Wednesday, July 30, 2008

My First Daring Baker's Challenge!

This month is the first that I was a part of the Daring Baker Challenge!  I joined this group because I have almost no baking experience, and wanted to get some.  Of course, I also (clearly) like to start out by throwing myself into the fire.  This month's recipe: Filbert Gateau with Praline Buttercream.

Um, wow.  Impressive.  Actually, I wasn't as nervous as I thought I would be.  It looked like it would take a long time to make, but not like it would be totally overwhelming.  So... good.  :)

The cake has a TON of steps: one filbert genoise (I substituted a different nut), dark rum flavored simple syrup, praline butter cream, whipped heavy cream, fruit jam glaze, ganache, and toasted nuts.  It had to involve nuts and butter cream on top (I'm not a huge icing fan, so I decided to keep that to a minimum.).

For the cake: I made a four layer, 4" round cake, which required a half batch of the gateau recipe.  For the nut, I used macademia, instead of the filbert.  I had a lot of macademias on had, so it seemed like a good pick.  For the fruit glaze: I used pineapple preserves.  Pineapples and macademias!  Perfectly tropical, and decadent.  

The most difficult part for me was caramelizing the sugar to make the praline for the butter cream.  I have tried to make caramel before and it turned out burned, hard and generally aweful.  But this time - perfect!  The sugar melted from the inside of the pan out. Look at that!  Beautiful.  

There is also a lot of nuts being made into fine meals, and I was concerned that I would accidentally blitz too much and make a butter.  Luckily, I only have a mini-prep (who says that??) and so I was able to keep from overgrating.  

Also, I hear a lot of horror stories about making buttercream, but mine came together all at once.  I don't know - beginner's luck.  I might leave it at that, though... because as it turns out, I don't like icing (ick) and I particularly don't like buttercream.  So, a talent, wasted.  

It sure looks nice, though.

I have also never made a cake with layers, by cutting one pan's worth of cake horizontally into very thin slices.  This was one of the harder parts.  If you have some fancy cake-making stuff, something round that spins so you can keep your knife still and move the cake, it's apparently much easier.  I had to make do with my hands and a lot of micro-turns.  It's not very even, but... luckily that icing was there to even it out!

The ganache is beautiful.  So shiny.  Almost too shiny to photography... and delicious... almost too delicious to eat... mmmmm.... 

The end result?  I think it's very beautiful.  It's not my personal taste in food, and it's so much heavier than most food that I eat, even dessert.  But... it's good to look at.  And I'm impressed that I made it!  In that way, this challenge really did push me.  Because it forced me outside of my box in oh, so many ways - baking, complex recipes, taste, richness... I like to explore.  

Be careful, though.  This cake will come for you!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Blue Dahlia Bistro, and Eating Simply

The Blue Dahlia Bistro is one of my favorite places to eat in Austin. It's on E. 11th Street, in the very up-and-coming, new-gentrification part of town. All changes to the city-scape aside, it's one rare and amazing place to eat.

To begin, the menu is simple but delicious. My first time there, I had the vegetarian frittata of the day, which had summer squash, red pepper and some mouth-watering cheese I couldn't identify. I also got a heavenly fresh-made lemonade with hand-cut mint. Lemons, water, sugar, mint. That is all. The fritattas are served with a side salad and some chunks of amazing bread. There are olive oil, high-quality balsamic vinegar, salt and a pepper mill on the table for you to dress your own salad, and the bread is accompanied by a trio of spreads (soft, warm Nutella, raspberry preserves and orange marmelade). Everything on the plate is so simple, but of such quality that it is almost mind blowing-ly delicious. The portions are managable. The plates are beautiful. It's the kind of place that reinforces my belief that you don't need complexity when you have quality.

My second trip, I had a brie, apricot jam and walnut tartine, which is a sort of open face sandwich on five small rounds of bread. Again, so simple. Brie, jam, bread, walnuts. A little lettuice for garnish and to eat, a slice of melon. Served on a rectangular bit of slate.

The whole menu is like this. Simple food. Tartines, a few appatizer plates, fritattas, salads, a few dinner plates, some simple desserts, a wide selection of non-alcoholic drinks, a few beers, a decent selection of wines. The thing is, it doesn't need more. It doesn't need manipulation because it's organic, high quality, local when possible so as fresh as can be.

The bistro is beautiful itself. You seat yourself in tables for 2, 4, or long tables for big parties or to sit 'family style'. It's got a simple aesthetic, with a lovely back garden area, and fresh bread and pastries available by the register. I cannot reccomend this place enough!

It got me thinking about food, as well, which... in case you couldn't tell, I do a lot! And I love that such simple things can be so amazingly good. You don't have to slave over something lavish to excite your mouth and eyes. You can, and it has it's place, certainly. But you can just get fresh local greens, a bit of dressing, and be caught up in the beauty of it all. I was inspired to make my own simple dinner after attending one night.

Salad: local sunflower sprouts, one diced mango, one diced avocado, a squeeze of lime, a very light sprinkling of lime salt from Central Market. I didn't even need a dressing! It dressed itself, which I can appreciate after a long day.

Dill Harvati Cheese and Whole Wheat Crackers from Sun Harvest.

A sliced kiwi

Fresh yogurt from Remember When Dairy Farm from the Sunset Valley Farmers Market, with shredded cucumber, minced fresh mint, walnut pieces, and pepper

I know this isn't much of a recipe, but a meal doesn't really have to be a recipe to cover all your nutrional bases and appatize your eyes - not to mention your mouth!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

My Favorite Barbecue Sauce - What to Do!

I so desperately want a camera with a macro capacity! Soon. For now I have to pay off a few other things... but someday.... soon... my pictures will be in focus, and then I can concentrate on framing instead of getting far enough away to be in focus but close enough to focus on the food....

So. I got a bottle of Gates BBQ Sauce as a thank you for dog-sitting. It was a nice surprise, given that I wasn't really expecting anything, and that I LOVE Gates! It's a famous restaurant in Kansas City that serves all kinds of meaty meat things, but since I do love the sauce, I decided to make a vegetarian version. I've also been reading about how to get crispy pan-fried tofu. I love when the exterior is crisp. I really don't like it at all if its mushy, through and through. It has to be crispy outside. I've tried many times, cooking it longer, using less oil, using more oil, heating the pan to a higher temperature. And after many tries, I came upon the secret one day while searching the Internet. I found it on The Kitchen at Apartment Therapy, but it's a secret I've since seen everywhere (it seems). It's corn starch. Toss the tofu with corn starch and then pan fry it and voila! Crispy crust. Delicate interior. The perfect vehicle for my bottle of sweet, hot sauce.

I also recently bought a rice cooker. For a long time, it seemed like a useless indulgence. Why would I need a rice cooker when I could just cook rice in a pot, which I already have? Then, again, I saw a discussion online, where the blogger asked (I forget which blog, I'm sorry! If it's you, let me know) whether or not they should get a rice cooker, and out of 50 or so responses, ALL of them were pro-cooker. So... I began to think that maybe they are better than a pot. I promptly got one at target, a medium-sized one since I live alone and don't cook for huge groups that often, with a keep warm function and a vegetable steamer. And I have to admit, it's great. It cooks the rice perfectly every time, and keeps it warm, it frees up a burner on the stove, it doesn't heat up my already warm apartment, and it's a snap to clean. If you like to eat rice, I highly advise one!

In addition to being inspired by the barbecue sauce, rice maker and new way to cook tofu, I decided to make a sort of Southwest-Asian fusion dish. Ish. With kind of Mexican flavors. Basically, I had all this stuff in my pantry and didn't want to go shopping. And it was so simple, just basic recipes that I've made so often they're already in my head all the time, without even needing to consult the internet or a cookbook for.

For me, this is very exciting. I always use a recipe. I might modify the recipe, but I don't go without that often. I have been trying to get away from my reliance on the printed word, but I still have trouble knowing how to match things, combine flavors, correct acidity or sweetness, create a correct ingredient proportion, etc. So this dinner, finally, turned out successfully, and I already knew how to throw it together myself. Exciting!

Barbecued Okra and Tofu with Fresh Corn and Black Bean Salad

For Tofu:
One 14 oz. package firm tofu
1/3 c. cornstarch
a good drizzle of olive oil
1 c. sliced, frozen okra (or fresh, if you're so lucky)
1 c. barbecue sauce
2 c. cooked brown rice

Dice the tofu into bite-sized squares and press between 2 paper towels to remove excess water. Toss the cubes with corn starch to coat evenly, then remove the excess corn starch. Heat a large skillet drizzled with olive oil over medium heat. Add the tofu to the pan and cook without disruption for 1 minute. Flip the tofu and allow to sit another minute. Continue until all the sides are golden. Add salt and pepper, toss, and remove from the pan. In the same pan, heat a little bit more oil and add the okra, cooking till heated through. Add tofu back to the pan and add 3/4 c. barbecue sauce. Stir to combine remove from heat. Serve with prepared brown rice.

For Salad:
One ear of corn
1/2 tbsp. Earth Balance
1/2 small onion, diced
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 tsp. dried oregano
1/2 chopped, seeded jalapeno
1/2 tsp. cumin
1/2 tsp. paprika
1 can of black beans, rinsed and drained

Cut the kernels off the cob. Set aside. Melt the Earth Balance in a pan over medium heat. Add the onion and saute until soft and translucent, approximately 4 minutes. Add the garlic and oregano. Mix into the onion and cook 30 seconds. Add the corn and the jalapeno and cook until the corn is soft, about 4 minutes. Add the cumin, paprika and black beans and cook until heated through. Salt and pepper to taste.

Monday, July 14, 2008

What I Made, Part II

Tomatoes with Sesame-Miso Sauce
(modified from the August 2008 Food and Wine Magazine)

1/3 c. sesame seeds
1/4 c. veganaise
2 tbsp. miso paste
1 1/2 tsp sake
3 tbsp. water
1 tbsp. red wine vinegar
juice of a lemon
1/2 tbsp. mirin
1 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
five huge tomatoes
1 crumbled sheet of nori

Toast the sesame seeds in a dry pan till golden, approximately 3 minutes. Make sure you toss to toast on all sides of the seeds! Transfer to a mortar and pestle and mash into a fine dust. Whisk the seeds with the veganaise, miso and sake, then whisk in the water. In a separate bowl, whisk the vinegar, lemon juice and mirin. Gradually, in a steady stream, whisk in the olive oil. Add the tomatoes and toss to coat. Top the tomatoes with the crumbled nori. Serve the tomatoes with their juices on a plate, topped with a dollop of the sesame sauce.

What I changed: The magazine called for mayonaise, but I use veganaise at home. This also allows the recipe to be completely vegan (I think - let me know if you know that any of these ingredients aren't vegan). The recipe called for ume, which is a Japanese plum vinegar, but they didn't have any in the Asian aisle at the grocery store, and I didn't have time to go to the Asia market, so I just used regular vinegar to provide a kick but without the flavor. I cut a little sesame oil from the vinaigrette, because I think the toasted sesame seeds are potent enough on their own, but you could add it back if you love sesame. Also, here I cut the vinagrette in half. I can almost always cut dressing in half, because my preference is a light coating and not a large pool of dressing. Also, the juice from the tomatoes adds a lot of volume to the liquid, in a healthy way. So, if you want, double everything from the vinegar on (except the tomatoes and the nori).

Beet and Goat Cheese Sandwich

3 beets, tops and tails removed, halved
1 garlic clove, crushed
salt and pepper to taste
goat cheese (I used a basil herbed goat cheese, but any kind is good)
2 pieces toasted whole wheat bread

Place the beets in a large, deep pot and fill the pot with water, about 1" higher than the beets. Bring the water to a boil and simmer until the beets are fork-tender all the way through, which takes about an hour. Make sure to use a high-walled pot for this, or beet colored water might end up all over your oven and counter top. Beet colored water can very easily stain surfaces (in fact, if you want to use this as a dye for some fabric when you're done, go ahead! It makes a lovely color). When the beets are tender, drain them and let them cool completely. They can keep a couple of days in the fridge like this, so if you're going to be in the kitchen doing something for a long time, you can have this going at the same time, then eat it days later - maybe for a quick lunch.

Peel the beets with your fingers or a knife. Even a butter knife will work - the skin slides easily off. Grate the beets with a box grater. They make a lovely pile of juicy red sticks. Stir in the crushed garlic clove, salt and pepper.

Serve the beets on toasted whole wheat bread with some crumbled goat cheese. The beets and goat cheese go amazingly well together. This sandwich is so simple, but it's really beautiful and delicious. It also makes a striking open faced finger sandwich for a party.

photo of one of the nature's notorious fruit flies

Unfortunately for me, I have accumulated some fruit flies. Where do they come from? Why are they trying to take over my apartment? Why are they collecting on the bathroom mirror instead of the garbage can or something? I don't know, but I have to get rid of them. According to a google search, a quick way to get rid of fruit flies is to put a bit of fruit and a bit of vinegar or wine in a bowl, cover it tightly with plastic, and poke some very tiny holes in the plastic. The flies can get in, but (for reasons I don't understand) can't get out, and they are trapped and either die or you can remove them to nature.

I have just embarked on my first effort at catch and release. I shall update you accordingly on my successes.
I also made my exciting new toaster oven cover! The toaster oven I have came from my mother, equipped with a very 70's brown and beige cover that said "TOASTER OVEN" on it. Cute, but not for me. So I ordered a very light blue cordory and 50's red dot pattern from Repro Depot and constructed my own bright cover in my favorite color combination. It took about 5 minutes and is far from an amazing development, but I like it.

You can also see, at the very bottom, a little of the design I'm going to embroider on the skirt. It's not a mistake. It's just not done yet... but soon!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

July Self Portrait Challenge

I really love the way the party always ends up in the kitchen. I feel at home there, standing, milling around, with plenty to touch and taste and do. It's just not the same to cook for yourself as it is to cook something for others. The gift of time, as it were, and nourishment, and, of course, enjoyment. Can you share anything better? I love to be in my kitchen, with a little still left to do on a dish, entertaining the mind, and the senses, putting on the finishing touches.

I wanted my entry to reflect that.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

What I Made

I had a cooking frenzy, preparing everything I got from the farmers market on Saturday in one day, able then to for the rest of the week without doing anything but reheating when necessary. I open my fridge now... and it's delicious and colorful and inviting.

I could certainly use a digital camera with a micro function, as my photos seem to be blurrier the smaller the thing I try to capture.

The Best Hummus I've Ever Made
I made this first so I'd have something to nibble while I cooked. This, with a cool beer, was my summer equivelent to noshing on red wine and bread in the winter.

One can chickpeas
Four garlic cloves
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
4 tablespoons tahini, divided
salt and pepper
juice of a lemon, divided
Hot Hungarian Paprika

Rinse and drain the chickpeas. Save a few for garnish (they're so cute). Place in a blender with the garlic, 1/4 c. olive oil, 2 tablespoons of tahini and the juice of half a lemon. Blitz until smooth and creamy. If you need to, adjust the amount of olive oil to achieve a smooth consistency. Pour into a bowl and clean out the food processor. Well, I used a mini-prep, which is definitely all you need for this next bit, or you might want to just use a whisk. However you do it, whisk together 2 tablespoons olive oil, 2 tablespoons tahini, the juice of half a lemon, salt and pepper. Drizzle this on top of the hummus. Toss the reserved chickpeas on top and sprinkle with cumin and paprika. Amazing.

Hummus is genius.

Black Eyed Peas and Fried Rice with Spicy Collard Greens
This was *so good* I ate it for three straight days.

For Collard Greens:
One bunch of fresh collard greens, thick stems removed, and leaves sliced
Half a yellow onion, diced
Four garlic cloves, minced
A large handful of lentil sprouts
One tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Three slices of tempeh bacon, cut into bite-sized bits
One jalapeno, minced
Two tablespoons cider vinegar
Juice of half a lemon

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the greens and cook for 20 mintues, until the leaves are soft but still bright green. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup of the cooking water. Heat the olive oil in a skillet. Add the onion, jalapeno, lentil sprouts and tempeh bacon and cook for 7 minutes, till soft. Add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Then, add the greens and toss. Squeeze the lemon over, drizzle with the vinegar, and pour 1/4 c. of the reserved cooking water over. Cover the pan and let cook until the greens are cooked, which takes approximately 10 minutes. Pour the greens into a serving bowl. Keep the pan hot, because you're about to use it for the rice and beans!

For Beans and Rice:
About a cup and a half leftover brown rice
One can of rinsed and drained black-eyed peas
One tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

Pour the olive oil into the pan and let it heat for a few seconds. Add the rice and peas and cook till heated through. This part is definitely just 'getting it hot' more than 'cooking'. The rice will get a little crispy, which is nice. Add the last 1/4 c. cooking water from the greens to soften the rice and steam it a little. Pour the rice and beans into a bowl off the heat.

For Sauce:
Two tablespoons cider vinegar
Two tablespoons honey
One teaspoon cumin
Two teaspoons cayenne pepper
Two tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil.

Simple sauce: whisk these things together.

To assemble, mix the sauce with the rice and beans. Make a bed of greens on a plate and top with a scoop of rice and beans. It's mildly spicy, definitely sweet.

Potato Pancakes with Red and Yellow Pepper Pesto
This pesto is simple, requiring less olive oil than most pestos (because of the pepper's juiciness), which means it's lower in fat and calories. Since there is no cheese, it's vegan, but you could add some parmesan if you'd like. I don't think it needs it. I also didn't have any nuts on hand so I didn't add any, but it's already extremely flavorful. It's great on a sandwich or as a dip for tortilla chips!

The potato pancakes are modified from the Deborah Madson book (everything I make is modified if it came from somewhere else. I usually don't have exactly everything I need, and sometimes, I just don't want to add everything it calls for, or I want to add more, or different). Potatoes and cheese are each in my top five favorite foods, so these are like a dream. Also, most of my pancakes fall apart, but using mashed potatoes keeps these together, which, honestly, is possibly the best thing ever (today).

For Pesto:
Two large peppers (I used one red and one yellow)
One bunch of basil
Three garlic cloves
1/4 c. extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and Pepper

Wash the peppers and dry them thoroughly. Heat the broiler in your oven. Usually, you'd put a whole pepper in on a pan in the top rack of the oven and turn the peppers till they're all charred, but my top rack put the peppers way too close to the heat source, and I cut them in half and just moved them around. So, if your oven is like mine, half the peppers and put them in the oven on a pan on the top rack and move them around a bit till they're charred all over. Remove them from the oven and put them directly into a metal bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or tin foil and a tea towel and let them cool. Once they reach a temperature you can work with, peel the skins off and discard the skin, seeds and stems.

Roughly chop the body of the peppers and put them into a food processor with the three peeled garlic cloves and a handful of basil. Pulse the mix until it is chunky. Then, while the processor is running, slowly and in a steady stream pour in the olive oil. Don't let it get too smooth - it's a nice sauce but it's even better with a little chunkiness of the peppers! Add salt and pepper to your taste.

For the Potato Pancakes:
About a pound and a half of tiny red potatoes, quartered, peels on
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 jalepino (remove the seeds if you like), minced
1/2 onion, chopped
a handful of cilantro, to taste, chopped
a bunch of scallions, diced (white and green parts)
about a cup of shredded cheddar cheese
1 egg, whisked
a plate of Panko

Put the potatoes in a pot and cover over with water. Boil the potatoes till fork-tender, which takes approximately 20 mintues. Don't forget to salt the water first! Potatoes love salt. Drain the potatoes and mash them with a fork till they're chunky. Apparently, the key to this dish is chunkiness. Then, stir in the jalepino, onion, cilantro, scallions, cheese and egg. Using your hands, form the mix into whatever size patties you like. Heat the oil in a nonstick pan. Press the pancakes into the panko, covering each side. Place the cakes onto the pan and let them cook approximately 3 minutes per side. Check them to make sure - they should get a nice golden color on the outside and be warm throughout.

To assemble, place 2 pancakes on a plate and drizzle with the pesto and top with freshly cut chives. This is a total celebration of vegetable tastes.

And still to come... Beets with Basil Goat Cheese Toasts, Japanese Tomato Salad (modified from this month's Food and Wine, and photographed below).

Sunset Valley Farmers Market

It's a beautiful time of year at the Sunset Valley Farmers Market. It's a veritable summer fruit and vegetable explosion - everywhere, tomatoes, eggplant, summer squash, huge herb bundles, delicate flower bouquets, the beginnings of beans, some glossy potatoes, juicy peaches, bundles upon bundles of peppers, huge melons (and not just on the customers, either)...

This is one of the best farmers markets in America. I've been lucky enough to live in LA and get to shop at the Santa Monica Farmers Market, which was a delight. It's situated just off the beach, so you get a balmy breeze and fresh ocean air, and hosts some of the most interesting shoppers I've ever seen - rollerbladers, bicycle riders, posh rich hippies in their floppy hats, struggling Valley artists who haul over and down the 405 and 10 and battle obscene traffic to get there and back, just for the ambiance and bounty. I've also lived in San Francisco, and it has what I might argue is the best farmers market I've ever been to in the States (I haven't been to any on the East Coast, though). But San Francisco... on the wharf, on the bay, in the cool, the sheer size of it is breathtaking. But here in Austin, even without a sea breeze, even in the stifiling heat of a summer with a record number of days over 100 degrees, the market is so full it's pleasant no matter what.

I went early early this week, which I usually don't do (usually I'm working, or just too lazy to go at 9 on the button). I actually got there *before* the thing opened! And everythign they say about a farmers market is true. I love to meet the farmers, ask them what's good, ask them how they prepare things I've never heard of or seen before but am dying to try. I love to know my food came from someone, somewhere close by, worked by people who have families and who really care about what they produce. It's good for the farmers, it's good for the community, it's good for the environment... there's nothing new in knowing this. Maybe the realest delight, for me, is thinking about how beautiful and fresh the food is, and wondering... how am I going to cook it? How can I use this so it's as good as it can possibly be?

I never worried about getting salmonella from my tomatoes, which is wonderful, because if I had had to give up tomatoes during the peak of their season... well, I wouldn't have been happy. I can eat a tomato out of hand, just like an apple. This table? My dream.

I also love all the dogs at the farmers market! I can just imagine these dogs on their farms, running around, maybe among some of those cool heirloom chickens in the yard, up and down the aisles. I am in love in particular with the farm puppy, so brave to meet this big city doberman with his tiny tail wagging and no obvious fear. He was at the stand where I bough collard greens and felt so southern (well... not that I'm southern... or ever could be... but it woudl at least taste southern), and bought them from a great old man and his two, oh, must be grand-daughters who were about twelve... my parents weren't farmers but my mom's dad was, and all the family I have through him still farm in Ontario, and it can be like touching that, a bit, at the market.

I really can't imagine why everyone doesn't get as much produce as possible at the market. It tastes so much better! I guess I've been spoiled by living in places where farms are so close by and so bountiful. The tomatoes alone (oh, the tomatoes!)... and the fresh cheese... and the eggs from chickens who you can visit and see that they're really free-range and not just technically 'free-range'... it's so hard to go back to the grocery store.

This week, I got: a basket of 6 huge tomatoes, a HUGE basket of about a million jalapenio peppers, a red onion and a white, a bowl of red potatoes, two adorable yellow peppers, three ruby-red beets. And from Kirsten, extra of her chives and basil, because the bundles she got were too much for one person to use! I shall update with what I made later.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Barton Springs, on Weekdays

It's been hot here lately (a record number of days over 100 degrees and it's only just July) so I've been taking my pooches to the dog parks with water. Poor shy Talah, she just isn't comfortable around a lot of people, so I take her to the more popular spots on weekdays when I'm off, so she doesn't get too overwhelmed with crowds. Since it's Thursday, we went to Barton Springs.

There's an official side, with a real pool in the springs with lanes and a diving board and lifeguards and everything, but I've never been there. No, when I go to the springs, it's to the unofficial outside section. The water in the springs is clear and bright, and the area shaded by huge trees and lined on both sides by a walking path that leads to Ladybird Lake (nee Town Lake). People come with their kids, their significant others, their beers (despite all signs indicating that their beers are not welcome), and most importantly, their dogs.

I like to come here because I find it very peaceful, even while it teems with life. It's close to town, which makes it very convenient for the city dwellers. Austinites, I think, are lucky to have such a green city - and in this case, I mean literally green, with greenbelts of protected land, springs, lakes, etc. I've lived in other cities where finding park space is much more of a luxury, while here, the people all get to live in it.

I've recently stopped bringing my cell phone and Ipod with me when I take the dogs out. They are too distracting. Walking my dogs, taking them to the water, taking the time to go out into these parks, has come to be a relaxing time where I don't need any distraction. I think that's probably a testament to their beauty!

This guy clearly agrees with me.

*** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***

I made a delicious dinner last week, out of components I found in various places. I am learning how to make more complex meals at this point. Growing up, we ate good food, but my parents were far from experimental with their dinners. There was a meat, a starch, and a vegetable. Sometimes, there was also a salad. Mostly with iceberg lettuce. Mostly, the vegetables were out of a can. It was good and balanced and nutritious, but they weren't the type to investigate new spices.

I am currently a vegetarian, so that trio of foods no longer works for me. :) Also, I do like to try new things, and pair things up, but since I don't have too much experience... it's can be a challenge! At first, it was a challenge to figure out what to do to replace the meat centerpiece of a meal... luckily, there are a lot of alternatives.

I also try to eat local, organic food. Living in Austin, I'm pretty lucky that a lot of good food grows around here! So, on Saturdays I'll go to the farmer's market and buy what I want, and then get to truly experiment designing menus that use these in season goodies!

This weekend: okra, mushrooms, tiny red peppers.

I really wanted to feature the mushrooms, so I found a recipe online for a mushroom sauce. I didn't want to make pasta, so I decided to use the sauce on some patties and some grains. Luckily, my co-marketer is good at designing recpies, and came up with these delicious okra patties.

First: the fritters. I'm not good with a patty. They always seem to run all over the place or not cook inside. K. designed these ones to be baked, not fried, which took some of the stress off of my fear of pan-cooking them. It's basically a mound of crumbled tofu, peppers, and veeeery thinly sliced okra, with egg and panko as binders.

They cook in the oven for about half an hour, during which time I made a thick mushroom sauce. The sauce is basically sliced mushrooms (baby bellas, to be exact) with garlic and onions, simmered in red wine and vegetable broth, which is thickened with some flour. It's not the most complicated thing, but it definitely features the mushrooms.

For the sake of photography, I put some fritters on some quinoa and topped them with mushroom sauce. It looks a little... brown... and not that exciting... but it was good! Did I mention I'm new to this blogging/photography thing too?