Saturday, January 26, 2008

A Bit of DIS and DAT

Eager for Krieger, Big Hair Confessions, and Cool Beans...

Well, after what seemed like years of anxiously awaiting its arrival,
Ellie Krieger’s new cookbook has finally made its appearance. You may recognize her name from Food Network’s long list of celebrities.
I have been a loyal fan of her show Healthy Appetite with Ellie Krieger since it first aired, and a not-so-recent graduate of her first book, Small Changes Big Results (and on that note, if she
allowed me to write the sequel, I would have called it
Small Changes Big Results, Serious Relapse).

Her new book The Food You Crave, offers delicious recipes that promise to make you feel great. As with any healthful recipes, I am always suspicious that they will lack flavor, ease of preparation and most importantly, truth (hey, I’ve seen the Kashi commercials and despite the diligence of their zip-lining world travelers in search of tasty, healthy snacks, I personally find their snack items lacking the necessary deliciousness they so fervently brag about).
But Ellie’s book delivers its promise for easy, healthful recipes and useful tips on ingredients, going organic, and easy ways to change your eating habits for the better.
When I took my first peek into the breakfast category of recipes, I feared the loss of my favorite comfort ingredients like real butter, real eggs, and the occasional slathering of maple syrup.
Ellie however (unlike a few other health-plan gurus), appreciates the use of real ingredients, and successfully modifies once-indulgent recipes by limiting the use of these ingredients (with additional support from healthful, lower-fat substitutes), while maintaining the richness of flavor and texture our spoiled taste buds have come to expect.
The end result is a collection of recipes that taste great, are easy enough to prepare, and won’t leave you feeling guilty and running for the nearest confessional.

And on the topic of confessions, I recently came clean with a cache of coworkers about my serious addiction to hairspray (yes, you read it correctly, I said hairspray).
As one of my close friends struggles to quit smoking (again), I fight my own battle to put down the aerosol can (again), in an attempt to leave a less-conspicuous footprint on our beautiful Mother Earth.
Never having been a habitual smoker however, I had no idea just how powerful the addiction is. I witnessed my own father kick the habit when I was just a middle-schooler and somehow, he managed to quit cold-turkey, simply by replacing cigarettes with a combination of willpower and licorice.
I realize now that his experience is not the norm.
Until recently, I’ve always had the why-don’t-you-just-quit-for-the-sake-of-your-health-and-your-kids attitude.
Thanks to Oprah and Dr. Oz however, I am now aware that cigarette smoking is an addiction as powerful as any drug, and quitting is
hard work at best, and should not be taken lightly.
My spontaneous yet uneducated assumption that cigarettes and hairspray are distant cousins in matters of lung-pollution inspired me to take my commitment more seriously this time around.
So, in support of her campaign against cigarettes, and in the spirit of misery loving company, I decided to really quit hairspray.
At the very least, this notion may seem ridiculous to those of you with free-flowing locks, who so effortlessly sport current trends in wash-and-wear hair.
The concept of a hairstyle Au natural is completely foreign to me for the following reasons:
1) I am a product of the 1980’s
2) I grew up in a town renowned for its fast cars and bodacious babes with really big hair (think Grease, the 80's version).

So, like my friend, I too fight what seems to be a hopeless battle.
While my genetic structure knew nothing of bodacious beauty in my adolescence, I became quite proficient in the artful combination of high-heat (from my trusty Conair blow-dryer) and Aqua-Net hairspray.
As I look back on these days of youthful insanity (when no justification was necessary for wearing spiked heels with skinny jeans), I am perplexed at how my colossally-coiffed friends who
were also smokers, did not suffer spontaneous combustion from the obvious dangers of combining aerosol with open flame.
They were just lucky, I guess.

Fast-forward twenty-five years and although my brands have changed and my locks are fewer (and grayer), I am still unable to leave the confines of my home without a (not-so) quick fix. I would sooner give up matching socks (or matching shoes for that matter) than leave the house without a carefully coiffed crown.
I know there must be thousands of others like me but for fear of ridicule, they remain flat of hair because sadly, the benefits of big hair are often underestimated.
Not only will a king-sized coiffure balance a set of too-wide hips,
it allows one to add a few inches to the height specification when applying for a driver’s license. By all accounts, I was five-foot five-inches tall years before I was actually five-foot five-inches tall.
And might I add, for those who worry about osteoporosis and shriveling bones, a reliable can of Sebastian Shaper hairspray will make light work of height-loss, where calcium supplements fall short. Not to mention that it allows for the timely introduction of once-forbidden, practical footwear. If you follow the simple inch-for-inch strategy, no one will be the wiser. For every inch you lose in
heel-height, you must add an inch to the top of your hairdo.
Your feet will thank you and you will maintain your all-important photographic stature. A win-win for about three bucks (if you buy generic).

And so, perhaps now you understand why quitting isn’t quite as easy as it seems.

On a recent workday as I entered my place of employment, a coworker remarked that it must be terribly windy outside.
I soon realized that she reached this conclusion by the state of my
artfully coiffed locks.
From my own vantage point, it was one of my better hair days.
She would not, and could not understand my plight because she is blessed with hair that is (by her standards) too thick and grows too quickly for her own convenience. In this case, the grass (or more appropriately, hair) really is greener (and more abundant) on my coworkers side of the fence. I would guess that if she owned a can of hair spray at all, it would likely last her longer than my bottomless wholesale-club economy-size jar of peanut butter.
So for the most part, I receive no sympathy from my peers
(save for one coworker who casually contemplates giving up what she foolishly considers “occasional” smoking. She quickly and accurately put me in my place when I shared my recent lapse and divulged the sordid details of using only “one small spritz of hair spray on my bangs,” by comparing it to the obvious evils of potentially smoking only one cigarette.
Touché my friend, point taken; you know who you are, now put down the cigarette

There is one brave customer however, who (unbeknown to her) is a kindred spirit of sorts. She is a peach of a woman who one coworker (secretly and never maliciously) refers to as “Whitesnake.”
For those of you who were products of the original MTV generation as I was, you may recall an 80’s metal-band by the same moniker, whose male lead singer sported a wild mane of buttery blond locks worthy of any woman’s envy. Equally coiffed were the bodacious babes of Whitesnake music videos and I dare say our customer might have legitimately been one of them.
Now admittedly, it is with pangs of jealousy and total hairspray envy that I quietly and politely complete her transactions. I am careful not to stare too long, yet I marvel at the acrobatics of her
vanilla-milkshake locks, and their remarkable ability to defy gravity to such heights. Not surprisingly, she wears three-inch heels—at least.
I would guess her license reads five foot eight when she likely stands under five foot three. Pure genius.

And so, as I battle the unpredictable symptoms of withdrawal from my most recent endeavors, I am painfully aware of what drives my current ambitions; Fear.
While vanity plays some small role, fear is the primary factor in all this madness.
I am inclined to believe that it is fear that drives most of us as we make our New Years resolutions, order new cookbooks with recipes for healthy living, purchase weight loss allies in the form of pills, shakes and bars, sign fitness-club membership contracts, visit our primary care physicians with little protest, and abandon the evils of aerosol accessories we have come to depend on.
Although none of us likes to talk about it, we are all (in one form or another) trying to defeat the inevitability of death.
It looms large like the proverbial elephant in the room, yet no one speaks of it.

Ironically however, our minds are over-saturated with media rhetoric convincing us that we can in fact, cheat our own mortality. And so we fork over cash and commitment with belief in the notion that we might somehow control destiny.
I would offer that living a healthy lifestyle is by far our best defense, but it is equally (if not more) important to remain mindful that our bodies are enormously dependent on mind and spirit.
If we fail to nurture the brain and soul we will have malnourished the very sources of our willpower and hopefulness.

Each year, right around this time I dabble in a bit of this and that to ward off the boredom of subscribing to one particular plan. Multiplicity is also my futile attempt to speed up the whole anti-aging process. I’ve been doing it for so long that I now refer to my antics as a bit of DIS and DAT. I am Driven by my Intent to Survive and as such, I practice what I consider to be Death Avoidance Techniques (including but not limited to: a healthful eating plan, commitment to regular exercise, scheduling appointments for regular screenings and check ups as prescribed by my physician, making sure I get enough sleep, laughter, and fresh air and yes, avoiding those vices which are potentially harmful to Mother Earth and to my own health—like hair spray).

But this year however, I am encouraged by (and rooting for) those of you who struggle to quit smoking.
Not long ago a close relative pointed out that while some of us might never experience the seemingly impossible battle to escape the choke-hold of nicotine, we will be faced with fighting (or ignoring) our own addictions.
For a decade, at least, I have fought a daily battle against trans-fats.
Like Disney’s forbidden apple, our food choices are paramount
to our survival.
But damn those donuts, they taste as good as they are bad.

It would not be fair for me to proclaim that a snack addiction or an addiction to big hair is any better than a smoking addiction.
There is a misconception among non-smokers however, that smokers who quit unsuccessfully (and start smoking again) are hopeless.
I would argue that this is absolutely untrue.
I can only compare this to the number of times in my life that I have lost fifteen pounds. I am a very successful dieter. I’m great at losing weight—and even better at putting it back on.
In the same fashion that combative couples enjoy make-up sex,
I am a huge fan of make-up snacks.
In fact, in my humble opinion, It's the best part of the whole
dieting conflict.
But I refuse to give up hope.
In my attempt to healthfully feed my mind, body and spirit
(and in doing so, making every effort not to harm Mother Earth),
I am hopeful that I will make peace with a permanent lifestyle change; one that satiates both my heart and hunger.
I aim to achieve full-flavored, healthful meals, a less-than full figure, and (by some miracle) fuller hair without the use of aerosol products.
And as I struggle to stay focused on my own personal goals, I will share a spirited sentiment (AKA prayer) for the smokers in my life.
While the battle may seem uphill, it is hardly hopeless.

At some point, in a time that seems so far away, we may come to embrace the realities of thinning hair and sensible shoes.
We’ll have put away the low-fat cookbooks and nicotine patches wishing for those bygone days of insatiable appetites and hands
steady enough to light a match.
But if all goes well, if we have cared properly for mind, body and spirit, we will celebrate the fact that like Mother Earth,
we are still here.

And until then,

Make Life Delicious
Share Your Food


And in the spirit of good-for-you food that’s easy to prepare, I’ve resurrected one of my all time favorites: Three Bean Salad.
According to Ellie, beans are nutritional powerhouses, efficiently packing vitamins, minerals, protein and fiber into one little,
flavorful package.

I love to eat this salad cold, right from the fridge. Traditionally thought of as picnic fare, it goes just as well with a casual entrée of meat or fish. I especially like it alongside a burger or sandwich as a healthful substitute for potato salad or coleslaw.

You can substitute your favorite bean combination. I like to use what is seasonally available and in a pinch I rely on good-quality frozen beans.
My favorite combination thus far includes green beans, yellow wax beans, shelled edamame and red kidney beans.

Cool Beans!


1 15-oz. can cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
1 15-oz. can kidney beans, rinsed and drained
1 15-oz. can garbanzo beans rinsed and drained (chick peas)
2 celery stalks washed, peeled and finely chopped
½ red onion peeled and finely chopped
1 cup fresh, finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 TBS fresh, finely chopped rosemary

1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
1/3 cup granulated sugar
¼ cup olive oil
1 ½ tsp. kosher salt
¼ tsp. black pepper

In a large bowl, mix the beans, celery, onion, parsley and rosemary.
In a separate, small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, sugar, olive oil, salt and pepper. Add the dressing to the beans, toss to coat.
Chill beans in the refrigerator for several hours or overnight to allow flavors to marry. Serve cold or at room temperature.
Serves 4 to 8.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Pulling Brussels from a Béchamel

Like many, music was a big part of my youth.
That is not to say that I am at all musically inclined. I am not.
I can neither play an instrument nor carry a tune
(although my imaginary shower-audience might disagree).

I learned from an early age that any first-introduction to elder relatives would likely include someone serenading me with an Italianized version of “Michelle Ma Belle” (more like
‘Michella Ma Bella’
). I fondly recall my grandmother singing it as I entered a room, occasionally followed by a quick chorus of
“A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody.” While I don’t doubt my grandmother found me attractive (as biased grandmothers do), I think she knew I never had, or would have, a melodic bone in my body.
The fact that I am tone deaf is a tragedy of great proportions considering that my maternal great-grandfather was a professional opera singer; one well-loved by native Italians turned New Yorkers who pined for the tastes and sounds of their homeland.
I suppose there is some truth to the fact that hereditary traits often skip an entire generation (with the exception of one’s genetic predisposition to obesity—I’m pretty sure that one clings to
DNA like frosting to a cupcake).

At one point in my misguided adolescence, I pretended I could sing
long enough to audition for a junior-high school musical.
After my passionate performance, one befuddled (and visibly horrified) musical director could only offer this:
“Well, you have a strong voice.”

After three painful years of choral instruction, I faced the proverbial music and threw in the towel. I soon learned to appreciate the
music du jour and like most teens of my generation, gleefully traded in my 8-track player and my 45’s for a state-of-the-art cassette player. It was that magical beat-box that introduced me to a plethora of performers who accompanied the greatest joys and the deepest sorrows of my young adulthood. What my voice lacked in singability,
my ear compensated for with its uncanny (yet useless) ability to recognize pop talent. I recall encouraging my closest friends to check out a little-known, single-named artist (for whom my parents prayed because her name was such a sacrilege), Madonna. So smitten by her unconventional manner, I soon mimicked her wardrobe and hair color, but wisely stopped short at her boycott of particular matters of personal hygiene (AKA shaving), and now, looking back, I thank
my Lucky Star that I kept my hygienic wits about me.

Back then (and still today), I was drawn to all types of music and was fortunate to have experienced the live concert scene when ticket prices were still affordable (so affordable that I actually slept through a couple of Loverboy concerts to which I accompanied
my dearest, band-obsessed friends
I delighted in George Winston’s piano music blaring from my boom box as much as I enjoyed live performances by the likes of INXS,
Def Leppard, Journey, Billy Idol, Adam Ant, Huey Lewis,
Phil Collins, Bryan Adams, and The GoGo’s (to name a few).
It was by happy accident (and tolerant older siblings) that I was privileged to attend (what turned out to be) a farewell concert by a band called Squeeze.
In an open-air arena with the electrically-charged atmosphere only New York City can offer, I danced along to favorites like
“Black Coffee in Bed,” and “Pulling Mussels from a Shell.”
Those were days of enchantment, when the world was my oyster
(or more appropriately, my mussel), and I truly believed the future was mine to mold.
As it were, I did not marry Glen Tilbrook (or any other lead singers of my generation, for that matter) and sadly, I still can’t carry a tune.
Yet I sing nonetheless.

And although my genetic predisposition to operatic tendencies was lost somewhere in utero, I am blessed to have inherited one genetically-charged, die-hard appreciation for preparing and eating great food.
Coincidentally, that same great-grandfather who crooned Italian operas on the New York stage at night, was by day a confident and able cook. Perhaps it was his loyalty to his home country and his last name “Cuoco” (it means ‘cook’ in Italian), which provided him with inspiration in the kitchen.

In my seemingly desperate attempt to make some connection with the culinary history of my ancestors, I have spent a great deal of time researching the cultural significance of pasta to Italians
(need I explain?).
I discovered, as I bounced from eRecipe sites, to food-fueled
eChat rooms, that like music, food finds itself in and out of fashion. What was trendy in ’07 will not likely show up on the menus of
place-to-be restaurants in ‘08.
Also noted during my quest is a current interest in, and resurrection of old classics. Pot-pies and stews grace the covers of gourmet magazines once more, and readers are being reintroduced to the same reliable recipes upon which they were raised.
Like a favorite but forgotten melody, I have been reacquainted with Béchamel Sauce. Not being one to judge a book by its cover, I learned many years ago that this fancy-pants sounding sauce is nothing more than a simple, roux-based white sauce with infinite flavor possibilities. Most recently, a friend and neighbor recounted her delight in serving what has now become her “famous tortellini with Béchamel sauce.” On a popular cooking site, I read countless versions and methods for preparation in response to a recipe request for an “easy Béchamel.”
The fact is it couldn’t be any easier to prepare. It is one of those recipes I often refer to as low-commitment/high-yield.
It only tastes complicated.

On a recent weekday evening, while preparing a tweaked version of Janet Fletcher’s CORKSCREW PASTA WITH BRUSSELS SPROUTS, SAUSAGE, TOMATOES AND CREAM, I decided to resurrect
Béchamel a la Michelle in my very own kitchen.
In my struggle to offer healthful solutions to a pasta-loving family,
I was being haunted by one pricey bag of imported farro pasta
hiding in my pantry. So, I threw caution to the wind, roasted one
too-expensive, too-tiny container of Brussels sprouts (my favorite way to prepare them), sautéed a bit of spicy sausage with plum tomatoes, and put together an easy and delicious Béchamel.
When the pasta (finally) finished cooking, I married the whole happy lot with the velvety sauce and waited for the troops to arrive.
However, as is typical around here, none responded immediately to my tribal yell signifying a successful hunt (AKA a ready,
home-cooked meal, or in many cases, the arrival of take-out
While I waited impatiently, I picked at the plump, vibrant sprouts to stave off my I-forgot-to-eat-lunch hunger. The combination of salty, almost-caramelized sprouts with the nutmeg-sweet, creamy sauce was music to my mouth. So moved by its rhythm, I managed to eat every last Brussels sprout before hungry natives even had a chance to spear them.
Fortunately (or not), both son and husband have self-diagnosed allergies to all-things-vegetables and so I ate, free from guilt, and nary a tear was shed for the missing (albeit delicious) sprouts.
The meal was inhaled and received its seal of approval from my regular panel of judges. As I offered my explanation for what they were eating, I realized that I enjoy saying ‘Béchamel’ as much as I enjoy making and eating it. The fact that it rhymes with my name
is a bonus for the sake of folly.
As I cleared the (now empty) kitchen and started on the dishes,
I felt compelled to sing along as I washed them.
What is it about rushing water that triggers the need for song?
I sang along with the humming faucet to my own concocted renditions of “Michelle Ma Béchamel” and “Pulling Brussels from a Béchamel.” And although I was painfully off-key, I enjoyed a moment of amusement at my corny play on words, and a moment of free-ness that so often accompanies spontaneous song.

And I got to thinking about that old Squeeze cassette and those joyous, musical moments of my oblivious youth. And how although I was not gifted with voice, I am content playing to the audience of a hot shower, a kitchen faucet and the occasional rainy sidewalk.
I am convinced that both singing and cooking offer limitless joy to those who embrace them. Each offers the rich rewards of instant gratification and the opportunity for communal participation
and enjoyment.
As I call upon the old classics of both the musical and culinary worlds, I am hopeful that like music, my cooking reflects the passion from which it is conceived. While my techniques and tools may be pedestrian, I am fueled by the mastery of my ancestors and their dedication to creating symphonic dishes with simple, quality ingredients.
J.R.R. Tolkien once said: “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” For as long as I can remember, music and food have provided me with amusement and joy. Like true, old friends they have carried me through good times and bad. So, while I can’t speak for a merrier world, they certainly make for a merrier me.

And while I’m in the habit of lyrics-modification,
were my grandmother here today, I think she might agree that
A merry meal and a merry song orchestrated by a merry girl,
all together are indeed like a melody.

Until Next Time,
Make Life Delicious
Share Your Food


Once again, I make a strong recommendation for
Janet Fletcher’s book,
Four Seasons Pasta.
I am including the recipe for her simple Béchamel Sauce which is delicious on just about everything. I strongly encourage you to
seek out whole nutmeg (in my supermarket it is available in a small bag hanging near the other spices) instead of its’ already ground cousin. Use your favorite microplane or zester to add a bit to your sauce (a little goes a long way). It imparts a nutty, sweet flavor to the sauce and will have your hungry crowd wondering just what that flavor is. I especially love this sauce atop roasted vegetables, sautéed spinach, and layered between veggie lasagna.
I have made it with everything from lowfat milk to half and half but my favorite recipe uses a combination of whole milk and light cream. Make it your own to suit your own taste/needs.

Béchamel Sauce

4 TBS Unsalted Butter
4 TBS Unbleached All Purpose Flour
3 Cups Whole Milk
1 Small Bay Leaf
1 Clove Garlic, Halved
Salt and Freshly Ground Black Pepper
Freshly Grated Nutmeg

Melt the butter in a saucepan over moderate heat. Add the flour and whisk to blend. Add the milk, whisking CONSTANTLY. Add the bay leaf and garlic. Bring to a simmer, whisking often, then adjust the heat to cook at a BARE SIMMER. Cook for 15 minutes, whisking often, then season with salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste. Remove the bay leaf and garlic before serving.

**My Notes:
Once the flour is added, it is important to whisk aggressively to remove any lumps. Once you add the milk and you start whisking, make sure your heat is at a moderate level to avoid scorching. Continue to whisk until it appears smooth, with no lumps. Once it is smooth, you can be less diligent with whisking but remember to keep the heat at a bare simmer for the majority of the cooking time. You will notice the sauce thickening as it simmers. Do not allow it to boil.

Monday, January 7, 2008

A Green Party Candidate: My Own Presidential Debate

While most of you are complaining about a too-quick
December holiday season, I’m still trying to figure out where November went.
These days my life seems to be dictated by the non-shaded boxes of our district calendar and the consistent demands of a daytime job and late night laundry.
Lately I’ve been feeling a bit guilty for paying little (or no) attention to political newsbytes which might help clarify the murky waters of our upcoming presidential election.
From the very first day that I turned the tender, yet voteable age
of 18, I have been haunted by the notion that my own little selection at the polls could tip the scales in the wrong direction; hence leaving our country in the hands of one incapable, albeit charming pretender—a tragedy I can almost equate with leaving my own beloved family in the hands of one skinny, inexperienced, unmotivated cook.
This is serious stuff.

Recently, while browsing my favorite wholesale club (in my favorite department which houses all manners of refrigerated noshables),
I happened upon a huge wheel of double-crème brie.
The temptation to make such a spendy purchase was quelled only by the facts that the brand name would haunt me (President), and the size of the wheel would likely last long enough to see our next presidential inauguration.
My greatest fear being that in a side by side comparison,
(my President brie to our new president), my cheese would likely possess more maturity and character (in this case, in the form of mold), than our fearless new leader.
At the risk of making a hasty decision, I headed to the book department where I hoped to brie-tox, and return to my original, sensible plan to follow my efficiently prepared shopping list.

I sorted through a random assortment of cookbooks and took a few moments to savor the delicious photographs in one particular book dedicated to seasonal pasta dishes. As I reluctantly returned the book to its rightful stack, I noticed a brightly colored collection of Dr. Seuss books.
I was surprised that this familiar collection was stacked amongst a collection of books for adult readers, and not placed appropriately with the other children’s books.
Quirky titles like If I Ran the Circus, Hop on Pop, and Horton Hears a Who, were nestled between current titles like Charlie Wilson’s War and YOU—The Owners Manual.
I wondered if this misplacement was mere happenstance or perhaps intentionally and strategically orchestrated by the same genius who not so long ago, reminded us that all we ever really needed to know we had already learned in Kindergarten.
An interesting thought occurred to me:
What if this same principle could be applied to choosing a presidential candidate? What if all I ever really needed to know to successfully perform my patriotic duty was scripted in rhyme by a clever man known to most of us as Dr. Seuss?
Surely this pattern of thought was proof that I had finally lost it.
In a state of guilt-ridden, hunger-induced delirium, it was time to face the cold, hard truth that I was in fact, apathetic.
There, I said it;
Apathy, that dreaded condition best left to describe the ignorant
and indecisive among us.
For there, hidden among harried shoppers in the book department of wholesale heaven, stood one desperate, ill-informed American who was, and always had been reluctant to cast her meager, yet admittedly essential vote (me).
Now that the proverbial cat was finally out of the bag
(or more appropriately, the hat), where was I to go from here?

It was then and there that I decided to put an end to the madness.
If a true climate of change was upon us, and our front-running candidates were willing to stand by their promises for said change
(or not), then surely I could make the commitment to change for the sake of our great country, couldn’t I?
But the dilemma of choice still haunted me.
Like that great wheel of President brie, what I wanted had little to do with what was right or what was practical (truth be told, I really wanted Oprah to be President so her Favorite Things Day could become a national holiday, complete with fringe benefits).
These forces of opposition, want versus need, would continue to
rear their ugly heads as I struggled to choose a leader from our
not-so-stellar lot of candidates.

I pulled the stack of Seuss books closer to me and as I sentimentally flipped through each colorful, rhyming tome, I allowed myself to daydream the possibility of creating my own candidate for presidency.
As I read along to What If I Ran the Circus, I imagined its title to be What if I Ran the Country, and for one fleeting moment, Dr. Seuss himself, seemed like the perfect fit.
But the sad (yet true) fact that he was deceased left one
Theodor Seuss Geisel an unlikely candidate for the
White House in '09.

And speaking of The White House, I don’t doubt that if he had the opportunity to lead our great country, he would have wasted no time in choosing a new, happier color (or several colors) for his drab, albeit tremendous, new home.
I imagine that he would have approached politics in the same simple fashion he approached his notable literary works.
I’d like to think that his sometimes fantastical, yet always accurate view that we living creatures are basically a good-natured bunch, would have moved mountains for the sake of world peace.
Although most adults (especially those who have children or at some point, were children themselves) are familiar with his work, many remain unaware that Dr. Seuss actually wrote for mature readers as well as children.
Many of his books fall under the umbrella of “character education,” as he artfully addresses important individual and societal issues through his usual cast of creatures, both real and imagined
(and I can’t t think of one adult who couldn’t use a little
character education

For example, The Lorax, although not his most popular, was
decades ahead of its time, as it addresses the issue of environmental corruption due to industrial pollution in a fictitious land of
truffula trees.
To this day, it speaks to the importance of caring for ones planet for the sake of protecting both our present and future environments.

One of my favorite Seuss books called Horton Hears a Who, features Horton, an elephant, who encounters a tiny race of creatures and magnanimously protects them.
The story emphasizes appreciation of cultural differences and the importance of standing up for those who are perhaps, smaller, weaker and less able to stand up for themselves.
The author's lessons are timeless and so brilliantly written that they are easily understood by both young and old.

Additionally, I can only imagine the simplicity with which he might have penned laws, by-laws and amendments.
Had Dr. Seuss really become president, dare I suggest that we few apathetic Americans might have been encouraged to pay closer attention and perhaps even take interest, for the simple fact that we might have actually understood political jargon for a change?
And let’s face it, who doesn’t love a good rhyme?

As I quietly read each whimsical line, enchanted by its silliness and acutely aware of its greater meaning, I decided that one would hardly have to twist my arm to convince me to vote for him if he were in fact, a viable candidate.
Imagine what fun it would be to read or hear his daily briefings from the Oval Office (and I would imagine he might have named his other offices appropriately by shape and/or color, once he was settled in his new digs).

Furthermore, I can only imagine what his campaign slogans might have offered;

Would you vote for a lamb?
Would you vote for a goat?
You must, You MUST
Get out and vote!

It matters how your vote is spent
Especially if you live under a circus tent
Why then, a monkey might make a grand President!

But you live in the U--S--A
And your vote counts on Election Day
So forget the elephant, and forget the donkey
And definitely DO NOT vote for a monkey!

Don’t vote for a duck
Don’t vote for a moose
Be smart and vote for Dr. Seuss!

(Or maybe something like that)

But alas, Dr. Seuss has left our fine planet for grander pastures and that leaves him a not-so viable candidate for office.
Thankfully, we can still benefit from his brilliantly penned, fantastical and fictitious (yet fundamentally sound) tales.

With time seemingly standing still, I finally reached the bottom of the Seussical stack and pulled out a book with a familiar, yet intimidating character. Admittedly, he was one I loved to hate as a child,
The Grinch.
As I turned the pages, I recalled that feeling of fearful anticipation, as the made-for-television production of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas would break for commercials (obviously, before the corruption of TiVo). It was always at a critical juncture in the story’s plot, when the viewer was left to wonder what would become of the gentle residents of Whoville, at the hands of the sinister, greedy Grinch (to this very day, I cannot recall a show whose last five minutes left me with more satisfaction, peacefulness, or pride
than this one).
I grew to love the Grinch, as much for his triumphs as his foibles.
As he made his transformation from an angry societal outcast to a rehabilitated and morally upright (yet green and hairy) creature, I cheered as he realized the importance of forgiveness, kindness and generosity.
(To this day, I don’t doubt that Greenpeace was the brainchild of one impressionable kid who witnessed the climate change in Whoville and made it his own).

As I pondered the impact of this familiar story and the underlying issues of materialism, the importance of good will, and the true meaning of holidays it so cleverly addresses, I realized that we Americans could learn a thing or two from the green guy.
In all his sinister fallibility, he fought the demons of commercialism and the unfairness of childhood prejudice, and emerged a true hero; one who gained the trust and respect of an open-minded community, willing to give his promise for change a legitimate chance.
Not too shabby for a misunderstood, hairy, green bully.

I forced myself away from the book department and headed back to the dairy aisle, rejuvenated by a less-is-more mentality, thanks to CindyLou Who and her neighbors. I refused to purchase that glorious wheel of brie until I could legitimately account for its purpose.
Forcing impulse aside, I filled my cart with only the food items on my list and made my way to the excruciatingly long checkout line.

As I waited on line, I perused magazines and tabloids from the display racks strategically placed to tempt the impulsive, the bored, and the sugar-addicted (in this case, all three applied to me).
A pattern seemed to emerge from each front page cover, leaving little room for the usual reporting on celebrity shenanigans.
It seemed that in clever, timely fashion, each cover highlighted the flaws, foibles and faux-pas of our current presidential candidates. From suspect behaviors to seemingly inarguable infidelities, there didn’t seem to be a squeaky clean duck left in the bunch.

Ironically (or not), that hardcover edition of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas stared at me from atop the twenty-four pack of toilet tissue in my cart. I couldn’t rationalize purchasing the book any more than I could rationalize purchasing that giant wheel of brie.
As I placed it alongside the pathetic yet entertaining assortment of tabloids, I realized that the Grinch himself was looking like the most noble (albeit green) candidate among present company.
In light of the fact that all of our candidates are flawed, I would find it reassuring to know that at least one is truly capable of change.
If only the Grinch were running for president,
I would be off the hook for another four years (at least) and I could concentrate on the importance of local, seasonal produce and its relationship to countless varieties of pasta (obviously, a subject of critical matter).
But such was not the case.
And it’s sad really, because the Grinch would have made
a fine president.
At fifty-three, he already had valuable life lessons under his belt. Although his past was a bit sketchy, one could not deny his successful rehabilitation.
He overcame childhood prejudice and beat the odds against his rare condition (being born with a heart two sizes too small).
He proved that he could be a team player and would act quickly and effectively in a crisis situation (think overloaded sleigh teetering on mountaintop). With Max steadfastly by his side, one wouldn’t have to guess the identity of his running mate (could there be one more loyal or capable than Max?).
The Grinch righted the wrongs of his past and made it his mission to give back (this would likely come in handy for those of us paying
too-high property taxes
And let us not forget his ability to feed the masses with limited resources (he managed to feed the entire village of Whoville as he
so dexterously carved one single roast beast
The simple fact remains that this great country of ours needs a guy (or gal) who, when push comes to shove, will ultimately do the right thing; one who acknowledges conscience in a time of conflict.
But alas, our country’s fate rests in the hands of a different, less green species (although I would have to argue that the Grinch seems more human than some people I know).

So, in the spirit of honoring my covenant, I am committed to taking my role as an American voter more seriously.
Change is rarely, if ever without cost, and I don’t expect this will be an easy change to make.
Truth be told, my ignorance really is bliss.
Talk to me about food, and I get it.
Talk politics to me, and well, you might as well be speaking Greek
(of course, if you use words like moussaka and baklava, I’ll totally get it).

I can’t erase the poor choices of my disinterested past, but like the Grinch, I am committed to the promise of a better me; one who is more compassionate, more generous and hopefully, more informed.
In my quest to sort through the propaganda to uncover the best leader for our great country, I will keep in mind the importance of character and the qualities which are essential to great leadership.
Should I fall short in my ability to make a well-informed choice, I will seek assistance from those who are more capable.
Perhaps they will be willing to translate Greek for me over
coffee and some homemade baklava.

It is unfortunate though that the Grinch isn’t an option
for American voters.
We’ve never had a green president.
And often times, change is good.

Until Next Time,
Make Life Delicious
Share Your Food


P.S. That pasta book with the delicious photographs is called
Four Seasons Pasta by Janet Fletcher and is definitely worth a
look-see by anyone who loves a good noodle.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

From Panini to Bikini (or Not)

Happy New Year

With full hearts and even fuller bellies, many of us will approach 2008 with excitement and anticipation for smaller waistlines,
bigger bank accounts and more organized homes and offices.
As I begin my own annual WWF Smackdown (no, I’m not a fan of
wrestling but the quirky moniker is a perfect fit for my
self-prescribed weight loss regime of more Water, Walking and Fiber), I am also committed to my Christmas promise for self-improvement which ultimately benefits the greater good.

It was an easy decision to make my donation in the form of edibles because food remains a subject for me that is both comforting and motivating.
Food is what I know and it’s one of the few things I’m good at.
Not to mention that I am haunted by the thought of anonymous members of my own community running short of food to feed their families, while I admonish my own family (including myself) for the occasional waste resulting from hungry eyes, too large for sometimes unappreciative, well-fed stomachs.

I did some shopping for the local food pantry and as I reached for predictable non-perishables like canned beans, rice, and soup stock, I thought about a recent movie I had the pleasure of watching with my family.
It tells the story of a rat named Remy who aspires to be a multi-starred chef in Paris. With insurmountable odds against him, he fulfills his dream and acquires his own restaurant, complete with all of the kitchen gadgets any renowned varmint-chef would need.
The repetitive message throughout the movie of “Anyone can cook,” is perhaps overstated in the case of Remy and his widely extended rat family, but pertinent nonetheless to the rest of us.
It is in that spirit that I decided to mix it up a little when preparing the donation bags for the food pantry. In addition to the basic items, I threw in a few unexpected yet inspirational items for good measure, including but not limited to: coconut milk, parmesan tomato-basil oil, sweet chili oil, Thai red curry paste, Vietnamese spring roll wrappers, Nori wrappers for sushi rolls, Arborio rice, pearled barley, mixed Tuscan spices, chipotle chili spice packs for the brave, two bottles of hot sauce, and Buffalo Bills Wild West salsa (which, in conjunction with beans, beef stock, rice and a few spices would make one heck of a meal for a rainy football Sunday afternoon).
I am hopeful that the recipients of my donations will be inspired enough to experiment with the ingredients.
If for only one meal, or even one moment, they could taste
a bit of joy and forget a bit of hardship, it would make my heart glad.

On one pleasant, unseasonably warm day, after dropping off the donation bags, hubby and I headed to our favorite Italian Pastosa to stock up on fixins for the week ahead, which would be spent getting to know our new panini press.
One stop turned into two because we are both blessed and cursed to have two Italian specialty shops within just a few miles of our home. An ideal situation perhaps, if we find ourselves in an emergency situation in need of squid ink; not so ideal if we have a yen for fresh Mozzarella and we shop when we’re hungry (and when, pray tell,
are we NOT hungry?
Needless to say, I was not only successful in my acquisition of one jar of Calabrian hot peppers, one jar of Recca anchovies packed in olive oil, one bag of fresh bread crumbs, one featherweight bag of outrageously expensive dried Porcini mushrooms, one can of AsDoMar Italian tuna packed in oil ( in my opinion, there is no substitute), one bag of Farro pasta, two cans of San Marzano tomatoes, a pound of Gaeta and Kalamata olives, and a half pound of pignoli nuts, but as I expected, my husband refused to leave either establishment without his favorite four-letter-friend, MEAT.

We arrived home with my own bacchanalia of delicacies and his sinful assortment of sausages and stuffed beef pinwheels.
These substantial meats would have to wait their turn for plated performance however, because the panini press was calling.
An assorted mix of sliced salamis awaited their cue as I prepared breads and accompaniments for the event.
While our DeLonghi Retro Panini Press heated to maximum temperature, I carefully sliced, conservatively layered, cautiously spread, and gently drizzled to my heart’s content.
Throughout the process, I referred time and again to my favorite book on the subject: Simple Italian Sandwiches by Jennifer and Jason Denton. I did my homework on cookbooks dedicated solely to panini, and this one tops my list of favorites. I am also a fan of
Jo McAuley’s book, simply called Panini, but the Denton’s book delves further into the origin of simple sandwich fare and offers great recipes for condiments and accompaniments. Their book offers the reader a brief, yet engaging history of panini and tempts one to visit their critically acclaimed bistro in New York City, lovingly called ‘Ino (which loosely translates into “small precious mouthfuls”).

I knew from premiere panini production that I would be forever hooked on these simple yet symphonic sandwiches.
Truth be told, I have never been a fan of sandwiches in general, save for the occasional (albeit deadly) Reuben.
These however, offered a combination of flavors and textures which recalled favorite Italian fare of my well-fed youth. My love of all things antipasti was brilliantly showcased between slices of artisan bread grilled to crisp yet tender perfection.
My favorite panini to date (and keep in mind that we haven’t even scratched the surface of possibilities) includes soppressata, Fontina cheese and arugula, spread with sun-dried tomato bruschetta and olive oil. All is lovingly nestled between two uniform slices of ciabatta rolls and firmly pressed until golden and crisp.
Pure Panini Heaven.
While educating myself on the finer points of panini consumption, I arrived at the simple, yet unarguable conclusion that Prosecco was invented for the sole purpose of being served with panini.

My secret love affair with panini started well before the press arrived via UPS at my front door. Admittedly, I read the Denton’s book
cover to cover, before I even ordered the press. With each detailed description, I could practically taste the joy and longed to share it.
The morning after I read the last page, I efficiently e-ordered panini presses for every member of my family and for my closest friends and neighbors.
Christmas supply being unable to meet urgency and demand, I was forced to purchase three different brands; all of which fared well from recent reviews.
My first intention was to purchase the highly regarded Cuisinart GR-1 Griddler (this is not to be confused with the larger griddler that has removable plates and is made to accommodate meats and other grillables, but instead is fashioned to be a workhorse for grilling sandwiches). A major inventory faux-pas by left me with a replacement offer for the DeLonghi Retro Panini Press which I now own. I am pleased and satisfied and would recommend this model to any ambitious panini maker. It is both easy to use and very easy to clean—the two requirements that were non-negotiable in my quest for panini press procurement. I was fortunate to be able to attain two more DeLonghi’s to share with friends.
I was intent on providing all of my family members with the same product so my decision was made based on availability of five identical units. They each received the Breadman Panini Press, the most impressive dark horse of my purchases. For around forty bucks each, the units are sturdy, keep consistent temperature and house narrow and closely spaced grill plates which most resemble those of traditional panini presses. I was so impressed with this unit that I tried to reorder a few more to no avail. Both Amazon and Target were devoid of inventory and I was on a wild goose chase for three more panini presses. I finally settled on the Hamilton Beach version and was pleasantly surprised at its comfortable price tag and simple yet reliable construction. Each recipient found a panini cookbook firmly attached to the box containing the press, for added inspiration. Some received Jo McAuley’s book while others received the Denton’s cookbook.
Two presses in festive wrapping are still sitting idly by my fireplace, awaiting belated holiday visits from unsuspecting guests.
Oh the anticipation and joy of giving.

My panini Christmas is one I wish I could have shared with every man or woman who necessarily, but reluctantly makes their way up the old cement steps to an open, objective food pantry door.
But alas, my oddly assorted (yet well intended) donations will have to suffice for now.

And onto that dreaded subject of bikinis, I got to thinking about dinner napkins of all things, and how they played an integral role in my damnation of the bikini.

I recall around the age of junior high school, that my father was displeased with all manners of paper production pertaining to dinner napkins, toilet paper and tissues. He would occasionally mutter seemingly nonsensical negativities about such products while using them (with the exception of toilet paper as I have no knowledge, nor do I wish to continue this line of discussion about his use of this product. I can only attest to the fact that he regularly threatened divorce if our household was ever devoid of said product, however inferior).
I remember that on occasion, usually during mealtime, he would open a paper napkin to its full size, gently unfolding each layer to reveal a transparent, inadequate (albeit large) square. He would remark (to anyone who would listen) that it was wasteful if we didn’t allow our napkins to be used to their fullest potential before reaching for a replacement ( this is a common yet silly practice of fathers-- foolishly believing that their children actually USE dinner napkins), all the while shaking his head in disapproval at the inferiority of our not-so-cheap paper napkins.
He was most disgruntled however by the inadequacy of tissues. I wondered as a young teen if my father had an unusually large nose or if in fact, he suffered from some abnormal sinus condition that failed to halt mucus production. When I questioned my mother about his disdain for Kleenex, she reminded me that he was a recent convert from traditional fabric handkerchiefs and would never be satisfied with their inferior, paper counterpart.
In my true, squeamish girl-form of the era, I was horrified by her admission. I begged forgiveness on my father’s soul for his prehistoric preference and begged blessings for my mother’s dear soul for putting up with the daily laundry of five kids, two grandparents and a husband who added said handkerchiefs to the lot. I also found it both disturbing and amusing that in households across my community, where my friends were regularly admonished for failing to remove their tennis shoes before entering the home, gentleman of the house were welcomed and seemingly encouraged to add their snot to the family hamper.
At least my own mother was consistently fair, and equally welcomed both the sneakered and the hankie-toting into her home and hamper.

Back to the subject of dinner napkins; it was during my less than svelte phase of teen-hood that I devised a dinnertime plan for guaranteed weight loss.
It was a brilliant plan that required no stimulants or hokey-pokey diet tricks, but instead, the open-mindedness of family members,
an appetite, and a bikini.
With my mother’s permission, I showed up for dinner wearing only my black and white striped bikini. I explained (to the few who looked up from their dinner plates long enough to notice) that the unsightliness of my belly-rolls would surely deter me from overeating or making poor choices in regard to portion size and the ratio of proteins to vegetables which adorned my generously sized plate.
Three nights in a row I left the table victorious. I was satiated but not stuffed, and most importantly, I had the confidence of having made good nutritional choices under my invisible shrinking belt.
On the fourth night however, once the chicken cutlets and spinach-laden mashed potatoes hit the table, I soon learned the indispensable value of a dinner napkin unfolded to its full potential.
By golly, my father was on to something.
On diagonal, neatly tucked between bikini top and bikini bottom, it cleverly hid a multitude of sins and allowed for a damn good
(and temporarily guiltless) meal.

So, on the first day of this promising new year, I exist
like so many others, torn between many variables.
I will struggle with battles between what is healthful and what is delicious, between right and wrong, between dedicating myself to a cause or desensitizing myself from said cause, simply because it is easier and less painful; between greed and generosity, between willpower and won’t-exhaustion, between saving and spending, between an organized mess or just a mess, and perhaps most significantly, between myself and I.

The me who wants to be that woman in the great jeans who makes her own soap, is a markedly different me from the one who idolizes her panini press.
She is a me who loves all the flavors life has to offer and wants everyone to have a taste.
She is really the me I most enjoy being.

And should that bikini experiment rear its ugly head again, I have the perfect application for those orphaned fabric handkerchiefs I found long ago in a family closet. It turns out that they are bigger and stronger than the paper dinner napkins which accompany our daily meals.
Perhaps, when placed on point, and tucked neatly between bikini top and bottom, one will hide a multitude of forty year-old sins, while sparing the appetite of dinner companions and allowing for one
damn good meal of perfect panini and prosecco.

I think my father would be proud.

Until Next Time,
Make Life Delicious
Share Your Food


For those of you who haven't yet seen Ratatouille, treat yourself. It's a happy movie that will leave you hungry (but no less repulsed by rats). It is one of my favorite Christmas gifts, second only to my new Nordic Track, which is easy enough to operate while holding a panini and watching Food Network.

I am happy to share with you my favorite recipe for panini from
Simple Italian Sandwiches by Jennifer and Jason Denton.
If I could eat the book, I would.

Soppressata, Fontina, and Arugula Panini

4 Cibatta Rolls
15 thin slices soppressata or other hard salami
1 small bunch arugula, well rinsed and dried
Freshly ground black pepper
8 think slices Italian Fontina Cheese

Preheat Panini Grill.
Slice off the domed tops of the Ciabatta rolls and reserve for another use. The rolls should be about 1 inch thick. Split or slice the rolls in half horizontally.
Distribute the soppressata slices so that the bottom halves of the rolls are covered with a single layer of salami. Top with a few leaves of arugula and some black pepper. Arrange two slices of Fontina on each sandwich and trim edges of cheese to fit the bread. Cover with the top halves of the rolls.
Grill the sandwiches until warmed through completely--about 4 minutes.
Cut in half and serve immediately.

**My Notes:
I always drizzle a scant amount of extra virgin olive oil on the base roll before placing ingredients on top. If the meat is particularly greasy however, I will omit this step. On this particular panini, I added a teaspoon of sundried tomato bruschetta spread onto each side of the sandwich before closing. It is important to use only a small bit so it doesn't seep out during grilling.
This panini is especially good served with marinated artichokes and mixed olives alongside (and don't forget the prosecco).