Savory Ham and Gruyère Muffins

DSC_4211I’m enjoying silence more.  Just a few months ago, the thought of sitting alone with my thoughts scared the living daylight out of me.  I was the person who constantly had a podcast going, music on, or the television on at any given time when I wasn’t working.  I was desperate to constantly distract myself because the fear of listening to the negative self-talk in my brain was just too painful.  At some point, I think I just decided that the constant distraction was exhausting in and of itself, and I found myself wanting to sit quietly with my thoughts and see if I could learn to not beat myself up.

I have been allowing myself to do more things around the apartment without distractions.  I get ready in the morning in silence, I wash the dishes steeped in quietness, and I cook quietly more times than not, encouraging myself to enjoy my own company.  Does that sounds strange?  Maybe it does for those of you who are fortunate enough to not know what it’s like to have a ruthless foe in your head.  But I think most people can relate.  We are our toughest critics, and sitting alone with my thoughts used to feel daunting.
DSC_4187I feel like I’ve taken a giant leap forward.  Of course, I’m sure at some point I will take two steps back.  But knowing I don’t have to have my nose buried in a book or have ear buds in my ears at all times feels very liberating.

I’ve been eating a lot of salads lately and so I figured it was time to add some carbs to my plate.  I’m a sucker for ham & cheese melts/paninis, so I thought this would be a good recipe to try to change things up a bit.  Although they are technically muffins, I would label them as a cross between biscuits and muffins.  They would make a great accompaniment to any soup or salad.  It’s a dreary rainy day here in NYC today, so treat yourself to a warm savory ham and Gruyere muffin.
DSC_4188Savory Ham and Gruyère Muffins
Adapted from The New York Times

Yield: 12-15 muffins

Unsalted butter, softened, for brushing pan
1 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
3 large eggs
1/3 cup milk
1/3 cup olive oil
6 ounces baked ham, cut into 1/4-inch dice
6 ounces Gruyère, coarsely grated (about 1 1/2 cups)

1.  Center a rack in the oven and heat to 350 degrees.  Generously brush a muffin pan with butter.
2.  In a large bowl, whisk flour with baking powder, salt and pepper.
3.  In a medium bowl, lightly whisk eggs, then whisk in milk and olive oil.
4.  Using a rubber spatula, fold wet ingredients into dry until barely mixed.  Fold in ham and cheese.
5.  Using large cookie scoop, place a scoop of batter into each muffin cup.
6.  Bake until golden, about 15 minutes,  and a toothpick inserted in center comes out with a few crumbs attached.
7.  Transfer to a rack to cool in pan for 5 minutes.  Release muffins from pan to continue cooling.

Soba Noodles with Miso-Roasted Tomatoes

DSC_4854My food cravings are slowly disappearing.  I have had a sweet tooth ever since I can remember.  Along with that, I am someone who thinks about food constantly.  This is all wrapped up into my love/hate relationship with food.  I love it because it brings me so much pleasure to eat.  The unhealthy side of this is that I, for most of my life, have been an emotional eater.  So while food might give me pleasure while I’m eating, as soon as the meal is over, the pleasure evaporates into nothingness.  I am usually left with feelings of guilt and lots of critical analysis as to how healthy what I just ate is and what it could potentially do to my body.

Layered on top of this is my love of cooking and baking.  As I stated in one of my early blog posts, being in the kitchen is like therapy for me.  I love the challenge of trying a new recipe, the smells that emanate from the kitchen and waft throughout my home, and the anticipation of tasting what I created.  However, if I am baking, I often times have to wrestle with myself to not eat too much of what I’ve just baked.  If I do, it will eradicate all of the good feelings that I associate with baking and I will end up feeling defeated by my own self-loathing.  It’s a slippery slope.
DSC_4838A few weeks ago I decided to try something new.  I recently read a book called Grain Brain.  The author’s hypothesis is that gluten (and carbohydrates in general) is not only bad for our bodies, but bad for our brains.  People with gluten sensitivity are more prone to dementia, Alzheimer’s, and other mental health issues.  This information jolted me into action.  I decided I was going to try and cut out 80% of the carbs in my diet and see how I felt.  If it helped assuage my anxiety in any noticeable way, I figured it would be worth it.

Since then, I have noticed significant changes in my thought patterns.  I feel calmer overall, and not nearly as anxious about things that might have created a non-stop loop of negative self-talk in my mind just a few weeks ago.  But the most surprising thing has been my diminished cravings for carbs, sugar in particular.  I noticed this the other night when Mr. K and I were sitting on the couch after dinner watching television.  For the last few years, I was in a bad habit of eating dessert several nights a week.  It was such an automatic behavior that NOT having dessert would feel like deprivation.  However, the other night I noticed that I had absolutely no cravings for dessert.  In fact, it didn’t even sound appealing to me.  Who am I?  I thought to myself.  This is a completely new feeling.  But you better believe the feeling made me smile.
DSC_4833One of my goals in the cooking realm of this blog was to cook more Asian food.  I love most Asian cuisines but I haven’t cooked many recipes that hail from this part of the world.  I think my biggest obstacle was a feeling of intimidation due to the fact that I had never used many of the ingredients.  I have made a couple of Asian dishes over recent months, and I love the way they have all turned out.  This recipe falls under that umbrella.  The miso and sesame oil give the dish that familiar umami quality that is associated with so much of Asian fare.  Although it’s a noodle dish, it doesn’t taste or feel heavy at all.  As we were eating it for dinner last night, Mr. K and I agreed that it was yet another perfect meal for spring; it’s light and yet very satisfying.  Of course, if you can’t find soba noodles at your local market, whole wheat spaghetti noodles would make a perfectly fine substitute.
DSC_4847Soba Noodles with Miso-Roasted Tomatoes
Adapted from Food and Wine

1/3 cup canola oil
3 tablespoons unseasoned rice vinegar
2 tablespoons light yellow miso
1 tablespoon minced peeled fresh ginger
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon honey
2 teaspoons finely grated lime zest
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
sea salt
2 pints cherry tomatoes
8 ounces soba noodles
4 scallions, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds

1.  Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.  In a bowl, whisk the canola oil, vinegar, miso, ginger, sesame oil, honey, lime zest and lime juice until smooth.  Season with salt.
2.  On a rimmed baking sheet, toss the tomatoes with 3 tablespoons of the miso dressing and season with salt.
3.  Roast for 20 minutes, stirring, until the tomatoes are charred in spots.  Scrape into a large bowl.
4.  Cook the soba in soiling water just until al dente, 4 minutes.
5.  Drain and cool under cold running water.
6.  Add the soba, scallions and half of the remaining dressing to the tomatoes and toss well.  Season with salt.
7.  Transfer to a platter and garnish with the sesame seeds.  Serve with the remaining dressing.

 

Warm Green Snap Beans in Bacon Vinaigrette

DSC_4641I was feeling very rushed yesterday.  I had a doctor’s appointment in the morning, and by the time I returned home I felt like I was racing against time trying to finish my to-do list before going to work.  I am hosting my monthly book club tonight, so the passion fruit cheesecake(!!) had to be made yesterday.  Even though I love entertaining and hosting, it can easily turn into a nerve-racking situation if I allow it.  It must stem from the part of my ego that needs other people’s approval.  What starts off as excitement about choosing recipes, selecting a playlist, and fantasizing about drinking good wine over stimulating conversation can quickly turn to panic.

The day before hosting, I turn into my own worst enemy creating endless to-do lists and noticing everything that is wrong with our apartment.  We still haven’t hung up that shelf!  Why doesn’t our living room get more light?  I wish we could hire a decorator so I could truly enjoy our home.  However, I caught myself in the midst of these thoughts yesterday.  I allowed myself to sit still (my acupuncturist finds it curious that I usually frame it as, “I forced myself to sit still.”) for a few minutes, took some deep breaths, and tried to quiet the loud voice that was trying to put a negative spin on an experience that brings me a lot of joy.  When I woke up this morning, I told myself I was going to approach the remainder of my to-do list with gratitude:

How fortunate am I that I get to have friends over to discuss a novel that I really enjoyed (we read The Orphan Master’s Son for anyone who is curious)? 

I get to cook and bake delicious food for my friends. 

I am able to drink wine and connect with other women who I respect and appreciate. 

I can buy a beautiful bouquet of flowers to celebrate the arrival of spring.
DSC_4633And I’ll be doing all of the above tonight.  Speaking of spring, I made this salad last week because I needed an easy yet healthy lunch to take to work.  It’s a warm salad, so it’s perfect for this time of year when the days can fluctuate between a balmy 50 degrees during the day and a much chillier evening.  It reminded me of a tangy, rustic French salad with the green beans, tomatoes, and shallots.  I just realized that I’ve been to France twice and both visits were in the spring.  They do seem to compliment each other well.  Isn’t there a classic song called “April in Paris”?  [End of tangent.]  This salad is light yet filling, and very satisfying with the bacon and olive oil so you don’t feel deprived whatsoever. 

DSC_4638

Warm Green Snap Beans in Bacon Vinaigrette
Adapted from Food and Wine 

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

2 lbs. green snap beans, trimmed
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 ounces thickly sliced bacon, cut into lardons (1 cup)
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
10 ounces cherry tomatoes, halved
1 small shallot, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1/3 cup chopped basil
salt and freshly ground pepper

1.  Cook the beans in a large pot of salted boiling water until crisp-tender, about 5 minutes.
2.  Drain the beans and cool them under cold running water.  Drain well and pat dry; transfer the beans to a large bowl.
3.  In a large skillet, heat the olive oil.  Add the bacon and cook over moderate heat, stirring, until golden, 7 to 8 minutes.
4.  Remove the skillet from the heat and stir in the vinegar, tomatoes, shallot, garlic and basil.  Scrape the bacon vinaigrette over the beans, season with salt and pepper and toss to evenly coat.  Serve warm.

 

Wasabi Salmon with Bok Choy, Green Cabbage, and Shiitakes

DSC_4627Life is a mixed bag.  We will all have our fair share of joy as well as pain and suffering in our lifetimes, but our perception of the world is key.  The universe is never at one time or another conspiring against us or working in our favor, although it can appear that way at times.  It’s simply how we choose to see things.  Labels are powerful, and as we go throughout our day we assign labels, and therefore meaning, to things.  Someone criticized your work.  What kind of significance are you going to give that?  You can either start beating yourself up because you know the criticism is accurate, or you can decide to let the criticism float away like a balloon because you know the criticism is simply a reflection of that person’s view of the world.
DSC_4605My husband left for Switzerland a few nights ago.  The last time he went on a trip was when my intense depressive episode hit.  I promised myself that I would do everything in my power to not let that happen again.  It’s extremely helpful for me to stay busy when I am alone.  Right after he left Tuesday night, I immediately washed the dishes, cleaned the bathroom, paid bills, and organized some files simply so as to avoid watching television and feeling sad.  It worked!  I went to bed that night determined to enjoy my solo time while he is away.  I will pretend to be a tourist this weekend in NYC!  I will go to the Met!  I will get a manicure!  Maybe I’ll even get a facial!
DSC_4615
My positive outlook was cut a bit short yesterday.  I woke up at 4 a.m. and couldn’t get back to sleep.  I decided to skip the gym and told myself doing laundry was more important.  I felt like a zombie at work, but really made an effort to display a cheerful attitude and focused on doing a good job.  By the time I got home, my brain was swirling with lots of useless thoughts.  I told myself that I did my best to make the day a productive and favorable one despite the fact that I was exhausted.  I really wanted to medicate myself with a carb-heavy dinner but I knew it was only a short-term solution to numbing the pain.  I opted for some hard-boiled eggs, dried figs and Manchego cheese, and an apple with peanut butter instead.  After dinner, I immediately felt more relaxed knowing that the day was almost over and that I did the best I could with where I was mentally.  Tomorrow will be a fresh start, and getting a good night’s sleep will fire up those neurons.
DSC_4607I love everything about this dish.  I haven’t had salmon in a while, and it was a nice way to be reminded of how much I enjoy it.  I love pairing asian flavors with salmon.  Something about the fattiness of the fish marries nicely with the umami and spices found in Asian cuisine.  I couldn’t find baby bok choy at my local market so I used the larger size.  The wasabi mayo packs a nice punch, so use it conservatively if your eyes tend to water when you take a big bite like I mistakenly did.
DSC_4622Wasabi Salmon with Bok Choy, Green Cabbage, and Shiitakes
Adapted from Bon Appétit 

Yield:  4 servings

1/4 cup mayonnaise
1 tsp. wasabi paste (Japanese horseradish paste)
1 1″ piece ginger, peeled, finely grated
2 large garlic cloves, finely grated
4 6-oz. skinless salmon fillets
Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper
1 lb. baby bok choy, halved
2 cups (packed) finely shredded green cabbage (about 5 oz.)
4 oz. shiitake mushrooms, stemmed, sliced if large
2 Tbsp. olive oil

1.  Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.  Heat a large rimmed baking sheet for 15 minutes.
2.  Meanwhile, mix mayonnaise and wasabi in a small bowl.  Stir in half of ginger and half of garlic; set aside.
3.  Season fish all over with salt and pepper.  Place bok choy, cabbage, and mushrooms in a large bowl.  Drizzle with oil and add remaining ginger and garlic.  Toss to coat; season with salt and pepper.
4.  Scatter vegetables across one side of baking sheet.  Arrange salmon on other side.  Roast , stirring vegetables occasionally, until salmon is coked through, 12-15 minutes.
5.  Divide vegetables among plates; top with salmon.  Serve wasabi mayonnaise alongside.

 

Cream Puffs with Lemon-Cream Filling

DSC_4579I am getting better at acceptance:  self-acceptance, acceptance of others and acceptance of what is.  I don’t know that I’ve ever fully accepted myself.  It’s always been too easy to focus on my shortcomings and imperfections.  But it’s also exhausting.  My therapist once told me to think of thoughts as a bunch of balloons in your hand.  We should try to let go of the ones that are negative and useless to us.

I’m getting better at it.  I think.

I sometimes find myself slipping into old habits, and my immediate reaction is to start with the negative thoughts.  But I’m also becoming better at confronting those thoughts.  I challenge them and talk back to them like they’re a Fox News anchor.
DSC_4562I can be a reactive person.  Often times, I will have a knee-jerk response to something someone says.  I’m not sure if this was a coping mechanism I learned in my childhood, but it doesn’t really matter.  Adults aren’t always supposed to react.  We are all trying to become more enlightened, and a big part of this is learning how to sit with the uncomfortable.

Accept.
Don’t react.
It will pass.

I went to bed last night with an uneasy feeling.  Something that had happened earlier in the day definitely created some anguish in my mind.  I really wanted to reach for that Cookies ‘n Cream ice cream in the freezer, but I chose to go to bed instead.  I took a deep breath and recited a mantra:

This feeling will pass.
This feeling will pass.
This feeling will pass.

I immediately felt more relaxed.  I fell asleep focusing on today being a new day.
DSC_4567So:  Lemon Cream Puffs!  I had no idea they were so easy to make.  I’ve always associated them with fancy French desserts that I assumed took long, laborious hours in the kitchen and therefore, weren’t worth making at home.  I was wrong.  I was so wrong.  Not only is this recipe very straightforward, but it’s really the best of both worlds—your friends will be amazed by your baking prowess and you won’t have expended too much energy in the kitchen that you could be spending on more important things, like say, binge watching Jeopardy with your adorable husband.
DSC_4572Cream Puffs with Lemon-Cream Filling
Adapted from Bon Appétit

Lemon-Cream Filling

1/2 cup sugar
1 large egg
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
1 ½ teaspoons finely grated lemon peel
Pinch of salt
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, diced
1 cup chilled heavy whipping cream

Cream Puffs

¾ cup water
¾ cup whole milk
¾ cup (1 ½ sticks) unsalted butter, diced
½ teaspoon salt
1 ½ cups sifted all-purpose flour
6 large eggs, divided

Special Equipment

Pastry bag with ½-inch plain round tip

Lemon-Cream Filling

  1. Combine sugar, egg, lemon juice, lemon peel, and pinch of salt in heavy small saucepan; whisk to blend.
  2. Add butter.  Stir constantly over medium-low heat until curd is hot and thick enough to coat spoon (do not boil), 4 to 5 minutes.
  3. Transfer lemon curd to small bowl.  Press plastic wrap onto surface; chill until cold and slightly firm, at least 2 hours.  (Can be made 2 days ahead.  Keep chilled.)
  4. Transfer lemon curd to medium bowl.  Using electric mixer, beat cream in another medium bowl until peaks form.
  5. Fold whipped cream into curd in 3 additions.  Cover and chill filling 1 hour.  (Can be made 2 hours ahead.  Keep chilled.)

Cream Puffs

  1. Position 1 rack in top third and 1 rack in bottom third of oven and preheat to 425 degrees F.  Line 2 large rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper.
  2. Bring first 4 ingredients to boil in heavy large saucepan over medium heat, stirring with wooden spoon until butter melts.
  3. Add flour all at once and stir vigorously until dough forms and pulls away from sides of pan.  Continue to stir until film forms on pan bottom, 1 to 2 minutes longer.
  4. Transfer dough to large bowl.  Cool 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Add 1 egg and, still using wooden spoon, beat until blended.  Add remaining 5 eggs, 1 at a time, beating until blended after each, then beat until dough is smooth and shiny, 2 to 3 minutes.
  5. Working in batches, transfer dough to pastry bag fitted with ½-inch plain round tip.  Pipe 1-to 1 ¼-inch mounds, spaced about 2 inches apart, onto prepared baking sheets.  Using wet finger, smooth tops of mounds.
  6. Bake puffs 15 minutes.  Reverse baking sheets.  Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees F.  Continue to bake until puffs are dry, firm, and deep golden brown, 30 to 35 minutes longer.  Cool puffs on baking sheets.

Assembly

  1. Cut each puff horizontally in half; pull out any soft dough.
  2. Fill puff bottoms with 1 tablespoon lemon-cream filling.  Press on puff tops to adhere.

 

Pistachio Apple Salad

DSC_4599You know that feeling when all the stars are aligned and things seem to be coming together?  I’ve been feeling that way recently.  Since my horrible depressive episode a few weeks ago, I have been working hard to get back to a good mental place.  Maybe it’s because that experience shook me so much, but I am willing myself to try and find meaning in as much as possible as I go throughout my day.  I also think having some perspective and cutting myself some slack is key to curbing my anxiety.  I volunteered for City Harvest a couple of weeks ago and was reminded that there are a lot less fortunate people than myself.  I know that for many people, every day is a struggle to simply make ends meet.  Some posit that one of the main reasons people volunteer is for the positive feelings that come as a byproduct of knowing you helped someone.  I believe this to be true, and I don’t think it’s a negative factor by any means.  Human beings need to connect; it’s what keeps us going.
DSC_4588In addition to volunteering, I had my first-ever Reiki treatment last week.  I have been curious about this Japanese practice for many years but just never tried it.  It was yet another experience my depression compelled me to seek out.  I wasn’t sure what to expect.  For those of you who have never tried it, I would liken it to a cross between talk therapy and acupuncture.  It focuses on clearing your chakras, or energy pathways, which serve as a connection between the body and consciousness.  When one of our chakras becomes blocked, it can create physical or mental illness.  I had no idea what to expect during the actual session itself.  My Reiki master told me she would be placing her hands along my chakra points while I laid face up on the table.  Well, as soon as I positioned myself on the table and closed my eyes, water immediately began to drain from my eyes and didn’t stop until the session ended.  It was the strangest thing.  I definitely wasn’t crying, and yet I had a distinctive feeling that my body was trying to release something.  I took that as a good sign.
DSC_4594Despite the dreadful stomach virus I contracted over the weekend (I forgot how brutal those can be), my healthier mental state is creating healthier food cravings.  Yesterday I couldn’t stop thinking about avocados.  All day long, images of avocados kept popping into my head.  I’m sure whatever nutrients avocados possess, my body was simply craving.  That said, I opted for a turkey burger for dinner.  I did make this Pistachio Apple Salad for lunch yesterday and it was perfectly delicious.  There aren’t many salads that I want second helpings of, but this one is one of them.  It hits all of the major taste profiles: sour, sweet, salty, bitter, and umami.  Because it calls for a Granny Smith apple, it’s not super sweet.  However, if you want to use something sweeter, I think dried figs would be a lovely substitute, as they pair beautifully with blue cheese and pistachios.  Making this salad took all of 7 minutes!  So no excuses, dear readers, for throwing together a quick, healthy lunch!

* I’m not sure which magazine I ripped this recipe out of years ago, so I searched online for something close to it.  I found the exact same recipe on Yummly, so I am including a link to that site in lieu of a magazine name.

DSC_4597

Pistachio Apple Salad
Adapted from Yummly

Yield:  4 side-dish servings

1/4 cup freshly-squeezed orange juice (about 1/2 of a large orange)
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon hot sweet mustard
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 cups arugula
1 Granny Smith apple, cored and thinly sliced
1/2 cup blue cheese, crumbled
1/4 cup roasted pistachio nuts

1.  For dressing, whisk together orange juice, balsamic vinegar, mustard, and garlic; gradually whisk in oil until well blended.  Set aside to mellow flavors.
2.  For salad, divide greens among four salad plates.  Top with apple slices.  Sprinkle with cheese and nuts.
3.  Whisk dressing; drizzle over salads.

Milk Chocolate-Peanut Butter Sandwich Cookies

DSC_4535I’ve been trying out something new lately:  I am forcing myself out of the apartment several days/nights a week.  That doesn’t sound all that strange, you say.  Well, for me it is.  I went through a pretty rough patch a few weeks ago.  It was one of the most depressive episodes I’ve ever experienced, and it really scared me.  I know that there are always setbacks in life, and the challenge is to turn it into something meaningful.  It was a brutal week, but I’m proud of myself for fighting my way out of it.  In fact, I can’t remember another time of suffering through a depressive episode and coming out on the other end feeling so fierce and determined to make changes to my life.  Besides reading heaps of books about living without fear, I have been forcing myself out into the world and not allowing myself to talk my way out of it.  Usually, I will make plans at the beginning of the week.  There can be book readings, comedy shows, and dance performances on my calendar on any given week.  But if it’s too cold, too hot—or frankly, if it’s a perfectly nice day—I will often talk myself out of going in the name of some unknown fear.
DSC_4510But last week I was determined to change this.  I compelled myself out of my apartment for 3 whole days last week.  3 whole days!  I made sure to schedule things every few hours throughout the day so that I would not have time to run home and inevitably talk myself into staying home the remainder of the day.  There were doctor appointments, book readings, lunch dates, dentist appointments and yoga classes scattered throughout the long days.  I left my apartment mid-morning and wouldn’t return until later in the evening.  It felt simultaneously wonderful and exhausting.  I was so worn out by the end of the first day that I had to close my eyes for 10 minutes while waiting for the book reading to begin.  I closed them again the following night on the train ride back to Queens.  Still, I felt very energized emotionally and knew my new routine was making a difference on my state of mind.  One important lesson I’m learning from this is that Action Precedes Feelings.  In other words, waiting for those good feelings to come about before I leave the apartment is futile.   I have to go out into the world, be present in this world, and the feelings will follow.
DSC_4512Ok people.  Who out there has been to City Bakery in NYC and had their incredibly delicious peanut butter cookies?  I was obsessed with said cookies for a few years.  Although I am vocal about my love of all things peanut butter, peanut butter cookies were never on that list.  Until, that is, I tasted City Bakery’s cookies.  They have an intense peanut butter flavor and a crumbly texture that I’m pretty sure is created by using powdered sugar.  When I was in graduate school, I would treat myself to a peanut butter cookie and coffee once a month since the bakery was just a few blocks away.  And now, after many, many years, I have finally found a recipe that replicates those cookies.  But better yet:  this recipe makes them even more addictive by adding milk chocolate chips and turning them into sandwich cookies with milk chocolate ganache.  I dare you, dare you I say, to eat just one!  Of course, if you want a deeper chocolate flavor, you can always use semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate chips.  I like the milk chocolate chips here if only because it lets the peanut butter have the spotlight.  Pair these with a strong cup of coffee, sit at your desk by the window, and fantasize about spring.
DSC_4524Milk Chocolate-Peanut Butter Cookies
Adapted from Bon Appétit

Yield
Makes about 30 sandwich cookies

Cookies
1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt
1/2 cup plus 1/3 cup powdered sugar
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon (packed) dark brown sugar
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 large egg
1 cup milk chocolate chips

Filling
3 ounces high-quality milk chocolate, chopped
1/4 cup creamy peanut butter
2 tablespoons powdered sugar
1/4 teaspoon course sea salt
6 tablespoons heavy cream

For cookies:

1.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
2.  Whisk first 4 ingredients in medium bowl.
3.  Using electric mixer, beat powdered sugar, dark brown sugar, and butter in large bowl to blend.
4.  Add peanut butter; beat until creamy.  Gradually beat in vegetable oil and vanilla extract, then egg.
5.  Add dry ingredients; mix just until blended.  Stir in milk chocolate chips.
6.  Drop cookie dough by level tablespoonfuls onto parchment-lined baking sheets, spacing about 1-1/2 inches apart.
7.  Bake cookies until puffed and golden brown, about 12 minutes.  Cool slightly, then transfer cookies to rack to cool completely.

For filling:
1.  Place chocolate, peanut butter, powdered sugar, and salt in medium bowl.
2.  Bring heavy cream to boil in heavy small saucepan.
3.  Pour hot cream over chocolate mixture; stir until mixture is melted and smooth.
4.  Chill until filling is thick and spreadable, about 1 hour.
5.  Spread about 1 rounded teaspoonful chocolate-peanut butter filling on flat side of 1 cookie.  Top with second cookie, forming sandwich.  Repeat with remaining filling and cookies.
6.  Store in airtight container at room temperature.

Braised White Beans and Leeks

DSC_4501I made it to yoga this morning.  It was a small achievement in my day.  I went a couple of weeks ago for the first time in almost a year, and it was a less than satisfying experience.  I couldn’t believe how hard the moves felt compared to a year ago.  I struggled with every pose, my legs shaking like jello.  And because I mistakenly placed my mat towards the front of the room like a confident person (fake it till you make it, right?), I felt everyone’s eyes on me.  In my mind they, along with the instructor, were judging me and wondering why I thought I could do this.  This was an “open” class and the instructor stated that if we weren’t comfortable doing a pose to simply return to a pose that we were more comfortable with.  I did ok until the last 15 minutes, when the instructor led us into poses meant for Olympic athletes.  Everyone in the class seemed to have no problem contorting their bodies into strange and incredibly difficult poses.  I immediately felt like a failure for not being able to do any of them.  I returned to child’s pose and felt the shame wash over my body.  I had recently made a pact with myself to start doing yoga on a weekly basis.  Walking home after class, I knew it was going to be a struggle to return the following week.
DSC_4491I’m reading a book about fear right now.  The author’s thesis is that no matter what our fear is, it is rooted in the belief that we won’t be able to handle whatever it is that we fear.  So whether it’s facing the death of a loved one, unemployment, or a divorce, we are supposed to repeat the mantra, “I can handle this!” and then move forward in life impervious to said fears.  Alas, I skipped yoga the following week.  It was a tough week.  Despite this, or because of this, I should have made more of an effort to attend my yoga class.  Regardless, I made some mental readjustments over the weekend and was determined to do yoga this week.  I didn’t want one class to scare me away.  Walking to class this morning, I told myself to try and utilize the mindfulness aspect of the class instead of focusing simply on my strength, or lack thereof.  My legs still shook during certain poses, but I concentrated more on my breathing and simply staying mindful.  This time, instead of shame washing over my body during my last pose, I felt a sense of calm and stillness.  It was nice.  I did get distracted a few times by the instructor.  I found myself mesmerized by her voice, so much so that I found myself wondering if she does voiceover work.  I think I’ve lived in New York too long.  As I approached the steps to my apartment, an older man came walking up to me.  Angrily, he shouted, “I hate Astoria!  I would rather live in Puerto Rico any day than this shithole.  I hate this place.”  I shrugged at him and inserted my key into the lock.  I wasn’t going to let this random guy ruin my Zen state.
DSC_4497Seeing as this winter is never going to end (I heard NYC has had 18 snowstorms so far this winter!), I have been trying to balance my cravings for hearty food with healthy alternatives.  This recipe falls into both categories.  It’s pretty darn healthy and still a satisfying, substantial winter dish.  After taking my first bite, it reminded me of both a cheesy, herbaceous goulash and French onion soup.  I licked the spoon like it contained brownie batter and not white beans and leeks.  The original recipe called for dried cannellini beans, but I simplified it by substituting canned beans.  The result was a fast and easy recipe that would be perfect for a weeknight meal when you don’t have a lot of time but you want something rib-sticking good.

Braised White Beans and Leeks
Adapted from The Sprouted Kitchen

1-15 oz. can cannellini beans
3 large leeks
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 celery stalks, divided
4 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
2 teaspoons herbes de Provence
1/2 to 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup low-sodium vegetable broth
1 cup shredded mozzarella
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1. Arrange a rack in the lower third of your oven and preheat the oven to 500 degrees F.
2.  Trim the leeks, discarding the tough green tops, halve vertically, and rinse in cold water, making sure to clean out any dirt trapped between the layers.  Slice into thin half circles.
3.  In a large Dutch oven or heavy skillet over medium heat, warm the olive oil.  Add the celery, garlic, and leeks and cook until the vegetables are softened, 3 to 5 minutes.
4.  Add the beans, thyme, herbes de Provence, red pepper flakes to taste, salt and pepper.
5.  Stir in the vegetable broth and bring the mixture back up to a gentle boil.  Cook for approximately 25 minutes or until almost all of the liquid is gone.
6.  Sprinkle the mozzarella and Parmesan on top of the bean mixture and place the pot in the oven, leaving the lid off.  Cook until the cheese is completely melted and brown in spots, 8-10 minutes.  Serve warm.

Fennel Slaw

DSC_4484I’m in the middle of reading a fantastic book of essays called Goodbye to All That.  The tag line reads, “Writers on Loving and Leaving New York”.  I am completely absorbed in this book.  I thought it might help to convince me that there are plenty of other great places to live in this vast country of ours, but it’s having the opposite effect.  In each essay, there is a beautiful description of what first drew them to NYC.  Most of the writers had their first experience of the city when they were children and fell in love with it immediately.  The theme of being a misfit in whatever town you grew up in only to discover that NYC is where you finally fit in (among the misfits) is not a new concept by any means.  And yet, I never get tired of reading these stories, partly because I can identify.

My first time in New York was the summer after my college graduation.  My sister very generously bought me a plane ticket as a graduation gift.  We stayed in a friend’s apartment on the Upper West Side for 4 or 5 days, and over the course of those few days, I was bewitched by the city.  We took in all of the usual tourist sights:  we rode on the Ellis Island ferry, went to the top of the Empire State Building, saw a Broadway musical, and took a tour of NBC Studios.  We even spotted Yoko Ono outside one of the Trump buildings!  I was completely smitten and knew I wanted to live here someday.

Five years later, my friend and I found an adorable apartment on the Upper West Side.  Although it was a steal for the size and location of the apartment, it was out of our price range.  But we didn’t care.  We were young and naïve and thought we could make it work.  One of my most vivid memories is of a picnic we had in Central Park that first summer.  It was the night of the Met Opera in the Park performance, and we had only found out about it by stumbling upon the rehearsal in the park earlier that afternoon.   We had no idea that half of the city would be there that night sprawled out with their blankets, bottles of wine and blocks of cheese.  I remember lying on my stomach, drunk on red wine, and eating olives, Gruyere, and French bread by the fistful.   We were relatively far away from the stage but we could hear the singers perfectly.  As the sun set in the warm summer sky, I had a silly grin on my face and I gazed up at the stars.  I knew this was where I was meant to be.  Eleven years later, I still have to pinch myself every so often when I think about the fact that I live in New York City.
DSC_4487Despite the fact that it has been snowing for 1,000 straight days here in New York, I wanted to make something light and refreshing last week.  Perhaps as a way to pretend I was in warmer climes, or maybe I just needed to change things up from all of the heavier, winter food I have been eating lately.  Regardless, this hit the spot.  I have come to really appreciate fennel the last few years.  It has great anise flavor along with a nice crunch that I always associate with celery (which I am not a big fan of).  The orange zest brightens up the slaw and the Parmesan cheese gives it a nice earthy, saltiness that it needs.  I’ve been eating a plate of this every day alongside whatever I’m eating for lunch.  It’s almost gone, and I’ll be sad to see it go.  Only 6 more weeks till spring….

Fennel Slaw
Adapted from The Sprouted Kitchen

2 large fennel bulbs, with a few chopped fronds
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Grated zest of 1 orange
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice
2 or 3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

1.  Slice the fennel bulbs horizontally as thinly as possible.  Remove any large core parts, then add the slices to a large mixing bowl with the fronds.
2.  Add the olive oil, along with the  orange zest and juice, to the bowl and toss.  Let it sit for about ten minutes to soften the fennel.  You can do this up to two days in advance.
3.  Before serving, add the parsley and Parmesan.
4.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  Toss everything together and serve immediately.

Bacon Bark

DSC_4386I love Sunday mornings.  About 12 years ago, I started a habit where I would get up early on Sundays, go to the gym, and then as a reward, go to a local coffee shop for a pastry and The New York Times.  This simple weekly routine would give me boundless pleasure.  I looked forward to it all week.  Part of it was getting up before the rest of the city was awake.  There are very few moments when NYC is quiet, but early Sunday morning is one of those times.  And I savored every minute.  I actually enjoyed my workouts on Sunday mornings because I knew I was getting a reward afterwards.  Often times, I would bring my favorite donuts (cake donuts or bust!) in a Ziploc bag and settle in at a table with steaming hot coffee and the Sunday paper.  I would take my time reading it from cover to cover (except the unnecessary Sports Section) over the course of two hours.
DSC_4367But somewhere along the way, I stopped doing this thing that brought me so much delight.  Shortly after moving in with my husband things started to change.  He really enjoys staying in on Sunday mornings, so I thought it would be nice to stay in with him.  I had fantasies of us reading the paper together while curled up on the couch with our pastries in hand.  But Mr. K isn’t a big pastry guy.  He prefers a savory breakfast on the weekends.  And he isn’t really into reading the paper from cover to cover.  He mainly enjoys the Automobiles section, to which I say booooooo.  Eventually, the television would be turned on while I was reading the paper, and I would try not to feel disappointed.  It took me a few years to realize that I no longer enjoyed my Sunday mornings.  By trying to incorporate my husband into my routine, I was giving up something that brought me joy.
DSC_4374Of course, all it took was for me to simply communicate all of this to him.  He thought it was a no-brainer:  Why don’t I go back to the routine that I love so much?  Mr. K said his feelings would not be hurt in the least bit.  In fact, he said he really enjoyed getting work done on Sunday mornings, so this would be a win-win for both of us.   I sheepishly agreed that this was indeed a very simple issue to resolve.  If only I had spoken up sooner!  But the good news, readers?  The good news is that I am back to my old routine and loving every peaceful minute of it.  I’ve even discovered an adorable Maltese (Maltese!) bakery in my Queens neighborhood that has incredible pastries, so no need to smuggle in donuts anymore.
DSC_4370Since Valentine’s Day is officially on the horizon, I figured I should do something with one of my favorite foods:  chocolate!  One of my favorite chocolate bars right now is Mo’s Bacon Bar made by Vosges.  The pairing of crisp bacon and smoked salt with the dark chocolate is incredibly delicious.  (f you have a hard time finding smoked salt in your area, you can find it on Amazon.)  I have a hard time eating one square at a time when it’s in my apartment.  And then I thought, why spend $7 on a bar when I could easily make this at home?  So I did!  It’s as easy as making any other bark.  After tempering your chocolate (which is the trickiest part), you simply mix in the crispy bacon and smoked salt.  Voila!  You just saved $7.  Place the bark into cellophane bags, tie with red ribbon, and give one to your Valentine.

Bacon Bark

1.4 oz dark chocolate (about 2 cups; bittersweet or semi-sweet is fine)
4 pieces hickory smoked bacon
1/2 tsp. course smoked salt (I use Alderwood smoked salt)

Place parchment paper into a 9×13″ baking pan.

1.  Fry bacon over medium-high heat until extra crispy (around 7-8 minutes).
2.  Place bacon on a paper towel-lined plate to drain.  Cool completely.
3.  Finely chop bacon and set aside.
4.  Roughly chop dark chocolate and set aside 1/3 of chocolate.
5.  Place 2/3 of chocolate in double-boiler over medium-low heat.  Stir frequently until chocolate is completely melted.
6.  Remove from heat.  Add remaining 1/3 of chocolate and stir continuously until all of the chocolate has melted.
7.  Test temperature of chocolate with your finger.  Chocolate should feel neutral (not warm).  If chocolate is still warm, continue stirring until chocolate feels neutral in temperate.
8.  Stir in chopped bacon and smoked salt.  Pour into parchment-lined baking pan and spread out evenly.
9.  Place pan in refrigerator for approximately 1 hour.  Bark should be completely set.
10.  Grab the parchment paper and pull bark out of pan.  Using a sharp knife, cut bark into bite-sized pieces.