Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Three-Course Book Giveaway and Eggplant Dip to Die For

by Lisa

Hungry for books? We at Writing Up an Appetite are giving away not one, not two, but three books to a lucky new follower who joins us here before midnight of September 5th (click on "Join this Site" under "Followers" in the right sidebar), but only if we reach at least 100 followers overall. The winner will be drawn at random and announced in next week's post.

The Books:

Be a follower to win these books!

Now on to this week's recipe, one of our family favorites. Children who turn up their noses at eggplant cooked any other way may be willing to try this dip, which you can serve either hot or at room temperature or straight from the fridge. I love it on sliced fresh ciabatta.

Creamy Sesame Eggplant Dip

Are eggplants sexy?
3 Japanese or baby eggplant, or 1 medium-large eggplant
1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 Tablespoon sesame oil (not dark)
1/2 medium sweet onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup tahini (sesame paste)
1/2 teaspoon dark roasted sesame oil

1. Cut the ends off the eggplant, and peel and discard skin. Cube in 1/2" pieces.
2. Sauté eggplant, onion, and garlic in olive and sesame oils. After about 5 minutes, add salt, cover, and sauté until eggplant is very tender and lightly browned, about 20 minutes.
3. Transfer sautéed eggplant mixture to a food process container. Add tahini and dark sesame oil, and blend until smooth. Makes about 2 cups.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Cooking Her Way Back Home

Today we are thrilled to bring you a guest post by Rebecca Rasmussen.

In June, my family and I moved from St. Louis to Los Angeles so my husband could go to graduate school out here. I’m not going to lie to you: the adjustment has been difficult for me. We’ve been thrust out of our little midwestern world into a world we aren’t familiar with, a world where half the people we meet are actors or screenwriters or “working in the industry.” People honk a lot out here. They arrive late to lunch because they are visiting their therapists and taking in a Pilate’s class. They’re thin and tan and look more alive than people anywhere else I’ve lived. Los Angeles is a world away from my pie making Midwestern roots, and I find myself missing even the things I despised about home—the grit, the humidity, the heat—for the simple reason that those things feel like home and home makes me feel safe.

I live in a gated apartment building (everything is gated); I couldn’t be safer, but for some reason the sprinklers jolt me out of sleep in the middle of the night and then I’m awake, ambling around the apartment trying to get my bearings back. Here you could be living in a slum and the placard on the gate would say luxury. In my estimation, there are two LA’s, one for the rich and one for the poor.

Don’t get me wrong. There are beautiful things too: the ocean, for one thing, and the palm trees and jacarandas, which work at my psyche daily to make me feel like I’m on a perpetual vacation, though another part of me is always keenly aware that I’m not. And my apartment building is filled with wonderful international families, whose kids my daughter loves to play with and whom I admire because they are even further away from their homes and still manage to smile on the stairwell. They cook wonderful things too, which reinvigorated me for a while. Maybe I could cook my way home.

At first, I tried my usual comfort fare: pies, quiches, nifty spins on old-time casseroles, but those things just reminded me of how far away I was from the apple orchard and spray of rhubarb on my father’s land in Wisconsin. So I turned to something unfamiliar to my typical culinary routine. I surfed the Internet and came across in Indian woman who posts You Tube videos of herself cooking traditional Indian dishes in her apartment. She’s sweet and precise and convinced me to try something new. I wrote down a list of ingredients and carted my daughter to an Indian market in my neighborhood.

We were the only English speakers in the store, but the two clerks were very friendly, even when I butchered the names of some of the spices I was looking for. Apparently, most Americans new to cooking Indian food attempt to cook one of two things: tikka masala or korma. I was attempting to cook korma, which I admit embarrassed me a little bit.

My daughter and I came away with coriander powder, mango powder, cumin seeds, turmeric, asafetida, hot green peppers, ginger, bay leaves, paneer, garam masala, and basmati rice. I’m telling you: that plastic bag of spices smelled so rich and lovely for a minute I forgot where I was and was back in an Indian restaurant in Fort Collins, Colorado, where my husband and I went on one of our first dates over a decade ago. I remembered the mango lassi I was drinking when he reached across the table for my hand.

This was all very promising, indeed.

My husband agreed. When we got home, he offered to help cook the meal, but all I let him do was mince the ginger. I wanted the ingredients to transport me somewhere else (where I didn’t know), and though the meal turned out just the way my Indian You Tube friend said it would, it didn’t take me back in time. But it did something more important: it took me forward, and my family too. We were making future memories in our small kitchen that night. We were listening to the radio. We were laughing.

My hope is that one day we will look back and remember our first days in Los Angeles with both kindness and a little humor.

“Remember when we thought everyone in LA was part of Hollywood. Remember when we didn’t honk our horns. Remember when palm trees still enchanted us. When we didn’t think we deserved all of this good weather.”

Maybe we’ll be sharing a bottle of wine. Maybe our cheeks will be warm.

“Remember that great Indian dinner we made.”
(You made, my husband will say.)
(You minced the ginger, I’ll remind him.)
“Remember when we didn’t know if we were going to make it.” 

And I’ll say: yes, yes, I do, a little too quickly, and I’ll reach across the table this time and hold my husband’s hand and maybe we won’t live happily ever after, but we’ll be happy just then.

Rebecca Rasmussen is the author of the novel The Bird Sisters (Crown/Random House 2011). You can find her at

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Three Keys to Success in the Kitchen (and with your writing)

I learn a lot about writing a novel when I watch my husband, Bill, work in the kitchen. He doesn't cook often, but when he is called to the stove, he arms himself with determination, sharp tools, and an apron. A recipe acts only as the structure for a dish that he makes his own, and he rarely experiences (what I like to call) "Dinner Fail." Maybe he's always lucky with a chef's knife and a wooden spoon, but every time I watch him, I see him incorporate the same three techniques.

1. Focus.

Good enough is not an option stay focused on excellence
When my husband is in the kitchen making dinner, everyone else is out of the kitchen. There's a look in his eye that says, "talk to me if you must, but don't expect a response." He has a plan, and he knows that success depends on his own execution of the plan. Rambunctious kids in the hallway won't pull him away, and status updates or tweets never cross his mind. In fact, he isn't even on Facebook (oh, the horror!).

When he's cooking, he's just cooking.

And, he never walks away from a recipe in the middle of measuring ingredients.

2. Clean as you go.

So, I guess I should clarify that "just cooking" bit: when he's cooking, he's all about the whole process of meal-making. "Clean as you go" is a given. Let the dirty dishes mount while you chop, stir, and simmer, and the whole process becomes overwhelming. You run out of counter space; the recipe goes missing; chaos ensues.

Welcome, Dinner Fail. 

3. Spice it up.

I mean, Really. Surprise your audience.

spicesOnce, when my husband was in charge of making chili, he threw together more than just onions, meat and beans. He searched the cabinets and the pantry for something totally unexpected, because what's a cook if he isn't inventive? That pot of chili melded together the flavors of cayenne pepper, Tabasco sauce, coffee grounds, and maple syrup.

That's right. Coffee grounds. Never mind the syrup.

It was a "Bill" original, and, well, we're still talking about that chili.

But cooking dinner and writing a novel aren't exactly the same, you say. A novel doesn't get written in two hours or less, and it's much more complicated than "chop, stir, and simmer."

Okay, but there's still plenty to take away here.

When I sit down to write, I could shut down the internet, focus on my task at hand -- be it word count or page edits, filling in plot holes or looking at structure. And, while shitty first drafts have a definite place in my writing process, there is some planning I can do, before I sit down and after my writing time is finished, that may help me organize my limited time more efficiently. Also, I don't need to be afraid to spice up the story with whatever I imagine. As James Scott Bell says in his book, Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure, cooking - like writing - is "a formula [with] a whole range of outcomes. . . . You still have to add your spices, your skills, your talent" to make the story your own and a success.

And, that's what I'm after, in the kitchen or in writing: a "Christi" original. 

Are there techniques you use in the kitchen that you could be using at your writing desk?


* photo credits: 1. Good enough..., Thierry Draus on Flickr; 2. Spices, Maks Karochkin on Flickr

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Slow Food or Quick Food, It's All Dessert To Me

I've become a desert curmudgeon. Unless I need a quick treat, I'm a stickler for home baked desserts from scratch. No cake mix. No Bisquick. It's slow rise or no rise. I do it because I know what's inside, and really, there is nothing better than straight from the oven to the basket Hot Buns Hot Buns*.

Growing up, Ma had different ideas on food. What I ate as a kid came from a can (fruit and veggies), a box (cake, pudding, Stove Top Stuffing), a freezer (pork chops and hamburger) or the woods (Bambi and his little fishy friends). I don't fault her for this, mind you. She had nine kids and a spit-spot home.

My way can take over a person's life. Slow food takes time and enormous amounts of patience if something doesn't turn out how you anticipated. It can mean waking up at incredible hours should you be entertaining for breakfast or brunch. Kids, though they may revel in the final product, often don't have the wherewithal to withstand hours in the kitchen waiting, waiting, waiting. This is the part of Ma's plan that really makes sense and I'm glad I at least took notes.

Since revisiting my childhood home last week I've been steeped in memory and memoir. I'm still not sure what to make of it, but I've been reminded of the many hours on my knees hunched over the breakfast bar watching Ma stir and blend and bake. One of my favorite deserts took no time at all to concoct--Dump Cake, a classic.

There are a lot of Dump Cake recipes online, but this is the way Ma made it.

1 Can of Cherry Pie Filling
1 Can of crushed Pinapple
1 Package yellow cake mix
1 Stick of butter, melted
Sweetened, shredded coconut
Chopped nuts
Here's what you do: Grab one of those 9x13 inch baking pans and grease it up a little bit around the bottom and the sides. Pour in the cherries and spread them all around. Glop and spread the pineapple over the cherries. Pour the cake mix over the fruit. Then pour the butter over the cake mix as evenly as you can. Top with as much coconut as you like, then add nuts. Bake at 350 for 45 minutes.

Enjoyed best with a cup of hot coffee

*Orange Hot Cross Buns is another one of my coffee shop "literary" foods that has been aptly renamed by my youngest fledgling. I urge you to take it for a spin on a slow food kind of a day. 

If you like food, writing, writing about food or simply the happy banter here at Writing Up an Appetite, take a quick click over yonder to the right and Follow along. We're glad to have ya!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Poor Man's Cake

by Lisa

It’s early June of 2003, and I find myself standing alone in my grandmother’s kitchen in rural South Dakota on the Rosebud Sioux reservation, leisurely flipping through recipe cards in a dusty cabinet drawer. Each time I travel from my current home in Milwaukee to the farm where I grew up, I am drawn to walk the gravel road to my grandmother’s house as if called on a pilgrimage.The house has been uninhabited for almost twelve years at this point. My grandparents—my father’s parents—lived on the same farm as my parents, so this kitchen is as familiar to me as my own. As I walk through the front porch and hear the screen door whap shut behind me, I can still smell fresh bread and cinnamon rolls and cakes and cookies. The memories greet me like friendly ghosts, swirling just beyond my reach, triggering simultaneous Proustian joy and longing.

I’m not sure what I’m looking for as I finger the jumble of recipe cards. Some are handwritten. Some are typed. Some are written in my grandmother’s young, steady hand, others in her older, shakier script. I also recognize my mother’s handwriting, an aunt’s, my maternal grandmother’s, a neighbor’s.

Mixed among the recipes are envelopes yellowed with age and carefully slit along the sides. I take them to the Formica kitchen table and sit on one of the red-cushioned chrome chairs. Inside the envelopes are more handwritten recipes. These must have been requested by my grandmother at various family gatherings and then mailed to her when the relatives had returned home.

Most of the letters include a brief greeting or suggestion for adapting the recipe, but some are just recipes, with no signatures, no introductions. One for Poor Man’s Cake, written in the handwriting of one of my aunts on my mother’s side, ends with a personal note:
Poor Man’s Cake

Into an 8x8x2 inch pan, or use a bowl, sift 1 1/2 cups flour, 1 cup sugar, 3 Tablespoons cocoa, 1 teaspoon soda and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Add 1 cup cold water, 6 Tablespoons oleo [butter], Tablespoon vinegar and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Mix ‘till smooth and bake for 20-25 minutes at 325 degrees to 350 degrees.  Makes 1 small cake.

“This is an ideal recipe when eggs are scarce and milk, too. Your family needn’t go without the all-time favorite, chocolate cake. I substitute carob powder for cocoa, and it works fine.”

Poor Man's Cake, 2011

These voices are telling me something.

This particular visit is in honor of a wedding reception for my father, who at age 72 has re-married. Our extended family is strewn around the country—from Wyoming to Florida, Arizona to Wisconsin—and this is one of the few times when most of us have been in one place at the same time. I especially enjoy the presence of my aunts, my father’s sisters, whom I haven’t seen together in many years.

One morning I listen to the two of them reminisce over morning coffee about how, when they were young, coffee or tea was never served without something small to eat--cookies or cake or some other homemade dessert. They say that, even today, they like to keep cookies on hand in the event a guest pops for a visit.

For them, coffee was more than just coffee. Coffee was an excuse to serve, to share, and to connect. For my generation, coffee is an expensive gourmet roast to be slurped from a disposable paper cup while we keep one hand on the steering wheel.

I am a mother and wife but also a writer and teacher and volunteer who, like almost all of my friends, struggles to juggle several responsibilities and interests. The busier I get, the stronger my need to feel grounded and connected in some way to the women whose lives gave rise to and shaped my own.

Of course, my life is quite different from that of my grandmothers. They had little choice as to how much or whether they baked or cooked. Their day-to-day lives were filled to the brim with the not so simple task of putting food on the table. They baked bread because it was expected of them, to save money, and because home baked bread was better than the single brand of soft white bread available at the grocery store. When I bake bread, it is a luxury, a choice, a way to relax and forget about deadlines and details. I know that the quality of breads from local bakeries probably surpasses that of my own and that I can choose to buy rather than bake whenever I want.

Yet the very availability and variety of year-round produce and excellent baked goods and deli items can lead to a disconnection from food’s significance and from the role that food plays in human relationships. True scarcity is, thankfully, not something most of us must deal with. We struggle instead with abundance, even in our current economic climate. Rather than find a way to serve the family favorite chocolate cake without eggs or milk—imagine what a treat that cake must have been!—we must plan for ways to come together for meals, to appreciate what we have, to stop long enough to taste our cake before we’re off and running to the next appointment.
I return to Milwaukee with the recipes in hand, listening for what they have to tell me.

Notes: A version of this post was first published in Outpost's Exchange food and wellness magazine and later reprinted in Country magazine. I am now revising it for use in a book about family diaries. The secret to fluffiness when making Poor Man's Cake is not to skip the sifting, even if you use pre-sifted flour. Melt the butter and add it to the cold water, vinegar, and vanilla before combining liquid ingredients with the sifted dry ingredients. The baking time that works best for me is 25-30 minutes (test carefully with a toothpick to avoid cake collapse). Cool for a few minutes before slicing with a very sharp knife.