Gnocchi

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My relationship with food has always involved a mildly unhealthy dose of obsession.

For example, from first grade to fourth grade, I had to eat three spoonfuls of tuna fish salad every day for lunch. I absolutely hated tuna fish salad by the end of lower school, and yet I continued to force myself to do it out of perverse reverence for the routine. (Seriously, why are kids so weird?) I could not eat tuna fish salad – or egg salad and chicken salad for that matter – for another four years afterward without feeling ill, and even the smell of mayonnaise-based salads repulsed me. To this day, I still have an aversion to plain mayonnaise.

Thankfully, I grew out of that strange childhood habit and grew to love egg salad and chicken salad (and tolerate tuna salad) again.

The obsession with one dish has continued in less disgusting forms – whenever I try a new Thai restaurant, I must order their pad thai, for a new Indian restaurant, it’s malai kofta. And for a new Italian restaurant, my first dish that I must try is gnocchi.

I tell myself that it’s because I want to have a common point by which I can compare different restaurants against each other. But let’s be honest, I can’t really remember every pad thai or gnocchi that I’ve ever had. And really, what self-respecting Thai restaurant doesn’t make a decent pad thai?

The day may come when I can’t stand to look at another plate of gnocchi or malai kofta (I can already sense that the end is near for pad thai), but for now, I content myself with knowing at least I’m not obsessed with pickles or Wonderbread or something carcinogenic.

This gnocchi recipe is an oldie but a goodie. I posted about it before, but what can I say, I’m still a sucker for good gnocchi.

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Franconia, NH

IMG_2502A few days before I left Boston, my friend and I decided to spend our Sunday doing intense things (and no, I’m not talking about intensely lazy Sunday brunch). I woke up quite early (read: 5am), excited for my first big hiking adventure in years, then waited an hour until it was an ‘acceptable’ time to text my friend. I still managed to wake her up…oops.

We headed out to Franconia Notch State Park, otherwise known as the home of the “Old Man of the Mountain”; that is, before he lost his nose to a rockslide. We started at about 10:30am and began our ascent. 

At first, the trail was gentle and cool, passing along a playfully babbling brook that cascaded down a number of beautiful waterfalls. However, as the trail separated from the water, it became progressively more insane, until we were scrambling up rocks and basically everything touching our bodies was soaked in sweat. We dragged our soft city slicker bodies onward, swearing we would not stop until we reached the top. Then at some point, we passed above tree line and found ourselves on a sun-swept, boulder-studded mountain peak. Everything was suddenly open and bright, calming yet awe-inspiring, and of course, breathtakingly beautiful.

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The Ridge, Franconia Notch State Park, NH

There is something kind of magical about hiking and really just being outdoors – there’s the constant thrum that almost sounds like the hum of a refrigerator but yet is charged with life. There’s the hard heartbeats from the climb and the exhilaration (and maybe the high that comes from a little oxygen deprivation) from being 4,000 feet high. We stood up there and we felt like we had actually accomplished something (and all before lunchtime!).

I have to confess, my antidepressant of choice is food. But there is something to be said for the heady rush of wind and a view so clear we felt as if we could see to the shore, a hundred miles away.

So as much as I love scones and biscuits and all other baked goods, I’m resolving to eat a little healthier (woohoo salad recipe!). It’s one thing to enjoy making and eating food, it’s another to use it as an escape. And sugar highs may feel similar to a rush of endorphins, but neither actually really equate to happiness. Here’s to being healthier – in all senses of the word.

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Shakshuka Revisited

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Back when I was still a wee little college junior, I started this blog to help me reconcile with some big changes in my life. I had just returned from a life-changing summer in China, recently become single, and was living in a pseudo-apartment for the first time. One of my goals for junior year was to become a decent cook – it didn’t start out pretty, but I’d like to think my cooking skills have improved, even if my food photography skills remain as questionable as ever.

I once totally screwed up Shakshuka in a classic example of a beginner cook overeager to use fancy machines for cooking. I blended three beautiful tomatoes into pulp, then threw in some eggplant, and served the watery mess to my friends. (Sorry guys!) Well this summer, I’ve had nothing but time, which has, among other things, allowed me to take the analog approach to cooking. (That and my blender, the only electronic equipment I brought with me, broke en route to Boston, kind of forcing my hand.)

It’s also allowed me to reflect on what lies ahead as my friends and I move away from Boston and to different corners of the world (…but mostly New York and D.C.). I fulfilled my goal of learning to cook, but for a while now, I’ve been a little lost, consumed in filling out assignments and checking off tasks (with an unhealthy dose of life drama on the side).

I can’t go back and fix all the mistakes (perceived or real) that I made in the past and dwell on all the lost relationships I had, but I can work on moving beyond them. Cooking has become therapeutic, a challenge with each new dish, but also comfort in repeating the familiar. And so I don’t gain like 100 pounds, long bike rides and not-so-long jogs are also calming in their own way, as I focus on the rhythm of my breaths and the constant motion of my legs and clear my head.

And so I’ve revisited Shakshuka, that dish I made as a cocky fledgling cook that reminded me that I still had so much to learn about cooking. (1. Always read through the recipe carefully. 2. Always read through the recipe carefully. 3. Don’t make changes to recipes when you have no idea what you’re doing.) And I think I finally got the hang of it! Now it remains to be seen if I can get the hang of life goals…

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Peach Treats: Mason Jar Edition

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So I’m pretty sure I’m way behind the trend on this one, so behind that Mason jar confections are probably out of the florally trendy garden party scene and have now moved into the pages of the Martha Stewart magazine and onto the tables of parties hosted by the middle-aged. Thank god children will be children and always want big cakes – making something similar to that which parents make for their kids – now that’s a generational jump I’m not ready to commit to just quite yet.

I have always wanted to make a Mason jar dessert – a dessert focused on portability and durability. For a while I entertained dreams of decorating grandeur, where I would become the master of fondants and beautiful cupcake frosting, but alas, I quickly realized that I just don’t care enough. It all looks the same in my stomach anyways, right? I have instead aimed for delicious flavors and interesting textures and subpar to decent presentation. But Mason jar desserts? They’re the perfect marriage (ew, marriage) of practicality and adorableness. Especially desserts, where each different, delectable layer is displayed enclosed in glass, the color of the fruit component elevated by the shine of the glass, like a more decadent and probably much-less-healthy parfait (at least the American version, granola and yogurt. Apparently, Europeans know how to do it right and make it a proper dessert).

It’s ironic on many levels that the person who inspired me to finally take on this project was my professor, who is in her mid-fifties and is an incredibly healthy person who teaches a class about consumption which technically touches on different aspects of consumption, from fashion to food, but really just teaches us that organic local non-GMO food is the way to go. I absolutely loved her class (I actually did all the readings!) and wished only for the billionth time that I’d gone with my gut and majored in History. Sadly, today was the last class, and as a parting gift, she brought in strawberry shortcakes in Mason jars. Even she commented on the fact that they’re no longer in style (then again, she does teach a class on consumption habits, so she’s sort of an expert in these matters). But whatever, they don’t need to be in the height of fashion to be absolutely delicious.

(Peach Treats Pt. 1 is also delicious! Check it out for another easily portable and equally delicious recipe.)

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Strawberry Almond Cream Tart

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One of my goals for this summer was to be able to comfortably run five miles. (Or rather, slow jog five miles.) Unfortunately, this hasn’t happened for a variety of reasons:

1. Running on the treadmill has made me actually start hating some of my favorite songs. There’s something torturous about running in place for forty minutes, and after a while, my favorite singers seem to be mocking me.

2. It’s been raining basically every day, and if it’s not raining, then it’s ridiculously scorching hot. Like, I step outside and feel my arm hairs burning off, it’s that hot.

3. So I heard running early in the morning is a thing. But so is sleeping in as late as possible during the summer. So I do a kind of combination, where I wake up early, then lay in bed for an hour, patting myself on the back for waking up early, but too lazy to get up actively choosing to just lay there.

4. I have to walk through the kitchen to get outside, and then I see my Kitchen Aid, and then I get…distracted. For example, I’m heading out for a run, and two hours later, I end up with a lemon yogurt cake, or a strawberry almond cream tart. Oh sweet, delicious calories.

5. This one’s a little ridiculous…but I hate to sweat. (Clearly, I was born to be an athlete.)

So before you write me off as a lazy indulgent wimp, I promise you, I do go running. I have, against all odds, made it to three miles of varied terrain, which I’d say is pretty good for someone who hasn’t exercised seriously for at least seven years. I recently read it’s not about distance covered, but rather about time spent exercising, so I’ve worked up to about an hour of constant motion.

But I’m not above a little reward for my efforts. Enter the strawberry almond cream tart, the perfect dessert after a sweaty jog under the hot sun. Sweet, unadorned berries atop cool, creamy pastry cream, encased in an almond crust.

So let’s be real. The goal of my summer was basically to exercise more so I could eat more. Mission (partially) accomplished.

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Oh man it’s July already.

IMG_1206_2Today, I finished Neil Gaiman’s newest book, The Ocean At the End of the Lane. When I first started reading it, I realized that I have subconsciously been emulating Gaiman’s writing style. I have always admired Gaiman’s writing – Neverwhere is one of my favorite (if not my absolute favorite) books. Gaiman possesses an imagination that allows him to create fantastical worlds with their own set of crazy rules that he somehow makes believable. On the other hand, I can only write in some realistic world – my mind cannot create something as lush and wonderful as London Underground, the fantasy setting of Neverwhere. 

Beyond Gaiman’s enviable imagination, his writing style is also beautiful. He does not use words in excess, but yet revels in the English language, which results in tightly, but beautifully woven stories. Whenever I write fiction, I actively try to make every word count. In Gaiman’s works and in The Ocean especially, I imagine that Gaiman is doing the same.

Though I think I write similarly to Gaiman, execution is only half of the process. No matter how beautifully I write, I can never attain the same magic as Gaiman because I lack the boundlessness of his imagination. Whenever I think, I put up mental barriers of what I can and can’t do, and I impose those on my worldview. Even in writing this, I’ve already consigned myself to my inability to be as creative as Gaiman.

The Ocean At the End of the Lane spoke to me not only because I realized I have a similar writing style, but because it was written from the perspective of a child. In my youth, I used to imagine kingdoms in my backyard, amongst my stuffed animals, and on the playground in grade school. Somewhere along the line, I realized that people saw me as “weird,” and I began to observe the social cues that would make me more “normal.” Looking back, I have learned the necessary social skills to appear “outgoing,” and yet, somewhere along the line, I began to believe in the boundaries of normalcy and became part of the system.

In a way, I owe it to Gaiman that some part of me still clings to childlike wonder in a world only half understood. For me, baking is similar in that I mix ingredients together, place them in the oven, and through heat and hidden chemical processes, gloppy batter somehow becomes a fine-crumbed cake. I cannot simply make up my own recipes, but I revel in making small tweaks in ingredients, each which allows me to understand baking just a little better. Writing and baking allow me to escape (at least temporarily) what is expected of me and to capture the tastes and imageries that exist in my mind.

I originally started this post as a kind of book review, so I’ll end it as such. Definitely read The Ocean At the End of the Lane (and Neverwhere and Stardust and, really, anything by Gaiman). In the afterglow of finishing the last page, you will see the world in a different light. I’ll leave a quote from The Ocean:

I saw the world I had walked since my birth and I understood how fragile it was, that the reality I knew was a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger.

And on that somewhat morbid note, enjoy this blueberry cake with cream cheese icing. It’s fresh and sweet, with the slightest tang of buttermilk in the batter, the perfect dessert for a hot July night.

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