battle 20, 22, 23–artichokes, parsnips, cabbage

The second friend to offer to hoist me out of the slump was my neighbor, Melissa R. It’s not unusual for Melissa to offer to cook for me under normal circumstances, but circumstances have changed in the last year and keeping me alive no longer tops her list of priorities. I suppose suggesting that I topped her list of priorities previously is a stretch, but now I’m really way down on the list. I’m like…third.

So here are the new circumstances: first, Melissa had a baby and the way that goes is he needs to be fed more often and my guess is more nutritiously than I do; and second, because my food preferences are changing, it’s not as easy to feed me as it used to be when her husband and I both refused all the same foods and she could make the same bland, colorless, tasteless meal for everyone.

But she perseveres.

So last week I was whining and complaining about all the terrible vegetables in January and how I really didn’t know if I could stomach them. Turnips. Bleck. Parsnips. Bleck. Even Melissa, who comes from farm people and will eat anything that grows out of the ground or off a tree or otherwise tastes like dirt, said the snips are good for nothing vegetables. But she was not about to let something as banal as cabbage get the best of me. (Cabbage, of course, is what I was the most afraid of. Gross. I hate the way it looks all slimy and translucent when it’s cooked. Like an onion. I seriously want to vomit right now just thinking of it.) We came up with this grand plan to knock out as many of January’s vegetables as possible the next day, then Melissa went grocery shopping and I took a nap.

Terrible Vegetable Smorgasbord Sunday included the following:

Trader Joe’s spinach artichoke dip—Heavenly. I ate so much of this I didn’t want to eat anything else, but in the spirit of TVSS, I eventually had to turn my attention to…

Mashed potatoes with parsnips—Less exciting, but not unmanageable. My beef with potatoes and parsnips is similar to kohlrabi trying to act like a potato, except this really is a potato…with parsnips. It was hard to evaluate the parsnips because of the awesomeness of the potatoes, except the potatoes were ever so slightly less awesome than usual, and obviously parsnips were the culprit. However, it didn’t make me want to cut my arm off or anything, so if faced with another mashed parsnip Christmas situation, I would probably be able to handle my shit.

Beef stew with cabbage (and no onions)—Surprisingly delicious (the cabbage, I mean…obviously Melissa’s stew was going to be good).  I got text updates all day on the progress of the cabbage stew, which Melissa thinks she burned at the last minute, but since we’re  a bunch of amateurs and we were preoccupied by rooting out slimy cabbage bits, we totally didn’t notice, and we ate it anyway, happily. Then we discovered, with lots of joy and exultation, that we like cabbage.

Terrible Vegetable Smorgasbord Sunday was like winter’s answer to summer’s fried food night. We accomplished a lot easily and deliciously with not a lot of effort. I still wasn’t done with artichokes (spinach artichoke dip seemed so good it felt like cheating, I needed to eat an artichoke) and I felt like I had one more cabbage demon to slay (cole slaw), but I went ahead and considered myself done with parsnips. Good enough.

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battle 21–day 1–rhubarb

To help peel the project back off the ground, I pleaded with JVV’s facebook friends to give me exciting mix and match ideas, or—and this was what I was really going for—to cook any of these terrible vegetables for me in exciting ways. Emphasis on all the someone-else-doing-this-for-me parts.

I got some hits on that. I like this trend. A lot.

The first offer I received was from my new favorite friend, rhu-Barb. I’ve known Barb since she and BFF Lauren and I all worked together a number of years ago, but for some reason she didn’t catch the anti-veg itch when we started this back in the summer because she didn’t know I was me (penalty against Barb for this transgression). It was only in about mid-December, after Lauren—drunk with blog stardom from her third or fourth cameo—made everyone in her immediate vicinity read every post with her name in it that Barb put two and two together. So she went back to JVV’s auspicious beginnings and read about every fire, explosion and upended pizza until she knew about my vegetables better than I did. Then she e-mailed me:

Dear Julie,

You are the smartest, funniest, most hilariously awesome person I know, and I agree with you, you do have great hair, plus, vegetables are the single most terrible invention ever in the universe and I hate them, too, but I have managed to survive them, and I think you can, too, with this secret: cake. I would be obliged, honored even, to make a vegetable cake for you any time.

Your biggest fan,

Barb

I may have taken some liberties with that e-mail, but it definitely had the word cake in it. And she definitely offered to make it for me. And I definitely took her up on it.

Barb’s offer made my mouth water—rhubarb coffee cake and fresh-squeezed, homemade orange juice—and I was a little cranky with her for offering it during squash week when rhubarb week was still a month away. I wanted it to happen, like, that day. Then I realized, while I was being cranky in my head with my biggest fan for offering to make me a bunch of delicious homemade awesomeness, that my mouth was watering over a vegetable. A vegetable that had previously made me gag. Don’t I win something for that? Like a cookie?

Or cake.

Barb stuck to the rules and planned to bake rhubarb cake during rhubarb week.  Then she, Lauren and I gathered in Lauren’s office before work one morning and rhu-Barb unveiled her vegetable cake.

Friends.

Few things in life make me happier than cake. It does things to me that make me blush. Until now, the rules have dictated that my vegetables must be prepared in the form of a dinner-type main or at least a substantial side, but since we’ve struggled to get moving again and we’re considering all kinds of new rules in this new year, let us fold into our arsenal of ways to win vegetables—fried, with meat, or covered in cheese—a new weapon: bake it in a cake.

Rhubarb. Won. And, we’re back.

rhu-Barb’s Amazing Vegetable Cake

  • 1/2 cup butter or margarine
  • 1 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup buttermilk (use the full-on fat kind, seriously)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 3 cups sliced rhubarb
  • 2 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda

TOPPING:

  • 3/4 cup light brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

–Before you start: Preheat oven. Grease pan.
–In medium bowl mix butter, sugar, egg, buttermilk, and vanilla.
–Stir in rhubarb, flour, and soda.
–Pour into greased 13 x 9″ pan.
–Combine brown sugar, walnuts, and cinnamon; sprinkle over batter.
–Bake in 350 oven for 45 minutes or until inserted toothpick comes out clean (course, if your toothpick hits a piece of rhubarb, it will not come out clean…take another stab).

NOTE: Approximately 9-10 stalks rhubarb needed. If you cannot find them at the market, Publix has frozen rhubarb. Its usually somewhere near the ice cream and/or frozen juice. One bag will work, but sometimes I go crazy and use a bag & ½. If using the frozen kind, let it thaw a bit in the fridge for a day or so (you don’t want to use it frozen, but just barely thawed), then drain off the liquid and chop it up a little smaller (like each chunk into 3-4 pieces) because the way it comes is too big.

Note from Julie: I love Barb’s recipe. Very instructive. Very helpful.

battle 20–artichokes

This time I don’t have any good excuses. I’ve got nothing. Really. Nothing.

OK, I’ve got one thing. A girlfriend said to me yesterday that she’s in a “post-holiday can’t-get-all-my-balls-back-up-in-the-air funk,” which described precisely what’s happening with me right now. I’ve got a lot of balls. And since grocery shopping and cooking are still not automatic for me, it’s been a pain in the ass to work them back into my routine. Balls.

Obviously I didn’t intend to start the new year with such a lackluster performance. I actually jumped right into artichokes on artichoke Sunday when I was at the Midway Pub watching football. Midway serves artichokes fritters as an appetizer and I figured I could start the year off right with a big fried artichoke win. But they were boring. So boring they didn’t even warrant a full post. Super boring.

A few days later I gave artichokes another try with the artichoke cheese dip at Melton’s App and Tap (I frequent some fine eateries). Boring.

And there I was. New year. Shitty vegetable. Nothing to report (what was I going to say? I lost my first battle of the year? No way). So that was it, I came home day after day and didn’t cook, didn’t write, didn’t do shit.

Fortunately I have you friends to remind me so frequently what a slacker I am.

Finally I decided that since I let myself get so far behind that it would be fine to mix and match and combine and reorder and get crazy with January’s vegetables to catch up. New year. New rules.

Here’s what we’re up against in January (and honestly, why I’ve been reluctant to start the new year with typical New Year’s verve, I mean, come on, January): artichokes (those are technically left over from December, but I’m giving them one last chance), snow peas, rhubarb, rutabaga, cabbage and turnips.

Kill. Me. Now.

battle 19–day 2–butternut squash/christmas!

I took a few days off after my big onion-less soup victory (a few weeks’ distance from the soup experience has changed the narrative of its taste and smell and overall only moderate success from being boring to superb, in my mind) to get ready for Christmas. I had deliberately scheduled butternut squash for that week because it seemed like a pleasant winter vegetable and I would rather have something warm and friendly on my Christmas table than something disgusting that no one would eat, like turnips.  My sister, Bethany, who has been angling for another blog cameo since her last appearance was less flattering than she cared for, signed on to make Christmas squash so I could concentrate on everything else.  But unfortunately for Bethany, just because she cooks something yummy doesn’t mean her second appearance on the blog will be any more flattering than the first (even though she also has good hair, it kind of runs in the family).

In the days leading up to Christmas—which was at my house this year and was the first time since both my sister and I have been married that we would all be together on Christmas—I began to plan a menu and schedule what I should cook when so I could achieve the one thing I want to accomplish in this project: everything coming together at once. If I was able to do that on Christmas day it would be like my own little Christmas miracle.

I’d put together a pretty straightforward menu, but one that incorporated as many elements of the project as possible without straying too far from traditional Christmas goodness (I didn’t want my dad to go hungry, plus since he had so successfully scheduled Thanksgiving so that everything landed on the table all at once, hot and ready to eat, I would be relying on him pretty heavily to help me do that at my house, and I figured the least I could do as thanks was make a few things he wouldn’t mind eating).

Our Christmas menu for six (which was clearly enough to feed 112):

  • Roast and gravy
  • Orange maple glazed sweet potatoes (which I first made for pre-Thanksgiving)
  • Brown sugar Brussels sprouts
  • Epic butternut squash casserole (so named by Bethany)
  • Mashed potatoes
  • Mixed green salad
  • Grandmother Judy’s butter muffins
  • Pumpkin crisp (this delight has found a permanent home my repertoire; I love it)

I got the sweet potato and Brussels sprouts recipes from the Fresh Market Holiday Handbook I had been holding onto for months but only got around to looking at the Wednesday before Christmas. I knew the sweet potatoes would be easy and the sprouts looked even easier, and because I had just about convinced myself that cooking only easy things would be the best way to achieve synchrony, they both went on the list. Everything else was pretty standard: roast, red meat, obviously; David is a mashed potato expert and for me no holiday is complete without them, so that was an obvious inclusion; the salad was just because it seemed like the right thing to do; my grandmother’s butter muffins are a holiday staple; pumpkin crisp instead of pie for dessert because I love it and I don’t love pie; and finally, last but not least, the butternut squash casserole my sister promised would be epic.

I had talked to my sister about a  dozen times earlier in the week and traded several text messages about plans and how much time she would need to make epic squash (many, many hours) and whether she would make it at my house or her house and whether there would be enough oven space and and and…. We also talked about how she and her husband should bring all their presents to our house so we could all open everything together and then have our big dinner and then all collapse on the couch in beautiful, stuffed misery and watch football. I said, hey, make sure to bring your dog so we can spend all day doing all the things we’ve always done on Christmas since time immemorial.  It was around this plan and these conversations that I built my schedule, my hard-and-fast, dinner-at-3, because-that’s-what-time-we-always-have-dinner schedule.

So you can imagine my surprise when late, late, late on Christmas Eve I got a little text message from her that said, hey, we’ll be there around 2.

This was when If You Fuck Up My Christmas I’ll Kill You Dead Julie told It’s All Good in the Spirit of Christmas Julie to take a hike, and replied:

Me: No, no, no. Party starts at 11.

This was me being generous, still tending slightly toward Christmas spirit; I really wanted them there at 8 a.m.

Her: Sorry, lunch with husband’s family.

And this was when searing venom began to shoot out my eyes, ears, nose, fingers, toes, ala fire-breathing dragon lady, but worse, because it was me.

Me: I don’t like this at all.

So she called me. Her husband lost his mother to breast cancer a number of years ago, so it’s especially important to them to spend holidays together with his father and sister and celebrate in the spirit of holiday togetherness.

Me, on the phone: OK, let me sulk about this for a minute. I’ll be fine.

We hung up. I sulked. And then I relented. Begrudgingly.

Me, back to texting: OK, we can wait to do presents and dinner. We’ll just make it supper. Do NOT open ANY presents before you get here. At least let me have that.

Me again: And don’t be late or I’ll poke your eyes out and won’t give you a good blog cameo.

She said something nice and sincere here.

Me: I’m serious about poking your eyes out.

The next day they arrived early and her epic squash casserole was heat-and-eat ready. I’m not saying I’m a bully, but sometimes the fear of god, or eye gouging, goes a long way. I’m just sayin. What?

Christmas dinner was a fantastic success. My dad worked out the schedule, I chopped up my fancy vegetables with the fancy knives my parents gave me for Christmas (someone reads the blog!), and then I delegated the shit out of everything else, which actually felt great. Having more hands on deck made achieving my ultimate dinner goal much more manageable, and at 6:05, my entire Christmas dinner—including four new-to-me-in-2009 vegetables—was on the dining room table, hot and delicious looking. Happy Christmas to me. We did it.

And Bethany was right. Her butternut squash casserole was epic. Won.

Bethany’s Epic Butternut Squash Casserole

Cut two large butternut squashes in half, lengthwise. Get all the goo and seeds out of the middle. Drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place them face down on a cookie sheet and roast at 350 for 1 hour.

Let cool.

Scoop all the mushy goodness away from the skin. Combine with two eggs, salt and pepper, a mountain of shredded cheese (I used sharp cheddar), and lots of bread crumbs. Mash it up really good. Spread in an appropriate sized baking dish. Throw a few pats of butter around the top (I did about 8). Then bake at 350 for 40 minutes.

Remove from oven.

Crumble Cheez-its over the top to form a nice crust. Bake for 5 more minutes.

And another thing: This is my friend Sarah’s blog documenting her treatment and personal commentary on breast cancer issues. It’s funny, enlightening and includes some great not-your-typical breast cancer resources: http://www.thetitoffensive.blogspot.com/