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I thought about claiming that I gave up blogging for Lent, but that wouldn’t be true. My friend St. John Chrysostom says that it is more important to give up sins during Lent, such as lying, than to give up indifferent things, like eating and blogging. So I will just say that I slacked off on the blogging front, and the longer it went on the harder it was to correct. 

Since last we spoke, I

  • cooked lots of vegan and gluten-free food
  • didn’t run enough to talk about (pesky leg)
  • went to Utah for skiing and visited a great Orthodox church
  • celebrated Holy Week and Pascha
AND AND AND
  • wrote and submitted my first whole dissertation chapter! All 45 pages and 98 footnotes. 

It still needs polishing but my director says to go on to the next one for now. 

In honor of my blogging comeback, I leave you with my Pascha cake.

I haven’t made a proper layer cake in years, and I had to borrow pans from two people, but this was worth it. I’ve been thinking about carrot cake for a few months now and looking at lots of recipes, because I have very strong opinions on the subject. Carrrot cake ought to have a very high proportion of carrots, and also include pineapple, coconut, and walnuts. This recipe fits the bill, baked in 3 9” round pans. With cream cheese and dulce de leche frosting from here (a little different from the one with the cupcake recipe). 

Edited to add: I used 2 T of Ener-G egg replacer whisked with 7 T of warm water instead of the 3 eggs. I also used unsweetened coconut, since that’s what I had in the pantry, and thought it was still plenty sweet. I used the larger amount of sugar in the frosting, but if I were to do it again, I’d use less. Keep it refrigerated so the frosting doesn’t melt off, but let it sit out for a short while to soften up the cake before you eat it.

Since it was a special occasion, I splurged on Thomas Keller’s famous-in-the-GF-world all-purpose gluten-free flour mix, C4C. Sold by Williams-Sonoma at astonishing price, I think I can say it is worth the investment when you want to make something really spectacular. I was being such a careful baker that I even sifted it before measuring! (I also made hot cross biscuits with it for my Pascha basket.)

I took it to a big party, and 3/4 of it got eaten by other people, leaving just the right take-home amount for me. Yum.

What should I try with the rest of the precious bag of C4C?

Yay! Just in time to help combat the February grumps.

I’ve been running again for two weeks now, carefully and on short distance routes (ranging from 1.25 to 2.3 miles), and my leg seems to be up to the challenge. There have been some slight twinges and one strange episode of numbness on the other side of the injured calf… but nothing that seems serious. To be on the safe side, though, I’m increasing my distances only very slowly. I’ll have to stick with the 2-3 mile distances for a while yet.

This time around, I’ve started using the Nike+ GPS, since I have an iPhone now. When I was marathon training, I used my old iPod nano with the Nike+ attachment, with the sensor that you attach to your shoelaces. It was perfectly serviceable, and got me to the marathon in fine form, but the sensor wasn’t always very accurate. You could calibrate it to your height and stride, but even so, if you changed pace, it had a hard time tracking your distance accurately. With the iPhone and GPS, there’s no need for a shoe sensor (which also got off-kilter if you bumped it out of place at all). I especially like that you can look at a map of your route at the end and see your pace variations along the way.

Being the impatient soul that I am, I started thinking today about how lovely it will be when I can do 10 miles on Saturdays again. Once I’d worked up to it, 8-12 miles really was a fabulous distance for a weekend: a bit of hard work at the end, but a happy long-distance running zen experience over all, especially in the park where you can share the energy with all the other runners, cyclists, and babies in jogging strollers. Also it’s not so far that I can’t do anything else for the rest of the weekend. (Yes, 15-20 milers, I’m looking at you.) 

In other running news, registration for this year’s Marine Corps Marathon opens in a few weeks. Should I run it again? I want to do another marathon sometime; I’m just not sure whether this year is the most reasonable choice, given the uncertainties of being post-injury and pre-job. 

After almost four weeks of instituting The Schedule, however imperfectly (or, in the case of this last week, almost not at all - thanks, stomach bug), I am pleased to report that progress has been slow but consistent. I wrote almost 20 pages and read 2.5 books.

I had hoped to be in a new research phase by now, for the Egyptian half of the project, but writing up last summer’s research is taking much longer than I expected. (Granted, I tend to have unreasonable expectations about how quickly I can do just about everything.)  Back then, I read dozens of sermons by John Chrysostom, jotted down pages of potentially relevant sections and references (thematically organized) and despaired that I didn’t have a thing to say about it all.

Well, after all these years of paper-writing, it still amazes me how much writing is a process of discovery. Once I forced myself to start putting something in writing, anything, it turned out that I had plenty of thoughts. Most of them are rough and inchoate, but once something is on the page, it troubles my brain until I figure it out and express it clearly.

Last semester I wrote about Chrysostom’s conception of the domestic church and how it centers on a re-formulation of the domestic banquet. This semester, I am writing about:

A) his ideas about literal vs. “spiritual” fasting, which leads into issues of the relationship between soul and body, 
B) the place of gluttony in his view of sin, and thus the place of fasting or moderation in his approach to the whole spiritual life, and
C) the role of social factors (like competition or peer pressure, or differences of socio-economic status within the congregation, etc.) in the communal experience of fasting for his audience. 

I could probably write the entire dissertation on Chrysostom, since he has so much to say about everything, but I’m not going to. I think the original plan of using two extended case studies - essentially half the dissertation on Chrysostom and Antioch, and the other half on Shenoute and Egypt (yay documentary papyri!) - is   the right way to go. Egypt will have to wait a little longer, that’s all.

I was trying to eat up the stuff in the freezer this month, and I had two packs of ground turkey lurking in the back. Ground turkey works fine as a beef substitute much of the time, but sometimes it’s nice to make something that’s really meant to take advantage of the more delicate flavor. 

You see above these sate burgers, with Southeast Asian flavors of peanut, cilantro, lime, and fish sauce. (Fish sauce smells awful by itself but adds great complexity of flavor. Don’t skip it!) The only change I made to the recipe was to use all ground turkey and no pork, because that’s what was in the freezer. I served it with sauteed spinach and coconut brown rice, lime wedges and a drizzle of sriracha. (The spiced coconut rice is only a little bit more work than plain rice, and it’s worth the effort. I serve it with stir-fry all the time.)

Next, but without a picture, is a turkey-quinoa meatloaf. Meatloaf was my most dismal cooking failure when I was the personal chef and housekeeper at a Catholic rectory (well, other than setting tortillas on fire and exploding hot soup in the blender). It fell completely apart and looked like a pile of… well, something really unappetizing. Father P. laughed and never let me forget it. “We’re having company tonight, Dana. Don’t make meatloaf.” My attitude was not improved by one cookbook’s blithe assurance that meatloaf was quite forgiving and foolproof. Whatever. I don’t like stupid meatloaf anyway.

Well, I rediscovered meatloaf in a major way last week. It’s from a Williams-Sonoma gluten-free cookbook, and its genius innovation is to use quinoa cereal flakes instead of breadcrumbs. I keep gluten-free bread crumbs in my freezer (the remains of stale or failed loaves), but the brilliance of the quinoa flakes is that their consistency is much more like panko: thin, light, and crisp. This meatloaf is beautifully flavored with orange zest and fennel seed, and wrapped in prosciutto.

Ground Turkey Roll with Quinoa
adapted from The Wheat-Free Cook by Jacqueline Mallorca

2 T ground flaxseed (or 1 egg)
2 tsp minced orange zest
1 medium zucchini, very thinly sliced
1/4 cup quinoa flakes
3/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp fennel seeds, crushed
1 lb ground turkey (chicken, in the original)
4-5 large slices (about 3 oz.) prosciutto

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lay a sheet of foil on the workspace and oil lightly.

Put flaxseed in a large bowl with 3 T warm water; whisk and let stand 5 minutes until thick. (Or lightly beat an egg.) Add remaining ingredients (except prosciutto) and mix well but gently.

Lay 3 or 4 slices of prosciutto on the foil to form a 6x8 inch rectangle. Mound the turkey mixture into a roll, running the long way on the middle of the prosciutto rectangle. Wrap the prosciutto up around the sides. Lay the last piece on top and press gently. The instructions now say to turn the roll over, but I found that difficult. Either use the foil to help you, or don’t bother. Use the foil as a sling and lift the roll into a shallow roasting pan. 

Bake for 45 minutes or until cooked through. Let stand 10 minutes before slicing. 

Serve with marinara sauce and a green salad. Yum! Have leftovers for lunch! Meatloaf is redeemed.

Does anyone else want to confess their embarrassing food failures? (Or just tell me what you like to make with ground turkey.)

In the final stages of marathon training last fall, I went and got myself a stress fracture (or two) in my right shin. This is almost entirely self-diagnosed, since I didn’t have money to burn on a doctor’s visit when they can’t detect the fracture without an MRI and they would just tell me to rest until it’s better, anyway. 

It started out as shin splints about 5 weeks out. I don’t know whether to blame it on the new shoes, the increased distances (18 and 20 mile long runs), or my refusal to rest until it was too late. Probably all three. One problem was that it didn’t actually hurt while I was running, so I could get through the long runs quite comfortably and then hobble around the rest of the week.

I don’t know enough about the physiology of how shin splints transition into fractures (I understand that there is a whole range of repetitive stress injuries, anyway) to say when it went over the edge. However, it was already pretty bad when I made the mistake of wearing 4” heels to school 3 days before the marathon (I know, I know. But the shift in balance uses different muscles!) Yeah. It was even worse after that. This is now Brooks’ trump card against high heels: “You BROKE your LEG wearing heels!” 

At the pre-race sports expo, I stopped by the therapeutic taping booth to get some free taping on my “shin splint.” I was about to leave when I happened to remark that it still hurt, supposing this to be normal. But no, they thought someone more experienced could do a better job. 20 minutes later, the most senior physical therapist at the booth was applying more and more elaborate layers of tape from the sole of my foot to my knee and getting frustrated that the pain wasn’t going away. They alleged that if it still hurt with all that clinical-level taping, there was something worse than a shin splint going on. Finally they let me go, with instructions to stay off it as much as possible “if you’re still planning to run.” 

Of course I still ran. I ran the full marathon in 4:36, with my leg encased in four layers of tape. Then I didn’t walk for two weeks, and didn’t run for two months. Lots of ibuprofen, lots of ice, lots of angst about the sudden complete inactivity. I started running in the first place because I don’t like any other forms of exercise. My bike isn’t rideable, swimming is too much hassle, and I hate weight training.

The first month I was in too much pain to care about the time off. The second month I was travelling too much to have time. Finally this month I started running a little bit, and after my third very short run in two weeks, the leg flared up and I’ve had to stop again. I’m too paranoid about fractures that take two years to heal because people over-did it coming back (thanks for that story, Rachel S). 

It’s been really upsetting, because I was in the best shape of my life three months ago and now it’s all gone. I’ve put on a few pounds and I don’t have an outlet for cooped-up grumpy moods. Brooks reminds me to be patient and I’ll be running again in no time, and other friends remind me that the stamina will come back quickly once I can start. So I try not to whine too much, but there’s really no substitute for the fresh air in your lungs while your feet just keep going and your mind smooths itself out. Maybe soon. Sigh.

I’m back to work on the dissertation in a more serious way now that I don’t have little things like marathon training and fellowship applications taking up all my time. I have no teaching obligation this semester, so I get to write and research full-time until May. This is lovely in theory, but in practice it is easy to swing between panic and inertia when faced with huge unstructured blocks of time, no deadlines worth mentioning, a toddler-length attention span, and all the distractions of home. 

I’ve always had the notion that we ought to approach dissertation writing like a regular 9-5 job, but have always found it somehow impossible to implement the discipline. (A year of serious depression didn’t help at all.) But last week we were brainstorming about how to organize the home office most efficiently, and eventually came around organically to the same idea. 

This was also one of those curious communication breakthrough moments, after 5+ years of marriage and 10 years of being students together.
Me: We have to have more lights in here if we’re going to work in the evenings.
B: Why? I like the atmospheric lighting.
Me: I can’t think unless the whole room is bright.
B: I never knew that.
Me: Yes, that’s why I always walk in and turn on the lights. I don’t know how you can work in the dark.
B: I work great in the dark. It’s very mellow.
Me: It puts me to sleep.
B: Oh.

The office is at its best in the morning, with north and east facing windows, so it is a great incentive to get up and start working, with good coffee and Baroque music. Then if one actually starts, one can stop at 5 when it starts to get too dark in the room to be mentally alert. And then one has the rest of the evening to do all kinds of other things! It’s funny how much this feels like a revelation, now that we’ve put it into practice for a few days.

So I am taking the just-keep-your-butt-in-the-chair approach to writing. I’ve read the productivity guides that say that being goal-focused instead of time-focused helps you avoid procrastination. This makes sense in theory, but it hasn’t worked very well for me. The writing process is so fluid, even when I think I know what I need to say, that it was hard for me to establish daily or weekly production goals. The vagaries of research are even more depressingly un-quantifiable.  However, even with only partial implementation of the new schedule, and unscheduled naps, and checking Facebook or chat forums regularly, I’ve still managed to crank out 8 more pages in the last week mainly by keeping the text in front of me for several hours at a time. Even better, I’ve stayed so chilled out about it that it doesn’t really feel like I’m working.

The fact that the office is the warmest room in the house when we close the door and use the space heater doesn’t hurt. Neither does the awesome new wall calendar from the Paper Source (see above). I’m a great believer in having the pleasantest possible conditions for work. I hesitate to proclaim the dawn of a new era or anything grandiose like that, given my past inconsistencies, but the indications are promising. 

Last semester I felt as if I wasn’t doing very much work, but actually I:

  • Ran a marathon
  • Threw a 90th-birthday/Thanksgiving/family-reunion party in California
  • Applied to four competitive grants for dissertation support next academic year
  • Wrote 35 pages of the dissertation
  • TAed for a religious history course in the honors program, cooked, cleaned, sewed, knitted, babysat, etc.  

So next time I start whining about how lazy Dana hasn’t accomplished anything in days, feel at liberty to smack me. Nicely.

It seems popular in some circles to be scornful of New Year’s Resolutions, but I like them. I like them as a perfectionist who is always on the lookout for socially acceptable ways to raise my (already unreasonable) personal performance standards. This tendency also means that resolutions aren’t necessarily good for me. So I try very hard to make the big public one something healthy and reasonable, and keep it to one. (Of course there are scads of unofficial perfectionist fantasies running amok in my brain.) 

2011’s resolution was to run a marathon. Done and yay. It was nice to have such a concrete goal. I might even do it again because it was so awesome. 

This year’s resolution is to blog once a week. So everyone will know whether I’m doing it or not. (I make no promises regarding depth of content, or even adherence to the purported subject matter. I’m not trying to become a Serious Public Blogger, just to write more.)

What are your thoughts about resolutions? 

Cooking? What’s that? 

Seriously, Thursday-Sunday was the longest stretch of not cooking Proper Meals that I’ve had in a long time. Results were mixed.

Dinner 3 (Thursday): This was our anniversary, so we went out to Cork, one of those tapas-style places where the wine costs more than the food, but it’s all so worth it. Highlights were the grilled asparagus with dill creme-fraiche and fried capers and tiny prosciutto crisps, and the Vercesi del Castellazzo Pinot Nero Bianco 2009. I’ve never been much of a white wine drinker but this one could change my allegiance. 

Dinner 4 (Friday): Brooks was out at a meeting and I felt lazy and bacheloresque, so I scrounged up some leftover pizza sauce thinned out with red wine and bulked up with red beans and spinach, and put it on pasta. Supremely meh. 

Dinner 5 (Saturday): Take-out from Zpizza because my Living Social voucher was expiring. Alas for me, they were out of gluten free pizza crust by the time I got around to calling in the order, so Brooks got pizza and I had to settle for the bbq chicken salad. It was tasty, though. 

Dinner 6 (Sunday): We had a party, the third iteration of Backyard Happy Hour, so it was more of a snack-y dinner. I made roasted eggplant tapenade, mushrooms stuffed with feta and spinach,  and grilled sausage-pepper-and-onion sandwiches (because someone decided at the last minute that we should have Football Food).

What have I learned?

1. I like not cooking every night. As much as I like cooking, it takes up a lot of my evening and I appreciate the freedom to spend time doing other things.

2. Alas, the unintentional experiment also confirmed my fears about What Will Happen if I don’t plan and cook obsessively, namely, we will either spend too much money, or eat food that doesn’t taste good or that isn’t healthful, or all of the above.  

Solutions? 

Chopped Mexican Salad with citrus-cumin-honey vinaigrette

This recipe is from Fine Cooking, but other than the vinaigrette, you don’t really need to measure once you know the basic idea. The original recipe serves 8 (I presume as a side!), but I use more of some things (beans and corn) and less of others (avocado and peppers) and the two of us eat it almost all up as a main course. I also use cucumber instead of the recipe’s jicama, which has been impossible to find lately. 

A short version of the recipe: roast your ears of corn and peppers for about 20 minutes at 425 degrees or so; then cut the kernels off the ears and dice the peppers. Cut the tomatoes, cucumbers, and avocado into an even 1/2” dice and arrange on the plate (or large serving platter) with the corn, peppers, and black beans. Drizzle with citrus vinaigrette and sprinkle with chopped cilantro.

Citrus-cumin-honey vinaigrette

  • 1 small clove garlic, crushed with a big pinch of coarse salt
  • 3 T lime juice
  • 3 T orange juice
  • 2 tsp. finely chopped shallot
  • 1 T honey
  • 3/4 tsp whole cumin seeds, toasted in a dry skillet and ground
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • salt and pepper

This makes more dressing than you need, but it is exceedingly delicious.

To make a more substantial meal, bake some skillet cornbread while the corn and peppers are roasting. This recipe is de-glutenated and veganified by me from a combination of two different cornbread recipes in my trusty Joy of Cooking. It’s not a purist Southern cornbread, but it’s closer to that style than to a sweet, fluffy Northern cornbread. 

Crusty Skillet Cornbread (gluten-free and vegan)

  • 1 1/4 c cornmeal
  • 1/2 c millet flour
  • 1/4 c cornstarch
  • 1 T sugar (optional)
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp xanthan gum
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • Ener-G egg replacer for 2 eggs (1 T whisked with 1/4 c warm water until frothy)
  • 2 T canola oil
  • 1 3/4 c soy or other non-dairy milk
  • 1 T lemon juice

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Put 1 T shortening or margarine (Earth Balance) in a 9 inch cast iron skillet. Put the skillet in the hot oven until the fat is melted and very hot.

Whisk dry ingredients together thoroughly. Combine wet ingredients and add all at once to dry, mixing well but quickly. The batter will be thin, rather like pancake batter. Pour into hot pan and bake for 20-23 minutes, until lightly browned and crusty. 

Non-systematic rating: High marks for the quantity of vegetables (especially in late summer when half of them might be growing in your backyard) and for being relatively inexpensive, healthful, beautiful and delicious. It’s also naturally gluten-free and vegan/fasting-adaptable (use canola oil for Orthodox fasting days and agave nectar instead of honey for real vegans).

Low marks for preparation: it’s a lot of roasting, chopping, mixing, and emulsifying unless you have a good sous-chef to help you. This sort of meal is often my downfall because it looks so simple and I tend to underestimate the time and effort involved.

Looking ahead: I broke down and planned a few more meals and made up a grocery list accordingly. I just don’t handle uncertainty well, I guess. When I feel inspired, the planning isn’t so difficult; maybe the primary problem is the absence of a fall-back plan when I don’t feel inspired. 

Dinner 1 gets us off to an auspicious start: Italian Sausage Soup. There was a recipe long ago, but now it is more of a template. I probably made the best (or at least the most memorable) version once when we got back from the West Coast at 1 a.m., starving, wide awake, and with no food in the fridge whatsoever. I rummaged the freezer and pantry, threw this together (the potato version, I think) and it was perfect.

You need:

  • 1 lb. spicy Italian sausage
  • 1 quart chicken or beef broth
  • 1 15 oz. can diced tomatoes, with juice
  • something white: cannellini beans, potatoes, rice, or even, if you are so lucky as to be able to eat them, cheese tortellini
  • something green: green beans, zucchini, spinach, or any combination thereof 

Brown the sausage. Add the remaining ingredients (leave the spinach until the very end if you are using fresh) and bring to a low boil. Simmer, covered, on low heat for 15-20 minutes or until your potatoes/rice/pasta are done.

Garnish with Parmesan or Pecorino.

This dinner gets high marks for flexibility, ease of preparation, and sometimes frugality. Tonight it was an inspiration arising from the presence of 3/4 carton of broth, 1/2 large can of tomatoes and 1/2 bag of frozen green beans lurking in the fridge. 

Looking ahead: Having contemplated my Costco loot, I already know what I’m going to make tomorrow night, and have tossed some black beans in a pot to soak. Here’s the current dilemma. I need one or two more ingredients. Should I plan out the rest of the week so I only have to make one grocery trip, should I stick with the current lack of plan and limit myself to using what I have now, or should I allow for the possibility of multiple grocery trips?

If you didn’t know eating could be so complicated, you probably haven’t lived with an indecisive but creative perfectionist.