemon?! We all looked at each other, do you smell smoke? No, do you? No. Oh well. Ha. Ha.

Who does that? Who dismisses a fire alarm?

The dogs went a little berserk trying to root out the beeping, David opened the front door to let out the imaginary smoke, and I went back to my Brussels sprouts. Then, shockingly, the kitchen filled up with smoke. Melissa and I at the same time realized what was happening and dove for the oven. The bread! In the oven. On broil. For who knows how long.

We opened the oven and flames shot out everywhere. Melissa immediately reacted by herding the dogs into the other room, and I immediately reacted by standing there and staring at the fire. David ran in and I looked at him and said, not really with any amount of excitement or worry, but more matter-of-factly, “I don’t know what to do.” He looked at me like I was a fucking idiot. He grabbed a potholder, reached in, pulled out the flaming cookie sheet, dumped the fiery bread into the sink and turned the water on it. Crisis averted.

And then I heard “HOLY FUCK!!” And a bunch of other expletives too profane to include here on this family blog. Apparently the potholder David grabbed was actually a very convincing “decorative” potholder imitator, which melted to the hot cookie sheet and burned the ever lovin shit out of David’s hand. Oops.

So, I caught my kitchen on fire and maimed my husband. I suddenly felt the sharp rise in success I experienced in recent weeks was all for naught. And I would have been really depressed about this development, except for Christa. When Christa got home last night, she said, “You had a kitchen fire? You’re a real cook now.”

And the Brussels sprouts were great.

battle 15–day 2–sweet potato

Remember how I very cleverly scheduled the pumpkin battle to fall during the week of Halloween? I did the same thing for sweet potatoes and Thanksgiving, because what’s more Thanksgiving-y than sweet potato soufflé? I mean besides, turkey. And pumpkin pie. And cranberry sauce. And corn casserole. Besides those things, what’s more Thanksgiving-y than sweet potato soufflé? Nothing.

As an adult Thanksgiving is probably my most favorite holiday, and I say that with all due respect to my former favorite holiday, Christmas. When I was a kid, all I did was dream of Christmas and all those presents under the tree. I would count the days and minutes from, like, June. I’m probably the only person in the universe who isn’t offended when people start putting up Christmas decorations the day after Halloween, because historically, as soon as Christmas was over I would sink into a deep depression for weeks, and then perk up for a minute because my birthday is in March, and then fall back into a gloomy funk until Christmas rolled around again. That’s a torturously lengthy present-less stretch and time goes sooo sloooow when you’re seven and entirely dependent on other people to give you things (and you need things), because you don’t have a job.

Then I grew up and got a job. And that’s when Christmas became my second favorite holiday. Because with a job I can make Christmas happen for myself any time of the year, but what my job won’t do for me is cook a turkey. And I love a turkey. And leftover-turkey sandwiches. And gravy. And just about everything else that goes with Thanksgiving dinner. Love. It. And now, I love sweet potatoes, too. Holy yum sweet potatoes yum yum.

St. Thanksgivingfairyclaus visited me twice this year: once for pre-Thanksgiving with friends, and once for regular Thursday Thanksgiving at my folks’ place. Both times I was in charge of sweet potatoes, and I wanted to make it special and different for both occasions. As a rule I’m not a very traditional, sentimental kinda girl, but when it comes to holidays and food, I’m by the book. However, this project has given me so many opportunities to branch out and really try new things that I didn’t want to stop that momentum, so I considered recipes that were both traditional and edgy (or ‘frou frou,’ as my dad likes to say).

I decided pretty early on that I would save the most traditional dish, sweet potato soufflé, for Thanksgiving with my parents and would try to find something a little more fun for pre-Thanksgiving with friends. For the friends version, I decided on a roasted sweet potato recipe from the Martha Stewart holiday magazine. Fancy!

Saturday morning before pre-Thanksgiving, David and I went to the Morningside Farmers’ Market to buy sweet potatoes for dinner that night.

(Side Note: While we were there we saw Jerusalem artichokes and I took a picture for Jess to prove they exist just in case they aren’t there again when Jerusalem artichoke week rolls around. That would be a bummer. Darn.)

Several of the farmers had sweet potatoes, but I really liked the ones Christa had used for sweet potato quesadillas, so I went in search of those. I bought, I don’t know, a bunch, and then wandered around the market feeling very earthy and hip. I’ve always thought neighborhood farmers’ markets are a good idea, in theory, but what with not eating vegetables and all, I never had reason to frequent them. While I was having this little self congratulatory revelation I noticed a big crowd standing around one tent and OMG! It’s celebrity chef Scott Peacock! Who also happens to be the executive chef at Watershed, my all-time most favorite restaurant in the universe forever to infinity and beyond. Morningside Farmers’ Market: epic success.

(Side Note No. 2: If you love Scott Peacock, like me, or even if you don’t but you love me and you know I know what the shit I’m talking about, and I do, he’ll be back at the MFM November 21 working with….sweet potatoes.) (Wait, that already happened…what day is it?) (Wait, does this mean Scott Peacock was working with sweet potatoes the day I saw Scott Peacock and I somehow didn’t notice that because I was too busy drooling over Scott Peacock? Epic fail.)

At home, the roasted sweet potatoes came together very quickly and easily. It was so easy I thought, hey, why don’t I take this extra time I’ve got (which was about five minutes) and start a whole new cooking project? Great idea! So then I pulled out some green tomatoes and fried those bitches (which made us about an hour late). So, the Potties’ final contribution to pre-Thanksgiving: fried green tomatoes and maple-glazed roasted sweet potatoes. If we’d have gone to pre-Thanksgiving last year, the absolute best, most frou frou item I could have contributed would have been monkeybread, which would have been delicious in a 12-year-old, spend-the-night party kind of way.

Pre-Thanksgiving was so awesome. Lots of good friends, great food, and remarkably excellent sweet potatoes. Many, many thanks to all my friends who shared with me the best of the best from their kitchens, and especially to those of you who made your shit without onions.

Maple-glazed Roasted Sweet Potatoes

Ingredients

  • 4 large sweet potatoes, peeled and diced
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • Juice and zest of 1 oranges, zest reserved
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon maple syrup

Preparation

Preheat oven to 450°F. Place potatoes on large baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Bake for 30 minutes, stirring once. Mix orange juice, sugar and syrup in a small bowl and drizzle over potatoes. Return to oven for another 10 minutes. Remove to serving dish and garnish with fresh orange zest.

battle 15–day 1–sweet potato

In case any of you actually read this regularly and have noticed posts have become slightly more infrequent in the last few weeks, let me catch you up on what’s happening with Julie v. Veggies right now. You may remember that I had a minor (major) panic attack when summer turned to winter and the vegetables went to shit. That slowed my enthusiasm significantly. Then pumpkin week happened, which picked up my spirits, but then my vacation happened, which put the brakes on the speed I picked up from pumpkin.  In the midst of my vacay exhaustion—and, might I add, the time change, which I hate (seriously, fall, WTF)—I discovered I had one vegetable on the list twice and one week on the list with no vegetable at all.

The project is kicking my ass a little. I’m not saying vegetables are beating me, I’m just saying the project could be a little nicer. Project, back off a little, eh?

So here’s where we are on the schedule now: I’m all caught up on pumpkin and kohlrabi; cauliflower happened next, and even though I have done it I haven’t written about yet; I have a week off (this week); and sweet potato is scheduled for next week to coincide with Thanksgiving. I was going to use this off week to catch up on posts, but instead I started early with sweet potatoes. So I’m going to simultaneously try to catch up and tell you how it’s going with sweet potatoes.

Another thing that happened in the last couple of weeks was David and I got a new housemate. Remember Christa from squash casserole night? Christa has been following the blog very closely and was so worried the project would eventually get the best of me if I kept fucking things up in the kitchen as regularly as I have been, that she thought it was best for everyone if she just moved in to show me how it’s done. And Christa knows how it’s done. Holy good goddamn dinner. The woman can cook.

Monday was supposed to be the first night of my off week, but Christa had brought home some locally grown sweet potatoes, educated me on the difference between conventional and local or organic sweet potatoes (which I totally knew), and started dreaming up all the things we could do with said sweet potatoes. I just watched it all unfold in awe. I was in a bit of a trance and secretly strategizing ways to keep Christa forever, when she whispered (or maybe e-mailed) the words ‘grass-fed brisket.’ I snapped to attention and said fuck my week off, we’re having meat and potatoes, my friends.

The challenge with meat-and-sweet-potato Monday was that one of my many, many, many vegetarian friends was joining us for dinner. I don’t know how, as carnivorous as I am, I have managed to collect so many vegetarians, but I’m sort of swimming in them. And if there’s one thing they’ve taught me it’s that they do require, for nutrition and other purposes, meals more substantial than meat-and-potatoes-minus-the-meat. I racked my brain for things vegetarians eat and asked our dinner companion, Vegetarian Erin, “Um, how about some tofu?” That seriously happened.

But Christa, because she’s amazing, said, “What if we do sweet potato quesadillas?” Obviously.

Then she started pulling things out of drawers and cabinets—utensils I couldn’t identify, spices I’ve never heard of, food I didn’t know we had—waved a magic wand and made the most spectacular, magical meal of sweet potato-y, black bean-y, habanero pepper-y, garlic-y, cheesy quesadillas. And mine had brisket. Wonderful. Heavenly. Too good.

I have to say, even though this project is kicking my ass a little, I have eaten better in the last three months than any other single period in my life. I don’t hate it.

And Christa may or may not forevermore be chained to a chair in my basement. You don’t know.